A few weeks ago I finished reading one science fiction book and started another. The one I finished was Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, (Tor paperback, 2005), and the one I started was Shipstar, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven (Tor hardbound, 2014). (Shipstar is the second of a set of two books. The first is Bowl of Heaven.) I mention this because of the strong difference in the styles of the authors. All three are well-known in the science-fiction community, and all have sold many books so their ability to write popular sci-fi is unquestioned. My comments today are not about the sales, but about styles.
Take John Scalzi first. He’s a very straightforward writer. Sort of in the mold of Joe Friday on the old Dragnet TV series: “Just the facts, Ma’am.” His style tends to the laconic, that is, he supplies the reader with only the essential details. Such as, “I did this. I did that. He did this. I said that.” Very short and to the point. But he doesn’t let the brevity get in the way of the story, and I’ve never gotten the impression of having to put up with the overly short sentences that plague some sci-fi writers. He doesn’t spend much time in the minds of his characters. Instead he details lots of conversations between characters, which is one good way to avoid the old dictum, “Show; don’t tell.” I found Old Man’s War very interesting and fascinating and easy reading, and I recommend his books to anyone who wants to read science fiction, especially those just getting started in the genre.
I do have one criticism of Scalzi’s style. When I first started reading this book, I was struck with the lack of tension or conflict, especially in the first chapter. In fact, there seemed to be a minimization of conflict throughout the book itself. It is there, of course; after all it’s about a man who goes to war. Conflict hovers over most of the book. Yet, those of us who are just starting out in novel writing are admonished to put “conflict on every page.” There’s supposed to be a conflict, or at least some form of tension, among the characters right from the beginning to entice the reader to continue reading, and I was somewhat disappointed when I started the book to be drawn into the details of an older man’s life which was presented with so little import or concern. Were I to submit a manuscript like that to any of the critique groups I’ve belonged to, I’m sure it would be panned. I’m not sure how he gets away with it. Yet I read on and finished the book easily.
Benford and Niven contrast strongly. Far more intensity of feeling in the narrative. Much more time spent in the minds of the characters. More description of events and use of sensation and impression. A feeling of conflict or tension to one degree or another on most every page. And a much more difficult book to get through. I’m taking more time to get into it. There are many characters, many of whom are non-human, and it’s not always easy to keep them straight in my head. But when you consider that the humans are in a totally new world and feeling their way around, the description of that world requires a certain amount of impressionistic portrayal. My one critique of this book might be that there may be too much of that. I’m sure it will take a while to get through this new book, but I’m looking forward to it.