I got quite an interesting email from a reader a few days ago. Here's a quote:
I have some questions about your work that have been bugging me for a
long time. In your Poseidon's Children books, your style of writing
appears to me to be markedly different from those of your short stories
and the Revelation Space books; notably, that it shys away from the
technical detail and minutia seen in your Revolution Space literature. I
was wondering why this was, because that detail (like Skade's control
of her area postrema, the many detailed descriptions of technologies,
physics, and interstellar travel) are what make your work stand out to
me and many other readers. Those details and explanations are what
distinguish you from your peers and what in my mind elevates your work
to the status of "hard SF", something very few SF writers manage to
My initial reaction was one of annoyance - I don't relish the thought that I'm somehow less good at my trade now than I was some years ago. But on reflection, the email raises a fair and interesting point which I think it would be narrow minded to dismiss.
I don't know how typical I am as a writer, but I can say this with some honesty: I'm riddled by self-doubt. Whenever I sit down to write, questions are circling vulture-like somewhere at the back of my mind, ready to pick over the bones of my reputation. Am I actually any good at this? Have I deserved the success that has so far come my way, or have I in some sense pulled a kind of confidence trick on the SF community, camouflaging an inherent deficiency of talent with a superficial surface of technical competence? Did the fact that I have a scientific background act as a kind of compensating function for other failures in my writing? Have editors and publishers given me a pass on the aspects of my work that are less good, because I know about stars and orbits and stuff? Some years ago the critic Franz Rottensteiner said of my work that it consists of "endless machineries that produce exactly nothing: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Believe me I do not dismiss such thoughts, much as I might wish to.
And more than this: even allowing for the objective quality of my work, and setting aside Rottensteiner's dismissal, am I getting better or worse at what I do? And what do we mean by "better" anyway?
I think about this stuff all the time. The first thing to say - and a very obvious point - is that there need be no correlation between effort and effect. In other words, just because I put X hours into work Y, there is no guarantee of achieving result Z. I can't speak for other writers, but I've sweated months - even years - over labours of love that have been met with general indifference by the world at large. I've also written pieces in a blaze of industry, sometimes over no more than a weekend, that have hit a note and continued, in their modest way, to do well. I recently got a cheque for yet another reprint of "A Spy in Europa", a story I started on a Friday evening and had finished (barring minor polishing) by Sunday, and which has done very well for itself over the ensuing 18 years. So, yes - I'm well aware that merely putting in the requisite hours is not a reliable metric of artistic success, as any unpublished writer will acknowledge.
To go back to that "better" thing - what do I mean by it? My answer to that would be that because writing is a complex, multivalent activity, there can be no single metric of improvement; it's not like being a faster sprinter, a taller high-jumper. Being an excellent writer is not about being better at plotting, better at character, better at voice, being better at world-building (which I think is what our letter writer was chiefly thinking of) but rather a question of full-spectrum dominance across all those aptitudes and more. The problem - or perhaps the challenge - is that some of those metrics are in subtle tension with each other. Most writers will know this. If you think of writing as resembling a vast mixing desk with lots of sliders, pushing some of those sliders in one direction will mean that some of the other sliders can't be pushed to their full extent. There is only so much narrative space within a text. When I made a conscious decision to anchor the Poseidon's Children books around a very human clan of family members, and to eschew obvious villains and heroes, I knew that this was going to involve some sacrifices in other aspects of my writing. There's a reason we speak of the "novel of character" - it's an acknowledgment that some other aspects of novel writing will be less prominent. Similarly, when we speak of a book as being plot-driven, a "high octane thrill ride" or some such, we won't be too surprised if the text is not full of lingering, atmospheric descriptions of locales, or passages fixated on weighty introspection.
Any competent writer knows that making an aesthetic decision to amplify one aspect of novel writing will lead to some readers feeling short-changed because they're inevitably getting less of the stuff they like. To those readers, the writer has indeed got worse, because their particular tastes are no longer being served as efficiently. Another group of readers may prefer the newer direction, though. To them, there's no question that the writer has improved. However, neither group of readers has a claim to anything more than a subjective position on the matter.
The writer, meanwhile, might acknowledge that the new work is different in effect than the older, but they might not wished to be pressed into admitting that is either better or worse. To the writer, it might just feel like an invigorating change of mode, a holiday from what has become am effective but routine style. Writers (interesting writers, anyway) are creatively restless, and even when they hit on a set of approaches that seems to match the tastes of a given cohort of readers, they'll want to poke and prod at that envelope as much as possible - even in the full knowledge that some part of their core audience will be disappointed or indeed alienated.
Returning to the email:
Your style of writing in the Poseidon's Children series is more
simplistic in than your Revelation Space work in this regard (doesn't
mean I'm knocking it!), and I've been wondering why ever since I picked
up Blue Remembered Earth. Is it to appeal to a wider audience? Is it
your personal choice? Did people complain/not like the technical writing
I'm not sure I'd go with "simplistic" - certainly from my side of the desk it often felt as if I was juggling far more variables than at any point in the Revelation Space stuff - but I would accept that there has been a conscious intention to downplay the technical aspects of the universe. Why? Because I wanted to evoke a sense in which my characters were fully immersed in a living, breathing twenty second century - and none of them really cared how the tech worked, as long as it did. That's why there are no detailed descriptions of VASIMR drives, or telepresence systems, or implants - it's all just there, fully accepted as the furniture of day to day life. How many people know what a "universal serial bus" really is? How many people understand MP3 encoding? None of that downplaying of the technical aspects was unconsidered, and I can safely say that none of it sprung from commercial pressures, or any desire to reach a wider audience.
The fact is I write solely for myself; everything else is a bonus. My publisher has given me extraordinary latitude to write exactly what I want, across thirteen novels, with next to no pressure to make my work more or less approachable to a wider audience. But to come back to that restlessness - I don't want to do the same thing over and over again. That doesn't mean I repudiate the old thing, or won't return to it. But it's just one mode and I don't want to be defined by it. But I also know that it is impossible to grow as a writer unless you are prepared to disappoint some cohort of your readership.
That's just the way it is.