Superfluous detail in fantasy and science fiction

Well, this is embarrassingly late. I’m very sorry. But here it is!

I don’t want to harp on about this (ha!), but I’m reading a book that has too much to say about too little, and it’s bothering me. Why do SF/F novels, in particular, feel like they have to provide details about stuff that is, and I use this word in its very real sense, literally unrelated in any way to anything happening in the book? I say this because I’ve seen it so much, and from writers who know better. Grar! Hulk smash puny worldbuilding exercise! Something like that, right? Well, what books are guilty of it in your experience?

I can’t even remember when I first began to notice all the bullshit stuffed inside the books I was reading. I think it’s easier to point to the books I read that didn’t have any of that stuff – the books I turned from, once finished, to try to make it through the shit again. Neuromancer is entirely lean, with no wasted motion. Viriconium is the same, even as it points to depths of history and theme in its setting that feel fully realized even as Harrison barely mentions them. Moorcock’s novels were all very tight and short – when I wrote my first novel, for my senior thesis, I looked to his novels to determine how long mine ought to be. Even Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels, longer than anything else I’ve mentioned, have no wasted pages, nothing that doesn’t need to be there.

What do I mean by that, though? How do I decide what needs to be there? Well, obviously, it’s an emotional response, a sense of frustration, so it could differ from person to person. But I’m thinking particularly of the stuff nearly impossible to defend.

So, while I have issues with how much attention George Martin pays to clothes, I’ve had people defend that stuff to me – I didn’t buy the defenses, but it was possible to construct them. But the book I’m reading now, Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks, seriously has pages and pages of descriptions of planets the characters never go to, that never influence the plot in any way. Sometimes the descriptions underscore the Viriconium-like feeling of the story taking place in a post-watershed human society, in which all our greatest achievements have happened already. But so does everything else in the novel, so these bits don’t really add anything.

Around a third of the way through the novel, it begins to segue into flashbacks with no warning, no apparatus to help readers keep track of the timeline, and for the first few flashes, no obvious reason why it’s bothering. Eventually the flashbacks begin to concern the characters’ time in the military, which is at least interesting as war stories, even if not particularly relevant to anything except factually. And that’s the problem – just like the setting, the flashbacks are really there to fill in information.

Information is the least important part of a narrative. The novel basically has no mood. There’s no sense of adventure, because all the characters behave so nonchalantly. There was, finally, some character development (in a flashback, of course), and it was the one time the main character has been truly afraid in the novel – despite the fact that the plot opens with the government sanctioning people to hunt her to her death. Of course, as the novel goes on and things close around the main character, she gets more worried – but the random flashbacks increase in frequency as well, even as they become more relevant.

My problem with the book isn’t major, I’m just using it as an example because I know Banks is a good writer. But in this book, as in many others by many authors, a perceived pressure in the world of SF has led to what’s a much weaker book than it could have been otherwise. The pressure is for detail, superfluous detail, useless detail that does nothing – and it’s not because it’s interesting, or scientific, but precisely that it is useless that it is desired.

Science fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas – or, at least, that’s what some scholars and fans call it (they’re the same people who get upset when, like I do, someone says it’s a form of fantasy using cognitive rather than symbolic estrangement). So in the post-modern vein of the otaku, some fans of SF simply want data to crunch. There’s an Arthur C. Clarke story that’s literally a math exercise. He said in an introduction that he spent longer doing the math than bothering about characters, motivations, anything like that.

If I’m being honest, I find that sort of thing sterile. Banks obviously isn’t nearly as bad, but it’s there, sometimes, in the way each chapter begins with a dossier of a character or place, featuring history that means nothing. It’s not even scene-setting or worldbuilding, because it doesn’t build anything. If worldbuilding can be likened to a family member telling you all about the wonderful place they visited, then what’s happening in this Banks novel, and in some other SF, is more like a tour guide pointing out the window at things that mean nothing, that you won’t get to see again or tour, and won’t affect the things you do get to see and do. What’s the point?

It’s the drive for data, I believe, overriding everything else, for just a moment. It’s as though, in this example, Banks forgot to cut the stuff that helped him start writing. Some of the flashbacks are the same, developing a relationship that is marked by two actual things – Geis’s obsession with Sharrow and his attempted rape of her. That’s all we’re going to remember, we don’t really need to have a full scene, going on for a few pages, of a hunting trip – the trip serves character development, but in a way that could have been better done with a line or two.

Quickly, Sharrow, the main character, and her sister Brey accompany the aforementioned Geis on a hunting trip. He goes down to cut trophies, and gives each sister an ear from the lizard thing he shot. Sharrow acts cool about it but throws it away the next day. Brey is disgusted but keeps it for years. That’s it. End of flashback. But it’s fully in-scene, so we can get more data, more information about animals on their planet, the servant who runs the balloon, the fact they used a balloon. These details don’t create world, because they’re too disparate. Worldbuilding is actually about mood, not information. And this book isn’t even nearly the worst offender about this stuff.

Is this making sense? In the drive to provide more information, driven itself by the perception that SF is a literature of information (being confused about what “ideas” really are), some books provide detail that is meaningless in every way. It doesn’t serve to build a fictional world, it doesn’t serve to develop a character, setting, or the action of the piece. It’s simply there, the information, simply sitting like a stone in a well, doing nothing but taking up space.

And no I didn’t go into the plot of the book here, because it was just a handy example. It’s an attempt to be funny while doing a heist caper story, but the writing is never funny, even when describing ridiculous stuff like the king who wipes his ass on a holy book to ascend to the throne because the state religion hates God. That could have been funny, but it just sits there like another stone, neutral, the humor murdered by the calm, matter-of-fact writing style that says “here’s all this lovely information. You figure out what to do with it, I suppose.”

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