Tuesday, May 29, 2012

When A Big Idea Takes Over A Great Story

I just finished Mira Grant's excellent Blackout, the final novel of her Newsflesh trilogy. It was that rare combination of heart and mind that we so seldom see in science fiction - you usually only get one or the other. I absolutely loved 99% of it. However, it was the 'why' of the Newsflesh conspiracy that I wasn't sold on. The end was a little underwhelming due to that.

Ain't that always the way? Well, if not always, at least a good part of the time. Why do science fiction stories often end with such unsatisfactory explanations?

Science fiction is all about ideas. What if two cures for debilitating ailments combined to cause a terrible plague? What happens when a slave race of synthetics turns on its masters? What if a spaceship got thrown so far out into uncharted space that it couldn't make it back in the crew's lifetime? These are all great starting points for stories, what you might call Big Ideas. The problem is that ideas don't feed the bulldog. It's the people who have to live in these worlds that we care about.

It was sometimes hard to like Georgia Mason in Feed. It was impossible not to like Shaun Mason in Deadline. But every time we got near the "why is this happening" parts of the story, things got a little squirrelly. Implausible villains with silly B movie motives made mustache-twirly monologues. I suspect that this is because the story was never about Shaun and Georgia - it was about Kellis-Amberlee, the unfortunate merging of vaccines that caused the zombie apocalypse. The two humans were there to sell the story about the virus, and the conspiracy they were uncovering was rationalization for keeping the virus around (just not by the bad guys). The zombie plague itself was the main character of that trilogy.

Similarly, we saw what happened when the Cylons decided to rid the galaxy of their masters in Battlestar Galactica. There was a lot of cat and mouse, and a great showing was made of the desperation a population on the brink of annihilation would feel. Ultimately, the idea of the robots rebelling was stretched a little too thin and the only ending that made sense from the way they set up their own premise - bye bye, humans - was put off through mystical handwavery. How do you keep exploring a Big Idea that necessitates an end you don't like? Make up some weird shit that you never explain. I loved the idea that there's an endless cycle of creation, enslavement, and genocide. But it has to be about the people caught up in it, not the cycle itself. (See Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos for this idea done right.)

In all fairness, I must say that I never finished all of Star Trek: Voyager. Kate Mulgrew makes my teeth grate just looking at her. Then she opens her mouth and I want to kick a puppy. It's an entirely irrational reaction that has nothing to do with her as an actor or a person. When everything revolves around the idea of 'getting home,' that becomes your main character. Everything you do, everything you think of, every action you take is focused on getting home. It makes it hard to keep the writing fresh when you're always writing around a main character that can never take a step back.

This isn't to say that A Big Idea can't work. Vernor Vinge sells his Zones of Thought concept beautifully in not one but two books - A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. What if there were hard limits to where in the galaxy certain kinds of technology could function? A Deepness in the Sky is especially sad because our characters never know their limitations; we learned about the zones in the first book, but it's never mentioned in the second. Let me break that down for you again: Vinge wrote an entire book based on A Big Idea that he never once mentions in the book itself. And yet almost every character's ambitions, every inexplicable Failed Dream, every hope for the future is infused with that Idea. In fact, if you didn't know about the Big Idea, you might find the ending uplifting instead of tragic. I kind of love Vinge for that.

Ultimately, I think a creator has to be willing to let their Idea fade into the narrative, no matter how Big it is. When your idea is prioritized above the story it engendered, it makes it hard for us to buy into the premise you built around it. Let your idea be the catalyst, not the emphasis. We'll still know what you're trying to say, even if you don't beat us about the head and shoulders with it, I promise.
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  1. Vinge just recently put out a new Zones of Thought novel, The Children of the Sky.

    Neil Stephenson has a tendency to both thoroughly explain his Big Ideas, wind the story around them, yet not let them dictate that story.

  2. This was precisely why I've described Blackout (and the whole Newsflesh trilogy, really) as not a perfect book, but a really, really good one. As long as you don't get too bogged down with the why and just enjoy the characters, the science and the action, you'll have a good time. I finished it almost a week ago, and I'm not sure I could explain the ultimate goal of the Big Bad to you. It was all macguffin talk that slid right out of my brain.

    1. "No, Mister Bond, I expect you to DIE!"

      "The Butler did it!"