I’ve been intermittently trying to get into the Culture novels for years now. The first time I picked one up was probably in college, and that was also the first of many times that I read the first ten pages of one of these books and said to myself, “This is complicated, confusing, and curiously unemotional, and I’m really not feeling it” and then tossed it into a corner until the library eventually recalled it from me.
However, the streak is finally broken!
Yesterday, I checked out Player of Games from the SF digital library, and now I’m pretty sure that I’m actually going to complete it. Which is good. These always felt like the kind of novels that I ought to enjoy, even when I wasn’t actually enjoying it.
Part of the problem was probably just a lack of trust in the author. During the first twenty pages of the book, it’s mostly set-up, and I never had sufficient trust that an actual story was going to agglomerate out of the mass of arcane setting details.
But now that one has occurred, I have to say that I’m impressed. The problem that Banks sets himself is one of the oldest ones in SF: When your characters live in a far-future utopia, what kind of stories are left to be told?
And Banks has created one of the most utopian of utopias: a galaxy-spanning civilization that’s ruled by benevolent machine intelligences who let people pretty much do whatever they want; a world where people can be anything, have anything, look like anything, do anything, and live for damn near forever.
My impression is that most of the Culture novels are about people from this civlization, the Culture, butting up against other not-so-enlightened civilizations that surround them, but I’m not sure yet, since I haven’t read any of those novels. Anyway, that’s definitely the case with this one: it’s about one of the galaxy’s top game-players (think the Gary Kasparov of this galaxy) being dispatched to an empire in another galaxy that is entirely organized around a game called Azad (which, by the way, is the Hindi/Urdu/Farsi/etc word for ‘Free’).
So far, the character story is a bit thin: it’s the typical bit about the ennui of the immortal. But the universe is lush and filled with interesting things. There’s a liveliness to life in the Culture that is at odds with the world-weariness of the main character: people want things. Even the main character wants things, even if he doesn’t quite know what they are. There are stakes, even if they’re only in terms of things like reputations. Anyway, I am enjoying it, and I haven’t even gotten to the ‘interacting with aliens’ part of it yet.
Now that I’m getting close(r) to the end, it’s interesting to ponder this whole novel-revision experience. In many ways, it’s been emotionally similar to writing the novel in the first place. At the beginning, it felt very overwhelming. I had to make so many fine little changes and untangle so many little things. I’d spend hours thinking about how to alter one tiny scene. But as the days passed, the changes accumulated and the number of possible options decreased, and now I’m at the point where only a few things can happen. Also, just like when initially writing the novel, it’s possible to just press forward without exactly knowing what’s going to happen. As I sit here, I still don’t exactly know what’s going to happen at the climactic moment of the novel. Will she press forward with her plans for destruction? Or will she pull back? I don’t know. Both seem equally probable. Hmm…now that I’m writing this, that sounds kind of bad? Shouldn’t I have figured that out by now? But I don’t know. That’s the point. I did have it figured out, but as the revision progressed, everything became more ambiguous.
Only have ten days before I need to turn in the revised version of this novel. I think I can manage it. I’m pretty sure I can, anyway. Of course, it’s not like the world explodes if it takes a few extra days. But I don’t think I’ll need to take those days. Right now I’m just about to finish substantive changes. Then I need to make a pass through the book to make sure everything is coherent and to take out all the fragments of things that I’ve since cut. Then I want to make ANOTHER pass to tighten up the language. The book’s language was pretty tight in the version that was submitted and sold, but with this revision I’ve cut what feels like 10k words and added what feels like 20k, so that will have obviously introduced some laxness into the prose. Finally, I’m sure the text is now rife with spelling and grammatical errors, so I’ll make a third pass to try and catch at least some of those. That’s the one I’m dreading, honestly. I hate the copy-editing. Still, I suppose I ought to do it, since each one I catch now is one fewer one that’ll have to be fixed later. That last bit is going to take at least two days, too. It’s insane how long it takes to copy-edit anything.
Most things in life don’t live up to the hype. But, for me at least, quitting drinking did. Everything good in my life flows from that moment. After I quit drinking, I almost immediately became much more serious about my writing. In the first year after quitting, I finished my first novel. In the second, I finished my second (and so on). I was able to make plans for the future. I was able to learn how to make and sustain friendships in an organized fashion. I was even able to start having romantic relationships (yeah, I know, I’m like the only alcoholic who never got laid…it’s so annoying).
I had a whole other post written here and it contained scattered musings on recovery, but I think today isn’t the day for that. Today is the day for me to say that I feel profoundly grateful to that person, five years ago, who decided to stop.
I really have no idea why he did it. As the years pass, it seems more and more crazy to me that he—on the basis of remarkably little information regarding what would happen—actually decided to quit doing something that was such an integral part of his life. I mean, at the time, I remember feeling afraid for my life. But that’s all I had: fear. I had no positive vision for the future. I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know what I’d become. In fact, my worry was the opposite. I worried that I’d change so much that I wouldn’t be myself anymore, and I was only able to quit after I’d reassured myself that that wouldn’t happen.
Which it did, of course! I’ve changed so much that it’s absurd. People routinely describe me using the antonyms of words that they would’ve used eight years ago. They’ll say, “Oh, Rahul is so organized. He’s so dependable. He’s so good at talking to people,” where they once might’ve said “Rahul is disorganized, unreliable, and anti-social.” It’s weird that I’m now particularly accomplished in the same areas where I was once particularly bad.
You know, I always used to think recovering alcoholics were being ridiculous when they said, “My worst day sober is better than my best day of drinking,” but I don’t anymore. In fact, to me that seems like an almost banal thing to say.
Obviously my best sober day is better than my best day of drinking. Because even on my best day of drinking—my euphoric, most productive and social moment—my life was still a mess!
And it was that person: myself at what was literally one of my loneliest and most depressed and disorganized points, who had to face one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. Isn’t that crazy? The points in life which we require the most determination and confidence are always the times when we have the least to spare.
Anyway, I’m really glad that I no longer have to face problems like, “Should I keep drinking or should I stop?” And the reason I’m free of these conundrums is because my past self solved them for me. So, umm, that’s pretty awesome. And it’s a gift that I reap every day.
Yes, even on this most sacred of days, I am going to pimp out my mailing list. If you want to get infrequent emails (fewer than one per month) about my work, please sign up here.
Seriously. Is this not the best title you’ve ever seen? I love it. The book is also tremendous. It’s about a misanthropic twelve year old and a misanthropic concierge who live in the same Parisian apartment building. And they’re both misanthropes and they both feel like life is pointless, but they’re at different ends of it. So far, it’s a slow, reflective, observation-based book, but because the environment is so rich, it feels like a ton is happening.
I am in my final two weeks of revisions on Enter Title Here. And even though I knew that I was going to be making some fairly in-depth (maybe moderate depth) changes to the book, I hadn’t imagined what it would feel like to write those changes. Like, there are new scenes and new chapters. Major scenes and major plot elements are being yanked out. Characters and relationships are very different from what they were.
And it would be comforting to say “The core of the book is the same” but I’m not even sure that’s happening. The truth is that there’s a very real change happening in terms of the character’s background, motivations, and emotional journey, and that the book is not the same anymore as the one that I wrote two years ago. Maybe I’m writing the book that I should’ve written two years ago–the one I wanted to write. But I’m not even sure that’s the case. This is something different. And parts of it are thrilling, especially when I see the book opening up and becoming warmer and more comprehensible: when I see characters getting their due and receiving the kind of understanding that I wasn’t capable of giving them back when I first wrote the book.
But it’s also scary, because what if I’m fucking it up? What if the voice doesn’t match? What if it’s become an incoherent patchwork mess? Those would not be good things.
Still, though, I have a lot of hope for this book. People liked it even in its prior form. They liked it enough to want to buy it and publish it. And I’d like to think that they’ll like this new form even more. I mean, really, the level of change and improvement is, to my eyes, pretty astonishing. But who can say? Nothing to do except to keep working!
(You can tell, from reading my posts about revising the book, that I am not a very revision-heavy writer. Other writers do not write blog posts like this, since I assume they’re very used to the book changing significantly after they write it. That’s not really my thing, though, so I’m always shocked when it happens.)
I am in no way against nepotism. Of course, I doubt that is a surprise, since I am an upper-class type person and that is how we perpetuate ourselves
Recently, I was talking (and later about) a very impressive acquaintance of mine who wants to get into the same field as one of their parents, but is too proud to ask that parent to use their influence on the person’s behalf. I understand the reasoning here. If you use nepotism to secure a position that you otherwise couldn’t have gotten, then you, almost by definition, don’t ‘deserve’ it.
However, it is a reasoning that I disagree entirely with, because my point of view is that what you need to do in life is: a) decide what kind of work you need to do; and b) get into a position where you can do that work. And in the case of my friend (and many other people), they’re putting the second step ahead of the first step.
What they’re saying is, “Well, I want to do X, but maybe I’m not really good enough to do it, so if I can get into the right position to do it, then I’ll do it, and if I can’t, then I won’t.”
That, to me, is madness.
For instance, let’s say that you want to make films. You think about films all the time. You have a vision for the film that you want to make. And your father is also a famous film-maker. If you decide not to trade on his name, then you’ll work for years and maybe never get the chance to make anything. But if you do use his name, then you’ll get the funding to produce something.
If you choose the former option, then you’re pre-judging yourself. You’re saying, “I might not be worthy of making this film.” That, to me, is the weaker and less praiseworthy position, because in that case, what you’re hoping is that some independent authority will come along and tell you that you’re a genius and give you permission to make the film you want to make. And a lot of times that doesn’t happen. In fact, what you’ll find, if you try to go it alone, is that oftentimes you don’t succeed until you stop waiting for that permission and stop waiting for people to praise you and start doing whatever it takes to get to where you need to be.
What’s scary about the nepotism option is that you don’t have that permission. Instead, you are asserting that your work is valuable and that your vision is worthwhile, and you’re leveraging every possible resource in order to produce that work.
Now…is there a chance that your work is going to be terrible? Mmm…yeah. Probably. Is there a chance that you’re going to get promoted into a position that you’re ill-suited for? Mmm…yeah, there’s a good chance of that. And is it good, for society as a whole, that people can use their family connections to publish bad work or to get promoted into positions where they’ll bungle things? No. It’s not. It’s quite harmful.
But, to me, that is a completely different issue from whether YOU, as an individual, ought to whole-heartedly pursue the thing that you want to do. In this life, it doesn’t pay to be timid and to hang back. You’ve got to have the courage that you’re a Sofia Coppola and not a Jennifer Lynch.
In other news, I’ve been reading recently that authors should have email lists so that they can build relationships with their most devoted fans and let them know about book releases and public appearances. So if you’d like to join my email list and receive very infrequent emails (less than once a month) about what’s new in terms of my career, then please sign by clicking this link! Also, feel free to click on one or more of the checkboxes, so that I can better personalize your emails.
This Washington Post list has been really good to me. Two of the books on it, Girls at the Kingfisher Club and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, were some of my favorite SF/F reads of this year, and I’m halfway through a third, A Darkling Sea, that is turning out to be a really fascinating and thought-provoking look at the interaction between three species that are organized in wildly different ways.
I guess I should give serious thought to reading the other two books on the list (Half a King and The Angel of Losses) even though neither one looked particularly interesting to me.
I liked Jo Walton’s latest that I thought about just posting the last book of the book on here, because I’ve rarely seen one that was finer. Well, except for the last line, which turned the screw a bit too much. Posting the last page of a book is the kind of thing you can do with a literary novel, but not with a genre novel, so I won’t (even though it’s not a heavily plot-driven book.
Anyway, I am so tired. Abysmally tired. I went to bed in good order last night, but only slept five hours. The night before that, I only slept three. Not sure what’s up with that. It doesn’t really matter, since it’s not like I have a job to go to. But it does not feel good to be tired. And, for some reason (maybe because my room gets too much sun), I’m no longer able to engage in daytime napping.
So, because of that, I won’t be able to give this book the thorough treatment it deserves. Suffice it to say, it’s really good. Certainly the best SF/F book published in 2014 that I’ve yet read. I’m going to nominate it for a Nebula. The book has a simple conceit. A woman is born in the UK in the late 1920s. At some point early in her life, she faces a momentous decision. At that point, her timeline splits and her life (along with the fate of the entire world) diverges. This is a very personal story. It’s about loves lost and found; careers made and broken; children who are born and grow up and have children of their own. There are also nuclear bombs and moon bases. Interestingly, neither of Patty’s worlds–the two that are chronicled in the book–is our world. However, one of them is similar enough to our world that it’s a bit strange and confusing. I like the effect. It’s lovely.
The human story here is really engaging. You genuinely want to know what Patty is up to and what will happen to her. And the point counterpoint between the two stories is interesting enough that it can take the place of conflict or plot. One of the lives is much happier than the other. In that one, Patty faces nothing like the troubles that she faces in the other one. But you don’t care, because there’s something fascinating about seeing the same person take two such different routes.
The book is so engaging on a page by page level that you’re able to ignore the strangeness of the premise. In the end, though, it does roll back around and try to make a point (perhaps too clearly). What I like best about the book, in looking back on it, is the way it differentiates personal happiness from societal well-being. In all too many SF/F, the social order serves as a sort of pathetic fallacy (i.e. the nature of the world reflects the nature of the character’s internal states). If a world is authoritarian and dark, then the people feel repressed and depressed. If a world is shiny and glitzy, then they’re optimistic and happy. In reality, though, happiness has much more to do with your home life and your professional life than it does with the social order. I remember another book that made this point very clearly was Walter Mosely’s Futureland, which took place in a horrifying corporate dystopia where, nonetheless, some people managed to be very happy.
Anyway, read this book. It’s great. The book I’d most closely compare it to is John Williams’ Stoner, which is another broad sweeping story about an entire human life. However, Stoner is more Romantic. It idealizes the main character’s unhappiness too much. It tries to turn him into a hero. This book doesn’t have to do that, because it has two main characters. It has the happy version and the unhappy version. And they’re both heroic and unheroic in different ways.
Okay, I guess I did have a lot to say.
Not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this on the site before, but I sold Enter Title Here to Disney in a two-book deal, which means that they’ve paid me a partial advance for a second book that has to, I think, be a contemporary YA novel (it’s surprising how much of this stuff you never get told explicitly…) Anyway, since selling the book, I haven’t spoken much to either my publisher or my agent about my idea for a second novel. All I really knew about it was that it wasn’t going to be a sequel to Enter Title Here (not that anyone expected it to be), and that I’d need to eventually write a thing called a ‘proposal’ which would include a ‘synopsis’ and ‘several sample chapters’ so that Disney could see what I was going to send them before I went ahead and wrote it.
All of this was a little bit worrying to me. First of all, I am not an outliner. Whenever I write a synopsis, I find that it tends to kill the whole book, because you can write all kinds of stuff in a synopsis and make it sound good, but when you try to put it onto the page, you realize that your planned plot is stupid and inorganic and untrue to the characters. Also, for me, the first chapter of the book requires by far the most work, because writing the first chapter means locking down your main character, voice, major conflicts, major side-characters, setting, plot intensity and plot style, narrative closeness, tense, point of view, and all kinds of other little things.
In this case, I’ve lost track of how long I spent trying to think up an idea for the best book. I think I’ve been trying to do it since at least Sept. 1st. I had a brief breakthrough in, I think, October, when I wrote a really good chapter. Like, an amazing chapter. It was expansive and emotional and covered about two years in the span of seven thousand words. And it was so good that it made me cry. Anyway, at this point it was actually a chapter of backstory in a novel for adults, and I think it was like the third or fourth chapter in a book? Anyway, the rest of the book was terrible, so I trashed it and moved on to other ideas.
But a few weeks ago, when I started working on Enter Title Here revisions, I came back to that chapter. I couldn’t believe it was just rotting away in some discarded file. Actually, it was hard to find. I’d forgotten which draft of which book it was buried inside. But when I eventually pulled it out and plopped it into what I was working on right now, I stood back and was like, “Hrm, how do I make this fit?”
So I moved that chapter around. I made it one of three point of views. I chopped it up and then I put it back together. Eventually, it migrated to the beginning of the book. Then I was like, “Hmm, you know what? That kind of works as a first chapter.” But then I was still stymied (keep in mind, by the way, that I’m doing this in my odd moments after revising ETH), because nothing seemed to fit. That chapter was such a singular thing that whatever I put afterwards seemed slack and feeble.
Finally, though, I scraped away everything I’d written except that chapter. And I sat down. And I was like, “You know what might work? What if…I just write more chapters…that are in the style of that first chapter? Hmm…”
And that’s what I did. I wrote a second chapter. And it flowed extremely well. Extremely naturally. I started moving on to the third chapter, and that was coming out with lots of fluency as well. Then just as I was getting going, I was like, “Shit…if I keep doing this, I’m just going to end up writing the whole book.”
So I jotted down a synopsis (trying to ignore the fact that people are going to expect me to actually hold to that thing), and put it together with those two chapters, and sent it to my agent. And someday soon it will, I think, go to my editor.
There is a very real possibility that Disney will come back and say they hate it. Maybe I’ll go back to the drawing board. Or maybe they’ll want massive changes to the synopsis and I’ll struggle to incorporate them. I know plenty of authors who had to go through the wringer before they even got out of the proposal stage.
I don’t like to write about failures on my blog (at least not before they’re well in the past), so the way you’ll know that my proposal got turned down is if I never ever talk about it again. I hope it doesn’t get turned down, though. This is a book that I’m excited about. And it’s one that I think I can actually write. Of course, actually writing it is probably going to be hell. I imagine the book will fall apart fifty times, and that I’ll curse the day I ever wrote this blog post. But right now I’m happy to be feeling optimistic.