AWESOME NEWS: My flash fiction piece “Lathe” is going to be published by Dominion House Lit next Wednesday! I’m super excited! You should go check them out. They’ve got some really neat stuff up by some other authors.
We now return you to your regular blog post.
I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama—I’ve been in kind of a classic sci-fi mood recently—and it’s caused some thoughts to drift to the forefront of my brainpan. Rama is about an evidently abandoned alien vessel that comes careening through the solar system at some point in the future and humanity’s frantic efforts to explore, catalog, and understand it before the vessel whips around the sun and bails the fuck out into the dark space between stars.
And it’s gotten me thinking about a very, very specific kind of speculative fiction. Or, I suppose, a specific type of speculative fiction plot.
The “explore an alien landscape” gig.
One of the things that the exploration of the alien vessel humanity has christened “Rama” brought to mind almost immediately was HP Lovecraft’s novel At the Mountains of Madness. Both of these stories feature small teams of scientists caught in the unique position to learn about alien lives and cultures. They take somewhat different approaches, though: Mountains operates in a pseudo-documentary style, and it is primarily intended to invoke horror along with its sense of wonder. Even as it demystifies some of the stranger portions of the Cthulhu Mythos, it replaces that mystery with a sense of complete alienation and terror. Sure, the creatures of the Mythos may not be magical or deific in nature, but they are far older, far stranger, and far wider-reaching than humanity could ever possibly conceive.
On the other hand, Rama uses the mapping of its titular artifact to invoke, in microcosm, the dangers and thrills of the Age of Discovery. It goes so far as to name the ship that lands on Rama Endeavour, after the research vessel commanded by explorer James Cook. The commander of the Rama expedition even wonders at times, when at a loss for all other direction, what Lieutenant Cook would’ve done in the same position.
Both of these novels, Mountains and Rama, succeed spectacularly at evoking the alien nature of their settings, and indeed let their settings carry the majority of the narrative weight. Whether in a hidden Antarctic city whose alien masters perished long ago or inside a fifty-kilometer artificial cylinder world spinning through the blackness of space, the strangeness of the characters’ surroundings, and the implications of those surroundings, keep you reading and fascinated.
Of course, all this thought about how well these novels work brought me to a novel that simply didn’t. At least for me. I know that House of Leaves is something of a darling in horror circles, but I’ll be goddamned if it didn’t drive me absolutely insane. There are four separate levels of narrative, plus appendices, plus footnotes referencing footnotes referencing footnotes ad nauseam. If House of Leaves was a dream, and you plumbed it Inception-style, you’d be in fucking Limbo before you got to any of the shit in the book that was actually interesting. You have editors providing commentary for some slacker asshole’s commentary on an academic thesis that is IN TURN commentary on a nonexistent documentary.
And the only thing that is of any interest in the whole steaming mess is the nonexistent documentary. Because THAT is the part of the novel about exploring the mysterious, labyrinthine, impossible spaces that can be found in the titular house.
So far as I can tell, though, the author was absolutely terrified to allow that tale of exploration to stand on its own. Too terrified, or possibly too conceited. The other narrative layers aren’t necessary. The central narrative doesn’t need a self-aggrandizing academic paper written about itself. It doesn’t need a slacker asshole’s commentary and occasional tales of increasingly improbably sexual conquests. If the house and the labyrinth and the monster had been allowed to stand on their own, House of Leaves would’ve been magnitudes better.
I’ve already established that I don’t believe that there is a correlation between complexity and quality. This is simply an extension of that.
So here’s the takeaway from my thoughts on this subject: if you want to write about exploration, write about exploration. Create a new place that the reader can be awed by and terrified of. And let that place be the bedrock of your story.
At the same time, don’t gild the lily. If you’ve put enough thought into your alien world/spaceship/worldship/dentist’s office, then your characters should react to it organically, the way your readers do, and there will be no need to belabor the setting’s detail or genius.
Construct a place of consistent, coherent strangeness, and the sense of wonder will follow soon after. That’s what will grab a reader every time.