WAIT . . . WHAT HAPPENED?

This essay provides advice to authors, I promise. But please bear with me while I take you on a little journey into my own reading life . . .

Last summer I finally found my way to the web community GoodReads, signed up, and have been having a ball being part of this community of readers, writers, and “book people.” If you haven’t signed up yet, I urge you to join.

I joined a few of the groups, and should probably explore of a few more of them. Groups are where genre- or author-specific  discussions take place. As a lifelong science fiction and fantasy fan it isn’t weird that one of the first groups I joined was the SF/F group Beyond Reality. It’s been the scene of a few spirited discussions, given me the opportunity to plug myself a little—I try not to be too obnoxious about that—and just kinda chat with like-minded readers, though I don’t get in there as often as I’d like.

One of the things the Beyond Reality group does is read, book club style, the same book together as a group, one SF and one fantasy title each month. Up till now I’ve always looked at that with my standard trepidation (I’m well known for my Generalized Trepidation), always thinking of some reason not to join in, muttering something to myself then not doing something, which is how my Generalized Trepidation normally manifests itself.

But last month I saw that the December SF title at Beyond Reality was going to be The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The old trepidation stirred itself, but I was able to quickly master it. From my desktop computer, I can look to my left and see, about five feet away, a bookcase that contains, among other things, two shelves stacked two-deep with mass market paperbacks I’ve collected over the past several years and that I intend to one day read.

And there it was: a copy of The Mote in God’s Eye.

This is the edition I’m reading now...

When I was in high school, the school library had a very small collection of SF novels—fantasy hadn’t quite penetrated yet—and after the first semester of freshman year I’d pretty much familiarized myself with all of them, discussing with my friends which one I should read next, who’s read what, what sucks, and so on. No one had read The Mote in God’s Eye, but it called out to me, and one day I checked it out and started reading.

I remember liking it, but I also remember having a painfully slight attention span. As I started to play Dungeons & Dragons once a week, then twice a week, then three times a week, then sometimes four times a week if you counted Gamma World or Traveller, I started reading more fantasy, and . . . whatever meaningless excuses . . . and I had to return The Mote in God’s Eye to the library before I finished it. I remember wanting to finish it. I don’t remember disliking it, anyway, but I never did check it out again. That was probably thirty years ago.

...and this is the edition I read then.

Then, something like twenty-nine years later, I saw it on someone’s list of favorite SF novels of all time—I don’t remember who’s—and the memory of having started it so many years ago came back to me, and I decided I would read it again. I made a special trip to the bookstore to buy a copy, and I put it on my already hopelessly-overbooked (pun intended, I’m afraid) “to read” shelf . . . and that was about a year ago.

It was as though some cosmic convergence occurred then, and there was the Beyond Reality group, and there was the book, and without hardly thinking about it, I signed on to the group and made my intentions known that I was in for The Mote in God’s Eye in December.

I started reading it a few days early, and decided I would keep a pen with me while I read it so I could make notes and have something interesting to say on the Beyond Reality message threads. And I’m doing that, and you can follow the results there, if you so choose.

Then I got to the space between chapter seven and chapter eight.

A spoiler follows, so if you want to read this book, you might want to stop here and come back after you’ve read the first eight chapters.

This is the note I scribbled into my copy of the book, on page 67, right at the start of chapter eight:

BOO!—Really?!? Why is the dramatic discovery of the first sentient alien relegated to “off screen” action?!? HUGE disappointment!

And that gets us to our lesson for aspiring authors:

Do not skip over the interesting part in favor of any characters either planning for the interesting part before doing it, or debriefing each other after the interesting part has come and gone.

I’m a Larry Niven fan. I’m not a critic and never will be. I’m keenly aware of the fact that I’m holding up one of the classics of the genre as an example of what not to do, but I’m compelled to do so. I felt cheated that that scene wasn’t there.

A little background.

The SF conceit of The Mote in God’s Eye is that it’s the year 3017 and the human race has mastered faster-than-light travel. They’ve established colonies that eventually grew into an interstellar empire. They’ve fought wars, and empires have risen and fallen, but in that whole time they’ve never encountered another sentient species. Until now.

The book begins with the discovery of a lightsail-powered spacecraft that has come from a star that is not part of the human empire. A navy starship is dispatched to investigate then follows this tremendously exciting scene in which the alien vessel is cut from its lightsail and taken aboard the human ship. That’s the climax of chapter seven, which ends with the line: “Just what in God’s name had he caught?”

Then chapter eight, just a couple lines later on the same page, which bears the title “The Alien,” begins with our hero, the captain of the starship MacArthur, “standing tall before the man,” threatened with court martial over the methods he employed to secure the alien probe. We then learn in a conversation between these two characters that the probe was in fact of alien origin, it was opened up, and inside was discovered the dead body of an alien. The alien is described in some detail from reports, making it clear that a significant amount of time passed between the edge-of-our-seat “battle” with the alien probe and the captain’s interview with his superior officer, back at headquarters.

I just can not fathom that choice.

This is a book that is about the first contact between humanity and a sentient alien species and that moment of discovery is left for dry recitation. I simply can not conceive of why we weren’t brought along for the certainly tense moments leading up to the probe being opened (something we learn only long after the fact was hardly an easy process), miss any description of the terribly damaged shuttle bay (until later when they’re fixing it), and the even more tense moments spent exploring its exotic interior (described only after significant conclusions were drawn as to the nature of its design and workings), then the dramatic reveal of something all of human history has led up to: the first encounter with a sentient extraterrestrial.

We got to experience none of that. Instead we were “treated” to a short military debriefing conducted in perfect safety, long after the fact.

This is the discovery upon which the entire rest of the book hinges.

Our intrepid captain is then assigned to lead the first expedition to “the Mote,” which is the star the probe came from.

Now, The Mote in God’s Eye is a book that bears this blurb from no less a personage than Robert Heinlein: “Possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.”

Nice of him to say, and I do want everyone to understand that the rest of the book (so far—hey, it’s a long book and I have until December 31st!) is fantastic. Even the funny little outdated bits and anachronisms (the novel was first published in 1974) don’t get in the way.

But they did that—that off screen reveal—what I consider a mortal sin.

Niven and Pournelle are brilliant authors who’ve won every award the genre has to offer, and deserved them all, but they did that, and in so doing gave us all a lesson in story structure.

Don’t spare the action.

Talking about it is never better than doing it.

Telling us about it is never better than showing it to us.

Hearing about it is never better than experiencing it.

Okay?

Good, then now I’ve got that mote out of my eye!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 


 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to WAIT . . . WHAT HAPPENED?

  1. Kameron says:

    Heh, I remember you giving me that advice while writing Maiden, and I have been ever conscious of making sure the interesting, dramatic events of my stories take place in front of the reader since.

  2. Cam Rawls says:

    It’s been a few years now since I read the book, so my mind is a little fuzzy on the specifics. I went into it knowing that the book was “hard sci-fi” and would be a bit outside my comfort zone, but I like to challenge myself.

    Your post reminded me that, while I put the book down many times over the months that it took me to finish, that was the first place that I stopped. I was quite peeved for a long time. I think it was at least a week before I picked it up again. I started another book, a fantasy, while I was deciding whether or not to go back to it. I felt cheated.

    After I cooled off a bit, I started thinking about why the authors might’ve done that. Maybe they thought that readers would do a better job of envisioning what that “first contact” would be like than they could write. If so, I think that it was a poor decision. I was taken out of the story wondering if I had a misprinted book. Alas, no.

    As an unpublished writer, it’s encouraging to know that even otherwise great writers can get things wrong. As a reader, I was disappointed. I remember liking the book overall, but not specific scenes or chapters. I’ll wait to read your review to see if there are any other bits that I blocked out.

  3. Yeah, I enjoyed the book when it came out and read it in a few days. I ran right over the spot you mentioned. There were several spots that did annoy me, all about the same issue. As one who struggles with the fact that every single thing I want to do means I have to do something else first, and before that something else (think paint inside cabinets) I could not believe in the creatures that could make incredible technology without first the machines that make the machines that make the machines that make the technology (let alone the procurement of materials and energy and education). Maybe the education was genetic, don’t remember. But I could not believe the technology without the long chain of causes behind it. Other than that, I thought the book was wonderful. And I liked the kilts, too.

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