There are many sub-genres of Sci-Fi ; military sci-fi, Cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, dystopian and so on and so on. But there’s another view – there are only TWO types of Sci-fi.
The first type takes you by the hand and says “Here’s a different world. This is how it works.” The characters in the story don’t stop to explain exactly how their ship travels faster than light, I mean, with diagrams and equations and so on, but they do drop the crucial explanations that help the story make sense.*
The other type of Sci-Fi can be summed up by this picture from Onyxcarmine of Deviantart
“The Stars are Legion” fits firmly into the second category of Sci Fi. Hurley’s story is set on living planets, a group of living planets so close together that characters get from one to another by some kind of semi-sentient space bike. They shoot at each other with cephalopod guns… Guns that shoot out cephalopods. There’s no tedious opening explaining the origin of the Legion, as the collection of planets are known. There’s no omniscient narrator describing the scene for you to imagine. There’s just the story, told chapter by chapter from the point of view of two of the central characters. Since one of them has recently lost her memory for the umpteenth time, she can’t help you understand how things work, because she either can’t remember or is having muscle memory make things work for her without any understanding. The other character freely admits to having lied, to currently lying to other people and to planning things she won’t admit, even to her co-conspirators. Talk about your unreliable narrator!
Tales that leap into the action and rush you along can be tricky to follow, and that’s when we’re talking near-future or straight forward stories. Hurley has imagined an entire ecosystem, no, a SOLAR system that is unlike anything we’ve seen before. These planets open and close, and have multiple internal levels. A single family rules a planet, or maybe several planets, and harvests organic material to repair the home planet. Yes, it can be confusing, and it’s exactly the kind of story that I usually shrink from. Often, the author of such a story is not explaining because they know and love their material so well, they’ve forgotten that we, the readers, don’t know it that way. But Hurley is telling a story, and the amnesia of the one character and duplicity of the other is part of that story, part of the engine of the story. If you surrender to the flow of the story, all your questions are either answered or proved irrelevant. I read the whole thing in three days, and it would have been two except I deliberately put the book down the second night. I was two chapters from the end and I wanted to read it with my mind fresh and awake – the final part of the book happens at a tremendous pace, and there’s a lot to take in.
Hurley sets a high bar here. This book is going to be very successful, and so there will be a lot of people rushing out their own versions of the “Jump on the hover dog” genre. But it’s not easy to do it this well, and it’s very easy to do it badly. If you’re not going to be there to hold your reader’s hand and explain things, then you need to know, not only how everything works, but also what’s important for the story.
*However, if any character talking to another starts their speech with “As you know…”, put the book down AT ONCE and walk away. It’s a bad one.
Interesting. To me, “hand-holding” Sci-Fi books are rare gems, except in YA. I see a lot of the “jump on the hover dog” Sci-Fi, where the reader is thrown into a universe that’s weird simply for the sake of weirdness, with characters and plot buried under nonsense.
I like random weirdness if the story doesn’t take itself seriously. But all too often, contemporary Sci-Fi takes its cephalopod guns and vampiric space captains waaaay too seriously, and doesn’t bother to explain why the reader should take them seriously.
The “hand-holding” type of Sci-Fi has become so rare, I suspect that’s the next trend waiting to explode outward again. I think that’s part of the reason why “The Martian” and “Red Rising” made such a splash.
I think the tricky point here is that there are good and bad versions of each type. When I think of the “good” hand-holding sci-fi, I tend to think of John Scalzi. In “Lock In”, he had a lot of history and technical details to communicate so we could understand the mechanics of the crime his main characters were investigating. He could have written it hoverdog style, but that would have been like the investigators solve the mystery by taking out their Blooper-o-matic ray gun and using it to reveal the perpetrator – it may fit within the internal logic of the story, but it’s not a “fair” resolution for the reader.
“The Martian” was a great example of good hand-holding though.
Question: in your opinion is Dan Simmons’ Hyperion hand-holding or hover-dog? To me, it concentrates on character, but takes the time to explain – when appropriate to the story – about the history of his universe.
I’d not heard of your distinction, before, you see. So I’m trying to get my head round it.
I think the issue here is that any oversimplification is going to be too broad for every example to fit. At either end there are bad examples: Hoverdog stories that go so fast, you can’t get a grip on what’s going on because you never get a sense of the surroundings, or the mechanics of how things work. Hand-holding novels that crawl along, every other page a deep tretise on the political structure or the underlying systems of the road networks, or police cruisers or whatever. For a good example of hand-holding, I would cite the “Old Man’s War” series by John Scalzi. There’s technical information that’s useful, delivered in the first novel by the simple expedient of having the main character (and our viewpoint on the story) be a recruit for the Colonial Union army, thus learning about the disposition of the war with other races, the technical specs of the weaponry, and the upgrades to the human body that are key to the story being told. That story is John Perry’s life after the death of his wife, as we note from her inclusion in the first paragraph, and the discovery of a sort-of-clone of her leading to a resolution at the end of the book. The story COULD be told without the detail of the Brainpal computer, or the Empee rifle, but learning these things along with John help us stay in the story, they don’t detract from it.
Now I have to go read “Hyperion”….
I’ve read Old Man’s War, though only the first instalment. I found that exposition stuff a little laboured, but I can see why people would like it.
And you rally must read Hyperion (and Fall of Hyperion). Easily one of my favourite sci-fi sagas.
Both “Hyperion” and “Fall of Hyperion” were out when I got to work last night (I work in a library). So I’m starting with “Endymion”. I like it so far.
Put Endymion back on the shelf and pretend it’s not there. I know it takes place centuries after Hyperion, but it’ll ruin the Hyperion journey for you, which is infinitely more interesting than Endymion anyway.
Put the book down. Step away from the book.
I find myself returning the book to the library and putting it back on the shelf. How mysterious!