Shake It Up

I grabbed Neal Stephenson’s fat new novel, Anathem, off of the hot-items one-week-loan table at the local public library. I guess I’m just not in tune with modern SF. I waded through about 50 pages and found it extremely dull.

There were several problems, in my view. The story was packed with unexplained made-up words, which made the reading process anything but smooth. There were long descriptions of architecture, which is not exciting to begin with and didn’t really give me a very clear visual picture either. I couldn’t make out whether the story was set in an alternate universe or our own future. The social structure and historical matrix in which the lead character lives struck me as highly unlikely.

But worst of all, there was no drama, no action, no high-profile story problem to kick the book into gear: It seemed to be just muddling along at about 5 mph.

Literature can muddle along at 5 mph for a while, because (one hopes) the writing itself is engaging enough to hold our interest. Plotted fiction requires a kick-start.

Years ago, some people in San Jose had a contest for a bad lead sentence for a story. (It may still be running. It was the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, if memory serves.) I submitted one, but didn’t win. My sentence probably wasn’t bad enough. What I did was satirize the idea that an action story needs a hook.

Here, for your amusement (?), is a very bad opening sentence for a nonexistent science fiction story:

Naked and bleeding, young Jorn crouched on the rocky ridge with the first stiff sleet of winter whipping across his unprotected shoulders and watched in mounting horror as the Xinthi raiders herded the weeping women and wailing children of his peaceful tribe into their squat, black, heavily armored space cruisers.

This is awful not only because it packs far too much into one sentence but because the whole plot is laid out before us. We know exactly what’s going to happen in the story: Young Jorn is going to conquer the Xinthi raiders (somehow) and rescue the women and children. It can’t happen any other way.

I wish Stephenson had given us at least a taste of young Jorn and the Xinthi raiders. Somewhere between those two extremes lies storytelling.

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