I just finished Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis’ alternative history of World War II, which pits British warlocks against German X-Men. Reading the concept in Cory Doctorow’s review on BoingBoing I was immediately hooked, especially when Doctorow name-dropped Susanna Clarke, whose Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read. But the comparison is undeserved. Ms. Clarke’s writing is reserved and suffused with mystery and significance, where Mr. Tregillis’ novel is awkward and clumsy. Doctorow’s review claims that “Tregillis writes and plots beautifully. The characters . . . are complex, textured, surprising. The physical descriptions are wonderful. And the plot is relentless, a driving adventure story with intrigue, battle, sacrifice, and betrayal.” None of these things are true. His writing is inconsistent and ungainly. He lacks any sophistication with figurative language or narrative structure, and there are times when he goes so far as to explicitly spell out the significance of the various plot points in case we missed the point the first time around. His characters have little if any arc, and, lacking any but the most rudimentary back story, often feel like puppets making contrived decisions to accommodate a larger structure that the author has decided is the best course of action.
A small example: from the outset it is made clear that the test subjects for the German superhuman program must be healthy, strong children. When we meet the superhumans as adults one of the members is incredibly simple, bordering on mentally retarded. This seems to be a contradiction to the framework that’s been established, one that could simply be addressed with a small anecdotal backstory that might also reveal more about the characters while resolving an apparent contradiction. Tregillis never indulges us with the particulars of how this apparent exception came to be, leaving a small hole in the narrative. If this were the only logical inconsistency in the book it might not matter, but the small gaps continued to pile up throughout the novel, ultimately breaking my faith in the story, the characters and therefore the author.
Given the issues that the author is tackling (WWII, alcoholism, death of both adults and children, human sacrifice) it would have served the story well had Mr. Tregillis taken more time to explore the themes and their consequences and given the book the gravitas that these topics need if they’re to make an impact on the reader. I think with fiercer editing and more time the novel could have been something memorable. Instead the novel glides through its story without ever pausing to absorb the weight of itself. To an extent I understand that that’s much of what the war must have been like: forcing oneself to ignore the disgusting, the horrible and the inhuman in order to survive, but Tregillis’ writing never generates the brittle psychic tension of that situation, either because he didn’t know how to or he didn’t take the time to, neither of which is really excusable given the size of the themes that he’s chosen to depict.
This is not the first time that I’ve been let down by a book, and it certainly won’t be the last, but it’s still disappointing to see such an exciting conceit wither in such a pathetic way. It reminds me of the fate of a lot of science fiction and fantasy; a high quality concept that is poorly executed, usually due to poor plotting, weak grasp of language or both. Sci-fi is guilty of this on a large scale, increasingly leading me to believe that sci-fi as a genre is first a place of perceptual ingenuity, where it’s more important to conjure the concept than it is to paint the picture. The father of contemporary sci-fi, Isaac Asimov, is proof of this over and over again. Asimov was a brilliant man, an amazing futurist and a prolific novelist, but he was not a good writer. I realize that the definition of “good” writing could be debated endlessly, so let me say that here, in this space, a good writer is someone with mastery over the language, who can use words to evoke something that is never said explicitly.
In the simplest terms this is summed up in the 5th grade creative writing chestnut “show don’t tell,” but in the highest form is something much more subtle and powerful than that. Asimov’s books, from the Foundation trilogy to I, Robot to the Lucky Starr series are all rational exercises in futurism; they are “what-ifs…” brought to life. While these cognitive leaps may be important, even exciting, they do not make for great literature. But Asimov is hardly the only giant in the field of sci-fi/fantasy who does it. Neil Gaiman is guilty of the same crime. His book, American Gods conjures a fascinating world of what-ifs without taking the time to really give them their due, leaving readers instead with a jumble of genres that, much like the characters of the book, never achieve the syncretism that the book conceit implies.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Ursula K. LeGuin was an amazing writer whose worlds were bursting with magic and mystery, who won a crap-load of awards and sold a ton of books and whose writing was top notch. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is, I’ll say it again, an incredible work of fantasy and literature that is worth the investment of time, that really explores the intersection of contemporary magic and politics in a way that Mr. Tregillis seems uninterested in doing. Lastly, Michael Chabon, himself a literary fiction author, has written two genre novels of the finest quality. His crime fiction, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and his swords and horses novel Gentlemen of the Road are some of the finest literature I’ve ever read, and they exist completely within the structure of the genres they inhabit. Mr. Tregillis, as is too often the case, allows the unnecessarily lax standards of the popular conception of genre to simplify and trivialize a fascinating concept into so much stereotypical mush.