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Short Story Review: Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley

Review 2018 Elves of Antarctica Paul McAuley Drowned Worlds COVER IMAGE

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a short story here. I’m pretty sure, anyway. At the very least, it’s the first time I’ve done it with the intention of doing them as a regular feature of my blog-slash-authorpage. (Note: this first appeared on my Patreon page 8 days ago — become a patron and see blog posts a week-plus early, even if you pledge just ONE dollar.

So, before I begin, some notes.

I think I’ll always lead with a spoiler warning, just in case. Like this: there may be spoilers in here, because 99% of the time I just don’t care about spoilers.

And that’s true. I’m one of those weirdos who can have the ending and twists of a movie, book, or story revealed to me and fully enjoy the thing anyway. I’m kind of a fan of spoiling as a device in fiction, in fact. Stephen King loves to do that. He’ll tell you someone is going to die a hundred pages before they die, and the story of how they die is still delicious. More delicious, I think. The flavor is in the telling.

And I’m not going to give stars. Screw grades, especially when they’re nothing more than my opinion. I always feel awkward trying to give a numerical value to how much I like a thing. I’m also the person who says “well, I don’t really have a favorite, but I do like (names five things)” when asked what their favorite whatever is.

I don’t think less of you if you give stars to things, though. Or have favorites. You do you – and I’m not saying that in a sarcastic way.

Now, the actual review:

Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley, found in Drowned Worlds, editor Jonathan Strahan. It’s the kickoff story.

My experience: it was easy to read, but also easy to put down and finish tomorrow, which I did. Neither of those traits, speaking of “put down,” is a putdown. I didn’t find it highly impactful, but it was still worth my time.

Standout features: the worldbuilding was excellent and detailed, as was the backstory of the main character. The story is a fine tour through the state of ecological affairs in the next century, and I found it much in the tradition of Hugo Gernsback with his worldbuilding-heavy “look! It’s the future!” stories. McAuley, however, has not built Hugo’s cardboard cutout characters. While the other characters aren’t fleshed out any more than their cosmetic roles demand, protagonist Mike Torres is a deep and rich character – if the worldbuilding wasn’t so significant to current climate change events, I’d take it for an excuse to plumb the depths of his angst, hope, and his curious entanglement with the phenomenon of the elf stones scattered across the partially uniced landscape of coastal Antarctica (which are inscribed in “elvish,” though are we talking Tolkien’s elvish? How else would people recognize and read Elvish? Maybe I missed the mention of Tolkein – or maybe not. The estate is famously litigious. I was reading this part at three in the morning jotting notes sideways in bed, so who knows what I might have missed in a moment of fatigue.

The stones are mysterious, or not. It’s hard to be sure, and that’s a fine note of humanity in the story. They’re probably placed there by humans, but the “stoners” (distracting name for elf stone enthusiasts, by the way) are happy to muse about mystical origins anyhow. They’re kind of a stand-in for stories in that way – we all know Star Wars is fiction, but there’s a Jedi church anyway. Two of them. Maybe more.

I wasn’t terribly excited to discover that this was a “something happened” story. Don’t come for the wrapup or a hint of conclusion. It’s not there. Which is a thing in the short story world, and there’s still plenty to be had in the reading. I’m just one of those people who favors a more concludey conclusion, even a “let’s just hint at what happens next” ending.

The writing is pretty spare for the most part, definitely in the “just tell the story” tradition – except when it comes to describing the natural world. There, the descriptions become more literary (if maybe prone to cliché phrases like “snow-capped mountains”), a bit closer to poetry, definitely richer and more emotionally evocative. I appreciated it as a touch that created focus on the heart of the story without dragging the reader over and rubbing my nose in it.

Overall, I found it a good read and an excellent way to start an anthology as it takes the reader through a lot of potential developments that are likely to come with a changing climate.

END

 

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“So I’m Writing An Infodump…” “NO.” “But…” “HELL NO!”

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Oh, he’s infodumping in public. He must be SO EMBARRASSED! Poor thing.

You’ve only just read the title, seen the image, read the caption, and you already know: I’m going to tell you (you writers out there) not to infodump on your readers. If you’re a reader, I’m going to tell you how you feel when you hit an infodump: ‘fine, fine, get on with the story already fer chrissakes.’

Before I go farther, let me tell you what prompted this post. From time to time, I poke through one of the ebook sellers’ websites and preview some of the novels and shorts that my fellow self-published writers come up with. The first one I looked at this afternoon started with a fat infodump in movie-intro style. It was labeled “Prologue,” which was a lie. It wasn’t a prologue. It was an infodump sketching out the author’s worldbuilding so that you, dear reader, wouldn’t have to bother your pretty little head with figuring out the background. And, possibly, so the author wouldn’t have to bother his pretty little head figuring out how to establish the important features of his world through things like dialogue and brief exposition and events.

Now that we’re past the digression: if you’re a contrary or exception-minded sort like me, you’ve taken issue with my hostility against the infodump, and have come up with a number of reasons that an infodump might be perfectly fine in a story. At least a little one. And it’s true, a little infodumping is less offensive than a lot of infodumping. The most inoffensive thing about the example I encountered today was that it was relatively short, less than two pages. Not too big to skip forward to the beginning of the first chapter, which is where the story should have begun. It should have begun with chapter one because that’s where it was interesting in a way the infodump ‘prologue’ definitely failed to be.

Which brings me to my major objection to the usage of the infodump: they’re boring. The worst of them (and the one I read was one of these) read like a transcript from a high school history class with the most uninspired and unhappy teacher you ever had the misfortune of having. Nobody wants to read that crap. I bet the writer didn’t even want to read that crap once it was written. He probably had trouble staying awake during editing.

There are ways to handle the infodump that aren’t terrible, and those are the ways you should use as a writer — because they’re not actually infodumps as I’m defining them here. They’re the ways you want to read as a reader. They’re not encyclopedic, they’re worked in with some sort of action. The characters are doing and thinking and saying things as the infodump develops. You still don’t want to overdo it. Even handled this way, if they’re prolonged the reader begins to wish for less information and more story-meat. But when done well, the reader is still enjoying what’s going on. If you’re the one doing the writing, doing it this way moves it from the realm of the infodump (EWWWW!) and into the realm of exposition (well, fine — so long as it stays interesting).

Technically, exposition and infodumping are the same thing. Exposition simply means ‘showing,’ which might be a bit confusing in light of the old and hoary advice, “show, don’t tell.” Exposition is a point at which the writer tells the reader something informative instead of showing or demonstrating it by other means. I think of the infodump as a distinct category of its own: Infodumping is the kind of exposition you do NOT want to write. It’s the kind that really sucks.

All exposition should be used sparingly. You should think about how and why you use it rather than conveying your information another way. And if you find yourself in the infodump neighborhood of exposition, do yourself a favor:

FIND ANOTHER WAY.

Too Much Information: Why Writers Should Conceal Their Research

This is great advice for the writer who is serious about his or her research or expertise — I’m reminded of Heinlein describing buying a roll of butcher paper and covering it with equations to figure out how to describe a ship’s orbit for “Starship Troopers”, and then merely describing the scene. No mention of math, no explanation of ballistics appears in the text. He just wanted to know how the scene should look, then described the scene to his readers.

I see oversharing extend beyond technical matters as well. I’ve seen writers spend a whole page describing what a character is wearing in detail, jarringly out-of-place sentences informing us of the exact height and weight of (usually beefy combatant male or slinky sex-kitten female trope stereotype) characters, loving in-detail descriptions of weaponry, vehicles, and other gear.

While writing, it is easy to imagine the reader hanging on every word, admiring the clever stacked adjectives, enjoying the artful turn of phrase of the image as it is built.

Well, that’s not what’s happening. 99% of the readers are slapping palm to forehead and moaning, “who gives a shit what the thread count of the protagonist’s pocket square is, and how it’s folded? WHERE IS THE STORY I PAID FOR?”

Readers have imaginations. They want brief, evocative descriptions that help them build the scene in their own imaginations. They don’t want your grubby little literary fingers in their brains trying to micromanage their leisure reading.

Drew Chial

"I have to resist the compulsion to reference everyone of these" “I have to resist the compulsion to reference everyone of these”

A few years ago, someone approached me about adapting a thriller into a screenplay. Reading through the first few chapters, I wasn’t sure where the script should begin. The first scene involved an autopsy where the pathologist missed the symptoms of a biological agent. The author took us through each stage of the autopsy including each instrument the pathologist used, where he made his incisions, and the weight of every organ.

It was clear the author knew what he was talking about, but he wasn’t telling a story, he was teaching a lesson.

The scene had no conflict until the author told us about the crucial detail the pathologist missed. The prologue read like it was supposed to function as the opening stinger of a crime drama. This might have worked if the pathologist had struggled to find a cause…

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