What Not to Do

(Caveat: It is not my habit or intention to belittle another author’s writing. That said, I don’t always like everything I read. Do you? The statements herein are my opinion only. Your mileage may vary.)

This is not a book review. I just want that clear right up front, because in this post I want to talk about a book I have been trying—and failing—to read: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I initially borrowed the book from the library because I was ready for a new read, and this was recommended as one of thirteen best sci-fi books of 2017. The premise seemed sound. In the year 2140 (obviously), Manhattan is so flooded from sea-level rise that it has become the new Venice. Interesting, I thought. Ought to be good, plus bonus points for taking on climate change in a possible near future, set in a city familiar to many readers. Makes for a story relevant to our own times.

Right?

That’s why I tried to read it. I failed to finish because…well, there’s no polite way to say this. It bored me to tears.

And that is what I want to talk about. Some of the storyline’s failings I can point to and say “That. That right there is boring.” But the rest I’m not sure how to define, which I why I’m writing about it. Because as a writer, if I can’t describe why a book fails to capture my interest, then I won’t be able to avoid the same mistakes.

So here we go.

One clear pitfall of the book for me was that a main character (there are nine) is a hedge-fund sleaze who goes on and on and on and on about finance and housing bubbles and market indexes in excruciating detail. He’s not the only character to do so. I read the first segments of this, thinking it must have some connection to the plot (I think it does, eventually, though I’ll never know for sure). But after the first five, I began skimming without actually reading them.

Another was the unnamed character (“citizen”) whose chapters were absolute info dumps about New York history and culture. Not one of these chapters that I read added anything pertinent to the plot. Citizen even tells the reader that “if you don’t wanna know this, skip to the next chapter.” (Really? The author invites the reader to skip whole chapters of the book?) Again, read the first few, skipped the rest.

The characters themselves all fell flat. Not one of them felt fleshed-out or real to me. They all said different words, yet their “voices” sounded the same. They went places and did things and got together and faced problems, but none of it gave me a sense of urgency. None of it compelled me to keep reading. The writing, overall, used limiting words that drained conversations between the characters as well as descriptions of any power, something I’ve had to watch in my own work. Dialogue between characters felt stiff. There was more, but this will suffice to explain why, at about the 25% point, I decided to stop wasting my time.

More nebulous critiques centered around the pointless wanderings of the flat characters. Maybe it’s that their relationships, activities, comments and internal monologues all felt contrived. One scene in particular had a group of characters all meeting in one place and the author overexplained insignificant details like who sat where. Why is this important? Skip to that bit, please. There were good segments that gave me hope, but overall it felt like there was far too much extraneous content, as though the author could have cut at least 25% of the book and had a better, more focused and compelling story. Again, I’ll never know.

Correct me if I’m wrong—because KSR is a best-selling author with nineteen published books to his name, so clearly he knows something I don’t—but I’m pretty sure each of these faults I’ve named breaks rules that are pounded into our heads as new writers. Books on how to write publishable fiction tell us not to do these things. Fiction classes say the same thing. Writing conference breakout sessions repeat these lessons, so I’m left wondering if a) those books and classes and conference presenters are all wrong; or b) bestselling authors are held to a different standard than new writers.

Much as I wish it were so, the real answer probably isn’t that cut-and-dried. First of all, a) is both true and false because every fiction reader is different. Each one wants something different from a novel. As awful as I thought NY2140 was, there were plenty of reviews giving it four or five stars, raving about how all KSR’s novels had an underlying and not-so-subtle message. He definitely pushes a political agenda in this novel, one I probably agree with on many levels. I don’t mind a book with a message. But let it also have a story too, please. I’ve read other books like this in that they were all message and no story. All my works of fiction have messages too. I only hope they aren’t this dry and flavorless.

As to b, this is probably true. I remember a presenter telling me at a conference that writers have to prove they know the rules before they can break them. I’m tempted to think this is BS, until I read something like NY2140. It’s an example of the fact that publishers will be more likely to buy even marginal ideas from established writers who have already identified their market, while we newbies are still struggling to do that. Unfortunately, even if our stories is outstanding, we are all channeled through the narrow pipeline of available publishing houses whose primary goal is to make money. Don’t misunderstand me; there’s nothing wrong with making money. As a writer, I too want my works to turn a buck. But with so many of us, and so few publishing channels, it’s no wonder that more and more writers are turning to self-publishing options for their work.

I haven’t read anything else by KSR, and I probably won’t—partly because of my experience with this book, but also partly because one reviewer, who gave this book four out of five stars, commented that people who read his work usually don’t read it for the story, but for the “massive ideas he puts forth.” That reviewer is clearly part of KSR’s “established market.” She knows going in what she’s going to get and she goes back for more.

I know it looks like one, but this isn’t a book review. As always, don’t take my word for it. If you like the “story’s” premise, or have a soft spot for New York City or finance or utopian messages that out-shout the plot or the characters, by all means read this book. You may be one of those who find it inspiring. As far as I am concerned, it was a reminder to myself to mind my story/message balance, to fully flesh out my characters and their desires/conflicts, and to make every single word relevant to the work.

2 Replies to “What Not to Do”

  1. I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity to read “New York 2140,” as science fiction isn’t one of my favorite genres, but your general observations seem sound and on point about fiction of any kind: story, not message, must always drive a novel; characters must always be fully developed and real, unless they are deliberate caricatures. Dialogue, whether internal or not, needs to have the integrity of the characters who speak.

    And, yes, the publishing industry is a mess.

    But I’m puzzled by your repeated disclaimer that this is not a book review, that it is only your opinion, that you don’t want to criticize another author’s work. Your critique of the book is compelling enough to make even someone who is generally bored with sci-fi- a little curious, and I say don’t qualify it or hedge it. Isn’t every word of non-fiction we write “only” our opinion? It is the opinions of intelligent readers (and writers) that open up the world of books.

    1. I stated that because I was posting it in “Blog Posts” instead of “Reviews” and because though it includes a review, my purpose was more about what I saw in the book as instructional to me as a writer on what not to do. 🙂 I did tend to lean toward not dissing another writer’s work because I know first-hand how it can sting, and because as I said, he is a multi-best-selling author, so clearly he knows something I don’t. My opinion is based on classroom learning. His is based on nineteen published books. I tend to hedge because he is more of an expert than me; that said, I still didn’t like the book and wouldn’t try to finish reading it.

      As the one other review I quoted said, this writer is known for his utopian and massive ideas. Someone interested in a provocative read based on that premise might find something worthwhile in his work. Also, while the book was listed on a sci-fi list, I wouldn’t call it sci-fi myself. I saw one reviewer refer to it as “Fifi” (finance fiction) and/or “CliFi” (climate fiction?). The setting is a near future, and the city of New York is still recognizable, overall, which is apparently one of the draws for people who loved it.

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