Novels that turn on scientific or technical breakthroughs

Spoilers ahead.

Andy Weir’s novel Artemis and Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder are different in many ways, but apart from being excellent they both share an unusual point: their plots are driven by technological breakthroughs. In Artemis, the breakthrough is a zero attenuation fiber optic cable; the acronym ZAFO appears early in the novel and remains opaque until about halfway through. The “Artemis” of the title refers to a near-future moon base that is in economic trouble: there is little economic reason for humans to inhabit the moon apart from tourism, which is insufficient to sustain the base. The novel posits, however, that a technical breakthrough could lead to a massive new industry. The moon base’s administrator says:

Just imagine what a revelation that was for O Palácio [a Brazilian crime syndicate or mafia group]. All of a sudden, their insignificant money-laundering company was poised to corner an emerging billion-dollar industry. From that point on, they were all in. But Artemis is very far away from Brazil, and they had only one enforcer on site, thank God.

This passage is characteristic of the novel in another way: it’s not very attentive to language. Perhaps the character speaking would say “All of a sudden,” instead of the correct “All of the sudden.” Artemis has a lot of the bad language habits that MFA programs, whatever their flaws, tend to help writers avoid or ameliorate.

In State of Wonder, Marina Singh goes deep into the Amazon jungle to find her former supervisor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is continuing her own mentor’s research into a tribal group where the women have extended fertility. At the same time, Swenson is seeking an anti-malaria drug that may stem from the same source.

I’m trying to think of other novels that have a technical breakthrough at their core. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is one (the data haven at the end likely qualifies as a technical breakthrough). Yet I can think of few others. If you know any, please leave pointers in the comments. Perhaps more novelists should be thinking about how technological or scientific breakthroughs might power the plots of novels. Alternately, perhaps more novels do this than I realize, and I don’t have a good sense of other, similar novels that have been published.

Ian McEwan’s Solar is another one.

I can’t recall any 18th or 19th century novels that turn on technical breakthroughs.

Why we like characters who battle institutions

David Brin’s “Our Favorite Cliché: A World Filled With Idiots… or Why Film and Fiction Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools” is great, and you should read it. He observes that novels, TV shows, and movies routinely depict heroic individuals standing up to corrupt or evil institutions or organizations. This tendency is “a reflex shared by left and right” to associate villainy with organization. Moreover, “Even when they aren’t portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted.” Brin notes some exceptions (Contagion is another, and the link goes to an article titled “Bureaucratic Heroism”), but those exceptions are exceptionally exceptional.

Nonetheless, I’d like to posit a reason why institutions and organizations are often portrayed as evil: they behave in ways that are evil enough with shocking regularity, and few of us have the means or fortitude to resist broken, evil, or corrupt institutions. The most obvious and salient example, much taught in schools, is Nazi Germany; while some individuals fought against the state murder apparatus, the vast majority went along with it, leading pretty much everyone who learned afterwards about the Holocaust to ask, “What would I do in that situation?” Most of us want to think we’d be heroic resisters, but the push to conform is strong—as the Milgram Experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s research shows. The Soviet Union murdered tens of millions of its own citizens.

Other examples exist closer to home: the Civil Rights movement fought corrupt institutions in the U.S. All the President’s Men exposed criminal actions, cruelty, and simple mendacity at the heart of the White House. The Vietnma War got started based on the invented Gulf of Tonkin. More recently, the Bush Administration made up evidence (or incompetently accepted made-up evidence) to justify the Iraq War. On a smaller basis, many of us have gotten caught in various nasty government bureaucracies in schools, universities, or elsewhere. Here’s one example from Megan McArdle’s struggles with the DMV.

Brin observes:

Now imagine that your typical film director ever found herself in real trouble, or the novelist fell afoul of deadly peril. What would they do? They would dial 9-1-1! They’d call for help and expect — demand — swift-competent intervention by skilled professionals who are tax-paid, to deal with urgent matters skillfully and well.

He’s right. I called the cops when a random asshole pounded on my door and threatened to kill me. They did show up (albeit later than I would’ve hoped!) and did arrest the guy. I’m grateful to them and for the police in that circumstance. But a lot of us are less grateful to cops, as reading Alice Goffman’s amazing book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Police as an institution have largely failed inner cities. Ask black people about their interactions with the police, and you’ll get a very different view of police than that of many white Americans.

So we may be getting stories of (exaggerated) institutional incompetence both due to history and due to everyday experience with institutions that (sometimes) don’t work well. Nonetheless it’s worthwhile for those of us who write stories to contemplate the truth of Brin’s observations about cliché on the level of plot, because we should try to be aware of our own dependence on cliché and to break that dependence whenever possible.

What makes interesting fiction: Stephenson edition

In his Salon interview,* Neal Stephenson says this about “the broader vision of what science fiction is about:”

[Science] Fiction [is fiction] that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.

The implied vacuousness of “arty lit” is clear and, more depressingly, accurate. It’s something a lot of people who like to read but who don’t care much for a lot of contemporary lit fic feel but don’t always articulate. It’s a tendency I’ve been been noticing in one form or another for years. It helps to account for why nonfiction may be winning the perceived quality race. A lot of highly praised fiction is, at bottom, boring, and about boring people.

Many self-consciously literary novelists and critics don’t seem to mind. So lit-fic books accumulate blurbs that make them sound like the next coming of Shakespeare when they’re actually about dull people leading dull lives, but with interesting language that is supposed to elevate dull people above their surroundings. Sometimes this works (Raymond Carver, Ulysses). More often it doesn’t, or, even if it works, who cares? Murder mysteries are popular for many reasons, but one may be that there’s automatically at stake. Per Megan McArdle:

Eventually I decided the truth is this: We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter — and can be shown to matter, dramatically”).

Science fiction also tends to focus on encounters with aliens, threats to the human race, jarring technology changes, and so forth. The stakes are high. Literary fiction writers might want to take some cues from Stephenson and, strangely enough, TV.**


* Collected in Some Remarks, which is a way of collecting previously published pieces in one convenient place and turning them into money.

** Stephenson is also fond of novels with plot:

What I’m doing here is writing novels, and novels — never mind what anyone else might tell you — novels are pop entertainment, and they have to tell a story and they have to engage the emotions. There are a few basic tricks they use to do that. One is to tell a good yarn and the other is to make you feel empathy for the characters involved in the doings of that yarn, but you’ve got to have that yarn. That’s what I seize on first. That’s what gives me confidence that I’ve got a pony I can ride. Characters tend to come out of that, and ideas — I don’t know where they come from. The yarn that got me going on “Quicksilver” was Newton pursuing and prosecuting an archvillain in London at the same time as the dispute with Leibniz is at its peak.

Links: Fiction and plot, false rape accusations, group sex and politics, and more!

* “Nothing Happens, Deliberately: Why Necessary Errors feels like a new model for contemporary fiction.” I would draw the opposite conclusion: Necessary Errors is how not to do fiction, or at least fiction a writer wants anyone else to read.

* “The ‘Shadow Resume’: A Career Tip for Grad Students,” which is yet another version of “Don’t go to grad school.”

* Woman hilariously posts a rape threat to herself, reports it, is shocked to find her IP traced.

* “Sexy spring: How group sex will liberate Iran, China;” I am dubious of the political slant but liked Plays Well In Groups, from which this was excerpted.

* Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea To Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, And Tenure-Less Historians.

* Possibly related to the above: “Technopessimism Is Bunk” by Joel Mokyr of The Enlightened Economy fame. I would note that his claims and Cowen’s claims in The Great Stagnation are not incompatible, and Cowen is not a long-term pessimist (the last part of his book’s title is “Will (Eventually) Feel Better”). In addition, I’m struck by how backwards many practices in my own small corner of the academic universe, English lit, feel, from a relentless focus on printed and overpriced books to printed (and unread) journals to the need to include the city of publication in bibliographic citations. I’ve heard older professors talk about their adventures in tracking down materials in libraries and am puzzled: it’s never been hard for me to find a book, and the age of Amazon and Google books is making it easier, not harder. The real challenges are legal (indefinite copyright) and cultural (disdain for blogs, etc.) .

* “In Vancouver, Traffic Decreases as Population Rises.”

Warning: Don’t buy James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish)

I bought Plot & Structure because the issue of how a novel’s narrative moves seems to be understudied by academics, who tend to produce jargon-laden, overly analytical nonsense, and by novelists themselves. I’d really like an equivalent of How Fiction Works, but for an important matter that James Wood disdains (“the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot”). My ideal book would, as Wood says, ask “a critic’s questions and [offer] a writer’s answers.”

Unfortunately, Bell asks few questions and offers fewer answers. This is frustrating to me because, when I started writing, plot was a major weakness. The first two novels I actually wrote to completion had no real plots and thus weren’t very good novels (my Dad pointed out the former and let me infer the latter). Since then I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about plot, and being dissatisfied that I’ve never seen it addressed well elsewhere. Self-consciously literary writers and critics tend to discount it (as Wood does), sometimes to the detriment of their own work.

Genre writers tend to understand plot but either aren’t known to me, critically speaking, or write so poorly on a sentence-by-sentence level that their work isn’t interesting. To me, the best novels combine plot/story and language in a single, cohesive package. That, however, is difficult to do, and the difficulty may explain why we see so many arid academic-feeling novels about, oh, I don’t know, language and pure consciousness and What It Means To Be Alive Today, while so many genre novels with ticking bombs and handsome heroes and buxom heroines who put out surprisingly easily and simple words laid out in simple ways that won’t confuse anyone.

Not only is this dearth annoying because of my own flaws, but because I can’t point aspiring writers to a particular book and say, “Read this.” I can talk about some of my own techniques—I’ve written plot outlines for a number of books I admire, like an artist tracing his favorite paintings in order to imbibe their spirit and technique. With scenes, I’ve learned to ask what each character wants, what stands in his or her way, and why he or she is doing to overcome that barrier. I don’t always have answers—the characters often don’t have them, either—but at least asking the questions provides some structure to what might otherwise be a misaligned mess.

One can’t, of course, separate plot from character, setting, narrating, and other technical features in a novel. It would be stupid to try. But plot is a great blindspot in Wood’s criticism, and it’s a blind spot I aspire to see, or to see someone else seeing.

Bell, however, is blind.

July 2011 links: Internet privacy, plot, Charlie Stross, Academia, typos, and more

* Has plot driven out other kinds of story? The market’s stress on keeping stories moving means we’re in danger of losing some truer fictions. If anything, it seems like the opposite to me.

* The Legislation That Could Kill Internet Privacy for Good.

* The only way to know how good you might be at something is to fail trying it. This is one reason I keep writing fiction: I do not wish to be 40, look back, and wonder why I didn’t try. Really try, which is much different than most people’s definition of “try.”

* Academic English Is Not a Club I Want to Join; may be behind a paywall.

* Charlie Stross, interesting as usual:

In the period 1997-2010, in the UK, Parliament created an average of one new criminal offence for every day the House of Commons was in session. I asked a couple of legal experts how many actual chargeable offences there were in the English legal system; they couldn’t give an exact answer but suggested somewhere in the range 5,000-20,000. The situation in the USA is much, much worse, with different state and federal legal systems and combinations of felonies; the true number of chargeable felonies may be over a million, and this situation is augmented by a tax code so large that no single human being can be familiar with all of it (but failure to comply is of course illegal).

Now, most of the time most of these laws don’t affect most of us. But there’s a key principle of law, that ignorance is no defence: I’m willing to bet that most human beings are guilty of one or more crimes, be it smoking a joint or speeding or forgetting to declare earnings or failing to file the paperwork for some sort of permit we don’t even know exists. We are all potentially criminals.

* He Sexts, She Sexts More, Report Says, this from the NYT.

* Why I will never pursue cheating again, which resonates too much with me and explains a lot of what’s wrong with contemporary school culture, which is itself a reflection of larger cultural forces.

* From a Scrivener case study: “Like serial killers (whom they in many ways resemble) writers tend to fall into one of two broad camps – organised and disorganised. Although I try not to, I work in a spectacularly disarranged manner. I keep a lot in my head, and in my head it kind of makes sense, in a hazy and optimistic way. But during the actual composition I’m all over the place.”

I tend towards disorganized, with the American spelling.

From an interview with Neil Cross.

* The Price of Typos, which also includes the “price” of their removal.

* How Cisco’s “unmitigated gall” derailed one man’s life.

More books I don't want to read: Theodor Fontane and Teju Cole

The New Yorker has been running a lot of reviews that describe novels I don’t want to read. The latest: Theodor Fontane’s work, which Daniel Mendelsohn describes this way:

The topography of his plots is admittedly as flat and monotonous as the notoriously bland landscape of his Prussian homeland, Brandenburg (about which he lovingly wrote in a multivolume work). Most of “Cécile” is devoted to the excursions and the chitchat of those hapless tourists; there’s some gossiping, a halfhearted flirtation, and then everyone goes home to Berlin.

“Flat and monotonous” plots? The “excursions and the chitchat of [. . .] hapless tourists?” Give me the latest thriller about mindless warfare and assassination. Or about fast-talking urbanites and their tedious sexual lives. Or anything. Elsewhere, Mendelsohn says, “Even Fontane’s characters are plagued by a certain anxiety about having nothing very exciting to talk about.” That’s enough of a problem in real life, thanks: give me escapism!

Or there’s Teju Cole’s novel Open City, as described by James Wood:

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing).

“A single, unbroken paragraph,” limited conversation (which means we’re stuck in someone’s mind), the lack, again of, “event or contrivance,” as if those are bad things, the mark of a second-rate artist who wants to see how people interact with more than themselves and how they respond to adverse events, like the kinds that sometimes happen in life.

I realize Wood doesn’t like plot: in How Fiction Works, he quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to keep interest and then says, “But the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” I don’t think that’s good or that plot is essentially juvenile and tend to like novels in which the proverbial “something happens” and tend to dislike the ones that feel more like philosophy plus characters.

%d bloggers like this: