Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Dialogue For Nerds

with 11 comments

Consider these two extracts from conversations between strangers from the prologue to The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod. The first takes place on a transcontinental flight:

‘I believe the Bible,’ said Campbell. ‘Which means I believe it about the Creation and the Flood, and the dates when these happened. I just think it presumptuous to look for evidence. We should take God’s word for it.’

‘And how do you explain the stars, millions of light years away?’
‘How do you know they’re millions of light years away?’
‘By measuring the parallax,’ the woman said.
‘Good,’ said Campbell. ‘Most people don’t even know that, they just believe it because they were told.’

The second takes place in a nightclub in Edinburgh:

‘Well, I don’t have a problem with it, as such,’ said Campbell. ‘Like I said, it’s nothing personal. But I’m certain God wouldn’t have forbidden it if it wasn’t somehow against nature. I don’t know why you have these impulses, but I’m sure you weren’t born with them.’ He frowned. ‘Were you ever made to wear girls’ clothes in childhood, or something like that?’

‘All right,’ said Jessica. ‘Don’t bother telling us about cross-dressing being an abomination, which is what you’d come down to at the end of all your rationalisations, and which I’d take seriously as a sincere motivation if you were just as down on prawn cocktails and cheese-and-ham sandwiches and you weren’t wearing polyester-mix socks. You told me earlier that you weren’t against queers specifically, you were just as much against everything that goes on here.’

This is simply painful. The conversations are unlikely enough but the locations make them even more ludicrous. MacLeod has often given the impression that as far as he is concerned every nexus of human interaction is, in fact a student common room or newsgroup waiting to happen but this is surely the nadir. It is not just the rejection of realism but the intellectual smugness of playing Devil’s advocate in this way – the solipsism of a contrarian – which so rankles.

There was much discussion after the release of this year’s Hugo shortlist and the possible impact that blogging had had on the Best Novel category. The finger was pointed at Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross and John Scalzi; MacLeod and this novel had less than a third of the nominations needed to secure a place on the shortlist but he does share some characteristics with Stross and Doctorow (if not Scalzi). Like Stross he has more ideas than he knows what to do with, like Doctorow his concerns overpower his prose. You might hope that his blog would allow him some outlet to safely bleed off this excess. Instead the opposite seems to have happened.

The structure of MacLeod’s novels has been fundamentally broken for some time now and is one of the reasons I promised myself The Execution Channel would be the last book of his that I read. He is an incredibly compelling writer but narrative has been replaced by a mere aggregation of ideas and opinions. I failed to keep that promise and I will persevere with this book but it is clear that he doesn’t have any interest in such basic niceties, the prologue of The Night Sessions suggests that the book is not a novel at all but simply the continuation of blogging by other means.

Written by Martin

21 September 2009 at 19:35

Posted in books, sf

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11 Responses

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  1. How does the dialogue in the rest of the book compare?

    Seriously, I’d really like to know at what point or after which book the structure of my novels became ‘fundamentally broken’.

    Ken MacLeod

    23 September 2009 at 21:05

  2. The student common room thing is true, but I don’t think it’s a problem per se. It’s like Aaron Sorkin’s fondness for arguments conducted whilst swaggering down office corridors.

    I actually think that seeing the world as a student-common-room-waiting-to-happen reflects a particular view of the world. One with deep roots in leftist intellectual culture. Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom presented leftist revolutionaries as killing fascists in the morning and arguing political philosophy in the evening. The same goes for Soderbergh’s Che… jungle warfare and the historical determinism that predicts the eventual triumph of the proletariat.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    23 September 2009 at 22:26

  3. I’m actually steaming through the book, you are always extremely readable. The dialogue is clever and fun but it is too clever and fun. It is the artificiality that winds me up (as in those extracts); everything is banter and when it isn’t – as with the interview of Connor Thomas – it is still too slick. Even when the banter might be appropriate it is still too much:

    ‘With respect, Adam,’ Mukhtar growled, ‘don’t talk shite.’
    ‘You have a point,’ said Ferguson

    This is comical but I’m not sure it is supposed to be.

    As for structure, well, I’ve had problems with most of the novels after the Fall Revolution quartet. I don’t think I ever recovered from the double whammy of Engines of Light and Learning The World. Even when the problems with the structure are clearly deliberate (as in The Execution Channel), I still can’t take it.


    23 September 2009 at 22:43

  4. Is ‘structure’ in this context something different from, say, how the chapters in Learning the World alternate between human and alien-space-bat POV? I ask because I always have a real struggle with plot, and I’m wondering if instead I shouldn’t be having a struggle with structure.

    Ken MacLeod

    24 September 2009 at 12:03

  5. I like the dual POV, what I mean is the initial focus on gentle worldbuilding which leads to a compressed second half of the novel and then an abrupt conclusion. So perhaps instead of structure, I mean pace but I see the two things as pretty tightly bound together. Either way it leaves Learning the World lopsided.

    Speaking of dual POV and structure, you deserve lavish praise for fixing Use of Weapons. It worked equally well for The Stone Canal (my favourite of your novels) and, if not quite as well for Reynolds, it still gave him his best novel. I don’t expect every novel to have such a formal structure but I’ve often thought your novels could do with a bit more balance.


    24 September 2009 at 13:57

  6. Ah, got it. You’re right.

    Ken MacLeod

    24 September 2009 at 15:26

  7. Interesting blog entry, I’ve not read this one yet as I didn’t like The Execution Channel (I’m in the camp that found the ending annoying, not the admittedly large camp that found it extremely clever) but I hadn’t encountered what I would call structural issues in MacLeod’s work. Admittedly though, I’m a bit behind the curve on some of the more recent releases.

    Learning the World, which I did enjoy, struggled for me only in that everyone was arguably a bit too nice (and I do think that’s a recurring problem). I rather liked however the abruptness of the conclusion, which seemed to me to undermine my genre expectations of where the novel was going in a way reminiscent of Silverberg’s The Stepsons of Terra (now that’s an abrupt and genre undermining ending, intentionally so).

    The alternating chapters I thought worked well, and if I recall correctly largely avoided the classic trap of leaving the reader artificially in suspence while another storyline was pursued for a bit (a practice that irritates me as a rule).

    Engines of Light is currently on my TBR pile still at home, The Night Sessions I admit I’m presently less tempted by.

    Max Cairnduff

    25 September 2009 at 13:18

  8. The Execution Channel gave me a lot of trouble. I wasn’t a fan of the structure of it either but at least it was intentional. Or, as a MacLeod character would put it, it was a feature, not a bug. Knowing this didn’t make the ending any more palateable though and this act of sleight of hand seemed symptomatic of the novel as a whole. Still, I got a lot of good arguing about politics on the internet out of it (something MacLeod would surely approve of).

    I’ve just finished The Night Sessions. As I said, it is highly readable. I just can’t get passed passages like this though:

    “Missed the memo. Glad to here all that. Consider me reassured. All the same, I bet they haven’t factored in fanatical suicidal religious robots.”

    “They have,” said Skulk. “And there was a movie about it. Bomb-disposal combat mech in the Faith Wars, becomes self-aware, captured by insurgents while pnodering the meaning of it all, yadda yadda, converted to Islam or at any rate to Islamism by its captors, years later gets work on a space elevator intending to accumulate explosives and blow it up… Return of the Jihadi. I’m surprised you haven’t seen it.”

    And Campbell turned out worse than I could have imagined.


    25 September 2009 at 19:58

  9. I use that phrase feature not a bug.

    Come to think of it, I’m a Scottish atheist with vaguely humanist tendencies.

    Bugger. I’m a Ken MacLeod character.

    Not the best quote, I admit, but you do say it’s highly readable, any thoughts on why that is given there are clearly a fair few passages you find indigestible?

    Max Cairnduff

    25 September 2009 at 22:09

  10. I’d phrase rather as since it is highly readable, why don’t I like it? There are two things. Firstly, there is the cumulative effect of so much slick, jokey writing. Secondly, this lack of realism makes the engagement with serious issues (religion, terrorism, etc) a bit distasteful.


    26 September 2009 at 09:14

  11. ‘How do you know they’re millions of light years away?’
    ‘By measuring the parallax,’ the woman said.

    That’s not right. With current telescopes the parallax method is only good for a few hundred light years. You need several more rungs on the distance ladder to get up to millions of light years.

    (Not a criticism of the book: it’s likely that neither of the characters is aware of this.)

    Gareth Rees

    31 January 2010 at 23:35

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