I’m having trouble getting into the (sort of) second Dragonriders of Pern book, Dragonquest. I loved Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong, caught up by the protagonist’s heartsore struggle to express her creativity in a world of martial law. In dire threat of the biological terror of Threadfall on the colony planet of Pern, severe gender roles have evolved out of a necessity for safety. Menolly has an unusual musical ability, which has been encouraged by the Harpmaster of her community. When her father, a leader, takes away the hope she has to use music in her work, she escapes from their stronghold just as Threadfall strikes. In desperate need for survival, using her keen intellect and creativity, Menolly discovers the dragons that are the one hope for a beleaguered world.
I loved the energy of Menolly’s character set against the restrictive structures of her community. Salvation for Menolly was salvation for Pern, including the discovery that her father’s strengths and power in leadership also created weaknesses and vulnerabilities for a community perpetually on the brink of disaster.
Loved it–especially as it fed my fascination with early women SF writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, Madeleine L’Engle, and (a bit later), Margaret Atwood. (I know I’m missing Diana Wynne Jones and Marion Zimmer Bradley, but I wasn’t struck by Howl’s Moving Castle or Mists of Avalon so never went back to their earlier work).
Honestly, though, Dragonquest is painful to read. It began with 8 to 10 pages of background information, filled with technical terms and names I’ve never heard of. Honestly, it left me both cold and confused. Then the book itself begins with the reminiscences of a storyteller, trying to retell the same history but using the particular viewpoint of a character I don’t know well enough to care about. Then the perspective switches again and I think I’m going to get more inner dialogue about the state of this beleagured world.
Frankly, Anne McCaffrey has buried me in infodump.
This little experiment of reading a good writer in a series I like brings to mind what for me is an absolutely essential rule of reading speculative fiction:
I only care about the world because I care about the characters.
This might seem like a strange statement to some fans of the fantastic. After all, isn’t science fiction and fantasy all about the “world?” Aren’t we reading because we love the fictional worlds of Pern and Dune or the imaginary lands of Middle-earth and Narnia?
Look, I love these lands–what I call the “speculative cosmography” of a book. I am fascinated that the mindscape of readers is one where Oz is North of Middle-earth, where Ringworld and Dracula sit on the same shelf as Dante’s Divine Comedy and a whole bunch of books set in and around Mars. Middle-earth is the richest world I know, and I would sell all I own for one moment in Narnia. You just have to say “cupboard” and I am immediately transported to the complex and beautiful world of Harry Potter. We don’t want to see all the worlds we read about–I talk about the Mythogenic Principle here–but I am deeply moved by the depth and beauty of some of the best speculative cosmographies that I read.
No matter how fantastic your fantasy world is, though, I will never find out unless I am won by your characters.
If I pick up a book and the book is really about the book-world and not about a story, I am likely to set it down. We live in an era of reading where the emotional plotline of the characters is one of the most significant driving features of the narrative plotline. If our characters don’t change, we have failed as writers. Even before this era–thinking of Beowulf, Homer, Dante, and Bunyan–some of my favourite old stories are progresses, travelogues, where the character grows in the journeying.
Now, I have no doubt that if I continue to read Dragonquest that I will enjoy her prose style and get into the story. The reason I’m setting the book down is that Anne McCaffrey is in love with the book-world, the speculative cosmography. Heterocosmica, however, is only ever the context for a story. Stories are about people, and the world Bible should be almost invisible to the reader.
This tendency to infodump is in most of us, and is in tension with another rule of fantasy writing: will your readers know what kind of book they are reading within the first few pages of reading? Honestly, I’m struggling at this point with a manuscript. It begins with a dark scene of the child’s birth, a prologue that sets up the character relationships and the “engine” of my fictional world. Yet I have never been satisfied. It took a writing group to help me see that it is my protagonist, the hero, who we want to see first. The book is a story of contrasts, and it is through the light of her character that we come to understand the darkness of her world.
In rewriting this beginning, however, I now no longer satisfy those who require that we know the genre in the first few minutes of reading. I may still be able to fix that in a clever way–think of how Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone begins with a daytime owl and a cat reading a map, but set in the context of the Dursley’s home. While I think readers have some tolerance for doubt about genre in this genre-bending age, there is no forgiveness for the sin of infodump.
So with respect to one of the greats, I’m setting Anne McCaffrey aside. I will pick up the Pern books on another day. Right now, there are far too many good books for me to read to continue spending time on infodump.