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Head Scratching

I just finished reading a science fiction novel by one of the eminent writers in the field.   I enjoyed the book (sort of), and I’ll probably read more in the series because now I have a sense of what’s at stake and what’s going on, but it’s maybe not the best structure model when I finally know what’s going on and what’s at stake around page 320 in a 423 page novel.

The author also made an interesting structural choice in the beginning of the book.   While I applauded the desire to move events forward quickly — I really don’t want to read a book where each day feels like a journal entry, — got up, ate gruel, killed some orcs, travelled — something for which I gather Jordan was notorious, I also need to get moored in the story by bonding with a character(s) fairly early in a book.

The novel in question opens with something going terribly, terribly wrong aboard a starship, and they end up way past their destination with no real way home because they’re lost.  They find an earth-like world and go into orbit.  So, for the first twenty or so pages I thought the story was about this navigator. 

But then we jump, and it’s 122 years later, and we have the first contact between the humans who have finally risked going down to the planet and the aliens.  This runs about 40 pages, and I think, okay, this book is about Ian and the alien building bridges between the two races.

But no.  The next section starts and it’s now 500 years after the opening scene, and now I meet the protagonist.

Again, I don’t necessarily think the impulse was wrong.  Obviously the story the author wanted to tell wasn’t about the first 500 years, but I keep wondering if there was a better way to execute this, and get me committed to the hero earlier on in the process.

The other problem is with the protagonist.  He is absolutely passive throughout this book.  He’s like left luggage, and not in the interesting way of Pratchett’s Luggage.  People just keep picking him up and taking him places, where he gets put upon by events.  He reads a lot and drinks a lot of tea, and rides alien horses.  The only thing he actually does is refuse to implicate someone when he’s being tortured.

Again, I’m not asking that every hero be the omni-competent protagonist of a Heinlein novel.  I fact I find that kind of hero boring in the extreme.  But you can end up going too far in the other direction with a character who is only reacting and never actually driving the action.  I almost fell into that trap with Richard, the protagonist of my EDGE books, but fortunately my writer’s group pulled me back from the brink.

To be fair there is one place that worked.  It was in the first Indiana Jones movie where, as Marv Wolfman pointed out, Indy never actually accomplishes anything.  he runs around a lot, but the only thing he does of any import is say, “Close you eyes, Marion.”  

So, now I’m going to go back to work on my two novel projects and make sure that both Richard and Linnet protag like crazy.

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