SPOILERS (…sort of…)
Recently I finished reading Anne Leckie’s Ancillary series. It was one of the biggest letdowns I have ever encountered in science fiction. Scratch that – the biggest.
Imagine it is 1977 and you have just seen the first Star Wars movie. And you go to see the second movie. Except you are not in our timeline. No, you are in the shrinking universe timeline where science fiction writers reduce the scale of subsequent stories in a series. They can start as wide as they want, but the rule (or expectation) is you have to whittle it down and reduce the scope and locale of the original story.
This would require some significant rewrite to follow the rules of this mundane timeline.
So imagine Han, Leia, Chewbacca & Co (and Luke, we can’t have more than one locale, that might give the impression of SPACE, so forget the Jedi training and all that, he’ll do a couple of things but nothing associated with the abilities teased in the original), arrive at Cloud City Bespin at the end of the first Star Wars movie. Let’s say that they destroyed the Death Star, but there is, in its place, the Empire’s Armada advancing towards them. So they bail to Lando’s mining operation.
Darth Vader is not there yet. He’ll show up near the end of the third movie, not get hurt and remain in power. We don’t want a definite ending structure here.
So, they all arrive at Bespin. But, it appears Lando is not such a good administrator – not such a “nice” guy to the downtrodden, the underprivileged, the poor of the Cloud City. So, the entire rest of the second movie is spent on discussions (over tea, everyone loves tea) about the poor conditions in some substation of the city. There will be some mild unrest and a few tears. Someone will die, but someone we really don’t know, but one of our main characters will go into mourning over it “because” and we will spend time in tea and discussion.
There is, at the periphery, a possible threat by a third party, a mysterious and deadly race, that never materializes, not in the second film nor in the third. Although a quirky representative from this mysterious race does show up to drink tea, make odd comments, and enjoy the food of your race. His – her? role is merely to prove that you can’t expect a weapon that he made and gave to you to actually work on him when you turn on him. Probably the only thing that makes sense after two thirds of a story that grounds, as if by design, to a complete slumbering halt.
Now it does happen that Darth Vader has some responsibility for the conditions of the poor on Bespin (there is no wider conflict by the time you are in the third film in this timeline). There is a stand off where Vader is set to whoop everyone’s ass and the good guys are in a pickle. But Vader tries to use his lightsaber on the mysterious race guy that manufactures them, it has no effect because the mysterious alien race are the only ones not stupid, the good guys manage to get out of their pickle, and Vader agrees to not be such a dick to the poor on Bespin.
Remember everything that was in the original Star Wars is there, the Galactic Empire, the Rebellion, the Force, Luke’s powers, the vastness of the conflict, the might and oppression of the Empire. All of it – ignored for some six hundred pages about crappy administration on some tiny speck of a space station orbiting some planet in some far off portion of a galaxy.
Now you know the experience of reading the Ancillary series by Anne Leckie.
The first book promised so much. I am not exaggerating when I say the second and third books are tea and crumpets and civil administration on some insignificant space station. A galactic tyrant was supposed to go down. That was the promise delivered in the first book. That not delivered on, and the scope delivered in the first book was reversed as far as can be done in science fiction in subsequent installments.
I haven’t been this disappointed since Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And that thing stunk!
Luckily, after this mundane journey, I knew I had an author up my sleeve that would not disappoint. An author that is the exact opposite of what I described above. John C. Wright, and the book was (is – I still have 120 pages to go) The Architect of Aeons – the fourth installment to his Eschaton series – I think that is the name for the series. If not, I deem it so!
It can be said that Mr. Wright goes not only in the opposite direction of Leckie, but sometimes a tad too far. Meaning he stretches the scope each installment so far that a little too much of this book is info-dump. But, otoh, to be fair, his series is so out there, so far reaching, if he had to show all of this in action, it would require twenty, thick, volumes.
And it is really so dense that reading it with the publishing gaps (and I had to wait some months on top of that) makes it somewhat hard to hold on to all the details from book to book. Luckily in those info-dumps you get a pretty good recap.
I believe Mr. Wright’s series, if I remember him saying aright, is supposed to go to the heat death of the universe, the end of time. That is a place he has taken his readers before. He is one of the few modern science fiction authors who can.
But the point is this. He knows the pattern of how a science fiction (and really any multi- part work) tale is supposed to progress. The scope doesn’t have to go to the end of time, it doesn’t have to stretch for thousands of light-years in distance. But whatever you start with, it cannot shrink. You cannot promise galactic war, and end up talking about ventilation on some sub-section on some remote space station.
And you have to have an ending. You can have an ambiguous ending. But no ending is not an ending. Leckie actually had her first person protagonist narrate on the last page that there were no endings. Well that’s great if there are two or three books still coming. However, even if there were, I wouldn’t be reading them. If I want a bunch of women (I’m pretty sure they were all women, or men with excess estrogen in their blood) drinking tea and gossiping about who likes who and other such dull trivia on relationships, I can read Jane Eyre or something from England where they sit around with their fancy umbrellas – you know that boring shit they’re always showing on PBS! My wife love those things, I don’t get it.
In fact if that is what you are going to do, it would be better to not be in a science fiction setting because that just gets in the way. I shouldn’t have to take the extra time to here some technicality about your ship or your command hierarchy or other minuet of science fictioning if it is not integral to the story. If 90 plus percent of your story can take place at the Winsdore residence at Debynshire (and you really do have all the elements necessary there) keep it there.
Back to Mr. Wright. Another thing you want to do is to expand and deny the expectations of the reader. I am not giving anything away here, but this installment in particular is all about slashing away what you thought you knew and then expanding the story. It is, actually, veil lifting. It is all a skillful magician’s trick. “Here, look at this, this is what this is… No! it is this!”
Countless times in Aeons I have said, “holy crap!” to some revelation, to something I thought was one way, but I was as blind as the character Mr. Wright blindfolded.
And I laughed. I didn’t laugh once in Ancillary. Not once.
Thank goodness there are still men (men, LeGuin and Willis are still around, right?) out there that know how to write science fiction! That reminds me, what the hell is Vernor Vinge doing these days?