Author Quirks

February 27, 2013

Some authors have characteristic subjects that they return to again and again. I’m not talking about a writer’s distinctive stylistic voice, but rather the topics they choose to cover. In any narrative, some elements of the world are going to be picked out, given the most elaborate descriptions, subjected to the tightest scrutiny. There are not selected at random. Sometimes, events and objects get special attention because they are important to the development of the plot. Other times, they are more a product of the author’s particular personal interests.

Actually, “interests” may be the wrong word. The choice of which elements get more attention and elaboration may have less to do with what a writer finds of interest, and more to do with what the author thinks they can make particularly evocative. For no reason that I’m consciously aware of, I often start stories with people inspecting evidence of injury or death. A typical piece of my juvenilia began, “There was blood on his hands when he looked at them,” and my foremost heroine, Lyka Kaller, is introduced when she stops to inspect a man’s corpse, lying face-up in a dingy alley. Death and injury strike me as a dynamic way to start a story, but I don’t think I’ve ever had that thought explicitly in mind as I first put my pen to paper. The topics that are most characteristic of my writing just tend to show up, unless I make a specific effort to debar them from a particular narrative.

I wonder how much more successful science fiction and fantasy authors address this question. In some cases, the topical quirks are so central to an author’s style, that it would seem pointless (and, many fans would no doubt say, counterproductive) to try to avoid them. I can’t imagine Jack Vance sitting down to write a space opera that didn’t feature an array of unusual fictional cultures. I can, however, imagine him deciding before beginning a new work whether he was going to provide an overall explanation for why such cultures should exist (as in The Five Gold Bands or The Dragon Masters), or whether he was simply going to let loose with whatever weird ideas struck him—no overarching back story required.

On the other hand, Isaac Asimov was obsessed with robots, but he was fully capable of not writing about them. Roger Zelazny was willing to deviate from his basic “macho hero, macho heroine” (as I once heard it put) form. However, when either of these writers produced extended series, they tended to veer back into the direction of their characteristic tropes after a book or two. This may mean that they were running out of the more original ideas that made the first couple volumes of the series atypical. Or they may have been responding to their fans; after all, an author’s most die-hard fans are likely to be the people who are most entranced by that writer’s particular preferred subject matter. Frankly, while I have great admiration for all the authors I’ve mentioned here, I also think they’re all at their best when they deviate from their typical formulas. As a reader, I think what I like best in fiction is variety.


2 Responses to “Author Quirks”

  1. Diapadion Says:

    What would a Space Opera be /without/ bizarre alien cultures? It seems like the only other direction to turn is to robots, ala Berserker and Battlestar Galactica. And even in Berserker, Saberhagen manages to incorporate quite a few strange cultures through a variety of means. I think in the case of Vance, he’s writing Space Operas because the genre allow him to work with alien cultures; which are, I believe his “interests”.

    • Buzz Says:

      I don’t think exotic human cultures are a requirement of “space opera.” Of course, “space opera” is a rather vague term, often (and originally) considered pejorative. I personally associate it with a number of traits: extraterrestrial settings, melodrama, and soft science—in that order of importance. Contrasting types of science fiction include the very hard and very military genres, but the boundaries are not always so clean. I would not consider Ringworld to be space opera, but The Ringworld Engineers sure feels like it is.

      Typically, the drama of space opera can come from weird cultures, or weird aliens (who may be weird physically and/or culturally), or fairly conventional human conflicts that have been relocated into outer space. There are also works where the dramatic atmosphere comes from the reader (and probably the main character) having simply no clue what is going on in the universe, and no understanding of what is driving the plot events.

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