Life Among the Obliterati, #10

Nick Mamatas

What's Interesting?

Since last time, we here at Life Among the Obliterati have experienced a few changes. We’re not freelancing anymore, not full time anyway, and are instead working at Viz Media, and are launching the first-ever science fiction imprint dedicated to work in translation. We also left the East Coast and have returned to the Bay Area, and ended a relationship that lasted just over two years. Pretty interesting, eh? Well, not really, because it is not expressed in an interesting way. And that’s our topic.

Jonathan Levy, the playwright, once told me something I’ve always remembered. Voltaire, after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, decided that he could no longer believe in God. Well, that wasn’t the thing I remembered. Okay, it is something I’ve remembered, but not the thing. It’s interesting, the Lisbon earthquake and its impact on Voltaire (and Portugal’s economic position in Europe and the New World, and on philosophy and earth science, etc.) but… so what?

The question, for playwrights, is how do you make something interesting interesting on stage?

Since coming out to California, I’ve seen two plays: one was Clive Barker’s The History of the Devil, a play he wrote before becoming a famous horror author, and the other was an adaptation of Gregory Lewis’s The Monk. Both were great challenges to put on – really, Devil is more like a feature film than a play, as it is international in scope and cosmic in time. There are flashbacks to the primitive people of the steppes, horrific ‘‘special effects’’ (described by actors peering up at the rafters), flights from England to Africa, and over the burning cities of Europe, a gear-powered automaton, and the physical ascent of Lucifer into heaven. The Monk, if anything, is even more difficult to put on the stage, as the novel involves a fair amount of interpersonal and intergenerational intrigue.

Both plays succeeded to an admirable extent with the presentation of spectacle without resources. In Devil, Lucifer did physically ascend into heaven, or at least into the catwalks, by walking on poles held across the shoulders of the other actors. It’s both functional and symbolic, and is used to its fullest effect. The other actors, once Lucifer’s foot had passed their pole, rushed ahead to the front of the line to create another step. Rather than just ‘‘half-steppin,’’’ the cast really puts themselves out and struggles physically to achieve an extended moment of Lucifer’s ascension.

The Monk had many of the same set pieces – the voice of the Virgin Mary is portrayed by every female member of the cast speaking in unison, with one actor held higher than the others as the ‘‘main’’ speaker. In other parts of the play, the acting carried the day. Following the novel, rather than showing a character discovering that the woman he freed from a castle is really the spectral Bleeding Nun, the audience listens to that character tell his story. That was interesting on stage thanks to the intimacy of the stage, and just happened be the inversion of that old saw, ‘‘show, don’t tell.’’ Of course, we were also shown the Bleeding Nun – a woman in a red mask and ratty veil, but again, the performance rather than the realism of costume and makeup effects made the spectacle interesting on stage.

The notion that being interesting is insufficient is directly relatable to writing science fiction and fantasy. Science is interesting. Horsemanship is interesting. The occult is interesting, as is warcraft, and diplomacy, and means of propulsion. How life might be like in the future is interesting, as is the pseudo-life of the undead. And yet, most books and stories about these things aren’t all that interesting. The intrinsic interest is sufficient for the author and often for a small sect of readers, but that’s it. There is not even all that much of an emphasis on making some topic interesting on the page, as the plays I discussed worked to make their stories interesting on the stage.

So, what is interesting on the page? Well, having an interesting character experience the interesting phenomenon, or depicting the action through interesting sentences or through the use of interesting typography works just fine. Unfortunately, characterization is something that is often considered a flaw ‘‘in excess’’ in SF, and certainly the sentence is not valorized at all in most genre fiction. Typography? Books like House of Leaves are genre outliers at best – so what if the book has sold 242,227 copies in trade paperback according to Bookscan (which generally only measures two-thirds of the sales a book garners these days).

Plays, especially the plays in the small theaters I’ve seen, need to be interesting. The lack of resources demands an interesting answer to the problem of depiction. Genre fiction, that is commercial fiction published by a number of New York houses, has no real resource problem. The disintegration of Saturn, for example, is much easier to depict on the page then on the stage. Thus, there is no need to make the disintegration of Saturn at all interesting. To be interesting is actually counterindicated in SF. The widespread allegiance to third-person limited narration, Boy’s Own Adventure plots, and ‘‘transparent prose’’ is handy if one is writing or publishing a lot of books each year. Sort of like Broadway – there’s almost no room to be interesting there. There’s too much money involved and too much at stake. So Broadway plays are often rewritten movies, with pop standard songs and stagecraft limited to lots of fog machines and mighty spotlights so the bridge-and-tunnelers will go ‘‘Ooh’’ as the beams seem to solidify over their heads.

The problem with the mass production of SF is that any given SF author is insufficiently interesting to get a large audience. More or less the only reason why a reader might be interested in the work of this or that midlist author is because the work is an instance of science fiction, or fantasy, or horror. It’s in the right section in the store, and the cover may be interesting. Despite being ‘‘popular’’ fiction, your bog average SF novel isn’t selling 242,227 copies or even remaining in print for eight years. Another quick example: according to Bookscan, the typographically challenging The Raw Shark Texts sold 26,343 copies in trade paper since April of 2008. (This is on top of 12,724 hardcovers sold since March of 2007). Also according to Bookscan, the bestselling novel by Charles Stross is the mass market paperback of Singularity Sky. It sold 26,806 copies since June of 2004, on top of 3,465 copies of the hardcover sold since August of 2003.

Now Stross is actually kinda interesting. I picked him because he does a good job at making his interesting ideas interesting on the page. He’s also an important, newer, author, much the way Steven Hall or Mark Danielewski are. And yes, The Raw Shark Texts was marketed differently, but of course it was marketed differently because it was different – it was qualitatively more interesting. (Interesting here does not necessarily mean a better read or a higher quality text.) However, because Stross is interested primarily in broad strokes commercial SF, and because his publishers are very interested in commercial SF, there is a limit to how interesting he can be, and what sort of breakout he can have. Authors can break out of SF though, if they just get interesting: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem sold 47,897 copies according to Bookscan, in hardcover, in two months.

Publishers benefit from homogenized product; it’s easy for them to edit, produce, and market. Individual authors, however, may just want to forget their dreams of making it big on the literary equivalent of the Great White Way. When it comes to the written word, being interesting on the page may just be not only an aesthetic imperative, but a financial one as well. Forget dressing like a hyena and being background in The Lion King; head to Off-Off-Off Broadway and see what’s shakin’ in the tiny theaters. There is where waits the stuff worth stealing. That’s where the interesting things are happening.

From Flytrap #10, November 2008.