cw: some sexual content
I have come again to read one of the books gifted to me on the most recent anniversary of my birth by my lover, and I again, alas alas alas must plead discontent.
Out of Time is a pulp sci-fi novel by James P Hogan, who – his bio tells me – won many awards and accolades and was considered good at his job. Great, James, Jimmy, but the credentials displayed do not translate into any kind of literary competence.
The reason why my lover bought me this novel is because I (shamefully) enjoy time travel fiction, as I’ve discussed here before. I explicitly like time travel when/where the novel (or TV show or film or whatever) is central to the plot. Not where it is central to the setting or the context, but where it is the plot.
I absolutely hate (this isn’t true, I don’t mean “hate” I mean “am not excited by” but the passion of implied hatred makes for a more emotive and thus engaging (maybe) blog post) time travel narratives where someone travels to a different time period for an adventure in the same way that I, for example, go on a minibreak for an adventure (at least I used to, in the before COVID times, when travel was a possible/responsible thing to do).
I suppose what my personal reading of sci fi/fantasy comes down to is this: I think setting narratives in a non-realist world exhibits a paucity of imagination, rather than a glut; removing the constraints of reality makes writing easier, rather than harder.
Evocative world building is obviously difficult and complex and I doubt I could do it.
Actually, let’s caveat that: I doubt I could do it WELL. Let’s try:
there was a planet with four moons, two made of ice, one made of rock and one a hollow wooden ball with a glow in the centre, the planet was mostly desert with a few areas of lush rainforest, each populated by distinct but non-warring tribes of six legged intelligent mammalian creatures that are divided only by their divergent moon cults and the story is a gentle coming-of-age narrative about a hexipedal mammal character whose family worship the hollow wooden moon and they live on the edge of a city and the dad carves statues for the aristocracy/ruling elite for a living and the mother is an accountant having a doomed affair with one of her husband’s clients and the child learns of the fallibility of their parents and the nuances, inconsistencies, disappointments and great pleasures that can be found in romantic and sexual love
See. Fucking easy (to do not well).
Anyway, imo setting a narrative in a non-realist world only works when the emotive/narrative power/resonance is rooted in the context to the point where a reader forgets the clear falsity of the text and is able to hone in on its people, on their emotional journeys etc.
An imaginary odyssey means nothing if it fails to translate into an emotional one.
Does that make sense? No, probably not.
What i mean, I suppose, is that the overwhelming majority of genre writing is written by shit writers who make up silly things because they’re unable to make up meaningful things. Ursula le Guin, NK Jemisin, Octavia Butler – the genre writers whose work I’ve enjoyed enough in the past couple of years to read more by – feel/felt to me like they chose to use fantastical devices because they wanted to, rather than because they had to.
It is how Sparrowhawk feels about the rise and then decline of his powers that keeps the Earthsea cycle engaging, not what he does with those powers. Similarly, in the Broken Earth Trilogy it wasn’t what happened to the moon and who did it that made me tear through those three books within a couple of months, it was Jemisin’s characters and their interrelations WHILE fighting over the fate of the moon (or whatever) that made me tear through those three books within a couple of months.
But time travel (and maybe vampires) is the non realistic trope I can enjoy by itself, if plotted well.
Plot, obviously, is to literature what frottage is to a fulfilling adult sex life (yes, it’s fun while it’s happening but really something best grown out of), but doing my best to be non-judgemental, even towards my splintered inconsistent self, sometimes I let myself try to enjoy something that I know, deep down, is a less satisfying thing that’s no simpler to access than the more satisfying one.
What i mean by this is that I’m literate, so it is the same labour to read the (terrible) Out of Time as it is to read the excellent (and very real) Night Boat to Tangier/The Golden Notebook/The Lying Life of Adults etc, just as by the time you’re in your thirties if someone is willing to rub your genitals through your clothes until you come, they’d almost certainly be willing to enjoy more intimate pleasures.
Out of Time is a short novel with zero characterisation and very very dated phonetically-written accents.
The plot is that inter-dimensional insects are eating time in New York City but this doesn’t have any repercussions other than being annoying, until they realise the bugs eat time and excrete…. space, putting holes in many buildings.
A 50-something single detective (incorrectly not labelled as a sad loser) and his friend, a priest and former epidemiologist, solve everything by copying the Pied Piper of Hamelin and making a freighter with all the most delicious (?) time on it, luring the bugs across and then sailing and sinking the ship in the mid Atlantic. Everything ends happily, with seemingly no societal shocks caused by the revelation that the real world as we know it is a fiction. This is, for me, an unforgivable failure of any fantastical disaster text, and why The Leftovers remains one of my favourite non-straightforward narratives. That TV show is not about “how the world is different from how it seemed before”, but about the fact that our reality has become inarguably unknowable, and how humanity tries (and mostly, to varying degrees, fails) to come to terms with this.
Out of Time fails to do this, as it fails to excite, intrigue or evoke an emotional response.
With the massive stack of contemporary, modern and old old old literature I have stacked on every surface (bar the kitchen worktop and the floor) in the tiny flat in which i sleep, I have the metaphorical offer of hundreds of types of first class lovemaking, and instead of a potential dream shag, I chose the option of being rubbed off through a pair of Uniqlo jeans and, with Out of Time, I didn’t even come.
I guess they call them pulp novels… because they deserve to be pulped.
Send free money to Scott Manley Hadley.