Somewhere around the mid-1980s, science fiction novels (less so short fiction) became filled with talk. I think this has to do with the appearance of word processing, but it also has something to do with the perceived desire of the reading public by publishers for longer, thicker novels–more for your money and all that. Perhaps this is due to the commercial success of Stephen King and Tom Chancy in the 70s and early 80s, but the fact is that novels that used to come in at around 80,000 words (the typical length for a Philip K. Dick or Poul Anderson novel) were now coming in at well over 100,000. And now, novels coming in at 200,000 words or more (i.e. the novels of Dan Simmons and Alastair Reynolds) are more the rage than ever. And there are few fantasy novels shorter than 150,000 anymore. I don’t think Terry Goodkind has it in him to write a short, condensed novel.

But what do we have in these novels that’s not in Ubik by Philip K. Dick or Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement or any one of the James Blish novels that make up his Cities in Flight series? Mostly they have talk in common: they are filled with characters who talk at length–sometimes for ten to twenty pages. They talk about religion (Orson Scott Card’s novels, especially Pastwatch); they talk about sex (Heinlein’s latter novels); they talk about science (John C. Wright’s latest novel, Count to a Trillion).

This is how these books stretch out to 600 to 1200 pages. Certainly people in real life don’t speak this way. This is a conceit that we allow ourselves as readers of science fiction: we tend to believe that sometime in the future or somewhere in the galaxy will be people who talk at length or lecture at length and their listeners will tolerate it (mostly because we, as readers, tolerate it). when I see a massive novel such as Simmon’s Ilium or Peter Hamilton’s tomes, I know that large parts of it will be simple talk. (In real life, if a five year-old came up to you, claiming to be a visionary, and started lecturing you on the “meaning of life” and you supposed relation to God, you’d pat him on the head and move on down the road. In science fiction, particularly Orson Scott Card, we’d pause and listen to what the youngster had to say, nod wisely, then become that child’s follower. You know the drill.)

Long science fiction books can succeed. The best of them have talk that’s interesting to read. I enjoyed Wright’s Count to a Trillion mostly because I could follow its simple plot and the science (a lot of razzle-dazzle about post-human evolution) wasn’t too abstruse. That’s a shout-out to the narrative control of the author. Nonetheless, I was raised on stand-alone novels (another blog entry will deal with this subject), novels that were short (150 to 250 pages in paperback format) and quite focused. Books of that length were an outgrowth of the pulp fiction publishing phenomenon where “whole novels” were published each week in the great pulp magazines of The Shadow, The Spider, and Doc Savage during the 30s and 40s. When paperbacks were invented in the late 40s, they kept to these shorter novels well into the late 70s when it all changed.

Before the 70s, though, the then best sellers were in mainstream fiction, led by the like of James Jones, Harold Robbins, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, James A. Mitchner, and scads of others who exploded with these massive novels–many were called “epic” in true Hollywood hyperbole–and probably got the reading public used to long narratives. Their paperbacks were often called “doorstoppers”.

Those novels though were filled with many, many characters, and none of them lectured for pages and pages. This is a phenomenon common almost solely to in the science fiction field. Imagine a western novel like this? (No, Lonesome Dove does not count: it’s full of characters and action and nobody lectures for pages.) Or a romance? Or a detective novel? Not hardly. Not even Dirk Pitt lectures in his books, as long as they are.

Science fiction is another story: It started with the chatty characters of Robert Heinlein’s novels, his Podkayne’s, his Lazurus Longs, and his Jubal Harshaw types (characters who persisted in one form or another throughout his career). Frank Herbert’s novels are also known for this trait as well, but in his case, there are exchanges between characters and each bit of dialogue is only a line or two. I’m talking about those novels after Herbert’s time where one character talks for pages with little or no interruption. Read Orson Scott Card closely. Read just about any author of any giant novel–or any science fiction novel–closely and see how long characters go on. They have to. There is otherwise so little action.

Then pick up an Elmore Leonard novel. His characters say what they need to say and the plot moves on. That’s it. Or read any movie script (get the script to Pulp Fiction) and you’ll see what I mean. I mentioned Pastwatch just a moment ago. It’s actually a fine novel, but it is mostly talk (or exposition that lasts for pages). But such is Card’s writing style that it makes for a pleasant reading experience. What action there is would fit a novel half its size. In fact, I think I’m the only person in the world who thinks Card’s best writing is in his short fiction. And I think that for exactly the reasons I’m talking about. When characters interact, say what needs to be said, and move along, the reader stays engaged.

Listening to someone preach or explain something for pages and pages is no fun. But it is the way of the publishing world now . . . until someone learns to write a science fiction novel in the manner of Elmore Leonard.

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  1. I guess Paul’s identified a previously unidentified SF trope: the Chatty Cathy Novel. Most writers are familiar with the “expository lump” in bad writing; I guess we SF types are guilty of the expository tumour. But if they’re well done, I don’t really mind.

    The other side of the coin–besides Elmore Leonard–was Robert B. Parker, who by the time of his death was apparently attempting to have as few words as possible in his books; consider his Westerns, his Spenser books, et al. He could tell a rousing story with little dialogue and less description; he established his characters over a series of books and I think expected the reader to remember.

    Hey, worked for me!

  2. It's worth noting that Scott's most successful novel (Ender's Game) isn't quite as long (100,000 words).

    I wonder what the average length of Leonard's novels is.

    1. I know that up until the mid-80s, most SF novels (with rare exception) game in at under 200 pages in paperback. About a decade ago I was wondering what was wrong with me; I typically polished off your average SF work in under a day – sometimes reading 3 in one day. Then I realized that the books themselves were two, three, four times the length that they used to be.
      On the other hand I did a word count study a couple of years ago and discovered that the older paperbacks generally had tighter spacing – more lines per page and more words per line. So what's up with that? Spreading the words out to take up more space seems sheer idiocy with the cost of shipping and paper and inks being what it is today….

      1. It may just be a personal preference, but I don't enjoy reading fine print. I'm one of a group of people that just won't buy books that prove to be hard on the eyes (yes…I'm getting old and read so much that I really need larger fonts).

        It's also possible, when I compare books of different lengths, that I feel a little cheated in paying the same price for a new book that's half, or even a third, the size of a lengthy tome.

        It's true that myself, and many of my friends, prefer to complete a book on a weekend, rather than read it intermittently for a few hours every night. And laying back on the bed with a hardcopy is the most pleasuable way to read.

        Hunching over a screen demands a shorter time frame, so overall, a longer hardcopy book with larger fonts will win out every time over any short book I have to read on a screen…

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