Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Year in Books: Burying the Lede

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. The Lovely Bride thinks that this was because I was too lazy to shelve, but I had REASONS for this behavior - namely, to keep at hand the tomes I've written. Here's what I've been reading.]

The Peripheral by William Gibson, G P Putnam's Sons, 2014
Provenance: Christmas Present

Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson, G P Putnam's Sons, 2012
Provenance: Purchased at Twice Sold Tales up on Capitol Hill.

There are few writers I buy in hardback, fewer still that I buy in hardback upon release. Gibson is one of them. I tuned into Neuromancer way back when it was a Timescape book, and continue to read the author whenever he released a new work of fiction. The mechanism known as marketing has recognized this behavior in the aggregate form, so a new Gibson hardback tends to show up in October, perfect for the Christmas season purchase (much like the new Hillerman mysteries tend to show up just before Father's Day).

And there is an interesting thing about writers. For a lot of them, I read them for a while, then drift off. Mainly that is because I know what's coming - writers all have their own styles, both in crafting sentences and larger plots, and after a while you "solve" the writer, and in solving the writer suddenly lose interest. I got through the Hillerman Leaphorn/Chee mysteries, but had the pacing down pat as the plot unspooled. Sue Grafton's alphabetic series, on the other hand, sort of ground out for me around the letter "F".

And this is not a particularly bad thing, in that a professional author has to balance the familiar with the novel. The familiar establishes their personal brand - people expect a particular flare, a particular style, a particular point of view. That keeps them coming back. But if they find the same thing, part of your market will slowly drift off to other interests.(Creating radically different works is a thing that works for some writers, but then, that is what their readers come to expect).

So. William Gibson. This is writer that I have "solved" in that I know what's coming, but I keep coming back regardless, because I like his style, his ideas, and his approach. A typical William Gibson book will have two viewpoint characters of opposite genders, with strong female characters. He will slide his technical terms into smooth narrative passages and explaining what they mean much later. He also has two plots going on at once - the plot that you are engaged with in the book, and then the secret plot that is running along, unknown to the protagonists. Often that secret plot is revealed in the last few chapters ("Hey, the world AI has achieved sentience") in a bit I have come to call the "Bill Gibson phone call".) This is the frame that he hangs his stories on.

The Peripheral hits all these bases, and hits them well. Flynne is a resourceful young woman from the near future, where things have gotten crappier but they haven't really noticed because of some tech advances. She fills in for her brother on a job piloting a remote drone. And it is clear that she is flying it in some weirder, underpopulated London than she has read about, and she witnesses a murder where the target is literally unraveled by nanotech. Wilf, a publicist and an alocholic, is a native of that London, which is further up the timeline, after a fairly pleasant apocalypse that has left the survivors in a post-scarcity society.

Except Wilf's world it is not really Flynne's future. Flynne's world is an alternate past, sharded off from some handwavy tech in China (So how does that work? China! No, really, how can you shard off the past into another universe? China! What does that say about the nature of reality? CHINA!). But the dimension-jumping has rules, in that physical stuff can't move, but information (like peripheral pilot commands and plans for economic agents to jostle the earlier market and build tanks) can. Flynne is the witness to a crime, Wilf needs to find out what happened. And story emerges from the results.

And it's good, but then it is William Gibson, and I already poised to embrace his prose and forgive those parts that feel familiar (Flynne and Wilf are NEVER getting together, and, oddly, that isn't a spoiler). But here's the thing I found interesting. Later in the year I picked up a copy of Distrust That Particular Flavor, which was a collection of  his short nonfiction articles (some of which I had already read). And in the introduction, Gibson is talking about his early writing, and how his wife mocked certain tropes, and he gives an example

Here's the quote:
"...But there was always something akin to "the rig". Some unimagined (by me), hence unnamed element of technology. But already I sensed that even if I had somehow come to know what the rig was, what it was for, it was better not to tell the reader just then. "Javnaker slipped  from the quantum universe-splitter that wasn't actually a time machine" would not be good for the reader.
One of the cores that lay at the heart of Gibson's writing, and it is something he knowingly does - burying the lede, and burying it so deep that the eventual excavation becomes part of the journey. But here by way of example he describes the very rig (whose exact nature is unknown because CHINA!) that he would be working on for The Peripheral. So he is reversing himself for once, not only telling you exactly the mystery engine of his book is , but hiding it two years in advance of the book itself.

For some reason this amuses the hell of me. The Peripheral is definitely worth reading, though you'll enjoy it better if you are comfortable with Gibsonian story construction. Distrust is good if you are a die-hard Gibson fan.

More later,