Here’s a story I’ll never finish. I’ll never read it in a 21 day library lending period, but I realize I’ll never finish it anyway.
Peter F. Hamilton’s novel Great North Road put a map and time line right up front, which should have been a clue – any opus that requires such things is going to be ponderous. Indeed, even the bizarre murder of a bazillionaire’s clone that opens the book, and the cool technologies and climate change that form a backdrop, were buried in too much detail for me.
Off-world chapters also have great themes that got lost – life in orbit around Jupiter, and colonies on distant worlds threatened by an unstoppable, mindless thing that consumes planets and changes the nature of matter. When one character stopped to explain how searching for an alien reminds him of the fossils of the Burgess Shale (on page 83 of 921 pages in my Epub version), I knew I was doomed. And I like the Burgess Shale! (Read Stephen Jay Gould’s non-fiction book Wonderful Life. It’s getting rather out of date, but is still a fun read.)
I tried my usual trick of reading the first sentence of each paragraph, and some paragraphs drew me in deeper, but that only got me to page 182. I still have the book as I write this commentary – I may take a crack at the two epilogues, one nine years after the story and the other 234 years after. Because I really like Hamilton’s concepts. The book is just too much for me.
So what’s wrong with me? The book has 80% four and five stars on Amazon (overall average of four stars), with 487 reviews. That’s a phenomenal success.
I looked at reviews by disappointed readers who posted three stars: ” LOTS of fluff, random events, boring filler,” “almost set it down many times,” “felt like retreads from his other works; the whole alien monster thing felt clichéd.” There were also readers who loved the characters and hated the plot, or loved the plot and hated the characters.
Most readers – 80% – loved both.
One of the most common tips on writing fiction is “show, don’t tell.” It makes a great bumper sticker and when writers critique each others’ work on critters.org, we studiously search out each “telling” for criticism.
Hamilton’s book is full of “telling” but most of his readers love it: “very detailed and rich,” “fine detail and… the plot just keeps going and going,” ” interesting and convincing,” “he writes for the hard core fan of science fiction and endless wonder.”
I think the bumper sticker advice of “show, don’t tell” is too simplistic. Maybe it should be “show, don’t tell unless what you’re telling fascinates your readers.” That’s the key – what fascinates the reader, not the writer (and if you’re a writer like me, you find all kinds of fascinating tidbits as you do research for a book.)
Peter F. Hamilton and his readers have found each other to their (I assume) mutual joy. After all, it’s called “storytelling,” not “story showing.”
Help me out, folks. What’s good telling and bad telling?