A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’ work, as I think I’ve written about before here, feels like a different kind of science fiction (and indeed genre fiction) than the stuff that I grew up reading as a kid. Her work is… emotionally textured, small in physical-plot scale, entirely about the characters in the story and their emotional journeys rather than about the big dramatic large-scale events which might be happening around them.

Her stories are about people before they’re about events. Sometimes big things happen, yes, but it’s the characters and their emotional lives that get our focus.

And this story, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (is it a novella? It’s certainly brief) feels even more character focused than the other books of hers I’ve read (the Wayfarer series).

That’s not a weakness.

I mean, none of this is a weakness, it’s what she does so well. It’s what sets her apart from so much other genre fiction (so much other fiction, period). I love this aspect of her work. What I mean to say is… the fact that this story feels even more character focused than her other books is a strength. It’s a delight.

The story is meditative, it’s charming, it’s sweet. It’s not without a hint of bitterness and sadness. But only enough to feel honest, only the amount that leaves me thinking “yes, this is precisely the way that would feel, this is just right as a representation of this very human emotional experience.” I often feel that way about things that Becky Chambers has written. Her skill at finding the emotional heart of an experience, and then expressing it in a way that resonates and sings, is one of the things I love about her work.

And that, no doubt, is why I love this story.

Well, it’s part of why I love the story.

There’s another large part, which is unique to me and a few of my friends; we’ve been playing a game of D&D for the past several years (yikes, we might be coming up on seven years at this point) and in many ways this entire book feels like the core of my (robot-plant) character. Reading a story that feels like it fully understands my character’s slightly-askew perspective on life—right down to the questions about purpose and… everything, really—is a joy. I feel like I’ve briefly shared brainspace with Becky Chambers herself. It’s fun, and it’s flattering: a writer I deeply respect reached similar thoughts when exploring this character’s emotional and psychological interior.

And all of this has left me wondering: where are the feeder-stories, the tributaries that lead new genre readers (or readers who love other parts of the genre) to this book? Is it happenstance? Does it rely on word of mouth?

I would not have found her work if I’d kept reading the adventure stories of my youth. I had read so many different high-plot high-action genre stories, with lots of exciting action going on and significantly less time given over to emotional depth. Had I continued reading “similar works” I suspect that I would never have picked up The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. In fact, I only read Chambers because a friend suggested that first Wayfarer book to me.

I hadn’t known that Becky Chambers’ stories were something I would love.

Anyways.

This is a good book. I recommend it, especially if you already know you like Chambers’ stories. If you haven’t tried her work before, this might be a little slow as an introduction (even if it is also quite short). But if you want good gentle science fiction all about very human emotions and philosophical struggles, this is a great piece for you.

Oh, yeah, this story also leaves me feeling better about the world, humanity, and myself. Other reviewers have called it optimistic, I’d call it heartening. It’s really very good in that way.

Exit Strategy, and more Murderbot from Martha Wells

Martha Wells does an excellent job of wrapping up her arc in Exit Strategy (Murderbot #4).

Her habit through the first four novellas of layering in emotional struggles alongside but separate from the underlying physical plot—separating the drivers of the physical and emotional plots in ways that are contrary to most current practice—works really well here. That separation allows her to write Murderbot as a proactive character, reaching for goals that it chooses for itself, without requiring Murderbot to be complicit in pushing its own emotional development. That’s important, because Wells has created a character with zero desire to engage in personal emotional content (despite its love of human media), which means that Murderbot starts the series uncooperative in pursuing any emotionally charged plot.

It’s a neat combination of a driven and reluctant protagonist, in one package.

Murderbot’s reluctance to engage in emotionally charged plot only makes the conflicts Wells builds towards in Exit Strategy even more satisfying. And because of all that, because of the character transformation that Wells laid out over the course of the first four Murderbot novellas, I cried as I neared the end of book four. It was that good.

Having now read the rest of the (currently available) series, I think Wells’ use of a multiple-novella arc was ingenious. I think those first four novellas together may even be stronger than the novel-length Murderbot story. This isn’t due to a lack on the novel’s part—rather, I think it’s an outgrowth of how the novellas serve Murderbot’s growth uniquely well.

Some thoughts on this…

Any time that a character needs to experience emotional growth and change, it helps to have your story cover a long enough time period for that change to feel real. It’s also useful to have there be multiple mutually reinforcing circumstances that coincide, over time, to produce the gradual shift. Both of those things are easier to do over the course of multiple novellas, where literary convention allows the story to wander across more spaces, times, and situations without the requirement of tying all the developments into a single cohesive unit of story. An obvious parallel: it’s the same freedom of expanded narrative space that allows a six hour miniseries to offer more character growth than a three hour movie. Spreading that character transformation out, especially when it’s a big and complicated one, gives the character’s growth space to breathe, expand, and feel less forced.

The usual alternative—the approach most similar to a movie’s, and the one favored by action and adventure stories since the 1800s at least—is to have the story produce a high-tension crucible of a climax, where all the preceding character development comes to the fore and shakes out like an earthquake of personal growth. That single big conflict has to encompass, even prove, all of the character’s transformation in the story. That means that if there are multiple points of change, they all need to be set up ahead of time. The groundwork is often elaborate, and a large degree of genre-savviness is simply learning to recognize those story preparations.

Storytelling is all artificial; it’s artifice working as hard as it can to look natural and real. And it’s harder to make something look real when you’re forcing it to go as fast as possible, with nary a moment to breathe. Giving a big character transformation more space therefore helps to smooth everything out and make a tumultuous period of transformation look right.

That’s what Martha Wells does with her first four novellas.

I think her novel length piece, Network Effect, is still good. I enjoyed it a lot, and happily recommend it to anyone who likes the Murderbot series. But it doesn’t do all the same work that the first four novellas do. In some ways, the important emotional journeys of Network Effect belong to people besides Murderbot… and they aren’t as resonant or rewarding for me as the arc Murderbot completed in Exit Strategy.

They’re still good though.

But now I’ve run out of new Murderbot to read, and I’m at a bit of a loss. My next few library books aren’t ready yet. And once I have them I don’t expect them to be as good, or as good in the same ways, as Murderbot.

I’m really looking forward to whatever Martha Wells writes next. I hope it’s more Murderbot, but I’m excited for whatever it is.

Lupin, and knowing the course of the arc

I’ve been enjoying Lupin (on Netflix) a great deal. My partner and I have been watching it together. But as we finished episode three, something started bothering me—not really a problem with the show, but instead a disconnect between, on the one hand, the trajectory of the show’s tonal arc and narrative resolution, and on the other, the number of episodes available.

I could see that there were only five episodes so far. I know that Netflix posts all episodes at once, which meant that those five episodes were all that exists (for now). But the change in the show’s tone from the end of episode one to the end of episode three, and the narrative arcs that remain to be wrapped up at the end of episode three, don’t line up with five episodes being the sum total of the show.

Unless the show is a downer, or ends with many elements of the denouement implied rather than being explicitly laid out. But neither of those possibilities match my genre expectations or the precedent the show has already set for itself.

For Lupin, there’s an easy answer: the first five episodes are the first half of the season (thanks internet), and more episodes are supposed to come out sometime in the summer of 2021. Now I know that I’m going to be treated to a cliffhanger when I hit the end of episode five, and I shouldn’t expect everything to wrap up neatly, or even to offer resolution on any front. That’s fine by me, even if I do wish I could have all the story right now.

On the topic of arcs…

I wrote a scene around two months ago, something that came to me while I experimented with some other story beats. But the scene was the emotional turning point of a larger story, without any other material to support it. The scene alone made me cry, but I couldn’t figure out what else I needed to add for the rest of the story.

It was a bit like magically building the middle of a bridge first: I could see it hang there in the air, and it was beautiful, but I wasn’t sure how the hell I was supposed to connect it to anything else. I had this sense that the moment I tied any other scenes into it, tried to support it from earlier or later in the story, the middle would come crashing down… unless the rest of the piece was perfectly aligned. This was not conducive to writing more.

Last Friday, I finally pieced together a first draft outline. This week I’ve churned out some excellent bad first draft material. I know what I need in order to fill out the rest of the story. Except…

As I’ve made progress, I’ve realized: that scene, which feels like the emotional climax of the story, doesn’t need anything after it in the story for it to feel impactful. Everything I write after that scene in some way waters down that climax—unless I can find new ways to build the climax and denouement into each other. Maybe more troublingly, the course I choose for the story’s conclusion after that climax changes the story’s tone and themes completely. There are (at least) two extremely different options before me, and I’m stuck on indecision.

It like I’ve looked at the center span of the bridge that I made, hanging magically in the air, and suddenly discovered that the bridge doesn’t have to come down where I thought. The emotional and narrative arcs could arrive in more than one place (this is normal) but I can’t decide which destination feels more right (this is less normal). I can’t decide which is more honest to the characters, the story, the setting, or the genre. I can’t tell whether my inclinations towards the different possible destinations come from past grief and depression, from my artistic sensibilities, or what.

I’ve mapped out one version, and I’m going to write it. But with the conflict I feel about it, I have to try at least one other ending. And because I’m still making the story, it’s a bit like reaching episode three of a five episode set and having to choose whether that’s it, or whether there are another five episodes coming.

Which story is better?

How can I know?

We’ll find out.

Musing on Emotional Arcs

Quick bookkeeping: I’ll be away next Thursday, and likely won’t post here. I’m not traveling. But I am planning to spend more time on video calls with family in other time zones, and generally taking a break. I hope you’re all staying safe.

When it comes to making progress in my writing, I frequently feel as though I’m swimming against a tether, trying to pull a ship on the strength of my strokes alone. The only reassurance I have comes from comparing my older pieces to more recent ones, comparing what I missed then to what I possess now.

The biggest change I’ve noticed, over the course of about seven years, is a heightened appreciation for the emotional content of a story; feelings are fun to play with, especially pathos.

For a long time I focused myopically on the tension and climax of a physical plot: threat, danger, difficult circumstances, and the struggle to prevail despite insurmountable challenges. I had trained for that. Running RPGs for my friends prepared me well for creating fun obstacles and leaving my players overwhelmed… but just barely able to pull through and win the day.

When I spoke with fellow students in my MFA program, and when I read their work, it was clear that this was a place others struggled. I heard friends lament their “inability” to write conflict, tension, and danger, or bemoan the difficulty they found in forcing their characters through awful challenges.

To be clear, none of them were unable to write those things, they just weren’t used to doing it.

Meanwhile, I’d look at my characters and wonder what kind of people they were. My friends were writing believable people, tying them into evocative emotional relationships, and most of my characters felt like blanks. Running RPGs, I’d gotten used to setting up all the other pieces and then letting my players fill their characters’ interior worlds. Writing characters, grappling with their internal worlds and emotional experiences, I fumbled over and over again.

Everything felt like playing with cardboard cutouts. Characters did not “speak to me” or take life of their own on the page, except in little promising glimmers.

This isn’t some marvelous tale of miraculous change. My swimming metaphor above, struggling against a massive sea anchor, still feels true. But I have made progress. However it may feel, I am not stuck in place.

I’m not sure whether I’m glad that I started with more familiarity in active conflict and physical plots. But as someone who loves genre fiction and RPGs, I can’t say that I’m surprised. My “YA” reading as a twelve and thirteen year old was almost entirely 1970s & 80s genre fiction, or more recent work from those authors—largely books I’d hesitate to recommend to any young teen these days. There were a few standouts, but I suspect that I wasn’t in the right place to learn about writing characters’ internal lives or a good emotional arc when I was reading most of those books.

More recently, I have been blessed by a number of extremely good novels in the past decade, books which have helped me considerably in writing the internal emotional struggles of my characters. N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Lois McMaster Bujold, Seth Dickinson, John Scalzi, Katherine Addison, and Nnedi Okorafor all helped a great deal.

All of which is to say, I’ve been having much more fun writing emotional arcs of late, especially when I can tie them neatly into the grueling difficulties characters face in the physical plot. It’s good stuff.