Like various other members of this parish, a little while ago I received a proof of Charles Stross’ new novel, Halting State. I’ve been reading it (somewhat guiltily) alongside McAuley’s Fairyland, which makes for an interesting comparison in a number of ways that I hope to write about at some point. I’m also looking forward to seeing what others make of it, and in particular what they make of the style.
Poking around on the internet and in back-issues of Locus, NYRSF and Interzone last night, I discovered something a bit surprising: not many people have really examined Stross’s style. There’s Adam Roberts’ review of Accelerando, Graham Sleight touches on it in his NYRSF review of Singularity Sky, but really that’s about it. (Paul Kincaid also touches on matters of style in his review of Accelerando, but spends more time looking at — and is to my mind very perceptive about — the mindset Stross is applying to sf.) The only Stross that Gary Wolfe has reviewed, so far as I can tell, is The Atrocity Archives, and that not at great length; and though John Clute has reviewed a bit more, it’s a slightly oddball selection — Singularity Sky, the first two books of the Merchant Princes, and “Missile Gap”.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with focusing on what Stross is saying more than how he’s saying it; but Stross’s style, the way he uses geek idioms etc etc, is one of the most noticeable things about all his books, and at least in my experience tends to be something people comment on in casual conversations. So I’m hoping Halting State inspires some more reviews that look at what I will pompously call the aesthetic side of Stross’s writing — it seems to me that it should, because I’m coming to the conclusion that the choice to write the entire book in the second person throws Stross’s strengths and weaknesses into sharp relief. Admittedly, the two two reviews I’ve seen so far both note the style and then move on again to the ideas, so I may be imagining things and/or being overly optimistic. But Stross clearly put some thought into how the style interacts with the things any science fiction novel has to do –
The second person’s big strength is that it lets you show by doing, and it renders infodumps — those big, intrusive gobbets of metainformation that are so useful to the jobbing science fiction writer who’s trying to portray an unfamiliar world — transparent. (It’s big weakness is that if it isn’t done carefully, it feels like an itchy straitjacket to the reader, but you already know that, don’t you?) It’s not so much about metafiction as about metainformation for the fiction at the centre of the narrative process. If you fine-tune your use of the interior monologue you can illuminate your character’s experience of their universe, lending the “showing, not telling” narrative some experiential references and weight so that it feels familiar, even if it’s full of novel placeholders. And you can banish the old didactic mode for good, consigning it to the howling wilderness of pulpish prose where it belongs. (After all, we’re trying to commit literature here. Right?) You have the technology to tell this story the way it needs to be told. All you have to find now is the courage to use it.
– so it seems not only fair but necessary to talk about whether he succeeded in his goals.
Of course, I’m not saying this should be the only aspect of Stross’s work that people should talk about or even, necessarily, the first. I’m not completely comfortable with Jeff VanderMeer’s response to Matthew Cheney’s column about “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” — “In short, the story feels not like cultural misappropriation so much as misappropriation of technique” — because I can’t imagine myself placing such a purely aesthetic response before all other possible responses. It’s just that it’s my perception that the aesthetic aspect of Stross’s work hasn’t yet received the examination it deserves.