It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

The comfort of strangeness

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I’m currently bogged down somewhere in the middle of Justin Cronin’s The Passage. This was one of the major genre novels of last year, with a marketing budget normally reserved only for the witless bios of A-list celebs, and subsequently praised everywhere. In The Passage, an attempt to “weaponise” human beings by infecting them with a virus from the Amazon goes horribly wrong. The twelve experimental subjects – all prisoners from various prisons’ death rows – escape, and so infect the population of the US. The virus effectively turns its victims into “vampires” – super-strong, averse to light, immortal, animalistic, and continually craving blood. That’s the victims, of course, which it does not kill. Within the space of a few decades, the US (and, by typical jingoistic extension, the world) has been reduced to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in which “virals” run amok, and small pockets of humanity barely survive in armed camps.

The Passage is a fat book of almost 800 pages. It is also the first of a trilogy, which apparently earned a $3.75 million advance. The movie rights were also bought for $1.75 million three years before the book was published. It is also nowhere near as good as the hype would have it.

Cronin’s two previous novels were literary fiction, and The Passage certainly opens in a similar vein (no pun intended). This is the best part of the book. But the rest of the novel is a mish-mash of movie tropes. It owes almost nothing to the literary traditions of vampire fiction or apocalyptic fiction. Its aesthetic is pure Hollywood. And that, I think, explains both its success and the reason why it is not as good a novel as all that money and marketing would have you believe.

I’m all for cinematic prose. It works well in science fiction, which, in many cases, relies on visuals for its sense of wonder. But written science fiction also requires a central premise, and often privileges that at the expense of other elements of the writing. At the very least this means that the idea has to be good – it has to be thought-provoking, it has to generate wonder; it might even be unique. Some sf novels are based around a single premise; others throw out ideas on every page.

But The Passage seems to have used the cinema as a source for its genre tropes. And in that medium ideas and conceits have been so watered down by the demands of film-making, by over-exposure, by aggressive marketing, that whatever sense of wonder they may have once possessed has long since been eroded. There is nothing that is new in The Passage. True, the ideas are slickly executed. But familiarity does indeed breed contempt.

Good science fiction thrives on the new and original, on the unique angle of attack. It needs strangeness. And, by extension, so do sf readers. True, there are degrees of originality, degrees of strangeness. And readers’ thresholds for each do vary…

It occurred to me recently that genre fiction – and The Passage is perhaps a harbinger of this – is increasingly shedding strangeness. Some tropes are getting little ragged around the edges, the chrome is beginning to look a bit tarnished. For a genre which formalises conceptual inventiveness, much of it seems to prefer using recycled tropes and familiar settings – and more so now that it did in the genre’s past. Perhaps this is a consequence of science fiction colonising other media, of the genre now belonging to everyone and not just a minority community.

I’m not convinced this has resulted in a positive feedback loop. Much recent sf feels bland, and the product of a system of thought rather than of individual artists. Not all science fiction, of course. Many excellent, and very individual, novels are published each year. But maybe the genre as a whole needs more strangeness injecting into it.

As science fiction changes to be more approachable for those who consume it in other media, so it becomes less satisfying for those of us who sup direct from the well.

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One thought on “The comfort of strangeness

  1. Pingback: readings & watchings 2011 #1 « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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