Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Makes a Good Book

7. Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress

I have raved about Kress' Beggars in Spain and been underwhelmed by her more recent Dogs.

I picked this one up at the library, and I'm glad I did. I was not impressed and did not find it a satisfying read by any means. The concept is certainly intriguing; an alien race calling themselves the Atoners land on the moon and ask for Twenty-One Witnesses to be transported to other planets to observe in order to discover the crime that the Atoners committed against humanity ten thousand years ago. The book takes place in the very near future and contains the experiences of some of the Witnesses and the aftermath when the Witnesses return to Earth and divulge the nature of the crime. The Atoners deleted human genes for the sixth sense; the ability to see the dead.

Here is where my analysis of the book will hopefully become interesting. While I felt the novel to be lacking in several senses (har har), it is consistent with what I believe my fiction workshop professor would deem a good book, that is to say, a marketable book.

My professor believes that in order to be marketable in the twenty-first century,a book must have one or more specific subjective perspectives. Steal Across the Sky has five primary narrators, four in each section of the book (one narrator from the first section dies and is replaced with a new narrator). I will give Kress some credit for creating distinctive voices, each shows the reader a different viewpoint on the events of the novel.

My professor believes that action and conflict should come early and often. The novel begins in the middle of the momentous occasion of Witnesses descending to their assigned planets, I agree that in-medias-res is always a good way to begin. However, I barely felt set up on the planets when the secret was uncovered and the Witnesses went home. There is conflict upon conflict in every chapter and every chapter ends with a hook to keep the reader engaged. My professor encourages this. I want to stress that I am not against this style, but I do not think that that alone can constitute a good book.

Several conflicts were left unresolved at the end of the book. Two of the Witnesses, Lucca and Cam, have slept with each other early on, which Lucca deeply regrets, but though mentioned often, this one never emerges as a confrontation. One of the Twenty-One Witnesses died mysteriously, despite the Atoners' guarantee of protection, and this is never resolved either, though referred to more than once. Finally, while the central question is somewhat answered, that dead souls do wander around "for real" and people used to have the ability to see them, the main characters never come to any definite conclusion and their environment seems just as polluted as ever from the revelation (an uptick in teen suicides, religious fanatics organizing against the witnesses). It's a problem of too many conflicts, resulting in an ending that feels lazy and unsatisfying.

My biggest problem with the book is the lack of character depth. I have a surface sketch of each character; moody hermitlike Lucca, lonely rational Soledad, childlike Cam, Everyman Frank, and Aveo, the old scholar from Kular A (the planet where Cam Witnesses); but no character besides Soledad who falls in love ever breaks form, we don't get a sense of who they were before they Witnessed, especially in the cases of Lucca and Cam, except that Lucca's beloved wife died, boo hoo. I just wasn't buying it, wasn't invested in them enough, didn't care enough. I found none of the characters likable except Soledad and even her I found flat. The real interesting part in the book is Aveo's brutal complicated society, and that we only get a couple chapters' portrait of. Their society is based on a game, kulith, and the Worship of the Goddess of All Green along with a sort of colored caste system, but I wanted to know much more about it and have kulith developed better. Throughout the book, Cam has nightmares about Aveo telling her to play kulith better, but she never does. Cam never changes, never becomes more than a "scared, scarred child" as Frank thinks of her.

The greater questions that I have about writing are the following:

Is capturing and keeping your reader's attention the only requirement for a good book? If so, Steal Across the Sky would be a good book. Or does that only make it a marketable book and is there or should there be a difference?

Is capturing and keeping your reader's attention necessary for a good book? Should this always be true? Is there anything to be said for challenging the readers to find their own meanings and interpretations? A lot of action can glue a reader to a page, but what does it help the reader gain? Is it possible for plot, not character, to supply meaning?

I'll stop there, suffice it to say this book will not be on my end-of-the-year list of SFF Literature.

1 comment:

Carl V. said...

Beggars in Spain is on our "Modern" list in the Classic Science Fiction Book Club this year, in April. Glad to read that you liked it. I have read a couple of Kress short stories, both of which I enjoyed, but have not sampled any of her longer work.