This is part of an ongoing series of weird and wonderful stories from off the beaten path. Others in the series can be found here.
This post is in two parts. Firstly a look at one of the brightest stars in British sci-fi/fantasy, a work of great creativity. And secondly a few thoughts on the way we read, in particular skimming. How we do it, why we do it, and is there anything wrong with it?
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville is a steam punk novel set in a world with similarities to Victorian England, but with odd machines, alien-looking inhabitants and a touch of magic. The world created is very convincing and inventive. The story is about a tyrannical and oppressive regime sent into convulsions when an unstoppable monster is accidentally released into the city skies. (For a more detailed review of this book please check out my profile on Goodreads—anyone also a member of that site feel free to friend me, always looking for fellow readers to discuss books with).
A plethora of interesting new creations, monsters, adventurers, scientists and rogues. slake moths that suck your dreams out through your mouth, bird men that believe all crime is choice-theft, insect women with beautiful human bodies. Fantasy without elves and dwarves is quite a departure from the norm, and to be this successful must mean there's something new and exciting here. And there is.
700 pages. It's a monster.
Live up to the hype?
There is a very exciting story here. The problem is it doesn't start until after 300 pages in. The build up sets the scene very nicely, you get a very clear picture of the world and since it's so alien maybe you need that. But I found myself skimming large parts to get to the good bits.
Not that it stopped me reading. And for sure I'll read other books he's written. This was a good book. But I didn't want all of it, I just wanted the good bits.
Now, it could be said the slow burn gives you an attachment to characters that you don't otherwise get. And certainly I have read books that get straight into the action, many of Elmore Leonard's books, where it all moves at a fair old clip but you never really get more than a rough idea of who the main characters are and don't care all that much what happens to them.
Which bring me to the second part of this post:
You Be Skimming
It is always very clear to me when reading, which bits I can skip without missing anything. Sometimes it's a long wodge of description. Sometimes it's leaving the good storyline and re-entering a storyline I'm already bored with. Often it's journeys between places.
This happens in some very good books. I get to a section and I just don't care. The writer must have felt it was important or interesting or worthwhile putting it in. The writer was wrong. Because when it comes to reading I am the one in control and the writer can't make me read what I don't want to read.
The part I will read is at the start, the part agents and publishers tell you must be captivating and engaging from the off. If I've heard a book is good I will struggle through two or three chapters of nothing happening no problem. I think that's where you can get to know the characters. But after that I won't follow the road signs, I'll judge for myself what's pertinent and what's not.
Which makes me wonder as a writer, how do I find the balance between boring the reader with endless description of stuff I've been daydreaming about and which seems wildly interesting to me, and leaving the reader in a vacuum where characters come and go without being missed? I know I can spot it a mile off in the books I read, surely I can train myself to see it in my own writing. Or is it just one of those things that are always invisible to ourselves?