Why This Book Works So Well
Posted June 12, 2016on:
You ever notice that some books really work, others work relatively ok, and some just don’t quite work? And those that work, you just can’t put them down! Maybe when I say “it works”, what I mean is pacing, I’m not really sure what I mean, actually.
Well, right now, I’m reading a book that really works – Darwin’s Radio, by Greg Bear. Darwin’s Radio came out in 1999, and won the Nebula in 2000 and was nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and Campbell awards. As I was zipping through the first 80 pages, I realized I wanted to know why this book works as well as it does. Is it the pacing? The characters? The presentation? The science? The all of the above? I wanted to pick it apart and figure it out.
I’m about a third of the way through Darwin’s Radio, and this is what I’ve come up with so far:
– The first thing I noticed was how much showing Bear does, and how little telling. Very early on, a character has a mountain climbing accident, and wakes up in a hospital. Bear doesn’t give us a description of the man’s injuries, but the way that other people treat him gives us a pretty good picture of the state this guy is in. Instead of describing the picture, Bear paints one, and lets the reader look at the painting and get information that way. It’s up to the reader to decide how much they want to see.
– The info isn’t dumped. This is a hard science thriller with lots of genetics, anthropology, molecular biology, the study of viruses and diseases, how bacteria works, how our bodies fight off diseases and how early mankind might have fought off diseases and probably more science stuff that I haven’t gotten to yet. It’s fascinating as hell, but way over my head. None of it is dumped. Most of it is presented through dialog, with the old trick of “Let me tell you what our team has been doing in the lab these last two weeks” type conversations. Is that a trick? Sure it is. But it gets your reader a lot of information in an accessible and non-info-dumpy way. And hey, now I have just enough knowledge to sound like I know what I’m talking about next time I’m at the doctor’s office.
– So far, there’s been zero action. No chase scenes, no fights, no nothing. Which is a little weird, since a lot of recent books I’ve read have super intense action scenes as a way to get the reader hooked on all that 100% pure awesomesauce. This book is all scientists and politicians and others talking about things, and trying to figure stuff out. The “action” is in how fast their ideas are transmitted. They bounce ideas off of each other (typically while learning their funding is about to be cut), and the fast pace comes when their brain is moving faster than their mouth, and the ideas tumble out . . .and it’s totally cool.
– So we’ve got all these characters who are trying to solve the problem from different angles, and everyone has slightly different information to share, or not. But us readers have *all* the information. This is where the tension comes from. I know that this guy knows this one thing, and this other lady knows this other thing, and these jerks over here know something else. So omg, when are they going to share what they know!! Because if they don’t, this horrible other thing is going to happen!
Gah! I gotta go read this book!
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a book that fucking works.