If you’re anywhere near my age, you know Talking Heads was a pretty good band from the ’80s. Their sound is electronically funky and weird, fun to listen to. On the other hand, when you find yourself following talking heads in large chunks of dialogue, you find yourself in a not so beautiful place. You find yourself lulled mad by a monotonous drone.
Let me explain: a couple days ago at my local library, I turned in unfinished John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I still had a couple of renews left on the book, the sixth in the Old Man’s War series. But, I lost interest midway through the novel, so there was no reason to renew or read on.
This is a shame, because I’ve loved the other books in the series. Like any great series, Old Man’s War has an engaging cast of characters, great individual story lines and a compelling narrative arc that stitches each novel together into a unified whole. As a bonus, the series is punctuated with bits of Scalzi’s wry but affable sense of humor.
And, at first The End of All Things seems to have this, too. It follows from the action of The Human Division. Earth’s been betrayed by its presumed defender, the Colonial Union. The Colonial Union has a shaky relationship with the alien-run Conclave and no longer has a resource in the Earth for its Colonial Defense Force. And, something sinister is in the works, the result of collusion between humans and aliens. That collusion is discovered, investigated and, I assume, thwarted in The End of All Things, which Scalzi structures as a series of four linked novellas, told in a variety of voices, beginning with Rafe Daquin, pilot of the starship Chandler and a brain in a box. Daquin’s voice — which is all he has, of course — comes across with a sense of humor about his situation as he outlines his compulsion to tell his story — to help the Colonial Union, and maybe, just maybe get a fresh body.
“I’m not a writer or an orator,” Daquin reports. “I’m not a storyteller. I’m a spaceship pilot, so let me just get that right out there.” His story isn’t going to be “classic literature” (though the voice is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye); instead, you’ll have to bear with him because his story is going “to skip around. I’m going to get lost telling the story and come back to points and then get lost again. I’m doing this off the top of my head.”
That last sentence is classic Scalzi humor. But the voice and its narrative thrust is what drives this first novella. It’s highly readable, entertaining stuff. Just the kind of thing you’d expect from Scalzi.
Where the book lost me is in the next section, told from the point of view of one of the aliens of the Conclave. This should be the most compelling and interesting part of the novel, but no matter how hard I tried in reading it, this portion didn’t and couldn’t hold my interest.
Primarily, it’s because the narrative and a compelling voice gets lost in lengthy bits of dialogue. About 90 percent or more of the section is dialogue, or rather talking heads. None of the characters — alien or human — are distinct, other than some science-fiction babble of made up measures of time and new words for food. (Of course, not to single Scalzi out, this is a problem of much science fiction, whether on the page or screen, especially handling aliens, which aside from outward appearances are all too human.) Still, this section pretty much violates everything we writers have been taught about dialogue.
Dialogue in fiction and nonfiction has many roles, one of which is to give characters or subjects a voice, so we as readers get a feel for who they are. In other words, it characterizes characters and shows (remember, show, don’t tell) relationships between characters.
Dialogue can also be used to move the action along, but as Hallie Ephron notes in her book Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, “Not everything your characters say belongs in dialogue. It’s better to summarize and fast-forward through the necessary but unexciting bits than risk bogging down your story with trivial talk.…Only use dialogue when it’s dramatic, when it moves the story along, or when it develops characters and their relationships. Never force a character to deliver a speech about himself or another character, or why something is happening.”
As I say, almost the whole of the middle section of The End of All Things uses dialogue primarily to summarize and present what could be best left to expository or descriptive narration and makes scenes of potential political intrigue boring. Scalzi also could show us his science-fiction writing chops and give us the unique voice of an alien species tasked to be an ambassador caught up in an intrigue between human factions. The only time within the section the alien ambassador seems alien is when it describes to another alien how the young of its species are cannibalistic, and how this is a good thing for the species.
The section reminds me of soap opera characters narrating their actions at the first part of the show — just in case you missed the last episode — as if we’re not intelligent enough to pick up the story through visual clues or through regular dialogue. Get on with the show. As a reader and writer, it’s frustrating to see good writers like Scalzi do this sort of thing.
Scalzi’s not, of course, the only writer guilty of this. It seems to appear often in genre writing. China Mieville, for instance, does it in his otherwise superb novel The City & The City, a blend of science fiction and mystery. As the novel climaxes hero Inspector Borlu confronts villain Professor Bowden and in a long expository dialogue, Bowden explains his villainy:
Borlu, I can kill you where you stand and, do you realise, no one will even know where we are. If you were in one place or the other they might come for me, but you’re not. The thing is, and I know it wouldn’t work this way and so do you but that’s because no one in this place [the novel is set in two cities that share the same dimensional space; it is illegal for each city’s citizens to even acknowledge the other’s existence], and that includes Breach, obeys the rules, their own rules…
…And so on for a full paragraph. Soap opera villains do this, as do comic book villains and many villains in TV crime dramas. They explain their madness. It’s distracting, and often boring.
Still, I have to say, as I typed this excerpt from The City & The City, I caught unique speech patterns from the professor. He seems to be unraveling as his plot unravels. Or maybe he’s buying time? So, there is some redemption to this and shows that even as Mieville slips into a clichéd genre convention, he’s a capable writer.
But, generally, long swaths of reported speech like this should be avoided in fiction, and nonfiction, as well. Long quotes in nonfiction should convey some important information that otherwise can’t be summarized. Otherwise summarize. Or find your book back on the library shelves, unfinished.