Kim Stanley Robinson and Exposition (or, No More James Patterson, Please)

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Just this past weekend, I saw Kim Stanley Robinson give a talk about narrative and time at the Marxist Reading Group Conference at the University of Florida.  During this talk, Robinson suggested, as I’m sure he has elsewhere, that science fiction has been the victim of casual writing instruction, which has mistakenly convinced us that exposition is terrible writing.  He argued that exposition is, in fact, the bedrock of sf, as it provides much of the formal variance necessary for the genre to thrive, particularly given the genre’s history.  In a sense, what Robinson argues is that the formal uniqueness of sf lies in its ability to represent what does not exist, and so exposition, by dint of representing the unreal, is a necessary tool for any writer of the genre.  His argument likewise reduces the “show, don’t tell” rule to a curse of narrative zombification — what he calls a zombie meme.

I find this view rather compelling as a way to define sf by what it does, as opposed to what it is.  Much like Delany, who Robinson probably intentionally hinted to by referencing Heinlein’s oft-cited sf-nal sentence (“The door dilated” from Beyond This Summer[1] (1942)), Robinson seems to view sf as a genre without definition; rather, it is a genre best understood by its applications and methods.[2]  The method Robinson is perhaps famous for (or infamous, depending on your interpretation) is exposition, a fact which he seemed delighted to declare in his talk.  Even in something like The Gold Coast (1988), exposition is almost a necessity, for the sf-nal frame of the work only works within a functional world.[3]  One can’t quite fully understand the conflict between Jim McPherson and his father without the in-depth examination of this “new” culture in which they exist.  Much of that examination has to come through exposition, lest The Gold Coast become a 10,000-page monstrosity which has to show us every little darned thing so we really understand why Jim acts the way he does.
Much of this made me wonder why this rule — “show, don’t tell” — has stuck with us when it so clearly compromises any work which wishes to do more than simply “entertain” in the most banal definition of the word.  In this respect, I agree with Robinson that the removal of exposition may have helped some sf reach wider audiences — particularly among the “I don’t write sf even though I do, but don’t tell anyone” NYT bestseller crowd.  But it’s that limitation on the language and vision that often produces inferior works — works which do little more than present a story without requiring the author to provide an explanation for the world itself or some deeper examination of the world as a container for criticism.  This is not to suggest, as Robinson doesn’t either, that one must become Tolkien to produce an sf work which engages with the best activities of the genre; rather, I’m agreeing with Robinson that a genre which seeks a universalization of its modes of writing is, indeed, a zombie genre.  Repetition.  Rinsing and repeating.

This might be why I find works like Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (2013), Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson (2013), or The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar (2013) so fascinating.[4]  At the same time, this assertion about exposition cannot possibly be universal.  Indeed, I doubt Robinson would suggest that the absence of exposition is necessarily the default of an inferior work, as the removal of exposition could serve a literary purpose.  For example:  while I cannot speak for Robinson, I suspect that a surface level view of Tobias Buckell’s Xenowealth Saga would result in a number of loaded assumptions, the most of important of which is that these are just not good books because they aren’t loaded with exposition.[5]  But part of what Buckell’s writing style does, whether this was intentional or not, is tied to Buckell’s oft-cited desire to represent “people like him” or “people he saw while in the Caribbean” within the genre he has so come to love.  This is a charge we’ve heard from other writers who put QUILTBAG or PoC characters into their work:  so much of sf/f doesn’t include characters who look like me, and so I’m going to fill the gap on my own.[6]  That is that Buckell’s Xenowealth Saga takes characters which have been perhaps “trapped” in the literary sphere or the literary sf sphere and throws them into the high-flying adventure and mayhem universe of Space Opera.  He plays in a particular literary mode, albeit a modern re-imagination of the form.  His books do not contain mountains and mountains of exposition; they are rather subdued in that realm, in fact.  But they are also excellent books precisely because of what they do with the mode.  If it’s not clear, I’m not suggesting that Buckell is a bad writer; rather, I’m suggesting quite the opposite.

Of course, I could be wrong.  Perhaps what Robinson was pointing to were the extreme forms of anti-exposition writing found in, say, James Patterson, who I personally think is one of the worse prose stylists whose works routinely appear on the NYT Bestsellers list.  His writing lacks the kind of depth that Robinson called for in his talk, so much so that I couldn’t finish one of his Alex Cross novels.  It was too limiting.  Too removed.  Too oriented around the plot and not oriented enough around the characters.  In the case of science fiction, which Alex Cross most certainly is not, I think Robinson sees exposition’s value in its ability to convey the unreal in potentially liberative ways — in the sense that our understanding of a world and our ability to immerse within it can be, in some cases, contingent upon that world seeming fully realized, allowing us to extricate ourselves from our (mundane) lives into the otherworldly.  Patterson’s prose, if I’m honest, does not do that.  I am not extricated.  I am not compelled.  I am simply “there,” reading, aware.

But I want to be immersed.  I want to feel connected to the world and to the characters.  And perhaps that really is facilitated largely by the exposition, and to remove that is to remove, in a way, the soul of the work.

[1]:  I just realized that the quote everyone uses — “the door irised open” — is falsely attributed to Heinlein (or misquoted, more like).  The correct quote is “the door dilated,” which, I’m told on the Internet, may appear elsewhere in his work.  Robinson, and, indeed, a lot of folks, used the misquote in his talk, which I have amended in my own summary of the issue in question.
[2]:  This is something Samuel R. Delany writes about in a number of his works, including Starboard Wine (1984; re-released in 2012 w/ an introduction by Matthew Cheney).  I recommend Delany’s book.  It is academic in places, but it is far more approachable than a lot of academic works on the genre.  I tend to think of Delany as a good entry point for folks interested in sf criticism.
[3]:  There is something utterly eery about The Gold Coast‘s prescient “prediction” of our own future.  Much of the novel concerns military contractors and drone warfare, with a hint towards what may be in our own future (the response to drone warfare).  As someone who only read it within the last year, I found the work a bit uncomfortable in the way all good literature is.
[4]:  Granted, the latter of these is likely not sf in the traditional sense, but certainly speculative fiction.  I think Robinson’s point likely applies there, too, though he might argue that fantasy doesn’t have nearly the hangup as sf proper.

[5]:  I could be very wrong on this, though.  I don’t know if Robinson is familiar with Buckell’s work.

[6]:  My amendment would be this:  so much of sf/f doesn’t include characters like my mom, and so I will include characters who are single lesbian mothers with three kids living on welfare (in outer space) because I want to see people like her in my fiction.  That’s very much a personal choice for me, as it is in the non-amended version above.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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