Thursday, January 14, 2010

Readings — Zoe's Tale

Zoe’s Tale
by John Scalzi

This book, I should note off the top, is an installment in an ongoing series. I haven’t read any of the others. Although not strictly speaking necessary, I can’t help but think familiarity with the preceding books would help a reader immensely. As it is, the book suffers from the odd sense, common in novels in the middle of a series, of excessive backstory — characters begin with too much having happened to them. Zoe, the main character, isn’t only the daughter of retired military officers become the leaders of a new human colony on a far planet; she also has a pair of aliens tagging along with her as part of her extended family, her parents having taught the aliens to be conscious. There’s not much you can do about this sort of thing, I imagine; this is where previous books have left the character, and that’s all there is to that.

Still, there are things that might have been clearer if I understood the background of the world. For some reason, humans are opposed to an alien group called the Conclave; it’s not clear why humans aren’t a part of the Conclave. More gravely, in this universe, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds apparently do not have, think about, or talk about sex. So I have to presume that the book’s aimed at a very young audience. Even so, the character work seems to me extremely shoddy.

Zoe’s too intelligent, too articulate, too self-possessed, above all too self-aware, to be interesting. Or particularly believable. At sixteen, to say “Five is a bad age to lose a mother, and to hope to remember her for who she was” is unlikely; to follow it with “I think it could be a good age to lose yourself, if you’re not careful” isn’t making things better. Sure, there’s the right dollop of melodrama, but there’s also a bit too much awareness of the aging process and how it works. It’s not the right kind of way for a teenager to enunciate melodrama.

Looking at Scalzi’s blog, there’s far too much of a similarity between Zoe’s voice and Scalzi’s own voice. Not only in tone, but in pacing — in the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs. So it’s not surprising that Zoe’s voice doesn’t sound real. I can’t help but compare her to the narrator of Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, which was a book I didn’t care for at all — but which had exactly the opposite set of problems and virtues. It captured something believable in the voice of its main character, a teen girl from a rural community. The problem there was that no story could be found under the voice, meaning that character could not be built because there were no choices to be made, not even the choice not to make a choice. Here we have the opposite; character work fails because the language is flat and the plot overly-determined. Zoe tells us “I am a daughter and goddess and girl who sometimes just doesn’t know who she is or what she wants,” but we don’t believe her.

I’ve spoken so far about issues of voice, but the actions of both Zoe and her best friend Gretchen are just about as unnaturally self-possessed as their voices. About two-thirds of the way through the book, they set off after some unknown aliens who’ve stabbed Zoe’s mom; the scene that develops turns out to be an opportunity for Zoe to show off her enlightenment, communicating with the hostile natives of the planet. You’d think that would involve overcoming her hatred of the aliens for hurting her mother; actually, she seems to to forget all about her mom, and the several colonists the aliens have killed by that point.

Now, in fairness, I should say that it’s not as though those characters are the only two clever, sarcastic, wise, funny people in the book. In fact, so are Zoe’s parents. And her boyfriend. And her parents’ assistant. And every sympathetic character in the book. The not-sympathetic characters? Not clever, sarcastic, etcetera, etcetera. In fact, they tend to be violent and aggressive. Basically, there are two voices in the book, and each character gets one voice or another. Or is an alien lacking consciousness.

(In at least one case, Magdy, a character starts out aggressive and stupid, and then later becomes clever and sarcastic when he becomes friends with Zoe. But then the plot needs him to be stupid, and he is, and he is no longer clever or sarcastic. You remember those Saturday morning cartoons where one of the gang of plucky kids has to be an ass for no real reason other than to show the audience what not to do? That’s who Magdy is: Eric from Dungeons & Dragons. I suppose you could say Zoe’s telling of her tale naturally places her at the centre of the universe, and that she only allows other characters to be clever insofar as she likes them; but I can’t find anything in the text that supports this idea, and the writing is generally so clunky that this self-aware use of an unreliable narrator seems unlikely. I tend to think in this case that bad writing is just bad writing.)

To return to the comparison to the Miriam Toews book: I thought A Complicated Kindness was just the right sort of terrible to win literary awards; it in fact won the Governor General’s Award and the 2006 Canada Reads contest. Zoe’s Tale, by contrast, is evidently the right sort of terrible to get nominated for a major science-fiction award, last year’s Hugo. Now, Scalzi had a blog post, which appears to not be online but which was reprinted in his collection Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, about his dislike for The Catcher in the Rye and Alienated Teen Literature (his caps) in general. As a contrast, he praises the active characters of Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels. Personally, I mildly enjoyed Catcher, probably because I didn’t read it in high school, and can’t stand Heinlein’s writing. But granted Scalzi’s book is certainly more in the spirit of Heinlein, it’s still a tremendous failure. Specifically: If you’re going to write a plot-oriented novel, the plot should make sense.

The further the book goes on, the more incoherent it becomes. Zoe’s told that several attacks on her life were made on her old planet, of which she knew nothing; she reacts to this information not at all. Discovering that potentially dangerous animals lurk in the forests of Roanoke, Zoe and her friends decide not to tell anyone (even after somebody gets killed). Zoe’s alien companions tell her that she needs to know how to fight because she’s a very important girl to their whole civilization and enemies would like nothing more to kill her; but a) this was true before she went off to a new planet (you know, when those six assassination attempts were being made), and b) maybe somebody should have thought of this before allowing her to be brought along to a defenceless colony world (seriously, did the Earth diplomats really think having Zoe turn colonist was a great idea?).

Oh, and the aliens are going to teach Zoe to fight despite not actually being remotely humanoid in form. Oh, and also human spies can locate and plant bombs on hundreds of different spaceships and none of them get discovered. Oh, and at the climax of the book the hundreds-of-planets-strong alien commonwealth tries to take the human colony with a hundred soldiers led personally by the chief of a major political faction. Oh, and also at the end a super-evolved alien race decides to make a point by staging a combat of a hundred members of their race in barehanded combat with a hundred members of another alien race, as an ‘entertainment’ (because although they’re highly evolved, apparently they still have a thing for mixed martial arts). Which last sets up an extremely convenient ending to the book, in which a hundred aliens one by one tell Zoe how special she is. Which is, you know, nice for her.

(It’s at this point that the ‘unreliable narrator’ theory is almost irresistable. One imagines Zoe’s Tale as a complete fabrication, a book written by an unremarkable girl so frightened of sex she can’t even mention it, so lacking in allies she must invent a perfect best friend. She lives a life so terrible and dull she must invent a saga that takes her to faraway planets, with parents much more interesting than her own. And the aliens who line up to compliment her in this reading would be a heartbreaking touch — brutalised by abuse or neglect, Zoe compenstates by imagining herself a messiah to a species that only exists in her own imagination, who testify to her own innate greatness; she is a hero in her own mind. From this point of view, the book might actually be touching. The idea’s been done before, but at least it’d explain some of the incoherencies in the novel as it stands. Sadly, I can find no actual textual support for it. All I can say is that Scalzi’s written a book that would actually be better if it were the sort of book he doesn’t like.)

Structurally, the book’s very slow for a plot-oriented adventure. Scalzi opens the book with the colony ship in trouble, then flashes back to give us Zoe’s early life and the backstory of the colony mission. I’ve grown to dislike this sort of thing, which seems to me increasingly common in TV, movies, and (especially) mainstream comics; it seems to me like a cheat, dropping into the story in medias res just to establish some cheap suspense, before then giving the real beginning of the story which happens to be less dramatic and intriguing. Specifically, it seems like a cheat because the uininteresting bits still end up being told; the audience is just given the bait of the really cool bits. That’s a problem here, in that once the faux-beginning is out of the way, nothing particularly intriguing happens for a good long while — over a third of the book. For over a hundred pages we get nothing but Zoe and her friends being clever and sarcastic and ... well, you know. It’s stunningly dull. It could have been dropped very easily, and would not have been missed.

Conversely, the ending makes so sense at all, lurching through a series of anticlimaxes and under-reported battles in which Zoe has no personal interest and risks nothing. The day is saved because one politically important character says so (as opposed to, say, the signing of a treaty binding people to future behaviour). Zoe’s parents, threatened by the possibility of being arrested by authorities, set off for Earth to avoid them (?), to do what I don’t know.

For a story set in the far future, it’s pretty casual about its use of modern culture. It’s nice that Babar survives into the future, but I found it unlikely (... and was the name of sports team, the Slime Molds, a reference to the old computer game Rogue?). More annoying, the teens all have PDAs, which act almost exactly like iPhones. Sometimes Scalzi brings in references from earlier cultures, safely American (the colonists grow maize, of course). Zoe begins the book living on a planet named Huckleberry, later explicitly connected to the eponymous Mr. Finn, despite the fact that it’s largely populated by East Indians. The reference is almost exactly wrong; Tom Sawyer, maybe, with its adventurous kids exploring the place they live, but there’s nothing in this book to compare (in quality or any other way) with Huckleberry Finn, and its long river journey.

Or take another example (some spoilerish stuff follows): the name of the colony world is Roanoke, after the first colony in what is now the USA. The colony famously failed; as we find out, the people who named the book’s colony chose the name as a deliberate reference, since they were setting the colony up for failure. Which means that they sent Zoe, so important to that alien species, to be a part of a colony marked for death. And the authorities who came up with this plan chose a name for the project that would be a red flag for anybody who knew Earth history (do they not have Google in the future?). This is the worst kind of reference to make; it’s a smugly self-aware tip-off meant for clever readers, but which characters in the story should also pick up on. In other words, it erodes one’s suspension of disbelief.

Maybe you’re thinking: so, if these people are colonists ... and there are natives who’re at least semi-intelligent ... hell, they even named themselves after a European colony in North America ... clearly the book deals with issues of colonialism, right? Maybe that’d be why Zoe’s family, the leaders of the expeditions, are the Perrys, as some kind of reference to American exploitation of Japan? Well ... no. No, no thinking of that sort of icky political stuff. Humans plant colonies, humans are right to plant colonies, multi-racial alien commonwealths are evil insofar as they tamper with human Manifest Destiny. It’s the lack of awareness about colonialism that moves the book from “unintelligent” to “distasteful”.

Still, for all the many flaws in the book, what really sinks it is the main character. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, also nominated for last year’s Hugo, begins with an annoying, unsympathetic teen lead; then subjects him to real hardship, which changes him and makes him into an interesting, motivated character that genuinely compels a reader’s sympathy. Zoe never suffers in any significant way, never grows, and never becomes interesting. Instead, all her tale offers is bad writing. A series of quips and the occasional homily, dialogue like “It’s a small chance. But right now it’s the only one we’ve got,” and an extended turgid eulogy of considerable triteness.

This book is quite, quite terrible.

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