Here’s a question for you: what do Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ and Iain M Banks’ ‘Consider Phlebas’ have in common?
Yes yes, they’re both books, well done, what else? Yes, and they’re both written by someone called Ian, bravo. Could we just assume you said ‘no, what?’ and move on? Thank you.
What I was trying to get at (without considering just how bloody minded some you are, grrr) is that they both pluck something personal from the backdrop of war and make us care because their characters care.
I’m listening to the audiobook of Consider Phlebas again, and it struck a chord with a throwaway comment I heard on Writing Excuses last week. A listerner wrote in asking what the Writing Excuses guys had learned from literary fiction, and the quick, ‘let’s get this out of the way quickly’ style answer was ‘literary fiction makes us care about something small while much genre fiction tries to make us care about something big’.
And it’s true. Think about it, how many fantasy books have you read concern themselves with a war that could wipe out a whole people or civilisation? Or sci fi stories where entire planets are blown up? There’s a tonne, yeah? Now, how many of those made you shed a tear? Very few to none. More probably none. Remember Alderan? That planet which was blown up at the beginning of Star Wars? No, you don’t. What you remember was Princess Laye’s (spelling? I’m awful at spelling fantasy character names) reaction to it, though.
What both McEwan and Banks did with their stories was set the story of a person against the backdrop of war. World war 1 for one story, a galaxy-spanning war of space citadels in another. Both feature death beyond count, but that’s secondary to the ones which effect our characters.
Why should we care about the war between Banks’ Idirans and Culture civilisations? When the novel begins the war’s been on for a while. Billions are already dead, but what are they to us? Oh, they’re nothing to us, but they’re everything to Horza. Horza fights for the Iderans for a set of very personal, firm beliefs of what he thinks they stand for against what he believes the Culture stand for. Every death is a reason for him to end the war quickly.
Remember; they don’t have to matter to us. Just to him.
Here endeth the lesson….. really, you didn’t care about Alderan blowing up? You heartless bast-