Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Premise and Execution

First off, Happy Holidays to everyone out there celebrating anything at all.

On Sunday 25 I flew east from Seattle to Buffalo via Newark, beating the massive blizzard by about two hours. Our plane left at 9:40 and they closed the airport at midnight. As of this morning, some poor souls have been there four days and are still only on stand-by. Since I usually have very bad plane karma, I am grateful to not be stuck this time.

But none of that is the subject of this blog, which is China Mievelle's novel THE CITY AND THE CITY. The book tied with Paolo Bacigalupi's THE WIND-UP GIRL for last year's Hugo. TCATC (sounds like a nucleotide base) has terrific writing. The characters are vivid, the settings well-realized, the plot involving. However, the novel depends on readers' accepting the premise, which is this: Two cities co-exist with each other, in the same geographical space somewhere in Europe. There is no magic involved; the cities each have some buildings in the same block. The citizens of these two separate countries "unsee" the buildings, citizens, and events in the other, which means that from birth they are indoctrinated to ignore them until they are a vague blur. It is a crime punishable by death to "breach" this convention. Almost nobody does. To travel from one city to the other -- even to buildings that are topographically next door to each other -- one must go to a central area, show passport and visa, and "cross the border."

At a recent party, two people said to me that they had no trouble accepting this premise and so enjoyed the book. Another person said she could not, and so did not. I seem to be in the middle (a usual position for me). I am enjoying the novel but at the back of my mind is a persistent nagging feeling that I don't believe it. This is, incidentally, the same feeling I had about Suzanne Collins's THE HUNGER GAMES.

So a question: Of what relative importance is a shaky novelistic premise compared to superb execution of that premise?


Steven Francis Murphy said...

If I do not buy the premise, I will not waste the time. It is that important to me.

S. F. Murphy
On the Outer Marches

Brendan said...

If the author can't make you ignore the nagging "But..."s is the writing really any good?

That being said, I did like TCATC and not every novel is going to appeal to everyone.

TheOFloinn said...

I once had a similar notion of two cities in superposition; but they were not invisible to one another, even by social convention. Instead, I supposed that the roadways and sidewalks had been laid out in a clever topography so that the beta city was inaccessible from the alpha streets. You might look out your office window and see the betans at work in their office tower, but if you went to street level, you could not get there. I was inspired to this (if that is the right word) by the multi-level streets in downtown Chicago.

In any case, nothing came of it. It's interesting that someone else had the same off-beat notion, though in typical end-of-the-age fashion put a more fantasy-like spin on it.

Sakura said...

Many people are unable to accept any SF or fantasy premise. Some are unable to read any fiction at all ("but it's not real!")

I feel sorry for them.

Execution is all!

Anonymous said...

I think a premise is only shaky if the author doesn't execute it well. Mieville's characters are what drew me into believing his premise. They were characters that had grown up in this dualistic world and reacted as one would expect them too. If they wouldn't've acted as they did, I wouldn't've believed it.

Jack Crow said...

Bas-Lag itself is a shaky premise. Mieville never really explains the Scar, or Thaumaturgy, or the failures of the Iron Council. He asks the reader to accept them.

It doesn't matter, there, either. Because Mieville executes superbly.

As a counter example: the premise which informs most of McAuley's Quiet War/Gardens of the Sun is significantly more believable. But... the execution is less than salutary. It's a great story, told poorly. McAuley's voice is intrusive, anvilicious, so clumsy and omnipotent that you have to suspend belief about the presentation of the tale itself. I think that's harder than casually ignoring the plot elements which follow from any attempt at speculative fiction.

When I pick up a book with the sci/fi or fantasy label on the binding, I assume the author is telling me tall tales. We really don't know what's going to happen two hundred years into the future. And no one can actually do magic, or summon a goblin on the back of a unicorn while draped in the tropes of steam punkery's finest.

But we do know when the author is writing for undiscerning twelve year old's with disposable income. Or just plain lacks the chops to get out of the way of his own story.

Unknown said...

I'd rather read about the bold premise, even if it's shaky. Though the writing has to be there, and in TCATC it is.

Orion said...

I'm all over the map on this one. Sometimes I can accept a shaky premise and thoroughly enjoy the book, and sometimes not even the best realization of a questionable premise will overcome the "I-just-don't-buy-it" factor.

I'm more forgiving of illogical premises than illogical plot twists.