Nothing could ever make me stop loving _Speed of Dark_

tumblr_maoa98kxwx1qb37r6o1_400           On her blog, Patty Jansen asked whether I’d ever stopped reading an author because of some sort of political opinion they’d expressed, and my answer was no. But it did make me remember that Elizabeth Moon was involved in some kind of kerfuffle awhile back…something to do with Islam? And how bad Islam is? I am too lazy to look it up.

And that reminded me that I love Elizabeth Moon’s Speed Of Dark. It is straight up one of my most favorite books. It’s a near-future first-person narrative whose protagonist is a high-functioning autistic person. In many ways, it’s similar to that book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time, that was so highly acclaimed awhile back. But it’s so much better. The Curious Incident… was basically all about chuckling re: how this kid kept misapprehending super obvious things about the world. But Speed Of Dark is about a very intelligent adult who’s doing his best to understand the world around him. And it also dares to ask questions about the nature and value of autism itself. Speed of Dark also has one of the most incredibly daring endings I’ve ever read. Even thinking about it gives me shivers.

But one of the things I love most about Speed of Dark is that Elizabeth Moon wrote it. Because, you know, it’s really not the kind of book you’d expect her to write. For most of her career, she’s written adventure fantasy and space opera. And I think that after writing Speed of Dark–a less-plotted, voice-driven novel–she went back to writing the adventure stuff. I think she wrote it because she has an autistic child and she really had something to say about autism.

But it just goes to show…the differences between adventure SF and literary SF are not really a matter of authorial skill. There seems to be this perception that if a good writer decides to write an adventure SF, then they can write the Madame Bovary of adventure SF. But I don’t think that’s how it is.

Elizabeth Moon writes excellent adventure novels. I’ve read and reread her Pakserranion and Gird novels. But they’re good in the ways that adventure SF novels should be good: they have vivid heroes; they have unexpected plot twists; they put their protagonists in impossible situations that they win out from. If they were good in the way that Speed of Dark is good, then they’d be something different–they’d be extremely disquieting, like, say…The Road or Don Quixote.

Elizabeth Moon is obviously a great writer. And whatever she sets out to write, she succeeds. However, I will say that, as good as her adventure novels are, Speed of Dark is better. Oh my god, Speed of Dark deserves to be more famous. It won the Nebula, but it ought to be, like, Ender’s Game famous. No, it ought to be Middlesex famous.

Anatomy of a Literary Pageturner

Definitions: A page turner is:

  1. a really good book that you can’t put down.
  2. a style of book: a plot-driven thriller that keeps you in suspense so that at every moment, you want to see what happens next.
  3. a physical format. It’s a book with large fonts, large margins, and lots of space between lines. This means few words per page, which means you turn the pages more often. The physicality of reading the book (which requires constant motion) puts you into a state of excitement and makes you think, “Wow, I am really engaging with this book”. Page turners also tend to have thick pages, so that as the pages gather under your left thumb, you can actually feel the palpable thickness that you’ve already gone through.

I recently read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. This book meets all three of the above definitions. It’s a great book. I kind of always knew it was going to be great. I read the first twenty pages of it a long time ago when I found it in my house (I think my dad bought it), but somehow I wandered off and never finished. After a friend recommended it, I read it and…it was good. It’s an awesome, humorous story told from an autistic kid’s point of view. If you’re an SF fan then maybe it’ll help to say that it’s a lot like Elizabeth Moon’s Speed Of Dark, but a lot more comic.

But when I opened this edition of the book (pictured, hopefully, to the right), I immediately noticed that it’s in kind of an odd format for the literary darling that it is. The spacing between lines is, for a printed book, absolutely huge. It’s like 1.5 spacing, at least. And the margins are also huge. The font size is also several points larger than is typical for a trade paperback and it’s also some sans-serif font, like Calibri or Arial or something. The pages are also very thick. The book only has 260 pages, but it’s over an inch thick. I own 500 page books which are significantly slimmer.

What an interesting decision. The edition I am familiar with, both from my dad’s copy and from bookstore shelves, is a different one (the cover of my dad’s edition is pictured to the left). This edition clocks in at 220 or so pages, and it’s also significantly thinner (half an inch or less, as I recall). On the shelf, it looks novella-sized, like the Great Gatsby or The Heart Of Darkness or something. A quick glance at the inside of the book using Amazon shows that it has a smaller font and line spacing (and its using a serif font too, but I am not sure of the significance of that).

It’s strange. This same book was produced both in a semi page-turner format and in a slim, elegant literary format. A quick glance through Google Book Search shows that there’s also a 320 page version floating around, whose font size and line spacing look even more pageturnerlike.

From Mark Haddon’s Wikipedia page, it looks like the book was marketed for both kids and adults. Maybe the reason that I only encountered the version my dad owned, before, was that I usually don’t look at books marketed for kids, but since the library doesn’t discriminate, it gave me the kids’ copy.

It’s an interesting challenge to my preconception to see a book like this. It’s similar to how, 30 or 40 years ago, a lot of literary classics were marketed in mass-market paperbacks (sometimes because they were not yet classics). For instance, I originally read Hundred Years Of Solitude in mass-market paperback form (the same format as most paperback SF novels and thrillers, whereas most literary novels are published in trade paperbacks which are a little taller and wider and have slightly nicer cover stock and glue and such).

If we think of frequent page turns as making a page turner, then the biggest page turners of all are ebooks. Most ebook reader screens will display (at preferred reading fonts) far fewer words than a typical paperback page. I wonder if this makes peoples’ subjective experience of ebooks systematically different from their experience of the same book when it is in paperback.

Also, there are no class differences amongst ebooks. All books look the same. I wonder if this will eventually start to change. I think, in a way, that people might enjoy being able to tell, at a glance, that a book is a literary-type book in its nice trade paper format or that it’s a sci-fi potboiler in a mass-market format with a spaceship embossed on the cover. Maybe those same shorthands will start to develop in ebooks.