As I wrote in “Why I Write Science Fiction & Fantasy,” one of my favorite aspects of the science fiction and fantasy genres is their imaginative world building. Whether reading or writing, I love being transported to an entirely new realm, or thrown into a version of Earth I barely recognize. Often, I’m “sold” on a book or movie simply on its world. For example, before I read Wool by Hugh Howey, all I knew was that it takes place in an underground silo in a dystopian-type world. That was enough to hook me — and Howey delivered on his gripping world, and so much more.
And that’s what I want to talk about today. The more. If you’re my friend on Goodreads or notice the widgets on my blog, you might see that at the time of this writing, I’m about 200 pages into Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And I have been. For weeks.
I was sold on the concept of American Gods immediately. The various deities of world religions are real? They walk among us? The main character essentially road trips with them around the U.S.? Yes, yes, and hell yes.
But as I started reading the novel, I found myself struggling to get from one page to the next. As a protagonist, Shadow feels emotionally detached from his own life. And sure, I’ll grant that prison and tragedy can do that to a person — but I find him dull. Likewise, while Gaiman is a talented writer, the plot seems to move at a glacial pace. As for the mythology — yes, it’s fantastic. Though as someone who is interested in mythology but does not actively study it, I know there are dozens of references I’m missing. And that’s frustrating.
I’ve discussed American Gods with a few of my friends. When I express the above issues, they say “Oh, yeah, I agree. But isn’t the world awesome?” Which, yes, it is. Great concept. We’ve all said it a thousand times.
So, fellow science fiction and fantasy readers and writers, my question is: Is having a fascinating world enough for a sci-fi/fantasy novel?
Now, if you disagree with my feelings on American Gods, don’t let that cloud your answer to the question. I’m sure you can come up with your own example of a killer world with dry characters and an unengaging plot. Another one of mine? The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. The Axis Powers won World War II? Fascinating. The plot and characters? Not so much. (I know, I know. What kind of SFF writer am I?) Feel free to share your example in the comments.
Personally, I don’t think a great world is enough. Should a sci-fi/fantasy story have an original world or inventive driving concept? Yes. I think it’s, arguably, the entire point of the genre. That being said, I don’t think a story can rely on a world alone. As a reader, I need characters that I can love or love to hate. I need a plot that feels purposeful from almost the beginning of the book, if not the first 100 pages. I prefer a dash of action, a tangible subplot, and on a purely structural basis, chapters that aren’t 50 pages long.
In my own writing, I try to hit all of these points. I like to think that a steampunk world without steam is a strong enough concept to enthrall sci-fi and fantasy fans. And I tried to make Aya and the supporting characters engaging, complex, and flawed. I hope the plot is clear and stimulating, even though the action is more covert than sword-wielding. To some people, I will succeed. To others, I’ll probably be their American Gods (and not in the good way). But hey, art is subjective.
I’d like to close with a caveat. Obviously, I have not finished American Gods yet. Maybe, when I get to the 250 or 300 page mark, the story will pick up, Shadow will take some initiative, and the plot will chug along more quickly. I fully recognize that I could love this book and bow down to its genius with my other sci-fi/fantasy fans. I’ll finish it — but I have feeling it’s going to be a slog.
So give me your two cents on this.
Can a science fiction or fantasy book rest purely on its world? What makes a truly great sci-fi/fantasy story for you? Are there any “classics” that you find dull? Share your thoughts in the comments!