From Coconuts to Mars via Sartre

A good stretch of the legs with Lyra this morning, with plenty of time for musing. (A good thing as it is raining now so its a short hop this evening!).

My internet research over breakfast following on from yesterday’s riff on how the humble coconut could have turned out to be a whinfruit (more accurate as a coconut is a fruit not a nut) and the mysterious origins of orange (the fruit came before the colour), reminded me of my early days (and nights) at work.

My days as the dogsbody on the team coincided with internet access being rolled out to all and sundry. Before the novelty had worn off many bizarre facts were googled to reduce the tedium of hanging around waiting for some Chilean lawyer to reply to a footling query or for documents to come back from the printers to be checked (my least favourite job ever).

I recall one stultifying Saturday in the office, hanging around waiting for something to happen and assiduously researching the difference between currants, raisins and sultanas to pass the time. (I am afraid I have not retained this knowledge and as I write this I know with a sinking heart that I am going to look it up all over again….).

Another evening I remember digging out a series of essays by Sartre on existentialism. These were actually rather good (and much more interesting than whatever it was I was supposed to be doing). This was likely an exercise in nostalgia as I had dabbled a bit in Sartre during my teens and early 20s. The plays I loved. I once missed my stop on the bus and ended up in Galashiels I was so engrossed. But the books I found excruciating. I have started Nausea about 4 times and never made it past the first few chapters. (This is a serious criticism as I am a dedicated finisher of books and even managed to read to the end one which had suffered a printers error and had 2 pages of text overlaid on each page, one in mirror image).

As we ambled round the field this morning I was thinking about why this might be; plays so good, books so tedious.

I think it may be a case of the need to show, rather than tell, in a play. Everything needs to come through the action and words of the players on the stage. The discipline of a restricted palette so to speak. With a novel, however, there’s so much more scope for adding descriptions and explanations and joining the dots for the reader, especially if you have a grand idea you fear the reader might miss without a good prod. However, the more an author does that, somehow the flatter and more lifeless I find the book.

I really enjoy science fiction. However, this is a genre where the temptation to over describe and over explain in this way is strong indeed. And I can understand, I really can. I mean, you spend hours imagining a broadly coherent Mars colony situation to be the setting for some torrid murder. The temptation to bang on about the gravity field rotations and the inner workings of the bio digesters you have dreamed up must be huge- but it does slow down the action. Maybe the reader could be trusted just to believe it works…

However, I have found a solution. I have taken to audio books for this type of novel. I can sit back, put my feet up, and listen to any number of epic digressions into cryptography or the mechanics of cloning whilst I wait for the action to recommence so long as the reader’s voice is easy on the ear…………..

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