Thursday, September 21, 2006

Beer-Money SF vs. Literary SF

Another one of my probably-stupid insights hit me over the weekend:

In a "literary" SF novel, the story begins at the beginning of the actual story, in the middle of whatever milieu the story is set in, and the author drops clues so that the reader can fill in the backstory. In fact, this kind of backfilling is one of the great pleasure of SF, to my mind.

In "beer-money" SF (which I could also call "entry level," or other things), a book begins with a prologue, generally divided into several short scenes, which collectively pull the reader forward (or outward, or whatever) from the reader's now into the world of the novel. This can be done well or badly, but the reader's hand must be held. (A good example of the completely unnecessary prologue is the one in C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner -- this is interesting, because usually she's on the other side of the divide.)

An example: if Paul McAuley's "Confluence" trilogy (a landmark of '90s SF, by the way; everyone should have read it by now) was written in "beer money" mode, it would have started with the following sequence of scenes:
  • humans discover FTL
  • humans form some sort of galactic polity (probably several scenes)
  • time passes, and humanity gets old and weird
  • someone decides to build a huge surfboard shaped planet
  • building of the surfboard-shaped planet, in several quick scenes
  • people move in
  • bureaucracy of the surfboard-shaped planet goes a bit decadent
And only then could the real story begin.

Of course, this is a recent development; books have only been allowed to be long enough for this kind of expanse in the last decade or two. Back in the "Golden Age" (and forward through the '80s), every SF story started like the literary mode does now. What I'm interested in is figuring out when it changed -- what was the first book with a prologue telling us things that we should have been able to figure out from the book itself?

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