Is it possible to have a book with a pace that is too fast? A book with too much action? Sure, since it’s relatively easy to jettison all of the hard-to-write stuff like character and description, and just dump in a lot of violence (ironically, I think a lot of writers who set out to do this blow their chance, since you get careless if you’re writing, deliberately, at less than your best).
The hard part is a combination of fast pace with some glossy writing and intriguing characters. And I’ve noticed that this is a skill that science fiction writers are picking up. Case in point: the debut novel from Tobias S. Buckell, Crystal Rain.
Buckell’s book is an extreme example, since it is about as streamlined as a novel could be and still have any kind of content in it. I was actually quite surprised at how fast-paced the book was. I was glad to see, however, that as I was burning through the story, Buckell got each moment and each twist and turn exactly right.
As the book starts, we don’t know if this is another planet or not. The main action takes place on a large peninsula called Nanagada with various Caribbean peoples living on it. A mountain range protected them from the ultra-violent Azteca… at least until now. The Azteca want to invade and then sacrifice as many people to their gods as possible, while the Nanagadans are understandably reluctant to have their beating hearts ripped from their chests. Crystal Rain is partly the story of the invasion, and how the invasion acts as a catalyst in various lives.
We gradually learn the situation: it’s a post-colonization planet, after a collapse due to alien war. This foreground is typical for such stories — there are bits of advanced tech lying around, the people have become ignorant of space travel, and so forth. But at least Buckell writes that stuff with some panache, and there’s some remarkably strong science fiction in there too. For example, two of the main characters are suffering from the psychological scars of hundreds of years floating in an escape pod in space. I can hardly imagine!
(It’s little surprise to a veteran sf reader that the Azteca gods turn out to be a ruthless alien species who don’t mind manipulating human societies. It’s a meme that only works here because it’s treated so matter-of-factly — it’s not a big reveal at the end of the book).
I think Buckell runs into some small problems with his ending, which feels more rushed than it should since that’s the moment of emotional payoff. Maybe he should have slowed down a bit? It’s a hard one to diagnose, since endings are notoriously tricky. I should add that the story has a macguffin that everyone is chasing, but Buckell handles it quite well — we actually get to see what the mysterious item is, and it’s not the infinite miracle everyone was hoping for.
Also in the category of disappointments: the way the Caribbean vibe seemed to fade as the story progressed. Crystal Rain is clearly the tale of a Caribbean culture trying to survive under duress, but then somehow it all morphs into the adventures of two formerly space-faring soldiers who don’t fit in. I hasten to add that Buckell has way more atmosphere and colour in his story than an equivalent sf book with the same post-collapse storyline.
Anyways, these thoughts are looking back: the experience of reading this book is quite unique along the way. Crystal Rain has short sentences, short paragraphs, and short chapters, but it’s not simplistic. It takes a great deal of care to create something so balanced. And so sparse.
Buckell’s lack of explanation reminds me of two other things: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which is a simple military sf tale jazzed up by fine writing, and Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. Erikson couldn’t be more different than Buckell, but my mind makes the link since Erikson’s whomping great epic fantasy contains almost zero explanation. Buckell breaks down and gives us a few paragraphs here and there, but the rest is all picked up from context. This gave me quite a joyful feeling as some new twist came into play and the world wrenched into a strange direction.
Crystal Rain has a fantastic cover. Unfortunately, the front on its own makes it look like the main character is being chased by a gang of killer parrots — like a sequel to the famous Monty Python sketch where maybe the parrot’s friends have come back for revenge. The full wrap-around (available on the artist’s website) reveals an enemy airship just behind the colourful birds. In any case, Buckell certainly lucked out with this cover, since everyone I show it to has exclaimed in delight. It’s almost tactile.