Mike Resnick, one of the most prolific and award-winning authors in science fiction today, talks about preserving the “reader’s trance.” I’m not sure whether he coined that expression (although I think he did), but whoever did, it’s a very evocative description of what happens to us when we are reading and everything goes right. At it’s very best, reading is a wild ride, and when the language is right, we are in the ride, not watching from the outside. We stop noticing the words on the page and see only the world as the author imagines it. That’s the reader’s trance.
What breaks it? Almost anything. It is extraordinarily delicate. Use the same word in two sentences back to back and the reader will blink, for a moment think about your word usage (instead of the world), and in that moment leave the trace and go back to just reading words on the page.
Speed bumps -- that’s another way to look at the problem. Every time you put something that makes people stop and read a passage a second time to see if they understand what you’re getting at, or take a mental step back and consider whether they buy what you’re selling, it's as if the ride hits a speed bump, and the reader’s trance is broken.
This came to mind the other day as I was reading Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. For those of you who haven’t read them (Leviathan and Behemoth are the two books out so far), there’s a lot to like: a couple spunky and admirable protagonists, a detailed world, lots of action, battles, and pretty interesting turn-of-the-century-style bio-engineering, and mechanical walkers – lots of mechanical walkers. Maybe too many. That was my problem.
Westerfeld’s story is set in 1914 at the start of the Great War, but the European alliances of the Triple Entente and the Central Powers are instead the Darwinists (who use bioengineering as their core technology) and the Clankers, who use iron and steam. I found the elaborate bio-engineered “beasties” used by the Darwinists not only imaginative, but very carefully thought-out, even plausible within the scientific assumptions of the author’s universe – everything you could want. Ironically, it is the Clankers, whose technology is less of a stretch, which gave me problems.
I’ll pretty much always allow an author the scientific “gimme’s” of his universe, so I don’t have a problem accepting the Clankers being able to build bunches of combat walkers. What I had consistent problems with throughout the book was the fact that mechanical walkers have apparently supplanted all wheeled vehicles for everything. Walking food carts. Walking beds. I understand this was probably done to increase the exotic sense of the world, but every time I ran into it, I kept wondering why?
Why did the Clankers get rid of every wheeled vehicle in the probably fifty to a hundred years of their industrial revolution? They had to use wheels before that, or they never would have had an industrial revolution. Every time I wondered where all the wheels went, I wasn’t in Westerfeld’s world any more; I was outside of it looking at it as an artificial construct.
It’s not as if Westerfeld is a poor writer or an inexperienced one. He’s got a number of successful books under his belt, including Leviathan itself, which was a New York Times bestseller. And as I said earlier, Leviathan is a popular book for lots of good reasons. So my purpose here is not to beat up on Westerfeld; it is to show that if he can inadvertently break the reader’s trance, anyone can.
But that doesn’t make it okay. We need to do everything we can to grind those speed bumps down flat to the pavement.