What Were They Thinking?

Books with chapters from another planet

Warning: spoilers ahead. (To be fair, though, I think the authors do a much better job of spoiling these books than I.)

Once or maybe twice a decade, I’ll read a book that leaves me scratching my head. The book might be fine otherwise, but there’ll be a chapter or subplot that obviously crashed into the novel from outer space. They leave me wondering “What was the author thinking?”. This page is devoted to these gems of poor writing.

The first novel I encountered this in was Piers Anthony’s fantasy Bearing an Hourglass. Second in his Incarnations of Immortality series, it concerned a guy who’d become the incarnation of Time. The plot was bubbling along, not as good as the previous novel (On a Pale Horse, about Death) but acceptable, when suddenly the hero was in space. Not near-Earth space, but a Big Clichéd Cartoon Space Adventure that came from left field. Turns out the Devil needed Time out of the picture for a while, so he distracted the character by dumping him into a fantasy world. That could be handled decently, but Anthony made a botch of it: the sequence was horribly overwritten (which was part of the point, admittedly), but it committed a worse sin: it was tedious and much too long. What should have been two or three pages became what now seems like thirty or forty. That was bad enough, but Anthony committed an unforgivable sin: he threw the character into another chapter-long sequence, this one heroic fantasy. It was the worst authorial blunder I’d read to date. That was one of the reasons I never read another book by him.

The second example, just as blatant, I discovered in the ’90s: Dan Simmons’ The Hollow Man. When a telepath’s wife dies, he begins to lose his grip on the world. She was his shield, and now he must face the world barging into his thoughts. Great, we’re squarely in the emotionally nuanced territory of Robert Silverberg’s classic Dying Inside. (Even the title is a reference.) And it starts that way, up until the point when our protagonist witnesses a mob killing, which puts him on the run. But that’s not the "What the...?" plot element I’m writing about (although it should make one suspicious—but I’m willing to suspend disbelief if not pushed too far). No, what made me think “Where the hey was his editor?” was the chapter wherein our now-drifter protagonist finds himself hired as a ranch hand on a southwest ranch whose owner occasionally slips in a pair of custom razor-fanged dentures and eats the help. Of course, our hero survives, but by now everyone in the entire world should be asking of the author What in the name of everything in the universe were you thinking? Did your editor even see this manuscript? [That’s ignoring the episode’s implications, such as the existence of dental prostheticians who make razor-fanged dentures to order. And when I say “razor-fanged”, I don’t mean teeth as sharp as razors, I mean razors embedded in the dentures themselves.] It should come as no surprise to anyone that the author also writes horror novels. It looks for all the world like he had an idea he couldn’t fit into anything he was working on and was too enraptured by to save for a later day, so he cut off its heel and toes and shoved it, bleeding profusely, into The Hollow Man. By so doing he turned what could have squeaked by as an average novel into what may be the most spectacularly bad, mixed-up failure I’ve ever read. It’s kind of a pity, since I now have almost no interest in reading his award-winning novels like Hyperion. How many Hugos and Nebulas does it take to make up for one instance of breathtakingly bad plotting?

The third example came at the turn of the next decade, when I tried the Big Space Opera of Iain M. Banks. I’d heard good things about his Culture series, so I tried his novel Consider Phlebas. In the middle of some interesting ideas and a few great set pieces, there’s chapter 6, “The Eaters”. Yup, our hero (or one of them) crashes on an island of cannibals, is captured, and must escape. The episode advances the plot in no way whatsoever, and I could practically feel the author’s glee at being able to include a (long) chapter with cannibals. It did not surprise me to later discover that he wrote mainstream thriller/horror novels under the name Iain Banks (no M). Let’s say it aloud together, okay? If you write both SF and horror, don’t mix the two.

My last example is Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel. In this case it’s not a chapter that came from outer space, it was the subplot about a secret society that surgically alters dogs in an attempt to make them speak. In a novel ostensibly about grief and coming to terms with one’s mistakes, this excursion to the island of Dr. Moreau might have served a metaphoric purpose (a là “if you’ve even heard of this group, you’re too far ’round the bend”), but it’s played too straight for that. And what are we to make of the link between Lorelei’s past and the society? It’s all too weird, leaving us wondering whether there’s some Twilight Zone meaning we haven’t found, or whether the author just couldn’t decide on a genre. Unlike the books mentioned previously on this page, though, this novel’s Subplot from Space isn’t jarring enough to make the book unreadable. But it too leaves us with the fatal question.

With books like these making it past editors, I shudder to think what doesn’t.

Last updated 30 March 2006
All contents ©2006 Mark L. Irons