Less is More

by Peter Wood

When should authors keep writing, and when should they stop? Peter Wood discusses his answer along with a handful of examples of where science fiction writers may have gone too far. Check out Wood’s latest story for Asimov’s “The Less Than Divine Invasion” in our [January/February issue, on sale now!]

People used to discuss things. Now, there’s always that guy at lunch or  on a long car ride who whips out his phone and answers a question that nobody wants answered and stops the conversation dead in its tracks. Writers shouldn’t make the same mistake.

Fellow Asimov’s alum Jonathan Sherwood and I just finished editing the Odin Chronicles, a collection of thirty related flash stories about the deep space mining colony of Odin III. We realized pretty quickly that the supposedly free-standing stories raised a lot of questions about the colony and its ever-growing cast of characters. We’d give the authors nudges sometimes to answer those questions. But we also came up with a list of questions that we didn’t want the stories to address in too much detail.

Sometimes it is better not to know.

A question might be better off left alone if it can’t be answered. This is true with most time travel stories. You can’t  explain away paradoxes. I love the first two seasons of Dark, but the last year of the time travel series explained too much.  A Sound of Thunder doesn’t need a sequel where Ray Bradbury breaks down the time travel technology and what exactly happened at the end of the first story.

Then there are questions that just aren’t relevant. We don’t  need a backstory

You want an example of what can go wrong if one question too many is answered? I’ll give you three. Alien, The Terminator, and the original Planet of the Apes. Each of those classic movies raised a lot of questions. The studios churned out a series of increasingly mediocre sequels that gave way too many answers. We were better off not knowing how the apes took over Earth. Moviegoers didn’t demand the xenomorph alien’s origin. We sure didn’t need to have the entire terminator timeline explained to us including why the terminator spoke with an Austrian accent.

Did you leave the theater desperately yearning to know who created the aliens or how the terminator got its accent? Me neither.

The thing is that there are no good answers to the questions those initial movies raised. There is no logical way the apes took over, for example. When sequels tried to explain things, we’re left with nonsense like a space virus that killed all the cats and dogs and morons who replaced the extinct household pets with orangutans and chimps and time traveling apes who taught their ancestors to speak in less than a generation and—God, my brain hurts. Why couldn’t they have just left us with the wondrous shock of seeing the Statue of Liberty on the beach?

We all know why those questions had to be answered.  Money. That’s why every Star Wars movie keeps going back to the well over and over and over and answering questions that nobody had. Did it really add to the story to know that Anakin created C3P0 and R2D2 or that a trade dispute started the Emperor’s rise to power? You’re better off skipping the first three movies.

David Gerrold’s time travel masterpiece, The Man Who Folded Himself, raises a lot of questions and answers damned few of them. And that’s okay.  The book is  more than a WTF time travel tale. It’s also an in-depth examination of self. The time traveler learns who he is in ways that I will not even attempt to summarize. Do yourself a favor. Read this book.

Good fiction is about how characters cope with a situation more than explaining every nuance of whatever world the characters find themselves in. The Man Who Folded Himself is more about how the time traveler reacts to finding a time machine than about how the time machine works or who built it.

Good fiction is about how characters cope with a situation more than explaining every nuance of whatever world the characters find themselves in.

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a primer for how to build a theocracy. It concerns how people like Offred survive when they find themselves trapped in Margaret Atwood’s nightmare. Atwood keeps the historical details vague and it works. If we know too much of how the religious zealots took over, the message is diluted, because we can reassure ourselves that the scenario just isn’t possible. That would be like expecting George Orwell to detail exactly how the totalitarian regime rose to power in 1984 so we can breathe a collective sigh of relief, because it’s only a story. Orwell doesn’t fall into that trap. He keeps the historical background nebulous.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that an author should be completely unaccountable.  The premise has to be somewhat plausible at least within the parameters of world building.

Compare the ending of the 1968 Planet of the Apes with Tim Burton’s remake. The original takes place far enough in the future that when the credits roll  the wheels can start spinning and we can speculate about what might have happened. It’s a mike drop moment and it should have been left alone. Then the sequels inserted dates for everything. Knowing we started using apes as pets in 1980 and those apes took over in 1991 does not enhance one’s viewing of the first movie.

In Tim Burton’s remake the stranded Earth astronaut escapes back to Earth. Burton in a watered-down moment that rips off the original has the astronaut find  Lincoln has been replaced in the Lincoln Memorial by a statue of the disgraced ape general. Except, that the ape had been, um, disgraced, and the apes lived in an agrarian society without any sort of technology. And a million other problems. It made no sense that that particular ape somehow managed to build a space fleet and conquer Earth in his lifetime. None whatsoever.

Yes, some questions should be answered. Agatha  Christie’s And Then There Were None is the greatest murder mystery of all time precisely because Christie explains in a very satisfying and plausible-enough way Who Done it.

But sometimes fiction isn’t about getting all the answers. My novella, the Less than Divine Invasion, leaves some questions unanswered, but I think the story and the reader would be worse off if I tried to explain everything. I didn’t want my story to end up like the  gangly overstuffed Looking Backwards where Edward Bellamy has to explain absolute everything in a never-ending conversation that is like a fever dream of My Dinner With Andre.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan works, because Nicholas Meyer and Jack Sowards lifted a great villain from the tv show and wrote a new story. They did not concoct a Khan origin story and ultimately didn’t answer a single question raised by Space Seed, the episode that introduced Khan. Would a studio have the guts to write a new story today? Based on Prometheus and Solo and Terminator Salvation, I have my doubts.

Pete Wood is an attorney who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his very patient wife. In his latest story for Asimov’s, he revisits his old stomping grounds, the barbecue-loving and hamburger-loving town of Kinston, North Carolina, last seen in “Never the Twain Shall Meet” (May/June 2019). Pete and fellow Asimov’s author Jonathan Sherwood recently edited The Odin Chronicles, a collection of thirty related short stories about the distant mining planet of Odin III, for Rampant Loon Press. More information about the book is at http://www.theodinchronicles.com. The author tells us, “Kinston is a great place to live, but it’s not as ordinary as you might think. If you look closely, you may discover that something unusual is going on.”

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