How Weird is Too Weird?
I just re-read Dune over the past few weeks, prepping to teach it in my scifi elective class come spring semester. This is probably my fourth time reading the book and, at this point, it all seems very clear and straightforward. Herbert’s world-building is marvelous as ever and I’m excited to teach it. However, as with any time I read a book with a mind to teach classes on it, I tried to keep in mind just how accessible the work is to a casual reader. If you’ve ever read Herbert’s work, “accessible” is perhaps not the first word that comes to mind. The world of Arrakis is densely layered and context clues to how everything works are relatively rare; there is a glossary and appendices included at the back of the novel for a reason.
So, okay, my students are going to struggle with it a bit. The question becomes “is that a bad thing?”
Part of the purpose of scifi and fantasy is to challenge the reader’s preconceived notions. The author seeks to create a new and alien place for you to inhabit for a while to get you thinking about the real, actual world (even if only subconsciously). Some do this with worlds that are just a touch off of our own (much of the cyberpunk sub-genre, for instance, or near-future hard scifi like The Martian). Some do it with wildly different worlds so far removed from our own, the comparison is more abstract and less direct – works like Herbert’s Dune series or even Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.
Personally, while I don’t dislike the more realistic tales, I really dig a good wild ride in a totally alien universe. The price for entry into these wild settings is high, though. It takes a while to get settled in Iain M. Banks’ Culture setting, for instance, though the pay off when you do is proportionally greater (for me). Novelty, of course, is a special thing in literature of any stripe, and any world as wild and strange (and yet fully realized) as Leckie’s Imperial Radch or anything in a China Mieville novel is something to be treasured and a challenge to be met.
In rattling off these names of books and authors, though, you might have noticed that some of them are easier reads than others. This leads me to my last rumination for the day: where, exactly, should the line be drawn between the alien and the familiar? Let’s be honest: there is a real, actual limit to how strange your world can be before it becomes essentially unreadable. A book no one reads is not the goal of any author, no matter how avant-garde they want to be, so where do you hold back? How weird is too weird?
I haven’t much of an answer to give you, I’m afraid. I don’t know that this is something easily solved by a set of hard and fast rules. I can say, however, that you need something at the heart of your tale to ground the audience in the familiar, otherwise you’ll lose their interest. Paul’s relationship with his parents in Dune is sufficiently understandable to carry you through all the bizarre chat about the Kwisatz Haderach and folding space/time with psychedelic spice. Likewise, no matter how strange the Culture seems, Banks (usually) populates it with main characters who are, in broad strokes, not too different from us in attitude and behavior, even if their cultural background is very strange and their appearance off-kilter. Both of these authors, though, cross the lines in some places. Herbert’s later Dune books are very, very weird to the point where they’re hard to connect to. Banks, likewise, has certain seventh dimensional plotlines circling around the doings of super-intelligent AIs that keeps the reader at a distance. As interesting as those books are, readers tend to love with their hearts, not their minds.
Though my current series of novels isn’t that off the beaten path, I grow restless anyway. One of my earlier novels was a multiple-reality/quantum causality thriller which was, frankly, too weird to work so I toned it down into a stock adventure novel and then it also didn’t work. If I go back to it (and other) ideas I have kicking around that are not the standard fare, I’m going to have to think long and hard about how to balance the strange with the familiar, the bracing with the comfortable, if I plan on selling the idea to anyone. Maybe then I’ll have better luck.