Cultural Isolation… and Reading

The kind folks at Goodreads featured two of my books, one fantasy and one science fiction, as their November choices for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Club members to read and comment on, if they wished.  The books were The Magic of Recluce and Haze.  As I suspected, I took a certain amount of flak on one aspect of The Magic of Recluce, and that was my “creative” use of textual sound effects.  This was something I’ve known for years, especially since Dave Langford’s “poem” created solely from the sound effects in the first few Recluce books.  Needless to say, the later Recluce books have far, far, fewer sound effects.  And some Goodreads readers also noted that I was a bit too elliptical in areas, a tendency I think I’ve largely corrected in later fantasy books [after all, The Magic of Recluce was my very first fantasy book, written over twenty years ago, and I have learned a few things more about writing in the years since].

The negative comments about Haze, however, bothered me more, not because a number of readers didn’t like the book, because that’s to be expected.  Any book by any author will find some readers who don’t like it.  What bothered me was why these readers didn’t like the book.  Almost all of those who posted negative comments made the observation that they couldn’t connect with Keir Roget, the main character, because he showed no emotion.  In point of fact, that is not true.  He shows no overt emotion beyond politeness and tactfulness, or a quiet reserve, even when his life is threatened. It’s not that he has no emotions; it’s that they’re kept under tight rein, because in both his culture and his profession [security agent] revealing emotions can be dangerous, if not fatal, particularly when you’re already under suspicion, as Roget is.  The safest way not to reveal emotions is to repress them so that you don’t feel them strongly yourself, and this is exactly what Roget does.  There are numerous clues in Roget’s small actions as to what he feels in his actions, but these are subtle.

From a reader’s point of view, this clearly presented a challenge, and that difficulty was magnified because the “culture” is future Earth, and future southwestern Utah in one series of events.  That’s a future where at least some U.S. readers “expect” a certain emotional pattern from the character, and Roget didn’t deliver.  Of course, if he had, he wouldn’t have survived even to the point where the book actually begins. I suspect that, had I made the entire culture more Sinese and the main character had been identified as of Chinese heritage and genetics, readers would have had less difficulty, but perhaps not.

But what all the comments underline is that at least a certain percentage of readers are so isolated in their own culture that they have great difficulty in getting “outside” their own cultural and personal expectations, in particular when the setting “looks” familiar.  Yet that was actually one of the basic points of the book, shown in many ways – that what looks familiar may not be at all and that our own future may be far more alien to us than many could possibly imagine.  The problem of course, was that, for some readers, I succeeded in making that seemingly familiar future so alien that they could neither accept nor identify with it… and that doesn’t help sales a great deal.

What I’ve experienced with Haze may also reflect why comparatively few SF books, especially those with high sales levels, depict heroes or heroines with emotional complexions more than slightly different from those in current western society.  Emotional differences are far more alien than physical differences, it would seem, at least in current SF, and that’s why so many aliens are really just humans in disguise.

6 thoughts on “Cultural Isolation… and Reading”

  1. hob says:

    I liked Haze, but one of the things which stood out to me was that the central character already felt he didn’t belong/relate to the future society/culture he found himself in. But neither did he relate to the previous dominant culture that was referenced by genetic memory visions.
    The culture he most related to was Hazian, but other people from his culture had severe culture shock on Haze. He didn’t seem to have a culture to contrast Hazian culture, or he was maybe culturally numb due to, I’m assuming, repeated cultural attacks because he was white in a non white culture? This gave him, at least to me, a very neutral feel. It was almost like a trauma patient slowly recovering throughout the novel. I think that’s what the negative reviewers were picking up.

  2. Jon Moss says:

    Haze was my first SF novel by you (I’ve read all your fantasy novels, except the most recent Imager release). I appreciated the effort you took restraining Roget from overt emotional outbursts. I enjoyed his observations and reflections on the emotional displays of others, both in his ‘home’ society and on Haze. The clincher that finally connected me to Roget was his extreme ‘leap of faith’ scene towards the end. The emotional tide rose, inexorably, yet steadily.

    I hope you aren’t put off by your experience at GoodReads. We enjoyed your explanations and participation. I plan to pursue more of your SF offerings in the future.


    1. Thank you. I certainly wasn’t put off, and I did appreciate the chance to explain what I was doing and why. So often there’s really no chance to do that, except on a one-on-one basis, and in that respect, the Goodreads “month” was most valuable, both for getting comments and for being able to respond to them.

  3. Frank says:

    As an expat American who has been living overseas, in a variety of cultures, for 30 years now, I find myself wondering if the negative comment may arise from a lack of experience with, or interest in, other cultures on the part of the reader you mention. It is difficult for me to accurately assess American culture these days as my only contact with it is through the news media, a questionable source at best. Those sources, however, seem to point towards a culture that has become increasingly polarized and afraid/distrustful of other cultures. Additionally, the downward slide of the educational system about which you have written many times in your blog, leaves modern students and younger adults with a much narrower spectrum of experience and tools for reflection than was the case in our generation — albeit that our parents made the same complaints about us!

    One of the reasons that I continue to enjoy your books, including Haze, as well as those of CJ Cheeryh, is that both of you are willing to use alternate cultural paradigms as central plot elements which force the reader to reflect upon things that usually fall below the radar.

    Keep up the good work — and keep writing your blog, I check it and enjoy each entry.

  4. Jim says:

    By coincidence, I’m just about through re-reading Haze. I definitely wouldn’t describe Roget as unemotional; it’s clear that he’s disturbed and effected by any number of events in the book… And his fondness and use of Hildegarde is another clear reflection of his emotions. He is reserved, but as you said, that’s a reflection of his profession and his culture.

    I do find the outsider within the culture aspects interesting and thought provoking… It’s rather clear that Roget found a way to excel in a culture and society that he didn’t really feel comfortable with, and this is something that I can recognize.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    I am not surprised at all that many people complained that they could not identify with Kier Roget because he ‘didn’t show enough emotion.’ In order to empathize with a character, there needs to be something in common with the person reading: how many people grew up in a Chinese-based system? how many people work in a profession where your personal emotions will be used against you by your superiors?

    I would submit that these same readers skimmed over the portions with Hildegaarde because they were ‘too touchy/feely.’

    Personally, I love science fiction and fantasy books that force me to examine my own culture’s assumptions and Haze certainly did that.

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