Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Anatomy of a Doorstopper (The Neutronium Alchemist)

Your average book has, one hopes, carefully determined pacing. After a certain point, though, the author’s best efforts to guide my reading speed invariably fail. When the requisite weight is reached, the sheer number of pages in one of our beloved genre’s many doorstoppers simply outmuscles whatever pace the author was trying to set.

I have a pattern for these doorstoppers, and it seems fairly consistent. The first two or so days are pretty much like with any other book. You usually have more exposition in the opening of a one thousand page epic fantasy than in a three hundred page one, but it doesn’t change up my reading experience all that much.

It’s around the third day when problems start to set in. By this point I’ve usually read around three or four hundred pages. Now, if I’m reading an average book – and I’d say that the average book in my collection is probably between four and five hundred, though I’m not really basing that number off of anything – I’m drawing to the close. If the author’s done their job, I’m probably itching to see how everything ties together. If I’m reading Steven Erikson’s Reaper’s Gale, however, I’m a third of the way through. That’s about when the realization that I’m nowhere near the end sets in, and it occurs to me that I could probably read at least two other books in the time it’s taking me to go through Reaper’s Gale, or any other similarly sized behemoth. The knowledge that, were I to sit down and read for five hours straight, I still wouldn’t be even close to the end is frankly demoralizing, and it’s about here that my pace always flag.

But, of course, reading giant books isn’t an exercise in tedium, because I probably wouldn’t read so many if it was. Once I hit the halfway mark I start speeding up, the momentum I’ve been slowly gaining finally coming into play. By the time I hit page five or six hundred of a thousand page book, my speed starts increasing exponentially. I’ll often find myself reading the last three hundred pages of an epic in a day, because the agony of delayed gratification and slowly building tension has simply become too much.

Then, of course, there’s the comedown. This period is frequently so extreme that looking at any book under five hundred or six hundred pages feels like trying to dam a river with a skateboard, or trying to end a famine with a cracker. Almost always, I’ll start the next book in the series immediately after, providing there is one, because by this point I’m like a runaway train, and I’ll be damned if running out of pages is going to stop me. Of course, I usually realize what I’ve done about fifty pages into the new book, such as when I started Reaper’s Gale twenty minutes after finishing The Bonehunters, and put down the new one in a hurry before I’m too immersed to prevent the process from repeating itself all over again.

All of this brings us (finally) to Peter F. Hamilton’s Neutronium Alchemist. This book – at 1137 pages it’s a doorstopper if I ever saw one – started out by going through all the usual steps. The beginning was slightly slower because I was sick at the time, but, then again, the first scenes were genuinely excellent. Then I lagged for a bit, but as of Monday – and page 498 – I kicked things into high gear. Halfway through the book, I give in to the inevitable and admit to myself that I see why Peter F. Hamilton is considered such a master of science fiction.

Then comes Wednesday, and, by this point, I’m hopelessly hooked. I go from page 802 to page 1137, feeling like every moment not spent reading was utterly wasted. I barreled through the climax in a sitting, my jaw stuck somewhere between the floorboards. And then I turn page 1137 and…

that’s it?

No, there’s a mistake somewhere in here. I try turning the page again, but it doesn’t work. I try turning past the author bio, thinking that they might’ve shoved it somewhere in the middle of the last chapter, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, either. Around this point it finally dawned on me: Hamilton ended a thousand page book with a cliffhanger. My gradual jog-cum-crazed-sprint had ended with me falling off a god damn cliff.

Mr. Hamilton, I love your books. As we speak, I’m shaking a little from withdrawal and looking out the window on the off chance that the post man’s bringing it to the box now, unlikely as that may be. All the same, I think that anyone who could possibly write a book that good and then not end it must be a truly terrible person.

[Note: The Neutronium Alchemist cover is the upcoming Subterranean Press edition, posted over at Walker of Worlds.]

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your analysis, to establish some facile internet credibility I am a pretty prolific reader, with Hamilton I recommend an audio book, there are many books "doorstoppers" I would not do this with but having just finished Pandoras Star on audio I felt no significant detail was lost plus the voice acting adds texture to a book that reads like a script. Additionally I agree reading the next in a series of any author is a bad idea, read something in between, otherwise it turns into one gigantic novel upon reflection and there is the loss of excitement that comes with reacquainting yourself with such a diverse range of dynamic characters. Anyways very nice post I will read some moe.