What I learnt from “Slow Lightning” or how to build a riveting plot

posted in: Reviews | 10

Jack McDevitt’s Slow Lightning (or Infinity Beach in the US) was one of those books which I bought and had sitting on the shelf for – years, actually, and that was after the years of prevarication before I bought it. I don’t like horror, and the Stephen King quote on the front hinted at that. But then again, it had the Horsehead Nebula on the front, and McDevitt had been compared to Arthur C Clarke. Apart from that, I’d read A Talent for War and although I hadn’t been all that impressed, it had won some award. You know how it is. I succumbed, bought the novel and there it sat.

I dipped into the book in due course. I don’t like prologues, didn’t like the one in A Talent for War and couldn’t see any point in it, so I flicked on through to Chapter One, which was s-l-o-w going and it didn’t do much for me. I threw the book across the room and left it for another time.

When I tried again, I soon discovered I had to read the prologue. It’s McDevitt’s style. He poses a situation in the prologue, an event that happened some years ago, then spends the rest of the book unravelling that event. Mind you, I still say the prologue in A Talent for War was a waste of time.

Back to Slow Lightning. Okay, so the prologue describes a chase, a crash, a death. Remember all that. On to chapter one, where we meet Kim, whose clone-sister, Emily, had disappeared shortly after returning from a space voyage. And yes, that chapter is slow, as McDevitt labours the point that far in the future, man is still alone in the universe and what’s more, has lost the urge to push on and explore. Perhaps that latter part is a clue to what the author was trying to get across, a theme, if you will. If we lose the urge to explore, we stagnate. Asimov made a similar point in his Caves of Steel stories, and the fate of planets like Aurora.

The plot builds up, though. Soon, I was hooked, as Kim and her great friend Solly head off to investigate the mysterious events at Mount Hope. Here we get the sense of creepy hinted at by Stephen King, something evil lurking out there. Together, Kim and Solly work on finding out what happened to Kim’s sister, despite opposition from Kim’s employers via their powerful benefactor, who also has a stake in the story. The novel became un-put-downable.

By now I was reading a well-constructed mystery thriller, peppered with clues and red herrings, excitement and spine-tingling dread. What is out there at Mount Hope and what did it have to do with the space voyage Emily had been on just before she vanished? And then we get to the really good bit, when Solly and Kim steal a spaceship and retrace Emily’s journey all those years ago. They piece together what happened out there by collecting radio signals using a very wide array. The tech is totally plausible and the events believable. And then the creepy ratchets up a notch. This ain’t no haunted house – it’s a spaceship, way out in space, and we all know what happened in Alien. Altogether now… in space, no-one can hear you….

I’ve said before that what I really liked about this book was the detail. McDevitt paints a vivid picture of the planet Greenway and its history. He knows all about this Earth colony and he tells us without labouring the point. Just a few throw-away lines as he mentions a castle built by a tyrant a few centuries back, or explains that body shapes vary over time, just like fashion, as parents chose what their children will look like. He also describes his tech and the spaceship, and the amazing view of the great Orion Nebula and the stars of Orion’s belt – Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. You’re out there with them, open-mouthed as a wondering child.

Sure, there are a few things I’d pick on. It’s a high tech society where you choose whether to work or not. So where does the high tech come from? And what about farmers and food? And so on. It’s all glitz and glamour missing foundation. One other thing which my husband picked up on, the broken down dam which flooded the town. Um. Wouldn’t a broken down dam just resume the course of the original river? That is, a dam might flood a town – has done, many times. But the other way round? Not quite plausible. Having said that, I didn’t trip over that one on first reading.

I learned a lot from this novel. Do your homework, draw a map, develop the background so you can write with authority, even if you don’t reveal everything you know. Work out the details, because they add substance. One trick I’ve found McDevitt often uses is to have a character read a book, watch a movie, take part in a role play. You read about it and dismiss the scene as a bit of “adding substance” – and then later in the book, a character draws on that earlier experience to work something out. Nice.

This was a five star read if ever there was one. But on top of that, I learnt a lot about the gentle art of writing. And for that I’ll always be grateful.

10 Responses

  1. Paul Trembling

    I haven’t read ‘Slow Lightning’ yet, but it sounds like another one for my (ever increasing!) wish list. I have read ‘A Talent For War’ and have to disagree with you on that one, Greta – I really enjoyed it, prologue included. I think that, properly done, a prologue can add a great deal, not just to a plot but also to the background. In this case, it sets out a framework within which the rest of the story takes place, and also introduces a sense of mystery – ‘Who is this mysterious person in this out-of-place grave?’ The rest of the story answers that question.

    You make a good point, though, about the importance of background detail. I’ve read too many stories that feel shallow and incomplete because they lack that. On the other hand, really good background gives a writer a lot more possibilities for story and character development. Giving your world a decent level of history can suggest ideas for where the story can go, I find.

    One example of good background from my recent reading is David Weber’s ‘Safehold’ series. He includes an amazing amount of detail – science, politics, geography, etc. – all feeding into each other to develop the story. On the downside, he can be accused of doing a lot of ‘tell, not show’, and ordinarily that would him a black mark from me, but in this case I can live with it, because of the richness of the story it produces.

    • Greta van der Rol

      There you go, Paul. No author can please all of the people all of the time. I didn’t mind A Talent for War – just didn’t love it. One reason was the Mutes. Yet another humanoid species. They communicate telepathically with each other – sure, no problem. But read human minds? Ummmmmm.

  2. Toby Neal (@tobywneal)

    Greta, if you liked it I know it’s good. But, I’m not a fan of the prologue/flashback technique. My editor has smacked me every time I’ve even thought of trying it!

  3. juliabarrett

    Great points. Interesting ways to involving the readers with the characters. Now I have to look for this book.

  4. MonaKarel

    I’ve found too many writers forget the mundane things. Such as toilets. I know we’re supposed to be offering up fantasy to the reader but putting a high tech spin on mundane issues such as food and sanitation give a richer feeling to the worlds being built.

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