The Book of Lists (Actually, Author Kim Stanley Robinson)

Okay, this is not actually about the Book of Lists at all. It’s about Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’ve tried to read Red Mars. I gave up perhaps a quarter of the way in, and the book has become something of a running joke with my wife and I because of the List of Wrenches. There’s a passage in which he lists, in excruciating detail, the types of wrenches that were sent with the colonists to Mars. The list goes on and on, listing more types of wrenches than I knew existed, and serves no narrative purpose that could not have been served by stating “They were sent a comprehensive set of tools, with wrenches ranging from a common monkey wrench to a [most obscure wrench ever].” Perhaps the family joke has resulted in some exaggeration of the list, but in my house KSR is known more for listing things than the quality of his writing.

Consequently, I’ve stayed away from KSR’s books. I like a fair amount of hard sci-fi, but Red Mars was drier than Mars itself, and the List of Wrenches was the perfect encapsulation of the problems with the book.

Several years later, I’ve decided to give him another chance and started to read Aurora. Perhaps an hour in, I came upon a passage something like this:
The people in habitat A are:

And it went on. And on. I didn’t count, but I estimate it was about 100 names. When I pointed the passage out to my wife, she burst out laughing and asked why I had bothered with KSR again.

Does it get better? Should I give up on KSR entirely? Is anything he writes worth subjecting myself to his 100 item lists?

Sounds like a SciFi Sue Grafton. I had the unfortunate experience of reading one of her books, U for Undertow. Somewhere in the meandering claptrap are several lists. One that stands out (and has become our family joke/signal that an author is crap) is a freakin’ grocery list. No plot bearing whatsoever. Not a brief “she went t the store to pick up milk and sundries,” but a full-on grocery list. We figure either Grafton gets paid by the word or was contractually obligated to turn something in of a specific length. Either way, she was walking by her fridge one day, saw her list, and decided to include it.

It was an awful slog, but at least I knew what to pick up when I went shopping.

The bulk of the story in Aurora is actually being related by the ship’s AI*, which has been tasked with creating a narrative of the journey. It’s rendition is very clunky to start with but it’s technique becomes more polished as the tale goes on.
At the beginning it doesn’t know how to tell a story and sometimes resorts to lists of facts but it gradually learns better. Every so often there are clues reminding you of this, as it decides (or it’s suggested) that it read up on certain authors, etc. to see how to improve it’s own style. By the end, it’s writing style has evolved immensely and is really quite accomplished.

For lighter fare without possibly annoying lists, I would suggest Escape From Kathmandu or one of his short story collections…

  • well, the section controlled by the chief engineer

This is what happens when authors get famous and rich and editors can no longer kick them around, even when the work needs editing.

Ah, the George Lucas effect.

As an aside, there was a time in the 80s where if you saw The Book of Lists in someone’s house, there was a good chance they’d know who Cecil Adams was—or would want to.

As it happens, I am finishing up the book Icehenge, which is set in the Mars world. It doesn’t have any lists like you mention but their is a surprise twist with about 15 pages left. I don’t like that kind of crap.

Patrick O’Brian’s books are often accused of the same thing, because of the long descriptions of sails, ropes, and weather, but his characters are so engaging to me that it makes me willing to read the technical stuff.

SF author David Weber doesn’t do lists, but he is well-known for interrupting a dramatic scene with 5-6 pages of background data and information. For example, in his novel On Baslisk Station, the heroine is starting the space chase after the bad guy’s starship, you’re all keyed up for the confrontation…and we get 7 pages of the history of hyper-space travel…

They don’t call him the Mad Wizard Weber for nothing…

This is one reason why I love the classics. You’ll never find one of those authors going on for page after page about the architecture of some church or the sewer tunnels underneath a city.

You’ve obviously never read Melville, then. :wink:

I’ve got a hunch you’ve been whooshed, MovieMogul.

My problem with the two books I’ve started by KSR aren’t the lists themselves, but rather what they’re emblematic of, which is writing that’s as dry as Mars and cold as interstellar space. I got that the AI was a bad storyteller, but that doesn’t make a list of 100 names any more engaging to read. What’s worse, I sincerely doubt that the list of names will ever become a significant plot element and that the wrenches never were. Nothing was being conveyed that wasn’t either unimportant or conveyed better in other ways (such as other elements of the AI’s bad storytelling that didn’t include long lists of 100 names that are unlikely to ever come up again).

By contrast, I recently finished Seveneves by Stephenson. It includes a discussion of orbital parameters. It’s important to have at least a basic understanding of these for the story. Rather than a textbook explanation, a character gives a Neil deGrasse Tyson/Bill Nye explanation that’s targeted at a non-tech savvy crowd. This works to both convey the necessary information, it shows the character, and it is more engaging to read.

I think I’ll stay away from KSR. I’ll also add Grafton to my “listmakers list.” I’m already aware of the habits of Melville and Steinbeck.

Finally, Rhythmdvl, I was introduced to the Straight Dope by the books in a house that contained the Book of Lists in the 80s.

Well, I won’t argue too hard that the list of names was necessary or enjoyable to read but the wide range of names helped show the great diversity of people selected for the mission. Moreso than just saying there were a lot of people from all over the world, in my opinion.

And the list of wrenches, although I don’t specifically remember it, helped enforce the idea that every possible aspect of what the colonisers might need on Mars had been considered at some length. Presumably there were equally detailed lists of screwdrivers, electronic components, etc. available.
Also, as so much had to be assembled from flatpacks, etc. wrenches were a very useful tool which were required in all sorts of sizes depending on the job. Maybe he was trying to emphasize just how much complicated construction work had to be done!
I fear there are lists in most of his other novels so, as you don’t take to them, it’s hard to think of any of his longer works you might like. He is on record as saying he likes to challenge assumptions about how novels and stories should be constructed and sometimes this leads to little essays, or lists, etc. imposed on the reader when another writer might have chosen a different way to convey the information…

I also read Seveneves but, frankly, Stepnerson’s orbital mechanics baffled me a bit.
As I understood it, there’s a giant orbiting satellite with an untethered space elevator sort of thing hanging from it. The satellite, which has a large hole through it, orbits 2/3rds of way around the Earth and then changes direction and orbits in the other direction! Constantly. And a load of other satellites are so precisely positioned that they pass snugly through the hole as the big satellite swings back and forth.
If you’ve read it more recently than me, am I wrong in my visualisation, and did he explain how it worked at all? The energy to continually have an object that size constantly reversing it’s orbit (extremely precisely) must be huge!
I’m not saying it’s impossible but I think I’ll take KSR’s collapsing eco-systems and lists over Stephenson’s orbital mechanics, thanks!

I’ve also trainwrecked on KSR. Many of my pals tell me his stuff is great but everytime I try I just find it unengaging and end up giving up.

Now lists and digressions can be done well. Hell, a big part of the joy of Cryptonomicon is the weird little side issues and digressions. But they’re usually there in a way that reveals more about the characters instead of just being world-building.

I very much liked KSR’s Mars trilogy, though it was 20+ years ago that I read it.

Personally I skim bits that are boring me. An author may feel the need to list a hundred names, but I see no reason to read them all. Skimming isn’t hard. People complaining about being obliged to read some boring list: why? Skim it; if it becomes important later maybe you can skip back and consult it.

The change in direction is done by moving the center of mass relative to the Earth. By moving it higher in orbit, the elevator moves slower relative to the ring, and by moving the mass lower, it moves faster. The loop of the elevator remains at the same elevation relative to the Earth so the ring can pass through it. The center of mass is changed by moving weight at the end of the elevator and counterbalance.

The book doesn’t speak to the amount of energy this would take, but that doesn’t seem to be an inhibiting factor at that point.

Since Rhythmdvl was referencing Victor Hugo, I think MovieMogul was being meta.

Thanks for the explanation, HookerChemical.
Still thought the book was badly structured but at leastt that makes more sense now.

I agree. {Cough}Tolkien songs and poetry{/cough}