Learning curve…..

It’s been a couple of days since I’ve done a post, I’ve been doing some other things the past couple of days (had a job interview, talked to an admissions advisor about potentially going to grad school, working a little more at the bowling alley) so reading Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road is taking me a little longer than it normally would (based on page count, it’s only 280ish pages).  So to avoid going too long without any posts at all, I figured I’d write about something that I thought about the other day.

Learning curve in books, what the heck am I talking about.  Basically, it’s everything about the book that you need to know to really understand the story.  Obviously the characters and setting are two big aspects of this, but just as big a part is the magic or technology used in the books.  Now, obviously the learning curve is going to be a lot steeper if you’re reading a science fiction or fantasy novel as opposed to something set in our world, but it can still be there for novels set in our world.  Even though there are many different elements in many novels, there are a lot of things that we can take for granted in novels.  You’ll never really need to explain what a shuttle is in a science fiction novel, and in fantasy novels you generally don’t need to delve too much into how a country inn operates.

Many of the things that the learning curve does apply to in novels is directly related to the setting.  In a fantasy novel, there is almost always a magic system in the world, even if it is something like Gandalf where the books never explain the rules of everything he can do you still need to know that he is capable of magic.  In science fiction novels you often have to deal with aliens or technology in the world.

I think that in many ways, the learning curve associated with genre fiction affects what genres I prefer to read.  It seems like fantasy novels (at least many recent ones) there is a big emphasis on really creating a unique world, whereas science fiction seems to not have as much emphasis on the world and focus a little more on the technology.  I’m not the biggest techno-geek, and some science fiction novels fall flat in the world-building to me.  The added emphasis on the world rather than technology is a large part of the reason why I enjoy fantasy novels more than science fiction novels.  For short stories on the other hand, I prefer science fiction to fantasy.  Many fantasy short stories seem to be very generic in the world, you just don’t have time to explore a world in short form.  For science fiction short stories you can set up a situation faster because there are so many common elements in the sci-fi world that you don’t always need to explain quite as much.

As for characters in novels, I think the best way to deal with a large cast of characters is the way that Robert Jordan did in the Wheel of Time series.  You start with one character, and then slowly expand the story to include more and more characters.  If you were to start a book with the number of viewpoints that some of the later WoT books have, you could very easily get lost.

Learning curve is a very tough thing in many books.  As I said during my post where I talked about putting down Neuromancer the learning curve on that book was way to steep for me.  There was so much in the technology, the character, his current situation, and his background, that I just couldn’t follow everything that was going on.  On the other hand, if you go too slowly with the learning curve, I’d put the book down because nothing is happening.

So here’s your question after my post.  As a reader (or a writer) do you think about the learning curve in a book?  Are there books that you’ve stopped reading either because you couldn’t follow everything that was going on in the book or because nothing was happening in the book?  I think that this can be one of the toughest things to get right in a book, even though it’s a subtle thing that most people never think about.

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  1. I get what you’re saying about the learning curve, and what I’ll call genre background knowledge. The more I read of a certain genre, the more background knowledge I gain, and the less of a learning curve I should have to deal with when reading future novels of that particular genre. However, this isn’t always the case, as you pointed out with your example of Neuromancer’s steep learning curve. In those cases, I have to put forth a lot of time and energy in tracing characters, mapping out the setting, and just gaining a general feel for the culture in the novel. Oftentimes, I end up jotting down notes. Is it worth the effort? Sometimes. To be honest, when I picked up Eye of the World, I read the first page or two and then put it back on the shelf. I wasn’t ready to put forth the time and effort. However, last year I pushed myself through A Game of Thrones, trying to keep track of everyone and every setting and all the politics and history, and by the end it was smooth sailing and I arrived at the beginning of A Storm of Swords with an arsenal of A Song of Ice and Fire background knowledge. It was worth it–and I have no doubt that The Wheel of Time series is worth that same effort.

    Good post–it really got me thinking about a characteristic of reading I had never thought of! You should go to grad school, professor. : )

    • I’m considering going to grad school, albeit probably for business and not english or literature. The Eye of the World is a very slow starting book, if you want to get into the series faster, the prequel novel (New Spring) is a good place to start. I’ve met some people who couldn’t get into EotW at first but started reading New Spring and got into the series.

      As for Martin’s series, his prologue does a lot to get you started into the first book as well. By starting you with a prologue where you see a guy fighting an ice monster it brings you into the book quickly. If Game of Thrones didn’t have the prologue it would probably have a lot of the same problems that you had with EotW.

  2. I like books that start having some sort of plot immediately, and where instead of doing a giant infodump at the beginning, the author allows the world to be revealed somewhat organically. I think that Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings” did an excellent job in that respect. You don’t feel alienated from the setting, but you’re invested in the characters and the setting is revealed as the book progresses. I didn’t care for William Gibson because I felt like he gave no explanation, just used a bunch of jargon that I didn’t understand, to the point that I couldn’t understand the characters or the setting.

    Grats on the interview, and good luck with grad schools.

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