I recently finished reading two books virtually simultaneously. I would like to claim that this is because I’m an incredibly dedicated reader with amazing time management skills, but actually I cheated. One of them was an audio book. Which, while we’re on the subject, is it appropriate to tell people you’re “reading” an audio book? It feels like a lie, but the absolute truth feels clunky and awkward to explain.
Book one was Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis. It is a book with pictures. It is a book for children. It is amazing.
Book two was Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It is a seminal work of science fiction with high action mixed in with history, philosophy, and comparative religion. It is…okay.
Now at this point I’m thinking I sound kind of shallow, but hear me out. Because you know what Timmy Failure had that Snow Crash didn’t? A polar bear named Total.* No wait, I’m sorry. What I meant to say was, “internal conflict and character development.”
In Snow Crash Hiro Protagonist is trying to save the world from an virus that infects your mind. In Timmy Failure, our eponymous (I love that word) hero is trying to get back his mom’s Segway which he was not supposed to be riding around before his mom finds out he’s lost it.
Now here’s the thing. In Snow Crash, that’s it. That little snippet I just gave you encapsulates the entire plot in a nutshell. None of the characters, and I mean none, ever have to deal with any kind of internal conflict, never have to overcome any personal failings. It’s all swords cutting people’s heads off and Gatling gun duels, interspersed with long conversations about Sumerian mythology and hacking. Which is fine as far as it goes. I really did like the bits with the mythology, and it was nice to have the spoonful of fictional sugar to help them go down. But in the end the story had very little depth.
In the case of Timmy Failure however, there was nothing but depth. Timmy claims he does not live up to his last name. Timmy lies. In fact his detective agency doesn’t actually solve any of the cases he’s given in the book. But the charm of the story is in the layers, in the way we see the world through Timmy’s eyes.
Timmy Failure is an entirely unreliable narrator, because he’s seeing the world through a egotistical, child-sized lens. Through that lens we see the troubles his mom is having with the bills, and how she’s dating a guy who’s a bit of douche in the hopes of bringing some stability back into her and Timmy’s lives. We see how Timmy’s nemesis is really just a girl who wants her dad to spend more time with her.
In other words, the story is about more than what the story is about.
Is Snow Crash a bad book? No. But it’s utterly flat. It makes the mistake of thinking that what the readers really care about is whether or not the world is saved.
Screw the world. Let it burn. What readers really care about is personal. It’s the inner journey that brings power to the story. Without that, all you have is spectacle.
*Seriously, how hard would it be to have a polar bear in a book named Snow Crash? Talk about your missed opportunities.