A while back I made a post on my long-dormant Goodreads account documenting my brief attempt to read Earth Girl, a YA novel that’s gotten a fairly decent amount of praise. I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot since then– specifically, when I look back on it I’m struck by how in its opening chapters it commits a lot of mistakes that you tend to see both in half-baked YA and in half-baked writing in general. So why not revisit it to do an in-depth critique?
Yes, critique. My intention here is not to have fun lampooning something terrible (so no reaction GIFs or mining poorly-phrased sentences for sex jokes) but to honestly analyse this piece of writing and see where it went wrong. Maybe, if we all hold hands and believe, we’ll even learn something together.
First let’s have a look at the cover, as we do. The edition I bought is a fairly generic image that doesn’t really suggest what the book is going to be about at all; if it wasn’t for the title you could easily mistake it for some sort of contemporary drama.
What really jumps out at me is the tagline, which immediately makes the book feel like it’s trying to ride the Divergent train. The Teen Books these days are all about radical youths making single choices that will change/alter/destroy the world/the future/their destiny forever. What exactly is that choice? Let’s find out.
It was on Wallam-Crane day that I finally decided what I was going to do for my degree course Foundation year.
Opening sentences are a big topic of discussion on writing forums and in how-to guides, the general wisdom being that since you need to hook an agent right away if you’re to have any chance of representation (this applies mainly to unpublished authors, who make up the bulk of the audience for writing forums and guides for obvious reasons) you should “start with action”; when this is mis-interpreted you get a lot of novels that begin with THE SPACESHIP CRASHING INTO AN ASTEROID or THE VAMPIRE DETECTIVE BACK-FLIPPING OVER A POOL TABLE WHILE DUEL-FIRING WALTHER PPKS FUCK YEAH GUITAR RIFF, but even when the writer in question correctly works out what “action” means, it results in opening chapters that begin with lines of dialogue or with something dramatic happening.
I actually prefer books to open with some exposition or scene-setting. I agree that the author should get into the plot quickly– as in, within the first three paragraphs– but the common trend of cold-opening with two characters in mid-conversation or in the middle of something exciting frequently feels disorienting to me. I’m even okay with the first chapter not mentioning the protagonist or viewpoint character straight away; I won’t tolerate prologues set 4000 years before the main action, but little nuggets of world-building or description let me ease into the story more effectively then hitting the gas right from the opening sentence.
As for this particular sentence, I quite like it. It actually does fulfil the “start with action” edict– something is happening, the main character has made an important decision– but it doesn’t throw us right into MY HEART POUNDED POUNDINGLY AS I SEALED THE ENVELOPE ON MY APPLICATION TO WHATEVER, BAM KAPOW. “Wallam-Crane Day” is an immediate tip off that this is happening in Future Times, and “Foundation year” sounds like a realistic name for a component of an academic system (in this case it’s Future College).
I’d had a mail about it from Issette that morning. It showed her jumping up and down on her bed in her sleep suit, waving a pillow, and singing: ‘Make your mind up, Jarra! Do it! Do it! Make up, make up, make up your mind girl!’
Unfortunately the following two sentences are… yeah.
To start off with, this is the first instance of the main factor that put me off the book. I’m going to call it Hyperactive Chipmunk Syndrome, and it’s a common scourge of poorly-written fiction. Put simply, it’s where characters in a book exist in a constant state of heightened emotion; if they’re happy, instead of smiling or laughing they’ll leap up and down or start doing cartwheels; if they’re excited they’ll shriek and scream; even the tiniest hint of sadness will be met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
You may recognise that these behaviours do actually exist in real life… in young children. Most people start to calm down by the time they reach double digits. If this was the only case of it in the book I’d pass it off as Issette being wacky, but it happens nearly constantly.
The other thing that bothers me: sleep-suit. First off, that immediately makes me picture all the characters wearing onesies, which is kind of odd. On a deeper level, we’ve now introduced a worldbuilding conceit in which instead of employing a wide variety of clothing choices when going to bed, everyone wears these “sleep suits.” Which immediately raises the question: why? Is it a fashion thing? Are they uniforms? What’s the deal here?
The next thing I want to talk about only make sense if you see several examples, so here’s three quotes:
She was singing it to the tune of the new song by Zen Arrath. Issette is totally powered on him, but I don’t think much of his legs.
I’m a nardle brain. Nardle, nardle, nardle …
If you’re still scanning this, I expect it’s just out of shock that an ape girl can write. ‘Amaz! Totally zan!’ you will cry to your friends in disbelief,
No, I can assure you I will not.
Writing is an art form and not a science. There are few 100% iron-clad rules to it; even basic grammar and spelling have been played with or outright broken to good effect by writers skilled enough to pull it off. But today I’m going to tell you that there’s one thing you absolutely should not do:
Never ever ever ever ever EVER attempt to create your own slang. Yes, it’s been done well in the past, but you’re probably not going to be the next one to do it. 99% of the time it just comes off sounding goofy and stupid, and this example is no different. Repurposing existing words (powered, ape, scanned) is bad enough, but trying to come up with your own original phrases? Don’t do it. Do not.
But why is this so bad? The short answer is that it sounds artificial– we can tell when something seems fake, and “totally zan” sounds fake. The longer answer: slang words, whether they’re simple abbreviations of more complex terms or derogatory epitaphs, aren’t created in a vacuum. Language, culture, history, prejudice and fleeting trends all come together to create them. Let’s take modern text speech as an example: acronyms like WTF or LOL were created by the technology of keyboards and mobile phone messaging. When we hear or read them, that history and cultural baggage comes along for the ride.
Unless you’ve created a setting as rich and detailed and steeped in culture and history as the real world (pro tip: you haven’t), your clever slang is just random nonsense you made up. It doesn’t have that grounding, and because of that it comes across as fake.
So if you can’t make up cool new swear words for your characters to use, what should you do instead? If you’re writing sci-fi or alt history set in the current day, just have everyone use contemporary modes of speech. Really, it’s fine. I’m not going to think your future setting is more believable because your characters say “frag” instead of fuck or “flatline” instead of dead. People have been saying fuck and dead for hundreds of years. They’re probably not going to stop because we invented interstellar travel.
Now what about fantasy? You’ve got to modify characters’ speech there, right? Well, you could. The standard approach is to have everyone use contractions less often and talk about coin and whores all the time. Or you could just go with contemporary speech as well. I mean, as long as you don’t have you stern gruff king talking about his iPad, it will probably be fine. For example, I recently read a quite excellent book called Sorcerer of the Wildeeps; it’s not quite standard fantasy, but it takes place in a low-technology world where magic exists. The dialogue is frequently not what you’re probably expecting from that sort of setting. I won’t go into details, you should see it for yourself.
One of my private fantasies is inventing a time machine and travelling back in time nearly six hundred and fifty years to 15 November 2142. I would then strangle Wallam-Crane at birth.
I feel like this should have been the opening of the book.
If it wasn’t for him, I’d be normal instead of labelled a nean, a throwback. Yes, I’m one of them. The polite people would call me Handicapped, but you can call me ape girl if you like. The name doesn’t change anything. My immune system can’t survive anywhere other than Earth. I’m in prison, and it’s a life sentence.
The tragic thing about this book is that the setup is actually fairly interesting. In the future, humans can travel to other planets cheaply and easily through portal technology, created by this Wallam-Crane fellow. However, it turns out that a small percent of the population are born with an immune system disorder that will kill them if they leave Earth’s natural environment; these “Handicapped” people have always existed, their condition unnoticed in a world where interplanetary travel was an impossibility, but when that changed with the advent of the portals they found themselves stranded on Earth as the rest of humanity colonized the stars.
As sci-fi premises go, that’s pretty good. In the classic mode of the genre, it imagines how the invention of new technology brings about societal and cultural changes as humanity’s priorities and limitations are altered by a major paradigm shift. It’s a better dystopian idea than anything that followed in The Hunger Games’ wake since the plight of the Handicappped isn’t being arbitrarily forced on them by an oppressive government, and it certainly beats Divergent’s nonsensical faction stuff.
The problem comes in how the Handicapped are viewed and treated by the rest of humanity.
Let’s set up a little thought experiment here. The parts of the book I’ve read don’t say what percentage of the population has the condition, but we do learn that “it’s triple ten. One in ten risk if both parents are Handicapped themselves. One in a hundred if one parent is Handicapped. One in a thousand if neither parent is.” Since Handicapped people have to live on Earth and we’re told that very few non-Handicapped people ever go there anymore, we’ll take 1 out of every 1000 births as the average prevalence of the condition, as the vast majority of the population would never be in a position to raise their odds of producing an affected child beyond that.
By way of comparison, the country I live in has the highest incidence of Cystic Fibrosis in the world at 1/1353 births, which translates to a whopping 1200 people affected out of a population of 4.5 million. Now imagine that as well as being very rare, people who have the condition all have to live on an island off the coast that no one else ever visits. Given those circumstances, would it be surprising if most people had never even heard of it?
This is not the case with the Handicapped in Earth Girl. They appear to be the most visible and visibly detested minority in the galaxy, with the non-Handicapped population spending an inordinate amount of time and energy fearing them, ridiculing them, and hating them, even though it’s vanishingly unlikely that any but a tiny percentage have ever been on the same planet as them. Most people would go their entire lives never entering the same solar system. Under those conditions, where is all of this animosity coming from?
This isn’t just a small background detail. Our heroine’s entire plan is to enrol in an offworld college where the first year of studies takes place on Earth, then triumphantly reveal herself after gaining the trust and confidence of the students. Except given how rare her condition is, it’s fairly likely that at least some of the people in her class will have no idea what she’s talking about.
My other issue with this is that it’s another case of the exceptional snowflake character that we last encountered in The Shannara Chronicles. Jarra’s entry to the offworld University isn’t terribly difficult– her quasi-foster mother has to go through some red tape to force the application through, and the powers that be aren’t terribly happy about it, but there’s functionally nothing standing in her way. So why is she the first person to ever do it? Did it just not occur to anyone else before?
The latest scare is plastered all over the newzies
The vid info channels were all packed with special anniversary programmes.
I switched to the vid ent channels, but they were all showing vid stars getting drunk or powered at huge parties.
The exos threw me away, and I sure as chaos wasn’t chasing after them and begging!
Sure as chaos.
Sure as chaos.
So in addition to the slang, the other thing Earth Girl does that grinds my gears is employ goofy Future Words. I know I’ve complained about this before, and most of you probably know what I’m talking about already, but for those who don’t: a lot of sci-fi authors have an odd conviction that some time between now and when their book is set, we’ll all start using monosyllabic abbreviations for common words that have existed in the real world for decades. The ur example of this is “vid screen”, which has a curious hold on the minds of many SF writers.
As much as I hate “vid screen” (and I hate it so much that I will seriously stop reading a book out of pure spite if I see the phrase), I think “vid ent channels” might be even worse. It’s a sure bet that by the year 2788 television as we currently know it will be thoroughly dead and buried, but I can assure you that whatever replaces it will not be called vid channels, which functionally don’t sound all that different. We also probably won’t have “newzies”, whatever the fuck those are.
Even worse then sounding stupid, the book’s future-speak insists on unnecessarily filtering simple actions through their technological mechanisms for the sake of showing off the setting, such as here, where instead of “I opened the door” we get
I dashed next door and stuck my hand on the door plate.
If you don’t get why this is a problem, take a minute to read this oft-quoted bit of satire.
At this point you might be saying “but hold on, you intelligent and insightful person. This is a sci-fi novel, and its plot hinges on invented speculative technology. Surely some scene-setting is okay?”
Yes, it is. But only if it’s a) interesting and b) something that doesn’t already exist in the present day. If Jarra goes through a portal to another planet I want to know about it in detail, because she’s never done it before and inter-planetary travel via portal isn’t something that exists in real life. When she’s just opening a fucking door I don’t care how she does it, even if the future door-opening mechanism the author came up with is really novel.
This issue is worsened by the novel’s tone, which is deliberately conversational, as though Jarra is telling us the story verbally. If you were recording a series of events that happened to you diary-style, would you say “I turned the door-handle”, or would you just say “I opened the door”?
(Weirdly, when Jarra uses a portal to travel halfway across the continent the event gets almost no description– which is fitting, since in this world portalling around Earth is something she does on a daily basis, and which no one listening to her story would need explained to them. Why this same approach wasn’t given to more inconsequential interactions, I have no idea).
I was grinning like a maniac as I went out of my room and headed down to the portal in the entrance hall.
I grinned crazily.
And there’s grinning. Of course there’s grinning.
Look, authors. When you describe your characters “grinning”, what you’re probably picturing is something like this:
Which is the sort of facial expression that people tend to make in normal, everyday conversations. But what I picture is something like this:
See the difference? Nine times out of ten, when authors have characters grinning, what they seem to actually be going for is that the character smiled in a particularly energetic or cheerful way. That’s not the same as grinning.
And then when you have your characters “grinning crazily”… well I actually have no idea how I’m supposed to interpret that, but this is basically what comes to mind:
It does nothing for a romantic moment when a computer voice interrupts saying: ‘Your current inter-person intimacy is exceeding that acceptable for your age group.’
The boarding school/orphanage place the main characters live in at the beginning of the story has these sensor things installed in the rooms that chide them if they do anything out of line. Except they speak like this, because it’s the future and synthesized speech programs use beep-boop robot language, even though we already have similar technology now that doesn’t do that, because it would make for a terrible user experience.
While we’re on the subject of this book’s setting being cliched and not very well thought out, they use “credits” for money and speak a common language that’s literally called “Language” (as in, “they speak Language on that planet”), and there’s a Space Roman Empire because a lot of sci-fi authors are mysteriously in love with the notion that when we leave Earth we’ll decide to resurrect a culture that’s been dead for millenia.
Also, there’s a throwaway line (which as far as I can tell never comes up again) about how physicists found evidence that the universe was deliberately created. Just sort of, like, casually stuck in there.
But Earth Girl’s biggest sin by far is being boring. The process of Jarra’s entry into Asgard University has zero tension or excitement. I know the trilogy somehow ends up with her saving the world from aliens by the second book, but here at the beginning all we’ve got is a bunch of very boring characters sitting around and talking about things that aren’t interesting.