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The Interesting Parts: I've wanted to write this post for a long time, so long that the main guy I'm writing about, Iain M. Banks, announced that he had cancer and then died of the cancer. That doesn't really affect what I'm going to write, but it does give it an air of speaking ill of the dead, and it just sucks in general.

The Banks novel I read most recently was The Algebraist, and it was a mixed bag for me. The epic scope of Banks's imagination has always been a big inspiration to me as a writer, but The Algebraist is dominated by Banks's "normal human" characters, who channel that epic scope into activities I have always found really boring. I mentioned this in my commentary for "The Time Somn Died", and I assumed it was a side effect of the fact that there's just nothing to do in the Culture. But The Algebraist isn't a Culture novel. Its "normal human" characters don't sit around all day being post-scarcity. I'm just not interested in most of what they do.

Fortunately, eventually the spectacle and the aliens spin up and save the book. I speak mainly of the Dwellers, aliens who make their way onto my list of SF favorites for the way they combine Bertie Wooster joie de vivre with a complete disregard for the value of individual lives, including their own. Great stuff. I loved it. Colonel Hatherance: another awesome alien.

(The other flaw in The Algebraist is one I am perhaps too quick to notice in other writers. There's a puzzle, and a solution to the puzzle, but no explanation as to how the solution--which, by necessity, can be explained in a few paragraphs to a reader who's only been immersed in the universe for a few hours--has evaded all the in-universe people who've been desperately trying to solve the puzzle for thousands of years. That has nothing to do with this post, but I thought I'd mention it because it's a tricky problem, and if you start looking for it you'll see it a lot.)

After Iain M. Banks's The Algebraist, I naturally turned my reading eye to A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System: Communication Sciences (1925-1980), by Iain Banks. No, just kidding. It's a corporate history published by Bell Labs in 1984 to keep track of all the stuff they'd invented over the years. My copy used to be in the library of the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia--not sure why they had a copy in the first place.

You might think these two books have nothing in common, but one commonality was clear as soon as I cracked the latter tome: they both start out super boring.

Unlike The Algebraist, A History of Engineering and Science... is boring most of the way through. There's a lot about switched telephone networks, radio and fiber-optic cables. That's actually why I got this book; I wanted to do research for an alt-history story about phone phreaking. But the details were so dry I'm either gonna give up on the idea or just read Exploding the Phone instead. Here are the interesting parts of that book:

Hopefully you see the problem. Nothing about those quotes, or about stereograms or classifying two-person relationships, is intrinsically more interesting than the stuff about circuit-switched telephone networks. It's all subjective. When I reached Chapter 9 of A History of Engineering and Science... I had the feeling of encountering the Dwellers in The Algebraist. "At last, this is my chapter!" But there's obviously an audience for that earlier stuff. I'm just not it. So... there must be people who really enjoy the human-centric parts of The Algebraist, right? Perhaps those people even enjoy the human-centric parts of the Culture books?

What madness is this? I knew that interestingness was subjective for nonfiction. As the author of a novel about alien video games, I am familiar with the idea that a reader might decide a novel is just not their thing. But it had escaped me that the same logic might apply within a novel. This made me re-evaluate the parts of Banks I don't like. However, I came to the same conclusion: I still don't like them, and I'm gonna try to avoid writing that sort of stuff. But it's not so strange anymore that there'd be an audience for it.

Last week I went to the Met and checked out an exhibit of prints from the Civil War. There's a Thomas Nast print from Harper's called "Christmas Eve", divided into two halves: the woman at home with the kids on Christmas Eve, praying for her husband, and the soldier in camp looking at a picture of his wife. It's a moving piece but at first glance there's not much to distinguish it from other "war sucks" pieces of the time.

But if you look in the left and right corners of the print, you'll see Santa Claus with his reindeer. On the left he's climbing down the chimney, and on the right he's driving through the camp, tossing out gifts. The cover for the same issue of Harper's shows Santa giving toys and socks to Union soldiers. These prints are the origin of the modern image of Santa Claus.

Nast first drew Santa Claus for the 1862 Christmas season Harper’s Weekly cover and center-fold illustration to memorialize the family sacrifices of the Union during the early and, for the north, darkest days of the Civil War.

Which are the interesting parts? How do you tell?

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