Dirty Worlds and Feeling Dirty
In celebration of the release of our short story anthology, The Beginning & End of All Things, we have decided to focus on science fiction topics for the rest of the year. So in light of that, I want to discuss a book that I have been meaning to write about for a number of years now but have just not gotten around to. That book is Nexhuman by Francesco Verso.
I originally came across this book on Netgalley, I think having just been released as an English translation(?). I should tell you right off the bat, that even though this is a Foul post, I’m not sure if I would classify the whole book as bad. I have mixed feelings about it. It started off quite strong, the writing is not unintelligent, and the cover is magnificent.
But on the other hand, there were also many points in the story that left me wondering….is this bad, lazy, or genius?
I will say that there were things about the book that I definitely did not appreciate. Like the alternate endings. I hate alternate endings. They really detract from the sense of finality that I feel a book needs to have. But that is just my opinion. The other thing is what I want to focus on here today.
It was Dirty.
Filthy in fact. And I don’t mean, filthy like a porno, nor do I mean it used filthy language like too many ‘fucks’.
No. It was filthy like a garbage bin. Like a big dumpster sitting outside an old asylum with two hobos in it….and they are making the porno.
Did I hate this book?
I have no idea.
...But I could make an argument for it.
Hyperbole aside, what exactly do I mean when I say this book was dirty?
I’m going to outline what Verso did wrong so hopefully you can avoid doing the same thing in your manuscripts.
Setting of garbage. Literally in this case. Nothing is beautiful in this book. Except Alba in the first number(?...i don't exactly remember) of chapters in the book which was a great juxtaposition—see the most recent ‘The Fair’ post for more on that. But it was short lived. In fact, everything seemed to just get physically grosser as the book progressed. The places they live are disgusting, the places they work are disgusting, the places they hang out are even more disgusting.
The characters are just gross. Apart from Girlbot, Alba, none of them were described as good looking by any stretch. Not that characters have to be attractive, but everyone has at least one positive trait. Even the ugliest person in the world would have at least one single positive trait.
I had high hopes for the main character in this book. I really did. Everyone else around him was a dick (or seriously disturbed, like the childhood friend who grew up to be a corpse pimp) but it seemed that the protagonist was going to overcome this fate as he matured because he had love (even if it was all in his head). However, he did not. His innocent crush quickly turned to obsession and then total destruction of his psyche.
Now, maybe this was on purpose.
Perhaps this whole book was an allegory about humanity's obsession with technology and how we all start off with good intentions but it … does what? Take us over? I don’t know. Like I said, maybe this book is brilliant … but maybe it’s not. Either way, the characters left me feeling all icky inside.
Why is Dirty Bad?
Now for the big question. What is wrong with a dark and twisted world. Let’s face it; not everything can be peachy and innocent. Have I not said before, in this post here, in fact, that sci-fi is a serious, dark, nihilistic genre and should be proud of those traits?
What if Verso just wanted to write a book about the disgusting future that our actions in the present are leading us to. What is a true pessimist to do?
I love the darker side of writing. I tend towards gory and gross horror, disturbing thrillers, hard-hitting sci-fi, and grimdark fantasy. But … but but but …
There are good reasons to not overdo it.
You can’t appreciate the bad without something good to put it in contrast. I’m not going to go into this much because it is the topic of this month’s The Fair post on juxtaposition. But I will say that disgust is not an emotion that people can maintain for an extended period of time. We will quickly become desensitized to it, or if we don’t, we tend just to put down the book or turn off the movie (who here got through Martyrs and thought, "wow, gotta watch that again sometime").
We will not relate to the characters and story. These things do not need to be “good” in the positive sense of the word, but they should at least be appealing and relatable. Things that are 100% good or bad are hard to relate to and are therefore not appealing to the reader. On top of that, your characters become static. They cannot grow, unless it is from gross to grosser. Is this always a problem? I’d say no. But if every character in the book is the same, your story becomes boring and predictable.
Your reader is a human being (most likely), and human beings have brains that work under a certain set of psychological patterns. One of these patterns is our tendency to project. If your book is nothing but dirty characters living in a dirty world and doing dirty things, they will begin to feel like they are dirty too. People do not like to feel disgusting. Generally, this will cause them to stop what they are doing that makes them feel this way. There are always exceptions, but most people don’t want to feel gross.
Another consequence of projection is that they will start to think YOU are dirty, disgusting, and gross because your writing is. You as an author risk losing future readers, because ‘Dirty’ is the thought they will have of you every time they see or hear your name.
So maybe just tone it down a bit. Cool? If your world and story really have to be that disgusting, at least give your protagonist a cute .... dimple or something....