on blue's waters

The Emotional Response

Why do we read? Not just speculative fiction, but any kind of fiction. Maybe it’s just fodder for a long flight. Or when you’re baking on the beach. Or, if you’re like me, you have a stack of books on the night stand representing favorite authors, recommendations from knowledgeable friends and family, or just a flier. But why do we reach for a book in these instances? Entertainment, to be sure, and passing the time is up there as well. Discovering new voices, new perspectives and new genres.

Yet for me, and I think a vast majority of readers, one of the chief motivations to read is to be emotionally moved. I call that the emotional response and, again, speaking for myself, I believe that all art is about creating this ineffable emotional response but, since I can’t draw a straight line and am completely tone deaf, let’s stick to writing.

An emotional response can be anything from a soft chuckle and head shake at some joke or wordplay, all the way to unalloyed triumph, the fond glow of a happy ending, or buckets. One of my favorite books of all time is The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. The author is a jaw-droppingly complete writer and the canvas he paints on is of a Cecil B. DeMille cast of thousands scale. Well, eleven thousand-odd pages across ten volumes lets you do that. Medieval military fantasy barely begins to describe Erikson’s work. The scope, and the sheer audacity of the scope, is breathtaking.

In particular this provides plenty of opportunities for creating emotional responses of all kinds from that chuckle I alluded to earlier, to laugh out loud humor, all the way to throwing the book across the room, beseeching the Universe, “Why why why why why why why why WHY DID YOU DO THAT?” and then dissolve into a pool of tears. To pull both off multiple times in multiple books with power and grace is astonishing. Erikson’s fan base, small may it be because the material is long and challenging, comprises the most rabid and ardent readers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and to a one, they credit their passion for these books to Erikson’s ability to create an emotional response(s).

At the other end of the spectrum is Gene Wolfe’s On Blue’s Waters, the first book of the so-called Short Sun Trilogy. Here, the story is much more compact and reverential, inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, where colonists on a new planet elect the narrator to go back to the generational starship that brought them to retrieve a much beloved and noble leader who stayed behind. The pace is tranquil, and that enables the narrator to recount the time that has passed since they came to the planet on the starship; he also meets various people along the way and reflects on them, his life, and opportunities lost. Because of this, it has a wistful, elegiac atmosphere and the emotional responses sneak up on you.

As an example, during his voyage to the mysterious city of Pajarocu where there may be an operational lander, he encounters a female, modeled on Odysseus’s siren, and she travels with him for a while and they fall in love. But, all good things must come to an end; we see it coming and we know it has to happen. But it is not until the aftermath we get kicked in the teeth:

You who read of all this in a year that I will never see will think me wretched, perhaps—certainly I was wretched enough fighting the inhumi and their slaves on Green, fighting the settlers, and before the end even fighting my own son.

Or possibly you may envy me in this big white house that we in Gaon are pleased to call a palace, my gems and gold and racks of arms, and my dozen-odd wives.

But know this: The best and happiest of my hours you know nothing about. I have seen days like gold.

Seawrack sings in my ears still, as she used to sing to me alone in the evenings on our sloop. Sometimes—often—I imagine that I am actually hearing her, her song and the lapping of the little waves. I would think that a memory so often repeated would lose its poignancy, but it is sharper at each return. When I first came here, I used to fall asleep listening to her; now her song keeps me from sleeping, calling to me.


Seawrack, whom I abandoned exactly as I abandoned poor Babbie.


Different intent, different response. I read On Blue’s Waters when it was first published in 1999, and although I’ve re-read the book but once, I can find that passage with my eyes closed. The sadness and loss stays with me still.

The tricky things about emotional responses is that you can’t force them and there’s always a price to pay. For example, I’ve been working on the next volume in The Fifth Circle and I’ve got my beat sheet (if you don’t know what a beat sheet is I’ll pause here while you go to Amazon and buy Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, simply the best book on novel structure out there, bar none), I’m rockin’ and rollin’ and put in a little glance between Titus and his crush down in First Circle City. OK. Fine. Throwaway. Well, hold on. Titus is supposed to be embittered for the last two books of the story so twenty pages later I start a flash forward—flashback—flash forward sequence of them meeting outside their professional lives, going back to her place, and then falling in love, amid other action in the book.

I had so much fucking fun writing the arc. After all of Titus’s difficult emotional entanglements, she’s easy to like, easy to know, the banter is great and the emotional depth is solid. Her catchphrase is that she likes things easy. So of course after they profess their love after dinner at an outdoor restaurant, they walk down the street and she’s killed in a terrorist blast (technically a G45 controlled electron fragment grenade). Shit.

When I realized I was going to have to off her, I spent a long time trying to talk myself out of it. Oh yeah, if…nah. But what about…nope. Well if they…zilch. As much as I loved the character—almost as much as I love Rondor; OK, I know it’s bad form to like your characters…sue me—she was the device, the emotional response I needed to create the believable bitterness in Titus he carries for the remainder of the volume. And when my readers read the sequence they were just as in love with their love and mad and put out as I was. But that’s long past and in hindsight, it’s easy to see it’s the price you have to pay. Be true to your characters, be true to your story, be true to the craft.