Aftermath and the Present Tense of Doom

aftermathcvrWhen I first pitched this article I was just one-third through Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, the first book in a trilogy that’s supposed to show us what happened to the Star Wars galaxy right after Return of the Jedi (and that apparently doesn’t involve soul-stealing velociraptors, for some strange reason). At that point I wasn’t enjoying what I was reading; it’s not that I was offended or that I thought I was reading a baby-cooking recipe book written on Satan’s scrotum with Gandhi’s blood, but I was wondering exactly where we were going. The terrible editing had started annoying me (you simply can’t have a character change races, from Rodian to Abednedo and back, and expect no one to call you on it). I wasn’t feeling the main characters, either, and I was starting to suspect the story was going to go nowhere and that the whole thing was going to end up being just another inconsequential side trip.

When I first pitched this article it had a very different tone, believe me. I was annoyed with most of Del Rey’s last offerings, from the weak Heir to the Jedi to mediocre offerings like Tarkin or Dark Disciple, and I was starting to wonder if the reboot was going to end up being a lost opportunity to improve the overall quality of Star Wars media tie-ins. But then I started to read and hear people complaining about the prose used in the book, using terms like “LiveJournal-like crap” or “hipster jive speak” (really). I had to stop reading and wonder for one second: if Wendig’s style choices alienated what seemed to be such a big part of the readership, just how much does the Star Wars readership actually read beyond Expanded Universe novels? Because no one beyond eighth grade should feel uncomfortable just because a novel doesn’t use a third person omniscient point of view, or because it doesn’t use past tense; don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to dislike it or to be annoyed by Wendig’s prose, especially if we are sick of seeing present tense used in an effort to sound contemporary and relevant, but the horror and hair-pulling that seemed ubiquitous in the fan reaction seemed to be completely out of place.

(A word of warning before getting into the topic: I’m not going to talk about the Save Our Legends movement (or Viva la EU, Waru Wankers, Andersonites, or whatever the hell they are calling themselves) and their harassment campaign and Amazon-review-humping: it’s been pretty well-documented and, to put it bluntly, if you are involved in anything like that, you are a danger to your safety and the safety of others and need urgent psychiatric help and, honestly, that’s beyond the scope of this article.)

As I write, I’m just trying to wrap my head around the mindset that would make anyone automatically consider Chuck Wendig’s style unacceptable or even offensive. I mean, I can understand not liking his style, but calling it poor? Of course, we have to be rational and assume that it’s mostly Internet hyperbole, the kind that makes you go “this is the worst movie ever and I hope everyone involved dies, their houses are torched, their fields salted and their cattle scared away” instead of simply saying “I didn’t care about the photography and found the pacing wanting”. But still, let’s assume there is a contingent of fans that’s actually confused by what they read. Let’s operate on that premise.

Another sci-fi book that uses present tense. You might have heard of it.
Another sci-fi book that uses present tense. You might have heard of it.

Although it seemed like the overuse of present tense in novels had died with the eighties, it has seen a recent resurgence thanks to some pretty popular young adult series and has become a (let’s say) plague on literary contests around the world. For a while, it seemed that everyone wanted to write using the present tense, everyone wanted to sound terse and cool. So yes, let’s concede that it’s not a choice without controversy and that it hasn’t just annoyed Star Wars fans: it has also caused hundreds of tirades and similarly hysterical hair-pulling fits in the literary world. For its fans, the use of present tense makes the writing vivid, engaging and immediate; it helps us be there, right in the middle of action alongside the narrator and characters as things happen, just like we would feel in a film. For its detractors, present tense is seen as a tool often used by beginner writers as a crutch and it’s often suggested that it can make harder for the writer to develop interesting characters. Our poor present tense has even been accused of being limp and inconclusive, as it would seem that it refuses to state what really happened.

So, is it a choice that works for every kind of novel? It probably doesn’t, and it’s becoming wearying without any doubt. But does it fit a pulp sci-fi space opera? It does, like a glove, especially when the novel has the mission of making us feel like we are there right now, in the aftermath of the Battle of Endor, in this unexplored world of the new canon. Wendig’s staccato-like prose and his constant use of interludes also help get this feeling of immediacy: it reminds us of CNN, of shaky cam, of war reporting. Even if it might feel weird at first—if you’re used to the bland generic style of the EU—the style eventually wins you over… or loses you forever. Because you certainly don’t have to like his style, or at least I’m not going to be the person to tell you that you have to. I, myself, am not enamored with the abuse of present tense we see in modern fiction, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I welcome Wendig’s attempt at using a different voice. It feels fresh like someone was trying to get Star Wars fiction out of the ghetto. It feels a deliberate choice that the author considered the best for the text, not just a random gimmick. People have also complained that Aftermath’s narrator doesn’t possess a neutral voice, that it seems to find fun in the things that are happening and has a sarcastic tone, but I more than welcome it: it’s been a long time since omniscient, neutral, third person narrator was the only acceptable point of view.

Aftermath allows a new and pretty singular voice enter the Star Wars universe, in a time when we should be happy there is less uniformity. I might not agree with some of his style choices, but I’m so happy to see something new, something fresh, something unexpected, that I’m more that willing to let it pass. Bring it on, Wendig.

9 thoughts to “Aftermath and the Present Tense of Doom”

  1. For me the present tense wasn’t the problem. The problem was that Aftermath started feeling like a book and not a script only around the 30 page mark. The problem was the rushed prose and sometimes very uncaring and poor descriptions. I certainly felt the most annoyed with the constant trick of never finishing sentences to indicate fast action, it was really tiresome to read. When the author actually bothered to write with full sentences, the book started to shine, then he went back right to cutting every thought off prematurely and abusing m-dashes. And the few times the characters started talking in the exact same way as narrator.

    All in all, the writing was serviceable in my opinion, but it could use some more work and editing.

  2. I was in tears on Saturday night. I thought I was a complete moron. I must be right? I’m used to being able to complete a 300-400 page novel most weekends, and thought that this should be a breeze. I have three days!

    To my knowledge I have never read anything in the third person present, or anything similar that uses it. I may have I but didn’t notice it. My favorite ongoing series is in first person though, so I’m not a complete stranger to differing writing styles.

    I was around page 70 (I don’t have Aftermath in front of me!), and there were two instances of parenthesis usage that left me banging my head against the headboard. I knew there had to be a better way to say what he wanted, and if I recall correctly, both instances were extraneous anyway, trying to get into the character’s head but repeating something that could be inferred from the surrounding paragraphs.

    After that, in my head, I found myself rewriting almost every sentence in a way that made more sense to me. I still haven’t finished (I think I’m around page 140, just saw that Tooms was mentioned as a Rodian in fact!) and I’m so frustrated that I am not able to get past the sentence structure. I want to read it and absorb the information. I want to be invested in the characters and blown away by the state of the galaxy and anticipate the ending. I want to have fun and be immersed in the story, not be stopped every page or so by something so minute like noticing that several paragraphs started with a three word sentence with the same cadence. I mean, it’s a style choice, but I don’t know why I’m not able to just coast over it and enjoy what’s happening beyond the physical page.

    Also, I really do love the interludes so far. My favorite was the father and two sons, I did not see that coming. However, they’re distracting in their own way in that they pull you out of the current ongoing story. So instead of being excited that we get back to the Ex Imperial Loyalty officer’s bar room brawl, I’m frustrated that the glimpse of the other storyline doesn’t continue. I saw someone say that it works better if you skip the interludes and read them all at the end, but I might miss one that way.

    So, I think what I have to do with this is listen to the audiobook. I prefer reading in print then listening to it, but after listening to the sample audio excerpt, I could already tell that It might work out better. I’ll try switching it around this time, see if that helps.

    Thanks for the article and the place to rant for a few minutes!

  3. I think the problem many might have with the writing stem not so much from the writing style itself, but from what the book is.

    If you want information, 3rd present isn’t the way to give it. It’s limited in its perspective… it’s meant to place you in a situation rather than give detail. As this book was the great “reveal” the pacing and perspective sort of frustrated that… until you hit the interludes, which gave great information.

    I myself am wondering about the second book – I enjoyed the story more once the team had been assembled.

    1. Well for whatever reason I think Wendig decided long ago that this tense is just the way he’s most comfortable writing and DR never asked him to do it any differently; maybe one of the reasons he did the interludes was specifically to expand the scope of information beyond what his writing would otherwise get across.

      1. I actually like it – it’s a very oral style. Think on how often when we are telling stories to our friends we do so in present tense. It’s great for story — but it didn’t tell me what happened to Han and Leia’s relationship!

  4. I found the writing jarring at first, but quickly got used to it. What bothered me more were the editing inconsistencies. The aforementioned species change is a big one, and a character’s name was spelled wrong in one instance.
    I know these are nitpicks but if I can point out these things on my first readthrough surely a team of editors paid to look for mistakes should catch this stuff.

    1. Overall though I like the book a lot so far. Aftermath is nothing if not fresh. It touches on issues of morality and the cost of war in a very nuanced way, much moreso than many other SW books.

  5. Obviously super late to the party here but came looking to see if I was alone in finding the prose style off-putting. Don’t appreciate the implication in the article that if I found third person present tense hard to engage with then I must be of a lower literacy level! Playing with tenses and perspectives has its place, but needs to be used wisely, and present tense doesn’t gel with the type of narrative being told in Aftermath. It works best when following a single protagonist through dramatic and confusing situations, ideally a protagonist with a simple or unimportant backstory to convey as past events can only be explored through dialogue or thought in this style. When used poorly, present tense can make prose feel cheesy and adolescent, and since Star Wars is already pretty cheesy and adolescent, the effect here is jarring, to me at least! The book was by no means terrible though, and I’ve definitely read worse canon novels *cough Lords of the Sith cough* so here’s hoping Life Debt can make amends!

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