The Eternity Artifact by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
22nd of Jun 2012
I recently finished reading The Eternity Artifact by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. It revolves around the discovery of an alien planet with technology even more advanced than the spacefaring humans who discover it, and the cultural complications it causes (such as religious war). But what I was most intrigued by was the POV used: multiple first person.
There are four POV characters, and each of their sections are written in first person. The chapters themselves are so short that the feel is like an existential kaleidoscope, a fast-moving mosaic of personality. Even with the chapter headings listing the name of the POV character, it was difficult for me to orient myself for 50 or so pages. Afterwards, though, when I started to get a feel for each of the characters, I enjoyed how the differences between each one were reflected in the narrative: word choice, sentence structure, salient details, etc. That's not as easy to do as many people think it is for one character, let alone four distinct personalities.
But as part of that choice, some of the grandeur and majesty was lost. One of the strengths of speculative fiction is its ability to whelm people with wonder and awe through its depiction of haunting worlds and uncanny characters. Unfortunately, when writing in strict first person POV, everything is filtered through the character's conscious and most people are so bound up in their thoughts and habits that they'd miss out on the wondrous if it kicked them in the face. The banality of the familiar and whatnot. There are millions of ways around this in 3rd person, the simplest of which is "Mr. Delmont, oblivious to the riotous wonder of the plants around him, strode into the jungle," whereas in first person, if you write "I, oblivious to the riotous wonder of the plants around me, strode into the jungle," the question is raised: "If the main character is oblivious to the wonder, why does he mention it at all?"
In this particular case, since I used the past tense, it may be a foreshadowing that part of Mr. Delmont's journey in the story is that he learns to appreciate the wonder, but enough moments like these will cause readers to start to question the integrity of the POV.
In the case of The Eternity Artifact, this may also be a function of length. I got the feeling that the book could easily have been twice as long, simply through the addition of more details about the environment and story- and flow-appropriate times. The edited version isn't always close to the original vision, and economic concerns can play a factor. Plus, what many people forget is that the creation of any art as complex as a novel involves various tradeoffs (pace for descriptive depth, developing all characters and situations vs. keeping the plot decipherable, and so on). It's easy to nitpick, but from a craft standpoint, there's not much reason to.
I'm glad I read the book. Like I said, the multiple first person perspective was a unique effect. I'm still tossing it around inside my head, but at the very least I won't have to write a novel like that just to see how the concept works. That's a big reason why I write, to find out what's possible with writing and what effects it causes, and anything I see out there in the world is one less thing I have to figure out for myself, which is awesome!