Short fiction – be they short stories or their longer cousins, the novella – is an artform that not everyone can master. It requires the ability to tell a self-contained story that feels as if it has been taken straight out of the middle of a book whilst at the same time giving it its own three-act structure – beginning, middle, and end. It is not a craft everyone can manage – and many have tried.
Brandon Sanderson, in my opinion, gets it right half of the time.
Anyone with even a vague interest in the fantasy genre at the moment not only knows of Brandon Sanderson, but also knows that he teaches a creative writing course at Brigham Young University (BYU). I have not had the time to watch the videos that often appear of these classes, but I have listened to Sanderson’s podcasts and read his work enough to get a sense of what he might teach.
Unfortunately, some of his work reflects what I imagine stems from these classes. A prime example was his Reckoners series, which started with Steelheart, which at times read as if it was a first-draft story written for a creative writing class. You could see the characters who were designed around, “What is this character’s flaw, what makes him memorable, what are some personality quirks,” etc. It felt as if it was a good first try, but that needed to have the rough edges sanded off.
The same can be said for Snapshot, Sanderson’s latest novella, that was published early 2017 (but which I only just got my hands on). It reads like a creative writing class short story assignment: “Here’s your angle, here’s your trope, and here’s your character flaw – show me what you’ve got.”
The underlying premise is not particularly well fleshed-out – too many details left off the bone and too many questions left unanswered, such that, by the time the rug is ripped out from underneath us – as was expected from the very first pages – you’re not exactly sure of all of the twists and turns. The reveal relies too much on the author’s understanding, and not enough on what the reader has been shown or told.
Snapshot was fine. Let’s be honest, it’s Brandon Sanderson, it was never going to be bad. But it felt as if the author was trying to reach beyond his abilities; not his writing abilities – we all know Sanderson is one of the finest writers currently practicing their craft – but beyond his natural expertise and knowledge. So much is left unsaid or even outright ignored that, instead of having a fully-formed novella, I feel we are left with an unformed elevator pitch.
I was, thus, somewhat disappointed with Snapshot. It didn’t live up to Brandon Sanderson’s normal quality of storytelling and lacked his normal spit and polish. Redraft the story, remove the attempts at being Neal Stephenson-esque mysterious and subtle, and build the story around the characters instead of the fantastical “hook” which underpins this future sci-fi idea, and this could be a tremendously exciting and captivating novella. In the end, however, Sanderson comes across as if he wanted to be Neal Stephenson but ended up as if he was in his own creative writing class at BYU.
Joshua S Hill, 5/10
I received a review copy of Snapshot in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Brandon Sanderson and Gollancz for the opportunity.
This novella arrived on my doorstep at 11:30 this morning. I picked it up, loved the cover, read the blurb and decided to stop what I was doing. I dived headfirst into this sci-fi cop thriller and had finished it within 2 hours. I have a 'to be read' list of over 300 books so that fact that the book looked so good that I changed my day's plans to suit and did not put it down once just shows that I found Snapshot to be an excellent and thrilling bite-size futuristic drama that has surprising depth for its 120 pages.
Although it doesn't specify when exactly, Snapshot is set in the near future. Anthony Davis and his partner Chaz are two cops. At the start of the narrative, they are introduced as the only two real people. This is because they are investigating two crimes and have been given a warrant to see a 'snapshot' of the events of the day. This is essentially where through hi-tech and expensive scientific equipment they can visit a simulation of the day a certain crime took place and search for clues and evidence that can be used in court in the real world. The other people in this replay of events are duplications of their real selves only they do not know it. Now, Davis and Chaz were not here when the crimes happened originally so their influence on the snapshot environment can cause deviations which are recorded at a percentage. If they speak to someone and they go off on their way and change the course of events before or when they occurred the deviation rating will be high and therefore the evidence and information gained could be inadmissible in court. The ideal way to deal with this is to inspect the details of one crime then remain in a safe house until the known time of the second event they need to investigate. Davis, however, decides to look into another potential crime. He knows something large and important occurred but that it is not mentioned in any police records. What they find is truly shocking and they take it upon themselves to try and find information regarding a mass murderer relating to incidents that the police have kept under wraps.
We only really get to know the two main characters with a few side characters/ duplications who feature for a few moments here and there. The environment reads as a futuristic equivalent to New York City. It's pretty well written and has surprising depth for a novella. The ending presents two twists within quick succession and I could not have predicted either of them even if I tried my hardest. I'm not sure if I would pay £10.99 for it personally however for Sanderson completists of which I know there are many it is a beautiful little book and looks very nice on my Sanderson shelf next to the Edgedancer novella. I don't normally rate short stories or novella's that high but this is one of the top 10 shorter stories that I've ever read. It's 100% worth checking out.
James Tivendale, 8/10
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