The Beautiful Puzzle

I dig Gene Wolfe, Borges, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, recently been enjoying some VanderMeer and Mieville. Any recommendations for where to go next for this "beautiful puzzle" kind of thing? Something that has mystery and maybe a slight labyrinthine quality, but is beautifully composed and doesn't necessarily require you to try to figure the puzzle out (maybe you can if you want to, like people try to do with Wolfe).

- /u/Nahs1l
(source; emphasis mine)

I recognized both my literary tastes and the direction in which my own writing has developed in this post on the Print SF Reddit. The books listed in the reply to that post reinforced the sense of having discovered “my” sub-genre.

The Definition of the Beautiful Puzzle

This brand of strange is apparently a selective taste. I have noticed that the majority of readers prefer to not have to work too hard to understand how the world of a novel works. A Beautiful Puzzle novel contradicts this desire in two ways, which the Reddit poster aptly identified—the “labyrinthine quality” and “beautiful composition.”

When reading a Beautiful Puzzle, the reader is, at every juncture, expected to incorporate new details into their overall mental picture of the world of the novel. At no point can the reader lazily assume that the novel of the world will operate as ours does (hence the metaphor of the puzzle). When the average reader encounters an element of a novel that does not easily mesh with their conception of “how things are,” they presume it to be an error—an authorial slip-up. A Beautiful Puzzle reader instead assumes that they’ve been presented with a new puzzle piece and must then work to find a way to fit it into their mental picture of the novel’s world.

The other quality is beautiful composition. For evidence of the fact that many readers are averse to beautiful composition, I cite this strip of the Penny Arcade comic and its associated commentary by the author. I think the author didn’t realize, at least when he wrote that comic and its commentary, that his analysis of Miéville’s writing style is a stronger critique of himself than of his target. Beautiful composition makes a work more difficult to parse and analyze. Beautiful Puzzle readers enjoy this challenge.

Interesting also is the fact that, while the field of the Beautiful Puzzle novel has a strong affinity with SF, a Beautiful Puzzle need not be SF. Umberto Eco novels largely achieve their Beautiful Puzzle status through temporal dislocation, and Borges by disrupting the ontological status of everything present in his real, contemporary world. SF’s alterity opens up many possibilities for Beautiful Puzzle writers, but SF is not a requirement to achieve the effect of a Beautiful Puzzle.

Beautiful Puzzle SF writers (via Reddit)

  • Nina Allan

  • J. G. Ballard

  • Ian M. Banks

  • Brian Catling

  • Liu Cixin

  • David Cronenberg

  • John Crowley

  • Giorgio De Maria

  • Samuel Delaney

  • William Gibson

  • Nick Harkaway

  • M. John Harrison

  • Stanislaw Lem

  • China Miéville

  • Haruki Murakami

  • Reza Negarestani

  • Ada Palmer

  • Christopher Priest

  • Hannu Rajaniemi

  • Alastair Reynolds

  • Herbert Rosendorfer

  • Paul Russo

  • Neal Stephenson

  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

  • Michael Swanwick

  • Catherynne M. Valente

  • Jeff VanderMeer

* In bold are authors, whom I can attest have written works that fit the sub-genre. In italic are authors of whom I am skeptical of their status (because I have read their works, and I would consider them borderline).

some Additions

I recently happened upon a novel called City of the Iron Fish by Simon Ings. Not only is it superb, but, based on having read just over half of it, it is most certainly a Beautiful Puzzle. The novel has had me captivated since I started it. I am shocked that both the novel and its author seem to have been overlooked by the SF community at large.

I would argue that David Mitchell also belongs on that list, by way of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.

Final Note

I feel it is important to note that, while fitting into the sub-genre of Beautiful Puzzle makes a novel both complex and heavily stylized as I have argued above, these characteristics cannot be equated with a novel being good. In fact, there are books by those very authors listed above, which I would argue are bad Beautiful Puzzles. Complexity, poorly utilized, can lead to obscurantism and the death of all meaning. Stylistic flair, poorly utilized, can become an impediment to plot and theme rather than harmonize with them. The danger of writing a Beautiful Puzzle, it seems, is that the puzzle’s pieces won’t ultimately fit together. In a genre characterized by complexity, achieving that harmony can be a difficult thing.