Ambient fiction

I’m a fan of ambient fiction. Interesting as that might be, that doesn’t refer to stories about walking around. I’m talking about fiction with ambience – ambiance if you prefer – fiction with a distinct mood, tone, or atmosphere in one guise or another. Fiction that relies more on feeling than action, more on sense than sensibility.

Patricia McKillip is the reigning queen of ambient fiction. Her stories are solid, the characters interesting, but it’s the reliable atmosphere of her stories that draws me back and back again. Some stories are dark, some funny, but there’s a muzzy warmth and friendliness to them that never fails to appeal. I recently read one of her stories that’s entirely about a man returning an item he stole.That’s pretty much all that happens, but the story works wonderfully. Why? Ambience. The story is cozy and compelling, despite its apparent lack of progress.

Ambience doesn’t just mean warm and cozy, of course. Jack Vance also fits in the ambient category, and if there’s one thing his stories aren’t, it’s warm and cozy. Vance pulls off a lot more verbal acrobatics than McKillip, and that’s part of his appeal, but mood is a key ingredient as well. Almost any Vance story will create a cool, cynical mood, whether the subject is torture or love.

I’ve done my own share of ambient writing. As often as not, I know more about the tone of the story I intend than about the plot. I know what I want it to feel like. Sometimes that includes how I hope the reader will feel, but more often it’s the atmosphere of the overall piece. Once I have that, I can set out more confidently to do the writing.

Who’s your favorite ambient writer?

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