Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Footnote on Footnotes

Over on Becoming a Fiction Writer, blog author Amanda proposes setting up a "Society for the Abolition of Footnotes in Novels". Since one of the examples she quotes is Jack Vance's Marune, it's no surprise to find that I disagree. Unlike the regrettable rantings of Das Übernerd, however, Amanda's arguments are expressed with intelligence and moderation, and while I won't be joining the Society, I can see why many readers find them irritating.

I thought it might be interesting, nonetheless, to look at some of Vance's footnotes and playthings to see just what they're adding. Amanda's central thesis is this: if the information is important to the story, make it part of the story. If it’s not, leave it out.

The footnote in question is too long to quote in full here (in itself a support to Amanda's argument). Vance has set out in the main text the various phases of daylight caused by the multiple-star system around which Marune orbits. He then gives us a 400-word footnote on the ramifications of this which, as Amanda says, you need to read if you are to understand the phases. The latter part of the footnote reads:

The Rhunes, as proud and competent as the Majars are demoralized, are also strongly affected by the changing modes. Circumstances proper during one mode may be considered absurd or in poor taste during another. Persons advance their erudition and hone their special skills during aud, isp and umber. Formal ceremonies tend to take place during isp and also the remarkable ‘Ceremony of Odors’. It may be noted that music is considered hyper-emotional and inducive to vulgar conduct; it is never heard in the Rhune Realms. Aud is the appropriate time to go forth to battle, to conduct litigation, fight a duel, collect rent. Green rowan is a time for poetry and sentimental musing; red rowan allows the Rhune slightly to relax his etiquette. A man may condescend to take a glass of wine in company with other men, all using etiquette screens; women similarly may sip cordials or brandy. Chill isp inspires the Rhune with a thrilling ascetic exultation, which completely supersedes lesser emotions of love, hate, jealousy, greed. Conversation occurs in a hushed archaic dialect; brave ventures are planned; gallant resolves sworn; schemes of glory proposed and ratified, and many of these projects become fact and go into the Book of Deeds.

This conveys a lot of information, most of it relevant to the story, some of it merely a gracenote. I don't think it kills the story if you don't read it, but it adds an extra gloss to some of the subsequent action. As a reader, I'd rather have this information retailed in Vance's omniscient crisp prose than see it shoehorned in via factitious conversation (where it could only slow down the plot). Marune is a short novel (around 85,000 words) and Vance could easily have "showed" this information rather than "told" us. It's a deliberate artistic choice and for me, at least, it's one that works.

Vance also often deploys footnotes to sardonic effect. Here's a nice one from The Palace of Love.

On one hand was the display wall characteristic of middle-class European homes; here hung a panel intricately inlaid with wood, bone and shell: Lenka workmanship from Nowhere, one of the Concourse planets; a set of perfume points from Pamfile; a rectangle of polished and perforated obsidian: one of the so-called supplication slabs* of Lupus 23II.
*The non-human natives of Peninsula 4A, Lupus 23II, devote the greater part of their lives to the working of these slabs, which apparently have a religious significance. Twice each year, at the solstices, two hundred and twenty-four microscopically exact slabs are placed aboard a ceremonial barge, which is then allowed to drift out upon the ocean. The Lupus Salvage Company maintains a ship just over the horizon from Peninsula 4A. As soon as the raft has drifted from sight of land, it is recovered, the slabs are removed, exported and sold as objets d’art.

This is characteristic Vance, at once precise, economical, and barbed. You don't need it to advance the story at all; it's an imaginative riff thrown out solely for the reader's amusement. Free-wheeling delight or self-indulgent indiscipline? Tastes will vary.

Vance also employs a similar technique in chapter introductions. Every chapter in the five-volume Demon Princes series has information conveyed through oblique articles, interviews or other pseudo-factual devices. It's an aspect of the books which fans tend to love, but it's not without risk. Would you start an adventure novel with this?

From Popular Handbook to the Planets, 330th edition, 1525:

SARKOVY: Single planet of Phi Ophiuchi.
Planetary constants:
Diameter—9,600 miles
Sidereal day—37.2 hours

Sarkovy is moist and cloudy; with an axis normal to the orbital plane it knows no
seasons. The surface lacks physiographical contrast; the characteristic features of the landscape are the steppes: Hopman Steppe, Gorobundur Steppe, the Great Black Steppe, and others…From the abundant flora the notorious Sarkoy venefices leach and distill the poisons for which they are famous.

The population is largely nomadic, though certain tribes, generically known as Night Hobs, live among the forests. (For detailed information regarding the rather appalling customs of the Sarkoy, consult the Encyclopedia of Sociology and The Sexual Habits of the Sarkoy, by B.A. Egar.)

The Sarkoy pantheon is ruled by Godogma, who carries a flower and a flail and walks on wheels. Everywhere along the Sarkoy steppes may be found tall poles with wheels on high, in praise of Godogma, the striding wheeling God of Fate.

* * *

News feature in Rigellian Journal, Avente, Alphanor:

Paing, Godoland, Sarkovy: July 12:

As if Claris Adam were to be destroyed for beguiling William Wales:
As if the Abbatram of Pamfile were to be liquefied for smelling too strongly:
As if Deacon Fitzbah of Shaker City were to be immolated for an excess of zeal:
Today from Sarkovy comes news that Master Venefice Kakarsis Asm must cooperate with the guild’ for selling poison.

Circumstances of course are not all that simple. Asm’s customer, no ordinary murderer, was Viole Falushe, one of the ‘Demon Princes’. The essence of the crime was neither ‘trafficking with a notorious criminal’ nor ‘betrayal of guild secrets’, but rather ‘selling fixed-price poisons at a discount.’
Kakarsis Asm must die.
How? How else?

This is our indirect introduction to Sarkovy and its "venefices" (a real word, incidentally), the master poisoners who dominate the first part of the novel. There are other ways of doing this, but would they really be this much fun? One of the ways Vance gets away with this is his immaculate control of voice: he can readily replicate the dry language of a guidebook or the racier tone of a magazine (and indeed the dozens of other mechanisms he deploys across the course of the series, for instance "Reminiscences of a Peripatetic Purchase Agent", by Sudo Nonimus, as published in Thrust, a trade journal of the metallurgical industry). There is a humour here so dry that many readers will miss, or dismiss, it. For those of the same cast of mind, though, it's one of the joys and unending rewards of reading Jack Vance.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Stars My Destination
Alfred Bester, 1956

Ironically for a genre whose lifeblood is predicting the future, nothing dates faster than science fiction. Pick up an sf novel from the 1950s and you will probably wince at the scientific naivety, the quality of the prose, and the social attitudes embodied. On the other hand, you may pick up The Stars My Destination (or The Demolished Man, by the same author), in which case you will be astounded to realise you are reading an sf novel over 50 years old, and at least 30 years ahead of its time. It's as fresh today as when it was written, and prefigures the cyberpunk movement which was so influential from the mid-1980s.

I won't retail the plot of The Stars My Destination in any detail, because the book's not primarily about the plot, an energetic retread of The Count of Monte Cristo. Gully Foyle, the most vivid antihero since Heathcliff, sets out to revenge himself on the people who left him for dead. He's not an attractive character, and Bester never tries to pretend he is; neither are his enemies. If James Ellroy wrote science fiction, this is what he'd come up with. Bester gives us telekinesis, ("jaunting"), shadowy global corporations more powerful than governments, astounding weapons and a deeply misanthropic take on the human condition. His prose spits venom and the odd typographical conventions he employs actually add to the whole. It's modern, sparky and unencumbered by the cod-Freudianism which is the only weakness of The Demolished Man.

Because the novel is so singular it's easy to overlook the significant technical achievements it incorporates. Antihero novels are hard to pull off, especially when they have real antiheroes rather than the sheep in wolves' clothing so often passed off as antiheroes. But Gully Foyle is murderer, rapist, thug. Morally he scarcely improves over the course of the novel (I've seen it described as a bildungsroman, but I'm not convinced Gully develops enough to merit that). What Bester gives him is energy, durability, cunning and an absolute will to achieve his ends. He's hard to like, but in a perverse way he's easy to admire--a testament to Bester's narrative skill. The world-building is all the more effective for its unobtrusiveness: we never have the sense that the relentless pace of the story is on hold while Bester fills us in on the background. The tawdry hi-tec industrialisation Bester paints is so compelling that decades later we can see echoes of it in Neuromancer, itself one of the most influential novels in the field.

How has it influenced me?

It's hard to imagine any writer of speculative fiction not having taken on board this novel; like The Lord of the Rings, it's part of the genre's kitbag (and arguably has worn rather better). As a pithy exercise in world-building and a dynamic character study, it sets a standard that few of us will meet. My first novel, The Zael Inheritance, owed much to its model of government by corporation, even if I never felt capable of pulling off a Gully Foyle.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • If you have a voice, let it off the leash
  • You can make a sympathetic character out of the most unpromising materials
  • One book can make your name forever
  • If you are going to use gimmicks like unorthodox typography, make sure they're anchored in the story

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Fly

It's so much easier to talk about a terrible book than a good book; with a good book I don't want to spoil the experience for anyone and with the terrible I desperately want to warn people away. So take this review as a warning.
So says "

Having roundly panned Glen Cook last week, I'm in no position to throw stones at negative reviews, and can only observe that there are all kinds of opinion in the world. While I could rebut Das :
And then there's what I can only generously describe as "prose". It gets so purple in the novel that it shifts to ultraviolet. The dialog is amazingly clunky as it switches wildly between common dialog and peppering it liberally with archaic terms. It's all heavily overwritten and made me groan at how painful it was.

Not only is Madouc a fantasy novel that features everything I hate in fantasy novels, it is a bad novel on every level. There is not a redeeming feature in it.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the style of someone who presumes to condemn Jack Vance's prose. We can do no better than conclude with the observation of the great aphorist Samuel Johnson:
A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.
Buzz off,

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Ax
Donald E. Westlake, 1997

The prolific Donald E. Westlake, who died last year, wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, the most of famous of which, Richard Stark, became hugely influential in the field of noir fiction. There is an easy generalisation that "Westlake" wrote comic crime capers (for instance the Dortmunder novels) while Stark was the outlet for the darker material.

The Ax gives the lie to that generalisation; under the Westlake byline we have a dark, if bleakly humorous, satire on corporate folly which is more relevant today than when it was written. It's the first-person tale of Burke Devore, the manager of a papermaking plant who is "downsized" (Westlake relishes these management-speak euphemisms). After two years unemployed, Devore realises he isn't going to get another job. He's seen one he's well-qualified for--but he knows others are ahead of him the queue (oh, and the job isn't vacant...). His solution: identify the other potential candidates for the job, kill them, and then kill the incumbent.

While the theme of the novel is clearly satirical, because Westlake is such an accomplished thriller writer, it's also grounded in the plausible. Westlake just tells us what happens, and lets the readers find the satire for themselves. In some ways it's like Stark's Parker novels (relentless attention to the detail divorced from any authorial comment; morally ambiguous endings) but in others it's very different. Stark tells us what Parker does, not what he thinks, but The Ax is a first person narrative, so the book takes place inside Devore's head. His thoughts on his situation, the monstrous but yet entirely reasonable logic he applies, are what makes the book. He is not without conscience or humanity; the reader identifies with him to an alarming extent. The book's resemblance is less to the Parker novels than to American Psycho (which it outclasses by a distance) and Aliya Whiteley's Three Things About Me, another withering deconstruction of the corporate world.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • Satire need not be crude--indeed it's probably better if it's not
  • First-person narrative creates instant sympathy
  • If you are going to have an anti-hero as protagonist, you need pinpoint control of voice
  • You can write a comedy--of sorts--about a serial killer
Aunthood and Apple Pie

One of the things we love as writers is the ability of language to hint at the unsayable, to imply, to allude, and sometimes to misdirect. And writers all know that glorious moment of serendipity when what we've put on the page is subtler, deeper and richer than we realised when we wrote it. Or as Jack Vance puts it:

Supple sentences, with first and second meanings and overtones beyond, outrageous challenges with cleverly planned slip-points, rebuttals of elegant brevity; deceptions and guiles, patient explanations of the obvious, fleeting allusions to the unthinkable.

Sometimes, though, we want our language to be clean, clear, unambiguous. Imagine, if you will, that you are compiling the instructions to go on the back of an apple pie packet. You would not want to be imprecise here, would you? Imagine you were drafting the text to go on the back of the Aunt Bessie's Apple Pie which made its way into our house yesterday. How might you start?

45-50 minutes, 180C/350F/GAS 4
To oven cook: Pre-heat oven and remove outer packaging, glaze with a little egg and/or milk and sprinkle with sugar.
Not a bad start, eh? Time, temperature: the sine qua non of cooking. The stuff about the eggs and/or milk, well, no-one does that, do they? Aunt Bessie and I both know that: it's just there to make me feel better about being too lazy "and/or" inept to bake my own bloody pie. There's a hint of pedantry which will come back to haunt us, though: remove outer packaging. That means "take it out of the box". I had thought of that one, strangely. Perhaps Aunt Bessie's lawyers were wary of potential litigation. ("Coffee: contents may be hot." "Sleeping tablets: may cause drowsiness.").

OK, so the outer packaging is removed, the oven's tooling along at the correct temperature.

Place product on a baking tray and bake in the centre of the oven for 45-50 minutes until pastry is golden brown.

Not so good here, Bess. Product? You mean the pie, right? Then she tells me how long to cook it for--for the second time, but adds a potentially conflicting instruction. What if the pastry is golden brown after 35 minutes? Or 50 minutes have come and gone and it still looks like a Pre-Raphaelite heroine? Do I remove the product or not?

Half way through baking, turn the foil (round not upside down) to ensure even browning. Ensure the product is piping hot before serving.

She's still sticking to the fiction about baking: not rubbing my nose in the fact that I've just rammed a frozen pie in the oven. Then we come onto the foil (which should perhaps be described as the product's inner packaging, the part I didn't remove before baking). Here's the kicker: turn it round not upside down. Come on, Bess! Do you think I'm going to invert the pie in the oven if you just write turn the foil to ensure even browning ? Haven't we come further that that together? We're baking, for Heaven's sake! I should have known when you told me to remove outer packaging that you didn't really trust me to bake, that I was just some miserable kitchen-boy.

Ensure the product is piping hot before serving. It's getting tricky now: we've been in oven 50 minutes, the product is golden brown and still there are conditions. I didn't turn the pie upside down at the halfway mark, surely it's ready now.

If it's not, I'm gonna sue you. And I don't think we're going to be baking together any more.

Monday, February 09, 2009

A Pain in the Ass

::Acquired Taste doesn't normally do negative reviews. If I don't like a book, I normally draw a veil over it; there will be someone out there who likes it, and who's to say they're wrong? Nonetheless...

Glen Cook's The Black Company and Shadows Linger are not bad books. Indeed, the reason they irritated me so much is that they are nearly very good. The Black Company series follows the fortunes of a band of mercenaries over an extended period. The Company goes where the money is, fights hard, fights dirty when necessary, and tries to pick its way through a world of treachery and duplicity. Sounds good, no? The set-up is actually pretty good, and it's easy to see Cook's influence in subsequent better writers like Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin.

Cook is good at the basics: plotting and characterisation are sound enough to engage and retain interest. He makes some narrative choices, however, that while not exactly wrong, are so grating as to pull the reader out of the moment. The worst of these is style of dialogue. The mercenaries all speak 20th century American argot, so Cook tries to have us believe we are in a medieval-textured world and then has characters say things like "pain in the ass" and "bite in the butt". It's a legitimate artistic choice to have your characters speak in a modern fashion in a period work, but it's very high risk. Cook is clearly trying to convey the earthy speech of rough soldier-men, but he sacrifices so much to achieve it that it's hard to see it as a sound bargain. (To the British reader, of course, "ass" and "butt" just add to the egregiousness: American readers would no doubt find "arse" or "bum" equally jarring).

Cook also has a tin ear where names are concerned. His cities have names like Beryl, Jewel, Juniper. Magical beings sport pseudonyms like Feather, Whisper and Soulcatcher. One of the Black Company is called "Raven", a cliche of the field deployed seemingly withour irony. Shadows Linger has a character with one of the most bathetic names in all fiction: Marron Shed (it's hard not to read this as Maroon Shed, which admittedly would be worse). Where is the music we find in Jack Vance: locations like Doun Darric, Ascolais, Poelitetz, Tyntzin Fyral, characters like Rogol Domedonfors, Shimrod, Faude Carfilhiot, Iucounu the Laughing Magician? Cook's naming choices, perhaps deliberately, are cloddish in comparison.

The books also vex by playing the Company's moral code both ways: dark-lite, as it were. The Black Company may be deep-dyed blackguards, but they have a core of decency. They don't change sides at the drop of a hat, like the medieval Free Companies on which they're clearly based, or Joe Abercrombie's Styrian mercenaries. Really they're just like John Wayne in the role he played a hundred times--rough and tough, coarse on the surface but big softies underneath. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but hard to integrate in a fictional world which you're trying to convince us is edgy and amoral. In one typical copout scene, the mercenary leader reluctantly sends one of his henchman back into an inn to kill witnesses who could betray the soldiers' whereabouts. Luckily the witnesses have cleared out, and the mercenaries are spared the blood of innocents on their hands. In a later episode, Maroon, sorry Marron, Shed, Cook's most nuanced character by far, is given a stock "redemptive death of the sidekick" moment which wholly undercuts the genuinely subtle portrayal until that point.

I'm sure Glen Cook neither needs nor desires my approval for his fiction. He sells a lot more books than I do, and plenty of good judges enjoy his work. But sorry, Glen, I'm off to read Donald E. Westlake with a spring in my step and not a backwards glance.

Monday, February 02, 2009

On the Big Screen...

dir. Bryan Singer, 2009

It's easy to mock Tom Cruise. Indeed, with some of his phoned-in performances, he's indulged in the sport himself. His latest offering, Valkyrie, is a Hollywood retelling of the 1944 Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler. It has received what charitably might be described as mixed reviews, the bulk of the criticism boiling down to "it's got Tom Cruise in it". Cruise is a better actor than he's given credit for (he's effective in Born on the Fourth of July, The Last Samurai and action films like Minority Report are pretty good). If there are question marks around his performance as the genuinely heroic Stauffenburg, they relate at least much to the script and direction, which deliberately make Stauffenburg's inner life opaque.

I think Valkyrie is actually a pretty good film, and it makes some interesting narrative choices. Most reviews observe rather snootily that Bryan Singer (director of the immensely over-rated The Usual Suspects*) has chosen to make the film as a thriller. Presumably critics would have preferred to see something more cerebral, along the lines of Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace, a subtler and more reflective film about another attempt to assassinate Hitler. Singer has chosen a different path, though, and should be judged on the film he's made, not the one someone else might have done.

The technical challenge in making a thriller about the Stauffenberg plot is that Hitler doesn't die (sorry if that comes as a spoiler). You know from the start that the protagonist will fail -- so where's the thrill? Unlike Agent of Grace, Singer doesn't fill the space by showing us what's going on in Stauffenberg's head. In a brief prologue, Cruise is shot up even while deciding that Hitler has to go. Instead of reflection, Singer gives us the mechanics of the plot, and in particular the dynamics between the conspirators. Bill Nighy, as the vacillating General Olbricht whose hesitation fatally undermines the scheme, and Tom Wilkinson's General Fromm--determined to be on the winning side, whichever that is--are both standouts in an excellent ensemble cast.

Singer also makes a virtue of necessity by deploying a superb piece of dramatic irony. For half an hour of screen time, the conspirators believe they have succeeded, and that Hitler is dead (the mechanics of why he isn't are very neatly worked out, underscored by a clever shot of the open windows which will disperse the blast). The audience knows, of course, that Hitler is still alive, and Singer milks it for all it's worth.

I've blogged fairly extensively about Rome recently (with which Valkyrie shares several cast members), and David Isaak made the excellent point that, when the audience knows the bones of the story already, it frees the creator to make some different narrative choices. This is clearly the case with Valkyrie. Singer chooses to emphasise the tension of what the plot must have felt from the inside, using the audience's knowledge of the outcome to underline just how much the characters are risking. He's also strong on the logistics of the plot; the anatomisation of the post-coup hours could scarcely be improved.

Valkyrie emphasises the "how" of the Stauffenberg plot over the "why" (the question of historical accuracy is by-the-by here - the film hangs together on its own terms). That is perhaps the heart of its poor reception (over and above Tom Cruise...), but Singer has made an absorbing film which does full justice to the heroism of the men who sacrificed themselves in their attempt to shorten the war and restore pride in their country. As the film makes clear, success in that latter aim was their enduring achievement.

* films lauded for "unguessable twists" usually turn on one of two lame devices: the protagonist is really the villain, or the protagonist is really dead (see The Sixth Sense, similarly overpraised for the same reasons).