Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Going a Ways Toward Explaining the Artistic Level of the Zeroth Mundane Order

Posted by Trent Walters at 4:08 PM
If Geoff means something else by the use of these writers, he can explain. Bruce Sterling in Mirrorshades gets away with calling Norman Spinrad zany and that’s all the explanation Sterling gives for Spinrad’s influence on cyberpunk. He doesn't have to explain that they didn't write cyberpunk, but that they influenced its development. Same applies here if we don't explain in detail a writer's influence.

J.G. Ballard strives for a completely specific accuracy in description, as if trying to capture the scene through verbal cinematic means:

“All day they had moved steadily upstream, occasionally pausing to raise the propeller and cut away the knots of weed, and by three o’clock had covered some seventy-five miles. Fifty yards away, on either side of the patrol launch, the high walls of the jungle river rose over the water, the unbroken massif of the mato grosso which swept across the Amazonas from Campos Buros to the delta of the Orinoco.” -- from Terminal Beach

This accuracy has a genre predecessor in Theodore Sturgeon’s “Killdozer,” albeit at times it goes overboard.

One of my favorite modes of story-telling is Geoff Ryman’s evocation of character and place through language:

“The municipal airport of Manhattan, Kansas, was low and brown and rectangular.”--from Was

The writer doesn’t always strive for specific detail, but the telling ones--the ones that are sensed through character, creating mood, place, and character simultaneously. You aren’t given the northerly direction of the wind sock, but the feeling you get from staring down at the airport as you come in for a landing. In ways this method gives the reader far more to think about.

“A woman all in black with a hat at an awkward angle was dragging a large trunk case. A little girl all in white stood next to her. The white dress sparkled in sunlight, as if it had been sprinkled with mirrors.”--from Was

Here, the details rub off on one another. The woman is all in black, so the reader might sense a mourning. She is disheveled [hat] and struggling with a large trunk, packing, perhaps, too much. The little girl is all in white belying the mourning of her companion, standing in stark contrast. Moreover, as if that weren’t enough to make the woman look miserable enough, the girl sparkles with mirrors.

Even when Ryman gets very specific, it’s only just sharp enough to capture the essence of the moment:

“The brakeman danced along the roofs of the train cars, turning brake wheels. The cars squealed and hissed and bumped their way to a slowly settling halt. The train chuffed once as if in relief.”--from Was*

Sturgeon, that chameleon of style, can also evoke character and place, particularly in “Poker Face” where he achieves a Forties period flavor--at least it feels strongly period, but then maybe someone who lived through the period might say that that’s only the cinema’s version (of course, it would probably largely depend on the place where one was during that period).

I picked Ursula LeGuin as a representative of Mundane artistic techniques. I haven’t found any commentary listing this particular virtue of hers, which is surprising since it seems rather transparent to me. She often employs an anthropologist’s clear and only slightly biased eye to societies, cutting more horizontally through a culture than a character with his own concerns might be capable of doing. We see the culture through multiple pairs of eyes:

Rosa said.... "How can we keep going on the True Way if we leave the True Way? How can we reach heaven by stopping on an earth?"

"Well, maybe we can’t, but we do have a job to do," Luis said. "They sent us to learn about that earth. And to tell them what we learn. Learning was important to them. Discovery. They named our ship Discovery.”

"Exactly! The discovery of bliss! Learning the True Way!"

In “Paradises Lost,” LeGuin shows how a generation-starship would be viewed quite differently by those feeling guilty--sending the voyagers off, trapped on a ship bound for the unknown--than by the voyagers content with their way of life. LeGuin cuts out of whole cloth a religion that fits its environment well. The plot hinges on this elaborate extrapolative genius--marred only slightly by the possible dubiousness of so many taking on a new religion in so few generations, but who knows what humans might do in such an environment? This story is well worth rereading and studying for its technique.

* (Side Note: I found myself reading Was after one of my favorite genre critics, Matt Cheney, panned it on SF Site. I was surprised to read that Ryman could have written so lousy a work. It’s hard to say where Cheney and I might disagree without taking time away from other projects though I am disappointed Cheney missed out on Ryman’s chief strengths, which makes me wonder if Cheney’s critical strengths lie more in certain works that stress the sounds of sentences, rather than their ability to evoke character (though I do consider Ryman a stylist--see my comments on Ryman’s Air [page down the article on style], both Cheney and Ryman might quibble). Maybe I’d feel the same as Cheney after finishing Was, or maybe Cheney has been spread himself thin by his many obligations, so perhaps I ought not to opine. Gollancz did feel strongly enough about it to list it as a masterwork and John Kessel thought it one of the best novels of the 90s, so I’ll leave it to them to duke it out.)


Blogger gnomeloaf said...

I discovered Geoff Ryman through Was, which remains one of my favorite books.

There are definitely other reasons I enjoyed the book as much as I did, but I don't think I've ever found one in a poor review before.

Namely: The Was universe is built on imagination and fantasy, and yet its characters are consistently punished for demonstrating these qualities.

The punishments aren't trials the characters face to achieve redemption. If you look at the stories as falls rather than journeys, the various endings don't feel as frayed and random. It's a book with a cruel premise -- but that doesn't make it any less compelling.

Anyway, thanks (once again) for a thought provoking read and links.

6/22/2005 07:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Ian McDonald said...

thought you might be interested in Margaret Atwood's take on what is mundane, what's science fiction what spec-fic...

6/24/2005 02:14:00 AM  
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