TT: Putting on the Style

JANE: Last time we started taking a look at why the style (in which we included narrative conventions) of older SF can provide a barrier to newer readers – even those who are perfectly willing to accept, say, a Mars with breathable air or starship engineers who use slide rules, as a sort of “alternate history.”

Kel: Arbiter of Style

Kel: Arbiter of Style

Since anyone who missed that can look here, I’m just going to dive in where we left off.

ALAN: Go for it!

JANE: I think one of the biggest hurdles older SF faces is that – especially given that these stories are full of people who are little more than talking heads – the dialogue sounds so fake.

Let me quote from early in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934).

“Well,” exploded Harrison abruptly, “are we going to hear what happened?  You set out all shipshape in an auxiliary rocket, we don’t get a peep for ten days, and finally Putz here picks you out of a lunatic ant-heap with a freak ostrich as your pal!  Spill it, man!”

If this had been the narrative hook, I might be more forgiving, but we’ve already had a page of info dump… including a very long, very dense, very dull paragraph, much of which has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

If you will bear with me, I’ll take a closer look.

ALAN: The closer the better – I’m intrigued.

JANE: First, I’m reminded, once again, of old-radio dramas, where, since they can’t show what’s happening, they tell you, often through dialogue.  Let’s take a closer look at that dialogue.

“Exploded abruptly” is redundant.  Explosions are by definition “abrupt.”

“Shipshape” would have been verging on old-fashioned jargon even in 1934, unless you were a very traditional wet water sailor.

“Peep,” “pal,” “freak,” “spill it” all seem to be trying too hard to sound like casual, slangy speech.

Moreover, I think Weinbaum himself was aware of how fake and stilted his dialogue was, since one of the subtexts of the story is a commentary on language.  Nor is that commentary restricted to the difficulties of talking to aliens, but is dealt with repeatedly between the humans.

As soon as Harrison finishes his diatribe, that it is intended to be confusing is made clear.  Again, I quote:

“Speel?” queried Leroy perplexedly.  “Speel what?”

“”He mean ‘spiel’,” explained Putz soberly.  “It iss [sic]to tell”

Note the redundant adverbs “perplexedly” and “soberly.”  Again, I think Weinbaum was completely aware of what he was doing, because he stops later in the story.  But to an audience not in on the joke, this is a barrier they may never get beyond.  Actually, they may never get beyond the info-dump in paragraph three.

Okay…  I’ll stop now.

ALAN: Righto – I’ll start.

If you are paid by the word, which many of these writers were, it helps  your pay cheque if you can insert some extra words here and there. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the adverbial and adjectival redundancy that you spotted was quite deliberate.

We’re on shakier ground when it comes to slang. I know little or nothing about period American slang, but “Peep,” “pal,” “freak,” “spill it” may well have been commonly used terms when Weinbaum was writing (I’m sure I’ve seen these and similar words in other stories from the period).

If so, of course, his original audience would have accepted them unquestioningly. What’s a poor writer to do? You can only use the words that you know, even if you are sure that they will not stand the test of time and you may well end up looking quaint. Your only other alternative is to try and invent a future slang and that will almost certainly leave you looking ridiculous.

JANE: To clarify… It is the sheer amount of slang crammed into those sentences, not any one word in itself I was noting.  But you do have a good point.  Go on!

ALAN:  As far as I know, only Robert Heinlein ever had any real success here – waldo (from the short story “Waldo”), grok (from Stranger in a Strange Land) and tanstaafl (from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) were so successful that they have migrated backwards and, particularly in the case of “grok”, have become part of everyday speech in the real world. I guess that makes Heinlein a neologiser of Carrollean skill!

JANE: I agree that Heinlein was very successful.  I’m sure someone reading the word “waldo” out of the context of the initial story (in which the inventor’s name is given) would assume that Heinlein was using an established term, not that his term for remotely operated robotic devices had entered the general language.

Jack Williamson also had a talent for inventing terms that would become mainstream.  His include “androids,” “genetic engineering,” and “terraforming.”

ALAN: But of course none of that invalidates your conclusions and I think you are right about why a modern audience might find those stories difficult to read. And that will only get worse as time passes. Already they sound quaint and forced. Soon, I suspect, they will stop making sense entirely.

JANE: If I had to choose, I’d say that info dumps are a greater danger than any amount of “quaint” language – especially if they come before the audience is fully hooked.  However, both were part of the dominant style of older SF.

ALAN: Infodumps are almost always a turn off, particularly when they start with a character saying something along the lines of “As you know, Professor…”. Harry Harrison parodied this beautifully in his novel The Technicolour Time Machine. A character asks the inventor of the time machine  to explain how it works. Cue infodump. But the inventor replies by telling the character that he is too stupid to understand the explanation. The story moves on and no infodump takes place!

JANE: Editors sometimes use the phrase “As you know, Bob…” as a shorthand for “obvious infodump.’  After all, if you know, why would you need to be told?

But SF style, even that used by those “older” writers, isn’t all bad, is it?  Maybe we can take a look next time!

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12 Responses to “TT: Putting on the Style”

  1. Paul Dellinger Says:

    The old “Doc” Smith novels were a turning point in SF space opera – first time stories had taken us beyond the solar system – and any scholar of the field should sample them, but they are terribly hard to read today and one reason is the futuristic slang he invents. “QX” for “OK,” and such.

  2. Marion Dilbeck Says:

    Arriving in medias res, I’ll ask a question you may already have answered: is there a reason to think newer readers would want to read Weinbaum or Smith? Other than for historical interest, do we, ahem, veteran readers spend time with the literary cave paintings toward which Sam Moskowitz or Project Gutenberg direct us? I see the SF generation gap at every con. I think it’s here to stay.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I can’t say about Smith, but yes, I do think so.

      For one, there are some cool ideas there, sometimes far more fanciful and far-reaching than the market-driven material coming out now. If you read SF/F for the brain stretching aspects, it’s worth it.

      And if that same reader is interested in writing… Having a sense of what an experienced editor is going to look at an yawn “been there, done that SO many times” is vital.

      I’m not sure if Joe Haldeman’s filk song “The Science Fiction Editor’s Lament” is out there somewhere still, but every would-be SF/F writer with no sense of the field sound listen to it as a cautionary tale.

      • Marion Dilbeck Says:

        Familiarity with the field is vital, but isn’t familiarity with the current field enough? Have any Golden Age ideas been lost, or are all the worthwhile ideas still circulating, evolved beyond their Cretaceous forebears and populating their own eco-niches?
        (Understand that I’m playing devil’s advocate: I like pulp fiction, Golden Age of Radio and silent films. But at 65 I’m the old guard. I can’t get my grandchildren to look at black and white movies. At cons the under-35 fen know SF back to the Seventies and not much earlier. I love the past, but it is past. There just aren’t many literary archaeologists.)

      • janelindskold Says:

        Whatever… But I think you’re generalizing. I have some close friends who are under 35. They love b&w films. Familiar with older SF. We just share what we love. And sometimes they’re the ones sharing the old stuff with ME.

        There’s no right and wrong.

  3. Paul Says:

    Hmm… Glad then that I read them when I did.

    • Marion Dilbeck Says:

      Same here. I do still read some pulp-era work and Victorian ghost stories, but I feel an antique shop nostalgia when I do. Ever see Woody Allen’s ‘Radio Days?’ It’s like that. A sadness, like meeting an old lover and then parting again.

  4. Marion Dilbeck Says:

    Jane, re-reading your post, I do agree about fanciful and far-reaching ideas and images in the classic works. Olaf Stapledon. HPL. Donald Wandrei. It’s that cosmic vision that entranced so many of us in the beginning. Not enough of it now.

  5. henrietta abeyta Says:

    TRUE THERE SEVERAL TINY PARTS IN MAKING A DECISION
    THERE’S NO RIGHT OR WRONG, AND THERE’S NO REAL REASON TO BLAME OTHERS FOR WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU EITHER.

    SELF-ACCEPTANCE IS WHAT KEEPS MY PREPARATION WELL BALANCED AND IT’S THE WOLVES WHO HELP ME KEEP SELF-ACCEPTANCE WITHOUT IT SHRINKING. AND IT WAS A LONG WRITTEN WOLF QUOTE THAT GAVE ME AN EMOTIONAL ALERT QUICK BUT I KNOW WHAT IT MEANT WAS TRUE IGNORING YOUR MISTAKES CAN CAUSE A DISASTROUS PROBLEM CONCENTRATING IS SIGNIFICANT, YOU’D NEVER WANT YOUR MISTAKES TO CRUSH YOU.

    OUR INVISIBLE PATHS ARE DIFFERENT ENOUGH I WOULDN’T CALL IT A SMALL WORLD ANYMORE. DECISION MAKING IS THE KEY TO SHOWING WHO WE ARE, BUT EVEN WHEN SOMTETHING SIMILAR HAPPENS IT USUALLY DIDN’T ARRIVE THE SAME WAY.

    WHO AM I DIVISION/ PARTS OF BEING THE REAL YOU

    EXPERIENCES
    SPIRIT
    A PRIVATE PATH
    CHOICES OF YOURS
    A LIFESTYLE
    CONSCIENCE
    UNIQUE EXPRESSION OF EMOTIONS
    PERSONAL EXPLANATIONS OF ENJOYMENT

    Even within our hearts our friends, beloveds, and managements aren’t quite the same lists.

    GAIN PERSEVERANCE PEOPLE IT’S WHETHER YOU KEEP TRYING, NOT WHETHER YOU’RE KNOCKED DOWN……..
    PLUS CHANGE IS ACTUALLY CONSTANT START ACCEPTING WHO YOU ARE, YOUR PAST IS WHAT MADE YOU WHO YOU ARE TODAY, UNAWARENESS IS THE PROBLEM NOT YOU.

    PLUS FICTION CAN BE FUN BUT WE SHOULD START TEACHING KIDS FROM NOW ON YOU DON’T NEED SUPER POWERS OR AN ABUNDANCE OF STRENGTH TO LIVE WELL.

    YOU CAN BE A TRUE HERO/ HEROIN WITHOUT SUPER POWER AND EVEN WITHOUT AN ABUNDANCE OF STRENGTH YOU CAN DO WELL DURING ADVENTURES, IT’S COURAGE YOU NEED TO GAIN AND LAZINESS YOU SHOULD DO YOUR BEST TO LACK.

    THIS IS JASMINE OLSON SPEAKING HER AGREEMENT WITH WHAT JANE LINDSKOLD SAID ABOUT THERE BEING NO RIGHT AND WRONG.

  6. henrietta abeyta Says:

    LOVE OTHER FOR WHO THEY ARE, LIVE AND LET LIVE EVERYONE LONGS FOR FREEDOM!!!!!

  7. henrietta abeyta Says:

    IN COMPARING TO IMAGINATION SIMILAR CHARACATERS DOESN’T MEAN IT’S A SIMILAR IMAGINARY PLACE. KNOWING YOURSELF IS TRUE WISDOM KNOWING OTHERS IS INTELLIGENCE, PLUS LEADING AND GUDING DON’T MEAN THE EXACT SAME THING.

    AND AS MUCH AS I LOVE THE WOLVES THESE ARE FOUR/ 4 OF THE WORDS THEY HELPED ME DISCOVER THE REAL DEFINITIONS OF. WITH THEIR WISE QUOTES!!!

    JASMINE OLSON AGAIN.

  8. CBI Says:

    Hmmm. Different readers see different things, and as experiences vary, so do perceptions. I’ve lived in a dozen different states and one foreign country (eight states plus overseas within the formative ages of six to thirty), and some of your examples don’t echo with me.

    “Shipshape” is still in current use (OK, I’m retired Navy, so maybe that’s a factor), I’ve known people who talked like Harrison does in the Weinbaum novel (although, in reflection, that may also be both age and cultural: the people who come to mind all grew up in the Bronx and are over 50), the use of redundant adverbs as an intensifier is colloquial (although I agree that Weinbaum overdoes it–I started to look for Tom Swifties when reading it).

    While they can be overdone, I also appreciate infodumps that are to-the-point: they can help with the enjoyment of the story. I think one of the shortcomings of modern SF writing is introducing a new concept by label only–no explanation–and letting it hang there irritatingly. Sometimes the story ends without an explanation or with a bit of a hand-wave; I find that distracting. As an example, I just finished Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves [no spoilers follow], one of the characters is named “Kath Two”. What the “Two” means is eventually explained–and ties up some of her character traits as well–but I would’ve found the novel more readable had the “Two” been explained earlier. An infodump of some sort is the most likely way to do so.

    So, while I think I understand some of the style arguments present here, there are variations in taste as well, and hard-and-fast rules don’t always work for everyone.

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