JANE: Last time we talked about some of the elements of older SF style that may contribute to making it harder for newer audiences to get into.
Surely not all the recognizable “older” styles were bad… Do you have any positive examples?
ALAN: Yes, I do. Jack Vance’s voice is unmistakable. He has a mannered, flowery style full of rare (and sometimes made-up) words. He is often witty, droll and dry. Reading his prose can be a sensuous experience.
“The creature displayed qualities reminiscent of both coelenterate and echinoderm. A terrene nudibranch? A mollusc deprived of its shell? More importantly, was the creature edible?”
That’s from a fix-up novel called Cugel the Clever.
JANE: Ooh, boy… I happen to know most of those words, but I wonder if Vance really communicated to his audience? Still, I guess he had faith they’d use a dictionary. These days, with on-line dictionaries, it would be even easier to check out odd words.
Did Vance write like that all the time?
ALAN: Interestingly, no, he didn’t. His detective novels are told in a plain, straightforward manner with none of the stylistic flourishes that ornament his SF. So clearly his SF style was a deliberate artistic choice. But I have no idea why he chose to write so differently in the two genres.
JANE: Quite possibly because he was aware that the dominant style for detective stories of the time was plain and unadorned, whereas he was clearly weaving sound (as well as idea) images with his SF/F.
What other writer would you suggest had a recognizable style?
ALAN: Ray Bradbury is another unique stylist – his prose is poetic, often rhythmical and full of odd images that stay with the reader forever. I will never forget the story “Kaleidoscope” (in the collection The Illustrated Man) which opens with a wrecked spaceship that spills its doomed crew out into the void “…like a dozen wriggling silverfish”.
JANE: Now, that’s a great image. Even people who haven’t encountered the insect silverfish would mentally “translate” into “silver fish,” and still get some of the same impact.
Bradbury is often praised for being “pastoral,” and “nostalgic.” This deceptive gentleness of style is very effective in making his creepier stories more creepy.
ALAN: Oh gosh yes – he could be very creepy when he wanted to be and I’m sure you’re right in your observation about the contribution his style made to that effect.
The style an author choses for a story really can have a profound emotional impact. In Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, the style is so intrinsically part of the story’s structure that I can’t imagine it being told in any other way. It concerns an intellectually handicapped man who receives treatment that turns him into a genius. The sections where the character is still handicapped are told in simple (often badly spelled) prose. As the character’s intelligence increases and matures, so too the writing changes to reflect his more sophisticated understanding. Both sentence structure and vocabulary become more complex.
JANE: Oh! I agree. I re-read the short story version of this recently and was, once again, brought to tears. If the language used hadn’t perfectly represented poor Charlie’s experience, it would not have worked.
Style should and can be a tool. I have a couple of examples in mind
Have you read Michael Bishop’s novel Brittle Innings? Its opening provides a great example of a deliberate stylistic choice that can prove a barrier to a reader.
ALAN: I’ve sort of read it… I simply couldn’t get past the opening because I am quite ignorant about baseball and the culture surrounding it. The novel made too many assumptions about my level of knowledge and I found it impenetrable. Normally, I like Michael Bishop’s books, but this one defeated me.
JANE: For those who haven’t read it, Brittle Innings is a World War II era Southern Gothic novel in which the Frankenstein monster plays minor league baseball.
ALAN: Perhaps Bishop should re-write the novel for a UK audience, using cricketing culture instead of baseball. I’d find that a lot easier to come to grips with, though I suspect Americans might find it a bit tricky to follow…
JANE: That we would. I am perennially confused by cricket references in British novels. Since they’re usually background, I can go “la-la” and skim, but in Brittle Innings both the sport and the time period are essential to the novel.
Bishop is a fine and elegant stylist. In Brittle Innings, he chooses not only to use slang and imagery of the time, but to deeply immerse the reader in the subculture (including jargon) of baseball. As a reader too young for the one, as well as being fairly ignorant of baseball, I found this challenging.
To further complicate matters, after I’d twisted my brain into comfort with that stylistic choice, Bishop introduced long passages from Jumbo’s journal. As was appropriate, it was written in the ornate prose of the late 1700s/early 1800s. After the breezy, slangy prose of the previous 200 and some pages, this was like hitting a wall of cold molasses.
I ended up quite enjoying the novel, but I’ll admit, it wasn’t a breezy, easy read.
Any other thoughts about style?
ALAN: Sometimes a writer’s style can be defined by their devotion to a single word. I have a funny story about how that created a new game.
JANE: Do tell!
ALAN: The game is called Clench Racing and is played by UK fans. Competitors are provided with a Thomas Covenant novel by Stephen Donaldson. When the game begins, everyone opens their novel to a random page and starts scanning forwards. The winner is the first person to find the word “clench” in the text. Apparently, most games are finished very quickly!
JANE: Okay. I need to try that one of these days.
Just as an experiment, I pulled up a file of Artemis Awakening and did a search for “clench.” It didn’t come up even once! So I think you’re absolutely right that word choice is one of the things that is key to a writer’s specific style.
We’ve been very literary these last several weeks, and I’ve quite enjoyed it. I wonder what we’ll come up with next?
ALAN: I’m clenching my jaw to stop myself blurting out the secret…