Archive for May, 2016

TT: The Good and Bad of Evocative Styles

May 5, 2016

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?

Writing SF with Style

Writing SF with Style

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…

Meow Wolf’s Mystery House

May 4, 2016

Appropriately, the first person who told me about Meow Wolf was wearing a mask.

Last October, I was chatting with George R.R. Martin at a Halloween party hosted by our mutual friends, Patricia Rogers and Scot Denning.  Behind the dark leather Venetian half-mask, George’s eyes shone with excitement as he talked about how he’d purchased an abandoned bowling alley in Santa Fe, and how the Meow Wolf art consortium was in the process of transforming it into a permanent art installation to be called “The House of Eternal Return.”

Music of the Spheres?

Music of the Spheres?

When George started describing the project, I wasn’t quite sure how this art installation would be more than an artsy variation on the old carnival fun house.  Mind you, even that sounded like fun.  But what hooked me was when George mentioned that the House of Eternal Return wasn’t just a vast three-dimensional work of art, it was a story.

When the House of Eternal Return opened to great reviews about six weeks ago, I asked Jim if he’d like me to take him as part of his birthday present.  When he expressed enthusiasm, I went on to suggest that we invite some of our friends to go with us, specifically, our current gaming group.  From what George had said, I had the impression that the story told by the House of Eternal Return was distinctly non-linear, to be understood more by interpreting clues than by following an orderly script.

Also, most of this group is very artistic.  Those of you who are familiar with the book covers for my Wanderings on Writing and Curiosities are already familiar with Tori and Rowan’s work.  One of Cale ‘s drawings was the direct inspiration for the cover of Artemis Awakening. Dominique is the shyest about sharing her art (although I’m hoping to get her to show some at this year’s Bubonicon).  Melissa restricts herself to stick figures but, though she poo-poos them, they’re actually remarkably expressive.

So I figured that this was the perfect team to take to explore the House of Eternal Return.

When we arrived mid-day last Saturday, the place was already packed.  Despite ample parking, we had go well down the block to find street parking.   We bought our tickets and got in line.  Even there, we could see that we were in for an interesting time.  Instead of the usual bland announcement about no eating or drinking while inside, a monitor showed a man in a lab coat who spoke in a halting, staccato, warning us that Charter Agents would be watching: “No eating.  No drinking.  No thinking.”  He then went on to say some other very odd things (I was too busy enjoying to take notes) before the image dissolved into static.

When a Charter Agent in a white lab coat admitted our group into the exhibit, we found ourselves on a twilight lit street across from a Victorian house.  We crossed over and entered by the front door.  To our right was a living room – and a laughing woman was popping out through the back of the fireplace.  Ahead of us was a staircase going up to a second floor.  Possibly because the first floor was so crowded, Tori dove for the staircase and the rest of us followed, so we began our tour on the second floor.

This was fine.  The House of Eternal Return really does succeed in providing a non-linear story experience.  If we’d started on the first floor, we definitely would have had some information sooner.  However, I’m not sure it would have meant anything to us at that point.

I’m not going to risk ruining the experience for anyone else by going into our explorations in detail.  I will say that Jim and I picked the absolutely right people to go with.  In addition to being delighted by all the wonderful areas to explore, our group scavenged for clues.  We’d separate and meet again, share thoughts.  Was there just the father or were there two men who looked a lot alike?  How did the grandmother fit in?  What exactly was the Charter?

Wait…  I’ve got to stop or I will give too much away.  So much of the fun is figuring out what is significant and how each element fits into the others.  The art is not just there to have fun with (although it’s lots of fun to play music on lasers or by beating on glowing fungi or on a deliberately atonal electric piano).  Much of it provides hints as to the larger story.  The same is true of the fragmented bits of narrative on various video monitors and audio clips that can be accessed from headsets tied to assorted consoles.

If I have one gripe, it was that these were very hard to hear.  In one room, while we were trying to listen to a crucial narrative, a boy who had obviously been through before kept saying over and over, very loudly, “This is one of the boring ones!  This is one of the boring ones!”  Maybe, if you’re eight and all you want to do is run around, but not if you’re into the story.  I hope that Meow Wolf is eventually able to have adult-only times, for those who want to appreciate the details.

After we’d completed an appreciative wander through and up and down and in and out, and said “Look at this!  Did you see that!”, we started pooling  what we’d learned or guessed or suspected about various elements of the story.  I knew my gamers were getting serious when we finally made it back to the kitchen on the first floor and found Rowan seated at the kitchen table, immersed in the newspapers that were spread about, as if members of the family had just finished their morning coffee.  Later, we gathered around…  No.  I won’t tell.

I’m very proud to announce that we succeeded in working out the story in most major details and lots of minor.  Mind you, I still have some questions, but when we emerged from the House, the first Charter Agent we spoke with was very impressed by how much we’d worked out.  Indeed, she cheered when we told her we’d found…  Nope!  Not going to tell you what…

Later, Dominique spoke with a member of the narrative team who confirmed many of our guesses.

So Meow Wolf not only lived up to its press, for me and my group, it exceeded expectations.  As a storyteller, I was particularly impressed by the complexity of the tale the House of Eternal Return told – and that they managed to tell it without relying on overt sex or violence or even grotesquery.  And yet, to quote Tori, “It was still amazingly creepy.”

We’ll definitely go back, on a quiet day, and this time we’ll listen to all the audio stations, have a chance to hear (as well as see) the video clips.  Maybe then we’ll have the answers to a few lingering questions.  Even if we don’t, I know we’ll have a lot of fun!