Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

I first caught a glimpse of the power of allusions when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in Grade Six. As much as I loved the characters and was swept along by Tolkien’s sense of timing, what really struck me was all the passing references to thousands of miles of geography and thousands of miles of history. I didn’t know, then, that Tolkien had built up this material over decades. What mattered to me was the illusion of added depth created by the allusions. You didn’t need to know all the details — in fact, as subsequent Tolkien publications of the back story showed, you were usually better off if you didn’t, because what seemed magically suggestive in passing became unavoidably disappointing in detail. But, even at that age, I recognized an effective literary technique when I saw one.

Later, I saw it in a number of other books, including The Worm Ourboros by E. R. Eddison, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (when unsolved cases are mentioned), and in the Dark Border series by my late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer. So it’s not a new device, even if you won’t find it taught along the memorized definitions of metaphor and metonymy that they teach in high school.

Part of the reason, I suppose, is that, despite the enduring popularity of writers like Tolkien or Conan Doyle, it’s a device used most often in fantasy, which literary critics still distrust because of the whiff of popular culture that rise from them. Moreover, it requires a deft hand, and is harder to observe objectively than something as straightforward as a simile.

Basicallly, however, the art of creating depth through allusions lies in striking the exact balance between suggestiveness and mystery. The allusion has to be comprehensible enough that readers can get some dim understanding of it, but no more.

That lack of detail may seem lazy, yet it’s essential. Because the allusion is incomplete, readers have to fill in the gap themselves with guesswork. By doing so, they are drawn into the story-telling, and become participants in the development of the background.

The idea is the same, I suppose, as Stephen King’s observation that a horror writer has to use the appearance of the monster sparingly. The monster may be scary, King says, but its actual appearance will never match what the reader imagined. The writer may show a ten foot monster, but what the reader imagined was a sixty foot monster, and the reality will disappoint.

In the same way, an allusion explained is an allusion lost. When Tolkien mentions Lúthien and Beren, you know that it’s an unhappy love story and somehow applies to Aragorn. The tale in the appendices or in The Simarillion may be interesting in its own right, but it’s not nearly as poignant as the tale you imagine when you first read the allusion.

In the same way, has anyone ever read one of the pastiches that explains the giant rat of Sumatra that is half as interesting as the passing mention of the unwritten story that Dr. Watson makes in passing?

The technique is used mainly in fantasy, but it can be used more conventionally, too. For example, in Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal, the title character explains that he is late for an event because he was attending the birthday party of a friend’s young daughter. As Zelazny himself observes, the line of explanation is technically unnecessary. All the same, he kept it in because it suggests that the character has a life beyond what is being told in the page, and that he’s the kind of person who, for all his toughness, would do such a thing. At the cost of maybe fifteen words, Zelazny gets an illusion of depth that enriches his effort. That illusion makes the allusion worth having, always.

Read Full Post »

The first of Tolkien’s unfinished works to be published since Peter Jackson released his operatic version of The Lord of the Rings, The Children of Húrin has actually made several bestseller lists. I suspect that it will be a book like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Tiime that people buy and don’t read. At the most, they may only open it to admire Alan Lee’s moody full-color illustrations — which, incidentally, have always struck me as inspired by Tolkien’s own amateurish watercolors, although rendered by an infinitely more talented artist. But, for whatever reason, people like me or the members of the Mythopoeic Society find ourselves once again in the embarrassingly unfamiliar position of having our tastes become popular. However, if the critics are any indication, it won’t last long, because most people are simply unequipped to appreciate Tolkien’s unpublished papers.

To start with, let’s dispense with the idea that the book was published to cash in on the success of the movie. The Tolkien family has already made a good thing from their ancestor’s literary works, and works like The Children of Húrin aren’t going to substantially improve the royalties.

Even more importantly, Christopher Tolkien, who edited the book, stitching different pieces together to make a coherrent whole, has been printing his father’s unpublished works for several decades, so it’s not as though he suddenly decided to cash in. Probably he can’t be completely unaware of the commercial probabilities, but in such a sustained effort over so many years, scholarship and love have to play a large role, too. To harp, as the Globe and Mail did, about the movie that could be made from the book overlooks the more basic point that this may be the last piece of his father’s works that Christopher Tolkien publishes, since he is now in his eighties. Christopher Tolkien may have wanted that last piece to win a large audience so that it becomes the crown of his editorial efforts, but probably we can exonerate him from any motives more mercenary than that.

For another thing, Tolkien’s prose model is evidently the Norse sagas, with which the average critic or reader today is unfamiliar unless they happened to grow up in Iceland and learned to read from them. This is a highly readable tradition, but it is not the modern European or North American novel tradition. In the saga tradition, speech is not naturalistic, and motives and characters are stated plainly, not revealed in action or through indirection. And, like most sagas, The Children of Húrin is about the concerns and feuds of a family. That’s why it starts with detailed explanations of who is related to whom, and ends with a family scene. What seems tedious to a modern sensibility is a necessary part of the saga form.

As well as the sagas, Tolkien is also drawing on Norse traditions of the dragon slayer, like Beowulf or Sigmund, the hero of Wagner’s Ring cycle. It is a part of this tradition that the dragon slayer himself must die, often, as here, for a wrong that he has done unknowingly. What drives the plot is not sudden twists, but a sense of fate unfolding inevitably. Here, fate is nudged more than a little by the curse of Morgoth, Sauron’s tougher former boss, but the effect is much the same as though less concrete forces are at work. The main characters struggle with their fate and in the end fall prey to it, but in their struggles they become figures of heroic grandeur. It is an existential, Germanic sense of fate at play in The Children of Húrin, and someone who only knows tragedy from the Greek version of the word is unlikely to appreciate it.

Another major misunderstanding that you encounter among critics is that The Children of Húrin is written in an archaic style. It is true that the tone of Tolkien’s work, like that of the King James Bible, has a balanced and dignified cadence, but aside from a few archaicisms such as “save” for “except for,” Tolkien is actually one of the twentieth century’s great masters of simple prose.

Should you have any doubts on the matter, read this passage (chosen at random) aloud. Húrin and his brother have just returned to their father Galdor on the backs of giant Eagles after being lost and rescued by the elves of a hidden kingdom. To keep the kingdom secret, they have promised not to reveal how they have survived so long:

Their kinfolk rejoiced to see them, for messengers from Brethil had reported they were lost; but they would not tell even to their father where they had been, save that they were rescued in the wilderness by the Eagles that brought them home. But Galdor said, “Did you then dwell a year in the wild? Or did the Eagles house you in their eyries? But you found food and raiment, and return as young princes, not as waifs of the wood.” “Be content, father, said Húrin, “that we have returned; for only under an oath of silence was this permitted. That oath is still on us.” Then Galdor questioned them no more, but he and many others guessed at the truth.

The simplicity of the language is probably due to the inspiration of the sagas, as well as Tolkien’s preference for Old English words over ones derived from French or Latin. But the overall effect is one of dignified restraint between men who share a strong sense of honor and are somewhat constrained at expressing emotion to each other. Such passages are, quite simply, beautiful, and anyone who alleges archaicisms and fails to mention the power of the language prove themselves the owners of tin ears, at least when they are reading silently.

If you don’t know the tradition that Tolkien is working in, whether you like The Children of Húrin can be predicted by what you thought of the appendices in the The Lord of the Rings. If you thought the story of Beren and Lúthien romantic, or the image of the last kings of Gondor brooding childless in their towers evocative, then chances are The Children of Húrin will be just as moving to you. But if you found the appendices a bore and skipped through them, do yourself a favor and avoid this new book. You’ll also be doing any Tolkien readers a favor by not prodding at it with your clumsy and unknowing fingers.

But for people like me, who devoured the first book of The Lord of the Rings one summer Saturday in Grade Six and spent a frantic Sunday waiting for the store to be open on Monday so I could get the next book, The Children of Húrin is a welcome return to a familiar place — especially since, to paraphrase Bilbo Baggins (that inestimable old hobbit) it may very well be the last drop of the old Smaug vintage.

Read Full Post »

Kyle Anderson was lying with his feet on the edge of the sofa, surfing channels, when he realized he was missing his favorite show. He also realized that he had no idea what channel it was on. Shifting slightly, he began flicking through the channels faster.

In a world where he was finally having to admit to middle age and his co-wives and husbands had divorced him last year for not doing his share of the composting, the show was the one stable point in his life. He never missed an episode if he could. Actually, he had seen most of this season’s episodes twice.

Worried that the show had already started, he starting pressing his thumb harder against the buttons of the remote. So far, his favorite this year was the episode where the teams had to race Tamerlane’s army to reach the escape portal in Samarkand. Two teams hadn’t made it, and the surprised looks had still been on their faces when their heads were catapulted over the walls. Kyle supposed that it was cruel to laugh, but after a hard day of selling proprietary solutions in an increasingly free software world, you took your laughs where you could find them.

There was no such thing as a bad episode of the show, but last week’s had been a bit slow, he thought. Three teams had died of the Black Death outside Calais, and that was a little too close to the alligator flu that was threatening to spread out of South America these days. He had enjoyed the mugging in Southwark, though.

Last week’s episode had also featured the complaint from the funny-looking man from 19th Century England. The man claimed that his morning work had been interrupted by seventy-three successive persons from Porlock. The interruptions had agitated him so much, he said, that he had taken triple his usual dose of laudanum, and as a result had forgot most of the poem he was writing.

Personally, Kyle didn’t see what he was complaining about. “Spitalfields: A Fragment” was a great poem, so far as he was concerned. It had to be, because he remembered being forced to read it in twice high school and once in university.

There. Kyle found the channel, overshot it, and flipped back. Two of the remaining teams were crowded around a couple whom Kyle guessed were a king and queen in medieval times. “We were thinking of financing a voyage of discovery,” the queen said, her voice echoing faintly through the translation filter, “But our bankers assure us that your plans for a chain of bistros with outdoor seating and nude mud-wrestling is more likely to be profitable.”

“Sorry, Signor,” the king added to a man standing to one side. He looked like a sailor if ever there was one – tanned and callused, his doublet faded and stained, and a look on his face that said he was completely out his depth around royalty. “Maybe next year? Or could we interest you in a franchise?”

Kyle laughed at the way the sailor stifled a curse, then felt a jolt. It was as though he had started awake from a dream – but, this time, it was though the rest of the world had started while he stayed still. He raised himself up on his elbows, worry hovering around the edges of his mind.

He was fairly certain that the sofa beneath him had had cushions a moment ago, but here he was, lying on bare wood. There had been a carpet, too, not ceramic tiles. In growing panic, he looked up at the TV.

To his relief, his fifty-six inch wall unit was still there. It had a wooden frame with carvings that he couldn’t quite remember, and one or two extra buttons, but the sight calmed him. Who cared about the buttons when he had the remote?

Best of all, the show was still there, the same as always. But he must have missed part of it.

“– And, next week, it’s the final in the Royal Game of the Sun, live from Teotihuacan,” The announcer was saying.

Kyle thought that the announcer must have just come back from holidays to be so deeply tanned, then forgot about everything except what the man was saying. “We’re talking now with Fifteen Peach Face Lovebird, captain of the losing side in the final for the past seven years. Mr. Lovebird, the world wants to know: Is your team really that clumsy?”

A stocky black man, wearing nothing but a loincloth and some feathers in his hair, shrugged as a microphone was thrust in his face. “Well, I don’t think that’s altogether fair, Tyler,” he said, sounding faintly embarrassed, “We always say that if the gods want us for a sacrifice, they’ll arrange things that way. We just come to play ball.”

“And the eighty-five own goals?”

Kyle forgot his momentary confusion and sat back with a sigh. In a world full of faster and faster changes, the show was still the one stable thing in his life.

Read Full Post »

When I was involved with Dungeons and Dragons back in my university days, I always preferred being Dungeon Master to playing. It wasn’t so much that I enjoyed masterminding psycho-drama – although I admit that I cackled at the look on a male player’s face when his female character seduced someone and he found out that I was rolling for pregnancy. But what really interested me was the creative possibilities. That’s probably why I’m so fascinated now with my recent side project of creating the backstory for Imperial Realms, an online strategy game currently in development.

The basic story is already sketched out. It’s standard space opera: thousands of years in the future, in the ruins of a galactic empire, humanity is divided into numerous clans, all of whom compete against each other as well as a cast of alien species. My job is to paint in the details and help the game rise above the standard cliches.

For instance, it would be easy to turn the war-like Spartan clan into a neocon’s delight. Instead, I tried to give them more complexity by dividing them into political factions, each with its own ideas of how war should be carried out. Then, just to shake up the stereotypes, I’ve included mention of a radical team of mercenaries led by a husband and wife who specialize in overthrowing repressive regimes.

Similarly, I made the autistic Inlookers both brilliant and unstable, with a culture dominated by their eugenics program, adding a little detail of how one killed an emperor because he was blocking her sunlight.

For the Clones, I created a half dozen bloodlines and made them victims of persecution until they started a Zionist-like movement to settle their own planet. They are now divided by different traditions of reproduction and by the question of whether they should practice exogamy (breeding outside their bloodlines) or endogamy (breeding inside their bloodlines).

For the Aristocracy, the remnants of the ruling class, I imagined a sub-culture shattered by the disaster that toppled the empire. From the Aristocracy’s formerly exalted position, its members have been reduced to a constant competition for all the titles and offices that no longer have a clear line of inheritance. This competition leads them to displays of extravagant waste, such as destroying their estates in planned meteor showers — excesses that sometimes cause their own deaths.

This week, I’ve been taking notes for alien species. I’ve already written about the Tsihor, pack hunters who cannot meet face to face with humans without instincts taking over and causing an inevitable bloodbath. However, the Tsihor need humans, so both sides have to work around this problem.

Originally, I envisioned the Tsihor as small velocioraptors, but Steve Bougerolle, who master-minds the project, thought they didn’t seem alien enough. They were like fighting cocks, he said. “What does he know?” I asked myself, then, answering, “Enough to sign the cheques,” I redesigned them to make them Lovecraftian horrors.

Other aliens are in the works, and I hope that they will be eeriely strange and, in the cases where they are based on science-fiction standbys, sufficiently original to be interesting in their own right.

In all these cases, part of the challenges is to put as many hooks for plot development as possible into the accounts. These hooks take the form of rumors, which may or may not be true. Freed from the need to be strictly rational, I’ve injected each account with all sorts of gossip and speculation that can be picked up on – or not – once the game is launched.

The game is probably a couple of years from release, and a lot of what I know about it I can’t say. However, my Imperial Encylopedia entries will be posted to the web page soon, so I feel relatively free to talk about them. I’m hugely enjoying the chance to putter around backstage, and I’m looking forward to doing more.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts