The OF Blog: Decoding and parsing texts

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Decoding and parsing texts

"All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike," says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R.G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880).  That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858).

Van's maternal grandmother Daria ("Dolly") Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d'Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O'Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion.  Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severniya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called "Russian."  Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with "Russian" Canady, otherwise "French" Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes. (Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor:  A Family Chronicle, p. 3)


And then it came, reaching them across the rooftops of Myna:  the cry of a thousand throats.  The assault had begun.

It was enough to shout down even Tisamon's wrath.  Stenwold fumbled with the telescope, then stumbled to the window, nearly losing the instrument over the sill.  When he had the glass back to his eye his hands were shaking so much that he could not keep it steady.  The lens's view danced across the gatehouse and the wall, then finally settled.  He saw the black and red armour of the army of Myna:  men aiming crossbows or winching artillery around.  He saw ballista and grapeshot-throwers wheel crazily through the arc of the telescope's eye, discharging their burdens.  There was black and gold now amongst the black and red.  The first wave of the Wasp divisions came upon them in a glittering mob:  troops in light armour bearing the Empire's colours skimming over the tops of the walls, the air about their shoulders ashimmer with the dancing of nebulous wings.  For a second Stenwold saw them as the insects they aped, but in reality they were armoured men, aloft in the air, with wings flickering from their backs and blades in their hands.  They swooped on the earthbound defenders with lances and swords, loosing arrows and crossbow bolts and hurling spears.  As the defenders turned their crossbows upward toward them, Stenwold saw the bright crackle as golden fire flashed from the palms of the attackers' hands, the killing Art of the Wasp-kinden. (Adrian Tchaikovsky, Empire in Black and Gold, p. 10)

Here are two representative early passages from two very different works.  Which one is the "harder" work, in your opinion?

Perhaps many reading this will think "Nabokov," after seeing his name and thinking of the reputation he has (if they have heard of him beyond thinking "that author of Lolita, some Russian-sounding guy).  But what about the other work, the Tchaikovsky quote, which concerns a battle between two forces set in an imagined "world" where the fighters appear to have the outward appearance of armored insects?

A few days ago on a SF/F forum, someone questioned why I used the word "challenging" to describe my reading of N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.   That novel was, for that reader, a relatively straightforward read, with only the barest hint of an unreliable narrator and with action that unfolds in a linear space.  In many ways, it resembled closely other epic fantasy novels, with the exceptions of main character (female) and a few other details of the spoilerific variety.

But for me, it wasn't as easy as that.  I don't read that many epic fantasies these days and never really read any beyond Tolkien until I was 23, back in late 1997, when I picked up Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series out of late-night curiosity when shopping in a local supermarket.  Double narratives, word play, duplicitous narrators - these are more familiar features than battle scenes, mages, fantastical creatures, and the like.  For many, and it seems I am one of them, it is easier to process a story if the ground rules have already been (quasi) established and the focus is on the characters and their internal dynamics.  While I don't speak Russian (yet!), it is much easier for me to understand an Ivan Ilych or Anna Karenina than it is for me to understand a Mantis-kinden fighting off the Wasp-kinden.

Decoding and parsing a fictional text can be tricky.  The jargon employed, if it is successful in its goals, will be understood implicitly by the recipient.  I understand Russian patronymic customs.  I don't quite grasp why there are these groups of people who take on the characteristics (and in battle, the outward appearances) of members of the Class Insecta. 

This failure to grasp quickly what is being said (I struggled for much of Empire in Black and Gold, because the setting seemed so foreign to me and I couldn't process quickly what the characters were saying and doing, because of this alien setting) can make one's easy, straightforward text into another's difficult, frustrating read.  While I ultimately finished Tchaikovksy's book and will read the next two sequels for which I have review copies, I could not help but think that there was something in the textual parsing/decoding that went awry.

Victoria over at Eve's Alexandria describes a situation very similar to what I experienced.  She has an interesting take on her initial difficulties with David Anthony Durham's Acacia: The War with the Mein:

I'm ashamed to confess there were moments when I decided not to finish it.  I have a post half drafted about why this was, and what changed my mind.  It has a lot to do with how and why I read (epic, high) fantasy, I think, and the importance of reading it with a generous heart.  By generous I don't mean forgiving or in any way charitable; I mean open and wide and willing to admit 'big' emotions that are generally alien to our daily experience.  
 There is something akin to that in how I read certain fictions.  I don't read fiction for "escapist" reasons; I want to be engaged, in hopes of discovering something that would be of some benefit in addition to being merely entertained.  Works that are full of pathos resonate more with me than stories that appear designed to reinforce certain wishes about order and stability (which is how I've often parsed several epic fantasy novels).  Yet I prefer stories to be grounded in either a "realistic" setting or one that uses the expectations of "realism" to create a narrative tension that sucks the reader in (as is the case with several "weird" fictions and their relationships with the "real" world and the emotions found within it).  It is an interesting conflict, to say the least.

Perhaps much the same holds true for others.  Maybe how one has learned how to decode and to parse the fictional text in front of that imagined reader will affect greatly the sorts of stories that reader prefers to consume and consider.  Possibly, the "straightforward" texts of one reader will be a nightmarishly complex and occasionally frustrating read for another.


Chad Hull said...

Two Comments:

The font you use when quoting someone else is almost small enough to discourage me from reading. Admittedly, my eye sight is horrid so this maybe a personal peccadillo. Conversely, others may feel the same way.

I've always thought fantasy/sf as being a bit more difficult than fiction set in our world. The foreign 'world building' elements have to be presented in a way that makes things 100% clear to the reader-who is not from 'that world'--and not be a boring info-dump.

Making a derivative world as clear to the reader as it is to the author is difficult to do in an engaging way. I think most fantasy writers take an easy way out and pull a Tolkein; where in terms of natural science, Middle Earth, isn't too terribly different from regular-ass Earth. Thus readers have a pretty good grasp on how life on, "Derivative Planet X" works. I applaud authors who try for something really different, but they only make things more challenging for themselves.

I haven't read the Tchaikovsky, so I can't comment on specifics, but I've read may a fantasy/sf that turned me off not for lack of engagement, but because the author never put me on solid ground in the world they created, so to speak.

Nabakov, like many of the past's great writers, may have trouble being published today if he were a new and upcoming voice. While Lolita and Speak Memory are pretty 'straight forward', Pale fire and Pnin, the latter a 'fantasy' work, can wander a bit. That said, the reader never gets so lost concerning the setting or story elements as something taking place in a derivative world that has been either poorly explained or poorly conceived.

I kinda feel like you set Tchaikovsky up to fall here: virtually everyone's writing pales in comparison to Nabakov's. I'm real good playing slide guitar until you listen to Duane Allman...

Okay, and a third comment: Nabakov or not, that was the least concise rendering into English I've ever come across from Anna Karenina.

Gabriele C. said...

Chad, I have the same problems with the quote font. It's no fun to have to copy/paste the quotes into Word in order to read them.

Should have said something long ago, but I didn't want to come across as bitchy, and I wasn't sure it was only me.

Larry said...

Points noted. I don't have the nice shade option available which the Wordpress blogs have, or else I'd use that. I chose this format to make it seem the posts were smaller than what they actually were, so there'd be less scrolling. Same reason why the margins are the way they are.


I agree with what you say about engagement and about secondary-world fantasies. As for setting up Tchaikovsky to fail, his work was mentioned merely because it was the one I had read most recently that took me a while to engage with. The writing is not bad at all, minus the difficulties I had processing it, nor is it anything other than a decently-told epic fantasy opener whose sequels I will read in the near future. But for some, his writing is going to be more "accessible" and therefore "better" than say Nabokov's, because of what some readers bring to the table.

And now I find myself wanting to listen to early Allman Brothers and Derek and the Dominoes...thanks? :P

Chad Hull said...

You're welcome! Better yet, pick up a Les Paul and start shredding!

Mike said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Larry. I am reading less and less SF/F as the months go by, simply because of a difficulty engaging on a deeper personal level (a few notable authors aside.)

I also strongly encourage reading this essay, for writers and readers alike.

Terry Weyna said...

I don't read SF/F/H when I need to chill -- that's when I read a mystery, something set in this world, something I don't have to think too hard about. In fact, I've found myself avoiding epic fantasy lately because I don't have the energy for it -- and, conversely, reading more thrillers, which require almost nothing of me but that I continue to move my eyes across the page.

Even within SF/F/H there are gradations. I find it much easier to read and become engrossed in fantasy than hard SF, as the latter makes me think too hard -- that is, work hard to visualize what's going on, and sometimes to understand a bit of physics or math, neither of which fits the folds in my brain. I particularly remember reading Forward's Dragon's Egg and getting a headache from it at the same time I was enjoying it enormously.

I've also been reading some mainstream fiction lately, and while I admire the technique, I've been finding it rather boring, even though I'm reading fairly celebrated books. (I just finished Jay Parini's The Last Station, for instance; I'll bet the movie was better than the book, which is something I rarely say.)

Of the texts you put out (and which I had trouble reading as well), I'd rather read the Tchaikovsky, just because it sounds like so much fun. But I'd have to have the time and energy to do it right.

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