The OF Blog: June 2005

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Have aliens really taken the place of angels?

Guardian Unlimited | Arts Friday Review | 'Aliens have taken the place of angels'

In Friday's issue of The Guardian, Margaret Atwood tackles issues pertaining to the importance of speculative/science fiction in contemporary society. It was an interesting read and I found much with which I could agree, even if I do still disagree with her definitions for speculative and science fiction, as I see speculative fiction as being much more than just writing fiction based on plausible technologies.

But there's an interesting point she makes in her article, that of meaning. In a world where it seems like each discovery alternately excites and confuses us, where fundamentalists of all stripes have come clamoring for their voices to be heard as a clarion call to something concrete and specific in a world where it seems such certainties are chimeras, there is something about speculative fiction (or if you prefer, science fiction, fantasy, etc.) that reaches out to us, something to which we could grasp and hold tight in a sea full of undefinables.

Recently, there was a post over at SFF World dealing with the issue of whether or not the Bible could be considered a Fantasy. While the purpose of this post is not to debate that point (and my own opinions can be found embedded in that huge thread), perhaps it does serve to illustrate certain deep connections between our cultural religious past and our current society that serves us good and evil in Star Wars cups sold at fast food restaurants. Maybe the aliens will be our angels, but will there be a shift in the meaning that these potential creatures might hold for us? Perhaps, all we can do is just speculate and wonder.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

I Narrator

I might as well splash my first posting here, half a year late at the very least. Anway, I've been thinking over the past several weeks about the power of the narrated story, somewhat like Larry's post about the power of stage plays on the audience.

Over the recent weeks, I've been reading Gene Wolfe's Wizard Knight, Caitlin Sweet's A Telling of Stars, Matt Stover's Heroes Die, and Dan Simmons' Olympos. These very different novels and authors have each added to my thoughts on the power of perspective storytelling. Many of us are familiar with the pull of stories told in the typical 3rd person format. Some people are truly drawn to 1st person narrative for the obvious reasons of the immediacy of the story and the main character's reactions. For me, I've realized that I enjoy types of "Telling", to borrow Caitlin's term, a narrative within the larger narrative. This "telling" can come out in different styles and forms in written works, but they all have in common the sense of a deeper sharing of the story, readers and the characters.

Much like a play unfolding before an audience, certain aspects of this "Telling" style draw the audience into plot, setting, development, suspense, more directly than many other forms. Gene Wolf's Sir Able, in Wizard Knight, is writing a letter to his brother, a letter that we are reading. Through the process, the character has to contextualize his experiences, his gained understandings of the events going on around him. He also happens to underexaggerate, smooth over, forget, avoid and lie about certain details. The telling here becomes a living thing. The entirety of the novels exist as this letter; however, Wolfe has managed to create a story that is somehow larger, more complex than the entirety of the written work... he managed to put his letter-styled novels into a larger context without even writting it.

Caitlin Sweet's A Telling of Stars is both a telling and a story about a series and intersection of many tellings. The novel is tied together in a weave of different characters stories, partially revealed for the most part, that bring a greater understanding and deeper feel to the overall story, which turns out to be a Telling of it's own. While the novel is not directly a first person account, it does force to reader into multiple and ever-changing understandings of characters, events and situations as each new element and telling brings in a new texture to the main chracter's world. The interesting thing is that these interconnected tellings seems to be the power behind the reader's connection with the characters and the story. There is a kind of power in the constructed words of the characters in this novel that allow us to sit next to the characters for the revealing.

Both Simmons and Stover use "Telling" in more conceptual ways in the noted novels. In Ilium and Olympos, Simmons is working with a multi-part story, one part revolving around a re-telling of the epic battle for Troy, Homer's Iliad, from the perspective of an on the field scholar. This part of the novel also happens to be in 1st person narrative. Thus, we get commentary on actions, characters and developments from an observer. This device allows the reader to enter into the novel in a different way... with specific context and conversation as much as a simple reading of the plot elements. Simmons explores the ideas of "Telling" in other ways as well... the events of the war of Troy enter into another arc of the story, but as a form of media entertainment... also as an intended means of education. This gives characters not involved with the Troy arc an odd connection and interplay with the other section of the novel. As events unfold, the reader finds themselves in much the same situation, holding "observed" information from the Troy arc as new characters and events unfold. Finally, Simmons' has created a society where history has been lost, for the most part, and the power of the story has been reintroduced. So in one book, you get a narrated story of a war, a complex interaction with that narrated story, and actual stories of events and developments that happen off the page. All in all, this creates the sense of a much more developed and complex world and story than simply spelled out on the pages.

Stover goes at this in even another way. In Heroes Die, Stover creates a world that watches actors transport to another world for the purpose of adventure. It is like reality tv and fantasy high adventure combined. The interesting aspect for the reader is that Stover places us on both sides of this "Telling". We are sometimes in the PoV of a watcher of events, the PoV is actually coming from a person virtually "living" the main character's events. At other times, we are getting a more standard style of story, though the character will break into monologue for the benefit of those watching his "adventure". In this way, the reader gets involved in several different levels of the story, from the main characters personal thoughts, his carefully crafted and contextualized telling of events, and a completely removed and almost secondary connection to the story. It is an interesting concept, and it was used to great results in the novel.

What captures you when reading? Are there times when you feel more connected to a story than at others? Is there a narrative style that makes novels more immediate to you when you're reading?

For me, an author's ability to involve me in the story by changing my typical relationship to the words on the page makes all the difference. "Telling" makes me feel involved in a novel in ways that are different... I can be further removed and seeing the story through the lens and context of a character, or I can be so far into the events and actions of a character that it's difficult to make out a larger story. The styles and techniques are different, but I enjoy the results.

Anyway, I'd love to hear any thoughts or comments.


Sunday, June 05, 2005

A Postmodernist Bulgakov?

I just had the pleasure of finishing a novel recommended to me by Maciek/Vanin called Perverzion. The work of an Ukrainian novelist/poet/essayist/translator, Yuri Andrukhovych, Perverzion is a great many things all bundled up into one paperback volume of 326 pages. It is in turns a murder/suicide mystery, a exploration of morality and the interstices that take place in human lives. It is a farce, a prosy poem full of allusions to other allusions. It deals with religious matters of the soul; it is concerned with the postmodern decline and fall of the Carnival. It is also a love story, and a story of love misled. It is all of these things and many more.

The story revolves around the last days of one Stanislav Perfetsky - poet, gadfly, one-time stripper in a club catering to older women. He is a romantic and yet utterly beyond this. His travels across Europe, from Lviv in the Ukraine to his apparent end in the canals of Venice, are the stuff of legend. But just who is Perfetsky? Andrukhovych explores this with a series of chapters written apparently from the perspective of those who knew him, who were baffled by him, who were sleeping with him, and who were spying upon him. It is a fascinating mosaic quilted together with a deft comic touch.

Now I mentioned Bulgakov in my title, because the translator in his introduction refers to similar thematic elements present in both, combined with a mutual gift for the absurdly meaningful. While I need to re-read Bulgakov to ascertain just how accurate these claims are, I do recall a certain sense of devilish glee in both works, as the authors tweaked the noses of the pretentious (the chapter on the conference regarding post-Feminism is something to behold, intersplicing the "saintly" Perfetsky's making out with Ada with the speaker's Andrea Dworkinesque denunciation of almost all sex as rape) in their satirical ramage through their tomes.

While this book certainly contains elements of the supernatural (as does Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita), it is very difficult to classify Perverzion as belonging to any one school or genre of writing. It is simply sui generis, which certainly would be pleasing to Perfetsky himself to know. If you are a reader who likes challenging books that have a high reward potential, then I highly recommend that you buy Perverzion.
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