Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Science-Fiction Mindset

One of the beta readers for my latest novel The House at the Crossroads, commented that none of the characters ever seems to get hurt or angry. I thought about this during the editing phase but could see no reason to change anything. The characters’ responses to their life situations, to their frustrations, and even to outright enemy action seemed all appropriate to me. Then I realized that this commenter was not a regular reader of science fiction. And that, for all its historical trappings, is the essence of this novel.

Maybe it’s just me and the way I react to things. When someone challenges me, says something hurtful, or tricks or betrays me—doesn’t happen often, but sometimes—I probably do feel hurt and anger. But that’s a reaction occurring as a residual effect, usually in thinking about the situation after the act. In the moment, my conscious mind is busy trying to figure out the basis of the challenge, the reason for the other person’s scorn or belittlement, or a tactical response to the trick or betrayal. In other words, my response is to act first and moan about it later.

Maybe it’s just a lack of personal introspection. The way I was brought up, personal feelings were not all that important. My parents were practical, technically minded people.1 Like most of their generation, they had gone through the Depression and World War II, where making do with what you had and then putting aside your personal preferences in order to do your duty and get the job done was a national characteristic. Like most of my own generation, I regularly heard warnings that began with “If you think you’re hurting now …” and “If that’s the worst thing you ever have to do …”

These are also characteristics I admire and think should be emulated in fiction and in real life: emotional resilience, mental resourcefulness, physical bravery, dependability, and responsibility. I admire people who can face up to their situation, however painful, and work to rectify it—rather than brooding on their hurts and the wrongs done to them. And I believe this is a common characteristic of the fictional people portrayed in most science fiction—at least in the books produced in the decades immediately following the last world war. There the characters don’t waste time feeling hurt, and for them anger is a spur to action. Don’t get mad, get moving—and then get even.

Given a crisis, anyone confronts a choice. You can collapse inward or focus outward. You can curl up inside your shell, examine your feelings, and wait for someone else—or perhaps time itself—to make things better. Or you can take a stand, strike out, hit back, and keep fighting, dodging, and weaving until either the situation changes or you are dead. Perhaps, in the bigger picture, your stand and your moving fist will change nothing. Perhaps the initial blow was too great, the fire too hot, the sea too cold, and your hope of survival or the probability of your receiving reinforcement or rescue too small. But the choice is still there. You can die, face God, or enter Valhalla either curled up in a ball and whimpering or standing on your feet and spitting challenges.

This is not to say you—and the characters in science fiction from the 1950s through about the ’80s—don’t have feelings. You do register hurt and anger. But they are secondary and after the fact. The first order of business is to address the problem, get moving, fight back.

Maybe this observed tendency for the characters in my stories not to react with hurt and anger is also an artifact of the way I write. My style, developed over a number of years—and now seventeen completed novels—is what some have called “free indirect discourse.” It’s nothing that I was ever taught, except by observation and emulation of the books I have loved. In this style, the text is in the third person but the point of view is always first person. So I may be writing “He said …” “She thought …” “He observed …” but, change the grammar around, and the story would flow equally as well with “I said … thought … observed …” While the grammar may be pretending to observe the character from the outside, as with the traditional “omniscient narrator” of earlier fiction, the sense of the language is observing the world through the character’s eyes.

As a writer, this is a strange mask to wear. It puts me—and, vicariously, the reader—inside the character’s head at all times. It forces certain limitations, and so a structure, on the narrative. Unlike the omniscient narrator, a passage told in this style can’t sample one character’s thoughts and feelings, perceptions and observations in one sentence or paragraph, then turn around and delve into another character’s head in the next paragraph. If I place a character on one side of a closed door, I can only speculate from the knowledge available to him what might be happening on the other side. If the character is engaged in conversation, she can only speculate about the other person’s motives, intentions, or exact feelings. The world is one-sided for the duration of the scene or chapter in which the character is engaged. This means that, if I want to show what’s on the other side of the door or sample the thoughts on the other side of the conversation, I must start a new scene, enter the head of a new character who has access to these events and thoughts, and recreate the story from that second point of view.

Why adopt this technical, clunky style? First, it puts the reader into the center of the action. Rather than observing the story as a theater audience might, watching the characters on a stage, the reader joins me in putting on the mask and seeing the world through the eyes—and the history, perceptions, prejudices, and desires—of the focus character. This is like observing the action through the camera lens in modern cinema technique. And it’s a way to color the world of the story with the character’s sense of self and particular knowledge. That can be very powerful in storytelling.

Second, indirect discourse lets the writer set up situations where one character may be lying, misunderstanding or presuming certain facts, or acting from what seem to him like perfectly reasonable motives—all of which may differ from the perceived reality of the other viewpoint characters in the story. This establishes the possibility for the plot to go in two directions, to cycle back on itself, to force the characters into sudden and perhaps unpleasant realizations—and only the writer and the reader are party to all points of view and so to a greater understanding than any one character. Shakespeare sometimes does this with whispered asides from his characters, or with dialogue conducted in secret, in a scene set apart from the other characters. Indirect discourse is a story told in personal asides. And the possibilities for revelation and resolution are even more powerful.2

In this style of writing, it is entirely possible—one might think it is almost required—to show a character’s reactions of hurt and anger to a distressing situation. Simply write “He felt angry …” or “She was hurt …” And where the direct cause of the feeling might not be obvious, the writer in indirect discourse can use those lines and explain the feeling. But I believe a higher level of storytelling involves trusting that the reader is wearing the mask fully and completely. Then the reader will understand and feel the shock, the anger, the betrayal, and the pain without the writer having to belabor the point with internal stage directions. The unspoken feelings hang in the air, like a sudden realization, revealed only by the character’s subsequent actions: getting moving, solving the problem, taking revenge.

This is a subtle way of writing, to live the story through the eyes and perceptions of one character at a time. But after a while—and with some practice at it—writing in character becomes second nature. And then the old style of the omniscient narrator, pointing out this and explaining that, dancing indiscriminately through everyone’s head at third hand, and making everyone’s feelings visibly manifest, as if they were painted on the top of their skulls and the surface of their skins … that’s what feels clunky, inept, and foolish.

1. See Son of a Mechanical Engineer from March 31, 2013, and Son of a Landscape Architectfrom April 7, 2013.

2. Of course, it is still possible to surprise the reader along with the other characters: the author simply does not show action through anyone who has a full perception of what is about to happen.

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