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Jul. 25th, 2008

An alert reader sent the following, which appears in another topic earlier on. The comment regards In the Country of the Blind and specifically the character of Sarah Beaumont:
I'll be reading along, and it might be an action scene, or a scene where we're learning about the conspiracy or some of the major characters are actively dialoguing about what to do, and then the flow of the story will get broken because a character decides to take a page or three to explain a bunch of technical details. That, or Sarah will decide to wax nostalgic about her tough childhood and how she remembers her mother's cooking, or something. ....

I understand that you're a technically minded person, of course, and you probably enjoy writing those same discourses. I dunno if you intend all the childhood stuff as character development or not. But it kept breaking the the wonderful immersion that would develop in a scene, and I found it hard to recover the flow of the story again afterwards.

This led to the following musings:

Against the technical details, I throw myself on the mercy of the court. The first edition was worse. Characters would explain the details of cliology even in the midst of a shootout. Much of that hit the floor in the second edition. But some of it was retained, because the actions of neither the Babbage Society nor the Associates would otherwise make sense. Their science is what motivated them, so that science had to be plausibly described. While one may depend on readers having some understanding of, say, orbital dynamics, the same is not true of a science that does not (and in the Cartesian sense probably cannot) exist. Even so, I'd probably cut back on it even more today. Nor is it necessarily the case that it was competently done.

But as for the character of Sarah Beaumont, it seems to me that the complaint that this or that bit of character development interrupted or was not relevant to the plot is never counterbalanced by complaints that this or that element of the plot interrupted or was relevant to the character's development. I think this is because there are more than one sort of reader. Reducing to two: some value story over character; others value character over story. There are other sorts.(*)

Many skiffy readers needs no motivation on the part of the character in order to go after the bad guys. Going after the bad guys is what heroes (and heroines) do. This is one of the distinctions between a novel and a really long story. Or rather between fiction and myth. In the medieval sagas, like Siegfried, the main character will do something - like stage a coup against the king who has favored him up to then - which simply does not make sense -- unless we realize that Siegfried is not a character but a type. The Type of the Hero. And heroes must "go for the crown" at some point. The king's daughter is usually in it, too.

This is not a bad thing necessarily. Siegfried is still a rousing yarn. The characters in Lord of the Rings seldom rise beyond Type -- the elf, the dwarf, the orc, the hobbit, and so on. A few stand out as characters. LOTR however takes its delight as a travelogue. It is the journey that matters more than the plot. Otherwise, they could have done this:

Sarah Beaumont had to have some reason why the discovery of the Babbage Society would affect her so. She had to have a background that would have motivated her education and physical training. Otherwise, she would have wound up as just another name on the list of mysterious deaths. A secret society manipulating the course of history so that matters would come out right would not, in rebus ipses, be thought a thing worth fighting by a skiffy reader. On the contrary, the technocratic turn of mind would think it a fine idea -- the plebs need to be managed; cf. Asimov's Foundation Series.

Furthermore, skiffy readers often take for granted the easy switch to a secret identity, but give little thought to what sacrifices this might entail -- why it might be a <i>hard</i> choice, one that might easily have a different outcome. When Oscar takes Heinlein's Glory Road or when Malcolm Lockridge goes down Anderson's Corridors of Time or when Martin Padway is marooned forever in the pre-techological past in deCamp's Lest Darkness Fall it is as if they have left nothing behind. There is no agony in their course of action -- though in fairness to Padway, in his case it was not a voluntary choice. Sarah Beaumont had to choose a future which, to an outside observer like Red, was the "logical" choice; but it had to hurt or where was the drama?

Now these musings are independent of whether all that was competently executed. That is a separate issue. Against the indifference of the reader, the writer rails in vain.

(*) For example, those who delight in the words themselves. I don't mean 'purple prose,' which is just as likely to turn such readers purple with rage. But take the following lines out of R.A.Lafferty's wonderfully mad history The Fall of Rome. He is describing the period when Alaric and the Goths went raiding through Greece in defiance of Stilicho's orders and in an oddly selective manner burning and sacking.
It is said that Alaric destroyed half the art of ancient Greece. It may have been the worst half. He was a critic of unusual effectiveness.

Or this description of Galla Placida:
...the goblin child and sister of two young emperors who, at age seventeen and when all the rest of them were cowed, seized control of the Roman Senate and City and represented the defiance in the last one hundred days of the world.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 25th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
Well, I am definitely the "wants to hear a rousing yarn" type, then. Although in my own defense I completely loved "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", and that novel is nothing *but* character development.

Although I don't think that the hero "type" must go for the crown. The hero type, more often than not, can be seen fighting to restore the crown to it's rightful, good owner (often somebody other than himself) as well as nobly turning down the crown when the people acclaim him and offer him power.

When "In the Country of the Blind" gets going it's really exciting. It has a sort of Robert-Ludlum feel to it, like at any moment something even more awesome might happen. I suppose I just didn't ever want that to stop.
Jul. 26th, 2008 05:01 am (UTC)
Although I don't think that the hero "type" must go for the crown. The hero type, more often than not, can be seen fighting to restore the crown to it's rightful, good owner (often somebody other than himself) as well as nobly turning down the crown when the people acclaim him and offer him power.

Well, in the medieval Teutonic tradition there were expectations. One of the things that we can see happening in the High Middle Ages is a transition from a literature of Types to a literature of Characters with their own individual motives and purposes. We begin to get some of that in Parzifal. By the waning of the Middle Ages, real people were moving trough real landscapes. Previously, even the landscape was expected to be allegorical. A cave was just a cave and was invoked to provoke certain emotions in the reader (or listener). A meadow was a meadow, and was employed for certain purposes. But eventually they became particular caves or real meadows. It was this birth of realism in literature that was one of the markers of the Modern Age, a-birthing in the egg.

Jul. 26th, 2008 07:49 pm (UTC)
I'm rereading the paperback version of "Country of the Blind". I noticed when I bought and read the hardback version, it felt not only smoothed out, but a bit more bland and vague, like a breakfast burrito without green chile. Of course, the original is a 90s period piece on another timeline, and the retrofitting to the "Firestar" series is smoother in the hardback, but still -

I did notice one thing in the paperback that jars one out of the story - "The Soviet Union IS...." instead of "WAS." Corrected (I just checked) in the hardback.

It's still a rattling good yarn. I rather wish you'd kept some of the comments, such as Jeremy's nice bit of parallelism about the arcane bits of accounting vs history.

Pat, massive "Blind" fan.
Jul. 28th, 2008 03:45 am (UTC)
Yah, in part I was challenged simply to reduce the size.

When the original paperback came out, the Soviet Union was still present tense and the Internet could still be an imaginary "National Datanet." Such are the hazards.
Jul. 27th, 2008 03:18 pm (UTC)
The Red Pen
"Many skiffy readers needs no motivation on the part of the character..."

How about, "Many skiffy readers need no motivation on the part of the character..."

Jul. 30th, 2008 01:02 am (UTC)
And those who delight in the backstory and the why as well as the science, and if the former is missing, will make up something that seems logical. The origin of much fanfic.

That said - let's take a largely character-driven story, "Wreck of the River of Stars." I'm sorry; the only one of those people I'd care to spend a 10 minute coffee break with was the ship's cat.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


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