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July 25th, 2008

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.


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