Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Three Legs of Fiction

As a change from looking at think tanks and corporate propaganda this blog looks at fiction. This is a piece I wrote for Schlock, online magazine. You can hear it, rather than read it, at schlockmagazine Podcast .

For me, fiction has three main elements, World, Character and Plot. Different stories emphasis the three elements to varying degrees. Depending on the story, one of these will generally dominate.

Many SF stories and historical fiction tend to be ‘world’ dominated. The world created, and described, is crucial to the story. The plot, and characters, are there to take you on a trip to that world and perform various antics of interest while the World unfolds.
      To see what this means take a look at the popular TV series Mad Men. The story is centered in the Madison Avenue of 1960. The behavior of the characters, mostly hard drinking, hard smoking, misogynistic males, are dinosaurs from a different world.
The look, as in all high production value American TV, is spot on. Costume, interior design, music, cars are all beautifully recreated. 
    The central character, Don Draper, is a high flying advertising executive with a beautiful wife, family and home in the suburbs. He has a beautiful mistress who lives in Greenwich Village. She is an artist living on the fringe of the counter culture. She hangs out with beatniks and dope smokers, and probably, soon, draft dodgers. Dark and dangerous, she is very different to Drapers‘ blonde, compliant wife in the suburbs. This relationship enables us to visit the Greenwich Village, for a plausible reason, following the character of Draper around.
    The plots too, allow us to ‘visit’ a variety of contemporary issues, and further enable our journey around the 1960s. The cigarette industrie’s efforts to stay afloat, after the dangers of smoking had been proven. The contempt big business demonstrates for public health. With the bible of libertarionism on view, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, we see huge American cars, with every feature included, except passenger safety.
    The culture of consumerism, corporate greed and the techniques for creating irrational desire are laid out, superbly, for all to see.

So much for World Centric, what about Plot Centric? This time we take a look at a piece of classic SF, Arthur C Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God. Written in 1953.
    Here, World and Character are almost all completely suppressed in favor of Plot. This, in common with much SF of the 40s/50s was one of those twist in the tail, O’Henry affairs where the last line throws everything preceding into a new prospective.
    The story is split between the New York of 1953 and a Tibetan lamasery. These locations are sketched in with the lightest of strokes. We come away with with no real image of either place. Clarke relies on what we know from other readings.
    The characters are trivial, a generic monk who comes to New York to purchase computer services and a couple of technicians, probably wearing flannel shirts, who will travel to Tibet to install and maintain a computer. But this paper thin world, with characters so under described that they can’t even be called stock, support a truly wonderful plot.
    The monks have been engaged, these last three hundred years, in a project to enscribe the true name of God. They will do this, eventually, by writing out all possible letter combinations of nine character words. Doing the job by hand will take fifteen thousand years. Why not, decides the chief monk, do the job on a computer? A suitable machine with an printer could perform the task in weeks.
The project goes ahead, and the computer starts to print out the remaining possible names of God. Eventually, one of the techies gets curious and asks, ‘What happens next? How will the monks spend their time when the job is complete and all possible names have been written down? That won’t be a problem, he is told, when all the names are written God’s purpose for man will be complete, and the world will come to an end. The worldly westerners scoff at this and marvel that the monks can spend their lives engaged in such futile, ritualistic behavior, yet still have the insight to recognize that a mindless computer can do exactly the same task.
    All this, by the way, is set up with superb economy. In 1954 computers were just entering the public consciousness, they were novel devices for carrying out esoteric mathematical chores. The project, the permutation of letter combinations, sounds well suited to the denizens of a Tibetan lamasery and is also obviously within the capabilities of a suitably programmed computer.
    And so we, the readers, are set up. Technology will finish a job scheduled for 15 thousand years, in weeks, and the monks will shortly recognize how deluded they are. But the last line of the story, delivered just as the computer techs think they are heading safely back to civilization, spins the whole tale on its head, The computer has finished its run and, as Clarke puts it, "overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out." And we discover that it is the West, despite its mighty technology, that has been naive. The monks were right all along. And, by the way, the universe, and mankind, all of us are the creations and playthings of a petulant, hubristic God.

Finally we come to Character Centric stories. Here I turn back to TV. But TV comedy has a wealth of fine, well drawn characters. The amazing individual that John Clease created, the constipated, frustrated, snobbish, terminally disappointed, skinny, besuited, middle aged man, Basil Fawlty. This prejudiced, judgmental, arrogant, ignorant, cowardly, snobbish, bully.

Perpetually trying to avoid having to deal with the lower orders, people like himself, Basil has been placed in a World where he will constantly encounter the people that he despises. And the Plot, nothing much beyond, Guests come to the hotel and meet Basil. World and Plot ensure that the circumstances prevail that will cause Basil to loose his cool and go ballistic, with hilarious consequences, in every episode.
There are many shows like them, situation comedies, as they are rather called, which are not really about situation but character. Nobody recalls what plot points preceded Dell Boys pratfall through the bar counter. What counts is the look on his face as we see his expectations evaporate once more. Nobody recalls how Frank Spencer came to be careering down a hill, on roller skates, after a double decker bus. Plot and World are there to create the sort of collisions that will allow the character, whoever he his, to go banging against the endstops of credibility in a plausible manner.

These are all extreme examples, for illustration purposes. Most stories feature Plot, Character and World in varying proportions. Yet few SF short stories have time to do justice to all three aspects. SF, despite the shiny examples of the plot centric stories of the Golden Age, should take us to new worlds. And it should do this so that we can see our own world through the eyes, as it were, of a stranger.

We cannot question the contemporary world so easily, in mainstream fiction. But the SF writer can take today and extrapolate it, as George Orwell took the world of 1948 and turned it into 1984. And this gives SF a useful role.  Ray Bradbury said, “I don’t write to predict the future, but to prevent it.”
    A fictional world, based on the real world of today, may be the best way to illustrate what we are doing, with the only real world we have, and what the consequences might be.

1 comment:

  1. Good piece! (Could use a touch of proofreading.) I've seen that quote from Ray Bradbury before; I wonder now if it floated in his mind for years before he wrote "The Toynbee Convector".

    In an article back in the '80s, Isaac Asimov advocated for science fiction to get more respect among other types of literature. He argued that even if a well-known work of science fiction doesn't have great literary prose style, it's probably great on what he called Background; World-Centric, that is.