Monday, February 25, 2013

On Naming

My stories take place in a secondary world inhabited by paleozoic plants and animals, humans and abhumans, and a hierarchy of spiritual agencies. I've struggled with the naming of things. My organisms are based on actual genera from the Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian Periods, fancifully conceived. My abhumans and spirits are inspired by ancient Semitic and Greek folklore and various other things. So, should I adopt names as given by science and folklore, or make up new ones?

I've gone back and forth on this. I've been reading Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and am much taken with the vocabulary he employs. I like the way he uses modifications of extant words, however obscure, to describe his far-future earth. Baluchither comes to mind—the term he uses for his giant mammalian beasts of burden. Whether these animals are related to the prehistoric baluchitherium is of no importance. The connotation is clear, at least in my mind, and the single word does more work than a page of description. It's alien, yet familiar, ancient, yet futuristic; it strikes the right balance between obscurity and specificity. He also borrows units of measurement, names for vocations and social classes, and so forth. It's all cobbled together from different languages—baluchitherium is itself a mix of Asian and Greek—but then, so is English, and it seems to work.

Then there's Edgar Rice Burroughs, the real pioneer in this line. He takes the opposite approach. He coins new words for most of his Martian species, ranks, etc., e.g., thoat, padwar, jeddak. At the same time, some species, like the great white ape, aren't given special names, while others, such as the calot and the banth, are given characteristics of terrestrial species, in this case, the dog and the lion.

Other approaches abound. Frank Herbert uses the conceit of an invented language to name things in parallel with their English descriptions; which is fitting, since his model for Dune is clearly the story of T. E. Lawrence and the British colonial Middle East. Tolkien uses English terms for most of his sentient races, but again we have the conceit of invented languages, where the common tongue is represented by English, and words like goblin and troll are to be regarded as translations from the Westron. Most of his races have names in other, more "ancient" languages; some races or agencies have names in only those languages.

Well, so, there are various solutions to the problem. I've tried Gene Wolfe's approach, but words like lepidodendron and dimetrodon and dunkleosteus seem to strike a jarring note in my tales, and the genera aren't well enough known to make make the connotations helpful. To my ear, pernath and deinoth and urianth—my made-up words for these things—are much more pleasing, poetically descriptive, and germane to the world they inhabit. Once a creature's been described, its name evokes a vivid mental image, which, I hope, prevents its being confused with another.

On the other hand, while I've tried inventing names for my spiritual agencies, I've never been pleased with the results. If something is supposed to be a seraph, I'd much rather call it a seraph than a word I've made up. Here I really do want the connotations, because they say so much more than I could ever put into words. It's a mistake, too, I think, to make spiritual things too familiar. The less said, the more potent they'll be in the story. Relying on the connotations of the right choice of words helps preserve a sense of mystery.

And then there are the ranks and positions of human affairs. Here, again, I've tried coining words, but the results strike me as a bit silly and hard to follow. Burroughs was an inventor, but his ranks were a simple top-down affair. My world is governed by a complex headless bureaucracy in a steam-age metropolis with various bronze-age tribes on the periphery. Making up titles would involve too much abstract explanation. Borrowing approximations from Greek or Byzantine affairs seems more natural, even if the they're a bit obscure at first. Words like archon and phylarch and exarch and logothete and thaumaturge are real and have the right ring, but their historical usage is elastic enough to allow me to do what I want with them. At the same time, they're just alien enough to avoid the stock mental images summoned by more conventional words like king or chief or viceroy or agent or wizard.

So, what I've settled down to is something of a compromise. I borrow words like seraph and nephel for spiritual agencies. Generally speaking, all species—angelic, abhuman, animal, vegetable—are named using a pseudo-Hebraic style, with the suffix –im for plurals. So we have seraphim, helborim, deinothim, pernathim. This is perhaps in bad taste, as some are made up and some are not. The crossover is behemoth, a kind of giant pareiasaur answering to Job's numinous description of the hippopotamus; I use the roots –oth or –eth for all reptiles and amphibians. Likewise, I use –ath for trees (hemlathim are cordaites and ynathim are sigillaria) and –anth for fishes (e.g., urianth). This latter is based on the word coelacanth, which is in even worse taste. Abhuman species have both poetic names and common English names; helborim are also called goblins, and weluhim, cyclopes. I'm also not above using scientific words if they're sufficiently common and, well, ancient- or biblical-sounding, e.g., trilobite, ammonite. On the other hand, all class- and rank-names are borrowed (or coined) from ancient Greek or Byzantine words, e.g., helot, phylite, logothete. Units of measurement come from Greek as well, e.g., the stade and the mile.

The real goal of all this naming is to create an antediluvian feel and permit a moderately poetic diction without calling attention to itself or making the reader stumble over barbarous jargon. I'm not sure that Tolkien would approve, but the mix I keep going back to seems the least artificial and the most germane to my own mind, which is perhaps the best test of secondary-world coherence.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A. E. van Vogt

The Golden-Age science fiction author A. E. van Vogt (1912 – 2000) was famously called "a pygmy with a giant typewriter" by Damon Knight. Well, I must be a pygmy of a reader, because I prefer van Vogt to every other science fiction writer of his period.

Part of the attraction for me, and part of the disappointment for other readers, perhaps, is that the innovations he explores are not primarily technological. He invents all sorts of futuristic gadgetry, but it's there just to make the plot possible and keep it going. What he's really interested in is putting human beings in new kinds of situations, conforming human society to new patterns, and seeing what happens. Ideas are more important to him than technologies.

There is, for instance, the running theme of The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Voyage is a fix-up novel about an intergalactic scientific expedition, knit together from four stories about encounters with alien life-forms. The stories are interesting in their own right—they must surely have provided inspiration for a number of Star Trek episodes—but what's more interesting to me is their contrast of scientific specialism with holistic understanding. Time and again the specialists come up short in crises through not being able to communicate with one another (or, worse, through academic gamesmanship), while the one "Nexialist" on board is able to integrate the results of their findings to arrive at a simple solution. The space voyage merely serves to isolate aspects of the interplay between the sciences, pragmatic militarism, and the crises that face civilization from time to time, and to point out the weaknesses in the modern framework. It's a disappointment that hypnotism and brainwashing—ideas van Vogt was much addicted to—take the place of rational persuasion at critical points.

The best of van Vogt's novels is surely The World of Null-A. In it, the world is divided into two classes: primitives who live as dictated by chemistry and emotion and think according to Aristotelian logic, classifying everything as black or white; and enlightened elites who recognize that there are…gray areas. Null-A is paralleled with null-E (non-Euclidean geometries) and null-N (non-Newtonian physics). Apparently, being null-A gives you powers to do pretty much whatever you want, including defeating an interstellar space fleet with sticks and stones. And the null-A protagonist, who's supposed to be a new breed of genius (he has two brains) seems bent on racing to his death for no apparent reason. (He actually dies at one point, but no matter: his memories are transported to a cloned body on Venus.) So, the null-A aspect of the novel is rather silly. But it's filled with so much beauty and so many interesting ideas that I can forgive its silliness.

The basic premise is this. Earth is ruled by those closest to grasping the null-A philosophy. Those who actually do grasp it are allowed to emigrate to Venus, a law-free utopia ruled by null-A principles. Examination for null-A proficiency takes place during periodic thirty-day games, reminiscent of the "testing hell" of imperial China. The games machine is a vast rational computer housed in a shining tower at the center of the futuristic capital city of Earth. Venus, on the other hand, is a sylvan paradise where the happy null-A live an idyllic pastoral existence. Much of the planet is forested with trees bigger than skyscrapers. The action moves from Earth to Venus and back to Earth again, as the protagonist, Gilbert Gosseyn, dies and lives again…through a cloned body with implanted memories.

(As an aside, it's interesting to note that van Vogt's identification of memory with identity goes hand in hand with his use of brainwashing techniques to influence recalcitrant antagonists. Brainwashing isn't unethical, because it isn't being done to anybody. There's no underlying person to whom this thing is being done. By changing feelings or memories, you're changing the person into another person, as a sculptor pushes his clay from one shape into another. He's doing something to clay, but it's an abuse of terms to say that he's doing something to a sculpture. There's no constant subject undergoing the operation.)

My wife and I like to read things aloud, and I once tried to read The World of Null-A to her. We didn't get very far. "What is going on?" she kept saying. It just seemed like a bizarre dream to her. And the book is weirdly and wildly incoherent. The characters apparently regard themselves as behaving quite sensibly, and they convince the reader of it from page to page, but if you put it all together it's pure irrationality. I suppose that's part of the draw for me. Life is a little like that, sometimes.

Van Vogt's protagonists tend to be smug adolescents (in maturity if not in age) who do bafflingly foolish or unethical things. In this connection, perhaps it's not out of place to observe that there's an understated, immature kinkiness in most of his characters' sexual situations: Slan ends with the adolescent protagonist's prospect of marrying and mating with two older women, one of whom is quite a bit older; The Weapon Makers is about an immortal man who maintains an imperial bloodline by occasionally wedding his own great-granddaughters; the two goddess-wives in The Book of Ptath can possess other female bodies to make love to their god-husband; Gilbert Gosseyn in The Players of Null-A has his mind projected into the body of a timorous weakling married to a gorgeous princess.
Beyond that, as regards the unrealistic action driving van Vogt's plots, Knight referred to him as being like a kid in a sandbox, and one can certainly see grounds for the charge. In a weird way, though, that's part of the draw for me, too. A more positive way of putting it would be to say that van Vogt's stories are naïve. Like an Henri Rousseau painting, they can seem rather silly and childish on the surface, but possess patterns of strange beauty for all that.

His work, sadly, is very uneven. He was a leader in the Dianetics movement that subsequently evolved into Scientology. His later novels, driven to a great extent by fad theories and pieced together from ill-assorted short stories, are his weakest. His best novels are his earliest, written during the forties. My personal favorites are Slan, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, The World of Null-A, The Players of Null-A, The Book of Ptath, The Weapon Shops of Isher, and The Weapon Makers.

Go to your local used bookstore or secondhand store, buy a few van Vogt titles in Ace paperback editions, and read them, savoring the garish covers, the yellow pages, the clumsy dialogue, the brilliant half-expressed ideas.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Publication and Style

My first pro publishing credit, "Misbegotten," seems to have been well received; it even earned Lois Tilton's RECOMMENDED ranking.
Elerit gives the initial impression of a hapless character, but he proves to have deep resources and strong attachment. Another well-imagined setting increases reader enjoyment.
The story is available in both print and podcast form in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. As a magazine that publishes high-quality "literary adventure fantasy," BCS has been in my sights for some time, and I'm very pleased and honored to have my story on their website.

In other news, I've finished a new novel and am now seeking a home for it. Its tentative title is Bronze Sword, Green with Eld. Broadly speaking, it might be described as a philosophical pulp-action epic fantasy. It's set in the same steam-age metropolis and paleozoic counter-earth as my short fiction.

I've been focusing on style over the past year. As regular readers of this blog know, I'm an afficionado of the old Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Unfortunately, though, the style of these works is often either atrocious (Hodgson) or too mannered for a mainstream audience (Dunsany, Eddison). They'll always be favorites of a select few who can look beyond (or learn to savor) their eccentricities, but, if a writer wants to gain a wide audience, he had better avoid emulating them.

That's a lesson I've learned. On the other hand, though, fantasy calls for a distinctive style, a style with a certain indefinable something more, as attested to by Ursula K. Le Guin's "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie." The existence of a book like The Tough Guide to Fantasyland bespeaks a vein of genre fiction that purports to trade in wonder but has actually been drained of all magic, danger, and imagination. So, here's my quandary. How do you retain that aura of mystery and sense of wondrous substantiality while writing in a style that's succinct, artful, and accessible?

Le Guin herself is one of my favorite fantasists in terms of style. Two other post-Tolkien favorites that come to mind are John Crowley and Gene Wolfe. I've often turned to their works for guidance. But where I've really found the answer is Raymond Chandler.

Chandler's writing is highly nuanced and richly textured, but the reader hardly notices it. His sentences are terse, yet packed with color and metaphor. His Los Angeles is a universe in miniature—a fantasy world, almost—a living, breathing force that's anything but a flat backdrop. His pungent, gritty, tarantula-on-an-angel-food-cake style is inimitable, of course, but he solved a lot of the problems that I've been trying to solve. What's more, my stories have a distinctly urban (not "urban fantasy," just urban) feel, borrowing motifs and atmosphere from my favorite film style—film noir. Think Touch of Evil, Kiss Me Deadly, Gun Crazy, Criss Cross, Detour, The Set-Up, Night and the City, Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon. What better guides than the great writers of the hardboiled school?

So, that's what I've been doing with myself. Writing, thinking, honing my craft, submitting pieces for publication.