Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Samuel Delany’

The Convergence of Utopia and Science Fiction


A couple of weeks ago – amidst all of the craziness involved with packing, moving, and unpacking – I managed to take a weekend and go up to Readercon in Burlington, MA. I’d been to Readercon two (more accurately, one and a half) times before, and every time, I find the panels thought-provoking (and the conversations between panels, at the bar, and at the parties hilarious and often thought-provoking, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post).

Readercon This year’s Readercon featured a theme that’s been on my mind of late: utopia. There were three or four program items dedicated to the subject, and I managed to get to almost all of them. While the discussions were all very interesting, I felt that they had danced around two ancillary questions which form the heart of my interest in the subject: What are the drivers of utopian thought? And what makes utopian fiction effective?

Where Does Utopia Come From?

Utopian fiction has a long history, but it’s become increasingly thin-on-the-ground (or the bookshelves) of late. Why? This is the kind of question we can come at from many angles, but to really do an effective job answering it, I think we need to understand how utopian fiction comes about. And here, I’m going to speculate widely, generally, and with any luck reasonably.

Utopian thought (and the fiction which explores it) is a consequence of humanity’s tendency towards systemic thought.

Our minds are pattern-matching machines: From the moment of birth (and possibly even before) our brains are assembling a complex collection of cause/effect responses. If I drop my Cheerios on the floor, mommy gets upset. If I pull the dog’s tail, the dog runs away. When we assemble a bunch of those cause/effect responses – and when we chain them together and interrelate them – an incredibly complex system emerges.

We interact with the world around us – with physical objects, with individuals, with organizations, with groups, and even with ourselves – based upon expectations borne of that complicated system. While the individual action might be simple (turn up the thermostat so that the room becomes warmer), it is predicated upon a complex set of imputed underlying (and inter-related) systems. So what does this have to do with utopia?

Utopian thought comes from an awareness (however flawed) of the systems shaping society. It stems from a philosophical tradition in which one can comfortably place Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Engels, Marx, Rand, and just about any individual who has ever had a political opinion. Utopian thought is a systemic “what if game: If we adjust the systems that shape our society, how will our society change?

This may seem like a simplistic characterization of utopian thought, and to some extent, that’s a fair criticism. But despite its simplicity, it remains precise. And that precision is what makes it helpful for exploring utopian thought’s evolution through the centuries, its relationship to science fiction, and its structural portrayal within fiction.

Our Changing Understanding of Societal Systems

Utopian thought is always grounded in the philosophical zeitgeist of its time. As our understanding of the systems underlying our society changes, so too do the structures and systems depicted in our utopias.

Utopias – like science fiction – are as much commentaries on their present as they are prescriptions for the future.

When Plato described his Republic, or when More’s traveler came upon his island, they were writing in their time and for their time. Their “ideal” societies were built upon their understanding of the systems underlying their contemporary society. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News from Nowhere are both rooted in the social, economic, and cultural debates of the rapidly-industrializing 19th century. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed cannot easily be divorced from the political and economic debates of the mid-20th. Joanna Russ’ The Female Man and Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton are products of the culturally tumultuous 1960-70’s.

Utopian works rely on a philosophical context shared between reader and author. To remove a utopian work from the philosophical context of its time is to reduce it to quaint over-simplicity (an easy critique to offer when looking backwards) or abstruse incomprehensibility (a hypothesized critique when looking forwards – I suspect Plato might have had difficulty grokking Trouble on Triton, for example).

This relationship between utopian thought and the philosophy of its day is, I think, the reason why we have seen relatively little utopian fiction since the 1980s. Before the ’80s, political philosophy, economics, and even psychology were often founded on reductionist principles (i.e. if we can break each system down into its elemental components, we can understand how those systems function). The past thirty years, however, have witnessed the burgeoning popularity of anti-reductionist “systems thought”, “complexity theory”, and “holistic approaches”.

Berlin Wall Tumbles To over-simplify: before the 1980s, it was reasonable for any one philosopher to articulate a “complete” political, social, or economic philosophy. Yes, that articulated philosophy would be flawed and overly simplistic (see Plato, Rand, Heinlein, Yefremov, etc.). But the practical applications (and limitations) of such articulations could be observed in the wild: Soviet Communism in the Eastern bloc, Maoist Communism in China, American Capitalist Democracy in the United States, and mildly-Socialist democracy of varying strains across much of Europe. But then the world changed in the 1980s: Soviet Communism unraveled, and Western society realized that our reductionist models had missed something (or many things).

Since the ‘80s, in every field of social science (including economics, history, sociology, psychology, etc.) we have come to embrace the idea of complex and irreducible systems. This has progressed in line with the increasing specialization of our education systems. For example, the average (educated!) person on the street is unlikely to be able to explain how money supply or the quantity theory of money works. And even amongst economists there is much debate about how various systems affect and shape the money supply, and how that money supply in turn affects and shapes society at large.

I’ve heard time and again folks say that the world has gotten more complex. That’s not true: The world has always been this complicated. But our awareness of the world’s complexity has increased substantially in the last century. As a result, we have shifted from a society which believed it could explain the world to a society which now recognizes its own inability to do so. As a result, our what-if scenarios (reliant as they are upon a shared understanding between reader and author) have grown more tentative.

That makes the creative challenge of producing effective utopian fiction harder. The audience comes to the text already predisposed to reject our utopia.

The Relationship between Utopia and Science Fiction

Several paragraphs ago, I offered a reasonably concise description of utopian thought, characterizing it as a systemic “what-if” scenario. If such a what-if game sounds suspiciously like a working definition of science fiction, well, there’s a good reason for that: Every work of utopian writing can be considered a work of science fiction. And the obverse likewise holds: Every work of science fiction can be considered a work of utopian thought.

I can imagine the complaints now: How can works like E.E. “Doc Smith’s Lensmen series, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Paulo Baciagalupi’s The Windup Girl, Madeleine Ashby’s vN, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games be credibly called utopian? They have very little in common, it might seem, to works like H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

But those differences are superficial at best: beneath the stories’ plot, underneath their characterization, and independent of their narrative structure lies an underlying question (what if) which is central to the vast majority (though not all) of science fiction. The differences? Those are differences in expression, differences in technique, differences in the method by which the author’s conjectures are explored. From a philosophical perspective, those are differences in aesthetic.

The Changing Aesthetics of Utopia

When I look at the evolution of utopian fiction, I see a path of convergence. By today’s aesthetic standards, the “classics” of utopian fiction can be considered dull at best, and didactic at worst. A “perfect society devoid of conflict makes plotting difficult. A society which assumes the uniformity of the human condition either a priori or as a consequence of society’s perfection makes characterization tough. By the aesthetic standards of the 19th century, the philosophical question of “what if” alone may have been enough to support a novel-length work.

By our aesthetic standards today? We demand more: tension; conflict; drama. We want pathos in addition to our logos. Utopian fiction’s gradual evolution throughout the twentieth century has marked the gradual shift to more emotive expressions: compare the conflict in H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia to that of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and then that to the conflict in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. One could plot a timeline of explicitly utopian fiction based upon the reader’s emotional proximity to the characters, and those character’s explicit articulation of philosophical conjecture.

The commercial and aesthetic requirement that fiction must feature conflict and drama stands in tension with that fiction’s ability to examine social, economic, or political philosophy. The closer our gaze is focused on the characters, the more oblique becomes the presentation of philosophical conjecture.

Where the philosophical conjecture is viewed head-on, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, we are left with a dystopian work (or in Le Guin’s case, a heavily ambiguous one). The conflict stems from the philosophy, and the “perfect” world is shown to the reader to be so flawed as to fail in its stated goal. This is, of course, a valid and powerful technique in both utopian thought and in science fiction. “It will fail” is a reasonable response to the question of “what if”.

However, in works where the utopian philosophy is presented obliquely – implied through what goes unstated or otherwise baked into the world-building – we can still identify fascinating utopian themes. Whether that’s in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, Madeleine Ashby’s vN, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing, or Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy we can identify strains of utopian conjecture and examination. They are explored – typically – between the lines, sometimes closer to the story’s surface and other times buried a little more deeply. It works, however, because it is baked into the story’s underlying world-building using the techniques of the science fiction genre.

Utopian Fiction Looking Forward

Contemporary utopian fiction has fully converged with science fiction, to the point where separating the two has become all but impossible. One can make the argument that this discussion is tautological navel-gazing, or as relevant to contemporary writing as asking how many angels can dance on the period at the end of this sentence. I disagree.

Like any branch of either philosophy or writing, utopian fiction is subject to the pressures of its society. In this case, under aesthetic pressure, utopian fiction has had to embrace narrative conflict. This has happened in parallel with society’s rejection of reductionist socioeconomic philosophies, and this societal acknowledgment of nuance has forced a further narrowing of the narrative’s focus to individuals within a hypothetical society. The surrounding society may be idealized, or have utopian elements, yet the lives of the individuals living within it may still be conflicted. Today’s science fiction and utopian thought have both rejected narratives of simplicity.

The mechanism that enables utopian thought (what-if style conjecture) is the same that enables science fiction’s world-building. If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it stands to reason that it is – in fact – a duck. Can we have science fiction that isn’t utopian? Or can we have a utopia which isn’t science fictional? Given the above, I am hard-pressed to think of examples.

Philosophical travelogues with thin characterization and prescriptive didacticism are passé by today’s standards. But the deep and philosophically relevant questions that utopian fiction has traditionally explored can still be examined. But this creates a two-fold challenge: On the one hand, we must consider the complex systems underlying our fictional societies and the relationships therein, while at the same time considering how those systems will affect individuals within those societies on emotional, functional, and even spiritual levels.

Where those systems fail, it is far easier to shift the story into dystopia, to derive narrative tension from those failures.

A far more difficult trick is to show those systems as functional, while still featuring emotionally resonant narrative tension.

Where lie the borders between Voice and Style?


Where does voice end and style begin? And while we’re at it, what is the sound of one hand clapping? No, seriously, my question about voice and style is not meant to be a Zen koan but is completely sincere. I have heard and read plenty of people (many of whom have been reading, writing, editing, and publishing for longer than I have been alive) talk about voice and style as if they are identical, or as if they constitute an indelible stamp the artist places on each piece of work. And, as I ratchet up the momentum on a highly stylized WIP, it has me thinking about what constitutes a “narrative voice” and how it relates to a writer’s (or a story’s) “style”.

If I had a nickel for every time I’d heard/read that “it takes time for a writer to find their voice” I’d probably have…well, at least a couple of bucks. But here’s my underlying problem with this statement: it assumes that an artist only ever has one “mature” voice, that it is theirs and theirs alone, that it is so intrinsically tied to them as an individual that it permeates everything they ever produce. And much as I respect the folks who say that, I have to wonder: is not voice the most fundamental facet of writing that we as writers exert control over? And because it is wholly in our control, can’t we employ different voices for different stories and to different effects? When we write, don’t we employ different voices for exposition by different narrators and dialog by different characters?

A Working Definition of Narrative/Authorial Voice

Bear with me, because despite thinking about this for the last several months, I find this a pretty difficult concept to articulate: The way I see it, a narrative voice is to a story as individual brushstrokes are to a painting. Every one of us writes one word at a time. What sets my writing apart – both from that of other writers, and from work I have written before or will write after – is the words that I employ, and how I put them together. Each story – regardless of what it is about – is composed of words and punctuation marks, which together form sentences, which in turn assemble into paragraphs, which coalesce into scenes, chapters, acts, and after much heartache, hopefully a finished story. Narrative voice is the shorthand we use to describe patterns in word selection, punctuation, sentence construction, and rhetorical structure.

That’s it. But despite its superficial simplicity, this is an enormous tool in the writer’s hand. In fact, it is the only tool that as writers we have. Because at the end of the day, the only facets of the writing we have any control over are the words we choose to use, the order we put them in, the punctuation we delineate them with, and the structures that we build out of them. Every higher-order facet of our writing – the structure, the characters, the themes – are constructed by narrative voice. Which makes it, in my opinion, the most important part of the craft, the most visible, and the hardest to understand.

The Purpose and Tools of Voice

The patterns in our writing are above all else purposeful. We might have many goals in writing (Fast cars! Beautiful women! The love and adoration of thousands! Oh, wait…) but at the most basic, all writing means to move the reader. We might want to move the reader emotionally or intellectually, but we want some degree of engagement and response. And narrative voice is the tool through which we effect that manipulation.

This isn’t so different from spoken conversation. When we speak with someone, we use our words and the structure of our rhetoric to achieve certain goals: it might be to keep our conversant interested, to amuse them, to anger them, to convince them – the particular goal is immaterial, but it is always there. However, auditory communication has an advantage over the written word: through the use of facial expression, body language, or the timbre at which we speak, the spoken word communicates emotion and intent in a far more condensed and physiologically evocative manner than writing ever can.

Consider a shrill scream. When heard aloud, it communicates instantaneously the speaker’s (screamer’s) emotional state: frightened, surprised, or excited. It also communicates the intensity of their emotion, ranging from mild to extreme. And all of this in less time than it takes us to read this sentence. But even if we engage in the most crass onomatopoeia or in clumsy adverbial writing (“Chris screamed shrilly.”) we cannot possibly evoke the same response with the same economy. Instead of using timbre, volume, or body language we are reduced to using words, punctuation, and sentence structure.

There are multiple levels at which these tools operate. When we write, the words we choose to use bring to the reader’s mind sounds. The phonemes and punctuation imbue our sentences with rhythm, which in turn contributes to pace and flow. They affect how caught up in the story we are. The words evoke images in the reader’s mind, which in turn color the text with emotional overtones. And they can invoke cultural touchstones, which add a further extra-textual layer of meaning to even the most prosaic sentences. Long, convoluted sentences with multiple clauses, often nested within one another, or recursively referring to initial clauses and thus extending their length, produce a certain set of effects. Syncopated sentences yield different results. The adjective “red” communicates one set of meanings, and “bloody” another.

These are the tools of the writer’s craft, and much as I love thinking about structure, and character, and pacing – at the end of the day, each of those higher-order tools is applied through the use of our narrative voice. And that is a voice dependent on the story we are telling.

The Narrator’s Voice and Not the Author’s

Most of us will write many stories over the course of our lives. Consider Anthony Burgess, who wrote the highly stylized A Clockwork Orange in the early ’60s where he employed highly stylized language, sentence construction, and neologistic vocabulary to achieve his narrative goals. At about the same time, he published The Wanting Seed which employed entirely different patterns of construction. To have written The Wanting Seed in the Nadsat argot of A Clockwork Orange would not have worked. And to have written A Clockwork Orange in the relatively accessible constructions of The Wanting Seed would have destroyed it just as well.

Burgess understood that the voice employed must above all service the narrative being told. The same holds true in the spoken word: if we had to tell a relative that a family member had died, would we present it in the form of a bouncy song? Probably not. The intent of the message, the goal of the communication, ultimately determines the narrative voice most appropriate. When we write, our job is not to find our “one voice” – but to master all voices, and to understand which vocal technique to apply when. Which, given the impossible flexibility of language, might be a Sisyphean task.

Some writers find a voice they are particularly comfortable with, and use it in story after story. Damon Runyon is a great example of this. His Broadway stories use a highly stylized narrative voice, communicated through a fictional first person narrator, with idiosyncratic speech patterns and word choices (including the extensive use of neologisms that have since entered the vernacular). But though he wrote many short stories, most were written in precisely this idiosyncratic voice. Is that the only voice Runyon used? Absolutely not. He also wrote perfectly “normal” newspaper articles for many years. But the stylized voice of his fictional narrator makes his prose instantly recognizable – and this is where his (consistent) narrative voice evolves into “style”.

The Difference Between Style and Voice

Voice is always contained. It is bounded by the covers of a book or by a given narrator within that book. And it is locked in the reader’s head, where we shape the voice in our own minds. I distinctly remember one of my favorite writers (who shall remain nameless) who uses words like a scalpel. He has written single sentences that brought me to tears. And so when I had the opportunity to go to a reading of his a couple of years ago, I jumped at the chance. And the story he read was a good one, utilizing the same flowing sentences and flawless word choices as I had come to expect. But he read in a horrendously thick Chicago accent completely at odds with the beautiful sentences he was using. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t fault him his accent (with the amount of time I’ve spent abroad, I’ve got heavy accents in several languages!), but this wonderful author’s speaking voice was completely at odds with the narrative voice I had built in my own head. It was a clash of expectations: I had naively expected the voice in my brain, and was confronted with a far different reality.

But if voice is internal to the narrator and the reader, then style is external: it is always comparative, as when we say someone writes “in the style of.” When we talk about a writer’s style we are talking about how a particular narrative voice they employed compares to narrative voices employed elsewhere. If they have written many stories employing similar narrative voices – as in Runyon’s case – we can say that they have a “distinctive style”. In this case, we are merely comparing them against themselves: the comparison is still there.

Compare for a moment the narrative voice employed in Steven Brust’s excellent The Phoenix Guards against the narrative voices employed in his To Reign in Hell. Two completely different books both by the same author, the former of which is in the style of Dumas, while the latter is wholly his own. Stylistically, the two books are very different. At the level of their prose, that difference boils down to their different narrative voices. And the difference in those voices is ultimately determined by their narrator.

The Narrator’s Voice

If there is a question about how a narrative voice should be a constructed, always look to the narrator. The narrator is a fictional construct in the story: the narrator is not the author. What would the narrator notice? How would they communicate it? The narrator – even if they are unnamed, omniscient, and outside of the action of the story – is always present, and always separate from the author. When we write, we put the words in the narrator’s mouth. They are a character like any other, even if a transparent one. Our job when we write is to consider the words we make the narrator say, and choose the words that are best able to achieve our narrative goals. Every narrator we create may well have a different voice, particularly suited to the needs of the specific story they tell.

Samuel Delany, in his excellent essay “About 5,570 Words”, says: “A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.” The art and craft of writing lies in making the right corrections. And those choices constitute a story’s narrative voice.

Post-scarcity and Realistic Utopia: Where’s the fight?


One of the WIPs I’m working on right now is a far future SF novel inspired largely by Le Guin’s classic The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. As I’ve observed before, utopian novels are hard to pull off because an ostensibly perfect society removes – in most major ways – meaningful (read: existential) conflict. But I think I might have been wrong about that.

Fictional utopia and dystopia are tools through which we negotiate our society’s ethics. They are, in a very real sense, a debate about the values our society holds. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, or James Morrow’s City of Truth all ask us what price we are willing to pay for a perfect/harmonious society. In all utopian/dystopian stories, conflict occurs at the levels of logos and pathos, and traditionally, there are two structures through which that conflict gets expressed: the Outsider, and the Dissident.

The Outsider: Conflict in Utopia

A utopia is ostensibly a perfect environment, and that perfection tends to make society somewhat static. Lacking conflict, debate, the society becomes relatively unchanging. In some utopian environments, like Iain M. Banks’ Culture or John C. Wright’s Golden Oecumene, “constant change” may be the most static characteristic. But lacking internal debate, most authors positing a utopia turn to the borders of that perfect state to find conflict.

Older utopias, like Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Skinner’s Walden Two, tend to adopt the structure of a travelogue/fish-out-of-water story, and they typically prioritize logos over pathos in their conflicts. What little conflict they generate is produced by putting the utopian society’s values into conflict with an Outsider: typically a guest who comes to visit the perfect society, and thus disturbs – to some extent – that society’s equilibrium. More modern utopias, like Banks’ Culture novels, also rely on the Outsider to produce conflict. However, these stories focus on where the utopia’s remit ends, and where it comes into contact with different value systems. As such, it presents the utopia as being in constant conflict, to a greater or lesser extent, with the world outside its borders.

The Dissident: Conflict in Dystopias

Dystopias are generally characterized by their lack of defined borders. Look at any of the great dystopian novels, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Morrow’s City of Truth or even Collins’ The Hunger Games. The ostensibly perfect society is all-encompassing. Borders in Orwell are political and expedient, as opposed to ideological. Elsewhere, the totalitarian state controls the entire planet save for some few wild places that lack any structure through which the One State can be opposed. The classic dystopian narrative arc takes a character inside the dystopia, and translates them into an Outsider. These stories derive their tension from the fact that there is no Outside. Which is why their conflict stems from the creation of a Dissident.

The Dissident plays a more violent version of the Outsider’s role. His or her purpose is to oppose the dystopia’s value system, to express the nature of that opposition and to either withstand or fall beneath the system’s crushing totalitarian jackboot. And it is precisely that totalitarian, militaristic dimension which sets a dystopia apart from a utopia.

Characteristics of Dystopian and Utopian Environments

A utopia is generally a society which operates harmoniously, effectively, and perhaps most important, equitably. Historically, utopian fiction has been heavily influenced by the 18th and 19th century anarchist and socialist movements. But the basic premise underpinning all utopias is that within their borders, they function effectively and smoothly. Because utopian fiction tends to put value on its utopian precepts, it is typically a given that the society is internally cohesive. There is no dissidence, and nobody falls through the society’s cracks. Utopias are defined by the fact that, in their fictional universes, they work.

Dystopias, however, do not. They present the superficial appearance of effective operation. But that veneer hides the stick that the regime uses to enforce its values. Without the totalitarian police/military force, it would be impossible to concretely express the Dissident’s conflict with their society. When faced with internal opposition to its values, a dystopian regime cracks down, and does so violently, and it is from this conflict that we get a fun, action-packed narrative.

And yet, in thinking about it in light of the United States’ current economic troubles, I think we’re at a point in our societal development where a new type of utopian fiction can be proposed, and one which opens a third source of potential conflict: the Post-scarcity/Realistic Utopia, which can derive its conflict from the Marginalized.

The Realistic Utopia

Post-scarcity science fiction has been around for awhile, and lots of people have talked and written about it before. Much of the philosophical debates around post-scarcity society stem from anarcho-capitalist philosophy, which I’m going to leave to one side. Instead, I’d like to make the case that in essence, the developed world is today already a post-scarcity society. We produce more food than our population could ever consume. Consumer goods are available at a lower economic cost than ever before in the history of our species. We have access to healthcare that would boggle the finest minds of our great-grandparents’ generation. If there is a problem with our post-scarcity society, it is that the benefits of that post-scarcity are not evenly distributed.

Unlike the anarcho-communist utopias dreamed of yesterday, our society today still retains a division between the haves and have nots. And as a species, we have never been able to scale an equal distribution of societal benefit (whether we’re talking economic wealth, military power, healthcare, standard of living, etc.). As a result, the debates of today – as exemplified by the Occupy Movement – are less about ensuring economic equality, and more about negotiating how our society interacts with individuals or groups who otherwise fall through the current system’s cracks. The folks protesting in the Occupy movement are, to a great extent, either the Marginalized or the voice of the Marginalized in what by most measures can be considered a near-Utopian society.

If the past hundred years have taught us anything, it is that it is naive to believe that society will ever eliminate crime, or completely eliminate poverty, etc. These are ills that will always plague human society, and any utopia that tries to dream them away fails my plausibility test. Yet the mere existence of these societal ills is less important than how we as a society respond to them. And this, I believe, is fertile ground for utopian SF to explore. By focusing less on the economics of the utopian society, and by turning a lens on the values of that society through its marginalized constituents, we can gain greater insight into the human condition, and at the same time develop conflicts through which to tell compelling stories.

While it isn’t a perfect example, I believe that Samuel Delany’s Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, his response to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, presages this future. His Bron Helstrom is ostensibly an Outsider, coming to the heterotopia of Triton from much more conservative Martian culture. In his new home, he is marginalized through his own value system, which is inimical to that of his new home. Yes, Delany also uses an Outsider structure in this novel, pitting his Triton against Earth in a devastating interplanetary war. And yet, it is Bron Helstrom’s narrative and personal experience of trying to adjust to his new – ostensibly Utopian – home that takes focus. Triton is not a perfect example of the kind of realistic utopia that I’m talking about here, but the focus on a marginalized individual who falls through the cracks of a supposedly perfect society is exactly what I believe utopian science fiction needs.

And I think it is exactly the kind of philosophical discussion that our society needs as well.

Unity, Economy, and Writing as a Revelatory Act


So I’ve finally read Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, which had been strongly recommended to me by many people over many years. It was definitely worth the read, and I was particularly drawn into the essay “About 5,750 Words” which should be required reading for any storyteller in any medium. In it, Delany presents a compelling metaphor for the act of writing, presenting it as a gradual revelation of the story’s essence where each word simultaneously moves the story forward and changes our perception of everything that came before. It puts me in mind of a writer-as-sculptor, chiseling away at a block of marble to reveal the shape beneath. Each strike of the hammer is the next word on the page.

NOTE: Delany is one of those amazing writers who instantly put me in a philosophical frame of mind. So bear that in mind: I don’t know how practical my thoughts are going to be, but they do represent the way my mind is drifting beneath his wind.

Honestly, I was surprised to find the revelatory metaphor so compelling. When it comes to craft, I’ve always fallen into the ultra-rationalist camp. I like to believe that I am (or that I should be) in absolute control of every aspect of my storytelling. Before writing word one, I have always liked to know where my characters and story were going, and how they were going to get there. That doesn’t mean I need to have an entire book in my head before writing, but it does mean I need to know where a particular scene (at the least) is going. Writing as a revelatory act just didn’t – conceptually – work for me. But I find that the more I write, the more my outlook on this is changing. Partially, this is a question of experience and a broadening of my toolkit o’craft. But it also stems from what I consider the driving force of narrative: the quest for unity in storytelling.

When I think of the greatest stories I’ve ever read I find that every level of their storytelling is pulling in the same direction. Stories affect us on a physiological and psychological level, exerting both a rational and emotional influence on us. Basically, when we read, our bodies and minds are like great echo chambers where everything feeds back on everything else, amplifying the essential notes to a thunderous roar. Stories like Hugo’s Les Misérables, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and John Crowley’s Little, Big use their action, emotions, and themes in concert to resonate like a struck gong. I’ve come to believe that the secret to that kind of amplified resonance is a perfect (or near perfect) unity between the story’s action, emotions, and themes and the structure, pacing, and words through which they are expressed.

The Essence of Story

On a prosaic level, a story is just a bunch of words or images set down and consumed in sequence. But at the heart of each story, there lies some ephemeral truth that we as artists wish to communicate. Every story ever created might have a very different kind of truth: Zamyatin’s We warns us against the logical extremes of Marxism. Crowley’s Little, Big shows us something about family and the cycles of life. Jackson’s “Flower Garden” points us to the horror of unstated small-town bigotry. These truths could not be more different. Yet they are the unifying elements which tie together the events of their respective story, the structures of those events, their pace, and the words used to express them.

In that sense, I agree with Delany that our job as writers is to identify the underlying essence of the story. That essence is a chimerical questing beast: I don’t think any of us can ever truly internalize every aspect of a story’s essence. Any mere mortal’s brain would probably explode. But we can and should get our reaching fingers around the last, loose strand of that beast’s tail. And having plucked that strand free, to take a page from Baron Cuvier’s playbook and extrapolate the rest of the creature as best we can.

Different writers approach this in different fashions. My own preference is to consciously consider the essence of the story before or during its initial writing. But I know plenty of great authors who don’t give it any conscious thought until after it has been written. Their initial focus is on telling a fun story: they let their subconscious build the story’s essence, tie it into their words, and then try to amplify it during revision. Neither approach is better or worse than the other, and both ultimately lead us to the moment when a story gains meaning and achieves artistry. In my own writing, I’d really like to master both techniques, though I have a long way to go with both.

Words, Words, Words: The Only Things the Reader Sees

Fortunately or unfortunately, we can’t just download the essence of our stories into the audience’s brain (though I imagine there’s a good SF story in that concept, come to think of it). So we have to use symbols and metaphors to approximate that essence, employing language (the most basic symbol) to do so. Which is what brings us to Delany and Chekhov. Consider the following two quotes:

A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Samuel Delany Anton Chekhov

The Chekhov quote is often used by folks blathering on about “show, don’t tell” and I’ll put it bluntly: they don’t get it. All writers – yes, even Chekhov – rely on “telling” to a greater or lesser degree, so that truism is only helpful for the most basic writing. Delany and Chekhov are implying the same concept: they are each indicating that the words we use become the very essence of the story we are trying to communicate. Chekhov’s two nouns (his “glint of light” and “broken glass”) communicate more as images than his earlier verb (“shining”). We don’t need to know the story’s plot for those words to evoke emotions. The words themselves and the rhythm of their sequence do all of the heavy lifting. And to Delany’s point, Chekhov’s simple exhortation is effective because he first paints a picture (of the moon shining), and then refines it with more powerful and evocative language.

Word choice and sequence matters, because unless we’re working in a graphical medium, it’s the only tool we have. But when those words align with the emotions, themes, and (manipulative) intentions of the storyteller, then we achieve unity, and by the same token, the inevitability of prose that most folks like to call “style” or “economy”.

Plot and the Essence of Story

When I think about plot, I usually think of it as independent from the essence of my story. The truth of my stories is only tangentially related to the plot. While I find Ayn Rand’s screeds and self-aggrandizement to be incredibly annoying, I love the concept of plot and plot-theme which she introduces in her The Art of Fiction. What she calls the plot-theme is for me the essence of the story. It is what the story is about, its philosophical and emotional core. It is the truth that I wish to communicate. But plot is just Stuff That Happens, which, if I’ve done my job correctly, expresses the plot-theme succinctly and powerfully. And it does so by making the story’s essence accessible for the reader.

Consider the essence of Miller’s brilliant A Canticle for Leibowitz. One can likely reduce it to the warning that if we aren’t careful, we risk repeating the tragic mistakes of the past. Stated so baldly, the power of that essence is blunted. It becomes bland, polemic, and boring. But it is through Miller’s plot (what happens) that the story’s essence is demonstrated in action. Through the characters, and the events they experience, we gain a means of emotionally investing in the story’s essential truth…before that truth is fully revealed at the book’s conclusion. Our engagement with the book becomes emotional as well as intellectual, thus increasing the story’s effect on us.

When done properly, every plot point in a story contributes to the story’s final essence. This contribution, or the story’s essence itself, might not be apparent until the very end of the book. But if when we turn the last page the characters have consistently acted in support of the story’s unstated essence, we will find ourselves satisfied and the story ringing in our hearts and minds.

Writing as a Revelatory Act: A Writing Exercise

In his essay “About 5,750 Words”, Delany performs a neat trick: he writes a single descriptive sentence, and painstakingly, word-by-word shows how each word revises and clarifies the initial image that the author has in his head. It’s a neat trick, because it literally puts into practice the concept quoted above. And it shows how one can consciously construct a unified, economical story.

Of course, Delany does this trick for didactic purposes: I suspect that when he sits down to write fiction, he does not weigh each word five or six times before deciding on it. Doing so would likely mean decades spent on a single book. Yet I find myself fascinated by this concept of each word simultaneously revising and building on the words that came before it. Given the underlying essence of story, it makes that story’s expression a revelatory act: likely as surprising to the author as to the reader. And that kind of revelation would be awesome.

Because of the way my brain is wired, I strive to do everything on purpose. But of course, that’s an aspiration and I doubt I ever really come close to meeting it. But sometimes, a reader’s comments really surprise me. For example, one of my beta readers recently sent me her feedback on a draft of a finished novel. In her feedback, she mentioned how much she liked the fact that two opposing characters at different points in the story mirror each other in their personal desires for vengeance. She thought it really added and amplified the philosophical and emotional themes at play between those characters.

And this floored me, because while I wrote the words and mapped out the plot, this was just a happy accident. I wish I was cool enough to do that on purpose. But in fact, it was a revelation to me, because at no point in the process did I tell myself “These enemies will be mirror images of each other along the dimension of vengeance by which their themes will be amplified.” It just worked out that way. And even after I’d written it, I didn’t notice that that’s how the characters and their actions related to each other. Which on one level, just goes to show that even a self-conscious writer’s subconscious has a heavy hand, and that readers will always find something the writer didn’t expect in every story. Of course, on another level it might mean I wasn’t paying enough conscious attention to my story – which if that’s the case is a little more worrying.

Which brings me back to the trick that Delany employs in “About 5,750 Words”. I get the impression that letting the imagination run free and consciously considering each word individually and in sequence may produce the same kind of revelatory experience. If nothing else, I suppose it will exponentially increase my awareness of word choice. It’s probably not a viable technique for writing long pieces, but I think I’m going to do a writing exercise at some point where I write an entire short story one word at a painstaking time…without prior consideration of the story’s essence. On one level, this sounds almost like free-writing (an exercise I always found frustrating and useless). But I think it is actually more its opposite: because each word is carefully weighed and selected, it will hopefully yield some of the most unified and essential writing I could hope for.

At least, that’s the theory. And I figure it’s a worthy experiment to try. Would you like to see the results of the experiment up here on the blog? Since it’s just a crazy experiment (I don’t expect the creature to live), it might be fun to dissect it. What do you think? And how do you approach getting that kind of unity into your stories?

%d bloggers like this: