Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness

I was recently reading in a collection of letters from Jack Lewis (a present from my lovely wife), and I came across the following passage, which struck me:

"This week I have re-read Jane Eyre. It is quite prodigiously better than the other Bronte is very worth reading. Part of the interest lies in seeing in the most (apparently) preposterous male characters how quite ordinary people look through the eyes of a shy, naive, inflexibly upright, intelligent little woman of the mouse-like governessy type.... Particularly delicious is her idea of conjugal bliss when she says on almost the last page 'We talk, I believe, all day.' Poor husband!" [C. S. Lewis, Books, Broadcasts and the War: 1931-1949, Volume II in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis edited by Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004), 291)

I thought it was a very fun quote--not in the least because it brought out a number of points about the book Jane Eyre which I myself had considered. It is always interesting to me to hear the opinions about many of my favourite authors on other authors, whether favourite or not. Jack's opinion on the works of Jane Austen, for example: "[Austen's] books have only 2 faults and both are damnable. They are too few & too short" (ibib, 967). I found both of these opinions very interesting, partially because I was perusing this volume of letters more or less at random, and came across these fascinating references to a couple of books near and dear to the hearts of a number of my female friends (my own dear wife, not the least).

This is not, however, the purpose of this post, but serves only as a convenient segue into a discussion, which is one of my wife's prime criteria for judging a book, namely the voice of an author. For those unfamiliar with the concept, by voice I refer to the way an author puts his words on the page. I tend to have a fairly dry, academic voice, even in my fictional writing (which is why I tend to write what I call fictional non-fiction--a lot of discussion on the politics and religion of Henryon [the name of my fantasy world], but very little actual plot). This is appropriate because I am a dry, academic person. A strong voice can help drive a book forward, elevating it from a mere plot-based book to something more. After all, plot is the easiest part of writing. Look at Shakespeare, for example. His plots are, in general, nothing much, as others have observed before me. It is what he does with them that is the real joy, changing them from fun stories full of sex and violence to part of our English cultural heritage. It is not for nothing we fight to defend "The Language of Shakespeare."

Indeed, for my wife, if an author can vary how his characters speak, that author has already put hooks into her. One of the things she loves about her new favourite author, Brandon Sanderson, is in his voice. She did not like Weiss and Hickman's Rose of the Prophet for much the same reason. Sometimes this may be found in a good first line: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" or "All children grow up, except one" to name a couple of my favourites. These are good because they set the tone for the entire rest of the book. Actually, The Hobbit is a good example of an author's ability to change his voice (you didn't think that I could write a post on any topic without a reference to Tolkien did you? "The disciple does not stand except in the shadow of the Master"), when taken in connection with The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Here you have three books, written by the same author and set in the same fantastic world. Yet they are very different in tone and voice. Of the three, I far prefer The Lord of the Rings, because I believe it represents the best middle ground between The Hobbit's conversational style, and the mythic sweep of The Silmarillion (not that I have anything wrong with epic or myth, but I read novels for different reasons than I read myths). Other differ, but that illustrates my point about voice.

Whether or not Miss Bronte was using her writing skills in order to present us a picture of "a shy, naive, inflexibly upright, intelligent little woman of the mouse-likegovernessy type" or, as I tend to think, was projecting a little bit of her psyche into the text is unimportant. Part of the enjoyment of the book is seeing the world through another's eyes and getting another perspective on the universe.

Closely related to this is the idea of an Unreliable Narrator. Now, since many of my readers are careful students of Literature in their various languages of choice, I must admit that I suspect they know better than I the implications of this particular device (I am, after all, a Biblicist, so the application of idea to my field has fascinating theological ramifications, most of which I am unprepared to deal with). I only bring it up, because I first encountered it in a series of books penned by the late, great Roger Zelazny, The Chronicles of Amber. Now, Zelazny wrote faster than he thought, and so his books are full of internal inconsistencies. However, Zelazny turned this into a virtue. In The Chronicles of Amber the narrator and protaganist, one Corwin by name, begins the book with amnesia. As the book progresses he begins to remember things, but sometimes he gets them wrong. As an example, he has a number of brothers and half-brothers and at one point he messes up whose mother belonged to whom. This is, I know, somewhat common place, but it came like a hammer blow to my young teenage self. If Corwin got this wrong, what else is he getting wrong? Then, in another place, Corwin lies to the reader, a lie that only comes out later. Again, a hammer blow. If you couldn't trust Corwin, who was your window into the world, who could you trust? All of these thoughts were confirmed by the second series in the Chronicles, written from the perspective of Corwin's son Merlin, who had a very different take on the events in the first books. These books helped to remember to always examine my own assumptions when reading any book, so whenever my wife starts talking about voice (and she invariably does), Zelazny is the light I hold up to the world.

How about you? Any authors you love to read merely because of how they write? Any books that shook your assumptions about reading? Any other examples of changes in voice showing an author's ability to vary his tone and style? Natually, because I am most interested in fantasy on this 'blog, I would be delighted to hear about those, but this post is much more about reading in general than any specific genre, so please, tell me your opinions of voice, without regard to genre.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Shout Out for Science Fiction

So, this 'blog is primarily dedicated to the discussion of all things fantastic. I prefer it that way, for I dearly love fantasy, and as I discussed in the last post, I dearly love the myth that fantasy drew from. However, I felt a need to write a brief comment on fantasy's cousin science fiction.

I say cousin, but they aren't really cousins, although they are often lumped together. Part of this, I believe, comes, perhaps on the speculative nature of them both. Some of this comes from a sort of blurring of the lines in movies such as Star Wars, which has blasters and starships, but is in all its particulars, except for set dressing, a fantasy film. Space fantasy to be sure, but fantasy. Even more thorny are shows such as Star Trek, which is more scientific than Star Wars, but which is still, in terms of real science, not very scientific. This is all to say, that just as fantasy runs the entire gamut from high to low, swords and sorcery to epic, so there is also a spectrum for science fiction, based primarily on the grounding of its speculations in actual science. At the far end of the spectrum, closest to fantasy are films and books such as Star Wars. At the opposite end is the hard science fiction, preferred by thos great science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.

I enjoy the whole spectrum, unlike, my wife, for example, who prefers fantasy almost to the exclusion of science fiction. Some of my favourite books have been science fiction, especially books by Clarke and Heinlein. My wife is not alone, however. Fantasy, especially juvenile fantasy, is very trendy right, likely in the light of the successes of books series such as Harry Potter. It is interesting to me that one may read Harry Potter and his companions, good and bad, and still not have to worry about losing your high school status as a "cool kid" (this is a gentle ribbing to all those "Mormon Mommy 'Bloggers" who loved Twilight, but would be horrified to hear it described as fantasy), but Asimov and Heinlein are still the domain of the geek.

So, I have certain geek tendencies, although social awkwardness is not really one of them, my wife would hasten to add. Regardless, science is an important part of our world-view, and I personally think that science needs science fiction. After all, every religion needs its myths.... In all seriousness, I suppose the primary purpose of this post was to encourage my readers who love fantasy (and if you don't, you are unlikely to read me more than once)to branch out a little bit and try some science fiction. I'd start with something accesible, like Clarke's brilliant 2001: A Space Odyssey or if you like a little bit of philosophy with your reading, Heinlein's Starship Troopers walks an excellent line between a discussion of the rights of citizenship and a rollicking adventure yarn. To my readers who already read science fiction, let's read some more.

Excelsior (ad Astrum.)