“We don’t need no education,
We don’t need no thought control…
Which of course is, strictly speaking, a contradiction in terms. Firstly they definitely need some education, at least in grammar, and secondly while ‘education’ has been a major vehicle for brainwashing, education in the sense of acquiring the ability read, work numbers and do this whole logic thing are the ultimate enemy of mind control. Thus totalitarians detest and attempt to control it, to the extent of destroying it if possible. It’s been a central pillar of every Marxist and, yes, every Islamic fundamentalist regime in Africa, and in various other charming locales, to make sure that education is done away with, because intelligent folk with access to an education are less pliable than ignorant mobs, and mind control gets much simpler.
There is such a thing as learning by rote, and there also such a beast as learning to think, and reason and to question.
Most of us end up somewhere in the middle, because there are a fair number of generations of selection for survival of not-stupid-sheep in the human genome, which we haven’t quite managed to dilute out of the gene-pool by trying to do away with capital punishment for teh stoopid wot don’t need no education. We learn somewhat by rote, and that is point at which we are weak, and can set up for control.
Of course this is where books come in, and particularly books for younger readers. I’ve just – for my sins – battered my way through Limbo Lodge (Alternate title to Dangerous Games (US title)), by Joan Aiken. This is one of those books that ought to be a fundamental part of every study of literature, and certainly every course on how to be writer. It should arrive as “read this book” before you can enroll. If you can: you should never be a writer, because the lack of elementary story telling skills in it should have had you TBAR the book by page 5. If you enjoyed the book, please go to the Guardian offices and receive your pin on PC medal with brain-dead-bar. I am sure that traditional establishment publishing will love you too.
Needless to say I come under ‘you should never be a writer’, although in my defense I kept going out of a horrified fascination, like looking at a train-wreck in slow motion. I have read other books by the author which were quite entertaining, and I kept thinking that had to re-assert. After a while it became a sort of goad to get me back to work: otherwise you will have to read another five pages, you lazy scut. As I can normally read something of that size and language complexity in a pleasant half an hour and it has taken me two weeks, you start realizing the depth of my masochism.
Besides the fact that it embraces the noble savage myth – you know, the brown curly haired forest people persecuted by the wicked white settlers on their paradise-like island. The primitives are naturally happy, good, kind, generous, pacifists who eat mostly raw fruit and the occasional fish, ruled by wise women who the repositories of ancient magical wisdom, and in perfect harmony with their environment, and who desire none of the materialistic trappings of the evil capitalistic culture of the bad invaders (who needless to say, are puritanical white men, who love to drink and gamble, and persecute their women and make them live in a kind of purdah) the sins against geography, zoology, geology and physics are… egregious to put it mildly. Okay, so it is alternate history with elements of ‘magic realism’ (ie. Where you have to be stoned to think the magic could be real – certainly not ‘realistic’) or possibly fantasy at the kind of horse-is-an-automobile level with a faint touch of this-is-so-ridiculous-parody of gothic adventure (Launching a ship (yes, ship) from a cliff-top by waiting for the regular earthquakes which precede the tsunami which happens on predictable schedule, because of regular-as-clockwork volcano. The cliff collapses and the ship (yes, ship) then surfs the wave… Oh and the ship (yes, ship) is carried to the launch spot by the two superhumanly strong women, who despite having this hideous strength and all sorts of other powers have made regular horse’s butt out of solving what would be trivial for one super-woman, let alone two of them, and very wise and magical too).
“But Dave-Monkey, you say: that’s what fiction is about. Look at Pellucidar or even The Hollow Earth. They use breaches of geology, or science to make for great fantasy stories. Kenneth Oppel’s Airborne makes use of the ‘Hydrium’ (a sort of hydrogen/helium lifting gas) for the airships and takes some liberties with zoology… You enjoyed all of those.”
Indeed. But what good fiction is about is the creation of not just of an illusion, but of an entire ocean of illusion. Disbelief is not merely suspended, it is drowned and killed. The difference… is what separates TBAR from a great book. And that as far as I can see comes down to 1) Internal consistency. A book needs its own consistent internal logic, and its own set of rules. If a woman can lift a wooden ‘ship’ big enough to have a cabin for 6 – and food etc. (on land) you do have to explain why she didn’t just toss the chief bad guy a hundred yards into the harbor. 2) the careful immersion of the reader in that sea, by not overdoing the use impossiblium too early and being VERY sparing in the use of coincidence. If the internal logic is there, there is very little need to invoke this (the book I was just whinging about had a piece of pure chance intervening at the right moment… about every five pages. Key to immersion is careful foreshadowing. So if a character is going to turn out to be a female in disguise, pre-discovery needs a few cues. If a story is going to need a hair rope, then the fishing culture that uses these must be established as existing (and using them) before suddenly leaping onto the page when it is needed. 3) Key to the foreshadowing and immersion is that the writer has a far far broader picture of a WORKING world / universe complete with consistent internal logic (I recall reading a fantasy novel where the women knights – all in high castles, lived in happy peaceful co-existence with their fellow lady knights in other castles – until invaded by the bad men, at which point they were suddenly brilliant warriors defending their castles. Aside from the obvious women are just less physically strong than men, the author just hadn’t thought through any of the social, political or environmental issues of her world. Why were there castles and knights if they all lived in perfect peace in the first place? Why did the animals all have made up names, except for horses, and the crops all imaginary… except for oats.)
So: your turn. Who really immersed you? Which authors did a great job of that feel of a far wider world (or universe)? What educated you?