Beep. Out of chocolate error. Redo from start?
Yes, actually it is one of those days. I’m physically tired having cut an loaded a couple of tons of wood this morning—part of my program to do some concrete, measurable things for my fellow Australians, clearing some fire hazard dead-wood for a nearly 80 year old. She just wanted to borrow the chainsaw, an idea which frightened me into virtue. (Virtue may be its own reward but in this case it immediately came back in the shape of load of firewood). I’m mentally tired because we have a possum type cat burglar last night and I didn’t get much sleep (honestly, officer, I just wanted to have a conversation with it. It outsmarted me. Not hard, I know.)
So I’m running on coffee and chocolate in lieu of brains and alertness.
There IS a difference, thank you. The former can scintillate. The latter has more skill at procrastination, but not much (both are really Olympic team quality at this sport. I believe it will be considered for Olympic qualifying soon).
My day was also rewarded by a copy of THE BLUE WORLD by Jack Vance (the picture is a link for the re-issue – which has a foreword by none other your very own procrastinating, coffee driven monkey. I don’t normally agree to this – but in this case, it was a privilege I felt unworthy of.) This was the first ever sf book I read – and as wet behind the ears brat, strictly forbidden to touch his brother’s books on pain of various unmentionable tortures, making death seem tame… I got caught. The book was that engrossing that I failed hear his motorbike arrive home.
I loved that book. It was – for a kid whose father was fisherman, whose favorite pastime was building and populating (and staging immense battles) imaginary worlds in rock-pools where I learned to snorkel while dad ‘supervised’ big brother catching crayfish, my world, but only better than I could have imagined, with a war against a giant squid-kraken, where ingenuity and problem-solving – and courage. I was a very little kid, compared to other kids my age. I found the idea of thinking to beat the odds very attractive!
Here is the blurb ‘Eleven generations ago, a ship carrying convicts to a prison planet crashed on a nameless ocean world. Survivors built an egalitarian culture on the pads of giant water plants, winning food, shelter, and the necessities of life from vegetation growing on the pads, and from the sea. But in the water swam the kragens, armored sea-beasts who raided the gardens at will. Early settlers fed one of the largest kragens deliberately, hoping it would chase the other beasts away. Over generations, the creature grew monstrous, while a caste of Intercessors evolved to feed and worship the beast. Now, the Intercessors seek to reign over the population, using King Kragen to manipulate and terrorize their fellow pad-dwellers. Sklar Hast defies the Intercessors, and vows to slay King Kragen. For that he will face ruin, exile and the loss of his true love. His rebellion brings war and death, even as it unleashes a surge of scientific advances which promise a new age of discovery; but first, King Kragen must die! ‘
Now, as an adult (or maybe anyone more perceptive than an eight year old monkey) even the blurb hints that this is Vance at what he did best. You are perhaps familiar with the portmanteau word – as explained Humpty Dumpty to Alice (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)
“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’. ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’. You see it is like a portmanteau – there are two meaning packed up into one word.”
Or as Lewis Carroll explained it in the introduction to THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK…
Humpty Dumpty’s theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a portmanteau, seems to me the right explanation for all. For instance, take the two words “fuming” and “furious.” Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first … if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say “frumious.”
There is one key word for the writer here. One priceless gem: ‘balanced’.
Vance of course didn’t write portmanteau words. He wrote portmanteau books. That’s… incredibly rare, and terribly hard to do at all, let alone well. Many people write what could be called compound books. In fact I’d say compound books are one the major problems in sf. It’s often called message-fiction… which is appropriate because the elements are essentially separate. Count the PC tokens, the obligatory lectures and angst about the cause de jour, inexpertly stapled next to bits of fiction, instead of perfectly balanced and mixed in, so that to that eight-year old or not very bright reader it could seem a fast moving grand adventure, a good airplane read, with absolutely nothing else to it.
There are at least four ‘meanings’ and stories that I’ve spotted in this particular book. I’m probably missing a few. Because I wanted to write like this myself, I’ve tried hard to pick up the techniques. I think the first key is that there must be a very strong and clear plot-line. You’re asking it to balance a lot of subtle and quite possibly overpowering elements. The second of course is that your characters cannot be mere PC-token stereotypes. Yes, of course you can have a black lesbian hero, or whatever (it actually doesn’t matter)– but if that stereotype is in the face of the reader rather than the character themselves, that becomes a compound, rather than the portmanteau. The third is that you cannot preach, or tell, your reader your ‘message’. Not ever. You can show it, you can let them derive it. If they fail to: well they still got a good story. And finally – if your audience leaves your book saying ‘that was about feminism… you, as a writer, are a failure, at least at writing entertainment or portmanteau books. There is a market for message, but like the market for sermons: it is small, and largely the converted. If they finish with a smile: you’ve done well. If they leave your book with a smile thinking: “yeah, true… I hadn’t thought of it like that. Look at (someone the reader knows). I could see them in that character (and the character happens to be a woman who is as capable as her male compatriots) then, my writer friend, you are a talent, and I wish I was more like you… Out of chocolate error…