Archive | October, 2014

Singular First Person

26 Oct

Many years ago, as a student of English Literature I was told to go and write an essay about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

I tend to feel quite smug about that essay, because I got a pretty good mark for it and (just for a change) my tutor seemed to think I was being quite perceptive. (Her normal feeling seemed to be that I was quite good at identifying interesting issues and then veering away from them without managing to say anything very interesting about them).

One of the insights I had to offer was in my essay was the suggestion that Conrad’s decision to write Heart of Darkness as a first person narrative was crucial to the success of the novel as a whole.

(It should be noted that there really isn’t any such thing as a typical Joseph Conrad novel. He often wrote stories about the sea, but having said that he ranged freely across different styles, techniques and themes and if you’ve read one of his books and you didn’t like it, then it’s probably worth having a look at some of his other stuff, because you never know your luck).

In particular, I suggested that Conrad’s use of a first person narrative not only allowed him to be suitably vague about the exact setting of the story, but also allowed him to leave out a lot of the boring scene setting stuff and concentrate on what he really wanted to write about.

These points might not seem very important, but I think they are.

Heart of Darkness is a very short, economical story and one of the key elements of the novel is a sense of disorientation. A key scene in the novel occurs when the river boat is travelling through a heavy fog and Marlowe describes his feeling of losing any sense not only of place, but also of time. Earlier in the story, Marlowe also talks of being feverish at times and there’s something of the hallucination about the whole story.

Had Conrad settled for the third person narrative, which he used to great effect elsewhere, it’s difficult to believe that he could have achieved either the brevity or the dreamlike quality so essential to this novel.

So first person narrative is a useful device for creating atmosphere and also for limiting the amount of information available to the reader. By definition that reader can only be told what the narrator knows and what the narrator chooses to tell. (By contrast a third person narrator is effectively omniscient and attempts by authors to create uncertainty about ‘perhaps this’ or ‘maybe that’ always seems pretty artificial to me).

This makes first person narrative particularly effective for thrillers that depend on a careful balance between what is concealed and what is revealed to the reader in order to build towards a (hopefully) unexpected denouement. So it’s no big surprise that Raymond Chandler used first person narrative in all his novels and most of his short stories or that Dashiell Hammett used it in his ‘Continental Op’ stories (although, surprisingly not in some of his best novels eg The Maltese Falcon).

Even Agatha Christie (who generally used 3rd person narrative) used it from time to time and most memorably in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in order to produce a really nice little plot twist that I must admit I didn’t see coming. (No spoilers here – if you want to know what happens, read the book).

Another useful effect of a first person narrative is to make a character who might seem bland to most observers much more interesting by revealing his, or her, inner life in a particularly vivid manner.

Adam Hall does this especially well in his ‘Quiller’ novels, which are based on a highly professional ‘spy’ (he refers to himself as an ‘executive’) who cultivates anonymity as a key tool of his trade. (He works for ‘The Bureau’ – which has no official existence and unlike James Bond he’s not specially handsome, doesn’t cultivate a particularly glamorous lifestyle, doesn’t drink, smoke, gamble or get on first name terms with bartenders and head waiters).

What makes Quiller distinctive is his perverse, quirky, often bloody minded and possibly borderline psychotic personality. What is also innovative about the Quiller novels in contrast with the James Bond books is that Quiller has little trust and no affection for his employers. They give him what he needs, the kid of work he lives for, but he tends to refer to The Bureau as ‘The Sacred Bull’ (from which so much sacred bullshit flows). The clear implication of this term being that The Bureau is some kind of dark and oppressive deity that demands its regular tribute of

blood sacrifice.

Much like the classic PI in a hard boiled detective story, Quiller goes into his missions with just enough information to function – and often having been misled or manipulated into taking a job that he would never have taken on if he’d known what was involved. He often describes himself as a ferret who’s been sent down a rabbit hole, but usually with the implication that he might well run into something a lot more dangerous than a rabbit. All in all this setting creates an edgy, contrast between the concrete reality of what Quiller does and how he does it and the uncertainty of the background to what he’s doing. (This always includes the possibility that Quiller will be betrayed by his own people).

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this kind of effect using a 3rd person narrative, but where Adam Hall is particularly innovative in his use of first person narrative is in his action sequences. He has written some of the best fight scenes in popular fiction in my opinion, so much so the Eric von Lustbader was clearly inspired ( if that’s the word) to use a very similar style in thrillers like The Ninja).

What Adam Hall does in his action scenes is to use a fragmented, kaleidoscopic style that allows a very concise, immediate style and also reflects the vivid confusion that most people experience in a violent situation. (Most of us haven’t been involved in terminal confrontation with a professional killer, but if you think of any time you might have played a contact sport, or been involved in a car crash, you’ll probably get the idea).

It has to be said that Charlotte Brontë (whatever her other virtues as an author) is not generally noted for her vivid and innovative action sequences, but in Villette she did use first person narrative to achieve some of the same effects I’ve been describing in Adam Hall’s work.

Villette is a novel told from the point of view of Lucy Snowe. (Who, on the face of it has very little in common with Quiller, but she is also an individual who is somewhat at odds with her environment and the people around her. In addition, she tends to have a very low profile, although in her case this is not always a matter of choice, and she has little trust or affection for her employer. She is also stubborn, perverse and has a distinctly rebellious streak at times).

So what we have in Lucy Snowe is a not desperately pretty heroine who is really quite peripheral to the lives of those around her. She may depend on them to some extent, but for the most part they could get along quite nicely without her.

What, perhaps, makes her most like Quiller is the disconnect between her public persona and her private personality. The people who think they know her would be shocked rigid if they only knew what she was thinking and feeling. (Some, in fact, might be surprised to discover that she thinks and feels at all).

Where Lucy Snowe shows her character most clearly is where she hides and distorts information. For example, there is an idyllic, extended description of her passage across the English Channel that comes to an abrupt halt with the instruction to ‘cancel’ all that. Snowe then goes on to describe the truly miserable crossing that she actually experienced. She is also not above concealing significant information for a chapter or two for no obvious reason than her own perversity.

Of all the women in Victorian fiction, I think Lucy Snowe is my favourite.

Of course the last, and possibly best, reason for using first person narrative is simply that sometimes your characters speak in more interesting voices than you can.

This was certainly James M Cain’s reason. (For those who don’t recognise the name, James M. Cain vies with Ross MacDonald – author of The Moving Target, which was filmed with Paul Newman as Harper – for the title of The Other Great Writer of Hardboiled Crime Stories – alongside Raymond Chandler and Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Or to be a little more factual, he was the author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice).

Allow me to quote from the Author’s Preface to Double Indemnity.

…for ten years (I) resigned myself to the conviction that I couldn’t write a novel… I didn’t seem to have the least idea where I was going with it, or even which paragraph should follow which. But my short stories, which were put in the mouth of some character, marched right along, for if I in the third person faltered and stumbled, my characters in the first person knew perfectly well what they wanted to say.

So there you are; James M. Cain found that his characters were better storytellers than he was and he stepped aside to let them do the talking.

Of course there are problems with using a first person narrative. You can’t really jump from one character’s perspective to the another without using some kind of device. (eg Wilkie Collin’s use of written testimony from a series of characters in The Moonstonea device that I think he pulled off quite well but which I felt Bram Stoker struggled with in Dracula).

There is also the fact that if you’re writing from a first person perspective you have a certain theoretical lack of tension in as much as the reader ‘knows’ that the narrator can’t really get killed until he/she has fished telling the story. (Although you can get round that if you really try – see Sunset Boulevard). Of course this lack of tension is strictly theoretical. What a reader knows intellectually has little to do with how they respond to fiction, otherwise they wouldn’t respond to fiction at all.

Another problem is that in writing a first person narrative, you can feel quite exposed. Essentially you can maintain far more detachment from your central character as a 3rd person narrator.

On the other hand, to paraphrase someone I used to know; the more personal your writing is the more universal it becomes. And of course, you can’t make your writing personal unless you’re willing to take a few risks.

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Stuck in the Middle with Who?

19 Oct

A story appeared in the media some time ago about what was reported to have been a near riot between rival groups of fans when two conventions, one of Dr Who fans, the other of Star Trek fans, were booked into adjoining facilities.

On closer examination it seems that, while there may well have been some tensions between some of the attendees at the conventions, the whole thing was actually something of a non-story. (Concocted, one assumes, by some tedious media hack who wouldn’t have known an Andorian from an android or a Sontaran from a Silurian.

Having said that both Whovians and Trekkers can certainly be quite intense, and those who get their jollies from soaps and ‘reality’ TV programmes are not very likely to understand them or to sympathise. (Although some of them can be equally intense about their favourite TV programmes).

To a degree I do understand both Whovians and Trekkers, I like both shows and I have no interest in running down either in order to praise the other. So I sympathise with both, although I wouldn’t identify myself as either and I suppose that, kind of, leaves me stuck in the middle.

Which, pursuant to my persistent tendency towards heresy, leads me to make a confession.

You see, the sad and shameful fact is that I really like Babylon 5.

As I’ve already said, I have no interest in running down anyone else’s favourite show, so all I really want to do is to say a little bit about why I like Babylon 5. If that encourages someone else to take a look at it, then that’s fine. If you’re still not interested, then that’s also fine. I don’t proselytise.

I’d have to admit that my initial reaction to Babylon 5 wasn’t necessarily one of immediate, rapturous immersion. I seem to recall making some comment along the lines of ‘first episodes are always tricky’. (It was a quirk of Channel 4 scheduling that they started off with Episode 1 ‘Midnight on the Firing Line’ as opposed to the feature length pilot ‘The Gathering’ – and in a way I’m glad they did, there were some pretty serious changes made between the pilot and the first season).

With hindsight I’m not sure why I was quite so lukewarm about this first episode, because having watched it again (more than once) I now find that I like it quite a lot. I suppose it does have a lot of characters and a relatively complicated setting to introduce in it’s 50 minute running time and that takes time that can’t be used for other things. On the other hand it’s well written and well acted, with interesting characters doing interesting things for reasons that pretty much make sense. It also look pretty good, although I have read comments from viewers who were distinctly unimpressed by the special effects. (My years spent watching classic Who and Trek were not wasted, I’ve learned to be tolerant of iffy special effects if only the ideas, the story and the characters are interesting).

So maybe I was just being a bit over cautious.

But I suppose it doesn’t matter, because I decided to stick with the show and over the next few years I did a pretty good job of catching each episode as it was broadcast, in spite of Channel 4s increasingly erratic scheduling decisions. I suppose Channel 4 never really valued Babylon 5. Initially it had a discreet slot on Monday evenings just before the news at 7.00 pm. (This was quite convenient for me, because it gave me time to get home from work, make something the eat and sit in front of the TV munching away as I caught up with the latest from the last of the Babylon stations). Later on B5 was moved to the wee small hours of Sunday night, which is when my VCR came into it’s own. (Yes, this was pre DVD or iPlayer and its equivalents). And this is how I came to miss the only half episode that I didn’t manage to see during this one and only complete run of all five seasons on terrestrial TV.

Essentially there was a spot of confusion as the scheduling of one of the episodes which resulted in the loss of about twenty minutes of the programme. Irritating.

By the time the last season was being broadcast, regular viewers (and I assume I wasn’t the only one) were having to play ‘hunt the schedule’ to find the next episode.

When Crusade (the short lived spin off) was shown, I suspect only a handful of us managed to see any of it because it appeared in the early hours of the morning with exactly no fanfare or publicity at all. I suspect Channel 4 bought it as part of a job lot or something and had no interest in promoting it at all.

Since this original showing on Channel 4, there has been a brief rerun of some of season 1 in the early morning over the Christmas period one year and since then nothing at all on terrestrial TV. I believe it was shown on one of the digital channels a few years ago, but if you live in the UK and you’re interested, you’d probably better watch it on DVD or maybe you can download it.

So Babylon 5 is a bit of a minority interest. And this extends even to one of the BBC’s Sci Fi nights where a good deal of time was spent (quite rightly) on Star Trek and Dr Who and time was also devoted to Sapphire and Steel and Lost in Space, but Babylon 5 was never even mentioned. (The irony here is that they had an interview with Bill Mumy – who was a regular as a child actor in Lost in Space, but who also featured in Babylon 5). Bit odd that.

But anyway, rather than griping about all this, maybe it would make more sense to suggest why the uninitiated might care to take an interest in the series.

To start with Babylon 5 depended very heavily on CGI and this gave the series a very distinctive look. A look that I always liked, but I suppose not everyone would.

There was also a decision made at a very early stage to avoid having aliens with ‘crinkly foreheads’. (Possibly a reference to Michael Westmore’s work on Star Trek Next Generation). This is a decision that may well have been regretted later on, given the amount of work involved in creating the aliens for B5, but I think it paid off.

There were some attempts, notably in the pilot and season 1 to use CGI and animatronic aliens. These attempts were largely abandoned as the series developed because humans in prosthetics gave better performances. (This is where it’s worth giving an honourable mention to Wayne Alexander who seemed to build a whole career out of playing a variety of aliens on B5 and consistently delivering nuanced and complex performances generally from under thick layers of latex).

It’s also worth giving an honourable mention to Christopher Franke (of Tangerine Dream fame) who scored all 5 seasons after Stuart Copeland (notable for his contribution to Police and the sound track of Rumblefish) was unavailable after providing the score for the feature length pilot.

Basically what Christopher Franke provided was effectively a separate score for each episode. (He did re-use some themes etc so that amounted to an average of 25 minutes of original music per episode. A lot of this work was based on his own keyboards but he was also innovative in his use of digital technology in order to incorporate the Berlin Symphonic Film Orchestra as and when the budget allowed).

But that’s all just technical stuff and it doesn’t address the question of why Babylon 5 is the TV Sci Fi series that I keep going back to again and again.

Well, the reason for that I suppose, is because in my view J. Michael Sraczynski and his

collaborators created a remarkably complete and complex universe.

(Doubtless Trekkers and Whovians will make the same claim for Star Trek and Dr Who and I do recognise that this is all very nebulous and subjective). But the point remains that Babylon 5 somehow created a sense of a universe that you could live in and in which you could hop onto a space ship and fly off somewhere and see some really amazing and unexpected things.

This B5 universe is not necessarily as optimistic as the one created by Gene Roddenberry. It’s a universe where humans aren’t much more enlightened (if at all) than they are now, and it’s a universe where humans aren’t by any means dominant.

In B5, humans rank somewhere in the same ballpark with the Narn and Centauri, at least in military and economic terms. That puts them somewhere about two thirds of the way up the totem pole, which is somewhere above most of the non-aligned worlds, somewhere below the Minbari and well below the Vorlons, who start off scary and get distinctly scarier as the series progresses. (And that’s before we even start on the Shadows but we’re not getting into spoilers here).

This is in marked contrast to Star Trek where there are certainly older and more advanced civilisations, notably the Vulcans, but somehow humans tend to be dominant. (This isn’t a criticism, just a comparison).

Another of the key differences between B5 and Star Trek can be summed up in the question asked by Galen of Mathew Gideon in the spin off Crusade.

“Who do you serve and who do you trust?”

Gideon has no answer to this question (it’s partly this lack of an easy answer that persuades Galen to join him). Obviously the exchange does not come from B5 itself, but there are times when many of the key characters in Babylon 5 would be equally hard pressed to answer these questions.

By contrast, these are doubts that you seldom find in any Star Fleet officer (Ro Laren being a rare exception).

Essentially Gene Roddenberry had faith in Star Fleet as a benign institution. Fair enough, he created it and he created it to be a ‘good thing’.It seems that Gene Roddenberry had faith in institutions, or perhaps he simply wanted to and this was reflected in his writing.

Straczynski’s, on the other hand, seems to be much more ambivalent about institutions. He, and most of his characters tend to put their faith in individuals.

A further contrast is that Roddenberry very largely excluded religion, politics and economics from Star Fleet and from the Federation. (This may have been because he believed that humanity would just have to transcend all that stuff if we were going to make it in the longer

term, but I suspect that he just wasn’t very interested in those subjects and didn’t want to write about them).

Starczynski, by contrast, is much more interested in politics and economics and especially religion.

In fact, one of the key themes of B5 can be summed up in Ambassador Delenn’s dictum ‘faith manages’.

Having said that, B5 story lines condemned religious bigotry and intolerance just as consistently and vehemently as anything you’d find in Star Trek. It’s just that the overall ethic of the show accepts that some kind of faith can sometimes be a good thing and that religion will not necessarily whither and die as cultures develop an scientific progress is made.

And this is a bit of an oddity. As an atheist I don’t especially like heavy duty religious allegory mixed in with my Sci Fi. In fact I tend to find it irritating. But I have to say that the religious, not to mention mystical, aspect of B5 does add a certain depth to many of the story lines.

Another of the other key characteristics of B5 is its huge story arc. (Arguably much of this story arc was resolved by the end of season 4 and, in spite of still having much to enjoy in it, season 5 does tend to seem a bit like an add on).

This long story arc allows a degree of character development which would be difficult and probably impossible in a potentially open ended series like Star Trek. (Trekkers will doubtless have examples they can cite of character development within the series, but I stick to my thesis. The job of regular characters in a series like Star trek is very largely to be consistent, the job of many key characters in B5 is to change).

The most obvious examples of character development in B5 would be G’kar who starts as an angry, ruthless and sometimes dangerous character (albeit still capable of generosity at times) who becomes a far wiser and gentler character as he progresses. (One of the more perceptive points made in B5 is that G’kar grows in stature, he attracts more and more adulation from his people and becomes more and more frustrated by their persistent drive to force his message into a form that they’re already familiar with.

The other obvious example is Londo Mollari, who starts as a somewhat cynical and dissolute character with no real power, whose ambitions are largely drowned in booze, gambling and womanising. He makes something of a Faustian deal, which grants him everything he ever thought he wanted and costs him everything he had. Mollari’s story is made that much more poignant by the fact that, by the time he has to pay the price for his deal, he has grown enough to understand exactly what it’s going to cost him.

I could go on, but why bother?

It’s not a perfect show, some episodes were stronger then others, and there are moments (usually attempts at humour) that I’d rather fast forward over. Humour, as Emperor Cartagia would tell you, “is such a subjective thing”.

On the other hand, it was a highly intelligent and complex series that’s probably worth a bit more attention that it often seems to get.

If you’re interested, watch the show, if you’re not then do something else.

Either way, Straczynski and his team did a far better job of telling the story than I could.

Why Mandlebrot?

12 Oct

Why Mandlebrot?

Good question.

Although, as a matter of fact, it actually breaks down into two questions.

The first question is quite specific, ‘why choose the name Mandlebrot?’ and the second is the more general question ‘why use a pseudonym at all?’

So let’s take each question in turn.

1/ Why choose the name Manldebrot?

Well, Benoît Mandlebrot (1924 – 2010) was a Polish born mathematician with dual French/American nationality who is best known for his discovery of the ‘Mandlebrot set’. (Described by Arthur C Clarke, no less, as ‘one of the most astonishing discoveries in the entire history of mathematics).

Briefly, the ‘Mandlebrot set’ is the mathematical basis for generating fractals. Fractals, for anyone who doesn’t know, are a form of geometric repetition (to quote Stephen Wolfram) “in which smaller and smaller copies of a pattern are successively nested inside each other, so that the same intricate shapes appear no matter how much you zoom in to the whole. Fern leaves and Romanesco broccoli are two examples from nature”.

Fractals are remarkably useful and have applications in various areas of technology including soil mechanics, signal and image compression, heat exchangers and the creation of really cool and trippy posters.

Mandlebrot in addition to being a highly gifted mathematician, was also something of a maverick and a visionary who wrote about mathematics in a passionate and informal style which made his work surprisingly accessible to non-mathematicians. He also published papers in applied fields such as information theory, economics and fluid dynamics.

I wish I could say that I chose the name as a tribute to the man and his formidable achievement. Unfortunately, the plain fact is that I must have read, or heard his name, probably while I was studying the history of mathematics a few years ago, and somehow the name stuck in my memory without necessarily connecting with anything else, although I suppose I must have known something about who Mandelbrot was, because I don’t quite see how I could have come across the name without knowing something about the man and his work.

However, the main point is that I wanted a name for the narrator of a story and the name ‘Mandlebrot’ kind of stuck.

I can only hope that Benoît Mandlebrot had a sense of humour.

2/ Why use a pseudonym at all?

I suppose lots of people use pseudonyms for lots of reasons. George Eliot used a masculine name because she believed, with good reason, that if she’d been known to be a woman, no one would have taken her seriously as an author.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson an Anglican deacon and academic wrote his best-known works as Lewis Carroll. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that Queen Victoria was a big fan of Alice in Wonderland and eagerly asked Deacon Dodgson to send her a copy of his next book. History does not record exactly what she made of the inscrutable tome on mathematics that she duly received in response to her request.

But neither of these cases apply to me. I have no particular reason to hide my identity. I’m not a member of any kind of minority group that might result in my work being prejudged and I have no standing in the community that might be I undermined if it were known that I write stories.

So why bother with a pseudonym?

Well, I suppose the reason is best explained by illustration.

Donald Westlake was a prolific author who wrote in a variety of styles and genres. Many of his books were crime stories and while there are many kinds of stories you can write about crime one of the major distinctions is between ‘capers’ and ‘heists’.

If a ‘caper’ is essentially a light-hearted and generally non-violent crime story, then a ‘heist’ typically more violent and less humourous.

The structure of a caper would typically consist of two parts, the first being the exposition of an elaborate plan for a crime, typically theft, and the second part is a description of how the plan is implemented and how it goes hopelessly wrong.

In a heist the actual crime tends to proceed like clockwork and the complications typically occur in the getaway or in dividing the spoils or because of interference by other criminals. As a general rule, the law enforcement community are, at most a minor inconvenience, and more often completely irrelevant.

So Donald Westlake wrote capers about John Dortmunder, a genius and criminal mastermind who always seemed to work with highly eccentric confederates and had no luck at all and he wrote heists about Parker. Parker has no pretension to be a genius or a criminal mastermind. He is simply a ruthless, violent, career criminal. On the other hand, his plans work.

The key point for my present purpose is that when Westlake wrote about Dortmunder, he wrote under his own name and when he wrote about Parker, he wrote as Richard Stark, and I think the reason for this is pretty obvious.

Fans of the Dortmunder capers might, or might not enjoy the Parker books as well, and vice versa, but it obviously makes a lot of sense to make it quite clear that these are two very different series of books. If he failed to do that, he would have risked disappointing his readers by allowing them to come to his work with expectations that would not be met. And the simplest way to make a clear separation between the Parker and Dortmunder books is to use a different name on the cover.

Having said all this, it should be pretty clear that the reason I chose to write Fekesh and Mattie and What They Did under a pseudonym is because I want to separate it from other things I might want to write. There are a couple of reasons for this.

1/ It’s a, sort of, children’s story. It’s about missing dragons, talking cats, flying on items of furniture etc. and I’m not sure I’m going to continue to write children’s stories. My previous, and almost universally ignored, work has involved zombies, vampires and a fair degree of violence. Not exactly suitable for small children.

2/ I’ve used a very distinctive narrative voice for this collection of stories and it’s not a narrative voice that would be suitable for other kinds of stories. It’s specifically tailored for these stories.

3/ These stories take place in a very particular world and they conform to a specific set of rules.

The rules are as follows:

a) No violence. (I’m following the excellent example of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin here).

b) Magic isn’t the solution, (magic can be included but only as part of the background, problems

are solved by thinking and doing and sometimes by talking, not by casting spells).

c) No one is a hero(ine) by virtue of their birth. Mattie, the central character is a little girl

growing up in a single parent family and her mother has to work hard for a living.

d) Things are true (or not) according to reason and evidence, not by virtue of authority.

e) No one is just born evil. People can be stupid, selfish, arrogant and so forth, but I’m not

having any characters who do what they do simply by virtue of being ‘a wicked witch’ for

example. People have reasons for doing what they do and while those reasons may, or may not,

be very sensible, but they have to have some kind of plausibility.

I think these rules are pretty good, and I may well stick with (most of) them if I write any more children’s stories. But I won’t necessarily stick with the same narrative voice and I probably won’t stick with the same world that the Fekesh and Mattie stories take place in and this, ultimately, is the reason for using a pseudonym.

 (Fekesh and Mattie and What They Did is available to download from Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing).