Dark Curricula: April 2016
The theme this month is worldbuilding. Sometimes you just gotta turn away from the world and build another one. I've always admired this. I mean, have you seen the actual world we've got? Please. But the new one should have some sort of Coherent World Schema. That's not the easiest thing to describe or qualify. Even if there is a fuzzy element, it operates with the same narrative physics as the other world elements. Fundamentally, the world an author describes should be completely tangible in the author's mind -- and hopefully enough skill to transcribe it.
You were willing to believe in Hobbits and some vague Sauron Uber Evil because Tolkien was a master of CWS. You were willing to accept mind controlling orbiting pink lasers because PK Dick was a master of CWS.
Notice I said "narrative physics" rather than physics "physics". People get caught up in the feasibility of something operating in this world, rather than whether it operates consistently in that world. They presume one world for another. This makes for horrific, embarrassing comment threads arguing passionately about the viability of FTL drives in Sailor Moon, and so on. I avoid this bullshit aggressively. I imagine Terry Pratchett, where ever he is, frowning and disappointed.
I've yet to dislike a Miéville book. Some haven't worked entirely, or contained nearly self indulgent prose (still enjoyable for acrobatics), but they always have a CWS. His earlier work diverges, or digresses, but usually returns to a center. The wanders are pleasant. This one, a bit shorter than some of his others, follows a boy who lives in "the uphill" and who's father is a refuge from somewhere far away. Dark fairy tale? There is something Grimm about it, there is about all of Miéville's stuff.
This book is a more mature work than Kraken, Railsea, etc., more akin to City & The City. Which I think is a great development. Unfortunately, I can see others being disappointed by it. I was not. I want more. It was rich, you have to pause and savor it a bit. I can see that for folks looking to just consume, without consideration, this is not the right book. But I think if we're talking about worldbuilding we need to look to this book and City & The City as examples of being able to create a unique place in a small amount of prose, smaller than the thousands of pages it often takes others.
Ursula K. Le Guin
This is the earliest book in the cycle as written, and Le Guin's first novel. You can see her stretch throughout. Although it was difficult for me to get through. Not because of the quality of the writing, but because it mostly adhered to genre fantasy, which I respect but don't love. A lot of "My Lady", and endless traveling between forlorn castles, lords making honorable declarations, flying winged steeds. I know, lots of folks feel exactly the same way about SciFi. Laser pistols pew pew? Shrug. She did a really interesting thing here though, the main character is from an advanced space-faring society, stuck on a fantasy genre world. Laser pew pew meets the winged steed. The best parts are those constructions compared. Why is Rocannon there? Why does Rocannon stay? What does it mean to be from a society that is so-called "more advanced"?
The next book was published the same year, and I wonder what direction it'll go. The idea of these as a series is very general, there's a huge span of time, distance and changes in writing between them. Which is fascinating.
The Man Who Lost the Sea: Volume X: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon
Who was Theodore Sturgeon? He wrote in the 40s-60s and greatly influenced the younger generation around him. He was the inspiration for Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout. He wrote TOS's "Shore Leave" and "Amok Time". "More Than Human", his most well known novel, clearly, to me, predates and perhaps inspires Marvel Corp's long term obsession with Mutants.
He didn't write superheroes, he wrote more like Flannery O'Connor or Faulkner. Kinda... imagine Ray Bradbury and Faulkner LARPing for the weekend.
And he wrote lots of short stories. They're collected into volumes. I'm reading these volumes haphazardly, out of order. Doubt I'll read them all. This volume represents 1957-1960. There's inconsistency here. He wasn't formulaic, he took chances. He did not stick to the genre rulebook. From this volume I liked most "It Opens The Sky", "The Man Who Lost the Sea", "A Crime For Llewellyn". The Llewellyn story, not SciFi at all, is hard to get out of your head.
I think Sturgeon is underrated, and I think Vonnegut got more from Sturgeon than he got from Vonnegut. Perhaps he's underrated because of the inconsistency, but the stories that do work are very memorable.