Monday, April 16, 2018

Wrapping Up the Look at Style

The original purpose of this style series was to weigh in on an off-hand comment elsewhere about using Shakespeare and the King James Bible as a basis for contemporary style. The reasoning behind that comment is that Shakespeare and the King James Bible were the basis of Modern English, so its time to return to the source. My initial objection rested upon the linguistic shift and the subtle differences between Shakespeare's Early Modern English and today's Modern English. (Oh what a difference fifty years makes.) But as I poked into various elements of style, I realized my objection was based on a realization that any discussion of style would only add to the initial selections of Shakespeare and the King James Bible instead of offering alternatives. Fortunately, the investigation proved profitable.

I am in no way suggesting that writers should not read Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Saying that would be attempting to defend the indefensible. Basic cultural literacy demands familiarity with both. And the core claim that Shakespeare and the King James Bible created Modern English is indisputable. My objection rested solely on how the Great Vowel Shift that occurred while Shakespeare was writing tended to obscure the rhyme, meter, and, occasionally, meaning. But I soon learned that rhythm and rhyme were not the only aspects of style.

While exploring rhetorical devices, it soon became clear that Shakespeare and the King James Bible would be excellent sources for learning these advanced grammars. After all, these foundational English works are used time and time again to illustrate specific rhetorical devices. There is more to dynamic language than just cadence, after all.

And if I think that Shakespeare and the King James Bible should be lifelong studies instead of for a season, the distinction is so slight to not merit argument in this matter.

The question now becomes what Modern English works to augment this impressive canon with. Unfortunately, I now have more questions than answers.

I first turned to Poe, as he is the father of contemporary short fiction and an example of the Romanticist roots of pulp. Between Castle of Otranto and Poe's detective fiction, I had been viewing the Romantic period through rose-colored lenses. For while modern mysteries and fantasy originated during this time, so did the simplification of style that led to today's terse, transparent style, sometimes called Hemingway's even as it lacks his longer sentences. B. R. Myers pointed out that the inability to construct the long sentence is one of the leading challenges for today's style-minded writers, unlike in the period between Shakespeare and the Romanticists. Then, the fashion of long, complex sentences nested in series of successive clauses thrived in an era where beauty on the page was unencumbered by the demands of performance and oration. The Romanticists' issue with this style echoed Harrison Ford's complaint about Star Wars' script: "You can type this shit, but you can't say it." Now, thanks to 200+ years of literary fashion, the written word needs to reflect everyday speech. Reconciling the demands of the long sentence with those of the spoken word is now the fundamental challenge of the would-be stylist. And, as the current age continues to be shaped by texting, chat programs, and other social media, to learn complex language, one thing is clear:

You have to go back.

But to where and when?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Myth of Melniboné

Ever since the Canto Bight scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I've been aware of a recurring set piece in fantasy: the destruction of the paradise of the rich. But it wasn't until writing today's review of Elric: The Ruby Throne at Castalia House where I began to put this fantasy into nearly sixty years of context:
Melniboné is the sort of decadently cruel paradise that gets scourged time and again in recent fantasy, such as Red Seas Under Red Skies and even Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Mostly by writers promoting new moralities that lead inevitably toward Melniboné. Whether known as Melniboné, Omelas, or Canto Bight, this aristocratic paradise built on proletariat suffering reoccurs constantly. But the answer proposed to deal with its evil shifts over time, including the oppressed accepting a place as the new oppressors, getting away from it all, reform from within, and destruction from without. Within the context of these stories, this is framed as virtue struggling against vice. From the audience’s seat, more often these stories resemble little more than turf wars as yakuza replaces mafiosi replaces yakuza in a constant wave of rebellion that never stops to consider what to replace evil with, only who gets to push in whose eyeballs and lick clean the blood. (A scene illustrated inside The Ruby Throne.) Moorcock and Blondel avoid the hypocrisy inherent in most versions of this myth by framing it as a civil war among the forces of Chaos, with no respite in the evils inflicted on the servile. There are no righteous here, not one.
Also of note is that the epic retribution intended in each of these scenes falls considerably short, for a rogue is never a crusader and the shades of gray that cloud these tales never clarify into black and white.

It is easy to dismiss this myth of Melniboné as a mere Leftist revenge fantasy, but Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice puts the decadence of the myth of Melniboné in context. A contemporary novel to the Elric stories, You Only Live Twice finds Tiger Tanaka and James Bond discussing declining empires over sake. Tanaka says:
"Now it is a sad fact that I, and many of us in positions of authority in Japan, have formed an unsatisfactory opinion about the British people after the war. You have not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands...Further, your governments have shown themselves successively incapable of ruling and have handed over effective control of the country to the trade unions, who appear to be dedicated to the principle of doing less and less work for more money. This feather-bedding, this shirking of an honest day's work, is sapping the moral fibre of the British, a quality the world once so much admired. In its place, we now see a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers-after-pleasure--gambling at the pools and bingo, whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family and of your so-called aristocracy in the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world."
With an outsider's clarity, Tanaka describes post-war Britain in terms that match in kind to that of the Dragon Isle of Melniboné. This cements the myth of Melniboné as a myth of the decline of the British Empire and a criticism of the malaise among its people, spread by the very trade unionists who were ushering in the malaise. Again, it is common for those attempting to use the myth of Melniboné as a warning to be of the same people creating the myth of Melniboné in real life.

It should be a warning sign that "the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world" wallow nostalgically in the gossip of the doings about American nerd culture.

What Fleming doesn't explain is why a British myth of decline is so loved by the triumphalist American fantasists of the past 50 years. While I have railed against the stain that 1940 left on science fiction, time and time again I return to the 1970s as an even more pivotal and destructive period in science fiction and fantasy. And replacing the Lone Gunman with the myth of Melniboné during that time has replaced good meat with thin soy gruel.

Reclaiming quality and fun in science fiction and fantasy not only depends on Pulp Speed and telling better stories. It will also involve challenging these new myths and showing them to be as impotent, unimaginative, and boring.

It's time to gore some sacred cows.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"Tommy" By Rudyard Kipling

Last month's conversation over style brought a renewed interest in poetry to PulpRev authors and critics. Unfortunately, that meant I came back to what is a stumbling block for me. Poetry needs to be heard to be properly appreciated. Unfortunately, there is something about the schoolhouse that turns the reading of lively and playful language into rote doggerel. So I was glad to find a reading of one of Kipling's best-known barrack room ballads that not only sounded like actual speech, it also sounded like many a grousing heard standing in formation.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Long John Silver: Lady Vivian Hastings


He is a child of ink and quill, the figurehead of R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. He has lived on crimes and dreams, knows the galleons of Madeira, the sack of Maracaibo, and the buccaneer uprisings. He will mix gold and blood to seal his destiny, deep inside the lost kingdoms of the Amazon.

He is the last prate. He is the legend, Long John Silver.

--from the back cover of Long John Silver: Lady Vivian Hastings, by Xavier Dorison and Mathieu Lauffray

In 1785, Lord Byron Hastings drives his men to collapse in search of Guiana-Capac, a lost city of gold said to rival El Dorado. On the other side of the world, Lady Vivian Hastings, his wife, has taken to amusing herself with dalliances, rationalizing the trysts with claims of widowhood. But when actual word of Lord Hastings' death arrives, Lady Vivian faces penury, pregnancy, and the convent instead of a happy marriage to her paramour. Faced with the unraveling of her schemes, she tries to commandeer her brother-in-law's expedition to Guiana-Capac. For that, she needs sailors--and the help of the dreaded Long John Silver. To get her wealth and her revenge, Lady Vivian and Silver take advantage of the contract for the Neptune, the vessel bearing the expedition. For the expedition's master shall supply half the crew, and the owner of the ship the rest. So it is time to force an old Ottoman sailor to see the light of reason--or the flames of Hell. Set many years after Treasure Island, when Long John Silver stepped out of its pages into legend, Xavier Dorison and Mathieu Lauffray draw up a new web of deceit for Silver in this bande dessinée bearing his name.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Electric Duel

I recently came across "The Electric Duel" by Hugo Gernsback while trawling the internet. The science fiction community's relationship with the man who created it is a bit rocky, given Gernsback's agenda and unwillingness to pay writers on time. After reading this, I think there was more to it.

"The Electric Duel" starts as a secondhand recollection of two Italian university students settling a grudge. Rather than using pistols or small swords, they decide to use electrified poles to Airman Larry each other. The end of the duel turns out to be so shocking that the narrator then says he woke up and resolved not to eat before going to bed.

Short fiction is known for the twists and punchlines that upend a reader's understanding of the previous story. "The Electric Duel" is an example of what not to do. For the "it was all a dream" punchline robbed this nightmarish and novel conflict of its gravity and even its story. It's a cheat that, while it fits the formulas and tropes of the time, left me unsatisfied as it betrayed its initial premises.

If Gernsback selected stories like the one he wrote, it is no surprise that science fiction transitioned from a flavor of general fiction to a ghetto of genre underneath his watch. And it would not be the first--or the last--questionable decision by editors of Amazing.


Trying Out a New Toy

Trying out a new blogging toy.

Friday, April 6, 2018

"A Reader's Manifesto"

In his 2001 "A Reader's Manifesto", B. R. Meyers takes five of his contemporary writers to task over how stylish affectations destroyed clarity of thought. While most of his article consists of pointing out just how the sentence cult had poor sentences in technical detail, several of his general observations merit consideration by any student of style--if not outright warnings of future pitfalls. Below are some of Meyers' observations that resonated with me. The entire article is worth reading.

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It has become fashionable, especially among female novelists, to exploit the license of poetry while claiming exemption from poetry's rigorous standards of precision and polish.
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The decline of American prose since the 1950s is nowhere more apparent than in the decline of the long sentence. Today anything longer than two or three lines is likely to be a simple list of attributes or images.
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I doubt that any reviewer in our more literate past would have expected people to have favorite sentences from a work of prose fiction. A favorite character or scene, sure; a favorite line of dialogue, maybe; but not a favorite sentence. We have to read a great book more than once to realize how consistently good the prose is, because the first time around, and often even the second, we're too involved in the story to notice.

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Anyone who doubts the declining literacy of book reviewers need only consider how the gabbiest of all prose styles is invariably praised as "lean," "spare," even "minimalist."

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At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter's sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison's reply was "That, my dear, is called reading." Sorry, my dear Toni, but it's actually called bad writing.
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Clumsy writing begets clumsy thought, which begets even clumsier writing. The only way out is to look back to a time when authors had more to say than "I'm a Writer!"; when the novel wasn't just a 300-page caption for the photograph on the inside jacket. A reorientation toward tradition would benefit writers no less than readers. In the early twentieth century it was fashionable in Britain to claim that only a completely new style of writing could address a world undergoing an unprecedented transformation—just as the critic Sven Birkerts claimed in a recent Atlantic Unbound that only the new "aesthetic of exploratory excess" can address a world undergoing ... well, you know. For all that Georgian talk of modernity, it was T. S. Eliot, a man fascinated by the "presence" of the past, who wrote the most-innovative poetry of his time.

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The emphasis in the last is mine. Not only does Meyer reinforce canon, he offers hope for the various SFF reformers looking back to the past of Piper, Campbell, and the pulps. To go forward, look back.