Sunday, April 23, 2006

Second Person Narratives

At the moment I’m writing an essay entitled Language and Occupation as part of a dry-run for my AS level revision (translation: I was looking for somewhere to start revising English, which is impossible, so I defaulted to doing my homework…) and just before I got to the interesting bit about J.L Austin’s speech acts I got bored and wandered off into blogland.

Charles Stross’ latest piece clubbed me over the eyes – he was talking about something that was very close to the rambling discussion of speech acts I was trying to bolt together. He discusses how the first, second and third tenses are used (or aren’t used) in fiction. Generally we use the third tense (he/she/it) when writing about something. If you take it that reading is the closest thing to telepathy we’ve managed to develop: Stross describes the third person version of telepathy as

…an omniscient telepathy cam weaving among the actors like an attention-deficient mosquito, landing to suck a moment's thought here then buzzing across the room to slurp a transient meme there…

Generally speaking the use of the second person is rarely used in fiction (one exception that comes to mind because I reread it recently is Strata by Terry Pratchett. In Strata Pratchett uses second person imperatives “Consider Kin Arad, now inspecting outline designs for the TY-archipelago…”). Stross proposes to do just that though. He explores what the concept of blogging may have meant for someone ten or more years ago:

Obviously, you know what it feels like to read a blog. But cast your mind back in time ten years —, no, make that fifteen — to a time before you encountered the net and before blogs had been invented. Try to imagine yourself as an aspiring SF writer who's read about this internet thingy, and about some experimental hypertext tools (from Xanadu and Hypercard to Hyper-G by way of Gopherspace and WAIS, with a side-order of this funny compromise thing some guy with a double-barreled name is tinkering with at CERN). As this aspiring SF writer, you've decided to write a novel set in 2006, a novel in which this internet thingy your tech-head friends keep gassing about in the pub is everywhere. And you start trying to work out just what that might mean. You've heard about email, and that intuitively makes sense. You've possibly heard of AOL or CompuServe or CIX and, if you move in academic circles, of USENET, and the idea of a bunch of people talking on a multi-user bulletin board isn't that strange. And there'll be some kind of easy-to-use hypertext system that lets ordinary folks add data to it.

But what are the ordinary folks going to add to this hypothetical global hypertext thing? What are they going to talk about? How are they going to use it and what's it going to feel like?

Asking these questions, your traditional, instinctive, bad-SF approach is to explain everything in nauseating detail: "Johnny sat down at the HyperTerminal and typed in his password. The computer verified his identity and let him in, throwing up a picture of the InterWeb. Johnny thought for a moment: where do I want to go today? The answer was obvious. Like all other communications media, the InterWeb had only really taken off once it was adopted by the porn industry as a replacement for Betamax tapes; now, finding anything useful in it was like walking down a strip mall full of flashing red neon signs and questionable window displays. But Johnny wanted to research his dissertation topic. So he typed in the address locator of Google, a popular information clearinghouse that scanned the rest of the InterWeb daily and indexed it, allowing keyword searches." (And so on.)

A more sophisticated approach that increasingly became the norm in more literary SF over the past couple of decades is to show. "Johnny picked up his laptop and logged on. Windows opened on its desktop, pop-up ads flashing garish offers of hardcore p=orn at him. Annoyed, he brought up a browser and headed to a search site to continue researching his dissertation." This mode is a whole lot less clunky, but it's got a crippling handicap: the author has to make the leap from technical description ("typing his password into the HyperTerminal's keyboard") to action ("he logged in") in a manner that is comprehensible to the reader. Because, let's face it, if you've never seen a computer the second version of this story is a whole lot less accessible than the first. Early SF was seen by its authors and their self-ghettoized readers as a didactic, educational medium exposing them to new ideas about technology and the way we might live. You could show the first version to a 1930s reader and they'd be able to follow the plot: the second remix is incomprehensible, because the referents for the action simply aren't there ("laptop", "logged on", "browser", "search site").

Sorry for piling that down there but it is an excellent comment on how SF tends to be written, especially the long, protracted infodumps that are necessary to introduce the ignorant reader to a new concept.

One of the best authors I know when it comes to not making this mistake is Ken MacLeod. In his early books (Stone Canal and The Star Fraction from the Fall Revolution sequence) MacLeod casually drops references to both advanced technology, and references to events that have taken place in real history – the result is a book which merits rereading after a couple of months or several hours of googling and Wikipedia exploring, but its density and originality are extraordinary.

Well I gotta get back to my essay. Such is life.

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