Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Science Fiction, Memoir, and Description

Though most contemporary editors encourage new fiction writers to avoid as much description as possible, Patricia Hampl’s “The Dark Art of Description” argues that description is alive and well in memoir.
            While novels stress the “gripping narrative arc,” memoir prefers a “photographic” over a “cinematic” form of writing.  Though according to some writers, description is less important today than in the past (the claim is that we know enough of what things look like with the prevalence of visual media, and thus we need only a quick reference), memoir is less about the object or place described than the consciousness of the writer and how that perspective works “in harmony” with the material.  The writing style thus becomes crucial in providing such an “articulation of perception.” 
            While science fiction has the same popular-genre requirements of fast narrative, it’s similar to memoir because of its necessary description of other-worldly or fantastic settings, of immense objects of technology, of galactic powers and sublime vistas.  If we use the described object in memoir to depict the self of the writer, in science fiction we use a story-character’s perception, or the collective perception of humanity itself (following the idea in SF of the human race as main character), to give an interpreting view of the scene in order to create it for the reader. 
Though we often get standard objective “telling” of fantastic landscapes and constructions, given the requirements of fast pacing or narrative streamlining, the character’s comments on how the scene is depicted can tell us as much about the character or human assumptions as contribute to making a scene appear real, a scene that might be so alien it would be hard to describe—which in turn is then suggested by the emotional or intellectual reactions of the perceivers.  The quality of otherness is thus created as much by the conceptualizing of the means of perception, of the human medium in the description, as by the resulting object itself. 
            Indeed, in science fiction, the topic of perceiving the new—the alien, the other—is often objectified, and it thus becomes one of the common topics of the genre (like love in romance or murder in mystery).  We get the scene or the object presented but we also get the means of presenting it, the frame as well as what’s inside it.  The supposedly un-presentable is described by depicting the method of its presentation.  And thus in SF, telling is showing.
            For example, in Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, a child has “dreams” of distant worlds that are telepathic visions of actual places (“actual” in the story but imagined by the author):   

In the mornings they would question him, and he would tell what he could remember.  Sometimes his words stumbled and failed as he tried to describe scenes which were clearly not only beyond all his experience, but beyond the imagination of man.  They would prompt him with new words, show him pictures and colors to refresh his memory, then build up what pattern they could from his replies.  Often they could make nothing of the result, though it seemed that in Jeff’s own mind his dream worlds were perfectly plain and sharp.  He was simply unable to communicate them to his parents.  Yet some were clear enough. . . . (170) 

Interestingly the book goes on to give those views the child sees; we do get descriptions of them.  But the quoted paragraph makes sure we realize our perception of the phenomenon is dependent on a groping ability to conceptualize them.  They’ve been made more strange, more “alien,” by the discussion about how hard describing them really is—that the boy’s words “stumbled,” that the scenes were beyond the “imagination of man,” that new words were needed, and that the people listening could not understand.  We still get the alien vista, but we also get an alienating frame put around, or before, the description that “tells” us how difficult it is to “show” it to us.  So, again, the telling becomes a means of showing. 
            Like memoir, science fiction because of its often “alien” subject matter uses a similar emphasis on the perceptual medium itself, the consciousness of the perceiver, the means of assimilation, the moves made in trying to describe.  For all its current presence in cinema, prose SF still has its roots in this “photographic” form of writing.  We get the picture, but we also get the camera that took the picture too.  Or, in the case of a person’s description, we hear “Let me tell you what I saw,” as much as we here “Let me show you.” 
            (Other examples—from Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars, and China Mieville’s Embassytown—will be examined for the same methods in a paper I hope to present at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts next March in Orlando, Florida.  And if anyone has other examples to point out in SF, or comments to make about this style of writing, please give them below.) 

Clarke, Arthur C.  Childhood’s End.  1953.  New York, Ballantine, 1974.
Hampl, Patricia.  “The Dark Art of Description.”  The Iowa Review.  38: 1 (Spring 2008), 74-82. 

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