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From: Peter Stephenson <pws@ibmth.df.unipi.it>
Subject: Re: (urth) Greetings and a thought
Date: Sat, 20 Mar 1999 17:41:54 +0100

"Clifford Drane" wrote:
> One topic I did want to touch on is a point made by a literary critic 
> (I've forgotten who) about The Lord of the Rings. He was very critical 
> of the mythmaking devices Tolkien used, ie. names and places mentioned 
> only once or in passing and in the context of that name/place being 
> extraordinarily important to Middle Earth.
> ...
> In TBOTNS there seems to be substance behind the device.

This is an interesting point, and it seems to me that the critic in
question has largely got the wrong end of the stick about worldmaking in
fantastic literature in general --- but I agree that the case of BotNS is
different from Tolkien, and I'll come to that.  I'm building a substantial
counterargument on one sentence describing the position at second-hand, and
I apologise if this seems excessive, but I'd like to put my own views
anyway so have to run the risk I'm attacking a straw man.  Fans of close
reading can skip this posting altogether.

First, is your man... er, person... implying that a key piece of background
referred to in an novel always needs to be explained in detail?  It seems
to me that this is a rather heavy restriction on how one treats characters.
If the reader is an observer, the characters will always know more; and
some of what they say may be both crucial and not fully explained.  Not
only is this good writing, but actually pretty much inevitable in the way
most twentieth century writers (Wolfe, though not necessarily Tolkien in
this instance, included) have gone about their business describing a
complex world in which not all information is available.

Now, maybe what I've just said would be conceeded, but your person would
then have to draw a distinction between important events on which everybody
agrees (general background) and those on which there can be doubt (specific
background).  This is where I think fantastic literature is intrinsically
different.  There *is* no general background common to the reader and the
characters, and the lack of one is the key feature of this genre of
writing.  It seems to me the introduction of such a background by
indirection (`it's been like that since the Great Tea Trolley Disaster of
'67') can add greatly to the sense of an unknown world, with rules and
histories, which we can never know fully, different from ours; and that the
sense of difference thus created is essential to the way we perceive the
new world from a distance; and that, in turn, this perception from a
distance is one of the most important features of fantastic writing,
putting our own everyday world into a wider perspective and hence showing
the human condition in a way which mainstream literature is unable to.  If
that sounds a rather bold claim, that's because it is.

In a book of this kind, explaining everything --- even apparently vital
background --- is in any case just not on.  Some of Tolkien's imitators are
poor exactly because they tried that, and the result is at once ridiculous
and immensely dull; it sounds like a biblical list of `X begat Y'.  If
that's not what we're being asked for, how much history are we expected to
produce?  You can only decide by context, like so much in writing.  (If the
argument is just about such contexts in Tolkien, my opposition becomes
rather more muted; I enjoy The Lord of the Rings but I don't think of
Tolkien as a great writer.)

Directness works better in some forms of `ordinary' SF, and particularly
near-future SF, when there is often more in common between the reader and
the characters, including more understanding of the way the universe works,
but indirection about points of substance is still often necessary.
Suppose a writer was expected to fill in background of a malevolent alien
race whenever its history was alluded to by one of its members (`We must
destroy the humans because of the VlaHarGurk, whose history I will now
relate' --- this is a caricature, of course); it can largely destroy the
effect of bringing in an alien culture.

Offhand, unexplained mentions of something vital are very good at creating
a nameless horror, as in Lovecraft: there is a sudden, crushing feeling
that everything you thought you knew is missing something that would change
the way you thought about it.  Furthermore, more general ignorance, as
against indirect reference, is absolutely vital in a lot of SF.  Why are
these apparently intelligent blob-like things attacking us?  You don't
know, in this non-existent case, any more than you know why Joseph K. is
being tried.  I realise I've failed to draw a proper distinction between
passing mentions, and repeated mentions which still carry little
information; but a good writer knows the latter can easily become tiresome
to readers unless, as in Kafka's case, the very existence of the
superficial workings is itself obscuring the inner substance --- think of
the Parable of the Gatekeeper in The Trial.

In a well-crafted world created in this fashion, the occasional piece of
directness can be even more startling.  There's a sentence in A Wizard of
Earthsea which stuck in my head, not quoted exactly: `There is a wall of
stones at a place along the bourne, and there a man's spirit goes at
death'.  This seems a pretty crucial piece of information about the way
things work, but if it were accompanied by a complete guide to the
underworld (more a London Underground Map than a Book of Coming Forth by
Day), as the hypothesis is that it should, the effect would be wrecked.

I've been slow coming to Wolfe, and why I agree that his position is
different from Tolkien: and that is because so much information, of all
kinds, in all his works, is carried by passing mentions.  It is a prime
source of his incredible subtlety, and goes far beyond the ordinary
confines of fantastic literature.  I would go further and say that the
distinction between specific and general background is blurred: you don't
know what the rules are, but the characters themselves are caught up in a
strange world which they can't properly describe, either.

For example, Severian and the office of the Autarch: the latter is a key
part of Urth's history, and also a key part of Severian's; both aspects are
introduced in the same gradual way, by occasional references which may not
even be remotely correct.

A more specific example in the Eyeflash Miracles, which I was only reminded
about by William H. Ansley's excellent articles: the nameless government in
Niagara, from which Little Tib's father comes.  Do we need to hear `The
government of the country, now known as the People's Republic of America,
was transferred to Niagara in ...'?  I strongly suggest not.

So I beg to oppose.

(As Flan O'Brien once put it:-

The Plain People of Ireland:  Another day and no jokes.
Myself:  Yes, curse you.)


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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