Sunday, January 9, 2011

Memory and Information Control

Memory: the facts of the past colored by present perspective.  In fiction, the memories of our characters not only reveal their backgrounds, but also the ways their personalities have evolved over time.  Yet we must take care in the timing of memories in the narrative.  By controlling when individual memories appear in the narrative, we directly affect how our readers perceive the course of a story.

The Problem of Conveying Information in Science Fiction
Our readings this week are all stories built on the foundation of memory, and you'll find that nearly all the stories we'll be reading throughout the course depend upon memory as a key component of character development.  But this shouldn't be surprising - as human beings, we are products of every event we've experienced in the past.  It would be nearly impossible to write a believable character who doesn't reflect at least somewhat upon the past.  Whether it provides a quick and pleasant thought of home or a series of devastating flashbacks to terrible times, a well-developed story must give at least a hint of the kind of past the main characters have experienced.

Yet there's a balance to be struck in the information we provide the reader.  Because a science fiction story may be set in the future, or even set in an alternative to our present reality, the reader doesn't have as much of a feel for the setting.  Some authors try to overcompensate through exposition.  They dump information on the reader in the opening pages, providing long histories of how the present society came into existence.  Before meeting the protagonist or learning the conflict, the reader must first go through long histories of all that has passed beforehand.  C.J. Cherryh's novel Foreigner begins with such a history, giving vignettes of how the first human visitors to an alien world came to be stranded and then forced to compromise with the original society there.  Among the many fantasy tropes begun by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, one of the most ubiquitous remains the "map of the world" seen in the opening pages of many works of science fiction and fantasy.  Cherryh's vignettes and Tolkien's maps serve to give the reader perspective before the opening of the story, and both authors succeed.

Unfortunately, many imitators of these styles fail to match the poignancy of Cherryh's opening stories, or their maps are so detailed that we can't follow them in the same way that we track Frodo's progress across Middle Earth.  And this is a problem endemic to speculative fiction.  As authors, we want our readers to know exactly what we're talking about as we write each scene.  But for worlds that aren't based on our current reality, this requires readers to absorb overwhelming quantities of facts and figures.  It isn't enough that our plucky hero is from a small backwater planet - we need to see Luke flying his landspeeder across the vast and lonely deserts so we aren't surprised when he hops behind the controls of an X-wing to fly a run against the Death Star.

In movies, the initial information dump isn't as much of a risk as it is for fiction.  The visual effects of the movie can hold the viewer's attention while a narrator gives a few words about the prior history of this place (a la Star Wars).  Or the texture of the reality can unfold through visual effects taking place alongside the action and dialogue.  But in fiction, every detail requires space on the page.  Too much exposition in the opening pages can stop the forward momentum necessary to hold a readers attention.

Using Memories to Balance the Flow of Information
I recommend starting your stories in medias res (Latin for "into the middle of things").  You'll note that most of our readings for the semester begin this way, jumping right into the action before we even know where or when the story takes place.  But this doesn't reduce the need to provide information to the reader - we must still center our readers in the reality of the story.  Relating the memories of our characters is a very effective way to accomplish this.

The stories for our first week are chosen to illustrate these techniques.  You'll find that plot of Bradbury's "The Other Shoe" is driven almost entirely by how African Americans living on Mars remember the lives they left behind on Earth - note as you read how the individual attitudes of different characters vary by their individual memories.  The actions of the characters here depend on how the individuals reinterpret their memories as they take in new information.  "Kaleidoscope," in contrast, features astronauts who have no real control over their ultimate fate - in this story, the timbre of memory affects the individual perspectives of the astronauts as they individually meet their ends.  But in both stories, we start with "empty" characters - we know little of where they're from or who they are.  It's only gradually that we come to know them through the recollections of the two protagonists.

The other two short stories for this week depend on real twists at the end.  As you read "If There Were No Benny Cemoli" and "The Women Men Don't See," consider how quickly we learn about the realities inhabited by these characters.   In "Cemoli," Peter Hood recollects for us the details of Earth's old newspapers and the realities of what atmospheric ionization had done to radio and television - it isn't until later, though, that we understand how the "facts" may have little to do with the reality he faces in trying to restore civilization to Earth.  Meanwhile, our "man's man" protagonist in "The Women" misses the the mark in gauging his female traveling companions.  We only see snippets of his memories, but they're enough to establish his attitudes toward women.  He becomes a very realistic character even as he utterly fails to grasp the reality of the situation.

Yet our best example this week comes with Vonnegut's Mother Night.  Our novel for this first week is written with the structure of a memoir - our protagonist, Howard Campbell, is writing about his life while locked behind bars in an Israeli prison.  Because of this, the story evolves through many layers of memory - there are Campbell's memories from before and during World War II, his memories of the events leading to his arrest and extradition to Israel, and even his recollections of how he's been treated during his current stay in prison. As you read, pay attention to the identities of our characters.  How does Vonnegut make Campbell's wife Helga real for us?  Compare this to how (and when) the narrative reveals the details of Helga's younger sister Resi Noth.  Note that the narrator already knows nearly all the facts before he begins telling the story - Campbell chooses to include us on his journey by withholding some facts from us until later in the story, but then he also hints at some of the surprises to come in order to maintain tension.  Watch how the character of George Kraft is used in foreshadowing the tragedy to come.

Related Links:
Point of View in Fiction
Exposition - the "Info Dump" of Science Fiction
Tolkien Tradition of Fantasy - How Middle Earth Lives On
Kurt Vonnegut and Mother Night
Ray Bradbury, "Kaleidoscope," and "The Other Shoe"
Philip K. Dick and "If There Were No Benny Cemoli" 
James Tiptree, Jr., and "The Women Men Don't See" 

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