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January 21, 2009

My God, there's a body in here!

James Gunn discusses the protocols of science fiction*; that is to say, the reading conventions by which readers of science fiction expect to understand works in the genre. These differ from, say, the protocols through which one understands murder mysteries or Shakespeare.

As Gunn points out, James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" represents the paradigm case.** A mystery fan has accidentally picked up Macbeth as her vacation reading material. Lady Macbeth and her husband, she decides, cannot be the guilty parties; much too obvious.

"Oh Macduff did it, all right," said the murder specialist. Hercule Poirot would have got him easily." "How did you figure it out?" I demanded. "Well," she said, "I didn't right away. At first I suspected Banquo. And then, of course, he was the second person killed. That was good right in there, that part. The person you suspect of the first murder should always be the second victim." "Is that so?" I murmured. "Oh, yes," said my informant. "They have to keep surprising you. Well, after the second murder I didn't know who the killer was for a while." "How about Malcolm and Donalbain, the King's sons?" I asked. "As I remember it, they fled right after the first murder. That looks suspicious." "Too suspicious," said the American lady. "Much too suspicious. When they flee, they're never guilty. You can count on that." "I believe," I said, "I'll have a brandy," and I summoned the waiter.

My companion leaned toward me, her eyes bright, her teacup quivering. "Do you know who discovered Duncan's body?" she demanded. I said I was sorry, but I had forgotten. "Macduff discovers it," she said, slipping into the historical present. "Then he comes running downstairs and shouts, 'Confusion has broke open the Lord's anointed temple' and 'Sacrilegious murder has made his masterpiece' and on and on like that." The good lady tapped me on the knee. "All that stuff was rehearsed," she said. "You wouldn't say a lot of stuff like that, offhand, would you--if you had found a body?" She fixed me with a glittering eye. "I--" I began. "You're right!" she said. "You wouldn't! Unless you had practiced it in advance. 'My God, there's a body in here!' is what an innocent man would say." She sat back with a confident glare.

* A fine word whose connotations are ruined in perpetuity by the Tsar's secret service.
** Anthropology's favourite along these lines is Laura Bohannon's "Shakespeare in the Bush" in which Hamlet gets a good re-read.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at January 21, 2009 05:21 AM


The prime example of this, for me, is Anne McCaffrey's novella "Weyr Search", in which F'lar is a "bronze" "dragonrider" who (along with his "wing") has left his "weyr" on "Search". We have very little idea what any of that means.

Here's a scene where F'lar and his brother F'nor go to see a man F'lar knows, L'tol:

"I am now Lytol," he said in a harsh voice.
F'lar nodded acknowledgement.
"Nemorth has a new queen." [This is F'lar speaking.]
"Jora dead?" Lytol asked concernedly..."Hath flew her?"
F'lar nodded.
Lytol grimaced bitterly. "R'gul again, huh?"

I've left out a few lines, but none of them answer the questions the little section raises: Why do F'lar and F'nor have these funny names? Most of the other characters don't. Why is L'tol now Lytol? Who or what is Nemorth, and what is a queen, in this context? Who the hell are Jora and Hath, and what does it mean that "Hath flew her", and how does R'gul (whoever he is) come into it and why is Lytol all bitter about it?

This is where you'd throw the book across the room and take up something else, except that McCaffrey has already hooked your interest with Lessa and her dawn premonition and her thirst for revenge. A science fiction reader trusts that all will be made clear in good time. (Which is not to say that there were not cases where I threw the book across the room and took up something else.)

But when you are creating an alien milieu you must make the reader plunge right into it, just as the characters must.

Posted by: Angie Schultz [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2009 03:13 AM