Phlogiston Thirty-Eight, 1994
Happy birthday to you
Squashed tomatoes and stew
Bread and butter in the gutter
Happy birthday to you.
Or perhaps I ought more properly to say:
It was twenty years ago today
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play...
Except of course it was ten years rather than twenty and Alex Heatley instead of Sergeant Pepper all of which ruins the scansion, but I'm sure you get the general drift of what I'm trying to say.
It is my proud boast that I have never had a subscription to Phlogiston, I have never paid a cent for any copy of Phlogiston and yet I have a complete collection of the magazine because I have had an article in every single issue. It happened like this.
"Will you," said Alex in a Machiavellian moment, "write something for Phlogiston?"
"OK," I said craftily. "I'll write things for you as long as you'll publish them."
"Good," said Alex, falling into my cunning trap and simultaneously springing his own. "I'll publish them as long as you continue writing them."
That was ten years ago and we have both kept our own side of the bargain ever since. I have forced him to keep Phlogiston going by the devious scheme of writing an essay every three months or so. He has forced me to keep writing an essay every three months by the devious scheme of publishing Phlogiston at regular intervals. It has now become a matter of pride. Neither one of us is going to give up first and thereby lose face. Consequently the magazine will continue to appear as long as our friendly rivalry goes on. I look forward to re-writing this essay for the fiftieth anniversary edition at which point I will be well into my eighties, Alex will be a grandfather and Phlogiston will be published as an audio/visual/olfactory multi-media laser diskette with a 3D cover holographically etched by Picasso via an online ouija board running Windows 53.3 (and the next release really will have the bugs fixed -- honest).
One of the many things I've been doing in this column over the last ten years is to be highly critical of some of the books I've been reading. However I've never really discussed the act of criticism and the criteria I tend to use to judge these pieces of writing. If you don't know my criteria in detail how can you judge my criticisms fairly? Therefore I thought I would take this opportunity to nail my colours to the mast and see if anybody salutes them. Perhaps you could regard this article as a manifesto.
I always look for four things when judging a piece of fiction. In no particular order, I look for a sense of place and time, a sense of character, the logic and believability of the plot and the language used to tell the story. It's hard to consider any of these in isolation -- they all influence each other to an enormous extent and the points of overlap are just as important as the topics themselves, if not more so. But let's try and deal with each of them in turn.
The sense of place and time is intimately related to the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief. After all, we know that all fiction is essentially a great big lie. We aren't supposed to believe it (or in it), we are just supposed to wallow in it and enjoy it. If we simply can't forget our disbelief, our knowledge of the essential unreality of what we are reading, we may as well not bother starting to read it in the first place. Anything that the writer can do to make it easier for the audience to go along with the story is obviously a good thing. Conversely, anything which makes it harder to accept things for the simple sake of the story must be a bad thing. The skill (or otherwise) with which the writer sets up the place and time of the story's events is vital.
In the story Jack Connie Willis chooses to tell a tale set in the London of World War II at the height of the blitz. By and large she evokes the atmosphere very well. She has obviously done her research very thoroughly and the intimate little details she scatters through the story evoke the time and place very well indeed. However she makes several mistakes which, for me at least, broke the spell and jerked me out of the tale far too often.
For example, she uses the American word "gotten" which is a construction that has long vanished from English speech. According to the BBC's magnificent programme The Story of English this is an archaic form dating from Elizabethan English. The British stopped using it a long time ago. The Americans, it seems, continued with it.
One of the characters in the story is supposed to come from Newcastle, but is referred to several times as a Yorkshireman. A few minutes with a map would soon have sorted this one out. In a discussion about vegetables one character refers to "rutabagas"; a word which simply does not exist outside of America and which would never under any circumstances fall from the lips of a native English speaker. (As far as I can tell, the American rutabaga is the vegetable that an English person would refer to as a swede, or possibly a turnip). Therefore I cannot really believe that this is England or that these are English people. Reality breaks into the story and the spell is broken.
All these are small points, I grant you, but it is the culmination of a lot of small points which makes up the story as a whole. The more you get wrong, the more likely it is that the reader will give up in disgust before the end of the tale is reached.
To be fair to Connie Willis, I am English by birth and she is not and so I cannot reasonably expect her to get every single nuance of an English setting correct. Also I have no doubt that the things I have pointed out would pass a large part of her reading audience by, even those who are English. A considerable number of Londoners probably do think that Newcastle really is in Yorkshire -- the myth has it that anything north of Watford isn't real anyway so who cares if you misplace a city or two? The Guardian newspaper once published a map of England from a Londoner's viewpoint. The arctic circle went through Manchester and a stagecoach service ran north from Watford where the roads turned into dirt tracks. So perhaps I do her a disservice; perhaps she misplaced her geography on purpose. Nevertheless it niggles.
The reverse is almost certainly true of course. When an English writer tries to look, sound and feel American for whatever reason, it probably all comes out wrong as well, though I am not qualified to tell.
The late Eric Frank Russell used to write a lot of quite funny short stories for Astounding in the John Campbell years and he often tried to put on an American flavour for the sake of the market. So much so in fact, that many British fans believed that he really was an American writer.
John Brunner, another British writer, sold many of his stories to American outlets and therefore they often had an American setting. Indeed, many of his books have never had a British edition at all. To me his settings feel authentic. Doubtless they do to him as well -- he is a conscientious man and would have tried his best to get it right.
However in spite of this effort, I have no doubt that both of these writers committed just as many solecisms from a true American point of view as American writers have from a British point of view.
Probably the worst example I know of getting the setting wrong is a novel called The Investigation by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. Again, the events of the story take place in London, but it is a London where a police lieutenant (a rank that does not exist in the British police force) drives around London in Buicks and Oldsmobiles (cars that are virtually never seen on London streets). All the police are armed (British police are not routinely armed) and I vaguely recall that everyone drives on the right hand side of the road as well.
There is no way that anyone could ever believe in this -- I don't care how good the story is. Too much of it is too wrong and as a direct result, nothing else in it can possibly work. I don't know the circumstances behind the production of this book. It might have been the fault of the translator rather than of Lem himself. On the other hand, perhaps he was trying to tell an alternate world story -- though if he was, he fails to give any clues and he never uses the situation for anything, so I doubt it.
The other side of the coin is admirably demonstrated by Phillip Mann's new novel A Land Fit for Heroes: Volume 1 Escape to the Wild Wood. Here we really do have an alternate world novel and the writer invokes a world that never was, but that might have been. For various reasons, the primitive forest that once covered the whole of the British Isles has never been destroyed. Therefore this forest has to be described and lived in during the events of the novel. He never sets a foot wrong. His evocation of the forest is so strong you can almost smell it. Not only is disbelief willingly suspended, belief is willingly enforced and the reality of the book is paramount. That is how the trick should be done and it makes a good yardstick against which to measure the success of other stories.
The classic evocation of time and place is, without a doubt, Robert Heinlein's novel Beyond this Horizon wherein a door dilates and the hero steps through. No more mention is made of it than this one reference and if you blink you will miss it, but the hero's casual acceptance of a door with an iris in it anchors the reader's imagination firmly in the future in which the book is set. It simply wouldn't have worked if Heinlein had drawn attention to it and spent a page and a half lecturing about the history of doors -- a time and a place must feel lived in and drawing unnecessary attention to commonplace details is a sure way to make it feel artificial and break the spell. After all, how many novels set in contemporary times do any more than say something like "He switched on the television and relaxed to watch it."? If the next few paragraphs explained what a television was we'd give up in disgust. Why should SF be any different?
John Campbell once remarked that the type of stories he wanted were stories that the characters in them could conceivably read without getting turned off by the level of unnecessary detail; that it to say he wanted contemporary stories of the future (and that is not an oxymoron).
You can't be too hard on the writer though. It would not be fair to condemn stories set on the canals of Mars if the stories were written prior to the gathering of the evidence that refuted the existence of the canals. A critic is not allowed the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Nevertheless it pays to examine the details closely. If you ever get hold of a first edition of Larry Niven's Ringworld hang on to it -- his sense of place was so dislocated that he had the Earth revolving back to front so that the sun rose in the west and set in the east. This bug has been fixed in all subsequent printings!
A particularly science fictional problem is to make places that nobody currently alive has ever visited seem real; or even to make places that simply don't exist seem real. If you set your story on a planet of Alpha Centauri or within the event horizon of a black hole or in a wormhole between universes you face a much more difficult task. Or perhaps it is an easier task. After all, nobody is going to criticise your geography (Newfortress could easily be in Eboracumshire -- who could deny it?) In such a situation, all you can ask yourself is how consistent the whole thing seems to be and also how well described it is. This latter is particularly important the more outré the place is. I found Larry Niven's The Smoke Ring quite unreadable because the descriptions of the ring were so vague and woolly that I was simply unable to picture it, and that rendered much of the action of the story incomprehensible. With closer attention to the sense of place the story would have been a lot stronger.
A sense of time is just as important as (and closely related to) a sense of place. Despite my carping about the details of Connie Willis' story Jack, she really has done a magnificent job of evoking the time in which the story is set. The past and the present are always a dangerous time for a story because we know so much about those eras. The future is a lot safer because we don't know anything about it yet. But wherever and whenever a story is set, it is important that the place and time feel lived in.
The drama of a story hangs most of all on the characters who act it out. If they don't work, neither will the story. If they are boring and dull, we simply won't be interested in them. Neither will we care about them if they never seem to come alive at all.
Characterisation is very difficult. What makes a character? The only clues are the physical descriptions (assuming the author describes them -- Heinlein, for example, virtually never describes any of his characters except in the sketchiest of outlines), the thoughts and feelings the character expresses and the words that are spoken. How well do these add up to a whole person? Indeed, how well do they add up to a whole alien being? Again SF is in a unique position in that the characters may not even be human. Nevertheless, they have to be believable. One of the admitted high spots of SF characterisation was the Martian Tweel in Stanley G. Weinbaum's short story A Martian Odyssey. Tweel was utterly alien and utterly incomprehensible. There was no doubt that he (for want of a better pronoun) followed his own obscure instincts and motivations. There were good reasons for the bizarre actions the Earthmen observed. After all, Tweel was a sentient, thinking being. But we never do find out what those reasons are even though we can be absolutely certain that they do exist. With this story, Weinbaum made SF grow up as literature. There is no doubt that it is flawed in many areas, but the character of the Martian shines through. You don't have to be human to be memorable. After this story it was no longer possible to claim (as many did) that SF's special literary concerns absolved it from the necessity to follow the structures and guidelines that applied to more mundane literary forms.
Making a character believable and alive requires a sense of drama and a knowledge of the conventions. Nobody is ever going to believe in a villain who twirls his moustachios and proclaims "Har, har me proud beauty," as he ties the heroine to the interstellar train lines. I think what I'm trying to say here is that clichéd behaviour is anathema to good characterisation.
The well-drawn people from stories we love stay with us long after the details of the stories themselves have evaporated. I remember little or nothing about the book Tom Sawyer, but the character of Tom is as alive in my head now as he was thirty or more years ago when I first read the book.
It is important to distinguish between character and caricature. Beginning writers often try to give their characters a "funny hat" to try and make them stand out from the crowd -- a stutter or a nervous tic, an affected way of lighting a cigarette or drinking a drink. These are merely labels, a "kick me" sign that hangs around the neck and that adds nothing to the person. What is always much more effective is to let the drama speak for itself, to let the actions and the motivations for those actions draw the lines of the person.
It applies just as much to a character like Kimball Kinnison as it does to one like Winston Smith. It is a measure of just how much better a writer George Orwell was than E. E. Smith that Winston is that much more believable. Kinnison was so much larger than life, so heroic, so clean living, so fearless and so flawless that he came across as a cartoon painted in primary colours. Had Doc Smith made him more inward looking, had his tragedies affected him more and his triumphs moulded him more, had his idealism been touched with selfishness (and his life with mundanity like mortgages and income tax) he might have come across as more believable.
Yet the self-same criticisms can be laid at the door of Edgar Rice Burroughs and still, to me, John Carter and Tarzan are eminently alive and believable even though I am perfectly well aware of the literary faults and technical shortcomings of the stories. So I contradict myself? Very well, as Walt Whitman said, I am large. I contain multitudes. Sue me.
When you get right down to it, this can become terribly subjective -- does it work as drama for you? Two actors can recite the same words and one may convince, another may not. Or maybe both will convince in different ways. Shakespeare put few if any stage directions or discussions of character or even physical appearance in his plays (about the only stage direction I know of is the famous "Exit, pursued by a bear" which for some odd reason always makes me laugh) and there have been many classic interpretations of the character of Hamlet (for instance), all of them completely different, all of them equally valid, and all of them using exactly the same words. Perhaps the value of a character resides not in the words the person speaks, but in the things surrounding that dialogue.
The plot of a story is central to how well it will be received. There are people who claim that SF has a special place in literature. Because it is a "literature of ideas" it has a special dispensation. Idea is all and plot, characterisation and setting (and sometimes language too) are subservient to the central idea or theme. As always there is some truth in these arguments but too rigorous an application of them leads to the sterile "wiring diagram" stories that Astounding (later Analog) was often accused of publishing. This sort of thing often turns a story into little more than a mildly sugar-coated lecture and I sometimes think that writers of these kinds of things would do better to write essays than to try and write fiction. I once claimed that I did not like James Hogan's books because "the words get in the way of the story" which is just a smart-arse way of saying the same thing. If all you want to do is explore the implications of a technological gimmick or theme then an essay is probably by far the best medium.
That is not to say that technological gimmicks don't have their place. Of course they do -- it is just a matter of finding the right place. Bob Shaw invented one of the few truly original science fictional concepts when he came up with the idea of slow glass -- glass that slowed down light to such an extent that it literally took years to crawl from one side of the pane to another so that when you looked into it you saw scenes that had taken place outside the glass years ago and probably far away. He thought of slow glass many years before he first wrote about it. He felt that he needed just the right plot to utilise the device properly and over the years he considered and discarded dozens of stories that didn't quite seem to fit. Eventually he came up with what seemed to him like the perfect plot and he wrote Light of Other Days which later formed part of his novel Other Days, Other Eyes. The emotional impact of the story was amazing and it walked away with every prize in sight. If you want to be mercenary, he has probably earned more from that one story than from all his other stories put together. All because the plot was just right. With a different plot, with a flawed vehicle to carry it, people would probably have said "Oh yes, nice idea, next story" and the impact would have been much less. It would have sunk into the oblivion of a zillion other nice stories. But with the right plot to carry the gimmick, it was unbeatable.
Despite these caveats there is no doubt that a science fictional plot is a very special thing a little divorced from a "mundane" plot. Galaxy magazine used to have an advert on the last page which consisted of an extract from a cowboy story. The characters rode up on horses and their six guns roared, bullets flew and the bad guys bit the dust. Underneath this little extract was another where the characters rode up on flying saucers and their ray guns and blasters roared and the bad guys breathed vacuum. "You'll never see it in Galaxy" the advert said.
The point was, of course, that flying saucers, ray guns and blasters do not of themselves make a story science fiction. If it could equally well be a western, then it might as well be a western. The things that prop up the plot are not the whole plot, they are only window dressing and Galaxy claimed (untruthfully) that it would not publish such artificial science fiction stories.
James Blish used to refer to this sort of thing as the "call a rabbit a smeerp" phenomenon. They look like rabbits, they act like rabbits, but if you call them smeerps instead then does that make it SF? He thought not, and I agree with him.
So examine the plot details closely. Is it a smeerp or not?
Of course the basic plot is almost always going to be a smeerp. It is what you do with that smeerp after you first conceive it that counts. For example, few people would deny that Alfred Bester's magnificent Tiger, Tiger is one of the best SF novels ever written and yet the plot, as Bester has admitted many times, is a direct steal from Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. That could so easily make it a smeerp. However Bester was completely in control and knew exactly what he was doing -- none of the historical smeerp-like trapping of the source are carried forward and what Bester does with the implications and ramifications of the basic idea turn it into a true SF novel, about as far removed from a smeerp as it could possibly be.
How original is the plot? The individual plot elements are unlikely to be very original -- one space journey is much like another, one love affair like all the ones that have gone before, one destroyed universe much like the next. How potentially boring and dull. But nevertheless if these elements are put together with originality and insight they really will begin to function at a meaningful level. If you cook your stews using only tins from the stock cupboard you will end up with bland and boring food. But if you use fresh ingredients with a modicum of skill and imagination you will make a tasty dish fit for a banquet. The more a story is plotted using elements straight from the stock cupboard the less likely it is to enthral and compel, the more likely it is to be a yet another smeerp.
You should also consider whether or not the plot makes sense in its own terms. Does it contain contradictions or paradoxes that invalidate it? Damon Knight showed that when you straighten out the narrative line of A.E. van Vogt's The World of Null A, the events it describes simply could not have taken place because they abound in mutually incompatible events.
And then we have language -- the words themselves. Subsumed in this is the whole question of style. After all the words that are chosen to tell the tale define the style of the telling. A sentence by Jack Vance is quite different from a sentence by Ray Bradbury and a sentence by Terry Pratchett differs from both of them even if all three write a sentence on the same subject.
Everyone has their own pet hates and mine are the words "diapers", "panty-hose" and "math". Go ahead -- call me prejudiced. I think it is because I grew up with "nappies", "tights" and "maths", and a sentence such as "I can't wait until she comes out of diapers and gets into panty-hose but I can't work out how long that might take because the math is too difficult." makes me grind my teeth. To me it is the literary equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. Fortunately diapers and panty-hose occur infrequently in SF stories, but you wouldn't believe how many times I wish for maths!
James Blish had words to say on this subject as well. His particular fetish was what he called "said-bookism" -- the use of alternatives to the simple word "said". He complained about characters that swore, spat, hissed, roared, ejaculated, whispered, frowned, winked, cried, screamed etc. Some of these are actions rather than descriptions of tones of voice. Nevertheless they are often applied to the spoken word and if used too frequently they invoke images of characters with vast vocal ranges who never simply "say" anything but instead emote like Wagnerian messy-sopranos. Ever since Blish pointed it out to me I have shared his dislike of the phenomenon and these days I like my dialogue simple.
Bob Shaw once claim-ed to have read the sentence: "Rat,' he hissed." in a story by (I think) Ken Bulmer. He enjoyed it because he wanted to know how anybody could hiss a word without a single sibilant in it. If anyone can give me demonstration, I would love to hear it. Prizes are on offer.
It is rare these days to come across books that use the language badly in a technical sense. Most publishing houses simply won't countenance illiterate prose, though the odd bit of bad grammar does slip though the copy editing net sometimes. More often the irritations come from poor word choices, synonyms that aren't quite synonymous enough, clumsy constructions and opaque language.
A sensitivity to style often comes from reading a piece of prose out loud. Don't be shy -- give it a go. See if the words flow and if they can be said together without slipping and sliding across one another. I once gave a talk which involved reading extracts from several novels and after it was over someone approached me and commented that he had never realised what a lousy stylist E. E. Smith was before.
If you read the prose of Jack Vance or Cordwainer Smith or any other of SF's great stylists, it sings and flows like magic. It is hard to say what makes a great stylist, what forms a good choice of words, but you always know it when you see it or hear it.
After examining a story under these headings, after taking it apart piece by piece, you have to put it together again and look at it as a whole. What was the writer trying to say and was it successful or not? What is the work about -- not the details of the plotline but the sub-text, the theme. 1984 is not about Winston Smith's love life and rebellion, it is about politics and power which is why we still read it a decade after the year in which it is supposedly set.
More often than not the piece isn't about anything at all. I don't condemn a story because it is nothing but a simple story -- far from it. Don't ever criticise the simple (simple? HAH!) art of story telling. But if there is a sub-text it needs emphasising and examining to see just how successful the writer was in stating it and whether or not conclusions are to be drawn from the theme.
The most important question of all is, of course, did you enjoy the story? No matter whether the answer is yes or no, you must produce reasons. After all, if you cannot say why it worked (or didn't work) how do you really know if you enjoyed it or not? Unthinking acceptance or rejection is just plain silly. (The mainstream writer David Lodge has written several novels peopled by university lecturers in English Literature. He pokes a lot of fun at academic pretensions and, on occasion, his characters point out that whether or not the reader enjoys a piece of prose has nothing whatsoever to do with criticising it!)
And when you have done all of these things, you may consider sitting down and writing a review or a criticism. How do you put it all together? In an anthology of reviews and criticisms called Picked Up Pieces, John Updike gave some advice on this point.
Firstly, he said, try to understand what the writer was attempting to do and do not cast blame for not achieving what was not attempted. After all, both Peter Benchley and Herman Melville wrote a book about a man hunting a great white denizen of the deep, but it would be most unfair to condemn Jaws because it lacks the depth and subtlety of Moby Dick. Such things are simply not there, so don't go looking for them and don't complain that they are not to be found. Considered in its own right as a simple thriller, Jaws is a perfectly good book.
Updike goes on to suggest that the flavour of the book is best conveyed by quoting passages from it. I'm not sure I go along with this unless it is used to illustrate a point about one of the specific areas of analysis I discussed above. Quoting for the sake of quoting seems unnecessary to me -- but I'm not going to be dogmatic about it.
He also suggests that plot summaries be kept to a minimum, a point with which I whole-heartedly agree. Nothing is worse than reviewing a book by simply listing the plot elements and describing what happens. Apart from anything else it often spoils the book for a reader (if you know what is going to happen in advance, why bother reading in the first place?) It takes no skill to say "and then the hero..." and it adds little or nothing to a discussion of the book.
Finally, says Updike, if you judge the book is deficient in some aspect, cite a successful example, preferably from the author's own works, but failing that, from the work of some other writer if you feel it illuminates the problem.
To these I would add a last command -- keep it short. Samuel Delaney wrote an entire book of criticism about one short story by Thomas Disch. That is simply overkill.
I don't claim that the things I discuss in this article form the only approach to writing a critique, or even that the factors I have concentrated on are the only possible ones. However they are the ones that work for me, the ones I consider to be important because they directly affect my feelings about the story I am reading.
Now I would like to share with you a final point that only recently occurred to me. You should consider also the physical nature of the pages themselves. Modern books often seem to be printed very cheaply and sometimes the ink rubs off on the fingers, necessitating a trip to the bathroom to wash the hands after reading. Lately I have noticed that after washing my hands I have to wash the soap as well because it looks so grey and scummy covered in the grime it has removed from my hands. Modern publishing practices have added a whole new meaning to the phrase "dirty book".
So -- this is Phlogiston and the latest Bearded Triffid and to paraphrase A. A. Milne, now we are ten. Therefore will you all please picture suitable animals in your head and sing along with me:
Hippo birdie two ewe
Hippo birdie two ewe
Hippo birdie, hippo birdie
Hippo birdie two ewe.
Well done, Alex.