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[books] Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Last night, I finished reading Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (1980) [ Powell’s ]. Brighter minds than mine have spent much thought on this book over the years [ Wikipedia | Riddley Walker Annotations ], but oddly enough I still have a few things to say.

This book could be a type specimen in the argument Daniel Abraham was exploring just yesterday about the dynamic tension between sentence and story. One could write a perfectly decent bit of post-apocalyptic science fiction about the recovery of lost knowledge and the dynamics of social and technological power using the plot, characters and setting of Riddley Walker. That’s not what Hoban did. He wrote a puzzle story, where the puzzle is in the framing, phrasing and vocabulary of the story — a technique for example much deployed by Gene Wolfe among others, but Hoban takes it to a grand scale. That layer of linguistic manipulation completely shifts the book away from the underlying story it tells and pushes it into another sphere entirely.

Riddley Walker is written in a mode very reminiscent of eye dialect. In point of fact, this is not eye dialect, in the sense that the narrator is explicitly writing things down rather than having his speech quoted. He lives in a world that barely has orthography, let alone dictionaries. Spelling is remarkably eccentric, yet largely phonetic. The sense of the culture that comes through Riddley’s word choices, and the reader’s efforts at comprehending how the meanings have shifted, is a huge part of the experience of the book.

Science fiction writers especially use linguistic evolution as a story telling and worldbuilding tool, but most of us don’t do it with every damned word on the page. This is impressive, and challenging. To say the least.

One thing I struggled with was sorting out which of the linguistic transformations were literary devices of the book, and which were my own misunderstandings of the substrate of English culture embedded in the story. For example, it took me quite a while to recognize that “Pry Mincer” was a corruption of “Prime Minister”, and I didn’t grok the connection between the Eusa shows and Punch-and-Judy until that was explicitly stated fairly well along in the book. This is not a complaint, just an observation. And in fact, it’s that selfsame lexical detective work that makes the book both so much fun and so much work. Sorting out the subtle expansions of meaning in the words “hevvy” (“heavy”) and “foller” (“follow”), for example, occupied me considerably.

My best advice, swiped from tillyjane (a/k/a my mom) is to read it aloud. Much like Huckleberry Finn, this book makes more sense that way. Though I never did figure out what “sarvering” meant in the phrase “sarvering gallack seas and flaming nebyul eye”. (The Internet has since informed me that “sarvering” means “sovereign”, but I’m not sure that makes much sense, either.)

At any rate, you will likely either love or hate this book. I don’t see much room for ambiguity. Enjoy.

[books] More readings in the original Klingon

Shortly after finishing (and blogging about) The Log of the Flying Fish: A Story of Aerial and Submarine Peril and Adventure by Harry Collingwood [ Project Gutenberg ], oaksylph recommended in my comments section another Victorian classic, The Last American: A Fragment from The Journal of Khan-li, Prince of Dimph-Yoo-Chur and Admiral in the Persian Navy by John Ames Mitchell [ Project Gutenberg ], first published in 1889, and reprinted in numerous editions.

Mitchell was apparently quite the man for all seasons, among other things, founding Life magazine. See more on the book and the author here.

Well. This was a lovely science fictional premise written in a rather crisp prose for the era, which was dented for me by the excessively silly character names and a somewhat strained Planet of the Apes ending. I don’t suppose it’s fair to call the denouement cliched, because when Ames was writing, it probably wasn’t, but in retrospect the ending does not hold up well at all. As for the names, the less said the better — I presume Mitchell was writing with the humor of his times. If you want a hint, read the subtitle above aloud. What is Khan-li prince of? Most of the ‘Persian’ names in this piece follow that ‘Oh-Watta-Goo-Siam’ convention, which I found pretty distracting.

All of which is a shame, because the conceit of the tale is that of a sociological and technological collapse due to climate change and imperial adventurism, in which the successor states as world powers are Islamic. This was very much social criticism of the emerging material culture of its time, but the mechanisms Ames chooses to make his point seem intensely contemporary, for a book written more than twelve decades ago. You could take this plot and setting, reskin it with prose in the current mode, and have a crackling, almost hair-raising piece. (Well, and change the ending a bit.)

My only other complaints are essentially technical. One has nothing to do with Ames’ work. The Project Gutenberg edition I downloaded was supposed to contain the original illustrations, but was in fact a rather mangled conversion which included only a smattering of the art, and was liberally sprinkled with OCR artefacts and HTML weirdness. The second, anent Ames’ worldbuilding, was that he used Christian years in the story, but I’m pretty sure a future Muslim state would use the Islamic calendar. Instead of 2951 CE, this story would take place in 2401 AH.

Also, in the vein of readings in the original Klingon, I’m having trouble finding an EPUB edition of The Wonderful Electric Elephant by Frances Trego Montgomery, recommended to me by amysisson. If this is legally available in downloadable format, I’d love a pointer.

[books] Steampunk, in the original Klingon

I have finished reading The Log of the Flying Fish: A Story of Aerial and Submarine Peril and Adventure by Harry Collingwood [ Project Gutenberg ]. It’s, um, quite a book. And definitely a book of its times. 1887, to be specific. Absolutely science fiction.

The Flying Fish is an airship/submarine of extremely advanced technical prowess. Four gentleman adventurers who happen to meet more or less by accident set out aboard her to have adventures and claim what might be claimed in the name of dear old England. They visit the bottom of the English channel, the North Pole, various locations in Africa, Mt. Everest, the Indian Ocean and whatnot. Classic adventure fiction of the day.

The plot meanders through a series of episodic adventures then stops without ever achieving much of an overarching anything. The prose, by modern standards, runs to the dreadfully purple, though still quite readable and entertaining in its way. The technology and other skiffy bits range from pleasingly convincing to ridiculously laughable.

The embedded cultural assumptions are amazing, to the point of feeling ridiculously stereotyped. For instance, there’s an entire chapter of one character lecturing the others on how greedy and foolish laborers have through the evils of unionization caused the poor investors to be unable to realize the appropriate return on their capital, and why this is driving jobs out of England. Upon discovering a herd of unicorns, the characters grab their guns and go unicorn-hunting. The East African sequence late in the book is an appalling example of colonialist literature — cringe-inducing almost beyond measure.

Still and all, this is steampunk in the original Klingon. If you want to read Victorian adventure set aboard a fantastic and impossible airship, as written by a Victorian adventure writer, Collingwood is your man.

[books|writing] Kalimpura Progriss Riport, The Final (for now)

Well, that’s a wrap on the first draft of Kalimpura at 106,300 words. (10,600 today to finish it up.) I’m about 10,000 words short of where I expected to end this draft, but that’s an acceptable margin of error. I know from prior projects that I start writing very quickly near the finish, and have a tendency to rush the endings. As calendula_witch reminds me, that’s what revision is for. So I expect to get most of that ‘missing’ wordage back when I re-enter this project next April or so for revision, with an expected turn-in to casacorona and Tor in June of next year.

For the neepery of it, I wrote 103,000 words in November, starting from a 3,300 word stub I’d written in mid-October before my mother fell ill. Counting one thing and another, including my own bout of depression, those 103,000 words were written over 21 writing days. Including 20,800 in the last two days. Did I mention that I start writing very quickly near the finish?

So in the drawer with this a while, though I’ll be begin gathering initial feedback from calendula_witch and possibly a few other readers. I have a novella to revise, a novella to write, a short piece or two to tackle, then by January I expect to be into Sunspin.

So it goes.

[books|movies] Pocket reviews

Of recent interest…

Act of Will by A.J. Hartley [ Powell’s ] — I enjoyed this book a lot, but still can’t decide if I liked it. A young William Shakespeare-analog as superhero in a secondary world with some strong resemblances to Elizabethan England. Reminded me a lot of Shakespeare In Love in that the character and setting were just platforms for modern dialog, situations and internal narratives.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 [ imdb ] — A film adaptation of a cult favorite novel you may have heard about. Could just as easily been titled Harry Potter and the Wild Places of Great Britain, with occasional alarums and excursions. (Which, honestly, is about how I remember the book.) The action and plot-driving scenes of this movie would have made an excellent short film to watch over a long coffee break. On the other hand, about 100 million people will see this movie, so what do I know?

[books|writing] Kalimpura Progriss Riport, More More

Another 5,000 words on Kalimpura today. Now at 61,700 words. I should be done with this first draft in about three more elapsed weeks of writing. Or a bit less, if I pull a couple of additional big days. Though the combination of SteamCon and Thanksgiving is definitely going to get in the way. In any case, the manuscript is flowing smoothly and fairly quickly from my fingertips, which seems to be the ‘book three’ effect. Fie on peripheral neuropathy, I say. Fie, fie, fie.

I am noodling with a change to my novel drafting process. Specifically, I am considering taking one to two days off per week to work on short fiction. It’s not such an issue with this book, but the Sunspin project will be a long haul indeed. Such a writing pattern might keep me fresher and let me take my mind out for a wander every now and then. So maybe worth testing here.

And meanwhile, some WIP…

[books|writing] Kalimpura Progriss Riport, More Thereof

This morning, I crossed the 50,000 word mark for November’s new word count production on Kalimpura, with this morning’s writing adding 2,600 words to finish up at 54,200. (Between medical needs and OryCon, yesterday entailed no writing at all.)

I’m not doing NaNoWriMo for two reasons. One, this manuscript wasn’t eligible. 3,200 words of it were written in October, before my mother’s health issues sidelined me for several weeks. Two, though I am not a NaNo doubter (see various kerfuffles of late), for my own part, every month of the year is NaNo, or should be.

If you’re doing NaNo, I applaud you for engaging with the effort, practicing the ass-in-chair, and putting the words on the page. I’m a big fan of word count and finished drafts. After all, without that raw material, you have nothing to revise or sell.

Meanwhile, some WIP: (more…)

[books] Sunspin

Apropos of nothing in particular, I now have proposed titles for the three books that compromise the Sunspin cycle. Apparently, the projects are queueing in my head.

In order:

  • Calamity of So Long A Life
  • The Whips and Scorns of Time
  • Be All Our Sins Remembered

This time, unlike my last two trilogies, I intend to write it as one continuous, planned arc. With luck, I’ll start drafting in January, take a break in March or April to revise Kalimpura, and then resume to be done with the first draft this project by summer. I figure a minimum of five elapsed (not calendar) months to lay down the first pass of this, and that’s if I write fairly short and at speed.

For those just tuning in, Sunspin is my planned Big Idea space opera, sort of a fusion of contemporary New British and 1970’s psuedofeudalism, with a blue collar tinge and a deep dose of paranoia. So far I’ve published about half a dozen short stories set in this continuity, and have an incomplete (at 70 pages) outline for the trilogy.

And yes, after Sunspin, Original Destiny, Manifest Sin.

[books|writing] Kalimpura Progriss Riport

3,300 words today, in about two elapsed hours heavily punctuated by homework assistance and other Dadly duties. (Mostly discussions of Ming dynasty rulers, the Cheng Ho fleet and taking cube roots and higher. I don’t remember seventh grade being like this.)

I am at 14,400 words in the book and seem to have caught the flow. Various minor auctorial neuroses are emerging — It’s going to be too long! It’s going to be too short! I managed to think both of these at the same time. — but this is my tenth contracted book and (roughly) the fourteenth novel I’ve written. I can handle it.

And a WIP for you all…