Monday, June 20, 2016

Strange book conceits

Just to follow up from the previous post, sometimes the conceit of a book can be completely overwhelming.  This is particularly the case for science fiction, where characterization (and sometimes plot!) take a backseat to some elaborate setting with odd rules and where a large part of the book is taken up showing how there is an internal consistency to this setting (and thus nowhere near enough on the plot).  I'm sort of thinking of Larry Niven's Ringworld or even his The Integral Trees.  I pondered for quite some time whether I should do a parody of a world shaped like a Mobius strip but decided it wasn't really worth the effort.  Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is another case where the setting is pretty overwhelming, though in this case, I think she does do a reasonable job of creating personalities that carry the novel along.

Interestingly, she has just published a novel (The Heart Goes Last) set in a dystopian society that could be the U.S. in only another few years, particularly after President Pumpkinhead is done with it.  It's a bit like an alternative future novel without any major scientific breakthroughs.  Basically, some corporation is conducting a kind of social experiment to see what happens if an entire town is constructed to serve the needs of a prison, but then the prisoners and those outside the prison swap roles every month.  I have to say, it doesn't entirely make sense even from a think tank perspective, since prison economies work only through massive transfers from federal or state revenues.  I don't think no matter how bad things get, the federal government would agree to never-ending subsidies to create a prison big enough to lock up half the population of a town.  There may be something more sinister at work, like the corporate honchos are really getting their rocks off by investigating the Milgram experiment on a massive scale.  I haven't gotten to that point yet.  I know (from the book cover) that the lines start crossing and the prisoners and their wardens start interacting in forbidden ways.  While it is a quick read so far, I do find the level of characterization a bit lacking or maybe I just find the main characters pretty shallow.  Still, it is an interesting conceit, and I'll probably wrap this up in time to review before Canada Day.

I don't really know enough about Atwood and her reading habits to have an informed opinion on this, but the plot is at least somewhat reminiscent of Philip Jose Farmer's Dayworld (which was more of a true science fiction novel).  I actually thought I would write a short story or a novella where the leaders of an off-world space colony were worried that the inhabitants would go mad if they realized how alone they were.  So they created a fake second city on the other side of the planet which had really long delays in communications and so forth.  No one ever traveled between the two cities.  Well, the citizens of the two cities were actually the same people, just living two lives (mass hypnosis and who knows what else to make it all line up).  I think in addition to Dayworld, I must have been thinking about the movie Dark City (or if I had the idea previously, I refined it a bit after that movie came out).  I might still do it, but I think this would be a case where the scaffolding to support such an elaborate setting is just too much for a story.  The reader would start asking questions about couldn't the citizens realize from star charts and what have you that not enough time had passed and/or that the latitude was exactly the same.  And just how much delay would make sense for email?  So probably too many problems for not enough of a payoff.

Speaking of a novel where the conceit doesn't pay off at all, I am nearly done with Brigit Brophy's In Transit where a traveler basically gives up their ticket in an European airport and then literally spends the next 150 pages unsure of his (or her) gender.  All kinds of contrived situations intervene, even an interrupted bathroom break, and I've totally lost my patience with this book.  I clearly should just abandon it, but in this case I am close to the end, and I'll stick it out, so that I never waver and read another book by Brophy again.  (Pretty much all her novels are too clever for their own good, at least from the plot summaries and reviews I have seen.)  For a dissenting opinion, you can turn here.

Finally, I am just starting Blackass by A. Igonibo Barrett.  The novel is inspired by Kafka's Metamorphosis, though in this case a Nigerian man is transformed into a white man on the morning he is to go off on a critical job interview.  Apparently, the only part of his body that is still black is his posterior (hence the title).  I like the writing style and the pacing so far, so I expect this is a case where the conceit enhances rather than detracts from the overall novel.  Still, it is a fairly overwhelming conceit, though perhaps even more closely tied to Dostoevsky's The Double than the Kafka story where the transformation leads to a complete withdrawal from society (and thus leading into a narrative dead end).  If it's not too much of a stretch, I am detecting hints of Mark Twain's The £1,000,000 Bank-Note as well, where the rarity of the bank note (or here the combination of white skin and a Nigerian accent -- apparently the official language of Nigeria is English! but it is likely that much of the dialog takes place in Yoruba) allows the main character to skate by and thrive without recourse to using his own funds.  I may have more to say about the novel after I get a bit deeper into Blackass.

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