If there’s one thing I hope and strive for in my writing, it’s clarity.  Writing clear, concise, precise prose is always challenging, and all the more so in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

That’s because the goal (well, one goal) of fantastic fiction is to describe the new, surprising, extraordinary, the wondrous.  And it’s easy, even tempting, to be oblique, obscure, vague in these descriptions, to use the literary equivalents of murky, billowing smoke and ominous shadows.  It’s a superlative, a compliment, to say “Wow, that’s too fantastic for words.”

There are perfectly sound reasons for this tendency.  For one, it’s a way of getting the reader to supply detail from their own imagination.  The monster lurking in the gloom, just a glint of teeth and outline of claws and the details filled in the viewer’s mind, can be far scarier than the one standing in the spotlight, where the rubber suit and fake blood are obvious.

And more fundamentally, it’s an aspect of literature that it works on multiple levels; one could argue that as the defining attribute of all art.  It’s the nature of metaphor, that you say one thing, yet many things are heard; the writer evokes meanings.  And a prosaic, mundane description, no matter how clear, is simply less evocative.

But…  when I am turning the pages, following a story into the unknown, and the heroes open the hatch for the first time and look out on a landscape never before seen by human eyes, there’s nothing so aggravating as “and what they saw was too fantastic for words.  THE END”.

Few writers go that far, of course.  But I’ve read plenty of vague, muddy description of the fantastic.  And whether artistically deliberate or simply inept writing, I always feel cheated.

For a film analogy, look at the end of Kubrick’s 2001; beautiful, yeah, evocative, yeah, but I’ve always felt cheated.  Confronting a godlike alien species that has manipulated humankind’s evolution, now that’s wondrous.  What we got was instead was a lightshow.

Compare that to some of the extraordinary moments in the same director’s “The Shining”; for example, when Danny comes around the corner on his Big Wheel and sees the twin girls standing in the hallway.  There’s no smoke, no shadows; everything is crisp and clear and utterly, terrifyingly fantastic.

Steven King, by the way, is an author who rarely shrinks from clear description of the strange and unknown.  And I often look to C.J. Cherryh, in both her Science Fiction and Fantasy, for unambiguous, precise prose in such circumstances: look at how she handles travel through hyperspace, or sketches the incredible alien knnn and tc’a in her Chanur books.  And there’s Samuel R. Delany: his book Nova is as literate and evocative as they come, but I never feel uncertain about exactly what is happening.  In Babel-17, Delany even introduces the “discorporated”, ghost-like characters whose very nature is to be indescribable, and yet they are vivid and tangible and fantastically effective.

So, I have the phrase “a prism, not a veil” taped to my desk.  It’s a metaphor for an approach to metaphor:  a suggestion, or at least a hope, that you can work on multiple levels, and leave the necessary gaps for the reader’s imagination to work, while being clear and precise, and never vague.

2 Responses to “A prism, not a veil”

  1. yeah. i’m definitely looking forward to working with you, man.

    as for your post, i think there’s a balance to be struck. i, for one, tend to get lost in overly thick descriptions. i do appreciate clarity and precision in language, but for descriptions i tend more towards the evocative, partly because of said disinclination, and partly because it seems to me to be respectful of the reader to allow them to imagine the story in their own way. there’s a tension there, between writer and reader, and while, as a reader, i do like for my imagination to be given sufficient fodder to contrive my own vision or version of what’s happening, i get bored and my mind starts wandering when the descriptions get too thick.

    then again, i’m more of a language-oriented reader than many, i suspect, and for me the thing’s the artfulness of the prose, and the economy with which what must be said is.

    also, if good, solid description of fantastic things is your bag, you should check out iain m. banks and china mieville. both build just absolutely amazing, immersive worlds (sci fi and weird fantasy, respectively), and i think you’ll find they both walk that line quite skillfully.

  2. Dallas,

    Yup, it’s going to be a long, impatient wait for the end of June!

    And yeah, Banks and Miéville are both great.

    I think we are completely agreeing here. I’m not advocating more description, but rather concise, clear, tangible description. If you can call it “thick”, it ain’t what I mean. The prism is the best metaphor I can think of: evocative, but not vague.

    In fact, one of the warning signs of muddy description is that it goes on too long; it’s a lot of imprecise words fired shotgun-style in the general direction of the target, instead of a few precisely targeted words…

    In “Perdido Street Station”, some of the alien races are absurdly, improbably odd — cockroach heads! — but they work as characters because Miéville doesn’t hide them in the shadows; he puts them front and center. Ditto for all the aliens in Cherryh’s “Chanur” series: there’s a lot of room for the reader’s imagination to connect the dots, but the dots themselves are simple and unambiguous.

    As a counter example: I loved M. John Harrison’s “Light”. But I was a bit frustrated with “Nova Swing”, because some of the sequences in the Kefahuchi Tract left me more bewildered than awed. Mind you, I still thought it was a great book, but I had a bit of that cranky cheated feeling I mentioned in my original post.

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