Sunday, June 6, 2021

A Thought Hole in the Dreaming City

Cover by Brian Lewis, 1961. Click for a better jpeg.

We all know that a plot is a chain of cause and effect: one thing leads to another, which in turn leads to something else, on and on in ways that should seem clear -- at the very least, in hindsight.

We also know that a plot hole is a break in this chain: something happens without sufficient cause, character motivation, or explanation:

KUZCO: No! It can't be! How did you get back here before us?

YZMA: Uh... how *did* we, Kronk?

KRONK: Well, ya got me. By all accounts, it doesn't make sense.

YZMA: Oh, well. Back to business.

Click for a better jpeg.

Along with plot holes, we can also have what I call thought holes. These are gaps in the reasoning behind a story, in its concept, in its background details, or in both.

One example crops up in "The Dreaming City" by Michael Moorcock, a story based on certain assumptions:

-- Elric is the rightful heir to the throne of the dreaming city.

-- While he is out wandering in distant lands, he is declared a traitor and outlaw by his cousin, who now rules in Elric's place.

-- Elric wants vengeance against his cousin. To this end, he is willing to have the dreaming city invaded and sacked by sea raiders.

-- The point of attack will be the main harbour, which is concealed behind a maze. Elric knows how to pass through the maze, and so he must lead the attack. He must also conceal the approach of this fleet with a magical fog.

All in all, a risky plan; so much could go wrong. But consider this: a day or two before the raid, Elric, in a single boat, sails to the dreaming city to set up one of his own personal schemes:

"Elric knew that he dare not risk entering the harbour by the maze, though he understood the route perfectly. He decided, instead, to land the boat further up the coast in a small inlet of which he had knowledge. With sure, capable hands, he guided the little craft towards the hidden inlet which was obscured by a growth of shrubs...."

All of this happens in full daylight:

"On foot, Elric strode inland.... At last he came to the city."

At nightfall:

"Elric, his hand ever near his sword-hilt, slipped through an unguarded gate in the city wall and began to walk cautiously through the ill-lit streets...."

I have no head for military planning, but I still have to wonder: if I were to lead a potentially-disastrous, frontal attack on a city, and knew of an unguarded back route where a secondary line of men could reach the city in full daylight without being observed, would I not want to use this tactic, at the very least, as a diversion?

When Elric snuck into this hidden cove, he could have brought several men along with him, shown them the route, shown them the unguarded gateway, and then returned them to the raiders' fleet where they could develop plans for a back-up force. I would have done it. Hell, why not?

Moorcock never explains why such a plan could never work, because he never mentions the possibility. He sets it up in the reader's mind, but then ignores it.

A thought hole!

Friday, May 28, 2021

Not A Critic

When I lose my perspective, I can become aggressive in promoting aesthetic principles: a pointless and perhaps even offensive waste of time.

What matters is not that other people share my convictions, but that my convictions gain enough clarity within my skull to inform what I write. I will never be a critic; my reviews and comments are lessons to myself.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Raymond Z. Gallun's "Derelict"

Elliott Dold. ASTOUNDING STORIES, October 1935. Click for a better jpeg.

One of the miracles of American pulp SF of the 1930s is that a good story could slip through, now and then -- this one, for example.

Raymond Z. Gallun was never a stylist, but never an embarrassment, either. He had just enough writing skill to bring his ideas to life, and these were often striking.

In "Derelict," a man running away from his past, without direction since the death of his wife and child, comes across a dead alien vessel adrift in space. His arrival triggers an automatic repair system, and its elegant alien robot, voiceless but perceptive, inscrutable but patient, not only rebuilds the ship, but also heals the psychologically-wounded man.

This combination of narrative simplicity and emotional meaning sets "Derelict" above so many other stories from its decade. Gallun deserves to be rediscovered by every new generation; I want stories like this to stay alive.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Warning: Do Not Read This Warning

When I was young (and strong, and charming, and psychotic) I took antibiotics as if they were ordinary medicine, without much concern for side-effects or interactions. But now, I find the warning labels almost frightening:

-- While taking this medication, do not step on linoleum tiles.

-- Avoid the colour orange.

-- Do not look at the Big Dipper.

-- Chew any and all food on the left side of your mouth. If you accidentally chew on the right, contact your local funeral home for immediate services.

-- If you begin to feel as if you were in the grip of overwhelming mutational forces, you are mistaken and should not be alarmed. Mutation occurs at the level of DNA sequencing, and can harm organisms in reproductive development; as a fully-developed, adult organism, you are most unlikely to sprout lobster claws, or to grow an extra brain, because of mutationary damage. Instead, the overpowering forces that compel your somatic structure to bulge and melt into the shape of a killer monstrosity are nothing more than a pharmaceutically-induced action of metamorphosis, a mere side-effect. It is not mutation. It is not mutation at all. It happens every year to caterpillars, and they never complain.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Charm Of Simplicity: Garry Kilworth And "Scarecrows"

Because they compress their narratives, many short stories can be far more complex, overtly and by implication, than their length might suggest. This complexity adds to their power, but there can also be power in simplicity. Not every story needs layers of meaning and nuance, because every now and then, a story can suceed by charm alone.

One of my favourite recent examples would be "Scarecrows," by Garry Kilworth, from his collection, DARK HILLS, HOLLOW CLOCKS. Within five pages, Kilworth sets out everything he needs for a light-hearted, almost fabular story.

Right from the start, "Scarecrows" grounds its concept, plot, and resolution in the story's location:

"This village is called Feerness. It sits on an alluvial island which can be reached at low tide from the mainland by a track known locally as 'the hard'. The hard is visible for just a short period each day, the rest of the time it is submerged. A horseman crossing the hard needs to judge when to start his journey very accurately, while the waters are still on the ebb, to reach the other side before the tide turns and rushes back in to recover its territory."

In the most matter-of-fact way, the story then implies that anything could happen here:

"In such places of course, there are still nooks of magic, which have not been cleared away by the march of reason and logic of later centuries. They lie there in hollows, like pockets of green marsh gas, waiting to be used up."

For all of its remote severity, this village has one irresistible pull for the tourists:

"'Aren't the houses charming?' remarked the foreigners. 'Look at the beautiful gabled windows and the thatched rooftops of the cottages. Have you seen the gardens? Full of hollyhocks and roses, and trellises covered in wisteria. And the bullseye windows and leaded lights...'"

Accustomed to their isolation and their private ways, the villagers decide to ward off attention by making their houses ugly:

"The villagers had a meeting one night, and being fisher and farming folk, decided on a course of action congruent with their way of life. They were simple people who believed in simple solutions. They rebuilt their village, making it ugly and frightening, using stone dredged from the slick wastes of the estuary, and sea-rotted timbers covered in limpets and barnacles. There were bulges, and mean little windows as tight as ploughshare slits in turnips, and sills dripping with slime. There were grotesques jutting from the eaves, and dark bands of pocked wood, and misshapen bricks of river mud sealed with organic sludge. The gardens grew only stunted alders, always leafless, that twisted in arthritic poses. There were stagnant pools and lifeless streams, and mounds reminiscent of unkempt graves.

"These new houses threw daunting shadows that in themselves were forbidding areas, cold as churchyard earth."

The trick works, but with an unforeseen cost: the scarecrows of the village come to life, and claim these ugly houses for themselves.

"'What on earth do you want?' asked the astonished John Barnes. It was not the idea that his scarecrow stood before him that was shocking, so much as the fact that the fellow had deserted his post and left the fields unattended.

"'This house,' said the scarecrow, 'was obviously built for the likes of me, not people like you. You must have stolen it from my ancestors. I'm reclaiming my rights.'

"With that, strong gloved fingers of straw gripped John Barnes by the shoulder and wrenched him out into the rain. The scarecrow stepped inside the cottage and slammed the door. There were the sounds of bolts being slammed into place and after a few moments the lamp was put out and the fire doused."

Before the night is over, everyone in the village has been tossed out and locked out, but having fooled the tourists, the villagers now find a way to trick the scarecrows. The plan, of course, goes right back to details of location that began the story. But -- there is always a But.

And there is always room for different priorities in short fiction. Complex or straightforward, haunting or just plain fun, a short story lives or dies according to its impact on the page and its endurance in memory. Garry Kilworth shows that even the simplest of stories, on its own terms, can live and succeed.