The exotic and the familiar (Part 1)

I’ve heard Brian Aldiss talk about the same phenomenon. For him, a novel often requires two ideas. He describes them as a combination of ‘the familar’ and ‘the exotic’. He begins with ‘the familiar’ – usually something germane to his personal life, either thematically or experientially – but he can’t write about it until ‘the familiar’ is impacted by ‘the exotic’. In his case, ‘the exotic’ is usually a science fictional setting in which ‘the familiar’ can play itself out: ‘the exotic’ provides him with a stage on which he can dramatize ‘the familiar’. Rather like a binary poison – or a magic potion – two inert elements combine to produce something of frightening potency.

The same dynamic works in reverse for me. I start with ‘the exotic’… but that idea declines to turn into a story until it is catalysed by ‘the familiar’.

For example: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is squarely – and solely – founded on two ideas: unbelief and leprosy. The notion of writing a fantasy about an ‘unbeliever’, a man who rejects the whole concept of fantasy, first came to me near the end of 1969. But the germ was dormant: no matter how I laboured over it, I couldn’t make it grow. Until I realized, in May of 1972, that my ‘unbeliever’ should be a leper. As soon as those two ideas came together, my brain took fire.

—Stephen R. Donaldson, The Real Story

Three times in the last sixty-odd years, a work of fantasy has come along that redrew the whole map of the field; that banished the limits of the publishable, as then understood, as suddenly and thoroughly as Columbus banished the ‘ne plus ultra’ from the Pillars of Hercules. Lately I have been thinking hard about these works, seeing what they had in common with one another, and what set them apart from the other fantasies of their times, to see whether I could account for the magnitude of their success.

All three of these breakthrough fantasies can be described in terms of Aldiss’s ‘exotic’ and ‘familiar’. Each, considered thematically, is a collision between two great, or at any rate large, ideas. And when I began to look at them in this light, I found a curious thing: which idea was ‘the exotic’ and which was ‘the familiar’ was not as obvious as it seemed. Indeed, the works themselves tended to familiarize the exotic and exoticize the familiar, so that those whose habits of mind were formed afterwards would never quite see the ideas as their first audiences saw them.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

[Read more…]

Death carries a camcorder

The fifth essai in a series, following ‘Teaching Pegasus to crawl’. The original appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.


Fiction is, among many other things, a game between writer and reader, a kind of mental strip-tease in which the writer slowly reveals the details of the story, and the reader tries to guess at their significance. Mystery stories exhibit the game in its purest form, of course; but the element of guessing ‘whodunit’ turns up in every kind of fiction.

As stories have grown more complex, and the telling more elliptical and compressed, guessing out the storyteller’s meaning has become a difficult and demanding skill. Usually we don’t think of it in those terms, because as readers, we began to develop that skill early in childhood; it was fun to do, and after all, children can take delight in the most fiendishly elaborate games. Generally speaking, we don’t notice the skill involved until it stops working — that is, until the writer breaks the rules of the game. [Read more…]

The Emperor’s new depth

Sherwood Smith inquires into the matter of ‘writing deep’, and there is evident puzzlement on all hands about what ‘deep’ means. As you might guess from the title of this essai, I am not much taken with the idea of ‘deep’ writing in fiction. I therefore propose to examine the Emperor’s garments one by one, until I find a windcheater that actually, you know, cheats the wind. This turns out to be a longish task, so I shall take it one heading at a time. To begin with:

1. Armchair philosophizing as a substitute for character development.

This, I suspect, is what most adolescents (and nearly all college students) are likely to mean when they call a book ‘deep’. As in: ‘Who-o-o-a . . . that’s, like, so deep.’ Ayn Rand is so deep, and so are Camus and Vonnegut, and various other hardy campus perennials. Adolescence and early adulthood are naturally given to a kind of ill-focused antinomianism, which, having been trained to do so by its elders in the media and academe, readily expresses itself in scorn poured out upon ‘the metaphysics of savages’, as one of those elders notoriously called what other people call ‘common sense’. We are taught early in life that the earth is really round, though ‘obviously’ flat, and that it is really in motion, though ‘obviously’ stationary, and that ‘obviously’ solid matter is really mostly empty space between atoms. All of these teachings are half-truths, and the short half of the truth at that. [Read more…]