Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Toward the eternity

Not much probably need be said about it, but I'd like to take a moment to look at a wonderful sentence from the beginning of the Ixtl episode of A.E. van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle. (I imagine this was originally a standalone short story, as the Coeurl episode from the same "novel" was originally "The Black Destroyer", but I don't know the story in question.) It is the second of these sentences I am interested in, obviously, though I've included the first to give a (tiny) bit of context.
Ixtl sprawled unmoving in the boundless night. Time paced slowly toward the eternity, and space was fathomlessly black.
Again, not much need be said about it, no doubt, though also no doubt whole volumes could be written on it. But for now at any rate I just want to point out the fascinating, marvelous oddness of casting what is, almost literally, an eternal truth into the form of a standard narrative sentence. At the moment that Ixtl sprawled unmoving, time indeed paced slowly toward the eternity, and space was fathomlessly black; but time right now paces, space right now is, and as near as the word "always" has any meaning, they always have and always will. In the face of such constancy, verb tenses — so important in narrative — become simply arbitrary. Something outside of narrative is happening here.

I'm tempted to go on (to examine, say, what such a sentence does to Delany's model of sf's subjunctivity, or superficially similar oddities in verb tense that are not doing what I see this doing). But anything else I could say would ultimately be superfluous, so I will leave it at that.


Mark Pontin said...

[1] Glad to see you're still in the SF critique game. I think you bring to the table both a very valid set of values regarding what this literature is for/can do and a more open mind than most nowadays.

[2] As for Van Vogt, yes, he was the original SF wildman. While there are valid things to say about the wild vision of some of his work -- have you read either his "The Monster" or "The Rull"? -- sometimes it's just best to treat him as this Darger-like outsider and not try to force sense or coherence into the equation.

Ethan Robinson said...

[1] Thanks for saying so!

[2] Van Vogt is one of my heroes, though I haven't actually read too too much of him (World of Null-A, Weapon Shops of Isher and Weapon Makers, Space Beagle, a smattering of short stories, which do not include either of the ones you named, unless they're incorporated into one of the "novels" I've read).

He's one of several personal idols (also including HP Lovecraft, Rachel Pollack, Cordwainer Smith, and a handful of others) whose work, even if I haven't read a gigantic amount of it, is so important to me that I can't even begin, as yet, to approach it directly in writing. Some day I'll write full essays about van Vogt, but I couldn't even imagine doing it right now. Short version: The best thing about him, for me, is that he makes "forcing sense or coherence into the equation" impossible.

Mark Pontin said...

[1]"The Monster" is also sometimes published as "Resurrection," and I first read it as a child in my father's copy of Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest's SPECTRUM II anthology, which also reprinted PKD's "Second Variety" and Kuttner and Moore's "Vintage Season."

It blew my little mind. Here's the ISFDB listing on its various publications.

"The Rull" is a segment of the fix-up novel, THE WAR AGAINST THE RULL, which has been much republished and is one of van Vogt's better fix-ups. (I'm not an across-the-board van Vogt fan and there's stuff of his I find simply unreadable. Nevertheless, when he was on, he had a direct line to much of what SF was and is about.)

Mark Pontin said...

[2] You may have seen the following van Vogt interviews. But if you haven't, you may want to. Without taking away any of the mystery, they cast some light, for instance, on what's going on with the beginning sentences of "The Ixtl."

Here's van Vogt on what he calls his 'hang-up sentence technique' in a 1979 fanzine interview 'A.E. van Vogt: A Writer with a Winning Formula' --

-- in which the man goes into some detail on his (slightly insane) writing systems.

'Early in my career, a major technique of mine was to write a "hang-up" into every sentence. The reader who tried to skim, as critics tend to do (they just want to get an idea of what the story is about) would quickly bog down, because he wasn't making the contribution to each sentence that the method required. My regular readers don't get confused, because they're able to make the necessary contribution. The hang-up in each sentence was, by my theory, the science fiction "fictional sentence." A science fiction fictional sentence as I write it, has to have a hang-up in it, ideally. My first science fiction story- though it wasn't the first published-"Vault of the Beast," opened: "The creature crept." The reader doesn't know what kind of creature. That is the hang-up. Another sentence: "This caricature of a human shape reached into one of those skin folds with that twisted hand, and drew out a small, gleaming metal object." There are four hang-ups in that sentence. When I wrote confession-type stories, every sentence, as I mentioned earlier, had to contain an emotion in it. For example, you don't say, "I lived at 323 Brand Street." You say, "Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my tiny bedroom at 323 Brand Street." If your story has 1,000 sentences in it, every sentence should have an emotion in it. It is my belief that stories written with these hang-ups, particularly, will endure longer than other types of stories. The reason is simple: readers of each generation will contribute meaning from their own time, their own era, filling in the gaps with data that I don't have now, or didn't have when I wrote the story.'

[3] Not discussed in the above interview I've linked to is another crazy van Vogt technique he used in his early stuff, by means of which he literally deranged himself via artificial sleep patterns so he wrote in a semi-dream state.

Here's an account of this that he gave to Charles Platt in an interview in 1979/80.

'I took the family alarm clock and went into the spare bedroom that night, and set it for an hour and a half. And thereafter, when I was working on a story, I would waken myself every hour and a half, through the night--force myself to wake up, think of the story, try to solve it, and even as I was thinking about it I would fall back asleep. And in the morning, there would be a solution, for that particular story problem. Now, that's penetrating the subconscious, in my opinion. It's penetrating it in a way that I don't think they'll be able to do any better, thirty centuries from now."

Ethan Robinson said...

"The Monster": I have such an antipathy for Kingsley Amis that I've avoided the Spectrum anthologies, but that's probably silly of me, since he did have occasional good taste in sf even if I find his reasons for it utterly vapid. Pretty sure the secondhand bookstore in town has had a copy of II hanging around, if so I might pick it up. "The Rull": The War Against is on my list...

"I'm not an across-the-board van Vogt fan and there's stuff of his I find simply unreadable"

This is exceptionally true, though I find that even the unreadable stuff often (though not always) has its own rewards. I recently read the collection-of-scraps Book of van Vogt and even in amongst the most awful stories I kept finding reasons to be glad I was reading.

The rest of that...I have not seen, and thank you seriously SO MUCH for those links and excerpts. Fascinating batshittery. I'd known about his "new idea every 900 words" (or whatever the figure is) method, but the rest of that was totally unknown to me, and is amazing.