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 Complex storytelling and how the masters use language differently

One of my favorite moments is opening a new novel and experiencing the confusion of reading the first chapter. It’s not a bad confusion in which I’m lost or unable to parse the language. No, it’s like being plunked into new surroundings and having to get my bearings, figuring out the location, who is speaking, and what purpose this place has. It’s odd particularly because I hate those moments in real life. Exploring a new novel and slowly uncovering what an author has in store is like all the best aspects of a new experience without any of the downsides. The place we start novels is crucial to the telling of the story, building conflict, introducing characters and setting, and revealing the first instances of theme and symbolism.

This doesn’t happen often, but occasionally, the glorious confusion lasts past the first chapter. It’s not the confusion of a poorly written work in which an author was unable to convey their ideas clearly and so leaves the reader floundering, trying to find a foothold in an unexpected world. This is the confusion of difference, of complexity, and well-planned otherness.

I had to look up no less than seventeen words in the first chapter of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. The narrator, claiming to have perfect recall, also has a prodigious vocabulary, made more meaningful by the foreword which indicates that the text was translated into English from a time in our far distant future. No wonder the archaic words are worked in so well—the language, as the world, seems far distant and yet no less real. The nature of the narrator also means that he never repeats any details and expects the reader to remember them as he would. Couple that with a tendency to get ahead of himself and the reader is introduced into a bizarre and confusing world, led by a guide that may or may not be reliable, on a journey to who knows where. It’s wonderfully disorienting and it’s only the richness of the language and the promise that this might have a destination that keeps the reader going. And it wasn’t disappointing; Gene Wolfe delivers.

I had to reread the first three books of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The richness of the world, the depth of the characters, and the chaos of the war in the first book were not only confusing but down-right overwhelming. I connected with the characters, got a sense of who stood for what, oriented my understanding of the world around what was presented and found the climax riveting. And then the next book was set on a different continent, with an almost entirely different cast of characters, and now the world was being redefined. Much of what I felt I’d understood from book one was reformed and I had to reexamine my assumptions. By the time I finally finished the tenth book, I knew I was going to have to reread the series many times to grasp what Erikson was doing. I was blown away by the complexity, the sheer magnitude of his story, of the world in which he’d written, and the vast, sweeping themes that unfolded not only across thousands of pages, but also in tiny conversations between secondary characters.

The way language is used by cyberpunk writers such as William Gibson has always baffled me. Some authors appear to have a gifting with words, an ability to shove outrageous pictures and bizarre images into their readers’ minds while somehow using the same language that the rest of us do. I’m just not sure how they do it; they combine words and somehow come up with something different. This is crucial to the types of worlds they’re conveying because they are necessarily different from our own. The first line of Gibson’s Neuromancer reads, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Not only is this immensely descriptive, but somehow he’s already tied nature and technology together and indicated the gloomy tone and told us that something is not right with the world–in less than 15 words. Authors like China Mieville, Charles Stross, Neal Stephenson and others are similarly capable of such language use and it leaves me alternating between sheer admiration and despair at ever being capable of writing something similar.

And I’ve realized I’m okay with that. I’m going to continue writing the stories that come to me, interacting with the characters that introduce themselves to me. Perhaps someday my writing will be capable of revealing such images, of telling long, winding, and complex stories like these masters that I look up to. For now, I’ll focus on the simpler stories that I have waiting inside me and hope to someday grow in word-stature.