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A sense of place - Input Junkie
June 29th, 2012
10:59 am

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A sense of place
Having read Embassytown and Leviathan Wakes, I found that Leviathan Wakes made me crazy for the first two thirds or so-- it didn't seem to be set anywhere in particular, and the different locations all seemed the same. (The last third of the book picks up and I stopped caring about the lack of sense of place and the absence of distinctive voices for the characters. Sense of wonder for the win!)

By comparison, Embassytown wasn't vague.

However, neither of them gave a lot of sensory details about setting, so I'm not sure what made the difference for me. My tentative theory is that a sense of place can be given through sensory details (LOTR is a classic example), but a book can also be a place, and the prose in Embassytown-- that steady, focused narrator-- made it seem as though I was reading something in particular.

I don't know whether the way my sense of place works is unusual. Do you find there are books which give you a strong sense of place without having a lot of sensory detail?

Also, Embassytown struck me as very Delanyish-- not as sparkly, but with the strong interest in how language works, and with details of what's happening to people's status and involvement in different groups. Some reviewer found the book reminded them of Gene Wolfe, and I can't imagine why.

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From:bradhicks
Date:June 29th, 2012 03:36 pm (UTC)
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For the third and final time I've given up on reading Embassytown, and the Gene Wolf comparison is one that occurred to me. As I put it to some friends last night in the car, "Oh, look, I see you shop at Costco for adverbs and adjectives."

I saw somewhere, I forget if it was on io9 or BoingBoing, an excerpt from an interview with Mieville in which he complained that other science fiction authors aren't ambitious enough in their prose stylings. How I read that, as someone who can't stand his stuff, was, "I'm more interesting in showing off my pretty sentences than I am in telling you a story," so I'll continue to pass.

I am almost certainly going to vote for Noah Ward for the novel Hugo this year. Two sequels to series I don't care about (one generic zombies, the other generic SCA), a mediocre space-opera potboiler, a 300 page unreadable prose poem, and book that seems to be a a very pretty coming of age story about a science fiction fan but isn't, actually, a science fiction novel. I haven't seen a field this weak since the early '80s.
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From:nancylebov
Date:June 29th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
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Noah Ward? Googling turns up that he's a game designer, but has he written a novel?

I think of Among Others as a fantasy novel, but I'll be rereading it to see how real the magic seems to be. On the first pass, I believed that the elves were intended to be real in terms of the story.
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From:agrumer
Date:June 29th, 2012 06:45 pm (UTC)
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I think Noah Ward has joined a convent this year, and is the Nun of the Above.
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From:subnumine
Date:July 7th, 2012 12:40 am (UTC)
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And I am quite convinced, partly by Walton's comments on the story, that they are *intended* to be real inside the story. But F/SF is the subject, granted. (It's why Walton declined to write a sequel; she knows that the character will go to Luna City, but is not willing to project the SF of the next thirty years.)
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From:agrumer
Date:June 29th, 2012 06:47 pm (UTC)
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In other words, gods forbid a writer should write.
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From:nancylebov
Date:June 29th, 2012 07:03 pm (UTC)
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Fortunately, there are a lot of different sorts of writers for different sorts of readers.
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From:bradhicks
Date:June 30th, 2012 04:14 pm (UTC)
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De gustibus non disputandem est, but the main reason I read fiction is to be told an entertaining story. If the prose gets in the way of the story, I can't be arsed.

I figure that depending on how Serious the voters are, it'll be this or volume (n + I don't care) of Game of Thrones that wins. I won't be horrified if Embassytown wins; after all, Faulkner won a ton of of awards for less penetrable prose than this. For some people, "ordinary people can't understand this" is a selling point. I'm an elitist, too, I'm just not that kind of elitist.
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From:nancylebov
Date:June 30th, 2012 05:57 pm (UTC)
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The thing is, I didn't realize that the prose in Embassytown would be hard to understand for anyone who could read science fiction. This is obviously ignorance on my part, but it isn't snobbishness.

On the other hand, I'm awed by your ability to remember and handle huge amounts of details. I don't think I believe in g. (Generalized intelligence which is supposed to underlie IQ.)

I think Among Others has as good a chance as Embassytown-- it's a love letter to science fiction in addition to its other virtues.
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From:agrumer
Date:June 30th, 2012 07:00 pm (UTC)
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If all there is in a book is the story, I get bored, and can't finish. There has to be something else there to keep the rest of my brain occupied --- interesting prose, clever worldbuilding, the working-out of themes, vivid descriptions, witty jokes, etc. Ideally, there should be several of those things.

With Miéville, I often get several of those things at once. For example, faster-than-light travel is accomplished by immersing in the immer, that's a pun. Immersion comes from Latin, but immer is the German word for always (which Miéville underscores by referring to the regular light-speed universe as the manchmal, German for sometimes). So it's witty, but it's also meaningful: Our universe is just a temporary instantiation of some greater set of possibilities.

We're also told that the world where Embassytown is set is at the edge of the immer, and difficult to get to --- in other words, that it's at the very borders of the possible. That helped me swallow the unlikely premise (a sapient species that cannot distinguish between signifier, signified, and referent); at least the author was admitting in the book that the premise was incredibly unlikely.

When we're then told that the immer "is langue of which our actuality is a parole" (the French words for language and speech), that furthers the linguistic themes of the novel.

I had to look these words up, because I don't know much French or German. But once I did look them up, I felt rewarded, not put-upon. I got a little squirt of that brain-juice you get for figuring out a puzzle. That's one of the things science fiction is supposed to give you, isn't it?
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From:nancylebov
Date:June 30th, 2012 07:07 pm (UTC)
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Do you think it makes sense that aliens who can only think literally would be able to invent new, useful similes?
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From:agrumer
Date:June 30th, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
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Ever had a vague, half-formed idea that you needed someone else's help to properly articulate?
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From:nancylebov
Date:July 1st, 2012 01:38 pm (UTC)
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Certainly, but I'm not sure that a species that can't hypothesize (wouldn't it follow that they can't?) is where to go for help with a vague idea.
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From:agrumer
Date:July 1st, 2012 06:33 pm (UTC)
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No, it's the Hosts who have the half-formed idea, and the humans who help.
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From:kmusser
Date:June 29th, 2012 03:40 pm (UTC)
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While Embassytown doesn't give a lot of sensory details, the lead character does explicitly talk about place quite a lot which I think is the other source for a strong sense of place, i.e. if a character has a strong attachment to a place, that will often come though if its well written, and when its the lead I think that lends itself to the whole book. I think it also helps that the vast majority of the book is set in a single place, it doesn't jump around very much. For another example of someone imparting a sense of place more via the characters than direct sensory details I'd say Guy Gavriel Kay's historical fiction books.
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From:purejuice
Date:June 29th, 2012 09:09 pm (UTC)
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hi, friends? we have a couple of estimable mutual ones.
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From:agrumer
Date:June 29th, 2012 10:04 pm (UTC)
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One challenging thing about Embassytown is that Miéville takes the conceit of the first-person narrative seriously enough that while the protagonist describes a lot of the things specific to the world she's on, she doesn't do much describing of things a fellow citizen of her futuristic interstellar civilization would be familiar with.
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