Tag: strong narrator

Small Crush: All Systems Red (Martha Wells)

Murderbot does what it says on the tin (although it doesn’t say ‘Murderbot’ on its tin, it says SecUnit, and Murderbot is just the not-so-ironic nom de guerre it chose for itself): It’s a bot intimidatingly apt at deploying the array of weapons at its disposal. Murderbot is also pretending to be a normal android slave, even though it has attained free will. And it’s addicted to binge-watching a cheesy show called Sanctuary Moon.

If this isn’t the stuff good stories are made of, I don’t know what is.

All Systems Red by Martha WellsMartha Wells has been a staple of my reading life and a long-time favorite of mine. Somehow I had filed her mostly as a fantasy author, although her fantasy novels often include SF elements such as lost technology or steampunk contraptions. All Systems Red is fully-fledged SF, with strong characterization and a fascinating style and POV. Murderbot tells us of its own adventures, and it speaks to the part of us that is withdrawn, socially awkward and needs its alone time (a lot of it, actually).

All Systems Red is written with all the thoughtfulness and empathy of a truly modern SF tale and fits in with other feel-good SF adventures of our time – we join a diverse group of scientists on a planet survey, and they simply like each other and are nice people. And while the plot revolves around something less nice harassing Murderbot’s clients (leading to some biting commentary on capitalism, which turns its deadly side on the protagonists, too), the inner struggle of Murderbot is far more important.

It is a story about truly accepting free will in another – maybe odd – life form, with all consequences. Good intentions may not be good enough, and changing attitudes is always a struggle on both sides. I loved how these themes are tackled in All Systems Red. It comes with a solid adventure story, not too complicated, because it is a novella you can read in one sitting, and features some shiny nuggets of worldbuilding (hey, it’s Martha Wells; she’s a master worldbuilder).

All Systems Red is framed as The Murderbot Diaries 1, and I’m already waiting for the next installment like it was an unwatched episode of Sanctuary Moon.

First person problems

Some of my favorite stories and novels are told from first-person perspective, and I love to employ first person narrators myself. I’m intrigued by the instant narrative situation they create when they come along and say: sit down and listen, I’m going to tell you a story.

But they sure are special snowflakes. I struggled to make a story work with a first person narrator these days, trying to find the voice of an unruly protagonist, and a beginning that didn’t suck. While ditching dozens of approaches, I again learned a lot, so why not put it on record for future reference?

First person narration is so different from third person narration that a certain amount of readers simply doesn’t like it. It is the original, primal storytelling mode (someone experienced something and goes on to tell the tale), but in fiction, third person has become the default mode. For me, third person narration is like hitting play on the media device of your choice, while first person narration is like sitting down with a storyteller. Some people enjoy being steered and sometimes overpowered by a narrator, some people just want to see how the events come to pass without a guide. But don’t be fooled; the storyteller may be hidden behind the ‘camera’ in third person narrations, but she’s there, deciding what you get to see.

As a writer, I feel like entering no-rules-country with a first person narrator, and you don’t even have to install an unreliable narrator for that (although it’s debatable if they aren’t all unreliable per default). While in third person you seem to have a limiting frame, looking through the eyes of one person at one time, you don’t have to tell one thing after the other with a first person narrator who may know the whole story. Tenses become arbitrary, and you have to decide, decide, decide: Why put this element here and not there? Why show it at all and not do a charming summary? Anything goes, except when it doesn’t. Of course you don’t have to do anything at all in third person narration either, because there are no rules if you can pull it off. First person narrators may be a good training ground for your storytelling antennas. You’ll have to make sure to sort out what’s really important and how and when it is best presented.

The distance between first person narrator and reader is anything but zero. No one thinks of himself or herself as the “I” in a story. A story is not a pop song, like a one-size-fits-all representation of your everyday joys and worries. You experience a different perspective, and for me, first person narrators even create a greater distance: while they are undeniably present in shaping the flow of the story, they seem to vanish from the events themselves. The narrator is at the same time inside the story (unless she tells about other people’s adventures) and outside of it. When she stands beside the reader, whispering in his ear, she just can’t be completely in the thick of the things she’s describing, only an aspect of her can. So you close one kind of distance, but open up another. This distance will also show in the places where first person narration appears to be artificial (as in: whoever remembers every single word of a years-old conversation?*).

There is, of course, a trick to avoid this. Well, there’s certainly more than one, but this one is very obvious: why not put the narrator in an ongoing now moment and tell the story in present tense? No distance at all, and you’re breathlessly rushing alongside your protagonist all the time and experience everything in real time. Expect that real time creates bloated abominations of stories. And while breathless rushing is fun in action scenes, it tends to suck when it whips you through a whole novel. At the moment, only two authors who did this with grace come to my mind – remarkably using a very similar plot device: Matthew Stover in Acts of Caine (first person narrator in present tense whenever Caine’s adventures are broadcasted to an audience, but third person when he is offline), and Linda Nagata in The Red (first person and present tense all the time, and there are hints that this is a show broadcasted to an audience).

There are brilliant first person narrations out there. I’m reading one at the moment and will recommend it fervently next week. In my own story, I opted for third person in the end. But I think messing around with various first person approaches helped me find the voice I needed.

*She’s making it up, of course. She’s a storyteller, not an archivist.

Sunday Story Time: Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death

Today I’m late, so you get something good – this is one of my favorite stories of all time (and probably my favorite by James Tiptree Jr.) Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death first appeared in 1973, went on to win a Nebula Award, and is a classic today. Its point of view lost nothing of its strangeness and the narration will keep you on your toes, freak you out and get you thinking. Not an easy read, but one you’ll likely never forget.

You can read Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death for free at Lightspeed Magazine’s webpage (it also appeared in their Women Destroy Science Fiction! anthology). And if you like audio books, do yourself a favor and listen to this story, read by the brilliant Stefan Rudnicki.

I wanna be Roy Batty

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

If you are the slightest bit into sf, the odds are pretty high that you not only know, but fiercely love the Tears in the rain monologue from Blade Runner. For me, it blew my mind when I was about 14 years old and watched the movie one night on my tiny TV. I was not only an sf fangirl back then, but was also very occupied with trying to wrap my mind around the concept of death at that time, so it spoke to me on every level.
I’ve heard and seen it quoted hundreds of times since then, up to the point where I’d actively avoid it in the hopes that it would never become trite to me. As the story goes, it was a genius piece of improvisation by Rutger Hauer.

And indeed, when I look at it now, what I see is a damn good storyteller.

So, if you think the magic is lost as soon as you know how a thing works, maybe now is the time to tiptoe out of the room and come back for the next post, because I’m going to look very closely at this quote.

Tears in the rain is not only a brilliant conclusion to an intense action sequence (and to the whole main story arc), but also a fine piece of micro-fiction. With these few lines, the universe of Blade Runner becomes so much bigger, promising things we could see, things out there, things transcending our bleak existence on Earth. That’s how you do evocative imagery and world-building, folks! C-beams? Sea-beams? What the hell are they even? Doesn’t matter, because we make up our own images. Our imagination does most of the heavy lifting here, but Roy’s words are the catalyst for the magic. No explanation needed. He knows. He has seen things. Good enough for our mind, it will gladly hop on the train to the stars now, thank you very much.

Also, with these lines, Roy’s life becomes narration, becomes a story in and on itself – the scenes we saw in the movie are maybe just a footnote (or more of an endnote) to something much larger. There are only hints, but they transform the character into something else altogether.
And Roy is transformed further by telling us the ending of his story, the ending of every story, ultimately, and giving the narration a metaphysical twist, especially considering his background.

Food for thought and food for imagination – philosophical impulse and evocative allusions – are the magic ingredients, and they are put to highly effective use here. I recommend a look at the two versions of the monologue, the one from the script and the improvised one from the movie (for example here at Wikipedia) to see that less is indeed more, and that the right words that glitter in the vast darkness approaching this scene from all sides are so much better than meticulous descriptions.

So, daring to transcend a concrete scene, and letting a strong narrator pull you in and unfold big spaces in your imagination makes for very convincing storytelling. I wouldn’t mind at all to be able to do it like Roy.