Monday, April 22, 2013

Some thoughts on story openings

Inspired by a discussion over at Marie Brennan’s Livejournal (and the fact that I’m trying to get better at writing short stories), I thought it would be interesting to look at the openings to several of my favorite short stories. Now, if you came up to me on the street and asked me “what are you favorite short stories?” I’d gibber and drool and basically pull one of those Lovecraftian atavistic transformations.

But since I’m here at home, I can limit myself in a couple of ways to make this decision easy: only stories from the 1950s (so no Lovecraft); only science fiction/fantasy stories (so no Flannery O’Connor); only from books within easy reach (so no Le Guin); only stories that I could reliably tell you the plots of without rereading; and only one per author.

So first, I’d like to pour out some wine for the stories that didn’t make the cut, mostly because I don’t have a copy within easy reach. Which brings me to my next question: Where the hell are my Ursula K. Le Guin short stories? Did I not bring them to Texas? Are they buried in my various anthologies?

I'll confess, the 1950s criterion is pretty limiting and was largely chosen because I have several "best sf" books within reach that really focus on the 1950s. This is largely an artifact of the publishing industry and editorship of these books; and also a leftover from that chapter I was going to write for my dissertation about the mass/crowd in the 1950s, focusing on Theodore Sturgeon and Alfred Bester. But that way lies madness, so let's look at the stories.

1. Cordwainer Smith, “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950):
Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgment, not by sight. When he saw the table hit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Luci’s face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg were broken. It was not. Scanner to the core, he had to scan himself. The action was reflex and automatic. The inventory included his leg, abdomen, Chestbox of instruments, hands, arms, face and back with the Mirror. Only then did Martel go back to being angry. He talked with his voice, even though he knew that his wife hated its blare and preferred to have him write.
“I tell you, I must cranch. I have to cranch. It’s my worry, isn’t it?” 
Analysis: I love the balance of norm and abnorm here: dude is having argument with his wife, but he’s not just any dude, he’s a scanner. (Like “type-writer,” scanner is ambiguous--is it a thing or a person operating the thing?)

I’ve used this opening before in class, so I can go pretty deep here (reflex AND automatic?); but for a first-time reader, this opening sets up questions about what this guy is and why he must cranch (themes of technology and identity), while embedding that weirdness in a marital dispute to give the reader some sense of continuity.

The limited 3rd of the POV allows us an external view of Martel, while also giving some of his internals. Which is a nice way of signposting: we're going to deal with people's feelings here, but you're going to get objective evidence of those feelings.

2. Fritz Leiber, “Coming Attraction” (1950):
The coupe with the fishhooks welded to the fender shouldered up over the curb like the nose of a nightmare. The girl in its path stood frozen, her face probably stiff with fright under her mask. For once my reflexes weren’t shy. I took a fast step toward her, grabbed her elbow, yanked her back. Her black skirt swirled out.
The big coupe shot by, its turbine humming. I glimpsed three faces. Something ripped. I felt the hot exhaust on my ankles as the big coupe swerved back into the street. A thick cloud like a black flower blossomed from its jouncing rear end, while from the fishhooks flew a black shimmering rag.
"Did they get you?" I asked the girl. 
Analysis: Menace. Menace menace menace. There are certainly future/social questions raised by this opening: why is she wearing a mask, how bad have things gotten that people are joyriding with fishhooks welded to their hotrods? (That note is totally 1950s panic over juvenile delinquency. That's my nutshell of the 1950s: the bomb and teenagers, run!)

But this opening spends so little time on the coupe, which is just a collection of fragments for the narrator: humming turbine, three faces, hot exhaust, a black cloud (the first color description attached to the car, as it leaves). Notice also the rhythm of the sentences, balanced between long, multi-clausal and short: "I took a fast step toward her, grabbed her elbow, yanked her back. Her black skirt swirled out."

This is flowers of evil, season in hell stuff right here: poetic atmosphere setting. This guy isn't much of an action hero, but is more a flaneur. I'd bet a coupe with fishhooks that this story doesn't end happily, but that we're going to get a tour through this menacing new society.

3. Alfred Bester, “Fondly Fahrenheit” (1954): 
He doesn’t know which of us we are these days, but they know one truth. You must own nothing but yourself. You must make your own life, live your own life and die your own death... or else you will die another’s.
The rice fields on Paragon III stretch for hundreds of miles like checkerboard tundras, a blue and brown mosaic under a burning sky of orange. In the evening, clouds whip like smoke, and the paddies rustle and murmur.
A long line of men marched across the paddies the evening we escaped from Paragon III. They were silent, armed, intent; a long rank of silhouetted statues looming against the smoking sky. Each man carried a gun. Each man wore a walkie-talkie belt pack, the speaker button in his ear, the microphone bug clipped to his throat, the glowing view-screen strapped to his wrist like a green-eyed watch. The multitude of screens showed nothing but a multitude of individual paths through the paddies. The annunciators made no sound but the rustle and splash of steps. The men spoke infrequently, in heavy grunts, all speaking to all.
Analysis: "He doesn't know which of us we are these days" is something that Barth or Barthelme could have written, perfectly nonsensical in its pronouns. Like the Leiber, Bester avoids names here; but whereas in Leiber that played to the randomness of street life, here it plays to a serious confusion: "He" who? "We" who? "Which of us" what?

That first sentence is pretty essential in setting up the theme of identity/confusion, but let's take it out for a moment. (That closely mimics my experience of reading this: that first sentence is so weird that I just store it away for later, with a big question mark--what sort of story would create sense out of that sentence?) Without the first line, that first paragraph becomes a general comment about a life philosophy, not totally unlike Poe's usual openings.

Then the second paragraph zooms in from philosophy to landscape/aerial photography on an alien world; the third paragraph zooms in even closer, and except for that "we escaped," focuses purely on human landscape--the people out searching for something. So just on that level, this opening draws the reader in literally: here's a big philosophical truth that applies even to you, and here's a planet, and here's an exciting manhunt.

So this opening sinks three hooks into you: one is that cuh-razy first sentence (a semiotic hook--the search for meaning); another for the themes of identity (which seem to be interpersonal, as in that opening line and in the closing line with that mass of hunting men working together inarticulately); and a third for the plot--the manhunt. However, it's worth noting how this story foregrounds meaning and theme as opposed to plot. It's very easy to imagine a modern (and beginning) author starting with the man crashing through the wilds, trying to escape.

4. Philip K. Dick, “The Father-Thing” (1954): 
“Dinner’s ready,” commanded Mrs. Walton. “Go get your father and tell him towash his hands. The same applies to you, young man.” She carried a steaming casserole to the neatly set table. “You’ll find him out in the garage.”
Charles hesitated. He was only eight years old, and the problem bothering him would have confounded Hillel. “I —”he began uncertainly.
Analysis: From an objective standpoint, I don't think we can claim that "The Father-Thing" is Dick's greatest short stories. (Or, frankly, that his stories are his greatest work--go to his novels for that.) Really, "The Father-Thing" is only here because (a) I was very interested in the impostor theme in 1950s sf; and (b) I love the liberal dream presented in the story, that a bunch of kids--white, black, Italian (I think)--could join together to fight off an alien. It's the bright side to McCarthyism: anyone can fight the alien menace.

But as an opening, Dick sets up a totally normal situation, which he will then complicate: it's dinner at the Walton house but Charles is bothered by... something. It's curious to me how much Dick cares about the normalcy, giving the whole first paragraph to it. Yes, the story is called "The Father-Thing" and it was published in the Magazine of F and SF (ed. Boucher), so no one reading this is under the delusion that it might be mainstream fiction. Maybe that's something Dick exploits: presenting a very normal situation when his readers are expecting some sf scenario and so may keep reading to find out what that scenario is.

And Dick keeps us in anticipation for a while  with Charles: his hesitation, the long middle sentence about his situation in the vaguest terms (eight years old, Hillel), his uncertain and incomplete dialogue. Anticipation may keep us going. There's a useful lesson here for some writers (i.e., me) who like to always start off with some High Concept.

5. Avram Davidson, “The Golem” (1955):
The grey-faced person came along the street where old Mr. and Mrs. Gumbeiner lived. It was afternoon, it was autumn, the sun was warm and soothing to their ancient bones. Anyone who attended the movies in the twenties or the early thirties has seen that street a thousand times. Past these bungalows with their half-double roofs Edmund Lowe walked arm-in-arm with Leatrice Joy and Harold Lloyd was chased by Chinamen waving hatchets. Under these squamous palm trees Laurel kicked Hardy and Woolsey beat Wheeler upon the head with a codfish. Across these pocket-handkerchief-sized lawns the juveniles of the Our Gang comedies pursued one another and were pursued by angry fat men in golf knickers. On this same street—or perhaps on some other one of five hundred streets exactly like it.
Mrs. Gumbeiner indicated the grey-faced person to her husband. “You think maybe he’s got something the matter?” she asked. “He walks kind of funny, to me.” 
Analysis: Whimsy. Whimsy whimsy whimsy. Well, maybe not quite that much whimsy: there's also some farce and nostalgia in here in that long recollection of the various comedy (and romance) films that could have been filmed on this street. (If you want more sense of nostalgia and age, note the first description of the Gumbeiners involves their "ancient bones.")

Davidson telegraphs (how retro) that this is a story that won't end on a massive downer. I also think he points out that this story is one in a long line of golem/created stories by pointing to the movies made on streets just like this. (The streets themselves seem as repeatable as the film formulas, but that's enough of that.)

So how does Davidson hook the reader with this opening? Like Dick, Davidson has a title that indicates the weirdness to come; but unlike Dick, Davidson starts with the weirdness of the grey-faced person. That whole section on the street/the films tells us that nothing bad will happen here, but it's bookended by the weirdness of "the grey-faced person." Gotta love that repetition, so we know what to look at, where the action is going to come from in this piece.

6. Theodore Sturgeon, “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959):
Say you're a kid, and one dark night you're running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you're too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn't a toy, it's a model. You tell him look here, here's something most people don't know about helicopters. You take a blade of the rotor in your fingers and show him how it can move in the hub, up and down a little, back and forth a little, and twist a little, to change pitch. You start to tell him how this flexibility does away with the gyroscopic effect, but he won't listen. He doesn't want to think about flying, about helicopters, or about you, and he most especially does not want explanations about anything by anybody. Not now. Now, he wants to think about the sea. So you go away.
The sick man is buried in the cold sand with only his head and his left arm showing. He is dressed in a pressure suit and looks like a man from Mars. Built into his left sleeve is a combination time-piece and pressure gauge, the gauge with a luminous blue indicator which makes no sense, the clock hands luminous red. He can hear the pounding of surf and the soft swift pulse of his pumps. One time long ago when he was swimming he went too deep and stayed down too long and came up too fast, and when he came to it was like this: they said, "Don't move, boy. You've got the bends. Don't even try to move." He had tried anyway. It hurt. So now, this time, he lies in the sand without moving, without trying.
Analysis: "The Man Who Lost the Sea" is a slow build of feeling and meaning as the story parcels out doses of information and ignorance. For instance, if you just read this first paragraph, what would you imagine? I see a sick man on a chaise longue on the beach, attached to a sanatorium or taking a rest cure. I see a kid with a new toy and I can imagine a story where the sour old man is reconciled to the young kid, blah blah blah.

But then that second paragraph gives you a perfectly weighted left hook in that first line and follows it up in very line after: the man is buried in sand, the man is in a pressure suit, he can't even read his gauges. So in that movement from first to second paragraph, the story gives us some info, allows us to make of that what we will, and then steps in with some more info. Reading this story is a constant exercise of drawing and re-drawing mental pictures. Put another way: reading this story is like being involved in the scientific method.

I also want to give a shout out to that "Say you're a kid," which highlights the work of imagination tha this story will demand of its readers and the theme of uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand. I like "Say you're a kid" better than "Call me Ishmael," but you can see how they both orbit around the same ideas.

Looking at Sturgeon in this way, it's clear why I've always put him with Bester and not with, say, Heinlein or Asimov. All of these authors have stories where they start with problems, but Bester and Sturgeon often involve problems of meaning, whereas Heinlein and Asimov stories often involve problems of plot. (Is that fair? Do I have to go reread some Heinlein and Asimov now?)

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