Tuesday, November 1

Big Stories and How to Tell Them

By Frederick Turner

Part of the How They Do It Series


Some stories span ages, covering an epic event or time period, so it can be tough to decide how to write them. Multiple POV? Many characters? Omniscient narrator? Frederick Turner takes the podium today to share his tactic for writing big stories--verse.

Frederick Turner was born in Northamptonshire, England, in 1943. After spending several years in central Africa, where his parents, the anthropologists Victor W. and Edith L. B. Turner, were conducting field research, Frederick Turner was educated at the University of Oxford (1962-67), where he obtained the degrees of B.A., M.A., and B.Litt. (a terminal degree equivalent to the Ph.D.) in English Language and Literature. He was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1977.

He is presently Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, having held academic positions at the University of California at Santa Barbara (assistant professor 1967-72), Kenyon College (associate professor 1972-85), and the University of Exeter in England (visiting professor 1984-85). From 1978-82 he was editor of The Kenyon Review. He has been married since 1966 to Mei Lin Turner (née Chang, a literary periodical editor), and has two sons.

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Take it away Frederick...

People sometimes ask me why I write my big complicated stories in verse. What’s wrong with ordinary prose fiction? Or if not, why not do them as graphic novels or comic books?

Any story has its own preferred form to be told in. My stories are of the kind that my friend Vernor Vinge describes when he says that the only stories he’s interested in are the ones in which the world is different at the end from what it was at the beginning.

Stories like that have a generic name: Epic. Homer’s Iliad tells of the fall of Troy and the birth of Greece. The epic of Genesis begins in Paradise and ends in a fallen world where we must forgive our brothers. The Aeneid begins with the fallen city and ends with the founding of the Roman Empire. The Popol Vuh begins with nothing and ends with the creation of the universe. The Mahabharata ends in a battle that changes the moral language of an entire culture.

And there’s a special sound in such stories, something echoey and shivery and strange. They don’t just use the existing language: they show how that language began, reaching back to where it didn’t yet have sounds and connected meanings. They make new language, or redefine the old. They change the ballfield and the rules, add a new axiom to the logic, and—very important, this—they ask to be committed to memory.

So plain (or even fancy) prose won’t quite do it for the stories I want to tell. I am a faithful science fiction groupie, and believe that SF has the potential to be the epic of our times. I love the genre, but for me it’s those moments when SF has its epiphanies of wonder that I like most. And those moments, whether in Arthur Clarke or Olaf Stapledon or Stan Robinson or David Brin or Neal Stephenson, are where the prose begins to turn into poetry.

Why not (I said to myself forty years ago, when I first decided to write science fiction epic) eliminate the middle man and go straight to poetry, to some kind of ringing or thundering or cut-and-thrust verse form? One that would get the reader straight into being ready for great marvels, for frightening or thrilling cosmic predicaments?

The new sciences of psycholinguistics tell us that verse, with its musical element of prosody, combines the factual and informative potentials of the left brain with the musical, connotative, and metaphorical capacities of the right brain. Verse doesn’t just walk, it dances. It doesn’t just state, it sings.

The rhythm of verse, with its (culturally universal) three-second line, exactly coincides with our three-second conscious present moment, and with the periodic need for the speaking brain to pause momentarily to think out the grammar and lexicon of the next three seconds. Further, that rhythm—the rhythm of chants, slogans, sea-shanties, liturgies and marching songs—demonstrably alters our brain chemistry when we experience or create it. That change, in turn,allows us to lower the threshold of our acceptance of metaphorical meanings, overtones, and connotations—the stuff we edit out when we “just want the facts, ma’am.”

Now plain prose can laboriously build in those associations, make explicit the metaphors, etc. But why not—I said to myself—use that innate capacity of poetry to tell the big stories? Those big stories go to the edge of things, to their ends and beginnings. Maybe they need the steady beat of the line and the metrical foot—the drumbeat Maskull keeps following in A Voyage to Arcturus—never obvious, but always faithfully pumping on underneath—to sustain us in those terrifying darknesses and dazzling brightnesses.

My earlier epics—The New World and Genesis—dealt with radical political change and the terraforming of Mars into a new home for humankind. My new epic, Apocalypse, deals with our heroic or tragic response to a catastrophic climate event and a great flood: its hero is a man called Noah Blazo. Noah for obvious reasons; Blazo because he blazes trails. The iambic pentameter of these poems—the form of English best suited to be the memorized by actors and lovers of poetry—was for me the only fitting medium to tell my big story.

The epic meter can put us into the “liminal” state that my father, the anthropologist Victor Turner, described in his pathbreaking ethnography of ritual. It is a neural/acoustic technology used by all cultures, and in my opinion, helped us human beings domesticate ourselves into human beings in the first place. In the beginning was the word, and the word was verse: the place where myth emerges from muteness, to be hammered into the useful currency of our communication.

But we’ve got suspicious of high-flown language. We laugh at those old Cecil B. deMille biblical epics, and laugh with Monty Python at the tropes of Arthurian or Judeo-Christian heroism. There’s a risk in presenting the reader with Miltonic blank verse. I’d have to tread lightly and allow the skeptical or mocking voice to have its say. But that can be done in poetic drama—think of Homer’s Thersites, Dante’s damned Florentines, Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

So my narrator himself, Nemo, is something of a cynic. He has been enlisted by his wise old Texas friend Noah to perform a task for which Nemo believes he is totally unsuitable. Nemo is quite often skeptical about the grand voice he paradoxically cannot help using—a voice he is actually quite good at, and, we suspect, he loves as we love a sweetheart who has cheated on us. He is ennobled by his almost faked impersonation of the Bard role. The reader’s cry that the emperor has no clothes is shared by the narrator, leaving the story to fend for itself with its adventures, its large speculative ideas, its larger-than-life obsessed character, and its implications for our own times.

So if we’re canny enough about it, maybe the prophetic voice can still make its way in this reductionistic world, disguised like a comic beggar in the hall of the suitors that was once its own realm. And maybe verse is the stringed instrument by which epic can regain its lost island kingdom.

About Apocalypse

It's 2067. The Antarctic ice sheets have collapsed. World sea levels have risen several feet and are rising faster still. The climate has changed catastrophically, and meteorological disasters are becoming a daily occurrence. Yet global power structures fail to respond, remaining frozen in political and ideological gridlock.

To confront this chaos, billionaire Noah Blazo recruits a team of genius misfits to bypass the political paralysis. With support from a coalition of island and coastal nations that are vulnerable to these catastrophes, his team launches an unsanctioned geo-engineering effort to restore the Earth's ecological balance--an activity that prompts a global power struggle immediately leading to war.

Events in the center of this conflict inadvertently trigger the emergence a quasi-divine being, Kalodendron, who dwells within the Internet. With her arrival comes a further threat to the Earth--the appearance of the dark star Wormwood, which looms within our solar system and is drawing closer.

With Kalodendron's help, can Blazo's team avert this two-fold threat to the Earth's destruction? Or do the tragedies that quickly follow ensure the planet's final destruction?

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2 comments:

  1. Apocalypse is not a genre I read, but the poem format was so interesting, I took a look inside on Amazon. Never seen anything like it. Amazing! Thanks for the intro to this story form.

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