Learn from the Best

My writers group often adds a skill session to provide a change from our main critiquing task. Earlier this year, it was suggested we comment on a recent book we’ve read in terms of what lessons we gleaned, if any. I chose two stories, for contrast. One disappointing novel (which I’ll discuss but won’t name) and an outstanding, classic novella.

The novel, though unworthy of a positive review from me, still highlighted lessons to be learned, or perhaps in this case, avoided. The solar system exploration tale was populated with cardboard characters acting out predictable situations. The evil mastermind’s motivation was to be evil. The main takeaway for me was to honour Erle Stanley Gardner’s “eliminate all stock situations” rule (in fact extend it to stock characters and stock motivations).

The painful lack of surprise in most scenes got me to thinking more about scene construction. If a scene fails to ignite, what might be an alternative approach? Instead of choosing the most likely character’s point of view to relate and observe the action, choose the least likely; it might be more dramatic.

In terms of the one-dimensional characters, what might be an alternative approach? Switch motivations? Antagonists who block the protagonists’ desires, are more interesting when they truly believe their actions are for the good, that’s pretty standard (outside this book anyway). Conflicting motivations and subsequent actions by the protagonists can lead to a more complex, satisfying read.

Speaking of satisfying reads, the novella The Moon Moth by Jack Vance (Science Fiction Hall of Fame vol. IIB), is such a read. Vance creates an alien society where masks are mandatory in public and must reflect the wearer’s mood and station. If you wear the mask of an aggressive icon, you must be willing to back it up by appropriate action if challenged. In drops a newly-arrived human diplomat who errs in his initial mask choice and narrowly escapes being killed by the locals for his transgression. Complication arises when a human murderer reaches the planet and the protagonist must identify and capture the incognito villain. Using logic and deduction which are unique to the alien society’s mores, the protagonist succeeds, overcoming the handicaps of his low-caste position.

Vance layers human societal commentary into the alien standard, distinguishing how the aliens make their system work versus the human failure to enforce the consequences of adopting a disingenuous persona. Then he adds a mystery, a time bomb which will mean more deaths, the loss of respect for humans in general and a miserable individual fate for the protagonist if the murderer isn’t caught.

The Moon Moth is a shining example of science fiction. A believable, internally logical alien society where humans must adapt. Outsiders haven’t earned the right to ask ‘why?’ but instead should ask ‘why not?’. The story is timeless and Vance makes it look easy.

Lesson? Awkwardly spelled names, seven limbs and a green sun do not an alien society make. True differences in thought do. If the author can use the differences to objectively yet subtly reflect upon a human foible, well done!

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