The Stroke of Lightning

Love at First Sight

In French it’s “le coup de foudre,” “the stroke of lightning.”  Love at first sight—if we’re going to be talking about it so much, let’s call it LAFS for short (an especially good term if we’re doing romantic comedy)—is one of the most ancient, familiar, and infamous romance tropes.  But contemporary genre romance has its own spin on the matter.

Scene from It Only Takes A MomentThere are, of course, innumerable songs that memorialize this phenomenon, from the classic “Some Enchanted Evening” (from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific)—“you may see a stranger, across a crowded room”—to a more recent Colbie Caillat song, Brighter Than the Sun, which actually uses the phrase “lightning strikes the heart.”  Or simply consider the title of “It Only Takes a Moment,” which originated in Hello Dolly (1964) and was used to poignant effect in WALL-E (2008).

Shakespeare goes so far as to say “Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?” (As You Like It, III.5.81), an homage to Christopher Marlowe, who’d said it before in his 1598 poem Hero and Leander (according to Wikipedia).  I need not mention Romeo and Juliet.

Aside from romance strictly speaking, LAFS can be useful in an adventure story, by way of what TV Tropes calls The Dulcinea Effect:  “the compulsion many male heroes have to champion, quest for, or die for girls they met five minutes ago.”  This can be contrasted with, or may lead to, a romance “forged in fire”—the notion that a couple may bond through having an adventure together.  I’m fond of this one myself, perhaps applied with one spin or another.

For the moment, let’s note that the instant-love convention is fun, but often seems implausible, not to mention clichéd.  One can see LAFS simply as a dramatic convention, like the Shakespearean soliloquy—but perhaps that’s not all there is to it.

Lust at First Sight

Shanna, book cover

The contemporary romance, more preoccupied with eros.

In modern genre romances, a great deal more emphasis is placed on physical desire than was the case in earlier tales.  As a result, LAFS takes a slightly different form.

In a “Some Enchanted Evening” or Romeo and Juliet scenario, the lovers’ beguilement may be almost spiritual, a sort of epiphany.  They are attracted to each other’s beauty, but there may be an element of reverence mixed in.  In the contemporary romance, on the other hand, the first impression is decidedly physical.  Once the main characters meet, they can hardly keep their hands off each other.

This sort of LAFS is both more plausible and less substantial than the more general sort.  It’s plausible because physical desirability can be evident at first sight.  It can be intensified by further acquaintance—getting to know the voice, actions, words, varied aspects of the beloved.  But the sexual attraction, at least, can be immediate.  This is traditionally true for males, but contemporary romance makes it abundantly clear that in at least some cases women react the same way.  Examples are so omnipresent as to make it unnecessary to cite them.

To do these stories justice, they recognize that insta-lust isn’t enough.  The main characters typically take an entire novel’s worth of events to really fall in love.  Lust (or, less tendentiously, sexual desire) is just the initial driver.  There’s a lot of “getting to know you” to be done before the story is over.  And a good deal of that usually happens through meeting obstacles or countervailing forces that need to be overcome.

Tension and Obstacle

If the romantic leads fall in love immediately, there have to be obstacles that prevent them from getting together at once.  Otherwise, the story will be very short.  I believe it’s from an entertaining opus entitled Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies that I recall the sage advice:  “If your story is ‘they came, they saw, they dated,’ then you don’t have a story yet.”  With intense attraction pulling the lovers together, they’ll collapse into each other at once unless there’s also something to push them apart.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t precisely true.  One could simply depict a couple gradually growing more interested in each other.  At first the romantic interest is just somebody they know or meet.  Then a greater interest awakens, attraction strengthens, and they reach that obsessive fascination that marks the “falling in love” stage.  This type of relationship might be the most common and realistic of all.  But it’s the hardest to manage for an author:  it requires depicting a whole series of attitudes developing at just the right pace.

I would love to see such a story.  But it would be much subtler and more gradual than the tempestuous narratives audiences tend to prefer.  Your average handbook on fiction writing will dwell at length on the importance of conflict in holding a reader’s interest—and for good reason.

Count to a Trillion coverThe obstacles that keep the lovers apart, then, may be external or internal.  The simplest external problem is physical separation.  In John C. Wright’s “Count to the Eschaton” series (it begins with Count to a Trillion, 2011), the star-crossed lovers connect in volume one.  However, the female lead, Rania, must embark on a slower-than-light interstellar voyage that will last twelve thousand years.  She will survive due to time dilation.  But it’s a good thing her earthbound partner, Menelaus Illation Montrose (there’s a name for you!), has ways of prolonging his life over the intervening millennia.  In the meantime, their relationship is on hold.

A more conventional separation can be seen in tales from the Age of Sail, when sea travel around the world might take years—shorter than millennia, but long enough in a human life.  Captain Jack Aubrey, for example, the perennial hero of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, frequently spends months at a time apart from his beloved Sophie.

External obstacles may also include dangers that keep the characters otherwise occupied—from immediate peril in an action-adventure story to blackmail or other threats—as well as social or cultural barriers like those faced by Romeo and Juliet.

In a less action-oriented tale, the obstacles are more character-based or internal.  The love affair may be interrupted by disputes (You’ve Got Mail), misunderstandings, antipathy for one reason or another (Pride and Prejudice), or by one or the other person’s inner character issues, such as previous bad experiences or trust issues (where the Big Lie often plays a role).  External and internal problems can be combined in romantic thrillers like Don’t Look Down (Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, 2007).

In each case, the characters’ initial attraction, the LAFS moment, keeps pulling them together in spite of the difficulties, ad astra per aspera.  They just can’t resist each other, no matter what plausible reasons might be given for trying.  The combination of opposing drives creates the fruitful tension that keeps the reader’s interest.

White Smoke coverIt’s worth noting that Andrew Greeley counterposes desire in a similar way to the more mundane obstacles of daily life.  In White Smoke (1996), Blackie Ryan, a frequent Greeley spokesperson character, observes:  “human sexuality is distinct from the sex of other primates in that it is for bonding as well as for procreation.  The bond between husband and wife stretches like a rubber band. . . . Then, when it is at the breaking point, the force of passionate love draws them together again.”  This is a constant theme in Greeley’s novels.  In other words, lust or desire isn’t just for beginnings, for LAFS.  It continues to play a vital role throughout a love affair and into marriage.

But I digress.

Retrospective Love

One of my brothers once asked the other two of us whether we believed in LAFS.  The three of us ultimately came to the same conclusion.  You can fall for someone at first sight, yes; but you won’t know if it’s love until much later.

The instant attraction is a good starting point.  But it can’t ripen into love unless the participants come to know more about each other’s personality, character, interests, and so on.  We have to see someone in a variety of circumstances:  what they’re like with family, friends, enemies; when they’re mad, happy, sleepy; over the long run.  (The plausibility of the “forged in fire” adventure-romance is that strenuous situations reveal more about someone’s character than more ordinary casual interactions.)  As an old Orleans song puts it, “love takes time.”

Later on, when the couple has grown closer enough to know that they really do love each other, they can look back at their first meeting and say, that was when we began to fall in love.  And they won’t be wrong.  Chances are they felt that initial attraction right then, and now they know that was the beginning of a love story.

But that couldn’t have been predicted from the moment of LAFS.  Some such moments sputter out:  they prove to be mere temporary infatuation, or the admired individual turns out to be unavailable (already married, for instance), or on getting to know them better they find that they aren’t as good a fit as they thought.  We can’t know, from the initial thunderbolt alone, that it’s going to lead to a true love story.

So we can fall in love at first sight; but we can only say that retrospectively, after the fact.

Emma, coverThis points up an important difference between stories and real life.  If we’re reading a story—particularly a genre romance—we can generally be confident that LAFS will lead to a deeper relationship between the characters.  We predict that not from LAFS itself, but from genre and narrative expectations.  This isn’t always borne out:  some tales will start by introducing a romantic interest who doesn’t turn out to be The One, later to be displaced by the real article.  Jane Austen’s Emma is a brilliant example of this twist:  among other comic errors, the heroine thinks she’s in love with Frank Churchill, but it takes the entire novel for her to realize that it’s her longtime friend George Knightley that she really loves.  But as a rule, if the heroine is devastated by the attractions of someone in Chapter the First, that’s who she will end up with in Chapter the Last.

In real life, we have no such guarantee.  Life is a story, but it’s not always constructed according to our narrative rules—at least in the short run.  We cannot know in advance whether the object of desire who’s just swum into our ken is really our destiny.

Conclusion

As the famous sage Wikipedia observes, LAFS fits in neatly with the notion, put forth as far back as Plato, that the beloved is our “other half,” the one who makes us complete—what we might call the theory of complementarity.  In Plato’s dialogue, Aristophanes suggests that meeting our other half leads directly to an intoxicating attachment to the other person.

Would that it were so simple.  If our whole selves were evident at first glance—if our appearance fully expressed our selves—that might work:  who you really are would be “written all over your face.”  But in fact a given moment or aspect expresses something about who we are, but not everything.  Even in the best case, we can’t possibly absorb everything about a person at first sight—which may be a good thing, as it allows us some privacy and reserve.  In worse cases, though, the other may deliberately deceive us or conceal things that would compromise our love.  That’s why love takes time.

Lois McMaster Bujold once said, “The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not ‘Do these two people get together?’ but rather ‘Can I trust you?’  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.”  The answer to that question we can only learn by extensive experience—though perhaps that experience can be compressed to some degree by experiences that show our true natures in condensed fashion (the “forged in fire” trope).  Only at length can we really know love at first sight.

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The Distilled Adaptation

Shortening

The translation of a story from book to stage or screen always involves some degree of change.  The two arts are different; what works to communicate a story in one medium may not work in another.

A book can accommodate relatively long sequences of events, because we read a book in segments on our own schedule.  But a stage play or movie has to be geared to the limitations of the human body.  Watching a full-scale version of The Wheel of Time, say, at one sitting would require both an IV and a catheter—and a “pause” button for sleep.

Tom Bombadil (from card game)Thus, the live-action rendition of a novel generally has to leave things out, and the ability to condense the story smoothly is vital.  For example, the three-film Lord of the Rings omits the book’s entire side trip through the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-Downs.  Even with three long films, something had to be cut.  (This omission, incidentally, was a good choice and well-executed.)

The limitations of time have eased a bit with the introduction of multi-episode and bingeworthy screen formats, along with viewers’ increasing willingness to follow long-running stories (a curious counterpoint to the frequent suggestion that our attention span is eroding).  An eight-season Game of Thrones video production can cover much of what occurs in a very long book series.  But the writer or director must still gauge what can be included and what can be omitted.

Reorienting

Sometimes, when condensing a book for the theatre, the writers may take the opportunity to narrow the focus of the original story—particularly when the novel is a broad, rambling, discursive sort of tale.  In the process, they may also convey a meaning (what we might cautiously call the “moral of the story”) that’s different from that of the original.  Depending on what the rewrite chooses to emphasize, the new version may point in a different, or more definite, direction than the old.

Reorienting a tale this way can improve it—depending on what the new direction is.  Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha posterWe recently looked at the staging of the 1965 play Man of La Mancha; and a couple of years back we talked about what it says to us.  When I first saw the show back in 1970, its basic theme fit right in with what had become a widespread idea back in the 1960s:  that we are too prone to think of ourselves as unworthy of love, and that becomes a self-fulfilling handicap.

To recap:  The fantasy-ridden Don Quixote finds his ideal lady Dulcinea in a barmaid and part-time prostitute named Aldonza.  Aldonza despises herself as well as the men who use her.  She is at first baffled, and then enraged, by Quixote’s persistent attempts to idolize her and praise her ladylike virtues.  She feels she has no virtues; he is refusing to see her as she really is.  (Audio / Movie video)

Against her will, under Quixote’s gentle persistent courtesy, she begins to believe she can be better than the way she’s always thought of herself.  She is promptly and brutally disillusioned when the muleteers attack her.  The play pulls no punches:  being “nice” or showing generosity is no guarantee against mistreatment.  Yet, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Quixote continues to treat her as a noble lady.

Dulcinea, at Don Quixote's deathbedAt the end of the play (7:42 in the clip), after Quixote’s death, she finally accepts that she is more than a nobody, “born on a dungheap”:  she will honor Quixote’s memory by living his impossible dream.  “My name . . . is Dulcinea.”

I'm Lovable buttonMan of La Mancha forcefully illustrates what in the ’60s became a truism.  We must see what is potentially lovable in someone before it is evident; and sometimes that premature faith and hope can help the person realize they are lovable—and free them to love.  This is more than the mere psychology of self-esteem; it’s an insight about how human beings work that is still worth recognizing.

Yet this isn’t exactly what Cervantes had in mind.  It’s been a long time since I read his immense rambling novel, but I don’t recall that this theme of convincing people they are lovable was evident there.  The novel speaks to a lot of other issues, such as the interplay of realism and idealism, but it isn’t focused on this.  Rather, the authors of the play selected and adapted material from Cervantes to address a theme characteristic of their own time.

One might complain that the modern playwrights have hijacked an existing story for a purpose the novel’s author never had in mind.  But as I see it, the concentrated, powerful Man of La Mancha is a great deal more interesting than the long and diffuse original.  The adapting writers have distilled a potent new wine from familiar grapes.

Les Misérables

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is also a massive novel, covering many years’ time and an array of main characters.  It’s also prone to digression, including among other side trips a chapter on the history of the Paris sewer system (part 5, Book Second, chapter II).  When I read the book, I made myself a whole list of sections that could be skipped, without loss, on a second reading.

Les Miserables (opera) logo

By Source, fair use (Wikipedia)

Obviously, this discursive work can’t be transformed directly into a play or a movie.  Nonetheless, there are quite a few film or stage versions.  The one I find most powerful is the opera Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel, with English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer (1980).  It’s a long show, just under three hours, but of course it can’t begin to reproduce the entire book.

Thus, again, the playwrights are selective.  The novel tells the story of a group of people caught up in the Paris revolt of 1832, extending backward as far as 1815 to depict the backstory of Jean Valjean, the central character.  The play starts almost as far back.  After being imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is overcome by the mercy of God when a kind bishop refuses to turn him in for a new theft, and resolves to make a better man of himself.  He adopts the orphaned girl Cosette and raises her in secret, avoiding public notice so as not to be imprisoned again.  The grown-up Cosette falls in love with Marius, a young student involved in the short-lived and futile revolt.  To save Cosette’s beloved, Valjean joins the rebels and, as the barricade falls, rescues the fallen Marius.  At the end, with Cosette and Marius married, Valjean dies at peace, received into heaven by the spirits of Fantine, Cosette’s mother, and Eponine, a reformed girl who also loved Marius and died on the barricades.

The music is extraordinarily powerful.  I’ve seen the play twice.  Each time was an intensely moving experience.  The opera was finally made into a movie in 2012, with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried.

One Day More, from Les MiserablesA political motif is essential to the story—the tragic plight of the poor of France and the injustice that drove them so often to rebellion.  And as a political drama, it’s a bitter tale.  The student activists, confident that the people of Paris will rally to their side, put themselves on the line.  And no one comes to join them.  The revolt is snuffed out at once, barely a footnote in history.  The only triumph that can be found is a visionary one in the indefinite future:

 

Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?

Somewhere beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing?

Say, do you hear the distant drums?

It is the future that they bring

When tomorrow comes!    (Finale)

 

Les Miserables - To love another person is to see the face of GodThen why is the play so uplifting?  We don’t care so much about the revolt’s failure because the characters transcend their miseries.  Cosette and Marius marry; they’ve earned their happy ending.  Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine die, but they ascend to eternal bliss.  The revolt accomplishes nothing, but the heroism and love of the principal characters makes that detail seem irrelevant.

The theme of the opera might be summarized as:  ‘Politics comes and goes, but people are forever.’  How we treat other people is vastly more important, in the long run, than the rise and fall of political regimes.  Of course, the two are not unrelated:  the purpose of a sound political regime is to make it possible for people to live good lives.  But this particular story places all its weight on the personal side.

I’m not sure that that’s what Hugo had in mind.  He might have; he certainly does emphasize the heroic compassion of Valjean and contrasts the ironies of the abortive revolution.  But it seems to me Hugo’s novel had considerably more of a political axe to grind than the opera does.  It’s a matter of degree, but I don’t know that Hugo would have sympathized entirely with the adaptation’s relative downplaying of the political.

Conclusion

In both these cases, it seems to me the adaptation has taken a particular thread from a very large original and woven it into a much more condensed, more focused story.  In doing so, the adapters have chosen to bring out themes that may be different from the bent of the original tale.

When it’s successful, such an adaptation gives us a derivative work drawing on untapped potentials in the original.  The relationship is not unlike what I’ve called the “malleability of myth.”  A root story can be reinterpreted in many ways—and some of them may be greater than the original.

A Place for Horror

The Question of Horror

I’ve never been fond of the horror genre.  I just don’t see the point of being scared or (more often) disgusted or repelled by a story.  As Randall Munroe of xkcd puts it:  “I know everyone’s into what they’re into, but I have never understood horror movies.”

Approaching the genre as an outsider, then, my question is:  why is there such a genre at all?  Is it just the desire for a thrill?  Or is the whole interest in horror merely morbid?

An interesting remark in a Diane Duane story recently gave me an inkling of what the function of horror stories might be.  As we’re coming up to Hallowe’en, I thought the point might be worth examining this week.

Horror, and Genre Horror

Alien - movie posterTo be sure, one sometimes bumps up against horror elements incidentally in the course of pursuing other types of stories.  I did watch the movie Alien when it came out in 1979—but that was because it was science fiction, not because it was horror.  It’s both—I recall coming out of the theatre literally shaking.  But I don’t think I’ve watched it a second time.

In a similar way, there’s a good admixture of horror in Jurassic Park (I’m thinking mainly of the 1993 movie).  Plenty of “jump scene” shock moments, and gore; and I have rewatched that one, but it’s for the other elements, most notably the sheer wonder of seeing the paleontologists encounter actual living dinosaurs.  As the xkcd comic mouseover observes, I enjoy it because dinosaurs are cool.  I’m willing to go through a good deal of bad stuff in a story if the good stuff makes it worthwhile.

Even a nice song can turn up unexpected horror elements.  The title song from Carole King’s Tapestry album is a lovely meditative piece that begins “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue . . .”  Pleasant, yes?  But the lyric gradually drifts into a dream, or maybe a nightmare:  the end of the song gives us “. . . A figure, gray and ghostly, beneath a flowing beard / In times of deepest darkness, I’ve seen him dressed in black / Now my tapestry’s unraveling, he’s come to take me back . . .”  That’s rather disturbing, though the song is so pretty that one hardly notices the rather dreadful image.

The Stand - book coverBut what little I have seen of genre horror makes clear that it has its own conventions, its own tendencies and interests, that go beyond these occasional elements.  I recognized this when I read Stephen King’s novel The Stand (1978).  While the story is essentially a fantasy, it has a science-fictionish premise:  an apocalyptic pandemic that wipes out most of humanity.  So I approached it as an SF novel.

Some characters are escaping from New York City (if I recall correctly) through a tunnel jammed with stopped vehicles, which are occupied by the decomposing bodies of plague victims struck down at the wheel.  Not a pleasant place for a trek.  So they enter the tunnel, are appropriately horrified by this commuter charnel house.  They continue on.  And on.  And on.  And at some point I found myself wondering, why are we still in this tunnel?  I get the point.  Why aren’t we moving forward with the plot?  And it dawned on me:  that’s the SF reader’s reaction.  But this is horror.  The dreadful experience of going through the tunnel is the whole point for a horror reader.

Similarly, in Weird Tales-type stories like ”Shambleau” and others of C.L. Moore’s early work, it seems clear that the horror elements are the purpose of the story.  And it’s a durable purpose.  There’s still a thriving cottage industry of pastiches, games, and academic interest in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, though Lovecraft has been dead since 1937.  (At least, we think he’s dead . . .)

Science Fiction Monsters

The Demon Breed coverOn the other hand, compare this with an SF story that merely has horror elements.  There’s a sizable subgenre of science fiction monster stories, even if we throw out the B-movies and Godzilla remakes.  James H. Schmitz was particularly good at these.  Take a look at his collection A Pride of Monsters:  short stories like “The Winds of Time” (1962) and “Greenface” (1943) have structures very like traditional horror tales.  And the excellent short novel The Demon Breed (1968) makes use of horror tropes in telling an intense adventure story.

But while “Greenface” may read as a horror story, Schmitz’s other monster tales don’t come across that way.  There’s a difference in tone and mood.  Even though there are fairly horrid suggestions in “The Winds of Time”—the (extremely intelligent) monster in that story “preferred . . . to have its snacks still wriggling-fresh as it started them down its gullet”—we don’t dwell on them.  It reads to me more like an SF problem-story, where the characters must come up with inventive means to extricate themselves from a difficult situation.

Similar observations apply to, say, A.E. van Vogt’s assembly of monster-stories The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1938-1950)—or even van Vogt’s “Asylum” (1942), an early envisioning of science-fictional (as opposed to fantasy or religious) vampires.  The tone and mood are different from those of a true horror tale; they’re appealing to a different audience.

The Appeal of Horror

Why do we include horror elements in a story?

The most obvious answer, from an F&SF perspective, is conflict.  If we’re dealing with an epic or an adventure, we need to see that the evil our heroes are fighting against is, in fact, evil.  And one easy way to do that is to show the bad guys doing horrible things.  Maybe the threat is not merely death, but any of several Fates Worse Than Death.  Not only bodily death, but the soul itself (the theology is a little murky here) is at stake.  Not merely enslavement, but cannibalism.  We accentuate the menace against which the main characters are striving by making it a “parade of horribles.”

More broadly, horror aids contrast.  The good stands out better against a background of evil:  we can more readily appreciate the good when it’s juxtaposed with the bad.  When we return to the Shire, we appreciate it more than in the initial chapters, because we’ve seen far worse places.  (Of course, Tolkien’s actual treatment of “The Scouring of the Shire” is more nuanced and complex than that simple contrast suggests—but the simple contrast still underlies the conclusion of the story.)

Ringwraith looms over hobbitsIn this connection, Darrell Schweitzer notes that Tolkien has an unexpected knack for horror writing (The Fantastic Horizon, ch. 2).  The central concept of the Ring itself is pretty darn creepy:  an innocent-looking but almost-sentient magic item that gradually subverts the wearer’s will.  The Black Riders pursuing the hobbits through a seemingly-idyllic Shire—the night attack on Weathertop—the attack of Shelob at Cirith Ungol—Tolkien knows how to invoke the awful as well as the awesome.

But while these uses explain some horror elements in other kinds of stories, they don’t fully account for the horror genre.  If the horrible is not set up as opposition or contrast, but rather as the main preoccupation of the story, it must be there for some other reason.

Immunization

Interim Errantry coverDiane Duane’s collection of three Young Wizards stories, Interim Errantry (2015) includes a 2011 Hallowe’en story, “Not In My Patch.”  Early in the story, senior wizard Carl Romeo is talking to Nita, the main character, about the reason for elaborate Hallowe’en displays:

“But who doesn’t like being safely scared, occasionally?  Pleasantly scared, by something that can’t really hurt you?  . . . It starts getting you used to fear . . . so when you come up against something really scary, you can cope a little better.”

“Like being vaccinated,” Nita said.  “The weakened bugs make you immune . . .”

This idea suggests a wholesome purpose even for stories that focus primarily on the horrible.  The stories may not be quite as frivolous as the jack-o-lanterns and orange-and-black bunting that we see at this season.  But we can still say to ourselves, “it’s just a story.”  We expose ourselves to the scary or appalling in some degree without having to go through those experiences in real life.  Because there are scary and appalling things in the world; and we don’t want to lead so sheltered a life that we’re wholly incapacitated or unmoored if we should meet them.  As Nita says, it helps us develop an immunity.

Redheaded cartoon witch on broomstickWe can go even further.  If we learn to laugh at horror, we can to some degree deprive it of its self-importance, place ourselves beyond it.  (In the passage excerpted above, Carl notes that the Lone Power “really, really hates not being taken seriously”—a sentiment echoed to good effect at the end of Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos.)  Call it whistling in the dark—but this attitude may help prepare us, in some small way, for those times when we do encounter horror in real life.  It may explain why our Hallowe’en decorations tend toward the ridiculous and cartoonish.  “Here’s a witch no one could be afraid of.”  (In this connection, I can’t resist citing to one of my favorite treatments of the Cthulhu Mythos.)

May you all have a happy Hallowe’en, then, and may all your fears be as abstract and hypothetical as the Great Pumpkin.  “Forth now, and fear no darkness.”

White moon with crow and bats (Pixabay)

Witty Banter

Clever Conversation

Billy Joel famously remarked, “I don’t want clever conversation; never want to work that hard” (“Just the Way You Are” (1977) at 1:30).  For my part, though, I find I do want clever conversation.  (And I’m willing to work at it.)  Witty wordplay is one of my favorite things to find in a story.

Conversational sparring comes in a number of varieties—and especially in exchanges between romantic interests.  This post may run a little long, because in order to get my point across I’ve got to quote some dialogue at length.

The Well-Chosen Word

Verbal comedy can arise spontaneously in comedies of errors—misunderstood conversations, double meanings and double entendres, the confusions to which language is ever prone.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster

It helps if one character is an airhead.  Bertie Wooster, the amiable narrator of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, has been described (by Jeeves) as “mentally negligible.”  As the Wikipedia article observes, Bertie’s use of language is actually rather remarkable—but it lacks control.  His frequently-mangled allusions may throw his hearers for a loop, and he’s just as likely to misunderstand what they’re getting at.  This pattern is common in Wodehouse, where at least one person, often the main character, is a little muddled.

Sprig Muslin book coverBut even competent characters can be at a loss if the situation is itself muddled.  For example, in the delightful closing sequence to Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin (ch. 17-18), the normally self-possessed Captain Kendal arrives on the scene thinking he’s rescuing his madcap lady-love Amanda, not realizing that he has entirely misinterpreted the situation.  Thus:

“Why,” the Captain shot at him, “did the chambermaid find your ward’s door locked?  Why did your ward think it necessary to lock her door?”

“She didn’t.  I locked the door, so that she shouldn’t escape a second time.  Yes, come over here, Hildebrand!  Our visitor wants to shake you by the hand. . . . This, Hildebrand, unless I much mistake the matter is the Brigade-Major.”

“What, Amanda’s Brigade-Major?” exclaimed Hildebrand.  “Well, of all things!  However did you find us out, sir?”

“For God’s sake, have I strayed into a madhouse?” thundered the Captain.  “Where is Amanda?”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Hildebrand, looking startled.  “I daresay she has gone down the road to the farm, though. . . . Oh, I say, sir, I wish you will tell me!—will she be obliged to wring chickens’ necks if she goes to Spain?”

“Wring—No!” said the Captain, thrown by this time quite off his balance.

“I knew it was all nonsense!” said Hildebrand triumphantly.  “I told her it was, but she always thinks she knows everything!”

Heyer is a past master at this; I’ve often thought of her as a kind of combination of Wodehouse and Jane Austen (herself a master of elegant verbal skirmishing).  Indeed, I once looked in at the annual Boston-based science fiction convention Boskone and read the program’s tongue-in-cheek explanation of why a SF convention includes a Regency ball:  Heyer’s characters were so superb at clever badinage that they must represent some kind of alternate reality—no mere humans could come up with such adroit dialogue on the spur of the moment.

False Colours cover When the wit is one-sided— a clever interlocutor and an airheaded one—there’s some danger that the exchange may come across as a bit mean, with one character taking advantage of the other.  (“Persiflage,” another term for witty banter, is sometimes glossed as “quizzing mockery” or “scoffing.”)  But the smart character and the less-than-brilliant character can also be on good terms with each other, as in Kit Fancot’s fond teasing of his lovable but flighty mother in Heyer’s False Colours.

Flirtatious Banter

The combination of verbal sparring and affection reaches its apex when the two participants are in love with each other—whether or not they know it yet.

Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (1993 movie)The locus classicus for such a relationship is Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy built largely around the contentious romance of Beatrice and Benedick.  Beatrice’s uncle explains the relationship to a newcomer explicitly at the outset:  “You must not, sir, mistake my niece:  there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (lines 50-52).  We then see them in action:

Beatrice:  I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.

Benedick:  What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Beatrice:  Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?  Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.

Benedick:  Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted:  and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

Beatrice:  A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that:  I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

Benedick:  God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.

Beatrice:  Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.  (lines 99-116)

The verbal sparring can shade from hostile to flirtatious; here we see it at the hostile end.  While this “merry war” has no obvious reason—except perhaps “belligerent sexual tension” itself—the conflict is often sparked by some specific friction; hence this trope’s kinship with The Big Lie.

Romantic comedy is the natural home for this kind of dialogue—especially on stage or screen.  We can go back to one of the classic screwball comedies, Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night, for examples.

[As Peter hangs a blanket between the beds in the room the main characters have to share:]

Ellie:  That, I suppose, makes everything quite all right.

Peter:  This?  Well, I like privacy when I retire.  Yes, I’m very delicate in that respect.  Prying eyes annoy me.  Behold the walls of Jericho.  Maybe not as thick as the ones Joshua blew down with his trumpet.  But a lot safer.  You see, I have no trumpet.

It Happened One Night, hitchhiking, on fenceThey both get in some good lines in the famous hitchhiking scene:

Peter:  They’ll stop, all right.  It’s all a matter of knowing how to handle them.

Ellie:  Oh, and you’re an expert, I suppose.

Peter:  Expert.  And I’m gonna write a book about it.  Call it The Hitchhiker’s Hail.

Ellie:  There’s no end to your accomplishments, is there?

[Peter tries his first method, fails]

Ellie:  I’ve still got my eye on the thumb.

Peter:  Something must have gone wrong.  I’ll try No. 2.

Ellie:  When you get to 100, wake me up.

[After several more fails]

Peter:  I don’t think I’ll write that book after all.

Ellie:  Think of all the fun you had, though.

[Ellie takes over and brings a car to a dead stop by lifting her skirt to show her leg.  In the car:]

Ellie:  Aren’t you going to give me a little credit?

Peter:  What for?

Ellie:  Well, I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.

Peter:  Why didn’t you take off all your clothes?  You could have stopped forty cars.

Ellie:  Ooo, I’ll remember that when we need forty cars.

Rodgers & Hammerstein gave us musical versions:  listen to the lighthearted play between not-quite-admitted lovers in “People Will Say We’re In Love” or “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.”  Clever duet lyrics abound in other old-time musicals as well:  Singin’ in the Rain, say, or White Christmas.

Music and Lyrics, Alex and Sophie with notebookFor a more recent example, I’m fond of the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore vehicle Music and Lyrics (2007).  Sophie (Barrymore) arrives at the apartment of Alex Fletcher (Grant), a washed-up rock star, to water his plants.  She pricks her finger on a cactus, Alex responds (with Grant’s trademark cultured deadpan delivery).

Alex:  You all right?

Sophie:  Do you have a Band-Aid and antibiotic cream?

Alex:  No, no.  And, sadly, I think I’ve lent out my iron lung.

Sophie:  . . . I’m gonna go, because, you know, this could get infected.

[She comes back the next day, with a bandage on her finger, and they pick up right where they left off.]

Alex:  They were able to save the whole hand.

Sophie:  I know; I made too big a deal out of it.  It’s just that I hate infections.  But then again, who likes them?  Maybe the people who make penicillin.

Alex:  Ah, yes, well, there’s two sides to every story.

Sophie:  That’s true.  Except for the Nazis.  I can’t really see the other side of that argument.

Sophie ends up writing lyrics to Alex’s music for a song that has to be completed within about forty-eight hours.  He’s reading her scribbled page:

Alex: [singing] Sleeping with a clown above my bed…

[spoken] “Clown” is not right.  What is that word?

Sophie:  It’s “cloud.”

Alex:  Well, write more clearly!  How can I possibly read—

Sophie:  Why would you have a clown in your bed?

Alex:  Let me tell you, it would not be the first time.

Sophie:  Yeah, I’m not surprised.

Wit in Writing

Of course we also get witty exchanges on the printed page.

For the rare Wodehouse where both the characters are clever, check out Leave It to Psmith (1923).  The dapper but absurd Psmith (“The p is silent, as in pshrimp”) finally reaches an understanding with the intrepid Eve Halliday:

“Cynthia advised me,” proceeded Eve, “if ever I married, to marry some one eccentric.  She said it was such fun . . . Well, I don’t suppose I am ever likely to meet any one more eccentric than you, am I?”

“I think you would be unwise to wait on the chance.”

“The only thing is . . .,” said Eve reflectively.  “’Mrs. Smith’ . . . It doesn’t sound much, does it?”

Psmith beamed encouragingly.

“We must look into the future,” he said.  “We must remember that I am only at the beginning of what I am convinced is to be a singularly illustrious career.  ‘Lady Psmith’ is better . . . ‘Baroness Psmith’ better still . . . And—who knows?—‘The Duchess of Psmith’ . . .”

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective stories, narrated by Wolfe’s irrepressible assistant Archie Goodwin, contain some of the most entertaining dialogue I’ve encountered; I’m content just listening to Archie talk.  A lot of the banter here is nonromantic:  Nero and Archie’s genuine friendship is masked by constant verbal sparring.  Archie is a past master at getting under people’s skin with brash remarks, and the normally unflappable Wolfe seems particularly sensitive to Archie’s brand of needling.

Archie Goodwin and Lily Rowan

Archie Goodwin and Lily Rowan

But there’s also Archie’s long-running perpetual flirtation with Lily Rowan, who is easily his match in wit, beginning when they meet in Some Buried Caesar (1938).  Archie is drowsing off at a rural exposition when Lily (who’s nicknamed him “Escamillo”) tugs at his sleeve:

“Wake up, Escamillo, and show me the flowers.”

I let the lids up.  “How do you do, Miss Rowan.  Go away.  I’m in seclusion.”

“Kiss me.”

I bent and deposited a peck on her brow.  “There.  Thank you for calling.  Nice to see you.”

“You’re a lout.”

“I have at no time asked you to submit bids.”

The corner of her mouth went up.  “This is a public exposition.  I paid my way in.  You’re an exhibitor.  Go ahead and exhibit.  Show me.”

“Not exhibitionist.  Exhibitor.”  (ch. 14)

Even science fiction has its moments for banter between lovers.  In the venerable Skylark of Space (1928 &1946), Dick Seaton’s fiancée Dorothy Vaneman, an accomplished violinist, sets out to lull the overworked Seaton to sleep after dinner.

Dorothy said, “I skipped practice today, Dick, on account of traipsing out there after you two geniuses.  Could you stand it to have me play at you for half an hour?”

“Don’t fish, Dottie Dimple.  You know there’s nothing I’d like better.  But if you want me to beg you I’ll be glad to.  Please—PUH-LEEZE—oh fair and musicianly damsel, fill ye circumambient atmosphere with thy tuneful notes.”

“Wilco.  Roger,” she snickered.  “Over and out.”  (ch. 6)

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis, coverThe subject matter doesn’t have to be especially romantic; it can be equally cute to watch a well-matched pair go off on an entirely silly subject.  In Connie Willis’s aptly-named Crosstalk (2016), Briddey Flannigan and her not-quite-boyfriend C.B. Schwartz have been trying, for involved plot reasons, to remember what the marshmallow shapes are in Lucky Charms cereal.  They finally find a box.

“. . . So we can confirm my findings.”

“Or not,” Briddey said, looking down at the multicolored blobs.  She picked up a pale green one with a lump of bright green in the middle.  “This does not look like a shamrock.”

“Clover,” he corrected her.

“It doesn’t look like a clover either.  It looks like a hat with a bow on it.”

“What kind of Irishman would have a bow on his hat?” C.B. said, taking it from her, turning it upside down, and squinting at it.  “Maybe it’s a pot of gold.”

“Then why is it green?  And look at this one,” she said, picking up a purple U-shaped marshmallow.  “What’s this?  The rainbow?”

“No, this is the rainbow.”  He showed her a multicolored half circle.

“Or a slice of watermelon.”

“They’re all supposed to be Irish.  What’s Irish about a slice of watermelon?”

. . . . .

“But what on earth is this?” she said, fishing a white marshmallow out of the pile.  It was oblong and had an orange line down its middle and an irregular splotch at one end.

“I have no idea,” C.B. said, taking it from her and turning it one way and another.  “An albino eggplant?”

“An albino eggplant?” she said, laughing.  “Why would they put an albino eggplant in a children’s cereal?”

“Beats me,” he said, popping it into his mouth.  He made a face.  “The real question is, why would they put pieces of chalk in a children’s cereal and call them marshmallows?”  (ch. 20)

Why it Matters

Witty banter may be entertaining in itself, but what does it do for the story?  What difference does it make in the way a reader appreciates a book or a movie?

An essentially friendly verbal duel—even if it has a bit of an edge—communicates a certain lightness and grace.  We appreciate the participants’ minds—all the more when the conversation is not about rigorous chains of reasoning, but is a kind of dancing with circumstances, responding to a situation or conversation as it develops.  (The best puns are situational.)  We admire the free play of intellect, especially when it’s used frivolously.  And in a romance, where the sensual component may contribute a certain heaviness or earthiness, the grace of wit provides a welcome counterpoint.

And then, I take the lightheartedness of banter itself to be a virtue.  With all the serious concerns we find in daily events, we need to be reminded how to take things lightly.  Susan Ashton’s “You Move Me” (also recorded by Garth Brooks) has a neat turn of phrase:

You go whistling in the dark,
making light of it,
making light of it,
And I follow with my heart, laughing all the way.

When the traditional phrase “whistling in the dark” is followed by “making light of it,” the first thought, perhaps, is of bringing light to the darkness:  making it brighter.  But “making light of it” also means treating something lightly, with levity, almost making fun of it.  The repetition of the line suggests that both meanings are present.  This is the kind of undaunted attitude that’s evoked by the frivolity of wordplay.  In other words, lighthearted wit is serious business.

There’s more.  When the participants are friends, and especially when they’re lovers, the banter is a unique way of engaging with each other.

The World Around the Corner coverThe exchange can be both a dance and a duel.  On the one hand, there’s a certain competitiveness—one-upmanship.  But the couple are also collaborating in creating a kind of manic beauty, a sort of performance art.  The best example, perhaps, is when they join in piling one absurdity on another, getting more extravagantly silly as they go.  For example, Jeff and Dana, the nascent lovers in my romantic comedy The World Around the Corner, are talking to their young friend Renée about why she likes ice-skating (and all three are avid video-gamers):

[Jeff says to Renée:]  “I remember you like ice skating, right? Why do you do it?”

“I feel graceful? It shines when you can do a trick or a turn without skidding out?”

“It feels good to do it well.” Jeff nodded. “Even if no loot drops.” Renee giggled.

“Unless maybe you knock somebody down, accidentally on purpose…” Dana said.

“…and they lose their wallet. Or a purse goes flying,” Jeff continued. “The bosses drop more loot, of course.”

“A rogue wouldn’t need to ram ’em,” Dana countered. “You glide by, doing a double spin or whatever…when they stop admiring your skill, the wallet’s gone.”

“But of course you don’t get the experience points from taking them down,” Jeff said.

When I have the chance to take part in such exchanges in real life, it’s one of the most exhilarating experiences I know of.  Finding them in a story lets us all take part in the fun.

Prophecy and the Plan

The ancient prophecy is a staple of fantasy.  This child will kill his father and marry his mother.  Not by the hand of man will this being fall.  The source of the information is often vague, but once we’ve heard the prophecy, we know it’s going to come true—somehow.

There’s a comparable science fiction trope:  the long-term Plan.  But the Plan functions rather differently.  Let’s take a look at the two together.

Foretold and Foredoomed

An entire story may be built around the unavoidable destiny that lands on an unlikely or reluctant hero.  Or the mysterious message from the past may relate merely to one aspect of the story—perhaps the only way to accomplish some task (“the penitent man will pass”).  Either way, in the words of TV Tropes, Prophecies Are Always Right.

As the examples on the Tropes page indicate, this is not strictly true:  writers can subvert or otherwise play with the fulfillment of a prediction.  But there wouldn’t be much purpose in introducing the prophecy if it didn’t have some relevance to the plot.  Most commonly, this is because it’s valid.

Statute of sibylThe device goes back to some of the earliest stories we have.  The Greek tale of Oedipus, for example, involves a prediction that a child will bring disaster on his city by killing his father and marrying his mother.  The very actions by which his father tries to avert this outcome turn out to produce it.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth provides a slightly less antique example.  The title character is emboldened to stage a revolt by the “prophetic greeting” of three witches (Act I, Scene 3).  Macbeth is further heartened by hearing that “none of woman born” will harm him, and that he won’t be beaten until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him,” (Act IV, Scene 1).  Both statements turn out to be true, but not as Macbeth interpreted them:  his opponents approach his stronghold holding “leavy screens” of branches (Act V, Scene 6), and he is slain by Macduff, who was birthed by Caesarean section (Act V, Scene 8).  In both these cases the message appears to be that you can’t fight fate:  the prophecy will come true despite all attempts to prevent it.

The motif carries through to modern fantasy as well.  Harry Potter’s Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is generally played for laughs, but her serious predictions come true.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch is right to fear the “old rhyme” that her reign will end when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve are enthroned in Cair Paravel (ch. 8).

Fated but Free

Eowyn slays the NazgulThe Lord of the Rings provides some interesting examples.  TV Tropes lists a number of vague premonitions by various characters.  But a more specific case occurs when the Witch-King of Angmar, secure in Glorfindel’s prediction that “not by the hand of man will he fall” (Appendix A, I.iv), boasts that “No living man may hinder me!”, and is met by Éowyn’s defiant “But no living man am I!”  (Return of the King, book V, ch. 6, p. 116).

The main issue of the story, however, is subject to no such foreknowledge.  No prophecy gives a hint as to whether the Ring will be destroyed and Sauron defeated.  As TV Tropes points out, free will as well as fate exists in Tolkien’s world.  There is no certainty of outcome in this world’s battles.  As Chesterton puts it:  “I tell you naught for your comfort, yea, naught for your desire / Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”

The foretellings we do see in fantasy seem to be guaranteed by some trans-human source:  paranormal, supernatural, even divine.  This is why they can generally be relied upon to come true.  But what of science fiction, which tends to invoke science rather than the supernatural?

Foundation

What often takes the place of prophecy in SF is a vast, far-reaching plan of some sort, whose fulfillment is guaranteed not by the supernatural but on some scientific basis.  This is, in effect, the science-fictional version of prophecy or fate.  Such plans typically are made by human beings (or similar creatures).  They are reducible to human intent—and conditioned by human fallibility.

Seldon sits in front of city (Foundation)The classic case is Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy.  Hari Seldon, inventor of a new science of “psychohistory” that statistically predicts the aggregate actions of human masses (as distinct from the acts of individual persons), realizes that the millennia-spanning Galactic Empire is headed for an inevitable collapse.  To cut short the subsequent thirty thousand years of chaos and barbarism, Seldon launches a plan to establish two “Foundations” from which civilization may be restored more quickly—in a mere thousand years.  Seldon’s mathematics allows him to arrange things in such a way that the Seldon Plan will inevitably prevail—at least to a very high order of probability (given that we’re dealing with statistical conclusions here, rather than superhuman insights).

The stories Asimov tells about the early years of the Foundation thus carry an atmosphere that’s similar in some ways to that of a prophecy in fantasy.  The leaders and people of the Foundation on the planet Terminus have confidence that they will prevail; but they are not privy to the details of the Plan and have no idea how that will occur—just as the Witch-King did not anticipate he would be slain by a woman, or the Pevensie children know just how they can succeed to the king-and-queenship of Narnia.

On the other hand, Seldon’s Plan is not quite as infallible as the typical prophecy.  This becomes evident when an individual known as the Mule upsets the psychohistorical scheme by changing its underlying assumptions about human behavior:  the Mule has mutant mental powers that could not have been predicted by Seldon.

Galactic Networks and Race Minds

The Snow Queen coverJoan Vinge’s 1980 novel The Snow Queen (very loosely based on the plot of Andersen’s fairy tale) also involves a Plan, though the characters are not aware of this initially.  They come to realize that the “sibyl network,” a vast interstellar information system run by technology beyond their understanding, has its own purposes and is seeking (like Seldon) to shape events to promote reconstruction after a collapse of civilization.  But they’re not fully aware of what the sibyl network is trying to do, and they don’t know whether its Plan will be successful.

Unlike the Plan that underlies the Foundation stories, Vinge’s Plan is not made by human agents—though the computer “mind” behind it is a human product.  But like the Seldon Plan, this long-range plan is not guaranteed to succeed.  The sibyl network is not as infallible as the mysterious sources behind the standard fantasy prophecy.

The long-term plan, or purpose, may also belong to a race or species consciousness—a mind (of sorts) that arises from humanity as a whole.  The “terrible purpose” that Paul Atreides struggles with in Dune is that of a subliminal racial consciousness that is driving relentlessly toward an interstellar jihad as a way of mixing up the gene pool to refresh the species.  This quasi-mind does not seem to have a specific plan in mind, but the overall drive, like the statistically-based Seldon Plan, is irresistible.

Something similar seems to be at work in A.E. van Vogt’s mutation-after-humanity novel Slan (1940).  In this future setting, the human species is mutating not at random, but in such a way as to consistently produce a “higher” type of being—smarter, stronger, kinder, with telepathic powers.  One character remarks:  “We have always assumed far too readily that no cohesion exists between individuals, that the race of men is not a unit with an immensely tenuous equivalent of a blood-and-nerve stream flowing from man to man” (ch. 18).  Apparently there is some vague but irresistible analogue of systematic purpose at work in humanity as a whole.  (Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, by contrast, suggests a distributed genetic mechanism for such a wave of mutation, without requiring a single overall mind to account for it.)

Ongoing Guidance

A master Plan that spans generations may be designed to operate without intervening human guidance.  This is true of certain lost world-ship stories, in which the loss of knowledge on a generation ship is deliberately arranged in advance.  In Clifford Simak’s Target Generation (1953), for instance, a book of instructions has been secretly passed down from generation to generation, to be opened only when the starship finally reaches its destination.

Of course, the transmission of such a plan won’t be reliable if it’s subject to human error or accident.  I’ve often felt that the long-dead planners who relied on a secret book in Target Generation ought to have been thrown out on their ears, when the flight was being arranged, for resting the survival of an entire shipload of people on such a fragile and undependable strategy—like the wacky souls behind the Rube Goldberg setup in City of Ember, entertaining as both those stories are.

Second Foundation coverSeldon’s Plan at first appears to function in this pilotless way.  But it turns out there is a hidden agency responsible for monitoring the Plan and correcting any deviations:  the Second Foundation, as skilled in psychohistory as the original Foundation is in technology.  The canny Seldon built in a safety net to take care of just such a random variable as the Mule—because a human-based plan lacks the mysterious paranormal guarantee of a prophecy.

 

Exceptions

Sitting squarely between the F&SF camps in this respect is Star Wars, the exception that proves the rule.  Lucas’s brain child is sometimes referred to as “science fantasy” rather than science fiction, not just because it does not delve into scientific plausibility, but because it simultaneously mobilizes both fantasy and science-fiction tropes; that’s part of the reason the movies are so widely accessible and successful.  The prophecy that Anakin Skywalker will “bring balance to the Force” (whatever exactly that means) is cited throughout the series.  But there’s no real explanation in the movies, at least, as to how this prophecy works or what makes it reliable information.  It’s a fantasy trope, not a science fiction motif.

There is, however, a genuine SF exception of sorts:  time travel stories, when they rely on knowledge gained from being in the future.  For example, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968), time-traveling dragonrider Lessa assures her compatriots in the past that they will accompany her back to her own time in their future, because that explains their mysterious disappearance, which Lessa already knows about as part of her own history.  Here the source of future knowledge is neither human nor superhuman, but sheer facticity—or, from the standpoint of the characters, experience.  They tell about future events that they’ve already seen happening.

For the Reader

Both types of projections into the future, prophecies and plans, set up a certain kind of tension in a story.  There’s a sort of security—we know how things will turn out, at least in a general way.  (Or if the outcome is tragic, as with Oedipus, the effect may be dread rather than security.)  At the same time, there’s a tension in that we don’t know how the story will arrive at that end.  The power of this combination is proved by the long tradition of such stories throughout human civilization.

The long-term plan or prediction evokes awe at the deeps of time—how something said long ago may still have effects today.  And it generates a certain wonder at the way in which things surprisingly work out.  In either form, they’re a useful part of a storyteller’s arsenal of effects.