Uncanny Censorship Essay & Writing POV

Cover of Uncanny Magazine issue 34Below you’ll find some news, links to excerpts from Terra Ignota book 4, and a discussion of point-of-view in the craft of writing, but I’m posting today mainly to announce that I have an essay about censorship and its relationship with genre fiction in this month’s Uncanny Magazine, which is now free to read online.  I’ve been researching censorship for a couple years now, in collaboration with Cory Doctorow, and it was delightful being invited to share my thoughts with the genre fiction writer/reader world because genre fiction has a lot of power to affect our ability to resist censorship, more power than I think most people realize.

It feels strange having an essay on an unrelated political topic come out in the midst of this Black Lives Matter & COVID double-crisis, but they are related if we look more carefully. Every time we see coverage of an injustice, news of brutality or cruelty, news of heroism; every time we talk about the challenges and importance of disseminating medical news; every time we read op-eds and cheer, or disagree, or criticize, share, or condemn; every time someone exposes a fake, a lie; in all these cases we’re depending on free speech, on journalism, analysis professional and amateur, on speech.  Networks of digital communication are disrupting everything right now, by amplifying voices that have been silenced.  In this, the digital revolution is following the pattern of past information revolutions (printing press, radio, etc.).  During any information revolution, there is a cost of switching to the new medium: the cost of new equipment, the cost of setting up distribution and building an audience, the cost in time and effort of learning a new method; whether it’s buying a printing press or learning a new app, there is a cost.  Consequently, the first adopters of a new information technology are always those who haven’t been able to communicate with the previous technology, the voices that have been silenced, the communities that have been unable to find each other, or have been actively silenced.  First adopters of the printing press included scholars eager to spread rare Cicero to peers spread across Europe, but also religious and political radicals whose demands for change, banned on pulpits and in town squares, could circulate in pamphlets which authorities at first had no way to control.  My wonderful colleague Kathleen Belew has done work on the ditto machine, the first cheap way to print small-scale at home, and how (much like the early internet) it empowered many communities to speak and find each other: LBGT+ groups, tropical fish hobbyists, civil rights activists, science fiction fans, linguistic minority communities, and also the KKK, which saw a surge of membership and activity via ditto-printed newsletters, just as it’s seen on digital platforms (Kathleen’s book Bringing the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America is invaluable reading right now).

We are living in the crisis of uncontrolled expression that comes with any information revolution, the equivalent of 1517; most of the denunciations of Church corruption in Luther’s 95 Theses had been voiced by others many times before, but in 1517 pamphlet distribution was so fast-yet-uncontrolled that when he released the 95 Theses they were in print in London 17 days after he made them public, enabling a pan-European movement and making it impossible for those in power to silence the calls for change they had silenced before.  Black Lives Matter has momentum now around the world, a call for change that can’t be silenced; the hate it battles also has momentum, and amid their clash another wave is gaining momentum, as it does in every information revolution: the wave of those in power (politicians, corporations, alarmed elites) wanting to silence the uncomfortable voices empowered by the new medium.  We need to fight this battle too, a battle to find a balance between protecting the new ability of radical voices to speak while also protecting against hate speech, misinformation, and other forms of communication toxic to peace and democracy.  As I explain in my essay, genre fiction, we who read it, we who write it, have a lot of power to affect the battle over censorship.  These days are hard; as someone both disabled and immunocompromised I can’t go join the protests in the streets, not without both endangering fellow protesters by getting in their way, and the risk of this one moment of resistance destroying my ability to be here helping with the next one, and the next.  But I can help on the home front as it were, working to protect the tools of free expression which those out on the streets depend on every minute, every protest, every video exposing cruel realities.  Everything we do to strengthen speech and battle censorship protects our best tool, not just for this resistance, but for the next one, and the next.  Change needs to speak, hope needs to speak, and one thing we absolutely have the power to do–especially we within the F&SF community–is to defend the instincts that defend free speech.  So that’s what my Uncanny essay is about, and I hope it makes you feel a little bit more powerful, with the responsibility that brings.  (And if you enjoy it, you can see more discussion of the question in this video, and please support Uncanny Magazine!)

Meanwhile, a few other things:

Two excerpts from Perhaps the Stars, the now-finished 4th book of Terra Ignota, were recently released as part of the Decameron Project, an awesome project which is raising money to protect refugees from COVID by posting a new story every day of the pandemic, in the spirit of Boccaccio’s Decameron.  Lots of amazing authors have shared stories or novel excerpts, tons there to enjoy, and these two excerpts from book 4 are philosophical ruminations on the role of distance in the human condition, a bit topical in our current lockdowns and crisis.

I also recently did a giant 2.5 hour marathon podcast episode on the Singularity Podcast, where we talked about progress, technology, history, pandemics, teleology, the singularity, the history of knowledge, the crisis of the late 16th century when there was “too much to know”, what science fiction is for, how learning is a form of joy, and all sorts of things. I think it’s one of the best interview discussions I’ve ever done, and a lot of people have said they were wowed and comforted by it, so it’s highly recommended (when you have the time).

In happy personal news, the French edition of Too Like the Lightning (Trop semblable à l’éclair) has won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire 2020 award for Best Translation, for the heroic work Michelle Charrier did reflecting all the complicated things I do with gender, and archaic language, with my thee’s and thou’s and he’s and she’s.  Michelle absolutely deserves it, and it makes me especially happy too.  A few years ago I heard the French translation of Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer had won France’s best translation award–that book was a huge influence on me and Terra Ignota, and I remember wishing at the time that I could someday write something complex and subtle enough that the French translation would require the same skill and mastery to translate.  So I’m very happy for Michelle, but it’s also a little wish of mine come true.

Finally, at Balticon 54 last week Jo Walton and I did a craft-of-writing panel focused on point of view, and afterward we had some great discussions in text chat which I thought others might enjoy – I’ve condensed and saved a best-of here (with consent from those who asked the questions).  The panel was also filmed and will be online once Balticon does the captioning, and when I figure out how to post a link to it I will do so here but right now I don’t know.  Meanwhile, enjoy!

Girl in a striking black and white dress, speaking the words "I am a piano"
Titular and POV character of Nakamura Asumiko’s “I Am a Piano”

On Writing And Point of View

Question: What I don’t get is why they tell new writers to not have multiple POVs in a novel. I mean, if the story calls for it, and you’re clear on the change, why not?

Jo Walton: Minimizing POVs is good discipline because it’s very easy to get sloppy. So it’s one of those things that’s good advice when you’re starting out, but not a law.

Ada Palmer: I agree that minimizing POVs is often wise.  Whenever I find myself wanting a scene to be in a different POV I think really hard about it. Sometimes it’s the right answer, but the fail condition is that you have too many POVs and the reader expects each of them to have follow-through and they don’t

Jo Walton: You need as many as you need, but no more. It’s good discipline as an exercise to try doing without the switch

Ada Palmer: In particular I think one challenge with multiple POVs, especially adding one part-way through, is making clear to the narrator whether we’ll keep seeing this POV again or not.  Since once you switch to a new POV this could be a one-time thing, or it could be that we’re now going to constantly take turns, and if you’re doing the one-time thing but a reader thinks you’re doing the many-times thing then the reader can be distracted waiting for narrator #2 to come back and wondering how long it will be.   In Too Like the Lightning we do switch narrators a couple times but I’m always careful to make very clear to the reader that it’ll be the exception not the rule. I do it using chapter titles, but it can be done many ways, but you want to make sure you think hard about whether the reader (A) expects this new POV to now be a frequent companion, (B) expects the new POV to be one-time or rare, or (C) doesn’t know.  Any of these can be what you want (sometimes C is what you want) but you always want to decide clearly what you want the reader to be thinking, and communicate that in some way. I have a chapter called “Sniper’s Chapter” narrated suddenly by a character called Sniper, and it makes it very clear that it’ll be unique.  But another time I might switch and intentionally give no clue how long it’ll be until we see the original narrator again, because I want the reader to not know.  I want the reader to have that suspense.

Ada Palmer: A good way to summarize it is that you want to think carefully about whether you want the reader to be in suspense about what the narration will do next, and if so what you want that suspense to be.  Do you want there to be very regular alternation of characters?  Or irregular so it’s uncertain?  Let’s imagine we were doing Romeo & Juliet but jumping POVs.  If we regularly alternate Romeo, Juliet, Romeo, Juliet then the reader isn’t in suspense, but if we are mostly Juliet with only occasional Romeo chapters then during any given Juliet chapter the narrator will be wondering how long it’ll be until we see what Romeo thinks of things.  Or if we were rotating Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, and then we do the death of Mercutio during a Romeo chapter, during the next Juliet chapter the reader will be in suspense wondering what will happen when we would get to the next Mercutio chapter, and guessing (will it be a new character? will it be a ghost? will it be nothing?).  That suspense may be something you can use effectively, or it may be something you don’t want that would distract the reader — that’s why you want to always think it through.

Jo Walton: I once did a chapter from the POV of a dead character in the rotation like that

Ada Palmer: We usually think of plot as the main source of suspense, but narration can be a big source of it

Jo Walton: Oh yes

Ada Palmer: One challenge that often makes one resort to a POV is when there’s information you want to get across that your existing narrator(s) wouldn’t have access to.  In book 3 of Terra Ignota I had a real struggle at one point where we really needed to know what was going on with one faction (the Mitsubishi) who at that time would not be sharing their info with our narrator (or indeed with any of the narrators we’d had so far).  It was a real puzzle for a long time and I was considering using another POV but there wasn’t any new POV that I felt would really justify itself since there wasn’t any character whose interiority I really wanted to share.  In the end I realized I could have the narrator overhear a phone conversation in which the faction was talking to a different person that they did have reason to share info with, and that was a much simpler solution to the problem which didn’t require substantially changing the characterization of whoever I would’ve had be the interim narrator.  At another point I use a newspaper clipping to achieve the same.  Different source of info but no new POV – documents can be great that way, if what you need is to get info across that no narrator would see but you don’t want to gain another narrator.

Question: Would titling chapters by character (in addition to place/date-time) smooth out the potential bumps that make a POV change difficult for the reader?

Ada Palmer: It can, but it doesn’t smooth the first bump, only the later ones.  It can be a tool to clearly signal when you’re changing characters (as can style, or tone, or subtitles, etc.) but it doesn’t get over the initial challenge of asking the reader to settle into and get to know a new voice.  It’s hard the way your class being moved to a new classroom is hard, it requires adjustment.  It’s disruptive.  it needs to have payoff: ah, way better chairs! (worth-it) but if it isn’t worth-it, if there isn’t a clear gain (ah, new information!) it can be frustrating.

Question: Would also it help if the new POV has already been present, and to some degree characterized, before the switch?

Ada Palmer: Yes and no. It makes the switch easier, and for people who like that character it’ll make that character be excited.  On the other hand, the more new and unexpected the POV the more new and unexpected the information and perspective and expansion of experience that can come with it.  In our Romeo & Juliet, if when Mercutio dies our new POV is Friar Lawrence, that’s pretty easy, we know him already, we get to learn more about why he thinks his stupid plan is a good plan, it all works.  If the POV is instead Lord Capulet it’s more unexpected, he’s been unsympathetic so far, we don’t know from the play what he’s doing during much of the action, we aren’t excited to enter his head but we’re learning more new stuff and our perspective is more radically different.  If our new POV jumps to Cesare Borgia who is camped with his army having just sacked Modena and is thinking of trying to conquer Verona, and his scouts have just come to tell him that Verona is weak thanks to this feud with the Montagues and Capulets and that if Borgia allies with one of them and promises to fight the other it could aid his conquest of the city, suddenly our mind is blown and the story is totally different–but the author really has to follow up on this, and can’t just have it be a one-off!  It has to become what the rest of the book is about!  Jumping instead to Friar Lawrence or Lord Capulet could be a one-off and still work.

Jo Walton: I want Cesare conquers Verona!  In Daniel Abraham’s Dagger & Coin series, he uses absolutely standard fantasy different POVs by chapter, but he uses kinds of characters we don’t expect as POVs.  Like Lord Capulet would be.  There is in fact an elderly conservative lord who wants people to get off his lawn.  You never see POVs like that, so it’s refreshing.

Question: So zooming way out, is the PoV character the one where you know some of their thoughts? How about a scene were they’re not present, but other characters are, but you don’ thear anyone’s thought, just conversation?

Ada Palmer: There are many ways to do that.

Jo Walton: Everything is from some POV

Ada Palmer: The phone conversation example I used is one.  Having there be a transcript or in-world document is another.  Switching to another POV is another.  In general if you want to see a scene but your narrator isn’t there, you want to avoid just narrating it in generic 3rd person because your readers will wonder who is narrating if they’re used to there being a narrator.  So you either have to make the voice very different to make clear that it’s absolutely not just another character narrating now, or you need to do something else to signal the difference, like having it be a transcript, or an overheard phone call, or in a different tense, or something clear. Just leaving your narrator w/o changing the narration will be awkward and confusing.

Jo Walton: It’s a really good exercise to filter everything through one POV and then rewrite the same scene through another — not for final story,  but to learn.  And doing unlikely people is also a good way to learn a lot about how to write. And doing 1st and then 3rd on the same scene.

Question: Do we have to know and care a lot about a new narrator before we switch to them? I feel like they have to be really interesting to make the reader willing.

Ada Palmer:  Sometimes, but switching into the POV of someone who’s hidden a lot about themselves can be an amazing moment to suddenly learn the truth about them.  What if in our Romeo & Juliet, after Mercutio dies, we suddenly switch into the POV of the Prince of Verona, who’s basically been doing nothing throughout the play and about whom we know very little, but suddenly it turns out he’s actually aware of what’s happening and scheming to get Romeo & Juliet to kill themselves because he wants the Montague and Capulet houses to die out so he can confiscate their goods!  Shock!  Unexpected!  Or what if we instead switch into that random servant who accompanies Romeo to the tomb, whom we know nothing about, but he suddenly turns out to be a prophet who’s used alchemy to predict what’s going to happen and is here to try to prevent the double-suicide, and then we see the tragic fascinating story of what intervenes to make him still fail to save them even though he knows what’s going to happen!  Both of those suddenly make an unexplored character’s very unexploredness into something fascinating

Ada Palmer: Another thing that can be powerful is paying attention to when your reader will be excited to get to particular POVs. Sort-of like being excited to see who’ll write the next Mercutio chapter after he dies, you can, for example, set up a pattern where the reader realizes a certain POV must be coming and gets excited

Jo Walton: Martin does that with Jaime Lannister. And with the long absence of Theon. You can see the pattern of antici…..pation

Ada Palmer: Let’s imagine a story where our main POV is the captain of a prison who, and the pattern is that we always have two chapters from the captain’s POV, and then we see one from the POV of one of the prisoners in the cells. And the cells are numbered and we’re counting down from cell 8, then 7, then 6, visiting each prisoner only once.  But as we go we keep hearing/learning strange things about the prisoner in cell 2: that prisoner is given strange food, everyone’s scared, everyone just calls it “Number Two” and never uses a name or even a pronoun, we learn it’s been there a looong time, we get into great suspense and excitement as we get toward cell 2.  But wait… what’s in cell 1 which we haven’t heard anything about and will come after the super-mega-foreshadowed cell 2?  We get meta-suspense.  Now, you can achieve most of that suspense w/o switching POV if, instead of being in each prisoner’s head, we instead simply had every third chapter be the captain interacting with that particular prisoner.  Doing it while staying in the captain’s head is easier for the reader. But on the other hand switching into their heads could gain a lot.  It depends on which the story needs more – smoothness staying with one narrator, or the extra breadth and complexity of getting all those POVs, which would let us plunge quickly into their opinions, experience, backgrounds, knowledge, telling a lot of new info more quickly than the same POV could.  Those POVs could let us quickly explore a big giant detailed world build in a way one POV couldn’t, or they could be too complex and more than the story will really make have payoff.  And in the sequence, he buildup needs to be worth-it.  Whatever is in cell 1 has to stand up even after whatever was in cell 2.

Here the discussion wound down, though of course one could discuss POV forever!!!!  But for the meantime here is a short list of works with interesting uses of POV that are useful to read and think about as you want to learn more about unusual or powerful ways to do POV:

  • Sumner Locke Elliott, The Man Who Got Away
  • Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist – the narration is a scroll
  • Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer – how complex a first-person narrator can be
  • Daniel Keyes, “Flowers for Algernon”
  • Alfred Bester, “Fondly Fahrenheit” (and a lot of other Bester too!)
  • Agatha Christie, Endless Night
  • Melissa Scott, The Kindly Ones we never learn the 1st person narrator’s gender, in the 80s that was a novelty, also it’s really great immersive spaceship and planet SF
  • Roger Zelazny, A Night in the Lonesome October — dog POV
  • Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (2nd person direct address)
  • Choose Your Own Adventure Books (true 2nd person, unlike 2nd person direct address)
  • For Jo Walton doing interesting POV things see the short story on Tor.com “Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction,” and her forthcoming Or What You Will.  (Her Small Change books also have an unusual example of alternating first/third)
  • And for Ada Palmer, see Terra Ignota, which does a LOT of unusual things with POV, and keeps doing more volume by volume.

The discussion also, at the end, included a discussion of examples how strange POVs can get, including the Chintsubu boys’ love manga by Nase Yamato, which adopts the POV of talking penises, and while I don’t particularly recommend as a literary work but, like Asumiko Nakamura’s short story I Am a Piano, is a fascinating example of how outside-the-box a POV can be.

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3 Responses to “Uncanny Censorship Essay & Writing POV”

  1. I love the way Jo’s voice was structured as spice here–almost as if it’s a “sprinkle” POV of sorts.

    Particularly her last line.

    reply
  2. […] TWO TOPICS WITH ADA PALMER. In “Uncanny Censorship Essay & Writing POV” on Ex Urbe, Ada Palmer discusses her article in Uncanny Magazine about censorship and summarizes a […]

    reply
  3. The most virtuosic novel I’ve read with POV change is Francine Prose’s The Brilliant Ones, in which each chapter is a different character, but the plot follows chronologically and brilliantly. But I will start reading yours.

    reply

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