Monday, February 15, 2016

Alternate Universes and Mysteries, the Paradigms for Story

 One sure-fire way to tell if you've enjoyed a work by an author unknown to you is to find yourself eager to write something in the same genre. You went through your immersion into science fiction and its adjuncts from about the early 1950s (when, among other things, your Christmas vacation job was delivering mail to Ray Bradbury) until the early 1970s, a chunk of time when you read copiously in the genre. You also found yourself in a fast editor-writer friendship with the amazing science fiction writer, William F. Nolan.

Nolan had top-notch writers as friends. Conversation between writer and editor often produces results neither expected. In the case of Nolan, there was a series of science-fiction anthologies, finding their way between biographies and mysteries. 

Until the time you left Sherbourne Press, you kept current with science-fiction themes and writers, drifting away less because you'd lost interest in science-fiction than because you were growing into other interests and directions in which your own writing was taking you.

To prove you still had a hankering for science-fiction, particularly the sub-genre of the alternate universe, you became aware of, then a reader of The Golden Compass Trilogy of Philip Pullman, in the most dramatic sense dropping everything to devour all three novels, then reread them, then outline an alternate universe novel of your own, based on a significant part of your life, which was teaching at the graduate-level Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.

Alternate universe, as a genre and a concept interested you and still informs your philosophy. In the simplest of terms, alternate universe posits a world much like our own, with certain recognizable differences. In Pullman's novels, all characters had familiars, animals that followed them about, doing their bidding or watching over them. These familiars were as unlike pets as dramatic convention would allow, engaging from time to time in spoken or telepathic communication with their humans.

The Pullman novels were set at a fictional college at Oxford University, which gave you your own setting. You moved the location of the Professional Writing Program from its actual setting in Mark Taper Hall to the older, more ornate Doheney Library, one of your favorite buildings at USC, one in which you were always making discoveries. The new departmental offices were up on the third floor, accessed by stairways which were difficult to find which, throughout all your years of using that library, always had you getting off at the wrong floor.

The library also had a bank of elevators which reminded you of some of the elevators of your youthful trips with your mother to older department stores in downtown Los Angeles.  

To this day, the elevators in the Doheney Library creak and groan, as though someone in a nearby hidden compartment is suffering either from a bad dream or an overworked conscience. This building, named after one of the architects of the so-called Teapot Dome Scandal, seemed an ideal place for your alternate universe.

To the extent that you'd outlined your alternate universe novel, graduate students were disappearing from the Writing Program and the Anthropology Department. An individual based on a mash-up of a dean you knew, a department chairman you had issues with, and a fellow faculty member, became the antagonist, the chair of the English Department. 

His hidden agenda was to drive the Writing Program out of the university, and to keep the missing graduate students in remote barracks, where they would lead lives similar to indentured workers in China, working for a system that was remarkably prescient in its portrayal of an Amazon-like venture providing text books and an Internet version of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

From time to time, you look at your notes and the opening chapter, reaffirming the project as one for your personal bucket list. In the ten or more years since that flirtation with alternate universes, you've added the Alternate Universe novel to your active vocabulary for your own use and in the classroom, where you confront and, it is to be hoped, encourage students who wish to expand their own sense of story.

True enough, you tell these students, all novels are mysteries. True enough, the mystery is the ideal form for a novel because it presents a complex puzzle which provides an extreme and exquisite existential problem for one or more protagonists, its focus tethered to the unraveling of the puzzle of who done it, and how do we bring him, her, perhaps them, to justice.

True enough as well, all novels are alternate universe novels, presenting imaginary settings populated with imaginary people, or settings which claim to be Seattle or New York or Portland or Los Angeles, but a different Seattle or New York or Portland or Los Angeles other than the cities of the same name in already published mystery novels. An individual whose family roots are, for example, in Korea, and who now lives in Los Angeles, would write a different mystery set in Los Angeles than Raymond Chandler did.

Hardcover novels now sell for upwards of $26; many of the novels on the new Penguin list are marked at $28. If someone is going to spend that much on a book, they should certainly get a complex existential puzzle and an alternate universe, both of these factors being in their essential natures an extension of the writer's voice. There are too many gifted writers out there with intriguing, articulate voices for you, your students, or any other writer to think they can get by with ordinary or derivative voices and alternate universes.

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