Thursday, April 23, 2009

Prologues in SF

This is actually an answer to the "A Bit Previous" post by Neil Williamson, which was triggered by a Twitter discussion after Gareth Lyn Powell made the seemingly innocuous remark "I can haz prologue".

The general sentiment, it seems, is against the (use of the) prologue. Here's my defense of it:

As I already mentioned on Twitter, prologues are like highly dominant spices in a dish: they can work if used with mastery and restraint, and if they add someting essential to the whole.

Three types (from the top of my head):

1) Essential pre-info dumping.

In this, a previous event that — like the famed ‘wings of the butterfly’ — sets off a much larger event. The much larger event is the novel, the much smaller event that initiated the storm is the prologue.

Example: Schild’s Ladder by Greg Egan. Part one of that book is nothing but a prologue; that is: the experiment that triggered a Universe-wide change of reality. The experiment in the prologue is about probing reality at its deepest core — like Fermilab and Cern are doing, but then on a much grander scale. This experiment focusses immense energies at a very small scale, and triggers a change of the ‘normal’ vacuum state, something the researcher in the prologue didn’t expect.

However, once a quantum of the vacuum turns into ‘novo-vacuum’, this releases enough energy to transform nearby vacua as well, and a chain reaction ensues: reality changing from state 1 to state 2 at about half the speed of light.

The researcher and her team don’t survive the experiment (are simply transformed/absorbed by the novo-vacuum), so can’t be used as a flashback/infodump latter on in the story.

The rest of the novel is about how the novo-vaccuum expands from the initial site of the experiment — a sphere expanding at half lightspeed — and how some people eventually find that — while it transforms ‘normal’ space, ‘eating up’ planets settled by humans — this might not be a bad thing after all, as they discover that the novo-vacuum might be *richer* than normal space. However, for deeper emotional richness and involvement it is essential that the reader knows that the onruishing novo-vacuum is not a freak event, but something initiated by scientific curiosity, giving the novel a richer moral ambiguity.

Schild’s Ladder is probably the most extreme hard SF novel ever written, and possibly the one’s that least understood. I consider it Egan’s absolute masterpiece, the most extreme extrapolation of hard SF to date.

And it wouldn’t have worked without the prologue (even if it’s called ‘part 1′: it stands completely apart from the rest of the novel, so is the perfect definition of a prologue).

2) Superb scene-setting without giving anything essential away (that almost the antidote of example 1).

This is even harder to do: the only example that comes to mind right now (and I’m almost certain that next week or next month, when this discussion is forgotten, several better ones will come up) is Ian McDonald’s Brasyl.

I know, Our Lady of Production Values is presented as a first chapter rather than a prologue, but its first three ’slices of Brazil’ — present, future and past — work phenomenally well as three separate prologues into the complex multiverse that is ‘Brasyl’.

(Warning: music analogy coming): It’s akin to the way that ‘Prelude to Madness’ — which is a very heavy version of the Grieg original — is used as an prelude (musical prologue) of Savatage’s “Hall of the Mountain King” (which is the original title — albeit in Norwegian — of Grieg’s composition. It sets the stage for the main song, the whole atmosphere while also, in a way, is quite different from it. It paves the way without giving too much away, and both the prelude and the main song are more than the sum of the separate parts.

3) Both an essential pre-info dump that does give something essential away *and* a superb scene-setting that doesn’t give everything away.

This one is the hardest to do.

For this, check out The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This is probably one of the most perfect prologues ever written: the protagonist tells how — when he was still very young — he was taken into the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ by his father, and had to make a life-changing choice by selecting one book (which was, obviously, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax). This foreshadows everything while giving almost nothing away. It makes you want to read this, no matter what. And the novel delivers in spades.

Maybe it’s more like an overture (warning: musical analogy coming up) than a prelude: it contains the seeds of everything to come while not telling the whole story. Like the ‘Overture’ of 2112 by Rush.

I know that anybody can give countless examples of prologues that are total failures, and I gladly concede that the utmost majority are.

However, that is the same as saying that 'stream-of-consciousness’ writing can never work. Indeed, it almost never does. However, you have novels like ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ (the obvious English-language examples: there are Russian & French predecessors and many international and English-language successors to this style of writing).

In science, the single successful experiment leads to a new, breakthrough theory that eventually gets general acknowledgement (and acknowledges the necessity of the failed experiments, as well, as these showed how it shouldn’t be done). In SF writing though, it seems that more often than not people prefer to discard the rare but spectacularly successful experiments on the basis of all the failed ones.

That, I am arguing, is fatally wrong and will help make SF irrelevant.