Reading Proust and Writing Star Trek

Reading Proust and Writing Star Trek

The second paragraph of Henry James’ Washington Square reads:

It was an element in Doctor Sloper’s reputation that his learning and his skill were very evenly balanced; he was what you might call a scholarly doctor, and yet there was nothing abstract in his remedies—he always ordered you to take something. Though he was felt to be extremely thorough, he was not uncomfortably theoretic; and if he sometimes explained matters rather more minutely than might seem of use to the patient, he never went so far (like some practitioners one had heard  of) as to trust to the explanation alone, but always left behind him an inscrutable prescription. There were some doctors that left the prescription without offering any explanation at all; and he did not belong to that class either, which was after all the most vulgar. It will be seen that I am describing a clever man; and this is really the reason why Doctor Sloper had become a local celebrity.

Marcel Proust, describing how his eponymous character Swann reacted to hearing a familiar piece of music, wrote:

But now, like a confirmed invalid whom, all of a sudden, a change of air and surroundings, or a new course of treatment, or, as sometimes happens, an organic change in himself, spontaneous and unaccountable, seems to have so far recovered from his malady that he begins to envisage the possibility, hitherto beyond all hope, of starting to lead—and better late than never—a wholly different life, Swann found in himself, in the memory of the phrase that he had heard, in certain other sonatas which he had made people play over to him, to see whether he might not , perhaps, discover his phrase among them, the presence of one of those invisible realities in which he had ceased to believe, but to which, as though the music had had upon the moral barrenness from which he was suffering  a sort of recreative influence, he was conscience once again of a desire, almost, indeed, of the power to consecrate his life.

This one-hundred-sixty-three-word sentence makes James look like a champion of brevity. It contains twenty-one commas, setting off cascading parenthetical expressions, which, at increasingly inner depths, reveal the elements of Swann’s character at this stage in his life: his hopelessness, his “moral barrenness,” his search for the catalyst that might uplift him to dedicate his life to something greater than himself. As with James, the author manages to do this with a description, this time of an inner reaction, of a single, small episode in his character’s life.  His analogy with an invalid’s recovery, provides the image for us to grasp the experience Swann is having, and is an example of  Proust’s unique style of  using analogy, simile and metaphor to explore how sensations provoke associations behind which, invariably, lie  stories. His entire novel is famously engendered by an association to the taste of a small cake dipped in his tea. And, as with James, I find reading him irresistible, even for the second or third time.

Fascinated as I may be, my own writing task is to complete a science fiction novel about the adventures of a  spaceship crew of androids, the sole inheritors of Earth after the extinction of its human population, as they search for life throughout the galaxy. It is Prime Directive, a sequel to my novel, Ezekiel’s Brain—the next novel in a science fiction saga with some resemblance to Star Trek, except the main characters are machines. The potential audience for my novel is most likely young adults, most of whom have never read, and many of whom have never heard of, James or Proust. Their familiarity with the types of characters and setting of the novel was gained through television series such as The Expanse, films such as Ex Machina and Star Wars, and video games such as Stellaris and Homeworld.

Despite the obvious schism between my literary interests and the novel I am writing, I have a strong, if perhaps irrational, belief that the rich writing with which I am enamored in James, Proust and many other “classic” authors, particularly from earlier eras, has something to offer as I craft my science fiction writing “style.”

Science fiction often involves telling, especially in the presentation of scientific or technical concepts that may be central to a story. Often, rather than the narrator stepping back and providing a bit of technical background, the needed explanations are voiced by the story’s characters. This happens less often in the case of  technical devices, such as laser rifles, spaceship propulsion systems, or robotic bodies, or when alien settings which give exotic flavor to stories involving other worlds are described  In such cases, the omniscient narrator steps in.

Narrators need not be prosaic. An author such as Proust demonstrates that narration can come alive by embellishing  descriptions with rich, figurative language. “The planet, tidally locked, with its yinyang hemispheres, was a real-life Ginnungagap, the primordial realm of Norse legend:  Its yin a pitch-black Niflheim, a frozen expanse of glacial icesheets and icebound rivers, and it’s yang a blazingly bright  Muspelheim, a barren waste of blackened earth and boiling oceans.”

In James, Proust and other literary writers, I am reminded of the power of character description. Science fiction has been said to emphasize setting and plot over character, but there is no reason that this must be the case. Arkady Martine, the author of A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace, has shown that a science fiction novel can descend to the deepest levels of a character’s psyche and remain riveting.  I admit that my robot characters with electronic brains and barely existent emotions present a challenge but not an insuperable one. Ezekiel, the main character in the series, is an android body whose brain, including his personality and memories, is an exact copy of that of his human creator. The other androids have unique personal identities and self-assigned genders. Siaree, a human empath from another planet, becomes a member of their crew, and the aliens they meet—good guys and bad guys— are mostly varieties of humans. There is plenty of room for deep character examination and description. Proust and James have provided me numerous examples of how to make  these characters fascinating and unforgettable and real. Doing so is, of course, quite another thing.

Do you love “mind-bending science fiction?” Read Casey Dorman’s Ezekiel’s Brain. Buy it on Amazon.

Want to receive regular updates on new books, new ideas and the latest in literature and science fiction? Subscribe to Casey Dorman’s newsletter. Click Here.