Monday, 27 April 2015

Are You Ready To Enter Stapledon-Woolf Space?

(This article first appeared on Damien Walter's blog back in 2010. Thought it'd be nice to necromancy it up given A): I haven't had much chance to do a serious, essayish post in a while, and B): it's hopefully quite interesting. Enjoy...)

Please indulge me. I have identified a literary element, a meme-state if you will, which I hope will be of some small use to anyone grafting away at space opera. I call it Stapledon-Woolf space.

Picture by Damien Walter

I’m sure you’ll recognise the surnames. Olaf Stapledon, of course, wrote First and Last Men and Star Maker. I use his name in reference to his penchant for scale–has anyone ever daubed tales upon a larger canvas than this man, in terms of time and space? Millennia pass within a sentence, races rise on page forty-eight and are rendered extinct halfway down page fifty.

I open Star Maker at random to read:

‘The great majority of the stellar population had now passed their prime; multitudes were mere glowing coals or lightless ash.’
As someone once put it, Stapledon is a writer who can’t write about anything unless it’s everything.
At the very other end of the scale game we might usefully identify Virginia Woolf. Her stream-of-consciousness style and innate hypersensitivity capture the least moment and the smallest detail:
‘With a painful effort of concentration, she focused her mind… upon a kitchen table, one of those scrubbed board tables, grained and knotted, whose virtue seems to have been laid bare by years of muscular integrity…’
Stapledon-Woolf space is a fiction-state in which the scale characteristics of both these writers exist simultaneously. Or, more simply, a single sentence in which galactic grandeur is meshed with some small matter, something human and intimate. An example, off the top of my head, might be-
‘He recognised the scent upon her, a perfume distilled from the flowers of a hundred worlds.
A crude example, but I hope it illustrates what I’m driving at. 

There’s better, of course. Iain M Banks’ culture novel, Surface Detail, describes a massacre of sentient star ships:
‘…collapsing into particles more dense than neutron star material, all that prized wit, intelligence and knowledge-beyond-measuring snuffed…to a barely visible ultra-dense cinder almost before they had time to realise what was happening to them.’
Banks' canon is rich with SWS. On the other hand, I skimmed through Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality stories thinking they’d be drenched in Stapledon-Woolfe sentences and found none. The Ballad of Lost C’Mell, for instance, has its share of epic imagery and more human detail than many ‘literary’ stories, yet the two extremes never bind together in a single sentence. As with many space opera tales, there’s only a background radiation of proto-SWS. Still, doesn’t stop C’Mell from being a favourite of mine.
So far I’ve found three properties to Stapledon-Woolfe space-
  1. It is inherently complex.
  2. It is inherently unstable.
  3. It is unique to space opera.
1) is simple enough – SWS cannot exist within one word. At least, I know of no word in English whose meaning holds such gulf-like contradictions.

As for 2), a state of pure SWS cannot be maintained for long within a narrative.  A sentence or a short paragraph at most. Firstly, the Stapledonian and Woolfian elements pull in opposite directions. But, more to the point, the story itself will curtail SWS before too long. It has to, or the plot would lose all momentum and die.

3)- is contentious, I’ll admit. But I’m sticking with it. No other subgenre has the requisite colossal dimensions Space Opera possesses to tolerate such extremes. The stars above in epic fantasy can only ever be cosmetic, something for the characters to gaze at in wonder but never comprehend, never approach. And Earth-bound Hard SF, in my experience, rarely concerns itself with the personal for long or at depth.

So how, as SF writers, is this of any use to us? Well, in my opinion, the fusion of Stapledon-Woolfe space creates a charge, a buzz of textual energy the reader cannot help but feel, if only subconsciously.

This Stapledon-Woolfe energy is a bit beyond my ability to explain, I’m afraid. All I know is I get a tingle upon reading it. A unique one at that, a sort of gut feeling within the brain. Maybe it’s in having the human condition framed by the very stars themselves, a view to how utterly microscopic yet inexplicably vital we are. As Olaf himself put it in Star Maker’s appendices:
‘A living man is worth more than a lifeless galaxy. But immensity has indirect importance through its facilitation of mental richness and diversity.’
A final note of caution. No writer should intentionally create sentences chock-full of SWS. That would be artificial and could only make for artificial writing. The key is in editing. A few – a very few – sentences of a first draft will naturally contain Stapledon-Woolf particles in an unrefined state. So edit and identify them. Refine and enrich them. Have fun. Who says outer and inner space are mutually incompatible?

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