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52 weeks, 52 things

Strategies for Going Away

Niall Harrison demonstrates why I should only ever write about science fiction in broad, general terms (as I’m about to do over the summer – more on this later in the week) and leave the details to others. Harrison’s grasp of the purpose of Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World communicates almost (sorry Niall) perfectly the tone and sweep of the story told. The detail I think he misses, for my money at least, is the degree to which Harkaway’s novel is actually televisual in structure. The opening section, establishing the scenario of the Gone-Away War and the aftermath the world finds itself in, reads as the opening episodes of a TV series, and what follows – the digressions, the meandering and joyous romp through the pre-history of the post-apocalypse, is Lost or Galactica as conceived by Tarantino for commercial broadcast.

That’s not to say it completely works in those terms, but I think it does offer a solution as to Harkaway’s intention with his structure. As a result, the reader’s desire to get back to the beginning is part of a strategy more familiar in monthly publication, or as weekly serialised installments. A strategy that serves Harkaway well, much moreso than Lost managed in its third season (before the end was announced, and thankfully we now have a conclusion in sight, which has sharpened the writing up no end), largely because of the formal qualities of the novel itself.

After that first 28 pages of scene setting (episode 1), we’re dropped back into the narrator’s childhood, but always with the knowledge that there’s no more than an inch and a half of paper until Harkaway has to get back to where he started from. That he takes just short of 300 pages (or most of a season of shows) to do so doesn’t actually matter, because we, the reader, always knew he had to, and that the meandering journey would be over in due course. TV doesn’t offer that security, which unstuck Lost for a good while, until Lindelof and Cuse decided on an endgame, and the televisual equivalent of an inch and a half of paper was restored. Neil Gaiman (although he extended his own deadline as he went along) did the same with The Sandman, announcing that the story begun in issue 1 would conclude sometime soon, and ensuring his readers knew that an end was in sight, that threads had to come together and resolutions would be reached, the act of which went a long way toward turning a monthly comic book into a serialised novel. Dave Sim did something similar with Cerebus, but proper analysis of a 300 issue strategy is going to have to be left for another post.

Right. Have meetings to attend and work to do today. Hopefully this won’t include sticking my hand down a crud-encrusted drain to clear gunk out so that rainwater will go away. At least not again.

Discussion

6 comments for “Strategies for Going Away”

  1. Tom’s blogs are like buses. Buses covered in writing at least. Nowt for ages then a flurry of activity.

    Did Dave Sim invent the SIM card?

    Posted by mongo | July 29, 2008, 10:31 am
  2. http://www.tomabba.com/otherthings/?p=124#comments

    Didn’t you make that joke 2 years ago..?

    Posted by tom | July 29, 2008, 10:36 am
  3. Yeah but I never got an answer.

    Is Ted Danson?

    Does William Hurt?

    etc etc

    Posted by mongo | July 29, 2008, 11:01 am
  4. *grin* I think you’re the first person to nail me on televisual narrative structure. It rings true with me – at least to a point – and something along those lines is inevitable, given my life as a scriptwriter for nine years before I wrote TGAW.

    Glad you had fun along, the way, too.

    Extremely nice website, by the by…

    NH

    Posted by Nick Harkaway | July 30, 2008, 7:44 am
  5. [...] on from my review of The Gone-Away World, Tom Abba suggests another way of looking at the structure: The opening section, establishing the scenario of the Gone-Away War and the aftermath the world [...]

    Posted by Torque Control | July 30, 2008, 12:43 pm
  6. “(sorry Niall)”

    I’d have to be pretty grumpy not to accept “almost perfect” as a compliment! So, thanks; I’ve posted about the meat of your comments over on TC.

    Posted by Niall | July 30, 2008, 12:44 pm

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