January 18th, 2012


Measures thou see art but trifles

Thanks to Ian Sales I have just caught up with the controversy regarding Liz Bourke's review of Michael J. Sullivan's novel Theft of Swords. For those who want to read the full debate, which has spilled far beyond the review's original publication on Strange Horizons, Bourke herself has helpfully listed all the links she could find here. I am impressed by Bourke and baffled (and slightly worried) by some of her critics.

I want to pick up one of her arguments in particular, because I think it's important. Bourke takes issue with one particularly purple paragraph of the book which begins with the immortal sentence "Measures thou see art but trifles." She says,
If you're going to write in a dialect with which you're not familiar, whether archaic or foreign, it behoves you to become familiar with it. If you're writing in Early Modern English (a language still read and performed, and not just by Shakespeare buffs), it behoves you—and your editor, and your copyeditor—to get the basic grammatical structures right. Early Modern English does have a grammar. And if you don't know the grammar offhand, the internet does.
As she points out, the sentence should have been "The measures thou see'st be [or are] but trifles." A couple of Sullivan's defenders jumped on this point:
This is a FANTASY BOOK. He can make up whatever f*ing language he pleases quite frankly.

The language isn't real. The world isn't real. Guess what, magic isn't real. Sullivan can make up whatever phrasing he wants in this world.
As another commenter and I have pointed out, they are objectively wrong on this point, and Bourke is objectively right.

Perhaps I can help with an analogy. If we were talking about an sf novel where astronauts landed on the surface of Jupiter and walked around, that would simply be wrong. The argument can be made that the author is free to make up what he or she likes about the surface of a planet that nobody has visited ("It's a made-up Jupiter!"). But in fact we know enough about the conditions of Jupiter to be sure that it will never be possible for human beings to land on it and walk around. The visible parts of Jupiter are cloud and would not support an astronaut's weight; the solid surface is so far down that it is subject to colossal pressure which would squash any traveller. It doesn't matter how well such a book is written in other ways; anyone who knows anything about Jupiter will find that their appreciation of the book is very negatively affected by the author including such a scene.

So it is for the use of Early Modern English. It's not a made-up language; it's a real language, just as Jupiter is a real planet. There are rules about how you can use the word "thou" - for instance, it changes the verb "see" to "see'st". There is a rule about how you use the word "art" as a part of the verb "to be" - it goes with second person singular "thou", not with third person plural "measures". If the author breaks those rules, it is impossible for anyone who knows Early Modern English to ignore, as bad as describing your characters walking around on the surface of Jupiter.

And if the author has broken those rules, the copy-editors and the rest of the editorial team have a duty to spot and correct it, a duty which was clearly not discharged in this case.

January Books 14) Making Ireland British 1580-1650, by Nicholas Canny

My first Irish history book of the year, this one looking not so much at the big picture of Irish history as specifically at the colonisation policies pursued by English (and Scottish) officials in Ireland from 1580 until the Cromwellian settlement resolved the land issue for three centuries.

Canny argues persuasively that the intellectual agenda for colonisation (or 'plantation' in local dialect) was set out by Spenser in both The Faerie Queene and the View of the Present State of Ireland, and while it wasn't the whole-hearted policy of either the royal court in London or of the Dublin Castle administration, it became inevitable after the Flight of the Earls and the fact that the viceroys under James I were themselves deeply involved with plantation. He also finds that Wentworth/Strafford, who was executed largely on suspicion of being too nice to Irish Catholics, was actually secretly pursuing a pro-plantation agenda which was as extreme as Cromwell's ten years later. In fact Irish Catholics found it difficult to resist the creeping dispossession of their lands precisely because it was never enshrined as government policy, so the traditional idea that appealing to the King or Queen might sort out the more hostile local officials never quite got lost until 1649. Lots of interesting detail about what life was like in Ireland at the period, including how widespread the use of Irish was in the Pale and the curious incident of the Pathan who settled near Roscrea. Not quite enough for my purposes on my own ancestors - both the sixteenth-century Sir Nicholas White and his seventeenth-century grandson of the same name are mentioned, but the story is not really about them or their people. Still, a very interesting read.

January Books 15) Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book 2012, ed. Clayton Hickman

This really is a must-have book for fans of New Who. It has shaken off some of the extra material of last year's equivalent, and settled down to being a damn good guide to the 2011 series (and 2010 Christmas episode), including interviews with the key crew and cast, very short pieces of fanfic for each episode by established authors (James Goss, as usual, scores with the adventures of madame Vastra) and some nice reflections on how some of the episodes fit into longer Who history. I found it very helpful in reviving my memories of watching it first time round and tying them into the wider continuity. (Apart from Night Terrors which I struggled to remember.) I recommended it sight unseen to a friend to share with his nine-year-old and I strongly repeat that now that I have actually read it, for fans of any age.

January Books 16) Slow River, by Nicola Griffith

My first Nebula winner of the year (only five more to go). In a lot of ways this is a very good book - excellent that Griffith has nested three different strands of plot, her heroine's childhood and then two different phases of her recovery from a kidnap ordeal, with some very sensuous descriptions of setting (Hull, of all places) and passionate yet thoughtful reflections on class and gender. My one reservation was that I wasn't sure how central the sfnal elements were to the plot; perhaps this is partly because quite a lot of the stuff that seemed futuristic in 1995 has become quotidian in 2012.

Slow River won the Nebula for Best Novel in 1997. It beat three books I haven't heard of - Nina Kiriki Hoffman's The Silent Strength of Stones, Patricia A. McKillip's Winter Rose and Robert J. Sawyer's Starplex - and two that I have read, Expiration Date by Tim Powers and Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, which won the Hugo that year. Considering the three that I have read on the list, it is actually quite a tough choice. Expiration Date is fun but not really profound, and The Diamond Age has more flaws than I realised on first reading. I think this is one of those years when the Nebulas picked out a novel that deserved a bit more recognition; in other words, for once, the system actually worked.