Slow and Fast Shifts

Something I’ve been thinking about is that moment in certain Philip K. Dick novels (for me, UBIK and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said come to mind first for some reason) where reality just suddenly shifts, turns itself inside out, and you–the dear and much-blessed reader–follow along, feeling the “Woah!” and maybe some of the “Huh?” but not so much that you feel disoriented beyond the effect of, say, a few glasses of wine.

Now, a lot of SF does this from page one, I know, and a lot of stories don’t necessarily involve any second-stage WTF?–though I think the best often ones do–but what I’m talking about is something else: when the world of the character, as seen by the character, suddenly alters in some deep, radical way. Though I’ve never really been much of a fan, David Lynch is one of those people who does this a lot in film (though I don’t think he does it particularly well: I what kept me watching to the end in Lost Highway was the fact I was in a cinema and had paid for it. Books are easier to give up on, and can be hurled across the room in annoyance.)

(Tangent: actually, this kind of reality-shift has become a very popular move in film and TV, hasn’t it? It’s a repeated trick in Buffy the Vampire Slayer but especially big at the beginning of Season 3, and since Quantum Leap at least it’s been a common way of making TV programs have some drawing power while retaining a relatively stand-alone, one-mission-per-episode structure.)

I know there are more recent books I could read or reread to see other examples; one I’m sure that would fit is Glasshouse by Charles Stross, though I haven’t yet read it, mea culpa; Greg Egan also does a lot with this sort of thing in his short stories, or in novels like Permutation City and Diaspora and Teranesia, though in his case it’s the character that changes radically, and the world that stays the same; some recent stuff by Rudy Rucker or Rucker and collaborators has also tread this territory. Kurt Vonnegut did some work here too. Stephen Baxter has done this a few times, like in Manifold: Origin for example. (I suspect his Raft is also like this, though I haven’t gotten around to it yet.) And now that I think of it, this is a recurrent pattern in Geoff Ryman’s Air, isn’t it, characters who have to cope with finding themselves in a world that is shifting at an increasingly accelerating speed, with several of the changes ushering in more perplexity. You could argue Adam Roberts does this in The Snow, and probably other books too…

But I’m going to stop cataloguing all these and say that, for now, and note that I’m not talking just about change, but about radical, worldview-shattering, reality-bending change. Someone becoming unstuck in time, in identity, or the rules of the world suddenly shifting in a fundamental–and undeniable–way during the course of a narrative.

In days past, I’ve sometimes thought it was a case of the speed of the transition that rendered it either palatable or annoying, and personally I favored smeary, slow, blurry transitions. Sometimes this can be really powerful: one example that comes to mind is Paul Park’s novel Celestis, where a character’s internal transformations are traced in a slow, agonizing progression towards an end one cannot help but feel will be horridly painful. Park uses the tension built up over time, and multiple points of view, to make this approach really work for the story.

But I’ve learned over time that that’s often not an effective approach for a lot of kinds of stories. Just as you can’t bend every note when you play the saxophone (without sounding like a cheeseball), you can’t smudge every weird shift in reality in a story like this. Thinking back on Uncle Horselover’s  (ie. P.K. Dick’s) examples–which I remember as more sudden, total disjunctures between one reality and another–it seems that pacing is probably not the primary issue. I’ve been thinking of this issue in conjunction with two things I’m looking at these days, one my own and one a friend’s.

This has gotten me wondering what, exactly, are the techniques one can use to shift a story from one explicit, imaginary reality to another explicit, imaginary reality in a way that jolts readers without jarring them out of the story. What I’ve come up with is this:

  • Spending time on the character’s reaction to the reality shift is a good way to give your reader an anchor, assuming that the character stays reasonably consistent internally. The reader will spend at least some time empathizing with the poor bewildered character (or, at least, enjoying that character’s suffering) and that means less time spent muddling about trying to understand the shift itself. The protagonist’s puzzlement validates the reader’s puzzlement, and signals that, yeah, you didn’t miss something ten pages back, but it also is fundamentally engaging because, after all, what is the point of depicting a reality shift except in a piece of writing except to show how it feels to live through one?
  • Setting up the shift can help the reader to be braced for something weird, without necessarily spoiling the surprise itself. One of the more important things it does is leave the reader feeling like she or he is in the hands of a capable author. I can’t remember who spoke of writing well in terms of holding the reader’s hand, secretly, under the table, but this seems to be part of that. Demonstrating competency might even come down to painting a really clear picture of this world, so the reader knows what exactly it is that is so perplexing about the shift. For example, in Dick’s work, one often has a vague sense that the moorings of reality are a bit loose, that the status quo is unstable and collapsible. This is conveyed, and unconsciously picked up, in a general way, and I think the stability and clarity of the text helps make the craziness easier to swallow.
  • Giving the character a clear plot-related stake in the change. If the character is on the lam, and the world shifts, can he or she relax? If the character is hunting someone, does the world shift make it that much harder to continue? (And here comes my AD&D-fostered insight: if the character is tougher, the monsters need to be tougher. Substitute challenges, threats, and problems for monsters, and careful with that tarrasque.)
  • A relatively higher degree of familiarity will make the first “world” you build easier to let go of, when the reality shifts: after all, if it’s too interesting, readers will want to stay and explore that new and unknown (to them) world; that’s part of the attraction of SF, after all. Meanwhile, if the world is familiar, this will make them more willing to go along with you when reality shifts radically to something unfamiliar. This seems a bit like authorial judo: you use the impetus of the reader (to see unknown worlds) to propel them through something that is, after all, rather difficult to write convincingly. Another way to think about it is that you’re using the gravity well of the familiar not to anchor your reader, but in service of a kind of narrative form of  gravitational slingshot–something that forcefully and irresistibly propels the reader into the unknown.

One more thing that’s worth thinking about is that, for the reader, the character’s experience mid-book is something like the reader’s experience at the outset. When you pick up a good SF novel, most of the time you’re dropped into the middle of a perplexing world (that you see through the eyes, or the mind, or the sensorium of someone who isn;’t perplexed by it). It’s almost a relief when the protagonist, mid-novel, experiences the same thing alongside you, especially when you have a slightly better handle on it than he or she has.

So how about you: any more observations on handling this kind of “reality shift”? (And if you’re not a writer, but recall something from readings, feel free to chime in, of course!)

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