Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Happy-slapping hoodies with ASBOs and ringtones

Have proofed "Incongruous details", which will now be published in July. Also looked over something else related, but you'll have to wait and see.

Have talked before about the importance of details, especially in this freelancing lark. On Monday, learned colleagues were wondering why ASBOs are always "slapped" on offending chavs, and which red-eyed, red-topped newspaper had first called it that.

"It's slapped because it's a knee-jerk reaction," said one colleague. But I don't think you can slap with your knees.

Details are important in stories, and my late grandfather once suggested a very clever thing which I then wangled into an essay. He was asking about my filthy love of sci-fi, a millieu he'd never got.

("Most of it seems pretty appalling rubbish," he said. Which is pretty much my view, too.)

He did admit, however, to a filthy love of a good detective story - and recommended me Dashiell Hammett, for which I shall always be grateful. And he knew that some people just don't get detective stuff.

I said it was odd that a) science-fiction and detective stories both began around the same time (some people even argue they were invented by the same odd bloke), and b) that if you don't get into them at about the age of 11, then you never really do.

"Hmm," my grandfather said, or words to that effect. "Perhaps that's because they're both about spotting details in the stories to build up a picture of the world. In a detective story, you're looking for clues about who committed the crime and how. In science fiction, clues tell you how the world itself works. If you never learnt to decode these kinds of story, you'll always be locked out."

Which I think is very true. In sci-fi, the laying down of clues is called world-building. Some writers like to spell it all out, so Orwell's 1984 (yes, of course it's sci-fi) has a whole great chapter on exactly how his dystopia came about and on the etymology of Newspeak. It's a not very subtle infodump - though its political acumen lifts it above the usual sci-fi bollocks where someone explains how "My culture is unlike yours, Earthman. We believe in Honour, and do not use contractions."

The subtler stuff is more tricky to pull off. A classic example (I think it's cited in Bob Shaw's book on writing sci-fi) is a fleeting reference to the doors of a house "dialescing" rather than just opening. That doors open in a strange, sci-fi way tells us we're on a strange, sci-fi world where we shouldn't trust any of the normal, everyday things we take for granted. It doesn't need to be a plot point, it's just part of the furniture.

My favourite for this kind of thing is Cold Comfort Farm.

Put your teeth back in; yes, it's sci-fi. It's written in the 1930s and set in the 50s, after some horrific world war. The well-to-do fly bi-planes everywhere as they might do their motorcars, and public telephone boxes are fitted with TV screens. The number of people I've pointed this out to... Even those who've read the thing several times, and never once noticed the details.

(Why it's sci-fi - what its sf-ness achieves - is one for another post, and I should probably reread the thing anyway.)

I laughed at the Doctor knowing in School Reunion all about happy-slapping hoodies. In a couple of years when the terms have all dated, the line will mean something slightly different. The Doctor's not up with ver kids, he just knows his history.

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