Monday, November 21, 2011

Acknowledgements in the Second Person

"Blood makes noise."
-Suzanne Vega

Imagine you are Peter Watts.
     Blindsight is your first novel-length foray into deep space--a domain in which you have, shall we say, limited formal education. In that sense the book isn't far removed from your earlier novels: but whereas you may have not known much about deep-sea ecology either, most of us knew even less, and a doctorate in marine biology at least let you fake it through the rifters trilogy. Blindsight, however, charts its course through a whole different kind of zero g; this made a trustworthy guide that much more important. So first you can thank Prof. Jaymie Matthews of the University of British Columbia: astronomer, partygoer, and vital serial sieve for all the ideas you threw at him. You can also thank Donald Simmons, aerospace engineer and gratifyingly cheap dinner date, who reviewed your specs for Theseus (especially of the drive and the drum), and gave you tips on radiation and the shielding therefrom. Both parties patiently filtered out your more egregious boners. (Which is not to say that none remain in the book, only that those which do result from your negligence, not theirs. Or maybe just because the story called for them.)
     You'd scream if you had the breath.
     David Hartwell, as always, was your editor and main point man at Evil Empire HQ. You suspect Blindsight was a tough haul for both of you: shitloads of essential theory threatened to overwhelm the story, not to mention the problem of generating reader involvement in a cast of characters who were less cuddlesome than usual. You still don't know the extent to which you succeeded or failed, but you've never been more grateful that the man riding shotgun had warmed up on everyone from Heinlein to Herbert.
     Vampires did this all the time, you remember. It was normal for them, it was their own unique take on resource conservation. They could have taught your kind a few things about restraint, if that absurd aversion to right angles hadn't done them in at the dawn of civilization. Maybe they still can.
     The usual gang of fellow writers critiqued the first few chapters of the book and sent you whimpering back to the drawing board: Michael Carr, Laurie Channer, Cory Doctorow, Rebecca Maines, David Nickle, John McDaid, Steve Samenski, Rob Stauffer, and the late Pat York. All offered valuable insights and criticisms at your annual island getaway; Dave Nickle gets singled out for special mention thanks to additional insights offered throughout the year, generally at ungodly hours. By the same token, Dave is exempted from the familiar any-errors-are-entirely-yours schtick that you authors boilerplate onto your acknowledgments. At least some of the mistakes contained therein are probably Dave's fault.
     You think: That can't be right.

Professor Sample told us to re-write an important scene in Peter Watts' Blindsight from a different character's perspective. I suspected most of the class would either do a scene from the very beginning of the novel, or the very end. I spent forever trying to figure out how to do something different.

One of the most notable aspects of Blindsight is the extensive background research Peter Watts did for the book. The novel's notes and references section looks like it came straight out of a science textbook.

It reminds me of the painstakingly detailed appendices at the end of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was not only a novelist: he was a philologist at Oxford. Middle-earth is so convincing in his works because it's rooted in Tolkien's deep interest in language and history.

In that same vein, Peter Watts' rich world in Blindsight is rooted in the mountains of scientific research he did beforehand. You don't need to read any of it to enjoy the book--just like you don't need to read the appendices of The Lord of the Rings to appreciate Tolkien. But it adds an element of believability and fullness to the world of the fiction.

So I knew I had to tackle Watts' research for this assignment. But what other perspective could I use?

Another of Blindsight's peculiarities is its strategic use of second-person narrative. Often reserved for Choose Your Own Adventure books, second person aims to immerse the reader more in the story. What better way to approach the research of Blindsight?! I combined the first few paragraphs of the book's acknowledgments section with snippets from the opening second-person narration of Blindsight's actual story.

Despite the commanding "You" article, second person seems more stream-of-consciousness to me than Watts' first-person, even though most of the words are identical. With the perspective flipped, Watts' humble self-effacing comments come off as much more melancholy instead of humorous. The ominous lines from the beginning of the novel add to that.

On a completely unrelated note, this all made me think about second person in video games: is it possible? In a game where you play as not a defined character but a blank slate of a re-nameable, customizable avatar, could you argue it's second-person storytelling? You're not playing as Mario or Master Chief. You're playing as you.

1 comment:

  1. I like it. I usually cringe a little when people try to say that second-person narration allows the reader to be "more immersed" into the story (as if first or third person can't do this, and as if second-person does it by its nature). I think some of the most moving uses of second-person narration is when the "you" that the speaker refers to isn't supposed to refer to the reader--instead, the author is letting the reader see the author's perspective as he or she addresses a character, which comes off as extremely intimate.