Choreographist Fiction

January 18, 2011 at 2:48 am | Posted in Essays | Leave a comment

Any man who claims to remember and can recount each cut, parray, and riposte in a melee like the one we faced is either a liar or did nothing but watch.

The above aside comes from Michael Stackpole’s Talion: Revenant, a teenage favorite of mine that I’m currently rereading. I’ll review it in a few days, but in the meantime I wanted to do something a little different. I’ve seen some people talking about the need for new critical terms lately, and it’s true that most attempts at defining lexicons are either not available online (like Clute’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy lexicon), aimed at writers and not readers and reviewers (like the Turkey City Lexicon, which for the most part is not actually a lexicon), or else comedic (like Lavie Tidhar’s new blog and Adam Roberts’ hilarious Anathem review). I can’t and won’t attempt an actual lexicon, but there are a couple concepts that I find myself mentioning fairly frequently in reviews here, so I thought it would be helpful to coin terms for them and write a little description–not because anyone else will ever use these words, but so I can use them and link back to my previous comments instead of repeating myself.

The first of these is a word I’ve used in my head when thinking about books for a while now: choreographist. It refers to prose fiction that takes it upon itself to carefully choreograph something for you, usually some sort of hand to hand combat. Here’s an example, from a small part of a fight scene from early in Matthew Stover’s choreographist science fantasy novel Heroes Die:

At about this time I realize he’s been pounding the side of my head with his doubled elbow. He can’t get any force behind it, lying down like that; he’s doing it mostly to distract me from his other hand, which is sliding up my neck to hook a thumb toward my eye.

As he swings again I rear back out of his elbow’s path and grab his upper arm, twisting him on around so his back’s to me now, pinning his scabbarded sword with my chest. The hair on the back of his head is matted with blood from a single cut where his scalp split against the edge of the step. I lock my legs around his again and roll us both over faceup just in time—the pair of ogres, who were winding up for free shots at my back, lower their morningstars uncertainly.

My left arm snakes around Berne’s face, over his eyes, to pull his head back while my right hand draws one of the long fighting knives from its sheath along my ribs. I put its point against his external jugular; it’ll take a single second to drive it straight in the side of his neck and slice out though the front, parting carotids, external and internal jugular, and windpipe. He has no chance to survive, and he knows it.

In this scene, Stover has figured out precisely what movements the combatants are making and is explaining it as precisely as possible to the reader. Stover is, by my reckoning, pretty good at this difficult transformation of movements in three dimensions into prose (I should note I haven’t done him any favors by stripping the context in order to keep the length of the excerpt down). His first person narrative renders most of these scenes in a distinctive voice and he sprinkles his fights with a lot of little character moments, similar to but more realistic than the way comic book characters converse while fighting. However, and this is the difference between fiction with some choreography and what I call choreographist fiction, these elaborate fight scenes are clearly a big part, though still by no means the only part, of the novel’s appeal for its readers.

But no matter how well done, what’s really going on here? Action movie envy, if you ask me. Action movies have always been popular, and with the rising popularity of martial arts and the importing of idioms and styles from Asian cinema, the choreography in movies has gotten ever more elaborate. But prose fiction is not a movie, and even if one is reading a novelization of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is it really desirable to recreate it “shot for shot” in prose? The movie Crouching Tiger is actually an adaptation of a novel, so perhaps at some point I should read the original and see how it handles the fight scenes, but in the meantime I will provisionally answer: probably not. And by the way, this doesn’t just apply to hand to hand combat. You often hear people talk about how space battles are exciting, but how many books have space battles that are even remotely as exciting as those in movies?

Fight scenes considerably predate action movies, of course. In fact, I suppose they predate written literature. Here is the end of the most important fight in the Iliad:

As he spoke he drew the keen blade that hung so great and strong by his side, and gathering himself together be sprang on Achilles like a soaring eagle which swoops down from the clouds on to some lamb or timid hare–even so did Hector brandish his sword and spring upon Achilles. Achilles mad with rage darted towards him, with his wondrous shield before his breast, and his gleaming helmet, made with four layers of metal, nodding fiercely forward. The thick tresses of gold with which Vulcan had crested the helmet floated round it, and as the evening star that shines brighter than all others through the stillness of night, even such was the gleam of the spear which Achilles poised in his right hand, fraught with the death of noble Hector. He eyed his fair flesh over and over to see where he could best wound it, but all was protected by the goodly armour of which Hector had spoiled Patroclus after he had slain him, save only the throat where the collar-bones divide the neck from the shoulders, and this is a most deadly place: here then did Achilles strike him as he was coming on towards him, and the point of his spear went right through the fleshy part of the neck, but it did not sever his windpipe so that he could still speak. Hector fell headlong, and Achilles vaunted over him saying, “Hector, you deemed that you should come off scatheless when you were spoiling Patroclus, and recked not of myself who was not with him. Fool that you were: for I, his comrade, mightier far than he, was still left behind him at the ships, and now I have laid you low. The Achaeans shall give him all due funeral rites, while dogs and vultures shall work their will upon yourself.”

This is a prose translation of the poem, but it’s pretty clear that for all his blood, gore, and constant battle scenes Homer wasn’t really writing choreographist fiction. The stock epithets fly fast and furious, but Homer takes it for granted his audience believes in the skill and prowess of Achilles and Hector and lets them decide exactly how it all looked. Of course, tastes have changed, and when I read this in high school it struck me as anticlimactic. If someone were to make a modern movie out of the Iliad the battle would last for several minutes at least (I can’t remember how it was done in Petersen’s Troy but I’m not willing to watch it again to find out). This is now true for most novels as well: the climactic sword fight of Guy Gavriel Kay’s not even remotely choreographist Lions of Al-Rassan carefully describes quite a bit of the back and forth.

You might think this is all an elaborate way of saying I think choreographist fiction is garbage, but I’m not. Now some of it is badly written, and then it is fair game, but otherwise I think this is a matter of reader preferences. There are, as I see it, two reasons one might attack choreographist fiction as a whole. The first complaint would be that in the first person, and these stories are quite often written in the first person, it is flat-out unrealistic. I began with a quote from Talion: Revenant that made this argument, although curiously throughout the rest of the novel the narrator is happy to provide a blow by blow description of his fights. Apparently melees “like the one we faced” are different. Perhaps I simply wasn’t good enough, but I used to be a fencer and five minutes after a bout, while I could remember the decisive moments and the broad outline, I certainly couldn’t provide a detailed description of what happened. The idea of reproducing anything even remotely accurate days, weeks, or even years later is absurd.

The same criticism, however, can be made of first person narratives providing the exact words of conversations, so this turns out to be an objection to the first person perspective as a whole. In truth, with a very few exceptions, every first person narrative is unrealistic. Most people (although not all, see the discussion in the comments here) just accept that as long as it follows certain conventions we can ignore the question of precisely how the text came into existence, just as we don’t require that a movie explain how the camera got there and why no one is looking at it.

The second possible objection, and the one I am more sympathetic to, asks: why we are reading a book in the first place? It’s a cliché of adapted movies that the novel is always better than the movie, but is that because the fight scenes are better in the book? While that’s not impossible, given competent direction I think it’s safe to say only the most ardent lover of books would rather read a fight scene than watch it. There’s a reason that “action” is widely considered to be an actual genre of film but has only extremely weak parallels in the book world. Shouldn’t we read books that emphasize the things prose does well, and leave the things film does better to film and television? I guess some people are text purists, like Johan Jönsson in this Strange Horizons article where he concludes that he doesn’t like maps in fantasy novels because he prefers “a book where the text works without such aids as maps or appendices.” I guess I’m more pragmatic. Maps are much better at communicating geography, so why on earth wouldn’t you use them if you can? Likewise, if the perennially two years away multimedia novel of the future ever becomes common (I have my doubts), then by all means let’s switch to live action video for the fight scenes.

However, despite my sympathies, the reality is virtually all good books appeal on multiple levels. Heroes Die may be “just” a choreographist novel, but it’s also a fantasy novel. In fact, simultaneously, it also happens to be a science fiction novel. It would be a shame if readers missed out on the novel just because they look down on fancy fight scenes. I confess I tend to skim when fight descriptions get technical, but there’s plenty more to like about Heroes Die. For elaboration, albeit not much, you can see what I wrote about it five years ago (lacking the term choreographist, I went with “fighting procedural”).

Now, if a book strikes me as being solely choreographist that’s a different matter, but that’s where a reviewer can help readers figure out whether or not a book is worth reading. Hopefully having a term will be helpful in that regard.

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