Monday, May 19, 2008

Last Things

(Warning: contains major spoilers of well-known novels you should have read.)

I’m so close to the end of the first draft on the ongoing that I can taste it. And of course I am preoccupied with the all important last sentences. What scene or reverie will foreshadow them? What will they convey? How will they be shaped?

SF and fantasy novels not only have to provide an ending for their characters; they also have to give an idea of how the world in which they are set has been changed, and whether it will carry on changing, and in which direction. This means that endings are sometimes two-staged affairs, as in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, where the affairs of the world are set in order before we follow the major protagonists to their last farewell, and ordinary life closes over the ones who are left behind in the world. The ending of William Gibson’s Neuromancer has the same pattern: the world changes, and we see the protagonist, Case, settle into that changed world, and his changed life, and the last few sentences make an elegiac farewell to his erstwhile companions.

Elegiac farewells are common in SF and fantasy, especially when they end trilogies or longer series that are increasingly common to the form. It is a letting go not just of the characters, but the world they have saved, or created, or changed. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars, the last volume of his trilogy about terraforming Mars and creating a new social order, we slip quietly from the new Mars and the presence of the woman who opposed terraforming throughout, and in her despair at the changes put herself in the way of death many times, until now, at the very end, she finds a way of accepting the world, and life: ‘ . . . She lifted her eyes to the hills west of the sea, black under the sun. The bones of things stuck out everywhere. Waves broke in swift lines on the beach, and she walked over the sand towards her friends, in the wind, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars.’

There are at least two other main classes of SF and fantasy novel endings. The first is like a trap springing shut. The world has changed (or it has failed to change), and ending shows the protagonists caught in that change, or in their failure. George Orwell’s 1984 has a classic dystopian ending, in which after all his trials and tribulations of the hero has failed to escape - or rather, he has escaped by turning his struggle against the system against himself and from defeat plucked a pyrrhic victory, an ironic reversal in a novel in which the meaning of language has been famously reversed to suit its rulers: ‘Two gin-scented tears trickle down the side of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.’

There’s a similar kind of ending in Orwell’s Animal Farm, where a revolution has been absorbed into the socioeconomic frame it sought to overthrow. The last sentence has transcended the book: ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’

But this kind of ending isn’t always unhappy. Sometimes the trap springs shut on a moment of happiness, or at least, on tranquillity, or the reassertion of order. In Philip K. Dick’s Martian Timeslip, for instance, the threat of chaos had been averted and decency and goodness are shown to have triumphed in this quiet moment: ‘In the darkness of the Martian night [Silvia’s] husband and father-in-law searched for Erna Steiner; their light flashed here and there, and their voices could be heard, businesslike and competent and patient.’

But sometimes the end of the novel is not The End at all. It’s a slingshot, a sudden revelation that the business of change has not ended, or has only just begun. If Neuromancer ends in an elegiac farewell, the last novel in the loose trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive, ends in a slingshot that propels the protagonists into an alien cyberspace that has meshed with ours. One of the most famous slingshot endings (not just because it helps resolve the enigmatic ending of the film) is that of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. After the Starchild dispatches missiles aimed at him:
‘ . . . he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.
‘But he would think of something.’

Clarke liked slingshot endings, or sudden reversals. At the end of Rendezvous With Rama, as the eponymous alien spaceship powers out of the Solar System, the novel ends with this last thought (Clarke’s italics): ‘The Ramans do everything in threes.’

The ending of Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz famously showed that its ending was merely the beginning of a new turn in its epicycles of history (note the spare prose, similar to that of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road): ‘A wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine white ash. The ash fell into the sea and into the breakers. The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood. Then they washed up the whiting. The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the cold clean currents. He was very hungry that season.’

How will the ongoing project of mine end? That would be telling. You’ll have to read the rest of it first.


Blogger PeteY said...

Argh, what a tease. For the benefit of the curious, the italics in Clarke's last sentence cover the whole sentence...Paul doesn't fix typos in the blog ;)

May 19, 2008 10:40 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Petey,

I fixed that one because I tardily remembered that I'd had a d'oh! moment.

The last sentence in The Quiet War was not, for a long time, the last sentence in The Quiet War because I threw away the last chapter that had stayed there for three drafts and wrote an entirely new one. So before you read the whole book and find out what it is, I have to *finish* the book to find out how it ends.

So it goes, as someone once wrote.

May 19, 2008 10:55 pm  
Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

Nice, insightful post (as usual) -- and reminded me of my first read of Delany's Einstein Intersection and his journal entry/commentary as he approached the book's close: "Endings, to be effective, must be ambiguous."

It's that "must" that sends the signal that the endings (as it were) of Nova, Dhalgren and Triton loomed, not to mention the still-awaited (by me, ever hopeful) second half of Stars In My Pocket.

Good luck with the close of yours -- and with your finding what you find it to be.

May 20, 2008 3:53 pm  
Anonymous Kev McVeigh said...

Interesting that you cite Kim Stanley Robinson, because he used to make a practice of beginning and ending his stories and novels with related concepts. At one time it was antonyms as first and last words, the Mars series begins with a literal carnival and ends with a 'carnival of voices' and The Science In The Capital series eefectively begins I and ends We, if not in so many words.
-- Kev McVeigh

May 27, 2008 5:48 pm  

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