Monday, October 17, 2016

The Mandibles: 2029, Chapter 6 (Search and Seizure)

That chapter title makes it sound like something happens in this chapter, doesn't it? Well, it does...kinda.

Chapter 6 marks the resolution of that gold confiscation policy we heard about in Chapter 4. Littlebrain Florence finally remembers that, in fact, she does have gold in the house in the form of a pair of miniature goblets. As they have sentimental value, Florence decides to hide them and not report them. Turns out that the timing is sound, as a pair of Army goons show up to toss the place - a big sullen dude and a "subcontinental companion" with a "mincing" accent because we hadn't given any shit to Indians yet.

I suppose this section is meant to be tense, but it's not for a few reasons. One, I knew that Shriver wasn't going to have her favorite punching bag get arrested so early in the book. Two, I never bought it as a threatening situation. Yeah, the bigger guy is a jerk who knocks some things over, but that's it. This isn't exactly SWAT kicking down the door, rolling in flashbangs and shooting the dog. Hell, during my time living in an authoritarian state, I had my apartment searched by the cops under questionable conditions. It wasn't like this.

Some of you might be wondering about the logistics of doing a house-to-house search for gold trinkets. There were around 115 million households in the US in 2014. Assuming that nothing's changed, and a pair of goons can search a domicile in a mere ten minutes, then this task would take 18.4 million man-hours - not counting travel, paperwork/compliance, anyone they have to arrest, etc. Even with hundreds of thousands of people working overtime, it would still take weeks. Plus it's THE FUTURE! - they couldn't use a gold-detecting UAV or something like that to narrow this down?
"Think about it. All these houses. All the closets. All the floorboards and boxes. When stuff made of gold is so small. It's impossible. The house-to-house searches are ridiculous...They're trying to scare you. If they scare you enough, they don't have to find it."
Remember these arguments for your own novels, folks. It's okay to do something absurd if I acknowledge it. If this plot point makes no sense then it's not my fault for rushing the narrative, it's that the bad guys are dumb.

That last line was by thirteen-year-old Willing, by the way, because we didn't have near enough precocious kids in the last chapter. It turns out that he moved the gold from where his stupid liberal mother hid it and that's the only reason no one found it.

The rest of the chapter is Willing giving speeches. And I when I say "rest of the chapter," remember this: Chapter 6 is thirty-four pages long in the old fogey edition I'm using. The titular "search and seizure" only uses up twelve of those pages. Yep.

Where to even begin?

Writing dialogue for teenagers is hard. I'm not even talking about the window dressing that most neophyte writers sweat over, like lingo or fads. I'm talking about the challenge in writing a character that might have a grown-up intellect but lacks grown-up experiences. Ask most people what they were like in high school and they'll remember being dumb, but none of them can remember why they were dumb, and that's critical to writing teens well.

Some hacks try to sidestep this by making all of their teenage (and in some cases, younger) characters really precocious and erudite and gifted and then just treating them like little adults. That's not the way it works, though. The smartest thirteen-year-old on Earth is still thirteen. He still lacks perspective, and that's the critical factor in maturity.

But maybe that's beside the point. Yes, Shriver is clearly turning into all her young characters into unacknowledged geniuses so that she doesn't have to write them realistically. But I sense a different motivation in this case. I think Shriver hates her own liberal punching bag so much that she wants us to see this character humiliated by her own eighth-grade son. How else to explain shit like this?
FLORENCE: "Since I've heard we need regular inflation, like at least 2 or 3 percent, my whole life."
WILLING: "I know you have. You've been brainwashed." (Insert approx. 150 words on the history of the Pound Sterling)
I could expound at length on the psychology of a writer who despises her own creation, but Shriver's definitely going to give me more opportunities for that. Instead, I'd like to bring up something else, something I've sounded off on already but which is so much worse here:
"The city gets some funding from the federal government. That means your employers have access to the fake money. That's why you got such a big raise in March. And you'll keep getting raises. That's part of the problem. Lots of government payouts, like salaries, pensions, and benefits, are pegged to inflation. Meaning they have to keep printing more and more money to meet the budget, because they keep printing more and more money."
That's not dialogue. It's not how people talk, not in real life and not in well-characterized fiction. This is a speech, and no one likes speeches. The only time a speech is acceptable is when it's made by a villain. Villains make speeches because they're on the wrong side and have to rationalize what they're doing. When heroes make speeches, it only makes them sound like villains, and self-righteous villains at that.

But what really makes this a speech and not dialogue is that it's not a two-way street. You know how Florence responds to this?
Once again with feeling: You can't prove anything through fiction. Yes, I realize that it's a lot easier to render one of your deeply-held arguments on the page than it is to hash it out in reality. In reality, the other prick gets to argue back. But in fiction, you can shove your argument in a character's mouth and have the other party stand there slack-jawed before responding with a hearty "You're right and I'm stupid." It's a lot easier. It's also lousy writing.

1 comment:

  1. I can't understand why libertarians' fantasies always include everyone telling them that they are right and the rest of the world is wrong. Is that really the best they can come up with?