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II: Rigid Definitions Are Not Useful in Fiction
The word "mosaic" novel presumes that there exists some entity called the "traditional" novel. Does such a form as a traditional novel even exist? I consider the form to be what is presented in writing handbooks: a clear beginning, middle, and end; a unified plot around a single narrative arc; subtext, and etc. Definitions of the form “Novel” lead me to select a classic text as an example, if only because with such a hazy definition as “Traditional” novel, something concrete focuses discussion. Thus, consider "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce. Though there are breeches in time during the classic coming-of-age tale, all these breeches occur to focus in on the interesting parts of a character's life as he grows up. It isn't so much that there is a fracture in the timeline as there is an editorial decision to gloss over the boring, irrelevant parts. If the narrative flow were a river, it would flow down one canyon and never branch. Call this the traditional narrative, if something must be defined as one. If there is such a thing as a traditional novel, which there probably isn't, allow that it might be like the Nile, flowing straight from the mountains out to sea. The narrative arc flows one way, and never wanders much from the singular flow.
Consider a “Mosaic”, then, a branching river, like an Amazon, with so many divergent flows along so many forking rivers that the webbing is more defining than the flow. In a mosaic, like in a television series, there is time and space to wander away from the main branch of the river to cover more narrative "ground". In ACCELERANDO that means wandering around different characters, who are all living in different places and moments in time. In CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, it means exploring the timeline of a city through dozens of different characters and situations. Put simply, traditional novels, if there is such a thing, follow a single narrative arc, and mosaics are unlimited in the number of arcs, as long as all water pours out to the same sea. In between these two definitions, works can be either one, or the other, or both. If this definition is unsatisfactory, that is to its benefit. Literary forms should not be considered binaries, and should not be considered rigid or closely-defined.
Approaching mosaics with a simple, loose definition, wherein some elements of the fiction – setting, plot, character, or theme – is disjointed and some elements are connected, allows the inclusion of forms on the edge of the definition, like tapestry pieces, frame tales, and experimental work. Thus, a book does not have to be either a mosaic or not a mosaic. Something can have elements of a mosaic, and still be considered one in the right light, or not one at all in a different light. Works can be more than one kind of work, in the same way that a “Science Fiction Novel” can easily be shelved in multiple sections of a bookstore depending on factors like whether or not the work is a classic of literature, embraces ethnic or GLBTQ characters and themes, contains erotic elements, or is written as if an epic poem. No fictional category is exclusive. Approaching outliers of the form of mosaic fiction with the same ideas in mind, as if those forms are also mosaics, will only aid in the act of creating fiction. In this case, a “frame” tale is only mildly an outlier of the form, and could easily be argued into the definition of a classic “fix-up” in that individual stories inside the frame stand alone while the author “fixes” the frame around the stories. I included Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN graphic novels already, which are a frame narrative, and I would like to consider the frame narrative, and other divergent forms, in more detail, as mosaic pieces.
In HYPERION by Dan Simmons, multiple characters each experience a point of crisis in their lives that moves them onto a dangerous pilgrimage towards a deadly alien god, the Shrike. Different characters within this frame tell the story to each other, and by proxy the reader, of how they came to be on this journey. These stories range from military science fiction to detective noir to a surrealist piece about a young woman who ages backwards in time. In this book, the frame is like the concrete beneath the tiles, holding all the disparate fictions together. The narrative elements of the fictions, from character, setting, and theme, all diverge in ways both subtle and large. The only real common element of the framed fictions is the point of crisis, wrapped around the ominous presence of the Shrike among the Time Tombs. With this in mind, using a narrative frame provides the author with an accessible tool to unite the themes of the story together, where various characters from different backgrounds each want to betray their own culture. In the case of a frame tale, the narrative glue is often one major theme that connects over all the stories, like Morpheus’ grappling with self-creation and change. The themes belong together in HYPERION, and pulling the different stories into one frame allows the author not to write the arrival at the Shrike’s home in the Time Tombs from so many different perspectives. By placing all the characters, who will experience an arrival at the Shrike to complete their story, into the same group of pilgrims, the arrival at the Shrike builds up in the reader’s mind as a dangerous unknown. That anticipation felt by the reader propels them forward as they wish to discover the mystery of what will happen when the pilgrims reach the Shrike. Though Dan Simmons probably considers this a different form, more akin to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the fact that the form allows for different chunks of genre fictions to be placed in juxtaposition to each other, revealing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Though the work may not be explicitly called a "Mosaic", there is no need to be rigid with definitions of form.
Not every mosaic tapestry can be divided like Simmons' frame tale, around a single moment in time. Gaiman built his frame around one character arc. Simmons built his frame around one shared destination – a setting of Hyperion and the Shrike lurking in the time tombs. One can also deal with theme as a frame, but, we’ll talk about that soon, in the advanced section. First, we should talk about organization and shared worlds and television shows.
III: Lessons Learned from Spider Queens
Phil Athans, formerly of Wizards of the Coast, was an author and editor involved in many mosaic projects as part of “shared worlds”, wherein multiple authors operate in the same setting, and often use the same characters. In Athans’ case, it was part of the campaign settings to multiple popular RPGs. I have spoken at length about the importance of change in the mosaic concrete, and offered two examples of the tapestry side of mosaic fictions, and the two different approaches those authors took with their frames. Phil Athans lived through epic changes that impacted dozens of writers working on the shared world. About the mosaic process, he offered this advice: “The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Some sophisticated readers may get to the end of a book and say ‘Those few moments of brilliance made up for the book’s overall poor quality,’ but more likely: ‘Those few moments of brilliance didn’t make up for the books overall poor quality.’” (Athans E-Mail, August 2010)
In other words, shaping the mosaics into a form requires standardizing the quality across the different pieces. Ideally, everything will be brilliant, but sometimes if elements don’t work well together, they must be adjusted or “fixed-up” to make them so -- in some cases, edited out of the work entirely. This same idea means, firstly, authors of potential mosaics need to make sure each section isn’t there just for the sake of being there. In my brief interview with Jeff VanderMeer, he also discussed how he often felt like the novella “Dradin in Love” felt out of place as part of the whole. In fact, he published that novella independently of the mosaic novel, and won the World Fantasy Award for it. He did not bring Dradin back into the mosaic until he found a way to, as he said, “recontextualize” it: “Dradin didn’t make sense in the context of the rest of the stories, and Dradin was recontextualized as the biographer of X, and made it an artifact of the city.” (VanderMeer Phone-call, August 2010))
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The true genius of Phil Athans’ Forgotten Realms is not one individual author or one individual narrative, but – rather – the consistent strength of the fictions maintaining quality and an audience over the course of dozens of authors and narrative lines. Even one brilliant piece of fiction, like the award-winning “Dradin in Love”, does not belong in the fiction unless it serves the greater whole. Athans has often turned down brilliant writers from working inside the Realms when those authors’ styles and voices do not serve the consistent tone and voice of the Forgotten Realms novels.
Another common shared world, the television season, must take these lessons to life: weak individual episodes diminish the whole while the season rises up to a season finale even as individual episodes explore other themes. DOCTOR WHO, a silly science fantasy series from the BBC, places clues and coincidences across the episodes of a season. Then, these clues increase in importance until they become the major themes of the season finale. "Bad Wolf" is scattered across time and space, to follow characters everywhere they go until the season finale reveals that the breadcrumb trail led directly to a single moment in time. New technology that is talked about in a positive light on cars and cellphones suddenly reveal their deadly side as the coincidences become too great to ignore. ACCELERANDO embraced this. The coincidences of Aineko rise out of the small details of each story until the "season finale" reveals quite how far the artificial intelligence developed, and how fast. In much the same way, Ambergris' difficult relationship with Greycaps and history repeat over and over through various stories in different ways. There is no clean sense of a "finale" in Ambergris, but there doesn't have to be. The knowledge that the Greycaps will rise is enough, along with the powerful image of the city swallowed up by the ocean water. A season finale is not as important as the sense that all divergent threads rise up and converge.
Other television shows have different methods. I refrain from the "long mini-series" wherein the season is a single, unbroken narrative line in works like "Breaking Bad" or "The Wire". These are serial films broken into chapters, not mosaics.
What is of interest to the mosaicist are the shows that wander away from ideas, explore other themes, but then return to the main narrative line. Again, DOCTOR WHO is an excellent example. Individual episodes scatter across time and space but return always to the larger themes of the season, and the show's long history, with the constant reinvention of the Doctor as a lifeforce parallel to the constant reinvention of the will to life present in the show.
ACCELERANDO and DOCTOR WHO have much in common, narratively, if not scientifically. The individual "episodes" of the "show" by Charles Stross wander around the idea of the will to post-humanity with the constant self-reinvention of the characters as they explore divergent themes and episodes with that same post-human thrust. In the end, small moments that seemed to be just recurring motifs for narrative flavor in throwaways from earlier episodes--lobsters as an uplifted species, and Aineko's cat-like decisions--appear suddenly in the final moments to lead humanity away from the crisis of the transformation of life in the solar system from Organic and Biological to AI corporations. The lobsters swoop in to carry away the survivors. The AI cat reveals itself as a powerful, self-interested, and self-motivated force working behind the scenes of the narrative, toying with the lives of the characters in the story. In this, like a good television show, the individual stories stand alone as episodes--proven by the fact that they were sold individually to various magazine editors as stand-alone pieces--but, when placed together, they form a whole "season" that's greater than the sum of the parts. There are elegant and inelegant ways to handle this sort of structure.
A long mini-series, as mentioned above, is only useful when viewed as a novel divided into chapters. A sitcom revolves around a singular situation, struggling to move characters even an inch away from their starting point. THE SIMPSONS, for instance, has kept Bart and Lisa in the same grade at school for nearly ten years, while Homer flees and returns to the same employer and Marge remains in the kitchen, cheerfully cleaning up after her family, no matter how many plots involve her mental breakdowns and success at various careers. In this, a mosaicist may find inspiration, but no sense of true destination. Merging a sitcom-like structure may lead to the sort of "integrated collection" that one can find in works like DROWN, by Junot Diaz, where an immigrant kid struggles to find a place in a foreign nation, never integrating even as he matures into adulthood, stuck in that same difficult in-between place. However, it will likely not lead to a sense of a "novel" with the destination hovering out at the end sections where Vandermeer’s Greycaps will rise up to wipe away histories or Stross’ AI corporations form a Matrioshka-like solar powered computer to house their growing consciousness, devouring all the planets and people in their way. Where is the season finale? What is the end goal of all these integrated stories? Answer this and the mosaic novel will not be far behind. The whole must converge into more than the sum of the parts.
Until the heroes of the Forgotten Realms face the final showdown with the Spider Queen, the whole mosaic is incomplete. The author of mosaic works must do more than just place stories with related elements – setting, theme, characters, plot - in one book. An extra step of shaping must take place to make sure the pieces actually work in relation to each other, and rise to a conclusion.
Much like in short story collections, placement is key to achieve this sense of destination inside the mosaic pieces present. Generational texts have an advantage in this element, as they have a clear timeline to mirror. More fractured works, like Jeff VanderMeer’s CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, have to – instead - trace a theme or idea forward in time. What Vandermeer seemed to do, in his city, was focus on the narrative arc of the relationship between the dissonant worlds of the novel, from the intelligent squid to the greycaps underground to the native peoples and immigrants, as all these elements weave in and out of the history of the city. For this reason, “Dradin in Love” was relatively out of place. Dradin’s obsession with a mannequin in the window and interactions with a friendly, menacing greycap have little to do with the recurring themes of the rest of the pieces without extra work to show how Dradin’s obsessions led to his larger acceptance into the fold of the city of mad creators. Even the appearance of a greycap was not enough to connect Dradin to the mosaic without further cementing him into the themes of the larger book. He had to become a historian, after readers witnessed him at his most intimate and obsessive. This colors the history presented, and integrates Dradin into the larger story of Ambergris. Just being a character in a setting isn’t enough. The character and setting must be driving the narrative towards the destination point, even if only a little.