Re: Memorare

In “Memorare,” by Gene Wolfe, March Wildspring is a producer, filming a documentary about memorials orbiting Jupiter near the places where people died trying to colonize the solar system. Like the pyramids, they are booby-trapped.

The narrator of his films, his beloved Kit, brings along an assistant, a woman who hides until she’s forced to reveal herself as March’s first wife, Sue. Only now she’s Robin Redd.

March and Kit film a few more memorials, each one more deadly than the last. Just as they’re about to explore Number 19, one that scares even March, Robin’s new husband, Jim, shows up. He wants Robin back. Oh, and he only hits her to make her shut up and listen to him. Nice guy. The two men engage in some tense verbal fencing to arrange a meeting–and then Robin lights out for Number 19.

At first Number 19 looks like something completely different: a hidden colony world with plenty of living people to greet them. It’s all thanks to the Founder, whose 23 meter high statue stands in the middle. Oh really. What kind of man raises a statue to himself? And leaves his name off? Very suspicious. It’s never stated in the story, but it slowly dawns on you that Number 19 is the biggest memorial, with the baddest booby-trap of them all.

There’s a lot that goes unsaid and left for you to figure out. Other things you need to look up, like the memorare prayer that March never seems to quite remember. Even when things are explained, I often had to re-read passages. For example, March would do something that leaves you completely mystified, and then go back and explain what he saw and why he acted.

Letting your narration move back and forth in time is another one of Those Things You Are Supposed to Avoid. Unless you know what you’re doing. On the positive side, action sequences fly. Any confusion is deliberate. On the down side, March tends to get didactic explaining why what he did was the right thing. The opening paragraphs are a typical example:

THE MOMENT MARCH Wildspring spotted the corpses, he launched himself across the shadowy mortuary chamber. He had aimed for the first, but with suit jets wide open he missed it and caught the third, flattening himself against it and rolling over with it so that it lay upon him.
Bullets would have gotten him; but this was a serrated blade pivoting from a crevice in the wall. Had it hit, it would have shredded his suit somewhere near the waist.
He would have suffocated before he froze. The thought failed to comfort him as he huddled under the freeze-dried corpse and strove not to look into its eyes. [Emphasis added.]

The verb forms in bold push his thoughts back into the past while he’s still trying to deal with the present. All the details are there for you to picture the scene, but you have to sort it out. The one detail that come out of nowhere–the serrated blade–was hidden at the beginning. If you were launching yourself across a shadowy mortuary chamber that’s exactly how confusing and frightening it would feel. And since you’re reading it, you have a luxury not enjoyed by the three corpses in the room: re-reading it.

I don’t think I’ll understand half this story until I go back and read it again.

Tomorrow: A good old-fashioned sci-fi romp by a newcomer

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One response to “Re: Memorare

  1. Interesting, some of Those Things You Are Supposed To Avoid. I was starting to pick up on the conditional tense verbs in that passage, even without your highlighting. By the end of the second paragraph they were getting irritating.

    Admission of guilt: somewhere in my “to do” file there are over 300 ms pages of a novel draft where huge sections are written tensed like this. That was part of the reason I put it aside. That stuff doesn’t sustain for long. Even with large time jumps, you can almost always simplify tense. Most writing, in fact, can be reduced to simple past and simple present, with occasional complications for style and transitions. Besides reading more smoothly (and being easier for the author to follow), it keeps the reader more immediately in the action.

    I found the passage you quoted to be good, but it would probably be more engaging without that conditional stuff. The idea of the story sounds pretty interesting, once it gets going.