SOC Chapter 11: "The Curse of the Creeping Sword"

Some of my most important formative experiences were the pulps, especially Doc Savage and The Shadow, as channeled through the Bantam reprints (and the various incarnations of The Shadow in paperback), but also including the G-8 and His Battle Aces paperbacks with the Steranko covers, The Avenger, and the really bizarre semi-updated versions of The Spider, Master of Men (and if you've ever read The Spider, you know it takes a real act of will to make him even weirder than he already was). As you can see, I was well-steeped in the old-pulp Valhalla  before I ever opened a comic. Given this background, the increasingly purple character of the chapter titles in particular should come as no surprise.

Doc Savage and The Shadow also had a more structural effect on Catastrophe, along with Mission: Impossible. The concept of a loose network of collaborating specialists pulled together randomly or by design to accomplish a specific task is one that aligned perfectly with Catastrophe's sprawling cast... although I let them act at cross-purposes much more than the inspirational prototypes.

In its first draft, this chapter originally contained an egregious error in language, which I gladly edited out before publication. During the fight involving Oskin Yahlei, was described as executing an Immelmann. For a story that has no obvious ties to our own time, place, and personalities, referring to a World War I German aviator by using the standard name for the dogfighting maneuver that was associated with him was just wrong ... and realizing that, on my first editing pass, was a significant part of my education.

So what's the problem? After all, I do use some modern slang and sentence structure. Well, here's the deal. I'm a big believer in the idea that people always speak in the same modes, regardless of language - there's usually casual speech, formal speech, religious speech (usually formal but more archaic), and so on. (This is not a linguist's taxonomy, I'm sure, but a practical one that makes sense when writing dialogue.) When characters are talking amongst themselves in a stilted, high-minded pseudo-medieval dialect, that's an example of bad translation (from their native language, whatever it is, into modern English). The way I see it, the job of the writer is to represent the speech of his characters using analogous structures and vocabulary drawn from the speech of today. When Glen Cook did this, it was like being whacked over the head with a mallet. When I started Shadow of All Night Falling fresh off the paperback racks, and not having any clue of what I was in for, I remember thinking Yes! He's absolutely right! And about time somebody did it, too!

Immelmann isn't just syntax and vocabulary, though, it's a reference grounded in specific Earth-prime history and culture. And aerial warfare, too. In the context of the present argument, what term in the language of Roosing Oolvaya could it have conceivably been translated from? If I see a reference to Shakespeare in a work of fiction, I don't assume he's being used as a stand-in for another famous writer in this history of that world, I assume Shakespeare is a reference to Shakespeare, and that the world in question at the least has a traceable history back to the Bard (or whatever parallel universe version makes sense).

Of course, just because characters may talk to each other using casual address translated for the modern audience, that obviously doesn't mean they should all be talking the same. To the contrary. Some of the discussions between Shaa and Mont point up the fact that Shaa's patterns of speech are at the very least a little bizarre for people in his time and place, I suppose you could make some kind of case for the detective, too, and then there's Haddo (as already mentioned in an earlier note).

A wonderfully literal example of the idea of assuming that your text has been translated from another language, to make a more current reference, is Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Although he makes it explicit in a few places, it is clear even without the shout-outs that virtually the entire text is actually being spoken and narrated in Yiddish, which has then been translated into English for the ease of the larger readership. (Mr. Chabon also seems to following a very intriguing career trajectory as well - writing more and more popular books that can be fully appreciated by a smaller and smaller audience. It seems to be working very well for him. He perhaps is an example for us all.)

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