Freaknest

I finished Lance Olsen’s Freaknestlast week. Very interesting. It’s easy to call it experimental speculative fiction. It takes place, for example, in a future full of astonishingly Godish technology that doesn’t seem to have solved a single enduring human problem.

The narrator’s omniscient. The language Olson uses thoroughly reflects the characters, some of whom are found feral children learning the language and culture around them. Olsen shows this learning when he narrates from within the developing consciousnesses of these characters. Over the course of the novel the feral children’s identities and perceptions of the world change as they are taught to speak and read. Philosophical questions about language, consciousness, and identity are implied. In addition to language, the other large force acting on consciousness is memory, specifically selective memory:

‘If you have an excess of recollections, you don’t have yourself either, do you.’ . . .

‘Amnesia as an active process. Knowing as distraction.’

‘Forgetting might just be good for your health. Sure. Maybe the most important feature of your hard drive becomes its ability to be indefinitely rewritable.’ . . .

‘And certain emotions . . . dependent for their being on an understanding of the past—devotion, say, or revenge, or hope, or despair—they don’t exist anymore.’ (232).

The characters wrestle with these ideas and don’t seem happy with the consequences. So, how might you show characters facing appropriate philosophical problems without becoming too abstract? The problems Olsen’s characters face grow out of their experiences, the setting, and the themes of the entire novel. Does what you’ve written suggest philosophical issues in a similar way?

As I think William Gass said, if it’s experimental, you (the writer) ought to know what you’re experimenting with.  I imagine Olsen deciding to experiment with genre expectations (it is a tragic naïf’s tale of ideas after all),  language (though shouldn’t most speculative fiction be written to reflect the impact of culture and time on language, including appropriate coinages like, for Olsen, “governcorp”?) and the techniques of characterization. So, and especially if you’re calling your work experimental, what creative writing technique(s) does your text experiment with? Which specific words of your text can you quote as evidence of your experimentation? To push this slightly farther, what hypothesis does you text test and how will you measure results?

If you read speculative fiction (or philosophy), I recommend this book.

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