Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Atmosphere vs. Point of View in Fiction

Nirvana Cat, set in the year 1857, is told from the viewpoint of Vincent, a naïve Augustinian monk. Vincent lives in a relatively large city and, thus has an excellent understanding of city life in his time. He is accustomed to the fact that the streets are worse than stables, with horse and human waste deposited there day after day. He is accustomed to coal smoke from industry and from consumer use.

As author, I seek to transport the reader to Europe in 1857 to enjoy Vincent’s experiences as he tries to thwart a steampunk Muslim bioterror attack on the west. But I am limited by Vincent. He will not tell you, the reader, about many things that he considers to be commonplace. And, of course, he cannot tell you about things that he does not know or understand.

This tension between establishing an atmosphere and creating a viewpoint exists when fiction involves a world with which the reader is not familiar. Some atmospheric details can be slipped in quietly, but others are more difficult. The author has to be reconciled to the fact that the reader will not be able to learn everything about the setting and characters that the author knows.

Some of the many odds and ends about the setting and characters that were not revealed in the story follow.

1. A pickelhaub is the Prussian military helmet with the spike on top.
2. Most of India’s Mughal Emperors were extremely religiously tolerant. They were Muslims, but tolerated Hindus. The last Mughal Emperor even took part in Hindu ceremonies when it was permitted and entertained Hindu philosophers at court.
3. There was tension between the Mughal Emperor and a class of Muslims in India, who felt that the emperor’s religious toleration was not in accordance with the Koran.
4. John Stuart Mill, the most prominent economist of the era, formulated our modern conception of libertarianism. That is, I should be allowed to take actions that do not materially harm anyone, even if 99% of voters think my actions are “bad.”
5. Some scholars suspect that Gregor Mendel, the monk revered as the father of modern genetics, fudged his experimental results so as to obtain the precise results that he thought were correct. This takes nothing away from Mendel’s conclusions.
6. Brunn, Austria was eventually to become Brno, Czechoslovakia.
7. Children were often born and raised by mothers housed in London’s Newgate prison.
8. By the time the Mughal Empire ended, when the British crushed the Sepoy rebellion, the emperor only ruled one large compound of buildings in India.
9. The Brunn monestary in 1857 was the only Augustinian abbey; the rest were priories.
10. The British East India Company was created in 1600 and dissolved in 1874. Good luck, Bill Gates.

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