The Fuck You Method: Glossaries in Speculative Fiction

So, one thing you don’t hear a lot from someone finishing up a fantasy novel is, “Damn, that book had a great glossary.” Like all appendices, the glossary is usually considered (by writers and readers alike) an afterthought, a necessary evil, a way of passing the time when you’ve finished the book but your flight is still twenty minutes from landing.

Today, however, as I sat down with great anticipation to begin N. K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon (the start of her Dreamblood series), it occurred to me that perhaps we’ve all been giving the glossary short shrift. Jemisin, for those unfamiliar with her work, is a master of world-building. Not for her the hoary tropes of medieval Europe trotted out once more, armor dented, swords dulled. In this new series she looks more to ancient Egypt than to Europe, while the religion and the fascinating system of magic that accrues from that religion is all her own. Of course, world building involves, you know, a new world, and with new worlds come new words. Enter, the glossary.

I consulted the glossary at least twenty times in Jemisin’s opening chapter, always finding intriguing definitions such as the following:

“Dreamseed: One of the four dream-humors that form the basis of Gujaareen magic. Culled from erotic dreams, it is useful for stimulating growth that ordinarily occurs only in the womb (e.g., new limbs).”

So, clearly, this is going to be a book that kicks ass. And there are lots of entries just as exciting. It is possible to read the opening chapters without the glossary. My wife, who detests all textual apparatus (maps, glossaries, family trees, etc.), did exactly that, and she says the first chapter reads just fine without it. No doubt. Jemisin is a great writer, skilled enough to provide adequate context for her neologisms; haters of glossaries can plow ahead without missing much. It would be hard to convince me, however, that they’re missing nothing. The chapter is not richer for some scrutiny of the glossary, which brings me (finally) to my point:

There are really only three methods of handling the new words so necessary to world-building, each with its strengths and weaknesses.

First: The contextual method. This is probably the most common and certainly the easiest to read. Whenever a new term is introduced, the author bends over backwards to ensure the reader understands the meaning. Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World furnishes us with plenty of suitable examples. For instance, the first time someone mentions the Dark One (which, by the way, seems pretty self-explanatory already), we get this little bit exposition: “The Dark One and all the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, beyond the Great Blight, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time.” Someone actually says this, right there, just like that, in the middle of the action. So that settles that.

The advantages of this method are clear: the reader is never confused and there is no flipping back and forth to the glossary. The Jordan passage just quoted, however, should reveal the major disadvantage. Often the new words and concepts introduced in the process of world-building are complex. Contextualizing them takes time and diverts us from the central thrust of the unfolding narrative. There are ways to mitigate this problem, but the fact remains: a sentence (or paragraph) spent on definition is a static sentence (or paragraph).

Second: The Glossary Method. I don’t want to put Jemisin firmly in this camp because, as I noted above, she’s done such a nice job with the first chapters that you don’t really need the glossary. Nonetheless, she’s not willing to go as far as Jordan when it comes to filling in the background details, at least not right up front. I think this is a strength of her writing. She tells the story first, and readers can decide whether to check the glossary or wait for further context. The central disadvantage of this method, however, is also clear: readers like me, that is to say, anal-retentive readers who want to understand everything the first time through, will be forever flipping back to the glossary, which can be, in its way, just as distracting as the Jordan method, although I think it’s important to note that Jemisin (by including the detail in the back) makes the distractions optional. In Jordan they are mandatory.

Third: The Fuck You Method. This is used to spectacular effect in Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. The book (sci-fi, not fantasy) hits you in the first sentence with a new concept: the Warmind. What’s a Warmind? Fuck you. No immediate context that proves particularly useful. No glossary. “Hang on, asshole,” the book says, “and try to figure it out as we go.” And there’s a lot to figure out. Gevulot? Fuck you. Sobornost? Fuck you. Tzaddikim? Fuck you. Starting to get a feel for the method? And you’ll notice these aren’t gimmes like “the Dark One,” either.

It may sound as though I dislike this book/method, but nothing could be further from the case. I found Rajaniemi’s novel one of the most imaginative I’ve read in years, and, by the end, you do figure out the meaning of everything (provided you’ve been paying attention). I enjoy this type of detective work, but, again, there is a disadvantage: the experience of trying to understand the basic vocabulary of the world is very different from the fluid fictional dream offered by Robert Jordan in Method One. Time and again I found myself flipping, not for a glossary, but for previous references, cross-checking the vocabulary against itself to come to a fuller understanding. The advantage, I suppose, is in the uncompromising purity, the absolute immersion in new world unmediated by either a helpful narrator or a compiler of glossaries.

So where does that leave us? Beats me. I have tremendous admiration for all three books mentioned above, and I suspect much of this is a matter of personal taste (again, on the part of both the writer and the reader). In fact, I’d argue that this is a good problem to have: it means the book in question involves a new world, one strange and fascinating enough to warrant our close attention. There are, undoubtedly, people who disagree with me, and I’d love to hear from them. Is there a method I’ve missed? Or have I misunderstood the function or effect of one of those listed above? How else might we do it?

14 thoughts on “The Fuck You Method: Glossaries in Speculative Fiction

  1. You have made some good points, Brian. Personally, I am a big fan of glossaries, especially if they provide more information than the text does. If a character or place is interesting, I’d like to learn more. I’d rather flip to the back of a book, than scan back through numerous pages if I missed something. However if a book is so complicated that it NEEDS a glossary, many readers will loose interest. I read to be entertained and/or inspired, not to do research in a fictional world.
    I generally like the contextual method best. For the Fuck – You method to work, the rest of the book needs to be really well written.

    This article actually reminded me of a couple movies. I remember when I was a kid and went to see “Dune”, they handed out a double sided sheet of paper describing the main characters etc. A glossary for a movie! I read that for 20 minutes while the comercials played and still couldn’t understand the movie plot well. I was young at the time. It was a good movie, nonetheless.
    I think a good example of the Fuck – You method in a movie is the opening scene and others of Star Wars 4 (the original one). Thats probably one reason people watched that movie dozens of times, because each time you could learn something new.

    There’s something to be said for the amount of effort a reader is willing to put into reading a book. That chould be mental effort of stopping and trying to reason out what is going on; or the physical effort of flipping to the glossary, looking at the map(s), or even checking the date published. The more effort spent, the more the reader will be tied to the book and be addicted. However there’s a tipping point, different for everyone, where if its too much effort they put the book down. For example: I’ve read the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings several times, but I could not finish the Silmarillion.

  2. This entry needed a poll! I agree with your sweet genius wife. Option C or the fuck-you method for new terminology is my preference. This assumes we are comparing like to like good writers.
    Bill, the Silmarillion is just a massive glossary. Your experience is completely understandable.

  3. I can’t wait until there’s something technological that helps to bridge the gap between 2 and 3 and both allows for the pleasure of active world creation/discovery (this is what we love about Option C, right?) but simultaneously relieves us from the cognitive burden of remembering every set of world-rules from every sci-fi or fantasy book we’ve ever read. I envision something along the lines of “evolving footnotes” that we can consult at various times throughout the reading process which reflect just what we know at that time in our reading. It would be even cooler if said footnotes somehow adjusted based on our personal ratings of the reliability of the source we learned them from.

    I have to believe there’s an element of “I don’t know what that term is, either. I’ll just let the reader imagine something” that goes on with Option C, as well. Ian Banks springs to mind as a potential culprit. There are times that I choose to read passages in his novels as if I were listening to jazz music…just getting a feeling for the approximate level of action/violence/espionage he is trying to portray rather than getting persnickety about the individual notes/terms.

    Also, there has to be a better name for it than the Fuck You method (despite the economy of words). I imagine it more like “No Time To Explain Get In The Car!” Makes me think the author is hot and driving a badass Ferrari, not just a curmudgeonly dude in a ratty bathrobe giving me the finger.

  4. Great blog. I like books that combine all three, whatever tells the story best. You might even add the Hold On To Your Pantyhose You’ll See Method but that might just be a derivitave of The Fuck You Method.
    At any rate, this blog’s a sharer for sure. Thanks.

    • Glad you’re enjoying the blog, Steve! I completely agree that there’s no need to draw hard and fast lines between the different methods. “Whatever tells the story best,” is a very sane working maxim…

  5. When I read, I typically assume that a word/concept I don’t understand will be explained in due course in the text itself, and that the author does not expect me to know what it means until then. I only look at the glossary when I have finished the book and am trying to calm my nerves after the big finale. It had not occurred to me that the author might instead want to me to go look at the glossary first thing, and that I was therefore missing out on understanding I should have had. I wonder if this misunderstanding could be problematic for an author who prefers to rely on the glossary?

    Also, I’m not sure I agree 100% with this, but it definitely has some truth to it: http://xkcd.com/483/

    • Dan! Great to hear from you! I think you’re absolutely right — it can be problematic when the writer and reader aren’t on the same page regarding the use of the textual apparatus. In the Jemisin book, I only discovered the glossary by accident, but that discovery changed my entire experience of the opening chapters. As I recall, Neal Stephenson has a note at the start to Anathem (great book, btw) that more or less says, “If you want to figure this shit out on your own, go at it. If not, check out the glossary.” Smart move, especially given that book…

  6. I think a good example of the Fuck You method is the Malazan series. I’ve always wanted to get into it, but it seems positively determined to repel my every effort.

  7. As a history nerd, I prefer more Robert Jordan’s method. Actually, I also enjoy the exposition in Lord of the Rings, where one finds endless excerpts of texts analysing Shire’s history. I think though, generally speaking, that the story, the prose, the quality of the author, and the average expected readers are some of the most influential factors on which of the three methods to use.
    By the way, I find that a lot of books, including Brian’s own The Emperor’s Blades lack not a glossary but a list of the main and secondary characters.

    • A character list would definitely be a good thing to include, if not in the books themselves, then online. I’m redoing my website this fall, so I’ll keep this in mind. Thanks for the suggestion!

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