Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, March 30, 2012

1977: Cloudcry (Van Scyoc, Sydney J.)

Fantasy land of prolific adverbial rubbish (0/5)

A brief philosophy on "What is Science Fiction?":

This book is clearly labeled on the spine as science fiction. However, there are many shades of gray between the nebulous "speculative fiction" realms of "sci-fi" and "fantasy." Every book lands on its own position between the two--rarely is a speculative fiction book without favor for one side of the genre spectrum or the other. I see the spectrum to be linear, allowing an author to make a sci-fi book more like fantasy by adding or withdrawing certain elements. The same goes for fantasy books which can be geared up to read more like science fiction. This latter process is a tetchy endeavor as some science fiction fans like myself abhor the genre of fantasy. James Alan Gardner's Trapped and Fritz Leiber's Gather Darkness ride this fine line and both come away as solid science fiction because the use of magic is outlined under the umbrella of future science. The same cannot be said for Cloudcry. The title alone is more reminiscent of a fantasy novel, as are Van Scyoc's other novel titles: Darkchild, Starmother, Featherstroke, and Bluesong.

You be the judge while reading the rear cover synopsis:
"Where Immortality is More Than a Dream
From the dawn of time the Light Dancers sailed the cloudplains of Selmarri, until they discovered immortality--and traded their wings for eternity in a crystal universe the size of a transistor! Aeons later, when the bloodblossom plague threatens to reduce humankind's lifespan to nine Earthyears, the "empty planet" Selmarri is chosen as quarantine for the galaxy: and the exile Verrons and the Light Dancer Aleida respeak the sun-leaping cloudcry in their pursuit of life's most ancient dream..."

One more additional frame of genre reference is the following paragraph. Again, you be the judge... fantasy of science fiction?:
She was so near, the refined crystal in hand, the secret of its implantation already recorded somewhere in the issues of her brain. But she could not retrieve that information without appropriate stimulation, and stimulation lay below, in the hall of the master flute--beneath the solid stone floor. (207)
In my opinion, the entire novel has been generously tweaked in order to alter it from a rather mundane fantasy novel into a terrible excuse for a science fiction novel... not because the "science is bad" but because so many elements could simply be switched, turned on or turned off, to render it as a fantasy novel:
(1) The inclusion of CRYSTAL in almost any novel is warning enough for me to stay clear of the book because of their mystical affiliation; hence the fantasy connection. Why not just call it a crystal ball?
(2) As for FLUTES? The science behind the flute is weakly outlined, but if it were to be excluded then the fluted would have mystical qualities!
(3) The avian alien Tiehl doesn't have to be described as such, perhaps describing it as an "Icarus" or a netherworld sentient Rho would be enough to have a fantasy feel to it.
(4) Instead of having beam pistols, why not just call them magic wands which cast heat and pain to the victim? Instead of spaceships, why not just call them dirigibles or zeppelins? Instead of the alien plague bloodblossom, why not just call it the Demon's Disease of Dastardly Death?
(5) Really, I could go on.

Aside from the fantasy elements which irk me something fierce, Van Scyoc's writing style sent me into a state of extreme frustration and anger--it drove me up a very tall and perilous wall, which I was tempted to jump from after I wanted to tear the book apart and make personal compost of it. She is heavily repetitive, using the same phrases over and over again: "nodded abstractedly" and "ruffed his plumage" and "her hair crackling" being among the most annoying. Her extremely liberal use of "-ly" adverbs had me clinching my teeth and squeezing my eyelids shut in sheer agony. Her open-handed cramming of "-ly" adverbs into each nook and cranny was amazing... amazingly bad. Her top seven most repetitive -"ly" adverbs: quickly, slowly, certainly, swiftly, briefly, apparently, and emphatically. To give you an idea of how often she uses adverbs, I roughly counted the number in a random 10-page section and I include here some of the doozies:
Pages 154 = 7 times (uneasily paced)
Pages 155 = 8 times (uneasily paced [again])
Pages 156 = 15 times (apparently flew AND apparently located)
Pages 157 = 9 times (gingerly buckled)
Pages 158 = 5 times (expertly tossed)
Pages 159 = 11 times (desperately labored AND desperately broke)
Pages 160 = 6 times (preternaturally alert)
Pages 161 = 10 times (thoughtfully said)
Pages 162 = 13 times (swiftly barreled)
Pages 163 = 5 times (dispassionately noted)

More contextually, here's an "-ly" adverb-laden excerpt:
Cautiously they edged past the first dome and around the first of the second rank. Verrons tapped the translucent panel lightly. It was a plaston material, virtually untouched by deterioration. He pressed his forehead to the paneling. Within the dome shadowy forms were stranded in silent immobility. (168)
Take ALL this into consideration when you come across flowery after flowery passages of gobbledlygook English. Some authors can get away with writing beautiful prose in the middle of each page (John Updike, for one). But an author like Van Scyoc to absolutely plaster the pages with semi-intelligible attempts at the pollination of prose reeks not of cherry blossoms, but of desperation: "His jiggling eyeballs anchored desperately upon Verrons' reassuring solidity." (121) and "[...] her body arched in fervent proprietorship." (122) Also, her sequential use of big words becomes quite annoying: "But the very unlikeliness of the phenomenon demanded the flexibility of a solitary investigation." (49) and "His body tightened in recognition of appropriate entombment." (101)

Like most of Cloudcry, the above passages are examples of the petty and garrulous descriptions of every item and action; the discursive use of all things adverbial; and the inability of the author to be textually taciturn (K.I.S.S. should be written on her wall as a note to herself). I was gagging for the plot to move forward as it was heavily weighted with textual rubbish. I was so relieved after finishing this book that I screamed at the cringe-worthy cover and chucked the book across the room... only the second book to have such an honor.

Sydney J. Van Scyoc... never again shall we cross paths.

*** Fourteen "-ly" adverbs were intentionally abused in making this review ***


  1. Yikes, I swear, Assignment on Nor' Dyren (1973) wasn't this bad!!!

  2. I doubt I could ever be persuaded to open another Van Scyoc novel. It's odd how different Assignment seems to be from Cloudcry:
    Author's prerogative?
    "Artistic" growth?
    Lapse of judgment?
    Intentional annoyance?