His Dark Materials Trans-Atlantic Book Club

by Maria on April 17, 2020

So, I (presumably) got the thing but of course there is no testing in the UK for people who need it, let alone assorted members of the general public like myself who’d just like to know if they’re through the worst. Then I was great for a couple of days, then really, really not so great, and that not-so-greatness has lingered. Net result; cancelling and foregoing various paid work things, letting people down, and not doing my central ‘life’s work’ things. Which is trying, but I am nonetheless going boing boing boing on middle class lockdown bingo. Growing tomatoes. Returning to piano-playing. Complaining about joggers. Starting and not finishing a potential longread about Parfit, past and future selves and why we ignored the letters from our future that China and Italy were kind enough to despatch. Also, tweeting too goddamn much. Eating too goddamn much. (now the food shortages have eased and I can also leave the house to buy some – I quarantined for 2 weeks, but the UK guidance seems to be only 7 days after first symptoms. In something that lasts a lot longer, that seems wrong?) Also comfort-reading.

I was 1/3 through Anna Burns’ Milkman when we went into lockdown about a week before the UK’s official lockdown. Found almost immediately I couldn’t manage it any more. Then tried Tim Maugham’s near-future post-apocalyptic Infinite Detail. Ha! past self who thought you could still read something like that for general interest! you were so so wrong. I don’t remember why exactly, but my thoughts turned to Northern Lights; specifically the Everyman edition of the His Dark Materials trilogy I bought for Ed to bring on his last tour and which he left at home. (His interest piqued to see me reading ‘his’ book, and read the dedication to him, he then said it was just the book he should have brought but only not having done so does he now understand his former self and how he has changed and really should have?)

Then, out on a neighbourhood walk a couple of weeks ago, I knocked on the door of a friend and retreated back to the footpath. Grey area activity, this, but the conversation was short and no sunbathing took place. My friend and her two children came out and Milo whinnied through the gate to be let in to raid their cat bowl. We ignored him and got quickly to book-chat, HDM, and made a plan for a HDM book club online the following night. Invitations went out. (I am that person who’s refused to use whatsapp since the day facebook bought it, but for work reasons have used zoom for years. there is no security or privacy logic to this.) 7pm the next night, those two kids, my two Washington nephews, two of my sisters, Ed and me all got on zoom for a proper conversation that was Not Work and also not ‘well, nothing much happened today, let me tell you about our new composting methodology’. Best online conversation I have ever, no really ever, been part of.

The kids are alright. They are so incredibly, togetherly alright it’s almost funny. We did it again this week, though connectivity problems meant two of my sisters couldn’t join. But I learnt so much from these people who were born when I was already in my thirties – about gender, race, class, story structure, you name it. It is just such a joy and in a moment where I can’t work, can’t read, can’t write, can just about cook and put up a pea-frame thing in the garden with bamboo and string let’s see if it lasts, this hour a week is an oasis of an almost lost sense of being through not very taxing but nonetheless incredibly nourishing doing.

Much of how we’re approaching these stories (two weeks on each book seems to be about our pace), is coming from the infinite source of reading and writing wisdom that is Jo Walton and her infinitely unpackable terms of art for some peculiarities of both activities. Yesterday we talked protagonismos. Next week it’s incluing and a bit about reading genre. I think when we get to the end of The Amber Spyglass we may turn back around for a full-arc topic called “Let’s talk about Roger”, using Jo’s spearpoint theory.

So in case it would be entertaining or even useful for anyone tempted to do similar, here are the bits of two emails on what we planned to talk about, with their links, below. Something about reading familiar things might also do you some good, but with a new frame and, if it works for you, with young people who just really get them and for whom they are essential and thrilling and in the most important ways, real.

“Hi everyone,

As I. said last week about Northern Lights / The Golden Compass; ‘we haven’t even talked about plot, yet!’.

So this week, i.e. today….. Let’s talk about the plot of Northern Lights. It’s a ‘quest story’, so the plot impetus is to go somewhere and do something. How does it gets started, what keeps it moving? Let’s discuss!

Also, tied up in plot is always character. Writers are forever debating which makes things happen, character or plot?

Jo Walton, a super writer and all-round human being, has a good way to look at character and plot together. She calls it “protagonismos”: the quality of being the kind of person that stories happen to.

So, have a quick read of this blog post and if/how you think protagonismos applies to Lyra!

31st October 2010 Protagonismos

Hi everyone,

Selfishly, my fiendish plan to extract my own rewards from our conversations is coming together, as our discussions clarified some story-building stuff I’d only thought hazily about – like the need for a novel to have the plot’s peculiar machinery engage the protagonist’s precise internal motivations. Especially if it is a quest-story!

So, next week, onward to book two of His Dark Materials; The Subtle Knife. Superb title and a much more complex story than the straightforward witches, bears and balloons quest we’ve had so far. A two-hander, no less, with Will entering the fray as a co-protagonist. (‘Will’ reminds me how important names and naming are in HDM – perhaps we should discuss that at some point.)

But for sure next week, we’re going to talk about the new worlds this second novel opens up, and as we do that, we will use Jo Walton’s term “incluing”, which, I learnt on another forum from her yesterday, she invented at 15. No pressure!

Incluing is how science fiction and fantasy (SFF) writers do exposition without it being too clunky. It’s a key part of world-building which is arguably the main thing SFF stories do. So, we may talk a little about genre and what we expect when we read genre. Jo’s take is that SFF genre is less about subject-matter (space-ships! dragons!) than about acquiring a particular and rather demanding skill-set in reading.

So for next week, below is the essential item to read on incluing. It’s cut and pasted from Wikipedia. And here, if you’re curious, is Jo’s piece from the US home of science fiction, Tor.com, about how to read genre; https://www.tor.com/2010/01/18/sf-reading-protocols/


Indirect exposition, sometimes called incluing, is a technique of worldbuilding in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers in to the world the author is building without them being aware of it. This can be done in a number of ways: through dialogues, flashbacks, characters’ thoughts,[6] background details, in-universe media,[7] or the narrator telling a backstory.[6] Instead of saying “I am a woman”, a first person narrator can say “I kept the papers inside my purse.” The reader (in most English-speaking cultures) now knows the character is probably female.[8]

The word incluing is attributed to fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton.[10] She defined it as “the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.”[11] “Information dump” (or info-dump) is the term given for overt exposition, which writers want to avoid.[12][13] In an idiot lecture, characters tell each other information that needs to be explained for the purpose of the audience, but of which the characters in-universe would already be aware.[14] Writers are advised to avoid writing dialogues beginning with “As you well know, Professor, a prime number is…”



JanieM 04.18.20 at 12:25 am

Great to have word from you, Maria. Sorry you’ve had the virus, glad you came through it relatively unscathed.

I loved this passage especially: “why we ignored the letters from our future that China and Italy were kind enough to despatch.”

I had never heard the term “incluing” — but it’s ever so useful, and it surely doesn’t just apply to SFF. I recently did a mutual critique with someone (of drafts of mysteries we’re writing), and one of the things I suggested was that having a character say something like “My sister Amanda is coming over” to her own partner was maybe not the best way to let the reader know that Amanda was her sister. My critique partner had some eye-openers for me, too…..


Chris Bertram 04.18.20 at 7:06 am

“Incluing” is genius! Sorry you’ve been unwell, but hope you are on the mend. You’ll have to get back to Milkman, but it is grim though brilliant stuff (but sometimes funny). I couldn’t read anything else for a while afterwards.


Peter T 04.18.20 at 8:19 am

“Incluing’ is great – and came at just the right time as I am currently wrestling with whether I am doing it right!



Biz 04.18.20 at 5:27 pm

Milkman was amazing, but was a tough choice for the quarantine for sure.


Piers Brown 04.19.20 at 11:52 am

I like incluing, too. While Walton’s right that readers of canonical literature sometime balk at the demands of SF, some of them have the tools to read it, but just don’t realize it. The term that I’ve been using for this SF technique is “stream of reality” by analogy with the Modernist technique of “stream of thought.” Whether it’s something like To the Lighthouse or a densely textured SF novel, you note salient details and withhold judgement on how they fit together until you have enough pieces that everything can drop into place at once. It’s a muscle that you can easily build up, like the ability to read Latin or German with the full meaning depending on the arrival of the verb at the end of the sentence.


Maria 04.19.20 at 5:02 pm

Hi JanieM! Yes, I think incluing is a useful way to talk about non-clunky exposition more generally, but otoh while you can say every work of fiction does world-building, SFF has to do a lot of heavy-lifting in that sense? Very cool that you’re writing a mystery.

Chris, what got me onto Milkman in the end was having the copy of one of my sisters staring at me for just long enough at the moment you enthused about it on FB. I will certainly take it up again at some point. Having gone through enough adjustment cycles to the new normal and the level of worry that comes with it, there will be a moment when wanting to inhabit something dense and demanding in that way will be just the ticket.

Piers – yes! And also, from when I speak my bad French or bad Irish, there’s also a lovely clean, post-exercise brain feeling from working out its muscles in demanding but satisfying ways.


bob mcmanus 04.19.20 at 7:44 pm

Jo Walton is right, but still too limiting. All new creative text, perhaps all text, aspires to the effects of poetry. It is about using mostly old words (phrases, concepts) in new and challenging ways. Ways that open the mind, but far from uniquely. Maybe transgressive ways.

“The door dilated.” Samuel Delany, scholar of poetry, starts his 70s essay with that example from Heinlein, who is given credit for making SF naturalistic via prose style. Classic “incluing” in “dilated” if you think this discussion new. What is the difference for cognition between “dilated” and “opened?” Is this a metaphor or a neologism? What is uniquely science-fiction there (or in aggregation and accumulation “building a world”) , in contrast to Fiona Apple’s use of “bolt-cutters”? Observational impossibility combined with a naturalistic voice, disguised as mere description? Delany is more “behind the curtain” in his fiction than Shelley or Keats or Apple.

Fredric Jameson’s new book is Allegory and Ideology and I’m sure I will gain new and expanded understandings of both words after reading it. Perhaps even old meanings will be diminished. Perhaps something relevant to this discussion which does not appear to be exhausted yet.

Is something lost or gained by the move to visual language because now I know what a hobbit looks like? Or Paris? What?

I don’t read fiction anymore because somehow my aesthetic needs are satisfied by non-fiction and poetry. This morning I was starting Crosby’s book on the Spanish Flu and I used very incomplete but adequate mental images (all three nouns) for the doctor visiting the army base outside Boston (the last was a map). Is this process necessary? I think so, and this may be a tool of SF writers. Fiction paralyzes me, not diminished by seeing the tricks but exploded or mystified, it’s just too big. Like swimming in an ocean without a shore. I can no longer take text and author and context for granted.

Finally followed the links and Walton covers this with excellence. As usual anything I have to say has already been said better by somebody and more qualified. I just need to read more and quench any thoughts of originality. Delete as desired.

Trying to find what Delany called incluing or indirect exposition I found this which looks pretty good.Incluing Defends infodumps. “what incluing ends up doing is turning the quotidian into a mystery or a surprise” Or an opportunity for reader social transgression? Is poetry rebellious by form?

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