Novel Openings: a fifty-Year Timespan

I acquired only two paper-edition books at WorldCon (plus a whole lot of samples of this and that and some full books in ebook form). I’ll be taking a look at those in a series of posts, but I’m starting with the two I have in paper because they’re an interesting contrast.

It’s been a long time since I read anything by Van Vogt, and of his books, the one I remember best is The Wizard of Linn, which I liked quite a bit, though I gather it wasn’t really characteristic of the weird, dreamlike style for which he was better known. After the panel on Van Vogt, I’m interested in revisiting him, so I borrowed a couple of books from my brother, including The Voyage of the Space Beagle. I might have read it a long time ago, but if so, I don’t remember. This was first published in 1966. Let’s take a look at the way this novel opens:

On and on Cueorl prowled. The black, moonless, almost starless night yielded reluctantly before a grim, reddish dawn that crept up from his left. It was a vague light that gave no sense of approaching warmth. It slowly revealed a nightmare landscape.

Jagged black rock and a black, lifeless plain took form around him. A pale red sun peered above the grotesque horizon. Fingers of light probed among the shadows. And still there was no sign of the family of id creatures he had been trailing now for nearly a hundred days.

Poor Cueorl! I do remember this. He’s trailing prey, but he’s lost them and he’s going to starve. Then a human ship arrives and he sneaks aboard, or maybe he’s taken aboard as a sample of native life, and he kills a few people, and … I don’t remember what happens after that. I know the humans realize he’s killing people, but nope, I don’t remember anything else. I might not have been very interested in the human characters. Opening with an interesting alien would have made me want to focus on that alien, and that goes double for my teenage years, when I was thoroughly focused toward animals. (Some might argue that this hasn’t actually changed.) (They’d be right).

Well, I’ll re-read this and see what happens next. I have a hard time believing the story ends well for Cueorl – I might have blocked the ending for that reason. But we’ll see.

How about this style? I like it. I believe I see the dreamlike quality that people were talking about. This is an interestingly personified landscape; did you notice that? The night yields, the dawn creeps, the sun peers, fingers of light probe. It sounds hostile, and it is. There’s not enough food for Cueorl and his species. They’re all dying. I think that’s the situation. Maybe the whole world is slowly dying, I don’t remember. It sounds like it, and why? Because this is described as a nightmare landscape from Cueorl’s perspective, not a human perspective. This is presumably the world where his species evolved. He ought to find it beautiful and benign, unless something has gone wrong and the ecosystem is no longer suitable for his species. If that’s not the case, then this is a failure on the author’s part, because it’s ridiculous to describe a landscape this way if humans find the landscape hostile. Humans didn’t evolve here. Creatures that evolved in this ecosystem will of course be suited to the ecosystem and so of course they won’t find it hostile. Penguins don’t glower around at the ice thinking how nightmarish the landscape is, you may be sure.

Did you notice that “black” is used three times in these two short paragraphs? The black, moonless, almost starless night … Jagged black rock and a black, lifeless plain. Does that work for you? I think it’s fine. I think this repetition is one element that’s building a poetic feel. I wouldn’t suggest repeating words like this accidentally. Removing accidental repetition is one thing proofreading is for.

Meanwhile! I have here a totally different book published (English edition) more than fifty years later. I don’t know when the original story was written, but I’m guessing that wasn’t much before the English edition was printed. I mean “much before” relative to 1966. Let me check. Yes, according to Wikipedia, this book was first published as a serialized novel in 2015, which is indeed just about exactly a fifty-year span of time. That’s not all that’s different.

This is The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu.

I picked this up solely because I know commenter Mary Beth enjoys these Wuxia and Xianxia stories, so I DM’d her from the Dealer’s Room and asked What about it, this dealer has this book, here’s the title and the author, should I try it? She said yes, so here it is, one of the (very) few paper books I’ve picked up this year.

The first part of the back cover description says:

Wei Wuxian was once one of the most outstanding men of his generation, a talented and clever young cultivator who harnessed martial arts, knowledge, and spirituality into powerful abilities. But when the horrors of war led him to seek a new power through demonic cultivation, the world’s respect for his skills turned to fear, and his eventual death was celebrated throughout the land.

Sounds like a tough situation! I see that Wei Wuxian then wakes up years later in the body of a young man who sacrifices his soul so that Wei Wuxian can exact revenge on his behalf. That … was possibly a little over the top. But handy for the guy who gets to take over the body, of course. Let’s take a look at the opening:

“Rejoice! Wei Wuxian is dead!”

It hadn’t been a day since the Siege of the Burial Mound, and the news had already flown across the entire cultivation world as if it had sprouted wings. The speed was only comparable to how fast the flames of war had spread back then, if not faster.

Suddenly everyone, whether they were prominent clans or rogue cultivators, was discussing this operation of vanquishment that had been led by the four great clans and attended by hundreds of sects both big and small.

“Fantastic, fantastic indeed! Who was the hero who killed the Yiling Patriarch?”

Reading a few pages more, it looks like he wakes up again in his new body right away, thirteen years and four pages later. That’s good, because the story is going to have to carry the story. That sounds circular, but it’s not. In some novels, the style carries the story or the worldbuilding carries the story or whatever. Not here. The style here is very plain. I don’t mean plain, exactly. Ordinary? Cliched? Maybe that’s the word I want. I mean, here:

“It’s not all because of the cultivation path. At the end of the day, it’s still because Wei Wuxian was someone of bad character. He roused the wrath of heaven and the grudges of men. You know what they say: What goes around comes around; the heavens are watching…”

Three different cliched phrases in two sentences. I wonder how it reads in the original? Regardless, style is not a dealbreaker for me. There are a fair number of novels I enjoy very much at the story level, even though the style is not exactly all that and a bag of chips. I can think of three or four like that offhand. This is a beautiful edition with illustrations and I’m looking forward to reading it. There are four books in the series, btw, and they only had three of the four in the Dealer’s Room. I’m going to be annoyed if I really like this series and can’t get the fourth book in the same edition. I hate that. … And yes, I see, checking on Amazon, that the fourth book looks very different. Maybe it was never published in the same edition or something.

I started Grandmaster yesterday, by the way, and I’m already halfway through the first book. It’s fun, and also fits the relaxing reads category because it’s quite lighthearted. Wei Wuxia is not a guy who takes himself, or anything else, too seriously. I started enjoying the story at this paragraph:

He tripled checked that there was no mistake and cried This is ridiculous mentally ten times before rising to his feet with difficulty, supporting himself against the wall.

I laughed. That line certainly establishes the protagonist. When I needed a break yesterday, this is the one I picked up, and that line is why. As I said, I’m halfway through the book now.

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9 thoughts on “Novel Openings: a fifty-Year Timespan”

  1. I haven’t quite figured out yet if the GRANDMASTER writing style is a result of its original webnovel origins, a distinctly Chinese literary style, translation conventions, or all of the above. It’s definitely got a narrative voice that I see frequently in Chinese webnovels in translation, but I can’t claim to be widely read! (I do know that some of what we perceive as cliches may be attempts to recreate the flavor of common Chinese idioms with which the original audience would be very familiar, although they’ve been localized to familiar English phrases). Regardless it’s definitely a novel I read for story and character, not for the beauty of its prose!

    The series is still in the process of publication: the fourth volume is scheduled for release this December.

  2. Oh, thanks for clarifying the schedule of release, Mary Beth! That’s good to know. I definitely want the edition that matches the first three books.

    I’m very curious about the thought process that goes into the translation. I can easily see how the translator might be making deliberate choices to use common clichés, as you suggest might be possible. I would just be curious about that regardless. If you ever happen across an interview where a translator discusses that kind of thing, if you remember to drop me a link, I’d love to hear more about it.

  3. I haven’t read that Van Vogt story, although I’ve read others. The triple use of ‘black’ must have worked, since I didn’t notice till you called it out. His writing never drew me in – I read him for the story alone.

    I very much enjoy the Grandmaster story. (hate the American covers, though. And that translation of the title. Much prefer “founder” to “Grandmaster”. ) Also wonder about the translation quality. People who have read the Chinese say it’s full of classical references and depth. That doesn’t come through in the translation. I keep wishing an SF/F publisher had picked it up instead of the one that did which is handling it as a light novel romance instead of mystery/horror with romance. And SF/F people understand how to get across depth of world and references unfamiliar to the audience – because the author made them up – without footnotes or slowing down the story much.

    Some of the translation reads like Cixin Liu’s book, which was translated by a pro. Some is much clumsier, and I can’t tell whether it’s due to being the translator’s – her first pro job – fault or the original. It’s a huge improvement over the only complete fan translation, though.

    There were several unfinished fan translations. I collected all of them. If you’d like to see alternate openings I can send them. It wouldn’t be hard, I already did it for a reddit discussion of ‘is the translation really that bad’ for this book.

    If you really want to know, there are opinions by Chinese readers and professional translators out there, and I saved some links. Don’t want to blast your comment section with them uninvited though. Maybe it would be worth making a separate post, about the issues discussed in them, even if it’s all focused on this one book as an example.

  4. Actually, Elaine, I really would be interested in alternate openings of the same story, if you have those handy. And at least one link to a translator talking about stuff like that.

    I wasn’t actually impressed by Cixin Liu’s book, and had a hard time telling how much of that was the story and how much might be due to the translator.

    I was wondering about the term “grandmaster,” as the text hints that Wei Wuxia did in fact found the sect or style of magic or whatever. If an alternate translation would have been founder, I totally agree, the translator should have gone with that.

  5. Incidentally, the magazine publication of that van Vogt story (July 1939; it had the cover) is generally recognized as beginning the Golden Age of American SF. (Traditionally at least; I think there’s been some pushback.)

    I’m pretty sure that the planet has changed enough to become hostile to Couerl’s species, but it’s been a long time since I read the story.

  6. I agree with everyone else’s comments about Mo Dao Zu Shi – I enjoyed the plot and the vivid characters, and this edition definitely reads better than the earlier fan translations, but there’s still a little awkwardness in the writing. I’m tempted to think that a lot of that is due to Chinese being very different from English both grammatically and in terms of writing style conventions, so that it’s really hard to translate both meaning and style at once, but I don’t speak Chinese and am not widely read in Chinese literature, so maybe I’m way off.

    One factor that makes me think this is the discussions I’ve seen on twitter about how to translate Lan Wangji’s dialogue – more literal translations make him sound like a stereotype caveman in English, but both Chinese readers and the story itself say that in Chinese, his short sentences with few pronouns sound elegant, educated, and formal. That makes me wonder if a similar thing happens on a larger scale with the writing style of the story itself.

    Here’s a giant twitter thread on translation issues in Mo Dao Zu Shi and its tv adaptation that I found interesting:

  7. Thanks, elise! It’s interesting to think about. I think it’s easy to imagine that the translator struggling between capturing the meaning versus the tone. I really would like to see different translations to see how different they are. Thanks for the link!

  8. I didn’t care for Cixin Liu’s book either, but it was handily to mind when I wanted to check Chinese-to-English of a different book, vaguely same genre insofar as it isn’t set in normal Earth.

    I will post the collected versions of the openings below in a separate comment.

    For translation commentary I have two detailed ones, that are – I think – followable to someone just getting started on the question. First from Goodreads: Said’s review of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. This reviewer is aware of the sorts of questions translators ought to think about, such as
    Every translator has a different opinion on where to draw the line between domestication and foreignisation. An example might be the word 哥哥 [gēgē], which literally means “older brother,” but can be used as a form of address for any man older or of a higher status than you. If you’re translating a text from Chinese to English, are you going to translate 哥哥 as “older brother”? That sounds stilted and overly formal in English, especially if the context isn’t actually familial.

    And someone has put together a Google Doc of detailed mistranslations and corrections for volume 1, and why it matters. An extract:
    1. Mistranslation of the fundamental cultivation system.
    Inconsistent & incorrect translations of multiple phrases into “demonic path/cultivation.”
    Correct terminology:
    魔道 (modao) means “demon dao.”
    • It appears only one (1) time in the novel (chapter 2) through the term 魔道祖师 modao zushi, or the namesake of the novel. This is a title the general public has given him through rumors.
    鬼道 (guidao) means “ghost dao.”
    • It appears 12 times in the novel. It appears 1 time (mistranslated) in 7S book 1 (see below).[4]
    邪魔歪道 (xiemowaidao) means heretical path/immoral methods/evil practices/underhanded means/etc. E.g., lying, cheating, stealing, bribery, etc.
    • It appears ~24 times in the novel. It appears 3 times (mistranslated) in 7S book 1 (see below).[5]
    Key issue: Wei Wuxian does not 修魔道 practice demon cultivation. Wei Wuxian’s imitators are referred to explicitly as 鬼修士 ghost cultivators, and when Wei Wuxian’s craft is discussed in a neutral and factual manner, it is referred to as 鬼道 ghost dao.
    魔道 modao/demon dao and 鬼道 guidao/ghost dao are not interchangeable because of MXTX’s in-universe cultivation systems.

    Elise, the live action adaptation is so different in characterization and plot I wouldn’t muddy the waters by pointing someone reading the novel to it even in a discussion of translations. Except as an example that the original author hasn’t been well served by the translators for any of them..
    Besides, long twitter threads are unreadable, if you’re me and not on twitter. This site: goes into great detail on the linguistics, and other things of the live action. though, for anyone interested.

    My first encounter – after bouncing hard off the only complete fan translation – was through the animated series (donghua) which I thought was very well done, and a decent adaptation. I just wish they’d put out all three seasons for purchase. I do own the dvds of the first two seasons. But there’s no legal copy of containing the third I can find. (I downloaded it anyway, but jeepers, decision makers, let me buy the thing.)

  9. And now the various translations of the opening for comparison:

    Official translation from Seven Seas:

    REJOICE, Wei Wuxian is dead!”
    It hadn’t been a day since the Siege of the Burial Mound, and the news had already flown across the entire cultivation world as if it had sprouted wings. The speed was only comparable to how fast the flames of war had spread back then, if not faster.
    Suddenly everyone, whether they were prominent clans or rogue cultivators, was discussing this operation of vanquishment that had been led by the four great clans and attended by hundreds of sects both big and small.
    “Fantastic, fantastic indeed! Who was the hero who killed the Yiling Patriarch?”
    “Who else could it be? Ain’t it his shidi, the little sect leader Jiang Cheng? The four major clans fronted the attack: the Jiang Clan of Yunmeng, the Jin Clan of Lanling, the Lan Clan of Gusu, and the Nie Clan of Qinghe. Crushing family for the greater good, they destroyed Wei Wuxian’s good ol’ lair, the Burial Mound.”

    The highly regarded unfinished and only available on the Wayback Machine Taming Wangxian translation. This one is notable for being the sole translation that keeps the author’s placement of the protaganist’s name. She wanted it to be the first word(s) readers saw in the novel. :

    “Wei Wuxian is dead! How gratifying is that!”
    The siege at the Burial Mounds had just come to an end. Yet, before the second day, news had already taken flight across the cultivation world, spreading faster than the flames of war.
    Suddenly, everyone, be it the aristocratic families or the wandering cultivators, were in unison in discussing the siege operation carried out by the coalition led by the Four Great Clans, with participation from the various smaller clans.
    “This is a moment of jubilation! Which worthy hero held the blade that slayed the Yiling Laozu?”
    “Who else could it be but his junior, the Young Clan Leader of the Jiang Clan, Jiang Cheng. Led by the four Great Clans – the Jiang Clan of Yunmeng, Jin Clan of Lanling, Lan Clan of Gusu, Nie Clan of Qinghe – Wei Wuxian’s den, the Burial Mounds, was razed to the ground in the name of justice.

    The only complete fan translation, known as Exiled Rebels’ as that was where it was posted. Except I can’t stand the way they wrote the names (camel case, which gives me brain stutters) and did a search & replace on them when I was originally saving the document.

    “Great news! Wèi Wúxiàn has died!”
    Less than a day has passed since the siege in the Burial Mounds, and the news spreads through the cultivation world as if it sprouted wings, surpassing even the speed of warfare.
    For a while, from the most prominent clans to rogue cultivators, everyone is discussing the siege that was led by the Four Great Clans and followed by hundreds of smaller ones.
    “The Yílíng Lǎozǔ has died? Who could have killed him?”
    “Who other than his shidi, Jiāng Chéng, putting an end to his own relative for the greater good. Jiāng Chéng led the Four Clans of YunmengJiāng, LanlingJin, Gūsū Lán, and QingheNiè to destroy his “den”—the Burial Mounds.”

    Lastly, the one being done by the person going by Fan Yiyi

    “Everyone rejoice, Wei Wuxian is dead!”
    Only a day after the end of the siege of the Burial Mounds, news of Wei Wuxian’s demise had already sprouted wings and flown to every corner of the cultivation world, sweeping the land faster than the flames of war.
    For a period afterwards, everyone, from wandering cultivators to those of the mightiest and most prestigious of sects, discussed how the Four Great Clans commanded thousands into the siege.
    “Rejoice, rejoice! Say, which hero dealt the finishing blow to the Yiling Laozu?

    “Who else could it be? His disciple-brother,
    Chief Jiang Cheng of the YunmengJiang Sect! He and the head clans of the other three Great Sects, the Lanling JinSect, the Gusu Lan Sect, and the Qinghe Nie Sect, led the charge.
    Sect Chief Jiang killed his own disciple-brother and destroyed his lair for the good of us all. TheBurial Mounds are gone!”

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