THE FOURTH WALL AND HOW TO BREAK IT – special guest post by Ian Sales

You can blame it on Michael Haneke and Laurent Binet.

I’d spent the previous few months researching the Apollo astronauts and their wives and women writing science fiction. I had the plot of the final book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, clear in my mind, and had even started writing it. It had been my original intention to juxtapose my protagonist’s science fiction dreams against the science reality of her Apollo astronaut husband. But my increasing dissatisfaction at the continuing levels of ignorance about women sf writers of the twentieth century suggested a slight tweak I could make to my story. And so “invisibility” became the theme of All That Outer space Allows, the invisibility of women, the invisibility of things associated with women… which in turn gave me an idea for the sf story, written by my protagonist, which I was going to use as the novel’s “hinge”.

So there I was, writing about Ginny Eckhardt, Air Force test pilot wife and science fiction author, setting the scene, which was Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert in 1965…

Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games is about a pair of young men who foist their attentions on an affluent middle-class couple holidaying at their lakeside house. At first, the pair are just annoying and rude. But they soon turn creepily malevolent and violent. There is a moment in the film when Paul, the leader of the two, turns to the camera and winks. It’s a shocking moment in a film which grows increasingly, well, shocking. The film’s title refers not just to the psychopathic antics of the two home invaders but also to Haneke’s approach to cinema narrative.

Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH (the title stands for Himmler’s Hirn heißt Heydrich, Himmler’s Brain is named Heydrich) was originally intended to be a non-fictional work on Operation Anthropoid, the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich during World War Two by a pair of British-trained agents. But Binet also discusses the process of researching and writing about Heydrich and his death, and how his own life has affected, and was affected by, his writing.

If Haneke inspired in me the desire to “break the”fourth wall” in my novel, Binet gave me an idea of how to do it. But I didn’t want to make it as large a part of my narrative as Binet had. All That Outer Space Allows was, after all, Ginny’s story. I didn’t want to make an issue of the amount of research I had undertaken – I’d hoped it was obvious in the narrative, since I was writing about a person of a gender and nationality not my own during a period before I was born (although our lives do overlap by some six years). But breaking the fourth wall would allow me to discuss some of the artistic choices I’d made and my reason for making them. I could also do something with my research by comparing the life of my protagonist’s husband with that of real-life Apollo astronauts, using actual quotes from their autobiographies.

When it came to the writing, the first break sort of naturally slipped into the narrative:

… And she thinks, so strange that his parents should name him after a book subtitled “Life in the Woods”…

They didn’t, of course; I did, I named him Walden for Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 polemic. There is a scene in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie All That Heaven Allows – the title of this novel is not a coincidence; the movie is a favourite, and, in broad stroke, both All That Heaven Allows and All That Outer Space Allows tell similar stories: an unconventional woman who attempts to break free of conventional life… There is a scene in the movie in which Ron has invited Cary back to his place for a party. While he and his best friend, Mick, fetch wine from the cellar, Cary is at a loose end and idly picks up a copy of Thoreau’s Walden lying on a nearby table. She opens the book at random and reads out a line: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Not only is Walden Ron’s favourite book, she is told, but he also lives it –

That gave me the pattern for all the subsequent breaks in the fourth wall. This was stuff I wanted to talk about, but it wasn’t explicatory, it wasn’t additional material within the invented elements of the novel story, it wasn’t really suitable for footnotes. And I knew about footnotes…

Back in early 2013, I’d submitted a story to a railway-themed genre anthology to be published by Eibonvale Press. But rather than write a story about trains, I’d written about rocket sleds. Well, they ran on rails, so I thought maybe the editor would let me get away with it. He didn’t. He liked the story a lot but felt the link to the theme was too tenuous. The story, which rejoiced in the title ‘’The Incurable Irony of the Man Who Rode the Rocket Sleds’, was published in The Orphan in September 2013. It was about an unnamed USAF tech sergeant who volunteers to work for Major John Paul Stapp’s rocket sled programme at Muroc AFB (later renamed Edwards AFB) in the 1950s. But what I did was drop the theme of the story into a series of footnotes. So while the main narrative describes three trips on the rocket sled by the sergeant, the point of those trips is explained in factual detail in long footnotes.

I liked the story, I still like the story. Its mix of real history and fictional narrative is the sort of fiction I enjoy writing. It’s about shining a light on selected technological and engineering achievements, it’s about showing the human side of those achievements and then pushing the envelope in considering what it all means.

‘The Incurable Irony of the Man Who Rode the Rocket Sled’ had shown me one way to make use of footnotes in fiction, and I knew it wasn’t appropriate for All That Outer Space Allows. Because they weren’t shocking enough. There was no way I could make Ginny wink at the reader – not overtly, anyway – but Ian Sales the author could do it.

And, standing behind me, and winking over my shoulder, would be all the real astronauts of the Apollo programme and all the women science fiction writers of the twentieth century.

Ian Sales grew up in the Middle East but now works in Yorkshire for an ISP. The first book of his Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, appeared in 2012 and won the BSFA Award and was a finalist for the Sidewise Award. Books two and three, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, were published in 2013. All That Outer Space Allows was published in April 2015. He also has two books for a space opera trilogy, A Prospect of War and A Conflict Of Orders, both currently out from Tickety Boo Press.
All That Outer Space Allows is available in hardback from Whippleshield Books and in paperback from both Whippleshield Books and Amazon. The ebook edition is available from Amazon.

1 comment

    • Valisha on 20 January 2016 at 20:15
    • Reply

    I love reading your work Ian, ‘Adrift on the Sea of Rains’ is what got me into reading. I’ve just ordered ‘The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself’ and ‘Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep’ from an online auction where I’ve manged to get them second-hand as part of the same lot. I have not yet ordered the last book but I’m sure i’ll be purchasing once I’ve read through the 2nd & 3rd installments. Thank you so much for your work. Valisha

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