Author Topic: The Hall of the Nineteenth Century - Literary Fiction  (Read 374 times)

Offline Nicholas_Sheppard

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The Hall of the Nineteenth Century - Literary Fiction
« on: October 24, 2021, 06:45:17 AM »
Hello all. Any feedback on the first five pages of this speculative, literary work would be welcome.


Dr Maulten tended to me during my bouts of delirium, and would listen intently as I described my fever dreams. Sometimes, he would tell me strange stories. He told me that Harriett Beecher Stowe, beset with dementia in her old age, started writing Uncle Tom's Cabin all over again. She imagined that she was engaged in the original composition, and for several hours each day would inscribe passages of the book almost word for word, unconsciously from memory. To her distorted mind the story was brand new, and she would frequently exhaust herself with labour. That my mind might fall prey to a similar affliction was a constant fear during the two months my companions and I were abandoned in the dark.

        When I heard voices just beyond the service doors I was afraid, as our usual visitors always streamed in from the east end, beneath the proscenium arch. The approaching men panned their torches over the cement floor, illuminating puddles where rain had seeped through cracks in the ceiling and trickled down over exposed plaster and the electrical wiring that had shorted out a week after we were left alone. They then raised their beams over our group, where we stood arranged in our default stances. One or two flinched at the sight of us, a tableau of still and silent figures in the subterranean gloom, grouped close, but somehow not in relation to each other. I winced in the raking light of the beams, unable to make out what the men were saying. One, peering at me, wore a thick, tattered jacket. In his other hand was a gun. His eyes were deeply recessed, his face grimy, his hair matted and tangled. He approached, looked at my hat, my beard, my broadcloth coat, and then, as with countless visitors, there was a kind of lapsing or hardening into a more impersonal gaze.

        Dr Singh and Dr Maulten had always insisted I not be slighted by this; it was, they said, an inevitable element of my role. My conversations with Dr Singh and Dr Maulten had often been fraught, especially in the early days, when my thoughts would frequently disappear down blind alleys; moments when two empirical truths would momentarily co-exist or superimpose in my mind, and I would experience what the doctors referred to as one of my headaches. Sometimes, these headaches would impair my sight, it would seem that I were gazing at the dreamy oscillations of a parlor kaleidoscope, or my vision would be full of strange flickering calligraphy, streams of numbers and symbols, and I would be like a whirling Dervish, swooning, tottering or falling to the floor. After I was roused, I would be stricken with a kind of melancholia, where memory and identity seemed threadbare with abstractions. These spells usually coincided with the application of one of the doctor’s patches or updates, after which I would, for a time, feel strong resonances of what I had known prior, just as amputees recount feeling ghost pains where there had once been a limb. It took many months for me to balance these simultaneities, the tangled brambles of past and present, as if my mind were itself the Republic, rent into Union and Confederacy. Thanks to my upgrades, I have learned to deal with these moments through a process of self-admonishment and elision, much as people generally shun unpleasant thoughts, and resist falling prey to morbid introspection. My episodes were particularly harrowing during my induction into The Hall of the Nineteenth Century, as eager visitors were constantly querying me about things for which I had no understanding, and insisting I account for paradoxes, which troubled me and brought on headaches. Some had seemed to enjoy provoking me into one of my states of suspension, snickering as my mind seized up and I fell into a trance, as if lulled by the swaying pocket-watch of a mesmerist. On one occasion, so I gleaned from Dr Singh, my neural nets had to be completely reset, some device had to be procured, over the objections of Dr Maulten, who felt it was, in his words, incompatible with my system, and I was roused from my stupor several times, writhing in a fever I can scarcely recall. I wondered if this was similar to what Ann, my first love, had experienced, before she died from what the doctor called brain fever, a loss so tormenting that I threw myself upon her grave during a heavy storm because I didn’t want her gravestone to get wet. Eventually, I was restored to the full measure of my identity, through a process that was unsettling and even painful, my mind reassuming itself in a way I associate with sensation returning, with tingling progress, to fingers numbed by the cold.

        The man in front of me sniffed. His breath was visible in the frigid air. A visitor coming so close and establishing eye contact would normally trigger what I had heard referred to as my proximity function, and I would say one of my three randomised salutations. The visitor might then strike up a conversation of sorts, perhaps asking me to recite one of what Dr Maulten called my ‘greatest hits,’ with the Gettysburg Address by far the most requested. Now, however, after several months of neglect, my strength was diminished, and I found it hard to summon the will to speak. Doubtless it was the same for all of us. We had longed to hear the voices of the maintenance men, Mr Linwood and Mr Grey, who were given to lightly teasing and chastising us as they reached for their peculiar implements, and made their appraisals, searching for the source of whatever malady had befallen one of us, their fingers dabbing at the hollow behind an ear, the moment before everything would be suspended. When we revived, we almost always found ourselves still on our feet, one of many mysteries we could never account for, and were somehow unable to broach as an acceptable subject. Within weeks of the lights flickering off, our enthusiasm to share theories about what might be happening above began to wane, and soon none of us were speaking for days at a time. We became oblivious of each other in the darkness, where the silence was broken only by the scurrying of an occasional rat and the dripping of water.

     The man sniffed again, wiped his nose on a filthy sleeve, then looked down at my information card on its narrow plinth. My debates with Douglass. My election as the 16th President. The Emancipation Proclamation. And the final thing: the simultaneity that is most challenging. My being alive despite my life having come to an end. That I am both present and absent. Dr Singh said I had set a record for cognitive dissonance because of this, that I was a delinquent, and had forced them to run diagnostics more times than they could remember. Sometimes, visitors would ask variations of the same query, framed in an unsettling present tense: ‘How did I feel about being dead?’ Such questions were too mighty for me. I would falter at each iteration, until the good doctors instilled in me the generic phrase I would come to rely upon: ‘There’s no accounting for some mysteries. Some things are beyond men’s reckoning.’

   The disheveled man finished looking at the information card and peered back up at me. I blinked and tilted my head slightly, and he flinched and took a step back. He raised his gun, and a moment later one of the other men stepped over and pushed the weapon back down. On edge, the first man resisted for a moment, the beam of his light was like that of a binnacle lamp rocking on its gimbals on the ceiling of a storm-tossed ship. The muddle of the two men, in their filthy clothes, made me remember being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. The remaining men drew nearer. Wary, like a search party whose hounds have been let slip in the woods, their beams panned and twitched, looking for further movement in the shadows.

   One of the men let out a sibilant breath and said, ‘God damned AI.’

   ‘Looks like they just forget about them,’ another murmured. ‘Or maybe they wanted to come back, but something happened.’

   The first man turned his beam from me to John Brown, my nearest companion, and when there were murmurs and moans I summoned the strength to look for myself and was dismayed to see that Brown had suffered terribly during our spell of isolation. His old frock coat, waistcoat and high-collared shirt were ruined on one side, the consequence of his cheek being somehow blistered and eaten away by the secretion of some inner chemicals, his face, with its dropsical look, was as dulled as that of a statue worn by the elements. From a gash, where one might have expected sinew and tendon, there were filaments as perfectly white and thin as the shafts of feathers. I was much distraught that Brown should suffer such a fate. I gazed at the hideous coagulate that had streamed and hardened, and then, with an effort of will, I turned to look elsewhere, and in the beams of the men’s lights I saw that Twain, whose recitations from Huckleberry Finn had amused countless visitors, had met a similar fate. His white jacket was yellowed, and saggingly molten, here and there with rougher streams, like the hardened trickles that run down the sides of candles. His face was unblemished, save for his left cheek, where a little square plate of skin had lifted away on an inner stem, with the effect of a delicate panel prised from an enigmatic Chinese puzzle box. Adjacent to Twain, Frederick Douglass had also suffered. That proud countenance had warped, lending him the appearance of a subject who, having shifted during a Daguerreotype photograph’s long exposure, has their face reduced to a mere dragged blur.

   I despaired for my companions. If what I felt in that moment had been equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not have been one cheerful face on the earth. I was heartened, however, to see that Dickinson, Emerson and Thoreau had managed to abide in the darkness, though they were dormant, more depleted than I. Some of the men spent a minute or so looking about. Finding nothing of value, they came and joined the others, who were still gazing at our group, and pondering what ought to be done about us.

Offline godisjealous

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Re: The Hall of the Nineteenth Century - Literary Fiction
« Reply #1 on: October 24, 2021, 09:51:05 AM »
I cheated and knew, having read your query before, I was reading Lincoln as an AI. The voice is what I would imagine his to sound like, and that he discovers that his life has been extended or he is an android, is intriguingly presented. I would only worry about making TOO much magic and amazing things in one book which would threaten author/story credibility, but I can't say if the story does that only having read 5 pages so far. This is a great reason to put even more effort into developing your query. I find reading Amazon book blurbs are helpful. I would also suggest a Google search on queries, and take it from there. Anyway, I feel you have something here in these pages. Bravo.

Offline susan-louise

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Re: The Hall of the Nineteenth Century - Literary Fiction
« Reply #2 on: October 25, 2021, 02:48:24 AM »
Funnily enough, I too read your query but was not drawn into it, and indeed,  as others have already commented on your post, it read like a synopsis.  These 5 pages, however, are in a different league.  I think you have achieved an authentic and beautiful 19th C voice.  For me it recalled that of  Eleanor Catton in The Luminaries ( if you wanted a modern comparison!). So bravo for achieving this.
Was I immediately hooked?   Yes, the first few lines drew me in, but my attention was soon distracted by the amount of information we are given (so agree with GodisJealous here) and I'm on your side as devour 19th C or neo-19th C fiction.  Also, the retrospective voice can often be challenging for a reader's attention particularly when we are waiting for the "action"  at the end of this sample.  This is something to reflect  on as you anticipate the impact on an agent.  The prose is dense (if beautiful) and sentences long, so I have indicated where you could tighten things up, or add para breaks.   Really hope this helps.  I certainly would buy the book  :)



 Dr Maulten tended to me during my bouts of delirium, and would listen intently as I described my fever dreams. Sometimes, he would tell me strange stories. He told me that Harriett Beecher Stowe, beset with dementia in her old age, started writing Uncle Tom's Cabin all over again. She imagined that she was engaged in the original composition, and for several hours each day would inscribe passages of the book almost word for word, unconsciously from memory. To her distorted mind the story was brand new, and she would frequently exhaust herself with labour. That my mind might fall prey to a similar affliction was a constant fear during the two months my companions and I were abandoned in the dark.  (lovely opening and yes, it drew me in.  Liked the "abandoned in the dark" teaser and I want to learn more about why )

        When I heard voices just beyond the service doors I was afraid, as our usual visitors always streamed in from the east end, beneath the proscenium arch. The approaching men panned their torches over the cement floor, illuminating puddles where rain had seeped through cracks in the ceiling and trickled down over exposed plaster and the electrical wiring that had shorted out a week after we were left alone. They then raised their beams over our group, where we stood arranged in our default stances. One or two flinched at the sight of us, a tableau of still and silent figures in the subterranean gloom, grouped close, but somehow not in relation to each other. I winced in the raking light of the beams, unable to make out what the men were saying. One, peering at me, wore a thick, tattered jacket. In his other hand was a gun. His eyes were deeply recessed, his face grimy, his hair matted and tangled. He approached, looked at my hat, my beard, my broadcloth coat, and then, as with countless visitors, there was a kind of lapsing or hardening (could you just use hardening?) into a more impersonal gaze.

        Dr Singh and Dr Maulten had always insisted I not be slighted by this; it was, they said, an inevitable element of my role. My conversations with Dr Singh and Dr Maulten them had often been fraught, especially in the early days, when my thoughts would frequently disappear down blind alleys; moments when two empirical truths would momentarily co-exist or superimpose in my mind, and I would experience what the doctors referred to as one of my headaches. Sometimes, these headaches would impair my sight, it would seem that I were gazing at the dreamy oscillations of a parlor kaleidoscope, or my vision would be full of strange flickering calligraphy, streams of numbers and symbols, and I would be like a whirling Dervish, swooning, tottering or falling to the floor. After I was roused, I would be stricken with a kind of melancholia, where memory and identity seemed threadbare with abstractions. These spells usually coincided with the application of one of the doctor’s patches or updates, after which I would, for a time, feel strong resonances of what I had known prior, just as amputees recount feeling ghost pains where there had once been a limb. It took many months for me to balance these simultaneities, the tangled brambles of past and present, as if my mind were itself the Republic, rent into Union and Confederacy. Thanks to my upgrades, I have learned to deal with these moments through a process of self-admonishment and elision, much as people generally shun unpleasant thoughts, and resist falling prey to morbid introspection.
 
I would add a para break here.  You are giving the reader a huge amount to absorb and there is a density of information risk,

My episodes were particularly harrowing during my induction into The Hall of the Nineteenth Century, as eager visitors were constantly querying me about things for which I had no understanding, and insisting I account for paradoxes, which troubled me and brought on headaches. Some had seemed to enjoyed provoking me into one of my states of suspension, snickering as my mind seized up and I fell into a trance, as if lulled by the swaying pocket-watch of a mesmerist.  (The writing is beautiful and your use of language compelling.  But you remind me of Henry James...in his wordiest incarnation.  Therefore, tighten language where possible.  Use of tenses is one way. Some had seemed too./ vs some seemed to.  Economy of words will help the density as I feel sure you would not wish to slash any of your prose!)

 On one occasion, so I gleaned from Dr Singh, my neural nets had to be completely reset, some device had to be procured, over the objections of Dr Maulten, who felt it was, in his words, incompatible with my system, and I was roused from my stupor several times, writhing in a fever I can scarcely recall. I wondered if this was similar to what Ann, my first love, had experienced, before she died from what the doctor called brain fever, a loss so tormenting that I threw myself upon her grave during a heavy storm because I didn’t want her gravestone to get wet. Eventually, I was restored to the full measure of my identity, through a process that was unsettling and even painful, my mind reassuming itself in a way I associate with sensation returning, with tingling progress, to fingers numbed by the cold.  (do you mean "the tingling progress or process?)

        The man in front of me sniffed. His breath was visible in the frigid air. A visitor coming so close and establishing eye contact would normally trigger what I had heard referred to as my proximity function, and I would say one of my three randomised salutations. The visitor might then strike up a conversation of sorts, perhaps asking me to recite one of what Dr Maulten called my ‘greatest hits,’ with the Gettysburg Address by far the most requested. Now, however, after several months of neglect, my strength was diminished, and I found it hard to summon the will to speak. Doubtless it was the same for all of us. We had longed to hear the voices of the maintenance men, Mr Linwood and Mr Grey, who were given to lightly teasing and chastising us as they reached for their peculiar implements, and made their appraisals, searching for the source of whatever malady had befallen one of us, their fingers dabbing at the hollow behind an ear, the moment before everything would be suspended. When we revived, we almost always found ourselves still on our feet, one of many mysteries we could never account for, and were somehow unable to broach as an acceptable subject. Within weeks of the lights flickering off, our enthusiasm to share theories about what might be happening above began to wane, and soon none of us were speaking for days at a time. We became oblivious of each other in the darkness, where the silence was broken only by the scurrying of an occasional rat and the dripping of water.

     The man sniffed again, wiped his nose on a filthy sleeve, then looked down at read my information card on its narrow plinth. My debates with Douglass. My election as the 16th President. The Emancipation Proclamation. And the final thing: the simultaneity that is most challenging. My being alive despite my life having come to an end. That I am both present and absent. (lovely phrase!) Dr Singh said I had set a record for cognitive dissonance because of this, that I was a delinquent, and had forced them to run diagnostics more times than they could remember. Sometimes, visitors would ask variations of the same query, framed in an unsettling present tense: ‘How did I feel about being dead?’ Such questions were too mighty for me. I would falter at each iteration, until the good doctors instilled in me the generic phrase I would come to rely upon: ‘There’s no accounting for some mysteries. Some things are beyond men’s reckoning.’

   The disheveled man finished looking at the information card and peered back up at me. I blinked and tilted my head slightly, and he flinched and took a step back. He raised his gun, and a moment later one of the other men stepped over and pushed the weapon back down  (you have "back in the above sentence...could it not be "pushed the weapon away"?). On edge, the first man resisted for a moment, the beam of his light was like that of a binnacle lamp rocking on its gimbals on the ceiling of a storm-tossed ship. The muddle of the two men, in their filthy clothes, made me remember being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. The remaining men drew nearer. Wary, like a search party whose hounds have been let slip in the woods, their beams panned and twitched, looking for further movement in the shadows.

   One of the men let out a sibilant breath and said, ‘God damned AI.’

   ‘Looks like they just forget about them,’ another murmured. ‘Or maybe they wanted to come back, but something happened.’

   The first man turned his beam from me to John Brown  (as in Queen Victoria's John Brown??), my nearest companion, and when there were murmurs and moans (did you omit a full stop?  If so you need it as your sentences are long) I summoned the strength to look for myself and was dismayed to see that Brown had suffered terribly during our spell of isolation. His old frock coat, waistcoat and high-collared shirt were ruined on one side, the consequence of his cheek being somehow blistered and eaten away by the secretion of some(you have somehow preceding this...and  another "some" interrupts the beauty of the prose) inner chemicals, his face, with its dropsical look, was as dulled as that of a statue worn by the elements. From a gash, where one might have expected sinew and tendon, there were filaments as perfectly white and thin as the shafts of feathers. I was much distraught that Brown should suffer such a fate. I gazed at the hideous coagulate that had streamed and hardened, and then, again another long sentence. Can you break it up stating With an effort of will, I turned to look elsewhere, and in the beams of the men’s lights I saw that Twain, whose recitations from Huckleberry Finn had amused countless visitors, had met a similar fate. His white jacket was yellowed, and saggingly (do you need the adverb? saggingly jars) molten, here and there with rougher streams, like the hardened trickles that run down the sides of candles. His face was unblemished, save for his left cheek, where a little square plate of skin had lifted away on an inner stem, with the effect of a delicate panel prised from an enigmatic Chinese puzzle box. Adjacent to Twain, Frederick Douglass had also suffered. That proud countenance had warped, lending him the appearance of a subject who, having shifted during a Daguerreotype photograph’s long exposure, has their face reduced to a mere dragged blur.

   I despaired for my companions. If what I felt in that moment had been equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not have been one cheerful face on the earth. I was heartened, however, to see that Dickinson, Emerson and Thoreau had managed to abide in the darkness, though they were dormant, more depleted than I. Some of the men spent a minute or so looking about. Finding nothing of value, they came and joined the others, who were still gazing at our group, and pondering what ought to be done about us.
« Last Edit: October 25, 2021, 03:05:01 AM by susan-louise »

Offline Nicholas_Sheppard

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Re: The Hall of the Nineteenth Century - Literary Fiction
« Reply #3 on: October 25, 2021, 03:39:44 AM »
Hey Susan-Louise,
Your thoughts are exactly the kind of engagement I was hoping for, and I will make every one of the changes you suggested, which were all somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind anyway. You can see my predicament - I reckon the prose is great, but basically any query letter is going to sound batsh** crazy and coo-coo bananas. I honestly don't know how I could make it work.

Offline susan-louise

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Re: The Hall of the Nineteenth Century - Literary Fiction
« Reply #4 on: October 25, 2021, 09:22:39 AM »
Thank you!  I am so glad to have helped and  if you can now see what may be impeding the flow, you are on the right piste.  Sometimes the hardest thing we do, apart from mastering query letters, is re-crafting beloved opening pages.   It would be tragic to allow your affection for the purple prose, and the ensuing textual density, to spoil tne impact you could have on a reader/agent.  The novel deserves its best chance of success.   

 Now that I have engaged with your story, am happy to go back to your query, if that would help? 
PS  spotted another thing....  and bear in mind I read closely but offered superficial editorial comments...


I was much distraught that Brown should suffer such a fate.
« Last Edit: October 25, 2021, 09:31:14 AM by susan-louise »

Offline Nicholas_Sheppard

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Re: The Hall of the Nineteenth Century - Literary Fiction
« Reply #5 on: October 25, 2021, 07:48:18 PM »
Thanks again for being so awesome.
Getting an agent from a query to actually reading the prose is going to be a tall order. if we took this revised, shortened (350w) and more conventionally structured query as a starting point, what would you target as things to improve, re-order or clarify? I think the comps have to go at the beginning, to lay the ground that this is a literary work. Thanks a million again.


The Hall of the Nineteenth Century, 80,000 words, is literary fiction with speculative elements, in the spirit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, and Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me.

The Hall of the Nineteenth Century is an interactive exhibit, part of a larger culture and heritage centre, where a group of state-of-the-art AI, notable figures from the Nineteenth Century, have been designed to engage with visitors, regaling them with stories and answering queries, providing an entertainment and educational experience, whilst showcasing the capabilities and potential of AI.
The novel is narrated by a simulacra of Abraham Lincoln, who is troubled by the nature of his identity. He is prone to lapses, and unable to weigh paradoxes about past and present. Abandoned in the dark, after the site is shut down or some other ruction occurs above ground, the group of AI are discovered months later by a group of drifters who, finding nothing of value, move on.

Seeing no use in remaining in the abandoned exhibit, the group make their way into the outside world, with a general desire to ‘travel east,’ to respective places that hold meaning. Lincoln wishes to be in Washington, and dreams of his dead young son, Willie, hoping the boy might exist in some similar replicated form. They pass through a modern America they could scarcely have conceived of: a depression has rendered many metropolitan centres economic wastelands, and socio-cultural tensions have been inflamed to the point where society’s centre can no longer hold.

The AI of Lincoln, Thoreau, Dickinson and Emerson, contemplate a culturally and economically torn America. The great Nineteenth Century questions of equality, Manifest Destiny, New England Arcadian ideals and the whole American experiment are explored and tested as the past meets the present.

With few others of their kind the AI must find help. Without guidance and updated programming, they will be overwhelmed in the new reality. Along the way, enduring episodes of exploitation, revelation and danger, they ponder their independence, whether they are self-evident, and if they are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Offline susan-louise

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Re: The Hall of the Nineteenth Century - Literary Fiction
« Reply #6 on: October 25, 2021, 10:43:42 PM »
Would you be able to post this on the Query Review page? (esp because this one is obv for the 5 page review)  Then I can see how it evolved from your earlier version.  I tried to copy and paste  it there but QT system wouldn't let me.   I'm sure you can recraft but the challenge is transforming what is essentially a mini synopsis into a powerful query that hooks and makes the agent want to read the manuscript. 
« Last Edit: October 25, 2021, 10:45:50 PM by susan-louise »

Offline Nicholas_Sheppard

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Re: The Hall of the Nineteenth Century - Literary Fiction
« Reply #7 on: October 26, 2021, 01:22:49 AM »
Sure, I'll post it now...