Murder Gradations

Figures of speech at the heart of Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk murder myster, Altered Carbon.

"[Géographie. La Terre à vol d'oiseau ... Troisième édition illustrée de 176 gravures sur bois.]" Author: RECLUS, Onésime.
Mass murder of trees, also known as deforestation

Quote: The only problem [the lawyers] had, as they cruised sharkishly back and forth across the cool marble floor of the court, was in drawing the fine differences between war (mass murder of people wearing a uniform not your own), justifiable loss (mass murder of your own troops, but with substantial gains) and criminal negligence (mass murder of your own troops, without appreciable benefit).

There you have former UN elite soldier Takeshi Kovacs assessing a group of military lawyers in Richard Morgan’s debut novel Altered Carbon. It’s a hardboiled cyberpunk murder mystery (and a mouthful if you say it like that). Before anyone points out that the Quote is either philosophically inaccurate or unpalatably blunt, let me repeat what I said: hardboiled, cyberpunk, murder mystery.

It’s fiction.

It’s also set in the 25th century. We have colonised other planets, and consciousness can be downloaded into a cortical stack, stored, and plugged into another body (also called a sleeve) as many times as the owner can afford it. Despite coming that close to immortality, mankind still fights wars, perpetuates crime&cruelty, and strives — ineffectually — to crush the depravity of the human condition.

It makes for a fine book, if you care for the genre. The strong, well-developed first person narrative of the anti-hero Kovacs and the deep, detailed world-building carry the reader along like a turgid river a tiny raft.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Gradation of similar phrases and parenthetical delivery.

Murder is abhorrent, no matter who is concerned. But people respond differently to hearing about mass murder of pigs (also known as the food industry), mass murder of elephants (also known as the ivory trade), mass murder in a foreign country due to civil war (also known as “news that’s horrifying, but oh-my-God where’s my wallet, I’ll be late for work”), mass murder of your own countrymen without good reason (also known as terrorist attacks that a whole nation grieves over), and mass murder of your own countrymen with good reason (also known as defending other people’s rights in oppressed countries under a NATO directive).

Man fighting man

— Are you enraged or indignant? I hope not with me: that paragraph is not an opinion piece, merely a literary exercise. —

You must have had at least a trace of an emotional response to one of the above parentheses, either because you disagree with the contents or with such blunt phrasing. The point was the parenthetical gradation from what is considered least worrying (murder of pigs) to most worrying (murder of people you may know). The last two clauses were reversed for further ironical effect, even though it broke the gradation.

Kovacs tells us what warjustifiable loss, and criminal negligence mean in three parenthetical statements given as facts, not exaggerated, not understated, but served up textbook style, and therefore provided in a, supposedly, emotionally least interesting way.

And yet.

The parentheses pierce the heart by pushing the definitions of such abhorrent acts into little more than footnotes, as somewhat demonstrated above (although my example was more specific, and therefore presumably more inflammatory). The repeating phrase mass murder reinforces the comparison.

What is at the core of the Quote?

Auxesis and anaphora (or mesodiplosis?).

Auxesis is the arrangement of clauses meant to achieve a gradual increase in intensity. If intended for ironic effect, the arrangement is given in descending order, as seen above in the reversal of the last two clauses.

Anaphora means beginning consecutive clauses with the same words. Technically, the parentheses aren’t consecutive, so a more precise figure might be mesodiplosis, the repetition of the same words in the middle of successive sentences. Mesodiplosis (or middle doubling) is neither in the OED nor in the Lanham’s Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, however it is in silva rhetoricae, the extensive online resource for rhetorical figures. Most other online references to this figure seem to lead back to silva rhetoricae and to provide the following example from the Bible.

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;
— 2 Corinthians 4:8–9

Mesodiplosis may not be officially a Latin figure (reference to the contrary, anyone?), but there ought to exist more such middle doublings in the wild. I’ll be on the lookout.

Keep to keep enemies out


PS After writing this post, I realised that Wikiquote lists the Quote with em dashes and semi-colons, rather than three pairs of parentheses. I don’t think it works as well like that, and, I have a different printed edition of the book, which has parentheses, so I’m justified in quoting as I did. It would be interesting to know whether the Wikiquote is a typo, or whether, more likely due to the nature of the difference, the conversion was a copy-edit change, and which one came later, and why it was changed, and … I suspect no one cares but me.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

2 thoughts on “Murder Gradations”

  1. I’d not thought about mesodiplosis before: a possible example, though this is already an example of anaphora (and no doubt several other rhetorical figures) might be “First They Came” by Martin Niemoeller:

    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

    [Parenthetically: I noted signs at several of the rallies protesting President Trump’s executive order banning certain people from entering the US which had variations of “First they came for the Muslims, and I said ‘Not This Time'” which cheered me immensely.]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great example!

      Mesodiplosis is the kind of repetition the seems most likely to crop up in poetry or speeches, so I did a quick search — every example I found has anaphora too. Which makes sense when viewing anaphora, mesodiplosis, and epistrophe as parts of an isocolon or some grander parallel structure.

      Now I’m thinking: wouldn’t it be interesting to find further meaningful examples (like the Quote) that have only mesodiplosis …

      Liked by 1 person

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