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Monday, December 31, 2007

Philip K. Dick in the movies

One of the things I like to do here is take a look at the stories or novels that inspire current movies. The stories usually win the comparison --though not always: most of the Harry Potter movies have been fantastic, while the originals are only so-so. (Feel free to disagree in the comments!) I recently got my hands on a collection of short stories by Philip K. Dick ("Selected Stories of..."), a fun collection of Cold War dystopic stories.

Let me talk about three of them.

"The Minority Report"

When I went to see the movie, I thought -- well, there's a chance they'll pull off a good sci-fi movie. Nah. I suppose it wasn't a bad action movie, and well, it wasn't remotely as bad as "I, Robot" (oh, Isaac! How unkind fate has been to you!), but sci-fi? Three pre-cogs vote on the best future, and the movie doesn't even address the idea of alternate futures? No one is uncomfortable with the morality of jailing people who haven't yet committed a crime? Does it occur to no one that maybe, just maybe, if you told people, hey, we know you're about to kill someone, then maybe they wouldn't do it? Did anyone put any thought into this movie at all?! Other than the product placement team??!

(All right, I had to get that out of my system. Bottled it up for years. Phew. I feel better. It's OK. But: gah!)

The story, also titled "The Minority Report", is quite short. I won't give it away; the ending goes in quite a different direction than in the movie. But at least the characters acknowledge the difficulties -- physics, ethics -- in a world where people are jailed before they commit a crime. And best of all, the main character actually knows something about the system he's using. Apparently Tom Cruise never even knew the pre-cogs disagreed! Who put this guy in charge?!

No, wait -- let me finish -- ow -- can't suppress -- the truth, man -- mumble mumble...

"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"

Don't worry folks, everything is now under control. The unfortunate outburst you just witnessed has been... dealt with. Ahem.

Well, here I have to admit that I never saw Total Recall. (Seriously. I don't get cable under the bridge.) I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Total Recall was an action movie -- and I think it took place on Mars, yes? (I did once catch the last five minutes or so, but that was a long time ago -- I may be wrong.)

The story is quite quaint, probably more interesting as a foil to a movie than as a story in its own right. It's intended to amuse; there's almost no action. The main character, Quail, can't afford to take a trip to Mars, so he decides to sign up for a faked-memory program. The company will give him fake memories and plant a few mementos in his house: Quail will have memories of being sent as a spy to Mars, an agent for Interplan -- a real adventurous trip to Mars! Unfortunately, when Rekal, Inc. sedates him, they learn he actually did go to Mars as an agent for Interplan and had had his memory mostly wiped.

Oh, shit, they think, and do what any reputable company would do: "Sorry, pal, the procedure didn't work. We're refunding half your money. Please don't come back. Have a nice day!" slam!

And so the fun begins!

"Imposter"

Again, a very short sci-fi story drawn out into an action movie. (Yes! A movie! Same name. With that guy from CSI.) The movie itself is not bad -- not bad action, not bad sci-fi. It's not great, because it doesn't delve into any really interesting ideas. The kernel is there, true, but it's not examined well.

Both the story and the movie start out the same: Spence Olham gets arrested by his good friend Nelson -- military intelligence believes Spence Olham was replaced by a booby-trapped robot from Alpha Centauri, and naturally want him... taken care of.

Olham isn't thrilled about this plan. He manages to escape temporarily, but he must convince his friend, his wife, and even himself that he is who he thinks he is.

It's a neat idea. Unfortunately neither the story nor the movie really gets into it. What if everyone believes you are already dead, and you are a deadly simulcrum? How could you convince them otherwise? How could you convince yourself? The movie takes the technological route ("X-ray in ward 2, stat!"), the story takes the plot route ("Dammit, I'll find the real robot myself!"). Neither delves into the psychology -- wouldn't it have been great to read about a man tortured by self-doubt?

But never mind -- short stories serve as a little sandbox for ideas, a place for playing. For real depth, we must turn to novels. (For a more critical review of the stories discussed here, you might try The Modern Word).

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Dark Is Rising

Billy Goat and I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and all the best in the holiday season.

(Actual conversation at the library a few days ago, as I was checking out more than a dozen books -- Library patron: "Well, you're all set for Christmas, I see." Mister Troll: "Of course! What else are you supposed to do at Christmas, talk to people?" Library patron: "...")

One day down, one book down and I still have lots of time to talk with family. In the meantime, in the spirit of the season, let me recommend the best Christmas story...

Recommended: The Dark Is Rising (Susan Cooper)

This is the ultimate winter story. On his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton learns that he is the last of the circle of Old Ones, born to seek the six Signs of Light. As Christmas falls upon the little English village, Will must stand alone against the full strength of the Dark.

The Dark Is Rising is filled with beautiful contrasts: the cheerful warmth of a family celebration and the sinister iciness of the servants of the Dark; the charm and familiarity of Christian traditions with the ancient, pagan symbols. This is a story for winter nights, to read snug at home, with chill and gloom outside your windows. In no other story have I seen Christmas drawn with such warmth and such iciness at the same time.

Ms. Cooper is a talented author. She is best known and loved for her series, The Dark Is Rising, of which this eponymous story is not the first: Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark Is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree.

You may read the stories in any order, which is a lovely bonus (though probably you should save Silver on the Tree for last). The style of each is relatively unique, and Will Stanton does not feature in all of them. Of course, Rule Number One applies (no author is ceaselessly brilliant); most people pick either The Dark Is Rising or The Grey King as their favourite.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Stories

Like many Americans, I'm a big fan of Christmas. I'm actually a really big fan. Every year I get the Christmas tree itch sometime in October, but am inevitably reasoned away from pulling out the old artificial tree by someone less intoxicated by the idea of blinking colored lights and kitties who play with garland. In my opinion, this is a shame, and I'd happily hand out Halloween candy dressed up as a Frankenstein's monster in front of my Christmas tree. Rarr!

Anyway, as a big fan of Christmas, I'm also a big fan of Christmas stories. I wrote a dragon-themed reinterpretation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with a friend in eighth grade, and every once in a while the urge strikes me to write another Christmas story. Unfortunately, I didn't plan very well this year, so I can't promise one for you. However, an idea's been skating around my head the past few days, so anything's possible (is Santa listening?).

As a fan of Christmas stories, I would also like to hear from you about some of your favorites. I've read a few, including Gene Wolfe's "La Befana" from his Book of Days and "No Planets Strike" from his Strange Travelers anthology, but I'd like to read something non-Wolfe this Christmas. So please tell me your favorites in the comments! I'd love to read them!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Why TV Fails to Tell Good Stories, and How to Fix It

TV fails to tell long-form and complex stories correctly time and time again. That's a problem for me, because these are my favorite type of stories (Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon Five, etc.). Unfortunately, it's not a problem that is likely to go away soon. There are three simple reasons for this failure:

1. Television actors are unreliable.
2. Television writers are both lazy and unreliable.
3. Television executives are stupid.

Now that I've offended everyone in the television industry, I want to push even more buttons, and say that there are a few simple solutions to this problem.

But first, let me explain a little more about what I mean when I write about those "long-form" TV show mistakes. Here are three examples from the recent past:

1. Heroes season one was pretty great (not perfect), and it captured my attention like few shows can. However, season two is filled with blunders. To name just one, some random loser shoots the character DL in the beginning of the season, because the actor could not get along with the actress playing his wife (or vice versa), and she was the bigger star. This was a failure of an unreliable actor and actress, and it did nothing for the plot. Maybe Tim Kring, the writer, could have written him out better, but really, he's not the one to blame in this instance.

2. Up until season three, Battlestar Galactica was also amazing. However, season three bogged down like crazy with lots of unnecessary "drama" that failed to move the story forward. Now, this did not bother me, but it bothered a lot of other people. What did bother me was the final episode of the season, which revealed four of the Cylon sleeper cell bad guys. I thought the episode was great, except for the one problem that seriously damaged the series: Ron Moore, the writer, had not decided who among the major cast of good guys were sleeper Cylons until season three began (he admitted as much in an interview). This is writer laziness in the extreme! How can you hope to write a good, coherent story, with appropriate foreshadowing and characterization clues if you don't know how it's going to end?!? If there's one thing that annoys me more than anything else about long-form TV shows, it's writers who make the story up as they go along.

3. Babylon 5 was one of the pioneers of the long-form sci-fi TV show. However, you can easily see its screw-ups at the end of season four, and through all of season five. James Michael Straczynski (JMS), the writer, thought he only had four seasons to wrap up his plot, so he wound it down in season four. Altogether, I thought he did a good job with this. However, at the last minute, after the cast had been let go, Babylon 5 was renewed for a fifth season. JMS should have just said, "Hey, you told me I had four seasons, so the story finished up in four seasons." Instead, he went ahead with a bad season five, with poor replacements for some of the main cast that had disappeared. This is mainly a case of the execs causing disaster, although the writer could have prevented it.

Here's how the TV industry can fix mistakes like the above, and more:

Solution 1: Fire Real Actors, Create Digital Actors.

Real actors have egos that clash and get bruised (see above). They demand more money (like Bitty Schram, who played Sharona from Monk), or get bored, or fear they might become typecast (like Christopher Eccleston, the previous Doctor Who). They get sick, die, get thrown in jail, embarrass the show, or decide to quit acting and spend more time with their families. And you can't just replace them with another actor to play the same role, because audiences don't like that. Well, Doctor Who is an exception, but that's cheating, and has some consequences besides. Even with cartoon characters, it's difficult (though much easier) to replace a voice actor.

The answer is to completely digitalize actors, separating image and voice from the problematic individual. We're getting there already with the Pixar films, Final Fantasy movies, Shrek movies, and films like The Polar Express and Beowulf (even though some of these suffer pretty badly from the problems of the Uncanny Valley). Voice digitalization is still a big problem, but all-in-all, we're getting there.

After voice and image can be disconnected from individual actors, these actors become regular, replaceable employees. Sure, motion capture and acting talent will still be necessary, but the motion capture allows the actors to be in the background, providing data that can be provided by anyone with ability. Also, actors may have different styles, but the look of the character will persist, and I'm sure there will be software to digitally correct small behavioral inconsistencies, as well as actors good enough to adapt to the established character's personality.

Solution 2: Fire TV Writers, Hire Book Writers

Authors of books write better long-form stories than TV writers. This is largely because an author writes an entire book before the publisher publishes it. It also helps that there is an editor to read it all over before publication as well. When the author reveals that Susie is the murderer in chapter ten, and finds that Susie's homicidal streak is not credible because there were subtle indicators of it in previous chapters, he goes back and fixes those chapters. He cannot just make things up as he goes along and hope that the reader does not notice. Publishers and readers want more than that.

Now, not all the TV writers need to be fired, if they can just finish their scripts, or at least the outline with major plot points and secrets, before the airing of the first show. It would also help if they created plots that were a set length, say two, three, or four seasons, and let the story run its course.

There is a large pool of good writers out there just waiting to be tapped. Of course, there are writers who make the same mistakes TV writers make, but these mistakes don't usually show up in a single book. Rather, they tend to show up when the author writes a series of books, possibly trying to milk a proven set of characters for more money. To get around this problem, I'd say that the talent pool is large enough that these people could be avoided.

Solution 3: Tell TV Executives to Butt Out

Television executives have a big problem with micromanagement. They see something they don't like in a series, and they want it yanked. Or they decide that a series makes them good money, so they milk that cow for all it's worth, dragging it into season after season and squeezing the life out of any plot that once existed. To fix this problem, they need to butt out of artistic decisions, and let the plot play out as it was originally planned. They may not see the big picture of the story, or they may not realize that a risk in the plot or characterization may make the story unique, or have unforeseen rewards. They are not the artists, and they should remember that (and they might even make more money if they followed this advice).

Solution 4: Keep What Works

There are a few pieces of the television equation that work right now. For instance, if a TV story is not compelling, audience feedback can help a writer correct the problems mid-stream. Heroes shows us a great example of this. With season two, Tim Kring set up some lame subplots, mostly revolving around some boring and unconvincing romantic scenes. The audience complained online, and Tim Kring changed the direction of the show to make it better (he has stated so publicly). This is good, because improving something is always better than not improving it. Of course, the writer should use his judgment with this approach, because the viewers may not always have good opinions.

TV shows also often perform single episode pacing well. Audiences need hooks that pull them along from episode to episode, and the occasional cliffhanger or surprise revelation to build excitement. Many shows do this well. It's probably one thing that TV writers are better trained to do than fiction writers.

Lastly, there's the humor aspect of TV. Authors are good at dry humor, because that's what works in books. However, this does not necessarily translate as well to the small screen. TV writers have experience with the format, so this is another good reason to keep some around.

Conclusion

There's a lot wrong with the current state of long-form TV drama, but the problems are solvable. Some solutions await in the future, beckoning lucratively, and some are just common sense. Most of the changes would shake up the industry dramatically, and anger many people, but that is the way of progress. I'm all for progress, especially if it gives me the wonderful, evocative, compelling stories that television has the potential to provide.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Time Traveler's Wife

Recommended: The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)

Before my latest foray into the romance genre, perhaps the closest I'd come to reading a romance novel was when I read The Time Traveler's Wife. I don't write this because it had the trappings of a romance novel, because it doesn't. Rather, I write it because it's a love story.

Henry DeTamble time travels inadvertently. He has no control over when he travels, or to where or when he will appear, or for how long he will stay. However, his travels have a pattern to them. They tend to focus around key events and people in his life. Therefore, it's no surprise that Henry often time travels to see his wife, Clare Abshire. These travels include points in Clare's life, including her childhood, before Henry's and her original meeting in "normal" time. The story jumps around, but progresses naturally, and we get to experience their twisted and crazy love story on a time frame that reaches from their childhoods into middle and old age.

Clare and Henry are easy to like, people you want to see happy. Their story is set close to the present, and seasoned with pop culture references that will surely date it, but these references add a distinct flavor. Though the time-traveling premise is sci-fi, the book uses it to explore issues that most sci-fi books do not, including those relating to marriage and fatherhood.

The book affected me. I read it three years ago, while visiting my wife's family for Christmas in San Francisco. I distinctly remember my visit to Alcatraz the day after I finished the book. I wandered off from the family, and as I explored the island, my mind kept jumping back and forth between envisioning life in the prison, and this story. I found hidden places that the rest of the tourists did not bother to find, beautiful places on the island that the guided tour missed. The Time Traveler's Wife got me thinking big thoughts on that little stroll, thoughts on causality, inevitability, and on how time changes each of us. I could expand on these themes here, but I'll let the book do it instead.

The Time Traveler's Wife is a worthy read. It visits a much-toured concept of sci-fi, that of time travel, but it takes us to some of those hidden places that we might have missed if we'd stuck to the usual route with the rest of the tourists.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Anti-Christianity in The Golden Compass?

Let's start this right off with a spoiler warning. I'm assuming you've read the book, and am discussing it freely. Do not read further if you don't like spoilers! (However, I'm not discussing the plot, per se; just the background and perhaps some of the philosophy of the story.)

The coming release of the movie has led to a certain... aggravation on the part of certain Christian groups, notably the Catholic League ("Film sells atheism to kids") and the American Family Association. (For other entertaining manifestos, check out amazon.com. Folks, let's try to keep the reader reviews to less than, say, 2000 words, hmm?)

So what makes His Dark Materials anti-Christian? Well, uh... nothing. But it's quite easy to see what could be upsetting to some Christians. The series features (this is just off the top of my head):

- a dogmatic and immoral church
- no true God (the being considered God is in fact an angel)
- a war on the kingdom of heaven (on the putative "God")
- Eve's choice offers salvation, not sin
- no heavenly afterlife (interestingly, there is a hell)
- gay angels
- underage sex (see: Eve's choice and salvation)

So what? Newsflash! It's fiction!

I think the Catholic League and the AFA might want to review that little detail. A discreet trip to the bookstore should do the trick; they could check out where the book is filed. Under non-fiction? Nope? Not there? Oh, right, fiction.

It's true I read the series as a criticism of the Catholic Church (though some have sugested the target is the Anglican Church). For example, the Magisterium grants indulgences to a priestly assassin. Surely no one is going to be indignant about a criticism of indulgences? Rather we might feel Mr. Pullman is a wee bit behind the times. Will someone be offended by a criticism of dogmatism (in the perjorative sense)? I think not. At worst one might bristle at the suggestion that one's church is overly dogmatic, but that particular criticism--whether fair or not--is hardly anti-Catholic, much less anti-Christian. (Gee, I've never encountered criticisms of dogmatism in literature before.)

So basically, the real problem is that the fictional premise of this series conflicts with Christian belief. That makes the series no more or less anti-Christian than any other fictional work not based in Christianity. The Odyssey? Anti-Christian. Watership Down? Magic, a rabbit-god... it's anti-Christian! In fact, take any fantasy story: non-Christian gods, a completely non-Christian worldview -- oop, yep, must be anti-Christian!

This kind of illogic is utter lunacy. Mr. Pullman may or may not be anti-Christian; from what I've read, he is at least not Christian. Even if he is anti-Christian, I somehow think the entire Christian community could actually cope. But His Dark Materials is not anti-Christian. It's a story, folks. And frankly, it's a story that's steeped in Christian tradition (the Bible, Paradise Lost, gnosticism).

Even if it weren't a story--let's say Mr. Pullman wrote a book and said, "Here are all the things I believe about the world." These would be dramatically competing truth claims (at least to Christians; non-Christians might find it to be nitpicking). Would they be anti-Christian? No, they would be "not Christian" beliefs.

So what is it that draws out the "woe-are-we-Christians" crowd? Now that isn't too hard to figure out. Popularity brings with it the opportunity to manufacture controversy. It's about getting attention. Harry Potter: corrupts youth (how dare we teach our children about good and evil!). Come on. Nobody sane thinks Harry Potter can teach anyone witchcraft. It got to be a popular series, so it was time for the attention-seekers to jump on the bandwagon.

Let's take another movie coming out at the same time: The Seeker (about which I have nothing, but nothing, good to say), which is based on Susan Cooper's marvelous story, The Dark Is Rising. On the surface, it's a Christmas story, good-vs-evil, magic, coming-of-age, and so on. But it's pagan through and through. Holly branches, Yule logs, midwinter solstice - all important elements of the story, and all important elements of pagan ritual. At one point in the story, a priest starts gibbering madly about Satan assaulting his church. The Old Ones (some of whom have been alive several thousand years) look at each other and shake their heads. This is most definitely not a Christian story, but as for controversy, nary a peep. Why? Because His Dark Materials is likely going to be more popular, and because His Dark Materials draws on many elements of Christianity; it's easier to manufacture the controversy.

In the end it's clear to me that Bill Donahue (Catholic League) just wants the publicity. Why else could he oppose the movie, when he even admits any controversial aspects have been removed? "The Catholic League wants Christians to boycott this movie precisely because it knows that the film is bait for the books: unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may be impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present." That dastardly Philip Pullman, who wants to sell books!

Gimme a break. If you don't like it, don't read it; don't watch it. And please, get over it already.

Post-script

Other links of interest: Hanlon's Razor, Denialism Blog.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Golden Compass

Recommended: The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman)

It took me a while to decide that I wanted to "formally" recommend this book. It's a lovely story, but it can't be read alone, and I found the sequels (The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) to be somewhat disappointing. No surprise, of course: Rule Number One always applies. So I wavered back and forth, but in the end, I remembered my primary criterion for making a recommendation: that it be a story which I would feel I was poorer for not having read.

Certainly I would feel poorer for not having read this book. The charming and impudent Lyra, the devoted armoured bear Iorek Byrnison, and the steady aeronaut Lee Scoresby--these are characters without any comparison in literature. It's a delight to read this story, and the feelings between Iorek, Lee, and Lyra are an almost palpable warmth. For these characters alone I urge you to read this story.

Lyra Belacqua is, frankly, a misbehaving little imp. Her guardian, the chill Lord Asriel, leaves her to the poor tutelage of the scholars of Jordan College, while he conducts experiments into the nature of the Dust (newly-discovered rays that seem to be attracted to adult consciousness). Naturally, Lyra cannot be held in such a small confine, and in time she and her familiar leave the musty crypts of the College, to head for the far and mysterious North, under the shimmering aurora borealis.

With that I must leave you to read the story yourself, though... perhaps I can give you a little bit more. Everyone has a familiar, called a daemon. The familiars of children can change shape at will, but as they age, the familiars take on a shape that reflects their personality. (Lord Asriel's: a snow leopard.) Bears, though, have no familiars. The bears of the North make their own armour from meteoric iron, an armour that reflects their self in much the way a familiar does for people. The armoured bears (panserbjorne) have incredible dexterity, and their cunning claws can work metal more forcefully and more delicately than any smith. Above all else, though, an armoured bear is constant: fierce, loyal, and unable to be deceived.

And then, my friends, really is all I have to say about the story itself! Note that The Golden Compass is the North American name; in the UK, this novel is called Northern Lights.

Lastly, with the advent of the movie, there has been some modest controversy regarding an alleged anti-Christian perspective in His Dark Materials. I'm afraid that will be a post for another day - another day soon, I hope!.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lately

Fall is fading into Winter, and I've been busy.


The Sci-Fi and Fantasy

I read Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth from cover to cover. Good stuff. Not for everyone, and it certainly had its annoying moments, but there were some gems in there . . . and it had some charms that are hard to explain. For instance, his character Cugel the Clever was just not likable for most of the story The Eyes of the Overworld. However, in Cugel's Saga, he became more likable (and funnier), despite keeping most of his bad character traits. Maybe the fact that the character grew in the second story made him likable. I'm a sucker for epiphanies and character growth and all that.

Also, if you're a Gene Wolfe fan like me, it's worth reading just to see where Wolfe got some of his inspiration for his Solar Cycle books. Beware the vocabulary, though, unless you like learning lots of new, strange words (My personal favorite: animalcule).

Continuing on the books I've been reading, this last week I started Mister Troll's recommendation, The Anvil of Ice. Holy crap. Beautiful. It hits all my soft spots: Archaic magic, forbidden knowledge, desolate world, troubled hero, intricate plot, and lovely magical artifacts both new and old. Rohan describes a world that is dark and mesmerizing. I hope it keeps up. Reading books like this is what makes me glad I joined Mister Troll in this project. Sure, I might have otherwise read it on his recommendation, but then I wouldn't have the pleasure of gushing about it to you.

The Romance Experiment

One of the blogs I visit on occasion is Avid Book Reader, a blog that focuses primarily on reviewing romance novels. I chatted with the owner of the site, and she recommended to me some romance novels to try out. Luckily, I found some of them at a local library book sale, so I've been expanding my horizons with them. In the past I've often looked down on the genre, and it's easy to see the stigma that's attached to it. For instance, some of my friends had a good chuckle when they found out what I was reading. Furthermore, Mrs. Gruff expressed that she was a little embarrassed for me that I carried my new romance novel around so openly. I've heard that Sci-Fi and Fantasy have a similar stigma attached to them, but I've been so immersed in those genres and surrounded by fellow readers, that I've mostly forgotten about it (I vaguely remember being embarrassed about the books as a kid). Not that I care about such stigmas. Just something to think about.

Reading romance has had some benefits as well. For one, it gave me an opportunity to bond with my mother on her latest visit. From talking to her, it seems almost like she has read every romance novel in the universe. There's much more to write about here, but I'll hold off on it for now. I hope to write an expanded article on my forays into the romance genre in the near future.

The Secret Project

Mister Troll and I have also been working on another project. I can't say how close to launch it is yet, but it has both of us excited. Let's just say it's of a creative nature, and it's going to push us in some new and exciting directions. I'll let you know when there's news to be had on it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Time Machine

Recommended: The Time Machine (H. G. Wells)

H. G. Wells was one of the founding titans of science-fiction, a novelist whose works have inspired, directly and indirectly, a large portion of the works that have followed. Like the best - or perhaps just the luckiest - science-fiction authors, Mr. Wells was ahead of contemporary science; the Time Traveller's explanations of the mechanism of travel spookily remind one of Einstein's theory of special relativity.

The Time Machine is a very short, simple novel. It does not contain the detailed plot we expect in a modern work, but it is a better novel this way. It invites you to think, and not merely to experience. I feel myself as a member of the dinner party when the Time Traveller tells his story. Can I trust him? Do I believe what he says? Is that indeed what the future holds in store? If it is, is it good, or inevitable? Even the Time Traveller's explanations invite disagreement and provide food for thought.

Most futuristic science-fiction is not written as a prediction of the future. The author will take some concept, toy with it, and say, "What if..." (Ursula K. Le Guin comes to mind as an obvious example.) Mr. Wells tries to predict the future, but asks the reader to make his own predictions as well. You'll likely disagree with Mr. Wells ideas, who was after all writing at the close of the Victorian era, but I hope you'll enjoy your chance to argue through his case.

Mr. Wells is best known for The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds. All three are excellent books, and certainly the latter two will garner their own recommendations here in due time. The Island of Dr. Moreau is also very good, but alas not as well known. His other works I leave to interested fans to ferret out for themselves (The Food of the Gods is one of my favorites of his, but you might find Rule Number One to apply).

Monday, October 1, 2007

Short Fiction: Like Soup and Salad

I saw that Answers.com was running a "Creative Writing Challenge" contest, so I decided to enter. The rules are simple: write something creative, 750 words or less, and correctly use in it the ten words they provide.

Here is my entry.

Like Soup and Salad

Two quirks of personality kept Sam from the grave. The first was his sense of duty. He lived with and supported his grandson, and that required not dying, like the child's parents had so irresponsibly done. The child harbored his DNA, blood of his blood. Some would say this was a faulty reason, because the boy also harbored the blood of simians, fish-things, and amoebas. Still, Sam would not abandon his grandson to face the horrors of modern-day England alone.

The second quirk was a love for his adopted country. England was agog with war, an unjust war, a war she had instigated. And he would see the end of this war, an end that would bring England back to her senses.

Before the war he had been a renowned poet, writing mostly charged free verse, but also the occasional sestina about hope or sonnet on public policy. These days, he wrote for an underground rag that catered to the patriots secretly assisting the European Allies. His articles were low, common things, but they gave him a hope that unpublished sestinas could not provide. However, sometimes it saddened him that he had gone from Poet Laureate to fifth-columnist in fourteen short years.

But today there would be no writing. The boy needed to visit Kew Gardens for a school report. Sam yawned and resolved himself for the chore ahead. He served breakfast: leftover gazpacho and caesar salad.

As they ate their soup and salad, the phone rang. Perry Harding's voice rattled on the other end.

"Perry! How's the wife?" said Sam. He then clicked on the steganophony device attached to his phone, and business began.

Harding talked about the latest intel from France, a plan he called a "military opus," and the recent TV propaganda.

Sam did not care about the propaganda. "Yes, yes. I know, it's infuriating. The old claptrap about the Good Soldier and his troupe of heroes."

"Troupe, tripe, trope," said the boy. He liked to play with words, like his father had.

"So, about that plan. Anything for us?" said Sam.

There was, and it was risky. Afterwards, he and the boy would have to abscond to the country for a while.

The boy was staring at him when he hung up.

"Eat your soup, finish the salad. There won't be any more for a while."

The boy speared a wilted lettuce leaf and said, "No more salad days?"

"These are your salad days. Make the best of them, and eat."

"This salad has seen better days," mumbled the boy, dropping the limp lettuce from his fork and watching it fall.

Sam glared, and the boy ate.

They walked out into the morning. An ugly fug filled the street, like the stench of decayed civilization. Sam put his hand on the child's arm. "What's this horripilation?" he said, and caught himself. "It means 'goose bumps.' Are you cold?"

"Horrible-ation," said the boy, shaking his head. He shivered and looked down the stark street.

Of course, he would be afraid. "The police won't be out this early. Besides, I have our papers this time."

At Kew Gardens, the boy's wonder overcame his apprehension. Rain began to fall, but the boy sprinted around the gardens, photographing flowers and giggling wildly. They made their way to the Secluded Garden, and the boy pointed at the stream bubbling through it. He reached out and patted a bamboo stalk that whistled at his touch, and rolled a fallen pear into a bed of blushing rockroses. Then, an overhanging quince tree rustled, and water fell in a tiny stream onto the boy's head. His laughter ascended like a little bird's trill. Sam grinned despite himself.

After the boy finished playing, they turned to leave. The boy's, David's, eyes glittered like those of a Spanish beauty Sam once knew. Then David chanted:

Like bamboo in my palm, like a rhyme, like a psalm,
Singing songs like my dad, in the garden where it's calm.

And the old man smiled, and a gland somewhere, shriveled like a raisin from age and disuse, squeezed out a tear. Even in this stark state, beauty flourished. Like a rich soup surrounded by wilted leaves, it tasted stronger for the contrast, and the greatest part was that someone appreciated it, and could rhyme it, and transform one majesty into another.

No tyrant would be overthrown today, but a day could be spent on beauty and silly similes.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

CONTEST: Win a Free Book - Closed

Do you want to be our friend? We would like to be yours, and give you a free book!

October 1-7 is Buy A Friend A Book Week . Yes, we know this is another one of those made-up holidays like Sweetest Day and Valentine's Day, but it's a good excuse for us to have some fun and give away a prize.

So until October 7th, we want you to tell us why you are such a good friend - and maybe win a free book!

How to Enter

Just fill out the form at the bottom of this post with the message explaining why you are such a great friend to Mister Troll, Billy Goat, or both.

Winning

Together, Mister Troll and I will select one winner based on the content of his or her message. We will judge each entry based on creativity and cleverness, and together pick the one we think is best.

The Prize

The winner will select one book that has been explicitly named by Mister Troll or me (Billy Goat) on Books Under the Bridge. Books Under the Bridge will purchase the book from Amazon.com and send the book to the winner, along with a personal letter. Also, the winner will have his or her entry posted on Books Under the Bridge, with a possible link back to the winner's blog.

The Rules

  • One entry per person.
  • Entries limited to 100 words. Any extra words will be ignored.
  • Winner will be notified by E-mail.

Further Rules Clarifications
  • All contest submissions must be received by 11:49 PM EDT on October 7, 2007.
  • If a book is named by Mister Troll or Billy Goat in the Books Under the Bridge comments, this book can be selected by the winner.
  • The winner's selected book cannot cost Books Under the Bridge more than 25 US dollars (including shipping costs). If the named book cannot be bought for this price or less, the winner will be asked to select another book.
  • If the winner's selected book cannot be purchased new, Books Under the Bridge will purchase this book in used condition. The winner will be notified in such a case, and allowed to select a different book if he or she so chooses.
  • If the winner selects a short story listed on Books Under the Bridge, we will attempt to purchase an anthology that includes the story. If we cannot purchase an anthology with this story, the winner will be allowed to select a different book.
  • The winner will be notified by E-mail. If he or she does not respond within one week, a new winner will be chosen.
  • You own the text of your entry, but by entering, you give Books Under the Bridge permission to reproduce your entry free of charge on Books Under the Bridge, and in any future print or electronic media produced by Books Under the Bridge.


This contest has closed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Recommended: Come, Lady Death

Recommended: "Come, Lady Death" (Peter S. Beagle)

Peter S. Beagle is one of those authors who is somehow both well-known and almost unknown at the same time. He has a remarkably charming writing style, and his stories have the sincerity of children's books, but with a slightly disturbing, bittersweet flavor to them. A wonderful introduction to his work is the short story "Come, Lady Death," which you can find in the highly-recommended The Fantasy Worlds of Peter S. Beagle, among other places.

"Come, Lady Death" is the story of the jaded Lady Neville; her biggest and best party simply must be attended by Death himself. The other nobility don't seem to know where Death lives (though surely he has an estate at least as large as theirs?). In a moment of unusual inspiration and--some--empathy, the Lady Neville recalls her hairdresser mentioning his gravely ill child. The hairdresser is instructed to carry an invitation. And so Death comes to Lady Neville's ball.

The remaining stories in The Fantasy Worlds of Peter S. Beagle are longer, and perhaps more satisfying (but less charming; and therefore I mention them in passing). The Last Unicorn is the -- well, you get the picture. It's a muddled tale of an incompetent wizard, an evil king in an evil castle, and a prince madly in love with an unappreciative lady; all these things mushed together, and the lonely and lost Unicorn shines through it all. Lovely. A Fine and Private Place is odder still: Mr. Rebeck lives in a cemetery, a harmless old man who prefers the newly dead for company; but a raven is his only friend.

Even if your library doesn't carry The Fantasy Worlds of Peter S. Beagle, I think you'll find it easy to order it through an interlibrary loan. Online booksellers also carry some of his books, although this particular one is out of print.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Why Heroes is the Best Sci-Fi on TV

I'm a big fan of the television show, Heroes. In fact, I think it's the best show with a science fiction theme on TV. Season two starts this coming Monday, and as it approaches, I have been thinking about why I am so excited. I decided to write the reasons down for you, in case you do not already watch the show. They are all good reasons for you to get involved!

Killer Episodes

Although the series is consistently good, with each and every episode worth watching, there are a few that are phenomenal. These killer episodes include two of my favorites, one that delves into the past, and one that peers into the future.

In Company Man we get to see the gradual transformation of the character Mr. Bennett from an agent, just doing his job, into something greater. This moving episode shines with its interplay between Bennett, his adopted daughter Claire, and his associates in the sinister organization known as The Company. It's probably the episode that made him my favorite character in the show, despite his not being one of the heroes. With episodes like this, not only do we get great action and fancy special effects, but we get powerful drama as well.

Five Years Gone shows us a future world, one in which the event the heroes are trying to stop has already happened: an atomic blast has devastated New York. The episode centers around the time-traveling Hiro Nakamura, and it really is a piece of work. There is major character development among all of the surviving characters, and clues for future development. The best part about the episode is that it leaves you grasping at the possibilities. Based on how certain characters act, what they know when, and what happens to them throughout the rest of the season, it becomes difficult to tell if and how the timeline will be altered. Will Hiro and the rest of the heroes stop the explosion? And if so, how much will play out the same? And what really happened to cause this dystopic future, because clearly some of the characters have their facts wrong (including the ones driving the episode, which is somewhat similar to the unreliable narrator trope). The episode reminds me of something I would find in a book I'd recommend.

Mood, Atmosphere, and Details

Heroes excels at creating a good atmosphere. Every show is opened and closed with a brief topical voiceover from the character Dr. Suresh. His topics range from evolution to the nature of loss. And normally, I'm not a big fan of voice overs, but his charge each episode's atmosphere. And the music during his little monologues enhances the effect. I don't really notice music throughout the rest of the show, but this music, along with the show's theme, draws you in. It's haunting, mysterious, melancholy, and it wraps a cord around your heart and yanks. There is just something about it.

Furthermore, there are other details in the show that make it breathe. These are just little things, but they add up. Some examples:

  • Each episode name is shown as a part of the scenery in the opening scene of each episode.
  • In one episode, Hiro creates a model consisting of timelines for all of the heroes in an attempt to change history. It is a hanging model of string, newspaper clippings, and pictures, tied together at various junctions where major actors in the story meet. It's a neat little piece of scenery that adds to his character and the story.
  • The viewer is continually taken back to certain key locations, among them a specific balcony overlooking New York. On its ledge, we are shown the destruction of the city, and a number of other significant events. By going back time and again, we get a feel for the Heroes universe, and we learn clues about the relationships between the characters.
Character Death Done Right

Major characters die in this show, sometimes unexpectedly. However, when they die, they die right. They don't die of stupid random occurrences with no meaning. And even when they suffer, even when we see a friend's death coming, it's pulled off well. The old lines about "life not being fair," "bad things happen to good people," and, "sometimes people just die," do not apply to character death. The writers seem to understand that we don't want this kind of silly, overdone lesson. We know it already from real life. We want heroic deaths, meaningful deaths, deaths that add to the story. And we get them.

Plot Forethought, Consistency, and Pacing

A consistent science fiction plot differentiates a work of art from simple entertainment, and Heroes nails it. The plot of season one was written before the show was filmed. You can tell this when you watch it. It has consistency and foreshadowing, and the season finale wraps up the major plot points for the season. Thankfully, the writers are not making it up as they go along.

Now, it's not perfect. If you follow news about the show, you know that minor changes have been made to the plot. However, this is inevitable with the nature of television, and it's better than any other show I've seen. Previously, I had thought that Battlestar Galactica had this as well, but then season three came along. The head writer admitted that he had not determined the identities of the cylon (bad guys) sleeper agents until then, and his laziness was visible when the revelations came. However, Heroes succeeds where BSG fails. Sure, some minor characters left during season one because of contractual issues. Also, Mr. Bennett's role grew from minor to major character as his fan base grew. But the meat of the plot stayed true and consistent, like a good book. And that's something to which every show should aspire.

Pacing is also tremendously well done. There are no one-off episodes for viewers to tolerate (see BSG season three) as they wait for the main plot to unfold. Instead, we get regular wow moments, and a plot that continues to move forward each and every episode. Following from that, we get a complete story for one whole season, not a drawn-out series of empty episodes pushed by some exec cheerfully grabbing for the show's udders. Unlike with many other shows, I rarely found myself yelling at the TV to, "Come on! Get on with it already!"

Conclusion

I know I'm going to be watching the first episode on Monday. If season two is as good as season one was, I will be ecstatic. If you're as into Sci-Fi as I am, you should check it out as well. I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised, because it really is the best Sci-Fi on TV.

For Fans
If you're interested in some Heroes discussion, hit the comments or meet me in the forums.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Few Thoughts on Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan died today.

In high school, his series, The Wheel of Time, was one of the major stories I followed. I plowed through each book as I found it, whether it was at the local library, or left under the tree for me at Christmas. And I told my cousins (best friends, and fellow readers) Chad and Todd about The Wheel of Time.

Then, I caught up to Mr. Jordan's writing, and started a cycle of anticipation, waiting for each next book to be published. During the down time, I'd speculate with Chad and Todd on what future plot points would hold. Our speculations were wild and filled with laughter, and sometimes we were right ("Rand will marry all three of them!" I remember saying, to grins and rolled eyes). This continued until we finished high school, and through the first years of college.

These books were important for us as young fantasy readers, and they gave us much - a vivid world full of magic and wonder, haunted characters, and a few brave young men to identify with.

As time moved on, book after book appeared in the series, and the story began to drag out. My cousins and I joked that Robert Jordan would die before he finished the series, and we'd never get to see the conclusion. After talking to others over the years, I'm sure the sentiment was not uncommon. It turns out our jokes were right, unfortunately. Makes them not seem quite so funny, with real life poking its nose in, the ghost of unfinished business, and all that.

In recent years I was not his biggest fan. I stopped reading his books. I saw them as trite, I grew annoyed with the characters ("He can't write female characters," I remember saying), and I was tempted to skip the bulk of each new book to just read the end. I picked up some of the later books when they hit the bargain book section, but did not read them. I thought he had succumbed to milking the story for money, and I thought it was terrible that he'd wreck his story for a few more bucks. Now, I just think that the story got away from him.

I do not know if I will ever finish reading The Wheel of Time, even if the rumors I've heard of his wife writing out the last book are true. However, even if I don't, I want to give a shout out to Robert Jordan. He has affected many lives with his work. He's done what we, as writers, strive to do, even as some of us book snobs take our pot shots. As someone who once had to fight a deadly disease, and as someone who writes, I've found him to be a brave man, someone I'm happy to identify with.

Monday, September 10, 2007

How not to hate Beowulf

Billy Goat just panned the trailer the upcoming movie, Beowulf. No objection here. It's true I hadn't even heard it was coming out yet, but Beowulf has been done before -- BADLY (The Thirteenth Warrior; they say it's based on a Michael Crichton novel. No: Beowulf.).

But, but, but, my dear bridge-goers, to criticize the poem itself, oh no, that I will not stand for! Old Billy Goat has the temerity to borrow my treasured copy of Beowulf and then to dismiss it so casually? It's "like wading through muck"?! (Maybe Billy Goat just meant that as a slur on my lifestyle. Listen, this bridge has been in the family a long time. So I don't clean under every rock all the time. Humph.)

But listen, why don't you have a seat here under the bridge, and let me explain...

How not to hate Beowulf

One of the oldest extant works of what is arguably considered English literature, Beowulf hardly needs introduction; who hasn't read it in school? (And who didn't hate it when they did?) I place the blame squarely on the largely abominable translations available. Instead, avail yourself of Howell D. Chickering's dual-language translation: English, and Old English, on facing pages.

(This is the version I loaned Billy Goat. A large metropolitan library should have it; it's been recently re-issued, so you can find it at the major online booksellers as well: Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition).

Mr. Chickering's edition has an admirable introduction that discusses not merely the structure of the poem, but also the social context in which the action, and lack thereof, takes place. The latter is important to understand for the impatient modern reader, who, for example, can easily become frustrated at a lengthy discussion of the history of the hero's sword - right at a crucial moment in the fighting. The surviving text of Beowulf is also damaged in parts; it pays well to at least realize that at many spots, specific words (even entire passages) have been omitted or lost, and perhaps reconstructed.

How to love Beowulf

Beowulf is an alliterative poem, a high and sadly lost art. To appreciate it, you must take some time to learn the sounds of Old English and the various meter styles. It was intended to be heard, not read, and you will be doing yourself a favour if you acquire a little bit of the sound and feel of the poem. Hence, my suggestion that you read at least some of it in Old English. Don't worry, Old English isn't hard to pronounce (and Mr. Chickering's book will give you the brief introduction you need). When you read this poem out loud, you'll hear the similarities with modern English; it's not as different as it seems when written.

Let's pull out a little phrase towards the end of the poem, and see what we can learn. The hero Beowulf, by now an aged man, must fight a dragon who ravages the countryside. It turns out the dragon was awoken by a thief who steals a cup from the dragon's hoard.

I've simplified the writing somewhat (with apologies to real scholars!), but read this out loud, just for fun. Can you feel the alliteration? Do the words start to fall into peculiar rhythm? Imagine yourself a Anglo-Saxon bard, reciting manful deeds in front of the hall table. It doesn't matter if you don't understand the words; give them heart!

"... Hord-weard onbad
earfothliche, othat aefen cwom;
waes tha yebolyen beoryes hyrde
wolde se latha liye forgyldan
drinc-feat dyre. Tha weas daey sheashen
wyrme on willan..."

Done? Then let's take a look at the translation (Mr. Chickering's, naturally):

".... The hoard-keeper waited,
miserable, impatient, till evening came.
By then the barrow-snake was swollen with rage,
wanted revenge for that precious cup,
a payment by fire. The day was over
and the dragon rejoiced."

Now let's listen to the Old English fragment once or twice more. The alliteration is relatively subtle, with the consonants and vowels used to connect words and phrases. (The meter is subtler still, and follows more than one pattern.)

See for yourself what the alliteration does. The first stress in the second half of each line connects with one or more stresses in the first half. "aefen" (evening) connects to "earfothliche" (impatiently); "beoryes" (barrow) with "yebolyen" (became angry); "latha" (hateful) and "liye" (flaming); "daey" (day) with "drinc" and "dyre" (drink and precious, as in precious drinking-vessel); "willan" (rejoiced) and "wyrme" (dragon). The meaning of each word is strengthened by the alliterative connections. The barrow seems to constrict as the dragon's anger grows. The golden sun is dimmed, and night has come. Can you feel the dragon's hot joy when at last it bursts free of its lair to pour forth hatred and fire?

I think we can easily find alliterative connections between lines as well: "weard" (keeper) connects with "wyrme" (dragon); "onbad" (waited) with "othat" (until); and "forgyldan" (pay for) with "latha" and "liye". These alliterative connections are outside of the technical alliterative conventions, but in each case the meaning is strengthened. Even the conventional, but superficially odd, link between day, cup, and precious is meaningful; the golden treasure is compared to the sun (indeed, as the vessel has been taken from the hoard, so has the sun been taken from the sky).

The alliteration makes a kind of web, as words, phrases, and lines are all linked together. We're not used to seeing so many interlocking connections in writing, and so it certainly takes effort to appreciate the raw beauty of the poem. The translation alone is relatively bland. (Of course not, for what poem can be translated? Is that not what it means to be a poem?) So to enjoy Beowulf, you must play a little game. Flip back and forth between the translation and original language. The translation will give you the sense, but the beauty is in the original.

Are there hobbits in Heorot Hall?

The thief might seem to be a minor character in Beowulf, perhaps just a plot device to bring forth the ire of the worm. Unfortunately, though, the manuscript is damaged at the very place where the thief is described. So who actually was this thief? And if we knew, would we interpret the poem differently?

One eminent scholar was certainly curious. I refer to Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, whose curiosity about the thief led, in no small way, to the wonderful story we know as The Hobbit. Yes, this is Bilbo Baggins' story (the ellipses indicate lost text):

"Not deliberately, for his own desires,
did he injure the dragon, break into his hoard,
but in desperate trouble this slave of nobles,
I know not who, fled angry blows,
homeless, roofless, entered that place,
a sin-troubled man. When he looked inside,
fear and terror rose in that guest.
But the frightful shape ....
... when fear overcame him
he seized the treasure-cup."

Or is it this?

"He stole from the shadow of the doorway, across the floor to the nearest edge of the mounds of treasure. Above him the sleeping dragon lay, a dire menace even in his sleep. He grasped a great two-handled cup, as heavy as he could carry, and cast one fearful eye upwards... but the dragon did not wake--not yet--but shifted into other dreams of greed and violence..."

Indeed, this is the central moment of The Hobbit (if we recognize that the sequels have not yet come). The similarities go beyond mere tropes. The Hobbit is a deliberate re-working of Beowulf, all told from the view of the unnamed thief who is so elusive in the original manuscript.

And realizing that, perhaps you will try one day to read The Hobbit out loud. Watch for the alliteration; when you hear it, you will catch echoes of a grand tale once told a thousand years before!

Farewell...

Well, that's enough for today - and quite enough, too, I can see from the expression on your face! Still, I thank you for your time. Oh, don't worry about the toll; your attention was plenty reward. May the road that carries you always be interesting. And... if I could ask one favour... should you happen to run into my old friend, Billy Goat, could you ask him to return my @#%# book if he doesn't like it?!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Quick Take - Upcoming Fantasy Movies

I went to see Stardust a week back. I had read the book previously, and thought it was very good. The movie didn't live up to it, but I still enjoyed a couple of hours of lighthearted humor. I took notice of the upcoming fantasy movies, which follow the current trend of fantasy book-to-movie adaptations.

My thoughts:

Beowulf

Mister Troll lent me his copy of Beowulf a few years back. I did not enjoy it as much as he did, mostly because I found it difficult to read. It is an epic poem, originally written in Old English, and even though I was reading a translated version, reading it was like wading through muck.

But I have to say: Holy crap this movie looks bad. I like Neal Gaiman's work and all (he's co-directing it), but the movie trailer alone highlights three big problems:

1. Mrs. Gruff turned to me during the trailer and said, "Hey, it looks like a video game." She was right. It looked like a video game, and a bad one at that, including funky lighting, bad computer-generated monsters, and bad acting.

2. It deviates from the original story quite a bit. Grendel's mom trying to seduce Beowulf? What? Sure, the original tale wasn't that great either, mostly consisting of a big guy beating up some nasty monsters that attack his home. However, throwing in a weird seduction scene with a monster-lady Angelina Jolie does not really improve it (well, some might disagree).

3. It looks so cliched, so done already. The trailer features a zoom-out shot of big ugly Grendel (a nasty monster) screeching as it attacks. Haven't we seen this exact shot in five or six bad movies already? Come on, you can do better than that.

The Dark is Rising

This looked a little more promising to me. But then again, The Dark is Rising was one of my favorite series growing up. Some of the books in it were not that strong, but that's just Susan Cooper succumbing to Rule Number 1.

I also could not help but noticing Ian McShane playing a major role in the cast. McShane plays one of the major roles in the HBO series, Deadwood, which my father (Grandpa Gruff) hooked me on about a month ago. McShane's character, Al Swearengen, is one of the nastiest people imaginable, and McShane plays him to perfection. And somehow he manages to make you sympathize with the character (sometimes).

Spiderwick Chronicles

I'm really only including this movie for completeness. I have not read the books, but maybe I should check them out. The movie looks fun, filled with lots of creepy exploration and fantasy action.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Deep Reading Part 3 - Details, Patterns, Tropes

This post is part three of the series, Get More from your Book - Secrets to Deep Reading. In part two, I discussed the basic techniques of deep reading. Now that you know those techniques, I will describe some common details and patterns that authors put in their stories. Keep an eye out for these.

Symbols and Symbolism

If an object show up more than once in a story, it could be a symbol. As a symbol, it represents something other than itself. Maybe it represents a relationship, an aspect of a character's personality, or a theme.

Some symbols: The One Ring from J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the Claw of the Conciliator from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, the Turkish Delight in the Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Events and descriptions can be symbolic as well. A character that destroys a significant symbol gains his freedom from whatever is symbolized. A character dressed in white clothes or with a pale face can be interpreted as innocent, soon to die, or already dead.

Tricky Authors - Language Ambiguity and Word Choice

By their nature, authors like to play with language. An author may use ambiguous words or metaphors that an unsuspecting reader will interpret one way by default. However, if the reader challenges his assumptions, he can discover a completely different interpretation.

One way you can be tipped off to an ambiguous reading is by looking at word choices an author makes. Be alert for figures of speech and descriptions that are all similar in meaning, that direct you a certain way if you read them as more than just fancy language. Also be aware of words and phrases that can have a double meaning. Lastly, look for words that stand out as odd or unusual.

Gene Wolfe epitomizes this type of behavior, especially in his short stories. An example can be found in his short story (published online), Unrequited Love. As you read the story, you may be tempted to envision the narrator to be like yourself, and you may make assumptions about him. This is a perfectly fine reading of the story. However, if you look at some of the clues the narrator drops throughout the story, some odd word choices, and his concerns, you may discover that the narrator is not the person you thought he was.

The Significance of Names

Names often have special significance in complex stories. What does the name mean? Does it contain a word, or is it similar to another word? A name can be used as a clue to a character's nature.

The short story linked above provides another good example. Wolfe was very deliberate in his naming - note that all the robotic characters have names that contain "Rob." Now note the name Julianne. At one point in the story she even explains the origin of her name, saying her father "is a cook." Looking at the name in this context, we find the common cooking term, "julienne," which is a technique for slicing vegetables. Now, I believe Wolfe provided these details as clues to the reader. Otherwise, there is no reason for them. What could he possibly be saying about this character? I'll leave that for you to figure out.

Useful tools for deciphering names: dictionary, foreign language references, religious references, mythology references, google, wikipedia

References, References, References!

References can be found in many other places - magical objects, mystical locations, and heroic deeds can all recall a related element of another story. Authors like to read, so it is not uncommon to see references to other pieces of fiction, especially fiction that the author liked! Of course, there can also be religious, mythical, and folklore references.

Another type of reference is the "Meta Reference." This happens when the author self-references the work you are reading in some way. When the author does it explicitly, it's a form of "Breaking the Fourth Wall," where the characters act like they know they are in a book and sometimes talk to the reader directly. However, the author can also be sneaky about it. His character can impart wisdom that can be intended for another character, but also for the reader, without throwing it in your face. If a character says, "Look closely!" to his little friend, then it could be a clue that he's also talking to you, the reader.

Parallelism - The Determiner of Fate

Parallelism happens when any two pieces of a story go through the same progression. I'll focus on characters, because I think character parallelism is the most obvious type. If two characters suffer the same or very similar circumstances, i.e. their circumstances parallel each other, the author has tied them together for some reason. If he resolves an issue for one, but moves the other character out of view, then chances are that he has implied that the missing character has received the same fate.

Also, parallelism can be used to imply different outcomes for two parallel characters. If all but one characteristic is the same between the parallel characters, the author may be making a point about that one different thing. If two parallel characters receive different fates when there is no big differentiator, then the author is probably trying to make a statement about luck or chance.

Tropes (What's a Trope?)

A trope is a symbol, theme, or device that is often repeated in a type of literature. Gutsy starship captains are a trope of Science Fiction. Enchanted forests are a trope of Fantasy.

Tropes are interesting because they define a genre. Now, you may think that tropes are evil things, like cliches. Not always. A good author can turn a trope on its head, or spin it in such a way as to make it unique and interesting. Recognizing a trope and seeing how an author made it unique is a fun way to analyze a story.

A trope of Sci-Fi and Fantasy that I believe deserves special note is the unreliable narrator. This character shows up sometimes, but you may not have recognized him before now. He tells you his story, but he may not always tell the truth. Or maybe he tells his version of "the truth," which is colored by his unique perspective or incorrect because of a flaw in his memory. You can spot the unreliable narrator by looking for inconsistencies in his story, or by watching for other characters to (sometimes subtly) contradict his story.

Stories in Stories (and Foreshadowing)

We see foreshadowing everywhere, and examples are easy to find. Foreshadowing can be found in speech, descriptions, and actions. There is a particular type of foreshadowing I want to mention, however: stories within the story (or sub-stories).

A sub-story is a book or oral story within the main story. Using symbolism, a sub-story can foreshadow or predict a future event in the story. I like to look at them the same way I look at dreams within a story. Prophetic dreams are a trope in many types of literature, and they are heavily used to foreshadow future events. Sub-stories can do the same thing, but are not as explicit, are sometimes less clear-cut, and are often not as goofy.

There's More!

Of course, there are more patterns you can look for when you read. This list is in no way complete, but it's a start to get you thinking about the book under your nose. Good luck finding them!

Speak Up!

If you have any ideas to add to this list, let me know in the comments! Also, if you read the Gene Wolfe story mentioned above (Unrequited Love), let me know what you figured out, what confused you, what you have almost-but-not-quite figured out, etc. I'd be happy to discuss it with you!

Coming Up!

There's one more installment to this series: Part 4: Community Spirt. In it, I'll discuss issues between authors and their reading communities. I'll also list and link to some discussion communities for Sci-Fi and Fantasy literature.

Friday, August 31, 2007

So you want to be a wizard?

Recommended: So You Want to Be a Wizard? (Diane Duane)

I'd been meaning to re-read this one for a long time; part of my blogging quietness has been due to my catching up on this book, and its seven (!) sequels. (One thing I like about young adult fiction: it's short. I'm really tired of 800 page fantasy novel tomes. No, I'm not looking at you, Ms. Rowling. But if the shoe fits...)

Mrs. Troll of course made fun of me as I was working through the Young Wizard series. "Secretly you want to be a wizard, don't you," she laughs. Ahem. I think that would be true of anyone who enjoyed fantasy literature at a young age.

And in the end, I cannot deny that the title alone sells me on this book. But So You Want to Be a Wizard is certainly very fun. Nita and Kit are slightly geeky, young teenagers who get picked on by the other kids. Naturally they each stumble across a book titled.... well, you know the title.

The two become fast friends, but both are devoted to the higher calling of wizardry: to take the fight to the Lone Power whenever and wherever possible. I love that the real "hook" in the plot is Nina's stubborn desire to get her favourite pen back. But getting her pen back means making friends with an errant white hole (one of the weirder characters in the series!), and surviving an alternate, malevolent Manhattan filled with packs of bloodthirsty cabs and murderous elevators.

The book is fun, kind of crazy (is it fantasy? Is it science-fiction? Who can tell?), good young adult literature. It deals with the difficulties of the early teenage years (how important a pen could seem to the youth!), but doesn't venture too far into the serious. So You Want to Be a Wizard is followed by a string of other books: (currently) Deep Wizardry, High Wizardry, A Wizard Abroad, The Wizard's Dilemma, A Wizard Alone, Wizard's Holiday, and Wizards at War.

Phew. Some are better than others (Rule Number One: no author is ceaselessly brilliant.), but frankly I found the last novel to be worth the wait. If you enjoy So You Want to Be a Wizard, I think you'll enjoy the rest, too.

Ms. Duane has written quite a few novels. In addition to the Young Wizards series, there are a few parallel novels regarding the feline wizards (I would predict these are not for me), the Middle Kingdoms sequence (about which I know nothing), a slew of StarTrek novels, and StarDrive novels (science-fiction of some sort? can anyone enlighten me here?).

So You Want to Be a Wizard is a light read - fun and charming. I'm sure you'll find it very memorable.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Deep Reading Part 2 - Techniques of Deep Reading

This post is part two of the series, Get More from your Book - Secrets to Deep Reading. In this post, I describe some basic techniques for deep reading. These techniques will help you get more out of the books you read, including themes and ideas you may have missed otherwise.

The techniques:

Pay Attention, Read for Detail

If you skim, you will miss details. If you watch TV while you're reading, you will miss details. Details are the building blocks for foreshadowing, and evidence for hidden plot elements and ideas. If you miss the details, it will be much harder to discover these extras that the author has hidden for you. It's like rushing past all of the Easter Eggs hidden in Aunt Jeannie's yard just to get to Easter Dinner. Sure, all that food is wonderful, but why not pick up some extra Easter candy on your way?

The second part of this technique is to mentally note odd or deliberate details, or details that are not necessary. If a detail stands out, there's probably a reason for it. If a character makes an odd, seemingly throwaway comment, there's probably a reason for it. File them away in the back of your head, because one might be the thread that helps you unravel the hidden puzzle of the story.

Think about the Story

While you are on the bus or standing in line at the grocery store, think about the story you have read. Play around with the clues and strange outliers, and try to puzzle out what they could mean. Try to think about themes, motivations, similarities, and inconsistencies. If there are any unsolved little mysteries, try to puzzle out their answers.

For instance, say that you know that a character is an orphan. Perhaps the author provided clues to the identities of the character's parents. Or if the character met a mysterious stranger on the road late one night, maybe a throwaway comment by another character near the beginning of the book can shed some light on that encounter.

In Part Three, I will go into further detail about what you should look for when you are standing around, thinking.

Talk about the Story

This is the single most important tool for getting more out of your book. Talk to others who have read the book. Point out the clues and the weird things you have noticed, and any questions or theories you have. Others will have noticed clues that you have missed, and vice versa. You may also be able to support or discount theories that others have developed with the clues you have noticed. By working together, you pool your knowledge, and get new perspectives. And besides, it's fun to chat about a good book!

When I was in high school, I would often discuss stories with my cousins Chad and Todd. The books we read were not very sophisticated, and included such series as the Death Gate Cycle, the Dragonlance books, the Wheel of Time, and the Dark Elf books (this is what happens when you find new fantasy at hobby shops and KMart). Since we were often in the middle of a series, waiting for the next book to come out, we would discuss our theories about what was going to happen in the future books. This was a type of what I'm talking about. However, there was less to discover through a deep reading in these books than in some others.

Reread

When you know the end, and you have advance knowledge about details later in the book, your mind is primed to catch details in the beginning that the author dropped for you. You may have picked up on some of these things on the first read through, but chances are good that you still missed some. Foreshadowing will become obvious, and you will come to better understand the characters, their knowledge, and their motivations.

Coming Up!

In part three of this series, I will discuss some specific details, patterns, and clues you should watch for.

Part 3: Details, Patterns, Tropes
Part 4: Community Spirit

Monday, August 27, 2007

Get More from Your Book - Secrets to Deep Reading

What is Deep Reading?

Deep reading is a collection of techniques that help you see themes, patterns, and secrets hidden in the novels you read.

But isn't that the same thing as literary analysis?

It's similar to literary analysis, but literary analysis tends to focus on one theme or subject. Also, literary analysis tends to have a goal, to make an argument about a piece of writing. Deep reading is done for yourself, not for a class, and not to make a point. By reading deeply, you explore a book and discover its secrets.

Deep reading can help you perform literary analysis, but it is not literary analysis.

Why Do I Care?

Deep reading can turn a book into a brain puzzle like sudoku, a cryptic crossword, or an anagram puzzle. It's like a mystery novel, except discovering the mystery is a mystery itself, or there are multiple hidden mysteries, all in one book. Some of these are placed by the author intentionally, and some are not.

Figuring out these mysteries is rewarding, and that's why we do it. It's that flash of insight, that, "Oh, I get it!" moment you get when Perry Mason or Adrian Monk says to the cops, "Here's how it happened." Or even better, it's when you cleverly figure out what happened *before* Mr. Mason or Mr. Monk.

Except there is no Perry Mason or Adrian Monk. You are the detective.

Is it Difficult?

Deep reading is no more difficult than reading, and anyone can do it. The worse that can happen is that you read a book just like you normally do. However, if you use the techniques of deep reading, you will begin to notice more details, make more connections, and discover more of the secrets hidden in the books you read, whether the author intended you to find them or not.

Coming Up!

This article is the first in a series. Coming up in the next few days:

Part 2: The Techniques of Deep Reading
Part 3: Details, Patterns, Tropes
Part 4: Community Spirit

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Five Writers Who Ruined My Life

Five writers ruined my life.

I am a writer. I write to communicate, to inspire, and to satisfy my own ego. I want to write great literature. Heck, I want to write the best literature. And I want you to read it. But I have a problem.

My Problem
Yesterday, I developed a case of writer's block, which is unusual for me. I had just finished reading The Midnight Disease, by Alice Flaherty, in which she discusses writer's block and its causes. Later, when I sat down to my computer, I found that I could no longer write. I had writer's block.

I immediately realized that my problem was caused by five people.

The Five Writers

Alice Flaherty
She made me aware of the problem. In her book, The Midnight Disease, she examines the brain for the neurological reasons behind creativity, the drive to write, and writer's block. She also looks at external factors for creative blocks, and notes that reading something great, such as an author that you admire, can be a source of block. This revelation planted the seed in my head for my own block.

J. R. R. Tolkien
He drew me into the world of literature. As a child, the forbidding, ominous black book, graven with the red ring and eye of Sauron, sat on the big kids' shelf just out of reach. I got it anyway, and like the One Ring remade Frodo, that book remade me into a fantasy reader, and eventually a writer. He built an amazing world, and that's something I envy. If my worlds could only share the life and music of his, then maybe I could write on a level with him. However, compared to his worlds, mine seem mundane and derivative.

Gene Wolfe
Wolfe is the worst of them. As I walk by my bookshelf, I notice his books most, for he is the pinnacle of art and style I can never reach. His writing is layered, meaningful, full of wonderful ideas, and infused with marvelous style. My plots feel flat and uninteresting in comparison. When I try to mimic him, they become obscure and awkward. His talent is that of a wizard, and I have yet to fully understand his magic.

Frederick Douglass
He is a pinnacle of personal development, of true heroism, and a great writer to boot. The nonfiction I have written pales in comparison to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It all seems so trite and easy compared to his life. He faced such immense challenges, and rose so high. And his depiction of his life was so brilliant. I look at his powerful, beautiful book, and how it affected me, and I am awed.

Myself
I am ultimately to blame for not being a better writer. I am lazy, I am unfocused, I procrastinate. If I cannot write, how can I satisfy my drive to communicate, and to move others? I can claim writer's block, and complain about the others, but I share the blame.

I Need to Fix This
The desire to write is strong, but apathy is insidious. Life provides convenient escapes. I can avoid writing by cleaning house, or trolling my favorite internet news sites. And right when I want to write, right when inspiration hits, that is when I'm in the car, at work, buying groceries, or about to fall asleep. And the inspiration isn't enough. I get it, and I take it back to my computer, and it says to me, "Okay this is a good idea. Now execute." And then I think, "Will this be half as good as what's out there, or even a tenth as good as what Wolfe or Douglass or Tolkien would have written?" I need to kill the inevitable, "No" in my brain, stab it, cut it out. But how?

I Must Move Forward
Write, even if I raise an abomination from my words. Ignore the "No." Push. Throw it to the dogs so they can read it, and then lament later, after they have all died from the poison in my words. Their criticisms may bite, but without the risk, what is there? I can't just give up....

Flaws in My Vision
Looking back, I am too pessimistic. Reading those writers first inspired me. If I step back, I see that they still inspire me. I should revere them, and I do.... But that doesn't break the block.

Conclusion is a Wrecking Ball
The wrecking ball is the answer - I remember it from The Midnight Disease.... I will tear down Tolkien, Wolfe, and Douglass, and demolish their works. With a literary iron fist, I will punch through their fragile, flawed walls of plot, crushing archetypical bricks and word-mortar. I will sift through the rubble of their chapters, vivisect their characters, and tear their sentences with my teeth. Then, I will see that they are not perfect, that they are not the be-all-end-alls that I thought they were, and that there is reason still to write. And then I can stop saying that they ruined my life.

Even if that vision is just a delusion, its salve is worth being delusional. Even if I invent flaws in their work that don't actually exist, I can still smash one barrier to my writing. And when I do, I will ride that wrecking ball to freedom.


Then I will thank Alice for telling me how to cure my writer's block.

Then I will thank John for inspiring me to read and write.

Then I will thank Gene for convincing me to aspire to his amazing skill.

Then I will thank Fred for showing me that it's not just your story, but how you write about it that makes it great.

And then I will thank myself for finally doing it, for finally finishing something that someone else will read.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

California Blogging - Harry Potter and the Man from the Future

Well, I'm back from my California vacation. Here are the highlights:

Why do Wizards Depend on Muggles for Anything?

So, I preordered the newest Harry Potter from Amazon.com, and had it shipped to my vacation spot in California. Unfortunately, it arrived two weeks after release day! That didn't bother me, though, because I was reading other things at the time. I found the box it came in entertaining, so I took a picture.

No danger of that!

I also found it humorous that wizards would use muggles to deliver their package! I want my book on time, and I want it delivered by owl! So, I guess it's the muggle post office's fault for the book delay. Rowling's wizard employees should know by now that they can't depend on normal people for anything.

The Great Potter Debate

My sister-in-law got married on our vacation, and I had the pleasure to visit with the groom's two sisters, Sylvia and Deanna, at the rehearsal dinner. Both are very charming women, and I enjoy talking to them when I get the chance. However, I was surprised when they suddenly started arguing at the dinner table. About what? Harry Potter.

I don't know how it started, but I distinctly remember Sylvia saying, "Why do you still read that stuff? Rowling is a terrible writer!"

That got my attention. Deanna replied, "She is not! Will you stop trashing her!? I happen to like her stories."

Sylvia said, "When she learns to write, I'll stop trashing her."

I jumped in. "I don't think that's completely fair," I said. "She's not that bad."

Sylvia said, "Well, she can sometimes write a good plot. But other than that," she shook her head. Sylvia's an English teacher, and she knows her literature.

"Well, there's something to be said for a fun read," I said.

Deanna said, "Yes! If she can get me to read it, then that's an accomplishment." Deanna is a fashion designer, and does not read much.

"Still," Sylvia said to me, "Have you read her first book? Horrible."

"Yes," I said. "And I agree that she's not the best writer in the world. However, I have to give her some credit. She won the Hugo Award, you know."

Sylvia said, "Oh."

I think she thought I didn't really agree with her as much as I said I did, so I tried to clarify. "Now, don't get me wrong. I thought they screwed up royally at the time, but still, it counts for something."

She nodded at this.

"And Harry Potter has good characters, who live in an enchanting world," said Deanna.

"And that's why I like it, too. It doesn't have to be great literature. It's fun to read, and that makes it worthwhile."

Maybe I came off as a diplomat, and maybe I am one. But I think there's a place for fun writing, even if it isn't great literature, or even if the style sometimes makes you cringe. And based on Harry Potter sales, millions of readers agree.

Kung Fu Fighting

Baby Gruff received a kimono from our friends in Mountain View. Their daughter also has one, and when the two babies were garbed in their japanese-styled outfits, they felt compelled to fight, kung-fu style, with accompanying music and all. I didn't understand the urge, but had the presence of mind to take a few pictures (You can clearly see that the babies are recovering from their martial arts injuries in this one). I didn't even think a kimono was an appropriate martial arts uniform.

The Man from the Future

While we were in San Francisco, we saw a time traveler, who was not very sophisticated in the art of disguise. We knew he was from the future, because he was riding a Segway, a device that obviously runs on futuristic technology (was it also his time machine? We'll never know). However, he was riding it around like a madman wearing a cowboy hat and a trench coat, like some sort of combination of Neo from the Matrix and Clint Eastwood. He reminded me of these guys.

Wrapping It Up

So, that was my trip to California. Mountain View, San Francisco, and Sacramento are all wonderful places, with beautiful landscapes, interesting people, and lots of sights to see. The traffic is terrible, the weather (although nice) is kind of boring, and life out there is expensive, but overall the good outweighs the bad for me. I'm really looking forward to my next visit.