Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Our Boot Camp assignment was not unexpected: we had to write a short story based on one of the ideas generated on Monday, to be completed and turned in by 9:00am Thursday morning so that they could make copies and we could start reading by Thursday at lunch. It was presently Tuesday before dinner, but since we had the Q&A session afterwards, those of us hard core enough to stay through the entirety of that had effectively only Wednesday to write the story.
OSC told us, "You will write fast. Probably faster than you've ever written in your life. Some of you won't sleep." I think he followed that up with something like, "But I don't care, because I'm going to sleep just fine," but by that point my mind was already reeling from the immensity of the task before me.
I am a slow writer. I also tend to write long. Of the handful of short stories that I've completed in recent years, I think I've only written one that came in at under 10,000 words (that's about 40 pages, double spaced) or took less than a month to finish. I'm used to doing a little bit every day and having a lot of time to figure out where things are going.
But there is good reason for doing this story-in-a-day marathon. It means that you can't have very much investment in whatever you wrote, not the way you would if you brought in something you had labored over for weeks or months. Everyone is on an even footing. And it guarantees that none of the stories can be too long, which is important since you'll have to read them all by the end of the week. (Although one person, who shall remain nameless, did his best to give us a novel anyway.)
I have very little to say about Wednesday. If this were Boot Camp: The Movie, it would be one of those scenes where you see me at the computer, and then the clock fades from morning to afternoon to evening, the shadows all grow longer, and I look more and more haggard with every shot. I started out enthusiastic, confident in my story, and by dinnertime I had written myself into a corner with no way out. I took a walk after dinner—that's how I do my brainstorming; usually it's walking to or from the bus to work—and half an hour later I was back making progress again.
I did have one bit of adventure that evening. It was getting dark, and it was apparent to me that I was going to be up quite late if I intended to finish this story. Now, the food at the SVU cafeteria isn't much to speak of, and I hadn't exactly filled my plate for any of the meals that day. I knew that I'd be absolutely ravenous before the night was over, and if I wanted any sort of snack I'd have better luck finding it sooner rather than later. I detached myself from the keyboard, checked to make sure my keycard was in the name tag holder around my neck, and set out on a quest for food.
Just my luck that this was when the storm clouds decided to roll in. The wind was picking up but it wasn't really raining yet, so I ran down the hill in search of a vending machine, a convenience shop, anything. There were still people in the little campus cafe, but they had already counted the register and couldn't sell me anything. One of them pointed me to a dorm that should have a vending machine in it. By this point it was sprinkling and the wind was whipping my name tag around my face, but I jogged over to the dorm and wandered its corridors for a few minutes without finding anything. The storm wasn't going to hold off for long; I gave up and set back out for my room.
The rain was a little thicker, the wind a little stronger, and it was entirely dark out now. I was ready to give up on my hope of food and just get back to my writing. As I headed up the hill back to the dorm, I fished in my name tag holder for my keycard.
It wasn't there.
How to describe what I felt at that moment? The horror of it, the cruel impossibility of the locked door that now stood between me and my unfinished story. I knew I hadn't forgotten the keycard. I knew it wasn't in my pockets, though I checked anyway. I knew that somehow, unnoticed by me, the wind had flung my name tag about and dropped the keycard on one of the dark streets of Buena Vista.
That was a low point, to be sure. But it could have been worse. I tracked James down and got the number for campus security, and it didn't take them too long to get me in my room and set me up with a new keycard. And James even spared me some junk food to fuel my last hours of writing.
It was near midnight before I had a rough draft done, and another two hours to read it through and make some minor corrections. Slightly over 6,700 words; 29 pages. I saved it, backed it up in two different places, and went to bed.
Tuesday, 11 August 2009
Day one of the writing class ended with an assignment to do over the course of the evening. We were given five index cards and were to come up with a story idea on each one. Obviously it would only be a brief synopsis, but it should be a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end.
The challenge was in where the story ideas were to come from. Two would come from research (whether at the library or on the internet—this was probably the easiest). Two would come from observation—walking or driving around until we saw something interesting. And one was to come from interviewing a stranger.
Now, I had the advantage (or disadvantage) of knowing that this was coming. I'd read blogs of previous Boot Campers, and I know other workshops do a similar exercise. Even so, this was probably the single most frightening thing about Boot Camp. I have to what? I'm supposed to talk to people? If I liked talking to people, do you think I would be a writer?
We were sent out in pairs, ostensibly so that we could corroborate each other's explanation of what we were doing so we didn't just come across as creepy stalkers, but it was equally effective as accountability so we couldn't just skip the interview and say we did it. I got paired up with James. (In one of those remarkable coincidences that can only happen in real life, James lives in Redmond, not five minutes from where I work. But that's another story.)
James and I ended up at a park. It looked promising—there was a baseball game going on, what looked like a line dance class in the picnic shelter, and plenty of people milling about. Evidently it was the place to be, since the rest of Buena Vista was pretty dead. Of course, the last thing we wanted to do was interrupt someone that was talking to someone else or, you know, actually doing anything. That narrowed our options considerably.
Finally James spotted a woman a ways apart from everyone else, talking on her cell phone. We waited for her to hang up and then accosted her. (In the nicest possible way. Really.) We got a funny look at first, but once we explained what we were about she was more than happy to talk to us—we got the greater portion of her life story over the course of twenty minutes, and then she wanted to know all about the workshop and what we were going to do with the ideas we got from her interview.
Heartened by James' success, I talked to an older looking man that was standing by himself near the parking lot, watching the ball game from afar. He was happy enough to talk, but nowhere near as garrulous as the previous lady. (Note to self: next time find a woman.) He'd clearly had an interesting life—living in the town for forty years, taking his dogs out bear hunting—but we didn't talk to him for very long. No matter; our mission was accomplished.
Well, almost. Actually writing the index cards took longer than I expected. I can come up with generic ideas pretty well, but it's tougher to come up with a beginning and an end and have them fit together in a satisfying way. So that was the first of many nights that I was up well past midnight.
Tuesday—day two—was more writing class. We critiqued several story cards with the full group (including one of mine—I learned that I come up with some pretty cliche ideas, but also got a lot of suggestions of how to circumvent the cliches) and then broke into smaller groups so that everyone could get one of their story ideas discussed. It was at this point that the Boot Campers got our assignment that would carry us through the rest of the week, but I'll get to that in my next post.
The writing class part of things was capped off by a general Q&A session after dinner. OSC generously said that he'd stick around as long as other people were awake and had questions, and I think we were up until about 11:00pm before people finally gave out.
I won't repeat much of what was talked about here, as OSC made a point of saying that he was being more open with that limited audience than he necessarily wanted to be with, say, the whole internet, but I can say that OSC is the most candid, most forthright person that I know. He's also the most opinionated—I can't think of a topic that he failed to have something to say about, unless it was some obscure book or movie that he simply hadn't heard of. We got a lot of insight into the way he writes and the way he lives; and while most of the discussion was lively and fun, there were also somber moments where he gave us a peek at the emotional weights that he bears.
That was it for the writing class. The regular students departed that night or the next morning, but for the Boot Campers the real work had just begun.
Monday, 10 August 2009
At the beginning of Boot Camp I had this half-baked idea that I'd blog about it while I was there. That wasn't going to happen. It lived up to its name, and I had hardly a minute to spare over the entire week that wasn't spent on reading, writing, or talking about reading and writing. Oh, there was eating and sleeping too, but not as much of either as I'd generally prefer. It was an incredible week, and I'm really not ready to transition back into work mode. To that end, I'm going to spend this week blogging an after the fact reaction to my experiences.
The writing class portion of the camp took place on Monday and Tuesday. It was open to anyone; I think just shy of 60 people attended. There was a sense of eager excitement as the start of class approached, people milling about, finding out where other people were from, what types of things they write, and discovering who the crazy and/or lucky people were that were to stick around for the full Boot Camp. And then Orson Scott Card showed up, and we were off.
I'm not going to say much about the material of the class. The bulk of it is covered in his books: Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and in a later post I'll list the things that really stuck out for me. The thing is, even if I was familiar with most of the material, it's a completely different experience getting it in a classroom setting. OSC is an incredible speaker. He has a very ad hoc, conversational style, jumping from topic to topic (or rant to rant) depending on questions from the class. Yet everything is entertaining, informative, and in the end he always brings it back to the topic at hand, like your favorite college professor that would always get drawn off on tangents, and yet somehow taught you more than the most focused stick-in-the-mud academic.
One of the main things we did on the first day was pick apart the Boot Campers' application writing samples. We were asked to submit just the first page of a short story. OSC said that he could have filled Boot Camp two times over this year—he got that many good applications. He looks not so much for "good writing", but for a sense that the author knows what a story is. Because, as he said, that's something that you just can't teach.
Since people tend to be curious about just what it takes to get in, here's mine:
OSC made it exactly one word into my story before he went off on a riff about fantasy character names, what mistakes you can make when naming characters and how readers react when they come to a name that they can't pronounce. (They just think of them as "that 'D' person.") To be fair, though, he can't rag on Deidret too much when he's used a name like Enziquelvinisensee Evelvenin. But he also said that the first line was incredible, one of those lines that most authors just dream of. (Yay!)
The main flaw that everyone pointed out is that point of view is a mess: you can't tell whether this is through Deidret's eyes, or Recai's eyes, or a smattering of each. And they're absolutely right. I'd intended it to be from Deidret's point of view—and you could interpret a statement like "...he found an infant..." as her interpretation of what he was seeing—but since I never took the time to firmly establish whose point of view we were getting, there's no reason a reader would assume that.
The group also pointed out that I made good use of fantasy tropes to signal what genre this story was in, and that I made a clear promise of what the story would be about: the fate of this younger twin. So I'll take the good with the bad.
Sunday, 02 August 2009
I made it! Uncle Orson's Literary Boot Camp starts bright and early tomorrow morning, and I'm ready. True to form, though, Tracy and I couldn't get here without at least one hitch.
Our hitch came Friday evening when Tracy picked me up from work. She was driving our friends Jeff and Katy's car, having just dropped them off at the airport. This would turn out to be a fortunate happenstance. We headed to their place to exchange cars...and, our car wouldn't start. It wouldn't even turn over—it was just dead—although, oddly, the interior lights still came on. Didn't seem like a battery problem (athough my expertise in the area of automobile maintenance is roughly akin to a chipmunk's grasp of quantum mechanics) but we managed to successfully jump it. With Jeff and Katy's car—thanks, Jeff and Katy!
This would all be troubling enough, except that we had to drive to the airport at 3am the next day. Our car would probably work, but did we want to risk it? No. Was it too late to get a shuttle to the airport? Fortunately, no. And good thing, too; on the way home, the car's power kept flicking out for brief moments, and once we'd parked it in our driveway it wouldn't start again. Something to look forward to dealing with when we get home. But for now...
We're on vacation!
Although, and I hate to be the killjoy, but starting a vacation at 3am isn't as much fun as it sounds. Still, it meant that after two flights, a layover in Chicago, and three hours lost to time zones, we still made it to Roanoke with some daylight left.
We stayed the night at the Hotel Roanoke, a rather fancy accomodation that apparently dates back to the 1880's. It's an impressive, Tudor-style building that was originally built by the Norfolk and Western Railway, so it has a nice historic ambiance even though the building itself has obviously been renovated countless times and is thoroughly modern inside. This was all impressive, but I think our favorite part was the chocolate chip cookies (still warm!) that we got upon checking in, and then again when we checked out. Mmm...Doubletree Hotels, you may have earned our business for a lifetime.
Dinner was at the hotel restaurant—another high-class affair. Now, it's worth noting that a fancy restaurant on the east coast is not the same thing as a fancy restaurant on the west coast—or in Seattle, at any rate. Not that I frequent expensive eateries on either end of the country, but I did have a chance to eat at Ray's Boathouse recently—a Seattle establishment that, price-wise, is comparable to Hotel Roanoke's Regency Room (are you sensing a difference already, just from the names?)—and I had no misgivings about walking in there in a plain T-shirt. I couldn't have done that here. (And too bad, too—for travelling, I was wearing my always classy "I feel so much better since I gave up hope" T-shirt that I picked up for free somewhere.)
But it's not just the dress code. In Seattle, they don't set the table with plates ahead of time, only to take them away when you order. (Do they actually put your food on the same plates, I wonder, or were they purely for decoration?) When the maître d' took away the two extra place settings, he made a point of rearranging the centerpieces on the far corner of the table, even to the detail of making sure the salt and pepper shakers were facing us with their decorative sides. And I'm not used to the waiter putting my napkin in my lap for me. (But then, that might just be because I didn't look couth enough to do it for myself.)
The dish of note at the Regency Room was their peanut soup, apparently a long-time house specialty. It was pretty much what it sounds like—it tasted like peanut butter—but that was great for two peanut butter lovers like me and Tracy. It was rich, though; we had to split a bowl.
This morning saw us arranging for a late checkout and getting room service for breakfast. This was splurging for us, but hey, it was our one day of vacation proper!
With a bit of time before we had to get to Boot Camp, we visited Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest plantation and house. Not as well known as Monticello, it was Jefferson's private retreat. It is something of a work in progress at the moment—after going through several owners and a fire, it is now being restored to the way it was when Jefferson built it. I found it interesting that the historical site is not goverment run; it's a private group that owns and is restoring it. I couldn't help but think that if it were a government site the restoration would be done and the whole operation would be a bit more organized. I know, I know, how unconventional to say that things would be better if Uncle Sam were running the show! Don't get me wrong, it seemed like the Friends of Poplar Forest were doing a fine job with the restoration, but as a tourist attraction it left something to be desired. Or maybe it was just our choleric tour guide that rubbed me the wrong way.
Then it was a drive over the Blue Ridge Parkway and we were at Buena Vista, a peaceful little college town nestled amidst the Appalachian Mountains. Tomorrow the writing class starts, which both Tracy and I will be attending. And then the real work starts on Wednesday, when I'll be boot-camping with fourteen other people crazy enough to sign up for a week of non-stop writing and critiquing.
Friday, 12 June 2009
How many of you out there have seen the TV show Wonderfalls? Show of hands. Anybody? How about just heard of it? No?
I'm not really surprised.
I only heard about Wonderfalls in passing, usually in some online discussion about how Fox manages to cancel great shows before they can even get on their feet. Firefly got most of its first season before it saw the axe. Wonderfalls aired four episodes. Fortunately, all thirteen of the show's produced episodes are available on DVD, and so I was able to check them out.
I'll admit, the premise is a tough sell. Twenty-something underachiever Jaye Tyler prefers to put her most apathetic face to the world, but when various animals start talking to her she is compelled to break out of her shell and help people. Oh, and did I mention? These aren't your typical zoo-dwelling animals. Think more the tacky-souvenir-at-a-Niagara-Falls-gift-shop variety.
A typical episode will go like this: Jaye finds herself in an uncomfortable or unusual situation. She's ready to close her eyes and go her own way when the animal of the day speaks up and gives her some enigmatic instruction that only she can hear. One way or another she ends up doing what the animal says, hijinks ensue, and somehow it all works out in some way that no one—least of all Jaye—expects.
Here's the thing: the animals don't matter. Oh, sure, they matter, in the sense that they're what make the show unique, but they don't matter because the show isn't about them. It's about Jaye and the journey that she needs to make. The animals are just there because she'll never take the first step without some impossible external force to pack her bags for her and boot her out the door. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Jaye isn't a very likable person, or at least she tries not to be. The actress who plays her, Caroline Dhavernas, was impeccably cast: she's cute, sure, but she doesn't come across as the classical Hollywood beauty. Her words, her attitude, even her facial expressions—everything is designed to drive people away. And yet it's evident, from the very first episode, that in many ways Jaye is a very broken and lonely soul. And so, despite everything she does, you can't help but love her.
And that's where the appeal of the show is. The plots from episode to episode may be outrageously over the top, ranging from the unlikely to the absurd, but the people and the relationships that grow over the course of the season are very real. The other characters—Jaye's family, dysfunctional in its own loving way, her friend Mahandra, and Eric, her latent love interest—each have a key place in the misadventure that is Jaye's life.
Of course, Wonderfalls isn't a perfect show. A couple episodes just fall flat—but then, that's going to be true of any TV show. It's a comedy, and most of the humor is well executed—none better than Jaye's unparalleled snark—but it has its share of crass jokes too, and I might wince even if I'm laughing at the same time. The characterization of Jaye sets the bar pretty high, and I can't say that the rest of the ensemble ever quite equals it, though they do certainly grow over the course of the season. But overall, in my opinion, the faults are far outweighed by the places where the show shines.
And here's the best part: if you watch the thirteen episodes on the DVDs, you're getting a complete story. Unlike Firefly, which was cut short with numerous plot threads hanging, Wonderfalls ties up into a very satisfying ending. I'm sure it could have done great things with a second season, but if a first is all I get, I can be very happy with just that.
Thursday, 14 May 2009
Man, I love being caught up on Lost.
Yes, like 9.3 million other Americans, I watched the Lost season finale last night. I haven't been watching the show week by week; Tracy and I caught up on the entire season just recently in preparation for the finale. That's the only way I can watch Lost; there are a handful of shows I would say are better, but there is nothing that can compete when it comes to drawing me in and compelling me to watch the next episode. I'm already chomping at the bit for next season.
Like every finale on the show, The Incident provides some great answers, and leaves us with new, even more perplexing questions. I really like the Jacob flashbacks—they add another layer to the mythology of the show and provide a sense that there's a bigger plan underlying all of the crazy coincidences that brought the Losties to the island. Though I will say, I was surprised to learn that Jacob was an actual person. I figured he was a manifestation of the spirit of the island or some such.
I had one spot-on prediction for this episode, which was that it was Locke (well, his body) in the box. I didn't actually expect to be right—after all, they used that as the big surprise last season—but I couldn't imagine what else it would be. It casts a sinister light over everything that came earlier this season. Who—or what—is walking around in Locke's skin? Evidently it's the same being as Jacob's enemy from the teaser. (Until someone gives me a better name, I'll think of him as Esau.) Is he a manifestation of the smoke monster? We've seen the monster take the shape of dead people before.
This season accomplishes something that I never thought would happen: it humanizes Ben. The tables have turned; he is no longer the calculating manipulator, but instead the one being manipulated. The writers have painfully peeled back his inscrutable layers so that I feel like we finally have a glimpse of what really motivates him. Ben is still a despicable person, but he's an incredible character and I can't wait to see what the next season has in store for him.
Which is all to say that I love the present-day events of the finale. As for the adventures of Jack & co. in DHARMA times, I am less than thrilled. The idea of using a nuclear bomb to destroy the site of the Swan just seems so preposterously stupid that I have a hard time imagining what Jack and the others—and the writers—are thinking. First of all, if there's a bunch of pent up energy wouldn't a bomb be more likely to release it than to destroy it? You can't destroy energy, at least not in any physics class that I took. And then, even if it saves their future selves, won't their present selves die in a horrible explosion? What makes them think that they'll somehow wake up in an alternate future? And if it's possible to create a new future, it will still be a future where they killed a bunch of people and buried the island in radioactive waste, even if they won't remember it.
Normally I'd rather argue about large-scale motivations, but I do have to nitpick one detail around the bomb. Faraday says they have to get it as close as possible to the energy. Really? It's a nuclear weapon, for goodness' sake! I think it can join horseshoes and hand grenades as something where "close" is good enough. I'd imagine it would level the better part of the island.
Anyway, the question remains: what did happen at the end, when the bomb apparently went off? I firmly subscribe to the "whatever happened, happened" theory of time travel, so I think it's obvious that what happened was, as the title suggests, the "incident" that we know occured in the already established timeline. The future has not been changed, and the Losties will still crash on the island in 2004. The more interesting question is, what happened to the DHARMA-time Losties that were at the Swan site? Surely they're alive, but I sort of wonder if the incident pushed them back to 2007. I can think of plenty of reasons why this shouldn't happen, but it would open up new narrative possibilities.
Oddly enough, the storyline I'm most interested in seeing resolved is Claire's. Given Kate's determination to rescue her, we can assume she's still alive. (And we never explicitly saw her die; she just inexplicably walked off into the jungle. And then turned up briefly with Christian in Jacob's cabin, which I still don't know what to make of.) Plus we have Desmond's as-yet-unfulfilled prophecy of her leaving the island on a helicopter. And what's up with the whole "raised by another" fate of Aaron?
And so I will wait impatiently for 2010 and the final season. A new season always brings a host of changes, and I wonder what they will be this time. Jacob is apparently dead. We know a war is coming; before it looked to be between Widmore and Ben, but maybe it is between Jacob (or his followers) and whoever his enemy is. I'll just have to trust that the folks behind Lost know what they're doing and are ready to wrap things up in just seventeen more episodes.
Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Yes, I'm still plugging away at the writing thing, though I haven't made mention of it on the blog lately. Actually, I haven't made mention of anything much on the blog lately, largely because I'm still plugging away at the writing thing.
I have four stories I'm actively submitting to magazines at the moment. Three of them are currently out, and one just came back with a too-familiar form rejection. (Curse Fantasy & Science Fiction! They're so eager to reject anything I send them. This time it came back in six days. Six! It's like they had the rejection letter waiting to go the moment my manuscript showed up!)
In the Shadow of the Virgin Dawn is about a man trying to stake his claim as a pioneer on a newly settled planet. It was the first story I've ever submitted to a professional market, and thus the story I've collected the most rejections for. Still, it earned an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest, and I'm still hopeful about it.
Orphans of Merdibah is another sci fi story that takes place in a dismal city on a blighted, backwater planet. A parentless boy, nearly outgrowing his place at his orphanage, has his life turned upside down by the orphanage's newest residents and the secrets they bring with them.
Lady of the Season is a novellete length piece with the air of a fairy tale; it follows the four seasons, embodied in four sisters, whose jealousies and rivalries cause havok in a colonial New England town.
In Flesh Divided is about a mother who is forced to struggle with her concience and her faith in the face of a religion that demands the death of one of her newborn twins.
My bigger writing news is that I applied for Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp. I'll find out in June if I got in, and if so, I get to look forward to a week of getting my writing butt kicked later in the summer.
Thursday, 23 April 2009
Oops, somehow I managed to write this review and forgot to publish it on my blog. I'm about to start reading Pillar's sequel, World Without End, so I figured it was time to get this out there.
The Pillars of the Earth first came to my attention in the form of a board game. In an age where commercial tie-ins inevitably repackage the latest Hollywood dross, I was intrigued by something that was based instead on a well respected book. I had heard of Pillars before, of course—the widely praised epic by suspense writer turned historian Ken Follett—but since I don't generally follow Oprah's recommendations I had never paid it much mind. But now it was on my radar (and for me "radar" is roughly synonymous with "bookshelf"), so when a friend told me that she was reading it and enjoying it, that was enough to get me to haul it off the shelf and break it open.
You probably already know the gist of it. Building a cathedral in twelfth century England. Feuding families and conflicts that span generations. Love. Betrayal. War. Lots of pages.
I think the premise—the building of the cathedral—is fantastic, and wherever else he may have faltered, Follett certainly delivers on that. It is clear that he is knowledgeable and passionate about the architecture and techniques used to build these buildings, the most massive and impressive edifices of their time period. He uses the process of building as the structure of the novel, and we follow his host of characters from the motivations and politics behind the inception of the cathedral to its very completion, over the course of some forty years.
Ken Follett is a good writer, but, unfortunately, I don't think he fits in the top tier of writers that could have truly pulled off a novel as ambitious as this. It's entertaining all the way through, powerful in places, but, like cracks that form in the ceiling of a poorly constructed cathedral, the flaws in parts of it mar the beauty of the whole.
One thing that I found jarring was the crudeness with which sex is described in the book; or, more pointedly, the scenes of rape that are portrayed. I understand that those events are part of the brutality of the time period, not to mention vital the plot, but it is more than a little unsettling to experience them through the lustful, violent eyes of the perpetrator.
There is little subtly in the writing—people don't seem to have layers of motive; rather, their thoughts and intentions are spelled out so deliberately that one might imagine the readers are as dull-witted as some of the characters. And Follett has a tendency to repeat things, character traits or past events, as if we haven't just read about them. Clarity in writing is good, but not to the point that it condescends to the reader. As well, there is an impulsive streak that runs common in all of the characters, where sometimes they just have to do something even if it runs contrary to their personality or all common sense. To me it felt that the characters were being forced to serve the plot.
Behind all this, there is a greater, structural problem. The simplest structure that a beginning writer learns is the try/fail cycle. You give your character a goal and have them try to achieve it through some means. They fail, try again, fail, until finally they succeed. End of story. This is great for ten pages, but a novel that brushes up against the thousand page mark needs considerably more depth.
Now, The Pillars of the Earth doesn't follow quite this formula, but what it does is just as linear. The goal is clear from the beginning: build a cathedral. And the narrative, by and large, follows a predictable pattern: throw an obstacle in the way of their plans, and then overcome said obstacle. Repeat. Every catastrophe is solved by the end of the chapter. But you can't take that much satisfaction in it, because you soon realize that there's just going to be a new obstacle in the next chapter.
Perhaps I am too harsh. There is a lot going on, and if some things feel repetitive in the abstract, Follett has done a great job of making each obstacle unique and, more importantly, follow logically from what has come before and from the circumstances of the wider world. Everything takes place against the backdrop of a civil war, and the politics and maneuvering of the various contenders for the throne are fascinating. And besides the cathedral, there are some compelling story lines that are woven across the novel, and Follett does a good job of bringing them all together.
The Pillars of the Earth does achieve the epic scope that it strives for. You'll be in awe of the cathedral, but more than that you'll be touched by the many lives that surround it: kings and earls, monks and bishops, peasants and merchants and craftsmen and all those that help it to come into being.
Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Why? Because I was bored at work, I guess.
1) I hate memes. I don't take internet quizzes, I don't do chain letters, and and don't buy into pyramid schemes. In grade school I was never one to "pass it on". I won't tag twenty-five people, and I never forward an email to twenty-five friends. If I were a cave man, I would not etch my drawings onto twenty-five cave walls. You get the idea.
2) I'm not sure I even have twenty-five friends. That's probably not true if I were to count, but I'm far to lazy to do that. I guess my bar for friendship is pretty high.
3) I will proofread this at least twice before anyone else reads it. I'm a stickler for grammar, spelling, and formatting. A little something dies inside me whenever people don't capitalize correctly.
4) I did not, contrary to popular belief, start swing dancing to meet girls. However, I did meet my wife that way, so I guess I can't deny that it had that effect.
5) When I was young, I had a babysitter named Maria who would speak Spanish to me. My parents attribute my talent in Spanish to this--I took it throughout junior high and high school, and was always near the top of the class. Now I hardly remember it at all.
6) I fancy myself a writer, and have been trying to get my short stories published. So far I have four rejection letters in my file cabinet. I'd feel much more successful as a writer if I had a lot more rejections.
7) Tracy and I don't have cable and just about never watch "live" TV. We do see a lot of shows on DVD or online. The result of this is that commercials are endlessly fascinating to us.
8) Wikipedia is possibly my favorite web site. Whenever I have a question about life, the universe, or anything, I Wikipedia it. Recently I learned about the roman emperor Hadrian, the properties of an RLC circuit, the con jobs pulled by Victor Lustig, and the proper way to do a sit-up.
9) When I was in grade school I invented a prank which I dubbed "the fool note". While at recess I would "accidently" drop a folded up piece of paper, apparently without noticing. My intended victim would pick it up and unfold it to find my gleeful message: "You are a FOOL!" Fool notes became pretty popular around my school. For about a week.
10) I wonder if anyone at work would find a fool note funny.
11) Eating in front of the TV is my guilty pleasure. Whenever Tracy is away and I have to eat dinner alone, I always take it to the TV tray and pop in the next episode of whatever I'm watching.
12) As a kid I actually had quite an arsenal of tricks up my sleeve. Some of my favorites were paper bullets (slingshotted from a rubber band strung between your fingers) or what we called chinese bombs, made from popsicle sticks. (For a picture of the latter, see this entry on Wikipedia.)
13) Orson Scott Card is my favorite author. I read basically everything he writes, like his weekly review column (even when it's reviewing stuff local to North Carolina that I'll probably never see) or his columns for an LDS website (despite the fact that I am not LDS).
14) I've never really had a nickname. I was on a soccer team where one guy would call me "Mike" (I guess as short for "Mikula"?) but that never really worked for me. Sometimes people call me Steve, but I'm pretty sure that's because they just don't remember my name.
15) One semester in college my friends and I decided to take the salt and pepper shakers from the cafeteria. (They were the plastic, disposable kind that you might find at a fast food place.) We took them from our table every day, and by the end of the semester I had a huge pyramid of them constructed on my desk. Then we decided to return them all. Our plan was to reconstruct the pyramid on the cafeteria table, but too many people were staring, so we chickened out, dumped them all, and ran.
16) When I have to list my allergies on a form, I write, "Plants, animals, dust." I'm just glad I'm not allergic to foods--I don't think I'd handle not being able to eat certain things. My allergies used to be much worse; when I was younger I would get allergy shots: six shots every week. Needless to say, I've been broken of any fear of needles I might have had.
17) They don't. (See #10.)
18) I was pulled over for drunk driving once. I wasn't actually drunk--there was a lot of frost on my windshield, and when I hit a well lit street it became completely opaque and I couldn't see anything. I was trying to find a safe place to pull over, driving slowly and possibly having trouble staying in the center of the lane (what with the not seeing and all), and I guess the cop came to the obvious conclusion.
19) In high school, I asked one girl to go to the prom as a favor to the girl I really wanted to ask. I must have had "nice guy" stamped on my forehead.
20) In an effort to improve my vocabulary, I try to look up words that I don't know when I'm reading books. I used to jot them down, but it was inconvenient to get the pen and paper out all the time. Now I have those little Post-it tabs to mark the page. I will admit that the number of little tabs sticking out of the book does affect my opinion of writer.
21) I enjoy cooking and I like to consider myself an adventurous eater, but I will only try new recipes if they come from America's Test Kitchen.
22) In my mind, there is a competition between me and the neighbors about who will bring in the trash cans first after the garbage man has emptied them. Sometimes it won't happen until the weekend, but as long as we're in first, I consider it a win. Desipite this, I'm not particularly motivated to do it. In fact, Tracy is usually the one that ends up bringing them in. Doesn't matter--still a win for my team!
23) I have a bit of a compulsion when it comes to board games--if I'm interested in one, I read all about it: reviews, discussions, strategy. Then I trounce people the first time we play it and no one wants to play it with me again.
24) I recently watched "Done the Impossible", a documentary about the fandom of the short-lived "Firefly" TV show. It was disturbing what lengths people have gone to to evangelize the show, with a fervor that is usually reserved for religion. And yet, I've realized that I personally probably do a better job proselytizing "Firefly" than I do my own faith.
25) I am a compulsive list-maker. I have lists of things to do, lists of books to read, list of books I've read, lists of movies to watch, lists of gifts to give, lists of games to play, lists of restaraunts to try, lists of stuff I like, lists of ideas for stories. Now I have another list.
Thursday, 08 January 2009
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Eifelheim is the strangest science fiction novel I've ever read. Not strange because of the wild ideas or unusual happenings that it contains—those are typical enough—but for the very human, almost mundane reality that it depicts. Michael Flynn's novel reads more like an in depth historical than anything else. The greater part of it takes place during a year in the life of a fourteenth century German village.
And the aliens that get stranded in the woods nearby.
But it doesn't feel like a man-meets-alien sort of story. Flynn was clearly meticulous in his research, and his tale steeps the reader in the science and society and religion of the medieval world in which it is set. The writing takes some getting used to, with prose that is both dense and rich, yet sometimes distracting with its self-satisfied witticisms. It immerses you in another culture and language, demanding that the reader keep up but making little accommodation to that end, which results in an uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding experience.
The book actually contains two parallel stories: the fourteenth century thread, which follows pastor Dietrich in his experiences with the Krenk (as he dubs the aliens), and the modern day thread, in which the couple Tom Schwoerin and Sharon Nagy uncover the mysteries of the medieval town now known as Eifelheim. If the book has a flaw I think this disparity is it, for the historical tale far overshadows the present one in all its hope and tragedy. The Tom and Sharon sections serve as commentary on the story of the past, and add some tension by giving us clues of what will happen without filling in the how or why. They do lay the way for a clever discovery and a sound resolution, but, ultimately, their journey feels flat to me. From a comment in Flynn's acknowledgements I gather that the "Now" portions are based on a previous novella, and that was the basis for the historical story. I'm sure he realized in writing the novel that he had something much more powerful in Dietrich's story; I think he would have done well to cut loose the "Now" part altogether and focus on the other.
But that is a minor quibble; after all, if I read the book again I can always skip those sections. And there is much to admire in Eifelheim. For instance, the aliens that Flynn has created.
Actually, it is arguable just what part of the story is really more alien: the creatures that have arrived from another world, or the strange beliefs of the characters that call Earth home. The Krenk have a much better understanding of the natural world than Dietrich does; things like microphones and computers and germs are entirely novel to the pastor, and half the fun is trying to decipher what the aliens are talking about from the perspective of one with a much more primitive world view. Flynn cheats a little bit here, making Dietrich progressive and enamored with "modern" technology—today he would be the first one checking his email on a smartphone; in his day he was fascinated by the mechanical possibilities of the waterwheel—and so it is not so much a stretch for him to see the Krenk as rational beings from another world instead of demons.
But in the end Eifelheim is not about aliens but about people—conflicted Dietrich, the fervent and pious Joachim, all the primitive but sincere villagers, Herr Manfred their lord; and we learn that the Krenk, like Hans and Gschert and the Kratzer, are very much people in their own foreign way. It is infused with religion; not in a proselytizing way, nor condemning, but showing it as it was: an integral part of people's lives. And so Dietrich tries to teach the Krenk about God, even as others are certain they are spawn of the devil. All this takes place in the shadow of the pest, the Black Death, which Flynn makes vivid and horrid and terrifyingly imminent as it ravages Europe and draws inexorably closer to Eifelheim.
Needless to say, this is no lighthearted fluff book. It is desperately bleak in places. But it also offers something profound: people, human and otherwise, working for good in the face of impossible circumstances. In other words, it offers hope.
"...and she engineered a collision steered by a hand-eye protege..."
- Moxy Fruvous, "Horseshoes"
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