26 August, 2015

The Last Question by Isaac Asimov

Read this short story for free online here, or hear Isaac Asimov read it to you here on youtube.

1. This is a nine page series of seven flash fiction episodes that are repeated cyclical events. Each is different enough to stay interesting and the whole is short enough to not get repetitively boring. This formulaic, episodic repetition is well done and each episode gives merely a glimpse of the surrounding context. But each glimpse is a meaningful, important one, packed with ideas of future human evolution that allows the story to expand in the reader's imagination outside of the words on the page.

2. Like in "Nightfall", Asimov starts with the familiar, but then walks off through stages into theoretical post-matter humans and finally to the fantastic realization of a creative god. But this end is still tinged with familiarity from Biblical creation. This is a large chunk of time and evolutionary change to bite off in one short story, or seven flash-fictions, but Asimov pulls it off through this structure. It's courageous of Asimov to take a nine page short story and further fragment it into seven connected shorter stories over this much time and change. That he was successful clearly shows his immense skill as a storyteller. It's astoundingly well crafted throughout.

3. Because I think this is so well constructed, I'm going to list all seven episodes and the scene, plot, and revelation about future humanity. One: familiar humans are confined to their own solar system when two computer techs get drunk on a night-watch. Two: a human family emigrating to another star in the Milky Way arrives at their destination planet. Three: humans can now harness sun power and they have almost overpopulated the Milky Way, while two people try to assemble a political report to a committee. Four: humans are still tied down to matter via bodies in immortal stasis, but their consciousnesses roam the almost overpopulated universe free of their body, as two explorers seeking newness only for their own pleasure run into each other and converse philosophically. Five: Man is now a unified consciousness, floating outside of the bodies in stasis, still unable to solve the repeating ultimate question, and realizing it as an imminent whole for the first time. Six: Man's minds fuse with the computer, transfer their consciousnesses as the galaxies end, in stasis bodies die off of heat-death. Seven: the computer starts the process all over again after solving the question. The episodes are given variety through their uniqueness, but theme and connection through the repeated question and answer. This is great structure, both communicating the inevitability of that first drunken bet, and seeing it through to the end.

4. The writing is okay, again. Tight, explanatory narrative only—which he is skillful at here. The writing's directness helps the whole stay focused appropriately. I think that first line is good, especially in relation to the story to come. Overall there is nothing great, nothing terrible. But really, what is possible in flash-fiction other than efficiency and maybe one witty thought? Well here he has three witty thoughts spread across seven episodes, one of which is repeated in six episodes, and that's not bad. The characters, as in most flash fiction, are necessarily two dimensional to keep everything so tightly focused.

5. It might be a plot hole that humanity is a single mind in episode five, but then multiple again in six.

6. I think there are three themes: that humanity doesn't know the side effects of what it creates, that humanity never focuses its efforts on something until it's too late, and that history is cyclical. Here, the perpetually self-improving computer eventually allows people to focus solely on personal pleasure while the computer's improvement seems to pass out of the understanding of the humans in the story; then it unexpectedly restarts all of universal history, giving humans another cycle. Humanity meanwhile, for all its physical changes, doesn't really change that much mentally and is still eminently capable of ignoring the onrushing train. The third theme is created directly from the story structure, the repetition of the question and answer, and the computer's action and words at the end.

7. The lack of tangential discourse, the cyclical repetition, and the two dimensional characters allow the short story to stay incredibly focused and tight. But melded to that is information about human development that answers just enough questions to give the story import: some of the necessities for these large changes are briefly and logically explained as overpopulation. The more fantastic changes are simply explained as facts—and they're familiar to science fiction, so they're not too big of imagination stretchers. But by exploring them through these varied episodes—all short and direct enough to stay engaging—they are shot through with uniqueness enough to make the whole story memorable and believably familiar.

25 August, 2015

Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

This story is available here via .pdf and here to read online.

1. The theme here comes directly from the plot: namely, a wonder at the stars that have and must change humanity. He is also postulating that stars are an important frontier for humans—they're literally hanging over our heads, a constant goal. This theme is shown through the plot much more than through the words of the characters: the newsman's reaction to closing the blinds, the cult acolyte's words, and Aton's closing monologue are the only three examples that I recall of the words supporting the theme. Even the omniscient narrator says nothing. The plot communicates the idea all but alone. But the sublimity of empty space and darkness and stars serves to humble at least one of the characters, which adds a wrinkle to this main theme.

2. I think there is a major plot hole: the planet has six suns and only one is eclipsed, therefore the other parts the planet would still be in light. Why would the entire culture fall if only one city is plunged into darkness?

3. The setup, pacing, and flow of information is perfect. Every explanation for every action is used by Asimov to establish another part of the world that he is building. For instance, of course their eyes cannot grow accustomed to darkness: they evolved on a planet of perpetual day time. This detail of the eyes builds logically from Asimov deeply examining the premise. Rather than an intro info dump, he begins with familiars—a skeptic newsman confronting a scientist on the verge of a great discovery—then reveals the context and builds the world with every action that proceeds through the novel. He approaches an interesting premise focused, starting with familiars, then building logically to a fantastic ending. It's consistent and the story is crafted extremely well. It's so simple and effective and interesting how every revelation is hung on a plot-hook or a conversation—but mostly on the plot actions. It's all tight and believable: the world the actions that conversations are tightly focused perfectly for a short story.

4. The writing is communicative but unexciting. Aton's fragmented ending monologue is probably the best writing of Asimov's I have yet come across, but nothing else excites or disappoints.

5. I still think the weakness of Asimov is his characters—they're not really complex enough and humanity is the focus, not humans. However, it is a short story, and this helps it stay focused. But since this is a little longer of a short story, perhaps more character depth could've been pulled off. Though he is using an ensemble cast so it probably wouldn't work.

24 August, 2015

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

For Morgan.

1. The construction at the start is quite good. A long, two chapter intro to the novel and world feels stable three straight narrative. This stability helps to reinforce the stability of the world described. However, chapter three starts to crazily reel between points of view in different locations, and ramps up the tension through this. By the time that chapter seven comes around to compare 20th century western culture to the described world, the reader has had enough time to get used to that described world and understand the comparisons. It is a fine line to draw between boring the reader and giving them enough time to get used the ideas explained. I think Huxley nailed it.

2. The release of tension, John throwing soma out the window, is a bit of a letdown. I understand that some act is necessary to collide the controller and John, and that the controller would try and cut off any of this type of behavior before it got out of hand, but even with all the punching, it seems a little unlike John. I think he would understand the physical differences between classes and try and change some betas or Alpha minuses. His attempts to change some deltas seems stupid and hopeless. None of the rest of the novel communicated John as stupid to me.

3. This letdown is especially disappointing as the rest of the novel makes such sense. I've already mentioned my admiration for the beginning and it's pacing, but the rest works too: the trip to the preservation not only shows more of the world outside the cities, but gives the reader time to adjust to new environment through the shown lessening of city culture as the characters progress away from the city; the conversation with the controller is interesting, illuminating, and punctuated by enough actions to keep it moving nicely; John's exile is fascinating and further reiterates the differences between the city and him; and the ending is tragic and appropriate for both the story and John's goal of affecting society. It all fits so well except for that one part with the punching and the soma. The lead up to that part, with Linda's death, is well done. John's rash, useless outburst makes some sense, but it doesn't quite seem to fit John.

4. The whole novel is so tight. Bernard's friend Helmholtz becomes an important part of the plot after seeming to merely illuminate Bernard initially. The video of savages whipping themselves comes back at the end to profoundly impact John's actions. Even the personal helicopters, which at first appear to be little more than window dressing, are integral to the breaking of John's solitude. The examples go on and on. Huxley examines every part of the world shown and told and allows each to impact the plot and characters in meaningful ways. This tight production is all encompassing. I think it might be a little too tight—only the discussion of God is allowed a bit of breathing space—but it helps keep the book focused.

5. The ending is perfect: John is comfortable as an equal or an inferior, but the minute he thinks himself superior, or is told that he is by the controller and Lenina's obsession, he goes back to his comfortable, solitary conflict with nature. And when the city culture intrudes again, telling him by their interest that he is caricatured, not a human, the disparity forces actions upon him that he regrets in kills himself over. In this way he reintroduces tragedy into the culture, just like he wanted, in a single act that denies the culture any ability to ignore him because he chooses the time of their greatest interest to act. He uses their curiosity and consumption—of the movie, media, and helicopters—against them.

6. I thought that the sex was overdone for what it added to the story and world. I got the point that he was trying to make early on and did not need it hammered home again and again. This characteristic shows why I believe that the novel is heavy handed. The constant sex and soma and reminding the reader of the differences between the classes makes it seem like Huxley doesn't trust the reader to get it, so he simply hammers it home over and over.

7. The writing was fine. It's efficient. Nothing stood out as either good or bad. It communicated the plot and ideas well, but the novel relies on those more than the writing. In this way, the writing is matched to Huxley's capabilities: it gets out of the way and lets the plot roll.

8. I think the theme is that stability leads to stagnation, not progress. The basic premise is that progress is an inherent drive in humanity, and the only way to rid us of it is to transfer it to consumption and sexuality. He takes Ford and Freud and pushes them to utopian extremes, then shows what they lack through John, condemning them through contrast with the reader's sympathy and understanding of John.

23 August, 2015

73rd World Science Fiction Convention: Worldcon 2015: Sasquan in Spokane, Washington

Panel 1:
The Future of Short Fiction: Online Magazines Today

1. This panel was interesting, but more from a business perspective. Since I don't find business informative to my writing process, there's not much I can say here about this panel. The only take away is that the science fiction magazine is still alive and well, it's just online now.

2. My reading list from this panel:
Lightspeed Magazine, which won a Hugo later that evening.
Clarkesworld Magazine
Strange Horizons Magazine

Panel 2:
The New Space Opera

1. This panel was packed. Standing room only, and very little of that. The first argument was that space opera never fell out of production. The authors assembled believe there is not an inherent difference between old space opera and new space opera. Though much space opera fell out of popularity after the space operas of the 1930s and forties were deemed not literary enough, there were still authors writing good space opera and bridging the gap between then and now. Iain M Banks was a major bridge, and all the authors agreed.

2. Space opera was typically defined as exploring human emotions appropriate for opera, the story and writing serving to foster a sense of wonder, a large physical scale, a broad time period, and adventure and drama. I rather liked this definition that they gave, I think it's useful and informative. It fits my conception, and expands it as well: I hadn't previously thought about the emotional content of many space operas.

3. A theme of some of the comments was how to get away from the fascist or regal galactic empire so commonly a backdrop in space opera stories. Jokingly, one of the authors suggested the next new thing in science fiction would be "committee punk". But Ann Leckie quickly pointed out what they all agreed to: that she does not enjoy overly complex political committees in her day-to-day life, so why does she want to read about them? The conclusion was simply that we need a backdrop more honest to humans and life, but not boring or dreary. We have complex democracies, and yet the space opera is still caught in the feudalism of the past. At this point, a fan pointed out that from a long-term perspective on the history of humanity, really feudalism is king and has been the major governmental force for well over 90% of history. So, the problem I was left with was how to create a system that is honest to the complexities of human politics, but not bogged down in essentially reading minutes of committees.

4. There was a brief discussion about hard science fiction space operas. With Charlie Stross on the panel, that discussion was on point. He stated that he never finished his earlier trilogy because he had realized that there were inherent inconsistencies in the science behind his story. He walked away from it embarrassed, despite both volumes being nominated for Hugos. However, he acknowledged that he is attempting to use science that humans believe is possible in his new planned space opera trilogy. He intends to stay as scientifically rigorous as possible, to avoid the inherent contradictions of his last series. He made no value judgment between his scientifically-rigorous work and the work of others—he actually seemed to support other authors treating future science as if it was space magic. He felt that it was honest for somebody to include faster than light travel in their space opera, but exclude a pseudoscientific attempt at explaining it. We simply don't know how it would work if it could, therefore if you want to use it use it, but don't try to explain it.

5. In a lot of ways, the space opera comes out of the horse opera. This is most apparent in the series Firefly and Star Wars—especially A New Hope, which steals some shots from John Ford's The Searchers. A lot of the early space opera simply switched the horse to a spaceship, the six shooter to a blaster, the ten-gallon hat to a space helmet, and Main Street to Planet OK Corral. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but to me it seems lazy because it shows authors not really exploring the potential effects of their set pieces. For instance, I think a large part of the characterization of some of the major characters in science fiction comes from their interaction with their environment: whether that's being predisposed to keeping to themselves because they spend a lot of time on a very small spaceship, or Paul really learning who he is through experiencing and understanding the desert of Dune, or Elijah's life in the titular Caves of Steel creating an outlook in him that is negatively insular and xenophobic. These are just three examples, but there are hundreds of other examples of authors exploring, thinking about, and theorizing about their set pieces, their window dressing, to the point where it isn't a set piece or window dressing anymore: it's an integral part of the story, driving philosophy and ideas, and it has effects. For Charlie Stross, this means being as honest with science as he can. For Frank Herbert this meant allowing the desert to inhabit his characters, to change them deeply, rather then just having it be a desert planet because deserts are cool.

6. My reading list from this panel:
"Anything published by Iain M Banks will be worth your time and interest." Charlie Stross said this and much of the crowd and panel agreed. It seems the consensus is to read Excession, Inversions, Use of Weapons, and The Player of Games at least.
Charles Stross' own books Saturn's Children and Neptune's Blood (These are the ones that contradicted themselves), and his forthcoming novel, where he claims he doesn't mention singularity once.
Ann Leckie's Ancillary Blank series, which was already on my list.
Doc Smith (EE Smith) for the pulp foundation of the Space Opera.

Panel 3:
Demigods, Chosen Ones, and Rightful Heirs: Can Progress, Merit, and Citizens Ever Matter in Fantasy?

1. This was one of the worst moderating jobs I've ever seen. The moderator actively discouraged much of the more interesting questions and discussions because she couldn't allow others time to think—the silence of the room seemed to drive her mad and she kept trying to move things forward. She missed so much. All this after admitting at the beginning, "My day job is writing award winning historical fiction, like The Pirate's Secret Baby, available soon from such and such a press. So I don't know much about this topic and I'm going to let the other four really take the show." Then she proceeded to ask every question, time every answer, and allow only the minimum of discussion, as well as inadvertently insult two of the four panelists, shut down panelist comments, go off on tangents from statements its obvious that she didn't understand, and generally be in the way of the panel. That said, the four others on the panel had some fascinating ideas and opinions. I only wished that I could watch them all talk, rather than this sort of speed dating panel thing the moderator attempted. These notes will be short because the authors weren't allowed to really explore any of the ideas that they brought up.

2. One interesting idea was that humans are never existing alone, they're typically in a group. Therefore, perhaps narratives of a chosen group would be more honest to humanity then narratives of a chosen one. Because everybody works together, there is some complexity to a group dynamic that just isn't there in the typical chosen one narrative. Because everybody could work to their strengths, this could allow a wide diversity within the group. This seems much more based on reality than the chosen one.

3. Another interesting idea was that ensemble casts were a simple way to get away from the chosen one narrative. Different points of view would also effectively entice the writer to humanize some villains, demonize some heroes. This would effectively get away from a messiah, or the typical story ending of the hero taking back the throne that is theirs.

4. Katherine Addison was up for a Hugo that evening. Though she didn't win it, she had great comments: she finds it difficult to get away from the chosen one narrative, because it is so prevalent. It seems that in her mind, and the mind of most fans, the setting of fantasy is synonymous with a messianic narrative. This is fascinating, but was entirely unexplored. She ended with saying, "Think about what you read, think about what you write." And boy did that ever need to be said now.

5. Annea Lea stated that she was prickly with any rules in fantasy that something has to be done a specific way. She advocated variety in everything: story arcs, characters, settings, writing styles, etc. It was awfully exciting and persuasive because she argued that fantasy today does not embrace the variety and reality of humanity or history. By being so focused on the chosen one narrative, fantasy is digging its own grave.

6. Of course the elephant in the room that nobody talked about was A Song of Ice and Fire: instead of the chosen one, this is the chosen none; he has variety through an ensemble cast and different points of view; and it's revitalizing and repopularizing fantasy.

7. My reading list from this panel:
Katherine Addison's Goblin Emperor
Setsu Uzume's anthology Happily Never After
Mary Soon Lee's short stories & poetry

Panel 4:
Seiun Awards and Science Fiction in Japan

1. This was sad: at a time when the science fiction community is spending too much time spilling pixels over issues like merit, diversity, and how to judge a book, the international presentation of the Seiun Awards were attended by 21 people, including myself. I expected a ton of people in there simply to support the diversity inherent in Science Fiction. But no, it was a large, empty conference room capable of housing probably 300. Yet there were only 21 of us. The discussion was great though!

2. The Japanese government is currently studying science fiction, anime, and mecha by giving grants to the universities to establish departments to historically collect, collate, and document, as well as study these through the scholarly tactics of comparative literature, cultural anthropology, and human psychology. This has been going on for some time now. This scholarly research is prioritized and highly-regarded in Japan. They didn't really have time to talk about much of the actual research findings, but they did mention that where the western world calls the cyberpunk of today post-cyberpunk, lumping everything together, the Japanese scholars see at least three distinct generations of cyberpunk, and some argue for four.

3. There was the general agreement, as with all cyberpunk of the last 20 years, that we're living in the future that cyberpunk predicted for us. The example given was left-behind construction projects and buildings in the video game Second Life. These were simply left-behind because the players moved on to other games. Because of the textures, they still look brand new and sparkling and clean, but there is no habitation, no age, no pattern of memory worn into the textures, and their abandonment is completely strange.

3. A characteristic of cyberpunk today appears to be a focus on tangibility. But more important than that, is this sense of cyberpunk pushing itself out of its comfort zone. "It's one thing to write your strengths, but it never pays to get too comfortable in your writing," said 2015 Seiun award winner and founder of cyberpunk Pat Cadigan. And of the three stories that were discussed from this year's Seiun awards, at least two showed this. In brief, cyberpunk can be loosely classified by about five characteristics: a street smart anti-hero, an earthbound or near earth culture, a depressing dystopian future run by corporations, rain slicked neon-lit streets, and body modifications with invasive interfaces with the internet. Pat Cadigan's winning story, "The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi", takes place on Jupiter, breaking the earth-bounding typical of cyberpunk. Taiyo Fujii's Gene Mapper explores a happy future earth, instead of the dark, depressed dystopia typical to cyber punk. This shows cyber punk growing and embracing new tactics, techniques, and variety. How exciting!

5. My reading list from this panel:
Pat Cadigan's "The Girl-Thing Who Went Out to Sushi", which was already on my list.
Taiyo Fujii's Gene Mapper
Andy Weir's The Martian
More cyberpunk from today.

Hugo Awards Ceremony:
Watch them here, they're uploaded online. We were all laughing and in tears at points, there were some very funny people on stage. The winners are listed here. George RR Martin said, "I wish the internet did not have this horrible effect on the discourse. It tends to political toxicity and hardened battle lines."

Wired's post-award breakdown and recap of the kerfuffle.

18 August, 2015

The Wind Among the Reeds by WB Yeats

This book is available for free from Project Gutenberg.

For Garrett

1. From the first poem, three characteristics came out: repetition, Irishness, and a wonderful rhyming lyricism. It's lyric in the senses of expressing emotions from the poet's point of view, being song-like in rhymes and stress patterns, unrestrained enthusiasm, and the typical shortness of the poems—the longest in this collection is 44 lines. Once the Irish pronunciations are guessed at, this is simply fun to read and sounds great aloud. It's Irishness comes from these pronunciations and the subject matter being Irish mythical heroes. In one sense, I feel like I would need to read those stories to fully understand the poem's implications. But, I can easily understand the universal emotions of hope and confidence described. I get something out of the poem without needing any pre-knowledge or too many suppositions. This applicability is phenomenal. But the Irishness adds another layer available for study, another depth to plumb.
The Hosting of the Sidhe

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-bare;
Caolte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are a-gleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.

The host is rushing 'twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caolte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.
2. The rhyme and repetition are the real stars of this collection. In this first poem they stand out strongly, but what exactly are they doing?
a. Rather than a villanelle's literal repetition, this is formulaic repetition of sentence structures, words, and sounds: "our ___ are ___," instead of repeating "our cheeks are pale" three times. It's a repetition of formula: conjoined repetition instead of identical. At the end, "hope and deed" are repeated words placed in a new structure to keep the poem both focused and moving along in a new direction, towards a new reflection. This broad variety of ways things repeat and echo keeps the repetition fresh, keeps any one tactic from taking over too much.
b. Repetition and rhyme support each other. Their combination leads to this lyric quality that makes the poems memorable. They also add depth to the discussed emotion through offering different ideas and reflections in distinctly similar sounding ways. The similar sounds link two ideas together, allowing one subject to pull the weight of two clauses concisely. The internal rhyme of the possessive "our" and the verb "are" adds another layer, another dimension to this repetition and rhyme mastery. All of the internal rhyme helps soften the impact of the end-rhymes. The end-rhymes feel like just another rhyme, rather than the rhymes that the rest of the poem is built around.
c. "The Host of the Air" and "Cap and Bells" do end-rhyming well. I typically do not like end-rhymes, but I like this. I was surprised by that. The end-rhyming follow the pattern ABCB. This scheme does not get too repetitive or annoying because the lines are long enough for it to never feel over-the-top or forced, and because it seems appropriate for a rhyme-poor language like English to attempt less end-rhymes. In some of the other poems, end-rhyming is intermittent—a couplet here there, but not every line. Rather than trying to end rhyme each line, which often feels forced, this feels natural and engaging because of its rarity. Rather than forcing the poem into end-rhymes, they come only when they help the poem, only to help the poem.
d. Yeats enjambs more rarely than I expected. Typically two to three lines per poem are enjambed, but I guess I expected to find more. In the short "The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love," enjambment allows a broad thought to be contained within a small poem. As it often does, enjambment helps here to soften the impact of the end-rhymes by allowing the internal rhymes to be more apparent, making the end-rhymes less conspicuous and merely some of the many rhymes present. His enjambment is strong and helps his poems, so I wish he did it more.

3. The titles are typically strong. For instance, "The Host of the Air" pulls triple weight as a title. First, it describes the birds and drakes that take to the air when O'Driscoll arrives. Second, it describes the noise that issues from a host of people at the party. Third, and most importantly, it calls to mind the spiritual aspect of the heavenly hosts, reinforced by the Lord's supper of bread and wine at the party. And perhaps, in some strange sense, O'Driscoll is the host of all three of these that exist in his perception, his mind, and his heart. I found many of the titles in this collection had a similar deep relation with the poem they titled.

4. In "The Fish," all lines are nine syllables except one. It is an eight line poem, and the sixth has eight syllables. This effectively provides a natural pause of one syllable. This billboards the end coming. This keeps the rest of the poem from being too repetitive, too formulaic, and too sing-songy. This variety resonates with me. It makes me suspect that he is using the poem, rather than allowing himself to be used by it. What I mean is that instead of forcing the issue of nine syllables, or fitting that end-rhyme in at all costs, he chooses what's best for the poem.
He Tells of the Perfect Beauty

O cloud-pale eyelids, dream-dimmed eyes
The poets labouring all their days
To build a perfect beauty in rhyme
Are overthrown by a woman's gaze
And by the unlabouring brood of the skies:
And therefore my heart will bow, when dew
Is dropping sleep, until God burn time,
Before the unlabouring stars and you.
5. The word choices are a strange mix of mostly everyday words, some specific Irish terms that I had to look up, and a few archaic terms like tillage, tufted, and dappled, among others. [Of course, these may not have been archaic in 1899.] The choice to largely rely on standard words keeps the poems understandable. But he uses these common words in exciting ways: internal rhyme, formulaic repetition, surprising nouns used as adjectives, and new words created from linking two known words with a dash—dream-heavy, out-worn, dove-grey, dew-cold, wise-tongued, flower-like, dream-awakened, et cetera. This latter example concisely communicates an adjective. His language isn't about finding the perfect obscure word, but about using the words well. Further, he uses grammar instead of being used by it: he uses an extra "and" or two or three instead of commas, or he dashes two words together in a surprising combination and context that isn't quite grammatically correct, but communicates.
"He Mourns for the Change That Has Come upon Him and His Beloved, and Longs for the End of the World,"

Do you not hear me calling, white deer with no horns!
I have been changed to a hound with one red ear;
I have been in the Path of Stones and the Wood of Thorns,
For somebody hid hatred and hope and desire and fear
Under my feet that they follow you night and day.
A man with a hazel wand came without sound;
He changed me suddenly; I was looking another way;
And now my calling is but the calling of a hound;
And Time and Birth and Change are hurrying by.
I would that the boar without bristles had come from the West
And had rooted the sun and moon and stars out of the sky
And lay in the darkness, grunting, and turning to his rest.
6. Though many poems deal on a high emotional plane, Yeats keeps from drowning the reader in unrelenting sentimentality in two ways. First, he varies the subject matter throughout the collection. Listing seven consecutive poems and their topics shows this variety: a frustrated fisherman, a reflection on sin and natural forces, a call to take wonder in natural phenomenon, a mythical parable, an old woman's complaints, a young woman's love, and the lover lamenting his loss of love. Second, he uses extended metaphor and allegory to make a surface reading of the poem about a different topic altogether. In "He Mourns for the Change That Has Come upon Him and His Beloved, and Longs for the End of the World," the next poem after the seven poem topics listed above, Yeats still talks about love, but through a metaphorical narrative of a hound who has been tamed and laments his lost relationship with nature and prey. This tactic effectively allows Yeats to incessantly talk about love and death without annoying the reader by expecting them to superhumanly persist in keyed-up-sentimentality. He talks about topics in parable and myth instead of directly. Then, when he does talk about it directly, it is not already annoying, but almost refreshing because of the contrast.

7. Is there a theme to the collection? Perhaps humans interfacing with the worlds they exist in, but that's too general to be useful. Let me think this through a little further:
a. Throughout the collection certain phrases and topics are repeated: lovers, dreams, art like music and poetry and song and dance, the spiritual and physical hosts of the air, the sublime beauty of nature, and Irish myths. These flavors are shot through the entire collection.
b. But they are never unrelated to the reader. They either relate through the poet's perspective, or through the ruminations and revelations of the poet, the evoked emotions. For instance, the valley full of lovers is a weird image. What exactly is it? This is potentially quite off-putting. Yeats first explains what "valley full of lovers" means physically, through the perspective of the poet: "I dreamed that I stood in a valley, and amid sighs, / For happy lovers passed two by two where I stood." Second, he evokes the emotions of longing, "And I dreamed my lost love came stealthily out of the wood / With her cloud-pale eyelids falling on dream-dimmed eyes," wanting some time alone with one's lover, "I cried in my dream 'O women bid the young men lay / 'Their heads on your knees, and drown their eyes with your hair," as well as wanting others to also be happy and in love forever, "'Or remembering hers they will find no other face fair / 'Till all the valleys of the world have been withered away.'" These are all emotions that are relatable to the reader. This relation keeps the repeated phrases and topics grounded in humanity and legible to me, even when he discusses Irish myths that are new to me.
c. Going through this exercise, I realize the difficulty of nailing down a narrow, specific, overarching theme for this many-topiced collection. That difficulty is not bad though: the variously-topiced poems always relate to me, so I don't need it to have an overarching theme.
d. But because of the repeated phrases and topics, it feels like there is one. In discussing this collection and question with Garrett, we discussed some of the themes throughout the book and what Yeats seems to focus on. We discussed the way he relates those themes to his human audience. Though this discussion I came to believe that the theme is allowing the supernatural to be, accepting that it exists, and finding our place in it, within the hierarchy of it. This fits his calls to observe the sublimity of nature, the repeated discussion of the hosts of the air, the lowest sedge reed being a reflection of that hierarchy and hence worthy of praise and reflection (see poem quoted below), as well as the prioritization and relative importance of lovers and dreams and myths and arts. This works for me as the theme. The book may not be very tightly focused on that theme, but it certainly doesn't need to be.
He Hears the Cry of the Sedge

I wander by the edge
Of this desolate lake
Where wind cries in the sedge
Until the axle break
That keeps the stars in their round
And hands hurl in the deep
The banners of East and West
And the girdle of light is unbound,
Your breast will not lie by the breast
Of your beloved in sleep.
8. To list the poems I most enjoyed, which I typically do, would require listing every one. Even in the ones whose sounding I don't appreciate as much as others, like "The Fish", I find something that I can learn. I think my most favorite three were probably "The Hosting of the Sidhe", "Into the Twilight", and "He Mourns for the Change That Has Come upon Him and His Beloved, and Longs for the End of the World". Those three, along with "He Tells of the Perfect Beauty," are probably my favorites. Actually, those four with "The Blessed" are surely my— Well, those five and "The Fiddler of Dooney" are definitely— Wait, those six and "The Hosts of the Air", which really crystallizes the themes this collection ruminates on, are my favorite seven. I'll stop there. Every poem in here is good. Most are great. Why haven't I read this earlier? This is one of the best collections of poetry I have read. It's up there in my top ten. I learned a lot from Yeats' work here. I initially had only heard Yeats' greatest hits and wasn't too interested in the rest of his stuff, but this makes me need to read everything he ever wrote. This still sounds fresh and cutting edge today. Some of this reaction might be because he is doing things I attempt to do poetically—this is right up my alley.

17 August, 2015

Incarnadine by Mary Szybist

For Zac.

1. I most liked the poems on pages: 3, 5, 10, 15, 19, 20, 24, 30, 31, 38, 39, 42, 45, 48, 54, 58, 61, and 64. Out a 42 poems, I enjoyed 18 of them. I enjoyed three or four more so than the others, depending on my mood. This is a fine collection. Some of the poems I didn't enjoy had a line or phrase or three that I also liked.

2. The ones I didn't like as much often attempted to combine three or more ideas together, and ended up feeling muddled or too diverse—like the ideas didn't quite come together the way the poet wanted them too. Still, I think it's a fine instinct: they are fresh in their rejection of the typical poetry tactic of concise rumination on a single subject. But I think these most often fail because they attempt too much with too few words. A couple of combining phrases could've brought these ideas together like some for better poems did.

3. Her strongest poems often collide two ideas or events that seem initially unrelated, but from whose simultaneity are drawn conclusions that do relate well. Like in "Notes on a 39-year-old-body," which pulls together a description of aging ovaries and the progression towards becoming a lady. From their collision she draws out a conclusion that coming to terms with aging, folly, and social roles is not necessarily a betrayal of self, but can be a dangerous or freeing erasure of sensation. And in sparse, found language, I think it works.

4. Her sounds are often wonderful, with a rolling, irregular rhyme scheme that lets almost no vowel be forgotten without a partner or two. These various internal rhymes and half rhymes punctuate her irregular forms to provide legibility, pacing, and a fulfillment of the other partners. For instance, in "Annunciation (from the grass beneath them)", five lines in the middle really stuck out to me:
even the shadows her chin made
never touched but reached just passed
the crushed mint, the clover clustered between us
how cool would you say it was
still cool from the clouds
Her poetry often relies on these rhymes—two or three quick repetitions of vowel sound interwoven with the end of the last set of rhymes and the beginning of the next. It works for me.

5. The book relies upon Biblical metaphors and imagery, but not in an overpowering way. In "An Update on Mary," I get the sense that she and these poems exist without a theological purpose, but use theology and Biblical stories as a reference point on which life is reflected, to which life is compared, by which life is cyclical. Biblical imagery is the right way to say it, I think. It's decidedly not proselytizing, but uses the Bible as myth to inform and exemplify life.

6. I think the theme is a coming to terms, a search for understanding and a way to exist individually within the complex mythologies, ceremonies, and spiritualities of life. When she views the repetition of pigeons in "To Many Pigeons to Count and One Dove," their similarity obscures their individuality and actions initially, but she bores of that observation and finds her mind turning to the one dove and her own lover. In "Yet not Consumed, the burning bush encourages her "to turn what I am / into I am," or, to find her true self outside of the relations, interests, jobs that we allowed to define ourselves. She senses self in spirituality. It's really quite interesting, this theme meditated upon Biblical imagery.

7. Some poems rely too much on the poet is a character. Not because this is inherently a bad tactic—Brother Ali and Louise Gluck do this quite well—but because not enough is understood about the poet to allow these hinted at judgments of hers to be legible. To use the most extreme example in the book, she isn't a breeder, but reflects a couple of times on a woman throwing her children off of a bridge. What I am supposed to draw from this contrast? She seems emphatically a non-breeder, but to the point of identifying with this woman? Does she desire the "angel of abortion"? Probably not, as I can't quite imagine this empathetic persona of hers approving these children dying. But my point it it isn't entirely clear, the question lingers, and I get the sense that either I'm reading with a mind too open, or she didn't resolve this thread, among others. These lingering doubts make me feel that the inclusion of herself as a character wasn't as well planned, thought out, or executed as the Biblical imagery was. It feels like she uses herself simply because others are doing it and it's cool right now, not because it's adding anything to her work specifically.

8. That said, much of her is explained—especially in the fantastic "Update on Mary": "When people say 'Mary,' Mary still thinks Holy Virgin! Holy Heavenly Mother! But Mary knows she is not any of those things." The explanation of these characteristics is strong, but they seem to lack relation to some of the failed attempts at using the poet as character.

9. Her lists are strong. The list of the angels in "Invitation" is surprisingly unusual: abortion, prostitution, earthquakes, et cetera. But also in "To Many Pigeons to Count and One Dove," where the list catalogs activities of the pigeons through the chronological observation and realizations of the poet.

10. Some poems are idea poems. I'm not quite sure what I mean, or how to say it. Some poems show a succession of ideas placed consecutively not necessarily following logical paths. "Update on Mary" is a great example: it's simply a prose listing of actions, thoughts, and characteristics of Mary that creates an idea of her through compiling a number of revealing ideas and anecdotes. "Entrances and Exits" relies upon description of various entrances and exits to convey a sense of the fragility of life and how mystery is inextricably tied up in it—it's a strong idea and the poem conveys it, but it wasn't one that I enjoyed because the language was a little too fractured for my tastes. It's almost that these idea poems are thought experiments, poetic progressions of ideas, attempts at communicating revelation. They're like a mood piece or a theme poem, but based around different interactions with an idea. They're compilations of ideas, but not quite list poems—more like the compilation of themes and ideas in Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. It's an interesting idea, but I think it needs to be sharply focused and the parts related better to each other in order to work more often in such small spaces. In a larger space I think it could've worked more easily.

11. Her work feels less reliant upon concise form and wording, and more on a holistic compilation of seemingly disperate parts. This feels fresh but also doesn't always work. Sometimes it's tied together nicely, sometimes one part fails to interest or be legible, and sometimes it just feels meandering, confused, and long winded. But the contrasts are strong—through poems like the short, concise, and sparse "Notes on a 39 year old body", the longer works have a foil that does not fail to impart importance and reflection. This variety is well done and well paced within the collection. It shows a breadth of skill in the poet to be able to switch between longer and shorter works so effortlessly

16 August, 2015

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

For Lu.

1. I am amazed by the structure of this novel: like a pulp novel, something happens in each of the 45 chapters. In the more introspective portions, that something may simply be a revelation or realization unique to the chapter. This effectively moves the story along and helps provide structure and legibility to Marlow's lengthy speech. The short chapters provide pauses throughout this section, allowing the reader a place to reflect and fit the chapter's revelation into the whole hazy portrait of Jim. The first portion of the book—chapters 1 through 4—the narrator narrates concerning Jim's first failure on the training ship, and the start of the Patna affair. This section is driven by facts and plot. The large middle portion—chapters 5 through 35—is Marlow's speech. This portion is introspective, ruminating on Jim and this era of western history. The final section—chapters 36 through 45—give the end of Jim's life as straight narrative through the letters of Marlow. I marvel at this three part structure. By loading most or all of the rumination into the middle section, the plot and facts of the last third of the book just fly by—the contrast between the slow second part and the action third part is why the third feels like it flies—but without losing the importance of the ruminations. For example, when Brown and Jim are talking across the creek, in chapter 41, Brown unknowingly touches on Jim's Patna case. Marlow's letter does not speculate on the effect this had on Jim, but because of the earlier ruminations in the middle part, it is clear here that Jim consciously tries to take the high road in an effort to further separate himself from his past and show he lives up to the world outside Patusan, fits in with the club, has become a better person. This reveals the second part casting its shadow on the pure action the third. Conrad uses this tripartite structure to inform the writing, and I think the rewards are great for the reader: the third part is wonderfully exciting. Interestingly, this structure is echoed in Starship Troopers: which opens with a bug raid, has a lengthy, introspective middle portion, then closes with another bug raid.

2. Jim is a pulp adventure hero in his own mind, but he fails three times and, well, three strikes and you're out. He has ego, dreams, and a keen sense of trying to find the decisive moment where greatness can be made. But, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, he is a product of his culture, a byproduct perhaps, a side effect. He is the appearance of confidence, duty, and that all-important stiff upper lip, but he just isn't justified in his self assessment. He acts well in pre-scripted scenes like with Ali. But once the situation is more complex than his imagination has foreseen, he freezes. He's that friend who seems actually capable, but just cannot keep a job. He's a tragedy of social conditioning bound by his ideas, ideals, and their disconnect with reality. Through Marlow's puzzled ruminations, Jim's words and manner, and the actions of Jim, the novel communicates Jim's simple complexity while condemning the culture whose mold he doesn't actually fit, but is desperately trying to. He's the quintessential wanna be Byronic hero.

3. This cultural condemnation is the theme: the culture that created Jim is partially to blame for his failures. The over romanticization of the sea life, the ingrained moral superiority of the white skin color, the economic system that takes advantage of sailors, and the religion of greed receive the brunt of Conrad's attack. Where Heart of Darkness focuses on how whites were screwing up others' cultures and lives, this is about how they were screwing themselves up at the same time. The culture is blissfully unaware and blind to the fact that as much as they think the Malays and Bugis are savage, the Westerners are more destructive by far. In this, the last nine chapters are really an object lesson, plot exemplifying the theme: Jim starts out self assured, doing good for both himself and the natives; then this destructive element raises its ugly head in the form of Brown; because of the blinders of his social conditioning, Jim doesn't allow himself realize exactly what he's dealing with, so he treats with it as if it were a gentleman; and he gets rid of it, sure, but he loses his life and the life of his best friend in the process. Down to the changing view of Jim held by the Bugis population—initially that he is almost a divine, then that he is to blame for a great misfortune—Jim's life follows the pattern of colonization from this period perfectly. This is brilliant plot supporting the theme perfectly and condemning the culture that could create colonization.

4. Conrad foreshadows very well: not only hinting offhandedly at piracy before Brown appears, but also those last few paragraphs are phrases taken from earlier chapters in the book. The foreshadowing is sparse enough that it doesn't tell what's coming, rather makes what comes unsurprising and seemed to logically fit within the story and world. It's tip-of-the-tongue familiar when it arrives.

And his opportunity sat veiled by his side like an Eastern bride waiting to be uncovered by the hand of the master. He too was the heir of a shadowy and mighty tradition! —Chapter 24

He had to give in to my arguments, because all his conquests, the trust, the fame, the friendships, the love—all these things that made him master had made him a captive, too. —Chapter24

That's how it was—and the opportunity ran by his side, leaped over the gap, floundered in the mud . . . still veiled. —Chapter 25

He was white from head to foot, and remained persistently visible with the stronghold of the night at his back, the sea at his feet, the opportunity by his side—still veiled. What do you say? Was it still veiled? I don't know. For me that white figure in the stillness of coast and sea seemed to stand at the heart of a vast enigma. —Chapter 35

There is much truth—after all—in the common expression "under a cloud." It is impossible to see him clearly—especially as it is through the eyes of others that we take our last look at him. —Chapter 36

I seem to see him, returned at last, no longer a mere white speck at the heart of an immense mystery, but of full stature, standing disregarded amongst their untroubled shapes, with a stern and romantic aspect, but always mute, dark—under a cloud. You must admit that it is romantic beyond the wildest dreams of his boyhood. —Chapter 36

Many days elapsed before the people had ceased to look out, quaking, for the return of the white men with long beards and in rags, whose exact relation to their own white man they could never understand. Even for those simple minds poor Jim remains under a cloud. —Chapter 45

5. Aside from the above points praising Conrad's storytelling, his writing is also excellent. He makes each character distinct though unique voices and mannerisms which help explain them as people. He has beautiful descriptions that still feel fresh today. His sentence structures vary to fit the tale: when Marlow is confused about something Jim said or did, the sentences are convoluted, repetitive, pausing. His vocabulary is spectacular. The last few paragraphs are simply the best prose I've ever read in English. Period. They encapsulate the entire novel concisely and beautifully, while also closing it off effectively:
'The crowd, which had fallen apart behind Jim as soon as Doramin had raised his hand, rushed tumultuously forward after the shot. They say that the white man sent right and left at all those faces a proud and unflinching glance. Then with his hand over his lips he fell forward, dead.

'And that's the end. He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven, and excessively romantic. Not in the wildest days of his boyish visions could he have seen the alluring shape of such an extraordinary success! For it may very well be that in the short moment of his last proud and unflinching glance, he had beheld the face of that opportunity which, like an Eastern bride, had come veiled to his side.

'But we can see him, an obscure conqueror of fame, tearing himself out of the arms of a jealous love at the sign, at the call of his exalted egoism. He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct. Is he satisfied—quite, now, I wonder? We ought to know. He is one of us—and have I not stood up once, like an evoked ghost, to answer for his eternal constancy? Was I so very wrong after all? Now he is no more, there are days when the reality of his existence comes to me with an immense, with an overwhelming force; and yet upon my honour there are moments, too when he passes from my eyes like a disembodied spirit astray amongst the passions of this earth, ready to surrender himself faithfully to the claim of his own world of shades.

'Who knows? He is gone, inscrutable at heart, and the poor girl is leading a sort of soundless, inert life in Stein's house. Stein has aged greatly of late. He feels it himself, and says often that he is "preparing to leave all this; preparing to leave . . ." while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies.' —Chapter 45, The End

6. Jim is also relatable, one of us: for who hasn't made a mistake at work or felt shame? So, to Marlow, who keeps saying that Jim is "one of us"—and I think he means that in a more changing and specific sense than an Englishman or seamen, more like Marlow and his presumably accomplished and able friends—he's both relatable and mysterious. This is the contradiction in Jim that forces Marlow's curiosity to this point of involvement, to where the surface description of the book could be, "Conrad's interpretation of Marlow's interpretation of the life of Lord Jim and the lessons that Marlow draws from it."

7. As a character, Marlow comes off as upstanding, capable, bright, curious, and persistent. Just from number of spoken lines alone, he is the most apparent character in the novel. I think the argument could be made that he is the most important character in the novel as well: he feels a cultural responsibility for Jim, and through his almost guilty words Conrad's theme most strongly comes through to condemn the social conditioning that led to Jim. Marlow stands in for the culture.

8. Most of the other white characters in the novel also reinforce Conrad's theme—but these through their actions. Stein is disillusioned with the culture, and only his rejection of that lifestyle gains him any measure of peace and fame—though maybe only fame in the field of geopolitics, butterflies, and exotic plants. Brown is the colonizer that colonizes other colonizers' colonies: he's sick and he's as much a product of this as Jim is. The three others who desert the Patna are shown to be uselessly selfish cowards when they run from the inquiry. Chester and Captain Robinson are an unrealistic schemer and a dupe respectively. Captain O'Brien with his drunk dogmatism and inflexibility cannot deal with reality at all. Captain Brierley suicides after the prosecution of Jim because he can't fit into the mold that he embodies and thinks he minted. Cornelius is a selfish, single minded, vindictive soul who blames all on bad luck. Even these little stories throughout the novel directly support Conrad's theme.

Now a couple of passages from the book, expanding the quotes above to give specific examples to the way Conrad foreshadows, in this case specifically dealing with the language of the last few paragraphs:
And his opportunity sat veiled by his side like an Eastern bride waiting to be uncovered by the hand of the master. He too was the heir of a shadowy and mighty tradition! —Chapter 24

He had to give in to my arguments, because all his conquests, the trust, the fame, the friendships, the love—all these things that made him master had made him a captive, too. —Chapter 24

This is where I leaped over on my third day in Patusan. They haven't put new stakes there yet. Good leap, eh?" A moment later we passed the mouth of a muddy creek. "This is my second leap. I had a bit of a run and took this one flying, but fell short. Thought I would leave my skin there. Lost my shoes struggling. And all the time I was thinking to myself how beastly it would be to get a jab with a bally long spear while sticking in the mud like this. I remember how sick I felt wriggling in that slime. I mean really sick—as if I had bitten something rotten." That's how it was—and the opportunity ran by his side, leaped over the gap, floundered in the mud . . . still veiled. —Chapter 25

The two half-naked fishermen had arisen as soon as I had gone; they were no doubt pouring the plaint of their trifling, miserable, oppressed lives into the ears of the white lord, and no doubt he was listening to it, making it his own, for was it not a part of his luck—the luck "from the word Go"—the luck to which he had assured me he was so completely equal? They, too, I should think, were in luck, and I was sure their pertinacity would be equal to it. Their dark-skinned bodies vanished on the dark background long before I had lost sight of their protector. He was white from head to foot, and remained persistently visible with the stronghold of the night at his back, the sea at his feet, the opportunity by his side—still veiled. What do you say? Was it still veiled? I don't know. For me that white figure in the stillness of coast and sea seemed to stand at the heart of a vast enigma. The twilight was ebbing fast from the sky above his head, the strip of sand had sunk already under his feet, he himself appeared no bigger than a child—then only a speck, a tiny white speck, that seemed to catch all the light left in a darkened world. . . . And, suddenly, I lost him. . . —Chapter 35

I affirm nothing. Perhaps you may pronounce—after you've read. There is much truth—after all—in the common expression "under a cloud." It is impossible to see him clearly—especially as it is through the eyes of others that we take our last look at him. I have no hesitation in imparting to you all I know of the last episode that, as he used to say, had "come to him." One wonders whether this was perhaps that supreme opportunity, that last and satisfying test for which I had always suspected him to be waiting, before he could frame a message to the impeccable world. You remember that when I was leaving him for the last time he had asked whether I would be going home soon, and suddenly cried after me, "Tell them . . ." I had waited—curious I'll own, and hopeful too—only to hear him shout, "No—nothing." That was all then—and there will be nothing more; there will be no message, unless such as each of us can interpret for himself from the language of facts, that are so often more enigmatic than the craftiest arrangement of words. —Chapter 36

No, there is nothing much in that yellow frayed letter fluttering out of his cherishing grasp after so many years. It was never answered, but who can say what converse he may have held with all these placid, colourless forms of men and women peopling that quiet corner of the world as free of danger or strife as a tomb, and breathing equably the air of undisturbed rectitude. It seems amazing that he should belong to it, he to whom so many things "had come." Nothing ever came to them; they would never be taken unawares, and never be called upon to grapple with fate. Here they all are, evoked by the mild gossip of the father, all these brothers and sisters, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, gazing with clear unconscious eyes, while I seem to see him, returned at last, no longer a mere white speck at the heart of an immense mystery, but of full stature, standing disregarded amongst their untroubled shapes, with a stern and romantic aspect, but always mute, dark—under a cloud. The story of the last events you will find in the few pages enclosed here. You must admit that it is romantic beyond the wildest dreams of his boyhood, and yet there is to my mind a sort of profound and terrifying logic in it, as if it were our imagination alone that could set loose upon us the might of an overwhelming destiny. The imprudence of our thoughts recoils upon our heads; who toys with the sword shall perish by the sword. This astounding adventure, of which the most astounding part is that it is true, comes on as an unavoidable consequence. Something of the sort had to happen. You repeat this to yourself while you marvel that such a thing could happen in the year of grace before last. But it has happened—and there is no disputing its logic. —Chapter 36

'I do not know what this gathering really meant. Were these preparations for war, or for vengeance, or to repulse a threatened invasion? Many days elapsed before the people had ceased to look out, quaking, for the return of the white men with long beards and in rags, whose exact relation to their own white man they could never understand. Even for those simple minds poor Jim remains under a cloud. —Chapter 45

15 August, 2015

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

For Jay

1. There are three things that try to be central here: the murder investigation, the study of robotics, and earth's future—in the sense of medievalism versus colonization of new worlds. I find the study of robotics interesting in its deep examination of examples of the three laws of robotics in action, as well as the differences between creator and created. I find the future similarly interesting—not being up to date with ecological research is jarring, but nobody can fault him for writing when he did. This future third path between the stability of spacers' regimented culture and the barely controlled chaos of earth cities comes off like humans walking: a cultural controlled fall. Which is good. The murder investigation is a letdown though. The first two chapters make it seem like the whole novel will circle around that, so the coming of the other two elements initially feel like overly long rabbit trails, then startlingly long ones, then complete shifts in what the novel is dealing with. He ties all three off neatly at the end, but disappointingly because they never quite achieve symbiosis, they never work together well enough to really support the novel, or seem like they must be together. I find Asimov fails to fit them together legibly. In each examination of these elements he focuses too sharply so the other two elements are forgotten and the switches in focus are jarring and make the novel seem like it meanders. Also, how many science fiction story start off with a murder? Too many.

2. Partly that failure is the fault of the implausibility of the investigation—basic police questions are ignored until the end, three days into the investigation. The detective does not even view the site of the crime until then. But mostly it is the main character not being well written or interesting. He comes off like a caricature of a detective, while continually assuring himself that his partner is the character, not him. He is a puppet and Asimov jerks the strings this way and that in a logical pattern, but not a human one—Elijah's never quite believable. There's too much telling about him and not enough showing. Or maybe the telling is just poorly done. He is two dimensional and uninterestingly typical without enough uniqueness or individuality or various interactions to really support the narrative weight Asimov attempts to make him bear.

3. The plot is too concise. There is no minor character or action that does not come back to inform the plot later in a pat way. It's all tied together too neatly and is not allowed to breathe at all. It doesn't allow the reader any paths of mental exploration because it's all there, clearly stated and obvious. It is clever, sure, but it feels shoehorned, corseted, sewed up too tightly to be really engaging or to leave the reader any leeway. By trying to make everything important, it makes nothing important. I was bored by the continual attempt at equal importance.

4. But the story is good. I found it interesting and kept reading. I think it could've been better. For instance, Elijah tells the reader of his past success running through the moving walkways as a child. He also tells us of catching his son doing the same. Both tellings lack relatability to the reader because he shows us what running the walkways is only after he tells us those two anecdotes of running them. Where as, if Asimov showed Bentley running and then being caught on scene, then Elijah chewing him out, then Elijah reminiscing over past experiences doing the same as a kid, this could've been much more engaging. It also could have showed an effect of this investigation on his family life. This structure would've seemed more drawn from human life and natural reactions. It was interesting still, how he did do it, it was fine. But it could've been done better.

5. The writing is clear and lifeless. Like the characters are caricatures, so the writing relies on stock, tired phrases. It's never terrible, but it's never great either. The worst it got was using the title three or four times in the novel itself—once would've been enough here, if necessary. I get it: cities are like caves made out of steel.

6. I enjoyed the book despite all this. The ideas were engaging, the action was well paced, and the examination of future politics, New York City, social issues, and views on our times were well thought out and clear. It leaves little room for speculation and should've perhaps been three novellas, but it was not terrible at all.

14 August, 2015

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

For Morgan

1. It's always difficult to discern tactics and writers' lessons from a series of short stories like this. I've read some of these before and had been curious if there were any others. The continuity of this fix-up novel is in the continuity of location: it's plot concerns human colonization, abandonment, and re-colonization of Mars. The theme of each story differs and only a broad theme can be sketched of human attitudes towards home, archaeological and natural resources, and the unfamiliar. Perhaps the theme is best distilled in the story "—And the Moon be Still as Bright", in which an introverted idealist decides to sabotage the fourth expedition in order to preserve Mars's natural and archaeological resources, all because of his dissatisfaction with what his companions reveal about aspects of earth culture, home. As each crew member reacts differently in the face of the unknown, this story best sums up what is my best guess at the overarching theme. The whole conglomeration of short stories works for me, and the frame of progressing time, specifically stated in the titles, helps keep it legible and moving. It's effective that the novel also reaches a sort of height in plot action when the world goes to war.

2. The shifting of perspective from earth to Mars and back a few times really shows context well. By referring back to earth's events through onscreen earth stories, the themes are shown affecting all humanity, not only the Martian pioneers. This is effective to help give context and relatable, relative import to the Mars based chronology.

3. A few characters are well developed: Ylla, Spender, Captain Wilder, Parkhill, the old man who converses with Thomas at the gas station, Father Peregrin, and the father in "The Million-Year Picnic." These are all well written because they exist in enough different situations that give them opportunities to show their complexity. Being a series of short stories, many characters are not allowed enough time to breathe and define themselves as the point and scope of some stories does not require more than a two dimensional representation of characters. However, even in that two-dimensional aspect, Bradbury is trying to draw out something about us as humans that relates today.

4. The book comes off like a writer's playground: Bradbury keeps returning to the settings and themes as if worrying at a piece of popcorn stuck between his teeth. It's as if the setting is familiar enough to Bradbury to allow these very different stories to exist together, to allow him to experiment with a new idea, a new character, or a new situation in this safe zone where the conglomeration of all the stories is better than them alone and separate. This is because together each idea discussed adds another dimension to the themes, another layer of importance, and a fresh point of reference in the chronology. Therefore, these stories seem like a deck of cards where a new one can be shuffled in to support the whole, though it maybe be very different. [This appears to be how his publishers have treated these stories as well with seemingly every publishing of this fix-up containing a unique set of stories. I sort of wish all his Martian stories were collected in all the versions.]

5. The writing is efficient and communicative, but I don't think it ever obtains greatness. The plodding of some of the stories is solid, allowing the theme a slow reveal of importance that kept me thinking after I was finished reading. But the writing did not. I don't remember a phrase or description of particular beauty, but the ideas came across loud and clear. Wait, that's not quite true, as I just now remember that passage describing the silhouettes in paint of a family caught in an atomic blast in California, and that's a beautifully poignant passage that is well written. But it's the only one that I can remember.
"Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down. The five spots of paint—the man, the woman, the children, the ball—remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer. The gentle sprinkler rain filled the garden with falling light."

6. Where Foundation fails for lack of driving theme, this succeeds by having one. But it plays with that theme, examining it from this way and that like a three dimensional kaleidoscope. Bradbury doesn't overdo it though—some characters are allowed actions outside of that theme that provide a mental break for the reader, which helps make the themes more palatable, but also adds some context. And some stories support the chronology more than they support the theme. This is a strong tactic, allowing these situations together to have more believability through variety than they do separate from each other.