Year of Mysteries, Part 7: The Intuitionist

This was a somewhat enjoyable, quick read, but I had a lot of problems with it.

The Intuitionist takes place in a strange alternate world. It’s presumably alternate history, because much of the politics has to do with integration and Lila being the first female, black elevator inspector.

But it’s not quite our world, because there’s a huge bureaucracy of elevator inspectors, including a training institute (Institute for Vertical Transport), professional society, and even textbooks on philosophical schools of thought on proper inspection techniques.

The setup of the novel is that Lila Mae Watson is an “Intuitionist” inspector with an impeccable record. She inspects elevators by riding them and “intuiting” any problems. This is opposed to the school called the “Empiricists,” which inspect the old fashioned way: getting into the innards with their hands and eyes.

One of Watson’s elevators goes down, and she suspects it was sabotaged to make it look like the Intuitionists are untrustworthy. There’s also other political motivation going on with it being an election year.

So far, so good. This is quite a great premise setting up a way to discuss serious issues surrounding theory of mind, epistemology, etc.

What were my problems with it?

Well, there’s this idea in art that if you treat something as serious, no matter how unbelievable and silly it is, you can get it to come across as believable. But this takes really committing to the idea.

Whitehead commits.

This world is full of tons of details from what such a society would look like, yet I just never really bought the concept. I think part of the problem was that it tried to do too much, especially with the race aspect, which I haven’t even brought up yet.

I think the book would work better if she was set up because she was black or if she was set up because she was an Intuitionist. Trying to have it both ways created a lot of unnecessary awkwardness, and it softened the force of truly committing to one theme. By splitting the difference, neither came across as particularly compelling.

I’ll try to explain this a bit more.

The novel works on a speculative fiction level without bringing race into it at all. The Empiricists want to get rid of the Intuitionists. They are looked down upon both within the world of inspectors and in the world at large.

It makes sense that someone would set up the main character to have one of her elevators fall. Then the world can blame her for not “properly” examining the elevator, and the whole Intuitionist school of thought takes a hit for more “reliable” methods (though, statistically intuitionists do better, a clever twist Whitehead put into the world).

It would work brilliantly as both a mystery plot and as a work of speculative fiction in which Intuitionists play the role of a scapegoated, marginalized population.

In fact, when race gets brought up, it’s almost like an afterthought and thrown in because that’s Whitehead’s “thing” rather than working naturally in the novel. The book will be in the middle of something else, and then it kind of pops up randomly: oh, yeah, and you’re black! So it’s probably that, too!

So, as astute readers, we’ve noticed this is what Whitehead wants to do, and we’re a little annoyed that characters keep implying this conflation of race and Intuitionists. But then Whitehead commits the ultimate writing sin, and he decides he doesn’t trust readers to figure this out (though it’s sooo obvious).

A character says:

“So I don’t know what the official story is, but you get the gist from his speech. He’s making it into a political thing because you’re an Intuitionist. And colored, but he’s being clever about it.”

No. Just no.

I mean, is it still an allegory if the writer flat out tells us what the pieces mean?

If, as a writer, you’re ever tempted to talk directly to a reader like this through a character because you’re afraid they haven’t caught on, then you’ve done something wrong. If you’re that worried, make it clearer through subtext some other way. Or, as I’ve proposed, maybe just clarify what the themes and metaphors are instead of trying to conflate a bunch of stuff.

After such on-the-nose dialogue, I kept expecting our main character to blurt out at some point: I chose the elevator profession because it raises and lowers people to different social strata with the rich bankers having parties on the roof and the lowly doorman at the bottom. The elevator is the great equalizer. Anyone can move to any position in an instant as long as good inspectors keep them working.

Yikes. I wish I could say such a moment never came, but it did. It was a much pithier and eloquent formulation:

…horizontal thinking in a vertical world is the race’s curse.

As I said, it definitely kept my attention with a unique premise and fully fleshed out speculative world, but it could have used a lot more focus and subtlety. Not to be mean, but it reads like a first novel, and that’s what it is. The flashes of the more confident Whitehead we see in his later The Underground Railroad are in here, and they are brilliant when they happen.

I’ve seen this book compared to The Crying of Lot 49 and Invisible Man. Both are apt comparisons, but I’d rather read the former for political conspiracy theory paranoia and the latter for its excellent racial commentary than something that tries to do both at the same time, just worse.

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The Three-Body Problem is Awesome

If you’ve been around this blog this year, then you know I fell into a bit of a slump. I was reading things, but nothing seemed to connect. In fact, it all seemed derivative, flat, and downright bad.

I’ve gotten out of that somehow, and I seem to have hit a period where most things I read (or movies I see) draw me in immediately and seem imaginative and fresh. I’m not planning on making a bunch of “…is Awesome” posts, but that’s where I’m at right now.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s pretty difficult to explain why, because I don’t want to spoil anything. Part of the fun of this trilogy is that there are M. Night Shyamalan type twists (things that make you rethink everything that happened before and make it all make sense).

When these types of plot twists happen once at the end of a book or movie, it feels like a cheap gimmick and can be off-putting. When they happened dozens of times across this book trilogy, they left me in awe of the structure of the narrative.

You’ll think you’ve finally got a grasp on things near the end of Book 2, and then you learn that you had no idea what was really going on. Like I said, there are dozens of these, and each time you think it can’t happen again, it somehow does.

The books are also filled with lots of neat ideas (even if not scientific). I can describe one that happens in the first book that won’t ruin any plot points.

The first idea is to notice what happens if you “unfold” a two-dimensional object into one dimension. Here’s an example of a solid square being pulled into a string:


Now, convince yourself this is the case whenever you take a higher dimensional object and “unfold” it into lower dimensions. You’ll always get an arbitrarily large new thing.

Next, he takes the concept of string theory seriously and says: what if a proton is actually a six-dimensional string curled up into compactified dimensions? Well, with super good technology and a full understanding of the physics, maybe the proton could be unfolded into an arbitrarily large three dimensional object.

In that case, we could store infinite amounts of information in it. We could even make it the best supercomputer AI ever made. Then we could fold it back up, and it would be roughly the size of a proton again. Just imagine what that could do!

The trilogy is truly an “ideas” book. It’s kind of fascinating how strong the ideas alone were to keep me wanting to read. The plot definitely waned at points and character motivations were weak, but I didn’t really care.

To me, this book was essentially the opposite of Seveneves. Seveneves was a bunch of cool ideas that got tedious to read, because none of them served the plot. They were just Neal Stephenson spewing every idea he ever had into a plotless mess.

In contrast, every single cool idea in The Three-Body Problem series advances the plot in a meaningful way, and wow, there’s a ton of them.

I can’t recommend this trilogy enough if you’re into hard sci-fi (and my warning about character/dragging plot doesn’t turn completely alienate you).

Mother! is Awesome

There haven’t been a lot of movies I’ve seen in the past year or so that I thought were great. Last month I saw Mother!, and it was awesome.

Now, I’m not going to spoil the more disturbing things in this movie, so I don’t think I need a “trigger warning” for this post. In fact, I tend to think they aren’t necessary in most cases.

But in this case, there is a seriously disturbing thing that happens near the end of the movie in pretty graphic visuals, so if you are at all queasy watching gruesome things, you might want to skip this movie.

It’s trendy to say things like: this book/movie can’t be described in words. It defies genre and expectation. It’s wildly inventive. Blah, blah, blah.

But in this case, it’s really true. I can’t even guess at a genre that would make sense. Some call it a psychological thriller. It might be closer to allegorical magical realism.

Around ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about one of the best things that can happen in a work of art (talking about Joanna Newsom’s album Ys). It’s when the art is based on very concrete, clear events that have high emotional resonance, but then it is all abstracted into something more universal.

Honestly, this isn’t a groundbreaking idea. That’s essentially the argument of Campbell’s “monomyth” theory.

Darren Aronofsky has done exactly this in Mother!

Interpretation Spoilers. I don’t plan to spoil plot things (if this movie even has a “plot” to be spoiled). But I’m going to give my interpretation of the movie as a way to describe it.

Here we go. You’re warned a second time.

Mother! is a history of the world as described in the Bible, but it’s done symbolically in a single house. The character known as Mother is Mother Earth. The house is her domain/Earth. The character known as Him is God.

To give you a feel for how the symbolism plays out, I’ll try to describe some stuff in the beginning. Mother and Him are living in the house. Then a man shows up. This is Adam. Then his wife shows up. This is Eve. Him gives free reign of the house to them except they can’t touch his crystal thing (Tree of Knowledge), which has the power to let him write his profound poetry (the Word/Bible).

Mother doesn’t really understand why Him is letting these humans run amok without consulting her first. Eventually, they touch and break the crystal thing, so he banishes them from his office (the Garden of Eden). The couple’s children come, and they play out the Cain and Abel story symbolically.

This goes on and on. It’s all very obvious–even on a first viewing.

At this point you might be thinking: that sounds terrible. And if that was it, it would be terrible. Here’s where it gets awesome.

The whole thing is filmed in this claustrophobic framing of Mother. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is insanely good. She might be in every second of this movie. As people start to fill up the house/Earth and the people start to break things and overpopulate and pollute, she gets more and more upset and confused and scared.

Mother has no idea why any of this is happening, and there’s nothing she can do to stop it. One of the most chilling parts of the movie is when she asks one of the people who is breaking something, “Why are you doing this?” He replies, “Because He gave it to us.” (Or something like that. I don’t have the movie in front of me and it’s been a while to recall exact wording).

How many times have you heard this from certain politicized Christians when asked why they aren’t concerned about climate change and destroying the Earth?

To me, this is the point of the movie. It personifies the Earth and then puts the viewer inside of her mental state. It’s a terrible experience, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to make you think about your own actions in the world from a different perspective.

I do have some problems with it. For example, this obviously isn’t a great way to make the rational argument, because it basically boils down to: how would you feel if you were the Earth? The symbolism and message are so overt and strong, it leaves a bit of a sour taste at the end.

It’s quite interesting to see what most other people have written as problems with the movie. The first type of hater thinks the more disturbing aspects of the movie serve no purpose other than shock value. They think the movie is a pretentious and pointless “arty” film. Then they go on to point out: it’s not even that shocking or gruesome.

Of course it isn’t! That fact alone should make one consider: this isn’t what the movie is intending to do.

As I’ve pointed out already, this criticism can be dismissed as complete nonsense. The opposite is true. It’s too obvious what the movie is about, and hence it cannot be the case that the movie is about nothing and a pure shockfest.

The more interesting criticism can be summarized by this comment: “Jennifer Lawrence’s character infuriated me. She kept making reasonable requests, and everyone ignored them. It was like she had no agency. She spends the entirety of the film in a state of traumatized bewilderment. It made me deeply uncomfortable and annoyed.”

Well, yeah! That’s literally what the movie set out to do. The fact that it succeeded in its goal shouldn’t be seen as some sort of negative criticism and a reason to hate the movie.

The real question is: were you annoyed enough to look at your own actions and make some changes, or are you going to continue to be the people you despised in the movie, wrecking the house of someone with no agency to stop you?

That’s what makes Mother! awesome. Not only does it evoke visceral reactions in those that watch it, but it asks the viewer to bring those reactions back to the real world and do something about it.

Year of Mysteries, Part 6: A Crime in the Neighborhood

This month I read A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne for the Year of Mysteries. I’m not going to wait to the end for spoilers, so be warned!

This book reminded me a lot of Mystic River, the second book we did for the series, in that it presented a crime and then immediately shifted away to how that crime affected a neighborhood, relationships, and characters.

I’d even hesitate to call this a true mystery, because almost none of the plot involves solving the crime. The crime ends up not being solved at all!

Overall, I liked this book but didn’t love it like Mystic River. I think this came from how unsatisfying it was. We have literally only one suspect. The main character gives us tons and tons of evidence to show that he did it. All I kept thinking through the whole book is how obvious a red herring this was.

I felt like Berne wrote herself into a corner. If it turned out to be the only suspect, it would be unsatisfying because of how obvious it was. If it turned out not to be him, it would be unsatisfying because of how obvious of a red herring it all was.

And I get it: the book is not about the murder! So let’s get to what it’s really about.

The novel does a great job in showing how one moment that doesn’t even fully involve someone can permanently shape the rest of their life. The narrator is an adult retelling these events from her ten-year-old self, and we get a believable set of emotionally complex reactions from her surrounding the events of that summer.

One particularly good aspect of the book was the prose, considering the voice was a ten-year-old. Many writers use children as an excuse to be lazy, but Berne nails the naivete and immaturity of tone while still having clear and sophisticated prose style. This is no easy feat, and really added to the atmosphere of the novel.

The book did suffer from a “soggy middle.” I’d say this is a quintessential example of why people use a “Mid-Act 2 twist” to keep the forward momentum. Nothing of the sort happened here. I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in the middle of this book even though I just read it. The main character goes about her days with pretty much no progression or complication.

I also think the book suffered from trying to be about too much. It had a tight focus on the main character’s family, a looser focus on the neighborhood, but then it tried to throw in a bunch of stuff from the 70’s, like Watergate, as a backdrop.

I get that there’s a parallel of themes she’s trying to draw on: the country lost its naive innocence about government in the same way Marsha lost her naive innocence from the crime. But it’s too loose and not exactly parallel (or contrary) to succeed. For example, Marsha had a bunch of evidence and turned out to be wrong, whereas the Watergate evidence was correct.

So I’m just not sure on this one. I flew through it in a few days once I got started, but it felt unfocused and unsatisfying in the end. Since I liked Berne’s writing so much, I’m interested in checking out her later works to see if it evolves into something I like as a whole more.

As usual, I give the next book in the series in case you want to follow along. It will be: The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead. I’m pretty excited to get some speculative fiction aspects into one of these.

Kindle Unlimited

So, I hate to be “that guy,” but I thought readers of this blog might be interested in this. I took some time off of the Year of Mystery series (I’ll have another post this month), and I tried to write a post on Universal Basic Income. But that got messy, and I never got around to cleaning it up. Sorry.

Here’s the shameless pitch:

For Amazon Prime Day (in other words: this month), you can get three months of Kindle Unlimited for $0.99 (it would normally be $29.97). If you don’t know what this is, it’s basically Netflix for books.

You can read an unlimited number of Kindle books while subscribed, as long as the books are in Kindle Unlimited. Don’t worry if you don’t have a Kindle, there’s apps for browsers, tablets, and phones that let you read Kindle books pretty much anywhere.

I personally use it around 4-6 months a year and just cram all the books I want from the service into that time period. Then I buy books not in KU for the rest of the year.

I know what you’re thinking: but there’s nothing good in it. It’s just a bunch of poorly edited self-published stuff.

First, that’s not true (see below). Second, even if it were true, for just $0.99, you could try out the first chapter of hundreds of new authors until you find someone you like at no risk.

Here’s just a few of the books you could read:

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison

Hollywood, by Charles Bukowski

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling

Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard

And so on. These are major novels by powerhouses in their genres. Do what you want, but if you find even one book, it will have paid for itself. It’s something I think is great for writers to have for short periods of time to see what’s selling best without having to buy a hundred books.

To get it, click the above banner or here.

 

Why It Works: You’ve Got Mail

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

When I came up with the idea to do a romance for this series, I was tempted to pick a modern romance novel, but thousands come out each year. Even looking at some “best of” lists, I couldn’t find anything I thought most people would have read. I was then tempted to do the classic Pride and Prejudice. But there’s already a lot of writing on that book. So unfortunately, I’m back to a movie.

There’s obviously a lot of pieces that make a romance work. Chemistry between the love interests keeps the story moving. There’s usual a conflict to keep them apart. And so on.

But really, there’s only one thing that has to be done properly in a romance: the proof of love. One character, traditionally the man (though this has obviously changed in the last few decades with m/m or f/f or role reversal setups, etc), must demonstrate convincingly how much they love the other character through a true sacrifice.

The more the character sacrifices to show this, the more emotional charge the scene will have. It’s why people cry when watching or reading romances. The main way romances fail is that all the other pieces are disconnected from the proof of love. The chemistry and characterization and conflict should all develop toward this ending payoff.

This is why writing a good romance is harder than most people think. If you just plug into the formula, it will feel formulaic, and the characters will feel like one-dimensional tropes fixated on the one defining feature that makes the end work.

If you somehow haven’t seen it, here’s a brief summary of You’ve Got Mail (obviously including the ending). Kathleen owns a small bookshop focused on customers and reading to children and things like that. Joe owns a mega bookstore, portrayed as a profit-focused heartless entity. The mega bookstore is going to put the small one out of business.

The movie is a sequence of bad interactions between these characters in real life. This puts the movie in the romance subgenre of “enemies to lovers.” The chemistry comes from the friction and conflict. The two characters accidentally hit it off online under anonymous screen names.

From the premise alone, we already know how the movie must end. Kathleen will have to demonstrate a proof of love by overcoming the real life prejudice she has against Joe for the person he is inside that she’s come to love through the online correspondence. I know, it’s very Pride and Prejudice, and the movie even makes this Kathleen’s favorite book to spell out the connection.

So why does the movie work? Every scene contributes something to the proof of love payoff. The real life conflict ratchets up each time they meet. Writers who don’t keep their eye on the ending can accidentally let the characters start to fall in love outside of the email exchanges. This would totally spoil the ending.

Some might say this is the difference between a “love story” and a “romance.” A great romance doesn’t let up on whatever has to be sacrificed until the proof of love. Many lesser romances would just have the characters run into each others arms as if nothing was going on under the surface for the ending.

Meg Ryan understands the character, and she actually cries in the final scene. There’s a ton going on internally that she has to show for the proof of love. This is the man she hates, but she also loves him. She has to overcome that, and just running into each other’s arms would trivialize the built up tension of the movie. For the briefest moment, we, as the audience, should believe there’s a chance she’ll just slap him for lying and walk away.

Once you come to understand this technique, it can be quite fun to read well-done romances. They are almost like little puzzles. You can look for all the ways the writer drops hints about the proof of love scene. It’s also an effective technique to use, even if the romance subplot of your fantasy novel is minimal.

Year of Mysteries, Part 5: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

I’ve put off writing about this book, because I was left pretty conflicted on how to feel about it. As a mystery, it was deeply unsatisfying. But as a novel, it scratched some itches I didn’t know I had.

The book drew me in quickly. It starts with the death of a boy. It looks like an accident of falling off a roof. But Smilla’s Inuit heritage allows her to read other signs in the snow. Plus, it comes to light that the boy was deathly afraid of heights and would never play on the roof.

It turns into a classic small girl against big machine of the police/government. The book beautifully weaves in a bunch of language for different types of snow, and we start to see how someone could be attuned to signs in the snow.

One particularly enlightening scene was a description of how jumping would leave certain snow impressions depending on the direction of the jump. I started to believe she had “real” signs of foul play from the snow instead of just some abstract “feeling.”

The book uses a lot of politics of opposing forces like Greenland/Denmark, Inuit/European, and Tradition/Science. It worked as a literary device to make the reader empathize with Smilla feeling like an “other” in the world. My guess is these were real-world politics and not just invented as a device.

The translator did a great job. The prose had an almost Proustian quality to it. He would do deep dives on mundane things, and it somehow felt interesting and relevant. Other isolated sentences were strange and wonderful and humorous at the same time.

Here’s one of my favorites:

Bertrand Russel wrote that pure mathematics is the field in which we don’t know what we’re talking about or to what extent what we say is true or false.

That’s the way I feel about cooking.

At some point near the middle, this book totally loses its focus. It goes off in strange directions, and we lose sight of the original mystery. One might say the mysterious death at the beginning is the “inciting incident” of the novel, but it is not the focus of the novel.

I won’t reveal the ending except to say that although we get a definitive answer to who/why the boy was killed, the ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether the killer is caught and/or killed himself. This worked in the context of the novel as a general book about ambiguities and life, but it didn’t work as a conclusive ending to a murder mystery.

We veer so far off course of any intentional investigation by the end that learning the truth feels almost accidental. I think this is the source of dissatisfaction. It’s like the information happened to the main character rather than the main character bringing about the information through her deliberate actions.

Once I resigned myself to the fact that I was reading something different from what I thought it would be, I was able to settle in and enjoy it on its own terms. The book is well worth reading as an intriguing work of literature dealing with interesting linguistics. It is probably not for a fan of traditional mystery novels.

If you want to follow along, the next book in The Year of Mysteries series will be A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne.