Year of Short Fiction Part 6: Cosmicomics

I’ve sort of been dreading this one, but it’s the only thing remaining on my short fiction list that I own. Three years ago I wrote up my interpretation of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino can be strange and highly symbolic, but that book’s meaning jumped out at me with little effort. He had constructed a condensed history of critical theory through the story.

I had a vague familiarity with Cosmicomics, so I knew it would be harder. The stories all feature or are told by a character named Qfwfq. Each story starts with a tidbit of science such as:

Situated in the external zone of the Milky Way, the Sun takes about two hundred million years to make a complete revolution of the galaxy.

The story that follows is usually related to this somehow. The collection as a whole can be read as a symbolic retelling of the history of the universe. Calvino has taken real science and created mythologies that actually fit the data.

But it’s more than that. The stories often have a moral to them or a symbolic quality. They aren’t just fictionalizations of the events of the early universe. They’re almost parables like classic mythology. He’s achieved something odd with these.

The collection came out in 1965, fairly early in Calvino’s career, and well before the highly experimental If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino believed realism to be dead, and these stories mark his foray into a new type of fiction. He held on to pieces of realism but incorporated highly fantastical elements.

That’s enough of an overview, let’s dig into my favorite story to see these elements at work. “All at One Point” is a story about the Big Bang. More specifically, it’s about the time when the universe existed in a single point.

The beginning of the story comically plays with the idea that “we were all there.” On a scientific level, this is obviously true. Every atom in the universe existed in the singular point “before” the Big Bang. This includes every atom in our bodies, so we were physically there.

Calvino cleverly takes this statement to its extreme form and personifies us as actually existing at one point. The narrator, Qfwfq, says, “…having somebody unpleasant like Mr Pber^t Pber^t underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.”

The story spends quite a bit of time in a Flatland-type thought experiment. Through humorous interactions, Calvino teases apart a lot of odd ideas about what it actually would mean to collapse the universe to a single point. For example, one couldn’t count how many people were there, because that would require pulling apart, no matter how slightly.

One family, the Z’zu, got labelled “immigrants.” This, of course, makes no sense, because there is no such thing as outside or inside the point. There is no such thing as before or after the point. Time only started at the Big Bang. So the family couldn’t have come from somewhere else.

The humor in this surface-level reading of the story is already worth it, and I won’t spoil any of the other awkward moments shared by these people from all occupying the same point.

Then the story turns its attention to Mrs Ph(i)Nk_o. She is one of the Z’zu, the family everyone hated. But she’s different. She is pure happiness and joy, and no one can say anything bad about her.

In an act of epic generosity, despite what people say about her family, she says:

Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some tagliatelle for you boys!

That’s what causes the Big Bang. The universe is made and expands and the Sun and planets and everything. It all happened because of a true act of selflessness and love. The phrasing of the final paragraph is very moving. I won’t quote it here, because I think it must be read in context to be appreciated.

The theme, when condensed to a pithy phrase, is something like “love can make universes.” It sounds really cliche and cheesy, and I think this is one of the things that makes these stories so brilliant. In the moment of reading, they feel profound and fresh.

Calvino’s use of vivid space imagery takes you on a grand journey. These cliche themes are the same that one can find in all the great ancient stories. They only feel tired when done in modern stories. By creating his own mythology, Calvino is able to revisit these sorts of themes without embarrassment.

For the Year of Short Fiction, I do want to return to the question of: why short? In other words, does great short fiction have a genuine uniqueness to it, or is it essentially the same as a novel, just shorter?

I think here we can definitively say that this type of writing can only work in short stories. Even expanding one of these to a novella length would be too much. These stories each revolve around a conceit and a theme. The conceit would grow tiresome if done for too long. I cannot imagine a novella of jokes about everyone existing on top of each other. They would lose their impact.

What excites me about Cosmicomics is that this is the first thing I’ve read this year that I feel this way about. I could imagine the novellas I’ve read and even Cthulhu working as full novels. They wouldn’t be as tightly written, but they’d still work. The very nature of Cosmicomics is that they are short stories. I’m glad to have finally found this.

I should stipulate, though, that one can read the entire collection of stories as a novel: an autobiography of Qfwfq’s life and fictionalization of the history of the universe. This is also an interesting and unique aspect, because almost every short story collection I can think of has separate, unrelated stories. This full collection should be read together to get the best experience.

Become a Patron!

I’ve come to a crossroads recently.

I write a blog post every week. It takes time. The last one was close to 2,000 words and required reading a book. For the past three years I’ve been writing full time, and so blogging can be a burden that cuts into this with no monetary rewards.

This blog is now over nine years old, and I’ve done nothing to monetize it. I think this is mostly a good thing. I do not and will not run any sort of advertisements. Even upon the release of my first book, I only did a brief mention and then no promotion afterward (and as far as I can tell, this converted to literally 0 sales).

I want this to be about the blog content. I do not want it to turn into some secret ad campaign to sell my work. I can think of many authors who have done this, and I ended up unsubscribing from them.

This brings me to the point. Putting this much work into something is not really sustainable anymore without some sort of support, so I’ve started a Patreon page. As you’ll see, my initial goal is quite modest and will barely cover the expenses to run my blog and website. But without anything, I will slowly phase out writing here regularly.

If this concept is new to you, Patreon is a site dedicated to supporting creative work. Patrons can pledge money to support people creating content they like. It can be as little as $1 a month (or as many podcasters say: “less than a coffee a month”), and in return, you not only help the site to keep running, you’ll receive bonus content as well.

Because of the scattered nature of my posts, I know a lot of you are probably scared to support, because you might not get content of interest for the month. Some of you like the math and tune out for the writing advice. Some of you like the critical analysis of philosophy and wish the articles on game mechanics didn’t exist.

For consistency, I’ll only put out something that would be tagged “literature” for the vast majority of posts from now on. This means once a month or less and probably never two months in a row (i.e. six per year spread out equally). This “literature” tag includes, but is not limited to, most posts on philosophy that touch on narrative or language somehow, editing rules, writing advice, book reviews, story structure analysis, examining pro’s prose, movie reviews, and so on.

Again, the core original vision for the blog included game and music and math posts, but these will be intentionally fewer now. If you check the past few years, I basically already did this anyway, but this way you know what you’re signing up for.

I think people are drawn to my literature analysis because I’m in a unique position. This month I’m about to submit my fifth romance novel under a pseudonym. This is the “commercial” work I do for money, and it’s going reasonably well. I’ve come to understand the ins and outs of genre fiction through this experience, and it has been a valuable part of learning the craft of writing for me.

My main work under my real name is much more literary. I’ve put out one novel of literary fiction. Next month I’ll put out my second “real” novel, which is firmly in the fantasy genre but hopefully doesn’t give up high-quality prose.

These two opposite experiences have given me an eye for what makes story work and what makes prose work. All over this blog I’ve shown that I love experimental writing, but I’ve also been one of the few people to unapologetically call out BS where I see it.

As you can imagine, writing several genre novels and a “real” novel every year makes it tough to justify this weekly blog for the fun of it.

If I haven’t convinced you that the quality here is worth supporting, I’ll give you one last tidbit. I get to see incoming links thanks to WordPress, so I know that more than one graduate seminar and MFA program has linked to various posts I’ve made on critical theory and difficult literature. Since I’m not in those classes, I can’t be sure of the purpose, but graduate programs tend to only suggest reading things that are worth reading. There just isn’t enough time for anything else.

I know, I know. Print is dead. You’d rather support people making podcasts or videos, but writing is the easiest way to get my ideas across. I listen to plenty of podcasts on writing, but none of them get to dig into things like prose style. The format isn’t conducive to it. One needs to see the text under analysis to really get the commentary on it.

Don’t panic. I won’t decrease blog production through the end of 2017, but I’m setting an initial goal of $100 per month. We’ll go from there, because even that might not be a sustainable level long-term. If it isn’t met, I’ll have to adjust accordingly. It’s just one of those unfortunate business decisions. Sometimes firing someone is the right move, even if they’re your friend.

I’ve set up a bunch supporter rewards, and I think anyone interested in the blog will find them well worth it. I’m being far more generous than most Patreon pages making similar content. Check out the page for details. The rewards involve seeing me put into practice what I talk about with video of me editing a current project with live commentary; extra fiction I write for free; free copies of my novels; extra “Examining Pro’s Prose” articles; and more!

I hope you find the content here worth supporting (I’m bracing myself for the humiliation of getting $2 a month and knowing it’s from my parents). If you don’t feel you can support the blog, feel free to continue reading and commenting for free. The community here has always been excellent.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 2: Finishing Lyotard

Last time we looked at the introduction to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. That introduction already contained much of what gets fleshed out in the rest of the short book, so I’m going to mostly summarize stuff until we hit anything that requires serious critical thought.

The first chapter goes into how computers have changed the way we view knowledge. It was probably an excellent insight that required argument at the time. Now it’s obvious to everyone. Humans used to gain knowledge by reading books and talking to each other. It was a somewhat qualitative experience. The nature of knowledge has shifted with (big) data and machine learning. It’s very quantitative. It’s also a commodity to be bought and sold (think Facebook/Google).

It is a little creepy to understand Lyotard’s prescience. He basically predicts that multinational corporations will have the money to buy this data, and owning the data gives them real-world power. He predicts knowledge “circulation” in a similar way to money circulation.  Here’s a part of the prediction:

The reopening of the world market, a return to vigorous economic competition, the breakdown of the hegemony of American capitalism, the decline of the socialist alternative, a probable opening of the Chinese markets …

Other than the decline of the socialist alternative (which seems to have had a recent surge), Lyotard has a perfect prediction of how computerization of knowledge actually affected the world in the 40 years since he wrote this.

Chapter two reiterates the idea that scientific knowledge (i.e. the type discussed above) is different than, and in conflict with, “narrative” knowledge. There is also a legitimation “problem” in science. The community as a whole must choose gatekeepers seen as legitimate who decide what counts as scientific knowledge.

I’ve written about why I don’t see this as a problem like Lyotard does, but I’ll concede the point that there is a legitimation that happens, and it could be a problem if those gatekeepers change the narrative to influence what is thought of as true. There are even known instances of political biases making their way into schools of scientific thought (see my review of Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger).

Next Lyotard sets up the framework for thinking about this. He uses Wittgenstein’s “language game” concept. The rules of the game can never legitmate themselves. Even small modifications of the rules can greatly alter meaning. And lastly (I think this is where he differs from Wittgenstein), each speech act is an attempt to alter the rules. Since agreeing upon the current set of rules is a social contract, it is necessary to understand the “nature of social bonds.”

This part gets a little weird to me. He claims that classically society has been seen either as a unified whole or divided in two. The rules of the language games in a unified whole follow standard entropy (they get more complicated and chaotic and degenerate). The divided in two conception is classic Marxism (bourgeoisie/proletariat).

Even if it gets a bit on the mumbo-jumbo side through this part, I think his main point is summarized by this quote:

For it is impossible to know what the state of knowledge is—in other words, the problems its development and distribution are facing today—without knowing something of the society within which it is situated.

This doesn’t seem that controversial to me considering I’ve already admitted that certain powers can control the language and flow of knowledge. Being as generous as possible here, I think he’s just saying we have to know how many of these powers there are and who has the power and who legitimated that power before we can truly understand who’s forming these narratives and why.

In the postmodern world, we have a ton of different institutions all competing for their metanarrative to be heard. Society is more fractured than just the two divisions of the modern world. But each of these institutions also has a set of rules for their language games that constrains them.  For example, the language of prayer has a different set of rules from an academic discussion at a university.

Chapters 7-9 seem to me to be where the most confusion on both the part of Lyotard and the reader can occur. He dives into the concept of narrative truth and scientific truth. You can already feel Lyotard try to position scientific truth to be less valuable than it is and narrative truth more valuable.

Lyotard brings up the classic objections to verification and falsification (namely a variant on Hume’s Problem of Induction). How does one prove ones proof and evidence of a theory is true? How does one know the laws of nature are consistent across time and space? How can one say that a (scientific) theory is true merely because it cannot be falsified?

These were much more powerful objections in Lyotard’s time, but much of science now takes a Bayesian epistemology (even if they don’t admit to this terminology). We believe what is most probable, and we’re open to changing our minds if the evidence leads in that direction. I addressed this more fully a few years ago in my post: Does Bayesian Epistemology Suffer Foundational Problems?

… drawing a parallel between science and nonscientific (narrative) knowledge helps us understand, or at least sense, that the former’s existence is no more—and no less—necessary than the latter’s.

These sorts of statements are where things get tricky for me. I buy the argument that narrative knowledge is important. One can read James Baldwin and gain knowledge and empathy of a gay black man’s perspective that changes your life and the way you see the world. Or maybe you read Butler’s performative theory of gender and suddenly understand your own gender expression in a new way. Both of these types of narrative knowledge could even be argued to be a “necessary” and vital part of humanity.

I also agree science is a separate type of knowledge, but I also see science as clearly more necessary than narrative knowledge. If we lost all of James Baldwin’s writings tomorrow, it would be a tragedy. If we lost the polio vaccine tomorrow, it would be potentially catastrophic.

It’s too easy to philosophize science into this abstract pursuit and forget just how many aspects of your life it touches (your computer, the electricity in your house, the way you cook, the way you get your food, the way you clean yourself). Probably 80% of the developed world would literally die off in a few months if scientific knowledge disappeared.

I’ll reiterate that Lyotard thinks science is vastly important. He is in no way saying the problems of science are crippling. The above quote is more in raising narrative knowledge to the same importance of science than the devaluing of science (Lyotard might point to the disastrous consequences that happened as a result of convincing a nation of the narrative that the Aryan race is superior). For example, he says:

Today the problem of legitimation is no longer considered a failing of the language game of science. It would be more accurate to say that it has itself been legitimated as a problem, that is, as a heuristic driving force.

Anyway, getting back to the main point. Lyotard points out that problems of legitimating knowledge is essentially modern, and though we should be aware of the difficulties, we shouldn’t be too concerned with it. The postmodern problem is the grand delegitimation of various narratives (and one can’t help but hear Trump yell “Fake News” while reading this section of Lyotard).

Lyotard spends several sections developing a theory of how humans do science, and he develops the language of “performativity.” It all seems pretty accurate to me, and not really worth commenting on (i.e. it’s just a description). He goes into the issues Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem caused for positivists. He talks about the Bourbaki group. He talks about the seeming paradox of having to look for counterexamples while simultaneously trying to prove the statement to be true.

I’d say the most surprising thing is that he gets this stuff right. You often hear about postmodernists hijacking math/science to make their mumbo-jumbo sound more rigorous. He brings up Brownian motion and modeling discontinuous phenomena with differentiable functions to ease analysis and how the Koch curve has a non-whole number dimension. These were all explained without error and without claiming they imply things they don’t imply.

Lyotard wants to call these unintuitive and bizarre narratives about the world that come from weird scientific and mathematical facts “postmodern science.” Maybe it’s because we’ve had over forty more years to digest this, but I say: why bother? To me, this is the power of science. The best summary I can come up with is this:

Narrative knowledge must be convincing as a narrative; science is convincing despite the unconvincing narrative it suggests (think of the EPR paradox in quantum mechanics or even the germ theory of disease when it was first suggested).

I know I riffed a bit harder on the science stuff than a graduate seminar on the book would. Overall, I thought this was an excellent read. It seems more relevant now than when it was written, because it cautions about the dangers of powerful organizations buying a bunch of data and using that to craft narratives we want to hear while deligitimating narratives that hurt them (but which might be true).

We know now that this shouldn’t be a futuristic, dystopian fear (as it was in Lyotard’s time). It’s really happening with targeted advertising and the rise of government propaganda and illegitimate news sources propagating our social media feeds. We believe what the people with money want us to believe, and it’s impossible to free ourselves from it until we understand the situation with the same level of clarity that Lyotard did.

What is an Expert?

I’ll tread carefully here, because we live in a strange time of questioning the motives and knowledge of experts to bolster every bizarre conspiracy theory under the sun. No one trusts any information anymore. It’s not even clear if trusting/doubting expert opinion is anti/hyper-intellectual. But that isn’t the subject of today’s topic.

I listen to quite a few podcasts, and several of them have made me think about expertise recently.

For example, Gary Taubes was on the Sam Harris podcast and both of them often get tarred with the “you don’t have a Ph.D. in whatever, so you’re an unknowledgeable/dangerous quack” brush. Also, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast is insanely detailed, but every ten minutes he reminds the audience “I’m not a historian …”

Many people who value the importance of expertise think that the degree (the Ph.D. in particular but maybe an MFA for arts stuff) is the be-all-end-all of the discussion. You have the Ph.D., then you’re an expert. If you don’t, then you’re not.

The argument I want to present is that if you believe this, you really should be willing to extend your definition of expertise to a wider group of people who have essentially done the equivalent work of one of these degrees.

Think of it this way. Person A goes to Subpar University, scrapes by with the minimal work, kind of hates it, and then teaches remedial classes at a Community College for a few years. Person B has a burning passion for the subject, studies all of the relevant literature, and continues to write about and develop novel ideas in the subject for decades. I’d be way more willing to trust Person B as an expert than Person A despite the degree differences.

Maybe I’ve already convinced you, and I need not go any further. Many of you are probably thinking, yeah, but there are parts to doing a degree that can’t be mimicked without the schooling. And others might be thinking, yeah, but Person B is merely theoretical. No one in the real world exists like Person B. We’ll address each of these points separately.

I think of a Ph.D. as having three parts. Phase 1 is demonstration of competence of the basics. This is often called the Qualifying or Preliminary Exam. Many students don’t fully understand the purpose of this phase while going through it. They think they must memorize and compute. They think of it as a test of basic knowledge.

At least in math and the hard sciences, this is not the case. It is almost a test of attitude. Do you know when you’re guessing? Do you know what you don’t know? Are you able to admit this or will you BS your way through something? Is the basic terminology internalized? You can pass Phase 1 with gaps in knowledge. You cannot pass Phase 1 if you don’t know where those gaps are.

Phase 2 is the accumulation of knowledge of the research done in your sub-sub-(sub-sub-sub)-field. This basically amounts to reading thousands of pages, sometimes from textbooks to get a historical view, but mostly from research papers. It also involves talking to lots of people engaged in similar, related, or practically the same problems as your thesis. You hear their opinions and intuitions about what is true and start to develop your own intuitions.

Phase 3 is the original contribution to the literature. In other words, you write the thesis. To get a feel for the difficulty and time commitment of each step, if you do a five year Ph.D., ideally Phase 1 would be done in around a year, Phase 2 is 2-4 years, and Phase 3 is around a year (there is overlap between phases).

I know a lot of people aren’t going to like what I’m about to say, but the expertise gained from a Ph.D. is almost entirely the familiarization with the current literature. It’s taking the time to read and understand everything being done in the field.

Phase 1 is basically about not wasting people’s time and money. If you’re going to not understand what you’re reading in Phase 2 and make careless mistakes in Phase 3, it’s best to weed those people out with Phase 1. But you aren’t gaining any expertise in Phase 1, because it’s all just the basics still.

One of the main reasons people don’t gain Ph.D.-level expertise without actually doing the degree is because being in such a program forces you to compress all that reading into a small time-frame (yes, reading for three years is short). It’s going to take someone doing it as a hobby two or three times longer, and even then, they’ll be tempted to just give up without the external motivation of the degree looming over them.

Also, without motivating thesis problem, you won’t have the narrow focus to make the reading and learning manageable. I know everyone tackles this in different ways, but here’s how it worked for me. I’d take a paper on a related topic, and I’d try to adapt the techniques and ideas to my problem. This forced me to really understand what made these techniques work, which often involved learning a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t have if I just read through it to see the results.

Before moving on, I’d like to add that upon completion of a Ph.D. you know pretty much nothing outside of your sub-sub-(sub-sub-sub)-field. It will take many years of continued teaching and researching and reading and publishing and talking to people to get any sense of your actual sub-field.

Are there people who complete the equivalent of the three listed phases without an actual degree?

I’ll start with the more controversial example of Gary Taubes. He got a physics undergrad degree and a masters in aerospace engineering. He then went into science journalism. He stumbled upon how complicated and shoddy the science of nutrition was, and started to research a book.

Five years later, he had read and analyzed pretty much every single nutrition study done. He interviewed six hundred doctors and researchers in the field. If this isn’t Phase 2 of a Ph.D., I don’t know what is. Most students won’t have gone this in-depth to learn the state of the field in an actual Ph.D. program.

Based on all of this, he then wrote a meticulously cited book Good Calories, Bad Calories. The bibliography is over 60 pages long. If this isn’t Phase 3 of a Ph.D., I don’t know what is. He’s continued to stay abreast of studies and has done at least one of his own in the past ten years. He certainly has more knowledge of the field than any fresh Ph.D.

Now you can disagree with his conclusions all you want. They are quite controversial (but lots of Ph.D. theses have controversial conclusions; this is partially how knowledge advances). Go find any place on the internet with a comments section that has run something about him and you’ll find people who write him off because “he got a physics degree so he’s not an expert on nutrition.” Are we really supposed to ignore 20 years of work done by a person just because it wasn’t done at a University and the previous 4 years of their life they got an unrelated degree? It’s a very bizarre sentiment.

A less controversial example is Dan Carlin. Listen to any one of his Hardcore History podcasts. He loves history, so he obsessively reads about it. Those podcasts are each an example of completing Phase 3 of the Ph.D. And he also clearly knows the literature as he constantly references hundreds of pieces of research an episode off the top of his head. What is a historian? Supposedly it’s someone who has a Ph.D. in history. But Dan has completed all the same Phases, it just wasn’t at a university.

(I say this is less controversial, because I think pretty much everyone considers Dan an expert on the topics he discusses except for himself. It’s a stunning display of humility. Those podcasts are the definition of having expertise on a subject.)

As a concluding remark/warning. There are a lot of cranks out there who try to pass themselves off as experts who really aren’t. It’s not easy to tell for most people, and so it’s definitely best to err on the side of the degree that went through the gatekeeper of a university when you’re not sure.

But also remember that Ph.D.’s are human too. There’s plenty of people like Person A in the example above. You can’t just believe a book someone wrote because that degree is listed after their name. They might have made honest mistakes. They might be conning you. Or, more likely, they might not have a good grasp on the current state of knowledge of the field they’re writing about.

What is an expert? To me, it is someone who has dedicated themselves with enough seriousness and professionalism to get through the phases listed above. This mostly happens with degree programs, but it also happens a lot in the real world, often because someone moves into a new career.

Year of Short Fiction Part 5: The Call of Cthulhu

Somehow I went my whole life without reading a single thing by H.P. Lovecraft. Since we’re still doing short fiction from the early 20th century, I decided to rectify that. I’m not much of a reader of horror, but there’s certainly a lot any writer can learn by studying the genre. And let’s face it, The Call of Cthulhu is one of the most important works of horror to every be written both from a literary and cultural perspective.

There is a joy in experiencing this story with little knowledge of the plot, so I’ll word things in a vague way to keep the secrets untold.

The first thing to jump out at me was the dense prose style. The first two sentences already indicate this is not your average pulp genre writing:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

I had to look up a few words in the first pages, though some of these might have been more standard back when it was written (e.g. bas-relief). These opening lines set up much to come. The main character has to piece together various found stories to get the full picture (i.e. “correlate all its contents”). Later we will get a scene set on infinite black seas. So these lines had full intention behind them to set up later parts of the story.

I was a little surprised by how real it was. One might say it is written in a hyperrealist style. The level of detail provided is almost distracting. At times, it was hard to remember the story was fiction instead of reading actual travel logs and notes by people. There are many names, and each of these people have precise degrees and jobs and even full addresses (7 Thomas St., Providence, R.I) associated with them.

In other places, we’re given exact coordinates of various sightings: S. Latitude 34° 21′, W. Longitude 152° 17′. This gives the reader precise information about the settings of various events, but at the same time, it’s kind of useless unless you pull yourself out of the story to Google it (as I did). These details mostly serve the purpose of making everything as real as possible.

This story really hits upon one of the things I wanted to encounter when I started the series. There’s close to a full novel’s worth of material in it, but it’s somehow packed tightly into a single short story.

This hyperrealism is part of what makes this possible. Instead of getting lots of lengthy “show don’t tell” descriptions that usually flesh out a single moment into a full short story, Lovecraft presents several detailed fragments that the reader must piece together on her own. In this way, we get years of events in a few pages, and it all feels natural since we’re just reading a few primary sources along with the main character.

This makes it hard to tell exactly what is happening, but this is done to give the reader the same experience as the narrator, who also doesn’t know what’s happening.

And now we’re in horror. It’s often said that the most suspenseful and horrifying things are those things we can’t see or understand. The structure of the story brilliantly puts you in the unsettled feeling of the unknown. It opens with a vague description based on a symbolic representation of the monster:

If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.

This cleverly lets the reader’s mind run wild over the first half of the story about what exactly this Cthulhu is. Lovecraft proceeds to add mystery upon mystery: sudden deaths, cults, people going mad, and conspiracy. It’s somewhat brilliant in how it continuously adds suspense without resolving earlier mysteries.

Lovecraft keeps you guessing with that unsettled feeling. Is the main character interpreting this correctly? Is he putting together a set of unrelated things? Is he going mad? Or maybe, worst of all, he’s right, and all of this has been hidden from the rest of us.

Overall, I think a lot can be learned from studying this story. The dense and flowing prose style is impressive on its own. I may have to do a whole “Examining Pro’s Prose” on it. Moreover, the tension and forward motion Lovecraft creates through mystery and hidden information is excellent. Lastly, he brilliantly packs in so much information through the use of non-linear structure.

 

Elements of Writing that Annoy Me Part 2

I wrote the first of these something like three years ago. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood or the writing I read really is getting worse, but certain things have been getting on my nerves a lot. It’s time to pick this up again!

  1. Not trusting your reader. This is a typical flaw of first-time novelists. They have a beautiful idea and execute it in a clever, original way, but they are so fearful the reader will miss what they’ve put all this work into that they overdo it.

It’s like if someone were to tell you a joke, you laugh, and then they say, “Did you get it? Here, let me tell you why it was funny.” There’s never a reason to do this. If someone didn’t get your art without you telling them, then it failed. Telling them what it’s about doesn’t fix that. For everyone else, they already got it, so there is no need to re-explain it.

The example that jumps out to me the most is the movie A Single Man. I thought this movie was brilliant when it came out, but the ending made me cringe a little. A new character comes in right at the end and explains it all to you. I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters, so maybe I’d feel differently now.

The other way this manifests is in thoughts and exposition. I hate when a book explains how a character feels right after it was demonstrated.

Sally yelled, “I hate you!” Fred annoyed her so much, and she was beginning to hate him.

That’s obviously not a real example, and I exaggerated it to illustrate the point. But I’ve seen things almost this bad.

2. Alliteration. I have a theory about alliteration. When you’re in a flow state of writing, the brain makes a lot of weird connections. So when you get to a noun like “book” and you want more description, the brain naturally jumps to something like “boring” or “bothersome” or “bad.”

I have no evidence to support this theory. I’ve noticed in my own writing that this is when it tends to creep in. Don’t get me wrong. Alliteration is a literary device that can be used to great effect when done right. But if you find it in a first draft, it should pretty much never make it to the final draft. It was probably an accident.

I view the misuse of alliteration to be a mistake on par with a grammar mistake. I know this sounds unfair, since it’s only a prose style error. It falls under the category known as “diction.” I’m not sure why standards have gotten so lax in this category. You will never find this error in great writers of the past, but it’s everywhere now.

It’s hard to say what annoys me so much about it. I think it’s some combination of thinking about why it happens. It’s either laziness on the writer’s part or lack of knowledge on the writer’s part or laziness/lack of knowledge on the editor’s part or the writer ignoring the editor’s advice. All of these are pretty annoying reasons.

3. Semi-dangling modifiers. Okay. I made this up. It’s not a real thing. If a book is traditionally published, it should go through an editor good enough to not allow any actual dangling modifiers. A dangling modifier is when you start a sentence with a clause that modifies a subject not actually present in the sentence.

An example: Having eaten a large breakfast, lunch was unappetizing. The first clause has an implied person as its subject. The second clause has “lunch” as its subject. This is an easy fix: Having eaten a large breakfast, I found lunch unappetizing. Now the implied subject of the modifying clause matches the subject of the sentence.

Beginning with modifying clauses in general can be grating. If this were in something I was editing, I would strongly suggest the change: I found lunch unappetizing, because I ate a large breakfast. It converts the sentence from passive to active voice, and it clarifies the logic.

Now I’m going to pick on a real book to illustrate what I mean by “semi-dangling modifiers.” I’ve been reading The Bees by Laline Paull, and she does this all the time. I don’t want to pick on her too much, because I actually see this in a lot of what I read. I just happen to have that book on my desk right now. Chapter 21 begins with this sentence:

Shocked at her own act, Flora was among the first out.

When I read this, I had no idea what act it referred to, because I had put the book down at the chapter break. But let’s not dwell on that (this might be against 1 in trusting your reader too much by starting a chapter with a reference to the last event of the last chapter).

The modifier is not dangling, because Flora is the subject of the sentence. I call this “semi-dangling,” because the clause has no logical connection to the main sentence. When a sentence begins with any clause, it is implied that the sentence could be rearranged in a way to make it clear how the clause contains relevant information to the rest of the sentence. In the example I gave above, we learned why the I found lunch unappetizing.

In this example, the clause could be deleted without losing anything, and so it should be deleted! It’s semi-dangling in the sense that the clause itself never refers to something relevant to the rest of the sentence.

People, stop semi-dangling your modifiers. If the clause is irrelevant, delete it. If it is important information but has no logical connection to the res of the sentence, make it a whole new sentence.

Year of Short Fiction Part 4: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those weird cultural staples that literally everyone has heard of it. Most people over a certain age have probably seen the movie, but ask them what it’s about, and they probably have no idea. It’s kind of fascinating to think how a novella/film gets to such a point. I can’t even think of another cultural phenomenon of this type.

I was pretty excited going into this for a few reasons. I, too, had seen the movie enough years ago to not remember it. Oh, there’s the long cigarette, and a crazy cat, and a wacky party girl, and singing “Moon River,” but what was it about? What was the plot? The other reason I was excited was that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is one of two books that have ever made me cry. The way he writes is breathtaking.

The first thing to jump out at me was the vulgarity of the language. It was published in 1958, so we’ve moved past short fiction that hides indiscretions. But I still must imagine this novella pushed what was acceptable for the time. It openly talks about prostitution and homosexuality and a 14-year-old girl getting married to an adult man. Plus, Holly’s language is very direct and crude (I don’t recall if she swears, though).

Lolita came out a few years before Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Tiffany’s doesn’t compare in disturbing imagery to that. So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. It had more to do with tone than imagery, though.

The novella is basically a long character study, and it does an excellent job at this. Holly has to be one of the strangest characters of all time. Capote’s attention to detail is incredible. Almost every sentence that has Holly in it is crafted to expose some tiny piece of how her mind works. An early example is that the location on her business card is: traveling.

At first, it comes off as chaos. Nothing about the character makes sense, and the sentences she speaks come out in a stream-of-consciousness level of confusion. But then, by about halfway or so, she’ll do something weird, and you find yourself thinking: that’s so Holly. There appears to be a deep internal logic to it. Holly feels very real and knowable.

The plot itself is fairly melodramatic. It goes by at rapid-fire pace. This short novella has Holly being in love with and engaged to several people. She travels to probably a dozen places, often not even in the U.S. There’s parties. She’s involved with a scheme to smuggle drugs orchestrated by a man in prison. She gets pregnant and miscarries. It’s almost impossible to take stock of all that happens in this, and there’s almost no real emotion behind any of it.

Capote clearly did this on purpose. Holly’s character is flighty, and she often jumps into things without any thought. If we think of the novella as a character study, then all these crazy events occurring is part of the brilliance of the novella. The plot doesn’t have weight for the main character, so it would be a mistake to have the events play a significant role to the reader. Holly moves on, and so should the reader.

And now we come full circle. No one remembers the plot to Breakfast at Tiffany’s by design. We’re only meant to remember Holly. Even her last name is “Golightly.”

The only moments of emotional poignancy are when the narrator reflects on it all, and when we see beneath Holly’s shell. He falls in love with Holly for real (this is a bit of a theme to the book: what is love?). This is quite well done, because it contrasts so starkly with Holly’s indifference and shows how devastating her indifference can be as she tears through people’s lives.

Capote gives Holly one piece of depth that prevents her from being some caricature of a socialite. She cares deeply about her brother, and it is probably the only real human connection she’s ever had. A lot of her carefree attitude stems from a disturbing fact dropped subtly in tiny details. She runs from human connection because of the psychological trauma of being a child bride.

Overall, the novella was way better than I expected in terms of character development. It was also sort of disappointing in a way. I went in expecting it to be a romance between the narrator and Holly done in a brilliant literary Capote-esque way. It’s not that at all. But once you get over the initial shock (and genre confusion), it’s brilliant.

The Book of the New Sun

It took me three months, but I finally finished The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It was published as four novels, but it is clearly one giant novel. Each one practically ends in the middle of a sentence, and none are standalone. There’s so much to say about this, and yet it basically defies talking about.

The initial critical reception was quite good. It was published throughout 1980-1983. So it fits into a transition time for SF/F. The pulps had died off by this point and a lot experimentation happened in the 60’s and 70’s, but the genre hadn’t fully evolved into the literary phenomenon that it would become by the end of the 90’s.

This book is very much ahead of its time in this sense. The Washington Post said Gene Wolfe is “the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced.” Maybe. But the genre has taken the best of both worlds: fast-paced genre action/adventure/fun and quality literary writing that imparts deeper meaning on subsequent readings.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any sufficient amount of time will know my views on abstract, difficult, or avant-garde art, especially writing and music. I love it. I love having to dig in and listen to a piece of music 10+ times to start to understand what’s going on.

These types of pieces often give the listener the most rewarding artistic experiences. As DFW once said (I paraphrase), art is a relationship between artist and viewer. Relationships can’t be meaningful if all the work is done by one side. The more you put into experiencing a work of art, the more you get out of it.

Anyway, I won’t rehash that argument any further. My views when it comes to long novels have evolved a bit. There’s something of a difference between getting more on repeated readings and requiring multiple readings. It’s a respect thing. I respect an artist who promises more depth on another visit. An artist is disrespecting my time if I spend three months experiencing their art only to be told at the end that I can’t have understood it on the first time and I absolutely must spend another three months rereading it to make that first time around meaningful.

So that’s where The Book of the New Sun ends. The novel intentionally draws the reader out of the story many times. Two of the most difficult points for me were the long play within the novel in Book 2 and the sequence of short stories told by various characters in Book 4. Yes, I get that they are vital pieces to that underlying secret story that couldn’t be understood the first time. But they’re pretty obnoxious if you aren’t on that second read.

Overall, don’t let this dissuade you from reading these. The first read is pretty good outside of those complaints and a few meandering bits. The futuristic society Wolfe creates is shockingly deep and remains fresh and original today despite the number of dystopian/dying earth novels that have come out since then.

The writing is incredible. Wolfe is often too good I’d say. First off, he has created an SF/F series with a bunch of weird terms that sound oddly fitting. It turns out that every strange word in the book is actually a legitimate English word that has fallen to the wayside of history. This is an incredible idea to create both an ancient, strange sound that also feels very familiar. Same thing with the names of characters. They look all fantasy-like, but they are all names that were common at one point in history but have fallen out of fashion.

The dense, precise writing often challenges the reader to stay in the story rather than contemplate what it says:

War is not a new experience; it is a new world. Its inhabitants are more different from human beings than Famulimus and her friends. Its laws are new, and even its geography is new, because it is a geography in which insignificant hills and hollows are lifted to the importance of cities.

Many genre writers, to the extent that they think about prose, might want to show the horror of war by having the description be short, choppy, and crude like the thing it is describing. How many times have you read something like: “War is hell—horror everywhere. It changes your world.” This is lazy and cliched writing.

Wolfe’s elegant imagery does so much to bring the terror to the readers mind. War is a new world. This hinges on the cliche, but the followup prose doubles down on the imagery by precisely describing the geography of this new world: insignificant hills are lifted to the importance of cities. I get chills when I’m transported to such a devastating world. And then I’m off thinking about this and pulled out of the story. It’s almost a catch-22: write too well and it might be a distraction to the reader. I’m only half joking about this.

The astute reader is presented with some difficulties early on. The narrator claims to have a perfect memory. Later on, we start to get contradictory information about what happened. So either he lied about his memory or he’s lying to us about parts. This isn’t a logic puzzle. We have 100% confidence that the narrator is unreliable at that point, which puts the reader in an awkward position.

Since I recently read Imajica, I was struck by the similarities. I’m pretty sure Barker was not inspired by New Sun, but the archetypes and structure are the same. Barker has the Reconciliation and Wolfe has the Conciliator. I guess these, or similar terms, are bound to come up in any grand savior plot.

Will I reread this? I’m not sure. It won’t be anytime soon for sure. Do I recommend it? I’ll cautiously say yes. It’s very, very good. As Neil Gaiman said, “The best SF novel of the last century.” I’m not willing to go that far.

My main reservation is that you’ll certainly struggle at points, and you might be disappointed that everything changes at the end, requiring another reading. On the other hand, if you want to sink a few years of your life into discovering the hidden depths of an excellently written book, this is probably your best bet (seriously, peruse urth.net for a half hour to see the truth of this).

 

Thoughts on Barker’s Imajica

I believe I read a Clive Barker novel about fifteen years ago, but I have no idea what it was. A few years ago, I read some of his short stories, and this reinforced the conception I had of Barker as a horror writer, which isn’t really my thing. Still, Imajica came up on my radar for some reason, and I decided to give it a go.

Wow. I’m so glad I did. It’s going to be fairly difficult to describe anything about this book. It’s very weird, but in a wildly inventive and wonderful way. There are some gory images here and there, but I’d most certainly not classify it as horror. It’s more of a surrealist examination of spirituality? So kind of like The Holy Mountain.

I’ll try to set up the premise to give you an idea of the bizarre-ness, though, the whole point of the novel shifts by about 1/10 of the way through it. There’s Five Dominions. Earth, as we humans know it, is the Fifth Dominion. We’ve never seen these other magical places.

There’s a longtime conspiracy of people (I use this term lightly) making up a secret society to keep the Fifth Dominion separate from the other four. There is a way in though.

The novel begins with a man who is so in love with a woman, Judith, that he hires an assassin to kill her after she breaks up with him (obviously so she can’t be with anyone else). He has second thoughts and contacts Judith’s ex, Gentle, to stop the assassin. He succeeds. The assassin, Pie, is a being from one of these other dominions that doesn’t really have a gender. It becomes basically whatever it’s lover wants to see in it.

Pie seduces Gentle by appearing to be Judith. Gentle learns of what it did, and Pie takes Gentle into the other dominions. They gradually fall in love. Also, a billion other things are going on by this point, so don’t think that’s “really” the story. It’s about revelation, separation, unity, isolation, love, sex, power, God, redemption, finding meaning, culture, and on and on.

Don’t panic. It’s not done in a way that tries to be about everything and ends up being about nothing. This novel really tackles the big questions in a focused and metaphorical way. It just so happens that these big questions encompass all those other things.

Here’s some things I think the book does really well. There is a gigantic amount of information hidden to the reader: the conspiracy, how these other dominions run, the cultures there, the background on the conflicts, why the Fifth is separated, and so on.

Barker manages to slip this information to the reader in gradual and subtle doses over 600 pages or more. This means the novel stays story centric and engaging with almost no information dumps. It’s actually kind of brilliant how he does this. Often, you will hear things that make no sense. This causes you to reconcile your view of what’s going on with your existing theory. It’s only after you’ve done this many times that the full picture comes into focus.

Another thing I didn’t expect was how good the prose was. I expected genre horror writing full of stock prose: nothing bad but nothing great either. Instead, I found excellent execution of register shifting (often thought to be the most advanced and subtle techniques of prose style).

Register shifts refer to changing the type of language used to adapt to a situation. For example, if you’re hanging out with some friends, you might say, “‘Sup?” This is an informal register. If you’re at a job interview, you might say, “Hello. How are you doing? It is very good to meet you.” This is a formal register.

The thing that makes this so difficult in prose writing is that the context of scene must determine the proper register. When you first try to do this, it will probably be overdone, and this will change the voice. It must be done with enough subtlety so the voice remains consistent and only the register of the voice changes.

Most people will never notice if a writer has done this well. It is usually obvious when a writer doesn’t do it or overdoes it. We tend to say the writing fell “flat” in an absence of register shifts (a great term because there weren’t any up or down shifts in register).

The register tends to reflect the dominion we’re in. This is because as the dominions get closer to the First, the people get closer to God. The register shifts up to indicate the formality and ritualistic nature of religion. Take an early scene.

Gentle took off his heavy coat and laid it on the chair by the door, knowing when he returned it would be warm and covered with cat hairs. Klein was already in the living room, pouring wine. Always red.

This is quite low. There’s even a sentence fragment. The sentences are simple and to the point. The descriptors are common.

Now take a midway scene in a different dominion.

Like the theater districts of so many great cities across the Imajica, whether in Reconciled Dominions or in the Fifth, the neighborhood in which the Ipse stood had been a place of some notoriety in earlier times, when actors of both sexes had supplemented their wages with the old five-acter—hiring, retiring, seduction, conjunction, and remittance—all played hourly, night and day.

This single sentence is almost double the length of the entire three sentences above. The structure is quite complicated: subordinate clause, appositive, etc. This is an elevated register. The same sentence in a lower register would be “Whores could be found on the streets of the city in which the Ipse stood.” We could lower it even more or raise it to more formal levels than what was written. But it strikes a delicate balance of beautiful description in elevated voice.

I know it’s kind of mind-boggling to think that Barker did all this, but I noticed it early and then paid close attention. It is consistent throughout, which makes me think it is not some accident or coincidence.

Lastly, the symbolism is amazing. It draws on and reinterprets many famous Biblical stories. I can’t get into it, because I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read the book. It is some of the best of this type of writing I’ve seen. It isn’t so direct as to be cringe-worthy, and it is all done in an inventive re-imagining.

It’s kind of sad I didn’t read this during my Year of Giant Novels. It possibly would have been the Number 1 book of the year.

Year of Short Fiction Part 3: The Red Pony

The Red Pony is in one sense a novella published by John Steinbeck, but in another sense it is a collection of four short stories, originally published episodically in magazines. This makes it slightly difficult to pin down exactly what date to slap on this. The first story was published in 1933, so it came out before all his most famous works.

I was pretty excited to read this, because Steinbeck is one of the best long-form “family epic” writers. His masterpiece, in my eyes, is East of Eden, which chronicles several generations in great detail. It is true that The Pearl and Of Mice and Men and other of his short works pack a punch, but nothing compares to the deep characterization he pulls of in his longer works.

I’m torn on this one. It’s certainly my least favorite of the short fiction series so far. I can intellectualize it’s strong points, but I didn’t connect with any part of it. And the end is super weird, but we’ll get to that. Obviously there will be “spoilers,” but I haven’t really been saying that considering these stories are a hundred years old and only take an hour or so to read.

All four stories form key moments in Jody’s maturation from childhood to adulthood. Steinbeck does a great job of establishing his innocence in a small amount of space by dropping small details throughout the beginning. One of the most interesting was that Jody had a rifle, but he wasn’t allowed bullets until he demonstrated maturity with it for a full year.

This is Steinbeck establishing family dynamics and rituals. It shows that Jody hasn’t undergone one of the key rituals on the path to adulthood. The first story is about how Jody trusts Billy to take care of a horse that eventually dies. Steinbeck cleverly foreshadows this by mentioning the buzzards at the start that eventually deal the horse’s final blow.

I see the novella as a sequence of four deaths and how Jody matures in reaction to each as he ages. In reaction to the death in the first story, Jody lashes out in anger and can’t understand how the adults in his life didn’t protect him from it.

The second death is stranger. A man comes to the family’s house and wants to live out his last days there because it is where he was born. This brings another perspective to Jody. The man rides off to the mountains with an old, dying horse. Again, the horse and human presumably die, but Jody learns of a more mature way to accept the inevitability of death through this stranger.

The third death is of a pregnant horse. This horse must die to save the pony inside of it. This teaches Jody of the circle of life. Death can bring about new life, which itself will eventually die.

Though Jody doesn’t realize it, this is a redemption story for Billy. Billy had promised not to let the horse die in the first story, and he feels guilt for letting it happen. Here, he promises Jody the colt inside the horse, and he has to kill the horse to deliver it. He succeeds in his promise this time. He gives Jody a horse to make up for the one that died and can let go of his guilt.

The final story doesn’t actually have a death in it, but Jody’s grandfather comes to live with the family. The grandfather participated in traveling west across the country. It was a grand adventure, but the grandfather makes it very clear such adventure is over. This kills Jody’s dreams of doing the same.

This is the final straw in Jody’s maturation. He learned of death, life, violence, the fallibility of adults, and now his boyhood dreams are gone. He must learn to live pragmatically in the real world.

The ending was extremely strange at first.

Jody ran into the kitchen where his mother was wiping the last of the breakfast dishes. “Can I have a lemon to make a lemonade for Grandfather?”

His mother mimicked—“And another lemon to make a lemonade for you.”

“No, ma’am. I don’t want one.”

“Jody! You’re sick!” Then she stopped suddenly. “Take a lemon out of the cooler,” she said softly. “Here, I’ll reach the squeezer down to you.”

Lemonade hadn’t made an appearance for the whole novella. What on Earth could this ending be?

It solidifies the idea that Jody has fully matured. His youthful self merely would have feigned interest in helping his grandfather to get himself a lemonade. The only reason the mother can think of that he wouldn’t want one is that he’s sick. But then she realizes he has matured. He’s acting selflessly, and so she encourages it.

I get what Steinbeck was doing. I just didn’t find it very compelling. I dreaded picking it up when I stopped between stories. There is pretty much no narrative momentum. Part of this comes from the stories being early in Steinbeck’s career, but I think when you look at it broken down in the way I did, it becomes clear that this is first and foremost a carefully constructed exercise. It’s obviously well done. I just didn’t like it much.