Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Book View Cafe News

Book view Café (BVC) has recently launched the ebook version of Chaz Brenchley’s urban fantasy, DEAD OF LIGHT. Published in 1995, the book was nominated by the British Fantasy Society for best novel. BVC is proud to bring the novel back into the hands of the reader. “One of the great joys of Book View Cafe is the opportunity to bring old favourites back into print. I don't think there's a book in my list that I enjoyed writing as much as "Dead of Light" and its sequel, "Light Errant…" Brenchley says.

Kudos from Val McDermid: "Brenchley is a writer who worms his way into the heads and hearts of his characters and tells their terrible, tragic truths. Dead of Light grips like superglue. Powerful, poetic and passionate, it reveals an assured and accomplished story-teller at the peak of his powers."

DEAD OF LIGHT can be purchased from the BVC bookstore here. at

Samples are on line here.

Monday, June 28, 2010

About "The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales"

The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales goes up today at the Book View Cafe.

This story grew out of a conversation I had with someone at a convention. The individual in question liked stories that gave him the proverbial "sense of wonder."

I don't read SF or fantasy for that reason. I like the real world and I like the fiction to have that same sense of verisimilitude of the real world. Or, as I like to say it to myself, some writers make the mundane fantastic; I make the fantastic mundane.

It's a gift.

I had just read some fairy tale retellings and I was struck by how they had retained the traditional disconnect between reality and fantasy even while they had placed them in urban settings, political intrigue and the bedroom. Elves were still elven. Fairies were still fairy. From what I could tell, the fairy tales were changed in setting only. It was a retelling without reimagination.

So I thought I'd give it a try.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Diet, Jaws and Human Evolution

It's been thought for some time that human diet might have something to do with evolution. That big brain is expensive and it needs to be paid for. One idea was proposed a few years ago. It turns out that the gene for salivary amylase, an enzyme that turns starch into sugar, has a variation in humans. We have multiple copies of that gene. This means we have significantly more amylase in our saliva which means significantly more starch is predigested. Hence, more calories for less effort.

One would expect it, then, to show up in older hominids by its absence; that is, by more robust jaws and teeth.

This was an interesting sidelight to the discovery of a new human species: Homo gautengensis. This hominid emerged about 2 MYears ago and died out about 600k years go. It is a robust species with large teeth and a small brain. It produced and used stone tools and could have made fire. Likely it was a close answer but not a direct descendant.

So, we think. Big teeth. Strong jaw. Maybe it had the amylase variations. Or did it have to digest with brute force.

Not so fast, I say.

It turns out those weak humans have a mighty bite-- better than chimps or orangutans. How? You may ask.

It turns out the big jaws and tough teeth of our ancestors aren't necessarily the best way to get a good bite. A new study suggests that though we are not so heavily muscled in our jaws are efficiency in biting is considerably greater than we might have otherwise considered.

A team in Australia found that the human skull does not have to be robust because it transmitted more of the muscle force to the teeth than our relatives. The teeth are highly adapted to a strong bite with a thick enamel-- which has been a bit of anomaly since we were considered wimpy biters.

One of the interesting features of great ape anatomy is the saggital crest. This ridge of bone across the center of the top of the skull is the place were big jaw muscles attach, the other end being the jaw. Big muscles mean more force to the teeth.

However, they may also restrict increase of cranial size since that increase would have to be at the cost of those muscles.

The new study suggests that humans found another way to apply that force, reducing the need for the big jaw muscles that covered the skull-- possibly another enabling change to allow increase in brain size.

You are what your ancestors ate.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Consideration of Works Past: Bester's Demolished Man

Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man was first published as a novel in 1953. It won the first Hugo for SF's best novel.

I've discussed Bester before regarding his novel The Stars My Destination-- you can read that post here. While my enjoyment of Stars has survived into my dotage, any enjoyment of TDM has since passed.

Bester was an extremely inventive writer and what enjoyment I still get from TDM comes from that.

The story must have been interesting back in 1953. In Bester's future telepaths (called espers) are present but rare. They are useful in most areas of society and have managed to create a world where murder is rare. If a telepath can tell you're going to murder someone he can stop you. (There is some similarity to Phillip K Dick's Minority Report. MR was published in 1956 and I can't help wondering if he was inspired by TDM. But I digress.)

There is, of course, a murder. The rest of the book is attempting to play pin the murder on the suspect.

Bester wrote this book in this overheated Mickey Spillane sort of style. Put the pedal to the metal and damn the footnotes. He does something a little similar in the style of Stars but in that case the characters are much more believably larger than life. Pushing a businessman in that vein is a bit harder to take. Which, by the way, is one of the problems I have with Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Much as I like architects, they never seemed all that hot.

The detective, Lincoln Powell, figures out very early on that Ben Reich has committed the murder. The rest of the book is Powell trying to figure out how to prove it within the rules of prosecution. These are pretty contrived: telepathic evidence, even by a policeman, is not permissible except under circumstances, all three components of the act, method, motive and opportunity, must be proven, the judge is a machine, etc.

There are a few interesting things in the novel. Bester was ahead of his time in realizing that in the future the proof of the crime would be the most difficult part while apprehension of the criminal would become easier. There is the aspect of how a telepathic "peep" might compromise the fifth amendment-- though in his future there's not much presence of a country. Places are mentioned but without any real government or legal presence. There's the idea of "demolition", the 24th alternative to capital punishment, where the memories and personality of the individual are destroyed and only the naked brain is preserved. How this is in any way more humane than actual death is not explored.

In fact, not much that he presents of things that are in fact interesting are at all explored.

What Bester was interested in was the esper community and how they interacted. And I think here is where Bester failed. He did present the idea that telepaths would require a community of their own and that ostracism to normal humans would be catastrophic. Fine and good-- however, a much better treatment of the role of telepathy and what it would mean to the individual is in John Brunner's The Whole Man. (I spoke about TWM here.) What Bester says in his book, once you strip out the pretty type facing, is not much more than I said. Ostracism is bad. Ostracism by telepathists is worse. There is also a long and execrable subplot involving a Freudian regression of a young girl back to a baby where Powell becomes the father figure and is, of course, her love interest by the end of the book-- but the less said about that the better.

The rest of the book isn't worth much to modern eyes except where it bears on Stars.

You can see in TDM a lot of techniques that Bester tried, failed and got right in The Stars My Destination. Bester was thirty when he wrote TDM. He had written some truly brilliant short fiction. TDM was his first try at a novel. It was serialized in 1952 prior to its actual publication in 1953.

After TDM he wrote a novel called The Rat Race, of which I know nothing except the cover. Tag line: "A savage, merciless satire of the TV business."

Which makes Stars his third novel. The work shows.

So: The Demolished Man: Not a great book. Interesting for its time. Hasn't weathered well.

But it does make me want to read The Rat Race.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Evolution and Randomness

I've talked a lot of about evolution in this blog. Now I'm going to point to someone else.

William Standsfield has written a true tour de force on how evolution works using the the old monkey chestnut: How long would it take a team of monkeys and typewriters to come up with Shakespeare?

This fallacious reasoning behind this chestnut is a common mistake in understanding evolution deniers often trot out. It's phrased: "It would take [X years/Y % probability] for this [evolutionary item of the moment] to occur randomly. Therefore, evolution can't be true."

The fallacy is, of course, evolution is anything but random.

Go read the article here. It's very good.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book View Cafe News

Last Chance in Book View Café’s Extraordinary Steampunk Photo Contest

Book View Café is winding up their SHADOW CONSPIRACY Extraordinary Photo Contest next week. Selected photos will be used as illustrations in the upcoming SHADOW CONSPIRACY Vol. II. Winning entries will receive copies of THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY, Vols. I and II, as well as other ebooks from member authors.

A readers’ choice award will be announced at the blog. (Prize TBA).

Rules for the contest can be found here.

Contest ends midnight July 1st, 2010.

Friday, June 18, 2010

DIY Friday

(Picture from here.)

It's another DIY day. With additional Very Cool Things.

These projects all look fun.

Go make things.

Very Cool Things
Skeletal anatomy of cartoon characters
Catapulting flaming bowling balls
Origami masks
Virtual pottery wheel
V: Great Lego Microbiologists
1:1 plywood space vehicles
Large Hadron Collider Popup Book
V: Thomas Kuntz
Matchstick Luthier
V: Origami Hang Gliders
One Creative Thing a Day
Coat hanger gorilla
Applied Kinetic Arts

Made by Hand
V:Adam Savage on problem solving
V: How do mecanum wheels work?
How a truss works
Useful mechanical animations
Fix It Channel

Laundry machine
Stirling engines: here, here
Tesla turbine and here
Steam engine
Bamboo bike
Lenz Turbine
Restoring a drill press
PC Fans->Wind Generators
12 V Air Conditioner
Rebuild a rear bicycle hub
Gas powered vacuum for gold prospecting
Mini charcoal furnace
Liquid nitrogen generator
Milling Machine for < $100
Solar trackers
Sewing machine -> scroll saw

Silver Cross
Key fob
Earbud sleeve
Spark plug biplanes
Macrame bracelet
Silver ring
Jerusalem Cross

Puff Pastry
Plum smoothies
Bread pudding
Shortbread cookies
Mexican salsa
Campfire twists
Molten chocolate baby cakes
Chewing gum
Rice krispies burger
BBQ sauce

Kitchen Equipment
Cookie cutter
Glass water bottle

Installing a hardwood floor
Vertical wine rack
Elephant piggy bank
Hungarian shelves
Baby mobile
Ironing board
Under bed storage unit
Aquarium water change device
Shoe shelf
Chitosan bandages

Small LED Projector
Edge lit displays
Computer control of AC devices
USB grass charging station
Home made projector
Electromagnetic assist pendulum
Solar pendulum
Twisting wire bundles
Tin can microphones
Algae powered lamp
Router -> Repeater
Synthetic aperture RADAR
Plumbing pipe lamps
Driftwood light

Drip Irrigation
Slug beer
Automated sprinkler system
Plantable greeting cards
General garden stuff
Bees in a bell jar
Hero's Fountain and here

Arts and Crafts
Dog fur for spinning
Yoshimoto Cube and here
Working paper gears
Zine making
Modular kirigami

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Looking Up, Near and Far

Two big things have come up in the last few days.

First, there's more water on the moon than we thought. A lot more. Perhaps as much as Lake Superior. That's the good news. The bad news is it's in the rocks and all over. There's a lot more moon than will fit in Lake Superior.

Carnegie Institute found hydroxyls in the mineral apatite. This was found in the rocks brought back from the moon.

The other interesting thing is bigger. Much bigger. Much, much bigger.

Some new research from Durham University suggests that errors in measurement of the Cosmic Microwave Background might change the composition of the universe. It might reduce considerably the amount that is made up of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. This might be interesting news for Dark Energy, since it appears to be accelerating the universe expansion, but the Dark Matter issues have bigger hurdles to cross. Namely, the missing mass in the orbital velocities of galaxies.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book View Cafe News

Book View Cafe to hold Moon and Sun Caption Contest

In celebration of the ebook edition release of Vonda N. McIntyre's Nebula-winning novel, The Moon and the Sun, BVC is hosting a Beaded Sea Creature caption contest. Beaded sea creatures are creations of McIntyre with designs based on hyperbolic and fractal surfaces. Sherzad, the sea monster, one of the main characters in The Moon and the Sun, would be familiar with creatures very like these: Coral reefs, sea anemones, nudibranchs, marine flatworms.

McIntyre's creatures have been exhibited in conjunction with The Institute for Figuring's Hyperbolic Coral Reef, at installations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dublin, etc. The next installation will be at the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C., USA, in the fall of 2010.

BVC is currently in need of appropriate captions for photos of the creatures displayed on their site. Asking fans to submit ideas in exchange for a chance to win a copy of The Moon and The Sun as well as one of the sea creatures is the perfect solution.

The contest for captions is running until Saturday, 1am (CDT). Announcement of winners will be at the BVC site on Sunday, June 20, 2010. Instructions for entering the contest as well as photos of the creatures can be found here.

Judges will be McIntyre and Deborah J. Ross.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Japan in Space

A couple of new things in space.

First, the Japanese Ikaros solar sail launch last month has unfurled. The photocells have generated power. Solar sails have been around in SF forever and it will be interesting, finally, to see if they work.

One wrinkle in the Ikaros project is they've embedded photocells in the solar sail. Such sails work by transferring momentum from photons to the sail generating thrust. However, you don't get something for nothing and I wonder if the transformation of photon energy to electrical energy will rob the sail of its thrust.

The other interesting thing is the Hayabusa has returned its cargo from the asteroid Itokawa. It's not clear yet whether or not the probe has fragments. There were some malfunctions during the mission. But we have high hopes. See here also.

Go Japan.

Monday, June 14, 2010

About "This Old Man"

This Old Man goes up over at Book View Cafe today. TOM was my first story about Old Man Hibbert. I like that character-- I've even written an unpublished 150,000 word novel in his world.

Post-apocalyptic stories are a staple in science fiction. I'm no different. My last sale to Asimov's was Jackie's Boy. Also a post-apocalyptic story. By the way, both Jackie's Boy and This Old Man take place in the same universe.

Same universe. Different apocalypses.

TOM is one of those stories I find hard to talk about. It's difficult to write about where the story came from without revealing too much about the story. It's better to read it.

I was certainly influenced by Laurie Garrett's book, The Coming Plague.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Looking for Life

One of the interesting things about life on earth is how it modifies the earth's surface. Oxygen, water and a host of carbonates and other compounds are directly the result of or considerably influence by living systems. A lifeless world has a different chemistry than a world with life.

Consequently, when we see odd things happening on other planets we immediately start to wonder if there are any kindred forms living out there.

There is, for example, methane on Mars. (And here.) Since it is readily observable in the atmosphere and it is just as readily destroyed it has to come from somewhere. Methane is one of the compounds in the atmosphere that suggest life-- at least, it suggests it on earth in the form of methanogenic bacteria. There are, however, other chemical processes that create methane-- iron reactions for instance. A new model of reactions actually destroy organic compounds (See here.) resulting in CO2 and methane.

Recently methanophilic bacteria were discovered in Canada. These bacteria consume methane and likely "breathe" sulfate. So, even if the methane on Mars doesn't come from life it could feed it. If the previously described reactions haven't destroyed them already.

But that's just life that approximates something we know.

Titan is a moon of Saturn. It has a dense atmosphere and liquid lakes if not oceans. The atmosphere is made up of nitrogen. It is filled with a dense fog of methane, ethane and other organics. It has wind and rain-- though what falls is not water but hydrocarbons. And it's cold. Very, very cold. Around -179 C (-290 F.) Water is never anything but solid. There is zero possibility of life on Titan.

Well, as we know it, anyway.

Turns out there should be more hydrogen and acetylene on Titan than there is. Some time ago, McKay and Smith suggested that a methane based life form, instead of a water based life form, could survive consuming hydrogen, acetylene and ethane. They suggested that the Huygens probe could give evidence of this by showing depletion of these compounds on the surface.

Now, it's been reported that there is not as much ethane and acetylene and more hydrogen than was predicted. The proposed chemistry is to combine acetylene or ethane with hydrogen, gain energy and excrete methane.

The hydrogen derives from UV exposure to methane, releasing the hydrogen and resulting in more complex hydrocarbons. The "lifeforms" would be reversing that process. (See here for another analysis.)

A difference between expected results and actual results is a long way from demonstrating life.

Which brings us to an important question: how do we demonstrate life? Out on these plants we don't have dogs coming around sniffing the equipment. And it's likely that if something did come around sniffing the equipment we might not recognize it as a dog or even be aware it was sniffing.

Some very smart people at the University of Buenos Aires have come up with a novel approach to the problem: an interesting use of a microbial fuel cell. An MFC converts chemical energy to electrical energy by utilizing microorganisms. Fundamentally, they view life as an organized set of redox reactions: reactions where oxidation of carbon to yield CO2 (oxidation) or the reduction of carbon to yield methane (CH4).

Oxidation is the loss of electrons or an increase of oxidation state.
Reduction is the gain of electrons or a decrease of the oxidation state.

The oxidation state is the hypothetical charge that an atom would have if all the bonds to the atoms were ionic. Ionic bonds are based on charge. Sodium (+1) binds with Chlorine (-1) to create salt. Sodium loses an electron becoming positive and and Chlorine gets it becoming negative. They attract each other and form a stable bond.

Usually, oxidation and reduction occurs simultaneously in a chemical reaction. One compound is oxidized at the expense of the other compound being reduced. These are called redox pairs. They are often sources of energy. Cellular respiration involves the oxidation of glucose and the reduction of NAD to NADH.

(NAD is nicotinamice adenine dinucleotide and is a coenzyme found in cells. It is built in cells for just this purpose.)

The point here is that oxidation/reduction reactions are a signal of respiration and are independent of oxygen or anything else. All that is needed is an electron source and an electron sink.

Which returns us back to Brazil.

The UBA team consists of two charged poles, an anode and a cathode, and a membrane between them. They theorize that any life form will use a redox reaction of some kind and it will involve freeing electrons and protons. The anode captures the electrons and the protons move through the membrane, completing an electrical circuit and generating current. They've now demonstrated it on several types of earth bacteria.

When we drop a UBA device on Titan, we might discover life when it turns on a light.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Book View Cafe News

Book View Cafe author Sarah Zettel has been nominated for the 2009 Sidewise Award for her novella, "The Persistence of Souls," from the collection THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY, Tales of the Steam Age, Vol. I, edited by Phyllis Irene Radford and Laura Anne Gilman.

THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY is an anthology of new fiction released in 2009 from Book View Press, the publishing arm of Book View Café, which is the Internet's largest professional authors cooperative. All the stories are set in a steampunk universe where the inventions of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage changed the world and Mary Shelly's tales of creating life were far more than a ghost story. Available exclusively as an ebook from Book View Press, the collection is part of the ongoing drive of Book View Cafe's professional authors to bring their work directly to the rapidly growing numbers of online and on screen readers.

Following on the heels of the success of the first volume, Book View Café will be releasing a second volume later this year: THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY VOL. II.

THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY can be purchased from the Book View Café bookstore here.

For more information on the Sidewise Awards, visit the Sidewise website.

Friday, June 4, 2010

All DIY All the Time

(Picture from here.)

Okay. Here's another links edition of things you can or might want to consider doing yourself.

Happy DIY Day!

Categorized for your enjoyment.

Tools & Fabrication
The RepRap Mendel
Lasersaur: Open source laser cutter
XY Plotter Pr0n


Fundamentally Cool
Musical Tesla coils

Body and Space Ornamentation

Kitchen and Food
Roast garlic
Health and delicious chocolate cake
Peanut chews
From scratch recipes

Medium Projects
Carving a spine hiking pole
Designer lighting fixture
Survival stove
Textbooks -> Minibooks
Diddly bow electric slide guitar
Desktop zen garden
Wooden centipede pull toy

Garden and Home
Hammock stand
Cold frame
Raised bed rotational garden
Log cabin playhouse
Movable carport garden
Upcycles for the garden

Getting rid of sunburn

Mad Skillz
Magic tricks
Fixing broken pin badges
Gelatin for molds and prosthetics

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On Writing: Character Integrity

(Picture from here.)

I think about writing a lot-- it's what I think the most about-- but I don't write about it much. I don't because I tend to think that artists talking about art is too often just self-aggrandizement. The work should stand alone.

But I've had enough discussions about such things lately I thought I'd put my thoughts down on electrons. If it works I'll do more of them.

In my fiction I've been working on something called character integrity for a while now, trying to understand what it means and how it works. It's related to something I've come to call writing honestly, which I'll come back to.

Character integrity is, simply, portraying a character in a story as a human being. Like most simple definitions, this is a lot more complex than it sounds.

For example, let's say you've created a really interesting universe with titanic deities, smarter and more powerful than humans in every way, that manipulate human beings without their knowing. Now, a story about such things needs a human being as a foil. But the titanic beings are manipulating human beings without their knowing. So, to have the human being the means by which the nature of the titanic deities are shown they have to interact with the human. So, now you're stuck. There are a few options:

  1. You make the titanic deities stupider than the human so they can be fooled. (Wheel of the World books)
  2. You make the titanic deities flawed or weak in some way the human can manipulate. (Lord of the Rings.)
  3. You make the human special in some extraordinary way. (pretty much any fantasy you can find on the shelves)
  4. You make the titanic deities human in some way to put them on even footing. (Lord of Light)
Sound familiar?

These can be, of course, combined. For example, if you substitute for titanic beings, adult powerful wizards, you have both #1 and #3 and get Harry Potter. If you take #4 out of the fantasy universe and put it in SF space opera you get Dune. All of these have been shown in Star Trek or Star Wars at one point or another. All of them are in heroic comic books all the time. All of them represent a compromise between what the author wants the character to do and what the character is capable of doing. There is another solution in this scenario: the human doesn't get to find out what makes the titanic beings tick.

After all, if these are superhuman titanic beings bent on manipulating humans for their own purposes, why should they reveal themselves to a lone human like an old Republic serial villain? Short answer: only because the author tells them to.

This brings us to the greatest enemy of character integrity: the author.

Any author worth his salt is going to want to write something that tells you something. It might be something as trivial as aren't submarines cool? (Tom Clancey, The Hunt for Red October) Or as profound as the drive that creates evil men can also in those men's redemption create greatness (Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination). But they want to tell you something. Characters are the fundamental mechanism by which these things are told.

(Not language. I have an ongoing argument with some colleagues that language is the fundamental thing in the story. I think so only in the same way that tires are the fundamental mechanism by which the road learns of automobiles. But that is another rant.)

A terrific example is Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Being a work of the 19th century, the example is not perfect. Still, Twain created a particularly limited narrator to view the world and show the things he wanted to show. Because of that, he was forced to present them to his narrator in a way the narrator would understand and appreciate. There's a section where Huck ends up with the Grangerfords, as sophisticated and genteel a family as Huck has ever met. He's quite taken with them and cares for them deeply. They welcome him with affection and take care of him. They are, as far as he can tell, the sort of people he admires. Yet, they have a characteristic that Huck can only view as a flaw regardless of how he attempts to overcome his prejudice: they are involved in a feud with another family and kill each other to the last man. Here's the critical point: Huck is just sick with what happens. But the Grangerfords are quite comfortable with it. To them, it is an honorable and just state. They feel they are doing something that is to be admired.

The integrity is shown that at no point do any of the Grangerfords think of themselves as villains or less than honorable. At no point does Huck love them any less because of their flaw. And at no point does Huck ever embrace what they are doing. These are full human beings with all of their differences and neither side is forced by the author to make a "point". They make whatever point they are going to make on their own.

If I were to write a story from Hitler's point of view I'd probably have him thinking of himself as a German patriot, an Aryan purist, trying heroically to defend the dwindling power of his people against a monstrous Jewish hoard. That's likely what he thought about himself.

The problem in the current culture is we have this idea that drawing a character with understanding implies acceptance and forgiveness. That is simply not true. If "to understand all is to forgive all", then we must change our common definition of forgiveness. Understanding does not imply forbearance or absolution in any way. Presentation of someone who is evil from their own point of view should not imply that the author subscribes to the point of view. It should be no surprise that one of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Othello-- the good man destroyed by his flaws-- even though Iago is one of the weaker characters-- he has no good in him.

So that's what I do: dwell on the character from the character's point of view even if the point of view is offensive to my own.

But if you want to write about flawless heroic characters challenging the odds for the right reasons and prevailing, that's fine. Go to it.

But I find the idea boring.

Wall of Idiots

The Debt Peonage Society: 2005 description of what should have been repealed when the crisis hit

Links of Interest
DIY Repair of a Nuclear Turbine
Doctor Atomic and here.
Captain Disillusion
Catfish Tastes Human Flesh!
Kentucky Space
The Beautification Engine
Monkey Waiters
House of Mirrors. House of Windows: Clarence Schmidt

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Consideration of Works Past: Chosen Country

(Picture from here.)

(Review here.)

(Odd little YouTube on this here.)

Chosen Country, by John Dos Passos, is a unique book in my experience. It is a love story where the actual love story events occur in the last sixty pages of the book.

The lovers are Jay Pignatelli and Lulie Harrington. The book follows them through their the various intersections of their lives showing the evolution of their character until, when the love story is actually presented, it is inevitable. It's not that these two are destined to be with one another. It's that their lives have been so shaped by their experience and American society that when they are both ready and come together their love and marriage are an inescapable consequence.

It's a beautifully realized book. The characters are wonderful and the insight into the first part of the American century is stellar.

There are a couple of things that were important to me about the book. The first idea is how Dos Passos tells a story through many points of view and many characters. This is Dos Passos technique. But Chosen Country is a sweet encapsulation of this technique.

There is a deeper component to this technique. Dos Passos is, in my opinion, more aware of how the reader is experiencing the book than most writers. It's practically a necessity based on the technique. The effect of the book on the reader depends on a particular perception of the constellation of characters-- the books effect exists independently from the individual characters, scenes and words. It is the cumulative effect of the book that Dos Passos is driving for.

Of course, all writers strive for the same sort of cumulative effect. But in most works this derives from a single climax set of scenes where the particular plot points are explicitly resolved. Dos Passos, in Chosen Country, demands that the reader carry these plot points along, marked as the reader proceeds, on his own. Then, the reader has them all connected in his mind before the climax occurs. No restatement happens. The plot points or character points are often not even referenced. Such and such a thing happens and the reader, holding the rest of the cards that directly or indirectly reference these points, responds.

Compare, for example, the climax scene in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, when Ma Joad tells her daughter to nurse the dying father in the train, saying, in effect, that this is what they must do to survive. There are all the accoutrements of loss around them: the abandoned train, the lost family, the dying man, backing up what Ma Joad says. It's all right there in front of the reader. Many things resonate in the reader's mind-- Tom Joad running off, the loss of other family members, etc., but they resonate with something that's right there on the stage in front of the reader. We see Ma Joad's conclusion and empathize with her thoughts and emotions.

In Chosen Country, it's very different. Neither Jay nor Lulie have any inkling how their lives have built up to the moment they are in love-- that's something only the reader can know since only the reader has seen all of the events leading up to this moment. They only know what they can see. It is the reader and only the reader who sees everything in the novel. There is no Ma Joad telling the reader what has happened and how to feel. There is only Jay and Lulie who have come together and are part and parcel of the world they have lived in. Therefore, the reader has no example to empathize with but must in fact appreciate and empathize with all that has happened within the novel itself.

Imagine how exciting this was to read for the first time. There are almost no modern examples of this technique-- possibly Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner or Make Room, Make Room, by Harry Harrison. (There may be more I'm missing but they are not common.)

I've tried more than once to do it but it's escaped me.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

American Exceptionalism

(Picture from here.)

Good article here on how our "liberals" and "conservatives" compare to Britain's.

If you wade through the videos surrounding the Texas school book disaster (see blog entry here) you'll eventually find a couple of videos touting American exceptionalism. One of the speakers actually said they didn't want negative things said about the USA since it would "impact the student's view of American exceptionalism."

I am reminded of an old cartoon that I saw years ago-- and which I could not, unfortunately, find. The image was of a collection of animals: monkey, giraffe, wolf, dog, fish. All thinking: "And God created giraffe in his own image." "And God created wolf in his own image."

You get the idea.