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She’s a robot.  You get that, right? (Image via IMDb)

So, Ghost in the Shell has been something of a disaster at the box office. Which is too bad, because as I said in my full review, it’s one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years.

A big problem has been heavy criticism of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the main character.  The argument is that they should have gotten a Japanese actress to play the role, since the character is Japanese.

[Warning–I’m about to spoil a few plot points, so proceed with caution.]

But the thing is, the whole premise of the movie is that a sinister robotics corporation took the brain of a woman named Motoko Kusanagi and placed it inside an artificial body. (And re-named her “Mira Killian”.)  We only see Kusanagi’s human body in a brief flashback, and her features are difficult to discern in the scene.  Johansson just plays the artificial machine body in which Kusanagi’s brain is housed.

And this serves a dramatic purpose in the film: in the scene where Kusanagi in her mechanical body is reunited with her mother, the fact that they no longer have any resemblance makes the scene very poignant.  Even though she has her memories back, it underscores that something has been permanently taken away from them by the operation.

In addition, Johansson’s performance throughout the film was fine. So the whole controversy is really misguided–I suspect a lot of the people talking about it didn’t see the movie or even know the plot.

[Plot spoilers abound–but the power of this book is not in its plot, but rather in its atmosphere, so I don’t think it is ruined even if you know what happens.  But, fair warning…]

annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeer
“Annihilation” (Image via Wikipedia)

Annihilation is about a team of scientists–a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist and an anthropologist–sent to explore a mysterious region called “Area X”.  This place was created by some unexplained disaster called “the Event” many years in the past, and the 11 previous teams sent there have either disappeared or, more disturbingly, returned as mere shells of their former selves.

The biologist narrates the story, beginning with the team’s entrance into Area X.  The main features of the landscape are a lighthouse on the coast and a structure which most of the team calls a “tunnel”, but which the biologist refers to as a “tower”.

Almost immediately, they begin to encounter strange phenomena–eerie moaning sounds at dusk, and then, a strange and disturbing line of writing created seemingly in plant-life on the wall of the tower/tunnel.

Before long, the team begins to distrust one another.  The biologists sees the psychologist hypnotize the others, while remaining impervious to it herself.  The anthropologist is killed in the tower, by what the biologist believes to be a creature writing on the interior of the tower.

It soon becomes apparent that the biologist is not a reliable narrator, as she gradually reveals important details like the fact that her husband was part of the 11th expedition–one of those who returned as a mere shell, before dying of cancer months after returning home.

No one and nothing is entirely reliable in Area X, and this is part of what gives the tale its unnerving atmosphere.  VanderMeer skillfully creates a mood of gnawing dread by introducing this uncertainty.  Other writers would do well to mimic his method of creating fear through implication and speculation rather than through blood and gore.

Eventually, when it appears the psychologist has betrayed them, the biologist makes her way towards the lighthouse on the coast, leaving the surveyor behind at their camp after arguing with her.  At the lighthouse, she finds a strange picture of the lighthouse keeper from before “the Event” and, even more significantly, a huge pile of journals from previous expeditions–far more than the 11 that “officially” were supposed to have taken place.

Finally, she finds her husband’s journal, but does not read it.  She exits the lighthouse and finds the psychologist lying wounded outside.  She has been attacked by the same creature–which the biologist now calls “the Crawler” assumed to be responsible for writing on the wall of the tower.

After a brief exchange, the psychologist dies and the biologist makes her way back to the camp.  Along the way, she encounters the creature responsible for the eerie moaning noise, though she escapes and never actually sees it.  After that, she is shot by the surveyor, but is able to withstand it, apparently due to some infection or other mutation resulting from her time in the tower.

She shoots the surveyor, and then returns to camp to make final preparations to explore the tunnel and find the Crawler.  She reads through the journals she collected from the lighthouse, concluding with her husband’s. His account describes he and his fellow team members seeing their doppelgangers entering the Tower–suggesting that these doppelgangers are the entities that returned from Area X to the outside world.  Most significantly, his journal is largely addressed to the biologist; and is meant to express his feelings for her.

To me, this was the most extraordinary part of the entire book.  While she has at times discussed her relationship with her husband, and how its deterioration ultimately led him to volunteer to go to Area X, her tone has always been cold and detached.  When she reads the journal and realizes that her husband made the journey largely as part of a desire to connect with her, and regrets that she never tried to connect with him in the same way, her tone changes–real emotion comes through.

It’s a surprisingly romantic and touching passage–only a few paragraphs, but very moving.  Like Victor LaValle in his excellent Ballad of Black Tom, VanderMeer has succeeded in imbuing his tale of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with real human emotion–no mean feat, given that the genres creator premised it on the insignificance of humanity.

After reading the journals, the biologist enters the Tower and finds the Crawler–a suitably mind-warping encounter with the indescribable, in the best Lovecraftian tradition.  At the center of the unimaginable, incomprehensible thing, she sees the face of the lighthouse keeper from the photograph, providing some hint at the creature’s origin.

After this last encounter, the biologist decides to follow her husband’s last recorded plan which was to go to an island off the shore.  The book ends on an ambiguous and yet strangely bittersweet note.

I have said that the core of Annihilation is not its plot, but rather its atmosphere.  Reading what I have outlined here does not give you the sense of it.  VanderMeer writes the sort of story I love: an undefined time and place, with the tension residing in the eerie setting and the horror being the horror of doubting one’s own sanity.  He has written the book that At The Mountains of Madness wanted to be.

There are some flaws–early on, I felt it was bogged down too much by description. (Though i have frequently been found guilty of too little description.)  He uses the expression “far distant” too much, and occasionally the biologist’s detached, scientific tone would be jarred by the use of a word like “scary”, which seemed too simplistic to me.

But in spite of these flaws, it nevertheless remains one of the creepiest books I’ve read. If we use Lovecraft’s own definition of a weird tale:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

…then Annihilation serves as the very model of a weird tale.

Yesterday, I got the first bad review of my novella, The Start of the Majestic World.  My friends were consoling me about it, but the funny thing was, it actually made me happy, for two reasons:

  1. Criticism is the only way you can improve as a writer.
  2. It meant somebody actually read the book, and cared enough to review it.

The only thing about it that made me feel bad is that I’m sorry I couldn’t deliver a better experience to that reader.  If somebody takes the trouble to buy and read something I wrote, I want them to enjoy it. So, dear reader, know that I will do better with my next book, thanks in part to your input.

This brings me to my second point, which is that I try to get in touch with and thank all my readers, whether they like the book or not.  Reading a book takes time and costs money, and I appreciate that they are willing to invest both in mine.

But, thanks to the nature of the product, it’s hard to get find out who my readers are, unless they go out of their way to tell me.  This is rare.  When was the last time you wrote to some author to tell them what you thought of their book? Most people never write a review at all, let alone contact the author.

Also, my publisher has a strong policy against collecting user data.  This makes sense, because users hate having their data collected.  They worry that it will be sold, or that they will lose their privacy.  That is totally understandable.  Before I got into making and selling products, I felt the same way.  I hate the idea of some company gathering information on me.

Once I started selling things, I saw the other side of the issue.  That is, when you sell stuff–books, apps, whatever–it’s helpful to know who is buying it and why.  That way, you can figure out what drives sales, and get more people to buy your product.

So, the question is: how to gather that information from your users (readers, in my case) without seeming like a creepy, intrusive, dystopian corporation?

51ojcxq47jlThis book is probably the single most significant and influential book for my intellectual development.  It changed the way I thought about fiction.  When I talk about motifs and  imagery and thematic coherence in my reviews of novels, movies, TV shows, and yes, even video games–that is Wren’s influence.

Without this book, I might not have ever learned the critical skills needed to appreciate dramatic art the way that I do. I’m not saying everyone’s reaction to it will be the same–it’s probably just a function of it being the first piece of critical writing I ever read–but nevertheless, I can’t overstate how much it shaped my thinking. It influenced me tremendously as a writer of fiction as well–after all, you can’t criticize fiction if you aren’t willing to put your ideas into practice, and hold yourself to the same standard you hold others.

But enough about how it completely altered my life.  You’re here because you want to know if it’s any good.

Answer: yes, it is very good, although I disagree with Wren on a few points.

A Most Ingenious Paradox is a critical analysis of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Wren’s thesis is that each one contains a central theme, usually about Love, that is supported by all the lyrics, dialogue and music.  Wren argues that this underlying thematic element is the reason for the incredible staying power of the operas.

For example, the conflict of Love vs. Duty is a theme that occurs in at least 9 of the operas, and Wren argues that it is not fully realized until Yeomen of the Guard. (The only G&S opera with an unhappy ending.)

Wren’s thesis is that the endurance of the operas is due to their powerful central themes rooted in human nature.  Wren points out that scholars have long given the same reason for the longevity of Shakespeare’s plays. He makes a good case, offering extensive examples of how all the elements in each opera tie together to reinforce a thematic point–or don’t, in the case of less successful operas.

Still, there are some objections that can be raised to this idea.  For example, if Ruddigore is vastly more thematically coherent and developed than H.M.S. Pinafore–as Wren argues it isthen why has Pinafore been more popular, from its original run to the present day? Wren makes some effort to explain this, but never quite does.

(For the record: Ruddigore is my favorite of all the operas, and Pinafore among my least favorites, even though it was the first one I ever heard.  But while I agree with Wren’s analysis, there is just no way to argue Ruddigore is more popular. This suggests that perhaps the thematic element isn’t what determines a G&S opera’s fortunes.)

Then there is the problem of The Mikado, which is Gilbert and Sullivan’s all-time greatest hit, and Wren has to admit it is not as thematically sophisticated or emotionally deep as the operas either before or after it.  Wren writes: “The opera has something of the charm of a clever clockwork… [T]he ingenuity of the machinery is so remarkable, so flawlessly meshed, that it remains a source of joy on many repeated viewings.”

He’s right; and it would be hard to find any G&S fan who didn’t like The Mikado. But where does that leave Wren’s central argument? If the most enduring of the operas doesn’t contain the things he says make an opera endure, the whole thing looks shaky.

Re-reading it now, for the first time in about a decade, I realize I don’t–and never did–know if Wren’s main thesis is right or wrong.  And I don’t care.  What I do know is that it is an absolutely brilliant piece of critical analysis.  Wren’s masterful critique of what went wrong in Utopia, Limited should be required reading for all authors and dramatic critics. It is worth learning about the opera just to be able to understand that chapter.

Of course, if you don’t know Gilbert and Sullivan at all, you have to familiarize yourself with their work before the book will even be intelligible.  Obviously, I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t love G&S, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you won’t understand this book.

For anyone familiar with the operas, however, I consider it a must-read.

One of the early titles I considered for my novella The Start of the Majestic World was “Caligula in Washington D.C.” This was inspired partly by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famously discarded title “Trimalchio in West Egg”, and also partly because that was how I originally envisioned the villain of the story, Colonel Preston.

I was asking the old “can it happen here?” question, and trying to come up with a way that it might. I have read about the way various dictators came to power, particularly Napoleon Bonaparte, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, and those were all major influences on Preston’s plot in the book.

But Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin were all members of political/ideological movements.The extent to which they agreed with the original goals of their political movements varied, but they all at least used political movements to seize power. I wanted Preston to be somebody who was not a member of any political movement. I wanted a crazy but very intelligent person who was capable of largely cloaking his madness except to people who knew him well.

The idea of Preston being in the military was based mainly on Napoleon, and also to a degree on Julius Caesar, because that command structure and loyalty was something they exploited to take over the government. But Preston’s methods and his cruelty are more based on Caligula, Hitler and Stalin.

One idea I didn’t explore as much as I wanted to, but vaguely hinted at, was the idea that Preston is getting so out of control that his loyal followers are dwindling, and he is coming to rely more and more heavily on combat automatons to do his bidding.

The other thing I wanted to add was a small humanizing touch. Preston is close to being a complete monster (I actually toned him down a little from early drafts, believe it or not) and that can get tiresome. So I wanted to have a little bit of a hint that he hadn’t always been this way–something happened to him.

Strong villains are tough to write, mostly because it is easy to be lazy and let them be evil with no explanation. At the same time, I didn’t want to delve too much into his motivation, because that removes the mystery and takes away from the intimidation factor. I tried to give the reader just enough clues to imagine his motives for themselves.

Did I succeed?  Read the book and tell me.

A long, long time ago, I wrote about Ian Doescher’s delightful book The Empire Striketh Back–a re-imagining of the Star Wars film as though written by William Shakespeare.

Well, I recently learned that Doescher also wrote more of these books for the prequel trilogy.  As my readers know, I like the prequel trilogy very much, but there’s no denying it has a weak script that undercuts its other strengths. This is especially true of Attack of the Clones.

Doescher’s treatment fixes these problems. Most notably, it fixes the character of Anakin Skywalker.  In Doescher’s version, Skywalker seems like he actually cares about Padme Amidala.  This really helps the romance between them. (I know, you would think this would be obvious, but apparently it wasn’t to Lucas.)

That’s not the only improvement–all of the dialogue is much better when done in the style of the Bard.

The irony is that Lucas has always defended his awkward script by calling it “stylized dialogue”.  Well, Doescher’s dialogue is even more stylized; but what’s more is that it’s good. It trips off the tongue.

What Lucas should have done was give his story outline–which is very strong, with its political machinations, epic battles, and forbidden romance–to Doescher or someone like him, who could give it a fittingly poetic script to match.  Then maybe put the exceptionally talented cast under the direction of a Shakespearean director (say, Sir Kenneth Branagh?) and they would have really had something.  It would have been stunning.

The prequels are not bad–they just needed a better script.

Via Paul Graham, a WSJ article on teaching kids to write by banning them from using certain “boring” words, such as “good” “bad”, “fun” and “said”.  To quote from the article:

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.

Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

This reminded me of novelist Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing, one of which was: “Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.”

And people wonder why kids have trouble learning to write.

So then, who is right: the teacher or the novelist? My answer: it depends.

There are times when using something other than “said” is appropriate.  This is especially true with humor–saying “burbled” is so much better than “said” if you want people to laugh.

That said, you can go too far with it.  And since Leonard’s goal was to make the writer “invisible”, I would say in that case sticking with “said” is usually a good idea.

My rule of thumb: if it sounds right, use it.  If “said” doesn’t sound right, but “called” does, use “called”.  But don’t spend your time trying to find some other bizarre word if “said” will do.

Take this exchange from my novella, The Start of the Majestic World:

Maynard and Brett sat outside on the steps that led into the headquarters.  Brett was studying schematics of a sniper rifle on his tablet.  Maynard stared straight ahead, deep in thought.

“I’ve received no communication of any kind from anybody at the Bureau,” muttered Brett. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah, it does;” said Maynard slowly. “This is a Dead Zone.  They are blocking any signal they don’t want getting in.”

Brett nodded.  “And most likely any they don’t want getting out, too.”

“Yes.”

“But D.C. would know it was being blocked.  Any decent Intel machine would—”

“They want it blocked,” she said. “They don’t want to know, and he doesn’t want to tell them.  It’s better for everyone that way.  I’ve seen it a million times—I’ve just never been on the wrong end of plausible deniability before.”

The two agents sat in silence for a minute.

“They have to be listening to us,” said Brett.

“Probably,” said Maynard. “But they don’t give a damn what we say.  They figure there’s nothing we can do.”

The first time Brett speaks, I used “muttered” to indicate he was still looking at the rifle schematic, and not thinking fully about talking.  When Maynard responds, it becomes “said” because now they are just having a conversation.  And I dropped “said” or any variants after that, and left it to the reader to follow.

Leonard had some other interesting rules.  I took particular note of these two:

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

As I wrote recently, I used to believe this too.  Then I wrote a collection of short stories that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

I thought there must be some other problem.  So I wrote a novella that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

Was Leonard just wrong? Seems unlikely–he was an award-winning novelist. I am guessing it’s more that once you are a really good writer, it doesn’t take much effort to describe someone or something.  It barely feels like you are doing anything when you know exactly what words to use.  There have been great authors (John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald) who could take things that were not very interesting in themselves, and write gorgeous descriptive passages about them.

One of the most common criticisms of my fiction has been that there is not enough description. I’ve heard this from both P.M. Prescott and Jonnah Z Kennedy, as well as other readers who don’t have websites I can link to.  It was not an accident that there is so little description.  I had a hypothesis that most fiction contains too much description, and that this was particularly a problem in horror fiction, when describing things detracts from the horror.

I think my aversion to description goes back to when I read the following in Paul Graham’s essay “Taste for Makers”:

Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen’s novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.

That sounded good to me.  And hell, I thought,  it’s even more important to avoid description when you’re writing psychological horror than when you’re writing a comedy of manners.  Horror, I’ve always said, is all about the unknown, and nothing screws up the unknown like describing it.  So I made a conscious effort to not describe stuff; the idea being that people would fill in the details for themselves.

Based on the feedback I’ve received, this was a mistake.  Keeping description to a minimum was not a formula for success, at least not in my stories. Now, maybe there are other issues as well–maybe I didn’t tell the story well enough that readers could fill in the blanks.  But all  I know for sure is people specifically complained about the lack of description.

Fair enough.  So, how is it best to describe stuff?  Should I say:

The pale blue Autumn moon shone its faint light on the cemetery.  A passing cloud would now and again cast the ancient graveyard into darkness.  A howling of some distant animal echoed through the surrounding wood, and the bewitching southern wind wafted the leaves over the long-forgotten tombstones.

Or:

It was a dark cemetery.  The moon was occasionally obscured by clouds. It was windy, and a dog was howling far away.

The former is poetic, but it takes forever to convey a fairly simple scene.  The latter communicates the same information more quickly, but it seems boring and dry.

“Well, it depends what you’re writing!”, you say.  Ok, but in the above example, it’s the same basic point both times: to show the reader that we are in a graveyard at night.  And it’s creepy.  But what’s the best way of doing that?  Normally, one would think conveying that in as few words as possible is best.  And yet, writing: “They were in a graveyard at night” seems a little bare, doesn’t it?