The Seneca Scourge is a medical thriller with science-fiction elements. It follows Dr. Sydney McKnight as she finds herself in the midst of a seemingly incurable influenza pandemic. Aiding the staff at her hospital is the mysterious Dr. Casper Jones. As the pandemic spreads, Dr. McKnight notices Dr. Jones behaving oddly.
As she investigates in between treating the ever-growing patient population, Dr. McKnight gradually uncovers the shocking truth about Dr. Jones.
That’s the spoiler-free synopsis. If you don’t want to know the plot twist, don’t read after the asterisks below. My spoiler-free review is that it is a very well-paced thriller that successfully combines fairly plausible depictions of medicine and viruses in the first half with science-fiction elements in the second half. If you like either medical thrillers or science-fiction (and especially if you like both) I recommend it highly.
Now, if you want to know more detail, with spoilers, read on.
One of the best things you can say about a work of fiction is that it changes how you think about life. To my mind, what makes something truly great Art is if it gives you a new perspective on everyday life.
This might be why a some people don’t think video games are Art. Nobody does anything different after playing, say, Pac-Man.
To summarize briefly: “reactivity” means that the game world reacts to the player character’s choices. Rather than just being a set series of tasks the player performs to advance the story, a reactive game environment means the player can influence what happens in the game world. This means a game has multiple endings at a minimum, and usually different ways to complete tasks or different story arcs to follow as well.
Reactivity makes for a satisfying game experience. You feel like you are really participating in the game-world, rather than just pressing buttons to turn the pages in someone else’s story.
This is where the “applicable in real life” part comes in: people like reactivity in the real world, too. We don’t typically think of it in those terms, but it’s true. People like to feel like their actions mean something.
Usually, people are at their most unhappy when they feel powerless. We want to feel like we have some measure of control in our lives, and some input in what happens in the world. We never have total control, of course, just as the player of a game doesn’t either–there is always the possibility of losing.
For example, people like it when other people listen to them. If somebody presents an idea, they like other people to engage with it, rather than just dismiss it. At a basic level, listening to people’s ideas is a kind of a reactivity–it sends the message that their input matters.
The fact that people like it when you listen to them isn’t a revelation. A guy named Dale Carnegie wrote at length about it in the 1930s. So did Stephen Covey in the 1980s. But reactivity is a handy way of understanding the concept. If you think of everyone as a player character in their own video game, you know that what they are looking for is the opportunity to influence the world.
I won’t even attempt to give a summary of this book’s plot. It’s too madcap to describe. I’ll simply say that the protagonist is Ray Parisi, a former sports analyst with a serious gambling addiction, and the book chronicles his increasingly outlandish attempts to win back his ex-wife.
This is the plot in brief, and to realize that it can be laid out so simply is stunning to me, because that doesn’t even begin to do the book justice. Parisi’s mis-adventures lead him to encounter all sorts of memorable characters and surreal situations.
At times, the book reminded me of John Kennedy Toole’s classic Confederacy of Dunces. The plot is not as intricate, and its final act is not as satisfying, but it has that same tragicomic charm.
For all the strange (and sometimes awkwardly contrived) scenarios, the book never loses touch with reality in terms of how its characters behave. The plot may be implausible, but the human interactions are as true-to-life as can be.
And make no mistake; the plot really strains credulity. Parisi is on the run from the law throughout the book, and it seems hard to imagine he could evade capture as long as he does; especially given his downright reckless behavior.
Credulity is imposed upon further by the segment in which Parisi inherits some $600,000, increases it to over $1 million by playing Blackjack in Vegas, loses it all in a fit of despair, then somehow gets all the way back to $2 million through yet more gambling. (His comeback requires, among other things, successful bets on 11 and then 23 in roulette, followed by more uncanny wins in Blackjack.)
Plots that hinge on things like specific cards being drawn at a given time are always in danger of seeming ridiculously contrived. (See Gayden Wren’s criticism of the opera The Grand Duke, for example.) But Tambakis manages to keep us invested enough in Parisi’s epic, ill-advised quest that we forgive the byzantine coincidences it takes to sustain it.
I suspect that most readers care more about characters than they do about plot. They will forgive an unlikely coincidence, or two, or even more, if at the end of it they have a compelling situation in which they can fully engage with a character. Implausibility is the cornerstone of all fiction–if it were plausible, it would cease to be fiction.
And it is because of its engaging characters that Swimming with Bridgeport Girls truly shines. Parisi is, by any objective measure, a bad man, and yet we cannot help liking him all the same. In the Las Vegas section of the book, there are several memorable passages in which he clearly explains the logic of an addict. It’s so well-written that you can almost see his point of view, even as you wish he would stop destroying his life.
Each chapter is written from Parisi’s perspective, but prefaced with a quote from his ex-wife’s journal. These quotes offer a different perspective on events in the novel, and help remind us that as likeable as he is, Parisi is also terribly selfish.
The ending–which I won’t spoil too much here–is not a happy one, though not completely tragic either. In fact, it feels like more of a tragic ending than it truly is, if you know what I mean. I just can’t help thinking that it should have ended on a more hopeful note. Parisi hardly deserves a fairy-tale ending, but he also doesn’t deserve the really gloomy note on which his story ends, either.
The book is both extremely funny and intensely sad; hopeful and despairing–sometimes in the same chapter. I think it’s best if you can read it in a short period of time, and allow yourself to get caught up in it, just as Parisi himself is, and rejoice at all his triumphs, short-lived and short-sighted though they are. It makes the pathos of the ending that much more powerful.
So I started reading Paradise Lost by John Milton. But before I even got to the poem itself, there was this:
“The measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rime both in longer and shorter Works, as have also long since our best English Tragedies, as a thing of it self, to all judicious eares, triveal and of no true musical delight: which consists only in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoyded by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rime so little is to be taken for a defect though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem’d an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to Heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing.” [All the typos are in the Wikisource text, and I assume are as found in some original. I think they are due to the fact that English spelling had not yet been standardized.]
Clearly, Milton was not a fan of rhyming. Or rimeing.
I think it’s sort of funny that he started out his Biblical epic by kvetching about rhyme and meter. I like to imagine that some poor sap saw a draft of Paradise Lost and asked, “Why doesn’t it rhyme?” And it set Milton off.
I particularly enjoy the “It may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers” bit. That’s brilliant! I think I’m going to put a disclaimer at the start of all my writing from now on: “Readers, if you don’t like this, it means you’re stupid. It’s a work of genius.”
Paradise Lost may be a great poem, but I think it’s fair to say English rhyme is still going strong in spite of Milton’s objections.
I’ve heard lots of criticisms of video games over the years, but Jeff Vogel’s critique that they have too many words is a new one. He makes a strong case against one particular game–Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity. After reading his article, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Pillars is too verbose. The character creation and menu screens are packed with tons of text for the player to wade through.
I’m less sure about whether this is really a trend in gaming generally. After all, Pillars was explicitly designed as a throwback to the beloved text- and lore-heavy Black Isle RPGs. For example, Planescape: Tormenthas over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.
Some players really do seem to enjoy the atmosphere of a game rich with background material. It may be true that much of the information is irrelevant to the game’s mechanics, but this is High Fantasy, and one of the things High Fantasy fans look for is a sprawling world filled with many interesting details that don’t all fit into the main narrative.
Using lots of words is indeed a problem, as Vogel says, but not just in games. The High Fantasy trope of giving tons of background information can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Pillars of Eternity intro is nothing next to the dense opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. In general, when writing in a genre, you will try to emulate the most successful authors in that genre, so it’s hard to blame Obsidian for looking to the work of Tolkien and his successors for ideas.
I myself have never been a fan of this style. And that’s despite the fact that some of my influences favored verbosity. Take H.P. Lovecraft for example–he was a pioneer in writing horror, but he tended to go overboard with some of his descriptions. I think some of that crept into my own early attempts at writing horror.
It’s much easier to use too many words than to use just the right number. The old line about “writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies. It’s easy to waste words, and that dilutes their intended effect.
Think of it this way: whenever you write something, eventually you will have to stop. You only have so many words before you have to hit send, or mail it to the publisher, or whatever. While the supply of words is theoretically infinite, in practice it’s severely limited–by the reader’s attention span if nothing else.
So, you want to maximize the value you get per word. What do I mean by “value”? Well, it’s whatever idea or feeling you are trying to communicate in your writing. If it’s an informational document or a bit of technical description, then you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you are writing a character who prefers to communicate non-verbally or who is just mysterious, you use few words, and you make them vague and open to interpretation.
Sometimes there is value in deliberately using too many words. The dramatist W.S. Gilbert (another of my favorites) would often have characters say things in as complicated and lengthy a way as possible for comic effect. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” as they say in big organizations.
Vogel is right that the Pillars opening screens are bad at conveying information. They could have communicated the same points more succinctly. But the problem is that in addition to giving the player some information, they are also supposed to be atmospheric. And you usually need more–or at least different–words to create an atmosphere than to just convey information.
It’s a difficult balancing act–the writer(s) must both communicate technical detail about how to actually play the game while also keeping the player immersed in the virtual world in which the story is set. (For an example of a character creation intro that is more integrated with the game and doesn’t bore the player, I recommend Fallout: New Vegas–-also by Obsidian.)
The “optimal” number of words is dependent on what the writer is trying to convey, as well as on the medium they are using. Obviously, a screenwriter is going to use fewer words than a novelist to describe the exact same scene, because the screenwriter knows they will have actors and sets that will communicate certain things visually.
To summarize, all writers, regardless of their subject, style or genre, should follow Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be as simple as possible–but no simpler.”
[I recently read the bookEating Bull, by Carrie Rubin. I loved it, and contacted the author. She very kindly agreed to be interviewed about her work. Enjoy!]
BG: I’ll start at the beginning: how did you get the idea for “Eating Bull”? Did the idea just come to you one day, did some specific incident suggest it, or…?
CR: A little bit of both. Overweight/obesity is a professional interest of mine. I’ve dealt with it in both a clinical and research setting. Many people assume a large BMI means a lack of willpower, but that’s both inaccurate and unfair. Many other factors come into play, especially our disastrous food environment where processed food, mega-sizes, and sugar-laden junk bombard us wherever we go.
Through fiction, I wanted to bring the issue of the food industry’s role in obesity to light. Plenty of nonfiction books exist on the topic, but with fiction you get an emotional element as well.
As for a specific incident, several years ago a tearful, severely overweight adolescent sat on my exam table and said: “Not a day goes by I don’t know I’m fat, because no one will let me forget it.” That was the catalyst for my teenage protagonist.
BG: The book has three “starring” characters, each of whom represents a different view on the roles of the individual and society in causing obesity. Can you discuss these viewpoints a little, and also how you balanced the amount of page time devoted to each? Was it difficult to strike that balance?
CR: I wanted to represent three viewpoints, from one extreme to the other, all of which exist in our society:
My secondary protagonist, a social-justice-seeking public health nurse, represents the viewpoint that society plays a huge role in our weight gain and must take responsibility.
My villain, an obsessive-compulsive fitness fanatic, believes obesity is entirely the individual’s fault and takes it upon himself to rid the world of “undisciplined sheep” … in a very bloody way.
My primary hero, an overweight teenager, falls somewhere in between, representing the viewpoint that both the individual and society play a role, but that society must make changes so that it’s easier for the individual to change too.
As for the number of pages devoted to each, I simply shifted to a new viewpoint with each chapter, rotating the characters on a regular basis, each carrying the story forward according to his or her point-of-view.
BG: Regarding the villain of the story, Darwin: He’s really a repulsive and terrifying character, but you also show just enough of a glimpse of his past to make the reader feel a little sorry for him at the same time. He seems genuinely mentally ill, rather than just a caricature of a psycho killer–I loved that. Any observations (or advice) on writing plausible, well-rounded villains?
CR: Villains are tricky to write. They can easily become one-dimensional. Rounding them out into full-fledged characters with likable—or at least relatable—traits is difficult, and I have a ways to go before I master that skill.
Darwin’s pretty despicable, but I tried to create backstory that would explain how he got that way. This proved even trickier considering I hid his identity until the climax. I had to flesh out his character without giving away who he was. That adds an element of mystery to the thriller and hopefully keeps the reader guessing until the end.
BG: I could go on forever about how much I liked the characters in “Eating Bull”. Expanding from just Darwin, what are your techniques on writing characters generally? Apart from the three starring characters, did you also write the supporting cast to reflect the central theme of the novel?
CR: Before I even start my outline, I define my main characters: their likes, dislikes, dreams, goals, mannerisms, etc. Characters drive the plot, so I like to have a firm grasp on them before I start much story planning.
As for the supporting cast, I usually have them in mind before I begin, but they tend to blossom as I go along. In Eating Bull I did indeed write some minor characters to reflect the central theme: the bullying grandfather and classmate, the unsupportive boyfriend who dislikes overweight people, the dietician and fitness coach who guide my main character toward his goal.
Some of the supportive characters heap a world of hurt on my teenage protagonist, but I wanted to reflect real life. In my research for the book, I attended a seminar in which the focus was to highlight the frequent fat-shaming that goes on in our society—including from the healthcare industry—and to shift the onus from weight loss to size acceptance. The tales the speakers told of the shaming they experience on a regular basis, from acquaintances and strangers alike, horrified me. I knew I needed to have my character experience the same thing if I wanted to be honest to the theme.
BG: What is the central message you want readers to take away from “Eating Bull”?
CR: I’ve already touched on that somewhat, but the main takeaway is: weight gain and loss isn’t as simple as calories in minus calories out. There are many other factors in the equation, including hormones, biological determinants, neurochemicals associated with addiction, socialization of food, poverty, food environment, built environments (poor walkability of a city, food deserts, etc.), and yada yada yada.
I could go on and on, but the point is, changes need to be made at all of these levels if we want to see real progress. Expecting the individual to do it alone hasn’t worked too well for us so far. It’s time to up our game.
BG: So, not to spoil anything, but you’ve mentioned you are working on another book. Any hints as to what to expect from it?
CR: I’m often reluctant to discuss my unpublished works (worried I’ll jinx things, perhaps?), but I can tell you my latest completed manuscript is a medical thriller with supernatural elements. There is no shortage of medical thrillers out there, so I like to change things up a bit. It’s pretty much ready to go, and I’ve just completed the first draft of the second in the series. I’d like to write at least three novels with the same recurring characters—maybe more—but each book will be a complete stand-alone.
BG: What other authors have influenced you, either in writing style or in genre/subject matter?
CR: I always get nervous with this question, because I worry I should list a number of literary greats, but that’s not how it is for me. I’m all about the storyteller.
In my teen years, Stephen King was a huge influence on me. More than just be a writer, I wanted to be a storyteller, and to me he’s one of the best. JK Rowling is in that category too—a gifted storyteller—and if I can match a fraction of their skill I’ll be happy.
In terms of writing medical thrillers, Robin Cook was my first influencer, and while his writing might sometimes get panned, he knows how to weave a good tale. I’m easy to please and can overlook a lot. Give me a story I can get lost in and you’ve got me as a fan forever.
Before I go, Berthold, I want to thank you for your support of my novel and for interviewing me on your blog. It’s a pleasure to be here and I enjoyed answering your questions!
BG: My pleasure. Thank you for your thoughtful and informative answers!
[Carrie Rubin is a physician, public health advocate and the author of medical thrillers Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. You can find her books here, and also be sure to check out her website and social media pages.]
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 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.
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.
Criticism is the only way you can improve as a writer.
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?