Tag Archives: literature

Forgotten Gems: John Christopher’s Tripods

Tripods 1John Christopher’s Tripods is almost the definition of a forgotten gem: a work so influential that we see its effects pervasive throughout modern fiction and yet few realize where the influence originally came from.

The Tripods trilogy, consisting of The White Mountains, The City of Lead and Gold, and The Pool of Fire, is a young adult science fiction story about a future Earth that has been invaded and conquered by Tripods – gigantic, three-legged machines controlled by unseen aliens. The alien overlords have enslaved humanity through the use of ‘caps’, implants that allow them to suppress and control thought. In The White Mountains, young protagonist Will fears his upcoming capping ceremony (to be performed on his 14th birthday), and so with his friends Henry and Jean-Paul in tow, he flees his home seeking the legendary human resistance located somewhere in the White Mountains. Over the next two novels, the boys face more challenges, as Will is captured and subsequently rescued, and the trio eventually helps overthrow the reign of the alien masters in The Pool of Fire.

The imagery of towering alien tripods has persisted to this day, such as in video games like Half-Life 2 and Crysis, but though Christopher may have helped popularize tripods, he can’t take credit for imagining them himself. That honor would appear to go to H. G. Wells, whose iconic novel The War of The Worlds featured massive Martian tripods armed with heat rays and sporting fearsome dangling tentacles. Nor did Christopher popularize the idea of alien mind control through his ‘caps’, an idea which was explored almost two decades earlier in Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. So how exactly is the Tripods trilogy so iconic, then? The answer, I think, lies in the novel’s genre, plot devices, and themes.

You see, the Tripods trilogy is an interesting beast. It’s a dystopian, post-apocalyptic adventure story. Nowadays, that sort of story is a dime a dozen. In fact, the market is so over-saturated with YA dystopian novels that editors will (almost without exception) not even consider buying them. However, The White Mountains was first released in 1967, and at that point in time, such stories were virtually unheard of. John Christopher expertly evoked images of 15th and 16th century Europe and merged them with imagery of a deteriorated industrial society to create a ‘lost-technology’ society, which, again, is very much in vogue now but was rather novel at the time.

In addition, Christopher also used plot devices that are now extremely popular in modern YA fiction. For example, in The City of Lead and Gold, Will, Henry, and Jean-Paul enter an Olympics-style competition where the winners are offered as tribute to their alien overlords. Sound familiar? If you’ve read The Hunger Games or any of a host of other recent YA sci-fi/fantasy books, it should. Not to say that Christopher came up with the competition plot device, as he certainly didn’t, but, like his use of setting and his ability to create a compelling atmosphere, he used this and other plot devices to create a memorable, cohesive story.

Now, to be fair, while I’ve labeled the novels as young adult, the fact is that they are more likely middle grade works, and as such, it has been a very long time since I have read any of them. Therefore, I cannot vouch for whether or not they would serve as entertaining reads for adults. What I can say, however, is that they’re extremely fun reads for young boys, and at least for me, they helped create enduring imagery that has lasted into adulthood.

Finding Time to Write, Part 4: Mastering Somniscription

In ‘Finding Time to Write’, I offer methods that aspiring writers can use to free up time for their writing, or at least make the most of the time they have. So far, I’ve discussed making active choices to follow your passions, becoming selectively ignorant, and learning to say ‘no’.

The final installment in this series is about mastering the art of somniscription.

What is somniscription, you ask? It’s a revolutionary technique that, depending on your habits and physiology, could free up anywhere from 6-8 hours, on average, of daily time for your writing. Consider that! 6 to 8 hours, every single day! That’s enough to double, triple, or even quadruple your productive efforts, and all done through the simple technique of learning to write in your sleep.

Too Tired to Stay AwakeI am, of course, joking. Somniscription is a real albeit extremely rare disorder, but it’s not particularly useful. Somniscribes wake up in the morning having scrawled single, often illegible sentences in journals or on white boards, but no one, unfortunately, is able to write coherent fiction in their sleep.

(Note: This does not mean that sleep is wasted time, however, as the mind is often hard at work during sleep cycles. Solutions to problems, both real world and related to writing, can and often do come in your sleep, but writing while asleep is just not possible I’m afraid.)

Sadly, there are only so many ways to free up time for the things you love. While I’ve seen sites purport to offer 20, 30, or even 50 ways to free up time throughout your day, I think there are really only three core techniques, which I’ve discussed already. Succinctly, they are:

1)   Commit to the activities you are passionate about.

2)   Eliminate as many activities for which you are not passionate about as possible.

3)   Ignore distractions that keep your from your passions.

That’s it. If you can do those three things, you will find that you will, in fact, have time to do the things that you love.

Good luck!

Drawing a Line Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

So I’m currently about halfway through Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series, a “dying earth” style tetralogy which has been described as both science fiction and fantasy and has won awards in both categories. Whether or not the series is science fiction or fantasy is a good question, but simply trying to decipher the answer raised a new question: can a story be both science fiction and fantasy, or are the two mutually exclusive categories?

To answer that question we must first define science fiction and fantasy, which we can do with a little aid from Wikipedia and the internet.

The traditional definition of science fiction is a genre that encompasses stories with speculative elements that are at least scientifically plausible, if not necessarily scientifically possible. What does this mean? Well, if we ask ourselves if a story is possible based on our current understanding of science and the laws of nature and the answer is yes, then that story would be considered science fiction.

Consider some of the common elements of science fiction stories:

–       Space travel: We know this to be possible, the only question is how we could travel long distances through space.

–       Aliens: Given that mankind exists, and that we can extrapolate from current data that there are probably trillions of planets in our galaxy alone, then it is likely that alien life forms do exist.

–       Sentient computers/robots: Not a far leap considering computational advances over the last 60 years.

–       Time travel: Many theoretical physicists believe this to be possible. Time travel forwards in time is known to be real (see: time dilation)

Other common elements of science fiction include teleportation, advanced weaponry, genetic modifications, and more. Essentially, as long as science does not indicate that something is impossible, then it can be considered science fiction.

Fantasy stories, on the other hand, feature elements of the impossible like magic and supernatural creatures, including vampires, dragons, and trolls.

While there are other important differences between science fiction and fantasy genres, including thematic elements, story structure, and accepted tropes, at its core, science fiction is possible, whereas fantasy is impossible.

However, this definition falls short, and the reason why is a matter of perspective.

Cover of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which published both genres, though not necessarily simultaneously.
Cover of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which published both genres, though not necessarily simultaneously.

There is a famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke in which he stated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’ve seen people argue vehemently against this, stating that either something is technological in nature or it isn’t. This is true – simply because someone does not understand how something works does not make it magic. However, Clarke was an author, and his quote is referring to stories.

You see, stories we read are told from particular perspectives, and from a single, uneducated perspective, technology and magic can be indistinguishable. Imagine a story about technology written by two different people, one who believes in magic and one who does not. The individual who believes in magic will tell a very different story than the one who understands the inner workings of technology.

So, whether or not a story is science fiction or fantasy is not dependent upon whether or not the fundamental story elements of a story are possible or impossible, but rather whether the individual telling the story (either first person or third person) believes the events taking place to be possible or impossible, or more accurately, whether the narrator understands technology or believes in magic.

It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

So going back to The Book of the New Sun, is it science fiction or fantasy? We simply have to look at the narrator, Severian. As it turns out, he has no knowledge of science or technology whatsoever, and so the story comes across as fantasy, even if it is set in a plausible* future earth scenario. Of course, The Book of the New Sun is an interesting case, because it’s not traditional fantasy either. Given Gene Wolfe’s rather unique literary voice, reading the books feels more like embarking on a peyote smoke-induced fever dream than reading a fantastic tale, but given a choice between sci-fi and fantasy, fantasy gets the nod.

*Honestly, the story is not plausible. It’s totally bonkers, but some elements of what Wolfe throws at the reader are certainly based in technology.

Image credit: Featured image by DanilLovesFood (http://danillovesfood.deviantart.com/) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0), via deviantART. Post image by Steve (alittleblackegg) (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr.

Finding Time to Write, Part 3: Learning to Say No

Pen Writing 2In ‘Finding Time to Write’, I offer methods that aspiring writers can use to free up time for their writing, or at least make the most of the time they have. In part one I talked about having to actively make a choice to follow your passion, and in part two I covered the topic of selective ignorance.

Today’s topic is learning to say ‘no’.

Have you ever seen the movie Yes Man? It features Jim Carrey as a depressed bank loan officer who routinely declines opportunities to go and do things with his friends so that he can wallow in the misery of his divorce. Eventually, one of his only remaining friends confronts him and tells him that if he doesn’t start saying ‘yes’ to more opportunities, he’ll find himself alone and miserable for the rest of his life.

Carrey then attends a seminar from an inspirational speaker who convinces him of the power of saying ‘Yes!’, and Carrey goes through the rest of the movie doing anything and everything that people ask of him. Along the way, he meets a girl, falls in love with her, and then nearly loses her because he keeps prioritizing what others ask of him over spending time with her.

So the movie really has two morals.

The first is that it’s good to say yes. If you never agree to do anything out of your comfort zone, never agree to try new things and meet new people, then your friends, your acquaintances, and the whole world will leave you by the wayside. I think this is largely true. The phrases ‘optimism breeds opportunity’ and ‘optimism breeds success’ are reflective of this, in that people are attracted to confident, optimistic people and in that optimists are more likely to take chances and say yes than pessimists.

But the second moral of the movie is just as, if not more, important, and that is that you need to learn to say no. Though Carrey’s commitment to say yes led to him meeting a beautiful, interesting young woman, his inability to say no nearly cost him his relationship with her. He did not prioritize her, and so he nearly lost her. And that’s why ‘no’ is so important.

Saying ‘no’ is about prioritizing the things that you want to do over the things that others desire of you. It’s particularly important for writing. As I covered in part one, you have to make a choice to write, and part of that choice is saying ‘no’ to the things that will get in the way of your achieving your goals as a writer.

So next time someone asks you if you’d like to join then for some onerous task, say no, and feel confident in your choice. After all, you’re not ignoring them but rather choosing yourself.

Image credit: By Mark Grapengater (notashamed) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via Flickr.

How The Wheel of Time nearly smothered my love of reading… and yet miraculously also rejuvenated it

Wheel of TimeStrap yourselves in folks, because today we are talking about the one, the only, The Wheel of Time.

What is The Wheel of Time you ask? Well, in the broadest sense, the ‘wheel of time’ is a concept found in several religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, which regards time as a cyclical process whereby events repeat themselves over the ages as if they were notches upon a spinning wheel.

But here I’m talking about The Wheel of Time, a series of epic fantasy novels begun by the late author Robert Jordan and finished by Brandon Sanderson. If you’re a fantasy fan and you have not heard of The Wheel of Time, then quite honestly, I’m surprised. It is arguably the second most widely read and influential epic fantasy story ever written, behind only The Lord of The Rings. With at least 44 million copies sold, it is also one of the best-selling fantasy series of all time, behind only Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Twilight, and Terry Pratchett’s never-ending Discworld series.

But what The Wheel of Time is best known for is its length. As Derek Zoolander might say, it’s really, really, really, really, ridiculously long. You want numbers? Let’s talk numbers.

Now, the average person thinks of a book’s length in terms of pages, but this is a poor way to judge length, as pages can be different sizes and contain text of varying sizes, fonts, and line spacings. So authors and publishers use word count as a true measure of a novel’s length. Let me give you some word counts to feast your brains on:

–       A middle grade novel, for kids of ages 8-12, is usually around 20-40,000 words. Alice in Wonderland, for example, is ~27,000 words.

–       Young adult books, for kids ages 12 and up, usually come in at about 55-70,000 words, but that has been trending upward in recent years. The Hunger Games clocked in at about 100,000 words.

–       Very short adult novels might clock in at 50,000 words, like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but most are around 90-100,000 words.

–       Science fiction and fantasy novels tend to run long, and epic fantasy is the worst offender. 150,000+ words is not uncommon. The Fellowship of the Ring was about 187,000 words.

–       Then there’s really, honkingly huge novels: Les Misérables (~531,000 words), War and Peace (~587,000 words), and Atlas Shrugged (~645,000 words).

–       The longest single novel ever written (though it was published in seven volumes, so I’m not completely sure you can argue it really is a single novel) is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, coming in at an astounding 1.2 million words. Seems like a fitting title for such a long novel.

So what about The Wheel of Time, you ask? Well, the longest single novel in the series is the 4th, The Shadow Rising, which clocks in at nearly 394,000 words, but you have to understand that there are a full 14 novels in the series, plus a relevant prequel, and if you add up the length of all of those books, you get the full length of the series:

4.41 million words

What makes that number even more astounding is that The Wheel of Time is all one single story. Some authors, particularly those of mysteries and crime novels, will write serialized novels, where the main character is always the same but each novel centers around a different plot, but The Wheel of Time series focuses on a singular plot throughout the entire series. As such, I would hazard to say that The Wheel of Time might be the single longest story ever written.

Now, writers will often talk about ‘good length’ and ‘bad length’, and as masterful a storyteller as Robert Jordan was, he absolutely had his fair share of ‘bad length’ within the series. At times, the story slows to a snail’s pace. Then the snail stops moving and as a reader you wonder if the snail might have died.

The 10th book, Crossroads of Twilight, is often considered the most painfully slow and boring of all the novels. The plot summary of the novel on Wikipedia is hilarious. Every main character that appears in the novel simply continues to try to do whatever is was they were doing in the last novel. Quite literally, nothing of any consequence happens within the novel’s 271,000 words. To give you an idea of how poorly it was received by fans, the novel currently sports a rating of 1.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon, which is simply unheard of for a novel with over 2,500 reviews.

The series’ length was the main reason I was tentative about starting it and the reason I didn’t begin reading it until 2007, but embark upon the literary journey I ultimately did.

It almost destroyed my love of reading.

Let me first say that I have the utmost respect for Mr. Jordan. To attempt to create a tale of the length and level of complexity that he did… well, I don’t think anyone had ever attempted such a task before. And I certainly have yet to read any other fantasy series, even one a fraction of the length of The Wheel of Time, that has not traversed through some rocky reading terrain at some point. In fact, most incredibly long novels and series usually transmutate into extended philosophical ramblings (Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series comes to mind), but I never felt like The Wheel of Time became preachy. It’s just a really, really long story.

The problem is that no one, I don’t care how talented, can write 4.41 million words of gripping fiction revolving around a single story. And Mr. Jordan was no exception. As the series progressed, the tale slowed to a glacial pace. With each progressive book, subsequently fewer and fewer plot elements were resolved, nor were new ones introduced. And with each passing book, my desire to keep reading was incrementally diminished.

Now, us fantasy readers are a weird breed. We keep reading novels even when every sense of reason tells us to abandon them, simply because we want to see how a story ends. Honestly, I can think of only one fantasy series I have abandoned part way through, but that was because it had become so violent and poorly written that I lost all interest in the story. (Try to guess which in the comments! Might surprise you…) And so I kept reading The Wheel of Time, as it sucked my love for fantasy like a leech. At one point, I think I read two Wheel of Time books in a calendar year, and no other fiction.

I paused after the 10th book, arguably the most dreadfully boring of them all. I considered not finishing the series. But for some reason, I pushed onward and picked up book number 11.

I’m glad that I did.

Book 11, Knife of Dreams, was miraculously good. I’m not sure if Mr. Jordan was revitalized by his impending death (he suffered from a blood disease known as amyloidosis), but the book was riveting. After his passing, up-and-coming fantasy author Brandon Sanderson was contracted to finish the series, and in my opinion, he has done an astounding job.

Going back to the title of this blog, I’ve mentioned how The Wheel of Time smothered my love of reading, but how exactly did it revitalize it? As clear as this fact is to me, it is a difficult question to answer. Perhaps it is because my instinct to see series through to their conclusions was justified with a quality book delivered by Mr. Jordan before his passing and subsequently by several more from Brandon Sanderson. Perhaps it is because Mr. Sanderson’s online lectures reinterested me in writing and encouraged me to try my own hand at it. But there is more than that, I think.

There is a popular phrase, sometimes attributed to the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, that life is a journey, not a destination. I believe the same is true of a story. The plot of The Wheel of Time is fundamentally basic. It’s a coming of age story, of a young man coming to grips with his power and using it in the name of good to defeat evil. The story’s destination is among the most frequently visited destinations in all of fiction. And yet, the journey presented in The Wheel of Time is one of the most meticulously crafted, most in-depth, most all consuming I have ever read. Like life, it has its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows, its moments of passion and those of inactivity, but also like life, it is a journey worth having taken.

The final novel in the series, A Memory of Light, came out at the beginning of this year. I have yet to read it, but I look forward to doing so. Thanks Mr. Jordan and Mr. Sanderson for a great journey.

Image credits: Featured image by By Heikenwaelder Hugo, Austria, Email : heikenwaelder@aon.at, www.heikenwaelder.at [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.