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Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Mary Sue In Us All

The Mary Sue In Us All

Reading: Review of Connie Willis' All Clear

Brilliant, thought provoking depiction of WWII

As you know, I'm a big fan of Connie Willis.  It took her 8 years to come up with another in her installment about the timetravelers from Oxford, 2060. [other installments include: The Doomsday Book  -n one of my favorite books of all time, and Firewatch, and To Say Nothing of the Dog.]

It's taken me a week to sort out the (what might seem like a) mass of confusion that is the combined novel 'Blackout' and 'All Clear'.  These are not separate, but one continuous novel - somewhat like Lord of the Rings.  One complete story told over more than one book.  The first confusion for the unfamiliar reader of All Clear is that it starts at the beginning. The story begins in Blackout.

As announced in the book jacket, the premise of the story is that historians going back to study WWII have discovered that their actions have altered the past somehow, in violation of the tenets of timetravel (which inherently prevent that from happening), and that the accumulated changes may result in a drastically altered future (in which, obviously, time travel doesnt 'exist) - hence the concern over the fact that their 'drops' (portals between past and future) won't open.

The premise begs the question of a neatly tied up ending.  How can we get to the future that we know, in which Hitler lost the war, when all these events have been corrupted?  We can't expect the fictional characters to go out and kill the very people that in the course of the story they've saved (out of basic Human kindness)?

The story begs, in fact, for something to be altered.  And the story is about the heroism of the ordinary individual in war, and involves the (fictional) logistics of 'timetravel.'  The story focusses on three characters from the future, who have to do something to save their future.  The first book, Blackout, illustrates the character of these three.  Mike Davies is a resourceful guy, who leaps into the mix, and is somewhat controlling.  When, in the first book he tells his companions that they must stick together at all costs, he realizes the greater implications of that statement - that he has to somehow stick their present to their (and humanities) future as he understands it.  Eileen is stuck with two horrible children who test the patience of every single person the come in contact with.  Polly is the intellect of the group (she makes for a horrible shopgirl - grins.).  She's obviously an Oxford educated graduate student, no matter her disguise!  She fits in the least.

Another confusing part is, as they all say, 'this is timetravel'  The future people should just show up whenever they want to extract them.  But this is a false premise, as it is revealed that any time someone shows up at a particular time, they cannot return, else the time paradox is invoked (where you can't meet yourself in the past without one of you being destroyed). This introduces the concept of a 'deadline.'  Characters (including rescuers) who are in a situation once, cannot go back to that exact time.

So what seem at first like long drawn-out scenes actually include people from the future who are looking for them, or people who have lived long enough through the disaster to encounter someone they know at a different entry point into the past.  You have to have both books in front of you and go back and forth, as the narrative covers a span of many years!

There are also two interesting allegories in the text.  Both are about paintings.  In one, Faulknor is tying two boats together (past and future?); in the other, called The Light of the World, Christ is knocking on a closed door (the portal to the future? the human heart?). And Willis asks, in the text, that kindness and goodness have to count for something?

For the mathematicians among us, the story illustrates interesting aspects of chaos theory.  Also the whole premise of the 4th dimension (time): does 'time' as an entity do what it needs to do to guarantee the future?  Is it 'chaos' the way things unfold, or a deliberate, intellectual continuum?  The constant missed opportunities or coincidences - are these just annoying aspects of the book, or a comment on the physics of time?

It's a great duo of books, in spite of some confusion.  At bottom it's an incredibly vivid depiction of WWII. And in the end it makes you think hard about the kind of love and sacrifice that the war extracted from everyone.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Building Paranormal Worlds isn't Rocket Science. Or is it?

I saw this on another blog, and thought I'd add my $00.02.

Writers of speculative fiction strive to create rich worlds of the fantastic, but believable. The closer you stay within the boundaries set by the laws of physics, the more believable your worlds will be. You can always bend the rules a little. 

You want to write a fantasy, paranormal or a SciFi novel -- do you need to go out and get a degree in quantum physics or a working knowledge of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, or James Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory? Your story has a space ship. Hmmm. Do you need to understand rocket propulsion or try to come up with a possible futuristic method to make your rocket go fast? Adding SCIENCE to you spec fiction will make it believable, right? Isaac Asimov did it. 
How much science to do you need? Quantum physics talks about the origin of matter (extremely over simplified). Is the fundamental particle of matter the atom? Or is matter infinitely divisible into smaller and smaller bits? And then there’s the String Theory. It states that the fundamental particles are tiny vibrating strings. There are at least five different theories on this, and the ‘M’-Theory or Membrane theory and the mathematics needed to prove these theories are either so complex that hardly anyone understands them or the mathematics haven’t even been developed yet!

Yikes! Do you really want to get that geeky in your story? Forget about it. Technical details are fine, but don't go overboard. Your readers’ eyes will glaze over.

Well ... here's my comment:
I do think an author should do their homework - just as you would if you were writing an historical, steampunk, or creating a contemporary setting in a city like Los Angeles. All readers like to learn a little something. Taking a science fact, and making it relevant is your job as a writer. And especially if you have a little science fiction in your story, you should make an attempt to know/learn something relevant from the world of computers, IT, informatics, engines, and/or something technical! Even mathematical analysis of the stock market unite some contemporary ideas that are important to 'get.' [see The Quants, but Scott Petersen, for example]. It adds credibility to what you're writing, and grounds it. No need to get carried away, of course!

I recommend the following books for writers on cosmology, physics, and contemporary (relevant) math who seek to create new worlds of fiction, and the author of the above mentioned blog recommended the bottom two: 
  • Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel [Michio Kaku (Author)]
  • PSIence: How New Discoveries in Quantum Physics and New Science May Explain the Existence of Paranormal Phenomena [Marie D. Jones (Author)]
  • The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It [Scott Patterson (Author)]
  •  “Quantum, A Guide for the Perplexed” by Jim Al-Khalili. 
  • Patterns In The Void” by Sten F. Odenwald

I don't make these recommendations lightly. I think both of top two authors go a long way toward making (selected) science concepts accessible to the average person. Scott Patersons book is a little dense for me, but I still have it on my list of resource books - trying to get the jargon right, and understand a little more math!

Thoughts?  Anyone else with good books to recommend?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

science: NASA's Seven Wonders!

I was privileged to hear Dr. Jim Green of NASA headquarters speak today at the AAS Division of Planetary Sciences meeting.  He's the guy in charge of the planetary program at NASA.  He talked about the wonders of the solar system, in the same vein as the standard 'Wonders of the Ancient World ...'  Here's Jim's Magnificent Seven:

  1. the planet Mercury.  We knew Mercury was dense (not 'dense' in that writerly way! but dense the way a golf ball is more substantial than a ping-pong ball).  I always thought that was because Mercury had a really big core of iron, but Jim said today new measurements show it might be because Merury is really 'compressed' - like it got put into one of those squeezes in the junk yard.
  2. The Moon!  Like what could be new about our own moon when there are so many cool (ha ha) moons out there around Jupiter and Saturn?  Jim showed us a nifty geologic map of the back-side of the Moon.  We usually don't get to see that side, because the Moon spins just fast enough to keep the same side facing us every night.
  3. Mars and water.  It really has it, it really can be found not to far below the surface.  There are even glacier-sized regions under the surface at mid-latitudes (the equivalent of where we live in California).  I knew about the little dots of surface ice they'd seen come and go in selected images, but didn't realize so much of it had been found.  What a cool result from those miraculous rovers! How this opens up our ways of thinking about the planet Mars!
  4. Mars and the methane-thing.  methane is a gas that is produced in both biological ways (think cows and pigs and horses, Oh My!), and naturally in abiotic processes.  So they've begun to map methane on Mars (who'd have thought), and see now a seasonal variation.  It is by no means a statement that cows and pigs and horses are responsible.  If anything it would be some sort of bacteria.  But just the fact that this is up for discussion is one of the wonders of the science of this decade.  I agree with Jim there.
  5. Jupiter's moon Europa.  This is an old story.  We heard more about the potential for the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) - to be joint between NASA and ESA - at the meeting this week.  Nonetheless, it seems appropriate that Europa is still on a list of the seven wonders, with its sub-surface ocean! (discovered in the last decade by the Galileo mission).
  6. Saturn's moon Titan and the lakes of methane. For decades after the Voyager mission to Saturn, where we really ddi't understand what we were looking at when we got that little fuzzy orange dot of Titan (one of the largest moons - larger than the planet Mercury), we speculated and speculated about what the surface was like.  Pictures are still a mystery with lots of unexplained features.  But we now understand that some of what we are looking at are lakes and lakes and lakes.
  7. Saturn's moon Titan and the rain of methane in the southern hemisphere - so reminiscent of Earth, and perhaps early Earth.  Titan doesn't have many clouds, and certainly doesn't have weather like we know it on Earth.  Nonetheless, rain is something that happens rarely in the solar system.  And Titan, with its 'reducing' egosystem (abiotic), gives us so much to think about in terms of chemical cycling, and what the earliest Earth might have been like (earliest Earth was 'reducing' too, not oxidizing like it is now).
thanks Jim for sharing these insights with us!  Jim also said that next year there will be three (3!) NASA launches of new planetary missions.  As I say all the time, it is an exciting time to be a scientist!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

On Writing Party Scenes, and The Great Gatsby

I never got The Great Gatsby.  Once, a writing teacher said the greatest party scene every written was in The Great Gatsby, and that I should study it if I wanted a perfect example of how to ‘show’ high society at play.  All I remembered from reading that party scene was a bunch of people ‘telling’ themselves, and us in the process, about how mysterious Gatsby was.  And so I didn’t think it was such a revealing scene after all.

I preferred Jane Austen for party scenes.  I liked the quiet gentility of the party at the Cole’s house in Emma, for example.  All the preparations that went into it, the timing of selected invitations (when Emma hadn’t received hers, though the Weston’s and Knightly’s had received theirs), the appropriateness of when guests arrived (during the afternoon, or only in time for dinner); the arrangements that went into comfort for old Mister Woodhouse.  Or the ball at Netherfields arranged by Mr. Bingley.

Austen gives us a party in which the gossip is about characters we already know.  We care, when Darcy and Bingley’s sisters show up, because we’ve seen them before.

This weekend I read a wonderful piece in the Word Craft section of The Wall Street Journal (Oct 2, 2010) by Blake Bailey on a ‘truly seeing eye.’ Bailey walks us through the Gatsby party scene again, with an eye for the revealing details that Fitzgerald used to make what might have been a still life into an action scene. 

Details about the caterers, and the manner in which the turkey was presented; the number of cars in the driveway, and the swimmers out on the beach, these all paint a quite different picture in that scene to me now.  The details also convey a sense of the 1920’s – the way the ladies lounged on the divans, or even that they would consider swimming at a summer party at all. The fact that one old gentleman was passed out in the driveway in a drunken stupor, and that another character had gambled away his fortune.

I’ve had a huge party scene in almost every book I’ve written, and struggled with crowd control, dialog, and the general throughput, in each one.  In real life, social ‘circles’ themselves, and how the dynamics of a social circle play out in the few hours of a party can be the stuff of drama. Each party has its little disappointments and triumphs – the kind of thing you and your girlfriends would go to a diner and hash out before going home and to bed after a great party.

The difference I suppose is that the party scene in Gatsby is supposed to reflect upon the character of Gatsby. While the party scenes of Austen were about the proprieties of life in the late 18th century, about country civilities and what those decorums said about the social status of the partiers.

I can see now, given these two examples, how one might construct a party scene, not by ‘showing’ all the details of the event, including the small talk and every little introduction, but ‘telling’ what a party and the social protocols signify in the context of one’s story.  Unless every character is already defined in the story (as with Austen), a party scene requires a narrator.  In Gatsby, the narrator was Nick Carraway (the reporter and friend, who makes the observant commentary that allows the reader to interpret all the details).

Parties, musical entertainment, elements of ‘style,’ – presenting one’s self to the world, and sporting events, these are the components of ‘living’ – the things that we enjoy about our lives (or maybe that I enjoy about my life).  So for me, writing a party scene is an important way of conveying the social lives of my characters.  But getting it right has always been tricky.

Thoughts?  Other Examples?

Next I’d like to discuss how to write about sports in a way that conveys sports’ essential fascination in real life (because of its unpredictable nature – the very opposite of what is true about sports in fiction).

Friday, October 1, 2010

Davis Cup History for Bleacher Report

I'm a great tennis fan.  Here's an article I submitted to the Bleacher Report - part of a series on great men of tennis:

Dwight Davis: Politician, Diplomat, and Tennis Star

(Correspondent) on October 1, 2010

Let’s see, Secretary of War? Or famous tennis star?  Hmmm … Which career path to choose?  How about ... both?!
Not many tennis stars go to college.  John McEnroe, who is famously known for attending Stanford, only attended the university for a single semester.  John Isner, a current tennis star, is the only one in the top 50 to obtain a degree (at the University of Georgia) before starting his ATP career.
Like John Isner, Dwight Davis was a collegiate tennis singles champion.  He played for Harvard University in 1899. The closest he came to a singles title was runner up in the US Championships in 1898.  A lefty, Davis made a name for himself in doubles.  While at Harvard he also went out for baseball and played on the sophomore football team.
Quite a few US politicians were collegiate, or even professional athletes, before embarking on a life of public service, among them: President Gerald R. Ford, and Senator Jack Kemp.  Dwight Davis can be counted among these public figures.  Davis would serve the U.S. as secretary of war from 1925-1929 under President Calvin Coolidge.
Being from an upper-class family, Davis would have seen his college career not as a stepping stone to sports immortality, but as a nice hobby. Nonetheless, in spite of his dearth of singles titles Davis, like Frenchman Rene LaCoste 30 years later, was not only a winner but also a technical innovator.  He would become a key mover and creator in the sport.
At the turn of the twentieth century, tennis was played in society clubs, and also in the street.  To distinguish society tennis from that in the street, club tennis was known as ‘Lawn Tennis.’  An iconoclastic visual of the times comes from the musical ‘Ragtime,’ which depicts turn-of the century upper-class types in the opening vignette as ‘fellows with tennis balls.’ In 1902, the look would have included straw hats, slacks, and afternoon tea.  Dwight Davis would have fit perfectly into this visual.

Harvard University was the Nick Bollettierri’s of the time, with 30 courts, and the top players of the time, practicing and innovating the sport.  Dwight Davis’ peers at the time were (with delightful, turn-of the century names): Holcombe Ward, Malcolm Whitman, Beals Wright, Leo Ware, and William Clothier (US singles champion in 1906). The period 1898-1906 has been called the first golden age of American lawn tennis (the second golden age being 1915-1930 with Bill Tilden and Bill Johnson.)
Among innovations in the sport coming from these players: a special top-spin slice serve that after bouncing would break rightward in the direction of a right-hander’s backhand, created by Holcombe Ward and Dwight Davis to defeat Malcolm Whitman.  All three players would later serve as the original members of the US Davis Cup squad.  The innovation was at first called the American Twist Serve, but now is simply called a ‘kick’ serve and used mostly on second serves.
Perhaps the most exquisite contribution Dwight Davis made to the sport was his willingness to, and ability to commit the resources to, the creation of a competition, one of the most formidable international competitions in any sport outside of the Olympic movement, known originally as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge, which was later renamed the Davis Cup in his honor.
Tennis has ancient origins – stretching some say back to the Egyptians – but the modern game began to take shape in France and England, as well as the US, in the timeframe after the US civil war.  It was in this timeframe (1877) that the first championships were held at Wimbledon.

The International Lawn Tennis Challenge (Davis Cup), issued in 1899 by four members of the Harvard tennis team, was conceived for the purpose of a single tennis squad (Harvard) to challenge the British to a tennis competition. Dwight Davis designed the tournament format and commissioned from his own funds an exquisite solid sterling silver trophy (Dwight’s Pot) from Shreve, Crump & Low, a popular silver-casting outfit in Boston that makes trophies to this day!
Ironically for someone who would go on to serve as Secretary of War, Davis was stalwart in his vision for the competition, and for the compelling international nature of tennis. As innovative as they were, and as deep in talent at Harvard, Davis and his peers would read articles from London about the level of play in the United States.  Among the comments: America had good players, but they didn’t pay enough attention to the ‘fine points’ of the game and, besides, their backhands were weak.  Davis and his contemporaries, eager to prove the manner in which their innovations had caused the sport to progress, issued a challenge to their British counterparts, and devised the team format to illustrate the depth and breadth of any given countries skills at the sport.  Like the modern Olympics, which were re-conceived in the same timeframe, the Davis Cup was seen as a unifying influence, one that fostered international cooperation and understanding by focusing on the technical achievements of sportsmen.
It was perhaps his prowess at doubles, where team-work is key, that led Davis to experiment with the team format.  In this, the Davis Cup, as a sporting event, differs from the tennis majors, which can also be seen as international events in their modern incarnation, but in which each individual’s technical skills are the lynchpin of their success.

The first Davis Cup competition was held Feb. 9, 1900. By 1904 the French were included, by 1906 the Australians were included, and the list of participants, and the ends of the earth to which the players were willing to travel for competition, quickly multiplied.  The desire on the part of some countries to capture the Davis Cup, and the lengths to which they went to win it, are the stuff of legend and history.  We will visit some of that history with the discussion of Rene LaCoste and the rest of the Four Mousequetaries later in this series, for by now Davis Cup competition is firmly entrenched in tennis lore.
Davis remained dedicated to the principles of Davis Cup competition for his entire life. Davis is recorded as saying that his vision for the Cup must not be forgotten, “It is meant to travel. Its appearance in any country brings a flock of exterior implications very beneficial to sporting unity in the tennis world.”