Archive for the 'Fiction' Category

The many ways in which Gravity’s Rainbow directly inspired Neon Genesis Evangelion

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

I recently read the well-known post-modernist novel Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon, and I noticed a number of surprising similarities between it and the well-known Japanese anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). In fact, there are so many similarities between the two, both thematically, stylistically, and plot-wise, that I am forced to conclude that Hideaki Anno, the writer and director of Evangelion, must have read Gravity’s Rainbow and drew upon it specifically for inspiration in creating his series. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any discussion of the similarities between these two works, hence the need for this post.

I’ll assume a familiarity with Evangelion for the remainder of this post (which allows me to focus on summarizing and explaining Gravity’s Rainbow). There are some spoilers for Gravity’s Rainbow below if you haven’t read it yet, but the novel is so meandering and expansive that it’s not possible to ruin it.

I’ll examine the thematic similarities first. Gravity’s Rainbow runs from the beginning of World War II, through V-E Day, and through the occupation of Germany by the Allied forces. The first part of the novel, which takes place in England during the German bombing and rocket campaign, takes place under a heavy siege mentality. V-2 rockets are falling often, at random, and killing lots of civilians. There are many scenes that take place deep within bunkers, or have military personnel travelling to the scene of the latest rocket strike to investigate the effects. This whole section of the novel feels very similar to the overall mood in Tokyo-3 as Japan is besieged by one attacking Angel after another, right down to the missions being ordered from within the safety of a bunker.

Gravity’s Rainbow is suffused throughout with the paranormal, the occult, the bizarre, and many different references to psychology (especially that of Sigmund Freud). Pynchon is every bit as obsessed with psychology as Hideaki Anno, to the point where if you couldn’t handle the original last two episodes of Evangelion, you probably won’t enjoy the similar parts of Gravity’s Rainbow either, as there is an equal amount of psycho-analytical musing in it. Both works examine military hierarchies and point out some of the inherent absurdities in them. Gravity’s Rainbow especially focuses on jargon-heavy, acronym-laced, secret military, espionage, and industrial research organizations, and the interplay and conflict between them — exactly like Evangelion.

Gravity’s Rainbow is also laced throughout with sexuality and sexual deviance, which is another theme that Evangelion explores quite thoroughly. A pervading sense of paranoia is present throughout the text. It has a large amount of technological detail in it, verging towards technobabble on many occasions, same as Evangelion. It even has one particularly memorable scene in which a boy is plugged into a harness made out of Imipolex G, an erectile plastic polymer (you can’t make this stuff up) that interfaces directly with the boy’s neural network. This harness is then put inside a V-2 rocket and launched with the boy as the unwitting cargo (not as pilot). Shades of Shinji being plugged into an Evangelion and then losing control of it, anyone?

But the most convincing case of Evangelion’s inspiration from Gravity’s Rainbow can be made by looking directly at some examples from the text of the novel. I’ll present three passages that were so startlingly similar to Evangelion that I set the book aside in amazement long enough to take notes, wondering how nobody had ever caught this before (or, at least, if they did, why they didn’t post their findings online). All page numbers I’ll be using are from the original 760-page edition of Gravity’s Rainbow.

First, we’ll start with a passage from page 151, in which a Royal Air Force bomber squadron is attacking the German town of Lübeck.

It’s a dangerous game Cherrycoke’s playing here. Often he thinks the sheer
volume of information pouring in through his fingers will saturate, burn him out
. . . she seems determined to overwhelm him with her history and its pain, and
the edge of it, always fresh from the stone, cutting at his hopes, at all their hopes.
He does respect her: he knows that very little of this is female theatricals, really.
She has turned her face, more than once, to the Outer Radiance and simply seen
nothing there. And so each time has taken a little more of the Zero into herself.
It comes down to courage, at worst an amount of self-deluding that’s vanishingly
small: he has to admire it, even if he can’t accept her glassy wastes, her appeals
to a day not of wrath but of final indifference. . . . Any more than she can accept
the truth he knows about himself. He does receive emanations, impressions . . .
the cry inside the stone . . . excremental kisses stitched unseen across the yoke of
an old shirt. . . a betrayal, an informer whose guilt will sicken one day to throat
cancer, chiming like daylight through the fourchettes and quirks of a tattered
Italian glove . . . Basher St. Blaise’s angel, miles beyond designating, rising over
Lübeck that Palm Sunday with the poison-green domes underneath its feet, an
obsessive crossflow of red tiles rushing up and down a thousand peaked roofs
as the bombers banked and dived, the Baltic already lost in a pall of incendiary
smoke behind, here was the Angel: ice crystals swept hissing away from the back
edges of wings perilously deep, opening as they were moved into new white
abyss. . . . For half a minute radio silence broke apart. The traffic being:

St. Biaise: Freakshow Two, did you see that, over.

Wingman: This is Freakshow Two—affirmative.

St. Biaise: Good.

No one else on the mission seemed to’ve had radio communication. After
the raid, St. Biaise checked over the equipment of those who got back to base
and found nothing wrong: all the crystals on frequency, the power supplies
rippleless as could be expected—but others remembered how, for the few
moments the visitation lasted, even static vanished from the earphones. Some
may have heard a high singing, like wind among masts, shrouds, bedspring or
dish antennas of winter fleets down in the dockyards . . . but only Basher and
his wingman saw it, droning across in front of the fiery leagues of face, the eyes,
which went towering for miles, shifting to follow their flight, the irises red as
embers fairing through yellow to white, as they jettisoned all their bombs in no
particular pattern, the fussy Norden device, sweat drops in the air all around its
rolling eyepiece, bewildered at their unannounced need to climb, to give up a
strike at earth for a strike at heaven . . . .

Group Captain St. Biaise did not include an account of this angel in his official
debriefing, the W.A.A.E officer who interrogated him being known around the
base as the worst sort of literal-minded dragon (she had reported Blowitt to
psychiatric for his rainbowed Valkyrie over Peenemünde, and Creepham for
the bright blue gremlins scattering like spiders off of his Typhoon’s wings
and falling gently to the woods of The Hague in little parachutes of the same
color). But damn it, this was not a cloud. Unofficially, in the fortnight between
the fire-raising at Lübeck and Hitler‘s order for “terror attacks of a retaliatory
nature”—meaning the V-weapons—word of the Angel got around. Although
the Group Captain seemed reluctant, Ronald Cher-rycoke was allowed to probe
certain objects along on the flight. Thus the Angel was revealed.

The similarities to Evangelion here are obvious. The bomber squadron runs into an apparition in the sky, while all radio contact goes dead. This apparition is even known as the Lübeck Angel.

Next, we have a small fanciful vignette from page 674:

Onward to rescue the Radiant Hour, which has been abstracted from the day’s
24 by colleagues of the Father, for sinister reasons of their own. Travel here gets
complicated—a system of buildings that move, by right angles, along the grooves
of the Raketen-Stadt’s street-grid. You can also raise or lower the building itself,
a dozen floors per second, to desired heights or levels underground, like a
submarine skipper with his periscope—although certain paths aren’t available to
you. They are available to others, but not to you. Chess. Your objective is not the
King—there is no King—but momentary targets such as the Radiant Hour.

Notice that the city of Raketen-Stadt as being described here is pretty much identical to Tokyo-3, in which the skyscrapers are above-ground during the day, but are lowered underground into the Geo-Dome at night or when the city is under attack from Angels.

And finally, from page 753 near the very end of the novel:

The countdown as we know it, 10-9-8-u.s.w., was invented by Fritz Lang
in 1929 for the Ufa film Die Frau im Mond. He put it into the launch scene to
heighten the suspense. “It is another of my damned ‘touches,’ “ Fritz Lang said.

“At the Creation,” explains Kabbalist spokesman Steve Edelman, “God
sent out a pulse of energy into the void. It presently branched and sorted into
ten distinct spheres or aspects, corresponding to the numbers 1-10. These are
known as the Sephiroth. To return to God, the soul must negotiate each of the
Sephiroth, from ten back to one. Armed with magic and faith, Kabbalists have
set out to conquer the Sephiroth. Many Kabbalist secrets have to do with making
the trip successfully.

“Now the Sephiroth fall into a pattern, which is called the Tree of Life. It
is also the body of God. Drawn among the ten spheres are 22 paths. Each path
corresponds to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and also to one of the cards called
‘Major Arcana’ in the Tarot. So although the Rocket countdown appears to be
serial, it actually conceals the Tree of Life, which must be apprehended all at
once, together, in parallel.

“Some Sephiroth are active or masculine, others passive or feminine. But the
Tree itself is a unity, rooted exactly at the Bodenplatte. It is the axis of a particular
Earth, a new dispensation, brought into being by the Great Firing.”

“But but with a new axis, a newly spinning Earth,” it occurs to the visitor,
“what happens to astrology?”

“The signs change, idiot,” snaps Edelman, reaching for his family-size jar of
Thorazine. He has become such a habitual user of this tran-quilizing drug that
his complexion has deepened to an alarming slate-purple. It makes him an oddity
on the street here, where everybody else walks around suntanned, and red-eyed
from one irritant or another. Edelman’s children, mischievous little devils, have
lately taken to slipping wafer capacitors from junked transistor radios into Pop’s
Thorazine jar. To his inattentive eye there was hardly any difference: so, for a
while, Edelman thought he must be developing a tolerance, and that the Abyss
had crept intolerably close, only an accident away—a siren in the street, a jet
plane rumbling in a holding pattern— but luckily his wife discovered the prank
in time, and now, before he swallows, he is careful to scrutinize each Thorazine
for leads, mu’s, numbering.

“Here—” hefting a fat Xeroxed sheaf, “the Ephemeris. Based on the new

“You mean someone’s actually found the Bodenplatte? The Pole?”

“The delta-t itself. It wasn’t made public, naturally. The ‘Kaisers-bart
Expedition’ found it.”

A pseudonym, evidently. Everyone knows the Kaiser has no beard.

This illustrates many thematic similarities with Evangelion, including references to the Kabbala, the Tree of Life, mythological angels, the occult, cataclysmic events, and even a search for The Pole (ahem, Second Impact). And note that it takes place in the context of a long-winded, jargon-heavy discussion between military figures. If you animated this passage it would fit right into an episode of Evangelion.

I believe that the similarities between Gravity’s Rainbow and Evangelion (which came out two decades later) have been established beyond a reasonable doubt. I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word “steal”, but in my mind, Evangelion directly owes a lot of its feel and setting to Pynchon’s work. As a consequence of this, if you’re an Evangelion fan, you owe it to yourself to read Gravity’s Rainbow. Not only is it a good novel in its own right, but by reading and understanding some of the inspiration behind Evangelion, you’ll get a better understanding of Evangelion itself.


Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Frank quickened his stride and took a leaping jump onto the waist-high brick wall separating the sidewalk from the field. Kathy rolled her eyes at him. None of the other students busily hurrying to or from their classes registered a response at all.

“You know, this isn’t the playground at kindergarten,” Kathy teased Frank.

“Yeah, I know,” Frank responded. “If it was, I wouldn’t have made that jump.” He cracked what he hoped was his most winning smile. Arms spread wide, he balanced carefully as he continued walking along the brick wall. Kathy walked along beside him.

Kathy turned away and grunted, trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile. On the other side of the wall, a large group of students – too many on the field at once for a real match – was kicking a soccer ball around on the patchy field. They didn’t look especially coordinated, nor was there even a clear delineation between teams, but at least they looked to be having fun.

The two walked awkwardly in silence for awhile, avoiding each other’s gaze, until Frank grew bored of the novelty of walking along the wall and jumped back onto the sidewalk, nearly tripping in the process. He hoped Kathy hadn’t seen that, but of course, she had.

After several more moments of silence, Frank turned to look at Kathy. “Ready for the exam next Monday?” he asked.

“Not at all,” Kathy said mock-indignantly. “And that was a complete waste,” she continued, gesturing behind her. “How come we’re already learning new material that won’t even be on the exam?”

“He’s trying to teach sadism.” Frank paused for a few instants for effect. “By example.”

Kathy smirked. Then, she quickly side-stepped to the left to avoid an oncoming bicyclist on the sidewalk, bumping into Frank in the process.

“Idiot,” she said angrily, looking over her shoulder at the bicyclist. “The sidewalk is for people.”

A car whizzed by on the road to their right, braking and honking angrily at an absent-minded student who had just started jay-walking across the road.

“So, do you want to study for the exam together?” Frank asked. A slight tremble in his left hand would have betrayed his growing nervousness, had anyone noticed it.

“Oh, come on, you ace all the tests,” Kathy said with a tone of feigned annoyance.

“Well, I could help you.”

“Come on, you have better things to do with your time,” she said, smiling.

“Nope, I really don’t,” he said half-jokingly.

“All right, well I hope you don’t expect you’re getting anything out of this,” she said, her smile widening. Frank felt his heartbeat quickening.

They reached a group of students anxiously waiting on a patchy piece of grass between the sidewalk and street for a break in the steady stream of cars. The real crosswalk was a hundred feet up the road, but it didn’t lead directly to the walkway leading between the Mathematics and Physics buildings back to the dorms.

“So, when do you want to meet up?” Frank asked hopefully. A gap in the cars arrived and the group pushed out into the streeth. Frank stepped off the curb and followed them, Kathy closely behind him.

“How about toni-”

The world turned red in an instant.

Jagged loping arcs of pure white electricity lept between the power lines leading to the Physics building.

The red afterglow faded just as soon as it had come.

Everyone stopped in their tracks. One man fell over himself.

An oncoming car plowed into the students in the road behind Frank at low speed, the panicked driver stomping on the brakes to little effect.

Frank pulled Kathy up onto the opposite sidewalk.

People witnessing the carnage behind them began screaming for help. Others just began screaming.

“What the-” Kathy began saying. A loud boom from elsewhere on campus cut her off. The assembled crowd whipped around and looked in the direction of the presumed explosion, but saw nothing. The screaming ceased as people strained to hear anything further.

More out-of-control cars collided into each other on the roads, followed by bewildered motorists stepping out and staring at their vehicles in exasperation.

“Something happened,” Frank said softly. He was still holding Kathy’s hand, but he was no longer thinking at all about how he could turn a study session into something more. The traffic light up the street was dead.

Frank glanced at his watch. It was blank. “Something big happened.”

Kathy fumbled with her cell phone, but it wouldn’t turn on.

One of the students that had been struck by the car unsteadily got to his feet, clutching his leg. He started yelling at the driver of the car, unaware that larger problems were afoot.

“Nothing works!” Kathy said with increasing exasperation. She threw the cell phone down in disgust. The other students were collecting themselves.

“What happened?” Kathy asked Frank. The silence was deafening, punctuated only by curious and frightened whispers. He didn’t answer her right away. He was staring up in the sky, transfixed. Slowly, Kathy followed his gaze, and was frozen in horror too.

“Remember this moment. The moment that everything changed.”

They stared at the jetliner in the sky several miles out. It continued on its steep downwards trajectory, trailing a contrail of smoke that was too gray to be just water vapor. It developed a list to the left, and then with a chorus of shocked gasps from the attentive crowd, it rolled over entirely, and quickened its meeting with the ground. In the distance, in the direction of the airport, two more jetliners sought a similar fate.

The exam that would now never happen was the last thing on their minds.

A new, fictional direction for this site

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

As you’ve probably figured out by now, the past several months on Cyde Weys Musings have been characterized by my extreme inactivity. That wasn’t unintentional. I just had to make enough of a break from the old direction of the site in order to feel comfortable taking it in a new direction. Apparently, a couple of months’ worth of guilt over writing very little for you all was enough to overcome the threshold of taking this site in a more personal direction.

I’ve finally realized that what I enjoy more than anything else is writing fiction, yet so long as I was writing non-fiction on here quite regularly, that wasn’t going to happen. I might’ve been a bit optimistic when I proclaimed that the secret to getting into the mood to write is by writing, because I clearly wasn’t doing it. I’ve finally turned that corner.

So the new personal direction on here will consist of me writing fiction frequently and publishing all of it. I know that doesn’t sound very personal, especially since I won’t be revealing any sort of intimate details about myself like so many other bloggers, but believe me, it is. It’s a frightening thing putting your writing out there for all to see and critique. While I got over that hump with my non-fiction awhile ago, fiction is still a much more sensitive area. But I’ve finally gotten over it, and I’d rather my work be read and possibly disliked than languish in obscurity on my hard drive. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be critical — but please be kind. Saying someone’s opinion piece sucks is one thing, but saying someone’s fiction sucks is another whole world of authorial insult.

So, keep your eyes peeled. I’m going to keep at this for awhile come hell or high water. I’m not really attempting to become a professional writer or anything (though I wouldn’t mind it if that did end up happening). I’m content to write for a small audience here. That what I write is read by a few people is enough.

For completeness’s sake, here’s a list of all of the works of fiction I’ve published on this site so far that I consider at least passable. I hope to at least double this number of works within a month.

For Want of a Bolt

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

“So much for Her Majesty’s elite unit,” Lieutenant Nottingham said softly as he sank down into the canvas netting of the wall-mounted fold-up bench. The electric lantern above his head drifted lazily to and fro.

“It was a great idea, only suffering from a complete lack of execution,” I responded, trying to find some humor in the situation. We continued hearing the gentle pitter-patter of enemy fire against the outside of our behemoth. It sounded oh so distant.

“And to think, all for want of a bolt,” Nottingham continued morosely.

“A bolt, indeed,” I responded. I gave up on tinkering with the steam relay junction and sat across from Nottingham.

“What do we do now? Surrender?” Nottingham asked. He was leaving the decision up to me, even though he out-ranked me. The death of our commanding officer had shattered the chain of command. I could still picture the tortured look on his face as he sank down from the exposed cupola above the hatch, the fatal rifle shot having turned half of his insides to scrapple.

“And give them use of the behemoth? Never!” My resolve strengthened. I knew victory was no longer within our reach, but we could still avoid absolute defeat.

“Perhaps they’d find more use for it than we,” Nottingham said.

“No, we know what we must do,” I snapped, not in the mood for his attempt at gallows humor. The rain of lead against the outside of our hull abated slightly, passing into a more stochastic, syncopated murmur of clinks. Perhaps they were finally realizing our impenetrability. Perhaps they lost the pressing need for urgency upon realizing the complete hopelessness of our circumstances.

“We’ll die in the explosion too, you know,” he said. I could see a hint of fear in his eyes, which he hurriedly hid by slouching forward even more and resting his forehead on his palm. He was not ready.

“We only have one other choice then – set it in motion dead ahead, right into the river,” I resolved. “It won’t be recoverable after that.”

“Fine,” Nottingham hastily agreed. It was better than the alternative.

We set about the startup process with automaton-like efficiency. I slammed open all the intake relays leading to the boilers, material stresses be damned. The behemoth would find finally be unleashed to discover its maximum capabilities. Nottingham triggered the ignition and a loud whistling overtook us for a spell as the immense boilers began building up pressure. Evidently our enemies could hear it too, because the rate of ineffectual fire increased back into more steady volleys. I could sense their fear even through the two-foot steel armor surrounding us on all sides.

We waited as the indicator needles on the engineering panel slowly rotated to the right. I looked at Nottingham but he averted my gaze, too intent on attempting to discern some pattern from the now just-barely-audible reports of enemy fire.

When the majority of the needles passed the first marked threshold, I threw the main handle forward, and the behemoth roared to life. The control room creaked all around us as the first two locomotive legs began lifting up. The floor turned several degrees from straight down. I fought against the disorientation that proven to be the biggest hardship in finding a driver for the behemoth.

The needles continued rising as the automatic loader worked at full bore, delivering fresh lumber to the fireboxes as quickly as space permitted. The movement of the behemoth settled into a regular swaying motion, not unlike being at sea. I counted the movements across ten strides and satisfyingly noted that our speed was increasing at a brisk pace. I no longer heard any bullets pinging off the outside of our vehicle, but I could not discern whether that was because we had outrun our enemies, or simply because our steam engine was so deafeningly loud. As I reached for my earplugs, Nottingham interrupted me.

“One last word for Major Littlepage!” he shouted.

“Fine,” I shouted back, wincing as the mechanical noises around me grew ever louder.

Nottingham attempted to shout out some kind of eulogy or prayer for the late Major, I did not know which. I could not hear him over the roar of our furious machine. Instead, I pondered on his ill-fated mission, and the absurd flaw in the behemoth’s design. If I ever met the idiot that decided to put the spare parts locker on the outside of this rust bucket, I’d have a few choice words for him. Apparently the possibility of there being a need to make minor repairs to the behemoth in combat had escaped the designer’s mind. The courageous Major had died for want of a bolt, shot down as soon as he lifted himself through the hatch. He’d never even made it within twenty feet of the parts locker.

As soon as Nottingham stopped talking, I reached for my earplugs and jammed them in.

I peered through the periscope. The Rhine was still directly ahead of us, exactly as I had remembered. Except that now we were much, much closer to it, and drawing closer with an accelerating pace. Driving the behemoth deep into the river would guarantee its end just as much as detonating it from within, as no machine would ever be able to drag it out again save another behemoth — and after this travesty, there likely wouldn’t be another. Additionally, it would afford us some attempt at escape.

The pitch of the floor changed again as the behemoth entered the downwards sloping flood plain. It wouldn’t be long now. We picked up even more speed, running across the landscape at a rate I hadn’t even thought our behemoth capable of. She saw her fate before her and charged after it with a head full of steam. I glanced down at the boiler indicators, all of which were pegging against their final redlines so hard that the needles were bending. This would be the behemoth’s final blaze of glory.

I motioned to Nottingham, but he already knew what to do. He raced back to the hatch, stepping gingerly over the Major’s body in the process, and prepared to open it. With a tremendous splash, our first leg entered the edge of the river, throwing up a huge plume of spray. The other legs followed suit. Our forward momentum steadily dropped. The indicators sagged. Shortly enough we were in water up to the bottom of the main body. The boilers choked and died as they flooded with water, that infernal whistling giving its last dying gasp. Water began rushing into the cabin from a thousand different spots in the floor. The legs locked up and the behemoth began pitching forward.

“Now!” I yelled at Nottingham at the top of my lungs. He couldn’t hear me over the din, nor was he even looking at me, but he sensed that the time was right nonetheless, and with a giant push, he heaved the hatch upwards and clambered through it. I took one last look at the flooding cabin, sneering in disgust at the discarded steering wheel bobbing in the water, its sheered-off attachment bolt gleaming brightly in the newfound sunlight, and made to follow after him.

One Humble Cloth

Friday, January 30th, 2009

One night, on the precipice of sleep, a fragment materialized in my mind that I immediately aroused myself to record. It led to the following account:

Why does this cloth billow so? It has seen the sunshine of many days and the darkness of many nights, the twilights of oh so many yesterdays. Yet with each fresh gust it prances with greater ease in the sky. While all else around it grow old and reach their ends, it grows younger, shedding thread after thread each year, losing its resistance to the wind’s capricious ways. It is growing younger into sheer nothingness, the day when the cloth will be no more. Until then, it waves with ever-increasing vigor, eager at the prospect of its end.

How many a battle has this cloth seen? More than any mere cotton, it has served as a rallying point in countless skirmishes, as a standard in actions, as a focal point in parade. It is made of such humble materials, yet it has seen more history than the greatest person that ever lived. Its tapestry of patchwork, correcting uncountable battle wounds, attests to that. Many a man has died because of and on behalf of this cloth, a sad trifle it is fortunate it cannot be troubled by.

Such bold and regular geometric patterns! (Only spoiled by hasty repairs.)

Such vivid dashes of color! (T’would be better had it not faded with age.)

Such a spritely dance through the sky!

What is it in this cloth that spurns men to action? Why have so many cheerfully lept into warfare beneath it? What poisoning effect does it have on otherwise thinking minds that drags them down into brutality, even while proclaiming that it stands for all that is noble and patriotic? Yet the uncaring merry cloth tangos in the clear blue sky, oblivious to all it has wrought and all that it will wreak.

This cloth will go on to see the end of the world — the end of the world, caused on its account.

How dare this cloth billow so?

It’s the writing time of year again!

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

Halloween is just around the corner, which means that it’s almost time for a full month of writing. Of course, I am referring to National Novel Writing Month, a “competition” in which people challenge themselves to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. This will be my fourth time attempting it. I’m pretty confident about my chances, seeing as how I successfully completed it last year. I know a lot of people try to set tougher goals for themselves the second time around, but seeing as how I haven’t written much fiction at all recently, I’ll be content just to finish it again.

The experience last year was pretty intense. I fell below pace during the middle of the month and had to catch up by spending a couple days toward the end of the month pretty much doing nothing but writing. It really challenged my creative energies, but I persevered. This year will probably go much the same way — I’m just a procrastinator by nature. And while I have a general idea of the plot I want to write, I haven’t really fleshed out the characters, nor do I have much of a conclusion. In other words, it’s going to be just like last year again, figuring things out as I go along.

So, are any of you doing NaNoWriMo? It sounds a lot harder than it actually ends up being, once you get into the hang of things, and it really is a neat thing to be able to say you accomplished.

We humans are quite full of ourselves

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

It is one of the conceits of our race that we are quite full of our own intelligence. Hopefully, one day we’ll run across a vastly more intelligent species and be put in our collective place. But until then, we’ll keep on calling our own intelligence the best thing since sliced bread — something, I should point out, that our intelligence invented, and still thinks itself mighty clever for having come up with.

Orcs are a classic fantasy villain race.  They are anthropomorphic, but vastly lacking in intelligence in comparison to humans.

Orcs are a classic fantasy villain race. They are anthropomorphic, but vastly lacking in intelligence in comparison to humans.

In nearly every fantasy universe, humans are the smartest creatures around. Even elves, the high variety of which are frequently portrayed as wiser than people, are really just humans with pointy ears. If you don’t believe me, just ask a half-elf, or a quarter-elf, or a third-elf. Now compare that against all of the stupid races in fantasy universes: goblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, etc. They’re all so dumb one wonders how they even manage to put their armor on in the morning.

To make up for their incredible stupidity, these creatures are also given incredible strength. The human protagonists in the story must therefore rely on their cunning, their wit, and their intelligence to triumph over the enemies. Even magic is nothing more than a form of intelligence made physically manifest — the art of spellcasting is portrayed as an academic endeavor, in which the most studious become the most powerful. The concept of fantasy magic is the ultimate in human intelligence navel-gazing.

Even in non-fantasy media, the protagonists typically defeat their human rivals by outsmarting them. The movies in which the protagonist defeats his nemesis simply by beating on him more powerfully are few and far between — and of those that do exist, most of them involve sport, an activity so frequently fetishized by commentators that all connections to reality are lost. You simply can’t have a compelling story without a triumph of the mind. It’s understandable, really: while our eyes merely gaze at the movie screen, it’s our own mind that is truly watching it, and minds do harbor sympathies for other minds.

We value human intelligence so greatly because we are the only beings on the planet who possess anything close to it. When we triumph over a lion, a bear, or a hippopotamus in nature, we do so not by brute force, but through our intelligence. In one-on-one hand-to-hand combat, a fight against an elephant isn’t remotely fair. Allow the human use of a simple hand-held weapon such as a spear and the odds tighten considerably. Now give him a modern weapon that represents the apex of human intelligence — say, an F-22 joint strike fighter — and the elephant is easily reduced to a cloud of pink mist that has no chance whatsoever of retaliating against the human roaring away at Mach 2 a couple miles above it.

It is no surprise, then, that our fantasy worlds mimic very much the real world. Even though we make our villain fantasy races anthropomorphic (an orc is frequently portrayed as being a human with prominent boar features, for instance), even though we give them the ability to speak language, they represent nothing more than the animals of our own world, which we are used to accustomed to dominating completely. Are the fantasy creatures more intelligent? Certainly. It’s not a fair fight if the man-sized enemies don’t use weapons. But ultimately all that they really are is animals. No wonder fantasy story lines follow the races of player characters: humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and others — all of which are pretty much the same as humans, sharing the same relative physical weaknesses, but possessing the same mental prowesses.

So it makes sense that human intelligences are most entertained by the dealings of other human intelligences, and that is thus what our fictions focus upon. It makes sense that in our fantasies we conduct battle against either humans or animals, because that is all we really know about fighting against in our own world — except in fantasy even the animals frequently look like humans because we really are that obsessed with ourselves. Yes, we humans really are quite full of ourselves, but seeing the complete lack of alternatives, who can blame us?

The key to getting in the mood to write

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

Wow, William McCamment hit the nail on the head with this one: The secret to getting into the mood to write is to start writing. In other words, writing creates the mood, it does not wait on it. I can definitely empathize with this maxim. Even when I generally don’t feel like I’m in the mood for writing, if I manage to force myself to start, the words flow out naturally after that. It’s thus pretty much like any other activity: overcoming your inherent laziness and actually starting to do something is the hardest part. A good example of this principle would be exercising. It’s hard to drag yourself to the gym, but once you start exercising, you see it through to the finish — say, an hour long workout.

The advice applies to all sorts of other activities, of course. Not feeling in the mood to get off your butt and do something productive? Just do it anyway. Once you start at it, you build enough momentum to see you through to the end. It’s just a problem of getting over that initial hump.

Man, I wish I had listened to this advice, say, ten years ago.

I have some advice of my own to add to this: if you have trouble doing anything regularly, commit to doing it on a strict schedule, and then keep to it. Once you get used to doing something regularly, it becomes much easier to keep doing it, through sheer force of inertia. For instance, I wasn’t able to really commit to working out regularly until I forced myself to do it every Monday through Thursday after work. And more to the point of the original advice, I wasn’t able to start blogging regularly until I committed myself to blogging every day. Now I haven’t quite kept that strict schedule (in particular, I’m apt to lapse a bit on weekends), but it works for the most part. I write nearly every day for this blog.

Some excellent advice for budding writers

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

If you’re a budding writer, or even an established writer who still needs a bit of help, you should definitely check out the list of Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do). I’m intellectually aware of the existence of all of these mistakes, but my ability to put them into practice varies wildly. I’ll go over the list of all ten and briefly discuss each one.

1. Repeats. I will admit to suffering from this problem, not so much the phrasing variety but definitely the word variety. I rely on certain useless words with far too much frequency. I’m especially thinking of the words “really” and “very”, which I use with such depressing regularity in first write-throughs of my sentences and then have to go back and excise. At least I’m aware of the problem though, and have been working to rectify it.

The biggest example of this problem in professional fiction I can think of was in a book by either Arthur C. Clarke or Robert A. Heinlein (sorry, I can’t remember which author or what book, but if you’ve ever read it you know exactly what I’m talking about). The word “presently” was overused to such a degree that it became immensely distracting. Pick any random sentence in that book and the odds are good it started with “Presently”. By contrast, you can go through entire novels by other people and never once run across that word. It’s not a good word. It doesn’t convey much information, and there are much better conjunctive phrases to be bandied about. I’m thinking whoever the editor of that book is was derelict in their duty.

2. Flat writing. I’m thankful that I don’t have this problem (or at least I don’t think I do). If anything, I have the opposite problem: language that is unnecessarily flowery. Regardless, I have a good eye for spotting flat prose, and as soon as I realize I’m producing some in my own work, I’m very quick to spice it up. Believe me, I hate writing sentences like “He parked in the lot, entered the grocery store, picked up some milk, eggs, and bread, and brought it to the register” just as much as you hate reading them.

3. Empty adverbs (such as actually, completely, totally, and literally). I like to think I’m decent at this one, and when I’m not it’s more for a lack of editing than an inability to spot them. I believe I acquired my eye for these guys during my time as an opinion columnist for The Diamondback. When you’re limited to 600–650 words and you have a lot you want to say, you get good at making every word count.

4. Phony dialogue. Yeouch, this one gets me all the time. It’s almost a given that the first draft of any dialogue I write is usually stilted. It’s like I’m making a framework for what I want the characters to be able to say, then I have to go back and actually make it sound like those characters are saying it. Otherwise, the dialogue is likely to come out sounding omniscient and in author’s voice.

A great example of phony dialogue that I saw recently was in the pilot episode of the television show The Secret Life of the American Teenager (don’t ask why I watched that). The show is about high schoolers, but the dialogue is way out of the league of anything teenagers actually say. One kid has a long string of witty repartees with his guidance counselor which actually has the guidance counselor looking like a bit of a fool. Two other students have a minutes long conversation on religion, abstinence before marriage, and sex that sounds like a back and forth one might hear in a debate. None of the students have their own voices; they all share the intellectual, grown-up voices of the script-writers, and it’s a major failing of the show. You’d think a show all about the supposed “secret lives” of teenagers would need to get the teenagers’ voices right, but alas, they didn’t manage.

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“The Ghost Brigades” shows clear signs of Scalzi’s improvement as an author

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Having recently read Old Man’s War, it’s not surprising that I’ve just finished reading its sequel The Ghost Brigades. I liked Old Man’s War, but I found some significant flaws in it that hampered my enjoyment. Thankfully, most of those flaws were fixed in the sequel. The alien races aren’t nearly as implausible, not every character has the same dark cynical sense of humor (which is totally a projection of John Scalzi’s sense of humor, I should add), the writing style isn’t quite so absurd, and the cast of minor characters no longer consists solely of cliché cardboard cut-outs. In other words, John Scalzi has definitely matured as a writer between his first (or is it his second?) book and this one. I definitely look forward to reading the third book in this universe, The Last Colony.

Unfortunately, some things didn’t change. The novel is set in exactly the same implausible “science fantasy” universe, with hundreds of intelligent alien species that all happen to have roughly equal military capabilities, wave-of-the-hand FTL (“skip drive”), and a ridiculous over-emphasis on hand-to-hand combat. These aspects weren’t so grating as when I read the first book because I’ve been acclimated to them by now, but I still wish they weren’t there.

And ironically enough, after complaining bitterly that the protagonist John Perry in Old Man’s War was clearly a stand-in for the author, John Scalzi, I actually liked the main character in that book better than this one. The protagonist in The Ghost Brigades is Jared Dirac, a Special Forces soldier born into a cloned adult body. He’s fully intellectually capable from birth, yet has no memories, no past, no personality, etc. Eventually as the book progresses and he puts a few months on he develops more of a personality, but it isn’t one that I particularly feel any empathy for. The Special Forces (the “Ghost Brigades”) are bred from birth to be killing machines. They’re not emotionless by any means, but they are cruel, efficient, subordinate, and very focused on getting the mission done. In other words, not the best choice for a protagonist.

Judging by the progression from book one to book two, I’m guessing that The Last Colony will be even better. If John Scalzi just writes in a better main character, and refrains from having all of his characters exhibit the exact same dry sense of humor that he has, he has the potential to come up with something that is really good. That last part is a particular sticking point: one of Scalzi’s consistent weaknesses is an inability to write characters significantly different than himself. I don’t know if he’s capable of it or not; nothing even demonstrates he’s tried.

The caveats aside, put me down firmly in the “Endorsements” column for this book. Having read the first two in this universe and itching to read the third, I’d say that John Scalzi has done a pretty decent job. I can’t say the same for many other books I’ve read, some of which have left me with little desire to read anything further by the author. So like I said with Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades isn’t great, but it’s a good, fun read. I recommend it.