Monthly Archives: November 2013

Book Review Saturday – ‘Ender’s Game’

*Takes a deep breath*

Right.

Some of what I’m going to say here in this review may offend die-hard Orson Scott Card fans, and it may even cause some of you to think I don’t deserve the right to call myself an SF fan. However, I’m not going to sugar-coat my opinion. I know that ‘Ender’s Game’ evokes huge devotion among some of its readers, and that dissenters often face scorn, but heck – this is my blog, and I’ll say what I like.

I did not enjoy ‘Ender’s Game.’ I’m sorry, but there it is.

Image: sarahsaysread.com

Image: sarahsaysread.com

Note that I used the word ‘enjoy’. I didn’t enjoy the book, that’s true – but I do appreciate it for what it is, for what it’s trying to do, and for some of the things it anticipated about the world, particularly in terms of computing and the internet. I didn’t enjoy its brutality, its coldness, the writing style employed by its author and the – to my mind – disturbing lack of connection between the characters, and the lack of humanity in a book which takes the idea of ‘what is humanity?’ as a central concern.

‘Ender’s Game’ was a strange book, for me, insofar as I really thought the idea behind it was brilliant, and so much of what I was reading intrigued me. However, there was so much about it that I just couldn’t get on board with – no matter what the author himself says in his ‘Introduction’ to my edition (people who don’t ‘believe’ the way he’s written the children in this book simply have no idea how gifted children behave and act and think, apparently) – that it failed, for me, as a story.

Ender (Andrew) Wiggin lives with his parents and siblings – an older brother Peter and an older sister Valentine – and, as the story opens, we learn that he is being monitored via a machine in the back of his neck, and that – at six – it has been in place for a long time, longer than either of his siblings had theirs. His brother had his removed at five, and his sister at three. Ender, then, is special. For his brother, this is a cause for violent, jealous anger and for his sister it is a source of concern; Ender is a ‘Third’, a child who was born after his parents sought, and received, special permission to conceive and carry him. Thirds are not supposed to be gifted, or talented, or special. Yet Ender is.

The world in which they live exists in the aftermath of a massive invasion of alien enemies, the first of which happened some seventy years in the past, and the people of Ender’s world – a future version of Earth – are waiting for the next wave of attack from these aliens, called ‘buggers’. They are preparing to repel them, and have been working on ways to fight them for generations. Ender’s monitor – which all children have to wear, until the powers that be are satisfied that they have learned enough about the child and how he or she thinks, feels and acts – is designed to spot future battle commanders, children with the potential to be great fighters. Ender is taken from his family by a colonel from the International Fleet, or I.F., and brought to Battle School in order to learn how to kill the ‘buggers’.

So far, so good.

Ender in his flash suit, from the movie 'Ender's Game'. Image: blog.zap2it.com

Ender in his flash suit, from the movie ‘Ender’s Game’.
Image: blog.zap2it.com

The book then begins to take us through Ender’s training, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I found a lot of it impossible to imagine. I haven’t yet seen the film of ‘Ender’s Game’, but I’d certainly like to, if for nothing else than to see how a film director imagined the battle room, and the simulations of warfare, and the ‘flash suits’ the boys have to wear (for, despite the fact that girls are technically ‘allowed’ to train at Battle School, very few of them make it in due to their naturally peaceful and conciliatory inclinations – imagine me rolling my eyes here, if you like.) I did enjoy reading about how Ender gets to grips with null gravity, and how he works out a better method of attack than was previously used, one which leaves the body of the fighter at less risk of being shot by enemy fire, but really I got tired of the repetitive training sequences after a while. I’ve read many books about interstellar warfare, and I have a good imagination, but Mr. Card’s descriptions were beyond me.

Alongside Ender’s amazing military and tactical ability – bear in mind, of course, that he is six years old, turning seven and eight as he progresses through the ranks – his sister and brother are, back on Earth, turning themselves into political orators in an effort to overthrow governmental control and establish themselves as powerful players in world politics. They take the screen names ‘Demosthenes’ (Valentine) and ‘Locke’ (Peter), and soon become widely known, and their writings avidly read. They are barely teenagers, something which Valentine keeps mentioning (even, weirdly, noting that she has not yet started menstruating, so how can she possibly write a weekly column for a major newsnet, which I found disturbing. Why would any twelve-year-old girl say such a thing?) I really enjoyed how Card anticipated things like blogging and anonymous internet users exercising huge power over thought processes and web culture, years before anything like it existed in reality, but again it all seemed so unreal, unbelievable and ridiculous to imagine two pre-teens doing all this that I couldn’t really lose myself in the story. Ender, Valentine and Peter’s parents are so unimportant in this book that I really don’t see what would have been lost by aging them all ten years – they’d still have been remarkably young to be so intelligent and accomplished, and it would have seemed a little more believable to the reader.

So, the story progresses in a rather predictable way – the ending didn’t take me by surprise at all, though that’s not to say it wouldn’t have been a shock ending to its original readers, back in the 1980s – and we follow Ender’s story and that of his siblings to their adulthood, and a spark of hope for the future is planted. Or, at least, the kick-off point for this book’s stack of sequels, if you’d rather be cynical about it. I thought the concept behind the ‘buggers’ was interesting, and I was sorry that more wasn’t said about it (though, of course, I haven’t read the sequels yet), and I worried a little about where this book stood on the question of ‘gung-ho’ humanity, destroying everything around it just because it can.

I’m not sorry I read ‘Ender’s Game.’ It’s a classic, a Hugo- and Nebula-award winning book, and I didn’t really feel I’d earned my stripes as a reader of SF without having had a crack at it. However, part of me wonders why it is so successful. The children – no matter how gifted or brilliant they are – act and speak and think like middle-aged men, and I just couldn’t buy that; there is no character development; everyone, even Ender, reads like a flat cardboard cut-out, despite the fact that Card’s book tackles huge questions like the morality of war, and the idea that ‘might is right’, and the philosophical struggles inherent in everyone’s maturation process. However, all this depth, all this thinking, all this layering, is done in huge paragraphs of exposition and explanation, instead of through dialogue between characters or something that could’ve helped a reader get a handle on the people in this novel, and that left me cold. I was completely indifferent to Ender’s fate, and even though I warmed to Valentine (who is shown as having a heart and who loves her brother deeply – the very ‘weakness’ that marked her out as unsuitable for Battle School), and I liked Ender’s friend Alai, a non-white character who is shown, through his (rather stereotypical) speech to be religious, I couldn’t have cared less about anyone else.

The book struck me as racist, and sexist, and strange (lots of scenes take place where the children, for no good reason, are naked); it was coldly intellectual and – in my opinion – not the sort of book I’d have read with enjoyment as a teenager. The concepts, the science, the military strategy, and the setting are all top-notch, but the writing just didn’t do it for me. I accept its place in the canon of SF masterworks, but I reserve the right to dislike it, and so it goes.

Read some Robert Heinlein or Philip K. Dick or even Ursula Le Guin instead, is my advice.

Emmeline and the Ice-God, Chapter 13

In this week’s thrilling instalment, we catch up with Emmeline and Thing after they’ve fought their way out of one sticky situation, only to end up in another, rather stickier, one. They’ve been rescued by some people who may – or may not – be friends, and they’ve been told to make themselves scarce while a battle is fought over who gets to kidnap them next. So, they flee the fighting, searching for a ‘high place,’ in which they are to rendezvous with their rescuers once the dust has settled… but, of course, because we’re talking about Thing and Emmeline here, nothing really goes to plan.

Image: savage-tide-campaign.obsidianportal.net

Image: savage-tide-campaign.obsidianportal.net

Emmeline and the Ice-God

13

‘What have I got myself into?’ Thing muttered as they hurried down the corridor. ‘Well done, you clever feller – see a young girl, all on her lonesome, figure she’d be good comp’ny on the way to Paree, bit of fun maybe.’ Emmeline felt the bones in her hand crunching as Thing tightened his grip on her fingers. He threw her a look, too, one that was full of ticking clocks and pots boiling over.

‘What are you looking at me like that for?’ said Emmeline, her breath catching and clacking in her throat. ‘It’s not like any of it is my fault!’

‘No? Oh, right. Sorry. Maybe it was another kid they were lookin’ for back there, then. My mistake.’

‘Oh, shut up.’ Emmeline’s feet hurt, and her head was still ringing from the explosion. Her dress was utterly filthy, and her stomach was threatening mutiny at any moment. ‘Where are you dragging me, anyway?’

‘Somewhere high, or didn’t you hear what Edgar said?’ They were approaching a corner, and Thing flattened himself and Emmeline up against the wall before peeking out, very carefully, and checking in both directions. Satisfied, he yanked her forward and on they went.

‘Yes, I heard,’ snapped Emmeline, trying to drag her fingers out of Thing’s sweaty grip. ‘That doesn’t mean I’m going to do it!’ Thing snapped his head around to face Emmeline, and they ducked into a wide doorway.

‘What? Why ever not, pray tell?’

‘Who says I have to explain myself to you? Let me go, will you!’

‘No chance. Now, tell me what your plan is, seein’ as it’s bound to be so much better than Edgar’s.’

‘You met him ten seconds ago!’ cried Emmeline. ‘How do you know you can even trust him?’

‘Well, let’s see. First, he saves my life by draggin’ me up out of a threatenin’ situation. Then, he saves my life by throwin’ me out of a threatenin’ situation. Then, he promises to come an’ help later, once the threatenin’ situation, the one he saved me from already if you remember, is over and done with. That enough savin’ for ya?’

‘But how did he even know I was on this boat?’ said Emmeline, her voice an almost-hiss.

‘Well, he – obviously, he –‘ Thing stuttered to a halt, looking confused.

‘Exactly. So, maybe he’s in on it?’ Emmeline watched as this thought settled in Thing’s mind like a stone settling onto the sea floor. After a few minutes he frowned at her, like she was a jigsaw piece he couldn’t find a place for.

‘You have some serious trust issues, y’know that?’

‘Yeah. Well.’ Emmeline sniffed, trying to straighten her dress and settle her satchel with her one free hand.

‘Explains a lot, actually,’ mused Thing.

‘What is that supposed to –‘

‘Never mind. Look. So what do we do, then?’

Emmeline bit her lip as she thought. ‘I suppose we could go to that high place, and wait for Edgar there. Be ready for him, if you know what I mean. Take him by surprise and then make him – I don’t know. Confess, or something.’

‘Right, yeah. And Plan B?’

‘We’re on a ship, Thing,’ said Emmeline. ‘It’s not like we’ve got a lot of choice about where to go.’

‘Fair point, fair point. Right.’ Thing’s eyes grew alert again as he stuck his head out of their hiding place. ‘Highest place I know of on a ship is the crow’s nest, right? ‘M sure that’s what Edgar was on about.’

‘This is going to involve climbing, isn’t it?’ asked Emmeline as they started jogging down the corridor. She couldn’t shake the feeling that there was someone right behind her. The satchel would give her a bit of protection, of course, but not a lot. If someone shot at her, she wondered if she’d even know they’d done it before she’d be dead, and then she wondered about how strange her life had become – a couple of days ago, she’d thought it was only her parents who were trying to make attempts to disrupt her continued existence. Now, it seemed, everyone was at it.

‘Right. Here y’go,’ said Thing, as they pulled up beside a narrow metal staircase which led, as far as Emmeline could see, into pitch black darkness and not a lot else.

‘What’s this?’ He shoved her onto the rungs with bony fingers, his quick eyes keeping careful watch.

‘’S a stairs, stupid,’ he said, only half-listening.

‘Where does it go?’ snapped Emmeline, already three or four steps up. She realised her footsteps made a faint clang as she walked, so she tried to step quietly. The darkness was getting thick around her, like someone wrapping her up in strips of soft, suffocating cloth. She focused on breathing calmly, trying to ignore her heart, which was drumming out a fast rhythm on the inside of her chest.

‘Upper decks, I reckon,’ said Thing, out of the gloom. ‘Hurry up!’

Like stretching out your aching muscles first thing in the morning, or feeling an unexpected breeze on an unexpected place, Emmeline realised that she’d reached the top of the stairs. It was still dark, but not quite as bad. Up here, a giant deck spread for miles and miles. Lights were spaced out regularly on the waist-high barrier all around, and muffled shapes in the gloom were probably benches, or places for the well-heeled passengers to take a rest and some shelter from the wind while they were up here getting the sea air. It was sort of peaceful up here.

‘This way. Come on!’ Thing jerked her out of her thoughts by pulling on her hand like a dog straining at a lead. She took a few uncertain steps toward the centre of the deck, where – as Emmeline feared – a very tall, very spindly-looking structure was to be found, lashed to the deck by a multitude of wires. A light burned in the tiny-looking cabin at the top of the narrow ladder they’d have to climb. Emmeline tasted sick in her mouth as she stared up at it.

‘Ain’t got time to waste,’ muttered Thing, jumping onto the lower rungs. ‘You follow me, yeah? Or d’you wanna go first?’

Emmeline’s stomach rolled over. ‘You go first,’ she said. Thing stopped climbing, and leaned over the side of the ladder to peer down at her. Emmeline was glad of the darkness.

‘You’re not scared, are ya?’ he asked, coming down a rung or two. ‘Not with that box o’ tricks on your back, and a brain like yours in yer head, surely?’

‘I don’t – I don’t like heights, really,’ said Emmeline, coughing to cover up the wobble in her voice.

‘No problem,’ said Thing, cheerfully. ‘I mean, it’s so dark up ‘ere you can barely tell it’s up so high.’ She could hear the grin in his voice, even if the darkness hid it. Like an athlete, or a monkey, Thing scampered up the ladder without a second thought.

‘I don’t like darkness, either,’ muttered Emmeline, wrapping her fingers round the nearest rung and taking three deep breaths, in through her nose and out through her mouth. ‘Emmeline Mary Widget, you can do this,’ she told herself in a stern tone. ‘The secret to why you’re even here and where your parents are lies – more or less – at the top of this ladder. And if Thing can climb it, so can you! Right?’ She nodded decisively, and grabbed another, higher, rung. She found footholds, and started to climb, telling herself that her knees weren’t wobbling – it was merely the movement of the ship. Slowly, slowly, she ascended.

‘Will you get a move on!’ Thing’s voice fell on her like a handful of iron filings dropped from a height. Shivering, she felt his words trickle all over her, poking and prodding and nipping at her skin. She clung to the ladder like a baby clinging to its mother’s finger, and allowed a rattle of terror to skitter through her whole body before she trusted herself to answer.

‘I’m coming!’ she whispered back, her voice hoarse.

‘Yeah, well – come quicker!’ insisted Thing.

Just then – like his voice had summoned it – a huge, searing light switched on a few feet away. Emmeline got such a shock that she almost lost her grip on the ladder.

‘Ems!’ she heard, through the pounding of the blood in her ears. ‘Now, now, now! Get up here now!’ Fear had made her hands and feet numb, but Emmeline moved.

‘Hands then feet,’ she muttered, trying to keep calm. ‘Hands then feet.’ The light was nearly as wide across as she was tall, and as she watched it started to sweep over the deck in great arcs, like it was searching for something.

It was searching for something, she finally understood. Her.

                ‘Please, Ems! Hurry up!’ Thing’s voice seemed closer, and she looked up to see him, just barely, hanging off the top few rungs of the ladder like a flower on a long, narrow stem. She could see the terror in his face, and his outstretched fingers were just too far away for her to reach…

Then, the light finally found her. It flicked in her direction, making her freeze in terror and making her eyes sting and water as she struggled to focus. Thing was yelling at her, and she felt the ladder shudder as he started to descend. Her brain screamed as it tried to understand what was happening. Then, something slapped Emmeline’s face, and grabbed at her outstretched arm. Almost like she’d been picked up by a huge, rough-fingered hand, she felt herself being plucked off the ladder and then, sickeningly, she was falling, right toward the deck, what felt like miles and miles below…

‘Wednesday’ Write-In #67

This week’s words for CAKE.shortandsweet’s Wednesday Write-In were:

‘free sample’, ‘sear’, ‘clan’, ‘daytripper’ and ‘spray’

Image: shaman-dalie.blogspot.com

Image: shaman-dalie.blogspot.com

The Lifesaver

We spilled out of the bus straight onto the hottest sand I’d ever known. It was hard to keep my towel up, handle my backpack and struggle into my flip-flops simultaneously, but it was either that or sear off the soles of my feet.

‘Come on, love,’ sighed Dad, watching me struggle. ‘You don’t need that towel. Give it here.’ But my knuckles whitened around my grip, and he gave up. I’ve literally just come out of hospital, Dad, I snarled at him inside my mind. Leave me alone! No matter who told me the scars weren’t visible, or that ‘they weren’t as bad as all that,’ I knew the truth. They curled around my shoulder like a clan of thick, red slugs, their line marching straight down over my breastbone for good measure, and I hated them.

We stumbled to the sunbeds that had been laid out for us, the ones sitting beneath the sign marked ‘Daytripper,’ complete with a badly painted portrait of the Beatles. I allowed myself a grin as I thought about the song, and Dad jumped all over it straight away.

‘Smiling, are we? What’s rare is wonderful,’ he said, his voice like sea spray, light and cool. My smile dried up. I chose my sunbed, I laid out my things, I pulled on a cardigan and struck out for a walk.

‘Don’t go far! Do you hear me?’ cried Dad, but I didn’t even turn around. For a minute, I wondered if he’d follow me, and then I remembered he’d be torn between coming after me and staying with all our stuff, and I knew which one he’d pick.

I let the cool water splash over my legs as I walked in the shallows. People were really starting to arrive now, in their droves; the beach was soon full of accents, parasols, arguments, impatient children being slathered in sun lotion, tattoos and portable radios and noise, noise noise. I walked faster.

Sweat rolled down my back and coated my arms like a second skin. Beneath my cardigan, my skin prickled and flushed, but I just walked, and walked, the sun beating down on me like an interrogation light. Why isn’t your mother here? it asked me, even though it knew the answer. Where did you get all those disgusting, ugly scars, eh? They look like they came from a car accident. Were you driving? Was it your fault? 

I woke to find cool water washing up and over me, my arms and neck bare, my hair askew. I tried to sit up, wondering what had happened, but my head felt like it was being split, like a log beneath an axe. With tears in my eyes, I flopped back down.

‘No, no, no,’ said a gentle voice, and I felt a hand on my shoulder. It didn’t hurt, but I swallowed back a yell of pain anyway. I looked and saw fingers lying on my scars, as if they weren’t there; a hand helping me to sit up, as though I deserved it; a kind, gentle face looking at me like I was a normal person, and not me.

The person helping me wore a red swimming costume and a yellow jacket, and then it began to make sense. A lifeguard, I thought. No wonder he was being so kind. It was his job, that was all. He left me sitting, breathing, while he went to fetch what remained of my waterlogged cardigan, and then he began to lecture me, gently. I couldn’t understand his words, but I knew just what he meant. Silly to wear a cardigan in this heat! What are you, crazy? You’re lucky I was here, and that you didn’t drown! And your scars? They’re not so bad, right?

I started to cry and he frowned at me, his brown eyes full of concern and confusion. His words dried up. Then he threw my soggy cardigan to one side and held up a finger as if to say ‘just a minute – don’t go anywhere,’ before shrugging off his jacket and wading into the water. I watched as he bent, scooping up handfuls of tiny, wriggling fish, before turning around and walking back up the sand toward me.

He spread out his catch on the sand and picked up one fresh sardine, holding it out to me like a free sample, and he smiled. Then he nodded at something behind us, and I turned to see a pit full of coals dug in the sand about a hundred yards away, and a small crowd around it laughing and joking and eating the freshly roasted fish, straight from the sea.

I turned back to him and smiled, and I let him help me to my feet.

NaNoWriMo is DoneThankGodOh!

Look at this! Image: NaNoWriMo.org

Look at this!
Image: NaNoWriMo.org

So – my apologies for the lack of my usual broadcast this fine Wednesday morning. I have a story in my brain-pan based around this week’s CAKE.shortandsweet’s wonderful prompt words – which are, for the curious, ‘free sample’, ‘sear’, ‘clan’, ‘daytripper’ and ‘spray’ – but I fear it will have to wait for a little longer.

For, dear reader, this morning – in the last few moments! – I have managed to write my fifty thousandth word, and validate my NaNoWriMo novel.

Image: bubblews.com

Image: bubblews.com

I now intend to make myself a celebratory cup of coffee and sit in a darkened room for a little bit. I may cheer, but I will be doing it very, very quietly.

The good news (or, well, the better news, maybe) is that, while I’ve reached my NaNo goal, I am not yet finished with Emmeline’s story. It will take at least another 10,000 words to see the story through, and then I can think about editing it and polishing it and letting other people read it. I am pleased with how it’s gone so far – I think, for a first draft, and a first draft written in a white heat, at that, it’s reasonably strong material – but a good, thorough edit will soon put the whole thing to the test. If it wobbles at the first breeze, or starts to fall apart as soon as I make the barest change, then I know I’m in trouble.

However, from me, and from Emmeline, and from Thing, it’s a fond ‘farewell’ for the moment. I’m off to rediscover what it’s like to be a human adult who goes outdoors and does stuff besides stare at a computer screen and think, but just as soon as I can I’ll let you all know how the story of Emmeline is getting on.

For this isn’t the last you’ve heard of my intrepid heroine, make no mistake!

Congratulations to any of my fellow NaNo-ers out there who are starting the validation process – and to those who couldn’t find it in their hearts to take part this year, perhaps 2014 will be your year.

It’s worth it – trust me!

Image: NaNoWriMo.org

Image: NaNoWriMo.org

Finding North

What happens when you feel like you’re on the wrong track?

Image: thinkingmomsrevolution.com

Image: thinkingmomsrevolution.com

In the course of researching the market, checking out agents’ requirements, keeping on top of trends in the publishing industry and all those other vital things that anyone who desires a career in writing needs to do, I come across a lot of scary information. I read articles which decry the upswing in children’s stories featuring magic – ‘Harry Potter is so over, people!’ – and some which say there aren’t enough stories like that. I’ve sweated my way through blog posts complaining about exactly the sort of books I love to read – and, by extension, write – and industry diatribes against children’s books which feature some, or all, of the things I’m currently working on. I have had a children’s book in mind for years, one I just haven’t found quite the right voice for yet, which – apparently – is so old hat as to be laughable. Agents and publishers all seem to be searching for something which is new, which is fresh, which is different, but if what I think of as new and fresh and different is boring as dust to them, then what am I to do?

I haven’t written a new short story for quite some time, besides one which I entered into a competition a few weeks ago. I feel like I’ve lost touch, somewhat, with what the market is looking for in terms of short fiction – either I’m churning out cliché, or I’m just not fashionable any more in terms of the subjects and/or style I choose to use, or something else, something I can’t put my finger on, is wrong with my work. I went through a golden patch of success with my stories when I was completely new to writing them – they seemed to fit the moment, and the readers to whom I was sending them understood what I was getting at, and could get on board with what I wanted to achieve – but in recent months, they’ve fallen on cold, stony soil. I wouldn’t even worry about this – taste is a subjective and amorphous thing, everyone is looking for something different in a short story, there’s room for all sorts of creative work, and all that – except for the fact that when I read short stories now, particularly award-winning ones, I just don’t get them.

In the immortal words of Jordan Catalano – they ‘just don’t hold my attention.’

Image: notsuperhuman.com

Image: notsuperhuman.com

I’m not for one split second trying to say that the short stories I’m reading aren’t good – clearly, they are, or they wouldn’t be winning awards – but what I mean is this: how have I become so out of touch with what’s required of a story that I can’t even read, and enjoy, an obviously well-crafted piece of work?

Of course, I believe it’s important to be true to your own voice and honest about what you feel when you’re writing a story. It’s pointless to write ‘to’ a market, because it changes so regularly. Having said that, it worries me that I don’t seem to be able to keep abreast of changes, and that the ideas I’m having are old, out of fashion, out of favour – unsellable, unlovable, dead in the water before they’ve even set sail.

Writing is a hard thing. Not only is it difficult, and time-consuming, and brain-consuming, to sit down and spend hours tapping away at a keyboard but it’s also hard on the soul to create something special and unique to you, something you love and want to share with the world, which then falls at the first hurdle. Writing fiction can be intensely personal; what you write says a lot about who you are. So, if what you write is out of touch, out of favour, unfashionable – or, if you believe it to be so – it can be a deep wound in a secret place, one which you carry with you but show to nobody. A person can’t help but be interested in what they love, and a writer will write what interests them, and what excites and motivates their creative brain. Creating a piece of work is an achievement in itself, of course, but realistically, spending months or years writing something which you love, which then goes on to sit on your desk gathering dust or which ping-pongs around from agent to agent for years without finding a home, is disheartening.

I don’t have an answer for all this. You can’t write to a market because by the time you’ve finished your book the market has changed, as markets are wont, and your carefully crafted story about canine vampires from outer space has been done to almost literal death. You can’t write to a market because that’s not being true to yourself as a writer, and it’s also a little cynical. Instead you write because you love it, and you love the stories you’re telling, and you write them as well as you can, and you try to improve your craft with every project you complete. All you can do is hope that, someday, the market and your talent and your idea and your submission will all align like planets in an intergalactic conjunction, and the magic will start to happen.

Sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

Image: ibnlive.in.com

Image: ibnlive.in.com

All a person can do is keep the focus on their own personal North. Write what’s true, and what’s real, and – while remaining aware of trends – don’t let yourself be swayed by what other people expect. Write what you love, as well as you possibly can. And – maybe – take some time out and do some reading, or remove your head from your writing space altogether in order to let some new ideas come sweeping in. It’s worth a shot.

At Base Camp, Looking Up

When I was a kid, one of my favourite Aesop’s fables was the one about the tortoise and the hare. You remember it, I’m sure. I loved the idea that the ‘underdog’ – the character who everyone expected to lose – actually managed to win, and that determination, not speed, was what took the prize. That appealed to me.

Arthur Rackham's illustration for 'The Tortoise and the Hare' Image: childhoodreading.com

Arthur Rackham’s illustration for ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’
Image: childhoodreading.com

I wasn’t a very sporty child, and so running races was something I really detested – I never won, in the sense of ‘I never came first’. I loved swimming, but the only time I ever thought – just for a second! – that I’d won a race in the pool, I’d actually ended up coming so far behind everyone else that all the other kids were out of the water and already half-dressed by the time I made it to the finish line. When I touched the wall at the far end of the pool, I looked around and didn’t see anyone either side of me, and just for those three seconds before I worked out what had happened, I felt like an Olympic champion.

Even though I never won at anything, though, I understood what the fable was trying to say: take it slow, take it steady, and you’ll get there in the end. Finishing a race became, to me, almost as good as coming first. Knowing I had done it, that I’d met the challenge and proved to myself that I could do it, was as good as a gold medal.

It’s amazing that I seem to have forgotten all those hard-earned childhood lessons when it comes to the race I’m currently ‘running’ – the race against time, to get all my words down before my NaNoWriMo challenge ends.

I haven’t gone anywhere near my NaNoWriMo project since Saturday morning, when I half-heartedly added a few hundred words to it, and then gave up; I didn’t even think about it all weekend. I haven’t opened the file yet this morning, and I’m – can you believe this? – a little bit afraid to. I worked very hard at it all last week, including one day when I wrote more than five thousand words because I felt like I wanted to keep going until I’d reached a certain point, but when it came to the next day – well. I couldn’t even manage two thousand words without bottoming out. I constantly do this – I race too hard one day and end up knocking myself out of the running for the days that follow. I haven’t run out of story for the NaNo project, and I haven’t run out of love for the characters – but I’ve just burned through so much mental and physical energy over the past three weeks that I’m beginning to have doubts that I’ll make it.

I have a shorter NaNo than most other people, insofar as I have to submit my words by this Wednesday evening or Thursday morning, at the latest. I will be away from my computer – indeed, any computer – from Thursday afternoon, and so my challenge will have to end early. If I don’t submit my words for counting and verification by Thursday morning, I won’t be submitting them at all. So, I suppose that’s adding to the worry – I don’t want to ‘lose’ this race. I want to finish it; I set out with the intention of finishing it, and that’s what I want to do. But, if I’d remembered the plucky tortoise from my favourite tale, and if I’d taken things slow and steady, I might not have just over 42,000 words done right now but I’d probably be a lot more enthusiastic about tackling the remainder.

I feel like a person setting off to climb a mountain, even though – when I think about it – I’m actually quite near the summit already. However, getting through these last 8-10,000 words will, I fear, be the hardest part of my NaNoWriMo journey. I’m tired, I’m cranky, my brain hurts and I just don’t want to do it – and that, my friends, is a place that no writer should ever allow themselves to end up. Writing is what I love, and putting myself in a position where I really can’t face the task of sitting down and putting one word after another due to exhaustion or burnout caused by a shortsighted inability to pace myself properly is really, really stupid.

Image: heidelscorner.blogspot.com

Image: heidelscorner.blogspot.com

So. I think, perhaps, it’s time to stop allowing panic to drive my NaNo train. I’ll take it slowly today and if I get a thousand words written, great. If I get two thousand written, great. If I start going over that, I think I’ll have to rein myself in and let my common sense – my inner tortoise, if you will – take over.

Slow and steady wins the race. I should just print this out and put it up over my computer – or, get it tattooed on my forehead. Whichever works, right?

Good luck with your day’s challenges. Take it steady – or, as we say in Ireland, ‘take ‘er handy.’

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘Cloud Atlas’

So, yes. ‘Cloud Atlas’. It’s far from being a new book, but it was a new book to me, when I read it a couple of months ago. I was warned, repeatedly, that it was ‘impossible’, ‘unreadable’, ‘too complicated’, and so on, so I did come to it with a certain amount of trepidation.

Also, a little bit of cold, hard fear.

Image: screencrush.com

Image: screencrush.com

Now, in the warm afterglow of having met the challenge of reading it, I wonder why so many people warned me off. It’s a big, whopping book – but it’s nothing to be scared of.

‘Cloud Atlas’ is a huge novel, full of characters and voices and ideas and time periods, but it is all connected. It’s connected through the plot that David Mitchell weaves around his characters, of course, but also through the larger ideas of shared humanity, the desire to live, the need for freedom, and the gaining of wisdom. All these things make the book easy to empathise with and understand, and they also keep you turning the pages.

Structurally, the book takes the form of six novellas, five of which are split in two; one half of these split novellas is told at the beginning of the book, and the other half (in reverse order) at the end. The middle novella, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After’ is told in its entirety, like a ‘bridge’ across the middle of the book. The first story we come across is ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,’ which tells the tale of a man on a nineteenth-century ship which is sailing around the Chatham Islands. The story takes in ideas of slavery, colonialism, brutal maritime history, and – overall – the ways in which people will use one another to get what they want. It is told in the form of a diary, and its dialect, language, and historical sensibilities are pitch-perfect in their accuracy. It reads like a long-lost primary historical document, and it’s engrossing.

The second novella is a total change. ‘The Journal of Adam Ewing’ comes to a sudden, and unexpected, stop, and the reader is flung into an entirely different world. We read about a young man named Robert Frobisher, who is extremely talented but utterly feckless, making his way to Switzerland to apprentice himself to the leading composer of his day because he simply cannot bear to do anything else. He is bisexual, louche, useless with money, and a total cad, but, somehow, we love him as much as the person to whom he is writing his letters – an old lover, Rufus Sixsmith – seems to do. We imagine Sixsmith’s pain as Frobisher details his conquests and his increasingly glamorous lifestyle, but – most interestingly – we read that he has found a manuscript among the papers of Vyvyan Ayrs (the composer with whom he is working) which is called ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’ – and it is torn in half. Finding the other half becomes an obsession. Ayrs also talks about a strange vision he has had of a futuristic society involving women who all look the same, and begins to write music based on his visions.

The next section is ‘The First Luisa Rey Mystery,’ written like a potboiler detective novel. A young woman in 1970s California discovers that a local power plant is not all it purports to be, and an eminent scientist – one Rufus Sixsmith – warns her of the danger before being murdered. In her investigation, Rey uncovers the letters from Frobisher which Sixsmith has kept, and becomes interested in his music. Her story ends abruptly – and frighteningly – and we do not know her fate as we move on to the next novella.

‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’ is written in a highly comic tone, which is interesting as the story is quite frightening, in some ways. Cavendish is a publisher, who is always running short of money and who has now fallen foul of a criminal element. His brother tells him that he has booked him into a remote, and hence completely safe, hotel in order to get him away from his enemies, but this hotel turns out to be something rather different – a place he cannot escape from, no matter what he tries to do. He had to leave very quickly to escape the brutes who were after him, and – in his hurry – he forgot that he had a newly submitted manuscript in his briefcase, which he reads as he struggles to adjust to his new life in captivity. The title of the manuscript? ‘The First Luisa Rey Mystery.’

‘The Orison of Sonmi~451’ is the next novella, and it was by far my favourite. It tells the story of a ghastly futuristic society called Neo So Copros, but which seems very familiar to anyone who has ever been inside a large fast-food restaurant. The world is a totalitarian state, and the ‘people’ who work serving food and doing other menial tasks are ‘fabricants’, or clones grown for the purpose of being slaves. Their minds are manipulated by ‘pureblood’ humans in order to keep them down. The novella is written like an interview between one of these fabricants, Sonmi~451, and an archivist, and Sonmi gradually reveals her story. Led by one of her fellow fabricants, she stops taking the medication that keeps her mind enslaved and she becomes ‘ascended’, or conscious – a dangerous crime. She mentions, just before her novella breaks, that she loves a movie from the ‘old days’, which is called ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.’

‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After’ is set far, far into the future, in an unknown year. A post-apocalyptic society – or, after ‘the Fall of the Old ‘Uns’, as it is put by Zachry, the narrator of this novella – we work out that the people are living on the big island of Hawaii, and that they are largely peace-loving, but regularly come under attack from their warlike neighbours. They worship a goddess called Sonmi. One day they are visited by people who are far more technologically advanced, who wish to observe their people and their culture, and Zachry becomes suspicious. Meronym, the woman who stays behind to live with his people, has a strange holographic device from which the image of a beautiful woman emerges, telling her story – Meronym tells Zachry that this is a recording of the long-dead Sonmi, who was not a goddess after all…

This only brings us up to the novel’s halfway point, but I hope, if you haven’t already read the book, of course, that I’ve whetted your appetite for what happens next. The connections between the novellas, and the vastly different – but each of them perfectly realised – styles of writing used to bring them to life, were nothing short of stunning. ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a work of genius. It at once made me feel like a wholly inadequate writer and a very connected human being – and I loved it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll try to spot all the connections between the novellas, from names to birthmarks to things being mentioned and referenced to the mind-boggling idea that, despite the fact that this book has a huge cast of characters, perhaps some of them are simply the same people, being reborn and reborn throughout the centuries. Perhaps that’s all any of us are.

Many, many Sonmis, all in a row... From the movie of 'Cloud Atlas' Image: filmschoolrejects.com

Many, many Sonmis, all in a row… From the movie of ‘Cloud Atlas’
Image: filmschoolrejects.com

Amazing.

Happy Saturday, and happy reading.