Science, Fiction, Life

Month: January 2014

Storytelling Lessons from Ira Glass

Last night my wife and I went to see Ira Glass in his stage show “Reinventing Radio”. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Ira Glass is the host of the radio show This American Life, which is one of the best shows on radio (I’d say its only real competition for the top spot is RadioLab). It is great because it tells great stories, and the stage show that we saw was basically Ira Glass talking about how they put together a radio show that is interesting, touching, and nearly impossible to stop listening to. Many of the points that he made apply to written storytelling too, so I though I’d list a few that stood out.

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1. Dark and serious is not the same as realistic

Glass spent some time discussing what makes This American Life different from typical broadcast journalism, and to do so he played a clip from CNN, reporting on the war in Afghanistan. It had everything you would expect: Very Serious reporters, epic music in the background, and everything about it just screamed “this is very important and serious”. Glass pointed out that this is all a stylistic choice. That broadcast journalism has sort of built up this standard tone that focuses on the serious, but in doing so they exclude humor and amusement and friendship and a wide swath of the human experience. In short, Glass said, the tone that broadcast journalism has self-imposed excludes “everything that makes life worth living.”

As a contrast with the CNN clip, glass played a clip from when their reporter was on the aircraft carrier that was running sorties into Afghanistan. They were interviewing a young soldier whose job 12 hours a day was to fill the vending machines on the aircraft carrier. It was a cute little moment of humor in an otherwise really serious setting, and made for very interesting radio.

Anyone who pay attention to popular culture is aware of the recent trend toward “grittiness” and gray characters and moral ambiguity in movies and books. There’s a whole subgenre of fantasy called “grimdark” now because of this trend. I think there is the assumption that by going “gritty”, the stories told are more realistic. But Ira Glass makes the really important point that this isn’t so, that life is a complicated mix of serious and funny, nasty and wonderful. If you only focus on the grimdark side of things, you’re not giving a realistic picture of life.

2. All stories ask questions

Glass also talked about the importance of plot. He quoted someone (whose name I unfortunately forget) who said that all stories are basically detective stories: they get the reader/viewer/listener to ask questions, and the desire the find the answer to those questions are what make you turn the page, or sit in the car with the radio for just another minute. Glass said that even just laying down the bare bones of the plot “this happened, and then this happened…”, if done right, gets the reader asking the question “Then what happened?” and that’s enough to keep people hooked. He also pointed out that this happens on all different scales in a story. There’s the big questions that stretch across the whole story arc, but there are also small questions that resolve themselves in moments. His example was “a figure stood in the doorway”. You’re immediately wondering whether this new arrival is a friend or foe to the protagonist. A few lines of dialogue, and you know the answer to that question and there is a small feeling of resolution. A great climax to a story is when a single event resolves lots of different outstanding questions.

On a related note, one thing that came up in the Q&A was that someone asked him about the pauses in the radio show and if they are deliberate. And the answer is yes, of course they are. Glass joked about how this person’s favorite part of the show was when he just shut up and let her think, but what clicked in my brain is that the short pauses that they intersperse in the radio show are actually examples of narrative tension on the sentence level. Just a short break in the flow of words lets the listener (a) think about what was just said, and (b) build suspense for what is about to be said.  The exact same principle can be applied in writing on multiple scales by varying the pacing of a scene or a chapter, or even by the placement of words and punctuation in a single sentence.

3. Sometimes “seeing” more lessens the impact

Glass began and ended the show by discussing the intimacy of radio. He made the point that, for some of their stories, if they had been filmed there would be so many visual details that distract from the point of the story that it would be almost impossible to have the same effect. Viewers would see the people and the setting and subconsciously (or consciously) think “that person isn’t like me” and therefore might not empathize quite as much with the people being interviewed. They would automatically judge the person onscreen and in doing so, distance themselves from the actual story. For example he talked about a very detailed piece they did on an inner-city school in Chicago, and he said that one of the main goals was for listeners to get beyond their preconceptions and, when they hear the story of the kids whose lives are full of gangs and shootings, realize: “That could be me” and “I would do the same thing in their shoes”.

I think the idea that the lack of visuals in radio can have this power to make a story more intimate can carry over to written stories and fiction. Of course, when writing you need to include some visual details, but choosing those details judiciously and allowing the reader to fill in the rest is an important part of getting the reader to buy in to the story.

4. What’s the point?

This is another aspect of the need to relate to the characters in a story. Glass pointed out that, when you’re telling a story to a friend, you don’t generally just stop, you wrap it up with a statement that just comes right out and says “this is the point of the story.” One example he gave was a really captivating piece they did about a girl in New Zealand who has been bitten by a shark. She was taken to the doctor and stitched up and the doctor told her parents that she would be in a lot of pain but not to worry about it, she’ll get better. But overnight, she gets worse and worse (it turned out the bite had punctured her intestine and she was getting peritonitis and close to death). She tries to convince her parents that things are really bad, but they don’t believe her, thinking of the doctor’s warning that it would be painful, but not to worry.

Gripping story right? You want to know how it is resolved. But what Glass said was that what really makes the story resonate is that it is the most extreme example of something everyone experiences: being a kid and trying to convince your parents of something that you know to be true, and they don’t believe you. Now for most of us, this experience is more about monsters under the bed or the importance of high school drama rather than a life-threatening shark bite. But Glass’s point was that every story that is any good has a key point that links it to the listener’s own personal experience, and that getting the people he interviews to focus in on this key point is a big part of conducting an effective interview. He said that basically the goal is to get someone to come right out and say what the point of the story is.

This can be tricky to do in fiction, but I think the idea is still valid. Even if you don’t want your characters to stand up and tell the reader “this is why you should care about this story”, it makes sense for the author to be keenly aware of this central idea that the reader can relate to.

5. It’s a volume game

Multiple times, Glass mentioned that “it’s a volume game”, meaning that to get the good stuff, you have to work through and discard a lot of junk. For the stories included in the show, he said that more than half of the stories that they start never air because they aren’t good enough. And for stories that do air, most of the interviews never air.

During the Q&A at the end, someone asked how Glass can do radio so much and stay “authentic”, and he responded by saying that it takes a lot of practice to be good enough to be yourself. This segued into something that I had heard him say before in the excellent video clip below. Basically, the only way to become good enough is to do a large body of work:

Movie Review: Her

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I’m not going to mince words here: “Her” is a thoroughly excellent movie and you should go see it.

The premise is pretty simple: In the near future, a sentient operating system is released that customizes itself to be compatible with the user. The main character, Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), is a lonely guy who is recovering from a divorce, and when he gets this new operating system, she names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johanssen) and they gradually fall in love.

Both Phoenix and Johanssen give really great performances, which along with the great writing make the love story in this movie between a guy and a voice inside his computer more convincing than the vast majority of love stories I’ve seen on screen.

In many ways, this movie is a very traditional science fiction movie. It makes one science fictional change to our world – sentient computers – and then explores all the fascinating ramifications. But what’s great about it is that at the same time it is exploring love in a really interesting and touching way. It asks questions that only science fiction can ask: Is it actually love if one party is a computer? How do you have a physical romantic relationship if one person has no body? But many of the things that it deals with are basic parts of any committed relationship, made fresh by looking at them through the lens of science fiction. How do you share your life with someone but allow each other space to be yourself? How do you deal with jealousy when your partner is socializing and making friends outside of your social circle? How do you deal with the pain of past relationships and the effect that can have on the present one?

Even as it is dealing with very serious questions about the nature of love, the movie is also very funny at times, whether it’s the main characters getting into an argument with a semi-sentient video game character, or Samantha blithely telling her human friends that she has come to like not having a body that will inevitably grow old and die. There is just enough comic relief to balance out the other aspects of the movie.

Of course, the other wonderfully science fictional thing is the way the movie addresses current technology: namely our reliance on computers. We already spend so much time with various electronic devices that, if they could interact with us the way a human does, people falling in love with their computers begins to seem inevitable rather than unusual. The movie does a great job of quietly and insistently making a point of how people in this near future find themselves so caught up in their devices, talking to their sentient smartphones, that they don’t interact with each other anymore. It’s never overly judgemental or preachy, but the point is made.

Normally I try to think of something negative and positive about anything I review, but I’m having a hard time coming up with negatives. I guess I would warn you that there are some very awkward scenes involving Theodore having sex with someone who isn’t in the room (once over the phone, and then some scenes exploring the difficulties of a non-corporeal girlfriend) but the awkwardness is the whole point of those scenes, and they aren’t graphic or anything, so I can’t even really say that they are a drawback. Just, weird.

As I mentioned in a previous review, one of the best indicators that I really enjoyed a piece of fiction is that I can’t stop thinking about it afterward. “Her” definitely passes the test. After the movie, over dinner, my wife and I basically were just laughing and reminding each other of good scenes. A day later, I’m still thinking about it.

Too often, science fiction in the movies is seen as synonymous with over-the-top special effects and summer blockbusters starring square-jawed heroes and buxom heroines in impractically tight costumes, so I love it when a movie makes it to theaters that showcases the more thoughtful and emotional side of science fiction. On top of that, the writing and performances in “Her” make it one of the best movies I’ve seen in a really long time.  Do yourself a favor: go see it, and see how meaningful and emotional good science fiction can be.

 

Book Review: Shards of Honor

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I picked up Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold  because (a) I had heard great things about her Vorkosigan saga, and this is the first book in the series, and (b) I really enjoyed her fantasy novel The Curse of Chalion.

Shards of Honor starts off with the main character, Cordelia Naismith, leading a scientific scouting party on an unsettled planet. They are ambushed by enemies, her crew is killed, and she finds herself the captive of Aral Vorkosigan, an officer of the Bararryan military. The twist is, he didn’t order the attack, it was a plot from political enemies to get rid of him by making it look like her people killed him.

Cordelia and Aral have to work together to get back to safety, and in the process they almost immediately fall in love.Eventually they make it back to Vorkosigan’s ship, but then Cordelia is “rescued” by her own people and the star-crossed lovers end up separated.

I won’t detail the rest of the plot, but in broad strokes, they find themselves back together when Cordelia is once again captured by the Bararryans, just before war breaks out between their people. Lots of political intrigue ensues.

Shards of Honor is good old fashioned space opera, with fleets of ships and planetary invasions, and political maneuverings that hold the fate of many planets in the balance. It had been a while since I read something like this, and it was very readable.

Unfortunately, the main character is pretty passive. Most of the time things are done to her and she reacts, rather than having her own actions move the plot forward. It’s almost as if the real main character is Aral Vorkosigan, and Cordelia exists primarily as a proxy for the reader: an outsider who is present for the major plot points but doesn’t know much so needs things explained.

Also, I was just not convinced by the romance which is at the heart of the story. We’re supposed to just believe that after having all of her friends killed by Vorkosigan’s people, Cordelia still falls almost immediately for Aral because he is handsome and tough and helps her bury her dead friend.

The plot was also somewhat disjointed and some subplots don’t really resolve in a very satisfying way. Apparently this novel was originally longer and was split into multiple pieces, and I think that left some rough edges.

After finishing the book, I read a bit about the “proper” order in which to read the Vorkosigan saga, and it turns out Shard of Honor is Bujold’s first novel, ever. Given that, the flaws in Shards of Honor make more sense. Having read Curse of Chalion, I know that Bujold gets much better, and I have heard that the entries in the Vorkosigan saga improve as they go. Despite its flaws, Shards of Honor was quite readable, and with the promise of better things to come, I still plan on returning to the Vorkosigan series.

Graphic Novel Review: Saga – Volume 1

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I have a confession to make: I have never read comic books. They just never really appealed to me. I learned plenty about them through osmosis just by being a geeky type of person, especially once superhero movies became popular, but I never thought to myself “I should really try reading the X-men comics”.

But then I started hearing about “graphic novels”, and people whose taste in books I respect also talked about how great certain graphic novels were. I was still skeptical that “graphic novel” was a marketing term for comic books for people who want to distance themselves from the stereotypes about comic-readers, but I didn’t want to miss out on a potentially great form of storytelling.  So, this year I decided to give graphic novels a try and put a few that I had heard were good on my Christmas wish list.

And so I received my first-ever graphic novel, Saga: Volume 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I started reading it over the holiday break, and finished it recently.

The story of Saga basically boils down to: two people from opposite sides of an interplanetary war fall in love and the book starts with their baby being born. They try to protect their child and flee from the warring factions and bounty hunters who are pursuing them.

The writing in Saga is pretty good, with a witty sense of humor, but as I suspected would be the case, the plot exists mostly to drive the story from visually interesting scene to visually interesting scene. This is not really a complaint though, because the art is really excellent. I had to force myself to read slowly and enjoy the artwork, because it’s the main attraction. Years of novel-reading made me want to speed through, so I ended up putting the book down at the chapter breaks to make it last longer.

The universe of Saga is a really interesting mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy. One of the main characters has insect wings, the other has ram’s horns. The winged people seem to be more technologically oriented while the horned people are more magically oriented. There are robot nobility who are basically humans but with televisions for heads, and there are ghosts, and tree-like rocketships, and giant war-tortoises, and freaky spider-human bounty hunters, and all sorts of other crazy things.

I guess my main complaint is that there is quite a bit of unnecessary nudity which seems to have been thrown in purely to demonstrate that this is not a comic for kids. It felt quite similar to the often-gratuitous nudity in HBO and other non-network shows, or in “mature” video games, serving little purpose other than to call attention to the fact that they can get away with things that more family-friendly networks can’t. The problem I have with this is that, believe it or not, I don’t tend to consume media by myself. In the case of Saga, I was reading it on the couch at my in-laws’ house. Suddenly flipping the page and coming across a sex scene, or topless spider-woman hybrid was…unexpected, and had the potential to become pretty embarrassing.

But that complaint aside, on the whole I enjoyed Saga. The main thing that I have noticed is that my brain keeps returning to some of the spectacular scenes in the book. One of my measures of a great novel is that I can’t stop thinking about it, even when I’m doing other things. Saga seems to have succeeded at doing something similar.

Graphic novels are a new form of media for me, so I don’t have anything to compare Saga directly to, but bottom line is: I enjoyed it, and even after finishing it I keep thinking about it, and I’m looking forward to reading(viewing?) the next volume.

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2013 in Review: Books I Read

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It’s the end of the year, and you know what that means: lists! I read a total of 13 books this year, and I thought I’d do a quick run-down here. I’ve fallen behind on my reviews, so this will also serve as a good way to get caught up. Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2013, roughly in order of when I finished them:

  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created – Charles C. Mann (Nonfiction – History)

This book is the successor to 1491, which I listened to on the drive to and from Pasadena during MSL primary operations and really enjoyed. 1493 looks at the ramifications of globalization begun by Columbus arriving in the new world and continuing over the next few centuries. I really enjoyed this book too, though it got to be a bit long winded. The most interesting part to me was the discussion of how Spanish control over the extremely productive silver mines in South America had ripple effects all the way around the world, changing the course of history in Japan and China as well as triggering wars in Europe. These two books, 1491 and 1493 have rekindled my interest in history, and are full of interesting historical anecdotes. I liked the books well enough that I went out and bought paper copies to have as references, and as inspiration for future fiction writing.

  • The Winds of War – Herman Wouk (Fiction – History)

Speaking of history, this year I started reading more historical fiction as well. Winds of War is a massive book following the members of a family as they are strewn around the world in the early years of World War 2. Wouk strategically positions his characters in interesting places so the reader gets multiple perspectives on the war. I probably learned more about World War 2 here than I did in school.  Although some of the characters’ travels are improbable and at times it gets a bit soap-operatic, I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading its successor.

  • Wildwood – Colin Meloy (Fiction – YA Fantasy)

We picked up this book mostly because it is written by the lead singer of the Decemberists, which is one of our favorite bands. It’s a simple young adult fantasy tale set in a realm of talking animals whose factions are at war in the woods outside Portland, OR. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t really grip me in a must-turn-the-page sort of way. It is well-edited and structured, following the principle of Chekov’s Gun well and wrapping up neatly. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a younger audience, though some of the animals actually die in the war, so it’s not for very young kids.

  • The Last Days of the Incas – Kim MacQuarrie (Nonfiction – History)

This book was great. I read it before and during a trip to Peru, and it does a great job of making the history of the conquest of the Incas come alive (though actually having visited the key locations also helps!). MacQuarrie scours the historical records, but then takes enough liberties and indulges in enough scene-setting and description that the book reads more like a novel than nonfiction. Although I had the general idea for a novel based on the Incas in mind for years before reading this, this book introduced me to the historical figure of Felipillo, the young Inca boy who served as translator between the Spanish and the Incas. He became the inspiration for one of the main characters in my novel. I highly recommend this book for a readable and fascinating account of the conquest of the Incas.

  • Wool – Hugh Howey (Fiction – Sci-fi/post-apocalypse)

This book was probably the best surprise read of the year. I picked it up  on a whim after reading some glowing reviews, not really knowing what to expect, and got completely swept away. I wrote a long review of it here on the blog, so I won’t rehash all of that here. Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed this book, and rank it among my favorites of the year.

  • Shogun – James Clavell (Fiction – History)

This was my only re-read of the year, but I really enjoyed it the second time around as well. I also wrote a more detailed review on the blog, so take a look. This book is another example of how fiction can do so much more than classroom lectures to make history come alive. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in feudal Japan or any fans of fantasy like the Game of Thrones series with large casts and lots of political intrigue.

  • The Summer Tree – Guy Gavriel Kay (Fiction – Fantasy)

I wish I had more good things to say about this one. I read Kay’s book “Under Heaven” a few years ago and enjoyed it pretty well, especially as an example of historical fantasy set it a fictional world that closely mimics our own, so I thought I would try his earlier, more “pure-fantasy” work. Kay was involved in editing Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”, so when I saw reviews of “The Summer Tree” saying that it borrowed a lot from Tolkien, I figured I would still give it a chance. The story in the Summer Tree is sort of like The Lion, The With, and The Wardrobe with college kids, mashed up with Lord of the Rings, but it fails to live up to either. At its best, this book has some passages of really lovely prose, but more often it feels very much like an imitation of better books. I can’t recommend this one. If you want a good take on “college kids in a magical setting” check out Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. If you want epic fantasy, either read Tolkien himself, or go with more modern classics like Game of Thrones .

  • The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell (Fiction – History)

After enjoying Winds of War and re-reading Shogun, I was in the mood for more historical fiction, and Bernard Cornwell’s name kept coming up, so I tried this one. The story is set in the mid 9th century and follows Uhtred, the son of a Northumbrian lord who is adopted by Danes (vikings) after they invade and kill his father. There is lots of gruesome and gritty action, interesting characters, and conflicted loyalties as Uhtred grows up and comes to sympathize with the people who killed his family. This book is the perfect gateway book for fans of fantasy who want to get into historical fiction. It reads very much like epic fantasy, except it’s based on real historical events. It’s also refreshing to read something set in the depths of the middle ages rather than toward the end. In this book great castles are houses on mounds of dirt with wooden walls, and a shirt of chainmail is the best armor available. No knights in shining armor and towering fairytale castles here. One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book is learning what places used to be called. London = Lundene, Nottingham = Snotingaham, York = Jorvick. Anyway, I really enjoyed this one, and am planning on starting the second book in the series soon.

  • The Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson (Fiction – Fantasy)

This is the second book in the Mistborn series, the first of which I read a year or so ago and enjoyed. It took me quite a while to get into this one. One of the problems I run into with the Mistborn books is that the magic system, although interesting, is pretty complicated, so action sequences have to be extremely detailed for the reader to be able to follow what’s going on. Especially at the beginning of this book, when Sanderson is trying to get new readers up to speed, the action sequences can lose their urgency and interest as they devolve into tutorials on the magic system. By the end of this book, I was finally drawn in by the several slowly building arcs and enjoyed what appeared to be the climax. Unfortunately, the book keeps going to set up a major cliffhanger for the following book. I follow the Writing Excuses podcast, which is hosted by Sanderson, and he has actually mentioned this ending and discussed a bit why it had to be done, but it still was an ending that left me dissatisfied. I’ll probably read the next book in the series eventually, but this one only worked for me some of the time.

  • Shift – Hugh Howey (Fiction – Sci-fi/post-apocalypse)

This is the prequel to Wool, and so I came in with high hopes. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, Shift is a fine novel, but it didn’t have the addictive qualities of Wool. Whereas I could not put Wool down, Shift I read over a period of months, picking it up now and then but not really getting sucked in. It was very interesting to see how the world introduced in Wool came to be, but I think because I read this one spread over so much time, I lost track of some of the threads and didn’t enjoy it as much as i would have if i had read it faster. All in all, I would still recommend this, but don’t expect the same compulsive readability as Wool.

  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon (Fiction – alternate history)

While I was in Pasadena for MSL operations in Fall of 2012, I listened to Chabon’s “Manhood for Amateurs”, a collection of memoir-essays, and really enjoyed them, so I had been wanting to try his fiction for a while. The premise behind this book is weird: what if instead of creating Israel after World War 2, a temporary nation for the Jews was instead created in Alaska? The story itself follows a down-on-his luck detective trying to solve a murder that he has been instructed not to pursue. The prose in this book is awesome, and it’s worth reading just for some of the wonderful descriptions that Chabon uses. You can see why he won a Pulitzer. On the other hand, the plot is not as strong. It feels like Chabon wrote a lot of scenes with weird and interesting characters in this weird and interesting setting, and then toward the end of the book had to scramble to wrap them up into a plot somehow. Still, this one is worth reading just for the prose and the unusual setting. But be prepared to learn a lot of yiddish terms. I found out only after finishing the book that there is a glossary in the back (I was reading as an e-book, so it was not obvious), and there are times it would have been useful…

  • The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie (Fiction – Fantasy)

I had been meaning to read Abercrombie’s books for quite a while. They have been heralded as the peak of “grimdark” fantasy, where the pure good vs evil conflict of stories like Lord of the Rings is replaced with morally gray characters in a nasty, gritty world. Heck, Absercrombie’s twitter handle is @lordgrimdark. The Blade Itself definitely fits this description: all three main characters are anti-heroes in one way or another. You’ve got a former swordsman turned torturer after having his own body ruined in a torture chamber, a veteran barbarian warrior who is trying to be a good person but can’t escape the massacres he committed in his past, and a rich obnoxious self-centered nobleman who is so classist and annoying that he verges on self-parody. In fact, I think this novel succeeds because it knows (and expects the reader to know) exactly what tropes it is trying to subvert and which ones it is shamelessly embracing almost to the point of absurdity. There is a dark humor that runs through the book that saves it from its own grittiness and makes characters that would otherwise be nearly impossible to root for much more likeable. My main complaint is that this book was clearly written with sequels in mind, and ends up feeling like a long introduction to the real story that will be told in future books. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels, but the ending of this one was a bit unsatisfying.

  • The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction

I started this in 2012, put it down, and then picked it back up again at the end of 2013. I was hoping that, as a collection of the “best of the best”, this would be nothing but great short stories. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Some of the stories in here are great, and had as much or more impact as many novels. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang was a particular stand-out that was really excellent. But many of the stories in this collection are not very good. Or at least, they didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if I would recommend this or not. It’s a nice cross section showing the state of science fiction, but about two thirds of the stories are mediocre if not actively bad. I’m glad I read it because the good stories make it worthwhile, but I almost didn’t finish it because of the many stories that just didn’t connect with me.

 

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