Science, Fiction, Life

Month: August 2014

Ten Book Challenge

Ok, I can’t help myself. When I see a book meme, I have to do it. I saw this on Facebook, courtesy of Karen, and I thought it would be fun to do, mostly because I really enjoy recommending books!

Rules for the Ten Book Challenge: In your status blog, list ten books that have stayed with you in some way. They don’t have to be the “right” books or great works of literature. Then tag ten friends and me so I can see your list.

Choosing just ten was really difficult, and I cheated by doing some lumping and listing multiple books by one author for a few of the items. I also should note that I’m trying to stick with the way the challenge was worded and choosing books that “stayed with me”. There are plenty of others that I enjoyed as much or more than some of these, but all of these got their hooks in my brain and really stayed there:

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – I knew I liked fantasy before this, but the vast majority of fantasy is either imitating or responding to Lord of the Rings, so when I first read this in middle school it knocked my socks off. Middle Earth sucked me in and no other book series has managed such complete and perfect immersion: the result of Tolkien’s unparalleled worldbuilding, plus reading it at an age when I was still pretty uncritical and so I could get drawn in deep.
  2. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – This book is a collection of short stories about the Vietnam war, written by an author who lived through the war. It was assigned in my AP English class and is an extremely powerful book. I can still remember some of the vivid images in this book very clearly. It somehow manages to be incredibly sad but beautiful at the same time. Great writing. I need to read this again.
  3. Cosmos, Contact, Pale Blue Dot, Demon Haunted World other books by Carl Sagan – These books came along just at the right time. Late in high school when I was interested in science, but before I was old enough to be cynical about Sagan’s purple prose, and before I had heard everything in these books. Sagan’s writing, his passion for knowledge, and importantly his ability to tie science in with history and philosophy and everything else about the human experience, made me want to become an astronomer. Nowadays I don’t read books like this because I don’t learn much from them, but at the time they were exactly what I needed. I learned a lot of science from these books but they also put into words what I had always felt about religion. Having someone so eloquently express why it’s possible to be a good person without a higher power had a huge influence on me. Sagan’s books inspired a whole generation of scientists and humanists, and much of what I see these days in non-fiction writing just paraphrases him.
  4. Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – I read these books at around the same time as the Sagan books. The whole summer after my senior year of high school was basically spent reading, and what I read that summer really set the course for my life. This trilogy is still the best sci-fi story about the colonization of Mars that I am aware of. It is amazingly well-researched, and stands up pretty well even decades later. The wonderful descriptions of what it would be like to be on the surface of Mars are a great part of this series, but even more interesting was the way that Robinson also examines the politics and social issues among the colonists and between the colonists and Earth. This is a truly epic series with fascinating (if sometimes melodramatic) characters, set on a Mars that felt very very real.
  5. The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury -Where the Red Mars trilogy tries very hard to be realistic, Bradbury has no interest at all in being realistic and somehow that makes his stories even better. His writing style is unique and wonderful, and there’s a lot of wisdom mixed in among the beautiful prose. I read the Martian Chronicles once when I was way too young to understand it, but when I came back to it when I was old enough it was great. The bittersweet sadness that Bradbury evokes as humans come to live on a Mars among the crumbling crystalline cities of the long-gone Martians is really powerful.
  6. The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Birthday of the World, etc. by Ursula K. LeGuin – I came across LeGuin’s books toward the end of high school and in early college, and they were a great contrast with the other stuff I was reading. Whereas a lot of golden-age sci-fi is about white men doing amazing things with physics and engineering, LeGuin did something new (to me, at least) with science fiction, speculating in the realm of social science and anthropology and using characters of color and women instead of Generic White Physicist. I guess some Generic White Physics types don’t like the idea of reading from the point of view of someone like them, but to me it made her books more interesting, and the focus on social sciences really opened my eyes to what was missing from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Given the choice nowadays, I’d much rather read something from LeGuin than anything from the “hard” sci-fi genre. When the gee-whiz factor wears off, you realize that a lot of hard sci-fi doesn’t have much else going for it, while LeGuin’s writing recognizes that there is much more to life than physics and engineering, an important lesson for someone like me!
  7. Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin – If Lord of the Rings was just right for me when I read them in middle school, Game of Thrones was the right series at the right time in grad school. Reading these books was an eye-opening experience because they are a direct response to Lord of the Rings. The Dark Lord and flawless heroes in white are gone and replaced by a bunch of flawed characters trying to survive in a brutal world. Protagonists die, villains win, and magic is a distant memory when the series begins. Like Lord of the Rings, the worldbuilding for Game of Thrones is great and it sucked me in, but unlike Lord of the Rings, it’s the characters that keep me fascinated by Game of Thrones. This series has basically spawned a new genre of fantasy fiction, and rightly so.
  8. Shogun by James Clavell – This book was the first time I really deliberately set out to read historical fiction, and then realized how much it has in common with the fantasy fiction that I already loved. It’s a thick tome that’s easy to get sucked into, with vivid worldbuilding and lots and lots of courtly intrigue: not all that different from Game of Thrones! But the great thing about historical fiction is that it is also based on real history! Shogun made me realize first that I was interested in historical fiction, and second, that I was interested in history. Not the boring kind taught in school, but the kind that is just the fascinating stories of people who lived long ago.
  9. The Scar by China Mieville – A lot of the books on this list are here because they showed me something new, but none so much as The Scar. This book is also a response to classic fantasy like Lord of the Rings, but where Game of Thrones responded by focusing on morally gray characters but within an England-analog fantasy setting, Mieville’s response was basically “Fantasy can be so much more than medieval Europe. Here, let me show you what happens when you actually use your imagination.” And so he wrote Perdido Street Station, followed by The Scar. I much prefer The Scar, and it is delightfully weird. It’s set on a floating pirate city built from the lashed-together hulks of old ships. There are cactus people and criminals whose bodies have been mangled and merged with mechanical limbs powered by coal-burning engines. There is an island where the sand is made of corroded gears and mechanisms and the inhabitants are mosquito-people. There are people whose blood clots into stone, so before battle they cut themselves and bleed to form an armored carapace. And on top of all of that, Mieville’s writing is thick with obscure words that most people have never heard of or only learn so they can pass the SAT. His writing style does get to be a bit much in large doses, but I really enjoyed it.
  10. Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon – I listened to this one on audiobook while I was in Pasadena for MSL operations. This is a collection of essays by the author about his life, and many of them really hit home for me. He uses his impressive writing talent to put into words a lot of feelings that were very familiar to me. Now, as the list above shows, I love reading books that take me to new places and make me think or experience new things, but sometimes the best writing shows you something very familiar and just describes it perfectly, or shines a new light on it, making connections that you didn’t know were there. That’s what this book did for me. Some of the essays were better than others, but overall this one definitely stuck with me and I want to read it again.

Write to done. Ok, so what’s “done”?

I’ve read a lot of writing advice in my time. After all, it’s way easier to read advice about writing than to actually sit down and put words on the page. The advice ranges from vague generalities that help nobody, to pieces of advice that are so specific that again, they help nobody. But in between there is actually a lot of good advice out there. If I had to boil it down to a few short sentences, the good advice says:

Read a lot.

Write a lot.

Finish what you start.

I’ve got a good handle on the first one. I read every night before bed, and listen to audiobooks while doing brainless chores and working out. Plenty of people read more than me but I’m happy with the number of books I get through in a year.

I’m working on the second point. I have trouble letting the words just flow onto the page, which is why I do things like NaNoWriMo or bribe myself with rewards to get myself to spend the time writing. So, I’m making progress on this point.

The really tricky part is the last one: finish what you start. Also known as “Write to done.” a.k.a. “Finish your shit.” I’m struggling right now with this one. Specifically, I’m struggling with when to call a project “done” and move on to the next one. I’ve finished NaNoWriMo twice. But surely 50,000 words of verbal vomit don’t count as “done,” right? I’ve been slowly working my way through my last NaNoNovel, editing, patching up missing chapters, missing character and place names, and the like. The problem is, I’m only a third of the way through the dang novel, and I know once I finish this pass, I’ll need to go back and do another pass to flesh out descriptions and character development (my first drafts tend to be very dialog and plot heavy and weak on description and character’s thoughts). Meanwhile, the idea for another novel has come along and is nagging at the back of my mind to be written.

So the question I’m struggling with is: at what point do I decide that I’ve learned what I am going to learn from working on my current work in progress, and it’s time to take those lessons and apply them to a new project? Am I failing to “finish my shit” if I stop working on my current work in progress? Or is it “finished” if I’m starting to lose interest and doubt that it’s worth spending months continuing to edit it?

I don’t know. I think I need to step back and actually read the darn thing as it is, not stopping here and there to fix it, but sit and read it as if it were a book. I suspect that might rekindle some of my interest in it. Editing is so slow that it’s hard to keep the whole thing in mind and stay interested. I am also thinking it might be time to let a few people read at least some of it, so I can get outside opinions on whether it’s worth pursuing or not. I just finished editing Part 1 (approximately the first third), which was the part I wrote before NaNoWriMo. It also was the part that needed the most work. Oddly, now that I am in the NaNoWriMo chapters, the writing is actually better and there is less to fix. I think a lot of this is because (a) the beginning had to do a lot of setting up so that the rest of the story could progress, and (b) I planned out quite a bit of the NaNoWriting ahead of time, so I could write knowing what I was aiming at, and (c) writing so much for NaNo actually helped to counteract my tendency to skip over descriptions and monologue because, hey, those are easy ways to up the daily word count!

So here’s my plan: pause my editing for a while and just read the whole manuscript and see how I like it as a whole. Then, if I’m still unsure about continuing, let a few people read it and give me honest opinions about whether it’s time to start something new or if I have something worth polishing.

 

 

Checking In

A month or so ago, I posted about my new plan to leverage my enjoyment of video games to encourage myself to exercise and write more often, and I said that I would check in here to assess how the plan has been working. I’m happy to report that it works pretty well! It does a good job of moderating my gaming habit and encouraging me to do the more productive things that I want to do. I have joined the local YMCA with Erin, so I have more exercise options than before, which is helping to motivate me to exercise. Also, there’s the fact that I can listen to an audiobook while doing cardio, which is good motivation. I have found that I more often do the exercise than the writing, so as of today I have decided to tweak the formula slightly. Before, I would earn 2/3rds credit for fiction writing if I did not exercise that day, and full credit if I also exercised. This basically implies that doing exercise AND writing is the expected level of effort, and realistically I often don’t have time for both. So from today onward, I have changed it so that I now earn full credit for fiction writing without any exercise on the same day. If I do also exercise, then I earn 4/3rds credit for the writing time, plus the 15 minute exercise bonus. So, doing both on the same day earns extra credit because it is above and beyond the expected level of effort.

I have also decided that there needs to be some motivation for consistency. For fiction writing in particular, it is easier to do, and the resulting writing seems to be better, if I build and keep some momentum. So, I have added a reward that works as follows:

Consistency reward = 5 minutes *(# of days with more than 15 minutes of fiction writing in the last 4 days – # of days without fiction writing in the last 4 days)

This should motivate me to do at least 15 minutes every day in order to build up the consistency reward. I may need to tune how generous this reward is, or up the minimum from 15 to 30 minutes but I’ll give it a try and see how it goes.

I have also found that I needed to set some other rules. First, instead of cutting myself off if I run out of minutes during a gaming session, I have been allowing myself to go into gaming debt. So If I have 45 minutes of gaming saved up, I’m allowed to game for longer than 45 minutes that day. The catch is, I am then not allowed to game again until I have a positive balance. So, a couple weeks ago I had a rare evening at home by myself and ended up going into massive gaming debt. I played a game for several hours and it was great. But then the flip side of that was that it took me the better part of two weeks to recover from that.

The other tweak that I made was that I gave myself a couple days off last weekend because we were travelling to a friend’s wedding out east and there was no time to exercise or write. So, I reserve the right to waive the “didn’t do anything” penalty for extenuating circumstances. I was actually not going to cut myself any slack, but Erin convinced me to do so. I will generally try to avoid this, but it’s an option for when things get really crazy. To formalize this rule, I’ve decided to allow two free days per month. These will carry over from month to month if I don’t use them.

So, all in all, the system seems to be working! I’ll see how the tweaks described above work out and may make some more adjustments in another month.

Book Review: Hero of Ages

Hero of Ages is the third volume in the Mistborn trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson and it picks up some time after the twist ending of the second book, The Well of Ascension. I can’t really talk about Hero of Ages without spoiling the other books in the trilogy, so here’s your warning: Spoilers for ALL THREE books in the trilogy. Read on at your own risk!

Here’s my short, non-spoiler review: I have mixed feelings about this book and series. On the one hand, the magic system (certain metals give certain people special powers when eaten in powdered form), and premise (what happens after the Dark Lord wins?) are both interesting, and this third book brings things to a pretty satisfying ending. But on the other hand, the writing and character development was not great. This series is worth reading, but is most enjoyable if you don’t think too much about it.

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Still here? Ok. So, here’s the thing. Brandon Sanderson is a prolific and popular fantasy writer, and his books tend to get very good fan reviews, so I had high hopes for this series. Problem is, it never quite worked for me, and what’s even more frustrating is that it’s hard to even put my finger on why. I have some ideas though. So, this is going to be less a review and more me trying to work out why these books didn’t fully work for me, which requires going through some of my complaints. I should note up front that despite my complaints, I think on the whole the books are pretty good. Not classics, but good, fun reads. I’m glad I read them. I just found some aspects of them frustrating.

Gripe the First: Elend

First of all, let’s talk about Elend’s character. Earlier in the series, he is an uncertain scholarly type, who ends up as a king but is not really leadership material. His heart is in the right place but he is too timid and idealistic. In the second book, he meets Tindwyl who puts him through leadership boot camp, which basically was: wear nicer clothes and don’t be such a pushover and everyone will follow you. He eventually follows this advice and it seems to work. Now we get to The Hero of Ages, and some time has passed since the end of the last book, when (No, seriously, Spoiler Alert!) Vin saved Elend’s life after he was stabbed at the Well of Ascension by turning him into a mistborn. Here’s what bothered me: Throughout the beginning of Hero of Ages, the reader is beat over the head with the fact that Elend is now a great leader, a manly man who is manly, and oh so handsome in his white uniform, and also, he is not just a mistborn but an extremely powerful mistborn.

For example:

[Elend arrives at a city that is about to be attacked and takes command]

“Open the gate and bring my horse in,” the newcomer said. “I assume you have stables?”

“Yes, my lord,” the soldier said.

Well, Fatren thought with dissatisfaction as the soldier ran off, this newcomer certainly knows how to command people. Fatren’s soldier didn’t even pause to think that he was obeying a stranger without asking for permission. Fatren could aready see the other soldiers straightening a bit, losing their wariness. This newcomer talked like he expected to be obeyed, and the soldiers were responding. This wasn’t a nobleman like the ones Fatren had known back when he was a household servant at the lord’s manor. This man was different.

I think this bothered me for two reasons: first, he’s basically a completely different character, and second, this is pounded into the reader throughout the beginning of Hero of Ages. It seems pretty clear that Sanderson realized that he needed a character who had all of these attributes for the plot in the third book to work, and so spent much of book 2 trying to transform the character to that the third book would be plausible. But then it was like he didn’t trust that the transformation was complete, so book three starts after some time has passed and we’re just told over and over again how handsome and leaderly and powerful Elend is, just to make sure we got it. I mean, character growth is great, but I guess what bothered me was that this was more like character replacement.

While I’m complaining about Elend, I should also mention the complete lack of chemistry between Elend and Vin. Basically the only indication that they’re in love throughout the book is when the narration states that they love each other. There’s one chapter where their personalities actually come out and there is some banter and playfulness between them, but otherwise in most scenes with Vin and Elend they have about as much chemistry as Anakin and Padme in the Star Wars prequels.

Gripe number 2: This is my Worldbuilding Let Me Show You It

Throughout Hero of Ages, each chapter begins with an excerpt written by Sazed that is relevant to the events of the chapter. These excerpts are almost always pure info-dumps, serving to explain some aspect of the worldbuilding. Without these little explanations, parts of the book would be hard to understand, so they’re important. But I found myself getting annoyed at Sanderson’s apparent need to explain every last thing. Like, I get that you worked out lots of details about the Mistborn world and magic system. But as with all research for writing, just because you did it doesn’t mean it belongs on the page. It was like, after the first book, Sanderson went through and made a list of things that people had criticized about the worldbuilding, and then wanted to show that he had found an explanation for all of these things. Also, these excerpts made some of the “twists” that come later in the book extremely obvious. Maybe the reader was supposed to figure them out before they happened, maybe not. It was kind of fun to be able to say “Ha! I knew that would happen!” But at the same time, I think it would have been more fun to be surprised. I read somewhere that the best twists in fiction are those that the reader doesn’t see coming before hand, but afterward it’s clear that there is no other way things could have happened.

Another aspect of the over-explanation that bugged me through all three books was the need to explain the fight scenes to death. A side effect of the ever-increasing complexity of the magic system (by the end of the third book there are three inter-related systems of magic that characters are using) is that all fight scenes have to be explained in great detail to know what’s going on. The reader needs a lot more information than in a normal fight scene. To Sanderson’s credit, he manages to make some very complicated fights comprehensible, but in doing so, the fight scenes tend to become tedious descriptions of metal reserves and the side effects of newton’s laws as the characters push and pull on various metal objects.

Also, speaking of physics: There are a few instances where the worldbuilding tries to get scientific. These are almost inevitably painful to a science-minded reader.

Gripe Number 3: On Atheism

This is a more personal gripe that probably won’t bother most people. One of the plot lines in Hero of Ages deals with a character who is struggling to find faith in any religion after the death of someone he loved. He spends many chapters moping around, despairing that all of the religions that he knows so much about have logical inconsistencies. On the one hand, this character’s distress at not being able to find a suitable religion makes sense: he’s spent his life preserving memory of ancient religions and now he can’t find one to help him through a difficult time. But on the other hand, it seemed almost as if these scenes were the author’s way of saying that life without religion is awful and pointless and unbearable. As someone who is not religious, I can say that it’s possible to handle grief and find meaning in life without relying on a higher power, and it made me uncomfortable to read these chapters that seemed to imply otherwise.

Also, it was jarring to read about Sazed freaking out about how all his religions are wrong, and then go to a chapter where a character is, literally, talking to a god. Like, that’s one of the things about being a non-religious person: If there were overt evidence of a god, then everyone should obviously believe in that god! It was hard to separate what I knew as a reader from what Sazed knew, but it sure seemed like he had a lot of evidence pointing to there being actual gods to worship.

Other gripes:

Heavy Handedness – Look, I get it: Elend is worried that he is no better than the Lord Ruler he overthrew. I GET IT. Could we not repeat the same introspective agonizing over this every single Elend chapter, and have this theme pop up in Vin’s chapters, AND have Elend’s enemies point this contradiction out to him too? It’s great to have a theme and all, but readers are smart. No need to hang flashing lights on the theme every time it appears.

Spook’s sacrifice – HE SHOULD BE DEAD. His story arc was over, and it ended with him sacrificing himself to save his friends. I actually yelled at the book when it was revealed that he was still alive. I mean, I’m not expecting a George R.R. Martin level body count here, but his arc would have been much better if he didn’t survive.

Vin’s orbital dynamics – Vin becomes a goddess and moves the planet closer to the sun, and then realizes that the sun is too strong and is going to burn everything now that the ash is gone. So she turns the planet around so the other side is facing the sun. How does that solve the problem? That just burns all the people on the other side of the planet. But I guess they’re not characters so we don’t care, and setting half the planet on fire will not have any negative effects on the other half of the planet. Why didn’t she just put the planet back where it belonged? Sigh.

Ok, so those are a few of my complaints. On the other hand, there were some aspects of the book that I thought were quite good. The plot is quite strong and the ending is satisfying. Also, I really enjoyed the chapters about the shape-shifting Kandra (although when TenSoon had to traverse the breadth of the empire I can’t figure out why he didn’t turn into something that could fly rather than running the whole way). And for all my complaints about it, the worldbuilding is very thorough and unique.

So, we come back to the main question: why did I have so much trouble getting into these books? For some reason, I found myself unable to fully suspend disbelief, and so what would otherwise be minor problems became major distractions. Part of it is probably that Sanderson and this series are so popular that I read with extra scrutiny, but I don’t think that’s the main reason. After putting my various gripes down in writing, I think I can see what the real problem was: the author and the story structure were too obvious. Picture a story as a living creature: it’s skeleton determines its basic shape, but then that skeleton is fleshed out to become a healthy animal. This story, I could see the bones peeking through. And once I noticed them, they threw me out of the story, and being less than fully-immersed meant that I noticed more bones, and so on. All stories have underlying structure, all authors make choices the emphasize certain themes or develop characters to suit the story they are writing. But for some reason the Mistborn series the author’s choices were more apparent to me than for other stories, making it harder to sink into the fictional world. On the bright side though, it was quite educational from a writing standpoint.

All in all, Hero of Ages and the whole Mistborn series are definitely worth reading. I just had trouble getting fully immersed, and so didn’t enjoy them as much as I might have liked.

 

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