So after many years sitting on my ‘to read’ list I finally picked up some Issac Asimov in the form of his short story ‘The Last Question.’
Warning: here be spoilers
So this was my first direct exposure to Issac Asimov. I watched some films like i robot and I’ve read loads of stuff that reference him and that was inspired by him but this was the firs thing I’ve read that was penned by the man himself and it was AWESOME!
The story is structured as a series of scenes, spaced thousands and thousands of years apart and always dealing with different characters. In each scene the characters decide to ask a computer the ultimate question: “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased.” They are concerned that, despite the fact all of their society runs on solar power, the sun will eventually expire and humanity will face crisis. The computer returns with the wonderfully dismissive response “Insuficient data for a meaningful answer.”
The following scenes are set millennia apart and we get to see humanity evolve and spread amongst the stars and technology surpassing the minds that made it. The breadth of his imagination is incredible. In every scene a character asks this question and receives the same answer.
Until the last scene.
Here’s a second spoiler tag for those bold people who ignored the first
Humanity progresses and technology along with it so that the original computer is this massive intelligence that largely exists only in hyperspace. Over the course of trillions of years, man populates all galaxies, discovers the secret to immortality and eventually evolves beyond the need for physical forms and fuses together to form one great consciousness and finally it’s just the computer left who finally has the answer and reboots the universe with another big bang and the phrase “Let there be light.”
The computer has become God, created by man in his own image to answer his fears about death and decay. Mankind consumes, spreads out, takes over the universe, completely altering the face of it. Though the story never mentions it one can picture all the colonised peoples and destruction that’s caused in the wake of this expansion. The computer is there to babysit and bail out humanity though, to give it a second chance.
The stories is a series of conversations, and while we never get too close to any one character we get to see that all across society and time, from young children to mates bunking off work, everyone is concerned with death, whether it be their own or the eventual extinction of the race. The abundance of dialogue also makes it very easy and quick to read. The breadth of imagination and economy of language required to tell such a vast tale in 4,000 words is incredible. There are some complaints about the science in this story and the presentation of population dynamic. However, it’s difficult to linger on them as the story barrels along.
The problem with such an old, influential story is that many people either already know the answer or can guess at it because they’ve seen so many things that were inspired by that. It’s lost some of the impact that it might originally have had. It’s still worth a read, quite short, you can see Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett were hugely influenced by this story as well as many other writers.
My short story ‘Symposium‘ has just been published in the wonderful journal, Literary Orphans. It’s an Irish themed issue and I’m lucky to be published alongside some incredible talents. Please go check out some of the stories if you have time.
I wrote ‘Symposium’ back in 2009 or 2010 (I can’t really remember). But it’s basically the first story I wrote when I decided I was going to take this writing lark seriously. I’ve submitted it to quite a few places since, it was longlisted for the RTÉ/Penguin short story award and it finally found its place with Literary Orphans. So the moral of the story is perseverance is key.
Bonus Points: Read the story and see if you can guess which Navan pub it’s set in.
So I finally finished reading the Harry Potter series. I started reading when it first came out, gave up around book five and went back to it last month because I had a long plane journey ahead of me, they seemed like an easy read for that environment and I’ve felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to read them or either justify why I hadn’t finished them (apparently ‘they were getting boring’ is not good enough). So I know I’m late to the party on this one and the internet has already flogged this horse to death but I’m gonna jump in and help give the old nag a good send off.
First of all, to be absolutely clear: I don’t hate the Harry Potter books. Really, I promise I don’t. A lot of fandoms seem to think that “This is not for me” = “I hate the things you like, they’re stupid and you’re stupid for liking them” and this provokes anger. I don’t hate them, initially I really liked them, the attraction just wore off after awhile. This post will probably be dry and uninteresting so I’ve added a load of Harry Potter memes to help lower the tone. Needless to say, spoilers are incoming.
Why I gave up the first time round The plots were getting repetitive and formulaic – quirky stuff happens with the Dursleys, school starts, lots of catch up and plot threads teased, go to school for hundreds of pages and conveniently learn the exact spells you’ll need to defeat Voldemort when he shows up again with some overly complicated plot in the last few chapters.
By the time the fourth came out I could tell she was succumbing to one of the symptoms of publishing success – your books turn into cinder blocks. They just get longer and longer. It happened to Stephen King, Iain Banks and George R Martin as well. While the fourth book was actually quite good in terms of pacing the series overall gets really drawn out and there’s an increasing number of scenes of angsty teenagers dawdling about, doing nothing relevant. Then the fifth book was just abysmal.
Part of what annoyed me is that they’re all going through a selfish angsty teenager phase which is fine and realistic but there was no counterbalance, everything got angtsy which can wear on you after several hundred pages. Then they faff about just going from class to class to DA to class and oh my god I hated school and even I wasn’t this angsty and don’t get me started on the end [SPOILER – a certain character fell through a curtain, a bloody curtain, and then a few pages later everyone was talking about how he was dead? I had to re-read the chapter to see what I missed] So I gave up after book 5. These pacing problems get so much worse in books 6 and 7
there’s not much I can add to the reasons why the time turner was a universe breaking device. But apart from that the whole creation of the wizarding world is a bit slapdash with each book clumsily rewriting and contradicting what went before. For example, why didn’t Peter Pettigrew show up on the mauraders’ map when he was basically living in Ron’s pocket? Also, Harry saw his parents die so why can’t he see thestrals until book 5?
Now please don’t get me wrong, again, some of the details are really good and some of the ideas and spells and devices etc etc etc that she comes up with are really inspired but the world is quite patchy and wizard society as it’s described doesn’t seem sustainable.
The thing that bothered me most is that this is a world where wizards co-exists with humans, except you wouldn’t know it. Surely one of the muggle born kids thought to bring a pen to school? Why do they all use quills, why does no-one have a phone, why does nobody think of using muggle weapons against Voldemort? Why oh why has nobody ever heard of technology? Presumably a lot of these kids have been using it prior to arriving at Hogwarts?
Also, a lot of the concepts had been done before, just as well or even better, magic schools, time travel, ringwraiths (sorry, I mean dementors) weren’t exactly new concepts. This isn’t inherently a bad thing but it meant that when the writing and the plot failed to keep my interest the world itself had to work triple shifts to do so and it didn’t always succeed.
Problems with Hogwarts
This is a pretty dangerous school to be in (forbidden forest, Peeves, troll in the dungeon, a never ending queue of horrific injuries for Madam Pomfrey), health and safety should shut it down and the board would be sued for all they’re worth. It also fails to provide a well rounded education, this is explained a lot better in the Cracked video below but think about it, these kids are removed from traditional education at age 11 and never again learn history, maths, sex ed, anything. Also, the house system is really messed up. Does anyone else think that telling an 11 year old that you’re basically evil and now go live in the basement and talk to snakes might be a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Business Genius In fairness to Rowling, she’s a business genius. But that is one of my problems with the books. It seemed like often she was doing things to sell books rather than to make them better. Telling people that characters are going to be killed off became a bit of a gimmick, I know dozens of people who bought every book at launch just to read the last chapter and see who would die this time. Also, fair play and all for making Dumbledore gay, we need more positive portrayals of gay people in fiction, but she didn’t do that. She didn’t portray him as gay. She mentioned it afterwards in a press conference and not once in the books is he ever openly gay, in fact he’s basically asexual. I know lots of people started to read a lot into his friendship with Grindelwald but that’s just it, they were reading into it, it wasn’t necessarily there. If people didn’t cop it when reading the books before the announcement then you didn’t write it well enough, simple as, I’m all for subtlety but this is not that. If you’re going to make a character gay at least have the courage to show it, don’t shy away from it. At this point she was untouchable, I think having it confirmed in the text would have sent a much stronger message.
“How can you call yourself a writer/fantasy fan/human if you haven’t finished Harry Potter?” On a lesser scale is the ‘But you like Lord of the Rings/Star Wars/Insert Media Franchise here, how can you not like Harry Potter?’ This got really wearing after awhile, as if people were questioning my judgement and my very ability to write purely on an issue of personal preference. And if you haven’t figured it out by now I’m stubborn and occasionally pig ignorant so I dug in my heels and decided if that’s how everyone felt about it then I bloody well wouldn’t finish them. Then you have to deal with equally annoying problem of people demanding you justify that decision or that fact that your world doesn’t revolve around these books.
The message I know they’re kids books but the morality is fairly one-dimensional until the last two books where she makes the same attempt at course correction she did with her world building. having a hat tell an 11 year old their destiny is a bit messed up. The good characters are always good, the bad characters are always bad (except for Snape) and the writing kind of ends up very lazy on this part. Also the ‘chosen one’ narrative can be tedious, predictable and boring. It’s a great excuse for Harry not even trying to learn things that can help him defeat Voldemort and getting away with being a dick for much of the time. And the mother’s love thing is nothing short of deus ex machina.
But it’s getting people reading! I’m not wholly convinced about the Harry Potter as a gateway drug to books argument. Sure, a lot of people read Harry Potter who didn’t usually read. Then they stopped. Then maybe years later they picked up Twilight or the hunger games or whatever the YA media darling of the moment was. The people who read a lot growing up and happened to read Harry Potter are the people who would have read a lot anyway without reading Harry Potter.
Also, as much as I love reading and want kids to read more just because it’s popular doesn’t give it a free pass from criticism. See the Twishite series to understand why.
The romantic subplots I was never convinced by any of the romance in these books. They’re badly written and Ginny is a non-entity. She doesn’t have much of a personality, she seems to just exist as nothing more than a love interest, there’s no chemistry between her and Harry on page or screen. the only time she almost becomes a character in her own right is her function as a plot device in book 2
I liked the books up to a point, I even really enjoyed some of them. A lot of the preceding will sound really bitter but it’s not meant to be. These books just aren’t for everyone, but I did enjoy the first few growing up. I learned a lot about what I do and don’t like from reading them which in turn has helped my own writing. For nostalgia’s sake (and hypocrisy’s sake, while we’re at it) I did one Harry Potter tourist thing in London. Maybe I should be a bit easier on a series that just didn’t live up to it’s hype but it’s hard to stop reading critically if you’re a writer. Having recently finished the books I know I was right to stop when I did. They’re a good story but they have a lot of problems and lets just leave it at that.
So I thought I’d bring short story Sunday back from the dead (hence the zombie theme). I really enjoyed analysing short fiction in a way that I don’t have the time or space to do with longer fiction here and I’m struggling with two short pieces I’m writing at the moment so this might help get me in the right mindframe – spark something off so to speak. I’m not quite sold on Palahniuk. Fight Club is one of my favourite films, I’ll watch it again and again and again and again and…. the book is as good as the movie, which is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of it. I read Invisible monsterswhich was good but had some really sickening moments and I read haunted which had an amazing premiss that just fell flat and ultimately got quite tedious.
This story wasn’t really about zombie’s like I hoped (you know the way sometimes you’re just in the mood for the undead?), but nothing’s ever straightforward with this guy. Instead it’s about a new craze amongst teens and young adults to attach a defibrillator to their temples and shock themselves into idiocy. It’s kind of a painless but irreversible lobotomy. That way they don’t have to deal with the pressures of modern life, they end up with terrible jobs and are completes morons and simpletons but they’re happy. Rather than zombies traditionally hunting for brains and searching for brains to eat these guys are running away from brains, running from the pressures of everyday life and from the tragedies in the world and having to make decisions and take on responsibility and deal with things. I’d be lying if I said that kind of escape isn’t occasionally attractive.
Plenty of Palahniuk’s recurring themes also show up here – the dual destruction of the body and society echoing each other as well as the man child and infantile adults trying to recapture their youth as a way of rejecting society.
The ending of the story is a lot more hopeful and mature than I’ve come to expect from this man and to be honest I’m not sure if I liked it. The tone is not as rebellious as some of his other work and it seems almost like a lament for that kind of pigheaded rebellion for the sake of rebellion. It was missing something but overall it’s a good story with a good ending. The major problem with the story is defibrillators don’t work that way. They won’t shock unless they detect specific heart patterns and (according to brief internet research) basically the entire premiss is flawed. So while it’s a good story, shocking your temples with a defibrillator just can’t happen (never mind surviving as a happy moron to tell the tale)
Notable Lines: ‘They continue to be young and hot but they no longer worry about the day when they won’t be. It’s suicide but it’s not.’
So it was World book day yesterday. I got a bit confused because of the time difference here and almost missed it entirely which is why this post is late. (For those of you who don’t know, I live in China now)
So here is a list of books on/about China that I have downloaded to read for the year that’s in it:
Wild Swans: Three daughters of China by Jung Chang – tells the history of three generations of women in a family living through Mao’s rule
Three Kingdoms by Guanzhong Luo – a historical epic set during the Han dynasty
Lastly but most importantly the Lonely Planetguide to China, it’s been indispensable so far
I’ve provided Amazon links but a lot of these books, especially the older ones, are available for free on project gutenberg and it’s completely legal.
I haven’t read any yet but I’ll try to review them as I do, I think I’ve got a decent selection of fiction, non-fiction, modern and older texts but feel free to leave recommendations in the comments. Hope everyone had a fantastic World Book Day!
So I’m almost finished The Waiting Place. I’m going to be working on a collection of short stories to get it out of my system before editing it.
I have been teaching TEFL and enjoying it since April so I’m taking the opportunity before I get too tied down here to travel. Next month I am moving to China to teach for around 6 months to a year. I’ll be blogging about the experience here. This blog will probably be pretty quiet in the meantime (no more so than usual though)
And finally, if you really need a fix to keep you busy, my short story “The Ballad of Mr. Bones” was published in the Not One of Us annual anthology. The collection is called Coping and I’m told it’s on sale in shops in the states. If not you can email them to order a copy, only $3.50, great value, great stories and they actually paid me! I’m technically a professional! (scary, no?)
A classic and for a very good reason. I don’t usually like classics but this is a very thrilling suspenseful read. I bought a simple English version of it to read with my English as a Foreign Language students and they seem to love it, so much so that today some of them dressed up as characters from the book and acted out scenes with multiple Draculas, a Mina, a Lucy and many unsuspecting victims (no one wanted to be Van Helsing for some reason)
The Bram Stoker Festival has concluded but the events I went to were amazing. On Friday I saw an open air screening of the 1930’s Dracula in Meeting House Square. The atmosphere was excellent and the§ provided blankets for the cold. On Sunday myself and my boyfriend went to a gothic romance themed banquet in the crypts of Christ Church Cathedral. The décor, the food, everything was amazing. I’ve never eaten so many blood themed dishes (and also a pigeon).
I received a wonderful birthday present of the Necronomicon from some wonderful friends who know me far too well. I flicked through it and read a few stories, they’re a lot creepier when they’re in a proper leather-bound tome compared to my battered old Penguin classics paperback.
There’s not much I can say about it in such a short review other than read it, read it now! What are you still doing here? And when you’ve finished go and listen to this podcast.
I’ve seen the manga and recently started collecting the black edition because it’s goth and cool (goths are still cool, right?) The Manga is awesome, the comics are just as awesome, the TV show was surprisingly faithful to them so far. It’s a great concept, very suspenseful, very complex games within games kind of suspense. The only negative thing I have to say bout it is that it get a lot less interesting just after halfway through when the show jumps forward a few years and one of the characters leaves.
This is a short story released by Neil Gaiman as part of the festival he invented ‘All Hallows Read‘ where people exchange scary books for halloween. it was only released in audio format and I think that;s for the best. The slow build of tension works really well when you can’t control the pace of the story and rather than sitting and reading you have to take a passive role, sit back, listen and let the story surround you (much like the main character in ‘Click Clack the Rattlebag’)
I’ve never been a fan of Gaiman’s novels but his short stories rarely disappoint
Listening: Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie
Watching: Psycho, The Shining, Cabin in the Woods, the new Dracula TV series
I would like to add my condolences to the vast list of condolences pouring in for Seamus Heaney’s family and friends.
‘Midterm Break’ was the first poem I ever studied, understood and enjoyed.
North was the first collection of poetry I ever read on my own, not because a teacher had told me, and though I didn’t get the complexity at the time I was still engrossed by poetry -something I had never believed possible before.
Seamus Heaney was one of the first poets I taught and I got to see teenagers faces light up, like mine once had, when they heard the last line of ‘Midterm Break’ or when they dug deeper and deeper through the layers of his bog poetry.
In 2012 I had the pleasure of meeting him and shaking his hand and trying to explain, in a fumbling way, just how important he was.
I heard on Friday morning. My friend texted me. I passed the news on and we all spent the day in a daze. It’s difficult to mourn someone when so much of him is still alive, sitting between pages on my bookshelves.
I’ve noticed a few journals have a list of stories they’d rather not see. These lists can be entertaining but also educational when you realise that your fantastic idea for a story has been done so often that magazines have actually gone to the trouble of including them as ‘things not to do’ in their submission guidelines
Here is a selection from the Strange Horizons Website (more at the link above)
In the future, criminals are punished much more harshly than they are today.
An alien or an AI/robot/android observes and comments on the peculiar habits of humans, for allegedly comic effect.
White protagonist is given wise and mystical advice by Holy Simple Native Folk.
Brutal violence against women is depicted in loving detail, often in a story that’s ostensibly about violence against women being bad.
Baby or child is put in danger, in a contrived way, in order to artificially boost narrative tension.
Aliens and/or far-future posthumans think, talk, and behave just like upper-middle-class Americans from the 20th or early 21st century.
The narrator and/or male characters in the story are bewildered about women, believing them to conform to any of the standard stereotypes about women: that they’re mysterious, wacky, confusing, unpredictable, changeable, temptresses, etc.
Strange and mysterious things keep happening. And keep happening. And keep happening. For over half the story. Relentlessly. Without even a hint of explanation.
Here is a selection from Clarkesworld (more at the link above)
stories in which the words “thou” or “thine” appear
stories where the climax is dependent on the spilling of intestines
stories that depend on some vestigial belief in Judeo-Christian mythology in order to be frightening (i.e., Cain and Abel are vampires, the End Times are a’ comin’, Communion wine turns to Christ’s literal blood and it’s HIV positive, Satan’s gonna getcha, etc.)
stories about young kids playing in some field and discovering ANYTHING. (a body, an alien craft, Excalibur, ANYTHING).
“funny” stories that depend on, or even include, puns
sexy vampires, wanton werewolves, or lusty pirates
zombies or zombie-wannabes
stories that take place within an artsy-fartsy bohemia as written by an author who has clearly never experienced one
The best place to learn about clichés and waste a year of your life is on TV Tropes but there are a few things I would like to add to the list:
Any American adaptation of a property or idea that is innately tied to another country or culture (I’m looking at you Akira)
“Subversions” of genre tropes that aren’t actually subversions of anything (Rothfuss)
writers trying to be too fucking clever for their own good (Moffat)
Strong female characters that are only sidekicks (Gaiman’s new novel is a good example of both that and the girl sacrificing herself to save a guy)
gritty retellings. I like original stories that are gritty and I loved Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight but not everything works as a gritty retelling. Please cheer up, the more gritty stuff I read the more I appreciate absolute nonsense)
Magic systems that are pretending not to be magic systems.
Following on from that: magic systems that are very vaguely defined and can be used as a fill-all-holes plot fixer
I bought this as part of the Humble Bundle months ago. Beacuse it was a lot of books at once it was a while before I got around to reading it. I’ve been dipping in and out of it over the past few weeks. Paolo Bacigalupi is a multi-award winning sci-fi author and it’s easy to see why. This is his debut collection of short stories and ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ was first published in 1999. His stories are original, deep, multi-layered and political. They also feature characters from many different cultures and backgrounds which I loved and you don’t see often enough in science fiction.
However, I found I couldn’t read this book for extended periods of time. It’s quite dense. Worldbuilding is Bacigalupi’s biggest strength but it turns into a weakness as well. ‘A Pocketful of Dharma’ is set in a cyberpunkish version of China told from the point of view of a young street beggar. A new, organic city is growing in the centre and the rich and important are moving there while Jun and his ilk are left on the ever-more squalid streets below relying on the generosity/guilt of tourists to survive. He innocently obtains a data cube that everyone and his mother is after. The data cube turns out to contain the consciousness of the Dalai Lama, who cannot reincarnate until it is destroyed. This is about to cause a war between China, Tibet and several others who all want it for their own ends.
The story is good but so much worldbuilding is crammed into so small a space that I can’t help but feel it needed more room to breathe. Casual references leave you wanting more, a lot more. Making the reader work and not belabouring and tiring out every detail can be a good thing but there is a lot of detail without very much explanation. There’s the character and the socio-economic strata of his world, there’s the city he lives in and the spongy living city he aspires to, there’s the life of the gangs around him, there’s the higher political problems, the technology, and the thumbnail sketches of the various other characters that Jun encounters with their own vague motivations… it’s a lot to take in on every page, so much so that it’s hard to get lost in the story itself, and it’s a good one. The characters also take a back-seat in this story, Jun’s the only one I ever felt was a real character. I have this problem with the worldbuilding in some of his other stories but not the character problem thankfully.
It’s definitely worth reading. It paints a bleak, complex picture of people oppressed by society but that picture is highly imaginative and, though he made me work for it, I’m glad I took the time to read it.
Notable lines: A vast biologic city, which other than its life support would then lie dormant as humanity walked its hollowed arteries, clambered through its veins and mailed memories to its skin in the rituals of habitation.