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Monday, September 19, 2005

A Book Club Kinda Thingie (Conclusion)

Sorry, I meant to post this last week but got tangled up in an all-consuming deadline at work. Previous thread

I presume by this time that you all have either given up or finished reading H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, so let's have a show of hands: who actually read the entire thing online? Who printed out the manuscript file to read it off paper? Who gave up on the Project Gutenberg version entirely and went out and found it in book format?

Do you find that typography and printing still matter?

As for the story itself: as I stated at the outset, Wells breaks the rules all over the place, most egregiously in the area of point of view. The common writer's dicta is "show, not tell," but Wells ignores that routinely and most definitely "tells" the tale, in a combination of historian's and eyewitness reporter's style. He relates things he saw in the distance; things he heard about from other characters; things he read about years later in the London Times. Wells's viewpoint character (does he even have a name?) almost never participates in events that advance the plot: he's always either standing on the edge of the scene, running into people escaping from the scene, or stumbling across the tableau of carnage later. Yet, somehow, the story is more compelling than if his character were in the midst of the action or if he'd written it from the point of view of, say, the captain of the Horse Artillery. Any theories as to why?

Speaking of point of view, most of the time Wells sticks to first person limited, with occasional excursions into omniscience or at least inconsistency as he tells us things the first-person narrator could not possibly have seen, but then there's that long stretch of third-person as he tells the tale of his brother's escape from London. The argument that an accomplished master may break the rules when he pleases doesn't hold, as Wells wrote this book when he was in his late 20's and it's outlasted all his later and presumably more polished work. Might a better argument be that "the rules" are the sorts of things that are invented after the fact by creative writing teachers, so that they can write lesson plans and have objective criteria for critiquing and grading student work? If Wells had obeyed "the rules" on point of view and stuck to strictly first- or third-person, would it have helped or hurt this book?

In the end, of course, we get to the end, which is pure deus ex machina. The narrator not only does not participate in any action that leads to the end of the invasion, he is literally in the dark through the last 15 days of the war, and emerges only after it's all over, to go wandering through the post-Apocalyptic landscape, tripping over skeletons. Few modern editors would put up with such an ending: they would demand that the narrator find at least one still-living Martian and defeat it in bloody hand-to-tentacle combat. Yet Wells's ending works far better than something out of the Steven Seagal school; again, any theories as to why?

The last questions I want to toss out concern tone and subtext. Did anyone else notice that Wells's Martians bear a more-than-passing resemblance to Lovecraft's Elder Gods, or that the Martian war machines have a pronounced giant spider quality? Everyone remembers the heat ray, which in 1897 had to be quite otherworldly and terrifying, but almost no one remembers that the Martians did most of their slaughter using poison gas, which in 1897 was less than 20 years away from being used in plain old humans-only war. Wells's narrator certainly seems to spend a lot of time describing desolation, ruins, and corpses.

Is the truth of the matter that this story has remained popular for more than a century because it's actually a horror novel, sans supernatural elements and drawn on a huge scale, and that what Wells has really succeeded in doing here is delivering a deity-free Apocalypse, with plenty of carnage, but in the end one that offers a slim hope for human survival?

Your comments, s'il vous plait.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

There's gotta be a story in this one...

From Reuters:

BERLIN (Reuters) - A German inventor has angered animal rights activists with his answer to fighting the soaring cost of fuel -- dead cats.

Christian Koch, 55, from the eastern county of Saxony, told Bild newspaper that his organic diesel fuel -- a home-made blend of garbage, run-over cats, and other ingredients -- is a proven alternative to normal consumer diesel.

"I drive my normal diesel-powered car with this mixture," Koch said. "I have gone 170,000 km (106,000 miles) without a problem."

The website of Koch's firm, "Alphakat GmbH", says his patented "KDV 500" machine can produce what he calls the "bio-diesel" fuel at about 23 euro cents (30 cents) a litre, which is about one-fifth the price at petrol stations now.

Koch said around 20 dead cats added into the mix could help produce enough fuel to fill up a 50-litre (11 gallon) tank...

Now, where's the story in this? "Biodiesel! It's people!" Nah, too 1970s...

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Any Clive Cussler fans out there?

Last week we watched the old Humphrey Bogart warpic, "Sahara," so we decided to continue the theme this weekend and rent last summer's big budget action flop, "Sahara," even though we knew it wasn't a remake.

The new "Sahara" is a great picture! Part James Bond, part Indiana Jones, only the female lead (Penelope Cruz) is actually important to the plot -- meaning she has something to do besides scream and be rescued -- and the two-fisted action hero is anchored in reality by a terrific Sancho Panza sidekick (Steve Zahn). This movie was really fun to watch!

So then, as I'm watching the credits, I see that it's based on the novel by Clive Cussler, and I think, "Is this the same Clive Cussler who wrote that awful clunker, Raise the Titantic!, that I hated so much 25 years ago that I never looked at anything else he ever wrote? Have I been giving him short shrift? Should I be reading his books?" So I look into it a little further, and I find out that Cussler hated this movie, sued Paramount to block its release and get his name taken off the script credits and all the promotional materials, and that's what delayed the movie's launch date and screwed up the advertising campaign.

So here's my question: is there anyone out there who's both read the book and seen the movie? Is the book really that much better than the movie, or is this a case where the movie improves on the book by mercilessly editing out the author's ego? I mean, when I learned that one of Cussler's objections was that the filmmakers had cut out the subplot in which it is revealed that the whole Ford's Theater thing was a cover-up, and that the Confederates had actually kidnapped Abraham Lincoln and taken him to Africa, where, thanks to the dry desert winds, the hero is able to find Lincoln's dessicated but still identifiable corpse...

Monday, September 12, 2005

Monday Challenge: The Conclusion

Sorry for the delay: I got called out of town on short notice and then had an overwhelming pile of stuff to deal with when I got back. Herewith (drum roll, please), the official results of the Monday Challenge.

Celebrity Judge Peg Kerr writes:
Third Place:
"Context" by cZja

This started promisingly, and the focus of the story kept a tight focus on the initial element introduced by the contestant ("You never dreamed that your staff would need to include context, did you?") The illustrative example of the caveman being given a car key was clear, intriguing, and punchy, a nice explanatory simplification of the concept the author was trying to convey. However, the story presents the problem and then simply stops there, frustrating the reader, who expects more at this point. Therefore, the friction introduced between Marckham and Collins does not have a chance to particularly serve any story purpose.

Second Place:
"Human Factor" by Astrosmith

This story also keeps a tight focus on the initial element introduced by the contestant ("You never dreamed that your staff would need to include the human factor.") Marckham and Collins have an interesting back history which is neatly encapsulated and presented well (they are more than just talking heads with each other, and their history with each other is presented in dialogue which advances the story, not in an expository lump.) Their relationship clearly serves a purpose in the story (the frozen embryos left over from their divorce presents the problem Marckham has to solve.) The story presents the problem but does not solve it, making this entry a somewhat incomplete story. This is mitigated, somewhat, by the fact that the problem is startling, is something that the protagonist has a personal stake in, and the story ends with a strong closing line.

First Place:
"Research and growing" by Colin Lee

This story places first primarily because it is the closest to being a complete story of all the entries. Not only is the problem presented, but our protagonist offers a solution. The touches of humor are welcome in a short-short. The twist at the end is an added bonus. First place.

Fourth Place:
"Moral intelligence"

This story was the longest entry, but it did not seem to provide a solution to the problem--indeed, it did not even seem to clearly outline the problem in the first place. The author gives us the history of the Sixth generation in a rather large expository lump. The interview between Marckham and Foster was interesting, but meandered off into puzzling directions (what was the point, for example, about what Foster was reading? the story about the princess and the troll? The pet Koko? The flaming sword competition?) which did not seem serve the story's purposes because it did not either clarify the problem or lead to a solution. The ending paragraph seemed like a random paragraph in the middle of a story rather than an ending.

On the other hand, Celebrity Judge Marti McKenna writes:

First Place:
As for the entries, Astrosmith hit the nail on the head for me. The "human factor" is exactly what was needed to make any one of these stories stand out and make me care about the outcome. For me this is an issue with a lot of hard sf: great ideas, not much humanity. This story had just that from beginning to end, and in the short space allotted, even managed to wrap things up nicely and leave us wondering at the end.

Second Place:
For similar reasons, cZja's second entry was a close second. I'm still thinking about the questions it raised for me.

Third Place:
cZja's first entry was well-written, but was really only the beginning of a story.

Fourth Place:
Colin Lee's entry had interesting ideas, but the characters weren't as well realized as in the other entries and overall it didn't work as well for me.

As for the third celebrity judge: well, let's just say that he flaked out and went MIA. Sometimes celebrities do that. Maybe he's in Betty Ford.

Anyway, as you can see from the above comments, on any given day and in any given case, even professionals can disagree strongly on what makes a story good. Therefore I hereby exercise my imperial prerogative and decree the following distribution of prizes: to Astrosmith, mostly because he said he wanted it, a copy of Rebel Moon, signed by both yours truly and the illustrious, nay, legendary Vox Day; to cZja, who I happen to know already has a signed copy of Rebel Moon, contact me by email and we'll figure something else out; and to Colin Lee -- aw, heck, we'll sort this out offline.

And to all the rest of you: thanks for participating, thanks for your comments and suggestions, and will somebody please promise to slap some sense into me if I ever try doing something like this again?!


Oh, hello, and nice of you to drop in. Now that my blood pressure is back to normal, here's where we stand re the 8/22/05 edition of the Monday Challenge. As of the deadline Sunday evening I received four serious entries and one joke. The serious entries have been forwarded to our panel of Celebrity Judges, who will by the end of this week render a verdict as to who is the winner of his or her choice of a.) a signed copy of Rebel Moon, b.) a $10 gift certificate, or c.) what's behind Door Number 3. The competing entries were submitted by: cZja, Astrosmith, Colin Lee. and cZja again. (I never said you were limited to one entry. Should you be?)

Our Celebrity Judges are award-winning fantasy novelist Peg Kerr, New York Times bestselling novelist Joel Rosenberg, and Marti McKenna, co-founder and editor of Aeon Speculative Fiction magazine.

So, while the judges ponder their decision, I invite you to read and comment on the submitted entries. And while you do so, I ask that you also ponder this question: how can we get more entries the next time around? I mean, frankly, it's not easy conning persuading celebrities to volunteer to judge this thing, and it's a bit embarassing to wind up with more judges than entries. I have six or eight more judges I'm keeping in reserve for the next round. Any suggestions for how to increase the number of competing entries?