The Martian. You may have heard of it. You may have heard of its unusual route to publication. You may also have heard that it's been made into a movie, staring Matt Damon, which is coming out this Friday. It's kind of a big deal.
Honestly, I really did not want to read this book. I'm suspicious of hype. I got burned on Ready Player One. I couldn't even make it through Gone Girl (which, in my defense, I accidentally purchased on audible because I mixed up the title with The Goldfinch). So when I started seeing The Martian at the bookstore, with that slick cover, sitting next to Ready Player One on the display table...well, to me that was a bad sign.
But, then I saw the trailer for the movie, and I'll admit, it looked pretty cool. I don't think there are enough science fiction movies being made, so I started to feel like maybe I should support it.
But if I was going to see the movie, then I wanted to read the book. I placed both physical and digital copies on hold at the library, but there must be an epic number of people on the waiting list, because I haven't gotten it after weeks of waiting. Finally, I caved last night and bought a copy for my kindle.
I should have trusted my instincts. This isn’t a good book.
My first warning sign was the babyish writing that starts on page one. Even if the book discusses science and engineering problems that are clearly targeted towards adults, the prose seems more appropriate for fourth or fifth graders. Weir tries to get away with it by framing the novel as an epistolary story, but I still don’t think it really works. The sentences are too uniformly easy. I almost wanted to read more tangents, more poorly organized paragraphs. That’s how real people write, especially scientists, who’ve never seen a run-on sentence they didn’t love.
And anyway, if we were actually reading an isolated astronaut’s journal, wouldn’t we hear something about his thoughts and feelings? Instead what we get is one continuous description of how to survive on Mars. We know nothing personal about the astronaut. He doesn’t even seem all that afraid. His emotional arc is a lot of “aww darn” and “a-ha, yay!” sorts of experiences. So if he’s not emotionally involved in his predicament, then why should I be?
Oh well, I shrugged it off and hoped the science would be interesting. And at first it was...when he was talking about a subject I know nothing about. I perked up when our hero discusses soil science (cause I’m a gardening nerd). That was interesting, but I fully admit, I know almost nothing technical about soil biochemistry. Then he got to the part about making water – and I just lost it.
Now Weir was talking about something I’m more familiar with: handling dangerous chemicals to do synthetic reactions. And it’s all bullshit. You can’t secure a rubber hose to a tank of hydrazine with a “thread.” When you open that valve, even if you do it very carefully as Weir repeatedly emphasizes, the pressure will just blow off this absurd fitting and spray the toxic, flammable stuff everywhere. But no, our hero “just” (that word comes up a lot in this book) slowly drips the hydrazine over the Iridium catalyst. Where did he get this catalyst by the way? Maybe he explained it, but the writing is so sloppy and ambiguous, it was a mess to figure out. I started to highlight all the sections I thought were completely unrealistic takes on how an astronaut would jerry-rig a chemical reactor to make water (transferring liquids and gases in air and adding controlled amounts of energy is a complicated science), and I had to stop myself.
Nit-picking the science in a science fiction story is a great way to ruin all the fun. Sometimes, you just have to let go of your disbelief so you can enjoy the story.
But that’s the problem, there is no story. There’s no character. The writing is practically in bullet-point format. It’s all tell, no show. There’s nothing except this half-cocked attempt to discuss science and engineering solutions for survival on another planet. If the science is questionable, then what left is there to enjoy?
I’m going to finish this book, because it’s short and an easy read, and I’ll bet I enjoy the rest of the science that I don’t know enough about to get annoyed with (a soil chemist though, I don't know, they might hate that part). And I’m probably going to see the movie, because a movie can show us these ideas without getting lost in the sometimes-tedious explanations.
But it’s not great science fiction and please don’t call it that.
When I first started researching how to submit fiction to journals and magazines, one of the common pieces of advice was to read back issues in order to better understand what kind of work each market published. Although that advice was well-meaning, I think it also made me needlessly delay on submitting my work for a long time. "I haven't read all the back-issues!" I'd tell myself, "I'm not ready!"
Yes, understanding your audience is key to getting published, but no one who is balancing a full-time job, family, and their writing-habit could possibly read enough back issues for all the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. And if you have a literary bent, that's a whole extra genre of magazines to research. It's just too much to do.
Well, kids, I stumbled upon the solution the other day.
Did you know that many of these magazines have podcasts? Where they read their stories aloud? It's like having an endless book on tape of excellent short fiction, for free too. (Although I do think you should subscribe to your favorite magazines. They're generally inexpensive and it's a great way to support your peers.)
Here are the science fiction and fantasy magazines that I've been listening to lately (in no particular order):
I already listen to a variety of podcasts during my hour long commute. And now, I get to enjoy good science fiction and fantasy while simultaneously helping me to understand each market a little better. If you're of a literary mind (and even if you're pure genre), then you should listen to The New Yorker's Fiction podcast to learn from the greats of short fiction writing, like Cheever, Borges, and Gallant.
Frankly, it's been eye-opening. When you hear the kind of stories that are getting published in the magazines, well, let's just say I'm no longer surprised that mine have been getting rejected. What I have been writing and what gets through the slush readers (or what is invited) sounds completely different.
Based on this research, I've concluded that published authors write with more restraint than unpublished amateurs (like myself). They don't spend pages describing each setting in florid detail. The characters are usually more even-keeled, emotionally speaking. The stories tend to be neither excessively sad, nor do they try to be excessively funny. They sound more like an acquaintance telling you a story about something odd they saw the previous day.
So do yourself a favor, cheat a little, and just listen to the market of your choice via podcast if they have one. You'll hear the difference and it should help your writing and publishing chances. And hey, if nothing else, it's an entertaining way to get through a long drive.
My mother used to make my brother and I go to church when we were young. She had some very good reasons for doing this, which I didn’t find out until much later and won’t go into now, but when I say she made us go to church – I mean she made us do it all. Service every Sunday. Sunday school. Confirmation classes. And at Christmas time, we were usually volunteered to be in the nativity pageant.
Most of this Christianity stuff…was not for me, to put it mildly. But the pageant part wasn’t so bad. I liked acting. The last year I did the pageant, I was the angel Gabriel who makes the big announcement to Mary that she’s carrying the son of god.
This was one of the few times I can remember enjoying church, practicing the lines of the annunciation over and over. Saying them in rehearsal, then in dress rehearsal. I remember sensing that if I messed the lines up, it was worse than just screwing up in front of the audience; I would be ruining the whole art of the speech. It had to be said just right.
The annunciation goes something like this:
“Gabriel: Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest.
What I love about this speech is how much information it conveys in so few words. And I love the way they sound. It’s the first instance I can recall where I fell in love with a piece of dialogue. Every Christmas Eve, I listen to the BBC broadcast of King’s College doing the Nine Lessons and Carols service and they always read this scene from the nativity. It’s the only part of the bible that I really enjoy. It gives me the shivers. I can’t help it.
Since then, it’s become a hobby of mine to collect great pieces of dialogue.
For instance, when Han Solo says, “I know,” after Leia confesses her love to him, well that’s just a brilliant line; a great example of showing character traits and not telling them. I believe it was Harrison Ford who came up that? (correct me if I’m wrong)
And even though George Lucas generally gets reamed for being a bad dialogue writer, I actually really like what Obi-Wan says about the force:
“Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together."
That’s just classic. Again, it’s so simple. It says so much while physically saying so little. The combination of words: surrounds, penetrates, binds. That's great. It’s very mysterious, but powerful sounding. The line is also very well delivered by Alec McGuinness.
And then there’s the great dialogue of Smaug’s from The Hobbit:
"My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
I love the way that line builds up, piece by piece, I am this, I am that. One metaphor after another. In fifth grade, my class put on a play of The Hobbit and we rather ambitiously wrote the script ourselves. I had the good fortune to be part of the team that wrote the final act. I remember having such a good time including those lines in our scene.
Does good dialogue move you? Or do you “collect” some other literary device. Excellent similes perhaps? Tell me about it! Word nerd with me :)
Happy Friday kids! I've had a bit of a rotten week, so I couldn't be happier that the weekend is here. I'm planning to see the movie, Grandma, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. Then maybe I'll get a bowl of ramen at Dashi. I'm really doubting T will want to see Grandma with me, but maybe the ramen will tempt him (or maybe not, I'm totally fine with going to see a movie by myself). Of course reading, writing, and gardening will no doubt take up the rest of my time.
Here are your Friday links, rounded up from the best of the best on the web this week. Enjoy and have a great weekend!
Ph.D. students sum up their dissertations in one sentence. My husband and I laughed so hard at these. If I had to sum up mine it would be: "I put stuff on carbon nanotubes...They're still not useful."(tickld)
Every scientist I know loves The Big Bang Theory. Check out this cute story on the character development of Sheldon Cooper. (The Atlantic)
I enjoyed this article on mall walkers. My grandmother used to take all eight of us grandchildren to the mall at early hours of the morning before anything was open and we'd walk and goof around together to get some exercise. I have really good memories of doing this. (The Atlantic)
I'm ashamed to say that I've never read any H.G. Wells, but after reading this article about his life, his founding contribution to speculative science fiction and role-playing games, I've decided it's high time I gave him a shot. (Tor)
This man's opinion of marijuana absolutely mirrors my own. Agree. Agree. Agree. And I don't care if you don't agree with me, but I wish more people were like this guy and willing to speak up against the tide of popular thought. (Humans of New York)
One writer's personal reflection on epic fantasy literature. (Tor)
Print is not dead! Personally, I'm a hybrid reader. I don't have a strong preference whether I'm reading a paper or digital book, although I do tend to read more print just because I own more of it. My one requirement is that the e-reader not be back-lit (so ixnay on the iphone or ipad). My eyes can't handle a bright screen for very long. (NY Times)
Might have to make a trip up to NYC to visit my brother so I can see this Hemingway exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum. (NY Times)
Every few months, the pink debate seems to rear it's ugly head on the internet. It's always there to some extent. Should we actively encourage girls to pursue less "girly" things. To avoid wearing pink or purple, or decorating their rooms with unicorns?
My family did this, though without much fuss. My mother just never took my brother or me to the toy store. I honestly don't remember even seeing Barbies or pink Legos, or whatever else is supposedly in that dreaded aisle. To her, that seemed to be the easiest way to avoid all the pink nonsense. So I grew up without Barbies or playhouses, and without regrets about it either. It's not something I feel like I missed out on.
But my family took that anti-pink policy to something of an extreme. No only did I not have "girly" toys, anything associated with appearance was sort of taboo in my house. No makeup. No cute shoes. No good clothes. We did not discuss our looks, ever. My mother wore makeup for work, but I never saw her put it on. It was like this secret, slightly shameful thing she had to do to maintain a professional appearance, but she wasn't comfortable with it. She was a hippie, I can't blame her for feeling that way.
But I received too strong a message: that any vanity was bad.
And so, in the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I present this:
Yes, that's me, probably age 11. Wearing a turtleneck beneath my basketball uniform...
Why? My Dad was the coach for my team - why would he let me walk out of the house looking like that?
Because that's all I had. When you take vanity, or lack of, to such an extreme as we did in my house, you start to look down on basic things like clothes. We never went shopping, not for lack of money, but because we didn't like it. You get exposed to the pink debate if you go shopping. So instead of buying me a basic t-shirt, I had nothing to wear beneath my basketball jersey except the same shirt I wore for my school uniform.
I told this story to my parents the other day and they didn't believe me.
"There's no way we would let you wear a turtleneck while you played basketball," they said.
To their credit, they were sort of horrified when I whipped out this picture.
I'm not mad. It didn't ruin my life. It many ways it helped me, I think. I had to have a tough skin in middle school looking like that with my home-cut bangs, my turtlenecks, and my high-water pants. My parents just didn't see it at the time. They were focused on teaching us new things; making sure we were creators and not just consumers. They were working hard at their careers.
My Mother was the world's best role-model for a little girl. She was smart, well-respected at work. She had interests and friends. She was warm and friendly. She's still all of these things. But she didn't have time for appearances back then, and neither did my Dad.
Eventually, I just had to figure it out for myself. I budgeted some babysitting money to buy t-shirts from the Gap and jeans from American Eagle. I got my hair cut by a professional. I didn't start wearing makeup until grad school, but I taught myself how with youtube videos. Now I like the way I look, but only because I gave myself permission to be a little vain.
So don't thumb your nose completely at the pink debate. It's ok to want to look nice or appropriate. Please don't teach your daughters that they're being frivolous or "girly" (I hate how that's become an insulting word!) if they want to look nice. Balance, people. It's all about balance.
I think one of the great if unspoken truths of writing is that you will need a day job to support yourself. Plenty of succesful writers not only had a day job while they were writing, but kept it after they had published as well. Borges was a librarian for his entire writing career. Lewis Carroll was a teacher. T.S. Elliot was a banker when he published The Wasteland.
One of the things I'm trying to figure out right now is what would be the best day job for me if what I really want to do is write in my spare time. I have a degree in science, and it would be nice to actually use that degree, but research requires a lot of concentration. It wears you out. The work can be a little emotionally draining too (often the answer to an experiment is simply that your hypothesis is false; It's akin to hearing "No!" a lot).
There are plenty of non-traditional jobs in my field. I could go into scientific publishing, or policy, or good old-fashioned teaching. But I've been thinking that the best way to make this decision is to look where I traditionally get the best feedback on my work.
For me, it's almost always, always editing (again, please don't judge my editing skills based on the typos and nonsense of this blog - I have to sacrifice accuracy for speed to publish five times a week). My peers and students are often asking me to read their papers or manuscripts, and I take that responsibility seriously. I stop what I'm doing (because timely returns are key) and spend several hours going through their writing line by line. I proofread, but I also copy-edit. I check for consistency, logic, flow, holes, etc. and make detailed notes or ask questions to help them improve their work.
For whatever reason, maybe this is just what I'm naturally best at, I always get strong feedback for this work. Often, I'm profusely thanked, because the student was having trouble getting anyone to read their work at all!
Noticing this trend, I started freelance editing for scientific manuscripts in my free time, to test the market. I barely advertise and mostly rely on word-of-mouth, but I've gotten more jobs than I can accept given all the other things I'm trying to do in my life.
If I'm honestly best at editing science papers, then maybe I should do that as a day job rather than research. I think I'm ok at research, not the worst, but not the best. I'm reasonably well-published, but not particularly well cited and certainly no one has ever complemented me on that work. I do get better feedback when I help other people in their research, which has meant that I have more third-author papers than first (the order of authorship indicates the extent of contribution to the work), but third-author papers count for almost nothing in the cut-throat world of academia and research.
Have you ever asked yourself that question? Where do I get the best feedback in my work? Maybe the trick is to "pivot" as the entrepreneurs would say, and focus your career or day-job on those skills where you seem to do the most good. Just because you started in one direction doesn't mean you couldn't shift or adjust your focus. Did you know that Twitter was originally a podcasting platform? Now look at them, practically the most powerful communications platform in the world. They're a classic example of "pivoting."
Where do you get the best feedback in your work? Could you pivot your day-job to fit that feedback?
Alright kids, in keeping with tradition, I'd like to highlight two books in a series and make an argument that the second, less popular book is superior to the first (see my earlier defense of Speaker for the Dead in favor of Ender's Game).
I don't know why I do it. Maybe it seems unfair that such great books are overlooked just because they weren't written first? Or maybe, as I believe, after the author has gone through all the hard work of building a world in the first book, they can at last write the story they really wanted to tell in the second book, resulting in a far better story. Just a theory.
I want to talk about Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle; a fantasy series that begins with the eponymous A Wizard of Earthsea. The series started as a trilogy, and you'll sometimes see it incorrectly described that way online, but Le Guin had since expanded it into a quartet with the publication of Tehanu. (Edit: Writer Janet Ursel was kind enough to alert me that there's actually a fifth book as well! The Other Wind.) Strangely, I've only read the first, second, and fourth books, but not the third (Edit: or fifth...). Guess I need to put them on my list.
A Wizard of Earthsea is one of my favorite fantasy books. I love the world, which had a more mythological tone than high fantasy. I thought its concept of magic was cool when I was a kid, and then when I learned about semiotics in high school, the significance of Earthsea's magic system blew my mind. The idea that you can control anything as long as you know it's one true name (when sign = signifier), well, that just makes sense to a bookworm (or a fantasy minded linguist).
Our hero, Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, studies this magic of words and mistakenly believes he has mastered the language. That hubris almost kills him when he summons an evil spirit into the world that he cannot control. He spends the rest of the book sailing about the archipelago of Earthsea to understand this dark magic he has unleashed, simultaneously hunting it and running from it. It's a beautifully written story, short and sweet. The world-building is particularly strong, as you'd expect from Le Guin. I found it a lot more interesting than the Tolkien-imitations that tend to dominate the fantasy genre.
But A Wizard of Earthsea isn't perfect. It touches on this great sense of evil, but I always found its shapelessness to be slightly unsatisfactory. The book also meanders, especially towards the end. To be honest, I can't even recall the conclusion beyond the most basic plot. It was just a little too abstract for me.
Regardless of these shortcomings, I enjoyed the book, and as soon as I could, I used my babysitting money to purchase the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan (I was probably around 13 or 14 when I first read them).
As the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan does a lot of things that tend to annoy readers, which probably explains its lack of popularity. First, it introduces a totally new character, Arha, who is unrelated to anyone in the previous book. Arha is the current and reincarnated priestess of "The Nameless Ones," an almost forgotten religion of ancient gods who existed before the world had a form.
Second point against this book? She lives in an isolated nunnery with other novices, old virgins, and eunuchs. I'm sure every boy who ever picked up this book read that setting and put the book right back down again. Maybe I'm stereotyping, but I've found that boys don't like to read books about girls, not at least until after they've grown up a little.
Then it takes Ged almost three quarters of the book to show up. No one who thinks they're reading a direct sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea is going to push that far through the story to find out whether their original hero reappears.
But that's the trick, Tombs is not really a direct sequel to Earthsea.
Despite everything that is working against it, I don't remember struggling with The Tombs of Atuan at all. The opening chapters were strange enough and the writing simple enough to pull me right into the story. I liked Arha, who was spoiled and haughty, but also lonely and increasingly frightened. I was interested in the mysterious tombs of the ancient ones, and the modern temples of the god-king and other cults. Where did these religions come from? Why was one dying and the other thriving? And like Earthsea, Tombs is a coming of age novel and has a school-ish air to it, which I always enjoy. Arha spends her time learning the rituals of the high priestess and the secrets of the labyrinth that lies buried deep in the earth beneath the tombs. How can you not enjoy that?
You could read Tombs all by itself, having never read Earthsea, and I don't think the story would suffer at all. Ged is a catalyst in the novel, practically a plot device, but the story is really all about Arha. What do the Gods mean to her? And what does she mean to them? That's part of the mystery and it takes a while to really understand her.
Just because Ged isn't the star of Tombs doesn't mean it isn't good, if not better without him. Throughout the Earthsea cycle, I don't know if we even understood Ged. What motivated him? Why did he feel compelled to fix his mistake? But I felt like I knew Arha by the end of Tombs, and felt for her.
I've subsequently loaned this book out so many times and people never return it, so I've had to buy it again and again to ensure I always have a copy ready to reread whenever the mood strikes me, which is fairly often. It's a great book, overlooked, but special.
What do you think? Have you read The Tombs of Atuan? Did you like it? Or is the classic, A Wizard of Earthsea better?
Sorry kids, no post today. We've been camping all weekend and didn't get home until late last night. No computer/internet = no chance to finish writing a post I had started on Friday.
But come back tomorrow for a discussion of Ursula K. Le Guin. I'm really excited about this post (spoilers: Earthsea...and that's all I'm saying).
Hope you all have an easy transition back into the work week!
Word Count: 580, novel.
Happy Friday! A little late with the links today because I was running around late last night getting packed for a camping trip T and I are taking this weekend. Should be fun, the weather looks awesome (lows of 60's, highs of 80's).
In the meantime, here are some interesting reads from the web this week. Enjoy and have a great weekend!
These Star Wars comics may no longer be cannon, but are still worth a read. (The Nerdist)
When we arrest kids for building home-made clocks, the terrorists have already won. (WaPo)
Star Wars + The Marx Brothers = awesome (A Day at the Pod Races). (SF Signal)
"If we teach graduate students to disrespect the majority of the jobs that they are likely to compete for, then we are doing nothing less than teaching them to be unhappy." So, so, so true. I shouldn't be made to feel like a failure because I don't want to be a professor, but when you work in academia or go to grad school, that's the message you receive. (WaPo)
Bears are making a comeback. Here's what to do if you ever encounter one. I swear to god, we found an animal track in the woods behind our house that either belonged to a bear or Big-Foot. (National Geo)
Fall is practically here. Check out these new TV show previews. (WaPo)
Even if your kid is a bookworm, you should make them go outside. More research suggests that excessive time indoors leads to poor eyesight. (WaPo)
Do you need to have science in science fiction? (Patty Jansen, via @JanetUrsel)
More stories than ever are being serialized on the internet. Check out this brief history of serialized science fiction. (Kirkus Reviews)
Prometheus was not a perfect movie, but I still really enjoyed it, especially Michael Fassbender's role as the android. It's exciting to hear he'll be back in Prometheus 2. (SciencFiction.com)
Fake grammar rules. These drive me crazy when I'm editing, because even though I know they're fake, my first instinct compels me to follow them. Must fight the urge. (Mental Floss).
Last June, when my husband and I were on vacation in Italy, we spent a lot of our time lazing by the beach or pool. T was reading the Conan series, and at one point turned to me and asked if the book I was writing was "complicated."
"Yeah, I guess so," I told him. I thought about it and corrected myself. It was definitely complicated and that was one of the reasons it was taking me so long to write.
"Hmm, cause these books are definitely not complicated," he told me, holding up old Conan the Barbarian. "They're almost ridiculously simple."
I've been thinking about that for a while. No one is going to claim that Conan the Barbarian is great literature, but I bet there's a lot of people who would argue that the series is fun and readable. Think how quickly Robert E. Howard must have been able to churn those stories out. You'd have to if you were being paid by the word. Complexity isn't a luxury you get to enjoy under those circumstances.
I think about all the stories or movies I've seen that have really simple premises, and how much I tend to enjoy them. Superbad is about two underage kids trying to get alcohol for a party. What a great idea. It's so simple and everyone (at least in the U.S.) can relate.
This year's Mad Max was about (spoilers) a fat old dude trying to get his women back. If the movie had been anything more complicated than that, I doubt it would have worked. Mad Max is all about simple premises and basic instincts so you can enjoy the action without having to think too hard.
I've always thought Dragon Ball Z was kind of genius for this same reason. Train really hard, and you can become a martial arts master (it helps if you're also an alien). Find the seven dragon balls, and you get any wish. That's basically it, but there's so much that can be developed around those two simple ideas.
Ender's Game has a fairly simple premise if you think about it. Boy goes to battle school and kicks butt at video games and simulated warfare. The simplicity of the plot, which is practically episodic, lets the narration spend more time on Ender's personal issues.
Can you summarize your book or short story that easily? Is the concept that simple?
I think about my book, and it's not that simple. I try explaining the story to my husband sometimes and I'm all, "and then this happens, and then this, and then this, and she can do that because this, and he can't because yada yada yada."
Maybe I want to/need to write a simpler book? In fact, while writing this post, it occurs to me that I've plotted a section near the center of the narrative arc, because I felt like it needed "more story." But when I think about that part, I realize it's totally unnecessary. It complicates things for the sake of complicating them.
Kids, I'm just going to cut that part out. Boom, that's 10,000 words I probably just saved myself of having to write and later delete.
I'm going to keeping thinking on this simplicity idea and see if I can figure out a way to summarize my book in one sentence. And if I can't, then maybe it's too complicated for both my tastes and my abilities.
Of course, some people like complex stories and that's absolutely cool. A Game of Thrones and The Wheel of Time books, come to mind, but neither of those are my cup of tea. So...why have I been trying to write a story on their scale?
If you're working on a story, do you find it simple and straightforward to explain? Or is it complex, maybe more complex than you originally anticipated?
Writer, editor, scientist.