Sunday, January 30, 2011

What I'm Watching

Last night, I watched the THE HISTORY CHANNEL. Those interested in speculative fiction or science fiction should check out the programming from the evening of Saturday, January 29th.

I highly recommend "The Prophets of Doom" and also the preceding program about The Earth, "Megaquake". Did you know that America once attempted to split in half, along the line where the Mississippi flows, and that those who live in New Madrid, St Louis, Mephis etc are on a massive fault line?

How deep could the Mississippi be? I'm thinking "An American Loch Ness".

Loch Ness is a techtonic lake. The Mississippi could be --in part-- a techtonic river.

Here's how my thoughts ran. "What's in Your Water?" one of the Prophets of Doom asked in so many words. He talked about the effect of coffee-drinking on fish. Fish drink coffee because coffee-lovers flush processed coffee down the toilet every day, and the sewage treatment facilities are not designed to remove coffee from our effluent. Nor are they set up to remove Viagra, for that matter.

So, coffee-spiked water is discharged into the rivers where the fish live and breathe. What might be in the rivers around Hollywood? What are the fish involuntarily snorting down there? Liquid crack? Boner pills? Oh dear!

Apparently, it is Hospice policy to pour all unused medicines down toilets when a Hospice patient dies at home. That's a sizeable cocktail of morphine, plavix, industrial strength senna pods, ritalin.... no wonder Canada geese make such a mess.

But, I'm getting away from Nature's crack. The American "Trouser Cleavage" aka New Madrid Fault which was formed about 750 million years ago. There wouldn't have been significant life around the Rodinia supercontinent in the NeoProterozoic Era. Nor would there have been dinosaurs ready and willing to swim upriver on February 7th 1812 when the Mississippi briefly reversed course (if it did indeed flow inland, and I believe that it only flowed backward for a relatively short stretch inside Kentucky, not all the way from the Gulf... which would have been far more exciting).

Fans of trilobites and archeocyanthids, please forgive my disrespect. I am sure those hard-shelled creatures could mutate appallingly under very wrong conditions. I'm not by any stretch of the imagination an expert of the limits imposed on growth and sex by an exoskeleton.

Personally, if I can't have a plesiosaur, I'd rather have a monster croc or mutated dolphin running amok up and down the Mississippi, or even a mudskipper, than an ancient Horseshoe Crab on steroids.

What would you put in the water?

Thursday, January 27, 2011


The Voyager 1 probe is approaching the boundary of our solar system. Truly we live in wondrous times! Here's the official NASA information site, with pictures:


This spacecraft and its slower companion, Voyager 2, left Earth 33 years ago, and we are still in communication with them.

Though I don't expect a Voyager to return transformed by an alien intelligence, like Vjer in the STAR TREK movie, I would like to believe someday one of them may be found by another civilization that will want to make contact with us. The launch of these probes seems to me an impressive act of faith in the long-range future of our planet and species.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Gene Doucette Discusses his novel IMMORTAL

This below is a guest post by the author of the novel IMMORTAL that I discussed in my previous post here on January 18, 2011. 

Of course I know he didn't intend to write an Action Romance or any kind of romance.  I understood what he was doing, and I intended to make it clear that he did achieve that objective.  My discussion and dissection of his novel is a writing lesson for those attempting to do something entirely foreign to Doucette's genre.  I believe readers of this blog who love Romance and perhaps are writing Romance will find reading IMMORTAL to be a worthwhile experience simply because it is so far away from the Romance genre.

My personal reading tastes are broader than my readership's, or the intended readership for my professional review column.  In fact, you might say I'm a professional reader.  Nothing that is well written will fail to rivet my attention.  I am a lifelong devotee of fanfiction.  I even love badly written or "Mary Sue" fanfic! 

At the end of his guest post, Doucette asks me a question.  I shall answer.  I highly recommend that you read what he says here carefully. 

--------------GENE DOUCETTE---------------

I’m not certain how to begin a response to a critique that simultaneously describes Immortal as a chore to read and as something that could not be put down.

But I will try.

I’m going to start with the bottommost point, which is that this story should not belong to Adam the immortal narrator, but to Clara, a character that appears in roughly 1/4 of the book.

There are many things I could say about this suggestion, but to begin with the most obvious: it’s not her story, and I’m not interested enough in telling her story to build the novel around her.  What I was interested in—what I am still interested in—is what it might really be like to live through the breadth of human history.  If I wanted to tell that story through the eyes of a twenty-something year old college student, I would have written a different book.

(Read about what kind of book Immortal IS at )

The description for that hypothetical book would have been “pretty young college student discovers an immortal man, and is pulled into a secret world of intrigue and danger.  And she may be falling in love…” I expect the most common response to the description would be either, A: “oh; another one of those” or B: “is that the new Twilight book??”

This holds no interest for me.

Lichtenberg seemed to want me to write a different kind of book entirely, but this is not a romance, or even a love story.  It’s also not about the moment in the life of a very old man in which he found his One True Love.  It isn’t that the love story was given short shrift, it’s that there is no love story, triangle or otherwise.  There is sex, and there is sexuality, but in this part of the life of my jaded protagonist, he is not coming across a One True anything.  Or, to be more precise, he has come across several One True Loves in his lifetime, but this is not one of those times.

Adam is of course capable of love, and of caring about the people around him.  Despite his age, he is very much human and very much a part of the human race.  That means, like anyone, he has defense mechanisms to protect himself that leave him emotionally closed off much of the time.  He is also not particularly good at talking about his feelings—unreliable narrator—so his actions are sometimes more telling than his words.

(Some words from Adam:

So knowing what this book is not—a romance about a girl helping a sexy but mysterious immortal man—let’s talk about what it is.

As much as is possible I tried to put myself in the position of someone who had actually lived through history.  I used “magical” characters because they made his history more interesting, and because the idea of playing with fantasy tropes and then stripping away all of the magic to see what was left appealed to me.  But at the very core of it is Adam’s voice and his experiences.  I had to make a number of discrete decisions and forced definitive limitations on myself—for instance, writing an action novel in first person is a real pain in the ass—in order to tell the story.  I also had to decide what KIND of person, and personality, would be capable of living that long without dying accidentally or on purpose.

(One of my biggest beefs with the modern “romantic vampire” character is that they all act like twenty year olds.  I think it’s perfectly possible for a person whose personality is stuck somewhere between Act III and Act V of Romeo and Juliet to become a vampire, but I find it incredibly unlikely for them to have survived beyond a couple of decades.  It is not a survivor ethos.)

And so Adam’s personality—which Lichtenberg has lauded—is the result.  A sarcastic, sometimes unpleasant, very clever man who tells the story of his life with a Raymond Chandler-esque bitterness.

(What others have said about Adam: )

More generally, I find the points about convention and structure to be a bit strange.  Why would I take my unconventionally structured, unconventional story and turn the whole thing around so that it’s about a different character, has none of what makes it compelling—the narrator’s voice—and jam it into a structure that so very many other novels already adhere to?  At some point it stops being THIS novel and becomes someone else’s novel, and we’re about three steps past that.

(My discussion of genres: )

“You have a lovely cat,” Lichtenberg seem to be saying, “and he would be even more perfect if he was a horse.”

Some other points:

--Adam’s unlikability.  Lichtenberg comments that I have given myself an uphill battle in attempting to tell a story from the perspective of an unlikable character.  My problem with this is I don’t think Adam’s unlikable.  I never have.  He is complicated, bitter, and drunk through much of the first part of the book, but I don’t believe him to be unlikable.  Yet this is not the only place I have seen this comment, so I don’t know what more to say about it than “all right, but you still liked him enough to keep reading.”

(I discuss his apparent unlikability more in:

--Drinking.  I thought the comment that Adam was unlikable specifically for enabling two college students by buying them alcohol was very telling.  The implication being he’s buying for minors and that they would not have otherwise had access to alcohol.  We are talking about COLLEGE here; this is a preposterous suggestion.  There is also nothing in the text whereby Adam “keeps them drunk”, nor does he ply them with alcohol.  He is not recklessly manipulating mortals into drinking with him; he’s drinking with mortals who are inclined to drink as well.  As he says on multiple occasions, his preference is to hang out with bar drunks and college students.  It’s a social thing.

A larger point would be that, again, this is a man who has lived an incredibly long time.  It is only in the last hundred years or so that alcohol has developed a (deserved, I admit) stigma, and he was drunk for most of them and probably didn’t notice.  In earlier times—one need not go back far at all, actually—drinking regularly and in large quantities was very common.  His interest in drinking is perfectly in keeping with his character.

--Murder.  It was hard to tell whether the “gritty realism” point was a critique or merely a comment, but I thought it worth pointing out that if one establishes a character that began life as an African tribesman sixty thousand years ago, one has to reconcile oneself with the fact that the character is a murderer.  And again, look at the historical record of the human species: the remarkable thing is not that Adam has, can, and will commit murder to protect himself, but that he hold the lives of anyone other than himself to any degree of esteem.  The idea that all life is sacred is a very new concept.

--The third act.  I disagree with the suggestion that the switch from past tense to present tense is jarring and unnecessary.  I think it’s fundamentally necessary if only for the obvious fact that the italicized sections at the beginning of each of the chapters in the rest of the book are all in present tense.  More centrally, I find that the present tense makes the action in the final act much more palpable and direct.  You already know, in every other part of the book, that Adam survives, because he’s telling the story from a safe distance.  In present tense, while Adam is still narrating, some of that safety net is removed.  It was something that began as a logical decision—because of the chapter pieces—that became what I consider a happy secondary result: a more gripping ending.

--Saving the cat.  It should have been obvious to anyone reading the prologue—in which Adam recounts a time, eons ago, when he hunted and killed a large cat—that I’m thumbing my nose at this convention as well.

--Convoluted, expository lumps.  I’m not really sure what to say about these comments.  It’s a story about an immortal man told by an immortal man, with small historical tales nested inside of a larger present-day story arc.  It’s not convoluted; Adam just has a lot to say.

Lichtenberg pointed out that there were things Adam talked about that she didn’t need to know, using the Egypt flashback as an example.  The point of the novel was NOT to solve the overarching mystery of who is after Adam—which is revealed roughly the halfway point anyway—or necessarily even how he escapes.  It is ONE point, but it is not THE point.  THE point is, he’s an immortal man, he has some stories, and he’s sharing those stories.  The Egypt passage was pertinent because it was on the subject of why he has trouble trusting women, and he’d just been put into a situation where he didn’t know if he could trust the woman he was sleeping with.  It was a pertinent story, because it was a developing characteristic of Adam, and Adam IS the story.  (And as a spoiler aside, the discussion of cultures revering men as gods is pertinent to Hellenic Immortal, the second book.)

In conclusion, I’d like to steal one of your points: look at the title.  This book is called Immortal because it is about the immortal man telling the story.  He may be complicated and some readers may not like him, but this is first and foremost a character study of someone who is, in my mind, an anthropomorphic representation of mankind.  (And I mean man- not humankind.)  The book has its digressions and its discursions, it may be messy at times, but it’s a compelling, interesting story that is difficult to put down.

So let me throw this back to Jacqueline Lichtenberg: in our past discussions you have lauded the idea of innovation and finding new ways to tell stories in fiction.  You have been handed a book that ignores very nearly every convention yet manages to be addictively readable, and your response to this is to suggest what I think is a tired, conventional story I couldn’t even imagine WANTING to write.  You clearly enjoyed the read.  Why are you back-tracking?
----------END GENE DOUCETTE'S GUEST POST------------

Why am I "back-tracking?"

Of course, it doesn't seem that way to me. I would never do such a thing.  I am all about the future, not the past.

You executed the "form" you chose for this novel perfectly (the pre-chapter inserts from captivity; the joining of the two plot threads.)

You applied that form expertly to the story you wanted to tell.

My judgment is (and there's a lot of taste involved in this) that the story you wanted to tell doesn't fit the form you chose.  I see an artistic mis-match. The virtuoso performance of the writing art does not hide the major problem - passive hero, hung hero, lack of plot-movement. 

I found the "couldn't put it down" appeal because I'm me, but I'm a very rare type of reader.

I judge that because of the artistic mismatch between form and story, the readership will be more limited than the story deserves.

I feel more people would be drawn to (reread and search for sequels) this character if the form matched the story artistically.

So to solve that problem which many beginning writers have and can't cover up the way you did, (and to demonstrate to writing students some points I've made previously) the writer either changes the form or the story -- or possibly both.

Switching the POV is one way to do that with dispatch and economy, to do it in a way that a commercial writer who is writing for profit (i.e. more than minimum wage) would prefer.  But you can only do that way before you start to write, preferably before you "have the idea for the story."

Yes, of course shifting makes it a different story and changes the genre.  In fact, that's a standard exercise in writing class - change genre by changing pov.

However, the book the reader reads is not the book the writer wrote.

The "can't put it down" story for me was the story of the young girl utterly caught up in the "affairs of wizards" and falling in love with this Immortal guy.  (title would still apply perfectly from her POV -- that's ALL she can see; that's become her whole life.)

That "become her whole life" effect is the core effect of Romance Genre.

From her point of view it's a Romance.  If you're not a Romance fan, reader or writer, small wonder you don't think that would be interesting, or that the novel would be utterly unique in the anals of commercial fiction.

If I wrote this story about this Immortal guy from that young girl's point of view (and from her POV the other woman is an arch rival and a threat) there would be nothing, absolutely nothing, about the resulting novel that could be described as "tired" or "conventional."  Ask my fans if they'd expect that it would be tired or conventional coming from my hand.

But of course if I wrote the novel, the Immortal guy would have a totally different character. So the novel I want to read is the one you would write from her point of view.

When one writer reads work by another writer, they rewrite it in their heads to be their own.

And the brutal fact is that all readers do that too, sometimes without knowing it.

The book the reader reads is not the book the writer wrote.  I learned that from Marion Zimmer Bradley who always quoted it from one of her mentors, and I don't recall who (which irks me).

It's no doubt something her mentor learned from someone else.  It's forever true.

Writers don't do the innovating in the storytelling field.  Readers do.

So thank you for giving your readers a glimpse of the inner workings of your mind as you crafted the first book in this budding series, IMMORTAL.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Science Fiction readers, writers, collectors, and artists

 Do you belong to this group?

Science Fiction readers, writers, collectors, and artists

Created: December 07, 2007 | Other | Members: 2,351
This is a group for people that want to share their passion for Science Fiction in all its fashions and formats, with over 200 discussion topics Members are writers, readers, collectors, artists, movie makers, game makers, fans, and many more, all having many interesting and wide ranging discussions on the many fashions and formats of Science Fiction.

John Patrick asked an intriguing question on the Discussion forum, and so far has 74 replies on the subject of who would be willing to go to Mars to participate in a terraforming project.

It's a fascinating and informative conversation, in parts comparing an expedition to Mars by our descendants to the migration of the Pilgrim fathers to Ameica... at least on an emotional level.

However, there's also practical discussion of propellants, financing, and the need for a staging colony on the moon, and much more.

The idea of terraforming Mars presupposes that there is no one already on Mars to object to terraformation. But what if there were? One correspondent mourns the fact that we would make Mars the way we wanted it to be, and its natural magnificence would be lost. Someone else sees it as a sort of Ark, and would import humpback whales etc.

Another assumption that I have not seen challenged is that humans would remain human as colonists. Would we? I wonder whether my perceptions have been warped ever since my visit to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where I marveled at astronaut kidney stones. (They are really big!)

Would persons with large ureters adapt better? Would urinary incontinence be a desirable adaptation? That seems gross, not to mention unRomantic, but evolution is weird.

If weightlessness causes skulls to thicken, and other bones to dwindle (and excess calcium to accumulate in the body's filtration/excretion systems) --not that Mars is without gravity.
Equatorial surface gravity 3.711 m/s²[4]
0.376 g

And on  it is calculated that the surface gravity of Mars is

\frac{0.107}{0.532^2} = 0.38
times that of Earth.
 I suspect that those who sign up to colonize distant planets, even within our solar system will have to be types who are not overly vain about their physical appearance. In Asimov's THE GODS THEMSELVES, the colonists who were born on our moon were unable to return to earth, owing to their brittle sketetons. Notwithstanding the ingenious ideas of those who would solve the problem the What-If-I-Don't-Like-It? crowd by developing a mothership that permanently orbits the Sun (like the Circle Line on the London Underground!), I think a ticket to Mars would be a one-way ticket.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The World According to Dogs

I've just finished reading INSIDE OF A DOG, by Alexandra Horowitz. Subtitled "What Dogs See, Smell, and Know," this book with the Groucho Marx title aims to discover, as far as possible, what it's like to be a dog. Highly recommended! The author explores dogs' senses, consciousness, awareness of time, and communication, how much of our language they understand, their relations to other animals and to people, etc. I've always known, of course, that for dogs smell, not vision, is the dominant sense, but Horowitz's in-depth explanation of their olfactory capacities raised my awareness of what that dominance means. In effect, we and our dogs experience different worlds. Objects meaningful to us merit no attention at all from dogs, while we're oblivious to some sensory stimuli very important to them. With their perception of odors, dogs can effectively "see" the past. Their vision is different from ours, too, and not only because their eyes are closer to the ground. They have better peripheral vision than people but fuzzier focus in the center of the visual field. It's likely that they actually can't see an object directly under their paws without backing up a bit. And though they're not colorblind, they do see colors differently from us. A dog shows little interest in images on a TV screen, not only because the image lacks the crucial odor cues of a live animal, but also because of something called the flicker-fusion rate—the number of "snapshots" per minute the eyes can process separately. The human rate is around sixty, so a TV image or a modern film (but not a movie from the early days of cinema) looks like smooth, continuous movement to us. To a dog, with a flicker-fusion rate of seventy or eighty, the same film looks like a rapid series of static images. (This phenomenon might explain why our dog has never tried to chase cars but goes crazy when he sees a moving bicycle or baby stroller.)

The author constantly cautions us against anthropomorphizing our dogs, particularly by assuming an action or interaction means the same thing to the dog that it does to us. Also, she proposes that dogs evaluate objects in terms of their functionality—what's the thing good for? Meant to eat, chew, urinate on, lie on, play with? The canine view of the environment helps to explain why they prefer a human bed to a dog bed for sleeping.

When a dog saves a person from danger (e.g., fire, thin ice), does the pet "know" he has performed a heroic rescue? Horowitz describes an experiment that suggests dogs don't "know" when people are at risk and deliberately set out to save them. In this trial, people pretended to be hurt (e.g., by a bookcase falling on them), and their pets didn't seem especially concerned. As a commenter on Amazon pointed out, though, that's not a fair test. Dogs, with the acute senses Horowitz had already discussed in detail by this part of the book, could certainly tell when their owners were faking. And, if anecdotal evidence is of any value, I've noticed occasions when dogs act "worried" about people's unusual behavior even if no real danger or injury is involved, so they don't all react like the pets in the experiment. If someone lies motionless on the floor, our St. Bernard certainly acts as if he's trying to figure out what's wrong.

Does a dog know when he's been "bad"? Horowitz convincingly demonstrates that what a "guilty" dog is reacting to is anticipation of the owner's wrath, not awareness of having misbehaved.

Read the book yourself to enjoy the multifaceted dimensions of dog behavior this author delves into. Her style is a pleasure to read, and she mixes solid information with entertaining anecdotes about her own pet. I finished the book with a feeling of amazement at how a creature so different from us in numerous ways can share our lives so compatibly. As far as communication with aliens is concerned, many of us already have friendly aliens living in our houses.

On the other hand, for even more alien aliens-in-residence, consider my favorite animal, the cat. Unlike dogs, they're not naturally gregarious animals like us, so the gulf between our world views must be wider. For all I know, our cat may regard us the way Garfield does his "owner": "Ah, the man who cleans my litter box."

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Constructing The Opening Of Action Romance

Story openings are difficult to construct and even harder to troubleshoot once constructed.

Information must be coded, compact, subtle, "off the nose" and at the same time explain to a totally disinterested reader why they should read (or viewer why they should view) this story.

I've discussed openings and how to construct them in the context of many other posts on -- posts on theme, character, plot, and the other working parts of story.

Here's some posts on structure which reference the skills of constructing an opening.

And here's one on first chapters by Linnea Sinclair

And my usage of the words "story" and "plot" just to be clear about that.  Theme is what glues them together.

If you've been trying to apply these techniques, I now have a really great example to illustrate them. 

Here is the novel IMMORTAL by Gene Doucette - a writer I met via twitter and #scifichat #scriptchat and others.


The structural issues make this a very borderline book, and it may not make it into my professional review column for that reason alone.  However, there is a compelling resonance here that makes this a "can't put it down" read.

The structural issues that are a put-off for me might well be the real source of interest to others.  Structure is not absolute.  There are elements of taste involved.

So I have to say that the structure chosen to tell this story seems unnecessarily involuted to me.  It's too complex for the material.

What is this structure?

The first-person narrative does hold to the POV of first person (an Immortal born so long ago language was only grunts).  So I have no complaints there.

The structure is clever. 

Each chapter is introduced by a few paragraphs set in italics that are happening while the main character is a prisoner (hung hero) in a laboratory setting where they are obviously investigating his immortality and immune system.

If the novel were told starting with his capture and going through his escape attempts until he succeeded, it would be a drag, long, boring hung-hero dealing with distractions rather than advancing the plot.

The plot is not about him escaping prison. 

The actual narrative tells the story of this Immortal discovering that someone is after him.

This "someone" is rich and powerful and hires "demons" as hit men tasked with taking him alive.

Other people, though, die all around him. 

So the straight-through plot is this Immortal being chased by humans, hit-men, demons, (actually some online gamers being used as dupes) and there are vampires, and a female who may be as old as he is (or older) he isn't sure.  There's another woman involved, too, so you have a sort of "triangle" situation which isn't made clear even at the end of this volume.  But the ending leaves us eager to read the next installment in this guy's Relationship problem. 

He's been playing tag with this Immortal woman for millennia.  (I told you this is good stuff.) And in the end of this novel, he learns some things about her, and his Relationship to the woman he meets in this novel changes substantially -- so the plot is advanced and there is a solid "ending" leading to a sequel. 

At JUST THE RIGHT POINT (I told you the structure is well done for what it is) we get to the event where he gets captured at just the point where he hatches a successful escape attempt.

All the elements (characters and tools) to create this escape have been properly introduced in prior scenes.  The possibility that he can die permanently has been made real. 

So what's "wrong" here?  This plot rumbles along like a well oiled machine.  Why is it a chore to read? This is a good writer with a solid track record.  What happened here?

There are 2 very abstract technical problems with this absolutely fascinating novel (don't worry, there's a sequel in the works that'll be better).

#1) The point in time chosen for Chapter One is wrong.

#2) The innate "character" of this character may be either badly presented or actually formulated wrong. 

OK, let's start with #1 because that's easy to fix once you understand why it doesn't work.

------SPOILER ALERT -----

As often stated in this blog, I don't believe a good story can be "spoiled" by knowing what's going to happen in it.  If it can, it's not a good book.  If you understand that, read on fearlessly.  You'll still love reading this book.  In fact you may love it more after reading this discussion.  

The first characters introduced after the main character wakes up out of a drunken stupor end up dead right away. 

It is established that this dissipated and dis-likeable main character telling the story actually holds this pair of unlikeable college men in some affection -- mostly because they enjoy getting drunk and watching ballgames on TV with him.

This is a portrayal of college students that does not "work" for me.

What rule is violated by this portrayal? 

Many 1940's SF novels elevate and laud drunkenness as a means to accessing higher consciousness or even one's innate intellectual skills.  I used to like those novels.  I know too much now to find such an attitude laudable. 

Opening a story with a guy (apparently homeless bum) crashing in a college student's apartment and supplying beer and liquor to keep them drunk just doesn't work for me.  I feel no sense of identification with this main character and couldn't care less what happens to him.

The information fed into the story-line by this opening situation is that this guy is not homeless, not poor, is capable of affection for these young men, and is -- ta-da! Immortal. 

He ended up in the apartment having been brought there to a party by a friend (not-human not-magical iifrit) who also plays dissipated drunk convincingly. That friend later returns to move the plot forward, solidly and convincingly.

So I don't like this immortal character because he gets humans (who can be harmed by drunkeness) drunk while he drinks to a stupor but can't be harmed by it.  He stays drunk for centuries just for the fun of it. 

We see a portrait of an individual blessed with long life, not invulnerable but Immortal (so far). 

I dealt with this problem of being immortal among mortals in my Dushau Trilogy, but my immortals there were aliens (I do vampires in other universes such as Those Of My Blood.)

Dushau (Dushau Trilogy)

My Dushau Immortals studiously avoid close personal relationships with mortals because they have perfect memories and too many bereavements can lead to insanity.

Doucette saw this problem as well, but handles it differently and with some intriguing twists.

In the course of the opening set-up chapters of this novel, we see this Immortal experience affection and friendship for a number of humans.  His heart opens and he bonds easily with all and sundry (even vampires). 

This makes him, to me, an irresistible character.  Could not put this book down.

But at the same time, there's the "gritty realism" that this character has murdered -- over thousands of years, for many reasons, causing death has become no great big deal.  And we see him murder mercilessly.  Maybe with some justice, but with a callous attitude. 

Now here we come to the Information Feed issue.

Go back to SAVE THE CAT! (the 3 books by Blake Snyder on screenwriting).

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need

What does the title say?

To engage your viewer INTO bonding with the main character whose story you are about to tell, you MUST first reveal something about him that will arouse viewer sympathy, empathy, identification or a yearning to become "like that."

The first thing we learn about the dingiest, dirty-harry character you want to present has to be LAUDABLE, universally laudable.

So Blake Snyder says -- show your hero SAVING THE CAT.  Taking a risk for the helpless, or otherwise revealing an admirable character trait BEFORE you reveal the gritty traits that make the 6 problems the character has to solve.

Nothing in the introduction to Doucette's Immortal is in any way "saving the cat" -- drunkenness itself which is not a real PROBLEM for the Immortal but which harms those humans he associates with is not laudable.  Bumming around among college parties with an Iffrit with dissipated habits is not laudable.  That this is done by choice because he has nothing else to do is cause for reader disinterest.

So, while there are many traits about this Immortal character that are absolute grabbers, what we learn first are put-offs.

The put-offs will eventually become the problems that establishing Relationships will solve.

But as depicted in the opening, this Immortal has no conflict (internal or external) in forming friendships. 

The first real plot event is the news that the college students who hosted him have been murdered by a demon -- and the assumption that the demon had been aiming at the Immortal while the college students just got in the way.

The structural problem with this plot event is simply that the Immortal was not in the apartment when the demon killed the students.  The event happened off stage.

The Immortal actually feels a little sad and maybe miffed that the humans he felt affection for (briefly, in passing, without depth) had been murdered because of his presence in the apartment.

If not for that feeling, he'd have just blown town.  But the murder of the humans made it more personal. He wants to fight back. 

So from there on, the story gets interesting.  The plot advances, and you begin to see where things are going with the bits at the beginning of chapters showing he's going to be captured.

The next structural innovation that is unnecessarily complicated is a shift in the narrative voice at the point where the two narratives (the chapter headings during captivity and the chapters leading up to being captured) come together.  The standard first-person past narrative suddenly becomes first person present.

This is unnecessarily jarring, a real put-off.

In a different sort of story, it wouldn't be a put-off.

In fact, the entire structure could be the best artistic choice for some stories.  Stories that involve say, time-travel, could work this way.  Or stories about known historical events -- a King Arthur legend, The French Revolution, etc. 

But in this particular narrative, the device seems like an erroneous choice because the material itself is strong enough to carry the reader straight through the plot.

So what we seem to have is a story-concept, a very intriguing character, that needed introducing to a readership.

There is a huge over-burden of background to work in.  This character is 10's of thousands of years old and his development as a human being has direct relevance to how he relates to the modern century.  He admits that at first his people were barely self-aware.  He still has long-distance running skills from running down game for days at a time.  He has trouble relating what happened to him in his life to the various calendars that have come and gone. 

There's a lot of background to work in.  A lot of information to feed.

The Immortal's story is being picked up when two women come into his life and that changes things significantly.  But that means the story has to portray how things were for him "before" so that how things become "now" and will be "after" these relationships start to affect him. 

How can you plot that when it's all information feed.

How can you avoid expository lumps? 

The story and the plot are totally stationary in this Immortal's life all through this novel. 

He's a "hung hero" on two levels -- being captured and imprisoned to be studied, and being chased down to be captured but he doesn't know by whom or why until the last third of the novel.

So the author cleverly structured the two stories against each other to give the illusion of movement.

Without the headings at the beginnings of chapters, we wouldn't anticipate him being imprisoned or why or how hard it would be to escape.  It's foreshadowing by expository lump, cleverly translated into show-don't-tell (yes the chapter headings read very well, no mistakes there).

Without the story of his being chased down and captured, the story of escaping from prison wouldn't carry the novel.

So given that you have this terrific character with a huge exposition needed to introduce him, and NOTHING HAPPENING in his life to make a story, what do you do?

The solution to clever-up the structure is actually a work of genius. 

But for me it just doesn't "work" because the story there is to tell about this Immortal does not require artsy-craftsy tricks of structure.

This Immortal's story actually begins when he meets the woman who will change his life, his self-concept, cause him to become involved in the modern world, in humanity and humanity's future by using all his past experience in the service of a greater good.

For any man, that change is always caused by a MATE - a SOUL-MATE (for most it's female, but not always). 

The element is LOVE.  The journey is from today's misery to "happily ever after." 

When that story starts to move, the novel begins.  All the rest is throat-clearing. 

The story starts where the two elements that will conflict first come together. 

So for this Immortal, that point is where he meets this human woman who will become significant forevermore.

But the story of his being captured and escaping is an incident, an excuse for action scenes, not the story, not the path to resolving the conflict.

Taking Blake Snyder's advice, the story starts where SHE sees HIM "save the cat" -- i.e. do something that endears him to her, that makes her willing to RISK something to save him.

Do you see where this is headed? 

We have a classic PASSIVE HERO - he fights, he takes action, but his decisions do not actually make a real difference.  This very clever, very skilled author has hidden this salient fact under some virtuoso writing, but the fact itself spoils everything in this novel.

What do you do to solve a PASSIVE HERO problem?  What do you do to avoid expository lumps?  What do you do to find a new opening for the novel that does not focus on a hung-hero who can't do anything about his problems and about whom the only important facts are odious to the very readers who would most enjoy the novel? 

The solution is excrutiatingly simple. Think hard. It is a tried and true classic any seasoned editor would toss at a writer who sent in a chapter and outline like this.  Why is this writer fumbling to tell this story when he obviously knows how to write novels?

See my 7 part series here on editing -- here's the 7th which has a list of links to the previous parts:

Now, think-think-think. 

If you've read the novel now, you may see the obvious solution. 

This whole thing is not the Immortal's story.

The expository lumps cleverly avoided by having the first person narrative allude to events in past millennia (a literary device that works) are filled with information we don't need to be TOLD -- on the nose. 

And though these allusions are cleverly phrased to appear incidental, they are "on the nose" data-dumps.  The data is mostly irrelevant to the Immortal's story.

How do you avoid that?  What do you change? 

I loved reading this Immortal's "voice" -- but that didn't change the fact that the expository lumps disguised as clever narrative that carried characterization just don't "work."

Why don't they "work?"  Because the information in each memory is not something I wanted to know before I read it.  No suspense.  No revelation.  I didn't have to work for it.  I wasn't asking the question "what happened to this guy in Egypt?"  I didn't NEED TO KNOW in order to solve the mystery of who's after him. 

Because of that I didn't care who was after him or why.  He felt it was ho-hum, being chased another time -- yawn.  So it bored me.

At the opening, in the college student's apartment, this Immortal wakes up from a drunken stupor. 

If ever you are tempted to start a story (and yes, I've done it!) with the main character "waking up" in some improbable circumstance or confused -- STOP WRITING and go back to the drawing board.  Something is wrong conceptually with the structure or the character. 

The story opens where the two elements that will conflict to generate the conflict which will be resolved in the last chapter first come together.

What happens in the last chapter of this novel?

The woman the Immortal meets pretty well into this novel finally gets what she wants, positions herself where she wants to be. 

The Immortal succeeds in achieving NOT ONE THING that he SET OUT TO ACHIEVE in the opening.  He wasn't either setting out or achieving.  He was stationary in his life when SOMETHING HAPPENS TO HIM. 

The two types of plot that go with this kind of material are:

1) Johnny gets his fanny caught in a bear trap and has his adventures getting it out

2) A likeable hero struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds toward a worthwhile goal.

In the opening to this novel, the Immortal does not DO ANYTHING, decide anything, take any action, learn anything, or even pray for anything that CAUSES anything else to happen.

Thus the Immortal (Johnny) does not GET his own fanny caught.  That is he does not take an action that initiates a because-line. 
In this novel the Immortal is not introduced by any trait that is even remotely likeable by any substantial audience-demographic.  He is by any measure no hero and most importantly, he has no goal. 

All of these fatal flaws are totally hidden by the superb writing craftsmanship. 

And hereby hangs a cautionary tale.

When you are writing a story that has hold of you by the guts, a story you just have to get others to read, a compelling story -- and you find that you have to HIDE THE FLAWS, then STOP RIGHT THERE and go back to the drawing board.

Readers may not know how to tell you what's wrong, but they will sense something wrong and many of the very readers who should read the book just won't finish it.

Don't use your skills to hide flaws.  Use them to eliminate the flaws.

The flaw in the novel IMMORTAL by Gene Doucette is the very most common flaw I see in manuscripts (and even published novels in Mass Market), and I see the very readers who would enjoy the novel most putting it aside.

It's a simple flaw and it's easy to fix.  You know it's there when you face pages of utterly essential expository lumps. 


Now re-imagine this novel, IMMORTAL, from the woman's point of view.

She is the online gamer.  She has an eclectic education, a vast imagination, an embracing nature.  Her story starts when she gets the first inkling that such a thing as "an Immortal male" exists.

Her goal, which she pursues as relentlessly as the Immortal once ran down game animals, is to meet a living Immortal man. 

When she meets him, her GOAL shifts to getting him into bed. 

Her goal shifts when her heart opens to embrace this Immortal as a person, not just an icon. 

Her goal shifts again when she realizes she wants this guy, she wants to be with him. 

And that final goal, at the end of this novel, seems to have been achieved.

She is the one whose life changes, by her own actions, by her own determination, by her own will, by her own heroism.  And that change is a WORTHWHILE GOAL that can be achieved only over SEEMINGLY OVERWHELMING ODDS. 

She is the likeable hero who struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds toward a worthwhile goal - one she only sees dimly when she takes that first, fateful, step. 

This novel is her story.

Here is a marvelous post by Linnea Sinclair on Point of View.
Now from within her point of view, FINDING OUT, or discovering, or unfolding, or digging up the information about how The Immortal interacted with the ancient past, what his opinion of it is, and any relevant detail of his past experiences, becomes the main story-imperative.

As we sink into her point of view, we adopt her urgent need to know, and feel sparks of triumph every time we worm some new tidbit out of the Immortal.

All the expository lumps disappear and we learn his story through her eyes.  What we don't know becomes spice, incense, and erotic triggers. 

Saving him from the laboratory (which she does very cleverly) becomes the plot which culminates in conflict resolved and if not an HEA at least an "off into the sunset" ending leading to a sequel where we chase the HEA which is now suddenly possible - but maybe not going to happen.

So this opening novel, the introduction to the Immortal as a character, is not his story because his life is static at that point. 

Yet through her eyes, we can enter into his life, understand what makes him tick better than he does himself, and see what he needs to do to learn what he must learn in order to change and grow, i.e. to be alive in a real sense, not just immortal.

Sometimes a character's story can be more compelling, more dramatic, easier to write and easier to read when that character's story is seen from outside.  Remember Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. 

Always turn your material around and around, looking at it through the eyes of various characters before writing. 

Notice here the power of THE OUTLINE.  Given an outline of the plot, it would be immediately clear that the ending does not match the beginning and the middle doesn't hit the right "mid-point" tension note.

Once you see that the ending happens where one character achieves a goal, and the other character acquires a goal, you will know where the story starts.

Maybe you'll read this book and totally disagree because the character revealed in the smart-ass inner dialogue is just too interesting to lose by switching points of view.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg  

ps: in a few weeks we'll walk through the step-by-step process of stitching all these disparate techniques together and invent a world bursting with story-potential. That'll be at least a 7-part series of posts.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The best and the brightest

Avatar was interesting because humans were the aliens. The aliens wanted minerals. They didn't care about the natives one way or another, as long as the natives didn't interfere with the mining operations.

In Jules Verne's The Time Machine, humanity had become two species: the hunters and the hunted. They could interbreed, but one group were the brutal predators and the others were flower children/cattle.

On Facebook, a friend wrote: "The good Lord was good to me. He gave me a strong body, a good right arm, and a weak mind." ~Dizzy Dean

There is a beer advertisement on TV which appears to make everyone happy....

If aliens were to annex Earth, they would probably prefer to preserve the weak minded among us, either as slaves or for a food source. The best and the brightest would have to be eliminated, because they are the ones who would make a nuisance of themselves.

Based on that assumption, what would be the best way to go about a successful annexation?

Why I think Yahoo and Borders should join forces

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What Are Books For?

The Winter 2010 Phi Beta Kappa newsletter includes an article called "What Are Books Good For?" by William Germano. The author starts by listing the four great "epochal events" in the evolution of the book: The invention of writing; the codex (book as we know it, with pages and a cover) as a replacement for the scroll; printing with movable type; and of course the e-book.

It's interesting, by the way, that digital texts take a step backwards in one sense. They revert from the codex to the scroll, and there are good reasons why the former has dominated the field for so many centuries. A book with pages you can flip through at will is simply easier to find a particular passage in; the electronic search function tries hard to make up for this problem but is far from perfect.

Germano also discusses two "great dreams" of scholarship that are currently coming true: "universal access to knowledge" and "knowledge building as a self-correcting, collective exercise" (e.g., Wikipedia). Both of which, of course, depend on the Internet. I'm reminded of another Asimov prediction I noticed while scanning some of his essays last week, the dream of a worldwide encyclopedia anyone could access. Well, we're there!

Germano asks whether the "book" is the physical object the holds the text or "the knowledge that the hidden text is always prepared to reveal"? He answers that the book is both, and he commendably points out that a book can exist in any binding or in an electronic reading device.

His answer to what books are good for—they encase knowledge. "Books take ideas and set them down, transforming them through the limitations of space into thinking usable by others." Not only ideas, I'd point out, but emotions and sheer entertainment. He maintains, however, that even argument is a form of narrative; storytelling is central to writing. Well said!

Another interesting point, which I think might be problematic. He says, "Narrative is rarely collective" and is not "infinitely expandable." It has a "shape and temporality" and, like human lives, an ending. True, one way to look at genre is in terms of what slice of life a given story presents and where it chooses to declare an end. Cut off the narrative in one place, and you have comedy; in another, tragedy. Yet in the realm of fan fiction we often encounter shared worlds that go on indefinitely. Not to mention the older narrative form of the soap opera, where the story spins on from week to week and year to year without ever reaching an end.

Germano concludes by declaring that ideally "books are luminous versions of our ideas, bound by narrative structure so that others can encounter those better, smarter versions of us." I'd love to believe my readers see a "better, smarter" version of me.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ancient Egypt & Blood-Suckin’ Dead Guys

Here below is a Guest post by the commenter you've seen on this blog many times, KimberAn.

As she has mentioned, she has been writing novels, pondering all the advice given by the various professional writers on this blog -- and Lo! now she is a published fiction writer too.

It occurred to me that you might want to hear directly from her about what reading all these posts on this blog has done to help her.  When you read her first novel (and many to follow I'm sure) you may be able to see how, when "advice" is incorporated into a creative work, it really doesn't exactly resemble the advice any more.

So the "advice" KimberAn will be giving her students won't look the same.  But it will no doubt be the same.

Listen to her now.

Guest Post By KimberAn
Ancient Egypt & Blood-Suckin’ Dead Guys

First, a big ‘thank you’ to Jacqueline Lichtenberg for inviting me to guest post for her!

Jacqueline has been talking a lot about world-building lately and thank goodness too, because I have a lot of it to

Part II was posted on November 2, 2010 and Part III on November 9, 2010

After I first created my alien/human hybrids, the Newbloods, for Sugar Rush and made them vampire-like, I realized I had to bring in the mythic vampire, the Oldbloods, too or my blood-suckers wouldn’t make sense.  The trouble is I’ve never been into mythic vampires.  I had to, um, look ‘em up on Wikipedia.

Oh, sure, I liked Jacqueline’s blood-suckers in Those of My Blood and Peeps is my favorite Scott Westerfeld novel.  But, those guys are Science Fiction, you know, aliens and parasites and stuff like that.  Very cool. 

Those of My Blood


Fortunately, I really didn’t have to go into the Oldbloods much in Sugar Rush, except to say they originated the vampire myth and they think the heroine would make an excellent operative for them.  Oh, okay, Brandon, Ophelia’s friend, was an Oldblood too, but he’s not a very good one.  He loves the smell of Twinkies, plays Nintendo DS, and always looks both ways before he crosses the road.  It just didn’t make sense to me that a newly created being wouldn’t go through a childhood and rebel against his society’s norm in an adolescence.  The whole idea of instant-vampire, powerful and sophisticated, didn’t make sense to me.

The point is I didn’t have to do much world-building for the Oldbloods in the first book.

In the next book, Sugar Baby, which I hope to have out by April or so, I really need to get into the Oldbloods because the next book after that is heavy on the Newbloods and, again, the Newbloods won’t make sense if I don’t lay the Oldblood foundation first.  I probably learned that here on Alien Romances a long time ago, but I can’t remember the exact post.

Anyway, I dug into my history books and discovered that you can find the vampire myth in just about every culture on Earth.  The earliest records are in Ancient Babylon, Ancient China, and Ancient Egypt.  When I learned this, I was like, “Cool!  I love those dead guys!”  I can do this.  Yeah, yeah, sure I can.

Oh, yeah, fiction writers have to do their homework.

I read through Jacqueline’s series of posts, World-Building with Fire and Ice.  It’s going to take a while to digest all the wisdom imparted in them, but a couple of things struck me right off.

From the November 11th post World-Building with Fire and Ice, Part II

One is the common belief that there is no Happily Ever After in real life.

The other is that audiences and readers only want to be entertained.

Interestingly, I thought, the same people who hold to these beliefs are the same ones who are baffled by the success of the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer (out in Kindle omnibus edition November 11, 2010) and the movies based on them.  My daughter just got me into those stories, so I’m not really an authority on them.

The Twilight Saga (Boxed Set w/four Collectable prints)

I know more about Harry Potter. 

All Things Harry Potter

Although I can’t pinpoint where all the type-ohs and kissing scenes are like she can, I adore the series and all the movies too.

Well, I learned a few things as a book reviewer for four years and a mom observing the Harry Potter phenomena, as well as other successful Middle Grade and Young Adult novels.  If you know anything about child development, for example, you will know that J.K. Rowling totally nailed the emotional needs and perceptions of the average eleven-year old child in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  She didn’t simply play to the child, she *validated* and even *fulfilled* some of the child’s emotional needs.  I watched her interview with Oprah Winfrey a while back and she said that a young person walked up to her in the street one day and said,

“You were my childhood.”

Do you realize what that means?  I mean, okay, this is my opinion based on my Early Childhood education and experience and reading the Harry Potter novels.  But, I believe it illustrates the secret of Rowling’s success.

She didn’t merely entertain the child.  She engaged the child.  And she gave him a Happily Ever After.

And she’s raked in billions of dollars worldwide and now has her own theme park in Florida.

This flies in the face of the belief in entertainment only and no such thing as HEA.

And it proves what Jacqueline has been saying all along.  Check out

Worldbuilding With Fire And Ice posted on on November 2, 2010 for these quotes:


Today, projects which would reach vast audiences have to be shaped to exemplify that now institutionalized philosophy.

Audiences are just looking to be entertained, value for a buck. They don't care about philosophy.  It's abstract and irrelevant to the thrill, kick, payoff of the "ending." But when everything you entertain yourself with conforms to a certain philosophy, it becomes an unquestionable truth within the unconscious part of your mind.  It becomes your philosophy by which you make judgments and behave, regardless of what you think you believe or want or prefer to believe.

It's the steady diet that does that.

We "know" the HEA is real and true, it's our unconscious assumption, but not shared by everyone.  The artist, the performing artist, the writer must be able to see the world through the eyes of people who have unconscious assumptions (Philosophies) different from the writer's and explain one reader's assumptions to another reader who does not share those assumptions.

I've said this before.  The artist's subconscious communicates with the art-customer's subconscious directly, and does that best when the conscious mind is directed elsewhere (as a magician points at something to prevent you from noticing something he's doing on the other side).

Philosophy resides in the subconscious and over-rides the conscious mind's decisions (that's why it's so hard to stick to a diet unless your subconscious has decided to do it).  That's why married folk have affairs against their conscious will and desire.  The subconscious rules, and so the philosophy programmed into the subconscious is the deciding factor in the HEA problem and argument.

The method we have to figure out how to employ is the method the publicity and advertising folks who work for politicians are using against us -- our unexamined, unquestioned, unknown-to-us ASSUMPTIONS. A philosophy that lurks within the subconscious, unknown to us, can command our life-decisions -- and determine what fiction we enjoy.


How does that take me to Ancient Egypt and vampires?

Well, in order to engage your reader, you must understand human nature.  Don’t get hung up on what people say.  Watch what they do.  See how they live.  Get behind their eyes.  Keep your mouth shut and listen.

A big chunk of this learning can be found in anthropology, the study of humankind.  Besides my nanny training, my anthropology class in college has been the most useful aspect of my formal education.  I really must look up my professor and thank her.

So, I read Jacqueline’s post, Ancient Egypt & Steampunk ...

Posted on on December 21, 2010

...with interest.  I’ve always enjoyed exploring ancient mysteries.  I’ve read all about Atlantis, including Atlantis: The Antediluvian World by Ignatius Donnelly.

Atlantis: The Antediluvian World and Other Works by Ignatius Donnelly (Halcyon Classics)

I loved the original Stargate movie. 

Stargate (Ultimate Edition)

I probably would’ve loved the TV series too, but I just didn’t have time to watch it.  I was enthralled by ancient machines on the History Channel (

History Channel Store on Amazon

It all got me thinking about the origins of my Oldbloods, but also of the other not-completely-human characters in the Sugar Rush stories.  The Newbloods are recent arrivals in my fictional universe, but there are other humanoid species trying to make their way on planet Earth too.

Now, if I had any pride, I’d say I can’t tell you anymore about my world-building for the Ophelia Dawson Chronicles, because it would give away too much of the story.  The pathetic truth is I still have a lot to learn and a lot of research to do and a lot of figuring out of what is what and who is who.  I have a big posterboard tacked to my wall and I jot down family trees and species intermingling criss-crossing time and continents and such.  I jot them down in pencil and I have a big eraser and lots of Advil.  (Note to Self: Buy Post-It Notes)

‘Cause readers are smart.  You may be busy and you may be tired, but you’re really smart.  And I know no matter how hard I try, I won’t get everything past you.

I promise to do my best though.
Kimber An
------------End KimberAn's Post-------------

And you may want to read the Guest Post I submitted to her own blog:

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Science, Fiction and the Public Domain (comma intended)

If one includes Vampires and The Occult as "science fiction", I count 5 instances this week where "Sellers" on EBay have mistakenly announced that multiple works of science fiction are "in the public domain" and that therefore they (the sellers) assert that they either own the copyright or have the legal right to flog these e-book collections on CDs.


Not so!

Another example

Please note the small print "NOTE TO EBAY".

These two examples of EBay listings are themselves works of fiction. Please note, it is quite possible that the Sellers honestly do not understand the words they are using. My rant is against ignorance and disinformation.

The so-called "freely distributable" eBooks are in fact snagged from well known file-sharing sites. They are not "in the public domain".

The fact that some ignorant/unscrupulous/malicious/greedy person has upped copyright-protected works to a file-sharing site, and is "sharing" them with the general public does NOT put the works into the public domain.

The works are only "freely distributable" because technology makes it possible for the works to be distributed easily by copyright infringers. That does not mean that it is legal to distribute them, copy them, "share" them, encourage others to "share" them, or to sell them.

I apologize for posting two weeks in a row about copyright infringement. Authors of all genres ought to be aware of what is going on, but most of all, of the damage being done owing to the apparently widespread ignorance or disregard for what "the public domain" means.

There is a natural perception that "If 1,000 EBayers are doing it, it must be legal", which is really difficult to combat, especially when the EBay feedback system touts alleged mega-copyright infringers (who might be illegally sharing multiple copies of 8,000 or more copyrighted works per auction) as 100% positive.

The problem may be even worse on other auction sites, depending upon one's focus. Mine is on what happens when people are told that e-books are in the public domain, when they are not.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Population Apocalypse?

The January issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC begins a series of articles about global population issues with a recap of historical warnings about overpopulation, beginning with Malthus, and an assessment of where we are now. The number of people on Earth will soon reach seven billion. Even with the current falling birth rates, population will continue to increase for some time because of falling death rates. The article predicts a world inhabited by nine billion people in the year 2045. This writer points out, however, that the immediate problem isn't raw population in itself, but the use of resources. How can the worldwide standard of living be raised? Pick up this magazine and read the article; it contains some fascinating and provocative thoughts.

Around forty years ago, Isaac Asimov wrote several essays on the approaching population crisis, illustrating the maxim that prediction is hard, especially about the future. In "Freedom at Last" (1970), he mused on the probable future of a girl who would turn twenty-one in 1990. He correctly foresaw that marriage and motherhood would no longer be considered women's only essential role and that women would hold economic and political positions formerly restricted to men. However, he thought by 1990 the threat of overpopulation would become so obvious that all objections (including religious) to birth control would have evaporated.

In "The End" (1971), he ran the numbers and estimated that at the then-current rate of our numerical growth, the mass of humanity would equal the total quantity of mass in the known universe by the year 6826. For a more "realistic" projection, he calculated the date when the mass of human flesh would equal that of all animal life on Earth (as a corollary, all other animals would have become extinct, replaced by us): 2346!

At that point, the entire world would be inhabited at twice the present density of Manhattan at noon. That situation would theoretically be sustainable, if human beings were spread evenly over the globe in a planet-wide city of high-rise buildings with algae farms on the roofs. Who would want to live that way? And Asimov, of course, acknowledges that this scenario will never happen. Long before then, either a more humane solution will be found or a catastrophic collapse will occur.

Turning to more immediate concerns, he discusses energy needs (he estimates that if no new energy sources were found, we would run out by 2070) and finally the social and political effects of overcrowding. On the basis of the latter consideration, here's what he concludes: "It seems to me, then, that by A.D. 2000 or possibly earlier, man's social structure will have utterly collapsed, and that in the chaos that will result as many as three billion people will die." (Since he lived into the 1990s, he must have been pleasantly surprised.)

Soon afterward, Asimov wrote an essay titled "The End, Unless..." (1971), offering potential solutions. The cure involves birth control, of course, and a society restructured in terms of "ecology management" and "education for leisure," with the implication of worldwide government. Particularly bittersweet in terms of our present plight is Asimov's assumption that a heavily populated (if well-managed) future will entail unprecedented amounts of leisure with the prosperity to work at one's own passions rather than toil for survival.

On the other hand, in 1974 he delivered a more optimistic lecture on the future of our species:

Future of Humanity

Some of the predictions turned out to be accurate; however, the declaration that war was becoming obsolete makes one almost glad Asimov didn't live to see 2001.

Among the many SF works that have imagined the future consequences of Earth's overcrowding, BRAVE NEW WORLD strikes me as actually one of the most benign. For the vast majority who don't mind being infantilized by genetic engineering and lifelong conditioning, it's a pleasant world to live in. Population, of course, is completely controlled (aside from a few pockets of "savages" such as the tribe from which the outsider John comes) by having all babies grown in vitro. Then there are less pleasant scenarios, such as Charles Beaumont's "The Crooked Man" (1955), a short story of a future in which homosexuality is the norm and heterosexual relationships illegal. I suspect that long before the world or a large portion of it reaches the point of accepting such draconian measures, the Four Horsemen would intervene. Any nonviolent solution, if there is one, will likely be more gradual and piecemeal.

Anyway, Happy New Year!

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Failure of Imagination Part 4 - Teasing Off The Blinders

Back in October 2010, Heather Massey, posted on The Galaxy Express, a discussion of my blog post Failure of Imagination Part 3 - Education.

Here's my post:

And here's what Heather said, telling a story about how she "discovered" Martial Arts films can be about something. She notes that she was wearing the kind of blinders I described in my post Part 3, and wonders if people who shun Romance or SF are in the same pickle.

In short, my answer is yes, it's exactly the same phenomenon, and it's purely human.

Our brains work on a kind of analog model of the universe, and we have to understand everything as "like" something else.

When someone comes home from vacation bubbling over with stories to tell, people ask (irritatingly) "what was it like to meet this celebrity?" etc.

Well, the WHOLE POINT of the "experiential" education is that it's NOT LIKE anything.

It's a new thing that later things can be likened to.

It's a new benchmark.  A new internal referent. 

Discovering that Martial Arts films are in fact "art" (oh, yes, I have a deep appreciation of Martial Arts films, and once studied them carefully) is a gigantic epiphany for Romance readers.

That is the kind of epiphany that happens when those mental blinders discussed in Part 3 of Failure of Imagination are ripped off.

Martial Arts films can have a lot to say about the human condition, the realities of magic, the use and abuse of power, the objective of becoming powerful, etc etc.

Just as the Romance Genre is built around a set of themes derived from the abstract philosophical premise Love Conquers All, so the Martial Arts films are built around a single, very abstract philosophical premise.

Finding and articulating that premise may give you a better understanding of Science Fiction, and I would suppose each of us would have a different assessment of what the ultimate theme of all Martial Arts films are.

But let me take a quick, preliminary stab at it and you can poke holes in my theory.

Let's Try: The basic theme of the Martial Arts films is the ultimate Wisdom one may acquire by studying and practicing the Martial Arts.

Now in the study of this Art, the first thing you are blasted with is that your MIND (intellect, deliberate thinking and decision-making) has to be cut out of the circuit in order to learn.

How many times have I said in these blog posts that WRITING IS A PERFORMING ART? I learned that from my first writing teacher, Alma Hill.

The Martial Arts are a PERFORMING ART too. Not necessarily for an audience, but the process is the same for winning a fight on a real life-or-death battleground as it is for playing the piano on stage at Carnegie Hall.

And the learning process is the same for writing and for Martial Arts.

One difference is that writing is a performance of the intellect while Martial Arts is a performance of the muscular system - skeleton etc.

There's more autonomic system involvement in Martial Arts just as in dance or acting or playing an instrument. But writing requires the same kind of smooth coordination among the integrated levels of the mind.

In other words, Martial Artists TRAIN, and writers TRAIN. You don't learn to write. You TRAIN yourself to write. That's why I give you all these boring exercises.  Everyone is born with the ability to write, to tell stories, to express emotion (starting with a birth-cry).  But it takes training to raise the ability to throw a punch into an Art, and the ability to wail loudly into words. 

I just did a post on The Flintstones and The Lone Ranger posted on on 12/28/2010.  It gives you a training exercise on creating an icon. 

One of the ways you train yourself to write is to intellectualize about the thematic, symbolic and philosophical substance transmitted by every artform until you understand what Art is on a level that your audience does not.

That's what professionals in all areas do. They acquire some skill that those they serve don't have the time, talent or inclination for, and then put that skill at the service of those they serve.

A Martial Artist spends life acquiring reactions to situations, perfecting the smoothness of choosing the reaction and executing it, perfecting the ability to scale the force of the reaction to the size of the real problem, and so on.

The Martial Artist trains to react, not to think.

How do they attain that reaction?


How does a writer attain the understanding of the symbolism of their culture?


A lot of thematic substance of Martial Arts films is there to put the polish on the training of a Martial Artist, and thus does not "speak" to general audiences.

But I submit every human being lives a life which is in fact a replication of the best kind of Martial Arts films, a thematic replication.

There is a reason that the Male/Female Relationship has been called The Battle of the Sexes. And there is a reason that the flipside of sexuality, even alien sexuality, is violence. Sex and Violence are thought of as two sides of a coin for a reason (I happen to disagree, so I spent a good many years working through understanding those reasons so I could comment on them graphically in stories.)

Just as Romance Novels have a lot to say about the theme Love Conquers All and how one can tread a path to Happily Ever After in reality, so too Martial Arts movies have a lot to say about The Battle Of The Sexes.

Writers can learn a lot by studying Martial Arts movies (also by actually taking self defense courses, Tai Chi, and Judo, Karate, and today Pilates seems to be gaining popularity). But you don't learn it with your MIND. You learn it with your nerves and muscles, with the part of your brain that can NOT access language.

Our artform is words. It's all about language for us. We are the kind of folks who read dictionaries for fun, encyclopedias for entertainment. We are made of words. And I have ever so much to say about the place of "words" in a life well lived. That's not another topic, but it will have to wait for another time.

Here I'm looking at the thematic dimensions a study of Martial Arts films can add to a Romance Writer's arsenal of Blinder Removers.

Heather Massey's discovery of Martial Arts films was more of a revelation or epiphany than most people are willing to undergo for the sake of enjoying fiction.

So writers who want to remove the blinders from Romance readers' eyes, or from Science Fiction readers eyes, and let them into the world of Alien Sexuality have to find a gentler way of melting those blinders away, dissolving them, paring them away a layer at a time, teasing them off.  Here you should re-read my post on The Overton Window,  October 19, 2010 on  It's about the gradual epiphany, so gradual it doesn't hurt. 

Ridding oneself of "blinders" in fiction or reality widens one's world.

When you finally "see" a new thing, that discovery ADDS A REFERENT to the inventory of internal referents to which one likens subsequent new things that come along.

That's how we think. We are analog creatures. Everything is like something else.

In youth we acquire a set of things, compartments, categories, into which we MUST squeeze everything that happens later in life in order to "feel" that we understand it.

Adding a new reference point to our internal worlds later on can be painful.

It is the stuff of which religious conversion is made.

You add this new reference point, then take things you'd filed under other reference points out of those compartments, and slide them into the new compartment.   It rearranges your whole worldview.

If it works, you feel that NOW I UNDERSTAND. Oh, I was lost but now I'm found. Oh, I was soooo wrong, but NOW I SEE!

That moment of EPIPHANY is what writers work a lifetime to be able to create in their main characters, and thus awaken in their readers.  So the study of blinders is important to writers. 

The reason there's a word for "epiphany" is simple. It's a common human experience in adulthood. It doesn't happen in childhood, where we are in the process of acquiring new reference points and sorting all experiences into these little boxes we're building. Epiphany is the acquisition of a new internal, mental box into which to sort our experiences, after we have already installed a complete array of little boxes.

Education systems, especially centrally run or government controlled education systems, but also "apprentice system" Guild-run systems, assemble the world into an array of little boxes, then carve young folks' minds into that exact array of boxes, filling the boxes with pre-determined "facts" or skills, thus replacing elderly workers with new ones who are the same. 

If the array of mental boxes matches the world's actual shape well enough, the person succeeds in life.

If the world changes, and the person's array of boxes no longer matches the world, we say that person is "old" or "out of touch" or obsolete in skills. The person gradually, or suddenly, fails to cope.(think of techphobes, or people who won't touch social networking.  Think of publishers who think paper is enough.)

That mis-match happens because we are analog creatures, and analog is hard to edit. Digital is easy to edit. We can't change ourselves to digital.

We understand our world in SYMBOLISM.

Symbols are analog devices for parsing the experiences of the world, the truths we hold self-evident.

With the Romance genre, as with Science Fiction, we are asking readers to suspend disbelief and enter a world where the self-evident truths (the array of mental boxes) is different, and contains some new boxes (like a human-alien Relationship, and very strange alien sexuality).

We are asking readers to stipulate that Love Conquers All.

What are Martial Arts films asking us to stipulate?

Might Conquers All? That is FORCE or power conquers all?

And once all is conquered, then you are SAFE -- nothing can harm you?

Is Martial Arts all about the theme, "Make Life Safe?" Isn't that Love Conquers All?

Or maybe "Live Dangerously?" SF and Romance tackle that.

Or "Be Impervious?" Vampire novels emphasizing Immortality have that element.

My study of the Martial Arts films and novels yielded a different take on it all.

I think Martial Arts is about PEACE.

And the particular kind of peace it's about is Inner Peace, the kind that is achieved by the highest spiritually developed souls.

It's about curing your inner neuroses to the point where you function smoothly inside yourself, to where power, force of any kind, moves through you frictionlessly.

And that is what the study of Magic, the Occult, Tarot, Astrology, Alchemy, is designed to achieve. Think of The Magician card.  The Magician is a Martial Artist. 

To create Peace in the world - we must first create Peace within.

See my post on Tarot,
All the Martial Arts I've discovered so far focus on aligning the person's inner workings to where POWER moves smoothly into the muscles and skeleton, allowing that power to manifest in the material world as a harmonious force.

And it's not about HITTING, or enemies or opponents. It's about operating within the matrix of force in the world to still the furious turbulence that deeply disturbed people leave in their wake.

What we SEE in a Martial Arts film is a person landing blows.

What is really happening is a spiritual reallignment of the world's greater forces, a wave of PEACE emanating from the hands and feet of the Artist as he/she moves.

So the Martial Arts films could be looked at, as a genre, the same way that Romance is looked at, from a far perspective.

In Romance we see Love Conquers All.

In Martial Arts we see Peace Conquers All and creates a situation where Love dominates.

So we might conclude that Romance genre is about War, the War of the Sexes, about dominance ("I am going to get me that MAN!") about competing for a mate, "He's MINE," and other vicious attitudes.

But Martial Arts film genre is about Peace, Defending the Helpless, becoming One with the Higher Power.

Remember the TV show, Kung Fu, and Kung Fu The Legend Continues both with David Caradine (who died tragically much later)?

A Shaolin Priest travels the Old West in search of his (caucasian) father and protects the innocent much as The Lone Ranger did, continuing his spiritual journey until in meditation, he finally achieves levitation. (we actually see him in lotus position, floating).  Of course, The Lone Ranger never did that, but he left peace in his wake. 

Here's the complete first series of Kung Fu on TV (check out the fanfic - whew!) 

Kung Fu: The Complete Series Collection

Kung Fu - The Legend Continues

Remember the trilogy of films Karate Kid?

The Karate Kid Collection (Four Film Set)

Slice and dice these on the thematic level, then add your results to your creation of a new Icon exercise.

You may find the effort will erode away your own blinders -- or possibly just rip them off.

In working to get symbols (icons) to say something about blinders to those clinging to their narrow and mis-configured world-view, remember what you learned about The Overton Window by following the links in my post on October 19, 2010 on

The Overton Window is the technique for creating symbols that become icons that actually change the world but do it gradually.  

Jacqueline Lichtenberg