Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: July 2006

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

“Stories of Your Life and Others,” by Ted Chiang
8/10 — a collection of great idea-based SF stories

Ted Chiang sounds like a character in a story himself. “The best SF writer you’ve never heard of,” he’s called (by me, if nobody else), having published only eight stories in the last fifteen years or so. Of course, from those stories he’s won the Nebula (three times), Hugo, Sturgeon, Asimov, and Campbell awards. Seven of the stories are collected here, in a collection that is absolutely worth the money.

I tend to like character-based fiction these days, as I’ve mentioned before, but this collection reminds me why I started reading SF. Chiang reminds me of Avram Davidson or David Brin in the clear, pure originality of his ideas and the skill with which he constructs a story around them. Here is a story about the Tower of Babel and what they found at the top; here a story about golems in the Industrial Revolution; here a short piece about the evolution of scientists; here (one of the two most character-centric pieces) a story about what a scientist’s work means to her and her husband. Chiang combines the sciences of mathematics and language with a keen sense of history and religion to produce some truly original stories.

My favorite is “Story of Your Life,” in which a linguist communicating with aliens slowly learns their language and gains new insights into not just their behavior, but the world in general. It’s one of those great stories with a slow reveal and that feeling that you’re building toward something, and a terrific “a-ha!” when you figure it out. It’s the best character portrait in the book, and the most successful at melding scientific theory with the protagonist’s development as a character.

Chiang attempts that elsewhere with less successful results: the mathematical “Division By Zero” and the religious-historical “Tower of Babel” both felt like they were missing some dimension. “Understand,” on the other hand, is a great contrast in characters in a “Flowers For Algernon”-like narrative.

If you like the science fiction of ideas, you should not be without this book.

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Review: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
8/10, great social insight and humor, occasionally too thick or esoteric to follow

If Dave Barry had gone to Princeton rather than Haverford, he might have become David Foster Wallace. Not that it’s a bad thing that either of them followed the path he did; both of them bring great insights to their work, and both of them show a tremendous versatility in the subject material they’re willing to cover. Barry has toured New York and gone Extreme Sporting; Wallace, in this volume, visits the Illinois State Fair and takes a Princess Caribbean Cruise. Barry monitors tabloids for exploding cow stories and their relevance to society, while Wallace investigates the relationship of TV to modern literature. Both of them, oddly, share a moderate obsession with toilets.

Wallace’s articles tend to be less accessible than Barry’s, perhaps the reason I’d only peripherally heard of him. He seems to be part of the McSweeney’s crew, the sort of intellectual satire I associate with New York writers, and while Wallace does live up to that stereotype, he also demonstrates a vivid awareness of his own faults and limitations. In visiting the Illinois State Fair, in one of my favorite passages, he finds a booth selling t-shirts bearing statements like, “I GO FROM 0 TO HORNEY IN 2.5 BEERS,” and after a page of analysis about what these shirts signify to the people here and what the shirts as a whole say about them as a class of people, he comes back around: “The woman at the booth wants to know why I’m standing there memorizing t-shirts, and all I can think to tell her is that “HORNEY” is misspelled, and now I really feel like an East Coast snob…”

His insights into the game of tennis are fascinating and fun to read, and the titular essay, the one about the cruise, is brilliant and hysterical. Where he loses my interest is in his academic essays, like the aforementioned one on TV, and another explaining and critiquing an ongoing debate about the role of the author in book criticism. The latter is bearably short; the former lost me several times. Even those essays are worth reading for the ideas, but Wallace is at his best when he is wryly commenting not just on tennis, or the Midwest, or a cruise, but also on his own place in his subject. It’s that endearing self-awareness that brings him back from the edge of being annoyingly smug and superior: he’ll tell you how silly people are for falling for some marketing ploy, for example, and then frankly admit that he falls for it all the time too. That allows the reader to identify with him, which works well for me, because he’s so smart in his writing that identifying with his flaws makes me feel smarter.

Perfect! Let’s do it one more time…

So I have been editing the novel lately. This is a particularly painful process, but a necessary one, and one in which I try to find scraps of joy, much as someone in my office apparently digs for the Cinnamon ‘n’ Spice oatmeal flavor in the big box we get from CostCo every month and hoards them from the rest of us. The problem with editing is that either you’re editing someone else’s work, in which case you always have in the back of your head that this is Someone Else’s Vision, or you’re editing your own work, in which case it’s Your Vision, and you end up either reluctant to change anything or disgusted at how amateurish it is, and in any of those cases there’s a sort of despairing tedium to the whole process that makes you want to chuck it out the window and go do something fun again, like writing.

If you are (as I am now) editing your own work, and you’ve gotten feedback from others, then you have to reconcile all of their visions of your work with Your Vision, and it’s a difficult line to figure out, that balance. Because they are your readers, and their visions are not irrelevant. At the same time, you are the author, and Your Vision should be the one in the driver’s seat. Your beta readers might insist that you stop off at Stuckey’s, and you can do that, but don’t let them take you to L.A. rather than Lake Destiny. (It is possible, sure, for one of your readers to have a vision that you like better than your own, but that usually will involve a rewrite rather than just an edit.)

So where is my Cinnamon ‘n’ Spice oatmeal in all this? Well, for starters, just the fact that people have read the manuscript and have put a significant number of cycles into trying to help me improve it is really flattering. Secondly, I’ve managed to take a little time away from the manuscript by working on the 48 Hour Film Project, so coming back to it, I can see the little problems here and there; the blinding glare of My Vision has faded somewhat to a nice office lamp. Thanks to my readers, I have a sense of the larger issues, too, so I can keep those in mind while tightening up language. So it’s exciting to me, getting to go back and add more in to some of the characters–one of the comments I heard was that the characters needed to be more sympathetic, which I interpreted to mean that you needed to know more about them and understand them better, not that I want to put in pages of exposition, but maybe an action here and there. It’s almost like I’m discovering the story again as I go through it, but this time with full awareness of how it will end.

That is, I have to admit, pretty cool.

Characters revisited

A thought that occurred to me over the weekend, as I’m revising my novel with an eye to bringing out the characters:

What a character does makes him or her believable; it’s how the character does it that makes him or her memorable.