Monday, September 29, 2014

Reading Challenge: 1 Day, 1 Book

I put this here because . . . why not?
One of my many challenges, as a striving author, is figuring out what people read and why. Why is Game of Thrones so popular, for instance? Is it mainly due to the TV show? No doubt, cross promotions boost sales, but HBO would not have spent millions without an established fan base. But in this current ADHD era, A Song of Ice and Fire, a 6+ book series with up to 900 pages each, defies convention. YouTube, PS4 and the Walking Dead offer instant gratification, while the oldest entertainment medium on Earth (besides oration) can be excessively time consuming. For this reason, I often wonder how time affects story. For example, I forget names and plot points after weeks. But I have also found time to be a benefit, since spending more of your life with a character develops familiarity and attachment. This is why people often say the book was better, since even the most faithful adaptations deal with time constraints. If you've never read a Harry Potter book, you may not form an emotional connection after only knowing him two hours in the theater.

This got me to thinking how people perceive novels based on how quickly or slowly they read. I've watched my daughter struggle for months to get through a book, and when she's done, she will usually feel apathetic toward it. Unless the story really grips me, which is rare, I usually take a leisurely pace, but in college I could knock out a French author in a weekend. Did the accelerated pace alter my perception? Is my love for the classics based on deadlines? To answer this question, I will attempt to read a novel in a single day; I know that I can technically do this, but skimming through a book for relevant information defeats the purpose of story telling, which is why I hate and have never used Cliff's Notes. A story needs to be felt as much as understood, and feeling takes time.

For this little experiment, I have chosen The Maze Runner by James Dashner, due to it's average length for Sci-Fi/Fantasy (374 pages), and because it has been recently made into a movie.

The questions I will then attempt to answer are:

1) Can I comfortably read 374 pages in a single day? This might end up a fiasco, if I only get halfway through it . . .

2) Will the accelerated reading rate hinder or enhance my enjoyment of the story?

3) Will the accelerated reading rate reflect more positively or negatively on the film? In other words, if I spend the same amount of time (1 day) on both the book and the film, will my emotional investment equal out?

By answering these questions, I hope to get a deeper understanding into how people read and why they enjoy certain forms of fiction. I will then post my results along with my review of The Maze Runner. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ages of Aenya Book Trailer!

The most difficult voice for a kid to play
When I was a kid, I used to play what I called "episodes". Suffering from the writer's disease at a tender young age, and with no time to get all the stories constantly popping into my head on paper, I resorted to the medium of toys. I did not know another kid who did this; everything was laid out in advance, like a storyboard running in my head. I knew what characters were to be featured, what they would be doing, and what their dialogue would be. Most of the time, I was alone and trapped in my house, so I had to act out every part, pitching high notes for Skeletor, deepening to a manly drawl for He-Man, or scratching my throat for Cobra Commander. I must admit, Soundwave from Transformers was the ultimate challenge. But here's where the crazy comes in: I was not only the writer, director and actor of my own Robot Chicken, but also the camera, recording everything in my head; so even though I didn't actually have a camera, if anyone uttered a word while I was playing, I became furious, because they were "ruining the scene" and I would have to start all over. 

Times sure have changed. As technology advances, my parents fears that I may have been prone to schizophrenia are no more. Thanks to Apple, most kids nowadays plays the same way I did in the 80's, except that now they actually have cameras and are actually recording something! My nine and four year old, along with her friends, use the iPad to make Shopkins videos. YouTube is full of kids and their toys doing the same. If only I had such technology at their age!

My kids love these things . . . for some reason.

Recently, my nine year old insisted I buy her this new video app, which I was reluctant to buy, since she already has so many. But this program was impressive (as you'll soon see); she even enticed me with the possibility of making a book trailer. 

Now, for professional use, this is very limited; it's designed mostly for kids, to be as user friendly as possible. You are limited by a small set of music and graphics, and what's more, can't even choose the video's run time or the number of shots or the length of those shots. All I could do is write a bit of text and then drop images into the predetermined slots. Looking at these limitations, I told her it just wasn't going to work out, much to her disappointment, but later that night I was determined to make something of it, and the end result, I think, is promising. I have always wanted to make use of YouTube and I think, with better artwork and a better program, I could make something really special. This is just a "proof of concept". So without further ado, I give you the first of many, the Ages of Aenya Book Trailer:



Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Is "Tarzan" Racist?

Long before Superman or Batman became household names, there was Tarzan. Originally published in 1914, Tarzan predates Superman by a good twenty four years. In many ways, he is the first superhero. Children growing up in the 20's and 30's were as familiar with the ape man, in comics, toys, and even in the movies, as the most beloved DC/Marvel characters of today. It further went to influence a generation of writers and scientists. According to Wikipedia,

Tarzan's primitivist philosophy was absorbed by countless fans, amongst whom was Jane Goodall, who describes the Tarzan series as having a major influence on her childhood. She states that she felt she would be a much better spouse for Tarzan than his fictional wife, Jane, and that when she first began to live among and study the chimpanzees she was fulfilling her childhood dream of living among the great apes just as Tarzan did.[7]

The Ape Man, however, was born not from the pages of comics, but the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Like Dracula and Frankenstein, the name Tarzan is recognized by most everybody on the planet, even though most have never bothered to read the actual book. As of this posting, Tarzan is one hundred years old, but despite the recent Disney adaptation, his popularity has dramatically waned over the years. You're not likely to see kids sporting Tarzan pajamas or using his image for birthday cakes.

Nineteen-fourteen was a different time. Knowledge of Africa, where the novel takes place, was sketchy at best, which is why for the longest time it was referred to as the "dark continent". Writing about Africa at the turn of the last century was to court the frontiers of scientific discovery. Today, you can tune into Discovery Channel for any number of documentaries about African tribes, or lions, or watch "reality" shows like Naked & Afraid, filmed on location. Without mystery, Africa loses much of its appeal. Aside from that, our ethics have changed. Technological excesses coupled with an expanding industry and population has beaten the jungle into submission, and so we are more concerned with conservation and environmentalism, so that the iconic image of man wrestling and killing a lion feels cruel and outdated. But I am not the type to judge a book by the ethics of our time. No doubt, our moral compass will shift even further in the future, so that the things we deem acceptable today will become abhorrent in a century or two. But what I found impossible to ignore was the novel's excessive and blatant racism. Now we're not talking "Upworthy" racism here, where people decry calling a black model "exotic". In my view, we are often too politically correct, when we ruin a person's career over a single racial comment. But even for 1914, Tarzan of the Apes is egregious in its treatment of black people, which made it hard for me to read.

I became interested in Tarzan after reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land that Time Forgot and the first in his John Carter series, A Princess of Mars, both charmingly written, in a pulp fiction sort of way, where the hero always does the right thing for the sake of doing good. For me, Burroughs is a refreshing departure from the ponderous and pretentious fantasy novels crowding shelves these days, with their amoral antiheroes and severely cynical outlook---Game of Thrones---cough: cough. At one point, I joked that I might have been Burroughs in a past life, owing to his penchant for monsters, adventure, and of course, naked heroes. I am even planning a similar story, about Thelana living in the jungle, and thought this book might help inspire me (it didn't). After Tarzan, I'd prefer to distance my name from his.

With Tarzan, I thought I knew what to expect, and was not unsatisfied in that regard. All the flaws in his writing are present, his excessive exposition and melodrama, his stilted dialogue, and sentences that can never be too long or lacking in modifiers. But its the concept that sets Tarzan apart from his other works, making for a superior, though not quite classic novel. As most people are aware, Tarzan's parents, the Lord and Lady Greystoke, are stranded off the coast of Africa. Alone and with few provisions, and a baby on the way, this makes for great drama, but food and water are rarely an issue. It's the lions and panthers and gorillas posing a constant threat. Was Burroughs ignorant to real survival situations or simply playing up to expectations? Needless to say, the people of that time would likely be surprised by Naked & Afraid, in that the survivors are not constantly fending off lions. Even the gorilla, which we now know to be passive and intelligent, is portrayed as little more than a mindless killer.

When the heir to the Greystoke name grows up, the book takes a dramatic downturn. Being raised in the jungle, he becomes superhuman, someone who could give Batman a run for his money. Not only can he out wrestle a gorilla, and lift weights that would otherwise take four men, but like Wolverine, he also possesses superior senses, and can even heal faster. In one embarrassing passage, Burroughs emphatically states that the "lower orders," like dogs, have no advantages over humans with their olfactory senses, that it is only a matter of training. Even in 1914, basic canine biology were known, and no doubt a little research would have helped with authenticity. But readers of that time were not as demanding regarding scientific accuracy. Now super powered protagonists are all well and good, even if implausible, but Tarzan's abilities are so ill-defined, there is rarely any sense of danger. The other problem is the novel's lack of focus; it reads like a hodgepodge of loosely connected adventures, like the serialized fiction common in the pulp Sci-Fi/adventure magazines popular at the time. No wonder Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book (1894), said Tarzan of the Apes was written so that Burroughs could "find out how bad a book he could write and get away with it." In one chapter he is hunting a lion, in another defending his ape mother from an aggressive male, and still in another he is killing black people.

This is where racism rears its ugly head. Tarzan kills a lot of black people, wantonly and with little compassion. But what's worse is how he does it, with a noose, hanging and then gutting the victim with a knife. Now, I have not done any research to know how synonymous the noose was with racism in 1914, and being that Tarzan uses a rope to kill other animals, I gave the hero the benefit of the doubt. I waited, patiently, for the arrival of the white man to see how they would be treated. Perhaps, being a creature of the jungle, Tarzan simply kills everyone. Unfortunately, this was not the case. While some pirates, who were white, are described as cruel and savage, the European and American whites, those of "noble" bearing, are portrayed in an entirely different light. Almost at once, Tarzan identifies with these whites as those of his own kind, as if the blacks in the village were something other than human. And when he falls in love with Jane, owing entirely to her skin color, you are forced to wonder why he never considers any women from the black tribe for a potential mate. Surely, as a young man living alone in the jungle, he has needs and desires, even want of companionship, but such feelings, it seems, can never be sated by a black female, as if black people are somehow not human.

The story picks up after the arrival of the white man, as Tarzan begins to discover his origin, through various clues left by his parents and interactions with the newcomers. Eventually, he is taught to speak French (of all things), how to be civilized, and how to wear clothing and eat with knife and fork, all in an effort to court Jane. Despite being raised as an ape, he never thinks to rape her (a thing which is alluded to, but, I imagine, too taboo to state flatly). The reasons for this, again, speak of race and the value of hereditary in the author's mind,

It was the hallmark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate. p. 192 

Later, when a French naval officer is captured by the black tribe (for no reason other than that they are bloodthirsty cannibals), Burroughs writes,

And then began for the French officer the most terrifying experience which man can encounter upon earth---the reception of a white prisoner into a village of African cannibals. p. 200

And then Burroughs has this to say,

The bestial faces, daubed with color---the huge mouths and flabby hanging lips---the yellow teeth, sharp filed---the rolling, demon eyes---the shining naked bodies---the cruel spears. Surely no such creatures really existed upon earth---he must indeed be dreaming. p. 201

Not to worry, because Tarzan shows up in the nick of time, using his lasso to hang one of the black men, which causes the others of the tribe to scurry off in a panic. When the French man is nursed to health, Tarzan returns him to his cabin on the beach, but then in a moment of confusion this happens,

. . . suddenly in the half dusk of the open door he saw that the man was white [egad!] and in another instant realized that he had shot his friend and protector . . . p. 235

But it's not all bad. After reaching civilization, Tarzan learns to converse like a gentleman, and at one point says something which almost redeems the authors' racist views,

. . . one might as well judge all blacks by the fellow who ran amuck last week [a black man murdering people, again, without reason] or decide that all whites are cowards because one has met a cowardly white. p. 249 

Strangely enough, the book ends in America, but Tarzan's courtship of Jane is never resolved, and the book ends in a Lady or the Tiger moment. The story is continued in the twenty-five (!) sequels.        

Was Burroughs a racist? On the one hand, it was 1914, and he may simply have been catering to expectations, keeping in mind what little was known of Africa and the customs of its natives. This was also long before the Civil Rights movement, when interracial marriage was still illegal. On the other hand, this is considerably after the writings of black abolitionist Frederick Douglas (1845-1892) and Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man (1871), who argued that race did not exist. At best, we can say Burroughs was simply uneducated, but Tarzan of the Apes is no doubt racist, unapologetically so, which both hurts the novel and ensures this once beloved hero fades into obscurity.     

Monday, August 25, 2014

Marrying Sci-Fi and Fantasy

I knew the genre I would be writing in by age six. The year was 1981, and I'd just unboxed my first He-Man action figure. Masters of the Universe was my introduction to all things fantasy and Sci-Fi. With his furry loincloth and rippling muscles and interchangeable sword, ax and shield, He-Man set my imagination ablaze. Even the box art, with its assortment of heroes and villains, opened my young mind to ideas that, at the time, felt almost real. It didn't matter that He-Man was a barbarian hero archetypes and Conan knockoff, or that his world was a mishmash of every fantasy trope from the thirties to the seventies. As far as I knew, He-Man was original. But it was the mini-comic that came with the figure, Battle in the Clouds, that would determine my writing style for decades to come. At first glance, He-Man's home-world, Eternia, appears dark and primitive. Heroes carry swords and axes and live in fanciful, skull-faced castles. There is no technology, nor modern conveniences, to speak of. Then, a single panel would change that perception, when He-Man meets Man-at-Arms, a hero with a high-tech suit of armor. Man-at-Arms introduces He-Man to the Wind Raider. What was clear to me, early on, was how strange and out-of-place this bird-shaped vessel appeared. To He-Man's primitive mind, the Wind Raider was magic.

Fantasy meets Science Fiction in a single image.

To this day, I find it remarkable how creators Donald F. Glut and Alfredo Alcala managed to convey, in just a single panel, a perfect marriage between fantasy and science-fiction. Countless comic book writers, movie producers and novelists have tried to do the same, often with mixed results. Marrying Sci-Fi to fantasy is like trying to stick a round peg into a square hole, a lot more difficult than giving your hero a laser gun and a sword, which the live action Masters of the Universe movie did, with disastrous results. Even the recent, much acclaimed Marvel films struggle to walk the fine line between the two genres. Despite my love for Thor, both in the comics and the original myths, I cannot help but wonder how a hammer---even Mjolnir forged in the heart of a dying star---can be as efficient as a gun. In Thor 2: The Dark World, Odin's guards defend against alien elven invaders with sword and shield, while castle towers blaze with anti-aircraft artillery. It's just one of those gaps in logic I try not to think about, or work hard to rationalize. Perhaps swords in Asgard are ceremonial?

But what makes Sci-Fi and fantasy what it is? Defining these genres determines how one can be made to complement the other, but with regards to definitions, there is much disagreement. Years back, I argued with an agent on a fiction forum over this very issue. She insisted that fantasy is any story with magic in it. But for me, it has everything to do with setting. While there are countless variations on the theme, fantasy was born out of romanticism, with an emphasis on the "mythical past that never was". Give me a story about castles and princesses and dragons, and even without magic, it's fantasy. Conversely, science fiction is often defined as that which deals with "science" which is usually regarded, somehow, as the opposite of magic. Some books even pit the two against each other. But this is a fundamental flaw, a literary straw-man attack on science and on what it represents. When people think Sci-Fi, they think of laser weapons and spacecraft, but these are products of technology, and do not represent the scientific method in any meaningful way.

A world without science, or more specifically, physics, cannot exist. Even cave men relied on it when building fires and carving out spears. Whether Harry Potter and his friends realize it or not, there is more physics happening at Hogwarts than magic. A wand and an incantation may levitate objects, but the force of gravity is what makes those object fall in the first place. If Harry breathes oxygen, metabolizes food, or swings the Sword of Gryffindor, the laws of physics are at work. I realize that, for most readers, physical laws are irrelevant to a fictional story; it just isn't something one needs to think about, but I cannot shut that part of my brain off, nor would I want to. I think Arthur C. Clarke said it best, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," because the secret to marrying fantasy to Sci-Fi is to recognize that there is no real difference between magic and science, that the difference in genres has everything to do with perspective. I call this Clark's Law. In Sci-Fi, the world can be understood: a lightsaber, according to Professor Michio Kaku, is heated plasma running through a magnetic field, but in fantasy, the same sword is an enchanted blade of fire. This is why Battle in the Clouds was so brilliant all those years ago, because Masters of the Universe exists in a fantasy setting only so far as things like the Wind Raider remain ancient and mysterious and unknowable.

This is not to condemn the purely fantastical or the surreal. Not every story needs to follow logic. I adore Lovecraft, Kafka and Baum (Wizard of Oz) specifically due to their rejection of reason. But when writing from a perspective of realism, it becomes necessary to include physics into the equation (see what I did there?). There is magic in Ages of Aenya, however slight, but even then I am forced to consider the science behind it. When Emma transforms herself into a raven, I have to think long and hard about Newton's Law of Conservation. A raven has considerably less mass than a human, so when she does transform, where does all the extra matter go? And how does she get it back when she turns back into a human? While I don't pretend to know the answer (I chalk it up to Clarke's law), I try to at least give science a nod, because physics must exist in a fictional universe whether an author addresses it or not. No doubt, there will remain legions of readers who hat check their brains at Chapter 1, and there will be authors who cater to those people, but for me, marrying fantasy to Sci-Fi is to acknowledge they are but two sides of the same speculative coin.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

World Building Aenya

Since Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, world building has become a mainstay of fantasy fiction, gaining a resurgence among budding novelists after the release of the films. I have no doubt that much of the love lavished on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire has a great deal to do with world building. But the phenomena seems unique to the genre. You'll never find gushing praise for world building in the literary, romantic or horror fields. This is what sets Sci-Fi/Fantasy apart, but it can also stigmatize those genres, when story gets lost amid an author's fervor to create a convincing universe. If we look at world building from the perspective of another genre, the glut of details becomes needless exposition. Take Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. While considerable history is provided for the Catholic Church, Brown does not bog his novel down describing the rise of Christianity. Of course, this has more do with the fact that readers know European history. Nevertheless, should aliens want to borrow Brown's book, adding the history of Earth would not improve the story. A good fantasy needs just two things: characters we care about and a plot to invest us. It's basically the same for any story. Whether it's fantasy, Sci-Fi, horror or romance, the fundamentals are the same. Aspects of genre, like world building, are but set dressing.

This being said, world building can be of great value to a novel, if done well and if it enhances the story. Fantasy is about escapism, a way to step out of the mundane, every day world and into another. There are few better experiences than that momentary lapse, if only for a split-second, when you feel transported to a different time and place. For fans of fantasy, if the leaves don't change on the trees, the book is just a book, and you are just sitting on a couch staring at letters. If done properly, world building can be the icing on a cake, but when poorly executed, the world the characters inhabit can often seem hollow, like the cardboard scenery used in old Hollywood films.

So, what makes a fantasy setting believable? There are many factors, and even the best of us stumble. J.R.R. Tolkien is considered the father of world building, and his Middle Earth the gold standard by which all others are judged, but his setting is not without flaws. Looking strictly at the map, Middle Earth is less of a "world" and more of an island, no bigger than New Zealand. There are only three or four major regions to speak of: Gondor, Mordor and Rohan; the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell; the dwarven mines of Moria and the Shire (a small village). Now before any Tolkien fans send me hate mail, I realize there are many more place names, but with regards to story, these are the hot spots, and it feels rather minuscule. Things start to feel less convincing when you consider Tolkien's mythology, as told in the Silmarillion, where the "sun" and "moon" are described, in literal terms, as fruits fallen from trees.

By now, you may think it best to avoid secondary worlds altogether, and go with what we know. After all, Earth is a convenient backdrop, complete with every historic and geographic element an author could want. But mixing fantasy with the real world comes with its own set of pitfalls. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling balances story, character and setting with finesse, but she paints herself into a corner in her later books. How is it possible that hippogriffs, dragons, giants, and all  manor of magical creatures exist on Earth, yet no scientist ever finds trace of them? I can understand wizards wanting to hide their existence, but hippogriffs? Why go through all the trouble, hiding every fossil, egg shell and nest? Erasing every photograph and video? Just to keep a half eagle, half lion a secret? It's obvious Rowling didn't plan on the success of her books spilling over to the adult market. At least Piers Anthony sets his magical world in a separate dimension. In The Hunger Games, we learn that Panem is made up of what was once the United States, but what the hell happened to the rest of the world? Do they even still exist? After three books, Suzanne Collins leaves us wondering. In Stephen King's The Stand, 99% of the human population is wiped out by the flu, but we learn nothing of the world beyond the U.S.. This might be acceptable if the book dealt with a limited perspective, but when King brings Satan into the mix, and an apocalyptic war, you have to wonder where the fuck Europe went.

For me, the most convincing fictional universes are the ones you cannot see, because they continue to exist off the page. Imagine Earth as a fantasy setting. How many nations, cultures, races, religions and species exist? How infinitely complex is human history? I have visited Greece, France, Spain and Morocco on a number of occasions, but can tell you very little about them. This is what a reader should be, a tourist in the author's world. A believable setting gives the illusion of reality by mirroring it, so that, just like Florida, Fictional Florida can never be explored in its entirety, even if the author writes a hundred books about the same place. Frank Herbert, creator of Dune, manages a convincing interstellar society by referencing things the reader can only guess at, while Michael Ende, author of The Never Ending Story, simply concedes Fantasia has no boundaries. George Lucas, of Star Wars fame, made world building his films' most standout feature by hinting at the enormity of his universe, which has to be enormous considering it involves an entire galaxy, most of which he never shows us.

When Emma retrieves an ancient tome, The Ages of Aenya, she finds that there are simply too many kings and queens, and empires come and gone, to process in a single night of study. Despite this, Aenya has definite, geographic boundaries, because it is based in real world science, thanks in part to the Hayden Planetarium. But while Google Earth can show us a complete picture of our world from a distance, we cannot hope to experience all of it. My intent with Aenya is to mirror the one model of a world that we know. I reveal major landmarks like the One Sea and the Pewter Mountains, and major empires like Hedonia, but there will always be more to find in each new tale, there will always be gaps and an infinite horizon to explore.