Monday, June 28, 2010

Interview: Susan Quinn on Life, Liberty and Pursuit

I have the pleasure today of interviewing Susan Quinn, whose first novel, Life, Liberty and Pursuit, was just released by Omnific on June 22nd.

A little about the story:

When college-bound Eliza falls into a cruise-ship pool, she doesn’t expect to fall in love. And when navy recruit David pulls her from the water, he finds her surprisingly hard to resist. But a whirlwind of rescues, candlelit nights, and beachside misunderstandings pulls them into a four day love affair that threatens to break their hearts before their love has a chance to start.

When David leaves for endless drills and physical training in boot camp, and Eliza returns to Albuquerque to prepare for Princeton in the fall, they dare to keep loving each other and struggle to imagine a future when they can be together. But when miles and mistrust pull them apart, they are forced to choose between keeping true to their dreams and having the courage to love.

A little about Susan:

Susan Kaye Quinn grew up in California, where she wrote snippets of stories and passed them to her friends during class. Her teachers pretended not to notice and only confiscated her stories a couple of times.

Susan left writing behind to pursue a bunch of engineering degrees (B.S. Aerospace Engineering, M.S. Mechanical Engineering, Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering) and work for NASA, GE, and NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research). She’s studied supersonic engines, designed aircraft engines, and studied global warming, but she was drawn back to writing by an irresistible urge to share her stories with her niece, her kids, and all the wonderful friends she’s met along the way.

All that engineering background comes in handy when writing science fiction stories, and her boys continue to clamor for more middle grade books and less love stories. Unfortunately for them, she enjoys writing both.

She doesn’t have to sneak her stories in notes anymore, which is too bad.

Susan writes from the Chicago suburbs with her three boys, two cats, and one husband. Which, it turns out, is exactly as a much as she can handle.

You can find Susan blogging at Ink Spells and her new website at

Interview Commences!

Ink: So how did the science junkie get drawn back into writing stories by her family? Was there a specific moment? A little eureka! sounding inside your head, or was it more of a slow pull?

Susan: Although the idea of writing children’s stories had been lurking in my head ever since I started reading to my kids, there was definitely a eureka! moment. My niece lives 1000 miles away, and I’m always looking for ways we can bond long distance. When she, along with every other 14-year-old on the planet, was in love with Twilight, that became something we could share. Then I discovered this thing called fanfiction and thought, “Hey, I’ve written stories before. I can do this. It will be kinda cool.” As soon as I started writing, I was completely entranced by the writing process. I wrote! People read! The feedback was immediate and intoxicating. It wasn’t long before I was writing my own stories.

Ink: Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write? Are you writing your middle grade stories for your boys? And what about the YA? Is there someone specific you picture, or is the audience more abstract? Or is it simply yourself, age classifications be damned?

Susan: Although I’m inspired to write stories for my niece and my boys, my novels are really for myself. I write about things that resonate with me: epic love stories, characters railing against slavery or intolerance, people finding their place in the world. But I funnel these ideas into YA or MG stories because the impact of stories on children is so powerful. The world is new, undiscovered, to them. Truths about love, justice, and purpose have yet to be revealed to them, and I love to write stories that touch on those powerful themes. Philosophical stories had a great impact on me in my youth, so writing kidlit speaks to me on many levels.

Ink: Has your science background impacted your writing? Does a little NASA sneak into each story?

Susan: My middle grade science fiction WIP is rife with science. Spin-tronic computers! Anti-matter drives! Genetically engineered pets! I adored inventing new technologies for that story and getting my kid-beta-readers jazzed about science. My YA stories are less science-driven, although I had fun playing in boot camp with David in Life, Liberty, and Pursuit and creating tech-gadgets for my current YA WIP, which takes place 70 years in the future.

Although I’m a scientist by training, I’m really a bit of a hybrid: my father is an engineer and my mother is a psychologist. The psychological evolution of my characters, the passion that drives them through their character arc, is even more interesting to me than the cool tech I get to dream up.

Ink: Has it shaped your approach to writing? Have you taken a rigorous, scientific approach to learning the craft? Or damn the science and I’m just gonna jump in a pool of words and fling them about?

Susan: I was strangely non-linear about writing when I set out. I just sat down and started writing. And kept writing. Much like an uncontrollable addiction. Only later did I learn to apply some plotter rigor to my inner pantser-gone-wild, and seriously study the craft. But I still approach my craft improvement in a 10%/90% fashion: 10% book/workshop/critique learning, 90% writing-like-mad.

Ink: Okay, here’s a toughie – You’ve worked on aerospace and jet engines, so I want to know what kind of flying craft your YA novel would be (don’t you love metaphors?).

Susan: Life, Liberty, and Pursuit is an old-time dirigible that gleams with the latest modern engines. It’s tethered to the ground, awaiting its appointed duty, but tugs on its lines, secretly wishing to fly high in the clouds where its heart belongs. (Who said engineering can’t be romantic?)

Ink: Your novel is a YA Romance. How did it come to be? Why a YA Romance?

Susan: While my niece was enamored with Twilight, I was inspired to write a love story that was real – real young people, dealing with realistic modern issues of love. I wanted to write a novel with a dramatic love story that didn’t require magical creatures. Life, Liberty, and Pursuit grew out of that singular idea: an epic love story in a modern setting, with the isolation of boot camp and the romance of love letters adding a retro feel.

Ink: What’s your process like? Meticulous plotter? Fighter pilot out for a joyride? Multi-tasking mother of three juggling plotlines?

Susan: I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but my mom wouldn’t let me sign up at the Navy recruiter desk. I was sixteen.

Each novel has been a different experience. Life, Liberty, and Pursuit was plotted out, but then I radically changed the ending. My MG SF story was rigorously plotted. But my current YA WIP was much more fighter pilot joyride – it started as a 50k tutorial in Voice, and then became an actual novel. I’m still pantsing my way to the ending on that one.

Ink: Where and when do you write? Regular hours? Big desk or little desk? What’s the view? What’s the soundtrack to the story?

Susan: I write at home, preferably on the couch with my mini-laptop, from the minute the kids go to school until the moment they get home. I occasionally write nights and weekends too, until the husband starts to complain or the children start giving me odd looks, as though they can’t quite remember who I am. It’s that addictive thing. After 18 months of writing fiction, I still can’t shake it.

And I can’t listen to music while I write, unless I’m trying to drown out something else. Like cats. Or children.

Ink: Romances are known for their happy endings. Did you ever just want to, you know, run ‘em over with a truck and say “Ha!”? Are there frustrations in writing for you?

Susan: I’m contemplating killing a major character right now. He’s a little suspicious, but I don’t think he knows. My biggest frustration in writing is not having enough time to do it.

Ink: Who have your writing influences been? How have they shaped your work?

Susan: My work is still evolving, so this is a difficult question. I’m greatly influenced by the SF masters: Asimov, Heinlein, LeGuin. Modern influences: Westerfeld, Eoin Colfer.

Ink: What have you learned about yourself that you didn’t know before?

Susan: That I’m a very emotional person when I write: I laugh, I cry, I made strange facial gestures. The mailman must think I’m demented.

Ink: What’s the process of moving towards publication been like for you? Working with your publisher? Letting one of your babies out into the world?

Susan: Working with Omnific has been fantastic – having a team of editors, artists, and marketing professionals, all trying to get my work to market in the best possible shape, with the best hope for success, has been a moving experience for me. And because they’re a small start-up publisher, and I’m one of the first ten books they have put out, I feel like I’m part of a fiercely proud family, all working together towards the success of our books and the company.

Strangely, I was much more nervous about the release of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit before publication. Somehow, now that it’s launched, I’m sanguine about it. That will probably last until the first negative review.

Ink: E-books are a new form, but quickly gaining ground. What appeals to you about them? Were you excited to see your book in digital print? Is your inner science-child excited about the digital future? Here’s a big question: paper or binary code?

Susan: There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those that know binary, and those that don’t. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

I am terribly excited to be an author in this digital-age. I still haven’t held a paper copy of my book (it’s coming), but I got chills when I opened the final PDF version, complete with ISBN and scripty lettering. I think e-books (and small, nimble e-publishers) are going to change the way books are published. Web 2.0 has already changed the way authors and readers interact. Being an optimist, I think this will all (ultimately) be for the greater good.

Ink: The online world of publishing seems a little different than the traditional style. Is there more of a community, do you think? Is the connection between writers and readers more direct? If so, do you think it will last as the e-book market continues to grow?

Susan: I think the distinction between “online” publishing and “traditional” publishing is going to continue to blur, with traditional publishers adopting what works online in order to survive, and online publishers taking full advantage of POD and changing models of business (like no advance, higher royalty models). Not only will the connection between writers and readers be more direct, but the connection between publishers and readers will be more direct. This is especially true in YA, one of the few growing markets, where readers are heavily influenced by online marketing and outreach. And that connection is not a coincidence.

Ink: In honour of the glorious and recently ended Dystopia Month, I have to ask you some dystopia questions. I know you like them. Why is that? I know you’re involved with politics – does that interest play a role in your interest in dystopia? Does your role as a parent make you naturally want to write about the beauty of totalitarian regimes?

Susan: Moms do rule the world. As long as you understand this, we can still be friends.

I love dystopias because they feed all my interests: they are very political; they are giant intellectual thought experiments; and they are (usually) optimistic, with individuals battling the overlords and winning. Even when the oppressed lose, dystopias are fantastic cautionary tales, rich with ponderings on what it means to be human and where our various excesses may lead us into treacherous waters.

Ink: What else are you working on now? Is it dystopic? (notice the great segue… )

Susan: My middle grade SF story is a light dystopia – a future where clones are slaves, genetically engineered to their function in life and modified to be happy while doing it. My paranormal YA WIP is a more serious dystopia – a future where everyone reads minds, except my protagonist. A major theme in the story is the intolerance we have for anyone different, no matter what that difference may be.

Ink: You write YA and middle grade novels now, but what do you see yourself writing in five years? Ten years? Will your audience change as your children grow? Do you see yourself attempting adult novels, or do you find yourself continuously drawn to the conflicts of children and teens?

Susan: I only just recently realized the writing was here to stay, not some passing fling. Writing snuck up on me, surprising me with its never-ending attraction. I’d love to be one of those writers who has unfinished work because they literally keeled over while writing in their old age.

In five years, I will have three teenage boys. I would love to continue writing stories my boys can read, but they already complain I write too many love stories, and I don’t see that getting any more interesting to them in the teen years. Each novel has been a voyage of discovery for me, and I’d like to have the freedom to keep exploring. Although there is a perception that children’s novels are “easier” somehow than adult novels, I’m hard put to see how: less word count to work with, minimal sex and violence to use to drive plot, but a requirement for pacing that leaves you breathless. Seems to me I started out with the hard stuff. Maybe I’ll take it easy and write adult novels in retirement. :)

Seriously, I only like to predict the future in my novels. One thing I’ve learned from writing: you never know what plot twist is right around the corner.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The World in Miniature: The Book Gardener

by Bryan Russell

The Book Gardener

It was time for the spring planting and she took the ideas out in a pail. She grunted a little under the weight. She was no longer young in years, but she liked hefting the spring pail, feeling the pull on her muscles. Her body titled to the left as she slid along. She had developed a little off-center walk just for this.

She planted the romances just outside the door, her little spade digging heart-shaped holes. She planted for cozy mysteries under the eaves, and then a little epic fantasy under the big oaks. She sprinkled a few dystopian ideas along the front ditch. No digging, they always grew like weeds.

She dug a deep hole for horror under the old dead pine, heaping heavy rocks on top. Memoirs were laid out under the weeping willow, watered with a few excess tears.

Military history, as always, along the hedgerows, some economics and finance dotted along the driveway with a little self-help just for colour.

Soon all the ideas were gone and the pail was empty. She patted her hands, nodding to herself. Yes, yes, all good.

The rains came and she watched out her window.

The sun shone, and the ideas grew and grew. She puttered about, a bit of fertilizer here and there. She liked to pat the earth, to tinker. And pruning, of course, once they really started to grow.

The first up was a cozy, its pages flapping in the wind. She pulled it up (cozies always came out easy) and had it with a bit of afternoon tea on the porch.

Others started blooming, fluttering open. Good spines this year. The romances needed a little salt, a dash of pepper, but the literaries were sweetly elusive.

She set up a little stand on the road. People would pull over, stop, taste. A few dollars here, a few there. Whatever she didn’t sell would go onto the canning shelves for another day.

Happy customers, always marveling. Caressing the bindings, smelling the ink.

“Where do you get your ideas?” they would say.

“Oh, I grow them right here.”

“Right here?”

“Oh, yes, yes. They always turn up as long as the soil is good and we get a little sun and rain.”

Monday, June 21, 2010

Crocodiles Smile When They Dance

I felt myself vibrating a little, some biological tuning fork struck and left to ring and shiver. A sense of agitation. A sense of standing just outside myself, just a pace or two, just enough to feel the world suddenly skewed, tilted, tipped to a new polarity.

I licked my lips. My fingers were nervous, dancing and flipping and tapping out rhythms, ten little Fred Astaires on ten invisible little chairs. Excessive blinking. Dry throat. Dreams of crocodiles, chasing crocodiles, yes, always chasing, always chasing and smiling.

I read the label on a cereal box and it made me over-excited. Trisodium Phosphate! Yes!

My thoughts tumbled. They were clouds blown apart by the wind and scattered across the sky. Little ships lost in a vast blue sea. An arid sea.

Thirsty. Oh yes, thirsty. That terrible need.

You see, it had been over a day since I last read a book.

It all happened innocently, of course. I finished one book and didn’t have time to pick out another book right then. And the next morning was busy, too, and the next afternoon. And what happened then? Things got a little twitchy.

Fred Astaire fingers. Crocodile dreams.

And yet wasn’t this a little odd? These reactions to booklessness? It wasn’t even that I didn’t have books. I had twenty thousand. But I hadn’t started reading one yet. Worse, I hadn’t even picked one out.

The world, three degrees off kilter and tilting quickly.

But what was this? It seemed almost like these were symptoms of withdrawal. Which was silly. Right?

Let’s see…

Withdrawal Symptoms (via

Mild to moderate psychological symptoms:
• Feeling of jumpiness or nervousness
• Feeling of shakiness
• Anxiety
• Irritability or easily excited
• Emotional volatility, rapid emotional changes
• Depression
• Fatigue
• Difficulty with thinking clearly
• Bad dreams

Okay, yeah. This is moderately spooky. So basically I’m addicted to books. I needed a book. Right away.

Let’s go a little further…

Mild to moderate physical symptoms:
• Headache – Okay, yeah. Headache was there. I mean, there was no book!
• Sweating, especially the palms of the hands or the face – Well, I always sweat. I admit it. How to measure the changing volume capacity of Niagara Falls…? Beyond my ability.
• Nausea – I did read Sartre once.
• Vomiting – Luckily, no. But I did find a book fairly soon. Who knows if I hadn’t?
• Loss of appetite – Hungry for words and words alone.
• Insomnia, sleeping difficulty – Around the crocodile dreams, yes, sleep was tricky.
• Paleness – Well, I’m Irish. It’s hard to tell.
• Rapid heart rate (palpitations) – I was getting there.
• Eyes, pupils different size (enlarged, dilated pupils) – I try not to look in the mirror too much. It never says I’m the fairest one of all.
• Skin, clammy – I’ll check next time.
• Abnormal movements – Sort of a book version of the I-have-to-pee dance.
• Tremor of the hands – Fred Astaire fingers.
• Involuntary, abnormal movements of the eyelids – Blinking. Maybe there will be words there when my eyes open…

There are severe symptoms, too, but it was a short withdrawal period. No hallucinations. Unless the crocodiles count.

So… this is strange and a little troubling. I mean, if I’m addicted to something I’m glad it’s books. But what do you think, Fellow Sophisticates? Book addiction is healthy? Book addiction has some downsides? Check yourself into a hospital immediately, Ink?

And what about YOU? Book addicts, anyone?

Here’s a checklist to help you out (slightly modified from the one by the helpful folks at

Common signs and symptoms of book abuse
• You’re neglecting your responsibilities at school, work, or home (e.g. flunking classes, skipping work, neglecting your children) because of your book use.
• You’re using books under dangerous conditions or taking risks while reading, such as driving while reading, using dirty bookmarks, or having unprotected Kindles in the bathtub.
• Your book use is getting you into legal trouble, such as arrests for disorderly conduct, driving under the influence of audiobooks, or stealing to support a book habit.
• Your book use is causing problems in your relationships, such as fights with your partner or family members, an unhappy boss, or the loss of old friends.

Common signs and symptoms of drug addiction
• You’ve built up a book tolerance. You need to use more books to experience the same effects you used to get with smaller amounts.
• You read books to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms. If you go too long without books, you experience symptoms such as nausea, restlessness, insomnia, depression, sweating, shaking, and anxiety.
• You’ve lost control over your book use. You often read books or read more than you planned, even though you told yourself you wouldn’t. You may want to stop reading, but you feel powerless.
• Your life revolves around book use. You spend a lot of time using and thinking about books, figuring out how to get them, and recovering from the book’s effects.
• You’ve abandoned activities you used to enjoy, such as hobbies, sports, and socializing, because of your book use.
• You continue to read books, despite knowing it’s hurting you (or your pocketbook). It’s causing major problems in your life—blackouts, viruses, mood swings, depression, paranoia—but you read anyway.

Support group, anyone?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The World in Miniature: The Fishing Garden

by Janet Cincurak

The Fishing Garden

Sitting on the edge of winter and the cold is melting out of the garden. Skeletons of flowers sticking up out of the earth or smashed flat from wind and snow. And I sit holding my piece of a broken branch just above the black, dyed wood chips. Sit upon a smooth grey-blue stone and play at fishing. “Mama, I’ve got one, it’s a whale, a little whale.” And my little girl sits on her own rock holding a stick, trying to show me her whale, while my son calls out from another stone, “I’ve caught an octopus.” And I pretend to catch a fish too.

Sitting on my rock in a sea of wood chips, trying to fish and stop worrying about the pressure in my bum and the blood that keeps flowing then clotting then flowing again and has currently stopped. But for how long. And now I know it’s the clots that are stopping up the blood. “Mama, you’ve caught a fish.” I pretend to reel in my catch as I stare at the stumps of wood that fence the garden. The snow hugging the stumps.

And a day later or a week. In the dead garden again, with my warm children running in the yard, I sit on the cold blue-grey stone, barren. The bloodied toilet, the ambulance and emergency room and IVs, the OR and post op and semi-private room with the woman coughing, are all gone. And so is the baby. I sit on the rock and empty-armed wipe the wet from my eyes.

Monday, June 14, 2010


So, Fellow Sophisticates, I'm either suffering from a nasty virus or, like Winston Smith, being slowly crushed down by the weight of a totalitarian regime. And the latter is possible! Yes, The City of Windsor could be just such a fiendish foe. The barren landscape, the lack of culture and individualism, a leadership more intent on the status quo than on productive change...

But possibly it could be a virus.

Yet I've been thinking about this idea of dystopia, and it struck me how pessimistic this genre is, at least as evidenced by its founding fathers. Not only have Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell envisioned these dystopic societies where the individual is buried beneath the mass of the State, but they all, shall we say, end on less than a happy note.

All three create a society where the state overwhelms the individual, where facelessness overshadows individuality. They are almost flawless, these vast structures of manipulation and propaganda. And yet all three writers have set fractures of hope in the blank wall of the state. Individualism, the questing human spirit... there's a sense of resistance, even against what seems an impossible enemy.

Yet in the end that hope is erased, subsumed by the faceless society.

So not only do we have the pessimism of the vision itself, of these dystopic worlds, but the veins of contending possibility are slowly squeezed shut or drained dry. Yes, there's always the possibility that opposition will rise again at some point, and yet will it have any better chance?

The pessimism of it struck me. Yet that is likely part of the didactic nature of these stories: the story as warning, as an omen of the future. And products of their times, too, most likely, created as they were in the time of the Great Wars. Faith in humanity, and human progress, had been dimmed. A sense of fear pervades these novels... and a sense of just retribution, as well. We, as a whole, deserve no more than these fates presented to us.

It strikes me that this is part of the driving force of the genre. Much of the generative power comes from this sense of pessimism. What do you think? Do dystopias arise out of our frustration with what we see around us?

And have things changed? What are some great modern dystopias if I want to continue my reading? And is there hope? A little optimism? Can the human spirit survive the dystopic future?

I'd love some recommendations. I've heard some great things about Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. Any thoughts? Any others?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The World in Miniature: The Rusting Forest

by Bryan Russell

The Rusting Forest

The land breathed, swelling beneath Mark’s feet, rolling and falling, exhaling heat that hissed up through the dust. Mark watched the horizon. His eyes tricked him with dreams of a geometric forest.

He hitched up his backpack, walking, eyes down. Every few minutes he looked up to see the forest growing. Hard lines, right angles.

Mark drew close, staring upward. All around him grew the iron forest, girdered towers rising up into the air, sharp fingers plucking at the bitter brightness of the sky. Wires slung themselves about everywhere, winding through the air, draped from tower to tower to tower.

It was not new, this geometric forest. Silent and dark, its steel limbs reflecting little of the sun. A graveyard, the bones of fantastical trees rotting, bleeding rust.

Flakes whispered down. In the grass the rust stained the earth, the floating dust stained orange.

The scent of metal pervasive, wires swaying in the breeze.

A group of boys running through the grass. There were cows grazing, huddled in the precise angles of shade.

“Here, here!” Mark said, and the boys ran over. Sweat on their dark skin, though they were not so damp as Mark. He waved his hand at the forest. “What is this?”

“Voice of America! Voice of America!” the boys yelled in English and ran off, laughing.

Mark nodded. A relay station. Old, pre-satellite communication. But there were no signals now, just hollow air. He pulled out his cellphone, aimed it up at the array. His finger hesitated, unwilling to snap the picture.

He looked back at the grazing cattle, the boys running. The boys in their old t-shirts, some with bare feet, running across the sloughed off skins of metal trees. Mark looked up again at the rusting forest, the wires like lines of latitude and longitude crossing the sky.

Obsolete, now.

Mark put his cellphone away, hitched up his pack, started walking. He looked back once, at the giant skeleton of a future that would never arrive here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How Did Big Brother Forget to Mention that Info Dumps are a Thoughtcrime?

Winston Smith begins to write illegally in a diary.

This is basically, um, the entire plot for the first 120 pages of Nineteen Eight-Four. Mr. Orwell, why is it so? Why, Mr. Orwell, why?

Yet there's certainly some briliance about this book. But it's like Mr. Orwell wants to intentionally slap me in the face while enticing me onward, the sadist tickling the masochist on from page to page.

These first 120 pages are, shall we say, philosophically and psychologically oriented. And there's some fine writing and even finer thinking in this section of the book. This is certainly the best psychological portrait of the three dystopian books I've looked at during Dystopia Month. Yes, it's still a rather didactic novel, and Winston Smith still feels a bit like a speakerphone at times... and yet it charts the course of his thoughts, his struggles with conformity and the authoritarian control of the Party. There's certainly some human realism here, that sense of a mind under pressure from all sides, endlessly seeking release.

The problem is that nothing happens in the opening. And, yes, part of this is likely to reflect that sense of containment in the culture, that sense that nothing really can happen. The bolts have been tightened down on everyone. They can't move, can't speak, can't think. An original and real action, a new thought... this is crime, and the Thought Police will arrive and spirit away the offender. So the structure, in a sense, reflects this. And yet I can't help feeling that this could have been done in less than 30,000 words.

Structural reflections of theme can be effective, and yet to me there's always a sense of clumsiness, or, perhaps more accurately, of an over-heavy hand. I think the reader often "gets it" fairly quickly, with that "Okay, already, everyone's locked up tight, I get it already, please please please get on with the show."

This plotlessness gives the opening a more abstract feel, less vivid and experiential than it might have been, though the prose is fine at times and tries to tune the reader into the dark mood as a way of creating a sort of dramatic tension, an aura of contained violence. And there's that sense almost of claustrophia as we're pulled through Winston Smith's unsettled mind. Yet I found myself frustrated with the lack of movement, the static nature of the narrative and character. The themes and ideas are pounded in heavy indeed, and I don't think I needed so much to get the picture. Though, perhaps, this was more difficult for me, since I'd just read the book's predecessors, and many of these ideas (or their forefathers) were already spinning around my head? It's certainly a possibility, I think. Yet the lack of movement, at times, is almost overwhelming.

After that first section, however, things begin to pick up. Winston begins an affair, which creates both character and narrative movement (thank you, God and Orwell). That sense of isolation is relieved a little - Winston is not alone, not the only one who still thinks, who still seeks some sense of personal freedom. And the affair with young Julia is dangerous. If discovered, the Thought Police will arrest them.

I found the story here much more effective, for now the tensions between the individual and the culture are being dramatized rather than merely expounded upon. We have action instead of exposition. Tension builds. The affair leads Winston and Julia (though mostly Winston - I need a good feminist critic again, folks...) to new thoughts, new desires. A bit of stolen happiness is not enough, and they seek out active resistance, trying to join the Brotherhood (a supposed underground rebellion) through a man named O'Brien.

And then, of course, we get the mother of all Info Dumps. Dear Orwell, I almost do not know what to say... Almost. Orwell, dear sir, never do this to me again.

Winston gets a book, supposedly expounding the history of the Party and the goals of the Brotherhood. And Mr. Orwell provides a big section of the book just for us to read! For thirty pages. He pretty much shuts down the story for thirty pages to give us some worldbuilding, with a few philosophical sidenotes.

This is a cruel thing to do to someone reading late at night. Why, Mr. Orwell, why?

Okay, let us just say that I do not think the minor positive values of this section are well balanced against the large narrative negatives. I shall shake your hand, Mr. Orwell old chum, and clap you on the shoulder and smile nicely.

And luckily the best part of the novel is still to come! Luckily, as soon as The World's Grandest Info Dump is completed both Winston and Julia are captured by the Thought Police. And never have I been so happy for some torture. Okay, yeah, that sounds bad, but you know what I mean.

The last section, I think, is the strongest of the book. It is still full of philosophical and political arguments, but now they're well embodied in characters and scene. Conflict! There are some interesting psychological dynamics at work here, both realistic and non. Orwell, I think, is partly interested in a realistic understanding of a character under interrogation and conditioning, and yet he's also operating on a symbolic level, making a statement on the nature of totalitarian regimes. Yet the ending is certainly vivid, the character of O'Brien both fascinating and disturbing. And Orwell's philosophic calculations here are all the more profound for how they're rooted in the story, in the specific experience of Winston.

The last section, I think, is truly a fine and interesting achievement, a fitting captstone for a fascinating (though often uneven) book.

It's been interesting, too, to see how We and Brave New World and Nineteen Eight-Four have built on each other, extrapolating and expanding on earlier ideas. Nineteen Eighty-Four is the most difficult and frustrating, and yet it's also the best psychological portrait and the most philosophically advanced. Brave New World has a fascinating world and ideas, and reads quite well for all its flaws. And yet I'd have to say that We is still the best book, first written and certainly not last in achievement. I think it has the best synthesis of idea and story. It has the most interesting prose, and it was certainly the most pleasurable to read. Though even as I say that I know that the last section of Nineteen Eight-Four is what will stay with me longest, lingering and haunting itself about my skull. Oh, the rats, the rats, the rats...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The World in Miniature: Obvious Signs of Death

by Oscar Anon

Obvious Signs of Death

Jamal is sweaty and dense, round as a pie. He moves as though he is pulling his feet out of thick mud. After a few days of EMT class he is visibly in love with me, his pie face glowing softly as he turns his shining pie eyes to me, which he does every few minutes, sure of my ability to unlock the mysteries of the world. Today is compression day which should take only forty-five minutes but since there are ninety students in the class and eighty-nine of them are not the sharpest tacks in the box it will take us four hours, until lunch, and then after lunch we will have to review, and then it will be time to go home. At the break yesterday Jamal brought his registration packet to me, all twenty-four pages, and said, What does this say? and I looked at it and then at him and then I took it, as though I were going to read it out loud to him, and then I said, It doesn’t really say anything at all. You know it’s, like, not your responsibility, says my roommate Savannah, bugging out her eyes in the mirror and drawing thick black arcs across the lids. There’s, like, only so much you can do for people, and you’re, like, paying for this class too. Just don’t, you know, sit next to him tomorrow. She looks at her pumpkin-colored mouth for a long time and I look at her face in the mirror and wonder how I got here, to this moment, in this bathroom, in this life. Do you think this is, like, too orange? I don’t think I can wear orange, I can’t believe I bought this lipstick, it cost sixteen dollars, can you believe I bought it? I should have made them put it on me in the, like, store.

Later I call my father and tell him about the earnest and gentle face of Jamal. It took me a long time to explain the registration packet to him, I say. And then I realized he can’t read, I say. Amy, says my father, Amy, I am so proud of you. I could see my father in my head, rheumy and wheezing, wedged into his favorite chair and wearing a weeks-dirty shirt. I could see him pouring himself a drink, and then another, and then just one more. But I’m not sure I’m going to have time to help him every day, I say. I mean, there’s a lot of homework and stuff. It’s not like he can do the reading, I say. Amy, my father says, I think it is a wonderful thing that you are sharing your many gifts with this young man.

The next day I sit next to Jamal again.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Compulsory Promiscuity!

So we're now onto Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and, yes, compulsory promiscuity is part of this dystopic future. Though, I must say, I've known a few fellows for whom this wouldn't be, um, exactly dystopic. But let us go onward nonetheless!

I enjoyed this book, and it was a relatively easy read despite some of its flaws. And yet for all my liking, those flaws still jump out at me - though Huxley does his best to dance around them.

The first word that came to mind while I was evaluating how this book was structured was "clumsy". Yet that's not exactly right. Certainly the craft in this book is not clumsy, indeed it is often quite fine... but it's a fineness, I think, often put to use in disguise, in trying to hide the essential flaw of this book.

In my eyes, at least, that flaw is that the characters are provided as symbols, as opportunities to create philosophical scenarios, and their specific nature, their basic humanity, is mostly superfluous. It starts with their names, of course. Bernard Marx, Lenina Crowne (Lenina being the Russian feminine for Lenin), John Savage. And there's even an Engels!

But the author's concern with ideas over characters is clear early on, and at much deeper levels than the naming of characters. The first real character in the novel, Bernard Marx, isn't introduced in the novel until the middle of chapter 3. Lenina comes in not long after. Yet what comes before? Well, today we'd call it worldbuilding and info dumps.

Now, part of this is our distance in time from the conception of this novel. The novel form has changed, and this delay in action is partly a result of that, of more relaxed views on pacing and narrative. But part of it, too, is that the real central character of this novel is the setting itself, the dystopic world Huxley has created.

For the first part of the story we follow Bernard Marx, a man who feels different in this homogenized world of the future, and yet it's mostly because he's a runt for his class, and feels shut out from the full privilege he feels is his due. He thinks about cultural change, but mostly because of this sense of isolation, and his sense of frustrated entitlement is grand indeed. He mewls and whines a lot (and is rather hard to like).

On a side note through this part we follow Lenina Crowne, who we want to like... and yet she, too, falls short of real humanity and our hope for some sort of transformation is never really realized. She finds herself liking the people who are different, first Bernard Marx and then John Savage, and yet she never really finds her own real sense of individuality or difference and is used mostly to reflect the culture of the dystopia back at the male characters, a lens to focus their struggles. She is a cultural mirror, in a sense, whose only real difference - her love for John - is used only to delineate a philosophical conflict rather than to explore her character in any sense as a real person.

This, perhaps, is the nature of the story in a nutshell, a sort of human construct to explore ideas and philosophical/political structures.

At the midway point in the story we meet John Savage, whose parents were from this dystopic world, but who grew up in an untouched free reserve (remember, his name is Savage...). The reserve is people mostly with Native Americans (whose representation I found a little troubling - and the fact that the one who's taken back to shake the dystopic world is seemingly the one and only white man there... also a little troubling). At this point the story half-forgets about Bernard Marx. He has served his purpose, perhaps, his sense of difference used as a way to explore the dystopia, to set up a contrast. And there's a feeling, too, that Huxley simply got bored with Bernard (perhaps not surprising). That contrast accomplished, we now have John Savage, who provides a different contrast, a contrast between cultures, between someone who actually knows freedom and the totalitarian world of the dystopia. This, in a sense, deepens the philosophical conflicts and adds a depth to our understanding of the ideas at play. And yet it's a little disappointing from a character standpoint. I mean, we follow Bernard along for the first half of the novel, without anything really happening, hoping that something will... and as soon as it does he's practically dropped. He was a vehicle of transmission, really, and that's all.

John Savage does bring in new conflicts, and he is a little more likeable than Bernard. And yet he still has the feel of a symbol - he represents something, and rarely is he ever uniquely himself. He quotes Shakespeare relentlessly, even though that seems unlikely given the context provided to us about his upbringing. And yet he provides a mouthpiece for the philosophical and political contrasts that Huxley is interested in.

Even the climax comes quickly, with little set-up, and it turns out to be, in truth, a little anti-climactic. An attack? A fight? A trial? No, a very long lecture by the World Controller, after which they're sent on their way.

And yet, for all that, it's quite readable. The pace is much better than you would expect for such a didactic piece of writing. There's some interesting craft at work, as in the third chapter. Huxley knows he's basically dropping bomb after bomb of pure information and backstory, much of it in dialogue. "As you know, Bob..." Yet what he does to combat this is to fragment four or five separate scenes into one, each with different characters and engaging in different conversations. He splices the dialogue from each one in one sentence at a time, so you start and leave each conversation and then circle back to it after you cycle through the others. It's disjointed, yet after a bit you can follow each conversation. What's lost in flow, however, is made up for in the contrasts created by the method. Bits of information and character responses from different conversations are juxtaposed against each other to create meanings and tensions. It's an interesting thematic move to provide drama abstractly, in the absence of any sort of literal dramatic action.

So here we have some of that disguise, that sense of pulling the veil over the reader's eyes. Doing his best to cloak his ideas in flesh, and when failing waving his magic wand in a way to distract the reader and create something new.

And still the book works, in the end. It works because the central character is vivid and fascinating. Not Bernard, not John... but the world itself. Huxley pulls you into it, deeper and deeper, and then he sets it on edge, plays it against the tensions provided by Bernard and John. It's an interesting feat, really, and there's depth to this world.

I'm not sure there if there is any certain indication that Huxley read Zamyatin's We, yet it seems likely, as this world he's created seems built on the bones of Zamyatin's. So many of the themes and ideas are mirrored here. Huxley has taken them and run with them, playing out possibilities, reflecting them back and forth off each other. As a philosophical work it is the greater, and yet it lacks the humanity of We, the pleasure, the vibrancy of the voice and prose. In the end, I think, We is the better story.