Saturday, July 2, 2022

How to Write a Truly Bad Novel.


I don't know how many novels have been written from the time when they started being popular, about two centuries ago. An estimate that I found on the Web says that some 129 million books in total have been published. Of these, probably half are novels. So, about 60 million novels. You could read all of them in less than 200,000 years if you could read one every day. Maybe God can do this, maybe he has already done this, I wonder how he feels about this mass of stories that his human children have been producing.

Lacking god-like capacities, my exploration of the novel world is rather haphazard, and the cover you see at the beginning of this post is a book that I found a few days ago on top of a pile of waste. Acting on the idea that whatever happens has a reason to happen, I took it home. I cleaned the cover, stained by a mysterious goo. And I read it. 

I don't know if this book was a message from God. If it was, it is difficult for me to decipher. Honestly, this book is rather bad. Let me say it better: it is truly, truly bad. 

The book was a translation of a novel originally titled "Lying in Bed," written by M.J. Rose. She seems to be an extremely active novelist, with dozens of books listed in her website. This one is difficult to find in the site but, using a few tricks,  eventually it appears. Apparently, Ms. Rose is a little ashamed herself of having written it.

What to say about this novel? Well, for one thing, it illustrates how difficult it is to write a novel, even for a professional. It is supposed to be a kind of erotic literature but, frankly, it is not much more erotic than a frozen mackerel. 

The protagonist, Marlowe Wyatt, is said to be about 30 at the time of the story, but she behaves more or less like a 16-year-old girl. We know a lot of what she does, what she eats, where she lives, where she has lunch and dinners, and where she has cappuccino and pastry. But, as a character, Marlowe is simply flat. She never shows a spark of life. She is supposed to have been shocked for all her life because she made love to her stepbrother when she was very young. I suppose it can be a shocking experience but in the novel we don't really feel it is relevant. It happened ten years before, come on, girl, get over it, stop reminiscing and move on! Another demonstration that no author can write a good novel unless he/she cares for the character they create. 

The other characters of the novel are rather flat, too. We know plenty of details about them, but nothing that gives us a hint of what makes them move. The whole novel is supposed to pivot around a situation not unlike what we sometimes call the "commedia italiana" a romantic misunderstanding that the protagonists unravel only at the end. 

Here, the protagonist is supposed to make a living by writing erotic letters for her customers. A bit unlikely as a job, but in a novel it may be fine. Then, the main twist of the novel is that Marlowe writes letters for her friend Vivienne. Then, a new customer comes, Gideon, who clearly has also an erotic interest in Marlowe. The twist is that Marlowe didn't know that she was writing love letters for Gideon to give to Vivienne, and to Vivienne to give to Gideon, while at the same time being courted by Gideon. 

It could have been an interesting thread, but the reader (nor Marlowe) is never given a hint of this triangle until the very end of the story. Then, Gideon just says he had dumped Vivienne earlier on, and Marlowe says, "oh, then it is fine" -- end of the novel. 

And so, what did God want to tell me by letting me find that novel? Well, the ways of the Lord are many, but maybe he'll be clearer with the next novel.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The Three Body Problem: Science Fiction is Alive and Well in China


Is science fiction dead? Probably not but, in the West, it doesn't seem to be feeling so well. At least, we are not seeing much in terms of innovation in the Western narrative sphere, apart from a streak of "ecological science fiction" in the stile of the movie "Avatar" (2009)

Yet, different cultures may be able to revisit and revive the old the Sci-Fi themes. This is the case of Liu Cixin and his novel "The Three-Body Problem" (2008), a remarkably original reworking of some classic sci-fi themes mixed in an original and challenging way.

So, I endeavored to read Liu's novel. To be honest, I was immediately put off by the first scene, where he describes in graphic detail the killing of a young woman. My first impression was that if a writer needs this kind of cheap trick to attract the attention of the readers, then he must be a bad writer. 

But no, the novel is not cheap stuff, nor the work of a bad writer. It is a rich and complex story that mixes different themes and that manages to keep the reader's attention with the gradual discovery that there is "something" out there, another civilization existing on a different star, and not necessarily a friendly one. Another thing that puts me off in novels is the use of flashbacks -- Liu uses them a lot, but in such a masterful way that they do not disturb the narrative flow. 

Liu's novel is, in many ways, classic in style and conception. It is a modern example of "hard" science fiction. You can find its sources of inspiration, first of all, in Asimov's classic "Nightfall." (1941), one of the novels that defined a whole genre. Asimov's tells us of a system with six stars, more than Liu's three, but we have the same problem for the best minds of the inhabitants of one of the planets of the system: discovering Newton's gravitational law. And also surviving the vagaries of a chaotic system where the dance of the stars has unpredictable effects on the life on the planets. 

Another source of inspiration for Liu's novel is Fred Hoyle's "The Black Cloud" (1957). We have some similar tropes in the plot: the isolated observatory that discovers an alien entity, the direct communications between humans and aliens, the military reaction to the aliens, and other details. And, of course, there is more than a hint of Arthur C. Clarke's ideas in the novel. 

Yet, Liu's novel is not just a repetition of old themes. It is original in many aspects. One is its "political" aspect, with the plot influenced by the events of the Chinese cultural revolution, and also its mirroring the concept of a "clash of civilization" with the Trisolarians playing the role of an aggressive enemy. The plot also makes extensive use of the "gamification" concept. In our time, we tend to learn much using simulations that, in some cases, may take the form of games. In "The Three Body Problem" much of what we know of the Trisolarians comes in the form of a full-immersion game played by the protagonists. 

So, as I was saying, a rich and stimulating story in terms of themes: Liu Cixin is an engineer, and he knows his trade. As a hard piece of science fiction, this novel is truly a masterpiece. 

How is it in literary terms? Well, it has defects, and not just a few. The plot has holes that could let the whole fleet of Admiral Zheng pass through. For instance, when the scientist Ye Wenjie receives the first message from the aliens, she understands it immediately. We may imagine that it is written in her language: Mandarin Chinese. How can it be that the inhabitants of a faraway star system speak Chinese?

Then, the characters of the story are mostly shallow -- not surprising: it is typical of hard science fiction. Ye Wenjie, the scientist, comes out as the most interesting character, someone driven by deep thoughts and a moral stance. The others, well, much less. A large part of the novel is seen through the eyes of Wang Miao, a nanotechnology specialist. He is as shallow as a character can be: he has no clear purpose in the novel except as a narrative focus. But, again, a hard science fiction novel is not supposed to tell us about the inner conflicts of its characters.

So, where is science fiction going? During the golden years of Western science fiction, there existed a parallel version in the Soviet Union: different in conception, but just as creative and interesting. Today, it doesn't seem that Russia or other former Soviet countries are active in science fiction. So, are scientific fantasies destined to be reborn in China? Maybe. For sure, the Chinese are exploring new ways in a field where the West doesn't seem to be able to innovate anymore. We can only say that literature is just like humankind. It keeps changing and evolving.


Monday, May 23, 2022

The Surrender of the Azovstal. Not exactly like the fall of Troy

In the Iliad, we read of how Achilles killed Hector, angered at seeing how the defeated Trojan warrior was wearing the armor he had taken from Achilles' friend, Patroclus. It is a recurring theme in ancient literature, we see it also in Virgil's Aeneid, when Aeneas, known for his piety, nevertheless does not spare the Latin warrior Turnus when he sees him wearing the armor taken from Aeneas' friend Pallas. 

In our times, it seems that things have become less dramatic. The surrender of the Ukrainian troops of the Azovstaal building in Mariupol was nothing like the sack of Troy. We saw the Ukrainian soldiers coming out of the bunker. Apart from those who were wounded, they looked in good health, a little shocked, but not afraid, and you could perceive their relief. They were supposed to fight to the death, but they had avoided that. 

On their side, the Russian soldiers were not exactly friendly, but they showed no anger toward the surrendering Ukrainians. They examined the prisoners' belonging, seeking for hidden weapons, but found none. The Ukrainians were carrying food, blankets, varied provisions, but they had given up with the idea of fighting. 

There was an interesting moment when the Russians made the prisoners show their tattoos that often included various Nazi symbols. You see here a Ukrainian soldier with the classic logo of the German Schutzstaffel (SS; stylized as ᛋᛋ). 

Now, consider that the Nazis had killed some 26 million Soviet citizens, most of them Russians, during WWII, and you can see that it could have been an "Achilles vs. Hector" moment. But nothing like that happened. As I said, the Russians were not friendly, but not especially hostile. Those prisoners who had Nazi tattoos were treated like all the others and allowed to take the bus that would take them to a detention camp, somewhere. 

Surely, the ability of Ukrainians and Russians to speak to each other helped make this encounter bloodless. But there is more to ask: the main question, I think, is how it was that these Ukrainian men decided (or accepted) to be tattooed in this way. For one thing, it was dangerous for them -- it was not at all obvious that the Russians would react the way they reacted. Secondly, you wonder how they could do that when they must have known what the German Nazis were planning for the Slavic population of Eastern Europe. The German "Ostplan" (plan for the East) saw most Slavs exterminated or simply pushed to the other side of the Urals to make space for the "Herrenvolk," the German lords. They would have ruled the fertile plains of Ukraine, using the surviving Slavs as peasants and servants. 

It is hard to say what went on in the heads of these men, whether they realized what exactly they had been doing. Surely, they are not the Trojans defeated by the Achaeans. More likely, they are just ordinary people who tried to make a little money by enlisting in the army of a bankrupted country, as Ukraine was up to a few years ago (it still is). Probably, a pre-condition for enlisting in the special troops was to show one's commitment by accepting to be tattooed in that way. Looking at these men marching as prisoners, the impression is that they are just people caught in something that they don't fully understand. We are all human, all the same, we struggle for things we don't fully understand. But, at some moment, there comes the time of peace.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

The Empress and the General

Sometimes, you really need to take the long view, to detach yourself from the infinite noise that surrounds us. So, here is the story of how Galla Placidia regained the Imperial Throne of the West, with the help of the Alan general Aspar. Told by Aspar himself.

And here is the version in Italian.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Shores of Another Sea: Are we Running out of Creativity?


If the universe is fractal, then its structure is fully contained in every sub-element of it. So, a single novel may be a tool to understand the whole universe. Here, I explore a 1971 novel by Chad Oliver titled, "The Shores of Another Sea," featuring a front cover that could compete for the worst book cover in history. But it may have been the first science fiction novel to describe the interaction of primates, baboons in this case, with aliens, and, perhaps, the origin of the 2001 movie series "The Planet of the Apes." It seems that, nowadays, we are getting many creative ideas from old sci-fi novels. Have we run out of creativity? I am afraid it may well be. 

Novels have become mostly an archeological item, so, reading one from 1971 has the flavor of an excavation among the ruins of an ancient civilization. It is perhaps much more than a hyperbole, considering the pitiful state of the civilization that we call "The West" nowadays. And this strange object that came out of this virtual literary trench may tell us something about our present conditions. Where has our creativity gone? Possibly, we lost it forever,

But let's examine this book and see what we can learn from it. Its most remarkable feature is that it may have been the first to deal with the interaction of aliens with a non-human, but humanoid, species on planet Earth. Baboons, in this case. Could this novel be the origin of the 2001 series "Planet of the Apes"? It may very well be. The origin of much of our contemporary filmography is in earlier novels. Just think of how "Avatar" is a remake of the old novel by Ursula Le Guin, "The Word for World is Forest" (1972). 

As a novel, "The Shores of Another Sea" is a good example of the rule that says that you should always write about things you know well. Here, Chad Oliver has done an excellent job in describing a world that, as a professional anthropologist, he knew very well. He uses his experience in Kenya to describe the "Baboonery" -- a remote outpost where the protagonist manages a small enterprise dedicated to capturing baboons and then shipping them overseas to zoos or for medical experiments. Of course, most of us have no direct experience with living in Kenya, nor with dealing with baboons in the wild. But, as readers, we can understand the consistency of the background of the story. It is a world that makes sense. 

So, Oliver uses the basic elements of a typical science fiction plot: you start with a "normal" situation, ordinary, quiet, predictable, and you add a supernatural element that gradually overturns the certitudes of the characters of the novel. You see this technique at its best in a movie such as "E.T." And it works great with "The Shores of Another Sea." The reader is immediately captured by the mix of the exotic, but predictable, world of the baboonery, and the strangeness of "something" that came from the sky that makes baboons behave in unexpected ways. 

Unfortunately, the novel doesn't keep its promises. As we keep reading, the magic slowly dissolves. The aliens never take an active role in the story, the baboons keep behaving strange, but we never learn what the aliens want to do with them. Most of what we are told about the aliens comes from arbitrary trains of thought of the protagonist, that would shame Sherlock Holmes in terms of deducing something out of nothing.

The end of the novel is especially disappointing. The author, clearly at a loss as to what to do with the plot, recurs to a truly cheap narrative device: having the young daughter of the protagonist being kidnapped by the aliens. Then, the protagonist cleverly manages to get her back, the aliens depart, and it is the end of the story. 

So, a narrative failure. Nevertheless, it was a creative attempt to innovate in science fiction. We see here a new take on the interaction of aliens and humans, using the baboons as an avatar of the Aliens, who seem to prefer to deal with them than with humans. It is a characteristic of novels that they can try new ways, even at the risk of utter failure. Today, with novels having nearly disappeared from the literary horizon, our fictional universe has moved to the serialized movies that we watch on Netflix. But creative innovation is not, and cannot be, the same thing. A movie involves a much larger effort (and money) in comparison to a novel. So, sponsors are not willing to take risks, and we are not seeing anymore the kind of personal effort that may lead to innovative ideas. Movie scripts are often just mediocre, although they may still be truly bad in narrative terms.  

So, it may well be that movie fiction is running piggyback on the great science fiction season of the 1960s and 1970s. But it is like mining fossil fuels. Great idea, but they are running out of them. Will we run out of narrative ideas?  Could be, and then? It is known that civilizations fail and disappear when they can't imagine a different world. And it seems that this is what's happening to us.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Soul of the Land

There was an incredible moment last month. A group of subversives had collected in a square, in Florence: leftists, anti-vaxxers, no-mask people. People who were supposed to be "internationalists." Yet, when the little band that was there started playing the Italian Anthem, people rose up and stood on attention. It was a beautiful and moving moment: some people had tears in their eyes. Strange, because we all know that there does not exist such a thing as "Italy" -- there only exists a curious boot-shaped strip of land that extends into the Mediterranean Sea. And people living there, people who don't know each other, and who sometimes hate each other. Yet, some kind of entity that we call "Italy" exists, and it exists in the memory of our forefathers who fought to make it exist, even though it could only exist in their minds -- and ours as well. The land has a soul, all lands have a soul. This is our land, and we can perceive its soul. And we, just like our ancestors, can't let our land be squashed into nothing by the Powers of the World, as it is happening right now. And this was why we rose up when we heard the National Anthem. I wish I had a record of that moment, but I don't. What I can do is to show you a clip from a movie, "Dragon Blade" (2015). A silly movie under many respects, but it has moving moments, such as this one. Maybe it is silly to stand up when you hear a certain music. And yet, and yet....... 

Note added after publishing this post: yes, I have a record of that moment! Maybe not as beautifully crafted as the movie scene above, but the magic is there (courtesy of Clara)

Sunday, March 13, 2022

The Limits to Growth, The Aztec Empire, and Time Machines


It is always fascinating to play the "what if" game in history. What if the ancient Aztecs had horses? Would they have been better equipped to fight the invasion of the Spaniards? Would a ship bearing the flag of Emperor Montezuma land on Europe. Would the Aztecs wipe out the Europeans from their former lands in a few centuries?

A reflection that involves an old science fiction story by Chad Oliver. Below, the same story in Italian.