Tag Archives: fiction

Classics You’ve Never Read Part Five: Getting Better All the Time

{A series first published on the Independent Bookworm site, now brought back for your enjoyment.}

“Classic. A book which people praise and don’t read”

– Mark Twain

Now you know for sure I was right with the title of this series; you wouldn’t dare contradict the author of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a classic!

For the sixth book (trust me, I can count, we’re on book 6), I come at last to a deeply embarrassing confession. I loved the book, really. But not the way I expected, not as much as I hoped. And my expectations were set in this case, because I had seen the movie first! {Oh, the shame…} And LOVED IT! But that’s OK, because you probably haven’t seen the movie either (not the right one anyway- there has of course been a remake).

Now you need to thank me, because the easiest thing to talk about with this book would be, ONCE AGAIN, world-building. Or at least, society-building in its lowest common denominator. But this is a tale about how life continually improves, and why, when you land on … The Mysterious Island

You map something and it's real!
You map something and it’s real!

I heard that wise-crack- “enough with Jules Verne already”. Pipe down, you- do you realize all of his tales I could have used? And I will, if you don’t behave, you watch me. But I admit this is not one of his more famous novels, which is curious because he did what we’re all supposed to do as authors- went back to one of his most popular characters for a sequel. Even better, he hid him for half the book! Instead he follows more good writerly advice and whacks you between the eyes with a fabulous opening. Five remarkably-diverse but worthy men and one faithful dog escape a Confederate prison in the waning days of the war, by stealing a balloon Mys_Isl1which promptly gets caught in one of the most powerful storms of all time. Blown halfway around the world, marooned on an uncharted island… oh, you’ve heard this one before? Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson… guess what, Verne’s first draft of the tale was titled Shipwrecked Family: Marooned with Uncle Robinson. So, there’s some encouragement for you if you think the greats were never inspired by (read- cribbed from) what they read. Or never got rejected by publishers.

So yeah, it’s the whole we’re-alone-in-a-strange-place-what-do-we-do-now genre: at the bottom looking up. Ingenuity to the rescue- MacGuyver without phones, A-Team without helicopters: when you think about it, there’s a very  long standing tradition of we-can-do-without-almost-everything, one that can be really fun to contemplate. These five guys drop onto foreign soil with just one penknife and the scraps of the stuff that makes a balloon. No food, no orientation, no extra clothes or shelter or whiskey or  cigars. But they’re AMERICANS, by golly; once they create a fire, it’s all downhill from there.

Sure enough, they construct shelters (even becoming socially mobile and moving up to better and better quarters over time). They fire bricks, smelt iron, create explosives, herd cattle, determine their latitude and longitude- it’s the man-cave run wild. I kept waiting for them to make a toilet with no seat to have to put down. Which brings me to my first observation about this kind of story- survival and improvement tales are all about authority in your voice. If you do a ton of research about an historical period, or a scientific subject pertinent to your plot, you know you want to show it off to the reader. And that’s not wrong- it excited YOU, there’s got to be something there for them. But how?

Here’s how- the castaways are struggling for their very lives, and that’s an empathic situation for the reader, they wonder “what WOULD I do?”. Once you introduce an authority figure- in this case, the super-genius American entrepreneur Cyrus Harding- who starts to tell the others how to do a thing, it naturally translates for the reader. See that red earth there? Here’s what you do… and the reader is practically feeling like one of the workers now, going step by step, building it up and sighing with satisfaction when the job is well done. As the characters feel increasingly empowered, the reader is also carried along, thinking “wow, I could survive on a desert island”. If you get there, you’ve got them.

Lucky they teach guys so much as civil engineers! My credulity got strained when it became clear that Harding knew everything, like the combined reincarnation of Archimedes and Da Vinci. They build a boat, a serviceable sailing ship, and while discussing whether they could make it to civilization aboard, they get a mysterious message in a bottle from another castaway on a

Hey, sustainable.
Hey, sustainable.

“nearby” island. Me, I’m thinking “maiden voyage, nearby means I can see it from here!” but nothing scares these guys, and they duly depute a couple to sail over and pick the fellow up. Then comes the elevator, the telegraph- OK, now I can chuckle and relax into a more normal state of suspended disbelief. After all, what did Jules Verne know about “Gilligan’s Island”?

And that’s the second point- do you want to be a laughing stock with your story? Isn’t it kind of, you know, bad to portray nothing but uninterrupted progress throughout a tale? What about conflict, downturns, that terrific way you can play yo-yo with a reader’s emotions? Your sadistic cackle of satisfaction as you picture the reader alternately throwing the book on the floor with a scream, and then snatching it back up along with a tissue, to turn the page. Is that why Mysterious Island wasn’t a big hit, isn’t this something you should never do?

My unhesitating response is- let me get back to you on that. I can only speak for my genre, and even there not with authority, but I think it’s safe to say that epic and heroic fantasy are in a strong swing towards anti-heroes, deconstruction and morbidity right now. I’ve gone on and on about Game of Thrones, but GRRM is hardly alone and it’s hardly been just recently. We’ve become more hard-bitten as an audience generally, I think; all kinds of rather horrible things get lined up under the rubric of “realism”. Witness the incredible popularity of “The Walking Dead” on TV! There’s a point of view that your story needs to portray the world “as it is” which is to say, going to hell in a handbasket, in order to be serious or believable. So you certainly can’t afford to show the heroes constantly progressing, improving and having nothing but good times… right?

But there’s so much to be gained from a rise to triumph over circumstances, against all odds. All-time best survival-struggle-ingenuity tale in history- Captain Kirk, the 23rd century starship

Well sure, all us space-age guys know the formula for gunpowder!
Well sure, all us space-age guys know the formula for gunpowder!

captain, marooned on a worthless planet against a bipedal xenophobic gila monster, manages to cobble together a prehistoric shotgun that fires diamond ammo. Man, they learn almost as much at Starfleet as a 19th century civil engineer!

I guess the only right answer is, sometimes. If readers believe their own  alleged-real lives are going in the hopper- first of all, they might be right or wrong about that. And second, assuming they’re right they might want to see it played out straight (fist-raised, rock-musicked, drug-smoked anti-war movies for the Vietnam generation) or to escape it (Astaire and Rodgers skating around a richly decorated ballroom for mass audiences during the Depression). We seem to  be in love with bad these days, the only reason the characters get a lift is so the next drop can be even deeper. Me, I get about five hundred pages along, and realize the latest bout of good fortune is just another dead-cat bounce, and I’m done. So a movie like Mysterious Island should tank. I gather the remake in 2012 did; I didn’t even get past the trailers. But it wasn’t about things getting steadily better- it was another thrill-ride with crisis after crisis, you can tell.

Um, does the CRAB know it's on the menu?
Um, does the CRAB know it’s on the menu?

The REAL movie, from 1961? Man, what a fantastic flick. Same survival theme, manly men scraping for their lives and making it better. But hey- giant crab for dinner! My debt of pure joy to Ray

Harryhausen is vast… And I have to admit, once in a while Hollywood gets it right. They put two women in- another shipwreck- and it was the right move. No big romance, but more of a balance to this miniature society.

There you go. It’s not necessary to have the tale’s tone be all-down, or only-up-to-go-down. But it does have to point to something else to Mysterious-Island-2really succeed. Swiss Family Robinson always emphasized the family above all; Robinson Crusoe found out a lot about what he didn’t need (and what he still did). With Mysterious Island there is a strong aspect of what it takes to be a society: Harding is elected leader and his judgment always prevails. The members of this tiny nation have their parts to play, and work hard to reap rewards with satisfaction, overcoming their differences in the process. Others can be admitted if worthy- the castaway is a wrongly accused pirate, and while the handling of the former slave Neb is still stereotypical, it’s a big step that he is accorded equal’s treatment. The group even domesticates an orangutan and raises him to near-human status. Oy, give me the English ladies in the movie, who make the point perfectly well that you can admit new members who merit our interest, but still decide to reject the pirates (who show up in both the book and

Ah yes- tonight's special.
Ah yes- tonight’s special.

the movie). Yeah, pirates with cannons, not exactly a fun development- and by the way, lest you think this tale is Sunnybrook Farm without the little girl, did I mention the volcano is going to blow!!

The book and movie have a second theme as well- the eventual discovery of the island’s former total population, Captain Nemo. Once again I found the treatment of his character and his

Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and- oops wrong movie.
Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and- oops wrong movie.

part in the plot was better done in the movie- his heroic sacrifice stayed with me since childhood when I first saw the film, and I kind of realized that he wasn’t all bad, but it was better he wasn’t coming back to the world. Pretty serious thought for a kid of eight watching a movie- maybe things don’t have to get better all the time, for everyone.

In The Plane of Dreams, the main party of adventuring heroes starts out having ejected one of their members, and admitting new ones to their society. Along the course of their new adventure, they run into some serious trouble, not quite marooned on an island but nevertheless bad. The party is looted and beaten up, and it’s somewhat a wonder why they haven’t been killed. Still, things are not good…

Zoanstahr was certainly surprised to awaken at all. Twice he had been the special target of an attack, and this time he had already seen the rest of the party fall before him. But the unusual fact that he was still alive paled to insignificance when he realized that he was completely naked.

Wm. L. Hahn. The Plane of Dreams (Kindle Locations 870-872).

Starting from there with literally nothing, the party starts its climb back up- and they must redeem their reputations as well as their belongings. It was a long haul for them, but a fun and ultimately rewarding one to witness. (That’s all I do, by the way, just watch them in action) Even the party member they rejected at the start helps to save them all,  by sacrificing his life unknown to the world. The more I think on it, the more I realize how much I’ve drawn inspiration from the work of others (and we both know what THAT word means!). For me, it was the movie first this time- but then, they read the book, so it’s all good.

And I didn’t have to wait to be rejected by a publisher before putting The Plane of Dreams out there. I guess it is getting better all the time, for me.

Why Write? Because Your Life is… EPIC!

Where “Why” Lives On

I think maybe we have kids so we can be reminded of that time we forgot, back when we were children- that phase where every answer was followed by another “why”? Our parents all gave up, just like I did, when it got somewhere around Bill Cosby’s immortal question “why is there air?”. But just this week, my daughter got on the phone with me- during a rare business trip- all in a lather about an ending she had just seen on the TV, one I knew very well and which doesn’t make sense. She’s sixteen now, the pace of “why” has settled down to where I almost miss it. I was rather busy, and this was too tough to answer on the phone. But I promised her I’d talk it through when I got back.

Before that happened, I finished the book I was reading on the train. And I answered a question for myself. WHY was I writing?

I Hate Not-Writing: Makes You Think Too Much!

Not that I’ve done much recently- things have been quite unsettled but I think the new normal is coming around. And I never stopped feeling the hunger, to get back to this particular story and face its intimidating and alluring heroine again. Once I got started, I never really needed motivation to write- I wasn’t asking why in that sense. But I had honestly lost my compass a bit- this priestess, she’ll throw you for a loop too! And I’m very thankful I decided to read the book I had with me. There are no accidents…

It’s called “Epic” by John Eldredge and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to write, especially any kind of fiction. Fair warning- the author is a religious man and his thesis is rather startling. I’d be sorry if that drove you off by itself- the book is very accessible, and it flies right by even for a moderate-pace reader like myself. But I’ll give you a couple of points from it by way of explanation.

John wasn’t asking why we write, but why we read, or watch, or listen to tales ourselves. His answer was alarmingly simple.

 

We go after these tales because at their heart ALL good stories are showing us elements of OUR story.

 

And our story, of course, is a part of THE story: this is where he gets more spiritual, but as a Catholic that doesn’t bother me a bit.

We feel the thrill of the heroism, the struggle, the romance in tales- and we recognize, deep down, that somewhere something has gone seriously wrong in the tale we’re living through. Who can fail to notice how much suffering, frustration, and yeah, betrayal exists? For us and for the world, I mean. We work for the happy ending- yeah, the happily-ever-after ending, any good person does that. We often don’t feel like it, but our lives are epic! That’s a meaningful word, of course to me- in epic fantasy the likes of which I’m trying to chronicle, things come around, the story means something, lots is at stake and needs to be saved.

So There IS a Reason

It thrilled me and brought me back to really focus on my current tale. THAT’s why I’m writing- because it helps me to chronicle the specific aspects of my world, the characters I’ve come to know, gives me clues about how to bring my own epic life to a happy conclusion.

And we all do this for each other. Probably Eldredge’s best quote is the way we likely feel, at least sometimes, about the story we are starring in:

For most of us, life feels like a movie we’ve arrived at forty-five minutes late. Something important seems to be going on… maybe.

But we’re lost, or behind the plot so often, and here’s the key of all human existence. (Pretty cool claim, huh? When you write epic fantasy you get to go after stuff like this) We cannot find our place in our story- in THE story- by ourselves. So we turn to each other and ask “what’s happened?” We watch romantic TV series, we can’t get enough super-hero movies, we check out the horror titles in the bookstore; and we listen to that crazy uncle who’s never told the truth in his life but man, can he spin a yarn after dinner.

I need an answer; so I read and I listen, and most of all these past five years, I write. And I think it’s a big part of why you read or write too- I can’t wait to see your next part, because when I enjoy it, you’re helping me to get “there” in my own epic tale.

Do It For Yourself–And For Humanity!

Don’t think so? Hey, free country- but I really recommend this book. It restored my spirits, and that has to be good for me. One more quote from Eldredge- I don’t think anyone can deny that we devour tales (and with fiction tales especially, that begs the question why), or that we have this haunted feeling of being lost. Where else in the alleged-real world can we find THIS kind of answer? Eldredge quoted a fellow named Neil Postman:

In the end, science does not provide the answers most of us require. Its story of our origin and our end is, to say the least, unsatisfactory. To the question, “How did it all begin?”, science answers, “Probably by an accident”. To the question, “How will it all end?”, science answers, “Probably by an accident”.  And to many people, the accidental life is not worth living.

Like I said, there are no accidents. It may not matter whether there is a guiding mind behind the cosmos of the alleged-real world. Maybe I’m mistaken, maybe Eldredge is. But that point about the scientific view is dead-on, to tempt the pun. And to not wander around feeling lost on the plot, to live a life with some purpose, is surely better. I’ve remembered that recently- and I will certainly begin to write again soon.

After all- my life is EPIC.

How about you?

P.S.: What ending did Genna want to know “why” about? The ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which her mother and I had finally allowed her to see. We talked about parody and satire, and I said things a bit like I have here. Maybe straight-out medieval virtues don’t exactly “fit” in our story today- Arthur and his knights would probably have to go to jail. But if that’s true, why did we laugh so hard? What was so TRUE about courage, and faith, and even chastity that we can chuckle when it’s made fun of? And more importantly, what ending are we replacing the quest for the Grail with? That might be more analysis than the troupe figured it could stand- the Muppet-master Jim Henson once said of his comedy sketches “When you’re stuck for an ending, you can always blow something up, or if that doesn’t work, throw penguins in the air”. Sometimes the ending is senseless, but it doesn’t make the story worthless- it just means it isn’t truly over yet. If you’re still alive, you know what that feels like.