The God And The Machine

I watched an interesting movie several weeks ago.  Interesting because of the ending.  The movie was “Absence of Malice,” with Paul Newman and Sally Field.  Newman plays the son of a mobster, but isn’t himself involved with the mob.  Sally Field plays a newspaper reporter to whom is leaked by an unscrupulous Justice Department employee some information that Newman is involved in the murder of a labor leader in Florida.  (The movie was shot in Florida.)  The newspaper she works for prints the story and Newman’s reputation is destroyed, and it leads to the murder of a close (female) friend of his.  But what interested me most about the movie was the ending.

Wilford Brimley portrays a member of the US Justice Department sent to Florida to do damage control when the accusations and news stories get out of hand.  Brimley was well cast; he’s a larger-than-life character with a gruff manner who gets the principal players in a room together and lays down the law.  He shuts down the investigation and threatens to prosecute anyone who doesn’t go along.  Newman is exonerated (viewers know that he was never involved all the way through the movie anyway) and Field is revealed as the naïve, gullible reporter she really was.  Then the movie ends.

Okay, so what?  This type of ending is a form of deus ex machina, or literally, “God out of a Machine.”  It refers to ancient Greek and Roman drama when a god (“deus”) was introduced near the end of a play by means of a crane (“machina”) to decide the final outcome.  So often it has a bad connotation, that using it is an indication of lazy writing.  More recently, in fiction especially, it refers to some device that is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly at the end to provide a solution.  Shakespeare even used it occasionally.  (As You Like It, for example)  If used improperly, and even willy-nilly, it can seem contrived.  As though it was something thrown in to end a play because the writer got his characters in a too convoluted plot line and/or was simply too comatose to figure a more appropriate ending.

In the movie, Brimley’s character plays the deus ex machina.  He doesn’t come in on a machine, he just walks down the hall and enters the room where the others are waiting.  But his pronouncements and decisions basically terminate the movie.  And rather abruptly, too.  However, it’s important to realize that, in this particular case, the ending isn’t contrived or staged.  The investigation was part of the Justice Department, and when it got out of hand and threatened to destroy several lives, it was natural that the higher-ups in the Department would want to end it.  Enter Brimley.

Actually, I liked the ending that way.  I found it uplifting to realize that the Justice Department took sufficient interest in the case to lower the boom on everybody.  In short, I enjoyed it.

That brings up the most important thing about a deus ex machina ending.  It has to be foreshadowed in the early part of the narrative.  Otherwise, just having a character make pronouncements right at the end without any build-up will be grossly unsatisfying and just simply fabricated.  I used the deus ex machina ending in one of my (so far unpublished) science fiction novels, but I made sure that the ending was logical and reasonable, based on incidents taking place in previous parts of the book.  So don’t reject the deus ex machina ending out of hand.  Used properly, it can work.  It’s not for everybody, sure, and shouldn’t be used in every book you write.  You are a writer, aren’t you?

Oops.  I’ve gone over 600 words.  Time to stop.

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It’s Got To Be “Right”

Over the past several years, beginning in late 2011, I’ve been sending out queries to literary agents around the country, trying to persuade one of them to take on my first novel and sell it to a publisher.  (This is what most people refer to as the “traditional” method of getting published.)  So far I’ve been singularly unsuccessful in my efforts.  Rejections nowadays come in two forms.  Some agents still actually reply to a letter, invariably by email anymore.  But some agents have decided they have just too little time to send out rejection replies, and the only way you know if you’ve been rejected is to check their website and note their usual response time.  If that amount of time, or more, has passed since you sent in your query letter and you haven’t heard from them, you can assume the agent won’t be taking you on as a client.  Sadly, that second method of query rejection is becoming more and more common.

But what I want to focus on for this blog post is the general response from those who still do reply in one form or another.  Replies are invariably short and sweet, usually one or two sentences, although I have had a few rejections that took up to three paragraphs and went into exquisite detail about how busy they are and how they can take on only a few clients at a time, and so on and so forth.  That may be important to them, but it’s hardly a prospective client.  What has become interesting to me is the use of the word “right” in so many of the rejections I’ve actually gotten.  Boiling rejections down into the few significant and concise words that actually convey a message, the word “right” occurs frequently.  The agent will say, referring to the manuscript, “It’s not right for me,” or “It’s not right for our agency at this time.”  Or, “We’re not the right agency for this project.”  Or, “This particular work is just not right for me.”  Or other variations on the concept.

I’m not sure exactly what to make of that type of response.  Of the 50 rejections I’ve received so far (that’s out of over a hundred sent out), 21 have used the word “right” in one context or another.  That’s 42 percent.  (The rest have not responded at all.)  None of these have told me anything as to what the agent thought of the manuscript, so I can’t really draw any significant conclusions from their statements.  Granted, these responses are designed to be wholly and uniformly generic and serve as a rejection for any type of manuscript that crosses their computer screen.  But it would be nice to be able to conclude something from all these rejections and revise the manuscript to reflect what people are saying.

Ah, the caprices of being a writer.

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I’m going to stick my neck out here and try and define a characteristic of fiction that is, at least to me, new.  I’ve written a few short stories as well as three novels, but when I finished a short story of about 4600 words a few weeks back, and read through it several times, I was struck by the story’s lack of a characteristic I’m going to call “import.”

What’s import, you ask?  It’s going to be hard to define, and I’m not sure I can do a very good job.  Perhaps the best way to define it is to look at stories that lack the concept.  A story without import is bland, unimaginative, listless.  That’s not to say that a story without import can’t be well written, or well conceived, or well executed.  But when I finished reading through my story I asked myself, “What the hell was that?”  It wasn’t that the story wasn’t satisfying, and it wasn’t that I didn’t get anything out of it, but it fell flat on its face, and I was left with the feeling of, “So what?”

To be effective, a story has to mean something.  It not only has to have a real beginning, middle and end, the final impression left in the reader has to be real.  My story didn’t do that.  I thought it was reasonably well written, it has a real beginning, middle and end all right, and when I was through, I felt it gave the reader a lot of interesting information.  I even had to do some research to get my facts correct.  Yet, it was flat.  Dullsville.  Again, I said to myself, so what?

This was the first time this had happened.  All my stories I feel give the reader something significant to take away.  But this one didn’t, and I can’t really define why not.  A story has to leave an impression on the reader.  That can be either a positive or negative impression.  Leaving a negative impression is at least an impression.  If a reader says, “I hated that story,” that’s better than, “I got nothing out of it,” or “I didn’t understand it,” or “So what.”

I’m not sure how I can fix the story to make it more significant.  It actually tells the story I wanted to tell, and does it effectively, with even a little humor, yet it lacks something important.  The story falls into a category called magical realism, a relatively new genre which is sort of a subdivision of science fiction, and a genre I’m just getting into.  I suspect no reputable journal or magazine would ever accept it, though; it’s too bland.  I could spice it up, yet that would be to pollute it with details that have little to do with the plot.  That probably wouldn’t fix the problem anyway.

Ah, the vagaries of the writing life.

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Jonas Salk–A Book Review

I just finished reading Jonas Salk, A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, published in 2015 by Oxford University Press.  Here’s my take on the book and the main character.

Jonas Salk was born on October 28, 1914 in a tenement in East Harlem, New York.  His mother was a Russian immigrant, his father a natural-born American of Lithuanian ancestry.  He was intelligent and eager to learn, prodded both by his strong-willed mother and his innate desire to learn.  He was quite intelligent in fact—he skipped several grades in school and went on to attend City College of New York and eventually University and Bellevue Medical College where he graduated with an MD degree in June, 1939.  When World War II broke out, he was classified IIA (deferred in support of national health), and never actually served in the Army, though later he worked with the Army in testing an influenza vaccine.  He’d gotten his first position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he began his work on an early influenza vaccine, an accomplishment he doesn’t very often get credit for.  In fact, some of the techniques he devised in that study helped make the vaccine feasible.

Here Jacobs briefly reviews the history of vaccines, including Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, Pasteur’s rabies vaccine, and Max Theiler’s yellow fever vaccine.  Salk’s influenza vaccine was a killed vaccine, made by inactivating the virus with formaldehyde.

In October of 1947, Salk moved to the University of Pittsburgh where he continued to work on influenza and where he tested it in Army recruits.  It was here he started the work he’s best known for, an inactivated poliovirus vaccine.  His name is so synonymous with the inactivated vaccine it’s even in the dictionary to this day.  (Look under “Salk vaccine.”)  By this time, polio was a worldwide scourge.  Epidemics came around every few years when children (mostly) were cut down with fever, pain, and eventual paralysis.  The paralysis could affect one or more limbs or the breathing muscles, requiring the child be hospitalized in a full-body respirator, better known as an iron lung.  Deaths from the disease were common.  Salk himself, though he grew up in a lower-class neighborhood of New York City, never caught either influenza or polio, thanks in large part to this mother who kept him inside studying more than many others of his generation.

Salk’s work on the polio vaccine was funded in large part by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP).  It had been started in 1937 by President Franklin Roosevelt (himself a polio survivor.)  Interestingly, Jacobs reports that FDR attended a Boy Scout rally where he most likely became infected.  I’d never heard that story, though she gives it without attribution, unusual in a book so full of references on all aspects of Salk’s life.  Roosevelt picked Basil O’Connor to head up the NFIP, and O’Connor became one of Salk’s closest friends and allies for a long time, almost until his death.  O’Connor got Salk the money he needed to do the work on the vaccine.  It was the NFIP that started the “March of Dimes” program, though interestingly, entertainer Eddie Cantor was the one who actually coined the term.  Salk continued to receive funding from the NFIP for many years, even though his founding of the Salk Foundation in La Jolla, California.

It’s instructive to look back on Jonas Salk’s work with the hindsight of history.  I can state from my own experience that poliovirus is a relatively easy virus to grow and work with.  Salk took advantage of the new science of cell culture, where living cells could be grown in a glass vessel such as a test tube or a flask.  Viruses have to have living cells to grow in.  One type of early culture cell was made from the kidneys of monkeys (a technique still in use, though not for making vaccines), and poliovirus grew easily in it.  I’ve grown poliovirus in many different types of cells, including continuous cell lines such as HeLa, where it grows well.  So it’s easy to see why polio was one of the first viruses used for vaccine production.  Salk could get large amounts of it, and it could be titrated (measured) easily.  He inactivated it with formalin (formaldehyde dissolved in water), which killed the virus but kept its ability to induce immunity in an individual.  The techniques were there, and Salk took advantage of them.  Ironically, it is for this probable reason that Jonas Salk was never inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in the US.  His work on the inactivated vaccine, though a tremendous advance in the ongoing fight against infectious disease, may not have risen—in the eyes of the members of the Academy—to a level that met their guidelines of “distinguished . . . achievement in original research.”  Salk was hurt, and carried his disappointment the rest of his life.

If there is a dark figure in Jonas Salk’s life, it would have to be Albert Sabin.  Sabin criticized Salk beginning even before the inactivated vaccine came out.  Sabin called him a “kitchen chemist.”  “You could go,” he said, “into the kitchen and do what he did.”  Sabin eventually developed a live-virus vaccine for polio, and it became the standard vaccine in the US (though not in all other countries), even though there have been reports of the live vaccine causing paralytic disease in some people.  Sabin steadfastly refused to ever acknowledge this, however.  Sabin took every opportunity to belittle Salk and his vaccine, promoting the live-virus vaccine whenever he could.  It sounds like jealousy to me.  Salk got the first vaccine against polio and the major share of the recognition.

On the dust jacket of the book is a picture of Salk holding a rack of about thirty test tubes.  He’s holding the rack above his head and looking at the bottom of the tubes.  While the picture was probably posed, he’s examining the tubes for something.  Most probably he’s looking at the color of the liquid in the tubes.  The liquid is a nutrient medium the monkey kidney cells grow in.  If the medium is pink, it means the virus killed the cells, while yellow means the cells grew and were not infected.  Behind him are many more racks, a testament to the huge amount of work it took to develop the vaccine.

Jonas Salk went on to work on AIDS  and cancer, developing an early inactivated vaccine against AIDS.  It didn’t work very well (actually, most vaccines against AIDS don’t work.)  The Salk Foundation he set up in La Jolla continues to this day, and continues to try to work toward his vision of merging science and the humanities.  That had been a life-long dream of his, though it didn’t work out exactly as he envisioned it.  Salk was always a visionary, yet took no remuneration from his fame as the conqueror of polio.  He worked almost entirely on the salary he drew from his academic appointments.

Many vaccines today are made from recombinant DNA which eliminates the need for inactivating a whole virus.  The influenza vaccine, however, is still made of inactivated virus, still grown in embryonated hens eggs, using techniques that, though slightly changed from Salk’s day, would be familiar to him.  Formaldehyde is now considered a carcinogen, and isn’t used any more.  Monkey kidney cells can contain other viruses and these viruses can show up in a vaccine.  But it’s interesting to look back at Jonas Salk and learn from his work.  Poliomyelitis has been almost entirely eradicated from the earth, thanks in large part to the inactivated vaccine.  Polio still exists in a few third-world countries, especially those torn by war.  I suggest this book be required reading for any biological scientist, virologist or not, and undoubtedly will become the definitive account of Salk’s life.  At least for a while.

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The Alien Paradox

Enrico Fermi is credited with asking the question that forms the basis for “Fermi’s Paradox.”  That is, where are all the aliens?  Why haven’t we been visited here by aliens from another planet?  There are so many stars in our galaxy, and many of those stars, even perhaps all of them, have planets orbiting around them.  Surely some of those planets must have life existing on them that has developed the capability of traveling the galaxy and visiting other stars and planets.  With hundreds of billions of stars and maybe ten times that in planets, where are they?  Why haven’t we seen them?  Why hasn’t someone landed and said, “Take me to your leader?”

I’ve seen articles recently that attempt to answer the question by postulating several hypotheses.  One of the most common is, “It’s too far—they can’t get here.”  That hypothesis usually falls to the argument that a sufficiently advanced civilization should be able to build and send out a ship large enough to allow space explorers to live out their lifespans and spawn ancestors as the ship sails through space.  A sort of “Genesis Ship.”  Any visitors to our planet could be descendants of the original spacefarers.  That would take an immensely large ship, but who’s to say it couldn’t be done?

That hypothesis also falls to the argument that perhaps an advanced civilization has learned how to open a wormhole, or failing that, to use an already existing one, and travel from one section of the galaxy to another with just a short hop.  Who’s to say that couldn’t be done?

Generally, we tend to argue ourselves out of almost any supposed block to long distance space travel.  It can be done, we confidently assert.  And, we continue, here’s how.  And we launch into detailed explanations of how they could get here.  So, where are they?

Let me throw out a different possibility: perhaps we have been visited here.  Maybe they’ve come in droves, and they’re all around us.  Maybe they came many thousands of years ago and left, muttering something to themselves about nothing here worth visiting.  Perhaps they set out space buoys to warn other travelers away.  “Don’t go to that blue planet.  It’s worthless.”  After all, we still do see UFO’s in the sky.  Not all UFO’s have been identified.  Some are balloons, some are government projects, some are airplanes, some are blimps, and so on, but what about the ones we can’t identify?  It seems logical to me that if aliens were to visit us here, they’d want to keep their presence quiet.  For whatever reason.  How can you read the mind of an alien if you don’t even know whether it exists in the first place?

Any alien capable of traveling the galaxy, or through a wormhole, might also have developed the capability of masking his presence to the point that we don’t even know he’s here.  In that sense, the Romulan cloaking device of Star Trek might not be so farfetched.

Here’s looking at you.

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The Bell-Shaped Curve

As an unpublished writer, I don’t have the experience of seeing reviews of my books on Amazon or some other web or paper-based site.  Perhaps soon, though.  However, I’ve heard from and spoken to a few writers who seemed to be surprised at the reviews they’ve gotten, especially negative ones.  I’ve decided to steel myself against reviews, both bad and good, by retreating to the information tucked away in the bell-shaped curve.  I suspect most of you who read this blog are familiar with that curve: it’s high in the middle, and tapers off to almost nothing at each end.  It describes so much of human life.  We hear how professors in college grade on the curve so that most of the middle grades will fall in the center where the curve is largest, while the extremes of grades, the A-pluses and the D-minuses will fall at each end.  The assumption is that students in a class are concentrated roughly in the center, near the B-minuses and C-pluses.

I’m going to make another assumption too, that reviews of my books will fall on a similar bell-shaped curve.  I may be wrong in the long run, but that’s my expectation right now.  I figure that most reviews will be moderate, and fall in the center.  I may get several excellent reviews, and there almost certainly will be those who take in inordinate amount of pleasure in panning my books, as well as others, and give them totally despicable reviews.  I feel that anyone who publishes a book must realize that reviews are going to be both good and bad.  So, I figure, why sweat it?  There will be positive and negative reviews, sure, and some in the middle.  Certainly, a writer would like his reviews to be skewed toward the good side.  After all, no one wants bad reviews (even though they say bad reviews can help a writer by pointing out flaws and inconsistencies.)  But you have to take the bad with the good and look for a variety of reviews.

I’ve heard some writers say “Never check your Amazon reviews.  It’ll just drive you crazy.”  I haven’t decided whether I want to be the type of writer who checks his reviews repeatedly and incessantly, or ignores them altogether.  But I am assuming the reviews will fall somewhere along the bell-shaped curve.  If they do, I won’t be surprised.

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Most of the time now, I’m retired from a life of research.  I worked with viruses most of my professional life.  Now I’ve moved on to trying to write science-fiction novels.  Writing is more than an excuse to keep busy, though; it’s a permanent part of my life and I enjoy the time spent in front of a computer creating characters and situations and locations for them to act out.  New planets and suns, and asteroids and moons—these are my life now.

But there’s a part of my life that I’ve somewhat outgrown recently.  That is, my hobbies.  I still maintain that hobbies are essential for a complete lifestyle and are a good way to help take the mind off the frustrations of the daily grind.  I have several that I indulge in more or less frequently, but the most important and the longest-lasting hobby I’ve ever had was model railroading.

I’ve had an interest in trains since I was old enough to know what they were.  I’ve always enjoyed riding them or watching them or taking pictures of them.  And it seemed natural many long years ago to start building models of them and to set up a model railroad in the basement or a spare room or wherever I could find the space.  But model railroading is more than just a diversion from novel writing.  There are actually a lot of similarities.  First, however, let’s look at the overall concept of model railroading.

Building a model railroad comes under two broad, general headings: use a real railroad (usually referred to as “the prototype”) as a system to model, or devise a fictitious railroad and make up things as you go along.  I’ve done the second most of the time.  This is where the similarity to novel writing begins.  People who model a real prototype frequently make models of real objects and events.  They make their engines and cars resemble the prototype.  They use place names of real towns and geographic features.  And so on.  But those of us who make up fictitious railroads have to come up with fictitious towns and all the other things that populate a railroad.  We generally use concepts and operating practices from prototype railroads, but we put everything in a fictitious situation.  And that’s a lot like developing a novel.

A novel is a fictitious story, but placed in a recognizable world.  Even in science fiction, a world has to be realistic and consistent.  It won’t do to have alien creatures living within the core of a star somewhere where the temperature can reach millions of degrees.  Likewise, in a model railroad, the layout has to be realistic.  It has to feature not only the railroad, but houses, stations, industries, stores, towns, bridges, rivers or arroyos, mountains and hills, valleys and depressions, and so on.  It must sit in a lifelike environment or be totally unbelievable.  So I’ve graduated from building fictitious worlds on a board in a spare room with choo-choo trains running round and round, to placing those worlds on a computer screen and going round and round with readers, critics, editors, and other publishing personnel.  There are frustrations, sure, but overall it hasn’t been such a bad transition.

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