Archive for May, 2011

First vs. Third

This posting is an update on the progress of my trilogy of science fiction novels about the inhabitants of the planet Anthanos.  I’ve titled them The Anthanian Imperative (an explanation of where the name comes from is given in the first chapter of the first novel) and designated each with a color.  The first is The Anthnanian Imperative–Blue, which refers to the overall color of a planet they land on, i.e., ‘the blue planet.’  The second is Green (a green planet), and the third, Red.  The manuscript of the first is in the hands of a professional editor right now (I’m writing this on 5/29/2011.  Damn, I missed the Indianapolis 500) the second is also finished, awaiting the critique on the first and will probably be submitted later, and the third, well, that’s what I want to talk about here.  I’ve just started it, and I ran into a small problem.

Not an insurmountable problem, but I had to resolve a question in my mind about how I wanted to format the novel.  The first two novels were written in the third person exclusively, usually called 3rd person point-of-view, or POV.  In each of those two novels I’ve had at least two characters whose POV I’m using, but always in third person.  That’s a natural form for beginners like me, it’s the simplest and easiest to work with.

But with the third novel, Red, I wanted to do something different.  Before I ever started scribbling out notes to myself on paper or typed one word on the computer screen, I’d decided to write it in first person.  I’d try my hand at it, I thought, as though all I had to do was just make the change and everything would fall into place without difficulty.  So, I started out about a month ago, finally getting the story down in a tangible format where I could look at it, read through it, and work on it to my heart’s content.  After about 15 pages, I stumbled and fell.

The problem wasn’t that first person is more difficult than third; not really, I had no difficulty getting the story going and putting words on the screen.  The problem I ran into was that first person is substantially more confining than third.  To really make first person work, all the story has to be filtered through the sensory apparatus of the POV character.  The author has to get deep down inside the character’s head, and that’s limiting.  If that person isn’t aware  of something, the author isn’t supposed to put it down.  So I stopped where I was, took a good look at the words I’d written and wondered, is this the direction I want the novel to go?  After thinking about it for a day or so, I began to revise it, re-working it into  third person.  I was hoping I could have a first-person novel under my belt by the time the trilogy came out, but it doesn’t seem that’s the way it’ll be.  Third person, here I come.

Granted, in using third person, each POV character is limited to knowing what comes through his/her eyes, ears, etc., but there’s more flexibility.  In this case, the author is outside the character’s head, and areas of backstory, background, etc., can be written in more easily, and the flow of the story becomes smoother.  It’s that flow I’m after.  I want my novels to read easily, to flow from the page into the mind of the reader without the reader knowing he’s actually reading something.  In first person, I couldn’t get past the limited knowledge of the POV character, and couldn’t get around it either.  It was too jerky, knocking you around as you read and I don’t have the experience to work out the problem.  At least not yet.  I don’t want to take the time right now, either.

Perhaps I caved in, perhaps the story in Red isn’t made for first person, perhaps–perhaps–perhaps–you can say what you want, but Red will, in all likelihood, remain in third person.  I am thinking, though, of putting in small sections in first person, partly to vary the narrative, partly as a way of proving to myself that I can do it.  We’ll see.  Stick around.

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Definitely Not Twins

Last Friday evening I watched, for the first time, the movie The Social Network, about how Mark Zuckerberg created the social networking site, Facebook.  (Full disclosure here, I have a page on Facebook.)  After the movie I went home, and later that evening I watched an episode of the science-fiction television series, Star Trek, The Next Generation.  (It’s usually abbreviated TNG.)  In this particular episode, the android Data (for those not familiar with TNG, he’s a machine, not a biological organism) had a particularly prominent role.  But as I watched the TV that night, with the movie still fresh in my mind, I began mentally superimposing the image of Data’s face over that of Zuckerberg’s in the movie.  There were eerie similarities, though in the end they were definitely not twins.

A caveat here: all I know about Zuckerberg I got from the movie.  I’ve never met the guy, and, truth be told, I’m not real keen on meeting him either.  It definitely would not make my day.  What does make my day?  Sitting at a computer and adding a thousand words to my newest manuscript.  But I digress.

In the movie, Zuckerberg was portrayed as an arrogant, insufferable though highly intelligent Harvard geek, capable of leaping tall mounds of computer programming in a single bound.  I recall little emotion from his pale, impassive face.  And that’s what got me to comparing Data with the geek.  Data, or rather the actor portraying him, is made up heavily with a pale, whitish cast to emphasize his “non-biological,” machine-like existence.  The movie Zuckerberg was so much like that.

But there were more similarities.  Data is unemotional, as was Zuckerberg.  Data is a vast store of information, capable of disgorging it at a moment’s notice, and so was Zuckerberg.  Zuckerberg, as well as several of his computer geek friends, could drop out of contact with society by adopting a process of being “wired in” in which no one was allowed to bother or interrupt them while they filled computer screens with programming code.   Now, Data doesn’t normally drop out like that, but in the particular episode I watched, he did.   Other similarities abound, but I’m not going to bore you with them.

There were dissimilarities, too.  Data has been programmed not to injure or kill biological entities unless necessary, as, say, in wartime.  For example, Data had no trouble blasting the members of the Borg Continuum, those half-biological and half-machine entities that threatened Earth so many years in the future.  Zuckerberg never physically abused anyone, but mentally and emotionally he seemed to have little regard to precious human values, like blogging about a woman’s bra size.   I saw him as a shrewd, calculating, manipulative person, bent on getting exactly what he wanted, with no regard for anyone standing in his way.  (Keep in mind, I’m going on only what I saw in the movie.)  Data couldn’t even begin to conceive of treating someone that way.  Data is well capable of engaging in conversation with humans, though his grasp of complicated concepts in language, such as similes and metaphors, is practically nonexistent.  Zuckerberg knows all that stuff, but fails to use it.  In short, Data at least cared about people; Z-berg didn’t seem to.

Where’s this leading us?  They say that truth is stranger than fiction.  In other words, you can’t write too wild a character without someone yelling as to how that person is unlikely to really exist, and your writing suffers from feeble and impotent imagination.  Granted, writing a character as outrageous as Zuckerberg in a science-fiction novel might not be stretching the logic of character development too far, though it might strain the reader’s imagination slightly.   But that’s what’s great about science fiction.  It’s capable of bringing to life the wild, the weird, and the bizarre.  The strange and supernatural inhabit its pages, travelling faster than light and disappearing into the past or the future in the blink of an eye.  The character that, in real life, might provoke closer examination by the legal system gets by with all sorts of grotesque and oddball schemes.  You might find Zuckerberg in a Jodi Picoult novel, but you won’t find Data.

Enough said.

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Hiding in a Drawer

A recent blog by Nathan Bransford (www.nathanbransford.com) caught my attention a few days ago and gave me a topic to write about in this week’s blog.  He, and a lot of other people I’ve known or heard about, started their writing careers by penning a novel or two (or three or four or more), and stuffing them in a drawer somewhere.  Presumably, these manuscripts, either unfinished or, at the very least finished though unrevised, were ignored or totally forgotten.  They had a good reason for doing this.  These manuscripts represented landmarks, or at least mileposts, on that person’s journey toward becoming a published author.  A first manuscript is frequently terrible and not worth reading and wouldn’t get an agent’s or editor’s first glance.  Second manuscripts may be better, but the first one serves as a learning process along the way.  Writing, like most everything in life, is learned, and some people feel you have to drop a few manuscripts along the way to complete the learning curve.

It’s a lot like what NASA went through in its first years back in the 50’s and 60’s.  Lots of rockets blew up on the launch pad or had to be destroyed shortly after lift-off because they flew off course.  Some wag at NASA once said, “No launch is ever a total waste.  It can always serve as a bad example.”

Enter the manuscript in the drawer.  It may be totally gross, but it serves its part on the learning curve.  The learning writer scribbles out another one, and it, too, goes in the drawer.  And so on, until a satisfactory manuscript comes out and gets published.

I object.  I didn’t do it that way.

I have a first manuscript, as all novelists have to have.  But mine is still in progress.  Right now it’s in the hands of an editor.  Along the way it has passed through the hands of friends kind enough to read and critique it, through several reading groups who critiqued parts or the entire manuscript, to the point it’s at now.  It’s been twelve years since I started it, and it has undergone so many revisions I can’t even begin to count them.  Many of those revisions were limited to minor things like the wording of a sentence, but several were concerned with vicious transformations that altered it in major ways.  Along the way I received tons of help and suggestions from members of those critique groups, and in many cases, their suggestions led to a better product.  But it’s still the same novel, the same plot, the same characters, the same ending, as it was when it began.  It’s just that it got better and better, to the point where I felt comfortable sending it to a professional editor.

I could have put that manuscript in a drawer sometime in my life and forgotten about it and called it a bad example.  I’ve been aware of people doing that for a long time.  But that wasn’t for me.  I have a difficult time visualizing the concept of spending hours and hours on a manuscript, only to chuck it in a drawer or a file cabinet, and simply calling it a bad example.  That’s not for me.

I’ve spent too much time on that novel, and setting it aside looks too much like giving up.  A blown-up NASA launch may be a “bad example,” but the rocket ship that blew up cost millions and millions of dollars, and tossing it aside like litter to a kitty isn’t my idea of a successful launch.  No sir, I worked on that novel until it was finished, and I’m proud of what I accomplished.

My personal method of learning to write novels may not be for everyone, and I fully realize that others may be willing to sacrifice a novel or two during their learning process.  If so, fine.  But if you have a novel or two in a drawer, why not pull it out and revise it?  The revisions may have to be drastic, the plot may change, the characters may have to be refined, the ending altered, but maybe it’s salvageable.  If you’re just starting out, give it a try.  Stick with it–it’s good practice.  Seems a waste to spend that much time on something only to give up and go on to something else.

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HeLa Cells Revisited

A year ago, in May, 2010, I posted a blog entry about the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.  It’s a personal history of Ms. Skloot on what she found when she tried to track the derivation of the most important cell line in biology, HeLa.  (Note the way the term is capitalized.)  At the time I wrote that entry, the book was on the best-seller lists, and, having worked with HeLa cells, I was fascinated by the presence of a book that popularized such an arcane scientific item.  Normally, I would have expected to be talking about HeLa cells only with other biological scientists.  Why should a book about those cells have become so popular?

Still, the book continues to grace the best-seller lists.  Not only the New York Times listings, but those of book clubs and book sellers.  It has been the topic of discussion by groups that have no scientific background and training.  The book is, as I mentioned in my earlier posting, well-written, and it gives a full account of the derivation of the cells and the personal history of the participants.  That, I suspect, partly explains its popularity.  There was a person, a human, a life, a soul, behind the cells.  There was also substantial racial discrimination at that time, the early 1950’s.  The donor, Henrietta Lacks, was real, from a poor black tobacco farming family, and when she developed cervical cancer, a biopsy of the cells, taken without her permission was placed in culture without her knowledge or consent, all perfectly legal at the time.  She wasn’t paid for the cells, neither did she or her family receive anything from the eventual proliferation of those cells and their subsequent transfer to laboratories around the world.  The financial rewards of the companies that distributed the cells were tremendous.  All of this has the makings of a good story of the little guy (should say “gal” here) being used and abused by the establishment.  Perhaps that’s the story that should be.  But that’s only part of the picture.

In my previous posting, I noted that the New York Times, in its best seller listings, used the fact that the Lacks family wasn’t paid for the cells or the subsequent development of them in its one sentence description of the book.  It still does.  I also noted that, had I written that one liner, I would have emphasized the importance of the cells to research, to public health, to diagnosis, etc.  And I still would.

Being a scientist, and having worked with HeLa cells (a lot), of course I look on them as a tool.  They are as much a part of the laboratory as the flasks the cells are grown in or the liquid medium that feeds and nourishes the cells as they lie on the bottom of the flask.  Granted, the cells may have been the most important tool in the lab, but they were only a tool.  If that “only” gets your dander up, so be it.  It’s no exaggeration to say that HeLa cells may have been the most important tool in some phases of biochemical and virological research ever.  This is how I look at them.

Popular culture nowadays, though, focuses on the tragedy of the Lacks family.  Certainly, Henrietta Lacks should have been paid for the biopsy, and some remuneration should be made to the family (Henrietta died on October 4, 1951, without ever knowing what happened to her cells).  By now, though, that would be difficult, and calculating an appropriate payment would be almost impossible.  I understand from the book that the Lacks family still resents scientists telling them how important these cells were in so many of the different areas of biological research.  I can appreciate their exasperation.  But we scientists are a stubborn lot, and we will continue to look on the cells as a tool, remuneration or no.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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A Lesson from the Past

A few days ago, I was watching a PBS program on how the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes (1485-1547) conquered the Aztec population in what is now Mexico, and I was intrigued by a parallel to modern life.  Without going into a lot of detail about the invasion, Cortes, with a force of Spanish and local indigenous people he picked up along the way, and much smaller than the Aztec forces arrayed against him, defeated the Aztecs, captured and killed their leader, Moctezuma II, and made the country a Spanish colony.  How did he do it?  Basically he had superior firepower.

The Aztecs had never seen horses, guns and gunpowder, and had no concept of the wheel.  Yet their civilization flourished in central Mexico, and they built large cities and magnificent buildings, many of which are still visible.  Their capital city had over two hundred thousand inhabitants.  They were highly sophisticated in mathematics, astronomy, and devised a complicated calendar.  They were a great civilization, no doubt, in spite of the fact that they practiced human sacrifice.  Yet they were conquered by a smaller force.

Cortes’s army was, in today’s terminology, a quantum leap ahead of the Aztecs.  It’s difficult to imagine what the average Aztec individual though of a weapon that made a thunderous noise and shot a projectile that could kill a person at a distance.  Or what he thought of the presence of horses, huge animals that people could ride, and in so doing, travel much faster than a man could run.  To them, these must have been, at the same time, awe-inspiring and terrifying.  How many Aztec warriors were killed because they simply didn’t know how to react?

What’s this got to do with today?  Certainly, a number of lessons can be derived from the defeat of the Aztecs, but what I want to focus on is the future.  This story would make a good basis for a science fiction novel, but it could be extended to science fact as well.  If a smaller, but much more highly advanced army (perhaps I should call it an invasion force) can defeat an army of superior numbers but inferior weaponry, how much chance do we on Earth have of a force of aliens from outer space?

So far, there’s never been any seriously documented invasion of Earth from outer space.  There hasn’t even been a well-documented visit, Roswell, NM, notwithstanding.  A few people claim to have been abducted by aliens, but no one has any real proof.  None of that, however, means it couldn’t happen.  Were we invaded by a force from the stars, they would almost certainly be scientifically superior.  How else would they know how to travel the immense distances through space in order to reach us here?  They would have to come from outside our solar system, as there doesn’t appear to be any place in our system that could allow development of the type of living beings we have on Earth.  We’re almost certainly alone in this solar system.

But other systems are a different matter.  Highly sophisticated militaristic forms may be lurking out there, salivating at the prospect of annexing our lovely planet.  Do they really exist?  No one knows.  But if they’re capable of traveling to Earth, they must be far more advanced than we, since we can barely make it to the moon and back.  That almost certainly would include weaponry.  In short, if we get invaded by Conquistadors from outer space, we’ve had it.  They could probably take us down like a cat taking down a mouse.  Take a lesson from the Aztecs.  Let’s hope there’s no alien Cortes out there in his faster-than-light spaceship.

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