Archive for September, 2013

Mission Impossible

Remember the old television series “Mission Impossible”?  It ran from 1966 to 1973 and featured an ultra-secret team of spies and covert operators who carried out highly sensitive missions for the (presumably) US government.  The head of the Impossible Mission force was played by Peter Graves, and the series won several Emmys and Golden Globe awards during its run.  (For the purposes of this blog, forget about the Tom Cruise movies which weren’t anywhere nearly as good.)  I watched almost every episode of that series during its run on TV and enjoyed the way the characters carried out their jobs with confidence and aplomb.  And that’s what I want to discuss here.

Every episode of “Mission Impossible” ran a characteristic course.  The head of the team was given an assignment, he picked out a team, and they went about their business, frequently in a foreign country.  They calmly and coolly got the job done and returned home, without giving away their mission or their identities.  And that was all there was to it.  No party afterward, nothing on the news the next day, no statements from the State Department, no announcements from the President.  And no artificial, unrealistic enhancement of tension from the script writers, either.

I blogged once how Dr. McCoy in the original “Star Trek” series would frequently argue with Captain Kirk for no reason other than what appeared to be an enhancement of the tension.  I didn’t like it.  It was so unrealistic and artificial, and it detracted from the audience’s understanding of the character’s development.  Dr. McCoy was very uncharacteristic as a physician sometimes.  Fortunately, none of that occurred in “Mission Impossible,” and I very much appreciated it.

Some might have criticized the characters in “Mission Impossible” as being too calm, cool and collected, but I never did.  They went about their duties and got the job done.  Nobody yelled at anyone else.  There were no arguments and no discussions; no artificial enhancement of the tension at all.  No one questioned any orders.  Each person knew his/her job and did it.  Period.  The tension came from the necessity of the team to do its job in a very difficult and secret environment, and then get out without being caught or revealed.  They did it week after week, and of course, you, as the viewer, knew they’d get out by the end of the hour every time, but you were glued to the screen, watching how they did it.  The fact that you knew they weren’t going to get caught and that you knew they’d do their job within that one hour didn’t matter, you watched anyway.  (On one episode, the female lead, played by Barbara Bain, was captured, and the show was about how they got her out.  Secretly and covertly, of course, using the same straight-forward techniques they used in all the other episodes.)

For someone like me, who has a strong interest in process, i.e., how things get done, I took the show to heart.  The show was a demonstration of the fact that a writer doesn’t need to use artificial means of inflating tension in his stories just because he’s been told that there has to be tension or conflict on every page.  Tension comes from within the setting.  It comes from the situation the characters find themselves in and it can exist even when they are calmly and coolly doing their jobs.  Tension comes from knowing there will be a severe punishment if they are caught, especially if the penalty is death, as it would have been in some of the fictitious countries in which the Impossible Mission team found themselves.  I am willing to admit that perhaps this type of tension-building may work better on the screen than in a novel, but the concept is the same.  Get tension in your setting and plot, not just people yelling at each other.

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What Do You Do With Books?

On one of the ubiquitous episodes of Seinfeld that populate late evening television fare, Jerry Seinfeld asks why people would keep books once they’ve read them.  Apparently Jerry either doesn’t read many books or gets rid of them after he’s read them.  Or perhaps he reads only books that he’s checked out of the library.  Let’s hope he reads at least a few every now and then.  He says that once he reads a book, he’s not interested in keeping it, and that he has no use for a book once read.  I don’t know if that’s the opinion of the real Jerry Seinfeld,  though it might be the opinion of the show’s writer, Larry David.

I beg to disagree with Jerry.  I keep most of the books I’ve read, and this blog entry is an attempt to explain why.  I may not do a very good job, but here goes.  One reason I keep books once I’ve read them is to show off to visitors how many books I’ve read.  Granted, that may be somewhat egotistical, but it does let people know that I am reasonably well read, a personal attribute I’m not shy about revealing.  Right now I have probably only 10 to 20 percent of all the books I’ve read over my lifetime, fiction and non-fiction.  Many I’ve read were checked out of the library, many were in my parent’s collection when I was growing up (that’s how I read Moby Dick), and some have been lost in moving, donated to other organizations, or loaned and never returned.  I remember loaning out Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and never got it back.  (Where did the concept of “cold” blood come from?  Blood isn’t cold.)

Another reason for keeping books, especially non-fiction books, is to use them as reference.  Right now I’m working on the third section of my Anthanian Imperative trilogy and I’m using several selected personal characteristics of Adolf Hitler as a basis for the major antagonist of the book.  Some of the books of the historian William L. Shirer have come in handy since he covered WWII and the events that led up to it, not from the Allied point of view, but from inside Germany.  That gave him a good vantage point to gain insights into Hitler’s personality.  (Hitler’s always a good model for a despicable tyrant.)  I’m certainly not basing my character totally on Hitler by any means–that would be grossly unimaginative–and If you read my book you may not be able to point out what I made up and what is factual research, but the books of Shirer’s that I’ve kept in my collection show a personal side of the absolute ruler that doesn’t always come through in history books.

Another reason for keeping books is that I like to read and I’ll get tired of reading new stuff.  Sometimes I’ll grab an older book and begin reading it again just for the sheer pleasure of revisiting an old friend.  I’ve read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that way several times.  Others, too.

I think another reason for keeping books around is for the simple fact of having books around.  It’s satisfying to know I’ve read most of them.  A bookshelf is a good piece of furniture to place against an otherwise empty wall.  The dust covers are colorful, too.

Speaking of bookshelves, mine are becoming full.  What does one do with a book for which no place exists?  I haven’t reached that point yet, but it seems a relatively minor difficulty that shouldn’t keep me from buying more books.  (I just got a new science fiction book yesterday.)  I can always stack one book on top of another.  Or stack books on top of the bookcase.  I’d buy another bookcase, but in my small apartment, wall space is limited.

Why do you keep your books around?

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The Plausible Impossible

I’ll have to admit right up front that the title of this posting, “The Plausible Impossible,” is a term I didn’t make up, but got it from another source.  But more on that later.  First I want to define it.

By “plausible impossible,” I mean something that is actually impossible is made to seem plausible.  Plausible means that, superficially at least, it could have happened, or looks like it could have happened.  This is basically what science fiction is all about.  Sci-fi tries to tell stories that could have happened, even though we know that the laws of physics (or chemistry or biology) make it totally impossible.  For example, I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about a human cancer cell line, HeLa, that was transformed by the genome of a virus to alter its growth abilities and make it grow wild, not only in the body of the woman where it originated, but in culture outside her body.  It’s been growing like that for over fifty years.  Then I got to thinking: what would happen if we were to try to reconstitute a human out of those cells?  Would that person have super powers?  What would that person look like with his/her cells constantly dividing unchecked?  That might make a good science-fiction story.  Medically speaking, though, it would be impossible because the genome of those cells, as a result of having been in culture for so long, is so fractured and so modified that it doesn’t resemble anything like a human genome.  Some chromosomes have been lost and others have been duplicated to the extent that there is trisomy within the cells, i.e,, a third copy of one or more chromosomes.  That’s weird and it shows just how screwed up the HeLa genome really is.

So, making a person from cells that have grown in culture for a long time would be totally impossible, but a good writer might be able to construct a plausible story about a human so made.  An interesting concept.  That’s what science fiction is all about.

Other examples of the plausible impossible are faster-than-light spaceships and time machines.  Though both of these may be found to be possible in the distant future, today we consider them impossible, yet writers constantly write good science fiction using them.  Star Wars and Star Trek both use faster-than-light space ships.  Though the stories are physically impossible, we readers suspend our disbelief and accept them for what they are: stories; not reality.

Above I said I’d reveal where I got the term “plausible impossible,”  The term comes from a Walt Disney story on Disneyland, the TV show all about the world Walt Disney created back in the 1950’s, and the precursor to Disneyland in Anaheim, California.  He didn’t use it with regard to science fiction, though, he used it to refer to cartoon characters.  Cartoon characters have at least this one concept in common with sci-fi characters.  Both have to act believably, even when they are doing things that are impossible.  Like ducks and mice and dogs talking and carrying on a lifestyle that resembles that of humans.  So, it seems, the plausible impossible actually dominates a large part of our literature, from Superman to Donald Duck.  Maybe you have other examples of the plausible impossible.

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As a beginning writer, I’ve been told frequently and I’ve read many times never to use the passive voice in writing.  (One critic even said it leads to effeminacy and homosexuality.)  It’s supposed to add unnecessary words and not be clear as to who is doing the action.  It also subverts the natural word order for English sentences and makes it harder for the reader to process the information.  While some of this is true, that’s not always a reason for not using the passive voice.  My complaint about these criticisms stems from the question about who is doing the action.  Sometimes the “actor” in a passive-voice sentence is known, even though that person may not be specifically labeled in the sentence.  For example, “Walter was taken to the hospital.”  The sentence doesn’t specifically say who took him to the hospital, but from the context of the sentence, the reader can usually figure it out.  If he was in an accident and police and an ambulance arrived, it should be obvious who took him to the hospital.  I’ve found that this is the case in many instances in my or someone else’s writing when it’s being critiqued.  So often a member of a critique group will blurt out “Don’t use the passive!  We can’t tell who the actor is,” when the actor can be inferred easily from the context.

Another problem I’ve had with the passive voice is that sometimes I will be called out for using passive when the sentence under review wasn’t passive at all.  Passive voice requires the use of a form of the verb “to be” and a past participle.  In the above example, “was taken” is passive.  But sometimes a verb ending in -ing is taken as passive, as in “He was coming to town.”  This really isn’t passive, though it isn’t a great sentence either.

In science, however, the passive voice is really common.  I’ve used it a lot, and it appears in many scientific papers.  It’s especially prominent in the section of a paper which details what the people who did the work actually did.  This is usually called the “Techniques” section or the “Materials and Methods” section.  For example, and I use my own specialty of virology here, someone might write: “The virus particles were suspended in…” or “the cells were pelleted at 1000 RPM for five minutes,,,” or “the mice were injected with…”  You get the picture.  The people performing these actions aren’t specified but since the names of all the people who worked on the project are listed at the top of the front page of the paper, the reader can tell, generally, at least, who was doing the work.

Why scientific papers used this convention I don’t know, but it may have something to do with the idea of remaining relatively anonymous.  Scientific information is supposed to be available to all without restriction, and it may have been looked on as somewhat out of place for a scientist to claim “I did this,” when publishing his work.  By the time I retired from active virology research, though, more and more papers were being published using an active-voice approach to the description of the work.  I even did once myself.  This active-voice approach is common if only one person is the author of the paper.  Then it’s easy to say “I suspended the particles in…”

In short, I don’t consider the passive voice to be all that bad.  Certainly it wouldn’t make good reading if it was used too much, but a few instances of passive voice don’t usually do much harm.  Sometimes it just sounds better, anyway.

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