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I suspect most people in the United States are familiar with the Christmas Carol “Jingle Bells.” In fact, it, no doubt, is one of the most familiar carols ever in the US. One particular verse, actually the second, caught my ear many years ago, but just recently I realized how well and how intricately that verse had been put together. There are a few lessons we writers can learn from that verse. First a little background on the carol.
“Jingle Bells” was written in 1857 by James S. Pierpont for a school choir to sing on Thanksgiving, not Christmas. (As far as I’m aware, he wrote both words and music.) He originally entitled it “One Horse Open Sleigh,” words we’re familiar with from the first verse, though nowadays we call it by the first words of the refrain, “Jingle Bells.” Mr. Pierpont actually penned several verses, most of which are not sung anymore. The modern tendency is to sing only the first verse and refrain, though sometimes the second verse is added. It’s that second verse I want to concentrate on. Here it is:
“A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride,
And soon Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated at my side.
The horse was lean and lank,
Misfortune seemed his lot,
He got into a drifted bank,
And then we got upsot.”
This verse is interesting because it tells a very short story which is (almost) complete within itself. No words are wasted. An interesting historical context—and I’m speaking entirely within the verse, having nothing to do with any of the details of “Jingle Bells,” or the other verses—is presented in the first line, “A day or two ago.” It sets the time factor—relatively, if not absolutely—right up at the front. It, and the second line about taking a ride, get us directly into the action without unnecessary words. At this point, we are aware from the first verse “Dashing through the snow,” that we are in winter, and riding in a “one-horse open sleigh.” That’s not given in the second verse, one point of critique.
The narrator is not named in this little story, but one other character is named, so we do have a character we can relate to. I suspect that most people assume the narrator is male, and the name “Fanny” certainly suggests the rider is female. At this point, we can visualize the two of them riding in a one-horse sleigh down a snowy road with bells attached to the bobbed tail of the horse. All seems well. A nice outing on a cold winter’s day. Can’t you just feel the wind on your face?
But the plot thickens, and the author introduces the required tension that holds the story together. Got to have conflict or at least tension in a story. The characters have to be in danger. Something has to happen. Otherwise, the story line falls apart, and all we have is a simple account of the incident. We’re given a good description of the horse, that it is “lean and lank,” enough to allow us to visualize the animal in our mind’s eye, but no more than necessary. It wouldn’t add any thing to the story to know what color the horse was, or its age, or gender, or whatnot.
Then we learn “Misfortune was his lot.” Now, like in any well-constructed story, we’re given a hint at the eventual climax, but just a hint: “Misfortune seemed his lot.” So tantalizing. A horse with a tendency to having bad luck. Something’s going to happen. But what? Like any well-constructed story, every word, every line, every sentence, is necessary to the plot. If it’s there, it must be essential. We dread to know. What will it be?
Finally the climax, “We got into a drifted bank” and “got upsot.” (An old term for “upset.” Fell over.) That’s the end of it. That’s all we need to know. The story is done, the end is clear. Whether the characters (including the horse) were injured is not known, and really, that information isn’t necessary. The story ends at the end of the action, and no further words are necessary. The author left it alone. Do the same with your stories.
Evolution is a wonderful thing. We humans wouldn’t be here without it. Life on Earth started around two billion years ago and through thick and thin, through disasters that several times almost resulted in total extinction of living beings, life maintained itself and changed and evolved over all those years and resulted in its finest work: Humankind.
But let’s take a closer look at all those humans and the work they’ve done. What are they doing to the planet that nourished and fed and housed and bathed them? Is humankind about to destroy the only home it has ever known? Why in Heaven’s name would evolution result in a species with so much brain power that it is capable of producing a society that could, potentially at least, destroy the very planet that gave rise to it? Is this evolution gone awry?
Only humankind has that ability. Only the absolute top tier, maximum level, ultimate peak of the evolutionary scale could fashion an environment that destroys itself from the inside out. All other species, even the highest apes, seem to be satisfied with the environment in which they exist. The most intelligent creatures in the oceans, dolphins, as well as the chimpanzees, live comfortably with in their individual milieu, without making any substantial changes to it. Do chimpanzees build buildings that reach high above the jungle canopy? Do dolphins build rockets that explore the moon or Mars? Or anything else? So why Humans? Why Homo sapiens?
Why would evolution result in a species that has the brain power to destroy itself? Has evolution gone berserk? I find myself wondering if there were ever alternatives to the development of a species with such a highly developed brain. We have far more brain capacity than needed to simply survive. So why did evolution go in that direction?
One of the factors (and there are many, all postulated, none proven) that have been cited as to why we humans have not heard from aliens from outer space is the possibility that every great society that evolves on a planet anywhere in the galaxy (and even in the universe) always comes to a point where it cannot go any farther, and ultimately destroys itself. Those who think about such things have termed it a “great extinction.” For whatever reason, destruction proceeds from within, and no society ever gets to the point where it is capable of developing super-sophisticated spaceships that can travel the galaxy to visit other planets, and, ultimately, us here on Earth. Personally, I don’t subscribe to that theory, at least not in its ultimate aspect where every civilization reaches that end. That theory assumes that evolution proceeds the same way on all planets where life evolves, which, I think, is extremely unlikely.
But is that scenario unlikely on Earth? Are we about to destroy ourselves? Is evolution so flawed that its ultimate development is to simply die out? Why would evolution allow such a species to develop in the first place? The brain of the human is so highly complicated that it can develop and understand differential equations. (Well beyond my ability.) It knows about nuclear energy and fusion and fission, and orbital dynamics, and vaccines against disease, and all that stuff, all things that are interesting and nice to have, but not absolutely necessary for existence of life here. We’ve gone way far beyond what is necessary simply to exist.
One of the hallmarks of evolution has been the fact that each level of development is unable to foresee the physical and mental characteristics of the next level. Dinosaurs couldn’t possibly have foreseen that mammals would take over as the dominant species and dig their bones out of the ground, or protozoa predict multicellular animals, or insects predict animals without a hard, chitinous outer layer and a fully-enclosed circulatory system, or fishes predict amphibians. Now, with our super highly developed brain power, can we predict the next step beyond “human”? Or has evolution shot itself in the foot, or even through the temple, and we are the pinnacle of the evolutionary scale, bound and doomed too be the last?
When is the United States going to move completely to the metric system? You know, meters instead of yards or feet, kilograms instead of pounds, grams instead of ounces, liters instead of quarts or gallons, Celsius instead of Fahrenheit. (I’m used to “centigrade” rather than Celsius, but those two are the same thing.) Ninety-five percent of the world is on the metric system. It’s time we made the change whole-heartedly and completely and not be content with an old, outdated system mixed with the metric system.
The United States passed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975, and made the metric system the preferred system of weights and measures for all United States trade and commerce. But much of the change over is voluntary, and the old system is still used in a lot of places. Our road signs are still in miles and miles per hour in most places, except for a few roads down near the Mexico border. There is no deadline for the changeover and that’s what we need.
As a scientist, I used the metric system completely and entirely in my work. I measured volumes in milliliters and microliters (one microliter is a very tiny amount of liquid, by the way). I measured weight in grams, milligrams, micrograms, nanograms and even femtograms. I measured temperature in centigrade. If I went to the doctor, they took my temperature in centigrade (normal human body temperature is around 37° C). They took my weight in kilograms.
Many parts of the US government have already made the change. NASA now insists that its spaceships be built to metric specifications. But the impetus to change to the metric system has not reached the rest of the country, except in small ways. If you pick up a jar of jam, say, in the grocery store, it will be labeled in ounces and in grams. But if you weigh onions on the scale in the produce section, you still weigh in ounces. There is no current impetus to going over to the metric system. I wonder why that is.
One reason for resistance has not so much to do with the metric system itself, as with the complicated math that has to be done to convert from one to another. The two systems have nothing in common, and conversion requires knowing, or being able to look up, factors that are not whole numbers. For example, one inch equals 2.54 (+ an infinite number of digits) in centimeters. A lot of people, I suspect, are turned off by those obtuse factors. Another reason is the general inertia that settles itself in any changeover. “We’ve always used feet and inches. Why should we change?” Or, “Look at all those plans and blueprints. All those will have to be changed.” (No, they won’t.)
Another reason for resistance has to do with the weird numbers that come up when making a change. For example, we most often build houses with eight-foot ceilings. That’s 96 inches, and that translates to 243.84 centimeters. Who’s going to make a ceiling at that level, or with that level of accuracy? The simple answer is to make ceilings at 250.00 centimeters. Or 240 cm., or some other round number.
So, why change at all? The best argument I can give is that most of the rest of the world uses the metric system, and we should join them. It’s important that we all speak the same language, so to speak. It’s important to join them and not look like a petulant little boy off on his own. “It’s my system, and if you don’t let me play, I’m going to take my system and go home.”
Another reason for change is that the metric system is conceptually easier to understand than the current system since it is based on 10, or multiples of 10. One centimeter is 10 millimeters. One meter is 100 centimeters. One kilometer is 1000 meters. And so on. This means that multiplying in the metric system can be as simple as moving the decimal point. In the US system, one mile is 5280 feet. Why “5280?” What the hell is 5280? Where did that come from? If you want to know how many feet in 13 miles, for example, get out your calculator. One foot is 12 inches, but a yard is only 3 feet. One pint is 2 cups, but a gallon is 4 quarts. It’s ridiculous and unrealistic and unnecessary to have to remember all those multiplication factors when we have a perfectly good, sound, and logical system that we can put into place immediately. The sooner the better.
Those of you who read this blog on any regular basis (both of you) may remember that I’ve written several science fiction novels, and that I’ve been trying for a number of years to find an agent for the first (and ultimately, all three). As an update to that, I’ve almost completely given up finding an agent or publisher, and have decided to publish the trilogy myself. I’m looking at two self-publishing routes, KDP publishing and Ingram Spark. I like Ingram Spark because of the potential of getting my paper-based books in bookstores. (We’ll see.) KDP will get it on virtually all e-readers, and that covers the two basic routes of publishing.
In preparation for putting the finished product out there, I sent the manuscript to a professional editor and have gotten her critiques back. I’m now in the process of making some revisions which should be complete within the next few weeks. Then I have to go through the manuscript word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, until I’m satisfied that it meets my own stringent qualifications. That will take time (but it’s time well spent).
One side effect of re-reading and re-editing one’s own literary works is that of discovering things you didn’t know were there. In one case, the editor made a suggestion about the ending which I proceeded to fix by adding a short but highly emotionally intense scene to help add danger and peril that the characters have to overcome before the conclusion. But that scene had one unintended consequence: it forced me to eliminate a scene I liked and wished I could keep.
Like “show, don’t tell,” and “write what you know,” a new writer is frequently admonished to “kill your darlings.” This advice is intended to tell the new writer not to put too much emphasis on hifalutin flowery prose that exists simply because it sounds good, or looks good on the page, or just because they like it. [The phrase has been attributed to William Faulkner and Stephen King among many others, but may have originated with Arthur Quiller-Couch in his “On The Art Of Writing” from 1914.] Each word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, scene, must contribute to the story in such a way as to keep it moving and not confuse the reader. You don’t want a reader asking, “Why the hell is this in here?” Or, “It’s nice, but I don’t understand what this contributes to the story.” I came up against this in my revisions, and had to eliminate that one scene. When I originally wrote that scene—and even up to today—I thought I’d done a good job with it, and I have always liked it. But—and I don’t say this lightly—it had to go. I cut it from the manuscript and put it in a separate file where I look at it from time to time to remind myself of its literary beauty. I wish I could find a place for it. But that is not to be. It remains out.
Did you know the Titanic is slowly disappearing? It’s been over a hundred years since the Titanic, steaming at over 20 knots in the dark in fog in a known iceberg area of the North Atlantic Ocean, glanced off the side of one of those bergs, and after staying afloat for about two hours and forty minutes, sank in two main pieces, to the bottom of the ocean. For a long time it lay there undiscovered until 1985 when it was finally located by Robert Ballard. He explored the ship and took a lot of now-iconic pictures.
The ship was easily recognizable at the time, but now, some 30+ years after its discovery, it has begun to disintegrate. Of course, you say, it has been resting 3.8 km (about 2 miles) down at the bottom of the North Atlantic. Why wouldn’t it disintegrate? All that salt water. But one important factor in the destruction of the Titanic is not simply corrosion due to salt water, but the presence of a special bacterium called Halomonas titanicae. This bacteria is eating away at the iron of the ship (and there’s a lot of iron in that ship) and soon, within thirty to forty years by some estimates, it will be gone, and nothing will be left but an iron stain on the sea floor where the ship once lay. The ship will enter history as a mere memory, with only pictures and images to remind us of the folly of one of mankind’s dumbest ship voyages.
Personally, I have to say I like the fact that a bacteria is eating the Titanic. It’s a reminder of the impermanence of man-made things. If we can build ships of iron that are eventually destroyed by nothing more than a simple life-form, we can find bacteria that will devour almost anything. There must be bacteria out there that can destroy plastics, too. And oil spills. Humankind will almost certainly not be on this planet forever. We may go somewhere else, or we may die out and be replaced by—well, use your imagination. In its fifty to seventy-five thousand year existence on this planet, Homo sapiens has built a hell of a lot of structures and other items of questionable quality (buildings, roads, dams, bridges, etc.) and after we leave, those items will eventually return to the soil from which they were made. I find it refreshing that the Earth will return to a natural state. It’s an illustration that Mother Nature is far more in control of the evolution of this world than we are. I would hate to be a part of a civilization that leaves remnants of its handiwork as a permanent scar on such a lovely planet.
So, I will state for the record, here and now, that I am glad that the Earth has developed a bacteria that can perform this transformation, and I wonder what others out there are waiting for their turn to get in on the feast. In a thousand years, the Empire State Building, to use an obvious example, will almost certainly no longer exist. Will its iron structure be similarly digested? Let’s hope so.
I’m a science fiction writer. While only a very few people have read any of my works, (mainly editors and critique group members), I do have wide-ranging opinions on the subject and have presented them in this forum occasionally over the past several years. Science fiction can be a powerful medium for examining the human condition, for teaching us about ourselves as human beings and as stewards of the land and water on this blue and green and white and brown planet we live on. I believe it should be used largely in that way. Most sci-fi does that.
But sometimes sci-fi presents works that seem to defy that concept. Not that that’s inherently bad, but that it goes against my grain when sci-fi runs off the deep end and simply blathers on about nothing in particular. The most particular example of this is the character of “Q” in the Star Trek universe.
“Q” is an all-powerful character, capable of doing anything “he” wants. (“Q” is played by a male actor, but there’s nothing about “him” that insists he has to be male.) And I mean “anything” in the most literal sense of the word. He could change the gravitational constant of the universe if he chose. Can you imagine? What power! What immense omnipotence! Such vast strength! While the episodes in which “Q” appears have been well-written and are actually quite entertaining (“Q” does bring a little humor to the otherwise staid bridge crew on the Enterprise), I wonder if “Q” really serves a purpose in science fiction. He’s waaay too powerful. Like a god that could strike down anyone he/she wanted at any time. I suspect he was devised to show how we humans would react to being put in the presence of such a powerful being, of such an all-powerful entity. In the first episode in which he appears, he puts the entire human race on trial for crimes against—well, I’ve never been sure against what—but is eventually persuaded not to obliterate all humans by Captain Picard and the others.
“To obliterate all humans.” Does this serve the basic interests of science fiction? What do we learn from this? Were there a real entity such as “Q” in the universe, it’s likely we’d all be dead by now. “Q” is so far above all the known physical laws and concepts of this universe that his existence is inherently impossible.
I suppose “Q” does play a role in teaching us about how it is possible for an individual or small group to go up against a larger organization and still win, (“you can fight city hall”) but in terms of the broader science fiction universe, “Q” is so unwieldly as to be almost unworkable. And unimportant. I suggest we keep our characters more modest. Let us invent characters we can relate to. Characters like ourselves. Characters who show us the way, rather than running so far ahead we can’t keep up.
One of the most interesting words in the English language is “people.” It can have several meanings. My dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition) has several definitions, leading with “human beings making up a group or assembly or linked by a common interest.” Fair enough. Basically, it refers to a group of “persons” who have something in common. That definition can be further broken down into specific groups like “all the people at the football game,” as opposed to “all the people who aren’t at the football game.” Or “all the people in the United States,” to be distinguished from “all the people in Great Britain.”
The biggest group is, of course, “all the people in the world,” which just illustrates the somewhat flexible usage of the word, because “people” can be used to include all those the speaker wants, and exclude those he/she doesn’t. Current events show this quite well.
But as a science fiction writer who has developed other worlds with suitable inhabitants living thereon, I find myself wondering if the word “people” can be used to include beings who aren’t of this world. Will we ever come to the point where we need to refer to the “people” of another planet? Since we’ve never seen or heard from beings from outer space, we have to look at fiction to draw comparison. Were there “people” on Mars who invaded Earth in H.G. Wells’ novel, War of the Worlds? Are there “people” who inhabit Middle Earth? Are Klingons “people”? I suppose that is more a matter of how the author(s) views his/her fictional characters, but I’m using the term outside the author’s intent and looking at them in a broader context. What are they? Really.
It’s certainly very likely that we on Earth may be called on to use a word, whether “people” or some other, to refer to the real, non-fictional beings we find on another planet. (If we ever do, of course.) That may be a long time coming, but what if we do? Will they really be “people”? Do we have within us the wherewithal, or even the chutzpah, to call them a term that we have thus far used to refer only to ourselves, in part or whole? Since the word has such a flexible meaning, calling them “people” doesn’t necessarily include them as part of us, other than the fact that they exist in the same galaxy, the same universe, the same time continuum as we. But let us step back and examine ourselves in this matter. How will we view them? How we use the word will be, without a doubt, a reflection of how we really view them. It will be a testament of our regard for them, of what we can distinguish about them. Come to think of it, that’s how we use the word today anyway.