The following is a post about the craft of storytelling. Posts like this are somewhat unusual for me on my author website. Most of time I am reviewing science fiction for the average consumer, not just for the writer. In this post, I am poking my nose into craft. I don’t want to just taste the stew…I want to know how it is made. This post is for the writer and beware…contains spoilers.
This is my second installment on first chapters. A few days ago, I analyzed chapter 1 of DUNE. To read that post, click here. Today, I analyze chapter 1 of THE HOBBIT.
This first chapter
–introduces the reader to the world and the main characters
–evokes reader empathy for Bilbo by showing Bilbo’s inner conflict
–presents the choice that will change Bilbo’s life forever
–introduces the reader to the fantastical possibilities that lie ahead, but also the dangers
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Thus begins THE HOBBIT, by J.R.R. Tolkien, but really this sentence begins the longer saga that so many have come to know and love, THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Notice what it accomplishes.
- Sentence #1 introduces a new creature, the hobbit. This creature will inhabit the long saga. He will be the unlikely hero (later his nephew, Frodo will be our hero). The audience will come to admire, adore and identify with Bilbo and Frodo.
- This sentence begins to describe the culture of hobbits. They are earthy, living in holes, but absolutely committed to cleanliness and comfort. These creatures are civilized…they just happen to like holes as their place of abode.
- In this first sentence, Tolkien begins to evoke our empathy for Bilbo, who will soon trade in his life of comfort for a wild and magical adventure.
Paragraph #2 of THE HOBBIT describes Bilbo’s home in detail, which will be the place where all the action takes place in the remainder of the chapter, including the entertaining of a wizard and a large group of dwarves, but even more than that, this home represents the comfortable life of a gentleman. Later in the story, Bilbo often thinks of home (as does Frodo in the LOtR saga) as a place of rest, comfort and peace. It is a place to return to.
Paragraph #3 and #4 describe Bilbo’s ancestry, posing the curious conflict he bears within himself. There is a debate between the Baggins and the Took within Bilbo. The Took side of his family (Bilbo’s mother’s side) is prone to adventure and risk-taking. The Baggins side of the family (Bilbo’s father’s side) is conservative and would reject adventure and any controversy at all. The reader doesn’t have to wonder for very long which side will win out. Without that Tookish spirit, Bilbo might never have walked away from his comfortable hobbit hole.
Both impulses inhabit Bilbo and most readers can relate. It might be said that opposing impulses, such as what Bilbo experiences, are a part of every person. Thus, Tolkien evokes our empathy for Bilbo in chapter 1. Much as Bilbo leaves the comfort of his hobbit hole to journey with the dwarves, the reader leaves his/her comfort to embark with them in the story world.
Now for the rest of chapter 1: Bilbo, because of his value of hospitality, entertains Gandalf (a wizard who believes Bilbo will be a key member of the adventure) and a group of dwarves who demand food, drink, then compel him to travel with them to a place where a dragon guards a great treasure. The adventure, as it is presented, is magnificent, romantic and promises great wealth. Bilbo is taken in, though it is touch and go for a while. Despite his willingness to leave his home, it could be said the hobbit is in a way bewitched by the romantic notion of a grand adventure.
As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.
Yet, Thorin, the lead dwarf, does not mince words about the dangers they might face.
We shall soon before the break of day start on our long journey, a journey from which some of us, or perhaps all of us (except our friend and counsellor, the ingenious wizard Gandalf) may never return. It is a solemn moment.
What is Bilbo’s reaction to this sobering news?
Poor Bilbo couldn’t bear it any longer. At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel. All the dwarves sprang up, knocking over the table.
The stage has been set. The semi-cowardly and ill-prepared Bilbo Baggins will reluctantly leave his comfortable hobbit hole and venture with these new friends, the dwarves and Gandalf. When he finally returns, he will be completely changed and so will Middle Earth.
For over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To find our long-forgotten gold.
Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day when he woke up.
This stanza, when one reflects on THE HOBBIT and THE LORD of the RINGS speaks of long-forgotten gold. The dwarves believe this to be part of their hoard, that which is guarded by the dragon, Smaug. The reader understands a deeper meaning. Long-forgotten gold is the one ring to rule them all, found by Bilbo…later passed on to Frodo, becoming the impetus for the Lord of the Rings Saga.
The reader doesn’t understand at this point the profundity of the dwarves’ song, but it is there, imbedded in that first chapter of the very first book.
Spoilers below. If you want to read a review of the novel without spoilers, click here.
I happen to be in a writing critique group that started up this past week. A couple of the folks in this group are writing novels and sent in first chapters for a swipe at getting critique. So, I read a few Chapter 1’s yesterday and in the course of that reading, I began to wonder…Do these seem like first chapters to me? How do I feel as a reader as I am taking in the narrative for the first time? Do I begin to have a strong sense about the story, the characters and about the writing style? Absolutely. I did and do have feelings and ideas. Some of those made me want to keep reading. Others did not.
That led me to the question: How does a novelist write a brilliant chapter one?
I wonder about my own first chapter, the beginning of my novel that is undergoing an extensive edit. How do I feel about my first chapter? What is it accomplishing and what is it not accomplishing? Have I done the necessary work to hook my reader, keep them interested and engaged, settle them into the world I am creating?
All writers of any genre ponder this question when they sit down before the blank page because the possibilities are endless, as endless as stories themselves. However, I do think there are ways to understand first chapters, to critique and edit them for the purpose of making them better.
Therefore, I begin a series of posts devoted to the question of beginnings. My focus will be on science fiction and fantasy novels and the hope is not to be prescriptive. Telling the writer what to do or not do detracts from originality and art. However, paying attention to how great authors craft a narrative is worthwhile. We learn from the greats. Study enough of them and we begin to see common threads.
So, my goal in this series of posts is to plunder first chapters and see what I can glean about my own writing and will record my findings for the sake of other writers.
Today, A Look at DUNE, chapter 1
Frank Herbert is a great writer and though the novel DUNE isn’t perfect, it’s very close to perfect. How does that first chapter set us up for a marvelous journey?
I see it accomplishing four things.
-Gives us a sense of the setting of the story
-Introduces the primary characters, even putting the main character through a first test
-Hints at the coming conflict
-Tantalizes the reader with compelling mysteries
First, chapter 1 of DUNE give us a sense of the setting.
Here is the first sentence of the novel.
In the week before the departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
Most of us have experienced moving houses, cities, states. We know what it feels like to change locations. In this first sentence of DUNE, the reader is alerted immediately to the fact that a change in location is taking place for this particular family, for this particular person, Paul. Moving is disruption. Paul’s family is about to be disrupted. He will soon be leaving Caladan for a planet called Arrakis, sometimes called Dune.
Soon after, in the early paragraphs, Herbert repeats this series of words three times as paragraphs. They jump out on the page like a refrain. They are written in italics, which in Herbert’s style, represents thought. Paul, the main character continues to mull over this reality.
So, not only will Paul be leaving his current location, but the new location is harsh. There is a sense of foreboding about this desert planet. Paul will move from Caladan, a land where water is plentiful to Arrakis, where water is scarce. Caladan is known, comfortable, secure, a virtual paradise. Arrakis is mysterious, uncomfortable in so many ways, in part because of its climate. Climate will be a large issue in the rest of the novel. Herbert wants the reader to begin thinking about ecology and its importance to a planet and a people.
Here is the second sentence of DUNE.
It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.
When Paul’s family leaves Caladan, they are not only leaving their current comfortable home/castle, but they are leaving their home of twenty-six generations. This move is an epic move. The reader is left asking…why? Why leave this lovely planet and this home of so many years? We get a few clues as to why this move it taking place. Power and political maneuvering are introduced, a profound subject of the story.
Thufir Hawat, his father’s Master of Assassins, had explained it: their mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, had been on Arrakis eighty years, holding the planet in quasi-fief under a CHOAM Company contract to mine the geriatric spice, mélange. Now the Harkonnens were leaving to be replaced by the House of Atreides in fief-complete—an apparent victory for the Duke Leto. Yet, Hawat had said, their appearance contained the deadliest peril, for the Duke Leto was popular among the Great Houses of the Landsraad.
Arrakis is the place where the empire derives its most important resource: Melange, or spice, as it is sometimes called. Melange is the secret to space travel in this particular universe.
We can already see now how the chess pieces are stacking up.
This brings us to the second accomplishment of Herbert’s chapter one, the introduction of most of the main characters.
Paul is mentioned in the first sentence. So is his mother. Paul’s mother and Paul are on the stage for the very final scene of the novel as well. In fact, his mother gives voice to the final paragraph/speech.
Not only that, but the crone mentioned in that first sentence, the one who will test Paul later in the chapter, will also be on that stage at the finale. This is great writing.
Add to the list the Bene Gesserit, the Fremen, House Harkonnen…all are mentioned, Thufir Hawat, (who will be present in the final scene) and Dr. Yueh, important as the one who betrays House Atreides…all are introduced in chapter 1.
Note this paragraph early in the chapter.
Paul awoke to feel himself in the warmth of his bed—thinking…thinking. This world of Castle Caladan, without play or companions his own age, perhaps did not deserve sadness in farewell. Dr. Yueh, his teacher, had hinted that the faufreluches class system was not rigidly guarded on Arrakis. The planet sheltered people who lived at the desert edge without caid or bashar to command them: will-o’-the-sand people called Fremen, marked down on no census of the Imperial Regate.
The Fremen will become important to the story, of primary importance, but the reader is simply introduced here. There is mystery surrounding these people. I am curious. I want to learn more and Herbert will plunge me into Fremen culture before too long.
It’s interesting to note who is left out of chapter 1.
The Duke Leto, Paul’s father, does not get a speaking part until chapter 4. Even the emperor, the most powerful political person in the Landsraad, receives little attention. These are important omissions. It says something about how the story will be focused, that despite the powerful political figures on the scene, Paul and his mother, the two of them in particular, will take center stage.
Chapter 1 hints at future conflict.
As Paul is undergoing the test, the gom jabbar, here is what the Reverend Mother, the crone says to him.
The old woman said: “You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.”
As I was re-reading the chapter last night, this nugget stopped me in my tracks. I had not realized, not seen how this Reverend mother quote foretells the remainder of the story.
Paul does feign death on Arrakis, so that he might kill the trapper and remove the threat to his family. That is, in essence, a summary of the novel. These two sentences are so brilliantly placed, subtle in all the best ways. We don’t understand consciously upon first reading, but Herbert has just told us what we can expect.
Lastly, chapter 1 teases the reader with mysteries.
This is an odd world, a mysterious one in which a mother of an only son, will give him up to a religious figure, knowing he might die.
Jessica stepped into the room, closed the door and stood with her back to it. My son lives, she thought. My son lives and is…human. I knew he was…but…he lives. Now, I can go on living.
This we absorb and I, at least, want to read to find out more about this bizarre world where such a thing would happen. In order to know more, I must keep reading.
Then, there is the planet Arrakis and the Fremen. In chapter one, we learn very little about them, but we wonder about them as Paul does. The planet is a desert and the Fremen seem to live off the grid. They are wild and uncounted by the empire. Who are they? We are meant to wonder, and to find out, I have to keep reading.
And lastly, in Chapter 1, Herbert introduces the reader to the idea of the Kwisatz Haderach, a messianic figure. Is Paul the Messiah? The reader suspects he is, though Paul himself struggles with this identity throughout the novel, mysterious even to him. We will have to keep reading if we want to figure out the true identity of the Kwisatz Haderach.
So…all of this in Chapter 1. I am wowed and I am hooked. I am also set up well in the world to take in more of the details as they unfold. Moreover, I have enough sense of the main characters to be able to navigate this complex world where many more characters will soon be introduced. It makes me wonder how many times Herbert went back to edit and perfect his beginning…because I don’t think he could have written a better version than the one we read today.
This is my second time reading DUNE, with probably about twenty years in between readings. My first took place as a fan, consuming for pleasure. This time, I re-read DUNE as a writer of science fiction. It was still a thrilling ride.
DUNE, the novel holds up well to post-modern scrutiny and the writing is mostly perfect.
This is a PG-13 story, for sexual and violent themes, although those scenes are not explicit in this novel.
The Short Review
5 Reasons the Science Fiction Fan Needs to Read this Book Now
- DUNE, the film will be released in 2021…at least the first film of two will be released…unless pandemic interferes. In this case as in most, I recommend reading before viewing
- Compelling villain and compelling hero, with complex motives for each
- Dynamic characters around the main character, including a number of strong females
- Among the best world-building you will find in science fiction
- Without simplifying the complexity of good versus evil, this story gives the reader a vision of truth, goodness and honor
The Longer Review (mini spoilers below):
When George Herbert created the character Paul Atriedes, he stumbled upon a savior-type, a hero, a character who could embody a kind of leadership that most of humanity longs for. Hero stories are nothing new, certainly not new to the science fiction audience, but great ones are to be treasured.
In the case of DUNE, Paul is not the only treasure. The people of the planet Arrakis, the Fremen, also embody an ideal. They are oppressed, but intelligent, pushed to the margins of society, but resourceful and willing to sacrifice for the cause. Their discipline is akin to the greatest armies of literature and history. They are as creative as tenacious as a Roman legion, as fierce as Khan’s Mongols and as disciplined as the Spartans.
(Spoiler here) So what is supposed to get under our skin about DUNE? How can one argue with a story where the overly confident and utterly powerful Emperor is outsmarted, out-gunned and defeated by an honorable and humble tribal people? That feels so right and good.
But there are complexities that go along with this storyline. Paul is not as pure a hero as he might seem. His role as Messiah is an idea that plagues him throughout the novel because he knows he is not simply fighting for the Fremen. He is also motivated by vengeance and honor. He uses the Fremen to avenge his father, so his victory is an uneasy one. Even as he negotiates a marriage to the Emperor’s daughter for status and honor, but keeps his Fremen lover as concubine, the audience sees the inherent politics that will inhabit Paul’s governing. How Paul will rule the Empire is a story for later books, but the seeds of the struggle are sown well and deep in the original novel. So, even as the audience breathes relief at the victory over injustice, there is more to ponder.
To purchase the novel, click DUNE
There is also an amazing graphic novel version which is being released book by book. Dune is made up of three sections, called books. The first installment in graphic novel form is available here. To purchase, click DUNE, Graphic Novel The second installment will be released in the Spring of 2022. No date yet on the third and final.
Lastly, the 2021 theatrical trailer is out and worth a view, perhaps best seen after reading the novel…but then, maybe not.
Click here to see DUNE, film trailer
Periodically, a friend tells me that he or she knows someone who is writing or has written a novel. It happened last week as I’m sure it happens to most writers. Not that I’m the expert on all things writing, but I’ve navigated the writing world long enough to have an opinion.
So, I had the phone conversation with a young man (son of an old friend) yesterday. I decided to write him a follow up email with a few resources I have appreciated and it made sense to put it into a post. Next time, I can just send the link. Actually…I wouldn’t do that. I would still take the phone call, but it helps to have the information written down in one place.
For the new writer…Here’s my advice:
First, congratulate yourself that you just wrote a novel. That.Is.Amazing. Celebrate and then think like a critic and move on. Try to figure out if this book is what you really want to publish and to the best of your ability, think about whether or not you’re addicted to writing. If you’re not, the road is too hard and very long (for most of us). Don’t keep going unless you know you really LOVE it.
Social Media. You might hate it, but every author has to be on social media. If you want to start somewhere, try Twitter.
On Twitter, connect with and start following folks from the #WritingCommunity. Other hashtags you could check out: #amwritingsciencefiction, #amwritingspeculativefiction, #amwriting, #amwritingfiction. While you’re there you’ll find links to various author websites. Some are way more amazing than mine, others are just a page with a photo and the book cover, with minimal links if any. Begin thinking about your author website. How do you want it to feel? What content, if any, do you want to regularly produce on it?
Find a Critique Group:
It’s great to have beta readers, but it’s even better to find a group of writers, like-minded souls who write and will be willing to read your stuff and give you feedback. I’ve started a number of groups over the years. What I have found is that the most important trait for those in the group is work ethic. If the people aren’t actually writing, then it’s probably not worth your time because A. they won’t submit anything to the group and B. They will be the weakest when it comes to critique. Find people who write and be willing to put in the work for them by being a thorough and honest critic. Work for them and they will work for you. (That’s ideal…always exceptions, but be careful about those exceptions).
Go to Cons (like Emerald City Comic Con or WisCon) and get to know people. You will meet fans and you will meet writers and small publishers. You will make connections and you will have fun. (Photo of Ariel is my daughter, who goes to Cons and always dresses up, mostly not in Disney costumes, but this was the best photo I could find today…plus, it’s bright and cute.)
Books on writing and why I like them:
If you buy one book, I would make it this one. I’ve taken McKee’s class twice (weekend course) and everyone from Pixar would attend in the Bay Area (where I used to live). Screenwriters would fly up from LA to take it in case they had missed the weekend in Southern California. I knew writers who would take it every other year during the time he was touring. He traveled all over the world teaching his course in the 90s and early 2000s. Why? I think he had/has a way of distilling what it takes to tell a great story. It’s less literary and more about structure, the architecture of good storytelling. I refer to this book all the time, also because this was the stuff I never learned in college. For whatever reason, my writing program de-emphasized story structure. Maybe they thought we were smart enough to pick it up, sniff it out and do it ourselves.
*Why don’t I have a photo of this book cover? I have loaned it out…which so many of us writers inevitably do and then regret. That book has escaped my shelves. I have no idea who has it now, so I will probably have to buy it again. DRAT! It’s not cheap!
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. le Guin
This is a short book, but really helpful. UK le Guin is a scifi/fantasy writer, so it’s wonderful to get practical advice from someone who knows the genres we are writing in. She may have the most concise and best definition of point of view and tense that I have read. I highly recommend it and it also comes with exercises.
le Guin has written a wonderful series, 5 fantasy books (long before Harry Potter) about a wizarding school, called
If you don’t want to buy all five, try out the first one.
UK le Guin is one of my heroes. Here is my review of her science fiction book, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, A Book Review
This book (pictured on the top of post) drives home the kinds of techniques that make characters eternal/memorable. It too is practical. The chapter on Protagonist Problems is spot on and one of the best things you can read as a young writer. Corbett captures key mistakes many writers make when crafting characters, especially main characters.
Revising Fiction, by David Madden
Writes editor John Joseph Adams…”The BEST AMERICAN SERIES is the premier annual showcase for the country’s finest short fiction and nonfiction. Each volume’s series editor selects notable works from hundreds of magazines, journals, and websites. A special guest editor—a leading writer in the field—then chooses the best twenty or so pieces to publish. This unique system has made the Best American series the most respected—and most popular—of its kind.”
To order this anthology, click Best of SFF 2019.
LaShawn’s story was first featured here…but why just read hers…there are so many great stories in this anthology.
KINDRED, perhaps the most admired novel written by the late, great Octavia Butler is nearly perfect.
I rate this novel PG-13 for the violence that is shown, though not celebrated, against black slaves.
I plan to write a separate post for educators after this general review of the novel.
Short Review…3 Reasons to Read
- KINDRED is a page-turner. As a novelist, I so admire this book. It ain’t easy to keep your audience on edge. Butler does it with genius.
- KINDRED humanizes slaves and slaveholders…In my mind, KINDRED is a literary narrative because it does not simplify the incredibly complex story of slavery in US history/society.
- KINDRED is literary, yet it is also an adventure story…Read the book to gain empathy, knowledge and understanding, but count on being entertained and in suspense while you learn.
Octavia Butler did write great science fiction, like The Xenogenesis Trilogy, but KINDRED falls into a different category. It’s a time-travel fantasy with fewer of the typical time travel tropes. We all know those tropes, how tension builds as the reader/audience wonders whether a character who impacts past will change the future. In KINDRED, that tension (changing the future by impacting the past) stays in the background. It is a worry, but not the primary worry. What creates the tension in KINDRED is the survival of the main character.
The story premise is brilliant.
Dana, whom the reader affixes to early in the novel, is an African American woman, married to a white man living in the 1970s. She is living her life in the present as a happy, seemingly normal person. Suddenly, she finds herself yanked back into history. It takes her a while to figure out why, but eventually, she and the reader understand that every time one of her ancestors (a white slave owner) finds his life in danger, Dana is summoned to the past. This happens multiple times.
In the past, Dana is a compelling character because she has experienced some degree of liberty in the 1970s as a black woman. Out of that experience, she becomes a guide and a conscience to those she encounters, to slaves and to slaveholders. Dana is also a threat, including the slaves she will try to help, because her agency upends the social norms in such a significant way.
Dana comes back into real time when she finds herself in danger of being severly injured or killed. The going back and forth is painful and a brilliant narrative device. The reader, who empathizes with Dana, finds these short respites back in the modern era as hopeful and yet terrifying, knowing, as Dana does, that she will be yanked back in time within minutes, hours or days. The oasis in the modern era gives Dana and the reader a chance to catch a breath and process the dark reality of slavery, but the tension remains.
At least in part, our society has grown out of the horrors of slavery, even the novel puts forward this idea. Yet, the African Slave trade is an historical reality which cannot be denied. Butler brings the audience close to the horror. She makes her reader think and feel the impact of slavery and does it disarmingly, through story. It’s a powerful way to teach.
Regarding KINDRED’s captivating narrative, I challenge you to read the first twenty pages of this book and be able to put it down.
Regarding KINDRED’s story, I challenge you to read something of greater substance that falls into the category of “time travel narrative”. I doubt you will find one.
To buy this masterpiece, click KINDRED
To buy the first of Butler’s science fiction the Xenogenesis trilogy, click DAWN
To buy the whole trilogy, click The Xenogenesis Trilogy
I rewatched BLADE RUNNER last night in a friend’s home-theater with a group of folks in their 20s and 30s. For some, it was their first time viewing the film.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have seen the original BLADE RUNNER on the big screen during its first weekend release. I was a young highschooler at the time, a huge sci-fi fan and living in Burbank, California. I remember my older brother and I driving west over the Hollywood Hills, as we did often in that era, to make sure we were getting the biggest bang for our buck. Our theater of choice that night was The Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
It’s not easy to describe to a new generation of filmgoers how important this film was at that time. Most folks in the film industry, especially directors point to BLADE RUNNER as ground-breaking. Ridley Scott made BLADE RUNNER after finishing the film, ALIEN. He also made it after his brother had died of cancer. The dark setting of BLADE RUNNER reflects a dark state of mind. Don’t expect cheerfulness here.
YET…you don’t have to be a filmmaker to appreciate BLADE RUNNER.
Here are 10 Reasons Every Sci-Fi Fan Ought to Watch BLADE RUNNER
Oh, and watch the FINAL CUT. 2007 version. There are seven versions of this film. Kind of crazy, I know.
- Cult classics happen for a reason. Following its meh release in 1982, a slow-building respect, awe and cult following emerged.
- BLADE RUNNER influenced the next generation of filmmakers, especially dystopian and sci-fi writers/directors.
- This is a brilliant screenplay (especially once R.Scott took out the clunky voice-over narration), though many fans adore that version of the film.
- Take pleasure in watching a young Harrison Ford perfectly embody the main character, Richard Deckard.
- You like The Man in the High Castle? Philip K. Dick wrote that novel. BLADE RUNNER is an adaptation of his classic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- You’re a Battlestar Galactica fan? Here is a chance to see Edward James Olmos (Captain Adama) in a role you would not expect.
- Complicated villain. Rutger Hauer…what a performance!
- The sequel is excellent and makes a lot more sense if you watch the original first.
- This is not a movie for the weak, nor is it for the mindless. You will have to think and process the experience after viewing.
- Because of number 9, it’s a great film to see with a group of friends. At the very least, the post-film discussion won’t be boring.
To buy Dick’s novel, click this link Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
If you want to totally nerd out on BLADE RUNNER, I recommend this very long and thorough article in Cinephilia & Beyond
BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor, is a novella about a young woman from a desert tribe on Earth. Her people are called the Himba people and they make a vital piece of technology on Earth called an astrolabe. Binti is the name of the main character. The story, told in first person, begins with Binti climbing aboard a transporter that is taking her to a launch port, then onward to Oomza Uni. Oomza Uni is a university on a distant planet where Binti will have the opportunity to study mathematics with the best and brightest from all over the universe. She is the first of her people to be admitted, so there is the sense of her achieving a great honor. However, she and we (the reader) clearly understand how high the cost is as she leaves her tribe and family behind, potentially forever.
Binti is a 16-year-old, but this book is not a YA book according to the author. However, the back cover of the paperback calls it a “coming of age story”, which might put it in that genre for some. I believe it will appeal most to the middle grade and YA audience, with some degree of PG-13 gore (one incident).
The Novella, BINTI, won the Hugo award in 2016 and the Nebula in 2015 for best novella.
To order BINTI, click here.
What I enjoyed about BINTI.
- Sometimes, a novella is just right. There aren’t many around, but novellas can be a satisfying reading experience. To get through a story in one long sitting or two or three short sittings is a lovely thing. Also…light-weight, perfect for a 2-hour plane ride.
- The main character is unique and different than a typical caucasian protagonist. Her culture will feel different to many readers. Okorafor has ties to Nigeria and I am guessing that her place of origin impacts the writing of this world. That world is powerful in many respects in how it anchors the character’s identity. For the sci-fi reader who loves to enter into new cultures and worlds, this story will scratch an itch.
- Decent tension to keep the reader going.
- A satisfying introduction to an author’s burgeoning world. (two novellas follow this one)
It’s a bargain to order the complete trilogy. To do so, click here.
What annoyed me about BINTI and makes me hesitant to give it the highest review…
- Somewhat shallow character development. This is the negative of the novella format…it’s a challenge to develop the characters deeply.
- The conflict is resolved too easily.
- There are wonderful characters here, but I found the writing a bit underwhelming. My exposure to literary fiction makes me a snob sometimes…the writing won’t be a problem for most readers.
- The tech is more like magic in this story than science…or might as well be. I’m wondering if it will be explained in the next novella in a sciency way or not?
The Hive Brain Alien (Spoilers Galore)
Writing non-humanoid aliens who don’t speak a human language is no easy task. This post is preceded by three others. If you want the earlier insights, link to to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. It occurs to me that I ought to define dynamic. That word is in all four titles.
In terms of a dynamic literary character, I mean a character who is neither pure good, nor pure evil…a character that can change its/his/her mind, can act morally or immorally, and can find its way into the audience’s heart.
This post will be a study of ALIEN, BATTLE STAR GALACTICA, ANNIHILATION and ENDER’S GAME.
Hive brain aliens (or A.I. in the case of Battle Star Galactica) differ so much from human beings, in part because their societies resemble what would be perceived by humans, as dictatorships or slave states. Hive communities, though a perfectly reasonable way of life for many of Earth’s tiny creatures, when translated into human terms, feel unpalatable. All hive individuals think alike. All live for the queen. All work for her good and the good of the community, often at the expense of the individual. So, how does an author drum up empathy for these characters? In the case of Ridley Scott with his Alien creature…almost none. The exception would be in Alien Resurrection, the third film in the franchise, when the newborn hybrid alien is killed by its own mother, Ripley. The audience knows this is necessary, but still…it hurts to see that cute (not cute) little spawn (not little) sucked out of the spaceship.
So, these aliens in the Alien franchise are not interested in good of any other species aside from their own (seemingly). They do not make tools and have no technological civilization.
They are predators, with one goal…survival. Not only will they eliminate other lifeforms that may pose a threat to them, they will impregnate those who remain and use them to feed their young. Yeah…not a pretty picture, but still, that moment when Ripley turns her back on her offspring…it tugs our heart for a brief moment.
My husband and I have been re-watching Battle Star Galactica (which, by the way is fantastic; the writing, the acting and the overall production hold up to any tv series ever produced). In BSG, the Cylons are the worker bees of a hive mind (an A.I. computer searching for meaning). The Cylons have destroyed human civilization and are chasing down the remnant who are fleeing in space vessels across galaxies to find a place where they will be able to survive/start over. The Cylons are called “toasters” by the humans who shoot them dead (otherwise, they will likely die by the hands/guns of those Cylons). The Cylons are non-human with little or no individuality…until, the computer brain figures out how to create machines that are VERY human-like. Those Cylons infiltrate the human remnant and take on unique personalities. One even falls in love and is impregnated by a human. So…it all becomes complicated. Including, the episode we just watched which chronicles a Cylon called Scar. The episode is the 15th of the second season and is titled, Scar. It is free for for Amazon Prime members as is the entire series. (Update, as of January 2021, this is not true…hoping it will come back to screens for free again, sometime in the future).
This particular Cylon is not only named by the human fleet (naming a hive member changes the way the audience sees this character), it is feared by them. The fleet’s fear of Scar also puts it in a unique category. No longer is Scar a worker bee.
Scar has been able to kill more human viper pilots by learning. The implication put forward by one of the human-like Cylons (the pregnant one) is that each time Scar has been destroyed, its failure in battle remains in its brain. As that brain is downloaded into the new Cylon body, a new pilot is born, only it does not forget. Scar is able to access the lessons of its battle failures and grow more adept at fighting human pilots. In a previous episode of BSG, the human fleet has destroyed the Cylon “resurrection ship”. Therefore, this battle with Scar is to the death. Scar will not be coming back in a new body if it is destroyed this time.
In BSG, the writers want the audience to grapple with a morphing understanding of the Cylons. Cylons start out all evil, but don’t stay that way. Various human-like Cylons enter into human community and help it, many step in with critiques of human society, acting almost like prophets. The Cylons are monotheists, who believe there is a purpose to their existence. The human remnant is polytheistic, worshipping the gods of the Greek Pantheon. Wonderful fodder for philosophical ponderings within BSG.. Through the many episodes, the audience begins to feel more compassion for the Cylons. The entire series is worth watching if you are a writer who cares about humanizing characters that fall into the category of enemy or other.
In ANNIHILATION, the enemy is mysterious, hive-like in that it reacts en masse and not as individuals…In fact, it can’t be categorized as a hive-brain alien exactly. There is little clarity that the anomaly in Area X is actually an alien takeover. What emerges is the notion (at least in the novel) that the changes taking place in Area X are inevitable and may be good for Earth. The anomaly, however, is impersonal. The alien impact, or whatever it is, is spreading and seems to have no consciousness in the way we think of consciousness, but is more like a fungus or a virus. It has power to change its environment, but any actual “brain” that would become a military target, allowing our government to remove the anomaly is unclear. Lots of mystery, but the writer, Vandermeer, makes it work, especially in ANNIHILATION, the first novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy.
Area X is frightening because it consumes and/or changes all who encounter it. As a writer, ANNIHILATION is worth studying for the utter strangeness of the alien anomaly. There is no verbal communication with it, only physical and psychological encounter. The biologist character in the novel (Lina, in the film) helps the audience see the mystery as beauty. However, the ambiguity remains and is never truly resolved. It’s good to see an alien like this. The presence of it pushes the human characters to their limits and reveals aspects of our humanity that are important to recognize. Really great sci-fi ought to do this.
If you want to purchase ANNIHILATION, click here.
Lastly, ENDER’S GAME. The Formics are the enemies, (the Buggers) that Ender eventually destroys. The novel is about how he is trained to perform this act. Ender commits xenocide without knowing it. It’s worth reading or re-reading ENDER’S GAME to watch how Orson Scott Card pulls this off. The Formics are all evil until very close to the end of the novel. The turn takes place when the innocent, but talented Ender realizes how he has been manipulated and how his power has been used to “save Earth”, but while doing so, he has destroyed another species. His grief is immense. Ender will bear this guilt into subsequent novels. The audience, once it realizes that the Formics have been destroyed, enters into Ender’s regret. A young boy’s conscience has been scarred. The novel then portrays the Bugger queen communicating with Ender, giving hope to him that there might be a path to redemption. The audience wants this for Ender. The queen reveals that the Formics had initially assumed humans were a non-sentient race because they lacked a hive mind. She/they realized their mistake too late. In other words, the war was a BIG misunderstanding. The queen requests that Ender take a dormant egg that has not been destroyed to a new planet where this species can thrive anew and Ender agrees. Suddenly, the audience is rooting for the Formics.
That is a turn around worth studying! The audience goes from hating Formics and seeing them as a monolith, to empathizing with them and hoping for their rebirth.
Make sure you pick this novel up next time you’re at the bookstore or you can order it here.
Today, I look at China Miéville’s, EMBASSYTOWN. Beware of spoilers. This won’t be a review of the novel, but a study of the Ariekei, the aliens indigenous to the planet Arieka.
First, a little advice…If you have the opportunity, consume EMBASSYTOWN via audiobook. To buy EMBASSYTOWN via Audible, click here. To buy the physical novel, EMBASSYTOWN click here. Language is central to the story, but the Ariekei language is best experienced when heard rather than read, therefore my encouragement to read via Audible. The Ariekei (also known as the hosts) speak from two mouths at once. One mind, but two words emerge from the creature when it vocalizes. In the audio reading, the sound producers overlay two words spoken at once, like hearing two notes played at the same time. The effect is marvelous and strange.
For a synopsis: One human culture, the Bremen, has adapted and figured out a method of speaking with and listening to the indigenous population of Arieka, a planet on the edge of the known universe. Their motivation for doing so is to maintain a colony on Arieka. Like a typical colonial power, the Bremen dig for metals and also trade with the Ariekei, whose biotech is advanced and valuable across the known universe. The Ariekei are advanced in many respects, but their language does not allow them to lie or even speculate.
Conflict arises in EMBASSYTOWN when one Bremen ambassador introduces lying into the Ariekei language. He does this in the hopes of taking control of the host population, but chaos ensues. The main character, a woman named Avice Benner Cho, steps in to save those living on the planet, both human and Ariekei.
How does Miéville give the aliens, the Areikei, personality and tap into audience empathy?
- Similar to the film Arrival (see post 2 of 3), point of view is key. POV rests in one human character who is relatable. Avice narrates this tale in the first person. Not only is she human, she was raised on Arieka and is known by the indigenous population. She is returning to her home after many years of traveling through space. Avice is the “in between” character. She describes, interprets and translates for the audience.
- Miéville finds colorful shorthand ways of describing the physical and personality attributes of particular Ariekei. Miéville, through his narrator, Avice gives the aliens nicknames, like Spanish Dancer. It’s genius because this shorthand gives the audience color, shape and depth to individual Ariekei and is so much better than than referring to all of them as “insect-horse-coral-fan things” another set of descriptors Avice muses on in the novel. An artist’s rendering in the top image is not necessarily what I had imagined when I pictured the Spanish Dancer, but Miéville doesn’t need me to have that specific picture in my mind. The broad brush strokes are there in the nickname and not just any nickname…calling the creature a dancer implies grace and dignity. The name takes an alien that might be perceived as monstrous and draws our attention to its beauty and gentleness. Maybe this is why ocean scientists call the sea creature (pictured above) a Spanish Dancer. The moniker is descriptive and if I’m visiting an aquarium staring at this thing through glass, if I am thinking of dancers instead of monsters, my eyes are drawn to its beauty. Miéville is doing the same thing when he has Avice call one particular Ariekei, The Spanish Dancer.
- The Ariekei have known Avice since she was a child. Avice has a positive association with the Ariekei. She was raised on their planet and thrived. Humans and Ariekei have lived together for many years in peace. This underlying truth makes a difference in how the audience feels about the Ariekei.
- The Ariekei are vulnerable to human abuse. The narrative of indigenous people groups used and abused by empires and greedy civilizations is not an uncommon story for the current sci-fi reading audience. Miéville dips into that narrative in this novel, portraying the aliens as complex, but also also as innocent, in large part because their language makes it impossible for them to lie. The audience empathizes with the vulnerable indigenous population. The narrative of “empire” taking over the “innocents” and using them for its own gain is familiar. That story taps into the audience’s empathy and our empathy lies with the Ariekei in this case.
- Avice relates to individual Ariekei, Miéville’s way of showing the audience that the Ariekei are not a monolith. Spanish Dancer is the most important Ariekei to the story, but there are others. As Avice relates to her and describes her and other Ariekei, the audience recognizes that though they are different from humans, the Ariekei are not all the same as one another. They are distinct in appearance and personality just as human beings are distinct from one another. (contrast this reality with the hive mind aliens, like the Formics in the Ender’s Game series, or the big computer brain of the Cylons “toasters” in Battle Star Galactica television series. I will tackle hive mind aliens in my final post on this topic.