Lev Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy

Years back, I had originally given up on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy halfway through Book Two because the main character, Quentin Coldwater, is such an insufferable, self-absorbed piece of shit that the thought of being trapped in his head for another book and a half seemed unbearable at the time. But the Covid quarantine got me to revisit the trilogy from the start again, and while my first impression of Quentin remains unchanged for that first half of the trilogy, the character’s development by the end of Book Two does actually soften me to his flaws and failures, to the point that I found myself fully emphasizing with him by Book Three as the hero of the story the narrative seemed so eager to convince me that he is not. Perhaps it was a clever ploy of reverse psychology, or subverting expectations on the part of the author, but whatever it was, it worked perfectly in the grand scheme of the narrative as a whole.

Throughout the books, we see Quentin be a lousy friend (practically dropping all his past contacts once he gets to Brakebills), a dishonest boyfriend, and a bit of a glory-hog whose concerns lie less with the safety of those around him, then fulfilling his own interest in coming out on top of the adventure he thinks he needs so he can escape the monotony of his life. But it’s in the aftermath of having experienced all of this (roughly at the closing of Book Two) that we get to see a shift in his perspective. Which retroactively makes a lot of sense, on account that he would need to experience the consequences of his hubris before being able to set out on a genuine journey of growth and finally learn from his mistakes. As a character, it wouldn’t make sense for him to have either the knowledge or experience to understand how to deal with the situations around him maturely, nor would it have been realistic or relatable. In fact, I’m pretty sure that had Book One started out with a character that was mature, reserved, amicable, and fully resourceful right from the start, I probably would have complained that such a trope is too boring and lacked any real character depth to bother with (being a nitpicky critic comes so easy to us in the audience, doesn’t it?)

Some worthwhile reads payoff eventually is the lesson here, and deserve to be carried through to the end. And having gotten to the end of The Magicians trilogy, I see why the author wrote Quentin as such a little shit at the beginning of the story, and why it was even necessary to do so, regardless of how much it irked me at the time of reading on the first go at it.

William Wordsworth & the Role of Nature to Man

What is Rights of Nature? - The Rights of Nature

Many people will attest how it is in the awe of nature that they find themselves most inspired and most elevated to gain knowledge of the great splendors surrounding life’s beauty. In the world of literature, few articulated this sentiment better than William Wordsworth, who insisted how it is in the very nature of man to rob this same beauty he is seeking to understand of its essence by reducing it to trivial functions and mechanics. William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” (1798) captures this perspective perfectly, as the English poet expresses his discontent with the cold materialism of the Enlightenment tradition, by appealing to the reader’s numinous instincts and pleas for the superiority of observing the world through a romantic lens.


As a poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring,” is written for the salvation of the human soul:  “To her fair works did Nature link the Human soul that through me ran.” Here, Wordsworth is establishing the idea of Nature (always written with an uppercase “N”) as the unifying theme of life, and that the human soul is a cumulative product of its work, whose place lies inseparable from its origin. But he continues, “And much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”

 
Whereas the poet begins with the concept of Nature as the creator and preserver of man’s soul, and thereby the ultimate source of his being, he is now introducing the danger that is bound to occur whenever man seeks to define Nature (and his place in it) by his own terms, rather than allowing Nature to define him, because any objective method of analysis demands for him to remove himself from his subject matter.  Hence, in this pursuit of knowledge man will fail utterly by foolishly distancing himself from the thing he is attempting to get closer to. 


According to Wordsworth, this has already happened and is shown in our inability to reflect on Nature through the acknowledgement that our presence is as much a part of her order as any other organism we might scientifically observe: “The birds around me hopped and played, their thoughts I cannot measure: –But the least motion which they made, it seemed a thrill of pleasure ” or, put more succinctly, what the poet probably means to say is how their thoughts he need not measure, because it does nothing to enhance the joyous sight either for himself or for the gleeful birds.  The very fact that the birds themselves are unable to reflect on the science of their pleasure, yet are still aware of the basic principles of great joy without the need to analytically deconstruct, suggests to Wordsworth that the utility of man’s rational approach to seeing Nature is deeply flawed.


The imagery Wordsworth uses is one of finding tranquil solace in simplicity, calling on man to recollect with the true provider of his senses, i.e. Nature.  Wordsworth argues that it is to his great shame that through man’s desire to study the natural world he has positioned himself outside the workings of Nature, observing it as if he is not a central component of her.  Wordsworth illustrates this in his poem by describing the manner by which all the individual parts and players found in the natural world—the flowers, the periwinkle, the birds and trees—while still remaining independent agents, never fancy themselves as being outside the workings of the grand scheme; instead basking in the beautiful harmony of Nature’s order.  Man, on the other hand, is spiritually torn; he instinctively knows that he is a part of Nature, and feels a cosmic urge to better understand her, but the more he interjects his anthropocentric lens to pursue this end the more likely he is to drive a wedge between himself and the true essence of Nature’s work.


In the poem, Wordsworth speaks from a first-person perspective, expressing his veneration for the serene beauty of Nature, and his utter disgust at how man remains oblivious to her all-encompassing presence (note, always referring to Nature in the feminine, and personalized, her). After describing the various parts making up the spirit of the natural world, the poet states, “And I must think, do all I can, that there was pleasure there,” to proclaim his break from the empiricist view of life. It is important to note how he says that he must do all he can to preserve the notion in his mind that all these seemingly harmonious creatures of Nature are indeed infused with pleasure. This is perhaps a subtle reflection by the poet on how, as a man, he is also subject to fall to the same empiricist vice if he neglects to notice his place as a product within the natural order. 


This sort of thinking follows in line well with the Romantic tradition Wordsworth writes in, especially works such as “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” where he explains how “a Poet, is implied nothing different in kind from other men, but only in degrees.” A poet only differs from other men in his ability to reveal the truth (in Wordsworth case, this is to reveal what he perceived as man’s true relation to the spirit of Nature) to his fellow brethren. Moreover, this suggests to the reader that despite the pessimistic slant about the tattered tendency of man expressed in “Lines Written in Early Spring,” there is in Wordsworth eyes still the glimmer of hope for man to reform his follies by embracing the pure emotion Nature has endowed him with, which will enable him to accept his self-evident role as an interdependent piece of a grander scheme of her beauty.


In the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth further describes the poet as “the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love.” At first glance this seems to contrast sharply with his closing lines in the poem:


If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?” 


But does not this condemnation of man’s perversion of his own place in Nature’s plan also reveal a deeper appeal to man’s dignity?  It is clear that Wordsworth considers man to have deluded himself in his mechanical approach to studying Nature, but does not his stern tone convey sorrow at what we ourselves have done against nature with the greatest gift Nature has bestowed on us: our minds? 
In Wordsworth eyes, the poet knows the great potential of man, and has no choice but to shutter and weep at its foolish squandering, where he neglects his creative spark of emotion for the less spiritually fulfilling cult of Reason (which Wordsworth associates with the Enlightenment that preceded him intellectually just a short generation prior).  And it is the poet’s duty to expose this treachery, not as a condemnation but as a defense of human nature.


In Wordsworth’s work, Nature is god—with a lowercase g.  It is the absolute, the model on which all life is centered around.  Man is sinful in the sense that he has alienated himself from Nature, and will find salvation only by returning to its good graces.  A feat that can only be accomplished by freeing oneself from the baggage of society’s materialism, and return (more so spiritually, than physically) to our proper place within Nature’s own divine plan, as dependent components of its transcendent essence. 


Though Wordsworth was a professing Anglican, his musings on nature cannot be called religious in an orthodox sense of the word, but he is still a deeply religious figure if one takes into account his adherents to the belief that man’s spiritual soul needs to be nourished through the adoration of his creator, the true reason for his existence, i.e. Nature herself.  Wordsworth appears to be realistic about the prospect of man’s recognition of this, and even suggest that man’s very nature prevents him from reaching the ultimate goal of completely submerging into the omnipresence of Nature’s power.  Nonetheless, the fact of man’s spiritual limitations should not prevent him from striving to be as spiritually fulfilled as possible, using the Romantic ideals at his disposal to ascend himself and society to a plane of better understanding his place in the finely detailed workings of the universe. 

The great reflection described by Wordsworth in “Lines Written in Early Spring,” serves the function of giving man a framework on which to build his own mental shrine to the aesthetic beauty that encompasses his surroundings, and pay devotion to Nature’s work. Yes, it is idealistic, and unashamedly so.  Aiming to tell man how to think, rather than what to think; constantly holding a mirror to his face, and firmly reflecting back to him the self-evident truth of his disposition; forever tied in with the essence of what to Wordsworth is his soul’s being: Nature’s eternal spirit.

007 James Bond: A Quick Reflection

Ian Fleming’s 007 James Bond spy novels earn their place in the mystery genre for setting up an archetype that’s been recreated and rebranded across genres and generations. As well as for creating a character whose name transcends recognition beyond just its source material.

As far as the writing goes, Fleming obviously was fond of writing on topics he personally had an interest, and elaborating on said topics in as much extensively long-winded detail as possible. Seriously, paragraph after paragraph is written, stretching across a multitude of pages, going over card game rules, drink selections, and food preferences. After reading a James Bond novel I can give you a better recollection of Bond’s breakfast than I can of my own. In a way, I suppose it makes sense that a spy’s head would force the reader to focus on even the most mundane of details as a means of training oneself to register all facts about one’s surroundings. However, it is also forgivable if a reader tires of the elaborate and intricate descriptions of every glass of orange juice, suitcase, and burnt toast crumb between all the more interesting espionage action scenes.

James Bond in the books is also very much a character of the mid-20th century. Hence, his widespread display of casual chauvinism and colonial-minded racism in service of Queen and Country are inherent traits that don’t get softened in the course of the novels, as the film version does through the decades and into the turn of the century.

Although not the best written spy fiction, the 007 series is definitely worth a read even if only to get a historical glimpse at the origins of a character that’s become a cultural icon, and which will undoubtedly continue to evolve on the silver screen as the times demand it.

The secret to James Bond's timeless appeal - SlashGear

Dexter Morgan: Character Portrayal in Books vs. TV

File:Dexter Logo.svg - Wikimedia Commons

It’s been several years now since Dexter aired it’s series finale on Showtime. Along with most of the viewership, I feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction with how the show decided to end things (more on that later), but at the time it also left me wondering how the story might have progressed if a set of creative forces had taken its reins and run with it. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to wonder too much, as there existed a whole series of books that had inspired the TV show just waiting for me to explore, and contrast with its small screen counterpart.

Fair warning for those still binging on Netflix, there are bound to be spoilers below, and now that you’ve been alerted of it [in bold font, no less!], please don’t send me emails complaining about it. Cool? Cool.

If you’ve watched all eight seasons of the Dexter TV show, and then read all 8 books in the Dexter crime thriller series by Jeff Lindsay, you’ll have noticed some key differences in how the two mediums portray the personality and life events of its eponymous main character, Dexter Morgan.

I’m someone who happens to believe that changes to characters and narratives should not be reflexively dismissed as a negative. It is simply a fact that certain means by which a story can be structured within the confines of a book, does not always translate well onto the screen, and vice versa. Writers often have to make adjustments to allow for pacing, as well as the diverse means by which audiences consume either medium, in order to weave together a consistent and coherent plot. To put it simply: sometimes what reads well on paper, doesn’t always work too great when watched on a TV set (or any other screen). And audiences need to be mindful of this when comparing the differences between the two.

With that aside, these are the major difference that jumped out at me between Dexter, as portrayed in the pages of the books, and the TV series inspired by it, as well as the impact these differences hold for the overall narratives for either medium:

  • In the TV show, Dexter goes through a clear character arc where we see his psychopathic nature soften as he starts to identify with the individuals in his life, and humanizes as a result of his interactions with them (at least when comparing Season 1 Dexter, with Season 8 Dexter). In the books, no such arc happens. His outlook is the same in the last book (Dexter is Dead) as it is in the first book (Darkly Dreaming Dexter), that is to say, book Dexter remains as narcissistic and egocentric as he always was through every major life event. Personally, I think this difference works best for each medium. When it comes to books, you can still sympathize with a psychopathic protagonist if the story is written from his point of view, and he’s charmingly humorous about his monstrous behavior to boot. We’re just more forgiving because we experience the first-person account with him from inside his head, and had fun doing it, no matter how “bad” of a person he objectively is. Without a doubt, this wouldn’t work the same on a TV Show, or would be very tricky to pull off properly. Viewers want to know that the story they’re watching is progressing forward, and obvious character growth is a key way to portray that progression, otherwise you risk leaving the audience feeling cheated at getting invested in a character who seemingly has remained unaffected by anything that’s happened to them in the course of all major plot points you spent with them [I’m looking at you, Season 8 Jaime Lannister].
  • In the TV show, the Dark Passenger is just a metaphor Dexter uses to personify his homicidal urges, and in no way supernatural; in contrast, the books take a whole different angle on this whole concept. Book 3 of the series (Dexter in the Dark), makes it clear that the source of all psychopathic tendencies in the world has a supernatural origin, and descends from an ancient sacrificial deity named Moloch. Rather than being a manifestation of his darker urges, Dexter’s Dark Passenger is explained to be an entity existing separate from his own psyche, and is in no ambiguous terms presented as stemming from this supernatural source. It was a weak and nonsensical plot device that divided the fan base when Book 3 first came out, and for that reason gets downplayed in subsequent books. Nevertheless, it’s still there in the subtext and remains weak and nonsensical all throughout the book series’ run, whenever it is referenced again. For those wondering if there is an element of the story the TV show handles better than the books, I would say its interpretation of the Dark Passenger is an obvious winner in that regard. Not only is it more consistent with the tone of the greater narrative at play, it also serves as a better overall characterization of Dexter’s character, as the ultimate responsibility of his nature is still understood to be him at its core, and not the results of some convoluted spiritual influence at the hands of some ancient deity craving for a regular dose of human blood, or whatever.
  • Finally, the finale conclusions are very different. The last book in the series is titled Dexter is Dead, and although a bit of a spoiler in name alone, I found it to be a satisfying enough finish to the character, and recommend it as an overall entertaining read (though you do need to have also read at least the preceding book to understand many of the circumstances and references made throughout the narrative). In contrast, when it comes to the show’s finale, I defy anybody to defend that horrible last episode to me. I won’t go into too much of the details for those who can handle any and all spoilers except ones regarding a series’ closing scenes, but I’ll give a warning that I personally found the show’s finale to be an incoherent mess that spits in the face of all logic and any viewers who stuck around with it to the end (no, I’m not bitter–you’re bitter!). The final book in comparison is a much more fitting conclusion to the narrative, and has no stupid lumberjacks in sight.

I’m sure there are many other differences one could choose to go over, especially regarding secondary character developments (let’s just say, the books are not too kind with how they treat Detective James Doakes; I mean, he survives throughout the run of the books, but it sure ain’t a good life), but I wanted to primarily keep the focus on the character of Dexter himself. Also, maybe low-key intrigue some of the people I know reading this to read up on a few of the books, so I can finally have someone to discuss them with. Hey, a self-centered, narcissistic bookwork can dream, right?

Pin by esky :) on memes | Dexter morgan, Dexter, Michael c hall

Character Backgrounds: The Dilemma of Sharing Too Little, or Too Much

Noir Film Detective Standing in Stockvideoklipp på (helt royaltyfria)  1009708991 | Shutterstock

When writing a story, there exists a natural disconnect between how the author interprets the plot, and how the audience reads it.  The obvious reason for this being that the author has the (mis)fortune of knowing the intended background details of the events and characters before they ever makes their way onto the page, in ways that are not readily available to the reader.  The task for any decent writer is to convey these details in a way that makes for a compelling narrative that will be neither overbearing for the reader, nor leave them stranded in the dark regarding important plot/character developments.

Spotting moments when an author is being too reserved with details is fairly easy.  Anytime you’ve come across a part of a story or book that left you wondering, “Wait, who is this, and why are they suddenly in the middle of everything?  Where they hell did they come from?” you were essentially exposed to underdeveloped writing.  Be sure not to misunderstand what I’m saying, though.  Introducing new characters, and strategically withholding information about them, can be an effective writing technique to invigorate interest back into the plot, as a little mystery can go a long way in building much needed suspense in an otherwise stale plot.

As an example, imagine a love story between two characters named Tom and Jill.  For over a hundred pages, you followed along as Tom sees Jill, falls in love with her, and tries desperately to impress her.  Jill was originally aloof regarding Tom’s advances, but slowly she starts to feel flattered by his affection for her, and agrees to give him a chance.  Things are going great for the two love birds for several more pages, then—just as the plot can’t bear the weight of anymore Hallmark moment clichés—a sudden wrench is thrown into the mix:

Nothing could tear Tom’s gaze away from Jill’s eyes.  The shape of them, their softness as she smiled, even the wrinkles that formed at the corners of her eyelids as she laughed, all worked to keep him in a hypnotic trance from which he could not—would not—escape.  Or so he thought.  Because the moment Susan Gallaghan walked by them, he felt his eyes wander from his beloved Jill’s enchanting eyes, to the rhythmic steps that paced along in front of him.

Let’s assume this is the first time this Susan character is ever mentioned in the plot.  The first thoughts any reader is going to have will be along the lines of:  “Who the hell is this Susan person?”, “Is she someone new to Tom?”, “Is she an old flame?”, “Is she a girl from his youth that he secretly pined after?”, “Is Tom actually a serial killer, and Susan his next victim?”  At this point, we, the audience, have no clue.  The fact that we have no clue is what makes it a brilliant writer’s trick, because now you are invested in the dilemma and subsequent resolution that is sure to follow.

But what if the drama never really follows the way you expect it to?  While the sudden introduction of this new character works to spark the reader’s interest in the development of the story, it can only carry the audience’s engagement so far.  If Susan keeps popping up in the same way, with the same vague acknowledgment from the established characters, the reader’s interest will quickly turn to frustration, and ultimately to disinterest.  You have to give the audience a reason as to why the things that are happening on the page are worth being mentioned to begin with, and in the case of character development, this means divulging at the very least some connection between secondary plot-devise characters (like Susan above) and the main protagonists.

Divulging a character’s background effectively in a narrative is not as easy as it may sound.  A lot of times it can come across bloated, and a poor attempt to force feed too much information into the plot, just for the sake of having the reader know why this person exists in the story.

Imagine if the mysterious introduction of Susan above followed up with:

Tom immediately recognized Susan as his high school sweetheart, to whom he had lost his virginity to on prom night.  The two of them went their separate ways soon after graduation, but Tom never quite got over his love for Susan.  Susan, for her part, had little trouble moving on from Tom.  So much so, that she moved away to study and travel abroad.  As she traveled the world, she gained an appreciation for herself, and how she didn’t need to define her identity by any one person that happened to be in her life.  Unlike Tom, Susan wasn’t validated by whether someone loved her; she felt complete knowing that she loved herself.  Even now as she walked past him with all the confidence of a young woman who intended to live  her life to the fullest, Tom’s heart throbbed once again for the one that got away.  Though Susan didn’t recognize Tom, the two of them would be seeing a lot more of each other from her on out, since she was set to begin a new position in the very firm Tom worked at.

The problem here isn’t that this information is being revealed within the plot; it’s that there is no reason to have it laid out all at once, let alone right after the mysteriousness regarding Susan’s presence was so brilliantly executed.  All of this can be revealed through the course of several pages, if not several chapters.  Again, by all means give the necessary background to establish a character, but there is no need to lump it all together in one spot, because then your narrative will inevitably end up repeating itself again and again, every single time the information needs to be revisited.  Eventually, Tom and Susan will have a confrontation, where hints can be dropped regarding their past intimacy.  Rather than state that Susan is a confident and independent person, why not show it by the way she behaves and interacts with her surroundings and the other characters?  Pretty much everything stated in that one paragraph can be dispersed throughout the story by piecemeal, without having to kill the suspense of revealing it all in one big swoop (especially right after the mystery character is introduced).

For a real literary example of where an author does a superb job of balancing the enigma of his characters with their subtle background revelations throughout the plot, I would point to the characters of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  Even before the book’s otherworldly narrative is revealed, these two characters’ peculiar manner of dress and manner of speaking foreshadows a fantastical nature to their persons (and, by extension, the plot itself).  All of which is subtly explored in what essentially amounts to breadcrumbs worth of information through the course of a 300+ page story.  And in the end of it all, the mystery behind who/what Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar really are is never fully revealed, precisely because there is no reason for the story to do so.

Ultimately, it’s up to every writer to decide how much is too much background exhibition for her/his characters, and how much is just enough to not stifle character and plot development.  That happy balance will largely depend on the sort of story you are trying to tell, and it may take several revisions to get it within the range you are aiming for.  But, while it’s not always straightforward in either case, being able to spot the problem in other written works means you are more than capable of applying that critical eye to your own.  Like a lot of writing advice, it simply starts with reading your writings not as an author, but as a reader, first and foremost.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm”

The Conqueror Worm (Audio Reading) - YouTube

Few writers manage to personify the pangs of life as well as Edgar Allan Poe.  While many of the Romantics-themed writers of his day focused on encapsulating what they perceived as the quasi-transcendence of life and nature, and the beauty beheld by it, Poe set his sights past the glitter, and sought to present the (at the time) oft-neglected darker themes surrounding human existence.  More than mere pessimism though, his writing betrays a delicate understanding in the balance that exists between beauty and the grotesque, joy and pain, light and dark, life and death.

By artistic extension, the theme of helpless inevitability regarding the dynamic between life and death defines a great deal of the macabre tone Edgar Allan Poe creates in his prose.  Death has a special place in Poe’s work, and often takes center stage as the primary character underlying the plot of the narrative; always in the role of an unspoken, absolutist sovereign whose authority has no equal.  “The Conqueror Worm” is not the first (nor the last) poem in which Poe explores the persona of Death as the sole sovereign before which all life and imagined existence must ultimately bow, but it is a key work illustrating the poet’s deeper understanding of the phenomenons relation to life, and the human experience of it.

Lo! ’t is a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

The described scene is one in which even angels, servants of God and guardians of man, must humble themselves to the role of mere spectators before the play of life; the outcome of who’s plot they have no say over, and can do little but cry at the sight of the tragedy for the actors on stage.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Wo!

The characters of the play are mimes, in the form of God–symbolizing man, said to have been made in the image of God–trapped in a continuous roundelay, chasing intangible matters they have no hope of catching, but cannot help but go after like puppets being pulled by their strings.

That motley drama—oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

This path man is set to repeat, brings him nothing but despair and hopelessness, as he is doomed to always return to the same scene in his plot.  A fate so dire that even if he recognized the vicious circle he’s in, he’d still be bound to carry on acting through the futility of his existence.  However, although neither man nor divine intervention can free him from his plight, a bittersweet recourse does emerge to finally cut the puppet strings forcing him through his acts.

But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

In the end, while man obediently gives chase to the phantoms keeping him trapped as an actor in the play of life, Death emerges from out of the scene to devour the actor, and finish the play for good.

Death’s intrusion in man’s scene is fatalistic, in that it signals the drawing of the curtains, and the end of his life:

Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,

But it also signals the end to his grief, by being able to finally conquer the root that is keeping man chained to his relentless despair.  In that view, Death is not the villain in the play called life: he is the hero, in the tragedy called Man.

While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

The Importance of Consistency in Fiction

How to write about science or technology clearly | OUPblog

The appealing thing about writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction is having the ability to create one’s own reality in the prose.  Be it gravity, atmosphere, characters’ sensory perception, human anatomy and mortality, none of these things need to be bound to the limitations we ourselves feel in our daily lives.  This is a powerful tool that allows authors to explore and describe the worlds they create with interesting insights without having to worry about being in line with the minutiae details of modern physics, and let’s them appeal to the reader’s wonder about the infinite realm of possibilities concerning reality as it can be challenged by her/his imagination.

Science fiction is an excellent example of this, both in book and movie form, where entire alternate universes can be conjured up with their own set of logical rules and physical laws that characters have to abide by.  There is a pitfall in this whole formula, however, that’s easy to fall into if an author is not careful.  While it is true that the sole limitation to the worlds you create is the depth of your own imagination, it needs to be remembered that what makes even a fantasy world realistic and believable to the audience is that–once its rules and laws are laid out–it remains consistent to its own reality.

If characters in a story generally cannot fly, having a character suddenly appear in chapter ten who inexplicable flies is an example of inconsistency.  If the monsters of the story are initially described as slow moving and clumsy, having them give chase in the middle of the story to create suspense is an example of inconsistency.  Speech patterns are a similar issue, where if a character’s accent quirks are sometimes emphasized in text and other times they are not, this is an example of inconsistency.

Generally, in epic sagas like Lord of the Rings it is understood that occasional logical flaws will occur for the sake of keeping the plot going (i.e. why didn’t the Eagles just take Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom at the start of the books?–Because then the story would be resolved in one book, rather than a trilogy).  Small-scale errors most readers can forgive for the sake of the narrative.  It’s when bigger, more obvious gaps in logic occur that many start to raise their eyebrows suspiciously.  For example, why do the vampires in Twilight go to school?  They’re over a hundred years old in the story, what reason do they have to keep attending high school?  And since they don’t age, do they have to keep changing schools so as not to have to explain why they spent the last ten decades in the same exact grade?  Since they do have regular contact with humans via having to go to school, why aren’t more people suspicious about the fact that none of them have aged, ever?

Timecop (1994) directed by Peter Hyams • Reviews, film + cast • Letterboxd

Science fiction films tend to be even worse offenders to this rule of consistency.  The now forgotten 1994 time traveling movie Timecop, sets up a reality in which time travel exists.  Within this reality they make the explicit mention that you can only travel to the past, never to the future; essentially making this the one and only “time travel rule” the characters need to follow.  Yet, the plot goes on to break this rule almost immediately by having characters who have traveled back to the past return back to their former present; even though, technically, when they travel to the past that past becomes their present, so returning to their original timeline means they are traveling to the future, which is the one thing the plot explicitly states you cannot do in this time traveling reality.  And it’s never explained how this is possible, even in a halfhearted way.  The viewer is simply expected not to notice.  But we do, and we are naturally put off by it, even if we can’t fully articulate why at first viewing.

If you are setting out to write fiction, and epic fantasy fiction at that, by all means let your only limits be the depth of your own creativity.  But please, for the sake of all our collective rational senses (as well as the senses of the characters you have so painstakingly born onto the page), don’t cheapen the experience by failing to have your worlds adhere to the rules and laws of the realities you yourself saw fit to give life to on the page.  Your future legion of devoted readers and admirers will thank you for it.

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

 

Bibliography

Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

Exploring William Blake

In his poem “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, William Blake describes the scene of innocent sheep being diligently watched over by a sweet shepherd.  The obvious message is the absolute sense of tranquility that is found by the herd from having a benign celestial father alertly protecting them.  But, as is with much of Blake’s writing, there is also a sense of a sinister totalitarianism being exercised by the benign shepherd.  He asserts guard over his sheep from “morn to evening,” “following his sheep all the day,” and, “his tongue shall be filled with praise.”  The Shepherd’s benefit from this relationship appears to be a self-aggrandizing one, basking in the sheep’s dependence on him.  The sheep, for their part, blissfully bask in innocent ignorance, enjoying the peace of mind grated to them through the shepherd’s protection.  Though the poem diverts the reader’s attention from sensing anything menacing with the strategic usage of gentle words like sweet, praise, innocent, tender, and peace, the dire message here can be read as indeed one of solace for both the sheep and shepherd, but also of a particularly menacing variant, reminiscent of captive victims who have learned to identify with their captors (Stockholm Syndrome).

In contrast to “The Shepherd,” Blake’s poem in Songs of Experience titled “The Angel,” approaches the same theme from a different standpoint.  Here, a maiden is being guarded over by a benign angel, similar to how the sheep were watched over by the shepherd, except unlike the sheep the maiden is filled with anguish rather than bliss.  The telling piece in the poem is that the angel is by no means a brute, but a concerned protector, yet the maiden seems to resent his presence anyway.  Whereas “The Shepherd” is comparable to a child yearning for the fawning of an overbearing parent, “The Angel” is that child maturing into adulthood, and desperately yearning for independence from her parents’ authority.  When the angel does flee the situation and the maiden is left alone, she “dried [her] tears, and arm’d [her] fears,” and upon the angel’s return she states, “I was arm’d, he came in vain,” because through her maturity she has made the conscious decision in her advanced years to—if need be violently—break free from the self-deprecating condition the angel’s preoccupation with her has created.

In line with the underlying anticlerical message evident in much of William Blake’s work, both “The Shepherd” and “The Angel” can be read as subtle, but stern, condemnations against church establishment.  “The Shepherd” illustrates the churches relation towards the youth of their flock, instilling within them a herd-like obedience towards its own authority and at the same time teaching them to praise this same authority.  It is fitting that “The Shepherd” is in the Songs of Innocence collection, since it appeals to the time in people’s lives before they are capable of reflecting on a situation and figuring out on their own what decisions are best for them.  It is the sort of innocence, which according to Blake, can be easily corrupted by organized religion and lead men further away from the truth of God in favor of expanding its own power; crushing creativity for the sake of conformist obedience.  Mention must also be given that the poem is written in third person, meaning that the true thoughts of the sheep are ultimately closed off to us, and the entire narrative serves as a representation of the oblivious public that gives cover to a harmful system because it itself is incapable of noticing that the dependence the shepherd had trained in his sheep is a form of mental submission, rather than sincere devotion.  On that same note, “The Angel,” from the Experience, shows a first person narrative, giving a personal account into the loathing and grief experienced by a creative mind craving to be free from an overbearing guardian.  Whereas, the young sheep sought the guidance of the shepherd because their reasoning skills were not developed enough to know better, the aging maiden’s experienced rationale had rebelled against her guardian.

Just as the church in Blake’s view seeks to do what it thinks is best for the salvation of man’s soul, “The Shepherd” and “The Angel,” demonstrate the irony of how the imposition of guarded and conditional deliverance can only be perceived as virtual imprisonment, and will–contrary to its own goals–impose a token brand of cerebral tyranny.

William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake is a fascinating character in the world of literature.  A deeply spiritual man, whose writings seek to promote what he saw as the ideals of Christian virtue, but equally antagonistic towards all churches and established expressions of religion.  It is this sort of irony that is raised repeatedly in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), which explores ideas of traditional theology and ethical logic, to uncover what the poet thought to be the true spark of man’s divine spirit.

Anyone looking to seriously discuss the doctrine of Contraries set forth in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, must first grasp the rhetorical, and perhaps more importantly, the theological implications that come along with realizing that notions such as good and evil are not and cannot be described as antitheses of one another.  Plate 3 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, firmly calls on the reader to reflect on how s/he could honestly be able to fully comprehend positive components (such as attraction, reason, and love), unless there exist negative contraries (in this case, repulsion, energy, and hate) that must be known and understood to truly see the goodness of its opposites.  If these negatives (i.e. Evil) are absent, then there is no rational way to detect the positives (i.e. Good), thus gaining an understanding of evil is detrimental in recognizing good.  Plate 3 goes on to imply that Evil is the driving force of knowledge; it is the active factor that through its guiding principle, energy, focuses the senses of the passive recipient, Good, and allows its guiding principle, reason, to judge a given situation.  Blake finishes by affirming, “Good is Heaven.  Evil is Hell”, a clear attempt to distinguish between the two concepts.  But, while it is certainly true that the existence of Heaven is not contingent on there also being a Hell, any description associating Heaven with Good will lose all meaning in the absence of Hell.  If Heaven is the sole transcended plane, then to label it Good (or anything else for that matter) is an arbitrary description, akin to saying that Color is Heaven.  In such a case, what would anything outside Heaven be, non-Color, but what would that describe?—Nothing, which is precisely why it is vital for us to be able to articulately conceive of the Evil of Hell, so that we may understand the Good of Heaven.

It must be kept in mind that in Blake’s spiritualist view, these traditionally divine and damned settings are considered to be more psychologically real, than physical representations of actual places (as the churches teach).  Thus, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, are dependent on one another to ensure the promulgation of both entities in human consciousness.  A fact that is acknowledged and plainly stated by Blake, and (in his view) secretly acknowledged but never stated by the churches.  In plate 4, the voice of the Devil is presented in the form of a rational argument (even though reason is a component of Good), articulating Blake’s stance that although transcendent experience is real, any attribute we give to it is limited by the imagination of our minds, thereby making this real entity imaginary when we aim to analyze and categorize it rationally.  Resulting in irony, because whereas reason is supposed to be a principle of Good, it becomes entrenched by our energetic drive to grasp it (energy being the principle of Evil), which ultimately takes us further away from the divine truth but also gives us our only possible insight to divinity.  Meaning that, unlike what the church or organized religion teaches us, our physical and mental cravings are neither sin nor salvation, but manifestations of one transcendent property incapable of being dissevered.  Our projection outward towards the heavens is in truth just a reflection inward—where Heaven truly resides—towards our soul.