Archive for the ‘Novel’ category

A Personal List of the 20 Best Science-Fiction Novels

October 7, 2022

Often the internet seems like a collection of lists: the 100 best pop-songs, the 15 worst scams, and all the rest.  People seem to respond to numbered compilations.

In the science-fiction realm, I’ve read quite a few lists about some aspect of “best”, whether of this year, or by women authors, or the most technologically significant.

In the end, they are all personal lists – usually one person’s idea and often displaying whatever social correctness we are supposed to elevate.

This is my list, based on an admittedly incomplete sampling, although over quite a few decades.  Many of them were written in the 1950s through 1960s, which to me is the bedrock of modern science-fiction.  You can’t really understand where science-fiction is today without recognizing the immense talent that preceded the current flowering of the genre and its many brilliant authors.

If you were to read the novels mentioned here, I feel you could only come away with a deep appreciation for the wonder and otherness that science-fiction seeks to portray.

Such is the depth of the field that many variations of this list are possible.  This particular one though has stories that touched me on many different levels, and I think still could for anyone who reads them anew.

As I went through these titles, I was struck hard again by the sweep of imagination of the authors.  The daring.

A few of the entries below are trilogies or series, but in my mind those are one big novel.

I will go through them chronologically.

1. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

I was hard-pressed whether to select this dystopian novel, published in 1932, or George Orwell’s later take on the same theme, 1984.  I read them both in a log cabin in northern British Columbia in the 1960s as an impressionable boy.  They served to make me deeply suspicious of all forms of authority.

BNWIn the end, Huxley’s novel is the more menacing of the two.  While 1984 portrays overwhelming brutality against the individual by the state, in Brave New World people are effectively seduced to accept their utter servitude. As Huxley stated in a letter to Orwell:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

2. Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov

Set against a backdrop of galactic empire, the psychohistorian Hari Seldon founds a secretive branch of mathematical sociology.  It enables him to predict the future of large populations, and through it, he predicts the fall of the empire.  He foresees a new Dark Age lasting 30,000 years, but through his new discipline, he endeavours to slightly deflect for the better the onrushing series of events.  In later millenia he appears as a kind of hologram, although long dead, to help guide what happens, due to his calculations.

FoundationI still remember holding the hard-back volumes of this intriguing story by Isaac Asimov which began with the trilogy from 1951 onward, eventually extending to more volumes in the 1980s.  I read it several times during my teenage years.  Hari Seldon was an amazing character to me.  Foundation won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966.

Of course Isaac Asimov was one of the most famous of science-fiction writers, with work ranging from the I, Robot series to the novel The Caves of Steel.

3. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke

The human race is about to enter a new phase.  At the end of this poignant story, published in 1953, we come to understand that children are undergoing a transformation.  They are metamorphosing into something that transcends human existence.  The facilitators of this change are a tragic alien race who peacefully invaded Earth.

CEThe aliens are only caretakers of the human race while it undergoes the transformation into something spiritually superior.  What has been the human race will be no more.

The English author, Arthur C. Clarke was a writer, futurist and inventor who also wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other novels such as Rendezvous with Rama.  He was a well-known proponent of space travel. 

I remember him also for short stories such as The Nine Billion Names of God, where Tibetan monks strive to encode all the possible names of God.  They believe the universe was created for this purpose.  They need modern technology to complete their task, and enlist the expertise of two Westerners.  As the monks complete their long mission, “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” 

4. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon

A novel about six misfits, each with a strange power, who come together after many tribulations to form a new kind of human being, homo gestalt, a whole of combined consciousness.

MoreThe story, published in 1953, was praised by some reviewers for “its crystal-clear prose, its intense human warmth and its depth of psychological probing.”

Others said the novel “transcends its own terms and becomes Sturgeon’s greatest statement of one of his obsessive themes, loneliness and how to cure it.”

Sturgeon also coined “Sturgeons Law”: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.”

5. The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham

Another novel from 1953, this apocalyptic story begins with a journalist and his wife observing the fall of mysterious objects into the ocean.

Kraken

The story has three sections: the first where the aliens arrive and do mysterious underwater things, the second when the aliens attack in “sea tanks” that send out sticky tentacles and drag people into the water, and the third where the aliens raise the sea level and change the climate, and civilization collapses. This all takes place over many years.

A professorial third character with considerable insight tries to warn everyone about what may happen, but is widely ignored due to his alienating manner.

Even by the end of the novel, nobody ever sees the aliens.

Reviewers praised the novel as “a solid and admirable story of small-scale human reactions to vast terror.”

John Wyndham, a British author, also wrote The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids, among other notable works.

6. A Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Published in 1959 and winning the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel in 1961, this story covers a post-apocalyptic period of thousands of years. The apocalypse was occasioned by nuclear holocaust.

In the 26th century, Brother Francis Gerard of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz of the Catholic Church is on a vigil in the Utah desert. Brother Francis discovers the entrance to an ancient fallout shelter containing “relics”, such as a 20th-century shopping list which becomes sanctified as a holy remnant of an ancient world. The Church persists as the preserver of civilization.

Canticle

The novel has been subject to considerable literary and critical analysis. In other words, it came to be treated with respect outside the science-fiction genre.

The novel is structured in three parts separated by six hundred years. This book was my first exposure to any model of cultural history. In Miller’s own words from another work: “All societies go through three phases…. First there is the struggle to integrate in a hostile environment. Then, after integration, comes an explosive expansion of the culture-conquest…. Then a withering of the mother culture, and the rebellious rise of young cultures.”

In the end, this cyclical process catches up, in a tragic way, to all that humanity hopes to accomplish.

7. The High Crusade, Poul Anderson

When an extraterrestrial scout ship lands in medieval England, it is encountered by a knight recruiting a force to help Edward III in the Hundred Years War against France. It seems the aliens have forgotten how to do hand-to-hand combat, and Sir Roger and his men capture the ship.

High

The whole set-up still makes me grin. Sir Roger and company think the ship is a French trick. The local villagers finish off the rest of the alien force, except for one, and join the soldiers in the ship. Sir Roger determines to go to France to win the war and then liberate the Holy Land.

With the grudging aid of the last alien, representing a tyrannical empire bent on invading Earth, they take off. The alien misleads the Englishmen and the ship actually heads off towards another of the alien empire’s worlds. Adventures ensue.

The prolific Poul Anderson was one of the great science fiction authors. His books were nominated for seven Hugo and three Nebula awards. The High Crusade was published in 1960. Anderson also wrote such novels as There Will Be Time (1972) and The Boat of A Million Years (1989).

8. Dark Universe, Daniel Galouye

Another post-nuclear-apocalypse novel, Dark Universe from 1961 finds survivors retreated underground, where they live in total darkness.

Dark UniSince the survivors have no visual ideas of Light and Darkness, the concepts become religious. They believe that the Light Almighty banished humankind from Paradise during a conflict with the demon, Radiation, and his two lieutenants, Cobalt and Strontium.

Jared is the son of the leader of the survivors who use click-stones and echoes to navigate the darkness. Jared goes on a quest for Darkness and Light and encounters another clan of survivors who use infrared to get around.

Galouye creates an ingenious world, which in the end is redeemed by the Light. Many have noted the resemblance of the story to Plato’s allegory of the cave.

The novel was nominated for a Hugo in 1962, but lost out to the next novel in this list.

9. Stranger in A Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

This is the story of Michael Valentine Smith, born on Mars and raised by Martians, who comes to Earth and encounters the United States after World War III, where religions are powerful.

He becomes a celebrity and his presence begins to transform human society. He exhibits psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence, while having a kind of open-minded innocence.

However, his appearance and actions on Earth shake the political and cultural balance and his life becomes in danger.

According to Wikipedia, Heinlein named his main character “Smith” because of a speech he made at a science fiction convention regarding the unpronounceable names assigned to extraterrestrials.

Stranger

He also was to write about the novel, “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines.”

It became the first science-fiction novel to enter The New York Times Book Review‘s best-seller list.

During the 1960s, the book became a countercultural favorite, not least for the word “grok” which took on the meaning of a coming together of subject and object that can’t always be articulated. When you grok something, you not only understand it, you become, in some sense, a part of it, and it, a part of you.

10. The Immortals, James Gunn

Published in 1962 and incorporating several previously published stories, this is the chronicle of a small group of immortals surviving on the edge of a dystopian society which is striving to hunt them down.

Immortals

They are living fountains-of-youth, due to a genetic mutation, whose blood can make others immortal too (if replenished every month).

As one reviewer on Goodreads notes: “…The Immortals opens with scenes that could almost come from a crime novel rather than a science fiction story. Private detectives are hired, people are on the run, evil rich men will do anything to get what they want, no one can be trusted.”

I remember it for its thriller-like excitement and the tense pacing of its writing.

James Gunn, who only recently died in 2020, was a well-known professor of English and promoter of science-fiction as a humanistic endeavour at the University of Kansas.

11. Cities In Flight series, James Blish

This four book series was published from 1950 to 1962, but the one that sticks with me most was A Life For the Stars from 1962.

The premise is that entire cities from Earth fly among the stars using an anti-gravity device called the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator, or spindizzy for short.

Cities_in_Flight

The spindizzy allowed some cities to escape the oppression of a tyrannical regime on Earth and look for work among the other denizens of the galaxy.

The 1962 book describes the rise of 16-year-old Chris Deford who eventually becomes the city manager of New York City as it wanders through the cosmos.

These are stories for which the term “space opera” was invented.

The American writer James Blish also wrote a series of Star Trek novelizations and the Hugo Award winning A Case of Conscience in 1959.

12. Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

As a lonely teenager, there was something about this story of a young man managing a way station for time travelers that resonated with me. The young man, Enoch, stays the same age while those in the normal world around him get older, and this gets difficult to explain after a while. Originally he is a Civil War veteran.

Way

Eventually after a hundred years or so, the US Government takes an interest and a CIA agent is sent to investigate him. This is the beginning of many adventures.

Published in 1963, the book went on to win the 1964 Hugo Award for best novel.

Clifford Simak had an unique, warm style of writing.

He once stated:

“Overall, I have written in a quiet manner; there is little violence in my work. My focus has been on people, not on events. More often than not I have struck a hopeful note… I have, on occasions, tried to speak out for decency and compassion, for understanding, not only in the human, but in the cosmic sense. I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned where we, as a race, may be going, and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme….”

In 2019, Netflix announced plans, so far unfulfilled, to make a movie based on the book.

13. White Lotus, John Hersey

Here is a writer from the literary mainstream who created one of the best alternative history novels that I’ve come across. Some might call it speculative fiction, or other terms to make it more respectable, but it is still science-fiction to me.

In this 1965 novel, white Americans have become enslaved by the Chinese and are now a subservient race. The story follows a young Arizona girl renamed White Lotus.

White Lotus

In the memorable prologue of the story, White Lotus raises one knee and stands on the other foot to take the posture of a sleeping bird, in an effort to shame the Chinese governor as a non-violent protest against tyrannical treatment.

Her simple act of standing before her captors on one leg, head bowed like a sleeping bird becomes an often repeated act of nonviolent civil disobedience, an unconventional act in the spirit of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

John Hersey was born in China, the son of Protestant missionaries, and learned to speak Chinese before he learned English.

As a journalist, his account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, celebrated for its thoughtful and horrified humanity, was judged the finest piece of journalism of the 20th Century by a 36-person panel associated with New York University.

Hersey’s first novel, A Bell for Adano, about the Allied occupation of a Sicilian town during World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1945.

14. Ubik, Phillip K. Dick

Phillip Dick was a strange and volatile man. He is now celebrated for the movie adaptations of such writings as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner) and The Minority Report (Minority Report).

He had a hallucinogenic view of reality fed in part by actual hallucinogens.

But as Wikipedia points out:

Ubik

“His fiction explored varied philosophical and social questions such as the nature of reality, perception, human nature, and identity, and commonly featured characters struggling against elements such as alternate realities, illusory environments, monopolistic corporations, drug abuse, authoritarian governments, and altered states of consciousness.”

His 1969 novel Ubik illustrates much of this. In it psychic powers are used by corporations for business espionage, and cryonic technology preserves recently deceased people in hibernation.

It follows Joe Chip, a technician at a psychic agency who, after an assassination attempt, begins to experience strange alterations in reality that can be temporarily reversed by a mysterious store-bought substance called Ubik.

15. The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin

In this 1971 novel, a man wakes up one morning and discovers that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. 

From this simple and imaginative premise, Le Guin devises a tale about a man who goes to a psychiatrist about his problem. The psychiatrist understands immediately the power his patient wields.

Lathe

At one point the protagonist dreams of aliens who become a reality.

The patient finally understands that he must preserve reality itself as the psychiatrist becomes adept at manipulating the man’s dreams for his own purposes.

Of course Le Guin is famous for many of her thoughtful, culturally significant novels, including The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea trilogy. She also wrote much non-fiction, including essays about her craft, which I found quite inspiring (Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story).

16. The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner

This novel from 1972 is the third in what has been called British author Brunner’s near future “Club of Rome Quartet.” The Sheep Look Up concerned itself with consumerism and rampant pollution. Stand On Zanzibar was about overpopulation, The Jagged Orbit concerned itself with racial tension and violence, and the later The Shockwave Rider dealt with technology and future shock.

Sheep

As much as I admire these books and Brunner, they often now seem outdated, surpassed by actual events. But his prescience in many cases was spot-on. In Shockwave Rider from 1975, for instance, he created a computer hacker hero before anyone even heard of such a thing.

In The Sheep Look Up, water pollution is so severe that “don’t drink” notices are frequently issued. Household water filters are popular items. Air pollution has reached the point that people in urban areas can’t go outside without wearing masks. The fumes left behind by aircraft are such that it causes air sickness in planes trailing behind. California is blanketed by a thick layer of smog that prevents the sun from shining through. Acid rain forces people to cover themselves in plastic so that their clothes don’t get ruined. The sea has become so polluted and the beaches so strewn with garbage, that people now vacation in the mountains. (Not so far-fetched, no?)

It follows several characters over the course of a year as their paths intertwine while they struggle to cope with the drastic changes in the environment, and as the United States starts to collapse under the weight of pollution. It is a pessimistic novel redeemed for me by its somewhat experimental structure, and the density of its ideas and insights about our world’s problems.

17. Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg is one of my favorite science-fiction authors for the excellence of his writing, the philosophical cast of his mind, and his tendency towards themes of transcendence.

He is more celebrated for earlier novels such as A Time of Changes, The World Inside, and Downward to the Earth, deservedly so, but for some reason this novel sticks with me more.

Lord Val

Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980), part of what is known as the Majipoor Series, incorporates aliens, galactic empire, descendants of colonists, lords, castles and wizards to become that odd genre creature, science fantasy.

The story takes place on the gigantic planet Majipoor. It is about ten times the size of Earth, with cities often housing as many as 10-20 billion citizens. We follow a young man named Valentine who suffers from amnesia and who joins a troupe of jugglers during celebrations for the ascension of a new Coronal, the emperor of this planet, also named Valentine (which is said to be a very common name).

Gradually, we learn that the juggling Valentine has been robbed of most of his memories, and has had his true body stolen from him. He is the rightful Coronal of Majipoor.

The planet of Majipoor becomes another character in the narrative. It is full of people, creatures, machines, alien races and interesting locations.

This straightforward, in many ways, adventure story exhibits Silverberg’s wonderful writing craftsmanship.

18. Plague Year Trilogy, Jeff Carlson

Microscopic machines designed to fight cancer instead go awry and begin to disassemble warm-blooded tissue to make more of themselves. Eventually the human body succumbs to the onslaught of the spore-like machines. They spread like a virus by way of bodily fluids and through the air.

Plague

Either on purpose or as a design flaw, the nanovirus is limited by altitude, namely 10,000 feet. All warm-blooded animals are killed below that elevation, while humanity retreats to high places.

With thriller-like pacing, the Plague Year trilogy (begun in 2007) portrays humanity in extremis with two key characters struggling to survive and turn the tide. Over the three volumes, with Plague War in 2008, and Plague Zone in 2009, we are taken on a remarkable adventure. Cam, a ski bum with full emergency medical training and an impressive talent for survival, and Ruth, a genius capable of manipulating and designing nanotech together fight to save the world.

In 2008, Plague War was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Sadly, Jeff Carlson died in 2017 of cancer at only 48 years old.

19. The Passage Trilogy, Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin, another author from the literary mainstream, wrote The Passage, 2010, The Twelve, 2012, and The City of Mirrors, 2016, after his daughter asked him to write a book about a “girl who saves the world.”

Passage

These are books slightly hard to define in that they straddle the intersection of the science-fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Some blithely describe them as novels about vampires, which are a major element, but this categorization does an injustice to the depth of the writing, characterizations and story.

I was swept away by the quality of the writing. One reviewer said of the trilogy, “There is a sense as you read this series that you are witnessing the creation of a modern classic.”

Colonies of humans attempt to live in a world filled with superhuman creatures who are continually on the hunt for fresh blood. It all starts when an abandoned young girl named Amy becomes an unwitting test subject in an attempt to use an ancient Bolivian virus to create a perfect super soldier. The virus may be the source of the vampire myth. That young girl goes on after many harrowing adventures to eventually fulfill Cronin’s daughter’s wish.

The reviewer quoted above also writes: “The scope of the trilogy is staggering at times. We see characters grow from scared kids to brave heroes, going on to become parents, then grandparents, then legends.”

20. The Nexus Trilogy, Ramez Naam

This trilogy has been described as a “postcyberpunk thriller”. The three volumes, Nexus, Crux, and Apex were written by their American author (born in Egypt) from 2012-15.

Set in 2040, the hero Kaden Lane is a scientist who works on an experimental nano-drug, Nexus, which allows the brain to be programmed and networked, connecting human minds together. As he pursues his work, governments and corporations take an interest and begin to threaten.

Nexus

Near the beginning of the trilogy genetically enhanced supersoldiers become vegetarians and pacifists after being dosed with Nexus and realizing first-hand the suffering caused by their actions. At the same time, sociopaths dose with Nexus so they can feel the pain they inflict on others.

At the climax of the final book a distributed intelligence made up of thousands of Nexus-linked humans tries to save the world by healing a posthuman AI goddess who was tortured into madness by her near-sighted human captors.

I was enthralled by the books. The pacing and events are definitely that of a thriller, while the wild possibilities of computer-brain interfaces, and linked human consciousness, are explored in depth.

In Conclusion

This was a sentimental journey back to considering many of these novels, although their worth is much more, I would argue, than pure nostalgia.

I did realize one insight as a result of doing this. The force of thinking and feeling realized in Emerson’s and Thoreau’s transcendentalism, that quest for the true and transcendent in our lives, has gone largely dormant in our culture. But I believe that in not a few of the science-fiction novels noted here, that quest reappears to evocatively light up the minds of talented writers. It has been expressed through narratives which include aliens and galactic empires, and stories about dreams and reality and the nature of consciousness.

It is amusing to reflect on the possibility that the best of Emerson and Thoreau lives on through science-fiction.

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Beta Reader Exchange?

July 21, 2022

I’ve finished a second science-fiction novel. This one is set just ahead of us in the middle of this century, which is rather daring given the speed of change.

I like to put characters in science-fictionish environments and explore what might happen with them. This second novel is part of a trilogy I’m calling The Three Eras. The first was set way in the future, in the Third Era. This one is in the First Era, and the next is in the Second. The stories are all in the same universe but each stands alone with only historical connections.

You might think that it would make sense to write them in chronological order, but my mind has worked itself out differently. It may have something to do with ease of writing. The third novel, of the Second Era, promises to be the most difficult. I’m going to have to do a lot of research, which I’ve already started, on such matters as space elevators and genetic manipulation.

But for the just completed novel set in the relatively near future (third draft or so) let me give you the pitch for it:

“What if an intellectual, even spiritual genius, like a young combined Einstein and Simone Weil, appeared as a young girl? In the middle of the 21st century, in the midst of societal decay, climate disruption and technological change, a young investigator searches for a brilliant girl who has gone missing. This is a novel about a young man still suffering from the suicidal death of his sister who makes it his mission to rescue a genius girl who wants to save humanity. He must overcome an international crime cartel, local corruption, and social and environmental disruption, to find her and keep her safe.”

Voluntary first readers?

Before I get serious with sending it out to literary agents, I would like a beta-reader or two to give it the once over. For those unfamiliar with the term, a beta-reader is a voluntary first reader who gives the writer their reactions.

I propose that if anyone has their own novel work-in-progress who also needs a beta-reader then we could exchange first chapters or synopses to see if we still want to proceed. My throw-away email for this is: 5cfstkof5osg@opayq.com .

There are beta-reader groups and services available on-line. One I’ve found which I’ve signed up for is the Critters Writers Workshop. It is “home to several on-line critique groups (aka workshops) for professional and professionally aspiring writers, artists, and creators in any endeavor.” It is free (donations welcome) and one pays for being read by reading others and writing critiques. Originally it was set up as a science-fiction and fantasy workshop, but now there are groups for all types of writing.

It is a hangover from the old internet when coming together in creative ways was the prime mover rather than the exciting possibilities of monetization, branding and Meta. The interface is a little old-fashioned, run by a guy who hearkens back to the old days. It can be hard sometimes to find the exact information you’re looking for, but I like the atmosphere of it.

So we’ll see how this goes….

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Recently Found Tools For Writing Novels

July 14, 2022

I’ve just finished writing a second novel. I wanted to share a few of the tools I’ve found that helped me get it done, and will aid me in the future as I start on the third one.

By ‘tools’ I mean books on the craft of writing, and software.

There is a large industry devoted to selling advice on how to write novels to would-be authors. Not just books of course, but websites and software of all description. It’s hard to lift out the nutritious kernels from the dirt and leaves.

As time goes on, and I slowly become more experienced, I’m much less enamoured of those books which pretend to offer a surefire scheme based on arbitrary models of how novels should be structured. I’m thinking particularly of those books and authors who insist you must figure out three acts with certain obligatory ‘beats’. It all comes to seem so artificial and destined to bleed the life out of one’s writing. (And editors supposedly can spot the artificiality right away.)

Monetization and writing advice

I’ve understood that these models are a means to sell how-to books and for monetization in general. If you’ve got yourself set up as a writing authority online, such as for just one example, the writer K.M. Weiland, then promoting a lot of questionable technique becomes necessary. It’s about the continual need for specific “knowledge” to sell. (I don’t mean to pick on Weiland too much, it’s just I find her attitude about these matters annoying. She does have good instructive information on some topics.)

So I find myself better informed by books like Steven James’ Story Trumps Structure or John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story or Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Ensouling Language. But I’ve written about those books here before. I will come back with some new (to me) titles that I found helpful recently.

Obsidian

But first to the software end of things. I am becoming a fan of the free note-taking and personal information management (PIM) program called Obsidian. I’ve just discovered it in the last few months and it is becoming an important part of my note-taking and thinking about the novels I’m writing.

I’ve always been on the look-out for note-taking applications that can accept my helter-skelter thoughts and intuitions, and later help me use them in the writing. Previously I found NoteStormTW which I still think useful, but Obsidian seems more comprehensive.

Obsidian is a Markdown file reader. It sits on top of any relevant files in a designated folder or vault and enables users to write, edit and interlink their notes. I don’t know much about Markdown or PIM but apparently, these features make it an object of near cult-like reverence in some quarters. (You can find in-depth discussions for instance of Obsidian’s relevance for Zettelkästen and other esoteric matters.)

I like it because it’s not online, you don’t have to sign up for an account, and it seems incredibly flexible. You download it, install, review a YouTube video or two, maybe a written tutorial, and you’re away.

It’s even promoted as a ‘second brain.’ You build systems of bi-directional links between your notes, and there are even graphical plug-ins that enable you to better visualize what you’ve got. The exciting part is to perhaps discover links you haven’t noticed before. (An excellent overview of the application is at Sitepoint.)

The writer Vanessa Glau gives a good description of how she applies Obsidian in her fiction writing. She’s much more organized than I am, but she outlines an interesting process.

Freewriting

I’ve decided to come back to more freewriting as a method to incubate or brainstorm ideas for the next science fiction novel I plan to write. (I’ve previously written about freewriting in About Freewriting: Notes of a Pencil Sharpener, Part II.)

Freewriting, to return to originator Peter Elbow’s insightful thoughts on the practice is about “… a transaction with words whereby you free yourself from what you presently think, feel and perceive.”

The process can be something like this: Set aside 10 minutes. Start writing. Don’t stop for anything. Don’t rush but don’t stop. Never look back, do not cross out, do not muse about word choice, just go. If you get stuck, it’s fine to write things like, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write,” or repeat the last word over and over until something catches. The only requirement is that you do not stop until time is up.

A useful application which allows you to work with this is the simple writing program Q10 . It provides a distraction free writing environment with a timer. It only produces .txt files though, so you may have to open and save in some other program to get a format you want.

Now on to several books. After I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on, I ran into my usual issue of not quite having a handle on how to revise.

Story Grid… Eh

Initially I found Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne to be a reasonable guide for my revision. There are a lot of useful insights into the state of the publishing business. But he starts to spend too much time on this for my taste before he gets to his method.

The heart of it are six questions one needs to keep asking about the novel. These include what are the protagonist’s objects of desire and what are the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and Ending Payoff? Worthwhile questions for a draft. But then he goes on to elaborate the beginning simplicity into increasingly complex and prescriptive spreadsheets and templates. If you go online, you see the method turned into another one of these writing craft merchandising schemes. Here’s the secret sauce you need!

Book Architecture

Then I found the book Blueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horwitz which became my guide this time for the overall revision of my manuscript. For the first novel, I’d done an Excel spreadsheet of all my scenes, with columns trying to incorporate the best advice about important points and characters.

Horwitz’s book laid out a similar method, which he calls Book Architecture, without the spreadsheet. As he puts it: “The basic premise of the Book Architecture Method is this: Your book has ninety-nine scenes. If you find your scenes and put them in the right order, you will be all set.” Well, it could be seventy-nine or a hundred-and-nine, but you get the idea. Finding and ordering scenes, and connecting them to the tentative theme you find in the work is the gist of it.

Once found each scene is named in a brief informative way and then listed without looking at the manuscript(!). This helps to understand what stands out for you about what you’ve written. (Presumably by this time you will have read your draft a few times.)

I won’t go on with all the details, but one concept he introduces I found unusual and interesting is that of series. A series can be seen as integrating a narrative element across a number of scenes.

Using the fable of The Ugly Duckling to show what he means, he picks out a series of scenes about “ugliness” and outlines their variations and how their sequence builds.

Another book I’ve been reading is Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters. She’s a science-fiction author who writes very well about the craft of writing, especially characterization and plotting. For instance: “Leaving out description results in characters subtly unconnected to their surroundings.” Of course, it is easy to put in too much. A fine line.

And finally, I’ve been reading an old book on writing by Dean R. Koontz, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, which dates back to those prehistoric times before the internet. He’s a good, even great, fiction writer, although sometimes for me his writing is too over-wrought and jam-packed with dramatic crises and emotions.

A universal plot?

But I was struck by this description (mostly in his words) of what might be described as the ‘universal plot.’

1) A hero (or heroine) is introduced who has just been or is about to be plunged into terrible trouble.

2) The hero attempts to solve his problem but only slips into deeper trouble.

3) As the hero works to climb out of the hole he’s in, complications arise, each more terrible than the one before. It seems as if his situation could not possibly be blacker or more hopeless than it is — and then one final, unthinkable complication makes matters even worse. In most cases, these complications arise from mistakes or misjudgments the hero makes while struggling to solve his problems, which result from the interaction of the faults and virtues that make him a unique character.

4) At last, deeply affected and changed by his awful experiences and by his intolerable circumstances, the hero learns something about himself or about the human condition in general, a Truth of which he was previously ignorant. Having learned this lesson, he understands what he must do to get out of the dangerous situation in which he has wound up.

Perhaps a little simplistic for all circumstances, but this is a pattern which many great writers have used.

And, finally, one bit of I writing advice which I actually did this time: reading out loud the entire novel. This was a later stage effort after already doing a lot of line to line revision.

Reading the words out loud lets you find awkward rhythms and phrasing, or sentences that go on way too long for one breath. Although a really long sentence might be alright once in awhile, I tend to write sentences that should often be broken up. And reading out loud informs you of other subtleties that make a difference.

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Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

December 31, 2021

Meaning is invisible, but the invisible is not contradictory of the visible:
the visible itself has an invisible inner framework, and the invisible is
the secret counterpart of the visible.

—M. Merleau-Ponty, Working Notes

The full name of the book The Soul’s Code by famed depth psychologist James Hillman is The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. It might simply have been called The Acorn. The reason will become more obvious as we go on.

But first I want to refer to an image this book arouses, which it nowhere mentions: the medicine bag.

I like the Wikipedia definition, which is all that online resource says about it: “A medicine bag is usually a small pouch, worn by some Indigenous peoples of the Americas, that contains sacred items. A personal medicine bag may contain objects that symbolize personal well-being and tribal identity. Traditionally, medicine bags are worn under the clothing. Their contents are private, and often of a personal and religious nature.”

My medicine bag, so to speak, is not worn under my clothes, but lined up on the edge of the desktop computer case near where I write. I won’t go into the intricate details and significance of all the little items arrayed there, but I will mention a couple so as to illustrate what this image means to me.

The first is a brass-cased compass which belonged to my father. It looks like a small pocket watch, with the stem acting as a clasp release for the cover. On the outside of that cover is inscribed “C.S. Bristol” for my father Charles Stephen. It must have been given to him as a gift some time in his younger life.

The compass rose

Opened, the compass rose and the shivering needle are quite pleasant to look at. A compass can be, to me especially as a former surveyor, quite a symbolic object. And it connects me to my father, whom I never really knew, as a reminder of that mystery and all the metaphorical directions our lives have taken.

The second is a simple acorn, nicely formed, which I picked out of the dirt in a neglected street area under small oak trees. (This was long before I read Hillman’s book.)

I like to hold it, weigh it in my hand, and think about its invisible power – its potential to grow into a mighty oak.

And that brings us back to Hillman and his book. The Merleau-Ponty quote above comes from what Hillman calls “Epigraphs in Lieu of a Preface.”

The very first chapter is entitled “In a Nutshell: The Acorn Theory and the Redemption of Psychology.” As someone who took on a degree in psychology in my university years, I may be more sensitive than some about the extent to which Hillman proposes overturning accepted knowledge, and cultural assumptions, about the nature of our beings.

My interest in this book took on two aspects. The first was the possibility of better insight into creating characters for the novels I’m writing. I’ve been disappointed in many of the formulations in writing craft books about that. The second snuck up on me, and became equal and maybe more than the first: what patterns can I discern, make sense of, in my own life at 70 years of age.

An innate image

To put it most succinctly, what Hillman claims is this: We have within us an “innate image.”

“That innate image can’t be found, however, until we have a psychological theory that grants primary psychological reality to the call of fate.”

He says that otherwise we are robbed of our true biography, the destiny written into our acorn.

Of course this raises many questions and objections, and we can take a look below at how Hillman meets some of them.

James Hillman

But one feature of this perspective that rings true off the top is:

“Today’s main paradigm for understanding a human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, omits something essential—the particularity you feel to be you. … The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim.”

To summarize in Hillman’s words:

“This book is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory,’ which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.”

Hillman traces this idea back to Plato and Plotinus. The Romans spoke of one’s genius, the Greeks, of the daimon.

Where did that genius go, anyway?

Until the late 1800s anyway, this kind of understanding was active in what would eventually become our own culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson often wrote of a person’s genius, as in:

“Ah, that our Genius were a little more of a genius! A man must thank his defects and stand in some terror of his talents.”

But this whole notion, even of a soul, has fallen into disfavour in psychology and philosophy. When, outside of religious institutions where old words are mouthed, does the concept “soul” come up seriously any more?

As Hillman notes:

“The concept of this individualized soul-image has a long, complicated history; its appearance in cultures is diverse and widespread and the names for it are legion. Only our contemporary psychology and psychiatry omit it from their textbooks.”

It is sobering to consider how much of our lives are invisible. Our relationships constantly cope with the unseen realities of the other. Everything that matters, really, is embedded in the invisible: the interaction between people creating music, the force that brings out the new green in the spring, the internal fountain out of which come our dreams, the space between the feeling and the word written.

But in our culture, the invisibles tend to be marginalized and overlooked.

Hillman’s claim is that this idea of our fate as acorn, as inborn pattern, is a kind of myth, which like all myths, rests in these invisibles.

Embedded in a mythical reality

“The acorn is not embedded in me, like a pacemaker in my heart, but rather I am embedded in a mythical reality of which the acorn is but my particular and very small portion.”

Hillman argues for an essence beyond either nature or nurture, these categories which are the comfortable habit of our minds, of how we’ve been taught. Anything else in our mechanistic world view is just about inconceivable.

“The remarkable singularity of individuals, the differences among the billions of persons, even between newborn babies, siblings, identical twins, as well as those raised in the same circumstances and subject to the same influences—these facts ask for answers to the question of uniqueness.”

He discusses in considerable detail the limitations of nature and nurture, and what else there might be. But this is the gist of it.

He gives many examples of extraordinary people whose unique acorn developed into greatness. For one, he gives the example of the philosopher John Stuart Mill. He never attended school. Educated at home by his father, he began learning Greek at three and Latin at eight, and by fourteen had read most of the major ancient texts in the original.

As another, he describes the case of journalist Dorothy Thompson from the early part of the 1900s.

The juvenile Thompson, after slapping her sister, was locked by her minister father in a closet and forced eventually to memorize great chunks of literature, including the sonnets of Shakespeare, entire chapters of the Bible, much of Wordsworth’s Leaves of Grass, and the entire U.S. Constitution.

How Hillman describes this gives a good sense of his outlook. His view is that the acorn develops in its idiosyncratic way as a result of the conflicts and imposed limitations of the family and a person’s environment, and is not caused by them.

“The kind of punishment, though decreed by her father and decidedly cruel and unusual by today’s educational standards, seems to have been chosen by her own protective daimon, who had, of course, anyway selected that particularly literary father. The memorizing of texts fit the pattern of her life of writing….”

The parental fallacy

He particularly dissects what he calls the “parental fallacy” as the source of blame for our psychological conflicts, reactions and churnings.

“The parental fallacy, with all its accompanying jargon about bad double-binding mothers or seductive smothering mothers, and also about absent or possessive and punitive fathers, so rules the explanations of eminence that its jargon determines the way we tell the stories of our own lives.”

He asks, “What is the connection, if any, between the parental imagination—by “parent” I always mean the immediate, intimate caretaker of a child—and the child’s acorn? How do the parents imagine the child?”

He claims that the child’s acorn needs the parents’ fantasy about who they are and will become, if only to form itself by reacting against it.

“The family fantasy that has a child typed and pinned and wriggling on the wall forces fateful choices on the heart, choices to find another kind of fantasy, anywhere.”

Ok, so how bound by this “acorn” are we? We naturally resent anything that seeks to bind us, and this idea of a fated pattern for our life seems to do so.

Hillman quotes Plotinus:

“But if the soul chooses its daimon and chooses its life, how have we still any power of decision?”

How fatalistic should we be?

But Hillman’s idea of fate does not require the ideology of fatalism.

“So it is better to imagine fate as a momentary ‘intervening variable.’ The Germans use the term Augenblicksgott for a minor divinity that passes in the blink of an eye and has a momentary effect. The religious might speak of an intercessionary angel. Rather than a constant companion who walks with you and talks with you and holds your hand through all the crises of the day, fate intervenes at odd and unexpected junctions, gives a sly wink or big shove.”

Later, he says:

“The acorn acts less as a personal guide with a sure long-term direction than as a moving style, an inner dynamic that gives the feeling of purpose to occasions. You get the feeling of importance: This supposedly trivial moment is significant, while this supposedly major event doesn’t matter that much.”

The Bad Seed

Hillman devotes an entire chapter to “The Bad Seed,” when the daimonic turns demonic. This is shorthand for the pathologies of some people, ranging from serial killers to those figures who incite whole populations to evil. He spends a lot of time examining Hitler, and reflecting on the nature of that man’s disastrous genius.

Character is fate. Hillman notes the facets of Hitler’s character that helped lead to his rise: a cold heart, a fascination with the destructive nature of fire (think of night marches with fiery torches), identification with wolf symbology, anality (for one, constantly giving himself enemas), attraction to self-destructive women (six of whom either attempted or successfully committed suicide), attraction to freaks (the misshapen, the disfigured and the abnormal), and a complete lack of a sense of humour.

And then, absolute certainty and utter conviction.

Hillman asks the important question: If Hitler monstrously exemplifies the Bad Seed, could future Hitlers be prevented?

“Without a profound sense of psychopathy and a strong conviction that the demonic is always among us—and not only in its extreme criminal forms—we hide in denial and wide-eyed innocence, that openness which also opens wide the gate to the worst.”

His remedy:

“So thwarting the Bad Seed begins with a theory that gives it full recognition. That’s what this chapter, this book, is all about. So long as our theories deny the daimon as instigator of human personality, and instead insist upon brain construction, societal conditions, behavioral mechanisms, genetic endowment, the daimon will not go gently into obscurity. It drives toward the light; it will be seen; it asks for its place in the sun.”

A call to mediocrity

Hillman also examines mediocrity, a subject which brings a lot of his book closer to my ken, and my reality.

“Let’s first acknowledge that snobbish prejudices are packed into the term ‘mediocre.'” But to Hillman, no soul is mediocre, rightly understood.

“Many are called, few are chosen; many have talent, few have the character that can realize the talent. Character is the mystery, and it is individual.” He cites the interviews of Studs Terkel, who found uniqueness in those likely deemed among the mediocre and common by society.

Is there a call to mediocrity? Hillman gives four possible answers: 1) No, only stars have angels, 2) Yes, most of us have missed our true magnificent calling due to outside influences blocking us, 3) Yes, the acorn developed into a corn on our feet, a sore point: one has stumbled around, never quite finding the true path. But:

4) “For many the call is to keep the light under a bushel, to be in service to the middle way, to join the rank-and-file. It is the call to human harmony. It refuses to identify individuality with eccentricity. The calling stays through life and guides it in subtle ways and into less dramatic forms than we witness in exemplary figures such as those presented in this book. All are called; never mind the chosen few.”

Hillman is most interested in this fourth way of looking at this question. “Character forms a life regardless of how obscurely that life is lived and how little light falls on it from the stars.”

He goes on: “Calling becomes a calling to life, rather than imagined in conflict with life. Calling to honesty rather than to success, to caring and mating, to service and struggle for the sake of living. This view …offers another idea of calling altogether, in which life is the work.”

Lightly touched

I’ve lightly touched on some of the thought-provoking ideas provided in this book. It certainly challenges our normal view of the nature of people and ourselves. Some of what Hillman says I struggle with, but it all bears reflection. I think that sometimes even he is not quite sure how to best articulate his vision of the acorn.

On the two matters that brought me to this book in the first place, I found it fruitful.

For thinking about deep characterization in novel writing, his viewpoint allows for thinking about the characters I devise in ways well beyond the superficial. I need to show about them what they love, what they’ve lost, what they fear, and what their calling may be, even unknown to themselves.

For myself, examining the pattern of my own life, I come to no firm conclusion, but to reflect upon it may be this book’s main gift to me. I feel called to write, in the forms I can manage. That’s all I can say.

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Note: This is the first of three posts following Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction.

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

November 21, 2021

The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, by James Hillman, Ballantine Books, 1996
The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, by Robert Bly, Sierra Club Books, 1986, republished by Harper Collins, 1992
Ensouling Language: On the Art of Non-Fiction and the Writer’s Life, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, Inner Traditions, 2010
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I often have the sense that the part of me that struggles with writing is a self different than the everyday one that goes grocery shopping or the self that tries to charm my wife.  (This latter effort usually fails and all my selves, and hers, have a good laugh about it.)

I think of that crazy man and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in this connection.  Gurdjieff, of Armenian and Greek descent, was born in what was Russia at the time.  He became a philosopher, a mystic, a composer, and a wanderer both geographical and spiritual.   As a spiritual teacher, he used methods including shock, music, dance, and hard labor to induce self-confrontation in his followers.  Although he died just after WWII, his writings and students continued to have influence.  There’s an interesting article from 1979 worth looking at in The New York Times upon the occasion of a preview of the feature film Meetings with Remarkable Men, about his life.  It gives the flavor of the man and his teachings.

Here is a relevant quote from Gurdjieff:

“One of man’s most important mistakes, one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I. … Try to understand that what you usually call ‘I’ is not I; there are many ‘I’s’ and each ‘I’ has a different wish.”

The writer Buster Benson makes a similar observation.  “We are better understood as a collection of minds in a single body rather than having one mind per body.”

(If you want to explore even more down this weird road, into one of the odder varieties of human consciousness, check out the “tulpamancers” described in an article in the journal Narratively.)

So to return to Gurdjieff’s formulation, the wish of my writing self is to conjure with words the closest, truest representations of the world and my experience of it that I can manage.  This is something I inarticulately feel strongly I have to attempt.  The act of trying to do so sets it apart from the rest of my selves, and it becomes a kind of identity.

These three books, each in its own way, have made this aspect of me sit up and take notice. I intend to write a post – part reflection, part review – on each of them after this introduction.

The first, The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, is a book I often came across, years ago, browsing in bookshops, but never really felt attracted to until recently.  Hillman, who died in 2011, was lauded as the most important American psychologist since William James

Deeply influenced by the psychology of Carl Jung, he went beyond it in incisive ways.  He founded a movement called archetypal psychology which, as others have pointed out, would be more accurately described as imaginal psychology, due to the importance he places on the imagination in the formation of our human reality.  His ideas are actually quite subversive to the usual run of thinking about our place in the world.  In The Soul’s Code, he proclaims the primacy in our lives of the “acorn” — all people already hold the potential for the unique possibilities inside themselves, much as an acorn holds the pattern for an oak tree.

The second book, The Winged Life, by the poet Robert Bly, is a commentary and examination of the writings of transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.  “He believed that the young man or young woman should give up tending the machine of civilization and instead farm the soul.”

Bly also refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson, that older fellow traveler of Thoreau’s, and his understanding: “…All mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball.”  Bly follows Thoreau’s poetic and wide-ranging investigations around the meaning of this metaphor.

The third book, Ensouling Language, by non-fiction author and poet Stephen Buhner, is the one most directly concerned with writing, and what makes it good.  Although the subtitle emphasizes “the art of non-fiction”, the book’s discussion, about how to follow the hints from the deepest parts of ourselves, can apply to any kind of writing, including and especially fiction.

In Buhner’s own words:

“I am and always have been interested in the invisibles of life, those meanings and communications that touch us from the heart of Earth and let us know that we are surrounded by more intelligence, mystery, and caring than our American culture admits of….”

The most common thread uniting the intent and meaning of these books is that of the poet Robert Bly himself.  The author of the book on Thoreau, he is also cited in the other two books, especially that of Buhner’s.  I was fortunate to take in one of Bly’s presentations many years ago, which had an impact that I recounted in a post on “The Shadow,” one of Bly’s preoccupations.  Hillman and Bly both approached psychology from a Jungian perspective (in the broadest sense) and they gave workshops together during the height of the “men’s movement” of the 1980s.

index rv

Robert Bly

A little of his outlook can be gleaned from his statement: “It’s so horrible in high school when they say, ‘What’s the interpretation of this poem?’” He wanted to shake off the intellectualism of “modernism”, as noted by the poet Elizabeth Hoover, in favor of the passion of Spanish poets like Federico García Lorca.

It is sad to know that Bly, now in his mid-90s, is suffering in the last stages of Alzheimer’s (recounted on Buhner’s blog).  As Buhner observes:

“He is greatly missed . . . even by himself. After the Alzheimer’s had taken hold, he once said, after watching a video of himself with his family, ‘I think I would have liked him.’

So, in the near future I will work through these three books in separate posts about what I found meaningful to the writer in me in each one.

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