The Wisdom of C.S. Lewis

Real joy seems to me almost as unlike security or prosperity as it is unlike agony. It jumps under ones ribs and tickles down ones back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o nights. It shocks one awake when the other puts one to sleep.

C.S. Lewis (letter to Mrs. Ellis)

Every once in a while the stars align and I get a freelance assignment on a topic I’m genuinely interested in. Last week I got to do some research on C.S. Lewis and in the process stumbled on some fabulous quotes about writing (and some about life, like the one above).

One of my favorite discoveries was a letter Lewis wrote to a young fan named Joan Lancaster in 1956 (you can read his whole reply here). In answer to a grammatical question, he tells her:

‘Good English’ is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another.

…which is such a delightful turn of phrase, and also a very excellent point. Someone who wrote like Charles Dickens in today’s world would sound, to most, antiquated and old-fashioned. Of course, that also makes the grammar distinctions between “proper” and “conversational” English feel slightly arbitrary, but that’s a debate for another time.

Later in that same letter, Lewis gives Joan five pieces of writing advice:

  1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
  2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
  4. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
  5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

…which is very similar advice to that I’ve heard given by Kurt Vonnegut, interesting to me because I would regard Lewis and Vonnegut as being quite far apart in terms of style though they apparently approached their craft in a similar way.

I also stumbled across an interview conducted May 7, 1963 by Sherwood Eliot Wirt entitled “The Final Interview of C.S. Lewis.” Most of it concerns Christianity and theology, but there are a couple interesting passages related to writing. When asked what he would tell an aspiring Christian writer, Lewis responds:

I would not know how to advise a man how to write. It is a matter of talent and interest. I believe he must be strongly moved if he is to become a writer. Writing is like a ‘lust,’ or like ‘scratching when you itch.’ Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it does come, I for one must get it out.

Later he’s asked about his light and often witty tone when discussing Christianity, and the interviewer asks him if spiritual writers should try to be funnier. His response:

No. I think that forced jocularities on spiritual subjects are an abomination, and the attempts of some religious writers to be humorous are simply appalling. Some people write heavily, some write lightly. I prefer the light approach because I believe there is a great deal of false reverence about. There is too much solemnity and intensity in dealing with sacred matters; too much speaking in holy tones.

…which is one of the reasons I love Lewis so much even though my own beliefs fall closer to atheism than Christianity. There’s never a sense that his way is the only way. He’s relaying truth as he sees it instead of trying to be right.

To finish off, a couple of my other favorites. From Mere Christianity:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

And, finally, from the wonderfully-named essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare” out of his 1939 collection Rehabilitations:

For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but it’s condition.

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Letters to Aunt Lucy

1718189 Letters to Aunt Lucy
Stephanie Bartusis
26 pages
A Freedom Book

 

tl;dr summary: Exploration of our connection to a wild ancestry told through a hybrid of poetry and personal essay.

 

 

There’s something inherently primal about the word choices in the “Aunt Lucy” chapters. “Aunt Lucy’s Ouroboros of Love” starts strong (“Love is the stone that sinks me” is perhaps my favorite line in the entire book) and then uses repetition to maintain the feel of the first line throughout the poem. “Aunt Lucy’s ABCs of Hips” plays with language without getting so clever it loses its rhythm. Of the Aunt Lucy sections, “Aunt Lucy’s Stick of Cypress” feels the least locked into a form, and that evolution from the first to the third poem I found to be an interesting progression. Almost as if the longer the narrator communes with Aunt Lucy the less different from the narrator Aunt Lucy’s voice becomes.

I had the pleasure of hearing this book performed and it was enchanting and somewhat mesmerizing aloud. My post-reading recollection was more of the feel and big beats of the poems as opposed to the specific words. Reading on the page was a different experience. I found myself dwelling more on individual lines and words rather than taking in the piece as a whole. It let me appreciate the linguistic choices more but I would encourage readers to give it a go aloud first and get the overall sense of the piece, because it’s otherwise just too easy to get sucked into the line by line moments and this is a book that excels at the wide view.

I’m generally a sucker for any kind of hybrid form. The way this book is divided stylistically is masterful, creating a sense of conversation between two distinct voices that’s reinforced by the shifting form. “Picky Man()goes” is the only thread from the modern narrative told in poetry rather than prose, which feels fitting. That first poem is where the narrator first hears the voice of Aunt Lucy speaking through her body. She’s in a sense visited by this primal ancestor when she connects to her through the act of eating a mango. There are brief moments of prose in “Picky Man()goes” too, a melding of the modern and the ancient brilliantly expressed through form. The back and forth of the first piece also prepares the reader for both formats to come.

There is a lot of beauty packed into not very much space in Letters to Aunt Lucy. The sparsity of it is something else I was drawn to. There is no part of this book that feels unnecessary, no low points or weak sections. It feels like a delightful taste of a much broader concept, and I’m hoping that the “Chapter 1” on the front of this volume means Aunt Lucy will be answering more letters in the future.

In defense of TWD’s season 6 finale

Obligatory warning: This post is one long spoiler. Show spoilers. Comic spoilers. All the spoilers.

Let’s start with a question, mostly for the people who are upset about the way they ended the finale (Ep. 6.16 “Last Day on Earth”): what influence does Negan’s choice of victim have on your emotional take-away from this episode? Are you more sad if Daryl dies than if Michonne dies? Would you miss Maggie more than Glenn?

When Rick’s comforting Maggie on the way to Hilltop he emphasizes again that their strength is in their unity, the overarching theme of the season. Show creator Scott Gimple’s comment on the finale was that it “was the end of the story of season 6…Presenting what occurs, to show what happened in full force, is the beginning of the next story.”

Of course I want to know who’s dead, but it’s the fact that any of them died that matters. The degree of grief may vary, but losing anyone from the core group is a big blow for both fans and characters.

Something else to think about: if fans knew who died in April, we’d have the whole summer to get over it and would be emotionally ahead of the characters when we rejoin them in October. Splitting the scene delays that emotional shift from fear to grief.

I have a theory that makes the show’s treatment of the Negan introduction even more brilliant. The short version: the show wanted to keep Glenn as Negan’s victim and this tweak to the structure of the death is to compensate for the fact that the other details are nearly identical.

The long version: There were 24 major TV character deaths in the first 6 seasons (arbitrarily defining “major TV character” as any member of Rick’s crew who’s alive in at least 4 episodes). Of those, 6 had no comic book equivalent (Jacqui, T-Dog, Merle, Bob, Noah, Sam) and 6 had basis in the comics but were re-imagined for the show (Patricia, Mika, Lizzie, Beth, Deanna, Nicholas) leaving 12 with a direct comic book counterpart. Deaths that were the same in show and comics are bolded.

  • Amy Ep1.4: killed by walkers in the camp outside Atlanta
  • Jim Ep1.5: left to die from walker bite sustained in same attack
  • Sophia Ep2.7: killed by walkers on the road to the Greene farm | Comics: still alive
  • Dale Ep2.11: killed by walkers on Greene farm | Comics: bitten then attacked by Hunters (used for Bob’s death in the show, Ep5.3)
  • Shane Ep2.12: shot by Rick | Comics: shot by Carl
  • Lori Ep3.4: dies in childbirth | Comics: shot by Governor
  • Andrea Ep3.16: Jigsaw-style murder by the Governor | Comics: still alive
  • Hershel Ep4.8: decapitated by the Governor | Comics: shot by the Governor
  • Tyreese Ep5.9: bitten at Noah’s house | Comics: decapitated by Governor (used for Hershel’s death in the show)
  • Jessie Ep6.9: killed by walkers that overrun Alexandria
  • Ron Ep6.9: killed by walkers that overrun Alexandria
  • Denise Ep6.14: crossbow bolt from Dwight (Abraham’s death in the comics) | Comics: bitten in conflict with Negan

…which to me says two things of note:
1) Season 6 is the first time we’ve seen a direct translation of a death from the comics since the very first survivor camp outside Atlanta back in season 1.
2) There has never been a direct comic translation of a death for an established, multi-season character, even if the death was just slightly tweaked (like in Shane’s case). Also worth noting that the two most gruesome deaths (Hershel’s decapitation and Bob’s post-infection consumption) were translated to different characters for TV.

The show’s Alexandria thread has been keeping close to the comics. The Grimes family story is nearly identical, barring the changes necessitated by previous changes (e.g. Judith is alive, Andrea is dead, etc). The Glenn/Maggie story took a bit of a detour with the Nicholas thing, but with Maggie pregnant it’s tracking back with the comics.

Ultimately, that’s bad news for Glenn.

Glenn’s death in the comics is iconic and gruesome. Based on past treatments, the show would shift it to another character. But who? We know it’s not Rick or Carl based on Negan’s comment (if anyone moves cut out the boy’s eye, etc). If the first person POV used throughout the episode is all the same character (not necessarily true, but likely) that limits the options to Glenn, Rosita, Michonne, or Daryl. Rosita’s death wouldn’t have enough emotional impact. Daryl’s would, but what does killing him accomplish? Putting more strain on Carol’s already damaged psyche? Same thing with Michonne. She’s a big character, but her death would just be Rick losing the woman he loves (again) and that particular twist of the knife is played out.

Glenn’s death in the comics is just too perfect. Change the victim and the moment loses its power. For the first time, a long-running major character’s death has to be the same on the screen as it was on the page. Altering the presentation was a way to maintain some of the mystery, thwarting viewer expectations somehow since they’re not doing it through the story.

I could be completely wrong. Maybe Negan kills Eugene. Who the fuck knows. Point is, though, we know he killed somebody. There’s no miracle dumpster, no convenient rocket launcher, no sudden rescue that can save our heroes this time. Season 7 is when the characters will grieve. Not finding out who’s dead until October gives fans the chance to grieve right along with them.

A Deepness in the Sky

A Deepnesdeepness covers in the Sky
Vernor Vinge
774 pages
TOR Books (1999)

Read this if you like: Hard sci-fi, world building, the Foundation series
tl;dr summary: Long-view space opera with deep political undertones that presents a unique viewpoint on both technology and time.

 

This book came my way via recommendation from a friend who’s been helping me fill holes in my sci-fi history. This is a prequel to Vinge’s 1992 novel A Fire Upon the Deep, though it shares only the world and a single character with the first novel (according to same said friend).

The narrative of A Deepness in the Sky is complex in that Vinge keeps a lot of plates spinning at once, but the writing style is straightforward and the characters are well-developed, making it easy to navigate between the two major story threads. One introduces the pre-spacefaring arachnid race whose planet orbits the OnOff star, a unique solar phenomenon that produces light only 35 of every 250 years. The other follows the conflict between two human groups who have come to explore and exploit the OnOff star: the trading culture of the Qeng Ho and the Emergents, whose advanced technology utilizes a plague called Focus to enhance a person’s natural expertise to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions.

Perhaps because of its complexity (and also possibly owing to the fact that I haven’t read the previous installment) I admittedly took a while to feel oriented and interested in the world of the Qeng Ho and the Emergents. There are a lot of characters to get to know. All of them eventually become fully fleshed and necessary, but for the first 50-odd pages it was only my trust in my friend’s past recommendations that kept me pushing forward. The spider culture, on the other hand, I found instantly engaging—perhaps because we’re given entry into that world through the charmingly naïve Sherkaner Underhill, oddly a more relatable protagonist than anyone on the space side of the tale, at least at first. The obvious irony is the Qeng Ho and Emergents are human while the spiders are one of the more alien sentient races I’ve seen put to page (and also I’m generally not the biggest fan of spiders). Without spoiling anything, I’ll say by the end it’s clear this was an intentional device, one masterfully executed.

Technology as a means of both advancement and exploitation (to the point of enslavement) is the primary thematic drive. The negative aspects of technology are explored through Focus, used by the Emergents both as tool and biological warfare. Focused individuals obsess with one thing only, achieving an impossible level of expertise at the cost of their humanity. The question becomes whether this sacrifice is worth it even for the greater good. The struggle plays out through the plot thread of the remarkable Qeng Ho character Pham Trinli. The spider civilization finds themselves in the opposite situation. Sherkaner Underhill and his associates use technology to further their progressive worldview, struggling against the traditionalists who fear what advancement may bring. The cultures are foils to each other in a sense, though ultimately it’s the interplay between the two that serves as catalyst for the climax.

Vinge’s use of time is a less plotty but equally interesting element. Given the strange cycling of their star, the spiders spend two centuries hibernating in deepnesses for each generation they’re awake, meaning they have to re-boot their civilization each time the sun re-lights. The Qeng Ho and Emergents use artificial hibernation (known as cold sleep, their own “depness in the sky”) to permit long journeys through the stars. As they remain in orbit around the OnOff star, some characters spend more time in cold sleep than others, meaning even those living in the same habitat age at drastically different rates. This shifts the interaction of characters and allows for the direct influence of historical figures upon the present day—a technological approach to an immortality narrative that I’ve not seen executed with this level of artistry before. Also worth noting is the in-narrative timekeeping. The Qeng Ho calendar is so beautifully simple—based on seconds so it’s familiar while the base-10 system makes it unique. It makes sense to the spider culture that they’d keep time by generation, and their calendar is correspondingly more alien. Many world builders don’t mess with timekeeping but here it’s a detail that completes the constructed reality.

A Deepness in the Sky is an intellectual space opera—an epic undertaking, but ultimately well worth it for anyone with an interest in hard sci-fi. Vinge lets his world breathe, both in page space and in narrative. Around three centuries pass from the first spider chapter to the last; the Emergents and Qeng Ho spend some 40 years orbiting the OnOff star. This long-view approach is gutsy in a modern literary landscape that demands early hooks and quick action. The patient reader will find the payoff rewarding; the impatient reader will find it hard to escape the first few chapters without frustration.

A rant on genre (AWP-flavored)

4:30 PM on Saturday—last timeslot of the AWP 2016 Conference in LA, attendees roundly exhausted and over-saturated with literary brilliance from three days of intense and nearly non-stop wording. I roll into a panel called “Speculative Fiction: Defining the Rules” a couple minutes late to find it’s not only full but overflowing into the hallway. Even this late into the conference, the audience is engaged. Verbal laughs at the right moments. Considering introspection at others. It doesn’t empty out as it goes on, either—if anything, the longer it goes on, the fuller the room gets.

I leave a couple minutes early to meet a friend and in my passage back towards the heart of the convention I pass the open doors to three more conventional literary panels. They all have larger rooms dedicated to their cause. They’re populated by maybe a dozen (if I’m being generous) attendees each.

I’m well aware popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to significance. Some stupid shit is wildly popular; some great shit is unreasonably ignored. The thing is, we’re not talking about the vast sea of humanity. We’re talking MFA students and teachers, working professionals, editors and publishers—people who consider themselves part of the literary community. These people turned out in droves to hear about speculative fiction even at the point in the conference when batteries are most depleted. This is a vote from the community that speculative fiction is something worth paying attention to.

The question is: When is the literary establishment going to listen?

A common theme in the backstories of the panelists was that they entered MFA programs and felt like they had to write realistic fiction. One of them told a story about George Saunders, who entered MFA already writing in his trademark style but felt compelled during his program to write “the great American novel.” His “great American novel” sucked, and he left MFA and started writing like himself again, and thank fucking god.

I won’t deny the chip on my own shoulder. My MFA program was more open than many; no one ever directly told me I couldn’t write genre while I went there. But I could see the rolled eyes and disrespect the genre writers got from the “legit” writers in the program. I felt compelled to write realistic fiction if I wanted to be taken seriously. The few times I had the guts to bring in spec works it was an exercise in futility; the vast majority of comments started with “I don’t read fantasy, but…” and the workshopping was never as intense, like people didn’t think they had to read as carefully. Like the work didn’t matter on the same level.

It took me years post-graduation to feel comfortable in my own speculative skin and to stop apologizing for my writing. Telling a fantasy writer they have to write realistic fiction is like telling a poet they have to write essays. Some people do both well but that doesn’t make them the same thing—and it doesn’t make one any less legitimate than the other.

The most vastly unfair thing, in my estimation: writing spec fiction is exponentially more difficult than writing a literary book of equal quality. You have to worry about all the same shit—character development, theme, emotional resonance, etc—but also have to build the world in a way literary writers never think about. Despite this, there are extremely limited opportunities in academia to hone the craft of the genres. I’m an MFA-trained writer, but when it comes to sci-fi, I’m self-taught by necessity. I’d say most genre writers are in this situation; they’ve developed skill not because of MFA training but despite it.

The myth, of course, is that there aren’t genre works of the same quality, that fantasy is by default fluff. This is the most pervasive form of bullshit I’ve encountered in literary academia. The establishment is all too happy to adopt the “good” genre writers (Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, George Orwell, etc) or to gloss over the genre aspects of “accepted” writers’ catalogues (Mark Twain wrote spec but you might not know it), letting them simultaneously acknowledge that there are good writers in spec fiction while still dismissing the genre as a whole. Of course there are shitty sci-fi books out there. There’s shitty literary writing, too. I don’t like Hemingway but I’m not going to tell you anything he wrote is worthless because it doesn’t suit my tastes—and if you write like Hemingway, I would never dream of telling you you’re not a real writer, or your voice doesn’t matter, or that you shouldn’t be taken as seriously as someone else solely because of that.

So this is one spec writer calling academia on its bullshit. Speculative fiction examines the flaws and foibles of our world just as effectively as realistic fiction. The characters are just as made up and just as painfully real. The emotions can be just as deep; the writers have spent just as long honing their craft. To reference Data from Star Trek: TNG (“The Naked Now” episode 1.2) who was referencing Shylock (Merchant of Venice): We are more alike than unlike, dear academia. Our aliens may have pores, and fingerprints, and blood. If you prick our robots, do they not…leak?

(BTW: Shakespeare wrote about fairies. Just fucking saying.)