Tell me – have all the best sci-fi ideas been used?

H. R. Geiger passed away this year, aged 74. Probably best known as designer of the icky thing that exploded out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (1980).

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

When it comes to spooky haunted house stories – which is what that movie really was – Geiger’s Alien has to take first price for scare factor.

Also ecch factor.

The funny thing is, Alien wasn’t the first story about a parasitic alien that arrives on a spaceship and breeds using humans as hosts, defying the efforts of the humans aboard the spaceship to defeat it. That prize goes to A. E. Van Vogt, whose novella ‘Black Destroyer’ of 1939 did exactly the same thing.  The story was later integrated into his  ‘fixup’ novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. His alien, Ixtl, could also pass through solid matter. The similarities were so obvious that van Vogt reportedly raised a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox for plagiarism. Apparently it was settled out of court.

That wasn’t the only movie for which we can find Golden Age antecedents. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, most of the really good Trek stuff was devised first by Robert A. Heinlein – including medical beds, Starfleet and Tribbles, all of which featured in his novels first under other names. (Heinlein also invented the modern waterbed).

Arthur C. Clarke, meanwhile, did one better by being the only person, ever, to predict the world wide web and its social consequences in specific detail. Here he is in 1964; and here is with a spookily accurate prediction in 1974.

Which leads me to ask a question. Have all the best sci-fi ideas been used? I suggest not…but let’s discuss.

It’s certainly a challenge for writers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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A glistening quote from the Wellington Writers’ Walk

I was out on the Wellington waterfront the other day with my camera and spotted the light falling just so across this quote from New Zealand’s best known short-story writer, Katherine Mansfield. She’s one of several authors commemorated in the Wellington Writers’ Walk.

My DSLR’s not new-tech, and CCD’s being what they are, I wasn’t sure a photo into the light would actually work. But it did. I had to share it.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

 

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

The greatest writing challenge of all

Writers never finish learning how to write. ‘We are all apprentices’, Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘in a craft where no-one ever becomes a master.’

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Too true.  It is an endless learning curve. Steep at first – as novice writers realise how much they have to learn, take their first unsteady steps into that world. Later it’s easier. But even those who have mastered the craft – who have achieved the 10,000 hour, million-word goal, cannot rest on their laurels.

There is no such thing as saying ‘I have learned how to write’. No writer ever finishes learning. The onus is on all writer, always, to push the edges – to sit down, as Hemingway also put it, at the typewriter and bleed.

My take? When you finish writing for the day, the question isn’t ‘what is my word count’. The question is ‘on what emotional journey have I taken my readers’?

And then you have to ask ‘how can I make that a better journey tomorrow?’

Take on the challenge.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Sherlock’s public domain – but will writing new stories be elementary?

A recent US court ruling that 50 Sherlock Holmes stories published before December 1923 are in public domain – hence free for all to use – raises questions about whether we’re about to be inundated with a flood of new Holmes adventures.

Holmes in action, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Holmes in action during the ‘Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It’s subject to possible appeal, I suppose. But it’s a tricky issue. Here in New Zealand, all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works have been public domain since 31 December 1980, the end of the fiftieth year after his death. But copyright terms and protections vary and his material has remained in copyright elsewhere. Some countries run 75 or 100-year copyrights after death, and the US has more than one term. The US court case came about, it seems, when a licensing deal with the Doyle estate tripped up.

To me, that raises a question. Sure, that ruling means any author can freely go ahead and use Sherlock Holmes and all the concepts and ideas that pre-date 1923 in stories of their own. This includes most of the classic Holmes imagery from the deerstalker cap to the pipe to the violin to the fact that it’s always 1895 and Hansom cabs are the way around London.

But should they?

Sherlock Holmes revisited has been done by authors. Nicholas Meyers’ The Seven Percent Solution, for instance. Or Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File. And there have been innumerable adaptations of the stories for movies or TV.

Another Paget illustratioon for Strand magazine.

Another Paget illustration, from the ‘Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez’, for Strand magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

As far as I am concerned, the only two adaptations that have come close to the spirit and intent of the Conan Doyle original were both by the BBC. There was the Jeremy Brett/Edward Hardwicke adaptation of the 1980s, which was utterly faithful to Doyle’s work in essential details. And there was the 2010 Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman re-telling, which was so faithful to the spirit that we can easily imagine Conan Doyle writing it, were he starting out today. Don’t forget, Holmes was set in what was, when Doyle started, the modern world.

I question whether re-imagining the Holmes character is effective. There’s been stupid Holmes and smart Watson (Michael Caine/Ben Kingsley Without a Clue, 1988). Or Holmes as action hero (Robert Downey/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes, 2009). But Holmes, as Conan Doyle imagined him, is iconic – so aren’t these new characters? Riffing on the old, but really something else?

That highlights what, for me, is the key issue for any author writing ‘new’ Holmes stories. Sure, there’s a market. But Holmes stories are hard to do well – and really, it’s elevated fan fiction. Isn’t it better for an author to invent something new?

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Inspiring culture – the meta-literature of Tolkien

It occurred to me the other day that one of my favourite authors – J R R Tolkien – has probably had more written about him than he actually wrote himself.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to prone to take this picture in the Hobbit Artisan Market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

Certainly that’s true if you consider the books Tolkien published in his lifetime. There were, after all, only two Middle Earth books plus a few other bits and pieces. But even if you add in the endless sequence of ‘first drafts’ churned out of the voluminous Tolkien papers by his son and one or two others since the elder Tolkien’s passing in 1973, the fact remains that the amount of stuff triggered by Tolkien is even larger.

I happened to be prowling the Tolkien shelves of my local bookstore the other day and spotted, apart from various editions of Tolkien’s own work, at least a complete shelf of analyses, of books-about-the-films, of books about the mythology behind Middle Earth, about the artwork – in all its flavours – and at least two send-ups. The Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings (a comic novel in its own right) and a more impenetrable spoof of The Hobbit written by someone else.

That’s apart from the plethora of Tolkien biographies – which, based on what I have in my own collection, range from the ‘definitive’ general biography by John Carpenter through to more specialist studies of Tolkien in the First World War. I also have a semi-biographical snapshot, published as a book, based on the observations of a fan who was so taken by drafts of the Silmarillion that he sought out, and visited, the elderly Professor in the early 1970s.

Not to mention the music. Tolkien himself worked with Donald Swann to set some of his Middle Earth songs to music. Since then his mythos has inspired everything from Bo Hansson’s album Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings (1969), through to Led Zeppelin’s Battle for Evermore, and more recently Nightwish numbers such as Elvenpath or Wishmaster. The latter, with some of the lyrics actually in Tolkien’s High Elvish, isn’t exactly subtle. And there are reasons why a lot of Norwegian rock is known, colloquially, as ‘heavy mithril’.

All of which, to me, underscores just what a massive influence Tolkien actually was. And, of course, still is. None of it, of course, was planned or intended; the whole thing grew, to use a Tolkienism, in the telling.

I suppose next we’ll find books discussing the books that discuss Tolkien. Meta-meta literature? Or maybe not.

Do you have any ‘meta Tolkien’ literature – or music – in your collection?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Don’t complain about J K Rowling. Follow her lead instead.

The other day a novelist complained that J K Rowling was making it harder for other authors, and why didn’t she just stop?

By her own admission, this critic had never read a word of ‘Harry Potter’.

To me it came across as a ‘she’s had her turn, now it’s mine’ kind of argument.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comIt’s common enough in writing. I had something similar happen many years ago when I was working as a professional historian in Hawke’s Bay. A local history enthusiast rang up the local newspaper editor and actually told him I’d had my turn. Then she proceeded to gather up her enthusiast friends and conduct a public crusade against everything I did.

Not the worst display of malice I’ve been subjected to as a result of writing history, but the attitude was clear – ‘You’ve got my slice of pie, and I’m going to destroy you.’

Never mind that the targeted author actually created the slice that the rival author covets.

This is where ‘academic jealousies’ come from too. Ultimately, such selfish ambition highlights the darker side of the human condition.

It’s also entirely wrong. You see, the writing pie grows with its authors. We all have something to contribute. And if someone does so – spectacularly – then that’s good for all. Rowling is a case in point. There are kids who discovered reading through Harry Potter. She opened up a new world for them – a world where other writers get to add their part.

The same’s true for Rowling’s adult books. The publicity around them raises the profile of all books for all authors. ‘Hey guys – writing’s out here!’

See what I mean about the pie growing? It’s all to do with attitude. The people who get angry and want to destroy the success of others are the losers – they don’t realise that success is made. It isn’t handed out. And it isn’t a limited resource that must be taken off whoever has it.

Of course, human nature being what it is, that’s all too often what seems to happen. I’ve used writing as an example here – but it’s generally true.

My take? Don’t complain about people who’ve created something – knuckle down, do the hard yards, and join the fun, making sure you put your own original thought into what you’re doing. There’s more for everybody. And everybody wins.

Get that? Everybody wins.

A proverbial good thing. Isn’t it? Certainly better than jealously smashing something in order to deny it to its creator.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
Coming up: More writing tips, thoughts, science geekery and more.

Creating your own literary ‘ear worm’ – like Tolkien and Rowling

Ever had a song stuck in your head – usually, the catchy riff or chorus the composer deliberately engineered for the purpose? They’re called ear-worms.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Weta’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington, December 2012.

It’s apparently been discovered that the way to kill them – for a third of us anyway – is to listen to Thomas Arne’s eighteenth century ditty God Save The Queen.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that dislodging mental wheelspin with something horrible is a discovery. Back in the 1970s, for instance, Kiwi gentlemen knew that if they became transfixed by posters of the latest glamour pin-up de jour (Farrah Fawcett or, given that New Zealand was still 98.5% British back then, Caroline Munro), all they had to do for instant antidote was glance at a picture of our Prime Minister of the day, Robert Muldoon.

For writers the problem is the exact reverse. We have to figure out how to create a literary earworm – a concept or idea that keys so deeply into popular psyche that it sticks. I hesitate to call it a ‘book worm’. It’s one of the keys to sales.

To my mind the guy who did it – in spades – was J R R Tolkien. Not intentionally. What he was consciously doing with his Middle Earth mythos was creating a new mythology for Britain. And for a long time, nobody noticed – he couldn’t get the Silmarillion published, and Rayner Unwin was dubious about the viability of The Lord Of The Rings. A judgement borne out by dismal early sales figures.

But then something happened. In 1965 – after nearly a decade of bobbing along in mediocre-sales-land – it took off. The break-through came with a guerilla edition produced via copyright loopholes in the US. Tolkien hastened to get an authorised ‘second edition’ pushed into the market. That sold like hotcakes.

But even the pirate edition wouldn’t have taken off if it hadn’t keyed into what society wanted, just then.

Tolkien’s rusticated Hobbit society – and his faerie imagery with Tom Bombadil – harked to ‘Merrie England‘ and, to some extent, the arts-and-crafts movement of the nineteenth century. But by chance it also keyed directly into the values of 1960s counter-culture, which drew from similar inspiration. Mix that with epic-scale setting, the huge operatic scenario of good and evil – imagery that ran to the heart of western culture – and he had a winner.

The Lord of the Rings, in short, became a literary ‘ear-worm’. J K Rowling did much the same thing – using, in this case, classic ‘magic’, blended with much the same epic-scale themes – with Harry Potter.

So that’s how it’s done. The problem is that in both cases, luck played a role. But, as I’ve said before, that’s always part of the calculation.

Have you ever read something that stuck in your mind – that impressed you hugely? And have you ever read a book that’s left you stone cold – the ‘anti-earworm’ of literature?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing and publishing tips, science, history and other stuff. Watch this space.

Guess which real-world place is most like Mordor…

Last week a British meteorologist at the University of Bristol published a weather analysis of Middle Earth. Tres cool.

Here’s a link to the paper: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/10013-english.pdf

According to the report, the weather in The Shire was much the same as that of Lincolnshire – which is pretty much what Tolkien was envisaging. It’s also like Belarus, but that may be coincidence. The place in New Zealand where the weather is closest to The Shire is north of Dunedin. Curiously – though the report didn’t mention it – there’s an area there called Middlemarch, which sounds suitably Tolkienish.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

Not really Gorgoroth – this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

When it comes to Mordor, the real-world place I immediately think of is the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, which I visited earlier this year. Tolkien’s explicit imagery was First World War trenches and Birmingham factories. But that isn’t where the British meteorologist found Mordor weather. Oh no. turns out the places most like Mordor, weather-wise, are New South Wales, western Texas and Los Angeles. (That said, Tolkien also made clear that the gloom around Mordor was made by Sauron.)

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.

Ok, so it wasn’t raining when I took this picture in Soest, Netherlands…but it was overcast.

What struck me about the report was how close Tolkien got to what we’d expect from a scientific perspective, if his land was real. There is a reason for this – Tolkien was basing his world on Europe. The Shire was approximately where Britain lies; Gondor and Mordor in North Italy. The weather he described followed, especially the constant rain around Trollshaws in The Hobbit, a place geographically congruent to Soest, Netherlands.

All of which is pretty neat. And it goes to show that there is often a lot more in the creations of fantasy writers than they perhaps imagine when they come up with the concept.

What do you think of Middle Earth weather?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science, more humour and more Tolkien stuff. Not that I’m a fan. Well, I am really.

Return of Revenge of Sauron – nooooooo!

The other week George R. R. Martin was reported as saying he wouldn’t license Westeros.

He admired the Tolkien estate for not licensing derivative works of The Lord Of The Rings. And I’m inclined to agree.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdEven if a top-notch author is hired for the purpose, they will – because they are top-notch – put their own stamp on the story. And it won’t be the same as the original author’s. By nature. That’s good in a way; it’s adding something to the genre. But in others it isn’t, because it inevitably differs from the original concept the author had.

Martin is reported as hoping that some publisher, awash with cash, isn’t ready to commission a Lord Of The Rings sequel or prequel as soon as the Tolkien Estate gives the nod (which, I am sure, it won’t be any time in the foreseeable future).

I hope so too.

What concerns me about this sort of derivative work is where it’s done solely for the money – where a third-rate author is commissioned to do it, and often credited in tiny letters underneath the headline name of the original (dead) author. The writing that follows is often third rate too.

Of course I can’t fault publishers for wanting to make money. They’re businesses. They have to survive, and that’s getting ever-harder these days. Risk is something to avoid; a sure-fire best seller keying off a well known name is the only way to go. Apparently.

But is deriving ‘new’ stories that don’t match the quality of the original the way to do it? I doubt it. Any book, no matter what its origin, must push for the highest quality – it should attempt to lead, not merely fill a gap. It is from this leading edge that new markets are created – new demand for new material.

Regurgitating old material may be a way to make sure money in the short term, but it’s not a long-term method. That needs new material – new ideas, new concepts.

And yes, publishers have to take risks along the way. I mean, back in the early 1950s, who’d have imagined that a 650,000 word novel about the epic struggle between good and evil, as filtered through a nostalgic sense of English village life, might re-define fantasy literature? Rayner Unwin took a gamble with Tolkien. Early sales figures were dismal – and yet, well, what can I say?

It seems to me that the way ahead is by innovating a new awesome. Not trying to re-live the old. The only problem is that these things always emerge at the intersection between imagination and mass culture, which can’t be engineered. Efforts to do so always look contrived.

Your thoughts? Let’s talk.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more humour, commentaries and fun stuff. Watch this space.