Do you have a writing group…like Tolkien?

Most writers, I realised the other day, hang out with writing groups. Or at least other writers.

Inside the Eagle and Child. Photo: A. Wright.

Inside the ‘Eagle and Child’. (Wright family photo)

J R R Tolkien, for instance, was part of a group called the ‘Inklings’, who met in a local Oxford pub – the Eagle and Child, known locally as the ‘Bird and Baby’Every Tuesday from 1939 until 1962 they’d go there to drink beer, swap stories – and read their tales to each other.

Imagine that – C. S. Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, Owen Barfield or maybe Lord David Cecil were the very first people in the world to experience The Lord of the Rings  – and they heard much of it in Tolkien’s own voice, as he sat there reading them the manuscript.

Tolkien himself was one of the first to hear passages from Lewis’s Narnia series. How awesome is that? Two of the greatest fantasy writers in the twentieth century, hanging out in the same pub and reading each other’s stories.

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

My souvenir key-ring from Raffles. Complete with the original wrapping.

During the early twentieth century other writers congregated in Raffles hotel, Singapore, to the point where there’s a Writers Bar, which (in its original location in the lobby) was frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham. Its denizens were usually well lubricated with gin, tonic and Singapore Sling, invented around 1910 by Ngiam Tong Boom in the Long Bar on the opposite corner of the building.  Alas, this literary enclave came to a sharp end with the Second World War. But the spirit lingers. Did I say ‘spirit’? I did, didn’t I.

I made the pilgrimage to the Writers Bar in 2001, sans the cocktail.

Established writers usually veer into shop talk – the scale of the latest advances or gossip about editorial changes at Publisher X. I know that’s how my chats with other writers go, when I catch up with them. Which, unfortunately, isn’t often. I know plenty of writers and publishers, and it’s always good to have a yarn. But it’s hard to find time to get together.

Besides which, a lot of what I write is history – which, here in New Zealand,  is owned by viciously hostile in-crowds. Someone once described the behaviours of the military history crowd, particularly, as akin to circling piranhas.

Instead I hang out mostly with mathematicians and science types. And talk about my original interest, which isn’t history… it’s physics.

Do you have a writing group? How often do you meet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, geekery, science and more. Watch this space.

The science of the inevitable Taupo apocalypse

A couple of weeks back I read Firelands, debut dystopian thriller by US author Piper Bayard. To call the book fantastic is an understatement. I was hooked from the first pages, dropping the book I was writing myself, despite looming contract deadline, so I could keep reading.

A photo I took a few years ago. Taupo. Not a placid lake filled with trout. Well, it is. But it's also the caldera of one of the world's biggest supervolcanoes. Uh - yay.

A photo I took a few years ago. Taupo. A placid lake filled with trout. And the caldera of one of the world’s biggest supervolcanoes. Uh – yay.

Firelands is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the United States has become a theocratic dictatorship – a provocative setting that makes the novel far more than just Hunger Games for grown-ups. Firelands is in a class of its own. A wonderful, insightful, thoughtful and exciting story.

Bayard’s instrument of doom is a supervolcano – Taupo – that casts the world into darkness.  A scenario that’s not just plausible. It’s already happened at least twice.

I live within 260 km of Taupo’s Hatepe vent, so I thought I’d post about the historical apocalypse while scrabbling for my asbestos suit, hard hat and breathing apparatus.

On the face of it, Taupo is a lake with thermal district. The full name is Taupo-nui-a-Tia; ‘the great cloak of Tia’, referring to a flax cloak of the rangitira Tia. It’s often mispronounced. The first syllable rhymes with ‘tow’ as in ‘towing along’. Technically, Taupo should also have a macron over the o, indicating a long vowel. In IPA terms it’s ‘tau-poh, which is close.

Photo taken by my wife one day in early 2005 of the Orakei Korako thermal zone just north of Taupo.

Photo my wife took in early 2005 when we visited the Orakei Korako thermal zone just north of Taupo.

Pakeha (white settlers) got to know it in the 1840s. Donald McLean, the dour, God-fearing Presbyterian Scot who trudged into the district in 1846, saw a Christian apocalypse, confiding to his diary that ‘No person could see this place without feeling intensely the awful end of a miserable sinner, when committed to his last home; and may God in His providence prepare us all for such a serious change…’

The science behind that hellish setting emerged only as vulcanology developed through the twentieth century.

Turns out the lake is a caldera, part of an immense volcanic field stretching from Mount Ruapehu  to the Whakatane underwater volcano. The field has erupted many times. White Island is active now, monitored by a webcam and plastic dinosaur.

Geothermal steam from the Taupo system is used to generate power - up to 13 percent of the North Island's needs, in fact. The techniques were developed right here in New Zealand.

Geothermal steam from the Taupo system is used to generate up to 13 percent of the North Island’s power. This is my photo of the Wairakei station. The techniques were developed  in New Zealand.

All are dwarfed by Taupo itself, the centre of the system. The last eruption around 180 AD, from the Hatepe vents near the south of the lake, was modest by Taupo standards, but still cast the world into shadow.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. Via Wikipedia.

The benchmark remains the Oruanui eruption 26,500 years ago  (earlier analysis cited 22,690 ±230 BP), to the north of the current lake and the world’s last eruption to score 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index – the maximum. Back then, the lake was different, known to paleogeographers as Lake Huka. In 2012, PhD student Aidan Allen discovered the trigger for this cataclysm was likely an earthquake.

The eruption blew out the current lake bed – and more. Everything in the central North Island was destroyed by a fall of ingimbrite some 200 metres deep. Then there were devastating floods. Even the major river, the Waikato, changed its course. Ash fell  as far away as the Chathams.

It was a world cataclysm. Although debate continues over specific triggers for Pleistocene glacial cycles, there is evidence that the worldwide glacial maximum that began 26,500 years ago was pushed, in part, by this eruption. In New Zealand, certainly, a warming period prior to the eruption came to a dead stop afterwards.

Oruanui may not have caused the glacial cycle alone – but  it made things worse. Humanity was nearly wiped out in the deep cold that followed. The downturn seems to have been the last blow for Neanderthals, our cousin species already reduced to the edge of extinction at Gibraltar. It destroyed a nascent H. Sapiens agricultural revolution among the Gravettian culture in what are now Russian steppelands. Had that not been cut short, civilisation might have been with us 20,000 years earlier.

This was the apocalypse, Pleistocene style.

And to give that perspective, the Oruanui blast was itself dwarfed by the Whakamaru eruption in the same zone, 254,000 years ago.

We’ll have warning before the next one. Taupo is monitored by New Zealand’s Geological and Nuclear Sciences department via GPS and seismographic stations. No rubber dinosaur, but hey…

Hopefully it won’t happen in our lifetimes. Because when it does, it will bring the apocalypse. Certainly for New Zealand, maybe the world.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013 

A close encounter with cyber Katherine Mansfield and her poodle hair

A stainless steel statue of New Zealand’s greatest short story writer, Katherine Mansfield, was unveiled the other week in a city park in Wellington.

Cyber Katherine Mansfield...I think...

Cyber Katherine Mansfield…I think…

It’s incised with words from her stories, and captures her with her classic hairstyle – a Louise Brooks-style blunt cut that Mansfield insisted made her look like a poodle.

Mansfield – real name Kathleen Beauchamp – was born in Wellington in 1889 and remains a remarkable figure, beloved of biographers. She was the main topic of a university course I did, many years ago as an undergraduate, on how to write biography – and for good reason.

Writers, as people, always seem to be somehow attractive to write about; perhaps readers want to know what makes them tick. Most are less interesting than we imagine (I’m pretty boring myself, for instance).

But not Mansfield.

She clashed with New Zealand’s tightening social values and fled to London, where after becoming pregnant to Garnett Trowell, indulging in a one-day marriage to George Bowden and finally seducing Floryan Sobieniowski, all interspersed with at least one miscarriage and one abortion, she met John Middleton Murry and slotted into the Bloomsbury set – a dissipated, hedonistic world of illicit chemicals, salacious conduct and lives built around expressed angst and unrepressed desire.

At one point, her mother rushed across from New Zealand – insofar as one could rush in the first decade of the twentieth century – to have her wayward daughter packed off to a German spa and literally hosed down, a physical washing that did little to dislodge what by period standards was moral soil.

Mansfield went on to marry John Middleton Murry, though the salaciousness continued; they spent extended periods with D H and Frieda Lawrence – who, shall we say, were all more than just friends.

For Mansfield the lifestyle carried a cost; she contracted tuberculosis – and in those pre-antibiotic days, that was a death sentence. It has been argued that one side effect was intense creativity. Perhaps. But it was all cut short in 1923.

Afterwards she was idolised by her husband, her lapsed lifestyle overtaken by a cult of virtue and writing. It was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that some of the deeper – and more interesting – realities of Mansfield as a person began to emerge. Today her love letters have been published, and she has emerged as a much more rounded, fascinating, and colourful character than we ever imagined.

Just last year, several previously unknown stories of hers were discovered – dark, wild tales that nobody imagined she might have been  capable of writing.

Mansfield’s remains a wonderful, tragic, fascinating story. A statue to her, in her home town, is long overdue

Do I like it? I have to admit, I got the impression that she’d been hit by one too many Cybermites and ‘upgraded’. But hey…

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Being a Tolkien fan is all about the reading experience

It occurred to me the other day that I could probably be classified as a bit of a Tolkien fan. I’ve been soaking up Tolkien’s books ever since I was about 10.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

I had to pose in the entrance of the 2012 Hobbit Artisan Market in Wellington …but that’s the limit of geek, for me.

I must have read The Lord Of The Rings a dozen times or more. The Hobbit as often. I have the maps, I saw the movies, and I went to the exhibition of movie props.

But I wouldn’t call myself a total Tolkien fan. I don’t dress up in the costumes – you know, green cloaks that render you invisible against green grass, green rocks, green water, green sky etc.

My copy of The Lord Of The Rings is from three different editions. Nor do I collect memorabilia, or go to Armageddon comic-con gatherings to ogle merchandise and be photographed beside the guy who swept the studio floor on alternate Sundays while they were shooting out-takes for The Return of the King.

It is a limited kind of enthusiasm; and I also view what Tolkien did in a literary sense with a suitably critical eye; he wasn’t perfect, and he wrote a lot of stuff the hard way.

So what is it, for me? Well, it’s the reading experience. Tolkien created a world that became real for the reader. He did it by description – if you open The Lord Of The Rings at virtually any page, you’ll find evocative descriptions of the settings – the sounds, the smells, the feel.

He did it by depth; his world was rich with its own mythology and history, rich with culture, with language, with peoples of all kinds, all of them carefully described.

Tussock and Echium - Patterson's Curse, in the top of Lindis Pass.

Not actually Rohan. Tussock and Echium – Patterson’s Curse, in the top of Lindis Pass.

He did it with scope; his themes struck chords with the very heart of western thinking, western mythology, and western culture; epic battles between good and evil, between right and wrong. Clear-cut, scarcely shaded in any greys.

And he did it by giving us heroes we could identify with – not Aragorn, who was the archetypal mythic  hero; but the hobbits, who were ordinary, everyday folk. Effectively, people like us – people who we could identify with and journey with, who became heroic.

A message of hope, swathed in all the things that speak to our sense of culture, right, wrong – and place.

That’s why I like Tolkien. Have you read his books? What draws you to them – for you, is it the reading experience, or something else?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, humour geekery and other stuff.

Sixty second writing tips: how J K Rowling twisted the tropes

One of the secrets to successful writing is offering something readers can identify with, but that has enough originality to be new. The same…but different.

Kastel de Haar, near Utrecht, Netherlands - site of the Elf Fantasy Fair at which Hobb was visitor in April 2008, though that wasn't when I took this picture of the place.

Modern meets fantasy in another way – a pic I took a few years back of Kastel de Haar, near Utrecht, Netherlands.

J. K. Rowling’s shown us how it’s done. Back in the 1990s, Brit boarding school stories were dead, dead, dead. The world of ripping wheezes at the expense of The Beak, followed by clandestine visits to the tuck shop  with Bunter Major, was soooo 1930s.

Trad magic stories were pretty much dead too – I mean, spells, wizards and potions were so cliched. Put together, they should have worked even less well.

What Rowling did was genius – mashing up two cliches and giving them a twist. That came partly from the way she reinterpreted the spell-and wand trope, partly from the seven-story plot cycle, and partly from her style – easy, unadorned and well pitched for the readership. And now writing has its first billionaire author.

Time for the rest of us to follow suit. But not with school magic mashups. They’ve been done…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 17: Tolkien’s lessons about writing a best seller

How do novels become not just sellers, but best sellers – and hyper-sellers?

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

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

Quality’s important, but not always a criteria. Seldom have I read a novel as incompetently researched and clumsily styled as The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said). I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, nor do I want to, but I’m sure somebody’ll comment about what I am told is, well, derivative dribble.

I posted the other week about how genre becomes popular because it keys into changing social ideals – and last week about how types of genre become specifically popular on the back of particular social trends.

The best-sellers are the ones who float to the top of those heaps. The thing is, they’re usually transient. But every so often a book transcends that – becomes not just a best seller, but a lasting best seller. A classic.

Something everybody has at least heard of – even if they haven’t read it – and which stays in the public mind for years – even decades.

Like The Lord Of The Rings. In just a few heady years during the late 1960s,  J R R Tolkien’s epic effectively mainstreamed fantasy. His mythos was embedded in western popular literature even before Peter Jackson’s movies (filmed in my country and my city, bwahahahaha) catapulted his creation to stratospheric popularity.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

Hobbit market, November 2012 – Tolkien, mainstreamed.

An astonishing achievement for a modest and retiring Oxford don who had to be nudged into finishing anything for a publisher.

Tolkien never planned it that way. His publishers didn’t anticipate it either. The book he presented Allen & Unwin with in the early 1950s was barely publishable – they broke it into three parts to spread the risk, and a glance at early print runs reveals it shifted only a few thousand copies.

Then, in the mid-1960s, it took off. Kicked into life by a pirated American edition, followed by Tolkien’s authorised edition. It kept on selling. And on. And on. And on….

What happened?

His themes struck chords with a new generation, particularly the idealised pre-industrial England of the Shire and the hippified, natural Earth-spirit lifestyle of Tom Bombadil. The link between Bombadil and counter-culture values was lampooned with all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer in Bored Of The Rings.

Rohan. No - central Otago. No, Rohan...oh, I give up...

Rohan. No – central Otago. No, Rohan…oh, I give up…

This was a generation that read a lot of fantasy, partly because fantasy had become an element of their fabric of escape. Tolkien met their need on both counts. Genre tastes, in short, had caught up, though his own motives were different in many respects (eerily, also similar – every generation found reason to object to industrialisation).

Other authors tried to imitate him. Tolkien, in short, had created a new genre, about a generation ahead of its time.

Hutt River or Anduin. Well, maybe the houses are the give-away.

Hutt River or Anduin. Well, maybe the houses are the give-away.

As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, the book gained an enduring public audience. Part of that was due to the way that 1960s youth ideals were mainstreamed. Part of it was the scope of Tolkien’s vision, engaging symbolisms at a fundamental level. And that wasn’t surprising. He was trying to write Britain’s missing mythology; he wrote to fundamental themes – capturing our cultural framework in soaring battles between total good and utter evil; the symbolisms of mythic heroism.

All was given a dimension that ordinary people could identify with, through the ordinariness of the hobbits – little folk who, inevitably, were more heroic than anybody could imagine.

A stunning achievement. And not something that can be easily repeated – certainly, I suspect, not by design.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next time: getting down to the nuts and bolts of novel writing.  More humour, more writing tips – and, well, more. Watch this space.

Write it now, part 15: the rise and rise of the genre monster

One of the big literary inventions of the nineteenth century was one that transformed the novel-writing scene. Genre.

When novels first emerged in the early part of the century they were, as often as not, social commentaries. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was typical. So were Charles Dickens’ various stories. They were joined by others that we might , indeed, call ‘genre’ – notably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But for a long while these things were few and far between.

Jules Verne, public domain from Wikimedia.

Jules Verne, public domain from Wikimedia.

That changed with the commercialisation of novel writing – with the advent of the steam driven printing press, with the advent of mechanisms for mass-producing and mass-selling novels to the rising urban middle classes of the developing world who had the leisure time – and the spare cash – to buy books and then read them.

One of the earliest genres was science fiction, a device for social commentary. Jules Verne introduced the world to it, using his ‘science fiction’ stories –really, travel romances – to lampoon national cliches; German stern-ness and order (Professor Lidenbrock/Journey To The Centre of The Earth), American go-getting (From the Earth to the Moon) and British reserve (Phileas Fogg/Around The World In Eighty Days) among them.

H. G. Wells used science fiction for social commentary towards the end of the century. When five British Maxim gun crews slaughtered 1500 spear-wielding Matabele at the Battle of the Shangani river in October 1893 – and another 2500 a week or so later at Bembese - the world was horrified.  ‘Whatever happens/we have got/the Maxim gun/and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in The Modern Traveller, a little later. From that also emerged Wells’s The War Of The Worlds, a remarkably slim book pivoting on one question; how would the British feel if a superior technology descended upon London?

Detective stories flourished. Conan Doyle effectively popularised and defined the ‘short story’ format for them at the end of the nineteenth century – giving the world one of its most iconic and enduring literary characters in the process.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans thrilled to their own genre – westernsl, celebrating the myths of frontier. A form epitomised by Zane Grey, who spent periods big-game fishing in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands.

The point was that popular genres changed as society changed. Cowboy stories went in and out, detective stories rose and fell. Science fiction, which began life for social satire and comment, retained that function into the twentieth century – but became a way of popularising tech-wonders.

If anything, genre change is moving at hyper-speed on the back of the web revolution.  We have to keep up with – and ahead of – the trend if we’re to succeed.

Urban fantasy, anyone?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 13: novels and novelability

In this series we’ve been exploring writing in all its forms. Today we’re starting a detailed look at one of the most popular forms of writing – fiction.

Jane Austen. Public domain, from http://www.wpclipart.com/famous/writer/writers_A_to_D/Jane_Austen_coloured_version.jpg.html

Jane Austen. Public domain, from http://www.wpclipart.com/famous/writer/writers_A_to_D/ Jane_Austen_coloured_version.jpg.html

Fiction, and particularly novel writing, is the writing that attracts the most interest. It’s where most people start. I was trained in it myself, way back when. Most ‘how to write’ training today is geared towards fiction, and I’ve noticed that a lot of online discussion is predicated on the assumption that any book being written will, by default, be a novel.

Not all books are, of course. But it’s true about a lot of the books that are written these days – and certainly that’s true of the books being self-published on Amazon.

Fiction is also where the money is. The only billionaire author, and most of its millionaires, are novellists.

So where did the ‘novel’ come from? The form we know and love today emerged in the late eighteenth century. Jonathan Swift had something to do with it. So did Jane Austen – she, in fact, is often regarded as the inventor of the novel in its modern form. That’s not quite true. But certainly she helped shape it. Specifically, she found new ways of engaging reader emotion – she created interesting characters and set them to interact on a stage identifiable to the audience.

In her classic Pride and Prejudice (1813) the main emotion was – well, pride. By modern standards Austen’s style was pompous, even clunky. Check this out:

“She hardly knew how to suppose that she could be an object of admiration to so  great man; and yet that he should look at her because he disliked her was still  more strange. She could only imagine however, at last, that she drew his notice  because there was a something about her more wrong and reprehensible, according  to his ideas of right, than in any other person present…” (Pride and Prejudice, 1813)

But that was perfectly acceptable in that age; Austen was a great novelist, a great story teller, and we can but lament at the way her premature death cut short her career.

Nor was Austen alone. In 1816, Mary Shelley took novel writing in different directions with Frankenstein, effectively a foray into science fiction. Novels, it seemed, did not have to be ‘real’ in order to engage their reader – indeed, one of their appeals was that they allowed readers to escape.

By the early nineteenth century, then, the modern novel was fairly on its way. Understanding how the novel journeyed over the next 200-odd years is handy to know if we want to write one – because it allows us to understand how the form has always been shaped in the specific by contemporary need, contemporary ideal – and it is still changing. Next week.

Meanwhile, do you have thoughts on why novels are such a popular first stop for people wanting to write? The creative urge? Expression of a story? All these things? I’d love to hear from you.

And have any of you seen  ‘Ink and Incapability’, from Blackadder The Third (BBC 1988).

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week: Write it now – the evolution of the novel; also more funnies, more writing tips, and some highly refined geekery.

How Tolkien became part of my life. Is he part of yours?

Forty years after I first encountered the work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, I am still on a wonderful journey of discovery in his world.

I had moment to think about it on the weekend when my wife and I passed through Miramar, Wellington and stopped at the ‘Weta Cave’. It’s a store run by Weta Workshop, who made the props for Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s work.  In typical Kiwi fashion it’s in an unprepossessing building of late 1930s austerity construction.

Weta Cave - unprepossessing ordinariness masking the home of something truly extraordinary.

Weta Cave – unprepossessing ordinariness masking the home of something truly extraordinary.

Most of the buildings in the area are like this. It’s the heart of Peter Jackson’s movie-making empire. You wouldn’t think so, to look at it. But that’s the magic of movies for you.

It's all in an ordinary industrial-style street.

It’s all in an ordinary industrial-style street. I don’t know if these warehouses, directly opposite Jackson’s post-production building, are part of the studio or not, though interesting drumming noises were coming out of them when I took this photo.

Though the Park Road Post Production building is pretty impressive.

I took this from the street.

I took this from the street.

The visit – coupled with last week’s viewing of The Hobbit movie - got me thinking. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan’. I approach Tolkien with a critical eye, I don’t consume every word.  Each volume in my copy of The Lord of The Rings is from a totally different paperback edition and I’ve never bothered to get any of the different illustrated, one-volume or ‘collectors’ versions issued since.

But I like his created world and his writing very much indeed, and have ever since I was eight or nine - about as long,  in fact, that I’ve been writing myself.

It was the Pauline Baynes map that captured me first. Her artwork  was evidently frowned upon by Tolkien himself. But it spoke of adventure, of exploration – of the unknown. I wanted to experience that magic – to live that world. I started imagining. A little later, I read The Hobbit. And I was hooked. I still have that copy of the book, the third edition paperback with Tolkien’s own ‘Death of Smaug’ sketch as cover art. It’s totally battered. I don’t know how often I’ve read it. Lots.

A year or two after that I read The Lord Of The Rings. And read it again. And again. And again. And many times again after that. I’ve read it only twice since I was a teenager – but I can still pretty much quote passages from it.

Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?

Check out the wear and tear. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

Tolkien’s work spoke to me on many levels. He conveyed a sense of wonder on an epic scale, yet in terms that brought that wonder back to ‘ordinary’ through the hobbits. I could share their sense of discovery, of growth, as the world unfolded for them – and which they had to find the strength to handle.

Later, as I learned more about literature and writing, I came to realise just how much of the essence of the western mind Tolkien had put into his work. My enjoyment of his world became a journey of discovery - re-awakening a sense of wonder when I read his material.

I am still on that journey, and it is a wonderful journey indeed.

How about you? Are you a Tolkien enthusiast? What drew you to his work? And if he’s not your cup of tea – well, what doesn’t appeal? It’s all valid. I don’t like some of his material myself, actually – too inaccessible, too academic; or written in ways that don’t capture. As I say, I approach this with a critical eye – not adulating fandom. But what he imagined remains very much a part of my life.

What are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Kindness 2013: thinking about kindness the Asimov way

 I posted last week about how difficult kindness is to really pin down – how to make it work we have to find a philosophy that encompasses many virtues from tolerance to reason to acceptance to thoughtfulness.

MJWright2011It struck me that a lot of what I was talking about can be found in the stories of Isaac Asimov. More often than not, his scenes involved characters talking. It is a measure of his extraordinary talent as a writer that his novels were dramatic, gripping and compelling througb the tensions between the characters as they talked. Wonderful, wonderful writing.

Asimov’s greatest legacy remains his ‘Three Laws of Robotics’, designed to break the early twentieth century trope of psychopathic metalloids turning on their creators. In essence they said (a) don’t hurt humans, or allow them to be hurt; (b) obey orders, except where it breaks the first law; and (c) protect yourself, except when it breaks the other two laws.

Asimov imagined societies where robots were ubiquitous – where they would prevent humans from hurting each other, a kind of active conscience for the dark side of humanity.

Needless to say these ‘robot laws’ were problematic. Asimov knew it – most of his ‘robot’ plots involved showing up loopholes. How do you define ‘harm’? (‘Galley Slave’ involved a robot fixing an author’s galley proofs, because the stress to the author of doing it himself, the robot judged, amounted to harm). Suppose you re-define ‘human’ so the First Law doesn’t apply? (Asimov explored this in Robots and Empire). What happens if a robot is met with equally balanced choices between the laws? (‘Runaround’).

A lot pivoted around the premise that robots operated by if-then logic. Asimov’s key robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, was just that – literal minded, a point Asimov used in a plot turn in The Caves of Steel. But in his later robot novels, robots could reason their way through dilemnas. By the end of the cycle, R. Daneel was largely indistinguishable from a human in behaviour – and, unerringly, working for the good of humanity.

It would be nice to imagine af ‘First Law’ equivalent for humans – but we already have this. We are exhorted from childhood to look after others – to help others – in short, to be kind. It’s just that we don’t. Not often enough. Things seem to get in the way. A pity, really.

I’ll explore some of those ‘things that get in the way’ in the next few posts. Meanwhile – what do you think about a human ‘first law’ equivalent?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: Sixty second writing tips, more on Tolkien, and continuing the series ‘Write it now’ – an A-Z of how to write.