This week’s mega short-story challenge

This week’s writing challenge revolves around a photo I took of the historic church at Lake Tekapo, in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island.

Use the photo to inspire a 150-200 word super-short story – a proper one, with beginning, middle, end and punchline (all super-short stories gotta have a punchline) – and post it on your blog, with the prompt photo and a link back to this blog for others to pick up and join in the fun. of course the story can be about anything, but please keep it seemly!

Lake Tekapo with its historic church.

Lake Tekapo with its historic church.

The lake really IS that colour, it’s a product of ground glacial rock suspended in the water. Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Has anybody got ‘Bored of the Rings’?

In the last few posts I’ve been exploring how Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings became a major part of mainstream culture. The transition began in the mid-1960s on the back of the counter-culture, and the place of Tolkien’s imaginarium was cemented by the mainstreaming of fantasy and science fiction in the 1970s – a transition Tolkien’s own popularity helped drive, further buoyed that decade by Star Wars and Star Trek.

This is the edition I own (image via Wikipedia).

This is the edition I own (image via Wikipedia).

Long before that, though – in 1969, in fact – Tolkien was mainstreamed in a very different way, in Henry N Beard and Douglas C Kenney’s parody Bored Of The Rings. Being targeted by the Harvard Lampoon was a fair sign that Tolkien had ‘made it’ – and his imaginarium wasn’t the only thing they skewered along the way. They also took on the ‘bog’ Irish, hippie culture, drugs, Disneyland, frozen vegetables, Cinderella and the Lone Ranger, among other things.

The book was filled with battles fought by ambulatory pumpkins, over-sexed elves, evil black riders cavorting about on flatulent pigs, and a gonzo wizard named Goodgulf. There were places and characters named after everything from soft drinks to well known laxatives. Indeed, laxatives were a bit of an – er – running gag through the whole thing. As was potato salad (don’t ask).

The cover itself parodied the artwork of the 1965 Ballantine edition. It also featured a map at the front that didn’t correlate with anything in the book, but which echoed the “2.5 dimensional” cartographic style adopted by Tolkien – and by his son Christopher, who drew the master Middle Earth map.

Some fans, I don’t doubt, were horrified at the skewering of their sacred cow. I wasn’t. When I first read Bored of the Rings, around 1978, it was laugh-out-loud territory. And it still is today. The late 1960s pop-culture references are a little dated, but that doesn’t reduce the cleverness of it, especially the way Beard and Kenney used product names as homophones for Tolkien’s (Frito/Frodo, Spam/Sam, Pepsi/Pippin, Arrowroot/Aragorn, Orlon/Elrond, and so on).

I always thought it was rather apt. There’s a form of Russian literature in which long and deeply serious saga stories are usually wrapped up with a brief comic coda. And this was Tolkien’s, after a fashion. Not written or authorised by him, but a comic coda nonetheless. So – to close this series on Tolkien, a question.

Have you read Bored of the Rings? Were you offended – or did you roll around on the floor laughing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Pluto frenzy is upon us this month

The world’s in Pluto frenzy this month. NASA’s SOFIA observatory aircraft has been operating out of Christchurch, New Zealand, to capture data on Pluto’s atmosphere via star transit spectrometry – and on 14 July, some 3662 days after leaving Earth, the New Horizons probe will storm past Pluto and its family of moons.

Simulated view of Pluto and Charon - speculative only at this stage - which I made with my Celestia software.

Simulated view of Pluto and Charon – speculative only at this stage – which I made with Celestia.

It’s our first visit to that world – and last, for the foreseeable future. And what an achievement! That probe is the fastest object ever built by humanity, and it’s already returned new data about the Pluto system. In the weeks after the encounter, as it transmits its hoard of information back – New Horizons will revolutionise everything we know about that remote world and its moons. Always assuming it doesn’t bang into anything, of course. At 51,500 km/h, an encounter with a grain of sand would do serious mischief. The fact that Pluto has one giant moon – Charon – and four smaller ones suggests the system might have been formed by an ancient collision, and there could be debris along the encounter path.

Pluto and Charon on 25 and 27 June 2015. Public domain, NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Click to enlarge.

The real thing: Pluto and Charon on 25 and 27 June 2015. Public domain, NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Yup, Pluto’s a red planet. Click to enlarge.

On the other hand, JPL officials are fairly sure the risk is minimal. The NASA team under Alan Stern used New Horizons’ long-range imager (LORRI) to look ahead for debris on 22, 23 and 26 June, concluding that the intended path ahead was safe. The Pluto system is in a state of gravitational resonance, which means any debris is expected to be clustered in discrete positions. Mostly.

New Horions' track through the Pluto system. Public domain, NASA/JPL.

New Horizons’ track through the Pluto system. Public domain, NASA/JPL.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the word ‘dwarf planet’. That’s because I think it’s a stupid definition. It was voted in by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, on the last day of a conference when just over 400 delegates out of 10,000 in the Union remained to vote. Some 237 voted for a resolution defining ‘planet’ in terms that meant Pluto and a lot of other new Kuiper belt objects, and Ceres, were ‘dwarf planets’. The nays totalled 157, so the fact is that Pluto was demoted on a majority of 80, in a motion where 95 percent of members did not vote at all. To me, that’s not particularly valid – and I’m far from the only one to think that. However, despite a meme circulating Facebook to the contrary, it hasn’t been rescinded.

Part of the public howl of protest was driven by the fact that Pluto – from its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, right up until 2006 – was always the ninth planet. Walt Disney renamed Goofy’s dog Rover after it. Pluto became iconic – to the people of the mid-twentieth century, the last, lonely world out on the edge of our solar system (probably). It was a social definition. And then suddenly 237 scientists out of 10,000 killed a popular idea that been integral with society for 76 years.

But in any case, the definition of ‘planet’ on which the IAU voted is a rubbish one. Among other things, it requires the planet to have ‘cleared’ its vicinity of debris. Even Jupiter doesn’t match that, thanks to its Trojan asteroids. And to me, it has a philosophical problem: it’s trapped by the requirement in western thought to compartmentalise – to divide a complex and often smoothly gradiated universe into sharply defined categories.

Frequently it’s an ill-fit, and the IAU definition of ‘planet’ is no exception. The problem is that the reality of our solar system, particularly as it unfolded for us from 1992 (specifically), clearly defies such classification. Trying to jam its different contents into pre-defined ‘scientific’ categories misleads, because the bits of rock, dust, ice and gases that orbit the Sun in various ways are more complex than this.

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Pastoral folk or Wagnerian metal – which music best suits Tolkien?

In the last few posts I’ve been exploring the way J R R Tolkien subverted twentieth century literature, creating a whole new form of fantasy – and why The Lord Of The Rings in particular was such a runaway success. Today I’m wrapping the series up with a few thoughts on the way people reacted emotionally – through music.

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'.

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’.

Tolkien himself worked with composer and pianist Donald Swann – the musician half of the Flanders and Swann comedy duo – to put some of the many songs from his imaginarium to music, notably ‘The Road Goes Ever On’.

But he wasn’t the only one. In 1968, Swedish composer Bo Hansson wrote a whole album – Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings. It basically pioneered the prog-rock concept album, though it wasn’t released outside Sweden for several years. The music was instrumental, largely built around some astonishing tone colours and sounds that Hansson was able to extract from a Hammond B3 electric organ.

In many respects it was of its time, a product of the way the youth generation of the 1960s questioned their world. Today I find it almost unlistenable. But when I heard it in the 1970s I thought it amazing. Looking back, I think Hansson had – conceptually, through music – captured the intersection between the subculture of his time and Tolkien’s mythos. It wasn’t going to work quite as well a generation later.

Other music based on the book was folk-ish or pastoral, again drawing conceptual inspiration from the world of The Shire. But there was far more to LOTR than that. The deeper side of Tolkien’s mythos demanded a different interpretation – darker, more powerful – which emerged in the form of heavy metal during the 1980s and 1990s, particularly from Germany and Scandinavia where Tolkien infused material and related fantasy-driven music became a whole sub-genre dubbed, predictably, ‘heavy mithril’. The pattern was set by the German prog-metal band ‘Blind Guardian’. This is their Nightfall in Middle Earth:

This – and a lot of what followed – was music of Wagnerian proportion in blending brutally heavy metal with orchestra and choir, creating monolithc sound-scapes, all steeped in the same Scandinavian tradition that had influenced Tolkien in the first place. The lyrics were often studded with Tolkien references – typified by Nightwish’s  Wishmaster, where there were explicit call-outs to Lorien and Elbereth.

To me this broad musical response to Tolkien captured the reality of his imaginarium, with its layers of meaning – and particularly the dissonance of the pastoral, homely Hobbits set against huge and heroic symbols of deeper mythology. Pastoral folk-rock or Wagnerian heavy metal? Both are appropriate for Tolkien’s world, I think.

Your thoughts?

This series wraps up with the next and final post – watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

If in doubt, throw it out – a motto for writing

Quite a bit of what’s written – certainly in this day and age – is really practise, like a pianist running through those interminable Czerny exercises. And like those exercises, the result isn’t really intended to see the light of day.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential writing fuel!

I suspect a lot of it does, though – courtesy of the fact that in this age of self-publishing, anybody can publish anything. And a lot of people do. There’s often a mood in writing circles about the preciousness of words. ‘My babies’.

Actually, I’m a great fan of writers throwing stuff away. It’s important – surprisingly so, in fact. Words are merely a tool for expression. If they’re not right – or if the author is on a learning curve – then the best thing, sometimes, is to chuck out the old and re-write. That’s also good practise, because it forces authors to think about how they’re expressing themselves – and to work at tackling the problem from a variety of angles.

It’s a technique that even practised writers – the ones who’re ‘unconsciously competent’ at the art – have to use. Jack Kerouac, allegedly, wrote On The Road in one massive pep-pill fuelled burst. What we might not realise from the “scroll” that poured in one huge sellotaped roll out of his typewriter is that he’d already had several attempts at the book.

They weren’t failures. Kerouac abandoned them because they weren’t capturing what he wanted. But if hadn’t taken the time to get his thoughts into line by writing them, he wouldn’t have been able to then write the “scroll” as he did.

My axiom? Words are easy to assemble. Moulding them to the intended meaning is a lot harder. That’s why I say: if in doubt, throw it out. And (of course) start again. This time having had the practise of expressing the idea once. It’ll work better the second time.

Or the third.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Thanks to E L James’ publicity fail I might have to write Proust fan-fic

In what has to be classed as an epic publicity fail, E. L. James’ Twitter Q&A this week turned into farce when the feed was bombed by people who – well, they didn’t exactly like her books.  Or her.

Wright_Typewriter01
I have to ask. What were her publicists thinking? Sure, Grey is one of the fastest-selling books of all time, following up the previous trilogy. And sure, there have to be a lot of, shall we say, gratified customers out there. But those sales have happened on the back of a repute for those books being very, very badly written porn, reportedly derived from ‘Twilight’ fan fiction.

I have to say ‘repute’ because I haven’t actually read any of James’s work – nor will I. Still, the fact remains that sales are skyrocketing and James is reportedly worth anything from $38 to $58 million, depending on which site you look at. And what did the late Phineas Taylor Barnum once say about nobody ever losing money by under-estimating the taste of the public? Obviously this is where the market’s at, so I now have to decide which famous novel to redo as very, very badly written porn fan fic. Maybe you can help. Which should I pick?

  • Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
  • John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
  • Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time.

My vote’s with the last, but that’s just me. I always did want to summarise Proust.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How I went into single combat on TV, intellectually speaking, with Antony Beevor

It’s a decade since I took on Anthony Beevor on TV, over his comments about Bernard Freyberg and his role in losing the 1941 Battle for Crete.

Wright - Battle for Crete - 200 pxI wasn’t able to get a face-to-face interview, but I was able to appear on Mike Hosking’s Sunday show in riposte to remarks Beevor made on the same show a week earlier.

The battle for Crete remains one of New Zealand’s legendary military near-misses, a battle lost by a hairs-breadth – keying into the national inferiority complex by which New Zealand was always able to punch above its weight on the world stage, but always just managed to miss the grand prize. This mind-set does much to explain the soul-searching that followed the evacuation – and the arguments that raged after the war, in the pages of history books, usually over who to hold responsible.

The fault has been levelled variously at the New Zealand brigadier running the defence of Maleme airfield, at the battalion commander on the airfield, and on the New Zealand commander, Major-General Bernard Freyberg, in charge of island defence. In 1991, Antony Beevor excoriated Freyberg, considering he had misread an intelligence signal and so lost the island. It was, at best, specious – Freyberg actually did a tremendous job, and battles don’t pivot on a single signal. Beevor also never used the primary documentation available in New Zealand.

near_runI first looked into the battle for Crete in 1999, when my publishers, Reed New Zealand, asked me to write a history of those dramatic days. They specified a short book for the general audience – not the specialist academic military-historical community – and with a maximum length of 30,000 words the text was, deliberately, intended as a brief account.

crete2I called the book A Near-Run Affair: New Zealanders in the Battle for Crete, riffing on Arthur Wellesley’s quip after Waterloo. The book sold very well into its intended audience, and was acclaimed by independent reviewers.

In 2003, Reed reissued the book with revised title – Battle for Crete: New Zealand’s Near-Run Affair. This edition also sold well.

Battle for Crete became the first volume in a trilogy I wrote covering the Second New Zealand Division from their first battles in Greece to the dramatic dash to Trieste in the closing days of the war – the other two are Desert Duel and Italian Odyssey. I did talk with Penguin about releasing them as an omnibus seven or eight years ago, but that came to nothing.

Now, all three are being reissued by Intruder Books, starting with Battle for Crete, which has been revised and is in its third incarnation. Not too shabby for any author.

The book’s out with an introductory price for $US 3.99. Get it now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015