Posts Tagged ‘Novel’

I’m in the middle of reading George R.R. Martin’s (first thought… why the need for two ‘R’s!) Game of Thrones at the moment. I’ve seen to the end of the second season of the show and am hoping to get ahead of my reading in the novels before watching any more. My main reason stems from my reading of this first book – it reads very much like it views, as if the producers of the TV version decided that they would do a scene by scene replication of the book. As a result, I feel a bit like I did as a boy, reading the film ‘novelisations’ of the Star Wars series, such as The Empire Strikes Back, which I recall getting via my school’s Lucky Book Club affiliation, replete with glossy photos in the centre of the book. The book felt very convenient as it faithfully plodded through the action that we saw on screen. There wasn’t a lot of flavour… or imagination.

Not that I am suggesting that this is the case with Martin’s epic – it obviously predates the show. It’s just that I can’t really tell. I’m not reading it particularly quickly, but I find it hard to clear my head from the action that I have seen on screen, as I read. I’ve heard that the second series starts to deviate from the book and look forward to seeing the evidence of this when I get to the second book – and as mentioned, moving on to the third before I catch up on “that” season. It reminds me a little of my reading of the Harry Potter series. I had my ‘own’ Harry Potter in my imagination before the movies came along, but I can’t recall him now. He (and other characters) have been well and truly replaced by Daniel Radcliffe et al. I find it sad that I can’t get that imagination version back… and probably never will.

So back to the title of my post… I love literary page turners. Those books that you are almost apologetic about reading. In Australia (and perhaps more broadly internationally now) we have Matthew Reilly. 25 words or less for the uninitiated: super hero defies (multiple) deaths from super villains and overuse of exclamation points while solving international mysteries!!! (more or less)

The boys I have taught over the years have loved Reilly’s work and when asking my opinion of it, have been surprised by the fact that I haven’t jumped on board more enthusiastically. It is a certain guilty pleasure and I enjoy it every now and then, while I am consuming the work. But like eating the fairy floss/cotton candy (love the international use of alliteration to describe spun sugar!), one feels strangely unsatisfied (read ill) sometime after completing the work.

Not like some of those authors who present works that are more like a fine dining degustation dinner. Writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, or even the short stories of Alastair McLeod. You might not want to have this level of readership every day, but when you sit down, one can feel sated with the beauty of the words… how they are chosen and placed on the page, in a short period of time.

For now it is George and I am on page 461 of 780 (before we get to the House history stuff). So it is Friday night and, for now, I’m still at sideshow alley and the junk food abounds… and I’m happy to give in to it for the time being.20130816-213642.jpg

How good are words! I enjoy seeing when senior students learn how a well placed word in a sentence has the power to resonate, giving off a ripple effect of nuance and meaning. Conversely, the sentence has to remain in balance, so students using five “big” four to five syllable words feels unwieldy, like the reader is wading through mud. For many students, having them appreciate that more is not necessarily more, can be a difficult thing that seems to be counter intuitive. Having an economy in writing can allow words the space to flex their power.
Ironically, I think George Orwell, in 1984, had a pretty good take on it. Look at the following, as Syme talks to Winston about his efforts on creating (or destroying) the new language for the upcoming 11th Edition Dictionary of Newspeak:

A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good’, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word.

The notion that if you remove one’s language, you remove their ability to see, imagine and think is compelling. However, is it possible to explore the other side of the equation. Is it possible to have “too much” language? I understand that there are more than fifty hues of the colour blue. Yet the ability to capture the exact hue one is witnessing is probably unlikely.

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Journey away on holidays – the view from the window as I type…

As a task, students can do or consider the following:
Look out the window and take in the view. Imagine that you call someone on the phone and, being so taken by what you see, set about describing the vista before you. Students can attempt to write, in a paragraph, the picture before them, or even an element of the whole. This is where the limitations of a language might become apparent. On one level, if language could do its “job” of communicating, then the result would be the equivalent of a photograph or facsimile. The listener, despite being deprived of the physical view, would be able to replicate the image in their own head. As a point of comparison, consider how effectively a musical score is able to transfer meaning, or mathematical notation. Of course, at its most reductive, music comes to four possibilities once a note is played. You can repeat the same pitch, have a higher or lower note, or rest. Words offer the potential to take this further, to almost limitless possibilities.

But who wants to be omniscient? Where is the pleasure in having precision in all facets of language when reading poetry? If we had a word for everything, would this equate to being a god-like individual who knows every joke and therefore every punchline before it can be delivered? While it is striking to have so many hues of blue, so many more are left uncharted and benefit from being couple with other adjectives.

In concluding, I counter one of the observations frequently posited by my students when we are analysing poetry – “You don’t think the poet intended all these meanings do you?”

The answer is “no” and “yes”. The beauty of poetry is its ability to conjure up word paintings as we read, based on our own experiences. However, I’ll sometimes show Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth in order to show both how a beautifully placed word exudes power and potency, and an ill fitting alternative can bring about diminishment.

Below is an early draft of Owen’s poem. In knowing the copy that we have with us today, it is appropriate to see how the poet played with words and their placement and, feeling dissatisfied with a choice, sought to improve or rectify the choices made. With writing, it is certainly a gestaltist approach – the sum of the writing is greater than the individual parts.

An early draft of what would become ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – note the trial and error of word choices that Owen makes

All Libraries Great and Small

Posted: August 3, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

How can we develop online borrowing without fully fledged owning?

I should start by saying I love libraries. I grew up with my parents taking us to get books out every three weeks when the loan period was up. They were, and still are, voracious readers. That discipline and sentiment has been a significant factor for me over the years.

As I write, my local council is looking to build a 22 million dollar library in the area. I teach high school English in this area. The idea of building a new state-of-the-art library should excite me, and certainly would have done a bit over a decade ago. Now, following a petition that came around and the changing nature of reading, I am wondering about the vision of such a building and the fear that such an enterprise could lead to a white elephant being created. Not that I quibble about the variety of public uses such spaces can and ought to generate.

In addition to loving reading, I have also enjoyed owning books. When young, I admired the collection of hardbacks, dusty softcovers, new editions and classics my parents possessed. I even went so far as to emulate a library in my pre- teen years, putting smaller stickers to identify the elaborate co-ordinates that the books came from on my shelves (Dewey had yet to make an impact on a 9 year old). Later, having moved out of home and with the excitement of a salaried income, I took a certain pleasure in buying up books, whether it be buying up a handful of 2nd hand classics that I had always desired, or forking over larger sums to buy a first edition. When going to a person’s house for the first (or even subsequent) times, I would draw interest in the choices that their shelves offered and what it said about the thoughts and values of the owners. A personal book collection often gave a good indicator of the character of a person.

However, behind all of this, my love of libraries stood as equally, if not more, important. Libraries satisfied the various pangs that I might have, from the trashy fairy-floss page turners that I could read in a night, to curious desire based on a recommendation that a friend or librarian might offer. There are books that I am quite happy to read and not own. I bought my wife a Kindle a couple of years ago. The idea that you can have a book, as the thought or remembrance of it occurs to you, within seconds, is enticing. Having watched Graham Hill’s liberating TED talk on removing the ‘stuff’ in our lives, the idea of having a “library” of hundreds of books in your hand, without the cheap paperbacks becoming moth-eaten and dusty, was compelling. I found my basis for reading and owning books had changed.

Thus the nub of my post – the need for a better library system for the online age we currently inhabit. Libraries are generally “free”. Certainly tax and rate payers pay for this system, but in terms of a greater societal good, it is ostensibly free for all to use thereafter.
In the United States, Amazon has its Prime service, which for 80 odd dollars, offers the lure of free shipping within two days for purchases, the ability to stream television and movies and the ability to read a “A Kindle book to borrow for free each month from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library“.
Currently we have nothing comparable in Australia and I am not sure when Amazon (or other providers) are looking to bring the game to Australia. Not that I am suggesting that Amazon has it ‘right’ either for US customers and readers. The $79 cost seems reasonable enough on the basis of purchasing, say 4-5 “regular” novels at a book store. But compare this to my local library – my children can borrow up to 30 (yes thirty!) items at a time, including books, DVDs, music and magazines. The only issue I face is ensuring all of it gets back by the due date to avoid the overdue fines. However, I think a ‘subscription’ to a library is infinitely sensible and practical.

So to all those developers out there, I am wondering if we can bring about or consider the following: –

  • Being able to access books, on a ‘device’ to read without having to ‘buy’ the book.
  • Perhaps having a limited period to read it for free (or a ‘stepped’ price, like a rental, for the longer you possess it – thus encouraging you to read it more quickly)
  • Ensuring that author’s continue to get royalties, as they would via systems like the Public Lending Right that currently operates

Of course, one could still choose to purchase a book, as now. But what other options could we use? I would love to hear other viewpoints that further or even challenge these sentiments!

As a teenager in the 1980s, Blade Runner was a staple video in our house. This was the release that included Harrison’s Ford narration, later overshadowed by the release of The Director’s Cut in 1992. However, my brothers and I would watch the VHS tape, recorded from the TV, that proceeded to get ever grainier with repeated viewings.

In the late 1990s, I taught this ‘early’ version of the film, to, of all groups, a top Year 10 class. This was in the days before it was put on the HSC list, and I was looking to it as a piece to connect on a study of Detective Fiction, having already opened the unit with a study of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep.

At the time and having watched and discussed the film, I would highlight the fact that the students and I ‘sat’ half way between Scott’s vision of the film in 1982 and the film’s setting of Los Angeles, 2019. This was the segue for a discussion about the future, and working on the basis that the film aimed to predict a future that was 40 odd years in the future, how accurate was the development of that vision. How well could students predict 40 years from their own present?

Fast forward to 2012 and, again, a number of events have piqued my imagination and got me thinking about the HSC unit that my students study, pairing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Scott’s dystopic view of the future in Blade Runner. These include the announcement that the film had been voted the most popular/influential sci-fi movie of all time, that Scott was looking to make another Blade Runner film and, from New Zealand, a story I initially heard on radio discussing the likelihood that, within 50 years, prostitutes of the future could well be artificial ones created by humans. It was the last item that struck me most of all. In the media that I perused, there was little to nothing about the ethics and the logistics of such an enterprise.

Recently, I marked an HSC assessment for the Advanced candidature. The question included a brief visual stimulus (the opening of the film, up until the appearance of Holden in the office) and asked students to discuss the negative consequences that arise in the text from the actions of man’s desire to play God. From reading their work and with some thoughts to the media mentioned above, I write the following to see where Blade Runner, along with Frankenstein, sits in our context now. Hopefully it provides some ideas, discussion points and assistance for staff and students alike.

Frankenstein gives rise to Blade Runner?

There are a number of excellent study guides on both of these texts, and I am not looking to intentionally cover ground explored by others here. In opening, and acknowledging that this novel by Mary Shelley is arguably the progenitor of the science fiction genre, it strikes one in terms of the ability to view these two texts as a kind of before and after on a continuum. Victor Frankenstein goes through a number of gates in the course of the novel. We see his passionate pursuit of education and knowledge and his inability (or wanton disregard) of the warnings of others (while, incidentally, all of these other figures similarly miss the signs from Victor or are, again, ineffectual in mentoring him). This leads to his creation of the monster, his abhorrence and abandonment of the monster and the spiralling events from this point on.

So while Victor Frankenstein sets up the process of strikingly illicit scientific pursuit, undertaken in a clandestine manner, often under the cover of darkness, we see that this has been brought into the mainstream by the time we get to Blade Runner. Is Tyrell more the business man than the scientist – is it that he stands on the shoulders of figures such as Frankenstein (or, more recently, the work of JF Sebastien and Chew, the genetic designer and eye specialist respectively from the film) to have reached the position that he is in now? Eldon Tyrell has made the manufacture of the replicants a part of mainstream America, yet has similarly ‘lost’ part of his connection with others along the way. The nature of the commodity is highlighted by his comments regarding Rachael, an “experiment, nothing more” who has been gifted “the past” in order to stabilise her emotions. When he is interrupted by Roy and J.F. Sebastian, he is in the middle of stock trading, rather than any notions of scientific experimentation as was the case for the fevered Victor. For a “genius” as described by J.F. Sebastian, I am amused that he is two moves away from mate in a chess game, yet can’t see this coming – mind you, J.F. seems similarly oblivious to the fact that he is this close to what would be only be his second ever win against his employer. The rampant greed that would (go on to) be the hallmark of 1980s sees a facet of this world, where Tyrell’s tower rises, Babel-like, above the trash that mark street level Los Angeles, below the smog line. Los Angeles, reflected, 2019

This leads to larger ideas of the place and role of Nature in the two texts. In the novel, reflecting Romantic sentiments, it is often depicted by Shelley as a restorative; the juxtaposition between the sublime, pure, often ‘light’ aspects of nature (the Romantic movement) counterpoint Frankenstein’s gothic, secretive pursuit of his dream of reanimation. One thing which one might ‘consider’ is Victor’s original aim (obviously mirrored in Walton’s story). Does one view his initial desire to discover and study as negative? Context is important, and most would argue that the pursuit of discovery and exploration in most human societies is highly valued. Certainly, I don’t think anyone has any issue with his later irresponsibility, and it is often hard for students to appreciate anything other than a negative take on Victor.

This is where one can tap into concepts such as the values of humanity. Perhaps it is not so much that he creates the life, but that he has no foresight as to what this entails in terms of rights and values and continues to abandon any sense of responsibility that he must shoulder thereafter. We, as readers, don’t see the ‘monster’ as human, but it is hard not to see the replicants as such when viewing Blade Runner. He, in 1818, cannot walk amongst society without fear or backlash, whereas they walk (look at Roy and Leon early on as they walk along the streets in their leather jackets) amongst humanity, almost to the point where their difference is their physical superiority to the human rabble – they certainly appear more striking aesthetically.

More human than human?

So if Frankenstein sets up the problem of animation, Blade Runner, takes it forward to a time when it is unremarkable – except that we have made them ‘too’ good. This becomes a problem when we can’t tell them apart from us without machines. Yet, all along, we have missed the opportunity to set Frankenstein’s mistakes to rights – this 200 odd years later. We create the most wonderful creature and offer it slavery, danger and a death sentence in return. Should we be surprised by the actions of the replicants? Consider, at the top of this article, the notions of creating artificial prostitutes within our lifetimes. What have we learned? What are we capable of learning?

The scrolling text at the beginning of the film affords a wealth of discussion points. I am struck by the context – long lost to us in 2012, that watching this film in 1982 would have held (and, more notably, the potential to view this film as a resident of Los Angeles). Reading that white on black text, with the associated ‘noises’, to be greeted with THAT image of L.A. – not any Los Angeles that a 1982 film viewer would recognise, would have been a powerful one. Perhaps it is not surprising that the film was not well received upon release and flopped commercially. As the text, (again covered admirably in other articles) comes to an end and the words ‘LOS ANGELES 2019’ appears, there is a simultaneous harp ‘glissando’ and drumbeat- like the curtain is being drawn back in a magic show for the reveal. In a world where we can create life, look what we have done with the ‘life’ (nature) that was already present. The mise-en-scene is a veritable slap in the face and still holds well as we draw close to the magical date of 2019 itself.

What continues to strike me are the notions of the consequences that the film holds. As mentioned, Tyrell neatly ignores any notion of rights that the replicants have. They are certainly commodities but Tyrell seems inept at interaction – ignoring Rachael and providing less than satisfying (inane?) responses when confronted by Roy. The need for Blade runners only exists due to his creation, and he smugly hides behind the ‘commerce is our goal… more human than human” line midway through the film. That word “human” is so evocative. One can look at all the presentations of human we have had – from the ‘racist’ types like Bryant, to the street level mishmash of cultures – individuals who do not react with the killing (let’s not beat about the bush here) of Zhora. What does this word suggest in light of the concerns of the unit? It may well be that other units that are being studied examine the nature of the human condition. It should be no different here.

While considering this, I noted in my marking of that HSC assessment that some students had suggested that in the scene where Deckard shoots Zhora in the back, that Deckard shows no emotion at this point. This surprised me. If you look, you will see that the only three who do react (appropriately) are Deckard, Leon and Rachael. Sure, Deckard has shot her as part of his job, but the next few minutes sees him shaking (physically and verbally) and verbally jousting with Bryant. Is this Ridley Scott’s way of positioning the viewer? Where do you stand when an unarmed woman, running away from her assailant, is shot in the back? Notice the change in her physicality when the body is turned over (the mannequins that are in the shop windows suddenly come to prominence). In death, she returns to being a ‘doll’.

Zhora, having been shot by Deckard

Think about, for a moment, what a human corpse ‘signifies’ in death. Most religions would probably posit that the soul is not the body and so our corpse is not indicative of who we ‘are’ following death, if that makes sense. Think forward then, to Roy’s ‘tears in rain’ speech. This speech goes for all of us in death, and that’s what makes it so poignant. Even Gaff ‘gets it’ to some degree in his “It’s too bad that she won’t live. But then again, who does?” line. If both texts are cautionary tales, as most students would be able to identify, one can look at the legacy idea for each text in isolation and both together. Where does Walton stand at the end? Where is the viewer at the end of Blade Runner? If we are ‘close’ to creating this kind of future with predictions of synthetic prostitutes, are we going to make these mistakes that these two texts warn of, despite all these warnings? Perhaps we should all look at our context now and the decisions, like Victor, that we are looking to make in the near future.