Aenya Newsletter 9/01/2017

Greetings, fans!

The question I am most asked about Aenya is the most obvious one: when the heck is the book coming out? All I can say is, be patient. I admit to being a bit slow, but it’s only because I abhor the thought of releasing anything but the very best possible work. I’d also like to point out that, as a struggling writer, I, among others, are embarking upon a new age of independence. The big publishers are bleeding money, and as a result, have become increasingly mired by conformity. Vampires. Zombies. Apocalyptic teenage romances. Gritty Game of Thrones wannabes. And when something like 50 Shades of Grey makes a bajillion dollars, we get inundated with bondage porn, and an entire new section at Barnes & Nobles. Now, I don’t really blame the booksellers for this. They are simply doing what they need to survive. As I put it in my new bio:

Since starting out on this journey, nearly three decades ago, the literary landscape has changed. My dream of dropping a manilla envelope at the post office, to have a cigar-smoking editor in New York scream with delight at having found the next great author, is just that, a dream. We are living in a time when bookstores are shutting down and publishers are going broke. People have more addictive things to do these days, like staring at their phones and Netflix. We may be living in the last days of the written word, before the novel goes the way of the play, and I am well aware that the demands of the writer are greater than ever. On the other hand, the stigma associated with self-promotion is quickly fading. This is largely due to things like Kickstarter and YouTube. We are fast discovering that, not only can an independent entertain us, but that they can often be more humorous, and more sincere, than what’s on TV. In the literary world, the advent of e-books has become a double-edged sword, delivering a lot of pulp but also, some pretty great out-of-the-box writing we might never have otherwise seen.

In other words, independents have an even higher bar to jump than your average published writer. The Aenya series must not only be as good as your Tolkien, Martin, Rowling clones, but superior.

OK, getting off my soapbox now.

This summer, I took the family to London, because frankly, it is the world’s capital of great fiction. Being the literary geek that I am, I was only too thrilled to pick up C.S. Lewis, and the late great Terry Pratchett in the original Queen’s English. I was also frothing at the mouth touring Oxford University. But it was in the British museum where I rediscovered my inspiration for Aenya.

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Hero fighting a centaur

This is part of the “Elgin marbles,” named after Lord Elgin, whom my people blame for “stealing” from the sculptures of the Acropolis complex. Greek politics aside, this frieze, which originally adorned the pediment of the Parthenon, shows a Greek hero, possibly Heracles, fighting a centaur, possibly Nessus. For those of you in the know, I first featured Nessus in The Dark Age of Enya. He is responsible for giving Xandr his scar. Unfortunately, I had to cut the scene from Ages of Aenya, but that doesn’t mean I retconned the story. Nessus makes appearance in The Princess of Aenya and will probably crop up in future novels. Notice, also, how the hero fighting the centaur is entirely naked. This is a big part of my heritage. The Ancient Greeks envisioned their heroes sans clothing. It was, for them, an ideal, what has come to be called, the heroic nude. This is something I have long tried to revive in modern culture, through my heroes, Xandr and Thelana.

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Hero fighting a guard

To be fair, you won’t find any women, naked or otherwise, in combative positions on the Parthenon, or anywhere else. But this had less to do with modesty and more to do with sexism, in that the Greeks could not conceive of women as heroes.

The following day, in the Tower of London, I made another inspiring discovery. Will you just look at that sword:

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Holy crap! It’s like 7′ long!

 

OK, this might not have been a real weapon, used by a real person in battle. The Brits, just like the Greeks, loved their legends. Either way, it compares to Emmaxis, the sword hauled around by Xandr, which I have long considered too big to be practical. But just like the heroic nude, the protagonist’s weapon is an ideal, a storytelling tradition, and I do not pretend to be a historian.

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OK, if this is just making you want the book more, I give you a sneak peak at nickalimonos.com, my upcoming author site. Once it goes live, you will be able to order the book directly from there, for yourself and your friends, and every person you’ve ever met, hopefully. Ages of Aenya will also be available on Amazon.com

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It Can Happen Here 3: Orwell’s 1984

 

1984

This can’t be a coincidence 

 

Whoo-boy

 

Rarely do words fail me like this, but after finishing George Orwell’s 1984, I am utterly at a loss for what to say. Nothing I can put into words, other than the words Orwell uses himself, can accurately describe the depth of despair, the hopelessness, the utter nihilism bound in this book. The most tragic ending you can imagine cannot begin to prepare you for the story Orwell has written. Something along the lines of Hamlet might as well be a Disney cartoon. At least Hamlet gets his revenge, and is ultimately vindicated. Nothing of the kind can be said of 1984. In the world of the book, there is no glory, no heroism, and no possibility for happiness. You couldn’t make a heavy metal song about this, because even the darkest metal lyrics contain an element of rebelliousness, a strength fueled by rage and angst. This kind of fuck you to the world is not permitted in Orwell’s universe, because freedom of thought is not permitted. What I once regarded the ultimate expression of nihilism, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, cannot even come close to 1984, because the life of Hester Prynne, however awful, becomes a stepping a stone to a greater future for others. I am also reminded of the absurd controversy over the ending of Mass Effect 3, with its supposed “nihilistic ending,” that somehow ruined the franchise. To these people, I say, you do not know the meaning of nihilism until you’ve read 1984.

Even if the entire world were obliterated in a nuclear holocaust, I would greatly prefer it to the future imagined in 1984. Or send me to Westeros on the worst day. In the Hub of All Worlds, board up the door leading to 1984 and let’s never speak of it again. As you may have probably guessed, 1984 is a dystopian novel, the standard by which all other dystopias are judged. Having read Brave New World, The Hunger Games, Cloud Atlas, Never Let Me Go, The Giver, The Man in the High Castle and The Plot Against America, among others, I thought I was ready for this book. I wasn’t. And yet, 1984 is of paramount importance to the literary world, serving as a warning, and a very likely prophecy we must do everything in our power to escape.

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Imagine a world where you are not allowed to think, or to believe, what you want. Imagine a world where your sense of logic, your reason­—sanity itself—is torn down. To resist is to commit thoughtcrime, and thoughtcrime can be anything that contradicts Big Brother, the physical embodiment and face of “the Party.” It isn’t simply a matter of professing allegiance to a particular ideology. There is no real ideology in 1984, only total—not obedience—but agreement with the Party. Obedience is too easy, as it leaves room for hope, and for freedom within one’s own soul. Anyone can be made to obey, while sheltering rebellion in his heart. The black plantation slave could still sing about freedom while imagining a better day for himself or for his children. Under the Party, the Negro would be forced not only to work under the lash, but also to love working under the lash.

Long before the start of the novel, the Party has determined that the only way to maintain total control is to force its people into agreement. To avoid the Thought Police, you must believe, in you heart of hearts, that what you are being told is true. The Party manages this by brainwashing everyone from birth. Every book, film, newspaper, and TV channel is a carefully manufactured work of propaganda. No evidence contradicting the Party is allowed to exist, and when propaganda is the norm, it becomes impossible to separate the truth from the lies. In essence, the lies become true. Even the dictionary is used as a tool of obfuscation, as no words are permitted within the language to allow for seditious thought. In the most disturbing example of the politicization of reality, the main character, Winston Smith, is forced into believing that 2 + 2 = 5. Again, he does not have the luxury to simply state the truth of this claim. He must literally believe it. Winston is also forbidden from having basic human emotions, other than devotion to the Party. No one can love their spouse, or their children, only Big Brother. This might not be so bad if the world were composed of unfeeling robots, or if the Party was in possession of some Borg-like technology, but the price for thoughtcrime is imprisonment and torture. If you are even suspected of guilt, you are made to suffer until you sincerely believe you are in the wrong.

The truly scary thing about 1984 is how plausible it all is. We will likely never be invaded by aliens, or be taken hostage by AI, but the Party feels right around the corner. Orwell paints so complete and convincing a picture, in fact, it all seems inevitable. The technology now exists, from hidden cameras to microphones, to record everything a person does, from your facial expression to the pitch of your voice, to determine what you may be thinking. Modern day computers can make the process even more efficient. We know, thanks in part to Edward Snowden, that the NSA can be watching your every move. Before Orwell, I had never fully appreciated the Right to Privacy. I had always considered, quite erroneously, that if I had nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of, privacy doesn’t matter so much. But when a political party comes into power that criminalizes the things you strongly believe in—being a nudist, an atheist, or LGBTQ+—then privacy is the only way in which you can be protected. Already, we are seeing our right to privacy being eroded. Add to this the dilution of our cherished values, the right to a fair trial and laws against torture, both of which were diminished following the Patriot Act, and 1984 edges closer to reality.

I started this series, It Can Happen Here, as a response to the Trump election. But even after comparing Trump to Hitler, I am hesitant to mention Orwell’s Party in the same breath. There is no greater evil than Big Brother, no more Hellish a place in all of literature than the world of 1984. Mitch McConnell’s wildest imaginings have yet to touch upon such a dystopia. That being said, Orwell has forced me to reevaluate and even to course correct some of my earlier assumptions. The Party is, after all, a government institution, and conservatives have long maintained that the greatest thing to fear is big government. Between the out-of-control capitalist corporatocracy in Cloud Atlas and the Party of 1984, I’ll take the former any day. No doubt, many conservatives turn to Orwell to reaffirm their ideals. But the most pressing question at the moment is whether the current administration resembles the Party in any way. To this I would answer that the parallels are too close for comfort, particularly when it comes to matters of science, history and, to a finer extent, truth itself. Consider how conservatives perpetually strive to rewrite the history books, to omit the atheist assertions of Thomas Jefferson, to refute slavery as the cause of the Civil War, to continually insist that America was founded as a white Christian nation. Consider their opposition to evolution and climate change. In 1984, the very idea of history and science, and of objective reality, has been expunged, politicized to the point of losing all meaning. What is true or not true is based on the dictates of Big Brother, which is how 2 + 2 = 5.

Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party […] Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. 

p. 222

While the relative nature of truth may seem absurd, at first, Orwell’s antagonist argues the point with such twisted logic, he almost convinces the reader. After all, how can we be certain that 2 + 2 = 4? Or that George Washington was America’s first president? Or that the year is really 2017? Or that the Earth is round? Everything we know or think we know was taught to us in a school, and public schools are government institutions. The same paranoid sentiments are echoed today by the Flat Earth Society, who accuse teachers of brainwashing children with the “globe theory.” And while we can make simple observations to determine the shape of our planet for ourselves, it is easy to see how everything we believe could turn into a matter of politics, particularly if we are forced into a left or right leaning bubble, wherein lies become omnipresent.

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient […] to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies …

p. 191

Considering the book was written in 1949, it is remarkably prescient when looking at how carelessly Trump lies, and how his adherents are expected to deny or to accept objectifiable truths. We have never seen a political movement like this before. It has given rise to anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-vaxxers and the Flat Earth Society. At this very moment, the Trump administration is robbing us of our health care, our clean air and water, and every institution established to help the sick and the needy. They threaten anyone who stands beyond their control: the free press, the scientific community, any and all educated “elites” who disagree with them. All the while, those who voted the administration into office stand to lose the most, and yet they are convinced that every action taken by Trump and his cronies is for their own good, that while big government is the enemy, it also, paradoxically, represents their own interests.

All that was required of them [the lower classes] was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations.

p. 63

Orwell called this doublethink, holding two contradictory beliefs in your mind simultaneously. So while millions of the poorest Americans will lose their health care, it’s all for the best, because the government says so. In this nation, facts are ceasing to matter. You can no longer argue objective reality because reality has been politicized. Stating that a million people attended Trump’s inauguration, or that hundreds of thousands of voters were bussed-in from other states to vote illegally, is equivalent to two plus two equaling five. Evolution, climate change, even the shape of the Earth is being called into question. And so now I ask you, what year is it? Are we living in 2017? Or are we closer to 1984?

I can think of only three authors whose names have become adjectives: Shakespear(ean), Lovecraft(ian), and Orwell(ian). What greater mark on society can a writer hope to achieve? Without question, Orwell is deserving of his spot on this mantle. His brilliance is effortless, his writing without flaw. But more impressively, his insight into human nature, political philosophy and metaphysics and the interplay between them is without peer. 1984 is a timeless masterpiece. It is a story that, quite frankly, needed to be told. And it is as important today as it ever was, perhaps more so.

****

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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I feel that I owe J.K. an apology. I had always felt that her depiction of evil was a bit naive, 2-dimensional, “comic-booky.” I had long taken the liberal stance that real evil doesn’t exist, or if it does, it’s very, very rare. People are genuinely good, I thought, and genuinely want to do good things. A scene that stands out in my mind is from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, wherein the titular character, a Nazi industrialist, tells the soldiers working in his factory that they can shoot the Jews if they want to. He makes this announcement after the war is declared over. Before then, he had protected his workers from harm, despite his wearing a swastika pin. By asking the Germans to kill the Jews, and I paraphrase here, “if you want to,” he demonstrated the basic goodness of humanity, because no one in uniform acted of his own accord to commit murder. That, I believed, is the reality. Hitler brainwashed his people first before using fear and intimidation to carry out his misdeeds. Aside from Himmler and Goebbels and Mengele and other SS officials, few Nazis were actually evil. In my own The Princess of Aenya, the villain, Zaibos, creates an atmosphere of perpetual dread to exert control. So when, in the Potter films, devotees by the hundreds come out in support of Voldemort, it felt somewhat implausible. It wasn’t as if Voldemort had had some stranglehold over the wizarding community. On the contrary, Death Eaters in hiding went out of their way to serve him. The transition within the Ministry of Magic was jarring. In no time at all, every position of power, including Headmaster of Hogwarts, was filled by followers of the Dark Lord. Where were the institutions to prevent this from happening? How did the good wizards get so quickly pushed underground and into a role of resistance? This was pure melodrama, Ms. Rowling, and poor writing. Or so I thought.

Then of course, it happened in the real world. Now I am sorry if you’ve read thus far and you’re a Trump supporter (and really, did you get nothing out of the Potter books?), you can click the X in the corner or leave me an angry comment, but the way I see it, the takeover of the current administration perfectly mirrors the way in which Voldemort and his cronies seize the wizarding world. What has startled me isn’t how evil and inept Trump is, but rather, the sheer number of his followers who are racists, misogynists, homophobes, and outright hate mongers, people only too happy to throw away their freedoms to ally themselves to a greedy conman. At breakneck speed, we have come to the edge of dictatorship, and Trump isn’t even to blame. He is far too stupid to have manipulated anyone or anything. Rather, it was the people that gave him power. This recent turn in history has helped me to understand that Hitler didn’t make the Nazi Party, it was the Germans who harbored a hatred of Jews and a love for authoritarianism. Likewise, I now realize just how brilliantly J.K. Rowling portrayed Voldemort’s rise to power, because, even as far back as her second book, The Chamber of Secrets, Voldemort’s followers were there, hiding in the shadows, manifesting themselves in the fathers of Draco and Crabbe and Goyle

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Do these guys look familiar?

 

So what does this have to do with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? Not much. But I will say my criticisms for The Cursed Child are applicable to this book, in that Fantastic Beasts… is not a novel but a screenplay, and screenplays are meant to be watched, not read. I had so hoped that J.K. would put the same effort into this series as she had Harry Potter, but she may be burned out. I know I would be after writing seven novels! Still, most Potterheads will agree that the movies are inferior, due to the wealth of information the books contain. Film is a limited format, bound by two to three hours’ running time, whereas there is just so much more storytelling you can fit on the page. For Fantastic Beasts…, which was written for the screen, the process should work in reverse. The book should provide more information, to give readers a reason to pick it up. Some adaptations, like for the Star Wars prequels, actually do this. There is a chapter describing how Shmi Skywalker was kidnapped by the Tusken Raiders in Attack of the Clones, which you never see on screen. Unfortunately, there is nothing like this to be mined from the Fantastic Beasts… screenplay. Honestly, I would say that if you’ve seen the movie, there is no reason to go out and buy the book.

 

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How ’bout now?

As for the story, it’s quite a simple adventure, featuring a dozen creatures straight from J.K.’s furtive imagination, which are all better portrayed visually, and a lot more interesting than the protagonists. Newt and company can’t hold a deluminator to Harry, Ron and Hermione. But what stood out for me, in the grand scheme of her connected universe, is a subplot involving an evil wizard briefly mentioned in the Potter books. Grindelwald was the original holder of the Elder Wand, until he was defeated by a young Dumbledore. It may be that here, J.K. is showing us how history repeats itself, knowing how Tom Riddle follows in Grindelwald’s nefarious footsteps. What might make this villain more interesting, however, and more relevant to our time, in the book, Grindelwald gives a short speech regarding the inferiority of muggles, his sentiments echoing those of real-world “wizards.” And with Rowling tweeting daily against the abuses of right-wing ideologues, it would not surprise me to see life imitating art imitating life.

The Hub of All Worlds

There is this crazy theory that’s been rolling around in my head for quite some time. It’s the idea that, given enough time and space, all fictions are non-fiction. Take your favorite book or movie, The Lord of the Rings, Harry PotterStar Wars. Somewhere, at some point in time, these things must have happened. I know I know, call the men with the white jackets, but hear me out for a sec.

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A growing number of astrophysicists have been arguing in favor of the multiverse theory, which states that there may be more than one universe, and in all likelihood, an infinite number of them. Neil deGrasse Tyson has stated that every time humanity thought there was only one of something, one Earth, one solar system, one galaxy, we were wrong. So why stop at one universe? The multiverse theory helps to explain a number of astronomical enigmas, including the origin of the Big Bang, the identities of dark matter and dark energy, and the inexplicably rapid expansion of space. One needs only ask, if our universe banged into existence, from where did it originate, if not some nether region beyond itself? If it is expanding, like a balloon, what space is it expanding into, if not some outer-outer space? What is perhaps still more interesting, if there is in fact more than one universe, astrophysicists argue, it is very well possible that each of these are governed by physical laws different from our own. If the gravitational constant deviated to the slightest degree during the early formation of the cosmos, stars may not have formed, and without stars you cannot have planets, or life. Life may be unique not just to our planet but to our universe as well. But if the multiverse has no boundaries, there would have to exist an infinite number of universes containing life, and in every conceivable form. Consider the limitless ways in which subatomic particles can come together, and the possible arrangement of atoms that follow, and the DNA strands constituent of those atoms. If these quantities are infinite—and only if they are infinite—some random Big Bang would create the right conditions for some random planet to randomly form Westeros from Game of Thrones, and the myriad details those books contain. Not only that, but we would also have a Westeros where things are slightly skewed, where Ned Stark doesn’t get beheaded, even one where everyone lives happily ever after. There would exist so many possible Westeroses, that finding the one you are look for would be as impossible as finding any Westeros, and by impossible, I mean it would take you an infinite number of years. This is the problem with the number infinity. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, even for mathematicians, and it makes for some profound if not absurd proofs. There are several other problems with this theory as well:

 

  1. There may NOT be a multiverse at all. According to Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, one universe is all we need, and everything about the Big Bang and its consequent expansion can be explained by our current understanding of physics.
  2. If the multiverse does exist, it may not be infinite.
  3. The only number that can mathematically affect infinity is infinity itself. So all the kids at the playground one-upping you with, “infinity +1” are wrong in thinking their number is bigger. Infinity +1 = Infinity. Infinity -1 = Infinity. Heck, Infinity minus a googolplex is still Infinity. I bring this up only because, in the previous paragraph, I made the assumption that where time and space are infinite, variation is not. Imagine I left you alone with a certain number of LEGO blocks, and I gave you until forever to arrange those blocks any way you wanted. Eventually, every car, house or boat you could possibly make, you would. However, if I were to give you an infinite number of LEGOs, you could not arrange them in every way possible, no matter how long you tried, as these two infinities would cancel each other out. Infinity – Infinity = 0. Now, replace LEGO blocks with atoms, and you get the same result. Given a limitless number of ways a universe could exist, we might never, ever produce Westeros.

 

Now let’s assume, for the sake of this thought experiment, that a multiverse definitely exists, time and space are indeed infinite, but there are just so many ways atoms can be ordered. Given these statements, we still run into the problem of infinity itself, because, as stated before, even if there is a Westeros somewhere, or a Middle Earth or a Hogwarts, we most likely could never, ever find it. Even after a million years of technological and biological evolution, having built starships to make the Enterprise look like a wheelbarrow, we still would never be able to find our favorite fictional world out there, though we might be able to prove, mathematically at least, that those worlds exist.

In his short story, The Library of Babel, Argentinian Sci-Fi author Jorge Borges imagines an infinitely-sized library, containing not just every book ever written, but every book that could ever be written. The people perusing the library seek to find books containing a record of their own lives, but given the nature of large numbers, they never do.

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The Library of Babel

From a pragmatic standpoint, such metaphysical-mathematical musings are a waste of time. If we can never know, why bother? We could make the same case for a much more plausible scenario. At this very moment, as you are reading this, some alien being is reading a near identical theory, in a thriving civilization on the opposite side of the universe, some 13 billion light years away. Even if we could freeze ourselves in a starship, to travel for that length of time, the alien civilization would certainly fizzle out by the time we got there. In fact, after 13 billion years, entropy would eliminate all trace of any such civilization having ever existed. Its star could go supernova and the gases surrounding it could reform into a new star and a new system before our arrival. If that weren’t enough, after 13 billion years, the rate of the expanding universe will exceed the speed of light, so even if we were to travel as fast as any particle can go, we would still never, ever meet our alien neighbors on the opposite side of our universe, or even find evidence of their existence. They would be as elusive to us as non-fictional Westeros. William James, founder of pragmatism, would likely argue that, if no evidence can ever be presented of something being true, it is equivalently untrue.

Not so fast, William James, because here is where art comes in, to exceed the limits of math and science and philosophy. For while we may never be able to literally travel to our favorite fictional worlds, we can get there instantaneously, using the vessel that is the human mind. This is what we do whenever we think. Or use our imaginations to create worlds. Authors, painters, video game developers, and the like, are all in effect explorers, and the space in which they explore is that of probability (in Sci-Fi) and possibility (via fantasy). Now it may appear that I have made a kind of logical fallacy, an argument from semantics. Fiction is something we consider to be untrue, because we can’t ever really know if it’s untrue, or, in other words, we believe something is false only because we can’t know whether it’s true. For a writer, however, this need not be a matter of contention. Writers do not seek absolutes, after all, but uncertainties, and to some extent, falsehoods. By entertaining metaphorical realities, we give fodder to those seeking literal realities. And even then, what exists solely in the mind possesses its own inherent value. At the very least, this thought experiment can help us rethink and reassess the purpose of creativity, and how it can play a larger role in the big questions posed by science and philosophy.

The realm of possibility and probability, where fiction and non-fiction dance around one another, is a place I like to call The Hub of All Worlds. It is an imaginary center, similar to Cosmos’ spaceship of the imagination, from which we can traverse the multiverse. And, while the theory that everything is true, given sufficient time and space, may not have any real-world applications, it makes for good storytelling.

2016 is Over (Finally) Year in Review

As of this writing, most of humanity is still alive. But there’s still time. So far, we’ve lost Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds (her mother), George Michael, Watership Down author Richard Adams, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s dad. Proving we are all living in a computer simulation, or as I prefer to think of it, in some author’s imagination, George Michael dies on Christmas Day, and is known for the song, “Last Christmas.” Fisher played Princess Leia, a character whose mother, Padme Amidala, dies of a broken heart, then Fisher’s actual mother, Debbie Reynolds, goes and dies of a broken heart. If that’s not proof enough, our government is hijacked by a KKK-approved fascist propped up by a Russian dictator (yes, I went there, fuck you) closely imitating Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. At this point, we’ll be seeing Game of Thrones-style dragons in 2017.

But there’s also been a lot of good this year. I finished The Princess of Aenya, found a fantastic editor for my first Aenya book, and a new artist for the cover of said book. So, if Trump doesn’t trigger the Apocalypse, we should be seeing Ages of Aenya on sale sometime next year. Or, if he does, maybe the adventures of the Ilmar will provide comfort to those hunkering down in their bomb shelters without electricity. With electricity, well … who the hell wants to read when there’s PS4?

As for The Writer’s Disease, I feel this blog has begun to run its course. Most of what I have wanted to say, about writing, fiction, naturism, religion—has been said. I could go on, of course, into the never ending minutia of literary analysis, review another million authors, continue to share my radical views on naturism. But the thing is, I’ve never wanted to be a blogger. To run a successful blog, you have to focus on something. Video game blogs, movie blogs, naturist blogs, all see more traffic than mine. When I wrote Why Don’t We Live in a Perfect (Nude) World, it was shared 4,500 times on Facebook. I was invited to write for a naturist related magazine and a newspaper. My reaction? I quit writing about naturism.

All that has ever really mattered to me is storytelling. I’d rather be the late-great but lesser known Richard Adams than a YouTube star with a million followers. I’d rather pull the heartstrings of a single reader in earnest than lure thousands with some click-bait bullshit. And to that end, blogging is a dead-end. My time is better spent in fiction. Alas, writing is a lonely endeavor, and I must learn to embrace solitude.

This doesn’t mean I am quitting altogether. Every now and then, a topic will come along to compel me onto my soapbox. The free will debate is a recent example. But you won’t be seeing weekly updates when there are adventures to be told. Without doubt, you will also be receiving updates on The Children of Aenya.

Now, without further ado, here are my favorites from 2016:

 

The Fantasy Writer’s Dictionary: Too often, when you’re reading a book like Game of Thrones, you come across a word like wain or postern that simply doesn’t register. To give an impression of historicity, fantasy authors lean on archaic nouns and verbs, many excised from the OED. So I made this resource. Best part is, it’s a living post, to be updated as terms I don’t know cross my eyeballs.

The Nomad: A Love Story DLC: Dynotus wanders twenty years in the desert in search of his abducted fiancee. This is one of my earliest novels, from when I was in high school, a romance adventure set in a mythological world. Download it here for free in PDF.

The Destructive Power of Ego: If you want to succeed in writing and in life, it’s best to set ego aside. I discuss my struggles with self, with regards to my own person and those I have worked with.

The Princess of Aenya: This year saw the completion of my latest work. Here I offer the prologue and sample chapters.

The Aenya Bestiary: Updated to include the avian race, with new artwork!

DMT and D&D: I talk about drugs, tabletop role playing games, and the power of the human mind. What more do you need to know?

The Death of Truth: We seem to be living in a post-truth world. A gross number of people are no longer concerned with what is actually, demonstrably true, choosing, instead, to accept comforting delusions. This is a scary thing.

What is Free Will?: I challenge Sam Harris’ notion that free will is an illusion, and all such a philosophy implies.

 

 

Aenya News Update: 11/29/16

A few months ago, I put out a request for artists for the upcoming 2017 edition of Ages of Aenya. After a bit of vetting, by which we produced the Avian and Horde (below), I settled on the talented Zhengyi Yu.

I chose Zhengyi for his painterly style, which better suits a novel, I feel, than the more cartoony styles of my other, albeit equally talented artists. Mr. Yu also impressed me with his landscapes. When I see a book with some impossible, otherworldly terrain, it draws me in, igniting my imagination, and I hope to capture readers in the same way. More importantly, Zhengyi has been wonderful to work with, being attentive to my needs and more than willing to brainstorm and make changes. If you’re looking for a talented illustrator, look no further! Also, be sure to check out his awesome gallery at Zhengyi Yu

aoa2017cover

Thelana overlooking Hedonia

Here we find Thelana overlooking Hedonia. The massive pyramid temple of Sargonus eclipses the background. Depicting our heroine in her natural state, without triggering any censors, was a challenge. I wanted her in a normal looking pose, not too sexy or bashful, and without any comically placed leaves in the way. And she had to be dynamic, to show her power and fearlessness. She’s naked in a city of thousands and yet she does not feel vulnerable! That being said, Zhengyi and I are working on an alternate cover, with Thelana draped in her trademark jade cloak (hey, she gets cold sometimes). That way, you can read about the Ilmar on the subway without getting any weird looks!

OK, you may be thinking, all this is fine and good, but when can I read it? Glad you asked! As the old adage says, you can’t judge a book by its cover, and while I don’t believe this to be 100% true, story remains the most important thing, seconded only by the quality of the writing. Without those things in place, you can’t hope to sell a million copies, unless of course you’re writing bondage porn.

I’ve spent more than a decade building this world, its history and geography; fleshing out its races and its characters. Nine years alone I spent editing, as I ran a restaurant and helped my wife raise our two kids, but even the best of us need another set of eyes. If I could give myself amnesia, I could do it all myself. But it’s impossible to judge yourself objectively, to judge any story really in a non-biased way. Nobody can. But finding an editor you can trust isn’t easy. An author’s story is their baby. Giving it up, I am forced to wonder, will the editor tear it up for the sake of tearing it up? Will they maintain my voice? Avoid their own biases? This is a legitimate concern for me, as I’ve had professors try to “correct” my work in the most inane ways. One of my teachers actually suggested that the nun in my short story, Anna and the Devil, masturbate. After all, Satan can’t touch you so long as you abstain from carnal thoughts. His PHd, not surprisingly, was in religious studies.

Then I met Ava Coibion. Ava offered me a free sample edit, of my prologue, and we talked over the phone about our favorite writers, literary styles, and the best way to edit without encroaching on the author’s art. I found her to be intelligent and sensitive. And also, she had this to say,

 

Nick,

There are a thousand praises I could sing here, and with your permission, I’d love to at least give my friend Frank Beddor a sample of your novel to review, or perhaps put you in touch directly with him. But for now, here is the edit for Book One. I was determined to complete the work before Thanksgiving, in hope that you might have a little down time to review my suggested changes. In truth, I devoted this last week and a half solely to the completion of the edit, not because we are on a deadline, as I know you aren’t concerned with a timeline on this, but because I simply couldn’t stop! The prose is intelligent, poetic but often nicely spare/concise, and full of emotion. A true pleasure, and even if you don’t take me on for Books 2 and 3, I will read forward on my own because I simply must know what happens next . . .

Let me know what you think of my comments. I do think the final chapter could be split up into 2 or even 3 separate chapters.

All best,

Ava

 

I know I know, mere flattery. And I might be thinking the same thing, if it weren’t for the fact that, all of my beta readers have given me a similar response. Still, it’s great to get this from a professional, who no doubt has to trudge through literary swamps of poor storytelling.

So now, dear reader, you may be itching to get your hands on this bad boy. Well, the next step is working with Ava through the 170+k words, about 500 pages, until every “T” is crossed and “i” is dotted. Then I get to slap Zhengyi’s contribution over top of it, and last but not least, skedaddle on to the printers.

Ages of Aenya should be available sometime in 2017. In the meantime, my wife will be querying my latest effort, The Princess of Aenya, and I will be dutifully pursuing The Children of Aenya, the third book in the Aenya series, partly based on the Dungeons & Dragons campaign I have been playing with my friends and family these past two years. If you’d like to learn more about The Children of Aenya, and the game we are playing, feel free to join us on Facebook at The Hub of All Worlds.

 

 

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

My family and I are big Potter fans. One year, my daughter was Hermione for Halloween, and my wife went as Madam Hooch (she had the hat). We’ve also been to Hogwarts and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios, and incorporated our Wizarding World wands into our D&D sessions. Personally, I feel that J.K. Rowling’s epic is without peer, the only fantasy franchise that consistently holds up in terms of storytelling. So, you can see, I wasn’t about to pass up on the “8th installment of the story.” And yet, I was pretty skeptical going into it.

harrypotterfam

It’s Jaime Hyneman, Madam Hooch, Hermione and Baby.

Rowling hasn’t written a Potter book in many years, and I found her last effort, The Deathly Hallows, a bit of a letdown. Clearly, she meant for Hallows to round out the saga. Offering an 8th book felt like a nostalgia trip, or some vain Gilderoy Lockhart-attempt at getting back at the top of everyone’s reading list. Usually, those sorts of things don’t turn out well. Just look at Episode VII, a film fueled entirely by nostalgia, without a crumb of originality or inspiration. If that’s not enough to give one pause, consider the messy situation on the cover. Who, exactly, are John Tiffany and Jack Thorne? Alright, they’re playwrights, but how much of the overall story did they provide? Or did they simply give Rowling help on where to put the margins? More importantly, why is this even a play? I understand JK wanting to do something different, and being a proud Londoner, who wouldn’t care to experiment with theater? But here’s the rub, as Shakespeare put it, screenplays aren’t meant to be read other than by actors.

There is a reason some mediums don’t translate well into others. The Harry Potter books, for instance, make for better reading than watching, even though I greatly enjoyed the films. Still, the directors did what they could to finesse the dense plotting and thickly textured world in every book into roughly 2 1/2 hours running time. They cut whatever plot threads they could, leaving only the essentials, and they used special effects and model-building to bring the world to life. Now, when it comes to turning a screenplay into a novel, you have the opposite problem. Instead of cutting things out, a novelist needs to expand, give us details, to offer—in words—all the costuming and set dressing and stage effects we probably missed not sitting in a theater. When two wizards are having a duel, for instance, we need more than stage direction, we need to feel the action. This is what defines good writing, but screenplays simply aren’t made to provide this, and it’s a damn shame. If JK wanted to have her theatrical cake and eat it too, she needed to put in the effort to write a proper novel. In particular, the whole project is a shame because, unlike Star Wars, this new installment didn’t feel like an unnecessary cash-grab/add on. In fact, Rowling appears to have genuinely found some new inspiration here.

Starting into the Cursed Child, you immediately feel a sense of familiarity with the world and its characters. Despite a sparsity of description, we instantly recognize Harry and Ron and Hermione in the way they talk. We are again treated to some humorous, bumbling-side-kick Ron-moments, and are reminded of Hermione’s no-nonsense, stuffy yet endearing quirks. The Cursed Child also debuts the Potter children, though we are left to guess at the personality of Rose, daughter of Ron and Hermione, and learn almost nothing at all about James or Lily, Harry and Ginny’s kids. The whole story revolves, rather, around Potter’s youngest, Albus Severus Potter, and his best friend, Scorpius, son of Draco Malfoy. While there are flashes, here and there, that remind you of his famous father, Albus is his own person. Scorpius, despite his namesake, is actually quite tame, and not one bit like his dad, Draco.

What interested me most about The Cursed Child was Albus’ having to deal with his father’s legacy, even though, later in the story, his own journey through Hogwarts and the accidental adventures he embarks upon closely mirror those in the first few books. All the while, Harry is forced to deal with his past, as a 40-something father and employee at the Ministry of Magic. Much of the conflict surrounds this father/son dynamic and the miscommunication between them, and after being sorted into Slytherin House, Albus ends up feeling like a failure and a disappointment. Harry tries to steer him clear of the Malfoys, despite Scorpius being his only friend, and is confused when Albus doesn’t view Hogwarts as the magical refuge it was for Harry.

Now, if this sounds too much like a Lifetime drama, not to worry. The story picks up when the boys come across a Time Turner. Now, I’ve long argued JK switched gears halfway through the series, beginning with The Goblet of Fire, after the books became popular with adult readers. Many of the things in the earlier books, things that would otherwise seem absurd in adult fantasy, like giving a Hermione a device to go back in time just to take two classes at once, had to be explained or retconned away. The How-It-Should-Have-Ended YouTube series makes a great point in one of its videos, when Snape uses a Time Turner to go back decades to murder Voldemort as a child. Rowling seems to have realized her mistake by having all the Time Turners destroyed in book five, but she still failed to explain why they were kept in one place, where they came from, how they were built, or why a Death Eater couldn’t have simply made one of his own. I mean, if a schoolgirl can be given one for her studies, they can’t be all that rare. A lot of YouTube critics are lambasting the writer(s) for revisiting time travel in this latest installment, but if you’re going to take Rowling to task, you can’t give her a free pass for inventing them in the first place. Perhaps the problem was nagging at her (I know it would me) which got her to writing this book, because a good three-quarters of it deals with time travel. Cursed Child goes to great lengths, in fact, showing what havoc a Time Turner would cause, and it’s all great fun.

Now without getting too deeply into spoilers (you can stop reading here), I felt the story climaxed too soon, after Albus and Scorpius screw up the timeline enough to create an alternate reality, one in which things are really, really bad, let’s just say Dolores Umbridge bad. After that, the fourth act falls a bit flat. Story aside, a lot of the dialogue tended to get sappy and melodramatic, a remarkable shift from the subtle pathos contained in her earlier works. Consider the 11-year old boy quietly pining over his dead parents before the Mirror of Erised, to a forty-something father going on like this,

HARRY: I shouldn’t have survived—it was my destiny to die—even Dumbledore thought so—and yet I lived. I beat Voldemort. All these people—all these people—my parents, Fred, the Fallen Fifty—and it’s me that gets to live? How is that? All this damage—and it’s my fault.

—p. 269

Honestly, I wanted to slap this guy in the face. You’re a 40 year old wizard, for Dumbledore’s sake! Act like one! And here is the ultimate disappointment, the same disappointment I have with the series as a whole. The least interesting character, for me, has always been Harry himself, because he never takes the initiative. Things just happen to him and he reacts. This might have been acceptable when he was a child, and still learning, but after heading Dumbledore’s Army and mastering the Patronus Charm, I expected him to become the hero, to earn his name in all these titles, but he never lives up to it. Even as a much older man, Harry is inept, a subpar wizard at best. His constant whiny attitude also left me cold during his exchanges with his son. All the while, I found myself unexpectedly touched by Draco, of all people, who seems to have been transformed in Scrooge-like fashion into a pretty swell guy, who laments, at one point, that all he ever really wanted was a friend. Lastly, I feel Rowling lost much of her inventiveness after her sixth book, as there is nothing new to see here—no equivalent of Quidditch or Durmstrang of Chocolate Covered Frogs—to expand our understanding of her wonderful Wizarding World.

All this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. In fact, I found it quite hard to put down, being well told and engaging, with some clever moments and great characters. However, when placed alongside the others in the series, it falls to the bottom. This is the double-edged sword that is following up a much beloved classic, when, like Star Wars, the bar is set to the sky and expectations go unmet.

 

 

 

Martin Has a Heart: A Review of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”

Nick Alimonos I am here with my friend and partner in crime, David Pasco, to discuss George R.R. Martin’s new book, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. Now I think it’s safe to say that David and I have a slightly different outlook on Martin. While I don’t technically dislike the Game of Thrones series, or as it was known before the show, A Song of Ice and Fire, I tend to find it a bit long-winded and cynical. David, on the other hand . . . well, I’ll let you answer that.

David PascoI’m a huge fan. I totally got into the TV show before the books, but I enjoyed it so much I read the books literally because I was having such GoT withdrawals that I was willing to take whatever scraps of new information I could get (which turned out to be a feast in and of itself). I’ll admit it’s dark, but that doesn’t bother me much. I think war is dark in general. As far as your criticism that it’s long winded, I will concede to that. Sometimes it’s worse than others, but Martin is rarely succinct.

Nick Alimonos Right. Martin’s world is fascinating in its complexity, and he gets kudos from me for world building, what is probably the biggest and most complete world in the fantasy or any other genre. My two main gripes with him, specifically, are that he doesn’t seem to end things, and so many of his characters are unlikable. I mean, I loved Ned Stark like everyone else, because he was honorable and just. But then Martin cuts his head off, and we’re stuck reading about a lot of less than savory characters. I often thought, if he’d just stick to the Stark kids, John Snow or Robb or Arya (my favorite), I’d like it better. This is why I decided to pick up A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms after giving up halfway through A Storm of Swords. Since the novel takes place 100 years before GoT, I figured we might have an ending. Also, the main character, a knight named Dunk, is genuinely likable. And you follow his adventure throughout. So I was really satisfied with both of those things.

David PascoI think his Song of Ice and Fire novels are meant more in the same vein as movies with two parts than self collected volumes. I suspect when the final novel is written, we’ll have an end. I disagree about the likability of his characters though. I think the Stark kids are all quite likable, as are Tyrion, Brienne of Tarth, Ser Barristan, Jorah Mormont, etc. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but there are even some unlikable characters that you’ll end up rooting for even more than some of the ones I just mentioned. People change, and that’s the most enduring message of hope that one can give, in my opinion. That being said, I agree with your opinion of Dunk. I also like seeing Westeros in a post war period of relative peace, instead of in the middle of a war.

Nick Alimonos For whatever reason, Tyrion comes off better in the TV show. Maybe the actor, Peter Dinklage, brought something to the role. But I suppose if I’d stick it out, I’d learn to like Brienne and some of the others. I guess I just really like the heroes. This book focuses entirely on Dunk, which is short for Duncan, and he is a knight with a true sense of honor. I also liked his squire, Egg. They seem to have a genuine caring relationship, father-son or older brother-younger brother, that really touched me, proving, I guess, that Martin does indeed have a heart!

David PascoI agree with your assessment of Dunk and Egg. I think one thing that really impressed me with this book was seeing the history of two almost mythic characters. In GoT they refer to Egg a lot as the last good king the Seven Kingdoms had (he was father to The Mad King). Dunk, we know, will grow up to be the Lord Commander of Egg’s Kingsguard, and will end up being something of a legend even among Lord Commanders, and a personal hero of sorts to Barristan Selmy (one of my favorite characters) and Jamie Lannister. It’s kind of fun to see someone so larger than life (pardon the pun) losing every joust he enters and thinking of himself as a generally inept individual. It’s quite humanizing.

Nick Alimonos  Yes, this is why I wanted to get your take on the book, because it really feeds into the GoT lore, and a has a lot to offer the hardcore fans. I did find myself wondering who Dunk and Egg were related to. I am happy to know Egg (or Aegon) grows up to be a good king. Again, I think Martin is showing his soft side, in that Egg turns out the way he does despite his Targaryen background. I imagine hanging out with a decent human being (Dunk) did the trick.

David PascoWell, to be fair to the Targaryen dynasty, they’re not all evil. There are a lot of great Targaryens. Unfortunately, madness runs in the lineage, most likely from all the inbreeding. Viserys and the Mad King both suffer from this, as does Aerion. He will eventually become king, and die because he drank wildfire believing it would transform him into a dragon. That being said, I think Egg’s father was well aware of the lack of prospect in his other sons, and had Egg squire with Duncan for exactly that reason. To his credit, it seemed to work great, and their friendship literally continues until the day the two perish, together I might add. Egg even names his first born son and heir after Dunk. Another interesting side note is that Brienne of Tarth is almost certainly a descendant of Duncan the Tall. Aside from having his size and strength, there is an old shield in the armory of Tarth bearing Dunk’s coat of arms, which Brienne used to visit often when she was a girl and would imagine being a knight. Jamie even asks Brienne once if she is “thick as a castle wall” when he is trying to apologize to her.

Nick Alimonos See, I think you liked it more because of your knowledge of the world. But even if you know nothing about Westeros, you can enjoy the adventure that it is. In fact, the book consists of three mini-stories, each of which have a satisfying conclusion, which gives me confidence that Martin can wrap all this (his saga) up.

David PascoI agree. I love things that can be read on multiple levels. If you have no idea who Martin is, and you look up this book, there are three great stories about two genuinely likable characters, and the rich world they live in. If you’re a somewhat rabid GoT fan, you’ll get that, but also hints into the rich tapestry of the history of Westeros. I think life is an awful lot like that, which is why I enjoy it when fiction follows suit.

Nick Alimonos Now, sometimes I feel Martin tends to pigeonhole himself. He isn’t the most inventive or imaginative writer. His world resembles mostly medieval Northern Europe (and yes, I remember some of his Oriental excursions, like Qarth). That being said, he really owns that time period. His description of knight life (pun unintended) and jousting is just unparalleled. It’s both thrilling and, from my studies of history, very accurate.

David PascoI think there are very few truly original ideas. Martin keeps me guessing, and he’s a compelling writer, so I’ll keep coming back for more. I think I’m going to hit the library up for The World of Ice and Fire next, which is basically a Westeros history book. That level of interest says a lot about the compelling world he has created.

Nick Alimonos This is true, regarding original ideas. I have written a lot about cliches, and how a cliche is only that to those who are familiar with it. If you read a lot about zombies, you might get sick of it, and start to view it as an overused cliche. For many, I am sure, Martin is quite original. While he tends to dabble in many tried and true literary devices, he often does new things with them, and expands on them in ways we’ve never seen before. That being said, do you have any complaints, about this book specifically?

David PascoVery minor ones. I wish there was slightly more character development. Dunk and Egg are almost the same people by the end of the book as they are in the beginning, you know what I mean? Also, while I loved the illustrations more than I ever expected to, the way they drew Egg bothered me. They made him much too effeminate in my opinion, and almost like a pixie. It takes away from the overall mood. What about you?

Nick Alimonos I loved the artwork. It made me insanely jealous. And I know how incredibly expensive that can get. It seems almost as if Martin wanted to make up for the “clip-art” covers from his earlier books. But in all reality, I suspect the publishers wanted a spin-off to GoT and figured they couldn’t charge $30 for a 150 page novel. The artwork, which is showcased on almost every other page, greatly extends its length. And given the popularity of the franchise, there’s no way a publisher was going to lose out on that investment. I really like the way Egg was drawn, like a very young, frail kid, who needed protection from this very strong, very big guy. It provided a nice contrast between them. I agree there wasn’t much of a character arc, but that didn’t bother me. Not every story needs one. It felt like Martin was going for a pulp-fiction, serial adventure feel, something along the lines of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and you know how I am a big fan of that stuff.

David PascoIt definitely has a more pulp fiction vibe. As you know, my favorite author writes a lot of pulp fiction type stuff, but even in that, there seems to be more character development. Overall, though, these are VERY minor complaints.

Nick Alimonos Do you have a favorite scene or part in the book?

David PascoThe Trial of the Seven. Baelor Breakspear was so likable, and I loved seeing everyone band together for Dunk. It was such an inspirational scene, even if it ended poorly, and it gave Dunk an almost Spiderman like quality afterwards. What about you?

Nick Alimonos That was great stuff. There was even a bit of humor in it. I loved the part where the guy with the apple sigil (of House Fossoway) sides with Dunk in the joust against his Fossaway uncle, and just paints his apples green instead of red, to differentiate himself. Also, in classic Martin fashion, one of the knight’s brain falls out after he removes his helmet! He’d been killed in the joust and didn’t even know it!

David PascoI really love the level of import Martin puts on a family’s coat-of-arms. He manages to convey so much through that.

Nick Alimonos I agree. Although I kept getting confused as to who was who. Even in this, much shorter and simpler book, I needed a chart just to keep track of everyone.

David PascoI agree with you there. It takes some doing, especially in the third story. I think Martin can be quite confusing in that regard.

Nick Alimonos I guess it gives it more of a real world feel, because, just like in life, we don’t fully comprehend everything going on around us.

David PascoTrue. I think the end result is worth the investment of energy, too.

Nick Alimonos OK, so, I rate books on a scale of one to four. How do you want to call it?

David PascoI’d give it four stars easily. None of the problems I have are anywhere near bad enough to make it three or even three and a half stars. You?

Nick Alimonos So, four stars being the highest possible rating you could rate a book, you’d give it a four?

David PascoTo be fair, I think a four star rating system makes for a limited variance in grading. If you scaled it up, it might be lower, but so would many books. You know what I mean?

Nick Alimonos I give room for half stars. Want to give it a half star less?

David PascoI think I’m going to stick with four. My problems with the book were so minor, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What more can you ask for?

Nick Alimonos Yeah, I tend to be a tougher critic. I give it a solid three.

David Pasco What were your problems with it?

Nick Alimonos I didn’t have any, really. I like to judge things more on the positives and focus less on the negatives. So, while the story didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, there is a lot it could have done that it didn’t. For instance, I wasn’t really moved emotionally, nor did it make me think too much. Not that every book needs to do those things.

David Pasco I can see your point. Aside from the trial I described, I didn’t feel much either.

Nick Alimonos Well, I think that pretty much wraps things up! Thanks for talking to me today!

David Pasco Thanks for suggesting I read this book.

 

 

The Giver

Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel was awarded the John Newberry Medal for outstanding children’s literature, though I found it too uneventful and dark for my 11 year old daughter, even after we agreed to add it to our summer family reading list.

The Giver reminded me of other dystopian books, like A Brave New World1984, and The Hunger Games, but mostly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s superb heart-wrencher, Never Let Me Go. Unlike The Hunger Games, it starts off slowly and uneventfully. All of the dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and there is quite a bit of exposition, which made me think the writing was amateurish. It is also quite dry, but that simplicity makes it easy to read. In fact, I got through about 120 pages in a day. This is the only aspect that is apt for kids.

At first, Lowry’s community comes across as a kind of utopia, devoid of violence, hunger, or suffering of any kind, though I was immediately struck by something being not-quite-right, which becomes increasingly unnerving the further you get into it. I couldn’t help but feel I’d rather be dropped anywhere else, the maze in the Maze Runner, or even Harrenhal. By the halfway mark, I genuinely hated the world of The Giver, and what at first looked like a flaw in Lowry’s writing, you come to understand is intentional. The people talk unnaturally because they are anything but natural.

While it’s hard to criticize a book that keeps your eyes glued to the page, I often found myself asking why. How does it manage to grip me, when all of the characters, including Jonas, the protagonist, are flat and uninteresting? The setting is unimaginative, even for a dystopian novel, and very little happens. Lowry does, however, tackle some deep philosophical and sociological issues, though what, exactly, she is trying to convey is hard to determine. Much of The Giver deals with issues of individuality and freedom and security, and the interplay between them. Is it better, for instance, to surrender emotions like love, if you could also rid the world of hate? Is it worth giving up choice, where we go to school, who we marry, what we choose to do for a career, if we can end poverty and hunger and war? It’s pretty heady stuff, and a bit too much, I feel, for younger readers, but not quite as impactful as A Brave New World. There are moments when Lowry tugs at the heartstrings, but I was never so moved as I was by Never Let Me Go, which dealt with many of the same subjects, but in a subtler and more poignant way.

Hills? Snow? Colors? Music? Abortion? Check out the podcast below, where my wife and I delve deep into these topics (with spoilers!) in The Giver.

 

The BFG

To get my daughter to take a break from Pokemon Go this summer, my wife insisted she read a total of three books, and not just the comics she loves (Dork Diaries, anything by Raina Telgemeier) but something appropriate to her grade level (she is entering middle school this year). So I suggested on a pact. My daughter, my wife, and I would each pick a novel, a total of three, and share our thoughts about them when we were finished. My wife chose The BFG, because, I think, of the recent trailers for the Steven Spielberg film; I picked The Giver; and my daughter, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (for obvious reasons).

Roald Dahl is best known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was a favorite film of mine growing up. I also liked the Tim Burton version, but not as much. He also wrote The BFG, which is, without question, a simple story written for kids. There are only two main characters to speak of, Sophie, a little orphan girl, and a twenty-four foot giant who simply goes by the name of The BFG (Big Friendly Giant). Even for children, the story is a bit straightforward, with very few surprises, aside from some unexpected gruesomeness. Everything turns out pretty much as you might expect, though that may not hold true for younger readers. Even so, I found plenty to enjoy in The BFG.

Dahl’s writing is economical and direct, so that the pages just fly by. Never once did I feel it was a chore to get through, and the plot itself consists of enough tension and intrigue to keep readers of all ages engaged. The author also likes to make up words, lots and lots of nonsensical words. Dahl is arguably the undisputed king of onomatopoeia-like wordplay. In many ways, I was reminded of Mary Poppins. Much of what happens in the story is utterly absurd. But in this way, the book possesses a child’s-eye charm, Dahl’s work being less fantasy and more of what I like to call surrealist fiction, more Alice in Wonderland than Harry Potter. Unlike Poppins or Alice, however, which unfold as a series of loosely connected events, The BGF keeps to a single narrative, with a definite beginning, middle and end. There are no trivial, throw-away chapters here. That being said, the ending struck me as something written not by a renown author, but by a kid. I imagine the author sitting with his daughter or granddaughter, asking her how he should complete his novel. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you, as I feel it added to the book’s absurdist charm.

While The BFG isn’t quite on the level of The Never Ending Story or even Charlotte’s Web, I enjoyed it more than Alice in Wonderland or Mary Poppins, and a lot more than A Wrinkle in Time. With a story like The BFG, a lot depends on age, and I would guess that it is likely to appeal more to children under nine. Then again, what do I know? I’m just a jaded, 40 year old writer. So let’s see what my 11 year old, Jasmine, had to say.


WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

Nick: Jasmine, how did you like The BFG?

Jasmine: I liked it. I like how The BFG bottled dreams and blew them into children’s bedrooms. Also, how he was able to mix dreams together to make new ones.

Nick: Yes, it was a lot of fun reading about those dreams. Dahl seems to have a great mind for the absurd. Which was your favorite?

Jasmine: I liked the dream about the boy who pressed his bellybutton and turned invisible. His parents kept freaking out because they couldn’t see him!

Nick: Yeah, that was a good one. But I have to go with the kid who wrote a book that people literally couldn’t stop reading. Pilots were crashing planes because they were too busy reading it, and surgeons were doing surgery while reading it. Those dreams were a nice addition to the story, but it begs the question as to why The BFG collected them in the first place. The author never really tells you.

Hynde (my wife): I wasn’t crazy about that part either. I was bothered by a lot of the logical inconsistencies. For instance, the giant kidnaps Sophie, because she is the only person (in hundreds of years) to have ever seen him. I guess I found that a bit implausible. Also, according to the story, giants eat people (adults and kids) on a nightly basis, but this goes largely unnoticed by the public.

Nick: I agree with the logical issues, but it didn’t bother me much, I think because I was reading it as something written not only for kids, but by a kid. The questions you raise are ones children typically don’t ask, or don’t care to have answered. Also, since a lot of the book focuses on dreams, I half expected the “it-was-all-just-a-dream” ending. Typically, these are the worst kinds of endings, but in The BGF, it might actually have worked. At any rate, the story had a dream-like quality to it, where things don’t really make sense, especially toward the end. Did any of that bother you, Jasmine?

Jasmine: Not really.

Nick: So, what was everyone’s favorite part?

Jasmine: The dreams!

Hynde: I like how The BFG created a nightmare for the Queen of England, so that she would become aware of the giants who were eating kids. That was clever.

Nick: Yes, that was good stuff, and I’d like to add how surprisingly gruesome the whole “eating of children thing” was. I can’t imagine a publisher today accepting such a premise for a kid’s book. It reminded me a lot of Grimm’s fairytales, where Cinderella’s sisters are cutting off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. As my favorite part, I loved it when they went to look for giant country, and the helicopter pilots realized they had flown “off the atlas.” They were pointing at a blank page, saying, “we must be somewhere here.” That kind of nonsense is something Dahl does really well, and it lets you know not to take the book too seriously (or literally). I also love Dahl’s puns, especially when The BGF tells the Queen how the other (evil) giants had gone to Baghdad to “bag dad”—after they had eaten a father along with his family!

 

Final Score (Out of Four Stars)

Nick: **

Jasmine: ** 1/2

Hynde: * 1/2