Category Archives: story

Books about stories and the way stories work.

Review 195: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, on the meaning of life, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” Frederich Nietzche said, “If we possess a why of life, we can put up with almost any how.” And Stephen King wrote, “Life sucks, then you die.”

It’ll take a far better philosopher than I to really look at this book from an existentialist viewpoint, but I strongly suspect that it would be a lot of fun to do. After all, one of the major questions that philosophy – and existentialism in particular – tries to address is that of why we are here. What is our purpose in life? What, in the end, does it all mean? For us out here, that’s a question we can’t really know the answer to, and thus a whole branch of philosophy exists to tell us that it doesn’t really matter. That maybe we don’t have a purpose imposed upon us from outside, but that’s okay. We can create our own. We can contribute our own verses to the powerful play of life, as Whitman would have it, and in the end we are responsible for our own lives.

For this guy, going out of existence is probably more important…

But what if we weren’t? What if there was a being that orchestrated our lives, willing them into – and more importantly out of – existence? What would you do with the realization that your life is not entirely your own? And even worse, the realization that the person in control of it doesn’t really care all that much about you?

That is the problem faced by Ensign Andrew Dahl of the Universal Union flagship Intrepid. It is the 25th century, and things couldn’t be better. He has a chance to see new worlds and new civilizations, to boldly go… Well, you know the rest. Dahl is at the frontier of science and exploration, and is determined to make the most of it.

If he survives.

Alone among the ships of the UU, the Intrepid loses crew at an alarming rate. Dahl soon discovers a fact that has been known for years by those crew members who are bright enough to spot the pattern: people who go on away missions with the command staff will, almost inevitably, die. Toxic gasses, killer machines, Borgovian land worms – these are just a tiny sampling of dangers that have done in ensigns and miscellaneous crew for years, and no one seems to know why. All they can do is make sure they’re not in the room when the Captain comes in, looking for someone who’ll pop down to a planet’s surface to find out why that mining colony hasn’t reported in recently.

Nope, he’s going to die too.

Dahl, of course, just can’t let himself and his friends die, so he begins digging into the true nature of their lives on the starship Intrepid. What he discovers is a truth almost too mad to be believed: their lives are not their own. A greater power is directing events on the Intrepid, dictating who lives and who dies, and that greater power doesn’t seem to be very good at what it does. So Dahl and his friends have to bet everything on the power of the Narrative, meet their makers and try to find a way to secure their freedom. Or, failing that, a way to see to it that their lives have more meaning than they had before.

As always with John Scalzi, I recommend picking this up. It’s a very fast read – I finished it in under a day – and it has the tight combination of humor, thoughtfulness, and genuine emotion that I have come to expect from his work. From a premise that is incredibly simple – “The crew of a starship realize they’re doomed if they go on away missions and try to change their fate” – he’s built up a multi-layered exploration into the meaning of life and death. The universe he’s given to us is one where people are denied the ability to give meaning to their own lives, and have to rely on an unseen force to do it for them. The fight, then, is to acquire that ability to decide. To gain agency, as it were. They want to be able to control their own existence so badly that they risk their existence entirely.

The corollary, then, is very simple: what are you doing with your life? We, the readers, have that agency. We can make decisions for our own lives and our own purposes. If we succeed or fail, we can do so knowing that we made those successes or failures possible. [1] In a sense, we don’t know how good we have it, something that is brought up in the second of three codas to the main novel. We can choose. We can create meaning in our lives without hoping that some higher power will do it for us. So why don’t we?

For a book that presents itself as a quick, fun read, there are certainly layers upon layers of meaning in it that could be a lot of fun to explore. The only complaint, really, is that it wasn’t long enough. And I don’t mean that he skipped essential scenes, or that he should have opted for a Tolkien/Jordan/Martin-esque style of describing every goddamn thing that showed up on the page, but there were points where I just wanted him to slow down a bit and let us appreciate the moments for what they were. There’s a scene in chapter 21, for example, that should be really emotional and meaningful, but it’s almost entirely dialogue. Good dialogue, yes, but I wanted to linger over it a bit, and that’s true for a lot of scenes in the book. Scalzi writes wonderful banter, and makes his characters sound real, but I want to see things as well as hear them.

Also, to be honest, I expected the last page to just be a picture of Scalzi at his computer, turning to the camera and winking. It would have been hilariously meta, but I guess he’s not as gimmicky as that.

Buy the book and enjoy it. If you’re a fan of Star Trek – which was, given the title, a huge inspiration for the story – you’ll no doubt appreciate it more than most. Even if you haven’t watched every episode of the original series, though, the Red Shirt character is one that has permeated all levels of fiction, and has died many times in order to advance the plots that you love so well. He even has one poor guy who’s not only a Red Shirt, but nearly at the end of his tour and about to get married. There was no way he’d survive. Take some time out for these poor, expendable bastards and give them a chance to shine.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with the song that Jonathan Coulton wrote for the book. Quiet, poignant, and touching. But also really funny.

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“The [Borgovian Land Worms] were in a frenzy. Somebody was now likely to die. It was likely to be ensign Davis.”
– from Redshirts by John Scalzi
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[1] There are plenty of external, uncontrollable factors, of course, which can all be lumped together under the term “luck,” but you know what I mean.

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Filed under existentialism, humor, John Scalzi, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, space travel, story

Review 150: Otherland 3 – Mountain of Black Glass

Otherland 3: Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams

This is easily my favorite book in the series, short though the series may be.

Otherland is a strange story, really – it’s like a hybrid science fiction/fantasy tale in that you can easily forget which genre you’re in. It’s clearly science fiction, in that the whole thing is taking place in a massive computer simulation, but on the other hand, it owes a lot to fantasy – especially the world-crossing aspects of it.

Our Otherland heroes have been trapped there for some time now, running through the system with very little understanding of where they are or where they’re going. The whole thing is run by a cabal of the world’s richest men and women in an attempt to foil Death itself, and was built as their eternal playground. Thus, there are countless worlds to choose from. There are places where you can re-live entire historical epochs, where you can fly in rivers of air or play in a cartoon kitchen. You can be a cowboy in the Old West or a Knight of the Round Table or anything that your mind can conceive – and your programmers can work out.

Not every virtual god is a good one, of course.

The complexity of this system is such that it is indistinguishable from real life. It is multi-sensory, so you get the full experience of actually being there, with none of the obvious CGI cues that we’ve come to expect from the virtual world. What’s more, the owners of the system have nearly godlike power within it. They plan to not only live forever, but have absolute power while doing so.

Two of these simworlds – one original, one derivative – are the reasons why this is my favorite book of the series. The original simworld (not based on any well-known work or historical event) is the House. After being betrayed by the assassin Dread, who has been masquerading as one of their number, Renie, !Xabbu, Martine, Florimel, T4b and Emily are stuck in a kind of… unfinished world. It’s a place where the programming hasn’t really been settled, and where the unreality of the whole thing can be deadly.

They manage to escape by following Dread to a new simulation – a great House that is, in itself, a world. It goes on as far as anyone knows, but is home to countless tribes and nations. Our heroes meet runaway lovers – a cutlery apprentice and a girl from the linen cabinets. They are aided by the Library monks, whose expertise encompasses everything from House history to the minute details of plasterwork. They are nearly killed by attic bandits and hunted by nomadic bands of steeplejacks.

You get them abducted by aliens, of course.

Aside from imbuing the House with a deep sense of history and complexity, Williams raises an important point that anyone who has ever played “The Sims” can recognize: what do you do when you start to empathize with a computer-generated being?

During their time in the House, they meet people who seem to be genuinely good, perceptive, interesting people, qualities that we don’t know how to confidently imbue in real humans, much less coded simulacra. The residents of the House have passions and dreams, they love and hate just as “real” people do. They can’t be written off as “just code,” because they don’t act that way. They help and hinder our heroes just as people out in Real Life might.

I don't know the answer, but this young... man seems interested in finding out.

This brings up an interesting ethical problem: while they can’t be sure what their ultimate goal will be, our heroes are pretty sure that the system will eventually have to be destroyed – as far as they know, it is the Otherland system that is keeping them trapped, and their loved ones in comas. Will doing this be, in essence, genocide? By shutting down the Otherland network to save the children in comas, and to save themselves, will they be condemning thousands – perhaps millions – of coded “people” to extinction? Are these “people” really people? After all, the Grail Brotherhood was planning to become immortal code themselves – would they be any less alive than their meat incarnations?

While this is not a problem that we have to grapple with yet, it’s one that may come up eventually. Tad Williams has done a very nice job in this series of predicting technological advancement, so he may have seen forward on this one, too.

The other simworld that makes this my favorite book is a derivative one. This means that it is based on an extant work, much like the Alice in Wonderland world that Paul Jonas goes to, or the bizarre cartoon kitchen from which Orlando and Fredericks had to escape. This world is one of the oldest stories there is, and was the first simworld to be created when the construction of the Otherworld began.

It is The Iliad.

Somehow, I don't have a Sim of Achilles. (Art by NegativeFeedback on DeviantArt)

I’ve read the original poem a few times, and I’m impressed with it every time. It’s a massive story, full of heroes and villains, bravery and treachery, and death. Lots and lots of death. It’s an epic poem, and it deserves the title, as it pits nations, men, and gods against each other in what is ultimately a tragic and terrible ten year war. For Tad Williams to use this as the climax for a novel is nothing short of audacious, but he pulls it off wonderfully.

Not only does he manage to keep hold of the terrible horror of war that Homer put throughout his poem, Williams integrates his characters into the story, putting them in the roles of key figures such as Achilles, Patroclus, Cassandra and Odysseus. They all want to get into Troy so they can find their way to the Black Mountain, but to do so they must go through the war that has served as the archetype for human conflict for the last few millennia. Their choices, freely made, reflect the choices of the characters they inhabit, which are themselves models for heroes of fiction throughout literary history.

In one wonderful scene, Sam Fredericks, who is inhabiting the character of Patroclus, is wondering what to do about her sick friend, Orlando Gardiner, AKA Achilles. He cannot fight, but the Argives need him, and throughout their long friendship as online gamers, it was always Orlando who was the hero. Sam was the sidekick, the buddy, but when you made the movie poster, Orlando’s character would always be in the middle of the shot.

But much like another Sam in another story, Fredericks knows that heroism isn’t just muscles and swords and snappy dialogue. It’s about doing what has to be done, even if you don’t want to do it. Nearly crippled by progeria, a debilitating childhood illness, Orlando has nonetheless continued to fight on in the Otherland. Now the hero cannot fight, and Sam realizes it’s the sidekick who has to pick up the burden. Thus, Sam unknowingly fulfills the destiny of the character she is portraying, puts on the shining armor of Achilles, and goes out to inspire the Argives to fight so that she and her friends might live.

Chocolate! It's full of chocolate!

The entire Troy sequence is amazing, and every time I read this book, I feel compelled to read The Iliad again.

But the series doesn’t end there, of course. Suffice it to say we hit a major climax by the end of this book. People are in danger, secrets are revealed, battles are fought… and one of our brave heroes makes the Ultimate Sacrifice. We are brought to the heart of the operating system, the Black Mountain which entombs the Other. The Grail Brotherhood sets their immortality sequence in motion, and the amoral killer Dread makes his bid for virtual godhood. Setting us up for the final book, we are left with our heroes in disarray – divided and lost, dropped into an entirely new environment that is beyond their understanding and forced to cooperate with their gravest enemies for their survival.

You may look at this book and think, “Holy cow. 924 pages. There is no way I’m reading 924 pages.” But you will, and it’ll go a lot faster than you think. Williams has done a great job of making a multi-layered, fast-paced story that you can enjoy on many levels. You can revel in the action and the mystery, you can ponder deep philosophical problems, or you can comb through the great attention to detail and see how much work he must have done to get the Trojan War sequence right.

Hats off to you, Tad Williams.

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“Jesus Mercy. There have to be easier ways than this to save the world.”
– Renie Sulaweyo, Otherland: Mountain of Black Glass
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
Mountain of Black Glass on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, existentialism, fantasy, friendship, Homer, internet, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, story, Tad Williams, virtual reality, world-crossing

Review 122: Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

When I started in on this book, I knew there were certain things I could expect from Neil Gaiman – insight, clever twists on literary assumptions, a good perspective on the nature of our reality. And, I must say, he delivered in full. This story draws from some of the most ancient of human tales and reflects on the most ancient of human needs – the need to have a story of one’s own. It’s a book about purpose and destiny, and other very deep subjects.

Yes - this man is hilarious.

What I didn’t expect was to spend most of the book laughing out loud and disturbing the people around me.

Seriously, there were some times when the other teachers in the staff room would stop whatever conversation they were having because they’d been interrupted by my cackling. Or the staff would come over and ask what was so funny, and I’d try to explain – which doesn’t really work when you’re trying to cross languages and literary traditions. People in Japan don’t really laugh out loud at their books, and can’t quite understand why I do. But I laugh. I snicker, I giggle, I cackle, and I never expected that from Neil Gaiman.

The book was, needless to say, wonderful. While by no means a sequel to Gaiman’s previous bestseller American Gods, it inhabits the same universe. This is a world where the gods exist – they’ve been called into existence by us and, in turn, shape our lives.

The book follows the unfortunately nicknamed Fat Charlie, whose life has been ruined by his father’s death across the Atlantic. This wasn’t the first time his father had ruined his life – it had happened many times before in many terrible ways. For Fat Charlie, however, dying in the middle of a karaoke hall just seems to be a final slap in Fat Charlie’s face.

Fat Charlie isn’t his real name, of course – his real name is Charlie Nancy, which isn’t much better. Fat Charlie is only a nickname given to him by his father. He tried to shake it in his life, asking people to call him Charlie or Charles or Chaz, and he wasn’t even fat – just a little soft around the edges. But his father gave names that stuck like gum to the underside of a school desk, and no matter where he went, Charlie Nancy inevitably became Fat Charlie.

You would think this would raise eyebrows in the delivery room....

The reason for this phenomenon, of course, is that Fat Charlie’s father is a god. He is Anansi, the Spider, a trickster god who managed to steal all the stories from Tiger back when humanity was young, and who managed to trick, deceive, swindle and humiliate nearly every other god and spirit there ever was. He was good at it, and there was nothing he wanted that he couldn’t get.

Fat Charlie was, in very many ways, a disappointment. Where his father was debonair, Fat Charlie was a klutz. Where his father could command the respect of men and women, Fat Charlie was a doormat. Where his father was the embodiment of confidence, Fat Charlie was a crumbly mess. I suppose it’s normal, really, being the child of a god, and not really his fault, even if he didn’t know it until his father was dead.

He didn’t know about his brother, either. His brother is Spider, a young man who is so cool that he can convince an entire L.A. party that they can walk on water. He can do real magic, step in and out of the world with ease, and carries his own bedroom with him. When Spider comes into the picture, everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. Think The Odd Couple, except that Oscar Madison has divine powers and absolutely no sense of consequence.

The story is a lot more than two brothers who don’t know how to get along. It’s a story – about stories. In the stories of Anansi and Tiger that are laced throughout the book, we learn that once, long ago, all stories were Tiger’s stories, and they were stories of fear and blood and hunger. When Anansi took them, the stories became about cleverness and trickery and resourcefulness. So in a way, the victory of Anansi over Tiger is the story of humankind’s emergence from barbarism.

Speaking of someone whose story has been re-written over and over. Anansi would like Spidey, though....

It’s about personal stories as well, and that’s a theme that’s far more important to us as individuals. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. Fat Charlie didn’t need to be the tightly-wrapped ball of embarrassment that he was. But that’s who he told himself he was, and, so, that’s who he became. Once he starts to accept his heritage and his responsibility to his family, once he starts to re-tell his own story, he changes himself. The same is true for Spider – he’s written his own story as a rake and a charmer, but he finds that that story is lacking. It’s a story that needs some editing, and he’s better off for it.

This is a funny, funny book that reminds me in places of Dave Barry, though that might be a side effect of the Florida settings. There’s also a few footnote jokes, so I suspect that Neil has been hanging out with Terry Pratchett recently. Despite the laugh-out-loud general tone of the book, there’s a lot of Meaning to be found as well – the meaning of story and song, of family, and why you should always be nice to spiders. And birds. Definitely be nice to birds.

The ultimate message of the book, though, is that you can always re-write your story. The weak little spider can become a conquering hero, and the fearsome tiger can be a timid coward. No story is set forever. So if you don’t like the way your story is turning out, get out your red pen and start editing. Anansi would approve.

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“People respond to the stories. They tell them themselves. The stories spread, and as people tell them, the stories change the tellers.”
Anansi, Anansi Boys

Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
Anansi Boys on Wikipedia
Anansi Boys on Amazon.com
Neil Gaiman’s homepage

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Filed under brothers, childhood, coming of age, death, family, fantasy, fathers, gods, humor, identity, Neil Gaiman, quest, sons, spiders, story

Review 84: Story



Story by Robert McKee

Why are there so many bad movies out there? I mean seriously – you and I both know that of all the films that are released every year, we probably get only one or two that are actually good. There’s some that are good enough to spend an afternoon watching, maybe enjoyable enough that we’ll want to watch it again on DVD later. But so many are just… bad.

It is my own fault, I think, for seeing Transformers 2. I have no one to blame but myself.

The really scary thing is that, in the summer of Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe, these were the best stories they had available. Seriously. If they had a better movie to make, one that would get a bigger audience and thereby bring in more money, don’t you think they would have made it? The only reason you put a piece of misery like TF2 together is because you have no better options available.

Why, then, should this be so? What happened to the great scripts of long ago? You know, back in my day, when we had good movies, dammit, and we didn’t need all this fancy See-Gee-Eye to fill up screen time. When we could go home quoting movie lines and we had characters that inspired us and stories that shaped our lives?

Well, it’s probably important to note that even in the Good Old Days, the good stories were still grossly outnumbered by the mediocre and bad ones, and there’s a very good reason for that: writing is hard.

If you take nothing else away from this book, you will remember that – writing a good story is work, and if you’re not willing to do the work that it takes, then you’re not going to write a good story. Oh, you might luck out and write a story that’s good enough, and there might be enough truly bad stuff out there that someone will be willing to publish or produce your “good enough” story. But that won’t make people like it, watch it, read it or care about it. If you want your work to have real resonance, to have an effect on people long after they’ve put it down or walked out of the theater, then you have to be willing to do more than just type a couple thousand words every day. You have to know your story from the inside out, know the characters better than they know themselves, and have a clear vision of what it is you want to say.

A good story, McKee believes, is the writer telling us “Life is like this.” And if it’s a good story, well-told, then we’ll believe him.

And that’s the reason for the title of this book – STORY. Everything serves the story, McKee says, including you. But if you know how the story works, and how to make the story serve your own ends, then you can create a piece that will live on in memory.

This book is not an instruction manual, and the things that McKee talks about are not rules or even guidelines. They are principles of storytelling, guiding ideas that underpin every good story ever told, and the lack of which are what leads to mediocre or even bad storytelling. If you follow these principles, McKee believes, keep them in your mind and be willing to work with them, then you’ll be able to produce work that will sell.

One of the examples that gets used throughout the book is the idea of the Gap. People who want something, you see, will usually do the minimum required to get that thing. So if I want to get into my friend’s home, I won’t bring my lockpicks and jimmy open the door. I’ll probably just knock on it and ask to be let in. If that happens, then I get what I expected to get, and that scene should therefore be cut from the manuscript.

What if, however, I knock on the door and my friend refuses to let me in? There is the Gap, a difference between what I expected to happen and what actually happened. Now I have to react to that, and his reaction to my reaction will drive the scene on. By asking yourself what the character expects, and then asking, “Okay – what’s the opposite of that,” you can drive the story along, make it interesting, and provide your characters with more to do than just knock on doors.

He also talks about the Controlling Idea of a story – what is the meaning of your story? It could be something like, “Love brings people together through adversity,” or “Those who use others lead meaningless lives,” or “The best life is one where challenges are overcome.” It is the spine of your story, the idea that holds everything together. By knowing what your story is really about, you can make sure that every scene, every chapter serves that end.

From the big ideas of characterization, symbolism and the Controlling Idea, McKee moves to structure and the true nuts and bolts of screenwriting – the beat/scene/sequence/act structure that governs a film and determines how the overall structure works. He looks at different movies and analyzes how the story is structured, both in regards to the main plot and any sub-plots (which are really good for propping up a slower second act), points out different ways to introduce the Inciting Incident of your story, where the climaxes and turning points might go, and how to get there and keep your audience interested.

There’s so much in the book, it really is like a handbook of story-writing. While it’s geared towards screenwriters, the principles of storytelling can apply to any medium. He does talk a little bit about other media as well, mainly in the section on adaptation. If you’re a playwright or a novelist, there’s lessons in this book that you can definitely use, while ignoring the exhortations not to try and put stage and camera directions into your screenplay.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again love of writing since I was a kid. There have been times when I wrote non-stop, putting out stories left and right. Not necessarily good ones, mind you, but writing nonetheless. And then there have been periods – like now, for example – where there are no stories that burn to be told. I miss it, honestly, but reading this book kind of stoked the flames a little. I got to thinking about old stories that I could revise, and a couple of ideas that I had consigned to the filing cabinet of my brain proved to be good guinea pigs for some of McKee’s principles.

Does that mean I’m on my way to literary superstardom? Not without a whole lot of hard work it doesn’t. Much like with Stephen King’s On Writing, one of the biggest lessons you get from this book is that creating a story of any quality requires hard, consistent work, and lots of it. McKee gives some good tips on the kind of writing process you should use to shorten the writing time – making more efficient use of your time and creativity, essentially – but at no time does he claim that making a good story is easy. What he does do, though, is make you believe that the hard work is worth doing.

As much as I would like to heap praise on McKee, though, there was something that stuck in my brain like a splinter when I read this. It’s a little thing, it’s a very nerdy thing, but it’s a thing nonetheless.

At various points in the book, in order to illustrate one principle of storytelling or another, McKee uses the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father. McKee is right in that it’s an excellent example of a perfect storytelling moment. At that instant, we re-think everything we’ve seen before with regards to Luke and Vader. We understand that Yoda and Obi-Wan weren’t necessarily worried that Luke needed training just to be a good Force user – they were worried that he’d turn out like his father. Everything we thought we knew about those characters had to be re-evaluated, and in terms of simple storytelling, it was a brilliant moment.

Take the Gap principle I talked about earlier. There’s Luke, at Vader’s mercy. Luke expects that Vader is going to kill him, but what happens? He says, “I am your father.” And then what does Vader expect? He certainly doesn’t expect Luke to throw himself off the antenna, choosing death over giving in to the Dark Side. The viewer doesn’t have any idea what to expect either, and that’s what makes for a great movie moment.

The trouble is, I don’t think McKee has actually watched that movie in a very long time. He gets lines wrong (“You can’t kill me, Luke. I’m your father”) and gets entire sequences of events wrong – he has Vader reveal his paternity to Luke, who then attacks him, forcing Vader to cut off his son’s hand. Vader offers to let Luke rule by his side, in response to which Luke hurls himself to what he imagines is his death. And every time McKee brings up Star Wars as an example, I found myself wanting to scream, “Did you even see the movie? Or at least look up the script??” I mean, I know the book was published in 1997, but if he’s big in Hollywood, he should at least be able to get his hands on one precious copy. Or go to Blockbuster and rent the damn movie.

Anyway, that was my one little gripe with McKee, and it did make me wonder what else he might have gotten wrong in his details. I mean, his reading of the scene worked, and wouldn’t have been any different if he had gotten it right, but still – it’s a pretty big mistake to make. I can only hope that he managed to fix it in later editions.

That much aside, the principles he puts forward are sound, and it’s the kind of book that you want to keep close at hand while you’re putting your story together. If you find yourself hitting a wall, just start browsing through the book again and something will come to you. Whether you’re a writer of screenplays, stage plays, novels or short stories, this is a book you really should read. It’ll help you see what you’re doing in a whole new light.

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“Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”
– Robert McKee, Story
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Robert McKee on Wikipedia
Robert McKee’s homepage
Story on Amazon.com

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Filed under nonfiction, Robert McKee, story, writing

Review 66: Life of Pi


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Every time I go back to the US to visit friends and family, I always make a visit to a bookstore or two. I can buy books here in Japan, but the prices are high and the selection isn’t nearly as good, so a trip to our local mega-bookstore is like a visit to Mecca for me.

The last time I was home, my father let me wander for a while, and then he came up and handed me this book. He was picking up copies for a few other people as well, but he gave me this and said, “I think you’d really like it.”

He was right.

It’s one of those books that you feel compelled to share with others once you’ve finished. It’s one of those books where people see you reading it and say, “I read that – it’s really good, isn’t it?” It’s one of those books which, the author promises, will make you believe in God. A pretty tall order, but there you go. And in a roundabout way, it makes good on its promise. But we’ll get to that….

It’s a story of layers, as the best stories often are. On one layer, it’s the tale of young Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an insatiable curiosity about everything. The son of a zookeeper, Piscine – who re-christens himself Pi in order to clear up misunderstandings of his given name – develops a great interest in the world around him, especially religion. His part of India is home to people of all faiths, and he finds himself moving between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, despite the protests of holy men of all three faiths.

He grows up in this world, between animals and gods, until his family decides to escape India’s political turmoil by moving to Canada. They sell what animals they can, keep the ones they must, board everything onto a freighter and head off for a trip around the world, destined for a new life.

Until the ship sinks.

Pi finds himself the only human survivor of the ship’s sinking, alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alone except for the zebra. And the hyena. And the orangutan. And, of course, the tiger. Can’t forget the tiger.

Pi’s mini-zoo diminishes quickly, of course. There’s only so long such a diverse group of creatures can abide each other’s company in such terrible circumstances, so in time it comes down to two: Pi and the tiger, who had the unusual name of Richard Parker. You would think that there would be no winner in this contest – a diminished teenage boy against a full-grown tiger, with limited resources and a very stressful environment. But Pi is the son of a zookeeper, one whose job is to know how to control animals that don’t want to be controlled. Pi’s ability to survive in these circumstances would, by itself, be a fascinating story.

But the story is not just about Pi and the tiger. Not really. It’s also about our relationship with the world, with the universe, with God. It’s about who we are when everything we ever loved is stripped away from us. And it’s about how we can survive in even the most extraordinary circumstances. Pi does survive, and his survival makes sense, within the world of the story. Would he be able to do it out here in Real Life (TM)? I have no idea. But as you read, there is no point where you think, “The author is cheating,” and allowing his main character to survive when he really shouldn’t have.

The overriding theme of the book, however, is stories. The book itself is set up as a memoir, told by Patel to the author. It’s the story of a story, and it is a story which the author says will make you believe in God. And in a way, it does. But not in the way you think.

It’s kind of a modified version of Pascal’s Wager – the idea that it is better to believe in God than not to believe. Pascal’s idea is simple. If you disbelieve in God, and you’re right, then you’ll just wink out of existence when you die. No harm, no foul. But if you disbelieve and you’re wrong, then you end up suffering eternal damnation. Whereas if you believe in God and you’re wrong, again, no harm, no foul.

There are criticisms, and fair ones, of this philosophy, but I think this book offers a more reasonable alternative. You should believe in God because believing in God is the better story. Martel suggests (through Pi) that there is no mystery in facts and reason, no magic and no wonder. That the unrepentant atheist whose last thoughts are, “I believe I am losing brain function” lacks the imagination of the unrepentant atheist who has a deathbed conversion. In other words, by sticking only to what can be known and proven, one misses the better story.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. I think it’s an interesting point of view, and as long as one can remain aware that belief is not truth, I think I can let it go, but I don’t believe that the world of fact and reason is without brilliant stories. Look at the story of life on earth – a three and a half billion year epic of survival, death and rebirth. Look at the story of a lowly paperclip – born in the heart of an exploding star, and representing five thousand years of human progress towards extelligence. There are great stories, astounding stories out there in the world that don’t need to be believed because they are true. There is evidence for them, and their veracity can be proven.

But Martel’s isn’t about what is provably true.

Pi offers a choice: given two possible explanations for something, with no evidence to support either one, which explanation would you choose? The answer is, whichever explanation makes for the better story. Pi’s adventure is an example of that. As readers, we choose to believe Pi’s story, because it’s fascinating. We don’t sit there and think, “This is bull. A teenage boy taming a tiger? Puh-leeze.” We believe the story, while at the same time knowing that it is not, technically, “true.”

So it is with God. We believe in God, regardless of whether God is “true,” because it’s a more interesting story. And Pi’s adherence to three mutually exclusive religions suggests that the God of Pi isn’t to be found in a book or a church, in the words of a priest or a holy man. The God of Pi is everywhere, and doesn’t care if we believe or not. But we should believe, Pi suggests. Because that’s the better story.

The best books leave us thinking, and burrow into our brains to give us something to chew on for a while. So it is with this book. My rational part and my romantic part argue over the meaning of this story, and whether or not Pi’s conclusion is valid. Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don’t. That’s just how it is. But one thing I can say with certainty is that this is a very good book. And you should read it.

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“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
-Pi Patel, Life of Pi
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Yann Martel on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Amazon.com

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Filed under death, fiction, gods, memoir, story, survival, Yann Martel