Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Heavens above

Anaximander is the Greek philosopher credited with originating the idea that the sun, moon and stars are set on celestial spheres. At least, he wRosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...Image via Wikipediaas the first to write about it. There's a good chance that the idea was pretty thoroughly discussed in Greek philosophy circles and he is the only one to have his writings about it survive.

The idea he puts forward is that the earth is surrounded by vast nested wheels whose rims were hollow and filled with fire. Holes in the rims let through light that we call the sun, moon and stars. He thought that the stars were closest, then the moon and finally the sun.

The conception of the heavens as being made up of celestial spheres has undergone a lot of modification since Anaximander first wrote about it.

Plato stuck his oar in the 4th century BC saying that the heavens were a vast sphere containing the stars and the planets were set in rings rather than wheel rims. Ptolemy refined this idea and made it much more mathematically rigorous.

From what I can see, it was in the Middle Ages that the idea of the celestial spheres underwent a lot of modification. Probably because maths was being popularised (to an extent) at the same time. The changed idea had an empyrean realm outside that holding the stars which was the abode of God and all the elect (those saved by God).

Interestingly, each of the lower spheres had its own subordinate celestial being that kept them moving - angels. The idea was that the spheres were made of a liquid that was solid (in the sense of continuous) rather than hard.

The growing skill with observation and telescopes kept catching out the models that were being proposed as it kept showing novel phenomena that could not be accounted for.

Maths was key to all this. Especially for those wise men who wanted to operate on the spheres and communicate with the spirits that dwelt within them. Trithemius' great work Steganographia is essentially a book of really hard maths that wise men were supposed to use to understand what was happening above their heads.
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Friday, September 17, 2010

Forward to the past

The opening of this essay - Dickens in Lagos - is just classic. The rest of it isn't bad either. Lapham's is a great find.

Is it me?

Sometimes when writing fiction the hardest thing to leave behind is yourself. This was brought home to me this week when I was preparing to write a difficult scene in which the assistant of the main character was murdered. I'd not been looking forward to it because of the strong emotions involved, my inexperience of writing such a scene and doubts about my descriptive powers to bring the scene alive.ShadowImage by Rickydavid via Flickr

I thought I'd got the answer to the dilemma by making the main character push past the guards and run away. In doing so I was channelling the advice given by Orson Scott Card in his book Character and Viewpoint which ran through a few ways to deal with scenes like this.

However, as I tried to deal with the logistical problems introduced by the MC scarpering I realised that it wasn't him running away from the emotion, it was me. I scrapped the few thousand words I'd written, screwed my courage to the sticking place, sat down and tackled the scene. With the MC watching.

Finished, I re-read it and realised that I'd tried to duck the murder again by making him stare into the eyes of the assistant rather than see the terrible wounds caused by the blade's of the tyrant's guards. I scrapped that and did it again. It's now much better, I think, more honest and I have learned, a little, about how to write a murder scene and explore what a witness might feel. It was harrowing to write and I think some of that comes out on the page.

I've had sneaking suspicions about the shadow a writer casts on their work for some time and I'm willing to be that it can explain lots of the duller bits of lots of books. Like huge sections of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in which he roams around the countryside getting nothing done. That, I'd guess is the result of JKR not wanting things to finish and his time in the wilderness reflects that indecision about the denouement.

The light that fiction casts on the unconscious of the author was brought home most forcefully by an observation made by David Smail. He mentioned the preponderance of fiction written by middle-aged men that features young capable women who conceive an (unlikely) affection for the middle-aged male who is the main character. That might explain the popularity of that sort of fiction with middle-aged men.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy which features a middle-aged man who has a relationship with a younger woman who, conveniently, has a personality disorder that precludes any kind of emotional attachment. Wish fulfilment or strong characterisation? It's too close to call.
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Friday, September 10, 2010

Gibsonian threads

I'm re-reading Spook Country (to familiarise myself with it prior to reading Zero History) and the stitch count meme has turned up again. It's mentioned on page 2 and is used to describe Hollis' bed sheets. I was really happy when I spotted it - I'm such a geek.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Before they were famous

Number two in an occasional series.
An interpretation of Cthulhu in the sunken cit...Image via Wikipedia
Stephen King's first published story was "In a Half World of Terror" though he wanted it to be called "I was a Teenage Grave Robber". It first hit print in 1965 when it was serialised over three issues of a fanzine called Comics Review.

However, that went bust so only two parts were printed. The whole thing was published in 1966 in another fanzine called Stories of Suspense. There are a few copies of the story floating around the web. They are typed in versions as the spelling mistakes in the one I saw wouldn't have made it past any competent editor. I wanted to read it as I'm a fan and I'm curious about how he did in his early days as a writer. As I was with William Gibson.

As tales go, it's not bad. Pulpy, to be sure, but it's action-packed and moves along swiftly. His influences, mainly Lovecraft, are apparent from the name on the grave being robbed to that of the love interest. I'd guess there are a lot I've missed as I've not read too many other pulp writers.

It does have a rough-hewn feel to it as it is peppered with adverbs (I counted 15 including the glorious "stumblingly") and makes some of the mistakes of beginning writers. For instance, it's a first person POV story but one that does not convince. Events are reported not felt. Also nothing happens unless it is filtered through that main view. Plus it messes about timelines in ways that I've always been told to avoid. Maybe he was sure of doing well - as Strunk and White advise? Perhaps, he was 19 when it was published so might just have had the arrogance of youth. The prose is a bit lumpen and skirts the edge of cliche a bit too often. Do chins have corners? Maybe they do. Is the night like velvet? Perhaps it is.

Having said that there are some good details and some of the stylistic elements familiar from the later King are there in shadow form. It doesn't shy away from the nasty stuff and the beasties are a surprise. I was expecting the undead and didn't get it. It's recognisably by him.

I guess the key element that got it published is that it feels whole. All the parts work together. As well as being the love interest Vicki is obviously the good that Dan manages to rescue from his terrible experience. Plus she is the one that emphasises the terrible danger he is in as she has seen what grave robbing can do to a person. He saves her and she saves him. Neat.
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