Archive for the ‘Thursday Tangents’ Category

TT: The Sum of the Parts

October 19, 2017

ALAN: Last time I mentioned the symmetrical Thomas T. Thomas who collaborated on a novel with Frederik Pohl. It occurs to me that he also collaborated with Roger Zelazny on a couple of novels, Flare and The Mask of Loki.

Collaboration and Inspiration

Indeed, now that I think about it, Roger actually wrote quite a lot of collaborative novels with a large number of different authors. Shall we talk about these?

JANE: Absolutely!  I believe I’ve read all of them and, now that I consider it, written a couple as well, although those were…  Well, we can get to that later, if we want.

Roger’s collaborative works were mostly novels.  He wrote one with Philip K. Dick, two with Fred Saberhagen, two with Thomas T. Thomas, three with Robert Sheckley, and one with Gerald Hausman.  In addition, he wrote a short story with Harlan Ellison.  Oh!  And he completed a work that Alfred Bester left unfinished.

Where would you like to start?

ALAN: Well, since I’ve already mentioned Thomas T. Thomas, let’s start with him. The two novels he and Roger wrote together are almost at opposite ends of the literary spectrum – Flare is science fiction and The Mask of Loki is fantasy (though with some science fictional elements), which says something about both their talents, I think.

It’s been many years since I read these books, so I’m a little vague about the details. Flare, if I recall correctly, has almost no plot as such. It deals with the effects of a huge solar flare on a disparate group of people – really it’s just a series of vignettes. But I found the technique to be very effective and I remember enjoying the book a lot. The Mask of Loki is a much more traditional fantasy about an eternal battle between the avatars of Loki and Ahriman and outside of that I remember nothing at all about it, so clearly it didn’t make much of an impression on me.

JANE: I haven’t read either in a long while, but I vaguely recall that I preferred The Mask of Loki, because it was more of a story with plot and characters, although I will admit it had few surprises.  Flare was definitely the more ambitious book.

By the way, Flare was meant to be episodic.  I believe the influence was a book by George R. Stewart called Storm, in which the main character is a storm.

Flare had another bonus in that it gave Roger a chance to delve into writing poetry again.  He wrote an entire poetic imitation of Iknaton’s “Hymn to the Son,” small portions of which were used as chapter breaks.  Some years ago, Warren Lapine’s DNA Publications published a chapbook that includes the entire poem, as well as an essay by Roger about his writing.  There’s also an essay by me…

ALAN: How did Roger and Thomas get together? Were they friends? Thomas is a rather obscure writer, so it seems odd that the two of them would collaborate, particularly on more than one book. Do you know anything about the background?

JANE: Oddly enough, you’ve chosen to start with one of the few of Roger’s collaborations that didn’t begin out of Roger having a previous relationship with the author.  Roger had met Thomas T. Thomas before they started writing together, but the collaborations were encouraged by editor Jim Baen.

That said, Roger did enjoy working with Thomas.  (Heh, you can guess if I’m referring to him by his first or last name).  So overall, it was a good experience for him.  Actually, I hope it was for them both.

ALAN: When you and Roger were here in New Zealand, I recall Roger talking about Deus Irae, his collaboration with Philip K. Dick. Apparently Dick had a fragment of a novel that he was stuck on and somehow (I’m not sure how) Roger had been persuaded to complete it. Dick’s title for the novel fragment was The Kneeling Legless Man (which may well explain why he got stuck!). Do you have any idea how Roger got involved in the project?

JANE: That was well before my time, so I can only say that Roger heard – I think from Ted White – that Dick had a novel he couldn’t finish and needed to.  White had been approached, but had not been able to get into the project.

Roger knew Dick and was interested in his work, so he offered to step in.  They worked on the project in a somewhat dilatory fashion until the publisher pressed Dick either for the book or a return of the advance.

ALAN: Roger said that he’d tried very hard to emulate Dick’s writing style and tone of voice. I thought Roger did a marvellous job of chanelling Philip K. Dick. The joins didn’t show at all.

JANE: Actually, what Roger did was more clever than merely emulating Dick’s style.  Let me quote from a letter Roger wrote to me about the process:

“Before I’d started on it, I read or re-read sufficient of his material to teach myself how to mimic his style.  I didn’t do it though, but chose a style between his & mine, a kind of meta Phil Dick style which blended well [with] his own & made the thing come out sounding like something reminiscent of both of us but not exactly like either.” (August 3, 1989)

ALAN: That’s interesting – and you’re right, it’s a much more clever and more subtle approach than I remembered. And there’s another writer whose style Roger adopted (and possibly adapted) in order to complete an unfinished work. Perhaps we can talk about that literary experiment next time?

JANE: Sounds good!


TT: Let’s Do It Together!

October 5, 2017

JANE: Last week, when we started talking about collaborations, proper and improper, you said you could think of dozens of collaborations in SF without even trying very hard.

Hauling the Book Along

All right, I’ll give you a harder challenge.   Can you find an example of an author who has done both what you would consider proper and  improper collaborations?

ALAN: Oh that’s easy! Just look at the many writers that Arthur C. Clarke “collaborated” with over the years. Many, but by no means all, of these collaborations are the usual marketing exercises where Clarke contributed nothing but the basic idea and then left his collaborator alone to make of it what he would.

When the collaborator was a genuinely skillful writer, the result is best considered as a reasonably good stand-alone novel by that writer, so to that extent they can be regarded as successful. But when the collaborator was less skilled, the result was generally dire.

For example, I refuse to admit that that Clarke’s standalone novel Rendezvous With Rama had any sequels…

JANE: As much as I wanted to find out more about Rama, I agree.  The sequels didn’t have the same sense of wonder and mystery.

Since we’re not admitting those “improper” collaborations exist, it seems unfair to blame Clarke for doing such without another example.  Can you provide at least one?

ALAN: Yes, and I have documentary evidence for it. In an Afterword to Richter-10 as by Arthur C. Clarke and Mike McQuay, Clarke remarks that:

“…this is the first time that I have given an idea to another author to develop entirely as he wished. But it may not be the last: I’ve discovered that this gives me all the fun of creation—but none of the lonely hours slaving away at the keyboard.”

So clearly we need to look at his dual bylines with a degree of scepticism.

JANE: Indeed we do.  Simply supplying a seed idea is not a collaboration!

Before I become too dismayed by this tendency in an author who still provides the “C” in the “ABC’s” of SF, can you supply an example of Clarke doing a proper collaboration?

ALAN: I think I can.  I might be on slightly shaky ground here, but I suspect that the novels he wrote with Stephen Baxter were genuine collaborations.  After all, Baxter and Clarke were friends. Also, the Afterword to their novel The Light Of Other Days talks about the thinking behind the story and the authors consistently refer to themselves in the first person plural.

At one point they remark that “Any errors or omissions are, of course, our responsibility.”  So it does look like they were both involved.

Furthermore I’m sure that there are Clarkean stylistic flourishes all through the four books that they co-authored.

JANE: Can you provide examples?

ALAN: Yes – but you might disagree with me. After all, style is a very subjective thing. But it seems to me that these words, again from The Light of Other Days, are pure Arthur C. Clarke:

“Fingers of green and blue pushed into the new deserts of Asia and the North American Midwest. Artificial reefs glimmered in the Caribbean, pale blue against the deeper ocean. Great wispy machines labored over the poles to repair the atmosphere. The air was clear as glass, for now mankind drew its energy from the core of Earth itself.”

JANE: Ooh…  That’s nice.  I agree.  Either Clarke or Baxter doing his best imitation – which is part of quality collaboration.

ALAN: A completely unambiguous example of a proper Clarke collaboration is his final novel, The Last Theorem. This was completed by Frederik Pohl when Clarke finally admitted that he himself was too old and too frail to finish it. In his blog, Pohl was at pains to point out just how closely Clarke was involved in the writing process. At one point he says:

“There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do the book, but I looked forward to Arthur’s notes. When they arrived, they amounted to around a hundred pages of notes and drafts, some sketchy, some quite completely fleshed out.”

And then later on he remarks that:

“Arthur promised to go over every page as I wrote it and to make comments as useful as he could generate.”

The whole blog post about the writing of the novel makes fascinating reading. You can see it here.

So clearly Pohl considered the novel to be a genuine collaboration, and he should know because he was one half of probably the very best SF collaboration of all time

JANE: Should we talk about Fred Pohl as a collaborator next?

ALAN: It’s certainly something he was really good at. There was a time when he appeared to be collaborating with pretty much everyone in sight! Perhaps it was something in the water.

Let’s collaborate on that topic next time.


TT: One Plus One Makes More?

September 28, 2017

ALAN: A lot of people have been posting their thoughts about the recent death of Jerry Pournelle. A common theme that runs through the comments is the suggestion that he will be remembered more for his collaborations with Larry Niven than he will for the stories that he published under his own name. There’s probably some truth in that – several of the Niven/Pournelle collaborations are generally regarded as classics of the genre.

Working (on naps) Together

JANE: Certainly the two Pournelle novels I recall reading – A Mote in God’s Eye and Lucifer’s Hammer – were both collaborations with Larry Niven.  I can’t remember if I actually read Footfall, but I heard a lot about it.

ALAN: I enjoyed those – but my very favourite of their collaborations was Inferno. Such a clever, subtle and funny book.

Collaborations seem to be very common in the SF world. Without even thinking about it, I’m sure I could reel off a dozen or more famous collaborations. And if I put my thinking cap on I could probably come up with at least a dozen more.

But I’d be hard-pressed to name many collaborations in other genres or in the mainstream of literature.

I wonder how collaborations happen?

JANE: We must shop in different bookstores.  Where I shop, increasingly, the shelves are full of “collaborations.”  Many of these are what I have heard called “junior/senior” pairings, which in some cases seems to be a polite way of saying “Big Name Writer” and “who the heck is that…”

ALAN: Or perhaps “who the hack is that…”?

JANE: Ouch!  That’s what’s so sad about these pairings.  Often the “junior” writer is viewed as just that – an opportunistic hack.  I’ve talked with several novelists, however, who have taken on such jobs in the hope of opening doors that will enable them to see their own beloved works published.

ALAN: To that extent such exercises are probably a good thing – anything that opens previously closed publishing doors has to be taken seriously. But nevertheless I remain dubious about both the morality of it and the quality of the work. I certainly don’t regard these as being collaborations in the true sense of the word.

JANE: I know what you mean.  My nephew enjoys both Tom Clancy’s and Clive Cussler’s works, but I’ve given up on buying them for him because so many are these sort of pairings.

ALAN: Ah yes – those… I don’t really consider those as collaborations at all. Clancy actually died in 2013, so clearly his contribution to the books that are still being published under his name has been minimal. So-called collaborations like these are really just cynical marketing exercises designed to keep famous names on the book covers so as to (hopefully) increase sales.

I think the only real collaborations are those where all the writers named on the cover have had a significant input to the story being told.

JANE: I agree.  When an author or an author’s estate starts franchising a well-known name, then any sense of collaboration vanishes.  I’ll avoid naming some obvious examples because I don’t know the circumstances firsthand and don’t want to risk maligning someone…

But there are many authors who appear as “senior” author on books that I suspect they’ve never even looked at.

ALAN: I’m absolutely certain of it. And the phenomenon is not a new one; it’s just that these days the publishers are rather more blatant about it than once they were. It used to be that the junior author got no credit at all, even though they’d done most, if not all, of the work!

A good example would be the Saint novels. They were all published with Leslie Charteris named on the cover as the only author. Nevertheless many of the novels were ghostwritten with little or no input from Charteris himself. Vendetta For the Saint (1964) was actually written by the SF author Harry Harrison, though his name appears nowhere in the credits. Harrison told me that Charteris just left him alone to write the story – though presumably Charteris did approve the final version since he was putting his own name on it!

JANE: I had no idea!

ALAN: Proper collaborations, such as the Niven/Pournelle books, are a completely different kettle of fish. In an interview published in Fantastic Reviews in 2009, Niven says that he and Pournelle would talk the story out between themselves until they knew it by heart. In that sort of circumstance it really doesn’t matter whose fingers actually hit the keyboard, the story belongs equally to both of them.

JANE: I agree.  I also think that the best collaborations are those where each author has something special to bring to the project.  My first collaboration with Roger Zelazny was like that.  He’d been asked to come up with a story for a computer game, but he knew nothing about either computers or gaming.

However, he was always intrigued by a new challenge.  He said he’d take the job if I could come on board as his collaborator (because I was a gamer, and somewhat familiar with computer games), and so Chronomaster was begun.  Sadly, Roger was gone before it came out.  He never would have agreed to what the publisher did – putting his name big and mine small – because we worked the story out together.

ALAN: The game itself is still available for download from obscure corners of the internet, though you will need some kind of MS-DOS emulator if you want to play it – it won’t run on modern computers.

There’s lots more to say about collaborations, both proper and improper. Perhaps we can continue the discussion next time…

JANE: I’d like that!


TT: Food to Die For

September 21, 2017

ALAN: Last time you were telling me about your cat Gwydion’s food allergies. I sympathise with Gwydion because I have similar problems myself.

Alan’s Bane

My mother told me that when I was very young, just moving on to solid food, she had to stop feeding me eggs because every time she gave me a bit of egg I would throw it up.

Apparently, my not eating eggs worried my grandmother. “You must feed him eggs,” she would say. “They are good for him.”

“How can they be good for him?” asked my mother. “They don’t stay inside him long enough to do him any good.”

My grandmother was not convinced by this argument and she would occasionally try and sneak bits of egg into my diet when I wasn’t looking. I continued to throw them up, much to her displeasure. Apparently this was a terrible waste of eggs…

It’s been a lifelong affliction. To this day, if I eat an egg, I do a lot of vomiting.

JANE: How can you manage?  Eggs are an ingredient in so many things!

ALAN: It seems to be a concentration effect – the more dilute the egg, the more likely it is that I’ll be able to eat it safely. So I’m fine with pastry and cake and similar things. But feed me an egg au naturelle and I can’t stomach it. Even the smell of an egg being cooked makes me feel nauseous.

JANE: I bet you don’t eat breakfast out very often.  At least here in the U.S., the majority of breakfast offerings begin with some form of egg dish, with your choice of carbohydrates, heavily salted meats, and something sweet.

ALAN: It’s the same here in NZ, so you’d definitely win that bet! But Robin does like her eggs, so we do occasionally indulge ourselves. The restaurants always seem quite happy to feed me just toast and marmalade. But your comment reminds me of something I’ve always found very puzzling. In American books and movies characters order their eggs cooked “sunny side up” or “over easy”. I can guess what “sunny side up” means, but “over easy” remains very puzzling. Can you explain it for me?

JANE: That’s an egg that has been cooked in a skillet, then gently turned over.  There are refinements, but that’s the basic idea.

ALAN: Ah – I think I understand. But you used another unfamiliar word in your explanation. What’s a skillet?

JANE: A skillet is a shallow pan.  It’s also called a frying pan, but I didn’t want to use that term because some people say that an egg over easy should not be confused with a fried egg because, in a proper egg over easy, the whites remain white, not browned.  Partially browned whites are apparently the mark of a fried egg.

ALAN: OK – I’ve got it now. So let’s get back to my food allergies… I did eventually begin to wonder if my reaction to eggs might be more psychological than physical. But one day I had dramatic proof that it wasn’t psychological at all – it was quite real.

Rosemary, my first wife, cooked a meal of schnitzel which looked and smelled absolutely yummy. Unbeknown to me, she had bound the breadcrumbs to the meat with an egg/milk mixture. The food was delicious and I gobbled it up. I had no idea that it had ever been within a million miles of an egg. Nevertheless I spent the rest of the evening worshipping the porcelain god.

JANE: Oh, that’s rough.  So dilution isn’t always the answer, I guess.  I bet Rosemary felt horrible.

ALAN: She was terribly upset and apologetic, of course, but it wasn’t her fault. After all, there really was very little egg involved. But from that day on, whenever she cooked schnitzel, she bound the breadcrumbs with just milk. I think that her schnitzel recipe was probably right on the borderline of what my body could tolerate – the egg was diluted, but not quite diluted enough…

JANE: Are you allergic to any other foods?  I’ve noticed that people who are allergic to one food are often allergic to several.

ALAN: Yes – and again it first manifested itself in childhood. My parents were very fond of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate. And on special occasions they liked to treat themselves to that curious triangular Swiss chocolate called Toblerone, which also has nuts in it. Naturally they encouraged me to eat it as well. But every time I ate a piece, my tongue and throat would start to itch madly…

JANE: Uh, oh…

ALAN: My father was quite unsympathetic. “Scratch your tongue on your teeth,” he said. I tried that, but it didn’t help.

The itching seemed to get worse every time I ate anything with nuts in it. (I later learned that this is quite common with food allergies – the effect often increases with each exposure to the allergen.)

My worst attack came when I was in my mid-twenties. I was spending Christmas Day with some friends and they served a trifle which, unbeknown to me, had a lot of nut fragments in it. The familiar itching started and then, frighteningly, my throat swelled up and closed. I couldn’t swallow and I was struggling to breathe. So I spent the rest of that Christmas Day in hospital being injected with epinephrine.

JANE: That sounds horrible. Do you carry an epipen with you now?

ALAN: No, I don’t. Perhaps I should, but I find it very easy to avoid food that has nuts in it. I’ve had no real problems since that long-ago Christmas attack.

JANE:  So you’re allergic to tree nuts.  Are you allergic to peanuts as well?  Peanut allergies are becoming a major problem here in the U.S.

ALAN: I have no problems at all with peanuts. Since you are a gardener, you probably know that despite their name, peanuts are not nuts. They are classified as legumes, and I think they are very yummy. I just have to avoid the things that you described as “tree nuts”.  I’m perfectly fine with peanuts and cashew nuts and similar things.

JANE: I see. So as long as I promise not to cook you a nut omelet when you come for dinner, everything should work out well?

ALAN: Yes, that’s right.

JANE: That’s a relief!  Allergies are becoming so prevalent that I’ve heard people claim to be “allergic” on the slimmest of evidence, as if it’s somehow fashionable.    As for me, I’d be just as happy to do without.

ALAN (sneezing and reaching for the tissue box): Me, too!

TT: Scratch, Scratch

September 14, 2017

ALAN: Now Jane, you were going to tell me about the course of injections (or “shots” as you called them) that you were offered to combat your allergies.

JANE: Don’t Brits use the term “shots”?  Interesting…  But too much of a tangent.  I’ll stick to the point.  Get it?  Point???

Prompt and Response

ALAN: Ouch! Nice bit of blunt speaking there…

JANE: Very punny…  Right!  Now to the topic.

After the test I mentioned last week, the doctor suggested I try shots.  Since I was hoping to avoid taking daily medication and I’m not at all worried about shots, I agreed.

I went in for my first shot the day before leaving for World Fantasy Con.  I mention this because this was late October, considered an “off” season for allergies.  I was astonished how little material was in the syringe, and therefore dismissed the fact that I felt a little “off” as trip-related stress.

When we came back, I went in for my second shot.  That evening, my arm started itching, deep down, almost as if under the skin.  I ran my fingers over the surface and felt a bump forming.  I was breaking out in hives.

ALAN: Oh, that sounds ominous. Were the hives particularly bad?

JANE: Oh, they were very bad.  I ended up with hives everywhere on the exterior of my body except for the insides of my mouth, my eyes, and my privates.  They lasted for five and a half months, during which time I also ran a constant low-grade fever.  Except when going out – which I did as infrequently as possible – I wore loose baggy clothing.

Probably the only good thing to come out of this was that I learned which allergy drugs worked best for me, because I could count how many new hives formed if I changed to a less effective drug.

ALAN: That sounds like a very severe reaction, though I do know from personal experience that very small amounts of allergens can cause reactions out of all proportion to their size, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

JANE: No one knows for sure why I reacted so intensely.  The best conclusion I was offered is that, unlike most people, I basically don’t have an “off season,” so the level of allergens in my system is always high, and the shots – minute as they were – were enough to kick my system over into a severe reaction.

ALAN: Since I get allergy attacks all year round, I suspect I don’t have an “off-season” either.

JANE: Needless to say, this reaction meant no more shots for Jane.  I manage my allergies with a careful routine of pills, drops, and inhaler.  (I have allergy-related asthma.)  Most of the time I’m fine, and very, very grateful to live in the twenty-first century.

ALAN: I do pretty much the same. When I get the first symptoms of an allergy attack, I take anti-histamine pills and use a nasal spray. They don’t have much effect on the first day, which is often quite severe. But eventually the drugs kick in and the second day is generally quite mild by comparison and by the third day I’m usually back to normal. But that first day is always a killer. I quickly get dehydrated because I never stop blowing my nose (you wouldn’t believe how much tea I drink) and I stagger through my day like a zombie.

JANE: Your dog, Jake, has allergies, doesn’t he?  How is his treatment going?  He gets shots, right?

ALAN: That’s right. I noticed that he was getting lots of rashes on his tummy and between his toes and, of course, he was constantly licking them (because they itched) which just made things worse. Generally the rashes ended up infected and he had to have antibiotics for the infection and steroid tablets for the rash. Very unpleasant for both of us.

Eventually, at a cost of nearly $500, I got him allergy tested. It’s a similar procedure to what you and I went through except that it involves taking a blood sample which is then screened against a range of allergens. Apparently it’s quite a complex procedure. There aren’t any places in New Zealand that can do it – his blood sample had to be shipped to a lab in America, one of the very few in the world that actually offers the service.

Just like you and me, Jake turned out to be very allergic to pollen, mainly from grasses and daisies and also something called Mugwort, whatever that might be.

JANE: Mugwort?  Aren’t those people who can’t use magic?  No, sorry.  That’s “muggles.”  How are you treating Jake’s allergies?

ALAN: For an extra $300 the lab formulated a vaccine specifically tailored to his allergens and he is currently in the middle of a course of injections which will go on for another four months or so. There is no guarantee that this will work – the success rate is only about 65%. But since the alternative is a lifetime of antibiotics and steroids, we decided the risk was worth taking.

JANE: I think you made a well-reasoned choice.   I hope Jake is in the group for whom the shots – I mean, “injections” – work.

I’ve only had one pet with allergies, my very first cat, Gwydion.  I acquired him as an amiable nine-month or so old stray cat.  After I got him to my apartment, I realized why he didn’t have a home.  Anything he ate came out liquid, including what should be solid.  At that point, my former roommate, Kathy, was working for a kind vet, who sent a device to take a stool sample.

Never having had a cat before, I had no idea how solid a cat’s stool should be, and tried to take a sample of the stinky, liquid goo.  Eventually, we got enough for a test which confirmed no worms or other parasites.  After other tests, the conclusion was food allergies.  Eventually, we found that Gwydion could eat only two foods without bad reactions.  And so that’s what he ate until his death at nineteen.

Have you had any experience with food allergies?  Human or otherwise?

ALAN: Yes – I am strongly allergic to a common food group and highly intolerant of a very common staple food item. I’ll tell you about them next time, unless an allergy attack gets in the way.

TT: Ah-Choo!

September 7, 2017

JANE: So, Alan. We’ve been very literary of late. What high-brow topic shall we discuss next?

A Little Hoarse

ALAN: I have no idea. I’m currently having a massive sneezing fit from an allergy attack and my brain has turned to tomato soup

JANE:  Wow, to tomato soup?  That’s amazing.  I have allergies, too, but I’ve missed the bonus tomato soup element.

It just occurred to me that I’m dealing with autumn allergies, and you’re dealing with spring allergies.  Mine include tumbleweed, amaranth, and the omnipresent juniper.  What’s getting you?

ALAN: I don’t really know. My doctor calls it Non-Specific Rhinitis, which means that I sneeze a lot, nobody knows why, and every so often I turn into a rhinoceros. Now that he has given it a name, he feels that his job is done.

You seem to know exactly what causes your allergies to flare up. How did you find out?

JANE: I had a test – or perhaps what should be termed several tests, since what they did was draw a grid on my back and then poke me with tiny bits of various allergens to see where I reacted.  I still remember the nurse coming in, examining my back, and saying “Well, your pets are safe.  No reaction to any animal allergens.”

I was actually a little angry, since merely being allergic would not be reason for me to get rid of my animals – not if I could find a way (short of death) to manage the allergies, at least.

I’m also very attached to where I live.  Much of what I’m allergic to is common west of the Mississippi, uncommon “back East,” so I suppose I could try moving.  However, I really love living in New Mexico.  So, as long as I can manage my allergies, I’ll stay in the land of tumbleweed, amaranth, and much, much juniper.

Have you ever been tested for your allergies?

ALAN: Yes, I have. The test was similar to yours but on my arm rather than on my back. The nurse was very nervous. I was her first ever allergy test patient and she was worried in case she made a mistake. She carefully painted my arm with various common allergens and then scratched each stripe with a needle. After about five minutes, various of the scratches came up in itchy red lumps. The nurse was ecstatic. “I’m doing it right!” she yelled, her face wreathed in smiles. I was very pleased for her, but much less pleased to have an itchy right arm. The nurse measured the size of my lumps, smothered me with soothing cream, and wrote a report for my doctor.

JANE: That sounds as if you should have received definite results.  Why was the diagnosis “Non-Specific”?

ALAN: The tests were actually a little inconclusive because the allergens were spread across such a broad spectrum that it was hard to be precise about exactly what was affecting me. The pollen stripe, for example, was a mixture of common pollens, so goodness knows exactly what it was that I was reacting to. The only positive thing that came out of it was that I definitely wasn’t allergic to the cats.

Springtime pollen is the worst culprit, as you might expect, but I get attacks all year round, so obviously there is something else going on though nobody is quite sure what.

When I get a bad reaction, Robin is always very sympathetic, but she herself does not suffer from allergies at all, so while she realises that an attack is very debilitating, she doesn’t really understand just how it feels.

What about Jim? Does he have allergies?

JANE: Yes, he does, both plant and animal.  When we started dating, several of our mutual friends informed me that Jim was allergic to cats.  At that point, I had six cats.  I decided that, no matter how appealing I found Jim, I wasn’t going to give up my cats – and he’d better know that.  So, one day when he was visiting, we had the following exchange:

Jane: “I’ve heard from several people that you’re allergic to cats.  I feel it’s only fair to make clear that my cats are a non-negotiable element.”

Jim: “I was allergic but, maybe because so many of my friends have cats, I seem to have gotten better over the years.  Still, if I start having problems, well – I hate needles, but I’d get shots.”

ALAN: I’d certainly do the same as Jim. Fortunately I’ve never had to. Whatever it is that sets me off, it isn’t connected with the balls of fur that I wait on hand and foot.

JANE: I will admit, that exchange was when I started thinking Jim might be more than another pretty face.  And Bast, Goddess of Cats, was kind to him.  In the twenty-some years we’ve been together, he’s never had a bad reaction (even though a couple of our cats have decided that they must sleep on his pillow) and so he’s been able to avoid shots.

ALAN: It has been suggested to me that I might save myself a lot of misery by embarking on a course of injections to de-sensitise me to whatever it is that sets me off, but I’ve never bothered. My allergy attacks aren’t very frequent – perhaps once every month or so if I’m going through a bad period. So even though they do tend to knock me out and dehydrate me (I once used up six boxes of tissues in a single day; at least I think I did. My tomato soup brain was losing the ability to count…), I’ve never taken the suggestion any further.

Have you ever considered a course of de-sensitising injections?

JANE: Oh, that’s a complicated answer.  Can I save the response for next time?

ALAN: That’s probably a good idea – I’ve just come to the end of a box of tissues, and I need a cup of tea…

TT: The Thin Line Between Fact and Fiction

August 31, 2017

JANE: All right, Alan.  Last time you tantalized me with the promise of creative non-fiction that works – and when it crosses the line into pure fiction.  Even better, you promised that your examples would come from the works of the same writer.

Fact or Fiction?

Go for it!

ALAN: Here I go…

I think Hunter S. Thompson was particularly good at creative non-fiction. Hells Angels is a brilliant piece of non-fiction about the eponymous gangs, and I am also rather fond of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 which is a superb analysis of the political environment in America during the 1972 Presidential campaign. Both books contain elements that might be regarded as fictional by a purist, but they are never intrusive and Thompson never loses sight of what he is trying to achieve.

JANE: Could you give me an example?

ALAN: Some of the dialogue in the Hells Angels book flows so smoothly and illustrates the points that Thompson wants to make so well that I can’t help thinking that he’s made it up (at least a little bit). But I may be doing him a disservice here – the whole thing may well be accurate reportage; it’s very hard to tell. Certainly it reads well, it presents itself as journalism, and it tells you everything that you need to know (and probably a bit more than you wanted to know) about the Angels.

JANE: Okay…  I can see why you’d consider this a good use of creative non-fiction techniques.  What about the other one?

ALAN: The campaign book is a bit easier to analyse. Thompson’s style had relaxed a lot by then. “When a man gives up drugs he wants big fires in his life—all night long, every night…”

At one point, worried about the possibility of being mugged, Thompson notes that “I immediately called Colorado and had another Doberman shipped in”. This I seriously doubt. How many spare Dobermans does a man keep on the off chance that he might need to ship one across country at a moment’s notice and at vast expense? Nevertheless it’s a very effective image that perfectly conveys the paranoia of the time and place.

JANE: But he’s not putting words or thoughts in anyone else’s mind, so I don’t think he’s straying beyond the borders of non-fiction.  In fact, I’d guess he probably meant this as a metaphor.

ALAN: It’s definitely not a metaphor – earlier in the book he has a section about his Dobermans. They are very real and fully equipped with teeth.

JANE: I cheerfully surrender to your superior knowledge!

ALAN: On the other hand, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is almost pure fiction masquerading as fact and should be taken with the last pinch of salt that you didn’t put in your stew for fear of spoiling it…

JANE: Ah! I wonder how many people knew to draw the line or if, because they were conditioned by the previous books, they took Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as factual as well.

ALAN: Anyone who believes that a man can ingest that quantity of drugs without killing himself probably isn’t living in the real world anyway. The book does contain real people and real incidents, but they are buried so deeply in the tissue of lies that he surrounds them with that they may as well not be there at all – for example, Hunter’s Samoan attorney, though not mentioned by name in the book, was actually the Spanish-American lawyer Oscar Zacosta and Hunter’s characterisation of him was not quite as exaggerated as you might at first suppose… If you are curious, you can look him up on Wikipedia.

But really it’s best to just relax and read the book as a novel – it’s certainly one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read.

JANE: It’s interesting that your examples are from what, at the time they were written, would be considered contemporary material.  By the purest coincidence, there is an article in the Summer 2017 Author’s Guild Bulletin titled “What Every Writer Needs to Know About Defamation.”  In this, two lawyers and author Susan Cheever (who has made her mark writing biographies and memoirs, as well as novels) talked about what can happen when you put words in other people’s mouths.

It’s a long article, full of legal detail, so I won’t attempt to summarize it.  What I will say is that, if I were tempted to write creative non-fiction, especially about people who are still alive or still have immediate family alive, I would be extremely cautious about putting words in their mouths or thoughts in their heads.

ALAN: Probably that’s good advice – though America is notoriously litigious. In the UK (and here in New Zealand as well), you can get away with a lot of things that might cause problems in the US.

JANE: Actually…  but no.  I won’t go into it.  That would involve too much summarizing of the article.  Let’s just say, you’d be surprised at the stringency of the legal code outside of the U.S.  Many European nations protect the rights of the dead as well as of the living.

That’s why I’d be careful about putting words into the mouth of someone – even if that person is no longer alive and therefore could be thought to be beyond defamation of character.

ALAN: The British author Michael Dobbs has written a trilogy of novels about Winston Churchill set just before, and during, WWII. I recommend them highly. They don’t always paint a flattering portrait of Churchill, and they are stuffed full of imaginary dialogue between real people. Clearly the books don’t step over the line into defamation (the novels are well thought of, and there has never been even a whisper of legal proceedings) but nevertheless, in light of what you say, I imagine that they must sail very close to it. So clearly there is a lot of leeway to play with…

JANE: Churchill didn’t always paint a flattering picture of Churchill – and I’m sure his family was aware of this, and knew what might come up if a lawsuit for defamation was raised.

As I said, I’d be careful.  I didn’t say no one should ever try it!

ALAN: I wonder if any of the comments will take the form of an imaginary dialogue between you and me?

JANE: That would be amusing!

TT: Fiction or Not?

August 24, 2017

JANE: So, Alan.  I have a difficult question for you.  I apologize in advance if I end up offending you.

ALAN: Ask away! I promise not to be offended.

Literary Spices: Use With Care

JANE: When I read your short story “Rag Week,” I really enjoyed the story.  When I read your comments, I learned that it was “based on a true story,” and that you’d made a deliberate choice to write it in first person.

If anyone wants the details of why you wrote the story that way, they can check out our discussion from last week.  My question is whether you consider “Rag Week” fiction or non-fiction.

ALAN: It’s definitely fiction. It was deliberately planned and structured as a story. There were several bits of it that I just made up and at least one incident that wasn’t connected to the story at all in real life, but which sounded as though it should have been, and so I shoehorned it in.

If anyone ever comes to write the definitive history of The Campus City Jazzmen, I really hope that they don’t use my story – there are far too many “errors” in it.

JANE: Whew!  I’m relieved.  The reason I asked is that more and more these days I’m hearing writers claim that what they’re writing isn’t fiction but “creative non-fiction” or “narrative non-fiction.”  These people get really upset if you call their work “fiction.”

Have you ever heard of creative non-fiction?

ALAN: No, I haven’t. Hang about – I’ll go and look it up…

I’m back. It seems that creative non-fiction uses literary techniques to communicate facts. So the piece reads like a story but provides information like a piece of journalism.

JANE: That’s the stuff.  I first encountered the term at a writer’s meeting.  One of our members asked if anyone knew much about it, saying that an agent had suggested to her that she re-draft her non-fiction historical project as “creative non-fiction.”  She then explained what this was and immediately heads around the table began to shake in the negative.

“That’s fiction,” said the award-winning historian.

“That’s fiction,” said the reporter-turned-mystery-writer.

“That’s fiction,” said former academic me.  “If you’re making up dialogue, not quoting from letters or other documents, imagining scenes, that’s fiction.”

But, there are people who think otherwise.  What’s your reaction to the concept of creative or narrative non-fiction?

ALAN: I have mixed feelings. Generally I’d agree with all the people you quoted who said that it was fiction. As I said before, I’d categorise my “Rag Week” story as fiction. But if all the information in the piece is factually accurate, then I suppose that creative non-fiction could be a valid concept. The literary techniques that are brought to bear can be thought of as being a bit like the herbs and spices that you use when cooking. They can add some zing to something that might otherwise be a bit bland.

But just as you shouldn’t over-spice your food, so too you shouldn’t over-fictionalise your non-fiction.

JANE: I agree.  By the way, I really like your spice analogy.

As we saw back when we compared the historical events upon which Shakespeare based his “History Plays” to the actual historical people and events, the problem with putting words into people’s mouths is that, after enough time has passed, the fictional presentation can be mistaken for or even –  as in the case of King Richard III – come to replace fact.

ALAN: And as a result, the debate has never gone away. Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, but his body was not found until 2012, buried beneath a Council car park in the city of Leicester. This caused great excitement, and the whole story was re-examined again and again in the weeks following the discovery.

We discussed Shakespeare’s history plays over several weeks. If anyone missed them, the first piece in the series is here.

JANE: Maybe I’m too deeply ingrained in my academic background, but the difference between a direct quote, a paraphrase (still fact, because it’s rewording a quotation without altering the essentials), a summary (which is condensing, but not changing, the material), and making something up is the line between non-fiction and fiction.

This applies especially to making up conversations.  Even if, for example, the author had a copy of a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington that said, “Thank you for talking with me about my difficulties with your vice president,” and even if the author knew as a historical fact that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were opposed both politically and personally at this time, I think making up the discussion between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington about John Adams moves into the realm of fiction.

But maybe I’m being too stodgy.  Can you give me an example of what you’d consider good creative non-fiction?   Or, if you can’t, how about when what has been presented as non-fiction crosses the line into fiction?

ALAN: Yes, I can – how about we go into the specifics next time?  As a teaser, I’ll promise you examples of both. And what’s more, I’ll take them from the works of the same writer!

JANE: This sounds intriguing.  I can hardly wait!

TT: The Rag Week Rag

August 17, 2017

JANE: As some of our readers may remember, you made several resolutions when you retired.  One of these was to get a dog.

ALAN: His name is Jake. He’s a Huntaway (a New Zealand breed) and he’s a very gentle giant.

Ain’t They Sweet?

JANE: Another goal was to finally pursue your long-held goal of writing a novel.  You haven’t finished the novel, but you did join a writer’s group and have been honing your skills with regular writing exercises.

I really enjoyed your most recent one, which turned into a short story called “Rag Week.”

What was the assignment?

ALAN: We were set a homework task to write a story about supporting or donating to a cause or charity. I remembered a jazz band that some university friends of mine were in. They originally formed specifically to collect money for charity. I decided to write a story around that. So, in the immortal words of Hollywood, it was “based on a true story”. I’m sure that phrase will be very useful when I finally sell the film rights…

JANE: Very!  Your topic a great twist on what could be a very dull, even overly pious topic.

For the amusement of our readers, I’d like to quote the first few paragraphs.  I’d really like to include the whole story but if I did there wouldn’t be any space left to talk to each other.

ALAN: If anyone wants to read the whole thing, they can find it at this link.

JANE: But don’t click on Alan’s link until you’ve read this part!  Otherwise, you’re going to get a spoiler and ruin the rest of this Tangent.  I couldn’t bear that.  Okay…  Here are the opening paragraphs of Alan’s short story “Rag Week.”

“Have you ever noticed that after three pints of Guinness everything sounds like a good idea?

“We were sitting in the pub trying to decide what we could do for rag week. Rag week, of course, is just an excuse for university students to dress up and do silly things in order to persuade people to donate money to charity. What could be more fun than that?

“The third pint of Guinness inspired me to say, ‘Why don’t we pretend to be a Dixieland jazz band? I’ve got a double bass, Nick plays clarinet, and Paul almost plays the trumpet. I’m sure we can get a few other people as well.’”

First of all, I want to praise you for a great narrative hook.

ALAN: (blushing) Thank you.

JANE: However, as much as the English prof who always lingers in the back of my brain wants to discuss the many excellent things you did with this opening – the line “Paul almost plays the trumpet” is priceless and worthy of P.G. Wodehouse – what I’d really like to talk about is something you mention in your introduction to the story.

If I may quote again…  No, that’s silly.  Why don’t you explain it in your own words how you came to write this story in first person.

ALAN: OK, I will. All the events in the story did actually take place, more or less. But even though the piece is narrated in the first person, they didn’t happen to me. The double bass player for The Campus City Jazzmen was a friend of mine, and therefore I felt comfortable in his skin, which is why I chose him as the narrator. But I wasn’t directly involved in the band myself, so I had to use my imagination and make up a few things in order to make the story flow properly. Originally I wrote the piece in the third person, but I felt that it lacked immediacy. There was a distancing effect that I didn’t like. So I re-wrote it in the first person, and lo and behold, it came back to life!

JANE: Cool!  Why do you think the story came to life after you shifted to first person?

ALAN: Originally the third person narrator was a spectator who was watching the band playing its marathon gig in Slab Square. But that didn’t work because it forced me to start the story too late – the band was already playing when the spectator came across them so there wasn’t any way for me to talk about its formation other than through a flashback, or by having a conversation between the spectator and a band member, and both of those made the story sound as though it was being narrated by a Greek chorus that was telling the audience what had happened off stage. Also it was hard for me to find a convincing reason for having the narrator stay there for the whole of the gig. But of course he had to stay there so that I could finish the story properly. It all got too difficult.

So I tried again. I went back in time and started with the formation of the band. I told the story in a third person omniscient voice, but I couldn’t make that work either. The story was far too short for an omniscient narrator to make much of an impact on the reader. The events of the story started to feel too distant, as if I was looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope. The omniscient, god-like narrator simply wasn’t involved in what was going on. The story fell flat.

JANE: Fascinating…  So we’re up to two attempts already.  This is becoming a story in itself.  Go on!

ALAN: I decided that the narrator really should be someone who was actually in the band so that there was a consistent (and much closer) point of view all the way through. I was still hung up on a third-person narrator (because, after all, I hadn’t been a member of the band).

The double bass player was the only band member I had known well, so I made him the third-person viewpoint character. That was a lot better, but it still wasn’t right. I found myself sometimes resorting to reported speech and the passive voice, and those two devices continued to give the story a feeling of distance.

Finally I bit the bullet and re-wrote it in the first person. This gave me an immediacy that I really liked. The passive voice disappeared and, because the narrator was properly inside the story looking out, there was a feeling of intimacy to it that simply hadn’t been there before.

At last I was happy with it.

JANE: Terrific!  Four major attempts and certainly lots of writing and re-writing with each draft.  I agree that you made the right choice.

I’ve just looked at the clock, and I need to run.   Next time, I have another question for you…  I just hope it doesn’t offend you.

TT: Brain Snake Therapy

August 10, 2017

ALAN: OK! Time to see if we can tame last week’s brain snakes. Tell me more about your thoughts.

Feet Up, Eyes Closed

JANE (putting her feet up on the couch and closing her eyes):  Thanks, Alan.  I really appreciate your willingness to talk to me.  These things keep me up at night.

Puns or word plays are one area where, when I’m writing a story that involves created languages (conlangs, for those of you who are coming late to this discussion), I find myself getting snarled up in the coils of brains snakes.

I know that word play provides a real challenge for “real life” translators as well.  This is because not only is there a play on words, the play on words isn’t just a matter of sound but a matter of cultural context.  Without both, you don’t have a good joke.

ALAN: That’s the difference between idiom and literalism, of course. I have an example from real life, but I’m sure that exactly the same difficulty arises in made up languages.

In both American and British English, someone who falls for a prank on 1st of April is an April Fool. But in France, that person is a Poisson D’Avril – literally an April Fish. But anyone translating that phrase into English would, I hope, always choose the idiomatic version. A literal translation would simply puzzle anyone who came across it…

JANE: I agree.  In the case of April Fish versus April Fool, a literal translation would make no sense at all.

When I’m writing, if I can’t resist a clever bit of phrasing, I’ll let myself provide the word play and hope my readers understand that I’m more or less “translating.”  However, many more times, I’ll just re-write and, sorrowfully, eliminate the word play.

Another area where working in a conlang becomes difficult is when a translation is very culturally specific.  These happen even between types of English.  For example, the breed of dog I’d call a German Shepherd, you’d call an Alsatian.

ALAN: That’s another good example of “two nations separated by a common language”, as the saying goes. You and I originally started these Tangents so that we could talk about the kinds of linguistic and cultural differences that separated us. It has taken us a long time to explore that topic and we definitely haven’t finished with it yet. We still keep finding things that astonish us both.

JANE: Absolutely!  If people knew the number of times I need to ask you what an idiomatic expression means…  But I tangent off.  Back to my German Shepherd (your Alsatian).

What would a translation device do in this case?  Certainly the babel fish wouldn’t have an issue, but what about a mechanical translation device or a spell that provides not a telepathic “save” but an actual sound?

What sound would the Universal Translator pick?  Would it assess the number of American English speakers versus the number of British English speakers and choose based on that?  Would each person hear a slightly different translation in his or her earbud?

ALAN: If I had to choose, I’d choose the latter. At least that way I’d hear something I had a good chance of understanding. The first choice has the potential to flummox me with unfamiliar “English” constructions.

JANE: But if there isn’t an earbud, then that’s not going to work.  What if the translation is coming over a conference call or because the Big Evil Alien is making demands over the ship-to-ship communicator?

Ah, but English to English or even Earth Language to Earth Language is a relatively easy problem.  What do you do when a translation would involve creatures, concepts, or actions that don’t have a “match” in one of the cultures involved?

Let’s say we’re on an alien planet.  I’m talking through a mechanical translator to Noram the Alien.  I say, “I’m looking for my dog.  He’s a German Shepherd.”  Well, Noram has never seen a dog, a German, or a shepherd.

ALAN: But does Noram have the concept of “animal companion”? If “he” does, then perhaps analogies can be drawn that would get the idea across, albeit perhaps somewhat crudely. Only if no analogies exist would we probably see the communication completely break down.

JANE: Even if Noram has the concept of an animal companion, the opportunities for communication chaos are vast.  Even “looking for” could be problematic, since it involves vision.  What if Noram doesn’t have eyes but “sees” via tentacles that perceive radiation wave lengths?  What if Noram is from an asexual race and the concept of “he” or “she” isn’t in its/hier concept range?

Noram might hear: “I am seeking my BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  BZZZ. BZZZ.”

Or the translator might attempt description: “I am [visually] seeking my quadrupedal semi-intelligent omnivorous but primarily carnivorous companion creature.  It provides one half of the necessary sexual equation to reproduce its species.  Its species is associated with one small geographic region of the planet of origin [see map] and was originally bred to guard and guide other creatures.”

There’s just SO much to language, to communication, to conlanging that there are times I’m not surprised that many writers never stray from our world, our culture, and, well, just write vampire romance novels.

ALAN: Or they could take the path of least resistance and make the aliens just like us both linguistically and culturally, except of course that the aliens have green skin or lumpy foreheads.

JANE: (hums the classic Star Trek theme).

ALAN: (patiently continuing):  However, assuming that there is some common ground, some degree of communication is always possible.

My dog Jake communicates primarily by smell, but despite that he and I can still exchange ideas, some of them quite complex. He definitely hears “BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  BZZZ. BZZZ.” when I speak, and I hear variations on “WOOF” when he speaks. But nevertheless we understand each other. He can tell me when he needs to go outside and when he needs to come back in. He can tell me when he really, really wants a treat.  He will happily play tug-o-war with a rope if I suggest it.

But I agree that he will never understand that I don’t want to walk in that particular direction because it’s damp and my boots leak. He understands neither boots (except as things that are nice to chew) nor leaks.

JANE: I absolutely, positively agree with you that it’s possible to communicate with aliens.  I do so daily with my cats, guinea pigs, and husband (actually, I’m sure he feels the same about communicating with me).

The difficulty is how does a writer get these complex communications issues across while keeping the story moving?  How does the writer preserve the plot and not get bogged down in what is essentially a detail of setting?



ALAN: I couldn’t have said it better myself.