Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Leiningen Versus the Ants

Did anyone else ever read that Carl Stephenson short story? I read it quite young (though long after it was published--it dates back to 1938). It made a deep impression on me, although I failed to remember the title, and only found it again years later by asking around.

For those who don't know the story, it's about a determined fellow in the Amazon (the real one, not the dot-com one) who is foolish enough not to flee when the Army Ants come.

We're not dealing with Army Ants here. We're dealing with Argentinian Ants. Smaller. Not as vicious. But relentless.

It's been raining bucketloads here in California. Yeah, yeah, already. England's buried under snowdrifts. Well, bring out the violins. The whole crippled-children-begging-in-the-snow gig is traditional, scenic, and literary. Swell. Here in SoCal, it's swampy, and the ants are coming into our houses by the bazillions.

Argentinian Ants are everywhere these days. Unlike most ants, where one colony fights against another, these tiny little weasels recognize their brothers. Imagine for a moment that the Israelis and Palestinians formed a united front. Oh, sure, it sounds like a good idea at first. But think about it. If they weren't harrying one another, who would they be harassing?

Answer: Somebody else.

Similarly, the Argentinian Ants. They've decided to embrace the brotherhood of Argentinian Antdom, and look where it's left us. They don't have warring "anthills." One colony merges into another, not unlike suburbia in the USA. And it isn't just here. There is supposedly a supercolony of these little bastards that now stretches from somewhere in Spain to somewhere in the Netherlands, which ought to be a bit of a worry to to Dutch, who spent considerable blood and gold throwing off Spanish overlordship a few centuries back.

When I was young, one of the banes of my childhood existence was "Red Ants." These locals were bright orange (red being a misnomer) with ferocious jaws and a mildly venomous bite.

You don't see Red Ants much anymore. Why? As it turns out, they've been overrun by the tiny little Argentinian Ants, who overwhelm them by sheer numbers.

And the common lizard of my childhood, the California Horned Lizard, or "Horny Toad" (not to be confused with the bar of the same name in Bangkok), is now severely endangered in California. At first they blamed urbanization, and that hasn't helped...but what did Horned Lizards eat?

Yep. Red Ants.

Meanwhile, the Argentinians continue their march. They don't fall for the standard poisons or ant traps. Even boric acid doesn't work. New Zealand has been invaded by the little creeps, and has done the best research on the topic, and none of the standard tricks work.

We're about to go on vacation. We're hoping that the house is still here when we return.

There has to be a cure. Bolos? Pampas Grass? Screenings of Evita? Sanctuaries for Nazi leaders?

Maybe if you British types would give back the Falklands, these ants would all move there.

Leiningen had it easy. Those were big fat stupid Army Ants. These are devious, relentless, tiny, innumerable ants.

What kind of a name is "Leiningen" anyway?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Suitable for Kindling

I suppose I ought to note that Shock and Awe is now available on the Kindle. It can be picked up for $7.78 in the US, but costs a bit more (£5.45) in the UK.

But, then, doesn't everything?

Well, except healthcare.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Caution to Female Readers

A quote from O.S. Fowler's Sexual Science (1875):

Novel reading redoubles this nervous drain begun by excessive study. What is or can be as ruinous to the nerves as that silly girl, snivelling and laughing by turns over a 'love story'? Of course it awakens her Amativeness...It is doubtful whether fiction writers are public benefactors, or their publishers philanthropists. The amount of nervous excitement and consequent prostration, exhaustion, and disorder they cause is fearful. Girls already have ten times too much excitability for their strength. Yet every page of every novel redoubles both their nervousness and weakness...Love-stories, therefore, in common with all other forms of amatory exctiement, thrill. In this consists their chief fascination. Yet all amatory action with one's self induces sexual ailments. It should always be with the opposite sex only; yet novel reading girls exhaust their female magnetism without obtaining any compensating male magnetism, which of necessity deranges the entire sexual system. The whole world is challenged to invalidate either this premise or inference. Self-abuse is worse, because more animal; but those who really must have amatory excitement will find it 'better to marry,' and expend on real lovers those sexual feelings now worse than wasted on its 'solitary' form. Those perfectly happy in their affections never read novels.

I was unaware that girls have ten times too much excitability for their strength, but I am glad to have solidly based scientific data on that point. Alas, the author fails to reveal the amount of excitability boys have for their strength, but he seems to be suggesting that we have considerably less excitability relative to our strength. Assuming that girls have, say, four times as much excitabilility relative their strength, I guess that gives us boys an average excitability-to-strength ratio of 2.5 or so.

So, Girls, read if you like; but keep in mind the risks of exhausting your female magnetism without obtaining any compensating male magnetism...though I suspect the latter can be obtained by settling onto the couch with a case of beer and watching sports for a weekend or so. So if you must read a novel, set aside some beer-and-sports time to suck up some male magnetism.

The dangers of novel reading are made starkly clear by his statement that "every page of every novel redoubles both their nervousness and weakness." Redouble? Every page? Even in a Large-Print Edition?

My copy of Anna Karenina runs 961 pages. If in fact nervousness and weakness is increased by a factor of two (the meaning of redoubled) by every page, then by the end of that book, a Girl's nervousness and weakness would have been been increased by 2 to the 961st power, which is (rounding after five digits) an increase of 19,491,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000 times, which is a whole lot more nervous and weak.

If you are more sensible and avoid the Russians, selecting instead, say, Jane Eyre at 284 pages, a Girl will still end up 2 to the 284th power worse off--that is, 31,083,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times more nervous and weak. Still quite a bit, though.

It is good that the Creator in His wisdom made Girls weaker as they become more nervous. If a Girl could read a novel and become a million times more nervous but also a million times stronger, we would have a problem of horror-movie proportions on our hands.

As to his last assertion, I can easily believe that those perfectly happy in their affections never read novels, as I have never met anyone perfectly happy in anything. Perhaps I just run with the wrong crowd.

But I am sad he doubts I am a public benefactor.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why Real Life Isn't a Good Guide to Good Fiction

Actually, I don't have anything to say at the moment. But Rufi Cole's blog has a nice post on the whole problem of why we aren't allowed to make fiction as strange as life.

I am friends with both Rufi and her mother, writer Kimberly Cole. They live in a duplex in Corona del Mar, with Kimberly in the upstairs unit, and Rufi in the downstairs unit.

Uh-huh. Mother and daughter, living adjacent to one another. And both novelists. Yeah, sure, that's a believable setup.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Link to Myself

Those of you who don't normally visit the Macmillan New Writing blog may want to wander over there to read my entry in the Round Robin interview series, where I respond to questions posed by Doug Worgul.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Welcome the Lady's Slipper to America

Deborah Swift's The Lady's Slipper has arrived on our shores in a big way. Here's the Huntington Beach Barnes and Noble superstore (shelving about 120,000 titles).

And here, up in Fiction and Literature, sitting next to Jonathan Swift (any relation?) is The Lady's Slipper--face out, what's more, and a half-dozen copies to boot.

All of the other B&N's seem to have it as well, so when you add in the Borders and a couple of indies, there are probably about 150 copies within 25 miles of my house. Keeping in mind that this is Southern California, more noted for surfing than reading, that's a strong showing indeed. (The real reading towns, like Portland, Seattle, and NYC, must be swimming in copies.)

Congrats, Ms. Swift. May you sell a million copies!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Historical Accuracy...and the Joys of Inaccuracy

I'm not a writer of historical fiction. Indeed, I find the idea of writing historical fiction quite intimidating. To be honest, I find the idea of even writing about historical fiction intimidating.

So my hat is off to all of you who actually have the nerve to gird your loins, bite the bullet, bell the cat, or whatever cliche you prefer, and actually venture forward and write the stuff. The thought of writing it might intimidate me, but I love reading it.

And one of the joys of reading good historical fiction is when the writer manages to evoke the time-machine sense of reality, from the chronological details on down to locutions, smells, meals, and attitudes. One of the standard criticisms of a work of historical fiction are either that the timeline has collapsed or that an anachronism of some sort has crept in and both are hard to avoid.

In general, I apply the same standards to historical fiction as to fiction in general: I know it's a lie, but I demand that the lie seems to tell the truth. And often this truthfulness seems to involve stretching the facts a bit...even in historical fiction.

In an author's note preceding one of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin novels, he points out that each novel covers a fairly large span of time, and that since he had written more of the novels than he'd ever imagined at the outset, soon he would be forced to resort to hypothetical years, such as 1812a and 1812b; there simply wasn't enough Napoleonic War to encompass the story he had started to tell.

Well, I was willing to forgive that fiddling with chronology in favor of the story. I'm also willing to forgive Massie's Augustus for having the Romans speak in something like modern phraseology, even though I sometimes found it a bit jarring, and I'm far more than happy to have Alis Hawkins have her Medieval folks speak in something that I can comprehend rather than forcing me to work through it as though it were Chaucer. (Deciding how to represent the speech of another time and culture is a tricky issue. I've always been amused at the tendency of American WWII movies to have the Germans speak English with a rather tight-assed British accent--foreign enough to seem foreign, but still immediately comprehensible.)

At the other end of the language and diction spectrum from Alis and Massie is the problem John Fowles faced in The French Lieutenant's Woman. I read an interview with Fowles where he said he deliberately made the characters speak a somewhat older English than the Victorians actually spoke, because almost no one realized how much spoken Victorian English sounded like the English of the twentieth century. He was asserting that accuracy would have undermined the feeling of authenticity. And, of course, what writers of fiction all know is that the sense of authenticity is more important than authenticity itself; with the exception of the late lamented David Foster Wallace, most of us fictioneers don't use footnotes.

Though, if you're skilled enough, you can make a fine career out of violating people's historical expectations with real authenticity. (Okay, okay. "Real authenticity" is a hideous, seemingly redundant term. Yet I'm contrasting it with a "seeming authenticity," which sort of means "fake authenticity." The language isn't adequate for this sort of thing.)

As I was about to say before I got trapped in that parenthetical comment, one of the admirable things about Faye Booth's historical fiction is how she violates our preconceptions about the period in which her stories are set. How she gets away with this and makes it believable is a mystery to me, as she can't exactly whip out charts and graphs and keep the story moving. It's conviction and skill, I guess, and is sort of the opposite of Fowles' approach. Fowles said to himself, the readers won't believe it if I stick to the facts; Faye said, to hell with it, life then didn't work the way you believe: here's how it was, and you'd better take it and like it.

And, you know what? Both approaches work just fine.

Ahem. That's nine paragraphs before getting to the point of this post, which might be a Personal Best for me.

All this rumination on historical detail was set in motion by watching the DVDs of A&E's Nero Wolfe series. Rex Stout's Wolfe novels were written over nearly forty years, and although the early novels are solidly planted in the 1930s, as the series progresses it loses lock on time. There are stories that are definitely set during World War II, and others that are set in the McCarthy period; and certain technological innovations creep into the pages. But Goodwin and Wolfe apparently remain the same age throughout, and how they dress and the cars they drive also seem frozen in time.

So how was this handled on film? Very much as in the books, but with variations. The cars and sets suggest the 1950s, but Goodwin's and Wolfe's dress and dialogue are more 1940s, and characters and situations suggest everything from the late 1930s to the mid-60s--and not in any particular order. In one episode, Archie is in the military and trying to be sent to fight in Europe rather than serving stateside; in another, one of the characters talks much like a beatnik, but dresses as if she skipped over from Twiggy-era Carnaby Street.

Rather than worrying about matching the time period of the stories, the teleplays include whatever elements make the adaptation most diverting. And, oddly, I found that it works. Like the books, the teleplays take place in a sort of Neverland, where the main characters continue on virtually unchanged. (The fact that most of the stories take place inside Wolfe's house make this easier to pull off.) I find myself noticing that Archie is wearing a Sam Spade hat while talking to a woman in go-go boots and Dippity-Do hair, but I don't find myself objecting. This unchanging cast of characters and attitudes is somehow satisfying--a kind of comfort food for the brain.

On thinking it over, I realized I had other favorite diversions that also fit this mold, notably Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster tales. The television adaptation of those stories stuck to a single time period, but the stories themselves, like the Wolfe stories, started out rooted in time but gradually drifted off into their own universe, a universe that has a chronology in the sense of A happening before B, but not in the sense that any quantifiable period of time passed between them.

These two examples break two oft-quoted rules about writing fiction. First is the simple rule against anachronism--a good rule for historically grounded fiction, but inapplicable in the familiar yet separate universes of Wodehouse or Stout.

Second is the rule about the importance of character arc. Neither Jeeves nor Wooster nor Goodwin nor Wolfe has one. All four of the characters are rounded out over the course of their stories, but no one would claim that they had really changed.

Which proves what, exactly? I'm not sure. I think it proves that an overriding rule is: Entertain your readers enough and none of the other rules apply.


PS Rex Stout's Wolfe novels provide one of the most amusing (and ridiculous) examples of readers engaging in the biographical fallacy. Because the character Nero Wolfe is obese and obsessed with food, many readers assumed that Stout himself was overweight. (This was probably subconsciously reinforced by his surname.) Stout was anything but--from pictures I've seen of him, I think the best word for his physique is probably "lanky."

This also challenges the view of fiction as wish-fulfillment on the part of the writer, as I seriously doubt that the author really wanted to be obese but couldn't achieve it.

PPS Nero Wolfe provides a good touchstone for how bodies have changed over the 20th century. Wolfe stands 5 feet 11 inches and weighs 272 pounds (which Archie often calls "a seventh of a ton"). That's certainly obese, but today it wouldn't be the source of astonishment it was at the time; in the books, people stop and stare, and Wolfe has special chairs designed to support his elephantine bulk. He's less than 100 pounds overweight according to his BMI--a lot of extra weight, but no longer circus-freak quality. Today he probably couldn't even get a slot on The Biggest Loser; he's too svelte.