Adapting Ender’s Game

Ender's GameEnder’s Game strikes me as a good example of the pros and cons of adapting novels for the screen. In a novel, psychological complexity is on full display and the internal life of the protagonist generally occupies our attention. Movies are visual and aural, so they are more spectacular, but movies can only show us so much psychology. This is why most adaptations miss the mark.

The book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a beautiful, insightful science fiction novel in which a young cadet comes to terms with his destiny as humanity’s savior in a war against a powerful alien race. His training, begun from a very early age, is emotionally ruthless and isolating, and our hero is deprived of an outlet for his gentle nature. Instead, all his hours are occupied by the schemes of Colonel Graff, whose job it is to hone Ender Wiggin into a mercilessness, strategic genius, even as Ender struggles against bullying and the playground politics of his fellow cadets.

The “plot”, the external actions taken, the strange environments, and the other characters are in the novel totally subservient to Ender’s emotional journey. It’s this journey that makes the novel great, and these elements are the most difficult to translate to the screen. For one thing, Ender’s sustaining love for his sister and the fear he has of his brother are almost completely cut from the film simply to accommodate a normal run-time for a blockbuster.

Much of the emotional nuance also has to be cropped from the screenplay for time, so what remains are the larger emotional notes, the most obvious conflicts with the least subtlety. All the minor wins and losses Ender experiences in the novel must be swept under the rug, and only when they’ve cut that content and finished the screenplay do they begin looking for an actor to portray what’s left.

Actors have a tall order when it comes to adapting literature. They bring their own experiences to bear when they read a screenplay, and do what they can to express their roles. But they can’t really compete with our imagination, which in a novel fills the ambiguous details and idealizes characters and action. Asa Butterfield played Ender and did a fine job, though I felt none of the deep empathy that I felt with the character in the novel.

But movies do have their own weaponry that novels cannot touch. Where the movie really delivers is in its special effects. Unlike reading the novel, watching Ender’s Game is a treat because we actually get to see the amazing sets, the charismatic faces of Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, and the slow ballet of a zero gravity practice chamber. We get to experience it empirically. The novel describes these elements very well, but it’s a different experience altogether to engage your eyes and ears, visual and auditory cortices with the crafts of Hollywood.

Unfortunately, what I loved most about the book, what I thought truly made it a great one, didn’t make it into the movie. The novel was fairly inspiring while the movie was merely entertaining. I wasn’t surprised by this, as I can probably count on one hand the number of film adaptations that stand up to their prose counterparts.

New Holidays

I’ve written before about my inability to connect with a lot of popular holidays. In Canada, we’ve just had two of these in Valentine’s Day and Family Day, a statutory holiday inaugurated in Ontario in 2007. While I respect, for the most part, the emotions these holidays are meant to evoke, I find these celebrations arbitrary and unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily take the day off.

Holidays motivate the economy in dependable ways and give people an emotional framework to relate to one another, but the attendant values promulgated for each are not usually values that I hold. I have trouble getting into the spirit of many holidays and find myself feeling like I’m basically just along for the ride.

In case the ruling Illuminati ask me what holidays I’d prefer, I have a few ready.

Reading Day

There is already such a thing as Canada Book Day (April 23rd) and the intentions behind it are similar to what I would propose, but on a larger scale. People remind themselves of the importance of books and more importantly, of reading, arguably the most important activity in the development of human intelligence. But I want a day off. A whole day to read, talk about books, and remind ourselves as a society that we can connect with each other across cultures and generations through words. The economical benefits of a day devoted to books could compete with the economical benefits of Valentine’s Day. A book costs $20, a Valentine’s Day card costs $5, and chocolates go equally well with either.

Day of Silence

In the interest of global sanity, I’d like to see everybody take a vow of silence for one day a year. Such a thing already exists in the GLBT community as a protest against discrimination, but what I’m after is silence for the sake of silence. One can learn a lot about oneself doing this practice; the habits we unconsciously carry out through language come into the spotlight when they are not an option. When we stop worrying about filling the awkward silences between us, we start to observe the emotions that drive us to inane chatter. Besides, with so much noise in our society, wouldn’t it just be nice? Again, here, I want a day off.

Day of Debate

Get together with friends and enemies and have a civil conversation with the goal of analyzing your own beliefs. It’s so easy to feel complacent in our beliefs and we spend a lot of time finding arguments for beliefs we already have. That’s why debates are important; our opposition, if they’ve done their homework, are bound to point out something we hadn’t considered. A day like this might help our myopic, partisan culture to share ideas in a productive way. Granted, most debates don’t solve anything on the spot, but sometimes when we hear an argument against our position, it takes root and develops over time. And naturally, one cannot be expected to work on the Day of Debate.

Yoga Day

This would be a day to cultivate yoga practice around the world. The physical and mental health benefits of yoga are undeniable, but the practice turns off a lot of people because of a maelstrom of misconceptions. I currently know of no particular day dedicated solely to yoga (the closest I found was World Healing Day), but one day per year devoted to serious education and practice would help dissolve these misconceptions and turn people on to this gentle, invigorating, ancient art.

Fast Day

Corporations would try to kibosh this before it got off the ground, but the health benefits of one day of fasting per year would probably have such a dramatic trickle-down effect on healthcare that it might be worth considering even from a purely economic standpoint. Unless you’re working a demanding physical job where you need calories, you can survive one day of fasting. It flushes out the system, gives the digestive tract a break, and points out all those instances during an average day where we reach for food simply out of habit.

Weekend of Absolute Hilarity

I joked about this previously but I do think it’s a good idea. I try to have a few of these per year. Just do what it takes to laugh your stress away. It’s a cliché, but who doubts that laughter eases our emotional tensions and leads to better health?

Coherence

My 9000-word short story “Coherence” has been published in a new anthology from Dreamscape Press®. Nuclear Town U.S.A. is an anthology of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction now available at Amazon.com.

Nuclear Town USA - CoverThis short story is currently my longest, just slightly longer than many publishers’ maximum allowable word count, so I’m glad it found a home. “Coherence” is a story about a scientist who tries to prevent the apocalypse using time travel. Guess what, things don’t work out for him the way he expects. (#conflict)

Shortly after I finished writing the story I read Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and I found it really strange because all these little, weirdly specific details from my story were in his story. Is it possible that all the books and movies I’ve seen that were inspired by Childhood’s End somehow implied those details to me through context?

How am I supposed to know?

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My Top 5 Spec Fiction Novels

“Speculative fiction” is used to describe a wide variety of stories including science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate realities, and a whole host of literature that goes beyond our normal world. It is one of my favorite vehicles for storytelling because of the ability to construct worlds based on “what if” questions.

My opinions tend to shift as I grow, so any list I make is bound to change. But five spec fiction novels currently stand out in my esteem. Some of the novels below I read years ago, and some only just recently. Please drop me a line with recommendations or opinions. Here we go, in no particular order.

Valis by Philip K. DickValis

One of Philip K. Dick’s last novels, Valis is the story of Horselover Fat, a paranoid author with more than his fair share of identity problems. Mired in conspiracies and alternate realities, and with a disintegrating grip on reality, Fat goes on a quest to find Sophia, a two-year-old girl who may or may not be an incarnation of Gnostic wisdom. He is searching for the true meaning of religion, and at the same time trying to explain his life to himself.

This is a theoretical head trip that features the author himself as one of the characters. The best part of this novel is the way Dick treads the schizophrenic line between the real and unreal, conspiracy and truth, and multiple versions of the Self. You can read these themes again in PKD’s earlier (1977) and more popular novel A Scanner Darkly.

This is one of Dick’s most obliquely autobiographical novels, a literary sketchpad of ideas about what happened to him on February 3, 1974, when deep mysteries were revealed to him through a pink laser (or maybe an acid flashback). Appended to the novel are sections from his notorious Exegesis, featuring such gems as:

4) Matter is plastic in the face of Mind; and

14) The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.

 

Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Without a doubt, Margaret Atwood is a master of the genre. Of the pitiful few of her novels I’ve read so far, Oryx and Crake is her most accessible and brilliant.

Snowman lives in a wild ravaged by severe weather. He is savage, a relic from before the disaster, before the constant storms, unbearable sun, and new genetic humanoids who eat plants and take everything literally. He is from a life we, as readers, recognize. His world used to be like our world, may actually have been our world, in its emotions, interactions, and even technology. But now that Snowman is one of the last living pure human beings, he finds himself remembering life as it was before the disaster. As he remembers, we are carried along in a beautiful, character-driven memorial of his life up until everything changed forever.

Speculative fiction is often alluring because of the ideas it offers, of fantastic worlds and situations, future technologies and the dreams of what could be. Oryx and Crake has all this and more. This story is a powerhouse of character development. In fact, the character development never stops; Atwood takes us right inside Snowman and shows us a resoundingly human being in the center of a weird, new world. And with all her tender, human understanding, her big-thinking doesn’t suffer for it. Her world-building is remarkable, her future history is intriguing and thoughtful, and her prose is beautiful. Despite my utmost respect for Aldous Huxley, Oryx and Crake seems smarter, more grandiose, and yet subtler than Brave New World.

 

Against The Day by Thomas PynchonAgainst The Day

Against The Day is a sprawling megalith, set at the end of the 19th century, spanning thirty years and the known geographical world (as well as places only speculated about). An intricate pastiche of genres featuring dozens of characters, there is enough “speculative” stuff in here to allow it in the genre. At over 1000 pages this is Pynchon’s longest work, and it brims with such a wealth of themes, intrigues and comedy that I enjoyed simply being lost in its enormous and complex telling.

Against The Day is aptly considered metahistorical fiction because of its historical accuracy and frequent self-reflexive detours into the fantastical. In a miasma of comings and goings we meet Nikola Tesla, Franz Ferdinand, a dog named Pugnax who can communicate with the crew of an airship, a psychic detective, an anarchist dynamite terrorist addicted to his explosives, a traveling magician, and a few normal people who can be very confused at times.

Pynchon fans will recognize his trademark wit, his complex wordplay, his penchant for anarchism, pharmacological exploration, dirty sex, ridiculous names, and his ability to lead us into subtly strange cul-de-sacs of theory, only to emerge and find the world has not waited up for us. For people who have not read his work, this may not be the best to start with, but Against The Day is a novel I rate highly in just about any category.

 

Childhood's EndChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Arguably history’s best science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke floored me with this one. With no main character to speak of, one might think the story hard to follow, but the development of ideas is so masterful here, so wise and poignant, that I was rapt the entire time.

Aliens have peacefully invaded Earth, and in doing so have brought about unprecedented peace and progress. Their motivations are vague, and the mystery is only amplified by their insistence on governing remotely, not allowing humankind to see them. When an alien is discovered at a cocktail party researching human psychical behavior, and an impromptu Ouija Board session reveals the destination of the alien’s home star, Jan Rodricks decides to stow away on their ship to discover something, anything, about them.

Meanwhile the culture on Earth undergoes a complete overhaul. When technological development creates a peaceful but artless near-utopia on Earth, citizens found New Athens, a cultural center dedicated to creative arts. But something is happening to Earth’s children, and humanity’s dreams of controlling its own destiny collapse. They are being prepared for something strange and new. By the time Jan returns home, he no longer recognizes Earth.

This beautiful, early gem of science fiction (1953) combines mystical, religious and technological transcendence to mind blowing effect.

 

The Forever War by Joe HaldemanThe Forever War

William Mandella is drafted into the United Nations Exploratory Force to combat a distant alien race. Navigation into “collapsars” makes the interstellar distances reachable in very little subjective time. But when William returns after his first successful mission, he finds decades have gone by. The culture shift is too extreme for him. Homosexuality is the new norm, promoted by world governments to curb overpopulation. William has become an outsider. He is unable to wrap his head around the technologies and ideologies that have developed in his absence. Alienated from his home planet, he re-enlists for a new wave of combat. But the more he fights, the further he finds himself from the world he once knew.

With each interstellar jump, society changes too drastically for him to cope, and his only recourse is to the life he knows—military life—with all the murder, calculated brutality, and inhumanity that comes with war. One of the only things keeping him grounded is his lover and fellow soldier Marygay. But the machinery of war is cruel and the soldiers are rarely allowed to stay in once place for any length of time. William has lost his context, lost himself, and he can only move forward.

This amazing meditation on the alienation of war is a beautifully told allegory from a man who knows what he’s talking about. This is military science fiction at its finest, and fans of hard science will be blow away by Haldeman’s innovations, even if they are fictitious. Despite the harsh reality presented in the book, there is an enduring humanity throughout. Through fabulous leaps in spacetime, William Mandella runs a gamut of anger and nihilism and ultimately reaches a kind of acceptance in the ongoing flux of war. This is a beautiful novel that nearly overwhelmed me.

Honorable Mentions:

A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, and Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

NaNoWriMo 2014

One year ago I attempted writing a novel in a month as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It motivated me because it was essentially a contest with myself. Well, it’s November again and NaNoWriMo 2014 has begun, but I am not writing another novel this year. This morning, I finished a long, grueling edit of last year’s novel Residuum. One more polish and I’ll send it out.

50,000 words in a month felt like a steep hill to climb. Writing while working a day job meant I had only a few hours every weekday to make my word count (much more on weekends). In this sense the contest offers great training for hopeful novelists; if you can’t make your word count consistently, you will not be the next Stephen King.

My new draft sits right around 90,000 words, which is about three hundred double-spaced pages. I generally find it easier to overwrite at first and then pare down, taking out all the non-essential bits. I aimed at 50,000 last November and ended a little over 60,000 words, but I was left with the tough task of adding to my novel.

I added to Residuum because it wasn’t finished. Many subplots or themes weren’t properly developed because I was rushing to meet the deadline, and since I wanted to make this novel as good as possible, I needed time to think about those peripheral issues and develop them in a thoughtful way that integrated seamlessly with what I had already written. So I took my time. I knew my second pass would seriously fill out my page-count, but I had no idea I’d be coming up with 50% additional material.

Something I didn’t realize when I began my novel is that many speculative fiction markets won’t even accept a 50,000-word book. 75,000 seems to be the agreed-upon minimum for genre fiction, and many prefer novels 85,000 words and up. I can only imagine the disappointment some must feel when they bust their asses to finish their 50,000 word masterpieces to realize many publishers and agents won’t even look at it.

NaNoWriMo inspires people to be creative, and for that I consider it a great project. Anything that motivates people to push their creative potential nudges our world in the right direction. For someone’s first attempt at a novel, I highly recommend it. Their motivational emails and forum discussions really do make one feel like a part of something exciting. But considering that one year later I’m still working on the same novel, I don’t feel I’m missing out this year. Maybe next year.

Dreamscape Press

I have only a brief update this week. A novel, a feature film script, and a handful of short stories have consumed most of my recent writing efforts. I’m encouraged since I learned that Dreamscape Press® will be featuring two of my short stories.

Dreamscape Press is a new publisher entering the speculative fiction market with a number of anthologies. I contributed two very different stories to 100 Worlds, and Nuclear Town USA. The former contains 100-word stories from 100 authors, the latter is apocalyptic science fiction.

My friend Michael Stasko, who made Iodine and co-wrote Things To Do and The Birder, will also be featured in 100 Worlds.

I’ll be sure to post here when these anthologies become available.

100-worlds_full3

Anticipations

Can’t write a post tonight. I’m busy rubbing my hands together over these goodies.

Sleeper by Ty Segall – August 20

SleeperDrag City’s most exciting newcomer just released one of his best albums, and that’s no small feat considering his output. Sleeper is mostly acoustic and mighty touching. Segall draws inspiration from a recent loss and transmutes it into something beautiful and even joyful. Big notes of John Lennon on the palate, whiffs of Neil Young in the nose, and just dripping with Segall’s signature sound that’s just…what’s the word…San Fran-tastic.

 

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon – September 17

Bleeding EdgeThis countdown has been running on in my mind for a while now. Every Pynchon novel excites me, and this brand new Manhattan-set, dot-com-disillusionment tale has received a lot of positive buzz in advance of its release, which I have been trying, nearly successfully, to ignore. Considering how fun and funny his last novel Inherent Vice was, expect Bleeding Edge to deliver one of the hippest, most hilarious narratives of the year, with all the juicy esoteric details you need to feed your paranoia.

 

The Growlers play Toronto – October 1

Surf-rock outfit The Growlers are playing at Lee’s Palace. I’ve been spinning Hung At Heart a good deal lately and I expect this show to be non-stop entertainment. Their show should look something like this, minus Bill Murray.

 

Peace On Venus by Bardo Pond – October 28

Peace On VenusThe essential psychedelic rock experience Bardo Pond release their newest creations in October. These Philadelphian sherpas always reach for the most rarified gnostic noise to push yer head where it needs to be. The recordings out of the Lemur House continue to knit the band closer together while taking the sound farther out. I can’t wait to add this to my already-perversely-large Bardo Pond LP collection. They’ve even given us a little taste of what’s to come.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 4

In “Change Your Brain” parts 1, 2 and 3, I tried to recommend books that had a positive effect on my behavior. Glancing back over recent posts I’ve noticed a shift in my thinking, and it stands to reason that the book I just finished contributed to that change in a major way.

We can’t know exactly why we are the way we are. Since each of our ‘minds’ arise out of the darkness of unconscious processes, it stands to reason that we should look toward the unconscious when we need a tune-up. Discovering our unconscious assumptions and bringing them into consciousness allows us to shed light on the processes that guide our minds.

The following book might have made me a little more sane.

Science and SanityScience and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski

The book’s full title is Science & Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems. This is the foundational text for the branch of study called General Semantics. Its claims rest on the fact that language and science are forms of human behavior. If our behaviors and interpretations of reality are not accurate to the facts of the world, our evaluations, and therefore our future behaviors, will result in harmful shocks, delusions, failures, etc. We use science to communicate facts to one another. These facts offer dependable models. But in our communication and even our thinking, unconscious assumptions can deform the information and leave us with models that are false to the facts of the world. If these unconscious assumptions aren’t remedied, our species will become less sane.

So why pick on Aristotle? Briefly, this work is an attempt to recondition the Western mind. Because Aristotle had the last word on philosophy before the Dark Ages, his theories went untouched for centuries and have become engrained in most Western culture. Though Science and Sanity was published in 1933, we still have a long way to go.

Aristotle inherited the primitive language of his day. The language was formed by cultures that did not have the benefits of rigorous analysis. He inherited a mythologized interpretation of reality, a worldview that explained phenomena in anthropomorphic terms without the checks and balances of science. Aristotle used the language of his day to express the laws of “logic”, thus introducing primitive unconscious assumptions about the world to future generations. World events halted the progress of philosophy after Aristotle and his works became canonized. Simply because he was the last word in reason for hundreds of years, his philosophy took deep root in the Western mind.

Aristotle’s assumption of properties in objects and his use of subject-predicate language take the brunt of Korzybski’s criticism. Words are words and things are things and never the two shall meet. No word can ever “be” the thing it describes. When I claim “Mark is lazy”, I overstep empirical means by ascribing to Mark some property of laziness which I have not looked for scientifically. In truth, all I have is my empirical observations of Mark’s behavior. To say “Mark acts lazy” is more accurate to the known facts and describes the world as a dynamic process.

I know this seems like nitpicking, but subject-predicate reasoning leads to unjustified inferences about the world and in extreme cases can lead us to completely false assumptions. Most pernicious is the fact that these assumptions usually go unchecked because they happen unconsciously.

Next on the chopping block is Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle. This is the claim that a thing, A, is either true, or it’s negation, not A, is true, and nothing else is possible. This thought pattern oversimplifies observations in the worst way. Korzybski’s revision encourages a revolt from this two-valued logic to an infinite-valued logic. A person can be wholly inside a house, wholly outside a house, or partially inside and partially outside to any conceivable degree.

Another major consideration is the elimination of elementalism in language. Elementalism describes the breaking down of concepts into constituent elements that cannot exist outside of the whole. Most famously, Newton broke down our reality into ‘space’ and ‘time’ and this verbal trick led countless scientists on the search for the properties of ‘space’ and ‘time’ which led to failure, of course, since there are no such observable things as ‘space’ or ‘time’. Einstein proved that they are inseparable. When we verbally separate them, we must make sure this separation remains on the verbal level. Words are not things.

Another example is the linguistic dichotomy formed between ‘mind’ and ‘body’, two aspects of a whole that cannot exist independently. A man who researches the properties of ‘mind’ while disregarding ‘body’ does himself a disservice because the properties of ‘mind’ involve the ‘body’, and vice versa, to varying degrees. Entities work as-a-whole, and should be analyzed and spoken of as such.

The harm of Aristotlian systems is that they look for The Truth as opposed to a truth. Science and future humanity need languages that correspond to observable phenomena that operate within a context and as-a-whole. Accurate descriptions lead to accurate models of the world, and accurate models lead to sanity. As you might tell from the description so far, the aims of Science & Sanity reach far and deep and aim to completely reformulate many of the thinking-habits of Western culture.

But it doesn’t stop there. You’ll learn about colloidal chemistry, the dynamic gradient, differential calculus, Euclid and Riemann, Einstein and Minkowski, and why nothing truly happens “simultaneously” with anything else. This vast, multidisciplinary approach gives a philosophical and technical basis for using language in clear, unmistakable ways.

Science and Sanity claims that knowledge and language are only accurate when their structure matches the structure of the world. If we rely on words, and the definitions of those words are other words, concrete meaning retreats from us. The true test for a scientifically sound language, according to Korzybski, is that the language matches the structure of the world it represents. More far-reaching still is his insistence that structure is the only true content of knowledge.

Korzybski believes that mathematics most perfectly matches the structure of the world as well as our nervous systems, therefore acting as our most perfect bridge of communication. Since our linguistic processes must make instantaneous assessments of a dynamic world, differential calculus offers an analogy by its ability to provide us with empirically accurate snapshots of processes.

Overall, the work means to enhance our “consciousness of abstracting”, to keep us mindful of the world around us, to differentiate between our observations through lower order nervous centers (sense input) and our higher order abstractions (language, mental models, etc.). “Consciousness of abstracting” offers an scholastic approach to mindfulness, and means to keep us from confusing orders of abstraction. The attempt is to bring scientific clarity to human thought.

While there are large swathes of the book that are quite technical, mathematical and daunting, the underlying principles remain easy to understand (though I should admit that I was somewhat primed for it by Robert Anton Wilson). Chapter to chapter, the exposition is powerful and comprehensive through its nearly 800 pages.

I recommend this book for scientists, linguists, philosophers, and people with time to read.

Pynchon News Is Good News

Shortly after it was released, Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day was gifted to me and quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time. This novel is a monster. And because it’s so huge, and his previous novel Mason & Dixon came a decade prior, and it was also huge, and Pynchon is getting on in years, I had this impression it might be his last book.

Fortunately I was wrong and he quickly tossed off Inherent Vice, a hilarious detective novel set at the end of the hippy era. Supposedly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie adaptation of Inherent Vice is filming now with rumors of a ensemble cast full of stars. But what’s even more exciting is that Pynchon has a new novel coming out later this year. The novel is called Bleeding Edge and it is set in New York between the collapse of the dot-com bubble and September 11, 2001.

Read the first page of Bleeding Edge here.

I’ve read just about everything Pynchon has written, and his longer novels are my favorite. I particularly love Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day because there is so much going on in them, so many different angles to the narratives, and so many different ways to read them, that every person who reads the novel comes out of it with a different experience.

A while ago I picked one angle and wrote a review of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Article first published as Book Review: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon on Blogcritics.

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon

Dubbed “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” (The New Republic), Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, freewheeling, paranoid journey through Europe at the tail end of the Second World War. Novelist and esoterica buff Thomas Pynchon is in top form for this, his third novel. A dense, challenging epic, Gravity’s Rainbow is highly rewarding for those with the attention span and patience to take it on.

From the first line we know the concept of The Preterite, or passed-over, is going to be a prominent theme. “A screaming comes across the sky…” A screaming what? The allusion is to a rocket, faster than sound so its target has no way to hear it coming. And the hunt for this preterite rocket, codename “00000″, and its mysterious black device, the S-Gerat, is a loose analogy of our main character, Tyrone Slothrop. In Pynchon’s own post-modern, self-reflexive words, “Some called [Tyrone] a ‘pretext.’ Others felt that he was a genuine, point-for-point microcosm.” (p. 753) This atypical approach to writing defies expectations, assuring Gravity’s Rainbow a prominent place in the history of the novel, even if it is often overlooked.

Pynchon loves to play with the form. The book introduces a madman’s variety of characters in a stunning array of literary styles. Often hilarious, sometimes shocking, Gravity’s Rainbow is no simple story. Perhaps not since Ulysses by James Joyce has an author swung through the canopy of styles so freely, offering up slapstick, scientific realism, hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness and more. The novel slides from one heterodox story to the next, immersing the reader in the chaos spread across Europe by World War II. Some characters hide, some fall in love or dive into obsession to distract from the reality of wartime, while others charge in headfirst, hungry for glory. And all the while, the real question is being asked – why? Why was there a war? Who made the decisions leading up to it, and how was it determined that war is the best option?

Tyrone isn’t introduced until page 61, but even before that we get a sense of his complicated personality. Tyrone has been the subject of bizarre, pseudo-Pavlovian conditioning that somehow leads him to be sexually aroused just before a rocket strike. Stranger yet is that he seems to have subconscious knowledge of exactly where the rocket will hit, though he thinks he’s just following his libido. We begin to understand that Tyrone’s motivations are not wholly his own. Like everyone in the war, Tyrone is deeply affected by a terrifying situation beyond his control. And like the 00000, we sense that he will only become aware of his true role in all this when it’s too late.

Gravity’s Rainbow has been called meta-historical fiction. The historical context of the story is completely true, but Pynchon draws the reader into the mania of the characters, little tangents and cul-de-sacs of fantasy that elevate the story to the realm of mythology. This sounds intellectual and heady, and it is, but the story never feels dry; sex, drugs, love and mystery drive the plot forward with a knowing humor that is both laugh-out-loud and profound.

Following a variety of WWII fringe groups brings the story into even stranger realms. Shadowy organizations like The White Visitation, PISCES, and Operation Black Wing look at the war through lenses of parapsychology and the occult. Delving into Nazi legend, corporate conspiracy, Kabbalah, the elusive Schwarzkommando, ballistic hermeneutics and a unique brand of rocket mysticism, Gravity’s Rainbow offers up a paranoid dream for hippies and soldiers alike. The novel seems to say that some special form of mass insanity must be responsible for something on the magnitude of a World War. What the cause of this insanity is, exactly, is a little more elusive.

Tyrone is an American-born rocket specialist, a guidance man who frequently peeks his head up into the realm of superhero. His irresistible urge toward sex and predilection for drugs find him stumbling into situations oblivious to the big picture, though he often ends up in the right place. When a hashish pickup goes awry Tyrone raids an opera costume trunk and becomes “Rocket Man”, a stylish WWII hero if ever there was one. Tyrone is not a typical hero, just as Gravity’s Rainbow is not a typical novel. Tyrone is both Preterite and Elect. He is a Chosen One, the special subject of strange experiments in behavioral conditioning. But he always manages to stay out of the limelight, passed over at crucial times while danger misses him by a hair. In one of the more brutal scenes in the book, pair of doctors search a spa for Tyrone, who by now is dressed as a giant pig. Through a case of mistaken identity, Tyrone avoids a horrible future that would more than dampen his sex life. Both his preterition and election save him from the worst of the war.

The same goes for the novel. It is a Bible of countercultural intellectualism, an underground epic for dope smokers and mystics that by its undeniable brilliance was awarded a National Book Award. On the other hand Gravity’s Rainbow was passed over for a Pulitzer Prize despite a unilateral vote. The Pulitzer committee decided instead to hand out no prize that year, presumably because of the morally questionable material throughout the book. Despite the real horrors of WWII and the Nazi party, apparently this fiction was too much for the Pulitzer board to handle. A book like this will likely never be given the prestige it deserves because it deals with too many fringe elements in a sympathetic way. Gravity’s Rainbow blurs morality, details too much real-world corruption and power politics, discloses too much about the business of war, GE and IG Farben, looks at behavioral conditioning and fetishism, and all with strong undertones of anarchy. Books like this are almost always passed over by the Establishment.

Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in the tumultuous fallout of war, and much like the victims of a rocket strike, swirls and writhes to recover what has been destroyed. “My mother is the war,” says mathematician Roger Mexico. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and in a war like this one everyone is affected. Everyone reacts in his or her own way to the visible and invisible causes of war. Despite the chaotic and multifaceted paths taken by our heroes, the many become unified in their loves and fears, all raising a glass in song at the absurd, sublime condition of our world. Nothing is the same after the war. And those who make it through the dense prose of Gravity’s Rainbow will remember it as a benchmark novel like no other.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel to be read and re-read, a companion to be studied over a lifetime. Thanks to the grandness of the story, the prodigal complexion of the prose, and Pynchon’s ability to weave minute detail and lofty abstraction into the telling, Gravity’s Rainbow reveals more and more of its secrets with subsequent reads. It grows with the reader, like an old man dispensing wisdom through the years, unafraid to offend or enlighten.

The Secular Bible

This is the third time recently that Mark Frost has influenced my post (seeTwo Things “Argo” Missed‘ and ‘Walking With Fire‘). Through his Twitter feed I saw this article by Hunter Stuart about a “Hollywood Power Couple” trying to advertise their new History Channel program The Bible by advocating for The Bible to be taught in public schools.

The point this couple raises in their article (which you can read here) is that The Bible is important as a fundamental text of Western civilization, never mind the religious ethos attached to it. Fair enough. There is no doubt The Bible is one of the building blocks of our culture. It is still by far the best selling book of all time, even beating out 50 Shades of Grey.

They claim The Bible is responsible for many of the phrases that some people use every once in a while. They also claim the allegories originating in The Bible made possible the work of Shakespeare, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Matrix and so on. They even quoted the Supreme Court:

“[T]he Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as a part of a secular (public school) program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” (Abington School District v. Schempp)

Naturally the sticky part here is the separation of church and state. The Bible is the foundational book of one specific religion, so the outcry from non-Christians would be unstoppable. It could be argued also that The Bible had a comparable impact on the formulation of The West as Roman imperialism and Greek philosophy. Why should The Bible, taken as a historical and literary document, take prominence?

Because clearly there is more to their agenda than English and History class. If we believe, as Roma Downey and Mark Burnett do, that The Bible is the living Word of God, we have to admit that God borrowed a lot of those stories. The New Testament borrows from the Old Testament. The Old Testament borrows from Egypt, Zoroastrianism, Babylon, and more. Christianity itself would never have existed without Neo-Platonism, but I don’t remember Plato or Plotinus from public school. Don’t we care about the foundations of the foundations of Western civilization?

And as for the literary merits of The Bible, Downey and Burnett might feel a little differently if The Bible was thrown into the English class alongside The Catcher In The Rye and 1984. Imagine the book reports.

“Moses: Murderer Hero” by Little Tyler

“Leviticus: A Comedic Interlude” by Little Billy

“Sexual Motifs and the Mother of Prostitutes in Revelation” by Little Monica

The whole idea of an “historical” Bible stripped of its religious principles is absurd. Were it not for the religious aspect The Bible would not have proliferated as it did, people would not have been “converted/saved” and other people wouldn’t have been burned to death as “heretics”. Are those nasty bits part of the curriculum as well?

In order to have real significance, a reading of The Bible has to presuppose the validity of Christian metaphysics, Christian morality, and the supremacy of YHWH, the Jewish God, who is one of several gods mentioned in The Bible (and the supposed author of the book…but I’m sure He’s impartial).

Please leave your book reports in the Comments section for grading.