Thursday, November 25, 2010

Catching up with Classics – The Time Machine

I enjoy reading sci-fi, so it came as a bit of a shock when I realized I’d never actually read anything by a writer who many consider one of the father’s of science fiction: H.G. Wells. Ok, I believe I did read the radio play adaptation by or Orsen Welles of the classic novel “The War of the Worlds”, but I’ve never actually read anything by the man himself.

So I decided to try “The Time Machine”. I wasn’t very long and I figured if I couldn’t get into the style then I wouldn’t have to try too hard to finish it. My only experience with the story is the classic George Pal film from 1960. When I was a kid I used to watch this one my with my dad, who probably enjoyed it in his youth. I remembered the basics, how he traveled into the future and met the blonde folks and the ugly underground dwellers. But aside from that, I was a newbie.

The first part of the book threw me off, mostly because the time traveler starts speaking about math right off the bat. Being a writer I have issues wrapping my head around conceptual math, so I was a bit nervous about the rest of the book. But after explaining the basic principle of why time travel should work, we jump into the story.

I enjoyed it quite a bit. Wells does a good job of creating a story that revolves around the idea of mankind in the far future but splitting into two very different paths. At first you aren’t even sure that these are both decedents of man, more like alien beings that ended up taking over. But when the truth is revealed the horror of it is pretty interesting.

Would sci-fi be the same without this novel? Hard to say. Time travel stories abound now, especially in shows like “Star Trek” and “Stargate”. When they are told well, they can be very entertaining, like the “Back to the Future” trilogy. But Wells does something that you don’t see very often, use time travel to comment on humankind. Where are we going and how will we get there? Will we like what we see? To Wells, the future wasn’t shiny and exciting, but disturbing and bleak. He wanted us to see that social ills could develop into a horror story. While some view this as simplistic, I think that Wells did a good job at creating an entertaining story that made you think -something that the best sci-fi authors (like Asimov) strive for.

What did you think of “The Time Mahine”? Did you see any versions in TV or film that you enjoyed? Do you have a favorite time travel adventure story?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

If they can do it… - Writer’s Envy

I had the experience of reading a book that wasn’t very good, by an author that is fairly popular in a genre that I enjoy. The trick is, I find I read a lot of “classics” and not much new material. Not sure if its because I’m afraid of things that aren’t tried and true, or if its because I’m not sure I want to know who my competition is.

In this case I felt pretty good that I’m better than the competition. This writer has a pretty high place in the Kindle reading list for the genre. Of course several of this writer’s books are free. I picked up one of the free ones myself. But the first thing I noticed was the inconsistencies of style, something that actually hurt my enjoyment of the story.

The big offender was switching perspectives from one paragraph to another without a break of any kind. You’re just reading along and it’s Joe’s perspective. Then the next paragraph is told from the point of view of Lou, who just showed up. That goes on for a few paragraphs and then it jumps back to Joe.

I found myself disoriented and needing to reread sections to make sure I wasn’t missing something. At first I thought it was an error on Kindle, and then I realized after the fourth time or so that this is just how the writer writes. I wondered why an editor didn’t say something. Am I a fuddy duddy and the hip kids are doing this kind of thing now? Or is this breaking a rule of basic writing.

Look if you’re going to be artsy in your work, if you want to make a point about changing perspectives and you pull that – hey I can understand that. Its part of your message and theme and you’re using the medium to make the point. But this just felt sloppy.

One of these changes was to a character who had one scene and then was gone, never to resurface in the book again. Ok, then what was the point in getting in her head. It added a tiny bit of perspective, but at the same time it really didn’t have much relevance to the overall tale. I’m pretty certain a good editor would have caught that and cut it.

Then there was the lead character. Now having your lead be an unpleasant asshole can work. “Lord Foul’s Bane” had this issue and actually pulled it off, making a point about the man and his view of the worlds. But this main character was angry and bitter and filled with so much bile that I started hoping he’d get killed, because the other characters were slightly more interesting. And since the author had no problem switch perspectives then it was possible to just jump over to the other character –right? Sorry, we’re stuck with this jerk. Since it was a series, we’re stuck with him for several books.

It takes a skilled writer to pull off a good antihero, or a lead who is so unpleasant that you are curious about how he’ll end up. But this author only made a guy who was annoying enough to make you want to see him dead. Not a good sign.

I didn’t finish the book, I couldn’t. I read about 40% of it before I gave it up for lost (nice that Kindle can show that % complete). But I was still puzzled that if someone who wrote this can be a top author in sales on Kindle, than that means that someone who writes better (maybe me) could do the same thing. Like I said this was a series and looking at the comments of the book I saw a lot positive reviews. My question is, how did the author get the word out and get people to read the books in the first place. Giving them away helps a great deal I’m sure, but if others don’t have a problem with sloppy writing, well I can say it gives me hope.

Have you run into sloppy writing in a popular book that made you feel – hey I can do better! Tell your story. Am I a fuddy duddy and the freedom of writing can be warped for the art? Should I be worried that a poorly told tale is attracting so much attention or does it merit some hope?