Sunday, June 24, 2012

Review - World War Z by Max Brooks

When I first saw World War Z listed on NPR's top 100 Sci-fi and Fantasy Books, I told myself, "One of those zombie gore-fests?  Really?  I'll never read that."  But this changed when my "zombie" friend convinced me it was more story than gore, much like The Walking Dead on AMC.  He lent me the book and I promised to read it.

It turns out that Max Brooks is a great story teller.  He tells the story of mankind's ten year war against the zombies, presented as a series of interviews compiled by some unnamed character.  Rather than concentrate on the gore and the gotta-kill-em as most zombie movies do, Max explores how humans react to the disaster.

It begins with the story of a doctor who first came in contact with the disease.  At first he's skeptical of the villagers' superstitious stories, but when he sees firsthand a boy's arm falling off without the boy screaming, he realizes this isn't an ordinary disease.

As the epidemic expands, each country reacts differently.  Some make stupid decisions, resulting in more casualties, while others are wiser.  Some people shine as heroes, while others try to take advantage and earn money or power in creative ways.

It's clear that Brooks has thought out what one should do in a zombie attack, but sometimes the science and logistics don't quite work out.  For example, how is it the zombies only exist east of the Rockies in the USA?  How exactly can one person survive the roads of a busy city full of zombies?  But the story telling is so good, it's so easy to overlook these details.

Each individual story is hit or miss.  Most of them are hits involving an individual's story of survival.  The misses usually cover something logistical and are usually short.  One funny miss appears to exist only to jokingly refer to Brooks' own Survival Guide.

Brooks does a decent job in speaking in different voices, though the tone of each interview is similar.  He makes use of a lot of country-specific cliches.  For example, a Korean story talks about some secret the North is hiding.  A Japanese story talks about honor and involves one of those swords.  The military people tend to drop F bombs, while scientists apologize for even getting close to cussing.  These cliches are noticeable, but they work.

My biggest complaint about the book is that the identity of each interviewee is withheld in the beginning and each time the reader must figure out who the person is.  Sometimes this requires going back to reread earlier paragraphs.  At the beginning of each interview, we're only given the place (not necessarily where the events occurred) and a short blurb from the interviewer describing the scenery.  Had this been a real account of a real event, each interview heading would have included the person's name, and save the reader time spent on rereading.

But I can see what drove Brooks' decision.  There are a couple of stories that hinge on the interviewee's  identity being revealed at the very end.  But Max, did you really have to torture us through all the other stories where it would have really helped to know who was talking?

Overall, I highly recommend this book.  If you like The Walking Dead, you'll like this book.  And just like me, you'll probably choose your favorite story.  Mine is the Chinese submarine one.

Note: I dedicate this review to my zombie friend, Gary, who lent me the book.  Shortly after I finished reading it, Gary's cancer returned in full force and claimed his life in a matter of days.  I never got to return the book and tell him how much I liked it.

Gary, if you're reading this from the netherworld, and if you ever turn into a zombie, look me up and I'd be happy to hit the town with you.  You will always be my zombie friend.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Uncle Orson's Writing Class - 2012

I survived Uncle Orson's Writing Class.  For two whole days, Orson Scott Card -- that's right, the Orson Scott Card and not an assistant -- taught us how to write.  That was this past Monday and Tuesday.  For the rest of the week, 14 lucky participants get to continue on and complete the Boot Camp portion.  But not me.  I learned the stuff and came home.

If you're a big fan of Orson Scott Card, you've probably read his two books on writing, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & Viewpoint.  Orson's Class pretty much covers the same information.  So if you attend, you may recognize a lot of the advice.  But what the Class has that the books don't is the master writer himself explaining and answering questions and giving assignments and critiquing you.

Also, you get his rants, which you might recognize from his Uncle Orson Reviews Everything column.  Some people expressed a little annoyance outside of class, but these rants are openings into a genius' mind.  I didn't always agree with his rants, but I enjoyed watching his thought processes and realized how quickly and with so much confidence how he'd go from one topic to the next.  If you want to write like a genius, then all you have to do is listen to one.  It's very eye-opening.

So one thing I learned: let your mind go wherever it wants to go.

I also learned that you don't have to accept everything your critics suggest.  Mr. Card says that if you "rewrite" your work, you're killing it off one small piece at a time.  After enough rewrites, you're left with something amazingly correct, but dreadfully boring.  He claims that when we write, our brains will naturally flow and you don't want to mess with that.  Once you know what the problems are with your work, you're supposed to just write it again--write another 1st draft that will be better than the earlier one.

He says one the worst advices is "show, not tell."  This is where you take a simple passage such as "Tom was irritated" and replace it with some action where you can see the emotion without being told ... such as "Tom tapped his foot repeatedly."  It's okay to "show, not tell" but if it doesn't flow the first time, that's a good indicator that it's not important to the writer.  Do enough of these replacements and your writing starts to look artificial, and the reader will say, "Just tell me Tom's irritated and move on!"

Mr. Card did clarify that he does "edit" his work, which is where you fix grammar, spelling, repeated words, and fix any places where the words don't flow naturally.  Anything more than that just needs another first draft.

The hardest part of the Class was when he asked me to get up and give a story pitch I had prepared the night before.  He laughed at my evident confidence.  Then when I read the pitch, I realized I had committed one of his biggest pet peeves: telling the story as a reminiscence or flashback.  Plus he said, "There is no story."  But then he added just a little here and there, and it turned into a real story that people would care about.  These ideas were already in my head, but somehow they didn't make it into my pitch.

Then someone after me got up there and Mr. Card said, "That is a great pitch.  You need to write that book, and it could start your career.  I'm serious."  At first I was a little embarrassed for messing up my chance to impress the master, but then realized: take what I learned, incorporate it into my stories, and nothing will be able to stop me.

The class was well worth the $175 I paid.  I highly recommend this class.  If you can get into Boot Camp, that's even better.  The things he teaches can be used by anyone and are simple to understand.

Waiting for class to start Orson Scott Card really is that fast.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ray Bradbury: Returned to the Dust

Ray Bradbury has joined giants Asimov and Clarke in the sci-fi netherworld, leaving giant shoes for the rest of us to fill.  Known mainly for writing short stories, Bradbury had a passion for literature.  He did what it took to get published, and he changed everything.

His works tend to be more "well-written" than "sci-fi."  He loved exploring the human condition, and sci-fi happened to be the backdrop of his stories.  As such, he is often the main sci-fi author included in high school English classes.

The prophetic Fahrenheit 451 teaches us the value of books and opposing viewpoints.  He warns of a time when undesired thoughts are burned.  With today's political correctness movement gaining more ground and more controversial speakers are being silenced, it appears that we are well on the way down this path.  Start memorizing those books!

In The Martian Chronicles, we earthlings kill off the "aborigines" and colonize Mars just in time to see us destroy Earth.  Near the end a father asks his son, "Want to see a Martian?"  He takes him on a walk and shows him their reflection.

Dandelion Wine provides a summer of fun.  Do you know anyone who actually tried to build a Happiness Machine?

Something Wicked This Way Comes teaches us not to trust anything that's too good to be true.  And, oh, to be young again!

I Sing the Body Electric reminds me of the grandmother I used to have.  I miss her.

I remember back to when Bradbury visited BYU in the late 80s or early 90s.  It was exciting to be so close to the legend.  He was told not to curse, but he still let a few slip out, triggering laughter from the audience.

Bradbury was undeniably one of the most valiant authors when it comes to getting works published.  He is the main inspiration behind the "Write One Submit One" initiative, where writers push forward in an effort to write one short story a week (or month) and send it out.  Here's Ray Bradbury on his persistence:

... and Bradbury kept on writing, even up until just recently.  His last novel, Farewell Summer, the sequel to Dandelion Wine, was published in 2006, and he had written several short stories after that.

Ray Bradbury was an inspiration, both in his words, and in his example.  He'll be greatly missed, and always remembered.