Tag Archives: characterisation

Learning from the masters – Isaac Asimov’s “Caves of Steel” #amwriting

1954 Hard back cover Doubleday

1954 Hard back cover Doubleday

This is the first of a series of posts I’m writing about what we (as writers) can learn from the works of published authors.

I’m in the process of re-reading Isaac Asimov’s first robot novel – The Caves of Steel. In a nutshell, this book is a murder mystery, a police procedural set in the distant future. Humanity has expanded to fifty worlds, but Earthites are not welcome in the erstwhile colonies, which are now independent entities, with small populations and many, many robots to do the hard work. On Earth life has become increasingly regimented. Most people live in enormous, domed cities (caves of steel) where efficiency is the order of the day. No more private kitchens, few if any private facilities like bathrooms. Living space is earned. The higher a person’s classification, the more room they can have, the more small privileges they can attain. A hand basin, for instance, is a much sought after luxury. Transport is via automated walkways and people are crowded together. In this pressure cooker world, robots are resented, seen as putting people out of work and consequently lowering their status.

There is on Earth one small colony of expatriates, called ‘Spacers’. By their own insistence, the inhabitants are sealed off from the rest of the city, isolated in what you might call quarantine in an area known as SpaceTown The Spacers are trying to encourage Earth to use robots but (as mentioned) it’s not a popular idea. Then a murder is committed in SpaceTown – a Spacer killed by a Human. The Spacers send a robot to partner a Human policeman to solve the crime. But he’s no ordinary robot. Daneel Olivaw is indistinguishable from a human Spacer. Thus starts an unlikely partnership between Elijah Baley, a human detective who resents robots as much as the next man, and the Spacers even more, and Daneel.

Enough said. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ve read the book; it’s a classic. But as I’m reading, I’m analysing and admiring.

Bear in mind the book was first released in 1953 as a serial.

That’s sixty years ago, so yes, it is dated. For a start, the population of Earth thousands of years in the future in the novel is set at eight billion, with the planet apparently creaking at the seams. Now, in 2013, Earth’s population is rapidly approaching eight billion and although all is not well, we’re nowhere near the dire straits described in Asimov’s novel. People still smoke, technology is not what we might expect. But such small niceties aside, the society Asimov has portrayed is detailed and utterly believable. His city (which in the novel is an extension of New York) reminds me of an extrapolation of the suburbs of Hong Kong, with its towering apartment blocks. It’s easy enough to see cars eliminated and replaced by walkways. And regimentation and segregation is (I believe) part of the human psyche. So is prejudice against anything different, like Spacers and (particularly) robots, which put people out of work.

Dr Asimov had a Ph.D. In chemistry but throughout his life he read history, and I think his portrayal of another society in this book is based on his knowledge of history, as well as a logical extension of what existed at the time of writing. Cities were going up, the amount of living space for an individual was going down. That’s still the case today. Communal kitchens, bathrooms and latrines were the norm in earlier times and it’s easy to see the efficiency in that approach. One can also imagine the importance of ‘privacy’ in a world where there is none, and Asimov’s story is peppered with small details which underline that fundamental truth. Even the story of the biblical Jezebel has its place.

The establishment of a quarantined enclave for the Spacers is particularly clever. I have no doubt Asimov noted from history that where Europeans interacted with native peoples, diseases were transferred both ways. Native populations had no answer for infections like measles, influenza and cholera. In the same way, Asimov’s Spacer colonies have no answer to the teeming infections on Mother Earth. So the easy planet-hopping of space operas might be a tad unrealistic – although Asimov himself had plenty of planet hopping in his later books.

Why does this book work so well, particularly given its age? Because the society portrayed is detailed and the characters act in accordance with their backgrounds. Yes, there are times when the author dwells on backstory and description but it’s usually done in the right places. Although the thread running through the story is solving the murder of Doctor Sarton, in a way the solution is less important than the chase itself. Asimov uses a Spacer robot to reveal all the little foibles in human society and also to illustrate his famous Three Laws of Robotics. Really, although the murder is the glue that ties the plot together, this novel isn’t a simple murder mystery.

As a writer, I’ve taken two things from this book.

  • Make your society detailed and believable and embed your characters in their setting
  • Use conflict to illustrate behavior. Teaming Lije with a Spacer robot – incorporating two things he hates – gives plenty of room for making points

It seems Hollywood is making a movie from the book. I hope they do a much better job than they did in Fantastic Voyage and I, Robot.

I welcome comments from others who have read the book. If you haven’t, if you want a print copy, try the local second hand bookshop. Or try the Amazon link.

 

Another take on writing what you know

Picture of RavindraIn the last few days I’ve been writing a short story to do with one of the major characters in my Morgan Selwood series. Admiral Ashkar Ravindra is commander of the Manesai fleet which ‘rescues’ Supertech Morgan Selwood and her shipmate, accountant Tony Jones, from a slow death on their freighter Curlew, which had a failed shift drive. Having a failed shift drive means the ship can’t go to hyperspace and is stuck with traveling through real spacetime, which means you’re going to run out of air, food and water long before you’re likely to get anywhere. That story is told in Morgan’s Choice.

Anyhow, back to Ravindra. He comes from a very regimented society, where everyone belongs to one of four classes, which are unable to breed together. The original intention of the people who genetically engineered the Manesai may well have been “a place for everyone and everyone in their place”. But as I’m sure you can appreciate, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Ravindra is a member of the military class, the Mirka. Naturally, each class had developed its own sub-classes (because people are like that) and Ravindra’s family is part of the Darya group – from which most Manesai admirals are recruited. His father was an admiral, his grand-father was an admiral, young Ravindra is going to be an admiral, he will marry the daughter of an admiral. His path is mapped out for him.

And yet, Admiral Ravindra has a tattoo. Not some small, discrete bit of ink that people wouldn’t notice. He has a bloody great vulsaur tattooed all over his right shoulder, down his back and over his bicep. That photo at top left doesn’t really do it justice, but you get the idea. So why does that matter? Ah, you see, Mirka – and most especially Darya Mirka – don’t have tattoos. Troopers have tatts, admirals don’t. So what in the wild world would have resulted in eighteen-year-old Ravindra, with school finished and the acceptance to the Fleet Academy in his pocket, having a tattoo?

You’ll have to read the story to find out.

However, I’m not giving much away to tell you it concerns a vulsaur, which looks a bit like our mythical dragon. In one scene in the story, I need to have the vulsaur take off from quite a low start. Large flying creatures (on our planet, anyway) either leap off high places and glide or they need a long takeoff. But I didn’t want to do that. So rather than emulate an albatross or a swan, the vulsaur acts like an osprey.

I took this series of pictures down the beach a couple of years ago. The osprey has gone for a bathe in the shallows. Now he’s finished and he wants to take off. Basically, with his wings raised vertically, he jumps, then brings those wings down hard. And he’s off.

Osprey lifts its wingsIMG_0684IMG_0685IMG_0686IMG_0687IMG_0688

And this is just one more example of ‘write what you know’.

Linnea Sinclair’s “Hope’s Folly’ – SFR the way it ought to be

picture of Hopes Folly coverI’ve recently read Linnea Sinclair’s novel Hope’s Folly. Twice. I tend to do that when I really love a book, getting details I missed the first time around. If you’d like to read the book’s blurb, you’ll find it here.

Yes, I suppose this is a review. But for me, it’s also a statement of what works in science fiction – for me, personally, which, let’s face it, is what a review is – a subjective point of view. This is a writer I admire – right up there with my all-time faves. So let’s do the review thing. But if you’re a writer, take note of how well this story has been built.

Hope’s Folly is a love story, set in a time of political conflict and approaching war. The human Empire is being run by Tage, who has usurped the power of a weak and failing Emperor. Tage has decimated the ranks of the Admiralty, replacing senior fleet officers with people more likely to dance to his tune. But not everybody is going quietly. A rebel Alliance has risen to oppose Tage. Amidst the turmoil, the two alien species in the Galaxy see their opportunity to expand their own borders.

When the story opens we meet Admiral Philip Guthrie, who escaped the purge of the Admiralty by the skin of his teeth. He’s 45 years old, with a shattered right leg healing slowly and the weight of the deaths of many colleagues on his conscience. Tage used Guthrie to plan his purge. Now, Guthrie is determined to join with other Alliance leaders to build a new fleet and defeat Tage’s Imperial forces. But the Empire wants him dead and the Farosians want to capture him to swap him for their own leader, who Tage has imprisoned. On top of all that, Guthrie’s new flagship is a very old ex-fleet cruiser which was disarmed, decommissioned and used as a freighter, and he has to enlist a crew from wherever he can, knowing some of them will be plants.

Lieutenant Rya Bennton is the daughter of Guthrie’s captain and mentor, back in the day. A 29 year-old Imperial Security assassin, she turned rebel when her father was killed in that purge. She’s no dolly bird, tall and built with curves and a lovely ass – and a spare thirty pounds she could afford to lose. She remembers meeting Guthrie when she was a pudgy 9 year old and he was a 25 year old lieutenant who showed her how to fire a laser pistol. She, like Guthrie, has a love bordering on obsession with hand weapons. The description when Rya first sees Guthrie’s Norlack laser rifle is a wonderful piece of innuendo. In this scene, too, we see the connection between the two, the way they think alike.

“Is this,” she asked hesitantly, “what I think it is?”

“What do you think it is?”

“Norlack 473 sniper, modified to handle wide-load slash ammo.” There was a noticeable reverence in her voice.

He pulled the rifle out, hefting it. She had a good eye. Norlacks weren’t common. But recognizing it was modified for illegal and highly destructive charges … Then again, she’d seen it in action. “It is,” he confirmed, amused now by the expression on her face. It had gone from reverence to almost rapture.

“That is so totally apex.” Her voice was hushed. “May I,” and she glanced shyly at him, her eyes bright, spots of color on her cheeks, “fondle it?”

He stared at her, not sure he heard her correctly. Then he snorted, laughing. Fondle it, indeed. He handed it to her. She took it, cradling it at first, then running her fingers lovingly down its short barrel. Sweet holy God. He didn’t have enough painkillers in him to stop his body’s reaction to the smokiness in her eyes, or the way her lips parted slightly, the edge of her tongue slipping out to moisten them, as her hands slid over the weapon.

Ahem. Back to the review.

The love story between these two is gorgeous. Rya keeps insisting she has a huge crush on her commanding officer – that’s all. What would he see in her, anyway? And that thirty pounds… Guthrie keeps realising that not only is he too old for her, but he has a duty to her father’s memory to protect her, not lust after her. He also has to get his almost defenceless ship past Farosian raiders and Imperial warships, regardless of Rya and a broken leg. But circumstances fling them (often quite literally) together in what used to be Rya’s father’s ship as Guthrie tries to build a cohesive team from a bunch of disparate people who don’t know each other. And one of them is a mole.

So why did this story grab me and not let go?

Because it’s so real. In Linnea Sinclair’s universe the ships are not run by all-powerful artificial intelligences. To me, they’re not much different from what we have now, with engine rooms, weapons systems and the all-important environment systems all run using computers but with people running the show. Guys get to cut code, hack, mess about in the systems. The ships have blast doors. The pipes gurgle and knock, metal pings as it cools, or creaks and groans. Everything smells – hot engine oil, leather, soap, food, hair. The ex-freighter has a ghostly smell of oranges that comes and goes. And then there’s the cat. Captain Folly, who comes with the ship, leaves white fur all over the place and prefers women to men.

The people are real. Guthrie is tall, smart, the son of a rich family (which has its own drawbacks). But he’s not a superman. He makes mistakes, has his own foibles, calls himself a Galactic-class ass on more than one occasion. I’ve mentioned Rya’s issues with her weight. She’s also impulsive and not much good at saying ‘sir’. The secondary characters are just as convincing, ordinary people forced to cope with extraordinary circumstances.

The politics is real. I have a history degree and these things matter to me. I can see the Empire disintegrating in this way. If I were to be asked for a similar situation in our recent past, I’d go for Stalin taking over in the USSR.

As always with Linnea Sinclair, things move apace – except for the opening chapter, which I enjoyed more the second time around. This is the third book of a series and the first chapter orientates the reader, I guess. From there on, the author works on the basis of ‘if things can go wrong, they will go wrong’. Guthrie’s relationship with Rya plays as an underlying complication to all the other issues the two face. Take out the romance, and yes, you’d still have a great story. But man, you’d miss out on soooo much.

Oh, and before I finish, I must mention the sex scenes. They’re not many and they’re intense, steamy and sensual, but not a how-to manual.

I loved this book, I loved Philip Guthrie. He is very definitely my kind of man. Sigh. I’m too old to be a fangirl. Five stars. But you knew that already.

So that’s the review done. What can I learn as a writer?

  • Make the cause worthwhile – things people will lay down their lives for.
  • Engage all the senses.
  • Introduce a bit of quirkiness (the cat and the oranges).
  • Use humour.
  • Make sure ALL your characters are real people, with a mix of strengths and flaws.
  • Keep the pace up.
  • When your heroes are in trouble, pile it on.
  • Introduce the unexpected to add twists – but don’t suddenly introduce cavalry without the reader knowing it’s out there.
  • And probably other things like great use of words and getting into a character’s head.

Anything else you’d like to contribute?

Visualising historical characters

From http://www.gentlemenoffortune.com/basic_kit.htm

One of the challenges I faced in writing “To Die a Dry Death” was creating real characters from the names Pelsaert mentions in his journal. I was sensitive to the fact that I was writing about real people who lived and died nearly four hundred years ago. All I had to go on was Pelsaert’s words and a swag of background research unearthed about some of the players. Most of them would have disappeared into anonymity, leaving not a ripple in the tide of history, except for the dramatic events of the wreck of the Batavia. Even then, shipwrecks happened; but few have reverberated through the centuries like this one, where a psychopath and his followers murdered more souls than the sea.

We have no real idea what any of the players looked like, not even Pelsaert. The one portrait attributed as him was apparently of another man. So I was at liberty to describe the characters as I wanted. Pelsaert came from Flanders so I imagined him as small and dark, Spanish-looking. Lucretia van der Mijlen was described as beautiful so I saw her as blonde haired and blue eyed. Jeronimus Cornelisz was devious, subtle and a manipulator of people. I have drawn him as a handsome man, the epitome of a con artist.

In my interpretation of events Captain Adriaen Jacobsz was something of a hero. Pelsaert described him as a drunkard and a womaniser and I don’t doubt both were true. He was also obviously a strong and courageous leader who had little time for men he considered weak, like Pelsaert. I’m not sure that I consciously decided to have him look like my father, but that’s what happened. There’s no comparison in character. My father was never, ever a womaniser and he didn’t drink but he was tough and hard, a man I respected and loved, even if I feared his temper. I could easily imagine him on a Dutch merchantman, the wind blowing through his hair.

Has something like that ever happened to you? How do you build the visual for your historical characters?

Are Voldemort and Sauron good villains?

Picture of Harry Potter book and Lord of the RingsI’ve just read a blog post about villains and how important they are to a story. If your hero is up against a villain, better make sure that villain’s powerful. And while I agreed with the overall premise, it’s left me thinking; hence this post. Sure, you need conflict to make a story. Or should I say, an interesting story. But the writer of the post in question used Voldemort and Sauron as her two examples of good villains.

Now at this point I should rush in and say that I love the Harry Potter books and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is one of those books on that shelf up there, battered and much loved. The point, however, is that both are fantasy. Sauron, in particular, is an archetype. We never meet him; he is just a flame-ringed eye on the top of a fantastically powerful tower. To be sure he evokes the ultimate evil – for that is what he is; the Devil, if you will. His only purpose is to subjugate and destroy. Voldemort isn’t much different. His only purpose seems to be to destroy Muggles and live forever. Neither has any redeeming features. Not one.

If you want a believable villain in ‘Lord of the Rings’ you could look at Saruman who started off as the wisest of the wise and was inveigled, seduced by the power of Sauron and the lure of the One Ring. As is often mentioned – by Gandalf and Galadriel, for example, the power of the ring is such that people would use it for good; at first, before it consumed their will. I could probably make a convincing case that the REAL villain in LOTR is the Ring.

Those of us who don’t write fantasy, who can’t rely on a faceless, motiveless ‘evil’ need believable villains. Villains don’t see themselves as villains. They have their own motives and they are often couched in the language of ‘the greater good’. If you want your villain to be believable you have to be able to convey to the reader what his/her motives are. And he/she cannot be wholly evil. Hitler loved his dogs and presumably Eva Braun; Napoleon had Josephine.

In my historical fiction novel ‘To Die a Dry Death’ the villain is a psychopath named Jeronimus Cornelisz. The novel is based on a true story, a shipwreck off the coast of Australia in 1629. Nobody knows what Cornelisz looked like. Pelsaert’s journals, the only source of what happened out there, don’t give descriptions of physical characteristics. Research has revealed something of Cornelisz’s background but the history books need to be read carefully, since more than once an albeit plausible story is built on a few facts and a lot of conjecture. But Pelsaert’s journals provide us with enough information to deduce a great deal about Cornelisz’s character.

I’ve written elsewhere about describing a psychopath. But even psychopaths must have motives and they cannot be totally evil. I guess we’ll never know at what point Lucretia consented to a physical relationship with Jeronimus. It has been said that some of the stories about her ‘holding out’ for quite some time after Jeronimus took over were written subsequently, to salve her reputation. I hardly think it matters. Easy enough to sit in retrospective judgement. Although for him, winning the alpha female was part of status, I’m quite prepared to believe he actually did care for her. And that’s how I’ve written him. Even the worst human monster was once an innocent child.