Monday, February 21, 2011

The God Hater

"Remember the Reverse Engineering lab we talked about?" Travis said. "How I used R.E. to add the more detailed traits to our program?...Well, that's old school. The team now has things refined to where we can download an entire personalitythoughts, emotions, memories—the whole enchilada. So we record all that information, download it into a new dude, and there you have him, live and in person."

"Whose personality?" Nicholas asked Travis. "Yours?"...
"...We're working off your blueprint, bro."...
Dixon nodded in understanding. "I've been briefed on your fear of technology, Doctor. Let me assure you there is absolutely no danger. It is merely a matter of recording your brain functions. Nothing more."

"But if I refuse?"

Dixon's response was slow and deliberate. "Then, as I said, the board will have to seriously evaluate whether or not to continue the program."

"And the characters?" Nicholas turned to Travis. "The ones you've invested so much time creating?"

Travis shrugged, then looked away.

Dixon answered. "All the elements of the program would have to be destroyed. Their world, their community, and all of the characters with it."

And that's a problem, because Dr. Nicholas Mackenzie, curmudgeonly old professor and staunch atheist, has come to care about the computer-generated characters he's watching up on the screen. And now he's about to become one of them.

The God Hater: A NovelBill Myers' new novel, The God Hater, is an excellent read, intelligent, intriguing, well-written, and timely, a powerful story.

Themes include the Law versus Love, rebellion and forgiveness, the sovereignty and compassion of God, free will, self-sacrifice, and how following the rules is never enough to truly live.

In the real world, Nicholas is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He relies on his intelligence, debating skills, and knack for discomfiting his opponents. He doesn't need God or any other crutch. He has his philosophies and counterarguments. Yet he has befriended a young single mom, also a professor, and her son. Their one flaw? Their faith in God.

In the AI (artificial intelligence) world, created by his brother for polling and market research, "lives" a man called Alpha, whose face and personality Nicholas has cause to know well. They belong to someone dead for many years.

Speaking into this world to end the bloody results of "survival of the fittest", which is negating the original purpose of the program since all the characters keep getting killed off, Nicholas is, at first, only a voice to AlphaProgrammer's voice that speaks Programmer's Law: You are a steward of this world. You are sacred because you were programmed to be like us. Do what I say and take authority. You are the stewards. You are what is sacred. Treat one another as though you are sacred. Treat one another as you would treat me.

Sounds good, right? Just what the AIs need to hear to guide them away from slaughter, away from "every man for himself", and set them on a path toward progress and enlightenment.

But soon not even the Law can save the world. Enter the computer-generated version of Nicholas, who goes to be the presence of Programmer to the people. He becomes the Lawthe Word—made digital flesh.

What happens next changes not only the AIs, but Nicholas—real and digital—until the real-world Nicholas can no longer control his computer self, who begins to literally take on the ills of others in an effort to heal them.

When I read that portion of the story, I couldn't help but be reminded of this passage: He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21, NASB).

And yet, despite the deep spiritual themes in this novel, it is never preachy or heavy-handed, and non-Christians will enjoy this story. If there's a weakness, it's in the corporate espionage plot thread, that always seemed a little thin to me. However, if it were expanded, it would detract from the main story, and probably drag the pace.

I'm only writing a single review, but the CSFF Blog Tour covers three days, so check out the other stops on the tour (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday), and read what others are writing about The God Hater:
Noah Arsenault
Red Bissell
Thomas Clayton Booher
Kathy Brasby
Rachel Briard
Beckie Burnham
Morgan L. Busse
Carol Bruce Collett
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
CSFF Blog Tour
April Erwin
Amber French
Andrea Graham
Tori Greene
Katie Hart
Ryan Heart
Joleen Howell
Bruce Hennigan
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emily LaVigne
Shannon McDermott
Matt Mikalatos
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Andrea Schultz
Tammy Shelnut
Kathleen Smith
James Somers
Donna Swanson
Jessica Thomas
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
  Nicole White
Dave Wilson

Friday, February 18, 2011

What I'm Learning from Korean Television

It all started several weeks ago when I mis-read a link on the Hulu homepage: "If you are not Keanan, click here."

I did a double-take, thinking it said, "If you are not Korean."

Realizing my mistake, I laughed aloud, but not having anyone to share the amusement with me, I posted the goof on Facebook, hoping others would get at least a small smile from it.

Then, a few days later, while searching for something interesting to watch, I happened upon a recommendation for a Korean historical fiction series, "The Great Queen SeonDeok". It's a long'un, and I gave up around Episode 50, wearied by the political machinations, fears, false friends, and such that were part of the battle the title character faced on her way to the throne.

Still, despite my loss of interest in continuing to the final episode, I was drawn to the core story and to a small group of characters who seemed, even in their broadest and most caricatured portrayals, to be appealing and real. One of my favorites is portrayed by an actor that is written of in reviews as "wooden" or "a terrible actor", but I don't think those viewers understand the character, who wouldn't be going about showing all his emotions and talking about his feelings. His thoughts are his own, until he deems it necessary to reveal them. For my part, I think he says a lot by a simple look. No words required.

Besides, it keeps the mystery alive.

That's something more writers need to learn, a new take on an old saying: sometimes, characters need to be seen and not heard.

One effective storytelling device used often in the series is one that is anathema to some in publishing (if one pays any attention to the often useless "advice" doled out at writing conferences and seminars): the flashback.

A flashback can consist of a character's memory of an event, told in brief, or it can be an extended scene, chapter, or many chapters, in which the past is revealed to the reader. Some writers "bookend" stories by beginning and ending them in the novels' "present time", but unfolding the bulk of the plot via the stories' past. This can be done through letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, or simply the memories of a character or characters. In "The Great Queen", this device was used to good effect when viewers needed to finally be let in on a secret (aka plot twist).

From that show, I went on to IRIS, which is kinda like "Alias". Again, I stopped short of watching every episode (in this case, the last two of the first season). However, the characters are intriguing, the story is twisty, and this action-y spy show doesn't shy away from letting its characters -- men included -- show emotion, even cry.

I'm still kinda iffy on that. I might put in an emotional scene, but then I'll delete it, or cut it down so much that ends up being matter-of-fact rather than squishy. One emotion that's not difficult for me to write is anger. But love? Grief? That's tough, tough, tough to get right. At least for me. But emotions are a part of life. And cold logic doesn't always play a part in emotional responses. Make characters real by giving them real emotions.

Then I fell into the time-sucking addiction of "Chuno", an excellent historical drama laced with humor and emotion, and packed with action; I'm a few episodes away from the end, and I plan on watching every one. There are minor characters that exist for comedic effect, local color, and connective tissue for the main characters and/or events of the story, but even the minorest of minor characters feels real. The main cast are interesting, not a cardboard cutout in the bunch, and -- love 'em or hate 'em -- they're neither predictable or boring.

Ever read several stories by the same author, and realize that all he or she has done is tell the same story over and over and over?

Dagnabbit! Sometimes I think I write stories with the same basic cast of characters: just change names and ages, put one set in outer space and the other set in medieval Europe, and presto! I move from science fiction to high fantasy. I can't get too comfortable. I can't avoid "meeting" new characters. Even ones I don't like so much.

And, in a totally different vibe, there's the 2010 modern comedy series, "Pasta", in which a somewhat whiny but steel-spined young kitchen assistant becomes a junior chef learning from and falling in love with a loud, strict, talented new chef who grates on just about everyone who meets him.

Again, I think some of the reviewers miss the point. They complain about the junior chef being such a baby, but they overlook her resolve, her persistence, her drive to excel. They ask why she wants the love and approval of a chef who constantly tells her to make a dish over or that she's doing something wrong, but they overlook the fact that she doesn't want flattery, or the emptiness of "nice" words. She sees the chef's demands for what they are: a desire on the chef's part to see her succeed, perhaps a desire even greater than her own.

From my perspective, it's not a case of a girl overlooking the nice guy because the bad boy is more interesting. It's a case of "Don't tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me what I need to know so I can be better. And not just better, but the best." She respects that more than the nice guy's flattery, as sincere as he may be.

I know that desire: Don't tell me it's a good story. Tell me why it does or doesn't work. Show me the flaws. Help me be better than I am now.

It's a desire I wish more rookie writers had. Editing or critiquing the work of a writer who thinks he's already arrived, who thinks her words are perfect in the first draft -- that's an exercise in futility. Such a writer cannot and will not improve because he or she will not learn.

So, looks like I'll be reading a lot more subtitles in the future, gleaning all I can to hopefully improve my own storytelling skills while admiring--and learning from--the skills of others.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Yeah, it's too late for Christmas poems, and this one's kinda sappy, but I don't write poetry often, composing this when family visited back in December. It doesn't have a title, though a couple have been suggested (my sister-in-law offered "Three Nieces" as a possibility).  Your suggestions are welcome.

Confession: Although I work with kids, and have done so for years, I still feel awkward around them, and the dancing mentioned in the poem below does not come from any place of talent on my part, but because it's just one way I know of to entertain the youngest ones still small enough to be carried and who like to crazy dizzy sense of flying that whirling and dipping can bring. Hey, I used to love it when a grownup would lift me up and let me "play airplane" by swinging me in a wide circle.

So, here goes.

Jennifer is taller now
than the artificial Christmas tree
I sold at a yard sale in July,
and Rachel has a sweet voice
she uses in long conversations
that only she can understand.
As for Sarah, she is small,
barely begun, a life unexplored,
with wide eyes and a serious stare.
This is her first Christmas here
on Earth, but the only gifts I have
for her are love and hugs and laughs
and maybe dancing around
the kitchen, holding her in my arms,
making up the music as we
twirl and step and bump into
the fridge then swing 'round and start again
in a family tradition
begun when Jennifer first
was small and loved to dance to silly
tunes and giggle and call for more.
Rachel, too, still likes to dance,
but she hops on her own sturdy feet
and runs in circles through the house
or down the hall, chattering,
screaming in false fright then in laughter,
a merry whirlwind that rarely
pauses, but sometimes snuggles
close, blanket-wrapped like a babushka.
Jenn, taller than the Christmas tree,
reads books, writes poems, her words
dancing though her feet so rarely do.
Yet we dance however we may--
it's Christmas-time with family,
the warmest time, the coldest day.

c. December 2010, KB