Can fiction change the world?

Ray Bradbury once said that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it.
Everyone accepts that nonfiction books can be very influential, but does fiction ever change the world? Well, I think it can—by changing awareness or attitudes. Usually, when it happens, that was the author’s intent. I believe Charles Dickens hoped to improve the lot of London’s poor by presenting their plight to the readers of his Victorian tales—such familiar works as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly intended to influence attitudes towards slavery during the period leading up to the American Civil War. It’s generally credited with having some impact. (It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, although it’s now often derided for its sentimentality and its stereotypes.) Other influences were not intentional: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have probably influenced the development of forensic science, although Doyle had no such intention.

Even if a book doesn’t change the world, it may still change someone’s life. Most writers of fiction are working from a desire to entertain – or, in a mundane sense, to sell books to readers. Readers simply won’t buy books if they aren’t entertained by them. Writers may also be driven by an urge to create, the need to respond to their innate desire to tell a story. But what makes a book entertaining? What makes a story a good story? I think ultimately it is the human element. The writer takes a character and puts him or her in a situation, and then proceeds to describe the consequences of what the character does. The up-shot may not be earthshaking, but it must at least ring true. For any given person reading that story, the truth it contains may resonate in a special way – a meaningful or a helpful way. That may not be why writers write, or why readers read; it’s just an inescapable byproduct of the whole activity. And once in a while a work of fiction may just capture the mind of a generation and take it somewhere it otherwise would not have gone.

Well, maybe that’s going a little far. But I don’t think fiction writers should be put down for engaging in a “trivial” activity. I don’t think they should sell themselves short. After all, you just never know.

What do you think? Ever want to change the world? Can you think of a fiction work that has done that? Is there one that has changed you?

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Oh Terry! …Pratchett, that is…

I heard somewhere that the late Ray Bradbury used to say one should write “love letters” to one’s favorite authors, just to let them know how much you enjoyed what they did.  I thought maybe I’d take his advice before the time slips by and it becomes too late.

Terry Pratchett at Worldcon 2005 in Glasgow, A...

Terry Pratchett at Worldcon 2005 in Glasgow, August 2005. Picture taken by Szymon Sokół. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The addressee is Terry Pratchett, a writer whom I first discovered decades ago, one who grew on me steadily until by now I can’t imagine the world without his books in it. He’s a writer whose books I have read – and in some cases, re-read – to my children during their formative years. Over the years, I’ve become so intimately acquainted with Terry’s prose, that I find myself thinking about him on a first-name basis – this despite the fact that I have never met the man and don’t expect to. My children got used to having their mother stop after a particularly delicious passage and say, “Oh Terry!” – and then re-read the passage aloud just to savor it.

For those who don’t know him, Terry Pratchett is British. His specialty is humorous satirical fantasy. Basically, he uses a world of his creation as a mirror for ours, to highly amusing and often scathing effect. His world is the Discworld, literally a world in the shape of a disk that rests on the backs of four elephants, which in turn are standing on the back of huge turtle, Great Atuin, swimming endlessly though space. It’s a world where magic is definitely real and science is at best playing catch-up. Over the course of more than thirty Discworld novels, Terry has taken on just about every topic and institution imaginable. (The wonderful advantage of doing humorous fantasy is that you can borrow as much or as little as you want from the real world and the readers won’t mind as long as you make them laugh.)

The first of the Diskworld books (The Colour of Magic, and The Light Fantastic) are satires of sword-and-sorcery. Besides their luckless hero, Rincewind the incompetent wizard, these books feature the 80-something Cohen the Barbarian with his dentures made of diamond troll teeth.

Several books feature witches as main characters, including Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Og (Wyrd Sisters, and Witches Abroad, among others), and more recently Tiffany Aching (The Wee Free Men, and A Hat Full of Sky). The rest of the supernatural spectrum gets in on it too: Elves in Lords and Ladies (they’re definitely not nice), vampires in Carpe Jugulum, werewolves in The Fifth Elephant, and zombies in Reaper Man.

That last book features Death as main character. I’m very fond of Death. Terry gives Death at least one speaking line in every Diskworld novel. (You can always tell because Death speaks in small caps). Although Death starts out as a kind of implacable grim reaper in the first two books, the character soon begins to morph into something more… well… endearing. I can’t say “human,” because of course he’s not. But what can you say about a being that likes kittens and has trouble killing a chicken because, while he shows up at every human death to sever the soul from the body, he’s never actually killed anything before.

To Terry nothing is sacred. He does a number on Hollywood in Moving Pictures, and on rock star idols in Soul Music. Organized religion takes its knocks quite regularly, most notably in Small Gods. The world of academe gets skewered repeatedly as well through the recurrence of Rincewind’s alma mater, Unseen University.

Terry Pratchett kindly posed with his hat for ...

Terry Pratchett kindly posed with his hat for Myrmi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, I do love Terry Pratchett.

He’s a master of humor (of course) but also of story-telling, of characters, and of the well-turned phrase (those Oh Terry’s). There is often a seriousness underlying the humor. (Check out the Terry Pratchett Quotes link, below. His wit and wisdom are just boundless.)   And the thing that most endears him to me is his keen observations of humankind – both as individuals and in aggregate.  In the earlier Discworld books, the observation is sharp and biting. In the more mature works, the sharpness is not lost, but there is also something I can best describe as a subtle affection. He knows us better than we know ourselves – with all our foibles, flaws, and weaknesses – but he also has an inherent sympathy for us. He understands what we’re up against as well as what we’re up to.

I wanted to include a few excerpts. I really had trouble choosing these, because there is just so much that is good in his writing. In fact, there is little that is bad, or even ordinary. Anywhere you open one of his books you quickly come to some choice passage, and it’s hard to find a place to stop the quote because it just keeps on and on being good.  What I had to do was look for bits I thought could stand alone with a minimum of explanation from me.

In the first excerpt, from Interesting Times, Rincewind has been transported to the Agatean Empire by magical means over which he had much less control than he would have liked, and, after some preliminary adventures, he is riding a horse through the Agatean countryside. (This is not Imperial China. It just looks like it.) Terry Pratchett is not generally long on description – just enough to serve the purpose. Here he sketches the appearance of the physical setting in two short paragraphs which segue effortlessly into elucidation of social dynamics.

The hills gave way to scrubland which in turn led down to an apparently endless damp plain which contained, in the misty distance, a river so winding that half the time it must have been flowing backwards.

The land was a checkerboard of cultivation. Rincewind liked the countryside in theory, providing it wasn’t rising up to meet him and was for preference happening on the far side of a city wall, but this was hardly countryside. It was more like one big, hedgeless farm. Occasional huge rocks, looking dangerously erratic, rose out of the fields.

Sometimes he’d see people hard at work in the distance. As far as he could tell, their chief activity was moving mud around.

Occasionally he’d see a man standing ankle-deep in a flooded field holding a water buffalo on the end of a length of string. The buffalo grazed and occasionally moved its bowels. The man held the string. It seemed to be his entire goal and occupation in life.

There were a few other people on the road. Usually they were pushing wheelbarrows loaded with buffalo dung or, possibly, mud. They didn’t pay any attention to Rincewind. In fact, they made a point of not paying attention; they scurried past staring intently at the scenes of mud dynamics or bovine bowel movement happening in the fields.

Rincewind would be the first to admit that he was a slow thinker.  But he’d been around long enough to spot the signs. These people weren’t paying him any attention because they didn’t see people on horseback.

They were probably descended from people who learned that if you look too hard at anyone on horseback you receive a sharp stinging sensation such as might be obtained by a stick around the ear. Not looking up at people on horseback had become hereditary. People who stared at people on horseback in what was considered a funny way never survived long enough to breed.

***

The water buffalo, introduced above, is a recurrent theme. Here’s a bit from further on in the same book ending in an Oh Terry!  A battle is brewing and Rincewind is trying to find a place in which not to get killed…

Cover. Now that was a good word. It was a big plane and the armies weren’t too far away. The hill looked curiously peaceful, as if it belonged to a different world. It was strange that the Agateans, who otherwise seemed to farm everywhere a water buffalo could stand, had left it alone.          

Someone was watching him.

It was a water buffalo.

It would be wrong to say it watched him with interest.  It just watched him, because its eyes were open and it had to be facing in some direction, and it had randomly chosen one which included Rincewind.

Its face held the completely serene expression of a creature that had long ago realized that it was, fundamentally, a tube on legs and it had been installed in the universe to, broadly speaking, achieve throughput.

(Oh Terry!)

***

And in this excerpt, which actually occurs in between the other two, Rincewind enlists the unwitting aid of a local inhabitant, a street vendor (D. M. H. Dibhala, whom he had met earlier), in the fine art of starting a rumor. It is evening, and they are standing on the outskirts of the encampment of a very large army. The passage is an example of Terry’s masterful control of dialog combined with small details that contribute to characterization. (The bit with the asterisk is my explanation.)

“You know how you seriously wanted to become very rich in international trade?” Rincewind said.

“Yes? Can we start?

“Soon.  Soon.  But there’s something you must do. You know this rumor about the army of invisible vampire ghosts that’s heading this way?”

D. M. H. Dibhala’s eyes swivelled nervously. But it was part of his stock in trade never to appear to be ignorant about anything, except, perhaps, how to give correct change.

“Yes?” he said.

“The one about there being millions of them?” said Rincewind. “And very hungry on account of not having eaten on the way? And made especially fierce by the Great Wizard?”

“Um . . . yes?”

“Well, it’s not true.”

“It’s not?”

“You don’t believe me? After all, I ought to know.”*  (* Rincewind is supposed to be the “Great Wizard”)

“Good point.”

“And we don’t want people to panic, do we?”

“Very bad for business, panic,” said D. M. H., nodding uncomfortably.

“So make sure you tell people there’s no truth in this rumor, will you? Set their minds at rest.”

 “Good idea. Er. These invisible vampire ghosts . . . Do they have any money of any sort?”

“No. Because they don’t exist.”

“Ah, yes. I forgot.”

“And there are not 2,300,009 of them,” said Rincewind. He was rather proud of this little detail.

“Not 2,300,009 of them . . . ” said D. M. H., a little glassy-eyed.

“Absolutely not. There are not 2,300,009 of them, no matter what anyone says. Nor has the Great Wizard made them twice as big as normal. Good man. Now I’d better be off  -“

Rincewind hurried away.

The trader stood in thought for a while. It stole over him that he’d probably sold enough things for a while, and he might as well go home and spend a quiet night in a barrel in the root cellar with a sack over his head.

His route led him through quite a large part of the camp. He made sure that soldiers he met knew there was no truth in the rumor, even though this invariably meant that, first of all, he had to tell them what the rumor actually was.

***

Sigh.

I would dearly love to able to write like Terry Pratchett, but that is not my gift.

Donnie Dale is dying… and still writing…

Eschscholzia californica

Eschscholzia californica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would you do if you discovered you were dying? If you received a diagnosis of terminal cancer with an estimated two years to live, give or take six months?

What would you do with the time you had left?

A man I know named Donnie Dale is in that position. He’s a man who’s been a writer all his life. He made his living at it – not with fiction, but with magazine articles, mostly. That was his day job. On the side, though, he’s also been writing fiction all his life – novels and screenplays. He’s got a trunk-full of manuscripts. He had one novel published twenty years ago. He did it, I assume, the “traditional” way – which is what I call the “hard” way – but I guess he never struck that luck again.

Faced with limited time remaining, Donnie has set himself a goal.  His goal is to self-publish all those unpublished novels. He has a website set up for the purpose – for his “platform.” It’s at www.donniedale.com

And he’s still writing. He’s started a blog on his website and is posting his thoughts on whatever comes to mind, because he’s a writer and writers don’t stop writing for trivial reasons like impending death. His posts are well worth reading. He says he’s not afraid to die, and you can tell he isn’t lying about that. There’s nothing maudlin in what he has to say. He writes with honesty and with clarity (and artistry), and with pretty darn good grammar and punctuation, too. If you’re building your mental model of what good writing looks like, you could do a lot worse than run Donnie’s postings across your synapses.

I encourage you to visit Donnie’s website and spend some time there. Leave a comment so he’ll know you’ve been. We who blog have all had that sense of, “okay, I’m putting it out there; is anybody reading it?” More than anything else, writers desire to be read, and for Donnie the question takes on an added urgency. So please go: Read some of his posts, follow his self-publication odyssey, maybe watch for his books and give them a read. I think you’ll get something from the experience, and not just the warm fuzzy feeling of having helped a life-long writer achieve one final goal.

I met Donnie Dale because, until this week, he has been leading the joint meetings of the Alameda Writer’s Group and the Altadena satellite of the Independent Writers of Southern California, which meets at the Coffee Gallery on Lake Ave in Altadena on the 2nd Friday of every month.

A little bit of the dream lives on…

Français : Un cheval shagya en compétition de ...

Français : Un cheval shagya en compétition de dressage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About twenty years ago my mother wrote a book. It’s a non-fiction book (so not the kind nearest and dearest to my heart), and not a very big book, but it’s still definitely a book – published by a real honest-to-gosh publisher, not a vanity press. You know how they say everyone has one book in them? Well, I guess this book is my mother’s one book, because at 89 I can’t really see her writing another one. It’s not that she couldn’t, necessarily, but I just don’t think she’d bother.

My mother’s book is called Guide to Dressage. What on earth, you may ask, is “dressage”? Well, it has nothing to do with fashion, I can tell you.  (It’s pronounced, roughly, dreh-SAZGE, where that “zg” is intended to represent the sound of the “g” in massage. (Very French, I suspect.) It’s a kind of horsemanship, an equestrian sport, if you will. It’s an Olympic sport, and also what they do with those Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, if you happen to be familiar with that. So it’s European in origin, it’s also quite old, and it’s pretty serious stuff. Dressage consists of a set of movements that the horse is trained to do in response to cues from the rider, and these cues are so subtle that a naïve observer generally won’t notice them.  The horse appears to be doing the movements all on its own – or to be reading the rider’s mind. It’s really quite beautiful to watch, and quite challenging to learn to do – especially if you train your own horse.

English: Lipizzaner stallion, performance Schö...

English: Lipizzaner stallion, performance Schönbrunn Palace Deutsch: Lipizzanerhengst, Vorführung vor dem Schloß Schönbrunn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of my mother’s book is the story of a dream she pursued for probably close to thirty years of her life. It’s a story of hard work and perseverance – and also, a story of only partial success, of limitations, and of deciding when it is time to put the dream on the shelf and move on.

My mother was introduced to riding at an early age. I’m not sure whether it was before or after her family moved from Washington State back to Wisconsin. I don’t know how much riding she did, or when, during her childhood and youth, but it was enough to get her hooked – to make a horsewoman of her for much of the rest of her life. I think, however, that it was not until sometime after she married my father and they moved to California that dressage captured her imagination. Certainly it was not until after all four of her children were born that she bought her first horse. (I know that because I remember the first horse.)

Somewhere in there, the dream coalesced. She set out to train a series of horses in dressage – to take each as far as she could go with it, then sell it and buy another, “better” horse, and train it, and so on. She intended to work her way up through all four “levels” of dressage in this way. And somewhere along the line she conceived the idea of writing a series of books explaining what she had learned so that others could benefit from her experience and insights.

Insights, you say, about horseback riding? Well, yes. There are a number of classic books about dressage written by the “masters,” and my mother, of course, read and studied them all. (I’m sure this intellectual aspect of dressage was part of what appealed to her.) She read them, and she attempted to apply them in her own practice of dressage and in the training of her own horses. Applying these writings required that she figure out what they actually meant in practical terms – which I gather was not always easy or straightforward.  What sets my mother’s book apart from others on the subject, I believe, is the fact that it is both a work of scholarship and a practical guide written by someone who actually did everything she describes.

There is no fairytale ending to this story. My mother never got all the way to fourth level. She did not manage to buy a wondrously talented horse that carried her all the way to the Olympics. And she only wrote the first book in her intended series. Her dream had been a very ambitious one – overly ambitious, I think, though she couldn’t probably have known that at the outset. And so, there came a day when she realized she was not going to achieve her dream. She was simply running out of years, and a fall from her horse that caused her briefly to lose consciousness had undermined her confidence. She came to realize that she was perhaps not tough enough or aggressive enough to be truly competitive, and that she was not really willing to take as much time from her other duties as was needed to progress at a faster rate.  Also, she had never been able to afford a really good horse.

Dressage, you see – at least on a competitive level – is something of a rich man’s sport, and my mother was a middle class housewife. You have to be able to own and keep a horse and have quite a lot of time available to ride it. And horses vary in physical attributes, personality, and talents, just as people do. Dressage requires a horse with good “action” (how the horse moves) because the judges have definite ideas on that. It requires a horse with enough brains and ability to focus, and also with a cooperative disposition. In short, an Olympic-class horse is a little like a Stradivarius violin, and my mother had a banjo budget. She also had four children to raise and she also served as the household’s cook, housekeeper, purchasing agent, bookkeeper, etc.

So after I don’t know how many years of going to the stable every week to ride and practice and of single-handedly trailering her horse to lessons and shows, she hung up her saddle, sold the horse trailer, and found a good home for her last horse. And she moved on. I’m not sure how many activities and hobbies my mother has pursued over the years – before and after she let go of her dressage dream. She earned a second Masters degree at an age when most people are retired – in Linguistics (on top of her earlier one in Economics). She is still tutoring students in grammar and pronunciation. She plays recorder (“Baroque flute”) with an amateur group, and her book group still meets – the one that’s been going since probably about the time she took up dressage. The term ‘life-long learner’ describes my mother well.

And her book? Well, just for a lark I searched for it on Amazon.com – and found it! One new copy and a number of used ones were offered, and she had one review. A five star review! I’m sure the book’s out of print, but after all this time, it is still serving the dressage community. I called my mother up and told her, and I read her the review. It made her day. She’d rather lost track of the book. It’s been through three editions that she knew of, and she had authorized a fourth some years ago that she didn’t care to be involved with. As I’ve said, she moved on.

I know my mother had regrets when she made the decision to but her dream on the shelf, but she isn’t sentimental. She’s long since gotten over it. Still, she spent a lot of time on that unfinished dream, and I’d like to think it wasn’t wasted. If she hadn’t dreamed the dream, after all, she wouldn’t have written the book. And through that book, a little bit of her dream lives on. A little bit of my mother will live on in it, too, I hope, after she is gone.