Character arc: like a scramjet, or a lead balloon?

I’ve been considering different methods for plotting the scenes in my novel and have come back to the Action-Reaction concept; that is, something happens and the character reacts.

At a higher level each scene must move the story forward; the state of the story must change. It can either be; a change to the character’s goals, needs, fears, or state of mind; or simply changing the reader’s understanding of the character.

This Action–Reaction–Change loop changes the state of the story and increases its momentum.

I plot a scene out for eacharacter:

  • Action
  • Reaction
  • Change

ARC – Character ARC:

But is it the arc of a lead balloon or a rocket?

The momentum of object can increased by either adding mass, or accelerating it to a higher velocity. It’s the same with a story; we add mass by incresing the readers understanding of the character or place, and accelerate it with action.

But the two changes must be in balance. Simply increasing the mass i.e. learning about the character slows it down, as energy is lost in getting this new material up to speed. And increasing speed alone puts the story in a precarious state where it could be either deflected off course, or leave the reader behind.

My brother worked for NASA for about a decade before returning to continue his research at the University of Queesland in Australia. His primary focus is the Scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet). For this type of propulsion system to operate everything has to be in perfect balance; so that a controlled hydrostatic air flow through the engine can be achieved.

Planning my scenes I try to to get the mix just right too. I include a little of both mass and accelleration that change the story; it’s a balancing act.

Too much mass to early and the scene or entire story will drop like a lead balloon, too much action and the story will accelerate out of controll or the reader will let go…they won’t care.

The art is to get the balance right and soar like a scramjet

Where does Nationalism end and Xenophobia begin?

"Fight racism!" - Campaign against Racism and Xenophobia - 1997

Theorists are divided on whether nationalism is a result of our evolutionary tendency to live in communities or tribes, or it is a more recent behaviour caused by the way modern society is structured. Either way ethnicity tends to incorporate itself in some manner, whereby you may live in the nation from a geographically extent but are excluded from “nationhood” as a result of ethnic, cultural, religious reasons.

Then there is xenophobia. Dictionary.com defines this as:

“an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.”

This human trait manifests itself in sport too. Sometimes this is acceptable for example a cross town rivalry between teams, or old nation “friendly” competitions between nations such as cricket’s “Ashes” battles between England and Australia. In these though there is a at least a small commonality; either a shared heritage or at least a common love of a particular sport.

Why do we need to have “our” team though?

The Brisbane Lions win their first premiership in 2001

A couple of years back I wrote a short, sharp post “The rising sun as an analogy for nationalism” to highlight its absurdity:

The notion of a rising sun is a misnomer. The sun itself does not rise or set. If I am on the east coast of Australia and see the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean, it is the same sun a person in the United States would see at midday. The difference between my “rising sun” and that observed by my American cousins depends solely on the location on the surface of the planet on which we stand. To an observer out in space, looking at our pale blue planet, the concept of a rising sun is absurd; it is rooted in our past when we believed we were the centre of the universe.

Nationalism is like this; it only exists when we allow our perception to be limited by our location. If we let go of this outdated notion, our minds can break free from their terrestrial bonds, allowing us to focus on solving the real issues of our time.

It turns out that both nationalism and xenophobia are key themes of the novel I’m writing so I’m trying to come to terms with the subtle differences.

I’d love to hear what you think about them?

“X” is for xenophobia

The Universe…the tyranny of distance and time

I came across this image through erdilielsfavourites‘s blog post “Hubble’s Greatest Hits“, on the twenty-second anniversary of the Hubble Telescope.

The image shows “a delicate cosmic dance is taking place between two galaxies known together as ARP 273. The larger galaxy is an off-kilter spiral, suggesting that the smaller one has actually passed through it. Given the titanic forces that can be released when galaxies merge, these two are lucky to be in the healthy shape they are.” – TIME magazine

Contemplating the physical and temporal scale of the two galaxies passing through each other made me almost physically sick.

I couldn’t help but tink of an intelligent species evolving in some non-distinct solar system and emerging as a star faring civilisation just as the galaxies begin to collide and then wiped out with no hope of escape. There would have been warning too but no chance of survival; not just of one planet lost but entire regions of the galaxy, billions of species lost to the universe.

But then, maybe as a result of the collision, a new species of intelligent life emerges from the shattered star stuff.

It was the same sick, frustrated feeling I remember from a reoccurring dream I had when I was young:

I had to get to the other side of the world to be with someone and travelled there on an ocean liner, taking six months, only to find they’d left to come back to me. I would jump back on the ship but then discover they had done the same. In desperation I would leave a note telling them to stay where they are but then find the same note to me when I arrived.

SS Normandie

SS Normandie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I stayed they did too, and whenever I travelled they would too; always…frustrated by the tyranny of distance and time.

“U” is for the Universe

Looking through the wrong end of a Telescope and other Analogies for Time

We look at the past  through the wrong end of a telescope, he thought one day; eventually the things we can see in there become simply too small to hurt us. (Character: Peter Clayborne) – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians Pg. 316

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series the expected lifespan for humans is extended by a “longevity treatment” to at least several hundred years if not thousands of years. Through this he is able to explore issues and limitations of the human brain for storing and retrieving memories. In one scene, Maya Toitovna is now around 150 years old  has returned to live in a city she had previously lived in 70 or more years before.

Maya found herself trapped in a déjà vu of a déjà vu, Where was she?

It wouldn’t come back to her. It wouldn’t come. A horrible sense of tip-of-the-toungeism made her dizzy, then sick, as if she would get it out by vomiting. She sat down on the steps. On the tip of the tongue, her whole life! Her whole life! She groaned aloud, and some kids throwing pebbles at gulls stared at her.

It hadn’t really been gone; just a momentary lapse in her thinking, while her attention had wandered elsewhere. To another life.

A strong memory had its own integrity, its own dangers, just as much as a weak memory did. It was only the result of thinking that the past was more interesting than the present. Which is many ways was true. But still…

Later Maya saw her daughter Jackie, who she… lets say despised, sailboard on the open oceans of Mars:

Events would soon be washing by her, the way they did everyone else; history was a wave that moved through time slightly faster than an individual life did, so that even when people had lived only to seventy or eighty they had been behind the wave by the time they died; and how much more so now [when they lived for at least several hundred years]. No sailboard would keep you up with that wave… – Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars.

A word of caution here, Maya suffered from severe depression so don’t get drawn too deeply into her neurosis.

“T” is for Time, and for Telescope

Carl Sagan, and the Baloney Detection Kit

When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.

The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.

NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.

As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.

He wrote the book Contact,  and in 1997  was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.

Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit  provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Baloney Detection Kit

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
  • Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan

“S” is for Carl Sagan

The Mars Series by Kim Stanley Robinson

Although Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning Mars Series , written in 1992, has been criticised for some failings for forsight, such as the exclusion of China from the multinational venture, and the larger than expected role of the Russian team following the real world collapse of the USSR. However, twenty years on the story does not feel dated as many other science fiction titles do.

The three original three volumes, Red, Blue, and Green Mars received acclaim (Nebula, Hugo, and BSFA awards) from both within and without the science fiction genre, and like the Apollo missions of NASA in the 1960’s this story of the colonisation and terraforming of Mars has inspired a new generation of scientists and philosophers to look towards our neighboring red planet with longing eyes and big dreams.

The Mars Series tells the story of the first one hundred humans to permanently settle on Mars.

It is the red planet itself though that drives the story forward, as both a character and the sense of “place” it provides.

Kim Stanley Robinson: science fiction's realist - The Guardian UK

Red Mars, the first book in the series, begins with a speach given by John Boone, the default leader of the multinational venture and “the first man on Mars”, at the opening of the first “tented” city of Nicosia. But then moves back to the selection of the first one hundred team on earth and then the departure of the Ares of the from earth orbit where it had been constructed.

The series contains all the admirable tropes of the science fiction genre but it is no “Space Opera” and it has received some negative criticism from with the genre because of this. It was with this series that new sub-genre of science fiction was coined; Future History. It reads like a novelisation of well known historic events rather than pure invention and this only enhances it realism.

In addition to the red planet itself as the driving force of the story, it is the extraordinarily detailed characters that stay with you. The structure of the books, particularly the narrative mode of third person subjective, lends itself to this end with the POV set with the one character for each chapter. Robinson’s writing is of such high quality that the reader cannot help but sympathies with these POV characters even when they could be considered antagonists.

I always feel a sense of loss when one chapter ends and I am summarily evicted from inside the head of the POV character who led the chapter. But this loss is more than balanced by the welcoming feeling when returning to a POV character that I’ve come to know intimately.

In 2012, the twentieth anniversary of the release of Red Mars, the series reads as fresh and thought provoking as it did when first published.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest work 2312 is due for release in late May 2012. Orbit publisher Tim Holman described the setting of this novel thusly:

2312 will be set in our solar system three hundred years from now; a solar system in which mankind has left Earth and found new habitats. This will be a novel for anyone curious to see what our future looks like – a grand science-fictional adventure in every sense.

It is number one on my list of recommended reads for both readers of SCI FI and fiction in general.

“M” is for the Mars Series