Toni Morrison

I note with sadness the startling news that Toni Morrison, author of Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, died last night at the age of eighty-eight.

I’m so stunned by her passing that I can hardly write.  She was, in my opinion, the finest American writer living, surpassing anyone else that you could think of.  The three novels I’ve mentioned constitute, in my view, her best work.  Sula is a short novel, but it is a masterpiece, and deserves to be studied and absorbed by every writer who wishes to see an example of a story in which every word does useful work.  It is brilliant and, for me, life-changing.  If you have it, pull it off your shelves, and re-read it tonight.

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That Leap, and the Leap to Come

The check I put in the mail this morning to pay my monthly credit card bill bears the tiniest trace of a mistake I made.  On the date line of the check, I almost did not write, “July 20, 2019”; I almost wrote, “July 20, 1969.”

The same impulse, to write or speak that earlier date, has come over me several times on this day in the fifty years since that remarkable summer night, a measure of how deeply July 20, 1969 was embedded in the consciousness of everyone who watched the moon landing, wherever they were.  There are some dates–December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, April 4, 1968, September 11, 2001–time will not allow us to forget.

To be honest, most of the images I remember from that night (it was a Sunday) are fading from my memory.  Even watching a YouTube video of the television coverage doesn’t bring as many of them back as I would like.  I remember hoping Neil Armstrong didn’t slip as he descended the ladder of the Apollo 11 lander; and I remember thinking most strongly, as my sisters and my parents and I watched Armstrong and Aldrin bounce on the surface of that other world, “Where do we go from here?”

That was the question I kept asking myself that night in various forms.  What will this night lead to? What kind of future will there be?  The television series Star Trek had been off the air, cancelled, for about four months when Armstrong and Aldrin touched down, with Michael Collins circling above, but Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future seemed a whole lot closer that night than it had been in about three years.  Roddenberry’s fictional future was predicated on the development of some kind of renewable, universal power source on Earth, one that compelled humanity to stop delving into the Earth itself for the limited supplies of oil and petrochemicals, and freed us to provide basic necessities for everyone on the planet, while also allowing us to explore the region of space around us.

We have not yet found or developed that limitless, universal source of energy, unless you count the sun itself, as many do.  Even there, however, difficulties remain.  Solar power works best only in those regions of the world where sunlight is most abundant.  Otherwise, it’s about as reliable a service tool as one’s satellite dish–good on most days, annoyingly bad on others.  The search continues, mostly involving some form of atomic power, but no form of atomic power yet developed is free from the dangers of radiation.  We may find, centuries from now, that our greatest accomplishment as the human species on this planet was the development of a Dyson sphere, and the harnessing of the energy from a nearby star.  That task would be monumental; it would take many, many lifetimes to achieve; but it would preserve us as a species, and allow us to go where we will, in this solar system, in this galaxy, and perhaps beyond.

The giant leap and the baby steps Armstrong took on the moon that night seemed to promise the beginnings of such a future for all of us.  Yes, he planted an American flag in the lunar soil, marking the end of the race to the moon, a contest the Americans won; but even in 1969, even in Mission Control in Houston, where I lived, we knew that that night was more significant than any competition.  E.B. White, commenting on the moon landing in The New Yorker, knew it, too.  “Like every great river and every great sea,” he wrote, “the moon belongs to none and belongs to all.”  The landing there represents the finest efforts of both men and women from the earliest days of the twentieth century, in mapping the territory of the moon, calculating the escape velocity, flight path, and orbit needed to survive, risking one’s life to see if humanity could live beyond Earth’s atmosphere, and developing the technology that allowed astronauts to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere safely and come home.

Measured by the accomplishments of Apollo 11, the years since have seemed just a touch disappointing.  Humans haven’t approached the moon since Apollo 13, and there are some good reasons why.  The Americans won the race to the moon and there was no reason to push the contest further.  The disastrous explosion aboard Apollo 13 scared everyone involved with the space program and reminded them just how vulnerable human beings are when they go beyond the kindly influence of this planet.  Yet, the generations alive fifty years ago all knew that giant leaps are always followed by baby steps, as one recovers one’s balance.  Apollo 13, the Challenger explosion, the Columbia tragedy–all of these events impressed indelibly upon us the enormous risks of human space flight, and a great many of us are more at ease with taking our time in developing deep space capabilities than we used to be.  I hoped to live long enough to see humans land on Mars.  It’s very doubtful now that I will, despite the cheerleading we are hearing from private rocket companies.  I am, as the saying goes, ok with not seeing it.

There are many problems to tackle and to solve:  developing onboard systems and backups that are foolproof; creating shielding to protect the crew from radiation that will kill them; providing food and other necessities to last for the six-month journey there and the six months back; developing a habitat that will foster good working relationships and good health among those aboard for the long journey.  Each of these elements is critical.  A failure in any one of them would mean death for the crew; there will be no rescue possible, despite what we have read in novels and seen in movies.  In my opinion, the radiation between here and there is the biggest risk.  To survive it, a crew might even have to be genetically altered before the mission begins, which means we’ve got to learn a whole lot more about DNA than we presently know, and overcome the inevitable moral, ethical, and political objections to altering that crew.  The solutions, and the battles over them, are years in the distance.

Still, because of what happened fifty years ago, I am optimistic about those of us on planet Earth, and hopeful of a good future.  Given the risks, why should we press forward with the human exploration of space?  We should, because we can, and there are benefits to doing so.  Comets and asteroids exist close enough to us for us to go to them and mine them for water and minerals that are not in abundance on Earth.  You want a limitless supply of energy?  The rocks around us could supply all we will ever need.  What we have to do is get there.

There is an ongoing debate about whether the moon would be practical as a base from which to go to Mars.  It probably would be, but the voyage to Mars is going to be expensive no matter what choices we make.  What we learn in getting there will be worth the cost, even if that cost involves the loss of human life.  I will not forget Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on this day we celebrate the Moon landing, and those who may give up their lives in getting us to Mars will not be forgotten, either.  The main reason for going there is the survival of human life itself.  It may be possible to live there a long time, over millennia, as our Sun burns itself out and life on Earth dies.

Beyond Mars, who can say where we will go?  The distances to the stars and the planets around them are immense–trillions and trillions of miles.  We’ll be lucky to explore most of this solar system and as far as we can see with our telescopes, and that’s about it.  As far as venturing out is concerned, we are destined, I think, to be mere dreamers on the shore, dipping a single toe into a great ocean whose other side we cannot see.  Many of us would like to leap into that ocean and swim out as far as we can, but  we haven’t learned how to walk yet, much less swim.  Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins showed us the first steps in the process.  The next leap, though, will take some time.  It will involve progress in physics, in genetics, and in artificial intelligence.  It will involve the realization that, although human minds need to go into space, human bodies may not have to.  Whether we send out machines tethered to human brains or some combination of human and artificial life yet to be created, reducing the fundamental perils of living in deep space will be just as important as developing the propulsion systems to get us where we want to go.

 

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Does the End Justify the Effort in Fiction?

Nicolaj Coster-Waldau defended the work of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss over the writing of the final episode of Game of Thrones the other day in a HuffPost interview noticed by Vanity Fair.  “Everybody worked their asses off,” he said, to produce the best finale they could.

I am sure they did work hard; I have no doubt of it.  I do have doubts, however, about whether the ending was as hard-hitting and as epic as the rest of the series was.

If the HBO documentary, The Last Watch, is to be believed, in the first cast read-through of season eight, Kit Harrington was reading cold; unlike his castmates, he hadn’t read any of the scripts he had been sent for the season.  When he came to the last scene of the last episode, wherein Jon Snow kills Dany–a necessary, evil act–he was shocked, and pained.  Had the final shooting script been written that way, many disappointed fans would have gotten the shattering, Westeros-cracking, series ending they were hoping for, an ending that would have measured up to the impact of the death scene of Eddard Stark in season one and the death of his son, Robb Stark, at Walder Frey’s Red Wedding.

But we didn’t get that ending.  Instead, we got Dany’s death, which was beautifully done, followed by fifteen minutes of some of the silliest plot resolution ever seen on a great show:  Brandon Stark, who had made it perfectly clear that he had moved beyond the material desire of a terrestrial kingship, is suddenly appointed king; Tyrion, who had just finished betraying his Queen, retains his position of Hand; the assassin, Arya Stark, decides she wants to be Christopher Columbus for the rest of her life; and Jon Snow, whom we are repeatedly told over the final seven episodes of the series is actually Aegon Targaryen, heir to the Iron Throne, goes back into the Northern forest with the Wildlings, without ever once asserting his claim.

The only resolution of character that made full sense was that of Sansa Stark, who gets to be what she always wanted to be, a Queen, albeit Queen in the North, and not of Westeros.  Her crowning was a satisfying moment, and yet, I wish we had been shown it earlier, so that Danerys Targaryen’s death would be the last image the series offered us.

There is a distinction, of course, between a television series as viewers see it each week and the shooting script of each episode.  Scenes are not shot in the order viewers see them.  They are shot in the order of ease of production.  But what I am suggesting–to actually end the series with Danerys’ death–would have made for a truly remarkable finale.

That ending would have required a different set up for the resolution of other character plot lines, but difficult as the challenge would have been, it would have saved viewers the task of digesting all those resolutions in one big lump at the end of the show.  I would even suggest that, in doing it the way it was done–with Arya sailing off and Jon riding away off into the trees–Benioff and Weiss did what George RR Martin did not want done, and that is to provide a happy ending for the entire tale.  To be honest, nobody needed a glimpse into the future of these characters.  They would have lived in our imaginations anyway, as The Lone Ranger (whose death is nowhere recorded) lives in mine.

What was missed in the Game of Thrones finale was an opportunity to create an ending that fully justified the viewers’ (and the actors’) efforts to reach it.  Contrary to popular opinion, two of the episodes of season eight, “The Long Night,” about the attack of White Walkers on Winterfell, and “The Bells,” about Danerys’ siege of Kings’ Landing, were among the very best the series has ever done.  But a series, just like a novel or a movie, has to drive to a payoff that is worth the effort to watch.  Raiders of the Lost Ark had such a payoff; so did the finale of the television series, Angel, and, most recently, Deadwood: The Movie, which brought that vision of the Old West and those characters to an end that was simply perfect.

So, I put it to you:  does the ending of your tale justify our efforts to get there?  I’m not asking if all your characters are going to live happily ever after.  I’m asking, have you written a piece of fiction that is worth our time from its beginning to its end?

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Reading More

Neil Pasricha gives us eight helpful ways to read more books.  Personally, I believe we ought to read less, and read more carefully those books we do read, but Pasricha’s article is aimed at those who don’t read much at all, but would like to read more.

His first suggestion, get rid of your TV and put a bookcase in its place, is the most radical, far-reaching suggestion of the bunch.  It’s been offered before, too.  The heart of Jerry Mander’s revolutionary book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, in the 1970s was, as its title suggested, its call for all of us to throw away our TVs, on the grounds that the devices were just tools for deceptive advertising and an insidious means of narrowing our perceptions of the world around us.  Some form of the truth Mander was driving at in mass communications has been with us in the forty-odd years since he was writing, and the present-day Balkanization of cable news, with the political left’s worldview being represented by CNN and the political right being championed by Fox News, is just the latest symptom of the malady Mander was describing.

In my own life, I can’t abandon the TV.  I love the Astros and movies too much.  In fact, I just bought a high-end soundbar to enhance my enjoyment of both activities, so adding a bookshelf is not possible for me.  Beyond baseball and movies, however, I do not watch much TV.  Everybody knows I watched Game of Thrones.  I watched season two of The Orville on Fox and liked it very much.  Whether I will watch season three is an open question.  I do not watch national news on any network, and look at local news only when I must.  If I want news, I read it from the Internet.  I have not missed much in the world by doing this.

None of us needs to make a public commitment to read more, but joining a book club might help us keep our resolution.  The web will help you find a group in your area, or you can start one yourself.

Delving into curated lists is, for my money, the most surefire way you can increase your reading.  Pasricha links to several good lists, and I have two older book guides to mention:  Sherwood Weber’s Good Reading is a conservatively-chosen book of lists in every field of reading.  The List of Books, by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish has similar lists for about 3000 books, and the authors’ comments about the books are great fun to read.

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Three-by-Five,Or Four-by-Six?

Ryan Holiday has written an essay in praise of the index card.  Every writer should read it because every writer will profit by it, whether she’s writing fiction and needs to block out sections of the plot or whether he’s writing non-fiction and needs to organize a mass of different details.

In addition to Holiday’s examples of various writers who use index cards every day, let me remind you that Books Here and There has cited in several posts the lifelong habits of John McPhee, arguably the finest American non-fiction writer of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  He uses index cards (4×6’s) for everything–data collection, random ideas, organizational structure–and writes his books from the free atmosphere those cards create.

The great beauty of index cards is that they can be shuffled around at will, creating dozens of possible arrangements of our work.  Used properly, they can reveal to us what we know and what we don’t know about a project, and how to present what we have created in the best way.  They form the logical, factual road upon which all writers can drive, freeing us to navigate well, look at the sights we didn’t always know were there, and include those sights in our finished work.

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Our Daily Breath

Jeremy Taylor, writing in the seventeenth century:

“The very spirits of a man prey upon the daily portion of bread and flesh, and every meal is a rescue from one death, and lays up for another; and while we think a thought, we die; and the clock strikes, and reckons on our portion of eternity:  we form our words with the breath of our nostrils, we have the less to live upon for every word we speak.”

[From The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying, Ch.1, Sect.1, “Consideration of the Vanity and Shortness of Man’s Life,” 1651.]

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So Endeth Our Tale

A few random (and not-so-random) thoughts on last night’s Game of Thrones series finale and on season eight as a whole:

In keeping with the spirit of the books and of the series in its entirety, no one is entirely happy with the way the main plot played out.  On the one hand, as Tyrion suggested, Bran has the “most interesting story” of anyone in Westeros.  His power as the living “memory of the world” would make him a viable candidate to lead, and his story arc–from the “boy who was thrown from the tower” to leader of the six kingdoms is truly compelling.  On the other hand, Bran made it plain throughout both seasons seven and eight that he has become something else; that he has moved beyond the human desire for power, beyond wanting anything.  (That last phrase is precisely his, in fact.)  Thus, I was surprised (and a little disappointed) when he wound up as ruler of those kingdoms.  In the one council scene, he did appear to be a delegator rather than a ruler, so that made sense, and Tyrion appears well-suited to resume his role as Hand, the power behind the throne, so that brings me comfort as well.  Still, Bran as the “winner” feels very odd.

Truthfully, there were not many strong claimants to the throne left by the show’s end.  That truly awkward scene in which Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies) steps forward to announce–and justify–his candidacy for the throne was, I think, supposed to be funny, but it was just painful to watch–the stupidest scene of the entire final season.  It should have been left on the writers’ room floor.  Given the lack of candidates, I was also surprised that Jon’s claim or Sansa’s was not pressed further by Tyrion or by Bran. (The job of doing so would have provided a much more convincing reason for Bran to be on the dais during the selection scene than any wish to claim a kingship he “didn’t want.”)   Sansa, of course, was a known quantity in King’s Landing.  If there  were anybody left alive in the city who remembered her, she might have been recalled as “that silly Lannister girl,” but she’s grown up now, and she was sitting pretty last night, assured of a kingdom somewhere, either in the south or in the north, where she always wanted to be.  Jon’s claim, as the bastard who was never really a bastard, was never pressed to a conclusion, as it should have been.  It makes no sense to me that it wasn’t.  The writers spent much of season seven and eight setting up his claim and then did nothing with it.  Never mind that he didn’t want the throne; Bran didn’t want it, either.  The point is, the story path was opened but never developed.  Jon’s end, northward with the Wildlings, takes him almost back to his beginning, but I cannot help feeling a huge opportunity was missed with him.  The same might be said of all the prophecies that were made but never fulfilled within the plot over the full eight seasons.

After Jon kills Dany, I was shocked that one of two things didn’t happen:  I was shocked that Drogon didn’t burn Jon alive, and I was shocked that Grey Worm didn’t kill him after arresting him.  My explanation (a guess, really, since Jon’s arrest is not shown) is that, as sentient creatures, both Drogon and Grey Worm were aware that they served an unstable mistress, and her end, regrettable as it was, was also just, and they chose not to interfere, although Drogon roars at Jon and flies off with Dany’s body.

“Regrettable” is, in truth, the best word I can find to describe the end of Danaerys Targaryen.  It could have been gloriously tragic, but it wasn’t written that way.  Instead, it echoed Jamie in his unseen Kingslayer moment, killing the Mad King before season one opened, to stop the first slaughter of King’s Landing and prevent a lifetime of despotic rule.

Having expressed dissatisfaction with such a key scene, let me nonetheless praise Emilia Clarke, who played Danaerys as well as anybody could have hoped throughout the series.  Actors can only play the scripts they’re given, and Clarke did a great job handling a role that was meant to move with difficulty between the poles of sanity and madness.  Viewers may not have liked everything she did or said in season eight, but she played the character as it was written, and her arc, from inexperienced girl to compassionate leader to Hitlerian dictator, was every bit as fascinating as anyone else’s.  Her death was inevitable and thus not as moving as it could have been.  The show teased us in the first half with a potential Grey Worm-Jon showdown over Dany, but writers Benioff and Weiss never followed through with the possible thrills and heartbreaking death such a showdown would have offered for this finale.  The two producers passed by many such opportunities in favor of the most surprising (i.e., least likely) outcome possible:  Bran on the throne and a more-or-less quiet resolution for everyone else.  We could say, in all fairness, that the end of Game of Thrones is “appropriate,” but the ending we wanted was memorable.  That didn’t happen and, for a series as great as this one has been, that’s just too bad.

Most of the dissatisfaction with season eight may be traced to the decision to go with only six episodes.  That decision was made to capitalize on winter weather in the shooting locations, but it made for some terribly rushed and compressed scenes.  Six episodes simply were not enough.  Eight would have been better, but then that would have messed with the actors’ availability and a whole range of production issues.  Given only six episodes to work with, episode two, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” should have been less of a transitional, calm-before-the-storm episode, and more of a slam-bang affair.  Those first two episodes wasted too much time setting up events that never quite paid off.

Still, there were excellent moments in the final season.  The Battle of Winterfell in “The Long Night” was as good as it gets.  All that those who complained that they couldn’t see it have to do is turn out their lights and they will see what I mean.  I feel the same way about last week’s episode, “The Bells.”  The sacking of King’s Landing was epic, and brilliantly done.  It was also brilliantly set up the week before in the final scene of “The Last of the Starks,” when Cersei makes her final (and fatal) mistake of beheading Missandei.  Those Twitterites who got all hot and bothered because Missandei ended up back in slavery completely misread the scene.  That woman was never more free, never less a slave, than she was then, and her message to Danaerys, Dracarys,” to burn it all down, was in perfect keeping with her recognition of what a tyrant Cersei had become.

I give special praise as well to the wonderful Peter Dinklage, who, from first season to last, was consistently nuanced and excellent as Tyrion, and to Maisie Williams, who was splendid as Arya Stark.  Her arc is one of the things I will treasure about the series as a whole, and her decision last night to “see what’s west of Westeros,” although rushed,  had been prepared for since her days as a faceless man in Braavos.  These two characters–a Lannister and a Stark–were the glue that held this often-brilliant series together, and they were the two that kept the meandering eighth season from falling apart.

We now await George R.R. Martin’s final two books of A Song of Ice and Fire.  He says the show’s ending won’t influence the books, but it surely will, and he knew all along it would.  His ending, however different it is from the TV series, will satisfy some fans and keep others enraged, and it will sell the books.  From my own perspective, I hope the ending of the books to come will move us more than the ending of the finale did last night.  I hope we are lost in drifting snow somewhere, knowing that the world we’ve lived in for seven books is gone forever, never to return except in memory.  We got some hints of that ending in “The Bells,” and in “The Iron Throne,” but, as with so many things in the final season, those hints were not enough.

[PS  Two examples of similarly-rushed final episodes are the finales of How I Met Your Mother and Mad Men.  I mention the former and write about the latter here.  If you want an example of a series finale that accomplishes a lot in just one hour and hits all the right notes, watch the series finale of Joss Whedon’s Angel.  It’s filled with necessary action, yet the ending leaves me with such a sense of melancholy that my heart aches to this day when I think about it.]

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