Inception: A Study of Greg Egan’s In The Ruins

Short Story Reviews

INCEPTION


Greg Egan is one of the hard sci-fi authors I always enjoy reading, and picking one of his stories to study was something I intended to do for a while. I believe that taking a good look at the work of authors you love as well as those you aren’t familiar with is beneficial in learning—through reading—to become a better writer.

The short story I chose isn’t something published in the mainstream, but is still a great piece of writing. I’m referring to In The Ruins, which is available to read on Egan’s (weird) website.

I recommend first reading the short story before continuing here so that your mind can be blown and your brain itching like someone got in there (as mine was when I first read it). Reading it will also put a lot of the points I make into context and, in this way, help with understanding this particular writing device of inserting thoughts into the reader’s mind.

Reading it beforehand isn’t compulsory, however, and you’re welcome to follow along without doing so. As I said, I recommend it. If you do wish to read it first, please note that comprehending the science isn’t necessary so don’t worry about it. I didn’t entirely understand some of it, either.

Discussion

In the short story In The Ruins Egan uses knowledge as the focus of the reader’s attention, sending them through a problem that gets solved as it leads the reader along a journey with the main character. And the background of the story is that of a satirical and dystopic look at a future world—one of anti-intellectualism.

“Dance, rap or stand-up?” Emma asked the slender girl in front of her in the queue. It was a joke: dance, obviously.

“Physics,” the girl replied.

“Er—” Emma gestured at the sign on the door. “Obviously. But what mode?”

At first it may seem that the background critique on contemporary society Egan delivers is the inception I’m referring to, but the obvious focus can just as well be used for the incepting thought as anything obscure or subtle.

Was the critique the inception of thought, or was it the knowledge?

“You think this has no applications?” Ghada was amused. “It might strike you that way, but it’s not the case. Describing the figure that these velocities form is one route to a deeper understanding of any inverse-square force — including the electrostatic force in an atom. With a bit more work, this problem offers a short cut to the energy levels of hydrogen…”

Interestingly, Egan uses info-dumping in the dialogue to distract from the obvious focus of the knowledge. Of course, with his choice of knowledge—math and physics—many readers may be immune to the power of suggestion employed in this piece, and probably not follow the story entirely. This will instead make the social critique of the background stronger than it would be if the focus remained with the knowledge. In this case, the inception comes in through the humour Egan uses to deliver the critique of a not-all-that-far-fetched possible future.

Glory days? Emma was indignant. “You do know that twenty million people live-streamed the makeover episode of American Poopy-head?”

“Yeah, that sums it up.” Ghada laughed sadly. “The only way for a scientist to be halfway palatable in your culture now is through a kind of ritual self-abasement…”

Observations

As with Egan’s short story, info-dumps can work if they’re executed well. In The Ruins seems to use them deliberately for the purpose of distraction and inception. The inception in this case is to get the reader to focus on the math as the characters explore it and eventually reach a point in which the main character’s arc develops and resolves.

Through the distraction and immersion, the reader unknowingly learns something new—math and physics—as we follow along to the climax as resolution. The use of visuals for the math also caters to the immersion and allows the reader to follow the incepting device with ease.

Take-Aways

The inception device isn’t exclusive or unique to science fiction and can be found in many genres, and it can be delivered in varying degrees like in Octavia E. Butler’s Bloodchild. How a writer incepts an idea into someone’s mind is generally their own preference. Some use red herrings while others use intricate sub-plots that tie together—better analysed as the Hansel and Gretel move in leaving breadcrumbs everywhere.

Inception in inception, or just a suggestion? Either works if the writer can get into the heads of readers and tickle their brains while delivering a satisfying and complete story. The point of the inception device is to further ensure the story is memorable.

After all, a reader who remembers is one who will return.


What did you take away from the story? Was the inception effective, and if not, do you think it could have been executed better? If you know of other examples of this device employed well, share it in the comments. I’d love to see more of it and I’m always up for reading great stories.

Advertisements

Forgotten Pearls: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin

Book Reviews, Forgotten Pearls

Ontwerp_zonder_titel


With a little nudge from my friend Jasmine, I will be getting into more book reviews and studies of literature. She already started the Forgotten Pearls book review series and I will be joining alongside her in exploring great literature of the past. As she says “because good writing transcends time.”

Jasmine covered The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin that ventures into social science fiction, so I will be going over Le Guin’s fantasy side with the first of her Earthsea series, A Wizard of Earthsea.

A Bit About The Book

A Wizard of Earthsea was first published in 1968, and had taken Le Guin around a year or so to write1. The book won the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award in 1969 and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1979, and it has become a staple in fantasy literature since.

The story focuses on the young wizard-in-training Ged and his journey to becoming a full-fledged wizard. Ged faces challenges that have been placed on him at too young an age, partly through his own actions, but he perseveres and overcomes these as he grows.

The book is a coming of age story but it transcends age, and it is just as good a read for a teenager as it is for someone in their 30s or 40s and so on.

Review

As masters of writing are wont to do, Le Guin bends the rules from the get-go by starting the story with a narration style that introduces the protagonist, Ged. She uses this device to hook the reader in and, retrospectively, make us want more of the story by the end of the book. A wonderful tactic for a series. While difficult to achieve, Le Guin nails the effect by giving clues of Ged’s future in the series without spoilers or revealing too much.

She then weaves into the “present” time of young Ged shortly after, without breaking scene, and dives us right into the story to learn about him. Le Guin’s characterisation of not only Ged but all of the characters is something to be in awe of. While reading, I was quickly invested in what happens to everyone shortly after they’re introduced in the story.

Even caring about the antagonist, who is rather otherworldly. Le Guin is able to make me care about the shadow, and not in the sense of hoping for Ged to defeat him. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Using the device of third-person limited, and subtle deep POV, Le Guin lets the readers get into the head of Ged to see his thoughts. This makes for an immersive story that was difficult to break out of (for adulting things like sleeping at a proper time).

I couldn’t put it down until I finished lapping up every word. Including the very short bit after the end of the story.

As someone with visual aphantasia, I find overly descriptive worlds tedious to endure. It is information I can’t do anything with. Le Guin doesn’t do this. She incorporates just enough description of Earthsea to bring the setting to life without going full Tolkien (never go full Tolkien). With the accompanying maps, following Ged’s travels around Earthsea is easy, interactive, and it further grounds the reader into the world.

Action, brotherly love, despair, horror, and victory are in full swing in A Wizard of Earthsea. A rollercoaster of emotions and events that lead closer to Ged’s final victory over the shadow. And what a twist that scene is! I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

Le Guin’s pacing in the book is brilliantly executed, mixing the fast scenes with the slow ones seamlessly. And each scene surpasses the peak of the previous, building naturally to the climax after which a slow resolution gently brings the reader down from an adrenaline rush to settle in the completion of the character arc and story-line.

Such a satisfying ending.

One that left me pitying the shadow as well as Ged. It’s a bitter-sweet ending to the first book of the series that further shows Ged’s character. I absolutely love that Le Guin uses the conclusion for more characterisation rather than plot, and it is masterful.

Versus Contemporary

The language Le Guin uses in A Wizard of Earthsea is very easy to read, intended for the Young Adult audience. With this choice in reading level, the book fits nicely with contemporary writing. There are little differences between then and now in writing within this book, mainly the folktale-telling style of the narrative, but they don’t detract from reading in this day and age of what to expect. A Wizard of Earthsea is time-fluid in the writing style and fits well with contemporary fantasy. The themes she incorporates are still being used today, making the story familiar to new readers.

As it was then, it is still an essential read for fantasy, perhaps even more so now. At least, in my opinion.

Have you read A Wizard of Earthsea? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Did I miss something or have you perceived things differently? It would be interesting to read and discuss the different experiences people get from the book.


1. Le Guin, Ursula K.; Wood, Susan (1980). The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Pg 29-30. London, UK: Ultramarine publishing.

Humanising the Character: A Study of “The Metamorphosis”

Book Reviews


For purposes of this review, page numbers refer to the placement of text according to this copy of The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka.

With the previous review, I looked at how P.G Wodehouse delivered social critique through his novel Something New. A short short by Franz Kafka is my focus for this review on how literature can influence and be incorporated into writing—making better writers through reading.

I will look at Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis—heralded as his masterpiece. The story does not disappoint. In the short story, there are many valuable take-aways for writers: building suspense, keeping the reader’s fascination, and characterisation to name a few. But for this review, I will look at the most prominent aspect of The Metamorphosis—how to humanise the character.

Kafka employs various characterisations—what makes a character real—for his main character, Gregor Samsa. Among others, the characterisation includes the development of his relationship with his family, his changing attitude toward life and lifestyle, and Gregor’s submission to the situation he’s in. The most alluring and important characterisation employed is that of humanising Gregor, who is no longer human.

The Character

Gregor Samsa is an ex-military traveling salesman who has taken it upon himself to support his family—himself, his sister, and their mother and father. He worked long hours, often abroad and away from home for months at a time, to increase his income and thus the status of his family and their lifestyle.

This was, of course, before the story begins with him awakening to discover that during the night he has been transformed into a creature likened to a beetle.

Not only is humanising the character an important aspect of the story for the sake of the reader, but an important aspect for the character Gregor himself. Throughout the story, we’re reminded of how dearly Gregor holds onto his past human-self and the slow slipping of it as he tries to come to terms with what has happened to him—his metamorphosis.

More notably, the reminders of how important the humanity is to Gregor are shown in pages 134-135, and again prominently on page 141.

He had indeed been so near the brink of forgetfulness that only the voice of his mother, which he had not heard for so long, had drawn him back from it. Nothing should be taken out of his room; everything must stay as it was; he could not dispense with the good influence of the furniture on his state of mind… ~Page 141

The Family

In contrast with the humanity Gregor holds onto, his family no longer acknowledges nor contemplates the existence of the humanity still within Gregor. This perception is evident in many parts of the story, including within the following quote:

His sister no longer took thought to bring him what might especially please him, but in the morning and at noon before she went to business hurriedly pushed into his room with her foot any food that was available, and in the evening cleared it out again with one sweep of the broom, heedless of whether it had been merely tasted… ~Page 150

Though this perception is blatantly crude, it is one acquired through the months of hardship Gregor’s family endure emotionally and financially as a result of his metamorphosis. Prior to this event, his sister, Grete, was hospitable and hopeful of some retained humanity within Gregor or a chance that he may revert to his human-self.

… she had in fact perceived that Gregor needed a lot of space to crawl about in, while on the other hand he never used the furniture at all, so far as could be seen… ~Page 142

While this quote of the narrative does show Grete’s consideration for Gregor’s humanity, it also alludes to her thinking of him as the creature instead—much in the way a person would show consideration for a pet. The humanising of character falls onto Gregor’s reception of Grete’s perceived kindness, where he remarks on the importance of the furniture in keeping his human-self grounded and alive, as quoted from Page 141 above.

Humanising

Kafka shows the humanising of Gregor’s character all through the short story, placing emphasis in certain parts—such as that on page 141. Using the Deep Point-Of-View device of third-person limited perspective, Kafka constantly reminds the reader of Gregor’s humanity through internal thoughts and perceptions.

Along with the thoughts, emotions ground the reader into believing that Gregor is a human being, with only the slightest of reminders that Gregor is actually now a creature when Kafka mentions Gregor’s legs and later placing more focus on the apple his father threw at him and has thus burrowed into Gregor’s soft-shelled back.

Conclusions

In Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, the author shows how to place characterisation onto non-human characters and the importance for the reader in doing so. Humanising the character provides grounds for the reader to relate to the character. This characterisation serves to suspend belief, which is particularly important within works of fiction.


Enjoyed what you read? If so, please consider sending a tip to show appreciation and support an emerging writer in her career.

Donate

LiteCoin Address:
LZvTwDEWnqBFsoUfrjSqUdaSuEQJ3yvMB1

 

Deciphering the Message: A Look at P.G Wodehouse’s Something New

Book Reviews


For purposes of this article, the page numbers referenced correspond with those of the ePub (without images) obtained from Project Gutenberg’s library.

Within many works of literature, social critique is prominently on display under the medium of storytelling. P.G Wodehouse’s Something New is one such work and the focus of this review. Through analysing the book, I take a look at how the critique is implemented into the narrative and delivered in a manner that did not detract from the story itself—lending an added emphasis to the events of the plot that occurred.

For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.
~Marshall McLuhan “The Medium is the Message”, 1967

In the case of Something New, the medium is literature, as conveyed through comedy—in the form of satire. This medium focuses on the message of critique of the socio-economic status of the early 20th Century across two countries: the United States of America and the United Kingdom. It delivers the critique through perspectives of the upper, middle, and lower classes.

For this review, I focus on the views each class had in regard to the others. This focus also looks at their perspective toward the current state of socio-economic status, life, and the world. I consider this perspective and the critique Wodehouse delivered in the book by showing the views of each class toward the others as well as the views on women at that time (in the 1910s when the book was written).

Regard to Life

Throughout the book, the reader is exposed to various perspectives concerning the Other, and these views show a clear distinction of socio-economic classes—the distinction being prominent in the USA and UK during the 1910s and continuing through both World Wars as a strong remnant of the Industrial Revolution.

Upper Class–Earl of Emsworth

He was as completely happy as only a fluffy-minded old man with excellent health and a large income can be… He was possibly as nearly contented as a human being could be in this century of alarms and excursions. ~Page 26

Despite the average man he seems to see himself as—ignoring any privilege that afforded him this view—Lord Emsworth thinks himself as humbled by his content life. He struggles to fathom the need for the worry he acknowledges the rest of the world has. From his perspective, life is an unnecessarily worrying world and he considers himself spared from trivial matters and disappointment—spared from the rat race of the rest of the population.

It is possible that, lacking the initiative to make his way down the long aisle and find a table for himself, he [Lord Emsworth] might have stood there indefinitely, but for the restless activity of Adams, the head steward. It was Adams’ mission in life to flit to and fro, hauling would-be lunchers to their destinations. ~Page 21

Wodehouse spares no subtlety in critique on the upper class throughout Something New, showing their disregard for the life of the Other. The perspectives of the Honourable Freddie (Lord Emsworth’s younger son) and Mr. Peters (prospective father-in-law to the Earl’s younger son, Freddie) are of a similar nature.

Middle Class–Ashe Marson

The Wanted column of the morning paper is a sort of dredger, which churns up strange creatures from the mud of London’s underworld. Only in response to the dredger’s operations do they come to the surface in such numbers as to be noticeable, for as a rule they are of a solitary habit and shun company; but when they do come they bring with them something of the horror of the depths. ~Page 56

Ashe Marson views the lower class as creatures that reside in the shadows and metaphoric sewers of London. He sees himself as above them. Marson shows some form of sympathy toward the lower classes, but only to distinguish himself from them. Through his apparent sympathy he sees them not as people, but as entities unlike himself and those of his status.

In English trains the tipping classes travel first; valets, lady’s maids, footmen, nurses, and head stillroom maids, second; and housemaids, grooms, and minor and inferior stillroom maids, third. But for these social distinctions, the whole fabric of society would collapse and anarchy stalk naked through the land. ~Page 65

Later in the story, Ashe Marson ignores the existence of the lowest of the lower class and the plights of those in poverty. He also regards himself as among the members of the lower class, while maintaining a distinction between himself and those of lower socio-economic status. This distinction is a separation of the Self from the Other.

This disdained and disassociated view of the lower class is continued through the perspective of Joan Valentine, while also displaying her view of the upper class activities as trivial and materialistic.

Lower Class–Mr. Adams

Unlike the other characters mentioned, Mr. Adams only features in one scene in the book. This scene, while establishing Lord Emsworth’s character and setting up his present frame of mind, focuses on the character of Adams. His appearance in the story is restricted, not developing further like the other characters. Adams’s inclusion in the story is a means through which Wodehouse displays the order of society to further critique the classes and their perspectives.

You would never have thought it, to look at him when engaged in his professional duties, but Adams had built up a substantial reputation as a humorist in his circle by his imitations of certain members of the club… The Earl of Emsworth ambled benevolently to the door, leaving Adams with the feeling that his day had been well-spent. He gazed almost with reverence after the slow-moving figure.

“What a nut!” said Adams to his immortal soul. ~Pages 23-26

Mr. Adams takes to mockery of the members of the upper class—his position as steward at a club for the senior members of the class affording him the material with which to indulge in the mockery. His mockery is a means of entertaining himself and those around him. In regard to the upper class life, Adams displays contempt and disassociation from himself—and those who share his status—for the members of a higher status.

Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervor. Mr. Simmonds eating, was one of his best imitations… To be privileged to witness Lord Emsworth watching and criticizing Mr. Simmonds was to collect material for a double-barreled character study that would assuredly make the hit of the evening. ~Page 23

All through Something New, this mockery of the upper and middle classes is presented through the perspectives of the characters situated in the lower class, particularly among the servants of the upper class.

Observations

Wodehouse alludes to several forms of critique of social issues, ranging from sensitive topics to the more commonplace daily life troubles. Through these comments, he shows the differences and similarities of views and habits across socio-economic status.

After looking at the critique of the classes, I explore two other observations in the book and consider the medium of this delivery and the effect the manner of the deliver has on the message of the book.

Sexism

Sexism and the oppression of women in the socio-economic classes remain a prominent issue, though less obvious with class distinction today than in the early 20th Century. Throughout Something New, Wodehouse presents the reader with blatant sexism through dialogue of his characters, representing views of people in that time to deliver his critique on oppression. This is especially noteworthy as the book was written in a time when women’s rights were being fought for on a large scale.

Without quoting a significant portion of the book, I narrow the argument to two quotes that best display the sexism Wodehouse perceived and criticised.

“You are much too real a person. What a wife you will make for a hard-working man… I shall be fagged, disheartened. And then you will come with your cool, white hands and, placing them gently on my forehead…” ~Page 37-38

This is a narrative by George Emerson, a middle class lawyer, to Aline Peters during his attempts to court her. The dialogue highlights the views of men concerning women and their idea of a woman’s role and purpose in life as that of servitude to the male portion of society. Wodehouse further remarks on this through Aline’s thoughts on George’s attitude and again on a general critique of the “superman” mentality of young men, which can be seen in the following quote.

… he tells me it is perfectly infernal the way these women carry on. He said sometimes it got to such a pitch, with them waving banners and presenting petitions, and throwing flour and things at a fellow… ~Page 151

The quote above is a recollection of a conversation from Lord Emsworth with another of the upper class about the movement toward establishing voting rights for women. The disdain of the thought that women would be able to vote was shared by Lord Emsworth. In using this narrative, Wodehouse comments on the inconsideration of the Other—in this case being women—through the lack of acknowledgement toward the struggles women endure within society.

The Medium

Something New, as the book is named in its first publishing, delivers critique through the text using the medium of humour to mask it. This medium allows the reader to absorb the critique—the message—without triggering a defence mechanism that may lay dormant and waiting to protect a person’s worldview. Wodehouse executes this mission with intentional precision in his writing.

Expanding on the critique through humour, Wodehouse’s title bears a greater impact within the body of the work. The plot in Something New circles along the trivial pursuits of the characters, which brings them together for the climax of the story. In the pursuit of wanting something new, something fresh, the characters engage in unspoken rivalries, social form, and competition to achieve their desires. When the story comes to a resolution, the characters settle into the stagnation and repetition of life, but with less contempt for the ordinary that seemed to plague them before.

This contradiction with the title is further emphasised through the recurrence of the title within the narrative, providing a subtle reminder to the reader of the goal of the characters and the pursuit of it as the plot progresses.

The title Something New appears on pages 10 and 11 with the discussion between Ashe Marson and Joan Valentine about the mundanes of life. The conversation is mentioned again on page 62 at the climax of the story when the former desire for something new has come to realisation. On page 42, where the title appears again, Lord Emsworth discovers in his pocket the object that is the main drive of the plot and the events within. This appearance serves further to highlight both the character’s present condition and the otherwise dull happenings of his daily life.

In the course of the plot, and through the events that occur to the characters, something new is presented that changes their situation at that moment. And yet, what appears to be change isn’t anything new after all.

Conclusion

P.G Wodehouse utilises the medium of humour as a means to deliver the message to introduce awareness of issues within society. While the topics within Something New are still an issue today, the division between upper and lower classes was far more distinctive in the book, and the burden of both classes rested upon the middle class. By ignoring the upper class and placing more strain on the lower, the class gap is driven further apart.

As shown through Wodehouse’s delivery, social critique is best delivered subtly in the medium. The subtle delivery puts less focus on the message and, instead, uses the medium to carry the message through the work. This method allows the reader to think about the issues without forcing them to have an immediate opinion that would cause them to become defensive and potentially block out the message.


Enjoyed what you read? If so, please consider sending a tip to show appreciation and support an emerging writer in her career.

Donate

LiteCoin Address:
LZvTwDEWnqBFsoUfrjSqUdaSuEQJ3yvMB1