Friday, February 28, 2014

"The Colour of Magic" as a Dungeons and Dragons Campaign

As I read The Colour of Magic, I found myself consistently being reminded of listening to a group role playing Dungeons & Dragons.  (I listen to RollPlay, which is a great starting point for anyone interested in D&D.) The Colour of Magic starts with our protagonist Twoflower being introduced as the first tourist of the Discworld.   The character's motivation for beginning a quest is very important, and the idea of being a tourist is a lovely and simple way to open doors to all sorts of adventures. Upon beginning a D&D campaign, I had to create a bio for my character, which I found constricting because I didn't really think about how each choice would affect my character's motivations during each encounter. In The Colour of Magic, Twoflower is open to all sorts of new experiences and really just trying to get acquainted with the new world.  That makes for a great introduction for the reader to this new world, but also would be a solid foundation for why a character might set out on a D&D quest.

Apart from introducing the world and character motivations at the same time, I had fun imagining other elements from the novel as D & D characters might respond to them. There are fantastically magical items introduced in the novel, such The Luggage, which is essentially a trunk with legs that behaves very much like a pet.  Even the way that wizards have to memorize spells for hours and hours in the Discworld is similar to the way that magic casters in D & D must announce that they are working on memorizing spells.

Though there were many great humorous lines in The Colour of Magic, I narrowed it down to one that really stood out to me. Even Pratchett's characters feel the frustration of pushing a language to it's limits when talking about travelling dimensions and time and how that thoroughly confuses verb tenses.
Notable Quotable: “It is at this point that normal language gives up and goes and has a drink.”

Since The Colour Magic is a British novel, I couldn’t help but make a Doctor Who connection when Pratchett describes a dryad as a tree that is a multi-dimensional universe being bigger on the inside.  In Doctor Who, many humans had the same reaction upon seeing the inside of the T.A.R.D.I.S., which looks like a Police Call Box on the outside but is very spacious in the inside, with lots of machinery and plenty of space for multiple people to move around.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Saturday, February 22, 2014

"1984": Newspeak as an Exoteric Language

I've always had a lot of questions about where the irregularities in the English language originated, and those questions are finally being answered for me as I listen to a Great Courses lecture entitled Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage by Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University.  McWhorter covers everything from irregular verbs and pronoun usage to esoteric and exoteric languages.

I'd never heard the distinction between an esoteric and exoteric language before, so when I finished reading 1984 , I began to think about the language the Party created to control the thoughts of it's citizens.  I realized this had to be an example of an exoteric language and that could help explain why The Party was so successful.

First, an esoteric language is used by small group of people, learned as children, and more complex. It is an "in-group" language and it's complexity makes it difficult for adults to learn.

Languages spoken by a large number of people, learned by adults and children are referred to as exoteric.  They are more accessible to outsiders and replicable. The inclusion of outsiders makes the language more sustainable as it is passed down and learned by the masses.

Newspeak, as the official language of Oceania in 1984, is an exoteric language.  All people are encourage to forget the old language and fully adopt to this new language The Party has created.  As a language being completely learned by adults and in a large quantity, the language had to be simple and easy to learn.  (I would call it second language learning, but The Party demanded that Newspeak replace the previous language.)

The simplification that took place condensed the language to bare bones, keeping only the language necessary.  It meant removing any synonyms or antonyms, replacing them with a single word that could be modified to adjust meaning.  Instead of the word bad, Newspeak has "ungood."  Something could be described as doubleplus ungood, ungood, good, or doubleplus good. The effect of changing language in this way and forcing it upon a large group of people is that there is no room for personal expression.  No thought can be expressed if The Party hasn't created the word describing it.  There are many fewer words, with much more rigidity in meaning.

By creating a simple language that only had words that described "goodthink" (Party approved principles), The Party could force all people into an identical way of thinking and thereby remove all opposition.  By the end of the novel, Winston can't remember anything but Newspeak and has lost his ability to express (and think) anything outside Party policy.  If language is controlled, thought is controlled.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

An Honest Narrator from "The Handmaid's Tale"

It's been a long time since I've encountered as honest of a narrator as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.  Through the novel she would forewarn the reader when she was recreating a scene or adding in information that was she learned later.  She would tell a story the way she wished it played out, but then retracting by saying, "That's not how it happened." At one point, it even took her three attempts to get the story right.

In the epilogue, we are told that the story we have been hearing was actually recorded on a series of tapes that some professors and experts had to put into logical order.  This frame also adds to the honesty of a "reconstruction" of past events rather than a linear telling of what happened, where, and to whom.  The professors assure us that the account is likely true based on what they know of their research on Gileadean society.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and when I got to the epilogue, I was so glad I had! Offred intended for her story to be heard, listened to by a future generation.  She spoke directly at her listener towards the end of the novel, too, saying things like, "If I meet you," and "By telling you anything at all, I believe in you."  Through the audible first person narration, it felt like a sincere passing on of knowledge from one person to another.  It was those moments where Offred addressed the audience that finalized any doubts one could have about her reliability.  She had no reason to hide anything any more.  As the professors in the epilogue said, there was no way to find out anything specific about who she was or where she went after recording the tapes.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Technology of "The Social Code"

Written in 2013, The Social Code by Sadie Hayes features technology as the center point of her plot. The novel features two college freshman siblings who create and market a new iPhone app. As a YA novel, this is a great plot line because of it's relevancy and freshness. The generation that will read The Social Code grew up with iPhones in their hands, so not only is something they are familiar with, but it would be a realistic sounding future for the reader as well. Aside from that, there's also the fact that writing in the most current technology almost guarantees that you are the first to write about it (or at least one of the first). These elements are just two of the reasons that technology as an integral part of the novel worked so well.

However, my question for the future of this novel: What happens when the technology becomes outdated?

My immediate thought is that it will disappear into obscurity. Once the audience has grown up, the next generation will grow up on new technology and will regard this book as irrelevant as we would reading a novel about the creation of the first computer.

That being said, that could be a great story! There's a lot to be learned from historical elements in novels, whether they were historical or current at the time of writing. In fact, a lot of literature has cultural references that are now explained by footnotes so that current audiences can fully understand and appreciate the context.

Back to The Social Code though, Hayes' use of screenshots of various media (texts, PowerPoint slides, emails, online news articles) will date the book even further. I love the element that these screenshots add, the way they can remove the reader from any narrator bias, but for a recent book, it is already starting to look dated with it's 3G iPhone and simplistic PowerPoint slides.  

What was supposed to be an important and impressive presentation made by a college student looks like something I could've whipped up in 15 minutes in high school, before making it a real presentation. With that discrepancy already outdating the book, it will be interesting to see if this book sticks around or gets lost in obscurity.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Improvisation in "Bossypants"

Growing up, I loved watching the show Whose Line is it Anyway?.  It impressed me that they could not only come up with their own funny lines on the spot, but that they could also adapt and react to the other players without a moment delay.  I always thought it would be so much fun and at the same time, I was terrified of the very idea of it.  As someone who has always felt more comfortable writing out my ideas with time to revise and edit,  improvisation sounded like the last thing I would ever be interested in. 

I am not sure what I was expecting (other than a few laughs) when I decided to read Tina Fey’s Bossypants. When she began to describe how she did improv for SNL, I was excited because though I don't watch SNL regularly, I knew this book would unlock the secrets of all television improvisation.  Finally I could stop regarding improvisation as a mythical impossible-to-understand creature.

With three simple tips, all of my questions were answered.
1. Agree.  
It’s something I wouldn’t have realized the importance of and certainly would’ve messed up myself.  You have to go along with whatever the other people are saying, without question.  The first step to making the audience believe what the improvers are saying is for the players to believe it and live it.
2. Yes, and…
It’s not enough to just agree though; you have to add something to the conversation to drive the plot forward.  Again, it sounds simple, but I would be afraid I would freeze up and not know what to say!  She gave some great examples in which someone said something pretty straight forward, she agreed immediately and then adding something so off the wall that the story lays itself out nicely.  One example I remember off the top of my head was that if someone said, “It’s hot,” you could respond with “Of course it’s hot! We’re in Hell!”
3. Make statements.
If you’re always asking questions, that’s putting all the pressure on the other improvers to have the answers.  It also doesn’t necessarily drive the plot forward.  You have to contribute and you must do so with certainty so that the audience will believe that you’re really in the scene.

Her tips and examples were down to earth and easy to understand that they seemed familiar to me.   I realized that, without even knowing it, I actually had done a form on improvisation in a medium in which I was very comfortable: writing.

On the last day of my Intro to Creative writing class, we each took out a piece of paper and started a story.  After a few minutes, the professor stopped us, and had us pass our stories to the right, where our neighbor read our story, and then added on to it.  That continued until every student in the class had written on each story. It was an absolute blast and we had written some entertaining stories.  

Suddenly, my interest in improvisation doesn’t seem so strange.  I would never be comfortable getting up and acting in front of an audience, but I can get the same thrills out of writing.