Book Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson is the first novel I’ve read by this author. I read one of his short stories in an all-sci-fi issue of Wired magazine and loved it, plus I’d heard all the (positive) commotion about his novel New York 2140. So I was excited to dive in. I recently graduated college and immediately after (well honestly about a week before, I was really excited) went to the bookstore and bought a stack of science fiction to read. This is the first time in a very long time that I’m actually able to read books *I* want to read. Anyway, Robinson was at the top of my list of new authors I want to check out, and I decided to start with Aurora. I was not disappointed.

Aurora is about a group of people on a spaceship about to arrive at their new home, a planet called Aurora in the Tau Ceti system. The voyage was begun many generations ago by people who eventually died of old age without seeing the end of their adventure. It’s a bittersweet start, in part because I couldn’t help but mourn the lives of the people who were in the middle generation. They didn’t get the excitement of starting out, and they didn’t get the excitement of getting there.

Robinson has put a lot of thought into the science of his work, and it seems that while he is perfectly capable of letting his imagination run wild with possibility, he is also able to rein in that imagination with a cold hard look at the science of the thing. It’s very practical science fiction, focused on the human condition and its role in the universe we’ve created for ourselves. The drama and conflict here does not involve epic space battles or Alien-level monsters. The battles are of our own making, the monsters sometimes in the mirror.

And that is what I think makes Aurora such a chilling read: it is so plausible because it’s rooted in a deep understanding of humanity. Robinson looks at who we are and where we seem to be going, and crafts his space opera around those two quantities. Then he backs it up with science.

This book did a great job of making me see our planet in new and interesting ways, and ask important questions of myself, especially in the use of a poem at the end which I won’t relay. I don’t want to give anything away. But that’s exactly the kind of science fiction I love best. It’s moving, it has a feeing of being bigger than all of us, and it makes me reflect on big questions. Those are the kinds of stories that have shaped me since I first started reading science fiction, and what I strive for in my own writing.

So, if you’re looking for a big action adventure, this is probably not your book. But if you like well-thought-out science, deep character development, and big questions, Aurora is a winner.

Dramatic Division

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Dramatic Division: An Analysis of the 3- and 5-act Structure of Dramatic Writing


Research into the difference between 3- and 5-act play structures is very difficult. Few books address this topic directly unless they are dealing with scriptwriting, though I believe it to be a topic of great interest to the budding writer of all forms: fiction, nonfiction, drama, screen, and even poetry. What are the different structures? they ask. Why choose one or the other? Why have structure at all? How can I use the theory of structure to aid me in my writing? Indeed, as I mature as a writer I’m indelibly drawn to these same questions. It is my belief that few books go in-depth into this question because the form was established so long ago by Aristotle. Any who wished to approach the task of dramatic writing assumed that structure and moved on with the business of getting the play written. Jackson G. Barry, in his book Dramatic Structure, is ambivalent about act division, and believes the division of acts to be an afterthought, something that is either “purely conventional or organic and, in either case, its dictated divisions may or may not be physically marked for an audience at the playhouse” (Barry 86). Act division is, he says, “certainly conventional, the product of historical precedent” (Barry 86).

When it is discussed, it is done so only briefly, usually a brief chapter somewhere between scene and plot. I am always baffled by this, because the number of acts and the way they are structured seems to me to be the first choice a writer would make about their work. If you have ten items you need to place in a box, wouldn’t you want to pick the right box for your items? Would the type of box affect the order in which you place your items? Perhaps it is a more personal aspect of approach by an individual writer, but I am of the mind that knowing the major structure of my work at the beginning of writing is beneficial in crafting scene structure.

Screenwriters have since figured this out, and many screenwriting books address the topic directly. This is perhaps due to the close connection between a successful screenplay and the bottom line for movie production companies. There is little deviance and experimentation because production companies are more interested in earning money than they are setting new standards of dramatic structure. Therefore, writers who attempt screenplays begin with the dramatic structure that is most often used in film: 3 acts.

The 3-act structure has begun to pervade fiction writing courses as well. The pattern of crisis, climax, and resolution that is characteristic of a 3-act structure is one that is being used by fiction writers in order to capitalize on the tension that it builds in the reader. This crisis, climax, resolution concept has been likened by some feminist theorists to the sexual climax of men, and claim that the pervasiveness of the 3-act structure is representative of the oppression of the feminist perspective.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the 3-act structure, there is little argument that it is the most popular structural form in modern dramatic writing. However, plays can be written in any number of acts the author chooses. Some plays have only 1 act, while others have none at all. It is my concern that the limited amount of information, and the one-sided approach that scriptwriting takes, is a failure for the future of dramatic writing, and writing in general.

Is an “act” merely a division of convenience to aid the readers and theorists in their discussion? Or is it something more fundamental in the way we tell our stories? Is the act fundamental and necessary to our experience of the dramatic arts? It is precisely these questions I hope to answer by taking a closer look at both the 3- and 5-act dramatic structures.

Literature Review

Poetics by Aristotle, Joe Sachs trans. Originally published in 335 BC.

The Art of Poetry by Horace Originally published in 18 BC.

Techniques of the Drama by Gustav Freytag, Elias J. MacEwan trans. Originally published in 1863.

A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen, Rolf Fjelde trans. Originally published in

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

The 3-Act Structure

The 3-act structure is by some accounts the oldest form of drama there is. The definition of the 3-act structure is often attributed to Aristotle. In his treatise on drama, The Poetics, he writes,

A whole is that which has a beginning, middle, and end: a beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, but after which it is natural for another thing to be or come to be; an end is the opposite, something that is itself naturally after something else, either necessarily or for the most part, with no other thing naturally after it; and a middle is that which is itself both after something else and has another thing after it. Therefore, well-organized stories must neither begin from wherever they may happen to nor end where they may happen to, but must have the look that has been described (Aristotle 30).

Thus he is describing the essential nature of the three acts: the beginning (crisis), middle (conflict), and end (resolution).

Examining the screenwriting industry is a good way to get a grasp on the nature of dramatic structure. Syd Field, one of the most highly respected authors on the topic of screenwriting, says in The Screenwriter’s Workbook that “a thorough knowledge and understand of structure [is] essential in the writing of a screenplay” (27). As said earlier, the 3-act structure is most prolifically discussed with regards to screenwriting, which has established for itself a very definite formula with which most film scripts are written. Though of course films can go outside this structure, it has proven to be a successful technique for many films. Screenwriting manuals even go so far as to time out the events. Field, for example, outlines what he calls the screenwriting “paradigm” (Field 40). If a movie is one hundred twenty minutes, and therefore roughly one hundred twenty pages long, act one would comprise one quarter, or thirty pages, of the script, act two would comprise one half, or sixty pages of the script, and act three would comprise the final quarter of thirty pages. A further analysis of  the structure of screenwriting sheds light on the elements of each act (fig 1).

Figure 1 – The 3-Act Structure in Screenwriting (Pruter)

Act 1 is traditionally considered to be the setup. It is in Act 1 that we meet the protagonist, develop a sense of the story context, and learn about the central problem of the
story. Act 1 also contains the “Inciting Incident”, the event which causes the initial problem, or the “call to adventure” (51) as described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This is the event that gets it all going. Though these structural definitions come from a manual on screenwriting, we can look at A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen, a 3-act play, to see how its structure coincides with these concepts. In Act 1 we meet Nora, the protagonist of the play. We learn of her character as a lighthearted and frivolous woman, and of her context as a wife to wealthy bank manager Torvald Helmer. The inciting incident is, when Krogstad appears at the Helmer household to complicate Nora’s life.

Plot Point #1 is the moment in Act 1 where the protagonist has decided to accept the call to adventure and face the challenges ahead, and signals the transition to Act 2. In Doll House this is the moment where Nora realizes that she cannot simply talk Torvald into doing what Krogstad wants. She cannot reveal her situation to her husband because of his intense distaste for dishonesty. Her situation is truly desperate, and as she realizes this she also realizes that she will do anything to find a way out of her predicament.

Act 2 is often labeled “confrontation” because the majority of this act tends to deal with complications and confrontations for the protagonist. In screenwriting, the midpoint is the culmination of
these complications, the moment in which the protagonist loses hope. It is the central even that everything leads up to, and that everything is a result of. Again, if we look at A Doll House, we can consider the midpoint moment to be when Krogstad places the letter in the mailbox. The letter is then the subject of much concern and conjecture, of planning and scheming, and represents a loss of hope for Nora since she cannot get to it without alerting her husband to her troubling situation.

Plot Point #2 is the transition from Act 2 to Act 3. It takes all the confrontation and turns it into the final climb up to the climax of the story. In A Doll House, Nora has managed to distract her husband from opening the letter box, but she knows it’s only a matter of time until he does and her world falls apart. He’s agreed to wait until the following evening, and in doing so seals her fate and the time she thinks she still has to live.

Finally, Act 3 is the resolution. The climax of the story is culmination of all the tension and complication the protagonist has experienced. Finally, once the climax has occurred, there is often a falling action, or denouement.  In A Doll House, the climax is when Torvald finally reads the letter and knows what his wife has kept from him. It is a revelation for Torvald, but it is also a revelation for Nora and is the culmination of her character arc, the line of change that can be traced for her throughout the play. Once she has experienced her revelation, the story falls into its denouement. Nora decides to leave, and does.

Some critics of the 3-act structure claim that it reflects the domination of western culture and civilization by the male perspective. As Edwin Wilson notes in his introductory theater textbook The Theater Experience, radical feminist theorists “saw the plot complications, crisis, and denouement in tragedy as a duplication of the male sexual experience of foreplay, around and climax” (Wilson 166). In response, feminists have called for a dramatic form “that stressed ‘contiguity,’ a form…which is ‘fragmentary rather than whole’ and ‘interrupted rather than complete.’ This form is often cyclical and without a single climax” (Wilson 166). Though Wilson notes that not all feminists embrace this definition of new dramatic structure, it is clear that they are taking the opportunity to experiment with finding their own structure and form.

The 5-Act Structure

Gustav Freytag is credited with defining the 5-act structure of dramatic writing. However, the 5-act structure has been used by playwrights for a very long time. The Roman philosopher Horace, who lived from 65 BC to 8 BC, first proposed the 5-act structure in his Ars Poetica, or The Art of Poetry, when he says, “A play which is to be in demand and, after production, to be revived, should consist of five acts—no more, no less” (Dukore 71). The dissemination of this work throughout Europe led to a revival of this structure format by Renaissance playwrights. Shakespeare wrote all of his plays in 5 acts.

Fig 2 – Freytag’s 5-act Structure

Freytag, a German novelist and critic of the nineteenth century, observed pattern of structure and plot in a variety of plays throughout history. In this way, he was able to identify the elements that made up each of the 5 acts of a play (fig 2). He called these a) introduction, b) rising action, c) climax, d) return or falling action, and e) catastrophe. Each act is separated by what he calls a stirring action, “through which the parts are separated as well as bound together” (Freytag 115). They are the moments which transition the dramatic action from Act to Act.

In Act 1, introduction, of course, introduces the audience to the context of the play and to the main characters. In ancient plays this was often done in a prologue. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we are of course introduced to Hamlet and his father’s ghost, thus setting the stage, and tone, for the action to follow.

In Act 2, the rising movement, Freytag writes that, “the action has been started; the chief persons have shown what they are; the interest has been awakened” (125). In Hamlet, Polonius and the King notice Hamlet’s despair but fail to properly diagnose it. Instead they contrive ways of finding out his ills that cause complications for everyone, especially poor Ophelia.

In Act 3, the climax of the story is the greatest moment of tension. The climax is the turning point and this third arc effects a change either for the better or for the worse in the protagonist’s situation. In act 3 of Hamlet, the players act out their play as Hamlet watches the reaction of his mother and uncle. Hamlet then has an opportunity to kill his uncle but waits. He then confronts his mother but notices someone hiding behind the curtain. After he stabs the figure, he discovers he has murdered Polonius. He must now leave.

In Act 4, the falling action begins. Now that the climax has occurred, the characters must deal with the consequences. Hamlet must dispose of Polonius’s corpse. The King must address his court and send Hamlet away. Ophelia has gone insane and her brother Laertes demands justice for the wrongs done to his family. Finally, Ophelia takes her own life.

In Act 5, the denouement signals the end, and all things are resolved. For Hamlet this means that all interested parties take part in one final scene where everyone ends up dead.


The exposition of Act 1 in a 5-act structure is, of course, the “setup” seen in Act 1 of the 3-act structure. It sets the scene and introduces the protagonist. The stirring action that exists between Act 1 (exposition) and Act 2 (rising action) is the “inciting incident.” It is the protagonist’s response to this stirring action that causes the rising action.

One clear difference between the 5-act and 3-act structure is the location of the climax. In the 3-act structure, for example, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play would be the midpoint, the moment in which all is lost for Hamlet. Everything would lead up to the fight scene, which would be the climax. It is interesting that Freytag does not consider this to be the climax of the play. To a modern mind, the action and finality of Act 5 seem to make it very climactic, with little to no denouement. It is a new perspective on the importance of certain elements in Hamlet that, for me, give it a new light.


Ultimately there are far more similarities than differences between the 3-act and 5-act structure. It seems to come down to a matter of language more than anything inherent in the structure itself. Freytag’s definition of the 5 acts is very similar to the present understanding of the 3 acts, especially in terms of the philosophy of screenwriting.

It is interesting to note that Ibsen abandoned the prevalent 5-act structure in favor of experimentation with 3 acts. It is perhaps the extensive influence his work has had on the modern dramatic arts that has led to the present-day approach to the 3-act format, and why his play The Doll House can so easily be analyzed against our present understanding of that structure.

I believe that a thorough understanding of each method is important to understanding the dominant method of story structure for the last several thousand years—really for as long as we have been recording poetics and our ideas about them. Is the 3-act structure better or worse than the 5-act structure? No. Is it crucial that the chosen structure be made apparent to the reader or audience? Not really. The true benefit of knowing and using these structures is the development of a compelling storyline that will resonate with its intended audience.


Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Joe Sachs. Newburyport: Focus, 2011. Print.

Barry, Jackson G. Dramatic Structure. Berkley: University of California Press, 1970. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. Print.

Dukore, Bernard F. Dramatic Theory and Criticism. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974. Print.

Field, Syd. The Screenwriter’s Workbook. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006. Print.

Freytag, Gustav. Technique of the Drama. Trans. Elias J MacEwan. New York: Benjamin Blomm, 1968. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. The Complete Major Prose Plays. Trans. Rolf Fjelde. New York: New American Library, 1978. Print.

Kaucher, Dorothy Juanita. Modern Dramatic Structure. Columbia: The University of Missouri, 1928. Print. The University of Missouri Studies: A Quarterly of Research vol. 3 no. 4.

Pruter, Robin Franson. “3-act Structure.” College of DuPage, 8 Mar. 2004. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. [].

Wilson, Edwin. The Theater Experience. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.

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Inspiration: MIT’s Silk Pavilion


MIT’s Mediated Matter group has constructed a silk dome using 6,500 silkworms–the first step in biological 3-D printing. The idea itself is, of course, fascinating. Here is a description of the dome from the MIT Mediated Matter webpage for the project:


The new MIT Media Lab building (E14)
The new MIT Media Lab building (E14) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Silk Pavilion explores the relationship between digital and biological fabrication on product and architectural scales.The primary structure was created of 26 polygonal panels made of silk threads laid down by a CNC (Computer-Numerically Controlled) machine. Inspired by the silkworm’s ability to generate a 3D cocoon out of a single multi-property silk thread (1km in length), the overall geometry of the pavilion was created using an algorithm that assigns a single continuous thread across patches providing various degrees of density. Overall density variation was informed by the silkworm itself deployed as a biological printer in the creation of a secondary structure. A swarm of 6,500 silkworms was positioned at the bottom rim of the scaffold spinning flat non-woven silk patches as they locally reinforced the gaps across CNC-deposited silk fibers. Following their pupation stage the silkworms were removed. Resulting moths can produce 1.5 million eggs with the potential of constructing up to 250 additional pavilions. Affected by spatial and environmental conditions including geometrical density as well as variation in natural light and heat, the silkworms were found to migrate to darker and denser areas. Desired light effects informed variations in material organization across the surface area of the structure. A season-specific sun path diagram mapping solar trajectories in space dictated the location, size and density of apertures within the structure in order to lock-in rays of natural light entering the pavilion from South and East elevations.  The central oculus is located against the East elevation and may be used as a sun-clock. Parallel basic research explored the use of silkworms as entities that can “compute” material organization based on external performance criteria. Specifically, we explored the formation of non-woven fiber structures generated by the silkworms as a computational schema for determining shape and material optimization of fiber-based surface structures. Research and Design by the Mediated Matter Research Group at the MIT Media Lab in collaboration with Prof. Fiorenzo Omenetto (TUFTS University) and Dr. James Weaver (WYSS Institute, Harvard University).

I first read about it on in an article titled “A Mind-Blowing Dome Made By 6,500 Computer-Guided Silkworms” dated July 11, 2013. The article discusses the potential applications:


Potential applications are varied, but include fashion and architecture, and it’s possible to imagine a system like this being deployed in the aftermath of a natural disaster to build environmentally friendly shelters for refugees — if they could get over the slightly terrifying notion of living in what looks to be a giant spider web. “The project speculates about the possibility in the future to implement a biological swarm approach to 3D printing,” says Oxman. ”Imagine thousands of synthetic silkworm guided by environmental conditions such as light or heat — supporting the deposition of natural materials using techniques other than layering. This will allow us to exclude waste and achieve increased control over material location, structure and property.” Oxman sees a big future for these tiny creatures. “Google is for information what swarm manufacturing may one day become for design fabrication.”

Photograph courtesy Russell Watkins, U.K. Department for International Development from

What I love most is the idea of synthetic silkworms crafting garments, structures, and more out of raw material like these silkworms. “Swarm manufacturing” reminds me of a story I read some time ago about rogue nanobots swarming around the planet infecting people and taking over their minds and actions. Now imagine a swarm of these manufacturers who, perhaps, got loose and began building weird structures of their own design. I imagine a haunting, spider-webbed landscape much like when floodwaters forced spiders into the trees of Pakistan, where they spun out of control (pardon my pun). What sort of buildings might they create? If their primary directive is to create, and they were somehow imbued with a higher intelligence, or the swarm itself at least was, what would happen? I’m also reminded of a story called “I, Rowboat” by Cory Doctorow which I came across in the 24th annual Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology edited by Gardner Dozois, my all-time favorite science fiction anthology. In it, a row-boat with artificial intelligence worries over the coral reef which has gained sentience. That idea, of a swarm/hive/colony of creatures coming together to form an intelligence, has always stuck with me, and frankly scares me every time I see a bee hive or an ant hill.


As a writer, the question now becomes whether I feather this idea into an existing plot line, or craft a plot line around the idea? The former is probably smarter, and of course would be much easier, but I always end up feeling like it doesn’t do justice to such an awesome concept. A secondary concern of mine is the ever-present feeling that the future is happening right now, that it’s in fact zooming past me at dizzying speeds and I simply can’t write fast enough to keep up with all the advancements. The minute I put character to screen, any technology I write about will already be obsolete. It’s a very difficult feeling to shake, but one that I’m just going to have to live with. Perhaps my stories will be like reading Sherlock Holmes or Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea–readers one hundred years from now (if I should be so lucky) will read my quaint little stories and marvel at how we got along with such rudimentary technology.


But going back to the question of plot, I believe my writing teachers would say that it would be a terrible idea to form a plot around a concept. “Fiction is not about ideas, it’s about people,” they would say. And I would agree, to an extent. Of course it’s really a balance between characters and plot, and the style of the author determines how much of each is balanced into the story. Some writers have nothing but character. Other writers have nothing but plot. Hugh Ferrer said, in his Iowa University Summer Writing Festival weekend workshop said that story is a chariot pulled by the character horse and the plot horse. You have to control both in order to maintain a smooth ride. I completely agree with this, but he also said to think about the kinds of stories I like to read, and I love science fiction because of the big ideas they tackle. This is why I loved “I, Row-Boat” and why it has stuck with me for years. Those big ideas. It’s also why I’ll always be an Isaac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick girl. They tackled the big ideas too. So yes, it would be safer to feather this idea into an existing plot, perhaps as world building texture, but at the same time it would a lot of fun to write a story devoted to this idea so that atmosphere of its consequences can be fully explored.


I will have to let you know what I choose.



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Book Review: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist
Pulitzer Prize Winner 2011

One of the Best Books of the Year: Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, The Miami Herald, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Newsday, NPR’s On Point, O, the Oprah Magazine, People, Publishers Weekly, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Slate, Time, The Washington Post, and Village Voice

I thought this was pretty good. To me it felt like I was reading a 90s independent art film where a variety of people’s stories are told and the viewer is left to figure out how it all fits together. Each chapter is a different character from the previous chapter, but all the characters’ lives intersect in some way or at some time. Some reviewers complained that the cover made it seem like the book was about music. It is, but only as a context. Not as a major theme, really. The edition I read had a cover with different transparent people in different colors all doing a different motion, and all superimposed on each other. This is a brilliant cover and perfectly represents the concept of the novel.

There were moments that I absolutely loved, like Sasha’s opening chapter. She is so open and vulnerable to us, it’s charming. I also absolutely loved the powerpoint chapter. I thought it was a brilliant way to create narrative out of an alternative format, and the story it told really came through to me. I heard an interview on NPR recently where publishers are able to tell when readers skip parts of a book on their ereader. Jennifer Egan was interviewed because her publishers have discovered that most readers skip the powerpoint chapter, and she was asked if she thought that perhaps she should have either left it out or written it differently. She responded that she felt the powerpoint chapter was the most important chapter in the whole book. That being said, I looked forward to reading the chapter and was not disappointed.

There are some things that are “tricksy” about the novel, such as the powerpoint chapter, the footnotes a la David Foster Wallace, and the multiple viewpoints. It didn’t always seem like it was crucial to the story, and for me wasn’t where Egan excelled. Instead, she excelled at getting into the minds of her characters and carefully describing their world. As I writer, I find it hard to use such devices, especially ones that have been done before to great success. It makes it feel like the writer is trying too hard, much like those 90s movies always felt like they were trying to hard, at the expense of the enjoyment of its audience.

In retrospect, I realized that the only chapters that felt like they were a 90s indie film were chapters that were most likely SET in the 90s or 00s. The chapters set in the future felt different, in a way that seemed appropriate for their time period. The fact that I felt the 90s and 00s means that Egan did her work well. I didn’t particularly enjoy them because I never liked those kinds of films, and frankly it’s hard going into a pulitzer prize winning novel about contemporary topics without a little bit of skepticism and a bar set pretty darn high for perfection. Especially when it’s been so often related to David Foster Wallace, who I thought was just brilliant. But the more I think about Egan’s novel, the more I appreciate about what she did. It doesn’t hit me over the head with powerful things, but I do think it’s a slow burn.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book on several different levels. I’m a slow reader, and so when I went back to Goon Squad I had to remind myself not only of what was happening in the chapter I was on, but also what had happened to all the other people, and when, and how it might relate to or impact the current chapter. I don’t think that’s a fair way to read a book like Goon Squad, because so much of what makes a chapter relate is done in the sort of subtle way that happens in life. That being said, I look forward to reading it again, all the way through. Maybe on a long plane trip or a beach vacation where I’ve left my laptop at home and my cellphone is dead. (Is that the modern equivalent of “when pigs fly”?)

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Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others
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Among Others by Jo Walton

My Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars

Winner of the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel
Winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel
“Among Others” is a coming-of-age story written in the style of a young girl’s journal.

It has taken me several months to decide how I ultimately feel about this book. Immediately after finishing it, I liked it more than I did while reading it. I am immensely impressed with how Jo Walton is able to make the complete book more than the sum of its parts, and how, at least for me, the thesis of it isn’t apparent until the whole thing has been read.

The inner world of the main character, Morwenna, is compelling and magical. The way she views and experiences magic is exactly how any intelligent young girl with an imagination and an interest in fantasy/sci fi would explain magic to herself. Morwenna exists in a world inhabited by adults who do crazy, irrational, and frightening things. At any moment her crazy mother or absent father could swoop in and decide to take her away, or threaten her life, or things she can’t even anticipate, and so she lives in a constant state of insecurity with regards to the people who are supposed to provide her with security. She has no control over her life. To maintain her sanity, and to give herself a sense of security, she believes that she can affect the world through the use of magic and spells. It is this belief that ultimately saves her.

What I enjoyed most about this book is that it is never made explicitly clear whether or not the magic and fairies are real or in Morwenna’s imagination. This is especially true once I finished the book, because at any given time while reading it I was always waiting for that one definitive moment where I knew for sure. On one hand, it could all be true and work exactly as Morwenna described. On the other hand, it could all just be a coping mechanism in her imagination. When I originally read the book I assumed that Morwenna, the narrator, was a reliable witness. I look forward to rereading it knowing that she may not be, and see how it might change the experience.

I also appreciate the way the author handles magic. It is both classic and unique at the same time. I enjoy the way Morwenna thinks about magic all the time, about its rules and how it would or wouldn’t work, and how casting spells work. I also enjoyed the fairies. It felt very much like the sort of spellcrafting and fairy knowledge you would get from an ancient part of Europe, from an old woman who learned it from her granny, who learned it from HER granny, who was a hedge witch. It all tickled the part of me that likes to find dusty old books about herbs in the back corner of used book stores, that hoards rusty old keys, and that always looks through holes in stones to see if fairies are around. It’s magic that is worn around the edges, a little dirty, a little sinister and unpredictable. You know, “real” magic.

While I was reading, it wasn’t exactly a perfect experience for me. It’s “another” book involving magic and a boarding school, as we have seen with (of course) Harry Potter, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, to name a couple. It was well done and seemed appropriate, but I’m just saying it’s been done before. In a similar vein, it seems like all of the exciting stuff happens off screen. Morwenna alludes to events that sound very dramatic and exciting, but that happened in the past. Instead we experience a pretty typical series of events for a young person at a boarding school: boys, books, holidays, the difficulty of making friends, etc. Again, it was well done and seemed appropriate, but I hadn’t really realize I was getting myself into that type of “coming of age” story prior to starting it. Finally, Morwenna spends a lot of time talking about other science fiction books, about their themes and covers and characters. I really enjoyed this about the book because I am a huge sci fi fan, but occasionally I would have liked to have seen the mentioned cover, or had a more detailed explanation of why Morwenna believed something about a character. Often times she would state an opinion but say nothing more about why. I can understand that this is how a young person would journal, but I would have enjoyed the added detail.

Walton has a way of spinning a world around her words that is evocative of both the modern day and a storied and mythic past. The characters have depth and history and complexity. This is one of the few books I’ve read that I look forward to reading again.

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“The Watcher” Takes Spot in First-Honorable Mentions

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“The Watcher,” a flash-fiction horror story I entered into the Readers’ Realm Scary Flash Fiction contest last month, took a spot in the First-Honorable Mentions. Of the piece, the judges said “The writing itself was elegant.” Be sure to read “The Watcher,” and all of the other great entries over at Readers’ Realm.

Essay: Colon End Parenthesis

The Evolution of Punctuation in Western Civilization

Punctuation: An Ever Evolving Form of Communication

The word “punctuation” comes from the Latin punctus, meaning “point.” Indeed, punctuation marks were originally called “points” (Partridge 3). Therefore, “punctuation” means “the use of points” (Reimer par 2). Malcolm Beckwith Parkes wrote in his authoritative work Pause and Effect that “punctuation is a phenomenon of written language, and its history is bound up with that of the written medium” (1). Indeed, the evolution of punctuation runs parallel with the development of technology surrounding the written word, and the dissemination of the ability to produce the written word has allowed more and more individuals to participate in that evolution. Students today learn set rules, and yet, punctuation is an ever-changing and reinterpreted aspect of conveying meaning to a reader. As Pico Iyer wrote in an essay for Time magazine, “By establishing the relations between words, punctuation establishes the relations between people using the words” (Iyer 80). As our understanding of the relationship between the reader and the written word, and the technology used to convey the written word, has evolved, so has our understanding and use of punctuation.

Reading As a Byproduct of the Spoken Word

Saint Augustine, in the dialog De Magistro, said of the reader’s experience of writing, “thus it is that when a word is written it makes a sign to the eyes whereby that which pertains to the ears enters the mind” (Ita fit cum scribitur verbum, signum fiat oculis, quo illud quod ad aures pertinent veniat in mentem) (Parkes 9). Therefore, Augustine viewed writing as a mere representation of the spoken word. Writing arose from a culture of oratory, wherein the ability to make a good speech in tribunals and public assemblies was considered the ideal. Parkes notes that “literacy was the product of a conservative educational tradition in which teaching was directed towards the preparation of pupils for effective public speaking” (9). The ability to read was of secondary concern. At that early time, it was a rather unheard-of idea for someone to read silently. Because the words were meant to be spoken, it was inconceivable that a good reading could occur without it being spoken aloud.

Figure 1: Scripta Continua as seen in an early copy of Virgil’s Aeneid (Parkes 162)

Early Punctuation and the Emergence of Conventions

The oldest-known method for organizing and formatting text was called scripta continua (fig 1), “continued script,” in which there were no spaces between words, and all letters were the same height. It has been found in surviving texts from as early as the second century BCE (Parkes 161). It is hard to imagine a time in which something as simple as separating words had not yet been invented. Eventually, however, scribes recognized that it would be useful to indicate moments of pause for dramatic effect, and opportunities for the reader to breathe. One can see forms of this in figure 1 (circled), as this particular scribe employed early periods and apostrophes. By the twelfth century, the fundamental conventions of writing had been established (Parkes 41). Scribes began to use word separation and varied letter height to aid readers and create word units. However, scribes were at liberty to copy, or not copy, punctuation marks from works they were reproducing. The twelfth century saw a decline in monastic scribes, and an increase in commercial scribes who copied books both for customers and for themselves. Because the commercial scribes did not work with the same sort of discipline and practice seen in a monastery, they were often left to their own devices in deciphering unfamiliar punctuation, or even layers of different superimposed marks from generations of readers, in a work. Such scribes often ignored the confusion in favor of whatever system they preferred (Parkes 42).

The Period

As stated before, punctuation was originally called “points,” and the use of them called “pointing.” This is, perhaps, due to one of the first and (arguably) the most important of them all: the period. The period has also been called a point, full (or perfect) point, full (or complete) pause, and full stop. It was called a “period” because it came at the end of a periodic sentence (Partridge 9), and thus referred to the sentence as a whole, rather than just the mark. In French, the periode, Latin the periodus, and Greek the peridos, from peri, meaning “round” and hodos, “a way,” and thus “a going round,” or “a rounding off,” especially as applied to time, and more especially still to the time represented by breathing (Partridge 9). It provided an opportunity for the reader, who was originally assumed to be reading aloud, to breathe between sentences.

The Comma

The comma is a Latin translation of the Greek homma, related to hoptein, “to cut,” and thus “a cutting” or “a cutting off.” As a comma tends to separate a clause, it can be seen as “cutting the clause off” from the rest of the sentence. In Italian, the word comma actually means “paragraph,” as in a section of the work that is cut off, or separated, from the rest of the work. The comma originally looked a little like a modern question mark, with the curved part we now use situated above a period:  This older version was used most frequently by fourteenth-century scribes, but became the modern version once the printing press was invented (Parkes 303). The virgil, or “/”, was originally used by the French as a comma. It is more commonly known as the oblique, or oblique stroke/line. The French still call a comma virgule, from the Latin virgula, a small rod, even though they now use the modern small semi-circular form (Partridge 151).

The Paragraph

The paragraph was originally indicated by a stroke, usually with a dot over it. It was used especially to indicate the various characters in a speech or stage play. Understanding this leads one into the etymology of the word itself. “Paragraph” comes from the Late Latin paragraphus, Greek paragraphos, which mean a line or stroke drawn at the side: para (beside) and graphein (to write). The modern practice of indenting at the start of a new paragraph, in fact, comes from the habit of early printers to leave a blank space for an illuminator to insert a large decorated initial (Partridge 165).

The Printing Press Establishes Early Standardization

It was not until the printing press that standardization of punctuation occurred, mostly due to an Italian printer by the name of Aldus Manutius, who operated his “Aldine” Press in Venice (Partridge 6) in the fifteenth century (Parkes 51). He is also attributed with the invention of the Italic form. The font which he produced became the European norm of the time, and was called the “old roman” letter. It was in this “old roman” font that some of the more familiar versions of modern punctuation can be found, such as the “semi-circular ‘comma’, the semi-circular parentheses, the upright interrogativus , and…the semi-colon” (Parkes 51). The invention of the printing press, by Johannes Gutenberg in the middle of the fifteenth century, allowed books to be produced at a far faster rate than before, causing a “great increase in the number produced” (Kreis). Thus, more books were getting into the hands of more people. Though the production of the books was retained by the press operators, the written word itself, and its punctuation, was being seen by more than just scholars and the wealthy or noble.

Technology as Broader Communication Tools

The invention of the typewriter further disseminated the production and use of the written word, and punctuation. Though it only last a few hundred years, it put the creation of the written word into the hands of mere mortals, as long as they could afford to buy one. The patent for the first typewriter was issued in 1714 (The Typewriter). It was originally conceived of for business and government use, but was quickly integrated into the public use. Many great novelists wrote their work on a typewriter. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road using a continuous roll of teletype paper fed into a typewriter (Two-Minute History). Soon, though, the computer came along. It, too, was originally conceived of for business and government, but as time went by, more and more people had a computer in their home. Finally, the advent of the internet allowed for all of our digital words to quickly and easily flood out into the world.

Modern Evolutionary Steps

Even today, we can see a continued evolution of punctuation. For example, digital discourse has evolved punctuation into a form of visual-linguistic art, called emoticons, and are used to express whole words and emotions by the combination of multiple punctuation marks and letters. The smiley face, represented by “:)” or “:-)”, is one of the more common of such emoticons (Garrison 119). It is created using a colon and an end parenthesis, or a colon, hyphen, and end parenthesis. Though not accepted in the context of formal work, the use of emoticons and other specialized abbreviations of phrases are being assessed as a separate and legitimate new aspect of language, made possible by the advent of digital publication. As David Bergland wrote in Printing in a Digital World, “digitalization is just the most recent step in the abridging tactic of language. So language survives digitalization easily because it has already traveled most of the way there” (Brody 156). Language, like punctuation, is fluid and constantly changing based on the needs of the people who use it. Research indicates that one of the ways emoticons are used in online discourse is as an enhancement to punctuation. Emoticons are used in several places within an online utterance: before the utterance, in the middle of the utterance, after the utterance, and alone as the entire utterance. An utterance, as used in this context, is any expression used in online communication, such as a text message, email, or instant chat session. The repetitive use of such emoticons, and in such ways, indicates that there is a generally-known convention about their use. When emoticons are seen to be used in the middle of sentences, they often “[distinguish] the main idea of the utterance (the subject) from its supporting information” (Garrison 122). The emoticon is thus being used to punctuate the utterance in a manner much like a comma or a colon (Garrison 115). They set the tone and nuance of the communication, and indicate the expected response for the utterance in ways that the early punctuation marks set the pause and breathing marks for people who read a piece aloud.

Seeing Deeper Into a Message

The better we, as writers and readers, understand how punctuation affects our words, the more powerful our words will be, and the more enduring the message. Iyer put it very eloquently when he said “punctuation, in short, gives us the human voice, and all the meanings that lie between the words” (80). A string of words has meaning, but often too many possible meanings or a meaning that is very different from the one intended. It isn’t until punctuation is inserted that the nuance of meaning is established and the message clarified. For example, in the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves (seen left), the author uses the title itself to prove her point. Read without the comma, as “eats shoots and leaves,” it suggests that a panda much like the one on the cover eats the shoots and leaves of bamboo trees. Yet with the comma, it reads as “eats, shoots, and leaves”—an altogether different connotation entirely, especially where the panda is concerned. The panda on the 2004 cover knows its stuff, though, and is seen on a ladder eliminating the deadly comma.

Punctuation as Art

Punctuation often appears to be the workhorse of the literary world, but it has a creative side as well. Punctuation is much like a refined brushstroke. A painter must first understand how to properly use the medium before creativity can be unleashed. Picasso began formal art study at six or seven (McNeese 17). It wasn’t until he mastered his technique and understanding of the medium that he could form his own style and begin to explore the deeper creative realms of his art. Indeed, Picasso deconstructed painting in a series labeled as his “Cubist” period, where objects are painted as though seen from many different angles at once. A similar deconstruction occurs in the poem “One” by E.E. Cummings, from his series 95 Poems (seen left). In this poem, Cummings plays with font (mis)representation, placement, and the meaning of parentheses to create a simple poem but a powerful meaning. The font character “1” can appear to mean both the number “one” or the lowercase version of the letter “L.” That is, at least, in the Times New Roman font, which is the font used for the poem itself. The title of the poem, being the first in a series of ninety-five poems, leads the reader to see this character as a “one.” Cummings does love his parentheses; the image isolated by them is of a leaf falling. Yet once we get to the end of the parentheses, there we have “one” again, followed by what appears to be another numeral “one” and the confusing “iness.” What could this mean? We go back and read the poem again, this time ignoring what was inside the parentheses (as it is theoretically extraneous information), and we come to the conclusion of the poem: loneliness.  Thus, in just twenty-three characters and only two punctuation marks, we are shown the depth of the loneliness in a singular falling leaf.

Punctuation’s Evolutionary Past, Present, and Future

Though the average English class would make someone think otherwise, the use of punctuation and its rules and symbols have evolved drastically over time. The understanding of and requirements for the written word have informed decisions about punctuation and determined how they have evolved. When writing itself was a new technology, written language started as the record of oratory, and marks were made to assist that goal. As understanding of the written word and its relationship to the reader evolved, so did the marks. When the printing press was invented, the format and technology of the written word further evolved, and the marks were developed into a standard. Now, with the advent of electronic communication, we are seeing further evolution in the use of punctuation marks. The dissemination of our written language has enabled more and more individuals to participate in the ongoing dialog of language and punctuation use. This, in turn, has shaped the direction and flow of punctuation evolution. More people using punctuation means more people thinking about, and redrawing the lines of, punctuation. Though proper knowledge and use of punctuation is critical to the effective communication of ideas, there is still much room for manipulation of the marks to bridge the gap between the word and the mind, between the mind and the imagination. Our world is evolving before our very eyes, and one need only look to punctuation to see the proof.

Works Cited

Brody, Jennifer Devere.  Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.

Cummings, E.E. 95 Poems. New York: Liveright, 2002. Print.

Garrison, Anthony, et al. “Conventional Faces: Emoticons in Instant Messaging Discourse.” Computers & Composition 28.2 (2011): 112-125. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 28 September 2011.

Iyer, Pico. “In Praise of the Humble Comma.” Time June 1988: 80-81. Print.

Kreis, Steven. “The Printing Press.” History Guide. 2004. Web. 11 October 2011.

McNeese, Tim. Pablo Picasso. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2006. Print.

Parkes, Malcolm Beckwith. Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Partridge, Eric. You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953. Print.

Reimer, Stephen R. “Manuscript Studies: Medieval and Early Modern; IV.vii. Paleography: Punctuation.” Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta, 1998. Web. 22 September 2011.

“The Typewriter: an Informal History.” IBM Archives. IBM August 1977. Web. 11 October 2011.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. New York: Pengui-Gotham, 2003. Print.

“Two-Minute History of the Kerouac Scroll.” Kerouac Scroll Tour Schedule. On the n.d. Web. 11 October 2011.

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