science fiction

Stephanie Meyer – The Host

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World building is the stuff of science fiction and fantasy, and to a lesser extent, alternative history. What would Europe look like if Hitler had prevailed? You’ve got to really sit down and think that one through, as was the case with Harris’s Fatherland. (A novel that held up really well to a second reading some years later.)

Writers who stand out for their world building skills are often very successful. The most recent obvious example is the Harry Potter universe, but there are many others. For example, Discworld, which is much larger and more complex than the magical version of England.  From Wikipedia this one paragraph overview of Terry Pratchett’s monumental universe:

Discworld is a comedic fantasy book series by the British author Terry Pratchett, set on the Discworld, a flat world balanced on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle,[1] Great A’Tuin. The books frequently parody, or at least take inspiration from, J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and William Shakespeare, as well as mythology, folklore and fairy tales, often using them for satirical parallels with current cultural, technological and scientific issues….Since the first novel, The Colour of Magic (1983), the series has expanded, spawning several related books and maps, four short stories, cartoons, theatre adaptations, computer games, and music inspired by the series.

Okay. Now that I’ve reminded myself of the nature of world building, let me give you some thoughts on The Host.

Meyer doesn’t so much build a world as she rebuilds our world. The novel starts some years after all of human kind has been subjugated by parasitic aliens. Small creatures like bits of silver ribbon which are introduced to a human brain through a slit iin the nape. Then the creature (they call themselves Souls, the humans call them Bugs or Parasites or worse) binds itself to dozens of points in the brain, effectively taking over the memory, skill set, language and consciousness of the human.

This is a species that invades and takes over like this again and again, planet after planet. There have been many before Earth, some of which we hear about. This novel, however is mostly about one host — Melanie — who escapes and evades capture for many years, running with her younger brother and another human male. The seekers (those aliens who are reponsible for running down reluctant humans) finally grab her and as the story opens she’s on an operating table, unconscious, and a Healer is about to introduce her to Wanderer, her new and unwelcome tenant.

If you remember what the Stockholm syndrome is — how a kidnapped person will start to identify with the kidnappers and eventually go over to join the kidnapper’s side — you’ll get the premise for this novel, except in this case it’s reverse Stockholm.  For the first time after many many lifetimes on other planets, the Wanderer takes over a body and finds that the consciousness of the original owner isn’t so easily squashed. And, gradually, she begins to ask herself if that’s not a reasonable thing.

Humans, you won’t be surprised to hear, are a difficult bunch. We don’t give easily. We fight and continue fighting. There are pockets of humans hiding in remote areas, and then there are humans who have been turned into hosts, but refuse to vacate. These stubborn types are the minority — only a few humans are strong enough to prevail; the rest gradually give way to the invader and disappear. Melanie is very strong and very stubborn.

The Wanderer is unsettled by Melanie hanging around, because Melanie doesn’t mince words. She is constantly battering at the Wanderer, pointing out things the Wanderer would rather not think about. For example how can they call themselves non-violent? Maybe they don’t use weapons in our sense of the word, but they wipe out entire populations. Is that not the very essence of violence?

Eventually Melanie and Wanderer go off the grid to find Melanie’s brother, and they end up in a community of humans struggling to survive in a warren of caves. Melanie’s brother and her lover are there, as are her uncle Jeb (one of the more entertaining characters). The humans generally kill any parasite they come across without hesitation, but Jeb doesn’t allow that in this case. He’s got the sense that there’s something different about Melanie/Wanderer.

The bulk of the novel takes place in the caves as the humans and the Wanderer interact. There are some interesting twists and ideas, and I never lost interest in the developing tension between the Wanderer and Melanie. The resolution of various conflicts is very neat — too neat, for my tastes — but it all makes sense and fits together in the end.

This is the kind of novel I enjoy and then forget within a few months. At least, that’s what I thought. But ever since I finished it I’ve been thinking about the new world order Meyer put into place. I liked the characters well enough, but they don’t occupy me after the fact. What occupies me are dozens of questions about the Souls (or invaders, if you will). A body is taken over and the Soul goes about living a human life, because the idea, it seems, is to experience this world. Imagine the world populated by  human-looking creatures who have no use for currency, who never argue or get into altercations, and who simply go about their business teaching or working in convenience stores. The need for banks and international trade is gone; so is medicine, because the invaders have got that end of things sorted out. No human body hurt by an accident or illness suffers for long; a Healer comes in and wham, you’re all fixed up. Unless you turn out to be too difficult a host, in which case you are ‘discarded.’

I would call this novel a success simply because I’m still thinking about it. There were things that irritated me, most especially the duality of the narrator. The Wanderer talks about ‘our body’ and uses the first person plural for everything ‘we could see’ ‘we were exhausted’ and so on. That did get on my nerves, but I can’t see that there would have been a way to avoid it unless the author opted for third person rather than first. I would have liked to read this in third, I think. But that’s not Meyer’s thing.

I haven’t read the Twlight series, and I doubt I will, so I can’t compare this to that. On its own merits I think it’s worth a read if you generally like sci-fi scenarios.

who you know

Justine Larbalestier has a post up called Why do all the writers know each other? — a question put to her by a workshop student.

I read Justine’s weblog now and then, but I don’t know her, in case you were wondering. We do have the same fabulous agent, but otherwise our worlds don’t much intersect. She writes sci-fi, which I read but don’t write.

Part of her answer to the question:

So how do all us writers know each other? From hanging out in places other writers are likely to be: conventions, conferences, book festivals, university English departments, writers’ workshops.

Now see, I would say that most writers don’t know each other. And if one author does know a lot of other authors, it’s almost always restricted to the genre in which he or she writes.

I’m defining “know” this way: somebody I can contact who will remember me, usually somebody I have met in person. My list isn’t particularly long, maybe fifteen names of other published novelists. The list gets longer if I count other authors I know exclusively through email and weblogs. These are people I might email with a work-related question, and know I’ll get a response. It’s my sense that we’d get along if we met.

As I write in two genres, I have two sets of connections. If I really had to, I could follow the romance connections or the litcrit connections and find my way to almost anybody within those groups. I can’t imagine under what circumstances I’d try to set that train in motion, but I think it would be possible. On the other hand, I have no idea how I’d get in touch with the authors who have established themselves in mystery, horror, or sci-fi. Unless they happen to be represented by the same agent, which is how I came to meet Garth Nix.

In general I don’t miss having a lot of connections. Maybe I’d feel differently about it if I were twenty-one and living in Manhattan, but right now? I’m one of the more reclusive types.

And I have to get back to that blank page, all by my lonesome.


This entry is part 3 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

This discussion is going to get very explicit, just to warn you. If sex scenes aren’t your thing, you probably want to turn back now. You should also turn back if you are under eighteen. Really, go away.

Now that we’re alone.

A few notes before I get started. First, if you are new to fan fiction, you probably should have a look at an earlier post (Fan Fiction, and why I like it), which will make some of the preliminaries clear. Second, this is Farscape fan fiction. If you don’t know about Farscape, you must be pretty new to this blog, as I talk about it on a regular basis. Here’s the absolute minimum you need to know:

John Crichton is scientist who was running an aerospace experiment when he got stuck in a distant part of the galaxy; Aeryn Sun is Sebacean, a species very closely related to human. (One of my favorite tag lines: He’s human. She’s not. And you thought Romeo and Juliet had problems.) They spend two years becoming friends, saving each other’s asses and minds in terrible situations, beating each other up (sometimes literally), and falling in love.

The relationship doesn’t become sexual until the third season. Because this is television we’re talking about, it never becomes overtly sexual. Which is where Robyn’s fan fiction comes in.

Fan fiction exists mostly on the internet, so I could just send you over to read Robyn’s “The Well-Known Act” in its entirety. In fact, you should do that, because it’s an example of an extremely well done, very adult extended sex scene. But in the spirit of the exercise I began, I’m going to quote bits of it, anyway. For those of you too shy to take the plunge, so to speak.

The consummation of this very complex, very intense relationship is a topic Robyn handled in a series of short stories which deal with the emotional development of the characters as individuals and a couple, as well as with the physical. This is from Aeryn’s point of view. I’m excerpting two bits here, from the beginning of the interlude (the first line of dialog is John) and then a bit from the middle of it when things are in full flow.

“The Well-Known Act”. Copyright Robyn Bender.

“The well-known act of sexual congress. I’ve had some thoughts.”

“You think too much.”

“But I do good work.”

“Granted. All right.”

“We ARE different creatures. We don’t know how we fit, not like that, not for sure. I need to know that you’re way more than ready. I’m thinking, we start with the usual stuff. Rev you up a few times. Probably more than a few. But just keep away from my cock, okay? I’ll get far enough, fast enough, touching you, seeing you. Give me a chance.” The towel was gone. He was kissing her, settling in.

Might as well lie back. Put herself in his hands. She knew the man couldn’t be rushed.

She was right, of course. Things happened. Time passed. He could drive her all night.


bodies entwined. How much skin could they press? Embrace and roll. His lips on her throat. Her hand caught the nape of his neck, run through that short, soft hair. Come here, you. Cup his skull. Capture his mouth for a wet, deep kiss


on her back, shaking. Helpless with laughter. His mouth buried down in her sex. Those gleeful blue eyes peering up, eyebrows waggling. She stretched her arms toward him. He caught at her hands. Interlaced fingers, palms pressed together. She rolled her head back and stretched their arms high. Laughed and laughed as she came.

When I re-read this, the first thing that comes to mind is how very playful it is without being coy. So often sex scenes are generic, forced, contorted, self-conscious, but there’s a vitality here, a directness that works on multiple levels. If you know these characters, the way they talk to each other feels absolutely right. John is quick witted, self-confident; he likes word play; Aeryn has come to that kind of playfulness late in life and is often a half step behind, but appreciative. She’s given herself over after long months of agonizing, and she’s applying herself, now that she’s taken the leap.

Note that the word choice is explicit but matter-of-fact; nothing flowery, no over extended metaphors. The most direct descriptions of sexual acts (his mouth buried down in her sex) are offset by simple images of affection (interlaced fingers, palms pressed together).

Things intensify:

“That okay?” he asked softly, voice in her ear.

“You bastard!” she laughed. Could barely say it. Breathed hard through her mouth. “It’ll do.”

He gripped her waist. “Baby, I want you.”

“You have me, I think.”

“Yes, I do.” He moved deliberately, microns, fractions. Slow, so slow. He is going to do me, indeed, indeed. He intended to use everything he knew, his midnight thoughts, his very best skills. She was frelled. She laughed again. Too small a word. Who had known what it meant?

Her laugh faded out. She was straining up toward him. He held the same spot. Not so fast, my dear. Can’t have it all. He slid his hand down, wet with the silk. Cool, slippery stuff on her lips, her clit. “Oh, you are BAD,” she gasped, as his fingers skittered around, around. Just that little bit extra. Just one thing more. He watched the flush rise on her chest before he leaned down. His lips found her nipple. She jumped, and that jump hit his cock and she rippled around it, set off again. His mouth clamped down wetly and sucked. Can I come with my breast? Apparently so. God, only one mouth. But his palm took over, rubbed that wetness, his mouth to the other one, swirling his tongue. Yes. That!

She needed more brain. Too much coming in. Her hips rocked, her pelvis, she could feel each wet curl at his root. All circuits locked open, no filter. Squeeze her eyes shut. Try to swallow the waves in her throat. Was she making that cry, that call? His mouth clamped hers. Her throat still sang.

It’s Aeryn’s emotional transition as well as her physical one that makes lifts this scene out of the realm of the merely voyeuristic. Note the lovely balance between explicit acts; internal monologue; and dialog. Take any one of those three elements away and the scene won’t work nearly as well. We follow the natural progression from playfulness to absolute concentration not just because we are given the physical facts, but because we hear them in Aeryn’s rather amazed, completely engaged voice. Her rational mind tries to take over, but her body and her emotions are in control.

To follow the analysis I used in the other passages, the obvious contrast is in this author’s willingness to use words considered by many to be taboo: cock, clit, nipple — without resorting to technical terms or coy euphemism. It’s very possible, even likely, that if you are writing fiction in which sex scenes have a natural place in the character and plot development you will not want to take things this far. I don’t, not because I’m afraid my readers wouldn’t like it or my editor would object, but because I don’t think I could manage the delicate balance necessary to make it work. Which for me means that you can’t substitute “and then they had sex” without losing things important to the characterization and narrative flow.

And now that I’ve peaked your interest, here’s a link to a list of all Robyn’s Farscape fanfiction in chronological order.

I’ve been talking now for three days about scenes that don’t work because they are generic, forced, and coy in tone. Tomorrow I’m going to look at some of those. Then I’ll look at a scene that isn’t badly written, but doesn’t work, for me, for other reasons. I’ve got a list of maybe four or five sex scenes to cover in the next week.

avoiding language anachronisms

This topic has come up now and again, in posts about Gone with the Wind and more recently, Deadwood. It’s a technical and creative issue at the same time, and quite a tricky one, especially for people writing historical fiction or telling stories from the past on the screen.

The novelist has to find the balance between historical accuracy and the reader’s comfort level. There are extremes. On one end you might say that accuracy is everything, and damn the reader’s comfort; at the other, you might toss concerns about language accuracy out the window, and operate much in the way of Star Trek, where everybody understands everybody else, regardless of species or background, and nobody ever bothers to explain how that might be. Putting science fiction aside for a moment (although I keep meaning to write about language issues in Farscape, and will sometime) everybody has examples to share from novels and films that really stumble on language accuracy. Even really good writers mess up this way now and then; it’s almost impossible not to. Shakespeare had bells tolling in ancient Rome; Dorothy Dunnett once had her character Lymond proclaimed neurotic (in 17th century Scotland long before Freud was ever born). I read a novel (the title of which I’m blocking out) set in 15th century England where the main character tries to calm down a woman in distress by assuring her that the battle ahead of him is a piece of cake. In a comment to one of my posts about Deadwood, somebody pointed out that they used the word trenchmouth, which was coined in WWI.

The problem with lexical anachronisms is that they potentially destroy the fictive trance you work so hard to establish for your reader. It’s like ice water on the back of your neck on a hot day; you can’t not notice.

So how to avoid this mistake? One thing you can do is check idiomatic words and phrases for their place and time of origin. The Oxford English Dictionary is the usual place to do this, although it has some limitations. First, it’s too expensive for most people to own and even if you did invest, the hard-copy version is always out of date; second, it’s too expensive for most people to access on-line ($29.95 a month or $295 annually) unless you have library priviledges at a college or university that subscribes; third, (and most important) it’s limited to written language usage.

A word exists in the OED’s version of language history only once it has been written down. It should be clear that for most of the history of the English language, usage was not recorded anywhere at all, and so it’s hard to know when or where particular coins were actually used. On the other hand, the versatility and utterly amazing scope of the OED’s on-line search engine makes it useful in so many other ways, its limitations seem less important. You can, for example, search for whole phrases and idiomatic expressions. The next time I’ve got access to the on-line version, I’m going to see if they have the earliest citation recorded for ‘bald as an egg’ and while I’m at it, I’ll look up ‘piece of cake’ to see when it was first used, in writing, to mean ‘without problem or difficulty’ (I’m guessing it evolved from ‘easy as pie’ used in the same way). What I know for sure is, none of my characters, who inhabit the early 19th century, would have any idea what it means to say such a thing, and keep those words out of their mouths.

Of course, the more recent the setting of your story, the harder it becomes to check for origin and usage. I’ve got a steel sieve of a mind when it comes to remembering when certain phrases were in use. I know ‘cool’ was used when I was in high school, went out of vogue for a very long time, and then came back in, but I’d be afraid to put it in the mouth of a character in the year 1989 without checking, first. Slang associated with particular social groups has a very short shelf life, and can trip you up badly. There are dictionaries, of course, but they are out of date even before they are published, for the most part, and the OED can’t keep up with the incredible flexibility and creative power of spoken language.

There’s another, far stickier matter having to do with language anachronisms that I’ll look at (briefly) tomorrow.