Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season is the very deserving winner of the 2016 Hugo award for best novel. It takes place in a fantasy world where every few hundred years a cataclysmic, multi-year long disaster will happen, much like a miniature extinction event. The book starts as another is beginning. “Magic” in this world works by controlling earth, and most people cannot be taught: you either have the gift or don’t. these people are feared and reviled, kept away from society in their own slave-like community.

I won’t say much more about the book itself, because I went in cold, not knowing what to expect, and came away exhilarated so I don’t want to say too much. The world-building is incredibly interesting. And the plot…I remember as a teenager reading a ton of fantasy books and reaching parts where it would be almost painful to tear myself away from the action. That’s like the whole second half of this novel. Just go out and read it, it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time.

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Book Review: The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

The New Wave movement in science fiction was an attempt at composing more “literary” genre books: less escapism, more beautiful writing and deep themes. Writers associated with this include Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and many others. Among them, one of the most prominent was also one of the youngest: Samuel R. Delany, who won a Nebula award for best novel when he was only 24. In these earlyish works, his prose reads like pure poetry and the ideas behind his books are incredibly thought provoking. “Babel-17,” the book that won the award, explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language effects how we think and express ourselves. His follow up, published just a year later, would win him a second Nebula.

“The Einstein Intersection” is the New Wave at the New Waviest. It’s the story of aliens who have come to live on Earth and live out humanity’s myths. The main plot follows a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, but there are also biblical hints of Jesus, the Minotaur, and contemporary figures who presumably got myth status in the future (like Ringo Starr). Preceding each chapter are quotes from philosophers and occasional passages from Delany’s journal as he wrote this.

My only reservation about this is the length. It’s more novella than novel with around 140 pages. It’s incredible just how much Delany can get out of that few pages but I would have liked to see more of the interesting world he built, with three genders, dragon wranglers, genetic mutations, and, of course, the myths.

Fans of light, adventurous science fiction will probably not like this. There are a few action scenes but they are never the focus. Upon a first read, most people will probably be confused at a number of parts, especially the ending. When it first came out and garnered acclaim, there was a fair amount of backlash labeling it “pretentious literary nonsense” (and other New Wave books as well). Even at his most tame, Delany is still controversial (and this is by far Delany at his most tame. His later works are…pornographic).

Though I cannot bring myself to recommend this to everyone, if you’re intrigued by the premise, check it out. One of the best I’ve read this year.

A Young William Gibson

Wouldn’t it be great to knock the ball out of the park with your first novel? Write a revolutionary novel that goes on to become a classic? That’s the dream. And while some writers do cement themselves with their first book, their number must rank in the decimal percentages. And it’s nowhere as easy as that infinitesimal number might make it appear.

William Gibson is one such writer. After falling into writing almost by accident and a few acclaimed short stories, he wrote NEUROMANCER, a novel that changed scifi and brought about the cyberpunk subgenre; while Gibson has written a lot of other novels, it was this one that secured his legacy. And it’s not just his first published novel: it was his first attempt at a novel.

But in reality it wasn’t such a straight line to success.

As with any good writer, Gibson spent a lot of his childhood and teenage years reading: J.G. Ballard, Henry Miller, the Beats, science fiction pulps. He lost his father in childhood, and after his mother died when he was 18, he decided to dodge the draft and travel to Europe and Canada, where he would eventually settle. There, he suffered weeks of homelessness before scraping together a living from working at a hippie drug store and appearing in a documentary film, with his little extra cash going mostly towards psychedelic drugs. And it was there that he met his future wife, with whom he again traveled to Europe.

She had a teaching position. Gibson, rather than get a real job, first went to thrift stores trying to find items marked way below their value and then selling them, before returning to college as he felt maintaining a high enough GPA to qualify for rich student loans was easier than work. Here he took a class on science fiction and wrote a short story in lieu of a final paper. This turned into his first published story, FRAGMENTS OF A HOLOGRAM ROSE, which saw publication in 1977.

His next story got published in 1981, but during those years he was still working: JOHNNY MNEMONIC was started the same year as FoaHR. Not too mention the inevitable false starts and stories that didn’t measure up. A few more well-received stories flowed from his pen, earning Hugo and Nebula award nominations, and eventually he was commissioned into doing a novel. And rather than summarize the unease and anxiety Gibson felt while writing this, I’ll let him do it for me.

The best writing advice I ever heard was to go out and see the world. If you stay indoors reading and writing all day, you’ll eventually become a great writer but have nothing to write about. Gibson embodies this principle: a well-traveled homeless hippie. No wonder most of his work deals with those rejected by society. It took him a bunch of years to try writing, and a bit of encouragement and practice after that to really get the ball rolling, but once he was ready, there was no shortage of material for him.

So remember, as the weather grows warmer, to put down your books and pens and get out of the house. The inspiration for that break out story might be one block’s walk away.

A Young Donna Tartt

I like to post articles on here about famous writers when they were still struggling artists for motivation. Unfortunately for me, today’s subject, Donna Tartt, likes her privacy, so there’s not too much information on her early life.

Long before THE GOLDFINCH, her Pulitzer, writing THE book of 2013, before her other novels that also brought her awards and acclaim and put her on bestsellers lists, she was a freshman at the University of Mississippi. That year she enrolled in a creative writing class where her pieces caught her professor’s eye. He recommended she enroll in Barry Hannah’s graduate level writing class while still 18 years old. It’s tough to say just how much she had read and written before this but it must have been a large amount to win a professor’s admiration so early on.

Following more recommendations from her writing professors, she decided to transfer in 1982 to Bennington College, where her friend group included other writers such as Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem. In fact, she actually briefly dated Ellis; the two shared drafts of what would become LESS THAN ZERO and THE SECRET HISTORY. The former would be published in 1985 to general acclaim and great sales. The latter would receive similar reception in…1992 when she was 29?

Fans of Donna Tartt should know she takes her time with novels; a 10 years wait for her next work has come to be the norm. While Ellis was enjoying literary fame, Tartt quietly labored over her book. The latest she could have started it was in college. Since Ellis published his work at the age of 21, they must have traded drafts during their sophomore or early junior year.

THE SECRET HISTORY, then, is clearly no exception to the 10 year turnaround time, but that period of time must have felt a lot different to her than the composition periods of her other books. For those years she was at work on her first book, she did not know if it would be published, she had no deals, no bestsellers. It would not be a stretch to say that what got her to keep working on her novel was pure perseverance.

Tartt has put in her hours. Before she even started her first published novel, she had enough experience to impress her professors, and even then it took another ten years before she was published. Remember that next time you feel like quitting. Though there might be luck and coincidences in Tartt’s plots, in her own life story, there is just hard work.

A Young James Joyce

When it comes to writing (or almost anything that takes practice), no matter how much I want to deny it, inherent talent definitely plays a role. The question is, how big of a role does it play?

Some writers, like Stephen King, have said that if you do not have talent, it is not worth attempting to become a writer. I disagree. It can give you a leg up but it is far from the end all be all, and besides, even talent won’t get you too far.

Today’s subject is James Joyce. If there was ever a writer with talent, it was him. Between the ages of 22 and 25 he wrote all of the stories contained in DUBLINERS. His first published novel, A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, is a classic, still widely read, and then there’s ULYSSES. All of this, along with a play, some poems, and the occasional essay and journalism, published before his 40th birthday. There are many other writers who don’t begin publishing quality pieces until their late 30s or early 40s; Joyce had burst on to the scene at the age of a college senior with short stories that would become canonical. If there was ever a writer with talent, it was Joyce.

But he also worked very, very hard. At age 9 he wrote a poem about the death of Irish politician Charles Parnell that his father thought was good enough to be published. Though there is little else recorded from this time in his life, it is quite likely he continued writing. He also began to read voraciously, to the point where his English teacher at school let him sit quietly and read during class as he had already gone through everything they were teaching and could answer questions about the texts with ease.

At 18 he had his first official publication, a review of a Henrik Ibsen play, and wrote a number of other articles as well as two unpublished (and now lost) plays. The next few years were quite eventful for Joyce: he travelled to Paris to try and study medicine and failed, his mother died, he met Nora Barnacle, his life partner, and his first short stories were published. He also wrote an essay dealing with aesthetics, entitled A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST, which was rejected by magazines, and which he decided to revise into a novel.

He and Nora soon eloped to continental Europe, where Joyce took a bunch of jobs as a teacher, tutor, singer, and bank teller to support themselves while he continued reading and writing voluminously. His career as an author had run into some problems: none of the printers wanted to publish DUBLINERS, deeming some of the stories obscene, and Joyce refused to censor the offending passages. He finally had them brought out in book form in 1914, after approximately 8 years of attempts at publishing them. The novel he was fashioning out of his essay, STEPHEN HERO, was never published during his lifetime; he later started over from scratch and wrote A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.

From there, Joyce would become a celebrated figure of Modernism, one whose works still enjoy renown today. Clearly he was talented when it came to writing, but more important than that were the hours he spent reading books and authoring various texts. Publishing classics when you’re in your early/mid 20s suddenly becomes a lot more understandable when you’ve read enough to know more about literature than your teachers and write a number of articles and plays before attempting prose fiction. And even then, it still took a number of years to publish his books. Had he been talented but not determined, Joyce could easily have given up after a year or two of rejection.

So talent is obviously important, but not nearly as much as hard work and determination. So to anyone feeling depressed because of rejection, just remember, even the greats had to deal with plenty of it too. The problem is that many short biographies online gloss over these rough early periods for many famous writers.

A Young Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is one of the most famous Japanese writers from the 20th century. Although he authored numerous acclaimed works and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize, he is probably better known for his ritual suicide at age 45 (and was also the subject of Marguerite Yourcenar’s MISHIMA: A VISION OF THE VOID). He burst out on to the Japanese literary scene with his semi-autobiographical CONFESSIONS OF A MASK, detailing a gay man coming of age in war time Japan and hiding his feelings behind a mask, and from there wrote a number of novels (34 in total), plays, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, many of which are still read 50 years later. Often times his first drafts required little revision. Though he was a little messed in the head, he was clearly a genius.

But, although he clearly had some talent, Mishima worked very hard to get to where he was. In fact, he may be the hardest working writer I’ve ever read about. As a teenager, he focused a great deal on poetry and was capable of churning out enough material to fill a chapbook in a week. But his interests soon shifted and he began writing prose. He read the dictionary to pepper his pieces with obscure and beautiful kanji at a time when I would have failed SAT vocab tests. It’s not clear just how many short stories he wrote at this point in his life, but the number must have been rather high and he also worked on a few novellas and novels. He also produced around 9 full-length plays during these years.

At 17, some teachers at his school were so impressed with his short story “The Forest in Full Bloom” that they published it in their magazine and offered to publish it in book form, a feat all the more amazing because it happened during World War 2 when paper shortages were common. The story, written in an elegant classical Japanese, tells the story of a boy reminiscing about his ancestors. There were a couple other stories to round out the collection.

Soon after Mishima began publishing other prose in various magazines, making a decent amount of money from his writings. Another short story collection soon followed, as did his first novel, BANDITS, about aristocratic lovers with suicidal preoccupations.

Keep in mind, while he was producing all this work, he also held a full time job at the finance ministry and would only write at night, staying up late and averaging four or so hours of sleep each night. When his father began to see the toll this lifestyle was taking on Mishima, he allowed his son to quit to focus on writing—right around the same time Mishima was offered a book deal for his next novel.

Mishima spent the next three months working on his novel, finishing in early 1949. This was CONFESSIONS OF A MASK. Published that summer, it received warm reception. But did not sell well. Mishima got nervous about his decision to resign from his finance post. He could still make a bit of money from his other writings, but would it be enough?

CONFESSIONS, which is now viewed as the work that cemented Mishima as a notable writer, was far from a sensation when first released. It was only in December, when it appeared on a number of critics’ “best of” lists, that the public started to take note. And take note they did. Mishima would enjoy fame for the rest of his life.

So, he was far from a genius figure who could effortlessly produce amazing manuscripts. He spent so much time writing as a teenager that it is quite likely he had written over a million words before BANDITS (often listed as the amount of practice needed to produce something great). And even then, it still took a while for him to find popular success.

To any wannabe writers feeling down because they’ll never be good enough, remember all the writing Mishima had to do before the public took note. Sure, he was 23 when that happened, but by that time he had also written more than most people do over a lifetime. And to anyone who thinks NaNoWriMo is a waste of time because people just shovel words on to a page, remember that Mishima practically did that every single day of his life.

A Young Haruki Murakami

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

With millions of books sold across the world and numerous international literary prizes, Haruki Murakami is one of those rare writers who achieve popularity both with critics and with audiences. His characters’ apathy and the bizarre adventures have found resonance all across the globe.

He definitely has an easily identifiable style. The story of how he came to write his first extended prose piece at age 30 sounds like something straight out of his books: while watching a baseball game and drinking, a player hit a double and at that exact moment, Murakami realized he could write a novel. He went back home and began it. At that time he and his wife ran a jazz bar together, so his writing had to wait until late at night. But everyday for four months he kept on it. The result was the novella HEAR THE WIND SING, which he submitted to the Gunzo literary contest and won first prize, kick starting his career (a bit of trivia: the same contest also helped establish Ryu Murakami, who won for ALMOST TRANSPARENT BLUE).

He followed up with a slew of acclaimed novels, each one earning him more readers and awards, until he became Japan’s most famous writer.

It makes for a great story—who wouldn’t want to hit it out of the park with their first novel? But this leaves out quite a bit of backstory and makes Murakami into some lucky guy born with incredible talent, instead of a disciplined hardworker.

Anyone who has picked up a Murakami novel knows he is well versed in western (particularly American) literature. Since his teenage years, he had a voracious appetite for the works of Updike, Capote, Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver, among many others. By the time he started his first novella, he probably knew more about contemporary American literature than many young American writers.

And, as he states in his introduction to Soseki’s SANSHIRO, in his 20s he made his way through THE TALE OF GENJI and the complete works of Natsume Soseki and Junichiro Tanizaki. (I cannot find anything on Murakami reading Kenzaburo Oe, but given how often the older novelists works are reference in Murakami’s, he probably read a lot of Oe.)

Hardcore Murakami fans might be aware of all this, but arguably the most important part of his origin story is rarely if ever mentioned. At Waseda University, he studied drama with a focus on screenwriting. In fact, running his Japanese wiki page through Google translate, it seems being a screenwriter was his first ambition, producing numerous scripts and scenarios, none of which have ever been produced. I’ve seen posts online about how these scripts, still stuck in his drawer, number in the twenties, but at this time I cannot confirm that number. Either way, he did a lot of screenwriting before trying his hand at prose.

Murakami thus goes from being a natural prodigy who struck gold with his first piece to an ambitious, well read, prolific writer who began creating work years before any of it saw the light of day. So any would-be writers feeling down today, just remember even the best often spend lots of time slaving away in anonymity, and if their biography suggests that they didn’t, it is much more likely that that section is just missing. And for those still discouraged, perhaps try switching formats. After all, a rejected screenwriter found success as a novelist: who’s to say it couldn’t happen again.

A Young William Golding

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

Today, the focus is on William Golding, best known for LORD OF THE FLIES. The information comes from John Carey’s excellent biography, THE MAN WHO WROTE LORD OF THE FLIES. Though now viewed as something like a one trick pony, Golding wrote a number of other novels (many of them have fallen in stature since release, but in his lifetime later works such as DARKNESS VISIBLE and TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH received wide acclaim), a couple nonfiction pieces, some plays, and exactly one collection of poems.

That collection, aptly but boringly entitled POEMS, came remarkably early in his career, with the book published when he was 23 and most of the content written during his college years. His next published work, LORD OF THE FLIES, would not be released until 20 years later.

What happened in the interim?

Golding was still writing, mentioning in a letter from the late 1930’s a novel he was at work on, though it is unknown if he ever finished the draft. Short stories and poems also flowed from his pen, but few if any were picked up.

Golding began to work on larger projects after the war. The first, SEAHORSE, was a nonfiction account of sailing while also training for D-Day. While his other nonfiction works are mostly collections of essays, lectures, or travelogues, this is a straight biographical account.

His next two would be novels, though still drawing on his life experience. CIRCLE UNDER THE SEA features sailing as a prominent theme in the story of a man trying to discover treasure on an island. And, although he wrote in the evenings, Golding needed a day job, settling on being a teacher. His next novel, SHORT MEASURE, is a drama set in an English boarding school, and was considered by publishing houses before ultimately getting rejected. None of them have been published, even posthumously.

For anyone doubting themselves, just remember, Golding wrote at minimum three and a half extended prose pieces, along with a good amount of poetry and miscellaneous works before his first novel hit the market. He was 43 years old. Whatever one thinks of Golding, whether he is a one trick pony or a stain on the Nobel (I disagree with both thoughts), it is impossible to deny that he let rejection halt his dreams.