Friday Essay: Second Guessing Providence?

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“What if?”

“What if” is the driving question of the Alternate history genre. It is a less well-known genre in the broader world of fantasy and speculation fiction but I think many people have often asked “what if” about the past, even if only their own past.  What if you had made a different choice, or a different opportunity had arisen? We tend to second-guess ourselves, so it’s no surprise we tend to second guess history.

As a dedicated fan of the alternate history genre, a question I’ve wrestled with is “Should a Christian engage in a genre seemingly based on second-guessing the ways of Providence?” If that was the extent of the genre’s intent, I would say a Christian should avoid it. After all, God’s ways are highest and his determination best. But Alternate History not inherently about second-guessing the course of history.

Alternate history is an exploration of cause and effects, how action A, which in reality led to outcome X, could have led to outcome Y if action A had a variation.  If the French had not aided the American colonists against England, how would history and our world today be impacted? What if Charles Martel had not withstood the Moors at the Battle of Tours? History is forged link by link by human decisions as governed by God’s will. In Alternate History, the idea is to show the fragility of outcomes and for the Christian, this should make us thankful for God’s providence in directing history.

This appears to make sense as long we explore undesired alternate outcomes. But about fantasies of a “better” timeline? Alternate history by showing seemingly “better” world reminds us of how fallen people mess up.  It’s a reminder of the corrupting power of sin and the ease with which we make mistakes.

For these two reasons, and the sheer fun of imagining answers to “what if”, I enjoy a good story of alternate history.  They remind to both be thankful for the sovereignty of God in history and aware of my sinfulness and the impact my choices make.

Friday Essay: The Manly Moonmen

There are spoilers in this essay for the 1950 Movie Destination Moon so if you care about spoilers for a seventy-year-old film, watch the movie first and then read the essay.

 

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Jim Barnes (top right), Gen. Thayer (top left), Joe Sweeny (bottom right) and Dr. Cosgraves (bottom left)

We live in an age where the majority of movies aggressively seek to suppress traditional notions of masculinity and male heroics. And no, male superheroes or male action heroes are not the sorts of masculine heroes of which I speak. Physical strength and combat skill are certainly historic traits associated with male heroes but these are not the sole qualities which make a male into a man. I was considering this question – where are the men in contemporary films? Not the “dudes” (I’m thinking of Starlord from Guardians of the Galaxy in particular and to some extent Poe Dameron from The Last Jedi), not the male characters, not the dead-beat father figures (Han Solo) – the men. Quite honestly, they are a rare find in movies today (the only real example I can think of from the last two decades is the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and in a society plagued by fatherlessness, men in our movies and stories are needed more than ever to provide so many boys with positive examples of how men should act. But I think it’s obvious with the current cultural climate in Hollywood and the film industry, we won’t be seeing such characters for a long time.

The best way forward then, is to take a look back. There are plenty of older movies with positive male heroes but when I asked myself “What is movie have I seen that has the manliest men you could imagine?” I surprised myself by answering “George Pal’s Destination Moon.” Destination Moon, released in 1950, was the science fiction drama that ushered in the 50’s science fiction craze at the cinema. The writer of this iconic film was the legendary Robert A. Heinlein who took inspiration on several plot points from his book Rocketship Galileo (which is incidentally one of my favorite works of science fiction even if it is on the juvenile side).  And yet despite the cheesy and cheap productions to follow in its popularity, Destination Moon was not cheesy and presented a dedication to realism that quite honestly makes the movie something of a bore on a sheer entertainment level.

The plot is literally, “American corporations come together to put a rocket on the moon and they do.” Now, there is conflict, both from a nameless but presumably Soviet-backed opposition and from technical dangers that complicate their return voyage. Personally, I wish Heinlein would have borrowed more from Rocketship Galileo for his central conflict – in Rocketship, they encounter a hidden Nazi base on the moon – simply adapting the Nazis to perhaps be the Soviet opposition that the movie heavily implies but does not deliver on.  And yet, Destination Moon is a visual treat with all the fixtures soon to be classic sci-fi movie tropes such as the bullet-shaped rocket, a dry and cracked lunar surface and accordion-jointed space-suits.  But more importantly, Destination Moon features first three and then four of the manliest men I’ve ever seen in a movie.

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General Thayer pitches his idea to Jim Barnes

Let’s start with the three. First, we have the manliest of the bunch – Jim Barnes (John Archer) an industrialist manufacturer of aircraft and engines. Next, we have Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson), an engineer extraordinaire. Last, we have General Thayer (Tom Powers), the former military man who’s dream starts the whole expedition. Each of these men displays great skill and intelligence in their fields, and enormous dedication to the vision once they commit. But their trust test of courage comes in two separate occasions.

The rocket is a privately funded project, with several companies coming together under Barnes’ leadership to make this expedition a reality. They are incentivized by the military potential of course, and also by a strong sense of patriotism (which goes back to the hints of Soviet opposition). However, when they request permission to test the atomic-energy engines on site (at White Sands, New Mexico) their request is denied unless they move testing to the South Pacific. Unwilling to spend more money they don’t really have, and also determined to push on with their mission, the three men make a bold decision to fly the rocket themselves rather than let the government (influenced by Soviet-manufactured public opinion against the testing) stop them. The decision is not reckless. They go in knowing full well the dangers of flying an untested ship, and ready to sacrifice their lives if need be. They have a courage not built on bravado or pride but on conviction.

The fourth man has an arc that takes him from boy to man. Enter Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson), radio and radar technician from Brooklyn who is interesting solely in “beer, babes, and baseball”. Sweeny enters the four-man crew with seventeen hours to go after the original fourth man (a character we meet once) is taken sick with appendicitis (hinted at by the movie earlier) and Joe Sweeny is the only one left who is trained to use the equipment. Barnes and Thayer convince him only once he is assured the rocket will not blow up (and, in his mind, not even budge). Sweeny handles the challenges of the voyage less than gracefully and on the Moon, he is interested in frolicking and not in serious exploration.

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Dr. Cosgraves (Blue) and  Jim Barnes (Orange) land on the Moon’s surface

The final test of their courage comes in the movie’s final conflict. The ship burned too much fuel in the landing attempt, and as a result, cannot pull free of the Moon without dropping a ton a weight, so the four astronauts strip the ship to the bare bones. Finally, they have only themselves, one space-suit (for entering the air-lock when airless) and their radio.  But they come up 110 pounds short. With no other recourse seemingly left to them, the three men debate over who will stay each making a case for why he should make the sacrifice. Finally, Sweeny, watching from the background and wearing the remaining space suit, suggests they match for the honor and as they are distracted he quietly leaves the ship, intending to make the sacrifice himself. He shrugs off his gesture with his usual slang and bravado – “Goodbye fellas! Remember to the gals- any gals” – but then Barnes realizes a way to lose the extra weight without one of the men sacrificing themselves. I’ll let you watch the movie to see how.

Sweeny grows from a dude to a man, becoming like these three men he looks up to. Sure, the movie itself has some yawning moments but these four men teach us some relevant lessons on manhood. They exhibit courage, conviction, and self-sacrifice but also wisdom, grit, ingenuity, and duty. Cargraves, the only married man among them, is devoted to his wife and two sons in what few glimpses we receive into his family life. And in the course of their journey, these four men become fast friends.

There are other movies out there with men of this caliber – I think again of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – but one can never have too many stories with admirable heroes so I wanted to dedicate some attention to Destination Moon and its portrayal of the manly Moonmen.

Thank you for reading this post! I welcome civil and thoughtful discussions, so please comment your thoughts below.  If you’d like to keep updated on blog posts, please subscribe and if you’d like to keep up to date of my book efforts, please follow me on Amazon. Thank you, and God bless!

 

Writing Trends: Character Driven Narration

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Part of writing is developing a written voice. Some writers craft long sentences that string words together to paint a verbal picture. Others are believers in brevity. Still, others practice a happy medium. Personally, I lean away from the “clipped” tone of say Hemingway but also from the excessive descriptions of Melville.

Whatever style you prefer, you can see how writing styles have developed and changed over the last hundred years. It is a given that the novelist of our era must not be wordy. He cannot devote his paragraphs to lengthy descriptions of the location, or expositional descriptions of the characters themselves.  True, he may describe but indirectly. He cannot say “Bill was a tall man.” He can say, “Bella looked up at Bill, wondering slightly at his great height.”  Of course, the second is wordier than the first, but at least we can work into something productive like developing the personality of Bella (i.e. we show the reader that Bella is short).

Modern novelists are every bit as wordy and descriptive as their predecessors. What has changed, however, is the content. Older writers used more description for setting and characters in an attempt to give you a basic picture. Read an original Sherlock Holmes story, and you’ll notice how every time a client comes to see Sherlock Holmes, Watson gives a straightforward description – sex, gender, socio-economic position (poor, rich, middle-class) hair color and their fashion. Sometimes he gets more detailed but he hits the essentials in painting an impression in your mind. Contemporary writers describe feelings, emotions, and reactions. It might be a no-no to spend a few sentences telling the reader what Bill looks like. But by all means, let’s spend every other sentence describing his facial muscles, his feelings and his slightest physical movement.

This difference between writing methods flows from a larger style change I’ve observed in the literature of the last hundred and fifty years: a switch from external-narration to internal-narration. Let me write an example of each style, talking about the exact same character(s) and situation and then break down some of these differences I’ve found:

Example A: In the morning, Jack and Mary hit the road again, taking the exit for Highway 12.  The couple had the highway to themselves and the hours passed quietly as the enjoyed the open road and the sound of jazz over the radio. As the evening hours approached, a loud “pop” sounded from the rear of the car, and Jack pulled over.  He checked the rear and found both tires gashed. “Well that’s just dandy,” he said. “What now?” asked Mary.  What indeed. They had only one spare, of course. According to the map, the nearest city lay another thirty miles northeast, the nearest gas station eighteen miles behind them.  With any luck, they could thumb a ride but luck had been against them so far. The solitude of the desert highway which delighted them earlier had just become their enemy. Inside the car, Mary examined the map. Her eyes lit up and she called out excitedly to Jack. “Honey look! There’s a town here, off the highway about three miles.” She handed the map to her husband. “Rascals’ Flats, eh? I believe that’s a ghost town, Mary.” “Maybe we’ll find somebody there? Or at least a place to sleep.” With evening fast approaching, Jack had to agree with her point. They still had a few hours of daylight left, enough to reach Rascals’ Flat before total darkness arrived. Bring only the essentials, Jack and Mary left the car by the side of the road and started the three-mile walk to the ghost town.

Example B: Mary looked at the desert scenery through the car window. The radio, at half volume, played an upbeat jazzy tune that made her smile. In the driver’s seat, her husband Jack had one hand resting lazily on the steering wheel, the other on the window seal. In either direction, Mary saw only pavement and desert – and she loved the solitude. All day, she and Jack had had the road to themselves. Suddenly, a series of loud “pops” erupted behind them, and the car jolted. Mary felt her throat tighten as Jack pulled the car over. He checked the back of the car. “Two flats, honey,” he called out.  “Just dandy.” “What do we do now?” She asked, trying to calm the rising fear she felt. Jack shook his head. “We’re in for a long walk either way, according to the map.”  “Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Mary replied, trying to convince herself more than Jack. “Maybe we can thumb a ride.” Jack laughed. “Maybe. But with our luck today, I wouldn’t count on it.” Mary laughed back – he was right. She pulled out the map and looked for anything nearby. Nothing. Or, almost nothing. Her eyes rested on a small name, near the highway. “Honey look, there’s a town right here, about three miles away,” Jack took the map and examined it for himself. “Rascals’ Flat, eh? I believe that’s a ghost town.” “Maybe we’ll find someone there; at least a place to sleep perhaps?” Mary glanced outside at the evening sky and noticed Jack doing the same.”Alright,” he said. “Let’s  start walking.”

 

Example A is, of course, an external narrative while Example B is internal though neither is purely one over the other. In Example A, you’ll notice a few distinctive traits:

  • Neither Jack or Mary is the exclusive point of reference, but rather Jack is the main focus of the narrative since he does most the action but you are not in Jack’s head any more than you are in Mary’s. This gives me, the narrator, the freedom to focus on the active parts of the story rather than being stuck with one character writing from his/her perspective of a scene.
  • The opening sentence begins with time and place, followed by character entrances and an action. The desert and the highway exist as the setting and are frankly introduced, the characters are in the setting and the action is what they are doing.
  • The narrative is active-verb-heavy: “Mary examined“, “Jack pulled over.  As the narrator, I’m narrating what Jack and Mary do, rather than attempting to interpret their actions.

By contrast, in Example B:

  • Mary is the narrative conductor (I deliberately chose her instead of Jack to highlight the different effects of narration style), and we only see into Jack’s head by way of Mary’s interpretation.
  • The opening sentence begins with a character, an action, and a location. Mary is looking at the scenery around her. In Example B, the desert is in the opening sentence to give Mary something to look at. I could just have easily said, “Mary looked out the car window” and from a grammatical perspective, it’s fine. From a narrative perspective, I need to specify what she was looking at, either in the same sentence –  “Mary looked out the window at the desert“- or include the scenery in the next sentence by way of implication  – “Mary looked out the window. In the fading light of evening, the desert was enchanting”. But notice how the second option is awkward. The desert is only there to give Mary something to look at, and Mary is only looking at something to give her an internal-narration introduction.
  • Example B uses mostly emotive action: “Mary felt her throat tighten.” An emotive action is about how the perspective-character is reacting. It doesn’t advance the story but instead seeks to connect you emotionally to the character. You the reader have a tangible reaction from Mary that you can theoretically connect to.

The basic differences come down to a central contrast: In external-narration, when the action happens, the narrator describes the action through the perspective of an observer. In internal-narration, when the action happens, you see it through the perspective of a character and the action happens outside of the focal point rather than being the focal point.

I don’t mean to say internal-narration is bad. I think a good writer can blend both styles appropriately. But I will say that it’s easier to weave internal-moments into an external-narrative than the reverse method. You can work in a character’s personal reaction in the broader external framework without jarring the reader:

Example A: Mr. Charles Johnson lived alone in his New York apartment. Except for a maid who cleaned the place in the morning after he left for his work at the department store, and the occasional guest to share a meal and glass of brandy, Mr. Johnson led a quiet life. On one of these quiet evenings, he relaxed after a long day at work by reading a detective novel, a cheap paperback he had grabbed at the bookstore. And as he read the story, he began to reflect on just how boring his life had become. Perhaps, he thought to himself, one day he would go on an adventure. But not today.

Notice that the narrative is still external. I’m situating where the character lives, and I’m establishing his situation. But to enhance the set-up, in Mr. Johnson’s first action, I describe what he is thinking or feeling. I have my cake but I eat it too, so to speak. Now let’s try switching the order of narration and see how it works:

Example B: Charlie entered the apartment. Another day’s work done, he thought to himself as he collapsed in his favorite recliner. At the department store where he worked, he liked to browse the bookstore when had a chance. Today, he’d bought a cheap detective novel – an older paperback. He opened the pages and began to read. One page in, he reached for his glass of brandy from the previous evening, only to find the glass missing. The maid had probably cleaned and stored it that morning. The maid came to the apartments once a day in the mornings for those who wanted her services. Sighing, Charlie rose from his chair and went into the kitchen, fixed another glass and returned. An hour went by, Charlie letting his mind rest as he read. It hit him, as he neared the end, just how boring his own life actually was. Perhaps, he thought, one of these days I’ll go on an adventure.

You’ll notice how much harder it was for me to introduce external-narration here. I included the detail about the maid and his buying the book. But if I were writing this normally I would not include the line about the maid after “the maid had probably cleaned and stored it that morning.” The following sentence disrupts the flow of the personal perspective. The book’s purchase is needed information, it sets up what the character is doing this evening – a catalyst. But in the first sample, I could introduce the book with a quick expositional statement. In the second sample, I have to include Mr. Johnson’s feelings about the bookstore to make this information blend.

Which brings me to my conclusions for now. Internal narration relies on flow and connection to generate interest and sympathy. External narration relies on the logical sequence of events and their relationship to the characters, trusting that the story itself captures you and creates feelings for the characters. Again, good writing uses both but I believe externality allows for clearer and more active writing.

That’s all my thoughts on this subject for today, but I’d love to do some more posts on writing styles. Let me know if you’d like this to be a regular series!

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