“It’s important to understand as writers or as anything else, that ‘no,’ as destructive as it is, is much less powerful than ‘yes.’ You can get turned down a hundred times by agents and publishers and have your dreams crushed and strewn across the landscape. Get out that broom, dustpan, and epoxy, put everything back together, and try again. And again. One ‘yes’ will outweigh each ‘no’ and will blow them away.” – Joe Hartlaub
Peter Jackson, known for his movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, promises audiences they’ll experience the Great War as they’ve never seen it before in his latest film, They Shall Not Grow Old.
The teaser reveals an astounding technical achievement. Jackson has restored, colorized, and repaired hundreds of original films from World War One to show audiences what it was like to fight and die in that terrible conflict. By doing so, he’s made hundred-year-old images seem real and poignant to modern audiences.
I’ve searched numerous articles to see Peter Jackson’s thoughts on the making of this film, and what drove him to do it. I suspect, though I can’t confirm, that Jackson’s latest project grew from his research into the life and work of J.R.R. Tolkien. It was the shocking carnage at the Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien served as Battalion Signaling Officer of the Lancashire Fusiliers, that tormented and inspired the young scholar to capture in fiction the horror — and hope — he’d learned on the battlefield.
Tolkien’s way of making sense of what he’d gone through in WWI was to craft a tale that warned of the dehumanizing effect of technology while celebrating the courage and decency of ordinary people. That, I think, is the true power of fantastic fiction, which opens us to a realm of rediscovered and reimagined possibilities thought lost but still within our grasp.
“I’m always embarrassed when people say that I’m courageous. Soldiers are courageous. Policemen are courageous. Firemen are courageous. I just have a thick hide and disregard what silly people say.” Thomas Sowell
Hurricane Florence has left us dazed, confused, and waterlogged. As bad as it was, the shifting forecasts and endless revisions of the storm’s projected path only made it worse. Florence was supposed to march through North Carolina and douse Raleigh, instead, it hit Wilmington and slowly churned its way through South Carolina, spinning off tornados and flooding low-lying areas. Here in Charlotte, trees are down and many roads and yards are under water. Now comes the clean up. Yuck.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in the heady days of the Enlightenment, learned individuals imagined they could predict and control both man and nature through science. French scholar Pierre-Simon de Laplace assured fellow scientists they could one day predict the exact movements of tides and storms — in fact, he went so far as to claim that the movement of every atom could be calculated.
Now we have both private industry and government departments armed with Cray supercomputers that can guzzle meteorological data from all over the world, digest it faster than Laplace ever dreamed, and spit out detailed predictions.
Problem is, those details are often wrong — just as we’ve just seen with Hurricane Florence.
A long, long time ago, I worked in the insurance industry as an analyst and project manager. Pretty handy with a computer, a long-time weather buff, and an instructor of statistics, I served on the North Carolina Rate Bureau’s Property Committee a number of years, where I studied long-range weather forecasts. Our mandate was to recommend and justify future rate proposals based on expected weather patterns. To make a long story short, I learned quickly that despite all our efforts, we were only guessing at future trends.
More famous experts have performed as badly, even worse. Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” chronicles the greatest miscalculations in history, including America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, was a whiz kid with a degree from Harvard Business School. Here’s how Tuchman summarizes McNamara’s mindset:
“Precise and positive, with slicked-down hair and rimless glasses, McNamara was a specialist of management through ‘statistical control’ … his genius for statistics left little respect for human variables and no room for the unpredictable.” (p. 285)
The military establishment Secretary McNamara guided was all too receptive. The commander of the US forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, the years of escalation and certain victory, was William C. Westmoreland. Though later denounced as the “most disastrous American general since Custer,” Westmoreland was not ill-prepared for the job. He’d graduated West Point with the highest rank possible, first captain, and was America’s youngest major general ever. And he’d studied statistics at — Harvard Business School. In fact, his reliance on “kill statistics” overstated American success in Vietnam, setting up both the American military and public for a nasty confrontation with reality.
If US leaders had listened to historians rather than statisticians, and recognized that Vietnam’s ancient animosity against China precluded Communist Chinese control of an independent Vietnam, they could have avoided a tragedy. Instead, they relied on the dehumanizing scientism of B.F. Skinner to “stress” the Vietnamese into acting “rationally.” Despite the odds, first against the French, and then the Americans, the Vietnamese prevailed.
Sadly, those who would reduce people to a logical, globalized, and disconnected existence aren’t going to let a few tragic failures stop them. But no matter what they say or do, numbers alone cannot define humanity or nature. Humans stubbornly refuse to surrender purpose, identity, and emotional fulfillment. And we are not without weapons. Literature is a wild, throaty howl of defiance to those who would reduce us to formulas or pawns in their ideological schemes. And that’s a fact we can be sure of.
The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, all guaranteed to make you a literary legend. Compiled by Ambrose Bierce.
P. S. Hoffman – 13 Smart Shortcuts to Write Brilliant Characters
Dina Al-Mahdi – Be your own muse
Raimey Gallant – Negative space, as important to author marketing as it is to writing
M. L. Davis – Writers: Don’t Edit Away Your Voice
Cath Humphris – Is there anything new in the writer’s tool kit?
l. t. garvin – Writing book blurbs
kakymc – On Writing Dangerously
Sierra Ayonnie – What makes a good short story?
“‘Centrism’ is about eclecticism across time, not just across the partisan spectrum: I’m a ‘reactionary’ about some civilizational traditions that proved useful for centuries, but a ‘progressive’ about embracing many social & technological innovations.” Dr. Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist
John Larison argues that despite the different tropes they use and the different worlds they occupy, crime and Western stories share many structural similarities:
Both are about the triumph of good over evil. Early in a novel of either genre, we will see our protagonist encounter an injustice, usually the victim of crime (who may or may not still be breathing). Both novels will end when the scales of justice have finally been righted; the perpetrators of evil have met their due punishment. In a crime novel, justice usually comes in the form of a court of law. In the western, justice tends to be delivered by a bullet through the heart.
That’s a good start, but there’s more substance, nuance, and grit in both genres. Crime fiction includes many sub-genres, including cozies (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple tales) and classic whodunits (Ellery Queen). The reader can settle down with one of these books knowing that justice will inevitably prevail, just like in the Westerns. But then there are hardboiled and noir crime stories. While both feature violence in gritty, naturalistic settings, only hardboiled tales come close to the worldview of classic Western adventures.
In hardboiled crime tales, the protagonist shoots it out with the bad guys to protect the innocent and restore justice. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an updated John Wayne battling the bad hombres of New York City. However, in noir tales, traditional justice is just as hard to find as an innocent victim. For example, Raymond Chandler paints a bleak view of human nature in his novels, with both the criminal underworld and the “respectable” upper class up to no good. In such a world, the protagonist has to settle for upholding his personal code of honor, justice for the innocent proving too elusive, if not illusory.
Some of the “crime-westerns” Larison cites in his article certainly don’t end with the good guy riding into the sunset after protecting the righteous and punishing the wicked. Just to name one example, Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men” ends with the bad guy, a sociopathic hit man, virtually unscathed and free, leaving behind the corpses of almost all the sympathetic characters. The sheriff who failed to catch the killer or protect the innocent acknowledges his uselessness at the end, and dreads the evil that’s spreading across the land he once loved and knew. Not exactly “Shane.” But, as Larison says, still wildly entertaining.