IQ84, by Mike Dickenson, Reviewed.

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Mike Dickenson’s ‘IQ84’ is a timely satire on American values and culture. Written in the style of a humorous pulp thriller, it captures the banality, self-obsession, materialism and superficiality that characterise the USA for so many of us who live in the rest of the world.

The recent populist backlash against the establishment that has unfortunately placed an arrogant and ill-informed narcissist in command of the most powerful economy on Earth makes this book particularly well-timed.

If there’s an aspect I’d criticise, it’s the deep cultural references, many of which were lost on me. But that’s probably my problem: I’ve never been as fascinated or absorbed by US culture as so many of my contemporaries seem to be, so I don’t immerse myself in American films, TV or books.

The premise is brilliant, but, as with all books that use humour, there will be readers who don’t get it, and others who will absolutely love it. The novel is populated with a diverse cast of characters, all representing various classes and types. What struck me most keenly was the depiction of official stupidity and rigidity, as well as the corruption that stems from a society seemingly so deeply mired in consumerism.

It’s a clever book and won’t suit all readers. But those with an interest in politics will most probably enjoy this tale. It has some important things to say and does so in a style that will definitely appeal to many readers.

Looking for the Best Word? Tip #27

turbulent
Word cloud created through Prowritingaid.com

This series offers to help writers who are trying to make their work more accessible, interesting, varied, accurate and effective by exploring similar and dissimilar words. It also provides language learners with insights into some of the peculiarities of the English language.

A good thesaurus gives alternatives for the idea of a word, but not all suggestions are true synonyms. Context matters. Placing synonyms into a sentence to see whether they make sense is a way of checking suitability. But it’s not foolproof, so a good dictionary is also essential.

My chosen dictionary is the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And I use Roget’s Thesaurus for word selection, preferring the 1987 edition. But I try to dig the best word from my overloaded memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of words, which I consult when an appropriate term evades me, live on the reference shelves behind me.

So, to this week’s words: Quiet/Turbulent

Quiet – Roget gives these headers: inert, moderation, assuage, smooth, quietude, still, euphoria, silent, soft-hued, grey, dissuade, inaction, reposeful, peaceful, submitting, middling, inexcitable, pleasurable, modest, secluded. Under the subheading, ‘still’, there are (48) more suggestions, including unstirring, immobile, motionless, spellbound, becalmed, frozen, and silent.

Turbulent – Roget lists these headers: disorderly, violent, excitable. Under the sub-heading ‘disorderly’ are another (33) alternatives, including unruly, tumultuous, riotous, frenzied, tempestuous, agitated and wild.

These two words can operate as antonyms and it’s in that capacity I’m examining them here.

Let’s look at usage for quiet.

‘Overwhelmed by the pure serenity of the scene, Sarah stared over quiet water, tiny wavelets caressing her toes as she absorbed the tranquillity of a cloudless sky merged with a sea unmarked by swell or crests.’

Here, we could replace ‘quiet’ with ‘unstirring’, ‘immobile’, ‘motionless’ and ‘becalmed’ without altering the meaning of the sentence to any great extent. However, ‘quiet’ describes not only the stillness of the sea, here, it also emphasises the peace and silence.

Now let’s look at usage for turbulent.

‘Drawn by danger, the young man teetered on the very edge of the cliff to be at one with the turbulent sea, as it foamed and surged against the rocks below, and welcomed dark scudding clouds driving thunder and distant rain curtains across boiling crests bleached white by bursts of jagged lightning.’

In this case, we could substitute ‘unruly’, tumultuous’, ‘riotous’, ‘frenzied’, ‘tempestuous’, ‘agitated’ or ‘wild’ for ‘turbulent’ without changing the mood or tone of the sentence. Which do you think helps maintain the tone of the sentence here? Would you retain the single sentence structure, or change it into two or more sentences?

For language learners, there’s a great group page on Facebook, which you can find through this link.

I welcome observations and suggestions here. Please use the comments section below for your ideas and thoughts.

Antonyms can be difficult to discover and thesauruses generally fail to give examples. When utterly lost for such an opposite, I grab ‘The New Nuttall Dictionary of English Synonyms and Antonyms’ published 1986, which generally resolves my dilemma. I’m sure other such volumes are readily available.

By the way, a Google search today for ‘Writers Help’ brought up 82,200,000 results. One post from this series was 5th in the list and a second was 6th! And all other 9 sites listed on the 1st page included either the word ‘writers’ or ‘help’ or both in their URLs. So, looks like you’re in good company when you read these posts.

Progress on the WIP: #SciFi in the Making.

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Continuing to go well, the follow-up to Blood Red Dust now stands at 74,558 words, which is an increase of 11,460 for the week. New ideas are coming through the creative process and I’m reaching the denouement now; tension ramped and pace increasing. It’s great fun writing like this.

Those of you who’ve read Blood Red Dust, will be primed for this second book in the Generation Mars series, when it appears, later this year, I hope!

Some of you have penned reviews posted to the publisher’s site, Goodreads, and Amazon, giving your impressions to help inform new readers, and I thank you most sincerely for that. Your efforts are truly appreciated.

I’d Like to Know: Why? #3 Religion

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Image of Religious Symbols courtesy Wikimedia.

This is the third in an occasional series of posts asking sometimes awkward questions. Some topics are trivial, some serious, and others vital. I’d love for you to join in any ensuing debate using the comments at the foot of the post. Enjoy!

Why Are We Required to Respect Religion?

This question has been at the back of my mind for many years, but came to the fore a while back when I was reviewing a book: ‘The First Muslim’ subtitled ‘The Story of Muhammad’. In attempting to find a way of expressing my reaction to truths learned in those pages, it became clear that my very thoughts on the topic were deeply constrained by a rational fear of possible retribution from religious extremists.

So, what is it about religion that provides it with special protection almost worldwide? What quality does this strange phenomenon possess that gives it immunity from criticism and mockery?

Let’s look at what religion actually is. The SOED defines religion thus: ‘Belief in or sensing of some superhuman power or powers, entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship, or in a system defining a code of living, especially as a means to achieve spiritual or material improvement; acceptance of such belief (especially as represented by an organised Church) as a standard of spiritual and practical life; the expression of this in worship, etc.’

So, we all probably know what’s generally meant by the term, religion. Of course it takes many different forms. We’d need an entire book just to list the names of the millions of gods that have appeared throughout humanity. Most religions appear to be exclusive and isolationist: i.e. their adherents reject the dogma, rites, rituals, beliefs and specific rules of all other religions. Though there is some overlap, of course.

But my question is aimed at understanding what special quality excludes religion from the normal rules of discussion. Those of us who live in democratic and free societies are willing, able, and often vocal in criticising, mocking, and questioning authorities in political, historical, social, economic, judicial, and most other matters. But we mock, question and debate religion at our peril. Why? How has religion achieved this privileged position?

Perhaps we should examine some fundamentals, look at what religion entails?

As defined, religion involves belief in a supernatural being or power. This entity, often referred to as either a specific deity or simply as ‘God’, is the subject of awe, respect, and reverence. Often, it is also a source of fear, and requires followers to subject themselves to certain sacrifices, to proclaim it the one true deity and to worship it in ways not unlike a needy child crying for confirmation of his/her worth. But, universally, each deity demands that followers declare a belief in it, a belief generally based on nothing more substantial than selected words written by adherents.

However, the existence, or absence of any god isn’t the real issue, since we’re unlikely ever to know for certain whether such a force exists. If it does, it must, of necessity, be so far beyond our understanding as to be incomprehensible and therefore unrecognisable.

The real issue is religion and its often divisive insistence on forming various tribes, clubs, sects, churches, cults or whatever else we call them. Such tribes require membership. That membership is frequently exclusive and often leads to tribal warfare.

The drive to increase membership leads to forms of recruitment other organisations are denied because of the subversive and duplicitous nature of such techniques. The offspring of many cults are cynically brainwashed from birth to accept the dogma of their religion as the only truth. Such indoctrination denies innocent children any opportunity to think for themselves. It instils a way of thinking designed to exclude serious questioning of the beliefs taught. A god demanding that it be followed by such zombie-like disciples, clearly has no confidence in its own being or the message it purveys to followers.

The very language we use daily is peppered with words stemming from belief systems, words that subtly reinforce the messages fed to believers in their early years. It is difficult, almost to the point of impossibility, for conscripts to shed this early indoctrination and reach the point where they dare question what they’ve been forced to believe. If that step isn’t taken, free thought disappears altogether. Such brainwashed individuals spend their lives never knowing they are subject to indoctrination and assuming they lead ordinary lives.

Any other type of organisation using such methods would be declared illegal and banned from the public arena.

Religion predisposes people to accept lies as truths; it also predisposes people to superstition; a harmful and negative fiction that denies reality.

Ancient religions (Greek, Roman, Norse, and many others) are now widely accepted as myth and legend. Currently, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are taught as repositories of truth. History provides evidence of the myths and legends that created these Abrahamic religions, so why are the historical facts not taught in all schools to balance the education children receive?

Religion is faith-based. It relies on adherents to accept its teachings without proof. In fact, most religions require belief in the face of considerable evidence contradicting those beliefs, and encourage those who show faith by rewarding them in various ways. There is at least as much evidence for the existence of fairies, a theory that Earth is flat, and an idea that the Moon is composed of green cheese, as there is for most religions. Yet religions are respected where these other fatuous beliefs are rightly mocked, denigrated and dismissed as utter piffle by all rational folk.

What this means, in real terms, is that religion is respected for the lies it perpetrates. We all know what we think of lying politicians, lying journalists, lying industrialists and bankers. But lying clerics are, apparently, immune from such rational considerations. We mustn’t mock belief in any of these millions of gods. Why? Well, because they represent people’s faith. So, even though faith is based on lies, myths, legends, the words of ancient men attempting to explain natural events inexplicable at the time, and the inventive fictions of their creators, we are required to respect it. In enforcing that respect we remove the opportunity to thoroughly examine the phenomenon, to open it up for true debate. It is given a built-in protection it manifestly fails to deserve.

There are states where the rule of law, and even governments, are founded on religion. In many of these states it is illegal to question the ruling religion. This makes such governments both despotic and subject to the whims of the ruling elite who manipulate their interpretation of so-called sacred scriptures that dictate how their subjects are required to live their lives. In some countries, any disagreement with that very human interpretation is considered blasphemy and is punished by death. Why should we be required to respect such blatant dictatorship?

Many countries, the UK among them, have rules in place to prevent effective criticism of religious beliefs. No such protection applies to secular opinion and philosophies. This is clearly unjust and anti-democratic.

There are a great many religious adherents who are good people. There is an argument that such goodness stems from religion. However, there is a counter argument, backed up by evidence, which shows that human beings are capable of goodness without having to endure the indoctrination of religious dogma. Some of the most hypocritical and unpleasant people I’ve encountered have been pious attendants of various religious establishments and some of the most admirable, truthful, generous and good people I’ve had the privilege of meeting have been spared the indoctrination of any religious belief.

This is a topic that could fill a large volume and I’ve barely skimmed the surface here. But this post is intended to stimulate debate and to find answers to the initial question. So, I repeat that here in the hope that someone can resolve this issue: Why are we required to respect religion? I open the floor to you. Please feel free to express your opinions in the comments section below.

Looking for the Best Word? Tip #26

panster
Word cloud created through Prowritingaid.com

This series offers help to writers trying to make their work more accessible, interesting, varied, accurate and effective by exploring similar and dissimilar words. It also provides language learners with insights into some of the peculiarities of the English language.

A good thesaurus gives alternatives for the idea of a word, but not all suggestions are true synonyms. Context matters. Placing synonyms into a sentence to see whether they make sense is a way of checking suitability. But it’s not foolproof, so a good dictionary is also essential.

My chosen dictionary is the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And I use Roget’s Thesaurus for word selection; the 1987 edition. But I try to dig the best word from my overloaded memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of words, which I consult when an appropriate term evades me, live on the reference shelves behind me.

So, to this week’s words: a slight change in direction for this post; aimed directly at authors of all types.

I’m currently part way through the first draft of a novel and I was struck by an event that happened earlier in the week. I was writing a sentence and couldn’t bring to mind the precise word required to complete it. That left me with a choice. I could interrupt my chain of thought and search for the right word, or I could put in a placeholder and then search for the right term during the editing process, by which time I’d probably have recalled the one I was searching for.

I write as a pantster. For those who don’t know, this means I write without a plot, allowing my characters to develop the story as they proceed along a route of their own choosing to the destination I intend. Sometimes they make changes that alter the ending, but that’s another story. As a pantster, the last thing I want during the creative process is any interruption to the flow. I need to get the story out, to let it be told. So, for me, the option of stopping to select the right word at that point wasn’t really there at all. The placeholder, a word with similar meaning to the one I sought, was the only option.

As it happened, for this particularly convoluted sentence, I failed to find three separate words and had to use three different placeholders. But the story continued to unfold.

I know certain writers find such a way of working difficult, if not impossible. They need to say exactly what they mean at the time of composing. I can’t work that way; I end up with a stilted version of what I’m trying to create.

However, it made me wonder how often this type of dilemma results in a writer growing so obsessed with discovering the precise word he/she seeks that he/she is unable to finish the sentence, and therefore the paragraph, and therefore the book. I’m sure it happens frequently and I invite those who use the ‘perfect word’ method to give the pantster technique a trial. You’ve nothing to lose and may gain a great deal.

I’ve taken the plotting route more than once and it’s always proved a disaster. I once wrote 78,000 words of a thriller based on plot. In the days before home computers were common (yes, I’m that ancient!) I wrote the piece by hand on lined foolscap paper. When I began to re-read the piece, prior to editing to type it up, I was struck by how false it sounded. I hated it so much that I chucked the entire thing in the bin. That story, which remains in my memory, has never been told. I went on to test the pantster method and have never looked back.

Perhaps, now so much time has passed, I might revisit that thriller, as a pantster, and make a better job of it. But I tell the tale here only to illustrate the possible disadvantage of allowing selection of the right word at the wrong time to dictate how you create a story: you might never finish it!

Next week, back to the normal format. For language learners, there’s a great group page on Facebook, which you can find through this link.

I welcome observations and suggestions here. Please use the comments section below for your ideas and thoughts.

By the way, a Google search today for ‘Writers Help’ brought up 83,000,000 results. One post from this series was 4th in the list and a second was 6th! And the 1st three, plus the 5th, were all from a site whose URL includes the words ‘writers help’ So, it appears you’re in good company when you read these posts.

Progress on the WIP: #SciFi in the Making.

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Picture courtesy of Kevin Gill on flickr.com. Creative Commons applies.

Still going well, the follow-up to Blood Red Dust now stands at 63,098 words, an additional 8289 since last week’ update. Another slight change in direction occurred to me during a walk in the forest and this has ramped up the tension significantly. Those characters know how to have fun with me as writer. It’s involved a spot more research, but the resultant story element makes that bit of work well worth the effort.

If you read Blood Red Dust, you’ll be primed for this second book in the Generation Mars series, when it appears, later this year, I hope!

Some who’ve read it, have penned reviews posted to the publisher’s site, Goodreads, and Amazon, giving their impressions to help inform new readers.

Here are a few of the comments made:

‘Enjoyed? I positively feasted on this book!’

‘There’s a new voice and a quite robust imagination lighting up the sci-fi literary cosmos; and one that speaks with a mythically crisp British accent.’

‘His Orwellian description of an environmentally uninhabitable Earth sounds chillingly prophetic and Aken puts the blame precisely where it belongs, on the greed and short-term sight of industry and big business.’

‘Simply put, I enjoyed the hell out of this book.’

‘One of the great strengths of the book is in the credibility of its world-building.’

‘It’s an interesting read with a fresh take on the space/sci-fi genre, telling a different kind of story in a different kind of way.’

‘A fun read and nice addition to the science fiction genre. It does a book’s job and keeps you entertained to the last page.’

My thanks to those who’ve done this. I really appreciate your efforts.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, Reviewed.

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An astounding piece of work.

Because this book is a modern classic, it has been much reviewed, discussed and dissected, which probably renders my review somewhat redundant. That won’t prevent me writing in praise of the novel, however.

The author describes the work as speculative fiction rather than science fiction, and I understand her distinction. There’s little science, other than of the social sort, in the book. It is, however, a book describing a dystopian future and therefore can be included in the same category as 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm.

I came late to this work and, in one sense, I’m pleased that’s the case. The author covers themes and topics close to my own heart, and my earlier writing might otherwise have been influenced in ways that could have altered my output; we are all, whether we wish it or no, subject to the suggestion inherent in a work of great art.

Here, the writer has taken as her starting point the right wing conservative religious extremism of the USA at a time when it felt threatened by burgeoning freedoms, especially for women. She has developed the social mores and thoughtless dogma of that society’s pious vengeance to a logical extreme. The USA was initially invaded and overrun by groups of disciples of various sects who wished not to escape persecution but to impose their brands of religion on others. A land sparsely populated was seen as an ideal opportunity by those founding fathers.

This book carries that spirit of evangelism to its logical and horrific conclusion; a state where politics and dogma permit continued luxury and comparative freedom for the elite at the expense and exploitation of all others.

It describes the hypocrisy of religion so well, underlining the obsessive fear of sex and resultant restrictive rules, whilst exposing the indifference to real goodness and true morality. Presented in informal diary style through the eyes and memories of a young woman caught in a vile artificial trap of the hierarchy’s making, this tale explores and uncovers the real moral dilemma of the gentle rebel caught in a totalitarian society.

The author’s insight into the workings of minds as varied as the innocent unbeliever and as corrupt as the dogmatic despot is deep and enlightening. That she manages, at the same time, to express the similarities of such diverse minds is an indication of her extraordinary understanding of the human condition. She conveys the emptiness, pointlessness and inevitable downfall of a totalitarian regime in subtle and empathetic language that burns into the consciousness and produces a bleak and barren picture.

Love is here, and its partner, hope. But these are so buried in the iniquities of the ambition and self-preservation of those in authority as to appear no more than dim sparks. Yet their very presence is enough to ensure the pages are turned.

The language, metaphor and poetry of this writing are exceptional and, in a story with so little actual action, it’s the emotional layering that carries the reader through to the utterly inevitable ending. Brilliant!

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Those who’ve read my fantasy trilogy, A Seared Sky and/or Blood Red Dust, will understand my comments here much more deeply.