April 10, 2015 § 1 Comment
Axon, Inc. is a tightly-focused novel, concentrating on the lives of just a few characters. Following up on the in-depth discussion of the protagonist, Walden Reathall, this post discusses another agonist: Logan Byrnes. Like that post, there are no ‘spoilers’ here, just notes about character inspiration and background.
In the summer of 2017, Walden went to summer church camp and met Logan Byrnes. Their friendship was immediate and intense. Logan, who was born in Scotland but grew up in a poor part of Seattle, was another quiet, serious child. For him, though, it wasn’t enough to just read about things. He hurled his whole being into everything that interested him. He built telescopes and engines from parts scrounged from the neighborhood; he experimented on plants and insects, and his room sometimes crawled with lizards, snakes, and worms; and he was often found by the police wandering miles from home, exploring. The third of six siblings, his parents rarely had time to watch him carefully. His father was a computer programmer, but not a great one, and his salary was spread thin over six children. So Logan would often shoplift gifts or food for his brother and sisters. He learned judo (he refused to tell anyone how) and then taught it in turn to his family and friends, and they would fearlessly wander the most dangerous streets in the evenings. He taught himself various computer languages from a young age, and by the time he met Walden, he’d already built three of his own machines, and worked part time doing contract programming — illegally, because he was a minor.
The intimate relationship between Logan and Walden eventually cooled. For Walden, Logan was simply too intense, too wild and unpredictable. They always remained close, always better able to understand each other than anyone else in their lives, but Walden needed a lot of emotional distance. Logan understood, and gave it to him. They maintained their friendship online after high school. Neither of them entered college — Walden’s grades were too poor, and Logan was simply too poor, period. While Walden entered the military, Logan worked a few low-paying contract programming jobs, apparently spending most of his time doing drugs and playing games.
But when Walden left the military, Logan already had hatched a scheme to get them both into a good college. All it required was Walden’s money and Logan’s hacking skills, which he’d quietly honed to an amazing degree. Logan and Walden applied to and entered the University of Washington in the fall of 2024, with no irregularities in their records at all.
At school, Logan experimented a lot — with machines, with software, with cheating, with his social and sexual partners, with drugs, and with himself. But he did extremely well at UW, graduating with highest honors.
After college, Logan and Walden went into business, founding a rapid series of start-ups with their other school friends. At first things went well, and they made a lot of money very quickly. But within a few years things began to go sour: business deals led inevitably to riskier ventures, morally ambiguous enterprises, and distasteful compromises. Logan’s take-no-prisoners approach to entrepreneurship, apparently having no qualms about using any kind of secrecy or treachery for business advantage, alienated all of his partners one by one. His last venture with Walden was an organ-sharing clearing house, illegal in most countries but extremely profitable. Eventually, when that grew too abhorrent even for Walden, Logan dropped out of Walden’s life and disappeared for most of a year — before reappearing suddenly with a revolutionary technology.
Logan is based on Loki, a being of uncertain origin who was something between a god and a giant. He was a shapeshifter and a mischievous trickster, but it’s clear that, in the beginning at least, he cared deeply for the other gods and was firmly on their side in their struggles against the giants. With cunning and guile, he orchestrated the raising of the wall around Asgard, and gained almost all the great treasures of the gods — Thor’s hammer, Odin’s spear, Sif’s necklace, Freyr’s chariot and boar, and so on. But he compromised his honor and broke many promises, creating enemies inside Asgard and out.
If Odin was effeminate, Loki was downright gender-ambiguous. As a shape-shifter and trickster, his identity as ‘male’ was far from firmly established. For example, he turned himself into a mare in order to trick a giant, and in that form he gave birth to Odin’s six-legged horse Sleipnir, a steed that could carry Odin to the realm of the Dead and back.
Nevertheless he had many female lovers, including his Aesir wife Sigyn and his jotun wife Angrboda. Angrboda bore him three monstrous children — the mighty wolf Fenrir, the world-serpent Jormungandr, and Hel, the monarch of the dead. They were so dangerous that the gods bound and banished them all.
Loki, increasingly embittered by his ill-treatment by both gods and giants and the loss of his children, became more spiteful and vengeful. Eventually he tricked the blind god, Honir, into killing Odin’s son Balder. After this, Loki was hunted down and imprisoned until the end of the world. At Ragnarök, Loki will lead an army of ghosts against Asgard, and his three monstrous children will defeat and kill Odin and Thor.
April 1, 2015 § 2 Comments
Axon, Inc. is a tightly-focused novel, concentrating on the lives of just a few characters. Stories like this one explore the ramifications of transformative technologies, unraveling the world we know and weaving a new one from its ruins. Focusing on one or two characters allows the reader to become more immersed in the novel, to intimately experience the changes the world is undergoing — to follow a single vivid narrative thread through the chaos of collapsing social structures.
The book follows four main characters, and this page discusses one in detail: the protagonist, Walden Reathall. There are a few things that might be called ‘spoilers’ here, but for the most part this is just notes about what inspired the character, and background that’s revealed in the first few chapters.
Based on Odin, Walden is the viewpoint character and primary protagonist of the novel.
Odin was born from the primeval frost (along with his brothers, one of whom may have been Loki), and led the warriors that defeated the giants. He then tore apart the body of the greatest giant, Ymir, and created the world from it. It’s possible that this myth is connected to an ancient Proto-Indo-European myth about two brothers, twins, one of whom kills the other as a sacrifice to create the world. In that ancient story, the living one becomes the lord of the sky, and the dead one the lord of the underworld.
Odin is a god of contradictions. Most people know he is a god of warriors, and lord of Valhalla, the hall where valorous warriors spent eternity in fighting and feasting, preparing for Ragnarök. But he is also a king and shaman. For the Norse, it was odd for a shamanistic individual to be male; so in some ways Odin was seen as effeminate. Some saw this as an imperfection in his character — one of his moral failings. He is, after all, not a moral paragon. In many myths, he was willing to make unsavory compromises to protect his kin. And those compromises often come back to betray him. For example, in order to construct the wall around Asgard, he and Loki lied, swindled, and stole. This led to enmity between the gods and giants, and, eventually, to Ragnarök.
Walden Reathall was born in December of 2001 in western Washington state. His mother, a teacher who grew up in South Africa, was an environmentalist and activist. She named him “Walden” after her favorite book. His father, whose family was originally Canadian, was also an environmentalist; he worked in real estate and eventually became a local politician. Walden has one younger sister, Tori.
Walden was a quiet, serious child, although he developed a wry sense of humor as he got older. He was always fascinated by mathematics and literature, and spent hours in his room or in the yard under a tree, reading piles of books. But his attention wandered easily, and he often did poorly in school. His mother died when he was 15, of heart disease. When the book begins (2030), Walden’s father is still alive, but succumbed to dementia a few years ago.
In the summer of 2017, Walden went to summer church camp and met Logan Byrnes. Their friendship was immediate and intense, and is best described in the post about Logan, coming up next.
February 10, 2015 § 1 Comment
This is the first of a series of posts on the status of my revisions to Axon, Inc.
It’s a puzzle: the best way to convey how much is left to write and revise. If I lay out exactly which scenes still need to be written, necessarily there will be spoilers. In theory I could give a word count — “15,000 words to delete, 5K to add, and 7K to change!” — but I obviously don’t actually know how many words it will take. This is a novel, an organic thing, not just a pile of bytes.
Instead I’m going to reference my Story Map here. The Story Map reveals the basic shape of the novel, without being specific about what actually happens. So, without further ado, this is what remains to be done for each of the main chunks of the novel:
The Call to Adventure.
- The Opening Image. I’m dissatisfied with the current opening image, and am going to completely rewrite it. I know what it’ll be, though, and it’s going to be awesome.
- Setup of Home, Work, and Play. These scenes also need to be redone, but I have a very clear idea of what needs to happen, and I’ll be able to reuse parts of the existing draft.
- Catalyst. This scene is just about perfect as it is.
Refusal of the Call.
- Debate, Break Into Two. This is awful in the current draft — it’s all existential hand-wringing. I’m going to rewrite it as a physical debate — in fact, a physical struggle. And I’m really looking forward to how it comes out.
Similar to the Home, Work, and Play scenes above, this section needs extensive revision, but I’ll be able to reuse and repurpose a lot of existing draft materials.
Crossing the First Threshold
This section just requires minor revisions.
Belly of the Whale
This section just requires minor revisions.
Road of Trials.
This is by far the longest part of the book. But it needs to be even longer, in order to beef up some of the primary themes, and explore the character relationships in more depth.
Meeting with the Goddess
This is in pretty good shape: just needs minor revisions.
Woman as Temptress
- All Is Lost. Minor revisions.
- Dark Night of the Soul. A fair bit of work is needed here — several pages of additions, but pretty straightforward ones.
Atonement with Father
This section needs minor revisions.
This section just needs some small revisions, and is combined with the Ultimate Boon in the final scene.
I don’t think it’s spoilers, if you’ve read this far, to say that the book doesn’t spend much time on the ‘Return’ section of Campbell’s story arc. After all, these are characters based on the Norse gods. They had no happily ever after… but their end was spectacular.
February 7, 2015 § 2 Comments
Ever since George Lucas introduced Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces to screenwriting, it’s had a profound influence — not just on the movie industry, but on fiction in general. A quick Google search will bring up thousands of pages about applying Joseph Campbell’s work to novels, short stories, and even television commercials. I love Campbell’s work and think its popularity is well-deserved, but for myself, I need a guide that’s a little more detailed.
I recently read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! and its sequels, and they’re certainly more formulaic — even algorithmic. You can start with nothing but a vague idea, a hook or a character; and by following his recipe, you’ll end up with a three-act movie, with every detail mapped out, and every minute charted and plotted. He practically hands you an invoice for the sandwiches for the extras.
But more importantly, Snyder tells you exactly why each act, scene, and minute is there, and how it serves the story. So if you decide you don’t want to tell a story exactly according to his formula, that’s fine — you’ll be able to break the rules responsibly. And you’ll know why movies and novels that don’t follow his formula usually fail, and sometimes succeed spectacularly.
A third book I found extremely useful was Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots. This monstrous tome, Booker’s labor of love and masterwork, is brilliant in most places, and not-at-all-brilliant in others. The first half (which I found most helpful) is a crash course in the greatest works of European literature, as he reviews everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Grimm’s folktales, Greek myths to Cervantes, and weaves from them a coherent tapestry of human experience. I think the title is somewhat misleading, because more insightful, I felt, was his identification of the great drivers of plot — the Monster vs. the Hero, the Light and Dark family members, and the characteristics of other non-protagonist characters.
I sat down a year or so ago and wrote up a ‘map’ that combined the insights of these books into a single framework, for my own reference. The major headings are Campbell’s framework, and under each I’ve noted the terms used by Snyder and Booker, and any further elaborations they’ve added. References to Family members (Dark Father, etc.) are archetypes used by both Jung and Booker, and I’ll lay out their details, and how they relate to each other, in another post.
February 7, 2015 § 1 Comment
There are only two kinds of plots in true science fiction: Science is a Hero, and Science is a Villain.
In Science is a Hero, there is some problem or other — an asteroid is going to hit the Earth, the Galactic Empire is falling, there’s a Plague IN SPACE!! — and the heroic characters unabashedly use Science to deflect the asteroid, restore Galactic civilization, cure the plague, and, not infrequently, have sex in zero-G. Ain’t Science great?
In Science is a Villain, Science itself is the problem. Science unleashes dinosaurs, Frankenstein monsters, unstoppable robot armies, murderous computers, super-soldiers, atomic horror, etc., and humanity has to fight them off. Sometimes humanity barely wins, at great cost. Other times we lose. Science makes a nasty Villain. Moral: Science sure can be dangerous, kids!
These two kinds of stories echo our ambivalent attitude towards technology, of course. Real life science has cured countless social ills and brought previously-unimaginable wonders, but it has also caused social upheaval and brought previously-unimaginable horrors. It’s no surprise that the stories that are most famous, the ones that keep us up at night, are the villain ones: HAL 9000, velociraptors, Terminator, the Matrix… The villains, the nightmares, echo most closely the demons we’re wrestling.
Man and Machine
John Henry isn’t usually considered a science fiction story, but in fact it’s one of the first. It’s a classic Science as Villain plot: the newfangled steam-driven hammer appears on the scene, threatening the jobs and livelihoods of the steel-driving men. Actually, it threatens not only their livelihoods, but their whole way of life. When it’s recalled that, just a few years before, most of those steel-driving men had been slaves, you can sense the undercurrent: the Rich White Fathers are going to replace their black slaves with machines, rather than pay them an honest wage and recognize their common humanity.
John Henry won’t stand for it: he’s going to beat that steam-driven hammer. And he does! But, of course, his heart bursts in the effort. The drill is broken, too, but it can be rebuilt. John Henry can’t be.
What’s the moral here? Perhaps it’s the same simple moral you find in a lot of Science is a Villain stories: it’s a cautionary tale. Watch out, folks! Turn your back on Science, turn your back on Knowledge, Meddle Not in Wot Man Was Not Meant to Know, etc.
But John Henry puts some fascinating twists on this simple Luddite message. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
For thousands of years, Western civilization has been living with a striking paradox. On the one hand, we are clearly physical beings living in a physical universe. And yet, we have these thoughts, feelings, dreams, and perceptions… They seem related to the physical universe, yet fundamentally different in character. We have an ‘inner’ life, which has its own colors and sounds and structure, operating under a whole different set of rules. In the physical world, I’m 3500 miles from where my body was born; but my mind instantly recalls the name of the state, county, and town where that happened, and gives the exact date and time. And yet, since I have no memory of the actual event, in a way my mind can never go there at all — it’s as though I can visit the post office box instantly, but never get to the house itself.
Mind and body seem so different that it’s almost as if they belong to separate worlds entirely. No doubt this is why it’s been so easy for so many people to believe in a ‘soul’, a mind that can be separated from the body and continue its life, in its inner world, long after the body has died — or even enter another body entirely. This despite the fact that the mind is obviously affected by physical events: it becomes sluggish and unfocused when the body is tired or sick, and it can lose memory or skills or even suffer a change of personality if the brain is injured or chemically affected.
Over time, two main camps have formed around this paradox. The first, as I’ve mentioned, believe that the soul or mind is separate from the physical body, and is fundamentally made of a different kind of stuff; and when the body dies, it moves on to some other realm, or finds another body. The second camp believes that the body creates the ‘mind’, perhaps analogously to the way a computer executes instructions in a computer program, or the way a flautist plays a melody. The mind — the ‘inner world’ — is generated by the brain and will come to an end when the brain stops working, just as a melody stops when the flautist puts down the instrument.
In ‘The Wakeful World’, Emma Restall Orr tackles this paradox, and (1) shows that both the solutions above are lacking in serious ways, (2) points out that there is another solution — indeed, a multitude of other solutions, which have been suggested at one time or another over the past few thousand years, and (3) offers her own take on the problem. In this article I’m mainly going to skip over (1) and (2), since there’s no way I could do Orr’s treatment justice, and instead briefly (and necessarily crudely) describe some aspects of (3) and look at some things that follow from it. In particular, Orr’s take not only leads to the idea that rocks think, but answers why human brains think differently from rocks, and gives a new view of the place of the human experience in the ecology of mind. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 6, 2015 § 1 Comment
In a series of posts a few years ago, I talked about the function of fiction. What is it for? What purpose does it serve? After all, it’s all a pack of lies — and what’s more, it’s lies that everyone knows are false. In that article I argued that fiction’s primary purpose was to change beliefs about how the world works. Even though it describes false events, the skillful author writes in such a way that the reader believes they could happen; and in doing so, can change the reader’s beliefs about what is possible, or the way the world works, or human nature. The readers of Tolkien may not end up believing in hobbits, but they may be more likely to believe in things like this:
- There is a guiding force to events, which works indirectly through seeming ‘chance’ or ‘happenstance’ (e.g. Bilbo’s finding the Ring; the manner of the Ring’s destruction).
- Despite this, people have free will, and the responsibility to choose wisely.
- Loyalty to one’s king and country is a great virtue, as is military service when necessary.
- Greed for power (and knowledge!) corrupts.
- The world was once much more beautiful and pure than it is now.
- Not all wrongs can be righted, but even tragedy can be beautiful.
Since then I’ve been thinking more about this, and I think I’ve found a perhaps more direct function of fiction. It’s a shamanistic technique, similar to meditation or trance, which actually operates directly on the reader’s subconscious or spiritual connections. « Read the rest of this entry »