“The Star” Write Up by Ash Haq

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Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” opens with the line, “It is three thousand light years to the Vatican”, which immediately pulls the reader in by meshing a pair of opposing subjects, astrophysics and religion, in a compelling way. This juxtaposition continues to carry the entire plot. Also, the beginning says a lot about the narrator immediately, as the Vatican is the first landmark on earth that comes to his mind.

So in theory, many components of this plot would be stereotypical for sci-fi: a team of scientists from earth travel through space and discover new worlds. However, what sets it apart is the narrator: basically a Jesuit priest on a spaceship. As you can imagine, that causes lots of internal conflict as he grapples with the way that the science in front of him contradicts Christianity, which was previously all he’d known. At some point we have all had to compare and contrast the two, and this common debate is portrayed here in a surreal and speculative way.

The first few passages mainly exist to show the dual nature of the narrator’s alliances. Again, it is established that he is grappling with this problem when he refers to the crucifix on his wall as an “empty symbol”, questioning his faith for the first time in his life. Obviously the crucifix is a symbol, but so is the Mark IV computer that it hangs above. They represent religion and science laid side by side in the narrator’s mind. Additionally, the other scientists are amused by his circumstances.

Another way Clarke makes the story more memorable is through imagery. One really powerful example is,

Even if the pylon above the Vault had been destroyed, this would have remained, an immovable and all-but eternal beacon calling to the stars.

This passage shows how the universe operates on a much smaller scale than we imagine, and the narrator’s discovery that the trivial events that consume our lives are practically insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Something else that’s pretty important is the description of the children playing on a blue beach in another galaxy before that planet was destroyed. It humanizes them so we understand that we are just as vulnerable to the volatile whims of the universe.

The narrative structure of the piece helps convey the theme. The priest varies whom he is talking to throughout the story. Sometimes it seems like he is thinking to himself, sometimes he addresses an unnamed “you”, other times St. Ignatius Loyola (the founder of the Jesuits), and finally he directly addresses God. This shows the escalation of his train of thought, which culminates in a direct statement of the theme:

Whether that race has done good or evil during its lifetime will make no difference in the end: there is no divine justice, for there is no God.

Some people will disagree with this message obviously but that’s okay.

Also, if you didn’t catch the meaning of the last line: the star of Bethlehem was actually the Phoenix Nebula they’d been studying. So the “star” that accompanied the advent of Christ, a symbol of new life, turned out to have destroyed a planet with civilizations in their prime. The irony of this situation is what closes the story.

I think something we can all take away from this piece is the way the author uses imagery. He chooses which phrases will resonate with the reader and only uses those, which is important for any writer to learn how to do. Also, I like how he was able to come up with a situation that literally sounds like a joke and take the plot to interesting and poignant places.

 

“The Hippies” Write Up by Dante Rose

The article “The Hippies” by Hunter S. Thompson is an extremely captivating meditation on a culture that once existed and the purpose it served (or didn’t) at the time. Throughout the article Hunter S. Thompson repeatedly states the Beat Generation directly leads into the Hippie Generation and the two movements share many parallels. He also states his opinions on the Hippie movement, both negative and positive and isn’t biased or condescending, he just told it how it was, he really paints clear and vivid picture here, and by using direct quotes from two polar opposite sides of the spectrum allows the reader to naturally form their own opinion (if one hadn’t already previously had an opinion on the matter). The pacing and style of this article is crafted masterfully and his wit and critical thinking and reflection are what really drives the piece and elevates it to such a high level. Everything he says ends up tying together in flawless cohesion. The way he talks about hippies isn’t making them out to be some kind of caricatures, it’s all laid out very human and very true. It’s great because Hunter S. Thompson was a prominent counterculture icon, yet he constantly criticized and questioned movements he was widely perceived to be involved in heavily. The world needed him to offer a different perspective and really think critically of what they’re doing and what they believe. He was actually really fucking smart and people just try to put him in this little box and be like: “oh was that that guy that like did all those drugs and shit?” No one really talks about how great of a writer he was, and this piece is a prime example of to how elegantly he could manipulate the human language and come at you with some thought provoking and revolutionary ideas.

“Small Pale Humans” Write Up by Edward Clarke

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Daniel Spinks’ “Small Pale Humans” was quite enthralling for multiple reasons, the first and foremost being the exquisite, unique, and frequent characterization. This story pits us with a main character who talks calmly of attempted suicide, leaving his ever-faithful wife, a character who speaks proudly of nearly hitting pedestrians in a parking lot at 47 miles an hour, a character who discusses ecstatically his dangerous, nearly-fatal, daily driving techniques, while still wanting to throw up when a drive-thru cannot complete his order, as well as seeming to love his wife incredibly in his own way. The character and his thoughts show so much about him, and all his failed exploits, his little moments of sadness like the crying while eating the Arby’s sandwich that it kind of skips over quickly, quietly, the story itself seeming embarrassed of his tears. This inspires such sympathy and pity in readers because that can easily be related too. Spinks also used imagery, less frequently than characterization, in wonderfully unusual and appropriate metaphors throughout the piece, most of which also serve as more characterization for the main character.

During my brief study of this piece, I realized that one thing I really admired about it was the author’s ability to make the story quite chaotic at one’s first glance, yet have it become wonderfully deep and beautiful as the reader studied it further. I sincerely wish to be able to develop this skill.

“Dentists Without Borders” Write Up by Thomas Graham

David Sedaris is an essayist who writes from personal experience. In this piece, however, he had more of a point than his other pieces perhaps have; and this point was well chosen because it pertains to something that effects all of us, which makes it more interesting to the reader so that we have more of an investment and interest in his story. Sedaris begins “Dentists Without Borders” with his antithesis about government healthcare plans; how the main argument with American healthcare was its effectiveness, claiming that European and Canadian healthcare systems were extremely unsatisfactory, to say the least. However, Sedaris refutes that argument with an anecdote about his life in Paris, where the healthcare was genuinely phenomenal.

There is a flip side to this serious note on healthcare; Sedaris seems to love to entertain; and I personally think he’s a very funny man, but that’s just my opinion, as well as the opinion of millions of other readers. This entertainment comes from his personality and his portrayal of other characters, or at least that is what I chose to track as I read “Dentists Without Borders.”

Firstly, Sedaris’ personality shines through with his exaggeration. He states that people seem to believe that Canadian healthcare is “genocide” and that European healthcare patients “languish on cots waiting for aspirin to be invented.” This can only be seen as exaggeration. As an American, I don’t think that Europeans wait for aspirin to be reinvented. However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate that Sedaris is trying to be funny, and at least in my mind he certainly succeeds. Additionally, Sedaris states that he wishes for his medical tests to have more gravity so that “for [his] fifty dollars, [he] wants to leave the doctor’s office in tears.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to cry at the doctor’s office. I’d rather be assured that I’m healthy. Therefore we know that once again Sedaris is joshing us, and once again we cannot help but laugh, at least a little.

Another point of Sedaris’ personality is revealed through his own thoughts and opinions. In the story, Sedaris becomes worried that a benign fatty tumor is really serious cancer. I know we’ve all had that feeling. Where there’s a slight discoloration on our upper lip and we automatically think it’s cancer, just like George from Seinfeld. This makes the piece a little more relatable to a wider audience, because we all know the feeling of when we think we have cancer even though it’s really nothing malignant. Also it’s a little funny to see in someone else the reactions we have to certain things, something slightly satirical. At another point in the piece, Sedaris questions if he saw “a diploma on his wall,” referring to his doctor whose first name might be “Doctor.” This sort of paranoia is a little more grounded because there’s been an unlicensed doctor taking care of him, and that’s the sort of thing that undermines his argument a little. Therefore, one might argue that his argument is more about the success of France’s dental healthcare and not just medical healthcare, but that’s left open to the reader, because you could also argue that Sedaris is alive today, so who can say that European healthcare is all that bad after all?

Finally, Sedaris establishes humor through his interpretation of other people. He gives his doctor something of a blasé attitude, for example his doctor says, “I don’t know. Why don’t trees touch the sky” in response to Sedaris asking him if his tumor will grow much bigger. That isn’t something you would want to hear from your doctor, but the way Sedaris presents it makes it humorous. Sedaris also gives his periodontist’s assistant Dr. Barras an interesting attitude. When Sedaris complains about the gaps in his teeth, Dr. Barras tells him he just has “Good-time teeth.” Dr. Barras kind of brushes him off, while normally in an American facility the doctor might try to take care of that because they would get paid more. But in Europe the medical profession seems to be a bit more carefree. This plays right into Sedaris’ hands. He tells us what people think about European healthcare, and he even gives it some validity, but by the end Sedaris tells us that he wants to go back to his doctors even if he doesn’t need anything done. Yes, medical professionals in Europe might not be as professional as they are in America, but they still get the job done without you having to pay $300, and their attitudes are fun.

In conclusion, there are many things to be gleaned from this fantastic piece. First we learned that a nonfiction piece can have a political point and that we shouldn’t be afraid to speak our minds based on our own opinions and stories, so long as they’re truly founded and aren’t just for the sake of chaos. Then we learned the importance of characterization and its key role in creating an interest for the reader. A plot can be interesting, but a lot of the time it’s the character that makes the story. If this piece were written by some journalist it might not be so interesting, but with Sedaris’ personality in it the story became extremely interesting and a good read. Additionally we learned how to properly balance the serious point of the story and the jocular way in which it is submitted to us. Finally, we learned that this sort of interesting story makes it have the capacity to make more change. Why would a person read a story if it’s uninteresting? Therefore any story that’s trying to make a point about society should be interesting, and that way people will want to read it and might take heed.

“The Bet” Write Up by Jeylan Jones

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In the captivating short story “The Bet” by Anton Chekov, a wealthy man holding a party gets into a heated debate about human rights with one of his guests. This leads to them making a bet, or as many said in Chekov’s time, a wager. A man younger than himself bet that he could spend 15 years in solitude with only simple things like cigars and writing letters to entertain him. He was, however, not given any contact with the outside world. He couldn’t see people, receive letters from them, etc. the stakes a whopping $2 million. The man thrives for almost all 15 years before dropping out because he found humanity stupid and didn’t want something as frivolous as money.

What I found particularly compelling about this story was not only the outrageous yet realistic plot, but the balance between quantity and quality of details. He spends not too much or too little, but just enough time on each detail before moving on to the next description, which is very numerous. He has a lot of details in his piece and instead of having a few details and stopping to examine every little point, he goes the less poetic route and incorporates many details and only spends about a sentence on each, which to many, makes it feel a lot more like a short story. Basically, the more abundant fine points described fairly well in the story gave me more of a complete picture than describing a few things to the point of exhaustion.

I also find the dynamic “young, ambitious, male antagonist” character an interesting archetype. This is a particularly intriguing character because he’s an antagonist who isn’t so much as casted as mean or evil but simply going against the main character, who, in fact, seems to be the cruel one, similar to the 2004 movie “Catwoman.” On that note, I would like to point out how refreshing it is to see the story from the point of view of a character who is a total Jefferson (jerk). The main character is 95% of the time made out to be a selfless hero, and the villain evil, but Chekov’s story was unique because the protagonist was the mean one and the antagonist seemed like a normal young man.

What can I find to imitate or use in my own writing? Good question. I can learn to duplicate the density of his content. Like I said, Chekov is very good at fitting the right details in the right places and knowing how long to drag them out before starting a new thought. This makes the piece flow more gracefully and evenly disperse description throughout the story. I’d like to work on that instead of focusing on one point and merely brushing against parts just as important like I sometimes do.

“The Things” Write Up by Olivia Elmers

The entirety of Peter Watts’ “The Things” is brilliantly done, but the best part is inarguably the main character itself.  One of the hardest parts of creating a character is making the end result interesting and possible to empathize with.  This is easier with character types people are already used to, such as heroic protagonists who share a reader’s values, and it’s especially difficult to accomplish with characters with completely alien mindsets and histories.  And yet, even though the protagonist of “The Things” is a literal alien who doesn’t believe in individuality or stasis, Watts manages to make the reader understand how its mind works and even empathize with it to an extent despite how divorced (hopefully) it is from the way someone reading it thinks.  The first person perspective is the main factor behind that, but also helping it along are the nonlinear chronology which shows the progression of the main character’s understanding of the world it’s stranded itself in rather than the progression of the physical story, how the story is told nearly entirely through the alien’s thoughts with barely any intrusions from the outside world, and the way Earth is glimpsed only through the alien’s point of view—in seeing the alien trying to understand how Earth works, it’s possible for a reader to understand the alien in turn.

“Dark Matter” Write Up by Angelica Atkins

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In the story “Dark Matter” by B. J Novak, I highlighted imagery and characterization. The story is driven by the character and the choices he makes, and while the author doesn’t use that many images, the ones that he does use are interesting in their context. Everything that does happen happens in first person, so the images he does note are the ones that are important to him.

I’m sure you all read it, as it is only four pages and highly entertaining. The plot is entirely driven by the main character (he doesn’t get a name), which I thought was interesting because I usually have outside of the narrator drive the plot. The first thing I thought of while reading this was that the character is my soul animal, as he has a sarcastic outlook on life and sees right through people.

This brings me to characterization. The first thing I got was that the narrator was condescending to the other people on the tour of the planetarium, and that he could see right through the scientist leading the tour. He can tell the scientist knows more because of the “smirky little smile on his fat smug face” which is an image as well. It’s not a great image, but I could picture it. He wants to know more, so gets the scientist alone and forces him to spill. He (the narrator) is very driven, and when he wants something, he gets it. He’s very driven throughout the four pages that I got to know him, and as I said before, he completely drives the plot.

Now onto images—the few that I got described the scientist, his office, and the stairs. The images play in with the way the story was told, as I cannot imagine this character going into a long-winded description comparing something to the sea and so on. The way he tells it, if he went metaphorical it would stick out like a splinter. The images that he does give describe the fat, smug scientist, the stairs, and the doorknob. It feels like it was spoken aloud at a party for laughs and someone wrote it down. I liked that he noticed the doorknob, which I have repeated three times now, it must be important, but the fact is that it isn’t, which makes me love the story even more. It’s the only good color that’s given, which I liked. The other images are the scientist’s smile and his fat hand, which show how self-important the narrator sees him as.

What I really loved about the piece was that it was rather like a fable in that the character chooses friends over the secrets of the universe. The factor that makes this not a children’s story is the language, although I think we can all handle that now. What I want to take away from this piece is the character motivation, that the character has to make a choice and may or may not be happy about it. I also like the continuity—the character is always in character, the situation is not fantastic, and the character stays human. His motivations are always clear, something I need to work on for my characters.

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