Archive for February 17th, 2003

2/17/03: What makes a terrorist, and story structure

Word count (outline and notes): 12239 Just finished reading Shoot the Women First by Eileen MacDonald. I read this partly to get a handle on Sienna, but mostly for Jason. I wanted an answer to the question Why does someone become a terrorist? My reading of the stories in this book is that, as a rule, they do so because they are wholly committed to the cause — that it seems more important than human life. Which is not to say that all terrorists are cold-blooded killers; many of the women interviewed in this book felt remorse about the people they had killed (some regretted the entire terrorist thing; others did not). But in general they felt that these deaths were necessary in order to make the serious changes in society they sought. Most of these women became terrorists in reaction to societal oppression expressed personally. For example, the Palestinian and Irish Republican suffered societal oppression of their entire people (their language prohibited, the loss of the right to assemble, etc.) as well as a personal expression of that oppression (both women were repeatedly forced to move from house to house as children — either forced to move by their oppressors or just trying to avoid them — and suffered constant physical intimidation by the Israelis/Protestants respectively). However, it was not any specific act of personal oppression that convinced them to take action. Rather, they cited these acts of personal oppression as examples of the suffering of their people as a whole. Their primary motivation was to rescue their people from domination rather than to redress personal offences. This is true even for the Italian and German left-wing terrorists who sought to radically change their own culture’s politics rather than to expel an invading culture. “Astrid Proll, a former member of the Baader-Meinhof gang, once described herself and her comrades as being ‘very well-armed social workers.'” The author makes much of the idea that these women gave up conventional motherhood (in some cases abandoning existing children) in favor of expressing maternal feelings for the Cause, and often felt a closer attachment to the Cause than to their lovers or husbands. Personally, and for purposes of the novel, I don’t think this is an expressly female trait. The point, I think, is that before you can kill, you must become attached to something that literally matters more to you than life itself. Another book I’ve been reading is The Making of Memento by James Mottram (a Christmas present from Kate’s brother). One problem I anticipate in the complex interleaved plot I have in mind is how to keep the reader from getting confused about when each individual chapter takes place. Mottram points out some of the tricks that director Nolan uses to keep the viewers oriented in Memento, including the scratches on Leonard’s face. Something that simple and visual is too subtle for a novel, I think, but what if Jason breaks his leg during the escape from the UN? That’s something that will influence his every action and will make perfectly clear whether a particular chapter takes place before or after that point.

1/22/03: Thoughts on politics and theme

I just finished reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and in it he points out that the most memorable novels emerge from the author’s strong convictions. “I feel it is beneficial to work in advance on the moral forces moving underneath your story, but I do feel that such work generally involves strengthening what the people in the story believe rather than what you, the author, may feel. … To avoid a preachy tone, it may be helpful… not to grapple with theme on a global scale, but rather first to examine individual scenes for ways in which they each can be made sharper and more impassioned.” Maas recommends an exercise: write down a character’s internal motivations for doing something in a particular scene, in order of priority. You will probably find that the most immediate motives (physical/emotional requirements) are at the top of that list, with higher motives (search for truth, thirst for justice, whatever) further down. Now try rewriting the scene with the priorities reversed: higher motives at the top, immediate motives at the bottom. “Motivating your characters according to higher values… adds passion to action.” But don’t overplay it. “Understatement and restraint are the watchwords.” How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey also suggests that you should have a theme, or mission statement, for your book. Several other writers about writing have said the same thing. Right now I’m thinking about how to incorporate my feelings about the impending Gulf War II into my novel-in- progress, without having it be “about” the war. I have in mind a theme along the lines of “don’t let yourself be railroaded by the mob” or “control of information is control of reality”. This is not a Message to be stuck into the book… it is a tool to help focus my attention as I outline and draft.

1/10/03: On reading Hacker Culture by Douglas Thomas

I’ve been thinking that this novel can comment on current trends in society, specifically the loss of personal privacy. In the world of the novel (If This Goes On) privacy as we know it will have completely evaporated. The young people will have grown up in this environment and will have a culture that seems very strange to their parents and grandparents (us; in 2051 I’ll be 90). Hacker Culture has a lot to say about the relationship between the Hacker Ethic (Information Wants To Be Free) and the secrecy technologies that the hackers of the 60s and 70s made possible and the hackers of the 80s and 90s made necessary. Speech recognition technology makes universal phone tapping possible, so attractive in fact that it’s nearly inevitable. The same technology makes widespread real-world eavesdropping a possibility; millions of tiny radio microphones, monitored by computer, could be scattered everywhere. In this world, the anti-Tauran terrorists/freedom fighters may adopt sign language to avoid being eavesdropped (is this plausible? yes, sign has not been the subject of nearly 100 years of human research as speech recognition has, and the Taurans don’t have or won’t share gesture-recognition technology). The irony is delicious. I’d also like to talk about the media, how they obscure reality and get things wrong. Not because of any kind of conspiracy, but through simple ignorance and arrogance. Example: there was a big media kafuffle about SATAN (Security Administrator Tool for Analyzing Networks), even though a less powerful version of SATAN had been available for years and it probed only well-known and easily-fixed security holes. But it was the right moment for a story about a horrid automated hacking tool so it took off. Another example is the misinterpretation of Al Gore’s “claim to have invented the Internet.” Once a bad idea takes hold it’s hard to stop. People are sheep. Feh.