Monday, December 14, 2015

Monday Excerpt: Half Seen, Half Felt

Now Playing: Sam Hulick - Wake Up (Mass Effect 3 OST)


In my first semester at university, I took a nonfiction creative writing course with a very awesome professor. I was really nervous and not yet used to workshops, so the work I produced for class at the beginning was pitiful. But I learned a lot. Even though getting an A- nearly killed me, I'm still proud of some of the essays I worked on and I still remember a great deal of the lessons.

One of the earliest things my professor talked about was abstract writing. At the time, he told us that quite often abstract writing is very much just bad writing.

And there's a lot of ways to take that and develop it, but it struck with me because it's something I and a lot of writers struggle with. Especially when writing about actual abstract things.

Writing is how people connect to each other. Great writing puts you in the mind of different people. It makes you feel and see things through words alone. So when you're writing about actual abstract things, it can be really easy to lose your readers. Clarity is essential. If they're unintentionally left thinking, "what the hell was that?" then your work has probably failed.

But really abstract, alien concepts are fascinating. And it's really admirable if a writer is able to elicit a particular concrete emotion or image through descriptions of things that aren't tangible.

This book, Dawn from the Lilith's Brood series, was the first novel I ever read from Octavia Butler. And it didn't disappoint. It's surprisingly uncommon to read about alien creatures and alien/human interactions that are actually strange and otherworldly and different. This book is disturbing because it wants to be. There's a great deal of control in the level of desperation the characters feel given their situation.

This part is particularly interesting in that it's discussing something that is abstract in every sense of the word. And yet it also manages to establish an odd but genuine emotional connection between two characters. (An alien and a human).

Spoilers for the end of the book.

"Approximate!" she demanded. "Trade! You're always talking about trading. Give me something of yourself!" 
The other ooloi focused back toward them and Nikanj's head and body tentacles drew themselves into lumps of some negative emotion. Embarrassment? Anger? She did not care. Why should it feel comfortable about parasitizing her feelings for Joseph--her feelings for anything? It had helped set up a human experiment. One of the humans had been lost. What did it feel? Guilty for not having been more careful with valuable subjects? Or were they even valuable? 
Nikanj pressed the back of her neck with a sensory hand--warning pressure. It would give her something then. They stopped walking by mutual consent and faced one another. 
It gave her. . .a new color. A totally alien, unique, nameless thing, half seen, half felt or. . .tasted. A blaze of something frightening, yet overwhelmingly, compelling. 
A half known mystery beautiful and complex. A deep, impossibly sensuous promise. 
The forest came back around her slowly and she realized she was still standing with Nikanj, facing it, her back to the waiting ooloi. 
"That's all I can give you," Nikanj said. "That's what I feel. I don't even know whether there are words in any human language to speak of it." 
"Probably not," she whispered.
- Dawn by Octavia Butler 


  1. Anonymous9:50 AM

    Tentacle seeex

    1. Even back then, Octavia Butler knew how to deliver to pervy sci-fi fans everywhere @_@


"Science and science fiction have done a kind of dance over the last century... The scientists make a finding. It inspires science fiction writers to write about it, and a host of young people read the science fiction and are excited, and inspired to become scientists...which they do, which then feeds again into another generation of science fiction and science..."
- Carl Sagan, in his message to future explorers of Mars.