Sunday, August 09, 2009

Imaginary book reviews

Once when asked why he didn’t write a novel, Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges responded that he had no patience to write anything more than a handful of pages long, never mind an entire novel. But he had such brilliant ideas, his questioner pressed—surely there must be something he imagined of novel length? To which Borges replied yes, of course. But on those occasions what he’d do is write a critical review of the novel he’d imagined.

This comment has been rattling around with me lately, because I go through periods when I get a surfeit of story ideas. These get jotted down in a notebook, perhaps with some plot points fleshed out or even some exploratory prose, but rarely anything beyond that. Story ideas are like tunes stuck in my head—they drive me crazy for a week or so, during which time some writing happens, but then they tend to be replaced by other things and I lose interest. This might not be an issue if I had ideas for short stories, for which I could conceivably bang out a draft, but alas I seem to think on a novelistic scale.

This is not to say I don’t return to these ideas and flesh them out a bit further at times, or that I don’t one day hope to actually make it all the way to the end of one of them and get something into print. But whatever people might think, writing fiction is really hard work, and it’s even harder to do it well (a lack of talent on my part may well also be a contributing factor—time will tell, perhaps). With the bulk of my time devoted to my, you know, day job, writing creatively becomes more of an occasional hobby for my own amusement.

Which is why Borges’ notion of the imaginary book review appeals to me. I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a second blog to outline and “review” these novels that bang around in my skull. Considering the number of ideas I’ve had, contrasted with the productive time I could spend on them, all to the power of my basic laziness, it’s pretty much a mathematical impossibility that I could write them all in my lifetime—I’d have to be Philip K. Dick or Philip Roth. And, well, Dick was crazy, and Roth strikes me as a bit of a dick. To say nothing of the fact that as abstract ideas or a couple of pages of point form notes, it’s hard to say whether they’d even be viable ideas.

At the same time, I do like many of my ideas, and wouldn’t mind sharing them.

Of course, there’s also the times when I read or watch something and see that I’ve been scooped. Ever since the first time I watched Independence Day, I’ve wanted to write something that would be a corrective to that film’s hokey and triumphalist utopian ending. The implied future the film leaves us with is one in which, having come together under American leadership to defeat the aliens, the human race looks forward to having all its rifts and conflicts resolved.

I imagined a dystopian novel set some eighty years after the victory (over an entirely different alien enemy, of course—I wouldn’t want Roland Emmerich demanding a percentage), humanity, much reduced in numbers by the alien attacks, resides in a series of fractured and contested geographical alliances. The feel-good honeymoon after the victory soon eroded into a race by vestigial nation-states to plunder the alien technology and thus gain advantage, militarily and otherwise. The asymmetry of technology has resulted in several extremely powerful groups, which exact tribute from neighbouring impoverished demographies for protection. Meanwhile, what aliens survived have been imprisoned and forced to educate humans about their technology.

I’d always liked this idea. And then the other day, I saw a trailer for Peter Jackson’s new film District 9. The premise seems to be—at least in part—that an alien species has arrived on Earth and have been effectively imprisoned. While the film’s broader theme is obviously about racism and the mistreatment of refugees, the trailer makes it clear that a big reason for their imprisonment is to force them to give up their technological secrets.

So, really quite different on the whole from my idea. But I still feel scooped.

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