Thursday, January 18, 2007

New Beginning 195

In the nineteenth century the search for life on Mars was a search for a new civilization, a power with whom to converse on equal terms, to learn from and compete against and accomplish great and memorable things by that exchange. By the end of the twentieth century the search for life on Mars had become the search for a chemical reaction. Nothing more. Just water and carbon acting in predictable ways. Life as a chemical reaction like it was for those senile zombies in the nursing homes. In the twentifirst century even that was abandoned. Any chemical reaction would do. Not water, but hydrogen peroxide would do.

Bartholomew Jones had had a life like that. The early high hopes had given way to trying to fit in, had then degenerated to just being alive by any definition. Survival at any cost.

But coincidence meant if he could not renew his ancient dreams he would at least be able to avenge them. His chemical reactions were no longer like theirs. There was no form of communion any more. Now, he needed only one more thing in order to have his revenge.

There was a knock at the door...

Bartholomew took the package handed to him by the tan-clad courier and ripped it open. Seratonin levels spiked in his brain. Dopamine levels plunged. He twisted the cap off the canister in the box and fingered the aluminum powder within. Senile he wasn't. Pathfinder had made a fatal mistake; had mixed water with Martian soil. Certain death to life that sparked in the presence of hydrogen peroxide. He wouldn't make that same mistake.

That night he parked his rented van under the Brooklyn Bridge. Only one way now to survive forever.

He began emptying bags filled with ammonium nitrate. Added the aluminum powder and a little zinc. Splashed on some diesel fuel. Threw in a handful of magnesium to make it biblical. And struck a match.

Some chemical reactions are as unproductive as the search for life on Mars.

Some ignite like a war of the worlds.

Opening: D Jason Cooper.....Continuation: Phoenix


jrmosher said...

EE: I use RSS Reader to keep up to date on your blog, and noticed that this is NB 194 but there was already a 194 the other day (beginning with "Death stood on the doorstep ...")

However, on the site I only see one link to 194, which is this one. What happened to the earlier one with the same number?

[ JRM ]

Evil Editor said...

I've changed the number of this one to 195. The old 194 was still there for me, three posts down. If you don't have it, let me know.

acd said...

Hi author,

I like the metaphor you set up here, but it might be more powerful if you left the reader to draw the similarities between Bartholomew's and NASA's diminishing expectations. I'd want to see more of it before I made any suggestions about the opening. The prose seems pretty competent. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I can't really say anything about this beginning. You didn't get far enough in your "150" to clue me in. That in itself may be bad. But, it could just be me. -JTC

Bernita said...

Would prefer your last sentence to be more active and less flat, ie. "The doorbell rang" or something similar.

jrmosher said...

Thanks, EE. I do see it now in the list of links, though I'd swear it wasn't there earlier when the numbers were the same. Perhaps I'm senile.

Speaking of which:

Author: Unless the search for Martian life is in some way central to the plot and will repeat as a theme throughout the book, I'd drop it as an opening.

Second paragraph is better, but it doesn't give any specifics. Who is this guy? What were his early high hopes? What happened to dash those hopes?

The third paragraph is confusing, again because of lack of specifics. What "coincidence"? Who are "they" and how is he now unlike them? Is he no longer human? I get the sense he's a vampire or some other non-human being with a very long lifespan (or else the word "ancient" doesn't quite work.)

All in all, I'd almost suggest you cut everything and start with the last line. Let Bart open the door and fill us in on his life later.

Continuation Author: Well done. You've not only kept on with the theme of Martian life and chemical reactions, but here we have specifics on which a story can be built: the contents of the package, the Brooklyn Bridge, a bomb in the making. Kudos.

[ JRM ]

Theo Katz said...

I thought the first paragraph was interesting, and I was a little disappointed when I got to the second paragraph and found out it was just an elaborate analogy to this guy Jones. Unless, as JRM said, we're going to see this theme again, it's out of proportion to its importance. (Also needs editing, e.g., "twenty-first").

If the line about "senile zombies" reflects Jones' inner monologue, he's a jerk and I don't know why I should care about his high hopes, whatever they might have been.

The third paragraph doesn't convey much information. This guy has a grudge against "them" because things didn't work out for him, and I guess it's payback time. Hey, a good revenge story can be fun, but at this point all I know is some guy, possibly a jerk, is about to get some unknown revenge against some nameless, faceless "them" for some unclear reason.

Phoenix: excellent job of maintaining the tone and style of the original.

Anonymous said...

You're uttering nonsense.

Sorry, that's my new tag-line. I actually liked it.

Anonymous said...

It's good that there are zombies in the story. I'd move them to the first few sentences of the query. Any eunuchs?

Dave said...

I read this early this morning and had to think about why it was familar.
It reminds me of the opening of HG Wells War of the Worlds

"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same."

And that's my problem with it. The the writing isn't as concise as Wells. There are sentences and words that need to be tightened up and made to point at the right place.

It's not too many words, it's not the precise words.

Xenith said...

I do want to change that first line:
"In the last years of the nineteenth century, the search for life on Mars was a search for a new civilization."

Prose seems a bit awkward and some of the commas have fallen out. I wonder if it's deliberate, in which case it would be discouraging to read.

GutterBall said...

Phoenix, I love you. Seriously. I don't love anyone -- perks of being heartless -- but I love you. Actually, I love explosives, but you'll do.

I'd probably read more of this opening, surprisingly enough. I think it's probably setting up a really amusing drop into the "real" world that Bart lives in. If done well, I'd buy it. If not...well, I'd be ticked and put it back and vow to never read anything by that author again.

Of course, I'd forget that vow as soon as I saw something shiny, but hey.

Anonymous said...

You used the mysterious "had had" expression which is just as odd as the "that that" which some people feel compelled to use. Amazingly, you can always drop one "had" and the sentence will not only mean exactly the same thing, it'll flow better. Likewise, there's never a need for a double "that". I think it's a dialect thing, people who double their "had" also commonly double "that" and the rest of us don't see the need. You'll probably notice your parents using these phrases, if you start listening for them.

pacatrue said...

I've been stewing over Anonymous 10:49's comments about "had had" and "that that". I don't believe it is a pure dialect thing in which those expressions are never needed but just happen to exist in a certain group of English speakers. A nice example of a true dialect thing is something like "might could" which only exists in parts of the American South. As in: I might could go to the store. In that case, most English speakers would just say "I might be able" or "I could".

With "had had" something else is going on, namely that you have two different verbs there in the verb complex which are both spelled and pronounced "had". So in "had had" the second verb is the past tense of "to have" indicating possession. "I had a crush on Emma Peel when I was young." The first "had" is an auxiliary verb which is used to form the perfective tense/aspect of the whole verb complex.

In "I had gone to the store" the auxiliary verb "had" works with "gone" to indicate that at some point in the past, the person had already gone to the store. This is different from "have gone" which says that from this point in the present, the person has already gone. My tenses aren't really that great, but I believe "had gone" is, then, the pluperfect form of "to go" and, as such, indicates a tense that no other version of "to go" indicates.

Similarly, "had had" is the pluperfect form of "to have" and if the author had simply used "I had a life" that means something different than "I had had a life". It's confusing, of course, because English uses the verb "to have" both as a main verb indicating possession and as an auxiliary verb. However, I do agree with Anonymous about the flow of "had had", i.e., it's often distracting, and it also isn't clear that the author truly wants the pluperfect form in this context, but I can't say without knowing the story.

Now, let's do "that that". Something similar is going on here, because English uses the word "that" in at least two different ways. The best example I could think of for a double "that" was something like this: And so EE told me that my query was so awful he vomited twice before he got to the end, and it was that that made me give up writing forever." I hope this is the sort of thing Anonymous had in mind. Anyway, in this example, the word "that" has two different functions. In the first "that", it's a demonstrative pronoun, and it refers to the entire act of EE recounting his vomiting. The second "that" is purely grammatical and is used to hook the subordinate clause "made me give up writing" to the main clause.

A more straightforward example of this type of "that" in use is a sentence like: The query that made EE blow chunks was mine. or... The continuation that is Ril's is always funny. In short, the "that that" construction is legit, and you can't always just drop one of them.

However, like before, stylistically "that that" can be confusing and so many people would just switch to "that which" as in: 'Did you read that mammoth comment from pacatrue about "had had" and "that that"? It was that which made me stop reading comments completely.'

Whew! A long comment that no one will read about a topic no one cares about. But now it's off my chest.

Kat dreams said...

Thank you pacatrue and anon. I noticed that I used "had had" once in my story. I did not like just using a single had in the sentence because it did not convey exactly what I wanted to express. Now I can see I just need to rewrite the sentence and not deal with my had had issue.


Anonymous said...

Amazing grammar essay, sir. Consider this:

Example: He had had a suspicion that that was bad.

You convey just as much information if you say:

He had a suspicion that was bad.
He once had a suspicion that it was bad.

But it's more dynamic and clarifying to cut all the hads and thats and say what you really mean:

He suspected Bud's check was bad.

pacatrue said...

Howdy, anonymous.

I agree that your revision is a better sentence stylistically.

However, I don't think:

"He had had a suspicion."
"He had a suspicion."
mean the same thing.

In the easier second case, we are stating that there is this person and he possessed a supicion which he either holds currently but gained in the past OR which he once had but might not still hold.

The former "had had a supicion" means explicitly that at some point in the past he had a suspicion, but that he no longer does. The fact that he doesn't any more - that the possession is completed - is the critical difference.

All of which, again, doesn't make me disagree with you that saying "he suspected" or "he had suspected" is better writing. My point is simply that there is a difference between the pluperfect and simple perfect tenses.

Jacklene Mynx said...

I had had an inkling that you had made up the "pluperfect" word but then I realized that that was the sort of discussion that English majors had had so much fun with in college. I was too busy dissecting flowers.