Can Anybody Write a Book?

A couple of weekends ago, scouring Twitter, I came across an interesting Tweet by a fantasy writer named Sara Scarlett:

I’m going to both agree and disagree with her here. I think that if somebody’s response to your news that you finished a book is “anybody can do that,” they’re an asshole and they are downplaying your achievement. That said, I think the truth of the matter actually is that anybody can write a book and it does writers well to embrace that fact.

First, we need to define some terms. When I say “anybody can write a book,” I don’t really mean any particular human on the planet. Some people, due to physical or mental limitations or educational deficiencies, won’t be able to read a book, much less write one. So, for “anybody” in this discussion, read “anybody who wants to and has a minimum skill set to do it.” That said, the “book” we’re talking about is defined pretty expansively – it doesn’t mean “good,” it doesn’t mean “best seller,” and it doesn’t mean “beloved by a small but passionate fan base.” It means a book – a collection of tens of thousands of words that tells a story. Leave quality judgments out of it.

With that said, it should be pretty clear that anybody can write a book. There’s nothing about writing a book that is inherently difficult – you put words on a page, you do that some more, and, eventually, you have a book. What matters most when it comes to writing is that you actually sit down and write. Orders of magnitude more people will start to write a book than will finish it, but there’s nothing mystical about the ones who finish – they just keep working. The same is true for any art, really – for most folks, it’s more perspiration than inspiration.

There’s another question, somewhat related, that I’ve seen elsewhere on the Internet, which is “can writing be taught?” This seems like a question with an obvious “yes” answer, but it hints at something deeper about creative endeavors. You can learn the skills necessary to do just about anything, but you still need the creativity to be able to do something interesting with it.

One time, my wife and I did one of those “drink wine and paint a picture” things, which we really enjoyed. I immediately analogized the blending of paints to create certain colors and effects with the way you blend and sculpt sounds on a synthesizer. I was enthusiastic that I could add this creative element to my arsenal – my wife even got me some painting supplies for Christmas. I never did anything with them. Not because I wasn’t excited by the process, but because the creative spark never came. I couldn’t figure out anything to do visually, the way I get ideas for stories or rhythms and melodies pop into my head. But could I bear down and crank out a painting? Sure, but would anybody care about it?

Ultimately, that’s why someone saying, “oh, anybody can write a book” can sound so hurtful. It’s usually said by someone who’s never even tried to do it, much less accomplished it, to someone whose passion, creative drive, and tenacity resulted in a work they’re proud of. They probably gave up time with friends and loved ones while working on it. They bled for it (metaphorically – I hope) and this is the reaction they get?

You know what? Fuck those people. It’s probably true that anybody can write a book. It’s also true that most people won’t even try. You did and you succeeded. Take pride in that and move on to the next one. Keep on working.

Getting Creative In Court

Lawyers, in general, write a lot in their work. I write even more, given that I specialize in appeals and other sorts of post-conviction cases. Over the two-plus decades I’ve been doing this, I like to think I’ve developed a good skill with words, with creation of sentences and paragraphs that convey meaning and argument while still being a pleasant read. The days of legal writing filled with “heretofore”s and meaningless Latin phrases (seriously, if you see any sentence with “inter alia” in it, cross it out and tell me how that sentence is any different) are long gone, thankfully.

Still, there’s only so much creativity you can squeeze into legal writing. For one thing, you’re limited by the realities of the facts in your case (particularly in an appeal) and you can’t really beef up the plot or characters of you brief to make them more persuasive. For another, you have to consider the audience. The truth of the matter is that judges (and their clerks) are busy, have countless things to read on a daily basis, and are interested in being persuaded as quickly and clearly as possible. An appellate brief is no place to play with the form of words and sentences, to be coy about meanings, or to roll out mysteries for readers to ponder.

That’s one of the reasons I started writing fiction, especially fantasy. What better escape from the horrible facts of real life cases than worlds where I get to make up anything I wanted to? Strange new worlds! Interesting creatures! Cultures and histories never before imagined! This is where my creativity gets to thrive, not in court.

Right? Maybe not, if I could draw anything beyond a stick figure.

Third Planet Sci-Fi and Fantasy Superstore is a comic book and related merchandise business in Houston. From the Google Street View image you can see that it’s a wide, one-story building next to a busy street. You may also notice that it’s next-door neighbor is a high-rise Crowne Plaza hotel that towers over the place.

Third Planet is suing its neighbors because . . . well, because there tend to be a lot of assholes staying there. According to a third (!) amended petition filed in state court, hotel guests frequently make use of the hotel’s open-air balconies and fire escape to “throw all manner of projectiles off those landings and onto Third Planet’s roof and parking lot. It goes on to describe one particular day:

On or about March 3, 2019, matters escalated to a new level of destruction. Hotel guests, residents, tenants, patrons, customers, or visitors launched at minimum fourteen large metal-canister fire extinguishers from the Hotel onto Third Planet’s roof and parking lot. The canisters landed on the roof with explosive impact. This caused significant compromise to the structural integrity of the roof. In sum, the roof was irreparably damaged.

The next paragraph simply says: “Then came the rain.”

Pretty compelling stuff, right? Nonetheless, according to the petition, the defense “has previously filed special exceptions, complaining that it could not sufficiently understand the claims and allegations against it.” So what does Third Planet’s counsel do? They write a comic book to lay out everything.

Over the next 13 pages, the comic tells the story of Third Planet, its bowling champion owner TJ Johnson, and the store’s history in Houston. As for those flying fire extinguishers? Well . . .

The whole complaint is here, with the comic part starting at page 6. It’s a bold brilliant move and, without knowing anything about the actual legal merits (property law is not my specialty), I hope Third Planet wins and wins big.

Bold as it is, Third Planet’s resort to visual aids in a pleading is not unprecedented.

A comment to the Volokh Conspiracy post that brought this to my attention pointed to an article from the ABA Journal in 2012 where a lawyer did something similar in federal court.

The case involved the United States’ antitrust complaint against numerous publishers for fixing ebook prices and an attorney wanted to file an amicus (friend of the court) brief taking issue with some of the Department of Justice’s positions. He originally filed a 24-page motion with a 29-page proposed amicus brief attached. The court said he could file an amicus brief, but it could be no longer than five pages.

Which he did, taking a more comic strip approach:

The comic complied with all the usual formatting rules for pleadings in that district (font size, margins, etc.), but that didn’t keep the US Attorneys working on the case from dealing with it without a lot of effort (and the settlement they were seeking was eventually approved). Still, it was pretty clever (you can read the whole five pages here).

Like I said, making your argument in pictures is a pretty bold gambit (easier to do when you’re not actually representing a client). If it works, it’s brilliant. If the judge takes offense, thinks somebody’s diminishing the process, it can be a disaster. Come to think of it, probably for the best that I steer my wilder impulses into fiction.

One Album to Rule Them All!

At my dayjob office there’s a whiteboard and bulletin board back near the break room. After a few years, one of our administrative folks has found its best use – asking questions of the staff about the important questions in life. Things like “what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” or “if you could wake up one morning an expert in anything, what would it be?” Now, she’s come up with a question that, as she correctly warned me, is a real stumper:

If you could only listen to one album for the next year, what would it be?

Between my musical geekiness and my penchant for over thinking things, my mind’s been working overtime since the question came up. I think I’ve come up with a decent answer – here’s how I got to it.

It quickly occurred to me that there are two questions you have to ask before you start evaluating answers for a question like this. It has to do with getting the most out of whatever you select.

The first is, do you go for something that’s a stone cold favorite or something more mysterious? The case for the favorite is obvious – you want to listen to something you like, if it’s all you’ve got for a year. But there’s also a risk – would listening to any favorite album for a year cause you to sour on it? Get so sick of it you’d never want to hear it again? Something less familiar, or more dense, might be more rewarding over multiple listens.

I didn’t let this issue detain me very much. While I toyed with the idea of choosing something like Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (Ambient 1), as its details would surely be sharpened by lots of repeated listening, ultimately I decided that if I have to listen to only one thing for a year, I want it to be something I really love. A lot of my favorite albums I’ve known for years, if not decades, and I’m not yet tired of them. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

The second, and more difficult question, is one of quality versus quantity. Favorite albums might not be very long, might not provide the best bang for your buck, so to speak. But longer ones might not be as good. The best example of this in my collection, probably, comes from Zappa. My favorite Zappa album is probably Roxy & Elsewhere. While originally a 2-LP release, we’re talking about Frank’s 1970s stuff, so the sides are short and it sits comfortably on a single CD. Läther, on the other hand, is a 3-CD release of what was originally intended to be an 8-sided album. It’s crammed full of music, full of variety and skill, even if it’s not my favorite. Which to pick?

In the end, I decided to go with the “more is more” philosophy, at least to an extent. It was made easier by the fact that bands in the 1970s would produce fairly short (by standards of the CD era I grew up in, at least) studio albums, and then release multi-disc live albums. Those albums often cover a lot of ground and sometimes do it with versions that improve on the original studio recordings. With that in mind, it came down to two choices.

The first was Yessongs, the first live Yes album.

This is one of those “if you only own one album by a band, buy this one” kind of albums. Originally three LPs (it fits on two CDs) and recorded after Close to the Edge, it really captures the band at its prime. It includes all three songs from that album, as well as most everything important from Fragile and The Yes Album. More than that, lots of the live versions of those songs are bangers. What’s not to love? Well, a couple of things. First, it doesn’t touch at all on either of the band’s first two albums, which have some gems. Second, the main thing missing from Fragile is “South Side of the Sky,” which is my favorite track on that album. Finally, there’s a lack of Bill Bruford on this release. Drummer Bruford left Yes after Close to the Edge to join King Crimson and he’s only on a couple of tracks. His replacement, Alan White, took over the drum stool for good (having worked with some nobody named John Lennon previously), which is saying something for a band whose membership rivals Spinal Tap (or King Crimson!) for turnover. He’s a great player, but I like Bill better and these are “his” tunes.

The other contender was another live album (originally a double LP, still a double CD), Seconds Out by Genesis.

As you might expect from the title, this is the second live album from Genesis and is the swan song of the prog era. Peter Gabriel was already gone and Steve Hackett was on his way out the door and the band was about to reshuffle into the pop/prog trio that conquered the world in the 1980s and 1990s. It focuses on the albums released since Live, but that’s still prime real estate – Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, A Trick of the Tail, and Wind and Wuthering. It also dips into the further past for the main oversight of Live – the side-long epic “Supper’s Ready.” That starts off disc two with a bang that never lets up – side four of the original LP release contains the definitive versions of “Cinema Show” and “Dance on a Volcano/Los Endos.” That whole disc is one of my very favorites. Down sides? Well, there’s only one track from Wind and Wuthering, which is odd since it was the newest album at the time. And, although it’s apocryphal to say that Hackett was “mixed out” since he was leaving the band, it’s not the strongest of his albums with the band.

In the end, there was only one solid choice – Seconds Out. Much as I love Yes, Genesis may be my all time favorite band (certainly during the Gabriel/Hackett years) and if I could only listen to one thing for a year, wouldn’t that be it?

Widows of the Empire – Coming November 10!

So remember when I said I hoped to see the end of a particular tunnel by the time July rolled around?

Well, guess what?

Widows of the Empire, book two of my Unari Empire Trilogy is finished and I’m shooting to release it on my birthday, November 10! Of this year!

Okay, so not quite finished, but the main text is done. Needs formatting and a couple of final flourishes, but, barring tragedy, you’ll be able to reach more of Aton and Belwyn’s adventures as the Unari Empire begins to come apart this fall.

Gone Editin’

 Since it’s now summer and time for a break anyway, I’m going to step away from the blog this month to concentrate on getting Widows of the Empire in nearly-final form. Got beta-reader feeback to work through so hopefully, come July, I’ll be able to see the end of this particular tunnel. Also there’s, like, a shit ton of soccer coming this month, including the start of the delayed Euros and the conclusion of the CONCACAF Nations League. So, you know, I have obligations.

Until then, these two will be keeping an eye on the shop.

Don’t take advantage, ‘kay?

When the Character Has No Deep Dark Secret

There’s been a lot of press recently about the 20th anniversary of the release of Shrek and its impact on the culture. One of the most memorable parts of the movie is when the main character explains that ogres are like onions, as they have layers. It’s more than a nice message about not judging people for their looks, though. It suggests that fictional characters are supposed to be the same – they should have layers that peel away the more time we spend with them. Some of them, maybe most of them, wind up with deep dark secrets that motivate their actions or hold them back.

So what happens when you find a character that has no layers at all? The surface they project to the world is exactly who they are. How do you handle a character like that?

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is, in one way, a movie about Mr. Rogers. With a title like that, how couldn’t it be? But in a more accurate way, it’s not about him at all. The main character is a (fictional) writer sent to do a short puff piece on the children’ TV legend. Cynical, bitter, and having just had a drunken punch up at a wedding, he’s the one with layers.

Mr. Rogers is . . . well, he’s Mr. Rogers. He’s kind and patient and he cares about this guy’s well being. The writer is an investigative journalist, so he (and, by proxy, the audience) thinks that some dark reveal is just around the corner. Surely Mr. Rogers will curse like a sailor in private or abuse his staff in petty ways or something like that. Nope. All we see of him is that he’s a nice, kind guy and that’s all there is to it. Not at all like this:

That made Mr. Rogers great guy. It doesn’t make him a great character to build a movie around. That’s why he’s not the lead in the movie that’s practically named for him.

There’s an interesting comparison here to the Showtime series Kidding, which stars Jim Carey as a children’s TV icon named Mr. Pickles. He is very much the main character of this story and, as expected, he has layers that the series digs into as it goes along – he suffers from a kind of stunted development, his marriage dissolves after the death of a child, etc. It’s funnier than it sounds (in a very dark way), but it has what you’d expect out of a central character.

Which is what makes A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood such a nifty work of leger de main. It is undeniably Mr. Rogers’ movie (as played by Tom Hanks, again, how could it not be?), but it can’t be about him, right? So let another character be our focus, our entry into that world, and let the rest seep in around the edges. Which it does, in spades. Bottom line is, a movie about Mr. Rogers that isn’t really about Mr. Rogers has no business working as well as it does. It’s something to consider when planning out stories.

And I have to say, every time I think of Mr. Rogers this is actually what jumps into my head. I blame my brother, Todd, who does, indeed, play the bass:

Why “The Cold Equations” Is Still Horribly Plausible

Netflix recently released a new sci-fi flick, Stowaway. The trailer gives you a sense of what it’s about:

A spaceship on the way to another planet, finite resources, and an extra person. It’s the classic lifeboat problem IN SPAAACCCEEE!! FYI, expect spoilers from here on out if you’re worried about that kind of thing.

Stowaway also owes a lot to “The Cold Equations,” a 1954 short story that’s one of the most talked about in the history of science fiction. The release of Stowaway has lead to another round of reevaluation of the story, although there are some pretty big distinctions between the two.

Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of “The Cold Equations”:

The story takes place entirely aboard an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) headed for the frontier planet Woden with a load of desperately-needed medical supplies. The pilot, Barton, discovers a stowaway: an eighteen-year-old girl. By law, all EDS stowaways are to be jettisoned because EDS vessels carry no more fuel than is absolutely necessary to land safely at their destination. The girl, Marilyn, merely wants to see her brother Gerry and was not aware of the law. When boarding the EDS, Marilyn saw the ‘UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!’ sign, but thought she would at most have to pay a fine if she were caught. Barton explains that her presence dooms the mission by exceeding the weight limit, and the subsequent crash would kill both of them and doom the colonists awaiting the medical supplies. After contacting her brother for the last moments of her life, Marilyn willingly walks into the airlock and is ejected into space.

The thrust of the story is that the EDS is designed to do a particular job in a particular way and the additional variable of a stowaway wrecked all that. Physics, the “cold equations” of the title, mean that’s a problem and there’s only one solution.

While those same equations play a role in Stowaway, it’s really quite a different story. For one thing, the “stowaway” of the title really isn’t. He’s an engineer who wound up on the ship by accident. He did not intentionally sneak on like Marilyn in “The Cold Equations.” It puts him on a completely different ethical/moral footing. Another important distinction is that the problem in Stowaway that creates the drama is a mechanical malfunction, not just the presence of an additional person on the ship. Again, it changes the moral calculus. Most importantly, the eventual sacrifice is completely different – a crew member in Stowaway sacrifices herself to save the rest of the crew, whereas poor Marilyn has to take the task on herself.

That said, things are close enough to make mention of “The Close Equations” understandable (it even comes up in this really interesting video from one of the science advisors on Stowaway) and it’s always worth revisiting classic works. However, a lot of the criticisms of “The Cold Equations” always struck me as a bit off.

Lots of people who read “The Cold Equations” want to change it somehow to create a happy ending. There’s lots of criticism (much of it summarized here) of the entire setup, both of the fine margins in the EDS which subjects it to not having any room for error and for the society that would not go to greater lengths to keep someone like Marilyn from sneaking on in the first place. Surely they’d do more than put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT,” right? They’d place armed guards or design the EDS with more room for error? Why wouldn’t they do that?!?

For a certain idea of science fiction, I can see where these criticisms are coming from. For some folks, sci-fi is a genre of positivity or showing people overcoming odds and crises through knowledge, ingenuity, and hard work. David Brin is famously an exponent of this theory of sci-fi, which excludes things like dystopian fiction as “sci-fi” since it doesn’t have a positive, “go humans!”  message.

Thing is, humans are often awful to each other and that is sometimes reflected in sci-fi, too, as it should be. Anyone with a passing familiarity with history would know that the corner cutting that leads to tragedy in “The Cold Equations” are really plausible. That summary of criticisms I linked to above notes this history, but presumes that it’s just that – history, something we’ve moved passed as a species. Sadly, it isn’t. After all, if laws passed to ensure safe working conditions have been on the books for the past century or so, how could 29 coal miners die in an accident in the 21st century caused largely by ignoring and working around those law? Laws don’t get followed or enforced just because they’re on the books, not when the bottom line is at stake.

This really came into sharp focus for me recently when I was reading Midnight In Chernobyl, Adam Higginbotham’s excellent book on the 1986 meltdown in the Soviet Union. One of the reasons the disaster happened is that the RBMK-type reactor was an inherently flawed design. Experts had said it was flawed for years. Indeed, in 1975 a similar accident happened in another nuclear plant that highlighted this design flaw. Did they redesign the reactor? No. Did they move on to an entire new design? No. Did they rewrite the manuals and assume human beings would react rationally if the same thing happened again? YES! In other words, they decided to put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT” instead of spending extra money to fix the problem.

The same dynamic is evident in Stowaway. Lots of people talking about the movie complain that NASA would never allow this problem to happen. The oxygen problem is similar to what happened to Apollo 13, so wouldn’t NASA know to have backups on board? Problem is, the mission in Stowaway isn’t run by NASA, but by a company called Hyperion. More to the point, there are bits of dialog that suggest that Hyperion is not beyond cutting corners in order to save money. Should space travel work that way? No. Does history suggest it could? Absolutely. We may progress to the point where such thinking doesn’t happen, but we’re a long way from there (if we ever reach it).

As for Stowaway as a movie – if you can swallow the setup it’s pretty good. How the stowaway got on board is never satisfactorily addressed (leading to a lot of people to assume it was intentional, which really doesn’t fit the film), but once you’re beyond that things greatly improve. The performances are all good. The filmmakers made a choice to keep the action entirely focused on the four people on the ship, to the point that we don’t even hear the other side of conversations with ground control, much less see any of them grappling with the problem. I found that this reinforces how cut off the ship was, how on their own they were, and was very effective. The ending just kind of is there, but it would have been hard to go much further without changing the vibe of the thing. Worth a watch, certainly.

What Makes a “Heist” Story, Anyway?

One of my semi-regular podcast listenings is The Rewatchables from the folks over at The Ringer. In each episode they take a deep dive (sometimes too deep – the episodes can tend to sprawl) into a movie that they can watch over and over again. It’s good fun if they’re talking about a movie you’re familiar with.

Recently, they did an episode on the 2006 film Inside Man. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster (among others), it’s about an elaborate bank robbery that’s about much more than money.

What really got me thinking, though, was the introduction to this episode, where they talked about “heist” movies and how great they were. No argument from me – but is Inside Man really about a heist? What makes a heist, and therefore a heist story, anyway?

Maybe Inside Man fits, if we’re just going by dictionary definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines heist as “a hold-up, a robbery.” Far be it from me to disagree with the OED, but at least when it comes to storytelling, “heist” means something quite different than “robbery.”

I should say here that when I think of robbery I’m thinking of it in the legal sense that I deal with everyday – that is, the taking of property from the person of another by use or threatened use of force. Other thieving is something different. Think of it this way – if I go into a bank and point a gun at the teller, I’m committing a robbery; but if, as an employee, I secretly steal money without anybody noticing, I’m committing embezzlement. Both felonies, but quite different from one another.

The distinction, for me at least, comes down to brute force. A robbery can be elaborate and kinetic and exciting – think the beginning of The Dark Knight – but, at the end of the day, it’s “your money or your life.” It’s simple, effective, and brutal. “Heist” conjures up something more clever, more deeply thought out. It’s about getting the object of the robbery without the violence. It’s a better, more elevated, kind of crime, if you will.

I’m thinking of things like The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels. Those movies are about the scheming to pull off the job, not just rolling up with guns and forcing people to do your bidding. To be sure, sometimes the scheme goes sour and the heist goes bad, so I suppose it’s a question of intent. If the thieves are trying to get away with it without using violence, it’s a heist. Otherwise, it’s not.

There are also things that don’t fit in either category. There’s a new(ish) Neflix documentary called This Is a Robbery about the 1990 theft of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston in which over $500 million worth of art was taken. On the one hand, it involved a clever ruse – the thieves posed as Boston cops and got in by saying they were responding the report of a break in. On the other hand, they tied up the two night security guys pretty violently, so there’s that. Is that a heist story or not? Honestly, I’m not sure.

As I’m writing this I’m watching/listening to a 2017 in-studio performance by Monobody, a band whose music is really hard to classify. In one of the interview breaks the guitar player talks about genre labels as a necessary label, since they help people talk about things like art. But, ultimately, they’re meaningless when considering whether any piece of art is enjoyable or not. So whether I think a story is a heist story or not is irrelevant.

And I’m completely will to admit I’m full of shit about this. Such is life.

Weekly Read: The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – A Tragedy In Three Acts

What if the CIA hasn’t been a bad idea all along? That’s the theory underpinning The Quiet Americans, a look at the early days of the agency and its roots in World War II. Fascinating and detailed as the book is, I’m not sure I completely buy Scott Anderson’s thesis that if the guys on the ground would have been allowed to do it their way things might have worked out better.

Telling even part of the history of the CIA is a sprawling affair, which Anderson does by focusing on four early agency operatives, all of whom came out of the hastily assembled intelligence groups the United States used during the war. This Washington Post review summarizes them well:

Frank Wisner, the first chief of the CIA’s covert-operations unit, provides a top-down view of the early Cold War, while Michael Burke, a jack-of-all-trades charmer, delivers an agent’s experience from the ground up. The German émigré Peter Sichel, the most intriguing and least known of Anderson’s characters, spends most of his time in Berlin and Eastern Europe, while Edward Lansdale, the best known of the four, traipses through the Philippines. Lansdale gives the book its title, borrowed from Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” rumored to be based on Lansdale’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. An early adopter in the emerging field of “psychological warfare,” Lansdale would become best known for his clandestine scheming in Vietnam, but Anderson captures him at an earlier moment, as a young man grappling with the moral and logistical complexities of foreign intervention — more “Lawrence of Asia,” as his nickname suggested, than Dr. Strangelove.

What the CIA eventually becomes – a black hole out of which clandestine operations toppled governments and propped up dictators – has an origin story in Anderson’s telling. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Soviets treated the areas of Eastern Europe they liberated less as newly freed lands than as conquered territories. They installed puppet regimes, stripped resources, and even hauled people away to work in the Soviet Union in scenes reminiscent of the transport of Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. This was evil, without a doubt, but it was also a kind of fait accompli and there wasn’t anything short of another war that the US and its allies could do about it.

With Eastern Europe locked up, US foreign policy eyes turned toward what was now being called the Third World. The problem was that the thing that gave the Soviets such leverage in Europe – geographical proximity and boots on the ground – didn’t apply in Asia, Africa, or Central and South America. More to the point, populations in these areas often had legitimate grievances arising from generations of colonial rule. Instead of recognizing and working with that anger, the US saw everyone who didn’t toe their line as communists and battled against them accordingly.

A large part of Anderson’s story is about how the four titular quiet Americans came to become disillusioned with the CIA’s work. Part of that came from the abandonment of two American ideals in the name of fighting communists. The first was rejecting the anti-colonial position of the Roosevelt administration in favor of helping Cold War allies prop up their failing empires. This was always a bit hypocritical – we’ve got our empire, too – but siding with, say, the French in Southeast Asia over local independence movements only proved to the locals that if they wanted outside support it wasn’t coming from the Americans. Most spectacularly, this led to the morass that was the Vietnam War.

The other guiding principle that the US let slide in the name of fighting communism was a commitment to democracy. Two of the early CIA’s successes were orchestrating coups in Iran and Guatemala that deposed popularly elected leaders that were perceived as problematic. In Iran it was more down to British oil interests than anything else, while in Guatemala the CIA managed to turn an elected president who was, at most, a little left leaning into a communist scourge who had to be stopped at all costs (though Moscow didn’t even know who he was).

If ditching those principles were strike one and two, then the third was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For most of the Cold War up to that point CIA operatives had staged operations behind the Iron Curtain, flying in expat agents (many of whom were captured or killed – or both) and generally trying to lay the groundwork to aid in a popular uprising, should it come. When it did, in Hungary, the US didn’t do anything. Part of this was due to the specter of a nuclear war which everyone figured would arise from conflict in Europe. That led to the CIA guys, as one of them put it, not knowing what to do if they “won.”

Of course, there was no “winning” the games they were playing. I followed up this book with The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins, which focuses on the CIA’s role in overthrowing the Indonesian government in 1965. What’s interesting is that, in laying the background, Bevins provides some more detail on things like the Iranian and Guatemalan coups, making their unsavorinous clear, while pointing out the long-term consequences for those countries. In other words, even the successes of the early CIA really weren’t, in the long run.

This comes out sounding a little harsh on The Quiet Americans, which isn’t really fair. It’s a very compelling book, with lots of interesting details about not just some of the overseas operations, but also the political context back in the US. Indeed, one running thread was how J. Edgar Hoover pretty much had it in for the CIA from the beginning, since he wanted to run the intelligence show from the FBI. But there’s a definite theme that the CIA itself wasn’t a failure, but that it was failed by higher ups, in much the same way that, for years, the debacle in Vietnam was framed as what happens when the politicians don’t just get out of the way and let the military run the show.

But, overall, this is a very worthy read. Just remember to take it with just a few grains of salt.

On Leaving Things Unsaid

Twice in the past couple of weeks, while channel surfing, I’ve come across Fargo, the 1996 Coen Brothers classic right at that point where there’s enough left to make it worth watching the rest, even if it’s not the beginning. For what it’s worth, that point – both times! – was after Jerry’s unsuccessful parking lot pitch to his father in law, after which he has a little freak out in the parking lot.

Fargo is one of my favorite movies and I’ve seen it over and over, but I still get new things out of it. These two times around one thing jumped out at my writer brain that hadn’t registered before. It has to do not with what was on screen, but what wasn’t.

What drives the plot of Fargo is that hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard needs money and is willing to do just about anything to do it. He tries to scam his wealthy father-in-law to “investing” in a parking lot development deal. He’s running some kind of game with the GMAC finance people, too. And, of course, there’s the eventual plot he hatches to have two goons kidnap his wife (who’s wealthy father will then pay an inflated ransom to get back) that ends with a lot of dead bodies.

We know all this. We see the machinations, see the wheels turning. One of the best scenes in the movie is after the kidnapping when we hear Jerry on the phone calling his father-in-law to tell him his wife has been kidnapped. Only he’s not on the phone (the shot starts with him off screen) – he’s rehearing the call he’s going to make, getting his scheme down pat. We hear him fend off the GMAC guy on the phone. And we see him deal with the two goons.

What occurred to me rewatching recently is what we don’t see, what we don’t learn. For a start, we have no idea how much money Jerry needs. It must be substantial, as he’s only going to pay the goons $40k initially on the kidnapping, while setting the ransom at $1 million and that’s only one of his many ongoing schemes. Still, we don’t know a number. Nor do we know to whom Jerry owes a substantial debt. It could be a bank, the result of a failed legit investment or business, or it could be gambling debts that he owes to the mob. Again, we just don’t know.

I think this is a pretty brilliant bit of storytelling. Typically, story gurus will say, you should give your main character a clear goal that they struggle to achieve through the course of your story. But sometimes the rule needs to be broken and I think Fargo is one of those places. If we know how much Jerry needs, the story shifts from being one about a scheme spiraling out of control to one about whether Jerry is going to succeed. If we know why he needs the money it shifts our perception a bit and we’ll be more invested in Jerry’s success. We probably don’t want the mob to break his legs, right?

What all this does is keep us as viewers from getting too close to Jerry, from caring about him succeeding. I think it’s a conscious choice by the Coens to keep us from empathizing with him, as you normally do with a main character. You could certainly try to produce a story where the readers or viewers try to empathize with a guy who gets his own wife, not to mention half-dozen other people, killed as his scheme goes off the rails, but that would be a different story than Fargo. This also allows the moral center of the film to be Marge, who doesn’t even show up until about a third of the way in (coincidentally right after I found the movie on TV these past times).

This isn’t the way to go for most stories. Certainly if you want your main character to be viewed as a hero, even a flawed one, you need to let readers know why they’re doing what they’re doing. But sometimes that’s not what you want. Sometimes you want the guy who sets in motion the disposal of a dead body in a woodchipper to just be a bastard through and through. Who needs to get on board with that?