You must read James S. A. Corey’s Babylon’s Ashes, the sixth book in the epic series, The Expanse. Actually, no, you must first read the first five books, and then read Babylon’s Ashes. You must do this, because of its utterly perfect narration.
(Spoiler Alert: Just a teensy one. It doesn't ruin the story, but if you want to know nothing of Babylon's Ashes before reading, don't read the last paragraph.)
There are many reasons why these books are worth a read, and even a reread: the setting of a near-future solar system colonized by humans, the breakneck and detailed plot, and the delightful characters, to name a few. But it’s important to note that the voices of the characters are clear and well defined because of the narration. Narrative style is critical to why The Expanse books engage so well and read so beautifully.
The narrative style of The Expanse is crisp limited omniscience; we transfer between different narrators with different perspectives. Sometimes the narrators overlap in one scene, but generally not; we see some scenes from the perspective of one character, and some scenes from the other. The narration is tailored to the voice of the character who is speaking, even in so far as the metaphors that they use to describe their world, or the parts of life that they muse on. We are left in no doubt that there is a new person speaking.
The narrating characters change from one book to the next. Sometimes they are foul-mouthed grandmother politicians, sometimes scientists and preachers, sometimes female Martian marines wearing power armour. Sometimes they are the villain, the antagonist speaking in their own voice. And running through all the books is the idealistic and charming narration of James Holden, captain of the Rocinante. (If you’re a Firefly fan and are missing Malcolm Reynolds, James Holden is a pretty amazing substitute.)
Babylon’s Ashes, the latest installment, takes this narrative control to new extremes. Most of the books consist of four narrators – Babylon’s Ashes has about triple that. It should be a dizzying collections of perspectives, but it manages to not be because so many of them are old friends; we’ve met them before on previous missions, in previous adventures, and their narration manages to glide easily through the vast scope of this story.
The storytelling of Babylon’s Ashes is most impressive when we hear the brief voices of those we have never met before. They seem inconsequential; they are bystanders, observers of mass conflict, a perspective that is neither the protagonist nor the antagonist. They are, of course, not inconsequential – they are exactly the point. Conflict on the scale of Babylon’s Ashes cannot be confined to the hero and the villain only; it ripples through their worlds and takes all human lives with it.
There is a moment in Babylon’s Ashes when one character starts making videos of the lives of other people. He broadcasts them throughout the solar system, in an attempt to find some humanity and understanding in the midst of conflict. His action inspires others to make their own videos, to speak in their own voices. That is what the narration of Babylon’s Ashes is: the voices of humanity, in all their variety, telling one story.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: this year marks the death of movies. No? How about the death of paper books? Of console video games? We have a strange and misplaced fascination with pronouncing the end of a particular media genre. As far as I can tell, we are generally bad at it.
The articles lamenting (or hailing) the impending death of the movie demonstrate two interesting trends. The first is that movies as a medium will lose out to a new technology. The other suggestion is that the movie is “dead” because its content has become irrelevant and poorly thought out.
Let’s address the technological one first. We have played this game before: movies will be the death of live theatre. Home video will be the death of movies. E-books will mean the death of paper books. All false. Yes, the market for consumption of these media forms has changed, but none of them have vanished. To suggest that they will fails to consider that they don’t do remotely the same thing.
Movies can be amazing pieces of entertainment, but they do not provide the same experience, either for the actor or for the viewer, as live theatre does. The point is subtler but equally true of movies and television. Seeing a movie on a big screen is different than seeing it on a small one, and provides me with a different thrill than sitting on my couch; if it didn’t, I wouldn’t be lining up to see Rogue One in theatres.
What about the replacement of home video rental for streaming services like Netflix, you say? Netflix didn’t replace a different medium; it replaced the same medium. The experience of watching a Netflix movie and watching a rented movie is not different. It’s just easier to get. We continue to hold onto a wide range of entertainment experiences, because they play on us in different ways. Live theatre is not inherently better than movies, just as movies are not inherently better than television; they are simply sufficiently different that they continue to hold onto their own domains of viewers.
There are those who ignore the technological question, and lament instead that movies have fallen into a rut of producing terrible, lowest-common-denominator entertainment. The most glaring problem with this idea can be seen in comparison with another form of media: books. There are plenty of truly terrible books. Books that tell bad stories, or that tell good stories badly. Since the invention of the novel at the beginning of the 19th century, there have been piles of utterly terrible writing. The 19th century novel that you see reprinted today, the ones that we call “Classics,” are the good ones, selected over the course of time from amidst the waste of the terrible ones. In every format, it is possible to lack imagination and skill; it doesn’t destroy the format, it simply causes the bad examples of it to be forgotten.
Movies aren’t dying, and movies as an industry are not the problem. Moviegoers can be selective with the movies that they see. Just as gamers can be with video games. Just as readers can be with books. Entertainment industries are shaped by their consumers, not the other way around. If you want quality stories, consume quality stories, in all their forms.
That said, seeing a big explosive Hollywood blockbuster probably won’t do you any harm either. And it goes well with popcorn.
How do we define what is an art as opposed to what is a craft? As a grade seven teacher in BC, I teach both “Fine Arts” and “Applied Skills and Design,” and how I define these subjects makes a difference to how I teach them.
I looked up the dictionary definition for both of these terms, and predictably, this made my question more complicated rather than less. Apparently, an art is “an expression or application of creative skill and imagination, especially through a visual medium,” while a craft is “an activity involving skill in making things by hand.” Even in the language used to define them, a craft is earthbound and everyday, while an art is high-flying, expressive and imaginative.
It is interesting that so much of what we teach as Fine Arts actually starts with a craft. It has to start with the “skill in making things” whether it is ceramics, paintings, drama, music, or dance. Ceramics requires you to know how to work with clay, so that it doesn’t break; painting requires a knowledge of colour and form; drama starts with an understanding of movement and voice control; music is made of scales and chords and rhythm; and you have to learn the steps before you can dance.
Crafts have so often and for so long taken second place to art, but it is a mistake to think that they are fully separate. Where they begin to diverge is in the “application of imagination,” and this is where teaching art becomes harder. Any Fine Arts curriculum has to, at some point, start marking students on their originality and creativity, but how do we make that happen? You can no more teach imagination than you can teach a plant to grow. You can give it an environment that is conducive to its growth, but by its very nature, imagination has to find its own path to the sunlight.
The Applied Skills curriculum allows for a wide range of skills and crafts, and one of the units that I teach in my class is knitting. My students all get needles and yarn, and are taught basic skills, including how to knit and purl, and how to follow a pattern. This would seem to be a straightforward craft. No imagination is required; they simply have to learn the skills. Yet while some of them enjoy the satisfaction of learning those skills for their own sake, where they take them is not always something I can predict. One student made a piece of knitting that was, essentially, a mistake – she ended with far more stitches than she started, and instead of making a square, she made a sort of triangle. But instead of rejecting it as a failure, she sewed it around her hand into a wrist warmer. What she created was unplanned, an attractive and useful result of skills and imagination.
For some students, painting seems impossible. Clay never works for them. Drawing is not their strength. The beauty of teaching a range of crafts is that they may find in it something that they can make into art. Alexander Calder, a 20th century artist who produced wire sculptures that he described as “drawing in space,” commented once “I think better in wire.”
There is a place in art for those of us who think better in yarn.
A debate took place in my class yesterday, about whether spirituality or science was a more valid guiding principle – you know, just another day in a grade seven class.
It went mostly as you would expect until one student, arguing for spirituality, insisted that those who only follow science are close-minded – that they can’t allow for other possibilities. This view fascinated me. It suggests that the student sees science as hard facts, lines drawn in the sand, rather than as a way of questioning and exploring. It should be exactly the opposite – the more questions that science asks, the more open-minded scientists have to be, as they become aware of how little they know.
Perhaps this is less about how science actually operates, and more about how it is taught; it leads many people to see themselves as outsiders to science. Which is wrong, of course. No one is “outside of science,” or its consequences and applications. Our lives are lit, driven, organized, and entertained by applied sciences. None of us is immune from the laws of physics, though they may as well be magic for all most of us understand of them. Unlike our ignorance with computers, our dismissal of science is not new.
Over fifty years ago, C. P. Snow wrote “The Two Cultures”; he argued that the gulf between scientists and “non-scientists” (in this case, literary academics) was so wide that they were unable to understand, and even tolerate, each other. “The Two Cultures” shows its age; it can be elitist in its ideas about education, and it makes frequent references to the Cold War. For all that, it remains surprisingly relevant. Snow didn’t argue that science was somehow more important, but rather that it was critical to understand both humanities and science. C. P. Snow described the divide between science and non-science in the harshest of terms – that it was “fatal” and “dangerous” for educated people to be so divided and specialised. This was fifty years ago, when the pressing human and scientific concerns of global climate change were not even on the table.
A few years ago, I would have fallen into the trap of feeling that my literature degree was all that I needed to know. Two things changed: I married my husband, who is an engineer; and I began to teach grade seven, which required me to teach everything. One of the results of this was my writing of The Steel Lady, which combined Victorian culture with science and technology. Another was that my classroom benefitted not only from my knowledge, but from my husband’s, as I sought his support in teaching physics and electronics. Not everyone is so lucky.
What my students made clear to me yesterday is the same thing Snow that made clear all those years ago – we cannot afford to do this anymore. We cannot afford to divide our education, and feel superior in our beliefs and in our logic. There are enough divides between us – our education shouldn’t be one of them. We need science, or we can’t hope to understand our universe; we need literature and the humanities, or we can’t hope to understand each other. As C. P. Snow put it, “Isn’t it time we began?”
Jane Perrella. Teacher, writer. Expert knitter. Enthusiast of medieval swordplay, tea, Shakespeare, and Batman.