Monday, June 28, 2010

What Works: "2001: A Space Odyssey" by Sir Arthur C. Clarke

This week's "What Works" post focuses on an excerpt from Sir Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, but here's my secret: This passage isn't part of the novel--it's taken from the foreword.

The reason why I focus on it will become apparent later.

Excerpt from the foreword of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the Earth.

Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe, the Milky Way. So for every man who has ever lived, in this Universe there shines a star.

But every one of those stars is a sun, often far more brilliant and glorious than the small, nearby star we call the Sun. And many--perhaps most--of those alien suns have planets circling them. So almost certainly there is enough land in the sky to give every member of the human species, back to the first ape-man, his own private, world-sized heaven--or hell.

How many of these potential heavens and hells are now inhabited, and by what manner of creatures, we have no way of guessing; the very nearest is a million times farther away than Mars or Venus, those still remote goals of the next generation. But the barriers of distance are crumbling; one day we shall meet our equals, or our masters, among the stars.
The first time I read this, it literally made my scalp prickle as all the hair on it tried to stand up. I re-read the passage about three times before I dove into the novel itself.

Now why is that? There is every possibility the passage does not affect you the same way. This writing is skillful and potent, but the fact it affected me so powerfully is quite personal.

You see, I'm a science geek and a lover of science fiction and fantasy. Since childhood, I've been fascinated by our universe and all the possibilities that sit on the edges of what we understand. And holy tamales, this excerpt resonated with me. There are worlds enough for all of us? That thought has occurred to me as well.

Please bear with me; because I'm a geek, I'm compelled to define what resonance is according to scientists:
A body vibrates at some steady rate. If its vibration disturbs a second object, that second object may begin to vibrate in time with the first object. In fact, the second object may begin to vibrate very violently in response to the first.

This phenomenon is called resonance.

(Whether or not the second object vibrates at all depends on something called its natural resonance frequency, but we don't need to get into that here.)
So when I say something resonates with me, what I mean is it formed a pattern and I spontaneously echoed that pattern. Or, put another way, Sir Arthur expressed a set of ideas, and those ideas slotted into my head so perfectly it was as if I had been on the brink of thinking them up myself.

In other words, when I read this passage, I spotted the common humanity I shared with the stranger who wrote it.

There are few experiences as emotionally powerful as discovering a common humanity with someone else, even it it's through the filter of a piece of art. However, that experience is always personal. If you're someone whose passion is for abstract painting, or Judo, or immunology, it's entirely possible this excerpt would seem, at best, only mildly intriguing to you. It wouldn't fire your imagination the way it did mine.

Now the one thing that turns a book into a bestseller is word-of-mouth endorsements--people don't trust advertising, but they do trust a referral born of pure enthusiasm. And what provokes this kind of enthusiasm? Resonance. I'm convinced people only gush over books that resonated with them.

As an example of this, I think many are confused by the rampaging success of the Twilight books. These novels aren't high art, and they don't contain any particularly fresh elements ('cept for the sparkling.)

However, what the author got right is she utterly nailed what goes through the heart of a teenage girl at a certain age. Young women read these books and thought, "Yes. This is the boy I've been yearning for; this is the intensity of passion I've been dreaming of. I get this."

The story resonated with its target audience, and because of that, the audience turned evangelical on the story's behalf. A literary star was born.

But to people who don't dream of a boy like Edward Cullen? The books' popularity just makes no sense. The novels don't resonate with them.

In the above excerpt, Sir Arthur expressed his own thoughts and dreams, things personal and compelling to him. The fact that these things resonated with me--or with anyone--was a matter beyond his control. All he could do, as a writer, was to ensure he was mining fearlessly for his own truths.

It's ironic that to reach a wider audience, we have to ferret deeper into ourselves, but that's all a writer can do. You write the best damned book you can--the truest, most powerful, most emotionally-naked story you have inside you--and then you get it out into the world and hope like hell it finds an audience.

It might not, but then again, it might. That's what communication of any sort is about--conveying what's inside of you in hope that someone else will understand, that their mind and heart will resonate in sync with yours.

IN SUMMARY: What works in this excerpt (for me) is that it resonated with me. The writer captured his own thoughts and emotions, laid them on the page clearly, and in those words, I recognized my own thoughts and emotions and thus felt I had connected with another human being.


What books have resonated with you? Have you ever read something that stood your hair on end, and if so, what was it, and can you identify why it did that to you--you in particular? I'd love to hear your experiences.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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