• Scriptorium Review: Starry, Starry Night by Merchant of Venice and Icarus by Lortano

    Starry, Starry Night by Merchant of Venice
    Icarus by Lortano
    (Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition 2015)
    Review by Alwyn

    Every year, writers on TWC compete in the Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition. The popularity of science-fiction stories in the Creative Writing sub-forum of the Writers' Study shows that science-fiction is a popular genre on TWC. In 2015, the Scriptorium Writing Competition Awards had a science-fiction theme which inspired writers to enter a great set of stories. Now, with the next Scriptorium Writing Competition approaching, the Critic’s Quill offer our commentary on winning entries from the 2015 competition. We believe that reading and reflecting on the best writing on TWC can help all writers on this forum to raise our game – it might even help you to write a winning entry for the next competition. This review investigates the secrets of two of the winning stories: Starry, Starry Night by Merchant of Venice and Icarus by Lortano. If you would like to read the stories before reading the reviews, you can find Starry, Starry Night here and Icarus here.

    Starry, Starry Night by Merchant of Venice

    If you ever looked up in awe at a night sky, you are in good company. This experience has inspired a great painter, Vincent Van Gogh, a talented musician, Don McLean – and one of the winners of the Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition, Merchant of Venice.

    Right from the start, Merchant’s story achieves immersion. If you look at a night sky, do you notice the darkness or the light? The night sky can be linked to feeling small (and, perhaps, despairing) in a vast, indifferent universe – or, maybe, the shining light of the stars suggest hope. Merchant’s story explores this ambiguity of the night sky, through the eyes of Tom. Brilliantly, Merchant shows us how Tom as a boy focuses on the darkness, wondering whether he was seeing blue or black, while Tom as an old man focuses on the light of the stars.

    We might look at the night sky on the nights after our worst days. In Shattered Dreams, Martin Luther King wrote that shattered dreams can cause us to fall into the traps of bitterness, escapism, fatalism or isolation. But there is an alternative: to willingly accept and honestly confront what is broken, to “Place your failure at the forefront of your mind and stare daringly at it.” Dr King showed how people such as Robert Louis Stephenson, Helen Keller and George Frederick Handel achieved invention and creativity despite dire circumstances. He might have added the example of Vincent Van Gogh.

    After a breakdown in which he injured his left ear, Van Gogh entered a hospital for mentally ill people in May 1889. This great artist might have been stuck in bitterness or despair, unable to be paint. Instead, despite the difficulties of this time in his life, Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. Even before the song Starry, Starry Night appears in Merchant’s story, Merchant’s language evokes the image of creating a piece of art which many people might relate to from childhood experiences, when Tom sees:-

    the sky like glitter sprinkled on sheet of paper by a child; at some points, applied liberally and without care, others, nearly devoid of glitter as the child realised they only had a little bit left in the container.
    One way to make readers want to keep reading is to show us enough of what is happening to intrigue us, but to leave out important details. For example, in a movie, a character receives an important message on paper or a screen, we might see their shocked or horrified reaction but not know what the message says (at least, not initially.) In a disaster movie, a child might be turn on a TV which is on a news channel, see a few seconds of a report of disturbing events and then switch channel to a cartoon. When Tom notices this:-

    And then something up in the giant night sky, amongst the thousands of millions of stars, caught Tom’s eye. “In colours on the snowy linen land.” He trailed off at the end, focusing on one particular part of the sky. One particularly bright star appeared to dive bomb from the moon to the Earth in a blaze of light amongst all the other stars in such an awe-inspiring manner that most people would be left dumbstruck. Tom was left saddened and angry, as if someone had pulled his earphones out at the climax of the song.
    It seems that Merchant is using this technique, successfully: I want to know the meaning of the “bright star” appearing to “dive bomb from the Moon to the Earth”. Is this a trick of the light, a shooting star, is Earth under attack or is something else happening?

    Some comedians make people laugh by causing us to look at ordinary events in our lives and seeing the funny side of them. For writers, a similar technique could be to have a character do something familiar, like having a song stuck in our head, which we might sing even if we aren't good at singing. After Tom begins to sing, a new character, Emma, appears, continuing the song. It is as if both characters are swept along by the song. There is incredible pathos in some of the lines, for example "Weathered faces lined in pain" and it seems to be implied that the lines connect with Tom's life - but how? As before, Merchant is skilfully drawing the reader into the story.

    The apparent serenity of the singing is broken by conflict between father and daughter. The conflict contrasts well with the opening image of a night sky (which seemed, at least initially, peaceful) and the singing, which seemed harmonious, with notes of discord and pain, hinting at what was to follow. The themes of youth and age in the opening part of the story return, as Tom explains the story of four astronauts who died. There is mystery: what was the 'star that was not a star'?

    Painful loss - and empathy for people who have lost loved ones - seems to be an important theme. After terrorist attacks in Paris, Ankara and Brussels, many people wanted to express feelings of sadness, anger and the desire for solidarity. This powerful theme is part of Merchant's story, as the character of Tom feels keenly for people who died in a terrible incident:-

    “Did you know them?” Was all Emma could ask.

    “Did I have to? Did every single African-American person have to know Martin Luther King for his death to have an impact?” He looked up to the sky and the stars again. “Anyone who worked in the field, anyone who had ever had dreams of space, goddam, anyone who had ever looked up and wondered, felt it.”
    We return to the theme of loss when we hear about the death of Tom's wife, Lily. After the conflict between Tom and Emma comes a moment of peace, as they reflect on their shared loss of Lily. They sing the final lines together, which suggests togetherness and a more positive tone, but the lyrics contrast with this, speaking of pain, failure and futility:-

    “And how you suffered for your sanity and how you tried to set them free.” They turned to each other and then, one last time before she would leave, up to the night sky. “They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.”
    Like Vincent Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night, Merchant draws us in by connecting with our experiences, through contrasts and mysteries. Like Don McLean’s song Starry, Starry Night, Merchant’s story has lighter and darker moments providing powerful contrasts; it explores the powerful and enduring pain of lost love and missed opportunities. Like Martin Luther King, Merchant reflects on suffering and reminds us of the need to accept reality while holding onto hope, somehow.

    Mini-interview with the author, Merchant of Venice

    Congratulations on winning a Silver Medallion in the Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition! Your winning story, Starry, Starry Night, is set some time after a disaster in space in which several people died. You could have written about that disaster when it was happening - instead, you chose to write from the perspective of people looking back on that event, in their past. Could you tell me something about the thinking behind your story and, in particular, what attracted you to use the perspective of people looking back on this event, rather than the story of it happening in the present?

    It’s funny because the story didn't start as one about the disaster. It was first just about Emma and Tom and their relationship with each other and with space. And to create the tension in their relationship I needed him to not want her to go for some reason and the easiest as well as in my opinion most powerful is a parent's protection of their child. But while space is scary I wanted to raise the stakes a bit and so I thought of what could make someone so obsessed with space as Tom scared of it as well. I was inspired by the Columbia disaster which though I was too young at the time for it to impact me, I feel impacted a lot of people and made people question the sanity of going into space. And a space ship disaster plays on everyone's fears of the vastness of space and the loneliness of it and the danger. So that was how the disaster idea was born. But with the fear of such a disaster and the questioning following it I wanted to present a world that had overcome it, that had not forgotten but moved on, learning from the pain. And I think that's something applicable to recent tragic world events.

    The combination of Tom's obsession with space and fear comes across in a powerful way. I'm interested that you mention the Columbia disaster, which happened before you were old enough for it to affect you at the time. You also have Tom mention the death of Martin Luther King, another example of tragedy which affected many people and which was, of course, earlier than the Columbia disaster. In a story set in the 22nd century, you could have chosen any tragic event. For example, you could have invented a historical event from the mid-21st century, but you chose a real, past event. Perhaps you were reflecting on the fascination of humanity with past tragedies, from the destruction of Pompeii and the sacking of Rome to the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King? Is this, in part, about showing the power of pain and grief to still affect people, even after time has passed? Tom has recovered and moved on, but when Emma wants to go to space, the past tragedy still affects him deeply, combined with his love for Emma?

    I'd already invented a futuristic catastrophe so I felt inventing more to back it up was a cop out. If I was world building I would but for a short story, I felt relating it back to events (even if I hadn't experienced them) would allow the reader to understand more clearly. I agree, at times we take the mantra "those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it" by fearing past events will happen no matter how unlikely again. And out of the public view of tragedies, which can be warped by politicians and figures for their own political agenda, I wanted to show the raw feelings towards an event, the reader in the story is privy to a very personal reaction by Tom towards this event. And sometimes it is good to be safe, to err on the side of caution and to remember previous mistakes but simultaneously we must not be dragged down by such events. It's funny you mention Pompeii because back in those times, they would have blamed it on the gods, made a couple of sacrifices, reined in some luxuries, confessed their sins and then gone back to life. But with events like Columbia and the one mentioned in the story, the fault lies with either ourselves or the awfulness of random chance or both. And for it to lie with us makes us cautious and for it to lie in the awfulness of random chance makes it so much scarier than some angry, moody good. Both is just a bad concoction.

    Icarus by Lortano

    The character in this story, the probe Icarus, immediately gets my attention. Like the drones and starships of Iain M Banks’ Culture series, the probe appears to be run by an advanced AI, an independent mind. From William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer through the Terminator series of movies to the more recent Avengers: Age of Ultron, AIs appear as powerful, unpredictable and dangerous. In his article The fairer side of life: writing women in CW and AARs, Lortano encourages writers to be creative, to defy stereotypes and to think of alternatives:-

    It’s always irked me how lazy characterisation can be, for both genders, but women’s stereotypes tend to fall into two broad categories, the ‘I don’t need no man and carries a sword’ and the ‘Gentle as a lamb, loyal girlfriend/wife/mother.’ You might consider it generalising massively to throw most heroines into these categories, but come on, how many times have you seen it? And how often is it so utterly boring?
    In his entry for the Scriptorium Summer Writing Competition, Lortano puts his own advice into practice. In this story, Lortano offers us a different kind of AI: Icarus. Icarus is not a dangerous or malevolent foe, but an AI which readers can relate to and feel for.

    The mind of Icarus is capable of reflecting on its relationship with humans; while it finds human behaviour somewhat baffling (“While it did not understand human emotion, all the silly, petty things that they did, or why they took such great joy in performing menial tasks”), it has some remarkable capabilities. It is not only capable of anticipating human emotional reactions (“Its creators would be jubilant, leaping around, hugging each other and probably preparing the ship full of emigrants to travel to the planet as they did so”), it is capable of emotions itself (“it couldn’t help but feel a small sense of pride in its work”). Icarus even mourns for the death of a civilization (“The computer fell silent for a minute, to commemorate the passing of this grand civilisation. He understood that it was a tradition on Earth, one that should be done at a moment of tragedy.”) There is pathos in the probe’s question about whether humans will remember it after such a long time has passed:-

    But another thought began to cross his mind. Did any humans remember Icarus? It would take a long time for the information to return, even at light speed, and could anyone stand waiting for ten thousand years for a probe that might have been hit by a comet for all anyone knew? His creators were dead and did their successors truly believe in him?

    We see a planet through the eye of Icarus. Good writers can tell us about characters through the way that they see the world around them – or, in the case of Icarus, the world beneath them:-

    It was a world of forests, of deserts, of many seas and oceans. Its eye scanned them all, every single one, until it saw something rather remarkable. It began to narrate to its memory drives,

    Huge tree detected, 40.7127° North, 74.0059° West. Zooming in closer.”

    On the edge of an ocean there stood a forest and towering above it all was this tree, larger than any tree the probe had ever scanned in its orbit of Earth.

    Tree scanned. Composition is carbon, chlorophyll, iron oxide, steel.”
    One feature of some science-fiction stories is the passage of enormous amounts of time. An explorer might come across a long-dead starship, the ruins of cities on a planet destroyed by a catastrophic war or a decayed orbital structure whose ecosystem has gone haywire. One of the challenges for writers is to make the reader really feel the passage of time. In describing the planet which Icarus has found, Lortano has clearly thought about the effects of the passage of time; the forests have expanded and large, lethal beasts range freely around the planet.

    Another feature of some science fiction stories is the big reveal, an unexpected twist which changes the way we think about people or places. For example, the main character’s identity turns out to be different from who we thought they were; or we discover something unexpected about a world which we thought we understood. The original (1968) Planet of the Apes story does this, as many readers will know, in the final scene when the main character finds something which he would never have expected to see on an alien planet, a shocking discovery (explained here - spoiler). Planet of the Apes used an iconic American image, the Statue of Liberty, as part of this big revelation; here, Lortano employs a similarly important symbol, the flag of the United States on the Moon – is this, perhaps, a homage to Planet of the Apes?

    Could Lortano’s story have been even better? The big revelation really made me want to know why the Icarus probe did not carry out its planned mission as intended. Perhaps this is deliberate – it prompted me to wonder what could have caused this. Maybe Icarus did complete its mission, returned to Earth and somehow rebooted itself on the return journey, causing it to believe that it was still carrying out its original task? Of course, this was a short story, so there was little scope to provide an explanation. If the story had continued, presumably we could have discovered why these events happened. If successful stories engage the reader, stir emotions, cause them to relate to the main character and prompt the reader to ask questions, then this is a highly successful story. Icarus is, without doubt, a worthy winner of the Librarian’s Choice Award.

    In conclusion

    Thank you for reading! For me, studying these excellent stories shows that the best tales immerse readers by using elements such as ambiguity and mystery. They create believable characters which are not stereotyped or predictable. They contain ideas and themes as well as events - and they have the ability to stir emotions and to surprise us.

    Perhaps you would like to take part in such competitions in future, but you are not yet confident enough to do that? All writers are welcome to take part in the Writers’ Study Tale of the Week (TotW) competition, which can be a good place to try out different styles of writing and see what works. You can post your creative writing, AARs (After Action Reports) and stories in the Writers’ Study and take part in our Monthly Creative Writing Competition (MCWC) and Monthly AAR Competition (MAARC).
    Don’t forget to look out for - and take part in - Scriptorium writing competitions!

    (Thanks to y2day for designing our new Scriptorium Review banner, which you can see at the top of this article.)
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
      awesome reviews for two great stories; as I said in the past months, that was surely the Writing Competition I enjoyed the most because of both the theme and of the quality of the published stories. Now I look forward to read the remaining reviews, in particular the one about the winner
    1. Alwyn's Avatar
      Alwyn -
      Calling all writers! The Scriptorium Writing Competition 2016 has begun - you can find out more here (link)!