This weekend, February 28 and March 1, the Kindle version of my novel Trojan Hearse: A Light Look at the Dark Side of the War on Terror, will be free on my Amazon website, https://www.amazon.com/author/charlesvella. Please take advantage of this offer and let me know what you think.
I stumbled onto this comparison by accident when researching a book I was thinking about writing that incorporates time travel. Both of these books are about time travel back to fourteenth century Europe. Timeline is set in France and Doomsday Book is set in England. Doomsday Book was written first, in 1993 vs. 1999 for Timeline. On the surface they are very similar. Someone travels to the past, gets in trouble and can’t return, and a group of people goes back to bring him back. The resulting thrillers take place simultaneously in the past and in the present (Timeline) or future (Doomsday Book).
They are also similar in their treatment of time travel. There are basically two ways to treat time travel in fiction, via magic or science. Of the examples of the latter, some books discuss the mechanism in some detail and some gloss over it. Both of these works use science and discuss the technical aspects to some degree. One of the most interesting things about time travel to me is the logic issues that it raises. Doomsday Book assumes these away and Timeline doesn’t really deal with them in any detail. The stories are good enough that this doesn’t really detract from them.
One of the best things about books dealing with time travel is that they allow you to read or write historical and science fiction at the same time. Both of these books deal with the middle ages. One of the biggest issues with the idea of traveling back to this period is that no one today really knows what the language sounded like. The character in Doomsday Book had a translation ear piece that also somehow translated her speech. Timeline characters had to do their own translations. If you can suspend belief enough to read about time travel, this is the most difficult part of both books to buy in my opinion. I think both did a good job with a difficult fictional task here. As with time travel logic issues though, the stories overcame this pretty well.
There are two major differences between the two books. The first is in the description of the past. The second is in the plots.
Both books give a pretty good, and pretty grim, picture of how much cheaper life was in the middle ages than today. In Timeline random violence drives this while in Doomsday Book it is disease. The characters in the past in Timeline are actually more fastidious in terms of their personal hygiene than the characters from the present. This is not true in Doomsday Book, where the characters are dirtier and don’t have an understanding of the relationship between hygiene and health. Part of this is due to the focus the story, which is on the transmission of disease, but it paints a very different picture of daily life than Timeline. Both books emphasize how different the actual past is from what present historians think it is. Both manage to seem realistic in their portrayals. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to know which is more accurate, and probably doesn’t matter anyway. This is fiction after all, not history. Both work in terms of drawing a fictional world.
The actual stories are quite different. Both occur simultaneously in the present and past. Timeline focuses both stories on trying to get the time travelers back safely. It has some side stories, but these are incidental to the primary one. Doomsday Book has an interesting premise. Unlike Timeline, which takes place in the past and present, Doomsday Book takes place in the past and future. This gave the author the added challenge of drawing a believable future to go along with describing a believable past. The story becomes the tale of two epidemics, a virulent strain of flu in the future and the plague in the past. I have to warn you, it is a downer. Timeline has a happy ending. Doomsday Book will depress the heck out of you. At least it did me.
So which is better? They are different, and I recommend both. Michael Crichton writes a good thriller. There is constantly something happening and the characters get themselves out of a series of tight scrapes. It is a fast read and a great candidate to take to the beach or on vacation. Doomsday Book can drag a little at times. There is a good deal of dramatic tension with respect to getting the time traveler back. By the end though, this almost seems unimportant relative to everything else that happens. I think Doomsday Book had much more interesting characters and in that way was more fun to read. It’s definitely worth reading, but maybe better suited for a rainy day or when you’re snowed in than the beach.
This title is an actual quote, and not by Archie Bunker, Moe from the Three Stooges, or Slip from the Bowery Boys (Does anyone besides me remember the Bowery Boys?). It was actually one of the elected officials we pay to make decisions that affect our lives.
I’d find this funnier if it were unusual, but it seems to be part of a trend. People seem to slot words into spaces where they weren’t designed to fit. Sometimes it’s blatant misuse, as in denigrate for dignify. Sometimes it’s phrases that sound good when you first hear them but on closer examination don’t make any sense (Advertising is good at this). Words are becoming filler, like someone who buys art because the color matches his sofa. The room looks fine when you walk in, but if you really look at that painting do you have any idea what it’s trying to tell you?
Of course maybe the problem is me. Maybe I just don’t understand what’s clear to everyone else. Let’s look at a couple of examples that I’ve picked up in the course of a week or two and you can see for yourself.
It’s time you deserve more
This was from a radio commercial. I can’t remember the product. I’ve pondered it for a while and tried to warm up to it but I can’t do it. Taking it from back to front, I certainly understand ‘you deserve more.’ I probably don’t agree with it, but the question of what we all think we deserve vs. what we really deserve is a topic for a future date. ‘It’s time’ seems clear enough. It is generally the opening clause to some form of action, e.g. ‘It’s time to go,’ or ‘It’s time you grew up.’ But ‘it’s time you deserve more?’ I suppose what they were trying to get across is that you, the potential consumer of whatever it is they’re peddling, have worked hard, etc., and now deserve it. I think they should have just gone with ‘you deserve more,’ and left the timing to take care of itself.
Don’t let your financial future pass you by
This is from a poster at the metro station selling some sort of financial product. We both know what they’re trying to say. So why don’t they say it? The missing word here is opportunity, as in ‘don’t let the opportunity to secure your financial future pass you by.’ How can a future, financial or otherwise, pass you by? By definition the past becomes the future via the present. You can’t be passed by something that is always in front of you. Ask Mitt Romney.
A legacy of history
If the first two examples didn’t impress you this one has to do it. It was on an advertisement for a week dedicated to recognizing the contributions to society of a minority group. It listed a number of this group’s positive qualities, including that it has a legacy of history. Merriam-Webster gives one definition of legacy as, “Something that happened in the past or that comes from someone in the past.” The same dictionary gives the definition of history as, “Events of the past.” So another way to render this particular slogan is, “Events of this group’s past come from someone in the past.” Somehow I don’t think that one would have gotten through the committed that designed that monstrosity.
If your search results don’t accurately represent what you want others to see…
This is one of my favorites. It comes from a radio commercial for a company that promises to remove all those pesky facts from your past that show up on the internet. This one is different because I think it’s actually an extremely careful use of language meant to obfuscate. Note that it doesn’t promise to accurately represent anything that actually happened. It essentially uses language to suggest that your opinion is fact. It’s a great use of the word accurate. If George Orwell fans gave a Ministry of Truth award this one would have my vote.
Where the cost of living is more living than cost
I saw this one on a sign that I believe was advertising an apartment complex, but to be honest I’m not really sure what they were selling. I had a fair amount of time while waiting for a train to ponder it. I understand what they’re selling, which is what the people who paid for the ad are looking for. I suppose they’d wonder what my complaint is. More on that at the end.
Last and final boarding call
Why do they do this? Every airline seems to use this same announcement to tell you there won’t be any more boarding calls. Do they want to suggest that if it’s only their last, or their final, boarding call there might be hope for another one? Do they not know that this is the same as saying it is their ‘last and last boarding call,’ or their ‘final and final boarding call?’ I’ll throw in one of my other favorites here, also…too. I hear this a lot now, as in, “I’m also going to the store too.” I suppose the next step will be to also add an ‘as well’ too.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to discuss…
This one is all over and also more than a little Orwellian. This is a little like saying that he confessed to the murder anonymously because he isn’t authorized to kill people. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he doesn’t want to get in trouble. I can understand why they say it this way. It gives a whistle-blower aura. The person telling the secrets is courageously trying to save us, the public, by giving the intrepid reporter the facts in the face of great personal risk. While that is sometimes the case, more often the secret is minor and I suspect that the real reason for spilling it is to cultivate a relationship with the reporter and anonymity is more often the refuge of a coward than a hero.
So why does any of this matter? At the micro level, it can be extremely frustrating to those of us who are still willing to try to pick words that actually convey the message we want to send. People who are sloppy with what they say don’t generally listen well. They often lie in wait for some trigger word or phrase to pounce on and bury your point under a steaming pile of harangue.
At the macro level it’s symptomatic of a world where what matters in a disagreement is emotion rather than facts or logic. Emotion is an important complement to facts and logic, but it is in danger of becoming a substitute. It’s certainly fine to have passionate beliefs, but holding them in the face of the facts is dangerous.
Sloppy, vacuous language is the potato chip of mental nutrition. It’s not only bad in and of itself, but also because of what it crowds out. Specific, carefully selected language is much more effective in conveying meaning than sloppy, vague, or incorrect language. If you don’t think this matters, then I think you’re wrong. And if you don’t think I have a right to that opinion, I won’t denigrate that with a response.
Elmer, Elmer, Elmer. You are a bad guy.
This is one of the few books that I’ve read after seeing the movie. I was confused until learning that the movie covered about the middle third of the book. I think that this was a good choice for the movie because the middle third is in itself a self-contained story that lends itself much better to a ninety minute movie. This also means it is well worth reading the book even if you’ve seen the movie, which is a great one. The more important difference between the book and the movie is the ending. In both, Elmer is exposed as a womanizer and hypocrite. In the movie, it is suggested that this reforms Elmer and he grows up, refusing to continue fooling the public. I suppose that’s because people don’t like movies without happy endings. The novel is not nearly so moralistic. In fact, it is amoral. Elmer is actually exposed several times and always manages to find his way back to the ministry. In the final incident, Elmer and his backers outsmart the people who exposed him and Elmer uses the entire incident to double down on his hypocrisy. The fact that Lewis ends the novel this way says a lot about his opinion on the redeem-ability of the evangelical machine in early 20th century America.
If you don’t know the story, Elmer is a hard drinking, fighting, and womanizing college football player in the early 20th century who is essentially tricked and embarrassed into becoming saved. He goes on to become a minister but is discovered on a drunken binge instead of tending his flock and quietly thrown out of bible college. Elmer becomes a travelling salesman until he meets Sharon Falconer, an evangelist. I won’t belabor the details. Elmer rises, falls, rises, falls, and is to my mind is one of the more likeable rogues in literature. He eventually quits drinking but can’t stop womanizing, even (especially) after marrying the daughter of one of the elders in his church. He destroys a number of people who have sinned far less than he, including a young woman he had promised to marry and a fellow student at his bible college, a very moral man with the temerity to question his own faith. Elmer is almost completely amoral and self-centered, but somehow the fact that he doesn’t see any contradiction between his behavior and the Christian moral crusade he leads is believable. Maybe this should give me more tolerance of the modern Elmers parading across the news in our own time, but somehow it doesn’t.
Liking Elmer can’t be justified. He has no redeeming qualities. But I liked him anyway. I suppose that’s a sign of a great writer. Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize, for a large extent due to Elmer Gantry. Writing the novel must have been something of an act of courage in the 1920’s. The truly amazing thing though, is how true Elmer rings in the modern world. I’m constantly impressed by how many people there are who want to tell the rest of us how to behave, while living their own lives as sleazebags of the first order. Whether they are ministers, priests, politicians, businessmen, musicians or actors, it’s clear that hypocrisy didn’t die out with Elmer.
So Elmer Gantry has stood the test of time. That says more for Sinclair Lewis than it does for modern society. When reading about Elmer’s modern equivalents it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Elmer Gantry takes place at a time far enough away that I didn’t cry much. So just think about the past and not the future when you’re reading it and you’ll be fine.
If you have a Kindle you can get a free copy of Elmer Gantry from Amazon. It’s well worth taking the time that is all you need to invest.