Archives For Writing Style

Where do all the satellites go when their utility ends? No, they don’t all just burn up on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere as their orbits decay. Many are too large for that, and they must be escorted to a remote and desolate Spacecraft Cemetery.

While a great deal of debris and smaller satellites burn up upon re-entry, larger items—including entire space stations—need to be disposed of in a way that keeps the hazardous materials out of public circulation. And what better place than the dark depths of the ocean? Among the craft that have been scuttled at the spot are unmanned satellites . . . and, possibly most remarkably, the entire decommissioned Russian space station, Mir.

The isolated location of this unique graveyard is near the “oceanic pole of inaccessibility,” which marks the location on earth which lies the farthest from any land. The cemetery, which is already the final resting place for more than 260 spacecraft from Russia, Europe, Japan and the United States, lies on the deep seabed approximately 1,500 miles between Pitcairn Island, Easter Island, and Antarctica.

This remote locate is truly mysterious. Members of my critique group expressed concern that residual extraterrestrial elements aboard the satellites might birth some variation of ゴジラ [Godzilla]. Another member, steeped in the Lovecraftian lore of the Cthulhu mythos, pointed out that this “oceanic pole of inaccessibility” is virtually identical with the location of R’lyeh, the subterranean cavern wherein Cthulhu awaits his terrible awakening. In response to these observations, I reminded my colleagues that I happen to be writing nonfiction.

The international space race formally launched in 1957 when the Soviet Union placed Sputnik in orbit. The United States scrambled to catch up, and in 1959, the USSR placed the first human in space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was preceded by a precious little dog, the first living being to reach out for the stars. Her name was Laika, and we will consider Laika’s sad tale in a moment.

C.S. Lewis & the Space Race

The realm of space was not unfamiliar to Lewis. From 1938 to 1945 he authored three volumes of science fiction that would come to be known as the Space Trilogy (or Cosmic Trilogy).

In one book he describes the danger posed to spacecraft by interstellar debris. Presumably similar dangers led to the early demise of some of the residents of the Space Cemetery. In the first volume, Lewis describes the protagonist’s initial exposure to the “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness.”

The period spent in the spaceship ought to have been one of terror and anxiety for Ransom. He was separated by an astronomical distance from every member of the human race except two whom he had excellent reasons for distrusting. He was heading for an unknown destination, and was being brought thither for a purpose which his captors steadily refused to disclose.

All was silence but for the irregular tinkling noises. He knew now that these were made by meteorites, small, drifting particles of the world-stuff that smote continually on their hollow drum of steel; and he guessed that at any moment they might meet something large enough to make meteorites of ship and all. But he could not fear. He now felt that Weston had justly called him little-minded in the moment of his first panic. The adventure was too high, its circumstance too solemn, for any emotion save a severe delight. (Out of the Silent Planet)

Lewis’ initial foray into space was influenced by H.G. WellsFirst Men in the Moon. In The War of the Worlds, the second chapter is entitled “The Falling-Star.” It describes the terrible dangers that can fall from space. Earth’s “greatest authority on meteorites, stated that the height of its first appearance was about ninety or one hundred miles.” So common are meteorites that “no one seems to have troubled to look for the fallen mass that night.” However, the next morning they discovered,

An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.

It is precisely due to the destruction that would be caused by a crash-landing catastrophe such as this, that the nations of the world have identified an unpopulated spacecraft cemetery.

This international competition, one of the most publicized elements of the Cold War, unfolded as C.S. Lewis was at the height of his professional influence. Unlike many, who regarded sputnik’s orbit as alarming, Lewis offered a measured, yet realistic, assessment of the advance.

I don’t feel that ‘Sputnik’ in itself is anything very dangerous, but one doesn’t like the underlying implication, i.e. that its existence proves that Russia is far ahead of your country in inter-continental missiles. (Letter to Vera Gebbert, 12 November 1957)

Lewis understood that the race to control the thermosphere and exosphere would not be won in a day. His insight was affirmed as the United States overtook the Soviets’ early advantage and planted a flag on the moon.

In his preface to a theological book, Lewis refers to Sputnik in passing, using its fame as a counterpoint to what is truly lasting and of profound significance.

Dr. Farrer is far too wise and workmanlike in his pastoral office to waste any time on being topical. You will find nothing here about the [nuclear] Bombs or Sputniks. What is usually called ‘the contemporary’ is in fact a composite picture of the recent past, based on secondary sources (chiefly newspapers) and touched up with guesses about the future.

Dr. Farrer . . . has no leisure to spare for such a phantom. He deals with what is really and knowably contemporary–with the august and terrible coincidence of the present moment and the eternal, in which each one of us lives. He is never speaking to the abstraction ‘modern man,’ always to you and me. (Preface to Austin Farrer’s A Faith of Our Own)

C.S. Lewis recognized well how the flash of “the contemporary” served to outshine what was of lasting import. He recognized Sputnik’s scientific breakthrough for what it was. And then he turned his attention to more significant concerns.

The space race, however, never ended. Today we see another shift in the transnational race for space with many nations vying for a role in exploration of the solar system. Likewise, after a period of rewarding international cooperation, the three superpowers are now all actively pursuing the militarization of space. Where it will end only our descendants will witness.

Still, like C.S. Lewis, we have personally witnessed much progress when it comes to humanity’s desire to touch space. And many of the most powerful memories have involved tragedy.

Soyuz 1 (1967) and Soyuz 11 (1971) cost four lives. In the West, entire crews were lost in three disasters: Apollo 1 (1967) and Space Shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003). Humans, though, were not the only ones to sacrifice their lives in the exploration of space. In our next post, we’ll reflect on the price paid by animals in beginning this extraplanetary journey.

Your Writing Style

July 16, 2012 — 29 Comments

Each of us writes in a unique manner.

You can study writing patterns in various ways, by considering vocabulary, changes in sentence lengths, repeated phrases, and various other measurable elements.

Then there are more subjective aspects of our writing, but these too are recognizable. They would include tone and more abstract things like pacing.

When you add them all together, you arrive at an amorphous quality called the writer’s “voice.” And, as I said above, each of our “voices” are different.

It may be that we dabble in a variety of forms and genres. For example, in addition to these casual blog posts, I also write about theology and military ministry from a much more “professional” perspective. And, shockingly (to my own writing identity) I’ve recently received encouragement related to poetry with which I’ve been experimenting.

Even when we write in various literary forms, and they clearly differ from one another in their voice, the truth is that for each of these documents we develop a personal, inimitable voice.

Now, after emphasizing our literary uniqueness, I want to switch perspectives and consider that our various styles and voice resemble those of others. Occasionally, when reading someone’s work it strikes you as familiar. You may even recall the author that the work reminds you of. (I’m not referring to plagiarism, of course, although the internet has apparently made that particular plague even more common now than in the past.)

It would be vanity to claim that our own writing voice resembles that of no one else. Yes, some voices are so peculiar that they are clearly “rarities,” but others have shared even those odd personalities in the past. I suspect that’s even true for the senseless ramblings with which some self-styled “artists” assail the public. (Even insanities can resemble one another.)

In any case, if you ponder this subject it’s natural to wonder: who do I write like?

Today, through the amazing processing abilities of the computer, you may be able to get an answer to that very question. It’s not a definitive answer, because as I said above, our writing voice possesses both material (words and syntax) and spiritual (ephemeral and aesthetic) dimensions. And, while a computer may be without peer in comparing the former, I believe it to be quite deficient in discerning the latter.

Nevertheless, a rudimentary program is available online to compare your writing with that of a number of writers of varying reputation. The program has a number of limitations, but I think there may be something to it. It requires an extensive section of your writing (several paragraphs, at least). I assume more would be better, in terms of promoting accuracy.

As I just mentioned, it includes a limited number of authors currently entered into the database, and I suspect that the gifted C.S. Lewis is not among them. (I say this not because I expected to be aligned with him, but because of some of the included authors I am aware of. In addition, the program’s creator is actually Russian, so I would be curious to learn how the represented English authors were selected.)

It would limit the program’s value, for example, if I only input data on three writers and you were matched with the one you resembled most closely. Would you prefer, for example, to be told you write like Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Georgette Heyer, or Fabius Planciades Fulgentius?

Even with a significant number of writers included, the program’s accuracy will be affected by the quantity (and specific choice) of what is included to represent each. For example, the programmer properly included Stephen King. How valuable would that be, however, if he had only used King’s poetry and excluded his prose works? (Yes, the horror master has also penned poetry—now, that’s a scary thought!)

Well, despite the limitations of the “I Write Like” program, it is fun to try out. And it sounds impressive, in that it relies upon a naive Bayesian classifier. (Well, the “naive” part doesn’t sound especially remarkable, but the formula looks pretty imposing to someone who never took calculus.

You can use take the “test” at this site.

Make sure you include lengthy selections from your work. Also, testing the program with different genres (assuming you write in different styles) will actually give you new matches. (That is, of course, as it should be.)

If you do decide to experiment with it, a comment below about your results would be interesting for others. And now, for the moment that you have been awaiting . . . with whose writing did the program match mine?

I tried a number of times (no—not fishing for results I wanted, but using a variety of types of my writing) and here were the repeated results:

For my blog posts: H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien

For my more formal essays: J.R.R. Tolkien or Jonathan Swift

(It’s Swift’s picture, you’ll note, that begins this post.) Actually, the majority of the results linked to Swift, whose work I don’t recall ever reading in full, not even Gulliver’s Travels. However, our shared emphasis on wit, advocacy and satire account for what I deem a genuinely accurate assessment. And it does not hurt that Swift was Anglo-Irish, like my favorite author!

So, until Dmitry Chestnykh adds C.S. Lewis to the writers included in the “classifier,” I’m quite content to rest on my matches. Because even if I don’t share Lovecraft’s worldview, I can still respect his literary skill. And being identified with the other gentlemen, is a grand compliment.

[Special thanks to Julie Catherine who introduced me to the site via her post on the subject.]