Book Review: Creativity, Inc

 

Every once in a while you come across a book you would never attempt to read but for some stupid reason you do, and you are so thankful you did. This is one of those times.

While researching material on writing, I came across a recommendation for a book, and I kind of scratched my head. This was a book on business, and there was just no way I would read a book on business – my eyes would glaze in the first page, the same way they do if someone is talking actuarial tables or student loan forms. What could such a book have to do with writing? It just so happened the library had a copy I was able to grab. And that book, despite being a couple of years old (2014), is the best book I have read so far this year.

Creativity, Inc. is written by Ed Catmull,  who was part of the driving force behind Pixar Studios, the film company known for making ground-breaking and award-winning (and record-breaking, with more than 14 Billion dollars in revenue) animated films, such as Toy Story, Monsters,Inc, A Bug’s Life, and more. When Pixar and Disney merged in 2006, he applied his same priciples to the flagging animation department at Disney, who hadn’t had a hit in 16 years. Disney shot right back up with films like Wall-E, Cars, Incredibles, Coco, Brave, etc. To read this book is to relive the last 30 years of animated film making. If it’s not a walk down memory lane for your childhood, it is a reminder of all the wonderful films you saw with your children. If you haven’t enjoyed any of them, run and grab one today. 

What is Catmull’s secret? Of course a strong bottom line is what investors want, and Catmull agrees, but he refuses to allow the creativity of the artists to be stymied in any way. There are no superstars – not even preferred parking. Everyone from the janitor to the lunch lady to the writer is allowed equal – respected – input. Employees are encouraged to do what it takes to keep happy and relaxed, because happy employees are productive employees. They are encouraged to take time for classes offered at work – art, archery, whatever. If they are producing a film in Africa, a team of writers and artists will take a field trip to Africa and experience what they are trying to portray. Films, from first idea pitch to final cut – are brought up for constant, honest review, where the ensemble team toss ideas off each other about the work, good or bad, and the film may take a twist for the better from it. Every artist is respected every step of the way. Written into the contracts is a proviso that if a film reaches a certain amount of return, a portion of that is given to the employees as a bonus.

Needless to say, Pixar and Disney Animation staff are  happy to go to work. 

So, how did that all relate to writing?

Remember that movies start as stories. Someone has to write them before they can be filmed. By keeping an atmosphere that encourages creativity, no matter how odd (come on – talking cars? Emotions? Bugs? A rat who likes to cook? ), by immersing yourself in a creative environment, by learning to take constructive criticism without imploding, you become a better writer. A writer needs feedback as they develop ideas, as they write the ideas, as they polish their ideas into a final copy.  

This book was a joy to read. Grab it, read it, whether you’re looking for a business model to follow, as a manager looking to improve productivity, as an artist looking for appreciation, as a movie person wanting to know more about Pixar and Disney films. It’s all there. 

Be amazed at the process, and then check out one of the masterpieces Catmull’s presided over. Wall-E, Coco and Up are perfect for adults!

The Incredibles   –  Ratatouille  –  Cars  –  Shorts Finding Dory  –  Wall-E   

Inside Out –  Brave  –  Monsters, Inc  –  Toy Story  –  Coco  –  Up

Three Outstanding Women of Science Fiction

Our sci-fi-guy, Harold Kramer, has some authors to recommend:

Ursula K. Le Guin

The world of science fiction and fantasy lost two of its best writers in recent years: Ursula K. Le Guin and Vonda McIntyre. Ursula K. Le Guin, who I consider one of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers of the 20th century, died in 2018. She published over twenty-two novels, children’s books, and volumes of poetry and essays. Her works received many awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and National Book Award.

Her novels centered around two main themes: gender and political systems. Her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness is about the effect of gender on culture and society,  It won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel.  An example of novel based on political themes is The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, also a winner of both a Hugo and a Nebula Award.  It is about two planets orbiting next to each other – that have almost no contact between them and that have totally different economic and political systems – and the scientist who tries to unite the two worlds. I recently re-read The Dispossessed and it is still relevant today, particularly in our current political environment.

The Dispossessed is the first of six books in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. These novels are loosely connected by a people called the Hainish, who colonized earth and other planets hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Left Hand of Darkness is a Hainish novel along with Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile.

Le Guin also wrote The Books of Earthsea, a series that is decidedly more fantasy than science fiction. It full of magical events and it is the story of a young wizard – a sort of precursor to Harry Potter. The first book in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, is still a great read. The Earthsea collection of novels and short stories won the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor, the Nebula Award, and many other honors.

Vonda McIntyre

Vonda McIntyre passed away in 2019. She was a prolific writer of science fiction novels, novelizations, screenplays and short stories and she was an acclaimed teacher of writing.  

She was well known for her Star Trek novels that include The Entropy Effect and Enterprise: The First Adventure. She also wrote the novelizations of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Most readers agree that Dreamsnake is McIntyre’s greatest novel and it is based on her earlier novelette, Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand. It is about Snake, a female healer who possesses miraculous powers and a magical Dreamsnake.

Octavia Butler

My final recommendation is Kindred by Octavia Butler. Kindred has been acknowledged as the first widely known novel by a black, woman science fiction writer. It is a time travel story about Dana, a black woman, who in 1976 is abruptly transported back and forth, from her home in California to antebellum Maryland, where she encounters her ancestors and becomes enslaved. At its core, Kindred is about white supremacy, slavery, and, ultimately, survival. Butler is also the author of Lilith’s Brood, a collection of three works: DawnAdulthood Rites, and Imago. These dystopian novels were previously published in one volume called Xenogenesis. The New York Times said thatThe complete series is about an alien species that could save humanity after nuclear apocalypse—or destroy it”—from “one of science fiction’s finest writers.

Science Fiction and the Red Planet

Today’s post is by our sci-fi-guy, Harold Kramer.

Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor, has always fascinated science fiction writers here on planet earth.  Science fiction about Mars began with Jules Verne and his 1865 novel From Earth to the Moon.  This novel, like many others by Verne, was accurate in concept, although technology in his day made many of his ideas impossible to execute.

During the first half of the 20th century, science fiction writers were obsessed with Martians. Belligerent Martians invaded earth in H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds even caused a nationwide panic.  Written in 1950, The Martian Chronicles, a collection of strange and haunting short stories by Ray Bradbury were about an expedition to the red planet. Another early Mars novel was A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs who was a master of fast-moving adventure stories, whether in the jungle with Tarzan or on the moon with the Princess.  I have recently re-read some of these early science fiction novels and, while definitely not scientifically accurate, they still are good reads.

Beginning in the 1970s, the first NASA and Russian probes and rovers obtained real scientific data about Mars. Once sci fi writers realized that there were no little green men on Mars, science fiction tackled more realistic Martian topics and focused on the challenges of human colonization on the red planet.  A major sci fi theme was terraforming Mars to make it into a self-sustaining environment that was fit for life that developed on earth. Another major theme was what type of society and governmental structure might exist in a Mars colony.

One of the first works that explored these ideas was The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. This series consists of three books:  Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Red Mars won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1993.  Blue Mars won the 1997 Hugo Award. The trilogy begins with Red Mars when the first colonists arrive on Mars and simply try to survive. Green Mars and Blue Mars and continue the story one hundred years in the future when Mars has been terraformed into a green and politically independent world. My favorite of the three is the first book, Red Mars.

Ben Bova has written four related novels about Mars: Mars, Return to Mars, Mars Inc. and Mars Life. The planet Mars is the fourth  stop on his Grand Tour – a series of related novels that take place in the 21st Century and that focus on exploration and colonization of every planet in our solar system.  I enjoy reading Ben Bova’s books because of his clear writing, scientific imagination, and expansive ideas.

The Martian by Andy Weir, written in 2011, is my favorite book about Mars.  I couldn’t put it down once I started reading it.   It won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Science Fiction in 2014 and the Audie Award in 2015 for best science fiction audio book. The Martian is a modern-day Robinson Crusoe story about an American astronaut who is presumed dead but who is actually alive and stranded on Mars. What makes it so interesting is that the technology is highly credible, and the writing is taut. It was made into a movie in 2015 that was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Matt Damon.

​Many other great science fiction novelists have written about Mars.  These include Greg Bear’s Moving Mars and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars. Also notable are Larry Niven’s Rainbow Mars and Robert Heinlein’s classic, Stranger in a Strange Land.

Although this is a science-fiction blog post, I would like to mention a non-fiction book about Mars and planetary exploration and colonization. It is called The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and our Destiny Beyond Earth, by physicist Michio Kaku.  This scientifically based work is an extraordinary projection of the future of humanity as it moves from earth to the stars.

Leading Ladies in Literature – Strong Female Reads for International Women’s Day (March 8)

When asked to write a post about strong female protagonists, it took me longer than I’d like to admit to think of my favorites. Even if I’ve read hundreds of books over the course of my life, only a handful stand out in their portrayal of a female lead. Most often, the most interesting characters I’ve come across are varied, flawed, and human, filled with errors and quirks that I find easy to relate to in my day to day life. These are the women I find myself relating to (even if I do wish I could be as perfect as Hermione Granger) and rooting for. I’ve compiled a list of a few of my favorites, which barely scratch the surface of the wonderful and wide world of women in books, but hey, we all have to start somewhere.

If I’ve missed your favorites, please feel free to leave a comment down below, I’m always looking to add books to my reading list.                                                    

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. First off, this is a book I swore to never read again, ironically,  just because of how much it hurts to read. Wally Lamb is a master of creating a character you physically hurt for after getting to know them, and Dolores Price is no different. At once a fragile girl and a hard-edged cynic, so tough to love yet so inimitably lovable, Dolores is as poignantly real as our own imperfections. Through rough edges and rougher trials, including assault, mental institutions, absentee parents and lonely adulthood, Lamb shapes a character you find yourself cursing at, wincing for, and holding close.

519bogs1ivl._sx330_bo1,204,203,200_How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. After she shames herself on local TV, 14-year-old Johanna Morgan reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde–a fast-talking, hard-drinking Gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. Watching Johanna stumble through her rebirth into a plucky more confident version of herself made me look back fondly (and lets be honest, not that fondly) on my high school years. Trying to re-brand yourself, whether it be with new fish net stockings, a streak of pink in your hair, or a new favorite band, is a rough process. How to Build A Girl highlights how surface level all of these additions are, and asks the question, how far will one really go to re-imagine themselves? I found myself wanting to hug the pivotal character Johanna, and tell her it gets better, if not by action, then by time. It seems like even if she’s struggling, Johanna is a character you find yourself egging on, and even being somewhat jealous of at times.

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein.  I brought this book on vacation thinking I’d enjoy a pulpy novel about crime scene clean up. I’m a true crime fan myself, and my interest in forensic science has led me down an interesting path in terms of books in the past year. This book turned out to be the opposite of pulp, and had very little to do with crime scene clean up after all. Sandra Pankhurst is a titan in the industry of Specialized Trauma Cleaning, she does her job and she does it well. Before she began professionally cleaning up their traumas, she experienced her own. First, as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home. Then as a husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, and trophy wife. The true life story of Sandra left me wounded in ways I didn’t expect. In a world that profits of making jokes of hoarders and death, this book, and Sandra, treat these people with dignity. She bags up their postcards, their books, their recipe cards tucked into binders, and saves them from the despair of dirt and mold. She returns them to their family, and gives the people effected by it hope to start their life over. She never once jokes at their expense, or teases them for their situation behind closed doors. After going through such a violent and unforgiving life, Sandra shows grace and humility, mixed in with grit and sarcasm I find comforting.

51cbsqw0cbl._sx331_bo1,204,203,200_Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.  If you’re looking for a strange, otherworldly novel, that expands into two more books, then the Southern Reach trilogy is for you.  A group of female scientists, ignoring the high mortality rate of the previous missions, travels into an area only known as “Area X” to research a strange phenomenon.  Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.  The narrator, the biologist of the group,  is a strange and difficult character to get a hold on. You don’t know her motives until they uncover themselves, slowly and methodically throughout the text. She seems driven by knowledge and the unknown alone, until it’s revealed that she had a husband who also went into the reach, but who came back strange and unrecognizable. I think one of my favorite parts of this character is that she’s not a broken record throughout the story. She doesn’t repeat over and over her need to find her husband in the Reach, if anything, she loses that goal almost immediately. Her goals become more abstract, her position as a narrator is unreliable at best, which makes her all the more interesting.

Some other books with strong female protagonists worth checking out: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell, Little Women by Louise May Alcott, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Authors Neal Stephenson & Emily St. John Mandel: Different Visions for the Future of Mankind

Today’s guest post is by Harold Kramer, our go-to sci-fi guy!

While his works are usually categorized as science fiction, author Neal Stephenson’s novels span many genres, since they interweave politics, religion, archaeology, philosophy, technology, computer programming, and cryptography.  His novels take place the past, present, and future and often include actual historical characters.  His early, innovative cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash was named one of Time magazine’s 100 best English-language novels.

My favorite Neal Stephenson book is Cryptonomicon.  It takes place during two distinct periods, World War II and 1997.  The main characters are from the same family, but they are from different generations.  It’s a novel for people who like science-based, thought-provoking, fiction.  The plot focuses on the British government’s efforts at code breaking during World War II. If you are familiar with the movie The Imitation Game, many of the real-life characters in that film appear in this work of fiction.

I recently read Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves.  In this book, Earth becomes uninhabitable when an unidentified object strikes the moon that bursts into fragments.  These fragments eventually surround and smother the earth.  Humans survive by migrating to “space arks” where they must live for thousands of years.  Through various circumstances, political squabbles, and other unforeseen events, seven women, the seven Eves, are left to re-populate mankind. However, five thousand years later, humans have been discovered still living on earth resulting in complications between those who are earthbound and those who are space- bound.  While this topic has been covered by many other science fiction novels, Stephenson’s book has a unique perspective and it is based on hard scientific facts that make it stand out from the usual “earthlings migrate to space” novels.

Another dystopian novel, with a radically different point of view is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It  was a National Book Award Finalist and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award.  In this book, the earth is ravaged by a mysterious plague that wipes out much of mankind.  Earth has become a world with no technology – not even electricity.  The story focuses on a group of survivors who are musicians and actors and are called The Traveling Symphony.  They travel from town to town performing works of art from the past.  The book concerns their amazing journey and is full of colorful characters who end up at an abandoned airport called “The Museum.”  There is a villainous “prophet” who provides an interesting plot element.

Thanks to the readers who responded to my first blog post with some suggestions for authors worth considering.  I’m happy to mention Larry Niven, author of The Ringworld series, a classic work of science fiction and Anne McCaffrey, author of the Dragonriders Series and the first woman to win both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award. Let me know if you have more science fiction or fantasy authors worth noting.