Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Heir of Sea and Fire (1977)

I've wrapped up reading The Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia McKillip, 1977. I originally read this back in the autumn of 1980, when I was fourteen. I effectively had no memory of this book, other than it broke distinctly from the first book.

Our heroine, a betrothed woman, goes out to look for her missing man, building up a cohort of adventurous women, butting heads with the authorities, and generally being uppity. The overall characterization was good, the pacing was fun, the motivations were clear. Best of all, the conversation in this part of the book were highly naturalistic and contained great humanity. I found the first half, maybe 60% of this book, absolutely delightful.

Where concepts are explored, they are explored nicely from inside the context of the story. You get to understand what this idea of land heir means, and how its magic, and how it matters to everyday people. I can do with more fantasy like that. Even the heroine realizing and developing her magical powers were naturalistic and engaging.

Alas, from a great beginning came a mediocre ending. For some reason that I can't fathom, McKillip broke up her dream team and sent them home. Our heroine developed some magical powers for herself that let her do stuff. At first this all worked well, but everything accelerated towards the end, shoving our heroine towards the end of the book at a breakneck speed. I wound up getting to the end of the book so fast that I just didn't get the point of getting there.

In particular, McKillip had troubles with transitions in this book. In one paragraph, the heroine would be talking to some person, and in the next paragraph, ride a day, then speak to another person, so that if you weren't paying attention, the reader would miss the transition, and if the reader was paying attention, would still find that transition rather abrupt.

I found the heroine's sudden accelleration in magical power confusing and rushed. Towards the end, I had no idea what she was every trying to do with her magical powers, other than wish fulfillment.

Then there are some things that are both wonderful and terrible at the same time, such as McKillip's description of magic. In places, this works well, avoiding technobabble and letting us see the humanity in magic. In other places, the descriptions are so thick and colorful that all the colors run together into mud. Despite the wonderful descriptions, you really don't know what the hell just happened, and worse yet, you don't really care.

Overall, the quality of this book is a good cut better than The Riddle-Master of Hed. McKillip's successfully avoided repeated her mistakes from her first book, which is a very good sign from any writer. So go and enjoy the first half of this book, but when you hit the slog, just skim.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976)

Our next read is the Riddle-Master of Head, by Patricia McKillip, 1976. The book follows the adventures of Morgon, a man with three mysterious stars upon his forehead. What are they and what could they mean for himself, his land, and his world? Plenty.

I found the opening chapter for the Riddle-Master of Hed very rough. The opening chapter introduces us to Morgon, who seems to have no good sense whatsoever, gets into a random fistfight with an array of characters, meets a harper, and barely makes a reference to the three super-important stars on his head. If i were to judge this book by the first two or three chapters, I would put it into the recycle bin. The opening simply does not work for me. The first few chapters utterly fail to achieve a narrative. My belief is that these beginning chapters were among the earliest of McKillip's work, and that inexperience shows.

Why do I call Morgon an idiot? Well, Morgon is a riddle-master, trained in knowledge. He tells the story of how he went to a tower to win a crown from a ghost. Fair enough. Yet somehow, despite being trained in knowledge, he did not know that the King of An had offered his daughter's hand to whoever won that crown. Even more spectacular, his best friend is the son of that king and the brother to the girl, and he still doesn't know these things. How does that happen? The only possibly explanation is that Morgon is an idiot, which explain much of the remaining book with ease.

The beginning does feature a wonderful narrative, one that I wanted to know more about, but that narrative is only referred to. Morgon goes to the ghost of a dead king, willing to lose his life to win that crown. Why? A great story hands on that, but that story wasn't told to us.

The opening chapters also dump a vast amount of information at you. Rather than read these chapters, I fell back to scanning through the text. The signal to noise ratio of those early chapters was rather poor. In my opinion, there was too much noise to too little narrative. Even later on in the book, I found myself skipping all the details, often skimming from dialog to dialog.

McKillip is certainly a detail-oriented writer. She goes on for extended lengths on what is: what is seen, what is done, what is noticed, and what is said. Her prose is very literalistic, leveraging very little simile and metaphor within description. If anything, this betrays her inexperience. In later books, her narratives read far more naturalistic.

The novel itself follows a walkie-talkie structure. The plot turns around people who get together, share information, come to reasonable conclusions, and then move onward. So much plot lies within conversation that I find it a bit maddening. The conversation are also chock full of lore and detail, but almost entirely absent of human emotion or social jousting. To ridiculous extents, people in the story are quite well behaved and rational even when they are neither well behaved nor rational.

Areas seems to have the simplistic, modular structure that is so familiar to fantasy. One area is a city of THIS while another area is a city of THIS. This is a fine fantasy tradition, which hails back to Swift, certainly, and possibly to the Odyssey. However, areas doesn’t really seem to matter and everyone acts mostly the same.

Of special note is the harper. I had forgotten just how prevalent harpers were in 70's fantasy. I must remember to subvert that tradition in my own books. That they play of role of information gatherers fits well with other harpers of the time. If anyone wants a good paper to write, pick the user of harpers in high fantasy of the 1970s.

Of the fantastic elements, McKillip had some interesting ideas, such as land rule, the nature of wizards, and the great unsaidness of magic, but I think that these were all underplayed and poorly executed. I say that because in later books, she figures out how to present these to the reader in a far more effective and engaging manner.

In summary, I found the novel somewhat simplistic and dull, betraying in no way the improvements that would soon follow in her narrative. I was left with almost no opinion of the characters, neither fearing for them nor sympathizing with them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Endhaven Rules: Steel Rules, Unobtanium Drools

In Endhaven, steel is king and there's no obscurium or unobtanium in sight. "What's with that?" my shill in the audience asks?

When I began my Endhaven series, I fully intended to have adamantium and other exotic metals. They seemed fun. They seemed cool. They looked like they would work well in the story up until I got to the point where I actually needed to know what these metals did and why they were so important. Needing a bit of inspiration, I hit the books and surveyed the literature on metals, especially steel. Whatever this fanciful metal was, it had to work better than steel.

Here's a hint: NOTHING works better than steel. OK, that's a simplification, but it's pretty much true in the case of weapons. If you want a sword today, you are going to buy one out of steel because, after a thousand years, steel is still better than anything out there. It's not just that steel is hard, or that steel is flexible, or that it weights enough to give you a good punch without weighing too much. It's because it does all three of those things so well that any challenger has to do better. Steel was picked as the metal of choice for weapons because it hit the sweet spot so well.

Steel armor also does pretty well, to the point where we put it on soldier's heads through two world wars, and still insert it into body armor today to ward against sharp weapons. Where steel doesn't do well is against bullets, but you already knew that. If there were no bullets out there, I'd lay good money that we'd still be using steel in armor. (If you know something that's better in terms of weight vs. protection, speak up.)

Steel was developed before 1000 AD, but it took a while for the technology to spread. Smiths who knew how to make steel kept that knowledge secret so that they could corner whatever market they could. Up until the industrial revolution, the manufacture of steel was incredibly labor intensive, and therefore incredibly expensive. Once the blast furnace hit, the cost of iron plummeted, soon followed by steel. What was once rare became far more common.

So you can imagine what an unbelievable advantage that a group of steelmakers would have if they invented the blast furnace 500 years sooner than anyone else. They could undercut all their competition with lower prices while raking in a monster share of the profit. That's a pretty nice place to be.

One would also imagine that the secret of steel production would be worth an incalculable amount of money, so whoever had it would defend it vigorously, if not kill to keep it, like so many ancient technological secrets. (Read about silk sometime.)

With all this setup coming out so engaging, why would I go and invent a new metal? Steel is already the wonder metal. I literally could not make up better. So, I threw out adamantium and embraced steel.

Friday, November 14, 2014

1989 Honda Civic

In 1989 I bought my first car, a beige, base model Honda Civic hatchback. This car came equipped with a 4-speed manual transmission, air condition, and not nothing else that wasn't required by law. Ticket price for this treasure was $8,000. The down payment for this car came from my first job, working the night shift at a gardening supply warehouse, which delivered gardening supplies to hardware stores all around Baltimore. A few months after I bought this car, I lost that job.

Learning to drive a stick was irksome. I knew the basics of stick, but getting all the coordination down took forever. Shifting at road speed was easy, but starting and stopping was where all the challenge was. I remember Adrenalin rushes every time that I had to stop and turn. I never knew if I would stall the car or not.

I named my car Basil after the character Pazu from Laputa. They both seemed like little beige troopers that could.

Three months later, I found a new job. I would use my fledgling PC skills to repair PCs at pharmacies all over Maryland, Delaware, Northern Virginia, a bit of West Virginia, and southern Pennsylvania. Back in those days, the bad old days, computers sure did like to die terrible, horrible, no-good deaths at the bat of an eye. They were big, expensive, and businesses held onto them for a long time. To get more out of them, some had custom DOS OS's that let terminals access them.

During my first winter, and my first snowfall, I discovered how sucktacular my tires were. I am surprised that I made it home during my first snowfall. The tired did nothing but slide. Not long after that, I replaced my tires out of self-defense. My tires weren't snow tires and they hated driving in the rain. My new tires actually worked in the rain and worked well in the snow, too, which converted me to the cult of good tires. I'll happily get overcharged because I know what bad tires are like.

My friends ribbed me for getting a civic. All my school friends bought Ford Probes or other nice, sporty cars. I bought a Civic. My D&D group at the time suggested that I turn my Civic into a sports car as a joke. In time, the joke would be on them. I would never turn my Civic into a sports car, but others would. The Civic had a few traits which made it a great car for modding. First, the Civic was light. I could push that car up a hill by myself. I could pop start it drifting backwards across two parking spaces. (I frequently forgot and left my lights on.) Despite being light, the car was very stable, with a very low center of gravity. Put that together with an easily tinkered engine and a low price, and you  had everything necessary to be a great beater. Every bit of horsepower that you put into one of those cars came straight back out. By the late 90's, the Civic was among the favorite cars for street racing. Little did I know that I was ahead of the curve.

The only real modding that I did was to put a wooden shift knob onto the stick, and a wrap around the steering wheel. The knob was for show, but the extra grip on the wheel was absolutely needed. Also, car seat covers because vinyl seats are for the birds.

I had a tendency on this car to drive using my wrist. The bottom of the wheel was open, so I would just hang my wrist there and cruise along, never having to worry about my arms getting tired.

I must confess to leaving the windows open during the summers. On more than a few days, I came out to a soaked front seat, so I worked out various ways of not getting my underwear wet, but the results were never any fun. Keeping your behind on a wet seat for hours at a time is a recipe for woe and an itchy ass.

When the Gulf War hit, that Civic made me a mint. As I drove about for a living, I earned mileage on my private vehicle. My Civic got me 40 mpg, and well tuned, could hit 45 mpg. As gas prices spiked during the war, my reimbursement payments spiked as well. My little gas sipper barely noticed. I wound up earning so much from mileage in 18 months that the mileage flat-out paid for my car, and that's taking into account insurance, gas, and tires.

My Civic was usually good in the snow. I rarely got stuck. I took the thing out after a major blizzard with no trouble. Ice was a different story. I was driving out to Herndon a friend when we hit a patch of ice on I270. A brief bump swung the car around in a graceful twirl, leaving us going backwards on  at 60 mph. Knowing this was bad (to put it bluntly), especially as there was a stuck car ahead of us, I flicked my front-wheel drive wheels, gunned them a bit, and righted the car back around. After that, it was as easy drift over.

That wasn't the only accident or near accident. I did have to dive off the road once to avoid the tail end of a bus. That was easy. In a scarier incident, out in western Maryland, a truck towing a race car decide that it wanted to be in the left lane for no goddamn reason. The car pushed me into the medium. Fortunately, everything turned out OK.

The only accident was when I tail-ended a woman on the Washington beltway. I still feel bad about that. I jammed down my foot, putting the weight onto my heel, not the toe, so I didn't brake well enough. Bam. She got it in the rear and I got an almost perfect circle poked through my bumper from her muffler. I drove that car home afterwards, too. After my car had gotten fixed, I found that the mechanics had taken all my spare change from the car and one of my mixed tapes. To this day, I don't remember what was on that tape, but I still wonder. It's like a lost pet. It's gone, I don't want to forget, but my memory is hazy

I did eventually get a radio for the car. Crutchfield provided everything that I needed. Wiring the antenna in was the hardest part as I had to get the antenna wire down through the frame to a place where I could find it. Everything else just got pulled to where it needed to go. Once I had a cassette deck, I had happiness. That was the golden era of mixed tapes for me as I really liked having my tunes on those drives. Albums got put onto loops for days at a time. Particularly good survivors were the Bangles' All Over the Place, both Voice of the Beehive albums, all the Reivers albums, and Concrete Blonde's Bloodletting.

I wasn't very social before I started driving around in that job. I had never needed to be. My social skills were truly terrible. But visiting pharmacists over and over got me lots of social practice and my social skill pretty much went through the roof. Going to a job site became going to visit friends and fixing their computers. Me and those pharmacists had a great time together (except for those killjoys who weren't any fun.)

The hardest part of driving was that no amount of rushing could get me there faster. I could go faster, but really, it didn't matter. I just had to be patient and drive. Sometimes the tedium of driving got to me. Getting bored of the highway system, I dropped back to using the rural route system which predated the highway system. The back roads were usually far more interesting than the main road, which helped me to stay awake. I didn't drink coffee back then, so something had to keep me engaged. I knew my routes by the time that I was done. I could tell you how to get between any two pharmacies in my territory, off the top of my head, including how long it would take to within five minutes. Yeah, I was good.

Staying awake during the winter seemed especially hard. I would bundle up, roll down my windows, and freeze.

On the job, I learned PCs and learned them fast. The techs down in Richmond were used to working with idiots who always needed to get talked through things. I usually only needed one call to learn something. This surprised them to no end, which I still find pathetic. By the time that I was laid of from that job, I had my foundation as a solid PC person.

I wound up selling the car in 1996 after I bought my Subaru Outback. The dealership offered me $200 for it, so selling it on my own for $500 seemed like a better deal to me. The girl who bought it from me didn't understand that you needed to hold it the clutch to start it, so that gave her some fits, but she worked through it. Meanwhile, I felt like I had sold my little Honda down the river. I got over it. Great car!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Castle Roogna (1979)

Castle Roogna was the third Xanth novel by Piers Anthony. The novel features Dor, Bink's son, who is in training to be the next king of Xanth. He is tasked with turning a friendly zombie back into a real person. And on that hangs a tale that involves going back in time to 800 years ago, during the golden age of King Roogna.

Stylistically, gone is the comedy that was A Spell for Chameleon, and also gone is the classic adventure of The Source of Magic. With Castle Roogna comes the final pieces that makes Xanth the juvenile series of the late 20th century, those being a coming of age story, the forced and gratuitous use of puns suggested by the fans, and a new lead character every book. The lighting is now gone, replaced by merely competent writing.

Castle Roogna disappointed me in my youth. I wanted a book about Bink and only about Bink. A trilogy involves a character that you like across all three books. To switch character is book three just spoiled my day. I could not forgive that in the book. That, I just didn't care about Dor. On rereading the novel, I found myself still unable to care about Dor. The further that I read into the book, the less that I cared. I found myself reading this book less and less, not more and more. By the end, I was glad to wrap the book up.

I must complement Piers in his ability to both open and close a novel. Although the middle lost me, he did quite a job at interpolating the whole affair. Interpolating is a technique often used in the Bible where a scene is given meaning by including information on each side of it to give the scene context. Piers uses this technique as well, using it to give the story context. His conclusion is also particularly nice, as he has many threads to wrap up and he wraps them all up quite naturally and well, down to the apparent contradictions that the novel suggests. If you want to improve your wrap-ups, this is a good novel to study.

As an adult, I now understand all the sexual references that the author never explained, for Piers always left the most detailed sex scenes to the knowledge of the reader. In this, Piers shows himself was quite the classy writer. It is this very suggestiveness that allowed youth to read his books and cracked open the audience for him.

The book itself is a blatant reversal of the usual male power-fantasy genre. In that genre, the chosen male find himself in strange circumstances, wins himself a leadership position among his new allies, defeats his enemies, exudes testosterone, and get the highest ranking, most beautiful female available. In this book, all those things happen, but the hero's a kid who keeps it in his pants, doesn't wind up king, and doesn't like all the killing and violence very much. In fact, our hero succeeds by talking to things more than hitting them. Brilliantly done, Piers.

It is noteworthy that this is the first Xanth book written after A Spell For Chameleon had been published. In this book, Piers had already received fan mail from his readers and had already learned a great deal about what his readership liked. Intelligently, the man gave the audience what they wanted, and kept his mouth shut on topics which were too explicit.

Sexism rears its head in this book. The man was clearly writing for boys, not yet knowing how powerful of an audience that girls would turn out to be. I think as the years went by, he came to appreciate that girls did read his books and he strove to increasingly use them as primary characters. What's obvious here is that he did not yet understand how to use them, although that I can't say that is entirely true. When Dor appears as a barbarian in Xanth, he essentially writes a book that could be called A Barbarian in Xanth. It's a story that plays comedic  homage to the barbarian trope, where his muscles destroy all comers and women throw themselves at the manly man. Here, Dor is never comfortable with his manly man-ness, and winds up succeeding by the use of his mind, not his brawn.

I will still accept Castle Roogna as an entertaining read, if not better than average, but I would not put it into the top tier of fantasy books. In my opinion, it misses the mark, alternately over-thinking and under-thinking too many parts of itself.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Endhaven Rules: No Absolutes

One of the rules that drives my editor crazy about Endhaven is my blatantly contradictory cosmology. Those contradictions are on purpose. They are supposed to be there. Endhaven is not a neat and tidy place where everything makes sense and the reader, or even the gods, can know everything that there is to know. If there is anything resembling a system, it's a system built from the wreckage of seventeen different cars, taking the motor from car but the radio from another, until you have something that isn't anything at all. It's sorta like that Johnny Cash song where some autoworkers steal a car one piece at a time.

Why do I do this? Why do I contradict my own world building? Because in human history, this situation was not only prevalent, but normal. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Germans, and Persians all disagreed on their religion and the nature of the universe. They tried to draw equivalences where they could, but the system was still a mess. Even inside Greece, the worship of a god and the stories that surrounded the cult differed. The more that you dig your head into those stories, the more that you learn that there are no definitives in the pagan world. Not only is there no answer in the back of the book, there is no book. Paganism is dominated by revalation, intuition, history, reason. revelation, and happenstance. It's a mess. There is no one single person who gets to say what is true and what is false.

For me as a writer, and you as a reader, I think that uncertainty and messiness makes for a better read. So in Endhaven, we know that all souls go to Endhaven. We also know that souls go to the appropriate gods. Which is it? Which is true? Well, I'm not telling you which is true. That's the point. There is no true. There is no absolute. To learn the absolute truth is create certainty, and despite what you might think, certainty does not make for a good story. A story dwells in uncertainty. To know the gods absolutely is impossible.

In the Jura City series, we see Maran visit the gods in the Steel City. This is the heavenly place associated with the dwarves. Is it really there? No, I think not. The Steel City is just a vision that the dwarves understand. It is no more real than any other sort of heaven. I like to think that the elves and the humans have places quite different than the Steel City, but that those places also contain the same characters. Jack still guards a bridge, Rem still dishes out unwanted advice, and the White Lady still sleeps, all recognizable, yet all quite different in their expression.

The only place that is always what it is is Endhaven itself. That place is always a caldera in a placid sea,  holding the Lake of Souls, and on an island in that lake, the Ancient One in whatever form that she takes for you.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Endhaven Rules: A World Without Wizards

I have a simple rule in Endhaven. There are no wizards. There are magic people, of course, because this is a fantasy, but there are no wizards. This goes with never using the words "magic." You see, wizards to magic. They can do any sort of magic in any sort of way. The readers expect this of wizards. To avoid that expectation, I simply don't have them.

What does that leave me with? Quite a lot, actually. At a minimum, I avoid having a cliche, which isn't a bad thing in itself. At best, I have wonderful opportunities, and those opportunities are what makes this rule so much fun.

So, if I don't have wizards, then what do I call my magic people? The answer turned out to be "lots of things." As magic in Endhaven is so fragmented, existing without any sort of overarching system, the practitioners of magic are also fragmented, existing within the context of their race, culture, and time period, and each acting in their own unique way.

Culture has a great impact on what you call something. If I take shamanism and give it to dwarves, what would dwarves do with shamanism? It surely would not remain unchanged. The religious idea would distort and change to serve the needs and circumstances of dwarves. So after all those changes, could you call as dwarf shaman a shaman, or would that magical position now be better called a different word? Even within the dwarves cultures, one type of dwarf some types of dwarf would surely shamanism different than the others. The dwarves who run the iron furnaces would surely have different needs and desires than the dwarves that grow the crops, and these should be different than the dwarves that care for horses and drive the wagons. So even within the same racial groups, should they use the same words or different words?

The great thing about words is that they convey meaning. If grave diggers are the ones who culturally guarantee the passage of the dead to the underworld, then grave digger surely implies something different than shaman even though they do much of the same thing. Where a shaman implies a man or woman of great power, a grave digger implies a dirty person of low station.

Interestingly, early Christians called a grave digger a fosser, a religious position, as the body would be needed in the resurrection of the dead. Laying the body down wrong could result in a good Christian being unable to be resurrected. Same words, two jobs, and such wonderful implications.

As titles are so important, as they are so tied to my stories and themes, I think a great deal about titles before putting them into my books. There's a huge difference between a fossor, a respected member of the community, and a grave digger, among the lowest. Those differences are what makes the story interesting enough to write. In a world full of magic, what is needed from a grave digger? If a grave digger is a religious profession, how does that impact their legal standing in the society? By being religious, what rights does the position confer and what responsibilities does it entail? What happens if those responsibilities are not met? If the grave digger can cross worlds, and so communicate with the spirits, what relationships develop from that?

So simply by not having a wizard, but still having magic, I've given myself a huge amount of material to work with and develop from without falling back to "a wizard by another name who isn't really a wizard but everyone knows that they are a wizard."

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Endhaven Rules: Don't Say Magic

When I began the Endhaven series, I developed a set of rules which helped make the setting interesting to myself, and hopefully interesting to you. These rules are very few, and their use is generally not visible, but their impact is significant. By incorporating the rules early, the implications of those rules play out in the Endhaven stories. So the rules are not just tacked on as an exercise, but shape the way that I think as I write.

The most important rule that I made for myself was to never use the word 'magic.' Even more importantly, there would be no universal word to replace magic because magic represents too many things, so even if the term did exist, no one would bother using it. Instead. magic is represented in more prosaic terms such as secret, skill, technique, or knowledge. The immediate benefit of using these words is to put the reader in doubt about what is magic and what isn't magic, making this whole idea of magic far more unclear.

For example, the Ironmongers know the secret of mass producing iron into steel by using a blast furnace. Now, is this really magic or is it technology? The answer is that it doesn't matter. This technique is making them a fortune and they kill to keep this a secret.

Behind all these terms comes the idea of limitation. When people hear magic, they think of limitless possibilities. Anything can happen with magic and often does. Magic is wonderful and mystical and powerful. If a wizard can just as easily change your shape as protect you from fire. It's all magic. It's all equal. On the other hand, secrets are only secrets when kept secret. He he knows a secret has no incentive to divulge it, usually as gaining that secret had a cost. The secret of changing your shape in no way implies the secret of protecting you from fire. Secrets imply limits, and rather difficult limits at that. With secrets, all things may be possible, but few know each answer.

Skills and techniques also work well with limiting magic. A master sword maker will spend a lifetime perfecting his technique in making a single type of weapon. Part of that is the secrets of steel, but an equal part of that is experience and training. Just reading a book or learning a secret won't give you enough information to produce a sword. The great implication of this is that producing a sword is as much a work of magic, and as equally capable of producing a magic weapon, as a wizard with some book. It pulls magic out of waving hands and chanting words, pulling it into the experiential. Thing which did not seem magic before seem magic now.

The truth is, raw magic blinds us with our preconceptions of men in pointy hats with staves and spells and near super-powers. Only by pulling it off the table to we see that magic can take a myriad of other shapes, working its way down into culture and language in ways that had not been considered recently.

Why do I say recently? Because we know what a society based on magic looks like. The pre-modern world assumed magic. Look at China and Medieval Europe, and you will see societies based on the ideas of magic. All the world was magic to them. Professions, dependent on the goodwill of saints or spirits or minor gods, made sure to keep up their rituals. The state had a magical and divine explanation for why the rulers should rule, and why you should obey their laws. It's all there if you are willing to see it. What makes it magic was not the fact of it being magical but the presumption of the people that it was magical.