Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mostly Harmless (2000)

Mostly Harmless (2000) by Douglas Adams shows demonstrates what happens when a novelist acts passive-aggressively towards his publisher. While technically a Hitchhiker's book, the novel lacks much of the charmingness that a Hitchhiker's book usually contains. If you thought that our heroes were sent through the ringer in previous books, they're positively steamrolled flat in this one. If there was any book that the fans wouldn't want, this is it.

This book sends a message to the publisher: if you want an even less sympathetic Hitchhiker's book, I dare you, just dare you, to make me write it.

On the writing side, the whole thing works as a story, the descriptions continue to engage, and the plot still rolls along nicely. However, without its metaphorical heart of gold, it's got a metaphorical heart of lead. I figure that Douglas must have played a rousing game of Fallout before penning this book, just to reacquaint himself to bleak.

If Le Miserables were written as a comedy, it would read like this. As a film, it would be directed by Lars von Trier. If it was a play, it would go on after Hamlet just so that the audience could get properly warmed up.

If you aren't up for it, then skip it. Your happy universe will be better off. On the other hand, if you love the humor in Fallout, then this is the book for you.

Monday, December 21, 2015

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1974)

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) was the fourth book in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. In this book, Arthur returns to the earth to find it mysteriously reappeared, only to meet the an enchanting girl over and over again through improbable circumstances.

If you've been reading this series, you will discover that this is the best written manuscript to date. This tale is more of a romantic comedy than a space adventure, where a little human happiness and love are the central part of our story. Also, there's the mystery of why the Earth shows up again, but once the romantic comedy starts, you don't care. You just accept that the Earth is back and Arthur gets to see the world in it's inexplicable ordinariness.

Here is the book where Douglas Adams' genius really takes off and stays up.

The girl in question is mentioned in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as that girl that finally figured out what was wrong and how to solve everything. This isn't a spoiler as you learn that much in the first three pages.

On the whole, the pacing is relaxed but not slothy, exciting without anxiety, humorous as real life, and as lively as humor. I think it's as solid a ramble as you're ever likely to find. The main difference between this book and a real romantic comedy is that this book is far more believable.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982)

Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982), the third Hitchhiker's book by Douglas Adams, is the first Hitchhiker's book conceived as a novel, rather than as a radio drama that was converted into a novel. This difference shows. Where before his novels felt like excuses for scenes, this novel feel like excuses for scenes that create a coherent narrative (mostly).

In this narrative, we have the typical hero's journey tale, where Arthur and Ford are called on by Slartibarfast to save the Universe. You can guess how well that goes. In between, they meet up with all their usual companions, encounter improbable circumstances, and repeatedly encounter many running jokes. On the whole the book maintains a brisk pace, the scenes work, the narrative works, and then you hit the end.

The end. There's the obvious end, where everything should have ended, and then there's the extended end, where, I suppose, Douglas hadn't written enough pages, so he tacked on a few useless chapters because his editor said so. These had the feel of a hurriedly written manuscript.

Aside from the end, the scenes and the jokes really go together well. Most of the the storytelling is solid, clear, and ridiculous in only the way that Douglas can make a story. I wish that I could start people with this Hitchhiker's, because it works far better than his first two books. While I have to say that it's less brilliant (but only in comparison to the radio shows), he more than makes up for that with engagement and a passel of jokes that works far better novelized than serialized.

Saving the Phantom Menace

So, how could you redeem Star Wars: The Phantom Menace?

Note: the answer isn't Jar Jar. You may hate the character, but plotwise, he's mostly harmless. Cutting him may reduce the irritation, but it doesn't improve the story.

The pod race is the lowest hanging fruit in the forest. This vast, pointless exercise tells us nothing about the characters, provides no meaningful tension, and gives us nothing to fear. It's no more than a purposeful roller-coaster ride.

What does the podrace lack? It lacks ANGER and it lacks ANGER leading to THE FORCE.

I'll rewrite. Little Anakin starts his podrace. When his pod goes out of control through sabotage, the connector cable snapping about, he uses THE FORCE to grab the loose cable. Ah, we say, this kid does have it. He does have the force, and he's already strong enough to grab things. This is his aha moment. He realize that ANGER connects him to the force. With the ANGER, he uses THE FORCE to make his podracer go faster. He uses ANGER/THE FORCE to catch up. He uses ANGER/THE FORCE to choke the champion podracer, causing his wreck.

This is an improvement because the audience sees that Anakin really is special, and later on, when Yoda forbids Anakins training, the audience udnerstands why this as wise. To remove the scene would now be to gut Anakins awakening, and our fundamental understanding of how this character is going astray.

So where else can we use the temper? Mom. We can have mom afraid of Anakin. She doesn't even need to say anything different, she just needs to act like the child is a fearful menace. His temper has gotten her sold multiple times. Only Sebulba, so immune to the force, seems to be able to handle the kid, and even he's getting tired of the brat.

Another solution would be to advance the age of Anakin by some years. That would take no changes to the script and get us a slightly older actor, and therefore, a stronger performance.

We can also change how Anakin appears in the camera. By making lighting and camera angle choices, we can emphasize an intensity to the kid. Importantly, we can make him seem both great and sinister at the same time. In fact, we need to see his hero capacity shining out just as much as we see his sinister side screaming out. He'll be a hero who's always walking the line, striving for the light side, but always tempted by the dark.

An important principle is that what happens here must echo into the main film and give those scenes more meaning, more gravitas. Those scenes with the force must bind all the films together.

The other way to improve the film is to actually have Qui Gon's character matter. He seems like he matters, but none of his ideas or observations actually come out in the film, nor do they influence any of the following films. In sad truth, he could have been a robot with a light saber spouting out prerecorded lines. That doesn't make a good trilogy. He needs a better use. His touch must be present through all the prequals and into the classic films. The victory of the light side must come from his observations. He is the one who talks about the all-connected force that connects us all. He is the one who first throws down his light saber and says, "I will not fight you. If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

Yoda needs to fit into this narrative. We must change Yoda a bit. In the beginning, Yoda only talks about the force as a tool for the Jedi to use, as if he is a master craftsman, and only later adopts the idea of the all flowing force of Qui Gon. This history explains why, in Empire, Yoda is so reluctant to be a teacher, not only because Luke is too old, but under Yoda's teaching the Jedi failed. Yoda failed as a teacher and failed as a learner. He now doubts that he can succeed this time with a student that should be just as terrible as Vader. His reluctance shows his own doubts.

At first, Ben retreats to Yoda's teaching, teaching Anakin traditionally, but by the end of the second film, will come around to Qui Gon's teachings. From Ben's point of view, the first trilogy reveals how Master Qui Gon was right, and it's this teaching which allows him to surpass Anakin despite Anakin's epic anger. He passes this teaching to Luke, and so does Yoda. In Empire, Luke fails to learn his lesson at the dark tree and draws his light saber. Only at the end of Return of the Jedi does Luke throw down his weapon, trusting himself entirely to the living force as Qui Gon did and as Ben did. Vader has always though that Luke learned the old style of Jedi training from Ben, but with Luke's action, he sees Qui Gon, and he understands at that moment that Luke is part of the living force tradition. Qui Gon, for a brief moment, was like his own father. Qui Gon gave everything so that Anakin could live. At that moment, Vader has the same decision to make about his own son. Who's side would he choose? He chooses the living force.

With those elements in there, we'd have a far stronger story, one that arcs over the prequals and clear into the main three films. These events would give meaning to the central films without taking away the emotions or gravitas of any of the existing scenes.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) picks up where the Guide left off, furthering the adapted radio adventures of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Trillian. The book inherits all the strengths and weakness of the first adaptation, while attempting to remediate the radio series's flaws.

The strength of this book remains Douglas's wit and humor, his stunningly realized comedic characters, the bizarre scenes, and his ability to highlight the flaws in our own technological society. The weaknesses of this book remain the story. That is to say, it doesn't have one. Well, it does have one, but it doesn't really matter.

Douglas does try to create an overarching story to hold the work together, with Zaphod's search for the man who rules the universe, but we never really care. He even rearranges the end of the first radio series and the entirety of the second radio series to make it all happen, but to no avail. Even for a Hitchhiker's fan like myself, the book looses its wind in the middle, begging you to put it down.

Overall, a work of comedy must work as comedy before anything else, and in that, this book succeeds. The book works where it matters most. But if you want a good overarching story that your local writer's group won't tear apart, you'd better read something else.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

From 1979 comes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, a wholly remarkable book and a fully unexpected best seller.

The book shows itself at the beginning of Douglas's unconsidered literary career. A screen writer, he didn't want to write books, but write books he did, given enough prompting and large amounts of small green pieces of paper. The book shows the writer's newness to the medium, reading in a rather uneven yet deeply comedic fashion. No pro writer would have put that book out, because you just don't structure a story that way, but Douglas was writing by the seat of his pants when he wrote the radio show which the book adapts, so he paces fairly close to the original story. What is very obvious from the beginning is that the man knew how to twist a phrase, tie it into knots, wash it, dry it, hide it in the bathroom, and in the end, throwing it when it became unidentifiable.

Douglas Adams also showed himself among the best futurists that the world has ever seen, if only because he knows that the engineers aren't in charge. He keen looks at how technology can go wrong proved prophetic to the years ahead, because new technology sure likes to go wrong.

On the whole, I feel that the book has aged well. There are some references to tapes and data banks, and other period technologies. The Guide itself is described as having a very small screen. And yet, mostly, you don't notice the technology at all once it gets going because the important parts of recently technology haven't change much. More importantly, the frustrating and annoying parts of technology remain the same because marketeers and engineers haven't changed very much. Dumb ideas remain dumb ideas.

You should give the book a try. It's a quick read and though a bit rough about the edges, looking at times as haggard as the original actors, once the characters start speaking, all that will wash away. The humor in it that works still hits the mark, assuming that you like British humor.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

What is Fantasy?

What is fantasy? Is that a loaded question or what? I mean, I'd be safer juggling hand grenades than answering this question. How do you keep all those grenades in the air without blowing yourself up? That's what defining fantasy feels like to me.

Yet stupidly, I will try, because I'm stupid. [Yes, stupid is worth repeating here.]

I think that fantasy is a story of some sort. It may be a complex story, like Lord of the Ring, a simpler story, like Jack and the Beanstalk, or an extension of a story, like the Atlas of Middle Earth.

What sort of story? I think that fantasy encompasses clearly implausible stories. I think that plausibility is what separates speculative fiction from fantasy. When a story is plausible, or puts on the airs of plausibility, or rests itself on plausibility to a significant extent, then the story is speculative fiction or science fiction.

As plausibility is not a binary, what's plausible lies along a continuum of plausible to implausible. Fantasy lies on the further end of plausible, the implausible. Fantasy isn't merely one thing being implausible, but a significant core of implausibility. For example, Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up (implausible) uses magic fairy dust to make kids fly (implausible), take them to Neverland (implausible), to fight pirates (implausible) and sleep in a tree with no source of food (implausible). Meanwhile, in Lord of the Rings, hobbits (implausible) with a magic ring  (implausible) travel to Mordor (implausible) with a wizard, a dwarf, and and elf (implausible), to sneak by orcs (implausible) to destroy the One Ring, which can only be destroyed where it was made (implausible).

What about horror? Horror exists throughout speculative fiction because horror is independent of plausibility. Horror is situational, does not require speculative fiction trappings, and when using the implausible, can describe the implausible as a McGuffin during the development process. The exact working of the implausible doesn't matter. What matters in horror is the experience of the protagonist.

What of myths? Are they not implausible? To you, they may be implausible, but to the people who told those stories, they may be perfectly plausible. So to be fantasy, the stories must be implausible to their society at the time that the story is created. Psychic stories fall under speculative fiction because at the height of their popularity, many considered psychic powers plausible.

So are all implausible stories fantasy? What about comedies? To sort this out, we must realize that comedies are not implausible stories, they are improbable stories. They are funny because the possibility exists that people could make all those odd choices given the right circumstances, leading to an outlandish result. That makes comedies improbable, not implausible. Even given an SF backdrop, a comedy isn't a comedy unless its funny to the society that it's made for. That means that the comedy must triangulate with the experiences of the audience, using the expectations of the audience against them. In this case, speculative fiction elements become tools for the comedy to use rather than being ends in themselves.

Beyond an implausible story, I don't know what else universally defines fantasy except social convention. Super hero stories aren't seen as improbable. In this case, I think it's because there is so much plausible in the stories themselves. Superman (implausible) fights crime (plausible given his superness), rescues people (plausible), and protects us from bad guys (plausible).  The heroes and villains may be implausible, but the bank robbing, kidnapping, stealing, car crashing, and building destruction all reside in the world of plausibility. The world itself remains the place that we know.

What about urban fantasy? A girl with a sword (plausible) interacts with fantasy creatures (implausible), fights without getting injured while wearing no armor (implausible), carries a sword about without getting arrested (implausible), and keeps the dark creatures from doing evil things (like casting spells, causing Armageddon, or creating more vampires). From that angle, urban fantasy appears rooted in implausibility.

But have I actually answered what is fantasy, or have I just created some metrics to measure? I think definitely the latter. You couldn't write a fantasy story from my definition, "A story that is implausible to its society at the time of its creation."

Targa vs The World

So, as an author, I'll play the fanfic game. How would Targa stack up against the great swordsmen of fantasy (both film and fiction)? The fun of this match up is that each genre changes the rules a little bit, making the fights interesting in fun ways. Each genre wants a good fight, and gives me the tools to make the fight interesting despite any objective power differences.

There are more fights possible, of course. I skipped characters that I didn't know (there are lots of anime swordsmen). I also skipped characters where Targa would have slaughtered her opposition. I found those comparisons boring.

Yu Shu Lien (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) - Michelle Yeoh is one of my great inspirations behind Targa. In a fight, Targa would defeat Yu because Targa's in the next league up. However, the respect would be there. Yu is the spiritual anchor of Targa.

Master Li Mu Bai (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) - When I wrote Targa, I used Master Li as my touchstone for her martial abilities. In a fight between these two characters, the winner is anybody's guess.

Elric of Melnibone - Even with The Wind Before the Storm in her hands, Targa would be no match for Elric. Stormbringer would defeat her. Without Stormbringer, Targa would win with any weapon.

Conan the Barbarian - In this battle of brawn vs skill, I'll leave the winner as anybody's guess. Conan may not be as skilled as Targa, but he's far more experienced, enough so that victory would not be easily won by either side.

Jackie Chan character - Targa would play the straight man vs. most of Jackie's characters. She'd beat him up, but not before Jackie got all the best stunts, and most likely got away. Later in the film, Jackie would have perfected some sort of drunken master martial art and set to a rematch, making himself equal to Targa.

Cyrano de Bergerac - He might not be able to leap buildings and turn twirls, but Cyrano, through sheer expertise, would prove a tough fight. I think that Targa would take the win, but not without regret if she had to kill the man. If possible, she would let him live.

Legolas (film version) - Does it really matter who would win? This fight would be all about the outrageous stunts as each gets close to killing the other and failing. This fight would run so long that each combatant would get worn down, fighting slower and slower as time passed.

Captain Jack Sparrow - Captain Jack would run away. He's no fool. Any survival by him would be through sheer trickery, which he has turned up to 11.

The Dread Pirate Roberts - Its now who wins, but the style in the fight. I see an exchange of poetry as the fight goes on, dueling quotes in addition to crossing swords. Targa should win the swords, but Roberts should win the poetry, thus making the contest a draw.

Benedict of Amber - Here's a good fight, but in the end, I would put my money on Benedict. His is a degree of skill that even Targa cannot yet manage. However, she could take Corwin or Eric.

D'Artagnan - Targa would win. He's good, very good, but not crazy good.

Drizzt - This would be one of those impossible fights where the characters are at odds, but don't want to be at odds, but must be at odds, each looking for a way to de-escalate, but each damned by escalation. Targa has the better technique, but Drizzt has heart. Targa has her goal, but Drizzt feels like his back is against a wall.

Anybody Dead - Be it the ring wraiths, vampires, or ghosts, with The Wind Before the Storm, Targa can do what nobody else can do and kill them. That doesn't necessarily make it easy for her, as some opponents are just that good, but nobody gets to use the "I'm immortal" defense against her.

Jedi/Sith - I really don't care who Targa's fighting, this ought to be a truly level-equivalent fight. With both combattants sitting in genre, they can both use all their abilities to full end. The big problem comes with her sword, but since The Wind Before the Storm is a magic sword, it works against lightsabers. (Yeah, you heard it here first.) Targa will take down any Sith (except Darth Vader, because nobody beats Darth Vader, and not the Emperor), but not without work. Same for the Jedi. She'll lose to Yoda and be damned challenged by any Jedi master. If you aren't a proper Jedi master, forget it.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Dissatisfaction with the History of Fantasy

I've perused several histories of the fantasy genre recently, and I find myself dissatisfied. I can't quite put my finger on the cause yet, other than overwhelming vagueness and considerable hand waving leaves my academic heart wanting. Isn't there anything harder-core out there?

For myself, I can identify a number of movements within fantasy history. (I can't call them eras because nobody dominated most eras. I call them movements because multiple movements existed in parallel.)

The Tolkienesque movement began with Tolkien and continued forward. He espoused a full world with its own history. Yes, this world was supposed to precede ours, but you forgot about that pretty quickly.

Beginning with An Interview with a Vampire, Anne Rice ignited the modern vampire movement. This area got red hot in the 90's, leading to the urban fantasy of today.

The D&D movement began with kids playing D&D, and TSR publishing novels in the D&D milieu. Wizards of the Coast has slowed down in recent years, only issuing 4-6 novels per year, but in their heydey, they were a publishing powerhouse. I suppose that all gaming fantasy follows from this. (In my quick research on this, one of the best resources on WotC/TSR is the research I did back in the mid-200's. Go figure! And my work had been ripped off at least once. Yeah, baby!)

I don't know how to trace back urban fantasy. By the time of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movement was fully formed. That movement continues to this day with a fierce following.

Then there's the punk. Cyberpunk held supreme in the late 80's to early 90's. Steampunk traces it roots back to the 70's, but as a movement, didn't really get going until the 2000's. Other punks exist as well.

Female-oriented fantasies have exploded big-time in the indie channels. These combine romance, erotica, and the fantastic. For example, a woman meets a werewolf and joins a werewolf pack, along with all the interpersonal drama that comes with it.

Tie-in fiction got real big in the 80s. For example, we only need to look to the vast number of Star Wars novels out there.

I don't think that horror is fantasy, but some folks do. That means that you can't make a history of fantasy without Steven King. He's too big to skip. Likewise, JK Rowling rocked the fantasy world with Harry Potter. I think that you could write an entire book just on trends in young adult fantasy.

Then there's video and how that drives the genres, and the genre drives video. Most recently, we have the rise of the superhero film. In previous years, we had Conan the Barbarian, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy, and the great Lord of the Rings revival.

What was hot in what year, and what wasn't? How long were these movements hot before they faded? I wish that I had sales numbers.

I don't know when the fantasy industry imploded or collapsed, rewriting its rules. When were the major commercial crisis? What big hits shifted strategy? What about the modern indie publishing movements? If you're going to give me some history, then give me some history. The documentation is out there, somebody just has to do the work. I don't feel competent enough to write the article myself, so I won't just yet.

A Crown of Silver Stars

I am proud to announce A Crown of Silver Stars. This is the third book of the Wind and Wave series. I feel proud of the work that I produced.

Targa thought herself forever blessed with exile, but when her sainted mother summons her back home, she dare not disobey. Mother has ambitions to rule Astrea itself, with Targa as her puppet on the throne. If they succeed, she will be damned to a lifetime of rulership subservience. Targa’s only hope resides in the goodwill of her greatest enemy.

 Early next year will be The Phoenix and the Swan, wrapping up the series.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Last Enchantment (1979)

The Last Enchantment (1979), by Mary Stewart, wraps up the Merlin trilogy. (It doesn't really, because she wrote more books, but I'll violently throw any temptation to read them out of my own head.) This book covers the foundation of Arthur's kingdom and his early reign in much the same way that a history teacher covers an era that he doesn't like but feels obligated to survey in detail.

If you've liked Mary Stewart so far, well congratulations, you're getting more of what you like. If you don't like Mary Stewart, you're either a masochist or an idiot. I'm both. However, I do admit that I cheated and skimmed most of the work. Even so, I found it overly long and dull.

If found that this book presented the least compelling story so far. To me, it seemed more like a survey of several important movements of Arthur's reign with no coherent through line to turn it into a coherent narrative. Stuff happens. It happens here. It happens there. It just happens, then characters talk about it a whole lot.

I can and will say just how pleased I am to be done this wordy behemoth. Good riddance. I hope to give the book away.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Hollow Hills (1973)

In The Hollow Hills (1973), Mary Stewart continues her feast of too many words. In this book, we have a novella length story padded out to gothic proportions. Merlin takes charge of the newly born Arthur and shepherds him towards adulthood.

When it comes to book, I'm the type to read every word. Not so with this book. Having learned my lesson from The Crystal Cave, I chose to skim, skipping paragraphs, pages, and even entire unnecessary chapters, finishing the book with far less pain and suffering than the first one. This is a book almost entirely of fluff, like a marshmallow put into a microwave until it's the size of a plate, and about as filling.

Don't mistake me for calling Mary Stewart a bad writer. She's a very good and competent one, but for needing a editor with the blood lust of Genghis Khan, hacking down this novel to a far more readable length with great prejudice.

This book misses too much for me. Every character is lacking, especially our protagonist, Merlin. I dare say that none of the characters go through any meaningful human arc. Likewise, I think that none of the themes go through any meaningful arc. Even Arthur doesn't have a meaningful arc, other than he grows up offstage, and so his development is entirely removed from the readers eyes. Rather than any meaningful story, we wander through a faux plot, much like a haunted house ride on rails, where horrors seem to come at us, but the rails always swerve us away from the terror just in time, and we quickly learn that we were never in any danger to begin with. The ride is predestined, just as the book was.

I guess that we were supposed to see all the complex machinations that went on behind the scenes to keep Arthur safe, but those machinations prove unengaging. To be honest, I just don't see the motivation in him. His reason for doing this? A vision. Is it political belief? No, but a little bit. Is it family unity? A little, but not really. Is it religious belief? A little, but not enough to make a difference. No, Merlin's actions originate entirely outside him, in a vision, about something or another. There will be a King, and Arthur will be king, and the king he will be, and he'll be a great king. I suppose that the future of the country is at stake, but I really don't care.

Not caring is the big thing. How can we spend so many words and so much time with these characters, yet care so little by the end?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Crystal Cave (1970)

To paraphrase 2001: A Space Odyssey, "My God, it's full of words."

Mary Stewart's beginning of her Merlin trilogy, The Crystal Cave (1970), is most certainly full of words. The book follows the early life of Merlin, advisor to Arthur, while also chronicling Britain before Arthur, putting the world of Britain into its proper historical perspective.

It's this historical verisimilitude which plays havoc with Arthurian Legend. The original Arthurian tales were invented and remixed in the Middle Ages, invoking a legendary past with all the historical accuracy of Xena: Warrior Princess. The Arthurian legends were never supposed to be accurate stories. They were a story cycle as outlandish as Xena, filled with colorful characters and wicked warlords who needed to get taught a lesson.

This prequel of a book shares all the problems of the Star War prequels, telling us a story that doesn't matter with an end that doesn't really interest in us. Although this story gives us the world that Arthur was born into, it fails to give us the reason that Arthur needed to get born in the first place. Arthur and Camelot existed as a force of goodness and light against a world of selfishness and self-interest. Although we do see some selfishness and self-interest people, we are left with the impression that anyone strong enough can and will take the throne. What need to we have of Arthur?

Merlin himself comes off as something of a wet paper bag. He gets visions, but he really isn't a wizard at all. His legend comes from the superstition of others. He bounces from vision to vision, but really seems to have no opinion on these visions at all, and seems to vie for nothing. Rarely can we predict what this character will do, mostly because he doesn't do very much, and what he does do, prophesy, he doesn't control. He often comes across as far too pat.

As for Uther Pendragon, you'd think he'd be a major character, one who everyone agrees was a pretty terrific king, but instead, he's just this guy who can't keep it in his pants. Is he the last great king whose legacy means a united England? I don't think so.

So as you've rightly concluded, I think very little of this books. It's quite well written, but all those pretty words cover over the fact that its foundation are meagre. I am left pondering what the point of this story is.

The ancient storytellers had it right. The story begins with Uther's affair with Ygraine, then quickly moves to Arthur. The rest doesn't matter because it doesn't really add anything to the narrative arc.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Dispossessed (1975)

Ursula LeGuin released The Dispossessed:An Ambiguous Utopia in 1975 to acclaim, winning a Hugo, Nebula, Locust, and Jupiter award for best novel. One of the novels in her Hainish science fiction universe, the work examines both communism and capitalism, against a backdrop of humanity and all the ways that it naturally works. The result is that neither communism nor capitalism come out of the story smelling of roses.

The story structure is that of one man's life, Shivek, told from two different points in time, switching back and forth. The first part are all the years that Shivek lives on Arras (a communist society). Interleaved with this is the tale of Shivek on Urras (a capitalist society). As the tale moves back and forth, you are given insights into the characters.

This is not a light tale, fully immersing itself into literary style science fiction. Many will start, and many simply won't finish it. You must lend yourself to this story, and even reaching the end, the story may not have lent itself to you. It leaves you with as many questions and ambiguities, and nothing in the way of answers.

I cannot deny that the book is brilliantly written and executed, but I also cannot deny that the book often feels dull and dense, like too much to eat, all of it heavy. To read this novel is a choice, not an obligation. It should not go onto your must read list, but it should go onto your challenge list, and you should have a challenge list for exactly such books.

Completing the novel felt something of a relief, like opening the curtains, letting the world seem bright again.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

52 SFF Books Free

On 3 November 2015, 52 Science Fiction and Fantasy books that are first in series are all FREE! See here to check them out: http://pattyjansen.com/promo/

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Roaring Twenties (Book Review)

Told with wit, Edmund O. Stillman reviews the 1920s in The Roaring Twenties. A short volume, easy to read, the book reviews many major moments and trends of the 1920s in the United States. If you don't know much about the decade, you'll learn about political corruption, bootlegging, financial corruption, and the less than perfect state of these United States. If you've even thought that the past was wholesome and moral, you should be dispelled of all such notions by the end.

For the serious student of history, the book is a good refresher, touching on the subjects of the day, but is ultimately lacking. The main problem with the text is that Stillman does too good of a job, sucking you back into that time, but then leaving it all too soon.

The book ends all abruptly, even for a history. There's so much more to this decade, so much more to discuss and explore. I want MORE MORE MORE. 110 page just doesn't do the decade justice.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Captains Courageous (1897)

Captains Courageous (1897) by Rudyard Kipling is a tale of a spoiled youth who falls into the sea. He is saved by a fishing boat, not merely in body, but in soul. The Yankee worth ethic turns his life around, making a far better man out of himself than his parents ever could. By the end of the tale, he's a changed boy.

Good luck getting to the end.

Half the tale seems to be written in a thick northeastern dialect, with a few other dialects thrown in, creating such a thick slog of dialog that this somewhat dull story drags to a near complete stop, not on its own lackluster merits, but solely by wearing the reader down.

I began this book six or seven years ago, read fifty pages, then put it down. It was only through my well trained literate obstinance that I picked up the book and made it to the end.

I suppose that if you like sailing ships, fishing, and after-school specials, where the story has a moral like a jib hitting you in the head, you'd find this an interesting and engaging story. Otherwise, this is a tale to skip (unless your a Kipling completist, in which case you already know what you're in for).

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971)

School assigned my daughter to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) by Robert C. O'Brien, so I took the opportunity to read it as well. The book falls into the juvenile talking animal genre, where animals think and act like people, but are otherwise animals. There is little humor in the book, but that's not to call the book humorless. It's more of a drama-adventure, with emphasis on drama.

The book follows Mrs. Frisby, a widow mouse, who finds herself in a bit of a pickle. She can't move because her son is sick, but she must move because it's planting season and the farmer's plow will destroy her house. The solution involves the nearby rats, who don't act like other rats at all, and whose story and plans intersects her own life.

I found the tale a bit slow in the beginning, but about halfway through, when you hit the rat's story, the whole thing got more interesting, leading the tale to a satisfying conclusion. The plot is simple and easy to follow, and by the end, you're rooting for everyone to succeed. Mrs. Frisby isn't a deep character, but she is a woman of sincere courage, which is admirable.

I'm not sure that it belongs among the best fantasy novels of the 1970s, as I'm very torn whether children's literature counts as fantasy. I won't answer that question here, leaving it to better minds than mine to contemplate.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Soldier of Sidon (2006)

Gene Wolfe continues his soldier series with a third book, Soldier of Sidon (2006). The story follows the life of Latro, a man who forgets every day, and so writes down his memories on a scroll. The book itself purports merely to be a translation from an ancient scroll from the height of the Persian Empire. It is the literary equivalent of found footage.

Being a man who loses his memory has many implications, and in this series, having a head wound means that Latro sees and interacts with gods and spirits and things unseen. Although he forgets facts, he does recall feelings, and so can sort out who he prefers and who he trusts. Likewise, he retains skills as he learns them, such as the languages that he's exposed to.

In this book, we find Latro in Egypt, who will travel south, upriver, in search of restoring his memories. What follows is more of a travel log than an adventure, a witnessing of a time long ago when people were very different, yet very much the same.

If you are sensitive to sexism, you will find your sexism meter ringing. As the book seeks to give us a sense of time and place, it seeks to give us a sense of gender as well. In good news, the books gives us a sense of sexism because there are women present and those contribute greatly to the story. They are not absent characters, and they do not exist to be rescued. However, they do often sound like ingenues from some 1940's movie. Gererally, the women prove themselves useful and important without picking up weapons, a standard that I hold the male characters to.

As to the male character, all the men are not warriors. The men come from a variety of places and backgrounds, few of them steeped in testosterone culture. This is not a tale of manly manliness. I believe that stories which move away from testosterone culture are more important in addressing sexism in literature than addressing the status of women directly.

The novel itself is less of a novel and more of a happenstance, a recounting, a slice of life. It begins where it begins and ends where it end. I did not come away with a feeling of a complete loop. Some things were resolved, but their resolution passed by like nothing.

The fun of the novel comes from the multiple snapshots that you get of each character. As Latro always forgets them, he always reintroduces them as well. Sometimes this is confusing, but usually this is enlightening. One sees the arc of relationships progress, much being said in the reintroduction of each character.

The writing itself is fairly straightforward and unornamented. There is little inherent beauty in the plain language and sparse descriptions. Yet, I feel that the narrative is well told, except for the ending which I feel falls flat. The character walk off the page, the story undone. The only reason I don't give the story five stars is because the ending gives the story no meaning, not heft, no closure nor satisfaction.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Courts of Chaos (1978) )

1978 brought the first Amber series to a close with the Courts of Chaos. In this relatively slim volume, Roger Zelazny managed to wrap up almost every plot point raised in his four earlier books in an ending that felt like an ending. In this way, these conclusions helped this book to feel satisfying at the end, unlike every other Amber book so far.

As with all the Amber books, the amount of lies, treachery, and deceit reach dizzying levels. Sides get switched, then switched again. Villains are revealed. Fates are decided.

Like so many fantasy books of the 70's, there's a big battle at the end. To his credit, Roger makes this battle plausible. The forces of Amber have been planning this counterattack for three books. There's no sense of "let's invent an army fast." Quite the opposite, he sets the stage for a truly titanic battle, complete with multiple generals under the brilliant tactician Benedict.

If you've been on this hell ride so far, you either love it or hate it. Most likely, you'll love it and be satisfied. If you've hated the ride to this point, you'll be well rewarded by reaching the end and never having to look at these books again.

The overall writing skill of the novel is notably better than Nine Princes. Roger has certainly developed, but don't be fooled. This is still very raw writing. There are places in the book well paced and engaging, and other that fill like filler. Given how short the book is, having sections that feels like filler is an utter crime.

On the whole, I respect Roger's imagination here, going where no other fantasy had gone before with its ambiguous politics and political backbiting. I can imaging George R. R. Martin sitting down with Roger over a few beers and getting some pointers on his future books, A Game of Thrones. Yet, I am also the first to admit that there are enough stinker parts of this series that it's claim to fame rests on its rawness, not its refinements.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Final Fantasy IV (Video Game Review)

I made it through 3/4 of Final Fantasy IV before I quit the game. Despite the fact that it looked like a charming game, instead it turned out to be one of those abusive girlfriends who passively-aggressively run the relationship without any input from you. Yeah, you got to be there, but you didn't actually get to decide anything.

What brought about my quitting was a fight with Golbez, where, after a cut scene and a battle, kills 3/4 of my characters. I think that I could have done that fight if I was playing a proper RPG, but as Final Fantasy has this ticking time that doesn't like to stop for you, you are never quite sure when time has stopped. I usually got this right, but sometimes, as I'm busy selecting my next command, the game proved me wrong. I despise that sort of combat system, but I had muddled my way through thus far. Add to that the tendency of the touch screen to accept double-entries, along with a vague user interface, often left me doing the wrong thing. Finally, this fight occurred after an annoying cut scene, followed by a fight, followed by a cut scene, and then that fight, so losing meant a 5-7 minute penalty just to get back to it. I even looked up how to survive this fight to no avail.

Do you know what I don't need? I don't need a game that treats you like that. I'm all up for challenges, but that wasn't a challenge, that was voluntary misery. So Final Fantasy IV, I'm breaking up with you. Go pull your BS on somebody else. I'm done.

How did this even emerge from the adorable Final Fantasy III? That wasn't a work of art, but at least it was more fun that this pile of steaming bits. I want my $15 back. As for grit, I finished Final Fantasy VI the month before I started this game, and I went all the way to the end. I ain't no carebear talking.

I haven't walked out on an RPG in years. I think the last one I aborted was Daggerfall, not because I wasn't enjoying it, but because I somehow screwed up the main quest line and couldn't finish the game.

If this was the only game in town, I might try and finish it. It's not the only game. There's a metric ton of Kemko games out there that are equally dull and far less abusive.

In short:

  • The combat system is painful.
  • The story is dull.
  • Most spells are useless except for damage and healing.
  • Equipment doesn't matter.
  • Your heroes always feel stepped on and useless.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Paper Books vs. Ebooks

Books or ebooks? I consider this among the most remarkably poorly posed arguments in the publishing world today. In general, I tend to see this as a winner/loser argument, with the loser being relegated to obscurity.

Say it ain't so!

Well, it ain't so despite the history of the music industry. In the music industry, one format has come along to usually displace the next. Sheet music was replaced by music rolls, which was replaced by 76's, which were replaced with LP and 45's and cassettes and 8 tracks, which were replaced by CDs, which were replaced by MP3s, which were replaced by streaming. Wow, what a mouthful of inconsistent story.

You see, right there in the middle, LPs and cassettes thrived next to each other. Serious listeners preferred LPs while portable listeners preferred tape. Rather than displace each other, they complemented each other. Each filled its own niche. Not only that, but record players came with a selector allowing you to change speeds, so that you could also play 45's and 78's on them. The record players were backward compatible.

When CDs came along, they first savaged the LP market, then they went on to savage the cassette market. CDs for the win.

So, which market do we have? I believe that we are living in the LP/cassette market. Rather than one medium winning and the other losing, each is best suited to a different environment. Each comes with substantial strengths and weaknesses.

The book is a fabulous package. You may not think so, but it's a technological marvel developed over the past millennium and barely changed. The user experience remains primarily the same no matter how old the book, yet each aspect is the child of years of development, from paper and ink, to the fonts used and the methods of binding. These products are perfected for reading.

Not only are books perfected for reading, they hold advantages over ebooks. First, they're cheap compared to electronic devices. In any environment that could threaten a device, the book is likewise threatened, but far cheaper to replace. Even if damage, the book still works. It never needs charging. Its technology does not age it out in five or ten years. It is simple to lend, but not so easy to get back. The backlist is epic. To their detriment, they take up space, which means that the more you like books, the more that you need to store. Fortunately, libraries solve some of these problems, as well as used book stores.

Ebooks are like cassettes in that they are not as technologically good or aesthetically perfect, but what they lack in perfection they make up in portability and convenience. Ebooks can be read on existing hardware that a person might have, such as a cell phone or table. They never take up space. They can be bought at will while traveling. Ebooks are convenient. However, unless you're using a dedicated reading the device, the overall experience is not as pleasant. Backlit screens don't work as well as digital paper, and digital paper doesn't work as well as actual paper, except when they do. Lit screens work in environments where light is less available. Add to that the huge list of independent authors cutting out the middle man, able to sell at bargain, especially in genre fiction and underserved niches, makes reading electronically very attractive. On the other hand, selling off those ebooks isn't as easy and lending them can be cumbersome.

So, which will win? As long as the reader wins, I don't care. This is a market where the readers know their needs and pick their wins. One medium isn't going to kill the other. Books aren't holy. Ebooks aren't the devil, nor are they the messiah of anybody. They're a medium.

As to the second argument of epublishing: will this shift kill the big five publishers? I doubt it. As I've indicated above, I think that we're looking at complementary markets. This is not a revolution that will topple the goliaths. The last few years have been hard to analyze as the economy has been so difficult. In my mind, the downturn of the printed book had just as much to do with the Great Recession as the rise of ebooks. Not surprisingly, now that the worst of the recession is behind us, physical books are seeing a resurgence. As with any new market, such as ebooks, the opening yields stunning growth, but growth eventually stabilizes, yielding smaller growth and contraction cycles.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Hand of Oberon (1976)

Published in 1976, the Hand of Oberon continues the serial story of Corwin in the Chronicles of Amber. If you've gotten this far and enjoyed it, you'll continue enjoying. If you haven't enjoyed the series to this point, then don't bother. You'll find no redeeming value.

The story picks back up at this point. More information is learned. Secrets are revealed. Alliances are explored. Treachery is considered is considered and performed. And new knowledge is revealed, making everything that much more complicated.

Don't ask me to explain all the twists and turns. They were complicated before this book began and even more complicated afterwards.

I think that this section held together better than the previous book, but in no way does this feel like a stand alone story. The job of this book is to end the beginning and begin the ending, which it does quite sufficiently.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Sign of the Unicorn (1975)

If you want more Amber, then the Sign of the Unicorn (1975) by Roger Zelazny gives you exactly that. Corwin is now regent of Amber, for all the good that does him. Amber is so full of issues that rulership is a form of self-inflicted punishment. It's here that the politicking gets worse, and the complexity of the backstory emerges.

Roger takes time to do some very clever retconning in this book. He takes the challenge of going over his previous work, finding the inconsistencies and dropped plot lines, twisting them about, and turning them into a feature. When Amber and all its children get complicated, they get very complicated. They got twisted enough that I didn't quite follow all the twists and turns, let along spot any of the plot holes. For the most part, the entire point of the book is to retcon, to smash more plot points into the road accident that is the story arc, and leave you wondering how anyone could walk out alive.

If you are looking for "quality" writing, this isn't it. We continue living on the business end of a hack writer with a typewriter. That doesn't mean that the subject matter isn't compelling, if you find such matter compelling, but if you aren't entertained by the matter, the prose will have nothing else to entertain you with. There are often logical jumps between chapters, with some chapters having almost no explanation behind them and no orientation within them. There are some twists which feel random, not more complicated than "hey, let's go over there."

In my youth, I thought it was my fault that I didn't quite follow some parts of this book. No longer do I think that. Even as an adult, I wonder at the nearly arbitrary advancement of the plot and the swirling mixed colors that constitute a plot. I'm reading this series straight through and I still find myself alternately lost, thrown, and bored.

If you love Amber, this continues being the series for you, but if you don't, this book will surely be the rocks that you crash upon.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Guns of Avalon (1972)

The Guns of Avalon (1972) continues the story begun in Nine Princes of Amber. Lord Corwin is free, ready to follow his revenge against Eric. All he has to do is return to Avalon, and on that hangs a tale, for strange and terrible things now come out of darkness everywhere, including at Amber itself.

If you didn't know that this story was essentially a serial, now you do. Although the books cover distinct episodes, and could stand alone, its stands far better together with its peers. Our enemy has bee introduced in our power fantasy, and that enemy is anybody else. If you will, if this was a business power fantasy, the enemy would be the competition, the only thing more fearful than your co-workers.

The story reads mildly more polished than the first book, but contains few literary sensibilities. This is not the kind of book you read if you want beautiful writing. Zelazny's prose is all business, getting done what it needs to get done, sometimes effectively, and at other times, with all the ugliness of a car wreck. The book was written in one draft, possibly two, containing all the flaws that you would expect to get from fast drafting.

As the story is a serial, it moves at a different pace than a more traditional work. It answers some questions, raises others, leaving you with an ending that is indeterminate rather than satisfying. Its power comes from the unfolding of evens, and the continuous downward cycle of the situation in Amber. Everything gets more complex, but never for the right reasons.

As for all its flaws, it contains many. They will either alienate you or refuse to stop you. I can't see someone being lukewarm to this book. It follows what came before, for all its blessings and curses.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Nine Princes in Amber (1970)

If the standard single, white male power fantasy is, "defeat your enemies, win the girl, take the throne," which is very popular in the young man's mind, then what would a power fantasy look like for a middle-aged office worker, around 1970, who read paperbacks on the train as they rode into work?

Nine Princes in Amber.

Let's look at business. In any business, you want to get to the top, but there's no easy way to the top. Everyone wants to get to the top. It's a dog-eat-dog competition. He who steps on the most people wins. Yet, you can't get to the top alone. The only people who can help you are your co-workers, who might help you or betray you as they see fit. Your position depends entirely on your ability to know the strengths and weaknesses of those around you, and the cleverness of your own mind in planning gambits.

That brings us to Nine Princes in Amber (1970), by Roger Zelazny. Raw edged, sparse, and to the point, this book introduces us to Prince Corwin, a prince of Amber, the only true city in the world. Dad is missing from the throne, so whoever can take the throne gets to be king. His only help and his only enemies are all his brothers and sisters, depending on which side they were this time. I would put this book into the "sword and sorcery" genre.

Despite its almost diminutive word count, this book packs a stunning amount of world building and politics in a brutal, sometimes merciless adventure, where there is no sense of idealism or nobility. No, this book is all about POWER, how to get it, and how to keep it.

Magic here is not "magic" in the normal fantasy sense. The primary power is the ability to walk in shadow, possible alternate universes which may or may not be there before you think them up. If you go far enough, creatively enough, you find things which weren't there before. Sometimes magic is just the local rules where you are, such as Remba, where everyone can breathe the water. And sometimes magic is just not explained, as with the trumps, which allow the princes to contact each other and to teleport.

Nine Princes in Amber is a book which will never live in the academic annals as fine literature worth studying, but if I was to recommend fantasy books worth studying, this one would be on my A list. Despite everything that it does wrong, in the end, it does the most important things right.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Silver on the Tree (1977)

Silver on the Tree (1977) by Susan Cooper completes her Dark Is Rising series. In this book, everything that has been collected must be brought together in the final conflict between the Light and the Dark. Before that can happen, the last item of power must be claimed.

This book bring together all the principal actors of the previous books: the Drews, Will, and Bran. Working together and apart, they strive to end what must be ended.

I found that this book had a solidity that the other books didn't, mostly because there were times when doubt actually had a chance to live. There are times when the character disagreed, distrusted each other, and even felt anxious. It was about time. I was getting tired of the stiff, white, wedding-cake icing personalities that they had. Their personalities are still mostly like wedding cake, and all the insults that carries along with it, just not quite so stale as in the earlier books.

The ending followed the pattern that so many 70's books followed, in imitation of Lord of the Rings. All the powerful people go away to a far away land, leaving the world of men, because ... I really don't know why. I assume that all epic fantasies had to end that way because that was the thing. That still made no sense.

The book failed to answer a few lingering questions. Why did the Dark even exist? Why were the fights when they were? Why is now the time? Why is now the last time? I'm all for accepting, "because the plot says so," (I do it all the time), but a few lines would have been welcome. Nor are we given any indication of why the old ones exist, and why Will is the last. These plug into nothing.

The Dark continues its long streak of uselessness. They aren't quite at the incompetent evil level, but they're close. More than a few times, we're told, "The Dark can do nothing here," and "the Dark cannot directly harm one of the Light." Yet, given these facts, the Dark keeps trying to do things when failure is a virtual certainty. The Dark literally shows up to taunt the Light because it can't do anything else. Uslessness adds nothing to tension.

What does it mean that there's a world without the Dark? I have no clue. I have no clue what it means that there's a world with the Dark. If the Dark had won, I have no idea what the world would have been like. It's this lack of dread that turns an otherwise ominous foe into merely a token foe.

If the books had been built better getting to the finale, I think that I would have felt it more. I would have glommed onto the book, dying to know what happens. But I didn't need to read the end. The end happened. It was certain. The only thing that I wanted to know what exactly how was how the pieces went together.

Cooper wrote this book in her cinematic style. This book is eminently filmable, with all the magic easily convertible to clever cutting lighting techniques. In some scenes, you can even feel when the camera changes between lines or when the camera gives you a 360 degree visual.

If you've been a fan of the series so far, if it's worked for you, you should adore the ending. If the book doesn't work for you, expect more of the same.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Structure of the Mary Sue

When I explained a Mary Sue to my daughter the other day, my explanation got me thinking. I said that a Mary Sue was a character that short-circuited the story. On thinking about it further, I looked at what other people said about Mary Sues, only to discover a fascination with the character type and not at any concern with story's structure. That's like leaving the crust off the pot pie.

So, let's talk story structure. In this theory, the Mary Sue isn't the cause of a story's problem, but the symptom of a problem. In a "proper" Mary Sue story, you have a number of structural similarities:
  • The story is structured as a power fantasy.
  • The story arcs lack a meaningful middle.
  • The story is written to entertain the writer.
  • The story revolves around the lead character despite the narrative.
  • The lead character is a personification of the writer.
Much of the arguing about a Mary Sue traces its roots to the basic structure above. Eliminate any of them, and you get something Mary Sue-ish with out actually being a Mary Sue.

The points follow.

The Story Is Structured as a Power Fantasy. By itself, there's nothing wrong with a power fantasy. The entire male-oriented fantasy genre is predicated on this very notion. Power fantasies are part of growing, part of living in a world where you aren't powerful. By itself, this does not make the Mary Sue bad. Change the story structure, and you wind up with a Mary Sue that works as a character despite having Mary Sue traits. For example, in comedies, there is often an episode where a perfect person shows up, prodding the lead characters into a fit of jealousy. As the comedy is also written to entertain the reader, this usually winds up successful.

The Story Arcs Lacks a Meaningful Middle. This is what people mean when a Mary Sue comes along, instantly solving all the problems. Proper plot arcs have a beginning, middle, and end. If you take out the middle, the arc feels empty. The beginning acts to introduce the story, while the end exists to wrap up the story. The middle part is the meat of the story.  None of the story means anything if the middle isn't there.

The Story Is Written to Entertain the Writer. This is the most damning aspect of the Mary Sue story. The tales themselves just aren't interesting because the writer does not bring the reader along with them. The writer leaves the reader behind, which is among the surest ways to get a story labeled as bad writing. Character development doesn't just mean seeing a character grow and change, it means taking the time to make sure that the reader understands the character's personality and motivation. Without this information, much of the story doesn't make sense. The lead character appears to act without reason, more of a menace than a hero.

The Story Revolves Around the Lead Character Despite the Narrative. That may sound odd, as a story usually revolves around the main character, yet this is the case. While not as apparent in original fiction, in fan fiction, where an existing set of characters have an existing set of relationships, bypassing those relationships simply because the main character changes pulls the heart out of those relationship. This central narrative role is the epitome of privilege. Everything revolves around the lead character because that's the lead character's privilege. The leadership is not earned, it's a given. The universe really is built around the lead. Compare this to the basic story structure of man vs. anything, where the worlds is at odds with your lead character, and you can see that an important element of the story simply doesn't exist. In a well structured story, central characters continually earn their place and you understand why they are central.

The Lead Character Is a Personification of the Writer. This bit has been written about extensively, mostly derisively. Yet, this element isn't necessarily bad. How many peudo-memoirs contain personifications of the authors? Pretty much all of them. One of the most famous pieces of American literature, To Kill A Mockingbird, is a pseudo-memoir. The personification of the author doesn't make a story bad. What makes the personification bad is that the reader can't connect with the character due to all the other structural issues.

Am I right in these observations? Do I get to stand up and say, "HA!" and wave my flag of righteousness? That I could be so brilliant. But I do think that I'm on the right track. By focusing on the story rather than on the particular behaviors of any character, we no longer need subcategories or variations of the Mary Sue. Ideally, this idea takes us from a symptom based analysis of the archetype to an evidence based analysis.

Now that we have a structure, we have a question: why this structure? What unites all these people writing all these stories in this particular structure?


I contend that the basis of the Mary Sue story is play behavior. If you aren't familiar with children's play, you won't realize just how competitive play behavior is. This stuff is pure playground level PVP, especially among girls. If you hear how kids play let's pretend, you will see most of these structural elements in play.

"Sabrina gets a new magic power, solves you problem, and now you can come to my dance party."

We see all the structural elements in play. Play is about YOU. It is your power fantasy. Being a power fantasy, the characters leap to their solutions because the middle is frustrating. This is all "can do" behavior rather than "can't do." The story is created for the child at play and no one else. This is not a performance piece. The story revolves around the lead character because that's what childhood stories do. The hero is utterly privileged because the hero is the personification of the child.

As kids get older, such play behavior slowly goes extinct as the behavior develops into more elaborate social skills, but not for everyone at the same rate. In order to tell an adult style story, new skills must be developed as the old skills fade. But, judging by how self-centered many adults are, I'm not sure that anybody grows out of that competitive storytelling at all.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Grey King (1975)

The  Grey King (1975) by Susan Cooper is one of those books that makes you say, "What the hell?" Despite its brilliant descriptions, its human characters, and its high magic, the plot gave me a tremendous "meh!" with not much else. The book took home the gold Newberry award for that year as the fourth installment to the Dark Is Rising sequence.

The story begins with Will getting over mono, which I can attest leaves you feeling like utter crud for a long time. In going to his Uncle's house in Wales, he stumbles into the next big event of magic, facing a power unlike he's ever faced before: the Grey King. New to the book is Bran, an albino boy that makes quick friends with Will, and has secrets of his own, ones that even he doesn't know exist.

And Will does stuff, and it all turns out, without really mattering, because this is a Susan Cooper book. Am I being too hard on her? No. In her first book, she created a work entirely powered by the characters actions and interactions. I know that she can write that way. I understand that some books are about the journey, but holy guacamole, when the journey is wandering about with fate blowing like a hurricane force wind, the journey feels pointless. And then you get to the end and blam, it's the end, and what the hell was all that about?

To complement Susan, she hamstrings Will's powerful magic enough to make him interesting. To do great magic is to get attention, and to get attention means trouble.

Even if I had been the right age for this book, I would never have gotten through it. I would have stopped halfway through, bored.

So there you have it. Beautifully written and dreadfully dull, the Grey King resembles its own name. That's a sad literary trick that nobody else should emulate.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Greenwitch (1974)

I stand confused by Greenwitch (1974) by Susan Cooper. By this, I mean that I can't understand how it came to be written. The story combines the Drew kids with Will Stanton in a minimalist tale, light to read, light on description and missing every bit of nuance and symbolism that so dominated The Dark Is Rising. I even found the overall structure weak. It's as if someone else hurriedly wrote this book or rewrote this book, short on time, fulfilling a contract with the least possible effort. Is that true? I don't know. At 158 pages, this is the shortest work in the collection by far.

How does that even happen? I know that corners got cut in the 70's, but this is extreme even for then.

In this book, the Drew children do almost nothing. If they had goofed around and ignored everything around them, the book would still have concluded the same way. Jane Drew did one small thing early on, and from there, nothing else mattered.

Tension? No. Tension requires stakes and possibilities. The experiential moment? No. Most of the description in this tale were matter of fact and clearly related, but not remarkable. Was it the journey, not the plot? No. As I indicated above, the important action took place by Jane in a moment of sympathy. Past that, nothing else mattered.

I often found myself briefly confused when switching character, the author not bringing me along quite skillfully enough, which given Susan's other works, is maddening. This woman is excellent at keeping the audience with the story. And yet, in this work, scenes hop about like a one legged duck.

I dare say that Greenwitch is the best written bad novel that I've ever read. Make no mistake, this thing folds under scrutiny, and I cry for the fabulous tale that this could have been.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Excellence vs Adequacy in RPGs

In a game, according to the knowledgeable communities that surround them, there are "best" things and "crap" things. Take any game of any form, and you will find this attitude. The words might switch around, great/terrible, great/useless, but the same attitude is there.

I bring this up because I'm seeing this sort of attitude in the FAQ for Final Fantasy VI. For those who like to tweak their characters, this is a game filled with little tweaks, and with those tweaks came rankings of what's effective and what isn't, of what's good and what's terrible. To be honest, I have no issue with someone showing how some ability is objectively effective or objectively ineffective. I have no issue accepting that Relm's Draw ability is stunningly ineffective. My issue is that, far too often, relatively terribleness is conflated with ineffectiveness. These are not the same thing.

An objectively terrible choice is one that doesn't work. Hitting the wall with your fist is an objectively terrible choice. A subjectively terrible choice is a choice that looks bad in comparison to the alternative, but is otherwise effective. Using a ball pene hammer to bust open a wall rather than a sledge hammer? The ball pene will still work, but it's nowhere near as effective as the sledge. Will you succeed in opening the wall up to access the pipes if you use the ball pene? Sure, it just will take a bit longer. On paper, the ball pene is subjectively horrible in comparison to the sledgehammer, but in application, the ball pene gets the job done.

All too often, what's missing from the discussions of most games is adequacy. In an RPG, the primary metric of your party is whether they can win a fight. That's the measure of success. If the sum of your choices leads to success, then your choice is adequate. Your tools are adequate. That means that they do the job. In most games, the leeway provided by adequacy is very large.

It's natural in the expert gamer to aim for more than adequacy. They aim for true excellence and, where possible, dominance. For them, adequacy leave room for defeat, and that's not what makes the expert game tick. Thus, adequacy becomes the same as ineffective. Adequacy cannot produce dominance.

For the rest of the gaming world, adequacy is where they live. They aren't the expert gamers. Not being experts, they're making the best decisions with the resources that they have, and they make do. That makes the game harder, and the results more uncertain, but for the non-expert, that's part of the fun. In fact, total dominance often takes away part of the game experience, turning the challenge into a cakewalk. Oddly, expert gamers do that too, but they do it by creating new challenges, or using fewer characters, or playing a game faster. These are all acceptable tactics for the expert gamer while making mediocre choices isn't.

In the gaming world, I'd like to see less optimization and more about adequacy. What does a non-special party needs to pass a challenge? What are alternate ways of dealing with situations? How do you recover when things go wrong? That which is adequate is good, or at least acceptable.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Dark Is Rising (1973)

The Dark is Rising (1973) is Susan Cooper's second book in the series that is now labeled The Dark Is Rising. Compared to all the other books in that series, this one is the monster, a dense and world-bending monument of cinematic description forming the backdrop of a symbolic power play over the winter's solstice. The book was a Newberry award finalist.

Our protagonist is Will, the youngest of a pack of Anglican farm kids living near Windsor Castle. (Although with that many siblings, I thought that they were Catholics.) The first chapter sets us firmly on the night before the solstice, when the old powers grew strong, and Will's world was about to change. In that way, Will is a chosen one, although less obnoxiously chosen than most chosen ones. Where today, a chosen one must save the world by finding signs, this chosen one must find signs, and thus save the world. It looks like a small change in emphasis, but that small flip keeps the story rather earthy, and the story focused on the here and now. This quest takes him all over town, meeting many people, some of whom are help, and others that are hostile.

On strictly artistic merits, this book is a remarkable work, using remarkable descriptions to walk you through unsettling events. The path that young Will is about to make is difficult and filled with gray. Despite allying with the Light, he spend far more time walking between the Light and the Dark than he would prefer. Susan uses her descriptions to keep you in the mood of the weather, the bleakness of the day, and the anxiety of our hero. While we know that our protagonist will be successful in the end, he never feels safe, and when not safe, the vector of his danger is always a matter of doubt.

The book is broken into three acts, emphasizing its screenplay roots. The descriptions of magic and the supernatural retain their celluloid flair, easily filmable through inexpensive techniques of lighting, music, ambiance, crossfades and cuts, although the ending did have a bigger special effects budget that her first book. (Special effects must have been getting cheaper in that day and age, or at least more usual.)

To use the word "symbol" repeatedly is no misnomer, for Will, is tasked to find all the symbols necessary to break the grip of the Dark. With each of those symbols came meaning, some of which I recognized, at a time of meaning, with people who have meaning. There are times when those layers of meaning glow delightfully, and others when the layers lay so thick that you can't tell anything about the meaning at all.

The books is not above reproach. Will, could have been substituted by a mannequin for most of the book. "The mannequin stood there, swept along by events, witnessing another thing." Yet, the books works as a book because the books is more experiential than action. This is a book about the voyage, not path, which I find quite surprising as the first book of the series was entirely path driven. In today's writing, this type of book would not be allowed out of the modern publishing system, let along out of critique groups.

I can't say whether I loved it or hated it, but I did find the path engaging and the narrative voice poetic.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Final Fantasy VI (Game Review)

How do you review a classic game like Final Fantasy VI (1994)? With snark, my friends. With snark.

The game is big. I'm 48 hours into it and I'm not done, despite my best efforts. If you start playing this game, you're in it for the long haul. Don't bring popcorn. Bring C-Rations or something. And if you're going to do this in one sitting, coffee.

The story centers around the great Magictech empire that's stomping about the world rather rudely. Out of this comes a hodge-podge group ready to oppose the Empire and see that it ends is horrible ways. They aren't so much anti-Empire as they are anti-abuse. What follows is a rather extensive cast of characters, each one representing a class, and each one having his or her own story. That's alotta classes and that's a whole lot of story. And humor. The game has no problems hopping into silly mode.

The designers knew their genre, too. They follow their own well established conventions until they broke them. Did you really think that you were done after 35 hours? No way, Jose. This ain't no Kemko RPG.

I'm playing through on the Android version. The adaptation to tablet is rather well done, but it sucks my battery dry with little difficulty. I also need to keep the tablet off solid surfaces because the tablet will overheat to the point where it has troubles. I find the direction controls aggravating. I eventually got used to walking about, but the controls lack finesse. I often find myself walking about in odd directions, or walking in circles. Driving vehicles is even more awkward. However, the menu system works fine. I'm able to navigate in and among the characters very well. I like the auto-equip function, which works reasonably well.

For me, the combat system is a problem and the single biggest impediment to having fun in the game. It's a semi-realtime system, which I despise. These sorts of fights just don't work for me. That means that every fight is an annoyance. The auto-fighting works well enough, with a few quirks, which takes most of the pain out of combat. However, the tough fights often wind up confusing as the game is progressing and not progressing at the same time. The challenge is often whether I can touch buttons quick enough, even with the pause game option turned on. And by being concerned with the buttons, I have trouble paying attention to what's actually happening in the battle. All in all, I found boss battles a grindingly long date with frustration.

There are places in the game where it gets needlessly difficult. The game revels in having moments of incomprehensibly annoying side-mechanics interspersed with the story. Most terribly, there are places where long fights are followed by long cut scenes, preventing any sort of stopping or pausing the game. One sequence took me 90 minutes to complete. I understand that these sorts of challenging game designs were the norm back in the day, because I lived through it and don't need it explained, I still don't appreciate them.

Although I will attempt to reach the end, I really don't care if I do. I'm more likely to get frustrated and walk away, never returning. If I want to know how the game ends, I can watch all the scenes on Youtube. You see, I'm not going to win any cool points by successfully completing the game, and I only have so much tolerance for the grind. There are many more Final Fantasy releases that I haven't played and I'm bound to have more fun than frustrating over this one.

* I do appreciate that this is one of the greatest games ever made, but it relies on a mechanic that absolutely doesn't work for me.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Over Sea, Under Stone (1965)

Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) by Susan Cooper, begins the Dark Is Rising sequence. Three Drew children, Barney, Jane, and Simon, follow clues to discover a long lost Arthurian treasure. However, they aren't the only ones seeking this relic, and those forces are both sinister and cunning.

Although the book is listed as a fantasy, structurally, it's more of a children's clue solving mystery, where the kids move from clue to clue, deciphering their meanings, to an ultimate MacGuffin. The book could just as easily be about hidden atomic secrets and Russian spies. Although there is "magic", it is mostly hinted at and implied, even if implied strongly. By not means is it flashy or even a primary motivator of the plot. Perhaps the book better belongs in the paranormal genre?

As children's mysteries often have some urgency, the book also contains elements of a conspiracy theory thriller. The enemy is intelligent and active, seeking a long lost item of great power. If they get it, then the side of good suffers a tremendous loss. But the enemy isn't dumb, doing its best to out-connive and out-innovate our heroes. The opposition here is very active, adapting their strategies to the moment at hand.

The book works exactly like a film script from the 1960s, as stretches of instigating and parent dodging get interspersed with moments of excitement. The scenes are pretty much structured like film scenes and uses all the expected tropes of the children's mystery genre as seen on TV. As a film, it would be dirt cheap to produce, even using 1960's film technology. (Today, vast waves of special effects would be thrown into it, doing nothing for the film but making it more expensive.)

Overall, I found the book is very tight in its plotting, but a bit weak on engagement. The work was clearly written from an outline, which ensured that hit all the beats that it need to hit, but it doesn't engage emotionally in any other way than a thriller would.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Paladins Are Assholes (D&D 3rd Edition)

Let's face it, Paladins in D&D are assholes. By assholes, I mean massive assholes. They have to be that way because the game rules over the editions generally encouraged the behavior. Structurally, the Paladin had to be an asshole to avoid getting screwed over himself.

Let's explore.

Paladins are a special class in two ways. First, they are special because they are better than the normal person, given special powers. They only keep these powers as long as they keep their behavior regulated. They must always achieve their ideal. However, the party that they serve with is not bound by such strictures, and their actions can create a situation where the Paladin, by not blocking a behavior, condones a behavior by inaction.

Second, Paladins are the only class that lose their powers. As others can cause them to lose their powers, Paladin players must act to regulate their fellow players lest their paladin gets screwed over. Given that the average D&D have a challenged idea of what constitutes good (including genocide), you can see that the Paladin player has been handed a nearly impossible task. At almost every move, he will need to oppose the actions of his party fellows.

You can see where this leads, because you typed in "asshole paladins" and found this blog post.

So, what's the solution? The first solution is to not have a class that gets hosed over through the behavior of his own party. The easiest way to accomplish that is to simply throw out the rule that Paladins can fall from grace. Problem solved. At a minimum, a Paladin's abilities should be no easier to lose than a Cleric's. If this seems counter intuitive, remember that a Cleric can do anything and the rules don't care. Nothing short of DM fiat can reign in his abuses. Second, if the Paladin does lose his specialness, the class needs a clear path to recovery that is less onerous than the death rules. Unfortunately, it's actually easier to come back from the dead than it is to recover your Paladin abilities. (I may be overstating my case here, but not by much.)

So, if you have an asshole Paladin at your table, look at the rules. Most likely, the player is merely trying to survive an impossible situation.

There is a second situation in which a paladin is an asshole: that's when the player is the asshole. The class merely becomes the conduit at that point. This problem is best rectified by removing said player.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Badass (D&D 3rd Edition)

Since the Fighter is a Tier-5 character, it needs a replacement that's not Tier 5 and acceptable to the gaming audience. So, to satisfy this unnecessary niche fulfillment, I propose The Badass.

The Badass

Using badassery, the badass is the most effective combatant on the battlefield. It doesn't matter what he's up against. The monsters will be scared of him.

The Badass has all good saves. d12 hp. Medium armor,  heavy armor, shield, martial weapons.

Skills: Badasses don't need skills. They beat people up and make others do it for them. Or maybe they give a box of cookies. You don't need any skill to buy a box of cookies.

Shrug It Off (Ex) - If the DC of any effect is less than or equal to the badass's level + strength bonus + 10, the badass can shrug off that effect for one round, making the effect take place at the end of his next round instead. Any single effect can be delayed multiple times. At the end of a fight, the badass will suffer any outstanding effects. If the effect has no DC, he can shrug off the effect for only one round for every five levels.

Victory Makes Me Stronger (Ex) - If you slay an opponent in battle, heal its CR + your Con bonus in hit points.

Wear a Hood (Ex) - Wearing a hood substitutes for wearing heavy armor (splint mail).

Army of One (Ex) - Beginning at second level, opponents gain no advantage from flanking you.

Defying Gravitas (Ex) - Beginning at third level, only against you, your opponent gets no advantages due to strength or size.

Ready, Steady, Go (Ex) - Beginning at fourth level, you are never flat-footed, even while asleep, incapacitated, or otherwise denied your Dex bonus. (You are flat footed if you are dead, but by that time, it really doesn't matter.)

I Crush Your Defenses (Ex) - Beginning at fifth level, you can bypass 5 points of special defenses, raising to 10 at 10th level, and 15 at 15th level.

The Leaf that Takes a Thousand Years to Reach the Ground (Ex) - Starting at fifth level, once per day, using strange and exotic sounding techniques that no one else can remember, the badass can time stop for one round. That stretches to two rounds at level 10, three at level 15, and four at level 20. This power can be used at any time, including before the badass's initiative or when the badass is surprised.

Flashing Swords (Ex) - Beginning at 5th level, a full attack takes a standard action.

Cover Won't Save You (Ex) - Starting at 6th level, ignore 20% or lower random miss percentages, and reduce 50% miss or lower chances to 20%. At 10th level, reduce all random miss percentages to 0%.

I Brought Down the Bad Guy (Ex) - Beginning at 7th level, when a badass lands a killing blow against an opponent, all opponents must make a Will save vs. fear, DC of 10 + Strength Bonus + Badass Level. Opponents who miss will be affected as by the fear spell, but without any level limitations.

Begone Foul Spell (Ex) - Beginning at 8th level, the badass can dispel any physical magical effect (earth, air, fire, water, force, plant, etc) by hitting it really, really hard with a big yell and lots of anger. The badass uses his badass level + strength against the spell.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The High King (1968)

The High King, published in 1968 by Lloyd Alexander, concludes the Chronicles of Pridain. This is the story of the final conflict with Arawn, and the ultimate fates of Taran, Eilonwy, and just about everyone else that we've met along the way.

As a kid, I would have eaten this book up, so I give it generous stars as its target demographic will love it.

Although Alexander does a marvelous job of gathering up and using every character available, and using them rather well, the book feels rather hurried in many places. To me, this book returned the series to Lord of the Rings light.  Often, I felt that events proceeded rather turnkey, with one mini ex machina after another. Turn after turn, I recognized the tropes that Tolkien branded upon the mind of every fantasy writer, or perhaps every editor of every fantasy writer. Make no mistake, you have no doubt that the hero will win, only a doubt about who may or may not live until the end.

As a writer, I appreciate Alexander's use of dangling plots and dangling items. He uses these to produce his many mini ex machinas. Just about every item left unaccountable comes back into play and comes into play logically, down to the last play. If you're a writer and you want to study how to leave bits hanging for later, he's worth studying.

Myself, I reached the end and I was glad to be done. As an adult, I had no deep appetite for this series. The characters never gripped me. The events never carried me away. I just sauntered through the work, always able to keep my distance. Whatever magic that this book contained did not work on me.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Taran Wanderer (1967)

The fourth book in the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, Taran Wanderer, 1967, follow the adventures of Taran, the former assistant pig-keeper. It is the Pilgrim's Progress of YA fantasy, except without the pilgrims.

The tale itself is an ambling one, wandering just as much as the protagonist. Taran bumps his way through an episodic narrative, growing up along the way. Along the way, he meets many peoples, tries many jobs, and earnestly goes about his quest to discover his parentage.

While well written, the book feels empty at the end. It is as if his journey only required that it fill 50,000 words, and then should be done. Exactly how those 50k words happened didn't seem to matter much.

You can cal me a bit thick-headed for missing all the symbolism and allegory. I do that. Each episode does have it's After School Special lesson to teach, with some of them clearer than others. The fault of the story is not that is has allegory, but that you care so little about the allegory that you just don't bother thinking about it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Castle of Llyr (1966)

Lloyd Alexander published the third book in his Prydain series, The Castle of Llyr, in 1966. Eilonwy is sent away to the Castle of Llyr to learn how to be a proper lady. For her trip, her only companions are Taran and Gurgi. This is one of those books that I did not read in school and am only now reading.

To me, the book promised a wonderful comedy, for teaching Eilonwy to be a lady is rather like teaching a pig-keeper to be a prince. Alas, we weren't given a wonderful social comedy on manners vs. an intransigent princess. No, we were given an adventure tale, one where Einlonwy is kidnapped, and so rather than get more Eilonwy, we get far, far less than promised, and to that I object. And what little of her we do get gets shoved into the last few chapters. Boo.

All griping aside, the book moves along wonderfully. It's plot twists feel like twists, yanking you about rather unexpectedly, but otherwise the text is crisp, clear, and enjoyable. The fight scenes are few, which I think rather helps the story rather than harms it. The book suffer a little from, "hey, let's get the gang back together" syndrome, but fortunately, a few members of the gang got pared off, leaving us with a rather more manageable working set.

There are no Lord of the Ring -isms left. This series has fully come into its own, developing along its own way. I rather appreciate the more human-scale dilemmas that the characters face. I guess that the scale would make this a "cozy fantasy," rather than epic.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Black Cauldron (1965)

Published in 1965, The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander continues the adventures of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper. My version says that it's a "Newberry Honor Book," which I think means that it didn't quite win an award, but even being nominated is an honor. This was a book that I didn't read when I was young because I never even heard about it.

In this story, the good warriors of Prydain see that the Black Cauldron, which makes deathless warriors, but must be captured and destroyed if they are to have any chance at all. Knowing the plan ahead of time, you know that the plan will go wrong, and so it does.

Although the book still contains a few Tolkienisms, such as a black gate, many improbable meetings, and even more improbable battles, the story holds together quiet well, for the focus of the story is not on the battles, but the decisions that get our characters from point A to point B. While the first book promised a Celtic style story, but only dressed the story up in Celtic clothes, this book delivers to us a Celtic story with a wonderfully mythic feel. Yet, being a more modern story, we still have to hear about making camp and sitting guard.

Our hero Taran now has more personality, and a temper that gets him into trouble. He also has an internal intrepidness that also gets him into trouble, but for all the right reasons. Eilonwyn still has her attitude, but she is nowhere near as inscrutable, off the wall, or cutting as she was in the first book. She's trying her best to be a real character but not quite there yet. Meanwhile, our trope characters (the bard, Gurgi, Doli) continue on in their trope-centric ways, being exactly what their stereotypes make them, sometimes wonderfully so, but sometimes annoyingly so.

My inner thirteen year old would have loved it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Book of Three (1965)

The Book of Three is the first book in the Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. Published in 1965, the book describes the adventures of the assistant pig herder, Taran. That may sound like a useless job, but when the pig is oracular, giving answers to questions that no humans know, taking care of that pig is rather important.

I did not read the Book of Three when I was young. To me, this is a new book, so I’ll split this review into two parts: what my inner kid thought, and what the adult me thought.

My kid part says, yeah, this is cool. We’ve got this kid who goes on an adventure, meetings unusual characters, discovers tombs, leads a band, and brings his mission to a success, if through unusual and twisty and turny means. This book contains everything that this kind of book ought to have. All in all, I would have eaten this book up multiple times as a kid.

As an adult, I found that this book contained everything that this type of book was supposed to have. By all, I mean that the writer must have had a checklist next to him. Generic kid? Check. Annoying girl? Check. Inscrutable adults teaching you inscrutable lessons by making you feel stupid? Check. The hero seems to make no decisions yet still succeeds? Check. The whole lot of them deserving to die, yet somehow come out of everything alive? Check.

To say that the book reeks of Lord of the Rings is no small assertion. Wise wizard who talks inscrutably and sounds like Gandalf? Check. Strange creature that talks like Gollum? Check. Dark Lord marching his secretly raised armies about? Check. Hero from ordinary circumstances? Check. Magic swords? Check.  I can rather hear some editors saying, “We’d really like something like Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off, but for kids. Can you do that?”

I may knock the story, but I don’t knock the writing. For the most part, all the text is clear and the character come across well, except for our everyman hero who we are supposed to identify with. (Those sorts of heroes are supposed to be a bit shallow so that the maximum number of boys will identify with him.)

I give this book five stars because I think that it really works well for its target demographic. Most of my problems with the book come from me NOT being the target demographic.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Princess Bride (1973)

Published in 1973 by William Goldman, I found The Princess Bride spiritedly, engaging, and altogether charmingly humorous. I found the reading easy, the humor congenial, and the characters all a bit wacky, which is par for the course for the late 60's/early 70's.

William Goldman himself was a screenwriter by trade, creating the book from his screenplay. I think it's fair to say that this is one of the best written fantasy works that I've encountered from the 70's, not quite resembling anything before or since, except Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This comparison is well noted, for both he and Adams were screen writers who knew enough that you can't do a straight adaptation of a humor film to a book. To create a book, you need humor that works as a book, not just humor that works as in a film. So the book itself is filled with many jokes that never appear in the film.

Goldman asserts that the The Princess Bride is a translation of a book written by an Italian writer back in 1931. The unabridged work is long, farcical, and utterly tedious, so he abridges it into the more readable book that we see. Along the way, he explains why he took out certain sections and complains about the original writing, often telling tangential stories along the way. With this conceit, he is able to fill out his manuscript to proper book length without having to alter his story at all.

In my version, he also includes an introduction which talks about the film, and a purported sequel, Buttercup's Baby, but only first chapter.

In all, I was quite pleased with the read. He captures the mood and the fun of the film years before any actor had been cast. Or perhaps, I should say that the film nicely captured the humor and mood of the book, which was based on the screenplay.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Ursula LeGuin published the SF novel, the Left Hand of Darkness, in 1969. This is a novel that defies easy summary, existing well within the literary genre. To what extent it is literal or allegory, myth or history, testament or confession deservedly remains inexact. I want to say that this novel is powerful, but even in being powerful, I can’t say that it’s powerful absolutely. The idea of power misleads, suggesting that the novel is about power, or that power is strong. The novel spends all its time dwelling in that place where all that you assume doesn’t apply. Your reflexes will not serve you.

Ostensibly, the novel is about a traveler to a far world, called Winter, seeking to bring this world into the interstellar fold. This interstellar civilization always sends a single person to begin contact, progressing patiently, letting this new communication develop. The world of Winter was settled by human millennia ago, the planet turning to glaciation in the intervening years. What makes this particular planet unique is that the inhabitants are non-gendered, having both gender organs, but being that gender but a few days per month.

As speculative fiction goes, this novel is all speculative. There is relatively little science in the novel, but there is great exploration. LeGuin does not head boldly into this exploration, but gently, using her considerable storytelling prowess to live through this strange place, through the eyes of a strange person, in a strange society, in a strange time. And yet, despite this enveloping strangeness, the humanity of each character emerges, the world emerges, the facts emerge, with few lectures and many examples.

When I was young, I saw this titles on the shelf for many years, knowing that I liked LeGuin, yet very ambivalent of its description. That was shrewd, for this novel would have been completely beyond me. In high school, much of it would have gotten away for me. Even now, I find myself below this work, rather than above it. Its complexities are beyond me. By all rights, this novel should have been a tedious train wreck, but it works at a deep level, engaging you on a level that few modern novels will. Unlike many SF works, this one is based on humanity, moves with humanity, and concludes with humanity.