Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hermit Crabs

My mother didn't believe in pets. She may have believed in other people having them, but not us. (Even so, she noticed that other people's houses smelled like animals, and that was a cut.) She didn't want to take care of them as she already had enough children. Having no faith that we would keep up our responsibilities, she never gave in to a dog, let alone a cat.

My sisters did have some pets. We won goldfish here and there, and the poor creatures lived somewhat random lives in our house. I can't say that we were the best pet owners. On the other hand, they were goldfish.

Judy did have an aquarium for a while. I don't know how that got afforded. I think that we kept it for a few years. The tank ended up getting smashed when I had tried some weight lifting. It was straight out of a comedy. I put the weights on the bar, lifted it above my head, then immediately went backwards, the weights falling and hitting the tank. (So I guess that I earned a reputation for clumsiness about my family.)

The only pet that I had in my youth that was my pet was a hermit crab. We bought him down at Ocean City, one for me and one for my brother, and we were awfully excited to get them. We would pull them out and let them crawl across the floor. We had food for them, too, put in bottle caps, and water, in bottle caps as well. The cages lived on our book shelf.

As you can guess, the excitement didn't last. After the excitement comes forgetting, as you forget all toys. One day we noticed that the water caps were empty and the crabs weren't coming out of their shells. We had ignored the poor critters to death. I think that I was more disappointed than sad, and I had convinced myself that I was going to pay attention. In my imagination, I was going to be the best hermit crab taker-care-of ever, and my crab would get big, and it would all be COOL. I would be everyone's envy. That's not how it turned out.

These days I have a cat, not a hermit crab, and he does a good job of making me pay attention to him, so there's not much forgetting. I would be truly pained if I were to forget him. That cat has a temper.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Endhaven's Magic System

For the longest time, I did not think that Endhaven had a magic system. I thought that it had a variety of magic systems, each of which was confoundingly inobvious to the other.

I was wrong.

Endhaven has a magic system. It is metaphorical magic. As magic is beyond all people, simply too infinite to grasp and nothing at all of what a mind can conceive, it must be cast as a metaphor in order to be understood. Once you understand something as a metaphor, then you can express yourself through that metaphor, but are also limited by the natural limitations of that metaphor.

So, let's say that magic is like a rock. You can then use magic to smack someone in the eye with it, to smash a window, make a sound in the bushes far away, or maybe even bang open a nut with it. These are all natural extension of the metaphor. I suppose that if you wanted to sink like a stone, you could do that as well simply by gathering more rocks. If you wanted to weigh someone down with a curse, put many rocks on them. You see how this goes. The metaphor can do all these things, but what the metaphor can't do is most everything else.

The advantage to the reader is that this style of magic takes remarkably little effort to explain. Once you set up the metaphor, the reader can easily follow the metaphor, which acts as the rules-set for the power. They'll appreciate clever uses of the power within the limitations. And you as an author are given a symbolic set of vocabulary to go both with the power and the character.

"Scrog's stony gaze fell upon the goblins. With a flick of wrist, Scrog let out his stone spell. The chief goblin's hand flew to his face. 'My eye!' it whined piteously, like a child caught being naughty."

Action reinforces the metaphor, and the metaphor reinforces the action.

"Meerkat threw her flaming blade to the ground, red hot, the blade forever twisted. She met Targa's surprise glance. 'What? That's why I only buy cheap swords.'"

The great thing about this system is that I can explain the entire system, in all its complexity, in one short blog post.

Another great thing about the system is that the system pulls me away from the "energy/elemental" style magic systems which predominates fantasy today. I'm able to achieve a distinctive verve without sounding pretentious or descending into naval gazing. I can take anything typical and the system turns the power from something exceptional into something naturalistic.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Redefining Fantasy and SF

I'm close to inventing my own SF and Fantasy categories because I'm not happy enough with the current set. The definitions need to be more experiential. The list is neither complete nor definitive.

Straight White Male Fantasy - In this style of novel, the hero defeats his enemies and gets the buxom girl. It's all about being a straight white male and loving it. Expect many fight scenes. The sword is a phallic symbol. The winner gets to procreate with the prize female. Example: John Carter, Conan, Tarzan, Star Wars.

Straight White Female Fantasy - In this style of novel, the girl hooks up with the most self-willed male. These are mostly found on the indie scene.

Everykid Fantasy - The adults are out. The kids have to step up and set things right. The chosen one is a frequent motif. Example: Narnia, Hunger Games, Harry Potter.

Culture Shock Fantasy - Person goes to place X, where place X isn't anywhere on the map, and there solves problems. This may involve going through a portal or going to another planet. Same thing, different verbiage. You could easily change "magic" for "technology" without the audience realizing it. Elves or aliens, there's lots of misunderstand here. This includes just about every portal fantasy or "go to planet X" SF.

Coming of Age Fantasy - The protagonist grows up the hard way. Example: The White Dragon

Documentary Fantasy - It may be a fantasy, but it reads like a historical novel. The focus is on events of the day. At the end, there's no evil to slay. Example: Pern, Dune.

Horror - If things that went bump in the night were real.

Long Winded Fantasy - What there is, there's a whole lot of it. Detail world building is a must. Example: Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings, the Iliad. The author is paid by the word.

Literary Fantasy - This stuff reads amazingly well. It satisfies your need for a really good story. The author most certainly isn't paid by the word. Has a significant chance of boring you. Example: A Wizard of Earthsea, American Gods, Urth of the New Sun.

Wimsey - This stuff makes nonsense. Example: Alice in Wonderland, Green Eggs and Ham.

Twee Fantasy - Fantasy that's mostly sweet and usually for kids. Example: The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter.

Technology Fantasy - What can we do with technology? What will that lead to? Moral ambiguities dominate. This is pretty much hard SF. Here, the technology is just as much of a character as any of the characters.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The White Dragon (1978)

What happens when you mix a coming of age story with a psychic dragon sidekick, time travel, and some nookie? You get The White Dragon.

I first cracked the cover of The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey back in 1978. I saw it on the store shelves and WANTED it something fierce, most of that having to do with the Wheelan cover on the front. That was one sweet cover. He deserved every penny that he got paid on that one. Once I got my hands on a paperback copy, I proceeded to read that thing, cover to cover, thirteen time before 1984. This books was THE book of my youth, the one that I loved the most.

All these years later, I slammed through this half-forgotten book at a breakneck speed, remembered events and gobbling it down with the same ferocity that I had in my youth.

Anne wrote a really good book. It wasn't a perfect book. There are places late in the book where conversations get compressed and the action moves a little too fast. She's was clearly over her target word count and needed to get this beast out the door. In those days, SF books reaching  over 350 pages was a fairly rare phenomena. It did happen, just not often.

Although the story is obstensibly about Jaxom, the young to-be Lord Holder of Ruatha, and his white dragon, Ruth, the tale itself sits atop a backdrop of political tensions between the Oldtimers and the Good Guys, and the increasing scientification of this sf/fantasy series. As this socio-political engine turns, events occur that give Jaxom troubles, annoyances, frustrations, joys, and heroic opportunities. It's a good setup, one that keeps the story moving without having the hero artificially turning the crank.

The book benefitted from being published after two Harper Hall books. It was essentially the third book to both the Harper Hall trilogy and to the Pern series. With a prominent role for Robinton, and frequent appearances of Menolly, both fanbases got their fix.

[Speculation] The story itself referred to some adventures that Menolly had with Robinton, which would have been part of some Harper Hall book that never quite came to be. I am convinced that halfway through The White Dragon, Anne ran into issues with the outline of her next Harper Hall book, had to scrap and reoutline it, then inserted Piemer into the end half of The White Dragon to make the continuity work. The first half of the work still reflected her earlier outline. I rather suspect that Menolly needing to be over 18 when she got her first nookie figured prominently into that decision. Having a 16 year old having sex in a YA book would be a dealbreaker for a publisher. Being halfway through drafting The White Dragon, in typewriter days, meant that revising it out was too prohibitive. It's no small coincidence that Dragondrums takes place three years after Dragonsinger, and Menolly ages from 15 to 18.

As an adult, I get far more of the sexual references this time around. That boy sure did get nookie easily. What I appreciate about Anne is that she's so sex positive. Jaxom has a fling with Corana. Menolly has her delight with Sebell. The green rider gets it on with whoever. And most importantly, Sharra has a fling with Jaxom, not believing that a marriage is possible.

I found Sharra a rather empty character. In theory she's interesting, I guess, but in practice she just never does me. For me, there's just no chemistry between the two characters. I see the two getting divorced after a few years.

The character that I did find fascinated was Ruth. The dragon's dialog is structure in such a way that the dragon speaks nothing like any of the other dragons. Ruth is chatty and temporal, having an excellent perception of today and tomorrow, unlike other dragons who don't remember past a few days. That Anne was able to portray this so well in dialog rather charms me. Maybe I'm just a sucker for sincere go-getters, but if it's an sincere go-getter that you love, Ruth is the character for you.

Despite discovering the origins of mankind on Pern at the end of the book, I found the ending weak. I felt more like the outline petered out than we had reached any sort of ending. All the OOH and AHH of discovery felt a bit stuffed in. It's no wonder that my memory shortened the end, for the end could easily have been shortened.

As usual for a Pern book, everything happens all at once, sometimes with more than one thing happening at one time. History sure is eventful at this time. All sorts of changes happen very quickly. So we can assume that Pern novels are dominated by punctuated equilibrium. Things stay the same for a long time, then there are sudden changes, and then things stay the same again.

Despite all my quibbles and meanderings, this book has survived the test of time. Rarely does the book allow events and wonder to overstep the more more engaging tale of human experience.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Dragondrums (Book Review) (1979)

Released in 1979, Dragondrums by Anne McCaffrey promised to round out the "classical" Pern books, but fails to reach that mark. The book failed to find me when first published and failed again to reach me this time around.

The book itself tries to do too many things at once, often rushes through scenes and events, and never quite gels. I'll tell you my theories and observations, and you can tell me that I'm wrong.

Before I being, we must consider that Dragondrums was under development at the same time as The White Dragon. The two books clearly had an influence on each other. Piemer winds up on the Southern Continent as an explorer with no explanation, Mirrim has impressed Path as if you should already know, and this girl Sharra shows up. Clearly Anne knew something of the outline of each book, with The White Dragon getting first development.

The most mystifying part of Dragondrums is that Menolly is NOT the lead character.With her wild popularity, you'd think that she would be the lead in the book again. At one point in the process, I am sure that she was the lead. Dragonsinger clearly promised that she would get involved in more interesting Harper tasks, letting her journey as part of being a journeyman. The book is about all those others things that Hapers need to do. You can still see the original story arc, where Menolly finds Oldtimers taking gems from mines, tracks down rogue fire lizard eggs to Meron's hold, Piemer gets taken south, sails to the Southern Continent to rescue Piemer, gets lost with the Masterharper, falls in love with Sebell, and then what? I really don't know. The getting lost part is clearly referenced in The White Dragon as if that were another book in the series, which it wasn't.

My guess is that editorial heads prevailed. The biggest issue was that of Sebell. If he and Menolly were to have sex a boat, and Menolly was only fifteen, that would cause publication problems. Fifteen year olds don't get in going on a boat, even with fire lizards as an excuse. At a minimum, Menolly would need to be eighteen, and story would need to shift to three years later, which happens to be the exact time shift of the story, three turns after Dragonsinger.

In addition, Menolly clearly needed to spend more time at Harper Hall learning. She needed to get her voice up to snuff. In addition, her job was clearly to write songs. Why would you put your most important song writer, someone who could influence the entire planet, into harm's way? That further emphasizes the need to time shift the book.

The original concept still could have worked as referenced in The White Dragon. My guess is that there are some details that didn't work any more. For whatever reason, perhaps because she's not out of the YA age range, Menolly got relegated to a secondary character.

The only other Harper of the appropriate age is Piemer, and so Anne falls back to him, presumably adapting Menolly's story to his story, while still keeping Menolly around to be part of other bits of her story.

The first half of the book seems well paced enough and full enough of detail, but the middle book just goes astray. The storytelling switches to this point-of-view style that is all see this, does that, and very experiential. There's nothing like it in her other books and I just don't think that it works.

The back half of the book feels rushed. We wander through so many scenes in a summarized manner that I'm positive that Anne was behind writing in a time crunch, had her novel going over the contractual word length and needed to condense to fit in everything from the outline, or both. I vote both.

To be honest, much of the book feels like back story for The White Dragon.

Of all Anne's books from the 70's, I think that this is the only one that lost me. Halfway through and I found myself losing steam. Dragondrums may be among the most favored of all 1970's fantasy, but I can't say that it's among the best.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Dragonsinger (1977)

Dragonsinger (1977) is arguable the best book that Anne McCaffrey wrote. It's long enough to full of good stuff, but no so long that you lose interest in it before you are done. It is also, arguably, the second half of Dragonsong. Taken together, they form one good book.

This Dragonsinger, Menolly goes to Harper Hall in order to become a harper. Her main problem is that she's a female, and young women don't become harpers, so even though she's where she always wanted to be, the hall doesn't know how to place her correctly. She repeatedly does not fit in, partly due to the social structure, partly due to the fact that she's not learning the apprentice ropes and it's nobody's job to show her, and partly due to Robinton's tendency to start projects and then leave other people to straighten them out.

To be honest, I had forgotten most of this book. I still remembered the big beats, but all the small ones had gone rolling down memory lane. This time around, I caught all the more subtle things that I didn't catch when I was a YA reader, especially the mostly random social disasters that befell the poor girl. I also had a better feel for how Menolly was a traumatized person, and dealing with trauma takes time. She does not snap around into a new person right away, tripping over herself just as much as others cause her to trip.

I thought that Anne played a nice game with the girl and clothes, down to the shoes. Or perhaps Anne didn't realize what she had done because we authors create analogies without realizing it.

The book introduces a number of characters and expands on a few more. Robinton goes from an iconic character to a more human one. We get to see what the man looks like in more situations, along with so many of his flaws. Piemer becomes Menolly's best mate, and Sebell a new acquantaince. Lord Grogh get screen time as well.

As harpers are underexplored so far in the series, we get a deeper look into Harper Hall. What seems monolithic at first turns out to be an assembly of crafts that fit under the same roof. Harper Hall acts as a university, a scriptorium, a conservatory, an instrument workshop, a communication center, a medical center, a propaganda center, and an intelligence gathering operation. It's no wonder that lots of fans like harpers because harpers get to do lots and lots of different things.

As this is a YA adult novel, it must contain bullies and completely unnecessary conflict. Although we're hit over the head with this, it doesn't hurt too much and doesn't dominate the story at all times. Everything comes out OK for our dear protagonist even if all problems aren't solved at the end. There are still grudges kept.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed this reread and I hope to reread it again sometime.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Dragonsong (1976)

Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey, was the first book in the Harper Hall trilogy, was published in 1976. According to the wise and knowledgeable Wikipedia, the book was commissioned by Atheneum Press to attract female readers into SF.

Set on Pern seven years into the 9th pass, the story follows the travails of Menolly, an ill fitting girl in an overly conservative sea hold. By overly conservative, I mean that Anne clubs you with a narrow minded bat until you beg for forgiveness. Menolly is cursed with a talent for music, which only some boys and harpers are supposed to have. Being a permanent embarrassment, her father decides to give her hell until her personality wears off.

Oh, the aches that this novel reawakened in me. I read this book back in 1977 or so. I remember lying in the back yard sucking down the story. I had read Dragonflight and Dragonquest, quickly becoming my two favorite books, before launching into this series. I found myself reacting in similar ways all the way through. But time does change you, and it certainly changed how I saw this book.

Anne cleverly swaps perspectives in this book, using those perspectives to speak to her young readers. Menolly does have a hard time, and honestly can't see past her nose. We switch perspectives, and her parents can't see past their own noses either. They aren't vengeful or cruel, for the most part, but just over-practical people living in a difficult time. A new harper comes to the sea hold, and we see more perspective from him. He befriends Menolly's older brother who doesn't agree with his father's ways, showing us that families are not monolithic. When Menolly switches to living in Benden Weyr, we switch perspectives again. Now we have Menolly living among a different community, one that sees her hurt and knows that something is going wrong for her. All those qualities that got her in trouble at home are now valued. At home, her sister didn't think that she worked hard, but in the weyr they thought her a hard worker. At home her music was an embarrassment but in the weyr it was a welcome diversion. At home, discipline and routine were the marks of the day, while in the weyr, diversions were acceptable.

And in there, Menolly befriends many fire lizards, which caused a fad of wearing fake fire lizards at SF conventions for years to come.

The book does wander in places. As it overlaps Dragonquest, many points of the Dragonquest plot must be reiterated. This all reads like filler, but hey, I ate this stuff up in the 7th grade, so maybe it wasn't a mistake. Aside from that, this book is all new material. This is the first that we see of everyday holder life, and how the people on the ground see the world that they live in. Life in the lower caverns expands as well, giving us a new appreciation of what it takes to support a weyr.

Strangely, I misremembered the ending, totally and completely. In my memory, Menolly still met the Masterharper and was asked to Harper Hall, but the circumstances didn't match the book all. In comparison, I like my imagined version better. I found the actual ending a bit too twee.

Compared to today's polished and astonishingly good YA novels, I found Dragonsong both rougher and duller. This is less of a ding against Anne and more of a recognition of the excellence of today's YA market.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Grinsia (Kemko RPG Review)

If you ever wanted more of the same in a JRPG, then Grinsia is the game for you. There is nothing new under the sun, and this game embraces that theology with a passion unmatched since Jesus invented the Stations of the Cross. Four characters, two substitute party members, and a goddess go on an epic journey to loot six lost artifacts from six improbable dungeons, opposed only by the might of an entire empire. If that weren't enough, there's a few extra side dungeons. The girls characters all had their required busts bursting out, and the boys all had their gelled hair.

If you play JRPGs, then you know the routine. You'll start this game and settle into the routine pretty fast. Hack, slash, loot, and a cut scene for every dungeon.

There were a few fights that I found overly difficult. By overly difficult, I mean that the bosses got MORE dangerous as the fight went on, rather than less dangerous. As one of those was the final boss, I said "screw it", because I really didn't need the agony of fighting that last boss to unlock the final cut scene where everything was set to rights.

As games go, this one will amuse you as you expect. I'm not sure that it amused me $7.99 worth of amusement. I'd rather pay $3.99 for Kemko games. I don't expect much at that price point and Kemko usually meets my low expectations. I need some brain candy for when bedtime rolls around.

I did enjoy the teleportation unlocking mechanism in the game. That made going back and forth way easier. So instead of a healing point before a boss fight, you hit a teleporter. It served the same function plus added the utility of a teleporter. If I didn't have enough levels to tackle a boss, I could rest up, come back, and grind the dungeon for a bit.

When I got tired of the game, I could play the in-game game of target shooting. If successful, you would win fabulous prizes. The game came across as rather dorky, but I'm fond of dorkness, so it was cool in my book. Sometimes you just have to fire arrows as passing icons.

I would term the encounter frequency of this game as "oppressive." Random encounters are fun, but this game often took random encounters to absurd frequencies. At least they had a spell which mitigated such encounters from oppressive to merely a bit much. The fights themselves felt rather repetitive as the fights were rather repetitive.

The dialog was dull but informative, and I found that the translation rather solid, always resembling native speaking English.

Most notable about the game were the things that it lacked. It had no flying ships, but don't worry, the game gives you a magical flying bird near the finale. There was no abstract space area for the final dungeon, instead sending you down into the bowels of the earth. Likewise, there were no romances.

Overall, I think that I spent about 15 hours on the game, which is more than a usual Kemko.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Dragonquest (1971)

Published in 1971, Dragonquest is the book that put McCaffrey on the map. More accurately, it put McCaffrey onto a planet, named Pern, which proceeded to provide her a living wage as a writer. That's no mean feat.

Dragonquest came about in a curious time for SF and Fantasy. The genres were heading into new directions. Gone were the days of easy hand waving and shiny chrome that came with the SF short story. At the length of a novel, your setting now had to hold itself together, and hold itself together under scrutiny. Not only was Anne a member of this time, seeking to meet this newer and more detailed sort of work, due to the time that she was writing it, she was a pioneer of the style as well. For with the change of times came new pressures on Pern, and Anne had to take those series of short stories and turn them into something real, something believable, and something that approached 80,000 words.

Anne solved most of her problems marvelously, and failed at some of her problems tremendously. On balance, she delivered, for the novel went up for multiple award nominations. Not only had she gotten noticed, she had gotten noticed real good in a male dominated industry dominated by male readers. That, by itself, puts her in rare company.

The story itself is an ensemble piece, taking place seven years after the end of Dragonflight. Each arc consists of its own short stories, with the characters intermingling as they went. F'nor and Brekke make googly eyes at each other, old technology is discovered, a showdown with the old timers comes along, a gold rider causes a tragedy, Jaxom gets into extraordinary trouble, fire lizards get rediscovered, and F'lar goes digging for grubs. Dump them all into a pot and puree, and you get a very engaging novel, switching between characters frequently and smoothly.

Science has obviously come into Anne's life as her SF base knows their stuff. Pern has stopped being a Star Trek like world, where the background looks like it goes on forever but is really just a static backdrop, and started being a planet. Time zones now matter. Politics are no longer so easily settled. Goods and commodities now have worth. People need to get fed. Workers need to do the work. Adding in these ordinary details of life change Pern from the late 60's technicolor sort of production into 70's cinematic realism, where the colors mute and shadows hang deep.

Women come further to the forefront here. Anne has realized her basic mistake of making all dragonriders men (except for golds). That sort of thing was good enough for when she wrote Dragonflight, but with this book, she knows that she has many female fans, and they want more out of the females in the book. They get that, too. There are more women in this book than there are in most Hollywood films. We have Lessa, Brekke, Kylara, Mirram, and Manora making up a substantial arc of the book. From here on out, Anne makes every classy retcon attempt to make women dragonriders and bring them further into the forefront of her books.

Let's put praise where praise belongs. Anne wrote an SFF books that women clamored to read. That was no mean feat. That was extraordinary. She is now in an upward trajectory that will place her, an SF author, as a top 10 bestseller by the late 70's.

How does the SF hold up after all these years? In my opinion, pretty awesomely. Anne's main failure is in understanding that her planet is a planet. Her mind is just not up to understanding 200 million people, which was the population of the Earth at the time of the Roman Empire. Her holds and settlements feel parochial. The scale of humanity is just not there in her own mind. By the way that the novel feels, you could stuff everyone into the island of Great Britain and still have elbow room. That's not a lot of people. One the whole, that criticism is small potatoes.

A notable absence in the book is Lessa's psychic powers. They are used in one scene, but for the most part, they stop mattering. That aspect of Dragonquest has been left behind. I don't recall if psychic powers ever really come back. I think that there was a psychic in a future book earlier in the timeline.

Most importantly, I had fun reading this book again, and I don't know of a better review than that.