Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dinosaur Planet (1978)

Anne begins 1978's Dinosaur Planet with a sawed-off shotgun full of technobabble, firing indiscriminately in all directions. Not satisfied with abusing readers with tedious technical detail on the first page, she continues this neutronium thick technobabble for the next 50 pages, which is 1/4 of the book. The technobabble is so thick that there isn't even any room for a plot, not even the vaporously thin plot of this book.

Somewhere around page 50, the technobabble shots simmer down to a more reasonable pace and some degree of plot and characterization moves in, much like oxygen. So I suppose that the horrific writing of the first fifty pages lets the perfectly lame writing of the remaining book seem good by comparison. But trust me, it's only good in comparison.

The plot, whichs starts around page 100, revolves around a vegetarian planetary survey which loses contact with their ship. Rather than accept that they may be marooned, they hope for the best and march onward. Meanwhile, "heavy worlders" have turned carnivore, and the meat drives them into violence. They take over the expedition, stealing everything, and attempting to murder everyone via dinosaur stampede. The leadership survives, holes up in their remaining shuttle, going into techno-sleep.

That's it.

And you'd think with a title like Dinosaur Planet that the book would be a sure-fire dino-love-fest. Nope. The expert future biologists don't even recognize the creatures as dinosaurs. Really? T-Rex is so obscure that you have to look him up?

By my educated guestimate, Anne began this book early on, abandoning it for other works. For some inexplicable reason, as she got to be a better writer, she hauled this manuscript back out and finished it, if you could call this book finished. Fortunately, every editor who saw the book rejected it until Anne got so popular that even a roadkill like this book became a viable source of income rather than a viable source of ridicule.

It's not the worst SF book that I've ever read. (Andre Norton holds that title.) However, it does make it into the annals with a silver medal and a commemorative plaque.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Paladins and Impossible Dilemmas

On my drive yesterday, I got thinking about paladins and oaths. I experimented with a character, almost immediately running into issues of morality and oaths and what it means to be a paladin.

"Fight evil" immediately became a problem. If you swear an oath to fight evil, then the character is forced down a single path where she must fight. She has no other options or tools. The results of her actions could increase the misery of those around her.  Even if she accomplishes evil herself, she must go there because there is the only place that she can go.

Looking at oaths in general, paladins usually swear to do multiple things. All parts of the oath must be kept or she loses her status. So she lives in a world where all things are artificially made equal.

What's really missing from most paladins is a mechanism to handle internal, moral conflict. That seems odd as paladins are people of rules and laws, yet that is the case.

So here, I'll sketch out my basic moral toolbox for resolving paladinish conundrums.

1. Increasing good trumps opposing evil. As the universe is inherently evil, there are an infinite number of evils to oppose. Evil is cheap. In contrast, opportunities to increase good are few and precious. It is better to labor for gold than dirt.

2. Immediacy trumps possibility. The problems of there here and now need solving over the problems of later or far away.

3. Large impacts trump small impacts. Not all problems are equal. Paladins don't have the luxury of being able to pick how and when trouble appears, but they can decide which problems they will engage.

4. Diplomacy trumps violence. Violence triggers cycles of vengeance. A paladin seeks to end those cycles.

5. The present trumps the future. You'll eventually die. You must trust the future to look after itself. Someone will be there when the time comes.

6. The least bad trumps the worse. In this world, you don't always get easy options. In a moment of crisis, you will make the best possible decision that you can be made. Someone else may make the decision.

So, let's use these principals to talk about orc babies. This particular problem is the most famous paladin-screwing scenario. So, let's examine the case with the principals above. You just killed an orc tribe. There are some orc babies. What do you do? This is where the so-called "fun" debate begins.

  • If orc babies are killed, the overall increase in good will be negligible. You've already killed all the grown-up orcs. The babies could grow up to attack again, but that's tomorrow's problem. The immediate problem is whether to slaughter non-combatants.
  • If orc babies are killed, the overall lessening of evil will be negligible. In twenty years, nobody's going to notice or care about a handful of orcs. 
  • If the orc babies are taken to an orphanage, they will likely get smothered in their sleep or get raised in a society which hates them. Not only that, if they escape to orc society, they won't fit in there either. If not outright evil, it's certainly a horrid thing to do. 
  • If the orc babies are ignored, you've shown mercy, which increases the good in the world. They may still grow up to kill people, but that's tomorrow's problem.

As you can see, the only option which produces any good is to ignore the orc babies. However, if there are no caretakers left living, leaving them to starve would be pretty horrid, so it would be more merciful to kill them outright.

And if your party outvotes you and decides to kill those babies? The least bad trumps the worse. You worked toward your goal but you lost the argument. You're now in least bad territory. Have the decency to kill the orc babies swiftly and then bury them properly. You should even volunteer to do the deed, as you won't be killing in anger or hate.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Castle Hangnail (2015)

If "charming fantasy" isn't an official fantasy category, it ought to be, if only to make a generously welcome home to Ursula Vernon. Her latest work, Castle Hangnail (2015), contains so much charm that you could hire a roving band of hippos to stomp the charm out of it, and it would still be charming. Note that charming isn't saccharine. (It's not.) The book isn't always sweet, but even at its darkest moments, even the dark moments have charm.

I will skip any spoilers, because I want you to read this book.

Our heroine is Molly, twelve years old, who wants to be a wicked witch. (She has a good twin sister, so it makes sense that she's the evil one.) When she finds a place that needs a new evil master, Castle Hangnail, she jumps at the chance, even if she does a break a rule or two (or some other uncomfortably high number that's much larger than two). Meanwhile, the minions of Castle Hangnail have been desperate to get a new master, and if they don't, the castle will be forced to close. (This isn't a pleasant thing either for the minions or the castle.)

The tone of the work is light and fun, yet consistently sincere. There's not a hint if irony or sarcasm or pessimism, except where useful. The plot moves along jauntily (I don't believe that I used that word), always spending enough time with the characters, yet never so much time that the jokes grow dull or the scenes drag. All the minions are firmly realized, getting their moments to shine. And you even get some gardening tips as well.

If you read aloud to your kids, I doubly recommend this book.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Get Off the Unicorn (1977)

Get Off the Unicorn, published in 1977, collects some of Anne McCaffrey's short stories into a single collection. If there is any work by Anne that you want to start with, this ISN'T the one. By all means, judge Anne by a different book.

This is a book that I often debated reading back in high school, and I may even have checked it out of the library. Even so, I have no memory of its contents. On reading it, I see why I would never have read it, or even persevered reading it. The stories in this collection show both their age and Anne's poor narrative ability. The first two stories, in fact, didn't even see publications, and on reading them, it's painful to see why they didn't see publication. Quite frankly, there was nothing engaging about those stories.

To be fair, the stories seem to be presented in written order, so you do generally see Anne's skill increase as the tales progress. A few later stories even read rock solid. Pay special attention to The Great Canine Chorus and Finder's Keepers.

If I had to guess, I would guess that most of these stories date from before Dragonquest, even if they are dated up to 1973. (A written story doesn't necessarily get sold immediately.)

The first two stories eventually resulted in the novels The Rowan and Damia's Children.

If you are a dedicated McCaffrey fan, then you'll read this book anyway.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Play-Doh

Play-Doh. Oh, Play-Doh, how doth Shakespeare praise your squish'y fun?

'Cause, you know, PLAY-DOH. I still know that smell. I still know that cold texture that warms up in your hands. I know those little bits of it that somehow get onto the rug and are murder most foul to rip back up. I came here to not bury Play-Doh, but to praise it.

In my day, Play-Doh came in annoying to open containers that challenged your fingers at every eager opening. I think that they still had tin lids when I was tiny. These days, the tops are oh-so-much better to get off. The great thing, though, is that the stuff inside is still the same. That smell. Oh, that smell.

To be honest, I can't tell you how much time I spent playing with Play-Doh, nor how much time I spent forgetting to clean it up. The two really go together. Of all the messes that your parents could buy you, Play-Doh was both the most omnipresent and well liked. There's no other toy, so well loved, that it keeps its audience clear through adulthood. I literally cannot think of anyone, at any time, who got shamed for being too old for Play-Doh. That concept just doesn't exist. Play-Doh is the closest thing to the true universal toy. Not only do you not grow out of it, you cannot grow out of it.

The world of Play-Doh can be split into three types of player: those who make cool stuff, those who make freakish monstrosities that don't look like anything, and kids who just don't care. I fell into the category of freakish monstrosity maker. It's not that I sought to make monstrosities, but that's the best that my mangled mind could do.

Fortunately, there was more to Play-Doh than the finished product. The product is an experience all to itself. You squish it, roll it, mix it, flatten it, and pretend to do all sorts of things with it, such as cutting, stamping, texturing, and extruding. These actions were as legitimate as construction, if not more so.

The purchasable tool sets, even back in my day, were colorful and durable. The most coveted on, for me, was the extruder. My friends may have had some, but I don't recall having one. (That doesn't mean that I didn't have one.) You simply put the substance into a pusher, which went through a template, giving you a shape. The commercials always made that seem way fun, or at least far more fun than it actually was.

Play-Doh wasn't perfect, of course. It really liked to dry, so you always had to be vigilant about putting it away. Even so, it still dried out and got tough. If you made anything from it, the Play-Doh cracked as it dried, often ruining your creations. (Well, other people had their creations ruined. Mine were never good enough to ruin.) As Play-Doh disintegrated as you used it, small bits often got left over, then flattened into whatever they landed on. Fortunately, the bits usually came up easy, but anything ground into clothing tended to stay there.

The cheap version of Play-Doh was made of flour, salt, and a few other ingredients. This is the type that the parents made for school, as Play-Doh is relatively expensive and cost way too much for a large classroom. It wasn't quite the same, but it did good enough.

Wikipedia tells us that Play-Doh was created in the 1950's as a wallpaper cleaner to rid your house of those troubling coal stains. When natural gas came in, there was no longer much ado about coal, so the manufacturer had to find another market. That turned out to be schoolkids who were already using their product for school. After taking their product to the educational market, their fortunes were made, as a non-toxic cheap modeling substance was exactly the kind of thing that educators craved.

I am happy to say that I played Play-Doh with my daughter, which was always a challenge when she was two. The first thing that she did was to mix all the colors together. Yeah, kids. I remember my parents working furiously to keep our colors apart as well, but that's more important as they had five kids.