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. This 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?

Childhood

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.