Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Old Goriot (1834)

Old Goriot (1834) by Balzac is a serial centering around a boarding house in contemporary (1834) Paris, and the fortunes of the mysterious fellow, Goriot.

In my edition, there were no chapter breaks. The whole work was a single piece.

The work is a serial, drifting between moralizing on one side and melodrama on the other. It's job was to hook you and keep you reading, and also to add in lots of extra words so that the author earns more money. The work is well padded for the story that it tells.

I found this period of Paris quite interesting, and now understand how middle-class midwest America could find such a tale shocking. The Parisians were entirely worldly, much to the shock of the Godly American, and the tale pursued this worldliness with aplomb, apologizing for nothing.

Although one co-worker called this an intellectual work, it's anything but intellectual. While there are bits that could be called intellectual, most of the work focused on the Parisian upper class, giving a voyeuristic view of the rich and famous to the Parisian masses, meanwhile tearing down those classes as self-centered, criminal, and no better than anyone else.

Most of all, this book is about unvarnished humanity, where hypocrisy rules and money is king. All together, I found this book an interesting travel in time and space.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Glorianna (1978)

Glorianna (1978) by Michael Moorcock is one of those novels that refuses to let itself get stuffed into a box, even though, by the end, you absolutely feel like stuffing it into a box. Often feeling more like a 1800's serial with its effusive narrative and idyllic pacing, the tale sits atop vicious powermongering and overly perfect villains. The tale demonstrates why fantasy should take a right turn off the browbeaten path and the hazards of taking such a direction.

(As a mild warning, here be rape culture. If you want, I can point out the page and paragraphs, but when you get there, you'll not need me to point out a thing.)

The novel earns its lauds through Moorcock's chops and literary ambitions, because where this narrative works, it works unwarrantedly well. The vast bulk of the violence of this novel takes place off stage, with the players aghast at the bloodshed. Indeed, I know of few fantasy novels so acutely aware of the humanity of all the characters, even the minor ones, so that when they die, they other characters both mourn and miss them.

I quite enjoyed the court itself, which wasn't merely all characters orbiting the Queen. Not only did the court function, but everyone in the court had a job,

Where this narrative fails, it fails in proportion to its ambitions. In many places, the narrative reaches a profuseness that demonstrates why we don't write like those wordy serials any more, where the text literally doesn't matter, providing no more than color. Likewise, the narrative often skims over developments should have been written out, instead summarizing what should have been interesting developments.

I suspect that the novel is operating on a level that I am too ill-educated to recognize, making me suspect that the whole things is a tragedy del arte, but with so many of the characters poorly formed, our view of the writer's vision is obscured by his own cleverness.

On the whole, I would compare this book to a wonderful looking building filled with frescoes and gilded furniture, but built ad hoc with shoddy materials. Walk through it, and the whole structure seems fabulous, but it's built on unsteady pillars and ill conceived hacks, that once identified, makes you wonder how the whole thing stands up in the first place. By all rights, this book should collapse under its own weight, and for many, I imagine that it does. For me, as story reach its final and happy conclusion, the entire tale imploded under its own weight.

I can't recommend the book unless you are particularly committed to reading it. It's a product of its time, leaping high, and landing on its face.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

If Wishes Were Horses (1998)

If Wishes Were Horses (1998) is a YA fantasy story by Anne McCaffrey. In the story, the Lord goes to war, and the Lady is left managing the valiant home front that could in a circa-1800's feeling English country.

The tale is fairly short and barely rises to the term novella, even if it is a stand-alone book.

The story advances very simply, with the precognitive Lady having the intelligence and resources to see her village through hard times. Meanwhile, the villagers don't seem very capable of taking care of themselves, nor of organizing, which annoyed me to no end.

There's nothing wrong with the tale, but nothing noteworthy either. It's a safe read, if a bit shallow.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

An Exchange of Gifts (1995)

An Exchange of Gifts (1995) by Anne McCaffey is a very sweet YA fantasy romance. My copy has illustrations by Pat Morrissey. In this short tale, a princess run away to live in the wood and pursue her true gift, gardening. The story itself is fairy tale like, existing out of time and space. The twists and turns prove simple and easy to follow. Forget realism.

There's nothing special about the story. I made the mistake of putting it down, so it stayed unfinished for a week. Likewise, there's nothing wrong with the tale, so once you get going, you'll roll through it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Coelura (1987)

The Coelura (1987) is a novella first published by Anne McCaffrey in 1983. The romance is a throwback to the pop SF of the 50's and 60's, with great regard to form and little regard to function. There's nothing amazing about the story, but it's an entertaining enough romance and an absolute representative gem of retro fiction. (Arguably, since Anne got her start with this sort of fiction, for her it isn't retro at all, just a little misplaced in era.)

Accompanying the story are some gorgeous ink drawing which capture the tenor of those simpler SF times. The future in these drawing is indeed futuristic, with a European opulence poured on top, to give an elegant, decadent, and skin tight feel.

Our heroine is harder to get than she looks. Our hero winds up the lucky man. Some La-La-La happens offscreen, and in the end, there's a happy ending. But you knew that because it's a romance.

If you feel like something retro and just a little decadent, check this one out.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Gift of Dragons (2002)


A Gift of Dragons (2002) collects together four Anne McCaffrey Pern short stories in a book aimed at the YA audience. The little hardback is well printed and bound nicely, making for a nice gift. One of the stories is new for the collection.

The stories pretty much unfold as you'd expect from a McCaffrey story. Bullies and egotists abound. So do dragons. The stories are all what they are, flowing well enough, twisting YA anxieties for all they are worth.

The new story in this volume centers around twins being searched, which triggers my anti-twin sentiments. (Since I'm a twin, I get to have anti-twin outrage and twin stereotypes.) The twins here, fraternal, look fairly alike and are inseparable. (Roll your eyes and sigh.)

Nothing here is fine literature, but they're perfectly good YA stories to keep a dragon lover occupied.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Nerilka's Story (1986)

Nerilka's Story (1986), a novella by Anne McCaffrey, is set well before the classic era of Pern. The pass is almost over, a disease is about to sweep the land, and Moreta is about to go on her legendary ride.

Against this backdrop is the story of Nerilka, yet another McCaffrey heroine who isn't appreciated at home, doesn't quite fit in with the other girls, and who goes off on her own to find people who appreciate her. Her father is callous, of course, and there's also an egotistical domineering woman who ruins everything.

The story is fairly turnkey McCaffrey fare, competently done and smoothly related. It's a good afternoon read with no major flaws or blemishes, and being a novella, not loaded down with bloat. If it were a novel, I might knock off some points, but it's not. It's just enough of Pern to get a satisfying swig and no more.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Black Horses for the King (1996)

Black Horses for the King (1996) by Anne McCaffrey is a divergence from her usual fantasy and SF fare. In this historical fiction, aimed at young adults, a boy helps King Arthur buy horses, and in doing so, helps him to create the cavalry of Camelot.

The story is first person and mostly straight forward. There isn't much cleverness going on, but there doesn't need to be. The tale itself is experiential, at that cusp where a boy turns into a man, and where his fortunes change from subordinate to peer.

The text moves well. The plot progresses steadily. The characters all seem a little underserved, but there no harm of the story. The antagonist is an annoyance, more unbelievably so than he ought to be, which really weakens his role. The history and horse facts are generally correct with some liberties taken to create a good story.

Overall, I found the work a competent read of YA fiction, perfect for the boys, and possibly perfect for horse girls.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Power Play (1995)

Power Play (1995) by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough brings the Petaybee trilogy to a something of a conclusion. Resembling a wanna-be Northern Exposure more than a SF novel, the book attempts to capture the idiosyncrasies of small town arctic life, making it a rather fluffy read. (There's nothing wrong with fluff. Sometimes you just need some cotton candy.)

Make no mistake, this book does not repeat the disaster that was book #2, but instead achieves a lacklusterness in its own right. While not a bad book, it's also not a good book. The plot generally holds together, but does depend on the stupidity of the villains. If stupid villains annoy you, then you will be well and assuredly annoyed. The story generally works, but with so many characters running about, caring about any of them becomes something of a trick.

If the book had been written by some proper comedy writers, it could have worked. Unfortunately, adequately written comedy is experientially lame. Yet, I can't blame them for skewing this direction, because that was the center of the story and really was where it needed to go.

In many places, the story felt rather padded, walking through the plot with little engagement, while in other places, the story skips over interesting parts of the plot, summarizing as it goes. This is pretty much in line with the other books in this series.

Don't put this book down in the middle because you likely won't pick it up again.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Power Lines (1994)

Power Lines by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Scarborough is a narrative catastrophe continuing the Petaybee storyline. In this book, the plot line disintegrates into incoherence, but does eventually stumble about to a conclusion of sort.

In the first book of this series, Anne and Elizabeth showed how they could world together to build a fun world, even if the results were sort of blah. In this book, they struggle back and forth over who has the plot line, demonstrating exactly how not to to write a shared book. They start numerous plot lines, run down equally numerous dead ends, with equally swerves and veers as the plot line gets pounded this way and that with no subtlety, and finally, crawls its way over the finish line and reaches its word count.

Some parts of the book read like summaries rather than plot, especially toward the end, where the writers vainly hope to give us a conclusion, but there's no way that they can give us a satisfying conclusion because what came before produced no coherent narrative to cumulate.

I don't even know who the main character is supposed to be. The book feels more like a bunch of short stories crammed together into a power cord tangle than a proper book. I'd say that the short stories were satisfying, but they're not.

I am truly agog that two experienced writers would produce such a catastrophe.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Powers That Be (1993)

Powers that Be is the first team up of Anne McCaffrey with Elisabeth Anne Scarborough, and the first book of the Petaybee SF series.

An injured Yanaba Maddock is sent to Petaybee for recuperation. In this fairly fluffy SF book, think Northern Exposure meets Ireland in Alaska, she find a bit of adventure, romance, Innuit culture, and the usual cast of McCaffrey idiot villains. In stock SF form, the natives are right, the intruders are idiots, and nobody can talk to each other to actually work out what's going on.

Looking at the cover price of $20 twenty years ago, I'm glad that I didn't pay the price. It's a fun paperback read, but it just doesn't rise to premium levels.

The collaboration usually goes well between the two authors. I think that Scarborough brings a smoothness and humanity to the series that McCaffrey often lacked. Scarborough also brought her knowledge of northwestern America and its people, both their attitude and traditions, which provide the setting and background for the natives. The great thing about using real cultures is that you really don't need to make much up.

I often found the characters hastily realized. At times, too many characters were simply introduced too quickly. They weren't bad, but I really didn't get the time to care about them.

Yana, the lead character, doesn't do very much at all. She shows up, hacks a lung up, gets an investigation mission, hangs out, and doesn't seem to do very much otherwise. Her main power seems to be that she's personable, which in this book seems like a superpower. Her other main power seems to be that she's not an idiot.

All in all, the book's not a bad read. Once you get going, it'll keep your brain occupied. The plot's enough to hold together and get you to the other end. If you're snowed it, it might even be right nice.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

American Heritage History of World War I (1964)

American Heritage History of World War I (1964) by S.L.A. Marshall lays out World War I in grim detail, reserves no judgements when warranted, and offers no tonic.

The history is an easy read, assuming that a four year long human catastrophe can be called easy. Optimistically, the war could be called an organized generational genocide, but pessimists would sure use harsher language.

The history is a survey work, delving into details where needed, but mostly focusing on the big arcs and the worldwide theatre. Like all war histories, it's rife with names and locations, enough to leave you dizzy and desperate for an atlas. Marshall generally does a excellent job in taking all those dizzying fact and creating although sometimes overly details narrative.

One place where the narrative bogs down is in the description of the armies. If you aren't into the military aspects of history, the movements of Division III and Corps V will make your eyes glaze over. It's just too much to take in at times, often obscuring the narrative of the battle rather than informing it. It's here that Marshall shows military dinkage, where mastery of details overwhelms situational understanding.

With all the military minutia, if I hadn't been learning about modern army organization recently, I would have been completely lost.

The history itself won't stand against any more detailed history, nor any narrower one, but that's no nock against it. From the beginning, the work understands the limits of its narrative, consistently knowing when too far is too far, even with its military dinkage. The history keeps its eye broad, surveying events in France, Russia, the Middle East, Messopotamia, and the Balkans.

For the student of general history and other eras, it serves as a firm refresher of those four dreadful years. For a student of WW1 history, I doubt that this book has anything additional to offer, even as a refresher.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Compleat Enchanter (1975)

The Compleat Enchanter (1975) by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt is a collection of the first three Harold Shea books from the 1940s. The book is most notable for its inclusion in Appendix N of the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide as an inspiration to that game.

The stories center around Harold Shea, a modern man and psychologist who travels to different literary adventure universes. "The Roaring Trumpet" is Norse myth, "The Mathematics of Magic" is The Faerie Queen, and "The Castle of Iron" is Orlando Furioso (a tale that I've never heard of before). The stories themselves are tongue and cheek, as Harold is a modern man in a highly stylized and not-at-all politically correct tale. If you've ever wanted to see cultural appropriation in its native habitat, this is it.

The tales themselves read dully. I had to take rests to actually read this book through.

These are sexist tales. There no denying it. Oddly enough, Harold is bored of all the "approved" women stereotypes and wants one that's spirited. Here's an indication that the requirements on women of the day were so restrictive that even men were wanting to loosen things up.

When it comes to D&D, this book is rife with source material. Verbal, somatic, and material components for spells originate from these tales. In there, we also see scaled trolls with pointed noses, the basic giant types, web spells that are burned with flaming swords, flying carpets, illusions, fool's gold, magic choking hands, random encounters, and a great deal of the tongue-in-cheek humor that pervades early D&D.

While it's not badly written, I can't recommend the book. It's not a total stinker, but aside from curiosity or raging determination, there's no reason to go here. I'll happily lend you the book if you do. You don't need to give the book back.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Merchanter's Luck (1982)

Merchanter's Luck (1982) by C.J. Cherryh continues in the Company Wars universe. In this compact experiential story, sometimes grim and sometimes sweet, a merchanter behind on his luck propositions the wrong girl at the right time, pushing his own luck past its limit.

This is a "small story" as SF adventures go. He runs a tramp freighter. She's stuck in a go-nowhere job. Together they hope to find some advantage. No kingdoms are not won or lost based on their bets, and that's exactly what makes this such a compelling story. There's nothing in the story that guarantees success, making failure a very real option every step of the way.

As novels go, this is solid, unfluffed, chewy SciFi, worthy of its own made for TV movie. While some parts of it are archaic, most of it still stands up.

Because the book is so short, the character stuff that might seem fluffy in a big book doesn't feel like fluff at all. In this book, the internal dilemmas of the characters work as substance. Their flaws add complexity. They mismatched goals add conflict. And trust, trust is in mighty short supply.

"If they only trusted each other, they would sort this out immediately," you'd say. Yes, that's exactly right, but you can't buy trust at the docks, and certainly never in bulk.

I'm giving this one lots of stars and a rare "recommend" for anyone who likes space opera, noir, or space cowboy stories.

Double Jack - Opening Pages

Double Jack is an alternate history fantasy novel set in 1926 Baltimore. The lead character, Jack, is a wizard in hiding, drifting from job to job, keeping his head down. The last thing that he wants is trouble, but trouble seems to want him. When a gangster sets him up on a date that he can't refuse, Jack soon finds himself entangled in the web of his own past, while Theosophers, Atheists, Communists, and Catholics determine his future.

---

In 1926,  I was ready to jump the first train out of Baltimore. I’d done it before, never knowing when home couldn’t be home anymore. On a few occasions I hadn’t even packed my bag. I had to leave immediately or never leave at all.

Life was like trying to listen to the radio, which was new in those days, carefully tuning it so that the station came in clear, but every time I stepped away to sit and enjoy the program, static leaped into the channel, so that I was forever moving in a vain attempt to get the station clear, and it was that constant getting up that made me increasingly desperate to sit down, until I finally switched off the radio and collapsed into my chair. I may have been disgusted with the radio, but at least I was sitting. The only real difference was that in my life, I couldn't turn off that radio. I was always adjusting the dial but always hearing nothing.

At that time I worked the night shift at a warehouse. I was the night clerk, the person responsible for signing off on the paperwork and fixing the books. One night, my proverbial radio turned to static when somebody knocked on the shipping office door. That wasn’t unusual. I expected to see mobsters wanting a late pickup. Mob bosses like their champagne as much as the next lush, usually because they have some pretty girls to entertain. Instead of gangsters, two respectable seeming men came in, completely unlike the teamsters outside, meaning that they were either revenuers or missionaries. I had no reason to speak with either, but given the option, I would have preferred that they were revenuers.

Those two men were important and I would soon know them far better than I had the right to. They didn’t introduce themselves then, so I'll jump in and introduce them for you. The disheveled one who sat down next to my desk like a deadbeat uncle was Sloe Joe, a man who could make any well tailored suit look like a thrift store purchase. The other guy, who wore his clothes well, like a blue blood, was Fancy Charlie. He said nothing, as he almost always said nothing, standing by the shipping office door. He always kept his handkerchiefs well ironed, standing fashionably out of his pocket.

To this day, I don’t know their real names. They never told me those names nor wished to tell me. I tried asking once, but Joe just smiled and said, “Sloe Joe’s all you gotta know.” I might have pressed on the subject, but as I went by a fake name as well, dropping the subject seemed like the best move.
As I capped my pen, the red-faced Joe started bantering like an old friend. “Hey, bird, it’s a night out there. What a night. Rain and mist and all that. You know those really chilly days that just drive you nuts? This is one of them. For Christ’s sake, why don’t you have the heat on? What kind of cheapskate do you work for?”

The other thing about Joe was that he got you to answer truthfully, without thinking, because he just talked that way. That made him a killer card player.

“We’re out of coal,” I said, stating the facts. “The day shift forgot to order more.”

Joe showed his disgust. “You need a warm bowl of soup, bird,” he said, taking out a wad of bills. “On me. Really. Here, take a fiver. Skip down to that diner on King James Street. They’re open all night and they got a smokin’ dame who serves tables there. Order the franks and beans and you can’t go wrong.”

In translation, that was a respectable way of saying “get lost or else.” That also meant keeping the dockworkers quiet. Five dollars was a lot, but it wasn't what it used to be. Due to inflation, money was always worth less in those days. And as a rule, when offered a bribe, never take the first offer. “The boys here will wonder where I’m off to. I’ll need to buy them some cigarettes.”

Charlie nodded at that.

Joe smiled back. “Smart bird. Here’s a few more bucks. If the waitress says that she don't have no more cartons, don’t take no for an answer. The diner’s always got a few cartons behind the counter.” He tossed in one more dollar. “You gotta tip her, too.”

That was a ridiculous pile of greenbacks just to get dinner, even with inflation. I could feed everyone for a week on that. These nobodies wanted me out the door and I couldn't say no to that kind of money.

“How long should I be gone?” I asked, having no desire to see these men again. As I already had my coat on, I stood, putting on my cheeriest disposition.

Joe inspected me head to toe as I buttoned up.

“Hey, you’re a classy looking guy,” Joe observed. “What’s a guy like you doing down here? You must not be married. Do you have a girl?”

Joe knew the answer by seeing my reaction.

“I got this sister,” Joe offered. “She likes classy guys. How about I set you two up?”

Friday, October 7, 2016

Downbelow Station (1981)

Downbelow Station (1981) by CJ Cherryh is a war story in the style of the great war movies of Hollywood. The story told exceeds the fortunes of any one individual, and as such, follows the fortunes of many, and in doing so, tells the drama of a battle. In this case, the drama is that of Pell Station.

On TV, this novel compares most closely to Battlestar Galactica (2003). I have no doubt that this novel was one of the touchstones behind the series being so influential in the genre of military SF.

Because this novel is a war movie, the story takes forever to wind up, as all the players need to be in their place for when the guns open fire. The first third of the book is entirely dramatic setup. You see the train wrecks going, with one model train after another ramming in the middle of a fake town, and just when you see how things are going, the narrator douses the room in gasoline and burns the house down. That's this book.

Like the best war stories, this one is filled with the brutality of war.

Myself, I found this novel almost impenetrable. With so much plot setup and so many train wrecks, I felt very divorced from the story. I wound up skimming for chapters at a time, no scene catching me at all. When action did come, I found that it came quickly, often with jumps forward in time. This amplified the feeling of disconnection for me. Skipping over the more boring narrative parts often felt like something was skipped. It felt like the editors had sliced out tedious chapters that added nothing while replacing them with nothing.

If this was a film, I would have hit fast forward and skimmed through scene, getting everything that I really needed to know at 5x the speed.

Because we follow so many characters, we don't get to know them very well. These characters are more about their situation, and how they handle the events as they unfold. Don't expect deep back stories or self-examination. This narrative is very much a forward story, dealing with the crisis at hand while while keeping an eye on the crisis dead ahead.

Like any good war story, the narrative ends at the end of the crisis. This is not a tale of the entire war, it was merely the tale of this particular moment. The war continues, both into the future and into the past.

The only idea that utterly rejected in the novel was the idea that Earth would not control a military. I didn't buy that for one second. No sane civilization let's an army run around in their back yard. Perhaps that argues for Earth being insane? I still don't buy it. Left to themselves, militaries take over and organize, so I didn't buy the fact that they hadn't already done this, as if the events of this novel were some new idea. If armies have a primary purpose, it's logistics, not fighting.

If you're into military SF, there's a big chance that you'll love this novel. If that's not your thing, you'll likely find this book difficult going.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Sexism in Double Jack

I may not have dealt with racism very much in <i>Double Jack</i>, but I do deal with sexism.

By sexism, I mean organized and systematized discrimination based on gender. In this era, a woman's gender almost entirely defined her, especially at the upper levels of society. Women were not just believe to be poor voters, they were scientifically shown to be incapable. Men simple could not let this happen because it was dangerous. In the end, determined women won suffrage, but not without considerable agitation and illegal conduct.

Our lead character, Jack, isn't a terrible person or a woman hater, but he does have the cultural beliefs of his time. To him, it utterly inconceivable that a woman could be a wizard because woman is incapable of proper the proper dispassion required of the discipline. This not an opinion to him, but a fact.

And like all people with fixed beliefs, Jack does his best to maintain them. That's just what people do. When faced with a bevy of capable women, he naturally concludes that each one is an outlier.

Of course, our hero changes his mind as he progresses, but his change of mind changes no one else's mind. He may become enlightened, but the world does not. And even if he does become enlightened on one point, will Jack become enlightened on all others? Can his mind ever be fully freed from all the bindings created by his culture? I don't think so, and that's what make an interesting character.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Racism in Double Jack

As I wrote Double Jack, I could not ignore racism in the 1920's. To ignore racism was to create too much of a fantasy, while to feature racism was to change the fundamental nature of the work.

To given you an idea of racism in the 1920's, The KKK praising Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915 and went on to sell a zillion tickets. Not only was there racism in this day and age, it was overt and unabashed. These were the days when racial purity mattered. These were the days when boxing colluded to keep out black boxers and Negros were fully excluded from baseball. Racism was the legal framework of the United States.

In Double Jack, I chose to apply racism as invisible to my main character. He saw Negros, interacted with them, accepted them in their station, and never once questioned whether any of it was right. He never once saw the rules as wrong. You, as a reader, I hope, see and recognize the racism for what it is. You may not know what their story is, but you know there's a story there.

Even the word that I use for black Americans is the word of the age. Negro.

I avoided 'nigger'. It was period, but I never ran into a place where the word found appropriate expression. My grandfather used the word all the time. "That's what they're called!" he complained when he learned that people didn't like the word. My personal belief is that Sloe Joe should have used that word carelessly. It wasn't a cruel word to him, it was just a fact. But for us, it's not a fact, it's a cruel word. I think that Jack accepted it as a cruel word as well, so when he wrote down his memoir, he excised it from Joe's vocabulary. Joe wasn't cruel, but he was a product of his age.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Rowan (1990)

The Rowan (1990) by Anne McCaffrey is an expansion and continuation of the Rowan story found in Get of the Unicorn, a collection of stories written in the 1960's.

There are two ways to expand a story: rewrite it or extend it. Anne chose to extend, keeping her story from the 1960's intact. This choice that Anne kept all the weirdness and kludginess in the original SF romance story, with all the complication of setting up a larger story around it. Because of this decision, and her limited narrative skills, the results are largely a failure. Indeed, the later half of the work reads largely like documentation, sending the characters here and there, seeing them do things, and no parts of the story hanging together at all.

Personally, I blame continuity culture. Anne should have taken the original story and completely rewritten it within so that the entire story works as a novel, revising or revisiting the dated tropes of the original story. Instead, she accepted her continuity as inalterable, which meant that she left herself with all the bad decisions inherent in her original tale.

The cover for my version is gorgeous, a bright vision of SF that we don't get to see any more. The Rowan herself appears with huge guzumbas, thin arms, and shapely legs. The the faint face of a man on the cover, it gently hints at romance. But hey, look at those gazumbas!

While I absolutely adore Anne at her best, at her worst, she's a waste of ink. She's the Lucy to my Ricki and she drives me baba-loo. This manuscript leaves me ranting in faux Cuban Spanish. How did Anne's madcap plan go so wrong? Not only does this book feel dated for the late 80's/early 90's, it feels dated for the mid-70's. Anne's work in the 60's feels a little dated for the 60's. Even if you can get over the dated feel, the architecture of the novel doesn't even work. The sections aren't workable stand-alone stories, and the stories together don't add up to anything at all. What we're looking at here, folks, it a literary McMansion, a total failure of architecture at every level.

The only reason that I don't give the book one star is that I've read one-star books, and even being a failure at every level, this book is still better than a one star book.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Origins of Double Jack

I've been working on Double Jack for a while. I wrote my first draft back in 2012-2013, after completing work on "Between Earth and Heaven." For several years, I had designs on writing a first person, noir style fantasy novel set in the 1920s, but at the time had known that I wasn't a good enough writer.

Getting Double Jack to work took a lot of time and energy. After writing it, I set it down. Sometime later, I would pick it up, throw out most of the chapters, then completely rewrite. The next draft, I would keep a few chapters, but throw out the rest. I went down many blind alleys, slowly learning what made this book tick, what made the genre tick, and discovering in every draft that I didn't yet understand the rules of the work.

I hadn't written in first person this extensively before. I had written a short story here and there, but not an entire novel. So before I even began, I had to get that voice right. I didn't want Jack's memoir to feel like a hardboiled detective, so I couldn't even begin until I could get a different voice in my head.

What does a fantasy novel set in the 1920's even look like? In truth, we know, because we have fantasy stories from back then. As we don't need any more of those, I didn't think that I actually wanted to write something like that. I certainly didn't want to write something like Lovecraft. What I wanted was something that felt more like F. Scott Fitzerald, so taking a few years, I casually read most of his books. Whatever I produced, I wanted it solid enough to stand alongside a Fitzgerald novel without shame. At the same time, I didn't want it to actually be a Fitzgeral novel. What I wanted was for it to feel like it came from the same time period. I wanted it to feel like the sort of fantasy novel that one of Fitzgerald's literary contemporaries might produce.

There are certain things that I didn't want. I didn't want steampunk or dieselpunk. I have no ill will towards either genre, but I felt that this memoir, this mildly noir style recollection, would go astray with if I made it one of those two genres. However, my research and a few insights revealed to me that, beyond all comedy, that the 1920's were already post-steampunk. In real life, humanity had actually produced the Victorian steampunk society, and now it was busily producing a real dieselpunk society, with radios, airships, plastics. The old steam society was literally being superceded by new fashions, trends, and vocabulary. The even amazing more truth was that the 1920s were an age of science fiction, so I didn't need to invent anything at all. I wanted the novel to feel like that, leaving one age to enter another.

One point where I wavered was whether the novel would take place in the United States or a fantasy world that looked and felt remarkably like the United States, just like most fantasy worlds feel medieval. Although I leaned very strongly to making this world entirely artificial, setting it in the US gave my readers a geography, and gave me access to all our existing history, maps, culture, and politics. By making the world familiar, I didn't have to explain vast swaths of backstory. Because I was already familiar with Baltimore, I set the novel in that city. Because of how history progressed a little differently, it's not quite the Baltimore of our own past, but it has enough in common so that you know it's the same place.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Master of Five Magics (1980)

The Master of Five Magics (1980) by Lyndon Hardy sits at that annoying place between being a good and a bad book. The book itself tells the story of Alodar, who desperate wants to be a suitor to the Queen, so that he can restore the fortunes of his once noble heritage. In doing so, he tries each magic.

The structure of the story is rather fun, with the early parts of the book acting as independent stories, and the later part acting as a single story. The episodic breakdown worked out rather well, giving the reader a coherent tale for each segment. This broke down towards the end, making the episodes slide one into the other, presumably because the story just worked better as a singular narrative as opposed to a sequential narrative.

Lyndon's exploration of magic proved rather fun, as each magic had its own twists, turns, and downfalls. These differences lent themselves well to each distinctive type of of story.

The world itself is a slapdash sword and sorcery style world, where there's no need for a map, history and politics are shallow, and all those fussy world building details don't matter much.

At the same time, the characters are stiffer than wallboard and more difficult to swallow. Their dialog is so stiff that you could starch your drawers. There isn't a naturalistic line in the entire narrative. Meanwhile, the women can be divided into impossible love interest and achievable love interest. The Queen, of course, is busty and beautiful. Meanwhile, the achievable love interest is a redhead, rough and tumble, and not like all those other stuffy girls.

By the end, our hero has become mighty studly, defeated the enemy, gotten the girl, and restored himself. This isn't a spoiler as these books only have that sort of ending.

While the plot sometimes rolls along well, at other times, it becomes an annoying inconvenience between you and the end of the book. The later chapters increasingly ground on me (not that the early chapters didn't), while the end, the part that should have been most engaging because it was the accumulation of everything that came before, could be mostly waved off as filler and ignored.

If you made me choose good or bad, I would describe this book as a good bad book. The book is objectively bad enough to throw against the wall, but it's not without it merits and avoids most of the excesses of bad books. Unfortunately, it doesn't have enough good qualities to qualify as a good book.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Double Jack in Editing

I sent Double Jack off to my editor. She should get started over the next few days. That means that we're on the countdown to the now legendary and spectacularly delayed "Double Jack."

Here's a very rough and certainly unpolished blurb.

It's 1926. Jack's good at finding places to hide. With the Communists on one side and the Church on the other, a wizard learns to keep his head down. While working the night shift one rainy night, a couple of no-goodnicks walk into Jack's office, turning his life upside down. If he can keep his secret, he should be all right, until a woman walks in. You can't keep a secret from a woman.



Double Jack 1.png

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Masterharper of Pern (1998)

The Masterharper of Pern (1998) by Anne McCaffrey follows the life of Robinton, the most well loved character in her Pern series. The story does its best to unite the Pern of her later novels with the Pern of her early novels, to some credible success, but also has places where the story clunks.

Most importantly, this is a Harper Hall book, which makes it a welcome addition for me. I love the Harper Hall books most of all her Pern books, so any addition, to me is a good addition. It's a more satisfying Harper Hall than Dragon Drums, which suits me just fine.

The book itself is ambitious, attempting to unite the old Pern with the new Pern, show us Harper Hall, the weyr, and the holds, the troubles of the times, the rise of Fax, the slow retreat of women from public life, the arc of Robinton's relationship with his father, and the events that shaped the Masterharper. Anne does her best to rise to the challenge, but fails as often as succeeds.

By necessity, the novel is structured like a biography, for better or ill. By following Robinton's life, the story can't move through the same structure that a work of heroic fiction can. Because of that, the story can't have the same energy in the same points. In places, I found the episodes engaging, and in other places, I found the episodes dull filler, doing little more than explaining one plot point or another. At times, we closely go through years, and at other times, leap over significant time in a paragraph.

Also by necessity, we meet all the major players of the pre-pass era. This is par for the course for Pern books. If you didn't meet the important people, you wouldn't have a book. That means that we meet people and we learn why Robinton has his particular reltionship with each: Petiron (Robinton's father, who becomes Menolly's teacher), F'lon (his good friend, and father to F'lar and F'nor), a young Manora, Jora (who is mostly a non-entity), Fax (the bad guy, Robinton works for him briefly, then watches him conquer other holds), and a small host of other young nobles who become the Lord Holder of later books.

In many respects, she does a fair job setting up situations for the future.

Prequals have an additional challenge that most books don't have. They must shine a new light onto the existing books, so that the books that come afterward have increased meaning, that we understand better the relationships that unfold. Anne does a fair job of this at best. I think that she misses many opportunities. Where this works with Robinton's relationship to F'lar and F'nor, where it works okay is with the traditions of Harper Hall, and where it works poorly is with history. It never made sense that a bunch of Lord Holders would sit around with their thumbs up their asses when a murder has seized a hold, but that's the case.

Some retconning happens here, either by accident or on purpose. I'm for it. I am a retcon supporter. An author can and should change her lore when her original lore contains decisions that no longer work for the story. I only wish that Ane had gone even further. I think that she missed some great opportunities.

I felt like the early parts of the book were well considered and generally well executed. By the end, I felt like Anne was up against a deadline, writing out the remainder of her outline as fast as possible. That was said. I felt like there were two books here, one for Robinton's early life, and one about him as Masterharper, with the Masterharper story getting short shrift.

Indeed, my biggest complain of the book is that Anne missed too many opportunities in favor of trite plot arcs. The story needed more heart to it.

As for Robinton, he's the best singer, composer, songwriter, copyist, and woodworker in the hall. He's totally best in every way, yet a total disappointment to his father. I find that all rather hard to swallow. The character would have worked so much better if he had been an average harper in every way, except for having a keen insight into people and a remarkable ability to pursued. His youth should have been filled with more trouble and more head slaps. That way, he really could have been a total disappointment to his father, instead of a perceived disappointment, and yet still would have had the right skills to make the Masterharper.

Anne goes out of her way to let you know that Robinton isn't gay. Really, really, really, he's not gay. Look, here's yet another woman, he's not gay.

As for Pern (the planet itself is a character), we meet a society going away. There's a perpetual feeling of loss, of less. The old Pern is going away, being slowly replaced by a more repressive, backward Pern. Sometimes this is handled highhandedly, Anne slapping you with the news, but on other ways, she handles it nicely.

On the whole, Anne's abilities are up to the task while writing a Harper Hall book, but when pressed with the bigger challenges of the work, produced unnecessary dull prose. That much said, I'm still a sucker for Anne.

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Digression on Retcons

Let's talk about retcons today. For those in the know, retconning is where you change something that came earlier in a storyline so that something later in the storyline will work. These days, especially among SFF reader, this sort of thing is a no-no.

My position is that the current status against retconning is too firm and needs to be softened.

Before we talk about retconning, it's important to examine continuity and the various ways that storytellers have tackled continuity. The subject is huge and worth its own well researched book. I'm not so thorough, so I'll hand wave without sources and expect you to believe me.

When telling stories to kids, retconning is part and parcel of storytelling. Either the teller or the listener suggest some alteration in the middle, so the entire story changes with that. Often the change is abrupt, such as suddenly inserting a servant where no servant existed before, and other times its done with more finesse, so that the addition simply flows in, but they're all retcons equally. Across stories, facts are also changeable, but only with agreement. "They should live in an igloo," the kid might say. They didn't live in one before, but now, hey, they've always lived in an igloo.

Loose continuity is familiar to most adults. Through the mid-1900s, comic books and TV shows were built on loose continuity, where the characters were familiar but each story was self-contained. Sometimes those shows even replaced actors, such as Bewitched, where Darren changed between one season and the next. Such a change was unusual, but not outside of bounds. Plays changed actors all the time, even on the radio, so that generation didn't blink when TV actors changed. The characters that they played remained the same.

What's important in most stories, even those with loose continuity, is that the continuity of character takes precedence over everything else. It's not that the character has a deep history, it's that the character has certain well defined traits that make that character. King Arthur is noble, good, wields Excalibur, and holds court at the Round Table in Camelot. Batman wears a mask, is a super-ninja, and relies on his gadgets. Darth Vader is bad, smart, uses the force, and kills his own people when angry. Around those traits, you can build any number of stories not necessarily connected.

Serials hard larger, longer continuities, but even they had loopholes for retconning. In a serial, you have a story that develops over a longer period of time, one that the writers haven't necessarily finished plotting, so they have to be clever or devious or sometimes brazen when changing the internal continuity of the series. There are ways to do it. "Little did our hero know that ..." is a classic example. There was some person or situation that didn't appear in the primary story, gets inserted later, and is then used to (presumably) good effect in the story. However, if there are multiple serials, one serial does not necessarily override another. The second serial may retcon the Dickens out of the first serial. (That's a serial joke. Dickens was a king of serials.) In fact, the audience expected retcons out of follow-on serials because everyone did that.

Audience expectation is a big deal when it comes to continuity. Before modernity, audiences expected some degree of retconning, if not a story flat out disregarding what came before. As long as the story at hand held together, the bigger issue of overarching continuity didn't matter.

I don't know what started the modern notion of absolute continuity. I don't really know what cultural zeitgeist caused the devolution of retconning from a regularly used tool to a disreputable tool. Whatever it was, it affected the writers just as much as the readers, because the writers bought into this stiffer continuity. Certainly the creation of larger story structures played a part. The desire fans to know what was going on and how everything fit together, and the stories between, drove this. The thing is, I'm  not sure that the fans themselves knew that their desire to know more stories and exactly how they fit together would produce increasingly rigid story structures, and once fans got used to that, the looser structure of previous decades seemed slipshod.

So now we're at a time when retcons seem like a betrayal to fans. To retcon feels like some part of the story has been taken from you, and people absolutely hate the feeling that something's been taken away. Retconning now produces great emotional reaction and gnashing of teeth. To retcon is to break an internal rules set, to cheat, to betray, to ruin. It is to be shunned at all cost.

Yet, we still retcon. Its use has gone from implicit in any set of stories to explicit. People are forward about it. Moves and comics now "reboot" a universe. For now, this is working, but it doesn't work for everything, and it certainly doesn't work for the past.

Some retcons happen because the world around us changes. Anne McCaffrey began her Pern series at a time when women's lib was just beginning. She had her male dominated world with a woman pushing to free herself from restraints. As she build a female fan base, they asked, "Why can't women ride dragons?" The only answer was that a book written years before said that they couldn't. I don't know about you, but that's a pretty bad answer. Binding a writer to a poor or outdated decision because retcons are bad is the single worse excuse for keeping continuity that I can think of. Writers aren't perfect. They make bad decisions. That is exactly the case where retcons should be used. But like the writers of her day, she attempted to use implicit retcons, one that made sense inside the story. To this day, there are people mad at that retconning, and plot weirdnesses that haven't quite gone away.

Another example was Earthsea, where LeGuin struggled for years against the poor decision that she made that said that only men could be wizards. No close reading of her Earthsea books is required to see that she regretted that decision.

The thing is, both these series could have easily fixed their problem and given us engaging stories if only retconning had been more tolerated. In these cases, the avoidance of retconning caused more woe than it solved. But who knew? Nobody could guess the future.

Even worse, the avoidance of retconning cemented the sexist nature of many series. I don't think that's by accident. By far, the removal of overarching sexism is the only parts of these stories begging for a retcon. This sort of sexism, so pervasive in SF&F, is ancestral to face of sexism today. If the authors had stood their ground and publicly retconned for inclusiveness, I think that SF&F would have been well served decades earlier. But who knew that it would all come to this? Nobody had a roadmap of the future.

From here, I see no lessening of strong continuity. Indeed, I see it growing stronger, but I also see that some media have figured out how to loosen continuity when needed. I think that books need to learn from that. More than anything, writers need to go where the best stories are, and if that requires changing a few facts, then those facts should change.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Worldcon or Dragoncon? Which is Fandom?

Worldcon or Dragoncon? Which is Fandom?

Which do I think is fandom? Trick question. They're both fandom. They both speak for fandom. Since there's no deity to pronounce an answer from on high as to which is the REAL fandom, the only way to identify fandom is find where fandom identifies itself.

We no longer live in a world where there is one fandom culture. That time passed us by long ago because fandom never stopped innovating. Somebody said, "Let's hold a Star Trek convention!" Somebody else said, "Let's hold an anime convention." Somebody else said, "A game convention." The fandom family got bigger. It spread out. It married into other fandoms. Even though the old homestead is still there, that place can no longer hold the whole family any more than Worldcon can hold every fandom. Nor should it. Every fandom is fandom. No more, no less. They are all legitimate. They are all real.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Spell of the Witch World (1972)

Spell of the Witch World (1972) by Andre Norton is a collection of three stories assembled into one slim novel, all taking place in Witch World, in an area called the Dales.

This was my first Witch World novel, and likely to be my last. Once again, Andre Norton has managed to bore me to apathy, even with a volume as slim as this one.

Witch World should be called Wicca World, because that's really where the magic and philosophy of the wise women derives. Identifying the Wiccan themes proved more fun than reading the stories themselves.

I found the prose thickish and mildly ponderous. The stories read like they're out of the mid-50's, not the early 70's. Although I applaud heroines doing good, especially in that era, I found all the heroines rather tedious and generally lacking in interesting character development. For the era, this was often par for the course, so I can't complain too bitterly.

Unless you're a Norton fan, you should give this book a pass.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Hidden Twin (2016)

The Hidden Twin (2016) by Adi Rule is a young adult fantasy novel exploring a young woman's discovery of her own power, her realization of that power, and becoming a hero through the use of her power.

That's all pretty typical of the genre and well within expectations.

My daughter picked this book out, enjoyed it, and invited me to read it as well, so I did. So for the age group that interested in these types of books, it works. For me, who isn't the target audience, the book was a bit of a miss.

The style of the novel itself threw me. Written in first person present, the feeling and intensities of the moment spring out, meanwhile, the settings and the other characters grew remote. Throughout the whole book, I felt removed from the action and the drama.

I often found myself saying "What?!" when the character goes through some experience, by every imagination horrible, then just throws it off like it wasn't a big deal. Hello? You just did what? To who? And you aren't freaking out? That incident wasn't a throw away incident, it was the hook for a entire book. Why did it just go elsewhere? If this had just happened once or twice, I'd shrug and go by, but this sort of thing happens through the entire book. So many interesting possibilities ignored!

I often wondered at the personality of the main character. I thought that her personality wobbled around quit a bit. The intrepidness and heroics were fine, you expect that in a fantasy novel, but I wasn't ever sure which person was going to come out for any particular scene.

Where I think that the novel fell down most was in its use of impressionism to build a sense of the setting. While excellent at the sentence level and passable at the plot level, the book often fell apart at the paragraph level. Rather than building up a picture of the place, the impressionistic descriptions often amounted to noise, neither giving me insight into the character nor building images nor making the setting into a character in its own right. Ostensibly, the book is steampunk, yet manages to make nothing of this fact. Sometimes I felt that the writer's MFA was just getting in her way of writing a good book.

As for the character internal journey, the book often begins a theme, forgets about the theme, then pays off the theme, which feels rather jarring when the theme jumps back into being. If the theme had really been that important, shouldn't I have run into that theme over and over again? Certainly. That sort of thing really made the ending feel less solid than it should have.

Beneath all of that is an interesting setting, both familiar and strange to the reader, that hold good promise, if the writer can only let it shine through as a character in its own right.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Death's Master (1979)

<i>Death's Master</i> (1979) by Tanith Lee (#2 in the Flate Earth series) challenged my ability to review books. How do I even summarize this work? By all rights, this book shouldn't work, but it does, which makes it absolutely fascinating to me. Thinking through everything that I've read, I can't say that I've ever read anything like this book. It's not for everyone. This work can throw you just as easily as it can capture you. It requires something of you, the reader, if only the dedication to reach the end.

This book follows a biography model, following the life of Simmu, from the inexplicably strange circumstances of his birth, through his childhood, adventurehood, his crowning successes, and through to his final fate. While following this story, we also follow the story of several other characters closely associated with Simmu, such as Zharak.

Overall, the writing proceeded thickly and formally, feeling mildly archaic even for 1979. Fortunately, Tanith knows how to work with this thickish prose, pulling it like taffy to extrude the tale. And what an improbable tale it is, full of overpowered characters who successfully prove that overpowered actions create overpowered results, generating overpowered reactions, which generate more overpowered results, and so one. When the story centers around the fundamental powers of of the universe, such as Death and the Prince of Demons, overpowered ceases to be a meaningful term.

The book is also an "adult" fantasy novel, so sexual situations about. To be clear, the book is not explicit, but it is forthright. It contains sexual situations of all sorts, some of which are gender bending, and some of which are jaw-droppingly outlandish. Lee can and does push sexuality in new and unique directions.

This was my first Tanith Lee. I liked this well enough to read more of this series, but not so much that I'll rush out and buy some right now.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Using Despicability to Your Story's Advantage

Reading <i>The Stand</i> by Stephen King got me thinking about despicably, the degree to which we find the actions of others selfish and offensive, and generally make use less disposed towards them. It's a useful trick to pantsing (making up the story as you go) because it gives the writer varied elements to use later in the story.

A range of despicably isn't necessarily desirable in all stories, but in some genres, the use of this attribute proves advantageous. The more that people die, the more useful that despicability becomes.

Death in a story provides energy and emotion, and that energy is best off going somewhere, of motivating other characters, and most especially of making the reader feel some emotion.

In a horror story, especially one with multiple characters, the writer begins by killing the most despicable character, the one that you already secretly want to die. The one that you dislike the most. The one who you don't care about. As the worst character dies first, a less horrible character must die next, and so on, creating a vector, a direction, pointing a threat at the most liked character. With each death, your anxiety goes up, while the probability of your favorite character declines because the evil proves itself effective over and over again. Those who die don't find a way out. As they try different things, you slowly become convinced that your favorite character has no way out. Death becomes certain. The climax comes with the favored protagonist striving against the evil.

In a revenge story, the vector points in the opposite direction. To get the maximum satisfaction, the evil begins with the least despicable character (and usually the least competent), proving to us that the revenger has the means to act, and demonstrating that the most despicable character is now under threat. As the story progresses, the acts of revenge grow more satisfying. As the targets become more competent, each success eats away at that character's confidence, until we get the satisfaction of seeing that despicable character break, becoming a pathetic character before their death. The climax is when the most despicable is now alone, his fate certain, and his fall the furthest. In the end, he will be the most pathetic.

The death of the least to the worst also works in heroic fantasy. Often enough, the heroes begin by besting the villain's henchmen as they work up to defeat the villain himself. At the end is always the biggest bad. If you were to turn that around, you would get heroes who defeat the big bad, then feel pettier and pettier as they kill their way down his surviving henchmen. By the time that you get to the lowest one, your heroes wouldn't seem very heroic at all.

War stories provide a third way of killing characters: randomly. The bombs don't care where they fall. Bullets don't choose. In such stories, you see characters who ought to live get shot, and those who should die get promoted. There seems to be no rhyme or reason behind this, and that is, quite frankly, disturbing to the reader. The amoralness of war is emphasized in this haphazard treatment of the living and the dead. The climax in such a story often revolves around saving somebody who is worth saving because you've seen too much randomness.

You can vary this as well. In heroic fantasy, you can kill off the best and most noble characters one by one, working your way down to the least and most conflicted hero, using that energy to slowly transform the least into the best. In this way, you can redeem a villainous character.

A side-effect of this is that a variety of despicableness de-flattens your characters. While this variety doesn't add depth per-say, the varieties of despicableness do add the illusion of depth simply be creating contrasts between characters.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Children of Methuselah" (1973)

The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Children of Methuselah" (1973)

Looking for the backup bridge, our trio breaks into an area designated "off limits." To their bad luck, it's inhabited by a group of overly serious, eternally young psychic children who are running the ship. Given the explanation that the Ark is off course, they believe that our protagonists are lying. Yet even as the boy Captain strives to deal with the intruders, the human culture that they bring with them infects the children, bringing a breakdown in order. In the end, Devon shows that the children aren't running the ship at all, they are merely in an advanced training simulator. The episode ends with the children sealing themselves back in their complex, potential helpers if the trio should ever find the backup bridge.

This script actually works. The writer of this episode did a bang-up job. The script relies on the time tested structure of television drama, often called the 45-and-5. You have three acts of build up and tension raising, one act of conflict, and a final act of wrap-up. At 40 minutes in, the conflict/breakdown between the trio and the children comes to a head, and at 45 minutes, the showdown happens. The last five minutes is cleanup and consequences.

The writer makes good use of all the characters in a way that demonstrates their basic strengths and their basic approaches as a character. Devon is the communicator and the explainer, the one likely to notice the details. Garth is the hothead, the pusher, the one with mechanical sense. He's the one with insight into the strange machinery. Rachel is the human touch, the one able to bridge the human gap where force or logic won't work. She's also the smallest among them, but no less able. Each expresses their role well through the episode, so much so that you can't switch their actions around.

The director did some nice things in this episode bringing out the humanity of our lead actors and the children. Rachel is particularly important in this arena, as its their humanity that the children have lost, and their humanity that will save them. Because she's a woman, she is seen as less of a threat, but her interactions prove far more disruptive than Garth's or Devon's. The children all have numbers, not names. Its she who gives them names. The children don't play. It's she who teaches them games. It's she who subverts the social order.

Time and again, the physicality of the staging brings a depth to the episode that the lines don't necessarily dictate. There no single example that makes or breaks this, but continuous small choices that build up to a coherent whole. There's one scene where the children as still talking as the meeting comes to order, just like kids in a schoolroom. The staging feels mildly chaotic at times, adding to the atmosphere rather than taking away from the story. These kids are machines, but they are not perfect machines. Even the way that the boy Captain slouches in his chair shows this humanity coming through despite the numbers.

This episode, more than any other so far, shows what this show could have been, an echo of what was imagined for the series. This episode shows that the parts are good, the concepts sound, and its ambitions reachable.

In terms of fashion, the Boy Captain had a zipper with a ring as the pull. I remember those kinds of zippers. I had one myself. Indeed, all the hairstyles of the children are early 70's children hairstyles. Nobody got a haircut for this show. What you see is the real deal. I know. I was was there. Those were my peers.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Stand (1978)

The Stand (1978) by Steven King is tedious. It's really, really tedious. You wouldn't believe how massively tedious it is. You might think that the Lord of the Rings is tedious, but that's nothing compared to The Stand.

The book begins as a 70's style disaster film, with multiple people going about their daily lives as a plague slowly arrives, devastating America. These characters are likable and unlikable to various degrees, and to my displeasure, most of them didn't die. They lived through the world-wide plague. After about three hundred pages of this, King got bored with the story, killed off his developing villain, created a new villain, this one using magic, and rejiggered the story into some sort road novel with pretensions of being a fantasy novel. After that, the characters all converge on Denver to build a new government, and the tedium grew even more tedious. To my own good fortune, my copy was missing pages 1015-1078, which is where the finale happens. I didn't miss anything.

I didn't care for the first hundred pages, cared less for the second hundred, and my lack of care for the remaining book would require frequent repeated profanities uttered in absolute dejection.

A competent editor could have cut the book in half and nobody would have notice. A very competent editor would have rejected the book, thereby cutting its length by 100%.

This is not an indictment against King. He shows repeatedly what a good writer he is all along the way. The problem lies entirely in the rambling story. His characters which work well in horror novels, where people die for petty reasons, and somebody's got to die first, don't work well as apocalyptic survivor characters. I don't want to see these characters survive the world. There are times when their quest for survival goes from one TV trope to another. As for the fantasy element, that feels like an iron on decal, pressed onto the top of the story because he didn't know any other way to get his characters together. The story feels like a bunch of disparate elements pressed together into a mass, pretending that to be a whole, but constantly reminding you that it isn't a whole at all.

Curious about the ending, I went and read a summary, and that summary made me very glad that I was missing that part of the book.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976)

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) by Kate Wilhelm is an apocalyptic future where mankind's only hopes rests in cloning technology. A collection of three arcs, a triptych, the stories tell the history of this venture, where it goes right, where it goes wrong, and the implications that it makes real. The book itself is just short of hard SF, with minimal fancifulness. The book won the Hugo award and was short listed for many other awards.

The first story concerns one of the clone creators, how the world fell into ruin, the origin of the project, and how the new clone generation thinks differently from the older generation. The second story follows clones who leave the community to go exploring, and the psychological effects of being removed from all their identical brothers and sisters. The final story is that of a non-clone who grows up among the clones, and the challenges that he faces fitting in.

There's no one single explanation for the future. Weather goes wacky. Men go to war. A-bombs get dropped. Viruses get out. All of these together manage to mostly wipe out mankind. In unison, they make a grim future for the species. Its because of this that cloning becomes necessary.

With necessary comes uncomfortable moral decisions. When the species itself is hovering on the brink of extinction, what becomes justifiable? Over and over, we see those decision made, for better and worse, and the results of those decisions. In context, they make sense, yet they remain disturbing, as they ought to be. From those decisions come a new culture, and it both feels uncomfortable and makes uncomfortable decisions as well. Once you have clones, the very definition of human becomes questionable, and it's that question which comes up again and again, continuously challenging the easy answer.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Pisces" (1973)

The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Pisces"

While hanging about the Ark, our protagonists are on hand to see a ship arrive. This ship, the Pisces, had left the Ark many years before, and failing to rendezvous in a timely manner, had hit relativistic speeds. For them, only ten years had passed.

How did they greet these newcomers on realizing that they were actually crew members? Did they reveal the accident immediately? No, they went along for a while, not asking questions, not providing answers, until the protagonists finally told the newcomers that they 400 years had passed.

Even stranger, the newcomers were hit with a relativistic dementia, whose only cure was to go back into deep space. In service to that, the two junior crew members, both women, hijacked the ship and set course for Earth because they didn't want to die when the Ark collided with a star. (And who could blame them? They tripled the number of available men on board.) Eventually our trio of tedium broke up the mutiny and got dropped back on the Ark, whereupon reset button was pushed and the Pisces left the Ark to preserve its crew members.

What did our protagonists learn? They had learned that a few reactors had blown up. That's it.

I'm pretty sure the navigator got some nookie. Given who her crew mates had been, a big strong blacksmith who could go for longer than 30 seconds must have seemed like an irresistible opportunity.

On the whole, this episode felt like an acceptable 22-minute plot stretched into 50 minutes. Almost every bizarre storytelling decision of the plot can trace itself back to this overstretched plot.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Starlost, Episode 3, "The Goddess of Calabra" (1973)

The Starlost, Episode 3, "The Goddess of Calabra" (1973)

The journeys of our protagonists take them into a dome dominated by a military society. All the women died centuries ago, while the men have continued onward through cloning. It's an all male society, where the governor wins his position through mortal combat. If this doesn't sound bad enough, all strangers are immediately suspect as mutants. To make things awkward and slimy, Rachael is a woman, and is immediately declared a goddess for the political advantage of the governor. He plans to marry her to seal his position against all rivals. Rachel's companions fight free, taking sanctuary with the priests, who actually know something about the ark and its purpose. Deciding to end the charade, one of protagonists fights the governor in moral combat, winning the fight, but leaving the governor alive. They manage to escape.

The plot of this particular story seems straight forward at first, but that's only because I explained them well. As played out in the show, the plot resembles a demolition derby, where the various points crash into each other until all the plot points are fully broken, and even the sole surviving plot point is barely operational.

You'll recognize some familiar faces in this episode. Barry Morse played the chief priest. John Colicos played the governor. Not surprisingly, both went on to playing similarly toned SF roles in the future.

This particular episode took me three sittings to get through, the overall episode having the engagement of a minefield.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Starlost, Episode 2, "Lazarus from the Mist" (1973)

The Starlost, Episode 2, "Lazarus from the Mist" (1973)

In the second episode of The Starlost, our protagoinsts revive a cryogenically frozen man and learn pitifully little from their opportunity.

The episode picks up where 101 left off. The trio walks from the bridge to the main medical section. There, a group of people descended from guards protect the area, killing pretty much anyone who shows up. What lies in the medical area is sacred. Somehow our protagonists make it through, and there discover a hold full of people in suspended animation. Working things out, they succeed in reviving on such man, but as luck would have it, they revived a man with radiation sickness. He's dying even as they try to win his help. For some unfathomable reason, the ark builders thought it okay to send a dying man even in an emergency merely because his wife asked for this to happen. The man answers some of their questions, they beat off the guards again, and then they put the man back into stasis. As for the degenerate guards, they find a nearby dome and give it to them as their home, presumably locking them in.

Some things amaze me. The protagonists were unbelievably unlucky in finding the one person in the whole frozen section who was dying. Next, with the lives of everyone on board at stake, didn't try to revive anyone else. Given the literal life or death stakes, they should have revived everyone. Instead, they walk off after the episode is over and never consider the frozen people again.

Just as confusing, the security people didn't know about the other domes or didn't have access to them, so they became degenerates in the halls. If anyone would know about all the areas, and have access to them, it would have been the security people.

The episode concludes with the protagonists learning a few more tantalizing clues, then essentially hitting the reset button. This pattern will continue, frustrating so, as the series progresses. One is given the illusion of progress rather than actual progress.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Starlost, Episode 1, "Voyage of Discovery" (1973)

The Starlost, Episode 1, Voyage of Discovery (1973)

Summary: This episode opens the series. Three stilted young people from the dome Cypress Corners, as wood as their home implied, discover that their home is actually part of an ark in space, a colony ship headed towards doom.

Synopsys: Our lead character wants to marry Rachel, but is denied by the Creator, whose voice is heard from a black device. It turns out that the zelot leader of these space-quakers is using his own voice to speak as the Creator, that Rachel must marry the town smith. There's nothing wrong with the marriage at all. When our hero is chased by a mob of his fellows, he flees into the tunnels of the ship where he discovers the truth about his home. The ship will soon crash into a G-type star. On returning, he grabs his girl and escapes with her back into the ship, this time chased by the smith. When they discover the bridge together, the truth becomes self-apparent.

The show itself contained none of the pacing or humor that rival American shows had been showing, following instead the dryer pacing of early 70's British programming, such as Doctor Who. (If you doubt me, go watch the contemporary Doctor Who series "The Ark in Space.") However, as Doctor Who usually had colorful characters in the lead, this show didn't. I am honestly stunned by blandness of the main characters, who work to show little to no emotion at all. If there was any cast more lacking in chemistry, I want a showdown. Let see who lacks the most.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Beginning Place (1979)

The Beginning Place (1979) by Urusula LeGuin was one of those books that I used to see in the library. Something about the title grabbed me, but I never quite got around to picking it up. I thought it was a young adult book, but in that, I was wrong. Now we would call it a new adult book.

This book challenges my ability to summarize it, or even understand it. Although pegged as part romance, it doesn't progress as you would expect a romance to progress. The man isn't strong. The woman isn't beautiful. Their destinies are not perfect together, if only they'd see it. Quite honestly, what we have is two normally hurt people trying to turn themselves into competent adults, and having a too few role models to fall back on.

Meanwhile, we have the fantasy world which is vaguely gothic in feel, always evening, yet usually pleasant and welcoming. The world itself seems to have rules rather than overt magic steamrolling the narrative. This is not a story of overt magic. This world feels substantially more whole, feeds our protagonists in a more satisfying way. And while they are they, time almost stops, but never completely enough to forget yourself. The responsibilities of the real world always pull them out.

Although I'd like to rate this highly, I found that the story left me, as a person, a bit emptier. The romance felt rushed and perfunctory. The ending felt out of character. The symbolism left me hanging. Whatever this book was supposed to be, or aimed to be, I feel that it went too far in too many directions to leave it much of anything. Like a hollow chocolate bunny, an outside layer of delicious can't hide the empty middle.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy X (2001) is highly regarded as one of the best, if not the best, of the Final Fantasy (FF) series. Replaying this game fifteen years later, I still find the story solid, the mechanics solid, the game play solid, and the mini-games so god-screamingly fubar that I want to murder a game developer. For this revisit, I bought the Remastered HD version for PC.

The HD remaster looks very, very nice, while retaining the bright colors and vibrancy of the original version. Thank you, artists, for not ruining the wonderful aesthetic. FFX is truly one of the most beautiful RPGs ever created.

The story itself follows the understandable Final Fantasy arc. We get a team, a crisis, a journey, eventually leading to an airship, and a final boss battle in an etherial place. It's what they did from there that made the story work. This is the first FF (I think) where a major point of the story is the romance between the hero and the heroine. It's a tragic love story. Over the course of the story, we learn that if she succeed, she dies, but if he succeed, then he dies. Our lovers are star crossed, their eternal longing certain. It's the success of this element, played straight, that expanded the story from being a boy's story to being and everybody story. Add to that the story of the previous generation, told through flashbacks, the stories of all the other companions, and the stories of other peoples, and you get a FF so packed with story that it splits its seams when it laughs.

You see all the usual FF classes, all the same, and yet all a little different. Yuna is both a summoner and a white mage, and the Aeons she summons don't just flash through for a round, but stick around and fight as their own beings. With the Aeons being so powerful, it means that Yuna is easily the most powerful character in the game when you need her to be. Lulu is a black mage, down to her black dress. She doesn't have a pointy hat, but her stuff animals that she uses to cast spells are of all the cutsie creatures that his version of FF didn't use (such as moogles and onion knights). Kimari combines the powers of a blue mage and a dragoon, in the most disappointing combo in the game, not being a strong enough spellcaster to matter and not being a strong enough warrior to matter. Rikku is both a thief and an alchemist. Auron is a swordsman. Tidus is another swordsman with elements of a bard. Wakka is an archer in the guise of a blitzball player, his specialty being status ailments.

The advancement system is like nothing that I've seen before or since, with the characters buying spheres on a grid, growing in power not by leveling, but by traversing the vast sphere grid. As the characters fight, they acquire both sphere levels and spheres for activating those levels.

Power doesn't just proceed linearly, it proceeds laterally. Rikku enables the modification of weapons using collected items and spheres. A few encounters allow the same with aeons, also using collected items and spheres. Combine the right things together for the right kinds of fight, and your characters can now grow powerful in completely new ways.

As all FF games, this one has bosses galore. Sometimes the boss fights are fun, sometimes they're annoying, and sometimes they are grinding long, especially at the end. Most of the time, I had fun with the bosses. My only annoyance with them is that they are immune to anything interesting that your character do. This makes sense, as the game developers didn't want you using any "I WIN" spell combo to trivialize the boss fight.

The PC Remastered version came with controls to increase or remove random encounters, a mechanical auto-fight, and a gameplay speedup. This helped in many instances later in the game when things got grindy.

Along with all the good comes a little bad. While some of the mini-games included were fun, for the most part, I found too many annoying, and some flat-out murderously frustrating. The monster arena subquest, where you seek to catch 10 of every monster, proceeds quickly at first, but in the later dungeons, some of the encounters show up so rarely that you can spend hours grinding just to get to 10 encounters. (I'm looking at you, Tonberry.) One subquest required that I dodge lightning bolts, but I dodged 0 lightning bolts in 30 or 40 tries. I think that my video was lagging behind the software so that when the image appeared on my monitor, I was already too late to dodge the lightning bolt. Even so, you had to dodge 200 of those thing in a row. That's FUBAR crazy. Challenges are one thing, but self-torture is entirely a different thing.

Getting to some of the best spells in the game proved rather hard. At this point, I haven't found enough Lvl. 4 key spheres to unlock any of the best spells. With enough work, yes, I can collect them, but that just brings us back to the grind. I had this problem on the first play through. Fortunately, you don't need the best of everything to complete the game. I think that those super spells were there to satisfy the completionist and challenge-obsessed players. They like the crazy hard challenges thrown into games.

The characters have all sorts of special celestial weapons that they can acquire, which is fun except for all the mini-games that have to get played to acquire said weapons. There's even a few hidden aeons that can be acquired.

This HD version is descended from the International version, which introduced dark aeons to the game. For some unfathomable reason, the designers put super-impossible (but not impossible) aeons into places where you had to face them, whereupon you got butchered. I found that they sucked so much fun out of the game that I used a game editor to remove them. I had no problem with the challenge, but I had every problem with the designers requiring you to power up your characters so that you could get the items that you needed to power up your characters. By the time that you can defeat the dark aeons, you don't need the special items at all.

As normal, the final boss fights are insanely hard and long, with multiple stages of defeat. Fortunately, you can work them out. The problem in losing, of course, is that you need to go through all the cut scenes all over again, and you can't skip.

My main problem with the end game is that it got rather grindy. I ran into this problem when I first played FFX. I can grind valiant at first, but soon I flag. There soon comes a point where the potential reward is offset by the tedium of the journey. The offered challenge is just not enough to draw me on.

And then there's Blitzball. I figured out more of it this time, but truth be said, the game bores me and your opponents run over you for so long that playing the game just gets unrewarding fast. Even worse, some of Wakka's best moves are tied to the blitzball subgame, so if you don't play it, one of your characters doesn't get his best stuff. Evil!!!

That much said, don't let my rants about the endgame fool you. The flaws of the endgame stand out so starkly because the reset of the game works so fabulously well. And for some, the flaws are what they love. There are people who love blitzball. There are people who love the challenges. There are people who love the crazy side quests. It's all good for somebody.

I hope that ten years from now, I take the time to play it again.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Time War (1973)

Time War (1973) by Lin Carter was a tribute to A. E. van Vogt. This sort of novel was a huge throwback to a former days of SF, in the 30's and 40's, when van Vogt wrote his convoluted stories of the super man. (And, incidentally, reminds us of the racism of the time which so permeated SF.) Lin explains the the style of the novel in the epilogue.

In this story, a man learns that he can teleport, and soon after, learns that he is the radionic superman, a rare event in the history of the world. From there develops not only a convoluted plot, taking only 160 pages to resolve, but endless amounts of describing and redescribing the same situation over and over. Yes, at merely 160 pages, the book feels padded. Quite often, my eyes glazed over and I failed to read paragraphs at a time, but that didn't matter. The same facts were deployed again and again, just in case you missed one.

In case you were in doubt, there's only one beautiful woman in the book, and the guy ends up with her end in the end. This sort of book is a male self-fulfillment fantasy.

This books also feels a bit like a conservative fulfillment fantasy as well. It should be noted that the ordinary people of the future acted like children, lived without responsibility, and were not awake to their predicament. That sounds like an awful lot like today's modern Conservative rhetoric. In contrast, the Conservative Superman takes his business to the top, his astonishing mind destroying his foes, untangling tangles plots, and generally self-making himself. He needed no help.

In all honestly, I can't rate this book as low as it deserves, but I can't rate it highly at all. The book bored me in a mere 160 pages. That's an astonishing feat. If you happen to like this classic stuff, then maybe you'll enjoy it. Myself, I'll give it a pass. I'll also give Lin Carter another try, just not by reading a tribute to a classic style.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977)

Midnight at the Well of Souls begins Jack Chalker's Well World series. Tacking WORLD onto a concept was the freshest meme back then, and the Well World certainly delivers. When I picked up the book, I didn't expect much, but I found the prose style energetic, up-paced, and entertaining. This was a much better read than I was expecting. And like most of the SF of that era, it wraps itself up in one book.

The story itself is a sci-fantasy. That's all due to the concept of the Well World, where many different races live in hexagons on the planet's surface. They were all artificially created by a race called the Markovians, and the planet itself is run by a world brain. Thus, you have super-high tech appearing as magic, and many otherwise fantasy creatures, such as centaurs, mermaids, and hyper-intelligent concepts. (Really).

Yet, that's not the story. That's just the concept.

In the story itself, the passengers on a freighter, responding to a distress call, find themselves dragged into the Well World, given new bodies, and begin a race to reach the control center of the planet. To do that, each group must lie, cheat, steal, and cross alien and hostile hexes in order to get there first.

The protagonist is a freighter captain, and inhumanly old Nathan Brazil, who doesn't much like what the human race has come to. Identical service clones are not his idea of a good time. When pulled into Well World, it soon becomes clear that there's more to Nathan than meets the eye, and he knows more about the Well World than he's letting on.

The book has a little sex, but not graphic enough to bother with. If you're easily offended by inter-species sex, and all the possible variations of offended implied by changing bodies, which also means changing genders, then this might not be a good book for you. Even so, the risque is mild by today's standards, and I don't think that most folks would notice much.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories of the Year (2007)

I found The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (2007) a rather frustrating and glorious experience, depending on the story. On balance, I found too many stories simply not to my taste, so I skipped them. Of the stories that remained, I can heartily endorse each and every one of them as GOOD.

What was wrong with this collection? I found that too many of these stories weren't fantasy or science fiction stories, they were other kinds of story with fantasy or SF twists, usually at the end. While I don't call them bad stories, as each was written very well, they simply didn't strike me as belonging in this collection. You might think me narrow minded or intolerant or fussy or behind the times, and maybe I am each of these things, but I strongly disagree with the notion. I've read some pretty radical stuff in my day without blinking. This stuff wasn't radical, it was boring.

Even worse than boring was the sameness of all the stories. I could have sworn up and down that most of these stories was written by the same dull writer. The voicing came across like a machine had produced each story, each one using the same kind of pacing and technique. Unfortunately, without the engagement being in the stories, each one felt dull.

As for the good tales, they were a varied and engaging lot. I'll give a shout-out to some of my favorites. My criteria is that the story must work through its SF or fantasy element. If you can easily change the element while keeping the heart of the story, I don't consider it a SF or Fantasy story. Also excluded is any story which I've forgotten the plot for only a few days after reading it.

Three Twilight Tales - Jo Walton
These three, fairytale style stories, are just long enough to entertain and get their point across.

The Island - Peter Watts
A fantastic psychological hard SF story and a hard SF story at the same time.

Ferryman - Margo Lanagan
This is a very mythic tale, told well.

Dragon's Teeth - Alex Irvine
While I found the ending rather empty, and the structure rather awkward and forced at times, the story is a fine example of low fantasy which, when working well, works extremely well.

Mongoose - Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
This is pretty much a medium-hardness SF tale. While I think that the story lacks a certain something and has a few pacing issues, I rather enjoyed everything else.

Before My Last Breath - Robert Reed
Mankind discovers an alien graveyard. Simple, yet mournful.

Joboy - Diana Wynne Jones
A boy discovers his own heritage the hard way. I think that the story ended a bit poorly, but it held me all the way through with no issues.

Utriusque Cosmi - Robert Charles Wilson
I don't know whether to call this a time travel story, a memoir, or a rationalized Theosophical universe. Honestly, it's all of the above and it just WORKS.

A Delicate Architcture - Catherynne M. Valente
This is a fairytale style story, about a confetion-made girl, one with great heart and heartlessness.

The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles - Kij Johnson
This was a simple animal perspective story, well done. This story screams "read me out loud." Interestingly, she had a second story in this volume which was too much even for me to read.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Hero and The Crown (1984)

The Hero and The Crown (1984) by Robin McKinley follows the story of Aerin. Born of the king by a norther witchwoman, she's a redhead in a world of cinnamon skinned people. Even so, she is the daughter of the king, and great thing lie before them if she can survive the trials that they pose.

This is very much a coming of age novel, spread across five years of Aerin's life. It's a little bit of a romance, but not enough to categorize it as a romance.

I'd love to be wild about the novel. Looking at its list of praises, the novel certainly impressed many people. I'm not one of them. While the writing was there for me, the story wasn't. I found the through thread non-existent. I felt like the story changed three times, each time too early, challenging the writer how to continue the story. I felt like the story ended three times, and because she hadn't hit her word count, she kept the story running for two chapters after that.

Where the story works, it works wonderfully. At many places, the novel make the character very present, especially in relationship to her horse.

Just as often as the novel felt special, it also felt petty and detailed, often regaling us with administrivia rather than story. These stretches killed any sense of energy or endearment. They felt like padding while the writer vamped, doing her best to think of what would happen next.

I felt that the Aerin wound up a bit too special sometimes where she needed no extra specialness, and I feel that she accidentally did the right thing where she really needed more cleverness. Both of these things distanced me from the character. I don't require plausibility from fantasy novels, but I do require agency from heroes when agency matters, rather than hand-waving "somehows" leading to their success. This book had a few too many of them for me.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Howl's Moving Castle (1987)

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones is the story of Sophie, who lives in a fairy tale world. When her father passes away, the family splits up, she has an unfortunate encounter with the Witch of the Waste, and much to her consternation, gets turned into an old woman, but she can't talk about it.

Among fairy tale worlds, there are different styles of fairy tales world. This is the sort of world where wizards and wizards are just accepted parts of the landscape (and the subjects of gossip), magic is commonplace, everybody knows the expected tropes, and nobody's really surprised by anything. In a word, it's a comfortable fantasy world with a few uncomfortable characters, one of them being Howl, who lives in a moving castle.

Not surprisingly, Sophie winds up inside the moving castle and proceeds to make herself useful by using no magic at all, much to the consternation of the lady killer Howl.

Wynn tells her story as a series of vignettes and moments, wandering through the tale with little attention about where exactly it is right now, instead providing sufficient entertainment, whimsy, and delight to keep you moving along with the story anyway. Yet, despite all the magic, it's not a story of high magic, but of high heart.

I did find that the subplots got just a little too busy. Towards the end, I lost track of who was enchanted with what and how, so I lost some of the book's effect in sorting out the fast approaching ending.

Like all fairy tales, the book ends with a happily ever, but only after after taking you the long away around to get there. It is a fairy tale, after all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Not-So Secret Sources of Cthulhu

The Secrets Sources of Cthulhu does a nice job of connecting up the Cthulhu mythos with Theosophy. I generally support this association.

What I don't support is the title of the article, the SECRET sources of Cthulhu. In the 1920's, theosophy was no secret. It was widespread and well known. You could easily buy books describing theosophy. Indeed, the 1920's was rife with spiritualism. In the time period that Lovecraft was writing, these things were obvious.

Perhaps the FORGOTTEN sources of Cthulhu would be a better name.

I've been thinking about writing an article like this myself, but more in table form comparing and contrasting theosophy with Cthulhu. I feel very confident in saying that the Cthulhu mythos is just garden variety theosophy turned on its head. In theosophy, spiritual beings are preparing us to ascend, teaching us better ways, so that when the next age comes, we become greater. In the Cthulhu mythos, horrible beings hate us, their teachings drive us toward depravity, and when the next age comes, they plan on wiping us out. Their mystical books don't enlighten you, they drive you mad. Our relationship with greater beings is not based on benevolence, but malevolence. Really, with just a bullet point table, you'd see the comparison in sharp relief.

This all makes me think that Lovecraft really hated theosophy. In that, I finally find a point where I agree with the man.