Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Swords Against Wizardry (1968)

If you know what you think of any other Fritz Leiber book, Swords Against Wizardry (1968) will confirm your opinion. If you love or hate the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales, you'll equally well continue loving or hating them. Here are a handful more short stories collected into novel form.

Myself, I thought the stories overwrought for the fun stories that they told. At time, Leiber settles down into a smooth narrative, but more often than not sticks in so many extra words and paragraphs that you can skim over the story with little effort because the stories contain so little.

I'm not saying that there's nothing there, but at times, he sure does approximate that. Much like weak broth, the stories feel watered down with lumps of meat floating about, but as nice as that meat is, it's just not worth the broth.

If you are sensitive to sexism, these stories sure do have lots of it.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Turning a Freighter into a Combat Starship?

All young men who play SF games get the same idea when thinking about space ships: use a freighter! Those things have astonishing amounts of space to put the biggest weapons. This is an idea so obvious that it's got to work. Right? Right!

So hold on, Horus, and wait a minute. If that was the smart move to do, don't you think that everyone would be doing it? One good look at military aircraft development tells me that this isn't necessarily a good idea. This idea works for some specialty platforms, but even then it's pretty expensive.

The first problem is visibility. In space, there's nowhere to hide. Everyone can see you from a million miles away. Victory goes to the side who sees the best while hiding the best. So any decent military fleet will be designed around stealth, making them hard to see, and sensors, making the enemy easier to see. By the time that you get around to hurling incomprehensibly powerful weaponry about, the battle is probably settled.

What we know about stealth is that stealth must be incorporated into a design from the drawing board. You can't retro-apply stealth. Stealth is so important that it makes all other design considerations secondary. Stealth dictates all other systems.

When we look at a freighter, we look at a vehicle designed to transport cargo. It's job is to move as many tons as efficiently as possible. It's second job is to be seen. Yes, you read correctly. As there were be huge numbers of freighters moving on and off a world, you need traffic control on them so that they don't collide into each other. For this style of ship, visibility isn't a downside, it's a necessary asset. So if you take this thing optimized for visibility and cargo hauling, then attempt to make it optimized for non-visibility and weapon launching, you will find yourself in two pits even before you begin reaching for the sky. Of course you can apply stealth to your ship, but that will cost money, take time to install, and not work effectively.

The second advantage that military vehicles have over civilian vehicles if fire control. No, I'm not talking about aiming and shooting, I'm talking about what happens after the ship gets hit. Military ships are designed to account for battle damage, having all sorts of systems to handle mishaps. Civilian ships just don't have the same sorts of systems. That means that when your freighter gets hit, if you haven't installed such a system, you're likely to suffer far worse damage than an equivalent military starship. Of course, you can spend the money to install such a system, but now you're spending more money and waiting for more equipment to get installed, and likely replacing otherwise useful equipment with equipment designed to handle combat damage.

Any military starship will need software. What military do you imagine that will authorize you to run its software? None. You'll need to spend large amounts of money for such software on the secondary market, and because the military likes to keep secrets, this software won't be compatible with your own allied military software. Good luck getting targeting data in realtime.

If you want to modify your ship in wartime, you'll run into the additional problem that all the arms factories will be busily selling to the military and not to you. In addition, their modification experts will be working for the military. Even freelance starship refurbishers will likely be working for the military. Meanwhile, you'll need to find someone who can do the modifications on the secondary market, or at least a place with the equipment to handle the work. Those place will be stacked up for business as well because everyone who can't get into the military contracted businesses will be patronizing the non-military businesses.

If the military is in need of freighters and other starships, they'll be busily buying up and modifying existing stocks of the types most useful to them. (The military needs to move freight and people, too.) There may even be laws that force you to sell your ship to the military if it's useful to them. The cream of the crop will go to the military because the military pays cash and carries big guns. You're likely to have a ship that the military doesn't want.

We haven't gotten into the power requirements for a military starship yet. If you're using energy weapons, you're going to need more power than you've got, and that will require replacing the power plants along with all the electrical connections. Those are big bucks and those take time. If you need military grade shields, those too.

Time is a big factor here. You'll need to locate a contractor, locate parts, design your system, pull the old systems, install the new, and debug them. That is a non-trivial space of time. Expect to spend a fortune in parts and labor.

At the end of all that, you'll most likely have the exact type of starship that a military absolutely doesn't want. Or maybe they'll use all your clever overkill on convoy duty.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Swords in the Mist (1968)

Swords in the Mist is a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collection by Fritz Leiber, originally published in 1968, but assigned #3 in the collection order. As with the other novels of this type, the stories have a strong oral component, wander aimlessly while the narrator vamps, hoping for a plot point, then tripping over itself to reach those plot points.

If you have any literary self-respect, you won't read this.

Yet, and I say YET, there's a brilliance working under all that. Just when you're ready to throw the narrator off the bus, he hits his stride, and some scenes just WORK. Mind you, you need to read lots and lots of bad scenes to get to the good ones, but the ones that are good are really good.

The final story actually teetered between readable and engaging, which rather shocked me. It's as if somebody else beside Leiber wrote the story, but it had to be Leiber as that aggravating narrative backward telling keeps tripping the story up.

I can't give this this any sort of good score, which is sad, because the man has chops but chooses to use a chainsaw instead.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Integration

This is a bit of a complex topic sitting in my brain. Hopefully it will make sense on this first pass.

The topic is the process of writing itself. The topic is integration. This is one are where I never see any discussion.

"Integration," as I use it here, is the non-linear process of taking many elements and turning them into a coherent whole, a finished and imperfect piece.

Integration has multiple aspects, which I will simply here into inputs, outputs, and conflicts. Inputs include all the requirements of a work, along with everything else that comes along in the creator's mind. The output is a flawed piece of work. The conflicts are those flaws that exist and must be address for the work to be a successful piece of work.

Sounds dry, doesn't it? Yet, in those few sentences exist the resolution to all the literary/artistic advice in the world. Should you write to market? Should you make the work sexier? Should you revise the dialog? Should you deviate from the accepted market norms? How far? What structure?

The first thing to understand about integration is that the process is not linear. There's a reason that we don't have computers telling stories yet. The creation of a sentence both requires huge amounts of context and changes contexts at the same time. Every sentence changes the story, changes our understanding of the story, and changes the potential end of the story. As a writer works, the beginning, end, and middle exist in a relationship with each other, even if those pieces haven't been written yet.

The second part of integration is that integration takes from multiple elements, including itself. Which elements? Anything in or potentially part of the human experience, which is a stunning array of possible elements. The writer can't possibly include all elements, so the author must choose which elements to include, that choosing being part of the non-linear process, and that choosing influencing the other elements that are included.

The result of all this integration is a flawed product. The product must be flawed, for everything real is flawed. In order for the work to reach maximum effectiveness, the work must actually be perfected in one area to the detriment of others. Not all flaws are equal. The most critical flaws must be addressed while the less critical flaws must be let be.

So, if we are good, rule-obeying writers that mind our mentors and use all our best skills, we will produce something that has flaws. In order to fix those flaws, we must therefore break some rule that we learned or go against the advice of our mentors. Likewise, we may have followed no rules, creating a work with many flaws, but where it matters, our writing works despite our flaws. Because this work is so crazily rigged, any attempt to fix it properly would destroy the parts that work, because the parts that work depend on the parts that don't work.

The final part of integration is creating a coherent whole, a story that feels like a story rather than a series of vaguely related sentences with no notion between them. This whole is contained in no single sentence of the story, yet anyone who reads it should get the same sense that the story forms a whole unit.

With as complicated as integration seems, its a wonder that we can write at all, which is just about right. Writing is cognitively complicated, open-ended, and iterative. Producing a good writer ought to be hard, just as training any artist ought to be hard. The subject matter is non-trivial while the modes of expression are many.

The first part of integration is creating limits. You can't have everything, so having something immediately creates a limit. Picking a genre creates a limit. Creating a focus creates a limit. Creating limits is what allows you to discard most possibilities.

The second part of integration is imperfection. Since perfection is impossible, you must make active choices about what's important, about which parts need to work. This is why there are no rules in writing. In fact, there are rules, but as creating introduces limits, so too creating requires eliminating the rules that introduce the largest problems. Your goal is not to create a perfect embodiment of the rules, your goal is to create the best story that you can. This is why good writers say, "there are no rules, only suggestions." A working story trumps theory every time. Theory may help you to produce a working story, but it's the considered breaking of theory that makes a story work.

So when the best writers tell you to write, that they're telling you is to practice your integration. That's all internal work. The only way to learn it is to do it. As you do it, you learn to break the rules in a particular way, one that takes your own idiosyncrasies into account. This is your voice. This is what makes you YOU and not somebody else.

Integration. It's the bicycle riding of skills. Once you get it, you get it, but there's always more there to get. You never stop changing, so integration is a skill that always changes with you.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Swords Against Death (1968)

Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber is collection of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories mostly collected from the 40's through 60's. These are tall tale fantasies with an emphasis on oral storytelling.

The writing style is often rough and distant, not so much third person as fourth person (if that makes sense). This comes from there being an implicit narrator.

I didn't expect the stories to amuse me as well as they did. The "first" Fafhrd and Gray Mouser book had proven far less rewarding, taking energy to get through each story. Since these stories were all far shorter, these humorous tall tellings did not wear out their welcome before reaching the end. By being shorter, they contained far less padding, which in hindsight was the cause of the previous novel's pacing issues.

To no small extent are these tall tales. In Nehwon, the magic is such that you don't know it, don't understand it, and don't want to be on the receiving end of it. The heroes repeatedly fall under these horrible spells, yet always wiggle away from their doom, mostly by knowing that in this world of magic, the best way to survive is to run, and if not run, to learn very, very quickly.

If you expect heroes that dominate the battlefield and never see setbacks, these aren't those sorts of heroes. In many ways, these stories herald back to ordinary man fairytales, in that the protagonist must understand the situation to overcome magical obstacles, with the added twist that the obstacles really are trying to kill them and death is often only inches away (but might be away on a holiday if you're lucky).

While the collection lacks literary merit, if you're tired of modern heroic fantasy, these will entertain you in a completely different way. There is some degree of sexism, but I've seen far worse, so be forewarned and a little forgiving.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Swords And Deviltry (1970)

Swords and Deviltry (1970) by Fritz Leiber were not the first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories ever written, but there origin stories here give us a place to begin. One part tall tale, one part comedy, one part your Uncle's war story, and three parts literary trainwreck, this book gives us three grindingly dull tails of this thieving duo.

While I enjoyed the comedy and light-heartedness of these stories, often dipping their feet into absurdism, these delights were enough to save me from plodding storytelling, where every move of the main characters, even the dull and uninteresting moves, were described to us.

As one of the progenitors of D&D, this story is filled with tropes that would show up in D&D, such as flaming oil, the spell Guards and Wards, a Thieve's Guild, thieves using slings, characters with no moral reasoning whatsoever, slinking through passages and exploring for each room, and, of course, sorcerers. If you are ever interested in the early forms of D&D, the last story especially reads like an actual D&D game from the era.

Unless you have a specific technical or historical reason to read this book, don't. Books like this are the reason that fantasy has a bad rap for being terrible literature.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Dreamsnake (1978)

Dreamsnake (1978) by Vonda N. McIntyre tells the SF story of Snake, a healer living in a future long past the post apocalypse. (It's sorta post-postapocalyptic.) Snake is journeying from town to town earning earning her "healing abroad" achievement so that she can become a for-real healer. In her possession are three snakes which she uses to manufacture all sorts of medicinal compounds. When she loses her dreamsnake, which is a snake of alien origin, she begins a long quest to find a new one.

This is one of those novels that won awards, and from the opening, you understand why. Vonda slips you into a SF strong on fiction, light on science, with no ray guns in sight. The people here are what's important in this story, long after the fall of their star-faring civilization. The focus here is on believability and verisimilitude and the customs people adopt to handle their new situations. In many ways, this world of the future is as much an alien world as a planet across space.

This novel is what I call a "human scale" story, where the actions of people in their own lives matter more than great political movements or action sequences. Our heroine gives as good as she gets in a fight, but she's not immune from limping away and living with the aches.

This novel also explores what a post-patriarchal society might look like, but without wandering over to matriarchal. Perhaps we should call this a consenting society? I'm sure that Vonda must have a name for it. People are free to conduct their sexual lives as they please, as responsible adult, as long as they remain responsible.

The novel itself dwells on linked vignettes than on an overarching design. What connection tissue exists is minimal, yet I'm not convinced that the novel is a fix-up, because then too much wouldn't make sense. (But I will accept being proven wrong.) Each arc tells a part of the story, rather than the story existing as a single unified arc. That would be odd for a novel today, but it's a fair structure even if it's out of fashion.

I must say that I enjoyed this book immensely. Its joys outweighs it flaws. I enjoyed the solidity of the storytelling from beginning to end. I have my quibbles with the ending, finding that part weak, but not enough to stop me from recommending it gladly.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2015) is the purported sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In this Netflix color-by-numbers film, an evil monk is conquering the martial arts world, and now he wants the Green Destiny so seal his control because some random witch told him to.

Rather than feeling like a wuxia film, Sword of Destiny felt like a modern fantasy TV series wallpapered with a wuxia motif. Think "Game of Thrones, now with new Michelle Yeoh action!" The choreography, cuts, pacing, themes, and dialog all felt mismatched to the genre. To compare this film to Crouching Tiger is like comparing Hannah Barbara to Pixar. Yes, they both purport to be the same thing, but no, they obviously are not.

Quite honestly, the script just wasn't there. It was a mess. I often found myself going into a scene questioning whether we even needed the scene at all. That I thought about whether the scene should exist, rather than being engaged in the film, is damning with the faintest praises possible. Even worse, some of these scenes felt like padding. For a 90 min. film to feel padded takes an extraordinary level of mediocre screen writing combined with an utter failure of film editing.

So, I think it best to not review this film as a wuxia film, nor as a sequel. I will simply review it as its own stand-alone pilot episode to some future TV show that won't exist.

It was dull. What can I say? Despite all the characters getting back stories, despite all the setup that happens, despite all the fights, despite everything that they did to ensure that this was a workable show, they gave us a dull film. Even with adding a magic sorceress woman, it felt dull. I don't expect a made-for-TV show to be perfect, but the audience should be left with a better regard for the characters than a ho-hum feeling.

While I can't call the film awful, because I've seen awful films and this didn't reach that level of abysmal (not even close), I certainly can't rate it highly unless you like the "Game of Thrones" feel to the whole shebang. If you really like the modern fantasy TV film, this just might work for you (but probably won't).

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Heritage of Hastur (1975)

Much to my surprise, Heritage of Hastur (1975) by Marion Zimmer Bradley proved a far more solid, far more compelling novel than I ever expected. As a teenager, I'm sure that this novel would have bored me to tears, but as an adult, I find that MZB has provided us a character-centric story with deep gravitas.

The story follows two characters: Regis (in third person), and Lew (in first person). Having known each other growing up, and both nobles, each is pulled in a different direction on the planet of Darkover. Regis wants to go off-world, while Lew isn't sure that he wants to assume more power.

By all rights, this story shouldn't work nearly as well as it does. It's steeped in the cheesy schlock that is 60's sci-fi, complete with psychic powers and power dramas. That Marion takes her own world and subverts it into a coming of age character drama, and makes it work at that level, at an almost purely literary level, deserves respect.

I find that truly great novels leave me at a loss for words. They exceed themselves. They exceed me. Talking about the plot somehow misses what really goes on inside the novel, forcing you to speak of themes and notions. The novel becomes a nation unto itself, where all the explaining in the world can't communicate any useful thing to you. No, you need to visit, to experience the world given. The author spent 120,000 words telling the story, and she needed every one of those words.

It's not a perfect novel, being just a little too early for its time. The ending, in particular, wrapped up a little too quick and a little too neatly, the new characters there each being under-used, under-realized, and little more than plot devices. Later in the novel, I often wonder why the characters are making their decisions, especially Lew. These decisions often seem out of character, especially for him. Thematically, I found that the first half of the book didn't lead well enough to the second half, robbing the ending of any deep satisfaction. The ending felt like an ending, but it wasn't really the ending that the story asked for. Yet even with these quibbles, forty years later, this novel still stands solid.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Darkover Landfall (1972)

Call me slow on the uptake, but I somehow never read any Darkover books in the 1970s or 80's. Darkover Landfall (1972) by Marion Zimmer Bradley introduced me to this world. (My copy came from the used book store. The yellow DAW Books logo has this Egyptian look to it.)

A ship has crashed into a strange world, but the survivors don't yet know that they're stuck. They don't yet know that the world will have an effect on their minds. They don't yet know the hazards that lay before them.

The book opens sharply, with the crew doing what's necessary to protect the living and bury the dead. One important task is figuring out where they are, so the captain sends out an expedition to sight the stars, and while out, the expedition faces their first ghost wind.

About halfway through, the story loses its gusto. Being a prologue to the Darkover series, the book sets up the world, with no real doubt given to the reader.

A few critical characters display "stupid plot syndrome" when these otherwise intelligent people make really stupid decisions even in the face of people fiercely opposing them. In that respect, elements of the plot, as much as there is of it, feel forced.

Ultimately, this is a quick introduction story, but one so thin of plot that it begins gasping 80 pages into the 160 page work. If I was familiar with Darkover, I'm sure that I would have been more entertained by the elements that helped make the world what it was. I would have seen the connection. As a casual observer, these were lost on me.

While the plot had its terminal issues, the narrative usually proved solid.