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.