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.