Archive for the 'Fantasy' Category

A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords

Thursday, August 5th, 2004

Security fence of the day: A question of neighbors

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin is another example of the super-novel form that I’ve tried to name before. Although I’m still fond of novelitis, it’s too derogatory for this particular example of Novels Gone Wild. Let’s go with n-ology, or nology, to indicate that I don’t know how many volumes A Song of Ice and Fire will be in the end.

So far it goes like this: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, with A Feast for Crows expected out in hardcover any month now (and the check is in the mail). Those are just the names you need to know to find the books; they aren’t particularly meaningful divisions of the greater nology. (I didn’t realize it was called A Song of Ice and Fire until I heard someone else refer to it that way.)

For example, in the prologue to A Game of Thrones, we see some nasty cold things, definitely folks on the Ice side of the nology. They play no further role in the novel, make a guest appearance or two in A Clash of Kings, and don’t really get freezing until A Storm of Swords. Although ostensibly main characters die in every installment, they don’t do it picturesquely at the end of the book. In fact, I couldn’t tell you now where one book ended and the next began. A Song of Ice and Fire is more of a medieval soap opera (in a good way) than a typical fantasy quest-for-plot-coupons. Each chapter is named for the character whose perspective it follows. By the time the nology is 8 or 10 books long, the surviving characters will have had a whole novel of their own, in installments.

Unlike the perpetually annoying Otherland books, each chapter of A Song of Ice and Fire is relatively freestanding and cliffhanger-free. The intervening chapters aren’t spoiled by the reader’s desperate need to find out whether so-and-so survived his or her last chapter.

So how can I mean “soap opera” in a good way? The chapters are episodic, so reading the books is like watching a TV show about GRRM’s fantasy world. That’s not surprising for someone who was in TV before he started this nology. What is strange is how well it works, whether because of or despite the structure I can’t really say. The characters, action, and background are all wonderful. I usually can’t bear fantasy, but I loved this one.

Nor am I alone in my appreciation. A Song of Ice and Fire was at the very top of The Internet Top 100 SF/Fantasy List the last time it was compiled, right above Lord of the Rings. If you only read one 3,000+ word nology this year, make it A Song of Ice and Fire. You won’t be sorry you stayed up all night reading.

The God Box, Analog

Sunday, May 30th, 2004

I’ve been reading too much fantasy lately, and after a few trilogies the religions all tend to run together. I suppose that’s only to be expected when the novels are all set on the same feudal island/peninsula with the same pseudo-Oriental neighbors, but I keep hoping for more than just n gods who are actually one god (where n ranges from 4 to 7) from the religions.

The God Box by Barry B. Longyear is kind enough not to number its deities so precisely. It also achieves what LMB has been trying to do with her fantasy - brings its gods to life and makes true believers out of damaged characters. Like Bujold, Longyear started out as a science fiction writer; The God Box was his first fantasy novel. In it, Our Hero, an unsuspecting carpet salesman, inherits a mysterious box that answers prayers. Like the gods themselves, though, the box answers in its own inscrutable way.

Our Hero soon finds himself on a Quest foretold in ancient scriptures, in which he meets bird people, skunk people, fish people, gods and giants. The biggest sign of the author’s sci-fi background is the god box’s ability to show Our Hero alternate timelines. That sort of reset button can undermine the seriousness of a story (as all Trek fans know), but despite the deep themes of prayer and trust this isn’t a serious novel. It’s short and fun, yet a far better combination of religion and fantasy than many doorstops I’ve seen.

The June Analog also has a couple of stories that stray into religious territory without quite convincing. “Time Ablaze” by Michael A. Burstein is the cover story, in which a time traveller goes back to the Lutheran community of turn-of-the-century NYC. As an adventure it works well, but I never quite got the feeling that Our Hero was dealing with a world that has since disappeared.

“Greetings from Kudesh” by J.T. Sharrah was equally effective as a story, and similarly problematic in its view into the mind of Our Heroine, the first Christian missionary to visit an alien planet. She comes off like the first interstellar Deist, which might have been interesting had that been the author’s intent. There are things a Deist might do to promulgate his religion that a Christian probably shouldn’t, and Our Heroine does one of them without any theological consideration of the problem.

It’s the differences between Christianity and Deism, between pantheism and monotheism, that make them the religions they are. I suppose if sf writers can’t make me believe their characters are real live practitioners of actual religions, then fantasy writers don’t have much of a chance of making up convincing new religions. Even The God Box was about faith qua faith, rather than a particular religion. Yet we owe our oldest stories to pantheons full of overactive imaginations - you’d think fantasy writers would get in on the act.

Dream Park, Paladin of Souls

Saturday, April 17th, 2004

Superior link of the day: Khaaaaan!

I knew I was asking for it when I picked up Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. Usually I run screaming the other way at Niven’s name, but I thought this one was new and thus possibly up to the higher standards of characterization and believability that the genre has acquired since the alleged Golden Age. Instead, Dream Park turned out to be a reprint. The only reason imaginable for this piece of fluff to still be in print is also the only thing that keeps the umpteen indistinguishable characters limping along in a plot better suited to a crime thriller than a sci-fi novel - the Park itself.

Dream Park is the Disneyland of role-playing games. I suffered through it because I’ve been toying with a similar story idea and I needed to know what had been done. Let me say, not much. The park covers a significant area which is remodeled for each game - this time, with imported Brazilian fauna. The characters go in armed, but their weapons have holographic blades so as not to hurt any papier-mache monsters or actors playing the orcs; the computer records the virtual hits. This is where my disbelief blew out its suspension - how do you swing a holographic sword? This isn’t Star Wars with its solid lightsabers; presumably there is no way for one weapon to hit another weapon or a person - no experience of the padded broadsword thunking into the padded shield the way the real SCA does it. The basic physics of momentum have been overlooked.

Fantasy it ain’t, but if you want a mildly interesting tale of industrial espionage without any baggage of believable characterization involved, then give it a shot. Dream Park has two sequels - not many, considering the potential for milking the concept dry. Judging from the Amazon reviews they’re even worse than the original, if that’s possible.

After all that, Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold was a relief. LMB can be counted on for good characterization and a plot that rolls along, and I was drawn in to this novel. It took a while for the pseudo-Spanish titles (Royina, etc.) to stop annoying me, and I didn’t remember enough of The Curse of Chalion to know whether I should know anything about Ista or not. As always, LMB manages to fill in the series details smoothly.

I didn’t mind so much when I discovered that The Curse of Chalion was all about Miles, renamed Cazaril for the occasion. I was more disturbed to find that Ista was Ekaterin in disguise (right down to the oh’s), and not at all relieved when she morphed into Cordelia halfway through the novel. It rather undermines the fantasy background to have your characters acting so much like your space-opera characters would - and so I return to my old complaint that Chalion isn’t enough of a fantasy.

The world is stolen medieval Spain (others call it Renaissance, though there’s nothing being reborn here besides demons); the castles are nice, but I don’t really get the feeling of a medieval world, real or imagined. Chalion isn’t nearly as solid in its execution as Barrayar. The quintitarian theology is interesting, but religion supplants magic - cutting off yet another fantasy angle. Paladin does have some demon-wrought magic (a subplot that makes the novel for me) but then the gods get involved again with their dii ex machina and I’m left feeling that they are more real than the world of Chalion itself.

It occured to me that maybe this supernatural thriller/fantasy crossover counted as one of those genre-crossing works of which true literature is made (according to John Gardner). If so, I really need to get that suspension of disbelief repaired, because I’m dragging an axle here.

Snare, Contact

Saturday, November 1st, 2003

Word count: 1000

I picked up Snare by Katharine Kerr because of the future Islamic fundamentalist angle. The Right Novel, which I didn’t start writing today after all, deals with the far future of Earth and post-Earth religions, and I’m curious how other people have addressed it. I also hadn’t read any Kerr, who’s known mainly as “the author of the beloved Deverry series,” and I’ve been picking up authors I’ve never read lately just to check out their styles.

I enjoyed Snare but it never quite came together for me. The genre was fantasy with misunderstood technology substituted for magic - I’m not sure whether that makes it swords-and-sorcery or not - and at a length of 600 pages it fits the fantasy genre better than sci-fi.

Four cultures inhabit the crowded world of Snare: the medieval Islamic fundamentalists (with three prophets and still counting), the comnee, who are lizard-hunting variants of American plains Indians, the post-French science types in the Cantons, and the oversized ChaMeech aliens. Only the aliens are interesting as a culture - the others haven’t changed much from their pre-modern roots. I was especially disappointed in the Moslems because I had hoped for the most from them.

The plot involved a bit of intrigue and a lot of travelogue revolving around the evil Khan, those who served him, and those who hoped to replace him. One of the bad guys turned out to be Misunderstood, the comnee try to save him from himself using psychobabble and tough love. When the ChaMeech get involved, the story perks up. Both ChaMeech and comnee have a problem with their gods, and all four cultures eventually discover the Truth about Snare. For Truth with a capital T it could have been more impressive or more intuitive, but it did pull the threads together well. Snare was a good yarn, but not as creative with the future as I’d hoped.

I’d heard good things about Contact but neither seen nor read it. Dr. Deb lent me her DVD and was glad to be rid of it. I can see why she didn’t like the movie, and why I did. Contact wasn’t at the level of M. Night Shyamalan, but like Signs it was a tale of faith rediscovered. That theme isn’t one you expect from sci-fi (whence comes Dr. Deb’s disappointment) and it included an anvil or two, but overall it worked well.

The romance disappointed me, however. Our Hero (Matthew McConaughey) wasn’t nearly as believable as Our Heroine (Jodie Foster). Celebrity demi-priest and New Age author isn’t as common a career as astronomer, (and there really aren’t that many astronomers out there). We don’t have much reason to respect Palmer Joss, and neither his offense nor his excuse for it later (because he “loves” her) are forgivable. When you consider exactly what his “love” almost cost Our Heroine, it’s truly horrifying. But take that one lame excuse out and you have a very good movie.

Pharaoh Fantastic, Looking Backward, Darwinia

Sunday, February 16th, 2003

I tried to post this entry with Archipelago, a Mac blogging interface, but the interface and documentation were too obscure. So the reviews will be typed up the old-fashioned way, through the web interface.

I really ought to know better than to read topical anthologies like Pharaoh Fantastic. The theme was ancient Egypt, and most of the stories took a magical approach to the topic. Some were closer to sci-fi or pulpy adventure, and several were disturbingly irreverent tales of the origins of Judaism and Christianity. Even that was better than the Wicca-style magic of other stories.

The stories I enjoyed were the ones that best recreated the spirit of ancient Egypt. “Succession” by Tanya Huff followed an aging queen in her struggles to save Egypt from the stereotypical Evil Vizier. The prose wasn’t always clear, but the characterization was good. In “The Voice of Authority,” a new Pharaoh becomes acquainted with his powers and duties as a god. “Whatever Was Forgotten” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman recounts thousands of years of the immortal dead, up to the final tomb robbery.

I picked up Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy at some library sale. It’s a typical Rip Van Winkle story, in which an insomniac has himself hypnotized to sleep in 1887 Boston, and doesn’t wake up until the year 2000. A doctor revives him and he discovers a communist paradise. Of course, the doctor has a beautiful daughter and the inevitable happens. All of that is standard for this sort of proto-scifi utopian novel. The interesting bit for me was near the end, when Our Revived Hero repents of his past capitalist sins, and becomes converted to the wonders of communism. The Christian imagery is used, and perhaps abused, by the author, but the conversion is in essence intellectual, making it a fascinating sci-fi theme.

Of course, it’s not called communism in the book. It’s just some rosy socialist view of the future, long before anyone had tried socialism and found it wanting. Looking Backward is only occasionally a novel; most of it is polemic, with Our Hero making naive protests that this workers’ paradise can’t possibly exist and the doctor telling him, “Nothing could be simpler,” and variations on that theme.

It’s easy, after 2000, to mock the doctor’s simple communism; the biggest hole in his logic is the hole in man’s motives. Whenever Our Hero asks why the workers will do their best rather than slack off, or share alike rather than hoard, or be comrades rather than asserting their power over one another, the doctor answers that they will have no incentive to do wrong. He keeps saying exactly that. The absence of selfish or evil motives is assumed. Maybe it was a reasonable assumption in 1887, though I doubt it; it’s certainly glaringly naive after the year 2000.

Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia deals with a very different sort of conversion - the Conversion of Europe. Strange lights like a giant aurora borealis fill the sky one night in 1912, and in the morning, Europe is no longer there. In its place is a jungle, and not just any jungle - a jungle with a completely different evolutionary history, where the vertebrates’ spines run up their stomachs, and the poisonous things are very, very poisonous. The population is gone; there’s nothing smarter than a pack animal on the entire continent.

The nickname for the new Europe is Darwinia, a joke, since this miracle is supposed, by most people, to have disproved Darwin. Yes, indeed, species arise out of single stupendous acts of creation. The huge, obvious (if ambiguous) miracle starts a religious revival and raises creation science to scientific respectability. A few of Our Heroes disbelieve the nouveau science, but the novel’s creation-science bashing never gets intolerable.

The reader soon finds Our Heroes on an expedition into deepest, darkest Darwinia, à la the Lewis and Clark expedition. This bothers the surviving Europeans, who don’t like the Wilson Doctrine declaring Darwinia a new world open to any colonists - which is to say, American colonists. The expedition runs into the dangers of the new continent and of the angry partisans, and makes a startling discovery. That’s just the beginning.

Early on there’s an interlude that lets the reader in on what’s really behind the “miracle,” though Our Heroes remain in the dark for quite a while longer. I don’t think I wanted to know that early on, but perhaps the truth was so strange that the author needed to work up to it. I don’t think he filled out his premise quite as far as he could, and his technical details and bad guys were a bit sketchy, but the excellent characterization more than made up for the problems.

Between the Rivers

Thursday, February 13th, 2003

Cool link of the day: a cartoon that could be subtitled same suit, different day. Also, Apple has released the XML schema for Keynote (their Powerpoint replacement).

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a book review. Most of the lag was for a rereading of The Lord of the Rings, which I trust every literate English-speaker on the face of the earth has read by now. Tolkien goes without reviewing. I tried to read The Shelters of Stone, but I was confused by a major POV shift on the second page, annoyed by the frequent infodumps, and bored by the end of the first chapter, so I gave up and switched to the only other novel of the ancient world on my to-read shelf.

Between the Rivers by Harry Turtledove was another one of my Buck-a-Book finds. I hadn’t heard of it elsewhere, not even on that list I once found of books based on the ideas in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The blurb sounded more interesting to me than his usual histories of wars.

The novel is an history of Mesopotamia at the dawn of consciousness, if you consider The Origin of Consciousness to be the true history. The psychological deities of Julian Jaynes are trotted out as larger-than-life gods and goddesses, jealous of the advances men have made, most especially in the new crafts of writing and bronzeworking. Men from other cities behave as Jaynes claimed the god-possessed peoples of the ancient world behaved, while Our Heros are the fully-conscious modern men who eventually arose out of the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

War is endemic between the conscious men and the followers of various regional gods, but as the novel opens the gods are especially riled up and band together against the crafty people of Gibil. Our Heroes strive to find a way to elude or appease the wrath of the angry gods.

The best part of the novel is the style of speech. All the characters sound like they’ve just stepped out of the Bible, with their poetical repetition. The book is at least a quarter longer than the story itself required because each character must restate what he himself has said, or what others have said to him. It sounds terribly annoying but somehow it never is.

The cover art features a man who looks like he’s dressed for an ice age and a woman in a burqa. Neither is appropriate for ancient Mesopotamia; the book itself specifies the minimal clothing of the well-to-do of both genders, and that the poorest went naked. I know cover art is often inaccurate, but this is the first one that actually annoyed me, probably because it reminded me of my recent bad experience with The Shelters of Stone.

Another disappointment was the gods. Having them trooping around, spying on people and tossing boulders, was too fantastic for my taste. The description of god-possessed men was more intriguing than the appearances the gods made outside of people. I would have appreciated something closer to the spirit of The Origin of Consciousness.

The ending was a good twist, but would have had more of an emotional impact for me had I found the gods more believable. Instead, their flaws made them less believable - a fantasy addition to a more realistic history. Nevertheless, it was an engrossing tale.

Many Dimensions

Saturday, January 4th, 2003

RJ’s latest entry reminded me that I had not yet reviewed Many Dimensions by Charles Williams. I was depending on him for the fantastic in Christian literature, so I was a bit surprised to find this novel was, aside from being an good example of pre-war (1931) pro-Moslem sentiment, also a work of Islamic literature in a sense I’ll define below.

The premise is as follows: a churlish Englishman buys an ancient relic from a Persian, brings it home to England, and shows it off to his friends, claiming it’s the crown of Suleiman ben Daood. The stone set therein proves to have great powers, among them that of infinite divisibility. Several copies are divided off and passed around or sold, which angers the faithful Persians to no end. One threatens to raise the Arab street, as they say, in defiance of the English infidels who are so abusing the artifact. The British government has its own plans for the stone.

Miracles, disasters and time-travel paradoxes follow the duplicate stones around the English countryside. The proper order of things is restored only when one of the characters makes the ultimate act of submission, which is to say, islam. At least, that was what I got out of it. Many Dimensions is rather a dense, philosophical work not aimed to please the modern reader, though Charles Williams was an Inkling.

It pleases me only in that it gives me an example of Islamic fiction for my list below. Let me define R fiction, where R is a religion, as fiction that has one of the following as a major theme:

  • The realistic lives of modern practitioners of that faith, as such: The Chosen and Daniel Deronda (Jewish fiction)
  • Fictionalized past lives of religious figures: The Last Temptation of Christ (Christian)
  • Fictional recreations of religious figures in another milieu, usually a fantastic one: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Christian) and Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series (Mormon)
  • Outright allegory: The Pilgrim’s Progress (Christian)
  • Fantastic realism - that is, stories set in the real world in which miraculous or diabolical events occur consonant with the tenets of a particular religion: That Hideous Strength and The Screwtape Letters (Christian), also Many Dimensions (Moslem)
  • Religious tourism - that is, stories set in locales postulated by the religion, or during future events predicted by the religion: The Divine Comedy, The Great Divorce, and the Left Behind series (Christian)

That’s all. That someone is a Christian does not make their fiction Christian in any useful sense of the term. Monotheism, in particular, is not synonymous with Christianity, nor are themes of faith, hope, self-sacrifice, temptation, resurrection, or ethics in general.

I have nothing against Christian literature, but I do not consider The Lord of the Rings a Christian work. It is not realistic, it contains no religious figures, and it is not an allegory. Tolkien despised allegory. He said that Middle Earth was “a monotheistic world of natural theology.” There is nothing within The Lord of the Rings that makes it Christian rather than, say, Baha’i.

Perhaps a better argument could be made for the Silmarillion as Christian fiction, but nowhere in Tolkien do I see the ideas that I would consider essentially Christian - original sin, justification by faith, the death of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, the damnation of (apparently) good people for not believing in Christ, transubstantiation, the Trinity, etc. If a person were offended by such things, Tolkien would not offend him but C.S. Lewis would.

I find the notion of islam alien, and I found Many Dimensions strange to that extent. Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, reminds me of the Norse epics that inspired Tolkien and of the (pagan) heroic tradition in general - of battles and honor and courage and fate and magic and true bloodlines. Tolkien may have softened it where it is harsh in, say, William Morris, but he did not change it into anything recognizably Christian.

Forth Eorlingas!

The Two Towers

Sunday, December 29th, 2002

…or, The Ring Goes Astray

The rosy spectacles of memory have been working their magic on The Fellowship of the Ring for a year now, but as I look back at that blog entry, I realize that the second movie was just more of the same. Here’s what I said last time:

The scenery was wonderful, and the choices of what to cut from the book were not bad choices. However, the choices to rewrite the dialogue, plot and characters were all bad choices - too many to name, but all of them poor indeed. Let me clue the producer in: You’re not J.R.R. Tolkien. You’re not even Christopher Tolkien.

Here’s a comment I made in Lori’s blog before I’d seen the new movie:

If it were me spending millions of dollars and years of people’s lives filming LotR, I’d follow the book. It’s the best-loved work of literature of the twentieth-century - it takes a lot of gall to think you could improve on that. Needless to say, you’d be wrong - major changes to the plot and characterization just date the movie and the producer’s neuroses.

Now Lori informs me that the producer is making the series PC - which just dates the movies and the producer’s politics. Angering Faramir-lovers is only a sideline. Having been warned about the wretched things done in Ithilien, I was more incensed by the illogic of the Ent scenes. Why didn’t Treebeard know Saruman had been cutting down trees? What kind of Ent doesn’t know about that? And why was Merry so hot to get the Ents to help him, when he’d had no contact with the outside world beyond orc kidnappers? What could he possibly have had in mind for Treebeard to do? I understand that there’s an attempt here to make the main characters more significant in the events around them, but Merry and Pippin were supposed to be baggage. (Ten to one that scene gets cut.)

On the Arwen watch, the gratuitous ring shots were replaced by gratuitous mystery-flower-jewelry shots. Arwen did give Aragorn a piece of jewelry in the books, but it wasn’t a flower. It was the Elessar - a nice green rock, if I recall correctly. [I didn’t, but I fixed it.] I suppose Grunge!Aragorn is too macho to wear jewelry on his forehead. Little as I like Arwen overuse, especially her habit of resurrecting a dying Fellowshipper every movie, I have to admit that the confrontation between her and Elrond was well-done. I liked his Middle-Earth is going down in flames - get out while the getting is good speech and the flash-forward to the consequences of not getting out.

So there’s no time to make sense of the Fangorn scenes, but there is time to add a pointless float down a non-existent river for Aragorn. Frodo also takes a major detour to a river he’s not supposed to be anywhere near, but does the audience the service of not falling in. If Peter Jackson weren’t so involved in telling his story, he’d have had time to cover the important parts of Tolkien’s story.

I thought the movie dragged - there was plenty of action but little plot to back it up. The Fangorn scenes were a typical example of that, as was Gandalf’s instant cure of Theoden. Especially after the first hour or so, I felt as if I were watching a very long music video rather than a movie. If I had the DVDs (and, of course, a DVD player), I’d watch the movies with the sound turned off. They’re beautiful, even the battle scenes. I’ve always had trouble picturing Helm’s Deep, not to mention thousands of orcs streaming in and around it. Gollum was also a special effect, which may explain why he was so good, as well as relatively true to character.

The Lord of the Rings is not a particularly psychological novel; it would be possible to film the entire thing more or less as written, the way, say, Pride and Prejudice was (in the six-hour version). Someday it may be possible to run Peter Jackson’s version through a nice graphics program and come out with the movie Tolkien would have made, or to make it from scratch without the overhead of extras, studios and travel to New Zealand. That would be a fine use of technology.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Kiln People

Wednesday, December 18th, 2002

Ad of the day: Looking for Dr. Right? - a dating service spotted in Scientific American

Over Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to read some of my old children’s books. I started with A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle. I recall liking the series when I was young, but the first volume didn’t stand up to a re-read. It wasn’t quite as well-written as I expected, but my real problems were with the plot - or rather, the Plot. The batty old lady who couldn’t tell the children anything definite reminds me too much of an angelic Cigarette Smoking Man.

Madeleine L’Engle is part of a very sci-fi subgenre typified by C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy - fiction that mixes science with the fantastic, but a very particular fantastic. I read the Earthsea trilogy after my disappointment with L’Engle - now there was a nicely put-together world, in which the odd laws of magic meshed with the medieval setting. Fantasy, the genre, is rarely fantastic the way Alice in Wonderland or Kubla Khan are. While it works for a child’s dream or an adult’s pipe dream, the fantastic does not mix well with science fiction themes.

I’d like to blog a bit about how Christian themes seem to shade into the fantastic, not just in the Space Trilogies but in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Last Battle and the works of Charles Williams and George MacDonald, but it’s getting late. If anyone can think of an example of non-Christian fantastic sci-fi for me to compare to the Christian entries, please leave a comment with the author and title and I’ll come back to it later.

David Brin is not the sort of person from whom one expects religious themes, and during the majority of the drawn-out plot of Kiln People he leaves the soul more or less alone as he pursues his mystery plot. The novel is a rather gripping mystery at the start, but it bogs down in the middle (and a thick middle it is). The plot resolution is perhaps a bit too baroque for a proper mystery, but the real difficulty lies in the soul-centered wrap-up. Brin is a devout materialist, a point he makes clear early and often, so when he’s left standing alone at the end of the novel with his Soul Standing Wave he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it.

Describing the truly alien is the problem of sci-fi. You can get away with a hands-off approach, such as Catherine Asaro used when she never accurately described the game of quis, if the alien subject matter is new.
When your new alien realm is one traditionally pertaining to religion, however, it’s going to take a whole lot of technobabble to turn the inherent mysticism of, say, the soul, into materialism. If you just stand aside, as an author, and let silence speak for you, that science speaks Buddhist or Christian visions of the soul. It does not convey your new materialist mysticism - perhaps because materialist mysticism is an oxymoron.

On Basilisk Station, The Charwoman’s Shadow

Monday, October 14th, 2002

I’d heard of David Weber as a pillar of space opera, but never read him until I picked up a promotional copy of On Basilisk Station, remaindered. I get the feeling he’s one of the people whom Jim Baen promised to make famous if they could write three novels a year. On Basilisk Station is the first Honor Harrington novel, of which the sequels are legion.

I am a fan of the pulp/serial approach to science fiction - despite his faults, Edgar Rice Burroughs holds a high (and wide) place of honor on my bookshelves. LMB has turned the series form from a pulp and media-fiction backwater into a literary genre on its own terms. I don’t know that she did it with any help from David Weber. On Basilisk Station did not leave me wanting more Honor Harrington, and not because of any the typical penny-a-word failings of the genre. On the contrary, the characterization was unusually good and the depiction of military life more authentic than, say, LMB’s or ERB’s.

I’ve reread ERB’s Mars books more times than they deserved, and not for John Carter’s sake. What holds up a sci-fi series (and for that matter a fantasy series) is the setting. The reader wants to return to Middle-Earth, to Narnia, to Mars, to Barrayar; I’m attracted by the places and cultures more than by Eustace or Carthoris or even (forgive me, Liz) Ivan Vorpatril.

On Basilisk Station is set in a nondescript galaxy, where almost indistinguishable sides battle for…Basilisk Station, and the good guys are not the Barrayarans or the Heliumites, but the crew of a particular starship. The technology is also uninteresting - the usual hyperdrives and wormholes - and the decisive weapon itself was notable not for its science but for its tactical disadvantages. The book might have been about a true naval battle, on a more watery sea, and the plot, theme and characters wouldn’t have suffered a bit. (In fact, the battle scenes might have been easier to follow in two dimensions.)

That, of course, put me in mind of Promised Land, the sci-fi romance that was mostly romance with residual sci-fi. Military sci-fi is not a genre I follow except accidentally, so I wonder if it’s all heavy on the military and light on the sci-fi. Perhaps David Weber’s galaxy improves with a few more Honor Harrington novels; if I gave Catherine Asaro a second and third chance, he deserves four or five just on the basis of On Basilisk Station.

The Charwoman’s Shadow, one of two Del reprints of Lord Dunsany I picked up at Buck-a-Book, was covered in blurbs praising the father of fantasists. I know when a book comes loaded with that much self-promotion that I’m headed for disappointment. Remaindered disappointment sets me back only a buck or two, so I keep trying. At least the let-down was of an opposite sort: the setting was worked up marvelously, the story was recognizably fantasy, and the plot depended essentially on the magical and the medieval. The book was worth reading for the descriptive language alone.

The trouble was in the characters. The old woman, the young, bumbling hero, the lovely sister engaged to an oaf, the loving but misguided parents, and the princely Duke were all such stock characters as even ERB might have been ashamed to roll out (and he was writing contemporaneously, for pennies). Lord Dunsany is, I must protest, not the father of medieval fantasists. Reading him makes Tolkien’s claim to the title that much clearer. (I’ll leave for another entry the fantastic fantasists as well as the precise distinction between fantastic and medieval fantasy.)

Go ahead, read any of the pre-Tolkien fantasists and tell me otherwise. Try some William Morris for a blast from the medieval past. Have you ever heard of, never mind read, The Worm Ouroborus? It makes the Eye of Argon look Shakespearean. That was the state of fantasy before Tolkien. Tolkien was the first to tell the old stories in the modern form, without turning the old characters into modern man. Some may cheat and write modern men into their fantasy worlds (Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree comes immediately to mind) but no one writes in the Grendel mode anymore.

So if you want battle, read On Basilisk Station, and if you want description, read The Charwoman’s Shadow. If you’re looking for sf, well, I am too.