Archive for the 'Fantasy' Category

Sense and Sensibility, Sarah, Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure

Monday, June 24th, 2002

None of these were science fiction, but they still made me think about The Genre. Sense and Sensibility goes on for chapters and chapters with straight dialogue - I still feel a little displaced, days afterwards. The lack of description gave me the same feeling that most first-person stories do - I feel like I’m floating along a stream of consciousness, or in this case, a stream of dialogue.

The other thing that never ceases to surprise me when I read Sense and Sensibility is Lucy. She’s so bad. I invariably remember her as a stupid and possibly jealous girl; I forget that a significant portion of the dialogue is devoted to the verbal sparring of innocent Elinor and guilty Lucy. The trick of my memory seems to be the after-the-fact version of getting disappointed by the direction a novel takes (as with The Hemingway Hoax). I’m subconsciously rewriting Lucy in my mind.

Why do I want Lucy to be nicer, or at least stupider? I suppose I want the additional complication of Elinor’s doubt. As it stands, Elinor knows Edward loves her, not Lucy. While this is a suitable plot for the period, it is not the Form of the Love Story. Everyone knows that in a love story, the lovers must doubt one another’s love. (Edward doesn’t doubt Elinor, either.) I suppose it would at cross-purposes with the whole Sense vs. Sensibility theme for Elinor’s to be a love story proper, as it would be for Marianne’s to be a tale of endurance of misfortune. But give me a couple of years, and I’ll remember it as a love story again.

Sarah is the first of Orson Scott Card’s Women of Genesis series. I read it out of curiosity - I couldn’t appreciate the scriptural substrate of The Memory of Earth, so I thought I’d see how he treated the matriarch. The most interesting bits for me were the unfamiliar ones; judging from the afterword, those were lifted from Mormon scripture. The end, at the traditional time of Sarah’s death but without the death or the catalyst thereof, was perhaps the most interesting plot choice of the novel. I guess it’s the “hook” for the next novel - does Isaac live or die? (Resurrection always being an option, this is an open question.)

I’m not recommending Sarah, because it’s part of a genre that very few people care for - the epic novel. Someone out there was blogging about the epic and the novel - pardon me for forgetting who. It’s not a marriage that often works out. I suspect that the epic factor is what people who don’t like LotR don’t like about it. (For the epic without the novel, try the Silmarillion. For the epic novel without any redeeming literary merit, try The Eye of Argon.)

Taking the matriarchs and keeping them biblical in their virtues is not, I strongly suspect, the way to win over readers who don’t worry like Sarah about whether or not they still believe in Asherah. Card cannot humanize Sarah the way he does, say, Hagar, and so, just like in Milton, the rebel is the most sympathetic character. Better to reign in hell and all that.

Does this mean one has to be a hero to read an epic, or a saint to read Latter Day Orson Scott Card? No, not exactly - but one has to believe in heroism, or saintliness, at least for the duration. If the disbelief is strong, it will be hard to suspend, as a certain movie showed me recently.

Veronica, her roommate and I saw Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure back when it was playing in the Omni Theater at the Museum of Science. For those unfamiliar with the Shackleton Expedition, it was a failed attempt to cross Antarctica by dogsled in 1914. It was, in fact, one of the most stunning failures known to man.

This was how Shackleton advertised for his crew:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. –Ernest Shackleton.

The Endurance was trapped in ice for ten months, then crushed in a thaw. The crew camped on ice floes for the next five months, until they melted, and then set sail in their liferafts. They ended up trapped on Elephant Island - just a big rock, really - for another six months. Shackleton himself set off with five men for South Georgia Island, spending seventeen days on the open sea in a lifeboat, and then landing on the wrong side and having to hike over impassable mountains to the whaler’s town on the other side. And they made it, and every last man of them survived. (Let’s not discuss the dogs, eh?)

There are a couple of reactions one can have to a story like this - I’ll call them the Epic and the Non-Epic. The epic reaction is to be blown over by the sheer heroicism of a crew who survived 21 months in the Antarctic, doing the impossible not just once but over and over again - to be proud you’re of the same species as Sir Ernest Shackleton. If you’re a writer, there’s a side of wanting to write a story like this one, on some cold moon somewhere. The non-epic reaction is to berate Shackleton for trying to cross Antarctica in the first place - “because it’s there” is not sufficient cause for non-epic types. I won’t embarrass Veronica by saying which she chose, but that she’s never finished LotR is a significant clue.

The Big U, The Summer Tree, The Practice Effect

Monday, June 10th, 2002

I read The Big U because of its connection to The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. As such, it was quite interesting, but as a novel, it was a little disjointed. The POV character was rather fuzzy (which makes me want to say it was in first person, but I think it only strayed in and out of first person). Probably Neal Stephenson’s first novel (copyrighted 1984), it was out of print a while - the copy I picked up was a new trade paper reprint.

Yes, I braved another fantasy, The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay, an 80’s classic, or so the jacket informed me. I stopped early on, but picked it up again the same day wondering what happened. Shanghaiing a bunch of Canadians for nefarious magical purposes sounds like a neat idea, but it took me a while to be able to tell them apart, or care if I could. The natives, on the other hand, were far more interesting, and I really began to enjoy the book when I got to a section with only one Canadian and a whole tribe of locals. Unfortunately that was near the end and I doubt I’ll dig up the other two volumes of the trilogy. (Dr. Deb passed this one on to me.)

The non-Canadian side of the book was a kind of primordial AU, of which all our other Earths are supposed to be pale reflections. Notable pale reflections are Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and Norse mythology. This is an interesting, fanficcish approach to the problem of all fantasy being derivative of the same - and certainly Guy Gavriel Kay does Odin better than Neil Gaiman (more on which next time), but he cannot out-Tolkien Tolkien, whatever he may name his orcs, his elves, his Angband and his Morgoth.

Just for example, Tolkien conveyed song, legend and the passage of time without repeating, over and over, that it had been a thousand or twelve hundred years since such-and-such happened. His dark power crept slowly into Mordor; it didn’t pop out a mountain and point a dramatic, smoky finger at the West (here the South). It most certainly did not spend its time raping young women, nor, had it done so, would that have been the symbol of ultimate evil for Tolkien. Did evil change so much between 1954 and 1984?

Speaking of 1984, that’s also the date of publication of The Practice Effect. I suspect this one as well of being a first novel. Although Sundiver and Startide Rising were published before it, they are such better books, structurally speaking, that it’s hard to believe this one came after them. That said, I did enjoy it more than Brin’s other books - though he fought himself the whole way, he managed to write a pulp classic, complete with jealous scientific rivals, a princess, a familiar, a medieval society, noble thieves, magic, attempted rape and a pseudo-scientific explanation of it all at the end.

The hero makes no attempt to stop the rape, which is interrupted instead by some friends of his whom he does then go out of his way to defend. The princess gets laid up for an indefinite period of time (one of the things not handled well was the passage of time) by blisters. Frodo and Sam trudging through Mordor it ain’t. The final revelation could have stood a bit more foreshadowing, and some consequences of the theory, such as changes to the English language, weren’t worked out properly - but as a one-book pulp revival, its adventurous spirit outweighs its flaws.

The Curse of Chalion

Sunday, April 28th, 2002

   Word of the day:  resolution

I am, of course, quite behind. The moment I get published, this blog goes off-line. I don’t need to be making enemies - I’m only here to muse about writing, to ask, for instance, why all but one of the stories in the latest Analog were in the first person. Some were good, some were so-so, but all were confusing. I couldn’t even keep track of the protagonist’s gender in a couple of them, never mind more relevant details, and it’s a trying POV for an entire magazine to be in.

Outstanding novels for recap are: The Curse of Chalion, The Spirit Ring, Aristoi, Forever Peace, She and Make Room! Make Room! I just finished The Curse of Chalion, so perhaps I should get that one in while it’s fresh in my mind.

First off, it was an amazing book, and it was very satisfying to have an LMB book that was so long - a life, and not a chapter of a life. Yet Miles was still in this purported fantasy - his little “oh”’s and “and yet”’s disturbed me at first, coming out of the mouth of a medieval character, until I decided that Miles was LMB’s ideal man, as Rand would put it. Of course he has to show up everywhere, and his absence from The Spirit Ring was that novel’s greatest flaw.

Usually Miles has a better supporting cast, but usually he has a bigger supporting universe as well. She did manage to fool me with them for most of the story, but near the end I realized that Betriz and Iselle were rather sketchy for their large role in the novel, and in fact, all the non-Miles characters were, just like those of her previous fantasy. A whole world came to her, LMB says in the acknowledgements, but it was a peninsular one. Spain was clearly painted, and the language craftily subverted, but all the variety and conflict I think of, when I think of medieval Iberia, was brushed out. The Curse of Chalion was a lot like The Spirit Ring in its attempt at historical fantasy, and I’m still not sure that LMB’s minimalist approach to fantasy works - or it is a religious approach to fantasy? The theology was certainly the best part of the novel; in fact there was too much of it. It wouldn’t have hurt to spread it through a couple of novels, or, say, ten. Why hasn’t it been in Miles’? Certainly there’s more religion in the Vorkosigan saga than one expects in space opera, but it is religion without gods - raw existential honor.

LMB waxed Chestertonian at the end of the book - I knew she had it in her. Her plot devices, both the worn old ones and the impressive weaving of threads in and out of the story, were top-notch. The climax went by a bit too quick, for such a large and slow book, yet it was a hard thing to swing and it worked rather well for all that. She drew me in, she fooled me into believing in her characters, but she didn’t top Memory, or Komarr, or Shards of Honor. In theory, she could have - what was there in Spain but honor? But in Spain religion was a horror story men are still telling today.

Strange, strange choices, but a good book nonetheless.

Thief of Time, American Gods

Monday, January 7th, 2002

  Puppy:  off
  Word of the day:  hoarse

Well, the puppy didn’t recognize my voice, so I’m back to the manual approach. No time to review, but I will include the list of what’s outstanding: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Thief of Time by Terry Pratchet, Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh and Falling Free by LMB. I’m also in the middle of her Borders of Infinity.

Remember Good Omens by Gaiman and Pratchett? I wonder whether that book began the whole fad of occult-as-comedy that is raking in the big bucks for Joss Whedon on UPN. It was, in any event, a good book. Separately, though, Gaiman and Pratchett leave something to be desired. American Gods is also, for lack of a better term, a fantasy, as is Thief of Time and, I presume, the entire Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. American Gods is entirely nondescript. It follows the fates of certain Old World deities transplanted to America and not doing well at all, and of an ex-con who gets a job working, dying and rising again for one of them. Gaiman can write well enough that one wishes he had something to write about.

Thief of Time is a better book, having a more coherent plot and less unpleasant and unenlightening realism, but it lacks the deeper level one assumes Gaiman was trying to reach. Is it better to succeed at less, or fail at more? As humor, it’s not The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - and if you mean to get by on humor alone, you have to go Hitchhiker-far with it to please me. Yet it was a fun, readable book, and if it had been scifi I’d probably be recommending it right now. Fantasy leaves me cold, though, whenever it fails to achieve Tolkienesque levels - and it always fails. Someday I’ll put into words what it is about scifi that can carry a mediocre book, and what it is about humor and fantasy that makes even above-average books fail - someday.

Two down, two to go.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Monday, December 17th, 2001

  Puppy:  off
  Word of the day:  occult

Now that was neglecting the brog. I saw the Harry Potter movie when it came out, and read the book afterwards to check for accuracy. Someone asked what age the books were intended for. Thirty, I’d say - I see people reading them on the T nowadays about as often as I see people reading Ayn Rand. (There are no other patterns.) Ayn Rand is very, very popular, but nobody admits it.

Back to the movie. It looked like it cost a fortune; I wonder what’s left to the imagination after a show like that. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was addictive, but when I finally put it down, I realized it wasn’t The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by any stretch of the imagination. There was something amoral about it, something like what David Brin talks about in his Salon article about Star Wars. (Snagged that link from a blog…) Harry Potter, like all the Skywalker children, was born into the right family. The foundling-king is an old, old story, but Grimm had morals. Harry Potter needs a good moral, besides don’t stare in the mirror too long.

But it was a good book.

Wyrms, Parable of the Talents

Sunday, October 28th, 2001

  Puppy: off
  Word of the day: apoptosis

It’s the time slip, so I had to write. I finished Foundation - I’m still amazed at what writers used to get away with. I don’t think I’m up for the rest of the series. Whatever Asimov I read in my youth I shall henceforth consider enough. I also finished Wyrms by Orson Scott Card, which was not a bad book. He claims to have written fantasy, but if this mixture of science fiction and mythology is what he was talking about, then I don’t believe him. The standard fantasy parts - the fight in the forest, the boat ride down the river, the quest in general - were unimpressive in and of themselves. Without the science and mythology, the book would not have held up to the end. The beginning was rather promising, but the characters and the fantasy world seemed to grow less complex as the story moved on. That might not have been the muse flagging; maybe it was just me flagging. Yet Tolkien’s world never lost substance, no matter where the individual characters travelled.

Maybe it’s just too late to be critiquing books - just one more, then. Parable of the Talents disappointed me. The structure, that of an angry daughter’s commentary on her mother’s journals, just took away from the main story. I wasn’t dismayed when I reached the familiar ‘there’s no room in this book for an ending’ point, because I know Octavia Butler doesn’t end her books, she just stops. No problem. But it was a problem, because she tried to end it in the usual ‘no room’ way - a flash-forward into a future where the current difficulties have already been solved. I suspect authors do this when they don’t know how to fill in those missing months or years. So the issue of how Earthseed was finally spread was just skipped over. If Nancy Kress had done it, I would have supposed that she could never in a million years describe the spread of a religion. The truly disappointing part is that Octavia Bulter could have described it; she may be the only person in sf who could, but she could and she didn’t. Why not? She’s not lazy - usually her elisions are far better timed that this one. Also, I found the study guide at the end of the trade paperback edition of Parable of the Talents a bit much. Remind me never to do that.