Saturday, June 30, 2012

Since I'm On Vacation...

I'm on vacation. Thus I've been letting accustomed duties lapse--like thinking of something clever to say on this blog. My bad. If you want to move on, I understand. It's my fault.

However, I wasn't always on vacation. A while back I read and reverse-engineered Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." I wrote it up elsewhere and for your reading pleasure, I've reprised it here.

I present to you a summer rerun: Reverse Engineering Hemingway:


I recently heard a reading of this short story by Ernest Hemingway. When it was done, I went "Wow. What a great story! How could he write that?"

First off, a story like that with a WOW climax is designed from the beginning with Francis Macomber's sudden death. Step backwards, how does he die? His wife shoots him. Step back, why does she kill him? They have an unhappy marriage. Why? Because they despise each other. Why don't they divorce? Because he is terribly rich and she's too old to find a richer husband. Because he is a coward.

A coward, eh? What disturbs the status quo that causes her to kill him now? He finds his nerve. Not all cowards are doomed to stay that way, some grow up and become men. (Remember, this is Hemingway, and men are men and Women are cruel decorations.) If she doesn't kill him right now, he'll leave her.
All right, what setting will have a man manifest cowardice and shortly thereafter find his nerve? Hemingway likes Africa, the American reading public likes Africa, and a big game hunt is a pastime of the rich where there are lots of guns about. Easy enough to make the murder look like a hunting accident. And with Africa being fairly remote you don't have much in the way of law enforcement about, and African big game guides make for better characters than, say, Canadian Indian guides.

Moreover, Hemingway has spent his money from the other stories he's sold going to Africa and doing manly things there. He can use his journals as filler until he gets the word count he needs.

OK. If I were Hemingway, I'd have the outline of the story set (in my head at least and if I'm me, i'll have it on paper). With the outline clearly defined, we can drop a few clues to foreshadow the climactic murder scene, but give them a plausible non-murderous meaning in the immediate context so as not to spoil the surprise when Macomber catches a bullet from his wife.

All right, now Hemingway can start writing.

No, wait. Not yet. He needs a hook. Something that'll cast that "can't put it down" spell on the reader. Start with a celebration that has a dark shadow inside it. Yeah, they return from the hunt with the bearers carrying Macomber to his tent while he's miserable, his wife is openly sorrowful, but subtly contemptuous, and the guide is disgusted and wondering how the rest of the safari will go. OK. everybody's unhappy and the reader doesn't know why?

Great, start writing...

Wait, spin the ending so that the reader isn't quite sure if its murder or not. Yeah, ambiguity is good. 

And, no I have no idea whether Hemingway thought this way or not. He was probably a pantser.

Friday, June 22, 2012

To Defend The Earth and Footfall

In the late 1970s a particularly inept President of the United States allowed a dangerous military imbalance to occur. The Soviets had thousands of tanks poised to come crashing through the Fulda Gap and into West Germany. The only viable response of the hollowed-out US Army at that time was to fall back and thrownukes at the Ruskies in hopes of slowing them down. The Germans weren’t too happy about turning their country into a nuclear battlefield.

A few years prior a California science fiction writers (with ties to the former Governor and not yet President named Reagan) came up with a better solution: If you drop a hammer from the top of the Empire State Building, whatever it lands on will get hurt real bad. Now, imagine if the hammer were dropped from orbit. I don’t care how good Russian armor is; it won’t survive the experience. No radiation and no fallout. Everyone should be happy. Right? Except for the guys who think we should be in the UN. There are treaties against space-based weapons that probably don't apply, but....

Then the science fiction writer in question, Jerry Pournelle teamed with Larry Niven, to write a novel where they explored this notion. Since Tom Clancy already had the 3rd-World War franchise, Pournelle & Niven put these space-based weapons in the hands of alien invaders.

The novel Footfall shows an alien invasion of Earth and how we fight back. Yes, the aliens have advanced fusion technology, and they control the high ground of space. Pournelle and Niven depict the hammer-dropped-from-orbit concept and its deadly effect. As you’d expect, the alien invasion is a near run thing. Ultimately humanity abandons the UN Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and takes the battle into space against the aliens in an Orion-style ship. Cool stuff.

Fast-forward two decades. We have email, ebooks, and automatic alerts sent from Amazon suggesting novels you might like. I got one such notice suggesting To Defend TheEarth by William Stroock.

Just as everything else has advanced in the last twenty years, so has weapons technology. We have tactical lasers, smart bullets, and anti-artillery missiles. And so do the aliens in Mr. Stroock’s novel. They also have that hammer-dropped-from-orbit plot device. You might regard this as an update of Footfall to contemporary technology. But don’t. This book consists of a number of disconnected stories set in various points around the world. You never get to know any of the characters. Stroock tells a big story, and like H. Beam Piper’s novel Space Viking, it’s less of a novel and more of a novel outline. (By all means, you should read Space Viking, too.)

Instead of writing 11 short stories that each touch on a few characters’ experience in a narrow part of the war, Mr. Stroock would have been better off writing 11 novels following the same set of characters through the duration of the war.

I liked the book, but did not love it. If you want your $0.99 worth, buy To Defend The Earth. But if you want more than 4x better novel for your money, spend $4.00 and pick up Footfall by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Knox's Irregulars

I've been watching a lot of Bollywood and they have no problem talking about God or gods or Allah whatsoever. They seem a lot more free about such things.

I have a friend who is a Christian. When he saw the Avengers movie, he remarked about the line when Captain America says there's only one God. And when he saw Prometheus he remarked about the cross that the girl who played Elizabeth Shaw wore. He claimed the character was a Christian and I remain skeptical. Yes, the girl wore a cross and this is the symbol of Christianity.

But I want to see something more in the depiction of a Christian or what it means to be one. Something more like this. Why, yes, that is almost the picture of a cracked pot.

In both cases, my friend made me a little sad. He's so used to any kind of faith being deprecated on the Hollywood screen and he seems like a starving man grasping at crumbs.

Now, you can find movies where faith is not just mentioned in passing, but a central part of the narrative. I don't like them much. They are often heavy handed.

I like my religion kept between the lines like they did in the Lord of the Rings or the Narnia movies. The narrative doesn't tell you about deity or our moral obligations as much as show you Frodo and Samwise doing rightly.

The word Evangelical implies some overt sharing of one's faith, and commonly Evangelicals are exhorted to witness. But this is all too rare, because Evangelicals too often preach instead. Witness means to relate one's own experiences. E.g. I witnessed the bank hold up and I saw three men wearing masks, et cetera. Preaching means to assert propositions generally on the basis of authority.

In writing, we're told "show don't tell" and that's like the Evangelicals' exhortation to witness, not preach. Thus I prefer Lord of the Rings because Tolkien is showing Christian living instead of telling it to us.

Recently, I read a novel, Knox's Irregulars. It is a military Science Fiction novel about a resistance effort against foreign invaders on another planet.

The story begins with a setup. A bunch of communist atheists with Islamic-sounding names from somewhere-i-stan in the former Soviet Union colonized a planet a few generations back and they do what socialists generally do: make a hash of it and run out of other people's money.

Meanwhile back on Earth there's a second Reformation and a bunch of Calvinists want to start a colony, but all the planets are already taken. They can get a deal on buying an undeveloped hunk of land on the planet of the communist-atheist-space-nazis. They call their colony New Geneva.

Things go well for a couple of generations as the Calvinists' work ethic creates a ton of wealth while the communist-atheist-space-nazis creates envy. As you'd expect, after a purge of the moderates in the bad guys' government, and some ethnic cleaning in their own country, they decide to invade New Geneva.

All of the place-names in New Geneva will be familiar to the student of the Reformation. Many of the characters surnames are those of old-school Princeton divines.

The hero is a young man in a mechanized suit of armor named Knox and his dad happens to be the governor of New Geneva. So, after everyone in the regular army is overrun, Knox starts a resistance movement behind enemy lines.

Now, if this were David Drake writing the story, the good guys would be Satanists and the bad guys would be Baptist Brethren. Everything is turned upside down and the Calvinists are the good guys for a change. I liked to see that change. The story even makes reference to Thermopile. The pattern of the war follows that of the ancient Greeks vs Persians: free Greeks using their wits and initiative to defeat a much larger force of enslaved Persians. So far, so good.

I liked the setup, but around midway through the story, the author had to start preaching. Not in a heavy-handed way, but it wasn't as graceful as C. S. Lewis in Narnia. His heroes are good, and his villains are evil, and we get a nice redemption story. But the preaching to witnessing ratio was off.

The story's end was suitably dramatic, but it lacked the almost pornographic aspect of good guys you really love just putting it to the bad guys you really hate. There's a pattern I've grown to expect in military science fiction that was missing here. The good guys need to have an ace in the hole, a plot device that visits wholesale destruction and mayhem upon the bad guys. In this story, the good guys and bad guys just punched each other to exhaustion. Maybe this is more realistic, but I missed the amazing technological gizmos that laid waste to massively overwhelming numbers of bad guys.

I so wanted to love this novel, but I have to admit that I only liked it a lot. 4 of 5 stars.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Reader's Contract

When the reader approaches a novel, s/he has a vague feeling of what it's about based on the cover art, blurbs, and/or reviews. As the reader commences to read, s/he should have some questions begin to form: Who is the body in the library? Who put it there? Who murdered the girl?

When this happens there is an implied contract between reader and writer. "Keep reading and I'll show you the answers to these questions." There are some things a writer ought never do, and failing to honor this contract is a Bad Thing. The longer the reader goes without these answers, the more impatient s/he is going to become. You don't want this.

And you don't want to be too hasty about answering all the story questions. It's a good thing for the writer to answer a question while raising another, bigger question. OK, the Bohemian guy put the body in the library, but why was she already dead when he found her in his living room?

I like Science Fiction, particularly, Space Opera. Any SF writer worth his/her salt will be adept at "world-building" creating a future history and populating that future history with various institutions and social constructs. The biggest mistake a rookie writer can make is to spend the opening ten pages of his novel describing the secret colonization of Sirius, the rise of the Terran Empire, and the Jim-Jones-In-Space cult called Camelot. The reader doesn't want to wade through the wars of Independence that brought about the stable configuration of great powers and non-aligned worlds that make up human space a few centuries from now. But the science fiction writer must know all this and keep track of it as scaffolding. Most never sees the light of day, but some of it spices up the narrative along the way through your story.

The reader parachuted into a Space Opera is immediately confronted with a bunch of story questions about the nature of the world s/he's reading about.

This is what I felt like when I began reading The Long Way Home, by Sabrina Chase. The story starts with a space battle with mercenaries and Fleet going up against aliens.

The hero is Moire, a girl who's on the run, and a very good pilot. She single-handedly saves the day for the humans and the reader clearly sees she's a tortured soul who's gone through hell. But we don't know anything about why and how she suffered. We have to read more to find out.

This is the stuff of page-turners.

What follows is the girl having adventures and keeping one step ahead of the evil corporation who's after her as well as a love-interest Fleet investigator who wants to arrest her for the Fleet's own reasons.

All along the way, she's just a decent person and that decency causes her to win friends. But to prevent the evil corporation from hurting those friends, she has to move on and abandon them. We see Moire sort of come out of her shell, but she doesn't really become a leader until the last quarter of the novel. Could Ms. Chase done a better job of showing Moire make that change? Mebbe.

The book had a Firefly/Serenity feel to it, and the evil corporation's chief minion had something of The Operative about him. And I think The Operative is the gold-standard for villainy.

The trouble with a book like The Long Way Home is that there are too many story questions in the first chapter to answer in the scope of a single novel. Most of those answers raise questions like "what's she gonna do about this?"

And this is why it requires a series of two or three novels to deliver satisfying answers to the reader. Happily, Ms. Chase is working on those sequels. I can hardly wait for them.

The bottom line is that you want to be intentional about how you disclose things to the reader and what you must NEVER DO is leave any story-question unanswered. I suggest you ask your beta-readers to keep a diary of story-questions that they consider while reading your work. Then you should take steps to make sure that every story-question has an answer either in this novel, or in a sequel.

Oh, and in The Big Sleep, how did the Sternwood's chauffeur die?

Was it murder or suicide?

Like I said, get your beta-readers to keep a diary of story-questions.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Temporary Duty

UPDATE: I just learned that Mr. Locke has passed away. Sadly, his excellent novel will have no sequel. RIP Ric Locke: You were a better writer than this world deserved.

When I love a book, I drop everything to write a review. I've posted parts of this on Goodreads and also on Amazon, so parts of what follows will be familiar to some of you.

I give this work 10 stars out of 5 because the author likes what I like and hates what I hate. Your mileage may vary: Do you love IRS agents? How about strutting martinets? How about regulations and abusive regulators? Do you think the Department of Agriculture should field a SWAT team?

Love these people and you'll hate Temporary Duty (TDY).

Now imagine 50 years in the future and that present trends continue. Bipartisan trends of bigger, more intrusive government. (I'm not hating on Democrats or letting any Republicans off the blame.) Bureaucracies naturally grow unless someone demands with career-ending force, "stop."

Thus when aliens show up to trade, there's a lot of needless trouble caused by the gubmint. The aliens can't get the Americans to sell them groceries. The only thing they get is the services of a detachment of F-14 Tomcats and F-18 Hornets with their engines replaced with space-gizmos and weapons pods fitted with freakin' lasers that can pop popcorn.

With these aircraft come Naval aviators to fly them. They aren't pilots, and they will correct you if you say otherwise. Naval aviators are officers.

I was never in the military, but I did have a chance to work around a lot of military folks when I was younger. That's where I learned the concept of TDY. I got along best with the Air Force guys. They were "civilians in uniform" after all. The Navy guys were a bit high strung. I had a college pal who'd done four years as an enlisted man in the Coast Guard and after graduation from college he went back in as an officer. He described with great bemusement the differences between the castes--particularly, at mealtimes.

If you think officers walk on water, and enlisted men are pond scum that soils their shoes, you won't like TDY. But if you like a little blue-collar fun poked at the officers, keep reading.

Enter John Peters a second rate seaman in the US Navy. Someone has to clean up the quarters for the officers who'll be flying the birds before they show up. He and his buddy Todd are contracted to wield the mops and swab the decks. Peters got a West Virginnie accent thickern mollasses in January. But he's a quick study with the alien trade language.

When the regular Navy arrives a quirk in his orders places him outside the normal chain of command. This, plus the fact that the officers cannot be troubled to learn the trade language creates opportunities and conflicts with Peters in the middle of it.

They ship off to distant stars and adventures ensue.

Do you remember on Star Trek how they never had any money on the ship? Nobody had to polish the brightwork.

The alien trade ship isn't like that.

As the voyage progresses, we meet an interesting array of aliens in shapes familiar to readers of fairy tales. Each of them offer valued goods and services in trade.

The recurring theme in this story is that Peters has the right answers and the aliens are listening to him while higher ranking officers are ordering him to shut up. As a result, he alone enjoys financial opportunities that he pursues to his advantage.

Everything is quite civilized except for the occasional attack by space pirates. The officers may be jerks, but they do know aerial combat. The space battles are pleasing to read. As are the salvage operations afterward. Our hero manages to come away with some sweet pirate booty.

Some make block-headed claims that there is no character development. Peters starts the book as nothing more than a swabbie with a thoroughly blue-collar, enlisted man's view of the world and the Navy in which he serves. He goes along to get along. Right after the second pirate attack, he visibly changes into someone much more ruthless. I can't see him dispatching his kidnappers in the first chapter without asking someone's permission. By the last chapter he is manifesting leadership, inspiring his people, and leading a significant, uh, organization.

This is an excellent novel about which I can offer no higher praise. It is good, old-fashioned space opera the way they used to write it. If you like Heinlein, here's your huckleberry. If you like seeing young mid-shipman Hornblower repeatedly get beat up and treated unfairly, but persevere to grow into Lord Admiral Hornblower, read this novel.

Those more worthy than I: