Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Familiar and The Alien

Consider the stories you've read.

You can set familiar folks in a familiar setting. Maybe you've never been in an English Lord's library, but it's not much different than some rooms you've been in. Maybe you've never known a spinster who sorts out how the body got in the library, but she's not that different from some spinsters you've known.

You can set familiar folks in an alien setting. You may not know an astronaut like Buck Rogers, but he's not too different than other guys you know who drive airplanes. But there's no way you know about the alien wonders of the 25th Century.

You can set an alien in a familiar setting. You may not know anything about that E. T. who just got stranded by a visiting UFO. But drop him in a suburban neighborhood with kids riding bikes and just enough electronics to Phone Home.

What you cannot do is put E. T. in the 25th Century.

The reader of any story needs touch points s/he can relate to. And even when the reader follows Buck Rogers into the 25th century, s/he can grok Wilma Dearing's attractiveness to Captain Rogers. And even more alien evil Princess Ardala just happens to be smoking hot.

Every male and some of females feel the attraction of a beautiful woman. Readers need to relate to your story at every point. The way in which the reader relates the familiar can be less interesting than the alien. Space princesses are alien because they are from space, but they're familiar because they're still princesses.

The reader has only a finite capacity for handling the alien. You cannot put the alien in the alien, because it overwhelms this capacity. So, you have to manage the balance of the familiarity and alienness you present to the reader. Too familiar, and you risk the story being boring. Too alien, and you risk the story being incomprehensible.

Remember the two primary principles of prose: You must be clear, and you must be interesting. This should guide you in deciding how much familiar and how much alien belongs in your writing.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Lighten Up, Francis

It was a Friday night and I saw a lame joke on Facebook that had been posted by one of my more Conservative friends.

I reposted the joke, because it struck me funny. And it was late.

Moments later I got an abusive response from someone I used to know.

It's a joke. The reason why the joke works is that the race card has been overplayed for the last 5 years.

Any time anybody has said anything critical of that half-white fellow who lives in the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue, or noted the similarity of the US economic performance to that during the decades of FDR's administration, the response has been a charge of racism.

I do my best to be indifferent to politics. The only politicians worse than Democrats are Republicans. I want a government that I can safely ignore.

Yet the above pattern of rhetoric ires me because it is like the little boy who cried wolf. Think of it like quantitative easing. The coin of moral outrage is debased by overuse.

Getting angry about that debasement won't do anybody any good, so I choose to respond with humor.

After the abusive response, I replied "Lighten up, Francis."

This produced even more abuse. I realized the fun-loving person I had known and laughed with decades ago had been replaced with a humorless scold who thinks "shut up" is persuasive argument.

Maybe some invasion of the body snatchers scenario was responsible for draining away this person's humanity. More likely something else. All I know is that this was not the person who I used to know.

I had not realized it at the time, but I was administering an anti-Turing test.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Do What I Tell You

I think one way to know the maturity of writers is to look at their characters. Or hear them complain about them.

The poor writer never has any problems with his characters. He wants them to race in the Indy 500 Monday, then kick a heroin addiction on Tuesday, then cure cancer on Wednesday, then go on a killing spree on Thursday. His characters are like chess pieces he pushes around the board, except he makes bishops move off diagonals and knights go wherever he wants. There's no structure shaping the characters' actions.

A better writer has internalized the character's mind, habits of thought, temperament, and nature. Saint or criminal, tinker, tailor soldier, spy--the writer knows what the character can do and won't do. This writer has to advance the plot and she's got this lot of characters to do it with. And they're all going of in their own directions.

I guess they have to take the plot where they want to go and the writer just has to roll with it.

I think that is what happened to Larry Correia's novel Warbound.

I love the setup, Jake Sullivan is a bitter ex-con detective in a gritty noir setting. The guy loves solving puzzles. He should be doing detective stuff, but with magic. Like Harry Dresden, but a lot more Phil Marlowe.

But I think Larry Correia couldn't get Jake to cooperate. Instead, he gets caught up in all this geopolitical stuff. International conspiracies and fighting foreign powers leaves no time for divorce cases, stolen jewelry, and missing husbands. There wasn't any of that in Warbound.

And then Jake is supposed to be come kind of warrior scholar. Which is also cool, but that doesn't quite work either.

Then out of nowhere comes the oakie girl who has been an enigma in the first two novels. Nevertheless, at the beginning of Warbound she is a most powerful enigma. Then as her true nature is disclosed, we see other aspects of how the magic system in these novels works.

Larry Correia does a good job of answering story questions he's planted in the first and second Grimnoir novels, but you get the general impression that he generally wanted to zig, and his characters forced him to zag.

The only thing missing from the climax of Warbound was a direct quote from or allusion to Lord Acton's "power tends to corrupt."

Warbound gets 5 stars for several well staged fights and for taking the story where it should go instead of where Mr. Correia may have originally intended it to.

I have also reviewed Hard Magic, the first book of this series. As well as Spellbound, the second book of this series.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Are You Writing?

Shame on me. I was not writing. Instead of writing, I was posting stuff on this blog.

You have to balance your activities.

You can't spend all your time building your writer's platform if it means you aren't writing. Mindful of this, I put my head down and started writing with no regard to anything in the world, or sharing anything with you all.

My wife, bless her, gave me space to write and I just finished a short story that I'm a little proud of: Ghost Light. We'll see if it sells.

And you can't spend all your time reading my blog instead of writing. So, get to work.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

What Science Fiction SHOULD Be

There's been a bit of kerfuffle over what Science Fiction should be. It started with this essay. It has evoked several responses like this, and this. I was singularly unimpressed with the whole premise. Who the bleep has the right to say what Science Fiction IS or IS NOT?

Set phasers on ignore and raise the apathy field.

So, this is a bit of a meta-analysis. I've pontificated, or bloviated, about Science Fiction and Fantasy in its various manifestations. I'm altogether comfy with blending genres. Louis L'Amour wrote several nifty romance novels disguised as westerns. Larry Correia writes horror novels that don't suck because they have so much gunplay.

Lois McMaster Bujold has a whole lot of romance in her Science Fiction novels. If you say she isn't writing Science Fiction, then you are silly enough to say Louis L'Amour wasn't writing westerns.

Not all Science Fiction is the same. If you like science and technology, you'll gravitate toward Jules Verne. If you prefer sociology, you'll gravitate towards H. G. Wells.

Is either better or worse? Silly question. As silly a question as asking "Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?"

Meanwhile, there's a racist in the UK who says there's too much discrimination in Science Fiction, and that Science Fiction OUGHT to depict more blacks, wymyn, etc. The color of your skin or the polarity of your reproductive organs has nothing to do with how good or bad a human you are.

If you think that there needs to be more blacks and wymyn in Science Fiction, then you are obviously not colorblind. (And you are willfully ignorant of several significant writers working today.) Blacks and wymyn are just as capable of being racist or sexist as white guys are capable of reflecting and expressing our common humanity. You're not curing racism or sexism by making demands for more blacks and/or wymyn. You're merely manifesting the subtle racism of diminished expectations.

Science Fiction is not church. And Science Fiction is not a political party. It isn't a club with a secret handshake and standards of conduct.

Science Fiction is a kind of writing.

And what SHOULD any kind of writing do? It should be read. If the writing isn't given away freely, then it should be sold prior to being read. If the writer isn't independently wealthy, its sales should contribute to the writers' sustenance. Bad things happen when a writer does not get paid for his work.

Science Fiction SHOULD sell. If you write Russian Tractor Operas, it may make friends amongst the commissars, but it may not have widespread commercial appeal. Likewise, if you write Morality Plays, it may make friends amongst moralists (and I'm not talking Baptist morals, but stuff like sorting your recycleables), but it may not sell.

If Science Fiction becomes bogged down with a thicket of political or moralistic claptrap, it becomes propaganda. Customers don't buy propaganda. If you don't sell, you'd better have a government subsidy. Your work may be assigned reading, but it will be forgotten as soon as the regime changes.

Conversely, if your stories sell, and sell very well, the market will send signals in the form of money to produce more stories.

I love Science Fiction. I want to have a lot of Science Fiction available to me. This means I want a healthy and growing market for Science Fiction. The best thing that I can do to increase the health and size of the Science Fiction market is to write the Science Fiction stories that people want to buy.

This is what Science Fiction SHOULD be.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

To The Author In Search Of A Publisher

I distinctly remember listening to E. G. Marshall trying to reboot radio drama. I would be driving home or back to grad school after a date with the delightful girl I eventually married, and the car radio helped keep me awake. Late night radio often has unsold air time and a certain class of vendors gravitate to this cut-rate advertising. 

One of which had a rather stuffy sounding guy talking about "the author in search of a publisher."

He was trolling for suckers for the vanity press. For a few thousand 1979-dollars you could have your manuscript turned into a real book and get it printed. Yay. 

Then what? You'd have a garage full of boxes of books. Then it was up to you to find a way to sell them. Good luck with that. Most of the time, this was not a wise investment of one's savings.

Time passes and technology advances. It is now completely feasible to realize camera-ready typeset pages using just your home computer and a laser printer. It's trivial to produce good looking book designs using just Microsoft Word or any number of other cheap or free tools. Good. We can now produce "galley proofs" at home.

And if you want to fill your garage with boxes of books, any medium-sized town will have several print shops who can obliged you.

The last two paragraphs enable any non-idiot to completely disintermediate the vanity press guys. The dirty little secret is that writers in search of a publisher could have disintermediated them back in the '70s, too.

But even if you did, and you saved thousands of 1979-dollars it was a sucker bet. How are you going to get those boxes of books out of your garage and into bookstores?

Then an amazing thing happened: Amazon.com. Now, all you had to do was hook up with Amazon to get those boxes of books out of your garage. The amazing thing got amazinger. Amazon came out with the Kindle. And they had the good sense to buy a print-on-demand publisher. Now, anyone could click a web site and your book in bits or printed-on-demand would be shipped to their door.
This made me think that self-publishing a non-sucker bet. (And I hope you'll vindicate my opinion by buying either The Aristotelian or Finding Time.) I think self-publishing is a viable route for any writer who doesn't have a book deal. But you gotta be smart about it.

I think the vanity press companies are still a sucker bet. I don't understand how they can still exist when they are so trivially bypassed.

What's truly amazing is the tangled network of ownership. The biggest vanity publisher is now owned by a traditional publisher. You can get the details here.

Why would a traditional publisher own a vanity publisher? In the former case, the publisher pays the author an advance and royalties. In the latter case, the author pays the publisher. Heh. If I were the publisher I'd quit with the advances and royalties. So, there are some conflicts of interest here.

I don't quite know what will come of these changes in book publishing. It looks to me like we aren't seeing the old sucker-bets going away. Instead I think we'll see a whole raft of new and improved sucker-bets to beware of. Let me know if you come across any.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

It Can't Happen Here

Despite initial appearances, this is a review of Spellbound, by Larry Correia... eventually...

When you hear the words "concentration camp" you generally think of Nazis. If I ask you to name a non-Nazi concentration camp, you might be stumped. And if I asked you who invented the concentration camp, you probably would not have said the British.

Though the British used concentration camps to oppress the Boer population of South Africa, other fascist countries were quick to learn from their example.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Federal government rounded up citizens of Asian, particularly Japanese, ethnicity and put them in concentration camps. We just called our camps something different.

So, don't say things that have already happened here can't happen here.

I finished grad school and applied for work as a Mathematician. The people hiring the most Mathematicians then was the NSA. The job required I pass a lie detector test. I tripped on one yes/no question: Are you a Fascist?

Keep in mind Hitler was dead a decade before I was born. What could the question mean? I was a Republican then. I was a lifelong anti-Communist. I intended to and did vote for Reagan.

I asked, "What's a Fascist?"

The lie detector operator was an old guy who probably fought WW2 and he said something about Nazis. "Oh, that? No way!" And I passed the test.

Years before that I saw on live network television William F Buckley threaten violence upon Gore Vidal who had slanderously called him a crypto-Fascist. Was Buckley a Fascist? What is a Fascist, crypto or otherwise? A couple years ago, Jonah Goldberg wrote the book on fascism. And he made the case that several prominent US politicians held Fascist opinions. Sinclair Lewis wrote the novel "It Can't Happen Here."

Ominously, Larry Correia's characters in his novel Spellbound echo the words, "It can't happen here." He also puts the words "never let a crisis go to waste" in the mouth of the antagonist. He that has ears to hear should keep an eye between the lines of Spellbound.

In the 1930s America faced the real possibility of becoming a Fascist state. And in the parallel universe of Spellbound the possibility is even more imminent.

If you're a fan of Marvel's X-Men, you'll see parallels with Hard Magic and Spellbound. I've always thought Magneto to be less interested in being a bad guy and more interested in protecting mutants from Nazi-style enslavement and discrimination.

The normals versus magic-users schism is one of the axes upon which Spellbound turns. It is just a matter of time before the government passes a law requiring magic users to wear a Star of David badge--or something like that.

The white hats in Spellbound are all members of the Grimnoir Society, a secret bunch whose elders are all euro-weenies counseling caution and deceit. Though their deceit is vindicated--after a fashion--in Hard Magic, you'll find foreshadowing of more deceit in Spellbound.

Spellbound is the middle book in a trilogy. As such, you should expect to see a lot of bad things to happen to good people to set up the third book. Nevertheless, there are some interesting new characters introduced.

Fans of Robert A Heinlein should keep an eye out for an Easter Egg. When you write a parallel universe novel set in the golden age of Science Fiction, I think you are honor-bound to give one of the grand masters a walk-on role.

Likewise, if you're a fan of Buckminster Fuller, and his way of using language, you'll get a huge laugh out of Spellbound.

One character from the first book, Faye, takes on a prominent role in Spellbound. She can teleport and she knows how to fight. Turns out she's very good at killing. And she does so gleefully. At least one Amazon reviewer has called her a psychopath, drawing a moral equivalency to the bloodthirsty black hats. I disagree.

I think Larry Correia is playing a deeper game: The glee is intentional: it's partially addressed by Spellbound, and I will have to read Warbound to confirm this. Faye has taken a lot of lives, but they were all in battle, or they needed killing. And she does a good job of not-killing those who irritate her.

The villain in Spellbound is delightfully evil. He is soooooo evil, he even makes J. Edgar Hoover look good. And that's saying something. I loved Spellbound. It deserves all five stars.

I'm looking forward to the 3rd installment, Warbound. If you haven't read Hard Magic, you've missed a treat.

I have also reviewed Hard Magic, the first book of this series. As well as Warbound, the third book of this series.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Hot Gat, Hard Fists and Magic

Spite can be a marvelous thing. You never want to anger a writer. But when someone else does so, something marvelous may come of it.

I hear there was a Science Fiction Con whereon there sat a panel of authors of fantasy novels. This panel was relatively diverse, being represented by the typical sword and sorcery types, horror, and at least one urban-fantasy writer. An individual asked a question of the panel about magic. When the urban fantasy writer answered, the questioner said he wanted to hear from one of the real magic writers.

You never want to anger a writer.

Larry Correia was the guy on the panel who didn't write real magic. Angered, he did what the best writers do: he channeled his ire into writing. He wrote out of spite. And it is delightful.

I've written stories mocking the Xena-style sword and sorcery genre. And I am pleased that when challenged to write a magic story, he chose a 1930s noir setting.

A Chicago private dick named Jack Sullivan is a war hero fresh out of prison for smashing a Louisiana sheriff into a red paste. In old noir stories, a heavy was the sort of character played by a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr. In hard-boiled detective fiction you could usually count on heavy named Rocco to break bones at the direction of his gangster boss.

But "Heavy" means something different in "Hard Magic." It means a particular type of magic-user who can manipulate the force of gravity.

The magic-users in Larry Correia's world aren't fellas in pointy hats holding gnarled wood walking sticks (or even hockey sticks). They are all segregated into distinct categories depending upon the type of magic they do. Cracklers can manipulate electricity. Brutes are unstoppable fighters. Fades can walk through walls. Travelers can teleport.

On top of that there are magic spells and wards that are acquired by careful study into the source of magic itself. With one exception, everyone gets one magical power to develop as best s/he can. The exception is the villainous Chairman who understands magic best, and has developed a system of spells that he brands on his Iron Guardsmen.

If you are familiar with 1930s pop culture, you'll recognize a lot of names. Larry Correia likes the idea of giving parts to the people of that time, like J. Edgar Hoover, Melvin Purvis, John Moses Browning, General Blackjack Pershing.

Mix in airships and you've got a rollicking yarn.

The good guys get chased around by the bad guys while they're gathering their forces and trying to keep a doomsday weapon (invented by Nicola Tesla) out of the hands of the evil Chairman. Meanwhile, the evil designs of both the Chairman and the traitors among the Grimnoir society collide in a most satisfactory fashion.

I sure hope that Larry Correia gets along with his brothers, because I've seen a pattern in both Hard Magic and Monster Hunters. The hero is a big buy who has to negotiate familial conflict with some Other Big Guy with a bad eye.

Larry Correia write fight scenes as well as anybody I've seen this side of Louis L'amour. If you want to see how someone wades into a fight with two hard fists and a hot gat, I can't see any writer doing a better job of it than Correia.

Five stars. Easy.

I have also reviewed Spellbound, the second book of this series. As well as Warbound, the third book of this series.

Those more worthy than I: