Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Unfinished Symphony

"Steve, you have GOT to see X," my friend said.

He didn't say X, he said, "Battle Star Galactica." and later he said, "Lost" instead of X.

Battle Star Galactica was on a channel that my cable company didn't carry. So, he could tease me with what I was missing. And for a couple years I felt I was missing a lot.

The story was a little different from Lost. I missed out on the first few episodes. So, I figured it would be available in reruns, on Instant Netflix or something.

Before Lost finished, Battle Star Galactica did, and from what I heard online and from friends, it had a sort of politicized, lame ending. I heard they made it a metaphor for President Bush's foreign policy or something equally political.

Eye roll. The bottom line is that it didn't finish as well as it started.

About that time I started hearing people say about Lost, "how are the writers going to do it." The general consensus was that the series had written itself into a corner and getting out was seemingly impossible. And as it turned out, Lost ended poorly.

Neither of these are as incredibly lame as Dallas that resurrected Bobby by making the entire previous season just a dream, a horrible dream. (Happily, this did set up the best series finale ever a few years later when Newhart mocked Dallas.)

Mindful of the fact that I knew the endings of Battle Star Galactica and Lost would be unsatisfying, I decided never to watch any part of them. I feel a little good that I managed to skip the whole thing.

I've mentioned before that the absolute worst thing you can possibly read is a story that's in-between. If you pick up a story that's a horrid, no big loss. You figure out real quick that it sucks and then you put it down.

The longer it takes for you to find out the story is unsatisfactory, the worse it is. BSG & Lost cost me zero time. Thank you.

I mention this now, because I read a novel I really loved. And then I read its sequel. I really loved that, too. It was like when I burned through all the C. S. Forester Hornblower novels in a week or so. Or all the Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael novels that I read all of them in a month. I figured it would be this way with this series of six novels.

I was at the half-way point through the series when I got on Amazon to buy the fourth novel in the series. On a lark I read the reviews for the unread novels of this series. Then I noticed a whole passel of one-star reviews of the last novel.

If you'll allow a slight digression in service of my main point, I also want to remind you of the movie Coca Cola Kid. I never saw it when it came out in 1985. But when it came out on Instant Netflix, I gave it a watch for nostalgia's sake. It was a passable romantic comedy with a twist at the end. They just put these words in a graphic just before the ending credits: "A week later... while cherries blossomed in Japan the next World War began."

What? In? The? World?

Where did that come from? What did they mean by that?

The gist of my remarks is that endings are important.

And let me tell you now, I'll never, ever consume anything written by the idiot responsible for that
ending graphic. It completely changed my mild disappointment in a movie with a weak 3rd reel into cold fury. Nowadays, I have little else to think about the film but that.

By the way, my review of Coca Cola Kid: Passable story with a weak 3rd reel and a total WTF at the end. 0-stars. Avoid. You won't get those 98 minutes of your life back.

Where was I?

When you write a series of novels, it's important to finish strong. They say that the last chapter of each novel is where you sell the next novel. And in the case of a series of novels, the last one establishes your reputation. Goof up the ending of one series and you'll hurt your sales prospects for everything else you'll write.

In C. S. Forester's Hornblower series he starts out with Midshipman Mr. Hornblower being horribly mistreated. He barely survives, but he overcomes adversity. Whereas others may get the credit and reward, he makes friends of his peers and the reader. He falls in love with a girl, but she's married and he's in a loveless marriage. As Hornblower accomplishes more and more, his competence and faithfulness becomes impossible to ignore. Tragedy strikes and his wife dies, but it also clears the way for him to marry the girl he loves. He starts getting rewarded and recognized. Promotions follow and his career advances. When you get to the final Hornblower novel, he's Lord Admiral Hornblower, happily married, and living in a huge manor house.

All the prior hardships are forgotten and we feel our friend has received a well-deserved reward. And we regard Hornblower as a friend because he suffered so as a lad. If you make a character too perfect, the reader can easily hate him like Jim Rockford hates Lance White in the Rockford Files. The pattern is adversity and unfairness at the beginning of the series, tragedy in the middle, and contentment at the end.

Reverse this pattern, and you risk angering your readers so much that they start talking about the Coca Cola Kid.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Quarter Share

I've been reading a lot of SF lately. And this has included a lot of Libertarian military SF where aliens and space marines are duking it out in huge battles and such. And since it is Libertarian the villains are often as not venal guys such as you'll find inside the beltway running the Democrat and GOP parties.

If you haven't read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, you're unfamiliar with the pattern of political manipulators fighting against hard working businessmen who are just trying to create wealth. On the other hand, if you're breathing the typical cultursmog, you are quite familiar with the recurring trope of greedy corporations plotting to poison/kill/cheat their customers.

On the other hand, Quarter Share does none of the above. There's math in this space opera. And that makes it far more subversively libertarian than anything Ayn Rand ever preached.

Math? Subversive?

The story starts with the hero, Ishmael Horatio Wang. Yes, the hero has a name that's evocative of both Melville and C. S. Forester. I was almost put off by this, but I'm glad I didn't. The author lampshades this. Every time he introduces himself he says, "Call me Ishmael," and whoever he's talking to rolls his or her eyes. But the allusion to familiar sea stories should give you a good idea of the arc of this series of stories.

Quarter Share starts off with an 18 year old Ishmael suffering the accidental death of his mother. Since he lives on a "company planet" and he has no job, he is forced to leave. Instead of preaching about corporate evils, the author Nathan Lowell simply shows the company acting as if all it cares about is the bottom line. And this forces our young protagonist out of his mother's apartment and onto an interstellar freighter.

Since he has no training or connections, he starts out, like Midshipman Mr. Hornblower, at the bottom of pecking order. Things start out well for young Mr. Wang, because he knows how to make coffee and he shows initiative in the ships mess. He proceeds to work hard and shows a willingness to do the dirty jobs others wouldn't like.

He also has a tendency to think non-linearly and sees unexpected opportunities for trade. As a crewman, he can use his limited wages and limited mass allotment to make a few bucks on the side. His buddy, another quarter-share crewman happens to have the ability to sense what's abundant on the current planet they're visiting and what's rare on the next planet. Between the two of them they start making money on bigger and bigger deals. Before the book is done, the senior officers on the ship take notice.

One of the things you can see if you ignore Ayn Rand's preaching is that people in business are often pleasant to deal with, they make friends with their customers and vendors, and enjoy doing business with their friends. It is enjoyable to set up a trade where both parties come away better than they were beforehand. The process of dickering and haggling over price often seems like a negative sum game, but only if you're short-sighted. When you look at the larger picture, both parties are enriched when a trade can be negotiated.

Free trade creates wealth.

Quarter Share can be a little bit math heavy as Ish and Pip work out, say, the relative merits of shipping gemstones versus mushrooms. And that's not a problem. If you're going to succeed in life, you've got to be sharp enough to recognize a profitable opportunity when it presents itself. Or ways to make something valuable out of something nobody wants.

I highly recommend Quarter Share. Five stars.

Those more worthy than I: