Monday, May 4, 2015

A Most Readable Anthology

First, a wee disclosure. My review of Martin Shoemaker's story Unrefined may be colored by our friendship and mutual admiration of Indian food. That said, I found WotF v31 an enjoyable anthology of SF stories. More enjoyable than other SF anthologies I've read. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that most of the prose is by newbies who are more concerned with demonstrating their storytelling chops than by making some literary statement--but I digress.

"Switch" is a police procedural set in the near future about a drug called "switch." Imagine a drug that takes your normal Mark 1 Model A human and amplifies him by 10 or 100. Sounds good, right? Yet Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said, "the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man." And on this axis turns an excellent story about a cop investigating an illegal drug ring.

"The God Whisperer" is a fun little story of a suburban everyman who keeps a death-god as a pet. Be grateful your cat just pukes on your furniture next time you leave it home when you have to work late.

"Stars That Make Dark Heaven Light" is a story that explores the ecology of an alien world and the sociology of a struggling colony. Speaking of love it reminds us of the Bard who invited us to ponder, 'What a piece of work is a man!"

"When Shadows Fall" is a golden-age story that suggests that there are times when a Poet can manage that which Bankers and Generals cannot.

"A Revolutionary's Guide to Practical Conjuration" is a sly tale of a haunted book of magic and the revolutionary-naif who somehow manages to own it. When you sign a contract make sure you read the fine print.

"Twelve Minutes to Vinh Quang" is a most satisfying crime story that reminds us that some business is always personal.

"Planar Ghosts" is a story that takes place in one of those depressing post-apocalyptic settings where an underdog manages to lose everything but use his wits to win much more in the end.

"Rough Draft" is a story about an award winning SF writer who receives a draft of a sequel to his only award winning novel. Only problem is that he wrote it in a parallel universe. There's a lot of insight into SF writing, publishing, and fandom in this cute little story.

"Between Screens" is a story about a bunch of teenage thrill seekers who hack a galaxy-wide teleport network like the phone phreaks and joy riders of old. Joseph Stalin once said that when millions die it it a statistic and the story's young protagonist learns this first-hand.

"Unrefined" starts with a bang and follows a hard-pressed group of people through a difficult time. The physics is good--a necessary thing in a Hard SF story. But so is the human element. Mr. Shoemaker does a good job of evoking human emotion. I was made to care about the characters and their relationships in the story. Anyone familiar with project management and technical leadership in organizations will resonate with the protagonist's challenges and what he manages to accomplish.

"Half Past" is a bittersweet tale of anger, sadness, and magic that has a satisfying disclosure at its end.

"Purposes Made for Alien Minds" This is a gimmick story. Do you like iambic pentameme? Each sentence has five words. Its meter soon annoyed me.

"Inconstant Moon" is a story I first enjoyed many years ago. It could not be set in this time, so dated references to Johnny Carson and Apollo are OK. A beautiful night holds a terrifying portent.

"The Graver" is a dark story of grief and regret and the souls of lost loved ones.

"Wisteria Melancholy" bids us imagine psychological disorders manifesting themselves not with phobias, cutting, or delusions, but with superhero powers straight out of the X-Men. In this context the protagonist deals with the guilt he feels over losing his sister.

"Poseidon's Eyes" is a beautiful tale of a haunted village by the sea. Like "Switch" the story shows us the good and evil of every man amplified (in this case) by supernatural means.

OH MY. I was a little disappointed when I read this anthology because all of the illustrations were rendered in black and white and wished that I could see them in color. When I finished the book just now I discover to my delight that all of the illustrations are reprised in color at the end.

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.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Patriots Day

One of my more vivid memories of the post-Vietnam era was the angry cries of those who had recently given aid and comfort to our enemies during a time of "cold" war. They said, "How dare you question my patriotism." It became commonly repeated refrain, and "treason" became a meaningless word. Likewise, "patriotism" came to include behavior and advocacy counter to the national interest.

On the eve of "Patriot's Day" the leader of the free world said on television that ISIL is not Islamic. I do not know what he meant by those words. I'm not singling him out for criticism for so saying, because his two immediate predecessors have also arrogated to themselves the right to pontificate upon what Islam is or is not.

These events have inspired others to opine on the subject and I recommend Ian Tuttle's essay in National Review. In particular, he cites C. S. Lewis and his defense of the orthodox definition of the word "Christian."

Words, as Rush Limbaugh has asserted, have meanings. What El Rushbo does not say is that those meanings are just another partisan football. We leave that to George Orwell who posited the wide-scale demolition of language known as Newspeak whose purpose was to make disagreement with the regime unspeakable.

Or we can go back further to Lewis Carroll who wrote this exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:
'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said. 
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"' 
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected. 
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.' 
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

I think Carroll got it wrong, the question is not "which" is to be master, but "whom" shall be master. Modern rhetoric has often reduced itself to empty power games played by sophists. And this shifting of the meanings of words is mere sophistry.

The savages beheading people and flying airplanes into skyscrapers know precisely what they are and what they mean when they say "Islam." To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, we may call them Bad Islamists, but they are Islamists nonetheless. You may not like this. I know I certainly do not like it. But the facts will not become better through fuzzy thinking.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On Asymmetrical Conflict

Very few conflicts take place between identical twins.

Often the adversaries are mismatched in any of a number of ways. For instance, imagine a basketball team of short, suburban girls who go up against another team of tall, inner-city girls. Malcolm Gladwell described how the short, suburban girls managed to win using a zone defense devised by a soccer coach.

Gladwell goes on to describe how Davids can beat Goliaths without divine intervention.

In World War II, the Japanese had the best fighter aircraft flying. This is despite the fact that Americans freaking invented aviation. The American pilots soon learned that you never get into a turning fight with Zero. American planes were faster, more powerful, and better armored. We could take more punishment, but they could dish it out better. In many cases, the only smart move was to lay on that power and flee.

American aviation learned the strengths and weaknesses of Japanese planes and matched them against the different strengths and weaknesses of American planes. With that knowledge, American strategies were formulated to avoid situations where Japanese strengths hit American weaknesses, and sought out situations where Japanese weaknesses were matched against American strengths.

Most conflicts are asymmetrical, but we don't like to think of them that way. If heavily armed French knights come out to battle, they don't like to go against lightly armed English archers. Red jacketed imperial British infantry don't do as well against Yanks with Kentucky long rifles skulking about forests.

Vietnam and the "War on Terror" (a stupid term) are asymmetric conflicts with large organized armies going up against dispersed insurgencies. Whereas in Basketball everyone follows the same rules, the antagonists in these wars follow different rules.

Then there are wars of words.

It is infuriating when the other side doesn't follow the same rules you do. It feels like they're cheating, but they're just playing their strengths against your weaknesses.

Consider the situation where you've just made a very subtle point about something interesting. Let's say that you can appreciate what the Federation scientist, John Gill, was doing in the Star Trek episode "Patterns of Force." You agree that his intention was good and you may think that he was following the most efficient system of government ever devised.

"Hold it. That's the episode with Kirk wearing a Nazi uniform."

"Yeah, Hugo Boss could really design a sharp-looking uniform, couldn't he?"

"You're advocating Nazism! You want to murder Jews!"

"I did not say that."

"You antisemite, racist jerk!"

"I never said anything like that."


The exchange is rather silly, but it illustrates a point. I like to explore the boundary between truth and falsehood. What are the distinctions that make one form of collectivism acceptable versus unacceptable? Suppose a large man is quarreling with his girlfriend and he punches her out? Is he a mere thug to be expelled from society? Or might he have been incited to violence?

Any attempt to talk about this in an even-handed fashion runs the risk of offending the "deliberately obtuse." In my little Nazi exchange, I identify with the accused, not because I'm a Nazi sympathizer, but because when this has happened to me, I've made a terrible rhetorical mistake.

I've assumed the person making the accusation is ignorant or stupid. This is because it is kinder to think this than to think that the person is evil. Evil? It is evil to twist the meaning of another's words into something ugly and unrecognizable. And to do so knowingly.

Some people feed off outrage, and use bogus accusations to make themselves larger and to hurt their perceived enemies. In a world where everyone is busy, it's easy to ignore the nuanced argument, and just glom onto falsehoods: Steve admits he's a Nazi sympathizer. He said it himself, "I'm a Nazi sympathizer."

Therefore, when you say something and another person takes it the way you did not intent, ask if that person is being deliberately obtuse.

I think that reason and truth are useful rhetorical tools to increase my store of knowledge. I hold an old-fashioned notion that if we know more, we'll act better, and by understanding each other we'll get along better.

However, Mao said that truth flows from the barrel of a gun. Post-modernists do not believe in truth and regard language as a mere power game. Logic is just a tool of the patriarchy to oppress the downtrodden. And all that.

You might think this is bad, but it is a mere asymmetrical conflict between what Ancient Greeks would call realists and sophists. Don't get mad. Recognize they're playing by different rules--rules where a grammatico-historical hermeneutic of your words are irrelevant to how those words can be spun.

If you are dealing with a sophist, do not expect honesty--expect a power game. If you detect your interlocutor is deliberately misconstruing your point, here is my permission to call them an ignoramus.

My sainted philosophy teacher once told me that sometimes the only rational response to modern art is ridicule.

Same goes for sophists.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Art of Illiterates

After Labor Day in Grand Rapids, MI the "next big thing" is ArtPrize. I've commented on it before. This usually gets me thinking about art qua art. (And saying hifalutin words like "qua.") My wife remarked at breakfast this morning that one of the profs (who teaches movie-making) repeated this quote: "Film should be looked at straight on, it is not the art of scholars but of illiterates."

I believe the point he was trying to make was that film naturally puts few demands on the viewer.

Keep in mind that illiterates are not necessarily stupid. There have been some very clever people who never get around to learning to read or write.

Film, by presenting brute imagery and sound to the consumer, is consumed without necessarily engaging the higher cognitive functions.

I suppose this means the screenwriter must strive to represent the mythic or iconic in her screenplay, because that is how it will be best consumed.

Conversely, the author of Russian novels realizes her readers have strong arms and great upper-body strength to lug around those long, heavy tomes. The author of Victorian novels realizes her readers have long attention spans. And the contemporary author expects her readers read at at least a sixth-grade level.

The gallery viewer of walls-sized canvases brings different expectations to the art than the comic book reader who sees virtually the same thing.

When you produce art, there's more than just "the medium is the message." Each medium brings a different audience.

The different audience brings different eyes and ears to the work depending upon their expectations. We all should work to understand our audience and work with their expectations as opposed to against them.

There is a time for the mathematics lecture that you can find in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. And there's a time for breathless action scenes as you can find in Larry Correia's Monster Hunters International. Your job is to sense who is buying your books and produce the time they are expecting.

Apology: i fear you might draw the wrong conclusion from my choice of pictures from Roy Lichtenstein and Tony Abruzzo. Though I question the intelligence and common sense of those who spend big bucks to fill modern art galleries, I do NOT want to demean any comic book readers and intended no slight toward Mr. Abruzzo by juxtaposing his art with a derivative copy.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Get On The Train

I had lunch with one of my more successful friends who spoke of writing and what editors look for. He related that you want to get readers INTO the story and keep them there.

There is a real sense that reading transports the reader from where they are to where the story is. The reader finds a comfortable chair in her study, begins reading, and finds herself hurtling between Earth and Mars.

At least this is what the writer is trying to do and the editor is looking for.

It is painful to give up on a story. It is also painful to stick with a story that sucks. When you hear me gripe about throwing William Faulkner against the wall, you know it was as painful for me as it was for Mr. Faulkner. And it's more painful when I get to the end of a miserable novel and say, "I won't get that time back."

That's why editors see themselves as gatekeepers. They seek to spare the reading public pain. This should not be mere altruism, because readers who buy one book from an author will look to buy more books from him/her. A successful imprint will spare readers pain. A superior imprint will establish a reputation of consistently bringing readers prose they want to read.

I have seen that the best stories define a world alien to the reader and puts her in that world. And I'm not just thinking of Mars or Mordor, but of the way Tom Clancy put you inside the Reagan Military Industrial Complex, or the way John Grisham puts you inside a high powered legal practice.

OK, sounds good. How do you do that?

And that's where my conversation with my friend took me. He related three things. I'll do an imperfect job of representing them, so bear with me if you've heard them elsewhere:

  • Description/Setting
  • Character/Emotion
  • Plot/Ideas

One of the best compliments I've received in my writers group was, "I felt I was there." I described a scene where Mycroft Holmes is sitting on a lonely Victorian train platform a little nervous because the last train for London should, but might not, be along shortly and was late.

At every moment of our lives we are inundated with sensa. Millions of details impinge upon us, and somehow we ignore all of them save for the sound of wind rustling in the trees, bicycle tires crunching on gravel, and a bird squawking in the distance. Light filtering through those trees dapple cars, tents, and travel trailers while children call out to their siblings.

The writer selects those details most significant to the story and paints them with words. It takes a good grasp of the language, an awareness of how perception works, and an artistic sense to guide what details to include or exclude.

The purpose of this work is to take the reader out from in front of her computer and into P J Hoffmaster State Park. If you were there two paragraphs ago, I've succeeded. If you're someplace else next time you read "It was a dark and stormy night," that writer has succeeded.

Then there is character and/or emotion. We are people who are all the same and we're all different. Others attract us and fix our attention with their beauty, whereas others are more like the cobra who paralyzes his prey. I used to wish someone would kill Darth Vader in the very next scene, until I realized that he was as important to the story as a worthy antagonist as the young hero opposing him. The similarities within us to elements within Jane Porter or Tarzan attract us to them. The differences hold our interest as we wonder what it would be like to be raised by the apes and consort with animals. Or to love and marry an English Lord who is prone to savage violence, yet nonetheless civilized.

The characters you can devise and populate your stories with is one thing, but the acid test is making them real to the reader. I say to avoid superlatives, because in our lives we encounter superior people, but we never meet THE BEST Olympic high jump champion (because he's at the track practicing). Yet we encounter fellas who can jump higher than we imagine possible. And that superiority is (in real life) the result of talent, learned skills, and relentless practice.

I find it most annoying when a character is described with certain attributes useful to the story, but without any of the antecedents of that attribute. You're the Empire's greatest swordsman. And you're the Empire's greatest pilot. And you'r the Empire's greatest Admiral. So, how much time do you spend in the gym practicing? Or on the flight simulator? Or writing memoranda justifying the next quarter's budget?

The reader must find your characters and their interactions believable. If two women want to sleep with the same man, they are likely to feel some hostility toward one another.  Or if they are contending for the same promotion at work. Is the subordinate unusually loyal to his boss? Maybe the reader should know the boss saved his life in Afghanistan. Or showed up at the hospital when he had cancer surgery.

This requires the writer to be a keen observer of psychology.

Finally, there is plot or ideas. This is what I love about an Agatha Christie novel. Each mystery is a puzzle story for the reader to figure out. Is Lord Peter Whimsey the most interesting detective? No. Is Harriet Vane a bit too bitchy for my tastes? Yes. Ah, but look at how they work together to break a Playfair cipher? Some readers are as crazy as I am and we will eat it up when Neal Stephenson interrupts his novel to write a chapter of mathematics text. Note that many more readers will skip this chapter like I skipped twenty pages of John Galt sermonizing. The idea must be interesting to most people, not just crazy people like me.

If you've got a "wow" idea you're at risk of putting that idea ahead of the story.

If you are a Social Justice Warrior, you may want The Message to take priority over story. That's your right, and I'm sure lots of editors out there will oblige you. But keep in mind there are politicians, talk-show hosts and reporters out there better suited to bringing out cutting-edge propaganda.

Since I'm none of the above, I want to give the story priority. And I'll seek out editors of whatever politics who'll put story over message. It's important that you do not insist too much on political agreement, because only totalitarians insist that everything is political. Our shared humanity is more interesting than today's two-minute hate.

Whatever the idea, the writer has to be an expert in it so that s/he can capture the details that other experts will expect and that non-experts will subconsciously sense are missing. You can fake it a little, but if you get caught faking it, you risk alienating the expert-readers who would otherwise promote your work with great passion.

They say you shouldn't mix your metaphors and so far we've had this metaphor of the train where you want to entice readers to get on and make them want to stay on for the ride of their lives.

But I've been talking as much about what you the writer want to do as much as you the reader want to experience. And I think that you-the-writer should have a different metaphor when you are thinking about your skill-set. In American baseball, the pitcher can throw the ball in different ways. There's what's called a fastball where the ball is thrown hard and straight and fast. The ball must be past the batter before he can get the bat around to hit it. Then there's the curve, it's a slower ball that bends in flight. The batter swings and misses because the ball "broke" in an unexpected direction. Finally, there is the change-up, a ball that appears to be a fast ball, but is much slower than the batter expects. The batter swings before the ball gets to the plate. (There are other pitches, but we'll ignore them for this metaphor.)

A baseball pitcher won't get to the major leagues without mastering at least one of these pitches. He'll be able to consistently get batters out if he can master two of these pitches. And if he can master three of these pitches, he stands a good chance of being a hall-of-famer.

You, gentle writer, should improve what you do best--be it description, character, or plot, but you should also be aware of, and try to improve those other attributes of writing that bring a reader into the story and keep her there.

Those more worthy than I: