TT: Elegant and Ultra Cool

May 28, 2015

JANE:  Well, Alan, we’ve been chatting about the ripple effect of the “Lord of the Rings” novels.  We’ve talked about Hobbits and Wizards.  Now, how about elves?

ALAN: Indeed – how about elves? Elves are fascinating and very important in the unfolding of the stories.

Young Wood Elves (by Jane)

Young Wood Elves (by Jane)

JANE: These days, I’d say that elves are the most popular of the races of Middle Earth.  How were they seen during the Summer of Love and the novels’ first flush of mass popularity?

ALAN: I’m not sure I know how to answer this. I don’t remember any of the races of Middle Earth (other than the hobbits, of course) as being particularly inspirational.

I think the current feelings about elves and dwarves (and even orcs!) derive far more from Peter Jackson’s movies than they do from the books.

JANE: I’d have to disagree with that.  Elves have been very popular for a long time.  A good example comes from role-playing games and fiction derived from them where they are (based on a very informal survey) among the most popular characters.

 Elves are cool, beautiful, and get all the advantages of long lives, but never look old.  There are all sorts of “flavors” of elves: high elves (like Galadriel and her kin), wood elves (like the ones Bilbo meets in The Hobbit), and even dark elves.

ALAN: I’m not a role-player, so I’m not familiar with dark elves. What are they?

JANE: I’m not sure where they originated, but I first encountered them via AD&D.  Dark elves (also called Drow) have night-black skin, silvery hair, and live underground.  They practice dark arts (of course) and are often skilled in stealth and assassination.  They were originally introduced as antagonists, but they were too popular to stay that way for long.

I gave up on the AD&D gaming system long ago, so my knowledge is limited.  However, if what I keep seeing on book covers is any indication, the Dark Elf is alive and more popular than ever.

ALAN: Ah, I see. That would definitely add an extra dimension to the character of an elf.

Down here in Middle Earth itself, elves really have made an indelible impression. I once had an elf on one of my training courses. In “real life” he was a computer system administrator, but he’d volunteered as an extra and he’d been cast as an elf because, damnit, he was an elf. He was tall and slim and beautiful, he had long straight blond hair and there was an undeniable elegance about his body language. He was utterly thrilled about the whole thing, of course and I’m sure that for him it was a life-changing experience.

JANE: That’s really neat.  How did you find out?  Did he come in and introduce himself as an elf?

ALAN: No – I always ask the students to introduce themselves to me and to the rest of the class (it helps to break the ice), and when it was his turn, he just told me about his computer background and why he was in the course. Trying to make conversation, I said, “Gosh, you look just like an elf. You really should be in the Lord of the Rings films.” He smiled and told me that actually he was in the movie. He said that if I looked closely and didn’t blink, I’d see him as one of the elf warriors who fought at Helm’s Deep. Everyone in the class was very impressed!

JANE:   He must have been very pleased.  At Bubonicon one year, we had two cosplayers who were such magnificent elves it was hard to believe they weren’t the real thing.   They turned out to be brother and sister – Jacob and Jennifer – from the southern part of New Mexico.

As an aside, Jacob also did a marvelous Jareth from Labyrinth a few years later, and Vash the Stampede (from the anime Trigun, as well).  Peter Jackson probably would have cast him in a heartbeat.

ALAN: I’m sure he would! He never misses a good opportunity like that.

JANE: To be honest, though, while I visually liked Peter Jackson’s elves very, very much, I did not care for how they were presented otherwise.  Emotionally, they were more Vulcans than elves.  I re-read the books after seeing the movies and confirmed that Tolkien’s elves – even the High Elves – were fond of song and dance, of picnics and teasing.  The ethereal creatures who floated through the movies demonstrated none of those personality traits.

ALAN: Perhaps Peter Jackson was feeding off popular culture as well as off the books. From what you said before about role-playing games, there’s obviously been a lot of thought put in to the way elves are supposed to look and behave. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Jackson had tapped into this. He always seems to have his finger firmly on the pulse of the various sub-cultures that we collectively refer to as fandom. And he’s a big fan himself, of course.

JANE: I hadn’t thought of that, but I bet you’re right.  I could see fans blending Vulcans and elves without even being conscious of it.

ALAN: In terms of defining the character of the elves in the popular imagination, I think that the archetypal elf is Legolas. And Orlando Bloom, the actor who played him in the movies, gave a definitive performance.  When The Return of the King premiered in Wellington, the whole city went mad. There was a huge parade through the city with the cast and crew of the movie having pride of place. Orlando Bloom was particularly prominent, waving enthusiastically to everyone and obviously having the time of his life. A stunningly beautiful elf lady in the crowd was spotted holding up a sign that said “De-Bloom Me Orlando!”

JANE: Oh…  That’s made me laugh…

Y’know, it’s funny you’d say that Legolas is the “archetypal” elf.  He’s certainly the most prominent elf in the novels – being the only elf in the Fellowship.  However, if I’ve got my facts straight, he’s not a High Elf, he’s a Wood Elf, son of the hard-drinking, avidly partying elf king who locks up the Dwarves in The Hobbit.  Do I have that right?

ALAN: Yes you do – Thranduil is the ruler of the Wood Elves in Mirkwood and Legolas is his son. Thranduil sent Legolas to represent the Wood Elves at the Council of Elrond as a result of which Legolas found himself a member of the Fellowship that set out to destroy the One Ring.

JANE: If so, the snooty High Elves would be very disturbed that you see Legolas as “archetypal,” since they’d probably see him as a roistering “country cousin,” son of a king or not.

ALAN: You are probably right – but in both the books and the movies we see more of Legolas than we do of any other elf, and it is that prominence that made me think of him as archetypal. There’s something cold and distant about the High Elves. We never really come to know Elrond or Galadriel in the same way that we know Legolas.

JANE: We don’t – either in the books or the movies – although I will restate that they are far less cold and distant in the books.  And there must be something good about them, since Bilbo retires among them, and Sam – who is the most sensible character in all the Lord of the Rings – is very taken with them.

We’ve given elves a lot of attention.  I can hear someone hammering at the door, demanding his people be given a fair share.  So, next time, how about Dwarves?

Avoid or Anticipate?: The Problem of Series

May 27, 2015

Hi, Folks…  I just got in from Utah yesterday, and my animals and garden are hollering for attention.  (Jim is not hollering, because he went with me.)  I’ll wait to write about our trip for next week.

Three of My Series

Three of My Series

Meanwhile, here’s something I wrote in advance.  It’s an update of a piece of the same title that I wrote for Tor.com in 2008.

Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve noticed a funny thing.  I’ve had close on twenty-five novels published since late 1994 when my first novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls, came out.  During that time, no one has ever come up to me and heartily thanked me for writing a stand-alone novel.

Seriously.  You’d think someone would have done so, given the lack of respect that series, especially fantasy series, get.  But no one ever has.

Although people tend to think of me as a “series writer,” I’ve actually written quite a lot of stand-alone fiction, both long and short.   There have been plenty of opportunities for people to praise me for writing just that one novel.  However, usually the response is the opposite.  When I say, “No.  I don’t have any plans to write a sequel to Child of a Rainless Year” (or whichever book is under discussion), I immediately hear why I need to write more about those people and that place.

By contrast, while I’ve never been praised for writing a stand-alone, I’ve had a lot of requests for sequels – and not only to novels, but to short fiction as well.  When I finished the Wolf Series (which starts with Through Wolf’s Eyes and ends with Wolf’s Blood) I had copious e-mails asking if I was really, really done.  Now, eight years later, not a month has gone by without a request for more about Firekeeper, Blind Seer, Derian, and all the rest.

Some kind folks even pointed out minor elements I had left open.  I felt genuine appreciation that these numerous someones could put that much energy into picking apart something I’d written.  However, I also pointed out that, short of blowing up the world and turning out the lights, there is no way to absolutely, categorically end a series.

So it seems that readers like Fantasy and SF series.  Yet, apparently, the fastest way to fall from grace is to write one.  Reviewers sniff.  Books in series seem to have a lower shot at award nominations.  Later books in a series seem not to get reviewed as often – although I think this last is changing.

Why, then, are Fantasy and SF series the girl everyone wants to date, but no one wants to take home to mother?

Here a few thoughts on why, followed by my own approach to avoiding these pitfalls.

Fantasy and SF series are too often an excuse for writing one novel that spans several volumes.  Unlike Mysteries or Thrillers, which have a set goal, Fantasy and SF series can go on and on without closure.

Why did this become acceptable?  Partly because, when more complex Fantasy and SF stories began to be told, the market simply wasn’t ready for Fat Books.  Lord of the Rings is one story.  So are the first five Chronicles of Amber (and the second set, too).  But in the age of the skinny paperback these complex stories had to be split up, and readers became conditioned to the “weak middle book,” lots of repetition, and all the other things that can make series weak.

Another problem is the time lag between books in a series.  I know that I almost didn’t read the second Chronicles of Amber because I’d noted a five year lapse between the copyright dates of volume four and five of the first set.  When an excited friend called me to tell me that there was more Amber, my reply was “I’ll wait.”  (Then because of a camping trip, I didn’t wait, but that’s neither here nor there).

Then there are the books that become a series, but were never intended to be such.  Some of these work out very well.  Others read like what they are – an attempt to capitalize on an unexpected success, but showing that the author really lacks the fire and organization to make subsequent books live up to that first golden one.

I was very aware of these pitfalls when I started the Firekeeper Saga (aka the Wolf Books) – which was my first project I planned as a series.

(Aside: Changer was not planned to have a sequel.  I was open to the possibility, even had ideas in mind, but it was not sold as part of a series.  By contrast, the Firekeeper Saga was conceived and purchased as a series.)

To deal with the first part of the problem, I decided to take one of my favorite mystery series: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels as a model.  In each of these novels, Peter has a problem to solve: a body in a bathtub or whatever.  While he solves that, he also must deal with personal challenges: unresolved romantic attachments, post-traumatic stress disorder, his relationship with his immediate family.  By the end of the novel, we know who the body in the bathtub was, but the personal problems may or may not be resolved.

I like this approach.  Although my novels aren’t murder mysteries, I try to pose myself a question at the start of each one, a problem that will be resolved by the end.  This isn’t always easy, and I don’t think I quite managed with the end of Wolf Hunting but, overall, I’m happy with what I did.

I tried the same tactic with the “Breaking the Wall” series and my new “Artemis Awakening” series.  In both cases, I was somewhat handicapped by the fact that Powers Beyond My Control insisted that the novels be shorter than the Firekeeper books.  For the “Breaking the Wall” books, I managed by giving the problem a tighter focus.  However, for the even shorter “Artemis Awakening” books, I had no choice but to make some serious changes in my previous series format.

One change I made was limiting myself to two point-of-view characters for Artemis Awakening.  (By contrast, Through Wolf’s Eyes had at least three major and several lesser.)  Another change was that I had to leave one major plot element – a certain door – unresolved.

For those of you who have read Artemis Awakening, I promise you’ll get the answer to where that door leads in Artemis Invaded.

On the author’s side of the equation, the problem of delay between volumes is solved by applying fingers to keyboard and tail bone to chair.  And working – hard.

However, the author is not in sole control of when a book will come out.  Even if she turns her manuscript in on time, scheduling is in the hands of Someone Else.

As an aside:  I’ve talked to several self-published authors.  Although they have somewhat more control over scheduling, wild cards (health problems, complications over some element in producing the book itself) can mess up even the best intentions.  In fact, since most self-publishing operations narrow down to one person, a problem with that one person can lead to more, not fewer delays…

Most of my work has been traditionally published.  Although release dates have varied, I will say this: I’ve missed one deadline.  That was when my father died.  Even then, I was only six weeks late turning in the manuscript.  I really try not to disappoint my readers.

So…   How do you feel about series?  Avoid or anticipate?

Also, any questions about the complexities of writing series?  I’ve had a request from a “ghost” reader of these Wanderings that I talk more about how I approach it…  I’d love to include your questions, too.

FF: No Real Theme. Sorry!

May 22, 2015

This week my reading has been all over the place…

A reminder… The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

Another Stark Landscape

Another Stark Landscape

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones.  Audiobook.  I really enjoyed this.  Christopher’s growing realization as to who he is and what consequences are doesn’t automatically make him a “nice child.”  The transformation is a lot more subtle and a lot more interesting.

The Hunt for the Big Bad Wolf by E.M. Tippets.  The third book of Tippets’ series which began with Someone Else’s Fairytale continues being more about “relationships” than romance. This is a plus, as far as I’m concerned.  The mystery/crime plot was well-handled, with an interesting resolution.

In Progress:

Bluefeather Fellini by Max Evans.  I picked this up on impulse.  It’s episodic, almost like novellas woven together.  I’m currently on the battlefields of WWII.  Scary.  There has also been love, sorrow, discovery, friendship, and obsession.  And some gorgeous descriptive writing.

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert.  I’m on a panel at Conduit this weekend on Dune.  I decided I wanted to remind myself how “Dune the next generation” progressed.

Conrad’s Fate by Diana Wynne Jones.  Audiobook.  I’d seriously intended to move on to the second book in the much-discussed Southern Reach triology as soon as a copy became available on audio, but I gave into the lure of watching Christopher as a teenager.

Also:

I started Ursula K. Le Guin’s “rendition” (her word, not mine) of Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and The Power of the Way.  Reading slowly, as such deserves.

TT: The Hippness Factor of Wizards

May 21, 2015

JANE: So, Alan,  I’ve been enjoying talking with you about the impact Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” novels had – not only their decided impact on Fantasy fiction, but their larger cultural impact.  Can you give me another example?

Wizards Rock!

Wizards Rock!

ALAN: I most certainly can. We had a hippie community in England that called itself Gandalf’s Garden. It ran a head shop and published a magazine that emphasised mysticism over materialism and which claimed that meditation was to be preferred over drugs!

JANE: Wait…  Both a head shop and preferring meditation over drugs?  There’s a disconnect here…

ALAN: Perhaps head shop is the wrong word, I was using it in the generic sense of filling your head with new ideas based on spiritualism and occultism (and probably a lot of other -isms as well). Gandalf’s Garden was a craft shop and drop-in centre with some accommodation for the homeless and lots of honey-flavoured tea. The magazine only lasted for six issues but, nevertheless, it still managed to attract articles by Joan Baez, Spike Milligan and the poets Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell.

JANE: Wow!  That’s a great list of contributors.  I like craft shops…  Too much!  Sounds as if I would have found much to enjoy.

ALAN: Another example of the impact the books had came from the music of the time. Marc Bolan and a young man who insisted on calling himself Peregrine Took (after the hobbit of the same name, of course) formed an avant-garde, psychedelic underground rock band called Tyrannosaurus Rex. I’m sure you can guess what kind of songs they sang.

JANE: Uh…  Hobbitty folk songs?  I’m guessing, because I’m more familiar with Marc Bolan’s later work.

ALAN: Their songs all had a magical/mystical feel to them, heavily influenced by generic fantasy tropes. For example, their 1968 album Prophets, Seers & Sages: The Angels of the Ages has a track called “Aznageel The Mage.”  I can easily imagine bumping into Aznageel at the Prancing Pony in Bree…

JANE: I’m not familiar with the album.  We did discuss the impact of Fantasy on rock music in general a while back, and this fits in beautifully into that pattern.  But Marc Bolan didn’t stay with the hobbits, did he?

ALAN: No, not quite.  Later in his career, after Peregrine Took left, Marc Bolan re-invented himself as a glam rocker and changed the name of the band to T. Rex. He made a fortune, lived the rock star life to the full, and died in a car crash, a victim of his own success. There were those who claimed he had sold out…

JANE: Ah, but as the band name shows, he envisioned himself as a carnivorous dinosaur, not a hobbit.  He just followed his muse.

Going back to your mention of Gandalf’s Garden.  I’m not sure I would have found the use of his name an incentive to attend a place, even a garden.

Gandalf was one of my biggest problems with the “Lord of the Rings” story.  He was so very full of himself.  He put other people in danger.  Vanished inconveniently.  Refused to die and leave people alone but, instead, did the whole Jesus resurrection thing…  And then at the end of the series, he has the gall to admit he’s had one of the major magical rings all along.

It took me a long time – and actually a very sound comment from the audience by a fellow named Joe Jackson, during a panel at Bubonicon – to show me Gandalf as many others see him: the unhappy political leader who must send others into danger.  Next time I read the books, I read them with that in mind and I felt more sympathy for Gandalf.

ALAN: That’s a good point. When I read The Hobbit, like you, I was always unhappy about the way Gandalf deserted Bilbo and the Dwarves just when they needed him most. I was very pleased to see that Peter Jackson obviously felt the same way because in the movie of The Hobbit we learn just why Gandalf had to go, where he went and how important his journey was. Also, Gandalf does not leave with an easy conscience. He clearly feels guilty about the necessity.

JANE: Good for Peter Jackson.  I suppose it was a lot to expect Gandalf to be everywhere at once, but he certainly had a gift for vanishing and leaving others to carry the burden.  I really felt he was stupid to go see Saruman as he did, even though there had to have been evidence that his old friend wasn’t quite right in the head.

However, having Saruman imprison Gandalf did solve the problem Tolkien had created for himself by creating a very powerful wizard who knew a huge amount of both history and magic, and had influence with just about everyone.  As when earlier in the series, Gandalf falls when fighting the Balrog, it gets him out of the way, so more vulnerable characters will be center stage.

ALAN: I like the idea that Gandalf could make mistakes. There’s something terribly tedious about infallibility – all the literary tensions disappear. I hesitate to say that his errors of judgement and moments of weakness made him more human, because human was the very last thing that he was. But it certainly made him easier to identify with.

JANE: I’ll go with the fact that these mistakes do make Gandalf easier to identify with.  However, it’s often overlooked that neither Gandalf nor his fellow wizards are human.  They belong to a race called the Maiar, and were sent to Middle Earth as part of the struggle against the forces of Sauron.

It may be because Gandalf is aware that he and Saruman’s (I really hate how similar the names “Saruman” and “Sauron” are!  They perpetually confused me when I was a child.) entire reason for being on Middle Earth is to fight Sauron, that he cannot believe Saruman would fall and go over to their enemy.

ALAN: The Maiar can be seen as angels and we know that angels can fall. I’ve always seen Saruman as a Lucifer-like figure. It helps, of course, that Lucifer means the bringer of light and Saruman was the white wizard. White is the colour of a bright light (remember the tremendous glare when Merry and Pippin encountered the re-born Gandalf the White in Fangorn Forest?). I don’t want to read too much into the parallel because Tolkien always denied that he was writing allegory, but nevertheless he was a deeply religious man and this must have had an effect on his view of the world. Saruman’s treachery would be a natural story development for him

So I didn’t find it nearly as surprising as Gandalf did.

JANE: Hmm… I can certainly see your parallel, although Lucifer’s besetting sin was Pride.  Saruman’s going over to Sauron seems to have been from fear and a desire to be on the winning side.

Gandalf, by contrast, never shows Luciferian pride, even when the power of becoming Gandalf the White is so intense that he is distant and even confused when he first re-encounters his friends.

I’d love to go on and talk more about the influence of the Lord of the Rings novels but, although Middle Earth is fascinating, my duties on this Earth beckon.  I’ll save my musings and questions for next time!

Talking About Colonoscopy

May 20, 2015

Reminder!  This coming weekend I’m Guest of Honor at Conduit, in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Hope to see some of you there…

A week ago, I had my first colonoscopy.  This is one of those coming-of-age rites that – like most coming-of-age rites, if you think about it – most of those subjected to it don’t really look forward to participating in.  What they want is to have it over and done with.

Prep Instructions Day by Day

Prep Instructions Day by Day

In my case, though, I was sort of lucky.  Not only had Jim had the test before me, I’d been designated driver, twice, for one of our friends.  So I’d had a chance to get about as close to the procedure as you can without doing it yourself.  That actually helped.

So I decided that – even though some of  the details aren’t exactly pretty – to share what having a colonoscopy is like so that when it’s your turn, you can say, “Hey, I’ve heard it’s really not that bad.”

A colonoscopy actually starts with the prep.  This starts five days before the test with going off drugs you can’t take because they’re blood thinners.  (No worries.  You’ll be given a list.)

In my case, the only one that really affected my lifestyle was aspirin.  Aspirin is my painkiller of choice.  This spring my allergies are rampant.  Going for five days without being able to dull a headache wasn’t fun, but it was manageable.  Hot drinks do a lot for sinus headaches.

Two days before the test, certain slowly-digested foods are eliminated: nuts, seeds, and corn.  The list I was given didn’t clarify whether things like peanut butter were okay, but I decided to play it safe. I’d been thinking about making humus for our Sunday night game, but that has tahini, which is sesame paste.  This part of the prep did make me realize how many nuts and seeds are in my routine diet…

The day before the test is when the big challenge comes.  It starts with a clear liquid-only diet.  Again, you’ll be given a list.  It will include sodas like ginger ale and sprite, clear fruit juices, and chicken or beef broth.  It should also include jello and popsicles.  However, what color you get is really important.  No red.  No purple.  No blue.  No pink or orange.  However, yellow and green are fine.

Coffee and tea were included.  Yay!  I don’t take cream in my coffee, so I had no worries there.  And life with coffee is much easier.

My test was on a Tuesday, so the weekend before, Jim and I did some thoughtful shopping.  I’m not a huge fan of apple juice, but we found a nice juice blend that was light and clear and tasted more or less like peach.  We bought three boxes of jello: lemon, lime, and sour apple.

I like to cook, so I made my own chicken broth, making sure to add vegetables for flavor, but no herbs that might mar the “clear” nature.  I chilled it and removed every spec of fat (as well as the meat and the veggies, of course).  The end result had lots of flavor and even a bit of body.

The night before, I ate a snack before going to bed, hoping to stave off the inevitable blood sugar crash.

Monday morning it was tough not having chocolate with my coffee, but I substituted lime jello to pump up the sugar.  I managed to do my e-mail and even write.  The piece about toads in the pond was written then.  I had my usual Monday chat with my friend Sally and think I was at least moderately coherent.

Then late Monday afternoon came and with it the big challenge: drinking a gallon of Golytely as quickly as possible.  Again, the instructions I was given were a little vague.  They said to drink a full “glass” every twenty minutes until the stuff was gone.  They did not specify the size “glass.”

Let’s put this in perspective.  A gallon is 128 ounces.  Divided by the standard eight ounce drinking glass, that’s sixteen glasses.  Now divide that by three (as in every twenty minutes or three times an hour).  You come up with 5.33 (repeating).  Or, in other words, you’ll be at this for the next five or so hours!

I decided I wanted to be done sooner.  I did some experimenting and found I could get twelve ounces of water down pretty easily.  I marked that on a sixteen-ounce tumbler and resolved to try for at least twelve ounces, sixteen if possible.

I started at promptly at 4:00 p.m.  The Golytely tasted a bit like Gatorade: sweetish with fake lemon over salt.  I downed sixteen ounces, pressed the timer, and picked up my book.  I was reading Dune, which seemed ironically appropriate.  Twenty minute later, I downed another sixteen ounces, grabbed the timer and headed for the bathroom.

If you’ve ever read a somewhat old-fashioned novel, you’ve encountered the expression: “His bowels turned to water.”  Usually that means to experience complete, crippling terror.  No terror was experienced, but the rest is a really accurate description.  The instruction sheet had said: “…will make you go to the bathroom many times and cause diarrhea.”  That’s the understatement of the century.  This wasn’t diarrhea; it was transformation.

Because the earlier prep and liquid diet had already cleared the system out a good deal, it wasn’t even really uncomfortable.

By drinking sixteen ounces at a time, I managed to get the worst of this ordeal over in about three hours.  I found that if I drank even a little fruit juice after each glass, it took the salty-sweet taste of the Golytely away.  The bowels-to-water thing abated about an hour after the last glass of Golytely, although it didn’t go away completely for a couple more hours.

I actually began to feel a little hungry, which was both a pleasure – I no longer felt as overfull – and annoying, since the closest to something solid I could have was jello.

A few words about jello.  I’ve heard people say that they can’t eat jello after this.  I won’t go that far.  I found it a relief to be able to convince my stomach, even briefly, that it was getting filled.  One of the things I found toughest about the clear liquid diet was that so much of what was recommended was sweet.  I have a moderate sweet tooth.  I like chocolate, but usually dark.  I prefer fresh fruit to pies or jams.  For me the sour apple jello was salvation because it lacked the overt sweetness of the lemon or lime.

By bedtime, the worst of the digestive upset was over.  I wasn’t even that hungry, which surprised me.

The final ordeal was going without any liquids from midnight on.  This was a bit tough because even at night I tend to drink a lot.  (Remember, I live in a very dry climate; also, my allergy drugs contribute to a dry mouth.)  However, I wasn’t going to quit so close to the goal.

Please note…  Going without water was the final ordeal.  The actual procedure was a breeze.  Jim drove me over to the clinic.  I had gotten the earliest possible appointment and so there was no delay.  Everyone was very kind and seemed to understand that by now I had reason to be a bit muddleheaded.

I’d been worried about feeling embarrassed – especially when I learned the procedure was being done by a male doctor.  I mean, we’re indoctrinated not to let strangers see certain parts of us and this was a real violation of that taboo.  I was surprised by how I didn’t feel embarrassed at all.  This wasn’t because of cool, detached professionalism either.  Jim and I chatted with just about everyone, from the nurse trainee who was observing through the anesthesiologist and the doctor.

I think it was because everyone took for granted what was being done, so no one felt at all strange.  It’s embarrassment that causes embarrassment most of the time.

Eventually, IV in one arm, covered in nice, warm blankets (right out of the dryer), I was wheeled to the procedure room.  I felt a little weird when I realized that, although I’d never ridden on a gurney before, I felt as if I had, because a camera-eye view of such is a routine part of medical dramas on TV.

In the procedure room, a pop piece I didn’t know was playing in the background.  As it was finishing, the anesthesiologist came in…  I should clarify here that I was part of a pilot program using anesthesia rather than the more usual sedation.  As I’d never had either, I can’t really tell you how they compare.

The anesthesiologist asked me to roll onto my left side, warned me that the blood pressure cuff would tighten almost painfully, and told me she’d be starting her part as soon as the doctor was there.

David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” came on the sound system.  I was musing about the irony of that as the blood pressure cuff eased off.  I heard one of the nurses greeting the trainee nurse, reading off my name and identifying information…

And then I heard Jim’s voice.  For a brief moment, I wondered if the procedure had been called off and he was being told why.  Then I opened my eyes and realized I was in the recovery room.  Jim was talking to the nurse.  By the time they had me sitting upright, the doctor came in to tell me all had gone well.  No polyps.  Come back in ten years…

I started tearing up then.  Why?  Because there’s an alternate universe in which someone I loved didn’t die of colon cancer.  If he’d had this test…  But then, we never know.

Nothing is certain except that we can make choices…  I might get hit by a bus tomorrow, but I won’t have let fear – of embarrassment, of discomfort, of the unknown – have kept me from doing a small thing that removed one unknown.

And maybe, someday, even those who get bad news will know there are better treatment options.  That’s why I contributed a new story (“Knights Errand”) to the anthology Fantasy for Good, the full proceeds of which are donated to the Colon Cancer Alliance.

And now, when it’s your turn, you can say, “Hey.  It really isn’t so bad.  Jane says so.”  And if you’ve already had the test, don’t give into the urge to dramatize…  It really isn’t too bad – especially when you consider the alternative – is it?

Plowing through Dunes, and Jones

May 15, 2015

This week’s reading has had some odd contrasts.  On the one side Frank Herbert’s Dune.  On the other, more Diana Wynne Jones.

A reminder… The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

Double for Arrakas, aka New Mexico

Double for Dune, aka New Mexico

And I always enjoy hearing what you’re reading.  Sometimes, I then go read it myself!

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones.  Amorality rather than immorality is brilliantly illustrated in the character of Luke.  Although technically “middle grade,” such themes – and DWJ’s usually brilliant look at the contradictions of family dynamics – makes this a book for all ages.

Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones.  Audiobook.  This one was fun but it also seemed like the first part of a novel.  Does anyone know if there is a Part Two?

Dune by Frank Herbert.  Fifty years after its original publication, this book holds up, largely because of its brilliant world-building and sensitive characterization.  At the time it was written, the desire for “strong female characters” was hardly being discussed, but the presence of Jessica and Chani – as well as the Bene Gesserit – gives the book a modern feel.

Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto, volume 68.  Manga.  Sometimes words are the most powerful weapons.

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert.  Set twelve years after Dune this book fails to have the same fire.  Unlike Dune, which is about beginnings, Dune Messiah focuses on endings.  Although only about half the length of the original, this one seemed much longer to me.

In Progress:

The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones.  Audiobook.  Here we get the childhood of the man who will become the powerful Chrestomanci.  Once again, Diana Wynne Jones shows she hasn’t forgotten the peculiar logic of childhood.

The Hunt for the Big Bad Wolf by E.M. Tippets.  The third book of Tippets’ series which began with Someone Else’s Fairytale finds Chloe dealing with a tough case in which someone in her office may be leaking information to Hollywood cop show.  And is being married boring by definition?

Also:

When stuck at a doctor’s office, I read several articles in Sport’s Illustrated.  Not bad writing.

TT: Lord of the Hippies

May 14, 2015

JANE: So, Alan, last time, when we were chatting about how you and Robin went to visit Hobbiton, it became evident that J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Ring” novels – as well as The Hobbit – meant a great deal to you.

I hate to admit it but, while I enjoyed them, they’ve never been among my favorite novels – not even among my favorite Fantasy novels.

Hobbit Hole, photo by Alan

Hobbit Hole, photo by Alan

I realize that this is a heretical view.  Can you tell me why you’re so crazy about those books?

ALAN: I think it’s because I was imprinted on them when I was very young. I discovered them in the school library when I was about 12 years old. This was long before the books became trendy – nobody I knew had ever heard of them – and I was at exactly the right impressionable age to be completely overwhelmed by the world of Middle Earth.

JANE: Oh!  That’s nice.  It’s always wonderful when a book is your own private discovery.  My first encounter was similar and different.  And here’s where the difference in our ages comes in!

I was also about twelve when a nosey neighbor brought over the boxed set of the novels as an excuse for snooping.  (Everyone knew Jane was an avid reader.)  However, the world of Middle Earth did not overwhelm me.  By then, there were numerous imitations and I’d read some of them.  Tolkien seemed unnecessarily fussy.  Why give each river or mountain three names?  Why not just get on with the story?!

ALAN: Oddly, I always found that to be part of the charm. It made the world of Middle Earth seem so real, so lived in.  I was already very familiar with landmarks that had multiple names (Vienna and Wien for example), and now that I live in New Zealand (or perhaps I should call it Aotearoa), I find that almost everywhere has both a Maori and an English name, which are often used interchangeably. So that kind of thing has always seemed quite natural to me.

Looking at the books now, from the other end of my life, I am willing to admit that they have flaws, but a fussiness about multiple names is not one of them. However I’m biased. That early imprinting is still in force and I still love them dearly.

JANE: The funny thing for me is that the older I get, the things that originally bugged me don’t anymore.  Rivers do have multiple names, especially when multiple cultures live in an area.  Given the long lifespans, yet essentially isolationist nature of some of the races (elves and dwarves in particular), it makes sense that different cultures have different names for the same landmarks.

ALAN: Exactly so! Perhaps I came to that understanding earlier than you did simply because of where I lived. After all, the city of York, a few miles up the road from me, was called Eboracum by the Romans, and I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that fact.

JANE: I think you’re right.  Places in the U.S. usually have one name.  Even when that name is rooted in an earlier culture – for example, an Indian name for a place – this contributes to a sense of constancy, rather than the other way around.

ALAN: But back to the books! I always identified closely with the mood that Tolkien evoked with his tale. Something in it just seemed right and natural. And then Donald Wolheim of Ace published the (arguably illegal) first paperback version of the books in the mid-1960s, and the sales exceeded his wildest dreams.

It seemed that my contemporaries agreed with me. The mood of the times was exactly right for Tolkien’s vision of the world. It was the so-called summer of love and the hippies adopted Tolkien as a guru. The struggle against Sauron could easily be seen as a metaphor for the anti-establishment feelings of the time. We all knew that Sauron lived in the White House. And Frodo’s essential pacifism struck a chord with the young people whose anti-war sentiments manifested themselves in protests against America’s involvement in Vietnam.

JANE: Once again, age plays a role.  In the mid-sixties, I was a very small child.  I was still in single digits when the Summer of Love came and went.  Growing up in D.C., I knew there were lots of long-haired people around who behaved oddly.  I was aware of the struggle against the “establishment,” but that was something “grown-ups” were involved in.

If anything, it seemed a bit odd to me, since both “establishment” and “anti-establishment” were grown-ups, and so were all, from my perspective, part of the same problem!

ALAN: I think you get a different view of events when you experience them for yourself.

Certainly from my point of view there was always a distinct feeling of “us” and “them” during those years. And by and large, “we” were powerless because “they” were in charge. Tolkien’s books were inspirational because they showed clearly that while individual people may be little and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, nevertheless, just like the hobbits did, they can still make a profound difference to the working of the world. Tolkien was talking to us on so many levels, and his vision of the world resonated with the zeitgeist. It was inevitable that his books would be adopted by the movement.

JANE: Again, time perspective…  I’ve met very few people who identify with hobbits.  I know lots who want to be elves or half-elves, a few who identify with dwarves, but I can’t think of a single person who has identified with hobbits.

I remember an article in a gaming magazine (most early RPGs were highly influenced by High Fantasy and especially by Tolkien) in which the writer commented, “Let’s face it.  Who would want to play a hobbit?”

After all, they’re essentially lazy and idle.  Both Bilbo and Frodo need to be forced into adventure.  Merry and Pippin are shanghaied, though they do pretty well once they get the hang of it.   Sam is different, though.  He has his feet in his garden, his head in the clouds.

ALAN: Perhaps I’m odd, but all those things seem to me to be very desirable traits to have. I identify very closely with hobbits and I can easily imagine myself living in Hobbiton and being very happy there.

JANE: Certainly, if “laziness” and “idleness” are seen as finding contentment in small achievements, like growing a good garden, or raising happy children, I agree.

Many years ago, shortly after Roger died, my dad tried to convince me to look into writing for Hollywood, as several of my NM friends were doing.  I mulled it over seriously.  Then one day, standing in my garden, hip-deep in tomato plants, listening to bees, and musing over what I’d be writing later, I realized that high-pressure, backbiting, ambitious Hollywood wasn’t for me.

So, I guess I’ve got a bit of hobbit in me, too!

Toads in the Pond

May 13, 2015

We have toads in our pond.  Several generations of toads, to be precise.

To clarify why this is a wonderful and exotic thing, let me explain.

Spadefoot Toad on Our Marsh

Spadefoot Toad on Our Marsh

First, where I live is exceptionally dry.  Although the Rio Grande river is not that far away – just a couple  miles’ walk in a straight line east – when judging proximity to water, we might as well be on the Moon.  Okay.  Maybe not the Moon.  But take it from me, it’s dry.

Second, calling the water-feature in my backyard a “pond” is a grand over-glorification.  Our pond is a black plastic shell that holds maybe a hundred and twenty gallons.  And that would be its maximum capacity if we didn’t have anything but water in it and filled it all the way to the brim.

Instead, we have plants in our pond – a dwarf water lily, a blue pickerel weed, and an ornamental plantain that has flowers like baby’s breath.  Between them, the blue pickerel weed and the plantain have created a little marsh firm enough to hold the birds that land to drink.  We have aquatic mint growing around the edges (and into the water, whenever it can).

We have a pump that displaces a couple of gallons.  And a school of goldfish, three generations, all descended from feeder fish we rescued from the pet store.

So there’s not a lot of water there.  But it’s enough water to attract toads.

Our toads are spadefoot toads, specifically, New Mexican spadefoot toads, which are the state amphibian.  Spadefoot toads can live without much water at all.  Using a special digging toe on their hind legs, they burrow underground, emerging when there is water to lay their eggs.  Because usually all they have are puddles, spadefoot tadpoles develop very quickly – often going mobile in as little as forty-eight hours.

I have a friend who makes a point of transferring spadefoot tadpoles from puddles that are drying up to ones that still have water.  I know she has occasionally wondered if this is at all helpful to the toads.  I can now reassure her that a few hours can make a big difference.

Spadefoot toads usually dig backwards, excavating behind them, then backing in and closing the hole after them.  This can lead to startling encounters for those who share their territory.

One year, I noticed that an alyssum I’d planted where it would artfully spill over the edge of a flowerbed had apparently turned triffid and was preparing to go walkabout.  After I gently moved it and prepared to widen the hole and replant it, imagine my astonishment when I looked down and saw a toad looking up at me reproachfully.  It had found a nice, damp piece of real estate, complete with floral ornamentation for the roof.  Now I was messing everything up!

Needless to say, I moved the alyssum to one side, and both toad and plant had a happy summer.

As the years have gone by, we have progressed from the occasional toad sighting, to our current thriving colony.  There’s the toad who lives near our back porch door, waiting to dine on the insects that are attracted by the light spilling out from the kitchen.  There is the toad that lives down at the western edge of the bean netting, doubtlessly enjoying the dampness of the soaker hose we use to water the beans.  There are the toads we see as evening gathers (spadefoot toads are nocturnal) hopping their way from various points in the yard to have a splash in the pond before going hunting.

Last year, we had a transitory turtle spend some time in our yard.  In hopes of encouraging it to stay, we put a shallow dish of water out so it could have something to drink and a splash if it so desired.  We don’t know if it ever used it, but we did see little toads sitting in it, shyly requesting we ignore that they were there so they didn’t have to pretend to be scared and run away.

Most of the year, spadefoot toads are quiet cohabitants.  However, this time of year, they are quite noisy.  Their call is hard to describe.  It’s deeper than you’d expect from such a small creature (most of our toads could sit comfortably in the palm of my hand, many could sit on a quarter).  It’s all on one long, somewhat harsh note, a sort of elongated sound like “cat” without the “C” and with the “T” barely audible.

I’m not sure it’s exactly a “pretty” sound, but Jim and I really like it because it’s a sign that our yard is a vibrant, living organism.  Our cats (who are “indoor only” cats) find it fascinating.  One evening, as a toad was warming up, the toad would go “aaat” and Ogapoge, our big, sixteen pounder, would call back on almost the same note.

We’ve had a relatively damp (for New Mexico), relatively cool (for New Mexico) spring, and the toads are loving it.  So, as you can probably gather, are we.

FF: Some Very Odd People

May 8, 2015

I feel as if I’m missing something, but for now this will have to do.

Just in case you don’t know… The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

Ogapoge Snags My Books for Himself!

Ogapoge Snags My Books for Himself!

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex.  Audiobook.  Really enjoyed this.  It walked the delicate line between silly and intense.  Kids and adults alike will enjoy the quirky characters.  Adults will get a kick out of the commentary on the value system in the modern U.S.  Recommended by Chad Merkley, a reader of the Friday Fragments!  Thank you, Chad!

Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones.  This one came up when Alan and I were writing about Diana Wynne Jones for the Thursday Tangents.  I had to re-read.  Translating the gods of Norse mythology into modern England makes for some very odd characters.

In Progress:

Dune by Frank Herbert.  A re-read, but probably not for at least ten years…

Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones.  Audiobook.  Just started.  It’s short, so I’ll probably be done tonight.

Also:

Lots of  research and the usual beginning of the month magazine deluge.

TT: In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit

May 7, 2015

JANE: So, Alan, now that you’ve been retired for a few months, have you done anything interesting with your spare time?  (Other than writing Tangents, of course.  Writing Tangents is always interesting.)

Alan's Photo of Bag End

Alan’s Photo of Bag End

ALAN: Yes – Robin and I went to Hobbiton. It’s been built in a field near a small town called Matamata which is almost exactly in the middle of the North Island. It can’t be exactly in the middle because the exact middle is occupied by a huge volcanic lake…

There are more than 40 hobbit houses in the village along with the Green Dragon pub where visitors can drink specially brewed hobbit ales. And the village green still has the remnants of the decorations that were hung there for Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday party.

JANE: Oh!  Neat!  I’m going through the pictures you sent us.  It looks wonderful.  What loving detail!  There’s a big tree in one of the shots.  Is that a real tree or one constructed to be the Birthday Tree in the movie?

ALAN: That’s a real tree – almost all of them are. But the oak tree growing above Bag End is completely artificial. There is a lovely pine tree growing nearby which was originally intended to be the oak tree, and so the special effects people stripped the pine needles and started painstakingly wiring oak leaves to the branches. But the pine needles grew back faster than they could wire the oak leaves on, so they had to give up on that idea and build the oak tree from scratch.

JANE:  That’s just plain crazy.  Why not go with the evergreen?

I notice that most of your pictures are exterior shots.  Can you go into the houses?

ALAN: No. Except for the Green Dragon pub, the structures are just facades. There isn’t anything behind the round doors except scaffolding and other support structures. All the interior shots in the movies were filmed in studio sets. Visitors to Hobbiton are allowed inside one of the hobbit houses, but it isn’t very interesting. All you can see is a wooden frame.

JANE: Ah…  That must be the picture with the modern equipment in it.  I’d wondered.

ALAN: The story behind Hobbiton is quite fascinating. Do you want to hear it?

JANE: Absolutely!

ALAN: When Peter Jackson was first looking for places to film the Lord of the Rings movies, he was a relatively unknown director. He quickly found many places where he wanted to build his movie sets, some on private land and some on council-owned land. All he had to do was get permission to film…

A lot of negotiations took place with the various land owners and eventually contracts were signed. But they all had one thing in common – nobody thought the sets would have any lasting value. Strange fantasy films made by a director best known for his amusingly gory video-nasties? Obviously the whole thing would soon be forgotten. Therefore, all the contracts specified that when Peter Jackson finished filming, the land had to be returned to the same state it had been in when he first found it. So all the film sets were temporary structures made of polystyrene and plaster, and they were all demolished when they were finished with.

JANE: Oh, sorrow…  Some of those were lovely.

ALAN: And then something amazing happened. The films became a worldwide sensation and international tourists flocked to New Zealand searching for the authentic Middle-Earth experience. Guide books were published detailing all the places where the movies had been filmed and untold thousands of people came to stare enthusiastically at empty fields full of slightly bewildered cows and sheep.

JANE: “Humans are very odd,” think the cows and sheep.  And they’re right!  But something must have changed.

ALAN: By now, everybody was kicking themselves – if only we had kept the movie sets in place, they moaned with wise hindsight. Then we could charge the tourists a fortune to see them. If only…

JANE: I’m sure the cows and sheep felt otherwise.  So what happened next?

ALAN: When Peter Jackson returned to Middle-Earth to make The Hobbit movies, the attitude had changed completely. When he went back to the farmer on whose land he had built the original Hobbiton, the farmer insisted that this time the set should be built of permanent materials.

Jackson was more than happy to oblige and now Hobbiton is a permanent structure that will last for a century or more. There is a whole infrastructure in place to take care of the tourists. Regular coaches arrive from all over the country. There’s a souvenir shop full of hobbitiana, and a cafe where you can order and eat a second breakfast. It’s all terribly commercial and judging by the prices they charge, somebody must be making a fortune.

But nevertheless, it’s Hobbiton! And it’s real! And it’s throat-catchingly magic. I loved it.

JANE: I really enjoyed it, even just via your snapshots.  What really impressed me were the small details.  Someone is working very hard to make sure the flowers are fresh, the laundry remains on the line, and paint is bright.

ALAN: They have a large staff who spend their days doing exactly that. The level of detail is quite amazing. There are ornaments in the windows, and the paint is flaking on the doors of the hobbit holes in the poorer parts of the village.

One thing that really stood out for me was just how old and lived in everything looked. Even the fences around the houses looked as if they had been solidly in place for hundreds of years, the wood was well weathered and covered in moss. Apparently, when the fences were built, they were smeared with yoghurt to encourage the growth of bacteria which quickly gave the fences their ancient aspect. I thought that was a really clever trick.

JANE: Nice trick, indeed!   There were only two odd things – not seeing any hobbits and seeing visitors in modern dress.  I found myself wishing that – like in Diana Wynne Jones’s novel The Darklord of Derkholm – the tourists were required to dress appropriately.  The setting seemed to demand cloaks and tunics.

ALAN: I agree – that would have been very atmospheric. There was a cloak for sale in the souvenir shop (only one!). It cost $400 so we didn’t buy it. We were hoping that we’d be able to buy hobbit feet slippers, but to our great disappointment, the shop didn’t have any. Somebody missed a great marketing opportunity there. We ended up buying a “No Admittance Except On Party Business” notice which Robin has attached to the door of her office.

JANE: That sounds very suitable.  Now that you’re both retired, all business is “party business.”

ALAN: Of course, none of this could ever have happened if the films hadn’t been such a worldwide success, and the films would never have been made at all if it hadn’t been for the enormous effect that Tolkien’s novels had on the reading habits of a generation. Perhaps we can talk about Tolkien’s huge influence next time?

JANE: I’m definitely in favor of that!  I warn you…  I’ll have some tough questions for you!


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