Archive for September, 2013

TT: Tromping Through the Henries

September 26, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and let me know if you prefer short stories or novels.  Then come and join me and Alan as we begin our not terribly organized tour through all those kings named “Henry.”

The Importance of Being Henry

The Importance of Being Henry

JANE: I’ve just consulted my Riverside Shakespeare.  Apparently, you folks had lots of kings named Henry.  There were three Henry the Sixth, two Henry the Fourth, one Henry the Fifth, and one Henry the Eighth…

Wait!  That’s how Shakespeare wrote the plays.  Although he obviously liked kings named Henry, he skipped the first three.  Did they actually exist?

ALAN: Yes we had many kings called Henry, and all of them existed. That’s a lot of Henries. (Sorry, but that’s how my fingers seem to want to write the word so let’s make it official and add it to our spelling checking dictionaries. And anyway, I rather like it…)

JANE:  I do, too!  Consider “Henries” official Tangent-speak.

ALAN: Let’s start with William the Conqueror. He died of peritonitis in 1087. His corpse was more than a little ripe and actually exploded at his funeral. His son William Rufus succeeded him.

JANE:  Wait!  Back up…  I thought we were talking about Henries, not exploding Williams.  Or non-exploding Williams, unless William Rufus made it a tradition.

ALAN: Oh we are talking about Henries – William Rufus was a very unpopular king.  He died in a “hunting accident” in 1100 after being shot with an arrow. I’ve put rabbit ears around that phrase because many people feel that it was no accident at all, but rather an assassination, which may well have been organised by his younger brother, Henry. Certainly Henry (who was definitely present when William was shot) was crowned within days of the event and he ruled as Henry I for the next 35 years.

JANE: This sounds like something from a novel…  In fact, I think I put something like it in the Firekeeper Saga.  Go on…  Now I see the Henry in the offing.

ALAN: Henry I died without a legitimate heir and the country descended into a civil war that dragged on for 18 years as Henry’s daughter Matilda battled for the throne with Henry’s nephew Stephen. Eventually, after lots of to’ing and fro’ing, Matilda’s son (another Henry) took the throne in 1154 and he ruled as Henry II for the next 35 years. He was the first Plantagenet king, but he would not be the last…

JANE:  Was it “Matilda”?  I seem to remember “Maud.”  Empress Maud.

ALAN: Yes, it was Matilda. And yes, it was Maud. They are both variations on the same name; Matilda is the Latin form of the Saxon name Maud, and was usually used in official documents, probably because it looks (and sounds) rather more regal.

JANE:  Wonderful!  I really like that.

Now, I am going to surprise you.  I know about this particular civil war because it provides the backstory for Ellis Peters’ “Brother Cadfael” stories.  In the novels, she is referred to as Empress Maud.   Are you familiar with these stories?

ALAN: I’ve read one or two of the books and quite enjoyed them. In the late 1990s, a TV series was produced in England. Derek Jacobi played Brother Cadfael and made a magnificent job of it.

JANE: I’ve also heard good things about the dramatizations, though I haven’t seen them.  One thing I really liked about the novels was that neither Empress Maud or King Stephen are presented as the “good guy” in the struggle.  Cadfael and his friends favor Stephen, but Stephen’s weaknesses as a ruler and commander come out time and again.  It made for a much stronger story.

Just making sure we don’t have a typo here…  Did you say that both Henry I and Henry II reigned for 35 years?

ALAN: Yes indeed – I find it an amusing coincidence that the first two Henries both held the throne for exactly the same length of time.

JANE: Delving into my admittedly flawed memory of which Henry was which…  Wasn’t Henry II the king who appointed his hunting, shooting, sporting buddy Thomas Becket to be archbishop – with rather unpleasant consequences for both of them?

ALAN: Yes, indeed. Henry appointed his friend Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury. He hoped that their friendship would give him more control over the Church. However, rather to his surprise, Becket proved to be a staunch supporter of the Church’s policies and he repudiated his friendship with the king.

Becket quickly became a very frustrating thorn in the king’s side and none of the king’s supporters seemed able to do anything about it.  The story goes that Henry, in a moment of frustration, announced “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!”

Four of his knights took this to heart and travelled to Canterbury to confront Becket, convinced that they were carrying out the king’s will. Becket was hacked to death. Henry took no action against the killers, which suggests that he might well have set the wheels in motion deliberately.

JANE: Given Shakespeare’s fondness for writing plays about kings named Henry, it’s rather a surprise that he didn’t write a play about this.  It has all the elements of good drama.

ALAN: Yes – we had to wait until the twentieth century before the story got the treatment it deserved when T. S. Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral.

JANE: Perhaps the reason Shakespeare chose not to deal with the story of Henry II and Thomas Becket is that the question of  whether to be loyal to your monarch or your church was a little too much of a “hot button” issue at the time.

ALAN: That’s probably true – Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe was accused of heresy and was killed under mysterious circumstances that might well have been a governmental assassination. Sometimes being a playwright could be a dangerous profession!

JANE: Especially when you may have been a spy as well…

Going back to your earlier comment, Murder in the Cathedral is an excellent play, Eliot’s best, in my opinion.  There are a couple of lines in the scene that ends Part One (right before the interlude) that always ring in my heart.

Having been confronted not only by four Tempters, but also by three Priests, and by a Chorus representing the common folk, all of whom give Becket ample (and sometimes conflicting) reasons for giving into the king, Thomas says: “The last temptation is the greatest treason:/ To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

In choosing to follow not only his duty but his principles, and finally to forsake the temptation of pride, Eliot’s version of Thomas Becket becomes, for me, one of the greatest heroes of fiction – a hero in the old sense, not in the modern sense, which often means nothing more than “protagonist.”  I remember a lovely panel of the subject, with Jo Walton and Steve (S.M.) Stirling, at a long-ago World Fantasy Convention that ended with me learning about an interesting take on the subject.

Will you permit me to tangent?

ALAN: Please do. Isn’t that the whole point?

JANE: There’s a novel titled Lucifer’s Crown by Lillian Stewart Carl that gives an interesting twist to the story of Thomas Becket, intertwining it with the quest for the Holy Grail, and a few other interesting motifs.  It’s quite good, one of those books that starts light and moves into greater depth.  I recommend it.

ALAN: A writer and a book that I’ve not heard of before. Excuse me while I make a note…

JANE: We’ve made it all the way to Henry II.  What about Henry III?

ALAN: Next time.

JANE: If you insist!


Short Story or Novel?

September 25, 2013

Right now I’m pretty snowed under with current projects.  The copyedited manuscript of Artemis Awakening arrived last week and I’ve been reviewing that.  I’m immersed in writing the sequel – still AA2, as far as a title goes.  I’ve promised an original short story to a charity anthology by the end of November and an original “Change War” novella to Steve (S.M.) Stirling for some time early in the year.  Then there’s all the work that comes with the impending release of Treecat Wars in October and Artemis Awakening in May.

Just a Few Possibilities

Just a Few Possibilities

However, that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking ahead to what to do in other arenas.  As some of you know, I brought back into print as both e-book and print-on-demand my Avon novels Changer (with an original introduction) and Legends Walking (now with its original title, Changer’s Daughter and an introduction that explains why I made the switch).  I’ve also done a short story collection called Star Messenger, featuring three short stories about continuing character Captain “Allie” Ah-Lee.

At the year’s Bubonicon, I was asked several times if I intended to do other e-books or print on demand projects.  I’m too busy to write anything new, but I think I can find time to get together the material for either a re-release of one of my early novels or a short story collection from my selection of over sixty published short stories.

I’m curious as to what readers might be interested in.  Certainly, based on sales figures for the three books I already have out, the reprinted novels have out-sold the short story collection.

Are readers at all interested in short fiction?  If so, would the preference be for a collection of inter-related stories (such as I did with Star Messenger) or a broader sampling?  Would the addition of a never-before published piece make a short story collection more appealing?

As for novel reprints, my choice would be limited to some of my Avon titles, since I believe that all the novels I have written for Tor are currently available as e-books. My first Avon novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls has already been reprinted.  That leaves Marks of Our Brothers, The Pipes of Orpheus, Smoke and Mirrors, and When the Gods Are Silent.  If you’re not familiar with these novels, I’ve included a little about each on the Novels page of my website. (

I’d welcome some preliminary feedback to help me sort out my options.  After all, I already have copies of all my stories.  I’d like to make sure that whatever comes out is something people would be interested in reading.

TT: The Illusion of Inherited Power

September 19, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one for a wander through a land of diversity and craziness.  Then come back here and join me and Alan as we take a look at whether power can be inherited or not.

Heir Apparent

Heir Apparent?

JANE: Last time we started out discussing the naming of kings and ended up with discussing how power is inherited, even when it isn’t.  You promised to reveal how with a monarchy power only appears to be inherited.

ALAN: Indeed I did, but I think we need to sneak up on that idea when it isn’t looking, so that we can take it by surprise. Let’s begin by assuming that it’s just human nature to want to pass accomplishments on to those family members who come after you. Though, as an aside, I strongly suspect that it’s much harder to follow that path when inheritance doesn’t come as a birthright, but has to earned by merit (or at the very least by popularity) instead. Sometimes the voters can be hard to convince – witness the problems that Ted Kennedy had. But it certainly doesn’t harm your cause if you have a solid background of family achievement to build upon.

JANE:  I agree.  Now that I think about it, I suspect your parliamentary system might stop a succession of Prime Ministers. Remember, our political parties are more like clubs than real power groups.   Teddy Roosevelt got so tired of the established parties that he founded his own Bull Moose Party to back him on his final run for president.  It did not survive his charismatic leadership.

Anyhow, although our political parties can back candidates, they cannot say “This guy is going to be head of our nation.” I can see a UK party deliberately NOT wanting one family to provide several Prime Ministers. After a while, it might be too much like having another king.

ALAN: Quite right. Our Prime Minister is not elected by the people. The office is occupied by whoever leads the party that is voted into government, and I suspect that political parties are very likely to look askance at anything that smacks of nepotism.

JANE: However, at least in our system, people with connections, money, and a highly recognizable name (Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush) – are more likely to get elected than those without.   Mind you, in at least one case, the father-son relationship became an apprenticeship for public office.  John Adams took his son, John Quincy Adams, with him on diplomatic visits and even used him as a secretary so, when John Quincy Adams was elected, he had a very good idea of what his office entailed – including that it did not automatically make you popular.  Poor John Adams was not popular in his lifetime, although his posthumous reputation is very high indeed.

Surely you have the same things happen with your own elected offices!

ALAN: Strangely, I don’t think so. I suspect most family members observe the terrible toll that the responsibilities of office take on the office holder and decide to do something else with their lives.  I can only think of two examples.

JANE: Looking at the toll, rather than the glory?  That’s positively un-American.  Oh…  Wait…  <grin>  You’d better go on with those examples.

ALAN: In my own lifetime there was Maurice Macmillan, who was the son of English Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.  (We’ve discussed Harold before on 1/11/12 – TT: Lord Byron? Baron Byron? George?).  Maurice followed his father into parliament, but he never amounted to anything. He never held cabinet office and eventually he lost an election and that was the last anyone ever heard of him.

The other, and much more famous example took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. William Pitt (known as Pitt the Elder) was Prime Minister from 1766 to 1768 and his son William Pitt (known as Pitt the Younger) was Prime Minister from 1783 to 1806 (though he was briefly out of office from 1801 to 1804).  These days, Pitt the Younger is chiefly remembered as the man who invented Income Tax in order to finance the war against Napoleon. This onerous tax was only supposed to last for the duration of the war. Once Napoleon was defeated, the tax would be dropped. Clearly Napoleon has not yet been defeated. Death is obviously no obstacle when you are a megalomaniac…

JANE: William Pitt? Was he the one who kept trading Prime Minister slots with Fox, or am I in the wrong time period?

ALAN: That’s him. Pitt the Younger. And both the Pitts were Prime Minister during the reign of King George III. You might have heard of him…

JANE: Ah…  The evil demon of every American history textbook, the horrible despot whose negligence led the put-upon colonists to revolution!

More seriously, though, a point that was left out of the school history books when I was a kid – wasn’t George III the one who went mad?

ALAN: That’s him. Which reminds me, have you heard of Alan Bennett? He writes plays and TV shows. Among other things, he wrote the stage play “The Madness of George III” which later became the very successful film “The Madness of King George.” Bennett wrote the screenplay for the film as well.

JANE: Yes.  I’ve heard of him and of his work…  Although, I will admit, I have seen neither the play nor the film.

ALAN: The film is superb – I’m sure you’d enjoy it. There’s a rather amusing story attached to the making of it.  Bennett records in an essay that he came under great pressure to change the title for the film. The producers were worried that if the film was just called “The Madness Of George III” American audiences would stay away in droves because, since they hadn’t seen the first two movies in the trilogy, they wouldn’t want to come and see the third one either. Somewhat bemused by this, Bennett gave in to the pressure, added the word King to the title and removed the III. I think that’s a lovely little story — I’d heard it several times and I always thought it was an urban legend until I read Bennett’s essay and realised it was true!

JANE: I really have a lot of trouble believing that, even if Bennett does say so…  If there is one British king most Americans would recognize from their schoolbooks it would be George III.  And that “III” is always part of his name, even if we know nothing at all about the earlier two Georges.  Still, adding “King” was definitely a good idea.

Maybe the film people were British…

ALAN: I have no idea. But I do enjoy the story.

Anyway – last time you suggested that only people with the proper bloodline could succeed to the monarchy. These days that’s a true statement because the monarchs are just figureheads. But in the days when the monarchy did actually hold real power, that power could be (and often was) removed at the point of a sword. And then a new family took over. Amusingly, we had eight kings called Henry who came from four different families. One of them was the son of William the Conqueror, three of them were Plantagenets, two of them were of the house of Lancaster, and two of them were Tudors. Uneasy sits the head that wears the crown… Charles I had his chopped off, poor chap.

If you wanted to be cynical, you could claim that these days power shifts are accomplished through the ballot box rather than the sword. But the effect is just the same. Though when you look at what is currently happening in Egypt, you have to wonder about the fragility of the mechanisms for the transfer of power.

JANE: Indeed…  I’ll take our system, even if we do have some problems.

Now, what you said above got me interested in all those Henrys.  If it wasn’t for Shakespeare’s plays, I wouldn’t know as much – which is really very little – as I do.  Seems like a fertile field for more discussion…

Ride ‘Em Cowboy!

September 18, 2013

It’s State Fair time, again.  Jim and I went twice this past weekend.  I don’t know how state fairs are elsewhere but, in New Mexico, the fair is a showcase for the crazy diversity that is what makes this state such an interesting place to live.



“Diversity” may be the operative word.  Or maybe it’s “crazy.”  In any case, one of the things we enjoy the most about our Fair visits is watching the milling array of humanity.  For this reason, even though we’d been enjoying the rain this week, we were glad that, when the time came for us to go the fairgrounds, the clouds had decided to relent for a few hours.

(Rain?  Oh, yes…  Tuesday through Saturday, we had rain every night, accumulating to a total of five and a half inches – this in an area where the average rainfall is seven and a half inches in a year!  Very exciting!)

One of our favorites was two gentlemen who decided to take the term “cowboy” to new levels.  They eliminated the horse entirely and were mounted instead on two very nice longhorns.  Their stylish turnout was quite impressive. I was also amused that they were accompanied by a lady in a coordinated costume whose job it was to make sure that, if the long horns left behind any presents, these were promptly cleaned up.

(If you look, you can see her in the background of the photo.)

Then there was the ensemble of six young people who decided to come to the Fair in full superhero garb.  There was Spiderman, Superman, Supergirl, Wolverine, and Storm…  I was at a loss to identify the nattily dressed gentleman in tweed jacket and spectacles who was with them, and Jim didn’t get a picture.  Still, maybe someone can offer a guess.  I really enjoyed this spontaneous outpouring of fun – and the little kids were thrilled.

Of course, there was the more “normal” out of the ordinary attire – Indians in ribbon shirts or elaborate dance costumes; ranchers in their best broad-brimmed Stetsons; competitors in the various riding competitions, often with their numbers still pinned to their shirts, picking their way along carefully in their riding boots.  Performers from the various shows, off to see the prize vegetables or baby lambs until their next event.

Every third child seemed to be sporting more or less elaborate face paint, from a few cat’s whiskers up to full masks.  I admit, I wished I’d thought to have Jim take a picture of the young man in the menacing skull make-up, happily licking a red, white, and blue bomb pop.

And one can’t forget all the people simply using the Fair as an excuse to get dressed up to be seen.   I was amused by the irony of the young lady all in pink, with opalescent hair, slouching along behind her parents.  With all that color, she should have had more confidence.  There were a group of young men strutting around in high fashion, complete with hats and flashy bow ties.  Glitter, sequins, and gemstones were the order of the day, even on portly moms and grandmoms – enough to populate a glam rocker’s daydreams.

In addition to people-watching, Jim and I really enjoy the art shows.  As part of the celebration of New Mexico’s diverse heritage, there are three buildings dedicated to arts: Indian, Hispanic, and “Fine.”   Of course, it’s all pretty “fine,” but the former two have ethnic roots, while the other embraces the remaining traditions and invents a couple more.  Even though we don’t have any kids, we always go to the school art, just because it’s fun.

This year we had a special reason for making a beeline to the “hobby building.”  Jim had helped our friend Sue Estell with her contribution to the Lego display.  (Sue was one of the judges.)   For her piece, she had designed an original Hansel and Gretel witch’s cottage, complete with Hansel in the cage, holding out a bone for the witch to check instead of his finger.  Jim had built most of the tall pink and white “cotton candy” tree that overhung the scene.  It stood out among the predominantly darker models, drawing people from all over the building.

It was really fun to hear the comments of: “How cool!”  “That’s really neat!”  “Mom!  Come see this one!”

The State Fair has had cameos in several of my books, including Changer and Child of a Rainless Year.  It’s a place where the best of the state shines, in art, dance, glitter, and just plain joy in being out and about.  It continues through next weekend.  Maybe I’ll make my way back…  Where did I put my tee-shirt with the gemstone tiger face?  I wonder if someone could do coordinated face paint?

TT: Inheriting Power — Or At Least Names

September 12, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and take a peek at how my subconscious works.  Then come and join me and Alan as we totter through the convoluted question of inheriting power.

Bush I and Bush II

Bush I and Bush II

JANE: So, Alan, the U.K. has a new royal.  As time has passed, I found myself wondering a few things.  Can I ask you?

ALAN: Righto!

JANE: First, this child’s dad is a prince, but does he have a title?  Is he a duke or something?

ALAN: Ah – we’re back to the crazy world of British titles. As always, the answer is both yes and no. By birthright he is a British Prince and must therefore be referred to as his Royal Highness. He also has a territorial designation derived from one of his father’s titles and so he may also be referred to as Prince George of Cambridge (his father, Prince William, is the Duke of Cambridge).

JANE: Wait a minute!  It sounds as if the son trumps the father?  How can that be?

ALAN: No, no! His father is His Royal Highness Prince William the Duke of Cambridge. George is His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge. Notice the missing word “Duke.” It makes a lot of difference…

JANE: Arrrgghh!  I will never figure this out!

ALAN: If it makes you feel any better, neither will I!

JANE: I had the general impression that Prince William and his wife (what is her title, anyhow?) couldn’t follow the trend made so beloved by movie and rock stars, and name their child any odd thing they like.  So if this little boy grows up to inherit the throne, we won’t have King Zowie or King Summer Night’s Passion.

What were the restrictions on the name?  Why do you think they chose George?

ALAN: Kate is the Duchess of Cambridge, a title she obtained by marriage. As far as the names of the child are concerned, in theory he could have been called anything (and like you I think I’d have rather enjoyed an eventual King Moon Unit, or something similar). In practice however the choices were probably restricted by family pressures. George is actually named for his great, great grandfather (if I counted correctly) who was King George VI, the father of our current Queen.

Most families, I think, tend to name their children after fondly remembered relatives, so there’s nothing odd there.

JANE: Absolutely!  My own sister and brother are named for our grandparents, female and male.

Still, in the case of the royal family, it’s nice that George has such good resonances for the relatives.  I’ve read that the current queen deeply respected and admired her father.  From what I have read about George VI, I think I would have, too.  He took on a difficult job he never expected to hold and performed admirably.

Are there names of former monarchs that wouldn’t work as well?

ALAN: Indeed there are. Social pressure, rather than anything else, tends to restrict the names of the male members of the family to a rather small pool, and almost invariably the chosen names will be those of a previous generation of Kings. So we get a recurring mixture of Edward, William, Charles and, of course, George. Interestingly we haven’t had a Henry since the sixteenth century, I don’t know why.

But certain names are a little frowned upon. Richard is out of favour because Richard III brought the name into disrepute when Shakespeare turned him into a blackhearted villain. And John tends to be avoided because the only King John we ever had made a total mess of the job. He lost Wales and much of France and, because he was forced to sign Magna Carta, his reign is generally considered to mark the start of the long decline of monarchical powers which has led to the current situation where the royal family are largely figureheads. No, we definitely don’t want another King John. Who knows what horrors might result?

JANE: Indeed!  I suppose that having some restrictions on the names you can give your son is a small price to pay for the opportunity of having him grow up to be a king within such a fine tradition as that held by England in specific and the UK in general.

Still, inherited positions of power seem a bit odd to this American (United States sub-variation).

ALAN: New habits for the new world, I suppose. But, here in the old world, we just take this kind of thing for granted.  Inheriting positions of power from your parents has always been part of life for as far back as recorded history goes (and it goes back a long way). So it just seems natural to us. But even the new world is not completely immune to the practice – what about President Bush I and President Bush II?

JANE: My dear, if you weren’t a friend, I’d suspect you of being obnoxious.  Elected offices are not inherited in this country.   However, certain families definitely have chosen politics as a family business.  Following your parents’ profession is fairly typical.

Let me give an example.

Law seems to be the default profession in my family.  My maternal grandfather was a lawyer, so were both my parents.  Thus, when one of my sisters (who worked for various environmental groups) was told that she really should consider an advanced degree (she already had a B.A.) in either law or biology, she naturally went for the field she knew.  I have a brother with a law degree, too.  My other sister seriously considered law.  I think I was the only one of the four of us who didn’t!

ALAN: I wasn’t really meaning to be obnoxious at all about the Bush family, and I wasn’t seriously proposing that offices are inherited in any formal sense – I was just pointing out that America does have the concept of the inheritance of power, albeit in a much less formal manner than we do (or did). And anyway, it’s fun to put Roman numerals after people’s names, even if (or perhaps especially if) the numerals are not supposed to be there.

Weren’t there several Roosevelts as well?

JANE:  Not “several,” just two.  Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Moreover, they weren’t all that closely related.  They were fifth cousins!

ALAN: That’s interesting. I’d always assumed they were much closer than that. How about the Kennedys?  They seemed well on their way to becoming a political dynasty until fate intervened in the worst possible way and cut that dream short.

JANE: They did, indeed.  However, if you look at the facts, rather than the legend, you’ll see that the seed was hardly planted.

Although many expected Bobby Kennedy to capitalize on his brother John’s success, the question is, would Bobby have actually done so?   He could be a very strong personality…  I don’t know this first hand – I was very young when both John and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated – but I have heard stories from people who knew the Kennedys.  (Remember, I grew up in D.C., my grandfather was in politics, and many of the people I grew up with were directly or indirectly connected with politics and worked on “the Hill.”)  I met John Kennedy when I was very small, though I don’t remember doing so!

ALAN: I remember both assassinations, and I vividly remember thinking “Oh, no! Not again! How can this be possible?” when Bobby was killed. It really shook me up despite the fact that it happened in a foreign country which was far, far away.

JANE: It is interesting to note that the Kennedys have never managed to have another family member elected president.  Teddy Kennedy was repeatedly elected to the Senate but, despite several runs for President, he never won. Why? Was it the scandal in his youth? Or was it precisely because he wasn’t John or Bobby?

It’s hard to follow martyrs.

Moreover, would John Kennedy be remembered with such passion if he hadn’t been assassinated?  Or would he be remembered as a young, not terribly effective president?  I think it’s important to note that many of the changes credited to John F. Kennedy were actually carried out by his successor.  Lyndon B. Johnson was an old-school politician with lots of “pull” and lots of favors to call in.

ALAN: Recent revelations about Kennedy’s conduct have exposed the personal and political flaws in Camelot. Even if he had served his full term, that information would probably have emerged sooner or later, and I suspect he’d have been remembered as young and flawed and in some ways quite politically naive. Certainly that’s how he appears to me now. And you are quite right in your comments about Johnson. He was very astute and a politician par excellence. But he seriously misjudged the situation in Vietnam and eventually that forced him out of office.

JANE: Several other Kennedys have held elected office as well, but the one who could have capitalized the most on the Kennedy mystique – John F. Kennedy, Junior – chose instead to follow his mother into publishing.  At the time of his death, he was editor and co-owner of George magazine.  Although he was repeatedly asked if he planned to follow the family “tradition,” he never gave a clear answer as to his intentions.

So, going back to your earlier point, I’ll admit that, especially when looked at in cynical isolation that leaves out how many presidents of the United States have not been related to other presidents, it does look as if there is a degree of nepotism.  However, there have only been two father/son pairs out of all our forty-four presidents.  The Roosevelts were actually fairly distantly related, and the Kennedys failed to establish a presidential dynasty.

At least in our system someone new can become president, but in the U.K. no one can become the monarch except those with the proper bloodline.

ALAN: Well, as I seem to say so often, yes and no…

JANE: Fascinating!  Let’s explore that next time.

Welcome to My Subconscious

September 11, 2013

As some of you may have noticed, last week’s Wednesday Wandering was illustrated with a picture of Alan Robson’s book Trimmings from the Triffid’s Beard.   Alan is, of course, my partner in crime on the Thursday Tangents, so I guess the use of his book to illustrate a Wednesday Wandering qualifies as artistic meta-fiction or something like that.  <grin>

Quail in an Apple Tree

Quail in an Apple Tree

I am absolutely unable to take a book off the shelf, even if it is one I have already read, and not start skimming.  Alan’s book grabbed hold and ate a couple hours of my time.  (If you’re interested, you can get a free download of Trimmings and its sequel at  In one essay, Alan gave a transcription of the talk he gave when he was Fan Guest of Honor at Windycon in 1987.  The essay is fun (and funny) in and of itself, but it also reminded me of the first time I was a Guest of Honor and realized I had to give a Talk.

This was some fifteen years ago, for Bubonicon 30.  I had no idea what to talk about.  I wasn’t a Big Name, and  the con was my hometown convention, so the attendees could talk to me just about any old year.  Nonetheless, I was really honored and wanted to do the home team proud.

Right about the time I was getting nervous, Jim and I were having dinner with Steve (S.M.) Stirling and his wife, Jan.  I asked Steve what I should talk about.  “Talk about where you get your ideas,” he said.  “That’s always fun for everyone.”

I liked Steve’s suggestion, but I was uncertain about how to go about approaching the topic.  For one, in 1998, I had a lot fewer books published.  My most recent solo was Changer.  The sequel Legends Walking (now re-released as Changer’s Daughter) was pending but wouldn’t be released for a bit.  My other more recent projects were the two novels I finished for Roger Zelazny: Donnerjack and Lord Demon.   Sure, I’d had six other novels published, so I wasn’t exactly a tyro but, as I thought over where I came up with the ideas for these novels, I realized they didn’t follow any particular pattern.

When someone asks me, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’m handicapped, because I’m a subconscious plotter.  I can talk about my lifelong love of mythology or of wolves (and have done so, see WW 3-3-10 “Why Wolves?” and 3-09-13 “Lifelong Fascination,” if you’re interested), but I can’t usually trace precisely where a book originated.

Some writers can do this and I admire them.  For example, this last Bubonicon, during the Q&A following Tim Powers’ talk, I had the chance to ask about why Tim wrote, some twenty years later, a sequel to his novel The Stress of Her Regard.  Tim had a neat, tidy, and humorous explanation for the circumstances that led to the writing of Hide Me Among the Graves.  I only wish I could be so lucid.

As the day for my talk approached, I decided that since I couldn’t seem clear, scholarly, or even particularly sane, I might as well admit to my particular form of insanity.  To illustrate the point, I came up with a great example, taken not from my life as a writer, but from my life as a gamer.

Back in the mid-nineties, Jim and I were involved in a role-playing game in which the players were all members of an FBI serial killer detection unit.  (Yeah…  Get a bunch of SF/F writers together – in addition to me, Walter Jon Williams, Pati Nagle, and Melinda Snodgrass were all involved – and the impulse arises to play cops and robbers.)  Anyhow, our team was assigned to find a suspected serial killer.  There were a lot of murders, but no one could figure out what – if any – pattern the killings followed.  Making matters worse, we couldn’t be sure which of the many unsolved case files that were handed over to us applied to our problem and which might be unrelated.

I mean, how might the murders of four prostitutes be related to the hanging in a public park of actor Danny Bonaduce (of Partridge Family fame)?  Did the murder of five people and the removal of their wedding rings have anything to do with our serial killer or was the source of those killings related to some aspect in the lives of the people involved?  That night after the game ended, Jim and I went home more puzzled than ever.  By the time we’d settled the animals and gone to bed, it was very late indeed.  Then, about four a.m., nature awoke me.

As I was pulling my weary carcass out of bed, I realized my sleeping brain had been working through the elements of the various crimes, shifting and sorting, weighing and discarding.  All these years later, I can’t remember the details of all the crimes (especially the red herrings), but I do remember most of the key ones.

Danny Partridge found dead in a park, an apparent suicide, hanging from a tree.  Three French priests.  Five wedding rings.  Gold rings.  Four prostitutes.  Call girls.  Calling Birds.  Four calling birds.

My body wanted to go to sleep.  My brain kept swirling odd bits and pieces around.  Finally, I had it!  The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  The serial killer was working his way through The Twelve Days of Christmas!  What was six?  Six Geese a’laying.

We should check to see if there were any killings related to six geese a’laying.  If there hadn’t been, maybe we could figure out a likely target and set a trap of some sort for the killer!  Suddenly, I was wide awake and wildly excited.  I poked my drowsing spouse.

“Jim!  Jim!  I’ve got it!  He’s doing The Twelve Days of Christmas!”

Inarticulate mutterings into a pillow resolved into intelligent speech.  “What?  Who?  He is?  What?”

Feverishly, I explained, showing how with a little allowing for bad puns, the pattern was there.  A partridge in a pear tree.  Three French men, rather than three French hens.  Four calling girls.  Five golden rings.  Jim agreed.  He started settling back to sleep.

“I’ve got to call Melinda!”

“It’s 4:30 in the morning.  We didn’t leave her house until after midnight.”

“But I’ve got the answer.  I’ve got to call Richard.  He’s the boss.  He’ll know what we should do next.”

“No.  You are not calling Melinda at four a.m.”

“She gets up early to feed the horses…”

“Fine.  Call then.  Not at four a.m….”

So I tossed and turned, at last getting up and making the phone call rather earlier than was strictly polite.  Melinda responded with enthusiasm.  Later, the game master would ask me, “What gave it away?  I thought it would take at least to seven, even eight, before you all saw the pattern.”  I had to reply, “I don’t know.  I solved it in my sleep.”

And that’s how I write, too.  Not necessarily in my sleep, but by trusting that the story is there, buried in my subconscious mind.  Writing from the subconscious makes my characters very real to me.  I can feel when a situation is right or wrong for them.  It also means I’m not very good at workshopping because, often until a book is nearly done, I don’t have the faintest idea where it’s going.

Still…  That’s how it works for me…  I do a lot of research, a lot of thinking, but ultimately the stories come out of the borderland between the land of waking and that of dreams.

TT: Crossing the Humor Barrier

September 5, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and help me figure out where to go for quality on-line reviews.  Then come and join me and Alan as we conclude our look at what’s funny and what’s not…

Tiptoeing Cthulu and Friends

Tiptoeing Cthulu and Friends

JANE: Last time we were talking about Kuttner’s Galloway Gallagher stories.  I said that the stories were better in small doses and I still think that.

However, now that I’ve had time to think, I also wonder if they might have been funnier if I belonged to a generation where extreme alcoholism (which is when a person has blackouts) was considered an acceptable source of humor. Even now, I wince at the idea of alcoholic blackouts as funny.  They just aren’t to me – too close to that “pain humor” we discussed a few weeks ago.

Now, I’m not saying Americans are immune to humor based on the lowered inhibitions accompanying drunkenness.  Take a look at any number of films intended to amuse young men and you’ll find this form of humor is alive and well.  But I’m not certain it has the same broad appeal.

In past discussions, you’ve said you as a Brit find American reactions to drunkenness puzzling, so perhaps you made the transition more easily.

ALAN: Alcoholic blackouts are not funny in themselves; I think we both agree on that. If the stories took the idea seriously then they would be tragedies rather than comedies. But we’ve already shown that tragedy and comedy are actually two aspects of exactly the same thing. It’s all a matter of emphasis. I think the cultural differences that you mention arise from the fact that Americans seem to think that some things are too serious to joke about, whereas the Brits have no such inhibitions.

A perfect example would be the British comedian Ricky Gervais who hosted the 2011 Golden Globe awards. He made an atheism joke which would not have raised a single eyebrow in England but which caused a huge controversy in America. There seems to be a streak of puritanism in American society that the Brits simply don’t share.

JANE: What other humor doesn’t cross the culture (or time period) barrier as easily?

ALAN: There was a British SF television series called Red Dwarf which was so successful that NBC decided to remake it for American audiences. Only one pilot episode was made and it was so dire that it sank without trace. For example, in the British version the character Lister is a black, short, ugly, foul-mouthed slob. In the American version Lister is white, tall, handsome, clean and wholesome. Suddenly the jokes stop working…

The American pilot show is included as an extra on one of the DVDs of Red Dwarf so I have actually seen it. It is deeply unfunny.

I’m not really sure why NBC decided to remake the show. The original was actually very popular with American audiences though I imagine the networks had to careful about broadcasting times. Many of the episodes had far too many toilet jokes for American sensibilities. Perhaps they felt a need to clean it up a bit…

JANE: Maybe they hoped it would work, even after they mutilated it to make it politically correct.  I know that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has worked very well in the U.S. in its various incarnations, despite some aspects of the humor being very British.  Monty Python also seems to have translated well.

ALAN: Humour not translating works the other way round as well. Craig Shaw Gardner is an American writer of humorous fantasy whose works seem to sell reasonably well in America, but which made very little impact here.

JANE: I fear I’m not in a position to comment.  I’m not familiar with his works.  I wonder why his humor doesn’t translate?  Perhaps too many of the joke references are culture specific.

ALAN: I think he’s a good example of the “let’s twist the story to fit the joke” school of writing that we mentioned before. And he is overly fond of puns. Both of these tend to make the stories feel more than a little shallow.

JANE: I was reading a Darynda Jones novel the other day – she writes “Buffy Fic” with a large dose of humor – and found myself wondering how many of her jokes, especially those playing off specific television programs or other pop culture items, would make sense ten years from now.  For example, one joke played off a confusion between ESP and ESPN…

Does the ESPN reference translate?

ALAN: It does now! Once upon a time it wouldn’t have meant a thing to me, but the rise in popularity of satellite TV services has brought a lot of world-wide content to our screens and now ESPN seems to be everywhere. Darynda Jones’ joke sounds as though it has possibilities…

JANE: Connie Willis is an author who has done a very fine job of writing good humor that is funny even if you don’t know the original reference point.  I really liked her book To Say Nothing of the Dog.  I believe I would have even if I hadn’t already read – and laughed myself silly – over Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) off which she was riffing.

Willis’ humorous novel Bellwether is much more “American” in its roots. Have you read it?  Did it work for you?

ALAN: Oh indeed – Bellwether is the one Connie Willis novel that I can honestly say works brilliantly for me from beginning to end. To Say Nothing Of The Dog is very good and I enjoyed it a lot, but it still suffers from Connie Willis’ basic assumption that people running around like headless chickens and refusing to share important information with each other is funny in and of itself. Sorry, Connie, but it isn’t.

However Bellwether, with its brilliantly satirical parody of commercial management styles and its fascinating speculations about the origins of fads is an absolute tour de force and I love it. Interestingly, I met Connie at a convention in Australia a few years ago.  (She’s a lovely person.)  I asked her to autograph two books for me. Guess which two they were? Yes – you got it right! Bellwether and To Say Nothing Of The Dog.

JANE: Yes.  Those two would be my choices as well.   In fact, if she comes to Bubonicon this year (as she often does) I should consider following your lead!

Although there are many other books and authors we could bring up, I think we’ve actually come to a close not only of this Tangent, but also of our long and winding tour through the many genres and sub-genres of SF and F.

But I wanted to ask you about…  Wait, I’ll save it for next time!

Just How Useful?

September 4, 2013

I don’t do a lot on-line, so I’ll be the first to admit, I’m behind the times.  That’s why I’m bringing my question to you folks.  Here’s what happened…

One Reviewer's Opinions

One Reviewer’s Opinions

Last week, I was considering buying a DVD of an anime series I already owned as a gift for a friend.  I went to Amazon to see if they had it and noticed there were two different packages.   Since I wanted to make sure that I had the right set and I found Amazon’s summary notes a little cryptic, I clicked on the on-line reviews as a means of seeing if there was any advantage to one package over another.  I started skimming, then found myself continuing to read in a sort of fascinated horror.

I know this particular series very well but, if I had been a newcomer, I would have had no idea what to think.  I might even have thought that two completely different series with the same title were being reviewed.  That’s how varied the comments were.

The animation was rated as artistic and creative.  It was lambasted as lousy and cut rate.  The music was singled out as boring and repetitious.  The music was praised as wonderful and dynamic.  The story line was assessed as provocative and thoughtful.  The story line was dismissed as limited and episodic.  And the characters…  I swear I wouldn’t have known them!  Even the reviewers who liked them tended to be reductive in their assessment of some very complex personalities.

So how useful are these sites that permit reviews anyhow?

Writers have a love-hate relationship with on-line reviewing sites, especially those with no limits and no moderation.  Everyone has heard tales of fans and/or writers who have taken advantage of the anonymity to use multiple accounts to pump up their favorites and downgrade works they view as rivals.  Since it only takes a single one-star review to lower a book or movie’s overall average, this is pretty creepy.

A few years ago, I heard from a reliable source that one writer deliberately set out to trash any book he viewed as competition for his own forthcoming novel.  His enthusiasm for his project drew attention to itself, creating a trail that eventually led to his unmasking and the reviews being removed.  Even so, he certainly did damage.  It’s enough to make a potential victim’s skin crawl.

At Bubonicon a couple of weeks ago, Guest of Honor Tim Powers talked about how he obsessively reads his on-line reviews.  He was very funny as he talked about ranting and raving, thinking up complex revenges upon those who didn’t understand his work.  He asked me if I read my on-line reader reviews.  I admitted that I don’t look at them.   I tend to get too upset when someone misses the point entirely or, worse, gets some crucial fact completely wrong, then chews my book apart for not doing what they think it should have done – but did in fact do!

It would not be good form to fight back, but I am a fighter, so it’s best not to put myself in the position of fuming quietly (or not so quietly, at least as far as Jim is concerned).

Even with this anime series I was looking at, I found myself pushing down an impulse to write a volume of commentary, pointing out the deep, philosophical underpinnings of the recursive story.  However, looking at the site’s chronological organization, I knew what I wrote would soon be lost.  For a short time, my piece might be the first someone would see, but eventually it would be buried.

So, just how useful are these on-line reviews?  If you were looking for a good quality assessment of a book or movie, where would you go?  Having had this bad experience, I’m curious as to what a tyro like myself may be missing.