Archive for the ‘Other People’s Stories’ Category

TT: A Question of Identity

June 8, 2017

JANE: Last time you said you had an obvious question for me.

ALAN: Yes – I have three, actually.

JANE: Three?  I begin to feel as if we’re entering a fairytale – or at least a Monty Python sketch.

A Character in Amber

Prithee, sir knight, what is your first question?

ALAN:  The first concerns Roger Zelazny. I hope I’m not betraying a confidence, but you told me once that Roger had put himself into one of the Amber books. Can you tell me about that?

JANE: Oh…  Roger’s cameo is hardly a secret.  It happens in The Hand of Oberon, the fourth Amber novel.  In it, Corwin, one of the Nine Princes of Amber whose tale is told in these novels, ventures into the dungeons and has a short chat with one of the guards.

Is this ringing a bell for you?

ALAN: No, not at all. It’s many years since I last read the book and my memories of it are very hazy.

JANE: The scene is short, so let me quote it in full:

“Good evening, Lord Corwin,” said the lean, cadaverous figure who rested against a storage rack, smoking his pipe, grinning around it.

“Good evening, Roger. How are things in the nether world?”

“A rat, a bat, a spider. Nothing much else astir. Peaceful.”

“You enjoy this duty?”

He nodded.

“I am writing a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity. I work on those parts down here.”

“Fitting, fitting,” I said. “I’ll be needing a lantern.”

He took one from the rack, brought it to flame from his candle.

“Will it have a happy ending?” I inquired.

He shrugged.

“I’ll be happy.”

“I mean, does good triumph and hero bed heroine? Or do you kill everybody off?”

“That’s hardly fair,” he said.

“Never mind. Maybe I’ll read it one day.”

“Maybe,” he said.

 ALAN: Oh, that’s nice. As you know, I’ve met Roger and I had several conversations with him. The dialogue in that piece is pure Roger. I can so easily imagine him saying those things. He captured his own wry, sardonic humour perfectly.

Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Jackson always have a cameo in their own films. How good to see a writer following that tradition in prose.

JANE: Yes.  But it really doesn’t capture Roger…  He wasn’t only wry and sardonic.  He could also be ridiculously silly.  When we lived together, he used to sing nonsense songs to the cats.  He could be sweetly sentimental.  When our guinea pig had babies, he was the one who wanted to keep all of them.  (We did.)

You don’t need to take my word for these aspects of his personality.  The forthcoming anthology Shadows and Reflections includes a final, non-fiction piece by his daughter, Shannon, who was a high school student when she lost her dad.  It’s very moving and, of the many tributes to Roger that I’ve read, it comes closest to capturing the man I knew and loved.

ALAN: I’ll definitely have to buy that when it comes out. I only saw Roger’s public face, of course, but I can easily imagine him being all those things.

JANE: What gets me is how many people want Roger not to be Roger but to be one of his characters.  The most common are Sam (from Lord of Light) or Corwin (from the Amber novels); a runner-up seems to be Conrad from This Immortal.  These people support the contention that these characters “were” him by showing similarities in skills or life experiences, creating the false syllogism that “if this is true, then so must the rest be.”

It’s a long-standing issue, going back to some of the earliest literary criticism written about Roger’s works (interestingly enough, his childhood friend, and literary biographer Carl Yoke is the least likely to make the equation), but one that persists to the diminishment of the multi-dimensional human he was.  I’ll stop there lest I begin to rant…

ALAN: That’s actually a very good rant. It generally makes no sense to go that far. You might just as well say that David Copperfield (the hero of the novel, not the stage magician) is Charles Dickens – after all, they are both novelists!

Have any other writers of your acquaintance put themselves into their books?

JANE: Well, yes and no.  I can’t think of examples off the cuff, but I certainly know writers who perpetually return to the same themes because they are working out their personal issues.  I don’t want to go further than that.

ALAN: Perhaps that’s wise.

I know you quite well, and I’ve read most of your published fiction, but there is nobody in any of your novels that I could point to and say “That’s Jane.” How much of that is deliberate?

JANE: Probably quite a lot.  I was very influenced as a Lit student by how some of my professors seemed to want to dwell less on the literary work of an author and more on his or her life.  Yeats’s obsession with Maud Gonne.  T.S. Eliot’s nervous breakdown.  D.H. Lawrence’s various entanglements.  On and on…  Sure, some of that was in the work, but there was always more, a whole lot more, but much of that was treated as if it had only been created as a disguise for the author “really” writing autobiography.

At the same time, I read T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and was very hit by his discussion of how the artist transmutes life experiences into art.   It’s in the second section, if you want to read all of it, but the final sentence captures some of his argument.

“…but the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”

ALAN: I think natural human curiosity makes a reader want to know more about a writer that they admire, if only to try and understand what makes the writer approach their art in the way that they do.

I think I told you that I used to live in Eastwood, the Nottinghamshire village where Lawrence was brought up. There were still people in the village who remembered him and I’m sure that if he’d ever come back to the village they’d have hanged, drawn and quartered him. Even forty years after Lawrence’s death, there was still a lot of residual anger about the way he’d portrayed them. I’m sure that says something about the literary choices he made, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what.

Cases as blatant as Kingsley Amis, who we discussed last time, are actually quite rare. But nevertheless there’s a very famous SF writer who some people think put a lot of himself into his books. Shall we talk about him next time?

JANE: Absolutely!

TT: Rule Breaker

May 18, 2017

JANE: I’ve spent the better part of the last week trying to figure out what makes Cordwainer Smith’s work so special.  Finally, today, as I glanced at the opening of Norstrilia I had it.

Longer Works

He breaks all the rules and somehow makes it work.

Let me quote the first paragraph of Norstrilia since not everyone may have a copy at hand.  (I am happy to report, however, that Norstrilia appears to be available in a variety of forms, including an e-book.)

“The story is simple.  There was a boy who bought the planet Earth.  We know that, to our cost.  It only happened once, and we have taken pains that it will not happen again.  He came to Earth, got what he wanted, and got away alive, in a series of very remarkable adventures.  That’s the story.”

And then having broken the rule that people read books because they want to find out “how it ends,” and so need to be teased and tantalized, Cordwainer Smith launches into his remarkable tale.

ALAN: And the very next thing he talks about is “stroon”. I’ve no idea what the derivation of the word is, but it’s a vital element within the universe in which his stories are set. Stroon is a drug that indefinitely postpones aging in humans. It’s sometimes referred to as the santaclara drug, and I don’t know the derivation of that word either…

JANE: “Stroon” sounds very Australian and since Norstrilia is a shortened form of the planet’s original name – Old North Australia – this is probably not accidental.  You are married to an Australian.  Can Robin help out with this puzzle?

ALAN: I reminded Robin that in the novel, stroon is extracted from the gigantic sick sheep of Old North Australia and she thought for a moment, then she informed me that in her experience real North Australians don’t understand numbers – when they count their sheep they are only able to count “One, two, a mob.” (She may be showing her West Australian bias here…) So therefore it would seem that the most likely reason for the name of the drug is because, wherever you look, you will find a mob of sick sheep strewn all over the landscape… (Stroon, when you use the proper, lazy North Australian accent of course).

JANE: Ouch!

Let’s see what I can come up with that might help with why it’s called the santaclara drug.

Santa Clara translates into English as “Saint Clara” or “Saint Clare.”  Saint Clara was a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Although wealthy, she was so inspired by his preaching that she asked him for guidelines as to how to live a good life.  She then founded a monastic order that still exists today and is commonly called the “Poor Clares” because of their devotion to a life of quiet contemplation and renunciation of Earthly possessions.

Since the Nostrilians effectively take a vow of poverty in order to preserve their society in the face of what would otherwise be astonishing wealth, this seems to fit.  Nor is it out of line with the setting, since Christianity – alluded to as “the sign of the Fish” – provides an important undercurrent in the stories dealing with the underpeople.

So, what do you think?  Does Saint Clara provide a possible reason why stroon is called the santaclara drug?

ALAN: Absolutely it does. It’s very easy to imagine the lazy North Australian accent blurring those words together so that the space disappears and Santa Clara becomes the “santaclara” drug…

If this was an SF novel by anyone else, we’d expect that stroon would be synthesised in a lab or extracted from a plant; something quite mundane and scientific (or at least scientifically fictional). But this is a Cordwainer Smith novel and we quickly learn that stroon is impossible to synthesise. So the only source of the drug is from the mobs of gigantic and very sick Norstrilian sheep.

That’s a very surreal image. I’m not a very visual reader and I seldom make pictures in my mind from the words that I read. But I find that a large part of Cordwainer Smith’s attraction is that, unlike almost every other author, he always manages to conjure up very visual images for me, generally strangely attractive ones. And here I can so easily picture bare brown landscapes festooned with huge, diseased sheep, panting in the heat, perhaps baaa-ing plaintively and maybe with a soft Salvador Dali watch draped over them to give them some shade. I’ve no idea where the watches come in – Smith never mentions them, but to me they are always there…

JANE: I don’t need to add watches, in part because Cordwainer Smith always balances the surreal with the extremely real.  A good example is how he deals with water.  Norstrilia is a very dry planet, so canals are covered to reduce water loss from evaporation.  This very science fictional touch makes it possible for me to believe in a landscape dotted with enormous, nearly immortal, diseased sheep.

ALAN: But there’s much more to the story than just bizarre imagery. Images need to have a purpose and here, with the introduction of stroon, Smith is definitely not a rule breaker. He asks a genuinely SF question: “What if there was a drug that granted immortality and it could only be made on one planet?”   He pursues the economic, political and cultural implications of the answer to that question quite rigorously.

Stroon sells for astronomical prices and consequently Norstrilia is fabulously wealthy by the standards of every other planet. But (isn’t there always a “but”?) the Norstrilian way of life is simple, pastoral and rather archaic, and the Norstrilians are concerned to keep it that way. Consequently imports are taxed at something in excess of twenty million percent which means, of course, that even the fabulously wealthy Norstrilians are too poor to purchase much in the way of luxury, thus maintaining the status quo.

Linebarger (“Smith”) was an economic and political advisor to governments and the knowledge and experience he gained by doing that job is used to great effect in his stories. The surreal and complex imagery always has a firm foundation to stand on.

JANE: Another place where Smith breaks the rules and somehow makes it work in defiance of all logic is in the concept of the underpeople.  The underpeople have a major role to play in Norstrilia, as well as in many of his short stories.  Maybe we can talk about them and the mysterious Instrumentality of Mankind, next time.

My Thyme Garden

March 29, 2017

News Flash!  This Sunday, April 2nd, at 1:00 pm.  I’ll be joining editor Gerald Hausman and some of the contributing authors to the anthology Guns at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe.  Plans include a discussion followed by Q&A, culminating in a group signing.  Go here for more details.

You Can See the Sundial’s Shadow

This weekend we went out plant shopping.  In the process I managed to combine two of my great loves: gardening and books – of one book, especially, in particular.

Despite my dire predictions last week, we did not get snow.  However, I feel somewhat justified in my doom and gloom because the temperatures did drop, and snow was even predicted for one night.  It didn’t happen, but it was predicted.  What we did get was the horrible howling winds that distinguish New Mexico springs.

By Saturday, the winds had decided to go bother someone else, and the temperatures were predicted to be moderate.  Jim and I saddled up (figuratively) and went on a quest for an apple tree.  Now, as you may know, most apple trees need a compatible tree for reasons of pollination.  Even “self-fruitful” or “self-pollinating” trees do better if they have a partner.

Since our remaining apple tree is a Gala, we were restricted a relatively limited list.  Eventually, at Alameda Greenhouse we found three options.  We didn’t want a Granny Smith because, while those apples are tasty, they’re tart, better for cooking than eating.  (Unless you like really tart apples.)  That left us with Jonathan and Fuji.  The Jonathan trees looked nice, but they were obviously younger, with more slender trunks.  So we settled – quite happily, actually –on a nice semi-dwarf Fuji.

You’d think putting the new tree in would be easy, because we were using the same spot where we had taken out the previous tree.  Hah!  When I went to dig out the area, I found it was completely infested – there’s really no other word for it – with Bermuda grass roots.  Since water is precious here in the southwest, I didn’t really want the new tree to have competition.  So I started digging out the roots.

Several hours and six gallons later – I know, because I was putting the roots into buckets, and those had a measurable volume – the ground was finally more or less clear of Bermuda grass roots.  I then dug a hole twice as wide as the tree’s base and somewhat deeper.  This was then lined with fresh compost from our own bins.

(Jim had been emptying these while I’d been engaged with the Bermuda grass.)

We then set the tree in place, refilled the hole with a mixture of sand (which is what we have here rather than soil) and various amendments, then soaked with a mixture of water and root stimulant.

We’re debating whether to take off an anomalous, but sturdy, lower limb as the woman at the greenhouse said she would if it were her tree.  On the one hand, she’s right, that would encourage the tree to grow a solid upper crown.  On the other hand, that would leave us with a very silly-looking stick with a ball of leaves on top, sort of like a poodle’s tail minus the poodle.

The jury’s out for now, but I’d welcome advice.

While we were out questing for apple trees, I spotted some lovely thyme plants.  Last summer, we finally lost the plants that had flourished at the edge of our tiny pond for several years.  I was determined to plant more – not only because it’s an attractive, heat-hardy plant, but also because thyme is a key element in one of my favorite self-created recipes: Scarborough Faire Chicken.

If you’ve guessed that the key seasonings are parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, you’re right.  The fact that I grow all of these myself adds savor (pun intended) to the mix.  I also use ample garlic powder (not garlic salt) and fresh onion.  Bake covered, skin-side down at 350 for about 45 minutes, then remove cover if you want the onions to brown.  Cooking time, obviously, will vary according to the size of your pieces of chicken and other such factors.

It’s good, though.  Very.

So I wanted thyme.  Why then did I get not just one thyme plant (which would be ample), but three?  And why didn’t I get all of one variety, specifically, the English thyme that has done well at the past?

Blame it on a book called The Time Garden by Edward Eager.  If you didn’t know it already (and I didn’t when I was a kid) “thyme” is pronounced “time.”  And The Time Garden is about three pre-teens and one teen who spend the summer at a house where the thyme garden proves to be a means of time travel.  When you go depends on the type of thyme you pick.

In the best tradition of E. Nesbit style fantasy novels, the thyme garden also has the Natterjack, a guardian who explains – grumpily and reluctantly – the rules of the magic.  A Natterjack, if you don’t know is, as he himself explains, a very superior sort of toad.  This one is descended from a London toad from Covent Garden who emigrated to the New World.  “Any magic as I ‘ave,” he explains, “I puts right into this ‘ere garding.”  The kids are quick to pick up on the hint.

The first thyme picked – appropriately by impulsive Eliza – is “wild thyme.”  After that, although the children take great care with what sorts they pick, they still manage to have some interesting adventures.

When I saw that in addition to the English thyme I’d intended to get, the store also had lemon thyme and gold lemon time (this last with lovely yellow veins in the leaves) I couldn’t resist.  I planted all three varieties near the pond where – just by chance, of course – we have a sundial, and where, again, just by chance, Jim has built what he calls his “toad temple.”

If they take, I’d like to add more. Wooly thyme is lovely, as is silver thyme.

Of course we won’t have magical adventures…  That doesn’t happen to grown-ups, or so I’ve been told.  But then, as the Natterjack says in The Time Garden, time will tell!

TT: Evolving Spiritual Concepts

March 2, 2017

ALAN: Did you know that this is our 300th Tangent?

JANE: That’s amazing!  Even at a low average of five hundred words per Tangent, that’s something like 150,000 words, or a good sized-novel’s worth of talk.

ALAN: Actually, we average rather higher, but I’ll let you be modest.

Future Theological Quests

Future Theological Quests

This seems like a good time to remind people that I have compiled some of the Tangents into a free e-book which can be downloaded  from the “My Books” page of my website.

JANE: And while they’re at it, they can download some of your amusing collections of essays…

Now, what were we talking about?  Oh, that’s right…

I’d realized that – with the exception of  A Canticle for Lebowitz – most of the stories we had discussed took a negative view regarding how traditional religions and theological positions would cope with the challenges of the future – in particular, with encounters with aliens.

ALAN: You’re right to point that out – but it wasn’t a deliberate policy. It’s just that the examples we chose were the most obvious and famous ones.

JANE: Surely someone other than Walter Miller has taken on the challenge of incorporating traditional religion into a future history.  Obviously, that religion might change – the Catholic Church of the 21st century is not the same as the Catholic Church of the 10th century – but they are clearly related entities.

Do you have any thoughts/suggestions?

ALAN: Actually, yes I do. Whenever you think about SF ideas that might be a little controversial, the name Philip Jose Farmer always springs to mind…

He wrote several stories about Father John Carmody, a Catholic priest who has many adventures with alien religions. Probably the best is the novel Night of Light. Every seven years, the planet called Dante’s Joy is subjected to a fortnight of psychedelic radiation that rearranges reality. Most of the inhabitants choose to sleep through it. Only mystics, newcomers, and the deeply religious stay awake to experience things materializing out of thin air. Many of them will die. But their religion tells them that the good will become better, though the bad may become worse.

Carmody observes a man metamorphose into a tree. Another is chased by statues that come to life. During this time, the living god must face his successor and Father John is there to help and to reconcile the planet’s religion with his own faith.

But by the end of the story, it seems likely that the alien religion will displace his own and spread throughout the galaxy.

JANE: Now that I think of it, Clifford Simak, whose works we discussed at some length back in 2014 met this particular challenge.  Unlike those authors who feared that encounters with aliens would challenge faith, in Simak’s stories non-humans often share the desire to explore theological questions like what constitutes the soul or the existence of God.

In several of Simak’s books – A Choice of Gods and Project Pope immediately come to mind – theological questions and questing are taken up by robots.  Simak clearly views religion—or at least the spiritual impulse – as something that is key to the expanding of the self, perhaps a step in the evolution of consciousness as important as opposable thumbs or the equivalent.

ALAN: Encounters with aliens are all very well, but what about encounters with everything on Earth? In the two novels that make up Octavia Butler’s Earthseed (Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)) we meet Lauren Olamina, the daughter of a Baptist minister. She suffers from hyperempathy – she shares the pain of every living thing that she sees. She founds a haven where she and others can build a community which they call Earthseed. The word derives from the idea that the seeds of all life on Earth can be transplanted, and will change and adapt, in many different types of situations or places. Earthseed teaches that God is change and believers can shape change, both here and elsewhere. Lauren sees Earthseed as a religion destined to take root among the stars as the Earth’s resources are used up. To that extent, it is a religion of the present and the future. It has no connection to the dead past.

JANE: That sounds fascinating.  If Earthseed is unconnected to any past faiths, what are its tenets?

ALAN: The essential truth of Earthseed is defined in the paradoxical questions and answers:

Why is the universe? To shape God.
Why is God? To shape the universe

The ideas of Earthseed are developed in a very science fictional framework where America has devolved into a society of city states who fight each other for access to the few remaining resources. The books are Octavia Butler’s masterpiece.

JANE: You are certainly far from alone in thinking so!

One thing that’s interesting in how SF authors deal with religion and/or spirituality is whether they believe the older faiths will have any value in a transformed future world.  Butler has Lauren create a new religion to suit new challenges.  Simak – especially in A Choice of Gods – shows how different “gods” will suit different life paths.

Then there’s Roger Zelazny who, in Lord of Light, showed how a very old religion – in this case, Hinduism – might become “current” again when technology makes possible such things as reincarnation which previously had to be taken as a matter of Faith.

Zelazny dealt with other myths in stories, of course, but Lord of Light may be the best example for this particular discussion, because between technology and actual changes in the nature of humanity, many of the main characters don’t simply copy the Hindu gods, they become them.

ALAN: The great grey ghost who hangs over all discussions of SF and religion is Philip K. Dick. In 1974 he answered a knock on his door to find a young woman wearing a necklace fashioned in the shape of a fish, an ancient Christian symbol. Sunlight reflecting off the necklace caused what he perceived as a pink beam of light to strike him. After experiencing a series of hallucinations for several days, he came to the understanding that the pink beam had imposed a transcendentally rational mind onto his own. Clearly it was highly intelligent. He considered that its appearance must have been a sign from God. He spent the rest of his life exploring what that might mean.

His last few novels (the Valis trilogy and the posthumously published Radio Free Albemuth) are full of deeply spiritual and theological speculations and he kept a private diary which he called his Exegesis in which he tried to rationalise his experience. Portions of the Exegesis have been published, together with commentaries by several people. They are very difficult to read – I was unable to make anything of them. The novels are more approachable and some critics consider them to be his masterpieces. I confess, I am much amused by Dick’s designation of God as a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS).

JANE: I never knew that was what VALIS meant. Interesting!

We could probably keep coming up with new example of spirituality in SF, but I think we’ve made our point.  Science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive – at least not in the writings of many science fiction writers over a long span of time.

Unpredictable Future

February 22, 2017

This past week was very stressful, in large part because of a variety of events I couldn’t have predicted but which took up a great deal of time, emotional energy, and even brain space as I tried to arrive at the best solution for various difficulties.

Kwahe'e Considers

Kwahe’e Considers

By interesting coincidence, my reading matter involved both a memoir (Jill Price’s The Woman Who Can’t Forget: A Memoir) and historical fiction (Patrick O’Brian’s The Hundred Days).  As I read these, once again, I found myself thinking about how much of what creates stress (whether in a piece of fiction or in reality) is not knowing the resolution.

I talked about this a little back in early 2014, in my wandering “Light, Not Necessarily Fluffy,” so you may choose to consider what I have to say an expansion.

Jill Price frames her fascinating memoir with an anecdote about the day she contacted the memory specialist who would help her understand that she wasn’t crazy or maladjusted, that there really was something different about the structure of her brain that contributed to how she retained and processed “autobiographical memory.”

The choice to begin with this piece of information provides a sense of structure to the memoir overall, but it also diminishes the sense of stress.  Even when Ms. Price discusses how at various times in her life her memories would overwhelm her to such a great extent that she couldn’t get out of bed or be supportive of people who needed her, this sense of stress is modified by the reader’s awareness that a time will come where she will get help, will find people who will understand her.

Equally, when Ms. Price talks about her husband, Jim Price, several times she makes statements like “in the short time we would have.”  This warns the reader to expect the tragedy to come, modifying the stress involved in her account of her husband’s death.  It even causes the reader to be more alert to certain biographical elements, such as her mention that Jim Price suffered from type one diabetes.

The Hundred Days provides an interesting expansion on how pre-knowledge of outcomes colors one’s reaction to events.  Many, if not all, readers of these books will immediately catch the reference to Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the short-lived resurgence of French military power.  However, Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin, and the rest of the characters have no idea that it will all be “over” in a mere hundred days.  They feel intense excitement and varying degrees of anxiety that the reader cannot fully share.

Interestingly, the title of the novel in the series immediately prior to The Hundred Days intensifies rather than diminishes stress.  The Yellow Admiral may not mean much to most readers.  Indeed, since (at least for Americans) “yellow” is slang for “cowardly,” someone who has not yet read the book might believe it is going to be about an admiral who lets cowardice keep him from fulfilling his duties.  However, within the novel, O’Brian relatively quickly lets the reader know that, in this context, “yellow admiral” is a term used for someone who has been (effectively – I’m not going to get into the complexities here) passed over for promotion

The Yellow Admiral is set in the period following Napoleon’s first surrender, when many ship commanders (including Jack Aubery) are “put on shore” – their reactions to the newly declared peace tainted by their awareness that peace also means an end to active duty and coveted promotion.  By titling the book The Yellow Admiral, O’Brian leads the reader to fear that bold Jack will face this dreaded fate.

I won’t tell you what happens!

Another good example of how foreshadowing can lead to an increased sense of tension occurs in the opening of Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace.  The narrator, an old woman of 93, looks back and (among other things) says, “Fifty years and five it is, since Urdo fell…”  So, from the third paragraph we know when the king will die.  From other things she says, we know who his successor will be.  We know that the culture will change radically.

How a reader will react to such foreknowledge is a gamble the writer takes, but one thing is certain.  No one in “real life” knows how their story will end.  Maybe the sense that someone (if only the author) does is one of the appeals of fiction.

Expectations and “The Dark Crystal”

February 15, 2017

Prompted by my listening to an audiobook version of Jim Henson: A Biography by Brian Jay Jones, last Saturday Jim and I watched The Dark Crystal.  Although I hadn’t seen the film for decades, I’d seen it many times before.  I think I also read a novelization because, as we watched, my hindbrain filled in details that weren’t on the screen.  Jim, on the other hand, had heard about the movie, but never seen it.

The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal

(For clarity’s sake, I’m going to refer to my husband as “Jim” and Jim Henson either by his full name or as “Henson.”)

I was very interested in what Jim’s reaction to The Dark Crystal would be, as well as how his reaction would compare to that of the original audience for the film.  As you may or may not know, The Dark Crystal was not well received.  A great deal of this had to do with the expectations the original audience brought to the theater with them.

At the time when The Dark Crystal was released, Jim Henson was very well known.  However, mostly for his Muppets, which had already broken into the adult viewer market with The Muppet Show, the characters from which had even crossed over to the big screen.

Therefore, the audience attending the film thought they knew what “a Jim Henson production” meant: colorful, wildly over-the-top characters, humor (both broad slapstick and ironic and dry), and bouncy musical numbers.  They definitely did not expect a solemn, even dark, fantasy film.

Although the silly, over-the-top elements were definitely part of Henson (Brian Jay Jones’s biography notes that, early in his career, most of Henson’s Muppet sketches ended either with an explosion or with someone being eaten by someone else), there was a lot about Henson’s work his Muppet fans probably didn’t know.  Henson periodically longed to drop anything to do with puppets and do independent films.  Even when working with puppets, he was most fascinated with how they could be used to push expectations, not with following established trends.

Henson had to persist for years to get The Muppet Show on the air, because American television and movie executives “knew” that puppets were only for kids.  In fact, The Muppet Show’s original backers were British, and the show was filmed in England.

A side note.  Apparently SF/F fans were more receptive to the than were the general public.  My guess is that in addition to not having the same expectations, they were familiar with the tropes being used.  Many may have already been familiar with Brian Froud’s art, since his Faeries had been very well-received.  Jim Henson must have been aware that the SF/F crowd could be a core audience, because he gave a presentation on the film at a Worldcon prior to the film’s release.

So, what did Jim think of The Dark Crystal?  He liked it quite a lot.  However, he also brought very different expectations to the viewing.  In contrast to the original audience for The Dark Crystal, although Jim was definitely familiar with the traditional Muppets, he was also familiar with Henson’s later work, most especially with Labyrinth, a film that is one of my personal favorites.

(Labyrinth did even worse than The Dark Crystal on its original release, but has since found a solid following.)

Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal share several elements: a plot that relies on fantasy tropes, sets and characters indebted to the art of Brian Froud, and the use of sound as a form of language.  Labyrinth has more humor than does The Dark Crystal.  It also includes human characters as well as puppets, a formula Jim Henson had used repeatedly, whereas the closest The Dark Crystal comes to human characters are the two gelflings, Jen and Kira.

Jim also is a long-time reader of Fantasy fiction, as well as an anthropologist – possibly the perfect audience for a film that attempts to create a world and its creatures pretty much from scratch.  When I asked Jim if he had found the plot a bit too trite or formulaic, he grinned and said, “I’ve always had a weakness for that sort of story.”

Expectations again…

So, there you have it.  None of us really see or read anything fresh.  We bring our expectations with us, then let them shape our reactions.  The real question is whether, for you, “That’s not at all what I expected” can be construed as praise or criticism.

Interesting thought indeed.

FF: More Ships

December 16, 2016

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine).

Silver Admires Olga da Polga

Silver Admires Olga da Polga

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation 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 bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Wild Wood by Charles deLint.  Very centered on “idea” rather than plot, setting, or character, which makes for a very unusual novel.

The Tales of Olga da Polga by Michael Bond.  Tales told by and about a very creative guinea pig, who was based on Bond’s family’s own beloved pet.

The Truelove and The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian.  (Audiobooks).  Ends a four book story cycle with the crew of the Surprise hoping to reach home at last.

In Progress:

The Commodore by Patrick O’Brian.  (Audiobook.)

Also:

Continuing Naruto re-read and am up to issue 43.

FF: When the Sun Goes Down

November 25, 2016

We’ve continued reading in the evening.  It’s very relaxing and stimulating at the same time.

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Kel and Ruby Read

Kel and Ruby Read

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation 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 bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Golden Specific by S.E. Grove.  Audiobook.  Sequel to The Glass Sentence.  Like Tolkien’s Two Towers, two separate plotlines.  Book suffers a bit from “middle book of the trilogy” syndrome.  Will probably read the next book, but am not panting for it.

In Progress:

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.  This has been getting a lot of buzz, so I decided to try it.  About half-way.  Narrative is about half how the members of the “crows” ended up where they are and half caper.

The Golden Ball and Other Stories by Agatha Christie. Audiobook.   Agatha Christie had more range than people realized.  These tales are very much in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse.

Also:

Having finished the anime dealing with the first part of Naruto, Jim and I are now reading (or in my case, re-reading) the manga for the second story arc.  This week, volumes 27-33.

TT: From Here To Eternity

November 24, 2016

JANE: Happy Thanksgiving!  While you wait for your turkey to cook – or maybe while you digest – Alan and I will attempt to amuse you.

Last week we started talking about the use of the immortality trope.  Unlike outer space exploration and time travel, immortality is one that occurs with equal frequency in Fantasy and SF.

Thanksgiving -- Immortal Monster Style

Thanksgiving — Immortal Monster Style

If you don’t mind, I’d like to at least try to examine immortality as a trope in SF/F from the angle of the three sub-groups you mentioned last time.  Let’s see if I can recall them from memory.

There are the stories in which the immortal serves as an observer of history.  Then there are the stories about the search for immortality – what you called “The Gilgamesh Gambit.”  Finally, there are the stories about immortals whose long life experience gives them an edge when faced with current problems.

ALAN: Right!  You get full marks. You can be the inkwell monitor for the class tomorrow.  However, I would like to make one thing clear.  These categories are not in any way mutually exclusive.  Stories can – and often do – use more than one of the ideas.

JANE: I can think of a memorable novel that uses all three creatively, but I’ll save that until we’ve explored these more or less in isolation.

To me, logically, the first one to look at is the Observer of History type of story, since the immortal is most passive in these.

The Vierck and Eldridge novels we mentioned last week fit into this section.  Do you have any other favorites?

ALAN: Yes, I do. In 1978, Nicholas Monsarrat published Running Proud, the first volume of the Master Mariner series.  It told the story of an Elizabethan English seaman who, as punishment for a terrible act of cowardice, is cursed by a witch to sail the world’s seas until the end of time. The series was designed to tell the maritime history of England with the immortal hero participating in critical historic episodes.

It was one of Monsarrat’s most popular books, but ironically he did not live to finish the project. He died with only one episode of the second volume (Darken Ship) completed, though he did leave some notes about how he saw the story progressing. These days, the completed episode and the notes are usually bound in with the first volume and published as a single volume under the title The Master Mariner. I highly recommend it.

JANE: Tall ships and ancient curses…  Sounds like a good combination.  I’m surprised no one else has picked up the idea and continued with it.  Then again, this book in particular highlights what is oddest about the Observer of History sub-trope.

While, essentially, it belongs to SF/F – after all, as far as we know, there are no immortals among us – this type of novel is a subgroup that would appeal more to mainstream fiction than to SF/F because of the essential passivity of the immortal.  I see these kind of stories as historical fiction in SF/F drag.

ALAN: I suppose that’s true, to an extent. But “proper” SF has certainly used the idea as well. Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years (1989) was nominated for a Nebula, a Hugo and a Prometheus award, so it must have had something going for it! The story follows a group of ten immortals from the ancient past to the far distant future.

JANE: Good example.  Another SF more or less immortal who serves in that “observer of events” role – although many of these events haven’t happened because they belong to a fictional future history – is Heinlein’s Lazarus Long.  He also belongs to your third category, but I find I think of him more as a tour guide to Heinlein’s future than as an actor in that history.

ALAN: Yes – I tend to think of him that way as well.

An interesting offshoot of the basic idea of the Observer of History is the legend of the Flying Dutchman – a sailing ship crewed by immortals which is doomed to sail the seven seas forever, never making landfall.

JANE: It’s hard to see how history could be observed if the ship never sees anything but the sea…

ALAN: True – and that’s probably why the trope isn’t used very often. But Tom Holt had a lot of fun with it in his comic fantasy novel Flying Dutch. It seems that the ship’s crew have drunk the elixir of life and are therefore immortal. Unfortunately, a side effect of the elixir has given them all the most appalling body odour and they cannot ever go ashore because their ferocious stink repulses everyone they meet. Hence their never ending voyage… (Once every seven years their stench drops to bearable levels. That’s when they make landfall and re-provision the ship).

JANE: Oh, lordy!  I haven’t read that one in ages.  Now you make me want to add it to my already crowded To Be Read shelf.

So, let’s move on to the Gilgamesh Gambit.  Despite the classic mythic elements, it seems to me that immortality, of body or at least of mind, would be a something SF would find very compelling.

ALAN: Indeed so. Robert Silverberg’s The Book of Skulls (1972) is the very best Gilgamesh Gambit story I’ve ever read. I think a lot of people must agree with me because it was nominated for a Nebula, a Hugo and a Locus Award!

Four college students discover a manuscript that tells of an order of monks who live in a monastery in the Arizona desert. The monks have the power to bestow immortality on those who complete a rather bizarre initiation rite. Naturally, the students set out to investigate the claims…

JANE: Monks, though…  That sounds as if the solution is going to be magical, rather than scientific.

ALAN: You could say that and I wouldn’t disagree too strongly with you. But this is Silverberg we’re talking about. The concepts are slippery…

One of the difficulties with “Gilgamesh Gambit” stories, especially of the Science Fictional sort, is that immortality always seems to be around the corner, but the science never seems to quite work out – that is unless the techniques relied on are so extreme that they might as well be magic.

JANE: And that’s another can of worms. Let’s watch them wriggle next time…

Lord of the Emberverse

September 28, 2016

News Flash!: I’m speaking at two events this coming week.  October 1, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. is the new Author Fest to benefit the Albuquerque Museum.  October 3, 9:00 a.m. I’m taking part in “Meet the Authors: Exploring the Creative Process” at UNM.  Details for both are available on my website.

A Few of Stirling's Grand Adventures

A Few of Stirling’s Grand Adventures

And now to the interview I promised you last week…

Steve (S.M.) Stirling and I became instant friends pretty much as soon as he and his wife Jan moved to Santa Fe in 1994.  His latest novel is Prince of Outcasts, the thirteenth offering in his widely popular “Emberverse” series.  He also has just sold a new dieselpunk series which will begin with And Carry a Big Stick.

I’ve lured him out of the spacious book-filled office in which he does his writing to talk about these projects and to answer the perennial question, “Does ‘S.M.’ really stand for ‘Sacher-Masoch?’”

JANE: Well, Steve, I always start interviews with the same question.

In my experience, writers fall into two general categories: those who have been writing stories since before they could actually write and those who came to writing somewhat later.

Which sort are you?

STEVE: The first.  I’ve had long, colorfully detailed daydreams with plots and characters since I can remember.   And I was telling them to my friends when I was six.  Possibly earlier.

JANE: Somehow I’m not surprised.  You still enjoy telling friends your stories – print just makes it possible for you to tell them to more people.

All right, now for the dangerous question.  Why “S.M.”?

STEVE: It was the way I signed checks.  When they asked me what name to put on the first book, I said “Oh, go with the way I signed the contract.”  Interestingly, I got a lot of fan mail assuming I was a woman; apparently female authors use initials more.

JANE: Yeah, because of the perception that women can’t write hard-hitting stories and that men won’t read books written by women.  It’s weird.

You’re Canadian by birth, but as a child you lived in France, Mexico, the U.S., Kenya, and other parts of Africa.  What impact do you think this had on your writing and choice of topics?

STEVE: Mexico was more long vacations than living; the others, yes.  It gave me a broader range of experiences, I think… seeing dead bodies, for instance.

JANE: Interesting that you don’t consider vacations as “living,” but then you do love your work!

You frequently write alternate history.  Even if the stories start out with adventure and exploration, eventually they become tales where vast armies clash.  What draws you to this sort of tale?

STEVE:  I do like vacations!  It was more a matter of what my parents were doing; if it was time off work for them, we were on vacation.

The alternate history is something most people do vis-à-vis their own lives.  E.g., why did your parents meet?  Mine met at a dance in 1942; my mother came with someone else, who had to leave to stand in line for the men’s room – it was very crowded.  My father, who knew the guy she’d come with, walked over to her table and said:  “Sam didn’t feel well and he had to leave, but he wanted me to walk you home.”  They were married a month later…

And his mother landed in Newfoundland and ended up staying at my grandfather’s hotel because she was emigrating from England to Boston and her ship hit an iceberg in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the passengers were rescued and taken to St. John’s, where the Stirlings owned a hotel.

Figure the chances on that one!  Alternate History is just the same thing applied globally.

As to the armies, conflict drives story.

JANE: I can see with a family history like that, you’d be preconditioned to write stories strongly driven by the “what if” element.  I met your dad and I can absolutely see him poaching his buddy’s date.

STEVE:  Old Army saying:  “You can trust your buddies with your life, but not a bottle or a girl.”

JANE:  For a long-time, you were best known for the popular “Draka” novels, but these days the thirteen-volume “Emberverse” series has eclipsed the Drakas in a big way.  What do you think make the Emberverse so appealing?

STEVE: Well, it’s post-apocalyptic and fantasy.  People can say “how would I handle that?” and it makes identifying with the characters easier, I think.  They’re ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

JANE: I agree.  You do a great job in both the Emberverse novels and their counterpart, the three-volume “Nantucket” series (beginning with Island in the Sea of Time), of showing ordinary people winning out against extraordinary challenges.

Can you tell my readers a little about Prince of Outcasts?  Is it a book they can read without having read the prior twelve Emberverse novels?

STEVE: It’s a fairly good introduction, I think, but with a long series reading the earlier ones helps.  However, the characters who are the main focus in Prince of Outcasts are not the major ones from earlier books, and a bunch are new; also, it mainly takes place in a new area of the Changed world, the islands of the Indonesian archipelago and Australia.

JANE: That sounds like quite a change from North America and relatively small portions of England that have been the setting of most of your other Emberverse novels.

Since I regularly e-chat with your wife, Jan, I happen to know you wrote your other new project, the forthcoming And Carry a Big Stick, in a white hot fury of passionate absorption.  Can you tell us a little of what we have coming?

STEVE: That’s an alternate history where President William Taft dies in 1912, and Teddy Roosevelt gets the Republican nomination instead of being forced out of the party to run on the Progressive ticket.  Instead the Progressives take over the GOP, Teddy sweeps back into the White House and radical hijinks occur.  It was a hoot to write – it’s an interesting period and he’s a fascinating guy.  (The only President ever to win a knife-fight with a cougar… no, really.)

 It’s mainly a novel of intrigue and Zeppelins and U-boats and a mutant World War One, with a beautiful spy working for Teddy’s “Black Chamber,” sort of a premature CIA.  I had a lot of fun writing it.

JANE: From other conversations, I know that the “beautiful spy” in question is female.  This leads me to my closing question.  For as long as I’ve been reading your books, you’ve included strong female characters of a wide variety of types – even when the historical setting would have enabled you to leave out female characters entirely.  What has made this appealing to you?

STEVE:  it’s just the way my psyche works, apparently.  I’ve always done it and didn’t think there was anything notable about that until other people asked me.

Besides that, I don’t particularly enjoy writing about people who strongly resemble me or reading about middle-aged bobos living in the Southwest, either.  That’s boring. As I like to say, if I want to be “reflected,” I just walk into the bathroom, face the sink and turn on the light.  Voila!  A perfect reflection!  Going to fiction to find yourself is to the experience of literature (either writing or reading) as masturbation is to real sex, in my opinion.  Plus if you have to go looking, you’ll never find.

JANE: That’s an interesting – indeed, somewhat radical these days – point of view, but it certainly fits perfectly with your work.

Thanks so much for your time…  I’ve very much enjoyed this, and I look forward to reading both Prince of Outcasts and Carry a Big Stick.