Monday, February 25, 2008

If You Want to Send a Message...

...use Western Union.

That was the old saying that Marion Zimmer Bradley used to use on her rejection slips if she considered a story to be overshadowed by a heavy-handed Message from the author.

I was thinking of that this weekend as I was watching Waterworld. When the principal villains were first referred to as the Smokers, I thought it meant they smoked their prey out of their refuges or some such.

And then we actually see them, and there they've got cigarettes hanging from their mouths. Now I've got no great use for tobacco, and was very glad when Indianapolis went smoke-free in public places. But it was just a little too heavy-handed, a little clearly obvious -- especially when combined with other imagery of the villains as being part of a certain anti-environmentalist mindset.

I think it could've worked, had it been handled more lightly. There are many things that can be done humorously that would fall flat in serious drama. But I do not get the feeling that the Smokers were being played for laughs, letting the message slip in as the audience is laughing.

Monday, February 18, 2008

For Every Gain There Is a Loss

One of the marks of good fiction is the ability to acknowledge the complexity of the human condition, that all is not simple black-and-white, that heroes have their shortcomings and villains have their good points. It is always easy to write stories of fine heroes flung against villains of the vilest sort, but in that direction lies Mary Sue (or Marty Stu), the utterly spotless protagonist whom everybody just adores, save for the villains, whose villainy is confirmed by their implacable hatred.

When I originally read Eric Flint's 1632 , I was concerned that some of the characterization seemed rather simplistic. Mike Stearns and his friends were all so good and democratic and hardworking, the mercenaries were bloodthirsty killers, and even John Simpson, the out-of-town businessman, seemed to be more a straw-man opposition for Mike to defeat than a real contrary voice.

Thus I was very happy to read the sequel, 1633, and see the beginnings of a richer tapestry. The praise of the virtue of hard work and of the people who do it remained, but painted in a richer palette of shades of gray. John Simpson goes from being a straw-man city-slicker CEO stereotype set up to be knocked down and becomes a complex, three-dimensional person who cares for those under him and who is hurt by the breach with his son.

And the development of complexity continues in Ring of Fire II
with Jonathan Cresswell-Jones' "Malungu Seed." Here we see the story of a man who nearly became the first black Jesuit, and his desperate mission to bring to the world a treasure more precious than silver or gold. And as Dr. James Nichols struggles to save his life, it becomes an opportunity to consider how changing the world so that many of the scourges that plagued it, and in particular the slave trade and race-based slavery, will also eliminate some very fine things, including the development of whole genres of art and music.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Last Centurion News

John Ringo has created a website for his upcoming novel The Last Centurion. You can find it at

Like the novel, it's written in the first person. However, it appears to take up after the conclusion of the novel, which may or may not constitute a spoiler. In particular, I'm eagerly looking for hints on whether the novel ends with devolutionary spiral to collapse, or with hints of a renaissance to come. The mentions of telephone lines and Internet do seem to suggest that the post-disaster world will not be a reversion to pre-Industrial society.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Renewing an Old Acquaintence

Years ago, when I was an art student, one of my assignments for art history was to watch Artemisia, a movie about the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. So imagine my surprise as I was perusing the latest installment in Eric Flint's 1632-verse, Ring of Fire II, to find her as a major character in Jay Robinson's "Trials."

The opening scene of this story is one of the more grimly vivid scenes in the movie -- Artemisia's interrogation by torture during the rape trial of her former tutor. Although I had almost forgotten watching the movie almost a decade ago, as soon as I read that paragraph, it all came flashing back and I was immediately sucked straight into the story.

And it's an interesting story of many twists and turns that will be appreciated by anyone who enjoys courtroom drama. There is even a bit that is either sheer coincidence or a slight in-joke for Harry Potter fans.

Friday, February 8, 2008

On the Problems of Long Series

One of the problems of a very long series can be the extended period of time that passes between the publication of the first book and later books. As a result, even dedicated readers of the series may have difficulty remembering details of earlier books when they encounter elements of a current one that depend upon those events.

I'm discovering that in reading the latest books in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner universe, I really want to be able to go back and re-read the entire series in rapid succession. I originally read the first three books over a decade ago, and while I remember the general plot of those volumes, there are details that I'd really like to remember better.

For instance, I'm trying to recall exactly how the atevi cultural principle of kabiu was presented in those early volumes. I'm remembering it as being primarily in terms of food taboos, and in particular the prohibition on the domestication of animals for slaughter or the eating of game and some other foods out of their proper season. However, as the series has progressed, it has come to have a more general sense of propriety in one's actions, and even covers such things as the arrangement of furniture in a room according to the status of its occupants. I'm not sure if the hints were present in the earlier volumes, or this is a development as Cherryh takes the reader deeper into atevi culture.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Not Exactly an Outtake

Fans of Sherwood Smith will want to keep an eye out for the new anthology Lace and Blade, which is edited by Deborah Ross and published by Norilana Books. Sherwood's story comes from her novel Antiphony, set late in the history of the same universe as Inda. However, when she rewrote it to work as a short story, disconnecting the various tendrils of story that extended to other parts of the novel instead resulted in it shifting to what she describes as "the next universe over."

Saturday, February 2, 2008

New Stories of Bren and the Atevi

It appears that C. J. Cherryh will be writing a fourth trilogy in Foreigner: universe. The first volume is tentatively entitled Conspirator, although no firm publication date has been set.