Friday, December 4, 2009

The Regency Egyptologist

You may have heard about the recent Jane Austen mashups bringing sea monsters and zombies into the dear old classics Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Now Vera Nazarian, who as publisher of Norilana Books has already brought us James Fairfax, an alternate Jane Austen in which a royal decree permits same-sex marriage, now brings out her own hilarious parody, Mansfield Park and Mummies: Monster Mayhem, Matrimony, Ancient Curses, True Love, and Other Dire Delights.

As a historian (MA, Illinois State University, 1996) with a background in languages (BA in Russian Language and Literature, 1989), I find it of particular interest because, unlike the sea monster and zombie mashups, the introduction of mummies into Regency society is not merely an aventitious intrusion by the author's whim. Far from it, the period in which Jane Austen was writing was also the period in which modern Egyptology was developing as a science, casting off its roots as glorified grave-robbers to actually study the artifacts as evidence of a culture now departed from this mortal coil. Most critically, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's forces made possible the decipherment of the Egyptian sacred writings, the heiroglyphics, and opened the books of Egyptian religious and secular writing. Henceforth historians would be able to examine Egyptian temple and palace records much as they had long been able to read ancient Greek and Roman documents.

But Egyptology wasn't that far removed from its grave-robbing cousins yet. Artifacts were regularly removed from their original locations with little or no concern for preserving provenance or context, and certainly no concern whatsoever about respect for the cultures that had originally created them. Mummies were regularly brought to Britain and unwrapped in exhibitions little better than circus sideshows in a process that destroyed incalculable amounts of information about them which later generations could have learned through non-destructive means. Never mind the question of disrespect for the people whose mortal remains these were.

Now imagine that by supernatural means the ancient Egyptians forcibly expatrated from their beloved Nile Valley are able to express their objections to this mistreatment. Thus that nagging feeling of violation and guilt manifests itself in the form of the horror novel in which the mummy rises and objects in the most forceful manner possible to his victimization. Frightening as the traditional mummy movie may be, might there be just a little sense that the anonymous Ancient Egyptian beneath those wrappings has a reason to be wandering about and mugging presumptuous moderns?

But Vera Nazarian is not a writer of the gruesome variety of horror. No, her weapon is the subtle rapier wit that Jane Austen wielded against her own contemporaries, drawing instead upon the liminal unease of a world in which the boundaries between dead and living have drawn dangerously thin. The darkly handsome young gentleman with the raptor beak of a nose and the guttural accent isn't a Jewish banker from the Continent or even an Arab sheik, but an Ancient Egyptian prince returned from the grave to woo our beautiful young heroine Fanny Price -- leaving us to wonder what might befall her should she yield to his blandishments. And if he has been able to break the Law of Death and return to the land of the living, might it be possible that other boundaries could grow weak and even dissolve away, allowing the supernatural to run wild in the staid society of the English upper crust? Vampires and werewolves cast a dark shadow across the ancient writing that mysteriously appears upon a whitewashed English wall, and just what is that creature known only as the Brighton Duck?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Life Imitates Art

As I've been watching news coverage on the flu outbreak, I immediately started thinking of John Ringo's recent biothriller, The Last Centurion. Of course the situation isn't exactly the same, since in our world the flu outbreak is following a major economic dislocation caused by the mortgage meltdown, but it still is enough to give me chills.

However, some people on Baen's Bar have been suggesting that the quick response by public health agencies indicates this isn't going to be the Big One, but that will come from some unexpected quarter while we're distracted with something else. Or worse, if this outbreak is successfully contained, we could get a "cry wolf" effect that will actually impair people's readiness to respond properly when it really comes.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

1632-verse News

It looks like there's going to be at least two more novels in the 1632 universe coming out this year or early next year. One, 1635: Sympathy for the Devil is a collaboration with David Carrico, and may either be a compilation or a continuation of the stories of Franz Sylwester and Marla Linder which have been appearing in various issues of Grantville Gazette, as well as in Ring of Fire II. The other, tentatively entitled 1635: The Tangled Web, is listed in a pre-release list as being by Virginia DeMarce alone, which would be a departure from previous procedures, and may represent Eric Flint's decision to hand off some of the side stories altogether. However, this could also be a misprint, so we should not read too much into it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Second Book Blues

It's said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Similarly, a series is only as strong as its weakest book. And unfortunately a number of series have started out with a strong first book, only to be followed by a second volume which is at best uninspiring.

This problem seems to be particularly bad with "trilogies" that are in fact not a series of three interconnected books, but in fact three volumes of a single large novel. As a result, the middle volume is all middle, with no beginning or end of its own.

I think this is the problem with C. S. Friedman's latest, Wings of Wrath. I originally read the first volume, A Feast of Souls, in a single afternoon, stopping only for bodily necessities. As a result, I was really looking forward to the second volume, but now that I finally have it in my hands, I'm finding it a lot slower and less interesting a read than the first. I've been able to casually put it aside and do other things, and pick it up only haphazardly from time to time.

A lot of what I'm reading right now feels like "housekeeping," necessary information to get us moved toward the final climax in the third volume, but not really of that much interest of itself. So I'm impatient to get through it and to some more real action, or even just some interesting hints of fascinating secrets of the past -- but not so impatient to keep me reading obsessively.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sequel to Crown of Slaves has just posted the pre-order link for Torch of Freedom, the sequel to David Weber and Eric Flint's Crown of Slaves.

Of course Mesa wasn't going to take such a blow lying down. Particularly not when it was a publicity embarrassment as well as a major economic loss.

Still, I'm wondering if this is going to go a lot deeper than just Mesa's attitude that it's above the law, and draw in some politicians at very high levels in several other star nations. Especially if it were to expose some hypocrites in the process.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

New Directions for the Legacy of the Aldenata?

The e-ARC of Eye of the Storm, John Ringo's latest addition to his Legacy of the Aldenata series. From some of the things the Barflies have been saying on Baen's Bar, it looks like he's taking the series in a completely unexpected direction.

The original books all focused on the war against the Posleen, a race of ravenous centaroids who stripped whole planets the way locusts do a field. The side trilogy he wrote with Julie Cochrane dealt with the covert war against the sinister manipulations of the Darhel, a race of thwarted warriors who instead focused their aggression into legal shenanigans, with the intent of enslaving every other race in the galaxy. The novel The Hero, which he wrote with Michael Z. Williamson and was set about a thousand years after the Posleen attack on Earth, implied that the intervening years were filled with battles against old-style Posleen, along with a new race known as the Tselk who might or might not be allies of the Posleen.

But from what I'm hearing on Baen's Bar, it looks like Ringo's tossed out the continuity he's created in The Hero and gone in a completely unexpected direction to introduce a completely new enemy from another dimension. We'd gotten one surprise at the end of Honor of the Clan
when the Himmit rescuers of the O'Neal Bane Sidhe referred to their rescue craft as being a battleship of the Himmit Empire. Of course the Himmit were always mysterious, right from the very first book when we were told that they were not among the original races of the Galactic Federation, but had come later, after the Aldenata had vanished. There had been some speculation when Honor of the Clan came out about the nature of the Himmit Empire -- whether it was hidden beyond the boundaries of the Galactic Federation, or somehow within it. But now I'm wondering if the Himmit are from this other universe from which the new, bigger, badder, Bad Guys are coming from.

I'm going to be very interested in seeing exactly how Ringo's handling this. I've seen far too many authors of long-running series getting into the trap of feeling they have to top themselves with bigger new ideas in every successive novel, until it feels like they're just dialing the volume up louder and louder. Other times an author's efforts to add new things into an established series instead end up losing track of the elements that brought readers to it in the first place.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Very Image of the Modern Vampire Protagonist

In my reading I've noticed how different authors handle the vampire in a present-day or near-modern setting, and in particular what portions of vampire lore they choose to keep as accurate and what they decide to reject as mere superstitious fancy or ignore altogether. Furthermore, it is interesting to note what rationales they use for those choices, and for the operation of the vampire powers and weaknesses that they are accepting in their version of the vampire.

For instance, Anne Rice's vampires are turned to dust by the touch of sunlight, while Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's can endure sunlight but are strongest at night, and Stephanie Meyer's are undisturbed by sunlight but prefer to avoid direct sun because their more dense body tissue reflects light differently than human flesh, making them sparkle.

And speaking of reflections, there's the old vampire tradition that a vampire shows no reflection in a mirror. This is based on the pre-scientific notion that a mirror contained some kind of spirit or essence that formed an image, and refused to respond to a vampire's undead nature. But for a modern reader who has become acquainted with the actual physics of reflectivity, the notion of a corporeal being who is visible but creates no reflection in a mirror may strain the ability to maintain suspension of disbelief.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg explained it away as an aspect of the Influence, the telepathic power her vampires, the luren, possessed to better enable them to hunt. A luren who was stalking intelligent prey could simply tell their victim's subconscious to edit their image out of what was being seen in the mirror -- and could just as easily send a similar telepathic command to edit their image out of what they were seeing directly, rendering the luren effectively invisible at will (rather like Douglas Adams' "somebody else's business field).

As I'm reading Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's A Dangerous Climate in which she sends her vampire Count Saint-Germain to St. Petersburg at its beginnings, I hit upon that brief mention of the difficulty of casting no reflection while his manservant is shaving him, and it caused me just such a momentary bobble. This is not a fantasy world in which I can allow that light might work utterly differently, but rather a part of the past that I've studied relatively intensely, having a bachelor's degree in Russian language and literature. It wasn't quite enough for me to drop the book like a stone, but now I'm going to be watching to see how she reconciles it with the facts of physics, and hopefully relates it to the fact that her vampires are able to go out in daylight.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Honorverse News

It looks like it shouldn't be too long before the newest Honor Harrington novel will be coming out. The title is Mission of Honor, and apparently some hardcopy ARCs were auctioned for charity at Chattacon this past weekend.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Badly Written

Many years ago, humorist Mark Twain listed eleven literary offenses of James Fenimore Cooper, author of the Leatherstocking Tales, and in particular The Deerslayer. Number eight upon that list was: ...crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader...

As I am reading the latest Dune interquel, Paul of Dune, I keep being reminded of that comment. In particular, the section that is supposed to be set between the first prequel trilogy and Dune itself -- I am simply floored by the ridiculous discontinuities and violations of story logic that keep cropping up.

Do Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson think that being licensed to write further works in the Dune universe means that they can toss in whatever outrageious ideas happen to pop into their minds and expect us to accept it as the authentic Dune universe?

Several times now I have been sorely tempted to throw the book against the nearest wall, and have been stopped only by the simple fact that this is a library copy and I don't want to have to return it to the library damaged.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

New Sartorias-deles Out!

Sherwood Smith has just announced on the Athanarel LJ community that CJ's Second Notebook is now out from Amazon. Its official title is MEARSIES HEILI BOUNCES BACK: CJ'S SECOND NOTEBOOK.

This volume introduces a number of characters who will be important in later novels, so it's definitely one to look out for. Not to mention that if sales of it go well, it's more likely that Norilana Books will be able to afford to publish a lot more of those later novels.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Cherryh Novel Released

It's official: Regenesis
is out at last.

It is, of course, the sequel to Cyteen, the story of the murder of Ariane Emory, the brilliant scientist who had become effective ruler of the eponymous planet, and her re-creation through cloning and deliberately planned child-rearing. In the two decades since it originally came out, fans have carried on endless speculation as to the actual identity of the murderer of the original Ariane Emory.

Now at last Ari II will set herself on the trail of her gene-source's killer. And of course all the various political and interpersonal machinations that led to the original Ari's death are still at work, which means that she had best watch her back.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Books that Shape Us

A lot of people in my social circle tend to go on about how great Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land
is and how reading it was a life-changing event for them. Quite honestly, my own reaction to it was rather meh. I read it as a senior in high school, and I remember finding a great deal of it tedious. Even if I hadn't borrowed it from the library, I really wouldn't have felt much desire to re-read it. When I did acquire a copy of my own, it was almost as much for the sake of completeness of my personal library as anything, and I never did get around to re-reading it.

Instead, my life-changing reading experience happened two years earlier, when I acquired a copy of Frank Herbert's Dune. Reading it was such a consciousness-expanding experience for me that I often felt as though my brain were about to burst from all the new concepts I was discovering. I think I must have read it six or seven times in the first few months I had it. I know I read it so many times that it began to literally fall to pieces, and although I still have that original copy, it has been mended so many times it's held together by tape and must be handled very carefully.

The biggest problem for me was that Stranger in a Strange Land had a very unsteady tone. There were sections that I found quite interesting, and others that I found to be utter bloviating boredom. At the time I didn't have the literary expertise to understand why, but looking back on it, I can see how Heinlein wobbles back and forth between rigorous scientific extrapolation of what it would mean for a human child to be raised by Martians and searing social satire. The result is a very uneven book that ultimately bogs down in preaching to the point where it's uncertain whether he might actually be advocating some of the things his protagonist is putting forth.

By contrast, Dune maintains a solid tone throughout, with vivid worldbuilding that all fits together. Every element builds the experience, to the point that you almost feel like you're actually there. Furthermore, it rewards rereading -- when I go back to it for another reading, I frequently find details that I had previously missed, and which shed new light on the entire novel.

In fact, I would argue that Heinlein's actual masterwork, the novel which for him was on the level that Dune was for Frank Herbert, is in fact Starship Troopers. To understand this, you first need to completely forget about that awful movie that was made in the late 90's and concentrate solely upon the text of the book. In it he maintains a consistent tone and storyline to create an extended meditation on the nature and meaning of citizenship. In it, he brings together the themes of personal and civic responsibility that he had been developing throughout the juveniles and his various short stories. Everything afterwards was a downhill slide into oblivion.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Missed Metaphor

Recently I was pointed to a review of Twilight that harshly condemned the series on the basis that "vampires don’t complete humans, any more than a lion completes an impala." And while there are plenty of things to condemn the series on -- the prose that goes beyond lush to purple and even putrescent, the way in which Edward's behavior toward Bella becomes steadily more obsessive and controlling, in ways that make it look like an abusive relationship should be regarded as normal and healthy -- this complaint tells me that the reader is mis-reading the book.

In fact, it almost makes me think of a reader complaining that the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane is bestiality because Superman is in fact a Kryptonian rather than a human. Well, technically it's true -- as described, Kryptonians would have such an alien biology that a gingko tree would be more closely related to dear Miss Lois Lane than our favorite square-jawed superhero. But most Superman readers would groan with exasperation at such objections and answer, "but that's not the point." A literalistic reading of the Superman universe, along the lines of Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" (in which he meticulously details exactly what horrors would ensue if a being such as Superman really existed and really tried to interact with human beings) ignores the spirit in which the Superman stories were created. Superman was never meant to be read in the realistic mode, as a rigorous extrapolation of alien biology. It's comfort reading, a way of recapturing in this uncertain adult world the memory of when we were little kids and our parents seemed all-powerful, perfectly able to protect us.

Similarly, we are not intended to read Stephanie Meyer's Twilight as though it were Those of My Blood, in which Jacqueline Lichtenberg creates a human subspecies known as the luren which are the basis of classical vampire legends, and rigorously accounts for each aspect of vampire lore with scientific explanations. Yes, there is effort to create some kind of a narrative rationale for vampirism -- but that is as much because, as Marion Zimmer Bradley frequently said, "suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by the neck until dead." Blatant allegory tends to turn off the reader, to increase the mind's "sales resistance" to the ideas the author is trying to convey, so clothing the story in additional layers of versimilitude will help lower that resistance by reassuring the conscious mind that it is in fact reading a story, not a lesson.

At least in my reading, vampirism in the Twilight-verse represents lust -- that fierce, crazy desire that shuts down reason and leads people to do really stupid, self-destructive things just to get laid. And when you realize that, you can see why it works as a vampire novel, and wouldn't if it were written as a straight-up mainstream romance. Obviously Edward's a bad boy, with the traditional risky bad-boy appeal combined with a deep sense of morality and self-control. If he were a mainstream romantic hero, he'd be a character more in line with the protagonist of John Ringo's Ghost . When Mike Harmon sees a pretty girl, he wants to have her, now, like a dog in rut -- yet he also knows that rape is not just a crime, but a betrayal, a tearing of the social fabric, so he controls that animal-heat urge.

But that kind of a character is too real, and thus way too scary, to be exciting in a teen romance (as opposed to a techno-thriller with fantastical elements, aimed at an adult male audience, as Ghost is). But by making the character into a vampire, we move the dangerous aspect of his personality into the realm of the fantastic, and thus make it less threatening.

Now this isn't to say that there's nothing wrong with the books, or that they're great literature. Far from it, the prose is lousy, the characterization is superficial, and the fantastical elements really don't break any ground. But complaining that the vampire doesn't complete the human in the relationship is to completely misunderstand the nature of the metaphor being used, and to actually undermine whatever valid points the reviewer does make against the series.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Atevi Novel on its Way now has a page up for Conspirator , the tenth volume in C. J. Cherryh's long-running Foreigner universe. It looks like April 28, 2009 is going to be the big day on which we get our hands on yet another installment of the saga of humanity's efforts to live with the atevi, and now with the kyo as well -- in a world in which yet another alien race lurks in menace.