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.