Archive for March, 2013

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Readalong: Calling on Dragons

Nooooooooooo cliffhanger.

Well, Squiders, we’ve reached book 3. (I think this may have been the one I read first as a kid. It seems…more familiar than the others, if such a thing can be said about a series of books one’s already read multiple times.) You know, it’s a bit interesting to note that each book in the series is from someone else’s point of view. We had Cimorene’s, then Mendanbar’s, and now Morwen’s. (Talking to Dragons, Book 4, is from Daystar’s point of view. And also is first person.)

(Also, I would like to point out how strange it is for a supposedly quite practical person like Cimorene to name her child Daystar. But moving on…)

I’ve always rather liked Morwen, probably because she’s no-nonsense and has a lot of cats, though there were times that I felt there were too many cats. Cats in the garden, cats under the porch, cats in the windows…so many cats. At some points I almost agreed with Vamist about the sheer number of them.

(I know Morwen points out that more cats = more powerful spells, and perhaps that will be important in Talking, but she only used two cats at a time here.)

Right, plot. The wizards continue to be up to no good. I admit I feel like I don’t quite understand why they’re up to no good, though. I suppose they’re stealing magic, but I have to wonder what they need all that magic for. I mean, it seems like an awful lot of work, and they must want the Enchanted Forest’s magic really bad to go to the trouble, and I have to wonder if there isn’t easier magic elsewhere to suck up or if they’ve already sucked it all up and now must resort to desperate measures. Where does magic go after a wizard uses it, anyway?

Anyway. The wizards have stolen Mendanbar’s awesome sword! Which is bad, because it’s directly tied in the forest’s magic. And so Cimorene, Morwen, Telemain, Kazul, a couple of Morwen’s cats and a former rabbit that is now not a rabbit named Killer go in search of it. (Mendanbar has to stay in the forest to anchor the magic and is grumpy about it because Cimorene is pregnant and he doesn’t feel like she should be traipsing about fighting wizards. More on that in a second.)

Now, I have a couple of bones to pick here. They take Killer along with them because Telemain wants to use the spell on him to find the wizards, but then they never bother. Also, Morwen and Telemain say they want to test the transportation spell on Brandel before they go after the sword, and then, unless I skimmed over important information, they never do. I understand it’s hard to keep track of all your subplots, but come on, people, didn’t anyone notice that these had been dropped at the time?

Also, having recently been pregnant, I would guess Ms. Wrede never has been (and Wikipedia confirms my suspicions, woo). Cimorene does not act like a pregnant woman would act. In fact, that’s mostly ignored unless there needs to be a reason for someone to protest her doing something. Oh, and as an important plot point at the end.

Complaining aside, though, these books continue to be fun, and I like most of the characters, and even Killer didn’t bother me even though, you know, they totally forgot about the reason they brought him along. It is a bit odd for the third book in a series to be the only one that ends on a cliffhanger, but it all somewhat makes sense if you know that the fourth book is the one that was written and published first.

Hm. I think I shall lay off the questions, since it doesn’t seem like anyone feels like answering them anyway. What was your favorite part, Squiders? Anything you dislike thus far? Anything else you’d like to note or talk about?

This seems like a good point to talk about The Book of Enchantments, which is a related short story collection. Yea, nay? We’ll read it between the fourth book and Howl’s Moving Castle if we’re going to do it. And we’ll discuss Talking to Dragons on April 30th.

As You Know, Bob

You may not be familiar with this term, but you know it. You’ve seen it on movies, read it in books, maybe used it in stories of your own creation.

Used well and subtly, it can be a useful tool. But, unfortunately, it is not easy to use well. Or subtly.

“As You Know, Bob” is a type of conversation where the point of the conversation is to relay key background information to the reader/viewer.

Sounds good, right? Key information! We like that sort of thing, yes? So what’s the problem?

Here’s the problem:

Two scientists are standing over a computer panel. The first one turns to the second one and says, “We’ve finally done it.”

“Yes,” says the second one. “As you know, we’ve managed to create the perfect weapon. It works by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turning it into a concentrated beam of death.”

“No one has ever managed to get this to successfully work. There hasn’t been a weapon this powerful since the end of World War III and the disarming of the major world powers through the Peace Treaty of 2365.”

“This is our last, best chance against the alien race which has tried to mine our planet for its resources.”

Do you see the problem? While this conversation may tell you important information, it is also a conversation that no two people would have, ever. These characters already know this information. This is basic information for this world. No one needs to say this stuff because everyone already knows it.

The only reason this conversation exists is for the reader. It does nothing for the characters. And so it rings false.

You’ve probably noticed conversations like this that bothered you, even if you didn’t know why.

There’s ways to make things like this work. You can have a character explain things to a character that doesn’t know (and, hopefully, has a reason to know). You can weave bits and hints through the narrative, so readers can pick it up gradually, naturally.

Even a line here and there can be okay, if there’s a reason for the character to say it.

But overall, it’s something to be avoided.

Any tips for integrating information in a less jarring manner, Squiders? Examples of this that drive you crazy so people know what to avoid?

Where Has All the Hard Science Fiction Gone?

So, I recently finished reading Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan, a hard science fiction novel from 1985. We talked about some of the things that were a little bit jarring a few weeks ago in the Old Science Fiction post (to that, I add: an apparent lack of the understanding of plate tectonics), but overall I enjoyed the book and found the science to be mostly solid, even if the characters didn’t figure out what must have happened for things to make sense scientifically until about 100 pages after I did.

That got me to thinking. In general, I like hard science fiction–it must appeal to the engineer in me or something–but all the examples I could think of that I’ve read are older books. Rendezvous with Rama was published in 1973. Ringworld is from 1970. Contact is also 1985, and The Andromeda Strain is from 1969.

Even looking at the Wikipedia and Goodreads lists of hard science fiction shows that there’s been very little of the subgenre put out in the last ten years (and Goodreads’ list is a bit suspect. I am pretty sure Ender’s Game is not hard science fiction).

Why do you think that is, Squiders? Is it because hard science fiction, being fairly dry, just doesn’t ever attract that many readers, meaning a limited number is published at any point of time? Maybe it’s not any slower than before, but there’s just not a lot of it in general. Or is it a representation of some changing tastes in readers and/or writers, where people don’t want to think about science unless it’s accompanied by  explosions and starship chases?

I don’t honestly know, my friends. I welcome any thoughts you have on the matter, and if you do have any good, recent hard science fiction recommendations, please share.

Research Makes a Story Richer

Ah, research. I know it doesn’t necessarily sound fun (unless you’re one of those people, like me, who goes, “Oh, I don’t really know anything about evil spirits. Time to go to the library! Glee!”) but a little realism can go a long way.

Even if it’s something as simple as looking at a map to see where things are in relation to each other, research can be the difference between taking your reader on a fantastic read and distracting them to the point where they’re pulled out of the story.

To continue on with the post from a few weeks ago, I have a book I’m editing that partially takes place in Greece. I wrote that section based off random tidbits I’ve picked up from pop culture over the years. However, one of my beta readers had been to Greece, and the whole section distracted her because she could tell how wrong I was.

But it’s not just places that can benefit from research. Mythology, science, history, societal customs, languages–all of these can bring richness and fullness to your story. It’s one thing to have a Hispanic character, but another to look into common customs in Hispanic households. Looking into mythology can teach you little known facts about legends that provide the direction you need to bring your story together. And it’s one thing to write about a Victorian-esque society, but actually knowing something about the Victorians will help you sell it.

So, how do you go about researching? Well, I recommend choosing the media that appeals to you the most. I always hit the books first because that’s my preference. (Assuming the library has books on the particular subject.) Then I head to the internet. I try to stick to somewhat legitimate sources, such as Wikipedia. But if you find it hard to pick up facts from the written word, you can listen to podcasts or watch movies.

Take notes as you go, or you’ll never remember everything you want to.

Any researching tips you’d like to pass on, Squiders? Any books you’ve read recently where someone obviously didn’t bother?

Trek vs. Wars and Why It Is Silly

Among nerd circles, you run into rivalries between various fandoms or ships or theories. One of the most persistent is the Star Trek versus Star Wars one.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I hung out in a Trek-related community in middle and high school, and we would occasionally go over to the Star Wars chat rooms to troll the people there. But in my defense, it wasn’t because I disliked Star Wars, it was because the people there got hilariously upset by the whole thing, and it’s really hard to escape being a teenager without trolling somebody.)

I’ve always liked both. Trek more, certainly, but I enjoy Star Wars, have seen all the movies, read most of the “required” extended universe books, and can tell you the difference between a clone and a storm trooper. If I was forced to choose sides, I’d pick Trek, but I’m here to tell you that the whole thing is silly and we should let it go.

When it comes down to it, the main reason that the Trek vs. Wars thing is ridiculous is that they’re not even the same subgenre of science fiction.

It’s like comparing apples and oranges. What do the two series have in common? They both take place in space. The end.

Star Wars is space opera. It contains the classic hero journey. Its technology is more fantasy than technobabble. It has a clear main character with other characters in supporting roles. Ignoring the Clone Wars animated series (which I will for the sake of this argument, because I find most people who strongly subscribe to the whole Trek vs. Wars thing are older fans who have probably never watched it), the series is mainly represented by movies.

Star Trek is a mix of scifi genres, none of which is space opera. And it depends on the series. (DS9, for example, falls under military science fiction in the latter half, but I wouldn’t say most of the series do.) People have written books on the physics, the engineering, the biology of Star Trek–science is an important aspect to the overall franchise. It is always a composite cast, with most characters being of equal importance in terms of story-telling. It’s mainly delivered through television shows, which I think we can all agree are quite different than movies.

I think a lot of this stems from earlier, when the two were really the only big scifi series in town. But now we’ve got Babylon 5, Farscape, Firefly, Stargate, Battlestar Galatica…many of which have more in common with one or the other than they have in common with each other.

But I still run into people who feel like if they like one, they can’t like the other, which is just silly. I had a friend the other day who’s recently started watching DS9 tell me that she felt guilty about enjoying it (or even watching it) because she’d always been a Star Wars girl.

How many other people haven’t given something they could really like a chance because of some silly line drawn in the sand long ago?

Let it go, friends, let it go, and enjoy all the good science fiction you can.

Pen Names

Pen names. Nom de plumes. In simple terms, when you put out work under another name that is not your own, but is still meant to be you (i.e., not ghost-writing for someone else).

Some people do, some people don’t. I don’t. I just use my name, and it just happens to be wonderfully alliterative. (I’ve had people at writing groups and conferences compliment me on it. Ha!)

Why do people use pen names? Because they don’t want to be associated with a work. Because they think their real name is boring or unmarketable. Because they write two wildly different genres and don’t want their readers to confuse the two. Because they value their privacy.

Why do people use their real names? Because they don’t have to remember another alias. Because their real name is awesome. Because they don’t want there to be confusion about who did the work.

Which do you prefer, Squiders? Do you use a pen name, and if so, what is it? What are issues/perks you’ve found with using a pen name versus using your real name?

For Love of Old Science Fiction

Oh man, I love old science fiction. I’m talking anything earlier than 1980. I love it because it takes so many chances, sends its characters all over the universe, and because I love to see what they got wrong.

Am I weird? Oh, probably. But I love to see how people thought the world was going to turn out in comparison to how the world actually did. No one could have predicted the way technology has gone, with smaller and smaller components making impressively powerful computers fit in your back pocket.

(Actually, technology seems to have pulled inspiration from science fiction, making an interesting cycle.)

So instead you get giant vacuum-tube supercomputers. In the book I’m reading at the moment (Inherit the Stars by James Hogan, circa 1985 or so) you can rent jets instead of cars, but in order to get data from one place to the other, it has to be relayed through a truly dizzying amount of satellites. There was no internet, and the idea that you can sit down in your living room and talk instantaneously to someone in Australia probably seemed too far fetched.

(Also, the company president states that he’s willing to ruin the production schedule for a client because they provide several hundred million dollars worth of business in a year. I’ve worked in the aerospace industry, and for several hundred million, you’re probably going to get two satellites, if you’re lucky. Most satellite programs run in the billions, easily. But that probably only bothered me because I’m familiar with such things. Who knows, maybe in the future that the book comes from, inflation has gotten so bad that we had to pull a Mexico and lop off a few zeroes at the end.)

I love how sometimes they’ll get the technology pretty well, but completely miss the societal changes. For example, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon isn’t too far off on some parts of space travel, but I love that he couldn’t figure out that some of the territories in the middle of the United States (the book is from the 1860s) would eventually become states. (There’s 36 states in the book. Which is about how many there were at the time. Colorado become a state in 1876 and is the 38th state.) (Also, I understand that Verne was French, but come on.)

(Here, have a Verne-related comic.)

I mean, look at 1984. We’re almost 30 years past that, and, luckily, that totalitarian government has yet to come to pass. I think part of that is an attempt to make an impact. When you are commenting on society, I can see how setting your story in the near future can be important. “Look at where we will end up if we don’t change our ways!”

Do you like to read older science fiction, Squiders? What’s your motivation to do so? Any recommendations?