They Just Don’t Get It

  • by Gitabushi

I took a quiz I stumbled onto from Twitter last night.  I can’t find the link now, but it was something about 8 Political Traits. You took a quiz regarding your reactions to several political statements, and from that, it judged your position on 4 different paired-trait spectra.  Like, Authoritarian/Libertarian, Economic Freedom/Control, etc.

One thing I was struck with was that it got Conservatives/Traditionalists completely wrong.  Of course, Progressives usually get Conservatives wrong…it has been shown over and over that those on the Right understand the Left much better than the reverse.  Charles Krauthammer’s formulation is the Left thinks the Right is Evil, and the Right thinks the Left is Stupid.  Which makes sense, of course: the Right thinks the Left is stupid because they understand the Left’s viewpoints and find them immature or unworkable; the Left thinks the Right is Evil because they can’t understand how anyone can oppose the compassion of a $15 minimum wage and free birth-control for women.

Anyway, what bothered me was they characterized Progressives as believing that the human race can and should progress toward enlightenment.  The implication is that the past is always ignorant, and as we learn things, we can improve.  What is the opposite of that?  Why, that some people think that we should cling to the past because that’s how we’ve always done it!  Meaning, the quiz assumed that conservatives are conservative out of fear or reflexive adherence to tradition out of belief that Tradition is simply a Good.

That’s not my view at all.  Maybe I’m projecting to the rest of the Right and/or conservatives, but I think I’m not alone in this.  I’m convinced conservatives are Thinkers, and spend time questioning and trying to understand everything.

In my opinion, Conservatives conserve Tradition because Tradition arises out of What Works.  Humans are humans: we are biologically programmed (whether by God or Evolution) to exploit/game any system to its extinction, but also to require systems to reach our individual and social goals.  We are biologically programmed (whether by God or Evolution) so that in our interactions with the opposite sex, any/all errors of judgment result in pregnancy, because *anything* that results in reproduction is a successful reproduction strategy, and those traits of selfishness, sloppiness, pettiness, dishonesty, manipulation, etc, that assist in reproduction will be passed on.

As such, I support Traditions because those are time-tested ways to avoid pain, disaster, chaos, poverty, loneliness, heartlessness, death, despair, depression and Justin Bieber.

That doesn’t mean Traditions are immutable.  We can learn as a society, and do.  We can rise above our selfishness and pettinesses, and do.

But you have to make the case. You can’t just insist that there is an end goal of perfect equality between all people and all preferences, and anyone who obstructs that progress is wrong.  You have to explain how the direction of progress you want is helpful to everyone involved.  You have to make the case for overturning Tradition.  You have to move slowly when you do make changes, so that we have time to adjust to changes, and to reverse if it proves to be more harmful than helpful.

And most of all, you have to insightfully analyze and clearly identify and explain who pays the price and who benefits.  Assertions are not acceptable as proof.

If something benefits 1% of the nation and makes things worse for 60% of the population, it should not be done.  More time should be taken to ensure that the benefit is worth the cost, and to minimize the cost as much as possible.

So in the quiz, seeing that they characterized Conservatives as preferring Tradition simply because it was Tradition, it lost any/all credibility with me.

Closely related: Chesterton’s Fence.

They Just Don’t Get It

Does good SFF require age and experience?

I just finished listening to the latest Geek Gab podcast, with guest Jon Mollison of Seagull Rising. Another good episode – congrats to all involved!

Something Jon said got me thinking. He observed that there are some talented young writers in SFF who are getting caught up in gimmicks and writing tricks and as a result are losing the plot, literally.

I think it’s true that for many contemporary writers, good storytelling is losing out to political and cultural commentary. Strong male heroes are so last century. Good and evil without nuanced, middling gradations are played out, man.

isheokay
[He asks about the guy he just beat up, who is literally a sworn enemy who wants to kill him]
This is certainly a problem. I’m with you! This is a big reason why I’ve retreated down the Appendix N/ Grant List hole and haven’t had any strong desire to come back up for air.

Jon went on to say that these pre-30 authors don’t have the necessary experience to really sell us on what they’re writing. They don’t have the same juice to put into their works. And to some degree I think he’s right. Age and experience flavor and influence a writer’s stories. Look at Tolkien (as we always seem to). His part in World War I is directly observable in the Lord of the Rings. Mordor pretty much is Verdun.

verdunlunar

I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Jon’s stuff yet, but it seems clear from what I’ve heard that Jon’s own experience as a father has greatly colored some of his work. And I dig that.

Still, I think we need to be cautious about writing off younger, more life-inexperienced writers, especially those in the vanguard of the pulp revival/revolution. I’m not saying here that Jon is doing so, as it sounds like he’s certainly giving the youngsters a reading and a fair shake. But just as something to chew on for all of us, let’s remember that SFF grandmaster Robert E Howard died at 30. Manly Wade Wellman was in his twenties when he put out his first novel. HP Lovecraft wrote “Dagon” when he was 27 years old.

Now those are some pretty big shoes, and it could very well be that Howard and Lovecraft and Wellman were exceptions to the rule. Still. I’m not entirely convinced that age is nearly as important as talent and imagination.

-Bushi

bushi

Does good SFF require age and experience?

PC Oshinbun: Battles and pulp and glory

I’ve let things slide, and now we’ve got a mega-packed edition! Here are some noteworthy things and stuffs from the last few weeks.

My Little Pony – a great show for guys and gals!

David over at Serpent’s Den explores just what it is about My Little Pony that has attracted so many fans, including many dudes.

“That’s exactly what My Little Pony gives us; intensely feminine characters who are interesting in their own right without feeling like they’re trying to one-up us guys. The characters aren’t just self-possessed, confident, and brave, but they actually have real personalities and interests that they care about for their own sakes, rather than being preoccupied with how they are perceived or what social message they’re sending. In short, it’s a series that embraces normal human emotions about the sexes; that men and women are different, and that they generally like each other that way. It does this simply by allowing its female leads to be unapologetically feminine.”

 

Rick Stump – when it comes to gaming, getting girls to play is quite simple!

Treat them like people. He’s got some advice beyond that, of course, but that’s what it boils down to. No feminist critical theory required.

 

Growing problem with Star Wars

Yavok Merkin outlines what he sees as the growing problem with the Star Wars franchise.

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Hard and Soft

We’re not talking tacos. Jon M. at Seagull Rising compares the perceptions and accuracy of the terms “hard” and “soft” scifi. Been a lot of walk within certain circles about genre lately!

 

 

Fairplay

Jesse Lucas tells the short allegorical story of a boom town called Fairplay.

 

Master of Appendix N

Semper Initiatuvs Unum blog ran a series of polls, pitting Appendix N authors against one another to see who would rise to the top of the heap. The winner may not surprise you, but the individual match-up posts themselves provide some great reading in the form of literary highlights.

 

Looking at Leiber

Dan at QuQu Media reviews Fritz Leiber’s Swords & Deviltry. I also do so. But I’m more grouchy about it.

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Gita Bushi throws some SFF bombs

Not intentionally. But he hates all that is good, obviously.

A discussion of genre and taste (Part 1)

Gita’s beef with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Howard (Part 2)

Gita talks about what he does like (Part 3)

 

The Dune Wars

I have to say, I was slightly triggered by this guest post over at Castalia House, where Rick Stump’s son Alex tears into Dune. It’s one of my favorite books of any genre. But while I gathered my thoughts, a skirmish played out. And you know what? I’m good. Don’t need to touch this one right now.

Dune is the most overrated novel of the 20th century! (Castalia)

No it isn’t! (Injustice Gamer)

Your response sucks (Rick Stump)

No it doesn’t (Injustice Gamer)

Yes it does (Rick Stump)

dune-sand-worm

 

Castalia!

It’s hard to keep up with everything now; even with the Castalia House blog!

Daddy Warpig has a great post looking at He-Man and its pulp story ideas.

Jeffro’s done at least a couple Sensor Sweeps since I last checked in here. One and two.

 

A Tale

Oghma’s written a (horror?) story on his blog. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but it’s intense. So I recommend checking it out, but be prepared!

 

More Appendix N

Into the Night blog is following in the steps of Jeffro and others in tackling Appendix N as a reading list. He’s written brief impressions of several books so far, including the Dying Earth.

 

Hellboy, hell yeah!

So much Castalia content! HP of Every Day Should Be Tuesday takes a look at the pulp roots of Big Red.

Hellboy is totally pulp.  And not just because it has a tentacled space monster.  Mike Mignola, the writer-artist of the original comic, points to Lovecraft, but he also points to Robert E. Howard.  And not just to Conan but to Solomon Kane.  And not just to Howard but to Manly Wade Wellman.  Now you have my attention.”

hellboy_ron_perlman_1

 

Eh Fist

I’ve been watching Iron First on Netflix and voiced more than a couple complaints on Twitter. I’m not the first to vocalize my disappointment in this weaksauce C-lister. Jeffro Johnson recorded his thoughts about each episode on Google+ and Rawle Nyanzi’s compiled them for us.

 

Mass Effect Andromeda-ha-ha!

PAndro

I generally don’t wish anyone ill, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate when stupid crap fails. I was a big fan of the Mass Effect series. Red flags started to pop up when I read of SJW developers bashing white people on Twitter and not losing their jobs. Andromeda looks to be a big disappointment, and I’m glad to see some prominent voices calling it what it is instead of propping it up.

 

Fantasy indoctrination

Over at Goblin Stomper:

“A short time ago I was asked a rather intriguing and difficult question.  “If you had to pick three books that paint a picture of the Fantasy Genre for someone, which would they be?”  It was asked in the context of gaming/role-playing, and what books might best introduce a potential FRPG gamer with no experience with any facet of fantasy.”

Definitely some interesting picks! I read several of the Guardians of the Flame books when I was younger, so it was kind of a blast from the past to see the series named here. Very different selections that I’d make, most likely, but a cool thought experiment.

 

JimFear138 and Jon M.

JimFear138 hosts fellow audiobook narrator and author Jon M on his show! I haven’t had a chance to listen to this yet, but both of these guys have been colorful and fun members of the Pulp Revolution crowd. Looking forward to this.

 

Gygax on modern SFF: Meh

A cool post over at the Frisky Pagan digs into D&D creator Gary Gygax’s reactions to post-Appendix N scifi/fantasy and its influence upon the game.

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-Bushi

bushi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PC Oshinbun: Battles and pulp and glory

Good Books, Good Writing

  • by Gitabushi

Lately it seems like every time PC Bushi mentions a book, I have to respond I didn’t like it very much, or at all.

That made me ask, what do I like?

Here’s a partial list:

I like 50s Heinlein, but not 60s.
I like 60s, 70s, and 80s Larry Niven SF, but not his fantasy (mostly).
I like 80s and 90s Cherryh, but to the best of my knowledge based on a brief research attempt, not her 70s and by the ’10s, start feeling meh
I liked Bujold until recently
I liked Brust’s early works, but the later his work, the less I like it.
I used to like Hambly, but she wasn’t re-readable.
I like Saberhagen, but sometimes he just kept digging in played-out mines

To be honest, I guess, I’ve read a lot that was worth reading, but not worth re-reading or recommending.

As such, there are probably more books and authors I have complaints about than I enjoy.  That’s the nature of the beast, I guess. Most things fall along a bell curve, and truly excellent books are one or more standard deviations above the mean, and the mean of all SFF novels/stories ever written includes some poor writing.

The rest of this post includes some musing on elements that make a good story. It is also intended to be a continuation of thoughts from this post, and inspired by the very excellent posts by my good friend and consummate gentleman, PC Bushi, found here and here.

I like conflict. I’d like to say all readers do, but maybe all I can actually insist is that all readers should. It can be internal conflict, or opposed action, but I want there to be some doubt about how things are going to turn out.

Yes, yes, the hero is going to win.  That’s the point of reading a book, I guess. The good guy losing most of the time is called “life”. We consume fiction because it provides the comforting illusion that there is some overall, overarching narrative to the vicissitudes of life.

For me, the interesting thing is how is the hero going to win?

The very first thing to do, then, is make me care about the character.  If I don’t care about the character, how he wins isn’t going to interest me.

There are many different ways that you, as an author, can make me care about a character:

  • make me see the issues he struggles with are the same ones I do
  • make me see him wanting reasonable things/goals, but being thwarted…particularly unfairly thwarted
  • make me see him really committed to success, perhaps well beyond what I would do (that way I can be inspired to persist in difficulties myself)

Next, give him conflict.  They type of story you are writing dictates the type of conflict they have.  Or, alternatively, the type of conflict they encounter dictates what kind of book it is:

If he is going through an unfamiliar world or society, then the conflict is the hero trying to return to the normal world, and his efforts to escape let you show me the world/society you thought up.   Alternatively, the hero might need to explore to figure out aspects of this new world/society to find happiness or even just survive.  Either way, it should show the reader some subtle truth about the world we live in, in contrast.  The struggle is in dealing with new and unexpected aspects in each new encounter.  This is a Milieu story.

If he is dealing with a disrupting occurrence, then the conflict is obviously trying to deal with the disruption.  It can be personally disruptive or disruptive to society, or even existence of humanity.  An asteroid strike, or perhaps an earthquake or zombie apocalypse are good examples of this.  Alternatively, the hero could be the disruptive force, trying to impose his will on the world, like in a caper movie like Ocean’s 11 or Kelly’s Heroes.  Either way, the conflict comes from the obstacles the hero encounters in trying to resolve the issue or impose his will on the universe.  This is an Event story.

You, as the author, might also want to explore a concept, like: what if teleportation were reality?  How would it work? In this sort of story, the conflict is in dealing with unexpected or non-obvious impacts of the concept. This is where Hard SF really shines.  Poor examples of this are when someone sets up the world, then lets the Hero “discover” all the exploits.  This was handled really poorly in the “Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” series (first book: Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell).  The hero “exploits” a labor system that apparently was used by idiots for at least a generation.  He succeeds at everything he tries, the things he “figures out” that impress everyone else are sophomoric in insight, and there isn’t even an antagonist.  The best conflict is when the antagonist is exploiting the idea to the protagonist’s detriment, and the protagonist has to figure out how to stop it…preferably without just using another exploit…at the very least, the exploit should not be obvious.  This is an Idea story.  I think many “serial killer” stories are Idea stories: “What if someone developed a way to exploit society to murder/rape/assault people without being caught/stopped?”

The final type of story depends on conflict internal to the character.  The protagonist needs to change, and it has only recently become obvious.  The process of changing, of figuring out what to change into, and the normal human resistance to changing oneself are the conflict that drives the story.  This is a Character story.

Obviously, these four concepts can arc beyond just one book.  The Jhereg series is someone what of a character concept, although individual books seem to be more Event stories.  The whole series is, of course, a milieu, and the milieu being explored is not just geographic (Dragaera) but societal/racial, as each book explores some inherent aspect of a Dragaerean house.

But this is all science fiction.

I also really like the Jack Reacher series.

Jack Reacher’s character really doesn’t change over the stories.  The milieu he’s exploring is modern-day United States, so it isn’t a milieu story.  There is a “What if?” concept of, “what if there were a sort-of modern-day Super Hero who went around the nation solving problems that the law couldn’t solve?”  But it seems to me to be, at its core, an event story.  Something happens, and Reacher tries to figure out what is happening, then once he figures out the mystery, he acts (often very violently) to impose his will and stop the bad guys from doing bad guy stuff.

Good stories often combine the elements.  There are Milieu, Idea, and Character concepts included in the Event Story movie Die Hard.  There are Milieu concepts in Titanic.  I think Cameron wanted it to be a Character story, but in my opinion, it failed at that, but succeeded by being so strong as an Event story.

Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series is really good, too.

matt helm
Not this Matt Helm. The movies are crap

They are all Event stories.  Like Reacher, either the protagonist starts ignorant, or what the protagonist thinks is the original premise often turns out to be false.  The conflict comes in the protagonist collecting clues about reality, then responding to those clues, then acting. And much of the conflict also involves not knowing how the problem will be solved, as initial plans go wrong and the protagonist deals with the unexpected. You know the hero isn’t going to die, of course, but there is often a cost the protagonist pays to succeed: damage, or a supporting character important to the protagonist is killed.

DHSilencers3
The books are where the good stuff is found. Try and find one, I think you won’t be disappointed.

The Matt Helm series is interesting in that the protagonist’s character doesn’t really change over time, but still is a character story in that Helm seems to have normal human emotions and desires, yet is forced to do some fairly brutal things to accomplish the mission.  The reader (or, at least, the continuing reader) doesn’t lose sympathy for Helm not just because Helm’s character trait of Commitment to Duty is shown as being incredibly strong, and not just because that commitment to duty is shown as necessary to preventing catastrophe, but because the author shows us the emotional price Helm pays for that commitment.

In contrast, in ERB novels Princess of Mars, the Land that Time Forgot, and the People that Time Forgot, there never is any character conflict. They do the right thing because it is the right thing, with hardly a thought.  It ends up leaving the impression that because the hero does it, it therefore is the right thing.

I’m not saying a protagonist must have a desire to be a cad to be sympathetic, but humans are selfish, and shortsighted, and petty, and often ignorant of the implications of their decisions. A good book with good conflict acknowledges those issues.

It doesn’t mean that I favor character over plot.

It does mean that the reasons people do things are important to whether a character is likeable or not, and believable or not, and these reasons often provide motive force to the plot.  Why does a character want to do things?  Absent any internal conflict, authors too often rely on plot devices to keep the action going.  “I saved Tarkus’ life, so Tarkus will save my life” seems more like a plot device.  The author knew he would need Tarkus to save John Carter’s life to resolve some conflict and needed plausible motivation for Tarkus to do so, so had Carter save his.  It seems too obvious, like it happened because the author needed it to. In contrast, in Jhereg, Vlad wants to avoid taking an action that would cause Morollan to break his oath. Placing a friend’s value system above your own life is an admirable loyalty that drives the plot and increases the reader’s commitment to the protagonist and the story (although wanting to find a way to preserve both is still expected, normal, and included).  It is a character element, sure, but it not “characterization over plot,” but rather an effective plot rather than just a plot device.

It means that a story with weak characterization is also going to suffer in plotting.

It means that among the five elements of character, plot, pacing, dialogue, description (some people identify different elements), a novel can be saved by excellence in just one element, but it can also be killed by incompetence in just one element. Most likely, a story that does one or two elements very well will make the other elements more effective.  Good dialogue helps in making character and pacing better.  Better pacing helps plot.  Good description helps everything.  And yes, good character helps make plot development  more intuitive.

There is room for a difference of opinion over what is “plausible”, and consequently, what is an effective plot vs what is a clumsy plot device.

This probably needs editing for coherence, but I’m not going to do it.  For good or ill, this is my stream-of-consciousness, non-exhaustive explanation of why I like some books and don’t like other books.

Good Books, Good Writing

Swords and Stuff, a second crack at Leiber: Strike Two!

It’s been a while since I’ve gushed here about pulp. Hopefully I’ll have something for ya’ll soon – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core is making its way through the pipes.

In the meantime, I don’t want to lose track of what I’ve been up to. You know, for posterity.

Fritz Leiber is one of the older sword and sorcery guys who gets a lot of positive buzz from some of the old hands. I guess that makes sense – he certainly had a visible impact on the development of Dungeons and Dragons. Appendix N don’t lie! Still, I wasn’t impressed with my first reading of his stuff. Gather, Darkness! had some cool ideas, plus an exclamation point in its title! But it was just too bogged down with ideology that got in the way of telling a good story or building interesting characters. I guess I should have started with some Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, right? His signature adventuring duo! Well…

swords-and-deviltry-1979-mayflower-pb

I nibbled on Swords & Deviltry for a while. Many train rides: reading a few pages, falling asleep for the remainder of the trip, and repeating. And then I finally finished it.

First off, let me plug another review of the same collection. Dan over at QuQu Media got his up before me, and it’s a bit kinder. Go check it out!

As for my own thoughts…

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I’ll try not to rant for too long. I actually largely agree with Dan, only I take a somewhat dimmer view. The pacing was poor, yes. I would say both Fafhrd and Mouser’s individual stories were only all right. The latter was a bit more engaging for me, as well, but I found Ivrian irksome and weak (perhaps that was the point). And when she finally gets interesting…the story ends. Then in the last tale, she mostly reverts back to the annoying weakling.

The last story, “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” is the best of the three. I’d still only call it “not bad.” Leiber was a strong writer, and he wielded words well! I did admire that strength while reading, despite being somewhat unimpressed with the story itself.

I’ll say this – Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are synergistic. They’re much more fun to read about when they’re together. They’re like the Friends of sword and sorcery (how’s that for a generational reference?). Their fight scenes are fun, and they have some chuckle-worthy banter.

Unfortunately, this tale reads like the prequel that it is. The two become best friends pretty much immediately. Because, you know. They’re supposed to be best friends.

*SPOILER ALERT*…..

 

Also, both of the womenfolk are dead weight. You know the two protagonists most likely aren’t going to willingly leave their lady loves (which is all right because frankly one is naggy and half-crazy and the other is feckless). So you know Leiber’s gotta get them out of the picture somehow. He goes give them a pretty memorable death – I give him credit for that. Don’t see too many people strangled by magic smoke and then eaten by rats.

 

 

*END SPOILER*

“Ill Met” is fun enough. There are elements that some may find overdone or silly (there’s just something about a hero drinking like 10 jugs of booze and still being functional enough to fight that always bothers me), but overall it’s enjoyable. By today’s standards, it’s worth a read. But for me now, compared to the other stuff I’ve been reading (Vance, Burroughs, Howard, CAS, Zelazny)…meh.

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Alex of Cirsova has been telling people that they should start with Swords Against Death, which was written earlier than the chronologically preceding Swords & Deviltry. This is probably sound advice. Seeing as I already own it, I’ll give it a shot sometime and see if I can join my pulp fan friends in Leiber Land, or if maybe he just doesn’t do it for me.

Bonus thought: the sorcerer’s familiar in “Ill Met” bears a strong resemblance to those in Gather, Darkness! Perhaps not surprising, but interesting to note.

-Bushi

bushi

Swords and Stuff, a second crack at Leiber: Strike Two!

“No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books

  • by gitabushi

Spoiler: Okay, that was too strong, and I withdraw the charge.  Sort of.

Don’t you love it when a writer starts off the story in the middle of the action, so you are immediately caught up in laser blasts and flying hand-axes?

So here’s the background.

There is a Pulp Resurgence going on.  As a hopeful writer who is hopefully on the verge of being able to complete my first novel, I noticed the trend and thought it might be something worth paying attention to. As in, maybe I might want to write a pulp story.

So I tried to re-read some pulp SFF I liked when I was in my teens.  And didn’t like it anymore.

The stereotype of pulp is that it is simplistic, juvenile, and immature.  Its fans disagree. And they have a point: the writings of Dashiell Hammett are considered by some to be literature worth studying.

hammett
Dashiell Hammett

I personally enjoy reading Louis L’Amour, and while he is definitely a pulp Western writer, he has some interesting characters, occasional fascinating character growth, and some fairly intricate plotting at times.

the-sackett-brand_LRG
…and boy, did L’Amour milk this brand!

But when it comes to SFF, I have to agree with the stereotype: it is immature writing that has been so surpassed by the state of the art that it doesn’t seem worth reading anymore.

So, of course, I had to say this on twitter, because that’s the Proper Location for Virtue Signalling.

Full disclosure: Twitter has changed me. It has helped me to mature and not be bothered by responses and attitudes that would have infuriated me not long ago.  On the other hand, I’ve gotten to enjoy mild trolling, so I’m not always as careful with precise critiques as I would have been in the past.

And PC Bushi and I have a long-running mild disagreement…we both love SFF, but our tastes seem to be diametrically opposed. What he loves, I dislike.  The only thing I love that I know he’s read is the Chronicles of Amber, but that’s enough to know that the reverse isn’t necessarily true. More data is needed.

Anyway, some people had been ripping on some authors PC Bushi liked, and we had a twitter conversation about it, as PC Bushi details here.

That led to me getting called out by a commenter here:

I am sorry but it just reads like nathan hasn’t read anything and is just using other people’s talking points. Couldn’t you describe Brust’s Taltos series as a guy just wandering around killing black elves?

(He later corrects himself note “black elves” is Cherryh’s construction, not Brust’s, but the Dragaereans are called elves, so his point is not undermined by the mistake)

Here is my response, in full:

Okay, I spent a little time thinking about plot, so your challenge actually did some good.

Maybe “no plot” is the wrong way to put it.
What is plot?
According to wikipedia, Plot is: the sequence of events inside a story which affect other events through the principle of cause and effect.

So from that point of view, yes, everything REH and ERB wrote have plots.

But I still don’t think they are very good ones.

Let’s take the first story in “The Coming of Conan”. (I have read most of the original REH Conan novels, but 30 years ago, so we’ll just look at this short story).

What is the plot? A man wants to be king, so plots against the king, who is Conan. He arranges for an assassination squad. Conan has a dream where a God gives him a magic weapon. Conan defeats the assassination squad, except the last one is read to kill him before a demon appears, then Conan kills it with the magic weapon.

So, yeah, there’s a plot, but it’s not a very good one.

Why do we care about Conan? Is he a good king? We don’t know.
Where is the conflict?
Does anything bad happen if Conan is replaced as king? Sure, he’d be killed, but we know nothing about the country, or the people. Why should we care?
Does he do anything difficult to stop the assassination? No, a demon appears.
Does he do anything difficult or special to stop the demon? No, a god gave him a magic sword.

There was *one* bit of interesting development: Conan is nearly killed because he was shocked at the minstrel’s betrayal, and human emotion keeps him from striking the minstrel down immediately.

If anything, the most interesting person, the person who chooses and changes the most, is Thoth-Amon. He had power, lost it when a thief took his ring. He had to flee or be killed from the enemies he made when he had power. In disguise, he’s nearly killed by bandits, but his life is spared when he pledges to serve as a slave. Then his ring comes within his reach again…how does he react to the loss of power vs restoration of his power? That could be a fascinating glimpse into human nature. But he’s the bad guy, so we can’t care about him.

Now compare to Brust’s Jhereg (spoilers!):

Jhereg
An assassin is seduced by greed and ego to take a difficult job. He finds out the job isn’t as straightforward as he thought. If he doesn’t do the job, he’ll be killed. Then he finds out there’s a reason to hurry. If he doesn’t hurry, he’ll be killed. But if he hurries, he might be unprepared, and killed by the target. Then he discovers the target wants to die, but only a certain way. He finds out that if he does his job, his friend will be dishonored. Now, you may not care about the friend and his prized honor, but you can understand and sympathize with the assassin not wanting to force his friend to lose something important to him. Then we find out that the target is trying to destroy 3 of the 17 Houses of the Draegaera. Which the assassin would LOVE to have happen. Now isn’t that some some intriguing, major conflict to be resolved? The assassin has multiple reasons to want to stop the target’s plot, but also has multiple reasons to want the target’s plot to succeed. So he develops a plan, the one thing that could resolve all these conflicts safely. Then the plan goes wrong.

There is escalation of stakes throughout, which makes it a good plot.

Brust lets us get to know the characters, gives us some reason to care about the characters and what they want, makes even the target somewhat sympathetic, and then lets the struggles play out.

Now, to be fair, we’ve compared a short story to a novel. A novel will naturally be more complex, having more length.

So let’s bring in ERB’s The Land That Time Forgot.

The_Land_That_Time_Forgot

What’s the plot? A man is going to war. His boat is sank, he captures the submarine that did it. No way to run a submarine, unless you just happen to have experience piloting one…He just happens to make submarines for a living! He tries to get home, but gets lost. There is some conflict because there is a hidden traitor. He finds an unknown continent. No way to get in, unless you have a submarine. He just happens to have one! He gets inside, and there are dinosaurs inside. They are dangerous, and randomly grab someone. It just happens to not be the hero! Now they have food and water, but no fuel for the sub. Hey, they just happen to find oil! They still haven’t resolved the issue with the Germans, oh, hey, the Germans run off with the sub!

Oh, I forgot, there’s a girl. He loves her because she is beautiful. How do we know she’s beautiful? The author told us. She loves the hero, he loves her. He doesn’t trust her for a while. Oh, wait, he was wrong. She forgives him.

To be sure, there are some minor conflicts: the hidden traitor, the problem about the trust between the girl and the hero, how to deal with hostile prisoners.

But at no point is there much doubt about the outcome of any conflict. The hero is the leader because of course he is. He can command the sub because of course he can. When he needs to kill a dinosaur, of course he can. He can overcome the German commander one on one because of course he can.

Back to wikipedia:
A plot device is a means of advancing the plot in a story. It is often used to motivate characters, create urgency, or resolve a difficulty. This can be contrasted with moving a story forward with dramatic technique; that is, by making things happen because characters take action for well-developed reasons. An example of a plot device would be when the cavalry shows up at the last moment and saves the day in a battle. In contrast, an adversarial character who has been struggling with himself and saves the day due to a change of heart would be considered dramatic technique.

If I had to characterize The Land that Time Forgot, it would be that it is just a series of plot devices, rather than a plot. Or to the extent that it has a plot, it isn’t very good.

And it doesn’t get any better in the sequel, The People That Time Forgot. I set the book down when I got busy, and had zero desire to pick it back up again.

In its favor, there is a great What If aspect to the trilogy: What if there were a lost continent that had dinosaurs and primitive humans? Then what if the inhabitants recapitulated evolution as a personal development process?
Okay, the 2nd is way out there, and I don’t really see the reason for it, but at least there is a What If to explore.
These are milieu books: set up a world, then let the character explore the world, letting us see it through his eyes. The interest is in seeing how this world compares to ours, how the changes in the world cause changes in the humans, or in human society.

Except it really doesn’t. ERB gives us a series of snapshots, but the world never really becomes 3D.

Compare to Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, where the question is “What if a bunch of young adults were stranded on a strange planet and had to create their own civilization?” Definitely a milieu story, but not *just* a milieu story. There is character growth and exploration of human nature and the nature of civilization.
Or compare to Larry Niven’s milieu stories, Destiny’s Road (what if people lived on a planet that lacked any natural source of a vital mineral?), the Smoke Ring duology (what if a society evolved in a weightless environment?). He tells a story with a plot, character that have goals and issues we care about, while *still* exploring a strange world. One of the interesting things about Niven is he wrote several novels about societies based on an Elite enslaving the Common People via monopoly over a scarce vital resource. He explores that theme over and over, in the two stories above, plus The Gift From Earth (human organs), World Out of Time (immortality), and probably more I can’t think of yet.

the-smoke-ring
Woah. Doesn’t this look like a world you want to see a writer explain, describe, and explore?  Hard SF for the win, baby.

Both you and I cited Cherryh.

To be fair, Cherryh has some books without any real plot. Her Fortress series is just a self-licking ice cream cone. As is the Rusalka series. Both do provide some insight into human nature, the nature of fear and love, and how those are exploited…but after finishing each of those, I felt like I do reading ERB and REH: why did I just read that? What was the *point* of the story? In REH and ERB, it’s because I don’t care much about the outcome because there wasn’t much escalation of stakes, too many plot devices, and the characters don’t earn my care. In those two Cherryh series, it’s because after all those words describing so much action, nothing really changes in the world. I guess you could say that in Rusalka there was finally a restoration of normality, but I just didn’t care that much.

In contrast, Cyteen drags you into the lives of a brilliant-but-evil woman who is cloned, and how her clone reacts to the attempts to recreate the evil woman’s brilliant skills by pushing her personality towards evil, in connection with interactions with the young, sympathetic man the evil old woman deliberately abused…this is conflict, in that the man wants nothing to do with the clone because of his memories of the old women, but the clone is fascinated by the young man and has the power to force his proximity. Lots of personal conflict, tough decisions, changing character, people under pressure, sacrificial decisions, etc. A fascinating exploration how conflict, struggle, and pain are the challenges that stimulate growth, and the ethics of using those tools deliberately to try to bring about that growth in others.

Let’s make this even more complex, and bring in ERB’s John Carter. It’s been a while since I’ve read any. I enjoyed them okay when I was 15. I tried re-reading Princess of Mars 5 years ago, and got bored before I finished.

I won’t run through all the things I consider plot inadequacies, but I’ll hit a few points:
– Yes, there’s loyalty, in that Carter saves Tarkas’ life, and Tarkas returns the favor…but to me, that pales in comparison to Vlad Taltos’ considering it better to let himself be killed rather than force his friend to go back on his promise that guests are safe. Of course, Vlad figures out how to resolve that conflict, but Vlad’s loyalty is more poignant to me than the “You save my life, so I save yours” exchange.
– Yes, there’s romance, but just like in the Land that Time Forgot, we are told that Dejah Thoris is the most beautiful woman ever, so John Carter loves her and is blessed to earn her love. Yay. I don’t find it convincing or compelling.

index
…for all we know, Dejah Thoris could look exactly like this.

There are some things in the Barsoom series favor:
– It is based somewhat on the science available at the time (canals!)
– If you want a hero with superhuman strength, it makes sense that it would be an alien that grew up on another planet with 3x the gravity. This is good What If science fiction.

But consider this: how much more poignant, how much more depth, how much more interesting would the whole Barsoom cycle be if John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child, or (worse!) a young, pregnant wife on Earth?

That would make his attraction to Thoris a conflict. That would make his return to earth after asphyxiation a mixed blessing. That would add emotion to his every success on Mars: it all came at the expense of an innocent woman and child back on Earth…and yet, it wasn’t of his own choosing, he is powerless to go back (so why shouldn’t he make their loss mean something good for Barsoom?)…and since his complete disappearance means she is also moving on with her life back on Earth…?

That one change would deeply alter the Barsoom series, making it a truly sublime exploration of the nature of love, and purpose, and dealing with loss.

 

“No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books