Bradbury

Though I haven’t been doing much reading lately, I have been toting The Illustrated Man around on my commutes. I always forget what a good writer Bradbury was. But damn, his stuff can be bleak.

It’s weird, I could have sworn Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles were the only of his books I’d read. But then as I’ve been chipping (back) away at Illustrated Man, I know I’ve read these before. Or maybe the End is near and I have had eerily similar visions.

At any rate, there’s that one story with the astronauts in space. It reminded me of this Perry Bible Fellowship comic. I wonder if that was his inspiration for the strip.

I’ve really got to read that Brackett/Bradbury collaboration, Lorelei of the Red Mist. I’ve already got it and everything.

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I’ve got to update the Grand List.

-Bushi

bushi

 

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Economies of Scale

  • by Gitabushi

When I’m a famous writer, I won’t have to explain myself to you, bub. I won’t have to answer to anyone!

I am not a famous writer. As such, I think I need to give a brief introduction to this story.

This is intended to be a fairy tale. I don’t know the rules of writing fairy tales. I just thought of the story, mulled on it for a day, and wrote it. It might not follow all the conventions of a fairy tale.

Nonetheless, it is supposed to be more light-hearted. I hope there are moments that get an actual chuckle out of you, but I’ll take just an internal “heh” if that’s all I can get. The focus is supposed to be on the story, rather than the details.  Consider it Soft SF, perhaps.

If it doesn’t work for you, I’m sorry, but that’s also okay.  The feedback I’ve gotten on this story from friends has reminded me that there are many tastes, and many audiences. This might not work for everyone, but I hope it works for you:

We’ve had enough of this ado crap, no?  So without any further ado:

 

“I’m going to kill the dragon,” Timor Redcraft said one morning.

“Hush, Timor, eat your breakfast,” his mother replied.

“You don’t have time to kill the dragon, Timor,” his father said. “We need to get the fences repaired on the south ridge by midday or there’ll be hell to pay!”

“The dragon” was Emporilio, the de facto ruler of the land ever since arriving in flames, smoke, and fury years ago, nearly seven years before Timor was born.  On the balance, it was a fairly lenient ruler.  It only took the occasional sheep from the occasional farmer, not adding too much burden to the relatively heavy taxes of King Stephen. Particularly since Emporilio’s presence did more to keep rival nations from invading the Kingdom of Marista than King Stephen’s standing army did.

There was, however, Emporilio’s requirement for a blonde maiden to be sent to keep his den clean and orderly for a year, at the end of which she was eaten. This was a difficult demand to swallow, not only for the parents who were required to sacrifice a beloved daughter, but to the young men who chafed with the tragic reduction in the number of beautiful and marriageable maidens. Periodically, a young man would decide he was the one who could rid the realm of the foul beast. He would collect armor, a spear, and a horse, and ride to his rapid death.

The only good that came of their sallies was it tended to keep the number of men seeking marriage in somewhat of a balance with the number of marriageable maidens.

In the Redcraft hovel, Timor did, in fact, hush and finish his breakfast. He and his father did repair the fences by midday, and so no debt was owed to hell.

Timor was not very intelligent, but he did like to think things through at his plodding, deliberate pace. So as he worked, he thought.

“I need a weapon,” he said to himself. “I have the family boar spear! So that’s good.”

He pounded more nails into the fence he was building and continued to think.

“A dragon has fire for defense,” he said to himself. “Fire heats things up.  When the hammer sits in the sun for a few minutes, it feels hot if I pick it up by the iron part.  That’s why we pick it up by the wooden handle.  I wonder if I should make armor out of wood?”

That evening, he placed a doll fashioned from an old corncob and covered with a bundle of twigs near the banked coals of dinner cook fire. When he pushed it close to the coals with the hearth poker, the wood caught fire.  He used the poker to pull the doll away from the burning twigs, but the corncob was already scorched.

“Bosh,” he thought. “That’s no good. I must keep thinking.”

Days passed.  Timor continued to think about a hammer heated by the summer sun.

“If I weave a straw pad,” he said to himself, “it also keeps my hand from feeling hot. Perhaps I should make armor from straw!”

Rice_straw
Rice Straw, by Green https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Green

That evening, he placed a doll fashioned from an old corncob and covered with tiny straw mats near the banked coals of dinner cook fire. When he pushed it close to the coals with the hearth poker, the straw caught fire even more quickly than the wood. He again used the poker to pull the doll away from the burning straw, but this time the corncob doll was not scorched at all.

“The straw absorbs the fire,” Timor said to himself. “If I leave it behind, the fire will stay on the straw and not on me!  That’s good.  But if I drop the straw mat, I will not have any more protection. That’s bad. I wonder what I can do?”

Days passed. Timor continued to think about straw set on fire by a cook fire.

“If I used more than one straw mat,” he said to himself, “the straw pad on the outside protects the straw pad on the inside just like it would protect me.”

That evening, he placed a doll fashioned from an old corncob and covered with two tiny straw mats near the banked coals of dinner cook fire. When he pushed it close to the coals with the hearth poker, the straw caught fire again. He again used the poker to pull the doll away from the burning straw of the outside straw mat. Sure enough, the inner straw mat was not burned at all.

Satisfied, Timor began weaving straw mats.  Very soon, he had finished ten layers.  But when he put them all on, he couldn’t do anything more than fall over.

“Bosh,” he thought. “That’s no good.”

The next day, Timor wrapped himself in only nine straw mats, but he still couldn’t do anything more than fall over.

It wasn’t until several days later, when Timor wore only four layers, that he could move at all. He still fell down very often from the weight, and couldn’t walk to the end of the pasture without needing to rest.  He decided that three layers would have to be enough.

He tied the mats to his body with string, and practiced untying the string as quickly as he could.

Each week, Timor would travel to the nearby village to trade some of their fruits, vegetables, or crafts for other items they needed for their farm.  While there, he would take a half hour to talk to Balen Fingerlet, the oldest and wisest man he knew.  He would ask about dragons.

“Dragons is parful!” Balen would say. “Don’t be wasting you self trying to be no big hero, Timor!”

“Dragons is evil!” Balen would say at other times. “Don’t be wasting you self trying to match wits with no dragon, Timor!”

“Dragons is trickee and dasseptuv!” Balen said a few times. “Don’t be wasting you self trying to reskew no maydun, Timor!”

“Dragons is deeveeus!” Balen said once. “Dey allwayz have layers to their defense. Whenever you think it be there, it be someplace else!”

Timor decided Balen was no actual help to his goal.

“I will go to kill the dragon now,” Timor said to his parents. “I have said I will do this, and I will do it, or die trying.”

Timor’s parents were in tears, trying to talk him out of this notion. But Timor was resolute.

“Father, Mother,” Timor said. “You know that Emporilio has been a problem for our kingdom. Others have had the courage to try. Why should I not have the same courage?”

The tears of Timor’s parents did not diminish by even one drop.

“Father, Mother,” Timor said. “You know that Emporilio has been a burden for our kingdom. In helping you take care of our farm, I have learned that problems do not solve themselves if you wait for others to solve them for you.”

The tears of Timor’s parents did not diminish by even one drop.

“Father, Mother,” Timor said. “You know that Emporilio has caused continuous pain for our kingdom. In helping you take care of our farm, I have learned that the longer you wait to solve problems, the worse they became.”

The tears of Timor’s parents did not diminish by even one drop.

Timor sighed, but could think of no other words to comfort them.

Father, Mother,” Timor said. “I will return with the head of the dragon, or on it.”

Timor paused.

“You know what I meant,” he added.

Timor took up his boar spear, stuck the hammer in his belt, donned his straw armor, and left.

The path to Emporilio’s lair took him through the village.  He trudged slowly, due to the thick straw mats making it impossible for him to bend his arms and legs and torso normally.  When the villagers saw him stumbling along, they laughed and pointed.

“Look at Timor,” they laughed. “He looks like a walking haystack!  Timor can’t even walk right anymore!”

Stung, Timor felt he needed to explain why he had dressed in such an outlandish and awkward fashion.  He responded with, “I am going to kill Emporilio!”

This did not help.

“Look at Timor,” they jeered. “He thinks he can kill Emporilio!”

Timor had no answer to that, and so did not respond.  They quickly grew bored with insults and derision. One small child flung a tomato and hit Timor in the arm. From the smell, the tomato had been rotting for a few days. Another followed.  Timor felt multiple impacts, stumbled a moment as his foot came down on a slippery bit of moldy fruit, but continued forward.

One older villager tossed a moist, odiferous, and brown-colored clump of something that was not fruit. Before long, Timor’s nose was filled with the odor of a horse barn that had not been mucked out for far too long. But he continued forward.

“This is a small village,” Timor said to himself, “and there aren’t many animals. They will run out of manure soon.”

The rate of noisome missiles diminished, and then stopped.

Children skipped alongside Timor. Then one dashed in front and got down on all fours directly in Timor’s path.

Unable to halt in time to avoid the unexpected obstacle, Timor tumbled to the ground over the child.  He was moving slowly enough the child was not hurt from the impact, although the straw jabbed and scratched Timor’s skin.  No one asked if Timor was hurt; or if anyone did, the question was drowned out by the laughter of a dozen people.

Timor did nothing but clamber to a standing position, bend to pick up his spear, and continue along the path toward Emporilio’s mountain.  This new game was repeated three or four times.

“Say something, Timor!” shouted one older child.

Timor said nothing, and just kept walking.

“Why haven’t you quit yet?” asked someone a few years old than Timor.

Timor said nothing, and just kept walking.

The crowd of villagers shadowing Timor became smaller, then smaller still, as villagers went back to their daily duties. One small child followed for another five minutes before finally running back to her home.

Timor walked on, alone again.

“My heart is aching,” Timor said to himself. “My parents were inconsolable. The villagers mocked me and even tried to disrupt me upon my quest. Does no one support me in this task? Does no one even want our kingdom to be rid of this foul beast?”

Timor could not help but notice, however, that the sky was the very pleasant shade of a robin’s egg. In the dusty yellow heat of the late summer, the leaves of the trees along the road were green enough to make him feel cooler just by looking at them. The wind sighed through the tree branches, the birds were twittering and chirping high up in the boughs, and the vexation Timor felt began to fade away the way the mist does as the morning moves toward afternoon.

Timor began to whistle a happy tune about maidens and buckets and mushroom picking.

“Maybe it isn’t that people want the foul beast to remain,” Timor said to himself. “Maybe they have just grown accustomed to its presence, and its cost, and simply cannot imagine what life without a dragon might be like. I can certainly understand that, because I have never known what life without the dragon might be like.  The dragon has taken sheep and eaten maidens since before I was born.”

Timor thought more.

“Come to think of it,” he said to himself. “I am very happy my mother was not one of the maidens.”

Emporilio’s lair, halfway up the rocky mass of Widows Peak, was a handful of hours from the village under normal conditions. Hampered by a heavy spear and armor, however, it took Timor five hours to reach the base of the small mountain.

“Why is there no path?” Timor asked himself, as he began to use the wind-twisted and stunted pine trees to pull himself up the boulder-strewn slope.  “I wish I had wings like Emporilio, then I could just fly…oh! I think I understand why there is no path.”

An hour later, Timor was nearing the dark spot below the ridge that had been pointed out to him a few weeks ago as Emporilio’s lair. He began to hear the gurgle and splash of water.

“There must be a small stream,” Timor said to himself. “It makes sense that Emporilio would want fresh water nearby, just like our sheep like to be near the pond.  I know I would like a drink of water, and it would also be nice to wash off some of this stink.”

Within a few minutes, Timor had found the stream.  He took a long slow drink of water, and then tried to splash water to cleanse himself of rotten fruit, animal waste, and Timor sweat.

“This will never work,” Timor said to himself. “I must find a place I can immerse myself.”

He splashed up the stream, looking for a place to lie down. He could not find one for a long time.  The stream sometimes became broad, flat, and too shallow; other times, it became narrow, fast, and too deep; if the depth and speed were just right, then there were too many rocks and broken tree limbs for him to even lie down comfortably.

He neared the cave.  In fact, Timor was in sight of the cave when he finally found the perfect spot: not too deep, not too shallow, but not so many rocks and tree branches that he could not lie down among them.

“I am already here, though,” Timor said to himself.  “There is no need to delay. I would like to take a nap, but as mother always said: work first, rest later.

“Hallo!” Timor called out.

No answer.

“I say, Hallo!” Timor repeated. “Come out and fight me, you sneaky lizard!”

There was no response.

“I guess there is nobody home,” Timor said to himself.  He shrugged, but shrugging did not summon the dragon.  He put his spear on the shallow side of his intended stream bed, splashed down on his back, and closed his eyes.

Timor opened his eyes.

The sky had changed from a crystal clear, blue afternoon sky, to a crystal clear, deep indigo evening sky, replete with a thousand sparkling and glimmering stars.  It was a sight he had not seen often, as his mother would have him in bed each day as the sun went down.  The moon was out, as well, full and round. Its light bathed the little gully formed by the stream bed, enough that he could see the sinuous form of the dragon as it slurped from the stream a few yards away.

It was not so large as Timor had imagined.

“Why, it is not much larger than the miller’s horse!” Timor thought to himself, so as to not make any sound the dragon could hear. “This is certainly a fine opportunity to kill the dragon and keep my vow!”

He stood up and thrust with the spear at Emporilio’s ribs, just behind the shoulder, striking hard and driving the blade deeply, slaying Emporilio almost immediately on the first try!

Or, at least, that is what Timor wanted to do.  In fact, he splashed clumsily to his feet, dropped the spear in the process, bent to pick it up, slipped and fell as he overbalanced forward, got his hands on the spear shaft, and used it to lever himself to his feet.   He then rushed forward, tripped as the water bound his legs, leveraged himself to his feet once more. This time he walked more slowly toward Emporilio.

Emporilio merely watched the spectacle.

If a dragon’s face could have an expression, Timor would have sworn it held an amused smirk.

“Who are you?” Emporilio said.

“I am Timor! I have come to kill you,” Timor declared, in his bravest, loudest voice. “If you don’t mind, that is,” he added.

“I see,” Emporilio purred. “No, I don’t mind you trying.” Then he breathed fire.

The fire was hotter than Timor could have imagined, but it was over more quickly than he could have imagined.  He was engulfed in flames for a moment. The water in the outer layer of his straw matting turned to steam in a flash, and the straw caught fire.

Timor quickly unbound the strings holding the outer layer of matting and it dropped to the ground.  Lighter, Timor took a step forward more quickly.

Emporilio breathed fire again.

Timor was engulfed in flames for another moment.  The water in the middle layer of his straw matting turned to steam in a flash, and the straw caught fire.

Timor quickly unbound the strings holding the middle layer of matting and it dropped to the ground.  Timor strode through the burning straw toward Emporilio, and thrust with the spear, slashing through the muscle below Emporilio’s left wing.

Bright blood splattered. It splashed on nearby rocks, where it hissed, sizzled, and blackened.  A few droplets flew from the impact to hit Timor.  The fiery blood left pinprick burns on Timor’s face.

Emporilio breathed fire a third time.

Timor was engulfed in flames for a third time.  The water in the innermost layer of his straw mating turned to steam in a flash, and the straw caught fire.

Timor quickly unbound the strings holding the innermost layer of matting and it dropped to the ground.  Timor sprang through the burning straw to see Emporilio try to fly, fail, and begin to scramble back towards its lair.  In desperation, Timor thrust with the spear and hit Emporilio in the ribs.  The spear head sunk in deeply.

Emporilio spasmed and thrashed, and the spear was torn from Timor’s grasp.  Emporilio yanked the spear out of his side, and a stream of blood flowed from the wound.  Emporilio snapped the spear in two, and threw it away.  The dragon looked extremely vexed.  It turned toward Timor.

Emporilio fell onto his side.

Timor took the hammer from his belt, and walked forward. He heard a gasp behind him, and turned to see a beautiful maiden, dressed in dirty white rags.

“I’m Timor,” Timor said. “I’m here to save you. Just let me finish the job and I will save you right after that.”  Timor turned and walked around the dragon, being careful to stay out of reach of its dagger-like talons, and needle-sharp teeth.  He walked around Emporilio to be able to approach from behind, but stayed three long paces away.  Emporilio turned heavily to face Timor.

“Wait!” Emporilio said.  “Please don’t kill me.”

“Why not?” Timor asked.

“I…I…am now powerless.  I cannot breathe any more fire, and I cannot even stand up.  I cannot hurt you, I cannot take any sheep, and I certainly cannot take or keep any maiden.  You have vanquished me! I am no threat to you or anyone else now.”

“Don’t liste—” the young maiden began, until a gesture from Emporilio ended any sound from the movements of her mouth.  From what Timor could tell, she was not in any exceptional distress; she could still breathe, and could still move and breathe freely, but Emporilio’s gesture had robbed her speech of any sound.

She mouthed words silently and hurriedly, her arms flailing with excited gestures.

Timor didn’t understand, and shook his head.

She mouthed words slowly, exaggerating the shape of the words, her hand movements slow, deliberate, and evocative.

Timor decided the maiden was no actual help to his goal.

He turned back to Emporilio to see it had moved three steps farther away, and closer to its lair and the maiden.

“You say you are powerless,” Timor said. “But you seem to still have magic. I must kill you to end this power.”

“That was but a small cantrip,” Emporilio responded. “Had I any real power, I would have used it to kill you as you stand there.  Does that not make enough sense to penetrate your dim-witted skull?”

Timor admitted that it did.

“I know this will seem self-serving,” Emporilio continued. “But being this weak and helpless for the first time in years, I have learned what it must be like to be weak and human.  I have had a flash of empathy for your kind.  I swear on my True Name that I will leave and bother your people no more.”

“Well,” thought Timor to himself.  “That certainly seems serious.  His True Name!”  But he scowled in doubt.  He raised the hammer and took a step forward.

“I see you are still considering,” Emporilio said.  “But consider this: I know I have sinned. I have committed grievous sins upon your people.  But I have confessed! I have repented! I have given you my solemn word!  Surely you must give me a chance, to see if I keep my word.  You have bested me once, so you can always come back and kill me later if it turns out I lied, is this not true?”

Timor said nothing.

“Moreover, I am now weak and helpless.  I cannot stand. I cannot run.  I cannot breathe fire, and I cannot even use magic to defend myself.  What kind of monster would you have to be to slaughter me now?  I repeat: I have seen the error of my ways, and will tread a righteous path from now on.  Does your faith not tell you to forgive the repentant? Should you not give the reformed sinner at least one more chance?

“Look, I am not a sheep, or a rabbit, or a cow.  I can think!  I can feel!  I can speak to you!  I am a person, just like you, albeit in a different shape.  If you kill me, is it not the same as killing an innocent child?”

Timor lowered the hammer.

“If you spare my life, I will dedicate my life to keeping the Kingdom safe from all enemies.  I will also serve you, personally.  Anything you want.  Just spare my life.”

“What if he is telling the truth?” Timor thought to himself.  “Could he really have repented?

“Except, I cannot be the smartest person who ever tried to kill Emporilio.  Young men have been trying for twenty-four years.  Others must have figured out ways to protect themselves from its fire.  Others must have been able to surprise Emporilio and have the chance to end this terror.  Emporilio himself said this was the first time he was this weak and helpless in years.  That means he was this weak and helpless before. Maybe more than once.

“And yet, Emporilio is still here.  Sheep and maidens are still being consumed regularly. Every young man who came up here died.”

Timor took two strides forward and brought the hammer down on the bare patch of ground with all his might.

As the hammer connected with Emporilio’s skull, the illusion of the further-away Emporilio disappeared, and the maiden’s voice returned to her.  Even its blood had lost its caustic power.

A few more blows with the hammer, accompanied by repeated and enthusiastic promises of gratitude from the maiden on behalf of her family, and Emporilio’s reign of terror over the kingdom and its maidens was no more.

Timor did not marry the maiden.  Having killed the dragon and claimed its modest treasure, he was able to choose the maiden with the mildest and most dependable character from among the beautiful brunettes of the kingdom, which he found much more attractive than blondes.

Timor felt that was enough excitement for one life.

He was wrong, but that’s a tale for another time.

Writing Tip: Frustration of Goals

  • by Gitabushi

I’m currently reading some stuff. Yes, my parents are very proud.

I’ve been reading some science fiction by some aspiring writers, but at the same time, I’m also working my way through Jin Yong’s “The Deer and the Cauldron” in Chinese.

Jin Yong is the Grand Master of Chinese martial arts pulp. To give you a sense of what I’m reading, the martial arts heroes of his genre are probably closest to our comic book superheroes.  They were considered garbage literature as he wrote it, widely popular among the less-educated, not as illuminating or uplifting as the Four Great Novels or Lu Xun (the Mark Twain, perhaps, of Chinese literature).  And yet, it was Jin Yong’s books that have inspired dozens of movies and television adaptations. His characters and stories are still found as pop culture references everywhere. And in retrospect, many consider Jin Yong’s books (and those he inspired) to actually be literature.

That’s why I consider his writings to be the Chinese version of pulp.

As such, I have multiple reasons to read the books: 1) they are good. 2) it’s great practice for my Chinese reading and general language ability. 3) they are well-structured stories of adventure and heroism.

One thing struck me in my last reading session: I haven’t even finished the introductory chapter, and the framing characters are still just discussing the back story, and yet, the villain fails twice in his attempt to create mischief!

The villain is an official who has earned the just desserts for his corruption: fired and penniless, he’s begging for money to get home. He flatters a rich man about his son’s manuscript in hopes of getting increased charity.  The rich man realizes the official has never read the book, and tries to provide a financial incentive for the official to read and be transformed. The official, however, finds the gold leaf slipped into the pages without reading. And yet, the trick works, in a way: the official actually reads the book, but only in hopes of wheedling additional gold from the rich man.  However, upon reading, he is not educated or enlightened, but actually recognizes the text of the book provides him with an outstanding opportunity for blackmail.

So, rather than using the gold leaf to return home and start his life over, he prepares his blackmail gambit by mailing the book and his accusations to a local administrator, and uses the money to remain in the area to wait for his plot to come to fruition. He waits a year.  Nearly out of money, he discovers that the rich man was tipped off and sidestepped the blackmail peril by editing and republishing the book.  The corrupt official scours all possible locations for the original book across the entire province, and can’t find a single one.  Since he sent in the book with his accusations, he has no proof to continue the scheme, so finally heads home.

Nearly home, he stumbles on someone who has an original copy of the book.  Without enough money to offer to purchase it, he steals it.  Although he was nearly out of money, he economizes his life to stay in the area longer, and re-tries the gambit, but at the nation’s capital.

The rich man was ahead of him, however, and bribes the higher officials to only review the revised editions.

The corrupt official economizes once again, and puts everything into a public display of all his denouncements, so that it can’t be covered up by allies of the rich man at the right government positions.

I haven’t read far enough to see how it turns out, but since the blackmail has to work for there to be a story, I’m assuming this is where he finally succeeds in his nefarious schemes.  I’m also fairly certain he doesn’t profit by it.

There is so much good here.

First, human nature: Good people do good, expecting there will be good results; they never realize that the evil will always find ways to turn good intent to serve their selfish urges.  The evil people see goodness as weakness.  And yet, the evil is simple, human-sized, and believable: love of comfort. The evil man could have taken the gold concealed in the book and lived the rest of his life at a level beyond the dreams of the multitudes of poor people.  Or he could have economized his lifestyle fairly early and lived decently, although not terribly comfortably, for a few years while he improved his abilities or reputation for his next career opportunity. Instead, he lived large in expectations of future windfalls, for as long as he could, until he no longer could.  And then when he realized the need for change, it was only to endure longer to bring about the windfall.  He worked harder on a blackmail scheme for a big payoff than he would have to earn that same amount through hard work and diligence.

This makes the story more believable.

But the most important lesson to me here is obstacles.

This is backstory.  This is a minor character who we will never see again. This is the key issue that will launch the oppression that forms the backdrop for the main story.

And yet the author *still* thwarts plans multiple times before finally allowing the realization of goals.

This is, as I said, a backstory, but it is very nearly a full novel of developments in itself…merely shrunk down into a condensed narrative that spans a handful of paragraphs.

Too many times I read stories where everything the heroes attempt, succeeds.  Sure, we want to read stories where the heroes win.  But it shouldn’t be direct.  The Sci-Fi book I’m reading simultaneous to the “Deer and the Cauldron” has a *few* twists thrown in, but when they get a new mission, I know they’ll be successful at the mission, pretty much as planned. As such, in contrast to the “Deer and the Cauldron,” it comes across as too predictable for me.

One rule of writing I absorbed somewhere was: if you tell the readers the plan, it can’t succeed.  If you want the plan to succeed, don’t tell them the plan.

Consider Ocean’s 11.  They make you *think* you know what the plan is.  Then so many things go wrong.  It looks like they have no chance.  And then they reveal that you never knew what the plan was at all. It actually worked to perfection.  But that’s what made it good.  If you were told what would happen, and then it happened exactly like that, you’d be bored.

What Jin Yong did here is closely related.  But the writing lesson here is: nothing ever goes as planned. Nothing is simple, and nothing is straightforward.  Even the bad guy will have most of his attempts thwarted.  What makes him a bad guy is he persists at being bad until he succeeds. And therefore, what makes the good guy good is he persists at being a good guy until he succeeds.

Too often, I think, writers want their good guy to succeed, and they lack the patience (or insight into humanity?) to put them through very much.  Early Edgar Rice Burroughs actually suffers from this, but within a few years, he’s doing a great job making his heroes’ plans fail the first few times they try.

But most writers, just like ERB, let their villains have it too easy: whatever scheme they hatch works fine, right up until the good guy defeats it.  And that’s okay, I guess. You have opposition, you have suspense. But you know the good guy is going to win.  You know the good guy is better/smarter/stronger than the bad guy, so the result is inevitable.

Jin Yong shows us another way.

The bad guy has it rough, too. The bad guy has to work for his goals, too.  Life and perversity of people gets in the bad guy’s way, just like it gets in the good guy’s way.

And now, it really is a battle of equals. Anything can happen. Both are determined, persistent, and skilled enough to work past the normal obstacles of life. Now they are clashing in the final struggle.  Who will win???

The good guy, of course.  But now you have no idea how they will win.  You want to see how, you *need* to see how. You have no idea what new wrinkles will be thrown at both the bad guy and the good guy, because both will encounter adversity.

It adds complexity, but requires more patience.

I need to be more patient as a writer to let my story develop, and not just skip over events and narrative details to get to the good parts. Even the background should have tension and good parts.

 

Jack Vance’s Waterworld

Remember that movie Waterworld? Of course you do. It gets blasted for being kinda crappy, but it’s got a lot of stuff I like – post-apocalyptic setting, Dennis Hopper getting an eye blown out, Kevin Costner playing Kevin Costner. It’s kinda like Mad Max on water instead of in Australia. Ok, it’s not a great film, but it’s entertaining scifi.

Well, imagine if instead of floating junk platforms and rusty barges, people lived on giant lily pads and harvested sea life for sustenance. And everyone was descended from criminals (kinda like Mad Max, being set in Australia). Oh and there was a giant sea monster named King Kragen that would roll up and eat all your home-grown sponges and if you made a fuss he’d wreck your shit. This is Jack Vance’s Blue World.

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I wasn’t originally quite sure what to expect from this one, but it kept me engaged and wanting to pick it up whenever I could find the time (and often it was a choice between sleeping while the baby let me or else reading and heaping maledictions upon King Kragen – curse his name!).

There’s a lot going on here and it’s got a lot of Vance’s signature moves – a competent protagonist who is intelligent and brave yet no action hero (pay no attention to the cover-Fabio above), witty, dry dialogue, big words, science, and oh so much imagination.

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One thing about the science of Jack Vance’s writing – it always feels “real” to me without getting too crunchy and boring. That is, it seems sufficiently detailed and plausible. Could you really burn off gallons of blood to gather iron for weapons and armor? I don’t know, but it’s a cool idea and sounds like it could be possible! Can you burn off plant matter to gather copper for crafting electrical conduits? Sure, why not? There’s something about stories like this that make me think of survival or colony-building video games and tech trees.

It’s also worth noting that Vance, though a noted proponent of tradition, is the ultimate shitlord, always willing to lampoon if it serves the story. I say this because my esteemed colleague Cirsova once pointed out to me that Vance has skewered tradition before. In the Blue World, Vance lays out a society that pays homage to a predatory monster that’s basically an overgrown octopus-crab (maybe? I kind of had trouble picturing it). The hero is the guy who finally gets sick of having his sponge-trees picked clean by the brute and decides to rouse some rabble.

The rabble itself is satisfying. Like in all of Vance’s other stories, many of the characters sound the same, speaking with honorifics and wield big fancy words and small difficult words. But the world is populated with both fools and those of superior intellect; the courageous and the cowardly; villains and heroes and those in between. In other words, I found the characters interesting sufficiently varied.

Potentially noteworthy – the hero gets the girl in the end, which isn’t always the case with Vance.

In conclusion, I’m a Vance fanboi and reading the Blue World has done nothing to shake my faith in his superior skill and unjust obscurity. 5/5.

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

Must Read, er, Fantasy?

  • by Gitabushi

I highly recommend reading The Paladin by CJ Cherryh.

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The hesitancy of the title is that while this story is set in a semi-fictional world, there are no fantasy elements at all. The people are superstitious, so belief in demons has some impact on the story…but there’s no magic to speak of.

When I originally read the story, I assumed the setting was a fictionalized Japan. Re-reading it, I’m not really sure why I thought that: the setting is quite obviously a fictionalized China.

Perhaps it was because the names are Asian sounding, but most are not valid Chinese syllables, so it is easy to assume Japan as a not-Chinese Asian.  Perhaps it was because of the artistry of the martial arts, except that China also has such artistry.

In any case, regardless of the society C. J. Cherryh intended to copy, it could easily be ancient China, and is probably best understood that way.  Although, to be honest, you don’t have to know a thing about China or Japan to enjoy the story.

The story is about the Emperor’s martial leader, exiled for disloyalty, but left alone as long as he remains in exile, and the girl who brings him back to the world. His martial leadership is never really explained: he’s a master swordsman, but also a tactical and strategic genius.  Prior to the beginning of the novel, his only student was the boy Emperor; hints during the novel indicate he was possibly the top Imperial General, except that his fame is for prowess in fighting, and he never meets anyone considered an equal in the story.  If he was supposed to be the most skilled bodyguard or champion of the Emperor, it wasn’t clear to me.  So it seems more that he was taught all the martial arts, and his training and talent made him the best at all aspects, both personal fighting and leading small units and large armies.

I’ve said before that one things C. J. Cherryh gets better than any other writer I’ve ever seen, is language.  She has always shown the difficulties in communicating in languages learned as second languages, and that plays some small part in this story.  However, in The Paladin, Cherryh displays one of her other strengths: speed of communication and transportation.

One of my theories is that what makes a story work is uneven information flow.  This can be seen in how ubiquitous cellphone coverage has had such a profound impact on film stories, including slasher flicks.  They *must* include some explanation of why the characters can’t simply make a phone call; in truth, the conflict in most stories would be resolved with just a quick phone call.  Time and Communication can create all sorts of conflicts that make a story good.  Thus, C. J. Cherryh has included language differences as a disruptor of clear communication, and her FTL isn’t just “press a button and get there,” but rather a system of applying power to an advanced physics problem, so mass vs power causes different ships to make it to the next normal space location at different times; and so ships can race to get through FTL hops, and take risks to cut time, because presence and communication are the key to conflict and resolution.  But those are her science fiction stories.

The speed of horses, the fatigue and endurance of humans, and the speed of gossip and misinformation, all play a significant role in this novel, and it is the better for it. If for no other reason you should read this novel to see how she handles the flow of information and people. It makes the world *feel* more real.

One other reason to read this book: realistic handling of feminist topics.  It has never been confirmed, but I and others have assumed that C. J. Cherryh was the liberal science fiction writer (Sherry Atkinson) appearing on the Alien Assessment Team in Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall.  I felt their characterization of her, for all that it was good enough to make it clear who they meant, was unfair.  She may be (and probably is) Progressive, but she is no bleeding heart, naive liberal.  Her books always display a clear and profoundly accurate grasp of human nature, vulnerabilities, and motivations.  This book is no different.

In this book, a young girl wants to learn how to be a killing machine so she can get revenge on the man who killed her family and destroyed her home community.  Cherryh handles is quite realistically: the girl doesn’t become an equal to a man; in fact, after a full year of training, the viewpoint character shows her how even a half-trained man could easily defeat her just by height, reach, and strength that will always outmatch her own, no matter how vigorously she trains.  But then the sword master alters his training from the ideal set of skills to helping her minimize her weakness and maximize the strengths of her different set of abilities.

Cherryh may be a liberal/progressive/Leftist, but her stories often seem to arrive at the same conclusions conservatives do, and she has a gritty and insightful view of human nature that shines through.

On the other hand, her current epic series masterworks (the Foreigner series (at last count, 20 books and still going), is filled with the same Leftist Dowager political assumptions that mar the later works of Lois McMaster Bujold: “Conservative = bad,” “Conservatives are hypocrites or ignorant people who would be Progressive if they would just open their eyes,” “It’s okay to lie/cheat to obtain a Progressive societal win, because after the stupid Conservatives have Progressive societal advancements shoved down their throat, they’ll see it was right,” “the correctness of the Progressive cause justifies using dishonest and dishonorable methods on anyone who tries to stop us,” “There is absolutely no decent argument for opposing the Progressive agenda, so I won’t even let them make an argument in my book,” and “Progressives win simply because they are virtuous in their commitment to Social Progress.”

The change in her writing seemed to happen about the time she turned 52. McMasters Bujold became less enjoyable for me when she turned 51.  Come to think of it, Heinlein became unreadable in his later life, as well. I disliked Stranger in a Strange Land, written when he was 54. In all three cases, there is a novel where their writing disappoints me, then a novel or two that are still good (in the older style?  or in concert with the older themes?), and then within 3-4 years, their novels become wholly unreadable.

This has implications for my hopes of establishing a writing career, since I’m already extremely close to that age.

Anyway, The Paladin has a great setting, great characters, a good plot, a great grasp of the realities of communication and travel in a non-technological world, and one other thing I appreciated:

Disruption.

I think I’ll discuss this theme tomorrow.  Let it suffice to say that the girl uses disruption to get what she wants, only to have it used against her later.  And then Disruption becomes the main theme of the last third of the book. We’ll discuss this more tomorrow.

Science Fiction/Fantasy Story Ideas

  • by Gitabushi

I might never get my act together and write consistently.

Ah, screw the long-winded introduction. Let’s just get right into it:

Here are some story ideas I’ve started and abandoned. If you like any of them, use them. Whatever you would do with them would be so different than what I would do with them, most people wouldn’t even be able to tell they came from the same idea seed.  And that’s if I ever wrote any more on these stories, which I probably won’t, so if you use any of these, you won’t even owe me a mention on your acknowledgement page.

  1. Science Fiction story: a spy ship is on a mission to collect intelligence from an enemy world. Detected, it flees. But a traitor within prevents it from escaping, and the crew is captured. Basically, the point was a Science Fiction remix of the capture of the USS Pueblo and the Collision of the Chinese Fighter with the EP-3, with my thoughts on leadership and responsibility thrown in.  Does the pilot/commander have the responsibility to sacrifice his people for mission secrecy?  Or, at what point do military secrets matter less than a handful of lives? Does it matter if those lives are volunteers who accepted their lives might be forfeit the moment they stepped on the craft? And how do you lead your people to resist mind-games while in captivity?
  2. Fantasy story: Magic in this world is placed into twigs via ritual. Breaking the twig releases the magic. It can do things like increase strength, increase distance vision, permit levitation, etc. But each use of magic draws upon the normal powers or energy of the user. So, for example, if you use the vision enhancement twig, your vision is weakened for a few hours after the spell runs out.  If you use several magic twigs to boost the effect or delay the cost, then you risk permanent disability. Placed in the context of war, the intent was to explore the sacrifices soldiers make to complete the mission.
  3. Private Eye Noir story: man wakes up to find a red-haired woman wearing bright green pointing a gun at him.  She asks him a few inexplicable questions, then pistol whips him into unconsciousness.  I have no idea what I was going to do with this, I just thought it was a good start.  One possibility was when he goes out looking for the girl, he finds a red-haired girl in bright green has been murdered…but is it a frame?  Is it even the same girl?
  4. Science Fiction story: Due to an unknown development (but likely a microbe unexpectedly brought back from Mars), children are born without the ability to heal wounds. This should cause them to die before passing on their genes, but one rich family spares no expense to let their son live a full life: protective equipment when young, ballet and martial arts teachers from before they can walk to have the grace/balance to avoid damage. This method spreads to the point that there are hundreds of millions of people afflicted with unhealing, but someone uses fear of the unhealing to stir up hatred, and a war breaks out.  The superior grace, balance, and fighting ability of the unhealing results in them eradicating the genetic line of the healing, and civilization collapses, and all modern knowledge is lost within 40-50 years. But a moon colony has been watching this, developed a cure for affliction, and now wants to come back and re-introduce civilization, but as masters.  So the healing serum is offered to a young fighter to seduce him into being their general. Being able to heal, he can be more reckless in individual duels to ascend to tribal champion, then unite the various tribes by conquest.  Except maybe he has plans of his own. Intent was to show that some of the arguments about evolution are garbage (“See the giraffe? The long neck helped them survive by reaching the tops of trees when other animals starved! That proves evolution!”), but also the nature of using hate to build political power, and the desire of people to be rulers/masters.
  5. Epic Science Fiction universe: An asteroid barely misses the earth, inspiring a wealthy entrepreneur to fund a generation ship to another solar system. Inhabitants go through a trial to make it on the ship. The ship launches. A few weeks later, a mission to terraform Mars is launched.  Then an asteroid hits the earth, destroying most of life. This allows all sorts of science fiction stories: how are people selected to be crew on the generation ship?  You don’t want only intellectual scientists and engineers…do you? Apocalypse stories. Maintaining civilization on a ship stories. Moon colony stories. Mars terraforming stories.  Rebuilding civilization stories.  Could maybe even through in a zombie apocalypse, or magic re-emerging on earth in the wake of the asteroid apocalypse.  Epic.
  6. Science Fiction story: FTL needs pilots. Humans go insane from brain damage if they remain awake during FTL travel. Computers also fail if left on during FTL travel.  An accidental discovery indicates that children that have passed into the Pre-Operational stage (ages 2-7) can pilot ships without brain damage; obviously, a two year old couldn’t follow the steps correctly, but their brain development stage allows them to experience the FTL environment without damage. In the Concrete Operational stage (age 7-11), brain damage begins to occur; however, the damage doesn’t actually impact the mental activity until they achieve Formal Operational (around age 11). The government needs pilots. Age 2-7 is too short a time period for useful mission operation to be worth the training, so the government allows kids to keep piloting until they actually go insane. However, few parents would agree to this, so the pilots are all orphans. After they go insane, they are allowed to mingle, have sexual intercourse, and birth children…who are, of course, Wards of the State and eligible to be pilots.  To justify this virtual slavery, the pilots are given a good salary and the ability to buy out their contract. Most, being kids, just buy toys and candy.  One child, however, actually enjoys the idea of investing and manages to buy out his contract before experiencing any brain damage.  He gets out and goes into business and becomes wealthy, due to his ability to plan for the future, work hard, and delay gratification.  Then one day, a gray man comes to him and says, “Your little brother is still in, but will reach the damaging stage some time within the next year. Join me.”  This idea was conceived in reaction to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, in which children think and act like adults.  It pissed me off. Plus, I wanted to write an epic Star Wars like space opera romp, of a ragtag crew fighting against an all-powerful, and banally-evil govt. I always like stories where the govt is the bad guy, but not from Rule the World evil as much as People Are Liabilities and Must be Told What to Do and How to Live sort of evil.

Culdcept and more Dune sciency stuff

Life flows onward. Care for the larva takes precedence.

I recently picked up a cheap 3DS game that looked interesting. It’s called Culdcept Revolt. Apparently the Culdcept series has been around for a while, though I’d never heard of it.

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Gameplay-wise, it’s something of an ill-begotten spawn. Think Monopoly meets Yugioh meets Magic: The Gathering. In effect it sometimes feels like Mario Party – skill and strategy matter, but the result of a 30-minute match can ultimately depend upon the favor or curse of the Random Number God. But I guess Magic was always subject to that. “Whoops, you drew 10 lands in a row? Learn to shuffle better, scrub.”

But it’s got card collecting and deck building, so it scratches an itch. Don’t get me started on the writing, though. It’s seriously bad.

Ah well, at least it’s turn-based. When you need to be able to respond to the wail of your progeny at a moment’s notice, turns are required. Or at least pausing. Maybe both.

Meanwhile Dune continues to stimulate as I read in bits and squeaks. Back in college, I took a class in sociology and our professor had us read Dune. Herbert is more often recognized for the ecological hardness of his seminal work, but there’s a lot of soft science going on, too. Man, that was a cool class.

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I’m told Herbert really knew ecology. I think it shows. But honestly, I’m not the kind of guy who’s incredibly difficult to convince with this stuff. Throw in the names of some scientific processes, maybe a plausibly-named theory…hey man, sounds sciency to me. “Hard” and “soft” scifi are relative terms, I guess.

Also, is “chromoplastic” a thing? Maybe…? A related element that’s impressed me is the range of invention Herbert utilizes here. He may not have coined all or even most of these gizmos and scifi doodads, but he seems to have picked some good ones that either never reached wide-scale use or else hit critical mass after he threw them in the mix.

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This kind of thing is important, you know? Sure, you can have a good story with blasters and laser swords and plasteel armor and space marines. But that’s all been done. A lot. Don’t underestimate the power of novelty.

Oh, look – “cone of silence.” This thing was popularized by the old 60’s Get Smart TV show, of course, but it was apparently kicking around for at least a decade before that. Herbert himself used the term in a 1955 short story, so Wiki tells meDune was published in 1965, as a reference point.

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I love this stuff, but dang I’ll be glad when I can muster up the wherewithal to dive into something new. Witch World looms.

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-Bushi

bushi