Bridge of Birds

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I read Bridge of Birds as a teen and remember really enjoying it, though I had no real recollection of the story. For some reason or another I was reminded of this book recently and decided to give it a reread. So I picked it up on Amazon and wedged it into my reading queue, and now it’s been read again.

Allow me, this time, to present you with a rating, and then I’ll work backwards. Good read – 3.5/5.

Set in a fantasy version of ancient China, Bridge of Birds reads something like a novel-length fairy tale. It incorporates reworked elements of Chinese mythology as well as threads of the author’s own crafting. If, like me, you’re not super familiar with Chinese culture and folklore, you may be hard-pressed to differentiate the two.

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Like many fairy tales, Bridge of Birds wields a sort of grim humor. Sometimes it borders on silliness, and other times it drifts into downright problematic (in my research for this post I came across one review I won’t link that noted the failure of BoB to pass the Bechdel Test. Lordy!). It also includes healthy portions of action, mystery, romance, and tragedy.

There were some slow points, especially earlier on in the story. These were often “world-building” moments, where Hughart’s narrator protagonist was relating some tall tale or historical event of some small relevance to the story. Fortunately, Bridge of Birds delivers a well-balanced experience. There were times when I felt the story was almost too slow or too silly, but then things would get serious or all hell would break loose and erupt into a fight or chase scene.

That balance may be the tale’s greatest asset. Much of the story is lighthearted adventure starring Master Li Kao (who would be something of a high-level sage/thief hybrid in a game) and the hulking Number Ten Ox – the brains and brawn of the outfit respectively. But every so often – BAM – the story throws you for a loop and delivers the feelz. Importantly, the times this happened didn’t feel contrived to me. They were beautiful, in a way.

*Minor spoiler*

The best example is perhaps the character of Miser Shen, who early on in the story is presented as just that – a greedy, avaricious man concerned only with his wealth. Later on, however, we learn that he was driven mad by the loss of his daughter and had resolved to accumulate enough money to pay the wise Old Man of the Mountain for the secret of bringing her back to life.

Shen’s prayer to his deceased child, which is actually based upon the translation of a real historical text, will probably stay with me for quite a while.

“Alas, great is my sorrow. Your name is Ah Chen, and when you were born I was not truly pleased. I am a farmer, and a farmer needs strong sons to help with his work, but before a year had passed you had stolen my heart. You grew more teeth, and you grew daily in wisdom, and you said ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ and your pronunciation was perfect. When you were three you would knock at the door and then you would run back and ask, ‘Who is it?’ When you were four your uncle came to visit and you played the host. Lifting your cup, you said, ‘Ching!’ and we roared with laughter and you blushed and covered your face with your hands, but I know that you thought yourself very clever. Now they tell me that I must try to forget you, but it is hard to forget you[…]”

*End spoiler*

Another kudo I give the book is how the story really comes together in the end. As Master Li and Number Ten Ox work to solve their mystery, the pace picks up and more and more seemingly unrelated characters and events coalesce to form an even bigger picture.

In some ways Bridge of Birds hearkens back to earlier days of SFF, when genres were a lot more fluid. This isn’t the sort of story I’ve often come across, and it presented me with a refreshing change of pace.

It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you find the premise or the genre uninteresting, I doubt you’ll change your mind. Likewise if you have no interest in Asian folklore or mythology, you may want to give it a pass. But if your interest has been piqued, I recommend you check it out!

-Bushi

bushi

MUST READ SFF: The Monster Men, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

  • by Gitabushi

I have embarked on an exploration of old Pulp, with designs of writing some pulp stories myself. Where better to start than with Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs?

Having recently finished ERB’s “A Princess of Mars”, and the library term having run out on “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” by REH, I decided I should read some more Burroughs.  However, I didn’t want to limit myself to Barsoom stories at this time, so I picked up The Monster Men.

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The Monster Men is an intriguing mix of different ideas: the hubris of science, the nature of souls, love and loyalty.  At times, it seems as if ERB was writing in response to Shelley’s “Frankenstein”; at other times, I wondered if he was trying to establish his protagonist as a Christ figure.

In the end, it is none of those, although those elements certainly do play a role.

Lately, I’ve been consumed with the notion of Willing Suspension of Disbelief: it is a prerequisite to enjoying a story. For instance, I can’t get into Star Trek because my expectations for The Next Generation were so high that when they lost me, they ruined my ability to accept any premise from that universe. Likewise, I enjoyed “Orcs!” because the verisimilitude of the GS rank battle, combined with what struck me as a precisely-correct shift of tone from farce to seriousness, convinced me to buy into the premise.

But I hadn’t seen The Two Towers film. As such, when the scenes that parodied that movie played, I wasn’t jarred from the story as anyone who had seen that other film would be.

I could delve into this more deeply with other examples, but the point is: obtaining and maintaining Willing Suspension of Disbelief isn’t something the writer should take for granted.

I very nearly choked on the premise of this story: that man could create life from scratch. Modern Science has only recently mapped the human genome; I don’t care what texts Professor Maxon had available to him, there was no way he was growing humans from scratch.  But I finally decided to swallow the premise (key word: “Willing”) and take the premise at face value.

Before I had completely accepted the premise, however, the book started getting really good.  This occurred at approximately 20% of the way in  (according to my Kindle; page numbers are meaningless when you are reading Kindle e-Book publications). At that point, multiple actors began to reveal their competing goals and techniques for reaching those goals.  What was a relatively simple story suddenly became extremely complex.

From that point on, I had to finish the book to see what would happen. My Disbelief was fully Suspended. There were points were the pacing slowed, but I was already committed to the story and to reading the fates of the various characters.

And I wasn’t disappointed.  Burroughs ends this story extremely well, with a somewhat surprise ending that, at the risk of ruining it for you, he actually fully telegraphed earlier in the book.  Fortunately, he did it in a way you will either not notice, or forget in the ensuing pages of action.  Masterfully done, in fact.

Moreover, Burroughs drops some challenging ideas into the story, particularly regarding the nature of humanity, souls, and morality.  When I say “challenging”, I don’t mean the ideas are complex, novel, or controversial.  I just mean that he raises questions and has the characters consider them; this process compels the reader to actually consider these issues in the hypothetical context. Perhaps the reader is already clear what they think, perhaps it is an entirely new idea; either way, I have to believe the reader is forced to think on the concept.

The novel doesn’t really get preachy, however.  It isn’t a Message story, although it has some Messages in it.  This is how I like my books: don’t beat me over the head with what you think is the Right Way to Think About a Moral Issue.  Just raise the issue and then show me the consequences of people’s decisions and actions.  Make your case.

ERB did, and did it well.  12 hours later, I’m still thinking, “Huh. What if this other character had followed through with that action? It would have been horrible!” To me, thinking about the ramifications of different characters doing different things is the sign of a good story: it means I’ve begun to think about the characters as people, with agency and options. It means I found their decisions and actions to be realistic.

There is some stereotyping that most Social Justice Warriors would probably now denounce as racism.  I wouldn’t, because they are stereotypes that serve the story. Burroughs needed people to act a certain way, and the setting made the racial choices obvious. But I don’t think he reduced the humanity and agency of anyone, and the choices they made were based on realistic cultural influences. Giving a Chinese character a “Your Raundly is Leddy” accent throughout the whole damn book is annoying, but the character itself is treated with the utmost respect.  I see nothing racist about this book at all, although there are indubitably racial elements.  Noticing race isn’t racist in and of itself. This more firmly establishes in my mind the opinion that charges of racism leveled at ERB are undeserved.  My mind can still be changed, but that window is closing.

However, the novel had some other problems.  Mechanically, his writing is sometimes poor: there are run-on sentences, confusing clauses, loss of clarity in who is speaking or acting.

One of the more interesting weaknesses, however, is ERB’s Show-Don’t-Tell problems.  He “tells” way too often.  This would be a much better novel if he showed the reader what he wanted to tell us.  Motivations should be revealed more in dialogue and descriptions of actions, rather than just telling us what someone wanted or meant by their words.  And yet, taking it to another level, his telling the reader about motivations and actions served as showing a deeper level of moral character and integrity of the characters in the story. So I can’t give him a failing grade in that area the way I do mechanics.

Finally, in this book, ERB’s descriptions are rather muted and plain, much like they are in “A Princess of Mars”.  I find myself comparing him to REH with ERB coming out the loser, badly. But to be fair, REH is a master at vivid description, at making you feel you are actually present in a 3D world, so anyone would pale in comparison.  ERB’s descriptions were adequate, so he barely passes here, too.

From now on, I’ll be including a chart that captures my rating of the story based on several aspects.  Here is the chart for ERB’s “The Monster Men”:

Monster Men Radar

The book is public domain and can be downloaded from various online locations. I recommend you do so.  This is a book worth reading!

Birds and Flash and junk

Egad – has it really been a week since the last blog post?  I guess when Gita’s not writing the blog-oil recedes to a trickle around here!

I was out of town this past weekend for a wedding. Lots of Thai folk. It’s kinda of amazing, actually – the general expat community in Japan was pretty open in my experience. That is, my circle of friends was constantly assimilating newcomers, who would in turn bring in newbies of their own. Made for some fun parties. The Thai community here in the US, from what I’ve seen through my wife, seems similarly friendly and inviting, but it feels like a smaller world. We met people in North Carolina who had traveled from different parts of the country (and from Thailand), and yet there were varied threads to be discovered. In other words, it wasn’t just “hey, you with the bride or the groom?” There was mesh.

Aside from that, I’ve got a Castalia House post lined up (as in “in mind”), and a couple other things a brewin’. I’m mostly dividing my time between C# study and reading  Bridge of Birds. I’ll have some thoughts on that up soon.

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I’m also halfway through the Greatest Adventure of All, which is pretty dang great so far. Flash Gordon is a beast. Animated Aura’s not so bad, either.

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Soon it’ll be time to power my way through the rest of Hiero’s Journey, and then I’ll once again be confronted with the paralyzing decision of what to read next. Saberhagen? Vance? Some more Brackett? But I haven’t read Tarzan yet! Maybe I will just descend into madness instead.

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-Bushi

bushi

How I got into Gothic fiction: Getting out of your comfort zone

Two or three years ago, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to read Dracula. Now I’ve never been a huge fan of classic fiction (though I’ve read plenty and enjoyed some) or of horror (though I’ve tried and enjoyed less than classic fiction). But hey – it’s one of those books that any real SFF fan should at least consider reading.

I was glad I did. Though it was a bit of a slog at first, once I got used to the style, it was enjoyable if slowly-paced. Not only was it interesting to get a look at an older portrayal of the modern vampire, but it was informative to note the differences between the source and the stereotypical Dracula character. For instance, he could of course transform into a bat, but he could also turn into a wolf, and indeed had power over all manner of “creatures of the night.” Though there was a seductive element to his powers, he wasn’t a suave Adonis. Rather, he was an old mustachioed man with stinky breath.

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Gleaning the older source material and inspirations for contemporary Scifi-Fantasy has become a pleasurable pursuit. My foray into Appendix N has been part of this, but that’s just one small component, one nook.

My next encounter with Gothic horror was prompted by HP, who was reading Frankenstein for Halloween. This one went down a little easier because of my experience reading Dracula. Although once again the pacing felt a bit slow (which may be characteristic of the genre or the times), I felt much less impeded by the old-style prose. Frankenstein was an interesting read, indeed, for the changes and inaccuracies he and his monster have suffered at the hands of Hollywood and successive lazy writers are particularly notable.

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Recently I’ve been reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is a much shorter book. Although it’s not my usual cup of tea, I find myself acquiring a taste for the flavor. And so I’m glad I stepped out of my comfortable zone when I did and opened myself up to a type of story I had little interest in. There’s a lot to be appreciated here!

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-Bushi

bushi

Love and hate for Nintendo, plus Ultima pulp

My relationship with Nintendo is akin to that of a spurned lover, or a spiteful once-friend. Back in the days of NES and SNES, Nintendo was my jam. The latter system remains my favorite system of all time, by and large. It was around the time of the GameCube that the company started to lose me, and I was gone with the advent of the Wii. I suppose it was the multiplayification and criminal IP serialization of each successive console that really did it.

SNES has arguably one of the best RPG libraries (or at least boasts the highest quantity of iconic titles) of any console part or present. Plus a mess of cult classics and smash hits of other genres! And yet as generations progressed, Nintendo became mainly the home of Mario (Noun) and Zelda (XXX of YYY), plus random increments of Metroid and smatterings of winners like Boom Blox.

Now I can understand the move to corner the “casual” and “family” segments of the market. It’s been a long time since I had two or three nearby friends to rub together (trouble me not about inappropriate idioms!), so not for me, but I get it. Even then, I remained faithful to Nintendo handhelds. In spirit, the DS was really the successor to the SNES.

But then they started doing stupid shit like region-locking. Granted I’m probably in the minority of consumers who would want to play both English and Japanese games, but now I’d need to buy a separate Japan-region 3DS. Fuck that.

Their official line is some bull-hookey about region-locking making content release more efficient, but lo and behold they followed the pack and did away with the region lock for the Switch. And yet they still refuse to unlock the 3DS (which is software, not hardware locked).

Smoke you, Nintendo!!!

And then came the NES Classic Edition shortages and discontinuation…

My embitterment is well-documented at this point.

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Still, we’ll always have SNES, I thought.

Alas, my fond, untainted memories were not to go unmolested. Someone on Twitter (which really ruins everything on so many levels) was waxing nostalgic about Ultima VII not too long ago. “Ultima VII?” I thought to myself. But Ultima VI was the awesome one! Indeed the False Prophet was an amazing game unlike any I’d played before at the time. Not only was the world open, but the main quest was ambiguous. You had to go figure out that crap for yourself.

Thinking back, Ultima was my Elder Scrolls at the time (before knowing of Elder Scrolls). That is, I’d just go wander around the woods killing gnomes and wisps and finding wizard towers to be looted. Sometimes I’d happen upon a cave or tomb with some random magical armor and some serpents or headless dudes to kill. Once in a while I’d run into those badass gargoyles and they’d murder my ass back to Lord British. He sure was swell for res’ing me all those times.

The turn-based combat, the ability to recruit all kinds of random NPCs, the looting and stealing of almost anything that wasn’t nailed down…man, what an awesome game. At the time I hadn’t yet gotten into the world of PC gaming, and the SNES port served me well.

I remember some years later I tried a ROM of the Black Gate and…everything was different. No turn-based combat; simplified inventory; the graphics looked almost worse, and I kept running into monsters in the starting town that would one-shot me. Man, what a bad game.

So I tried it again yesterday. I had a little more patience this time, but my experience went approximately like this — come through moongate and talk to my old buddy Iolo, explore and pick up some items, go into villager’s basement and get almost instantly killed by goblins shooting magic at me. I was then forced to repeat this process twice more, except I was killed by rats in a different basement, and something else on the ground floor of another house that killed me so quickly I was unable to identify it.

Brutal and unfun.

Still, this may partly be the fault of the SNES port!! Apparently the PC version was a bit different. At least it looked different. I can only hope it played differently, too.

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Above is the starting spot in the SNES version (top) vs the PC version (below). What gives, right?!

Anyway, apparently this is available on GOG, so I may be buying more games that I don’t have time to play! Yes, “games” plural. I found this cool video about Ultima 7, and the dude mentions two expansion-type games that don’t seem at all like expansions.

He describes Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire and Martian Dreams as weird Ultima VI-engine (!!) installments where you explore strange pulpy worlds rather than Britannia. It’s hard to imagine an Ultima game without Lord British, but I think I could be persuaded to play one set on Mars or in “the savage world of Eodon.”

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Lo! It looks like the Avatar has become John Carter of Mars!

So many undiscovered/unplayed gems. I was recently informed of my Sword of Aragon deficiency, too. Eventually, friends. Eventually.

-Bushi

bushi

Inspiration and fear

No one has asked me about my inspirations for writing/blogging, but theoretically it is a question that someone could ask.

I think not many people know that I occasionally write write. That’s probably because (a) I historically haven’t done it very often and (b) I don’t talk to many people about it. My cohort did bring it up on Geek Gab, but that’s about the extent of any organizational dissemination.

I was just thinking about this because of a Twitter thread that wandered into my timeline this morning.

“Suckers – I’m not afraid of writing!” I thought glibly to myself at first. But putting aside the fact that I’m not sure I qualify as a real writer, I think actually this “fear” translates differently for different people.

When writing is literally your job and you’re living and eating off book or story sales, there must be some degree of anxiety. What if the Muse starts playing hard to get? What if I just can’t cut it? Well, guess I’m eating wood pulp.

For my part, and I suspect this isn’t an uncommon sentiment, I experience more of a periodic sense of minor hopelessness; especially since hitting gold with the older SFF authors. I read Howard, Vance, Burroughs, now Brackett, and I think to myself – how in the nine circles am I going to write anything even approaching as good as this?

The answer, I suspect, is by reading and writing. A lot. Well, becoming a big name Scientifiction writer has never been a serious life aspiration for me, so I’m not worrying too much about it. Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t “fear” in the same way as others.

Blogging has really been more of a passion, and a more immediately realizable ambition for me. I’ve name-dropped Cirsova’s blog and Jeffro enough times by now that if you’re a regular reader you should be familiar with them as two of my major influences.

(By the way – Jeffro’s Appendix N book is finally out in physical copy. Go have a look!)

Since before that, though, I’ve always appreciated writers who are both technically proficient and mechanically interesting to read. Tycho over at Penny Arcade is one such. He’s obviously a very intelligent individual filled with all kinds of book learnin’. And yet his voice is full of quirk and his writing often drips with a sort of eldritch tang. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but reading his posts makes me want to write.

There’s an old, dead blog called the Sneeze. The Internet has imbued its corpus with a sort of divine incorruptibility. But the guy who ran it – a certain Steve – he was another one who made me want to blog. It’s harder than it looks, being able to write both intelligently and conversationally without coming off as a fucking dunce.

I hope someday to master that skill.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Eric John Stark: Conan in space!

Last week I wrote a piece over at Castalia House talking about my experience thus far with Leigh Brackett. My interest in the Queen of Space Opera was initially piqued not really because of her inclusion in Appendix N, but because she apparently was involved in writing the script for The Empire Strikes Back, in addition to several other old kickasses like Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, and El Dorado.

Clearly the woman knew how to write a romping good action story.

It took me a while to discover and appreciate her depth. Having read several of her short stories now, I can say with conviction that she’s not over-hyped by her fans in the Scientifiction scene. Her writing is not only engaging; I daresay it’s got an imaginativeness to rival that of any other pulp/Appendix N author I’ve read thus far.

And now that I’ve finished reading the first Eric John Stark book (one of Brackett’s premier recurring characters), I feel comfortable saying this – Stark is Conan in Space!

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Let me first expand upon this a little before crouching into a defensive posture to clarify that perhaps provocative assertion.

Stark is an elemental man of action. If he isn’t outright called a barbarian, he is portrayed as one. Though possessing of a keen wit and sharp, almost animal instinct, he is prone to rage and bloodlust. There’s one point in the story where Stark advances to kill an enemy who had unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate him (and in a rather underhanded way), despite knowing that the man is protected and a deathly punishment is certain. Stark doesn’t care, or rather he is beyond self-control.

He’s also both intelligent and charismatic. The whole plot of the Secret of Sinharat is spurred by a warlord’s invitation for Stark to sign on as a military trainer. Someone’s gotta turn those undisciplined hordes into Fighting Men ™!

None of this really surprises me, as I’ve read and been told that Brackett was a big fan of Rob E Howard, and I think that shows in her style. I don’t think her writing possesses the same bardic flair as Howard’s, but that’s akin to pointing out that Jason wasn’t as physically strong as Hercules.

Now I want to make a point of saying that I make this Conan comparison in the best way possible. You see, there’s a lot of Conan pastiche out there. A LOT. And plenty of it is sloppy, uninspired, and/or lacking in execution. Eric John Stark is none of those things. Just from the first Stark tale, I can tell he’s different enough from Conan to be his own, unshadowed character. Plus he’s black!

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Of course being that I haven’t read Tarzan yet, maybe I’m all wrong about this and Stark is actually Tarzan in space!

 

Addendum: H.P. and I finally come to almost the exact same conclusion on something!

-Bushi

bushi