Even Fantasy Has to Make Sense

One of the repeated comments about this shortened season of Game of Thrones (which wraps up Sunday) is that show runners have really cranked up the pace, running from big event to big event instead of letting things play out over time. Part of that’s due to the nature of the season (it’s only seven episodes long) and part of it’s due to where we are in the story. Once we have the scope of this world in our heads it’s not a problem to handwave away some of the timing issues in order to barrel ahead toward the show’s conclusion.

But there are limits, and the limit seems to have been breached by this past week’s episode, “Beyond the Wall.” A quick, spoilerly, recap of the relevant bits:

Jon and company go north of The Wall to capture a zombie ice walker to take back to King’s Landing to prove to everybody this shit is real. After walking for a bit they come across the army of the undead and, for some reason, pick a fight. Jon sends Gendry running back to Eastwatch for help, which provokes a raven to be sent to Dragonstone, which leads Daenerys to fly up to save the day with all three dragons. All the while, Jon and crew are surrounded by the undead army (until it’s dramatically appropriate for it to attack, of course).

Putting to one side the sheer stupidity of Jon’s “strategy,” there’s a big whopping problem with the timing of all this. We only see the army of the undead hold off overnight before attacking, but surely it takes several days (at least) for the Gendry/raven/dragon transport system to deliver fiery death to them, right? It’s at least something that has kicked some people out of the story, pulling them past their flying snowman moment. Even the director of that episode admits the timeline is “getting a little hazy.”

But that’s not really what I’m interested in (although I’m one of those people). I’m more interested in some of the defensive comments made in response to complaints. There are several in the comments to this write-up over at io9 – they’re fairly typical:

While you’re focused on a believable timeline, does it ever cross your mind that you’re watching a show about fucking dragons.

***

I’m sure it would have been fun to watch seven guys stranded on a rock for another episode while they waited for the raven and the dragon’s trip back because the audience wanted a show about magical ice zombies to keep things realistic.

Someone even posted an image of the gold standard for this kind of thing, MST3K’s admonition that “it’s just a show, I should really just relax.”

People are free to accept any explanation (or none) for why something seems off in a show, movie, or book, but I have to take issue with the argument that because something is fantasy anything goes.

One of the cool things about writing fantasy is that you can, generally speaking, make up anything you want. People who can wield the power of the elements? No problem. Mythical talking beasts who aid intrepid adventurers in their quests? Bring it on. Nonetheless, there are still a couple of limits.

Primary is that to the extent the characters are human beings, they should behave like them. Maybe a guy can fly or perhaps he can summon huge storms with his mind, but he probably still gets hungry, tired, or would be pissed off if he found his girlfriend in bed with another guy. Unless there’s an in-world reason to the contrary, characters should behave like real people.

That leads into the second restriction – any fantasy story should follow the rules that it sets up for itself. Let’s say you have a world that includes a pegasus (or pegasi) and we’re told early on that, despite the wings, they can’t actually fly (they’re mystical ostriches). A pegasus cannot, sometime later, save the day by flying to the rescue. Not because it’s a known fact that a pegasus can fly, but because we’ve learned that in this world they can’t. Once your own rules go out the window the story isn’t grounded in anything.

That’s the problem Game of Thrones got into this past week. We’ve spent years getting used to the scope of its world, the sheer size of it. Characters stationed in different sections of the map were truly separated. It felt like a big place. Until the writers needed it not to be and pulled a dragon ex machina out of the hat (followed closely by a Benjen ex machina – ugh). Look, I get it – rapid transmission of information in a pre-modern fantasy world is a pain in the ass. Why do you think I had mind walkers (telepaths) in The Water Road? But if that’s the world you’re playing in, you’re stuck with it.

Saying “this is fantasy” gets you out of a lot of boxes as a writer, but it isn’t carte blanche to do whatever you want. Even in a world of dragons, frozen armies of the dead, and faceless men, stuff still has to make a basic kind of sense.

None of which is to say I’m not hella pleased with where things ended up after this episode. After all . . .

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Hello Ironton!

Did you know that every summer Ironton, Ohio hosts the Rally on the River, a festival of bikers and rock n’ roll? Neither did I! I do now because Consigned Books is having a local author event in conjunction with it and I’ll be a part of it.

ConsignedBooks

Consigned Books sells used books, music, and DVDs. In addition, it features new books from various local authors. The event runs from Noon to 4:00 this Saturday – giving you plenty of time to stop in before Metallica tribute band The Four Horsemen take the stage that night!

Drop by and say howdy.

Weekly Read: Mrs. Fletcher

Mrs. Fletcher – the latest from Tom Perrotta – is a frustrating little book.

I say “little” because it clocks in at just over 8.5 hours in the unabridged Audible version. I’m used to reading massive tomes that routinely have three or four parts of that length. So even though it’s perfectly novel-sized, it seems like something’s missing.

“Little” is also an apt description because so little of actual consequence happens in the book. It’s not that the book is plotless (I hate it when people complain that a book or movie has “no plot” – unless you’re indulging in seriously experimental shit, it certainly does), it’s just that it never gets to the point of making you really feel like you needed to drop in on the lives of these characters.

The main character is the titular Mrs. Fletcher (Eve to her friends), a single mother who, as the novel starts, is sending her son Brendan off to college. How Eve deals with her new status as an empty nester is what drives the book, as she tries to come to grips with her life. She goes back to school, taking a class at a local community college. She continues to work as the director of the local seniors’ center.

And she discovers Internet porn. In a big honking way. This is due to someone (her son’s college roommate, most likely) who sends her an anonymous text telling her she’s a MILF. It’s not right to say she becomes addicted, but it does change her way of looking at the world and sets her up for what seems like it will be the book’s dramatic conclusion, which never actually happens.

Along the way we jump into the head of several others in Eve’s orbit. There’s her son, a dull, uncurious bro who finds himself completely out of his depth at college. There’s her work underling, with whom things get entirely too complicated. There’s also the professor of her class, a transitioned transgender woman teaching a class on society and gender roles. All of these give Perrotta a lot of chance to dive into hot button issues of the day, but he mostly skips over them. The professor, for instance, gives one of the regular lectures at the senior center Eve runs and while it doesn’t go well, we only learn of the real fallout of it later in passing. We do, at least, get some really moving background on the professor.

That’s really my biggest beef with Mrs. Fletcher. I like Perrotta’s style – darkly humorous, but in a subtle way – but the parts don’t really amount to a compelling whole. At one point Eve has a protracted back and forth with one of her son’s former classmates that seems to be spiraling to something horrible, the kind of something that a disaffected teen would see as the only option. It never gets there and we’re not given any good reason why it doesn’t. It’s like Perrotta puts a bunch of plates in the air and then, flush with the success, just walks away and lets them drop. That’s borne out in the painfully rushed happy ending, a tacked-on resolution that seems like it was added in the shadow of an onrushing deadline.

My only prior experience (on the printed page) with Perrotta was The Leftovers, which I read on a plane to Cambodia after the first season of the HBO show. I liked it a lot, not just for the dark comedy (which the show didn’t really nail until after the first season, ironically), but for how Perrotta subverted the expectations of the genre. Any other speculative fiction story about the world after a mass disappearance would focus, at least somewhat, on trying to figure out what actually happened, why everybody went missing. Nobody in The Leftovers does that and it works brilliantly – this is about regular people left behind, no heroes. Nothing much happens.

But now I’m wondering if that’s just Perrotta’s shtick. It’s almost as if Mrs. Fletcher is a kind of dry run, a little bit of world and character building for something that’s going to have a broader scope. Wouldn’t you know it – it is! Maybe Eve and friends will get a little more substance when they hit the small screen.

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Weekly Read: The Show That Never Ends

If one knew nothing about progressive rock – “prog,” as it’s usually called these days – one could do worse than the new book by (of all people) political reporter Dave Weigel. Weigel is clearly a fan and that helps an awful lot with a book that is otherwise fairly shallow and doesn’t provide a great deal of insight into what makes prog (or prog fans) tick.

What Weigel provides is a brisk trip through prog’s history, starting with its roots in 1960s psychedelia. Actually, he goes back even further, to Franz Liszt and the superstar he was (some of the fan behavior from those days wouldn’t be out of place if it happened today). In a fun bit of synergy, Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman would later provide the soundtrack for the bonkers Ken Russell film (is there any other kind?) Lisztomania (Liszt himself was played by Roger Daltrey, because why not?). This is good background and I’m glad Weigel devoted a chapter to it.

Most of the book focuses on prog’s commercial heyday, from about 1969 to 1974 – roughly the time during which King Crimson (in its many permutations) were around. Crim, and particularly Robert Fripp, is one of the touchstones to which Weigel returns again and again, along with David Allen of Gong and a few others. This starts out well enough, as a way to track the commercial and artistic development of the genre using specific examples, but things get awfully spread out by the late 1970s. By that point, as Weigel tries to keep track of the careers of everybody who passed through Crim or Yes the book becomes a collection of quick anecdotes that don’t really tie together. It might have worked better to tell the story of the genre through one person deeply embedded in it (Bill Bruford – with connections to Crim, Yes, Genesis, National Health and so many others – would be a good choice).

Prog is usually thought of as a distinctly English thing, and it’s true that most of the genre’s heavyweights come from (or are at least closely associated with) the UK. However there was a vibrant scene around the world that deserves attention. To my pleasant surprise, Weigel examines this, albeit briefly, through some usual suspects (Rush, Kansas) and some more esoteric ones (Italian bands like Premiata Forenria Marconi). Still, there are odd gaps, including the complete absence of discussion of Frank Zappa, aside from his influence on early proggers like Soft Machine.

I was also pleasantly surprised that Weigel continued the prog story past the 1970s. He quickly discusses Marillion and the rise of neo-prog in the 1980s as well as Dream Theater and the development of prog-metal in the 1990s. It’s not a deep dive, so he doesn’t capture the real breadth of the modern prog scene, but he at least recognizes that it’s here. The book is subtitled “The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock,” which may rankle fans, but it’s the truth – the genre boomed for a few years in the 1970s then nosedived in terms of popularity. That it’s still kicking at all today is kind of a miracle.

Given all the ground that Weigel covers, it’s a shame that he falls into the trap of spending too much time trying to describe the music. Zappa famously said that writing about music is like “dancing about architecture” – it’s damned near impossible. Weigel’s descriptions fall flat and, in some instances, don’t even match what he’s talking about. I don’t know what he’s thinking of when he’s talking about the first track on Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans, but it sure as hell isn’t “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn).” The beginning of “Dance on a Volcano” gets attributed to the wrong guitar player and then he talks about synth chords being played when there are none about (Tony Banks didn’t go polyphonic with synths until Duke, I think).

There are some other Weigel just gets bizarrely wrong. He calls a nascent Keith Emerson project in the early 1980s the “rump of Yes” (presumably he was thinking of Chris Squire and Alan White’s foray with Jimmy Page?). In discussing what the King Crimson guys were up to before Fripp assembled the mighty “double trio” in the mid 1990s, he explains how Adrian Belew had toured the world with Peter Gabriel. That, of course, was Tony Levin (for all the people Belew’s played with I don’t think he’s every worked with Gabriel – something which needs to happen!). Along with the misdescribed music there’s enough here to wonder how much else Weigel gets wrong.

As usual, I didn’t actually read The Show That Never Ends, I listened to it via Audible. Normally even a less than stellar reader doesn’t get to me, but the reader for this book was particularly poor. For one thing, in some instances where Weigel is quoting someone, the reader tries to do accents. This is a bad move to begin with (he doesn’t sound anything like the actual people involved), but it’s compounded by not being consistent – sometimes he tries an accent, sometimes he doesn’t. For another, the reader has multiple issues pronouncing words. OK, so he doesn’t know a Moog synth from a toaster oven, but there’s plenty of video of and about Bob Moog where you can learn how to pronounce the man’s name! Given the amount of time Weigel devotes to Moog’s synths (mostly via Keith Emerson), that’s inexcusable. Then there’s things from song lyrics – “syrinx” (from Rush’s “2112”) and “Rael” (the main character in Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) come to mind – that he gets wrong. And I won’t even begin to speculate on how “fugue” comes out “fuh-guh.” It’s just awful.

As I said, if you’re a prog neophyte there’s a lot to recommend in The Show That Never Ends. It’s a story told by someone with affection for the music, which isn’t always the case. But you’ll probably get deeper and more interesting reflections on the music by going someplace like Progressive Ears or Progarchives and poking around. Whatever you do, stay the hell away from the audiobook.

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New Technology = Moral Panic

I’m reading Tom Perrotta’s new book Mrs. Fletcher, which is about a single mother navigating the modern world on her own once her brotastic son leaves for college. At one point she flashes back to a talk given to the local PTA addressing the then latest and greatest moral panic – Internet porn. It was delivered by a prosecutor, naturally, since history shows that the best reaction to any panic is to lock people in cages.

The panic over Internet porn is hardly the first situation where an emerging technology leads some people to think said tech is going to lead the world to hell in a hand basket. In fact, it’s a fairly predictable pattern that’s played out many times throughout history.

Slate has an article about the moral panic that surrounded the great technological breakthrough of . . . cheap paper.

Although the printing press had brought reading out of the monasteries and upper classes, the actual production of books didn’t ramp up all that much because of the lack of quality paper. People lower down the socio-economic ladder didn’t own books, they owned a book – usually a Bible.

That started to change in the 19th century:

The paper machine, invented in France in 1799 at the Didot family’s paper mill, could make 40 times as much paper per day as the traditional method, which involved pounding rags into pulp by hand using a mortar and pestle. By 1825, 50 percent of England’s paper supply was produced by machines. As the stock of rags for papermaking grew smaller and smaller, papermakers began experimenting with other materials such as grass, silk, asparagus, manure, stone, and even hornets’ nests. In 1800, the Marquess of Salisbury gifted to King George III a book printed on ‘the first useful Paper manufactured solely from Straw’ to demonstrate the viability of the material as an alternative for rags, which were already in ‘extraordinary scarcit’ in Europe.

Then, in the 1860s, came the real breakthrough – paper made from wood pulp. Upwards of 90% of modern paper is made from wood pulp or recycled pulp. This cheaper, more readily available paper led to the explosion of low-cost books for the masses. That’s why it’s called “pulp fiction.”

You know, things like this:

CrookedCity

NakedandAlone

And it was of the Devil:

Detractors delighted in linking ‘the volatile matter’ of wood-pulp paper with the ‘volatile minds’ of pulp readers. Londoner W. Coldwell wrote a three-part diatribe, ‘On Reading,’ lamenting that ‘the noble art of printing’ should be ‘pressed into this ignoble service.’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge mourned how books, once revered as ‘religious oracles … degraded into culprits’ as they became more widely available.

By the end of the century there was growing concern—especially among middle class parents—that these cheap, plentiful books were seducing children into a life of crime and violence.

* * *

Moralizers painted the books as no better than ‘printed poison,’ with headlines warning readers that Pomeroy’s brutality was ‘what came of reading dime novels.’ Others hoped that by providing alternatives—penny delightfuls or ‘penny populars’—they could curb the demand for the sensational literature. A letter to the editor to the Worcester Talisman from the late 1820s tells young people to stop reading novels and read books of substance: ‘[F]ar better were it for a person to confine himself to the plain sober facts recorded in history and the lives of eminent individuals, than to wander through the flowery pages of fiction.’

It’s easy now to look back at such panics and roll your eyes and the naive concern about cheap books or television or whatever kind of music kids are listening to at the time. But history, as they say, repeats itself. Rather than being smug in our modern superiority, maybe think twice the next time some panic is sweeping the nation. Try not to give future generations something to roll their eyes about.

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Weekly Read: Lovecraft Country

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is less a novel than it is a collection of linked short stories built around a brilliant conceit. That is, the main characters in the stories are all from an extended African-American family (family and friends) living in Chicago in the 1950s. That is to say, the stories are shot through with everyday racism that will make your toes curl. But they’re also shot through with magic, nasty creatures, and mysterious rites. Who better to deal with such supernatural horrors than people who have to deal with horrific treatment on a daily basis just based on the color of their skin?

I should say, at this point, that I’m not particularly familiar with Lovecraft’s work (I’ve got a book of his on in my ever expanding “to read” pile, though). I have a vague sense of what it’s about, but it’s only a surface understanding. That’s to say that I’ve read some criticism from people about Lovecraft Country that isn’t, well, sufficiently Lovecraftian. That wasn’t a concern for me going in and it certainly isn’t a concern now that I’ve read the book.

In this “Big Idea” piece over at John Scalzi’s blog, Ruff explains that Lovecraft Country started as a TV pitch (and, indeed, it’s been picked up by HBO with Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams involved) and knowing that now I can see it. Each story serves like an episode, telling a tale that stands alone but pushes forward an overall plot that comes to fruition in the season finale (aka, the final story). It’s a bit frustrating initially because the first story (the title track, if you will) winds up really quickly, especially when you’re expecting it to be just the beginning of a much longer story.

So that first story does what a good pilot does – introduces the main characters and explores some of the world they’re walking around in. The closest thing to a “main” character the book has is Atticus Turner, a veteran returning to Chicago to a collection of family and friends that will, one by one, be drawn into this weird world. Atticus is the link between the African-American characters and the main white character, Caleb Braithwhite. Braithwhite is the latest in a long line of secret-society sorcerers who are trying to control the world. He and Atticus are distant relations – Braithwaite’s ancestor owned one of Atticus’s ancestors, whom he also raped. That makes Atticus a critical part of Braithwaite’s scheme to control the society and its secrets.

That being said, this isn’t Braithwaite’s story. He lurks above the main characters, pulling strings and trying to use them to his advantage. In that way, the book makes a powerful point about the lives African-Americans lead in a racist society. As bright, clever, and determined as they are, they’re really not in control of their own destinies. That they’re able to turn those tables, somewhat, makes the point land even harder.

This being, essentially, a short story collection, it rises and falls from tale to tale. All of them have some kind of interesting creepy thing going on – a haunted house, a “devil doll,” a comatose woman providing a “change” for one of the characters – but they don’t all work as well. The cream of the crop for me is “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe.”

Hippolyta is one of a pair of sisters close to Atticus’s family and someone who, had she not been a black woman in 1950s American, would have become an astronomer. As it is, Hippolyta retains her fascination with the stars and occasionally shows up at observatories just to help out. That leads her to one particular observatory in Wisconsin that’s tied into the history of the secret society. As a result, she discovers a portal to another world and, briefly, takes us there. What she finds on the other side is another sad commentary on how people of privilege treat those who have none. It’s both a serviceable monster story and an interesting commentary.

It will be interesting to see how Lovecraft Country translates to the small screen. On the one hand, it’s built for it, given its episodic nature. On the other hand, since each story has a different main character it might be hard to keep such a dispersed focus (a “star” playing Atticus would, presumably, not want to spend as much time on the sidelines as he does). It will also be interesting to see if some issues of appropriation come up as the book gets a wider audience. Ruff certainly appears to be a white guy telling an inherently African-American story. He did it well from my perspective – but I’m another white guy. Particularly the fate of Hippolyta’s sister might raise some eyebrows.

Regardless, this was an enjoyable trip into Lovecraft Country. I’ll gladly go again.

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I’m Back – Come Say Hi!

Hey, gang – did you miss me?

As promised, I’ve been knee deep in The Orb of Triska, first book in the Empire Falls series, for the past month. Much progress has been made. I’ve already conjured up a pair of characters I had no idea I needed, but now really love. Alas, there’s much more work to be done.

I’m not just back on the blog – I’m back in real life, too! Come see me this weekend at the Lewisburg Literary Festival in America’s best small town – Lewisburg, WV:

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I’ll be in the Festival Bookstore in the Greenbrier County CVB building on Washington Street on Friday and Saturday. Stop by and say hi!

Gone Writin’ – Be Back in August

So here’s the thing about being a writer – once you finish up one project, you need to jump on the next one. Sure, you can give yourself a nice pat on the back and a week or so to enjoy success, but, sooner or later, the next book beckons.

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With The Water Road trilogy in the rear view, it’s time for me to start working on my next book in earnest. Guess what – I already have! I began the first book of my next series (tentatively called Empire Falls – and, yes, I am aware) last week. It’s going to be a steampunk story set in a world with one superpower teetering on the edge of collapse. I’m envisioning seven books (!), so I need to get cracking!

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To help me build some momentum, I’m going on blog hiatus for the rest of July. That way I can pour all my typing and word-generation energy into the new book. Hopefully, when August rolls around, I’ll be knee deep in it and past the point of know return. Until then . . .

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