Another Encouraging Result

Just got this from the Al Blanchard contest:

Hi, Thomas,

On the behalf of the Al Blanchard Award Committee, I’m pleased to let you know that your story, “The Great Auk Caper,” made it to the first round of the contest in that it was among the top ten picks of one judge. Congratulations! Although you didn’t win, this is no mean feat, given that we received around 140 submissions. We hope you’ll try the contest next year.

In the meantime, good luck with your writing!

Sweet. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this contest lets you enter a story twice and I posted about the earlier entry, which also did well, in July 2017.

Joseph Campbell and Popular Fiction

A lot of popular fiction starts out with a boring, pedestrian scene, e.g., we see our hero or heroine coming home and saying, “Thanks for cooking X, honey!” X was Y’s favorite dinner, we’re told. Actually we don’t need to know what they’re having for dinner or the main character’s favorite dinner. Just plunge right into the conflict.

I suspect this sort of thing in modern fiction is due to a misunderstanding of Joseph Campbell. In his Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell noted that many myths from around the world have an ordinary person yanked out of his comfortable pedestrian life and thrown into a world of savage magic, challenges, and adventure. This has led many modern authors who don’t understand the difference between myth and popular fiction to think that their stories should be set up this way. Whoops, no. This is fiction, not myth. Stories should plunge right into the conflict. Don’t show us the character going about his/her normal life before things get interesting. Make them interesting from the first sentence. If we need to know certain features of the main character’s day job or whatever, then tell that as backstory later, dropping in details as we need to know them.

Works of popular fiction that dwell on the normal situation before the conflict really gets going, without boring the reader, are rare. The only two I can think of are Gone With the Wind and The Hobbit. And in Gone With the Wind it works because we’re told on the first page that this is Georgia in April 1861, so we know our characters are on the very brink of a terrible civil war. In The Hobbit it works because the first sentence introduces us to a mystery: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Since no one knew what a hobbit was when the book was first published, we get a mystery that piques our curiosity right from the first sentence. And as we read on we realize the fictional environment we’ve been thrown into is thoroughly new and exotic.

Furthermore, to return to Campbell, the old myths Campbell was discussing actually don’t spend much time detailing the hero’s pedestrian life before things get kinetic. They just say, as it were, “One day Joe, a humble shepherd, encountered a witch and…” etc. Total expenditure on Joe’s initial life situation: three words, “a humble shepherd.” And the “humble” is optional and the “a” doesn’t really count. For example, in Hero’s Chapter 1, “Departure,” Campbell considers the story of

an Arapaho girl of the North American plains. She spied a porcupine near cottonwood tree. She tried to hit the animal, but it ran behind the tree and began to climb. The girl started after it…

And of course an adventure ensues. Notice there’s no breath wasted on detailing the girl’s normal life before she chases the porcupine into the sky. She’s just a girl walking in the woods, and… We’re off!

So any writers who dwell at length on the main character’s normal life at first, really aren’t modeling their story after myth very closely anyway.

I am not blaming Campbell for this mistake that some writers make; I’m blaming a misunderstanding of Campbell. Myths and popular fiction are very different things!

Avengers: End Game

SPOILER WARNING!

A year ago, almost to the day, I offered a conjecture about how the Infinity War story would be resolved. I didn’t call it. But I must have been in the writers’ heads to an extent, because the call I made was used as a fake-out in End Game.

Last year I wrote,

One possibility is that the entire first movie actually takes place in what is, from our point of view, an alternate timeline.

Dr. Strange, to save half the sentient beings of the universe from being genocided by Thanos, had to go way back into the past and engineer a different universe from the one he was in.

That universe is the one we we think of as the real universe.

As it turns out, this isn’t how End Game is resolved. But just before the last battle of the movie, Thanos says to the good guys (I’m working from memory here),

“Before, when I killed half of all sentient beings, it wasn’t personal. But you’ve angered me so much that I’m going to kill everyone. I’m going to reduce the universe to subatomic ash, then re-build it from scratch with new, better beings.”

“They’ll be born in blood,” someone says, to which Thanos replies, “They’ll never know.”

At those lines of dialogue I was like, “Wow, I was right!”

Well, no. I didn’t call their ending, but I called their fake-out, so yeah!

Great flick, by the way. Go see it, if you’ve seen enough of the other Marvel movies to have good context. And if you haven’t, watch all the Iron Man movies, Captain America movies, and Avengers movies, then watch this one.

In a pinch, you can just watch Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Avengers: Infinity War first.

Infinity War Part II: A Conjecture

I have a conjecture about Marvel’s second Infinity War movie, scheduled for release on May 3, 2019. If I’m right, this will be a spoiler for that movie. Also, this post contains spoilers for the first one, released within the last week as of this writing.

It all comes down to personal grooming.

And a few seconds of dialogue by Doctor Strange.

In the just-released Infinity War, there’s a scene in which Dr. Strange and bunch of other superheroes are fighting Thanos on another planet. Strange is briefly away from the action and he goes into a weird altered state for a few moments. When he comes back, another good guy (I forget who) asks him, basically, “What was that about?”

Strange answers, “I just looked at a large set of possible futures.” (He IS the Kwisatz Haderach!)

“How many?” the other person asks him.

“Fourteen million, six hundred and five.”

“In how many of those do we win?”

“One.”

Oh. So options are… limited.

But Strange has the time-altering Eye of Agamotto, so it’s a not a definite loss. After all, he can just wind back time, if things go wrong, and start over. Right?

Wellllll… it’s not that easy. As Strange is warned in the Dr. Strange movie, using the Eye of Agamotto to mess around with time is dangerous. You can irretrievably mess things up by screwing with the structure of time, or get stuck in a repeating loop forever, for example. So it’s not just, “Yawn, that didn’t go well, I call do-over” until things work out right.

In other words, Strange is constrained in terms of what he can accomplish, even with the Eye.

That’s one fact.

The other is that Black Widow is blonde. Even though she has had red hair in all the other movies she’s appeared in.

Also, Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, has a beard.

Yeah, so?

So one possibility is that the entire first movie actually takes place in what is, from our point of view, an alternate timeline.

Dr. Strange, to save half the sentient beings of the universe from being genocided by Thanos, had to go way back into the past and engineer a different universe from the one he was in.

That universe is the one we we think of as the real universe, in which Black Widow is a red-head and Captain America is clean-shaven.

Of course all this is speculation. And the following objection might be raised: At one point when Thor gets back to Earth and sees Cap again, he jokingly says, “I see you copied my beard.” This acknowledges, or seems to, that Cap is usually clean-shaven, leaving me with nothing but blonde Black Widow to support my notion. But what if, in the alternate universe, Cap had a beard first, and then Thor did? Then Thor’s line actually is a different joke, acknowledging, in an ironic way, that he’s “copying” Cap. All this is a stretch, but I find myself liking the idea so much that I hope it’s true. Also, the writers have dug themselves into such a deep hole in the first movie, with the seeming total victory of Thanos and a Reservoir-Dogs-worthy body count of good guys, that it’s hard to see how else they could extract themselves from it.

SkyNet, the Supposedly Super-Intelligent AI

Ya know, it’s kind of strange that for a supposedly ultra-intelligent AI, SkyNet only has one trick in its basket of tricks. Its solution to every problem is to have someone killed. Seriously, SkyNet? No negotiation? No going back in time and subtly changing circumstances so we can all just get along? No sending a super-advanced virus back to a bank’s computer to generate a huge payoff to someone to not try to disconnect SkyNet?

I guess when your only tool is time-traveling assassin-bots, every problem looks like John Connor.


Why did the chicken cross the road?

800 series Terminator: I am a friend of the chicken. I was told that it’s here; can I see it please?

Police officer: No, you can’t see it.

800 series Terminator: Where is the chicken now?

Police officer: Look, the chicken just crossed the road, so it may be a while. There’s a bench over there if you want to wait.

800 series Terminator: I’ll be back.


T-1000: Are you the legal guardian of the chicken?

Janelle Voight: Yeah, that’s right, officer. What’s it done this time?

T-1000: I just need to ask it a few questions. May I speak with it please?

Janelle: You could if it were here. It took off on its bike about an hour ago, headed across the road.

T-1000: Do you have a photograph of the chicken?

Janelle: Sure. (Reaches back into the house.) Here.

T-1000: It’s a fine-looking piece of poultry. Do you mind if I keep this photograph?

Janelle: No, go ahead.

T-1000: Thanks for your cooperation.

Reading Sequence for The Chronicles of Narnia

I have an edition of the complete Narnia series published in the last 20 years or so. Numbers on the spines of the books indicate the intended reading order. The sequence is the within-universe sequence of events. Uh, no. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not number two in the Narnia series! It’s number one.

Below I set out the two most popular reading sequences, one being the order in which the books were originally published and the other being the within-universe order the publisher is pimping, followed by an alternative possibility. In all this I mean the best order in which to read the series for the first time. The books are wonderful singleton reads, in any order, once you’ve read the whole series at least once.

First, let’s dispense with a possible objection: The copyright page in my edition says that the within-universe sequence represents “the original wishes of the author, C. S. Lewis.” This is not really true, as shown below. But even if it were true, it would merely mean that Lewis had a rare lapse of judgment.

A. The Chronicles of Narnia ordered by publication date:

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
2. Prince Caspian
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
4. The Silver Chair
5. The Horse and His Boy
6. The Magician’s Nephew
7. The Last Battle

(I think I’m being pretty self-controlled in resisting the temptation to put an Oxford comma after “Witch” in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (Pats self on back.))

B. Ordered by the within-universe sequence of events:

1. The Magician’s Nephew
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
3. The Horse and His Boy
4. Prince Caspian
5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
6. The Silver Chair
7. The Last Battle

C. Ordered by within-universe sequence except for The Magician’s Nephew:

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
2. The Horse and His Boy
3. Prince Caspian
4. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
5. The Silver Chair
6. The Magician’s Nephew
7. The Last Battle

Sequence C is simply the publication order, except that The Horse and His Boy is moved from number 5 to number 2. Equivalently, it’s the within-universe order, except that The Magician’s Nephew is moved from position 1 to position 6.

Why should The Magician’s Nephew be in position 6, the next-to-last place? Because this works in terms of narrative structure. It is best to show us Narnia – the stories of Narnia – first. Drop us into an adventure in a strange magical land. Let us encounter fauns, minotaurs, murderous witches, and divine lions. Give us terrible perils, thrilling escapes, and exhilarating bravery. We don’t need a creation sequence distracting us from all this. That way the stories – books 1 through 5 above – are about the stories, not about a creation myth. I’m not dismissing The Magician’s Nephew, and I’m not dismissing creation myths. A creation myth is fine (and of course it’s also a story of a particular kind), but we don’t need that at first.

After we’ve been through several adventures in this land, show us the creation of the land. This doesn’t just avoid distracting us from the adventures: It also works better because after we’ve been through many adventures in Narnia we care about its creation. The creation of a land we’ve never visited before doesn’t have any emotional impact on us. We have no knowledge of it or emotional link to it. In short, we don’t care. You could write a good creation story under those circumstances, but the author would have to write it with the understanding that one thing he has to do is make us care as we read of the creation. In contrast, when Lewis wrote the final draft of The Magician’s Nephew he knew his readers already cared about this land, its creatures, its conflicts, its god.

The Magician’s Nephew is a good story anyway, and a good Narnia entry point, and I’m sure that people who read it first enjoy it. But I’ll bet they enjoy it, and the rest of the series, even more if they read it in position number 6.

So first show us the stories of Narnia, then, when we are emotionally invested in it, show us the origin of Narnia. Last, of course, show us the end of Narnia, the Balancing and Closing of Accounts and the Last One to Leave Turning Off the Lights.

Also:

At one point in The Magician’s Nephew, [SPOILER WARNING HERE] Jadis throws a piece of metal from a London lamppost at Aslan. It bounces off him harmlessly and into the soil of the still-being-created Narnia, and the metal grows into a lamppost before our eyes. This is because everything in Narnia is exploding with creation magic, so even a metal bar plunged into its soil bursts into life. (God, I love that. How did Lewis come up with that wonderful idea?!) And at this moment you get the wonderful shock of recognition of knowing that this is the lamppost. This is it, this is how it started, you think. All along there was a reason that lamppost was there in the middle of the Narnian woods.

Thus you have the pleasure of experiencing it both ways: When you read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe you have the pleasure of coming upon a mysterious lamppost in the middle of a woods, seemingly without any reason other than its own purely magical reason. It has its own raison d’etre, which it feels no need to tell you about. Why shouldn’t I be here, any more than any other thing, like a tree? it asks you. Do the trees feel the need to explain their existence to you? Later, when you read The Magician’s Nephew, you get the shock of knowing that there was a reason in terms of cause and effect that the lamppost was there. The cause and effect are magical, but comprehensible, given the premise of universe-creating magic.

The original publication order is also consistent with all this, and indeed, that order has something to recommend it: If we read The Horse and His Boy late in the sequence, we experience the pleasure of plunging into the myths of the world of Narnia after we are familiar with Narnia. That is, The Horse and His Boy not only goes backward in time from The Silver Chair, it also has the character of myth to an extent. This is buttressed by a reference to it as a (true) story in The Silver Chair, according to the interwebs, though I can’t find the references in my copy of Chair at the moment. This also could constitute a welcome pause before we get deep, into profound and sometimes uncomfortable moral conflicts, in The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle.

There is another reason it might be best to read them in the publication order. If we read The Horse and His Boy between Witch and Caspian, we break up the sequencing of the English children. In particular, we break up the adventures of the four Pevensies in Narnia, in which they are central viewpoint characters. The viewpoint character of The Horse and His Boy isn’t a Pevensie or even anyone from England; it’s Shasta. The Pevensies only appear in supporting roles. And more broadly, we break up the four stories (Witch, Caspian, Treader, and Chair) in which English children go into Narnia; Edmund and Lucy Pevensie bringing Eustace along in Treader and then Eustace bringing Jill along in Chair. After those four viewpoint-continuous stories are complete, then we get into the Calormor/Archenland story in Horse, and then it’s off to the beginning and ending of Narnia in Magician and Battle.

Steven D. Greydanus, an advocate of reading them in publication order, also makes that point, and others.

He also shows that the notion that Lewis wanted the books read in the within-universe sequence is very thinly founded on one letter he wrote to a reader, in which Lewis says, “I think I agree with your order for reading the books,” meaning in within-universe order. However, Lewis also says in that letter, “So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read[s] them.” Plainly the author did not have a definite preference!

Greydanus also gives more thorough reasons to read Wardrobe before Magician. Essentially,

Reversing the order of these two books gives us the answers first and the questions second. By answering questions we weren’t asking, and then posing riddles we know the answers to, Magician’s Nephew loses much of its revelatory force and The Lion much of its mystery.

 
So read them in publication order or in order C above. In either case, there are good reasons for reading The Magician’s Nephew next to last.

A Miracle in One Hundred Years of Solitude

Was just flipping through the first chapter of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. At one point, the protagonist tries to convince his wife to travel with him by regaling her with tales that traveling gypsies have told him, e.g., of a magical liquid such that you only have to sprinkle it on the ground and fruit-bearing plants will grow.

That sounds miraculous.

And it is miraculous. And it’s true over most of planet Earth’s land surface, and the magic liquid is water.

This isn’t taking a cheap shot at a foolish character. It’s a neat way of looking at things, and Marquez perhaps did this on purpose (though it’s hard to be sure).When you phrase it that way – a magical liquid such that you only have to sprinkle it on the ground and fruit-bearing plants will grow – it sounds magical, and awesome, and a miraculous promise of immense bounty. Then you frame-shift, and you realize that is the situation! It is magical, awesome, and miraculous, and we are given immense bounty! Wheat, strawberries, watermelon, potatoes, blueberries, apples, oranges… and on and on and on and on…

What a wonderful thing Marquez does here: He makes the reader see things in a new way, a way that makes us stop taking something important for granted, to stop failing to see the miracle, and makes us appreciate the gift it is.

We live in an exotic magical world in which there’s a supply of a magic liquid – so plentiful that it falls from the sky, it literally falls from the sky! – such that you need but sprinkle it on the ground and edible plants will grow!

Review of The Forever War

The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting SF book that takes relativistic time dilation seriously, instead of trying to get around it with “hyperspace,” “subspace”, “N-space,” etc. While there are wormholes in the fictional physics, they only exist in collapsars, so are not a general way around Einsteinian physics. The time dilation effect is used well because it allows the narrator to encounter a series of increasingly alien Earth cultures, as the people back home change much faster than he ages.

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Review of The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook (The Checquy Files, #1)The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dear you,
The body you are wearing used to be mine.

So begins The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. The best things about this book are that it gets off to a good start, the setting is great (lots of interesting supernatural threats), and the amnesia plot line is handled well.

Amnesia plots have been done before, of course, so what matters in this day and age is how such a plot is executed. O’Malley executes it well, IMHO. One reason is that he handles the pacing well. That first sentence rockets you off on the journey. The second reason is that due to magical prophecies, the original version of the heroine, Myfanwy Thomas, knew she was going to lose her memory before she actually lost it. This allows her to leave helpful notes for her new self, something I’ve never seen done before in an amnesia story. You might think these notes would make it too easy for the new Myfanwy to cope with her challenges, but it’s not so, principally because she is a member of a top-secret organization – the Checquy – that deals with a bewildering profusion of supernatural threats to the UK in particular and the world in general. Dragons, sentient mind-reading mold (yes, sentient mind-reading mold), teleporters, distributed hive minds, vampires (wheat-market-manipulating and non-wheat-market-manipulating), future-foretelling ducks, etc.

A few reviewers have objected to “infodumps” that the original Myfanwy has left in the form of those explanatory notes for her future self. These notes didn’t bug me in the least, and I never had a feeling of being subjected to infodumps. In fact, it didn’t occur to me to notice any “infodumps” until I skimmed a couple of other people’s reviews after I’d finished the novel. What they really are is clues in a murder mystery.

Some minor deficiencies:

An American character who works for the U.S. analogue of the Checquy is introduced around Ch 15. She has no essential role in the story and I wonder, in retrospect, why she was included.

Also around Ch 15, the style decays suddenly and mysteriously. Dialogue suddenly becomes clunky, though this has not happened noticeably before that point. E.g., dialogue might contain unnecessary and/or silly attributions. Here’s a (made-up) example:

“I’ll hate you forever!” Jane said angrily.

The “angrily” is redundant, of course. This could simply be,

“I’ll hate you forever!” Jane shouted.

Or even just

“I’ll hate you forever!”

if it’s clear from context who’s speaking.

The verb “snapped” is also used profligately. This is an over-used verb in modern dialogue. People don’t actually snap at each other that often, and generally when they do in fiction, the words themselves, perhaps with an accompanying exclamation point, can usually convey the snapping without the author having to belabor the point. E.g.,

“Don’t touch my coffee cup!”

No “he snapped” is necessary.

Speaking of dialogue, commas that are usually present in English-language fiction are absent in much of this book. E.g., consider

“Call the police,” Jane said.

The comma just after “police” is standard in English-language dialogue. But it is absent in many lines of dialogue in Rook. So we get

“Call the police” Jane said.

which is jarring to the reader’s eye. Is this an error by an inexperienced copy-editor, or is the publisher trying to save money on ink by eliminating commas?

But overall, The Rook is a fun “summer read,” as people say, and I can recommend it on those grounds, though not on “this is a classic for the ages” grounds.

Miscellany:

There are a lot of characters, and they have a bedazzling array of supernatural abilities. It’s kind of like X-Men meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Bourne Identity. Page 123 (of the hardcover edition I read) has a list of all the people at the Court, which is the governing body of the Checquy. I referred to that list frequently after that point, and I suggest you bookmark it when you come to it for easy reference later.

I hope that in the sequel, which I am certainly going to read, the original Myfanwy Thomas is revived and melds with her new personality. Otherwise we have a murder that is not sufficiently avenged. After all, your memories, personality and skills, etc., are you. When those were destroyed, the original Myfanwy Thomas was killed. Not metaphorically killed, literally killed. (This novel is a murder mystery as well as lots of other things.) I want not only revenge, but the original murdered girl to be reanimated to do the avenging. Here’s hoping.

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Review of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

After I posted a brief review of The French Lieutenant’s Woman at GoodReads, GoodReads created some html and suggested that I copy and paste it into my web site, so I’m trying it out. Let’s see what this mysterious html does, here goes:

The French Lieutenant's WomanThe French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A rather odd novel. It’s historical dramatic fiction set in the late 19th century in England, written with touches of 20th-century meta-fiction. It seems the author was unable to decide what it is, so it ends up being neither fish nor fowl.

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