Characters stripped of everything

Way back in 2011, I wrote that the real test of a hero is that they have courage and heart, not just strength or super-powers. Even if they’re stripped of their powers, they fight on. A post on Fred Clark’s slacktivist blog (I don’t have the specific link but it was part of his discussion of the Left Behind books) makes the same point more generally, discussing stories where the protagonist is falsely accused or framed: “Who are you really, once your status and prestige are stripped away? Are you still a kind and decent person, or are those merely luxuries dependent on the power and safety afforded to you by society? It’s a powerful device for revealing character.” (which he thinks the books blow).

It’s a compelling question because it’s relevant to real life. Many people go through life buoyed by privilege in one way or another. George W. Bush was a legacy admission to Yale and the deputy governor of Texas arranged for Bush to go into the National Guard, where he was unlikely to be sent to ‘nam (said politician does not claim Bush asked for the favor, but says it was family friends). Donald Trump is rich primarily because his father was rich. Even people who don’t really get a boost in life can gain satisfaction from their status: doing a man’s job, being head of the family. Beautiful, charming people may take pride in being able to win over any romantic partner they want. Smart people may enjoy being smarter than anyone else. Fashionistas may define themselves by their cool, cutting edge traits. Actors may delight in stardom.

Take all that away — they’re framed, swindled of their money, their beauty is gone, their expertise discredited, their super powers or their fame fade— and they have to redefine themselves, at best. At worst, they have to fight for survival against their enemy or try to continue being a cop/prosecutor/spy/force for good despite being on the run or stripped of their powers. It’s a concept adaptable to many different settings and genres.

The Main Event has entrepreneur Barbara Streisand swindled out of her wealth. She has to use her one remaining asset, a contract on retired boxer Ryan O’Neal, to force him back into the ring to raise money. Private Benjamin has spoilt, pampered Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) lose her husband on their wedding night (he died during sex), so she joins the Army and goes from pampered to pummeled.

In comics, heroes stripped of their power is a common plot ploy. Superman’s lost his multiple times, but he never hesitates to protect people. In Action #484, the Wizard magically erases the Earth-Two Superman’s memory of who he is. He’s just plain Clark Kent, but with no memory that he has to play meek and mild he becomes as dynamic a crusading reporter as Superman’s a crusading hero (it’s a really good story).

Or consider 1975’s Three Days of the Condor. Robert Redford’s entire CIA research unit is wiped out. He doesn’t know who’s responsible, suspects someone in the agency so he can’t trust anyone. Can he survive long enough to find the truth?

I use this myself in Impossible Takes a Little Longer: the mystery villain frames KC for murder, forcing her to go on the run. She still has her powers but everyone she loves turns against her. Can she win? In this case, she breaks apart mid-book, but comes back stronger.

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Sherlock Holmes: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”

I’m not sure how many quotes off this mug I can mine for posts; the one at the bottom about footprints doesn’t seem to lend itself to writing. But “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” applies to writing, science, politics, life.

It’s hard not to accept an “obvious” fact that everyone knows is true. It’s easy to resist facts that contradict that obvious truth or to embrace someone who insists that in spite of all evidence, the “obvious” fact you want to believe (white people are naturally superior! A woman’s place is in the home!) is true. Even science can get mangled. The Victorian scientists Cynthia Russett describes in Sexual Science thought their analysis of why women were the weaker, dumber sex was totally objective. Spoiler: it wasn’t; they were blinded by taking women’s inferiority as a given.

In writing, the “obvious fact” can trip us up in multiple ways. For example, our perception of how people behave. Suppose a writer assumes that any female character really wants marriage and a family more than anything, so her career is just an unimportant stop-gap until The One comes along. That’s going to lead to some implausible female characterization. Or if a writer believes a woman who has sex before marriage is a slut, and his writing reflects that judgment. Or that every senior citizen just sits and watches TV all day. Or believes the countless stereotypes about disabled people.

Another way the obvious can trip us up is if we assume that the obvious, formula resolution to a story is the only one possible. Or the only one your audience will accept; I’ve read multiple accounts over the years of writers being told some variation of “Well, I’m not a sexist/homophobe myself, but lots of the audience will put down the book if you show your female lead is happy without a man/one of your lead characters is gay.” Or that you can’t do X because nobody’s done X before. An article in Romance Writers of America’s newsletter some years back pointed out that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander broke a shit-ton of rules. Time-travel romance before that was a subgenre. Protagonist is already married when she falls for the male lead. Said lead is a younger man, much less experienced sexually. Yet it was a smash hit.

For another example, consider TEMPER by Nicky Drayden. A fantasy set in an alt.Africa untouched by Europe (apparently India has staked out a foothold), the premise is that twin births are the norm, with the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Cardinal Virtues divided up between each set of twins (though not exactly matching Western Christianity’s version. Doubt is one of the sins, for instance, and vainglory and temper substitute for pride and wrath). Society looks down on “lesser” twins with the larger number of vices; Auben, a rarity with six out of seven and one virtue, has to deal with that on top of being a poor inner city kid.

Unfortunately that’s the least of Auben’s problems. It turns out the imbalance between him and his sibling Kasim is caused by/causes them to become avatars of Icy Blue and Grace, the Lucifer/God analogs. Kasim doesn’t find being pushed to be really, really good much fun; Auben finds himself driven to shapeshift into a beast and kill.

This is familiar stuff in some ways (although the setting makes it feel different) but none of it plays out the way I expected. And given how long I’ve been reading, I’m hard to surprise. This ranges from how Drayden handles the good/evil dynamic to the disgruntled scientists with their own agenda; secularists in a religious culture, they’re PO’d to have hard evidence Grace and Icy Blue are real.

Of course it’s possible to be original and completely awful — I’ve seen that a few times — but that wasn’t an issue here. Outside of one confusing scene (I kept waiting for the explanation, but it didn’t come) this was first-rate.

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Doc Savage wants some action: Hell Below and the Goblins

Starting with The Fiery Menace, “you’re too valuable on the home front” became the excuse for not having Doc and his team in uniform. 1943’s HELL BELOW and THE GOBLINS both build their openings around that idea.

Hell Below opens with Doc and Monk trying to convince the brass to let them see some action. The brass point out that Doc and his team get shot at a lot more than the average soldier, but that doesn’t deter them (Bobb Cotter points out that as Doc’s still operating on a no-kill policy, having to use real bullets would surely be a problem). This attracts the attention of grizzled Western businessman Too-Too Thomas who is trying to enlist the Navy in some sort of project. He proposes to Doc that as they’re both being frustrated by military red tape, they join forces and steal a bomb-laden Navy seaplane for his project (which he refuses to explain). Doc, of course, is not on board with this idea.

It’s a great opening that develops into a competent but much less great WW II adventure. Two prominent Nazis (based, Cotter says, on Goering and Goebbels) are fleeing the dying Reich (mid-1943 seems surprisingly early for that) by submarine for a new home in Mexico. One plans to build the Fourth Reich, the other just wants to retire in luxury. They’ve seized Too-Too’s Mexican ranch, a place so isolated in the desert they can live and scheme unopposed.

Further complicating things is Schwartz, a Nazi submarine captain out to drag the traitors back to Germany for trial. There’s a lot more detail on running a submarine than we usually get, which I suspect reflects the wartime era.  Surprisingly, Schwartz gets to go back to Germany at the end of the adventure. Even though he’s offered up as a good German acting out of loyalty to his country, he’s capable and obviously dangerous — not the sort who usually lives to fight another day in pulp adventures.

Even more surprising, the Nazis make a couple of references to Doc as the embodiment of the master race ideal and he doesn’t argue with them. That’s hardly a comparison Dent could have wanted, so why bring it up if not to refute it? And it could be refuted; Doc, after all, is the product of scientific training, not Aryan genes (even if Philip José Farmer later credited him with an inherited mutation).

Pat gets a part in the adventure and even makes a significant contribution, putting a chemical in an airplane gas tank that allows Doc to track it.

The Goblins is noteworthy because it turned out I didn’t have the double-novel paperback containing it and Secret of the Su (which will be covered next month). It opens with telegraph operator Parker O’Donnell finding grinning green dwarf in his bedroom, only to have it disappear. We then jump into the opening of what feels more like a lighthearted mystery than a Doc Savage novel. Gorgeous attorney Martha Colby visits Parker and informs him he’s received an inheritance from his father. Part of the condition is that he accept Martha as his legal guardian. Parker’s 25, but Dad took precautions against Parker inheriting his impulsiveness and occasional bad judgment. Martha’s first assignment is to take Parker to dad’s old partner, Tom Brock, for a good stiff talking-to.

In between all this, Parker is watching Doc’s latest battle with the military brass, carried on by telegraph (Doc’s in the area on a defense project). As his telegraph skills have stuck him on the home front, he’s sympathetic to Doc. Then people start trying to kidnap or kill Parker and Martha. Doc gets involved. So do more of the green goblins, which a local college-educated Native American (who still comes off as a stereotype) suggests are a spirit creature. Certainly they seem supernatural, able to burn men to a crisp with a touch. Lester Dent’s story does a remarkably good job hiding that they’re just a variation of the flying bodies in The Man Who Fell Up. A much nastier variation as they’re specifically attracted to human flesh. They’re an invention by Tom Brock, who’s protecting Parker from the Nazi villains. Unusually the Nazis aren’t after the invention, they’re after valuable tin deposits on the land Parker inherited. More precisely, they’re determined to keep Parker from learning about the deposits so the US government can’t make use of them.

Normally Dent leaves it to the last minute to show that the supernatural element has a mundane explanation. Here, Ham has the sense to figure it out mid-book: Native American spirits wouldn’t have hired a bunch of tough gunmen to work for them. Ergo, mundane.

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After the election: some links

Of course the election battle is ongoing in Florida and Georgia. And sure enough, some of my Republican friends are parroting the claims that not having it settled on election day represents some kind of fraud. Sen. Marco Rubio is doing his best to play the refs on that one, as is former governor, possible future senator Rick Scott. And because Democrats who thought Jeff Sessions was too racist for attorney general (his last act as AG is both racist and authoritarian), also think firing him to put in a devoted Trump acolyte as acting AG is bad, Democrats are therefore full of shit.

While I think the Democrats did well, as I noted last week, no question Trump’s party having a lock on the Senate is a win for them: little chance of stopping whatever shit judges they push through now. And it’s unlikely, despite Bernie Sanders’ optimism, that Trump will swing left. How it will all play out, only the next two years will show. Now, links:

Republicans are losing suburban white women. Given they’re not going to change course, do they have any way to counteract that?

Bret Stephens at the NYT thinks Democrats blew it completely, and got very pissy being told he was wrong.

Despite the Democratic gains, some pundits still say the election was a case of messaging fail.

Did Democrats win because they didn’t go after Trump full-throttle?

A militant right-wing group in Georgia is threatening violence if Stacey Abrams wins.

A white nationalist still hopes to take over the Republican Party. Like most people who long for a white homeland, he’s full of shit, believing everyone should live in an ethnic homeland: whites in the US and Western Europe, Hispanics in Latin America, for instance. Only Hispanics were in the Southwest US and Florida long before whites, so why doesn’t that figure in (and, obviously, Native Americans were here before everyone)? The “white homeland” is just a pretense at sounding like there’s some historical logic to what white supremacists want.

We just elected several scientists to Congress.

New acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker has a history as a scam artist. He also thinks judges should make decisions based on New Testament morality. I have a feeling he doesn’t mean opposition to usury, sympathy for the poor and judging not lest ye be judged.

Prior to the election, a CNN columnist called for an end to service sex, where women give their partners sex even when the women aren’t in the mood. Unsurprisingly, the sexists at the Federalist say service sex is good and women should put out whether they want to or not.

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A mostly uninspiring week of reading

As witness I gave up on the first three books without finishing.

RED CLOCKS by Leni Zumas is set in a near future where the federal government has banned abortion, and the effect this has on several women in Oregon. While this was billed as dystopian SF, being unable to get an abortion is such a reality for women in parts of the country, I don’t know why Zumas bothered with the near-future angle. A bigger problem is that while her writing style is good, she places much more emphasis on style than substance: there’s a real sense of distance about the characters (as I said about Escape to Loki, her characters don’t feel things as much as think about what they’re feeling). At least that held true for the part I finished.

In THE DISCOVERY OF MIDDLE EARTH: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts Graham Robb joins a long tradition of people who think they’ve discovered the hidden truth behind written history. In Robb’s case, that the Celts were vastly more sophisticated a culture than Roman accounts credit; Caesar says Celts shared news by shouting from village to village but “obviously” that simplifies a complex, sophisticated network of messengers stationed across Celtic territory to transmit information not by shouting words but by a complex code allowing them to share information with telegraphic swiftness. This might have intrigued me when I was a teen (and the idea of the network would certainly be a good touch for some fantasy story), but now? Not at all convincing.

COME AGAIN by Nate Powell is a well-drawn but aimless work involving a hippie commune, the secrets its residents keep from each other and some sort of Thing in the nearby cave. But I didn’t find it compelling enough to keep reading.

Now, the good stuff: BATMAN: Li’l Gotham by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen (cover by Nguyen) is a fun all-ages book that started as a webcomic, shifted to single issues, then to TPB. See Batman treat his Rogue’s Gallery to Halloween dinner! Watch Poison Ivy, Harley and Catwoman spend Christmas together! Cringe at the embarrassment when Barbara Gordon and Talia al Ghul take their fathers to the same restaurant for Father’s Day (ssurprisingly I never caught any Long Halloween jokes despite the holiday theme). Charming.

LOBSTER JOHNSON: A Chain Forged in Life by Mike Mignola and various collaborators has the Lobster dealing with a kidnapped sidewalk Santa, a resurrected gangster, the Crimson Men and a cannibal cult formed among the hobos in a local shantytown. Pretty good, and like the volume below, already added to the Hellboy Chronology.

HELLBOY AND THE BPRD: 1955 (again by Mignola and others) has one big, and obviously mythos-building story, Occult Intelligence, in which Hellboy and pretty much every established BPRD agent investigates strange goings on in the Pacific; Professor Bruttenholm meanwhile discovers that Britain is actively engaged in occult espionage. The other two stories are good, but not as significant (or so I assume). I am curious how they’ll handle 1956 given we already know Hellboy spent most of it in a drunken fugue in Mexico.

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Samurai and lovers: movies viewed

SANJURO (1962) is Akira Kurosawa’s riff on his previous film Yojimbo. Once again, Toshiro Mifune plays a ronin who stumbles into a power struggles, in this case between the wise leader of the local samurai clan and scheming underlings plotting to take over. This time, though, the disgruntled, constantly crabbing Sanjuro sides with the good guys on the principle that the idealistic samurai supporting their lord will get themselves killed otherwise. A good film, with a great performance by Mifune, who steals every scene he’s in.“I dislike saying this after you so kindly rescued us, but killing is a bad habit.”

Despite some admiring reviews BLUE VALENTINE (2014) was too much an aimless slice of life to work for me — as Leonard Maltin put it, the scenes are good, but the film is less than the sum of its parts. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a dysfunctional couple who married in starry-eyed haste and in the present are repenting at leisure; both leads give great performances but that didn’t keep me watching. “In your dream where I’m doing what I really like, what would that be?”

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Fall weather, falling asleep, finishing stories

It’s been beautiful outside most of this week. I took an hour bike ride Sunday, and a shorter ride Thursday, relishing the cool air, the sunlight through the trees, all of it. The kind of weather that I mentally associate with returning to school, which gives me a nice feeling of cool new things coming down the pike.

On the downside, DST ended this week, and as usual that wreaked havoc with my sleep (which as regular readers may remember is poor even at the best of times). Normally I have trouble getting back to sleep if I wake after 3:30 AM, as a part of me feels it’s too close to time to get up. After the time change, 2:30 AM is the same as 3:30 AM was the week before. My brain has not accepted I still have lots of time before I need to get up. Not good.

Work, though, went well. I began rereading Southern Discomfort aloud, from hard copy, to spot any final mistakes, bad word phrases, etc.. It’s going well, and I’m pleased with the work so far. but it’s also going to be slower than I’d hoped. Ninety thousand words is a lot to read aloud, even without the corrections.

And I’ve worked out the problems in No One Can Slay Her. If I can print it up this weekend, I’ll read it aloud next week. Putting in hard copy works for me because it feels final. Reading it aloud forces me to pay attention.

Leaf work for the year is winding down, but I still had some to do this week. That kept me from getting a lot done on Undead Sexist Cliches.

I’m doing my 1,000 words of fiction every morning, but I’m now wondering about my approach. I’ve turned out first drafts of several stories, unfinished first drafts of possibly longer works, and second drafts of some, but I don’t feel like I’m getting close to finishing anything or even seeing the finished structure. That’s frustrating. I’ve abandoned enough unsuccessful projects that I’m always afraid I’m putting a lot of time that will accomplish nothing.

Wisp is using and presumably enjoying her little house on our deck. She’s usually waiting when I bring out food. Sometimes waiting a while as she doesn’t realize 5pm feeding is now an hour later than a week ago. Sometimes she sits on the railing and watches me through the window as I get the food — or she’s staring at the bird feeder above the window.

Oh, and I’m actually selling copies of Atoms for Peace, which is cheering. Not that I’m going to knock Patrick Rothfuss off the bestseller lists, but it’s cool to know people are buying it (thanks, whoever you are).

On a personal note, I unfollowed one right-winger among my FB friends, and “took a break” from another. Every time I do, I find the satisfaction of not dealing with their bullshit easily outweighs any concerns I might miss a charming puppy GIF.

And here’s another example of a wine with a striking label. Haven’t tried it (anything above $20 is usually a no-go for me)f, but I do like the look.

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Art for art’s sake

So last weekend we hit the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit at NCMA. I’m not really a huge fan of O’Keefe (though seeing her flower pictures close up I can appreciate the color and beauty more) but the work of artists inspired or influenced by her was pretty cool. For example, Light Atlas by Cynthia Daignault, above. She drove across the US and whenever she’d driven 25 miles on a given day she’d stop and paint the scene. The display consists of 360 different images from the trip.

Loie Halliwell’s work is quite neat

As is Mark Lewis’s Peoria Avenue.

I love taking photos of odd corners and bits of buildings, but Mexico’s Candida Hofer seems to do it better than me.

Or in that one.

Or that one.

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Good news for modern man!

Tuesday didn’t represent the beginning of the end. It’s not even the end of the beginning. But it was a win, and we shouldn’t doubt that.

It was a win because it actually pushed back against Trump. We didn’t get the red tsunami some right-wingers predicted.

It was a win because Democrats took the House. That gives them a position to block Republican attacks on Obamacare, further tax cut bills, and other Republican idiocy. They’ll also have the power to launch investigations. Trump’s already uttering dire threats if they try; I doubt he’ll back them up.

Kris Kobach, vote-suppression guru, lost in Kansas. Kim Davis, the Clerk of Court who refused to let gay couples get marriage licenses, lost the election. Steve West, whose own kids denounced him as a homophobe, lost. Colorado elected the nation’s first gay governor, with the “first first man.” There’s a new surge of Democratic women into office including lesbian, Native American, Latina and black officials. That’s good now, and it’s good in the long term. There’s a bench of politicians to draw from for future national campaigns. And more people will look and see  more diverse body of elected officials. That changes our view of what’s possible.

So does the fact Republicans didn’t crush all opposition. Trump isn’t a juggernaut who can’t lose. We aren’t slitting our own throats by fighting him.

A lot of individual races and states went badly. But despite all the gloom and doom that Democrats should have done better, it’s comparable (as noted in the first link) to the 2010 Tea Party campaign. Nobody denied that was a win for the right.

So even though there is much work yet to do, for the rest of this week I’m happy just to enjoy the win.

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Delivering on the hook: A Study in Honor

Claire O’Dell’s A STUDY IN HONOR shows the pros and cons of a story having a strong hook. If this hadn’t been billed as “gay female black Watson and Holmes in near future setting” I probably wouldn’t have paid it any attention. But the price of hooking me is that I not only judge the novel on its merits but as a Holmes and Watson variant.

The same problem crops up in Silver Age DC, where it was routine to design a grabber cover, then write the story to fit. Sometimes (as in the Gil Kane cover here) it worked; sometimes the strain to work the hook into the story was obvious. I’ve also seen it in nonfiction articles, like one that starts off somewhere in the Iowa cornfields … and then jumps to a nearby office where the interview is taking place. The cornfields added nothing except some color and some wordage.

In short, a good hook is a wonderful thing, but only if it pays off. I don’t think O’Dell delivered on hers.

In the opening, Dr. Jane Watson returns to DC from service in America’s next Civil War, triggered by the alt.right (as common with dystopian fiction, the future reflects the present). She’s burned out, stuck with a poorly fitted prosthetic and unable to squeeze a new one out of the VA bureaucracy. Her lover dumped her. Jane does landa cool apartment with eccentric Sara Holmes, but the Holmes drives Watson up the wall. After watching Jane suffer for half the book, one of her friends in the VA medical system is murdered. To her surprise, Sara takes an interest in the crime …

And that synopsis captures the reasons this didn’t work for me. When I read a Holmes and Watson story, I expect Holmes and Watson, the team supreme. I expect a mystery, with them working to solve it. I don’t expect half the book to focus on Watson’s personal issues, with no mystery and almost no Holmes. O’Dell says she wanted to make Watson more than just Holmes’ sidekick, and if she’d been writing Doyle’s Holmes and Watson that might have worked. But she’s writing two people who are merely claiming the mantle, so I’m less forgiving.

Then there’s the first meeting between Holmes and Watson. As usual, Sara knows everything about Watson, instantly … so she Googles Jane. No, I’m sorry, that’s just not Holmes. Sure, Holmes would use computers (he does on Elementary) but a first encounter where pretty much anyone can get the same information is pointless (I expect any Holmes to do something Google can only dream of).

If O’Dell hadn’t made her heroes Holmes and Watson, I don’t know I’d have liked the book anyway. It’s not quite my thing, and O’Dell’s writing style is really stiff. But without the hook that failed, it would have stood a better chance.

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