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Characters whom you may never meet

As I mentioned last week, part of rewriting a story is knowing what’s essential to keep and what isn’t. Replotting Impossible Takes a Little Longer I’m thinking that some of my characters may, in fact, have become disposable. I like them, but they just don’t fit the story any more.

In the previous draft, KC’s aunt and uncle provide her with shelter when she’s framed for murder — only it turns out they’re being mind-controlled by the novel’s villain and call the cops on her. Now, although she’s still framed, she gets out of jail on a legal technicality. She doesn’t need to run and hide so she has no need to visit them. And even if she did, there’s no reason to report her to the cops. So I’ll probably establish they died some time prior to the story’s beginning.

KC’s friend Rachel played an even larger role but now she’ll be in one or two scenes at most. Her role included revealing a conspiracy; expressing a religious viewpoint opposite KC’s agnosticism (they’re both activists with similar politics but Rachel’s fueled by her faith, KC by her lack of faith); and providing some exposition near the end. The conspiracy is completely different and Rachel no longer knows anything about it; KC’s best friend Sarah has taken over the religious arguments; and another supporting character, Alyssa, is handling the exposition. And the bad guy changing KC’s personal history midway through the book will prevent Rachel from showing up (the person whose wedding they were getting together for now died years ago).

I like Rachel and I hope she’ll play a small role, but unless I see some new potential — the book’s short enough I could easily add her in if I hit on a fresh angle — that’s as far as it goes.


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A bit of the world ends

A friend of mine I’ve known since the 1970s passed this week. Heart attack, in case you were wondering.

I met Martin back when our families were hanging out together, due to being in the same theater group (as our mums eventually wound up becoming life partners, I imagine that was another reason). We continued in Stage Crafters together for years; we both worked in various capacities on Johnny Belinda, Fiddler on the Roof and many others. He was also in my D&D game, which I ran for about a decade. Plus we both read many of the same comics.

We haven’t spoken much in recent years — distance, plus some long-running health problems on his part means the last time we really spoke was at Mum’s funeral — I miss him. And I miss the sense of shared experience with someone else: jokes, pop-culture references, shared history, familiar quirks, all of that. Martin was only a few years younger than me so a lot of our pop-culture experience overlaps; the number of people I can say that about who I’m also still in regular touch with is smaller than it used to be (we scatter hither and yon over time). Even though we didn’t sit and discuss comics much any more, or reminisce about theater experiences, the fact that I can’t do that is … unsettling. It’s much like one of my friends who passed a few years ago; it surprised me how often I’d be thinking “I’ll have to tell him about that when I see him again … oh, crap.”

Martin was a funny guy, a smart guy and a talented actor. He’s far from the first of my friends to die, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I’d add a photo but I couldn’t find any handy.


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It’s the end of the American century — and of America too?

The 20th century was the “American century” for a variety of reasons. We played a major role in ending WW I and in WW II (though the USSR’s fighting on the Eastern Front was probably more important). As a nation that hadn’t been bombed (besides Pearl Harbor) or invaded, we emerged from the Second World War in great economic shape. While we did many horrible things during the Cold War (overthrowing multiple democratically elected governments and putting in despots), we also helped relieve ravaged Europe with the Marshall Plan, and organized an airlift to keep Berlin going after East Germany cut off access. We gave the world TV, popular movies, rock-and-roll and put a man on the moon. An immigrant arriving in the country with no money or a kid who’d dropped out of high school could still land a job and become a success, at least to the point of putting a roof over their head and their family’s (if the kid was black, of course, it was a damn sight tougher).

Not so much any more. Eonomic mobility is dying: the poor can’t move up, the rich are protected from falling by the glass floor. Our economy increasingly rewards the people in finance who push papers and move money around than the people actually doing the work (including the supposedly essential grocery workers and such). Our infrastructure is crumbling, our medical system is overpriced with poorer outcomes than many nations and our maternal death rate is the highest in the developed world). We’re turning into a rich failed estate.

Internationally, Trump’s been vigorously shredding our alliances, agreements and treaties and our handling of the Trump Virus is wrecking them further.  I wouldn’t mind us backing off being the world’s policeman — we’ve done horrible things as well as good — but I’d rather do it without alienating the rest of the world. And I suspect it’s less about withdrawing than that 21st century Republicans much prefer using brute force to negotiating or working out alliances. Former Veep Dick Cheney, for instance, had his macho posturing moment where he declared (quite untruthfully) that “we don’t negotiate with evil — we destroy it!” As Iraq and Afghanistan proved, that’s a clumsy, ineffective approach.

George MacDonald Fraser has written what a seismic shock the loss of the British Empire was to his generation; I wonder if we’ll see that here. When Japan outperformed us economically 30 years ago, it led to a major freakout portraying good business as an act of war, Pearl Harbor II (Michael Crichton’s racist Rising Sun, for instance). Then again, people who believe in American exceptionalism accept America is “the greatest country in world” regardless of what we actually do. So perhaps they won’t care.

As for the survival of America itself … well we have open calls from Canadian white supremacist Faith Goldy for white America to secede and form its own nation. Goldy is, of course, a chickenhawk — I guarantee she has no intention of putting herself on the front lines to make it happen — and it’s not like most of Trump’s aging base of support are ready to take up arms either. Despite all the tough talk that Virginia passing new gun legislation would trigger civil war, it didn’t happen (instead, look at the results).

But Republicans are doing everything they can to restrict the vote including exploiting the Trump Virus to do it (though in Wisconsin they lost); one bullshit artist proposes (not seriously I think) that the U.S. force all liberals to live in California, then strip them of voting rights. And prioritizing supplies in the crisis based on how thoroughly Trump’s ass is kissed. This is civil war by other means: it doesn’t divide the country into separate states, but divides us between the minority with the right to vote (Trump’s own agenda) and a minority that will impose its white/male/Christian supremacist views on everyone else.

Speaking of which we have California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom declaring that as federal government isn’t providing equipment to deal with the Trump Virus, California, as “a nation state,” will take care of its own and possibly export to other states. As California isn’t a nation, that’s generated a lot of questions about what he meant. The article at the link speculates (I’ve heard similar thoughts before) that some Dems may be ready to pay back Republicans in their own coin: if they’re going to ignore the rules, the rules they make aren’t binding either. If California goes ahead and ignores Trump and the Supreme Republican Court, what will the feds do? Marijuana legalization might be a forerunner: the feds still count it as a dangerous drug but lots of states don’t care.

Either way, I suspect the concept of the United States by mid-century will be very different from what we see today.

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Simon Templar, Jesus and Batman! Books read

THE SAINT: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film and Television 1928-1992 by Burl Barer looks at the career of Simon “The Saint” Templar, gentleman adventurer, troubleshooter and “Robin Hood of modern crime,” a man who took down criminals the law couldn’t catch while also using their loot to cushion his bank account. Barer tracks the Saint’s growth from the early 1930s novels to international popularity and an expansion into movies, radio, comic strips, hardback reprints, TV and mystery magazines. He parallels this with a look at creator Leslie Charteris’ career, which came to focus entirely around the Saint after The Saint In New York became a best-seller. Unlike many authors, Charteris was quite protective of Simon Templar in other media, aggressively complaining if he thought their treatment hurt the brand. He also worried surprisingly about whether Simon’s age as the series progressed made his adventures ridiculous; I just accept that kind of agelessness as a gift of the fictional gods.

The book ends right as work on the 1997 Val Kilmer Saint film was beginning which left Barer optimistic it would launch a whole new franchise. Instead it tanked, and I suspect Simon Templar is very much now a “dad hero” in the sense that while he was huge for my generation (particularly when Roger Moore played him on TV), I doubt he means anything for Gen X, Y, etc., any more than the characters referenced in Clubland Heroes mean to me. Damn, I’m old.

ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan acknowledges in the introduction that trying to capture a historical image of Jesus isn’t really possible, then blithely asserts that he’s done it anyway. Aslan’s version is that Jesus was one of the countless Jewish Messiahs out to free Palestine from the yoke of Rome with the help of Jehovah: he came to bring not peace but a sword (Aslan concludes Jesus gentler admonitions were all meant for Jews on how to deal with each other, not outsiders). This is no worse than most other biographies of this sort I’ve read, but no better; Aslan suffers the usual dilemma of having to separate the parts of the Gospels imposed on Jesus’ life by later Christians with the ones that capture authentic history, and his unsurprising conclusion is that whatever fits his thesis is historical.

THE GOLDEN-AGE BATMAN Vol. 6 pretty much continues the style and spirit of the previous volume which despite the increasing number of time-travel stories is, I think a good thing. We have more Joker and Penguin, the introduction of the Riddler and less well remembered villains such as the Gong and the Pied Piper (not the Flash foe, a criminal who uses pipes as an MO). There’s also the debut of Vicki Vale: having only known her as a rather annoying Lois Lane-clone who was either trying to marry Batman or unmask him (Lois at her best was much better than that) it was quite a surprise to see her in her first story as a determined photojournalist with no qualms about taking a risk to get the right photo. Among the standout stories are “The Case of the 48 Jokers” for how Batman and Robin wrap it up by playing practical jokes on the Joker, and “The Man With the Fatal Hands,” a clever riff on the old Hands of Orlac horror plot. I’ve already started volume #7.

#SFWApro. Batman cover by Dick Sprang; all rights to both cover images remain with current holders.


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Trixie in a clothes basket

Due to her leg injury, we’ve been carrying Trixie downstairs in the morning. Thursday TYG did it in a laundry basket.Trixie is actually doing much better this week. She’s willing to pee and poop despite the strain it puts on her leg and she’s eagerly walking as far as we’ll let her. When TYG gets home in the evening, Trixie is excited and eager to play, though we’re careful there too about not letting her over-exert herself. I’m starting to hope surgery won’t be necessary, but we’ll see. Next appointment is in a little over two weeks. By then we’ll have some doggy PT under our belts, both at the vet and at home.

The best part is Trixie being so happy again. She’s such a lively little dog that when she was just quiet and listless the first couple of days, it felt awful.

It’s still disrupting our schedule — taking them out separately when I’m home alone takes more time (the shorter walks balance that out) and we haven’t taken her to daycare in a couple of weeks. But maybe the end is in sight. If not, and it’s surgery, so be it. Fingers crossed though.

#SFWApro. Photo is mine.

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Bruce Lee, Andre Norton, Agatha Heterodyne and Cats: books read

Reading Nerds of Color‘s post on how Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood disrespects Bruce Lee got me curious to read about the legendary kung fu star. Fortunately the library had BRUCE LEE: A Life by Matthew Polly, chronicling, Bruce’s story from hyperkinetic mixed-race child actor (his nickname as a kid was “Never sits still”) to teenage brawler and street punk to cha-cha fanatic to gung fu master, and all of that before he began his climb to become Hollywood’s first Chinese superstar. Martial arts movies and Asian-American actors are so much more common now (though obviously Hollywood’s still solidly white-dominated) that it was a shock to realize how out there Lee’s ambitions seemed at the time, and how much discrimination he had to deal with (one newspaper article on Lee actually worked “Rotsa Ruck” into the headline). Nor did he have it easy in Hong Kong, where initial enthusiasm for the hometown boy’s success was later shaded by concerns Lee’s biracial heritage meant he wasn’t Chinese enough. Very good.

TREY OF SWORDS by Andre Norton (striking cover by Charles Mikolaycak) is set in Escore roughly during the events of Warlock of the Witch World. The characters are a stock type in this series: Yonan and Crytha, both mixed-race, both orphans, both uncertain where they fit in and Yonan crushing on an oblivious Crytha. The first two sections of the book involve Yonan discovering the magical Sword of Ice (or vice versa — the Sword chooses it’s wielders) and alongside an ancient warrior traveling back in time to avert one of the Dark’s great triumphs in Escore’s past. The effects of this in the present aren’t really dwelt with, except Crytha, who has just enough untapped power to be vulnerable to the Dark’s control, encounters some of the leftover villains of that battle and has to choose her own destiny. I can’t say this really grabbed me but that’s partly because I read it while I was surfeited with dog care and unable to focus. It does have an unusual end for a Witch World book in that Crytha doesn’t come to return Yonan’s feelings, and chooses a life alone to study her craft.

GIRL GENIUS: The Second Journey of Agatha Heterodyne: The Incorruptible Library by Phil and Kaja Foglio continues Agatha’s adventures as the threat of the mind-controlling Other looms over Europe and Agatha and her crew penetrate the catacombs under Paris in search of a McGuffin that … well, actually I’m not quite sure. There are so many characters, plot threads and character bits that I found it impossible to keep everything straight. It was still amusing (“I write love poetry about cheese.”) and I still look forward to the next volume, but it wasn’t very coherent.

YOUR CAT: The Owner’s Manual: Hundreds of Secrets, Surprises and Solutions for Raising a Happy, Healthy Cat by Dr. Marty Becker didn’t actually have any surprises as it covers the same material as the other cat books I’ve read recently. Which isn’t a criticism of the book — if it had been the first one I picked up, I’d have liked it fine — but I wound up skimming most of it. The chapter on cat training may come in useful though.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.


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Scooby-Doo, Smash and Robert Bloch: books read

SCOOBY DOO TEAM-UP Vol. 2 by Sholly Fisch, Dario Brizuela and Scott Jeralds continues in the spirit of V1, except broadening the range: rather than sticking to DC superheroes, they time travel back to the “modern stone age” of the Flintstones, forward to the age of the Jetsons, then encounters with Superman Jonny Quest, Secret Squirrel and Harley Quinn. A lot of the fun is the in-jokes (“I’m glad you kids won’t be here for breakfast — Barney keeps trying to steal my cereal.”) so the weakest installment is with Secret Squirrel — he simply doesn’t have enough of a history to contribute much material. Second weakest is Superman, because while funny, the kids really don’t affect the plot any. Still, a pleasure to read.

SMASH: Trial by Fire by Chris A. Bolton is a graphic novel in which pre-teen Andrew accidentally acquires the powers of the world’s mightiest hero when the villainous Magus’ attempt to steal the powers of the Defender goes slightly awry. The results as Andrew struggles to live up to his new powers are funny, but the art got too confusing in the action scenes.

THE BEST OF ROBERT BLOCH is a collection of short stories ranging from Yours Truly Jack the Ripper (which Bloch himself considers somewhat overrated), to the pastiche The Man Who Collected Humor the gentle humor of All on a Golden Afternoon (easily his gentlest mockery of psychiatry) to the utopian World Timers and the computer-terrorism story The Oracle. Not all A-list — The Learning Maze is a tedious Western Union — but overall excellent. The cover comes from Bloch’s Hugo-winner That Hellbound Train, a funny but pointed story about our inability to know how good we have it.

#SFWApro. Covers by Dario Brizuela (top) and Paul Alexander, all rights remain with curren tholders.


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Shameless Self Promotion for Christmas!

Because it can’t hurt to encourage people to buy my books, right? So here they are, with some links.

Atlas Shagged, a collection of short stories.

Atoms for Peace, set in a world where 1950s SF films (alien invasions! Pod people! Giant bugs) are everyday reality.Sex For Dinner, Death for Breakfast, my book on the James Bond films.

Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan, on 20th century made-for-TV specfic films.

The Wizard of Oz Catalog on the Oz books/movies/radio plays/stage plays and comic books.Screen Enemies of the American Way, my look at political paranoia in American movies and TV.

And most recently, Now And Then We Time Travel.I should have two more self-published books out next year. So don’t delay, start collecting my works today! Get the entire set! Everyone on your block will think you’re cool (this statement is for promotional purposes and cannot be treated as a binding commitment by the author).

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Sherlock Holmes: “The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.”

Once again it’s time for seeing how a Sherlock Holmes quote applies to writing. With this line from Sign of Four I think Holmes is letting his ego get in the way.

The quote was his review of Watson’s first published account of Holmes’ exploits, A Study in Scarlet. Holmes grumbles the story should have been little more than a true-crime monograph, showcasing Holmes’ deductive genius. Instead Watson drags in all those dramatic, emotional details to make an entertaining yarn, thereby muddying the sublimity of Holmes’ intellect.

Though supremely egotistical, Holmes was, of course, as brilliant as he thinks he is. But he’s dead wrong. It’s the emotional stuff in Watson’s stories that makes them stand out: his banter with Holmes, Holmes’ own arrogance, quirkiness and intense emotional drive, the plight of the clients at finding themselves inexplicably imperiled. The logical stuff is secondary. Jacques Futrelle’s Augustus Van Dusen, AKA “The Thinking Machine” was a titan of logic, but that’s all he is; he’s devoid of any of Holmes’ passion or personality. Futrelle’s mysteries are fun to read, but they don’t stick with me the way Doyles’ do. Neither do the excellent Dr. Thorndyke mysteries of R. Austin Freeman or the mediocre Martin Hewitt mysteries by Arthur Morrison (Hewitt and his sidekick are exceptionally bland).

That’s not to say that clear reasoning isn’t important. To write the best stories we can, we have to apply reasoning to the plot, the characters and the editing. Even if people’s reactions are irrational, they have to make sense. The ordinary character who confronts supernatural horror or tries to solve a mystery needs a very good reason for sticking their neck out. Nobody should do something stupid just because the plot needs it; I’ve seen more than one story where a careful, calculating villain becomes inept and ineffective when they have to kill the hero. Or the romance has no motivation beyond “they’re the protagonists, they should get together.”

But the emotional quality of the story probably hooks readers more than story logic. If we care about the characters, that’s a plus. Or if we don’t but the story makes us feel strongly anyway: Lovecraft’s protagonists aren’t particularly engaging, but his best work conveys a definite feeling of horror.

As for Holmes, it’s possible that underneath his indignant dismissal, he was happier with Watson’s work than he admits. Holmes usually let the detective on the case take credit in the papers; Watson’s stories must have been excellent publicity for Holmes’ business in the early years. Holmes periodically recommended one story or another as suitable for Watson to adapt. The stories undoubtedly grew Holmes’ legend (they had to be at least as popular in-story as in reality) and his ego could hardly have objected to that.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover image remain with current holder.

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Greece, quasi-countries and Anarky: books read

THE MASK OF CIRCE by Henry Kuttner and CL Moore (various sources ascribe it to one or the other alone) didn’t work for me as well as I expected. We open with protagonist Jay Seward telling a stranger (the framing sequence struck me as unnecessary) how he was mysteriously drawn back to ancient Greece or an alt.version of it due to his ancestral memories from his forefather, Jason (yes, the Jason). It seems Hecate and her priestess Circe trusted Jason to help defeat Apollo (a rogue AI created by the advanced science of these alt.Olympians) but the ever faithless adventurer fled instead. Now Jay has to come back and stop Apollo before he does very bad things …

While Apollo is impressively intimidating, the ancestral memory stuff gets really complicated, and Circe is wasted — even given it’s not classic Circe, I’d expect a priestess of Hecate to play a bigger role in the action than she did (and she’s not really a romantic lead either). Hs it’s moments but not enough of them.

INVISIBLE COUNTRIES: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood by Joshua Keating is an interesting look at countries that hover awkwardly outside the standards of what makes a nation, including the Knights of Malta (recognized as a sovereign entity despite not having an actual territory of their own), Somaliland (a peaceful secessionist area within Somalia that’s tried and failed to gain recognition from other nations), Kurdistan, island nations looking at their territory disappearing as climate changes and various attempts by private citizens to start their own countries. Keating points out that since the wave of decolonization and Soviet collapse in the last century, there’s been little change to the roster of nations, largely due to existing nations’ preference for stasis (the U.S. may be willing to replace governments it doesn’t like, but we don’t like it when the borders get redrawn). While that means Somaliland and similar secessionist countries get the short end of the stick, Keating has no illusions that secession is automatically a good idea: there’s always some group who doesn’t like belonging to the state they’re in, and ethnostates usually exist because of blood and violence in their past. Extremely interesting.

ANARKY by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle collects their brief attempt to turn Batman’s teenage genius adversary, Anarky, into the star of his own series (he got a miniseries of his own which I have yet to read). A teenage revolutionary and cynic, Anarky distrusts all authority, so sticking him in Washington dealing with corrupt politics and power brokers seems like a great fit. As I mentioned some years back, I like the idea of anti-authoritarian heroes who challenge the status quo but aren’t terrorists; that’s what prompted me to pick this up. And it does have some great moments, such as Anarky trying to convince R’as al Ghul to help people instead of scheming to commit mass murder.

But not enough moments. The first three issues are an uninspired cosmic adventure with Anarky battling a reality-warping monstrosity alongside the Justice League; I can understand wanting a solid guest cast for the opening issue, but it doesn’t fit where the series was heading, and it’s nowhere near as interesting. The final issue concerns Anarky’s fear his birth father is the Joker; that didn’t work for me either. That’s a lot of wasted space for a series that lasted only eight issues.

I still plan to get the collection of Anarky’s earlier adventures and see if that works better.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Michael Herring, bottom by Breyfogle.


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