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Silicon Valley veteran doing Technical Community Management. Photographer with a strong interest in birds, wildlife and nature who is exploring the Western states and working to tell you the stories of the special places I've found.
Author and Blogger. They are not the same thing. Sports occasionally spoken here, especially hockey. Veteran of Sun, Apple, Palm, HP and now Infoblox, plus some you've never heard of. They didn't kill me, they made me better.
Person with opinions, and not afraid to share them. Debate team in high school and college; bet that's a surprise.
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Monthly Archives: September 2001
I find myself at a loss for words today.
My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved, directly and indirectly. I hope all of those you know are okay — but I know for some of you, that won’t be true.
This is a declaration of war on the united states. It should be treated as such. If, as seems likely, this is tied to the Palestinian ‘issue’, it is time to resolve it, the hard way if needed. the time for appeasement or compromise is gone.
It is also an example of how this has become one world — how we can no longer treat the earth as a group of independent countries. what goes on elsewhere in the world affects everyone everywhere, and today’s attacks have finally made this painfully and terribly clear to those of us in the US. Isolationism is a failed attitude, because now, unlike WWI and WW II, the world’s problems have been brought home onto our own soil, and we can’t pretend the oceans will protect us from the problems of Europe and Asia.
My god. There are a few images that are forever going to be burned in my brain, such as the explosion of the shuttle, or Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. I’m sorry to say that today’s image of the plane hitting the tower, and later, the towers collapsing, have joined those images.
We need to keep in mind, however, that when the calls by the nimbys start about “how can something like this happen”, we need to remember that if you’re up against someone who’s willing to die for their cause, it’s impossible to stop them — even if you can catch them before they do it, what’s your negotiation edge? And if you’re not willing to die — you’ll hesitate. They won’t.
And that’s why attacks like this succeed. You can’t win an argument with the insane.
People who know me, or who’ve read my rants in OtherRealms, know that I’m not a big fan of series. Or more correctly, I feel that few book series justify the number of words written into them, and by implication, the amount of work required to read them.
Which is true; I prefer to explore new places in my fiction, which puts me far away from the mainstream fiction reader that loves to return to the same universe again and again, like a comfortable slipper. To me, however, too often that slipper goes limp and flabby far too quickly. When I was publishing OtherRealms, I coined the term Generic Celtic Fantasy Trilogy to describe what was the most common fad of the time, the pseudo-celtic three book series with one book’s worth of material.
It’s gotten worse, too. Authors are now writing huge, open-ended series which seemingly have no end, and sometimes, no visible purpose other than their kid’s college fund. The textbook example of the large, endless series is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of time, which is actually pretty well written — but, to me, unreadable. Laurie made it to about book four before giving up. But he’s not alone. Anne McCaffrey is writing endlessly about Pern, Ray Feist keeps revisiting Riftwar, and even series that started as three or four book series, like Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, changed stream in the middle — and who knows when Card will finish that series, because those books seem to be multiplying in his office at night. (and in fact, I don’t care if that series ever ends, since I gave up on it a few books ago, when it curled back on itself and bloated).
If I’m so anti-series, then — why is it that the last four books I’ve read have been parts of series? Well, that’s something I’ve been trying to figure out, since I started pulling things together for this piece and realized that I’ve been reading all these series books.
Partly, it’s because I’m not anal about being anti-series: good writing is good writing. A big part of it, though, is the state of the market: it’s difficult to find any fiction that isn’t part of a series. The series book drives the market, and drives sales, because if you like book 1, you’ll pick up book 2. And for authors, creating a universe is a lot of work, and with a very few exceptions, writing doesn’t pay well. I can’t blame an author for re-using material, since in many cases it’s the difference between paying the rent and taking a second job at Starbucks. I even have trouble feeling too upset at what I consider padded, flabby series – since more readers seem to like it that way. I still wonder why Jordan or Card or George R.R. Martin needs 5 or six 700 page books when J.R.R. Tolkien did Lord of the Rings with a word count that barely gets you out of some series preface.
Case in point: George R.R. Martin’s current series, A Game of Thrones. The first book of the series is: A Game of Thrones, 800+ pages of paperback. To be honest, this is a classic kind of book that I usually avoid — it’ll break your foot if you drop the book on it, it’s the first book of a long (possibly infinite) series, and it’s topic matter isn’t (shudder) celtic, but is clearly yet another variation of the english medieval universe fantasy authors have mined for decades.
I started it, though, for one reason — George is a good guy, and more importantly, one hell of a writer. And he pulled it off — the series is quite well written, and he creats a complex, interesting universe where he throws about ten subplots into the air, and juggles them successfully to keep the story moving forward. He made it interesting even for someone predisposed to not like the book, and kept me reading and looking forward to future volumes.
Until book 3 came out. A Storm of Swordswas late, which is always cause for worry: did it run late because the author ran out of motivation? Because the editors felt it needed to be reworked? Did the author block? Misjudge how long it would take? find a problem that required redoing things? the reasons for lateness are infinite, but rarely is the reason “because the author wanted to make it even better”. And I found I had problems with the third book: I got about 1/3 of the way in, and realized I was slogging in oatmeal. Suddenly, instead of juggling all of the subplots in a way that made things interesting, I found it difficult to keep them all separate, or udnerstand how the story was moving forward. I shifted from enjoying the read to seeing it as a chore, so the book kept getting put down and ignored. I slogged through to the mid-point of the book, and finally gave up. Instead of seeing the book as one complex plot full of sub-plots that all tied together, I came to feel like I was watching all of the soap-operas at once, and trying to figure out why it seemed like chaos.
So this series hits what I call the dog days, that point where it seems the author struggles to keep the momentum going and the story moving forward, and in this case, for me, it fails. Sometimes, if you keep going, the author gets a second wind and things fall back together. Other times, they don’t. Either way, in all honesty, I find life too short, so I’m calling it a day and trying something else — but I still think people should take a look at this series, because there are few authors capable of keeping me interested with this kind of material as long as he did. And if you’re interested in seeing how Martin writes when he’s not imitating War and Peace, try A Song for Lya, his first novel — which blew me away when it first came out, blew me away again when I re-read it a couple of years ago, and shows that even as a rookie, Martin was one heck of a writer.
Sometimes, however, it’s not the series that runs down, but an individual book. Such is the case with Jack Whyte’s latest, Uther, the seventh (count ‘em, seventh!) book in his more-or-less arthurian series.
I say more or less arthurian because with book 7, we still have barely run into the future king, Whyte is actually writing historical fiction based in the time of transition in Roman Britain, starting about the time the Romans abandon the island to itself, and through the struggles that lead to the time of the historical King Arthur. I admit up front: I am a sucker for good Arthurian fiction, and even more a sucker for the historical arthurian tales (my favorite continues to be Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, which is again out of print).
Uther circles back on the series, essentially re-telling the story told in book three of the series (the Eagle’s Brood) from a different viewpoint, this time, from Uther’s. In fact, the author admits he struggled with this until he saw how Orson Scott Card handled a similar problem in his Ender series. Unfortunately, at least to me, Whyte wasn’t completely successful in revisiting, and the book is missing any real tension or intensity (I would also argue that Card’s handling of the Ender series is not what I’d recommend to authors looking to write multi-book series; it is a textbook example of a story allowed to grow out of control and becoming the master of the author — the early books were wonderful things, and unfortunately, as it grew more popular, it seems that every idea to expand the series ended up in the series, which is a great way to make a series longer, but rarely better. A story that starts out with three books of material rarely improves when it’s expanded to five or six — good writing is as much knowing what to leave out as what to put in, but when you put it all in….)
Unlike the Martin series, where I think I finally just got bogged down in the continuing story, I see my problems with Uther as being a problem with a substandard book; I certainly plan on reading the next book — and it’ll either return to what made the series attractive to me, or it won’t. But I gave up on Uther 300 pages in, and I won’t be trying to finish it.
I do very strongly suggest Jack Whyte’s books for Arthurian and/or historical fiction fans. you really need to start at the beginning, though, which is his book The Skystone.
Now to a different kind of series. Author James White died recently, and left behind a wonderful canon of enjoyable, readable fiction. His most famous series was about Sector General, a huge, multi-species hospital in space. Somewhat reminiscent of Keith Laumer’s Retief books (which poked barbed fun at the diplomatic corps), White writes about a hospital that has to treat and heal anyone, from anywhere, including beings that are currently undiscovered — whether they be humanoid or crystalline chlorine breathers.
This is very different beast than either Martin’s or Whyte’s series, in that the books are more or less independent of each other, and you can pick up any of the books and read it without having to worry about missing stuff from other books. Sector General isn’t as overtly satiric as the Retief books, but at the same time, clearly shows just how ludicrous a huge hospital like Sector General has to be — too large, too complex to succeed.
I can safely say that it’s hard to find a bad Sector General novel — and I’m happy to say I’ve probably read 80% of them, and over time, will be tracking down and reading the rest when I’m looking for enjoyable ‘mind candy’ fiction — this isn’t deep or thinking material, but relaxing, enjoyable reading.
The most recent Sector General, and it looks like the final one, is Double Contact. This is, alas, not the best introduction to Sector General, because White chooses to take a few of his characters out of the hospital and wrote a first contact story out in a remote solar system. I found the story a bit contrived and the writing somewhat flat. it’s — okay — but it’s not one of this best pieces.
A better introduction would be the previous book, Final Diagnosis, a more-typical how-do-we-fix-this-before-we-explode story, set in the hospital itself.
Given how difficult it is to find well-written, enjoyable ‘mind-candy’ entertaining fiction, if you haven’t discovered James White yet, do so. This is the kind of series I wish authors wrote more often: independent, unrelated stories in a common universe, where you can pick up any one book and enjoy it, and not have to start with book one or loose common, assumed information. And with White, it’s even better, because each book is well-written and not too-long, bloated, or under-edited.
Finally, a series somewhere between a linear series like GRR Martin’s and James White: Steve Brust’s Vlad Taltos books. His latest is Issola, the ninth book in the series. In this one, as in previous books, Vlad Taltos, Jhereg asassin, gets involved in high intrigues as the various controlling houses of his world compete for dominance — only this time, the conflict is larger and more complex, involving the gods, and — perhaps — even greater beings. Taltos is someone who always seems no more than two steps from disaster, and always seems to find a way out, with his hide more or less intact. And along the way, a lot of really interesting and weird things happen.
One of the nice things about the Taltos series is that none of the books depend on each other. you can pick up any book, and it’ll make sense and be an accessible, enjoyable read. But unlike the White books, the nine books of the Taltos series are teling a larger, sequential story, and Taltos has grown and changed, as has his world — the Taltos of Issola is a very different person than the Taltos of the first book, Jhereg. One of the great joys of this series is watching Taltos grow up and mature as the books progress, and at the same time, watch Brust’s maturation as a writer as well.
Steve Brust is one of my favorite writers, and one of the few writers that I can say I’ve read every book he’s published — and I can only think of one that disappointed me (if anyone cares, you can find my review of it somewhere in the OtherRealms archives, but I think I’ll leave it hidden there…). You can grab any of his books — and come away entertained and educated. But if you want to start at the beginning, and grow with Taltos, start with Jhereg and read the series in order; it adds an extra something to the books.
But it’s very nice that you don’t HAVE to. I wish more authors could, or would, write this way.