Monday, August 31, 2009

Writing Log; 8/31/09

Started at 10 am (dropped kids off at school, loaned lawnmower to neighbor, cleaned up a bit)

10 am to 10:30 am: Created a Scrivener file for Illyria novel, creating placeholders for chapters and scenes, accompanied by synopses. For each scene, included notes describing how that scene is intended to advance or provide information about character, setting, and plot. Noted weak areas in current conception. Most of this process involved reviewing, copying and pasting content already created my master outline for Book One of the novel.

Wrote on and off from 10:30 am to roughly 2:15 pm
Got in about 2.5 hours of writing, give or take. Wrote roughly 1850 words, spread between three scenes. Would like to improve to at least 3 hours of writing in this time frame, more words on the page. But this is a start.

In some cases these scenes may expand into short chapters, but the general sequence of the outline will probably hold up.

The bulk of the writing was in Chapter 1, scene 1, and it was very shaky. Descriptions too flat, pacing uneven, didn't have a good visual image of the surroundings or a clear enough feel for the scene. A few good ideas crept in, will need some revising. Too much emphasis on setting, not enough character development taking place along with it. (Going to pick up the kids at school, came up with some ideas of how to start the scene differently and have the protagonist, point-of-view character interacting immediately with other characters to jump-start things.)

Fortunately, laying out the framework for the first nine chapters, including placeholders and synopses of the planned scenes, made it relatively easy for me to jump to a different scene and keep working with a noticeable improvement in quality. Wrote a decent chunk of Chapter 4, Scene 1, using one of the versions of chapter 1 for last year's failed caper novel manuscript as a welcome inspiration.

Also wrote a couple hundred words for the opening of Chapter 5, Scene 1. Just a little visual description of a setting element, but another detail came to mind as I was writing it and I like the results so far.

So I ended with a much better feeling than I started with. I think I will continue tomorrow with more of Chapter 4 and perhaps move to some other scenes that I have a better feel for before I go back and try to hammer out Chapter 1 again. Need a better image of what that city looks like, a lot more little descriptive details to color in the background, and a stronger presentation of Dahvo's character.

First Day of School

Dropped the kids off for their first day of school. My daughter is in a highly gifted program where the fifth and sixth graders actually attend classes at the nearby junior high, though most of their classes are with other kids their age rather than with junior high age kids and the elementary age kids are on a different school day schedule than the older kids (sort of a compromise between a normal elementary schedule and a normal junior high schedule).

Still, this is her first year at the new school and she's somewhat nervous about it, as is my wife, who handled dropping off our daughter this morning so she could help her find her new classroom and such. I'm waiting to see what happens before I start worrying too much on this one, though I will undoubtedly worry at some point.

My son is nervous about being at school without his sister there. I've tried to remind him that this will be the first time he's ever come back to the same school with the same teacher and the same classmates (they combine 1/2nd grade classes for HG), so he should be feeling confident. But he's anxious and increasingly aware that it's hard for him to find friends to play with. This morning he said that no one understands his sense of humor.

It's one of the difficult aspects of being a parent that you have to let your kids learn some lessons and overcome some challenges for themselves while also being supportive and trying to step in when they are over their heads. During the summers everything is hectic but we have a pretty close family and a generally relaxed routine when we aren't traveling, so we support each other and understand each others' foibles. School forces everyone back out into the world and brings with it more schedules and commitments.

Postscript:
Well, both kids seem to have had a good first day at school. So I'm happy for that.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fear the Hornets!



This is a close approximation of the massive hornet's nest currently residing in a tree in my back yard. The white-faced hornets in this sucker have already committed a few fly-by stingingings on me as I moved innocently about my garden. In addition, they have been invading my neighbor's bee hives and killing the bee larva.

So they've got to go. However, sneaking out at night and blasting the hive with wasp poison has failed to do more than collect a dozen or so hornet corpses. The bulk of them are still at large.

Tonight my neighbor and I will probably begin a potentially disastrous attempt to eradicate these little devils. First, we're going to armor ourselves (me in a borrowed bee bonnet and multiple layers of clothes, he in his beekeeping gear) and under cover of cooler weather and darkness attempt to cut off several of the smaller branches supporting the hive and blocking its descent.

Then the current plan calls for setting a big plywood sheet on some sawhorses so that we can position a Weber sputnik-style kettle grill directly below the hive.

Tomorrow night we'll try to get a good fire going in the grill. I suspect this means getting the fire going and then raising the grill into position beneath the hive. Then one of us has to cut the last support branch to drop the hive into the flames, where the insects will meet their fiery doom.

How will we coordinate the branch-cutting and grill positioning? Can one person safely lift a flaming Weber grill into position while the other cuts a branch? And will the damn hornets be caught enough off guard, or will they swarm in an enraged frenzy? I'd be happier if we had a metal trash can that we could get a good fire going in, but all we have is plastic.

I also kind of wish I had a flamethrower.

I'm very nervous about the whole thing. I think the Darwin Awards should be kept on standby.

Comic Book Influences, Redux

I realized this morning that I forgot some important influences on my comic book reading. When I was in the first and second grade, my family lived on White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Some new neighbors moved in across the street. They were a young couple. I can't remember the name of the wife, but the husband's name was Robbie, I believe.

Robbie had a huge collection of comic books, the first adult I'd ever met who owned any. He let me read them, but only in a certain room of his house at a specific table. Reading the older ones also required me to be under careful supervision, usually while he was working on something electronic at a bench in the corner.

As a result, I got to read Amazing Fantasy 15 as a kid, as well as the first 100 issues of Spider-Man straight through. I also got to read Iron Man from issue 2 up through at least the first 50. As I recall there were some Hulks in there as well. I don't recall much beyond that, aside from the fact that everything was Marvel. Aside from the Spider-Man issues, which had a big influence on me (being a tall, skinny kid with glasses who was regarded as a nerd by many of his classmates, Peter Parker was right in my wheelhouse), I don't really remember anything about the other issues. Even at that age I thought some of the stories were silly.

Later on, in junior high, I had a group of friends who were tremendously into the X-Men, Alpha Flight, and the New Mutants comics. These included several girls: Erica, Jennie, and Miriam. A couple of the girls were also into the New Teen Titans, my first real exposure to any DC comics. As well as my friend Jonathan and my sort-of friend and more-like-a-rival Scott, who was (and probably still is) a very gifted comic style artist even at that age. I would read some of these comics at Jonathan's house, watch Scott draw the characters at school, and occasionally play some super-hero games (we used Superworld by Chaosium) that were run by one of the teachers who founded the Games Club at our junior high. I always made my own characters for the games, as did some of the other kids, while the rest tried to emulate their favorites from the comics.

What these two formative experiences had in common was that I wasn't buying any comics for myself--I don't think I owned any comics aside from a couple giant-sized Avengers or Fantastic Four Xmas specials that I picked up around the holidays. I may have had a few issues of Alpha Flight that were my own, as they had a hero character named Puck who was a dwarf, as is my sister, so I felt an affinity for the comic even though it was about Canadians and I was about as far from Canada as you can get in the continental United States.

So on the whole, my reading material was dependent upon what my friends or neighbors decided to collect. In this sense it was a lot like visiting the library to check out graphic novels: your choices are limited to whatever they've decided to pick up.

What did I get out of these early comic reading experiences? Well, the art styles of George Perez and John Byrne influenced me for a long time, to be sure. I also recall that those Claremont/Byrne X-Men and the Perez/Wolfman Teen Titans had a fairly even mix of male and female superheroes, unlike classic groups such as the Justice League, Avengers, or Fantastic Four. That influenced me to this day: when I create superteams, I try to balance out the gender ratio as much as possible. It just feels more natural given that we aren't dealing with special ops forces here, but a bunch of people who typically gained their powers by accident or via legacy.

But when I look at the Marvel Essentials b/w reprints of those years or the DC Essentials, I typically don't feel a big surge of nostalgia. The 1980s have some good story lines, like Days of Future Past, but there's more soap opera than I remember. And the earlier stuff is just hokey.

I do wish they wrote more comics ilke that today for younger readers, though. The Justice League Adventures and Justice League Unlimited comics, based on the animated television shows, have been great fun for my kids.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Comic Book Influences

During my recent workshop experience, one of the other writers commented that several sections of my chapter read like they were intended to be a movie script. It was an interesting observation. To be honest, if there is a visual influence like that on my writing, it is probably due more to having read a lot of comic books over the years than to having watched a lot of movies.

You see, in addition to science fiction and fantasy, I also like superhero comic books. Among my favorites over the years have been specific incarnations of the Justice League, the X-Men, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Spider-Man, All-Star Superman, Invincible, The Authority, Planetary, Powers, Top Ten, Promethea, Starman, Shadowline, Hellboy, and the Suicide Squad.

As the above list will tell you if you're a comics fan, I don't consider myself a Marvel or a DC person. I've found that I'm also a little different from the typical fan in that I don't follow specific characters or teams so much as I follow teams of writers and artists. And even then I'm kind of picky. For example, I love Robert Kirkman's Invincible but I have no interest in his ongoing Walking Dead series. I've read two different incarnations of the Legion of Superheroes that couldn't be more different from each other--the Giffen Terra Mosaic sequence of the early 1990s and the more recent "DnA" (Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning) Legion, but never got into anything else. I have Marc Millar's whole run of Ultimate X-Men but didn't care for his work on the Authority. And Grant Morrison is totally hit or miss for me--I loved his All-Star Superman and his early JLA reboot, but didn't care for his Doom Patrol or his New X-Men that much. And I stopped collecting Ultimate Spider Man and Powers some time ago when I felt they were getting stale.

Also, I read comics when I was young, then had a long hiatus before picking them up again in college, then another hiatus after graduating. So although I'm familiar with the history of many iconic characters, I'm not overly wowed by a lot of the early writing or art. So a lot of my favorites are more recent.

My favorite comic book writers are:
  • Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (Legion of Super-Heroes),
  • Brian Michael Bendis (Alias, Daredevil, Powers, Ultimate Spider Man),
  • Warren Ellis (Authority, Nextwave, Planetary),
  • Neil Gaiman (Sandman),
  • Keith Giffen* (Legion of Superheroes, Justice League International),
  • Robert Kirkman (Invincible),
  • Mike Mignola (Hellboy),
  • Marc Millar (Ultimates Vol 1 and 2, Ultimate X-Men),
  • Alan Moore (Watchmen, Promethea, Top Ten, pretty much every thing else he's written),
  • Grant Morrison (JLA, All-Star Superman),
  • John Ostrander (Suicide Squad),
  • James Robinson (Starman),
  • Brian Vaughn (Ex Machina, Runaways), and
  • Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Astonishing X-Men).
My favorite comic book artists are:
  • Carlo Barberi (Justice League Adventures, Justice League Unlimited),
  • John Cassady (Astonishing X-Men, Planetary),
  • Keith Giffen (Legion of Superheroes),
  • Gene Ha (Top Ten),
  • Tony Harris (Starman, Ex Machina),
  • Bryan Hitch (The Authority, Ultimates Vol. I and II),
  • Stuart Immomen (Nextwave, Ultimate X-Men),
  • Kevin Maguire (Justice League International, Captain America),
  • Alex Maleev (Daredevil, Alias),
  • Mike Mignola (Hellboy),
  • Michael Avon Oeming (Powers),
  • Ryan Ottley (Invincible),
  • Frank Quietly (on some titles, like All-Star Superman),
  • J.H. Williams III (Promethea)

*I haven't read any recent work by Giffen that was particularly coherent, unfortunately.

Superhero Gaming

I don't really game any more outside of some Supercrew with my kids, but gaming has left a lasting impression on me. And more than anything else, I've played superhero games, which is a little odd even for gamers.

[You can see some of the characters and such that I've created for my own superhero setting, Mesa Grande, by going to Teams or Key Organizations at my web site, Dreaming Empires.]

So, I've read a lot of comic books. Over the years, I've also accumulated many of the superhero roleplaying games that have been produced. I've owned Fantasy Games Unlimited's Villains & Vigilantes (since discarded), Hero Games' Champions (since discarded), TSR's Marvel Superheroes, Mayfair's DC Heroes, West End Games' DC Universe (dropped, though the sourcebooks are good), TSR's Marvel SAGA, the Marvel Universe game (dropped), Guardians of Order's Silver Age Sentinels and The Authority, Steve Jackson Games's GURPS Supers (dropped) and Hellboy, White Wolf Games's Aberrant, Green Ronin Games's Mutants and Masterminds, Arc Dream Games's Wild Talents, Atomic Sock Monkey's Truth and Justice, and Tobias Rades├Ąter's Supercrew.

Of all these games, my favorites break down as follows:

Most Fun Actually Playing
  1. DC Heroes (in college--now out of print after the rules engine briefly returned as Blood of Heroes)
  2. Marvel SAGA (various times--now out of print)
  3. Supercrew (currently with my kids)
  4. Superworld (back in the day--original out of print but the latest revision of Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying [BRP] includes rules for supers)

Best Comic Sourcebooks
  1. The Authority
  2. DC Heroes
  3. Marvel Superheroes (first version)
  4. Hellboy
  5. DC Universe
Best Original Setting

2. (tie) Mutants and Masterminds (Freedom City)
2. (tie) Silver Age Sentinels (Core book setting)
3. (tie) GURPS (the IST setting)
3. (tie) Champions (Aaron Alston's Strikeforce)
4. Truth & Justice (Three settings in back of book--all good, but short)

Favorite Rules Sets
  1. Mutants and Masterminds (Very Flexible, Simple Core Mechanic, Complex Well-Balanced Character Creation, Tons of Options)
  2. DC Heroes (Flexible, Simple Table-Based Core Mechanic, Handles High-Powered characters, Decent Options)
  3. Marvel SAGA (Great Card-based Core Mechanic, Simple but High Trust Character Creation, Fewer Options)
  4. Silver Age Sentinels (Just a little simpler in many ways than Mutants and Masterminds but not quite as robust)

Review: Authority RPG

A Higher Authority
The Authority RPG by Guardians of Order is a visually stunning superhero game set in the widescreen blockbuster comic-book world of the Authority. In addition to setting information on the Authority the game includes the full Tri-Stat rules set used in GOO’s Silver Age Sentinels game, along with stats for the d20 version of SAS. The Authority book itself is a 352-page full color hardcover with roughly the same dimensions as a typical graphic novel. It retails for $45, but I was able to find a new copy for less than half that on ebay, and when I checked last week it was still available at a discount on Amazon.com.

I think the Authority RPG is a great option for anybody wanting to capture the flavor of the comic, regardless of the rules set you use to play. It’s a nice resource for comic fans in and of itself.

The strong points of the book include:

  • excellent artwork and graphic design
  • loving attention to the world depicted in the first twelve issues of the Authority
  • a flexible game system whose features such as Dynamic Powers are particularly well-suited to the subject matter
  • setting specific chapters with thoughtful advice on playing and game mastering characters in the obscenely high stakes Authority setting
Potential pitfalls of the book include:
  • the looseness of the SAS game engine may frustrate some players
  • certain limitations of the roll-under mechanic really leap out when characters are rolling versus such high check numbers
  • in spite of the advice, playing characters at these extremely high power levels is undoubtedly tricky and not for the faint of heart
  • as I see it, the source material presents a mixed message that may be hard to reconcile in actual play
A Better World, or at Least a Prettier Game
Jeff Mackintosh’s gifted graphic design combined with Bryan Hitch’s exceptional art make for the most attractive superhero rpg I’ve ever owned. Almost every two-page spread in the book features one or more panels from the first twelve issues of the series. I counted a dozen full-page illustrations in the book, all of which are excellent.

Not only does this give the Authority RPG a “true” comic book feel that even undeniably stylish books such as SAS or 2nd edition Mutants and Masterminds can’t quite match, having most of the art (save for some pieces by comic artist John McCrea) done by a single hand lends a pleasing consistency to the book’s appearance that even professionally illustrated games like the most recent Marvel Universe RPG lack.

The running text is also well laid out, both utilitarian and easy on the eyes. Sidebars and boxed text feature white font on a pleasing deep blue or purple background. Text wraps around silhouetted art are clean. I even liked the font used for the headers. My only caveat is that the main text font, while crisp, is a bit small for my aging eyes. The book was justifiably nominated for the 2005 Ennies for best cover art and production values. Frankly I’m shocked that it was not nominated for best interior art as well, and that it didn’t end up winning anything.

The Not-So Secret History of the Authority
As a setting resource I found the game excellent. You get two chapters of setting material, 70 pages in all. It is focused almost entirely on the twelve-issue Warren Ellis/Bryan Hitch run that began the series, along with material from the Jenny Sparks: Secret History of the Authority limited series by Marc Millar and John McCrea.

Chapter 1 weighs in at 19 pages of text. It starts with a 1 ½ page rundown of the final events in the Stormwatch comic that preceded the Authority, including the Stormwatch Black trio of Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, and Shen Li-Min (Swift) that became the core of the Authority. Then you have synopses of each of the first 12 issues of the Authority, followed by synopses of each story in the Secret History of the Authority trade collection. The synopses seemed reasonably detailed and accurate, devoting space to describing the major action scenes as well as outlining the plot.

Chapter 2 is 51 pages, divided into character biographies and background on “the World of the Authority.” The team’s main characters (including the Carrier!) get two pages of discussion, as do major villains Kaizen Gamorra and Regis. These are followed by one-page entries for a variety of characters, ranging from Jackson King to the Koroshi Knife Warriors to Windsor, King of Sliding Albion. To be honest, I’m not sure some of these characters warranted this much descriptive text. Windsor gets more coverage here than he got in the actual comic, where he was quickly killed. Even some key members of the Authority, such as the Engineer and the Doctor, don’t exactly have a big backstory to cover. So you’re left with a certain amount of fluff and supposition about motivations and such.

Still, it’s hard to fault a book’s authors for being as thorough as possible with the source material. Note that you won’t find stats for the characters here—the Tri-Stat and D20 writeups are in the appendix at the back of the book. Instead you get a cute little bar graph at the bottom of each entry that rates a character on a scale from 1-10 in Body, Mind, Soul, Warfare, Damage, Resistance, and Power. As there’s no explanation of what the units on the scale represent, this graphic gave me no information that I couldn’t get from scanning the actual character writeups.

I got much more use out of the interesting and informative section on “The World of the Authority. You get a concise but helpful primer on the roles of the Kherans and Daemonites in the Wildstorm Universe. This is followed by an illuminating look at the attitudes and actions of the secret cabals that run the world of the Authority from the shadows. There’s a concise look at what Stormwatch was that leads into a snapshot of makes the Authority a different kind of superhero team. (You’ll get a more detailed look at this topic in the “Playing a Superpower” section later in the book.)

The section moves on to cover Gamorra, Sliding Albion, the Higher Dimensions where the Carrier roams, and a series of key Earthly locations from the series. My favorite parts of this listing were the “Aftermath” sections describing recovery efforts in each area directly impacted by the Authority’s actions. Basically this provides a paragraph or so of insight into just how London, Moscow, Los Angeles, Tokyo, or the Moon are coping with the aftermath of the events that took place there. It’s a nice touch when trying to figure out how the widescreen action of the Authority might influence the world over the course of a campaign. You also get some additional coverage of singular entities like the alien Outer God and organizations like the British Space Group. Good stuff.

Character Creation and Game Mechanics
The game engine here is essentially the same as SAS, with the use of 2d12 instead of 2d10. Ostensibly this is to give even the extremely high-powered Authority style characters some chance of failure using the roll-under resolution mechanic. Frankly, d12s seem like a weird dice choice to me.

The resort to d12s is an attempt to deal with a real potential problem when the check values are this high in a roll-under system: the players are rarely going to fail at much of anything that doesn’t involve large negative modifiers. This is probably as it should be given the powerhouses they are intended to emulate. However, it also means that any bad guys they face with similar levels of power are rarely going to fail on their defense checks. This means keeping track of the Margin of Success for both sides in every exchange, which is a bit tedious.

I could tell you more, but to be honest, the SAS game engine has already been pretty thoroughly review on rpg.net.

I will say that I think the Dynamic Powers or Power Flux options of SAS are some of the only ways to model the unusual and wide-ranging talents of Authority characters such as Jack Hawksmoor, the Engineer, and the Doctor. And the examples from the comics given in this rpg have helped me a great deal with visualizing how something like Dynamic Powers might work in play, more so than the original SAS book did, to be honest. Still, you are best advised to write up a lot of optional power combos (Defenses, Special Attacks, and so forth) in advance to keep from having the use of such free form powers slowing down game play.

I Fight the Authority—the Authority Always Wins
Chapters 6 and 7 give you roughly 50 pages of helpful advice on “Playing a Superpower” and “Game Mastering the Authority,” respectively. This advice actually goes into much more useful detail than the source material itself.

In my view the initial Ellis/Hitch run remains the freshest and most entertaining of the Authority’s incarnations, before the characters became a bizarre, hyper-violent fusion of “we’ll just kill anyone who disagrees with us” attitudes and liberal power fantasies. (Having characters talk down to corporate chiefs, U.S. Presidents and other heads of state like naughty children became so overdone that it lost any real narrative impact. And I say this from a liberal’s perspective. YMMV)

At the same time, however, it has always seemed to me that there is a real disconnect in these first three story arcs between the stated purpose of the Authority and the actual content of the stories.

“Everything has changed—except for one theme that runs through the whole damn thing. This is about making a better world. It may well BE a world that’s suddenly gone nuts, exploded into a widescreen two hundred million dollar fantasy of skies full of super-bastards and The God of Cities standing side by side with a woman whose got nine pints of bacteria-sized machinery instead of blood . . . But these stories have always been about that thing that superhero stories never seem to get around to. Making the world a better place. The difference in The Authority is that they simply have to beat up over a thousand people an issue to do it. And what’s wrong with that?”
--Warren Ellis, from the letters page of THE AUTHORITY #1, quoted on p. 275 of the Authority RPG

This is all well and good, except the Authority don’t actually do anything BUT fight an homage to a pulp villain Fu Manchu, a genocidal alien warlord, and a huge Cthuluesque alien. None of these opponents require any dealing with gray areas whatsoever. No moral dilemmas, no subtlety, nada. The Authority TALKS about making a better world the way politicians TALK about building bipartisan bridges, but really they just go about kicking ass.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But if you have players coming from the world of the comics, they might be expecting cinematic blockbuster action. If they think of the Authority more in the context of what Ellis said he wanted to accomplish, they’ll want worldchanging more on the lines of what Aberrant tried to be. Doing BOTH is quite a challenge. Ellis didn’t pull it off, not really, and when Marc Millar started trying to tackle some of the social/political change issues on his run, he descended into superficial self-parody much faster than on his X-Men or Ultimates titles.

The rule set presented in The Authority RPG clearly favors big action. The GM and player advice does give useful tips on how to try to balance the conflicting messages of the Authority source material. “21st Century Questions” digs into questions lying beneath some of the people and events that the Authority encounters. There is a great discussion of how fame distorts the lifestyle of a superhuman in the 21st century and the various ways in which mere mortals will react to the members of the new pantheon walking amongst (or flying over) them.

In summation, I think this game is a great resource for anyone wanting to play in the setting of the Authority. I have some reservations about the SAS ruleset. I find it better than many superhero games out there but not as slick for my tastes as Mutants and Masterminds, but picking up this game made me want to give it a try once again.

Films vs. Written Fiction

One of the points beaten into my head at my first writing workshop was that an author needs to grab the reader's attention right from the start and give them a roadmap to guide them through the action that unfolds. Readers don't necessarily need the backstory, but they should have a clear idea of who the main characters are (or at least the viewpoint character), what the nature of the opening conflict is, and what is at stake.

I've just seen two very different movies, District 9 and Burn After Reading, that seem to disregard completely these guidelines.

In District 9, the audience sits through at least 20 minutes of mock documentary footage, including commentary from academic types sitting behind desks, before they get any sense of what the movie's plot is or even who the main characters will turn out to be. The whole movie is roughly 72 minutes long. If I were to read the equivalent number of pages to open a novel with as little an idea of what was going on, there's probably a 1 in 4 chance at best that I'd bother to keep reading to the end.

Now, I liked District 9 by the time the film had ended. The action starts moving, you start to identify with and sympathize with key characters, and it remains visually interesting throughout. But the entire opening is basically a huge infodump, the likes of which would get any manuscript hooted at in most workshops (based on having heard a LOT of workshop horror stories last week) and tossed into the slush pile at most publishers.

Burn After Reading shares a similar problem, except that instead of elaborating a complex social setting, it spends the opening minutes laboring over the plight of an unsympathetic character aimlessly facing a life crisis, who then fades into the background of the film. The entire bit could be dispensed with in two minutes of efficient cinematography and dialogue. And while the final scene of the movie is somewhat funny, overall it's just a meandering mess like so many of the Coen Brother's films, a bunch of slow-paced scenes interspersed with some intense action and filled with a lot of confused people. It's more like staged reality television than storytelling.

Though the two films shared very similar flaws with their beginnings, they left me with very different impressions by the end.

This got me to wondering: are the rules for opening sequences in films just that much different than the rules for openings in written fiction because with a movie you've got a captive audience? Who really walks out of a movie theater anymore after shelling out nearly $10 for a ticket? I've only walked out of one film in my adult life, the Thin Red Line.

As long as you end your film well, it seems that the opening can be rather aimless. People are investing less time in the experience than they are for even a short novel, after all, and may be more likely to forgive the time you wasted.

I've been reading McKee's famous book on scriptwriting, Story, and interestingly it doesn't seem to address this issue of different expectations anywhere. I find a lot of his advice useful, but on the other hand he seems much more impressed with the writing in the movies that he uses as examples than I am for the most part. I've never seen a movie whose story made the same impression on me as my favorite books. I've never seen a film adaptation of a good book that had anywhere near the power and beauty of the book. Even a lengthy, well-done graphic novel loses power and precision when translated to the film screen.

I don't question that writing a script is hard work, I just don't find the results to be as satisfying or rich in terms of narrative storytelling as other forms. A film script relies to an extraordinary degree upon our built-in fascination with images to gloss over the characters and plots in movies that simply don't hold up well under careful scrutiny and which would not pass muster in a serious novel without further explanation. I suppose part of the charm of films is that you have to bring your own interpretations to so many of them to make sense of the events.

On the other hand, I do enjoy the series format. Rather than see a television series I've enjoyed make the leap to the big screen (like Star Trek or Firefly), I much prefer to see a good film get expanded and developed over the course of many episodes and seasons until it becomes a richer, more satisfying storytelling experience. I'd be much happier if the bulk of the money wasted on big-budget movies got spent on developing high-budget television series with great casts and good production values--especially if they had sci-fi or fantasy themes.

First Workshop Experience

On August 15th I attended a sci-fi/fantasy/horror (speculative fiction, in general) writing workshop at Armadillocon 31 (their server seems to be having trouble, hence the indirect link) in Austin, Texas.

The pros:
  • If you attend the convention itself for both days, the additional cost for the workshop cost is quite minimal. I got my convention pass as a birthday present, but I believe it works out to an extra $10 for the workshop, which is quite cheap.
  • There are professional writers and editors participating in the workshop, so you can get their insight into your work. You can also talk to them as individuals about the craft of writing in general.
  • A lot of published speculative fiction writers in particular seem to have gone through the workshop experience at some point, so it is probably something you should try out.
  • The general approach of these workshops seems to be "kinder and gentler" than the brutal-by-reputation experience of something like the Turkey City workshop. Plus, you don't have to be a professional writer to attend.
  • It is interesting to read the work of other aspiring writers, especially if you perceive them to be at or above your level of ability.
The cons:
  • The actual time spent critiquing your particular submission is not all that long. I was the last person in my group to get critiqued and everyone--four other amateur writers, a recently published author, and a longtime sci-fi editor for Tor books--sort of rushed their way through commenting on my piece in about half a hour, which is not long given that six people were voicing opinions.
  • Regardless of how civil the experience may be, it is still very uncomfortable to sit silently listening to other people find flaws in your submission until everyone has finished and you get a chance to respond (the so-called Milford Method).
  • It can be hard to tell if people are criticizing aspects of your writing that they genuinely don't like, are trying to knock you down a peg to be competitive, or are just grasping at points to criticize. I think my group was pretty honest and fair.
  • If you're like me, it will feel very much like you spent more time critiquing other people's work with specific suggestions and questions than they did critiquing your own. This probably stems from my background as an editor and someone who gets called in to do rewrites of "broken" textbook material.
Was it a good experience for me? Upon reflection, which has taken me a week or so, I can offer a guarded YES. Was it an enjoyable experience? No, not really.
  • I was very disappointed in how people reacted to the chapter I wrote. It seems that there were a few more positives in the written comments on the chapter than in the verbal ones, but it took me a couple days to be willing to look at the written comments after the many perceived flaws in my chapter were enumerated out loud and in person.
  • Several things that people complained about regarding the chapter seemed to arise from either not reading carefully (such as missing a paragraph of dialogue discussing a character's motivation) or on odd personal biases (the word "Elf" just turned one person off, though there were no Elves in the chapter itself).
  • Nobody commented at all on certain framing aspects of the story that I was proud of and that other readers had enjoyed.
  • Everyone in my workshop noted a couple of clear mistakes in the chapter that needed to be addressed; one of which I had already tackled in a rewrite. This was criticism I needed to hear.
  • All but one person in my workshop also disliked the pacing of the chapter, a criticism I'm still struggling to evaluate. These readers thought the chapter opened too slowly and the main character took too long to spring into action. I wanted to work against the standard fantasy scenario of "protagonist leaping into conflict without weighing the consequences" by having my lead think about whether it was worth it to get involved. But this moral conundrum failed utterly to draw people in.
So the most useful lessons I got from the workshop were:
  • The workshop experience makes me personally uncomfortable. I don't mind critiquing other people, and the feedback I received suggested that I did so in the specific, positive and constructive way that I was aiming for--but this took a lot of work on my part to think through ahead of time. Being on the receiving end of blunter and more sweeping criticism from others was really unpleasant. I'd much prefer it in a situation that wasn't face-to-face.
  • It is far better to submit a complete short story to a workshop than a chapter of a longer work, because the entire story can be evaluated and the reader has to guess less at motivations and conclusions.
  • You can't introduce moral dilemnas for a character that the readers haven't invested themselves in yet.
  • You have to establish the sense of place and atmosphere in a speculative piece very early and continue to build upon it.
  • Subtle hints about events apparently require a defter touch than I currently possess, at least for openings. Establish clear motivations and provide clear explanations right off the bat.
  • I probably need to be more concise about internal motivations and less concise about external descriptions.
  • In general, if readers don't see the key information that you've provided to help them navigate a scene, then you've buried or poorly worded that information. Just because it is there doesn't make you right if a majority of the readers don't see it.
So on the one hand I learned from the workshop. On the other hand it did not inspire me to write and in fact made me question my motivations at length. I can't imagine what something like the Turkey City workshop experience would be like; it sounds awful.

In general I don't like the "tear someone down and see if they can survive it" or "toss them in to see if they can swim" training scenarios. A lot of people call this "tough love" or "brutal honesty." I think it's an approach supported primarily by socially inept people obsessed with a pseudo-Darwinian idea of natural selection or by people who don't actually want to teach anything, just to weed out the weak.

I prefer the "establish someone's limits, then encourage them to surpass those limits by offering encouragement and incremental goals that they can achieve." This is probably a mindset I got from physical fitness training, where you clearly get better physical and psychological results by guiding people to succeed at repeated, incrementally greater challenges rather than by pushing them to repeated failure. So in this case, try to guide the writer of a weak story toward improving the piece that they were trying to write so that it does a better job of doing what they wanted it to do. Then push/encourage them to do MORE than they originally wanted.

I do think the Armadillocon workshop was built somewhat along the latter lines, but it was too short to accomplish a great deal. That's just a fact of life and not intended a dig at the organizers. Limited time and money get you limited results.

I can't say that the experience made me eager to try to seek out a local workshop group. I have doubts that I could find many speculative fiction writers in my area in the first place and even more doubts that such a group would be constructive.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Writing Plans for Novel

PHASE I--Now until after Labor Day, 1-2 hours a day available at most
  • SETTING CONSOLIDATION: [Already started.] Sort through all my various setting docs and magic ideas and such and make some decisions on what to stick with. Then consolidate info and plug it into setting docs with a specific organizational scheme: Culture (Green Kingdoms, Dragon Dominions, Awakened Cities, etc.), Subject (Art, Clothing, Food, Law, Magic, etc.), and Locations (Caprice, Rocassa, the Valley, etc.). There will be duplicate information in different places, but I will be able to look at the most pertinent document when I'm trying to recall details for a scene. For now I'm focusing just on those areas that appear in the outline I'm creating, leaving the other regions for later. This will be an ongoing process over the next few months--the goal here is to create a framework and organize what I have already created, adding ideas as inspiration strikes.
  • CHARACTER BIOGRAPHIES: [Notes collected.] Start collecting the notes I have on characters and creating brief character overviews from them.
  • PLOT OUTLINING: [Off to a good start.] Outline the new "Book One" that opens the novel, going chapter-by-chapter and scene by scene. For each scene, identify how it develops character, setting, and plot (or note if it doesn't). Look at existing notes and rough out the later chapters in the novel.
  • DEADLINE: Complete Phase I by Sept. 1
PHASE II-Once the kids are back in school
  • WORKLOAD/WRITING GOALS: If I don't have a freelance assignment, write as if my fiction were my freelance assignment, shooting for four hours a day Monday through Friday [2000 words a day target, 10,000 words per week]. If I do have an assignment, try for one hour of writing a day six days a week [500 words target, 3,000 words per week]. Stop writing before I have exhausted ideas for that scene so that I can start fresh the next session.
  • WRITING CHAPTERS: Start writing chapters in Book One. Try to finish one draft of all the chapters before beginning revisions. Send out chapters in one chunk to Aaron, Becky, Lisa, and my Mom.
  • SETTING DEVELOPMENT: Continue developing ideas for setting areas and subjects not yet addressed in the chapters but present in the outline. Do this on weekends. If I get stumped while writing scenes or chapters, keep writing by shifting to work on setting or character development docs. But this should not be the focus.
  • CHARACTER: Same as above. I expect characters to develop in their own fashion and the need for some new characters to arise as I write.
  • PLOT OUTLINING: Update outline for Book Two when I have completed a once-revised draft of Book One. Write a one paragraph and one page Snowflake outline for the entire novel.
  • DEADLINE: The ideal deadline, if I am not working on a freelance project, is Oct. 9th for completion of Phase I. The deadline goal if I am working on a freelance project is November 27th.
PHASE III--After sending out Book One manuscript to readers
  • WRITING GOALS: Same as Phase II
  • SETTING DEVELOPMENT: Take a break for a week from writing the narrative and go back and refresh all the Setting and Character documents with ideas that emerged from writing the Book One manuscript.
  • WRITING CHAPTERS: Try to write the beginning and ending chapters of Book Two first. Then go back and start writing the rest of the chapters from the beginning. Again, try to complete a first draft of all chapters before revising any of them. I expect Book Two to be roughly twice as long as Book One.
  • READER COMMENTS: Hopefully the Reader comments for Book One will arrive before I have finished the Book Two manuscript. Incorporate relevant Book One Reader Comments into revision of Book Two manuscript. When Book Two revision is complete, send outBook Two manuscript.
  • PLOT OUTLINING: Update outline for Book Three when I have completed a once-revised draft of Book Two. Revise the one paragraph and one page Snowflake outline for the entire novel as needed.
  • DEADLINE: I still need to flesh out the outline for Book Two more before I can set a better goal. Right now my estimate for the ideal goal for the Book Two deadline would be by Christmas. The working deadline goal would be by my birthday, March 3 of 2010.
Phase IV--After sending out Book Two manuscript to readers
  • WRITING GOALS: Same as Phase III
  • SETTING DEVELOPMENT: Same as Phase III
  • WRITING CHAPTERS: Again, try to write the first and last chapters of Book Three first. Then go back and continue writing from the beginning.Once complete, one stage of revision is allowed before sending the chapters out.
  • READER COMMENTS: Hopefully the Book Two Reader comments will get back by the time I have completed Book Three. If not, send out Book Three anyway.
  • PLOT OUTLINING: Create a file with plot and character issues that can continue to build from the end of the novel toward the next novel. Revise the one paragraph and one page Snowflake outline for the entire novel as needed.
  • DEADLINE: I still need to flesh out the outline for Book Three more before I can set a better goal. I also can't imagine that I will get this far without having freelance projects intervening. So the ideal estimate becomes very tenuous. Right now my estimate for the ideal goal for the Book Three deadline would be by March 3, 2010. The working deadline goal would be by May 1, 2010.
Phase V--After completing the first draft of the novel
  • REST: Take a break of a couple weeks if desired. Maybe read a couple of the guides I have on manuscript revision and novel writing during this time.
  • INCORPORATE READER COMMENTS: Do this for all three Books of the novel. Should have Reader Comments for the first two Books by this stage.
  • UPDATE SETTING & CHARACTER DOCS: Do this while incorporating the Reader comments for all the chapters.
  • MANUSCRIPT REVISION: Go through chapter-by-chapter and revise the novel as necessary for clarity, style, plot development, and so forth.
  • OUTLINING: Revise the one paragraph and one page Snowflake outline for the entire novel as needed. Create one paragraph and one page Snowflake outlines for the second novel in the series.
  • DEADLINE: See note for Phase IV. At this stage, there is no real ideal novel revision goal, because I don't know what issues will arise. So it goes back to the target goal, which is to have a full revision of the complete novel manuscript ready to send out by August 15th, 2010, which gives me anywhere from 3-5 months (cheating toward having less time as opposed to more time) to complete the draft.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: How to Raise and Keep a Dragon

This is a delightful book with charming color illustrations of Dragons of many types.

Part 1, Should You Own a Dragon? walks the reader through a series of fundamental questions that bear consideration before adopting a dragon. What is a Dragon, Reasons to Raise a Dragon, Some Cautionary Considerations, and A Checklist of Intent.

Part 2, Dragon Breeds, devotes a two page spread to each of the following dragon types: Asian Dragon, Cockatrice, Dragon of India, Drakon, Toppa Dragon, Multiheaded Dragon, Mushussu, Piasa, Rainbow Serpent, Salamander, Sea Dragon, Standard Western Dragon, Tarasque, and Worm.

Each spread includes a nice full-color illustration of the Dragon breed, accompanied by a small numbered legend identifying key features. In addition, there is a color sidebar that includes a locator map showing the breed's home, an illustration of its egg, a picture of a skin swatch showing the texture, and, in perhaps my favorite touch, a b/w drawing showing the Dragon breed in question next to a person or other object to give you a sense of the scale. Along with this you get a paragraph of descriptive text on items such as Pedigree, Habits, Special Care, and Temperament.

Part 3, Raising the Perfect Dragon, has sections on how to choose your dragon (my favorite is a two page spread showing a red dragon and enumerating the things to look out for as signs of ill health when inspecting a dragon, such as dull eyes, coughing or sneezing, constricted nasal passages, cracked claws, and so forth). You also get notes on indoor and outdoor habitats, necessary equipment, shipping the dragon, hatching the egg, feeding, and grooming.

Part 4, Training Your Dragon, gives tips for both small and large dragons. I liked the thought that went into the types of harnesses and rigging that would be appropriate for a Dragon. There are sections on riding dragons on land, sea, and air.

Part 5, Presenting Your Dragon, has tips on showing the Dragon, what judges look for, and resources. My favorite bit here was on renting one's dragon out as a model for heraldic artists.

The book concludes with a fun bibliography, in which real and imaginary books are intermixed (the fictional ones marked by an asterisk as being available through Dragons Unlimited magazine).

All in all, a fun book that presents a wide range of dragons from around the world illustrated in a clean style and accompanied by some clever ideas sprinkled throughout. Both my seven-year-old son and my ten-year-old daughter devoured it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Review: Intelligence (A Very Short Introduction)

This volume in Oxford University Press's Very Short Introduction Series is written by Ian J. Deary. Like other books in the series, it's essentially an introduction to the study of the topic, in this case human intelligence, with an emphasis on tracing the key historical debates in the field and summarizing the views of recent scholarship.

More so than the other books in this series that I have read so far, this volume tends to organize each chapter around summarizing one or more studies related to a given theme and then pointing the reader to further works. By this I mean that I didn't come away from the book feeling as though I had read a unified narrative so much as a collection of articles on various broad topics.

The chapters didn't really feel as though they were building upon the previous chapters--I felt very much as though I could open the book at any given chapter and start reading. Also, the key point of each chapter tends to be pretty short when you come right down to it--the bulk of each chapter seems to be occupied by recapitulations of the studies that were conducted. And those studies themselves are heavily biased towards standardized intelligence tests and studies of intelligence tests. But you don't get a very informative sample or description of the content of any of these tests. As such, this volume wasn't quite as interesting or satisfying as some of the other books.

Here's the Table of Contents (I've actually used the sub-headings for each chapter, as they are more informative as to that chapter's contents):
  • How Many Types of Intelligence Are There?
  • What Happens to Mental Abilities As We Age?
  • Why Are Some People Cleverer Than Others?
  • Are Differences A Result of Genes or Environment or Both?
  • Does Intelligence Matter?
  • Is Intelligence Increasing Generation After Generation?
  • Psychologists Actually Agree About Human Intelligence Differences
Chapter 1 is interesting. It glosses over Howard Gardner's theories of multiple intelligences as being outside of the scientific mainstream, though it does refer readers to Gardner's work. This was intriguing to me because Gardner's work is so influential on current American K-12 educational theory and practice.

The chapter =begins by noting that intelligence tests indicate one extremely broad category of intelligence (general intelligence) that is then divided into four broad areas of ability: Verbal Comprehension, Perceptual Organization, Processing Speed, and Working Memory. Each of these encompasses a smaller set of sub-abilities. For example, Perceptual Organization can be tested in terms of picture completion, block design, picture arrangement, and matrix reasoning.

The chapter also introduces another way of categorizing intelligence, developed by John B. Carroll: broad visual perception, broad auditory perception, fluid intelligence, broad retrieval ability, crystalized intelligence, broad cognitive speediness, general memory and learning, and processing speed. But to know what any of these categories actually mean, you'll have to look elsewhere for descriptions of Carroll's work. Overall, an interesting introductory chapter that lays out some of the key concepts.

Chapter 2 boiled down to one salient point based upon the most recent research (though as with everything in the intelligence testing field, there's no clear consensus): as you get older, your mental processing speed slows down. This slowdown tends to cause a domino effect in your cognitive ability and reduce your general intelligence in areas related to how fast you think. Less time-dependent processes don't reflect this decline. And some people hold onto their mental acuity better than others. Not a really gripping chapter, though it raised some fear in me as I age.

Chapter 3 doesn't really provide an answer to the question of why some people are smarter, it just summarizes the competing views on the subject. Larger brain size corresponds slightly with higher intelligence scores, but not enough to explain everything. The size and structure of different parts of the brain correspond to different talents. It could be the electrical activity between neurons in the brain, but studies are inconclusive. The chapter also cites studies that enforce something that seems totally dubious to me: that increased reaction time correlates with higher intelligence. I played sports a good bit through high school and college, though strictly as a dabbler with slight talent. I did play alongside a number of people who were highly rated athletes, however. Some of them had astonishly quick reflexes and reactions. And I saw absolutely no evidence that these people were smarter than the average bear. So I need more convincing on this one. This chapter would have been more interesting if any of the studies had reached any interesting conclusions.

Chapter 4 surveys a number of studies and boils down to the somewhat uncomfortable conclusion (if you're a parent or interested in adoption) that genes account for more similarity and variation in intelligence scores than any other factors, including shared environment (school, community life, parental upbringing) and unique personal experiences. But no one knows just what genes code for general intelligence or its sub-categories. The explanations of how the studies were carried out fell flat for me here, bogging down what would otherwise have been an interesting chapter.

Chapter 5 uses a number of studies to come to the interesting conclusion that a higher score on a generalized intelligence test correlates more highly with better job performance than any other evaluating method in common use (including structured interviews, samples of relevant work from the applicant, job experience, age, and so forth). The recommendation is to give applicants a standardized IQ test, a structured interview, and something called an integrity test to get the best possible result. Which will still be a best guess, of course. I for one wanted to know more about what an integrity test is and how it works, but that's outside the bailiwick here. No mention here of whether higher general intelligence assists in any other areas of life. This chapter was interesting more for the topics it introduced but did not explain than for what it revealed, but it was okay.

Chapter 6 is, after chapter 1, the most interesting chapter of the book in my view. According to all the standardized IQ tests, including those that deal with abstract reasoning seemingly devoid of a cultural context, people in many different countries are getting progressively smarter. But at the same time we have SAT scores and the like dropping. No one is sure what this means: are people getting smarter, or are we somehow indoctrinating each successive generation with greater proficiency in the types of thinking and problem-solving that the tests measure?

Chapter 7 summarizes what psychologists actually agree upon concerning education, which essentially consists of agreeing on what they don't know:
  • Genes influence intelligence in an unknown fashion
  • Environmental and nutritional effects on intelligence are unknown
  • Nobody knows why intelligence scores are increasing
  • Nobody knows why different groups tend to score higher or lower than others
  • We don't know enough about other mental abilities like wisdom, creativity, etc.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What's Fair Game When Writing?

In the specific sense of, "What aspects of your life and the lives of the people around you are fair game for including in your writing, be it fiction or nonfiction?"

Based on a great deal of what I've read, the answer for many established writers is: EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING!

It does seem to me that a lot of the most powerful writing is greatly informed by the personal life and relationships of the author. On the other hand, how often do the writers have the explicit or implicit permission of those they write about to use their personal interactions as the basis for a story?

Now, a lot of people will just say, "if you're talking about your own experiences with someone else, events and people from your own life, then you own those experiences and you should feel free to write about them." And I agree with that in principle. Everything is supposed to be grist for the mill.

But what about the effect of such borrowing from real life on the people who were borrowed from? Any good character has to have a range of emotions, motivations, and thoughts--in other words, they need to have some flaws and make some mistakes. Inherent in any such depiction is the chance for the person being portrayed to be offended, perhaps due to a misinterpretation or maybe because an uncomfortable truth is being exposed. At the very least it raises questions about how the author views that person.

If you care more about the honesty and depth of the work you're writing than about the feelings of the people you include, then this isn't an issue. But I can't say that for myself. There are parts of my life and people in my life that I won't write about or even try to consciously draw inspiration from. And I feel that's a healthy approach, both in terms of my own mental well-being and the continued enjoyment of relationships that matter to me.

But I don't know if this implies that I don't care enough about the process of writing. I do think it suggests one reason why I'm so engrossed in speculative fiction--there's more room for imagination and variations in setting to conceal the source of characterizations and events. That's a more comfortable zone for me to operate in.

Nurturing Creativity

My friend Aaron sent me a link to this video of author Elizabeth Gilbert speaking at the TED conference. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and is a conference aimed at bringing together creative minds and speakers from fields that might not normally intersect with each other. Well, maybe I should let them explain what it is that they do.

Gilbert is yet another internationally famous author with whom I'm unfamiliar. I don't even have the excuse of my parochial monolingualism, since she's an American writing in English. For someone who reads as much as I do, I seem to be unfamiliar with a lot of best-selling writers. This can probably be taken as an omen concerning any future success I might have.

That said, this is a good presentation with some insightful and valuable ideas. Gilbert begins by addressing the question of why artists, writers in particular, collapse so often under the burden of their success. (And who knows how many are crushed by the anonymity of their failure?)

She suggests that there is too much pressure placed on writers by society and by the writers themselves. Specifically, the idea that suffering and creativity are somehow linked together. Also the idea that once someone creates a masterpiece, everything they do after that will be weak by comparison.

She offers the idea, inspired by classical ideas about Genius and daemons, that creative types may be occasionally touched by genius that comes from outside them. The best idea is to embrace this gift when it comes and to simply keep working when it doesn't, recognizing that being struck by a bolt of inspiration even once in a lifetime is a miracle to appreciate rather than a curse or burden to live up to.

I think there is a lot of merit to this concept, particularly if you consider the possibility that human beings exist within a network of ideas and events, a rich environment that bombards us constantly on subconscious as well as conscious levels. Who knows what inspiration might emerge from such an unpredictable and heady broth? We can try to control some of the factors, but I think the best we can do is stay as positive and focused as possible on the creative goals that matter most to us.

Anyway, she says all this better than I summarized it, so check out the video.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Review: The Revolution Business

As the cover tells you, The Revolution Business is "Book Five of the Merchant Princes" series by Charles Stross.

On the surface, this series deals with the adventures of an American journalist named Miriam who discovers that she is part of a clan of worldwalking merchants from an alternate medieval North America settled by Norse colonists. She has the ability to walk between her world (which is almost, but not quite, the same as modern-day America) and that of the so-called Gruinmarkt. She has to survive contact with the hereditary aristocracy of her family and the efforts of the American authorities to shut down the operations of the Clan (which makes most of its money by acting as drug traffickers smuggling contraband between locations in Miriam's world by picking it up, disappearing into the Gruinmarkt, taking the goods where they need to go, and then reappearing in Miriam's world once again.)

But things quickly get much, much more complicated than that.

Turns out there are three alternate worlds, not two. And then there are more. Miriam sees the weaknesses in the economic model of the Clan just as the U.S. uncovers what the Clan is and what it is up to and decides to shut them down. At the same time, there's a revolution taking place in world three, one where the English colonies never gained independence (until now). This world is at a late Industrial Revolution level of technological development but with a very restrictive constitutional monarchy in charge.

Stross uses this set-up on one level to compare and contrast the social, economic, and political differences between three different stages of historical development: late medieval, Industrial Revolution, and modern high-tech. In my view you get the heaviest economic comparisons between the modern world and the Industrial Revolution one and the strongest social comparisons between the modern world (via the character of Miriam) and the medieval one. Political comparisons crop up in both.

The key to the entire series is that Miriam's appearance is the first domino that begins to upset the status quo in the North America of three different worlds, leading to social disruption and violence ranging in scale from the very personal to the very public and massive.

Stross introduces a really wide range of characters. I think he's to be complimented for having so many smart, capable female characters in the modern and medieval societies (this is much less evident in the Industrial Revolution culture). The economic and political theories cropping up in the stories remind me in some ways of Ian McLeod's work, except that Stross's personal political-economic leanings are much less clear, whereas McLeod throws his hat in pretty clearly with the socialists and communists.

Stross does a very good job of keeping the action moving briskly in spite of the undercurrent of intellectual concepts. There are passages where the storyline is almost dizzying in the knowledge that Stross displays as he jumps from modern government and military joint task force operations complete with all the jargon and lingo to medieval marriage brokering to theories about how the worldwalking ability works in terms of biology and physics.

I find all the books to be a fast, engaging read. In this one, a civil war in the medieval world comes to an apparent(?) climax with the unintentional assistance of a black ops government program in the modern America, which in turn leads to a new role for Miriam, a new movement within the Clan that is trying to break its old customs and install a new economic model, and a deadly state of war between two societies that on a fundamental level fail to understand each other. As a backdrop to this, the revolution is fully underway in the Industrial Age world and a fourth world offers tantalizing and frightening hints at the possible origins and nature of the worldwalking ability.

The positives are:
  • Fast pacing, very believable details of intelligence operations, espionage, criminal organizations, small-unit tactics, firefights, and political infighting
  • Interesting socioeconomic ideas and comparisons--the setup allows for very different cultures and economies to exist literally right next to each other with a deus ex machina that allows members of each to interact and comment upon the other in a limited form.
  • A number of very engaging characters, including Miriam, Brilliana, Olga, Iris, Duke Angbard, Erasmus, and Huw. And a number of people you'll love to hate, including Dick Cheney. Seriously (though he hasn't shown up in person yet, just as a force behind the scenes.)

However, the novels share some shortcomings.
  • They end as cliffhangers. This can be very frustrating when you've got to wait a year or more to read the next book in the series.
  • There are a LOT of characters and subplots to keep track of, enough to be confusing even if this was one big novel (like an Neal Stephenson opus) rather than five shorter novels.
  • Characters and entire subplots (like the mysterious Lost Family of the Clans, who I didn't even mention in this novel because they appear a couple of times to move the plot along, act a bit mysterious, and then disappear) appear in one novel and then disappear for most of the next, making it even harder to follow.
I recommend the series, but I think this is one where I will be collecting copies of all five books so that I can read through them again at some point in one sitting and keep better track of just what the heck is going on. A lot is happening, but unlike some series of this sort I feel like the majority of what is taking place does make sense if you sit down and look at it, which is an impressive accomplishment.

I like these books much more than the Jennifer Morgue series from Stross, which deals with an British intelligence agency that mixes mathematics with magic while facing supernatural threats clearly derived from the Cthulu Mythos. I just these novels more interesting and accessible and the characters a bit easier to relate to. And compared to Stross's far future science fiction, the concepts in the Merchant Princes series are MUCH easier to digest, if a bit less, well, revolutionary in concept.