Tag Archives: review

644. Annotated Nostalgia

A few mementos from a well
misspent childhood.

Here is your Christmas list for any young people in your life, assuming that you want to help them to move beyond Star Wars. This also assumes that they can get past the anachronisms that are inevitable in books which are about the future, but were written decades ago.

Some of these are great; others are painful to read if you have adult literary sensibilities, but won’t necessarily be painful for kids.

It is nearly certain that some modern kids will find these intolerably restricted to reality. It’s your call. I’m just providing the list I promised in post 642. And since a simple list would be useless, I am adding annotations.

Tom Swift — Various characters named Tom Swift have been around in multiple incarnations, so let’s sort out their checkered history.

From 1910 through 1941, TS the original made inventions and had adventures that are basically unreadable today. If you want to see for yourself, try kindle.

From 1954 through 1971, Tom Swift Jr., the original TS’s son, did the same thing. These are the ones you are most likely to see. They were my bread and butter before I discovered libraries, but now I find them painful to read, although the inventions themselves are still great.

From 1981 onward, there were fourth, fifth and sixth series, about which I know almost nothing.

Tom Corbett — Tom Corbett Space Cadet never came to the hobby shop where I bought my early books, but I got a copy just a few years ago to give it a try. I couldn’t summon the energy to get very far without the added impetus of nostalgia, but it seemed better written than TS, and the protagonists actually got out into space. You see them occasionally in used book stores. There is an additional tidbit below.

Rip Foster — This is a single book with multiple names and is a forgotten gem. None of the other books on this list come close to its quality. See A Forgotten Classic, which also has details on where to get it.

The Heinlein Juveniles — Between 1947 and 1958 Heinlein wrote a dozen novels which were marketed as juveniles. I read the last ten. They are almost universally praised as the best in SF juveniles; I concur in that judgement. See 311. Boys at Work: Starman Jones.

Here is a double tidbit of trivia. The success of Heinlein’s juvenile Space Cadet helped Joseph Greene turn an unpublished radio script into the Tom Corbett Space Cadet series. Greene also later wrote the Dig Allen series, below.

Bullard of the Space Patrol — Copies of this book have been rare. I bought mine during the fifties at a stationary store that also sold a few odd books, but lost it over the years. Once I was an adult, I tried to find a replacement. After ten years I saw one copy in an antique store for a price I couldn’t afford, and ten years after that I found the copy I have now. In terms of quality, BotSP is second only to Rip Foster and ranks above the Heinleins. Although you are unlikely to see a copy in your local used bookstore, you can buy it used or on Kindle at Amazon. Finding lost treasures is much easier in the age of internet.

It isn’t technically a juvenile because of its adult protagonist, but I thought of it as one when I was young. I plan to write a full post on Bullard some time in the future.

Dig Allen — This series of six novels was published between 1959 and 1962. They are well written and well thought out, and I loved them as a kid. However you have to be prepared to accept that the heroes are going to find intelligent life everywhere in our solar system. Check at the very bottom of this post for more information.

Mike Mars — File these under blatant exploitation, but they were still a lot of fun. Published between 1961 and 1964, these books parallel the early manned space program. The premise is that there was a program called Quicksilver, using very young pilots, which did what Mercury did, but sooner and in secret. Anyone who thinks Area 51 houses dead aliens would have to love that.

Veteran SF writer Donald A. Wollheim was hired to knock these out (the first four came out in one year). They have something in common with Tom Swift Jr. in that half of each book is about the mission at hand and half is about chasing saboteurs and other baddies. Book five was my favorite because Mike got to fly the Dyna-Soar just before the real craft was cancelled.

Rocket Man and Starship through Space — If you find either of these, count yourself lucky. I read them in my high school library and have never seen another copy, despite decades of looking. They were written by G. Harry Stein under the pseudonym Lee Correy. They count as two of my all time favorites, despite the brainless ending of STS. See 194. Boys at Work: Lee Correy.

Rick Brant — I lived on Rick Brant when I was young, but it was a series based on then-contemporary cutting edge science, not SF of the future. As a consequence, it is extremely dated. As much as I would love to, I can’t recommend it for most modern kids, and their granddads already know about it. The Rick Brant series and the Rip Foster book were both written by Harold Goodwin under different pseudonyms.

==========

If you are looking at this post for your own nostalgic reasons, I suggest that you drop in on this Tom Swift info site and wander around. There you will also find a link to a sub-site on Dig Allen. I would go there at once as it may disappear. It doesn’t seem to be current and parts of it are already inaccessible, but it is a treasure trove.

642. The Green Fields of Mars

European Space Agency

First a note on timing. My normal Wednesday post will be pushed forward to Thursday to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 12.

I was a bright kid in a very small school, so sometimes they cut me some slack. In 1964 I was allowed to take both junior and senior English because there wasn’t much left for me to take, and they knew I was such a nerd that all I would do with this unexpected freedom was study harder.

As a result, I took senior English a second time the following year, not because I needed it, but because what else were they going to do with me? That was the year I wrote a long paper on “The Probability of Life on Mars”, based on such things as the advancing and retreating color changes during the Martian year. The scientists speculated on tough, low growing plants; I suggested tall grasses, because the changes persisted despite all those dust storms.

Life was good.

Then NASA sent out all those probes and took all the fun out of the solar system. Suddenly Venus was not a swamp where dinosaurs might lurk and if you wanted to dream of running your feet through alien grasses you had to go on out to planets around other stars.

Now exoplanet research is taking away the nearby stars from the realm of the imagination, and dropping them one by one into the crucible of reality. A pox on all your probes!

There is a reason for this rush of nostalgia. I love science fiction and I have been writing it for decades, but nothing has given me half as much pleasure as the books about space exploration I read when I was young. The good ones, that is. I’m going to provide an annotated list on November 18. It will be too long to append to this post, and the post between will be taken up by the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 12.

For years now, I’ve wanted to write some new space exploration juveniles/YAs, and I have worked out a few possible plots, but nothing seems to work for me. I also don’t see any good ones coming from anyone else. If you know of any, let me know.

I do see a lot of nostalgia. One fellow is writing a series of reimagined Tom Swifts, disguised as fan fiction for legal reasons. I won’t name him in hopes that he will continue to fly under the radar. I tried one and they aren’t bad.

George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozios have produced a pair of anthologies of new stories in the old style called Old Mars and Old Venus. John Michael Greer and Zendexor have a similar anthology called Vintage Worlds. I won’t be reading them since I have long since lost my taste for short stories, but I don’t see anything similar in juveniles — except for the one mentioned above which the courts may remove any moment.

Anyway, nostalgia isn’t the path to take. Today’s kids aren’t yesterday’s kids, and nostalgia is for my generation. What we need is juvenile/YA space exploration literature as good as the best of the old, but modern in outlook.

In one sense, it is remarkable that we don’t have a hundred good space exploration juveniles each year. Even the best imaginations of the past could not begin to equal what NASA has actually discovered in the last decades.

Perhaps the best thing to do is evaluate what worked then, that doesn’t seem to work now. These are the things which come to mind.

Most of the older books I loved were written before space exploration was a reality; only a few were written as things were happening. The death of exploration in 1972 has to be part of the problem, since the space shuttle and ISS were basically just politics, not exploration, IMHO.

All of the young protagonists in those old books wanted to become adults in a futuristic world. The need to become an adult — or at least get out from under the thumb of adults — hasn’t gone away, but the futuristic world doesn’t seem as accessible or as exciting as it once did. Dystopia rules the day, but that won’t last. It never does.

Education isn’t helping. Kids now put together robot kits that are no more individualistic than their soda and vinegar volcanoes used to be. What joy is there in that? Robots used to be laughed at, but kids still made them out of cardboard boxes and goldfish bowls. Now they are prepackaged and shoved down kid’s throats in middle school.

In the old stories, there was intelligent life everywhere in the solar system, and it seemed like those young people couldn’t step out of their ships without finding a new or lost race. Now there may be bacteria under a dozen miles of ice.

The old spaceships worked. They got places quickly. They didn’t have to put up with the utter stupidity of trying to explore the solar system in craft depending on burning gasses, essentially no different chemically from your kitchen stove. See post 402. Nuclear Spacecraft.

I’m sure that someone is going to solve this conundrum and there will be good new space exploration juveniles/YAs for another generation. I’m equally sure that they won’t be written by old fogeys. The people who will write them are in their teens and twenties now, and I hope they hurry, because I want to read them.

===============

My, my, how strange is life. I finished writing this post late afternoon of Oct. 7th. When I turned my computer on the following morning, the new EDGE newsletter was in the inbox. (EDGE published Cyan.) They were advertising a new book, The Rosetta Man by Claire McCague. It appeared to be a juvenile/YA. At least one of the quoted reviews said it had a “well crafted story, amazing hero’s and not one ‘bad’ word or adult activity!”

So I bought it and started in. It isn’t a juvenile/YA because the protagonist is an adult. That is a critical point that was simply assumed in the post above. It is good clean fun; it reminded me in that way of Michael Tierney’s To Rule the Sky. Either of these would be great for kids, but they aren’t juveniles. Perhaps we need a new category. Let’s call it IETCNHAAA, which stands for Innocent Enough to Cause No Heart Attacks Among Adults.

Then again, maybe not.

633. Good Books for Kids

When I was a child, I read as a child,
I thought as a child, I understood as a child:
but when I became thirteen,
I switched to Clarke and Heinlein.

That pretty much screws up 1 Corinthians 13:11. And it isn’t exactly true. When I was a child, i.e. about twelve, plus or minus, I read what was available, and it wasn’t always great. It was primarily science fiction and mysteries, by which I mean Tom Swift, Jr. and the Hardy Boys. You could buy them in a toy and hobby store on the main street of Coffeeville, Kansas, one of the towns we shopped in. There were no bookstores; there were libraries, but I didn’t know that yet.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate, which ground out novels for kids like Hershey’s grinds out chocolate bars, was actually the best thing that ever happened to rural American youth for most of the twentieth century. I read them, my grandfather read them, and kids were still reading them when the millennium rolled over. They weren’t very good. In fact, a lot of them were terrible, but they were there. For a kid out in the sticks who liked science fiction, the choice wasn’t Tom Swift or something from Arthur C. Clarke. It was Tom Swift or nothing.

When I started going to libraries a couple of years later, my possibilities were expanded, but it was still a small library. I read a lot of things that I would never have touched if more had been available. I read a lot of books meant for adults, but that’s the goal anyway. I also read books way below my level, because they were there.

I recently remembered a book I hadn’t thought about since those days, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Elanor Cameron. I was too old for it when I read it, but I still loved it, so much that I tried to find it again. No luck, but I did get a copy of the sequel.

I couldn’t read it. I could barely read it when I was thirteen, but if I had gotten to it when I was eight, I would have been in love.

That got me to thinking about what makes book a juvenile, as they were called then. The Mushroom Planet books would not have qualified. They were for children. Juveniles were for boys who were anxious to become men.

Of course there were juveniles for girls, but girls and boys were separate species in the fifties, so I can’t report on their books.

Heinlein did a lot of juveniles which I’ve already talked about. (See posts 311 and 513) My real favorite juvenile writer was Andre Norton, and I’ve done a few reviews on her as well. (For science fiction see posts 262 and 263, or others see posts 260 and 261.)

What Heinlein, Norton, and many other juveniles authors had in common was that their characters were not yet adults but were given adult roles by the author. The Heinlein characters were often learning a futuristic trade under an adult. Norton’s characters were often being stranded on an alien planet. Outdoors and with no other kids in sight — she was channelling my childhood.

Today’s young adult books seem to be quite different from yesterday’s juveniles. First, they are targeted for slightly older audience, and second, 2019 isn’t 1959. The audience itself is different.

I can’t imagine a modern kid reading the early Nortons I loved so much. With only slight exaggeration, those Nortons were about a young person alone in a wasteland, trying to survive the dangers of nature, and modern kids live in crowded cities trying to survive the dangers inflicted by the adults around them.

I wouldn’t want to be a modern kid, and I understand why the books of my childhood probably wouldn’t mean much to them.

I taught middle school for twenty-seven years and I tried to keep abreast of what was available for my students, but I’ve been out of that loop for a while. I used to go to every Scholastic book sale to see what was new and good. The answer — damn near nothing. The few good books the kids had to choose from were mostly reprints from way back when.

Those book sales were where I found Fog Magic by Julia Sauer. It’s a wonderful book but it was published in 1943. Later I found A Storm Without Rain by Jan Adkins published in 1983. That’s still almost four decades old. Both were time travel stories of the old style; that is, without a time machine. The kids just went back in time and never understood how it happened.

I also stumbled across a fine steampunk novel, before I really knew anything about steampunk. That would be Airborne by Kenneth Oppel, published 2004. At least we are getting into the right millennium.

Harry Potter? Tried it, couldn’t read it. Twilight and the Hunger Games? Don’t want to, and if you don’t know why, I could never convince you.

Good books for kids are rare. Fortunately they stay around forever.

Why didn’t I mention A Wizard of Earthsea? You can’t pigeonhole it as a juvenile or a young adult book. It’s literature. Buy it for your kids and read it yourself.

615. Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

Last night (August 2nd) I watched American Masters: Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. I was not looking forward to it, since PBS screws up so many of its programs. The advertisements didn’t help. They emphasized that “before Hogwarts there was Earthsea”, as if her work didn’t mean anything until Harry Potter imitated it.

It turned out to be an excellent program, balanced, praising her for her excellence and her importance to other authors like China Miéville and Neil Gaiman, but not suggesting that she single handedly made science fiction and fantasy great again.

I was afraid they would take the path of overreach — PBS tends to do that — but the presentation was closer to flawless as any one of us has a right to expect.

During the first twenty years of Le Guin’s career, I read her novels as they appeared. By the second half of her career, I had moved on to other things. After this presentation, I clearly have some catching up to do.

If Ursula K. Le Guin is someone you have only heard of, or perhaps planned to read someday, you should not miss the opportunity to view this presentation before it disappears back into the PBS vaults.

613. Cyan Remains

Late in 2015, I began this blog in order to drum up readership for my upcoming novel Cyan. ‘Upcoming’ turned out to be a long time, so I had placed quite a few excerpts by the time it was finally released. It received good reviews, 4.3 stars on Amazon and 4.6 on Goodreads, but it never found its audience.

Cyan is set in the near future and covers the discovery, exploration and colonization of a planet around a nearby star, portrayed as accurately as possible. In an age of novels about galaxy spanning wars, it is possibly out of fashion, but still an exciting, human, realistic story.

Here is your chance to find out for yourself why it deserved better. The opening chapter crowds in quite a bit of background before the excitement starts, but it will give you  a picture of what is about to happen.

Blatant plug — available on Amazon. You might as well get on with reading it, because I’m not going to stop talking about it

Chapter One:  A New Planet
CYAN
Standard Year 600
Anno Domini 2092

Driving in from the eternal night of interstellar space, the Darwin stood on its tail, chasing the kilometers-long plasma fountain of the Lassiter drive. Stephan Andrax and Tasmeen Rao had been working for weeks, and lately for thirty-one unbroken hours, to plot the orbits of Procyon’s planets and choose a course that would let their residual inertia carry them rapidly toward a favorable orbit. Now the torch was stuttering as they slipped deeper into the stars’ gravity well. Softvoiced exchanges between Stephan and Tasmeen were echoed by equally quiet observations by the other eight explorers.

Keir and Gus were manning the spectroscope, trying already to determine if Procyon A III’s atmosphere contained the gasses which would indicate life. Tasmeen’s husband, Ramananda, and Petra Crowley were canvassing the asteroid cloud that twisted its Möbius strip around the two stars, searching for any that might be mined for ice — fuel for the journey back. Above them the main viewscreen flashed successive visual reconstructions, multidimensional projections of varying parameters, and flashing strings of calculations as one or another of the pairs briefly preempted its use. Viki, Debra, Uke, and Leia stayed out of the way, watching the screen.

With a final shudder, the Lassiter torch cut out and, for the first time in over a year, they were weightless. In that same moment the masking effect of the torch ended, and Keir yelled, “We’ve got life gasses.” Overhead, unmistakable spectral lines showing hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon flooded the screen.

Spontaneous cheering broke out in the cramped control room.

Stephan switched to a display of the Procyon system. Much was still unknown, but the planets, moons, and major asteroids had already been mapped.

Procyon A, blazing with six and a half time the ferocity of Sol, was surrounded by three planets of her own. A torus of asteroids lay where a fourth planet would have been. Procyon B simmered, cold and shrunken by stellar standards, with half of Sol’s mass, three percent of its diameter, and less than one percent of its light. Snuggled in close were four tiny planets, all useless rock. A second torus of asteroids surrounded Procyon B.

The asteroid belts interpenetrated like two gears meshing, which excited Stephan no end. The prospect of seeing asteroids in collision was not merely likely, it was inevitable. Beyond the asteroids were five gas giants, none as big as Saturn, circling the paired suns in the frozen outer reaches of this complex solar system.

For a minute they looked at the system that would be their home for a year. Then Stephan switched to a real-time display of Procyon A III. It was only a faint disk, pulsing slightly as the computer worked to keep it in focus, but its pale blue color was unmistakable. Tasmeen, who had been too wrapped up in navigating to watch the unfolding story, said, “Keir, give us a quick update.”

“It’s a little bigger than Earth; a little higher gravity. It stands straight up in its orbit — less than a degree of inclination. Day, 40 hours; year, 1242 days — if you want to call it a year. There won’t be any seasons, so the equator and the poles will be uninhabitable, but the area about 45 degrees latitude should have good climate.”

Standing soldier-straight in its orbit, Procyon A III was a planet of small continents scattered across a huge, world-spanning ocean. The equator was chastely girdled with thick masses of steamy clouds, churning up continuous storms that would make a Terrestrial hurricane look like calm day. From ten to thirty degrees north and south, every island and continent was part of a world-spanning zone of desert, separated by hot, dead seas.

Uke asked, “What names did we draw?”

Ever since Neil Armstrong blew his lines, NASA had kept close tabs on what its explorers could bequeath to posterity. The computer contained several hundred “suitable” names for the planets they might find, but it would only give them ones matched to what they actually encountered. No one at NASA wanted a charred lump of rock to be named Eden, or for two planets to get the same name, and nobody wanted a planet named New Earth. Tasmeen keyed in a request, and fourteen names appeared on the viewscreen beneath the planet.

“What the…!” Debra began, then shut her mouth.

Gus chuckled. Petra said, “Someone certainly didn’t think much of our chances of finding an Earth-type planet.”

They were all the names of colors.

“Madder, umber, vermillion…” Keir read out in disgust. Then he stopped short, glanced up at the winking blue disk on the viewscreen, and said, “Cyan.”

“It’s the best of a bad lot.” Uke said.

“No,” Keir said, “it’s perfect.”

612. Zelazny Squared

Isle of the Dead, painting by Arnold Böcklin

Two of Roger Zelazny’s novels have been floating around in my interior conversations recently, Doorways in the Sand and Isle of the Dead.

A month or so ago I re-read Doorways in the Sand. It isn’t my favorite, ranking about half way down the thirty or so of Zelazny’s that I have read, but that still puts it into the top five percent of lifetime reads.

I was struck by how absolutely goofy its structure was. Every chapter starts in medias res, and then backtracks to fill it what the reader has missed. It is a common way of starting a fast moving novel, but in this case every chapter began with some kind of peril, then backtracked to fill in, extracted our hero from his trouble, and ended with things moving smoothly.

Weird — and I have to confess to a failure of imagination on my part. It took me forever to realize the trick Zelazny is playing.

He is taking us through the novel with serial style cliffhangers, but he is putting them at the beginning of each chapter instead of the end. It’s normally a technique to make a reader keep going so the writer doesn’t lose him, but Zelazny is forcing us to come to a full stop and start over (in terms of momentum) with each chapter.

It’s all inside out. And by the way, the machine that is central to the plot turns things inside out as well.

Zelazny likes to play games with us, and he isn’t afraid to skirt the edge of absurdity, assuming his readers will stay with him. The aliens who follow Doorways’s main character around are extremely not humanoid; to avoid being recognized, they wear disguises — a kangaroo, a wombat and a donkey, to name a few.

There aren’t very many writers who could get away with that without having me slam the book shut and move on.

Isle of the Dead came up when JM Williams asked for a book recommendation reciprocal to having cued me in to Small Gods. That lead me to re-read Isle for what would be the third or fourth time. What strikes me this time through, in view of discussions in recent posts, is Zelazny’s use of conversation.

Long before I was a writer, I read an advice-to-writers article titled “Multiply by Two,” which suggested that most fiction should start with two characters, because conversation is the easiest and reader-friendliest way of introducing a situation. I consistently ignore that advice — it doesn’t fit my personality — but I understand it.

You might think Zelazny is also ignoring that advice since Isle of the Dead opens with a long, philosophical monolog about Tokyo Bay. No, not really. This “monolog”, because of its loose, informal structure, is actually more of a conversation between author and reader. As in the following excerpt.

Of course everything in parentheses is an imagined reader’s response, which I have added to unfairly push my side of the argument about first person’s ability to snag the reader.

Life is a thing — if you’ll excuse a quick dab of philosophy (sure, go ahead) . . . that reminds me quite a bit of the beaches around Tokyo Bay . . . like Time . . . Tokyo Bay, on any given day, is likely to wash anything ashore . . . a bottle, with or without a note which you may or not be able to read, a human foetus, a piece of very smooth wood with a nail hole in it — maybe a piece of the True Cross (good, good) . . . it also used to be lousy with condoms (what?), limp, almost transparent testimonies to the instinct to continue the species (where are you going with this?) but not tonight (okay, now I get it) . . .

To be fair to Zelazny, the original, without all the ellipses and all my parenthetical comments, is much better. If you ever find the book and don’t have time to read it all, read the first three pages anyway.

This kind internal, self-referential conversation is storytelling within the storytelling. Zelazny excels at it. So does Louis L’amour, and Heinlein couldn’t write any other way.

Zelazny inhabits (I almost said owns) the shadowland between science fiction and fantasy. Trying to shoehorn his novels into either genre is futile. In Isle of the Dead, the protagonist and his opponent are a human and an alien, in purely SF fashion. However Sandow, the main character, is also a world shaper. In becoming one, he allied himself with one of the Named Gods of the Pei’an religion.

Gringrin, his enemy, is a Pei’an who didn’t quite make the cut as a world shaper. Why he didn’t is told two ways, one early and one late. Figuring out which reason is true it part of the mystery of the enemy’s motivation, and part of Zelazny’s skillful storytelling.

Are these Gods real, or psychological constructs that allow Pei’an worldshaping? Making a choice on that question would push Isle into SF or fantasy. Zelazny leaves it open, taking one side, then the other, leaving the question unanswered at the end. Meanwhile, the other 95% of the novel reads like pure SF. This is Zelazny’s basic MO.

Stripped to essentials, Isle of the Dead is the story of an enemy kidnapping loved ones, and the hero going to their rescue. Of course there is a twist at the end; Zelazny would never make it quite that simple. Nevertheless, the structure of Isle is extremely primitive. The novel’s charm lies in the telling. Given a choice between plot and style, I’ll choose style every time, which accounts for this being my favorite Zelazny stand-alone despite its somewhat disappointing ending.

604. Changeable?

They proclaim it in every “How to Write” book: your character should change and grow. Truthfully, it almost never happens in genre fiction. The fact is, it’s really hard to get that kind of story published, and for a very simple reason. The reader won’t read it.

If the final condition of the character is the goal, the starting point has to be in some way unsavory. Let’s make up an example. Let’s let Sibrov (that’s a name taken from Small Gods, but spelled backwards) begin as a wild-eyed hunter of heretics. That’s a fairly standard villain. If our hero is a heretic, running from Sibrov, we have a whole sheaf of stories open to us, none of which pose any structural problems. And none of which will call for our hero to undergo any real change in his character. 

However, suppose we want Sibrov as hero. He will have to have a change of heart; at the extreme end of the change he might end up the picture of peace and love. This creates a problem. How do we get our reader through the first three-quarters of the book — the part where our hero-to-be is a dirty sewer rat?

It’s tough.

It’s also not something I’m normally interested in. I don’t like super heroic characters; even the gods I’ve written are flawed. Nevertheless, I do expect my heroes to be at least staunch and reliable. Another word for that would be unchanging. Readers like that, too. That is why genre fiction is able to have so many series — the main characters remain largely unchanged despite all the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune puts in their paths.

Hamlet, part two, back from the dead. Nope, it just doesn’t work.

There are ways of making a character change in genre fiction without losing the reader. Terry Pratchett does a masterful job in Small Gods, although his method is not a template many writers could borrow. He introduces dozens of characters, gives us a flurry of sound and fury, and doesn’t make it clear at first who is or is not going to be alive a few chapters later. While we are distracted by all the interesting bastards and losers, our main character — who is a complete cypher at the beginning — starts changing slowly. By the time that he has become the focus of the novel, he has already begun to become interesting.

I like my page-people to be fully formed when we encounter them, and then to have their characters tested by the universe. I have only tried to make them undergo fundamental changes in two novels. Of course, this ignores the growth from youth to adulthood. That is a different kind of change, suitable for a different post.

In my latest book, Like Clockwork, two of my forgetful characters discover who they used to be and integrate those memories. Another discovers feelings she had suppressed and cures herself of them. Those aren’t real changes; they are simply cases of regaining a previous state.

Another character, Hemmings, actually changes. He is pretty much a nobody at the outset — an emotionless creature who follows all the rules because he has no strong feelings about how things ought to be. Over a thousand years — or the length of the novel — he “grows a soul”.

I enjoyed that, but I only got away with it because Hemmings was one of a cast of eight characters. I got to show him in short bits while he was still dull, and then could bring him on stage for longer incidents as the universe slapped him silly and he fought back, becoming interesting in the process.

If that sounds familiar, let me clarify:  I wrote Like Clockwork at least six months before I read Small Gods. If I had to pull the Hemmings story out of the larger novel to stand alone, no one would read it because it would be too dull at the outset.

The other time I made one of my characters really change was in the novel Who Once Were Kin. It is a follow-on to a fantasy series, and the title comes from a local proverb, “There are no enemies like those who once were kin.” If this were a cowboy story, the proverb would be, “Ain’t nobody who can hurt you like kinfolks”, which is a true statement, in my personal experience.

For my taste, this is the best book I’ve written, but from the viewpoint of publication, it won’t fly. The hero is a fine upstanding member of his community, but his community has some foul notions of sexual morality. We spend the first half of the book getting to know him, and coming to like him for all his positive qualities, while slowly coming to understand and hate his culture. Then things happen to destroy his serenity and to show him that his life so far has been a tragic mistake.

Anyone who would enjoy the manly, military, self-assured first half of the book would absolutely hate the second half. Anyone who would appreciate the second half, would never get through the first half.

Real change is a bitch.

The ms. resides in my hard drive, mocking me. I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to figure out how to change it without losing the qualities it has now. Maybe I should just put a disclaimer at the top:

Be warned, this book may give you moral and emotional whiplash.