Tag Archives: review

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.

603. Small Gods, Big Result

Small Gods, Big Result
also known as
Full-Fledged Characters, Where Are You?

I have a colleague, JM Williams, who is a great fan of Terry Pratchett. On his suggestion, I checked one of his novels out of the library, read five pages, and tossed it.  Yech.

A month or so later I mentioned the fact to him. He suggested that I might prefer to start on a different novel, and suggested Small Gods.

I was hooked by page two. The scene, or was it an allegory, of the eagle and the tortoise was wonderful, and I was ready to believe that Terry Pratchett might be all JM said he was.

By page 38, I wasn’t so sure again, and I found myself trying to analyze exactly what was missing — for me — in the novel. I do that a lot. If you write, I’m sure you know what I mean.

Roughly by page 200, I was back on board again.

I had came to a conclusion, and since it bears on writing in general, I’m going to expound. As with the responses I got from 601. Home Court Advantage, feel free to disagree.

At page 38 of Small Gods, there was no character I liked well enough to care if he lived or died. Still, interesting  things were happening and I wanted to know how they were going to come out. That is a positive mark for a writer who knows what he is doing, but it isn’t really enough.

By about page 200, I wanted Om to make it and I really wanted Brutha to make it. From that time on, I had a vested interest that kept me going with enthusiasm. If I read another Pratchett (and I probably will) that enthusiasm will be there from the start, now that I trust the author.

I had needed characters I could care about.

This is not the same as full-fledged characters. There is no such thing. Robert Caro just wrote a four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, and I’m sure he didn’t tell everything there was to tell. I read both parts of Patterson‘s bio of Heinlein and I still have questions.

If biographers who spend massive chunks of years don’t get it all, how can a fiction writer expect to have a “full-fledged” character. What does the phrase mean, anyway?

Om, Brutha, Vorbis, Simony, Urn, and Didactylos are all characters in Small Gods who are well thought out, powerful, and exactly sufficient to the task at hand. Not one of them is a “full-fledged” character, but they are each fledged exactly enough.

If you want to write full-fledged characters, maybe you should give up novels and write LITERATURE instead. (If WordPress allowed multiple fonts in one post, I would put LITERATURE in all curlicues.) Then you can out-Joyce Joyce if you want to, and still have readers.

They will have to read. There is a paper due next week, called for by the professor at the front of the room. He wants company in the misery of having been forced to read LITERATURE in order to get his degree.

In point of fact, there are powerful characters in literature and in genre fiction as well. The difference is in the expectations and tolerance of the reader. Powerful does not mean turning a microscope on his backstory and telling every detail.

Ursula LeGuin told us that science fiction is too small for Mrs. Brown, meaning there weren’t enough full-fledged characters. I listened. I respect LeGuin too much to ignore her, but after decades of considering her argument, it’s just smoke and mirrors.

I could (over)state in response, science fiction isn’t too small for Mrs. Brown; Mrs. Brown is too dull for science fiction.

Fiction, however humble or pretentious, is too small to contain any actual living human being. That isn’t what fiction is all about. Writers of fiction give a précis, a starting point, a few brief actions and emotions, and the reader fills in the rest. The reader draws on a full life of looking at other people, and at him or herself.

The real issue between literature and genre fiction is how many (and how dull) are the details the reader will tolerate.

Take Spenser (the detective, not the poet) for example. He has been around for almost fifty novels and, like Bond, has outlived his creator. After all this time we know a bit about him — actually, we may know all there is to know about him, and it isn’t much. Except for the interminable descriptions of food, all the details provided about him also move each story forward.

Recently I have worn out Spenser, Nero Wolfe and Archie, Judge Dee, Bony, Travis McGee and a dozen others, and have started Anne Cleves’s Shetland series. In my first attempt, I am having to get used to masses of detail about the lives of very ordinary people. I like it, but it is hard sledding; if I hadn’t visited Shetland and enjoyed the place, it would be even harder.

Cleves is a fine writer. My problem is a matter of expectations. Any detective writer in the list above would have finished Cleves’s novel in half as many pages, and the details left out would be the dull ones.

I like what I’m reading, really I do, but anything with this much detail about ordinary life has to be LITERATURE.

There will be more to say about all this on Monday.

HOLD IT – – – STOP THE PRESSES.

Something just came up as I was putting this to bed to wait for the 19th of June. It’s peripheral, but it struck me funny enough to put in a mini-post tomorrow. I will still say more about the main subject on Monday.

599. Wandering Quotes

This is a follow-on from Monday’s post, but it isn’t Part 2.
Either post can be read independently.

Louis L’amour left home early, wandered the world, then settled down to be a writer. Unlike many who came at writing later in life, L’amour was set on it from the first. He said:

My intention had been to write, and consequently I had made  no effort to acquire a trade . . . All I had to offer was considerable physical strength and two hands, but for most jobs that was all that was required . . . All the while I read. There was no plan, nor at the time could there be. One had to read what was available . . .

It would be hard to live such a life today. The hard work of the world has been outsourced — within America to undocumented aliens who fear INS too much to fight back against slave-like labor, and outside America, to a world-wide cadre of peasants, living slave-like lives. 

L’amour also said of his memoir:

This is a story of an adventure in education, pursued not under the best of conditions. The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office, or even a newsstand.

If L’amour were alive today, he would of course include the internet, with appropriate caveats.

L’amour’s westerns are full of slam bang action. There is no way to pretend that isn’t a large part of their appeal, but it isn’t enough to account for their huge popularity. There are plenty of shoot-em-ups that are briefly on the newsstand, and as quickly disappear from memory. Louis L’amour has proved as close to immortal as a genre writer can become.

I’ll take a stab at explaining why. Feel free to disagree. He was a “frontier philosopher”. Note the quotes; this term is actually insulting, but it fits. L’amour had read as widely as any author, and his understanding of human beings was profound. But when he made “philosophical” pronouncements, he couched them in simple language, and frequently put them into the mouths of uneducated characters. They sound wise, but without arrogance.

Have faith in God but keep your powder dry.

Adventure is just a romantic name for trouble. It sounds swell when you write about it, but it’s hell when you meet it face to face in a dark and lonely place.

A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.

Violence is an evil thing, but when the guns are all in the hands of the men without respect for human rights, then men are really in trouble.

Just because the NRA also says it, doesn’t make it wrong.

A mind, like a home, is furnished by its owner, so if one’s life is cold and bare he can blame none but himself. You have a chance to select from pretty elegant furnishings.

Knowledge was not meant to be locked behind doors. It breathes best in the open air where all men can inhale its essence.

When you go to a country, you must learn how to say two things: how to ask for food, and to tell a woman that you love her. Of these the second is more important, for if you tell a woman you love her, she will certainly feed you.

That one might not be politically correct any more.

It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense. For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.

Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.

Just because every New Age self-help book also says it, doesn’t make it wrong.

Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.

Do not let yourself be bothered by the inconsequential. One has only so much time in this world, so devote it to the work and the people most important to you, to those you love and things that matter.

If you want the law to leave you alone, keep your hair trimmed and your boots shined.

Okay, that last one could just as easily have come out of Heinlein’s mouth. I find those two authors to be much alike, each attuned perfectly to his own era, and both as American as the flag.

—- ALSO —-

When L’amour settled down to write, he tried his hand at many different genres, and stayed with the ones that paid the rent. Early on, he wrote poetry (and you know that didn’t pay the rent).

Many years ago I discovered that his poetry had been collected in a book that sold very few copies, and those only locally. I managed to get a copy on inter-library loan, and enjoyed it. I even copied a few poems and stored them in my computer, since I never expected to see the book again.

Then, in researching this post, I discovered that Bantam had reprinted Smoke From This Altar, so I immediately bought a copy.

If you have a liking for Kipling and Robert Service, you might give him a listen. The work is not all great, but there are gems. I can’t quote a whole poem, that would violate copyright, but I’ll give you a piece of one as a taste.

I turned the leaves of an ancient book
    A book that was faded and worn —-
And there ‘tween the leaves I found a rose,
    A tiny rose, and a thorn.

In truth, they aren’t all good, but I don’t mind digging through lumps of glass for an occasional diamond. Recommended, with reservations.

598. The Education of a Wandering Man

This is a fine book, but it falls into the not-for-everybody category. I stumbled across it years ago, read it, read it again a decade later, and its about time for me to have at it a third time.

The Education of a Wandering Man is an autobiography of Louis L’amour. It doesn’t revolve about where he went or what he did — although plenty of that creeps in — but focuses on what he learned. That includes from the old guys who were there, who told him what the west was like. It also includes from the books he read — a list that would make any book geek’s mouth water.

L’amour left home at 15 to make his way in the world. That would be 1926. One might be forgiven for thinking that the depression drove him to leave but the numbers don’t add up for that interpretation. The biography in his official website attributes it to hard times specific to his North Dakota home area, but the two biographies seem to diverge in details. That appears to be a matter of simplification, rather than concealment. Check Wednesday’s post for LL’s own statement.

The Education of a Wandering Man resonated from the moment I opened the first page. It sounded a bit like my own life. I didn’t leave home early, or leave school early, and I didn’t wander the world. I did start working about age eleven, pretty much full time plus school, but working on a family farm, sleeping in your own bed, and not going hungry does not describe L’amour’s experience.

The real similarity lay in being self-educated. I stayed in school through two masters degrees, but what I learned came mostly from outside the classroom.

Here’s what LL said:

Actually, all education is self-education. A teacher is only a guide, to point out the way, and no school, no matter how excellent, can give you education. What you receive is like the outlines in a child’s coloring book. You must fill in the colors yourself.

Yes, precisely. I went to tiny schools before college. The teachers worked hard, and I thank them, but ninety percent of what I learned came from reading beyond the textbook.

The Education of a Wandering Man is a feast. Here’s a snack to whet your appetite. First on education:

Byron’s Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea . . . Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro . . . Somewhere along the line I had fallen in love with learning, and it became a lifelong romance. Early on I discovered it was fun to follow along the byways of history to find those treasures that await any searcher . . . One thing has always been true: That book or that person who can give me an idea or a new slant on an old idea is my friend. And there have been many such.

Then on America, as L’amour saw it during his wandering days:

(B)efore the Depression, one must realize there was a great demand for seasonal labor, and much of this was supplied by men called hoboes . . . To begin with, a bum was a local man who did not want to work . . . but a hobo was a wandering worker and essential to the nation’s economy . . . During harvest season, when the demand for farm labor was great, the freight trains permitted the hoboes to ride, as the railroads were to ship the harvested grain and it was in their interest to see that labor was provided. Often this lot of wandering workers was mixed with college boys earning enough money for school or working to get in shape for football . . .
The Depression brought a different kind of drifter to the railroads and highways, and only one who bridged that period can grasp the depth of the change. The Depression hoboes had little of that carefree, cheerful attitude of the earlier hobo. They were serious, often frightened men.

You can read The Education of a Wandering Man several ways. It will tell you about the early life of a beloved author. It will give you a gritty, ground level view of the first half of the twentieth century that you won’t find in history books. It will give you an education in how to get an education. And it will give you enough wanna-reads to last a lifetime.

As L’amour said:

Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.

Yep, and thanks for this one, Mr. L’amour.

*    *    *    *

Louis L’amour wrote his novels until he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Then he finally took time to write his memoir. He was editing The Education of a Wandering Man the day he died.

590. The Road to Corlay

Cold curtains of November rain came drifting slowly up the valley like an endless procession of phantom mourners following an invisible hearse. From beneath an overhang of limestone a boy and an old man squatted side by side and gazed disconsolately out across the river to the dripping forest on the far bank. Suddenly a salmon leaped — a flicker of silver in the gloom and a splash like a falling log. The boy’s eyes gleamed. “Ah,” he breathed. “Did you see him?”

That’s a lot of description for an opening paragraph. Hemingway would have hated it, but it works perfectly to present the quasi-medieval setting and elegiac mood of The Road to Corlay.

The novel came out in paperback from Pocket Books in 1979. I read it some time that year and it made a permanent impression, so much so that I named it as one of my fifteen favorite books earlier this year. The impression, however, was of its quality and was not accompanied by anything like a scene by scene recollection.

I had to read it again, and I am glad that I did.

What appears between the covers of the Pocket Books version is a novella called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Hugo and Nebula nominee for 1977) and a short novel called The Road to Corlay. Together they tell one seamless story, but it will be easier here to talk about them separately.

Beware — I normally avoid spoilers but I can’t do it in this case.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is allegorical, but don’t let that put you off. Allegory is often just a lazy author’s attempt to achieve false profundity, but Cowper does it right. My personal test for allegory is, “Does the writing stand by itself? Would I like it as well if I didn’t know the story it mimics?” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn passes this test easily.

 It takes place on the eve of the new millennium, 2999 AD, in a post-flood England. The waters began rising in the 1980s due to global warming. (Yes, I said global warming, even though this story was begun in the 1970s.) By the time Piper opens, technological society is a thing of the past and the Church Militant rules the land.

Here is the only real weakness in the underlying story. Why revive Catholicism as villain? In the 70s its power was essentially dead in Britain, and its resurgence is merely assumed, never explained. I can only chalk it up to the extreme Englishness of the novel. Brits have been seeing the Catholic Church as bogeyman since Bloody Mary’s reign of terror in the 1550s. If this novel had been written by an American (like Davy was), we would probably have seen cold, heartless Puritans hanging witches instead.

Logical or not, the Church Militant makes a good foil, and offers a medieval tone without needing a lot of backstory.

The story itself — that is, the plot — can be summarized quickly. Tom, a boy of about thirteen and Old Peter, a storyteller, are walking toward York where Tom is supposed to enter a Church school. Tom has the ability, taught to him by a wizard, to play his pipes so that he can control animals and make people see visions. He also knows a lot more about unfolding events than a boy should know. His playing amplifies Old Peter’s storytelling so that by the time they reach York, they are raking in money and followers.

Tom is a very docile and agreeable lad, but every time he gives in to Peter’s schemes, it moves him closer to his own destiny. Peter seems to have no clue that this is happening. We are not told that Tom is manipulating, but he never seems surprised when things go his way.

The world is in turmoil with prophesies of the coming of the White Bird of Kinship at the turn of the millennium. Once in York, at the end of the year, Tom slips away to play his pipes for the gathered crowd. The White Bird descends upon the land, but just at the climax of the event Tom is killed by the bolt from a crossbow.

Piper is allegorical, certainly, but not a true allegory. It is a retelling of the Christ story, but with more differences than similarities.

We have the self-sacrificed innocent, but he has preached no sermons and promulgated no gospel. We have Gyre, who fires the bolt but has no memory of the deed or the reason for it. There is a touch of Judas here, but only a touch, and that lies primarily in his regret.

We have the White Bird, which even a character within the story recognizes as being like the Holy Spirit, but the death of Tom does not bring about any redemption. It only causes the Bird’s descent to misfire.

We have Old Peter who takes Gyre with him to spread the word of what has happened, like two apostles after the resurrection. But there was no resurrection and the Bird has flown away. Peter and Gyre are not actually spreading the word of what has happened, but of what is still to come, and here we find a trace of John the Baptist.

It isn’t a Christ story, but a slightly Christlike story. And it is not an ending, but a beginning. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the most emotionally unified and satisfying part of the overall story, but it demands the follow-up provided by The Road to Corlay

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

I sometimes hear reviewers say that, while they are ready to meet the characters in the opening chapter of a novel they don’t want to have to do it all over again on page fifty. My novel Jandrax caused great irritation to one reviewer for that very reason, but sometimes a complicated story requires a rotating cast of characters.

The Road to Corlay is that kind of work. It begins eighteen years after the boy Tom’s death. Old Peter and Gyre have been spreading the gospel of the White Bird of Kinship, but they remain mostly off stage. All the characters are new, and many of them won’t live to see the end of the book.

The Church Militant has tried to absorb the new religion into itself, but now its leaders change tactics. An proscription for heresy is released, and all the people we will come to care about become the hunted.

In researching for this post, I ran across a review of another Cowper novel which contained the lines, “This novel has real people in it that you can care about . . . just don’t expect too many laughs.” He could have been talking about The Road to Corlay.

The novel begins with two fishermen dragging in body bound to a spar. It is Thomas of Norwich, the second of three Thomases in the book. That is a little confusing, but a necessary part of the story. He is alive, but he shouldn’t be after all his days in the water. It will take the rest of the novel to answer why this is and what it means. He comes into the hands of Jane, who is gifted with huesh, which is something like ESP crossed with foreseeing. She enters his mind, but finds two men there, one being Thomas himself, the other a stranger she can barely touch.

It is in chapter two that the disaffection starts for most reviewers, including Joachim Boaz and Thomas Anderson, two reviewers I enjoy and respect.

In this new chapter the scene changes to 1986, a decade in the future from Cowper’s perspective. It is a familiar world of cars and hospitals, and of scientists working at the edge of current knowledge. A scientist name Carver is having a chemically induced OBBE (out of body experience) and his colleagues can’t wake him up. No one is worried at first, but then he sinks fast and the chapter ends with him in danger. We know from what Jane said in the last chapter that Carver is the other man in Thomas of Norwich’s head.

And it is raining — has been raining for months. Without ever saying so, Cowper has let us know that the rising of the waters has begun.

Let’s dispose of this 1986 intrusion, if it is an intrusion, before we get back to 3018. Everybody seems to hate it, but I didn’t mind it at all. On a visceral level, it was a relief every three chapters to spend a few pages somewhere that my new friends weren’t being hunted down.

More importantly, 1986 is a counterpoise to the future. It isn’t there to give backstory; that could have been done in a few carefully chosen sentences of authorial omniscience. It shows that the past and the future are the same. The scientists with their machinery basically don’t know what the hell is going on. The people like Jane who use and are used by huesh, don’t know where it comes from or why it works. The central purveyors of the new religion basically don’t know how any of it works, or what is going to happen next. Confusion is the human norm in all eras, which perfectly agrees with my prejudices.

Meanwhile, back in 3018: Thomas of Norwich takes refuge with Jane’s family. Only a small portion of the population has embraced Kinship, but those who have take care of each other. Jane is troubled, not only by the other man inside Thomas, but because she hueshed Thomas washed up on the beach, drowned. In her experience, huesh foreseeings never fail, and she has become fond of Thomas.

(Speaking of things to hate, I hate this kind of foreshadowing, but once again, Cowper made it work.)

Thomas has a mission, to find Gyre, who killed the boy Tom and became his greatest advocate, and to carry the boy’s pipes and written testament to safety in France. Jane takes him part way on that journey by boat, and is later attacked, then rescued. She learns that her family has been killed and she is herself now a refugee. She and Thomas come together again and he comforts her in her grief. In their days together, fondness has already turned to love, and now that leads to a night of lovemaking. Shortly after, they are captured together, and held for those who are hunting them.

Meanwhile, in a separate strand of the story, Brother Francis is sent by Cardinal Constant, head of the English Church Militant and prime mover against the Kinsmen, in search of knowledge about the boy who died. Francis travels from place to place, tracing the boy’s history, and hearing from those he has touched. He is slowly converted to Kinship, so as he nears the end of his journey, he changes sides. When he finds Gyre, he does not turn him over to the Church, but chooses to help him.

Gyre offers to play on the boy’s pipes, so Francis can hear an echo of an echo of the melody that is converting the world.

Raising his head abruptly the dying Kinsman gazed up at the vaulted ceiling and cried with a voice so strong it seemed almost as if it must be coming from some other throat than his: “Boy, show now at the end that I am forgiven! You know that I shot in ignorance of what I did! Speak you now through my darkness that his darkness may become light!”

He drew a deep, panting breath, raised the twin mouthpieces to his lips, and fixing the Advocate Sceptic with an unwavering gaze he began to play.

The Road to Corlay is a long and complicated story, but none of it would mean anything if it weren’t so beautifully written.

Gyre passes the pipes and testament to Francis and dies. Francis goes on, now looking for Thomas of Norwich to deliver them to him, but he finds him captive of the Church. Using his standing as a priest, since no one knows of his apostasy, he effects a rescue, but Thomas is killed.

Jane, with her unborn son, the pipes and the testament, escapes to France where her coming son Tom will fulfill his destiny.

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

Tom the boy who died by crossbow, Thomas of Norwich who inherited his pipes and testament, Tom the unborn son in Jane’s womb at book’s end (who I’m told is the primary figure in the two sequels) — clearly we have a reincarnation sub-text going on here unexplained.

We also have a sub-text of repetitions. The birth of Christianity, medieval days, the rise of technological hubris smashed back by a flood (again, just like Noah), the rebirth of a quasi-medieval society and a new Church Militant, followed by the birth of Kinship (the primitive, original Christianity?). From what little I know of the two sequels, Kinship wins out, becomes the great power, and is itself corrupted.

To my eye, this all looks very Hindu, with age after age, and avatar after avatar of basically the same Gods, repeating variations of the same myths. I’ll say more on that in a month or so when I deal with the Earthsea books.

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

Now I’m going to take you down the rabbit hole of my Southern Baptist childhood by way of this quotation:

. . . midway out in the Somersea a three masted barque, its white sails drooping like tired petals, floated becalmed above it’s own reflection. High above it a solitary star twinkled, a silver drop suspended from an invisible thread.

There are white boats in the offing in several places in this novel — white like the White Bird. In this case with “white sails drooping like a tired” (bird?). A three masted barque — where else have we seen something that looks like three upright wooden masts crossed by yards? Oh, yes, on the hill at Calvary? And where but above the manger did a solitary star twinkle?

You doubt me? I don’t blame you, but this is the world of types and symbols scattered through a sea of parables that I grew up in. This book speaks to me the same way, with little hints and teases that float untethered through the text. No? Then tell me, if that barque is not symbolic — even if my reading of it was not precise — why was it there? It had no place in the plot.

These are the little touches — images and turns of phrase — scattered throughout The Road to Corlay which make it read like a new scripture to those of us who spent our childhoods reading the original Christian scripture.

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

I don’t understand all of The Road to Corlay; I’m not supposed to. If all its meaning could be reduced to reason, Cowper could have nailed it to some college door like the ninety-five theses, and it would have been mummified in a philosophy text.

Instead, he gave us a fable. I understand that impulse. In 1975, fresh out of graduate school, I wrote my first novel, and was seduced. I could say things in fiction that I could never say any other way.

Thomas of Norwich, trying to explain how it felt to play the song of the White Bird, said:

“I knew the supreme joy of possessing something that can only exist in the giving.”

I get it. That’s how it feels every time I write, but it seems too arrogant to admit, so let’s just keep it between ourselves.

584. The Old Man and the Sea

Back when the Great American Read was happening I promised my own best list. I tried for a long list and settled for fifteen, of which I have presented twelve so far. Looking at that list, I find that only three were written by “classic” authors. Today’s entry is one of them; Stevenson and Dickens were the other two. The other twelve choices just write better than most of those old guys.

I once said that Hemingway is the greatest writer who ever wrote a novel where the hero won a fight, made love to a woman, caught a fish, and died on the final page. I wasn’t referring to Santiago’s fish, but to all the fish his heroes caught in a sporting fashion in nearly every book he ever wrote.

Hemingway was the master of a small set of circumstances, but those did not represent all of the human condition — not even a significant chunk of the human condition. Shakespeare wrote about all of mankind. Hemingway wrote about roughly 1%.

What he wrote was wonderful, if you thought like he did. But it didn’t have much depth or breadth, and it certainly never tackled a situation where there were two ways of looking at something. There was only one way — his way.

I have to be a bit careful here, so you don’t think I’m trashing him. I love to read Hemingway. He is a fine writer, within his limits. He isn’t a great writer. He isn’t even close. His focus is too narrow and his reach is too small. But I still love to read him.

Hemingway won a Nobel prize for literature. If he had won it for The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls, that would bother me, but he won it for his masterpiece, The Old Man and The Sea.

It’s likely that you have read The Old Man and The Sea; most people have. Hemingway’s style was minimalist, which makes him easy to read, so he ends up on a lot of high school required reading lists, and The Old Man and The Sea is his shortest book.

In case you haven’t read it, Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, hasn’t caught a fish in months, but he still goes out every day. We see him first in preparation for another trip, then we spend the day with him. Eventually, he hooks and lands a giant marlin. This amounts to too much success; he can’t get it into his small boat, so he has to lash it alongside. Then he spends painfully long hours bringing it in, while sharks tear it to bits. He reaches shore, with only a small portion remaining. The next day, he will have to go out again.

It doesn’t sound like much of a plot, but that is the point. It isn’t about what he does, but about how he does it.

I think there are two reasons that The Old Man and the Sea worked so well, one minor and one major. The piece is short. It is not a novel by any reasonable reckoning, but a novella. Hemingway is a man with a few ideas which he presents well. The Old Man and the Sea let him say everything useful he had to say, without padding or repeating.

More importantly, Santiago spends most of the book alone. He does not have to be a man before women. He also does not have to be a man before other men. He can simply be a man.

He didn’t have to win a fist fight. He didn’t have to have sex with a woman. (The term “make love” does not really apply to anything Hemingway wrote.) And when he caught the fish, it was a real fish to sell for pesos, not some allegorical event.

He also didn’t cop out by dying on the last page.

Let’s look at a short passage. Santiago is alone at sea in a small boat, so he his talking to himself.

Don’t be silly,” he said aloud. “And keep awake and steer. You may have much luck yet.”

“I’d like to buy some if there’s any place they sell it,” he said.

What could I buy it with? he asked himself. Could I buy it with a lost harpoon and a broken knife and two bad hands?

“You might,” he said. “You tried to buy it with eighty-four days at sea. They nearly sold it to you too.”

The first time I read The Old Man and the Sea, in high school, I missed that passage. That is, I read it, but I read it wrong. I read it like it was something from television.

Let me I tell you what I heard on TV this morning, so that will make sense. The pitch woman for a self-help book said, “You won’t get your dream job right out of college. But if you work, you will get it eventually, when you find the job you were meant for.”

She actually said meant for! This is Christianity turned up a notch, and given a bank loan. It was also, by actual count, the five millionth time I had heard that particular load of crap.

“Everything happens for a reason,” is the pure quill version of this notion. And floating in the air, unsaid but understood, is the implication that the reason will be for your own good. Work hard and you will succeed. If things don’t seem to be going right, it is just life’s way of getting you ready for better things to come.

The Great American Lie.

The flip side of the GAL is that, if you don’t succeed, you weren’t trying hard enough, because “Everything happens for a reason.”

Hemingway knew better. Santiago knew better. He knew that 84 days of trying wouldn’t buy you any luck. When I was in my teens, I read that it did, even though the words on the page were clear enough. When I read Santiago’s statement a few years later, I read it like Hemingway wrote it. I had learned a few things by then.

581. The Traveler in Black

(The traveler in black) has many names, but one nature, and this unique nature made him subject to certain laws not binding on ordinary persons. In a compensatory fashion, he was also free from certain other laws more commonly in force.

John Brunner was a successful and popular author of science fiction and fantasy, but he is rarely mentioned in the same breath with Clarke or Asimov. He has fifty-nine books listed inside the cover of my copy of Traveler, and he won a Hugo for Stand on Zanzibar, but he never quite made it to the top rung of the ladder. I have a theory about that.

The blurb-quoted reviews on the back cover of my Traveler praise Brunner for his competence. Competence may get you to the party, but it doesn’t make the fans gather ’round you once you are there; and that isn’t completely fair either, since he once wrote a book that was as good as any in science fiction or fantasy. The Traveler in Black was his Old Man and the Sea.

My theory is that, like Clarke, Brunner was an idea man. His characters have just enough blood in their veins to carry the ideas, and not one drop more. Zanzibar is a prime example; all the characters in that novel were cyphers. It was a big book about big ideas, populated by little tiny people.

Traveler avoids the curse of dull character by the oddest of twists; the traveler has no character at all. His character is to not have character. And it works.

The traveler moves through a world of chaos, having no will and no agenda, and changes everything. He is cursed-blessed-given-created to answer wishes in the exact words they were asked.

It’s like a wishing well with a mean streak, but there is no mean streak in the traveler. He sadly shakes his head and does what he was created to do — gives people exactly what they ask for. And since people aren’t too bright, they don’t see the consequences that will attend their wishes. They almost always get what they really didn’t want. Many do not survive their wish fulfillment, and no one survives unscathed.

As you may guess, this uses up a lot of lesser characters. These are précis people; sketched out in a few words and gobbled up by the march of change. Only the traveler survives.

This sounds a bit like a Mad magazine view of history, but Brunner pulls it off through the non-personality of the traveler. He has no backstory. He has no motivations, only the geas to grant wishes. He is slowly carving reason out of chaos by letting chaos devour itself. There is a tremendous cost in human suffering, and the traveler witnesses it all, unable to warn or advise, compelled to grant whatever wish he encounters, whatever the cost to the wisher.

We don’t hear him think about this. He does not converse, although he is often the object of conversations. We only know his inner feeling by a shake of the head, a hesitation to speak, and the slow pace of his progress through the world. That this is one sad and weary entity is only acknowledged in passing. It is all a game of subtlety, conveyed by the stately beauty of the language in which it is written.

Traveler is a fix up novel of individual stories previously published in SF magazines, and stitched together by the traveler himself. It comes in two versions. The one I read first, many years ago, was called The Traveler in Black. Its cover is pictured here. The cover pictured at the top of the post is a later version with one more story called, of course, The Compleat Traveler in Black.

The odd spelling is a literary reference. I won’t elucidate. I’ll just let you feel superior if you recognize it.

580. Pavane

During the Golden Age, most science fiction was in the form of short stories, published in science fiction magazines. When paperbacks became popular, there was a need for novels, mostly short by modern standards. Authors and editors mined the SF magazines for interrelated short stories that could be linked together and somewhat rewritten to appear as if they were novels. They became known as fix-up novels. The next three on my best list are all fix-up novels: Pavane today, The Road to Corlay (set for April 17, but these things sometimes change), and The Traveler in Black this Wednesday.

Pavane by Keith Roberts (publication date 1968) is not to everybody’s taste, but is one of my all time favorites. It is an alternate universe novel, set in the twentieth century in a world where the Catholic Church has maintained its power. The universe-changing event was the assassination of Queen Elizabeth the First, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish Armada.

Of course, the people of Pavane don’t know that they are an alternate. Their world is simply the world. Other than a brief introduction, the novel is written from that perspective. Things are explained, as they must be in any novel, but only enough that someone in the world of Pavane would understand.

(If I wrote a story about a blacksmith, I would explain enough that a college student could understand, not enough for an alien from Alpha Centauri to understand.)

This makes Pavane a bit challenging, but Roberts does his job well. The challenge is slight, and the reward is an abundance of ambiance.

Pavane takes place in a cold, hard world, and the characters fit their situations. Jesse Strange, in the first story The Lady Margaret is so dedicated to the family business (haulage by steam road waggons) that he passes up love and ignores friendship. Rafe, the student signaler, is engaging, but doomed. The story of the artist Brother John is positively grim.

All this sounds like I’m saying, “Don’t read this book,” but in fact I give it my highest recommendation. You will be forced to confront this alternate culture by digging deep into what makes it work, and any time one has to learn another way of thinking from the inside, the mind and the heart are enriched.

The ending called Coda is a disappointment. Roberts gets up on his soap box for a brief but embarrassing moment to try to justify his culture. Cultures don’t need justification; they just are. And every one of them, including yours and mine, is a mixture of joy and horror.

Probably the most notable part of the novel is the sheer beauty of the writing. At least, that is my take. I have found beauty of writing to be extremely subjective, but Pavane hits the sweet spot for me. I invite you to see if it hits yours.

One thing for sure. Thirty pages in, you will already know if you love it or hate it.

Pavane is available used or e-book from Amazon, or if you are lucky at your local used book store.

579. Guilt

How many times have you seen it: the massive city, the grinding machinery of the state, the downtrodden under the wheels of the machine — it’s a classic dystopia. One man (or, rarely, woman) fights back, foments a rebellion, and it all comes crashing down, ushering in a new day.

End of movie or novel.

Well, maybe . . .

It seems to me that this trope has been overused. I have no real argument with all those stories that end with the destruction of a dystopia, but I was looking for something a bit more subtle in Like Clockwork. There is something resembling a downfall (you’ll get no spoilers here) but it doesn’t come at the end, and those who bring it about have to face the reality of what they have done. Here’s a taste.

(Hemmings) laid his head on his crossed arms. His heart hurt.

Life may be nasty, brutish, and short. Life may be eternal in the lap of Jesus. Or life maybe a recurring year, extended far too long, but it is still life. And Hemmings had taken the lives of men who had done him no wrong.

He had not known the others who had died, but he clearly remembered the guard at the waggon door. He grieved for him.

I know exactly where this scene originated.

I was a young teen. I had recently discovered the local public library and my hundredth-or-so book was Underwater Adventure by Willard Price. Overall, it was a good book, although no better or worse that the average I was reading at the time. However, one scene knocked me out.

The villain, posing as a friend, went for a dive with the mentor. The two brothers who were the heroes of the book were elsewhere. The villain contrived to have the mentor trapped underwater, and left him there to drown.

Two things about this affected me. First, the mentor did not make a brilliant and heroic escape. He actually did drown. Second, the villain — who was pretty scummy and eventually came to a well deserved bad end — came up out of the water full of remorse. Not enough remorse to go back and save the mentor, but enough to be shaken.

The scene was told from the villain’s perspective. In that moment, I identified with him far more than I had identified with the cardboard heroes. Through him, I came to an understanding of how it would feel to take the life of a good man. It was something worth knowing, and something a bit more real than most of what I was reading at the time.

So here I am, decades later. I have a debt to Willard Price for that moment of clarity, and I’m paying it forward.