Doomsday Book

Category: Historical fiction / SciFi crossover

Rating: PG-13. No sex or violence, but a very high body count, including characters that matter, and a child’s pet.

Doomsday Book is an award-winning* time-travel novel by Connie Willis. It was published in the 90’s, but I only stumbled across it a few months ago.

The plot is straightforward: from the near future (December 2054), a young historian (Kivrin Engle) steps back in time, and things immediately go awry. The story-telling skips back and forth between the 14th and 21st centuries as her friends attempt to rescue her, and she slowly comes to realise she is lost in the past. Normal life in both centuries is destroyed by virulent epidemics, and both Kivrin and her would-be rescuers struggle to cope with fragmenting social networks and a terrified populace.

The SciFi time-travel aspect is limited, and quite hand-wavy. The story is really about how people behave in a crisis, with ordinary people doing heroic things, and about responsibility and altruism, despair and hope, faith, and the natures of God and sainthood. And, despite a high body count, it was, in the end, an oddly uplifting story. (Although not without a certain amount of fridge horror. The survivors are going to need treatment for PTSD.)

The 14th-century thread is the more gripping, with characters recognisable as real people caught up in an apocalyptic event, and Kivrin becoming deeply involved in the lives of the people she came to study. The parallel 21st-century thread includes some not very successful comic relief, the supporting characters aren’t well-developed, and the plot devices needed to draw out the rescue attempt were clunky and annoying. Any reader with any sense will figure out what went wrong, although maybe not how, long before the big reveal occurs. This thread takes much longer to become interesting, but it ends with a degree of poignancy that took me by surprise.

The book is a bit unusual in that there isn’t a villain. There are a few characters with less than stellar motives, who do irresponsible things, but they are plot devices, not major characters. This is humankind against the forces of nature, events not under our control.

Now for the major flaws:

  • The premise that Oxford dons would send an undergraduate back to the 14th century alone is ridiculous. Absurd. If they were so eager to study the time period, one or more of them should have gone along. If they weren’t going because they recognised it was dangerous, then at least one of them should have realised they could and should be held liable for, at a minimum, criminal negligence. At the very least there should have been established procedures that wouldn’t allow anyone to go alone, unless, perhaps, they had already proven their levelheadedness on some number of previous accompanied excursions to the same time period. The odds of someone living to report back on problems is much higher if they go in pairs. Similarly, there should have been contingency plans in case either side failed to keep the rendezvous. The whole thing was much too amateurish.
  • The story is long (nearly 600 pages in paperback) and drags in places, with far too much time, in Kivrin’s case, spent in the fog of delirium, or, in the 21st-century thread, listening to the technician’s fever-induced mumblings or playing telephone tag.
  • And the telephone tag was another annoyance. This book was published in 1992. Answering machines were in common use by then. There is no excuse to make a character sit by a landline phone, simply to take a message, in 2054. Willis completely failed to anticipate the impacts of cell phones or, to a lesser extent, what can be done with computers. Her Oxford wasn’t even up to date with 1992, much less 2054.

Despite those flaws and some other minor quibbles, I’m glad to have read it. The story packs a serious emotional punch, the kind that will keep it popping up in my memory long after some more recently-published/recently-read books have been tossed in the giveaway pile.

* Doomsday Book (the novel, that is, not the survey of England ordered by William the Conqueror in the 12th century) won both a Hugo and a Nebula, although it isn’t clear to me why it won either award. The SciFi aspect is the weakest part.

Posted in Historical fiction, Science fiction | Leave a comment

Lord Darcy

Categories: fantasy / mystery / alternate history

Rating: PG

The time: the 1960’s. The place: the bustling port of Cherbourg. A nobleman in the Anglo-French Empire, engaged in a sensitive international inquiry, is missing. Lord Darcy, detective, and Master Sean O Lochlainn, forensic sorcerer, have been summoned to investigate.

This is the setup at the start of A Case of Identity, one of Randall Garrett’s classic Lord Darcy stories. In this alternate world, history diverged with Richard the Lionheart’s return to England. The Plantagenets still rule an undivided empire. The Americas are still colonies. And in the 13th century, the laws of magic were discovered, and the foundation laid for an academic discipline as sophisticated as our physics. Science and engineering, as we know them, are not well-developed in this world, since attention is instead focused on understanding and applying the laws of magic.

The eleven stories (10 short stories, plus one novel, Too Many Magicians, all available in one omnibus volume, Lord Darcy) are interesting enough as Holmesian mysteries, mostly of the locked room variety, but to me the most entertaining aspect is the magic, and the ways in which it both parallels and diverges from the technological marvels of our world. Long distance communication devices are magically-powered telesons, not telephones. Preservator chests keep food fresh. There are no automobiles, but there are steam trains. (This world feels more 19th-century, plus magic, than 20th-century.) And in the forensic sciences, the laws of magical relevancy can be used to determine if a bullet was fired from a particular gun, or to separate dye, deliberately spread, from the accidentally spilled ink it was intended to cover.

The stories aren’t entirely successful. The characterisations are shallow and the dialog often rather wooden. They are repetitious, and suffer from back-to-back readings. Too Many Magicians is too long, and has too little focus on the magic. And the whole premise of the alternate history is preposterous. An unbroken succession of benevolent and wise kings maintaining social cohesion and smoothing out all serious problems for more than 700 years? Yeah, right.

Some readers will be put off by the world’s political implausibility and excessive formality—all references to a person include their titles, the more the better. For other readers, like me, it’s possible to dip into them occasionally, accept their limitations, and enjoy a light, fun read about a world where magic is as real and essential as science.

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Introductions to SFF

At Lexicon, I had volunteered to be on a panel discussing “Introductions to SFF: Want to introduce a friend—or a child—to the genres you love, but don’t know how to ease them in?” Our panel was on at the same time as another event with more drawing power, so instead of a directed panel, we circled the chairs and had a free-form discussion with the small group attending. The conference is over, but I’ve found myself still thinking about some of the questions raised before and during the discussion.

The books I remember from my childhood were nearly all speculative fiction*, mostly fantasy, in some form or another: Dr Seuss, Edward Eager, Lewis Carroll, C S Lewis (the Narnia books), L Frank Baum (the Oz books), Hugh Lofting (Dr Doolittle), and fairy tales of all sorts. I did read plenty of other, non-SFF books along the way, but, with a few exceptions, they didn’t leave as strong an impression.

And then, as a teen, there were Robert Heinlein, J R R Tolkien, Arthur C Clarke, Larry Niven…

I’ll never claim to be an expert on mainstream or literary fiction, but, except for straight crime fiction, it seems as if I trip over speculative or fantastical elements in just about every other book I pick up, from clones (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas) and time travellers (Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander saga) to virulent viruses (Dan Brown’s Inferno) and ghosts (Jodi Picoult’s Plain Truth). And it’s hard to turn on the TV or go to the movies without encountering werewolves, vampires, superheroes, or norse gods.

So the question is, why would any adult need an introduction to speculative fiction at all? What makes us turn away from the fantastic?

Tastes vary, of course. Dragons on book covers make me yawn, and I can’t take back-to-back readings of yet more books with detailed maps of new and soon-to-be-forgotten worlds. Fashion in publishing also plays a part. If a reader doesn’t appreciate modern dystopias or grimdark tales set in medieval-style worlds, then yes, they could get the mistaken impression that’s all there is, and be driven away from fantasy. But speculative fiction covers such a wide range of styles and subject matter that—if you can find your way to them—there’s something for nearly everyone.

But I suspect there are readers who have been driven away for other reasons. Some of it is the long-standing tension between “literary” and “genre” fiction, as if a book that fits into a specific genre it can’t be good. Speculative fiction includes such a wide range of talents—some bad, some very good—that tarring them all with the same brush is blatant snobbery. Nor are the boundaries between literary and genre at all well-defined. (Take A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest for example. Clearly fantasy.)

And then, too, there’s the nonsense we’ve soaked up from well-intentioned but misguided parents and teachers, that escapism is something we should be ashamed of indulging in, and should grow out of. This wonderful speech by Neil Gaiman says, far more eloquently than I ever could hope to, that escapism is necessary, and we have an obligation to daydream.

So I’ll end this the same way Gaiman ended his speech, with a quote from Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

* Speculative fiction: an umbrella term covering hard and soft science fiction, fantasy, horror, and more blends and sub-genres than I can keep up with.

Posted in Fantasy, On Reading | 1 Comment

Lexicon at Taupo

Had a fantastic time this past weekend at Lexicon, the New Zealand National Science Fiction and Fantasy Conference held in Taupo. Made a few new friends, had some good laughs, and learned some useful things about writing and the state of the speculative fiction world. Acquired some new books, and recommendations for others. Just started The Grief Hole (autographed copy!) by Kaaren Warren.

Taupo, of course, was stunning. From the early morning mist on the lake, black swans in the river, clouds of steam rising from the fumaroles and drifting across the sky, and the street art scattered around the town, there’s something interesting to see in every direction. A couple of days lazing around Taupo after the conference left me feeling as serene as the photo, below, of the lake.

The food was great, too. I recommend the gastro pub Rose On Roberts—lovely service and atmosphere as well as good food. Not that we had a less than satisfying dinner anywhere. Steak at Waterside, fish at Dixie Browns, mango chicken at Indian Affair—they were all delicious. (Although the name of the latter puts me more in mind of the US BIA than the country.)

I came out of IFWG Publishing’s double book launch on Sunday feeling on top of the world. Having a glass of champagne on an empty stomach had something to do with that, but so did seeing people actually buying my book. Getting encouragement to record an audiobook didn’t hurt, either.

Besides The Locksmith, the launch was for Ali Foster’s children’s book, The Rejects, a charming story about a nobody of a garden gnome who becomes a hero.

Many thanks to the ConCom for making the weekend go so smoothly. We’re looking forward to next year’s ConClave in Auckland.

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The Brother Cadfael Chronicles

I love mysteries. I love historical novels. So it should come as no surprise that I love historical mysteries, and the Brother Cadfael Chronicles are among my favourites. Which is fitting, since that series more or less defined the historical mystery subgenre.

Between 1977 and 1994, Ellis Peters wrote 21 novels featuring the Welsh man-at-arms turned herbalist and Benedictine monk, Brother Cadfael. Set in the 12th century, the action takes place in and around Shrewsbury near the English-Welsh border. When we first meet him, Cadfael, in his late fifties, is a man with a substantial backstory. In a fit of religious fervour as a young man, he traveled to Palestine and, during some twenty years there as soldier and sailor, acquired a store of knowledge about the healing arts. He also observed violent death in many forms, experiences that served him well when later called on, or impelled by his own conscience, to act as detective. At the age of forty, he returned to Britain where he laid down his arms and entered a monastery, dedicating the remainder of his life to healing instead of fighting.

A series about a monk edges into cozy mystery territory, and could turn claustrophobic, but Cadfael is no recluse, standing apart from worldly concerns. His talents as a healer regularly bring him in contact with townsfolk and travellers, the sheriff counts him as a friend and confidant, and his experience makes him valuable to the abbot, who sends him out of the abbey to handle abbey business. The time period, during a civil war over succession to the English throne, ensures plenty of turmoil, and throws all manner of travellers—soldiers, messengers, refugees, diplomats—his way. There are a few repeating characters, but not many, although one, the sheriff is one of my favourite fictional characters. There is more than a little of him in Warlock Quicksilver, a character in my Reforging series.

The books are formulaic, but it’s a formula I enjoy. There is nearly always some romance, with one or more pairs of young lovers overcoming dangerous obstacles keeping them apart. The women are competent and intelligent, mostly; the men are honourable, mostly. Cadfael exposes the wrongdoer, and justice prevails—poetic justice, at least, if not always the king’s justice.

A TV series based on the books, and available on DVD, starred Derek Jacobi, the British actor who was more famous for I, Claudius. I can’t say I liked it very much. Jacobi just didn’t fit my mental image of the barrel-chested, sailor-gaited Cadfael. I didn’t like how they combined several characters into the character of the sheriff, either, and lost what I liked most about him.

The books can be read out of order, but I would recommend starting with the first two, if you don’t like spoilers. The first book, A Morbid Taste for Bones, while fine, is not one of my favourites; the second book (One Corpse Too Many) is.

Rating: PG: The books are, after all, about murders and other crimes, but most of the violence happens offstage, and there’s no explicit sex or offensive language. IIRC, only one (The Virgin in the Ice) dealt with (off-stage) sexual assault.

Posted in Historical mysteries | 2 Comments

This need to read

I don’t remember learning to read. I don’t remember ever not reading. Reading is a reflex action, as much a part of my life as eating or breathing. Put anything with English words in front of my face, and I will read it. I identify with bookish characters in books: Matilda, Hermione, Harriet Vane. I read paperbacks in bed, the newspaper at breakfast, my e-reader on the bus.

I cannot not read.

Many of my childhood memories are connected with reading: lazing in bed with a book on Sunday morning before anyone else in the house was up. Reading in the cool basement den to escape the North Carolina summer heat. Working my way through the shelves in the school library. Wandering through the overcrowded stacks in the old Gaston County Public Library, a home away from home, before it moved to a shiny, new, and much bigger building on Garrison Boulevard. (Showing my age here. That move was decades ago.)

You would think, wouldn’t you, that with more books being published than ever before—with such an embarrassment of riches to choose from—I’d be as happy as Larry*, right?

Well, no. So many books; so little time. For every book I take out of my TBR (To Be Read) pile, I add two or three more.

This little matter of a full-time day job has a bad habit of getting in the way of my attempts to read for hours on end, day after day. So do family obligations, and my own writing.

And so I don’t have nearly enough time to search out the jewels, and separate them from the dreck. There is a lot of good fiction being published these days. There is also an awful lot of rubbish being published. With hundreds of thousands of new titles being published every year, we’re drowning in books. How do we pick out the good ones?

Recommendations and reviews on retailers and publishers sites are useful but limited—they are, after all, trying to game the system to get you to notice and buy their products. And even rave reviews by readers with no financial interest in a book does you no good if you don’t share their concept of what makes a book good. Given some books that have made the bestsellers lists, there must be thousands of readers who adore books I’ve considered boring, lame, excessively violent, cringe-inducing, badly written, or otherwise inadequate.

So how do we pick out the good ones? One way is to find other readers with similar interests, and swap recommendations. I’ve found plenty of bloggers offering up their own lists of favourites, but few whose tastes align with mine. Maybe, by offering up my own lists, I’ll help some books I’ve enjoyed find a wider audience.

*I never heard the expression ‘happy as Larry’ before coming to New Zealand, but he seems to be the measure here for blissful existence. Apparently he was an 18th century prize-fighter who won a large purse on his last professional fight, making him one happy dude.

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Let’s get this started

When the firehose of the internet spews out content at an ever-increasing rate, will my little blog ever be noticed? Will anyone care what I write here? Probably not. Here goes, anyway.

Perhaps I should have started this blog years ago. When we first moved to New Zealand from the USA would have been a good time; there was so much to write about then, from little day-to-day details about changes in our living habits to big-picture cultural and political shifts. I did write long missives to friends and family on many of those shifts and quirks of life in Godzone, but I did not, then, consider making any of those ruminations public.

To be honest, I wouldn’t be doing this now, if I didn’t have a book to sell, but in the modern publishing world, an author needs to have an online presence.

Opening myself up to the slings and arrows of the blogosphere is intimidating. I’ve heard horror stories of people blogging or tweeting something they considered innocuous, only to have the public turn on them and ruin their careers, personal lives, etc. And the odds are, no matter what opinion you express—if you express any opinion at all—someone, somewhere, will take offence at it.

Even without the public’s help, people grow and change, and something we wrote a year or two ago may make us cringe now. And for all the seemingly ephemeral nature of so much on the internet, once something is out there, it’s impossible to erase.

Still, others have been blogging for years, and keep blogging. I might as well give it a go, too.

What do I intend to blog about? I will probably be feeling my way for months, at least, but some things are certain: there will be many posts about reading. Expect to hear about books I’ve enjoyed, authors I like, good story-telling, meditations on the act of reading itself, and occasionally, venting a little spleen about the state of the modern fiction world. I’ll throw in an occasional entry about the life of a newcomer to New Zealand, and anything else that strikes a chord.

Good reading, friends.

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