Monday, 28 May 2007

Lindsay Davis -- A Body in the Bath House

The plot
Roman gumshoe Falco hasn't had a chance to enjoy his new position in the middle class. His sister is being stalked by a psycho spymaster; he has acquired two incompetant assistants; and there's putrid smell in his new bath house, suggesting that the builders have left more mess than usual. Suddenly, the emperor's polite suggestion that Falco should leave the sunny comforts of Rome and go to the cold shores of Britain to investigate irregularities and sudden deaths on a palace building site is a little less unattractive.

What I liked

Historical whodunnits, for a start -- Lindsay Davis is funnier and less predictable than Ellis Peters, the Cadfael lady.

Falco -- he is cynical and curmudgeonly and well aware of his own failings; yet he has a certain honour, he loves his girl and his family, and he is interestingly observant.

The setting -- the British part of the story is at a fascinating site on the south coast, Fishbourne Palace. These days, there are foundations and floors left. I thought it was interesting that Lindsay Davis chose to write about it half-built, as in some ways it feels similiar walking round an excavation to walking round a building site.

What I learnt

Don't let your research show -- I am a complete sucker for historical detail. I imagine that if I ever wrote a historical, it would be very difficult for me not to show off what I've found out. Although this book is rich in detail, you never feel that you are being told things un-naturally. This is partly because of Falco's character -- he's investigating; and he's not entirely familiar with the building trade. Having a character who is naturally observant and has a good reason to nose around makes writing a historical (or a fantasy) much easier.

I always had this dim idea in the back of my head that the romance stops short when the hero gets his girl. But I've been taking note lately of what a good writer does with an ongoing relationship. Falco still thinks Helena is wonderful, and she is plainly dotty about him; he is a tiny bit insecure -- he is always secretly convinced that someone is going to take Helena away from him.

More information: Lindsay Davis' website

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Preachers -- Tim Lees (Interzone 210)

The plot
A boy watches his father cling to science in a post-holocaust world where faith in a vengeful god is a better survival tactic.

What I liked
It reminded me immediately of Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men because of the migrant labourer setting and two male characters who take care of each other.

The irony of a science fiction story in which science does not appear to be the answer to society's ills. Or at least, not in the protagonist's mind.

This story says so much in few words (I reckon 4,500).

What I learnt

The holocaust is unexplained, so there was no need for a tiresome info dump. It's hard to present pre-story history in a first person viewpoint -- particularly if the viewpoint character has no reason to believe he is being read by a c.21 sci-fi lover. The whys of the holocaust are not needed. All we need to know is that things are bad and getting worse.

Two characters desperate for each other's approval makes for top notch conflict.

You can write from a child's point of view as a child; or you can write from a child's point of view as an adult. These are two different things.


Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Dr Abernathy's Dream Theater -- David Ira Cleary (Interzone 210)

A drug addict scientist floundering in among social norms that are forcing him into a conventional life finds fulfilment in a mystical dream theatre.

What I liked
Steampunk is very much in favour as far as I am concerned. Steam cars; brass and pipes. Strange contraptions. Society matrons wearing telescopic lenses.

I love the changes of pace that the protagonist's different states of mind allow.

There are some hilarious details delivered in a splendid deadpan manner -- a set of false teeth falling out; a rude drug dealer; a horrifying lullabye.

I like stories that contain titles of songs that never were -- I like to imagine what the music might be like.

What I learnt
Addiction is a fantastic quality to give a character. Immediately, you've got something that they really, really need, will do anything to get. When I was playing Knight City, I mentioned that my character drank a lot of coffee. The gamesmaster put her down as a caffeine addict and as I played, a whole set of possibilities opened up as she struggled to function when deprived of coffee, panicked if she thought she couldn't get any, and did desperate things to hold of a cup. In real life, an addiction is a burden and a trial. To a storyteller, it's a gift. The protagonist of this story is addicted to kuuf -- a white powder that helps him stay awake. His addiction must be hidden for fear of social disapproval -- there is a wonderful dinner party scene where he accidently dyes his soup blue with it.

Another great thing about kuuf addiction is that it appears to heighten the protagonist's senses, which allows the writer to embroider the story with rich details.

I was interested by my reaction to the addiction theme. The protagonist is very pro-kuuf -- he believes it helps him to 'operate efficiently'. I, however, did not approve. I felt as if he was in denial about his 'problem' and riding for a fall. Is this something I have brought to the story, or is it something the writer has put in?


Monday, 21 May 2007

Six Lights Off Green Scar -- Gareth L. Powell

The plot
FTL travel is achieved in roulette ships by jumping to a random point in space. A haunted and washed-up roulette pilot is lured by a story-hungry journalist's promise of enough money to retire into doing one last jump.

What I liked
I love the concept. Per aspera ad astra -- it's a rough road to the stars. No space travel without paying a price. The setting is vivid -- it calls to mind descriptions of rough towns in the Arctic circle. I liked the description of Kate -- it tells of a hard engineer who needs nothing from anyone, and then blam, hits you with something very soft and sensual.

What I learnt
I felt cheated by the ending -- maybe this is a problem with me, rather than with the story. I think it was because the story made me care a lot about the characters -- I'd invested quite a bit because I'd been learning about what drove them, where they were coming from, where they hoped to go; and I'd travelled with them through a terrifying experience. The story ends in a way that left me unsure what became of them -- I imagine nothing good, but there is a peep of a chance they might have survived. Perhaps this mirrors the experience of the roulette pilots.

I'm not sure if it's a bad thing to make readers feel cheated. I know the rules say you shouldn't, but at least it's a reaction. I am going to look out for other stories that make me feel this way and see if I can work out why it's happened.

The story could have ended in a different way to make me not feel cheated. I guess an act of self-sacrifice on the part of one character to save the other would have felt right -- but it wouldn't have left me wondering about the possibilities.

Six Lights Off Green Scar on Infinity Plus.
Gareth L. Powell's blog.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Tearing Down Tuesday -- Steven Francis Murphy (Interzone 210)

A stigmatised young man in a post-holocaust small town has to face his demons in order to raise enough money to save the robot he loves.

What I liked
I enjoy post-holocaust stories. I like stories where technology doesn't work properly. There appears to be a shortage of petrol. Robots have AI, but they are from pre-holocaust times and need to be patched up again and again.

Kyle, the viewpoint character, is easy to like. The values of his community make him an outcast, but our values make him someone who has a right to our compassion.

The story challenged me, because I have a horrible feeling that perhaps the values of Circeville might not be so different to our own.

What I learnt
The holocaust appears to have been caused by a singularity -- I'm not sure what a singularity is -- my understanding is that it's the point at which something stops being well-behaved.

Failing technology conveys a lot more information about the world than technology that works.

A stigmatised outcast character can look into and comment on society.

I feel as if the town name Circeville has some significance, but I can't imagine what. Circe is the sorceress in the Odyssey who turns me into pigs, and detains Odysseus as her lover. I don't see the relevance, unless it's to do with small town mentality and denial of evils in our midst. It could also be something to do with the robot and Kyle sticking around in a place (geographical and psychological) they hate because they love each other. I might be missing something here, but I would be inclined not to use loaded place names without a very good reason, as they are a distraction.

Much of the dialogue is untagged (lacking 'he said' etc) -- this is a sign of a masterly writer, I think. It shows you have confidence in your character's voices.

This story deals with murder and sexual assault -- in both cases, the author leaves Kyle to go there by himself, returning at the end of the scene. There are good reasons for doing this:
1. The incidents are part of something the viewpoint character hates and fears about himself.
2. It would be impossible to write the scenes without sensationalising them. For my part, I would be afraid that someone might get off on such a scene. I would be afraid of colluding in someone's violent fantasies, perhaps normalising their feelings. I feel that a writer has a responsibility not to do this. But then again, exploring these themes could illuminate the wrongness of violence for someone.
3. Nothing that I can write will be as horrific as what a reader can imagine, or will imagine that they are avoiding imagining.


Saturday, 19 May 2007

Heartstrung -- Rachel Swirsky (Interzone 210)

A fable in which a mother prepares her daughter for adulthood by sewing her heart on to her sleeve.

What I liked
It's a very neat and spare little tale, full of metaphor and very open to interpretation.

What I learnt
Tales of strange lands can be used to criticise our own country. And a good way to force the reader feel what you want them to feel is to use a memory to make a bright picture.


The Final Voyage of La Riaza -- Jayme Lynn Blaschke (Interzone 210)

The Plot
A swashbuckle set in an airship.

What I liked
I very much enjoy stories where the technology is not explained -- just alluded to. It makes me want more more more from the writer. The balloons in this story appear to be made from spider silk -- the spiders live on the ship, making repairs as necessary. The ship is powered by creatures called gigapedes. I am intrigued.

What I learnt
I am easily confused by foreign names, although I loved the exotic colour it lends. The hero is called Diego Brazos, and is referred to using both or either of these names. Characters occasionally appeal to 'Dios', and I got mixed up with that and Diego. Senor Brazos is a hard character to like -- brutal, harsh and unpopular. But you've got to admire his style; and it is easy to sympathise with him.

The reader really does not need to understand the technology to enjoy a story -- but a damaged ship is a good opportunity to share a little info in a natural way.


The Cosmic Puppets -- Philip K. Dick

I picked this off my shelf because I wanted something familiar and slim -- it's not a long haul at 141 pages.

Ted Barton blunders into the town where he grew up, but it's not as he remembers. This is a town where Barton died aged nine and where transparent figures wander through walls. When his landlady's sinister son prevents Barton from leaving, Barton enlists the town drunk to help him retrieve the town he remembers.

I liked...
Barton isn't a specially engaging character -- he is slovenly, not particularly heroic and very careless of his wife Peg. But there is something about his determination to find his town that made me want to know how his story turns out; and I kept reading because the mystery intrigued me. Dick has worked in a strong sense of place. I found the town and the hills very alive -- really got a feel for the dry heat of the place.

The story's tension tightens up towards the end, suddenly exploding in a huge showdown. There are some horrific and vivid scenes in the final battle.

Lessons learnt
When something happens that is outside the reader's experience (the battle against the tiny golems, the rats and the spiders) Dick zooms right in with the detailed description. For more everyday things, perhaps the reader can fill in the gaps. When something important to the plot is about to happen, the level of detail goes up again -- I wonder if this slows the reader down so they take in the story better. It could also increase tension by making them wait for the plot point.

The Cosmic Puppets at Amazon