Thursday, February 21, 2013
Warning: significant spoilers ahead.
The first Frederick Forsyth novel I read was The Day of the Jackal, which was technically sound, fast-paced and a great read to the last page. The Odessa File wasn’t as good, because the Odessa had too many opportunities to kill the protagonist, who escaped only through authorial fiat. Still, I liked the premise of Forsyth’s The Cobra. The president of the United States hires a retired superspy to destroy the cocaine industry… well, I had to find out how this could be done.
The Cobra is Paul Devereaux, a Boston Brahmin trained by the CIA. Elegant, controlled and possessed of a nearly eidetic memory, the Cobra is the kind of hero I find really intriguing — someone who never actually kicks ass and takes names himself, but who pulls the strings so that others do this on a grand scale. Think Lord Tywin Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire. He is, in other words, the perfect spymaster, and he also has the perfect second-in-command, Cal Dexter. Think William Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dexter, a Vietnam veteran, takes most of the risks in enemy territory, including jumping for a Black Hawk helicopter a few feet ahead of a pursuing gangster.
Between them, the Cobra and Dexter recruit a motley crew of professionals (including a gigolo), buy ships and set a complex plan into action. On the other side of the chessboard, Don Diego, the head of the Colombian Brotherhood, is busy transporting millions of tons of cocaine across the ocean, and at first is blissfully unaware of the gathering storm about to break over his head.
So far, so good. As one reviewer on Amazon commented, Forsyth knows his hardware, and I enjoyed this aspect of the novel. Anything to do with guns, planes or ships sounds authentic. Where the book failed, for me, was the characterization.
Just one example. Roberto Cardenas, a member of the Colombian Brotherhood, has a beautiful daughter who is his one weakness. He reminded me of Ming the Merciless that way, and the daughter is easily seduced by the gigolo the Cobra hires. She was lucky he wasn’t a rapist, since on the day she meets him, she allows him to walk her to her apartment and kiss her. We’re not told what the gigolo looks like, just that he’s “drop-dead gorgeous”. If he had been a boat, Forsyth would no doubt have put more effort into his description. Anyway, it’s very convenient for the Cobra that she was such a pushover.
The welder who worked on all the cocaine-smuggling ships is almost as easily convinced once he’s kidnapped, taken to the States and offered a new life there for his family as well. Dexter assures him that in the States, the welder’s son could grow up to be anyone. “Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief.” Okay, not the last one, but the welder is won over. “Pedro? My son, a senator?” he says, and coughs up a list of eighty-seven ships from memory. After that, it’s Global Hawks, Buccaneers, Q-ships and political machinations to put the cartel’s allies away as well.
The end was where the novel really faltered, though. The Cobra’s plan succeeds so brilliantly that it creates a cocaine deficit in the States, which eventually results in widespread gang warfare that takes out some innocent bystanders as well. To the Cobra, this is acceptable collateral damage—especially since the gang hostilities won’t last for much longer—but the Oval Office thinks differently and orders a ceasefire in the literal War on Drugs. Since it was obvious that the book couldn’t end with cocaine being completely neutralized as a threat, this ending would have worked for me… but apparently it didn’t for the author.
Therefore, he has the Cobra strike a deal with Don Diego when they finally meet for the first time, and the Cobra offers to sell him back a hundred and fifty tons of stolen cocaine for a billion dollars. His reasoning is that he placed his faith in only God and his country, but now his country has let him down.
Imagine you are a cocaine kingpin. You meet for the first time with someone who has crippled your operation, stolen billions of dollars from you, convinced your people to betray you and tricked you along every step of the way. This person then offers to sell you back some of your own property. Do you:
1. Accept the offer in all sincerity?
2. Shoot the guy and say, “A hundred and fifty tons of cocaine, one billion dollars. Getting rid of you, priceless. For everything else, there’s Mastercard”?
I’d pick the second option, but that’s why I’m not a cocaine kingpin. So the Cobra, previously an ice-cold spymaster who was nevertheless on the side of the angels, now becomes a venal hypocrite (obviously God can’t have been all that important to him if he was willing to sell cocaine).
And he also suffers a lobotomy along the way. After the hundred and fifty tons is sunk at sea at the last minute by Dexter when he finds out about the deal, does the Cobra go into hiding? Does he take any steps to protect himself from Don Diego? No, he stays in his house and is murdered. I’d have tried a little harder to stay alive, but then again, I’m not a spy trained by the CIA.
The Cobra has its bad moments and its good ones. If you enjoy Forsyth novels and want to remember this one fondly, stop at the point where the Oval Office pulls the plug on the operation and you won’t be left with the impression that Forsyth had no idea what to do with the Cobra after that point. He did so much with the Cobra before then that the character deserved a better send-off.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Extremes of size aren’t something I’ve seen in a lot of fantasies. Of course, there are mentions of giants in mythology — the Nephilim, Goliath, Ajax, the Titans and so on — and they appear in role-playing gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy. But they’re never really defined as a race in their own right, with a unique biology or culture.
Then again, extremes of size aren’t biologically feasible. As Arthur Conan Doyle pointed out in his essay “The Road to Lilliput”, someone along the lines of Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (an excellent book, by the way) would be dead long before he was able to dig a pit trap for a black widow spider.
In a fantasy, that wouldn’t matter so much, but there should be some differences of thought and behavior and belief. If there are humanoids only a couple of inches tall, where do they live and how do they deal with a world where everything is so large? Terry Pratchett’s Truckers is a wonderful take on this. The Nomes, who live secretly in a mall, are resourceful and work together to evacuate their population before the mall closes down for good. But there’s still a great deal they don’t know, and the part where they try to drive a truck is hilarious.
Sharon Baker’s novel Journey to Membliar provides a darker take on the matter. Tadge, a child of the tiny Takanu people, rides on the shoulders of Cassia, who’s one of the bigger and taller Rabu, and even steers her by judicious use of her braids. And in A Song of Ice and Fire, there are giants beyond the Wall, but these are bestial creatures who ride woolly mammoths and speak a different language.
Sexual dimorphism occurs in so many species in the real world, and my favorite is the anglerfish, where the females look like something out a nightmare but the males look small and innocuous. Probably the best example of this in fantasy is a Nebula award-winning short story by James Tiptree, Jr, called “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (reprinted in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever). The alien narrator of the story—no humans appear in it—is large, powerful, spiderlike and male. He finds a tiny female, falls in very protective love and wraps her carefully in silk so he can carry her everywhere with him.
The problem? Females of his species eventually grow larger than the males, and are much hungrier when they’re pregnant…
Finally, size and age could be inversely proportional. There was a Star Trek: Voyager episode where aliens (humanoid, of course) turned into small children as they grew older, but the children behaved like children rather than like octogenarians — probably because the episode would have been over much quicker if they had acted their age. Someone on the Nitcentral forum also speculated on what size these aliens might be at birth (ouch!), which reminded me of a haiku by Darren Greer:
My child is born
Takes me in its arms
Friday, February 8, 2013
I’m a Black Widowers fan, so when I found out there was a final collection of these Asimov mysteries, along with some homages from other authors, I put The Return of the Black Widowers on my Amazon wish list. This was in Iqaluit, by the way.
Then I came back home to Toronto and thought of getting the book from the library. As a result, it’s no longer on my wish list.
The Return of the Black Widowers includes ten of the best Black Widowers stories from previous collections, so if you’re curious about them, that’s a good enough reason to pick up the book. Fans have probably read these collections already, though. So the only reason for me to have the book was the new material, and there’s where the book faltered.
There’s a reason the new material wasn’t published in its own, standalone collection — it’s not very good. There are many Widowers mysteries where I haven’t been able to guess the twist or the answer — “The Redhead”, “The Iron Gem”, “Early Sunday Morning”, etc. — and these are brilliant. There are also a few where I do, well ahead of the characters, like “None so Blind”, but usually this only happens once or twice in a volume.
In this collection, I guessed the solutions to “Northwestward”, “Yes, But Why?” (when you’ve eliminated all the other possibilities, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the answer), “The Haunted Cabin” and “The Last Story”. That’s half of the new stories in the collection. As for the remainder, one of the stories doesn’t feature the Black Widowers at all and another revolves around where a man left his umbrella. I like questions such as How did a poorly achieving student manage to ace the hardest exam? from “Ph as in Phony”, which is included in this collection. I just couldn’t get too interested in the whereabouts of an umbrella.
The book has an interesting foreword by Harlan Ellison, so maybe that’s another reason to read it. But buying it? For newcomers and die-hard enthusiasts only.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
"Even the biggest publishing houses had to start from the bottom of the pile."
Penny Peterssen, former Director of Marketing for Naughty Nights Press - Link
"EVERY publisher that is successful today started off with no experience and no titles."
Rebecca Hamilton, Immortal Ink Publishing - Link
This claim has been made by more than one startup press, usually when questioned about the experience (or lack thereof) of the press’s staff. If every publisher was founded with little to no resources, the reasoning goes, and yet some grew to Random-House-esque proportions, surely a lack of knowledge or funds should not be a red flag for the press in question.
The claim never fails to annoy me, though, mostly because three minutes of Googling proves it inaccurate.
Del Rey was created by Judy Lynn Del Rey, an experienced editor, and Lester Del Rey, an established author.
Tor was founded by Tom Doherty, who had a lot of background when it came to the industry. From the link: "He was a salesman for Pocket Books in 1959 when he met Ian Ballantine, who taught him about publishing. A variety of sales and publishing jobs later, Doherty became publisher of Ace in 1975, where he remained for five years until starting Tor Books in 1980."
Donald A. Wollheim was an editor at Avon and Ace before he founded DAW Books in 1972.
Bloomsbury was founded by Nigel Newton, who previously worked as a sales manager and deputy managing director for Sidgwick & Jackson, an imprint of Pan Macmillan.
Baen Books was founded by Jim Baen, who started as an assistant at Ace, edited for two magazines and was hired by Tom Doherty to run Ace's SF line.
These are not people who woke up one day, decided to be publishers, set up a website and started accepting manuscripts.
As for smaller presses, Samhain's Christina Brashear worked at Ellora’s Cave, and the editor-in-chief at BenBella Books was at Random House. In summary, not everyone started at the bottom. At best, such a claim suggests the people making it haven’t done their research. At worst, they’re hoping you haven’t done yours.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
This is inspired by a book I read recently – The Speckled Monster: a Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox. Smallpox was one of the most feared diseases in the world, and for good reason. If it didn’t kill its victims, it often left them horribly disfigured or even blind, when the pocks involved the eyes.
So, what uses can disease be in fantasy worlds?
1. Confers benefits
Half the fun of creating characters with abilities or powers normal humans don’t have is saddling the characters with disadvantages and flaws to make up for that. The flip side would be starting with the negative, giving the character a significant disease and showing how this gives him an equally significant advantage.
There’s precedence for this in real-life. People with the abnormal red blood cells produced by sickle-cell anemia have some protection from malaria. Maybe in a fantasy, people with terminal cancer become able to see glimpses of the future—including their own inevitable deaths. Or what if such superpowers were linked to genetic conditions like Down’s syndrome?
2. Adds physical flaws to a character
I once read a romance novel (Lorraine Heath’s Sweet Lullaby) where the hero had smallpox scars. They probably weren’t that disfiguring, but the very fact that he had an imperfection that wasn’t the usual thin, rakish duelling scar was something I remember years later.
Other diseases leave their own marks. Meningitis can lead to the amputation of limbs, and trachomatis to blindness. Be creative with fantasy diseases—perhaps being bitten by an infected mosquito leaves you with insectile features like compound eyes.
3. Biological warfare
This is my favorite, and yes, it can work in a medieval fantasy—though the flying corpses of Kaffa may not actually have spread the bubonic plague through a city in real life. Any communicable disease can work, as long as it acts quickly (AIDS is out) and can be spread with relative ease (AIDS is out, again). More effective killers would be transmitted through aerosols or droplets, by casual touch, by vectors like insects or by water.
It would also help if animals or humans used to spread the disease did not show any symptoms while they were infective (or even afterward—if they were the equivalent of Typhoid Mary). Rabies would be a great way to spread terror through a population if animals didn’t behave strangely or foam at the mouth.
4. Isolation tactic
This is a great way to provide some privacy in a medieval world. If a ship is coming into a foreign harbor with a cargo that might be better off not declared, have her docked at a distance while she’s inspected, on suspicion of plague. Of course there is none, but no one’s going to risk going aboard until that’s confirmed.
Plus, if a character makes her face up such that she resembles a leper, not many people will get close to her. Or know what she actually looks like, for that matter.
5. Natural population limiter
Humanoid populations probably don’t breed at such a rate that they would require this kind of check on their numbers, but it would work for any fecund species which might otherwise strain the environment’s carrying capacity. Think myxomatosis decimating rabbit populations in Australia.
This might, of course, be a problem if a humanoid population depended on this species for food. Or if the disease spread to the farmers and herders as well…
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
One of the things I enjoy about Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Ethshar novels is that the main characters are so ordinary. On the rare occasions that they have inherent magic, it tends to be either so basic it’s not of much help, or it has such a significant flaw it becomes a problem in and of itself.
In The Spell of the Black Dagger, Lady Sarai, the Minister of Investigations of Ethshar of the Sands, is one of those people who lack any talent in magic. Desperate low-life Tabaea the Thief is another. And although they start out worlds apart in every way, their paths cross in a clash that will involve every kind of magic… and shake the city to its foundations.
It all begins when Tabaea sneaks into a wizard’s house and spies on him as he teaches his apprentice how to make an athame, the magical dagger which every wizard carries. Tabaea gets the bright idea of listening in on the entire process and making her own athame. Being a wizard (albeit one lacking Guild authorization) has got to be easier than stealing for a living.
Except she gets something wrong. The dagger turns black, and doesn’t give her any magic powers of her own, much to her despair.
What it does do, though, is something she discovers much later. When she kills someone with it, she gains their power — whether that person is a wizard or a warlock (capable of flight and telekinesis) or a witch (able to sense when someone is lying).
Watt-Evans’s characters never behave as though they’ve read the script, so Tabaea kills a theurgist and a demonologist as well, to see if she gains their specialized knowledge. That doesn’t work, but the string of unusual murders catches Lady Sarai’s attention, and as the Minister of Investigations, she sets out to find the killer. Meanwhile, the Wizards’ Guild is after Tabaea as well, to avenge the wizard she murdered.
That’s when they find out the Black Dagger negates any spells cast at her. Oh, and each time she kills someone she gains that person’s life, meaning a sword-thrust to the heart will stop her in her tracks for a moment or two until she recovers and strikes back — with more power than any wizard has ever had. What happens when her newfound power goes to her head, how the magicians of Ethshar join forces to stop her and what Lady Sarai does to reach her first… well, better not spoil it for anyone.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly and would recommend it to any readers in the mood for great worldbuilding, realistic characters and a solid story. Watt-Evans’s The Unwelcome Warlock is on my list of books to buy as well, and I’ll be sure to review that when the time comes.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
It’s good to be back here—in my own place, in the bright lights of the big city and in the blogosphere as well. I was so busy and stressed in Iqaluit that I didn’t feel up to writing, let alone blogging, and my Internet connection was such that the latter probably wouldn’t have been feasible anyway.
I saw a seal-skinning contest and ate a bit of the raw seal meat as well. I also tried raw blubber and raw Arctic char, though the latter tastes better cooked, IMO. I staggered to work through the start of a blizzard and bought bear carvings and learned how to say “white man” in Inuktitut. But now I’m back, and here are a few of the pictures from my sojourn in the Land of Always Winter. Also some from a brief trip to Nova Scotia, which was a lot more fun.
Enjoying one of Nature’s popsicles in the Sylvia Grinnell Park. Would you believe this picture was taken in June?
So was this one. I took off my coat and sweater for the photograph so I would look hardcore, and I was shivering uncontrollably.
The seal-skinning contest, held for Nunavut Day celebrations.
One of the many stone sculptures in Iqaluit.
A plane coming in to land.
Picking apples in Nova Scotia. I’ve never eaten so many apples, and it was fun learning to tell the different strains apart.
Not going to fall… not going to fall…
This is one of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen. That’s the ocean framed between the rocks, and a huge seaweed garden waving softly in the tide.
The car stopped at the side of the road so I could look at the cows… and all the cows promptly congregated at the fence to look at me.
A corn maze. I’m pretending I’m in “Children of the Corn”, hence the peculiar expression.
Flowers growing between the rocks at Peggy’s Cove.
It was definitely an unforgettable time of my life.
Sunday, May 27, 2012
After living in Iqaluit for two weeks now, I've had some... interesting, shall we say?... experiences, but before I get too deep into those, here's a story one of my co-workers told me about her attempt at ice-fishing.
So Katherine went out on to the ice to try her luck, and she stayed there for what felt like several freezing hours without a bite. Nearby, though, an Inuk woman was at a similar hole in the ice, pulling out big fish after big fish with ease.
Finally Katherine felt a tug on her line. Excited, she hauled on it, only to bring up a tiny fish the length of her finger.
The Inuk woman looked over at it. Obviously trying to be encouraging, she said, "Catch eleven more of those and you can make soup!"
At that moment a large raven swooped down, grabbed Katherine's fish and flew off.
The Inuk woman said, "Twelve."
Friday, May 11, 2012
I've been offered a job in Iqaluit, which is a little distance from Toronto (see map for further details). It's a four-month contract position, so I should be back before the winter really sets in, which is a bit of a relief since winter temperatures in Iqaluit can get down to -45 C. -65, with wind chill. You can see how close the place is to the Arctic Circle, which means the sun rises just after 3 am.
It's going to be quite the experience. I've never lived anywhere so far north; apparently that's all permafrost, so there are no trees or even much vegetation. Iqaluit is also the only territorial capital which is not connected by highways to the mainland, so all groceries have to be shipped or flown in except for local fare such as caribou, seal and Arctic char. I'm going to be flying up there Monday morning, and I don't know how reliable my Internet connection will be after that, but I'll use any free time (when I'm not working or taking in the local culture) to get some writing done.
Wish me luck, guys!
Sunday, May 6, 2012
The island-state of Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, who devised the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. His accomplishment is commemorated in a memorial monument with 35 tiles spelling out his immortal sentence.
The problem begins subtly, though, when the Z tile falls off.
Ella Minnow Pea, one of the islanders, writes to her cousin Tassie to explain that the islanders’ Council has met to discuss the implications of this. They conclude that, rather than the tile’s fall being a random event, it must be a sign from the island’s favorite son. Nollop no longer wishes the letter Z to be used, and therefore it must be removed from use and vocabulary.
Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters tells the story of how the island’s community and culture spirals down from there. Eliminating the Z doesn’t seem too difficult at first, but when Tassie’s mother, a teacher, accidentally refers to twelve eggs in a different way, one of her students reports her to the Council. Penalties are imposed for such misdeeds, and a third offense means banishment from the island.
The Q drops off next, and the J. As news spreads, the editor of an American journal arrives with the news that chips from the broken tiles have been smuggled to a laboratory for analysis. The glue affixing the tiles to the monument is faulty, and chemists predict that more tiles will fall.
As that happens, the islanders’ vocabulary shrinks along with their numbers. People who have not been banished have fled; those who remain have to change their names to avoid forbidden letters. And Ella tries her best to devise a new pangram that will replace Nollop’s all-but-deified sentence, because only this will convince the Council to relent.
Tiles plop. 8 tiles plomp plomp plomp all in one nite.
Tee ent is near.
So lon A!
So lon E! (Nise to no ewe.)
The book starts sedately, but once the islanders take their first steps on to the slippery slope of censorship and totalitarianism, the plot picks up speed. It’s both fascinating and unnerving to see how fear eats away at their common sense and social structure, turning otherwise good people into informers and fundamentalists. And yet the story unfolds with both elegance and humor, such as when the Council sends written notice of deportation to a woman, concluding with: “You may bring two suitcases. We will permit, also, one hatbox.”
As well as being an engaging satire, this is a great read for anyone who enjoys the written word. It was on my must-buy list, and now it’s on my shelf.