Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Cobra

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

Size in fantasy

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
And gently
Takes me in its arms

Friday, February 8, 2013

Return of the Black Widowers

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

Starting from the bottom

"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.