I Broke a Solemn Vow

A few years ago I read the novel Step on a Crack by (ostensibly) James Patterson and (reprehensibly) Michael Ledwidge. It was awful. Really, really horrible. After reading it, not only did I vow never to read anything with James Patterson’s name on it ever again, I vowed to stay clear of anything published by Little, Brown and Company, as clearly there was no editor there, just marketers trying to find ways to put Patterson’s name in larger type on the cover.

So-called critics gushed over the steaming pile of poo, which shows how professional critics make a living.

In fact, before I get to the actual subject of this episode, let me step into the way-back machine and relive just how ghastly awful Step on a Crack was.

Let’s you and I imagine for a moment that we are bad guys — wait, no, we are criminal masterminds. Let’s also imagine that criminal masterminds have a place they like to hang out and discuss evil plots. We’re sitting, having a beer, discussing which root certificate authority is the most vulnerable, when a new guy bellies up to the bar.

“Got a big thing going on,” he says.

“Oh?” You ask, not wanting to be rude.

“I know some stuff about this Cathedral,” he says. “If I can get a bunch of A-listers and world leaders in there all at once, I can do some damage.”

“Nice,” I say. We’re all evil here, and this sounds promising.

“How you going to get them in there?” you ask.

“A funeral,” he says, and that appeals to both of us. “Former first lady. Beloved the world over. She dies, the world comes callin'”

“Nice,” I say again. I’m not terribly creative.

“So you’re going to kill the former first lady?” you ask.

“Damn straight,” our newcomer says. “There’s this restaurant they go to every year. Anniversary or something like that.”

“And you’re going to shoot her at the restaurant,” you say.

“Even better,” the man says, “She’s allergic to peanuts.” You start to get that sinking feeling. Real masterminds keep things simple.

“You don’t say,” you say.

“Yep. I’m going to get a guy hired there as a cook, and he’s going to put peanut oil in her food.”

Questions start to bubble up in your mind. How does this man know that his peanut-oil slinger will be scheduled to work that day? How does he know that he will be on the line and get that dish? What if the chef decides to do the one for the first lady personally? This plan is starting to sound pretty fishy. “Or you could shoot her,” you suggest.

“Then people will know it’s murder. There will be too much security at the funeral.”

“Huh,” we say together. “She’ll have an Epipen,” I say. “One blast of adrenaline and she’ll last long enough to get to the hospital.”

Our fellow mastermind shakes his head. “I’m thinking what with all the excitement of the anniversary and all, she’ll forget it.”

“Isn’t she protected by the Secret Service?” you ask.

“Sure, but they won’t know about her life-threatening allergy. They’re just there to protect her life.”

“So…” I say.

You sum it up. “Your entire plan is predicated on the assumption that no one will be able to handle a food allergy, even though there will be several people there with a vested interest in being prepared for it, and she will die as a result.”

“What about your guy on the inside?” I ask. “They’re going to grill him pretty hard.”

“Nah, why would they?”

“Because he killed the former first lady.” You remind him. “They’re going to put the entire kitchen through the wringer.”

“I don’t think they’ll bother,” our fellow mastermind says. “Accidents happen, you know.” He slaps the bartop. “And that’s only step one! Wait ’till I tell you how we get away!”

The above part of the “mastermind’s” plan gets us though the first few preposterous pages of the Patterson/Ledwidge farce Step on a Crack. I read the whole damn thing, and I promise you it doesn’t get any better. Thus I vowed to boycott the whole Patterson swindle.

If you have already guessed by the title of this episode that I broke that vow, congratulations! You are smarter than any character in Crack. A while back I was early to pick up an order at Panda Express (as Chinese as McDonalds is Scottish, but some days nothing else will do) and I needed something to read. iBookstore was quick to tell me that the latest Patterson was FREE! I decided, for science, to see if the opening few pages of the latest work compared with Crack.

So I downloaded Private, only realizing later that by doing so I participated in the swindle. I helped produce inflated numbers for the book, which will ultimately lead to more people paying money for the rot. You see, each Patterson book is called a #1 best-seller because book stores order lots of copies, not because people buy them. THEN people buy them because it looks like the book is really successful. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Anyway, I read the prolog. The first sentence was really quite good. I stopped to savor the moment before continuing. The rest of that first very short chapter wasn’t too bad either, although the contortions the writer went through to make the protagonist as heroic as fuckin’ possible got pretty ridiculous. In one paragraph the dude is dead from unspecified war-related injuries, heart stopped and everything, then maybe three sentences later he’s knocked his buddy down and is running toward a burning helicopter. I think if the author could have worked in puppies in mortal peril he would have.

Still, better than Crack. The writer at least has some sort of voice.

In the second chapter of the prolog he visits his father in prison and learns he will inherit fifteen million dollars and a (thoroughly discredited) private detective agency (named “Private”) that caters to the rich and famous. His n’er-do-well twin brother is not to know about this.

There’s a few hundred pages after that, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read them to know what’s going to happen. Hot movie star almost-girlfriend imperiled by evil twin, (only of course that’s the big surprise), yadda yadda.

Not bad for a Patterson, though, I’ll give ’em that.

Drowning Mermaids

I just finished reading a book called Drowning Mermaids. I’m not sure why I finished it; several times I set my electro-book thingie down and asked the ceiling, “Why am I still reading this?”

I don’t have a good answer. My first warning came on the second page, when a veteran sailor refers to the ‘washroom’ on the boat. First note to writer: If you’re going to write scenes on a boat, take a little time to learn about boats, and the vocabulary of sailors.

This may seem like a nitpick, but it’s an indicator of the poor polish and care of the writer. Later, we learn that this industrial fishing boat had a bathtub. I don’t expect everyone who reads these words to know how absolutely ridiculous that is (although… come on), but I expect the writer of this story to know.

On the other hand, I was entirely able to accept the genetic branch of the human species that enabled under-water breathing. Scientifically it’s preposterous, but in this context played just fine. Crazy species are popping up all the time. I needed one more mutation to make this story work, however — a human in arctic water has about thirty seconds to live, and it has nothing to do with oxygen. Odd to make underwater breathing scientific, but resistance to cold magical.

Structurally, the story isn’t bad. If each chapter were rendered with half the words, we’d have a good start on a decent yarn. Those chapters, they need trimming. They just drift along, whacking on the same points over and over. Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be another way to beat that horse, you’re treated to another few paragraphs of the same stuff. Even the individual points reviewed repeatedly are unnecessarily long-winded with each iteration, often using the same language each time. It just keeps going on. Kind of like this paragraph. It gets annoying fast, doesn’t it?

I am fully aware of the irony of me accusing others of rambling, but when Main Dude asks Main Chick for forgiveness for the third damn time in the chapter, and gets the same answer each time, you have to think that maybe things could have been tightened up a smigde. Here’s a digest of that conversation:

“I’m sorry I was such an asshole.”
“It’s all right.”
“Are you sure? I mean, I’ve been a monumental asshole.”
“I love you, and I have to take the good with the bad. You are forgiven.”
“But… I’ve been preposterously assholish. You can’t possibly forgive me.”
“How many times are we going to go around this subject? Believe you’re forgiven and shut up, or call me a liar and get the fuck out. Asshole.”

That last line is not an accurate representation of the story. At all. That conversation? It took several pages (whatever ‘page’ means these days) in the book, as each party internally reviewed stuff we already knew, reacting the same way they did the last time they internally reviewed it, picking at the scabs over old wounds. Sharply-written dialog, a couple of telling gestures, and all those pages of smoke can be compressed into a half-page firecracker.

Tightening the narrative would have reduced the number of times I paused to look at the ceiling to wonder if I should go on. By the end of the book my pauses were longer and more frequent, and the only answer to “why am I still reading this?” became, Because it’s almost over. I’d made it this far, I would see it to the end.

Even that motivation almost wasn’t enough. The big confrontation is going down and our main mermaid has an opportunity to spend five frickin’ seconds to simplify her situation dramatically. The narrator tells us “Aazuria knew that she should stop and XXX, but…” and a lame excuse follows. (Five frickin’ seconds!) You know what that phrase really says? “The writer knew she should find a better way to resolve this situation in a way that propels the plot forward, but she didn’t bother.”

Those are the moments that separate the pros from the amateurs.

To tie with my comments about brevity above, Aazuria stops to review her unbelievable decision in the next chapter as well, accomplishing nothing but chewing up words to remind us that we got to this point in the story through artificial means. The writer’s guilty conscience peeks through again.

Ultimately this is a romance story, so all that other stuff is subordinate to the relationship between Main Mermaid and Boss Fisherman. There’s good news on this front: There was a point that I actually doubted the outcome of the romance. That’s a huge compliment for the writer, considering the contract romance writers make with their readers. Love damn well better conquer all in these stories; that’s why people read them. Probably if I was a more regular consumer of the genre I would not have had my (enjoyable) moments of doubt.

Uh, I guess that was a spoiler. But come on. Love conquers all.

Side note: it’s almost comical how much the people on the cover don’t resemble the descriptions in the story. Especially the dude.

Hey, do you mind if I slip a couple more spoilers in here? If you think you might be reading Drowning Mermaids then you’ve probably already stopped reading this review, so I’m not too worried. But things get even spoilier from here on out.

The writer flirted with daring on a couple of occasions. Big Names Die… almost. They will all be back for the sequels, but now we know that they are safe. The writer has squandered the ability to make us worry for the fate of the major characters; they could be boiling in acidic lava while sharks eat their entrails and I’d be pretty comfortable betting they they would be back before the denouement for that episode.

Speaking of episodes, here’s something I must recognize: This story had an ending. Kind of crazy that I have to mention that as a plus, but these days it’s no slam dunk that a story will reach some sort of conclusion when the pages run out. There’s plenty of stuff still going on, Big Danger on the horizon, but we get to a place where specific issues have been resolved. It’s a good stopping point, and the underlying structure shows favorably.

I wasn’t going to bother providing a link to the novel on Amazon, but the cover is worth a chuckle. I’ll be adding the image shortly. Unless I don’t.

A Quest of Heroes

I have just read the sixty-fourth virtual page of the 400+ virtual pages of the first volume of a series of ten (and counting!). I have just met the Sword of Destiny. I have some predictions.

First there’s Thor. No, not the Norse God of Thunder, but a farm boy less strapping (and less loved) than his brothers. Let’s give the author credit for not even trying to hide the fact that Thor is the Chosen One. Argon the kick-ass druid told us so, in that wizard-not-revealing-things-that-will-break-the-plot kind of way, before vanishing. Thor seems like a good kid.

Interesting wrinkle: When Thor first discovers his power, it’s after praying (at a time of distress) to Big-G God. Not very druid-like; it remains to be seen if that’s going to be a theme or if that was just the writer accidentally slipping monotheism into the text.

And yes, the Top Druid in this story is named after an element. I’m waiting for Xenon to show up and challenge him. But while that remains unknown, there are many certainties.

Thor is a loyal subject of Good King. The lands of Good King have known peace for a long time; geographically, the kingdom is well-protected. Good King rules half of a circle of territory surrounded by a circular valley and a magical barrier, which keeps the unwashed barbarians without at bay. Inside, Good King has only one rival: Bad King. In the story they have different names (Scottish ones, actually).

I’ve read to the point in the story where the King is regarding the Sword of Destiny, which is almost literally the sword in the stone of Arthurian legend. Good King hoped to be the guy to lift it from the spikes or whatever-the-hell is restraining it. No dice.

So here’s what’s happening right now: Good King’s elder daughter is getting married to Bad King’s son. It’s happening in the capital city of Good Kingdom. Lots of Bad King’s people will be in Good City. Barbarians seem to be gathering for an attack outside the magical barrier. Somewhere far away, Thor has decided to say “Fuck you, dad! I’m going to force the army to take me!”

So, the predictions: Treachery! Bad King uses the happy occasion to overwhelm Good City! Somehow, his Evil Druid (Xenon?) finds the magical switch that turns off the barrier that protects both their kingdoms from the hordes outside. Our kid Thor arrives to find the city in turmoil. Events, fortitude, and whatnot bring Thor to the palace.

Good King will be killed. He will die with honor.

Remember when I said Good King’s elder daughter is getting married? That implies a younger one. There has been no hint of her in the narrative so far, but it’s a slam dunk that Thor will be in the palace, assholes will be sniffing around her ankles, and the Sword of Destiny will come to hand. And shit will go down. A princess will be impressed.

All of which has me ready to be a little disappointed. You see, Thor’s brothers are all about living by the sword, while Thor has developed a near-supernatural skill with the sling. I’m going to be a little sad when Thor surpasses his brothers by being better at the sword rather than rendering the sword obsolete.

I might hope that the writer could surprise me, but a key formative moment has already been lost. Thor doesn’t like killing things. He’s a gentle soul. When a terrible creature has one of Thor’s sheep in its jaws, Thor’s first bullet is to kill the sheep, to end her suffering.

So then it’s ON between Thor and this huge-ass killing machine. Thor’s taking a right beating until he prays to big-G God and finds the power he needs to survive. This was a pivotal moment for me, as a reader. “How much do you value life?” I asked through the text. Thor killed the thing. Given the time and context, an obvious decision. Not even a decision, really, just the way things are done. Mankind asserting its dominance over the world.

But in that context, how powerful would it have been if Thor had let the predator go free?

It’s not fair, really, to ask those questions of someone else’s work. It’s just that Thor has been presented as a champion of life, and when faced with the ultimate predator he has to accept that most lives feed on others.

____

Time has passed, pages have turned, and while structurally things are moving in the inescapable grooves reserved for fantasies like this, grooves that have been gouged in the rocky soil of storydom over the years, etched in the very bedrock by the passage of countless interchangeable plots, many of my predictions above proved, while not wrong, to be impatient. Bad King and Outer Hordes are definitely going to attack. Sword of Desitny will end up in Thor’s hand. Younger princess (who has been chosen to rule the land when Good King dies) has arrived and is definitely sweet on Thor.

The story reads like a novel aimed at middle-school kids; the sentence structure is very basic and the vocabulary is limited. More than that, the plot seems more geared toward gratification than conflict. Thor’s trajectory has been steadily upward, and he’s started to collect plot tokens.

Ojects appear out of nowhere when needed and disappear again when inconvenient. One of Thor’s mystical plot-token pets, a white leopard cub, has only been fed a mouthful of beer as far as I can tell, despite Thor worrying about caring for the beast.

Then there’s the second sun, which doesn’t seem to have a name, and doesn’t affect the world much at all. It may be some sort of variable star, because plenty of times, the day is delimited by the position of ‘the sun’. Singular. Note to the writer: if you’re going to add a romantic detail like two suns, you need to work it. For instance, some days Big Sun (man sun?) will rise before Little Sun (woman?). Other times, it will be the other way around. In a world bound by prophesy and destiny, you can get a lot of mileage out of stuff like that.

Despite those warts, I’ve been enjoying the read, up until last night. What can I say? Sometimes I like an easy read geared toward gratification. But last night…

This is going to be a spoiler, if such a thing can possibly happen when discussing a story like this.

… last night as I read, Thor learned that Good King was going to be poisoned. Thor must warn GK! He goes to the castle, but Good King is out. The warning will have to wait.

Not long after that, Thor is talking to Good King’s youngest son. Thor doesn’t mention his fears to someone particularly well-suited to help prevent the catastrophe. Then Thor talks to another guy who could help, but doesn’t bring it up. Instead, Thor volunteers to spend the entire fucking day riding far from the castle – so far he might not get back in time to deliver his warning.

Oh, and he easily could have passed word to Good King’s Eldest Son somewhere along the way.

In exchange for this horrible plot contrivance, we do get a very good treatise on the nature of chivalry and heroism. Rough paraphrase: “Don’t work to be better than the other guy, work to be a better person than you are now.” I liked that part. The titular Quest, it turns out, is more internal — the quest to always be better than you were yesterday. That, kids, is how you turn the theme of your story.

But then I thought about the context. While Thor is hearing this lecture, he’s being incredibly derelict. When he learned the King was not in the castle, did Thor go and try to find him? Nope. Sure, ditching his training might have got him kicked out of the army, but that’s exactly the kind of sacrifice he should be willing to make.

I’d actually talked myself into paying for the second installment of this escapist fluff, but now I’m not so sure. It’s the convenient forgetting-of-things that’s undermining my pleasure. The last one, forgetting that Good King is in deadly peril and that Thor’s every act should be to thwart the plot, is the killer.

All Timelines Lead to Rome

Dale Cozort is an interesting guy. He’s a hard-working writer, and he’s a friend of mine. Among the Kansas Bunch, Dale’s the guy who gets things done.

At summer camp in Kansas this year, during the book signing event, I picked up Dale’s latest work and gave it to him to sign. We chatted a bit and he hesitated over the page, and wrote his name. No personal message, no ready quip. (In contrast, Kevin Anderson wrote “faster than light!” in my copy of Tau Ceti, a generic message in what turned out to be a generic story.) Dale hesitated and just wrote his name in functional cursive. It made me laugh. That’s Dale.

I am biased in favor of Mr. Cozort, but I will never say I liked something I didn’t, just because the writer is my pal. If I didn’t like it, I’d just say nothing. I liked All Timelines Lead to Rome.

I’ve seen early drafts of some of his other stories and they’re problematic, as are the early drafts of every story. Seeing those drafts colors my expectations, even as people who read my drafts form their own conclusions. But Dale’s a hard-working writer, and an intelligent man, and he’s not afraid of a rewrite. Even if he doesn’t agree with a particular criticism, he will use his defense of it to improve the story. What comes out in the end is a solid tale.

Dale loves to mash cultures together. I think he spends his idle time just pondering things like “what would a pre-columbian Apache think of Beethoven?” It’s what Dale does. (My own thought: what would Beethoven do with electric guitars?) This time, we have discovered that with an adequate application of energy, we can cross to an alternate Earth where the Romans are still in control after all this time. But two thousand years later, they still haven’t sailed across the Atlantic. Technological advancement has stopped over in Europe. In America, the Indians are entering the bronze age.

The reason the Romans have maintained their power yet have ceased any technological advancement is a fascinating one. Without the intervention of our timeline, I imagine Indians in Pennsylvania learning steel and kicking Europe’s ass.

There’s nothing like that in the book, but it’s a credit to Dale’s idea that one is tempted to spin new what-ifs against the original conceit. It’s fun that way.

And while Dale loves to mash cultures together, his main guy in this story is devoted to keeping them apart. He’s on a team to limit the harm done to both worlds by free interaction. An impossible job. Around him are people drooling over the oil fields in alternate Texas, coveting the real estate in the alternate Montana, and smuggling sweet (and potentially plague-bearing) artifacts from alternate Rome.

Perhaps the best idea in the story is the realization that what has caused alternate Rome to stagnate is contageous (in a social sense of the word, not a biological one). Once alternate Rome’s secret comes over to our world, technology might stagnate here, too. There are some really tricky ethical questions that come along for the ride. There’s a government cover-up, and at first I thought it was silly, and not a strength of the story. Even the current US Government wouldn’t blindly try to cover up something like this, right? Oh, wait, I take that back.

For all the good ideas, there are some rough edges to the book. Some gripes, intentionally left vague:

I just don’t buy the spunky cop/street gang thing. It just doesn’t make sense; gangs aren’t that patient. Too big an investment with no specific reward. The stretch would be easier to take if resulting events weren’t so central to the plot. And then there’s the personal history between two of the other characters that seems, well, convenient. And the resource-endowed member of that pair would probably have played things differently. Then there is a decision by the good guys that puts our hero in the right place, but it doesn’t hold up well under the spotlight, protect-both-worlds-wise.

None of those things stopped me from reading the story, and enjoying it. Sometimes you just have to turn off the damn spotlight.

To be honest, I didn’t expect to like this story as much as I did. (Sorry, Dale.) You see enough early versions by a writer and it colors your perception. But as I mentioned before Dale’s a hard worker, and we all start with crappy drafts. Best thing: the real strength of this tale is not any of the stuff I’ve mentioned so far. It’s the people. While I must be careful not to spoil things, not everyone is who they seem to be. Loyalty is the highest virtue and it shows up in surprising places. The crisis that foments the action comes from someone acting on the highest ideals.

And there are people with serious personal issues whom you like anyway. As a reader I found some of their bruises tougher to buy than others, but none of the main people is entirely whole. Everyone’s a little bit broken, and that makes a good story.

Generally I’m not hesitant to throw out spoilers, but this time I’m being coy, because I’d like you to read the story. I’m a little worried I’m overselling it; it’s not perfect, but I had a genuine good time reading this. Maybe you will too.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Judith Leiber Nabila Crocodile Exotic Shoulder Bag), I get a kickback.

Are You Shitting Me, <name of my employer here>?

One of the things I do is read. Another thing I do is review what I read. Occasionally, at least. Right now I’m wrapping up a review of a novel I downloaded from xBookstore (where x is an arbitrary letter of the alphabet) and I decided that I should share that review with others who might be interested in the story.

Oddly, I couldn’t figure out how to leave the review from my laptop. Then I realized I couldn’t figure out how to read the story from my laptop. Apparently that’s not a feature of that particular electronic bookstore. You must use an xDevice. Frankly I’m stunned. Boggled.

Also, I have more respect for the people whose reviews appear on that site; they were typed in adverse conditions.

Darwin’s Radio

Greg Bear has written before about the end of the human race. One thing he does well is making the end of mankind as we know it not such a bad thing. He’s also better at science than many Science Fiction writers out there.

Darwin’s Radio is a pretty good story with some really interesting science. You see, our DNA is filled with junk. It’s possible that some of that junk came from viruses that made themselves a permanent home in our genome. Now they’re just camped there, never activated, hitchhiking in the backwaters of our chromosomes. Mission accomplished, as far as preserving that pattern goes.

So what if some trigger kicked one of these garbage genes into production? And what if the resultant virus could hop from person to person and activate that gene in the new host’s cells? The virus could actually move DNA from one person to another.

Finally, what if that new virus activated a sequence of events that fundamentally changed our offspring? Perhaps it has happened in the past; evolution seems to be more a series of little jumps (and occasionally a big jump) rather than a continuous progression.

In this story, the time is roughly now. Biology, the ascendant science, is starting to produce astonishing results. And just as we start to understand the human genome, some crazy shit starts going down. DNA is moving laterally — being exchanged between people — and that’s never happened before. Bacteria share DNA willy-nilly, but they don’t keep their genetic material bundled up and cataloged they way more complex organisms do.

Children are coming out broken. And when they’re not broken, they’re weird. What would you do, if your job was to protect the people of your society? What if, as time passed, you realized that you were working to protect not just your society but humanity as we know it? Would you slaughter an entire village to contain the epidemic?

Maybe you wouldn’t, but you can bet your boots that there are plenty who would. And if saving the human race isn’t justification for a few atrocities, I don’t know what is. And the effects of the virus are really, really bad. Lots and lots of dead babies. People are doing the math and there might be a time when there are no children born alive at all.

Then there’s the guy who has evidence that all this has happened before, to the Neanderthals.

Despite all the science flying around, the root of the drama is political. How does a civilized, law-respecting society face a horrific health crisis that just keeps getting worse and worse? What effect can the ambitions of a few key people have on a global calamity?

Mr. Bear went out of his way to create a peripheral precondition for the virus to take effect: The parents have to be in love. Sex without love produces normal human babies. This makes love a biological condition, and I’m all right with that. Presumably the virus is designed to work in the cases where the new child has the best chance at success. Makes sense, but biology is rarely self-limiting like that. Even if the chance of success is zero, biology will give it a try.

Parents are also altered, and the disfigurement they suffer becomes a social stigma. They carry the virus.

There are some really good scenes in this story. The scene that first springs to mind is when one of our favorite characters is in a crowd. There is a surge, a change of atmosphere, and the peaceful gathering crosses a threshold and becomes a mob. It’s a moment impossible to define but obvious when you see it.

That said, there are also some events and one element of the science that I just couldn’t buy. That wasn’t enough to stop me from staying up later than I should to read a few extra pages each night.

The story ends with a lot of questions, but enough is known to allow the enthusiastic reader to set down the book and imagine a wide range of scenarios, all with one inevitable outcome. Any by the end, that outcome seems like a pretty cool thing.

If you like Science Fiction with actual science in it, you will likely enjoy this book.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Millage Flying Tourbillon (3826) Collection), I get a kickback.

Reading some Grimm

Most mornings, I spend my first waking half-hour slogging on an exercise machine. For the first two-thirds of the workout I’m able to read, as long as the story does not require intense concentration. I’m also a cheap bastard, so I gravitate toward e-publications that are free.

Lately as I’ve slaved over the machine, I’ve been reading stories translated from the original texts of the Brothers Grimm. Honestly, they’re not that compelling. They’re like pop songs; each story has a hook and some are more successful than others. If there’s one thing the stories do well, it’s repetition. Escalating cycles. Humility and standing up to your word are paramount.

As I was pumping the exercise machine the other day, appreciating the closure of a particularly contrived parable, I asked myself, “Is this how short stories worked back then?”

In fact, that is how short stories worked back then. The whole idea of ‘short story’ as we think of it today had not been defined. And while we credit Poe and Doyle with inventing the short story, we have to give a respectful nod to Wilhelm Grimm as a progenitor of the form.

I’m smiling as I picture poor Wilhelm in a modern writers’ workshop. “So,” the perceptive critic starts, “the cat has sleeves.” The critic raises exactly one eyebrow as she pins her gaze on the writer. Wilhelm smiles sheepishly. “When you have sleeves it changes you,” he says. He’s right, but the helpful critic never buys it. The problem isn’t really the sleeves, it’s the structure.

Willy Grimm wrote stories, and they are short, but they are by no approximation short stories as we understand the form today. Mostly they are shaggy dog stories. There’s a cadence to the stories, complete with rhymes, as folks who do the right thing are rewarded, as long as they don’t get uppity afterward. But lacking is the development of an idea. Short stories today are the retroviruses of ideas. Somehow what you read injects itself into who you are.

The ideas in Bros. Grimm’s tales are pretty simple, if you can call them ideas at all. “You shouldn’t be greedy because greed is bad, m-kay?”

There are some points of interest. Many of the stories as we know them have been pretty seriously watered down from the original. The princess and the frog? Not the story I was given as a kid. The bitch makes a promise to a frog just to get her ball back, with no intention whatsoever of honoring her word. Later the frog shows up on her doorstep and her dad the king forced her to live up to her word. She resists the frog and makes a liar of herself all the way, until he turns into a handsome prince of some sort. Then she’s all over him. If I’m the prince getting my body back after all those years, I’m saying, “seeya, gold digger, you lied and whined and now suddenly you’re my friend? Methinks not.” and finding my own happy pond. Probably a reflection of the times, but women in these stories are rewards. Do right, you get yourself a hot princess. Her opinion doesn’t matter much, because obviously to get to that position where you deserve the reward you are a virtuous prince, and she’s not going to argue with that.

OK, so modern ideas of sexual roles in society can’t be used to indict Msrs. Grimm. How were they to know that women were relevant unto themselves? But still, the stories come off as clumsy. Not really stories at all, but anecdotes which sometimes have a conclusion but just as often don’t. The characters go through a series of events and at the end, they are finished with those events, and life goes on.

Which makes these fantastic tales surprisingly realistic.