Harry Potter and the Two-Hour Prologue

Last week the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings & Half-Baked Ideas and I decided to watch the first Harry Potter movie. It was my first exposure to the franchise. Considering all the hype, and the penetration of the film into pop culture, the movie was surprisingly mediocre. Of course, it’s possible to make a crappy movie no matter how brilliant the source material is, but in this case the biggest problem with the movie was simply in its storytelling. I suspect it is a faithful reflection of flaws in the novel itself.

The biggest storytelling flaw in this flick is that it takes forever for the story to actually begin. I have been accused of “walking to the story” often enough to recognize it when I see it.

We start with a prologue that reveals nothing which isn’t amply explained in short order. Then we have many scenes that do nothing but establish setting. Crappy home life (perhaps more interesting if we didn’t know what we already do), shopping for school supplies, and so forth. As far as the actual story goes, we finally hear a whisper of the name that will shape his young life. But only a whisper, and we proceed with a series of events that aren’t moving anywhere. There are, James Bond-style, offhand mentions of things that conveniently turn out to be important later, but that’s about it.

Once he’s at school, we get closer to a plot, but not very quickly. We get to meet important friends and rivals, but mostly it’s still establishing setting, building a whimsical and magical world. Don’t get me wrong, the movie does a fine job of this, but it’s all done through a series of unrelated events.

One of those disconnected events is that Harry’s natural broom-riding ability leads him to be the “seeker” for his house team in the sport of Quidditch. The game is like this: A bunch of people fly around under very complicated rules, scoring points here and there, then the seeker from one of the teams catches a tiny flying robot-magic-thingie and the game is over, all the rest of the activity having been rendered moot. It makes for some good action scenes, but they are not in service of the story.

The story, what there is of it, is that there’s an important thing that bad guys want to steal. The most interesting part of that story is Snape, a teacher and the head of the “asshole” house at the school. So many things suggest he’s a bad guy, but… when shit gets real his actions are noticeably absent of evil.

When one makes a movie based on a novel, the hardest decisions the screenplay writers face is what to cut. A movie simply can’t contain an entire novel. I wonder, looking at what they decided to keep, looking at scene after scene that did not serve the story, what they decided to chop. More of the same? Or were they worried that rabid Harry Potter fans would riot if the movie didn’t include the gratuitous prologue that was in the novel, and instead cut more interesting things to remain “faithful”?

The next night OSoMR&HBI and I watched the next movie in the series, and now we have consumed two more. So clearly HP-1 was not so awful we walked away from the franchise. This was partly because friends assured us the following movies got better.

Today I realized why. The first movie is ALL prologue. It is the reading you are supposed to do before coming to class. Being a story is a secondary goal, behind introducing us to the world.

Aspiring writers take note: WORLD BUILDING IS NOT STORYTELLING. I recently had the privilege of reading a friend’s draft of a novel, and I realize now I forgot to compliment her on the way she built a really strange world through the telling of her story. She hit the ground running and we got to see the world as the action unfolded, in a natural way. So, just do that.

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Time for the Stars

Recently an acquaintance of mine asked the hive mind for examples of short stories that featured the time-dilating effect of traveling near the speed of light. Ideally the story would also feature one element where that rule is broken.

I immediately forgot the “short story” requirement and recommended Time for the Stars, a Young Adult novel by Robert Heinlein. It is exactly about that; it even takes a break for a lecture on time dilation, complete with the equation I call the “Einstein fudge factor” carefully typeset in the narrative.

I happen to have recently been reunited with a copy of that novel, one I received as part of a box set one fine Christmas morning in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of things I particularly remembered about that story, so I decided to give it a read once more after all these years.

The part of the story that Heinlein got the most pleasure from, I believe, is an organization called the Long Range Foundation, or LRF. They were endowed to pursue pie-in-the-sky research with no hope of commercial reward in any reasonable time frame. The kind of research that corporations and even governments can’t justify.

It turns out, however, that taking the long view can be embarrassingly profitable over decades and even centuries, and the LRF is constantly looking for deeper holes to dump their giant piles of cash into. One of those holes is interstellar travel. (They are already gushing cash from developing technology to allow travel all over the solar system.)

So they build a bunch of giant spaceships to go out and explore nearby star systems. They don’t actually expect any of those ships to ever make it back home, so they need a way for them to keep in touch. Which brings us to another one of their projects.

Pat and Tom are twins, the youngest children of a family over the quota for number of children (the Earth is staggering under the weight of five billion occupants). The LRF offers them a bit of cash to participate in a study. While they think they are cheating on a test, they are actually confirming that they are psychically linked.

This linkage is not bound by relativity and does not diminish with distance. The LRF gathers up all the psychic-twin pairs it can and loads up their giant spaceships (called Torch Ships) with half of each pair, several teams per ship. Now, even should the spaceships never return to the home world, the information they gather will.

The dynamic between the brothers is interesting, as they jockey for which will see the stars and which will stay home. One of the moments in the book that stuck with me all these years was when the ship’s doctor points out that Tom really doesn’t like his brother at all.

So Tom’s Torch Ship, the Lewis and Clark (or Elsie for short) flies away, and the time shift between the ship and Earth gradually accelerates. Communication is more and more difficult as the brains of the pair work at different speeds. Finally there is a period of isolation — a few weeks on the ship, and many years back home. Not all the psychic pairs can reconnect after such a long break, and a lot happens on Earth during that time each jump.

Meanwhile, science is trying to recreate itself to allow the concept of simultaneity, which relativity pretty thoroughly ruled out. It’s quite a long range sort of project.

Decades pass on Earth, months and then years pass on the ship.

Small Spoiler: Disasters happen, friends die — including the people in charge of helping everyone get along— and morale among the survivors becomes very low.

Occasionally, especially during disasters, I had to smile at the casual 1950’s-era sexism, and while the crew is racially diverse without making a big deal about it, there is a Wise Old Negro. I hadn’t noticed that stuff last time I read the story. Also, there was a bit of recklessness on the part of the crew when it came to exploring strange worlds. Plague sucks.

Big Spoiler: The most striking thing about the story is how it ends. Once physics introduced the concept of “irrelevance” — the idea that some things were not bound by relativity but existed outside that framework — work began to harness that phenomenon. After one particularly bad disaster, the Elsie is orbiting a planet and is told to stand by and wait for a rendezvous. A faster-than-light ship arrives shortly thereafter, straight from Earth. The install a device on Elsie and say that they will be returning to Earth. This is met with great joy among the remaining crew.

“When will we get there?” Tom asks.

“I thought we’d wait until after lunch, if that’s all right,” is the answer. Or something like that. Push a button, you’re home again. No fuss.

They return to Earth little more than a curiosity, Rip Van Winkles rendered suddenly and absolutely obsolete. Already faster-than-light ships have far eclipsed what had taken the Torch ships decades to accomplish. That the new technology could not have happened without their sacrifice is not much of a solace. And women, apparently, no longer wear hats, which was unthinkable when Tom left Earth.

There is a happy ending, at least for Tom; others of the crew have highly specialized skills that just don’t matter anymore. At least they have a few decades of back pay that’s been earning interest all this time. After all, legend has it that Einstein said compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or these silly shoes), I get a kickback.

Wrath of Athena

Before we get to the story, let me tell you a little about the author, Dale Cozort. He is part of a loose confederation of writers I have dubbed the “Kansas Bunch”, of which I am a member, though none of the others have adopted that name. Dale is unusual in our group, because he comes, gets advice, ignores a lot of it, and publishes his damn books. There are other published writers in the Kansas Bunch, some even famous or becoming so. But Dale is special in that regard. He plugs away, doing what he loves. He’s a very blue-collar sort of writer. No pretentious airs, just a story he feels good about.

So while I usually refer to authors by their last name in these little blurbs, Dale is “Dale” to me.

“Doing what he loves” means, for Dale, mashing different parts of history together to see what happens. Some of his stories might be called alternate histories, but most of his work is more like bizarro history, where space and time twist to rub cultures together that should have no business with one another. Most of his stories lean toward action/adventure, but now and then he’ll take a break and have a little fun.

Which brings us to Wrath of Athena: A Snapshot Novella. A petting zoo with a pair of talking dinosaurs (that may or may not have been won off some Nazis in a card game) is running into trouble in twenty-million-year-ago Madagascar (or, as I would call it if I lived there, Lemurpalooza). A breeding pair of talking dinosaurs, in fact, threatening disaster for the lemur-based ecology.

The setting is a little complicated, but pure Dale. Some alien intelligence we have no hope of understanding has been taking “snapshots” of parts of Earth at different times throughout history. So there’s 1942 Europe, 1950’s California, ancient Madagascar, and on and on, sliced out of reality, copied exactly including the people, and linked to each other through portals. Why do the mysterious intelligences do this? So Dale can have fun, that’s why.

This story unfolds like a whodunnit, and manages to keep that contract with the readers pretty well. The bad guys’ scheme is convoluted enough to keep readers guessing. Our main character is the official shit-shoveler of the traveling zoo, but he has some other skills as well. Dale has fun with stereotypes, and this gives the story a 1950’s-ish feel. Short-tempered redhead, insufferable brat, lecherous boss, and so forth.

Our shit-shoveling narrator talks like a shit-shoveler, and his voice is comfortable and honest. When he talks about his relationship with Athena you can nod and say, “I feel you, bud.” He’s playing catch-up much of the time, but he’s used to that.

Is it good? I enjoyed it. It’s a light read, and it moves right along. I was about to say that I don’t see Hollywood banging down Dale’s door for screenplay rights for this one, but then I hesitated. It’s about the right length for a screenplay and… talking dinosaurs? Lemurpalooza? Nazis and hot redheads? What’s not to like? CALL THE MONEY PEOPLE! I’m already casting Bruce Campbell as the shit-shoveler.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or an amazingly ugly watch), I get a kickback.

Starmind: Chapters 3 and 4

It’s not often I find a novel where every damn chapter is worthy of comment. Starmind, by Dave Van Arnam, turns out to be one of those. Not because it’s good, oh no, not all all.

When last we left this little yarn, I was wondering what possible excuse the author could find for medical professionals to even want to try to put the halves of two different people’s brains into one body.

Dr. Brian pretty much says he just wants to see what will happen. There’s a first time for everything, after all.

Yeah, Dr. Brian. The Brain surgeon. I have stopped correcting myself as I read. Nascent writers out there, if for some reason you want to call your guy Dr. Brain, just do it. No need to be coy. (Or better yet, call him Dr. Mtumbo.)

At this time, there are six characters of note. Inside the head, there are two men and one woman (although one of the men is more of an emotive blob). Outside the head, there are also two men and one woman. Both women are attractive, in nonspecific ways. Only one of the men has been described at all.

In chapter three, two of the three men capable of this sort of thought decide it might be kinda cool to have their brains installed in a hot female body. Both women find the idea of being installed in a man’s body to be loathsome. So… 1969.

On the second page of chapter three I laughed more than once. The dialog! Holy crap!

Here’s a choice nugget — the doctor, talking to the reporter:

I will not speculate on any emotional ties that might exist between you and Miss Rost, but it is obvious that your concern runs deeper than I, as a medical researcher and practitioner, dare to take cognizance of.

He better not dare to take cognizance of it! Or this gem three tiresome paragraphs later, as Parker, the reporter, continues his stilted verbal sparring with Dr. Brain Brian:

I am a professional in my own field, as you are in yours, doctor; and in my case it means I know how to research those necessary background facts that make conversations such as this more meaningful than the customary exchange of platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position.

Both those quotes are parts of much longer paragraphs. Despite this unbearable verbal mass, they do little more than exchange platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position, along with a heapin’ helpin’ of as-you-know-Bobs. The reporter, for instance, tells the brian brain surgeon that it has been eleven years since the first successful brain transplant.

But I will say this: although there are some horrible moments in the discourse between the characters inside the head, it is way better that the interactions outside the head. At lest so far; the head occupants aren’t to a stage where they can engage in stilted verbal exchanges. Though there are plenty of problems inside the cranium, as well. Jailyn is witness to one of Joe’s sex fantasies, then exercises her will to make it stop. She apparently has none of her own. Sex, it seems, is something men want and women allocate.

There’s a nice twist, though, as the “simple” thoughts of the Idiot Adonis unexpectedly rise from the previously-unmentioned surviving lower parts of his brain and provide an emotional foundation for the two intellects who discover themselves so intimately connected. In the hands of a skilled writer, that might make the premise of a great story. I could picture a one-act play based on that theme.

Alas, we are not in the hands of a skilled writer, my friends. Yet still I read on, finding comedy where none was intended, hoping the pretty nurse kicks her boss of irrelevant appearance in the balls, knowing she won’t. The mystery of “why would anyone do something so stupid” has been answered with a “why not?” and on we go. The next question is: how will the author contrive to expose this odd trio to pseudogravitic multiwaves? And will he manage that before the ridiculous dialog slips from funny to tiresome?

Stay tuned, dear readers, for the answers to these burning questions!

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Starmind

I found a battered old paperback in a box I packed up back in 2004, as I was preparing for the Homeless Tour. It was not with other books; it was jumbled with stuff that had come from my desk in my previous job. Starmind, it’s called, by Dave Van Arnam. It didn’t look even remotely familiar. The crappy copy on the back cover, circa 1969, did not stir any recollections.

The cover carries the tagline, “What ships can be launched on the far seas of the mind?”

I have now read the first two chapters, and I think that’s enough for me to stop and write a brief commentary. You don’t have to thank me; it’s what I do.

In chapter one, we meet three people and a technology. The three people are: a super-studly super-rich super-idiot, a super-clever super-sexy super-rich woman, and a super-intuitive super-smart engineer. The engineer is taking care of one of the massive pseudogravitic multiwave generators humanity has constructed out in space. Multiwave is… well, that’s not clear yet, but the Boss of Earth has made a huge commitment to the technology, with the hope of achieving faster-than-light travel. The engineer (Joe) also has a broken back, which gives him a chance to muse about how amazing it was that modern microsurgery can even repair nerves.

First note: I don’t care how far away the year 2057 might seem when you’re writing a story, there’s no need to be so specific. There’s no need to mention that the engineer’s dad was born in 1997. There’s no need to put dates on medical breakthroughs.

Anyway, chapter two (uh, this is a spoiler, but it’s only chapter two so get over it) comes along and all three of our main people are killed. One is burned to a crisp in a spaceship explosion, one is baked by multiwaves, and one simply falls to his death.

But get this: half of super-clever Jailyn’s brain was preserved, and half of super-intuitive Joe’s brain was also put into deep-freeze. And poor, idiot adonis Benjy is still completely intact, except his brain was destroyed in the fall.

So that’s where I’m at in this story, but what comes next is pretty obvious. Someone, for some mind-boggling reason, is going to decide it’s a good idea to put the two half-brains together in Benjy’s head. Pseudogravitic multiwaves will get into the mix, and a transhuman will be created. One whose mind, I might guess, will hold far seas upon which ships might travel. Or something like that.

The writing really isn’t all that good, I’m afraid; at points the dialog is downright odd. Van Arman invented a reporter as a foil for the Jailyn’s exposition in chapter one, and the conversation between the two doesn’t really resemble human conversation. “Trumped!” the reporter shouts once.

Good or not, I’m reading on! I must learn the logic that will be used to even consider putting two halves of different brains in the same body, and why anyone would think the outcome would be other than a horribly deranged monstrosity not even capable of governing the body they occupy. But someone’s going to suggest it, and others are going to approve.

Unless… maybe the multiwaves are behind the whole thing…

With that in mind, consider the way the book reached me, here in 2016. Perhaps there are larger, subtler forces at work. Maybe the multiwaves put the book in that box. If that’s the case, the fate of the world may hinge on me finishing this book.

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The Unlikely Ones

I just finished reading a fantasy novel, and I really enjoyed it. In some ways it was a lot like other fantasy novels, but it was very different in several important ways.

It starts with the Unlikely Ones themselves. They are an odd assortment, seven souls brought together by the evil of a witch, bound to a quest to free them from the tyranny of her enchantments.

Ho, hum. Another Quest Story. But… consider. One of the seven is a fish. Another is a Toad. There is a gallant knight, and a lady fair broken and twisted young girl named Thing, along with a crippled kitten, a flightless raven, and a lovelorn unicorn who has lost his horn.

This quest is personal. None wish to change the world; they wish merely to be relieved of their burdens, to return to a normal life.

The setting of the story is England. Some kind of mystical between-the-ages England, but definitely not any sort of Middle Earth thing. I would like to go back and review the story and connect the events in the book with actual places. Because I’m absolutely confident the writer of this story had the full Ordinance Survey at her disposal while she pulled the party from place to place.

Back to the story. It is a play in three acts, clearly delineated by the chapter titles. At the beginning, just like in every fantasy tale, the questers come together. Even here, things aren’t completely according to script because, well… I’m not going to tell you. But you know how Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy starts with the world being destroyed? There’s a bit of that here, too, with one of the main staples of the quest story getting wrapped up right at the get-go.

The second act is perhaps the most predictable, as the unlikely ones are bound to each other, and Thing falls in love with the knight, and each of the seven must past a test of courage, or quick thought, or what have you. Before this stage of the quest is over, it is apparent to them that the quest has been specifically designed this way, so by the last test everyone knows whose turn it is. Which is kind of nice, because as readers we see it coming a mile away, and it would be disappointing if the characters in the story were too stupid to see the pattern as well.

The thing I most like about this story, however, is that victory has a cost. The story doesn’t end with the completion of the quest; there is a final movement in the book in which we watch the Unlikely Ones, no longer united by purpose, quietly return to lives suited to their various species. The world moves on, the ordinary triumphs.

I believe the book is targeted at young adults, but there is some “mature content” (rhymes with penises). I think some of Thing’s self-image issues would resonate more with a 15-year-old girl than with a 50-something male engineer, as we all wait for Conn to see her how she really is.

Overall, a mighty good read. A quest story that keeps things personal, avoiding the tiresome “Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy” mold, but for that, perhaps more poignant.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or a $1000 Generic Men’s 3D Print Skeleton Playing Guitar T-shirt), I get a kickback.

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The Expanse Trilogy

I recently wrapped up reading The Expanse Boxed Set by James S. Corey, and I must say I enjoyed it quite a bit. It is Space Opera — space ships shooting at each other is a pretty common occurrence.

Humanity is expanding out into the Solar system; Mars is populous and prosperous, Earth is crowded but surviving, and the population of the asteroid belt is growing. The belters are few in numbers, but if armed conflict should arise, they would just have to throw rocks at Earth and Mars and let gravity do the rest. The three factions are in balance at the start of the story, but it wouldn’t take much to really mess things up.

Something like, say, the discovery of some sort of bizarre, obviously-manufactured molecule on a moon of Saturn. The molecule, when it comes into contact with organic life, reshapes it to its own purpose, whatever that is. A weapon? A tool? Impossible to say without putting the molecule somewhere where’s there’s a lot of living matter. Best guess is that a distant alien intelligence threw the protomolecule-bearing rock at Earth two billion years ago, but Saturn caught the incoming rock and held it in cold storage while life continued to get more complex on Earth.

But if the protomolecule was the fuel to plunge the solar system into chaos, the spark that touched it off is named James Holden.

In the first book there are two main characters, moral-high-ground-hugging Holden and a dissolute detective named Miller. They find themselves looking for the same woman, but for very different reasons.

Time for a fairly lengthy sidebar, here. Not long ago, a bunch of jerks fucked up the Hugo awards, ostensibly lamenting that all this inclusiveness and feel-goodiness was ruining Good ‘ol Science Fiction. Before us today is a massive work of GoSF. How does it compare to the Sick Puppies’ agenda?

In the first book, the main two characters are male. The third-most important character is Naomi, who apparently has hit the genetic jackpot, inheriting the best features of many of the races of earth. More time is spent on her more relevant differences in appearance, however; people who grow up in microgravity look different.

But still, the main female character in book one is attractive. Of course. The men? A little harder to tell. They’re not described in the same terms.

I wonder if Corey reviewed book one and decided that book two needed to be more diverse, or if he just felt the story had expanded enough to include more diversity. There are more characters, and one of the major ones, a skilled and powerful politician, is a grandmother with a foul mouth and a buddhist shrine in her office. She spends a lot of time with a Martian gunnery sergeant who also happens to be female. It’s not a big deal.

And that’s the answer to the Sick Puppies. There is a scene in which parents have to make difficult decisions about how to raise their daughter. It just so happens the parents are both women. But the argument is the same, the love is the same, and that’s what the story is about. Saying, “Fuck you, sick puppies! In my story everyone is gay!” is not the answer. But a heartbreaking moment between two people can happen no matter the genders of the actors.

OK, back to the books. A quick hit list:

Not to say that’s there’s no shooting in the first book, but it felt to me like shooting became ever more important as the story moved along. In book one, there was substantial opportunity for cleverness to prevail; by the end of the trilogy cleverness was more about gaining tactical advantage in a firefight. In that way, even as the story expanded in scope, the options open to the participants grew ever more narrow.

Favorite phrase: “vomit zombies”.

At one point, a character says, “Don’t you FUCKING touch me,” and I went, “oh holy shit.”

Later, another character says “We need to talk,” and I said “oh holy shit” again.

I’m willing to bet this is the first work in this genre to specifically mention Hatch green chile. Out there, the treasures of home are even more special. Bull is a good man, a long way from New Mexico. (Though it seems like he’s from northern New Mexico, and therefore might prefer chile from the Española area instead, given his druthers.*)

I’m very curious now about the TVizaion of this series of books (on SyFy). How will they make the Belters look distinctly different? Will they commit to the intimate moments between the action sequences? Will the cast be able to carry those moments? Will they make the spaceships sleek?

If you enjoy GoSF for the right reasons, I think you will appreciate this trilogy.

Note: if you use the above links to buy these books (or Bose Lifestyle SoundTouch 535 Entertainment System), I get a kickback.

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* And with that, I win the award for ‘most pedantic, picky-ass novel criticism ever’. I’ve been working hard for this honor, and this effort finally put me over the top. We all covet the Hatch when we’re beyond the borders of the Land of Enchantment. Unless the Española is available, is all I’m sayin’. Seems to me Bull is from Española, but it never actually says so.

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