Revisiting Star Wars: The Truce at Bakura

Way back in the mid-1990s, my parents and I would routinely pick up books from the local library’s bookmobile when it visited our neighborhood. I was about fourteen at the time, and had progressed to adult-level science fiction a few years earlier, and would usually pick the shelves clean every chance I got. I don’t remember the exact occasion, but I know that one day I happened upon a book that would change my view of Star Wars forever: Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire.

I had been a Star Wars fan since childhood; one of my earliest memories was of seeing Return of the Jedi with my parents in a theater in the fall of 1983. But here was that most elusive Star Wars item: Something new. (To be fair, it was a few years old when I discovered it around the end of 1993 or so; the hardback I was reading was already battered and worn.) That book and its sequels kicked off a love for the newly-christened Expanded Universe, or EU, that lasted all the way to its decanonization under Disney a few years ago—and still persists.

What I want to do here is to revisit those old favorite books. I appreciate the place that Disney’s version of Lucasfilm is carving out for itself; but nothing can, or should, replace the EU, with the vast worlds and fantastic characters it created. To that end, I’ve started a reread of the post-Return of the Jedi EU novels, and I aim to review them here. (Full disclosure: I’m simultaneously posting this material over on Reddit’s Star Wars EU community, so if you encounter it there, it’s not plagiarism, it’s really me.) There are a lot of books in that portion of the EU, and I may or may not get through them; also I may not be very regular about it, as other responsibilities demand my time. However, I will go in order as much as possible; and if we do get through all of them, I may go back and do some of the other sections of the EU. (One caveat: I’m probably going to skip over the novels intended for children, such as the Jedi Prince series and the Junior Jedi Knights series. Young Jedi Knights gets a pass, though, only because it introduces some things that are important later on.)

Today I’m looking at The Truce at Bakura, by Kathy Tyers. I’ve seen conflicting publication dates of December 1993 and January 1994 (the latter being the date cited by Wookieepedia); either way, it’s the first adult Star Wars novel to be published after the release of The Last Command, the final volume of Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. The novel picks up just hours after the destruction of the Death Star II at Endor. Let’s get started!

It should go without saying, but, SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT READ THIS NOVEL!

Truce at Bakura

For all that we love them, movies aren’t great at certain things—at least, as compared to books. The original Star Wars trilogy does a great job of giving us as much characterization as is needed—for the movies, that is. It’s much different, however, when an author sits down to write a novel about the same characters. Kathy Tyers faced a unique task when she wrote The Truce at Bakura; she had to flesh out these characters that we had followed through three movies. Moreover, she had to do it in such a way as to add to the characters, but not contradict anything in the films. She also had to do so without contradicting Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, which was only a year or two old at this point, but which takes place a few years later in the story. It’s a balancing act; you want to introduce new characters and settings, but you can’t do it in such a way that those things should still be in the foreground a few years later. At the same time, if you add them in and then wipe them out, it feels like a cheap shot.

There’s no perfect way to do that, but Tyers did the best she could. The elements she introduced—the planet Bakura, the Ssi-Ruuk enemies, Bakuran senator (and would-be love interest for Luke Skywalker) Gaeriel Captison—are left hanging at the end, temporarily resolved, but still dangling there as threads to be pulled by another author. The threads of Bakura and Captison would later be pulled by Roger MacBride Allen in the Corellian Trilogy, and the thread of the Ssi-Ruuk would be pulled by Sean Williams and Shane Dix during the New Jedi Order series…but those are stories for later.

The book features the newly-victorious alliance responding to a distress call from a nominally-Imperial backwater world called Bakura, which is under attack from an unknown alien threat. The aliens are the Ssi-Ruuk, reptilian aliens who believe themselves superior to all other life…and who use that life as a tool for conquest. They possess technology that allows them to “entech” humans and others, ripping the still-conscious life energies—the soul, if you prefer—out of them and using them to power battle droids and other technologies. They do this with the assistance of an enslaved and brainwashed Force-sensitive young man named Dev Sibwarra, who guides the transfer. However, when the Ssi-Ruuk become aware of Luke Skywalker—whose mastery of the Force is much greater than Dev’s—they make it their goal to kidnap him and use him to entech humans from a distance, possibly even from the planet’s surface. Meanwhile, Luke encounters Gaeriel Captison, a young and beautiful Imperial-trained senator (that’s Bakuran senate, not Imperial senate; recall that the Imperial senate was dissolved a few years earlier). While the two are drawn to each other, both as allies and possible love interests, Gaeriel is caught in the conflict between the Empire’s designs for her world and the Alliance’s. In the short term, the local Imperial detachment is forced to work with the Alliance to repel the Ssi-Ruuk; but of course the Empire can’t be trusted. In the end, the Bakurans rise up and seize control of their own world, and forge a new truce with the Alliance—but Dev is lost in the conflict, and Gaeriel chooses to stay behind and decline a place at Luke’s side.

Early books in the post-RotJ era were obligated to contain a good mix of politics and action, as the Alliance focused on becoming the New Republic. That’s definitely on display here, as the negotiations among the Bakurans, the Alliance (led on the diplomatic side by Leia), and the local Imperials (led by governor Wilek Nereus) take center stage. While the story doesn’t feature twists and strategy on the order of the Thrawn trilogy, it does a great job at balancing the differing interests of the characters. Watching the original trilogy gives the impression that there’s a single great goal to be accomplished; the war against the Empire—which is synonymous with the war against the Sith—is overwhelming, and winning it is everything. It’s nice to see that the characters and the situations are more complex than that. The Bakurans want not only to be free, but to overcome their own internal divisions; the Imperials want to remain in power; the Alliance seeks allies; Luke finds himself searching for both an apprentice and a possible love interest, when he expected neither; and the Ssi-Ruuk want to conquer everyone. These goals, even when aligned together, work at cross purposes sometimes—much as would happen in the real world.

When you’re dealing with an ensemble cast, it’s hard to give every character the development they deserve; and that’s a weakness found here. Luke gets quite a bit of screen time and development—this is definitely a Luke story—and likewise, new characters Gaeriel, Dev, and Nereus all get plenty of attention. Han Solo and Leia Organa feature prominently, but they aren’t portrayed as well; Tyers made an effort to include elements of their budding romance, but they’re a little scattered, both personally and professionally, with Han giving in to jealousy in comical ways, and Leia given to dramatic speeches. Chewbacca stay in the background, alongside Wedge Antilles (who, I have to say, gets a good scene in the introduction as he risks his own life to keep a message drone from self-destructing). R2-D2 doesn’t get much screen time, but his personality is handled well enough. C3PO, however, gets a surprisingly good treatment here, and I consider his portrayal to be a strong point for this book. Many authors like to use him as a punching bag for insults; there’s always going to be a little of that, but here we see him piloting a speeder through a battle zone, disguising himself as a stormtrooper, delivering intelligence, translating an unknown and strategically vital language, handling security for a captured Imperial…all quite impressive, and demonstrating that he’s more than just a prissy translator.

Truce at Bakura 1

There are some elements of the Force worth noting here. Luke is able to sense emotions, but not read minds; Vader, in RotJ, was able to see Luke’s thoughts, so this is likely an aspect that will be expanded later. He’s able to sense the life energies of others, including the twisted energies of the Ssi-Ruuk’s victims; and he can communicate empathically, but not telepathically. Interestingly, the untrained Dev is able to do more than this, as he desperately passes a message to Luke in the latter’s dreams. Luke explores the notion of Jedi healing, both of himself and of others, which will be greatly expanded with the later introduction of the character Cray Mingla. Most interestingly, we get an expansion on the idea of Force ghosts when Anakin Skywalker appears—not to Luke, but to Leia, who is having trouble accepting that he was her father (a concept to be explored again in Tatooine Ghost). The description given of Anakin is no doubt based on the elderly version portrayed by Sebastian Shaw at the end of the original edition of Return of the Jedi, but it is phrased in such a way that it could also apply to the young version portrayed by Hayden Christensen in the special edition, if one prefers.

Overall, it’s a good read, and appropriate for the spirit of the original trilogy. The book tends to be a bit overlooked in the face of the Thrawn trilogy, and maybe that’s appropriate, as Zahn’s novels are easily among the best. I wouldn’t recommend skipping it, however; it’s a must-read for anyone who intends to read the Corellian Trilogy, but even if one doesn’t intend to read that trilogy, Truce is a great story on its own. It may not be necessary for the greater arc of the post-RotJ era, but it’s worth it for the experience. Here we get Leia’s first thoughts on what form the New Republic might take; here we get Luke’s first hints of the Jedi Order he will soon rebuild. Here are some early nods to Rogue Squadron, which will soon have its own series; and here are the first hints of the fracturing of the Empire in the face of the Emperor’s death. On top of all that, it’s a fun read; why skip something like that?

Next time: We’ll look at Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, by Matthew Stover! See you there.

The Truce at Bakura is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of this novel here.

Next

Advertisements

Poll: Should Readers Care About Characters?

I had an interesting encounter on Reddit’s /r/books subreddit this week. The topic of discussion was Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (which, incidentally, we’ll eventually be covering in the Great Reddit Reading List). This book famously–or perhaps infamously–saw publication in two different forms; in the UK, it was published complete, but the American version omitted the final chapter. That chapter (21, if we’re keeping track) represents a crucial difference, because it is in that chapter that protagonist Alex chooses redemption from his previously terrible ways. The well-known Stanley Kubrick film adaptation follows the American version, leaving Alex unrepentant and unchanged after his experiences. (This issue is famously divisive; even Burgess himself was on record as saying that he wished he had not written the book, largely because of the version that made it to film.)

 

In the comments, the issue was raised of whether it’s possible to care about Alex if he experiences no growth, no change. This quickly devolved into an argument as to whether a character–and for our purposes, we’ll specify the protagonist–should be cared about. One individual made the claim that characters aren’t there for us to care about:

The ‘point’ of a character is not necessarily to be ‘cared about’.

Or, put another way:

The point of literature as a “whole” is not to produce sympathetic characters for you.

This makes for an interesting question, and I’m curious what you, as readers, think. I think it’s a given that not every character–not even every protagonist–is or should be sympathetic; the history of film, for example, is littered with protagonists that are evil and despicable (though, perversely, they seem to gain sympathy as they become more iconic–think Norman Bates, for example–but that’s a topic for another time). But it’s not a question of whether they are sympathetic, so much as a question of whether we should care about what happens to them. Darth Vader was intended to be a dark, evil, and merciless villain, but we cared very much about what happened to him, even back to his first appearances in A New Hope. (He’s since received a redemption scene, of course, and also benefits from a history of badassery, but my point predates all of that.)

I think we can agree that the production of characters we care about is not the ‘point’ of literature; but is that care necessary? My argument is that care, in this sense, is a necessary part of interest in the character. If we don’t care what happens to this person, why are we reading about/watching/playing him or her?

I’m tempted to look at this from the perspective of a writer; but this isn’t about me as a writer, it’s about us as readers. Therefore, I’m doing something I haven’t done on this blog before: I’m posting a poll. Cast your votes below! Should protagonist characters be someone we can care about, or does it not matter at all?

Thanks for voting, and as always, thanks for reading!

TGRRL: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

When I was a teenager, I was introduced by way of school assignments to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which we’ve already covered. This terrifying little novel–terrifying to me, anyway; there may have been novels–is certainly the most well-known dystopian novel; but it’s hardly the only one, or even the first. It’s a bit debatable which dystopian novel is the first of its kind, but certainly one of the most influential is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Brave New World first edition

First edition, as far as I can establish. Not mine.

 

(In fact, the novel has been noted to have directly influenced Nineteen Eighty-Four; making it even more interesting is the fact that Orwell had been, some years early, a pupil of Huxley at Eton, though not in any political or writing-related subject, but rather, in French. The historical connection, however, seems to have little to do with the writings; one novel influenced the other, without much regard for the past history of the authors, as far as anyone can tell from their commentary on the subject.)

It is unfortunate that Brave New World, today, is usually discussed only in the context of comparison to Orwell’s novel. And yet, that comparison does provide the easiest way to understand the book; it’s easier to define what it isn’t than what it is. I find myself wishing I had read Brave New World first, so that I could have appreciated it solely for itself.  Nevertheless, I expect I’m inevitably going to find myself pointing out comparisons as we look at the novel here. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

From this point forward, expect spoilers; although, the book is nearly ninety years old, so perhaps it’s not even fair to call them spoilers.

Here we have the story of a world where most human problems have been resolved. That’s what we’re reaching for, isn’t it? Health, happiness, peace, prosperity? Of course we are. Brave New World supplies those things; its people have every need met through a very efficient system of production. Workloads are light and easy. Happiness is practically ensured through use of a consequence-free drug called soma (why is it conventional to italicize non-traditional words like this? I’m doing so here for emphasis, but I’ll drop it henceforward).  This focus on happiness, however, has required the upending of certain social conventions: marriage and monogamy no longer exist; childbirth is mostly nonexistent, having been replaced by birth control and birthing centers with artificial wombs; crime is mostly eliminated–certainly a good thing–by way of a rigid caste system–not so good. However, no one feels the loss of these things, due to conditioning and the effects of soma. Our initial protagonist, Bernard Marx, doesn’t quite fit in; but he is mostly a catalyst for the story rather than a major character. His situation introduces us to the true protagonist, a man named John. John is the illicit offspring of two rather normal and compliant citizens, but through a twist of fate he is raised on a “savage reservation”, a place where the conventions of society are not in effect, and people live as they have lived for years prior to the new order–though admittedly impoverished by their isolation. John is then brought back to civilization, but he is unable to cope or adapt; and in the end, he hangs himself.

This matter of absolute happiness–but at a hidden cost–is common enough in dystopias today. It was unheard of when Huxley wrote; utopian novels were common enough, and indeed he started this project as a parody of utopian novels of his day. The idea that happiness could be obtained, but that it would in turn cost us something fundamental, was new and disturbing. It’s not new anymore, but it is still disturbing, and rightly so. The desire for happiness is deeply ingrained in us, possibly even as a part of our survival instinct. Dystopias like Brave New World acknowledge that, but then counter with a more frightening idea: the idea that we need challenge, pain, difficulty, in order to really be human. If we truly get what we’re chasing, we’ll become less instead of more.

This is a radically different form of dystopia from Orwell’s vision (and here we go!). Orwell predicted a dystopia of fear–one in which the government’s power becomes so absolute as to crush all resistance, inspiring obedience by fear. The problem with that kind of oppression is that it requires endless vigilance; and endless vigilance translates into endless resources. Just how many people does it take to monitor a population of billions twenty-four hours a day, I wonder? How much infrastructure? And that’s on top of the apparatus required for punishing infractions, providing for needs, and other aspects of government. Huxley’s version is much simpler, because it makes every individual complicit in their own oppression. As John’s mother Linda graphically illustrates, people want to be compliant; they don’t have to be pushed to it. After all, they’re endlessly happy; they don’t feel the loss of less tangible things such as challenge or morality. They only feel the soothing of soma.

It’s popular to make comparisons to modern society, and try to decide what kind of dystopia we live in. I’ll be blunt: We don’t, at least not yet. However, I think that if we were trying to make projections about the real world, both versions would be too simplistic. A real-world dystopia would more likely be a blending of the two; it would have some form of enticement for the public, combined with some form of invasive monitoring and enforcement. Carrot and stick, if you will. While I don’t believe our society is at dystopian levels yet, I will say that we have elements of both in place already. We’ve had enough issues with governmental elimination of privacy over the years, and especially with the proliferation of technology and the internet; and we have the same internet serving as our soma, to some degree. (And here I am, posting on the internet! Irony, much?)

But that’s just it: we’re not there yet, and in a purely Huxleyan sense, I don’t think we ever will be. The challenges we face as a species are too great for that. Death is always going to be a thing. Suffering is maddeningly hard to eliminate. Poverty has a way of returning over and over again. Diseases adapt to accommodate our treatments. A Huxleyan dystopia requires that all of these challenges be overcome; we’ve made great strides, but I doubt we’ll ever have the kind of success required for his vision to be true. Nevertheless, we should keep trying. We should work at overcoming those challenges. We exist in a strange space, where we can’t win this fight, but neither is our striving pointless, because we can still improve–even if we never reach the end of the improvement.

This is the second dystopia we’ve examined, and I want to point out something that, in my opinion, distinguishes classical dystopias from the young-adult dystopias that are so popular today. (Not that I’m disparaging those stories; they may be common, but they’re not bad, or at least not by definition.) The YA dystopias usually result in a happy ending for most; the ruling party is overthrown, chaos reigns briefly, then something better takes its place. I think that’s a wonderfully optimistic outlook, but it’s very different from the classics, where the protagonists inevitably lose. A classic dystopia will grind the rebellious protagonists down, and keep on moving without breaking stride. In the end, nothing changes. I find this strange; with the political and social climates we face today, I’d have expected it to be the other way around.

Still, Brave New World is the more hopeful of the two. While one protagonist dies, the others don’t; nor are they greatly changed in outlook–they’re simply sidelined. And in the meantime, millions aren’t being ground down; they remain obliviously happy, but they remain. It may not be much of a chance; but perhaps that’s better than much chance at all. As Huxley never wrote a true sequel (Brave New World Revisited is a non-fiction critique), it’s open to conjecture.

How’s your reading goal coming along? I’ve set a goal of 50 books in 2018 via Goodreads; you can join me here! So far I’ve finished three books: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows, and Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. You can see my to-read list here.

The Great Reddit Reading List

Previous

Next

Is Enough Ever Enough?

Years ago, Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song about Yoda. Yes, the diminutive, green Jedi master with the Fozzie-Bear voice. If you’re familiar with Weird Al, this shouldn’t surprise you; this is the same guy that wrote a song accurately predicting the plot of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace months before it was released, in a day when Internet leaks weren’t a thing yet. At any rate, it’s a fun song, set to the tune of The Kinks’ Lola, about Luke Skywalker’s training relationship with Yoda. I bring it up because of a line in the last verse; when Luke is preparing to go to Bespin and rescue his friends (as in The Empire Strikes Back), he says:

But I know that I’ll be coming back someday; I’ll be playing this part ‘til I’m old and grey.

The long-term contract I had to sign says I’ll be making these movies ‘til the end of time,

with my Yoda.

Well, as it turns out…

old luke and yoda

Couldn’t find a single screenshot from The Last Jedi that included both of them. Use your imagination.

Yeah. Nailed it!

This post is not about Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, from which those screenshots come. I find it necessary to bring it up here at the beginning, because the controversy surrounding this movie sets up nicely for the question I want to ask. That question is: When is enough, enough? Specifically, when should we say “enough is enough” to our favorite fictional franchises? It’s a simple question, but the answer is anything but simple.

My early years of fandom—not just with regard to Star Wars, but with regard to any franchise—could be summed up with three words: I want more. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing! I loved these characters, and the worlds they inhabited. I wanted the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo. I wanted to know what happened to E.T. after he went home. I wanted to know the backstory of He-Man and Eternia (I’m an ‘80s kid, if you hadn’t noticed yet)! WHAT HAPPENED WHEN REN GOT ALL THIRTEEN TREASURES OF RULE?! WHAT ABOUT—

the pirates of dark water

I loved this show way too much.

Okay, we were getting a little obscure there, sorry. (That last reference was to a cartoon called The Pirates of Dark Water, which ended before its premise could be fulfilled, and I’m still a little bitter about it.) At any rate, it wasn’t unusual to want to know more. That’s the motivation for all the sequels and prequels of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s the reason She-Ra exists, and is getting a reboot in 2018. It led to the release of E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet, which sadly never even made it to an animated film. And it has led thousands of fans, myself included, to write fanfiction over the years. Why, though?

When fiction is well-written, the characters and settings become real to us. We read, or watch, or play (yes, video games count), or listen, and we get to live for awhile in another person’s world, and even in their shoes. Like family or friends, we want to know those individuals personally. When the story is enjoyable, we want more of the same. Sometimes we even get it, though sequels are commonly known for a dip in quality. This is all perfectly legitimate.

book of the green planet

This really was a thing, and it was exactly as trippy as the cover would have you believe.

Still, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Now, from this point on, what I’m saying is my own view, and I’m NOT trying to pass it off as a rule of any kind. Everyone’s threshold of tolerance is their own. You may read this and think “well, that isn’t me at all!” That’s fine. I was you for a long time, and I was happy that way. I’m also happy where I am now. You can love what you love, and you can show that love however you like! That’s the beauty of living in a world with so much variety.

Using Star Wars as an example again: For many years, Star Wars fans had what we referred to as the Expanded Universe (sometimes rendered as “Extended”), or EU. This was anything beyond the original movie trilogy and, later, the prequel trilogy. It’s a little unclear exactly where it started; early novels include Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (considered the first EU novel, and dating all the way back to 1978!) and Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures (1979 and following). I can also remember comics or early graphic novels dating to at least 1986, and possibly earlier, though I haven’t researched it. The EU really took off in 1991 with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and its sequels, and the twenty-plus years afterward were packed with novels, comics, video games, and—later—cartoons. If the original trilogy was the stuff of my childhood, this was the stuff of my teens and twenties, and I absorbed it as fast as I could lay hands on it. I loved every minute, including the controversial New Jedi Order novels. All of that came crashing to a halt, though, in late October 2012, when Lucasfilm was purchased by Disney; shortly thereafter, Disney announced that it would be continuing from the end of Return of the Jedi with its own canon stories, not related to the existing EU. The EU stories were redubbed as “Star Wars Legends”, and new Legends material ceased to be produced. That’s what brings us to today, with The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and various novels and comics in the new continuity.

splinter of the mind's eye

The original EU novel. Worth noting: Luke and Leia had not yet been revealed to be siblings. Hindsight makes this book a little uncomfortable, which is too bad; it’s a great story.

Fans, being fans, did not go quietly. Up to and including The Last Jedi—which has raked in the money anyway, of course—there has been constant debate and controversy. We’re fans; that’s what we do. I, for one, have watched all three new movies, though I haven’t read any of the books or comics; I think they’re a fair take on the series, but I’m curious to see where they go. I don’t hate them; I don’t love them, either, not the way I loved the original trilogy. Perhaps my kids will; certainly the studio has taken pains to make these movies appeal to a new generation, and that’s not a bad thing.

Still, this change in continuity has given me time to look back at the EU and think. What I’ve found in the interim is that—to my surprise, and if I may be honest, dismay—I was kind of tired of it already. You see, the EU has covered nearly every possible time period, if not place, in the Star Wars galaxy. It’s exhaustively catalogued the lives of our original heroes, both before and after the movies, and in some cases including their deaths, although writers are understandably hesitant to kill off a major character. (Actually, it’s not just the authors; the EU always had considerable oversight, and such a decision would have to be approved. Lucasfilm wasn’t fond of killing off its cash cows, and that’s no surprise.) It shows us their descendants. It explores the galaxy, and gives us side stories. It looks deeply and exhaustively into the past, back to the very origins of the Jedi and Sith and beyond.  There may be stories yet to be told, but there isn’t a lot of room left to tell them! That’s why, at the end, the EU was delving further into the future; but in science fiction, that’s always a risky proposition. The further you get from your baseline date—in this case, the original movie trilogy—the more conjecture is required, whereas when delving into the past, you have a predefined period with which to work. It was at this point that I started to get tired of things, in large part because the series began to recycle its original plots again. After so much investment into eliminating the Empire and the Sith, and changing up the characters’ understanding of the Force, and expanding the character roster beyond the Skywalker-Solo family, we ended up with an evil Empire, led by a Sith lord from the Skywalker-Solo bloodline, with an underground rebellion involving another Skywalker. Sound familiar? It did to me, as well.

Fate of the Jedi

This is what a sigh looks like in print.

There comes a time in every long-lived franchise where you begin to think that the creators are being less creative and more money-oriented. That accusation gets tossed around a lot, and I don’t want to use it lightly. Still, recycling of plots seems to me to be a good indicator that this sort of thing is happening. I have no problem with giving money to a franchise that is earning it; but simple quantity of effort isn’t enough to earn it, if that effort is not coming from a desire to do the job well. Money may be an effective motivator, but it’s not a good one; it will always tend toward the minimum necessary effort, toward quantity over quality. And, as I’ve hinted, you can drown in quantity.

Let’s look at a more literary example. Frank Herbert’s Dune is widely regarded as one of the finest masterpieces in science fiction history. Its early sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, are regarded nearly as highly; the next three books in the series are also well loved, though less so. Unfortunately, Frank Herbert was in the midst of writing the final volume when he died, and we never got a proper ending to the Dune series. Enter his son, Brian, and established sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson (who, perhaps not coincidentally, had already written for the Star Wars EU). This duo set out, allegedly, to finish the series, working from Frank Herbert’s notes and unfinished work, much as Brandon Sanderson would later do for Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time fantasy series. If that was all they had done, it would have been fine; but they didn’t begin there. Instead, they started with a political-intrigue prequel trilogy, and then wrote a distant-past trilogy based on the nearly-mythical Butlerian Jihad. That event had been mentioned in the original series as the reason why humans were so heavily against artificial intelligence, or “thinking machines”, but it had never been properly described. Only after completing those six volumes did they write the conclusion to Dune, which itself was split into two volumes (and thus two sales). In the end, their conclusion had much more in common with their Butlerian Jihad series than with the original Dune series—a turn of events that I find hard to imagine having been in Frank Herbert’s plans. We may never know; but we DO know that Brian and Kevin have gone on to write more Dune novels—a total of thirteen as of 2016, which is more than twice the number written by Frank Herbert.

Dune Collection

Pictured: Too Much

We’ll leave the question of whether a fictional universe belongs to its original creator for another post; but I want to point out that Brian and Kevin’s books are almost universally regarded to be inferior to the original series. (Personally, I greatly enjoyed the Butlerian Jihad books, but they are very different from the originals; and the other entries have been mediocre at best, including the two concluding volumes.) So, was it just a money-grab? Maybe. I suspect that Brian Herbert originally wanted to do justice to his father’s legacy; but in the end, the money was just too attractive, and they couldn’t stop.

Maybe they should have. Maybe we, fans, should have, as well (though it’s more the burden of the authors than the fans, I think; we vote with our dollars, as it were, but only after the fact). Maybe, in the end, we only need so much of a good thing; and anything else becomes too much. There’s nothing wrong with wrapping up an unfinished tale; on that note, mystery writer Sue Grafton recently died, with only one volume left in her Kinsey Millhone/Alphabet Mystery series (Z is for Zero would have been the title), and I’d be thrilled if her family would let that last volume be ghostwritten. (They aren’t.) I would hate to have invested countless hours in The Wheel of Time’s twelve (at that time) volumes, and never get the conclusion Brandon Sanderson gave us later. But beyond that, there’s nothing wrong with letting a masterpiece stand on its own. The original Dune series (aside from the question of a conclusion) was a masterpiece. So was the original Star Wars trilogy. We don’t need every gap filled in, every era examined, every character’s every moment written out.  We don’t—heaven help us—an Episode X, XI, or XII. Too much cheapens the original, and dilutes its impact. Sometimes, enough is really enough.

a memory of light

This is how you continue another author’s work.

 

(I feel I should say, in passing, that there are some very rare series that have built-in safeguards against this very phenomenon. The best example I have is Doctor Who, of which I am a lifelong fan; those who have followed this blog for a while already know that, and for those that are new, you can find much more of my material about that series at my companion blog, The Time Lord Archives. That series has built-in mechanisms for constantly renewing itself; it has no single monolithic era, and has always been a sort of shared universe, with a multitude of contributors and a horde of characters and settings. It was designed that way, and has proved surprisingly resilient over five and a half decades. But, this sort of situation is rare; that format doesn’t lend itself well to most series. And even with a series like Doctor Who, it’s easy to get overwhelmed or burned out, just based on the volume of material.)

That’s where I am in my own life as a fan. I’ll always love Star Wars and Dune and The Wheel of Time and many other franchises; but I’ll love them with the fondness of memory, rather than the fanaticism of the future. If I do watch or read or play any future installments—and I will; I watched The Last Jedi, and Lord willing I will watch Episode IX when it’s released—I’ll try to appreciate them for what they are, but I won’t chase them the way I did in my teens. And if I miss them, that’s okay as well. It’s been a good exercise for me, this form of letting go; it has let me enjoy these things without the burden of comparing them to what’s gone before, and therefore prevented me from hating things that don’t merit that level of investment. In the course of doing that, it’s saved me from the trap of trying to get my children to be as invested in these things as I was at their age; they’re not me, and I don’t want them to be me. They deserve their own memories, even as they learn to appreciate a few of mine. After all, there’s only so much time, and there’s a lot to experience in it. We short ourselves when we expend all our effort on one beloved franchise—and life is too short for that.

But if they ever go back and write an ending for The Pirates of Dark Water, I’m in! Just kidding. Mostly.

 

TGRRL: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

Whenever a recommendation post–and they are fairly common–appears on Reddit’s book-oriented communities, certain books inevitably float to the top. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in comment threads discussing science-fiction and fantasy recommendations. I’m being completely anecdotal here–I haven’t tracked it in any formal sense–but my observation is that today’s book, Orson Scott Card’s famous Ender’s Game, is likely one of the top three science-fiction novels recommended, at least in the past few years. (The others would be Dune, which we’ve already covered, and Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut, Ready Player One. I’ve been hearing about that book since I joined Reddit in 2013, but have yet to read it. Certainly to beat out so many classics of the genre, it must have something going for it; and it’s definitely on my to-read list. It is also on the extended portion of the Great Reddit Reading List–that is, the entries after #200; I suspect it only missed being on the original list by virtue of being very new while compilation was taking place.)

enders game

Ender’s Game, first edition. Not mine, unfortunately.

 

The problem with being such a highly-recommended book is that its reputation begins to supplant the actual book. I would not be surprised to learn that there are many science-fiction readers who know the basic premise of Ender’s Game without having read the book. The 2013 film certainly helped in that regard, but I suspect this was already true prior to the film’s release. I was one such reader; I was loosely familiar with the book long before my friend Cyndera persuaded me to read it (she had recently participated in one of Card’s writing workshops, and was a bit of a Card enthusiast at the time, so I can’t blame her). What I found when I did read it, was not what I expected.

The Ender series, as well as its companion Shadow series (Ender’s Shadow and its sequels), are far less concerned with the science-fiction conventions they portray, and far more concerned with the effect those conventions have on the characters. Many of us–most, even–know by now that Ender’s Game is the story of children fighting a war when they believe they are simply playing a war game. Ender Wiggin’s tactical genius is impressive, but he believes he is only using it for games and training, when in fact he is commanding real fleets in a very real war. That’s clever, and makes for a great twist at the end; but the euphoria of discovering that twist lasts about ten seconds. That’s about how long it takes for the reader to realize that this child has been exploited and nearly destroyed by all the adults in his life, and can never have a normal life in any meaningful sense. Meanwhile, the Shadow series follows Ender’s right-hand man (boy?), Bean, who is a product of genetic engineering. That engineering gives him an amazing and ever-increasing mental capacity, which in the end causes him to far surpass Ender’s accomplishments–but it also condemns him to a painful and early death, as his body continues to grow in pace with his mind. No one gets off easy in this series, and everyone pays the price for their advancements.

I have wondered what Card meant to say in this series. It seems to me that, at least in the first few novels of each series, his goal was to expose the horrors of war by taking them to absurd extremes (there’s little more extreme than child soldiers, after all, whether in the real world or in fiction). The message that comes across, however, is a bit different: It’s a statement of the dangers in rushing into technology, into the future, without looking and counting the cost first. Card doesn’t make the argument that these things are bad by definition; his ships, his weapons, his ansible (a communication device borrowed from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World, and a contraction of the word “answerable”), his gene tech, are all legitimate technologies, but they are used recklessly and without thought for what they will do to those in their sphere of influence.

With all that said, it’s still a good book. It’s a sort of coming-of-age story, though certainly different from most; it’s a good sci-fi war novel; and it does portray a future that is as fascinating as it is frightening. Reading Ender’s Game is a coming-of-age ritual of its own for sci-fi fans, despite the fact that I was nearly thirty when I read it. I would simply recommend reading it for yourself before getting too involved in its reputation–and that, I think, is good advice for any book and any reader.

How’s your reading goal coming along? I’ve set a goal of 50 books in 2018 via Goodreads; you can join me here! So far I’ve finished Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, and have begun reading Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. You can see my to-read list here.

The Great Reddit Reading List

Previous

Next

TGRRL: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I will confess that, in my reading preferences, I lean toward genre fiction. By default, that means I lean away from mainstream or literary fiction (although, when genre fiction vastly outsells literary fiction, can we really say that literary fiction is “mainstream”?). My view is not so simplistic as to say there is no good literary fiction out there, or that genre is by default superior; there is a lot of fantastic literary fiction on the market. Rather, I think that literary fiction has a tendency toward pretension and absurdity that genre fiction—being mostly driven by plot and motivated by finances—lacks. It’s only a tendency, not a hard-and-fast rule; but it explains my personal preferences. A significant portion of the literary fiction out there, essentially, is just terrible.

slaughterhouse five first edition cover

The first-edition cover, as far as I can identify it.

 

With that said, it always comes as a surprise—especially to me—when I come across a literary novel that I really, truly like. Such was the case with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Vonnegut is one of America’s literary darlings, and this book is certainly nothing new to many readers; I would confidently bet that it’s the first Vonnegut that most people read, as it was for me. The book remains popular, and has been consistently in print since its 1969 publication. So, perhaps it’s not surprising to anyone else that I would find it enjoyable; but it surprised me. After all, it has prominent qualities which I usually find irritating in books and movies alike: a non-linear structure, a distinct lack of action, a somewhat nebulous and ambiguous ending, an unreliable narrator. I like things to be straightforward, and this book is anything but. So, why would it appeal to me?

The book was years in the making; the first chapter, rather than diving into the narrative, gives Vonnegut’s perspective on the writing of the book and, more importantly, the experiences upon which it is based. Vonnegut fought at a young age in World War II, and was present as a prisoner of war for the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, an event which was little known in America for decades. By some calculations, the destruction in Dresden was worse than that in Hiroshima. Vonnegut’s fictional protagonist follows the same steps, for the most part, as Vonnegut himself (though, to be fair, Vonnegut doesn’t mean for his protagonist to be him; he casts himself in a bit part of the novel, claiming to have been there along with the fictional Billy Pilgrim). These experiences are framed in a mild science-fiction story; Billy Pilgrim has had two remarkable sci-fi experiences. He has been abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who placed him in a zoo for an extended period before returning him to the same night in which he left; and, more importantly, he has become “unstuck in time”, meaning that he has out-of-body experiences in which he lives moments from his own past and future. The two situations are unconnected, but are vital to the story; the “unstuck in time” scenes allow the non-linear telling of the story to develop organically, while the alien abduction gives Billy a motivation for changing his outlook on life, death, and war.

My first, rather shallow, thought upon first reading the book was that it was the sci-fi elements that attracted me; and indeed, I’ve seen this novel billed as a science-fiction story. I assure you, though, it isn’t; and the sci-fi elements aren’t even particularly strong or well-developed. They seem to affect only the inward aspects of Billy Pilgrim; they have little effect on events, and even seem to be actively insulated from affecting events. They exist to move the story along, and to allow Vonnegut to obliquely tell what must have been an incredibly difficult story for him. The story is anti-war, but not overtly so; there’s a clear undertone that war is bad, but mostly inevitable. Still, it’s clear that the firebombing of Dresden—not to mention the entire war—was a troubling and formative time for Vonnegut, and he seems to need the frame story to get it down on paper.

In the end, that’s what I liked about the story. One could argue all day about the message Vonnegut wanted to get across; but what I saw in the story is that he hadn’t yet worked it all out. Dresden was troubling, yes—as a massacre should be, and that’s the understatement of the year—but Vonnegut had not in fact come fully to terms with it. He dances through and around the issue, taking a peek into one viewpoint or another—and in the end, he’s still disquieted, and still not sure, and that strikes me as a very honest take. The lessons of such a terrible event shouldn’t be easy to process. It takes an entire lifetime, whether in or out of order.

The Great Reddit Reading List

Previous

Next

TGRRL: Dune, by Frank Herbert

If you’ve made it to adulthood and haven’t heard of Dune…what’s your secret? I have to know! Few science-fiction classics have permeated public consciousness the way that Frank Herbert’s famous novel has. Sandworms, spice, and spacefolding—the words and the concepts alike have been borrowed and recycled time and again. The book, to put it plainly, is popular.

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition

This is the cover of the copy I read, some eighteen years ago; and I am sitting here kicking my own ass, because I just discovered it was a FIRST EDITION! Which was subsequently destroyed. I am truly a monster.

 

It may come as quite a shock, then, to learn that the book was rejected by more than twenty publishers. When it was finally accepted, it was by Chilton Books, whose bread and butter consist of auto repair manuals. (Full disclosure: I’m referring to publication as a novel here. The story was previously serialized in Analog magazine; in a just world, that would instantly guarantee that some publisher would snatch it up, but this—like Herbert’s Arrakis—is not a just world.) Its themes may be tropes now; but in the early 1960s, this ecology-driven work was new and unfamiliar, and very much a hard sell. Herbert didn’t shy away from that or compromise in any way—with his own history of ecological work on the sand dunes near Florence, Oregon, he unashamedly dedicated the book to the ecologists engaged in such labors. It would be two more decades before saving the world—from an environmental standpoint—would be fashionable.

Dune, however, is not about saving the world. The story simply assumes a world where conservationist measures are an absolute necessity. That’s the backdrop; the story is political and religious. Wait! No! Don’t run! Frank Herbert had a gift for taking those themes and making them intriguing. The desert world of Arrakis, colloquially called “Dune”, sits at the center of every major power conspiracy in the known universe, and for a very good reason: its ubiquitous spice, melange, is the source of the mystical prescience that allows faster-than-light travel, as well as a host of other powers in various special-interest groups—and it can be produced nowhere else. Melange is a waste product of the planet’s enormous, building-swallowing, man-eating sandworms, which live nowhere else in the universe. The story begins when the galactic emperor, Shaddam Corrino IV, displaces the noble family in charge of Dune—the Harkonnens—and replaces them with their ancient-but-weaker rivals, the Atreides. It’s a trap, however, designed to destroy the Atreides, who have long been a thorn in the side of the Emperor as well. The Atreides heir, Paul, was secretly bred by a religious group, the matriarchal Bene Gesserit as a step toward their long-awaited messiah figure, the kwisatz haderach, the “one who shortens the way”; but unknown to the Bene Gesserit, he is the Kwisatz Haderach. In the end, he upends the empire, seizes power, embarks on a bloody jihad (a term that likely had less political weight in the real world when Herbert wrote the book), and sets the galaxy on a long path of predestination and fate.

It’s been nearly twenty years since I read Dune, and my memory required a little refreshing before writing this entry.  Prior to that first reading, I was only loosely familiar with it via the David Lynch film adaptation, which I had watched as a young child, and which famously took some notable liberties with the story. (It IS David Lynch, so of course it did—but then, his experience here eventually gave us Kyle MacLachlan in the role of Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, so I cannot complain.) It’s hard for me to look back on this volume without filtering it through the lens of what came after; and by that I mean both Frank Herbert’s incomplete Dune saga, and his son Brian’s supporting and concluding novels (written with Kevin J. Anderson, and based at least loosely on notes left by Frank Herbert). A word of caution, should you wish to continue the series: those two categories are two very different animals. Frank Herbert’s novels are nearly universally revered, and justifiably so; Brian Herbert’s novels are nearly universally reviled, at least by fans of his father. I personally think that’s a bit unjust; I found them to be great books on their own, but a bit deservedly overshadowed by the original series. Nowadays there are more books by Brian and Kevin than the original series contains; but quantity doesn’t make them superior.

dune-explained

Kyle MacLachlan is my hero. Also this tweet is 100% accurate. Read the book!

 

The later entries cover thousands of years of future history, and greatly expand on the themes of predestination, fate, and prescience (that is, future-sight, a hallmark power of those who use the spice). Herbert was setting up for some kind of titanic conflict at the end; some unknown enemy still waited, of which the readers had only received hint. Compiling various sources, Brian and Kevin posited in their novels that the true enemies were the thinking machines against which humans had once fought, now returned in great strength and power. Frank, unfortunately, never got around to telling us; he passed away before he could write the final volume. At any rate, there is none of that in the first volume, which is limited to the life of Paul Atreides on Arrakis, and not even all of that. With that limitation, the book can be notoriously confusing to some, as it simply hurls its readers into the morass of intrigues without a life preserver. I, myself, find it to be the least interesting book in the series; but don’t let that discourage you; we’re dealing with a high bar here. The entire series is good, so to call this one the least interesting is no insult at all.

The bottom line: Dune is a fantastic classic science fiction story in its own right; a great political novel; and, perhaps most importantly, it kicks off one of the truly great series in sci-fi history. Its effect on the course of science fiction has been profound; of all the series out there, perhaps only Asimov’s Foundation series, which we will cover in a few months, is its equal. I feel compelled to hold back any more details of plot and character, for the simple reason that this is not an obscure book—if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? You may struggle through it sometimes, but you won’t be disappointed.

Note: Unfortunately, unlike Foundation—which appears as an entire saga together—none of the other Dune novels made it onto the Great Reddit Reading List. That’s a pity; and if you have opportunity to continue the series, I highly recommend it. God Emperor of Dune is my personal favorite, though the others are great as well. ~Timewalkerauthor

The Great Reddit Reading List

Previous

Next

TGRRL: Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

It’s been a very long time since I last read George Orwell’s most famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. I admit that I didn’t reread it for my progress through the reading list, and so I may not be as specific in this review as in some others. Still, the book is famous; and in the era of the NSA, it comes up often enough that it gets revisited frequently in some form or another—therefore I think we’ll manage.

1984 cover

I’m attempting to include the covers of the editions that I read, wherever possible.

 

I find it fascinating how, in the past, this book was universally considered to represent the most horrible form of dystopian society. That’s still true, but only on reputation; when people begin to delve into the book, they’re inevitably faced with the fact that we’ve already allowed many of the invasions of privacy that are commonplace therein. Orwell’s ubiquitous screens have been upstaged by smart televisions; the microphones live in our homes nowadays and have names and personalities (hello, Alexa!). We know the NSA and other government agencies are monitoring much of our electronic communications; they’d monitor every bit if they could, and they’re very open about that. It’s for our own good, right? Big Brother said that, too.

There are three reasons why we don’t care, I believe—or at least, we don’t care very much. First, we love the convenience. There’s no question that Alexa and Cortana and our laptops and cell phones and smart TVs make our lives easier, more convenient, and—let’s admit it—more fun. I like the convenience of streaming television when I want it, even if everyone in the chain of provision knows what I’m watching.

Second, we didn’t receive this all at once. The book shocks us because it hits us at once—we didn’t grow up in the dystopian Oceania, and we’re discovering it in a moment. In the real world, our reduction in privacy was a gradual process. It was a very slick move to show us the convenience before we became widely aware of the universal vulnerabilities—like getting us all addicted to heroin before telling us it will destroy our lives. Now, I’m drawing a pretty extreme comparison there; I don’t think having our emails pass through a government net is literally going to kill us all. But, don’t let my hyperbole distract from the fact that there are risks involved.

And third, we aren’t—as a general rule anyway—being oppressed by means of this technology. To that, I am obliged to add an enormous “YET”. Nineteen Eighty-Four protagonist Winston Smith’s life was regulated down to the smallest minutiae, and he was actively punished for any deviation, but that isn’t happening to us. Our choices are certainly manipulated, but we aren’t feeling much pain for it.  However, the potential exists for that to change, and a less benign government—which is really saying something when we’re talking about the US government—could easily take advantage of it. It’s in our best interests not to let that happen.

One can find mountains of material treating this subject, so I won’t get any deeper into it here. If you’re reading it, you came for my thoughts on the book, not the political climate. The bottom line is that I found the book terrifying at the time I read it, about twenty-five years ago; I had actual nightmares, and not for the infamous scene with the description of the face-eating rats. I had nightmares about losing such a battle against the world and against the shapeless-but-omnipresent powers represented by Big Brother. Today, though, it’s lost much of its punch, and that is tragically unfortunate. The book has often been compared to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—mostly unfavorably, if I remember correctly, which is odd as Nineteen Eighty-Four is by far the better-known work in the popular realm. At any rate, we’ll perhaps look more at the comparison when I cover Brave New World, which is also on the list.

The Great Reddit Reading List

Previous

Next

TGRRL: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

The_Hitchhikers_Guide_to_the_Galaxy

 

And so begins one of science-fiction and comedy’s most highly prized works: Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It’s a rather unassuming beginning; it’s clever, but unremarkable. The first sentence is long and not particularly catchy, which is exactly how all the writing guides tell you not to do it. It gives no real hint of what it to come, or the many, many scenes and lines for which this book is famous. If you stopped here, you’d never know.

And that, friends, would be a shame. The Great Reddit Reading List was ordered according to the number of votes each book received, and there are good reasons why this tiny, once-obscure volume comes in at number one. I can very nearly guarantee that even if you haven’t read it, you’ve heard of it; or at least you’ve heard of one of its adaptations. And all of this is for one simple reason: Douglas Adams was a comedic master.

Truthfully, there’s not much I can say about the book, and its subsequent “trilogy” of five books total which hasn’t already been said. (I’m not counting And Another Thing, the alleged “book six” by Eoin Colfer; it’s certainly entertaining, but it’s no Adams. That’s not at all an insult; no one else could be Adams.) I don’t really intend to try, at any rate; you’ll find that with these reviews, I’m less interested in critiquing the book and more in giving an idea of what it meant to me. After all, it’s our experiences with books that make us passionate about them, and that make other people want to read them. This book has been dissected at great length in more reviews than I can count, and justifiably so. And so:

I won’t say that this was my first work of science fiction or comedy. I had been reading for years before I discovered Hitchhiker’s Guide at about the age of nine or ten, and had been into science fiction for most of that time. In fact, the first “big thing” for me in science fiction was Doctor Who (and if you’ve delved deep into this site, or its sister site, The Time Lord Archives, you know it’s still a big thing for me!), which coincidentally was also instrumental in Adams’s life. He wrote three successful serials for the Fourth Doctor’s era (one of them, Shada, only failed because of a workers’ strike, not because of anything about the story) and a few more unused pitches; and he served as script editor for the 1979 season of Doctor Who. His character of Professor Chronotis, from the unfinished Shada, went on to feature in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which has recently been adapted for television by the BBC.

Still, Hitchhiker’s Guide was a formative work for me. Everything is new when you discover it for the first time; looking back, I’m sure I wore out my sci-fi-loving dad with “42” jokes that he had known for years. From this book I learned that science fiction doesn’t have to be Star Trek serious; I learned that adventures don’t have to be as grand as Star Wars to be fun. I learned to appreciate wry and subtle humor (and I know what you’re thinking: Adams, subtle? Never! But consider his comedy against most American televised comedy, which would have been my only point of comparison, and I think you’ll see my perspective). I’m not accomplished at writing it myself yet, but I try to incorporate a little as I can. I leaned that absurdity in literature doesn’t have to equate to pointlessness; it can tell a story just as well as earnestness, or drama.

The fun in Hitchhiker’s Guide is in the sharing. This was the first book that ever became a social activity for me—the first book with jokes so widely known that I could laugh about them with, well, nearly anybody. They were certainly fun to read for myself, but they were so much more fun when passed around with a wink and a nudge and—sometimes—a guffaw. Now that I’m older, I’m passing them on to my children; my oldest daughter is eleven, about the same age as I was when I read the book, and we find ourselves passing Guide jokes over the dinner table while my wife (her stepmom) rolls her eyes at us. (She’s in on the joke, too; she mostly rolls her eyes when we get the jokes out before she does.) My daughter and her younger brother, age 9, are both math aficionados in school, and secretly I think it bugs them both that the answer (“42”) doesn’t match the question (“What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”, which we don’t discover until The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)—but that’s the beauty of the absurdity in Adams’s work.

And that’s that. For personal reasons, I’ll be cutting off here for today; but if you’ve never read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, give it a shot! And while you’re here, check out the rest of The Great Reddit Reading List. Next time: We’ll take a look at a particularly famous dystopian novel, George Orwell’s 1984. See you there!

The Great Reddit Reading List

Next

Short Story: The Light of Her Phone

This short story was written in response to a prompt on Reddit‘s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit. This particular prompt is an image prompt; I’ve borrowed my title from the title of that post, and the original image is included and linked below. Credit to DeviantArt user TomTC (Tommy Chandra) for the image, and to Redditor /u/Syraphia for the prompt. I’ve posted this story on Reddit in response to the prompt, as well.

I’ve opted to set this story in a larger fantasy world on which I’ve been working. Consequently, there’s a bit at the end that may sound like an infodump; I try to avoid that as much as possible, but as this piece is tied into that larger world, I found it necessary to include some of that linking information here. Still, I hope this story is enjoyable. Thanks for reading!

paranormal_girl__practice__by_tomtc-dbnclwe

Paranormal Girl (practice sketch) by TomTC

It was only when the sun set that she began to worry. Rather, she assumed the sun had set; it was getting dark, but the patches of sky that she could see were hazy and grey, and no glowing orb was visible. At any rate, the trees obscured her view.

Her name was Olive Parker, and she was thirteen years old. She’d been wandering for several hours. She didn’t know how she had come to this rather strange place; she only knew it had happened suddenly. One second she was stepping out her own front door; the next, she felt a strange tugging sensation throughout her body, and suddenly she was here, under these ashy grey trees. That was strange enough, and troublesome—to put it mildly!—but she had recovered quickly enough, and started walking. There were paths through the trees; she had found herself on one upon arriving. Surely they must lead somewhere.

Surely not, it seemed now. For the hundredth time, she pulled her cell phone from her pocket, and checked its GPS. As every time before, it searched the skies for a signal, and then came up blank. NO SATELLITE DETECTED. How could that be? There were always satellites in the sky, right?

She paused and looked around. The woods were dark now, and the light of her cell phone didn’t help her night vision. She pointed it toward the ground. In the dimness around her—there! Was that movement? Yes. Something… it was gone, whatever it was. Nothing too large; maybe a rabbit?

She resumed walking, using the cell phone’s screen to illuminate the ground at her feet. The roots of the trees didn’t seem to encroach on the paths, but one couldn’t be too careful. At the rate she was going, if she tripped, she’d cut herself, and get an infection and die, all before she got out of these woods. Well, that was a morbid thought. Anything, though, to divert her mind from one small but frightening truth:

There hadn’t been any wildlife around during the day.

Something dashed through the undergrowth to her left. She whirled toward it, bringing the phone up, but saw nothing. The light didn’t penetrate far into the trees anyway. She kept walking.

The woods at night were scary enough if vacant. No thirteen-year-old would ever want to admit that, but anyone would feel it. Worry turned to anxiety. She picked up the pace, though she still had no idea where she was going.

A sound brought her up short, and she froze in place. No; two sounds. Something was moving, pacing her, on the left; and something else was to her right—and moving closer.

Olive had reached the end of her endurance. She broke and ran. The light from her phone swung wildly as her arms pumped in counterpoint with her legs. The creatures on either side exploded through the brush, passing her and weaving—were they going to cut her off? She changed directions, darting down a side path to the right, heading downhill now. Ahead, she could see the faint glimmer of water—a pond, maybe? She crashed toward it.

Something huge and dark leaped onto the path ahead of her. She screamed, and darted left; she felt the wind of its massive paw swipe past her face, just missing. She blundered through the undergrowth, branches tearing at her clothes. Another creature appeared before her, all eyes and teeth; she spun to the right and ran toward the pond again, breaking out onto another path.

Ahead she could see the water, and an old wooden jetty that tilted out into the center. Something in the back of her mind registered that the water level was down from its original level; the jetty sat at an odd angle. A few feet from its end was a long, muddy rock that ordinarily (she guessed) would have been underwater. With the jetty, it made a passage across the narrow waist of the pond; she’d be able to run straight across with only a couple of hops.

She broke into the clearing around the pond and raced onto the jetty, feet thumping on the old, rotting wood. She risked a glance back as the two creatures burst out behind her; one was tall and wolfish, with matted fur and freakishly long limbs; the other was stumpy and reptilian, but with abnormally powerful legs and too many teeth and eyes. Both skidded and came up short at the water’s edge; neither seemed willing to risk the jetty, as they split and started around the sides of the pond at a run.

Olive leaped onto the rock, nearly falling into the water. She raced across and leaped onto the opposite bank, and glanced left at the reptilian creature—just in time to see the woods on that side fill with fire, engulfing the creature. The light dazzled her, but she could hear it howling in pain as it caught fire and burned. The source of the flames couldn’t be seen—what could cause that outburst? A flamethrower? Where was this place?! She scrambled up the hill away from the water.

The wolf creature bounded after her—and still there was nowhere to go, no place of safety. She could hear it getting closer, panting and growling. Any second now…

She raised the brightness on the phone screen as high as it would go. If only this one had a flashlight setting… At the last second, she spun and thrust it toward the creature’s face. The sudden brightness stunned it, and it stopped short and yowled in pain, clawing at its face. While it stood there, she turned and ran again. She made a dozen paces before it shook off the pain and came after her.

That trick wouldn’t work again. She wouldn’t get away this time. She could feel it closing the gap: nine paces. Eight. Seven…

Something—no, someone—caught her and shoved her past. She stumbled and nearly fell as the man wrenched the phone from her hand. There was no time to scream; she only managed to look back. She saw the light from the phone blossom in the man’s hand, illuminating his form; he wore a dark cloak with the hood up, but he glanced back just long enough to reveal his face, which was set in determination—but very human. Then her attention jerked back to the phone, for it was growing.

In the man’s hand, the phone expanded, blooming out as new panels unfolded from it. It became a shield of metal, glass, and plastic, pointing toward the onrushing creature. Then, it exploded with light, catching the monster in a beam of sunlike brilliance that spilled out to light the forest all around. The creature yowled and twisted, caught in the light as in a net; and its fur began to smoke. Its thrashings grew more intense; and then, finally, it burst into flames. When the light faded, and the creature’s remains fell to the ground, little remained besides charred bones.

Olive stood, dumbfounded, thinking only that she was glad to be alive. And then, the man turned to her.

“You’ve had a terrible night, haven’t you?” he said.

***

It was never easy to have one’s world expanded—and so much the more, when it was being doubled. The man walked Olive out of the woods, joined along the way by a woman in roughspun clothes, leather boots, and red gauntlets that covered her forearms and hands but left her fingers bare. “I’m Alric,” he explained, “and this is Joanna.” Then they had proceeded to upset everything she knew about the world.

When learning that she had arrived under such mysterious circumstances, Alric had explained that the Earth she knew was only one of two worlds. The forest in which they walked existed in its twin, which he called the Drylands. He explained that the two were very similar, but that some things—like the land around her home, and this forest—didn’t match up exactly. Stranger still, some people—but only from Earth, never from the Drylands—had the ability to pass between the two worlds. “That’s what you’ve done, it seems,” he said.

When Olive asked how they knew to find her, he grew chagrined. “We didn’t,” he said. “That was an accident, though a lucky one. We were on a mission.”

“A mission?”

Joanna took up the story. “We were sent to capture a rogue Zoomancer.”

While Earth produced the magic to travel between worlds, she said, the Drylands produced a different power. The Five Magicks, she said, existed in a scattering of the population, and in different proportions. By far the most common was the power that she herself wielded: Pyromancy, the mastery of fire. It was she who had set the reptilian creature alight; and she had stayed behind afterward to keep the forest from burning. As a result, she hadn’t been on hand to stop the wolf creature. There was Enviromancy, those who could control plant life and the weather; they were still common, but tended to die young, as their powers would spiral upward in strength until they became impossible to control. There were Psychomancers, the rarest form of all; these incredibly rare men and women could control the minds of those around them, and were almost universally to be feared, as their power corrupted them. Then there were Zoomancers, those who controlled and manipulated life. Not as rare as Psychomancers, but far less common that Enviromancers, these mages had the power to change and control living creatures, creating wonders…or abominations. This Zoomancer had gone a bit crazy with power, and had begun to attack the surrounding towns; and so they had been sent to deal with him. He had yet to be caught, but they were close now. It was his creatures that had chased Olive in the forest.

“But what about the fifth magic?” Olive said. “That’s you, isn’t it?” she said to Alric.

He nodded. “My magic is called Technomancy. Not long ago, there were thought to be only four magicks. Technomancy was discovered by a man we call the Engineer; or rather, rediscovered, as it was lost long ago. He taught it to many of us with the aptitude, and we teach others. It is the power to work with machinery; to understand it instinctively, and change it, and use it for our purposes. Like when I took the thing you carry—a telephone, I think it is called?—and changed it into a weapon to burn the abomination.” He smiled. “It’s a good thing you had it in your hand. My powers need something to work with—I can’t create machines from thin air. I expected some machines in the Zoomancer’s stronghold, but I wasn’t expecting to need to carry any on our journey. Without your machine, I would have been left to face the monster with knives only.”

They had reached the edge of the forest; and now they stepped out onto a track of beaten dirt. Above, the clouds had broken, and a nearly-full moon cast a silvery light. “So, what do I do now?” Olive said. “Can you get me home?”

The duo exchanged a look. “No, we can’t,” Joanna said. “If we had the power to travel between the worlds, we could take you home. But, only people born in your world can possess that power.”

“But, you can get yourself there,” Alric said. “This may have been your first time, but the fact that you got here means you have the ability.” He paused. “I don’t know how to walk you through it. I only know you have to intend to go. Perhaps think about it.”

“Like Dorothy,” Olive said. Seeing their blank looks, she added, “The Wizard of Oz? ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like…’ Never mind. Anyway, I’ll try.” She looked at each of them in turn. “Will you stick around until I see if it works?”

“Of course,” Joanna said. Olive nodded, and—thinking it would help her concentration—closed her eyes.

After a moment she looked up. “What if I come back here? What if I can’t help it?”

“Then you’ll be able to go home again,” Alric said. “Each time will make it easier. And if you are here and in need of help, head for the town of Ashdale, in that direction,” he said, pointing down the road. “Anyone there can point you to us, and we’ll help you.”

“But you should try not to come back,” Joanna added soberly. “This world is not a safe place for those who can travel between the worlds. Not now, anyway.” She exchanged a grim look with Alric.

Olive, for her part, let that go; and a moment later, she winked out of existence.

***

“Do you think she’ll listen?” Alric said. “That she’ll stay in her world?”

“No,” Joanna said as they started back into the forest. “They never do, especially when they’re young.”

“And you know this because you’ve met so many travelers?”

“No!” she said. “I mean, only one before this girl. But I hear it’s that way.” She grew serious. “Alric, if she comes back, and is captured, they’ll kill her. You’ve heard the rumors.”

“I know,” he said. “Joanna…we saved her life. We’re responsible for her now. If she comes back… we have to try to protect her. And you know the trouble that might cause.”

“I know.” There was nothing more to say after that; and they each walked alone with their thoughts.

***

Olive arrived, disoriented again, on a bare patch of paved street. It took a moment to get her bearings; and then she realized she was about three miles from home. Her parents would be worried sick…

She stopped in the light of a streetlamp and pulled out her phone. Alric had changed it back so thoroughly that she could almost believe none of it had happened. Still, here it was, nearly midnight… and a quick check of her GPS confirmed her location. She was most definitely back on Earth.

Strange as this excursion was, it was over now. Time to bite the bullet… taking a moment to compose what she hoped would be a believable story about getting lost, she dialed her mother’s number to ask to be picked up. As it rang, by the light of her phone, she started to walk.