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!

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How to Save Twin Peaks in Five Easy Steps

Today I concluded a long, long journey:

That’s right, I finally finished watching Twin Peaks!

 

You’d think it wouldn’t be a long trip. It’s only 48 episodes. Three seasons of varying lengths. Soap operas get that much in a year. Game shows do it in a few months. We’re not talking The Simpsons here (629 episodes) or my old friend Doctor Who (826) or even Breaking Bad (62). Go without sleep, and you could binge this series in two days. I’ve been working on it off and on since 2014, and that’s not counting any episodes I might have caught as an eleven-year-old back in 1990. Why so long, I hear you ask?

The answer is that Twin Peaks is not your average television series. That’s a bold claim in today’s entertainment world; but I’d argue that David Lynch’s Twin Peaks has a level of complexity that is usually reserved for science fiction, coupled with a level of pure, bizarre trippiness that is usually reserved for…well, for David Lynch’s films, actually. What can I say, the man has a type.

A quick recap, for those unfamiliar with this classic: The story begins with the mysterious murder of high school senior Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Washington. When Laura’s body is found, the oddities begin to add up, until Sheriff Harry S. Truman (yes, really) calls in the FBI. The bureau sends one Special Agent Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks. Cooper, in the midst of lavishing praise on the town’s coffee and pie selections, quickly finds a connection between Laura’s murder and a series of other murders which he has investigated.  As more and more townspeople are found to be connected to the crime, a supernatural connection is revealed: an evil being called BOB, from a supernatural location called the Black Lodge, is revealed to be the ultimate source of the terrible happenings in town. In the end, Cooper is drawn into the Black Lodge in an attempt to stop Bob…and he fails, spectacularly. When Cooper returns at the end of season two, it’s not the real Cooper; it’s a strange and evil doppelganger, inhabited by BOB’s spirit.

That’s where things stood, for a quarter century. Cue the current decade, in which everything is new again; I blame Battlestar Galactica, whose highly successful adaptation last decade proved that remakes can be extremely successful and lucrative. Those remakes quickly transformed into revivals, in which the new seasons aren’t a reboot of the original, but a continuation, many years removed.  Curiously, Twin Peaks seemed to have planned for this a long time ago; in the final episode, Laura Palmer’s spirit tells Dale Cooper that she “will see you again in twenty-five years”. That would be 2016; but one year off ain’t so bad, my friends. After all, in 1992, a revival series would have been a laughable thought.

So, in 2017, we got Twin Peaks: The Return, or alternately just Twin Peaks. This eighteen-episode event was produced by Showtime; and to save you the suspense, I’ll go ahead and say it: This series is an absolute train wreck. If the classic seasons were trippy, the revival is an overdose. The best metaphor I can think of is a rope that is fraying at the end: all the same threads are there, but they become more disconnected as we progress. The classic series was sometimes hard to follow; by the end of the revival, I was obligated to watch with the wiki at hand, just to keep track.

Where did we go wrong? I’d argue that the first and greatest problem is that no clear resolution was given in the original series; but that ship sailed so long ago that it’s tough to blame it for what’s happening now. I considered trying to review the current series as it stands, but I’m sure I couldn’t put it together in any coherent manner (considering that the show itself doesn’t manage that). Therefore, I’ll give you my thoughts on how to save Twin Peaks: The Return in five easy steps.

I. Give the series a narrative goal.

Just what are we getting at here? What do we want to accomplish in this series? I don’t know. You don’t know. Special Agent Dale Cooper doesn’t know. David Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost probably don’t know. Or perhaps they do know; they want to accomplish EVERYTHING! (More on that in the next step.) But you can’t accomplish everything. In that case, you need to accomplish one thing and accomplish it well.

My suggestion: This season had a lot of plot lines, but only one was truly compelling: The story of Cooper’s doppelganger. Focus on that plot–namely, Cooper’s quest to return the doppelganger to the Black Lodge, and escape the Black Lodge himself. We don’t get to see what the doppelganger has been up to for the past quarter century–although we get some hints–and that’s just as well; very little of it matters. Suffice it to say he’s been sowing chaos like a good villain. However, we learn very early that he will be automatically summoned back to the Black Lodge on a certain date, and we get to see his preparations for thwarting that event. From Buckhorn, South Dakota, to Las Vegas, to Twin Peaks itself, it’s a wild and bloody ride; let it take center stage. However, that isn’t what happens; although we cover that ground, it’s only one thread in the series.

That’s not to say we should throw out all the other characters; just that they should be here because they’re a part of that plot. And on that note…

II. Cut out the leftover subplots.

One of the strengths of classic Twin Peaks was its large ensemble cast. The town of Twin Peaks felt both real and eminently knowable. We got to see the many intrigues taking place in the lives of the inhabitants, from the Palmer family, to the love triangle of Big Ed Hurley, his mentally ill wife Nadine, and his high school sweetheart Norma, to the insanity of Leo and Shelly Johnson and Shelly’s affair with Bobby Briggs, to the mystery of Major Garland Briggs and his work with Project Blue Book. It all seemed to be leading up to something; unfortunately, we never got the payoff we needed on most of those plot threads. Perhaps we would have done so in season three, had it happened at the time; but we didn’t, and now the ship has sailed.

The 2017 season tried to pick up as many of these threads as possible; and as a result, the show meanders far more than it should. While it was fun to check up on Big Ed and Norma (who finally get their happy ending here), it felt disconnected from the rest of the series. In addition, numerous actors have passed away in the interim (or in a few cases, between filming and release!), and a few were unable to return for other reasons. This in turn led to the introduction of new plotlines, often only tangentially related, such as the sordid details of the family life of Bobby and Shelly’s daughter, Becky. As entertaining as these things could have been in their own shows, they come across as filler here.

My suggestion: Retain only those subplots which have a direct and useful connection to the main plot, that of Cooper and the doppelganger. That in no way means that the ensemble cast has to go; keep what plots you like, but tie them in. Big Ed, for example, was a member of the classic series’ Bookhouse Boys, Sheriff Truman’s clandestine group of men who kept tabs on the strange events in town. That would have been a perfect way to bring Ed back into the plot; but the Bookhouse Boys–not to mention the Bookhouse itself–aren’t even mentioned. I would suggest removing several subplots, if they can’t be tied in: Audrey Horne’s story; Richard Horne’s drug issues and the death of a child at his hands; Dr. Jacoby’s radio show; Becky’s trouble with her husband and his affair; anything involving James Hurley (who is especially out of place in the absence of Donna Hayward); and–and this may be controversial–the entire Las Vegas subplot involving Dougie Jones. On that note, it’s quite possible to make it necessary to the matter of the doppelganger; but as it stands, most of it is extraneous.

III. Cut out episode eight entirely.

Episode eight is unique among the episodes of the 2017 season. Leaving the regular cast entirely, it’s a trippy, surreal excursion into the past of the Black Lodge, BOB, and other supernatural entities–which, apparently, date back to the 1945 Trinity nuclear test explosion. The episode is structured in the same manner as the visions that various characters experience throughout the season–lots of clouds, vortexes, slow-motion speech, and smoke–and lacks any cohesive plot. It serves to introduce several plot elements that show up again in the second half of the season, such as the convenience store, the Fireman’s theater, and the Woodsmen (it won’t make much more sense even with context, so just go with it). Although the episode is  hard to follow, it’s not entirely without purpose; much of its imagery will be revisited in the final episodes. The biggest issue is that it is an immersion-breaker. (Personal anecdote: this is the point at which my wife, who had stuck with me through a rewatch of everything heretofore, decided to bow out.) The episode is so starkly different from everything around it, and so apparently disconnected (at that time anyway), that it pulls the viewer out of the series completely. As well, it’s very much in the vein of telling rather than showing, by which I mean that it’s interjecting its new contributions without any substantial lead-up or context; it is what we would call, in a novel, an info-dump. That’s doubly impressive, as it is almost completely without dialogue.

My suggestion: I agree that some of the concepts here are needed, although some are unnecessary. Instead of devoting an episode to it, work it into previous episodes. Use more visions if necessary–the series hasn’t shied away from them so far, so go ahead. Overall, shorten the amount of material by cutting the filler, and then work the remaining bits in elsewhere, so that this episode can be removed entirely.

Before I go on, let me point out that there will be spoilers for the season finale from this point forward. If you haven’t yet watched, and intend to…well, I suppose I’ve already ruined a few things for you. Still, if you want the ending to remain unspoiled, turn back now!

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Still with me?

Alright. On to number four:

IV. Give BOB a better ending.

Late in the season, we meet Freddie Sykes, played by Jake Wardle. Freddy is an oddity; a young security guard at the Great Northern Hotel, he works alongside James Hurley, and wears a green rubber glove at all times. I do mean at all times; he relates to James the story of how he was supernaturally led to put on the glove, and now can’t remove it without injury. Freddie has had supernatural direction, leading him to come to Twin Peaks from his native UK so that he can face his destiny. That destiny, as it turns out, is to destroy BOB.

The glove, you see, gives young Freddie supernatural strength, in one arm at least. He’s very good at punching, and uses that ability to devastating effect a few times in the last episodes of the season. This doesn’t sit well with the sheriff’s department, and lands him in the holding cells–which in turn allows him to be on hand when Cooper’s doppelganger meets his end. BOB, now encased in a large crystalline sphere, is released from the doppelganger’s body, and attacks Cooper. Freddie realizes that this is the destiny he was promise, and punches the sphere until it shatters, dispersing BOB once and for all–as far as we know, anyway.

Look, I like Freddie. Had he been there from the beginning, he’d be a great character. He’s affable and pleasant, and interesting. He is also the greatest deus ex machina in a series that is already flooded with them. While he doesn’t appear at the literal last minute, he’s only introduced–substantially, anyway–a few episodes earlier. He has no backstory or context within the established scope of the series. He’s there for one purpose only: to punch BOB.

This is the villain of the entire series. The murderer of Laura Palmer. The driving force behind the doppelganger. The source of years of trouble in Twin Peaks. He deserves better than to be punched out by a character from left field.

And finally–and I do mean finally:

V. Land the plane already!

I suppose I’m saying this to myself as well, as I’m up to 2150 words right now. I’ll try to make it quick.

David Lynch is a fantastic writer, director, producer, and actor. He suffers, however, from one fatal flaw: An insatiable thirst for another season. It’s a lifelong ailment; otherwise, Twin Peaks would have ended with season two, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I fear that the disease has progressed, in the interim, unfortunately.

Season two’s finale gave us four major threads to hold onto in anticipation of the third season (that is, the third season that never happened). We had Audrey Horne’s unresolved fate with the explosion in the bank vault; Laura’s spirit’s promise to see Cooper again in twenty-five years; the fate of Annie Blackburn, the winner of the Miss Twin Peaks contest, who was taken to the Black Lodge by Windom Earle; and Cooper’s doppelganger, last seen laughing into a bloody mirror as we see that BOB inhabits him. (I would include the fate of the real Cooper, but at the time we didn’t know that the Cooper who exited the Lodge was a doppelganger; it looked as though it was the real Cooper, now possessed as Leland Palmer had previously been.) The revival season upped the ante; the entire final episode consists of groundwork for a potential 2018 season.

All the major conflicts and plot threads are resolved in episode seventeen. Episode eighteen is forced to insert new plots, develop them, and then somehow leave the season at a cliffhanger–all in an attempt to ensure another season. Mr. Lynch, I’m saying this as your friend: It’s time to land the plane. I know this isn’t your strong suit, but bear with me.

Twin Peaks  works best as an event. You know this; you billed the 2017 series as Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series when you released it to video. It doesn’t need–and never needed–to be a continuing series. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have brought it back in the first place; you and Dale Cooper had unfinished business. You didn’t know, after all, that there would never be a Season Three in the 1990s. Perhaps you planned to end it then, and were taken off guard by the cancellation. Either way, the business is finished now; BOB is gone, and Cooper is back, and Twin Peaks is at last safe and at peace.

I know Twin Peaks is your baby. It’s been a part of your life for three decades. But let’s be honest: This season should have ended with episode seventeen. Cooper should have had his reunion with his long-lost friends, and the red curtains should have come down, and the credits should have rolled. Personally, I think that should have been the end of the series, but you don’t have to agree with me on that; maybe you have more stories to tell. If that’s the case, they should be next season’s stories. They shouldn’t have had an episode at the end of this season. End well, and start fresh. Or, if you agree with me, end well, and don’t start again at all. It wouldn’t be a failure; it would be a dignified and accomplished conclusion. Go out with a bang, and do justice to your creation.

This plane has been circling for a quarter century. It’s time to come in for a landing.

 

And there you have it! Five easy suggestions for saving Twin Peaks. But, what do you think? This series is nothing if not complex, and there’s far more ground than I can ever cover. What would you suggest? And if you don’t have suggestions, then what did you think of the series? Your answers are always welcome! As always, thanks for reading.

Looking Ahead to 2018: Reading Challenges and Lists!

The year is over! Or, almost. So, how did you do with your reading goals?

I’ve posted on this topic a few times this year, with a few possible reading plans that you can use. I didn’t follow any of them exactly–I came to them by way of the internet, in the midst of the year, long after I had set my own goals–but perhaps some of you have used them. Still, whether you followed a plan, set a number, or just kept a running count, how did it work out for you? There’s no wrong way to read, as long as you’re, well, reading!

I set a goal for myself of fifty books this year, up from thirty-five in 2016. In previous years, I read a lot more than that; but over the last six or seven years, I’ve had a combination of factors that cut back drastically on my reading output (intake? Hmm). Workload, family responsibilities, my own writing and blogging, video gaming (when I have the time), and the general distraction of the Internet, all conspired to reduce my reading time. At the beginning of 2016, I discovered Goodreads’ Reading Challenge feature, which lets you set a goal for number of books to read in the upcoming year. It’s not the most flexible tool; it runs only from January 1 to December 31, without the ability to start your year on a date of your choosing; and it’s difficult to make corrections to its tracked books, as I discovered this year. My list from this year has one book listed twice, but left off another book that I know that I tracked (I finally gave up on fixing it, because the two items cancel out, leaving my count unchanged). At the end of 2016, I decided that, for me, thirty-five books was a weak result, and so this year I raised the goal to fifty–nearly one book per week. I made the goal two days ago, just in time for the end of the year.

None of that is intended to brag, however. This is a competition only with myself, not with anyone else; and we should all be reading because we want to, not for the sake of comparison. And so, with that said, let’s look ahead to 2018!

I don’t usually plan my books for the year ahead of time. In fact, in doing so on this occasion, I’m not trying to suggest that I’ll hold fast to this list; nor am I saying that I won’t add to it. I pick up books as they catch my interest, and I don’t expect that to change. Still, I’ve increasingly found myself running across books that I want to read, but somehow have never made time for them. Well, this year, I want to make the time! To that end, I’ve compiled a completely NON-exhaustive list of books I plan to read in 2018, and I want to share it here.

Before I do, I want to make a few disclaimers. First, I did not compile this list purposefully; it’s not working toward a cohesive goal, other than my fifty-book reading goal (which I’ll be repeating for 2018). These are books I’ve added to my list here and there; I didn’t choose them with a purpose in mind. Second, this list has no political agenda. It’s popular nowadays–and perhaps rightly so–to recommend branching out from the traditional white-male-authored canon of books. Many people have compiled lists of books by people of color, women, authors from other countries, books in non-English languages, etc. etc. etc. I didn’t set out to do anything like that here; but neither did I set out NOT to do so. In many cases, other than just gender (as much as is obvious from the authors’ names, anyway), I couldn’t tell you anything about the background of these authors, because I didn’t choose them for that reason; I chose them because the books interest me. Is there a preponderance of white male authors here? Probably; it’s what I encounter most often. Did I intentionally exclude anyone? Nope. Third, there is definitely a preponderance of older books on here–I very rarely am caught up enough to be reading newly-published books. There’s a bit of bias there; when books have been out for awhile, I feel like I can trust the recommendations more. Still, a few newer books will probably make this list, and my reading goal as well. Fourth, this is list is mostly, if not entirely, fiction–but that in no way means I won’t read nonfiction. I read quite a bit of it, actually, but I rarely know about it this far in advance–I usually discover it while doing research for my own fiction, or else stumble across it at the library. And finally, this list does not supersede my Great Reddit Reading List project–in fact there may be some overlap. I am always working on that project, regardless of what I post here.

So, without further ado, let’s get started!

Title Author Comments
The Night Angel Trilogy Brent Weeks This book has been “in-progress” for me for a long time, and I intend to finish it this year. It’s very good, but very lengthy and dense. It’s actually a trilogy (I’m reading the single-volume edition), so I may ultimately count the books separately.
A Fire Upon the Deep Vernor Vinge Another book-in-progress that I plan to finish. It’s very good, but very slow, and long.
Doctor Who – White Darkness David A. McIntee I’ve been working through the Virgin New Adventures series of Doctor Who novels for my other blog; this is where I left off, a couple chapters in. I will probably read more DW novels during the year, but I won’t list them here.
The Robots of Dawn Isaac Asimov Continuing the Robot series.
Robots and Empire Isaac Asimov Continuing the Robot series.
Deadhouse Gates Steven Erikson Malazan Book of the Fallen, book two. I’d like to read the whole series, but that will take time; it’s lengthy, and so is each book. Gardens of the Moon took months to read, but it was excellent.
Oathbringer Brandon Sanderson Another long fantasy novel, and probably the newest thing on this list. Book three of the Stormlight Archive.
The Lies of Locke Lamora Scott Lynch I picked up this book–the first in the Gentleman Bastards series–at a Starbucks book exchange shelf, but I’d been hearing about it forever. Looks exciting.
The Three Body Problem Cixin Liu Been hearing about this forever, but not much of what it’s actually about. The suspense is exciting.
The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula Le Guin I’ve wanted to read it for years; now is the time.
A is for Alibi Sue Grafton While it may seem my lists are heavily biased toward science fiction and fantasy, I love mysteries and crime novels just as much. Ms. Grafton passed away two days ago, and I wish I had checked out her work while she was alive. She died with one book left to go in her Alphabet series, but I still want to give them a try.
A Savage Place Robert B. Parker I’ve been slowly working through Robert Parker’s Spenser novels, a great classic series of detective stories. This is the next entry. I usually get through a few each year, but I’m only listing the one for now.
The Forge of God Greg Bear I loved Eon, and this looks like a great alien invasion story.
Earth Abides George R. Stewart The book that inspired Stephen King’s The Stand. I started it several years ago, but never finished.
House of Leaves Mark Z. Danielewski Also on the Reddit list, I’ve heard about this book so often that it’s become a bit intimidating to me. Still, I want to be able to mark it off the list, and it does sound interesting.
Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut I’m a Vonnegut fan, but I can’t remember if I’ve read this one. No time like the present to be sure!
Revival Stephen King I used to read King all the time. With his more recent work, not so much; but this one looks interesting.
Starfire Charles Sheffield Years ago, I read his Aftermath, the story of what happens on Earth after the EMP from a nearby supernova wipes out electronic technology. Starfire is the sequel, set years later, when the slower-moving shockwave of the supernova reaches Earth.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets David Simon Came across this while reading another true-crime book, Bill James’s Popular Crime.
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation Blake Harris Video game history fascinates me.
The Mind Parasites Colin Wilson I read this rather trippy, metaphysical novel years ago, but was too young to really understand everything. Have been meaning to read it again for ages.
Market Forces Richard K. Morgan I’ve previously read the Altered Carbon trilogy and Th1rte3n, and enjoyed them all. Recently I picked this novel up for a dollar at a used book shop, and have been looking forward to it.
The Inimitable Jeeves P.G. Wodehouse As I haven’t read any of the Jeeves and Wooster stories–but have had them repeatedly recommended–really I could start with any of them. This is the first, but I believe they can be read out of order.
A Scanner Darkly Philip K. Dick As prolific as Philip K. Dick was, I’ve only read one of his stories so far (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and I aim to correct this grievous oversight. Also, free on Kindle with Amazon Prime!

So, there it is. Perhaps not the most eclectic list; but it will do for a starter! And of course I intend to add to it as the year goes on. So, what about you? What books will you be reading in 2018? I’d love to hear your thoughts! And as always, thanks for reading.

You can connect with me on Goodreads here.

 

The Great Reddit Reading List!

Back in September, I posted a reading challenge, which you can find here. It gave categories of books, one for each week over a year, but it didn’t recommend specific titles; it leaves that up to the reader. Today, I want to look at the other side of the equation, and also launch a new occasional feature: The Great Reddit Reading List!

A few years ago, shortly after I joined Reddit, I was browsing the /r/books community when I came upon a post that mentioned the “Reddit’s Favorite Books” top 200 list. A little research took me to the original list, posted in 2010. (See below for links!) This list was compiled from several poll posts, and constitutes a checklist of sorts of the most popular books in the /r/books community. I’ve since expanded it with input from a few more recent lists, bringing the total up to 265 entries. (I’ll add it to the end of this post, and also make it a page on the site with a link in the sidebar.)

I had read about fifty of the original two hundred entries when I discovered the list. Since then, I’ve added approximately another forty. I say “entries” and not “books”, because some of the entries listed will be a series of books rather than an individual volume within the series. That’s an artifact of the standard the original compiler used to create the list; in some cases, both an individual book and the series in which it consists would get high numbers of votes, because there was not much regulation of the entries submitted. No one was trying to enforce any rule that it must be a single volume; therefore series often made the list. With that said, I’ve actually read well over a hundred, if we count all the volumes in a series; but I’m going to count each named series as only one entry.

So, what’s on the list? It’s a surprisingly eclectic mix. There are a number of classics, many of which originated in other languages. There are a large number of newer, popular books, as well, as one might expect given that Reddit’s population skews toward the young adult age group. Fiction is certainly the larger division of the list, but non-fiction is well represented, and even a few textbooks made the list. Science and philosophy are well represented. Books since 2010 are not as well represented, because that is the year in which the original list was compiled; however you will find some newer books in the list post-200, as those books were added to the list in 2016.

Certain authors appear repeatedly (and that’s aside from cases where a series is present). Neil Gaiman is far and away the author with the most entries present; about half of his novels are represented, and at least one of his graphic novels. Stephen King has a number of entries, as do William Faulkner and Neal Stephenson. Ursula K. Le Guin appears a few times. Fyodor Dostoyevsky tops the classical authors, with three entries. Kurt Vonnegut is popular. Male authors far outnumber female, but I think that is less a reflection on the list and more on the state of reading and writing in the world in general—many people, most far more qualified than me, have discussed that at length in other sources, and continue to do so.

books snoo

So, then: A new feature here! I’ve been slowly working my way through this list for a few years. I want to pick up my pace and my efforts, and in the process, post my thoughts about these books as I work through them. I confess that I haven’t been reading these in order; I made an attempt to do so, but it didn’t take long for my attention to wander. Therefore, the entries may not be in order, though we should be good for the first thirty or so. In cases where I’ve previously read the books, I’ll work from memory and research as much as possible; some cases may need a full re-read, though. I expect to get about one post per week from this feature. This post today is already going to be long enough, as the list will be attached; therefore we’ll begin with the next post. (I’ve also included links to the original Reddit posts: Here (original list), here (discussion post), and here (2016 additions)

And so, without further ado, I present the Great Reddit Reading List! How many have you read? What are your favorites? Thanks again, and happy reading!

Title Author
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams
1984 George Orwell
Dune Frank Herbert
Slaughterhouse 5 Kurt Vonnegut
Ender’s Game Orson Scott Card
Brave New World Aldous Huxley
The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
The Bible
Snow Crash Neal Stephenson
Harry Potter (series, 6 books) J.K. Rowling
Stranger in a Strange Land Robert A. Heinlein
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Richard P. Feynman
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
The Foundation Saga (series, 7 books) Isaac Asimov
Neuromancer William Gibson
Calvin and Hobbes Bill Watterson
Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond
Catch-22 Joseph Heller
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert M. Pirsig
Siddhartha Herman Hesse
The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid Douglas Hofstadter
Tao Te Ching Lao Tse
House of Leaves Mark Z. Danielewski
The Giver Lois Lowry
Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Animal Farm George Orwell
A People’s History of the United States Howard Zinn
The Lord of the Rings (series, 3 books) J.R.R. Tolkien
Ishmael Daniel Quinn
A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking
Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas
His Dark Materials (series, 3 books) Philip Pullman
The Stranger Albert Camus
<Various Works> Dr. Seuss
The Road Cormac McCarthy
Lord of the Flies William Golding
The Monster at the End of This Book Jon Stone, Michael Smollin
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson
A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Phillip K. Dick
One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Art of War Sun Tzu
How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie
Flowers for Algernon Daniel Keyes
The Hyperion Cantos Dan Simmons
A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole
U.S. Dec. of Independence, Constitution, B. of R. Various
Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut
A Canticle for Leibowitz Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Odyssey Homer
Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury
A Song of Ice and Fire (series, 5 books currently) George R. R. Martin
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Ringworld Larry Niven
A Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
The Art of Deception Kevin Mitnick
The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Freakonomics Stephen Dubner, Steven Levitt
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Robert A. Heinlein
The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan
Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
The Forever War Joe Haldeman
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
Lies My Teacher Told Me James Loewen
Notes from Underground Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Everybody Poops Taro Gomi
On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin
The Autobiography of Malcolm X Malcolm X, Alex Haley
John Dies at the End David Wong
The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx
Contact Carl Sagan
A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess
The Prince Niccolo Macchiavelli
Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand
The Diamond Age Neal Stephenson
War and Peace Leo Tolstoy
The Stand Stephen King
The Dharma Bums Jack Kerouac
The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien
Moby Dick Herman Melville
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera
Why People Believe Weird Things Michael Shermer
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky
Asimov’s Guide to the Bible Isaac Asimov
The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway
Collapse Jared Diamond
Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace
Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes
Chaos James Gleick
American Gods Neil Gaiman
Starship Troopers Robert A. Heinlein
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Mark Haddon
You Can Choose to be Happy Tom G. Stevens
The Geography of Nowhere James Howard Kunstler
All Quiet on the Western Front Erich Maria Remarque
Candide Voltaire
Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler
The Girl Next Door Jack Ketchum
In Defense of Food Michael Pollan
The Dark Tower (series, 8 books) Stephen King
Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk
The Greatest Show on Earth Richard Dawkins
The Making of a Radical Scott Nearing
The Turner Diaries Andrew McDonald
The Scar China Mieville
Steppenwolf Herman Hesse
Going Rogue Sarah Palin
120 Days of Sodom Marquis de Sade
Rendezvous with Rama Arthur C. Clarke
Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood
Beyond Good and Evil Friedrich Nietszche
Gravity’s Rainbow Thomas Pinchon
Naked Lunch William Burroughs
Childhood’s End Arthur C. Clarke
Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck
The Book of Ler M.A. Foster
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark Carl Sagan
Johnny Got His Gun Dalton Trumbo
Cryptonomicon Neal Stephenson
Watership Down Richard Adams
Breakfast of Champions Kurt Vonnegut
Civilization and Capitalism Fernand Braudel
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs Chuck Klosterman
A Fire Upon the Deep Vernor Vinge
The Saga of Seven Suns (series, 7 books) Kevin J. Anderson
American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis
The Mote in God’s Eye Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle
The Chomsky Reader Noam Chomsky
The Panda’s Thumb Stephen Jay Gould
Flatland Edwin Abbot
On the Road Jack Kerouac
The God Delusion Richard Dawkins
The Classical Style Charles Rosen
Here Be Dragons Sharon Kay Penman
An American Life Ronald Reagan
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space Carl Sagan
The Little Schemer Daniel P. Friedman, Matthias Felleisen
Life in the Woods Henry David Thoreau
Black Lamb, Grey Falcon Rebecca West
Thus Spake Zarathustra Friedrich Nietszche
Sandman Neil Gaiman
The Game Neil Strauss
Good Omens Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman
Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis
Walden Henry David Thoreau
The Collapse of Complex Societies Joseph Tainter
The Cthulhu Mythos (series, varying accountings) H.P. Lovecraft
The Stars My Destination Alfred Bester
The Pillars of Earth Ken Follett
The Prince of Nothing R. Scott Bakker
Perdido Street Station China Mieville
Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl
The Wasteland T.S. Eliot
The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini
Pi to 5 Million Places
The Blank Slate Steven Pinker
The Dispossessed Ursula K. Le Guin
Guts Chuck Pahlaniuk
Fear and Trembling Søren Kierkegaard
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Ken Kesey
Kafka on the Shore Haruki Murakami
Ulysses James Joyce
Macbeth William Shakespeare
Basic Economics Thomas Sowell
Atheism: The Case Against God George H. Smith
The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood
For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway
Sophie’s World Jostein Gaarder
Women Charles Bukowski
Red Mars Kim Stanley Robinson
We Need to Talk About Kevin Lionel Shriver
How We Die Sherwin B. Nuland
Philosophical Investigations Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Singularity is Near Ray Kurzweil
The Day of the Triffids John Wyndham
The Long Walk Stephen King as Richard Bachman
Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are Alan Watts
The Wheel of Time (series, 15 books) Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson
The Elegant Universe Brian Green
A Suitable Boy Vikram Seth
Book of the New Sun Gene Wolfe
King Lear William Shakespeare
The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell
The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica Apollonius of Rhodes
The Baroque Cycle Neal Stephenson
Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle
Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela
Cloud Atlas David Mitchell
The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov
The Chrysalids John Wyndham
The Occult Colin Wilson
Cosmos Carl Sagan
The Fountainhead Ayn Rand
Hamlet William Shakespeare
The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell
The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss
Speaker for the Dead Orson Scott Card
The Fault in Our Stars John Green
The Sirens of Titan Kurt Vonnegut
The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown
The Way of Kings Brandon Sanderson
Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky
A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
East of Eden John Steinbeck
A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens
The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Stieg Larsson
The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner
Alive Piers Paul Read
The Chronicles of Narnia (series, 7 books) C.S. Lewis
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami
A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle
The Dresden Files (series, 15 books currently) Jim Butcher
The Shining Stephen King
The Wise Man’s Fear Patrick Rothfuss
Where the Red Fern Grows Wilson Rawls
The Martian Andy Weir
The Lies of Locke Lamora Scott Lynch
No Country for Old Men Cormac McCarthy
Neverwhere Neil Gaiman
The Crying of Lot 49 Thomas Pynchon
Ready Player One Ernest Cline
The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde
As I Lay Dying William Faulkner
Fifty Shades of Grey E.L. James
The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula K. Le Guin
The Time Traveller’s Wife Audrey Niffeneger
The Devil in the White City Erik Larson
The Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gaiman
11/22/63 Stephen King
Great Expectations Charles Dickens
Looking for Alaska John Green
The Man in the High Castle Phillip K. Dick
The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco
Children of the Mind Orson Scott Card
Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
The Once and Future King T.H. White
Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Colour of Magic Terry Pratchett
Anathem Neil Gaiman
The Book Thief Markus Zusak
Salem’s Lot Stephen King
Norwegian Wood Haruki Murakami
The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Wanted Patricia Potter
Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
A Prayer for Owen Meany John Irving
1Q84 Haruki Murakami
Stardust Neil Gaiman
All the Pretty Horses Cormac McCarthy
The Night Angel Trilogy Brent Weeks
Night Elie Weisel
Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler Italo Calvino
Under the Dome Stephen King
Old Man’s War John Scalzi
The Trial Franz Kafka

 

Reading Challenge Check-In: September 2017

How’s your reading?

Given that I consider myself a writer, naturally I hope that you consider yourself a reader. After all, here you are, reading this post—and I hope that one day I’ll have books available, which you will also want to read. Reading was a controversial topic in my house, and it can be a controversial topic at large, as well; my parents have always been avid readers, and instilled the habit into their children at a very young age—but at the same time, there was always pressure to “put that damn book down and go out and play!” Eh, well, you can’t win them all, I suppose.

So, let’s check in. How’s it going this year? In my case, I use Goodreads’ Reading Challenge feature each year. In January, you set a reading goal for yourself; throughout the year, as you finish each book, you add it to your read bookshelf, and the site adds it to your total for the challenge. I like the flexibility; I get to set the goal myself. Last year, I set my target at 30 books; but what I found was that I rationalized my time away with this goal, which for me is a little on the low end. I found myself rushing at the end of the year to meet the goal. This year, I thought (and still think) I could do better; and so I raised the goal to 50 books. So far, I’ve read 36. The site is not perfect, and gets the occasional glitch; right now my list is missing one book, but duplicating another, for reasons unknown. You have to ensure that your book includes both a start date and an end date (which you can change manually if necessary), or else it won’t show in your challenge; also, though I haven’t confirmed it, I suspect that the start and end dates must be different.

Books 8

Tracking my reading this way reveals some things about my reading habits. I’m strongly canted toward fiction, as I suspect most people are; I only have two non-fiction books in my list so far, which is unusually low for me. My preferred genres are science-fiction, fantasy, and crime. Thanks to my ongoing review project over at The Time Lord Archives, I have a large number of Doctor Who novels and short story collections in my list (no surprise there). I’m working in more classics; and when I say classics, I mean not only literary classics, but also classics within my preferred genres. I’ve dabbled in horror, action, comedy, and paranormal stories, but stayed away from romance this year (a genre I do occasionally read, but not often). I also tried out a few audiobooks this year, which is mostly a new thing for me.  It’s revealing, and it makes me want to spread out my interests and become a bit more well-rounded.

To that end, I’ll wrap up with a new challenge. Of course we aren’t at the beginning of the year; to which I say this: 1) I will probably repost this and other challenges near the beginning of 2018; 2.) Flexibility is key in any challenge; and 3) you can start anytime you like—52 weeks make a year, regardless of when you start, right? This challenge is designed to stretch your horizons, not simply by changing up the genre of your chosen books, but by changing the sources. What follows is a list of 52 categories (or 51, actually; you can take the last week off as a reward for your perseverance!). You can play in two ways. Easy mode: Every time you finish a book, check off every category that applies to it. Hard mode: Even if a book fits multiple categories, only check off one category per book (for a total of 51 books). If 51 books sounds like too much for you, split the list in half (a book every two weeks) and choose the 26 categories you like most, or make it a two-year challenge. It’s your call! (One last note: To give credit where it’s due, I must say that this list did not originate with me. Credit goes to Redditor /u/tbughi1, and you can read the original listing here.)

Where relevant, I’ve included the books that I’ve read for each category. Feel free to share yours in the comments!

  • 1. Read a book originally published in a language you do not know. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russian)
  • 2. Read a book by an author born in the same country or state as you. Snapshot, by Brandon Sanderson (country, USA; I haven’t read anything by a West Virginian this year.)
  • 3. Read a book from the Horror genre. At The Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • 4. Read a Romance and/or Erotica book
  • 5. Read a book written before 1950. The Stranger, by Albert Camus (1942).
  • 6. Read a book written by a man. Ringworld, Larry Niven.
  • 7. Read a book written by a woman. Six of Swords, Carole Nelson Douglas.
  • 8. Read a book in the Science Fiction genre. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein.
  • 9. Read a book in the Fantasy genre. Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erickson.
  • 10. Read a book labelled as Young Adult.
  • 11. Read a nonfiction book. The Mind Robber: Black Archive #7 by Andrew Hickey.
  • 12. Read a book with a contemporary setting.
  • 13. Read a book written after 1949. Early Autumn, Robert B. Parker.
  • 14. Read a book published this year
  • 15. Read a popular book, with at least 1 million ratings on any one website. (I’m finding that 1 million is an ambitious number; feel free to scale down if necessary.)
  • 16. Read an unknown book, with no more than 100 ratings on any one website.
  • 17. Read a book that was turned into a movie.
  • 18. Finish a series. The Ringworld Throne, Larry Niven, wrapped up the Ringworld series.
  • 19. Read a History book, fiction or nonfiction. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (still reading it).
  • 20. Read a short story, one with less than 5,000 words. The Nine Billion Names of God, Arthur C. Clarke.
  • 21. Read a short book, one between 5,000 and 100,000 words. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (89,280 words, according to one site I saw; still reading it).
  • 22. Read a long book, one between 100,000 and 250,000 words. A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (200,00 approximately, best estimate I could find; still reading it).
  • 23. Read an epic book, one with over 250,000 words.
  • 24. Read a self-published book.
  • 25. Read an indie book, where the publisher is a small or niche house and not one of the top 6 publishers. Seasons of War, Declan May, ed. (Chinbeard Books).
  • 26. Read a book published under one of the Big 6 publishing houses. MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, Richard Hooker (Published by William Morrow Paperbacks, which is an imprint of HarperCollins, one of the Big 6. I should note that it’s more correctly the Big 5 now, as Penguin and Random House merged on July 1, 2013.)
  • 27. Read a Biography, whether normal, Auto, or Memoir.
  • 28. Read a book labeled as a Best-Seller from this year.
  • 29. Read a book about Politics and/or Religion.
  • 30. Listen to an Audiobook. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde.
  • 31. Read a book on paper. Doctor Who: Love and War, Paul Cornell.
  • 32. Read a book that was, or currently is, banned by a government. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (previously banned in Ireland and India, challenged often elsewhere).
  • 33. Read a book in the Thriller or Suspense genre. It’s a loose definition of thriller, maybe, but The Four Legendary Kingdoms, Matthew Reilly.
  • 34. Read a Mystery book. What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, Agatha Christie.
  • 35. Read a book labeled as Dystopian.
  • 36. Read a debut book from this year.
  • 37. Read a book by or featuring a character that is LGBT. Looking for Rachel Wallace, Robert B. Parker.
  • 38. Read a book in the Paranormal genre. The Omega Factor, Jack Gerson.
  • 39. Read a book with pictures in it. Popular Crime, Bill James.
  • 40. Read a book for the second time.
  • 41. Read a book that’s been on your to read-list for more than a year.
  • 42. Read a book that features animals.
  • 43. Read a book where the main character goes on a journey. The Eight Doctors, Terrance Dicks.
  • 44. Read a book where a stranger comes to town. Edgedancer, Brandon Sanderson (published as part of Arcanum Unbounded).
  • 45. Read a book labelled as a Satire or Allegory.
  • 46. Read a book from the Self-Help, Health, Travel, or Guide category.
  • 47. Read a collection of poetry.
  • 48. Read the first book in a series. Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, Marc Platt, the Doctor Who New Adventures series. (I had to cheat a little and go back to the last weeks of 2016–I have a few others, but I’ve already listed them).
  • 49. Read a book that won a literary award.
  • 50. Read a book set in your country.
  • 51. Read a book not set in your country, but exists today.
  • 52. Combining all the letters of all the titles of all the books you’ve read this year, complete the alphabet.

 

Happy reading!

Subplots and Sidequests

For some time now I’ve had a writing project stewing on the back burner. It’s a fantasy novel that I hope to make into a series.  Right now, I have the first two chapters complete, plus a basic plot outline, and—most relevant to my topic today—a chunk of the worldbuilding that has to undergird the story if I want to make it a series.  I’ll talk more about this project as it progresses, but that won’t be today; likewise, I’ll talk more on other occasions about worldbuilding and what it entails.

In the meantime, I have a problem. This story, or perhaps series, is trying to expand!  It wants to become a network of related stories, not necessarily in a linear series.  Most likely you’re familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  That shared universe encompasses the movie-based exploits of an A-list of superheroes; the television exploits of the B-list and supporting characters; and even some comic books (which is ironic, as it all started as an adaptation of comic books that are explicitly NOT part of the MCU—isn’t multiverse fiction fun?).  It has a dozen or more character threads weaving in and out from each other, and that’s just the main characters.  It’s a grand project, and for the most part it’s been both ambitious and successful—so much so that Hollywood has collectively decided that this is the wave of the future, and every film you see these days seems to be the seeds of a proposed (and far less likely to succeed) shared universe.  My story would very much like to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it grows up—and that’s a problem.

You see, I haven’t earned it. Marvel certainly has; you may call it cheating a bit, but they’ve earned it with decades of “shared universe” comic book stories. Then, they’ve earned it again with the execution of the MCU onscreen.  How did they do it?  I wasn’t around for the beginnings of their comic book empire (though I am old enough to remember when comic books weren’t cool—I was a bit of a comic book nerd back in junior high and high school, at a time when you could very much get beaten up for it).  I do recall the beginning of the MCU, however: they started with just a few central characters—Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and a little later, Thor.  They put the effort into building those characters long before they put them decisively on a team together.  They gave us substance before they tried to capitalize on its existence.  Every so often, an individual story in the MCU may flop, but when it happens, no one looks at the concept as a whole and says “This is stupid”—because they’ve labored to prove that it isn’t stupid.  It works, even if a minor cog in the machine breaks.

marvel

Pictured: Subplots!!!

Chris Brecheen over at Writing About Writing has spoken extensively about “earning it”, so much so that it’s become a bit of a catchphrase. I’m indebted to him for it, because that phrase sums up something I’d been trying to explain to myself for a long time: you can do anything in your writing as long as you earn it.  When Chris says it, he’s usually talking about reusing established tropes, or breaking one of the “rules” of writing.  Here, I’m going to apply it to the expansion of your story—the subplots and sidequests that we all love to create.

(You might take issue with my use of the MCU as an example. “But,” I hear you say, “the MCU is a collection of major plots, not subplots!” Not so, I reply.  The MCU, as well as any incarnation of the Marvel universe, has room for any plot—but they haven’t opted to INCLUDE just any plot.  Right now, and throughout the next foreseeable phase of the production, they do in fact have an overarching plot, that of the Infinity War.  Everything else is supporting that in some way.  Where it goes after that is anybody’s guess—but for now, EVERY individual character movie and EVERY television series is supporting the Infinity War super-plot.  In essence, it’s subplots everywhere.)

I can’t let my project devolve into subplots that expand the universe, because I haven’t yet earned the right for that universe to even exist. I haven’t finished the first book.  I haven’t yet strung the cord on which the subplots must hang.  Nor do I think that a single book will be sufficient to do so; I expect this to be a series, and so I believe I’ll need multiple entries in place, possibly the entire series, before I can expand on this universe.  Marvel was able to do so from the beginning of the MCU because it had a rich history of comic books—these characters and events were known, at least in a large niche market.  They had a foundation in place.  I don’t have that, and I can’t get by with growing multiple parallel stories at once.  I still have to put in the work on the first one.

“But,” I hear you say again (boy, you’re all so vocal today!), “I’m not trying to write a series! I just want to write one book!” My friend, this is just as applicable to you; and for evidence, I turn to the video gaming world.

I’ve recently been playing Fallout 3 (shut up, I’m never up to date in the gaming world).  It’s a great post-apocalyptic game, with a good, suspenseful plot and a well-developed world.  It even benefits some from its history, being the third canonical game in the series; however I’m going to discount that history for the moment, because this game is the only one so far to take place within its particular setting—other games take place in other parts of the former USA.  I’ve discovered, though, that I get sidetracked from the main plot by the sidequests.    It started small—disarm this bomb in Megaton (a major town)!  Excellent!  Did that within minutes of arriving, got a little achievement trophy.  But what now?  You need me to go find and eliminate the source of these mutated giant ants?  O….kayyy….I’ve got time.  Wait, now what? You want me to go run a simulation of the Battle of Anchorage?!  Well, I guess… Oh, look, here’s an entirely new city to explore and liberate in the ruins of Pittsburgh!  Fantastic!  …Wait, what was I doing again?  Main quest? What main quest?

Fallout 3

Pictured: Sidequests!!!

I get distracted, and then I lose motivation, and then the game never gets finished. Fallout 3 has approximately a million sidequests and achievements, and most are interesting enough to keep you going—but you lose sight of the goal.  The same thing can happen in our writing, even if we’re only writing one volume.  We can include so much that we lose focus.  The readers won’t follow along; and we may not even finish writing it.  There are tricks we can use; an outline, for example, will help us stay on track.  We can better reach the goal if we, you know, know what it is and how we plan to get there.  But, mostly, it takes determination to stay on target.  If you know that introducing this new character or setting will send your story off on some wild, unnecessary tangent, then don’t introduce it.  Save it for when you’ve earned that extra story.  For now, keep earning it by keeping your plot on track.

We’re a lot more forgiving of sidequests and subplots in video games. There are a lot of reasons for that; we’ve come to expect them, for one, and games are so expensive that we feel we have to get our money out of them (by racking up a certain number of hours).  Games are less linear, and tend to have in-game features (such as checkpoints and quest markers) to pull us back on track.  Books have none of those, and as such we have to work harder at trimming out the unnecessary and keeping our stories on track and cohesive.

Does that mean we can never have a subplot or sidequest? Absolutely not! There’s still room for my novella about my principal technomage discovering his own powers two decades before the main story begins.  Just, not yet.  I haven’t earned it yet.  On the way to earning it—or any other sidequest or subplot—we should ask ourselves a few questions.  First, does it distract from the main story? A good subplot or sidequest won’t distract the reader from the main story, even while it may seem to put it on hold.  The main story should still be present in the reader’s mind (and usually this will result in a sense of some urgency to get back to it!).  Second, does it support the main story?  It may not be integral, but it should contribute something to the main story.  Third, why should the reader care?  You still have to earn the reader’s interest via good characterization, good plot, and good writing (which we’ll talk more about in later posts).  Just because your characters are “visiting” this subplot from the main plot, doesn’t mean they will be interesting here!

I’ve given examples from television, film, and video games; let me wrap up with a literary example. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth fantasy series is the story of the struggle to liberate the magic-wielding New World (a relatively small continent) from invasion and oppression by the much larger Old World, which is led by a cult that wants to see magic eliminated from the world.  It’s the story of Richard Rahl and Kahlan Amnell, the leaders of the New World, in their fight against Jagang, a powerful telepath of sorts who leads the Old World.  Most of the books in the series take place in the New World; but right in the middle of the series, it veers off into a “sidequest” (as I’m calling it) into the Old World, when Richard is kidnapped by one of Jagang’s agents.  She takes him to Jagang’s capital, far from anyplace he knows, and he becomes a slave there.  The events of that story, in which he seeks his own liberation and the ideological liberation of those around him, have little to do directly with the fight for the New World.  However, they pass my three tests above: the presence of agents of Jagang is a constant reminder of the main plot; Richard’s actions here will eventually, several books later, serve to undermine Jagang’s power base (thus supporting the main plot); and the characters and their actions are compelling and emotionally intense.  The result is Faith of the Fallen, which is in my opinion the best and most powerful book in the series—and Goodkind earned every bit of it.

Faith of the Fallen

That’s how it’s done, and that’s how you earn your subplots and sidequests. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some earning to do.

You can find Chris Brecheen and Writing About Writing at the link in the text above, or on Facebook.

Timewalkerauthor’s Quick Start Guide to Publication

The other day, I was asked by a family member to help out an acquaintance.  It seems this gentleman is an aspiring author, and he was looking for advice on how to proceed toward publication.  Excellent question!  Although I haven’t made the leap to professional publishing myself as yet, I have worked through the process, and looked into it, and the basics are fairly simple.  I put together a sort of quick-start guide for him, and now I’m posting it here, in slightly modified form.

Two things:  First, this guide is by no means exhaustive or authoritative.  There are people out there who are far more qualified than me to make these recommendations, and you can find any number of blogs that specialize in this sort of advice, with varying degrees of depth.  This is simply a starting point.  Nothing will substitute for your own research, but I appreciate you coming here for a first look!  Second, when I prepared this post, I had very little information as to what the acquaintance for whom I prepared it was looking for, or what he was writing.  Therefore I’ve broadened the scope a bit; this post covers more than just traditional or paid publishing.  As a result, there should be something here for everyone.  Let’s get started!

pencil

Photo borrowed from blog.oxforddictionaries.com

 

 

What type of publishing are you interested in?

“Publishing” is an inclusive term, and doesn’t just mean traditional, print-book, royalty-earning publishing.  There are lots of types and levels to this.  Here are the broad options:

Blogging:  You’ll want a site you can regularly update with new posts as you see fit, which is just yours (not any other contributors unless you choose to have them).  Can be based around an interest, or be general purpose.    Some sites that offer blog hosting for free are:

  • Blogger.com (formerly BlogSpot)—this one is big and versatile and is owned by Google.
  • WordPress.com—I use this one, and you’re looking at it right now. Allows multiple blogs under one email address (most of these do that, but it’s worth noting). WordPress is the granddaddy of blogging sites; it’s big and well-established, (17% of all websites are WordPress sites!) doesn’t often have bugs, has a ton of themes available. Easy to use. WordPress.com is free, and if you ever reach the point where you are doing well and making money on it and want to host it yourself, WordPress.org is the paid service that does that. But really, .com is usually sufficient.
  • LiveJournal.com—getting a bit outdated, but still popular. Has a free and a paid version. One useful feature is it allows video uploading on the free version, which WordPress does not (unless you pay a premium fee).
  • Tumblr.com—Tends to be more visual than literary. Has a comment reply system similar to Reddit. I, for one, found that it isn’t very useful for posting stories and text as opposed to pictures, but you may disagree. Very popular, but a lot of people make fun of it.
  • Blog.com—considered to be a little more professional, but not too much. Tends to have a lot of features that cost premium fees, but otherwise not bad.
  • Weebly.com—comparable to WordPress as far as utility and features. I have a friend who uses it and really likes it. I don’t know much about it personally, though.
  • Penzu.com—I really don’t know anything about this one. Unlimited storage, though, which is very rare.
  • Squarespace.com—Very easy to use, allegedly (haven’t tried it myself). I hear good things, but I don’t know much about it.
  • Svbtle.com—No, that’s not a misspelling, or at least, it’s intentionally misspelled. I don’t know anything about it really, but I hear it’s kind of minimalist.

Blogs don’t generate much money unless you are really successful.  Most platforms have ad services that can monetize your site, but they’ll have rules about how it works.  Just something to look into.

 

Fanfiction or original fiction (without pay):  If you just want to get an audience for your fiction, and aren’t trying to make any money, this may be what you need.  Fanfiction.net is for fanfiction, with a huge variety of categories.  It’s been several years since I used it, but it doesn’t seem to have changed much, though they do have a fairly active administration team.  It’s very hands-off as far as moderation; they might remove something if it’s unrelated to the category it’s posted in, but it’s unlikely they’ll tamper with anything otherwise.  That also means they rarely remove nasty comments, though.  You sort of take what you get.  I’ve found the community to be mostly supportive, though.  When I last used it, their html markup was pretty primitive, but it seems to play well with text from most word processing programs.  If you are writing original fiction, there’s a sister site called fictionpress.com, which works identically to fanfiction.net.

 

Self-publishing:  If you have original fiction (NOT fanfiction) that you want to self-publish, far and away the easiest way to do it is through Amazon.  They have multiple programs for it.  You can publish print books through their createspace.com service (usually these books are print-on-demand, where they are only printed and shipped when someone orders a copy).  Ebooks are through Kindle Direct Publishing at kdp.amazon.com, and are only on the Kindle format; there are plenty of options to check out.  Audiobooks are through their acx.com service.  Truth be told, it’s hard to earn a lot of money through Amazon publishing, at least on Kindle, but it’s a foot in the door, and if it sells well it can also be useful for making the jump to traditional publishing if you choose to.  Other companies that do self-publishing are out there, like xlibris.com and bookbaby.com, but they usually require some cost up front—they’re legitimate enough, but not free.  Bookbaby is especially interesting, in that you can also get single copies for your own library for a fee.  However, with any of these services, I should warn you that one major cost that is probably unavoidable is the fee for an ISBN number.  This is necessary for print publishing if you want to make money, and it runs upwards of $100 for a book.  Most traditional publishers incorporate the cost of the number into their fees, which come out of book sales, so you don’t pay up front; but self-publishing isn’t like that. Your self-publishing company may have a feature for handling the purchase of the number, but you will still be paying the fee.  If you must purchase it separately, without the assistance of a publishing company, you can do so at isbn.org, the website of administering organization Bowker, the only authorized source of ISBNs.  (I have heard that other agencies will sell numbers as well, but it’s a scam, selling invalid numbers.  I have not encountered this personally, however.)

 

Traditional Publishing:  The old-fashioned and time-honored way, in which you publish through a publishing house.  There is way more than I can say here about this, because it’s a deep and well-argued subject; but, here are a few basics.  It’s generally better to start by getting an agent rather than approaching publishers yourself.  First, make your manuscript as good as you think it can be; there are tons of online resources for this (I recommend Brandon Sanderson’s Writing Excuses podcast, which is available for free at the linked website, or for free on iTunes).  Then, get yourself an up-to-date copy of Writer’s Market.  They have a  website (which is where that link will take you), but I’ve found it’s not nearly as easy-to-use or informative as the print book, which comes out every year (and can be ordered from the same site, as well as from various retailers).  It is filled with current listings for agents, publishers, magazines, journals, etc.  Pick out agents that you think may be promising, and then check that agency’s website.  ALWAYS MAKE AN EFFORT TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS FOR SUBMISSIONS THAT THEY LIST ON THEIR SITES, and ALWAYS TRY TO CHOOSE AGENTS THAT SELECT THE TYPE OF MATERIAL YOU WRITE.  Agents have a lot of control over what they accept.  Look up some resources on how to write query letters and plot summaries, and send some out (but make sure you do it the way each agent wants it—they’re each a little different).  Proceed from there based on what you hear back.  Don’t get discouraged!  Finding an agent is usually the hardest and lengthiest part of the project—it’s a hurdle I haven’t overcome yet myself.  Once you have one, they will assist you with getting the book revised and edited, and sold to a publisher.

 

Miscellaneous:  In between all these levels of publishing, you’ll find any number of specialty sites, like Wattpad.com for example.  It’s really a matter of what you want.  Also, if you are publishing SHORT fiction, there are many options that are not available to novels.  You can submit unsolicited short stories to many magazines—just google “Magazines that publish [whatever genre, i.e. science fiction, horror, romance, etc.]” and see what comes up, or check the magazine section of Writer’s Market.  Make sure you read the submission guidelines.  You can also submit short work to contests—Writer’s Digest, a companion publication/website to Writer’s Market, keeps a list of these every year, including a few of their own.  Most contests pay a little, some pay a lot, and nearly all of them including some sort of publishing of your story as a part of their prize packages.  Even if contests don’t pay much, contest winners look good on résumés.

 

One last thing to think about:  What software are you using to do your writing?  That’s assuming you’re not writing longhand or on a typewriter.  Those forms of writing are perfectly respectable—I was writing longhand long before I owned a computer—but they’re very difficult to submit for publishing nowadays.  There are a lot of choices for word processing, and they are not all created equal.  Some are better for writers, though most are at least okay.

  • Microsoft Word/Microsoft Office. The current standard for word processing. Word comes as part of Microsoft Office, which can be bought outright for a significant cost (over $100, varies based on which package you want) or can be “rented” via the online Office 365 version, starting at $69.99 a year. I love Word, and prefer it, but expensive is expensive.
  • Apache OpenOffice—free, available online. Very similar to Microsoft Office, and produces documents that are mostly compatible with Office. More streamlined than Office in some ways.
  • LibreOffice—I don’t know a lot about this one, but I hear it’s good, and comparable to OpenOffice or Microsoft Office. Also free and available online.
  • Google Docs—Google is really a package deal these days. Getting a Gmail address gives you all their services for free. Docs is the word processor, and it’s decent, intuitive, and autosaves frequently. Drive is the storage system, a cloud-based free storage. There are also other apps which are comparable to Office’s other features. The only downside is that the Drive storage space is shared by everything, so if you save every email you ever got, you’re going to eat it up quickly.
  • Scrivener—this software was created especially for writers. It costs, and it is definitely NOT intuitive—there’s a learning curve. But it cannot be beat for usefulness. It sorts your outlines, support materials, research, parts of your documents, etc., and has tools to edit, assemble, and export your completed documents. It has so many features, I can’t begin to describe them, and its exported documents are compatible with several other programs. It’s about $50 usually, but frequently goes on sale as low as 50% or 75% off. I really recommend it, but I admit that I haven’t used it a lot yet myself—I haven’t had it long enough to do a lot yet.
  • One more thing: If you have trouble plotting a story, check out storylinecreator.com. Storyline Creator is exactly what it says—a program for creating and plotting the storyline of your material. Based on what you put in, it shows you the progression of every character through the story and how they interact with each other. There are subscription options as low as about three dollars a month, but to just buy the offline version outright is about $22.00 right now.

I’m not getting paid to advocate any of these options, or even asked to do it.  They’re all things I’ve tried on my own, and in the case of Office, Scrivener, and Storyline Creator, I bought them myself, and found them to be useful.  But there are plenty of free options, as I mentioned, and more out there than even I know of, and they work just fine.

 

I hope this is helpful.  Writing is such a satisfying thing when it works out, and getting published—even if it’s for free—is awesome.  Happy writing!

Upcoming Change on the Blog

Announcement Time:  For over a year now, I’ve been posting mostly Doctor Who-related items here.  This project started thanks to Reddit’s /r/Gallifrey subreddit, of which I have since become a moderator.  Often I would browse that site and see posts in which fellow fans would rewatch classic or new series episodes–or sometimes entire seasons–and review them, giving their own thoughts.  I learned a lot about the series, which has been one of my favorites since childhood; and finally, I decided to conduct my own rewatch, and begin posting my own reviews.  I posted them, of course, on /r/Gallifrey; but I also decided to cross-post them here, where I can expand a bit, adding things such as photos and links to streaming sites that carry the episodes.  Such things don’t work well on the subreddit, but they belong here.

It’s grown into quite the project, as I’ve sought to expand into other media (beyond the television series), with the ultimate aim of covering, well, everything–or at least, everything I can get my hands on.  Doctor Who is a franchise that spans more than five decades, with entries in television, the big screen, prose of all types, comics, audio dramas–even stage plays, which are mostly available now as audio recordings.  It’s more than a world; it’s an entire universe, or better yet, a multiverse, with incarnations as diverse as those of the Doctor himself.  I am unashamedly a fan of the series, and cataloguing it this way is a labor of love for me.

However, with the expansion of that project, it’s become clear that it’s more than this blog is set up to handle.  This blog was created several years ago as a place to showcase and discuss my own writing–fiction, that is–in anticipation of eventual publication.  While the publication efforts have been put on hold due to changes in my family situation, they haven’t been abandoned completely; and I still intend this blog to be used for that purpose.  Already I’ve separated its content once, removing posts that relate to family, beliefs, and personal matters, and relocating them to another blog, Thoughts of a Formerly Dead Man.  (To be precise, they haven’t been removed from this blog, but I did stop adding such posts, allocating new posts of that type to the other site.)  Now, it’s time to do the same with Doctor Who.

To that end, I’m announcing a new home for my Doctor Who reviews and discussion.  You can find it at The Time Lord Archives (http://www.timelordarchives.wordpress.com); I will be adding a link to that site to this blog’s link section.  The content I’ve already posted here will remain available here, and has also been exported to the new site, so that everything will be available in one place.  You’ll find that that site has been organized by type of media, a feature I had wanted to implement here, but never fully realized.  For the past week, I’ve been adding new posts to both sites; but effective yesterday, new Doctor Who material will only be added to the new site.

I maintain no illusions about the reach of this blog.  I am a small person doing small things for a small audience; and at this point in my life, I’m fine with that.  Eventually I do hope to devote more time and energy to original material, and to publication; it’s to that end that I’m maintaining this blog after the split.  Still, I do have followers here, and I appreciate all of you; and I owe you openness about my plans.  You can expect that the number of posts here will drop back to the level I was maintaining prior to beginning the Doctor Who project, for now at least.  If you joined this blog BECAUSE of the Doctor Who material, and you want to continue receiving the reviews, PLEASE consider following the new blog!  At the moment, I haven’t done much to publicize it, so there are few (if any) followers over there as yet.  Don’t let that deter you; the content will be the same as it was here, just in a new location.  The fact is, I’ll keep doing this regardless of followers, because it’s a labor of love for me, and because I’d like that site to be a resource available to fans of the series.  But it’s certainly good to know that I have a regular audience, no matter how small.

Thank you to everyone who’s followed along…and, happy reading! ~Timewalkerauthor

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Trouble In Paradise

We’re back, with another Doctor Who audio drama review! We’re continuing our look at the eleven-volume Fiftieth Anniversary series, Destiny of the Doctor, produced by Big Finish in conjunction with AudioGO. Today we’re listening to the Sixth Doctor’s contribution to the series:  Trouble in Paradise, read by Nicola Bryant and Cameron Stewart, and written by Nev Fountain. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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This episode differs from its predecessors right from the start. Rather than finding it incidentally and later, we get an appearance by the Eleventh Doctor right at the outset, as he uses the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits and viewscreen to contact the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown. He makes it clear that he is a future incarnation of the Doctor (with Peri at first reflecting that he is what she would expect from the Doctor’s son, if he had one), and compliments his previous self; and then he makes a request. He wants the Sixth Doctor to obtain an omniparadox, a most dangerous item. After he leaves, the Sixth Doctor explains that an omniparadox is a sort of power cell, created by the conflict between two versions of time, much as nuclear power is created by smashing atoms together. The omniparadox, however, possesses energies that, if misapplied, can destroy the universe.

The Doctor constructs a device to track the signal of an omniparadox; it does so by mimicking the signal to create a resonance. Tracking, they land aboard a ship—not a spaceship, but a sailing ship—and find the paradox hovering above the TARDIS. However, they are quickly captured by a most unlikely man and his crew, and find that they are in the presence of the famed Christopher Columbus, aboard the Santa Maria; and he has just sighted land. He assumes they are natives of the island he has discovered, and that they have somehow come aboard to worship the invading Europeans. (The fact that he can converse with them without trouble seems to be lost on him.) The misunderstandings are interrupted, however, when it is revealed that a man on board is dying—and claims to have seen the devil.

Unfortunately, Peri has seen it too, albeit briefly. The Doctor gives her the TARDIS key to fetch a medical kit; and en route, she sees a demonic creature in the shadows for a moment. The Doctor determines that the man is dying of tuberculosis; he has the ability to cure him, but refuses to do so, as introducing modern medicine to the year 1492 could be disastrous. Enraged at him, Peri runs off through the hold where the TARDIS is parked, stopping only to throw the key at the Doctor.

Moments later, we find that Peri—intending to just stand at the prow and think—has fallen overboard. The Doctor panics, and tries to enter the TARDIS to save her, but cannot find the key. He is diverted, however, when he sees that the omniparadox is now gone; and shortly thereafter, the universe begins to unravel, violently. The Doctor realizes that something has caused the paradox to be removed, which means that the Eleventh Doctor’s mission in the future will fail, bringing about this destruction; but he stabilizes the situation briefly with his tracking unit, using its false signal to “trick” the universe into stability. It will not last, however, and he has about an hour before things fall apart. Columbus, having had his beliefs challenged repeatedly, now believes the Doctor is a wizard, and orders him to find the key and fix the situation; if he does not do so in twenty minutes, Columbus will cut off his hands, a punishment that history attests he used often on the native populations.

Peri, meanwhile, is not dead. She finds herself washed up on the shore—and is immediately captured by natives who are under the control of a monster. The monster is the devilish figure she saw; it confronts her, and reveals itself to be the Herd Leader of the Bovine race, a race of intelligent buffalo. Once they ruled the continent, and the primitive humans worshipped them; but then the herd leader was trapped in ice. Without its mind, the herd regressed into common buffalo, and were hunted to extinction. In the future, when the herd leader thawed out, he found he had no herd to lead. Adopting time travel technology which had since been developed by humans, he traveled back to conduct experiments which would save his people. He believes that Peri and the Doctor were sent to stop him.

The Doctor determines that a goat in the hold has eaten the key. However, he retains a psychic connection to it; and he is able to telepathically connect it to the TARDIS despite the goat (and much to the goat’s alarm) and get the door to unlock. With Columbus in tow, he determines that Peri is alive, and travels to her location; unknown to him, Columbus—now convinced the Doctor is a superior explorer—plans to kill him out of jealousy.

Arriving at the Herd Leader’s time machine, they learn its plan. It was the herd leader that led Columbus to the new world—Columbus being an incompetent navigator on his own—in hopes that the Europeans will exterminate the native Americans, thus preventing them from exterminating the Bovine herd. In that way he can return to the future and resume his place as herd leader. They are shocked to see another Herd Leader appear and interrupt, however; or rather, the same one, but older. The second leader says he is from the future, and has come to stop the experiment, because it will be a failure—the Europeans, too, will hunt and control the Bovine. The Doctor uses this opportunity to surreptitiously remove the time element from the machine. Warned by Peri, he dodges out of the way as Columbus tries to kill him with a sword; Columbus misses and destroys the time element by accident. The second herd leader vanishes, being unable to have time-traveled without the machine; the first is forced to flee. After removing the time machine, the Doctor, Peri, and Columbus return to the ship.

Columbus is forced to acknowledge that the Doctor and Peri are not natives after all; this does not change his plans, but he debates recording these events. He sends his men ashore to hunt down and kill the herd leader, convincing them it is not a devil, but an animal. The Doctor sees that the omniparadox has returned, and collects it; he theorizes that it disappeared because of the likelihood of Peri’s death. Without her to warn him of Columbus’s strike, the timeline would have been vastly different; and it was the collision of the timelines of the two herd leaders that created the paradox in the first place. Having a final change of heart, he cures the man with tuberculosis, and then they depart.

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Dating this story is easy; the date is clearly given as October 12, 1492. Dating the point of origin of the herd leader is a little harder; however, as he states he gets his time travel technology from the humans of the future, it is likely at least the 50th century. In fact, I would place it definitively in that century, as time travel exists, but not in the more compact and refined form of a vortex manipulator, which is known to exist by the 51st century; the machine here is apparently bulkier, and involves a time element large enough to be struck with a sword. From the Doctor and Peri’s point of view, this episode must occur prior to the past-time events seen Trial of a Time Lord, part two, Mindwarp, as that episode involves Peri’s death (later overturned, I know, but their travels here are clearly prior to that occasion). I would further suggest that it is at about the midpoint of their time together; Peri is not the frightened child she was for most of their early adventures, but neither is she fully her calm, collected self. Still, it’s hard to be precise.

Continuing the tradition started by Carole Ann Ford in Hunters of Earth, Nicola Bryant proves to be a versatile voice actor, doing an excellent job of catching the Sixth Doctor’s mannerisms and speech habits. Her take on the Eleventh Doctor is not as convincing, though still effective. I had never heard her speak without the affected American accent she uses for Peri; and now, hearing the contrast between her reading voice and Peri’s voice, I realize she’s incredibly skilled at this type of work. It would be very easy to assume that two different voice actors were involved. Cameron Stewart displays similar skill; he voices Columbus and the herd leader, two very different voices.

This story departs from the established structure significantly. In the previous stories, the Eleventh Doctor took advantage of adventures that were already under way for his past incarnations, using those situations to obtain what he needs. Here, he is the reason for this mission in the first place; but given the seriousness of an omniparadox—as an object the Doctor would not ordinarily seek out—I think that’s a fair strategy. We get a bit of the occasionally-recurring theme of whether it’s okay to change history here; Peri is in favor, the Doctor is not, but in the end she gets her way. As it turns out, however, the change they make is minor; he cures the sailor with tuberculosis, but doesn’t leave any indication of how it was done.

This has been my least favorite story in this series so far. Although I like the Sixth Doctor, and his audios are usually very good, I’ve always felt that Peri is the weakest of his companions. Rather, I should say, it isn’t that Peri is weak; it’s that I think she is not a good match with Six. Had she been able to stay with Five, they would have done much better together. Still, none of that is to say that this is a bad story; I think it’s weakened in part by Peri’s presence, and also by having its focus primarily on the larger story arc rather than the local story, but I think neither of those things ruin it completely. As part of this series, it’s still vital, and still worth a listen.

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Next time: We join the Seventh Doctor and Ace on Tarsus Six in Shockwave! See you there.

All stories featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below.  This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Trouble In Paradise

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Mutant Phase

With Christmas behind us, we’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #15, The Mutant Phase, starring the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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At an unknown time in the future, a starship is conducting a survey when it is attacked by a swarm of over a hundred billion strange creatures, flying so tightly that they appear to be a single organism. The ship is knocked off course; its commander, Ganatus, and scientist Ptolem find that they are near–and possibly crashing on–the planet Skaro, home of the Daleks.

Elsewhere–or rather, elsewhen–and aboard the TARDIS, Nyssa repairs the proximity alarm, only for it to go off. The Fifth Doctor tries to evade, but finds that they have been captured by a time corridor in the vortex. They escape by “bouncing off” the corridor; in the process, the Doctor notices a strange ripple in time, a “bump” in the timestream. They land in a cornfield in Kansas. Emerging from the TARDIS, Nyssa is stung by a large wasp, but defers getting any treatment. They are then interrupted by what seems to be a spaceship passing overhead; another soon follows. They find a body in a field, which has been shot; it bears marks of technological implants, which have since be removed. The Doctor determines that the year is 2157 (actually 2158, as it turns out, but who’s counting?), and immediately insists that they leave. Meanwhile, Ptolem and Ganatus are also on Earth–but not in the same time period–and report that the Doctor has been located in 2158. Ptolem advises waiting, however; the Doctor won’t stay long, if history is correct.

Returning to the TARDIS, the Doctor and Nyssa are intercepted by a strange man, one with implants like those that had been removed from the body. The man–or Roboman, rather–calls for backup. A spaceship arrives, and the Doctor recognizes it: It is a Dalek saucer. A Dalek emerges, showing signs of battle damage, but doesn’t recognize the Doctor. They break for the TARDIS and escape; the Doctor tells Nyssa, who didn’t recognize the Daleks, about his history with them–he knows them, but in this time period, they do not yet know him. He previously encountered them on Earth, a few years after 2157, during the end of the Dalek invasion of Earth. But now they have another problem: having dematerialized, they are caught in the time corridor again. They can’t escape via time; but they can alter their spacial coordinates, landing somewhere afield of wherever the corridor takes them–and it’s as well, because wherever they land, there will be Daleks there. No one else has the ability to create these time corridors.

Ganatus reports to the Daleks that the Doctor has not arrived in the right place. The Daleks intend to find him.

Upon landing, the Doctor and Nyssa find themselves underground. They are taken in by two humans, Dolores and Albert, who offhandedly mention the “Thals”, piquing the Doctor’s interest–after all, the Thals are the other race from Skaro, and ancient enemies of the Daleks and their predecessors, the Kaleds. Albert admits the Thals have helped the humans on Earth, of whom there are only a few left; but he doesn’t know much about them, and indeed, they appear to be mostly serving their own interests. However, thirty years prior to this time, there was a disaster on Earth, which led to the depopulation of the planet. Dolores takes the Doctor to see a scientist, Professor Hendryk, while Albert tends Nyssa’s arm.

The Daleks have decided to return to Skaro. However, one of them loses control, and breaks open, revealing that it has further mutated and is now deadly to the other Daleks. The Daleks try to kill it, but Ptolem stops them, and takes it for study, placing it in containment.

Albert slips away briefly, and Nyssa finds him reporting their presence to someone–the Daleks, she assumes. Her arm still untreated, she goes to find the Doctor. The Doctor, meanwhile, meets with Hendryk and compares notes. Hendryk does not know about the Daleks–revealing that their invasion was centuries ago–and shows him one of the mutated creatures, similar to the one being viewed by Ptolem and Ganatus in the future, but dead. He describes how a swarm of them came to Earth and drew all the life out of the planet, but then died suddenly and without any known cause.

On Skaro, a crisis is happening. The numbers of mutated Daleks are increasing rapidly, and they are assaulting the Dalek defenses. Soon they will break through. A squad is dispatched through the time corridor to Earth to claim the Doctor, whose presence has been located.Ptolem and Ganatus are sent with the squad. Nyssa, meanwhile, finds Dolores, who doesn’t comprehend about Albert; but she takes her to the Doctor and Hendryk. They immediately head for the TARDIS. Albert finds them, and turns them over to the Daleks. Albert and Hendryk are killed by the Daleks; the Daleks also kill Dolores and threaten Nyssa, persuading the Doctor to surrender.

Ptolem and Ganatus, it turns out, are Thals, and have allied with the Daleks to eliminate the mutant creatures. They tell the Doctor about the mutants, into which the Daleks are developing; the creatures have the potential to end all life, everywhere. Only on Earth, thirty years ago, did they ever die out, and no one knows why. It’s the Thal base where they are analyzing the captive mutant; and they and the Daleks want the Doctor to help them. However, the creature escapes, destroying the base and everyone in it. The Doctor, Nyssa, Ptolem, Ganatus, and the last few Daleks escape into the TARDIS. The TARDIS, with everyone in it, rides the time corridor to Skaro…

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The Doctor is taken before the Dalek Emperor, who insists on his help. After much debate, he concludes that, as bad as the Daleks are, the mutant creatures are worse; and he agrees to help. Meanwhile, Ptolem examines Nyssa’s arm, and finds a strange thing: Insect eggs in the wound, which share some DNA with the mutant creatures. He extracts them, and treats her wound, and takes the eggs for research. He reaches the same conclusion the Daleks have reached: the mutant phase originated in 2158 on Earth. It spread from the first affected Dalek, because the Daleks routinely undergo genetic extraction, which is used to breed the next generation of Daleks. The Daleks need the Doctor because they lack the power to go back far enough to change the events of 2158.

It is the final moments for Skaro. The creatures are breaking into the Dalek city. The Doctor, Nyssa, Ptolem, and Ganatus flee in the TARDIS, back to 2158, as the Emperor destroys Skaro rather than let it fall to the creatures. Unexpectedly, Ganatus collapses. In flight, the Doctor tries to sleep, and Nyssa does some research. However, Ptolem has a secret–and unknown to him, Ganatus does too…Nyssa determines from records what killed the mutants on Earth, but before she can discuss it with the Doctor, Ganatus awakens, and the cloister bell sounds. The time corridor is collapsing around them…the Doctor breaks them free of the corridor, and lands, and finds that they are in the exact spot where the TARDIS landed the first time, in Kansas, 2158. They watch on the monitor as their earlier selves are accosted by first the Roboman, then the damaged Dalek. The earlier version of the TARDIS had dispersed itself via the Hostile Action Displacement System; realizing their earlier selves are about to walk in on them, the Doctor dematerializes, allowing the earlier TARDIS to return, preserving events. Nyssa explains that a pesticide, GK-50, killed off the creatures in the future. The wasp that stung her had been made aggressive by exposure to genetically modified crops; the same wasps also penetrated the damaged Dalek’s casing, making it patient zero for the mutated DNA. It must be stopped. They go after it; but first, they synthesize some GK-50, although Ptolem doubts it will work this early in the mutation’s history. As they leave, the Doctor and Nyssa feel a temporal distortion–the beginning of a dangerous paradox.

Ganatus grabs the injector of GK-50 and threatens to kill the Doctor with it. He reveals that he is not Ganatus anymore; the Emperor, on Skaro, implanted him with its own memories, essentially making him a copy of the Emperor. He forces the Doctor to track down the damaged Dalek, and thus ensure Dalek survival and victory; the Doctor refuses. They are captured by a patrol, and taken to the local Dalek base.

Ptolem tells Nyssa of his own secret. He has secretly developed a retrovirus that will wipe out all Daleks. If deployed here and now, in two generations no Daleks will exist. Nyssa begs him not to use it; this moment in history is already damaged and fragile, and any major change to history here can destroy everything. He is adamant, however.

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Against all odds, the copied Emperor gets the local Daleks to give him a hearing, and tries to warn them about the Doctor’s future interference with the Dalek Invasion (apparently not aware, however, that this is a later version of the Doctor, and exterminating him here will not prevent the presence of the First Doctor in that future year). However, the Doctor tells him that he is the reason for the paradox that may come to pass; by coming back in time, he will ensure the Daleks get the pesticide too early for it to be of any use, and thus he will doom them, setting his own course. If he had not come, the Daleks would have detected the wasp DNA in the damaged Dalek on their own, and extracted it, thus preventing the rise of the mutated creatures. Ptolem tries to use his retrovirus, but the Emperor makes the first move, destroying the pesticide. A wave of time distortion immediately passes through as the paradox is resolved, and suddenly, Ptolem and the Emperor vanish–events in their proper order would never have caused them to come here, after all. The Doctor and Nyssa escape in the TARDIS.

Safely back in the vortex, and free of the time corridor, the Doctor explains the outcome to Nyssa. He muses that the universe is safe because the Daleks, for once, followed his advice–and maybe that means there’s hope for them.

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This is a noteworthy story, largely because it didn’t originate with Big Finish. Rather, the core story comes from an audio drama of the same title, produced by Audio Visuals, which in many ways was the (admittedly unofficial) predecessor to Big Finish Productions. Nicholas Briggs wrote both versions. It has been adapted to some degree to fit in with the main range–notably, Nyssa mentions the events of The Land of the Dead. This story is also considered to be part of the Dalek Empire arc, the third story in that series. With all of that said, you wouldn’t know there was any difference; it’s done in similar fashion to the preceding audios, and fits well with regard to continuity. As with previous Fifth Doctor/Nyssa audios, it must occur between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity, as Nyssa is the only companion present.

There’s a good deal of obfuscation here with regard to the time periods involved, mostly for the sake of suspense; but it has the effect of making it hard to keep track. Three time periods are actually involved: 2158 (mistakenly cited by the Doctor as 2157, but later corrected), nine years before the events of The Dalek Invasion of Earth; 4253, in which the future scenes on Earth take place, and which occurs thirty years after the sudden death of the mutant phase creature on Earth; and an unidentified point in the further future, in which all the Skaro scenes take place. The story is utterly self-contained, in that its events only occur because the Daleks force the Doctor to become involved, and the events resolve themselves–indeed, vanish completely from history–when the Doctor is removed from the equation at the end. Along the way, we get some good throwbacks to The Dalek Invasion of Earth; the Robomen appear again, and we get a mention of the Dalek plan to drill out the Earth’s core and install a hyperdrive. This story occurs largely in America (accompanied by some truly atrocious Midwestern accents), which makes it clear that the invasion really was worldwide, a fact that one could overlook in Dalek Invasion.

Nyssa is well-played here as always; I like her character, given that she really doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses. I’ve often said that she’s an intellectual match for the Doctor, and she shows it here, in repairing the TARDIS and researching the pesticide. She’s no match for the Doctor’s pride, unfortunately; he’s more than a little patronising to her, refusing to trust her with certain information, and reacting badly to her repairs on the TARDIS. The Doctor is at his most frustrating here, although I don’t mean that as a complaint; it’s vital to the story, in that he’s intentionally concealing information from those who should not have it. It’s clear here that he feels like events are getting away from him–and indeed, they are; it’s only at the last second that things are set right. Otherwise, characterization is not so great here; Hendryk is a Russian caricature, Ganatus is really nobody at all until the Emperor manifests in him, Ptolem is interesting but nothing new, and everyone else…well, mostly they get killed before they can be anything, really. Truly, the most interesting character here is the Dalek Emperor; we learn that he is the same Emperor that ordered the Dalek Invasion of Earth, two thousand years prior, reinforcing the idea that Daleks are very long-lived. He’s also implied to be the same Emperor seen in The Evil of the Daleks, although I am not sure where that story fits into chronology. Most interestingly of all, he deviates from usual Dalek behavior when he accepts the Doctor’s word and destroys the pesticide; it’s a far cry from the Emperor seen in The Parting of the Ways, which believed itself a god. I could get used to this portrayal; I suppose I’ll have to listen to Dalek Empire to continue his story.

Some other references: The Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS) first appeared in The Krotons; strangely, the version seen here is more akin to the Hostile Action Dispersal System seen in NuWho, which cause the TARDIS to disperse into the local area rather than actually relocate. Nyssa refers to Adric’s death, as seen in Earthshock. Strangely, the First Doctor is not directly referenced, but the Doctor mentions him tongue-in-cheek when he comments that he and the Emperor have both had a face-lift.

Overall, it’s a great story, and my only dislike is that it was hard to follow the times and locations involved. Of course, that’s by design; but still, it’s annoying at best. It’s a great additioin to the main range, and sets the groundwork for much of the Dalek Empire series. For fans of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, it’s a must-listen.

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Next time: On Thursday we’ll continue our look at the Fiftieth Anniversary series, Destiny of the Doctor; and on Monday, we’ll get a look at the Eighth Doctor’s first Main Range appearance in Storm Warning! See you there.

All audio dramas in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below.  This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

The Mutant Phase