Captain Jean-Luc Picard – Science Fiction’s Greatest Villain

The captain of the Enterprise D, Jean-Luc Picard. James T. Kirk’s antithesis. A scholar, a diplomat, a man of culture.

And the perpetrator of monstrous crimes. Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader – pikers. Their villainy amounts to little more than a string of misdemeanors compared to the enormity of Captain Picard’s genocidal activities.

Count 1. Picard is a mass murderer on a galactic scale. After the Enterprise captured a lone Borg drone, Star Fleet had the opportunity to introduce a virus that would wipe out the Borg menace. Picard – on his own authority, without consulting with his superiors – ordered otherwise. The Borg subsequently murdered billions of sentients. Thats the big number with a ‘B.’ Billions. Picard would claim he couldn’t have expected that. A laughably weak defense. The Borg actions were eminently foreseeable. Picard’s failure to introduce the virus was reckless, negligent. All of those fictional billions deaths can be laid at his feet.

Count 2. Picard is also a prospective murderer on a vast scale. In the rather forgettable “Trek’”outing “Insurrection” the good captain was faced with an ethical dilemma that shouldn’t have stumped even a frosh philosophy major for more than five minutes. A colony of 600 or so were squatting on the secret of immortality. Star Fleet wanted to relocate them. Picard made the determination that the potential health and longevity of untold numbers of humans were trumped by a rather recent land claim of 600 people. Get that – he made the decision. Were I a Federation citizen facing my looming mortality I think I might be a bit irked that I wasn’t consulted, that Captain Picard personally eliminated the option of my continued existence. Thanks ever so much.

Verdict: Guilty on both counts.

Disagree? Go ahead and lay into me for impugning the good captain. And let’s face it, he could be a pretty cool character and Patrick Stewart was terrific in the role.

Steven Brust – An Appreciation

Steven Brust – An Appreciation

Steven Brust is one of the three masters of the first person smart-ass style. One of the other two, Glen Cook, was a prior subject of a Web Log appreciation. The third is the late, and lamented, Roger Zelazny.

Brust has written a substantial body of work, but is primarily known for his Dragaera novels. These primarily concern the exploits of Vlad Taltos, a human living amid an elaborately imagined civilization of elf analogues – the Dragaera, tall, immensely long-lived creatures. Other novels deal with certain of the Dragaera themselves. In these novels Brust – rather brilliantly – indulges himself by emulating Alexander Dumas’ “Three Musketeers” literary style, complete with flamboyant oaths and and humorously labyrinthine conversations.

Vlad Taltos is his crowing achievement. An assassin, an organized crime sub-boss, a witch, and a narrator delivering his own story with droll wit. Occasionally Brust explores different styles, employing other points of view to deliver Vlad’s tale. These books – for example “Athyra” – tend to suffer in comparison, lacking some of the spark of Vlad’s tongue-in-cheek delivery.

Another criticism: Brust is unabashed about sharing his political opinions. On occasion – notably “Teckla” – these views can be so intrusive as to dominate the narrative. If one – myself for example – is disinclined to be charitable to a Trotskyite viewpoint, then such heavy-handedness can diminish enjoyment of the book. Thankfully the politics are usually camouflaged well enough not to disrupt the reading experience – there if you looking for it, nigh invisible if you are not, or if you make an effort to ignore it.

With Vlad Taltos, Brust has created a seminal character in fantastic literature. Vlad is worthy of entry to the pantheon of such great scoff-laws as the Gray Mouser, Elric, and Conan, glorious rogues all.

Sadly the publisher, Tor, is no longer releasing the books in mass market paperback. This necessitates that I purchase each new volume in trade paperback. The full chronicle, when finally complete, will doubtless be an aesthetic triumph as a literary work, but it won’t fill a seamless, symmetrically pleasing stretch on my shelf.

It is possible that I demand too much.

Writing What You Know When You Are Just Inventing It

Received writing wisdom has it “write what you know.” Well, what if you are writing about three-limbed aliens or magical elves? How are you supposed to possess concrete, factual information about something fictitious? Assuming you are not simply adopting some other writer’s creation, how can you write what you know when you’re inventing it as you go?

Short answer? Write what you know around the elements created out of whole cloth. Your novel magical system has no existence outside the bounds of your imagination, but perhaps the characters employing it are based firmly on personality types you know only too well. Or the political structure of your secondary world is lifted directly from a term paper you wrote for your poli-sci course. Or the Space Legion’s battle tactics are exactly those you were taught in infantry school.

The shiny facade of your fiction may be something fundamentally unknowable, but the supports, the foundations, the unseen infrastructure holding the whole edifice together, making it read as plausible – these you should be familiar with. Inclusion of matters you have a comfortable working knowledge of will lend your story a sense of grounded verisimilitude that will encompass the fantastical elements as well.

Technobabble

The thing to bear in mind is that it is science FICTION. If you were describing actual scientific advances you’d be an inventor and the world would be a truly fabulous place, complete with jet packs, flying cars, and anti-matter engines. Or a smoldering cinder, slowing cooling in the deep freeze of space. Depending. The aim, therefor, is not viability but verisimilitude. Not necessarily plausibility, though that’s a bonus. Your gadgets need to pass without raising an eyebrow within the context of the world you’ve created, not of this one.

Technical jargon, or technical sounding jargon, is the primary tool in your verisimilitude chest. Engage in a bit of research, absorb the language of scientific journals. But keep the research wide rather than deep. It is easy to drown in the topic you’re investigating. You forget the aim – verisimilitude – and begin to despair because your essential piece of sci-fi hardware – the hook upon which your story hangs – appears implausible. Take a step back, breathe. Remember the goal. Look, if we science fiction consumers were that insistent upon rigid, peer-reviewed science backing the fiction then the shelves would be empty and television would consist of nothing but police procedurals and reality programming.

So learn your technobabble. And set the stage for your plot-necessary tech with throwaway descriptions of other context-appropriate future gadgetry. If such other wonders are commonplace then this key breakthrough shouldn’t threaten suspension of disbelief.

Tara

Tara

I visited Tara on a quiet March morning. I spotted a shepherd across the fence in an adjoining pasture. I met a local woman walking her dogs. But as near as I could tell I was the only visitor on the hill. I had the mounds mostly to myself. The expanse of damp, spongy turf with a generous leavening of sheep droppings was devoid of tourists – well, of other tourists. It is easier to trigger the imagination in solitude. I could step freely through time, at least the sort of fictional time envisioned by those of us who read fantasy as voraciously as history. Over here I could see Cuchulainn, salmon leaping over the halls that now rose to top the mounds. Over there, stepping through centuries in only a few strides, I saw Saint Patrick giving a snake what for. It is my imagination: there is no shame in my picturing him with a pint of Guinness in one hand. I watched the crowning of Brian Boru. And then I moseyed back down the hill to my rental car, trying to retain the sense of temporal displacement I’d imposed upon myself.

I find travel especially rewarding when I can achieve those fleeting moments of vivid imagination. It can be difficult in crowds, trying to see the Roman Forum bustling with Senators and lectors when it is in fact bustling with two thousand tourists gabbling twenty different languages. But just a glimpse – an overlay comprised of all the ephemera accumulated in the memory: movie images, old encyclopedia illustrations, book cover paintings, the pictures conjured up from reading evocative passages – factual or fictional – can make the whole trip worthwhile. Consider the rest of the trip lagniappe.

Glen Cook – An Appreciation

Glen Cook – An Appreciation

Glen Cook’s footprints are all over the speculative fiction landscape. And they are large footprints. For readers he is a proven draw For writers he is enormously influential. Consider current heavyweights like Steve Erikson and Joe Abercrombie. What would their work resemble without “The Black Company?”

My reading would certainly have been impoverished without “The Black Company.” I remember “The Silver Spike” occupying my time while waiting at Fort Bragg for deployment on a brief training exercise in Honduras. And “Dreams of Steel” was one of many books keeping me entertained while sweating through months in Haiti. Cook is a writer who truly seems to grasp military service and soldiers.

And let’s not forget the ongoing case files of Garrett, Tunfaire’s premiere investigator and troubleshooter, reluctant knight in tarnished armor. Part Archie Goodwin, part Travis McGee, with bits of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade grafted on. Garrett is the closest thing to a fictional hero I can profess. It will be a poorer world once Cook ceases chronicling Garrett’s adventures.

Mention of two series barely scratches the surface of the layers Cook has added to the fantasy and science fiction landscape. Do yourself a favor, if you haven’t already, and explore that landscape personally.

If you have read him what is your favorite Glen Cook work?

Book to Film Adaptations: or Oh, Peter Jackson, No!*

So ‘they’ are making a movie out of one of your favorite books/series. The excitement! The anticipation! The trepidation. What if ‘they’ screw if up/

Face it: ‘they’ are going to screw it up. There is no way on this Crom-forsaken earth that what ends up on the screen beneath the proscenium arch is going to match what appeared on the screen in the theater of your mind. Ain’t gonna happen. Some of it ‘they’ might pull off acceptably, even spectacularly. Funny thing is, that bit you thought looked exactly as you imagined it is a bit another viewer thought was an abomination that would have the author on a turbo-charged rotisserie in his grave (or put him in the grave early if he’s still an air-breather.) Everyone has an opinion. (I mean, seriously, have you seen the internet? Think of an opinion, the most outlandish possible position anyone could conceivably hold on a topic. Got one? OK, now make it just a little bit worse. Somewhere on a message board forum someone has expressed that exact opinion.)

The trick is managing expectations. I certainly experience disappointment, disbelief at liberties taken, scenes invented, characters changed. I’m not holding myself up as the acme of placid objectivity. Far from it. But it helps me enjoy the film as discrete work if I sit down knowing that at some point a gratuitous fight scene, created out of whole-cloth, will occur (or Frodo, tricked by Gollum on the border of Mordor, will order Sam to go home) because the writer/director felt the narrative required dramatic tension at that point.

My advice? Roll with it. Eat some popcorn. Appreciate the cinematography. You can read the book again later.

How do writers feel about the film versions of their work? I imagine there are as many different reactions as there are writers. I’ve had some (very minor) practical experience with adaptation of my own work. A short story of mine, “Trustworthy,” was produced as a student film. You can check it out HERE.  I’d have to say that overall I was pleased with it. I could understand certain changes necessary to convey on film what is provided in text by exposition. I might have made different choices here or there but I’ve no complaints.

What about you? What is your favorite/least favorite film adaptation. Have you had something you’ve written adapted into a different medium?

* Hat tip to John Ringo.

Castles: the Fantasy and the Reality.

The author at Castle Grimaud

The author at Castle Grimaud

Picture in your mind the fortresses of fantasy. Barad-dûr. Gormenghast. Revelstone. Hell, Castle Greyhawk. Impressive structures, right? Massive, lofty. Roomy. Well, it’s fantasy. The writers didn’t need to deal with the costs of materials, transportation, or labor. Or with architectural concerns: no worries about load bearing limits, stresses, and all those other engineering realities that I barely comprehend and that even now builders are only able to overcome by employing newly developed materials and novel construction techniques. Real castles tended toward what most of us not living in shoe-box sized apartments in Hong Kong would consider cramped.

For instance, Blarney Castle, just north of Cork, Ireland. Approaching it on foot it looms. You marvel at how formidable it appears, wondering how an attacker could assault those walls. But inside it is a doll house. Sure, the narrow halls and stairways are an obvious defensive advantage, but imagine actually living in those minuscule chambers day after day. Of course what you’re used to seems normal. And it beat the contemporary alternatives. It must have seemed homey with plastered walls, tapestries, furniture, and blazing fires. As a gutted shell it doesn’t scream four-star accommodation.

Neuschwanstein is a comfy place, but Sleeping Beauty’s castle isn’t exactly the paragon of medieval upscale living, not being built until the later half of the 19th century. Now some fortifications, basically walled cities, like Mont Saint-Michel (which I hope to visit some day) and Monte Carlo are quite spectacular, but the living space is spread over many structures. (Other fortified hilltop villages are remarkably cramped, like the picturesque Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.)

I suppose the smaller keeps make the more ambitious, palatial real-world castles that much more impressive. What is the most awe-inspiring castle you have visited? Which would you hold up in comparison to great fortresses of fantasy? Which secondary-world castle would you most like to see?