Naming Characters

“What’s in a name? That which we call a  rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Well, sure, Juliet, but books communicate only through words, not smells.  The names chosen often must be capable of more than simply differentiating one character from another, they must be able to convey certain information, whether about the character or about the world the author has created.

And creating worlds is what speculative fiction authors do.  The aliens, elves, planets, or kingdoms invented need names.  There are many approaches to naming conventions.  Glen Cook, in his “Black Company” series employs common English words: “Opal,” “Juniper.”  Or relatively uncommon but still familiar names: “Elmo”, “Otto.”  Some readers, perhaps conditioned to expect that fantasy will adhere to certain conventions, find this hinders suspension of disbelief.  It works for me, however; it helps ground the stories, provides a sense of gritty reality.

Another option is to become a philologist, invent several languages, and provide appropriate names from word roots or compounds of those invented languages.  This option works best if your name is Tolkien.

Other writers seem to peck randomly at the keyboard and then go back and insert an apostrophe.  These writers don’t, apparently, attempt to pronounce the names or quite grasp what an apostrophe within a word is supposed to accomplish.  Vide “the Apostropocalypse” in Neal Stephenson’s “Reamde.”  His takedown of this particular naming convention is quite clever, as one would expect.

In my first novel – that has been consigned to a box in the closet, never to see the light of day – I resorted to the atlas.  Characters from certain invented lands were assigned countries from the atlas and I selected place names from the respective countries (e.g., Estonia) to repurpose as character names, ensuring a consistency, a sense of commonality among characters within the discrete lands.  At least that was the intent.  No one will ever know if I succeeded.

My second novel, “Reunion” (to be released by Twilight Times Books this October) is essentially a contemporary piece, so names presented little difficulty.  However, a couple of characters did require some thought.  For reasons that – I hope – make perfect sense to those who read the book, I modified ancient Babylonian names to tag these two characters with.

I am faced with a different challenge in the novel I am currently writing.  I want the names of the alien race to exemplify their language.  Thus most of the names feature ch, k, or g to indicate that the alien speech consists largely of gutturals and harsh consonants.

Names can help establish a sense of place, of verisimilitude.  They can also, of course, be allegorical or symbolic, if the author wants to go down that path.  Something to consider before assigning a moniker.

What’s in a name?  Maybe quite a bit.

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont managed a rare feat: they transformed their role-playing game campaign into a series of interesting and readable novels.  It’s a trick worthy of remark.  Some of the novels Steven Brust and of China Mieville show evidence of a similar exploit of literary legerdemain.  But given that most role-playing games are, by nature, a distillation of existing tropes, a deliberate homogenization, it is truly impressive to see something unique emerge, a story that doesn’t appear to be the equivalent of a fourth or fifth generation photocopy.

The seams do on occasion show through in Erikson and Esselmont’s books.  While they’ve rebranded the demi-human races as laid down by the Ur-RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, an observant reader can get glimpses of the original product beneath.  “Edur” instead of “Eldar” (or elf.)  “Trell” instead of “Troll” (or some form of ogre/half-ogre.)  The clues are there, though in fairness they’ve rendered such archeology a pointless exercise; their creations are essentially sui generis.

The magical systems are fresh, showing no evidence of derivation from the Vancian system employed by D&D.  But at least one character wears his class openly on his sleeve.  Karsa is quite clearly Erikson’s effort to explore the Barbarian class as well as taking Robert E. Howard’s ruminations on barbarism versus civilization out for an extended exploration.

The books provide plenty of evidence to refute those who still claim that fantasy is “merely”* escapist fiction, with no greater merit.  The books explore philosophy, archaeology, historiography, religion, politics, war, psychology.  In fact the very depth, and the fact that the two writers show no hesitation to throw the reader deep into the woods without map or compass, dissuades some readers from tackling the pile of doorstops that comprise the still-ongoing series.

Well, I’m not dissuaded.  I may not agree with the Erikson or Esselmont on certain points of politics or the ideal aesthetic of the female figure, but I’m sold on these novels and I’m in for the long haul.  In fact, after writing this, I need to return to “Blood & Bones.”

Happy reading.

*See J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous remarks on escapism.

Victoria, British Columbia

Victoria, British Columbia

I drove off the ferry in Victoria and was struck by the odd feeling that I’d driven all this way only to find that Portland had been scooped up and relocated here on Vancouver Island.  I suppose a certain similarity of look and vibe should not be a surprise.  Cities of the Northwest region of North America are bound to possess certain qualities in common.  Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, all rose at roughly the same time.  All are port cities with resource extraction based economies.  The architecture, demographics, even the cuisine inevitably developed along similar lines.

Reading the preceding sentence it appears I’m grousing about it.  I’m not.  Yes, on the one hand travel can be about experiencing the alien, the unfamiliar.  And I enjoy that.  But travel can also be celebration of variations on a theme.  Sure, the high-ceiling, exposed brick brewpub here in Victoria could just as easily be in any other Northwest craft brewing center.  But it is here, and the flavors I sample from the tasting tray provide subtly different takes on the same beer styles I’ve tried elsewhere throughout the West.  It is OK if travel is occasionally familiar and comforting.

And of course no two places are identical.  From the balcony of my hotel room I can see the British Columbia parliament building.  I can nearly spit into the harbor from here.  The buildings downtown, though of familiar style, are still aesthetically pleasing and new to me.

We’re about to take a drive outside the city and I’m looking forward to seeing what the island countryside has to offer.  I hope your weekend was equally full of possibility.

Appendix N Part 1.

Appendix N Part 1.

This is the first in an irregular series of posts on the books of Appendix N. To illuminate those not in the know, Appendix N appeared in the appendices of “The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons “Dungeon Master’s Guide.” It is a partial listing of the books and authors that influenced Gary Gygax’s contribution to the creation of the game. It is a solid, if incomplete, source of recommended works of pulp fiction.

In this installment I’ll consider the first entry of Appendix N: Poul Anderson’s “Three Hearts and Three Lions,” “The Broken Sword,” and “The High Crusade.”

Poul Anderson’s fingerprints smudge all components of D&D. “Three Hearts and Three Lions” directly informed the D&D version of the Troll and the Paladin character class, to provide a couple examples. The book describes the adventures of Holger Carlsen, a World War II solider who finds himself in a quasi-medieval fantasy realm of dwarfs and faeries and magicians and monsters along with knights, Christians, and Saracens.

“The Broken Sword” is Nordic rather than high medieval fantasy. Think elves and vikings. It features the doomed adventures of Skafloc, a changeling raised in the halls of Imric the elf. Where “Three Hearts” is light in tone and swashbuckling “The Broken Sword” is grim and lyrical, full of the ‘northern thing,’ fatalistic and tragic.

Arguably these two books were more directly influential to D&D’s conception of elves than Professor Tolkien’s writings. Anderson’s faerie-folk were soulless, distinctly non-Christian; amoral when not actively malevolent; seductive and sexual creatures. Tolkien acknowledged this folkloric tradition in”Smith of Wooton Major” and to some extent in “The Silmarillion” but the elves of Middle Earth must necessarily be perceived in a more heroic light than Anderson’s.

“The High Crusade” is a romp. An alien space ship lands near the castle of an English baron. The baron, Sir Roger, captures the ship, commandeering it for transport to France, but is instead taken to the stars where he begins a campaign of interstellar conquest. There are players of Dungeons & Dragons who grumble at the intrusion of science fiction elements into ‘pure’ fantasy. But the pulp literature predating the game did this as a matter of course. If one is to make the not unreasonable assumption that the books listed in Appendix N inspired not only the game itself but also the manner and type of scenarios the game’s creators played, then the sort of hybrid represented by “The High Crusade” is encoded in the very DNA of D&D.

I give all three books a high recommendation, allowing a slight personal preference for “Three Hearts and Three Lions.”

Anthologies

Anthologies

I like anthologies. There, I admitted it. Feels good to get that off my chest.

Currently I’m re-reading “World’s Best Science Fiction 1969.” A good year for science fiction, 1969. A couple other notable events occurred that year as well: Man set foot on the moon and I was born. The order of importance is debatable.

A glance at my book cases reveals all sorts of anthologies. There is “Best Short Stories of the Modern Age.” Then there is “100 Wild Little Weird Tales.” “Flashing Swords#3.” And more. There are easily a dozen taking up shelf space, probably more. I’m gradually occupying a shelf with my own published works (today the book shelf, tomorrow the book case, bwah hah hah) and I count four anthologies.

What I like about anthologies is their approachability.

You can dive right in at any point. Start with the last story in the book if you want to, it makes no difference. If you set the book down after finishing the first couple of stories, you can pick it up years later, right where you left off.

If you don’t care for a story, you can move on to the next; your appreciation of it won’t be hampered by unfamiliarity with the previous.

Anthologies more readily accommodate multiple readings than full-length novels. Not everyone likes to read the same novel over again. I do for certain works and certain writers. But some novels I will pick up for a re-read, read the first paragraph and put the book back on the shelf. Too soon, too familiar. (Of course with other books the familiarity is the attraction. Like your favorite restaurant: You know the menu and that’s the point – you are getting the exact meal you want.) I find that not every story in an anthology makes a lasting impression, so I can pick up the collection sooner than I could a novel, and the experience feels fresher.

Anthologies are like a buffet You pay about the same price you would for an entree, but you get to sample a wider variety of flavors.

As of this writing I’m waiting on my author copies of yet another anthology, “The Big Bad: An Anthology of Evil.” I’m eager to graze the buffet I’ll skip my own story though, I’ve read it so often it would be like filling up on bread.

Role Playing Games: Gaming and Story telling.

I enjoy role playing games for the mental challenge, for the puzzles, the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles, the creative utilization of resources. I don’t play for the story telling. I appreciate that other people derive pleasure partly – or even entirely – from the interactive story telling aspect. Fair enough. It would be a dull world if everyone viewed it exactly as I do. Some excellent books have grown from such games. But for me the enjoyment lies in the game play rather than in the amateur theatrics. (I don’t use the expression in any derogatory sense; I think it is an accurate description of the style of dialogue and dialect employed by gamers – whether an actor by trade or not – committed to the active role playing of a character.) I can get into character when circumstances indicate I should, I just do so as a means to an end rather than for its own sake. I’m interested in completing the challenge, triumphing over the next encounter, leveling up. If I need to pretend I’m actually conversing with some savage, demi-human chieftain in order to achieve the current goal then so be it. But I do so to achieve the goal, not to become a participant in a narrative.

I prefer story telling as a unidirectional activity; either creating or experiencing. While playing a game I’m not greatly interested in helping steer someone else’s story (or being trapped on the rails of someone else’s story, unerringly directed toward a set conclusion.) And if I’m running the game instead of playing I may strew it with plot-like elements but with no intention of shoe-horning player characters into the role of Characters performing functions essential to the narration of my story.

Stories I prefer to get from stories. Not to say that fiction doesn’t influence my gaming (my sadly infrequent gaming.) I may base my PC upon a fictional character or throw in elements of a story I’ve just read in into the adventure I’ve sketched (and boy are my RPG adventures sketchy.)

Of course if a story happens to grow organically by the culmination of the adventure who am I to complain?

Do you play games as a means of group story telling?

Memorial Day

It is that time of year when Americans commemorate those who fell in the service of their country. That, at least, is the reason for the holiday. In practice, for any number of reasons few actually engage the day as intended. The holiday is more associated with backyard barbecues than with memorializing those who died in uniform.

I’m not casting any aspersions. It’s just an observation, not a condemnation. And I’m not about to chuck the first stone. I’ve not visited grave sites or watched parades. You’ll find me at the grill with a beer in my hand.

I do not come from a military family. My grandfather was a medic in WWII. On D-Day he was laid up with dysentery When he tried to join his platoon, his captain told him “Go back to bed, Lizzi.” So he did not storm the beaches of Normandy. It’s hardly a romantic concept, but my existence could well be attributed to dysentery How’s that for an ennobling thought?

My dad was a conscientious objector and had a student deferral. So he wasn’t drafted. An uncle, by marriage, served during the Vietnam era, but he was stationed in Korea. A medic. Another uncle, also by marriage and also a medic, did serve in Vietnam. He shared some interesting stories.

My sister served. Met my brother in law that way. I joined up as well, though my military career was hardly illustrious. My “There I was” stories are hardly the heroic stuff of legends.

The point is, I have only a passing acquaintance with the ultimate sacrifice. My appreciation for those who lost their lives in war is mostly abstract. The deaths are at a ‘friend of a friend’ remove. I don’t have a direct family connection that allows me to feel the sacrifice viscerally.

But I’ll try.

And I’ll try to keep in mind those still serving.  With that in mind: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGClrsAN2aY

Choices

The wife and I watched “This is 40” the other night. I’m glad we’ve several years of marriage under our belts, a solid relationship, and an appreciation of coarse humor. I wonder if anyone saw that on a first or second date. If so, was there a follow up date or did the flick provide too much fodder for speculation and second-guessing?

Picking the right movie for the occasion is more art than science. I can’t claim I’ve made the right call across the board. I once took a first date to a Sick and Twisted Animation Festival. What the hell was I thinking?

Choice is a mixed blessing, though the mix is overwhelmingly weighted positive. I remember a s a kid getting dropped off at the mall with a ten-dollar bill in my wallet. I’d head straight to the Walden’s or the B. Dalton’s and browse the science-fiction and fantasy paperbacks, searching for the title and cover that most captured my imagination. $2.75 or $2.95 would leave me with enough for a meal at the food court and a few bucks in quarters for the arcade. Choices and more choices, all of the good.

I find that selecting a new book to read now requires more consideration than it used to. My reading time is more constrained by the demands of life, and I am more aware now of the finite limits of my existence. The moments spent reading one book can never be recovered, selecting one book has eliminated another somewhere down the chronological road.

That makes book reviews important. Even more valuable, I think, is knowing the sort of think you like. Know what authors appeal to you. What general type of story pushes your particular buttons. A blurb indicating that author A writes in a style reminiscent of author B can help. A recommendation from a favored author can help. Check out the book store’s Staff Picks.

There are no guarantees but you can try to stack the odds in your favor.

I know that I have in the past advocated reading widely. I hold to that. I don’t see a contradiction. A well-rounded interior life provides plenty of room for multiple interests and preferences. You can read widely AND choose wisely.

Consolation – you can always learn from your mistakes.

Exploration

Our cat has been feeling her oats recently, testing boundaries. I’ve received numerous, somewhat distraught calls from my wife over the last few weeks informing me of the cat’s current escapades. Leaped from the deck into the yard. Scrambled up on the roof and refused to come down.

She’s exploring, seeing what lies beyond her usual confines. I can understand that. There can be a great deal of comfort in the familiar. Enjoyment, even. Familiar is not synonymous with dull. You have your usual because you like it.

But sometimes you want to step beyond the bounds of the familiar, see what is out there, same as the cat does.

Speculative fiction speaks to that. It opens up vistas far from the ordinary. That is part of the appeal of fantastic literature. But even the extraordinary can become commonplace given enough exposure. Science fiction and fantasy can grow stale, overly familiar and that can drive the urge to explore something new.

It is important, I think, to read widely. Do not confine yourself to a single genre. Pick up a mystery novel, a historical account, a biography. Hop down from the deck and have a sniff around at the wider world. It works for the cat.

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.