Wading into the Brambles

I’ve been debating doing NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve participated on and off for years, though I’ve never finished. At this point, it’s been a long time since I’ve written fiction (or told any sort of story, fictional or not), and I miss it. It’s a little weird to say that, since a) there’s technically nothing stopping me from doing it now, and b) I was never all that amazing at it. (I’m trying really hard not to just completely bag on my writing ability, since people seemed to generally respond favorably to what they read, and bear in mind Ira Glass’s quote on creative work, but it’s hard. Even with the stories I was moderately pleased with, there was SO MUCH room for improvement.)

I do miss it, though. It’s weird — I’ve felt blocked to the point of frustration for years now, and unable to bring myself to get past it, even though I know the answer is simply to keep it up until I get through the brambles. I’ve been thinking about it a lot for a while now — the dearth of creative outlets and making in my life, and it really struck home a little while ago. I was having a conversation with someone who is a maker and doer (and just generally awesome person), and we were talking about hanging out sometime, and they said they looked forward to hearing/seeing what I make. I was instantly filled with embarrassment, because I felt like I had nothing to offer to that conversation. I love creative people — it’s what I’m attracted to, both in friends and otherwise — and when given this opportunity to make a more solid connection with someone I already liked and wanted to get to know better, I felt like I had nothing to contribute.

Note, it wasn’t anxiety, it was embarrassment. I was embarrassed — I felt like I was a poser who’d been called out on their facade. I realize that isn’t really fair to myself or entirely accurate — there’s room for people who celebrate art and creativity, who are supportive and the first to cheer others on, and that doesn’t somehow make them a sham. But feelings aren’t rational, and it doesn’t feel like enough to validate the role creativity has on my personal identity.

So, it’s time to wade into the brambles again. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember what telling a story feels like on my tongue, the heft and shape of a narrative in my fingers. It’s time to correct that. I’m debating doing NaNoWriMo this year, and it almost doesn’t matter if I finish, as long as I actually begin.

Annotation: The End of Eternity

Isaac Asimov did more to validate Science Fiction than any other author I can think of. He was seen as a gentle giant by his friends, and is to date the only man to have ever written at least one book in every major subject of the Dewey Decimal system. He wrote hundreds of books, so many that I honestly have no idea where he found the time to sleep, let alone have the life he had. The End of Eternity is just one of dozens of science fiction novels he wrote, all revolving around the belief that Mankind is meant to go to the stars.

The End of Eternity takes place in a Reality where in the 27th century, mankind develops a temporal field that exists outside Time, and extends to the end of eternity, which they call (imagine that) Eternity. This facility is used to monitor the advances of civilization throughout the millenia, to make sure that nothing dangerous occurs (nuclear war, plagues, even high drug addiction counts), and alters world in the past to change the Reality of the future. The main character, Andrew Harlan is a Technician for Eternity, which means that he is the one who determines and enacts the Minimum Necessary Change in order to achieve the desired change in reality.

In the course of his work, Andrew meets a woman of the 482nd Century, whom he falls in love with — a cardinal sin for an Eternal, since that woman exists within Time, and thus is subject to any change in reality that happens. He secrets her away into Eternity, and becomes involved in a critical project necessary to begin Eternity, sending someone back in time to become the “inventor” of the temporal field. He sabotages the project, but not irreparably (they would have ceased to exist if he had), and is sent back in time to collect the inventor, so they can try again. He brings the woman with him.

Piecing together clues throughout the book, he realizes that the woman is not in fact from the 482nd Century, but significantly further “upwhen”, in the 111,000s, which is considered a “hidden century”, where Eternity is blocked from entering or meddling in the time stream. He figures out that she is here to stop Eternity from ever existing, to stop them from meddling with time. Realizing that perhaps Eternity’s meddling brings more harm than good, he chooses not to stop her, ending the existence of Eternity.

The story is good, and works well as a science fiction mystery, filled with intruige. The characters, in particular the protagonist Andrew Harlan, are a bit flat, however, which puts a bit of a hinderance on my enjoyment of the book. I like the underlying message, however: that safety and innovation are unfortunately mutually exclusive, and that the only way we’ll survive is if we stop mothering ourselves to death. The pacing is good. I managed to read it fairly quickly (about a day).

Would I recommend it? Alone, probably not. In conjunction with the read of Asimov’s work, absolutely. Asimov tended to write in one story-universe, even though the books were separate. Even his two most well known series (Robot and Foundation) are actually connected and made of the same world, and The End of Eternity is no exception. Seeing the mosaic as a whole is really remarkable, and where I think the story gives the most enjoyment.

Asimov, Isaac. The End of Eternity. Greenwich: Fawcett Crest Books, 1971.

Annotation: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed is one of LeGuin’s more lauded novels, having won a slew of awards including the Hugo and the Nebula (the two highest awards in science fiction). Indeed, it’s a brilliantly executed novel, with an amazing writing style. The ideas she posits in this novel were relevant at the time, and continue to be relevant now, which is quite the accomplishment. That’s the problem with it, though, at least in my opinion. It’s an idea book.

The story alternates between the past and present per chapter, both timelines centering around Shevek, a brilliant physicist who lives on the planet of Anarres, which is run as an community-centric anarchy. Personal responsibility and the opinion of one’s neighbors (since everyone must work together in order to survive) are the paramount principles of the society, which formed as an autonomous colony of its sister world Urras as a place to send the rebelling Odonians (the anarchist movement lead by a woman named Odo).

Needing the additional resources available on Urras in order to complete his Unified Field Theory in the field of Temporal Physics, Shevek leaves Anarres, rousing the enmity of many of his peers. The story bounces between the events leading up to his departure and his time spent on Urras (a “propertarian society”). From there, the story is largely about the nature of being in an alien society, and the greed of that world. He ultimately completes his theory, and escapes, arranging for it to be broadcast throughout the known universes, so that no government or world can “own” the idea. He then returns home.

There are interesting events that transpire within the book, and the setting is well thought out. The characterizations are well formulated. The book is technically flawless. Something about it rankles with me, however. Taken as an abstract it really feels like a setup; a way to preach about political, economic, and philosophic ideologies, couched inside a fictive universe. It’s the same setup Heinlein used in For Us, the Living, though he didn’t do it as well. The basic structure is the same: thrust an individual into another world (whether through time or space), and let that individual and the other world’s inhabitants have a dialogue about the differences in their cultures.

I don’t really have a problem with “idea books”. They can be a great deal of fun to read, and I tend to enjoy them. Hell, I enjoyed The Dispossessed, don’t get me wrong. I think what makes it sit uneasily for me is that this is LeGuin we’re talking about. She made a point of dunning expositional lumps in her book on writing Steering the Craft, and yet is guilty of writing a book filled with them. It just seems a little hypocritical.

All that said, I’d still recommend the book, but with the warning that it IS an “idea book”. If you are looking for conflict and resolution, this is not the book for you. Still, it’s probably one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of an anarchistic society that might actually work. It reminds me that one of the fundamental roles of science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you want to be more precise) is to push ideas forward, to couch the dangerous or frightening in ways that allow us to face them. To say, “Danger be damned, what if…”

LeGuin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York: Eos, 2001.

Annotation: A Night in the Lonesome October

After reading Lord of Light, I decided to go on and read a bit more Zelazny, opting for A Night In the Lonesome October, which is a witty, funny, charming horror story. Written in first person, the novel centers around Snuff, the canine companion/familiar to Jack the Ripper. The story is broken down into days of October, leading up to the climax on Halloween night.

The premise breaks down like this: every 100 years, people of certain inclinations gather around a point of power (the point changes every time… it might be in Bangladesh one century, Paris the next, et cetera), and undertake a ritual concerning the Elder Gods, who have been locked away for ages. Some come to close the gate that will appear, others come to open it and release the Old Ones. If there is a deadlock in power between the openers and closers, it defaults to the closers.

The being known as Jack the Ripper is an old hand at these ceremonies, having attended several in the past. Other folks who show up over the course of the story include a witch, Count Dracula, Frankenstein (monster in tow), a mad monk, a demon worshiping pastor, and several others (even Sherlock Holmes makes a few appearances). Since the story is from the perspective of Jack’s familiar, most of the interaction that occurs is with the familiars of the other “players”.

There’s a lot more to the process of the ceremony than just collecting items of magic and sacrifice to help sway the gate in your direction. Since the location changes, no one knows where it is (as Snuff comments, there were times when no one figured it out correctly, even). A good deal of the book involves the deductive efforts of Snuff to calculate the location of the place of power, which involves triangulation based on the domiciles of the players in the area (it is always in the center of that triangulation, but the trick is figuring out where everyone lives, and even who everyone in the Game is).

The edition I have of the book has some delightful illustrations done by Gahan Wilson, which augment the simple narrative style of a dog (albeit a very intelligent one). The very first chapter really establishes the nature of the book quite well:

One night when we were in a graveyard recently an old watchdog came by, though, and we talked for a time.
“Hi. I’m a watchdog.”
“Me, too.”
“I’ve been watching you.”
“And I’ve been watching you.”
“Why is your person digging a big hole?”
“There are some things down there that he needs.”
“Oh. I don’t think he’s supposed to be doing that.”
“May I see your teeth?”
“Yes. Here. May I see yours?”
“Of course.”
“Perhaps it’s all right. Do you think you might leave a large bone somewhere nearby?”
“I believe that could be arranged.” (2)

The simplicity of it really captures the pragmatic attitude of what I imagine a dog’s mind would be. The entire book is spot on in that fashion, though naturally Snuff is far more capable a dog than most, being a familiar (with all the magical augmentation that title connotes).

The “daily journal” style is an interesting choice for the topic, and I think it works quite well to force the reader into a non-omnipotent position, which saves significantly on the amount of explanation of things that is needed. Not everyone knows how everything works and why, and it’s silly that so many stories make that assumption for the sake of exposition and establishing the setting. This book, and others like it, prove that it isn’t necessary in order to have an engaging, involved story. (A trait I’m guilty of myself when writing.)

If I was trying to introduce someone to Zelazny as an author, I’d probably suggest Lord of Light first, but that said, A Night In the Lonesome October is a fun (and relatively fast, weighing in at 280 pages of an easy to read typeface) read that I would happily recommend for the pure enjoyment of it. While the nature of the story is inherently macabre, it is really not very horrific, and I wouldn’t even twinge at giving this to a child to read.

Zelazny, Roger. A Night In the Lonesome October. New York: Avon Books, 1993.

Annotation: Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny, like Ray Bradbury, is an author whose prose reads like poetry. His writing style is sparse, yet every word evokes an image of clarity. I wish I could write like him, and hope to come close someday. He’s written dozens of novels, singly and in collaboration, and every one of them is well respected by his former peers (he died in 1995). Every author has one book, however, that leaps above the rest, more well known and lauded than any other. For Zelazny, that book would be Lord of Light. For good reason: the novel is nothing short of amazing. I haven’t felt so involved in a story in years.

The very concept of the story is fairly unique. It takes place in the distant future, on a colony world that has no contact with Earth. The original colonists developed a technology to transfer the soul of a person into a new body, and have attained virtual immortality through this use of reincarnation. They have also developed their psychokinetic abilities, or Aspects and Attributes, through training, drugs, and other methods, allowing them to act functionally as Gods to their descendants, who have restarted civilization from scratch. In particular, these “gods” simulate early Hindu or Vedic mythology, in trait and name.

Even demons and spirits exist in the world, the original inhabitants of the planet who long ago abandoned their physical bodies to become immortal beings of pure energy. The whole setup for establishing a modern science fiction tale couched in Vedic myth is brilliantly done, with nary a hole in the logic to be seen.

The tale centers around a disillusioned First (an original colonist) named Sam, better known as Siddhartha. He takes issue with the restrictions on civilization placed by the other Gods, in particular feeling that they have been hindering the society’s advancement in order to maintain the balance of power on the side of the Gods. He strives to undermine these efforts, taking on the role of the Buddha in order to establish a counter (yet complementary) movement among the people. He also bargains with the demons whom had been locked away centuries before, freeing them to fight against the Gods.

Most of the story takes place in the past. The first chapter involves Yama, God of Death, bringing Sam back into the physical world, after spending 50 years dispersed as energy in the troposphere of the planet. Each chapter after that is really a prologue, detailing Sam’s previous effort to battle the Gods (which ended with his spirit scattered across the planet, which brings us full circle), until the last two chapters, which deal with the final battle.

The entire adventure is truly epic and brilliantly done, with marvelous scenes of action and tension. That is not why I am so enamored with the story, however. It comes down to people. Zelazny was able to make me genuinely care about the people behind their Godhood. There is no clear good versus evil, everyone has a bit of both. Their conflict is a matter of opinions leading towards the same ideal, and no matter what side they may be on now, they have all fought and bled and cried and loved together in the past. They may be powerful and immortal, but they are still human.

It’s a question always at the forefront of my interests, and many of my favorite books address it either directly or indirectly: what makes us human? Where does humanity lie, and how do we retain that as we change and evolve and step beyond ourselves? Lord of Light is a book that addresses it directly, I think.

I would recommend Lord of Light to anyone, barring perhaps those who have problems with religious reinterpretation. Or perhaps not bar them at all, since they could most benefit from a new perspective. I suppose the question becomes whether the goal in reading it is to educate and enlighten, or merely to entertain.

Zelazny, Roger. Lord of Light. New York: Eos, 2004.

Annotation: The White Dragon

In my continuing desire to figure out what motivated me to previously write fan fiction based on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series (in the hopes of getting back into the swing of fiction writing again), I re-read The White Dragon for the first time in nearly a decade. While it didn’t quite re-ignite my desire to write about Pern again, I do begin to see what drew me to do so in the past.

Of the original trilogy, The White Dragon is my favorite. It follows Jaxom, the young Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold, who also managed to Impress a small, unique white dragon named Ruth (all other dragons are either gold, bronze, brown, blue, or green, with Ruth being the sole exception). Because it follows Jaxom so much more directly than the previous two books followed their characters, I find myself connecting a lot more with this novel than the others in the trilogy. I think it also helps that at the start of the novel Jaxom is very close to the age I was when I first read it.

The book opens around two years after the end of Dragonquest, with Ruth finally mature enough to fly with a rider. The rest of the book follows Jaxom’s adventures as he comes of age and learns to accept his dual nature as both a Lord Holder and a dragonrider. The overall arc of the trilogy also concludes with the last of the “Oldtimer” leaders, banished in the previous book, making a last ditch attempt to regain power and get revenge on F’lar. With the final removal of the Oldtimers, the Southern Continent (where the Oldtimers had been banished) becomes open to exploration, with the help of Jaxom. Due to the unique nature of Ruth, fire-lizards are fascinated by him, and share images from their racial collective memory with him, which leads Jaxom to discover the original settlement of when Man first came to Pern several thousand years before. The book ends with excavations beginning on the ancient settlement (buried by ash from a nearby volcano, which proved to be the cause of the initial evacuation).

I think this story of personal growth, in addition to having a truly complete and robust world after three books is what caused me to decide to write about Pern. The writing is good, but I wouldn’t call it phenomenal, and I have a suspicion that is a large part of why I decided to write about it: writing that well seemed attainable. The world was rich enough, and there was plenty of room for the adventures of another dragonrider. Having just finished The White Dragon again, I must admit I do have a small craving to write a dragonrider story.

So why did I stop? And what can I do to start again? I started by finding that same writing club that had kicked me out years ago, and rejoined. I wanted to see people writing dynamically for Pern again, see the piles of stories to read. Instead, I got a trickle. Perhaps a single two page story a day, and lackluster stories at that Meanwhile, I couldn’t post, needing to submit anything through a mentor. I found it all almost laughable, and sad. I left without posting.

My quantity of writing hasn’t increased since then, and yet I still feel better off than that ghost of a club. I don’t think I’ll be returning to Pern again, in my own writing. But at least I feel some closure about it. I’m ready to move on, finally.

As far as The White Dragon goes, I definitely enjoyed it, and would recommend it as a solid coming of age novel. It still works best as part of the trilogy, but it is sufficiently “different” from Dragonflight and Dragonquest, that I could say it almost stands on its own. It also feels good to finally get some closure on a topic that has rankled me for 8 years. That chain is finally unbound; now I just need to move forward.

McCaffrey, Anne. The White Dragon. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.

Annotation: Dragonquest

As I stated with my annotation of Dragonflight, my decision to re-read these books stems from a desire to figure out what caused me to start writing fan fiction in the world of Dragonriders nearly a decade ago, in the hopes of also figuring out why I stopped writing fiction despite my desire to continue.

Dragonquest takes place seven years, or Turns, after Lessa brought the Weyrs of Pern forward in time in order to battle Thread once more. There are a number of plots occuring within this book, which is a bit more ambitious than Dragonflight. The chapters are divided primarily between F’lar, Weyrleader for Benden Weyr (mate to Lessa), and F’nor, his half-brother and second-in-command. The “Oldtimer” dragonriders who had come forward in time were becoming belligerent and divisive, uncomfortable with the changes in society that had occured during the Long Interval, and tired of fighting Thread after having spent 50 Turns in their own time fighting it, only to come forward to fight it for 50 more. F’nor is injured and sent elsewhere to recover, where he meets a young queenrider named Brekke. During his convalescence, he discovers and manages to bond with, or Impress, a just hatched fire-lizard, a signficantly smaller cousin of the dragons. These fire-lizards become used as messengers and pets throughout the rest of the series. Brekke’s queen ends up rising to mate at the same time as another dragon, and in the subsequent battle (which otherwise never happens between dragons), both queens are killed. F’nor, having developed a relationship with Brekke, nurses her back to health.

In the other story thread, F’lar works to keep the alliance of Weyrs and Holds together under the tensions caused by the Oldtimers. This tension comes to a head when one of the Oldtimer Weyrleaders attacks him, leading to a duel that F’lar ultimately wins. This signals a “changing of the guard”, and F’lar is made de facto leader of all of Pern. Following discoveries made in abandoned portions of the Weyrs, a telescope is discovered that allows them to see the surface of the Red Star. Following increased pressure from the Lords to go to the source itself to destroy the thread, F’nor manages to get vivid enough coordinates to teleport to the planet, and is nearly killed by the violent conditions of that other planet.

Towards the end of the book, there is a Hatching (a period when the dragon eggs hatch and Impress their riders). One egg is smaller than the others, and no one expects it to hatch. Jaxom, a young Lord Holder, overcome with emotion, frees the small dragon from the egg, and Impresses it. Due to the clear demarcation between Hold and Weyr, this causes quite a bit of contention (you can’t be a Lord Holder AND a Dragonrider). Due to the unique nature of the small dragon, (he is extremely small and white, which is entirely unheard of), the dragon’s life expectancy is very low, so Jaxom is allowed to remain as a Lord Holder.

It’s clear when McCaffrey wrote Dragonquest, she was already planning to write the third book in the series, The White Dragon, which follows Jaxom and his dragon Ruth. Overall, I’d say Dragonquest is better written than Dragonflight. The characters are more developed and engaging, the descriptions and names are more consistent (though there are still discrepancies), and the overall story is significantly more complex and robust. That said, it does not stand alone, and really requires reading Dragonflight to be appreciated.

Like Dragonflight, I still don’t see what drew me to write about Pern. There is nothing remarkable about the novel, though I do feel it was well written and entertaining. What about it made myself and literally hundreds of others decide to write about the draognriders? It’s a violent world, with only a privileged elite having a truly good life, the rest spending it in servitude or hardship. Why would we choose THAT, of all worlds, to write in?

I would recommend Dragonquest to those willing to read the rest of the original trilogy (if not more). It is an enjoyable read, and does in fact have a complete primary story arc, but I would by no means say that the book is a stand alone novel. It needs its prequel, and it needs its sequel to truly be a strong novel.

McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonquest. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.

Annotation: Dragonflight

I first read Dragonflight my freshman year in high school, along with the rest of the Dragonriders series. I enjoyed it well enough, and after reading the entire series (there are around twenty books total), I decided I wanted to write some Dragonriders stories. I joined a “fanfic” (fan fiction, stories written in a pre-existing universe) mailing list during my sophomore year, and wrote short stories based on “Pern” (the world the series takes place on) for about six months. I managed to rouse the enmity of the people in charge, and got kicked out. I haven’t written consistently since. This semester’s focus on writing caused me to decide to re-examine my time with the mailing list, and the books that caused me to join in the first place, books I haven’t re-read since being kicked out of the writing club eight years ago.

Dragonflight is the first book in the Dragonriders of Pern series. It establishes the world and main characters for the rest of the series. The world in particular needs some explanation, since it is decidedly alien to the reader. The social structure is broken into three hierarchies, Craft, Hold, and Weyr. Crafts are specialists in a given field (smithing, mining, and farming, for instance), and are autonomous within themselves (a Mining Craftmaster would not have jurisdiction over a Smith, for instance). Holds are the general populace of the planet, operating on a semi-feudal system of Lords. Weyrs make up the dragonriders, who live in extinct volcanoes and are sworn to the protection of Pern against an alien threat known as Thread. Since the Weyrs do not have arable land, the Holds and Crafts tithe to the Weyr that protects them against Thread (there are six Weyrs total, spread across the continent).

Thread is an alien organism that eats through any organic material with ease. It is drawn to Pern by the erratic elliptical orbit of another planet that has become known as the “Red Star”. Because the orbit is erratic, it generally only passes near enough to Pern to drop Thread every two hundred years, or “Turns”, and then does so for roughly 50 Turns. Every once in a while, however, the Red Star’s orbit is sufficiently erratic that an extended period without Thread occurs, known as a “Long Interval”.

Dragonflight opens at the end of one of these Long Intervals. During the extended absence of Thread, the Weyrs have fallen into disrepute with the rest of the population, and their numbers have dwindled to a fraction of their previous numbers. The sole remaining “Queen” dragon laid a new Queen egg before passing on, and the dragonriders are in search of candidates to become linked (to “Impress”) to the new queen once it hatches. They discover a young, driven girl named Lessa, who subsequently Impresses Ramoth, the new queen dragon. This makes her the “Weyrwoman” of the Weyr (the Weyr is lead by the Weyrwoman and the Weyrleader, who is the rider of the dragon that manages to mate with the Queen).

As the story progresses, the remaining dragons attempt to prepare the planet against the imminent return of Thread (which most of the planet now regards as a myth), and face the desperate need to increase their ranks quickly. At great risk of life, Lessa and Ramoth travel back in time (an ability dragons have is teleportation; Lessa discovers they can teleport through time as well as space), to the end of the last Pass of the Red Star. She leads the vast majority of the dragons from that time forward to her own time, explaining the reduction in dragon numbers over the Long Interval, and by doing so repopulates the Weyrs in time to save the planet against Thread.

That’s the book in a nutshell. By and large, it’s reasonably well written, and won several awards when it came out in the late 1960s. That said, I’m not entirely sure what I saw in it the first time I read it. There are some major plot holes, and naming discrepancies within the book (let alone compared to future books). That said, the world itself is well developed, with a clear social structure and culture, and the dialogue in general is well written. It’s an enjoyable read, and worth reading if only as an interesting blending of science fiction and fantasy aspects. I’d recommend it as a good example of that hybrid genre.

McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonflight. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.

Annotation: For Us, The Living

I started reading Robert Heinlein when I was in seventh grade. Ever since then, I’ve been a big fan of his work, largely due to his ability to weave social, politic, and scientific commentary into an engaging story, replete with well written dialogue and good pacing. These comments directly influenced my own opinions on many topics, in a positive way. When it was announced that the Heinlein estate was publishing his first novel, I was intruiged, though wary (while most of his work was stellar, there were a few duds, such as I Will Fear No Evil). There were probably good reasons why that novel was not published previously. My suspicions proved to be true, though not in an unpleasant way. This “novel” is not truly a novel. It is a series of expositional essays on the topics of politics, economics, religion, morals, and society, all wrapped very loosely in a skeletal story.

I say skeletal because the story can largely be ignored. It is used entirely as a tool to segue into the next expositional lump. The premise is this: a man named Perry Nelson, Naval Officer and engineer (as was Heinlein), gets in a car accident in 1939 and is somehow whisked forward nearly 150 years to the year 2086. There he is discovered by a young dancer named Diana, who proceeds to help him become acquainted with the structure of society in 2086. That’s the story. The extent of twists and turns the story takes is when he gets jealous of Diana’s dance partner and hits him, and ends up in therapy.

You would think that this undeveloped story would hinder my enjoyment of the book, but I generally didn’t mind. Instead, I kept on noticing where he had salvaged bits and pieces of the novel and placed them in other stories. This was the prototype for all future Heinlein work, the principles discussed in it making appearances in every other story he wrote. Additionally, rather than blending his opinions into the background of a story, they are direct and at the forefront in giant expositional lumps.

Expressing opinions, even for one as opinionated as Heinlein, would not account for the length of expositional lumps he created. What makes these opinions (and thus, the book) worthwhile is that each is meticulously detailed, defined, and rationalized. He doesn’t simply say that “this way is better”, he explains why it is better. And by and large, I agreed with him. As an example, his take on the role of government is simultaneously a combination of socialism and ultra-libertarian ideas. National health care and national banking, but strict privacy protection for all citizens and constitutionally banning “victimless crime” laws. The entire country’s population receives a “social credit” check from the government each month that covers basic living expenses, so no one HAS to work (though most people choose to). And it all makes sense, scarily. The mathematics and logic behind his arguments is sound.

As in other books, Heinlein had no real use for religion. He found most organized religions to be corrupt and interested in controlling the masses rather than helping them, and had a very low opinion of the church. An idea reused directly in other books, Heinlein had his society get tired of the corruption, and allow the religious zealots to secede from the country, creating a place called Coventry out of the region of Southern Ohio, Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Religion was still allowed, but was not allowed the degree of influence they previously had on our governing laws. Personally, I absolutely agree with him on that. I find it upsetting that the “Religious Right” has such a stranglehold on our government, pushing through laws that legislate “morality”. Morality is not something you should be able to legislate. If it isn’t harming another person, whose right is it to dictate what is right or wrong for anyone but themselves? Barring a very small minority who deliberately choose to “do wrong”, everyone feels they are in the right, so who is to say that one is “more right” than another?

Something that I found somewhat unnerving was the accuracy of his predictions of future events. He anticipated the formation and powers of the European Union, though he did err in thinking it would be run under a monarchy, and had it collapse after that monarch’s death, sparking a 40 year long civil war that reduced the continent’s population to a fraction of what it was and reduced their technological level to something resembling the start of the industrial area. The current developments with our own political system (decreasing liberties, higher religious influence, personal wars) were also called with startling accuracy, though again he took it a few steps further, with the President declaring a state of emergency and performing a military coup. (Though I suppose we’ll see what happens over the next few years.)

His opinions on military policy were also ones I really liked. The emphasis was shifted to defense, and the constitution was amended such that in order to send our troops overseas in battle (ie, go to war in another country, rather than defending our own shores), a national referendum was required. Those voting in the referendum would be limited to those who would be sent to war. If you were too old or too young or otherwise invalid as a soldier, you weren’t allowed to vote on the matter. Furthermore, if the referendum’s results indicated going to war, those who voted yes were to report for duty the following day. Those who abstained were the “second line” (should they become necessary), and those who voted against were the “third line” (again, should they become necessary). I think this is a brilliant way to handle war. I think it is absolutely absurd that in a supposedly “democratic” nation, people at no risk to themselves dictate whether the nation goes to war.

By and large, I really enjoyed For Us, The Living, though I wouldn’t say the story itself was overly well written. The lack of good story was more than made up for (in my opinion) by the well written, cogent ideas discussed, as well as the chance to peer inside the brain of one of my favorite authors. I would recommend it, though more to an individual studying sociology than someone studying fiction.

Heinlein, Robert A. For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs. New York: Pocket Books, 2004.

Annotation: The Princess Bride

When people generally talk about “the classics”, they are generally talking about books that are at least 50 years old, and invariably taught at some level of academia, where bored teachers ponderously ponder the possible intentions of the long-dead author, secure in the delusion that this secret authorial message couldn’t possibly be as simple or direct as what is stated upon the page. The students, often more bored than the professor, sit around writing bad angst-filled poetry, praying to god that the teacher doesn’t put anything on the test that wasn’t in the Cliff’s Notes. These books may well be excellent pieces of literature, but after the wringer academics put them through, that can’t help but be dry. It is extremely unfortunate that the term “classic” has been so subverted, because, you see, there are classics, and then there are classics. With a book that is classic of the second type, we delve into the realm of books where the hidden message isn’t hidden at all, academics are dismissive, and the rest of the world enjoys the story all the more for that fact. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (purportedly an abridged version of a book by the same name by a Florinese author by the name of S. Morgenstern, but is more generally assumed just part of the greater fiction of the book, since you’d be hard pressed to actually FIND an unabridged version) is a classic of this second type.

The Princess Bride at this point has been turned into a better known movie (the screenplay was also written by the author, and as such retains a remarkable amount of the book’s flavor), and is considered a mainstay of any geek’s movie collection, sitting right beside Monty Python and The Search for the Holy Grail. If you were to walk into a crowded room of geeks (at a convention, or computer lab, or even most coffee houses) and shout “Inconceivable!”, not only would people know what you were referring to, but would likely respond, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Mandy Patinkin, the actor who played Inigo well over twenty years ago, is also a musician. Even now, at every concert he gives, he cannot leave the stage without giving in to requests for him to exclaim, “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father, prepare to die!” Needless to say, I think it made an impact. As a writer, what this teaches me is that you should never underestimate the power of some good catch-phrases.

One of the amusing aspects of the book is the use of asides. At various points in the book, Goldman pauses from the story and adds an anecdote from when his father used to read him the book, or comments on the lengthy and completely boring portions of the book that he supposedly excised from the original edition. In fact, the entirety of chapter 3 is an aside detailing why he removed chapter 3 from the abridged version, involving Morgenstern’s extreme distaste for the aristocracy of Florin. These asides add a humorous effect to the book, which might otherwise simply be a rollicking adventure. They also occasionally serve a greater purpose, such as when Westley (the lead protagonist) is tortured and killed in the Zoo of Death (the Pit of Despair in the movie). That particular aside is used as a way to really give voice to the thoughts of the author in no uncertain terms. It discusses the first time his father read the story to him, and that his father had paused, and tried to skip the section. After much prodding, he admits that Westley dies, and it devastates the young William. In a later aside, he follows up with this, when as a teenager he has an epiphany: it had bothered him so much because it was the first time as a child that he had been faced with the realization that life isn’t fair. The ending of the book itself is also an aside: “But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.” (Goldman 283)

Which brings me to a point of vague annoyance, though a very mild kind: I am not a big fan of “cliffhanger” endings. Goldman decided IS a fan of cliffhanger endings. He loves to leave things in a position where it is unclear what happens next, whether the protagonists live or die. Other examples of him doing this is the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Butch and the Kid leap off the cliff to the river far below, where it fades to black. There is no resolution, no clear answer as to whether they lived or died. I hate that, it feels like a copout. A story doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending, or a sad ending, but in my eyes it needs to bring the story it is telling to a conclusion. Loose ends? Not a problem. Sub-story arcs not finished? That’s too bad. But the central story arc, whatever that is, needs to wrap up. It doesn’t matter if a year after they live happily ever after, the couple is divorced and hating each other’s guts, or one was run over by a bear, or whatever, that’s a separate story. But ending a story arc with a cliffhanger is a breach of the contract between the author and reader. It irks me, and I suspect always will.

That irk aside, I really enjoyed the book (and the movie). The narrative style is witty and self-deprecating in a way that is generally reserved for first person memoir and personal essay, yet Goldman pulls it off in a third-person limited narrative. The interaction between Fezzik and Inigo in particular is really excellent, dealing with two people who are excellent at what they respectively do, but still very human. The friendship between them never seems strained or artificial. In fact, I’d say that Fezzik is my favorite character in the book. He is very human, with a great deal of depth for all his simplicity. Fezzik has a very simple mind, and mentally really only takes pleasure in rhyming. He is also exceptionally strong, and a giant, whose greatest fear is of being alone. Despite working as a rogue, he is a very honorable and upright person, fiercely loyal to his friends, and who believes in the importance of telling the truth. His foibles are REAL. His emotions are REAL. That is a remarkable thing to pull off in a story, and my hat is most certainly off to Goldman for doing it. (As an aside of my own: in the movie, Fezzik was played MOST appropriately by the late André the Giant. I can think of no one who could have been more fitting or done a better job. From the stories I’ve heard, André was very much like Fezzik in personality in real life.)

It’s hard for me to make a qualification of the book solely for the book. I’ve watched the movie so many times, that scenes from the movie can’t help but sneak into my memory of the book. That said, it has hardly hindered my enjoyment of either, and I would most certainly recommend either, or preferably both. In so many ways, it’s exactly what an adventure story should be.

Goldman, William. The Princess Bride. New York: Del Rey Books, 1973.