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Monday, April 30, 2012

Too Many Tragedies

Recently, I’ve been mourning the loss of a TV show.  This may seem premature, as it has not officially been cancelled, but the writing seems to be on the wall.  While the ratings for “Awake” started well, people have stopped tuning in as the show has continued.  Likewise, the journalists who raved over the series’ promise now criticize it.  When passengers and crew push and shove each other to secure a berth on a lifeboat, one wonders what is wrong with the ship.  What has caused people to abandon the show they once found so promising?

The show mixes two popular genres: science fiction and police procedural.  Added to this is the drama concerning the Brittens’ struggle to overcome a family member’s death.  With sci-fi, usually the concern is cost, but as the dual realities are set on present day Earth, there are no special effects to worry the accountants.  Instead of one crime, each episode usually offers two crimes to be solved, giving the viewer twice as many clues to ponder.  Critics and viewers are always interested in the forces that threaten to tear a family apart.  Well, thanks to his two realities, Michael Britten now has two families to hold together.

Last week’s episode, “Game Day,” offered up a familiar science fiction argument concerning the multiverse: that for each dilemma or event, a new universe is created in which each potential choice or action is played out.  The intense rivalry between two football teams (and their fans) comes down to the last, crucial field goal.  In one reality, the green team wins; in the other, the red team wins.  (This ties in nicely with the green and red rubber band notion).  In one reality, a shopkeeper loses a significant bet.  In the other, a rabble-rousing fan is murdered.  In one reality, Michael Britten’s son is mourning the breakup of his relationship with his girlfriend.  In the other, his wife has finally talked Michael into moving to Oregon to start anew.  The detectives investigate the shopkeeper’s establishment after a fire: they determine it was caused by arson, yet it has also become a murder, as an employee slept on the premises.  The detectives catch a man who was seen to brawl with the rabble-rouser at the game, yet he doesn’t remember his actions: he had too much to drink.  At best, the above summary is incomplete.  Yet it establishes one inarguable fact: there’s a lot going on in any episode of “Awake.”

Any storyteller will admit that a chief concern is getting the mix right.  Once a filmmaker has wrapped up production and begun assembling his movie, he starts deleting scenes that he feels will dilute the viewer’s focus from the primary storyline.  Likewise, after his first draft, a writer sometimes combines two characters who performed similar roles, or whose individual tasks weren’t significant enough to warrant the reader’s attention.  A certain amount of complexity is essential to good storytelling, but, as everyone knows, sometimes it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Perhaps that’s the real tragedy of “Awake:” there’s simply too much going on in any one episode.  When it comes to mysteries, people love red herrings and lots of suspects: they love following the detective’s search to discover the person who actually committed the crime.  Yet two crimes per episode prevents the detectives from questioning and investigating a long list of suspects for either one.  Then throw all the other various dramatic issues concerning the Brittens into the mix.  The last episode offered the two psychiatrists little more than token appearances.  Then there’s the essential question lurking behind the series: how is it that Michael Britten can perceive these two realities?  Why is his captain in one reality seemingly aware of Michael Britten’s ability to navigate between the two?  And who is the man she’s in touch with, who has promised her he will kill Michael Britten unless he moves to Oregon?

“Game Day” overflowed with tragedies to wrench the heart, excite the mind, provoke interest in what will happen next, while promising to endanger Michael Britten in at least one reality.  Yet given the series’ ratings, I fear I’ll never learn how these two universes split apart (if they have), or watch Michael Britten navigate between them while holding his two families together in the years to come.  For me, that’s the ultimate tragedy of "Awake."

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Internet Links
Follow the green and red rubber bands at Wikipedia
Watch last week’s episode at the NBC website

Friday, April 27, 2012

R2-D2 in Adrilankha

I’m nobody.  I run a small restaurant in the Easterners’ section.  Okay, maybe nothing as grand as a restaurant, but I’ve got plans, you know?  Anyway, a strange thing happened to me yesterday.  See—

Yeah, fine, your wine’s a little sweet for my taste, but go on, pour me another.

Okay, here it is.  A man and woman walked in and ordered klava.  They chose a table in the back.  I plunked down two glasses, filled them with piping-hot klava (my special blend), and left them to enjoy the privacy they so obviously sought.  

I was working on the dinner menu when a strange contraption rolled in through the front door.  It looked like a large metal can on wheels.  Its dome-like top spun around.  A round light blinked at me, and this…thing… produced a series of whistles, clicks, beeps, and what resembled a series of musical notes played by a beginning instrumentalist.  Then the noisy container rolled into the darkness, heading for the couple enjoying their privacy and klava.

Okay, so I save money on candles in the afternoon.  You want to hear this or not?

Anyway, I was intrigued, so I followed after this…thing.  But I froze when it projected an image of a man about the height of my forearm.  Although I could see through him, and so I knew he wasn’t real, he still looked so lifelike, standing there on the table before the two glasses of klava.  Clutching a notebook and a pen in his hands, this tiny apparition said,

 “Steven Brust, years ago you served me purely as entertainment.
Now I beg you to aid me in my struggles against Writer’s Block.
This is my most desperate hour.
Help me, Steven Brust: you’re my only hope!”

Then the image of the man dissolved, the metal contraption turned around, and I stepped aside as it rolled past me, still emitting those curious whistles, beeps, clicks, and notes from a poorly tuned instrument.  From outside, I heard someone say, “There you are!  I’ve been looking all over for you.  You delivered a message?  What message were you carrying around in your blasted innards this time?”  When I turned back to my guests, I saw the man’s nose wrinkle as he set down his glass.  I hurried back to the bar, brought the couple two new glasses, and poured them some more klava.

No, I didn’t.  I could tell the man was dangerous.  I didn’t think it prudent to delve too deeply into his affairs.

So you tell me, what manner of sorcery moved that device?  And what should I make of the man’s plea?  No, I haven’t had too much of your overly sweet wine!  Really?  You honestly think I'd make up such a story?

I’ll agree with you there, friend.  It all seems a bit much to me, too.

R2-D2: Star Pilot extraordinaire

To book passage to Adrilankha, contact Star Tours.  (It’s not an official destination, but check with R2-D2.  Maybe he can arrange something).
For a review of this restaurant (or, as Vlad so generously describes it, a “klava hole”), read Chapter 5 of Teckla by Steven Brust.
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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Addicted to a Good Book

I’ll admit that I’m a compulsive reader.  Somehow, I just can’t control myself.  A whim will strike me so powerfully that I cave in.  Perhaps it’s a book I read long ago and, suddenly, I realize I must read it again.  Maybe it’s a book I bought several years ago, but somehow it never got placed in the stack by my bed.  Or perhaps it’s one I’ve just purchased or received as a gift, and it just can’t wait!  In any case, I’ll open this particular book that two minutes ago I didn’t have to read, immerse myself for a chapter or two, and then awaken to the fact that it will now have to compete with all the other great stuff I’m enjoying.  

Take, for example, my current bedside stack.  I’ve loved the Lovejoy TV series for twenty years.  Now I’m digging the Jonathan Gash novels that launched it.  Even though I’m reading out of order, my wife bought me the latest installment, Faces in the Pool, and I had to honor her gift, right?  Then there’s Dune, perhaps my favorite novel of all time.  For nearly thirty years, I’ve been intrigued by aspects of the backstory that Frank Herbert built his novel upon.  Although I bought it several years ago, I’m finally reading The Butlerian Jihad by his son Brian Herbert and cowriter Kevin J. Anderson.  Enough, you say?  Perhaps it should be, but it’s not.  We’re planning our next trip to England, this time to Yorkshire, so I’m working my way through the James Herriot books.  Currently, I’m enjoying All Things Wise and Wonderful.  

Then there are the books I’ve temporarily taken a break from.  Plutarch’s Lives and The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar currently head that list.  I recently finished Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear, and I enjoyed it so much that I had to start in on one of those old Tor Doubles that have sat in my bookshelf for...awhile.  It contains his novella “Hardfought,” as well as a story by Timothy Zahn.  It's good, just too complex for me right now.  After hearing Neil Gaiman’s Guest of Honor interview at World Fantasy last year, I figured I should check out the series of comics that put him on the literary map.  So I read the first part of the compilation The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes.  Last, but certainly not least, there’s The Stars in Shroud by Dr. Gregory Benford.  Although I delved so deeply into the novel last year for this blog, there are still a few aspects of it that I’d like to understand better. 

Every evening, before I pluck one of the above from my stack, I usually read a few pages of something to my wife before we go to sleep.  I think I must have missed my vocation.  With the way my voice seems to make her drift off, I should have become a priest.  Right now, we’re working our way through the Robert Silverberg story “Born with the Dead.”  

As I’ve documented in earlier entries, Steven Brust’s novel Teckla recently shoved its way into my stack, and that’s bad, because his stories tend to make me want to abandon all else until I finish them.  Yet, as I’m primarily using his fiction each morning to spur on my writing efforts, I don’t want to finish that novel too quickly, and end up opening another of his novels, and then another, until I’ve worked my way through the series.  As much as I love his writing, I don’t want to be too heavily influenced by his individual style.  As an author, I want to develop my own writing style (whatever that ends up being), not merely imitate his.  

There’s one, final, practical consideration.  Too much Vlad, or any other Brust novel, will distance me from the other novels in the stack, making them more difficult to read and finish.  My love of reading drew me to writing.  Why then must my reading time be so limited?  Why can’t I read everything I want to read, when I want to read it?  Well?

Okay, okay, okay!  Maybe I’ll read just one more chapter of Teckla today.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Still Leaning on Steven Brust

Yesterday I seemed to have lost the plot again.  I’m not sure why.  The week started off promisingly enough.  I primed the mental pump by reading a scene from Steven Brust’s novel Teckla, and soon found myself bubbling over with enthusiasm.  I grew almost shaky as I wrote.  My characters emerged quickly; their dialogue flowed.  Their desperate—yet regal--clash of wills defied me to release my pen.  

Once, when circumstances necessitated I take a break, I took my notebook with me and kept writing.  (Let’s just say it’s the smallest room in the house, okay?)  By the time I finished the scene I was working on, I had exceeded my target limit, and was proud of what I’d written.  Better, I hadn’t really needed Brust at all: my characters, and perhaps my willpower, had won the day.  I tried to celebrate with a little more of Teckla, but I couldn’t keep my mind on Vlad’s conversation with his Noish-pa (grandfather).  Vlad’s dilemma over how to resolve his problems with his wife should have consumed me, yet my muscles still felt shaky, and my concentration…poof!  

So I did what Vlad does when he’s struggling to resolve the tensions and issues that threaten to tear him apart.  I walked (albeit through the streets of San Diego, not Vlad’s Adrilankha).  Eventually focus and will returned that afternoon, and I gradually cobbled together an entry on Richard Castle’s latest novel.  But that took longer than it should have, and by the time I shaped it into its final form, it was time to retire for the evening.

Yesterday morning, I again found myself staring into space, knowing what I wanted to write, but my pen lying still in my hand.  Had I not prescribed myself a little more of Teckla, I might not have made it through.  “I want to write,” I reprimanded myself yesterday afternoon.  “Why should I need another author’s help?”  Then my mind harkened back to something Robert Silverberg wrote in his introduction to “Born with the Dead.”

“So every day’s work was an ordeal.  Sometimes I managed no more than a couple of paragraphs.  At best I averaged about a page a day.  Writing it required me to do battle with all kinds of internal demons, for the story springs from areas within me that I found it taxing to explore.”

I take heart in knowing that one of the most prolific, celebrated, and bestselling authors the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre has ever produced once struggled so, even after he had matured as a writer.  Likewise, the terrible dilemmas Vlad Taltos confronted in Teckla were drawn from battles Steven Brust waged in real life.  My own battles seem rather small in comparison with those of my literary heroes.  And I am meeting my targets, producing far more than a paragraph or two each day.  So perhaps I shouldn’t feel so bad for (occasionally) relying on another’s experiences, skills, and stories to carry me through my own difficult periods.  

Had Robert Silverberg been able to read Steven Brust, might he have found it easier to battle his own demons?  As he’s a well-read man, no doubt he had others who inspired him to keep writing.  I’m certainly glad he emerged victorious with “Born with the Dead.”  For, like Brust’s novels, the story resonates with me, and I will treasure it always.

Who knows?  One day (assuming I get published), a struggling author might well find sustenance and support in something I’ve written.  

Teckla is available in the omnibus edition The Book of Jhereg by Steven Brust.  “Born with the Dead” can be found in Robert Silverberg’s Phases of the Moon: Six Decades of Masterpieces By The SFWA Grand Master.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Richard Castle’s Secret Ambitions

Some claim he’s a starship captain, others that he’s the actor Nathan Fillion.  Some even assert that his novels are ghostwritten.  I sympathize with these doubters.  It’s sad that TV executives have replaced so many quality dramas with low-cost reality shows.  But regardless of the conspiracies that surround him, Richard Castle emerges from our TV screens as a witty and vivacious author.  With his latest book, Heat Rises, he not only demonstrates talent worthy of a bestselling novelist, but his growth as a human being.  

When Nikki Heat is summoned to an underground sex club at four in the morning, she discovers the body of a man bound to a Saint Andrew’s cross.  The victim turns out to be a priest: Father Graf of Our Lady of the Holy Innocents.  At the vicarage, the housekeeper tells her that Captain Montrose searched Graf’s belongings earlier, supposedly in response to a missing person’s report she filed.  But why should Captain Montrose search a missing priest’s house, when he’s already spending so much time down at One Police Plaza, making politically correct gestures to fend off an investigation by Internal Affairs?  When she finally talks with him, Montrose insists that she only investigate the priest’s death from the BDSM angle, even after she discovers $150,000 in Father Graf’s attic.  

It’s easy to see how Richard Castle drew inspiration from those he worked with during his first three “seasons.”  All the familiar faces are thinly disguised for our enjoyment.  Richard Castle becomes Jameson Rook, Kevin Ryan becomes Sean Raley, Javier Esposito is renamed Miguel Ochoa, and Lanie Parish renamed Lauren Parry.  Even Captain Montgomery, who sadly died at the end of last year’s “season,” is resurrected as Captain Montrose.  And everyone interacts largely as they do in real life: Lauren counsels Nikki on her lovelife, Raley and Ochoa work so closely together they’re known collectively as Roach, and Nikki’s relationship with her captain, while strained, is still based upon mutual respect and affection. 

Richard Castle also indulges in his love of wordplay.  From Pleasure Bound, the name of the underground sex club, to Father Graf (hidden money = graft) of the “Holy Innocents,” to some of the sex trade workers Nikki investigates along the way, who use such performance names as Marty Python, Hans Alloffur, and The Red Barin’, Castle's clearly writing in full smirk mode.  Raley and Ochoa’s police car becomes the Roach Coach.  And don't even get me started on the double entendres! I’m sure there’s lots more examples I haven’t listed or spotted: I look forward to discovering them during my second read-through.

The only name Castle utterly transforms is Kate Beckett’s.  The reason for this grows clearer with each novel.  While Nikki Heat’s life and past are remarkably similar to Kate’s, her present is very different.  Unlike Kate, Nikki braves having a relationship with Jameson Rook.  She consummates in Fiction what Kate shies away from in real life, and in so doing, becomes everything Richard Castle desires her to be.  

Likewise, Castle uses the novel to explore his secret ambitions.  When misunderstandings arise, Rook lays himself utterly bare before Nikki, and so works through any problem, leaving no room for further miscommunication.  He also changes his career.  Rook works as a serious journalist.  In so doing, Castle imagines what pursuing such Nonfiction stories might entail.  While Jameson Rook might have won two Pulizer prizes, he also winds a dangerous and unglamorous path chasing arms smugglers around the globe.  In exchanging his playboy lifestyle for that of the investigative reporter, Castle envisions paying a steep price: Rook isn’t allowed to help Nikki in any official capacity, as he’s finished the magazine piece he wrote on her during the first novel.  Rook isn’t even present during the first sixty pages of the novel.  I won’t tell you what Rook’s up to, but it’s bound up with the fictional persona that Richard Castle has imagined himself becoming. 

And then there’s the ending, which I won’t spoil for you.  Let’s just say, if you watched Season Three, you’ll understand not only why Castle ends the novel this way, but also how it expresses his innermost desires.

I’ve never read any of the Derek Storm novels.  Come to think of it, I’ve never even seen them in the bookstore.  But I’ve been enjoying his Nikki Heat novels; the stories get better with each installment.  It’s hard to imagine why some can’t accept that he’s a real person.  I’ll admit that Richard Castle and Nathan Fillion share certain facial similarities.  As for the comparison with Captain Malcolm Reynolds of the starship Serenity, well, I’ve seen “Firefly,” and they seem like completely different people to me.  On our TV screens, Richard Castle demonstrates all the qualities that shine so brightly in his writing.  Could someone really ghostwrite his novels, mimic his individuality so perfectly, while crafting such an enjoyable series of novels?  Why should they, when he's so capable?

Others may refuse to believe in him, but I appreciate Richard Castle’s willingness to share his secret ambitions with us through his Fiction.  I can’t wait to get my hands on the next Nikki Heat novel.

Related Dragon Cache entries
Sorry.  Of all my blog entries, I think this one’s pretty unique. (Have fun looking, though).

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Lucius Malfoy vs. Neil Gaiman

I never cease to be surprised by the ironies of fate.  Why one artist, despite similar talent and ability, rises to stardom, while another toils in obscurity.  Recently, I realized that the actor Jason Isaacs, who came to my attention through the PBS miniseries “Case Histories,” and currently stars in “Awake,” also played Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies.  Given his strong portray of the villain, one would think the actor would have felt some assurance that his services would be requested for all the movies.  Yet, after “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Jason Isaac’s reportedly had to get down on his knees and beg J. K. Rowling to include him in the final three films.  Talk about the glamorous life of an actor!

"Please, Ms. Rowling, please write me in!  Please please!"

I find it ironic that despite his incredible range, and noteworthy performances in a long list of movies, TV shows, and stage productions, Jason Isaacs remains solidly under the radar of the paparazzi.  Unlike the similarly-featured Daniel Craig, he can take the London Underground to a movie premier.  People may go gaga over him when he’s on the red carpet, but they don’t notice him on the train ride home.  And that’s the way he likes it.  While he imagines he’d like to earn “obscene” amounts of money, he prefers his “calm, sedate and suburban” life to what he sees as the “hideously compromised” lives of those who have skyrocketed to stardom.  Such as, for example, his body double Daniel Craig.

Like J. K. Rowling, another author who has learned that becoming a superstar writer will cost you your anonymity is Neil Gaiman.  I had the pleasure to seeing him at last year’s World Fantasy Convention.  I admire his work in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, as well as for connecting so readily with his fans through his website, blog, Tumblr, and Twitter.  But I think he first drew my attention for his simple approach to writing.  He repeatedly tells authors aspiring to be published that there are three things one must do to become a successful writer: 1) Write, 2) Finish, and 3) Submit.  Anyone who can boil down all the intricacies of the marketplace, and the essential makeup of a successful author, into such a basic formula obviously exhibits a certain clarity that can only aid them in communicating to readers through their fiction.  

At the recent World Fantasy Convention, I laughed until my sides ached during his panel discussion with Connie Willis.  I took careful notes as he charted his progression as an author during his Guest of Honor interview.  But then the breath caught in my throat as he announced that he was considering dramatically cutting back on his internet activities to concentrate more fully on his writing.  And when he admitted that he was seriously considering not attending conventions any more, my jaw dropped.  

He went on to share that he no longer enjoyed attending conventions because he could not walk the halls unnoticed.  He couldn’t peruse the books and other items for sale in the dealers’ room, or contemplate the works displayed in the art show.  He couldn’t simply hang out in the hotel bar and hope to meet a few new friends.  Why?  Because he had grown too popular.  His fans were always hunting him down to ask him a few questions, or asking him to sign their books, and that would be all right, except for the sheer number of them.  To paraphrase a popular Carpenters song: “Crowds appear whenever Neil Gaiman is here.”

Neil Gaiman: A Literary Giant

Despite my perfectionist tendencies, I sometimes wonder if part of my reluctance to follow Gaiman’s formula through to completion stems from my fear of the disruptions and change success might bring.  To quote Charles Stross, “Writers are often boring people.  They stay home and they, like, write for hours and hours every day.  Watching them write is really boring, because believe it or not, it takes much longer to write a book than to read it.”  Charles is being somewhat tongue-in-cheek here, as anyone who has ever seen or met him at a convention knows that he is anything but boring.  Still, he has a point.  While Alf Wight (who wrote as James Herriot) may have written his books in the living room, watching TV with his family, for most of us the writing life means willfully condemning ourselves to solitary confinement, and then having little to talk about when meeting others socially.  

Typical Nonwriter/Writer Interaction at Party
Nonwriter: "So, what've you been up to lately?"  
Writer: "Um, er, well...let's see...I've been writing?"
Nonwriter raises eyebrows.  "Really?  Please excuse me while I refill my glass.  Then I want to hear all about it!"

While I’ve come to grips with this aspect of my chosen endeavor, and even to enjoy the solitude and quiet, I need to validate my efforts by finishing and submitting.  Do I want to walk in the shoes of someone like Steven Brust (or Jason Isaacs), with a number of well-loved books to my name?  Absolutely.  Do I want to be like Neil Gaiman or J. K. Rowling or Daniel Craig, making “obscene” amounts of money and living a “hideously compromised” life?  Not so much.


I guess, when you think about it, worrying about becoming a superstar player is incredibly stupid.  Especially when you’ve yet to make the team.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Lucius Malfoy and Vlad Taltos: Kindred Spirits

My wife and I have this argument (sorry, discussion): she contends that watching movie credits is a waste of time; I find them interesting.  Case in point.  Last weekend, we had just finished “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” when a name popped out at me: Jason Isaacs.  To her chagrin, I watched longer, until the cast list appeared.  What?  Jason Isaacs plays Lucius Malfoy?  No!

(Note: When I’m screaming “No!” like this, picture me as Captain Kirk in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” after Khan has seemingly left Kirk for dead inside the asteroid.  But instead of “Khan!” I’m shouting “Noooooo!”)

As an aspiring writer (sorry, a writer aspiring to be published), I don’t usually track actors.  Instead, I follow people like screenwriters, directors, and producers.  You know, those “creative” types.  It appears, from scanning Mr. Isaacs’ resume, that he’s been in a lot of productions I should have seen, along with a few I have.  But the first time he really stood out for me was in the recent PBS miniseries “Case Histories,” about private investigator Jackson Brodie.  Part of the reason the show impressed me was that it was set in and around Edinburgh, a city I’d love to visit someday, and have always associated with SF/Fantasy authors Charles Stross and J. K. Rowling.  (In the Kate Atkinson novels upon which the PBS miniseries was based, Jackson Brodie apparently lives in Cambridge.  Like I said, these “creative” types).  

The Edinburgh Duo
"In this corner..."

But another, and perhaps the main reason the miniseries sucked me in was Jason Isaacs’ performance.  The cases he sought to solve didn’t matter all that much: what really brought the show to life was Isaacs’ performance.  I really felt for him when he tried to convince his divorced wife not to move away, and to allow him to continue seeing his daughter, despite his violent career-choice.  I believed the love he felt for his daughter.  I understood why others remained his friends, even when circumstances dictated they should shift their loyalties.  His portrayal of Jackson Brodie reminds me of why so many love the Vlad Taltos novels of Steven Brust.  Like Vlad, Jackson seems the perennial outsider, and there are constantly forces at work to prevent those friends and family members from helping him.  Yet they risk their reputations and their lives repeatedly for him, because of who he is, and what he has become to them.  

While I find the storyline of “Awake” compelling, the main reason I started watching the Science Fiction drama was because of Isaacs’ performance in “Case Histories.”  While I miss the moody setting of Edinburgh, I find his portrayal of Detective Michael Britten just as compelling.  In many ways, his looks and on-screen presence remind me of Daniel Craig, another British actor who has shot to worldwide fame since he started playing James Bond in the Before-He-Was-Bond productions of “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.”  But Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy?  I’ve seen all the Harry Potter movies at least once, the earlier ones several times, but never would have connected him with the somber, brooding Jackson Brodie, or for that matter Michael Britten, in a million years.  Recognizing this, I’m less surprised that his portrayal in the miniseries connected with me so strongly.  If he can transform his features and mannerisms so completely from one role to the next, he seems capable of tremendous range for an actor.

This ability, combined with the respectable body of work he has accumulated, begs the question of Isaacs’ relative obscurity, in comparison with Daniel Craig, an actor who, from my perspective, exhibits similar looks and capabilities.  (Given all the high profile roles he’s been offered since he took on Before-He-Was-Bond, I’ve never seen Daniel Craig subsume himself so utterly in a role as Jason Isaacs did with Lucius Malfoy).  But then again, I might as well ask why Steven Brust, despite his impressive body of work, his creation of an unforgettable character, and having built a strong following, has yet to achieve a superstar status in the literary community similar to that of J. K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman.

Ah, the quirks of fate!

This entry will conclude with Lucius Malfoy vs. Neil Gaiman

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Awake with Connie Willis and Amaryllis

Like flowers, memories periodically awaken.

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.  Partly this is due to the TV show “Awake,” in which Detective Michael Britten simultaneously inhabits two realities: one in which his wife died in a car crash, and another in which his son survived, but his wife died.  But partly this is also due to a family member who recently passed away.  From an outsider’s perspective, it might be judged that she made little impact upon our lives.  But we know differently.

From virtually the moment she entered our lives, she endeared herself with her quiet, peaceful spirit.  While a woman of few words, those she spoke were always kind.  She cared about her family, loved her husband, and played graceful host to us numerous times.  She was utterly without pretention, the kind of person who always puts you at ease.  

I wish we’d lived closer to her, and known her better.

In a way, the most important thing she ever did was give us flowers.  In particular, Amaryllis.  Every Christmas, we could count on receiving Amaryllis bulbs in a pot with which we could decorate our home.  After awhile, I got tired of receiving the same gift.  Yet now I’m wishing she gave us even more.  For my wife has planted all those bulbs in our yard, and every year those plants reawaken, thrust their heads above the ground, and shine their beauty upon us.  

Whether they're summoned or arise unbidden...

In “Awake,” the police department forces Michael Britten to see a counselor.  So, regardless of which reality he currently inhabits, he faces a psychiatrist’s scrutiny.  In both realities, their advice is the same: he must come to grips with the fact that his loved one is gone.  He must release someone who once meant everything to him: he must “get on” with his life.  I remember once, back when I was in college, putting the same argument to my grandmother after the death of her husband of over fifty years.  And her response to me was the same as Michael Britten’s to his counselors: No.  I won’t let him (or her) go.

Connie Willis is adamant in her belief that we never really get over the death of a loved one. She even wrote a story about what death is (or might be), a science fiction novel called Passage, which made a lasting impact upon me.  While the intensity of our grief gradually fades with time, those we love never really leave us.  Instead, we carry their spirits with us throughout the rest of our lives.  We mark and honor their birthdays.  To the memories they left us with, we create new ones.  During the difficult times, we imagine them with us, and wonder what counsel they might offer.  In some faith traditions, people even pray to them, believing that, as they have transcended the physical realm, they can speed our requests on to the Divine.

I hope this poor memorial to a fallen loved one will cause you to reflect upon those who, while they might have departed this reality, still inhabit your lives.  Perhaps, amid your busy schedule, you might even give some thought to what you will leave behind.  For our lives don’t end when we die.  At least, not for those who loved us.

They remind us of those we loved,
and the kind of person we long to become.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Steven Brust: My Ultimate Weapon

I’m going through a tough patch in my writing right now.  Last week the words flowed more freely than just-uncorked champagne, as the number of blog entries I posted will attest.  Nothing occurred on the weekend to dampen my enthusiasm for diving back into my second dragon novel this week.  Yet yesterday, when I sat down with pen in hand, the words refused to come.  

At least I managed to post a blog entry in the morning, one that I had started last week, and felt reasonably happy with.  Yet, even after taking off some time for lunch, I still had no idea where to begin, or how to approach whatever scene might come next.

Whereas many authors use outlines to power through a first draft, I’ve found that laying out my path in advance actually inhibits me from writing.  By traveling through my fantasy world alongside the protagonist, I am forced to create (most) everything on the fly: his struggles, the overall plot, the characters who help or hinder him along the way, and their aspirations and agendas.  Such successful authors as Kevin J. Anderson and Terry Brooks testify that they could not be nearly so prolific if they did not plan out every character and major plot point ahead of time.  Yet so far, I’ve failed to make their methodology work for me.

After lunch, as I loaded the dishwasher, I grew angry.  I could not let this day pass without getting my pages in.  Yet when I sat down again and picked up my pen, the empty page defied my willpower to fill it.  It was at this point that I reached for my ultimate weapon in combatting writer's block: Steven Brust.

My trusty (and "familiar") companion.
Or sword.  Or Dagger.  Or....

Ten years ago, Steven Brust visited San Diego as Guest of Honor at Conjecture.  Usually, I try to brush up on a literary Guest before the convention, but this time I had not.  Nor had I even noticed his work in a bookstore up to this point.  In the dealers’ room, I perused a few examples of his work.  Lacking any knowledge of his characters or writing style, I finally settled on one novel that piqued my interest.  It’s title?  Dragon.

Dragon takes place midway through the series of novels concerning Vlad Taltos.  Brust’s protagonist starts off as a mob boss and assassin.  Yet he is not an evil man.  Nor is he a static character.  Throughout the series, he continually wrestles with who he is versus whom he can and should become.  As a result, his position in life, as well as those he views as friends and foes undergo significant change.

I think what I love most about the Vlad Taltos novels is Brust’s voice.  As the perspective is first-person, we view the world through Vlad’s eyes.  At that Conjecture ten years ago, Steven Brust said that nothing thrilled him more than constructing a sentence that sounded really “cool.”  Perhaps it is that love of wordplay that propels me through his stories.  The first time I embarked upon the series, several years ago, I needed something that could lift my spirits during the Winter months.  Somewhere along the way, I discovered that a few pages of Brust’s storytelling could help me write my own stories.  

Yesterday, after reading three pages of his novel Teckla (contained in the omnibus volume The Book of Jhereg), I was ready to write.  I set his novel aside, and with my teeth gritted together, embarked upon my own.  My wife came home before I was finished, and kindly gave me the extra time I needed.  In the end, I found my own scene so compelling I wrote an extra half-page in order to finish it.  This morning, recognizing that, inspiration-wise, I had fallen into a pit and had yet to claw my way out, I didn’t fool around.  I picked up Brust again, and after reading another scene, was able to face the blank page.  I might have needed a few breaks this morning, and several more scenes from Brust in order to complete my pages, but reading his work helped me finish my own.  

I’m not sure what it is about Steven Brust (and his character Vlad Taltos), but he’s helping me get through a dry spell that might otherwise have left me in despair over not fulfilling my daily goals.  Whatever trials or struggles you're currently facing, I recommend his work to you.  Perhaps, just like he’s helping me, he can help you get through your day.  But if you want my advice, don’t leap into a mid-series novel like Dragon.  Start off with The Book of Jhereg (which contains Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla), and follow Vlad’s journey in publication order.  For just like my protagonist (and my methodology), each person, whether real or imagined, encounters life without foreknowledge of what is to come.  It’s so much easier to begin at the beginning, and journey with the other person through his life, as you encounter the trials and struggles unique to your own. 

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