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ReReadable Books

July 2010

"The Science Of Magic Part I: Pixels In A Portrait"


Jacqueline Lichtenberg



 To send books for review in this column email Jacqueline Lichtenberg,jl@simegen.com  for snailing instructions or send an attached RTF file.  
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Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, email jl@simegen.com for instructions.

Hastur Lord by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross, DAW HC Jan. 2010

Planet Savers by Marion Zimmer Bradley, DAW pb, various

World Wreckers by Marion Zimmer Bradley, DAW pb, various

The Alton Gift by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross, DAW HC June 2007.

Magic Lost, Trouble Found, by Lisa Shearin, Ace Fantasy June 2007

The Trouble With Demons by Lisa Shearin, Ace Fantasy, May 2009

I’ve often referred to novels as sentences in a cocktail party conversation among writers that readers overhear.

But there’s another way to look at "what" a novel is.

There are so many publishers now, and the largest ones have bought other large ones to become even larger. And some of them are failing financially. To survive while selling fewer and fewer copies of a single title, these huge publishers churn out more and more titles.

They try to build a market by churning out whole lines of nearly identical books.

Step way, way, back to get a perspective and suddenly you see a pattern as if each novel were a pixel in a picture, or a piece of a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

A TV picture is formed by large swaths of nearly-identical pixels. There’s contrast because each pixel is surrounded by deep-black. The edges of an object in the picture can look smooth, but peer close and you see a curved line defined by a jagged blurred edge.

The novels I’ve been reading lately seem, when inspected closely, to be of no significance, no distinction, saying nothing new. Yet arrange a stack of these novels into related novels and there’s a pattern.

So let’s look at some of these "pixels" arranged in groups that almost seem to match – as if we were assembling a Hi-Def TV picture from itsy-teensy pixels.

First we have the latest in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, Lord Hastur, which is actually written by Deborah J. Ross from notes that Marion left. Marion died in 1999, but Darkover has lived on with amazing vitality.

Series are everywhere today, in all genres, even Romance which has long shunned series. A first novel that doesn’t scream "sequel coming soon" at the end probably won’t sell. But if you pitch a first novel as first in a five book series, the pitch won’t even get read by an agent.

Publishers are not financially secure enough to offer long series contracts to untried and unseasoned authors. So they favor known professionals. You might think one way into the game is to become the writer for a deceased or disabled author’s series, but you have to be a pro first.

Yet no two authors have the same voice. Marion’s voice was more distinctive than most, and her style is very hard to duplicate. Deborah Ross has done a great job on the level of handling words, scenes, and even plot pacing. But I found her version of my favorite Darkover character, Regis Hastur, unrecognizable in spots.

Hastur Lord is the story of how Regis finally and irrevocably resigned himself to becoming the lead figure on Darkover, inextricably bound to the planet. As a young man, he yearned to travel the stars in the Terranan’s space ships, to live on other worlds like his cousin Lew Alton does now. This novel is the story of how Regis resigns himself to his office without actually making peace with the situation.

He is a man torn at the roots. And he is a man who, born to the highest social and political station on Darkover, does not covet the power that comes with that, or with the Hastur Gift, a psychic or laran talent, "the Living Matrix." His body can act like a "starstone" – a bit of mineral that stores and conducts psychic energy, allowing wielders to influence minds, move things, explode things, see the future, and do everything our Science does.

So when his grandfather dies and leaves Regis to run the planet Darkover at a time when it just refuses to be run, Regis digs up an older brother his grandfather had never told him about and turns the whole planet over to this man raised in a Monastery with very non-Darkovan values.

Surely enough, his older brother makes a total mess out of the incipient disaster of the government, so Regis has to give up his last chance at freedom and take on the responsibility he was born to.

The Darkover Series has a few pervasive themes. Personal Responsibility is the biggest of them all, followed by Honor. These generate the other themes. The Regis we met in previous books was Personally Responsibility.

So having an older brother who "rightfully" should be Darkover’s leader gave him an excuse to unload his personal responsibility honorably. He fights that a little bit, but he does retire from his position.

After that point in this novel, I just can’t relate to this character. For weeks and months, Regis basically wrings his hands indecisively. The portrait we see of Regis’s character seems like a pixilated mess to me.

The strong fiber of heroism which was evident in Regis in the novels Sword of Aldones, Planet Savers and World Wreckers just isn’t there. This novel takes place after World Wreckers, while the planet is recovering from the near ecological disaster, so you might think that Regis’s spirit is still devastated from all those events.

But what I feel is missing from his character is not a strength of spirit but a strength of character, the kind that never deserts you because it’s inherent.

That strength of character returns full force when he finally admits that his older brother is unfit to govern. And the ending is very satisfying.

I’m sure that Marion’s notes indicated that Regis has to go through this Dark Night Of The Soul experience where his strength deserts him, his staunchest friends, allies and even his wife can’t support him, and where he must give up a child in order to save her life.

He has to be stripped and left alone to face his inner darkness. It’s an initiation of kingship, and he would never be able to become that singular leader that the planet needs without that step.

But heroes don’t simper, and yield, and run away. Heroes have plenty of self-doubts, as Regis suffers in the middle of this novel, but they don’t collapse under the weight of those doubts.

I feel the younger Regis we came to know and love would have worked through his doubts and losses with a different emotional reaction than we see in Hastur Lord.

Novels about "the future," "other planets" or fantasy dimensions are actually about the here-and-now as Star Trek: TOS was about the Viet Nam War. Novels are about the readers’ real lives.

In the 1960’s when Marion was writing the early Regis Hastur stories, the readers truly believed they were, at core, heroes themselves and would face anything staunchly.

Today, it might very well be, that the definition of "Hero" has changed inside our hearts, that the size and ferocity of our world is really too much for us. Maybe nobody could believe that the best among us today could endure what Regis has endured and not find his very character collapsing.

Marion may have been planning to show us how anyone, however heroic, has a limit and must find and face that limit before ascending to a position of power. Without that experience, the temptation to wield power to defend our personal neurotic needs might be too much.

That would be a reassuring message to all of us who have collapsed, refused, retreated dishonorably from the battlefield of our lives.

Defeat is a necessary stage in growing up. Just don’t get stuck there. Be more like Regis Hastur at the end of Hastur Lord and accept your obligations, pay the grim price for your lapses in judgment, wield your power with personal responsibility for the results.

If you’re looking for another series like Darkover – but more Fantasy than SF, try Lisa Shearin’s Magic Lost, Trouble Found, then Armed and Magical, and now The Trouble With Demons.

I reviewed Magic Lost, Trouble Found in March 2008, and The Alton Gift by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross in February 2008. They’re posted on www.simegen.com/reviews/rereadablebooks/2008/

These two series, one optimistic Science Fiction with ESP and Honor, the other grim Fantasy-with Magic and Horror, form adjacent pixels defining an edge of some sort.

Shearin’s world of hoards of invading demons on a University of magic campus uses first person smart-aleck tone to depict people who steal, manipulate, lie and kill as capable of also being honorable. The world itself calls forth the worst in human nature, so cope with it.

Marion used first person in a mature tone to depict people who would die rather than steal, manipulate, lie and kill because such acts are dishonorable. When drawn into the dark lust for Power, Darkovan power-users suffer defeat.

Fashions in Honor have changed. In fiction anyway.

To send books for review in this column email Jacqueline Lichtenberg,  jl@simegen.com for snailing instructions or send an attached RTF file.  



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