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"The Science of Magic Part II: Problem Solving"
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Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman, Pocket Books, Oct 2009
Heretics by S. Andrew Swann, Daw SF, Feb 2010
Where Angels Fear to Tread by Thomase E. Sniegoski, RoC March 2010
Cat’s Claw by Amber Benson, Ace Fantasy pb, March 2010
Deadtown by Nancy Holzner. Ace Fantasy pb, Jan. 2010
What should I do? What can I do????
The dilemmas life presents us abound. How do I prove this in court? The police won’t search until they think she’s missing. That Judge is dirty. The disaster relief people can’t get food in because the bridge is out and the children are starving. Nobody would believe it’s because I’m cursed. Insurance won’t cover this.
Many novels I’ve seen recently are old classic dilemmas just like these recycled into created Fantasy worlds. The established social mechanisms can’t or won’t handle this exotic problem that’s killing me, so what should I do?
In fact, the once rare First Person Point of View story has become the norm. In the 1920’s and ‘30’s the hardboiled private eye novel sucked America in with the tough, edgy language of the first person tale of problem solving that the law couldn’t handle. A really good rundown of this style of novel in Arabic and other languages and cultures is on Wikipedia at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detective_fiction which tells all about Dashiell Hammit, Earl Stanley Gardener, and Raymond Chandler. If you haven’t read their work, you may miss the significance of the explosion of this type of novel in the Science Fiction and Fantasy scene today.
Here is a quote from Wikipedia
"Very often, no actual mystery even existed: the books simply revolved around justice being served to those who deserved harsh treatment, which was described in explicit detail." In the 1930s, the private eye genre was adopted wholeheartedly by American writers. The tough, stylish detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Jonathan Latimer, Erle Stanley Gardner and others explored the "mean streets" and corrupt underbelly of the United States. Their style of crime fiction came to be known as "hardboiled," which encompasses stories with similar attitudes concentrating not on detectives but gangsters, crooks, and other committers or victims of crimes. "Told in stark and sometimes elegant language through the unemotional eyes of new hero-detectives, these stories were an American phenomenon."
This was in the 1920’s and 1930’s – and if you watch the financial news, you can’t miss the comparison. We had a wild financial blowout, partying on credit. Now we’ve had a crash, with perhaps a default on the US Debt or wild inflation, pending. We have stubbornly high unemployment and a national debate on how Government can solve these financial and business problems.
The country and the world are screaming at governments to solve the problems for them. The problems are bigger than we are, and there is an awareness that, despite the internet and CNN, the electorate doesn’t know all that’s really going on.
Now look closely at the worlds built by fiction writers and compare the current novels to the real world, then compare the early detective stories to the real world of their readers, and see if you can find a congruence. You may find that now "magic" drives fiction as "science" drove detective fiction then.
Keep in mind a point I’ve made in this column several times: the popularity of a fictional format very likely reflects the concerns of the real world Group Mind consuming that format. If you want to find out what’s really happening in the social and political world you are embedded in, take a foray into the fantasy that sparks the most voracious appetite.
That should be particularly easy with this set of novels about the science of magic, and the application of magical power to the solving of realistically gritty unreal national and international problems.
Take Laura Anne Gilman’s Flesh and Fire, for example. This is the first of The Vineart War series. There’s almost nothing but series being published now, so it’s best to pick them up with the first novel.
In Vineart War, the science of magic lies in the vintner’s art. That’s right, hybridizing and growing grapes, making "wine" or various concoctions from them is the technology of magic. The Talented drink a bit of a certain vintage, and their natural power is ramped up to amazing degrees. Even those without Talent can apply this science as a useful technology.
The talented are few. Politics structures itself around controlling and containing the behavior of those few. Their reactions individually and as a group are just what you’d expect from humans with more power than others – some comply, some rebel.
People with problems consult such vintners for help. Problems get solving, leaving more problems.
This first novel takes us through the training of a Vineart, a young man with the Talent to manipulate the Elements. It’s all about socially imposed rules on Magic and Politics. The few, oppressed and exploited by the many? Or vice versa?
I got this book from the Amazon Vine reviewer’s program and reviewed it online. It’s good. Check it out.
For a more SF-style look at science so advanced it may as well be magic, don’t miss S. Andrew Swann’s long running series in a universe where genetic engineering has produced people from animal genes. The Moreau Novels, the Hostile Takeover trilogy, and now the Apotheosis Trilogy, all from DAW. Heretics, book 2 of Apotheosis flicks through many points of view, and shows a huge interstellar war through the personal situations of characters we’ve met before.
Taken as a whole, this series explores the very nature of what it is to be human through genetics, and through Artificial Intelligence. Humanity has exterminated an alien species, and now the A.I.’s left behind to exterminate humanity have a go at it. All that’s left to defend us is The Church and The Caliphate – and they don’t get along well with each other.
Where Angels Fear To Tread by Thomas E. Sniegoski is "A Remy Chandler" novel (an excellent series, not first person). Remy is a Seraph who left Heaven and became human, making his living as a very hardboiled Private Eye. Here he has to find a missing girl who turns out to have a bit of God’s energy hidden inside her. There’s a big ugly fight and a satisfying triumph, but the point is problem solved by the science of magic and the Power of righteous action.
I reviewed Amber Benson’s first Calliope Reaper-Jones novel, Death’s Daughter in Jan 2010. Benson is the actress who played Tara on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and went into web production with Christopher Golden (one of the best writers around). Here is the second Reaper-Jones, Cat’s Claw.
Told in hardboiled teenage first person, Cat’s Claw sustains the style and pace of Death’s Daughter but adds deepening characterization. It’s relationship fiction at its best as the young power-user learns self-esteem by solving other people’s problems with her power, her integrity and her growing knowledge of the science behind her magic, the magic of Death. I love Cerberus’s puppy.
Deadtown by Nancy Holzner has zombies in it, and that’s become an obligatory ingredient just as Vampires once were. If you want to sell a fantasy these days, you have to find a new, fresh take on zombies.
Deadtown is set in an alternate universe Boston where a section of the town has been quarantined to contain the inhumans, zombies and otherworldly people who are no business of the law. Their problems, and those of some humans victimized by demons, have to be solved by Vicki, a combination sleuth and paladin who tells it all in first person:
"Two rules I live by: Never admit to being a shapeshifter on a first, second, or third date with a human. And never, ever bring along a zombie apprentice wannabe on a demon kill."
In Deadtown, the ward around Boston has been breached and "things" get through, haunting human dreams where Vicki goes to fight and kill them. This creates an occasion for a monumental battle film makers would lust over since visuals could ignore gravity and logic.
But this time Vicki has a personal stake not just a professional one in quelling the demon invasion. The demon who murdered her father is mounting an attack on the city’s wards. As she investigates, she uncovers political secrets.
As you read these five novels, ponder how these universes, constructed around the power of magic wielded by a special few, actually resemble our everyday reality.
Many people see our problems today as power concentrated in the hands of a few. Many wistfully yearn to be one of those few, or bitterly wrestle with the sobering knowledge they will never have any such power.
Either way, we as a group mind, are facing problems bigger than we are, just as the population of the 1920’s and 1930’s did. Thus the hardboiled, gritty private eye, A-Team, Paladin emerges as a fictional problem solver who deals with the dirty underbelly of society and solves our problems for us.
To send books for review in this column email Jacqueline Lichtenberg, email@example.com for snailing instructions or send an attached RTF file.
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