Sime~Gen Inc. Presents
"Aha!: The Story of My Life!"
Hunter's Oath by Michelle West, DAW paperback, 1995
Hunter's Death by Michelle West, DAW pb, 1996 (direct sequel to Oath)
Reclamation by Sarah Zettel, Aspect Science Fiction pb, 1996
Fire Dancer, Dancer's Luck and Dancer's Illusion by Ann Maxwell, reissued by Pinnacle Futuristic Romance, 1996 (Originally from Signet circa 1983.)
The Cloudships of Orion: Siduri's Net, Maia's Veil and Orion's Dagger by P. K. McAllister, RoC science fiction pb (Orion's Dagger is a '96 release.)
One Mind's Eye by Kathy Tyers, Bantam Spectra, 1996
The Fugitive Stars by Daniel Ransom, DAW pb, 1995
Hostile Takeover #3: Revolutionary by S. Andrew Swann, DAW pb, 1996 (Direct sequel to Profiteer and Partisan.)
Night Calls by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel, Harper Prism pb, 1996
In the late '60s, I graduated from The Famous Writers' Course in science fiction writing -- a correspondence course. I disagreed more than I agreed with them, mostly because they thought that writing science fiction was no different in any fundamental way than writing in any other "genre" -- such as westerns or Romance or mysteries. Publishers generally believe this also.
But it's not true, as many writers of genre Romance have learned to their sorrow when trying to incorporate traditionally sf/f elements into their novels. There are similarities among genres, but the engineers of our commercial fiction delivery system have missed an important fact: sf/f isn't really a genre. It's Literature.
Someone looking at sf/f from the outside would take the evidence of their own eyes, that all published sf/f has a genre-signature, therefore sf/f must be a genre -- as concrete fact. See last month's column, "Rules of Evidence: A Social Convention" for discussion of why it's so difficult to get someone to disregard such a concrete fact in order to discover a truth.
The successful professionals who operate the fiction delivery system have a policy against looking beneath the surface of the product that flows through their pipeline, treating all fiction as commodity to be delivered. Perhaps that's a good thing, because in a certain way, they are correct. After all, does UPS care what's inside the boxes as long as it doesn't weigh more than 70 lbs. or explode easily?
There are certain fiction techniques that do apply equally to all genres, and as I discussed in a previous column, the definition of "genre" lies more in what you must leave out than in what you may or must put in -- just as there are rules for what you must not put into a box for UPS to transport. No surprises allowed.
One of those fiction techniques that I learned from the Famous Writer's School is called Selectivity. The theory is that the "art" in fiction resides in the selection of what to include and equally in what to exclude.
Reality is "out there" somewhere and it has everything all mixed together in a jumbled mess. It is the artist's job to select details and pull them out of the background noise to reveal the picture. Have you ever stared at one of those optical illusion things that has pictures buried in it? Have you ever done a "connect the dots" drawing? Have you ever appreciated a Japanese brush painting? Then you know how the selectivity of details creates a whole picture -- bits and pieces that add up to something. That is what a novel is. And with a novel, as with a brush painting, it is the beholder who must identify the picture by imagining the missing bits, by taking the suggestion and elaborating on it.
But in a novel, the details that are selected can be actions rather than lines or curves. Yes, a novelist must select the color of curtains and carpets for an office setting, or a rotting hovel, or a vampire's lair. The novelist must select the weather for a funeral.
These details are not arbitrarily chosen. Details are selected not because they're intrinsically interesting but because they support the thematic point of the novel by weaving a mood, or providing obstacles that are karmically relevant to the story of the main character's life, or revealing a character's emotional state by how he/she reacts to the detail. Believe it or not, it doesn't always rain at funerals and stubbornly cheerful weather can be very irritating to depressed mourners. You can show-not-tell a reader a lot about a character's relationship to the deceased by how they react to the weather, so you choose the weather in order to reveal the reaction. That avoids having to tell the reader, "Johnny hated Catherine." You never have to mention his attitude -- the reader figures it out and feels smarter than the writer.
Likewise, the author must select which details of action to narrate and which to leave out. If the author makes a mistake in selecting actions to narrate and actions to skip, whole categories of readers will be bored and unable to finish the book.
A good example of this is a pair of books which I do highly recommend despite this somewhat critical comment. Michelle West's Hunter's Oath and Hunter's Death are a wonderful study in Life's Story. Death is 670 pages of dense print and took me over a week to read. But I kept coming back to it, and that's a real tribute. I wasn't caught up in the plot, in "what's going to happen next?" I was caught up in the story, in the ultimate meaning of these people's lives, the unknowing victims of outside manipulators. And as I slogged through all these pages, the story-pattern that emerged became ever more fascinating.
And I became ever more irritated with what I (as a technician of the writer's craft, not as a reader) viewed as the results of a lack of strength and control on the writer's part.
As you know, I rarely recommend books with more than one or two points of view. These two novels have a widely wandering point-of-view. In fact, you almost but not quite have an example of an Omniscient Narrator stance in these novels. And that's what's irritating to the technician in me: the almost but not quite feeling of these books.
The first novel starts out with a tight dual point of view between two young men who form a telepathic bond that is to last for life in the dangerous profession of The Hunter, an archetype somewhat mixed with the Land King (whose sacrificed blood binds the land to his well-being). There are also elements of The Priest in these two characters. West was hitting all my buttons here -- I couldn't help but respond to these perfectly formulated mixed archetypes. This fantasy has the signature of reality all over it.
By the end of the second novel, we have collected an uncounted (by me because I was gobbling this book with rapt absorption) number of points of view. The point near the end of the second novel where the climactic Ultimate Battle occurs should be the strongest point in the book -- but it's the weakest because of the dilution among so many points of view. Get through the battle scene and the ending of the book is truly satisfying to those readers interested in the magickal view of the universe. In these books, the gods walk the world and seek mortals to breed with -- for good reasons, not promiscuity! There's time travel and seer-craft and true magick and ancient wisdom and street wisdom and families of people who aren't genetically related, and twin-kings and queens and best of all, the Hunters and Hunt Brothers.
The measure of how well these two novels succeed is in the way individual scenes from the first novel that had to be remembered by the end of the second novel are still vivid in the reader's mind. You don't have to look them up. You remember. Vividly. That is Art.
But because the author's conception of this story required a huge tapestry, she chose to "update" the reader on what the other characters were doing "offstage." The only tool she had for this task was a shift of point of view, so that's what she used. As a result, some of the scenes that were included should have been (in my judgment) excluded. Some should have been moved. Others should have been revealed in flashbacks. And still others simply provided information that should have come to light via the main two characters' discoveries.
These extraneous scenes are "boring" because they don't advance the reader's understanding of the underlying patterns. If the point-of-view updates had been handled a little differently, the final battle scene would have been the high point of both novels. As it is, in order to narrate the battle scene, the author had to change the formula by which she selected what to narrate and when, and how to create the bridges between the scenes. It reads almost as if the battle-scene segment was written by a different author.
It would have filmed perfectly. George Lucas could have won a dozen awards with this battle scene. This is cinematography brought to the printed word, and for me it just doesn't work in cold print, especially because it's the only strictly cinematic scene in the book. While there are other scenes with vivid visual effects, they're static effects: a matte painting as opposed to animation.
So, while both these novels are stunning artistic achievements, separately and together, they also demonstrate what happens to a composition when the formula for Selectivity is not uniform throughout the composition.
Selectivity is such a powerful tool that, by selecting which actions to narrate and which to leave out, you can change the genre-market of a manuscript by shifting the formula by which you select actions to narrate in "real time" and actions that happen offstage, in the background, by flashback, or simply by allusion in a bit of dialogue, or by inference that the reader deciphers.
In 1960, the science fiction field was simply that -- one field, one name, one topic, an umbrella that covered an incredible variety of stories and story types but without the richness of writing techniques we take for granted today. The New Wave of experimental narratives structured like mainstream works was breaking over our heads. Many of today's great writers first made their names in New Wave sf and were at that time desperate to rid themselves of "the science fiction label."
Today, "fantasy" has split off from sf, and sf has split and re-split into a huge number of sub-genres. We have nuts-n-bolts and military sf and sociological sf and even sf/f Romance. Likewise, we have elves&unicorns Fantasy and high Fantasy and urban Fantasy and dark Fantasy and humorous Fantasy, etc.
The real difference between these sub-genres is more a matter of selectivity of details than of substance, theme or subject.
In nuts-n-bolts sf, the author spends page after page describing the theory behind his space drive or his weapons systems, and the plot turns on the weird time-dilation effects his drive produces or how to counter the effect of a new weapon system with some hastily devised ingenious invention. The exact same space drive and weapons system could become part of the background of a sociological sf novel in which the author would toss off some techno-babble to describe the hardware and then spend page after page describing the political situation and how to deal with it. This is Frederik Pohl vs. LeGuinn.
Now we come to one of the big differences between sf/f and all the other genres. This may be difficult and even boring to non-writers, but I think those who are searching for the karmic patterns in their lives and past lives may find something useful here.
This difference lies in how you move a character from one scene to the next scene -- how you determine what the next scene is. This is called a transition. Television has conditioned us to decoding emotional content from the hard-cut, the lap-dissolve, the go-to-black before a commercial, the voice-over narrative and many others. Successful modern novels use the print-equivalent of those techniques. To pick up an idea of what I'm talking about, read a novel written around 1900 then read a 1996 novel and compare.
The early "movies" picked up fiction techniques from stage drama (derived from the earliest form of fiction -- the shaman-storyteller and the magickal play). But the movies had the recently developed artform, the novel, to draw on as well as the concurrently developed radio drama. Then novels picked up techniques from the movies -- then television imitated radio-movies-and-novels (not to mention theater). Now that television is the only fiction pipeline that everyone has in common, all other formats are imitating television because it's how we get our primary education in fiction-imbibing.
One of the surface similarities imposed on sf/f to make it look like (and market like) other genres (like packing everything in styrofoam peanuts so it will fit in a standard sized box) is the conventions of the action/adventure genre. In action/adventure, the thread that connects one scene to the next is the action, and that's what the reader is looking to follow. In fact, that's what an editor looks for in deciding whether to buy or not buy an sf/f novel. Each scene must advance the plot, with no interstitial material.
But what has in fact evolved as the general signature of the sf/f field is a blatant violation of that a/a rule and the violation of that rule is what marks sf/f as separate and unique. When the rule is not properly violated, sf/f readers turn away in disgust and even contempt.
In its earliest form, the sf/f genre signature developed long expository lumps spliced between the action scenes where the author could hold forth on the details of the space drive or weapons systems or sociology or alien physiology or planetary ecology or whatever science background was the real substance of what the author was trying to write about -- i.e., a theory of the structure of the universe. At the very most, these expository lumps might be disguised as dialogue. Thinly disguised.
On a more sophisticated level, we get things like Arthur C. Clark's giant, lazy scenic tours of the solar system -- all accurate according to the knowledge of the day. Fabulous reading, but only if you're in a mood for scenery.
On the most sophisticated level, we get Andre Norton's smooth, careful, rhythmic blend of characterization, description, narrative and exposition -- usually all in one sentence, or one paragraph. And she's been doing that since the 1940's -- practically defined the sf/f genre signature single handedly. Only recently has her contribution been recognized with the Grand Master Award.
And she does it with equal facility in sf or fantasy, in juvenile or adult categories. And that signature that binds sf and fantasy and all the sub-genres of this field together has to do with our preoccupation with asking questions about the purpose of life and the nature of identity. In sf, we become caught up in trying to figure out the structure of the physical universe -- because if Theory One is true, then that implies this about the purpose of life -- but if Theory Two is the actual truth, then that implies that about the purpose of life. And the same with identity and all the other difficult elements of reality.
In fantasy, we become caught up in trying to figure out the non-material universe, the laws of magick and karma and morality and how to divide the sacred from the profane.
What do sf and fantasy have in common? "Trying to figure out" is the key. Getting caught up in pursuit (the hunt, as in Michelle West's novels -- The Fool, in the tarot) of the answer to a question. Research science (organizing knowledge). Finding the connecting links between theory and practice.
Many mundane forms of fiction do incorporate this element -- but only in sf/f is it a requirement. It's the substance of the "good stuff" that we read these books to get. And it isn't just that the characters pursue answers -- it's not even the pursuit of answers per se. It's the character's unconscious admiration of answer-pursuers, the underlying driving determination to get to the bottom of things by understanding something fundamental about reality. In mundane fiction, characters with this mind-set are derided or endured or snubbed. In sf/f they're the heroes. In sf/f there might not even be a character of this type -- there doesn't have to be because the reader and the writer are of this type, and the story is just their language for tossing ideas back and forth. That's why sf/f is called The Literature of Ideas.
Today, the makers of television and feature films and the authors of "futuristic Romance" are baffled by their failure to "reach" their intended sf/f audiences because they are still operating on the belief that sf/f is just another genre. But sf/f is different.
One of the ways you can spot a writer whose primary training is in another genre is by the selection of transitions -- not just how the transition is made, but from what to what. The purpose of a transition is to move the reader's attention-focus along the line connecting the dots that will eventually form the picture in the reader's mind. The trick of constructing a transition that "works" for your readers lies in knowing what there is about this story that's interesting to your reader -- not to you, to your reader.
Those who think sf/f is just another genre are often unable to figure out what's intrinsically interesting about sf/f and what is not interesting. And so they end up including stuff that's not interesting and skipping over the stuff that is interesting. They can't follow the writer/reader dialogue of ideas which is the key selectivity principle behind creating sf/f transitions.
New, unskilled writers always include things that should be left out and forget to put in things the reader needs to know. That's just shaky craftsmanship and it goes away with practice. But if the new writer is an sf/f reader/fan who is trying to write their first story, you can tell that they've skipped over something necessary because they're so eager to get to "the good stuff." And since their "good stuff" is your "good stuff" -- you don't much care about a fumbled transition here or there, about jerky and uneven transitions, awkward and confusing transitions, or just plain bewildering ones.
An experienced writer working outside his/her normal genre will produce smooth, perfectly crafted transitions that leave the reader well-informed and well-oriented but emotionally cold or bored because the material has wandered from the thread of what is interesting. And in sf/f, what's interesting is the idea and the pursuit of answers. That isn't what's interesting in Romance. So writers trained to the Romance genre tend to fall off the thread when they try to write sf. On the other hand, there are a number of writers who write in both genres under different bylines.
Ann Maxwell is a case in point. In my first column for The Monthly Aspectarian, where I first explored the embryonic genre I call Intimate Adventure, and in several subsequent columns, I've given Ann Maxwell's sf novels a blanket recommendation. She has produced some of the landmark works of sf that define the field. My three favorite Ann Maxwell Intimate Adventure novels are Fire Dancer, Dancer's Luck and Dancer's Illusion. They're just as good in this decade as in the last! But the transitions are sf/f transitions -- following the avid pursuit of an idea, a goal, a theory of reality. And the Romance is secondary and unresolved (unless she's finally going to write the rest of the books in this series!). I suspect that these books were reissued as Romance because Maxwell, writing as Elizabeth Lowell, has made a mark in that field. But technically they belong to neither sf/f or Romance. They are defining novels of Intimate Adventure.
Sophisticated transitions are the secret behind the gripping success of Katherine Kurtz's Adept Series -- where she uses the mundane details of travel around Scotland to keep the readers glued to the page. Chaim Potok's novels about his character Asher Lev are another case in point. These are mainstream novels that are structured around sf/f transitions -- and the idea that is pursued is the nature of art and artist and the relationship between them. In the Adept Series, the art is the wise art, and in the Asher Lev novels, it's the graphic arts.
It is the author's ability to pick out and follow the interesting thread, or as Marion Zimmer Bradley does, to explain to the reader what's interesting about it, that creates the "can't put it down" effect. Selectivity of transitions is the key technique that creates the "good read."
The same set of dots (or scenes), connected a different way, would make a different picture that would be interesting to a different readership. What sf/f readers are interested in, in any situation, is intrinsically different from what interests readers of other genres.
Well, not entirely. The same reader may be in the mood for a Mystery one evening and Fantasy the next. But when you want a Romance, Columbo open-form Detective Mystery doesn't hack it. And the only difference between those two forms is point of view and transition. If you need proof of that statement, come discuss it with me in the Sci Fi Author's Spotlight on AOL.
The elements of good fiction are the same for all genres, and in good sf, all those elements are there. But the picture of the universe and the purpose of life and the nature of identity that emerges when the dots are connected using sf/f transitions is very different.
Studying fiction until you can recognize the structure of the transitions and what they imply about the universe, will help you find the story of your own life. Like the optical-illusion pictures buried in dense background, your life contains many different stories depending on what interests you, what point of view you assume, and the formula you use to select what to emphasize, what to narrate to yourself, and what to ignore.
The events of your life are an integral part of your identity. When The Guardian at the Gate to the astral plane asks the trick question, "What is the purpose of Life?" you may find the answer flowing off your tongue if you've studied fictional transitions and applied selectivity to the story of your life. And here are a group of novels that could make the difference for you.
Reclamation by Sarah Zettel is billed as a first novel and for that reason I am putting Zettel on my list of writers to follow. There's more than promise here -- there's nascent genius. The aliens are superb and two of the characters actually come alive. But as I noted above, new writers have problems coordinating all the necessary skills into a smooth performance. In this novel, the point of view just wanders, and we grind through events that we're not made curious about. But the galaxy spanning civilization makes sense, the politics makes sense, the telepathy and telekinetic abilities make sense. This is a writer with something important to say, and I think next time she'll get more of it onto the paper.
In the pure hard-science sub-genre, try Orion's Dagger, the third novel in P. K. McAllister's Cloudships series. It is a worthy example of the way a hard-science novel follows idea. Here the science is not window dressing or background or techno-babble -- it's the heart of the premise of the story. Yet these are real people with relationships and family and in-law troubles and job stress -- all living on ships that mine interstellar clouds for rare particles upon which the economy of this interstellar civilization is based. This is not heroic derring-do -- it's how to live a real life in the midst of technology.
Kathy Tyers, another author I've raved to you about in prior columns is back with a new universe for us. This is a very complex galactic civilization -- complete with unknown aliens out there somewhere (at least we hope they're out there, not in here!). Interstellar intrigue, undercover operatives, amnesia, intricate plots by power-mad dictators -- all the thriller elements that make blockbuster best-sellers. But the heart of the matter for readers of this column is the main character -- a woman who has to rebuild her concept of identity right before your eyes. This is strong writing, well controlled material, beautifully executed art. This is an example of what Sarah Zettel may accomplish with a little practice -- and when she does, it might open a Tyers-Zettel dialogue that could rival the Fred Pohl/ John Campbell dialogues in defining this genre. Mix McAllister into this and things could get very interesting.
For a lighter, easier read, try The Fugitive Stars by Daniel Ransom. This is fast paced action-narrative with a solidly written and well constructed plot. A very entertaining read. But what's interesting to readers of this column is the way Ransom has used the "real world" scientific concept of how telepathy works (primarily the Russian work in this area published many years ago in a mind-bending book I read with great absorption). We stay in the head of the main character, a telepath who is gradually losing his abilities -- and who gradually discovers that the "vitamins" they make him take to prevent this loss are actually causing it. He gets caught up in helping a woman rescue her husband, and thus uncovers a larger plot. I liked these characters and I hope there'll be more books about them.
And lastly, a very important book in what is shaping up to be a very important series. This is Hostile Takeover #3: Revolutionary by S. Andrew Swann.
We're following (again through many viewpoints -- via well controlled and artistically precise point of view shifts) the efforts of a man who seemed, when we first met him in Profiteer to be a pretty typical, average hero. But he turns out to be embroiled in a complex time-travel plot -- only this is the realistic sort of time travel involving the concept of the worm hole (a real mathematical and physical theory used by Star Trek, not invented merely for dramatic convenience). Most of this story is driven by the Star Trekolitics and political organizations -- planetary and interstellar. But this series is building on the author's first series of novels (also reviewed in prior columns) -- and we're beginning to see a broad tapestry of events that may eventually include an alien species that spans time into a long-dead interstellar civilization. I'm not sure where this series is going, but I want to go there! This is about as close to the perfect blend of hard-science and sociological sf as it's possible to get.
Honorable Mention this month goes to a strange item from a veteran sf/f writer, Katharine Eliska Kimbriel. This is titled Night Calls, and it's ostensibly a werewolf novel billed as "a novel of dark magics" -- but actually it's about a young girl being trained in the Art of Magick as well as control of a powerful ESP talent and there's nothing at all "dark" about it, and not much having to do with werewolves either. It's hard to place the locale -- might be an alternate Earth. By my definition that makes it Fantasy. (If the author doesn't make it clear how to get from here and now to there and then, it's Fantasy.)
The plot structure is mainstream -- actually it's hardly more than a collection of incidents. It might be taken for a fragment out of the middle of a longer manuscript -- but I don't know if that's the case. It almost feels to me as if the author has been studying 19th century gothic novels. Despite lacking all the elements that I require in a novel -- this thing is a page-turner. Maybe you can afford to skip this novel -- but you might regret that later.
Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.
Find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to. To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below.
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The Re-Readable Collection
Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg