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ReReadable Books

November 2010

"The Science of Magic: Part V: Scalability"


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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Kiss of Death, by Rachel Caine, Signet pb, May 2010

Vanished by Joseph Finder, St Martin’s Press, Aug 2009

Along Came a Demon, by Linda Welch, self-pub’d, Nov 2009

Changes by Jim Butcher, RoC HC April 2010

Victorious by Jack Campbell, Ace pb, May 2010

Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth, Putnam HC May 2010

Death of a Cure by Steven H. Jackson, Telemachus Press

The Hurt Locker, screenplay by Mark Boal, Newsmarket Shooting Script Series Book

Last month we looked at stories involving "governing" the "city" – i.e. creating a group mind from individuals, for the survival of the Group. We mentioned one huge caution:

". . .When large numbers of individual members of a Group Mind act in concert, even though the individuals are devoid of talent, there may well be a discernable result. Magic is dangerous. Therefore deliberate actions are dangerous not just for the action itself, but for the deliberation behind it.

The signature of White Magic is the refusal to over ride the Free Will Choice of any individual."

That means refusal to take what you have a right to even if you have the power to take it. So how do you organize Groups for survival if "they" won’t give?

Humanity is fractious. We form Groups; individuals join and leave Groups; and Groups contest for space and resources, just as animals do. Human Groups swallow each other, getting much larger than just one city. But Human Groups contest for intangibles, too, like freedom, justice, righteousness. Sometimes individuals contest against whole Groups. Those last two contests make the best stories.

One stark example of the scalability problem in Group Minds vs. The Individual (7th House vs. 1st House) is in one of the most popular novel series going today, The Morganville Vampires series, by Rachel Caine.

The May 2010 release, Kiss of Death is about escaping the safe haven for vampires which Morganville has become under a despot who has loyal henchmen and unique magical technology. But "outside" and "freedom" have a price – with protection stripped away, how do you survive? Morganville has become a redoubt for the "different" but at the expense of individual free choice. Is this right or wrong, and does that matter at all? The individual can’t be allowed to choose if the Group is to survive. What happens when a subgroup splits off?

In Morganville, most everyone knows the score. But what about when the controlling power structure of a Group keeps secrets within secrets obscured by secrets? What about the Individual who smells a conspiracy?

Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling author of Power Play brings us Vanished. It’s ostensibly not Science Fiction – but I could make a case for it being a kind of horror fantasy that has mainstream acceptance. When a couple goes out to dinner, they are attacked brutally, and the next morning the wife wakes up to discover her husband has vanished. She draws in her husband’s brother, a rugged individualist who just won’t stop peeling away layers of conspiracy until he finds his brother.

Conspiracy and Secrets can not be the foundation of a City, a Group where individuals reside. Heroic Individuals, especially those who know how to perform a "deliberate act" can’t tolerate being controlled by secrets.

Along Came a Demon by Linda Welch is self-published, available on Amazon, and is excellent, well written, smoothly styled, and without a disappointing moment through the whole novel. It’s first in the Whisperings series, introducing a woman who is not "psychic" but talks to ghosts. She partners with a Demon detective from another dimension (talk about scaling up the size of a Group!) to rescue a child whose mother seems to have been murdered. The child is an important heir on the "other side." The Individual Hero exceeds her own limits to solve a problem despite the limits concocted by the Group Mind (i.e. government in this case.)

While we’re thinking Interdimensional scale, don’t forget to pick up Jim Butcher’s DRESDEN FILES novel, Changes. Dresden’s life still spans at least two dimensions, girdles the globe, and his deliberate decisions bring entire Group Minds to extinction changing the Interdimensional political landscape. And he does it all without using his considerable (and growing) Magical power for personal gain. In fact, in this novel, before he commits to one last "Hail Mary" pass, he has lost every resource he normally depends on. Yet he still acts for the good of others against the Groups that would enforce conformity on the individual.

"The nail that sticks up gets hammered down," right? In order for very large (and dangerously armed) Groups to maneuver in concert and achieve Group goals, individuals must conform. Everything must be mass market.

Harry Dresden is a character who shows us why the nail that sticks up must not be hammered down – too much. Dresden is a Hero who does not need to be controlled by the Group. We see him from the inside, and we come to understand what it means to be an individual who is controlled for the benefit of the Group – but controlled from the inside, not the outside. His Will is totally Free.

Jack Campbell’s Bestselling series, THE LOST FLEET, likewise shows us a Hero, an Individual, who knows what to do with his free will. In the 6th novel, Victorious (titled after ships in the space fleet), Captain John Geary has a very real opportunity to take absolute control of an interstellar empire. He refuses, not because he modestly abjures power, but because he is a soldier and knows that military might must be commanded by civilian authority. He accepts the rank of Admiral of the Fleet and leads his Fleet out to settle a century old war. He opens contact with an alien species. But that’s not nearly the end of his work.

Neither Dresden nor Geary could contribute to their Groups if they had yielded to conformity. But Geary shows us how voluntary conformity can work to bring a Group to victory as he teaches his fleet of yahoos and loose canons to maneuver tightly in space battle. The key is reviving the military salute, respect for the uniform not the person.

That separation of person from office is also exemplified in the kickoff novel of a new series, THE PRESIDENT’S VAMPIRE, titled Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth who is a scriptwriter and journalist, skills that show in his action scenes and narrative. The vampire Nathaniel Cade was magically bound to "The President" – the office not the man – 140 years ago. Cade is a secret weapon deployed in international intrigue. This is urban fantasy with a government by conspiracy and the use of powerful magic to protect us against demonic invaders from another dimension. The writing is world class, the concept is blockbuster, and the questions of how much "the public" should know are hot.

How much power should a Group grant an Office if the office-holder changes periodically? Do you trust the person or the geas of the office’s Oath?

Here is a flawed novel I have trouble recommending because of a textbook expository lump in the middle that you can’t skip. It explores the issues of Group Minds infiltrated and controlled by individuals seeking political power. Death of a Cure by Steven H. Jackson (telemachuspress.com) peels back the fašade of philanthropic organizations supporting medical research – and how power over that much money could motivate individuals to obstruct deployment of real cures in favor of treatments. A chilling novel of power.

You’ve seen the movie The Hurt Locker, you’ve read the novelization, now read the shooting script. You can order it on amazon or newsmarketpress.com. It has much about how this film was made and rose to academy award status. This gives insight into the Group Mind of "Hollywood" and the barbarians at the gates of that City, the Indie Producers.

The story of the Hurt Locker is, like Jack Campbell’s LOST FLEET, a story of military values as they relate to defending civilization, The City, the Group. Only this is true grit reality, not the cleaned up fantasy of interstellar war.

Yet the questions are similar. What would we City Dwellers do without those unique Individuals who can do things the rest of us can not do?

The film examines the psychological trajectory of an individual and what happens to him, emotionally, both because of the job he can do that we can’t, and because of the necessity of conforming in order to do that job.

Study this film closely for clues about the tragic tension between the need of the Group to avoid hammering down that nail that sticks up, and the need of the Individual to defy control by a Group – any Group, any Authority.

The paradox of the White Magician lies at the juncture between the individual’s free will sacrifice for the good of the Group, and the Group’s overwhelming need to survive at the expense of a few unusual individuals. To stay human, we must be free to choose because we have a driving need to conform!

You may want to read my blog entry on government scalability and worldbuilding for writers at:


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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