Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

Return to Amber, part two

Okay, so I meant to write this review and get it up here on my blog a couple of weeks ago — it was supposed to follow the first review in somewhat shorter order, but you know how it is with the best laid plans and so on (you know you’ve heard the quote, modified from Robert Burns so we can actually understand what the frak it says). Mule shows and bird migrations had to be commented upon first.

When I read the second five books in the Chronicles of Amber, I noticed one thing pretty quick. Not nearly as much smoking. I thought, well, maybe Mr. Zelazny had quit smoking (to tell the truth, I don’t know for a fact that he ever smoked in the first place). There were a few mentions of pipes. Apparently, Corwin’s son, Merlin (Merle) would occasionally puff on a pipe, but not cigarettes. But as I got past the first part of the first book, even the pipes disappeared. To be sure, there was a lot of moving around, running, fighting, and such — not a lot of leisure time for a smoke — but I started to wonder. I finally realized that a book of matches had played a crucial part in one scene in the 3rd (or was it the 4th?) book of the elder Chronicles. (Sorry I don’t have the books in front of me — they had to return to Lubbock.) And from that point on, there had not been as much smoking in those books, either. Ah hah! All the attention on smoking might have been just  a mechanism to ensure those matches were on hand when they were needed, and no one would be going, “Wait! Where did those matches come from? That’s cheating!”

People who tend to gobble up science fiction, like people who gobble up other genres, get quite good at spotting inconsistencies in the stories they read. And woe to any author who asks too much in the “suspension of disbelief” category. Even if that weren’t true, and readers just didn’t notice one or two inconsistencies,  a writer shouldn’t get lazy, and expect his or her readers to forgive them for sloppy writing. It ends up being sloppy story-telling.

There was still plenty of other-worldly scenery in these books, mostly seen while passing through between this world, Amber, and the Courts of Chaos. The Courts were mentioned in the first books, but we didn’t get to really see the place until the final book. I wanted to see more. The sequel series, centered around Merlin, who’s mother was of noble Chaotic blood, featured a lot of Chaotic settings. (I like chaos. It’s fun to watch. I think it’s why I have basenjis.)

There was also a lot more emphasis on describing various magical powers. Considering that Mr. Zelazny was writing these books in the late 70’s – early 80’s that’s not surprising. Wicca magic, psychic readings, tarot cards and astrology were all the rage about that time. He was cashing in on a sign of the times. Aside from that, though, the story holds up as well as the first five books. I’m glad I got the chance to read them all.

Return to Amber

It was a very long time ago, when I first made the journey to Roger Zelazny’s fantasy world in The Chronicles of Amber. It was, in fact, sometime in 1984. Why do I remember the exact year? Because I remember reading the book in the laundromat at the front of the R.V./mobile home park where I was living temporarily in my parents’ travel trailer after I started working at the Fort Worth Zoo (and 1984 was when I was there). The book was a hardback edition of the complete Chronicles — all five books in one volume — that I don’t even remember whether I owned or had borrowed from someone. I remember reading while I waited for my washer to finish, while I waited for my clothes to dry, and after I put my clean laundry away when I got back to my temporary home. I remember having massive headaches after spending hours with my eyes glued to the pages. And I remember that that is when I had to start wearing prescription lenses. Boo.

When I started re-reading the original five books, now included in a massive paperback tome that holds all TEN Amber novels, I remembered a lot more of the stories than I thought I would (except how all the conflicts were resolved). It’s always good to have a little of the original surprise at the end, even though sometimes knowing exactly how things turn out doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of re-reading a good story.

I remembered that the stories were complex, the plots convoluted, the settings complete to the smallest detail. And there were a lot of settings. Amber and its Shadows are like many other planets all layered on top of our mundane world. There are no space ships involved, but there is plenty of travel from world to world, from reality to reality. I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed the journeys.

Since I’ve learned a lot more about writing fiction in recent years, I have also been appreciating Zelazny’s story-telling abilities more this time around. I thought it might be easier to categorize things a bit. As in:

1.   Characters and Point of View (POV). It’s all written in first person POV. A lot of people don’t like this. I’m not one of them. First person narrows the perspective on the story to the point that anything that surprises or mystifies the main character is going to surprise or mystify the readers. We don’t get to see inside the minds of the other characters (a style I think is often overused). All you need to know is the title of the first Amber novel — Nine Princes in Amber — to know there will be some serious family conflict going on. Seeing everything through the eyes of just one of those princes — Corwin — means you have only his experiences to go on when it comes to sorting out the good guys and bad guys, and you don’t get to find out which ones he might be wrong about until he finds out himself. I think it’s kind of cool.

2.   Tension. I never really appreciated how important it is to keep the pressure on the characters at all times in order to keep moving the story forward. I used to wonder why these poor saps had to keep stumbling from disaster to catastrophe to apocalypse and back through the whole book until I learned that some people would actually stop reading if such was not the case. Really? I always had the attitude — and I don’t know where I got this — that once I started reading, I had to finish the book — no matter what. (Maybe it was kin to that parental decree that I had to eat everything on my plate, even if some of it made me gag.) And showing the tension’s effect on the character with a line like this is priceless: “A hot bath, a full meal, a bed would be very good things. But these assumed an almost mythic quality…” It’s a short little passage, but it speaks volumes about the character’s condition.

3.   Setting. Nothing can beat a thorough job of world-building. A lot of fantasy novels include maps to help us locate all the story locations relative to each other as we travel through them. That would never work with Amber. Sure you could draw the mountain, Kolvir, with the palace atop it, and label places around it like Arden and Garnath, but it wouldn’t be enough. There would be no way to show all the Shadow worlds, and you couldn’t really have Amber without all its Shadows. Anyway, they’re all too fluid to restrict to one spot on a two-dimensional map. No. You have to build the map — the concept — of Amber in your head.

4. Interesting, if somewhat annoying. Like some other classics of science fiction and fantasy I’ve read recently, there are some details that seriously date the first five books. There’s a whole lotta smokin’ goin’ on. Every time they turn around, these guys are lighting up. Cigarettes, pipes, what have you. Considering the fact that Roger Zelazny died just a month past his 58th birthday, I have to assume the fictional habit was a direct mirror of his own. Too bad. He would be 73 now, if he’d lived (in fact, yesterday would have been his 73rd birthday). Who knows how far he might have been able to carry the Amber saga. I’ve only just finished re-reading the original five books, and the first chapter of the first of the second five, so I have no idea whether the conclusion to this round is the final word — I’ll just have to wait and see.

More Planets!

Since creating a star — even a little bitty one — was somewhat draining, I went back to creating planets in our solar system. Here they are (some of them, anyway).

I decided to give Mercury some color

I decided to give Mercury some color

 

Not the goddess of love, but the toxic gas version

Not the goddess of love, but the toxic gas version

 

Because it's OUR moon

Because it's OUR moon

 

 

Yeah, I said Pluto, dammit

Yeah, I said Pluto, dammit

Who's a geek?

So I went to the library at the local university the other evening to get a book that wasn’t available at either of the local public libraries. I went after 5 p. m. so I could park in a lot and not have to pay (like in the Visitors Parking Garage) and not get a ticket, since school is out and most of the lots are mostly empty.

It didn’t take me long to get the book. I knew what floor it was on and had the call number written down because I had looked it up on line a few weeks ago. And I wasn’t parked that far from the library so didn’t have to walk clear across campus in the scorching heat. Everything was fine, until I got hit with this huge wall of nostalgia. It nearly flattened me. I practically moaned out loud.

I blew it. I blew it so bad. I blew it in so many ways I can’t even begin to enumerate.

I love being on a campus, would love a reason to spend every day working there, walking around all the different buildings, soaking up all the scholoarly vibes. I should have gone back to graduate school. Got a doctorate. Become a professor. Or something. Anything for the chance to work and spend my days on a college campus.

Anyway — the book. Just a Geek, by Wil Wheaton. I’d seen it on his blog and got curious enough to go looking for it. It took me all of about eight hours to read, although some of the blog excerpts I’d already read, so could skim through those at warp nine.

Oh. Yeah. That Wil Wheaton. Who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek The Next Generation — a geeky kid played by (apparently) an authentically geeky kid who grew into a geeky adult and wrote a book about it all. I found it highly entertaining, engaging, and something I could relate to… almost too much.

Wil had a demon he named “Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn’t A Mistake,” and as I got to know the two of them through the pages of his book, I noticed someone I’d been ignoring for years, sitting a little behind me, drumming her fingers — “I Never Should Have Left The Zoo.” Oh, brother.

When I first started working at the Fort Worth Zoo I walked around thinking all day, “Pinch me. Make sure I’m not dreaming. Make sure I’m awake, because I don’t want to miss a single nanosecond of this.” And I returned to that theme frequently for the entire three years eight months I worked there. So why did I leave? Along with the considerable philosophical differences I had with a few co-workers and with the individuals who ran the place, I had a plan to finish my Master’s degree and rule the world. I was going to be a SCIENTIST!

The assistant director of the zoo laughed at me when he heard me say that. Laughed. At me.

I, of course, had no idea that getting a Master’s degree wouldn’t make me a scientist. In fact, a Master’s degree doesn’t really make you qualified for a lot of better jobs than a Bachelor’s degree does. It just makes you overqualified for a lot more.

So it might be a little like what Wil Wheaton went through trying to find acting jobs in the post Star Trek phase. Having a hard time finding a good fit as a “journeyman” as opposed to an “apprentice,” but not quite to the level of “master” (which for me would be that PhD)where you can write your own ticket, as it were. But-oh-well.

I did have to kind of laugh at Wil when he said in the book how scary it was to contemplate a complete career redirect in his mid twenties! I changed career paths at thirty, and again at forty, and now in my fifties I’m still not sure I’m grown up enough to decide what I want to do with my life! But to Wil Wheaton, if he should read this — I really enjoyed your book, think you should keep writing, hope you keep getting acting jobs because you enjoy that, and I plan to watch you on Leverage this week. Dude.

The T.V. Show That Ate My Brain

– and the ones that still may.

When I moved back to Texas to look after my dad, I had a lot of “Oh, just shoot me now” moments. Like every day at four p.m. when we had to watch “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Back then Daddy was still capeable of working the T.V. remote, and in fact maintained a death grip on the thing the rest of the evening. And of course since he had to crank the volume up, there was very little chance of escaping Walker’s grasp anywhere in the house. And it was not like he’d never seen the show before.

Pop was big on repetition. He had read every Perry Mason mystery ever written… at least a dozen times. He claimed he didn’t try to remember how they turned out, so they were just as fresh to him the next time he read them. If they were anything like the T.V. show, he wouldn’t even need to remember particulars.

I can’t think of more than a handful of Walker episodes where the girlfriend/lawyer didn’t get carried off by the bad guys and have to be rescued. She made it through law school, could apparently handle herself in a hostile courtroom, but couldn’t pick up a wrench and clock a guy upside the head — had to wait for mister kung-fu asskicker to rescue her. Oh, please. Let me just open a vein.

But watching television was about the only thing I could do with my dad by then. Conversations were out. Even when he could still hear reasonably well, he wasn’t much of a listener. As his hearing got worse, he just got mad at everyone for not speaking clearly enough. I remembered that when my mom was still alive, she just nodded a lot. I decided if it worked for her…

I also got in the habit of jumping up at every commercial break to go do something I was actually interested in. I worked on a lot of things piecemeal. My sanity level hovered right around the edge.

So what’s ironic is that every day at four p.m. I tune in to the SciFi channel to watch re-runs of Star Trek Enterprise and Stargate SG-1. How many times have I seen them? It doesn’t matter. There are no NEW shows going off-planet these days, so I have to get my outer space fix any way I can. And anyway, what’s up with the no new space operas? I can’t remember a time in recent years when there hasn’t been even one series that took place on a space ship, a space station, or a distant planet. Until Stargate Universe fires up this fall, I’m going to keep watching these re-runs. I wonder if my dad was watching Walker because all the shows like Gunsmoke and Rawhide and Wagon Train were gone extinct. For my money, Walker was a sorry-ass substitute anyway.