Compression and decompression

The producers of A Game of Thrones learned the wrong lessons from George Martin’s mistakes:

Too often over the last three seasons—particularly since “Hardhome” in season five, when the series began to chart its own course—the show’s secondary characters and plots have seemed lost. Game of Thrones just doesn’t have time for anyone who isn’t Jon, Daenerys, or the Night King anymore. The show has shed George R.R. Martin’s most frustrating tics, which ultimately weighed his story down: his insistence on meticulous world-building, on resisting deus ex machina resolutions, and on subverting fantasy tropes. But in racing toward the end—in giving fans the resolution they have demanded—Game of Thrones has over-learned from Martin’s mistakes, taking the story too far in the other direction.
Paradoxically, the show has also become grander, more ambitious than any television series before it. Season seven was cut to only seven episodes, as opposed to the ordinary ten, presumably to pay for all the action. Its showrunners needed money for its first naval battle, a dragon assault on the Lannister army, round two between Jon and the Night King, and, most spectacularly, an undead dragon taking down an 8,000-year-old magic wall made of ice. But for all of their scope and masterful aesthetic execution (particularly in the case of the horribly named “Loot Train Battle”), these scenes all lacked the punch of “Hardhome,” when Jon first confronts the Night King and the show’s stakes at long last come into view.
This is because they were in keeping with the show’s post-“Hardhome” modus operandi: moving pieces around to prepare for a final sprint to the finish. The naval battle at the beginning of season seven served to eliminate the Sand Snakes (who never worked anyway) and kick into gear Theon’s redemption arc (which was then ignored for the next several episodes). The assault on Casterly Rock came about for no other reason than to even the odds by taking the Unsullied out of the picture, though they reappeared in the finale with no explanation.
Most egregiously, the “Frozen Lake Battle” (also horribly named) was necessitated by a plan to capture a wight that made absolutely no sense at all. The reason for its existence was to neatly get things done, in this case to give the Night King a dragon and to provide an excuse for finally bringing all the show’s far-flung characters together. As well-executed as many of these plot developments were, they never arose naturally from the show’s characters—instead they were imposed by the show’s writers, who are suddenly very pressed for time….
The show’s other standouts have been largely abandoned or turned into secondary figures, including the Starks. The culmination of the Littlefinger plot was thrilling, but overall it was narrative thumb-twiddling, a way to take a character off the board while giving something for Arya and Sansa to do while Jon was away.
The sad truth is that this is probably where the novels are going as well. Martin has concocted many of his characters to buy time for his primary story. It is Martin’s great strength that so many of them—including a number who never made it into the show—are so rich and real, but they too are ultimately extraneous to the main plot revolving around Jon and Dany.

Although I am contemptuous of George Martin as an individual, and although I am increasingly confident that ARTS OF DARK AND LIGHT will eventually be seen by most fans of epic fantasy to be considerably superior to A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE once both series are finished, I continue to look on the books and the HBO series alike as a tremendous learning experience, if not an irreplaceable one.
The truth is that I’m grateful to Martin for the various mistakes he has made. Without the tedious debacle that was A Dance with Dragons, I never would have even thought about daring to begin my own epic fantasy. And without his spiraling out of control thanks to the introduction of 13 new perspective characters, bringing him to a total of 22 in one book, I would never have learned the importance of keeping them under such tight discipline. Without his foolish decision to go back and untie the Mereen Knot, I would not have grasped the importance of allowing the greater story to flow naturally, and not getting caught up in always explaining exactly what happened to whom.
Here is what most readers, even most writers, simply don’t realize. Writing epic fantasy is very difficult. I would estimate that it’s about 5x more difficult than writing a novel of normal size, not counting the extra time required to account for the additional length. Not only that, but periodically publishing large books is the exact opposite of what a writer should do if he wants to maximize his book sales in the current environment. So, most writers simply cannot write epic fantasy, and even if they happen to possess the ability, they can’t afford to do so.
Then factor in the fact that several of those who have actually written epic fantasy have done so in the form of cheap Tolkien knockoffs, which provide no useful lessons to the aspiring epic writer, and perhaps you’ll understand why I appreciate the chance to learn from GRRM in real time. Here is how I rank the writers of epic fantasy:

  1. JRR Tolkien
  2. Stephen Donaldson (Covenant)
  3. Margaret Weis & Terry Hickman (Dragonlance)
  4. David Eddings (Belgariad)
  5. Glen Cook
  6. Steven Erikson
  7. Raymond Feist
  8. George RR Martin
  9. Joe Abercrombie
  10. CS Friedman
  11. Tad Williams
  12. Daniel Abraham
  13. Brandon Sanderson
  14. R. Scott Bakker
  15. Mark Lawrence
  16. Terry Brooks
  17. Robert Jordan
  18. Terry Goodkind
Obviously, your mileage may vary, as may what you consider to be “epic fantasy”. I would have Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Tanith Lee, and Anne McCaffrey all ranked above Dragonlance, but their work is better categorized in other categories. It’s rather amusing to see how many “best epic fantasy” lists feature works with descriptions that begin “okay, it’s not actually epic fantasy, but [insert other sub-genre here]|.
I don’t know where AODAL will end up once it is complete. Towards the top, I hope. But there is only one way to find out, and that is to finish Vols. II through V.

Which is the true text order?

Here is an apt demonstration of what I meant when I said that postmodern literature is bad writing. Not only is it bad writing, but it isn’t even meant to be properly read at all, only skimmed for the surface impressions made by the words. In fact, it’s not even necessary for the words to be in any particular order from paragraph to paragraph.

The following three passages are the same string of words taken from the 1985 National Book Award winner. I divided the original passage into 15 strings based on the punctuation and randomized it twice. Now, without looking anything up on the Internet, see if you can tell which passage is in the correct order, Number 1, 2, or 3.
  1. We simply walk toward the sliding doors … This is not Tibet … sealed off … timeless. Code words and ceremonial phrases. It is just a question of deciphering … Another reason why I think of Tibet. Dying is an art in Tibet … Energy waves, incident radiation … Look how well-lighted everything is … Not that we would want to … Chants, numerology, horoscopes, recitations. Here we don’t die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think. Everything is concealed in symbolism… This simple truth is hard to fathom. But once we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die … Tibetans try to see death for what it is. It is the end of attachment to things. The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. We don’t have to cling to life artificially, or to death …
  2. Everything is concealed in symbolism … The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation … code words and ceremonial phrases. It is just a question of deciphering … Not that we would want to … This is not Tibet … Tibetans try to see death for what it is. It is the end of attachment to things. This simple truth is hard to fathom. But once we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die … We don’t have to cling to life artificially, or to death … We simply walk toward the sliding doors … Look how well-lighted everything is … sealed off … timeless. Another reason why I think of Tibet. Dying is an art in Tibet … Chants, numerology, horoscopes, recitations. Here we don’t die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think.”
  3. Energy waves, incident radiation … This is not Tibet …timeless. Chants, numerology, horoscopes, recitations. Here we don’t die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think. We don’t have to cling to life artificially, or to death …Another reason why I think of Tibet. Dying is an art in Tibet … Everything is concealed in symbolism… Look how well-lighted everything is … code words and ceremonial phrases. It is just a question of deciphering … We simply walk toward the sliding doors … Not that we would want to … Tibetans try to see death for what it is. It is the end of attachment to things. Sealed off … This simple truth is hard to fathom. But once we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die … The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. 

Mailvox: bad writing is cancer

This is an email from a Castalia House author who shall go unnamed, but obviously isn’t John C. Wright.

Well, now you’ve done it.

One of your strongest points in your discussion with Stefan on Crime and Punishment was how Dostoyevsky focused on the moral decay caused by material naturalism and did not and likely could not possibly have seen its system-wide effects.

Now, today’s post about bad writing makes a similar case that Modernism, and in particular its virulent Boomer strain – Postmodernism – is culture cancer.

Many people could see that Modernist literature was, at base and overall, simply not as deep or interesting as those books which had not gottenn caught up in Modernism’s well-crafted, insubstantial mopefests.

The clue that Modernism was a dead-end can be found in its best products: As I Lay Dying, The Wasteland, Invisible Man, Heart of Darkness and The Aspern Papers are ALL, at heart, about how writing from a Modernist perspective is a pointless, disjointed exercise that renders a man insignificant. Wait for death, write or don’t…in the end Material Man is a Hollow Man. If even Modernist novels don’t like Modernist novels, you know you’ve chanced on a Very Bad Idea.

When the reactionary Post-Modernism came along, the self-defeating problem became clear. There were plenty of sane readers who said, “Okay, that way lies madness. Taken to its logical conclusion, PM could lead to the end of literature!”

It is no coincidence that the era of the blockbuster genre novel exploded in a major response to academic Post-Modernism. Everybody read Dr. Zhivago or Sidney Sheldon. No one read Alphabetical Africa.

BUT…Post-Modernism clearly was not contained to academic literature. Sidney Sheldon’s soap operas were not merely pop-classic melodramas, but were materialist ones. The casting couch ultimately made starlets powerful, taboo relationships were taboo because of society’s evil, not personal sin. Ursula Le Guin’s adventure stories became feminist meditations. Stephen King’s pulp adventure horror veered badly into religious ignorance. John Updike was…Updikian.

Now, these books and hundreds more were still, in form, traditional, popular novels. They just had some spots of odd, discolored PostModern crust on them.

The spots showed up in movies and television: Laugh-In, All in the Family, the Brady Bunch, Planet of the Apes, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Heck, the massive blockbuster Jaws opened up with a nude girl being bitten, dragged, mauled and eaten by the literary aquatic symbol for Death incarnate, a “Great White” no less. That’s Post-modern action: no heroes, no villains, just young, bare, feminine annihilation.

But those spots are hardly noticed in the work by most people at the time, whether it is a bit of King’s “tornado-faced” lady (bad writing) or the now iconic but originally “ironic” “Episode IV” scroll in Star Wars.

But they got everywhere, and, while it occasionally worked (the unvarnished, unapologetic racism in The Godfather I and II was possible under a sort of Post-Modern “honesty” at the time), most of the time, these spots show up as an anachronism, a ‘breaking of the fourth wall’ or just bad dialogue.

And today?

We don’t even have personal pronouns anymore.

Our culture adopted a literature that had, at its core, an anti-communication ethic. The more obscure, the more personal, the more disconnected a “text” was from its meaning, the more “authentic” it was. The more “identity” it had.

Post-Modernism didn’t just end literature. It ended communication.

I think that’s why there are so many landmines of bad writing today. I think that’s why you can emerge from a writing program or college less literate than when you came in, even if you were borderline literate to begin with!

Bad writing is cancer.

Modern literature is bad writing

Speaking of bad writing, this 2001 Atlantic essay on the form and purpose of modern literature is magnificent. The author, BR Myers, rightly crucifies several doyennes of modern literature, including one, Cormac McCarthy, whose popular appeal I have never understood in the slightest. Read the whole thing. It’s long, but it’s well worth it.

Parallelisms and pseudo-archaic formulations abound: “They caught up and set out each day in the dark before the day yet was and they ate cold meat and biscuit and made no fire”; “and they would always be so and never be otherwise”; “the captain wrote on nor did he look up”; “there rode no soul save he,” and so forth.

The reader is meant to be carried along on the stream of language. In the New York Times review of The Crossing, Robert Hass praised the effect: “It is a matter of straight-on writing, a veering accumulation of compound sentences, stinginess with commas, and a witching repetition of words … Once this style is established, firm, faintly hypnotic, the crispness and sinuousness of the sentences … gather to a magic.” The key word here is “accumulation.” Like Proulx and so many others today, McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words.

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. 
(All the Pretty Horses, 1992)

This may get Hass’s darkly meated heart pumping, but it’s really just bad poetry formatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose. The obscurity of who’s will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author’s mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn’t ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse’s bowels.

As a fan of movie westerns, I refuse to quibble with the myth that a wild landscape can bestow epic significance on the lives of its inhabitants. But novels tolerate epic language only in moderation. To record with the same somber majesty every aspect of a cowboy’s life, from a knife fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch. Here we learn that out west even a hangover is something special.

[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they’d ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool. 
(All the Pretty Horses)

It is a rare passage that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank. I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals. But “wild animals” isn’t epic enough: McCarthy must blow smoke about some rude provisional species, as if your average quadruped had impeccable table manners and a pension plan. Then he switches from the horses’ perspective to the narrator’s, though just what something imperfect and malformed refers to is unclear. The last half sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace the same thing that is lodged in the heart of being? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if McCarthy can explain any of this; he probably just likes the way it sounds.

No novelist with a sense of the ridiculous would write such nonsense. Although his characters sometimes rib one another, McCarthy is among the most humorless writers in American history. In this excerpt the subject is horses.

He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold … Lastly he said that he had seen the souls of horses and that it was a terrible thing to see. He said that it could be seen under certain circumstances attending the death of a horse because the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal … Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses vanish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothing out of which to replenish it but the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing.
(All the Pretty Horses)

The further we get from our cowboy past, the loonier becomes the hippophilia we attribute to it. More to the point, especially considering The New York Times’s praise of All the Pretty Horses for its “realistic dialogue,” is the stiltedness with which the conversation is reproduced. The cowboys are supposed to be talking to a Mexican in Spanish, which is a stretch to begin with, but from the tone in which the conversation is set down you’d think it was ancient Hebrew. And shouldn’t Grady satisfy our curiosity by finding out what a horse’s soul looks like, instead of pursuing a hypothetical point of equine theology? You half expect him to ask how many horses’ souls can fit on the head of a pin.

All the Pretty Horses received the National Book Award in 1992. “Not until now,” the judges wrote in their fatuous citation, “has the unhuman world been given its own holy canon.” What a difference a pseudo-biblical style makes; this so-called canon has little more to offer than the conventional belief that horses, like dogs, serve us well enough to merit exemption from an otherwise sweeping disregard for animal life. (No one ever sees a cow’s soul.) McCarthy’s fiction may be less fun than the “genre” western, but its world view is much the same. So is the cast of characters: the quiet cowboys, the women who “like to see a man eat,” the howling savages. (In fairness to the western: McCarthy’s depiction of Native Americans in Blood Meridian [1985] is far more offensive than anything in Louis L’ Amour.) The critics, however, are too much impressed by the muscles of his prose to care about the heart underneath. Even The Village Voice has called McCarthy “a master stylist, perhaps without equal in American letters.” Robert Hass wrote much of his review of The Crossing in an earnest imitation of McCarthy’s style:

The boys travel through this world, tipping their hats, saying “yessir” and “nosir” and “si” and “es verdad” and “claro” to all its potential malice, its half-mad philosophers, as the world washes over and around them, and the brothers themselves come to be as much arrested by the gesture of the quest as the old are by their stores of bitter wisdom and the other travelers, in the middle of life, in various stages of the arc between innocence and experience, by whatever impulses have placed them on the road.

The vagueness of that encomium must annoy McCarthy, who prides himself on the way he tackles “issues of life and death” head on. In interviews he presents himself as a man’s man with no time for pansified intellectuals—a literary version, if you will, of Dave Thomas, the smugly parochial old-timer in the Wendy’s commercials. It would be both unfair and a little too charitable to suggest that this is just a pose. When McCarthy says of Marcel Proust and Henry James, “I don’t understand them. To me, that’s not literature,” I have a sinking feeling he’s telling the truth.

The essay finally made it clear to me what these modern literaturists – one hesitates to call them actual writers – are doing, and it’s not dissimilar to what the gammas are doing with their terrible, narcissistic metaphors. Their words are not meant to be read as words as such, but are meant to be lightly scanned, so that an impression is formed by that superficial contact.

That’s why there is so often no meaning to be found in their works, that there is neither action nor character to be found in the texts. No one actually reads these books! They are, instead, scanned, with no more comprehension of the empty contents surveyed than the whole language reader grasps the phonetics of the words he is reading.

On bad writing

I was talking to one of our authors today, trying to understand why authors so often make a certain style of mistake that has puzzled me for years. He actually managed to articulate it, and I found the explanation to be rather fascinating as well as potentially useful to those who are trying to improve their literary style. I think it is something that separates bad writing from competent writing.

What we were discussing is the nonsensical metaphor or simile. Now, I have used a nonsensical simile at least once myself, although I did so knowingly, as it was an inside joke. Some old-school Ilk might remember the phrase “then it hit him, like a cheetah” from Rebel Moon. That was something my best friend’s brother used to say, because my best friend’s brother is a complete goofball who gloried in saying nonsensical things like that. The point is that I knew it was a silly simile and horrifically bad writing, although I suppose it is not a nonsensical simile from a technical perspective, since being hit by a cheetah at 60+ MPH would presumably be the sort of thing that would bowl one over.

However, as the writer explained, the mediocre writer doesn’t know that the metaphor or the simile is nonsensical. To him, it is an emotionally true connection, and therefore it makes sense, even when it objectively doesn’t. For the purposes of reference, here are the four examples from the rough draft to which the author, Johan Kalsi, is referring, a bizarre metaphor that completely mystified me, and not only because the author utilized it FOUR FREAKING TIMES in a single scene.

Jeckell’s broad, sleepy face held his lips in a strange smile, as if he had just caught a mouse between his teeth. 

Jeckell continued to chew on his mouse, doing nothing to wipe his face clean of its aura of smug supremacy.

Jeckell stopped gnawing the imaginary mouse for a moment.

Everyone gasped. Jeckell stood up and punched the table in front of him, his jaw clenched back down on the mouse.

I like to think that my editorial comments were polite, professional and helpful: “What the fuck is going on with this guy chewing on a nonexistent mouse? What does that even look like? Lose the fucking mouse!”

I mean, this was, by any measure, bad writing. Fine, everyone commits their clunkers from time to time. But this is a weird mistake, and one I see far too often these days, with authors using words they apparently don’t understand and images that simply don’t make any kind of sense. Fortunately, Mr. Kalsi was able to put this particular example into perspective that at least make a modicum of sense, and should help people avoid making this particular mistake.

  • I was trying to emulate Asimov’s long Q&A scene from Foundation, which I don’t like, and I was being lazy – I hadn’t figured out good words to make the bureaucrat both human and annoying, so I just wrote that mouse thing in, because I had an image in my head of this fat old barn cat I came across when I was a kid. I opened a bag of feed, and this cat was in there, chewing on a wriggling mouse. It was a disturbing, vivid, shocking thing, and I still remember that cat’s dead eyes looking at me like, “What, asshole? Just watch it wriggle.”
  • Emotionally, I thought of the bureaucrat like that – this perfectly harmless guy that the First Technocrat had known for decades, who suddenly held his life in his hands, and didn’t care a bit.
  • Of course, some random personal memory means nothing to you or any other reader, and that’s why it is such an annoying dig at the reader.
  • A bad writer or a lazy writer won’t see when he does this (I think it got mentioned 3 times in a page or something, and I didn’t even remember I had written it at all when you pointed it out to me.)
  • A gamma will cling to this personal image as a secret king thing – “Oh, the peasant reader doesn’t get me – I’m a genius!” and as an excuse thing when the criticism comes. – Delusional
  • The old big writers I can think of who did it a lot were Stephen King (the lady in Misery has “a face like a tornado” twice in two pages, for example – memorable for the wrong reasons) Piers Anthony and Philip Jose Farmer.
Kalsi is right. A face like a tornado makes no more sense than a man gnawing on a mouse. Remember, writing is communication. So, off-hand implied references to personal memories or associations that are not accessible to your readers is not going to make you look brilliant, it’s just going to make you a bad writer.

Why boys don’t read books

It’s a deep mystery the publishing industry has simply been unable to unravel. The tweet was: A look at how YA fans are connecting with and inspiring today’s authors.

As a general rule, boys don’t read books written by women. Girls prefer books written by women, but they are more willing to read books written by men. It’s not really that hard to figure out why. Girls like both story and romance. Boys like story. Women like writing romance. Men like writing story.

On a tangential note, there was an unexpectedly strong response to the excerpt I posted from NO GODS, ONLY DEMONS the other day. Now, perhaps that was because people are less familiar with Cheah’s writing than mine or John Wright’s but I also realized that I seldom post excerpts from Castalia House books here. So, I’m wondering if that is the sort of end-of-day post you’d like to see here more often or if that would be an annoyance.

Excerpt posts are very easy, so I wouldn’t need to do it in lieu of other posting. Anyhow, let me know if you’d rather see a) more excerpts or b) no excerpts, and, if a), how often you’d like to see them. Our catalog is now at the point that even if we posted a daily excerpt, it would take us more than two months to get back to the first book, so anything from once a week to once a day is possible.

Strong female characters

It’s always interesting, and amusing, to listen to science fiction writers debate the topic of “strong female characters”, particularly in the modern context of Princess Kung-Fu. That, of course, is the unstoppable martial art practiced solely on film, by every kick-ass female character who appears on screen.

And everyone – everyone – does it. Even those who correctly criticize the Buffies and Emma Peels do it in their own way. Consider Declan Finn describing what he presumably considers to be more realistic versions of female fighters:

Five-feet tall (really 4’11”) Goldberg is a computer nerd. She used to work for the NSA, but went over to the Secret Service to audit security, since she’s not tall enough to jump in front of Presidents. Her fights included: punching someone in the balls, and dropping low and cutting their Achilles tendons.

This reveals the fundamental problem with science fiction writers: they don’t get into fights. Oh, they are more inclined than most to get into word spats and verbal scrums, and even to engage in the proverbial handbags at dawn, but virtually none of them, of either sex, have ever punched anyone in the face, or been punched in the face.

For example, any time anyone mentions “punching someone in the balls” as an effective fighting technique, you know they have never actually seen anyone get struck in that manner in a combat situation. You see, there is this useful little substance called adrenaline that tends to fire up when people are engaged in combat of one form or another. It is why someone who is shot five times in the chest can nevertheless stagger forward and bury a machete in a policeman’s head. It is why someone can have a black belt’s sidekick ride up his extended leg, crush his balls between the heel and the pubic bone, and nevertheless continue fighting at full speed for 90 seconds without even slowing down.

And then, after the round was over, grimace, sink to his knees, and ask those who’d been watching, “did he hit me below the belt or something?” I once got my nose broken in a ring fight and didn’t even notice it. You can’t write about potentially lethal combat and ignore the effects of adrenaline. Actual conversation from my fighting days:

Vox: Why’d they stop the fight?
Alex: It’s the rule. Have to stop the bleeding.
Vox: Who’s bleeding?
Alex: You are. Like a stuck pig.

As for “dropping low” to attack someone’s Achilles tendons – plural, no less – that sounds like a wonderful way to get kicked in the face. There is a good reason wrestlers go for the waist, not directly for the legs, after all.

Seriously, no writer should even think about writing a hand-to-hand scene until he – or she – has been punched full-force in the face by a strong man and by a weak woman. Nor should he do it until he has punched both a strong man and a weak woman in the face. Better yet, exchange blows with a strong woman and a weak man too. The experience will absolutely prove educational and should suffice to illustrate how utterly absurd 99 percent of all hand-to-hand combat in film and fiction is. I mean, one might more reasonably, more convincingly, just give the woman wings and a devil’s tail, with which combination she defeats bigger, faster, stronger men by flying out of their reach, wrapping her tail around their neck, and strangling them.

Of course, even then, a sufficiently strong and alert man would simply grab her tail and bounce her face off the ground. All right, strike that, all the succubi don’t know kung fu.

Anyhow, if you would like to read a much more realistic depiction of how hand-to-hand combat in science fiction would work in any universe where F still equals MA, I suggest reading “The Amazon Gambit” from Forbidden Thoughts, set in the Quantum Mortis universe. I wrote it, in part, to illustrate the one way the women can be effectively used in combat.

However, comic readers need not worry. Alt-Hero will certainly contain female superheroines such as Dynamique, Kosmik Girl, Vespra, and La Fille Furie. And they will be lethal superhumans who kick prodigious ass, they simply will not necessarily be able to match fists with the likes of Capitán Europa, the head of the European Commission’s Global Justice Initiative, or Michael Martel, better known as Hammer.

A shameless scalzification

Jake Kerr shamelessly scalzies G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.

So, my new novel is about a future Earth where the population escapes the polluted and dying planet by logging into linked virtual reality servers. They take on roles as fantasy characters, live in former time periods, cruise the Tinder server—all in an effort to get away from the sad world where they live. A mysterious group wants to destroy the virtual reality network to force the citizens to wake up and force the corporations and governments to clean up environment. Their belief is that the planet was purposefully polluted to move people to the corporation-controlled virtual reality operating system. Our hero infiltrates the supreme council of this group and finds that her life is constantly in danger as she moves from secret meetings to administration buildings and virtual reality fantasy servers where she is a level 73 mage. Along the way, everyone betrays everyone else and nothing is what it seems.

That is the description of Thursday, and based solely on that you would never know that it is an adaptation of G. K. Chesterton’s classic The Man Who Was Thursday. And therein lies the following tale.

I first read The Man Who Was Thursday in college, and it immediately became one of my favorite novels. The humor. The plot twists. The intrigue. I was entirely enthralled. Michael Moorcock called it one of the top 100 fantasies of all time, and it’s a seminal novel in the thriller genre, with its series of chases and pursuits. It’s an amazing book with one significant problem—it’s very dated.

The humor references have little cultural meaning to many readers today. The surrealist/spiritual metaphors and allegories are highly specific and jarring for many. And the expositional and philosophical prose is far out of fashion. To make matters worse, the frightening bad guys are anarchists, a group that provides little sense of dread today.

It always struck me that this extraordinary novel deserved to be updated in some form or fashion so that a new generation of readers could enjoy Chesterton’s genius. The more I thought of it over the years, the more I considered doing it myself. Chesterton wrote the plot, the scenes, and the characters. How hard could it be? I thought. Well, I found out when I took on the project last year….

Chesterton’s background was decidedly religious and based on the secular, frightening, and chaotic anarchist forces in 1908. My background was of a modern world dying from neglect, with virtual reality the way the population escaped this dismal reality. The world is even described as “IRL” and the IRL spaces where people live are delineated as “inside” and “outside.” Making all this work required me to add some scenes and change some of the ways that the characters interacted. For example, the opening scene in my book doesn’t exist in The Man Who Was Thursday.

At its heart, The Man Who Was Thursday is steeped in Catholic symbols and Christian messages, and this is where I am most curious about how the book will be received. I’m an atheist and removed all of those pieces from the novel. Yet I’m convinced that I’ve kept the spirit of the novel enough that if you are religious or a Chesterton fan, you will still see those things there, just not as overtly as Chesterton made them. Christian speaker and author Matt Mikalatos addresses this in the book’s afterword.

Now, there is nothing wrong with retelling an old tale. The Brothers Grimm did a bang-up job of it, as did Shakespeare and Tanith Lee. I’ve done it myself, as QUANTUM MORTIS: A Mind Programmed is a rework of Jeff and Jean Sutton’s The Programmed Man, a childhood favorite of mine that I must have re-read at least six or seven times.

The first big difference is that even the biggest fans of the Sutton work like QM:AMP even better than TPM. That is simply not true of Scalzi’s various ripoffs; literally no one likes any of his books better than the original sources from which he borrowed and/or stole. Why do TPM fans like QM-AMP? Because I removed absolutely nothing that was significant or essential from the original novel. I started with the utmost respect for what was there, excised as little as I felt that I possibly could, and focused on expanding from the original. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that I am a better writer than Sutton.

Scalzi is not better than Heinlein, Dick, Piper, or Asimov. Dan Brown is not better than Umberto Eco. Terry Brooks is not better than JRR Tolkien. I haven’t read Jake Kerr, but there is virtually no chance he is a better writer, or a better observer of the human condition, than G.K. Chesterton. Their imitations, homages, or ripoffs, as you prefer, are almost guaranteed to suffer by comparison with the original.

Writer’s Lesson #1: follow Shakespeare’s lead, not Scalzi’s. Use lesser writers as source material, not those who are markedly better than you are. It’s rather like a band releasing a cover song. If you try to record and release a Beatles’ song, or a Metallica song, you’re most likely just going to look stupid while pissing off their fans.

The second difference is that you absolutely should not make any changes the core structure or the philosophical heart of the story. Subversion is not homage. To polish some clunky prose, add additional detail or story, or breathe life into previously cardboard characters is one thing, to rework everything to suit your personal prejudices is something altogether different. This scalzification of a classic is not only unbelievably stupid, but tone-deaf, and tends to demonstrate how it is that moral-blind atheists so reliably create ugly mediocrities, even when they begin with solid source material.

You shouldn’t record and release a cover of “Sweet Home Alabama”. But if you insist on doing so anyhow, you definitely shouldn’t change the state of reference to Massachusetts or San Francisco.

In the meantime, WE. ARE. AMUSED. You see, this is a screenshot of the Also Viewed list for The Collapsing Empire. Tor and McRapey are desperately trying to ignore it, so it will be interesting to see how long their self-discipline lasts. If you haven’t preordered THE CORRODING EMPIRE yet, you really should join in the fun. Let’s face it, you’ll want to be able to say that no only were you there, but you made it happen.

What Men Read

A best-selling author explains.

What Men Read

I was doing an interview a few weeks ago for Women of Bad Assery when I started to wonder if it was actually true that men – and young boys – refuse to read books written by women or starring women.  It wasn’t actually hard to disprove it – JK Rowling may have used her initials to hide her gender, or so I have been told, but I read quite a few other books by women when I was a child.  The gender of the writer alone had no influence on me.  Nor too did I automatically dismiss a book starring a girl.

What did have an influence was school.  The vast majority of the books I was forced to read at school were boring.  Teachers – both male and female – would select books that bored me to tears.  Thankfully, by then I already had the reading bug.  Boys who didn’t, who only knew reading as a chore, didn’t read when they didn’t have to read.  They found it a tedious process – and preferred watching television instead.

So … what did all the books I liked have in common?

Most of them featured adventure.  The characters would be pitted against a remorseless enemy or given a task to do.  It didn’t really matter if the task was large or small, a thinking enemy or a force of nature; all that mattered was the challenge, the urge to overcome and triumph over one’s circumstances.  The characters didn’t simply exist, the characters had something to do.

Harry Potter works, at least for the first five books, because it fits neatly into this pattern.  Harry escapes the mundane world and flies straight into a world of magic, but gets pitted against a string of deadly foes.  All of his books feature Harry being challenged – Goblet of Fire being the most dramatic example – and overcoming his challenges.  Everyone who wants to argue that Dumbledore is a poor headmaster because Harry has to deal with the problem-of-the-book is missing the point.  The series works because Harry is the one who deals with the problem.

This is true for a lot of my childhood favourites.  The Famous Five and The Secret Seven all feature mysteries that have to be solved.  Hood’s Army and The Demon Headmaster all feature battles against deadly enemies.  And all of them are exciting reflections of the way young boys think.  They want adventure.

Good children’s books also avoid gender politics.  Both Danny the Champion of the World and Matilda are popular with children of both genders, even though one features a male hero and the other a female.  Both books work for male readers because they fit into the pattern I detailed above – Matilda is pitted against her family, who try their hardest to drag her down, and her sadistic headmistress.  Danny is pitted against his schoolteacher and the aristocratic moron who owns the nearby woods.  To add to this, Danny and his father are effectively rebelling against unwanted restraints.

Matilda is, in some cases, an interesting example.  Although Matilda herself is very definitely a young girl, women are not portrayed any more or less positively than men.  There is no sense that Matilda is waging war on the patriarchy, but on people who want to crush her soul (her parents) or physically harm her (the headmistress).  Indeed, the first person we are shown to get the better of the headmistress is a young boy.  And, as gross as that scene is to an adult, it is precisely the sort of thing a young boy would find hilarious.

The closest thing Matilda comes to any form of sexism is Matilda’s mother remarking to her that men are rarely as clever as they think they are.  But it’s hard to argue the point when she’s talking about her immensely stupid and crooked husband.

Good children’s books are also free of romance and sex.  You’d think this was obvious, but still … Most young boys are significantly put off by any hint of romance – they don’t understand the facts of life, let alone how they relate to their own life.  They certainly don’t want to consider the differences between males and females.  Romance was never a big part of Harry Potter because young boys don’t want to read about it.

Successful female characters – characters who appeal to young boys – are often very similar to men.  They take on challenges and overcome them; they have problems, but they overcome them on their own.  Even when they are not tomboys – George of The Famous Five, for example – they are rarely completely feminine.  They balance their strengths with weaknesses.  Dinah Glass of The Demon Headmaster is incredibly intelligent, but she’s also the only one of the good guys vulnerable to the Headmaster’s power.  That doesn’t stop her from playing a major role in his defeats.

This leads to another problem.  It is much easier for a young boy to imagine being Harry Potter than it is to imagine being Hermione Granger.

These patterns do not change as young boys turn into men.  The lust for adventure, for a meaningful life, is still there.  Romance – even as readers become more aware of gender and sex – is still a secondary concern.  Successful books always have the main character taking on a challenge and solving it.  If there is a love interest in the book, the romance is still secondary to the overall story.

Books that do feature romance heavily tend to do poorly with young men.  Twilight, for example, isn’t particularly popular with male readers, if only because they find it hard to identify with Bella and loathe Edward.  Books that focus on the main character worrying over stereotypical feminine concerns are rarely interesting to young men.  Indeed, books that concentrate on feminine issues often make men uncomfortable. Marketing them to young men is a waste of time.

Indeed, I’ve noticed a pattern in books written for teenagers and young adults.  The majority of male writers concentrate on adventure, the majority of female writers concentrate on romance.  Obviously, there are exceptions, but I think it’s largely true.

I think the most successful books – at least, the ones that attract young male readers – are the books that speak to our imaginations.  We want to be free and independent, we want to pit ourselves against the world, we want to do great deeds and soar high.  And we want to solve our own problems, to pick ourselves up after getting knocked down and carry on.  In a sense, we all want to be ‘special snowflakes’ – but we want to earn it, not have it handed to us on a plate.

Books that are not successful tend to focus on characters who do not appeal to young male readers.  A main character who is an idle layabout, a bully, a sneak, a coward, a whiner … they rarely appeal.  And even if they do, what lessons are they teaching?  Books that put men down, that make us out to be stupid or animals or just plain obnoxious … they appeal to us about as much as misogynist books appeal to women.

If you happen to be a teacher, or a parent, remember the golden rule.  Reading should never be a chore.  Indeed, reading is a learned skill.  And the more young boys enjoy reading, the more they will read.

Perspective switches

A little note about something I come across from time to time while editing. Do not switch the point-of-view just to get something across to the reader about your protagonist, particularly a physical description of him or his actions. It’s a cheap writer’s trick, it’s lazy, it’s unnecessary, and it breaks up the flow of the story. Moreover, you’re not fooling anyone about what you’re doing or why you’re doing it.

There are many good reasons to switch perspective. Doing so in order to make a Mary Sue point about how handsome or determined or pretty the protagonist looks is not one of them.

On the other hand, never force heavily self-descriptive adjectives into the protagonist’s internal monologue either. It makes the character sound self-absorbed and sociopathic, rather like a highly intelligent and impressively well-read man with muscles like a well-honed panther referring to himself in the third person, wrote Vox Day.