Thursday, March 22, 2012

I Read Books: The Pickwick Papers

1. Dickens first novel shows it's serial roots; it is a picaresque, more a series of linked adventures than a drama. To put it in modern terms, it's like a television show where each episode stands pretty much alone rather than one which tells a continuing story. This said, various early threads come back, especially in the last third, to get us to an ending that certainly resembles a traditional dramatic conclusion. Supposedly the novel is made up from the papers of the Pickwick club, specifically the letters sent by the corresponding society of it, edited together by Dickens.

2. Initially it is a light-hearted and humorous piece in which Mr Pickwick, a wealthy former businessman, and three companions set forth from the Pickwick club to investigate various locations and events on direct coaching routes from London. In general they then get caught up in silly situations. Sometimes they find themselves caught in compromising situations with a lady[1]; Mr Winkle, who has a reputation as something of a sportsman, goes very wrong with his shooting; Mr Snodgrass gets involved in a duel thanks to some mistaken identity; and Mr Tupman, who has an eye for the ladies, is extremely unromantic. The jokes are a bit hit and miss. The setups tend to be long and often obvious to sophisticates familiar with a 150 year longer comedy tradition. Some are pretty good though. Several characters have distinctive speech patterns for comedy effect; Sam Weller, who pronounces his Ws as Vs and Vs as Ws is a great character, but his speech is very annoying.

3. Some pieces are stories told by characters to Mr Pickwick, and these standalone short stories range across a variety of genres - ghost stories, historical/mythical tales, character pieces. They're generally pretty good.

4. Most of the novel has a light and affectionate satire of a variety of English peculiarities. Towards the end though, Mr Pickwick is sued for breach of promise of marriage[2], and disgusted by the shenanigans of the opposing lawyers refuses to pay the damages. He is imprisoned for debt, and here we see Dickens the social campaigner at work. Things become a little more serious, although only a little; earlier flirtations become romances, Sam Weller's comedy parent comes through as dependable when needed; Mr Pickwick deals with the fallout of various characters running off and getting married without permission and eventually everything ties up neatly. Even the rogues that Mr Pickwick spent the middle half of the book trying to expose learn their lesson.

5. In the end this is not a great Dickens novel, but it is entertaining and moves fairly swiftly for a 19th century novel, which admittedly is not very fast. As always the characters are distinctive, if a bit caricatured. Most interesting to me is some of the logistics of travelling by coach in this pre-railway England; there's not a lot of room on the inside and on the outside you freeze. Indeed, in an effort to stay warm, during one journey they drink from a flask and smoke cigars; the flask being refilled everywhere they stop to change horses, they end up quite drunk. In fact people end up quite drunk a lot, which leads to some of the escapades.A lot of the novel is spent in coaching inns, which I find an interesting establishment. I may be using some of what occurs in this novel in my ongoing redraft of my NaNoWriMo novel.

Read This: If you feel you'd like to read a competent set of entertaining Dickens stories
Don't Read This: If you find 19th century novels slow, or aren't interested is sometimes outdated satire and farce.
Previously on Night of the Hats: I compare Oliver Twist (Dickens second novel, which began publishing while the Pickwick Papers was still being serialised) to Great Expectations (Dickens eighteenth novel, written some 20 years later)
And Finally: The Pickwick Papers freely available online.

[1] As in going through the wrong door to find themselves alone with her in her bedchamber, or the lady faints into their arms just as half a dozen other characters come through the door.
[2] Due, of course, to a misunderstanding with his landlady.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Amsterdam

Preparing for this Mondays creative writing class reminds me that I've not posted up the fruits of last week. So, here, in less than 250 words, is a piece of travel writing that I call:

Amsterdam

We arrive in Amsterdam and it immediately starts to snow. We crowd onto the tram and ride across the city. Past the bodies, out the window I can see flurries of white. The darkened sky is reflected in the canals – the Prinsengracht, the Herengracht – that we cross.

We walk into town through a park. The wind whips snow across my face, making me glad I have a full beard. Snow fills the path, piles up on hedges, lies on top of the frozen water. I watch closely, making sure the path I’m on doesn’t suddenly become an icerink.

We go into a cafe, brushing snow from hats, scarves, coats, boots. There’s the smell of coffee, and frying. We order, mild coffee, rich lager and toasted sandwiches. The warm air alternates with freezing drafts as the door opens and closes and the damp air condenses on the windows hiding the weather in fog.

After a very long lunch we head back out. Three-quarter size snow plow trucks have begun clearing the city. They begin with the bike lanes, not so much to help cyclists, but because the emergency services use them to bypass blocked roads and reach places roads don’t go.

Dam square has become a white plain, surrounded by slate grey buildings. The bright lights and loud noises seem muted, compressed on the ground floor between the frozen ground and the dull upper stories. The trams and buses have vanished so we trudge back home in the twilight.

Overnight the Netherlands has become a nation of skating fanatics. The evening magazine chat show becomes a discussion on the Elfstedentocht, a 200km skating marathon that hasn’t been held since 1997. Some ice masters are letting people skate; others use pikes to demonstrate the ice isn’t thick enough. Excuses from the railway bosses are crammed in at the end of the program.

Looking out across the night shrouded city, it gleams orange; streetlamps reflecting off low clouds and snow covered roofs. It’s not the place I was expecting.


Not much to say on that, other than, yes, true story. A few of my stylistic quirks were pointed out - present tense, use of colours. Just enough detail to make people interested, a couple of lists. Good to see people notice.

Friday, March 09, 2012

SkySpace

I hardly ever look up at the sky
It's disappointing a lot of the time
I hope that something makes me laugh or cry
Or be entertained by funny cloud mime

It's disappointing a lot of the time
Stars; the moon; black, white, grey and just plain blue
Or be entertained by funny cloud mime
Sky stories are told; they're all untrue

Stars, the moon, black, white, grey and just plain blue
I'm told the sky is filled with dreams to chase
Sky stories are told; they're all untrue
Above us is wide open empty space

I'm told the sky is filled with dreams to chase
I hope that something makes me laugh or cry
Above us is wide open empty space
I hardly ever look up at the sky

So Jim's cousin is writing a trumpet concerto called "Skyspace", which will have it's world premiere later this year.  I liked the name, so sat down and BOOM![1] one hour later this was sitting on my hard drive. Just to be clear I, and I believe no one in the entire world, has heard the concerto, so I'm inspired solely by the name. That said, if I happen to inspire anything I will be happy to be credited.

On another note, these poems are all very gloomy, aren't they? They read like a talented and literate seventeen year old nursing a grudge against their parents/ teachers/ ex-/ the weather/ getting up before noon. It's not like I'm depressed for days, or weeks or months on end and the poems are letting it all out. I don't know, perhaps that's what the pantun or pantoum brings out; the constant circling and the inevitability of the ending dragging dark words, phrases and images out of me.

[1] Actually "Hmm. Tap tap tap. Slurp. Tap tap tap. [silence]. Taptaptap. Tap. Hmm."

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Poor Timing

Looking backwards as we try to advance
The end determined before we begin.
Cause and Effect. Action at a distance.
Changing the model; plug new data in.

The end determined before we begin
Day and night I work on information.
Changing the model, plug new data in,
Enlightenment rises up with the sun.

Day and night I work on information
Trying to figure out what it all means
Enlightenment rises up with the sun
Equations that describe a time machine.

Trying to figure out what it all means
Cause and Effect; Action at a distance.
Equations that describe a time machine
Looking backwards as we try to advance.
The pantun or pantoum, with it's repetition and circling back to the beginning at the end, ought to be a good form for a time travel poem. I'm not quite there yet, but this isn't too embarrassing.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Teenage Popstar Girl Fanfic

So one of the guys who runs a website I frequent is in a band and they've recorded an album, released a single and have a music video.

Obviously the video leaves dangling plot threads that I have attempted to tie up with some fanfic, previously only available in the comments of the post linked to above. But now it's here as well.

Teenage Popstar Girl Fanfic 1.0

For fifteen years I had worked on her. My Pop Idol, my Idoru, my Electric Barbarella. I had built her from scraps and spares, fed her on MTV and commercial radio. She was a perfect souless incarnation of pop, empty of everything thing while making it look like All Is Full Of Love.

"Why do you want to throw her away? She has years of life left in her."

The executive smiled. "She was an excellent prototype. But model 2.0 can be mass-produced and tests reveal she is 17% more attractive to boys, increasing the profit margin of the product."

"But why not let 1.0 run out her normal lifespan? She has conquered the world (of pop)."

The smile reached the executive's eyes and she leant forward, whispering. "The World Is Not Enough."

Teenage Popstar Girl Fanfic 2.0

"Mom, Dad. You remember cousin Poppy. Like we agreed, she's staying with us for the summer."

"Yes," said Mom and Dad. "This is cousin Poppy here to stay with us for the summer."

"Good," I said, "Now if you call us in an hour for lemonade and cookies, that'll be just fine."

They left.

"How did you do that?" asked Teenage Popstar Girl. "It's almost as though... but no."

I reached under my sweatshirt and pulled out that strangely named square disk and showed it to her. "Just this once."

Read Now

Today is the last day that Faith Erin Hicks' comic Friends with Boys is online for free. After today you have to pay cash-money for it. So if you want to read about Maggie, who has been homeschooled until the age of 14 and is starting school today, her elder brothers, the people she meets, a ghost, the film Alien, an 18th century prosthetic hand, a daring heist and the attempts her broken family make to recover, then go there now. I did and do not regret it. It has excellent art, interesting stories and an ending that is as true as a ghost story can be. Maybe as true as only a ghost story can be? Perhaps.

More Faith Erin Hicks on the film Alien can be found here, with no timelimit. That is all.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Genius

I make a wish and know what will happen
In their own time things will come true, or not
We will only find out when now is then
The past is full of things that I forgot

In their own time things will come true, or not
My memories made of regrets and mistakes
The past is full of things that I forgot
I must hope that this time it's not a fake

My memories made of regrets and mistakes
I try to speak but my vocal cords cramp
I must hope that this time it's not a fake
Hands trembling I reach out and rub the lamp

I try to speak but my vocal cords cramp
We will only find out when now is then
Hands trembling I reach out and rub the lamp
I make a wish and know what will happen

Saturday, March 03, 2012

I Read Books: Oliver Twist/Great Expectations

For some unknown reason the oldschool red hardback complete works of Dickens of my Mum's has Oliver Twist and Great Expectation bound together. Why? Probably because they're not that long, and they want to make all the volumes the same size. Why is this interesting? Oliver Twist (1837-9) is from early in his career while Great Expectations (1860-1) is from late in his career. So what differences do we see?

Firstly, Twist is written from a third person omniscient perspective; the narrator sees all, from the streets of London, into hidden places and furtive meetings, and right down into the deepest, blackest depths of the character's souls. Oliver himself, our hero, is an innocent and good-hearted boy who is unfairly persecuted initially due to being a poor orphan born out of wedlock, and later because it suits the purposes of the villains. Twist is set adrift; things happen to him that he has no control over, and eventually a cabal of those who wish him well ferret out the truth of his origins to defeat the conspiracy of those who are villains. Bad things happen to good people, but in the end they get their just desserts as do bad people. Also the dog as well. Poor Bullseye.

Expectations is written as though it is the memoirs of Pip, the protagonist. Pip also begins as a good-hearted boy, but swiftly finds himself doing bad things at the behest of an escaped convict. Following on from this, he is unfairly favoured rather than persecuted; firstly by Miss Haversham's attention, mixed as that turns out to be, and then by coming unexpectedly into property. Pip is also blissfully unaware of his own flaws (at that time; when he gets to writing the memoir some ten years after the main events he has a better perspective) and makes the not unusual assumption that with the money, clothes and bearing of a gentleman, he is indeed a gentleman.

We see more development in the supporting characters as well. In Twist, we see a lot of one-dimensional villains, and two well drawn baddies in the form of Bill Sykes and Fagin. On the good side, most of the characterisation is from one or two physical descriptions or turns of phrase. The most interesting character is Nancy, trapped by loyalty to the criminals she lives among, but wanting to do the right thing. Oliver himself barely exists.

Outright villains are rare in Expectations; Compeyson whose swindles have started the chain of events that Great Expectations is the end of; the violent smith Orlick; and Bentley Drummle, Pip's rival and Estella's husband. Each of them have little actual pagecount[1] but overshadow events in their various ways. Everyone else is fairly well sketched, being a bundle of attributes rather than a broad caricature. Even Jaggers, the lawyer who lurks as the connection to most of the cast, initially the very stereotype of the lawyer who acts for any client who can pay, is revealed to have surprising depths.

So here is what I think is the difference between the two novels; in Oliver Twist people are villains or heroes, and eventually the heroes defeat the villains and, importantly, no one learns anything new[2]. In Great Expectations there are heroes, but our protagonist isn't really one of them, and the villains are defeated, but that's not what's important. What's important is that Pip learns the relative value of friendship and money. Also how the girl of his dreams isn't the girl who exists in front of him. Or anyway, there's my take.

Read These: Because Dickens is hugely entertaining, as well as giving an intriguing view of Victorian values and society.
Don't Read These: If the Victorian novelist thing of long-winded tell-rather-than-show-and-then-show-anyway aggravates you.
Out of Copyright and Available for Free Online: Oliver Twist, Great Expectations.

[1] I want to say screentime; child of the 70s as I am I see everything as a movie.
[2] Except for readers who don't know about the Poor Laws or London's criminal underworld.

Lunatic

Impatient I resist howling out loud
I wait in the darkness for him to come
Tonight the sky is concealed by clouds
My feelings explode while my hands go numb

I wait in the darkness for him to come
Shadows hide the path he has to follow
My feelings explode while my hands go numb
Everything will change before tomorrow

Shadows hide the path he has to follow
I've waited almost as long as I can
Everything will change before tomorrow
And full moon transforms wolf out of a man

I've waited almost as long as I can
Tonight the sky is concealed by clouds
And full moon transforms wolf out of a man
Impatient I resist howling out loud

Friday, March 02, 2012

Dead Man

Sometimes I feel like a dead man walking
Getting through the day one step at a time
Seems as though I'm the only one talking
Don't know how long I can pretend it's fine

Getting through the day one step at a time
Is there any way I can make amends?
Don't know how long I can pretend it's fine
What do you do after your whole world ends?

Is there any way I can make amends
Even with the things that I've safely kept?
What do you do after your whole world ends -
Goddamn zombies dogging all my footsteps

Even with the things I've safely kept
Seems as though I'm the only one talking
Goddamn zombies dogging all my footsteps
Sometimes I feel like a dead man walking

Thursday, March 01, 2012

I Read Books: Stark's War

1. Nomenclature
The Stark's War Trilogy, consisting of Stark's War, Stark's Command and Stark's Crusade declare on my Titan Books (UK) edition that they are by Jack Campbell writing as "John G Hemry". I have, of course, complained about commented on the covers of the previous Jack Campbell novels I have reviewed, and see no reason to change my methods here. So brushing aside the confusion of naming a trilogy after the first novel[1], it does entertain me that the author's name is actually John G Hemry, which is why he wrote as John G Hemry. The nom de plume Jack Campbell came later, with the change in emphasis of his writing in the Lost Fleet series, which were (and are) wildly popular. Clearly Titan Books don't want me to go "John G. Hemry? Who's he? I only popped in to see if there's a new Jack Campbell novel, but I guess not." The (re?) release of these earlier novels is a pleasant side effect of the success of The Lost Fleet.

2. Lunacy
In the late 21st Century the US dominates the Earth as the sole superpower. Companies get politicians elected, who then turn round and use the US military to protect the companies interests in other countries. Meanwhile the army has been in a long slow reduction in force, which has lead to good officers being retired while those able to game the system remain. New technology let's them plan operations down to the last detail, then micromanage the soldiers to keep them on the timeline. The military tends to recruit from the same families, leading to mil families around bases and the rest of the country being civs.

As might be expected the whole shambling edifice is kept together by the sergeants, and, less expectedly[2] foreign companies relocate to the moon to keep their resources and so forth out of the greedy grasping American hands.

Enter Sergeant Ethan Stark, scion of a civ family, now a member of the lunar expeditionary force. He asks awkward questions, pushes the boundaries of his orders and keeps his squad alive. After some initial successes the war bogs down in stalemate. Officers good, bad and worse are rotated in and out in order to get the correct list of assignments for promotion, so never learn anything about fighting on the moon. Finally a general comes with a plan for a war-winning offensive.

"As Napoleon once stated, the moral is to the material as three is to one." Colonel Penter swung his laser pointer triumphantly, outlining a portion of the display with quick slashes. "In this area, application of Synergy Warfare[3] in it's most rudimentary form would allow concentration of our forces to achieve a three-to-one material superiority. By applying the higher-level paradigm clustering inherent in properly focused Synergy Warfare, we re-create and enhance the basis for Napoleon's greatest victories. In short, with this material advantage magnified by employment in accordance with Synergy Warfare, we automatically enjoy the equivalent of a nine-to-one advantage!"

An audible murmur ran around the room as one Sergeant stood to speak. "Excuse me, sir, but are you saying three soldiers equal nine soldiers in your planning?"

The Colonel nodded with obvious satisfaction. "That is correct, if highly simplified, as far as it goes. Of course, when other superiority-enhancing paradigms are applied and multiplied by our own technological superiority, conservative estimates indicate an effective virtual superiority of twelve to one."

"Three soldiers equals twelve soldiers?"

"No, no, no! One soldier equals twelve soldiers!" Colonel Penter gestured grandly. "This is, as I said, a conservative estimate that does not even factor in the obvious huge advantage granted our forces by our overwhelming superiority in leadership by our senior officers."
- Stark's War, pages 253-4
3. Stark Truth
General Meachem's war-winning offensive goes exactly as wrong as we would expect. Unable to watch the massacre of the attacking troops, Stark disobeys orders to rescue the pinned down force in front of him. To get them out, other sergeants follow his lead, ending in a full scale mutiny. The consequences then play out over the rest of the trilogy.

4. Unfair Comparisons
Jack Campbell novels are easy to read with a page-turning momentum from the interplay of immediate and direct threats followed by longer-term and indirect problems that often flare up when least expected, but feel inevitable nevertheless. Themes I identified in The Lost Fleet, such as the relationship between military and civilian authority are addressed here, although generally less subtly. The books are well plotted and examine their ideas with some depth as well as entertainingly.

The characters feel less well formed than in Lost Fleet, and the ending wraps up far too neatly. The moon and technology work fairly well, and consistently, and the command of the sergeants has many rough spots and problems; too much focus on getting the work done today, not enough on the big picture. All in all I enjoyed the books. Not as much as The Lost Fleet, but Campbell has clearly improved as a writer since Stark's War.

Inevitably with politically tinged military SF, the back cover has a comparison to Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's The Forever War. Comparisons like that are rarely flattering[4], and Stark's War hardly makes a third to go with the two mil-sf colossi. But what does? Nothing, that's what[5].

Read This: If you want some relevant, interesting military sf, or if you read and liked The Lost Fleet (and if you haven't why not? They're in all good bookshops, and if not, I'll lend you mine).
Don't Read This: If military stuff, or SF or violence or thrillers aren't your bag.
Note that: The non-commissioned rank structure of the US Army seems to have been significantly flattened for the purposes of the novels.

[1] Something fans have a tendency to do anyway.
[2] Is that a word?
[3] Colonel Penter has spent the past three pages explaining what Synergy Warfare is. I don't know exactly what it is, but we are made very aware of General Meachem's genius in coming up with it.
[4] Stark's War does compare favourably with Forever Peace, the thematic follow on to Forever War, and even more so with Forever Free, the interesting but flawed sequel.
[5] Unless you're a big fan of Drake's Hammer's Slammers. But that's much less politically tinged.