Spawn of Mars
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Derivative of Nictzin Dyalhis
Writing Another Chronicle of the Venhezian Heroes
Monday, May 4, 2020 10:11 pm
Somehow I became aware of The Sapphire Goddess: The Fantasies of Nictzin Dyalhis, a collection published by DMR Books in 2018. It collects all the fantasy stories of the unprolific Nictzin Dyalhis, who wrote primarily for Weird Tales between 1925 and 1940.

Two of Dyalhis's contributions to Weird Tales are science fiction: When the Green Star Waned (April 1925) and its sequel The Oath of Hul Jok (September 1928).
I really liked both of these stories — so much so, that I have written a derivative work. Since Dyalhis's stories are in the public domain, I am free to have my story published, and I hope that Cirsova Magazine will accept it when submissions re-open later this year. 

There's an earnestness to Dyalhis's two stories. They are all superlatives, exclamation points, and outsized drama. The seven friends are the very best of their kind: the greatest scientist, the greatest diplomat, the greatest warrior, the greatest cultural scholar, the greatest biologist, the greatest reader of minds, and the greatest... well, the narrator is not presented as the "greatest" chronicler and poet, but he is part of the amazing circle.

The stories are clearly science fiction written before World War II. There isn't a lot of hard science. Nor is there magic; but there is an easy and intriguing occultism. Evil is as much a force as electricity. The technology has that alluring mechanical flavor, free of the atomic and the cybernetic.

The setting is the Planetary Chain, an alternative Solar System. Maybe it's the far future of our own but it seems much more a different place. The names of the planets are just a little off — Venhez for Venus, Jopitar for Jupiter, and so on. There are invocations of Our Lady of Venhez, a being who is not really Aphrodite. Venhez is a planet of love and its sign is the Looped Cross (i.e., ), but everything is sideways of our reality and mythology.

And that was my first handhold in creating my derivative work. Dyalhis doesn't develop things deeply. The world-building, though neat, is mostly suggestive.

My second handhold was the sketchiness of the characters. Hul Jok the warrior is vivid, Vir Dax the biologist has some color, Lan Apo the mind-reader is not a blank, and Hak Iri the poet, if only because he is our melodramatic narrator, is not one-dimensional, but by and large the characters are just carriers of superpowers. As you revel in Hul Jok you lament the general blandness of the others.

So there is a lot of foundation in the two stories but not a lot of definition. There's also an enjoyable spirit (and the touch of an outlook rather removed from 2020). The past century has not exactly produced a communal literary expansion of Hak Iri's Friends & the Planetary Chain. I may even be a pioneer. In any event, I had cause to continue Dyahlis's work; and therefore I did.

No, I did not write a gritty reboot. I'm not out to subvert expectations. Vir Dax does not have a gruesome past with a missing call-girl and Lan Apo is not struggling as a transgendered pansexual. My story is not a parody or even an affectionately comedic re-imagining. I simply wrote the third in a series.

Obviously I am not Dyalhis. Yet there is a manner to his writing that accords with my own and I don't need to mimic him wholly to evoke him. My goal was not, in any event, to don a Dyalhis mask. My work is truly derivative, neither identical nor separate. It follows well, I think.

Now I just need Cirsova to accept it — so that you can read it! Sadly, even in the best case, it won't be published for a year or more. But keep an eye out for The Impossible Footprint.

P.S. "Nictzin Dyalhis," though nom-de-plumey, was the man's actual name, near as can be determined. And I do recommend the collection from DMR.

My Pulp-Action Recipe
Writing Action & Adventure
Saturday, January 18, 2020 3:11 pm
This past week I finished writing An Uncommon Day at the Lake, a Hamlin Becker tale that I hope to sell to StoryHack.

StoryHack is, as it calls itself, a magazine of "Action & Adventure." This means no tales of navel-gazing and nihilism and ponderous puffery. It also means tales generally free of current-year correctness, a thing that hates fun and other natural human ways of being and is hardly interested in action and adventure. 

Obviously, if I want to get into StoryHack, I need to write stories a certain way — the way of the pulps, as it turns out. The editor of StoryHack has himself invoked the Lester Dent Formula, which anyone seeking the Way of the Pulps will eventually discover.

Dent's formula has indeed guided me through my three Becker tales. However, it is truly a formula and, to be frank, it is hard for me to obey. I am not a hack; and I don't say that snobbishly. I sometimes wish I were. I'd love to be able to crank out formulaic tales that make readers happy.

What has happened instead is that I obey a less-rigid recipe. Dent's ideas are at the center, but I have added a few other ideas about successful pulp.

David Skinner's Pulp-Action Recipe

Begin with a mystery (or a menace). Proceed through several twists (ideally three, no less than two). Reach a revelation. End with an epilogue that winds down to a warm, though not necessarily happy, feeling.

The twists should deepen the primary mystery (or menace) or introduce relevant sub-mysteries (or sub-menaces). A mix of mysteries and menaces is usually best.

The action should be continuous (events are not separated by too much time) and physical (actual fights and danger punctuate the twists). Things must worsen as the tale progresses. Obstacles should arise.

Focus throughout on a hero. Whatever his misfortunes, he is not a billiard ball but an agent. Most importantly, though luck and nature can play a role, the hero prevails through his own efforts, leadership, or both.

Remember that men are men and women are women. Don't neglect the romance!

Finally, the tale need not be white hats versus black, but remember that good and evil are real and not merely different points of view. Good may not be spotless but evil cannot win in the end.

And that's it. As I said, very Dentish but not a formula. It has shaped my tales of Hamlin Becker. It's gotten me into StoryHack twice — and soon, I'm hoping, thrice.

P.S. By the way, StoryHack #5 is out. I don't have anything in that issue. Becker #2 will be coming in StoryHack #6, probably in March. Becker #1 is in StoryHack #1.

In Which I Criticize the Great Stanislaw Lem
Just to Set the Internet Straight
Thursday, August 8, 2019 11:03 am
At least two people on the internet — let's call them Bob and Ted — have been dissuaded from reading Stanislaw Lem. That is a shame; not least because, as usually happens on the internet, they are reacting to something that isn't true. 

It began with a list of the best literary SF books. Lem's Solaris is on that list, and the listmaker — let's call him Harry — said this:
Lem's humans are some of the best in science fiction as well: they screw up, are late, fail to see the whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
To Bob, this quote is asserting that the best-written character is one who fails — indeed, that humanity itself equals failure; and who wants to read such misanthropy? To Ted, this quote is praising the irrational screw-up rather than the flawed yet ultimately competent character; and who wants to read about incompetent characters?

I'm not about to tell Bob and Ted that Lem is actually imbued with a cheerful vision or that his characters are badass heroes; because he isn't and they aren't. I suspect that Bob and Ted might dislike Lem even if they judged him by actually reading him. But it is unjust that Bob and Ted now have a distaste for Lem because of what Harry said.

You see, Harry is wrong. To say that Lem has the best humans in science fiction is to say that Frosted Flakes have the best jalapeños in breakfast cereals. There are no humans in Lem's books. There are barely any characters.

I've been reading Lem for over thirty years. I have read Solaris four or five times. I love Stanislaw Lem. But honestly, there is no denying the lack of characters in his work.

While it is true that one can point to Ijon Tichy, Pirx the Pilot, or the robots Trurl and Klapauscius, and one could say that each is distinctive, ultimately each is just a character type meant to sustain the type of story he appears in: SF comedy, SF adventure, or robot fable. Indeed, when someone like Tichy ends up in a non-comic tale, it becomes even clearer how merely flexible each character is: an appropriate Protagonist with, at most, a pinch of flavor.

This is especially true in Lem's serious novels. Not one of his characters is memorable as a person. I admit this has always disappointed me. Notably I consider Solaris so good because, rarely among his works, it utilizes actual human emotions. Another of his very best stories — The Mask, about a robot assassin who falls in love with her target — is best precisely because it engages one's sympathy (and has one of the best final sentences ever). But most of the time Lem doesn't care about people, nor emotions qua emotions. His concerns are philosophical; cosmic. His interest is in the man as an atom of mankind, not in the man as a fellow soul.

So does that make his work deficient? Dry? Dull? Not often. He writes wonderfully and sets your mind a-thinking. His robot fables are damn delightful. But, contra Harry, you will never find irrational screw-ups nor the proud and the vain in Lem's dramatis personae. Harry's statement asserts too much. What you will find in Lem is irrationality, screwing-up, pride, and vanity: that is, human weaknesses all but disembodied. A character in Lem is playing a fairy-tale role, at best demonstrating an aspect of human behavior, contributing to Lem's exposition of the cruel mysteries of the universe. Lem's characters are vessels with nametags.

You will find a Snow White in Lem, but never a Falstaff.

In the end I agree with Bob and Ted that Harry is wrong about the "best" humans. It is a pernicious lie that humans are most human when they fail. That is the self-serving excuse for sin, after all. But as I have tried to point out, Harry is wrong about Lem as well. In no sense does Lem contain the best "humans" in science fiction. So ignore Harry.

But read Lem. Yes, you may have to be selective, since at times he can get so philosophical the fiction disappears. Seek anything with Tichy, Pirx, or robots; read the novels Solaris, Eden, Fiasco, Peace on Earth, and above all His Master's Voice; and just be ready to focus on those nametags, because the characters won't really stand out otherwise.

P.S. Lem also wrote excellent reviews of, and introductions to, non-existent books and treatises; but of course these are even more removed from character-rich fiction.

The Glad Game
Give Pollyanna Her Due
Thursday, August 9, 2018 3:02 pm
In the midst of an article about something I've forgotten, I came across this, which, because it irked me, I copied down:
Many of us, myself included, preach optimism, positive thinking, and looking at the glass as half full. However, there's a difference between that and being a Pollyanna who looks at the world through rose-colored glasses.
Ah, poor Pollyanna. She is one of those literary characters who, having become an allusion, has ceased being her actual self. I, too, once reductively thought of Pollyanna as a person imperviously deluded about the goodness of the world. Then I read the book. 

Somehow or another, Amazon recommended Pollyanna to me. I think it's because I had recently been searching for Cicely Mary Barker coloring books. Anyhow, I suppose I was in some sort of lightened mood, because I agreed with Amazon and bought and read Pollyanna. I really enjoyed it, not least because Pollyanna is the farthest thing from deluded.

Her attitude is supported by what she calls "the glad game." It is a game that her father taught her, and its point is simple: To find something in everything to be glad about. He first taught it to her when she was expecting a doll from a missionary barrel that, in fact, contained only crutches. This saddened her; so her father told her to be glad for the crutches — glad because she didn't need them.

This can seem like the vapid comfort one is usually given upon misfortune: "At least you have your health!" But it is better than that, for the glad game is primarily finding some good in the misfortune itself, not merely in some unrelated thing that can then be construed as compensation.

An example is when Nancy, servant to Pollyanna's aunt, relates how she hates Monday mornings; and Pollyanna says, "Well, anyhow, Nancy, I should think you could be gladder on Monday mornin' than on any other day in the week, because 'twould be a whole week before you'd have another one!"

A perfect example is when Dr. Chilton is lamenting the difficulties of his rounds. Pollyanna timidly notes that being a doctor is the very gladdest kind of business. "Gladdest!" he cries. "When I see so much suffering always, everywhere I go?" And she replies: "I know; but you’re helping it — don't you see? — and you’re glad to help it! And so that makes you the gladdest of any of us, all the time."

According to Pollyanna, there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if, as she says, "you keep hunting long enough to find it." Yes, she realizes perfectly — without any self-delusion or rose-colored glasses — that the glad game can be an effort. But the effort must be made. And why? Because of the "rejoicing texts."

Her father, a minister, had noticed the prevalence of Biblical texts that call for rejoicing. Be glad in the Lord! Shout for joy! He counted eight hundred of them. He told Pollyanna that "if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it — some."

Pollyanna is not some empty-headed dolt, a comic manifestation of obliviousness, a Candide in a red-checked dress and straw hat. Pollyanna deliberately plays the glad game and is made happy. And in the course of the novel, she brings everyone to the gladness in their lives that they each had been overlooking.

P.S. Amusingly, in a post decrying a reductive allusion, I may have made one of my own! I haven't read Candide in 30 years. I'll let my allusion stand, however.

No, Not That Kind of Pulp
Here's the Kind I Mean
Tuesday, November 21, 2017 10:53 am
Old pulp has a reputation as vulgar, trashy, lurid, and low; and in their apologetics, the proponents of new pulp are usually quite aware of that reputation.

Sometimes the apology is an outright apology. Some proponents, for example, explicitly disavow the "racism" and "misogyny" of old pulp. Well, okay. I'm not here to hate races or women, either. But declaring against "racism" and "misogyny" is a concession to the very Stalinist conformity that has been destroying our fiction. Those words are no longer reasonable; the enemy has defined them. These days, putting a woman in a dress and saying she is not the same thing as a man is considered "misogyny." Virtue signaling is not the path to better fiction. 

But generally the apology is an affirmation. It is not trying to stay in the good graces of the modern zeitgeist but simply reminding people of the excellence to be found in old pulp; an excellence that is grounded in the pulp style.

Even so, there was something a bit vulgar about pulp. Consider the extent to which the Good People of the time sought to suppress pulp as injurious to morals. The Good People had a point. Scantily-dressed women and salivating killers are not precisely sublime.

But two things can be said.

First, there is a sense in which some vulgarities are better than others. George Orwell, in considering the naughty postcards of Donald McGill, noted that the cards, though obscene and (in Orwell's view) rebellious, were only funny because they presumed a stable society of indissoluble marriage, family loyalty, and the like. I myself have noted that pulp presumes the natural order. So long as the salivating killer is the villain and is so precisely because he is salivating and a killer, morals are not necessarily injured.

Second, even if one were to concede that a lot of old pulp was total trash and beyond redemption, there's still a lot that wasn't. As I read it, the Pulp Revolution has never been about total reversion to the past. It idealizes pulp. And ideals are not bad. Every revolution idealizes. A revolution is only guaranteed to be bad when its ideals despise the past. One can embrace old pulp and still set aside the vulgarity; for it is rather the wonder and excitement that guide new pulp.

That's Where You'll Find Me
Maybe Dorothy Sings About the Wrong Thing
Saturday, August 12, 2017 12:19 pm
There's a misalignment in The Wizard of Oz.

What is its moral? "There's no place like home." Dorothy has found herself in a land over the rainbow, and yet her ultimate desire — the fulfillment of which she asks of the Wizard — is to return to Kansas. Near the end, Glinda prompts Dorothy to articulate the lesson that she, Dorothy, has learned; and Dorothy replies:
If I ever go looking for my heart's desire, I won't look any futher than my own backyard. Because if it's not there I never lost it to begin with.
This lesson, of course, accords with the narrative facts that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion each already had the thing he sought. The Scarecrow was already brainy; the Tin Man, full of heart; the Lion, courageous. And Dorothy, in Kansas, already had the place most free of trouble: her home with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. 

"There's no place like home" has certainly stuck. The phrase is a commonplace. And yet, in the movie, what is the initial counter-sentiment? That there is a better place "somewhere over the rainbow." And this does not persist as merely a phrase. This sentiment was given a song, a song used in the opening and closing thematic music, a lovely song that has been counted among the most popular and greatest songs of the 20th Century.

Nobody sings, à la Dorothy, "There's no place like home." There's nothing to sing.

In other words, the delusion that grips Dorothy, that there is a place where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, where skies are blue and dreams really do come true, is given the tremendous, emotional weight that only song can impart. While, on the other hand, the truth she finally discovers is presented in a brief speech — which, while not necessarily platitudinous, is certainly nothing worth humming.

This is a great danger in creating a work: That something tangential — or worse, contrary — to your theme is given a greater prominence, a better presentation, a more memorable form, than the point you are trying to make.

When writing, I have often worried about expending artistry on this or that small scene or second-tier character. I fear my reader will like my villain more than my hero, or find the collapse of my characters more interesting than their restoration. It is a hard thing to make the proper alignment; to best present what should be presented best.

Some contemporary critics of The Brothers Karamazov argued that the devilish points of Ivan Karamazov, as given in "The Grand Inquisitor" section, were more compelling, more substantive, than Alexei's Christ-like response. They argued that Dostoevsky had not really addressed Ivan's points. Dostoevsky replied (perhaps with some exasperation) that the entire novel was the response to Ivan.

One could likewise say that, however compelling may be Somewhere Over the Rainbow, it is countered not merely by some speech at the end of the movie, nor by some brief chant with ruby slippers, but by the movie as a whole. Perhaps. Whether The Wizard of Oz successfully establishes that there's no place like home is a bigger question. I'm not sure it does, beyond somewhat artfully asserting the point. In the end, the writers should have worked a little harder and come up with a compelling tune for There's No Place Like Home.

I know that "there's no place like home" didn't originate with The Wizard of Oz (however much the movie has claimed it). And I know that there is a very old and popular song with that very lyric ("Be it ever so humble..."). And so, yes, the writers, had they written a new song, would have been contending with a standard.

Could they argue they were alluding to that standard, which was possibly more well known in the 1930s, and therefore they didn't need to write their own? I suppose. But the allusion, if any, is weak, and still profoundly overshadowed by Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which resides right there in the work and not in some presumed cultural background.

Flea Markets.  In Spaaace!
The Peculiar Novel Quarter Share
Monday, March 13, 2017 1:16 pm
It's been difficult to find a good SF novel. Most, these days, are beset with SJW imbecility. But I keep trying the samples at Amazon. Once in a while a sample is good enough to prompt me to say, "What the heck, I'll finish this one." Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell was my latest choice.

But like pretty much all the books I have obtained hopefully after a decent-enough sample, QS has proven to be...  well, this one's peculiar. I had been expecting a Hornblower with spaceships and, indeed, QS alludes to Hornblower. And yes, it all begins with a boy (named Ishmael, no less) joining the space merchants as the lowest of the low; and soon he demonstrates how exceptional he is.

But.

His first great demonstration is to make fantastic coffee. You can tell Lowell knows how to make fantastic coffee. Now I, too, know how to make fantastic coffee. And that's fine, I guess. I wouldn't expect our Ishmael to defeat the Galactic Overlord in Chapter 2.

But coffee?

And the entire book becomes How Ishmael and His Galley Mate Pip Figure Out Ways to Make a Profit On the Side. And no, no, no, this is not a tale of endearingly roguish space-boys finagling and maneuvering to squeeze a few credits out of rubes on orbitals. It is rather a series of discourses, soaked in Accounting 101, about market speculation and doing boring stuff with inventory.

In fact, by Chapter 21, which according to my Kindle is 71% into the book, the most profound thing our heroes have done is rent a booth in a flea market in a port of call. With the full blessing, and some investment, of their Captain and First Mate. The paragraphs about the flea-market booth have been a thrill a minute, let me tell you.

The thing is, I feel like I've stumbled onto some sort of niche fiction. Something that appeals to a peculiar, obsessive, crypto-autistic audience — like furry-fic or slash-fic or fic about Hummel figurines. As if there's a sub-sub-category of science fiction called Running a Lemonade Stand.

QS is not badly written, I suppose. At least I haven't stopped reading. But it is so bland. The characters are all so nice to each other and borderline cloying. It wasn't until Chapter 20 and the presentation of a curmudgeonly couple in a nearby booth, that I finally got some characters who conflicted. If your schtick, as an author, is adventure-via-accounting, you really need to compensate with some lively characters.

I feel bad even continuing this book. Hey, I waste time all the time, but wasting time with this book almost seems foolish. What a silly, lightweight, peculiar, peculiar book.

And to think this is the first of six books in a series — a series that is well-regarded! Maybe the series gets more properly Hornblowerish and our hero will combat the Space-Bonapartes, or cleverly conquer a Fort of Space-Spaniards, or something.

But I don't think I'll bother finding out.

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