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Friday, April 24, 2015

Classics Revisited: Stardance by Spider Robinson, pt 2. "Stardance II"

First appeared in Analog as a serialized novel. The serialized novel, Stardance II, was up for Locus and Ditmar awards and won the Analog Readers Poll (albeit, there were only two serialized novels that year in Analog). The combined novel took fourth in the Locus Award poll. 

"Stardance II"

Summary:
Shara's sister Norrey Drummond hooks up with Charlie, makes an honest man of him while Charlie gets Norrey to buy into his idea of a dance company in zero gee. They struggle to get a troupe together, but struggle to find those who can maintain an arbitrary frame of reference where there is no gravity or vertical. A number even die.

Eventually a troupe forms, and after a dramatic near-death accident, they go off to greet the aliens at Saturn since they are the only ones capable of communicating to these aliens.

Commentary: 
The award-winning novella's emotional momentum carries the reader through this opening, but the search for a troupe isn't especially dramatic. The personal drama has wandered off. It might have helped to have a tangible enemy or have different characters tell their story, Tom in particular. Considering their final outcome, it would certainly be possible to switch POVs. This may be why the novel didn't do better, considering the opening novella had already done so well.

When Norrey rescues Charlie, dooming them both, the reader regains interest through to the end. While the novel grows chatty, the plot tension is taut enough to allow this philosophizing.

The only flaw in the ending is how they treat the two villains differently without explaining why.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Classics Revisited: Stardance by Spider Robinson, pt 1. "Stardance"

First appeared in Analog as a novella. It went on to sweep the Hugo, Locus and Nebula awards that year and was reprinted by Terry Carr, Gardner Dozois, Samuel R. Delany, and Isaac Asimov in various Year's Best. The combined novel was fourth in the Locus Award poll. Here's a website for a proposed movie based on the novella.

"Stardance"

Summary:
Shara Drummond is a terrific dancer but too large-boned and busty to succeed in the dance industry. As the narrator, Charlie, is a good but failed dancer himself, he is meant to break the news to Shara that she won't make it. Instead, Charlie quits his job to video Shara on her own to make her a star that way.

Except they fail. They go their separate ways. Charlie plunges into his bottle and tanks his career. Shara, meanwhile, find a backer, tycoon Bryce Carrington, who will take her to a setting dance hasn't been taken before: zero gee with a backdrop of the stars. She picks Charlie to film her.

Things get worse. To build her career, she has to get three dances made, but if she makes them, she will die as her body parts deteriorate, unable to live again on Earth.

Visitors arrive.

Commentary: 
I read and loved the novella and kept the novel to finish one day as a child who puts aside a favorite chocolate bar for a rainy day. The novella may be Robinson's crowning achievement.

At its core is an emotional dynamo. While Charlie is the narrator, Shara is the protagonist. There's a reason why this must be. Shara's and Charlie's troubles keep us invested up to the climax. The plot and characters keep us invested. The writing is more smooth than ornate or literary--a style more in vogue back in the Seventies than at present. Other tastes have changed, addressed later on.

Robinson has a voice that sucks you in to be buddies. His characters are fiercely protective to the point of being combative. They speak their opinions boldly, in much the same way a Heinlein character might, with the insult becoming a backhanded compliment.

Robinson also propounds his own ethos, such as taking compliments without dodging them, saying what you mean, and standing/dancing boldly in your birthday suit, etc. It's part of Robinson's charm--part of its day. I've mentioned before with other writers of the day such as Lawrence Watt-Evans, coming of age in the Sixties and Seventies, the culture worked hard to make nudity important, appreciating the human body:
"Where Norrey was small, Shara was big, and where Norrey was big, Shara was bigger. If I'd seen her on the street I might have whistled appreciatively--but in  the studio I frowned."
The culture pendulum may have swung enough to make this passage inappropriate, but as a pendulum, it keeps swinging. [Not that my opinion sways to either party, but it's irrelevant to this discussion.]

Speaking of swinging, Charlie takes a punch at Bryce Carrington for trying to save Shara's life. Why? Because Shara wants to risk her life in order to dance. She might not ever get to her third dance in time to get the public to appreciate her work if she doesn't get to all three. If Charlie is in love with her, wouldn't he want her to live? Men exist who would do such a thing, put the woman's desires above all concerns if she does. Now Charlie is jealous of Carrington getting to sleep with her, so this might be just an excuse. But it's still surprising that he doesn't credit Carrington at least that. But then again, I tend to favor emotional complexity.

The genre has a default mode of abstraction whenever it enters gestalt mode or describing-the-undescribable mode. I rolled with it as a kid, worried over it as I learned more about writing, and accepted it later as necessary. Also, it allows writers to philosophize.

The true power in this novella is the idea that people who seem to have no place, whatever their handicap--people who don't fit the standard mold of success--can carve out their niche of success if they keep searching. The theme, no doubt, resonated with readers then as it should today. The novella is emotionally involving, and worth a gander to bone up on your SF history. A movie might work out well.

A Pair of Cats

Cat Dixon [interviewed here and here, reviewed here] has a new book of poems for pre-order, Our End Has Brought the Spring--possibly her best yet.


Cat Rambo [no relation] has her first novel out, The Beasts of Tabat. It is set in the same universe as a number of stories from her first solo collection, Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight--one story from which was up for a Locus award.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Turning the Corner from Season 1 to Season 2: Orphan Black and The Americans

I have never been sucked into a TV program like Orphan Black. The first few episodes were edge-of-your-seat spectacular. In this program, we discover a character has been cloned mysteriously, and the clones gather to find out who/what has been killing them.

The Americans was similarly enthralling, if not quite as spectacular. Here we have a Russian spy couple who sneaked into the U.S., posing as an average Americam family, but one with principles that may make you cringe as they are more than willing to cover mistakes with murder. You have a weird feeling empathizing with a couple with whom you may share little except common humanity. One's own response to the series is nearly as interesting as the show itself.

The plotting and character fascinate. Both have incredibly versatile actors who can throw themselves into an entirely different role and look like someone else. In fact, while being the same person, some characters were attractive while others were not.

Both suffered, at least in terms of consecutive-episodes viewing from predictable sexual escapades averaging once per episode for Orphan Black, two or three in The Americans. With the upshot that there was little sexy about their sexcapades. In  The Americans, one wonders if that were part of the point. This is part of their job as spies. You can even note which sexual liasons were distasteful to the characters. The Americans uses several sexual events as points to create later plot tension, though not always. One wonders if more people will want to become spies after this--a more respectable profession that prostitution.

Something happened in season two with Orphan Black. Rather, something didn't happen. The writers wanted to keep the show going with continual surprise, to keep viewers on their toes--which I do love--but it felt like surprise for surprise's sake (or for the series' sake), rather than for the story's. Revelations were few. At some point the players'/protagonists' motives need to crystallize. I'm reminded of the Lemony Snickett series that built up a grand mystery only to open an empty box. Perhaps if it were a one-book or a short-story deal, this could work. Not fourteen books leading up to nothing. Otherwise, the story becomes mechanical and reveals nothing new. Which is what happens with soap operas. You start to feel you've seen it all before and there were will be nothing here to satisfy/conclude/ponder. I hope Season three reveals more than season two. I'm still debating whether to keep watching it.

Season Two of The Americans, on the other hand, seems to be working well. The difference? There isn't one grand narrative. A number of concurrent narratives allow viewers to be satisfied when resolved, yet they introduce new narratives to complicate scenarios. For instance, they resolve who murdered the couple's best spy friends, only to discover a plot that embroils their own children into a similar scenario.

While I love the period aspects, I'm not sure if I've ever watched a program with so many ugly ties before.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Finn Fancy Necromancy (Preview) by Randy Henderson

Finn Fancy Necromancy
Randy HendersonMacmillan-Tor/ForgeTor Books

What more could a debut author want? A cool title and a funky cover. Randy Henderson, winner of last year's Writers of the Future award, has it made. I reviewed his story here. Perhaps I should revisit this tale to confirm or negate my earlier impression.

Tor supplied a hefty amount of opening chapters for reviewers to check out Henderson's work. For those of us who love oddity, Henderson churns out a heady mix of the familiar and unfamiliar.

To pay for his crime of dark necromancy--a crime he didn't commit--Finn Gramaraye has been stuck in another realm for twenty-five years where he's been hanging with blobbish creatures and reflecting on past mistakes. When he exits, he has to deal with the difference between his last time on Earth [1986] and the present, and all the changes between. No sooner is he free, than he finds himself embroiled again in a battle against sasquatch (sasquatches?), among others.

This bears favorable comparisons to Kevin Hearne, Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowling. The Rowling connection is in feel and scenario, mostly the prison and guards (Enforcers). The Hearne comparison comes with the voice, direct-to-reader with personality although both occasionally rely on too much dialogue. Both use traditional tropes, but Hearne is more explicit about its historical magic development.

Henderson shares with Pratchett a light humorous tone, except Henderson often relies on puns and 80s nostalgia i.e.
"He looked like one of the hair metal rockers from Poison, with a mighty mane that covered his face and draped down over his shoulders."
 and
"The sasquatch ignored us. It looked like we'd narrowly escaped a hairy situation."
This is sample enough to give you a flavor for whether this is your cup of tea. It will appeal most to those who enjoy the off-beat, but there's plenty of tried-and-true as well:  an unusual dynamic that drives familiar genre tropes.

Monday, March 16, 2015

"Lois Lane: A Real Work of Art" by Gwenda Bond

Lois Lane: A Real Work of Art(an official teaser short story)Gwenda BondCapstoneSwitch Press
Here's a stroke of bookmaking genius: Telling Lois Lane's story. In Gwenda Bond's capable hands, the character takes on new life as a girl detective. The story is billed as "an official teaser short story for the young adult novel LOIS LANE: FALLOUT that takes place before Lois moves to Metropolis. FALLOUT is forthcoming from Switch Press in May 2015."

This short work is available online here. It relates how Lois Lane, who is supposed to be an art prodigy, feels out of her depth in art class. However, she stumbles upon a clue that will help resolve a crime. There's also a cute reference at the story's finale if you don't read it too quickly as I nearly did.

The tale is described as a teaser, which it does well, hinting at the novel to come. The story itself is perhaps too quickly resolved, but one does sense something of Lane's character, a smart and sometimes witty YA detective. Fans of Veronica Mars, take note.