Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Traditional mysteries


[T]he term “traditional mystery” is from the outset somewhat difficult to define absolutely. It has an almost organic structure, with successive authors and generations adding their own extensions and renovations to the house built by the likes of Poe, Christie, James, Sayers and Conan Doyle.

That original house had a foundation built on the reassurance of the middle classes, and four recognizable walls: the amateur detective or private investigator with superior powers of deduction, violence and sex occurring largely off-stage and referenced rather than shown, an incompetent or indifferent police force and, above all, the restoration of social order.

Hmm. What can the author of this post, Sulari Gentill, mean by “built on the reassurance of the middle classes”? It seems to me Gentill is trying too hard to sound erudite, because I do think that is a strained way of saying that traditional mysteries tend to involve a middle-class cast of characters, or that they tend to have a middle-class setting, or whatever she has in mind here. Also, that sort of statement makes me immediately think of counterexamples. There are so many historical mysteries that involve the upper classes. Do those not count as traditional? They seem pretty traditional to me.

How about the rest of this? The investigator with superior deductive skill, maybe. Nero Wolfe, say, absolutely. Roderick Alleyn, not quite so much, but he is a smart guy. Anne Perry’s Inspector Pitt is honestly not that smart, which is why his wife can be more involved in solving mysteries sometimes.

Off-stage violence, check.

An incompetent police force, no way! Inspector Cramer isn’t incompetent! He’s not as brilliant as Nero Wolfe, but he’s a solid detective, as we see in The Red Threads, where he is the protagonist. Ditto for Charles Parker in the Lord Peter novels. The police are certainly not indifferent, either! That’s really unfair.

But not only that, LOOK at Inspector Alleyn, for heaven’s sake! That’s a classic and I would say definitely traditional mystery series, and the detective is the protagonist. This is hardly unusual! Using as your definition of traditional mysteries the necessary separation of the sleuth and the police, I don’t know, that seems really odd.

The restoration of social order, I have no issue with that part. That’s a crucial element of mystery fiction, or it has been.

Where is Gentill going with this?

Perhaps however the most radical renovation is to the notion of the restoration of social order, the load-bearing wall which is an extension of the traditional mystery’s function as a literature of reassurance. Arguably this restoration is the most important facet of not only traditional mystery, but crime novels in general.

The modern protagonist, on the other hand, can fail to save the day even if he or she solves the crime. The perpetrator can go unpunished, and lives can remain shattered by loss. The reader knows who did it, but may be denied the simple satisfaction of a “just desserts” ending, without the story failing to meet the standards of a genre which had evolved beyond being a discreet intellectual puzzle.

Oh, no. No no no! This is an argument in favor of the kind of thing we see in In the Woods by Tana French., where we have a beautifully written novel where the protagonist slowly destroys his own life and no one manages to stop the murderer from getting away with the crime. That’s terrible! Gentill argues this:

And so, the mystery novel has become, above all, a literature of resistance. At its core is a champion who will not let matters lie, who will defy propriety, circumstance and fate itself to achieve a greater end, whether that be justice, truth or a personal sense of right and duty. They may not succeed but they will try, and if they fail, the reader will know—even in the absence of a sequel—that they will return to the fight. The fine art of the mystery writer relies on an ability to lead the reader through the darkest of moments to a realization of some sort. Occasionally that realization involves hope, but not always.

The realization doesn’t always involve hope! Well, good Lord above, don’t tell me that is a traditional mystery! That is a grimdark mystery, a sub-subgenre I have never thought about before and have no wish to encounter by accident, as happened with In the Woods.

Well, in my opinion, there’s absolutely no need to re-interpret traditional mysteries, because lots of them are still being written. The more serious, less cute cozies are traditional mysteries, and there are certainly plenty of those. The above argument seems to me to be more usefully framed as an attempt to delineate a different subgenre of mysteries.

But click through and read the whole thing, if you have time, and see what you think.

Incidentally, one of my favorite current traditional mystery series is Patrice Greenwood’s Wysteria Tearoom mysteries, which are cozies, but very much set on the serious end of the cozy spectrum. If any of you read mysteries, do you have a current series you especially favor?

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Good heavens, really?

Scientists use stem cells from frogs to build first living robots

Be warned. If the rise of the robots comes to pass, the apocalypse may be a more squelchy affair than science fiction writers have prepared us for.

Researchers in the US have created the first living machines by assembling cells from African clawed frogs into tiny robots that move around under their own steam.

One of the most successful creations has two stumpy legs that propel it along on its “chest”. Another has a hole in the middle that researchers turned into a pouch so it could shimmy around with miniature payloads.

We really do live in a science fiction universe.

Also: ugh. I think I prefer my robots to be robots and my animals to be animals.

All those SF novels where the aliens have biology-based technology suddenly look more plausible, though.

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Okay, so what ARE some really good SF novels for non-SF readers?

Drawing on yesterday’s post, obviously! And, like the Book Bub post, I’m going to try to stick to SF, not fantasy. So I will try to list ten choices I think would have a good chance of working. I’ll start off:

1. Murderbot: All Systems Red. That’s honestly a great choice.

How about something with a literary tone, but not Station Eleven. For example, how about:

2. Kindred or maybe Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.

A bit dark, but not too dark, do you think? And Butler was such an outstanding writer. Any book club member who feels dismissive about SF as a genre needs exposure to something that is powerfully written at the sentence level all the way up to the level of themes. Personally, I admire the Lilith’s Brood series the most, but those might have a harder time appealing to readers who aren’t already fans of SF, it seems to me.

I’m not a huge fan of LeGuin, whose books just do not tend to appeal to me, for reasons that are hard to pin down. Well, I don’t tend to really like her protagonists or other characters; I imagine that’s a big part of it. She’s such a fantastic writer, though. How about:

3. The Left Hand of Darkness.

Perhaps the book club members like literary-esque detective novels? China Mieville is a bit hit-and-miss for me, but I loved:

4. The City and the City

Does that count as science fiction? Maybe that counts as fantasy. Well, leave it in for now and see if by the time I get to ten, something else has occurred to me.

Oh, here’s one:

5. The Martian by Andy Weir

It’s exciting, and near-future SF is accessible in a way that a lot of SF isn’t — I mean, accessible to people who may feel some resistance to liking a science fiction novel. This one is hard to resist. Plus there would be a lot to discuss! there’s no character development to speak of — does that matter? Why or why not? Having just one character on stage for a whole lot of the book, how does Weir make that work? Surely people would have fun with that.

Speaking of having fun with a book:

6. Seveneves by Neil Stevenson

I have seldom had more fun arguing about what did and didn’t work and why than with Seveneves. It’s a long book, granted. Still, I think it’s a reasonable contender.

How about a space opera? I hate to suggest to book club members, Oh, you can like SF, but not if it’s got too many yucky SF elements in it! Time travel sure, but not aliens and space ships! To avoid that message, how about picking something that’s a bit reminiscent of the Star Trek universe, but different and perhaps more appealing to modern readers? In other words:

7. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Wouldn’t there be plenty to discus after reading that one? All the AI/Person stuff, and handling secrets, and aliens, an accommodating (or not) the expressed needs of people who are not like you. Lots of good stuff.

If you didn’t pick Kindred by Octavia Butler, then you have room for a different time travel novel. How about:

8. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

It’s funny, it would to readers who like literature set in the late 1800s it would especially appeal to any reader familiar with Three Men in a Boat, and of course it’s very well written.

What are some older titles that are clearly classic SF, but would have a good chance of appealing to modern readers? I’m thinking first of Varley’s Gaia trilogy, but you couldn’t suggest a whole trilogy for a book club, could you?

I’m not crazy about the typical books that appear on lists of SF classics, like Rendezvous with Rama and the Foundation series and Stranger in a Strange Land and all those. I didn’t care for them when I started reading SF and I don’t think most of them aged especially well. Maybe . . . maybe something by a classic older author, but a work that, while not as famous, is perhaps more approachable (and more appealing to me personally). Maybe:

9. Cuckoo’s Egg by C J Cherryh

It’s short, it’s beautifully put together, it is sociological SF rather than space opera, it tells an intimate story rather than trying to go all over the place and do everything. Plus it’s one of my all-time favorites by one of my all-time favorite authors. And available on Kindle these days!

What’s a good choice for the tenth place? Suggest something in the comments that might appeal to non-SF fans who are in your new SF book club:

10. ___________________________

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Science fiction books for your book club

I’m not a member of a book club. I’m sure if I joined one, any book that was picked would hit my “Assigned book! Assigned books are always bad!” knee-jerk reaction and there I’d be, reading the book in a resentful frame of mind. Even when I want to read a book, I want to read it when I want to read it, not on a schedule. I’m just not the book-club type, I guess.

This is a list of seventeen titles from Book Bub, incidentally. The choices are meant to appeal to book clubs that do not ordinarily read SFF, so that ought to influence the choices a whole lot. I wonder if it does? Let’s take a look.

Okay, good choice: Murderbot: All Systems Red.

Why it’s a good choice: It’s short, and it’s enormously popular for a reason. Anybody not dead-set against cyborgs ought to enjoy it, and if they don’t, well, it is short. Plenty to discuss, surely.

Station Eleven is on this list. That’s a good choice for a different reason — it’s essentially a literary novel. If the club members are more inclined toward literary fiction, then it’s a choice that may appeal to them. Plus the end of the world plot ought to work for many people whether they are ordinarily into literary fiction or not. It’s beautifully written and has enough sympathetic characters that I enjoyed it, though unlike Murderbot, I’ve only read it once.

Three-Body Problem is on here. That one is a good example of why I wouldn’t join a book club. I couldn’t get through this one; I just found it boring. I didn’t much care for any of the characters and the writing wasn’t compelling enough to make me want to read it despite that.

Oh, here’s Binti. I know a lot of people really loved it. Not me. I didn’t care for it one bit. I disliked the protagonist and loathed the plot. It’s short, though, so it’s got that going for it.

The Calculating Stars. Okay, now, that’s a much better choice imo. People who like historicals, or like history, or like real-world plots that involve space rather than out-there plots that involve space, might all enjoy this one. It’s so approachable for a non-SF fan! Well-written, mostly rather snappy in pace, a relatively quick read, great for discussion. This one I wholeheartedly agree is an excellent choice for a book club that is not really into SFF in general.

Out of their seventeen picks, those are the ones I’ve read. Click through if you’re interested and see what you think of the full list.

Here’s a list of books that might make me join a book club:

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie

York, by Laura Ruby

Lovely War, by Julie Berry

Idle Days on the Yann by Lord Dunsany

A Woman of the Iron People by Elanore Arnason

The Just City by Jo Walton

That’s a pretty eclectic list, I guess. But those are some of the first ones that spring to mind where I both have the book on my Kindle, and would genuinely like to read it. So much so that I would endure having them assigned, with a due date.

These aren’t the ones I’d pick to introduce non-SFF readers to SFF. That’s a completely different post!

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Opening sentences

Books on my coffee table right now include an eclectic assortment of fiction and nonfiction. Let’s take a look:

1. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. Here’s the first sentence, which is the one that caught my eye and inspired this particular first-sentences post:

The butler, recognizing her Ladyship’s only surviving brother at a glance, as he afterwards informed his less percipient subordinates, favoured Sir Horace with a low bow, and took it upon himself to say that my lady, although not at home to less nearly-connected persons, would be happy to see him.

Fun sentence! Fifty words, a clutter of subordinate clauses, and the word “percipient,” which I’m pretty sure I have never actually used myself. The related “perspicacious,” yes, but not “percipient.” I should work that into a casual conversation this week, just for fun. I was semi-drafted to teach an evening section of General Biology this semester – first time I’ll be in the classroom in, I don’t know, fifteen years or so – and perhaps I should comment on a student’s perspicacity if I get the chance.

As I said, I have quite a miscellany of books on the table at the moment; let’s see what else is here . . . okay, just one fantasy novel, which I may or may not get around to reading shortly. If not, it’ll go back downstairs, to the immense TBR pile from whence it most recently came. Here it is:

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett. I see there’s a prologue. I never know how to handle prologues in these first-line posts. This time I’m skipping the prologue and going straight to chapter one:

It was, they all agreed later, a fair measure of Rathe’s luck that he was the one on duty when the butcher came to report his missing apprentice.

That’s not bad! I see from the back that Rathe is a city guard and that a lot of children are vanishing. A good setup; that’s a hook that catches my interest. I tend to like police and investigator protagonists, as you’d expect since I like mysteries. This one, given the secondary world fantasy setting, makes me think at once of Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series, which is a good association.

I liked Melissa Scott and Jo Graham’s Order of the Air series, by the way. I particularly liked the second book, as I recall, which is Steel Blues. I read it first, so I can say it stands alone pretty well.

Then I have various nonfiction books up here. Let’s see, this is a memoir type of thing, by Gerald Durrell. Some of you may have read something by his literary-author brother, Lawrence Durrell. I read White Eagles Over Serbia, which I did not much appreciate, unfortunately. If there are Nazis in a novel, they should lose, as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, Gerald wrote books that were more fun, about growing up in Corfu and all his animal-collecting trips for zoos and so on. Highly engaging. This one is Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, which is one I haven’t read before. It starts like this:

It had been a hard winter, and even when spring was supposed to have taken over, the crocuses – which seemed to have a touching and unshaken faith in the seasons – were having to push their way grimly through a thin crust of snow.

I don’t imagine that scene takes place on Corfu! No, I see, it’s a family reunion in England. Well, it’s a fine sentence, though I don’t personally think crocuses ever look grim regardless. An intrinsically cheerful little flower, the crocus, regardless of – or perhaps because of – the snow and ice they typically bloom through. Sounds like Gerald & Family will be glad to get back to a warmer location, though.

Here’s one that will perhaps seem a little different:

Thinking Like a Parrot by Bond & Diamond

In northeastern Australia, Barringtonia trees along the esplanade in the city of Cairns are magnets for rainbow lorikeets, small parrots specialized as nectar feeders. The trees have broad, glossy leaves and bear pendulous chains of creamy white flowers that produce huge quantities of pollen and nectar. Lorikeets descend onto the Barringtonias in the early morning: the birds dangle on the flower chain by one foot, stretching far down the stalk without disturbing the blooms. They then work systematically back up the inflorescence from the tip toward the base, grasping each flower in their beaks and sweeping their tongues around the floral cup.

I quoted the whole first paragraph because it’s a nice example of well-written, visually evocative nonfiction. Lorikeets can process a thousand flowers an hour, apparently, in case you wondered about that detail. This is a fine beginning, though I’m not sure when we’ll get to the thinking part – this book is supposed to be about parrot behavior and brains. Let me see, chapter headings are: Origins, Behavior, Sociality, Cognition, Disruption, Conservation, Parrots and People. A lot of appendices. Looks like an excellent addition to my ethology library, which badly needs to be updated. This book was published in 2019, which is excellent.

Oh, it occurs to me, the first General Bio lecture is over, basically, the characteristics of living things. I should use the rainbow lorikeet when talking about adaptations. I’m dead bored with penguins, which are the example given in the textbook. Way too obvious. A parrot that’s a nectar and pollen specialist sounds much more interesting. I should look up a little more about lorikeets before this evening.

Here is a representative sentence, not the first sentence, from another new ethology title. I don’t expect to read this one straight through, so I picked the first sentence of the chapter I read first:

Deep Thinkers, edited by Janet Mann

Although similar selective pressures shaped the brains of odontocetes and mysticetes during their evolution, several key differences exist between these two suborders in terms of external brain shape, size, and organization.

Boring! I mean, boringly written. The comparative brain anatomy of toothed whales versus baleen whales is interesting as a subject. But what a contrast in reading experience the whale book is going to present compared to the parrot book.

In case you are interested, the odontocete brain is shorter and broader than the mysticete brain, with substantially more cortical folds, a bigger cerebellum, a bigger hippocampus (still relatively small compared to other mammals), and a few other differences having to do with clusters of neurons and general neuron density.

Back to fiction! This is a contemporary by Madeleine L’Engle:

Troubling a Star

The iceberg was not a large one, but it was big enough that the seal and I were not crowded, and I was grateful for that. The seal was asleep after its night of hunting. It was a crab-eater seal, and crab-eaters live on krill, not crab, and as far as I know do not eat people. I willed it to stay asleep and not even notice that Vicky Austin was sharing its iceberg, which was floating majestically in the dark and icy waters of the Antarctic Ocean, or that my heart was beating wildly with terror.

How about that! The book opens with a flash-forward of one and a half pages, after which Vicky begins to explain to the reader how she got into that remarkable predicament. Certainly attention grabbing. I didn’t know that crabeater seals don’t eat crabs! Google confirms this odd fact. “Krill comprise 90% of the crabeater seal’s diet,” it says here. Well, good God above. I may never be able to refer to this animal by its common name, ever again. The scientific name is, let me see, Lobodon carcinophaga. What a terrible, terrible scientific name. Sounds for all the world like the animal eats cancer! This seal just can’t catch a break. Fortunately the genus apparently contains only the one species, so it’s fine to just call this seal Lobodon. To be clear, one could say, “Lobodon, you know, that krill-specialist phocid.” I’m sure people would immediately understand what animal you have in mind.

Okay, and on the bottom of the pile on the coffee table, another memoir! That’s unexpected. I really don’t read a lot of memoirs. This one is:

Under the Table by Katherine Darling.

Katherine Darling! Did anybody else immediately wonder if she has a Dalmatian? I know, of course, it’s not that uncommon a name, but that is a powerful association for me. Well, anyway, here is the opening:

The night before chef school began, I dreamt I ate Jacques Pépin.

Oh, that’s funny! Jacques Pépin is a famous chef, as you may know, and he was the one teaching this introductory class at the French Culinary Institute, also famous. Oh ho, I see from the back flap of the book that Katherine Darling graduated first in her class! I’m impressed. She was involved with the magazine Saveur, to which I used to subscribe. Her little bio here indicates she does have a dog, but does not specify whether it is a Dalmatian. Probably not.

There have to be recipes in this book . . . let me flip through . . . oh, here: The Most Decadent Potato Puree. Well, as far as I’m concerned, you can just call it mashed potatoes, but . . . okay, wow. Four potatoes, a whole cup of cream, and a full stick of butter. And four ounces of cream cheese. Okay, yes, I have to admit, that is outstandingly decadent. I have never much cared for mashed potatoes, but if I were going to make them, this is certainly the recipe I’d use. Quite a few of the recipes sprinkled through the memoir sound appealing. Oyster Stew. Cheddar Biscuits. Mahi Mahi with Lime-Cilantro Beurre Noisette. Hopefully I’ll like the book as well.

So that’s what’s on my coffee table right now! What are you all reading at the moment?

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Recent Reading: Resurgence by CJC

Ooookay. Two things:

First, I accidentally ordered a copy from the SFBC after preordering a copy from Amazon. Therefore I have an extra copy, which I’d be happy to mail to anyone who wants it. I realize this is likely to be a low-demand book, because if you’re not already reading the Foreigner series, you probably don’t want to start with the 20th book. But if you meant to pick it up and haven’t yet, drop me a line.

Now, second:

I was so annoyed by Resurgence.

Yes, yes, I know, I shouldn’t say that if I want someone to take the extra copy off my hands. But I can’t help it. CJ Cherryh really seriously changed her mind about a situation from the last book, Emergence, and this more or less spoiled the entire reading experience for me. That is SO provoking in a series novel I was really looking forward to reading.

Here’s what happened: in Emergence, a man named Nomari turns up as a candidate for the vacant lordship of the Ajuri clan, which is important to stabilize the overall political situation. He is slightly older than Cajeiri’s mother, to whom he is slightly related. Though his background has made him something of a chameleon behaviorally, the reader gets to know Nomari as honest, brave, self-educated, deferential or forceful as required, and above all dedicated to rescuing the Ajuri from the terrible situation in which they’ve been mired for several generations. He is not putting himself forward because of a blood claim to the title, so much, but because he thinks he has a chance to get the job done and he believes someone needs to do it.

Most important, at the end of Emergence, Nomari is confirmed as Lord of Ajuri by Tagini. There can be no mistake about this. He gets a phone call from Tabini and is asked immediately afterward, “Are you confirmed?” He answers, “I am. He said I was. Is that it?” Tatiseigi tells him, “It certainly is. You are indeed equal to myself.” From then on, Tatiseigi addresses him as nandi – lord. Nomari is assigned high-level Assassin guards, the customary ashid, on the grounds that he will need protection as he takes over Ajuri. He leaves Tatiseigi’s house on the clear understanding that he is taking over Ajuri, having had over a hundred of his own people declare allegiance to him.

Well, apparently all that was just a dream or something! None of it happened! Resurgence opens with Nomari still being considered for the lordship! There’s no ashid; he’s being addressed as nadi, not nandi; he hasn’t gone to Ajuri, but is instead being taken to the capital to meet Tabini and maybe be confirmed.

I paused. What in the world? Is this going to be explained somehow? Nope. Not a word to justify this disorienting change in Nomari’s position and circumstances. He is also presented as both younger and more unsure of himself than in the prior book. Remember, this is a man who is several years older than Damiri, but here he’s frequently referred to as a young man. That happened occasionally in Emergence too, but the picture we’re given in Resurgence just consistently describes a younger man than seems reasonable. There are shades of the Lost Prince trope, suggestions that his people hid him because he could be The Rightful Heir. To some degree, this could be glossed over. The change in demeanor and – much worse – status just makes no sense at all.

Now, I know that changes like this happen all the time during revision, but what the hell? I don’t know whether CJC changed her mind, but it seems like she just forgot all this, because you cannot persuade me that she couldn’t have smoothed this out better if she’d spent ten minutes thinking about how to put Nomari where she wanted him for Resurgence. It also seems like her editor(s) absolutely fell down on the job. How anybody could read this newest installment and not realize how severe the disconnect is . . . I have no idea. Granted, I just re-read Emergence because I always re-read one or two of the more recent books before reading the new one. If her memory is that bad, then CJC’s editor needs to do the same thing!

Okay. So this was a serious problem for me.

As an added note, I could have sworn that Machigi – you know, the important guy from the Marid, with whom Bren negotiated in a much earlier couple of books – was already with the dowager at Bren’s estate of Najida well before Bren came back from Mosphera. When Resurgence opens, that appears not to have happened either. In this case I can persuade myself, more or less, that maybe I misunderstood the timing of events in Emergence – but I don’t think I did. I really don’t think so.

Besides the abrupt continuity issues, how was the book?

Regrettably, in every other way, Resurgence also stands out as an inferior book for the series, surely the weakest of the entire set. In Emergence, a lot happens, Nomari is developed into an interesting secondary character. Damiri takes an important role, where she is presented positively and in detail for almost the first time in the entire series. The problem with Ajuri clan gets resolved. Tatiseigi declares that Damiri’s daughter will be his heir, resolving that ongoing problem. On Bren’s side, he is introduced to Mospheira as an important atevi court official for the first time, which is quite satisfying.

In Resurgence, nothing much happens. The dowager sweeps Bren, Machigi, and Nomari up into a scheme to deal with a political problem in the south, involving the Marid and various things that link up to earlier books. This is all fine and good, but we spend an awful lot of words on it and it all seems tangential and, frankly, somewhat forced. It looks to me like the dowager and Machigi could have dealt with all that without involving Bren or Nomari. I get that the dowager is also taking her own sweet time assessing Nomari, but I don’t care – his status was resolved at the end of the last book and it just infuriates me that CJC is pretending that didn’t happen, or has forgotten that it did happen, or whatever. Nothing much is going on with Cajeiri either. The whole book seems like an almost complete waste of time, and then it stops short without resolving anything important. For the first time, I feel like CJC has nothing much in mind but generating words in a row to keep the series going, and as a definite fan of this series, I hate that.

So … I know, that was not exactly a sales pitch, but I still have this extra copy if anybody would like it.

[While I’m on that subject, I eventually did find my original copy of the 4th book of Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, but not til I ordered a replacement, so I have two nice hardcover copies of that as well. Anybody want that one? It’s an excellent series, and though I read it straight through, I believe a reader would find that the volumes do stand alone fairly well.]

Now, in order not to kill the series, or (worse) let it die a gradual death from a drop in quality, where might CJC go from here?

First, her attempt to write in trilogies within the larger series has somewhat fallen apart. The 16th and 17th books form essentially a duology, then the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st are clearly going to form a quadrilogy at the very least. The titles signal that, as Convergence, Emergence, and Resurgence are all the same style of word. I presume the 21st book will continue or perhaps finish some moderately self-contained story. Then what?

If Cherryh meant to stop, she really should have done that after Visitor, perhaps, if not earlier. Given that she means to keep going, I think she should wind up the current set in some satisfactory way with Book 21, preferably in some way that resolves the continuity problems she just introduced – and good luck with that, because I cannot imagine how to do that plausibly, but she could at least hand-wave at the problem – and move on. If there is nothing much to do except fiddle with the details of the broader political situation, then stop fiddling with that, jump ahead in time, and start again with Cajeiri in his teens or twenties. That would allow enough time to have passed to set up a new set of problems, up to and including a return of the kyo and, of course, the enemy with whom the kyo is at war. Let Bren become a secondary character, go ahead and let the aiji-dowager and Tatiseigi die – I know, but they’re really old – bring Seimiro in as an important character, and Irene too for that matter, and go from there. We have the set-up for the next generation. Take advantage of that and move on.

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Starting 2020 with weirdness

Recent headlines that caught my eye:

Eyeball Planets Might Exist, And They’re as Creepy as They Sound

You’ve heard of hot Jupiters. You’ve heard of mini-Neptunes. You’ve heard of super-Earths. But have you heard of Eyeball Planets? Yep – planetary scientists think there might be a type of exoplanet out there that looks disturbingly like a giant eyeball. Just sitting there. Staring.

Really, the pictures aren’t all that Sauron-like. But what a name for an ordinary phenomenon!

Time Travel Could Be Enabled by Circulating Lasers

Weak and strong gravitational fields can be produced by a single continuously circulating unidirectional beam of light. In the weak gravitational field of a unidirectional ring laser, it is predicted that a spinning neutral particle, when placed in the ring, is dragged around by the resulting gravitational field.

Ron Mallett has new exact solutions of the Einstein field equations for the exterior and interior gravitational fields of the light cylinder.

Ron Mallet has found the exterior gravitational field contains closed timelike lines. The strong gravitational field can be produced by a circulating cylinder of light.

The closed timelike lines indicates the possibility of time travel into the past.

Sure it does, buddy.

Nice headline, though.

Hundreds of people queue to be ‘cleansed’ by guinea pigs in bizarre ritual

Okay, that one is crazy.

The year is young. Really, really young. I wonder what will wind up in competition for “weirdest 2020 headline”? Maybe this is the year I’ll remember to keep a list.

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Oh, <em>that's</em> why no one sticks the ending of a Robin Hood retelling.

So, I was listening to a podcast of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff on a long drive recently, and someone asked a question something like this: Why do all long-running tv shows have terrible final seasons? It probably wasn’t quite that, but something close.

I don’t watch much tv these days, but of course that is the general pattern, isn’t it? No one liked the way Game of Thrones ended, did they? I wasn’t watching it and even I know that much. A lot of people considered the last season of Lost was famously bad. The last season of Buffy wasn’t anybody’s favorite. The list goes on and on.

Well, Ken and Robin have a suggestion about why it’s impossible to end a tv show like that properly, and I think it applies to Robin Hood retellings too.

It’s an episodic story, where the characters are doing the same kind of thing in episode after episode, and the pleasure the viewer derives from the show consists of watching the character act like themselves as they face and solve problems in a characteristic way. When the director tries to come up with a way to do something else, then inevitably that involves:

a) the ensemble cast breaks up, with everyone going off to pursue different lives.

b) a lot of people die.

c) the situation is jerked violently sideways, so that the finale involves characters doing stuff that is completely unlike the stuff they used to normally do.

No matter how the director handles it, the ending will feel unsatisfying to most viewers because it is too great a departure from the typical episode that has been enjoyed in all the previous seasons.

All the above is from memory, but I think it’s a close approximation of the discussion.

Obviously Robin Hood fits perfectly into this idea. It’s not a smooth story with a single arc. It’s an episodic story with an ensemble cast, just like a tv series. There’s Little John and the bridge over the river, there’s the thing with the golden arrow, there are all the episodes we’re familiar with. Lots of writers can do a great story that incorporates those elements. But then how do you end the story? You can’t. The ending, whatever you do, in intrinsically impossible to construct in a satisfying way.

Ken and Robin suggest that honestly, the best you can do is stop cold without trying to do a final arc or any kind of finale. Just cancel the show abruptly and leave James T Kirk and his crew to go off and continue their five-year mission without taking the viewer along. That way the viewer can derive some kind of satisfaction in the idea that the adventures are continuing just as always, only out of sight.

That, unfortunately, is probably not possible with The Adventures of Robin Hood. We all know how the story ended in the . . . I hesitate to say “original” . . . the version we read in grade school. That ending failed exactly as all other endings fail, but it’s probably not going to work to try to step away while The Adventures of Robin Hood are in full swing because everyone already does have that ending in their minds.

I do have a retelling or two of Robin Hood sitting around on my Kindle. But when I go into the stories, I’ll doing it expecting the books to wind up in a bit of a mess at the ending.

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Sticking the landing

Here’s a post at Book View Cafe by Brenda Clough: Flying by the seat of your pants: sticking the landing.

The big pitfall of planless writing is that the story will go nowhere.The questing party will wander around the mines of Moria in the dark and never get out. The hobbits forget about the One Ring and become involved in the court politics of Gondor. Aragorn and Arwen hop into bed and suddenly the novel becomes 50 Shades of Grey. Saruman gets involved with flamewars on 4-chan and doesn’t imprison Gandalf in Orthanc.

Okay, so that thing about 4-chan is funny.

Anyway, sure, I guess. I don’t think I’ve ever really found the ending that difficult . . . okay, maybe once or twice . . . all right, fine, I do have a difficult WIP right now that’s a real bear about the ending. But usually it’s the middle that’s the problem, not the ending. The denouement is my favorite part, generally. I guess I often do have a scene or two from close to the end in mind; it’s how to get there that’s sometimes the problem.

However, this is a really good point: Figure out what the theme of the work is, what it’s really about, and start driving everything towards that theme. 

Maybe this advice about figuring out the theme and driving to it will finally give me the epiphany I need to get my own WIP moving properly toward the end.

In the meantime, what are some novels where the owner just nailed the ending? That is difficult to do and many, many otherwise excellent stories suffer from a not-great ending. Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood comes to mind, and also Spindle’s End. Oh, hey, Stephen King’s It is a really famous example of this exact problem.

Other stories don’t feel complete; they don’t feel like they have ended at all. GGK’s Under Heaven has that long epilogue because it basically doesn’t have a proper ending at the right place, imo. Patricia McKillip’s Cygnet duology would probably be much, much better if it were a trilogy.

But who’s done it right? Let me see . . .

Okay —

a) Martha Wells in The Fall of Ile-Rien. This is the one of hers that I think has the best ending.

b) Endings are not always McKillip’s strong point, but she absolutely nailed it with The Book of Atrix Wolfe.

c) LMB’s The Curse of Chalion has an excellent ending.

d) MWT’s The Queen of Attolia has a great ending.

What are some others?

I think I do pretty decent endings, by and large. I especially like the ending of Land of Burning Sands. I think that’s a happy ending without seeming pat. Oh, and yes, I really like the ending of Door Into Light — that ending is why I wrote the whole thing.

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Are you Murderbot?

Okay, this is a fun and unexpected idea for one of those internet quizzes: Which Murderbot character are you?

As we wait for the full-length novel, I decided to create an All Systems Red character quiz. Are you the anti-social Murderbot, brave Dr. Mensah or soft Dr. Ratthi? Take the quiz to find out.

I am actually thinking that I might get Garodin, but nope, I got Dr. Mensah. Really, I think Garodin might be more realistic.

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