Operation E-book Drop

29 07 2012

I just finished the e-mails. Thank you to Edward Patterson for personally taking on this initiative!

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THE CAUSE OF ALL THE TROUBLE IN PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

3 07 2012

All fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are well aware of the legal tangle of the “fee tail” that Lizzie and her sisters are in — as brotherless daughters of an elderly father, they are doomed to homeless destitution in a few years if they don’t marry. The single ones will inevitably become burdens on the married ones.

None of this could have possibly taken Mr. Bennett by surprise. He’s undoubtedly known about the “fee tail” all his life — obviously, because he owns one. He seems to understand that he can’t live forever. Somewhere around the time Wickham runs off with Lydia, he makes a reference to how his brother (the girls’ uncle) has already had to rescue him at least once, from financial disaster in the past.

Whatever his profession, he doesn’t seem to be very interested in it. It’s critical for a modern audience to understand this: today’s viewers look at him owning a farm with servants, and assume he’s well-off — they look at his obsession with insect collection and assume he’s some kind of Renaissance Man or “gentleman scientist”. He’s not. He’s the Regency equivalent of a 35-year-old man living in his mother’s basement playing World of Warcraft all night and all day. Actually, he’s the Regency equivalent of a 60-year-old man doing that. Actually, he’s the Regency equivalent of a 60-year-old man doing that while giving no thought to a problem he’s seen coming for more than twenty years, certain to bring his five marriageable daughters crippling misery for the majority of their lives unless he does something.

No, wait, there’s more. We must remember that in the Regency period, the girls are far less able to affect their fates than women in their twenties (or even their teens) in modern America. At least, Kitty and Mary certainly are! So where does that leave us?

Here it is: Mr. Bennett is the Regency equivalent of a 60-year-old man living in his (dead) mother’s basement, playing WoW all day with headphones, wilfully ignoring a problem he’s seen coming for more than twenty years, while his five infant daughters run amok upstairs in filthy diapers with nothing to eat but moldy Milk Duds and nothing to drink but whiskey. And it’s not even single malt whiskey.

No, wait! My analogy fails because WoW is at least a somewhat social game. Mr. Bennett hates socializing, and does it poorly — OK, replace World of Warcraft with Windows Solitaire.

No, wait! Well, never mind . . . you get the idea.

Then there’s the stupidity of marrying a woman like Mrs. Bennett. The man could have married for money (which would have been regarded as sensible). He could have married someone he could have been personally happy with — maybe not the richest or prettiest lady, but someone at least emotionally compatible and perhaps even his intellectual equal — this would not have been judged quite as sensible, but at least we could sympathize with it. We have every reason to believe he knew just how important his decision was of whom to marry, but he screwed it up anyway for no apparent reason other than, perhaps, laziness. I also suppose this whole thing might be mitigated if Jane Austen had indicated to her readers that Lizzie’s mother was smokin’ hot in her youth. But again, there is no indication of that.

As Lady Catherine DeBurgh points out: Mr. Bennett utterly failed to promote the girls’ “education” in any way. . . remember, this is something that, as an educated man himself, he would have had a solid understanding of how best to accomplish! I’m sure he couldn’t afford the very best, but as the owner of a prosperous farm he could have at least gone through the motions. As Mrs. Bennett points out: he does very little to actually try to steer them in directions that might, at least, slightly increase their chances of happiness. (Or, failing that, steer them in directions that are somewhat safe.) Who can forget Mr. Bennett’s nonchalance about his sixteen-year-old daughters partying with drunken soldiers in their twenties (and beyond!) on leave, with no supervision? He rationalizes this on the ultimate basis of lazy parenting: he didn’t want to hear any complaining!

To a modern audience, of course, this may seem peripheral: no one watches “Pride and Prejudice” for Mr. Bennett. But consider the spirit and times in which Jane Austen wrote the story. A critical part of it is the problems that Austen puts in front of the Bennett girls. These problems were put in the context of the times, so Austen could connect with her readers.

Austen wasn’t the only person of her time aware of the pitfalls of the “Fee Tail”. But unlike Austen, most people in that society rationalized the problem away (the way most people, then and now, rationalize most social problems away). People of Austen’s time surely said: “Daughters won’t be left destitute all their lives very often — after all, their parents (particularly the father, given his greater privilege) are there to provide support and guidance”.

Austen dared to ask: “What if an intelligent, capable, kind and pleasant woman — deserving of happiness by anyone’s standards — is saddled with a worthless father?”

She asked the same question in Persuasion. England had no good answer.

This critical role in the story, the role of the person directly at fault for the heroine’s problems, was played in the 1995 version by Benjamin Whitrow — he truly captures the essence of a man who, just now, is starting to recognize how stupid he’s been, how helpless he is, and how much he’s failed his beloved children. My intellectual response to the character on paper is that I want to whack him around with a 2×4. But watching that man’s performance, I feel shreds of regret, and I’m torn between whether to scorn him or pity him. By comparison, Donald Sutherland was a hole in the air.





WRESTLING WITH GENRE: FANTASY LITERATURE VS. WAR FICTION

2 07 2012

I consider the Raingun series to be a war story set in a fantasy world. Therefore, it’s war fiction first, fantasy second.

Of course, there is a lot of overlap between fantasy literature and war fiction. But I think there’s less overlap than most people believe. (I’ve heard some people say that the Battle of Helm’s Deep qualifies Lord of the Rings as “war fiction”, or even that the mere presence of Boromir — a warrior — is sufficient qualification. I disagree, respectfully and heartily, on both counts.) I feel I have a responsibility to explain the difference, the way I see it. Here goes:

I fervently believe that a story with a fantasy setting does not become a “war story” by merely throwing in a few battles. My personal definition of a “war story” is one that describes the effects of war on ordinary people, from whose flawed and fragile ranks its protagonists must spring.

a) Most people who identify as “fantasy fans” want a pace that starts slow and gradually increases throughout the story, to a climax: ideally, the outcome of the climax is unpredictable, but everyone pretty much knows what’s at stake and when/where it will happen.

Conversely, someone very smart once described war as “boredom, punctuated by bursts of sheer terror”. Sometimes, during sieges or lulls in the fighting, nothing happens for a long time, and seems like it never will again. When fighting starts again, many times it happens suddenly with surprise (or attempted surprise). I think fans of “war fiction” accept this, and appreciate stories where the pace shifts from fast to slow and back again without warning.

b) Fantasy fans want their protag to be fairly sure of what is going on in the “big picture”, and to make command decisions (or failing that, to influence them, or at least witness them being made).

Both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have great conflicts that bear some comparison to the real-life struggles of World War II. But I don’t think they’re “war fiction”. These conflicts are seen through larger-than-life, unique characters who plainly outshine the rest of their world’s populations. War fiction is about ordinary people, dealing with extraordinary challenges and extraordinary horror.

I think readers of war fiction accept that most army personnel, throughout history, were assigned specific jobs and were not privy to high-level command decisions; that rumors ran so rampant that they became very skeptical of any news. A man in a WWI trench who suddenly heard cheering that “The war is over!” was less likely to jump for joy than to roll his eyes in jaded disbelief. He’s less concerned with the Kaiser than he is with worrying whether he’s going to get trench foot. Readers of war fiction are more interested in seeing how the man in the trench deals with the stresses and trials of what he’s going through, and whether he will survive to the war’s end, than grand political designs of who will be President, or who will be King.

c) Both fantasy and “war fiction” tend to have lots of combat.  Fantasy stories often have a lot of variety for its own sake: a single book may contain battles that take place underground, by seashores, and miles above the ground on dragonback. The protag may travel long distances across many varieties of terrain; they might fight unique monsters; they might gain access to special items, magic, or allies that bring unique and unforeseen effects or hindrances to specific fights. The rationale behind this is sound: if the battles are all different from each other, it should be harder for the reader to guess which side will win the battle he is currently reading about. This will, in turn, create tension/suspense.

The suspense in war fiction isn’t so much about “Who’s winning — good or evil?” as it is about “Will the characters I care about get through this okay?”

If you read a lot of Bernard Cornwell, you will see that the battles in “war fiction” have less variety per story. Richard Sharpe’s battles will have lots of muskets. Horatio Hornblower’s battles will have lots of cannon fire. Wounds and death, when they occur, generally occur in ways similar to the way they did in the last battle. The battle might be a “hurdle” that the characters must survive to get to the next stage of the story’s development (or their own) — therefore, the reader must be highly invested in what will happen to the characters, so that every battle is a brand-new mortal threat, regardless of how outwardly similar it may be to all the other battles in the character’s military career. If the reader’s invested in the plot, that’s okay too of course, but it’s unlikely to be enough by itself, since war minus the element of characterization will tend to resemble a strategic exercise more than a story.

d) Few fantasy fans will accept their beloved Aragorn, Buffy, or Raistlin being maimed in an explosion, or catching dysentery, or suffering some form of PTSD. In the event that a classic “fantasy” character does suffer such things, their suffering will be uniquely theirs — perhaps deliberately chosen as an act of sacrifice, or perhaps resulting from some attack specifically targeted at them in particular (because classic fantasy protags are such unique individuals).

Readers of war fiction are much more willing to tolerate human frailty among their characters. They will accept flaws and tribulations on a hero.  They are prepared to sympathetically accept bad things happening to their protags, even when they are the tragic result of dumb luck — and even if the protag is only one of thousands suffering in the exact same way.

Of course, a story doesn’t have to qualify as “war fiction” to be a great story. Not according to me, anyway . . .

To sum up: in writing a “war story set in a fantasy world”, I seem to have all the characteristics that will be rejected by fantasy fans wherever they part company with fans of “war fiction”. On the other hand, a significant portion of “war fiction” fans have a deep love of real-world history and eschew fantasy altogether.

In attempting to write something “unique”, I may have perhaps gone too far and charted an unnecessarily difficult course for myself (and my readers). What do you think?