Let the Coast Guard Handle This

363px-punch_davy_joness_locker

Davy Jones’ locker: much pleasanter to say than “drowned”

I don’t do reviews of short fiction anymore, for a number of reasons. For one, see Neil Clarke’s column from last year, i.e., lack of impact.

However, just for fun, why not give a little nod toward recent stories, such as last week’s “A Spell to Retrieve Your Lover from the Bottom of the Sea” by Ada Hoffmann at Strange Horizons?

When your lover drowns, please don’t cast a spell;
They’re finicky and monkey-paw-ish, and, well,
He’s dead, you know—so have a long talk with mom
And update your profile at Match.com.

Clarion

I’m taking part in Clarion West’s Write-a-thon starting today, and it goes for 6 weeks. My goal: I’ll be working on a YA novel, and trying to improve my skills in story development. You can see my profile here.

I also want to increase my daily word count, but I can only do that by getting better at knowing where a story is going.

Not to make this all about me, the Write-a-thon is Clarion West’s summer fundraiser. Roping in all these outsider writers makes the event a bit of a self-help experience for writers who are not part of the actual workshop, more fun and interesting than just handing over a donation.

And, in case you don’t know anything about Clarion West, it’s a writing program specifically for writers of science fiction and fantasy.

I’m crossing my fingers that the blog won’t be me talking to myself for the next 6 weeks, so I hope others will drop by and say hi. If you like, give your own thoughts about how you (if you are a writer) conceptualize and build a story from the starting idea. And if you are a reader rather than a writer, maybe you have thoughts on the genre, what you like, and what makes a weak, newly hatched idea gather its strength, spread its wings, and take wing.

“We would be living in a different world” (WWII alternate history)

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda Poster

This circa 1938 poster reads: “60,000 marks is what this person, who suffers from a hereditary defect, costs the people’s community during his lifetime… Read ‘A New People’, the monthly magazine of the Bureau of Race Politics…”

When you read the historical accounts of HItler’s stunning military triumphs of 1939-1940, when you watch the old newsreel clips and look at the maps showing Nazi Germany’s rapid conquests, it is easy for your attention to be riveted solely on this aspect of the war. The shock, even from today’s perspective, is such that you can’t even conceive of a greater threat than military defeat and disaster.

Churchill, however, did see this greater threat, and he articulated it in his speech to the House of Commons on June 18, after France had asked for an armistice with Germany. He conjures two starkly different futures — first, victory:

If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

or defeat:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Churchill saw what could be — and this was before the death camps came into being. In hindsight, we can also clearly see that if Hitler had won the war, we would be living in a different world* — i.e., Churchill’s second image.

Can you imagine your society transformed, the Aryan race the rulers, all other lesser races servants and slaves, and Jews exterminated? Can you imagine this: that this condition is not just a tyranny imposed by brute force, but belief inculcated in people’s minds? Belief in Nazi ideology was one of Hitler’s most important efforts in Germany during the years of 1933 to 1939. Can you imagine an immense occupying army and bureaucracy sworn to his service, not a country’s? Tens of thousands of people forced to work as slaves in labor camps? A division of the government dedicated to the efficient identification, classification, collection, killing, and disposal of civilians?

One minor fact that staggers my mind is that when the gas chambers and crematoria were conceived and the plans drawn up, the designs were patented. Does this make you afraid of how minds can be deformed? Can you imagine?

And, regarding “perverted science,” let us consider what else Hitler’s scientists had in the works: nuclear fission and missiles.

Yes, we would be living in a different world — the Nazi system and ideology still alive and operating, immensely powerful, carrying out its vision, and extended over Europe and America.

Imagining that world is what Philip K. Dick attempts to do, in The Man in the High Castle, which I will discuss next.

[*I have borrowed this phrase from Michael McMenamin, in his review of John Lukacs’ Five Days in London.]

Alternate History: World War II

January 30 parade

A grim 80th anniversary approaches: on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The photo above shows a celebratory torchlight parade in Berlin on the evening of Jan. 30. President Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler chancellor, looks out the window.

It was the beginning of an unimaginable inferno. With the Enabling Act in March 1933, the German Parliament was largely excluded from power for the next 4 years and so Hitler went from chancellor to dictator. The numbers of men in the German army immediately began to increase, and in only two years the army had trebled in size. (It would increase 7-fold by the time war came.) The execution squads began their work in 1934 with the Night of the Long Knives. And on it went, the Third Reich, gathering power and momentum, until it seemed unstoppable.

I’ve been reading a good bit of history of World War II for the past year. I’m not sure what started me down the path, if it was anything specific at all. I think it is simply the complexity of it, the many different strands of events and people and beliefs and the colossal effort and sacrifice that went into it.

My father was in the Navy during the war; he served on an escort carrier, the USS Long Island, a converted cargo ship. He describes, somewhat sparely, the ship’s war duties as “We carried airplanes to Pearl Harbor, and we carried wrecked planes back to San Diego.” That tells a good bit — about the grueling nature of the Pacific war, and the sad loss of life. My father was fortunate enough to return home; one of his cousins, however, also in the Navy, was killed in a kamikaze attack.

For my job at a professional society, I occasionally have to write an obituary of a member who’s passed away. A year or so ago, when I called a widow to find out a little something about her husband, I found out that he had been born in Central Europe, had been 15 years old when the Nazis overran his country, had been taken from his family and placed in a labor camp, had escaped and was eventually helped by the Underground to cross occupied Europe and France to eventually reach England over a year later. He also met his wife-to-be at that time. He enlisted in the armed forces there and fought the Axis until the end of the war in Europe. Then he went to college and became an insurance actuary and came to the US. It was, to put it mildly, the most interesting obituary I’ve ever written. It’s a good life, when you’ve counted for something at the end.

The reach of WWII was vast. It was one of the great “hinges of fate” of the world (to borrow Churchill’s phrase). In the subgenre of alternate history, it is one of the two most-written-about periods of history, because so much was hanging in the balance. (The other time period much used for alternate history fiction is the American Civil War.)

So for February and maybe longer, I’m going to explore the alternate history stories that deal with World War II. Up to now, I haven’t read much of this subgenre. I read Dick’s The Man in the High Castle over 30 years ago, but I’ll have to re-read it.

The question is, Will these works really have anything to say about the war; will they show the futures that could have been, and illuminate what did happen? Or will there just be easy Nazi villains, so convenient to play against heroes? Will there just be a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing? Because there really doesn’t seem to be any point in alternate history, unless to have characters grapple with serious political and moral issues.

Thoughts on The Hobbit (the movie)

Carpal tunnel syndrome has kept me off the computer except for what I had to do for work, so I am late in continuing with my “Hobbit”-related posts. Since the movie has been out for over a month now, I will dispense with issuing alerts against spoilers and will assume that you’ve either seen the movie, or don’t mind spoilers, or you won’t continue reading this particular post.

So, to get a few things out of the way:

  • It was 20-30 minutes too long. Did the fights have to be so extravagant?
  • It is for teens and older (much violence, and its length tries the patience even for oldsters like me).
  • Martin Freeman was terrific. He was a perfect Bilbo.
  • How does a round door work, exactly? Do hobbits have a special magic to make a single hinge hold a door without needing daily adjustment?
  • I had a sense that I’d seen far too many wargs in the space of 3 hours.

I think Jackson did not do unforgivable violence to the heart of the story, for which I am grateful. I will particularly single out for praise the scene where Bilbo must act to escape the goblin mines, when the option to kill Gollum, who stands between him and the passage out, seems to be the only possibility. The camera stays for a long moment on Gollum as he looks, unseeing, toward the invisible Bilbo, and the moment is prolonged enough to let Bilbo, and us, see the pitiful side of Gollum, and so allows us to see and feel the pity that motivates Bilbo to take a chance on leaping over Gollum. That was well done. Amid all the crash, smack, ow, boom, erg, oof, argh, and whatnot of the action, I’m not sure I would have noticed if that critical incident hadn’t been done thoughtfully, but I’m certainly glad that it was.

It partly makes up for the over-the-top absurdity of the dwarves’ battle to escape the goblins.

The filling-in of the Necromancer story and the White Council with Saruman the White wasn’t objectionable, and the expansion of the role of Radagast was kind of fun. It made me regret that the movie wasn’t suitable for young folks because they would have loved the hedgehogs and the hare sled in Radagast’s scenes. Kids would have loved the dish-throwing at Bag End, too.

The movie could have been suitable for kids and adults both, if it had been less enamored of the fighting. Really, where’s the sense of building up to something? There is a battle in the climax, when there’s a dragon hoard to fight over, not to mention Smaug’s attack on Lake Town, and is Jackson going to make that battle last an hour and deaden our senses with an assault even greater than in Hobbit part one? And of course there will also be the wizards’ assault on the Necromancer at some point, so there will be a tremendous amount of hurly-burly for the viewer to get through. But I suppose this is what Jackson specializes in now; in the LOTR he acquired his audience of those who come for the battles, and he is loath to change direction now. Perhaps in a future installment he’ll throw Radagast’s rabbits into the fray and we’ll get to see bunnies slaughtered by Sauron. Now that’s entertainment.

The Hobbit’s ancient beginning

As I was setting forth into rereading Chapter 1 of The Hobbit, I started getting a sense of … remindedness. What was this chapter reminding me of?

The first sentence, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” is very direct and brisk in getting to the story, and right after that you expect should follow something like “…named Bilbo Baggins. One fine morning as he stood by his door…” etc. But that is not what happens at all. We are told what the hole looks like and what a hobbit is, and that “the Bagginses have lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind,” and who his parents were, and even a bit about his Took ancestors. And all this preliminary background is finished off by a very firm placing of the story in a legendary past:

By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous…

Aha! Now I know what it reminds me of: the opening of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,”  which first looks far into the past — at the momentous event that caused a chain of consequences leading forward in time to the (still in the legendary past) event of the story that will be told. That is, it begins with the siege and assault of Troy and its smoking ruins, leading to Aeneas’s founding of Rome and the spread of its civilization until Felix Brutus, banished great-grandson of Aeneas, becomes the founder of Britain. All of this has nothing materially to do with the story of King Arthur’s court that the poet goes on to tell. It runs counter to common storyteller advice to start the story as quickly as possible.

Why begin the story of Sir Gawain with the fall of Troy? And why put in all that beside-the-point stuff about Belladonna Took and the Old Took and the gossip about a long-ago Took ancestor taking a fairy wife? (I have a German language audiobook of The Hobbit that, in fact, leaves all that out.)

Well, it makes the story being told part of a larger story: in the case of “Sir Gawain,” part of the story of England, and in the case of The Hobbit, part of the larger world. That bit about young Tooks running off and having adventures is the beginning of that idea, and throughout the whole story of The Hobbit Bilbo is discovering the greater world, which is not yet called Middle Earth. This is a way of proceeding that was evidently instinctive to Tolkien, as can be seen clearly when we get the entire Lord of the Rings story which itself is just one part of a much larger story.

This placing of a story in a larger context also gives Bilbo and Sir Gawain heroic predecessors and heroic standards to measure themselves by. Throughout the novel Bilbo repeatedly either brings up the Old Took, or the narrator does.

At the end of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” the narrator comes around again to where he began:

Thus in Arthurus day this aunter bitidde,
The Brutus bokes therof beres wytteness.
Sythen Brutus the bolde burne bowed hider fyrst
After the segge and the asaute was sesed at Troye

[Thus in Arthur’s day this adventure happened
Brutus’s book thereof bears witness
Since Brutus, the bold man, came hither first
After the siege and assault was ceased at Troy]

So after giving the big picture, then narrowing in to focus on one event (Gawain’s “There and Back Again” quest, like Bilbo’s), at the end the view expands again to the larger context. It is somewhat reminiscent of the conclusion of The Hobbit, when Gandalf reminds Bilbo of the larger context of his adventure, saying “…you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”