Saturday, December 31, 2011

Classic Science Fiction Ideas

Last year I read a post on the AbsoluteWrite forums from a writer who was working on her first SF novel. So, kudos for writing SF instead of fantasy, because with the flood of UF, CF, PR, etc. etc. the hard stuff is a little under-represented these days. And kudos again, because she was writing about a multigenerational colony ship - one of the classic tropes of science fiction. I mean, Orphans of the Sky! Rendezvous With Rama! Anyone can imagine ships that go faster than light, but to sit down and think hard and figure out a way to get to the stars slower than light - that takes skull sweat.

Then I read a little further. She wanted to know what happens when artificial gravity generators break down. Not what might happen. What does.

Why that is tragically sad and portends the decline of the genre as we know it, after the jump.

Harlan Ellison: A Quick Word

For the sad sacks who don't know him, he is one of the big names in F/SF, and one of the remarkably few who wrote both for print and for the screen (that classic ST:TOS episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever" was his, as was I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream). He was also the editor of the groundbreaking Dangerous Visions anthology.

All of which is a prelude to a recommendation: I think Ellison did his best work as an essayist and film critic. He managed to infuse every article with his personal voice. He's a member of the Hunter S. Thompson School of Gonzo Nonfiction, and so a precursor of the blogging revolution and a man to emulate. (In case you were wondering what Harlan had to do with a writer's blog.) So buy these books:

Stalking the Nightmare
The Harlan Ellison Hornbook

They ain't necessarily cheap, though.

Friday, December 30, 2011

But that eel soup recipe, that was pretty cool, right?

Slight Change of Plans

Looking back on my recent posts, I can see I've been getting all medieval on your a***s.

Which is okay in moderation. But really, I'm not a professional historian (in fact, once The Excalibur Trick comes out, the case might be made that I'm kind of an anti-historian) and there are plenty of medieval blogs by history pros who know...know what they're talking about. Or have at least worked a couple of RenFaires.

So I'll dial back a little on the Sarah-Vowell-meets-BBCAmerica posts, and intersperse them with some writer stuff, some sex stuff, some violence stuff, some NY vs. LA stuff, some genre stuff, some pizza stuff...typical blogging. The tough thing with most writers' blogs, though, is that they're all about agents and publishers and the next book coming out (or worse, their quest for an agent, publisher, or finished novel)  and I wanted to get away from that a little bit.

(Although, for the record, I have the world's greatest agent, Michael Carr, and a new editor, Dr. Matt Teel at Urania/Musa, for whom I have very high hopes.)

So let's see what happens.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Devil's Brood, Part 4-

In which we assassinate the characters of Eleanor, Young Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John.

If you think about it, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine were a disaster waiting to happen.

Henry was a classic match of incredible ability and enormous flaws. He was intelligent, energetic, brave, charismatic, generous, loyal and well educated. He had a gift for law, management, politics and war. And, unlike many kings of his time, he seemed to genuinely care about what happened to his non-noble subjects. But he was also cursed with what your high school counselor would have called "anger management issues" and "impulse control challenges." In short, he flew off the handle and doinked anything that moved.

Eleanor, after the jump-

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How To Make Eel Soup

From "Le Viandier," the Recipe Book of Guillaume Tirel, head chef to Philip VI of France:

Bright Green Soup of Eels:

Skin or scald them, and cook them in wine and water. 
Crush bread and parsley, with just a bit of saffron in the greens (to make it bright green), and soak in your broth.
Crush ginger steeped in verjuice, and boil everything together.
You can add good cheese cut into little cubes if you wish.

Ah, nothing like a good dish of Middle Ages stew. More to follow...

Verjuice is an acidic juice that you get from crushing unripe grapes or other sour fruit. These days, cooks use tart wines or vinegars instead.

And we know that this was a recipe for royalty, because ginger was fabulously expensive in Medieval Europe (pre-Crusades, a pound of ginger was worth a sheep). Saffron wasn't too cheap, either.

Let me know what happens if you try this at home.
I hereby disclaim any responsibility.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Devil's Brood, Part 3

And we're back.

When last we left our villains, Henry II, patriarch of the Plantagenets, had just finished reforming the English legal system, doing penance for accidentally having his best friend killed in a fit of pique, marrying the most beautiful, accomplished woman in Europe, and assembling a feudal empire that stretched from Ireland to Spain and included more French possessions than belonged to the King of France. 


But impressive fathers often have troubles with their kids. The drive that makes them successful in the world doesn't necessarily translate into parental ability, and that seems to have been especially true for the Plantagenets (cf. Edwards I-III, Kings, bad parenting of). 

Of course, from a writer's point of view, this is what makes them so damned juicy. And I'm not even the fiftieth writer to recognize it. The classic Plantagenet melodrama is James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, with Henry meeting his three surviving sons, his estranged wife Eleanor, and Philip of France for a Christmas court in which they all plot against one another. (If you're interested, I heartily recommend the movie version, with Peter O'Toole as Henry, Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor, Anthony Hopkins as Richard, and Timothy Dalton - aka James Bond, aka Rassilon of Gallifrey - as Philip. Yes, just as over-the-top and fun as you might imagine.)

Bottom line, Henry's sons - Young Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John - rebelled against him and fought one another, not just once, but over and over. Queen Eleanor egged them on, and Philip was delighted to set them all against each other in the hopes of breaking up Henry's stranglehold on French territory. 

Gerald of Wales, the of 12th Century England, claimed that Henry had a "curious painting in a chamber of Winchester Castle, depicting an eagle being attacked by three of its chicks, while a fourth chick crouched, waiting for its chance to strike. When asked the meaning of this picture, King Henry said: "The four young ones of the eagle are my four sons... who will not cease persecuting me even unto death. And the youngest, whom I now embrace with such tender affection, will someday afflict me more grievously and perilously than all the others."

From a distance of nine hundred years, we can only guess at how the sons saw things. It seems possible  that they were much more relaxed about war than we are, post-infantry and Gatling gun. War was what you did if you were a noble. Sure, it was a little dangerous, and you had to be good at it, but it was all in a day's work (if you were a knight. If you were some poor bastard on foot, things were a lot more dangerous.) So Richard, John and company could fight each other, betray each other, kill each others' foot soldiers, lose, beg forgiveness, get it...and then go back to fighting in a year or two.

But Henry's sons also seemed to be fairly messed up, even by the standards of medieval nobility. More on that in Part 4, along with  some choice comparisons about Momma Eleanor.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

UK vs. US, Fantasy vs. Science Fiction

The British may have lost their empire, but their fantasy - especially YA (young adult) fantasy - is still tops, and it has been for decades. Potter and His Dark Materials are just the latest in  a long line of fantasies like The Dark Is Rising, the Prydain Chronicles, The Once and Future King, and the works of Diana Wynne Jones.

The US has a tradition of YA in speculative fiction as well. But for us, it's science fiction, not fantasy: the Heinlein juvies like Space Cadet, The Star Beast, and Tunnel in the Sky;  Andre Norton Murray Leinster, Isaac Asimov - they all wrote YA-SF.

I wonder why it separated out like that...

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Devil's Brood - The Bad Guys, Part 2

The Plantagenet family. What a bunch of bastards...which made them the perfect villains for The Wrong Sword.

They got their start as the Counts of Anjou, which is why historians call Henry II and his sons Richard and John the "Angevin kings." Local legend (and backbiting medieval chroniclers - I'm looking at you, Gerald of Wales!) said they were demon seed: that somewhere along the line, one of them had married a devil, and the infernal streak stayed in their blood. (Richard liked to say that his family had come from the devil, and to the devil they would go.)

By the start of The Excalibur Trick, Henry II has already been dead for a few years - but his wife and sons are still around, and still terrifying to criminal small fry like our hero, Henry the Rat. So maybe we should take a look at the father and see how far the apples fell from that tree.

Actually, as the first Plantagenet king of England, Henry II didn't suck. He laid the groundwork for trial by jury; he tried to stop priests and monks from literally getting away with murder; and he didn't drain the treasury (winning wars instead of losing them helped - he was a good general). He also established a bureaucracy that was effective enough to keep functioning even when the king in charge of it was weak...which became important later on, with kings like Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI. 

Contemporary accounts describe him as stocky, red-haired, neither tall nor short, with "boxer's arms," bow legs from always being on horseback, and just crazy energetic: "He never sits, unless riding a horse or a single day, if necessary, he can run through four or five day-marches and, thus foiling the plots of his enemies, frequently mocks their plots with surprise sudden arrivals... Truly he does not, like other kings, linger in his palace, but traveling through the provinces he investigates the doings of all, judging powerfully those whom he has made judges of others." (Peter of Blois.)

He was also very well educated - he spoke Latin as well as French and Saxon, was a master of law, and had a superb memory. In fact, it's hard not to like the guy: He did have anger management issues,  but he also had a good sense of humor, didn't "magnify himself as more than man," and always had your back if you were his friend. He didn't waste money on fancy clothes and crap friends, unlike his son Henry Junior. And, unlike so many of his fellow kings before and since, he actually tried to do a good job of running his kingdom; it wasn't just a source of gold and swords.

But he must have done something wrong, somewhere along the line.
Because his wife and his sons tried to kill him.

The Bad Guys, Part 1

There's no such thing as an adventure tale without a villain. Fortunately, in the Middle Ages practically anyone with a sword was a villain - at least, by our standards.

Crusader? Jihadist.
Prince? Dictator.
Nobleman? Elitist bastard.
Man at arms? Thug.
Knight? Thug with a horse.

Of course, there was chivalry, a strict code of behavior for the noble classes. Knights were expected to protect the weak and fight for the general welfare. But if you weren't a noble yourself, you couldn't hope for all that much. Knights captured on the battlefield could expect to be  treated well and then ransomed back to their own side; but if you were a foot soldier (or, God forbid, a non-combatant) the men on horseback wearing the good armor often saw you as nothing more than a man-shaped blob standing between them and a share of the spoils. Edward the Black Prince, considered one of the greatest knights of his day, was also the commander of the forces that sacked Limoges and massacred its inhabitants after the city had surrendered.

But even on the colorful (mostly scarlet) tapestry of Medieval history, there are some folks who stand out. For instance, Western Europe had one family whose power and morals matched anything you'd find on a prime-time soap opera today: the Plantagenets. (Ed the BP was one of them, by the way.) So tune in next post for the story of the Second Henry, the Cougar in the Castle, and the Four Clawing Eagles.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

All right. Let me be a little more specific...

The Excalibur Trick, the first volume in The Wrong Sword, follows the desperate exploits of Henry of Sanbruc - alias Henri of Paris, alias Henri de la Ville Perdue, alias Harry the Rat - as he tries to escape the minions of Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany, and thwart the duke's plans to conquer the Angevin Empire with the aid of Europe's most famous piece of mythical weaponry.

Readers with a passing knowledge of medieval history may already know that Geoffrey actually existed (although he dies a little later in TXT than he did in history). You might have heard of his big brother, Richard the Lionhearted; or his little brother, John the Somewhat Less Impressive. Those more studied in 12th Century Anglo-Norman politics might even recognize Geoffrey's scary mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, or his dad, King Henry II of England, originator of the Assize of Clarendon and scourge of criminous clerks. And if you know that Geoffrey existed, you've probably already figured out that Excalibur and Henry (the Rat Henry, not the King Henry) didn't.

If that sort of conflation of the historical and the fantastic disturbs you, and you don't want to read The Wrong Sword, I completely understand. Don't worry about my feelings; as long as you buy the book, you don't have to actually read it. It'll just be our little secret.

So...What is "The Wrong Sword," anyway?

Well, it's a hilarious thrill ride through the back alleys of Medieval Europe, with a thief, a cook, his wife, and her-

No, wait. That's not quite right. There is a thief. Except he's more of a juvenile delinquent, and he'd call himself a "goliard." There are no cooks, really, but there is a medieval food fight. The emphasis is actually a lot more on arrogant men-at-arms, overconfident princesses, and untrustworthy monks with disastrously anachronistic mechanical inclinations.

And there's a sword.

THE sword, actually. You know the one.

Perhaps it's best summed up by the famous Swiss navigator Istvan Dimiturglu:
"Crazy visions you got. Come with me to barber, we bleed you, you see right, everything good. I buy for you first leech." 

That wacky Dimiturglu. Always with the leeches.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Welcome to The Sword That Nagged-

-your one-stop shop for all things related to Malleable History and the new fantasy series The Wrong Sword (aka The Sword That Nagged, Ill-Tempered Steel, Pull My Sword, and Wrongwise Born - because writers like titles even more than they like books.)

You seem like a handsome, perceptive, and well-groomed bunch of potential readers. So to get things started, I want to make to you this rock-solid Declaration of Principles:

1. I will, at all times, use this blog to relentlessly shill my products.
2. I will never, no matter what, make any pretense to artistic purpose or literary merit.
3. I will, when time and the TWS storyline allow, distort, pervert, and mistreat History for my own selfish ends.
4. I will, within my admittedly mercenary limits, try to provide you with posts that are a source of innocent merriment and/or useless facts.

Charles Foster Kane made one of these declarations, and he turned out okay.
I think we're on the right track. Don't you?