Overcommitted and Short on Quality

Sometimes you wind up doing too much at once and the more pressing priorities squeeze out the less pressing ones. Unfortunately, such is the situation I find myself in this week. While there is a chapter most of the way doe I’d prefer to wait to put it up until next week, as that will give me time to really edit and perfect it. Also, Thunder Clap has reached it’s climax and we’re about to start wrapping things up, there’s really only three or four chapters left to go so this is a natural break point.

Sorry for the delay, this is really my fault for failing to budget my time well last week. I hope you’ll come back on Wednesday for a Not April Fools Day segment or next week for the next installment of Thunder Clap.

Nate

The Importance of Context, Historical and Otherwise

Marvel’s Agent Carter was an interesting experiment. A series of eight hour-length episodes, the miniseries-esque offering served to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) while allowing it’s sister show, Agents of SHIELD, a chance to regroup and air the second half of it’s season in one long continuous burst rather than chopping it’s episodes up in that weird spring schedule a lot of TV shows adopt. This certainly helps SHIELD tell a cohesive, overarching story and the idea of a miniseries expanding the MCU is a new angle we haven’t seen in TV before, in part because there’s never been anything quite like the MCU before to drive it.

That’s not to say Agent Carter is without flaws. I could find any number to nitpick at but the one that really jumps out at me does so because of how glaring it is. On the whole, not many characters in the series, outside leading lady Peggy Carter, showed much character growth or had their background delved into at any length. What I want to poke at is one of the attempts to provide that growth that fell somewhat flat. It concerns SSR Agent Jack Thompson.

Thompson is Carter’s foil in the SSR, the agent devoted to the idea that she couldn’t hack it in the high stakes world of cold war spy work. He’s a decorated marine who won the Navy Cross in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War and he’s determined to prove he’s top dog. Eventually we find out why (and please be aware that this is a spoiler, if a minor one.)

You see, our boy Jack got the Navy Cross for saving his superiors life during a night ambush by the Japanese. He woke up, saw Japanese soldiers in their camp and started shooting. In the aftermath he found a white flag dropped on the ground and concludes the Japanese were surrendering and that he’d just incited the death of innocent men. Then he gets an award for it and the guilt really starts eating at him.

Jack tells Peggy this story after he freezes in the middle of a pitched gunfight and she asks him why, giving her and the audience a little more understanding of why he is the way he is. It’s a nice moment, well acted and well written. It has one problem.

The Japanese almost never surrendered.

Soldiers talk about fighting to the death all the time but a large percentage of them will surrender if it’s clear there’s nothing more they can do to win. Troops in WWII did it all the time. German troops, Italian troops, American troops, British troops, French troops, it was just a part of war and nothing to be ashamed of. For everyone, that is, but the Japanese.

The culture of Imperial Japan was fatalistic in the extreme, most famously manifesting in the kamikaze pilots at the end of the war, and it’s shocking how all pervasive the attitude was. Many Japanese troops captured during the war were incapacitated somehow and most of those capable of resisting chose to do so until killed, or did something suicidal like running at enemies with a grenade ticking in their hands or just committed suicide rather than submit to capture. This isn’t to say the Japanese didn’t surrender but those who did were a very small minority.

On the other hand, the Japanese knew the Americans surrendered and expected them to do the same. So Japanese troops would sometimes pretend to surrender, approaching with a white flag and hands in the air, only to drop the flag and attack when it looked like they were close enough to enemy lines. This tactic quickly became well known among American troops who viewed any attempt to surrender in a large group with a great deal of suspicion. It may have happened much less often than people talked about but it’s still a historical fact, confirmed by records on both sides of the conflict, that Japanese troops almost never surrendered during WWII.

This is something Jack Thompson should have known. He should not have been readily accepting of the notion that the Japanese troops who’d come into his camp were there to surrender because the historical context makes such an assumption highly unlikely. Failing to take this context into account when writing this scene strips the moment of all the credibility it’s good writing and acting earned it.

It’s not like this fact would have changed the scene a great deal if it had been included – Thompson could have been just as guilt-ridden over choosing not to wait to see if the Japanese really were surrendering before fighting back instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt no matter how little he may have thought they deserved it. In fact, that scene might have been even more believable and more suited to analyzing the horrors of war because Jack would have found himself in a situation where he was powerless to know whether he made the right choice or not. At least when he knows with concrete certainty that he was wrong he can look for some kind of penance. But the stark fact of war is that it dehumanizes those that participate and Jack’s inability to tell whether he did the right thing or not would be a powerful representation of that, one that would reinforce the ambiguous yet grim fate of the Japanese soldiers who found their way into his encampment.

Instead the writers failed to do their research and a scene that had the potential to be very impactful fell flat by failing to fit with the historical context it was intended to have. Agent Carter did a very good job recreating the mid to late 1940s in fashion, culture and even architecture and vehicles. That’s what makes this oversight particularly glaring – it’s a hole in the historical context that’s otherwise rock solid. Writers take note! If you’re going to add historical context make sure you get it all or your work is just going to come out flat.

This War of Mine

This War of Mine is a computer game about a familiar topic: War in the modern age. Mechanically it’s very cool, combining elements of resource management and base building with careful, stealthy gameplay. Basically, during the day you keep your base running and during the night you go and collect resources without drawing too much attention. While none of that is new or groundbreaking gameplay it’s solid in concept and well executed. That said, the game would be pretty bland if that was all there was to it. In fact, there are a number of zombie survival games that probably do the base building half of the game better and there’s certainly at least two ninja/commando style games that do the stealth parts in a more interesting way.

Or, at least they do if approached from the direction of most game stories.

See, the typical video game is an examination of what the player would do with unusual powers. Could you manage to rescue a princess? No? What if you could jump really high, throw fireballs and utilize plumbing in surprising ways? Well play a Mario game and find out!

Strategy games give players the chance to command armies, first person shooters give players unlimited stamina and military gear they’ll probably never see, RPGs let players develop powers that could never exist in real life and Minecraft lets you make just about anything you could ever want. It’s no surprise these games are popular since they let you do things that, for the most part, you could never hope to actually do. This War of Mine, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. It challenges you to do something that you would never want to do in real life and gives you no special powers to accomplish it with. While that doesn’t sound interesting at first it is still an engaging experience.

You see, in This War of Mine your base is a small house in the middle of a civil war somewhere in Eastern Europe. The stealth portions of the game are you going out to look for supplies in the night, so soldiers won’t see and shoot you. And you play a civilian with no special training just trying to stay alive while bullets and shells fly by outside.

This War of Mine is a nerve-wracking game. I don’t recommend playing it in large chunks, the decisions you have to make are sometimes unpleasant and emotionally draining. You will probably wind up turning away other refugees looking for shelter because the house just cannot hold anyone else. You will run like a coward when the soldiers outside spot you on a foraging run. You’ll have to decide whether running a risk to help someone you meet outside is worth your possibly not getting back to the house and the hungry people there. Especially if helping means standing up to a soldier with nothing but a crowbar in your hands.

As a game, from the angle of gameplay mechanics and execution, This War of Mine is not groundbreaking even if it is solid. But it manages to convey an experience that people must live through every day in a way that is gripping and rightly draining. For that alone, the game qualifies as an unmitigated success.

Thunder Clap: Brawl

Izzy

Circuit kicked things off with a literal bang, electricity arcing with a teeth rattling crack from his chair to his hands, then from his hands to the plasma cloud in front of Helix. Things got weird – if the guy throwing lighting wasn’t weird enough – when the plasma ball bent and stretched from an orb to a weird, wavering teardrop shape that pushed towards the middle of the room before throwing lightning bolts at the two nearest guards and sending them tumbling to the ground. That seemed like an excellent time to gently tip a desk over on top of them so I did.

Hopefully it was too heavy for them to move, I’m not very good at judging things like that. To be on the safe side I got a desk for each of them.

The man on the throne swooped through the hole in the side of the building, his hoverchair – or whatever you wanted to call it – humming loud enough to be heard over the chaos and the plasma cloud bent back towards Helix. Whatever was going on there it was probably magnetic and headache inducing, by which I mean any attempt to explain it would probably fry the brains of most people, so I didn’t worry about it too much and just kept an eye on the to make sure I didn’t get fried by it as it went spastic.

Helix apparently had no such worries because he walked through the plasma with no visible harm. As he did so he clapped his hands over his ears and dropped his mouth open, giving me just enough of a warning what was coming that I could do the same and confusing most everyone else in the room to no end. The plasma abruptly shimmered out of existence, the heat that kept it burning quickly dispersing in the surrounding atmosphere as Helix stopped holding it in one place. The result was a loud bang exactly like you would expect from a bolt of lighting, since the part of lighting that you see is composed of superheated plasma doing the exact same thing.

The noise was loud enough that I could feel it in my sternum and even with my ears covered and my mouth open to relieve pressure it still felt like the noise came from a whip cracking at the side of my head. I managed to get my bearings with a quick shake to clear my head and Helix didn’t seemed bothered by the noise any more than I was but by the time my head was clear the guards in the room were still woozily looking about or had hands on the side of their heads. Circuit didn’t seem to notice at all, or at least he didn’t do anything about the noise for all I knew he’d put earplugs in while I was busy smashing walls, but whatever the explanation Davis apparently shared it because he didn’t seem bothered either. His partner with the fancy hoverthrone was probably protected by the fact that he was still at the far end of the room and probably too far to suffer more than minor tinnitus from Helix’s improvised flashbang.

In spite of being the closest to ground zero Helix showed the least signs of being affected out of anyone there, he’d already put one guard into an arm lock and levered him to the floor by the time my ears stopped ringing enough for my eyes to focus again. But even with most of the players temporarily stunned we were still outnumbered and Davis was surprisingly fast for a man of his size, and he jumped Helix with a lack a finesse more than made up for with enthusiasm.

Desks were getting pretty scarce on my side of the room for some reason so I took matters into my own hands by the expedient of trying to grab Davis. Before I could add one more to the three person pile-up Hoverthrone sideswiped me and I spun once, rolled twice and wound up against the wall with a throbbing pain in my side where I’d been hit. Yes I could have stopped him with one hand if I’d seen him coming but that’s the real trick and I hadn’t managed it. I got to my feet and swiped my hand through the wall, fumbling for a second before I managed to grab a two-by-four and yanked it out of the wall in a shower of drywall dust. I realized as I was hefting it to throw that yanking it out of the wall hand left the ends jagged and potentially fatal if I threw it at Davis, who wasn’t in body armor, so I switched and flung it at the Hoverthrone, catching it low, near the base in fact, and tumbling it end over end. The rider fell entirely out of the chair, proving that Circuit’s roller coaster style restraints were a wise choice, and without direction the throne itself just kept spinning for a moment before falling to the ground like an abandoned puppet.

Circuit’s head snapped around, the throne’s deactivation apparently distracting him from beating a guard’s head against the armrest of his wheelchair. Pushing the guard aside Circuit kicked his chair into motion, it’s motor whirring frantically as he rolled towards the tangle of equipment at the center of the room. He only got halfway there before Davis looked up from the frantic wrestling match he was tangled in and yelled, “Stop him!”

A second later Davis went back down as Helix kicked him in the teeth.

Circuit’s doppelganger – evil twin just doesn’t sound right – scrambled to his feet and made a twitching motion in the direction of the only guard left standing, a woman who still looked a little dazed, and she went flying towards Circuit. She suddenly slowed a few feet away and Circuit managed to grab her and deflect her over the top of his chair but it was proof enough that the guards were still wearing maglev harnesses and fake Circuit still had some measure of control over them.

And fake Circuit himself was wearing a harness too, as he proved when a second later he jerked up and over the debris we’d left all over the place, flying straight towards Circuit with a frustrated scream. Circuit matched flying with flying, his chair whirring back away from his imposter for a split second before it cleared the floor itself and went straight up towards the ceiling. For some reason the wheelchair flipped over mid-air and wound up with its wheels pressed against the ceiling as Circuit looked down on his double disapprovingly.

Fake Circuit had his arms outstretched and I wondered for a split second whether Circuit’s chair had flipped because of interference from his rival, then one of the chair’s wheels spun and it pivoted 180 degrees around the other wheel putting Circuit right above his clone. Then chair and rider dropped like a stone, Circuit’s arms outstretched to catch his double, and both men crashed to the floor with the chair on top of them.

Davis and Helix were still grappling with each other but the guard Helix had been tangling with at first had squirmed free and started over to dig his boss out. I headed that off at the pass, crossing over to him with three quick steps, looping one hand around his head as I slid a knee behind his. Flipping him to the ground was as easy as flicking water off of my fingers and I took his carbine and twisted its barrel into a knot as an afterthought. What I really wanted was the Hoverthrone.

It sat on its side where it had fallen, looking fairly inoffensive covered in dust with a two-by-four sticking out of the bottom, not like the monument to self-importance it had probably been intended as. But then, self-important stuff rarely comes off looking as grand as it’s intended. I picked the thing up, stepped over to the pit it was obviously intended to fit in somehow and smashed the two things together. They didn’t fit together nicely so I tried it again. And again. And a few more times, for good measure. Once the whole mess was reduced to a sparking mess of wires, cracked casings and loose microchips I tossed the wrecked throne aside and looked around.

None of the guards seemed to be interested in fighting anymore. Circuit had somehow righted his wheelchair and was rubbing at his shoulder with a pained look on his face, his double was still crumpled on the floor and might not have been breathing. And Helix was cuffing Davis, who had a nasty looking nosebleed and what would probably turn out to be two black eyes. I heaved a sigh and dusted my hands off. “There, that’s over with.”

Helix gave me an approving look before turning to look at Circuit. His expression quickly turned dark. “No. We’re not done yet. Not by a long shot.”

Fiction Index

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Creativity and Entertainment: A 21st Century Conundrum

From the wealthy of Regency England gathered around the pianoforte for an evening of music to the pioneers in the American West listening to a man with a fiddle, from a man telling stories by the firelight to a group of gamers telling stories about their D&D characters, the human race has a long history of people creating and sharing those creations with others. But not so much in the recent past.

We hardly even think of this kind of creativity as creative anymore, we just call it entertainment, ignoring the fact that throughout most of history “entertainment” was something that people created for themselves or those immediately around them. Since the rise of media driven culture people in societies with advanced media have largely given over the business of entertainment to an elite caste and become entirely consumers, rather than creators. The theory, as with all the things we’ve stopped doing for ourselves over the years, is that a professional will do it better than we could and the loss of knowing how to do it won’t hurt us that much. And in some cases that’s probably true.

But in the case of creating entertainment I’d argue it’s very much the opposite.

Our culture has lost the ability to create entertainment itself and it suffers for it. We suffer from a loss of ability to connect to other people, a loss of insight into the creative process and a loss of the ability to appreciate creativity.

Creativity is, at it’s core, the ability to explain ideas to other people in a way that they find exciting and engaging. In order to do it you have to be able to get a feel for where other people are mentally and emotionally and then lead them to the experience you want them to have. On the large scale that means understanding the society around you and on a smaller scale it means being alert and attentive to the people you meet. By necessity it requires that you both know how to understand people and how to best collaborate to bring them where you want them to go. These kinds of very basic people skills are a core part of entertainment and when we stop creating to entertain they begin to atrophy and our society is paying the price – as a culture America is becoming more rude, less understanding and more impatient. Is all this because we’ve given up entertaining ourselves? No, probably not. But is that a factor? I think it may be.

But society isn’t the only thing hurt by our failure to create and entertain – our ability to understand the creative process is impaired. There are some things about what goes into entertainment that can only be understood fully by someone who’s done it. Ask anyone who’s just attempted theater or written a short story for the first time – they’ll always tell you it’s more effort than they expected. On top of that, the sense of accomplishment and, when working in a group, the sense of comradery is far more than you would expect. To go with it, there’s almost a sense of possession – what you’ve done or created is yours alone and not like anything else on Earth, for good or bad.

An understanding of that work and that sense of accomplishment comes with an understanding of the euphoria and sense of importance that comes with creativity. After all, you’re making up something that never existed before and that’s going to feel good. With that rush comes the tendency to push ideas, to construct stories in ways that make our own ideas prominent. As a creator it’s important to check this tendency in the interests of verisimilitude but no one can do it perfectly and some creators don’t do it at all. Having actually been through the process personally helps you spot when others aren’t policing themselves as well as they might.

That’s an important skill to have because entertainment contains a lot of ideas that entertainers are trying to advance – yes, they have the goal of entertaining you but almost all entertainers have things beyond entertainment that interest them and those ideas always creep into the entertainment you provide. If you’ve created your own entertainment before you know how this can happen and can spot the signs more easily. Sure, TV is just TV but that doesn’t mean it’s not influencing you at all. You might not be selling your soul to the devil when you flip on pop radio but Taylor Swift is certainly getting some real estate in your brain. The familiarity being a creator yourself gives you will help you understand what those influences are doing with the brainspace you’re giving em.

Finally, being creative really does help you appreciate the results of the creative endeavors produced by others. The act of creating requires a practiced eye or ear or hand. Once you’ve developed those skills it will as easily pick out the best that other creators have to offer and savor it all the more for knowing all the time and passion that went into it.

The benefits of creating are many, but you’ll probably effect the most people with them if you aim to entertain. If you’ve not even dabbled a bit in creative expression to share with others then go out and try it. It will be good for your friends and for you.

Cool Things: Foxglove Summer

Usually when I talk about books or movies I enjoy I try and avoid spoilers. But this is book five in Ben Aaronovitch’s excellent Rivers of London series and, while I’m going to try and avoid spoiling anything about this book, there are some major spoilers for the rest of the series. If you haven’t read the first four books and you want to do so without spoilers now is the time to bow out. You can come back after you read up to this point, though!

So if you read Broken Homes you know that Rivers of London has gone through a major transition. Leslie May, a major player in PC Peter Grant’s life, has abandoned the forces of good and joined up with the Faceless Man to work against Peter, DCI Nightingale and the rest of The Folly (namely, the maid, Molly, and the department mascot, Toby the Dog). In exchange she hopes to get a new face to replace the one she lost to Mr. Punch at the end of the first book.

Foxglove Summer opens with Peter being sent out of London (gasp!) to investigate a case of missing children. There’s no evidence of this being the kind of case The Folly normally investigates but due diligence is due diligence and that goes double when children are involved. That goes double again when witnesses report the children talked to invisible friends that, unlike the typical invisible friend, are actually there. Moving things. Giving rides. Touching people. It seems like you can’t go anywhere with Peter and not find something Folly-esque.

Beyond saving the kids Peter has issues of his own to work out. First, by going into the country he’s quite literally run from his problems back in London. He hasn’t dealt with Leslie’s betrayal or the near-death experience he had on his last assignment. The Metropolitan Police aren’t entirely sure he wasn’t in cahoots with Leslie. And Beverly Brook, London River Incarnate, has come in on this case to consult and there’s unresolved emotional issues there, too.

All in all, Foxglove Summer is kind of a renaissance for the series. Peter is put in unfamiliar circumstances so he can get perspective, set new goals and come to grips with his very unexpected place in life. At the same time, it provides a jumping on point for new readers. If you want to get into this series in the middle, don’t want to go back and read a bunch of backstory or just want to enjoy a good suspense story with an otherworldly twist then this book will fit your bill. The one disappointment you might find as you read will stem from the title’s failure to advance it’s overarching plot, as Beverly is the only river of London in the book and the machinations of the various riverine incarnations is alluded to but never comes into play. While events in this book may eventually play a part in future parts of that story the lack of obvious advancement might be frustrating to some longtime readers.

All in all this is another solid installment to the series and reaffirms my belief that Aaronovitch will be able to transition things well from the opening act of his story to the larger stage of whatever is coming down the pike. But it’s also probably the last really accessible entrance point for new readers so if you want to get on board do it now.

Thunder Clap: Drag Out

Izzy

If you ignore the guy hanging outside, probably supported by maglev if the rest of the tower that Circuit built was any indication, the room looked pretty straightforward. There were half a dozen guards of a type I was getting pretty familiar with – burly looking men and women with compact, carbine weapons – in a room that took up a forty foot by fifty foot chunk of building space with office furniture scattered generously all over the place like an Ikea shipment had blown up in the middle of the room.

And I mean “blown up” in a pretty literal sense. There was a black depression something like a crater in the middle of the room that had a rat’s nest of cables and junk hooked into it. Davis was standing by that when he ordered his goons to start shooting and I ran out of time to look around. The door was off to my right and I jumped that way – I didn’t want to duck back through the new entrance I’d made in the wall because Circuit and Helix were, in theory, coming along behind me. That left the door in the wall to my right as the logical place to go.

I ducked behind a row of desks as the first handful of bullets came my way, slipping my fingers under one of them and flipping it towards my antagonists as I went. Throwing the desk far enough to block off the incoming guards without crushing any of them was probably beyond what I was capable of but papa likes to say when there’s no way to do it without hurting anything, property damage is always better than people damage. So I just heaved that desk, and the one next to it, through the ceiling entirely and the thugs scattered under the rain of debris. For good measure I yanked the door off its hinges as I got to it, intending to send it into the cascading debris as well, but I got distracted by the squad of four additional guards who were hustling into the room to see what all the noise was about.

The first man gave a surprised yell but was fast enough to get his gun up and around before I could get the door out of the way and give myself room to move. I settled for the tried and true approach of just flinging it into the nearest wall, where it stuck about halfway through, and pushed up against my opponent’s gun arm, keeping him from pointing his weapon at me just by standing next to him. I got one hand on the SMG’s carrying strap and changed the thing it carried from the weapon to the weapon’s owner, twisting my hand once to draw the strap tight around his chest and then using it to lever him up over one shoulder. The woman behind him looked like she wanted to surrender which was too bad, I would have liked to have had the time to play nice but it just wasn’t there. I flung the guy I was carrying into her and sent the two of them clattering down with the third guy in line beneath them.

The fourth guy got points for trying something different since he came at me with a knife, one of those big, serrated things you see in tactical gear. Al has said many times in practice that a well trained knife user in hand to hand combat is a real threat, even to vector shifts like him. There’s no talent that makes you immune to getting cut, or if there is we don’t know it yet. This guy’s problem was that he wasn’t a very good knife fighter, holding the weapon like an icepick and trying to grab me with his free hand so he could drag me into a grapple.

I just grabbed that free hand and gave it a yank, using what Al calls the “dislocation twist”, twisting and yanking so as to pull the arm out of socket and leave it’s owner in extreme pain. It was one of the first moves Massif taught me and he’d made me practice it until my eyes crossed from exhaustion. I don’t have confidence in pulling many moves without hurting someone but that one is the exception. Thug number four went down screaming.

That part I wasn’t used to.

All of that took about six seconds and left me with four down but not out opponents in front of me plus six or seven more behind me, depending on whether Davis wanted in on the action, and the guy on the maglev throne who was still something of a wildcard. Everyone agreed that he was the stand in for Circuit but how big a part he was supposed to play in this mess, whether Davis was in charge, partners with him or what, wasn’t something anyone had really addressed at all. That turned out to be a bit of an oversight.

I was in the process of making sure the weapons I’d taken from my prisoners were useless, which for me consists of stomping on them until they’re mangled junk, when the outside wall blew out and a bolt of lightning hit me from one side. For most people that would be a real problem, since electrocution is bad, but this is one of those areas where being a taxman kind of lets you cheat. See, electrical energy still involves entropy which means I still take a cut of it and I can push back against it using the entropy reserves I’ve built up. Not even the brainiacs like Doctor Higgins have figured out how that works, in case you were wondering. But it does, and it’s enough that tasers and similar weapons aren’t much good against me and even lightning just kind of slows me down. Although it still really hurts.

Of course this high energy attack came from the man on the throne, who’s seat could apparently hover anywhere outside the building. If this was a part of Circuit’s original modifications for the building he’d never mentioned it and he seemed like the type who wouldn’t forget to mention details like the opposition having total, unrestricted mobility around the outside of the building. The hall I was in looked right out of the side of the tower, giving what would normally be a breathtaking view of the skyline but right now just let me see the tall, black throne and the man who was seated on it. He had his hands up with all ten fingers pointed at me, as I watched he clenched them into fists and flicked his fingers towards me again, giving me another fun experience with electricity.

The hallway was about forty feet long and offered no cover. Plus there was no way to know if there were any other hostiles lurking behind the doors so that left me with the options of going clear to the end of the hall and finding out what was there or doubling back the way I’d come. Since the whole point of coming here was to break whatever device Davis and his partner were using to control the building, and that was either in the throne or behind me, I did the sensible thing and doubled back into the room full of armed men.

Okay, it’s sensible from a certain point of view.

As I climbed over the four downed guards in the hall the air suddenly took on an almost breathless quality and suddenly it was like I was standing in a wind tunnel with increasingly cold air rushing by me and into the room beyond. So it was no surprise to come through the doorway and find that Helix had made it into the room, an orb of burning plasma pushing in front of him and Circuit a few steps behind, his wheelchair easily navigating the smooth path Helix had literally trailblazed for him. If the mess I’d made of the room when I smashed through thirty seconds ago wasn’t bad enough it looked like things were about to get really ugly indeed.

Fiction Index

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Gambit Souffle

It’s a well known fact that ignorance is a vital part of any story. Once the reader knows everything about a story they’re at the end of it, aren’t they? The art of keeping things from the reader is known as suspense and it’s a vital part of just about any narrative.

There’s a lot of ways to keep the reader guessing about what’s going on, a sort of grab-bag of narrative gambits that will keep the reader guessing. It can range from something simple, like not revealing a character’s plans to the reader, to something very complex like having the story told from the first person perspective of a man suffering from short term memory loss. These gambits are perfectly good tools for building suspense and keeping your reader interested in what’s going on.

Right up until they’re not.

I was reading a story recently that centered around a group of four characters. One was wanted for a crime and wouldn’t comment on whether they were guilty or not. One was a former criminal who claimed to be trying to go straight. One claimed there was a ghost telling her secrets and reading minds. One just seems irresponsible and reckless. The narrative doesn’t really do anything to clear up their motives or whether they’re sane and trustworthy or crazy and dangerous.

Then all four are captured and get brainwashed. Maybe. I think. That part’s a bit unclear.

And they might be hypnotically programmed to turn on each other and there are suddenly weird gaps in their memories and nothing makes sense any more because you weren’t sure how much they could be trusted in the first place and GAH! It was so frustrating because it seemed like such an interesting story to start off with. I liked the characters and the story was going somewhere. But there were so many narrative gambits at work that I couldn’t figure out anything that was going on anymore and I gave up. The writer had baked a gambit souffle and it fell in.

Writers love reading and we particularly love reading stories that show us a well used literary device. And it’s the nature of the beast such that, once we read a story with a good device, we want to try it out for ourselves. I’m sure you’ve felt this urge before. You may even want to combine multiple literary devices together and make a wonderful concoction of clever scenarios and deft writing.

But you should probably resist that urge.

You see, the problem with gambit souffles is they do tend to fall in. Let’s take a look at the example I gave earlier. Not only do we have unreliable narrators in a scenario where it looks like no one can be trusted. We also have brainwashing, casting the characters motivations into even more doubt, and blatant memory gaps on top of, in one or two cases, entirely contradictory memories. It’s so hard to build a  coherent picture of what’s going on that you can’t sympathize with anyone or judge whether they’re taking actions that will benefit them or hinder them.

Narrative techniques like unreliable narrators or literary devices like amnesia help a story by building suspense or helping the reader become immersed in the story. But pile to many on and the reader starts to have more questions than answers and are likely to get frustrated by the lack of information long before they get invested in the story.

Some time ago I did a series of pieces on the obligations a writer has and their first obligation is to their audience. Without an audience a writer is just daydreaming and a confused audience is going to stop paying attention sooner or later, and probably sooner. So as a writer, it’s important that you don’t get so caught up in your literary techniques and your narrative gambits that your audience gets lost. Have people read your work and ask them what they think. If they’re confused don’t explain the story to them, ask them what they think is going on and if they’d want to keep reading.

If they don’t know what was going on consider asking how you could clarify it. But first, ask if they’d keep reading until things became clear. If they would you may not need to change anything, they may just be pleasantly confused and waiting to see how the protagonist sorts things out. But if you’ve lost them entirely then your story is failing and it really needs an overhaul.

Remember, writing isn’t done for the sake of the techniques you use while doing it, writing is to convey ideas from you to your audience. Test your gambit souffles on audiences to make sure it’s holding up, because if your story falls in on itself it’s doing no one good.

Cool Things: Master of Plagues

If you’re not reading E.L. Tettensor‘s Nicholas Lenoir novels you’re really, really missing out.

In her first novel Tettensor introduced us to Lenoir, a tired old detective who spent a good chunk of his adult life in terror of an otherworldly creature that pursued him for crimes he barely understood. Now, with his peace made to the higher powers, Lenoir has to try and find a new purpose to a life he long though forfeit. His passion for his work has returned, his brilliance, once shaded by apathy, now shines all the brighter and things are generally going well for him.

And then the plague breaks out.

Normally this wouldn’t be the territory of the Kennian Metropolitan Police but some of the doctors working to contain the plague have become convinced that it was started on purpose and that… well, that most definitely is a crime. Problem is, even if they catch the people responsible Lenoir and his fellow hounds won’t be any closer to actually stopping the plague.

Or will they?

Master of Plagues is a wonderful progression from Tettensor’s first Lenoir novel. It changes the game in a number of ways – supernatural elements in this yarn are much less pronounced, although one paranormal character from the first book returns. Lenoir is up against criminals with totally mundane motives this time, even if their methods are spectacularly unusual, and he’s not looking over his shoulder for specters or fiends any more either, making the threat of death by misadventure or disease somehow more intimidating.

What’s more, Lenoir now has to juggle his desire to see criminals brought to justice with his desire to see the suffering innocent brought relief. He’s trying to find a cure as well as catch a mass murderer and every step he takes in one direction seems to take him further from the other goal. Lenior’s trying to reconcile this quandary gives us great insight into his character and motivations.

On top of that, there’s a new dynamic between Lenoir and his Sergeant, Bran Kody. Kody is ambitious and worked with Lenoir to learn how he solved cases. Kody’s goal was to move up the ranks as quickly as possible. He didn’t really like the apathetic Inspector Lenoir, even if he did respect his superior’s brilliance. But now, with Lenoir more invested in what’s going on around him, Kody is starting to see the foundation of a good man emerging from the stagnant soul that once was Nicholas Lenoir, and, for his part, Lenoir is starting to value Kody’s drive and goals as well. The pressure the plague puts on both really brings out the changes as they happen.

The story itself is well written, well paced and suspenseful. There’s a real mastermind at work here, scheming for their own profit at the expense of others using a scheme that is as brilliant in it’s simplicity as it is chilling in it’s callousness. Lenoir’s (and really the whole culture’s) unfamiliarity with disease and the unusual angle the criminals are exploiting make it no surprise the police don’t catch on faster making it a story uniquely suited to Tettensor’s world as well.

Master of Plagues is a well written story, perfectly suited to its characters and its world and offering deep and satisfying insights into the people that populate it. What are you waiting for? Go read it now!

Thunder Clap: Knock Down

Izzy

Helix and I crashed into the room below, which looked like a really swank office before we left it full dust and rubble. I kicked the massive hardwood desk in the center of the room up to form a makeshift ramp that Circuit could use to half roll half slide his chair down to us. Helix and I caught him by the wheels of his chair. As we set his chair back on its wheels. As we did Helix said, “Another floor down, Izzy.”

“You sure?” I asked.

He grinned. “Circuit may have built this place to counter me but I’m betting his lackey-”

“Davis,” Circuit put in.

“I doubt Davis,” Helix continued, “could have kept things Circuit-proof and me-proof. Another floor down.”

There wasn’t much more of an explanation forthcoming so I smashed my was through another floor, trying not to calculate the damages we were going to have to pay out when this was over. Project Sumter might have nearly bottomless pockets thanks to Federal funding but we do have to get our budget approved every year just like everyone else. People who put too much strain on that budget can loose their jobs. Of course, I was a rookie and Helix was the season agent so hopefully that meant he knew what he was doing.

The next corner down was a large cubicle farm and I had to clear a landing place before Helix could jump down. To save time I just went back up and brought Circuit back down with me, chair and all. For good measure I went up again and dragged the desk over to the hole and tipped it onto the hole, slipping down under it as it fell, so anyone trying to follow would have to waste time moving it. The whole process took maybe thirty seconds but I came back to find Circuit and Helix arguing again.

“No, it’s not a matter of trust,” Circuit was saying. “But I’m not charging through the building at random just because you remember a skyline and think you know where we can see it at.”

“Not what I was saying,” Helix said, smiling for some reason. “I don’t know the city well enough to guess what part of it was looking at from just the skyline, that’s what I have people like Mossburger and Movsessian for. But I do know you, and I know you tend to be really stingy with what you tell people.”

“Information control is at the heart of supervillainy, Helix.” Circuit’s tone was the closest I think he’ll ever get to saying, “Duh!”

“Sure, if you say so.” Helix didn’t sound like he was paying much attention. “But I’m guessing you never mentioned to Davis that I could sense heat, as well as manipulate it.”

Understanding dawned on Circuit’s face. “He didn’t insulate the new control throne he created for his pet fusebox. It must be leaking more heat than a server farm with all the power it would take to keep things running.”

“So what’s the plan?” I asked, glancing nervously around the big open space. Helix wasn’t tall enough to be seen over the cubicle walls, and I’d appreciate if he never finds out I said that, while Circuit was always sitting down so that left me feeling like the only groundhog looking out of it’s hole while the hawks were circling. It’s not a fun feeling, let me tell you.

Helix, oblivious to how exposed I was feeling at the moment, pointed across the cubicles and said, “Run that way until you run out of building and you’ll find the place Circuit’s lookalike is hanging out.”

“I hope you don’t want me to actually run out of the building,” I said, “because I’ve had enough of that for one day.” His expression told me he didn’t know what I mean and I didn’t feel like relating my last near-skydiving experience just then. “Never mind. I just run in a straight line? Through the walls and everything?”

“Yes.” Helix scowled. “They’re expecting us to play it by the rules. I’m not really in a mood to give it to them. We go straight to them, we tie them up, we take them to jail. No questions asked. Problems?”

I shook my head and Circuit just grunted. Somehow Helix had wrangled himself back to being in charge, something I had a feeling he was used to doing. Still, I wasn’t going to argue. I’d had to take a basic architecture class or two last year, to help me figure out what not to break, so I knew there weren’t likely to be load bearing walls along the perimeter of a building this size, so going straight forward wasn’t likely to cause structural problems and that was really the only possible reason I could think of not to do what Helix was suggesting. After all that Davis and his cronies had put me through it was time for some payback.

So I turned in the direction Helix pointed in and I went forward. Not as fast as I could, I didn’t want to get too far ahead of Circuit or my boss. Papa always says your can’t be too close, after all. But bursting through walls is kind of a thrill and by the time I was through the second one I was putting on some speed, dashing past or jumping over a barely seen mess of office furniture, computer equipment and fake looking potted plants. At one point I broke out into a hallway again for half a second and I guessed I was at the halfway point of the building. For lack of a better way to keep track I started counting the walls we went through as a way to keep track of how much building was left. I was expecting to burst a dozen before we found the throne Helix was looking for.

In point of fact there were only ten. The last room was really big and, from the looks of the carpet, most of the stuff that had been in it had been dragged outside to make room for the nest of cables and computer equipment that sat in a semicircle around some kind of socket or mounting in the middle of the room. I spotted at least a dozen people in my quick glance around the room, only about half of them looked to be armed in the heavy-duty way of the guards we’d run across so far. It looked like we’d finally found some of the technical types who had to be keeping all this mess running. In the minus column, all the people in the room who did look like guards had apparently figured out what direction we were coming from and turned to face the wall I’d made an entrance through. They weren’t all looking directly at me but most of them had their weapons pointed in the right general direction.

And it turned out Helix was right, we did have to literally run out of building to get Circuit’s lookalike. A hole had been cut in the outside wall sometime during the night – because there was no way that exit was up to building code – and hovering outside it, some seventy-five floors above the ground, was a black throne to do any evil overlord justice. The guy sitting in it was pretty much a carbon copy of all the photos I’d seen of Circuit at the height of his career, stylish suit, scarf wrapped around his face, he had to be sweating to death in the August heat. Maybe Helix had been able to locate him so easily just because they’d put this hole in the building.

Of course, he shattered the illusion almost immediately by pointing at me and yelling, in a voice with none of Circuit’s sense of dignity, “Kill her!”

Which was my cue to scramble for cover.

 

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