Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Terry Pratchett On Defending The Defenseless

St. Stephen's Church in Brighton, England,
currently used as a homeless shelter.

Terry Pratchett loves to write. As he told fans at last year's World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England, while other authors may take a break after completing a story, he sees his reward for finishing one book in that he gets to do another one. Then, like his beloved character, copper Sam Vimes, he "starts simple, and proceeds slowly." He may not bother himself to plan too far ahead, instead trusting his storytelling instincts. Should he get into his story, and realize he's followed a false trail, he may end up chucking that story, a portion of it, or the idea underlying it into "The Pit," as he calls it. But he doesn't mind. He can always pull something out of The Pit later, right? In the meantime, he starts off on the writing again, which for him, "goes a lot with impetus and ease."

In his recent novel Snuff, Sam Vimes tries to get out of his holiday in the country. He clearly doesn't want to leave his beloved city of Ankh-Morpork, the place where he feels he belongs. So once he's reached his grand estate, and endured stifled conversations over meals and tea parties with other members of the landed gentry, he seeks respite in the nearby village. For some reason, the locals seem suspicious of him. Why should a member of the aristocracy be visiting a poor man's public house? Why is Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch sniffing around their village? Their suspicion makes Sam Vimes wonder what, if anything, the locals may have to hide.

Given his reluctance to leave Ankh-Morpork, the time needed to familiarize himself with the running of his estate, and the opportunities he takes to spend time with his son, it takes Vimes awhile to discover his first clue as to the locals' suspicion. Readers may wonder exactly where Pratchett is going with the novel, aside from enjoying the commander's discomfort over having to endure his holiday. But then, a hundred pages in, a note from the blacksmith's son leads Vimes to a hill in the dead of night, where he discovers a blood-soaked rag, and a Goblin's severed hand. Given the amount of blood, he realizes that this Goblin must have been killed.


The thing is, no one cares about Goblins. They exist outside the law, not partaking of life in towns or cities, but eking out their existence in caves. Even Feeney Upshot, the village policeman, who has taken an oath to obey the local magistrate's interpretation of the law, finds Vimes' interest in one Goblin's death a little extreme. As Vimes discovers when he visits the chief constable's office, located in a room inside his mother's house, the young man currently has a Goblin chained up outside for stealing pigswill. Feeney has been brought up to believe certain things about Goblins, such as that they are born thieves, they carry horrible diseases, they eat their own babies, and perhaps worst of all, they stink. Or, as Vimes muses: "It wasn't so much a stink as a sensation. the sensation in fact that your dental enamel was being evaporated and any armor you might have was rusting at some speed."

Vimes takes the young Chief Constable to task on a number of issues, chief among them that the purpose of the law is to protect everyone, including the most defenseless of its citizens. The problem is that, in the eyes of the law, Goblins don't officially exist, and therefore have no legal rights. Vimes refuses to accept this. He doesn't know much about Goblins, so he visits those holed up in nearby caves, who have learned to fear and distrust Humans. He takes on the local aristocracy, and defies the village magistrate, as he investigates how Goblins have been torn from their families, and shipped off down the river. He pursues a trail of greed and corruption, all the while arguing with young Feeney, who exhibits a thorough understanding of the letter of the law, but knows little of its soul. To save the Goblins from the injustice perpetrated upon them--from the way Humans have treated them so inhumanely--Vimes risks his social status, his career, and ultimately his life. But for Vimes, that's his duty, his calling in life: to defend the defenseless. He can no more shirk his duty, and turn a blind eye to injustice and cruelty, even if the law currently protects the perpetrators and sanctions their actions.

At four hundred pages in length, Snuff is a long novel by Terry Pratchett's standards. It takes Vimes a long time to uncover a crime, which can make it difficult for the reader to immerse himself in the story. It delves into more serious themes and issues than Pratchett's fans may have expected, such as slavery and the destructive aspects of illegal drugs. Yet it offers moments of action and excitement, including a climactic rescue-effort and river-battle in which Sam Vimes takes on not just the evildoers, but the very forces of nature. Along the way, he discovers some glorious aspects of Goblin-life to counter the rumors and folklore surrounding them. Once those are made public, they will forever change the way Goblins are viewed. As in our world, such sweeping social change on Discworld starts with one person's refusal to accept a perceived injustice. It's a character with whom Terry Pratchett identifies, who seems to hold his ear* at the moment, who talks to him and tantalizes him with ideas for humorous, exciting, and insightful stories. 

His name is Vimes: Commander Samuel Vimes.

Dragon Dave

*See the previous entry. (It's a doozy).

Monday, July 28, 2014

Terry Pratchett On A Copper's Instincts

A Police Station in Brighton, England

Author Terry Pratchett has been writing Science Fiction and Fantasy stories since the early 1970s. The bulk of them (forty novels and counting) take place on Discworld, a disk-shaped world that floats through space atop four giant elephants. (These elephants, in turn, ride on the back of an even larger turtle). His books have been translated into thirty-seven languages, and are beloved by readers all over the world. Yet he seems somewhat amused by his fame. As he told fans in Brighton at last year's World Fantasy Convention, "I just make things up." 

When he starts a new novel, he grasps those ideas foremost in his mind. He describes these as "low-hanging fruit," the ones easiest to pick. Once he's selected an idea, he just has to figure out what the story will be about. Anyone who has ever attempted to write a novel knows how challenging it can be to explore an idea in fiction. Terry Pratchett makes his job easier by following up on his inquisitiveness about our rapidly evolving world. He studies subjects that interest him, such as real-world technologies and systems. With time and study, his knowledge grows, and these subjects mature into the low-hanging fruit he mentioned. Then, with the hard work of research already done, he begins his story. 

Readers reap the benefits of Terry Pratchett's natural inquisitiveness. Over the years, we have seen Discworld's largely medieval society evolve with the introduction of the printing press and newspapers, a post office system, banking, and the rapid expansion of clacks towers, which transmit the equivalent of telegrams using a shutter-semaphore system. While these concepts are sketched out more simply in his stories, we nonetheless finish his novels with an enhanced appreciation for the inventions and processes that run contemporary society.

One of Terry Pratchett's most popular Discworld characters is Samuel Vimes, who has risen through police ranks to become the Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. A copper's instincts flow through his veins, and he can sense when something in his city is going (or about to go) amiss. He's been such a successful police officer that he's impressed the rich and powerful, eventually even marrying into the aristocracy. He's become part of the landed gentry, and has more money than he could ever figure out how to spend. Still, he's happiest when he's solving problems in his fair city. So what does Sam Vimes do in Terry Pratchett's recent novel Snuff, when his wife insists they take a vacation at one of their country houses? Or perhaps I should ask: What does he do after the city's ruler, Lord Vetinari, assures Vimes that no urgent crisis in Ankh-Morport require his attention? Well, he can't help but poke his nose into what's going on in community life surrounding his country estate, can he?

If Samuel Vimes has won over readers, he seems even closer to his creator's heart. Perhaps it's the character's natural inquisitiveness, the way he knows every street in Ankh-Morpork, and every aspect of city life, that allows him to sense when something is amiss. Perhaps, when he was a boy, the author considered a career as a policeman. Whatever the reason, if he's ever in trouble with a story set on Discworld, Terry Pratchett knows who he can turn to for assistance. "If a story involves Sam Vimes, I know he'll provide me with a lot of dialogue," he told his readers last year in Brighton. 

As all characters relate in some way to their creator, Pratchett must identify with some aspect of Vimes' psyche. As Vimes is forever interested in the forces underlying life in Ankh-Morpork, perhaps the link is Pratchett's constant fascination with the systems and technologies that drive our modern societies. It's also nice to see an author of Terry Pratchett's stature giving himself the freedom to explore his own interests, and to pursue his own hobbies without worrying immediately when they'll pay off in his fiction. Or even if they will. Of course, it's also nice when he finds a way to share his interests with us. I imagine that's one of the reasons we find his Discworld novels such a joy to read, because the ideas behind them spring from his own joy of discovery. 

Given how Sam Vimes seems to hold Terry Pratchett's ear at the moment*, I imagine he'll continue to play a vital role in future Discworld novels. But then, I could be wrong. After all, I don't have a Copper's instincts. 

Dragon Dave

* Yes, I agree with you. Police officers should not grab people by the ear. Especially not nice people like Terry Pratchett.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Captain Scarlet Is Fearsome

Captain Scarlet: Excuse me, sir. Can you direct me to the hippodrome?

Rusty: That's a serious kink you've got there. Try rolling your neck. Go on, roll it.

Captain Scarlet: Christmas really will be here before we know it.

Captain Scarlet: You packed the last two Wagon Wheels?
Rusty: How else will we get Master & Mistress to take us to England?

Captain Scarlet: I merely said I was 'cuter than' the pink elephants. I wasn't inviting a comparison!

Rusty: Whistling while you work, 'eh? Most commendable.

Captain Scarlet: There's no need to run and hide, but thanks for the compliment. Indeed, I am fearsome.

Captain Scarlet: Proximity Alert! Proximity Alert! Danger! Danger!
Rusty: You know, I think you're right. You are fearsome.

Captain Scarlet & Rusty Daleks

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Peter F Hamilton on Authors & Mutant Worms

A robot dog gazes across the Thames
at prestigious Chelsea

This blog entry continues from Monday's entry "Peter F Hamilton on Elves & Illegal Cloning."

Although his scheduled time had expired, and he had fulfilled his commitment to the World Fantasy Convention, author Peter F Hamilton returned to the table where he had sat before his reading. At first, he seemed confused as to how to proceed, and offered one of us a copy of the manuscript to pass around. Thankfully, after a little encouragement, he kindly finished the story he had begun toward the end of his scheduled reading.

In "The Return of the Mutant Worms," Peter F Hamilton introduces us to a writer who lives in a portion of London called Chelsea, in a plush flat along the Thames River. This author has labored hard over the years to build up a strong, popular mainstream following, and regards the novel he's just finished as the pinnacle of his career. So when he receives a package in the mail, he tears into it, eagerly anticipating the contract for his forthcoming book.  Instead, he finds a publication contract for a short story titled "Mutant Worms" that he wrote twenty-one years ago. The publication of this story can only detract from his upcoming publicity tour, as mainstream readers will wonder how the writer they associate with such sophisticated and polished literary fiction once wrote a crass genre story about mutant worms having sex with Human females.

The author phones his former publisher, and explains there must be some mistake. The publisher informs the writer that he's made no mistake. Although he thought the story terrible twenty-one years ago, he paid the author a nominal sum for it, then locked it away. Yes, he understands that the publication of "Mutant Worms" might offend and appall the cultured sensitivities of the author's present readership. Yes, he knows that even hearing about this story might discourage readers from buying his new book, or indeed, any novels he might write in the future. So what? He decided to purchase the story as an investment twenty-one years ago. Now it's time to collect the dividends. 

But hey, he's a big-time author now, right? Shouldn't he be willing to share some of his wealth with his former publisher, who helped him in the formative phase of his career? No, he has no interest in selling the story back, for any amount of money. Still, he could be persuaded, for the right price, to not publish it. At least, not right now... 

I smiled and laughed along with my fellow readers as Hamilton read "The Return of the Mutant Worms." I suspect most of them noticed how the fictional writer's story gently mocked Hamilton's extraordinary storytelling achievement of The Night's Dawn trilogy. If my summary of the story has piqued your interest, you can find it in Solaris Rising, an anthology edited by Ian Whates. Along with Hamilton's delightful story, you'll also discover stories by other big name Science Fiction authors. I'm glad that I got to hear Hamilton read his story, and thankful that he was willing (and circumstances allowed him) to finish it. 

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
An introduction to Peter F. Hamilton's The Night's Dawn trilogy

Monday, July 21, 2014

Peter F Hamilton on Elves & Illegal Cloning

Last year, I attended a reading with Peter F Hamilton at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England. I arrived early, and found the author seated at a table outside the scheduled conference room. He seemed relaxed, and chatted easily with those around him. I joined the group, enjoyed seeing him interact with others, and spoke with him when the conversation allowed. Then it was time for his reading. 

Firstly, he read a scene from a new novel called The Abyss Beyond Dreams, due to be released in the United States on October 21, 2014. The story is set in his Commonwealth series, which includes novels such as Judas Unchained and the Void trilogy. Hamilton's soft-spoken voice flowed smoothly, soaking into us like warm honey on a slice of freshly baked bread, and his phrasing seemed more rhythmic and poetic than what I remembered from The Night's Dawn trilogy set in his Confederation universe. The scene introduced us to Darren and Alicia, two young sweethearts enjoying the simple pleasures of small town life. Yet, by the end of the scene, Alicia's life lay in tatters, as she has learned that Peter is three hundred years old, and only looks twenty due to his bionic enhancements. Through illegal cloning, he has brought her back to life again and again, each time romancing her beginning at age seventeen, until something inevitably goes wrong, and their romance falls apart. As with his Confederation novels, and the short stories in Manhattan In Reverse, Hamilton entranced us with the possibilities of the future. Yet it was his characters, with all their hopes, dreams, and frailties, that drew us in, and breathed life into his story.

The second story he read from was The Queen of Dreams, a children's novel he wrote to entertain his children. It involves Princesses, Skylords, and Elves. These Elves are not like the ones from Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They remind me of Punk Rock Elves, or the blue-skinned Na'vi in James Cameron's epic movie "Avatar." They stand seven-feet tall, have no hair on the sides of their heads, and plume-like mohawks that resemble avian plumage. Plus, they've got tails! The story stars Taggie and Jemima, two Human children who acquire magical powers after an encounter with a squirrel wearing glasses. The novel has yet to find a publisher in the United States, but is available in hardcover and digital formats from English booksellers. Hamilton's reading tantalized us with an Elf who surfed on rainbows rather than water, and rode a silver mirror shield instead of a Human surfboard. The story reminds me of Jane Johnson's novel The Secret Country (Volume One of her Eidolon Chronicles) or one of the seven novels in C. S. Lewis' series The Chronicles of Narnia. Given the inventiveness Hamilton builds into his Science Fiction novels, I'd say children of all ages should have fun with this story, as well as the illustrations in the book. After writing so many Science Fiction stories for adults, it's nice to see Hamilton stretching his wings, and trying his hand at a children's Fantasy. Let's hope his book sells well in England, and someone decides to publish it in the United States.

If not, I'll have to pick up a copy on my next visit to England. 

Although his allotted time had nearly expired, the next scheduled author had yet to arrive, so Hamilton pulled out one of his short stories. We all sat forward in our seats as Hamilton started off on a short story he had written for a few years previously. The story, set in London's Chelsea region, introduced us to an author looking forward to the publication of a book he views as his masterpiece. With its characterization, drama, and touches of humor, Peter F. Hamilton had us on the edges of our seats. But then the next scheduled author arrived, and we had to vacate the room.

To be continued...

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
Jane Johnson's novel The Secret Country