Category Archives: fantasy

Always Walking Away

RIP Ursula K Le Guin.

I read her story, “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas,” as a teenager, and I never forgot it. The name Omelas comes from her reading of a street sign to Salem, O(regon) backwards. “[… People ask me] ‘Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?’ From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?” The story is about a beautiful, vibrant town, Omelas, whose very existence rests on the hidden suffering of a neglected and abused child. Most residents of Omelas learn to ignore the child’s suffering when they become aware of it. A few do not; they are the ones who walk away.

More recently Le Guin’s social commentary has been on display in the Oregonian, as she protested the coverage of the “Flock of Right-Wing Loonybirds” who had taken over the Malheur wildlife refuge, or gave her opinion of “alternative facts.” To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or “alternative fact”) is a lie. 

I’m grateful I got to meet Le Guin for a week one summer at the Clarion West SF writers’ workshop in Seattle. There she sometimes referred to herself self-deprecatingly and humorously as “the little she-slug.” I wrote a fantasy story that she critiqued, called “Sunrise on West Lake.” Inspired by my time living in West Berlin before the wall fell, it was about a musician who escaped, who walked away from a repressive society. The protagonist was named Ravena after the corner bus stop where I caught the bus to the workshop. That corner was actually at Ravenna and Woodlawn, in the Green Lake neighborhood. But I dropped one of the n’s, just for fun. Ursula’s first comment on the story was, “why do female fantasy protagonists’ names always have to end with -a? Yours doesn’t!”

“Sunrise,” like every short story I’ve ever written, wanted to be a novel. Recently I wrote another short story that wants to be a novel, called “Life and the Maiden.” The title is meant as a play on “Death and the Maiden,” which is the title of a song, poem, movie, and string quartet by Franz Schubert. Music still plays a role in this more recent story, but the protagonist this time, a “maiden” named Viola (after the instrument), rebels against her musician parents and doesn’t play. And she too walks away, literally, from her childhood home. While writing the walking away scene, I pictured Gwyneth Paltrow’s character from Shakespeare in Love, sole survivor of a shipwreck, walking away from shore towards adventures unknown; propelled towards a new life from the ruins of the old.

John Scalzi wrote this wonderful tribute to Le Guin in this morning’s LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-leguin-scalzi-20180123-story.html

In it, he writes about a different book of Le Guin’s, Always Coming Home, and the effect that it had on him:

“This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer — the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who then walk through it. “Always Coming Home” is not generally considered one of Le Guin’s great books, but for me as a writer and a reader, it was the right book at the right time. The book turned me on to the possibility of science fiction beyond mere adventure stories for boys — that the genre could contain, did contain, so much more. The book opened me to read the sort of science fiction I didn’t try before.”

I hadn’t thought of this interpretation until now. I understand walking away, but I had had trouble getting through Always Coming Home. At the time I considered that a bug, but maybe it was a feature. Maybe Scalzi’s words are a worthy counterpoint to some of the straitjacketed genre plotting advice that is out there.

I’ve been to Salem O, and my daughter goes to school there. The Pacific Northwest, where Le Guin lived, is a beautiful place. One can imagine where she got the inspiration for the joys and delights of the Omelas summer festival. “The Ones who Walk Away” was written in 1973; it was chilling back then. Read through the lens of modern politics and formulaic action-packed dystopian fiction, at first it seems smaller in scope and even a little quaint. But it still hits me, a privileged, white, (no-longer-so) young person, someone who would theoretically love to participate in such a summer festival, right in the gut.

I wonder again, where are the walkers going? Maybe this is a story about a failure of imagination, or a failure of faith. Maybe instead of walking away, they should have stayed and tried to change things. Can you really walk away from Omelas? Are you walking away, like Viola, to a brave new world? Or, in the walking away, are you finally coming home?

***

“Life and the Maiden” was officially rejected yesterday from the short story contest I sent it to, so I am free to disregard the word limit and turn it into the novel it wants to be. (Yay?!)

Book Review, Catalyst Moon: Breach, by Lauren L Garcia

Catalyst Moon: Breach (Catalyst Moon Saga Book 2)Catalyst Moon: Breach by Lauren L. Garcia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I reviewed Book 1 in this series, Catalyst Moon: Incursion, I wrote “I’m glad I read this book, and I do want to know what happens to the characters. But I wish I didn’t have to wait so long to find out.”

It turns out I didn’t have to wait very long at all. Book 2, Breach, is here, and it’s significantly better than Book 1. Continue reading Book Review, Catalyst Moon: Breach, by Lauren L Garcia

Book Review: The Time Table by Caroline Mather

The Time TableThe Time Table by Caroline Mather

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this independently published book to review as a member of the Book Review Directory, where my blog is listed. The writing style is fluid and a little formal, which fits the setting, and the formatting is clean and error free. I read it in about an hour on a plane, and it made the flight time pass quickly.

The Time Table is about a billiard table, built from slate cut from a Standing Stone in the British Isles, which serves as a portal through which people can travel through time. The author spends just the right amount of time and effort on explaining how this works—that is, not much—and gets right to the stories, which are all set in attractive periods of English history, including the present day.

The book works well as a collection of loosely-related tales centered around the billiard table and the London house where it has been located since the early 1700s. Quite a few people end up going through the table—so many that one is a bit surprised that it’s still a secret in 2016.

Overall the pacing of the stories is pretty good, never draggy, but sometimes the kissing starts surprisingly quickly and without much warning. There is a lot of kissing, caressing, and stolen, smoldery looks, but nothing more. The sexism of past ages is invariably dealt with or mitigated by the love of good men, and the table itself is always a force for good, helping its hapless humans work through their modern and not-so-modern dissatisfactions. The author’s optimism about love, relationships, the power of conversation, and the possibility of living happily ever after, is refreshing.

I don’t usually read time travel romances, so others more familiar with the genre might be less forgiving of some of this book’s foibles than I, but I found it to be a delightful break from heavier reading fare, like a tasty chocolate bon bon.

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Book Review: The Winter Knife by Laramie Sasseville

The Winter Knife (Minnesota Strange Book 1)The Winter Knife by Laramie Sasseville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good YA literature will stay with me long after I am finished with it, even as an adult. I would have been in the prime target audience for this book when I was a teenager, and I would have devoured it (pun intended). The story was a pleasant surprise on several levels. First, the author has a real gift for character and voice, especially with young teens. She manages to tell a fantastical story without talking down or condescending to her audience, while at the same time not going to any of the despairing, hopeless, or crazy places I feared she might be heading with the supernatural element.  Continue reading Book Review: The Winter Knife by Laramie Sasseville

Book Review, Catalyst Moon: Incursion, by Lauren L Garcia

Incursion (Catalyst Moon #1)Incursion by Lauren L. Garcia

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first installment of an enjoyable saga, Catalyst Moon. I don’t read many series, though, and this book reminds me of why. Incursion does a good job of setting up the characters, the world, and the conflicts, but the pace is leisurely and once things are really getting going, the book ends. I might read the next one, but I have so many other things to read in the meantime that it will be months if not years until I get around to it. I don’t believe this book stands on its own.

Continue reading Book Review, Catalyst Moon: Incursion, by Lauren L Garcia

Book Review: A Gleam of Light by TJ and ML Wolf

A Gleam of Light (The Survival Trilogy #1)A Gleam of Light by T.J. Wolf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Gleam of Light has many of the elements of a first-rate thriller: a sympathetic protagonist, mystery, conflict, and a fascinating backdrop. It’s clear that a great deal of thought and research has gone into this book. These elements, however, need to be put together differently to keep the reader really turning its pages.

Continue reading Book Review: A Gleam of Light by TJ and ML Wolf

Book Review: Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey

Author’s Note: Anne McCaffrey was one of my favorite authors as a teen. A high school friend gave me a copy of Dragonflight and I was hooked. But as time went on and I read more of the series I started to see its flaws. I wrote this review in college, when I was closer to both my love of and irritation with the books. Years later, I read the Harper Hall trilogy to my daughter, who enjoyed it but who never showed any inclination to pick up McCaffrey’s work on her own. The Harper Hall trilogy probably remains my favorite of all of McCaffrey’s work.

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (Pern, #7)Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you enjoyed Anne McCaffrey’s previous six Pern books, you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you were getting tired of meeting the same characters with different names or beginning to get frustrated by the discrepancy between the books’ potential and what they actually delivered, Moreta will be more of the same.

Continue reading Book Review: Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey

Book Review: Tales From Alternate Earths

Tales From Alternate EarthsTales From Alternate Earths by Daniel M. Bensen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this idea for an anthology and even though the premise is popular and often tried, I was intrigued to pick it up and explore the stories. My favorites were “Twilight of the Mesozoic Moon,” which also had the best title and the most imaginative characters, and “The Secret War,” which provided a unique twist to a story I already thought I knew something about.

Continue reading Book Review: Tales From Alternate Earths

Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

As the newest film set in the Harry Potter universe and J.K. Rowling’s screenplay debut, Fantastic Beasts has gotten a lot of hype, and quite a bit of criticism too for too much detail, plot holes, unclear motivations, and uneven pacing. My own kids and I were a bit confused when we went the first time, but that didn’t stop both of the kids from seeing it again with friends.

It is a visually arresting film, and I enjoyed the experience of watching it.  With the twisted cities of Doctor Strange still in my mind’s eye from the week before, the scenes of mayhem in old New York in Fantastic Beasts made an impressive counterpoint. I know the Harry Potter timeline and universe pretty well and so I also appreciated the world-building and the background to the more well known events from the HP books and movies.

Thematically, much of this debate about “craft” may be interesting, but beside the point. In this film Rowling returns to a theme that may ultimately define her body of work: the plight of wronged, abused children, the incompetent and/or evil adults who fail them, and the others who try to make it right. In the modern HP timeline, Voldemort/Tom Riddle came out of such a situation. In this film, and in other more recent work (notably, A Casual Vacancy) adults explicitly manipulate and use children to their own ends, and end up not only destroying the children’s innocence but unleashing a chaotic evil upon the world that can no longer be controlled.

This theme is rich, but sometimes, in Rowling’s hands, too simple–especially when the adults become caricatures. Newt Scamander is a worthy and well-meaning hero but IMO he needs more to do and to learn before this series can do justice to its ambition. The children are watching.