Fame, Recognition, International Notice! Giant Ego
Issue 11 December 2002
What's With the Sudden Fame
Not a lot of people know that before I got involved in Fandom, my hobby was theatre. When I moved to Dublin first in 1998 I didn't find a theatre group that I would have liked to join to replace the crowd I had been involved with in Cork. So I switched hobbies to SF Fandom, and it has been as much fun. But inside me, there has always been a little voice demanding that I go and strut my stuff in front of an audience. People might have noticed that this voice gets loudest after I've had a few beers.
Which is just a preamble to me saying that here in Helsinki, I have found a theatre group that I like, and have joined them with enthusiasm. And yes, they are English language. The Finn-Brit Players are, despite the name, an international group of really great people. I missed the auditions for the show that went on in October, and the show going on in March is a musical, so those who have heard me sing will be thankful that I didn't audition for that, but this month has seen a little cafe theatre production that I did get involved with, Poetry & Jazz.
Poetry & Jazz does exactly what it says on the tin. We recite poems, from memory, and a jazz musician provides incidental music and sound effects between and during the poems. It's not for everyone, and if you really hate poetry then I wouldn't recommend it, but even if I say so myself, it's different from any other poetry recital I have ever been to.
There were seven of us performing, plus our musician Johannes on double bass. I recited two poems, one by Eugene O'Neill called "It's Great When You Get In" and Jonathan Swift's "The Lady's Dressing Room". Admittedly, with sleet and snow coming down outside, it felt a little redundant passing on O'Neill's warning not to go swimming in the sea in September, and the Swift poem, whilst entertaining if you speak fluent English, can be difficult going for non-fluent speakers. But I got enough laughs for both for all three performances, I remembered all of the lines, and I got enough compliments that I feel like a star. Some people threw flowers. Or maybe I dreamt that bit. It's such a pity that most people reading this will have missed it. I'll be signing autographs next week.
More News From Fitz
Robin Hobb gets better and better. Her first fantasy trilogy set in the Six Duchies, "The Farseer Trilogy", followed the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of Fitz, the bastard son of the crown prince Chivalry, as his loyalty was bought by his father's family, and he struggled to keep his own desires and morality balanced against what he was asked to do to keep the Farseer reign stable. Hated by half the court, ignored by most of the other half, Fitz grew into a man whose confidence was invested in three or four people. Despite being great fantasy, it was difficult reading, as Fitz seemed to have misfortune heaped on despair heaped on savage beating. A spoiler here, but this is definitely the only fantasy trilogy I have ever read where the first person narrator is killed at the end of book two.
The first volume of her new trilogy, Fool's Errand, returns to the Six Duchies and Fitz, plus his Wit-bound wolf Nighteyes and his adopted son Hap. It is fifteen years later, Kettricken rules as Regent Queen until her son Prince Dutiful is old enough to rule, and things are safer and more prosperous in the Six Duchies again. After a slow start of close on two hundred pages where Fitz sits in his cottage sulking, the adventures get going and then it is a fast and avid read.
Dutiful has the Wit, the forbidden magic that enables him to communicate and bond with animals, plus he has inherited the Skill as well, the rare royal magic that Fitz has spend years struggling to break his own addiction to. As one of the last surviving male Farseers with both talents, Fitz is the natural choice for a tutor for Dutiful, except that he refuses. Chade, now the Queen's Advisor and an important member of the Court, first arrives to convince Fitz he is needed. When he fails, the Fool, no longer white but a golden colour and in disguise in Court, arrives to spend time with Fitz and ask him back to Court.
As a disgraced and once executed bastard prince, Fitz is unwilling to risk his life with a return to court, until word comes to him that Dutiful has gone missing just days before he is due to be betrothed. This is when things start to get good. It transpires that Dutiful has probably been deliberately bonded to a wild cat, the result of machinations of some minor nobility long rumoured to have the Wit. This suggests that Fitz has got involved with one of the new groups of Witted who are becoming bolder and more demanding in the kingdom. But something about Dutiful's bond to the wild cat, sensed during Skill dreams by Fitz, feels very wrong, and who is this woman that Dutiful seems to have fallen in love with?
I began to feel a bit sorry for Fitz. The worst things that could happen to him, do happen to him. He never gets enough sleep, his Court disguise is as serving man to the Fool, whose own Court disguise is as an exacting dandy, Chade forces him to use the Skill almost constantly, giving him killer headaches, his wolf is captured by enemies and faces death, he almost gets eaten by some strange monsters, and that is only the start of it. I began to get a sense of the author deliberately thinking up painful things that could torture Fitz some more.
But there is also a sense that this book had to be written, that Hobb is going to use the series to tie up all of the loose ends in a way that would never occur to us as readers. The relationship between Fitz and the Fool is explored in more detail, and future adventures are hinted at with the revelation that there is second White Prophet, also with a Catalyst, at large. We will get to visit the Out Islands later, I am confident.
A slight niggle only: would she ever update the map at the front of the book. It is exactly the same as the one in the very first volume of the Farseer trilogy, and most of the places mentioned in this book aren't on the map. I'm sure that she knows where everyone is at any one time, but I really couldn't keep track. Hardly ruinous, but slightly irritating.
Sauna: The National Religion
They say that the three S's define Finland: Sauna, Sibelius and Salmiakki. I know precious little about Sibelius, in the interests of research I just bought a CD with some of his music, and the less I know about Salmiaki the better, but I have been looking into this national obsession with the Sauna.
I mentioned in the last issue that I have an en suite sauna, not that I want to boast (okay, I do want to boast), but now that winter is here it is becoming less of a luxury and more of a necessity. Of course, I have the wrong kind of sauna, it's electric, I turn a couple of dials, wait an hour, and then get in and sweat. The proper sauna involves burning wood, a building separated from the home, holes in the ice to leap into after you have finished to cool down, plenty of mess and a level of insanity that I don't possess. Finns get quite worked up over this, they all dream of living in the country side where it would be a practical option, yet they make do with the city variety. Every apartment block must have a sauna, and sauna nights are assigned to residents. Public swimming pools also have saunas, segregated by sex, and ten yards from my office is a pub that has a sauna. Come to think of it, my office has a sauna that is used to impress clients, and I am endlessly entertained imagining a delegation from Digifone being confounded by the fact that their suppliers expect them to take all their clothes off and get sweaty with them.
According to one of my more reliable colleagues, there is a strict rule that sex (as in intercourse rather than the difference in the bits that dangle) and sauna do not mix. According to one of my less reliable colleagues, her boyfriend passed out during orgasm in a sauna. Personally, I like my sauna hot enough that the thought of touching anybody else, never mind having sex, is nauseating, but, you know, you're naked, you shower afterwards, you feel good - I'm with the less reliable colleague on this one.
It may have occurred to you that in Ireland, sauna means something else, especially a public sauna, especially a public sauna segregated by sex. After imagining a startled Digifone delegation, my second greatest amusement is talking to male Finns who have spent time in Ireland (or elsewhere) who have sought out the local sauna. Every time, they are shocked to discover lots of naked men doing things to each other and eyeing the tall blond blokes who just walked in.
In the sauna, an optional aid (stop sniggering in the back) is the vihta, a flail made of fresh birch twigs and leaves (when they are growing) that you use to stimulate your skin (I don't want to have to mention the sniggering again) to make you sweat more. It also releases a nice smell, and you can pick your own so it doesn't cost too much. It is also the reason why for the first time in my life, an adult said to me with a straight face "You must really spank yourself. Spank! Spank!"
Lastly, a word about the cooling down. I mentioned that the traditional idea is to cut a hole in the ice and jump into a lake (over 60,000 lakes in Finland) or failing that, rushing out into the snow and rolling around in it. I opt for a much more gradual method of cool down, starting in a luke warm shower and turning the water cooler and cooler. I've done the immediate blast of icy water in the shower, but I'm worried that my screams will scare the neighbours. Whichever you choose, what is essential is that you do cool down in some way. A sauna without a proper cool down is like a slightly failed hot bath - a sauna with a proper cool down is refreshing, invigorating, and warming. You cool down your skin temperature rather than your inner temperature, and like in the tampon ads, suddenly feel like you can climb mountains, go rollerblading, ballet dance with confidence. And by the way, you'll be pleased to hear that a cold beer is often considered an intrinsic part of the cool down.
Something More, Something Different
In 1922, Simon Trent slides the last brick into place to complete the house that Sir Edwin Lutyens had built to Trent's own eccentric and exacting design. In 1998, Booth Hawtrey is struck by a bolt of energy outside a London nightclub and becomes an immortal ambassador for an alien race from Alpha Auriga. In 2043, the world economy collapses dramatically, leaving Britain ruled by rival Great Families in a feudalistic and violent society. In 2248, two rival factions arrive at Heartsease, Trent's house, for reasons they don't fully understand.
This is the not unamibitious premise of Paul Cornell's novel Something More. Paul Cornell, a quick Google tells me, is well known in Dr. Who circles for his novelisations, but this is his first non-franchise book. And well worth reading it is too.
The plot is extremely complicated, and even placing the book into a genre is troublesome. Obviously, aliens and future make it science fiction, yet one character, Jane Bruce, a reverend in the Reformed Chruch of England, is on a ghost hunt that is ultimately successful. So there are horror elements there as well. In fact, with the interminable Night's Dawn series, and Alistair Reynold's books, it almost seems like a British sub-genre of horror-sf is being born.
The Reformed Church of England is dedicated to searching for the extreme fluctuations in the Electro-Magnetic (EM) spectrum that indicate a haunting (in line with current paranormal research, as far as I am aware), and to calming these patterns. Jane Bruce finds in Heartsease a situation she has never yet come across, a completely flat EM map. The maze in the gardens is a different story, and in the very centre of it she is saved from certain death by none other than Mary Poppins, as envoy of God. Mary wants to send Jane on a mission, to increase the EM in a certain spot. To do this, Jane must choose a victim and torture them to death. Enter Booth Hawtrey, one of the Hawtrey family that Jane's employers the Campbells are close to war with, and his official biographer Rebecca Champhert.
It gets more and more bizarre, and difficult to describe without spoiling the book for those who haven't read it. The Aurigans aren't quite what they seem, but neither is any one else, although at least the Aurigans know what they themselves are. As things progress, you become aware that the most sympathetic characters are on the wrong side, and the less sympathetic are in the right, an interesting twist. The narrative skips backwards and forwards in time, only once confusingly, and we track backwards through every single one of Rebecca's birthdays for reasons that only come clear at the very end. This dense plotting mean that Something More is worth rereading, but as far as I could tell, Cornell does not slip up once. Nice foreshadowing of events and use of tension create some excellent moments of horror, especially in the first half, and the ending is deeply satisfying.
Something held me back from loving this book, and I'm not entirely sure what it was. There are some unpleasant sex scenes, although not unnecessary, so it might be that. Life in 2248 Britain is harsh and short, convincingly so, and I suppose maybe unconsciously I like my futures portrayed as somewhere I'd like to live. I really can't tell what it is, but if I didn't love this book, I certainly liked it a lot, and look forward to more of Cornell's books. I also recommend it to anyone who enjoys thought-provoking SF.
Oh No, Not The Celtic Church
Actually, it is only about halfway through the first book, The Iron Lance, of Stephen Lawhead's new trilogy 'The Celtic Crusades' that the Celtic Church makes an appearance, and it isn't as unbearable as you might expect. Given Lawhead's well known fascination with religion, you might even describe it as a restrained approach to this favourite theme. Or then again, you might not.
Oddly interspersed with the accounts of a Victorian Scot's recruitment to and induction into a secret order (oh no, not a secret order), the main story of The Iron Lance follows Murdo, a young man from the Orkney islands, as he travels to the Holy Land to catch up with the First Crusade. St. Andrew, long dead, makes an appearance, and asks Murdo to build him a kingdom in a beautiful land. I think we can guess where this is going to happen. What saves the book from cliché, and makes it better than the other Lawhead books I've read, are the characters, particularly of the priests who accompany Murdo, but most of all that of Murdo himself. He is intensely likeable, stubborn and determined, devoted to his family, and his coming of age tale is convincingly written.
The latter day Scot is telling this tale, revealed to him in a series of visions after touching the Iron Lance of the title (the spear used to pierce JesusŐ side), instructed by his brethren to reveal the truth as they forsee a day when telling the story is a better camouflage than keeping a secret. This is quite a nice conceit, if not terribley original, it also means that any historical inaccuracies (not that I'm qualified to spot any) can be passed off as deliberate attempts to fool the reader into thinking this is fiction.
The second volume in the series, The Black Rood, is narrated by Murdo's younger son Duncan. Also accompanied by a priest from the Celtic Church (Padraig, who is "a thoughtful, well-meaning monk, despite the fact that he grew up in Eire"), Duncan sets off for the Holy Land after hearing rumours that the remains of the True Cross have been found by the Templars (oh no, not the Templars). The promise of the first novel is completely lost in the second. Duncan is one of those flat characters who nevertheless is asking for a good slap. The only character flaws that he has I suspect are the result of bad writing rather deliberate characterisation. He is pious, brave, kindly and noble. He makes me want to heave. Towards the latter third of the book, the plot is so similar to that of The Iron Lance that you could skip through it on memory alone. I did.
Quite why Duncan is determined to bring the Holy Rood back to Scotland isn't very clear, unlike Murdo who had had a vision telling him to do so, Duncan is just intent on stealing it from its guardians, who depending on the whim of the author, are either the Templars or the troops of Bohemond the Second.
The writing is careless in other places. In a pitch black tunnel, Duncan can nonetheless make out that his companion has tears welling up in his eyes. In other places, it is overly ornate without being evocative. Something is the colour of the North Sea as night sweeps across it - black?
It's always disappointing when a series doesn't live up to its first volume, and my criticism is probably coloured by that. However, given that the first volume wasn't especially brilliant, I'd advise giving them a miss.
A Guest Columnist!
I see from the last issue that Fionna's publicly pledged to hassle me into writing something, and as it's that or do some work, I figured "What the hell." My orders were to contribute a guest review of something SF, of which I am a professed fan. Due to an odd series of circumstances too dull & convoluted to divulge here, however, I was rather short of recently read SF titles. This situation was finally alleviated when I acquired a copy of the latest novel by Orson Scott Card, so here goes:
Shadow Puppets By Orson Scott Card (OSC):
I should preface this review by stating that my personal situation regarding the writings of OSC is somewhat unique for me: This is an author who has produced two of my all-time favourite pieces of SF, but whose back-catalogue I have still not yet got around to tracking down in its entirety for reasons I have never really fathomed. Despite being a keen evangelist on both sides of the Atlantic for the seminal Ender's Game, the only work of his I have read besides the "Ender's Earth" books is his atmospheric short story "Hatrack River". I loved Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead: I found both books inspired and thoughtful, but they are very different in tone. Reading the sequels to these, I felt that some elements of Xenocide were at least interesting, but felt that Children of the Mind was a rather sorry and forgettable end to the series.
Despite the departure of Ender, however, the other military genius children left on Ender's Earth are still able to wage epic international conflicts, bankrolled by an elite corps of cynical, sequel-loving publishers. This strategic operation was initiated by persuading OSC to return to the field with the remaining Battle School characters to fashion a new series, focusing on the rather unlikely and unlikeable character Bean. The first of these newer books has already been denounced as execrable by our mercurial but much-loved editor (does that stop this from getting cut, Ed?) [I suppose so. Flattery is the sincerest form of imitation. -Ed.]. While I certainly didn't hate that book the way that she did, and managed to avoid excursions to the bathroom involving tape measures, it really wasn't a patch on the original. Shadow of the Hegemon followed, further developing the roles the various warrior whiz kids on the geopolitical stage.
Shadow Puppets continues on from where Shadow of the Hegemon left off. Our gene-genius hero, Bean, is now a tall teen with a bad case of growing pains: he is counting down the days to his death due to his genetically-engineered form of gigantism. His long-time female companion from Battle School, Petra, wishes to marry him and bear his children, but Bean is resistant to propagating his condition. Meanwhile, the Hegemon, Peter Wiggin, loses the couple's loyalty by attempting to liberate and use the warped political genius of Bean's old nemesis Achilles to his own advantage. This is clearly a bad idea from the word go, even to a non-teenage non-genius like myself, and soon the Hegemon himself becomes a fugitive from an oddly bloodless coup. Achilles promptly uses his newly acquired power like a political blunt instrument and attempts to use it to brain anyone who actually dared to be nice to him. Global power struggles ensue.
Unlike Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, which were both effective meditations on loneliness, guilt and lack of mutual understanding, Shadow Puppets is less interested in these theses. Ender was psychologically isolated in the first book and his community culturally so in the second. Card attempts to portray Bean as the sympathetic character in Shadow Puppets: he is the token outsider by virtue of his genetic difference. Unfortunately, the attempted isolation here is less effective, as Bean has a family and close friends at hand, and is able to go anywhere in the world, but is still pretty snarky and unsympathetic (unlike Petra, who is a consistently likeable character). Bean may be doomed to a short, brilliant life, but if "Blade Runner's" Roy Batty could face it with a Dylan Thomas-style stiff upper lip, why can't he?
The biggest problem with the book for me, though, is that much of the plotting is triggered by the inept actions of the Hegemon. For a genius, the character of Peter Wiggin comes across as quite stupid: not a suitable trait for a world leader (but worryingly present today, perhaps?).
On a more positive note, the geopolitical games are engaging, and it is clear that Card loves to play "Risk" with his idealised versions of the world's nations. There is some genuinely dry, witty writing present in his transcriptions of the communiques between the Chinese military commanders, and the business about moving stones about in India is amusingly silly. On balance, I found this book a fast read and did enjoy it, not least because it permitted me to follow the further escapades of characters of which I am fond (yes, even Bean to some extent). It is not amongst Card's best work, however (or at least the parts of it I have read). In summary, I would say that this is more of a book for the regular fans, rather than as an introduction to the Ender saga. Our editor can probably skip this one, though, and leave her tape measure in the drawer.
- Dr Mark The Astronomer
A Letters of Comment Section!
This is almost getting to be real fanzine! Next thing you know, I'll be passing snide comments that only make sense to the In crowd, repeating Fannish gossip, and considering myself important.
Tommy Ferguson writes: Still working my way through the back issues - went straight to the Blade Runner review and was delighted to see it amongst Three Days of the Condor and Insomnia. Great taste. Bodes well for the rest of the issues... Looking forward to the rest... As you have probably found out by now, that column wasn't written by me, but by Amanda Lowery. However, I hope you have enjoyed the rest regardless.
Joel Kuntonen, a friend in Helsinki, writes: I liked the bit where you talked about going to the gay district in West Vancouver, I know that area. Actually, that was the gay district in East Toronto, Joel, but good to have a new discerning reader!
James Shields writes: Finland sounds interesting, I look forward to hearing more about it. You never know, I might pop down for a visit after RanCon. How far is Helsinki from Stockholm? I liked the bit about fantasy being crap. I know that's not true (among other things, I'm in the middle of Maggie Furey's series, which is fairly standard fantasy, but not too formulaic and well written). That said, there are plenty of fantasy writers who really could learn that you don't need ten child-killer volumes to tell a story. I made it through three-and-a-half volumes of the Wheel of Time before I decided I had better things to do with my life. But, I agree, the same is true of any genre. Helsinki is an overnight ferry journey from Stockholm, for about forty Euros (I'm told). Anybody else thinking of making the trip after RanCon, my floor space is fully booked out, I'm afraid, but I could point you towards some good hostels..
Juliet E McKenna writes: Very interesting piece you write - on several levels. Yes, I heartily endorse your thoughts on the 'all fantasy is crap' debate - and your experiences in Helsinki make fascinating reading. We must get together and discuss crime (in a purely literary sense) sometime - I am also a recent discoverer of Peter Robinson and similarly rate Minette Walters. If you're into atmospheric contemporary rural American, I can recommend Donald Harstadt. Also recently read one by Danuta Reah - shall be seeking out more by her. Glad to hear you liked it, Juliet. After cutting up my credit card, I'm limited to the stock in Helsinki book shops and the libraries, which is better than you might think, but I'll look out for some Harstadt. For something quite different, have you tried any Leslie Forbes?
This issue is so much longer than any of the other issues, there are a few things I decided to hold over until next month (in case I find myself with nothing to say. I know, sounds unlikely, doesn't it?). And I'm aware that the reading list I tend to give at the end of each issue seldom bears any resemblance to what I actually review in the following issue. However, I have a review of The Thief's Gamble and The Swordsman's Oath by Juliet E McKenna already written, so that will be in there, and I am currently reading A Crown of Lights by Phil Rickman, a horror detective novel (I think I'll like it!). Plus some more writing about living in Finland, since that has interested people, and maybe even some more LOCs. And I'll think about who I can bully for another Guest Column...
And I almost forgot, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all. May 2003 see you healthy, wealthy, happy and wise.
Copyright © Fionna O'Sullivan, 2002.