Saturday, December 24, 2016

Eugene Fairfield's Best Books of 2016

As last year, a book is considered "2016" if I read it in 2016. As such, the competition is highly random, pitting P. G. Wodehouse against Lemony Snicket. Here they are:

Best Young Adult

The Raven Cycle, by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue is a compelling heroine, her tension with the Raven Boys is artfully done, the setting is original and surprising, the plot and romance compelling. It's hard to find something not to like about this book.

Best Science Fiction

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam, #1)The Year of the Flood by Margaret AtwoodMaddAddam (MaddAddam, #3)

MaddAdam trilogy, by Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam)

 Lyrical, terrifying, absurd, human, brutal. Margaret Atwood is a stunningly powerful author. The Crakers are wonderful.

Best Fantasy

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven Cycle, by Maggie Stiefvater

I didn't read a lot of fantasy this year, and if not for this series, I wouldn't have given a "Best Fantasy" nod this year.

Most Important

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

What is it really like -- aging, infirmity, and dying? Informed by his experiences as a doctor and as the grandson of a dying man in India, Gawande explores issues of independence, pride and loss, traditional vs. modern care, and a medical system that sees death as an enemy to defeat. A peculiar war to fight, with the guarantee that no matter how many battles are won, the war will always be lost. If you know anyone old or infirm, read this book.

Best Discovery

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer 

Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff Vandermeer

 Last Christmas Isabelle got a book on writing, The Wonderbook, by Jeff Vandermeer. Looking at it, I wanted to know who this writer was. Weird, complex, and original.

Author of the Year

Margaret Atwood 2015.jpg 

Margaret Atwood

Speaking of being mortal, Margaret Atwood is something more. The competition is hardly fair to mere human beings.

Best Author Who Isn't Margaret Atwood


Maggie Stiefvater

Seriously. She wrote 5 of the 30 books I read this year, and they ranged from Good to Great.

 Best Solo Audiobook Performance

Will patton 2006.jpg

 Will Patton

Apparently Scholastic sprang the big bucks for the Raven Cycle. This guy has an extensive filmography going back to 1983's Silkwood. Here, he performs the great feat of making you forget there is only one reader. I can't remember his voice, I can only remember Blue, and Gantsey, and the Gray Man.

Best Audiobook Performance in a book I didn't like

Simon Vance (Titus Groan)

I've noticed that the best audio performances usually line up with my favorite books. So here is a fabulous voice actor, despite reading for a book I didn't like. The diversity of characters and voices he is capable of is stunning. Hats off!

Best Protagonist

illustration by ulrikmunther

Blue Sargent (The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater) Second from right

Born under the kind of prophecy you really don't want ("You will kill your true love with a kiss"), Blue is the only daughter (and only non-psychic) in a house full of psychic women. At once tough and vulnerable, fierce and gentle, the inadequate diner waitress among the elite prep school boys, but also the queen of her band. Not only only that, but she's also super-cool.

Best Quote

"Who is this Fuck, O Toby? Will Fuck come and help us, too?"

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

The day fuck became a deity. Need I say more? 

Book of the Year

MaddAddam (MaddAddam, #3)

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

This is a book that will last generations. Bleak, visionary, at times absurd. It is the hopeful conclusion to a devastating trilogy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Plot Peeves

There are some things I just can't stand in a story.

Plot Fart

A compelling question is raised... and ignored

Ten year-old girl was nipped by a werewolf, but manages to fight off the lycanthropy somehow. Now seventeen, she is attacked by another werewolf, and bitten again. Will lycanthropy overwhelm her this time? Is she doomed, her life as a human ruined? What will happen?

Unfortunately, nothing. None of these possibilities even occurs to the characters, because they have divine knowledge somehow that she is immune to lycanthropy. Being immune is certainly possible, but their absolute certainty that this is how it works just doesn't make sense. It's like a story-wide brain fart.

Stupidity Plot Drive 

An obvious solution could solve the problem, but the characters, by sheer force of will, do not notice.

The young heroes, riding in a coach and four, are stopped by a tree fallen across the road. A second tree blocks their retreat. They try to pull the fallen tree out of the way, but they aren't strong enough. If only there was someone stronger to help them! Like four Clydesdale draft horses! Certainly it's possible the horse couldn't do it, either. But we don't know they couldn't, because no one even thought about the possibility. Although it's a good thing they didn't think to try this, because if they had escaped, they wouldn't have been attacked in the night and the plot advanced.

This is related to the Plot Fart, but worse. After a similar fashion, an obvious question doesn't occur to the characters. In the Plot Fart, the willful oversight is just confusing and annoying. In the Stupidity Plot Drive, it is necessary to  keep the story moving. Nothing is worse than a problem that is only a problem because the characters are too stupid to solve it.

Say What?

Characters briefly do the impossible, leaving the reader wondering if this is supposed to be significant, or what?

Often this happens to me with wildlife. The girl who runs "very fast" and escapes from a mountain lion. The hunters who decide they're going to kill all the wolves in the forest, so they walk into the woods and shoot them. Question: given a 40' head start, how long can an Olympic sprinter stay ahead of a mountain lion before getting caught and eaten? Answer: 0.9 seconds. Question: how far might a wolf pack be from its den when the hunters go looking for it? Answer: up to 30 miles.

I don't like to dispute accuracy with fiction. Just let it be a story. It's okay. But it is so darn jarring. For me it's analogous to having characters in New York jump in their car and drive to Paris for the afternoon. I stop reading and try to figure out if I'm supposed to make anything out of this apparently magical power or not.

In the case of the mountain lion, I actually was--the girl was half a were-lion. If the girl had been shocked or confused by her miraculous escape, I'd have been okay. But because she doesn't notice she's done something superhuman, I'm left wondering if she did, or if the author was just confused. "Very fast" doesn't cover what you'd need to do to outrun a mountain lion. It's the fastest sprinter in the world who can last 0.9 seconds.

In the case of the wolves, no, the hunters have no super-powers, these wolves just like to sit around and wait to be hunted.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Star Wars: A Simple Comparisom


As everyone knows, Star Wars is a trilogy of trilogies. There's the Original Trilogy, from 1977. The New Trilogy, from 2015. And, of course, there's the Abomination, from somewhere in between, I'm trying not to remember.

Everybody knows how the Abomination compares to the Original, but how about OT and NT? I'm trying to make up my mind.

At the risk of making my co-workers laugh at me, I had to make a table.

Original Trilogy New Trilogy
PLUS: Heroic, Epic, Larger-than-life, classic retelling of the Hero's Tale. Deeply rooted in mythology Epic and heroic, but not the classic "Hero's Tale" (hero--Rey--is absent from the beginning of the story)
PLUS: Tight, solid plotting DING: fractured story-telling. Needlessly unresolved questions. Stellar hopscotch so fast the viewer loses track of what is happening where. Rapid-fire coincidental meetings.
DING: Lame, stilted dialogue, mildly whiny hero ("But I wanted to go to the Tashi Station and pick up some power converters!") PLUS: Strong characters, real feelings and situations. Characters drive story. Solid dialogue. A little more life-size.
PLUS: Amazing cinematography PLUS: Amazing, evocative cinematography. Better picture of poverty and oppression.
PLUS: Original, definitive. Star Wars transformed SF for the movies. DING: Death Star Redux III. A lot of parallel scenes.
DING: Cuteness. R2D2 had appeal, the Jawas were slightly creepy, but the teddy bears were over the top. Cuteness contained. BB-8 had it, and that was enough.
Improbable situations and physics, but it's all in good fun. DING: Silly physics. Silly enough to be distracting.


For the Original Trilogy, the Heroic Tale, the mythology, and its original, transformative nature are its greatest hallmarks. The dialogue and, especially in later episodes, cuteness factor are its most famous flaws.

For the New Trilogy, the characters, their conflicts and struggles, the vision of the First Order, and the evocative places stand out. It's a shame, therefore, that the frayed plot undermines all this.

Telling the difference between what is a delicious, compelling mystery, and what is an annoying withholding of information can be a tricky call. But there are two simple, basic guidelines:
  1. Unless mystery and subterfuge is the point of the story, if the heroes know the answer, the viewer should know it. 
  2. If a character has a mysterious background, when others discover it, the viewer should discover it. 
In the case of Rey's past, the first point means that, by the end of the movie, we should know something of the circumstances of her abandonment. We shouldn't be guessing whether she was waiting for her mother, boyfriend, sister, best friend, or entire family. We shouldn't wonder whether the parting was forcible abduction, probable death, neglectful abandonment, or heroic abandonment. The memory flashes at the cantina are only a tease, not a resolution. The second rule says that when Rey and Leia meet, it should be clear whether she's thinking "Here is someone who knows what I'm feeling," or if she's squealing "Mommy!"

The ambiguities build on each other. It appears as if Rey is Ren's sister, but that raises more questions. If not, then we know nothing of her background. If so, then why doesn't she know anything about Han and Leia? It's all so completely unresolved that I even lack confidence it's worth trying to unravel. That is to say, I expect that, when the "mystery" is revealed, any evidence against the revealed truth is simply ignored. J. J. Abrams track record with Lost encourages this view.

The parallel scenes I can forgive, because they felt like tributes more than rehashes. If a funny-looking band had featured in the cantina (as in Return of the Jedi's rehash), if there had been a brawl, if the Yoda-ite had used Object-Subject-Verb word order (or some other odd speech), if the Neo-Death Star's weakness wasn't directly tied in to the uniqueness of its original weapon, this would have annoyed me much more. However, no new twist can really make Death Star Redux III okay. We need a new threat.

The silly physics aren't a bad ding, they're just annoying. They disrupt the story for anyone who thinks about what's going on. You don't need a Ph.D. in physics to wonder how a planet can survive after its sun has been sucked up by the Neo-Death Star, we learned in kindergarten how we need the sun. Anytime your viewers are scratching their heads and saying "Wait, what just happened?" you've interrupted your movie. It's bad story-telling.

The Winner: The Original Trilogy

It's a close call, and a shame, because it wouldn't have taken more than a junior story editor to fix the flaws that undercut the new movie. All the genius of the characters, dialogue, settings, and plot was badly hampered by the shoddy storytelling. Simplify the planet-hopping, make clear what is happening where. Pay attention to the questions you raise, and notice the difference between a mystery and an annoying omission. That part isn't hard. It boggles my brain that Hollywood so often skips the critical, easy parts while creating brilliant bits to flounder in the soup.

The New Trilogy is fabulous, and I am eagerly awaiting the next two episodes. I even have hope that Disney will ask JJ Abrams to remake the Abomination episodes, since they own the rights, have no shame about admitting what a disaster they were, and will make tons of money and happy fans if they do. But this movie doesn't displace the original from its iconic top spot.

At least, not yet.