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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 2, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Bean on Baseball and Parker's Trilogies

If I had been taught baseball by a coach who had read Kenneth Bean' Teach Your Kids ... Bean's About Baseball, I might have enjoyed the game.

See, I had this thing about hard objects being thrown at my head. I was against it. But Ken Bean understands that there are actually kids who dislike head injuries, especially completely avoidable face collisions, and so he tells coaches and parents how to teach kids to field and catch in a way that won't get them that face-splat experience.

As you can guess, baseball has not played an important part in my life. But I was fascinated reading this book. It was so practical, so clear, so smart that it made me feel as if I could actually help a kid learn how to play a game that I never even came close to mastering!

Maybe you already know about this book -- after all, it was published in 1994 and has been the number one seller in its niche for many years.

But if you don't already have it, but you do have kids who love baseball -- or at least want to learn how to do it better -- then I think you'll find this book easy to understand and use. (If the local bookstore doesn't have it, Amazon does.)

*

Fantasy fiction follows its own rules, and they don't have much to do with the stuff your English professors taught you in college. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was the greatest work of fiction in the twentieth century -- but you'd never know it, listening to most of the professorial types. Why? Because it has nothing at all to do with the literary "standards" that were invented to explain why the Modernists were better than what went before them.

The problem is that the Modernists were not better -- just different. And really, really elitist. So these "standards" -- which still survive, virtually unchanged, despite several supposed literary revolutions.

There are real standards of literary value, though, that apply to all fiction that aspires to greatness -- standards that transcend genre. There isn't room for me to elaborate on them in this column (nor are there more than a half-dozen readers of this column who would really want to read my full-bore explication!), so let's just say that such very different novels as Pride and Prejudice, Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, Great Expectations, Little Women, Huckleberry Finn, Ben-Hur, Jude the Obscure, All Quiet on the Western Front, Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Rings, Light in August, and Shogun all have common features that are involved in their greatness.

Here are just a few of them:

1. The writing is so clear that the novel retains almost all of its power across decades and generations, and through translation into other languages.

2. The characters and their relationships are memorable and powerful; they invite the audience to care deeply about the story.

3. The story involves pivotal moral and philosophical issues of universal concern.

4. The novel creates such a thorough experience of the culture in which it is set that readers experience and comprehend it as reality, regardless of how far removed from it in space and time they might be.

Most novels don't even aspire to this kind of greatness. Often the writer aspires to be admired, by writing in such a way as to call attention to his own cleverness. Most writers take for granted whatever moral universe they live in, and their fiction merely affirms it rather than exploring it.

Likewise, no matter when or where the story is set, most writers merely reflect into the book the assumptions and shared values of the culture they live in. Nothing is doubted or questioned or, for that matter, even understood.

And we don't even count these lacks as flaws. The writer simply isn't writing a great book. He's only trying to write a good book. Even an excellent book. But it is for its time, for its audience. It does not aspire to contain an entire civilization and philosophy and moral worldview within itself. There is nothing wrong with writing non-great books. You win Nobel and Pulitzer and Booker and other literary prizes for them -- almost never are such awards given to the great ones.

Greatness is hard to test for, anyway. Even those writers who aspire to it are rarely capable of it. And sometimes writers who did not know they were reaching for greatness achieve it in spite of themselves.

Great books can be massive bestsellers in their own time -- or relatively obscure, their value only being discovered by later generations or other countries. It took French critics to notice that hack writer Mark Twain was actually achieving greatness. Melville was long dead before his magnum opus, Moby-Dick, was resurrected, Beowulf-like, to become a staple of American literature.

I have reviewed books before that I thought might someday be found to have achieved greatness, by this demanding definition.

But I am trying to be precise in my use of the word when I tell you that K.J. Parker is writing work after work that demands to be placed in that category.

First, let me point out that Parker is an irritating human being. No, I have never met this person -- but Parker is provably a smug and snobbish person because Parker refuses to provide any sure indication of gender. His or her bio is deliberately ambiguous. It's a game she/he is playing, except it's a childish game. The English language demands gender in pronouns, so it's simply annoying for an author to choose to make it hard to talk about him/her by concealing gender.

And what's the point? Either Parker has two X chromosomes or an X and a Y. So what? It's 2008 and nobody cares. So to make a big deal about it requires a degree of smugness. One gets the idea that Parker is poised like a cat to pounce on those who dare to guess the wrong gender, thereby "proving" something about them.

Well, I'm not going to play. I don't know or care what sex Parker is. Nor am I going to say something stupid like "He writes like a man" or "she writes like a woman." I find that Parker is equally plausible writing from the point of view of either gender -- as the best writers usually are.

So as I settle on the pronoun "she," it is not even a guess. It is a coin-flip. I won't feel proud of being "right" or embarrassed about being "wrong" because I cannot be either. I am unconcerned.

The only reason this matters is because Parker carries the same smug desire to mislead readers into her fiction. It is the only serious flaw in her books, that time after time she arbitrarily withholds from the reader key information that is fully known to her viewpoint character. Which means that when we finally find out the information, it feels like -- and is -- a cheat.

This annoyance is especially acutely felt in the vast Engineer Trilogy, where the meaning of every major event in the novels hangs on the motive of one character, the titular engineer, and when the information is finally revealed at the very end of the third book, it is a let-down.

And not in the way Parker intended, for in a way all her books are designed to defeat our traditional expectations. No, it's a let-down because by then I had stopped caring about that particular question, so instead of a shock I felt only a reaction of, OK, big deal.

About that question, mind you. Because I cared very much about everything else in the books.

Great writers can make mistakes. After all, Huckleberry Finn has that miserable revelation that Tom Sawyer knew that Jim had already been freed during the whole effort to break him out of his imprisonment.

Parker may be an irritating human being, without an ethos that requires she tell the truth to her readers, but it does not stop her from aspiring to greatness in her fiction and, in my opinion, achieving it ... and doing so time after time.

She is known for three massive trilogies.

The Fencer Trilogy (Colours in the Steel, The Belly of the Bow, The Proof House) is the first of them. At the beginning of the book, "hero" Loredan is an attorney with a blade, in a culture that has the ridiculously impractical system of trial by surrogate swordfight. If every trial results in the death of one of the two attorneys, you soon run out of lawyers, which might be a desirable outcome in some people's view, but it strains our suspension of disbelief.

Suspend your disbelief anyway, for the thing that matters is not that Loredan is an attorney, but that he finds himself cursed for having won a particular case. Even though it was a fair fight, and his client was in the right, and the person who cursed him turns out to be a near relative, what matters in a Parker novel is that people do what they do even when it is hopelessly wrong and they know it -- because it feels like what they must do.

And once we leave the attorney-at-blade situation behind, the rest of the story holds up brilliantly. Parker understands both the large issues of how a civilization works and the minutiae of things like how weapons are made. Parker's bio does tell us that she actually makes, by hand, the weapons and machines described in her books.

And she does describe the process! With a level of detail whose excessiveness recalls the blubber chapter in Moby-Dick, we live through the entire process of design and manufacture of many objects, in every book.

Yet it works. Some readers might skim these sections, but I couldn't. I had to read every word of them because they were fascinating. Even when I didn't understand the arcane vocabulary of the art being practiced, there was still a kind of trance or, at least, music to the way she recounts these acts of creation. To me, it was a way of experiencing the kind of intensity-of-creation that makers experience.

It was, for me, an exact duplication of the mental state I go into when I am in the flow of writing a story or directing a play or singing a song in performance. There is an intimacy and heightened awareness that I think may be like the "runner's high" that athletes talk about.

But those passages of intense detail are relatively rare, in the midst of long novels centered around unforgettable characters and swashbuckling adventures. There are great wars, destruction of cities, horrible atrocities, noble romances, personal tragedies, cruel betrayals -- all the stuff of great storytelling.

And philosophy? All these books are studies of human motivation, the trivial reasons for which we do great and/or terrible things, along with many other moral and philosophical issues no less interesting. But the action never stops while the author works out her points. On the contrary, she embeds the philosophy into the story so deeply that it is action.

The arguments matter. And Parker is such a clear writer -- one of the preconditions of greatness -- that you would have to work at being obtuse enough not to understand the issues.

Almost everything that I've said about the Fencer Trilogy is true -- only more so -- of the other two: The Scavenger Trilogy (Shadow, Pattern, Memory) and The Engineer Trilogy (Devices and Desires, Evil for Evil, The Escapement).

The Scavenger Trilogy is about a man who wakes up without his memory. He soon finds himself caught up in a scam where he pretends to be a god -- specifically, a god of apocalyptic destruction, the bringer of the end of the world. Then he spends the rest of the book determining whether that god is punishing him -- or whether he himself actually is that god.

This trilogy creates two completely distinct societies and does a brilliant job with both. I think it is the best of the three. (Except when I'm reading one of the others.)

The Engineer Trilogy is the most agonizing experience -- so many characters you love suffer terribly, or are killed in meaningless wars, that by the end you feel like you have actually been milled and manufactured yourself. But I suspect that when you go about measuring greatness, this is the one critics are likely to settle on.

Until Parker writes a better work.

In this trilogy, an engineer living in an insanely rigid (but successful) society is sentenced to death for departing from the specifications on a toy he made for his child. He escapes and then sets about achieving his goal -- which is the thing Parker withholds from us -- accepting the fact that in order to achieve it he has to do monstrous things. We love him for his genius even as we loathe him for his terrible betrayals of almost everyone who trusts him.

Parker's most recent book is a standalone called The Company. It's more than 400 pages long. For Parker, this makes it a short story. It's the tale of a group of elite soldiers who come out of their retirement to create a utopia. Needless to say, there is no possible utopia in Parker's fictional universe. And while the book will give you a taste of how Parker writes, it cannot begin to show you the scope and power of her longer works. Read it if you wish -- it's a very good book -- but you won't see Parker's potential for greatness until you read one of the trilogies.

There are many excellent fantasy novelists working today, and among them are some who aspire to greatness; perhaps a few who have achieved it. But it's hard to think of a meaningful set of artistic standards that would not find Parker's work to be a prime contender for greatness.

Meanwhile, for those who don't care about such literary competitions and classifications, the books are a terrific, unforgettable, all-consuming, wholly original reading experience.

As I said, Parker really annoys me.

*

So I've touted other writers' books. Now let me tell you about three books of mine coming out this Christmas. After all, some of the people who read my column also like to read my fiction.

1. Ender in Exile is the first sequel to Ender's Game that is actually centered around Ender Wiggin himself, while he's still a child.

Most of it takes place between chapters 14 and 15 of Ender's Game. It involves characters from the Shadow books, including the mother and son who go off to a space colony at the end of Shadow of the Giant.

So Exile is a sequel to two different books. But you don't have to have read either of them. All the information you need to understand Ender in Exile is contained within the book. If you've read the other Ender books, you'll recognize characters and events -- but it's been tested on readers who've never read an Ender book, and they understood the whole story without a problem.

It's a tale of soldiers who can't go home. They won their war, but they end up so far from Earth that if they tried to return, by the time they got back, everybody they knew and cared about would be dead. What was the point of returning? So they stay and colonize their former enemy's land.

Ender Wiggin is appointed to be governor of such a colony. But because he's still only a child, it is assumed by the captain of the starship carrying him there that Ender will only be a figurehead, while the captain himself becomes the real governor.

That's far from being Ender's only challenge -- for instance, there's the mother who thinks her daughter will be the perfect mate for Ender (that's the Jane Austen portion of the novel), and an alien species that is discovered on the planet before Ender arrives.

I think this may be the best of the Ender novels. It comes out on 11 November in bookstores everywhere.

2. Stonefather will be a lot harder to find. It's a very limited edition book of a long story set in my "Mither Mages" universe. So far, only one other story in that world has appeared ("Sandmagic"), but I'm in the midst of finishing up the first volume of a massive fantasy series set in this world. In a way, Stonefather is a preview of the longer work.

With a gorgeous cover illustration by Tom Kidd and Subterranean Press's usual high standards of quality and design, this is a beautifully made book. It is just about to come on sale -- and is already sold out at the publisher. That means that it has been snapped up by dealers and will quickly be hard to find at the original price. Just thought you might want to know.

3. Zanna's Gift was originally published under a pseudonym. I was trying to establish a separate identity in the marketplace, but for various reasons the marketing strategy didn't work as we'd hoped.

But the story itself is still one of the best I ever wrote, and this year my publisher is bringing it out again -- this time under my name.

It's a Christmas story, and if you think that means it's going to be an emotional book full of love and nostalgia and Christmas memories, you're absolutely right. With the possible exception of my novel Lost Boys, it's the most emotional book I've ever written.

Think of One Magic Christmas, It's a Wonderful Life, even Miracle on 34th Street. From Dickens's A Christmas Carol on, most of the best Christmas stories have dealt with the deepest issues of life -- good and evil, life and death, faith and doubt, almost always wrapped up in the traditional family.

Zanna's Gift is one of the life-and-death stories. There's plenty of humor in it, but it's centered around the hardest thing parents ever go through: The loss of a child. I didn't want you going into the book thinking it was light and fun. It demands a willingness to let your emotions engage. But if you are open to that kind of experience, I think you'll value this book.

The new edition with my name on it became available as of November 4th.


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