The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

thelastcontinentThis book takes place on Discworld. For those of you who aren’t aware of this world, it is a magical world created by Terry Pratchett. Discworld is (not surprisingly) a disc, which is balanced on the back of four giant elephants, who are standing on the back of an even more giant sea turtle named Great A’Tuin who is swimming through space. Pratchett has written dozens of novels in this universe. He’s a great writer of humor fantasy. My favorite book by him is Small Gods.

The Last Continent, copyright 1998, chronicles the more of the perpetual misadventures of Rincewind the Cowardly Wizard. For him, running is the solution to nearly every problem, but somehow trouble always manages to find him despite his best efforts. This book occurs after the events of Interesting Times, where Rincewind traveled to the Aurient. At the end of that book the faculty of Unseen University tried to rescue him with a magical transportation spell, which went humorously wrong and transported him to the continent of XXXX (pronounced EcksEcksEcksEcks or Fourecks).

XXXX is also known as the Counterweight Continent, because it’s presence is only inferred by the locations of the known continents, and the assumption that the flat disc of the world has to have roughly equal weight distribution. Fourecks is remarkably similar to the continent we know as Australia, which perhaps isn’t so remarkable when you’ve read other books in the Discworld series and realize that many of the lands are distorted reflections of locations in our own world.

I didn’t like this book as much as I’ve liked most of his other books. I think I’ve become much more picky since I started writing, so this may be a reflection of that. To me, it’s not that easy to relate to Rincewind because he is so cowardly by definition, his reaction to any danger is to run like heck in the other direction. He doesn’t MAKE things happen, things just happen TO him. I would much rather read a story about a character that MAKES things happen. Even if he’s reluctant, I still expect it to be his own decisions that drive the story. Also, Rincewind’s never shown any character growth. He’s always been defined by his cowardice which hasn’t ever changed.

That being said, much of the draw to Pratchett’s books isn’t necessarily the character development, but the humorous situations. In that respect, I didn’t think this one had as much humor appeal as others. Most of the story was just a series of coincidental run-ins with mildly villainous characters that then served as origin stories for (for instance) cork hats, and some things that I’m guessing are likely Australian delicacies.

I think the biggest lack for me, is the lack of villains in the piece. When Rincewind arrives on Fourecks, he screws up history in some sort of vague way. It’s not immediately clear how, and is only vaguely clarified further on, but his changes have made it never ever rain in Fourecks. In parallel, the faculty of Unseen University (Rincewind’s alma mater) are searching for Rincewind and stumble across a passage through time to an island in the past where the god of evolution is working out how to make things evolve. This provides some laughs, but is an almost totally unrelated story to the story of Rincewind. Only in the last 30 pages are the stories tied together in the vaguest of ways, and a pretty random coincidence occurs that provides the resolution to everything.

All in all, it’s an amusing book with Pratchett’s signature sense of humor, but it lacks a cohesiveness that I expect out of a story. If you love Australia it might appeal more to you–I’ve never been there, so I probably missed out on some jokes. But if you’re just looking for a good story in general, I think you’d be better served picking up one of Pratchett’s other books like “Small Gods”, “Soul Music” or “Thief of Time”.

Wicked–Novel vs. Musical

wickedmusicalwickednovelWarning: some spoilers ahead!

Wicked, the novel by Gregory Maguire
(the review of the musical is much further down)

Let me start by saying how much I love the land of Oz. I’ve always been fascinated by Oz, and by Wonderland, ever since I was a kid. I don’t know what it is about these strange parallel worlds that fascinates me so much. Maybe it’s because they were some of the first really speculative stories I was exposed to as a child. In any case, anything in either of these universes is almost an automatic hit with me, but Maguire has managed to write the only Oz story I’ve ever hated.

I read Wicked a few years ago, and hated it. Then I saw the play last year and LOVED it. I decided to give the book another try, just in case I’d been wrong. Nope, I still hated it. The book has almost nothing at all to do with the play, other than sharing the same characters and a couple settings.

For those of you aren’t familiar with the premise of the book, it’s a retelling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from a new point of view–the Wicked Witch of the West. He attempts to explain why the witch is perceived as wicked, how she came to own the west, how she came to be called a witch, etc… Honestly, with a premise this great, how could I not like it? I have plenty of reasons.

The book is split into several sections, each basically covering a portion of Elphaba’s life (Elphaba is the Witch of the West’s name). But it often seemed like all the important events were occurring off-camera. We see part of Elphaba’s life, then it skips 5-7 years between sections, then Maguire works the events of those years into pace-killing infodump summary that made me want to skip ahead. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.

Not only that, but each section introduced a whole new cast of characters–who for the most part were not seen either before or after that section. So I felt like any characterization of them was just a waste of time.

Sure, there were a few major events that happen on-camera, but even those were hard to get into. Part of it was the head-hopping. The predominant style these days is to choose a single POV character for each section/chapter of a book, and stick entirely with that character. I think this is a very positive trend, because I think it can be so much more immersive. I like to see the world through the eyes of the character using the narration as a lens. It’s a hard thing to do as a writer–trust me, I know–but it’s a worthy goal, a writer’s Everest. But the head-hopping in this book killed any potential it had. By head-hopping I mean that the point of view (POV) jumped from person to person within the scene. Elphaba would mentally describe Glinda for a paragraph, and then suddenly Glinda would mentally describe Elphaba, etc… I find it distracting.

SPOILERS!

And Maguire’s use of sex constantly annoyed me. Now, I’m no prude when it comes to sex in stories, but the sex has to serve a purpose just like everything else. It has to carry its weight. Sex can be a great tool for characterization, showing motivation, exploring relationships between characters. But instead of using sex to enhance the characters and plot, Maguire’s uses sex like pink flamingo lawn ornaments–it’s only effect is to distract and annoy. You can’t go a chapter without the subject coming up in the strangest of places. Perhaps it’s a countercomment on the total lack of sex in the film and book? I don’t know. A way to ensure that it didn’t end up on the kid’s rack? Could be. For instance, about 1/3 of the way through the book, many of the characters go to the Philosopher’s Club, a cultish sex club reminscent of Eyes Wide Shut. But neither Glinda nor Elphaba went in. Boq the munchkin, who had been a major character in the prior section, went in, but we barely see him for the rest of the book. Fiyero, the Winkie who becomes Elphaba’s only love, goes in but he seems unaffected by his experiences inside there. Crope (or is it Tibbet?) goes in, and gets some kind of STD and wastes away from it, but he’d always been a minor character. On the subject of Crope and Tibbet, both of those two were just token homosexual characters with no individual personality, as if they were an afterthought to meet some sort of equal rights requirement from his publisher. I got the impression we were supposed to gasp at the idea of homosexuals in Oz, but no effort was made to make them into real characters.

And the premise of this book is for us to try to understand the Witch better, right? Well, by the end of the book she’s actually more despicable than I had thought she was in the movie/original book. In the movie/book, I think the Wizard is the villain, not the Witch. Think about it. A little girl goes to the Wizard for help. He says he’ll help, but only if the little girl acts as an assassin and goes to kill the Witch. Dorothy doesn’t want to do it, but feels she has no choice. After that, the Witch’s actions are all self-defense. She knows Dorothy is her intended assassin–what is she supposed to do, sit and wait for her to come and kill her? We as viewers know that Dorothy could never intentionally kill anybody.

But in Wicked, what really convinces me that she’s a bad person is how she treats her son. She’s not entirely sure he’s her son (long story), but when she leaves the convent (another long and uninteresting story) the other nuns make her take the child with her. The narration makes it very clear that he is her son, referring to Fiyero as the father, etc, so we know he is. But whether or not he’s her biological son is beside the point. He’s her responsibility either way because she’s accepted custody of him. But she totally ignores him. She has no idea where he sleeps (on the floor in one of the children’s rooms), what he eats, what he does (lives in constant torment by the other children). He’s so unloved that he will do anything for approval, including getting kicked around by the cruel other children. Elphaba sees this and doesn’t care, nor does she lift a finger to stop it. One day Liir (the boy) is playing hide and seek with the other children, and one of them convinces him to hide in the fishwell, where he can’t get out on his own. Then the kid leaves him there where he sits for DAYS and almost dies. During this time Elphaba doesn’t even realize he’s gone! It’s this that really convinces me she’s a villain. I liked some other aspects of it, but this is what really made me hate her. I couldn’t like anyone who treated their own child that way.

END SPOILERS!

Apparently somebody liked the book, because it’s already spawned two sequels, “Son of a Witch”, which I’m assuming is about Liir, and I saw a new one about the cowardly lion.

Wicked the musical

As far as I’m concerned, the only good thing that came of Wicked the book is that it gave someone the idea to make Wicked the musical. This play is great! I like musicals in general, and this was better than average. It was everything the book should have been. Instead of being a meandering, slow-moving plot about a despicable character, it tells us about an Elphaba that I can actually relate to. The play is much more focused on the relationship between Glinda and Elphaba, which gave it a much stronger core. In the book, the two were only anywhere near each other in one section. The musical is focused around both of them, starting at Shiz, the college they both went to, and progressing to their meeting of the Wizard. From there, their paths diverge, but they are still both relatable. They both want to change the world, but Glinda tries to do so by society-approved advancement through government, and Elphaba tries her own radical ways. We already know how this works out for them, of course, but I still rooted for Elphaba because she was clearly a good person at heart with a good cause.

There are a lot of amazing songs in the soundtrack. Particularly noteworthy are “What is this Feeling?” where Galinda (it’s spelled Galinda in the early scenes where she insists on an aristocratic air, and Glinda in the later scenes where she’s more down to Earth) and Elphaba profess their immediate loathing for each other and “Popular” where Galinda gives Elphaba a much-needed makeover. Galinda/Glinda was played by Kristin Chenoweth on Broadway, who some people might know as Olive Snook on the now-cancelled TV series Pushing Daisies. She deserves special mention because she plays such an amazing Glinda the Good Witch. Spot-on, the voice, the look, everything is perfect. I didn’t actually see her in the part but she did an amazing job on the soundtrack, and she is perfectly suited for it. Also good songs are “The Wizard and I” sung by Elphaba, and “A sentimental Man” sung by the Wizard. Some of the lyrics were very impressive with their clever rhyming. For instance, the Wizard: “There are very few at ease with moral ambiguities…” And Glinda: “Don’t be offended by my frank analysis. Think of it as personality dialysis. Ever since I’ve become a pal, a sis–ter, and advisor, there’s nobody wiser. One slight pause in the middle of sister and it all works.

Now, I should note that the play deviated from every other version in major ways. It wasn’t particularly faithful to any of the other renditions. But the ways it veered off the beaten path were so compelling, and they made such sense with the world of Oz that I didn’t mind at all.

For one thing, the origin story of the scarecrow and the tin man were totally different, but the way they were changed tied them very closely to Elphaba’s story. Their original backstories were fine for the original book, because they didn’t have to be tied closely together to the witch.

SPOILERS!

The Tin Man in this rendition turns out to be Boq. While they’re in school Boq has a crush on Galinda, but she convinces him to take pity on Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, because Nessa’s in a wheelchair. He asks her out, and then never has the nerve to break it off. She becomes mayor of Munchkinland to the East, and eventually labeled the Wicked Witch of the East. She’s so afraid that he’ll leave her that she never lets him leave, always keeping him cooped up even though he wants to travel. He feels smothered, and one day during an argument between Nessa and Elphaba his heart gives out on him. Elphaba tries to save his life, and using the Grimmery, the magic book given to her by the Wizard, which she barely understands, she tries to find a spell that will save him. Instead of healing him, the spell changes him to a form where he doesn’t need a heart at all–the Tin Man.

The Scarecrow turns out to be Fiyero. He is engaged to Galinda for quite some time, and works in the military for the Wizard. But he defects in order to save Elphaba’s life. He’s captured by a troop of soldiers and they carry him away. Elphaba casts another spell to try to save his life, casting a spell that his bones may never break, that he’ll never die, and will not feel pain. Thus he became the scarecrow.

The Nessarose portrayed in the book and the play are totally different in almost every way. They’re both crippled, but with totally different disabilities. In the book, she has no arms. This makes her very dependent on other people–she can’t even walk unless someone helps her balance. While in the play she’s in a wheelchair. Book–she’s a religious zealot, following the religion of her father, but using it to become a Tyrant in the East. I couldn’t find anything about that Nessa to like. Play–she’s very sweet and it’s easy to feel bad about her bad fortune in life. It’s very sweet when Boq asks her out to the dance, and I really enjoyed seeing her face light up, even though I figured it would end badly one way or the other. Again, Maguire seemed to go out of his way to make sure every character was totally unlikeable. Just because a character is labeled as a villain doesn’t mean they can have no redeeming qualities!

END SPOILERS!

Obviously I feel very strongly about these two versions of this concept. I guess the other positive thing I can say about Maguire’s version is that it certainly got me aggravated enough to give me a topic to go on about.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

wonderfulwizardI read the original story by L. Frank Baum. I don’t think I’ve read this since I was a kid, if even then. I thought it was reasonably good, though it, not surprisingly, had a dry explanatory tone that is common in older literature. Also, there’s a lot of “As you know” dialogue. The scarecrow is constantly saying “I’m too dumb to do ____”, and similar statements from the Tin Woodsman and the Lion. What interested me most were the differences I noticed.
SPOILER ALERT
SPOILER ALERT
(just in case anyone hasn’t read this book from 1900!)

1. The ruby red slippers from the movie are actually silver. I suspect they made them red in the movie to show off their new color technology.
2. The Tin Woodsman is quite ruthless, beheading animals left and right, including a wildcat which was doing nothing more than chasing a field mouse. I’m sure they cut this to avoid blood.
3. The Lion is actually lion-shaped, not people shaped. Not a surprise there, since they had to have a guy in a lion costume.
4. The Emerald City is not really emerald. Everyone in the city must wear sunglasses by law that are locked onto your head, supposedly to protect you from being blinded by the dazzle. But the glasses are secretly tinted green, so everything looks green.
5. The Wicked Witch of the West does not use a crystal ball, she has just one eye which can see everything. Also, her skin is not green.
6. The Wizard takes on a different form for each of them–a giant head, a beautiful fairy, a ball of fire, and a 5-eyed 5-armed rhino-headed beast.
7. The Wizard gives them different gifts than the movie, though they are the same sort of “snake oil” placebo gifts.
8. It’s not all a dream in the book.

Actually the ending is quite amusing. Dorothy’s apparently been gone for quite some time, because Henry has had time to totally rebuild the house. Dorothy appears in the yard, Aunt Em finds her, and the first and only thing Em says is “Where did you come from?” That is a strange reaction for your dependent who has been missing for at least weeks, presumed dead in a tornado, that suddenly appears out of nowhere.

Movie Review: Push

Push Movie Poster
Push Movie Poster

Nicely enough, The Curse did not manifest itself too strongly this time. My wife and I have been plagued with a particular curse that follows us to events–concerts, hockey games, movies. You know that one guy in the stands that is so annoying you have to assume he’s never been in public before? The next time you see him, look in the seats immediately surrounding him, because we’re guaranteed to be right in front of, behind, or next to him.
This time wasn’t too bad in that regard. true, 5 of the other 10 people in the movie theatre were seated together in the row just behind, and they did laugh uproariously at the most unusual times, pretty much whenever anybody died, but at least they didn’t talk throughout it, and I didn’t hear anybody getting intimate (yup, that happened once during “Eastern Promises”, during Viggo’s nude fight scene and let me tell you, that is the last scene in any movie I would expect anyone to be turned on–it wasn’t that kind of nudity!)

I just saw Push today at the MoA. I went with low expectations, just looking for something to do. I was reasonably satisfied with this one. I think they made good use of the premise, and took it as far as it could go. That’s all I could ask for. Most of all, it provided what the previews had led me to expect. Plenty of action, shiny spec fx, and a relatively good plot. For me this was a great premise. I’ve always been interested in plots about people with extra abilities–X-men being a particular favorite.

The premise is this: In WWII, the Nazis tried to create armies of supersoldiers. They failed, but in the following decades, other governments set up research programs to continue this research. They categorized and trained those with abilities, mostly mentally based. The two main characters are Nick and Cassie. Nick is played by Chris Evans who you may know as Johnny Storm from the 2 recent Fantastic 4 movies. He’s a Mover, a telekinetic (each class of people has a clever little name like this). I wouldn’t say he’s the best actor in the world, but he didn’t turn me off either. Cassie is played by Dakota Fanning. She was reasonably good, though I could’ve done without seeing the preteen in a mini-skirt throughout the whole film. She’s a Watcher, someone who can see glimpses of possible futures. They’re both on the run from Division, the US organization that tries to control these special people: Nick because his father was killed by Division when he was a boy, and Cassie because she wants to rescue her mother from Division where she’s been held captive. They (and everyone else) are looking for Kira, a Pusher. Pushers are the most scary kind, they can make people believe and do whatever they want to. On a random sidenote, Kira looks almost exactly like Kim from Kath and Kim (who’s played by Selma Blair).
Most of the move takes place in Hong Kong, which I thought was particularly cool since I’ve been there a couple of times for business trips.

The main things I didn’t like about this movie:
1. too much preteen Dakota Fanning in a mini-skirt
2. At least twice they used a real fakey solution to a near-death situation: the protagonists are about to be killed, but an enemy Watcher says “no, don’t kill them, that could change the future” so they let them go to fight another day. It made sense in the context of the movie, but it still felt cheap, like the writers had written themselves into a corner and just needed a quick fix to get them out.
3. This requires a spoiler, so if you want to see the money you might not want to read on.

SPOILER ALERT

3. About halfway through the movie they realize the enemy Watcher is better than Cassie, so they have to find a way to be totally unpredictable. So Nick writes bunch of instructions for everybody in sealed envelopes, including for himself, and then he has his memory wiped by someone with that ability. Again, it made sense in the context of the movie, but it was rather annoying at times, because NONE of the main characters had a clue what the plan was. They just opened the envelopes and did what they were told to do, and everything worked out in the end.

The rest of the movie:
The whole object of the movie is to find a serum that boosts abilities to a much higher degree. Division wants it so that they can create their own army and keep others from finding the serum’s secret. Cassie wants it so she can use it bargain for her mother. A Hong Kong crime family, with many henchmen with abilities, is the third side.

The fight scene at the end was just awesome! With all three sides of the conflict there, it was very chaotic. With Pushers, Watchers, Bleeders, Movers, etc.. all fighting against each other, deflecting bullets. Kira was really scary in that scene, using her mind manipulation to turn enemies against her and recruit soldiers to protect her.

The ending was relatively happen, with open elements to guess what you will. Nick and Kira ended up together, though I had to wonder how you could ever trust someone who could manipulate your mind to that degree. All in all, I really enjoyed it.

The Political Prisoner by Charles Coleman Finlay

<This has previously been printed on my personal blog: http://www.anthonysullivan.net/?p=107>

I’ve read over and over again, as I scour the internet and other sources for information that might help me hone my craft as a writer, that it is important to be well read in whatever genre that you intend to write for. So I picked up the August issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine yesterday to get an idea of what they are publishing.

The first story that caught my eye was The Political Prisoner by Charles Coleman Finlay. I must say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. Set in the distant future, this story is focused on the experiences of a seasoned political officer during a revolution that occurs on an unnamed planet that is in the early stages of terraforming.

Finlay’s voice is clear and strong, leaving the reader to enjoy the story while it plays out before them without stumbling over words or poorly crafted sentences. The plot is compelling and thought provoking. I must admit that I was caught off guard at the length of the story, clocking in at about 26k words. Of course this is my own fault; it is clearly labeled an novella at the beginning.

I don’t want to give away too much of the story but the ending is thought provoking as this story of a political prisoner has some parallels with the history of the United States and their treatment of African Americans.

All-in-all this was a great story, with great characters. If no other quality stories existed in the magazine it would have been well worth the $4.50.