Modular Storytelling

Vincent from Final Fantasy VII. (Source: Wikipedia. Copyright by Square-Enix.)

Anyone with half an eye on the publishing industry can see that people are afraid. Will books cease to exist? Will our canon of literature go digital and never look back? Will e-publishing become the standard? Some of these questions are absurd and pointless. Books are not under threat; business models are under threat. However, technology does bring up the potential for new modes of storytelling. Enter: modular or interactive storytelling.

I first encountered modular storytelling as it was referenced in passing by comic writer Grant Morrison. I did some digging. Modular storytelling developed from analysis of narrative as it applies to video games. Since I love the Final Fantasy series, I’ll start there. The Final Fantasy series is renowned for great plots and compelling characters. However, being video games, these stories have an aspect of interactivity to them. There is a linear plot, but some installments in the series (VI, VII) have optional characters. These characters don’t advance the main plot, but they may add background information; they may add insight. To me, this is the real threat to books: interactive stories.

It is difficult to tell a story with paper and ink while making it interactive. Some forays have been done with the Choose Your Own Adventure series (and its imitators). Video games are probably the best model for what one can do with modular storytelling. A player’s actions can dictate the path (good or evil in Fables, light or dark side in Knights of the Old Republic) or unlock information that explains certain details (Vincent in Final Fantasy VIII). What I find fascinating is the idea of a book, or more specifically, text as interactive. Would it be possible to write a prose story that is fully interactive?

The main difficulty with such a prospect is time. A single writer would have to account for every possible path the story could take (or at the very least, chose pivot points for the story). The amount of writing necessary would be immense. Perhaps it would be best done with a team of writers with a lead writer, much like a television show or video game. The story would definitely need a director, someone to make sure all the pieces are together and accounted for. Due to the complexity, it may be some time before we see this attempted in a way that is compelling and paradigm-shifting.

While we may not see it in prose for some time, modular storytelling is finding its way into film. Thanks to Daniel Knauf (creator of HBO’s Carnivale), modular storytelling has debuted on the web in a big way. Tomorrow I will give my initial thoughts on Haunted.

Time and Relative: A Review of the Novella by Kim Newman

Source: Good Reads website. Copyright 2001 by Telos Publishing Ltd.

From The Reference Guide: The harsh British winter of 1963 brings a big freeze that extends into April with no sign of letting up. And with it comes a new, far greater menace: terrifying icy creatures are stalking the streets, bringing death and destruction.

The First Doctor and Susan, trapped on Earth until the faulty TARDIS can be repaired, are caught up in the crisis. The Doctor seems to know what is going on, but is uncharacteristically detached and furtive, almost as if he is losing his memory…

Susan, isolated from her grandfather and finding it hard to fit in with the human teenagers at Coal Hill School, tries to cope by recording her thoughts in a diary. But she too feels her memory slipping away and her past unraveling. Is she even sure who she is any more…?

First Line: “Hate, hate, hate! I hate Coal Hill School. I hate Year Four. I hate London. I hate pretending. I hate the cold.”

Source: The Doctor Who Reference Site. Copyright 2001 by Bryan Talbot.

Time and Relative chronicles an adventure of Susan Foreman during the winter of 1963, a few months before Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright started snooping around a certain junkyard. The novella is a pseudo-historical which involves an elemental monster called The Cold which, it turns out, is responsible for the Big Freeze of 1963. The Freeze was a particularly bad cold snap that took place in England. The Thames froze, as did parts of the sea surrounding the British Isles. In typical Doctor Who fashion, Time and Relative places the blame for this historical oddity on a prehistoric intelligence called The Cold. We learn that a combination of Communist Russian experiments and Alaskan drilling reawakened the dormant elemental which had evolved on Earth. As The Doctor says in the novella, The Cold is “one of Evolution’s first experiments with Intelligence.” It is only able to move and grow when temperatures drop below freezing, and the method it uses to dispatch humanity—which The Cold refuses to share the planet with—is an army of killer snowmen. I couldn’t help but envision Bad Mr. Frosty from the old Clay Fighter games, which rather killed the tension. There were a few places where Newman recaptured it, however, such as the snow rolling toward a military blockade, and the scene where Susan, John, Gillian, and company try to cross the Railway Bridge. The Cold proves to be a rather effective monster.

Less effective, however, were some of the secondary characters. The particular weaknesses were with Captain Brent and the Haighs, the former being a military captain and John’s father, the latter a religious husband and wife. It seemed these characters worked to espouse the idea that adults couldn’t handle the crisis, but children could. They insisted on pretending things were normal, while slowly going mad. I find this characterization hard to believe, especially having recently read Day of the Triffids, which created a nuanced and believable portrayal of humanity in a time of extreme crisis. The use of Brent and the Haighs in this way seems to be pandering to the idea that adults are uninteresting and boring and children are strong and resilient and superior because of their heightened imaginations. While I don’t have a problem with this idea, per se, it seems odd to include such an explicit child-empowerment message in a book that I believe was written for adults.

Source: Public Domain

Not all characters were poorly drawn. Susan and The Doctor fare extremely well, as do the supporting characters of John and Gillian (Newman is making a reference to the old TV comics here). I would argue, however, that Susan is portrayed too well. I find it difficult to believe that, having gone through this encounter with The Cold, the Susan of this novel would be the same Susan that would have an emotional crisis every other week once she and The Doctor left Earth. This Susan has more in common with the portrayal from The Sensorites and The Aztecs, which were some of the stronger performances from the show. In particular strength here is The Doctor, who debates whether or not to save the humans because The Cold has a stronger claim on the planet, and it is a more intelligent creature. Compared to The Cold, he says, humanity is like algae on a fish tank. When Gillian threatens to kill Susan if The Doctor refuses to help, The Doctor feels that his point has been made (about humanity’s barbarity), and is willing to allow Susan to die rather than interfere. His disregard for Susan in this instance is a bit at odds with The Doctor in the first season of Doctor Who, but his coldness (no pun intended) and disregard for humanity fits well.

I seem to be down on the book. I suppose I was disappointed. I had high hopes for the story, and even felt the beginning was strong. The book is narrated by Susan, using the conceit that she is writing in a diary in order to improve her grasp of English. This narrative device works quite well. Newman even has a few good observances/commentary about humanity. When discussing adult disdain for 1960s music, he writes, “It’s because adults are threatened. When music changes, it means we’re taking over. The young.” And elsewhere, when Susan is trying to remember her home planet and the Time Lords, she writes:

“This is standing outside a window, looking in, watching a child being beaten but not smashing through to do anything. Finding it interesting, but having no reason to change it, as if the whole universe were a big painting in a gallery, to be admired for its technique but which we should never think to add a brushstroke to, not even to repair damage or improve on a shoddy bit of work. Where we come from, all people are like that.”

These are some great moments in the narrative and some wonderful observations. It’s just a shame that the characters didn’t hold up consistently. This flaw hindered my enjoyment of the book.

Continuity? I mentioned the development of Susan in this book possibly being at odds with the Susan in An Unearthly Child. If I had to bet, I’d say Newman would respond with the following passage from The Doctor:

“‘Continuity, bah!’ Grandfather said yesterday or the day after. ‘Doesn’t exist, child. Except in the minds of the cretinously literal, like the singlehearts who clutter up this planet. Trying to sort it all out will only tie you up in useless knots forever. Get on with it and worry afterwards if you can be pinned to someone else’s entirely arbitrary idea of the day-to-day progression of events. Without contradictions, we’d be entirely too easy to track down. Have you ever thought about that? It’s important that we not be too consistent.”

Touché, Mr. Newman.

Final Verdict: This was a quick read and it had some great narrative moments. It is full of continuity jokes, which occasionally take one out of the story. If you are a fan of Kim Newman, you may have fun seeing how he plays in the Doctor Who universe. A lot of fans like this one, and it is one of the better novels. For me, however, it is average and I probably won’t revisit it.

Next: Time and Relative

Time and Relative was the novella that kicked off Telos’ Doctor Who novella project. In total, Telos published 15 novellas. Each book had an introduction and a frontispiece. I remember when the novellas were first announced; they seemed exclusive and prestigious. Due to this, I was under the impression that these books would be of higher quality than some of those I had read in the BBC Books range. Thus far, I have only read Frayed, and I quickly learned that my earlier impression was not accurate. However, an entire range cannot be judged by a single book, and while Stephen Cole (under the pseudonym Tara Samms) may have turned in a mediocre entry, I have higher hopes for Kim Newman.

Newman is a writer who has had a successful writing career outside of the Doctor Who world. He is a film and television critic, but also a novelist who has written the well-received Anno Dracula books, a series that takes place in an alternate history in which Dracula has become the ruler of England. Similar to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, this novel incorporates fictional heroes of the Victorian Era, and becomes a game of spot-the-character. All this wrapped up in a horror/history novel. Sounds rather intriguing.

Since he is an established writer, I have somewhat high expectations for Newman. Time and Relative stars the First Doctor and Susan and takes place in London in 1963, mere months before two inquisitive school teachers wander into a dark scrap yard. The story has, as its backdrop, The Big Freeze of 1963, something I will be researching and sharing background on a bit later.

I’m looking forward to getting back to Doctor Who, and as an added bonus, the book is by an author I have wanted to read.

 Any thoughts on Time and Relative? Should I check out more works by Newman?

(Image: Catriona Sparks. WikiCommons.)

The Day of The Triffids

A novel by John Wyndham

From the back: What were they–these hideous triffids roaming the ruins of the Earth?

Until a few short hours ago–before the sky exploded into a shower of flaming green hell–triffids had bee regarded as merely a curious and profitable form of plant life. Now these shadowy vegetable creatures became a crawling killing nightmare of pain and horror.

Madness hung in the air, fear lurked in every side street, death hovered in every doorway. Stripped of civilized veneer by terror and desperation, the handful of surviving humans began to turn on each other.

And all the while the triffids watched and waited.

First sentence: “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

A story about walking killer plants?  Really?  Such phrases tend to appear in reviews around the internet.  It seems this is the disbelief that many have to suspend.  And yet, when you are reading the book, this is easy to do.  The triffids, whose origins are never fully explained, may have originated in the genetic laboratories of Soviet Russia.  They could be man-made.  Wyndham never explains this, however.  And as frustrating as this can be at times, it is oddly satisfying.  It completely fits with this sci-fi horror tale of humanity fighting to survive.

The novel follows Bill Masen, a man who has worked with triffids most of his life.  As mentioned above, no one knows for sure where the triffids originated, but they soon prove useful to humanity due to the oil which can be extracted from them.  The problem is that triffids have a sting that is poisonous enough to kill humans.  They also seem to have a rudimentary intelligence, one that allows them to learn and even hunt. Regardless, triffids are subdued and exploited by humanity until a world-wide light show appears in the Earth’s sky.  Speculation suggests this is due to comet debris.  The next day, everyone who watched the lights is blind.  Bill Masen escapes this fate as he was recovering in the hospital from a triffid sting; he never saw the lights.

And here begins the narrative which will feel familiar to anyone who has seen a zombie film: eerie silence and deserted streets. Civilization has fallen.  The majority of the novel deals, not with the triffids, but with Bill’s attempt to survive in this new world.  He encounters various groups with their own solution to survival: rebuild a new, better society with one group; build a society based on rigid religious structures and dogma with another; or maintain military discipline to ensure Britain will one day come out on top.  None of these groups seems assured of any particular success.  All the while the triffids must be dealt with as they continually seek out humans and kill them.  They become a constant background threat.

This is a brilliant novel.  I love how Wyndham fully thought out what would happen in the breakdown of civilization.  What responsibilities do those who can see have to those who cannot?  Which is better: city or country living?  How would different groups seek power?  Something that constantly surprised me was how many people in the novel chose to just “wait it out”, convinced that eventually the Americans would come and sort everything out.  It is startling to me just how influential my country has been throughout the decades.  And there is every reason to expect that America is dealing with the same problem of triffids and blindness.  This is Rome falling and the dark ages beginning.  One group actually adopts a feudal system for survival.  I cannot recommend this one highly enough.

The Americans: (in which Masen describes various groups he finds scattered around the countryside)

“As a rule they showed little wish to join up with other parties and were inclined rather to lay hands on what they could, building themselves into refuges as comfortably as possible while they waited for the arrival of the Americans, who were bound to find a way. There seemed to be a widespread and fixed idea about this. Our suggestions that any surviving Americans would be likely to have their hands more than full at home was received as so much wet-blanketry. The Americans, they assured us, would never have allowed such a thing to happen in their country.”

Final Verdict: This was the most fun I have had reading a book since either A Game of Thrones or The City and The City.  I would recommend it to anyone who likes thought-provoking fiction.  Again, this was a brilliant story and I would love to have had another hundred pages.

Doctor Who: Frayed (Telos Novella)

A review of the novella by Tara Samms

From the back (or blurb or whatever): On a blasted world, the Doctor and Susan find themselves in the middle of a war they cannot understand.  With Susan missing and the Doctor captured, who will save the people from the enemies both outside and within?

Opening Line: “I like to stare into the sun.”

I’m fairly certain that it is unrelated, but twenty minutes after finishing this book I was coughing up blood.  This probably had more to do with allergies than the quality of the story, but it still seems oddly fitting given some of the gore in the book.

Tara Samms is a nom de plume for Stephen Cole, and I’m certainly glad I didn’t know that going in to the novel.  I have yet to read any Doctor Who stories by Cole that I would classify as compelling.  For the first twenty-five pages or so, I genuinely thought this was going to be a fun story.  By page fifty, it became a drudgery as I realized the characters were not going to do anything interesting or be at all memorable.  Sure, they were all given motivations, but they pursued them with as much enthusiasm as some of my lazy co-workers.

Frayed is a pre-Unearthly Child-base-under siege-soporific masquerading as a novella.  The story takes place on the planet Iwa where a human-run base called The Forge is being assailed by foxes.  Naturally, these are not ordinary foxes; they are aliens that seem to fall to pieces every few minutes.  Their siege is rather inconsistent as a result.  Regardless, their attacks are quite brutal when they do manage to pull them off.  As near as I can tell, the foxes are symbolic of what humanity will eventually become should they not cease genetic manipulation.  Yes, The Forge is a base for the potential criminal.  Those who are deemed to have the correct genetic template are tossed in The Forge and experiments are conducted on them for good measure.  And did I mention that the prisoners are telepathic children?  Nothing like dumping a bunch of ingredients in the pot and seeing what congeals.  And this is one of my problems with the concepts in this novella: there are too many for the allotted space.  There is not enough room for any one of the ideas to breathe and grow into a compelling plot with some meaty moralizing.

Given the number of ideas here, combined with the Doctor Who formula of needing a mystery to slowly reveal, something has to give, and Cole has chosen the characters.  We have the base leader who has become a coward, the love-struck one, the insurrectionist, the lustful base chef, and a handful of characters that never even attempted to reach the heights of the aforementioned ones.  The best a reader can hope for in keeping the characters straight is to read the book in a single setting.  Otherwise, they will bleed into an unmemorable mass.

The Doctor and Susan are adequate.  Some reviews I’ve encountered say the duo are portrayed excellently, but I disagree.  Sometimes I can hear William Hartnell in The Doctor’s dialogue, but most times I can’t.  At best, I would say the leads are inconsistent.  Given that this story takes place before we officially meet The Doctor and Susan, perhaps a bit of grace is in order.  Cole does float the idea that The Doctor and Susan acquire their names in this adventure, an idea that I hope sinks and is forgotten.

Successful dialogue:  ‘You’re a romantic, my dear.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘Mostly these humans are thoughtless and savage, with outmoded ideas about practically everything.’ He chortled. ‘Yet, they may merit further study.  I marvel that they have survived as a species to reach into space.’
‘Because they dream,’ she said.

Final Verdict: If you are a fan of Stephen Cole, I’m sure you will like this one.  Otherwise, this is a book only for the completist.  At the current price of $20, I think it a good one to skip.

The Day of the Triffids: An Introduction

Image Source: Wikipedia

The first book I will be reading for Vintage Sci-Fi Month is The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham.  I have long wanted to read this book, so I’m happy for the prompting.  I looked for this book for a couple of years in the book shops around town, finally finding it in a going out of business sale.  As with most eagerly-sought books, I put it directly on the shelf, unread.  Better late than never.

Wyndham seems to be an author who has had quite a bit of influence on the British sci-fi psyche.  Many of his books have an apocalyptic flavor and as Triffids was published less than ten years after World War II ended, I’m not surprised.  The war with Nazi Germany had ended and the Cold War had begun.  These were not optimistic times.  Wyndham has been praised for his ability to take world-wide catastrophe and scale it down to the personal level, filtering events through the eyes of a few individuals, thus creating an intimate feel for the drama and conflict.

The Day of the Triffids has been adapted twice for BBC television, once in 1981 and again in 2009.  It has also influenced numerous works, not least of which is 28 Days Later.  As I started reading the book, the narrator says,

“The way I came to miss the end of the world–well, the end of the world I had known for close on thirty years–was sheer accident: like a lot of survival, when you come to think of it.  In the nature of thins a good many somebodies are always in hospital, and the law of averages had picked on me to be one of them a week or so before.”

28 Days Later did a direct homage to this when Cillian Murphy’s character Jim wakes up in the hospital after the rage virus has ravaged London.  And it is also hard to not see traces of this in Dalek Invasion of Earth.

While this will be my first time with Triffids (I haven’t even seen the BBC adaptations . . . some Anglophile I am), it will not be my first Wyndham story. I heard a radio adaptation of Chrysalids once and it was quite compelling and horrifying.  Yet, there was something oddly familiar about it.  Wyndham seems brilliant at filtering his visions through a human lens that makes them familiar and real.  I’m looking forward to this book.

So, what are the opinions out there about John Wyndham and Day of The Triffids?

2011 Novels in Review, Part 1

A few years ago, while in a particularly sadistic mood, I resolved to read 52 books a year.  For the first two years, I succeeded in this.  Every year since then, however, has been marked by failure to meet this goal.  For 2011, however, I decided that it would be better to have a more realistic goal for my current place in life.  So, I counted up the books read in 2010 and added 20% to that total.  Twenty-percent seemed like a decent amount of growth to me.  Thus, my 2011 goal was to read 28 books.

For the final blog posts of the year, I want to look back over the year of books and see what I liked, what I didn’t, and what I learned (if anything).

Source: Wikipedia

We will start by going back to January.  Snow was on the ground and I was lamenting my lack of boots.  I had the day off work due to the snow so I was able to progress through The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.  This was a novel that couldn’t have had a setting that stood in greater contrast to Missouri.  The book took place in Los Angeles during the summer and had a brief interlude in Mexico.  The story concerned the investigation of the real-life Elizabeth Short murder over the course of the late-1940s. I was brought to this book because of a film-noir kick that I was (and still am) on.  I had watched the Brian De Palma adaptation and felt that the film had an interesting story at its core but was poorly told.  The novel was much better and the themes of obsession that hounded the main characters were much easier to see and believe in the book.  The book was compelling and well-written, but the content was quite disturbing.  Truth be told, given the details of the Elizabeth Short murder, there would be no way to tell this story without disturbing content.  Suffice it to say, this is not a light read.  But it is an excellent example of the neo-noir genre.

Source: Wikipedia

A second noir entry from this year was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.  I had heard some of the old Philip Marlowe radio episodes with Van Heflin and Gerald Mohr but this was the first of the Marlowe novels I had read.  The prose was quite enthralling.  Marlowe is a great narrator and his observations are witty and sarcastic.  This book was definitely genre-defining as I could see many of the influences in later films and novels traced back to here.  The mystery, one of blackmail and later murder, is compelling and it works.  There are very few leaps of logic for this story.  I was also amazed at how Chandler wrapped up some peripheral mysteries along the way.  The red herrings weren’t as unrelated as we had been led to believe.  Excellent stuff.  Also of note is the BBC Radio 4 adaptation that aired early this year.  It condensed the storyline into an hour and a half drama without skimping too much.

Source: Wikipedia

A third noir novel was The City and The City by China Mieville.  What made this novel unique, and one of my favorites of the year, was the ambiguity of whether or not this story was strictly realistic or a fantasy.  I reviewed the novel in more detail here, but for brevity’s sake, I thought it was a well-crafted murder mystery with some amazing philosophical depth that could be used to analyze just about any culture that has things it wants to ignore.  The two cities of the novel overlap, either topographically or dimensionally, and must “unsee” one another or risk invoking breach.  In truth, the potential sci-fi elements of the novel can be completely ignored and it can be enjoyed as a murder mystery involving a politically inconvenient investigation.  This was my first time to read Mieville and it will not be my last.

Source: Wikipedia

For quite some time the bookshop where I worked would store overstock books in the employee restroom.  The temptation to read on the toilet was quite strong.  It’s only fair, I feel, as many of my co-workers play on their cellphones or text in the bathroom, what is the problem with me reading, so long as I don’t take too much time.  Besides, sometimes the bowel movements are not very cooperative.  Anyway, over the course of 2011, I read A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room two or three pages at a time.  While it was amusing in many places, I can’t say it was a book I would purchase.  I truly want to enjoy the series, especially given the dark humor, but having now read the first two books, I find the series somewhat underwhelming.  I contemplated reading the third book, but when I saw Count Olaf returned for the third time, I started fearing the series would grow formulaic.  I may return to it some day when my “to read” piles have seen more progress.

Source: Stephen Lawhead's website

Sadly, another underwhelming book was Stephen Lawhead’s The Skin Map.  It started from an interesting premise, basically that reading the ley lines could transport people to alternate realms of existence, other times and places.  Honestly, it seemed a bit Doctor Who to me, and that is a good thing.  But as I read, I didn’t find the main character very engaging and found the sub-plot about his girlfriend starting a coffee shop in medieval Prague the most interesting part of the novel.  With all the action, adventure, and mystery of the novel, and I gravitate toward the food service sub-plot.  The must be something wrong with me.  I truly want to like this series, but at the moment, much like A Series of Unfortunate Events, I’m putting it on the back burner.  I love many of Lawhead’s Celtic books.  His retelling of the Robin Hood mythology as Welsh history was particularly engaging.  But with The Skin Map, I almost felt as if his writing style had been simplified.  Perhaps he wanted to make the book more accessible to those reading him for the first time.  Perhaps the shift was unconscious.  Regardless, I felt that, while the concept was great, the execution lacked something.

I think this is enough for part one.  Look forward to part two soon.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

From the Back: “John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was seriously ill at the beginning of the First World War.  In it he introduces his most famous hero, Richard Hannay, who, despite claiming to be an ‘ordinary fellow’, is caught up in the dramatic race against a plot to devastate the British war effort.  Hannay is hunted across the Scottish moors by police and spy-ring alike, and must outwit his intelligent and pitiless enemy in the corridors of Whitehall and, finally, at the site of the mysterious thirty-nine steps.”

I had never heard of The Thirty-Nine Steps or John Buchan before the book arrived at the used book shop where I work.  But I’m willing to give anything a try that is designated a classic (as Oxford seemed to deem this one) and as it was a pre-WWI spy thriller, I figured this was going to be an amazing read.  Then, like most books that I buy on impulse, it sat on my shelf for months.

Around Thanksgiving, I decided I needed a short read as I’m currently trying to get through some lengthier fare (Don Quixote, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, and The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft), and as The Thirty-Nine Steps was only 111 pages and was a thriller, I decided this was the ideal book.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get into the thing.

The book is the introduction of Richard Hannay, a character that recurs in a few of Buchan’s novels.  Hannay is lodging in London after returning from a stay in South Africa and soon finds himself on the run after an acquaintance is murdered in Hannay’s flat.  It turns out this acquaintance, by the name of Scudder, was a spy who had unearthed an assassination plot.  The anarchists behind the plot hope the assassination would destabilize Europe.  Hannay flees to the north and has a series of misadventures as he attempts to avoid the murderers and the police who believe Hannay murdered Scudder.

While the book sounds exciting, the older style didn’t engage me much.  I never really found Hannay an interesting character, and he would seem to develop the skills he needed quite suddenly, be they technical skills with explosives or special tactics in avoiding pursuit in the wild.  In particular I found it odd that the leader of the anarchists would imprison Hannay in a barn that held explosives.  This seems a poor prison as Hannay just blew his way out.

It wasn’t all bad, however.  The aforementioned anarchist was actually quite interesting and provided a much-needed villain to the piece.  Hannay had finally met his match, as illustrated in the following passage:

“There was something weird and devilish in those eyes, cold, malignant, unearthly, and most hellishly clever. They fascinated me like the bright eyes of a snake. I had a strong impulse to throw myself on his mercy and offer to join his side, and if you consider the way I felt about the whole thing you will see that that impulse must have been purely physical, the weakness of a brain mesmerized and mastered by a stronger spirit.”

The novel was originally serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine, so each chapter is a bit of a self-contained adventure within the larger narrative.  It is quite easy to pick it up and read one section, then put the book down again.  I didn’t often feel compelled to read “just one more chapter.”  It’s a shame, for I truly wanted to like this book. The very concept is one that is revisited time and again in modern movies, a man wanted for a crime he didn’t commit.  In the end, I think I enjoy the concept more than the book itself.  I look forward to seeing how it has been adapted.  I think it would make a fun movie, although, from what I have read, most adaptations have been rather unfaithful.

Final Verdict:  So, I didn’t care much for the book.  Buchan himself, however, seems to have lived a fascinating life.  He was an administrator in South Africa and later a propaganda writer during WWI, spending the later years of his life as a governor general in Canada.  If I ever come across his autobiography, I may check it out.

The Thirty-Nine Steps can be purchased from Amazon.  It is also available on Project Gutenberg.

Vintage Sci-Fi January

I have to admit that this is a great idea.  Inspired by The Little Red Reviewer, I will be participating in The Vintage SF Not-A-Challenge.  Details can be found here, but here is the concept in an abbreviated form.  The Not-A-Challenge is a loose group of bloggers who want to read some vintage science fiction novels or short stories and write about the experience.  Vintage, in this case, refers to anything before 1979.  Essentially, anything that was published prior to the blogger in question being born (in my case 1980).  It is called “Not-a-Challenge” because there isn’t any real challenge to hit a certain number of books or anything so competitive.  There is no pressure, which is great because my life will get extremely busy about mid-way through January.  I’ll be returning to school next month to pursue a technical writing degree, and that will probably chip away at my reading time.  But I can’t think of a more fun way to unwind after a day of classes and work than relaxing with some Bradbury or Wyndham.

If any of my fellow bloggers want to participate, I would love to have you join us.  Check out Little Red Reviewer‘s blog for more details.

Target Review 005 – Doctor Who and The Keys of Marinus

Written by Philip Hinchcliffe

From the Back:

MARINUS
a remote force-shielded island set in a sea of acid, governed by
THE CONSCIENCE
the ultimate computer which rules and balances the gentle life of Marinus, guarded by
ARBITAN THE KEEPER
ruthless protector of a peace loving race threatened by
YARTEK
Warlord of the brutal sub-human Voords, sworn enemy of Arbitan and of Marinus, who has within his grasp
THE KEYS OF MARINUS
the Conscience’s vital micro-circuits, the doors of good and evil.  Can the Doctor find the hidden circuits in time?  Arbitan’s command was ‘Find them, OR DIE!’

Opening Line: “The day–like every day on Marinus–started clear and bright.”

First thoughts are that this is an odd novelization.  Oh, the actual content is normal enough.  In fact, it is quite straight-forward.  What makes this odd is that Philip Hinchcliffe, the producer for Tom Baker’s first few years, is the author.  Hinchcliffe had nothing to do with this story.  Granted, many Target books are like this.  Ian Marter, the actor who played Harry Sullivan (also from the Tom Baker era) novelized a few of the books as well, many of them of episodes he wasn’t in.  I’m rather curious what it was that led to Hinchcliffe writing this particular novel, especially as I would say his heart wasn’t in it.

As novelizations go, if you want a straight script-to-prose adaptation, you will be quite pleased with Keys.  Unfortunately, I prefer the books that go into greater detail and become something beyond the source material.  Since Keys still exists, and has been released on DVD, I would probably prefer to watch the serial than revisit this book.  This is just personal preference.

Final Verdict: Yeah, I realize this is a short review, but I just didn’t care for this novelization.  I was quite bored.  Occasionally I felt I should just watch the DVD because it would be quicker.  I will try to make the next review more interesting.  Sorry.

From lust to gluttony: “Vasor quickly locked the door behind him and turned to Barbara.  ‘There.  We’re alone.’  He gave a funny chuckle.
Barbara shuddered and crossed to the fire.  Vasor followed and put his large hands around her shoulders.  She broke away, trying to conceal her alarm.  ‘He’ll be back,’ she said, ‘I know he will.’
‘We’ll see.  Meanwhile I’ll get us some food.  We must fatten you up, eh?’”