When I wrote about a pandemic

Well, sort of.

Portal is about two kids getting trapped in an alternative universe. The universe they ended up in was like ours, but a couple hundred years behind us technologically. I set it up that way because I wanted a bit of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court feeling to the novel — the kids had to figure out how to make do without modern inventions — no cars, no planes, no electricity . . . But then they use their middle-school knowledge to actually make a difference.

But why was this world a couple hundred years behind ours? I didn’t exactly have to explain this; my premise was that anyt event could split off another universe, as in Everett’s many-worlds theory. (Did I ever mention that I once saw his son perform at the Somerville Theater? I digress, however.) But I thought it would be an interesting plot point. So early on in the novel I had the kids figure it out: native Americans had a horrible disease (I called it drikana) that the first European explorers brought back with them. And it devastated Europe, the way that, in our world, smallpox devastated the Americas. The story of Guns, Germs, and Steel in reverse. Eventually Europeans built up immunity to the disease, but in the meantime the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were delayed, and so the world the kids found themselves living in was still primitive compared to ours.

And of course the kids had no immunity to drikana. One of the kids comes down with it, and both end up quarantined, wondering if they will survive. Much drama and pathos ensues.

Having used this plot element in Portal, I didn’t trot it out again in its sequels, Terra and Home. But this nagged at me a bit — if I wanted this bit of realism in novels (that otherwise weren’t realistic in the slightest), I really should have had the threat of disease be a pervasive concern whenever you traveled to another world. If I were writing these novels nowadays, this threat would have loomed a lot larger, I’m sure.

Writers in movies: “Little Women”

I haven’t done one of these in a while. I assume you’ve all seen Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, so I don’t have to include spoiler alerts.

The difficulty with portraying writers in movies is that they’re mostly boring people, and what they do is mostly boring. Scribble scribble. In Little Women, Jo March is scribbling in her attic room by lantern light. When she finally gets the idea that she should be writing the story of her family rather than fantastical adventure stories, she starts scribbling really fast. This is fine, because I would watch Saoirse Ronan scribbling names from the telephone book. But anyway, Greta Gerwig has Ronan’s right hand cramp up, so she switches the pen to her left hand and keeps scribbling. This is a lovely touch!

And then we see the accumulating pages laid out on the attic floor. Five pages, then quick cut to ten pages, then to twenty, and so on. She’s making progress! This is fine, but I was bothered by the lanterns on the floor illuminating the pages. That’s because I had PTSD from the scene earlier in the movie when sister Amy burned Jo’s novel page by page after Jo wouldn’t let Amy join her and Laurie at the theater. Don’t put the pages of your novel near a source of fire, Jo!

In the movie we get a big, sisterly fight when Jo discovers what Amy has done, then some parental words about forgiveness from Marmy, and a couple of scenes later Jo and Laurie save Amy from drowning after she falls through some pond ice. Don’t do it, Jo and Laurie! Drowning in icy water is a fitting punishment for burning someone’s novel!

I digress. The scenes of grown-up Jo negotiating with the hard-nosed New York editor are lovely. I was afraid the whole flashback approach Gerwig came up with would be irritating, but it wasn’t at all. (The Irishman uses a double-flashback structure that also worked OK, although the complexity of the device seemed unnecessary.) Anyway, Gerwig took a big risk, I thought, when she goes all meta on us and has Jo and the editor discussing the climax to her book, and he convinces her to have a scene where the heroine gets together with her hot boyfriend Friedrich — a scene that didn’t take place in real life or in the real book. But that’s the scene we see in the movie. And it was nicely done! (The excellent 1994 version of the book just includes a comparable get-together scene with the boyfriend — Gabriel Byrne in that case — without the narrative hijinks.)

Anyway, the movie was really good. Bring your hot writer boyfriend or girlfriend to see it.

The Reefs of Time

My friend Jeff Carver has been working on The Reefs of Time since the Coolidge administration, I think, and it’s finally here!

Jeff’s specialty is galaxy-spanning science fiction with intriguing ideas and a large cast of entertaining and well-drawn human and alien characters, and I think he’s outdone himself with this one.

You don’t have to read the earlier books in his Chaos Chronicles series to enjoy The Reefs of Time–but then again, no one is stopping you. I’ve greatly enjoyed spending time in Jeff’s universe over the years, and I’m sure you will enjoy it, too.

Books from the attic: “The Secret Warning”

I’ve got lots of Hardy Boys adventures. I grabbed this one from the top of the stack.

Everybody knows about the Hardy Boys — the great teenage detectives and sons of the well-known detective Fenton Hardy, from whom “they had inherited his unusual keenness and with that his uncanny ability for solving mysteries.”

This case has to do with a couple of ruffians who have it in for the boys because they inadvertently scraped the ruffians’ boat, who team up with an evil guy who runs a diving/salvage company. Along with their chum Chet, the boys have to drive to Bailey’s Landing to recover important papers that their father idiotically left in his suit jacket that someone borrowed. In Bailey’s Landing they end up having many underwater scrapes as well as a multitude of secret warnings left in their hotel room, all of which are obviously left by the two ruffians or the evil owner of the diving company.

Like Tom Swift, Jr., the Hardy boys have a famous father, a mother who is a cipher (Why does she let her children stay in Bailey’s Landing week after week, where they are threatened with death pretty much every day?), and an amusing chum (Chet is fat! He thinks about food all the time!). Tom Swift, Jr. and the Race to the Moon is bad, but it’s kind of funny in its badness. The Secret Warning, on the other hand, is just bad. There’s no continuity to the plot, no attempt at characterization beyond chums and ruffians, and the requirement that every chapter has to end in some kind of climax leads to a succession of random emergencies: Watch out, Frank — the ship’s anchor has come loose and is heading straight for you! Oh no, where did that octopus come from, and how can we possibly defeat the sea monster!

Growing up I loved these books. I’m kind of disappointed in my childhood self.

Books from the attic: “Hoop Crazy: A Chip Hilton Sports Story”

Growing up, I loved the Chip Hilton books. Unlike the Tom Swift Jr. and Hardy Boys books, they had a real person identified as their author — Clair Bee, a well-known college basketball coach back in the 1940s. It seems pretty clear from the level of coaching detail in Hoop Crazy that he actually wrote the book.

Chip Hilton is a sports hero — like Tom Swift, he is blond, crew-cut, and lanky. Lankiness is apparently a requirement for these heroes. He lives in Valley Falls with his widowed mom and works at the drug store to earn money for his college fund when he isn’t playing sports with his chums Soapy and Speed and Biggie and Red.

It’s all pretty idyllic, until the stranger shows up in town.

Valley Falls is a one-industry town: pottery. The stranger knows something about pottery, and he needs money. So he decides to swindle the owner of the pottery plant, using formulas that he steals from a locked file cabinet in Chip’s basement. (Chip’s father was the head chemist at the pottery plant until he died saving a woman’s life in an explosion at the plant.) Whatever. This part of the novel is ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the stranger roils the hoop-crazy town by advocating the one-hand shot instead of the approved two-hand set shot. This is all very quaint. The book was published in 1950, and within a few years both of these shots would disappear in favor of the jump shot. Anyway, the one-hand-shot craze divides the town, wrecks team chemistry, and jeopardizes their chances of repeating as state champs.

OK, that’s also pretty stupid. But there’s also a subplot about a shy colored kid who just happens to be a better basketball player than anyone in town except Chip. How do the other players react to him? How does the town react? And the opposing teams? What happens when the Valley Falls team travels to play Southern and the kid isn’t allowed to stay in the hotel with them? This subplot comes out of the blue, and it’s actually pretty terrific. The author doesn’t know how to characterize a colored kid, who is treated as a saintly cipher. But everything else rings true, at least in the context of a Fifties YA novel.

Spoiler alert: What’s also interesting is that Valley Falls loses the big game. So we are taught a lesson about sportsmanship and accepting defeat gracefully.

Anyway, I was impressed.

Books from the attic: “TOM SWIFT in The Race to the Moon”

We were looking for something in the attic and came upon a stash of books from long ago. Tom Swift Jr., Chip Hilton, the Hardy Boys… This one is from 1958.

Tom Swift is in a race to the moon against his rivals, the evil Brungarians. “We’re not going to let any hostile country like Brungaria beat us to the moon!” Tom’s buddy Bud Barclay remarks grimly.

But Bud is worried. “How are you going to beat ’em in this space jalopy?” he wants to know.

Bud, who is kind of an idiot, is unaware of Tom’s Swift repelatron, which will drive his space ship forward by pushing back against the Earth or the sun or what have you.

Needless to say, the Brungarians have many dirty tricks up their sleeves, but I’m pleased to say they’re no match for young Tom, with his blond crew-cut hair. Genius boy is how Bud often refers to him. If my pal called me “genius boy” I’d sock him right in the jaw. But Tom doesn’t let anything bother him, even when the Brungarians drug him and steal his secret plans or he’s running out of oxygen in outer space.

Comic relief is provided by the cook, Chow Winkler, who says stuff like “Brand my skillet, I don’t savvy a word you’re sayin’, but it sure sounds bad!”

Two girls show up, Sandy and Phyl. Phyl has long dark hair and laughing brown eyes and is Tom’s favorite date. Sandy is Tom’s sister and is paired off with Bud. They are there to remind the boys of the big party that evening. Of course, Tom had forgot, what with the Brungarians and the repelatron and all, but they forgive him. Needless to say, there are many crises that night and he never does make it to the party.

Of course I have left out a lot that happens in the book’s 180 action-packed pages. Every chapter ends with some amazing crisis that genius boy is going to have to meet. And meet them he does.

One strange detail: halfway through the book Tom’s space jalopy is christened. It’s name: Challenger. Not sure what to make of that coincidence. Anyway, stay tuned for more great adventures from my attic.

Killing Commendatore

This is Haruki Murakami’s latest novel. I’ve liked Murakami’s work in the past, but not this one. Am I tired of him and the weird worlds he creates, or is this really a bad novel? It’s got something to do with the artistic process and the power of metaphors and such. A bell rings in a hole where no one can be ringing it. A character in a painting comes alive. A painter saves a girl by going on a journey to a strange underworld.

Well, that all sounds promising, doesn’t it? But none of it worked. I kept waiting for explanations, even dream-logic explanations, but they never came. Why did the painter have to go to the underworld? Don’t know. The girl was hiding in a neighbor’s house the whole time, and she snuck out when the cleaning people left the gate unlocked.

And the author leaves no stone unturned when it comes to using cliches. Did Murakami use them in the original Japanese, or was this the fault of the translators? I don’t really care. The novel was painful to listen to, although the narrator was great.

OK, fine, just one more rave review of “Home”

Here you go:


Home (the portal series, book 3 ) is an alternative history adventure book. A masterpiece, Richard Bowler’s work on this is spectacular. In this epic coming of age sequel to TERRA, earthborn Larry Barnes discovers his ability to move through the multiverse via a portal of his own creation. A powerful and dangerous ability, Larry seeks the council of a priest named Affron, who has the same ability but when Larry discovers affron has disappeared from TERRA, he risks following him to Elysium leaving his friend pasta behind.

Let’s put aside some of the reviewer’s tiny mistakes, like getting my name wrong and allowing the character name “Palta” to be autocorrected to “pasta”, and focus on her uncanny perspicacity and critical judgment. Reviews don’t get any more perceptive than this.

A couple more rave reviews for “Home”

I’ll stop this soon. I promise. Here’s one 5-star review:

This is book 3 in the Portal series. It is readable as a stand alone novel, however it will be less confusing and more enjoyable if you read Portal and Terra (books 1 and 2) first. This is a good addition. Where it really shines is the multiverse. Lots of fiction tries to tackle the whole multiverse thing, but few do it well. This book does it well. Makes it well worth the read. The plot and characters are also well written and interesting. They aren’t why I would pick up the book, but they carry it. Great addition.

And here’s another:

This is such a fun story overall that it is very hard to not find yourself completely immersed with the feeling that you are literally walking alongside the characters themselves. “Home” may sound like it is yet another “futuristic” story that is like so many out there, but this one is really so different and so well-written that you will find yourself not wanting to put this one down. It is a great read that will leave you wanting so much more. I really hope to find myself reading some more of these stories, I couldn’t have hoped for anything more than what “Home” gave me.

If you still don’t want to read it, I’m not sure what I can do to convince you…