WiP 2 (2018)

Continuing from the previous post


Some time later, the dishes scoured by a small bit of summoning wizardry, the tent’s light dimmed and Alaric settled himself in his sleeping bag.  He lay on his back for a while, staring at the nylon ceiling and listening to the rain drum on the outer cover.  His mind wandered, tracing imaginary passages and caverns beneath the ground, an ancient temple complex turned hiding place that had been buried by millennia of sediment and detritus.

The tunnels, the entire facility, thrummed and throbbed with a low, headache inducing bass hum.

Alaric sat up.

The ancient halls weren’t humming, that had been a dream.

But, he was awake and the low, barely audible, thrumming bass was still there.

He scrambled, disentangling himself from his sleeping bag.

As he fumbled to unzip the tent flap, his right thumb rubbed across the bone ring he wore on that side.  Good, Alaric thought, there was a fair amount of energy in his personal stores and device.

The sound grew marginally louder once he was outside.

The fire had burned out some time ago.  The sun was rising over the rim of the stone circle, stretching rosy tendrils from the east.

Looking around, he counted at least twelve eldren surrounding the ring. Their gold-green skin nearly blended into the foliage where they stood on the edge of the clearing.  He slowly realized the bass hum came from the humanoid creatures, as their bodies gently swayed with the rhythm, vine-like head tendrils swinging in time.  He wasn’t sure if they were capable of speech, in fact Alaric doubted if any sorcerer on the Island had ever seen more than one or two eldren at a time before.  They rarely left the woods of their treefolk creators.

Sorcerer and eldren stood and stared at each other for several minutes.

He felt the pressure starting to build over his right eye when the clearing abruptly went silent.

Even the birds and rustle of the squirrels and breeze in the trees stopped.

A barely audible groan escaped Alaric’s lips.

Shite.

The eldren faded back into the trees as another figure appeared.

It didn’t so much step or glide as simply move.

Treefolk.

He hadn’t seen one since a trip to the Grove of Dodona on the Island, when he had still been learning wizardry.  Mostly, they kept to themselves and Island’s other residents left them alone.  Sorcerers usually just saw them once, when they studied the species, magical history, and the Island’s history as kids.

This one had to be close to ten feet tall, its body a bizarre hybrid of plant and animal parts.  The stories said that the first treefolk had once been human, earth sorcerers like himself.  But, they pushed the sorcery too far and transformed.  Now, they’d left humanity behind.  No one was quite certain how much humanity was still in them, enough to communicate certainly, but perhaps not enough to truly understand.

It stopped a few yards from the woods.

Alaric got the feeling that even that distance was difficult for it.

After a few heartbeats, the treefolk spoke, its voice gravelly with lack of use.

“This place . . . accursed . . . danger . . . leave . . . old magic . . .”

Alaric nodded, “Old magic.  That’s why I’m here, to study . . . to learn.  I haven’t seen any curses.”

“Accursed . . . danger . . . leave.”

“Do you mean dragon magic?  Is this an ancient dragon place?  Or . . . death sorcery?”

“Yeeees.”

“Yes, what?  Dragon or death?  Is it inhabited or abandoned?”

Without an answer, the treefolk backed into the woods.  In seconds, it had vanished from sight, joining its eldren minions.

Well, then.

Alaric shook his head.  The treefolk were odd, always had been, from what he’d heard.  Very few communicated well with humans anymore.  And they’d left any sorcery they’d had far behind when they changed, a trade for other powers.  It was said that they were capable of wizardry, like everyone else.  It was possible that it sensed dragon magic, which no one really understood anymore.  On the other hand, if it had sensed death sorcery . . . that was a whole other issue.

It warranted further study, anyway.

But, first, breakfast.

By the time he got the fire back up, ate some rehydrated eggs, and cleaned up, the sun had risen enough over the edge of the stones to illuminate the whole ring.  Alaric left his tent up and started pacing around the circle.  He let his vision shift, to see magical auras.  His boots stood outside the tent, the contact between bare feet and the earth letting him recharge a bit of magical energy.  The process would go faster if he stripped off and stayed still, meditating, but there was work to do.

If there were any auras, though, they were too faint to see by normal means.

The hard way, then, he decided.

After nearly an even score of circuits, he sat on the ground a few feet from the central stone, tugging on his boots.

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Message Meets Story: Finding the Balance

Lately, I’ve been involved in a number of chats about Orson Scott Card, among other authors. These have focused on whether people are willing to buy the author’s books, read the books, or see movies based on the books due to the author’s socio-political activities, which is often tied to the messages present in their work.

I don’t really want to talk about that. Rather, it got me thinking, again, about the balance between story and message.

In short: too much message destroys the story.

Now, I’m not saying that writing, especially fiction, should never have a message. Writing with a message in mind is good and can be very enjoyable. I think about Lois Lowry (The Giver), George Orwell (1984), William Golding (Lord of the Flies), and Ray Bradbury (both The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451). All wrote with definite messages in mind—about euthanasia & eugenics, fascism, human nature, and censorship respectively—and they all worked beautifully.

Unconscious messages, or mingling conscious and unconscious messages, are even better, in my opinion. J.K. Rowling consciously wrote about love, but also included issues of racism, nature-nurture, classism, and a host of other issues. Terry Pratchett routinely consciously discusses issues of technology in society, but also issues of race, class, economics, human nature, and others. J.R.R. Tolkien consciously wrote about good and evil, but he also inadvertently (?) touched on a host of other issues. Even Steven Brust and Karen Traviss (Star Wars: Republic Commandos) consciously or unconsciously bring up a variety of issues involving class, human nature, ethics, and others. They all do a good job of this, though Traviss tends to harp on a few pet issues to an annoying degree.

Letting the message take over and control the narrative, though, causes major problems. Two excellent examples that come to mind are C.S. Lewis (Narnia) and Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials). Both start out with great stories. The first six Narnia novels are wonderful, The Golden Compass is a thoroughly enjoyable piece (The Subtle Knife, a bit less so, but still good). But, their final books in the series—The Last Battle & The Amber Spyglass respectively—become polemic. They spread their message with a very heavy hand in their respective final texts, and the story and enjoyment (and message) ultimately suffer for it. Basically, both ended up becoming preachy (and Pullman muddled through a very rough re-write of Paradise Lost).

If a writer is consciously including a message, they need to find the right balance between story and message. Personally, I find that being subtle is better. Getting out the “message stick” and beating the reader over the head with it is, ultimately, counter-productive. Harry Turtledove’s commentary about historical research comes to mind as applicable: do 100% of the research, but only show 2-3% of it. It is a tough trick to pull off, but I think it works much better. It is, possibly, even better to let the message come about unconsciously, rather than trying to force it in.