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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 30, 2006

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


Groceries, Crown of Stars, Baboons

I was in the middle of writing my first thriller, and I needed to get a sense of pacing and how much time you can spend with people talking to each other between moments of action. I mentioned to my wife that I wished a new season of 24 would begin right now. She pointed out that we own the DVDs of seasons one and two and had never watched them.

Why hadn't we watched them?

I suppose because I was afraid that this was a show that began clunkily and only hit its stride later. But we settled down to a one-episode-per-night schedule.

We're on episode nine of the first season, and I have to say that 24 was and is the finest thriller ever made, from the first episode of the first season. Hitchcock schmitchcock.

*

Greensboro's copy of the best national restaurant chain in America, P.F. Chang, is open, in the new shopping center they're building off Friendly, just west of Friendly Center.

The whole place is still under construction, so you have to take it on faith that the restaurant really is open.

And when you get there, you'll have to wait for a table. Sometimes it's a long wait.

OK, at two in the afternoon you're probably going to get seated fairly soon for a late lunch; at four in the afternoon, there's probably not much wait for an early dinner.

In recent years, P.F. Chang has started taking reservations -- but only for a few tables. So even without a reservation, you will still be seated ... eventually. Those reservations are hard to get, though, so apply early ... or take your chances.

Here's the thing: It's worth it.

About that new development, though. I'm wondering what's going on with Harris-Teeter. First they moved from where the Belk is in Friendly Center to the big supergrocery where they share a parking lot with the Grande theater.

Now they're moving a little farther west into presumably larger digs. What's with this moving? Have they taken Horace Greeley's advice ("Go West, Young Grocery Store") that seriously?

Here's what I hope: Harris-Teeter has become so ambitious that the new store isn't competing with anything here in Greensboro. My hope is that it's competing with Wegman's, a grocery store chain that I first ran into in northern Virginia.

Let me tell you about the huge Wegman's grocery store (off Route 28 a little way south of Route 7). It's big. It looks like you could keep 747s in it.

But who cares about big if all that's inside is ordinary stuff, only more of it? I mean, if you fill up your big store by having six aisles of exactly the same soft drinks that most stores cram into one, then what have the customers gained except cart-pushing exercise?

What Wegman's is using that shelf-space for isn't quantity, it's variety and quality and exotics.

They had a cheese department that made me think I was in a grocery store in France. (This would be a good thing, if you love cheese.)

The bakery is extraordinary. It makes you want to hold a party just to have an excuse to buy a bunch of their desserts and breads and share them with your friends.

But let's say you're looking for a quick lunch and you think, A grocery store deli and salad bar, that'll do ...

At Wegman's, you find a whole Chinese food bar with an excellent selection of food that is way above the norm for Chinese restaurants. There's a deli that makes great sandwiches. The salad bar is as good as you find in most restaurants. (Not as good as Leblon, though; can't have everything!)

At one end of the bakery they were making sandwiches that were, I swear, identical to the ones they were selling in Bretagne the last time I was there. I bought two different kinds, even though it was way more than I could eat, just so I could tell you about them. They were both great. (And no, for once I didn't finish both of them. I try, now and then, to have self-control.)

What I'm saying is, wouldn't it be cool if Harris-Teeter were moving west this time in order to have the space to put on a truly great grocery store here in Greensboro? Something to compete with Gelson's in L.A. or Wegman's in northern Virginia?

Of course, until the regular grocery stores get serious about offering organics and other foods without fructose or hydrogenated fats, we'll still be doing most of our core shopping at Earth Fare and Fresh Market. We'll see if Harris-Teeter has noticed them and uses the new store to get serious about organics.

But at Earth Fare it's more than a department. It's a religion. I'm not sure anybody can compete with that.

*

I had never heard of Kate Elliott or her series of fantasy novels called "Crown of Stars" when I picked up volume one, King's Dragon, in the bookstore. I opened it in the store and started reading to see if I could stand it. Usually, when I try a new fantasy novel, I find the writing to be so bad that even if the story is good, I would never get through it.

Bad fantasy writing usually consists of putting random archaisms into the prose, arcane sentence order using, and gratingly bad use of Shakespearean language.

If thou art a writer and knowest not how to conjugate in the second person singular, then thou shouldst restrain thyself from attempting to use it. And if thou darest to use the "eth" verb ending in any person except the third person singular, then I spit upon thy verbiage.

There is a special tone of voice for good fantasy. This is heroic, even epic literature, when it's done well. It should be written in natural language, not forced -- but it should also use a diction that allows for the possibility of heroic language.

Shakespeare is, in this as in so much else, a model. Not that we should write Shakespearean English, but that we should see how he handles the difference between formal and informal language.

Not only is there the obvious difference between the prose he uses for his rustic and serving class characters and the blank verse of his upper-class characters, but also there are variations within his blank verse, as he distinguishes between the language used among friends, the language of court, and the language of lovers.

These are the distinctions that are wasted on bad fantasy writers. They are aware that the language of fantasy is supposed to be different (they got that much from Tolkien), but they never bothered to find out what the differences were. So they plunk into their prose what they noticed in the work of better writers, without understanding why those noticeable words and phrases were there and without knowing the rules for their use.

In short, most of the time when I pick up a new (to me) fantasy writer's work in the bookstore, I put it back down again within a paragraph or, at most, a page.

But there I stood with King's Dragon in the bookstore, and I kept reading and reading. Elliott was the real thing. She wrote in modern English -- no phony archaisms -- but she easily managed the variations between formal and informal, intimate and public speech.

She handled point of view masterfully. Her characters were instantly interesting, even when the situations were fairly standard (though I assure you that what seems standard at first turns out to be astonishingly original before too long).

I cared about the story. So I bought the book. And, being an optimist, I bought book two as well.

At that point I didn't know that it was a seven-volume work. I assumed it was the normal three.

It takes a lot of story to make a seven-volume work worth reading. But it also takes a rich and well-developed world. Too often, the world of a fantasy novel consists of: Two cities, a mountain range, a forest, and a desert. Oh, and a river here and there that will serve either as transportation or a barrier.

Soon enough I realized that Elliott had actually created a fantasy world that takes place on a continent, with seas and oceans that are actually as big as seas and oceans. The level of technology and means of transportation are consistent with, say, 750 a.d., so it takes a long time to get from one place to another. There's a lot of unpopulated forest, and lots of farming and small villages that really do consist of a villageworth of people.

In other words, she joins Jack Whyte (the brilliant author of the best and most accurate Arthurian series ever written) as one of the best world creators in fantasy literature.

Here's how Elliott did it. She used the same trick Piers Anthony used in Xanth. The magical land of Xanth is, simply, Florida. Florida as if Georgia and and Alabama didn't exist, and with a big rift splitting it in half at about the point of Orlando and Tampa.

Well, Elliott's fantasy world is based on the map of Europe. Not exactly, the way Xanth is exactly Florida, but that's because Xanth is a joke and Elliott is in earnest. There are many differences between Elliott's world and the real Europe, but the general placement of the land masses allows her to work from reality in establishing the climate, the crops, and the cultures. Her world feels real because she (gasp!) modeled it on reality.

But it's not the reality we studied in school back in the days when some effort was made to teach history.

For there are these creatures from mythology, and some that she flat-out made up. And the ones she made up are better than the ones she got from mythology. There is one human-like species that in fact has a completely different lifecycle from ours, a different thought process -- in effect, she's done a brilliant job of creating an alien species, and one of its members becomes one of the most important characters in the book.

And religion -- it's every bit as pervasive as the Catholic Church was in medieval Europe. But, as with everything else she models on reality, it is also very different. You won't get confused and think she's doing a number on the real Catholic Church -- the theology is so different that when a new Albigensian-style heresy starts to spread and threatens to become the dominant version of the religion, its content is actually closer to Christianity than the original.

She's not seriously putting forth a real religion; but she does a superb job of creating a religion that you can believe people would believe in enough that it can shape their lives.

Perhaps the most intriguing and compelling change she made was to make women far more equal to men in the core region of the story than in any comparable society in the real world. In fact, women are actually preferred as inheritors of property, for the obvious reason that you know a child born from a woman's body is hers. Whereas with a man, doubts can always be raised.

Much of the book focuses on issues of inheritance, and on the right of parents to decide whom their children will marry or what their careers will be. Elliott doesn't view this with a modern eye. While some chafe under these rules (as they did in similar societies in the real world), by and large most people comply and do their duty. Marriage and love are not regarded as having anything to do with each other, and when they do, it's rather shocking.

We are so fully immersed in this world, and its details are created so convincingly and richly, that it's a pleasure to simply live there with these characters. Except, of course, when it's terrifying to live there, because a lot of not-very-nice things happen to people as wars, famines, plagues, murders, and magic work their way through the landscape.

Oh, yes, magic. It's a fantasy series. And Elliott's magic system, while not explained at the level of physics, is fascinating and enlightening. This is a universe where Copernicus is wrong and Ptolemy is right, where aether pervades space and provides power, and where you can make journeys among the spheres if you have the spiritual stamina to do so.

It's also a world in which there truly is great power in genetic heritage -- there really is such a thing as noble blood.

It's also a world where time-travel can happen, though not regularly, and with disturbing consequences.

By now this may have started to sound like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of story, but I must assure you that it's not. Elliott has the space -- and uses it -- in which to make everything work together seamlessly.

For this is a story about cataclysmic events -- not between good and evil, like Lord of the Rings, but between two races of human beings who never understood each other and finally used magic with devastating results.

It takes a long time to emerge, because the characters themselves don't understand it, but I will not deprive of you any surprises by simply telling you the core situation:

Imagine a version of Earth in which, about 1700 b.c., a group of human-sacrificing Olmec-like Indians migrated to Greece and took it over. The native European tribes would be horrified; warfare would be incessant. But each side blames the other for the atrocities and hatred.

The Olmecs seem to be winning, however. So the Europeans, who normally use their rings of standing stones (like Stone Henge) as a means to travel from point to point, tie them in with the power of the spheres to literally lift all of the Greek peninsula completely off the surface of the Earth and place it in a looping orbit through the planets.

To the Olmecs who are actually in Greece at the time it leaves the surface of the Earth, the whole circuit takes only a few generations, but during that time the land withers and dries, and the people become less fertile.

But to the Olmecs remaining on Earth, it's even more of a disaster. They are magically tied to the land, and thus they become wraiths, mere spirits that do not die and do not age, but also do not truly live, during the entire time that Greece is off floating among the spheres.

To the Europeans who did this ancient magic, however, it has been two thousand years. It's an ancient legend; few people know it and far fewer believe it. But there is a small secret society that knows that Greece is returning, and when it does, it will be a terrible calamity to Earth, partly because of the physical events that happen when huge volumes of seawater are displaced, and partly because the Olmecs (called by another name, of course, in the novel) are going to be bent on vengeance.

So in the midst of the normal wars and political and religious maneuvering of medieval Europe, there is this huge cataclysm coming, and nobody is sure whether it can be prevented or even should be prevented, because sending that part of Earth back out into the aether again may be even more calamitous then letting it return to its rightful place.

In the books, the characters gradually come to understand this situation. I assure you, though, that I have spoiled no surprises by explaining the situation using the real-world referents. All the things that makes the story brilliant and powerful are still waiting for you to discover them.

Especially the characters. And I will tell you nothing about them, except to promise you the most wonderfully frustrating villain you have ever experienced in literature. If Dickens had read these books he might have done a better job of writing Uriah Heep; if Moliere had read them, he might have brought of Tartuffe much more successfully.

You'll want all seven of these books -- for it is our good fortune to be discovering them now, when the series is already complete and there are no future volumes to wait for. But I warn you: It can be destructive to let yourself begin reading them. Each one is many hundreds of pages long -- about double the length of a normal novel. So it's the equivalent of reading fourteen ordinary novels to get through the series.

1. King's Dragons

2. Prince of Dogs

3. The Burning Stone

4. Child of Flame

5. The Gathering Storm

6. In the Ruins

7. Crown of Stars

Don't be put off by the truly dreadful cover art on some of these books, or by the shoddy proofreading on the covers (really, for a book jacket to refer to the author's "huband" instead of "husband" is simply inexcusable). The publisher is DAW, which has a philosophy of not spending money. Usually they occupy the low end on the quality spectrum in the SF and fantasy field. But they're the ones who discovered Elliott and for that they deserve praise.

But don't expect to find these books in the local bookstores in Greensboro right this minute, because I just bought them all. Each of our two major stores had one set, and I cleaned them out. I gave one set to a fantasy-devoted niece and kept the other for myself. You can order them through Borders or Barnes and Noble, or you can wait till they restock them (and maybe they already have); or you can order them online. But if you want to read a fine work of literature that is compulsively readable and artistically admirable, this is it. Kate Elliott joins my very small pantheon of great living fantasy writers.

*

Robert M. Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir is a remarkable and entertaining book. The author, who meant to study gorillas with Dian Fossey (who emerges, by the way, as a complicated person who did much to bring destruction on herself and the gorillas she wanted to protect), finds himself instead working with baboons.

I already knew much of what he learns about the baboons from a remarkable book by Shirley C. Strum, Almost Human. Strum's book is almost completely about the baboons and somewhat about the problems of getting her findings taken seriously by a scientific establishment committed to viewing baboons as a male-dominated species instead of the female-based society that it is.

Sapolsky concentrates on the ever-shifting male hierarchy, though he does acknowledge the immutable female social structure that truly binds the troop together. He's not doing science, he's doing memoir. He's writing, in other words, about himself.

The danger in writing memoirs is that the self you write about may not be as likeable to others as you think. And yet if you try to make yourself likeable by faking it, the result is usually disastrous. So Sapolsky handles it correctly -- we get what seems, at least, to be a no-holds-barred account of his years in Africa, and he makes no effort at all to depict himself as some kind of hero. Often he's a buffoon; sometimes he's a jerk.

But he is a scientist throughout, and a human being who is trying to accomplish something with the days and years of his life. The story is entertaining from beginning to end. Now and then there are chapters about the baboons, and I have to say, those are the best chapters. But the chapters about African life, and about the adventures of a scientist working on his own with animals that could kill him at any time, are also entertaining.

For me, of course, it's Almost Human that remains the more valuable book. Strum opened my eyes to the close relationship between human societies and the primate societies that are so closely akin to ours. Chimpanzees are genetically the species most closely related to ours, but socially, it is the baboon that has been most successful -- because baboons made many of the same social choices that our ancestors did, the most important being the absolutely central role of the female hierarchy in structuring the society.

From reading Strum's Almost Human, I gained a much clearer perspective on how little difference it makes to the core experience of our lives that we talk and read and draw pictures and make machines and listen to MP3s on iPods. In fact, it became a joke in my classes last year, because I was constantly referring to "baboon behavior" or "primate society" in discussing literature. I can't help it. Once you see the world that way, it informs everything you do.

But I have to admit, Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir is more fun to read, though far less informative about actual baboon life.

Read them both! Fortunately, you really can, because after many years out of print, Strum's book has been reprinted in paperback. I'm tempted to make it required reading for all my writing students, just so they can remember to see the baboon lurking inside all their human characters.


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