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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.