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The Long Shadow of The One Tree

Have you been locked in an emotion or a feeling for weeks while ignoring events around you? Have you looked up to find that it is a fresh spring day, the birds are chirping, and the air is crisp against your skin, then wonder how you missed it? That is what reading The One Tree is like. It is a deep dive into the character of Linden Avery, a character who never sees the spring day, or understands the events around her because the bitterness of her past consumes her.

The One Tree—more so than the books that went before it—shows the flaw in Stephen R. Donaldson's writing. Here, at last, I can agree with those that say there is never anything good about Donaldson's characters. Seen primarily through the eyes of Linden Avery, her miserable past, her inability to experience joy, weighs down this epic tale.

The One Tree is not a bad book. I celebrated with the giant crew of Starfare's Gem as they set sail on a quest to find the legendary tree of the Staff of Law. I devoured the description the Elohim's island and thrilled to every gut churning event at Bhrathairain Harbor. But The One Tree—and much of White Gold Wielder that follows—is like grinding through a video game before the next boss challenge. Every page is laden with the dark moods of either Linden Avery or Thomas Covenant—who happens to be absent for most of the story.

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Cover for Chaos and Order: The Gap Into Madness

Chaos and Order and Theme and Madness

Those real-people reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have difficulty finding themes in The Gap Cycle; imagining a more clueless lot is difficult for me. At the end of The Real Story Stephen R. Donaldson summarized his intent, his themes and—in broad strokes—outlined the story he prepared. The Gap Cycle is not an attempt to mimic the Wagnerian epic of Der Ring des Nibelungen, but it is about the moral conflict between humanity’s desire to survive as an individual or as a group. From The Real Story:

My original intentions were explicitly archetypal. What I had in mind was an aesthetically perfect variation on the basic three-sided story: the story in which a Victim (Morn), a Villain (Angus), and a Rescuer (Nick) all change roles. (This, incidentally, is the essential difference between melodrama and drama. Melodrama presents a Victim, a Villain, and a Rescuer.)

But that was not the real story, that intent needed to conflict with another, earlier desire of Donaldson's:

My intentions were conceptual rather than literal. I wasn’t interested in simply retelling the story of Wotan’s doomed struggle to preserve the power of the gods in the face of pressure from giants, dwarves, and humankind. Rather I wanted to create an analogue which would allow me to explore the same themes and exigencies on my own terms. Most particularly, I was fascinated by Wotan himself, who finds that an understanding of his own power leads to the destruction of that power, as well as of himself and everything he represents; even more, that an understanding of his power leads him to will his own destruction.

Review, Science Fiction

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Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Mother's Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Other cultures have harvest celebrations, but the tone of an American Thanksgiving is unique to history. I drafted this essay after the September 11 terrorist attack, while the Iraq war was still young, and the Afghanistan conflict had failed to capture or kill the 911 masterminds. I meant to publish it once, on my blog, then took it down when the theme felt tired.

I have edited this work for exposition, tone, and theme annually hoping I would capture the mood of our nation as we endure this extended weekend. I rejected my work every year till this. The result is that the angst I felt over the undoing of civility the 911 attack ushered in is gone. Missing is a paragraph lamenting the loss American, Afghanistan, and Iraqi mothers must feel at wars fought over theological ideals that lack humanity. Some angst of separation is still here, hints that modern connected society lacks connection. Cleared of those old notions, the result is short, simple, and heartwarming.

Photo of relish tray abundance from Dan Gold (@danielcgold) at Unsplash Dan Gold

Children in America cannot escape the holiday season. A series of events that culminate in a week off school between Christmas and New Years. The start of this season is the next-to-last Thursday in November. On this date, parents toss their children from bed at an early hour—for a no-school-day—and order them dressed in their Sunday best.

Essay

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A young Arthur C. Clarke

The Collected Works of Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey was boring. There I said it. I know you were thinking it. After the chimpanzees smash bones to Thus Spoke Zarathustra there is about a hundred minutes of nothing until we get to, "Open the pod bay doors," followed by a light show that requires the high of psychedelics to be appreciated.

That 2001 was boring did not stop it from becoming the most influential film made in my lifetime. The accurate (1968 accurate) depiction of space flight with ships matching rotation and a Pan Am stewardesses clomping along in gravity boots were a needed reality check to Star Trek's Enterprise and Lost in Space's Styrofoam sets.

Whenever my monopoly-controlled internet connection fails, and Alexa cannot turn off my bedroom lights or tell me the time, I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's vision and that glowing eye of Hal. (Hal is not a Wake Word for Alexa because the false positives generated by a single syllable sound).

(Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL died on the day I started writing this post. Like Arthur C. Clarke, his best work was not 2001: A Space Odyssey. For 32 seasons Douglas Rain played Shakespeare's most intriguing and iconic characters for Stratford Festival, but HAL is how he will be remembered).

Review, Science Fiction, Science

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Cover for The Wounded Land

The Nature of Evil, or The Wounded Land

What is Evil? Does it exist? When you speak about the world, do you define an act, a person, or a group as evil? I have called Donald Trump Lord Foul since the 2016 Republican National Convention, by association am I calling him evil? If evil does not exist, then what is that quality we identify as evil? Is evil a treatable sickness, disease, or mental condition? The question of evil is a foundation for good fiction. Science fiction and fantasy fiction settings provide a rich playground to study the question. Is a race of mammals that eats other mammals evil? Orc eats human, human eats pig; evil depends on your perspective.

The Wounded Land, the first book in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, introduces Linden Avery. She is the most tortured of Stephen R. Donaldson's characters. As a doctor, she has a certain self-assurance that no matter what situation, what disease, or injury she encounters, she has the training and the equipment to treat her patient. Short of those things, she relies on the institutions she belongs to for support. Then she meets a beggar in the driveway to Haven Farm.

Like Covenant before her, the creator of the Land tests Linden Avery. The beggar dies, his heart stops, and Linden does what she is trained to do; she tries to save his life. His breath is foul making CPR a disgusting process, but she does not relent. She cannot go for help, she struggles to the save the beggar, and she fails; her strength fades and she collapses. When she looks up the beggar is standing, he helps her to her feet, hugs her, and vanishes into the sunset.

Review, Fantasy, Evil

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Cover for A Dark and Hungry God Arises

A Dark and Hungry God Arises

How much can humanity consume? Earth is a solitary realm. She has a long past, most of it devoid of humanity. Thanks to plate tectonics and the unique chemical ability of sediment and stone to record images of Earth's past, we know that other creatures once roamed the plains and forests, or swam the deep oceans of our world. The Kansas prairie is full of fossils from the Permian geologic period. This was a key time in our evolutionary history. The diversification of amniotes into mammals, turtles, lepidosaurs, and archosaurs was a key to our evolution. But 250 million years ago, something happened—a runaway greenhouse effect caused by an explosion of methane in the atmosphere—that caused nearly all life on Earth to vanish. It took 30 million years for Earth's ecosystems to recover.

In A Dark and Hungry God Arises the third book in Stephen R. Donaldson's The Gap Cycle humanity stands at the door of an extinction event that comes from the deep dark of space. In this book we get closer to the real story promised us in the first book of The Gap Cycle. Morn Hyland's crisis aboard Captain's Fancy becomes an existential fear of genetic mutilation by the Amnion. A personal horror that all of humanity faces if the UMCP cannot prevent it.

The story unfolds on Billingate, a space station where humans and Amnion trade secrets and currency for profit, pleasure, and power. At Billingate we are re-introduced to Angus Thermopyle who has become a welded cyborg under the control of Hashi Lebwol and Warden Dios. As a tool for the UMCP Angus has a singular mission; destroy Billingate, even if that means sacrificing Morn Hyland and the crew of Captain's Fancy in the process.

Review, Science Fiction

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Lord Mhoram's Victory and The Power that Preserves

A few dramatic scenes are etched onto the consciousness of the collected public. From cinema there is Indiana Jones running from a boulder only to land at the feet of his rival, or Lawrence crossing a desert on a camel. From television there is the intro to MASH, or Kramer entering Seinfeld’s apartment. “Neuman!” From literature there is the white whale sinking the Pequod, or Gandalf standing on the Bridge of Khazad-dum declaring that the Balrog “shall not pass!”

When I took a date to The Lord of the Rings movie, I discovered that last one was not yet etched into everyone’s consciousness. For my generation, Gandalf, Frodo, and Samwise were reserved for the nerds. So, when I said, “you shall not pass,” to someone who cut me off at the snack line, she didn’t get it. When I whispered, “Balrog” at the beginning of the most dramatic scene in The Lord of the Rings, she was clueless. But when we left the movie, and I was opening her car door, she raised her hands as if holding a staff and exclaimed, “You shall not pass!”

Another dramatic scene etched into the collective nerd brain of my generation is the most dramatic, most heroic, chapter of my childhood: Lord Mhoram’s Victory.

Review, Fantasy

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The Extraditionist

I grabbed The Extraditionist as a Prime Early Access Deal. I was looking for something outside my diet of science-fiction and fantasy. I figured a good crime novel was the way to go. I might have been right, this was just the wrong novel.

This is supposed to be a novel about a drug lawyer—they call them Extraditionist south of the equator—that is all slime but is looking for a way out. He needs one more score, and he will stop with his murdering, drug dealing, clients to live on a beach somewhere. A standard criminal wants out storyline.

The problem is that Todd Merer chose to trap us inside the head of Benn Bluestone (yes two Ns), and aside from the first person, stream-of-consciousness narrator telling me he wants out, I would be hard pressed to believe it. In fact, Benn—or is it Todd—enjoys wasting pages of copy describing an expensive lawyer's lifestyle. Most of this novel is Benn getting in a car, getting on a plane, sleeping on a plane, getting off a plane, getting in a car, driving by stuff, thinking about his ex-wife, entering a prison, and meeting a bad guy. The characters grunt two words at each other and then our over-payed lawyer exits a prison, thinks about his past, drives by stuff, gets out of a car, goes to a hotel, gets drunk, maybe not, gets in a car, gets on a plane, and ends up back in New York. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Review, Crime Fiction

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Cover to Forbidden Knowledge: The Gap Into Vision

Forbidden Knowledge: The Gap Into Vision

Before the Internet, I did not read book reviews. Professional reviewers—those paid to churn out a weekly summary of the latest media—tend toward promotional hype when the product is from their corporate overloads to sanctimony when the product is from a competitor. For science fiction, professional reviewers are especially complicit. The dullest, drawn out, unstories get five-stars while the exciting, mind-bending, stuff is never reviewed. The Internet has magnified the disease to a condition as accepted as pimples.

I used to choose books by their dust jacket summary and scanning the first, middle, and last chapters. A “New York Times Bestseller” sticker never swayed me to read a book. Most of the “sold” copies required to get such a sticker are sitting at the bottom of bargain-bins, unread.

My reason for scanning the middle and last chapters of a book is to identify the writer’s style, and to determine whether an actual story lies between the covers. Given a six-foot shelf of books, most are aimless blather. Those are easy to identify when you can scan the middle and last chapters. If you can’t spot a plot progression from ten or so paragraphs in the middle and end of a book, it is not worth reading.

Review, Science Fiction

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Cover of The Illearth War

Hile Troy! The Illearth War

Hile Troy! Just kidding. Hile Troy, the character introduced in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Illearth War is one of my favorite fantasy fiction characters. Sure, the name helps, but it’s his story arc that fascinates me.

Hile Troy, like Covenant, is summoned to the Land through the same magic that started the story. But his arrival was a mistake. Atiaran, (the woman that led Covenant to Revelstone in Lord Foul’s Bane) in an act of despair, attempted to call Covenenat to the Land. Whether to get revenge for the rape of her daughter, or to save the Land is unclear because she is consumed by the power of the summoning.

The Lords of Revelstone, being Lords, do not share these facts with Hile Troy, a blind man. Like Covenant, Troy was damaged before his arrival to the Land. He was born blind. When hurtloam, the magic healing mud of the Land, cures Troy of his blindness, he follows a different path than Covenant. He chooses to save the Land from Lord Foul.

Review, Fantasy

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A man in a frightened boxing pose.

Violence, Fear, Hate, and the Modern Student

Modern martial art students separate their martial art training from the rest of their life. Compartmentalizing it as an activity that they share with people they barely know. They go to work, watch television, attend events and family outings without integrating or considering their martial art practice, it is just another activity on a full schedule.

This was not the way for students in the past. Martial art training was one aspect of an individual’s education. Reading, writing, studying the classics of philosophy, history, and medicine were all taught with the martial forms.

Those times were different. Institutions resembling modern police were rare and were often worse than the criminals. Hospitals were rarer still; the notion of an ambulance coming to carry you to a doctor after an injury wasn’t even a dream.

Training, Essay, Tai Chi

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Cover of The Real Story

The Real Story

The first time I finished The Real Story I was tired from a stressful day at work. I had curled myself against a stack of pillows with my dog sleeping in the crook behind my legs. The plan was to read a couple of chapters, then turn-in early. The thirteenth chapter spoiled my plans.

Nick bowed gracefully but didn't move. "On the contrary, Captain Thermo-pile." Except for his scars, his expression was bland. "I'm in no hurry at all. Please"--he gestured expansively--"after you."

His gaze and his bow and his gesture were all aimed at Morn.

"There-mop-a-lee," Angus retorted. "Ther-mop-a-lee. Get it right Succorso."

Suddenly, the story had changed, again. From those nine sentences, I realized that the real story was yet to be told. I plunged into the task of finishing the book like it was the deep-end of a pool. I finished that night, itching for the next book in the series.

Review, Science Fiction

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Copyright Troy Williams & The Walking Circle LLC