And now for something completely different.
Last post, I blogged about Alan Bradley’s brilliant Flavia de Luce books, cozy mysteries set in a bucolic post-war England. This time around, a character no less precocious in his youth, but a setting as far removed from tea and marmalade as you could get.
I was first introduced to the writing of Daniel Keys Moran about twenty years ago by a student who thrust a copy of Emerald Eyes into my hands. It was a fun read for someone who had grown up on the X-Men: in the mid-twenty-first century, a group of genetically engineered telepaths come of age around the same time as peace-keeping forces from the United Nations conquer the world and put it under one rule — for good or ill.
It was a good enough book to draw me to its sequel The Long Run, the story of the black sheep from the genetically engineered group featured in the first book, the one who didn’t develop telepathic abilities and was stuck instead simply becoming a genius. Trent the Uncatchable, as he comes to be called, grows up in the post-Unification world, neither a paradise nor a simple dystopia, but not an entirely just society. It is, as far as my two-decades-onward memory can reliably report, a big, hairy chase novel, and a really good one at that.
Moran writes engaging characters and fast plots, set within a complex and nuanced universe. I’ve read those who criticize him for not being especially original, but that doesn’t seem fair. What he does is cram together all sorts of fun influences (cyberpunk, Star Wars, comic-books, caper stories, etc.) into a fresh and satisfying story.
After The Long Run, came The Last Dancer, a novel rife with hints of how much bigger was the story Moran wanted to tell. Now, along with cyborg soldiers, artificial intelligences and telepaths, there were aliens, references to events before the Big Bang, and plans for the long, long future.
That future took a while coming. The Last Dancer was followed by eighteen years of silence. I’m not sure why this was, and a cursory reading of Moran’s rather spartan blog doesn’t tell me. There were some other projects, I believe, and a dispute with his publisher regarding a contract that might have been signed when the author was young and naive.
Whatever the reason, it was a darned shame. Moran’s tale went uncontinued for far too long. Notice I don’t say unfinished: this guy’s plans for a 33-book series are so expansive that I have trouble believing he’ll ever be finished.
However, for right now, it looks as though he’s back on track. As of this spring, the fourth novel in that massive series is out, if only in ebook form, both from Moran’s own FS& and from the usual Amazon, Nook, Kobo etailers. And the good news is it’s a lot of fun to read. Trent the Uncatchable is back in a story that’s really for all of us who always wondered if there shouldn’t be a better way of taking down a Death Star, one that didn’t cost the lives of the presumably tens of thousands of support staff on board.
The setting for most of the novel is a partially completed giant warship which, when ready, will allow the UN to take its “Unification war” far beyond Earth to the Martian colonies and the cities of the Asteroid Belt. Trent, whose simple philosophy is that killing is wrong, all killing, no matter what, volunteers to stop the ship in an absolutely casualty-free plan that he shares with nobody.
Anyone who thinks that Gandhi was great, but would have been better as a slick, wise-cracking computer hacker, or that Jedi Knights were fine, but should really have been more committed to non-violent resistance ought to get a kick out of this book.
That last thing, “getting a kick” out of a book, is something I probably have to write and ruminate about a lot more. Nick Mamatas, wrote a great post recently on Jeff Vandermeer’s Booklife site, called “Against Story” in which he criticised the hegemony of traditional story values, as often represented by that famous “pyramid” structure used by Gustav Freytag to describe ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama, then glommed onto by a million high school English teachers to (whether it fits or not) describe every instance of man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself ever written down.
It’s a bit of a vicious circle, that: Freytag says, “hey, these stories work this way.” Generations of schoolchildren are taught that all stories work this way. Some of them become executives at movie studios and publishing houses and enforce the dictum that “all stories work this way.” And if that’s all they’ll publish, then pretty soon all stories do work that way.
I can’t help but agree with Mr. Mamatas that this is a pretty dangerous homogenization — particularly as it’s based on a misreading of Freytag in the first place.
On the other hand … some very familiar story patterns are satisfying for a reason: they’re entertaining. And in his newest “Tale of the C0ntinuing Time” Moran proves himself a master of these.
Now, Mr. Moran, about those other twenty-nine books…