Less is More – Looking at Jack Vance

I love Jack Vance’s stories for their wit and imagination, and for his accomplished use of language. I’m not alone, he’s inspired a devoted readership*, significant critical praise, and some writers mimic his distinctive style.

Vance vividly describes worlds, cities, and dramatic encounters with great economy. Let’s examine one of my favourite examples of this from The Green Pearl, the second book in his brilliant Lyonesse trilogy, where good Prince Ailas fights the undefeated Ska.

“Again Ailas set up his ambush of archers and mounted knights in a copse beside the road. Presently the Ska contingent riding four abreast came into view: seasoned troops, confident but far from reckless. They wore conical black-enamelled steel helmets and shirts of chain mail, as well as greaves. They carried short lances, swords, chain-balls – the so-called ‘morning-stars’ – with bow and arrows in quivers at their saddlebows. As they came placidly along the road, thirty-five Troice knights charged from the copse and galloping downhill with lances levelled, struck into the rear third of the column. To cries of horror and shock the lances drove through chain mail and lifted the riders from their horses, to drop them in the dust beside the road.

Riding up the hill and reforming, they charged once more. From the copse poured arrows, each aimed with careful intent. The commander bawled orders to depart this place of death, and the column started off at full gallop. On the hillside four ropes were cut, allowing a great oak tree to topple across the road, and the Ska troops for a period lost their organization.

Finally, battling desperately, hand to hand, the Ska managed to collect in a small group. Three times Ailas called for surrender before pounding them again with his knights; three times the Ska absorbed the blows and reformed as best they could, and with stern faces hurled themselves upon their enemies.

There was to be no surrender; all would die on the sun-dappled road.”

What has happened here? A careful ambush, two groups of experienced warriors, implacable foes engaged in a brutal fight. In my mind’s eye I see the copse, the hill, the Ska in their armour. I feel the remorseless swing of the battle on the dusty road, the desperation and determination – and so much more.

I remember reading this passage for the first time. I turned the page, stopped reading, and went back and read it again. So much had happened in those four short paragraphs it was hard for me to absorb. The images and emotions he had created were overwhelmingly intense.

Later on I went back and tried to understand how he had done what he had done. What could I learn? Try it now for yourself – re-read the passage, then turn over the scene in your mind. Landscape, drama, and emotion, all you are now thinking about was summoned by just 251 words.

I’m not a great fan of deconstructive criticism. It seems to me you either risk taking the work apart so deeply it turns to smoke and blows away, or you read intent into the process that never existed. Without the author input – and Vance was very reluctant to talk about his works – all you have is opinion and speculation. Even so, with this example you can look at the passage and see what Vance is doing – and not doing ­­– and then think about why he wrote it that way.

These are some of the things I see:

Description: He describes the enemy Ska troops in detail, but not the Troice ambushers. He tells us how very well the enemy are equipped and that they are elite troops and nobody’s fools. On the other hand we know nothing about Ailas’s men’s equipment or quality. Good or bad, we do not know, and yet we are on their side. I can see how this creates additional tension as the ambush opens because we know their mettle has to match that of the Ska, but we don’t know in advance if it will.

Language: He uses very specific words and phrases.  Paired words like copse and hill create landscape. Then there is another crank on tension’s ratchet when ‘came placidly’ is followed by ‘charged’ and then, ‘galloping’. There’s also a great use of the narrative power of three: three times the call to surrender, three times a desperate survival. ‘Battling desperately … a small group’ refuses surrender. Almost now my sympathies have changed towards the doomed but valiant Ska.

Structure: The paragraphs get shorter and shorter and each has a single job. The first sets the scene and unfurls the action. The second demonstrates the effectiveness of the trap. The third compares the doomed courage of the Ska with Ailas’s mercy. And the fourth is the outcome – “all would die on the sun-dappled road.“ Brief, tragic, and quite poetic.

It’s impossible for me to say how much of this was conscious intent or the instinctive skill of a master craftsman and storyteller. But the paragraph structure of this scene feels deliberate, and the selection of nouns, verbs and adverbs is careful and specific. I think this scene is a wonderful example of Vance’s controlled and accurate style, and there’s a great deal to think about and learn from these 251 words.

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* Few writers can have fans prepared to re-issue their entire body of work, edited and restored as originally intended, an ‘author’s cut’ of their books. I count myself fortunate to have the six-volume condensed edition of this Vance Integral Edition, or VIE.

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(This was originally posted in a slightly different form on the Milford SF Writers blog in May 2018.)

Tesla Powerwall2 – High Summer

This first screenshot says it all.

That’s it.

Brilliant.

Job done.

The weather for the past few weeks has been perfect for solar power – non-stop sunshine except for an overcast afternoon or so. Those clouds didn’t have much impact and performance has been as good as I could have hoped for.

If you need more evidence, here’s the weekly graph. There’s just the tiniest bit of grid draw – which I can explain – and apart from that it is life off-grid, day after day, week after week.

The reason for that grid draw, and the one fly in the ointment, is that the immersion heater failed and needed to be replaced.

When the Tesla Powerwall2 arrived I also had a Solic 200 unit from Earthwise installed. This diverts excess power from the solar cells to the immersion heater, and the advantage here is that I can turn off the gas boiler for hot water and so reduce mains gas use.

The problem was, the old immersion, unused for over ten years, gamely did its job for a couple of months then packed up. A quick replacement and we were back in business, but setting up caused a small draw from the grid.

For now the only fossil fuel used to run the house is for the oven.

This last graph shows the past month. The first week we were away on holiday, hence the lower house power demand.

It’s madly hot and the weather is set to continue like this for a while. So my next step is, now I can salve my conscience by running it for free off sunshine, is to get a small portable air-con unit.

~

 

Review: There is A Way to Live Forever – Terry Grimwood

There is a Way to Live Forever is an excellent title, and this new collection from Terry Grimwood contains some very good stories too. Sharp, controlled, concise stories, always with a human edge to the horrors.

I particularly liked “The Devils’ Eggs”, “Think Belsen”, and “There is a Way”. And “Journey to the Engine of the Earth” was really excellent, a highlight in my short story reading this year

Terry Grimwood creates deeply unsettling encounters in disturbed lives. Some stories are relatively straightforward horror, others edge into the fantastical, or the surreal, but never too far. All these pieces are driven by the needs of the characters in them. In on one case it is just  a wish to be accepted in a size 0 obsessed society, in another simply to survive a night in a council estate.

Redemption and  forgiveness, curiosity, an author’s desire for authenticity, the need to be a better person, and that passion closest to madness – love.  There’s something for everyone here, a little bit about what it is to be human, and a great deal for this particular reader. I enjoyed this collection very much indeed.

~

There is A Way to Live Forever, by Terry Grimwood, from  Black Shuck Books

 

Virtual Societies

I discovered the Aristasians yesterday, via a friend who is far more knowledgeable about things esoteric than me. Even they were surprised to never have heard of them before.

According to the History of Aristasia in Telluria, the Aristasians originally were:

“A group of Sapphically inclined female students who sensibly disliked the modern world and admired the philosophical works of René Guenon found each other.”

I was once fascinated by secretive societies, drawn by the lure of the apparently hermetic lore they possessed. I grew unconvinced, I’m even less convinced now. Although I was reading books as opposed to web sites (this was back in the days before the internet) that History is a good example of the writings I came across, with broken links, deeply obscure references, anonymous or pseudonymous quotes, unexplained unique words, and a slow slide into what seems to me, an increasingly incoherent narrative.

Like so many small organisations the Aristasians appear to have broken apart and reconstructed themselves more than once and then, apparently, faded from existence.

I ended up feeling a little sad. Here were a small group of people dissatisfied with the world they found who tried to create an ideal place to live that could accommodate their own needs and desires. I have much sympathy with that.

I don’t want to dwell on the wider diaspora of this group because I’m more interested in leaping into quantum physics, and virtual particles (of course).

Virtual particles are transient things but they are real (for a certain value of real). Various field effects and forces operate via the exchange of virtual particles and there’s one thing that struck me about them– the longer a virtual particle exists, the closer its characteristics come to those of actual particles.

I wondered if the Aristasians were a cultural equivalent of virtual particles, and that they were just one of hundreds, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of small groups that have bubbled up into existence out of the quantum foam of human nature, called by some need, but then fade away.

These little groups are odd and idealistic, a mixture of practicality, quirks, and ideas, but then aren’t all societies and cultures like that? They might look a little strange from the outside, but then again so do all unfamiliar cultures.

If only they could have hung around long enough they might have become real[1].

~

[1] A possible Aristasian successor exists in The Daughters of Shining Harmony, though one part of this site is little more than ‘Buy My Book.’ A hoax, a dream, or am I just a cynical Tellurian curmudgeon? They do have a (virtual) tea room.

Imposter Experience? Embrace It.

Writers all over the world talk about Imposter Syndrome*, that feeling your success is undeserved and that one day the world will collectively blink, take a good long look at you and realise you are some kind of fraud.

It’s something that affects people in many walks of life, creative or not. You would think it should be a simple thing to look at your own achievements and accept the success that years of experience, hard work, and learning, have brought. For many people it’s not always so. I’ll admit to being one of them. I don’t think my writing is good enough, I try with every piece I write to be a better writer. It’s the same with my leather-craft and, even though I can see the results and know I’m getting better, on some days I still feel like I’m an amateur.

I love our garden and creating the right conditions for helping things grow – to eat or for the pure pleasure of seeing them there. Gardening is also great for letting the mind wander where it will.  This morning I was sweeping up leaves, cutting dead fronds off the Dicksonias, and getting the grass out around the bulbs that are just starting to show. As I was working it occurred to me that maybe this Imposter Experience* is not such a bad thing.

One thing I find useful during my ruminations is to turn things around: What if up was down, black was white, happy was sad? How does that make me feel about things? What, I wondered, if there was no such thing as Imposter Experience?

If I was content with everything I’d achieved wouldn’t I run the risk of becoming complacent, sit on my laurels, and stop trying to get better? Nobody knows everything. The experience of writing each story is different, long form or short. I’d be a real fool if I thought there was nothing left for me to learn, and that would be far worse.

I think this feeling of being some kind of imposter, while not being a very nice experience, is actually one of the things we should take strength from. That doubt shows that, while we might not be as good as we want to be, we acknowledge that fact and are trying to be better. And so we will be.

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* We shouldn’t think of it as an illness or a syndrome. Pauline Clance, one of the clinical Psychologists who first wrote about it now believes it should be called Imposter Experience,

(This article was first posted in January 2018 on the Milford SF blog)

Science for Fiction – Calling all UK SF Writers

The brilliant Science for Fiction event curated by Dr. David Clements at Imperial College London is back!

Where else can you spend a day and a half with friendly NASA scientists, and university researchers  and professors talking about their work – and then ask them your SF-questions too?

Last year was brilliant. I blogged about it here. I am sure this year will be just as fascinating, inspiring, and informative. And it’s always good to meet new people as well as writer friends I’ve not seen for too long.

Here’s what David has announced so far:

We now have dates for Science for Fiction 2018!
They will be 4 and 5 July, starting after lunch on 4th, and all day on the 5th.
Cost will be £30 as before, though some funds are available to help those in need of support.
Registration is by email to me. I will be advertising this more broadly as we have a nice lecture theatre this year.
Please also let me know any subject requests and any dietary requirements.

David’s email is davecl (at) mac (dot) com.

I shall definitely be going again. I hope to see some of you there!

~

Tesla Powerwall 2 – Full Winter Sun

Graph 1 – Sat 24 Feb

I’ve been waiting for a couple of days of consecutive sunny weather and finally they arrived. The news was as good as i hoped it would be. There are several ways to show this, so lets start with Graph 1, the full 24 hours for Saturday.

The graph shows mains draw in white, Solar generation in yellow and battery charge and discharge below and above the line. It was a beautiful clear and cold day, the Solar generation is almost a perfect curve. Mains draw fell to zero as the Solar took over, and stayed there except for some tiny blips throughout the day.

 

Graph 2 – Sun 25 Feb

Once the sun set the Powerwall took over, and ran and ran. There was still around 12% charge on Sunday morning, another clear day. Graph 2 shows the next day and does include mains draw, but there is virtually none. Graph 3 shows mains on its own, and it is tiny, only 0.2 kW from midnight to 4pm.

The Sunday charge ran through until Monday morning. By the then the weather had changed, and it’s now cloudy, cold, and snowing. Before that happened we were effectively off-grid for 48 hours.

In February.

Graph 3 – Sun 25 Feb. Mains only

 

That’s not all. Part of the installation was an additional switch to divert current to the hot water tank immersion when there was sufficient charge. We’re having our bathroom refitted, that fat spike in Graph two around 8:30 – to 9am is the immersion heater kicking in after a long hot bath, the first we’ve had for a few days. No gas was used to heat that water, just sunshine.

There are a couple of things I don’t understand: why there is that mini draw from the mains when the Powerwall is charged, and what the rules are for the immersion discharge. I’ll talk to the installers and report back. I’m not concerned, these two days have really proved the functionality of the system.

Can’t wait for the summer now!

~

 

 

 

 

 

Tesla Powerwall2 – One Month On

Having the Powerwall installed has made two things very obvious. First, just how much solar energy is available even on a short sunny winter day. And second, how much of that goes to waste with just a solar PV array.

Chart 1 – Friday

The days are slowly, slowly getting longer, and just four weeks after solstice there is a noticeable difference in generation. Last Friday was a day of clear blue skies from dawn to dusk, my 3.8kW solar PV peaked at 2.5kW generation, and by the end of the day the Powerwall had reached 50% charge starting from empty.

Chart 1 Shows PV generation (yellow) starting about 8am. Soon after grid draw (white) drops to zero and stays there for the rest of the day. (How excellent is that?) While the sun shines the PV runs the house and also charges the Powerwall (green). When the sun sets the Powerwall runs the house for the rest of the day.

Chart 2

 

That’s not the end of it because a 50% charge is enough to (almost) run the house through the night until the morning. I say almost because you can see four little blips between about 2am and 6am where there is a very small draw from the grid. The Powerwall will be at a very low charge state by then and I’ve seen before how discharge appears to gracefully decline rather than just stop.

I’m still not sure what those 1kW spikes are at night. I suspect the chest freezer but am not sure how to prove it.

That 50% charge very nearly carried the house through a full 24 hours. Had the next day been a sunny one that would have carried on and we’d have as near as dammit been off-grid in January. This being winter in England there’s been nothing but grey skies, sleet and rain since then, with very little PV generation.

Even so, I’m impressed. 50% is not quite enough, but 60% should do it. Give it another few weeks and cold clear February skies, maybe a 60% charge, and we should be there. It’s going to happen and I now believe it will be much sooner in the year than I first expected. A 100% charge is some way off yet, but when that happens I am excited to see how the other gadget I had installed along with the Powerwall behaves.

Watch this space.

~

 

Tesla Powerwall2 – The first few days

I’ve had a Solar PV array on the roof since around 2010. Earlier this month I had a Tesla Powerwall2 battery fitted. This is a 14kW battery that saves excess solar generation to run the house later in the day.

The first few days have been interesting.  Even this time of year it’s clear a sunny day is enough to charge it to about 30% (About 4.5 kW). You can see this from yesterday’s graph.

– White is mains power usage

– Yellow is Solar PV generation

– Green is Powerwall charge/discharge

The mains draw drops to zero as the Solar PV starts to generate and takes over powering the house. Excess solar generation now charges the Powerwall (the green under the line. Generation maxes at about 2.5 kW (on a 3.8 kW array).  I was surprised a December sun can do this.

Around 15:30 the sun goes and the Powerwall  then discharges to run the house until between 20:00 and 21:00 when it begins what looks like a graceful decline in output.
You can also see when we get home about 4pm and put the kettle on! Other spike are, I think, a mix of kettle, washing machine, and the fridge & freezer.

The result is that even in December the battery can lift self-powering from about 10% Solar only to 43% solar/battery combined. Sunny days only, however. Today with rain/cloud, and sun it will be less, but still something. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens in the summer months and hoping we will go off-grid for long periods.

In other news, the installers did struggle with configuring the control unit – a separate unit to the battery that manages the power flow etc. This need a firmware upgrade to get it working, provided remotely by Tesla, and it then was clear that the WiFi module is faulty. At the moment it is directly connect via UTP to a Wifi network extender I happened to have spare. So it IS all working but I am waiting a replacement unit.

None of this is the fault of the installers, who have worked above and beyond, and I’m putting this down to being a very early adopter in the UK. So far I’m very happy and slightly obsessed with the whole thing.

~

Weasel Words & Their Allies

I have fulminated about weasel-words at least once before. I’ve been doing a fair amount of critical reading recently and while my opinions on many things have changed over the years I find the same words ­­­– these weasel words – still bug me for the same reasons. Here are a few of them and why they rattle my cage.

Almost, Seemed, Appeared

Pwimula Nesbytt pulled the saddle from Bismarck, her faithful battle-mole. She seemed to be upset about something.

Only seemed to be? And only about something. Do we care, do I need to worry? Either Pwimula is upset, or she isn’t. If she isn’t, don’t mention it. If she is, then you should say so, say why, and describe how she is upset – angry, tearful, irritated. Not doing so creates a false tension that for implies the author, rather than the characters, is uncertain about what is happening.

Pwimula brushed away a tear as she unsaddled Bismarck. She laid her head against the side of her faithful battle-mole and listened to its faltering heart.

 There’s a place in language for all words in the same way there is a place in the kitchen for everything that belongs in the kitchen.  However, you don’t keep the milk in the oven or the iron in the fridge.*

I don’t like words like ‘seemed’, ‘appeared,’ ‘almost’ because they make action and emotion imprecise, and introduce uncertainty or doubt. That’s not to say they don’t work well in the right place:

‘How was she?’
‘She seemed to be upset. Then she laughed. I didn’t know what to make of it.’

He and She

I once became frustrated with the opening of a book because the main character was introduced as ‘She’. Page after page the novel wore on, and She did this and She did that. If the author had been in the room I’d have been begging on my knees, ‘For God’s sake, just tell me her name.’

This is an example of deliberate withholding for no good purpose. Another example of false tension. There’s something the reader needs to know and it doesn’t create drama, mystery or tension not telling them. In fact you’re doing your own story a disservice by not saying. The effect is distancing. And for me it is annoying.

Very rarely should the anonymous ‘He’ break the catch and slip through the window. It should at very least be the assassin, the randy lover or the desperate messenger. If it’s the hero of the story just tell us his or her name. Give the reader something to work with.

Of course ‘he said.’ And ‘she said.’ are almost always the best ways to tag dialogue.

Words ending ’ing’

There’s a place for these words (inflected verbs) but I try not to use them because I think they stifle description and flatten tone towards passive.

He was writing, he  looked out the window and saw it was raining.

You can’t get away with writing ‘It rained.’ as easily as you can say ‘It was raining.’ You need to qualify ‘It rained’ with description, sensation. How was it raining? Falling like soft mist or stinging whips?

A good exercise is to go through a piece of writing, remove all your ‘ing’ words and replace them with more sense-driven phrases.

Bogus accents

There are two main ways of doing this, both horrid. They are character speech and writing style, often over-seasoned with rampant anachronism:

Buboe sprang from his artful hidey-hole. ‘Gis ‘e’ ‘ere yer blimmin’ fancies, posh boy.’
‘Avaunt, blaggard, step thee kerb-wards, pronto!’ expostulated Fontleroi.

Cod formalism and mangled speech are not how you create texture and tone. And it’s, like, completely bogus, dude.

So these are some of the things that bug me, and I try to avoid them. I’m sure you have a few of your own.

~

*If I have in fact been getting this wrong all my life, please let me know.