Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Some Fiction Natterings

1. An Interesting Inversion.

A few days ago, my wife invited my attention to The Intruders, a new BBC America television production she thought might interest me. The show itself struck me as mediocre, in part because of low production quality, but what grabbed my interest about it is that it's based on a novel by Michael Marshall Smith.

Science fiction aficionados who don't know of this exceptionally fine writer have a treat coming. His novels Spares, One Of Us, and Only Forward are absolutely terrific, founded on highly original premises, packed with action and emotion, and gracefully written. Despite my disappointment at the BBC America production, I resolved immediately to grab the book on which it was based.

When I went to Amazon, Kindle in hand, for that purpose, I discovered, much to my surprise, that it hasn't yet been published in that format! It will make its bow this coming Tuesday. At first I thought that Smith had managed to do something no other SF writer I know of has pulled off: selling a book to the visual media before it has acquired a following among readers. But no: it was published on tree corpses in 2009, and I somehow managed to miss it.

This is one of the effects of moving one's reading from tree-corpse publications to bits and bytes. On the one hand, you can save a lot of shelf space (and a small amount of money). On the other, books are "published" in a fashion that allows you to deceive yourself about their prior availability...upon discovering which you might kick yourself for not having run across them earlier.

2. Series Characters.

One of the prevalent practices in contemporary fiction is the series protagonist. It seems that just about everyone writing today wants his protagonists to go on forever. The less skilled among them can easily wear out their welcome by prolonging their heroes' adventures a book or two too far, to the point where the adventures become implausible and the characters reach a higher stature than a human being is entitled to.

I worry about this myself, as I have a penchant for larger-than-life protagonists. But the reverse of the coin of unreasonably prolonging a good protagonist's fictional career is encouragement from your readership to keep him going.

That influence arrives in several forms. The most important are your sales figures and direct communications from your fans and admirers. Between them, they can mount irresistible pressure upon you to write story after story about a character you'd rather see dead and buried. Ask Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

When a writer manages to keep a protagonist going through many books without becoming implausible or tiresome, it's an achievement to note, even to celebrate. Lee Child has managed to write a dozen books about retired military cop Jack Reacher, and they continue to be exciting entertainment, well worth their purchase price. For fantasy readers, Seanan McGuire, of whose work I've spoken warmly before, is achieving the same sort of distinction with her half-fae hero October "Toby" Daye. But there's more to note about this particular tale.

The foreword to The Winter Long, McGuire's eighth novel of Toby Daye, includes a stunning revelation: Of the eight, this is the book she plotted out first. She's been steering toward this particular tale since the first words of Rosemary and Rue, the first book of the series.

Geez. Most of us who feature a series protagonist just stumble into him. McGuire's disclosure leaves me does her offhand mention that there are lots more Toby Daye stories to come!

3. Day Jobs.

Perhaps I'm fortunate in my diurnal occupation; I work for a company that makes weapons systems, so there's just about nothing I could include in a story, short of the endorsement of pederasty, that would offend my employers. But that's not the case for everyone who writes fiction:

From the Dept. of Insane and Dangerous Overreactions to Fictional Threats:

A 23-year-old teacher at a Cambridge, Md. middle school has been placed on leave and—in the words of a local news report—"taken in for an emergency medical evaluation" for publishing, under a pseudonym, a novel about a school shooting. The novelist, Patrick McLaw, an eighth-grade language-arts teacher at the Mace’s Lane Middle School, was placed on leave by the Dorchester County Board of Education, and is being investigated by the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office, according to news reports from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The novel, by the way, is set 900 years in the future.

Here is part of a breathless, law enforcement-friendly report from WBOC, which describes itself as "Delmarva’s News Leader":

He’s a man with many names, and the books he has written have raised the concerns of the Dorchester County Board of Education and the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office.

Early last week the school board was alerted that one of its eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace’s Lane Middle School had several aliases. Police said that under those names, he wrote two fictional books about the largest school shooting in the country’s history set in the future. Now, Patrick McLaw is placed on leave.

Dr. K.S. Voltaer is better known by some in Dorchester County as Patrick McLaw, or even Patrick Beale. Not only was he a teacher at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge, but according to Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips, McLaw is also the author of two books: "The Insurrectionist" and its sequel, "Lillith’s Heir."

Jerry Pournelle delves more deeply into the matter. One of his readers emailed him as follows:

It sounds like the teacher is being held under a law dealing with being "a danger to himself or others." That is a medical hold. Unfortunately HIPPA ties the hands of all involved on releasing information, while the press is free to speculate. The most common cause of such things is a threat to harm himself (threats to harm others is of course criminal).

The claims of harassment could be related to rebuffed romantic advances towards a coworker. Which could explain a letter indicating he may wish to harm himself. I guess we will find out more as time goes on.

Pournelle also mentions this treatment of the matter:

CAMBRIDGE — As police began investigating allegations made against Patrick McLaw in mid-August, concerns about a four-page letter he sent to a deputy school administrator led health officials to seek an emergency evaluation of the Mace’s Lane Middle School teacher, Wicomico County State’s Attorney Matt Maciarello said Tuesday.

McLaw’s attorney has told the L.A. Times that McLaw is getting treatment.

Although some reports have focused on McLaw’s books, leading to online petitions calling for McLaw’s release and reinstatement as a teacher, Maciarello said he wasn’t sure “how it turns out (in some media reports) that Mr. McLaw was arrested over his books.”

McLaw has not been arrested and has not been charged, Maciarello said, and is “of course, presumed innocent.”

Although McLaw’s books are “relevant,” Maciarello said, the writings were not a primary factor in the investigation....

Health officials were brought in because of concerns that it was more a “mental health matter,” Maciarello said.

“Nobody was overreacting,” the prosecutor said of that meeting. “Everyone was acting calmly,” with safety and due process for McLaw the primary concerns.

Law enforcement officials brought the health department in “from the ground floor,” Maciarello said. “They did everything right. We have a very proactive and engaged health officer. This wasn’t an overreaction by law enforcement.”

Maciarello described McLaw’s letter as a “farewell address/resignation” and said the Wicomico County health officer was “chiefly concerned” about the letter.

Health officials filed an emergency petition and McLaw was taken to Peninsula Regional Medical Center, the prosecutor said. McLaw was represented at a subsequent court hearing, at which Maciarello was called to testify, by Salisbury attorney David Moore.

Moore, who told the L.A. Times in a story published Tuesday morning that McLaw is getting treatment, could not be reached for comment by presstime Wednesday.

Under Maryland law, court records concerning petitions for emergency evaluations are not publicly available.

As a result of those restrictions, the ongoing investigation and concerns about due process, Maciarello said, officials initially had opted to “release the bare minimum” about McLaw.

“Law enforcement at all times had concern for him and his family,” he said.

But public concerns caused officials to be more forthcoming.

“This is about trust in your government,” Maciarello said. “It’s important to be as transparent as possible.”

What complete Pollyanna trusts any level of government these days? Especially now that a valid response to a petition for habeas corpus is "for his own good" -- ?

If anything, the ham-handedness of the various parties and institutions involved should militate against trusting in the goodness of the State organs that have incarcerated McLaw. The many denials they mount in the above-quoted article make it more likely, not less, that the man was taken involuntarily into custody because someone simply didn't like what he'd written.

Has anyone seen the letter that was supposedly the trigger for this act of tyranny? Or are we supposed to take it on faith that it implied that McLaw is "a danger to himself or others" -- ? Given that a man once came dangerously near to receiving a life sentence for indecent exposure?

I wonder if Mike Vanderboegh has any comments on the matter.

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