|Image courtesy of my favorite artist, Frank Frazetta|
I just finished Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon, the first novel in the Xanth series, which was published in 1977. The similarities between his world and that of Harry Potter are difficult to ignore. People born with magic powers? Check. A magical world set on Earth during modern day? Check. Centaurs, dragons, mermaids, and a host of other magical creatures? Check. Animated plants that kill people? Check. Not convinced? In Harry Potter, non-magic folk are called Muggles, while Piers Anthony calls them Mundanes. But whether J.K. Rowling intentionally stole her ideas is difficult to say, and if you’ve read my article on cliches you may understand why. In fiction, similar ideas come up again and again, specifically because they are good ideas. It’s hard to believe that among the grand scope of authors, a story about a magical and non-magical world existing side-by-side could not have been conceived of independently. But unlike J.K. Rowling, Piers Anthony takes a more scientific approach to magic. Typically, I don’t like plots that revolve around the supernatural since, for me at least, it robs the story of tension; it’s like a dream where anything can happen and there is no real sense of danger. But Piers Anthony’s rigid adherence to the rules governing his universe makes the magic feel both believable and at times threatening. A Spell for Chameleon does a great job telling the history of Xanth, explaining why and how magic and non-magical people exist, and why and how they are separated. It even goes so far as to explain the evolution of magical creatures. These are just the kinds of questions my analytical mind couldn’t help conjuring while reading Harry Potter. I wanted to know more about the Wizarding World that J.K. never explained, like why the Ministry of Magic felt the need to hide from the Muggle world. I always assumed it had something to do with the Spanish Inquisition and the danger billions of Muggles with guns and atomic bombs posed to a magic gifted minority. While J.K. Rowling only hinted at possibilities, Piers Anthony went straight to the issue. Of course, not everything in Xanth is the same as in Hogwarts. Humans in Xanth are forbidden from interacting with the Muggle, er, Mundane world, and they are born with only one power, called a talent. If a child in Xanth cannot show his or her talent after a certain age, he is forever exiled to the Mundane world. This is where the story starts, with a guy named Bink (yes, Bink) who just wants to settle down and marry his girlfriend. Unfortunately, as far as anyone can tell, Bink has no magical talent, so his quest to find one begins.
I love this kind of story and this book, a straight up fantasy adventure. But while Xanth continually fascinates, it’s the plot and characters that keeps you reading. Piers Anthony is my kind of writer. At first, he comes across as somewhat juvenile, something for my seven year old to read. The style is simple and direct, often humorous in tone, but there is a real depth to his story that reveals itself the further you read into it. At times, I had to pull up the dictionary function to look up a word. I also love his near limitless imagination. This author is not afraid of the fantasy genre! Every chapter abounds with monsters, illusions, spells, and just crazy stuff the writer makes up, and somehow he makes it all work.
But Piers Anthony’s greatest talent is in making you relate to his characters, despite that he seemed to have gone through his high school yearbook to name them. Bink is a simple-minded every man that’s easy to like. There’s also (minor spoiler) Chameleon, a girl who goes from ugly-intelligent to beautiful-stupid throughout the course of a month. As a side note, some reviewers accuse Anthony of sexism, since Bink is overly preoccupied with sex (don’t ask how centaurs are born) but honestly, I just think his writing reflects the attitude of the seventies. His greatest achievement, however, is Trent the Evil Magician. Without giving anything away, Trent breaks with every literary convention in being both villain and protagonist. Not to be confused with an anti-hero, Trent is honorable, honest, eloquent, and impossible not to like. His only downside? He wants to takeover the world.
While the mysteries in A Spell for Chameleon won’t take you by surprise, the writing and the story is so charming and fun, you’ll be glad you picked it up. This is old fashioned fantasy the way it should be done, and while everything is neatly wrapped up by the last page, you’ll likely want to revisit Xanth in the many novels that follow just for the fun of it.
|Emma figure courtesy of David Pasco|
Back in June, I asked astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson whether life could exist in the Aenya-Infinity system, where Aenya (the moon) is tidally locked to Infinity (a gas giant planet). Here’s my original letter:
Dear Neil deGrasse Tyson,
I am a huge fan of your work. You not only have a brilliant mind for physics, but you’ve managed to bridge the light-year sized gap between human knowledge and those ignorant to it. My question relates to the novel I have been working on for the past decade, “Ages of Aenya.” The story takes place on the planet (or rather, the moon) of Aenya, which orbits a Jupiter like gas giant. Aenya is tidally locked, so one hemisphere perpetually faces the gas giant, while the other, at intervals, faces the sun. When Aenya moves into the dark side of the planet it is orbiting, the sunny side is also dark. In this way, one hemisphere remains dark while the other undergoes a kind of day/night cycle. So my question is this: On this type of planet, is it possible for humans, or beings with human-like anatomies, to survive? What happens to weather patterns if a planet doesn’t rotate? Is there any wind? What effect does a Jupiter sized planet have on the tides of that world? Am I wrong in any of my assumptions? Making a stab at feasibility, I have tried to wrap my head around these issues, but as I am not a scientist, the whole thing is beyond me. Any input on your behalf would be greatly appreciated.
Neil was too busy to answer me directly, but astronomer Alejandro Núñez was kind enough to offer this lengthy and in-depth response:
Your novel sounds like a very interesting story.
First, there is a mistake in how you are picturing the day/night cycles of Aenya. If you think of Aenya and its gas giant as the moon-earth system, you will realize that the side of Aenya that perpetually faces the gas giant also gets daylight. If it did not, then we would never be able to see the moon shine from Earth.
Second, whether human-like anatomies could be possible in such a place would depend more on the atmospheric conditions of Aenya than on day/night patterns.
An exception could be the visual organs: assuming that the gas giant is at a similar distant to its host star as Jupiter is to the sun, then the type of light that would mostly shine on Aenya would be the one reflected by the gas giant itself, and not the sun. In such situation, human-like creatures would have eyes more sensitive to the peak light frequency of the gas giant reflection, the same way that our eyes here on Earth are the most sensitive to the peak frequency of light coming from the Sun. Check this blog post to get a better idea of what I am getting at:
Third, Aenya IS rotating, only at a pace that matches its orbital time around the gas giant. Again, think of the moon-earth system. If the moon did not rotate, then we would see a different moon surface as it orbited around us.
Keep in mind that the main driver for wind is temperature differences: cool air sinks, hot air rises. Even if Aenya were not rotating, different areas on its surface would be exposed to more heat (either from the star or the gas giant) than others as it orbits, thus creating temperature gradients.
Finally, the gas giant will most definitely create tides on Aenya, assuming large bodies of liquid on its surface. The tides would occur because of the change in distance to the gas giant, from its closest to its farthest point along its orbit. This blog post explains these tides as they occur in Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon:
As a matter of fact, if Aenya is close enough to the gas giant, even its rocky body could get deformed by tidal forces. This, indeed, is what happens to some moons of Jupiter and Saturn, including Titan. This article on Sky & Telescope describes a recent discovery on Titan that you may find interesting:
Good luck with your novel.
Alejandro Núñez, Astronomer
American Museum of Natural History
As suspected, real life is much more complicated than fiction. I was afraid the response would be, “There’s no way humans could exist on such a world!” but fortunately that wasn’t the case. In fact, it seems the biggest problem is minor, light, and who’s to say Aenyan-human eyeballs aren’t more sensitive than Earth-human ones? I was also happy to learn that things like wind and tides can exist on Aenya, since those things are mentioned somewhat frequently in my book. As a fantasy writer, it’s difficult to create a sense of atmosphere without using any of the things we, as Earthlings, are familiar with. And how could I write a dramatic piece about Thelana without having the wind frolic in her hair? I suppose if we all lived on Mars, I would make references to things unique to Martian life/geology. Of course, I was dead-wrong on several occasions. I didn’t realize that all astral bodies rotate, even our moon, at least a little bit. Perhaps Aenya’s rotation is so slow as to seem negligible to its people, so that day and night has more to do with the eclipse of the moon, which happens more frequently. The biggest DUH! moment for me, however, was the fact that the moon is bright! So maybe the dark hemisphere of Aenya is not quite as dark as previously thought . . .
Anyway, I have a lot of reading to do with all these links. A good dosage of science should help add credibility to my fictional universe, and I have Alejandro Núñez and the Hayden Planetarium to thank. So if you’re out there reading this, Alejandro, here’s a big THANKS!
Thelana turned her foot from side-to-side, showing him how the leather laces crisscrossed up her calves.
Rounding another narrow spiral of steps, Xandr found Thetis to be more labyrinthine than he had at first believed. The great pyramidal structure, what he assumed to be a government or religious center, or both, was clearly visible but beyond approach. From the look of his surroundings, Thetis had in earlier days gone by other names, as old streets, fractured by time and foliage, oftentimes led nowhere, into walls and houses, and newer streets overlapped them. Foundations had collapsed and been rebuilt or abandoned. Even the rusty-orange outer wall with its square guard towers showed evidence of changing materials and building techniques.
Thelana wandered through the bazaar of Thetis in a daze. Never had so many sights and sounds clashed for dominance against her consciousness. If she looked at any one thing for too long, it seemed, she might never get out. In the center square, where the streets branched away to different market areas, she came by a rug and two men with a fondness for serpents. One was an adept flutist, forming powerful and hypnotic tones through his gaita, a long trumpet-shaped instrument. The music was traditional to the region, known throughout the southern regions of the Endless Sea. It continued to play without beginning or end, an endlessly cyclical middle. Snakes were bundled on a rug like twigs, slithering between themselves, and the second man’s job was preventing their escape by herded them in his hands again and again. Passing too closely, the snake handler grabbed Thelana by the wrist. There was a long cobra about his arm, and he removed the simple round fez from his head to show her a stash of coins. He spoke the common tongue, but it was broken and heavily accented. “Touch cobra, is good luck.”
I’ll never be an Olympic gymnast, but watching these young athletes spin and flip through the air only solidifies in my mind my utter lack of agility. This doesn’t happen to me when reading other authors. Instead of intimidation, I feel relief, a boost in confidence. I can’t help saying to myself, Dang, if this can get published, I know I sure can! The intimidating thing is never the reality, but what I imagine the competition is. Which is why, sometimes, a good imagination can be a bad thing. Like when you’re an aspiring writer perusing your local Barnes & Nobles’ New Science-Fiction and Fantasy section. The number of titles may as well be endless and the beautiful cover designs (with some books of up to 900+ pages) can be intimidating. Based purely on the illustrations, my mind conjures bits and pieces of brilliantly realized worlds and utterly fantastic stories, and the overflowing praise on the back flap doesn’t help matters.
My biggest anxiety, however, is not that I can’t or don’t measure up, but that the literary world is quite simply saturated. Where does my book fit on the shelf? Who has time for one more fantasy adventure? Our society is currently suffering from information pollution and I am not helping the situation with my fiction. I’d wager there are enough decent books to satisfy an avid reader for a lifetime. Quite frankly, we may not need any new publications. My only saving grace is knowing that in most cases, the story is rarely as good as its artwork, and the praise is completely overblown. The snake oil salesmen of the modern age are book critics. How often does a book come out that you truly can’t put down? And is that even a good thing? You’ll never see a movie trailer claim to be so entertaining that you can’t look away. It’s gotten to the point where true masterpieces like Frank Herbert’s Dune or Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles need new monikers to set them apart like grand masterpiece or supreme masterpiece. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before your read-it-and-forget-it novel goes under the heading of grand masterpiece too, which makes me wonder what reissues of books like Dune will say in the future, super-duper-ultimate masterpiece? Point is, there’s a scarcity of great books in the world, or if many exist, they’re buried beneath the dreck. The reality makes the bajillions of new books seem less intimidating.
Imagination can also hamper confidence with the many ridiculous (and imaginative) misconceptions and misrepresentations about writing and writers. Hollywood would have us believe five year old prodigies can write operas or that masterpieces can be knocked out in one sitting. Even experienced writers get taken in by these myths, such as Conan creator Robert Howard, who insisted each of his works were completed in one draft during sweat-drenched nights of terror (research has found numerous drafts). And who remembers D.O.A. (Dead on Arrival) a story about a piece of fiction so incredible, people are murdering each other just to get their hands on it? What’s really frustrating is that, even if you don’t believe the myths, other people do, so if you’re not writing like Shakespeare by age five you’re just not cut out for the job (see: my Dad). When I tell people I’m a writer, they either treat me like a genius or like some delusional hack (which is why I usually don’t tell people). They simply can’t conceive of a person who just works really hard everyday at getting better.
I am always annoyed when people ask me, “So, did you get your book published yet?” It’s like asking me if I took out the garbage. Honestly, most people have no clue how daunting the task is. Or worse, they think it’s like winning the lottery, all luck and no hard work. Worse still, if you don’t get published right away, it automatically means you are hack and will always be one. That’s the misconception everyone has, that there’s some guy in some lofty literary tower somewhere, some wizard of words, reading every submission from cover to cover. The truth is, neither publisher nor agent is in the business of achieving or even understanding literary excellence, that’s our job. They’re just salesmen. Their job is to facilitate the sale of books. Typically, the primary deciding factor is whether your book looks like another book which sold well, which might explain the half dozen or so hooded rogues brooding on covers these days. Whether a book is good in some grand artistic sense is irrelevant. For this reason, writers are often at odds with the business side of things. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a financial failure, but what writer wouldn’t want to have written that book, one as immortalized as Melville’s? Often times, great books see a lot of rejection, like Dune, which was turned down 11 times. Question is, did anyone bother reading it before throwing it in the trash? Was it rejected on the basis of Herbert’s query letter or did someone actually read through it and say no thanks? Nobody probably knows, but I imagine Dune was way over the heads of most editors. Cinnamon like drugs that make you see into the future? Giant worms the size of skyscrapers? NO THANKS!
At thirty-seven years, I’ve become aware of the realities of the publishing world, and that only helps to boost my confidence. Ages of Aenya doesn’t have to measure up to Melville or Tolkien, or anybody for that matter. People just have to like it. I am certain a segment of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi crowd will no doubt hate it, based on their own misconceptions, and I’m prepared to ignore them. Only the fans matter, and if the fans I have represent a sample size of the reading public, then it’s just a matter of time before Ages of Aenya is sitting pretty on a shelf with other titles with great covers, making young aspiring writers everywhere feel anxious.