The Hobbit’s 75th anniversary

Tolkien's illustration of Bilbo riding a barrel toward Lake Town

Tolkien’s illustration of Bilbo floating on a barrel after escaping from the Wood Elves’ dungeons.

The Hobbit was published on Sept. 21, 1937 — 75 years ago today. Among all the penetrating and insightful tributes that have been written about this masterpiece, what can I add?

Well, I am going to address the neglected question of “Do hobbits wear shoes?”

They don’t. Our authoritative source says flatly: they “wear no shoes” (Hobbit, p. 10). But — and I make an important distinction here — do they wear boots?

Yes, they do. At least, one hobbit did when going on a quest and crossing hundreds of leagues of Wilderland and dragon desolation. The documentary evidence is clear:

Detail of Bilbo floating on a barrel

Closeup of Bilbo floating on the barrel.

“Ambidextrose” by Jay Werkheiser

“Ambidextrose” by Jay Werkheiser is from the October 2012 issue of Analog. It builds its situation from a problem of chemical incompatibility between human settlers of an alien planet and the exobiotic native life, useless to Earth organisms because the organic molecules are chemically wrong-handed. Wrong-handed sugars are nutritionally inert for humans, the amino acids poisonous.

The main character, Davis, survives a shuttle crash in a wilderness area of the planet Tau Ceti. He is from the single area on the entire planet that is inhabited by colonists (or so they believe), an island they call Haven. To establish the colony, the island had been sterilized of native life and seeded with Earth life.

At the time of the crash, Davis was exploring the wilderness beyond Haven with an eye for eventual expansion of the colony. He is rescued by an old woman, Lyda, who shouldn’t have been there; the colonists have no idea that any human lives outside Haven — indeed, that any human could survive outside of their colony. He learns that the mystery inhabitants of the wilderness don’t want to be found by his people, and they do not share his horror of the native vegetation — they have found ways of living with it, even making it digestible. He also learns that some of the native life is racemic — containing both left- and right-handed molecules.

In the process of adapting to the native biological conditions, Lyda’s people have developed a different culture. Marriage is unknown. Woman stay put, living in houses, and men are nomadic, visiting women only to mate. I was amused when Lyda tells Davis that her only visitors are women because she is too old to bear children. Really? No man, ever, visits a woman to just, say, talk?

Oh well. Some sort of remodeling of gender roles has become rote in SF, and it isn’t the main business of the story. It is suggested that this arrangement is an aid to survival in the wilderness of Tau Ceti because it increases genetic diversity. I would have imagined that other factors might also play a part, but Lyda shrugs and says men do what they do, and so we’ll have to take it on faith.

Some of Lyda’s people want to make sure that Davis never returns to his people, thus keeping their existence a secret from the colonists. Davis realizes that this means killing him. I’ll let you discover what happens from this point.

I like this story’s exploration of a less-worn SF problem of alien life and the consequences of biological incompatibility. It also, of course, has echoes of past conquests of other New Worlds. Werkheiser shows a new way of thinking just at its starting point, as Davis picks up a few clues from the alien life that he has heretofore had a great aversion toward, suggesting that the colony may awaken to possibilities other than conquest. A nice little story, if containing no great excitement.

“Nell” by Karen Hesse

“Nell” is a new story up on this week. Read it here. (It’s reprinted from an anthology, What You Wish For, published by Book Wish Foundation, 2012) The story is told from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl who’s been 12 for about a hundred years, but in different bodies:

One winter night in my twelfth year, my father hit me and hit me and did not stop. …When the mist faded, I was inside another body. She had been ill, the girl whose body I now inhabited. But she was gone and I was there. What happened to her I don’t know. What happened to my first body I cannot say. But I learned quickly to adapt to a new life.
And I learned to prolong that life for months, though never for more than a year. And that’s how it continues. The children whose bodies I take are always twelve. I keep them alive as long as I can. But sometime during the year their bodies fail and I lift out of one and slip into another.
I am always dying. I am never dying. I have died and died and died again, but I do not stay dead.
Tonight another twelfth year ends.

The story of Nell is interwoven with “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen. (It helps to know the Andersen tale, although it is not necessary, as the vital parts are included in this story.) On a bitterly cold night, Nell waits for her end to come, as she thinks it must. But she then becomes aware of another girl, in the cold and dark outside her comfortable home, who is in peril.

Spooky, quiet, and suspenseful… this is one you should read.

Star Trek added a term to literary lexicon

Redshirt victim

Today — as I realized from Google’s doodle; I didn’t actually have the date marked on my calendar! — is the 46th anniversary of Star Trek. It premiered Sept. 7, 1966. The Christian Science Monitor (here) points out the show’s contribution to civil rights (Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan and told Nichelle Nichols she was too important to leave the show). The show reputedly also inspired many young people to go into science careers. I’d like to point to one more achievement: it added a term to our literary lexicon.

You know denouement, persona, peripeteia, harmartia, catharsis, and deus ex machina? Star Trek added redshirt¬†— the virtually anonymous character whose sole purpose in the story is to die, as proof that the antagonist is dangerous, so that we can be in suspense over the fate of the characters that really matter.

Once you have a term you have identified a concept. Redshirt¬†is a type of writing failure, similar to deus ex machina. The “god out of the machine” was a way, in ancient Greek drama, of getting characters out of a fix that was so unsolvable that the playwright had to get a god to come down from Olympus to sort things out (the machine was a crane that lowered the actor to the ground). Not the most satisfying conclusion. The term now signifies any kind of improbable contrivance in the plot.

Similarly, the redshirt is the lazy writer’s way of creating suspense and putting the main character through a necessary but brief anguish. When, on Star Trek, viewers could instantly spot the one who was going to die within about, oh, sixty seconds, it became a joke. A writer with a modicum of professional pride doesn’t want readers laughing at a plot development that’s supposed to be tragic. So the fear of creating a redshirt may, in some instances, motivate a writer to try just a little harder and think a little deeper. Or, at least, we hope so.

“Star Soup” by Chris Willrich in Asimov’s

I’m currently reading the Sept 2012 issue of Asimov’s, and I haven’t gotten through the whole issue yet, but I’ve gone back to read “Star Soup” by Chris Willrich. I find it a highly pleasurable story. I was a little surprised to like it so much, because after the first two pages my expectation was that it was simply going to be a retelling of the folk story “Stone Soup.” A stranger comes to town, and finding no hospitality forthcoming from the villagers, requests only a pot to make some soup.

A pale mainstrain human, her hair grey and her hand-knit wools swirling with every color but, nudged a cauldron through the doorway.
“You will need a fire,” she said, blinking at the sight of Twitch.
“I understand,” he said. “Thank you.” And as he carried the cauldron (easily, for he was conditioned to higher gravity) and thudded it into the dirt that served as the village square, she continued watching from the door. Twitch withdrew two heat-bricks from his pack and set them down parallel. He hefted the cauldron again and placed it on top. There was a well in that place and community buckets beside, so he pumped and carried and filled, until the cauldron was sloshing and the eastern horizon was silver and the window full of eyes.
He kicked at the heat-bricks and they glowed. He hummed. Bubbles burst the water.
He fished in his pack for a hefty stone that looked torn from a larger mass, black with pocks and speckles, and he rotated it back and forth in the gray.
Presently a few Dimmers crept out in their nightclothes to regard him. There was a long-snouted brown canid, a dark mainstrain man, and a wide-eyed orange felid girl.
“What are you holding?” said the girl, striped tail swishing.
“A star stone. A thing I chased from the skies, knowing the wonders it bears. Within are rare organic compounds, quickened by the fires of atmospheric entry. I mean to dine upon them, making delicious star soup.”

But from here, the story takes an unexpected turn, as the stranger asks each villager to add to the soup by telling something about the world they live on. As each one speaks, we learn a bit about the character, the world, the society, and the (dangerous) wildlife on the planet. In the process, the villagers turn out to be not as dull as first appearances suggest, and even the stone is not what it seems.

Hugo Awards winners

Well, if you were among the 600+ watching the live stream of the Hugos, you already know what happened. After the short clips of several nominees in the short dramatic presentation category, UStream shut down the livecast for “copyright violations.” Presumably done by an automated system rather than a real person. Wittiest comment from Twitter: “robots shut down a scifi awards show broadcast.”

So, “Paper Menagerie” won in Short Story; “Six Months, Three Days” in Novelette; and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” in Novella. None of my choices, but I’m happy to have reviewed all of them. Congratulations to the winners!