ASH: ASH #76 - Four To Never Prologue: Time Enough

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Mon Jan 29 11:15:25 PST 2007

Tom Russell reviews ASH # 76, and makes some general comments about 
Dvandom's writing, world-building, and plotting.


The ASH universe takes place an alternate future, a very sci-fi-ey 
kind of place with lots of gadgets and technology and so forth.  And 
there's a danger, when one sets a story in such a place, that the 
setting would become so alien to the readers, in much the same way, I 
suppose, the world of today would be alien to those living five or six 
hundred years ago.  There's a danger that with so many weird and wild 
and crazy ideas that the reader wouldn't understand how they all 
connect, and just end up scratching their heads.

But with ASH, this is not the case.  And I think the reason why is the 
_way_ in which Dvandom (I wonder, do people call him Dvandom in his 
day-to-day life, or does Dave suffice?) introduces his weird and wild 
and crazy ideas.  He doesn't just throw them at the reader, or mention 
them in the story when the idea occurs to him; he makes sure each idea 
is introduced (or, as the case may be, reintroduced) in context.  Each 
idea effects the characters' lives, and he shows us how it effects 
their lives, and I think that takes some of the weirdness off of it.

>      "Are you sure Mama wore this?" Essay asked Clara.  "I mean, this is
> pretty fancy...."
>      "Psssh.  It's what Mama remembers wearing.  You know th' real thing got
> burned up along with all th' wedding pictures in th' Big One.  But that mind
> reader hunk you work with pulled the memory outta Mama, so you get t' wear
> it, even if it *is* a bit...embellished."

So instead of just mentioning mind-reading or telepathy in casual 
conversation, he gives us a concrete example of mind-reading and its 
effects.  And,

>      "Right, I remember that one," Tom nodded.  "Okay, everyone strap in.
> This baby uses gravitics, so the ride is usually smooth, but the upper
> atmosphere sometimes has a few surprises."
>      In fact, it almost never did, not really.  But he threw in a few jinks
> and wobbles on purpose for the younger kids, who loved every second of it.
> This was the first time any of them had been into space, and other than the
> trip back, might be the last.  Why not make it a little more memorable?

instead of just telling us that gravitics made for a smooth ride 
through-and-through with no surprises, this information is introduced 
in a memorable fashion-- in a way that affects the characters going 
for the ride, and in a way that tells us something about Tom (I like 
that name, Tom).

Dvandom's a plot-based writer, and he's one of the two great plotters 
we have on RACC, along with Jovial Jamas Enright.  That's not to say 
that he's a bad character writer, per se; but, with such a large cast 
of characters, it's hard for individual personalities to stand out.  
When they do, it's not in big, obvious ways, but in subtle, quiet 
ones.  Like that bit with Tom.

In fact, Dvandom _is_ a fairly subtle writer, in that he finds fairly 
subtle ways to get information across, and to keep things clear.  For 
example, this particular story is focused on two Sara(h)s.  
Potentially confusing, but he makes sure, right from the start, that 
we know which one is which and that they are two different women.

>      "Weird.  Anyway, do you suppose we'll need to be total assholes to our
> kids too, to make sure they don't grow up to become tinpot tyrants?  Hell,
> Radner's already got kids, you can be sure they're gonna be a terror by
> 2050."
>      JakZak frowned.  "Unfortunately, that doesn't look like something Sarah
> and I'll ever have to worry about ourselves."
>      Scott winced.  The Taylors had been pretty successful at getting around
> most of the problems that came with Sarah being made of ice, but not all of
> them.  "Gah, sorry man.  I wasn't thinking."
>      "Yeah, well.  Maybe we'll adopt...."
>                *              *              *              *
> [March 16, 2026 - Falcon Bay, Venus]
>      "Stop squirmin', Sara!" Clara chided her older cousin.  "I know you're
> all butch mosta th' time, but for once in your life you're wearing a dress,
> so get used t' it!"  The southeast-facing windows of the prefab building let
> in plenty of the "afternoon" sunlight, and the wedding dress shimmered in the
> strong light.
>      "Are you sure Mama wore this?" Essay asked Clara.  "I mean, this is
> pretty fancy...."
>      "Did it have to be let out so far on Mama?" Essay patted her belly,
> clearly showing she was in her ninth month of pregnancy.

By juxtaposing these two scenes, he allows new readers to make an 
immediate comparision.  One Sarah is made of ice and not pregnant, the 
other is not made of ice and pregnant and about to get married.  Now, 
long-time readers would know very well which Sara(h) is which, but for 
relatively new readers like myself, who have trouble keeping all the 
names straight, this fairly subtle juxtaposition helps me keep score.

And since the things that happen in this story happen to these two 
women, it helps me keep that in mind.  Sara gets married and has a 
baby; Sarah gets her ice form removed.  And because I have a clearer 
picture of the two ladies, my picture of their significant others-- 
JakZak and Peregryn-- is that much clearer as well.

Though I might not understand all the characters and their 
relationships to one another, Dvandom is giving us enough information 
to get by and to enjoy the story to some extent.

I say to some extent because ASH is fairly subplot heavy, and because 
the characterization is dolled out subtly.  We don't really get big, 
blazing character-defining so-and-so-is-now-my-new-favourite-of-all-
time moments, which makes it kind of hard to get attached to the 
characters.  What he attempts is infinitely more complex, and closer, 
perhaps, to novel-writing than to comics.  And, in the case of this 
being chapter 76 of ASH, I suppose it reads as well as chapter 76 
ought to.

Don't get me wrong-- Dvandom does orient his readers as to what's 
happening, gives them enough information to follow the story, ninety-
nine percent of the time.  But since that story is calculated to give 
the most pleasure to long-time readers, from time-to-time the plot 
developments leave the new readers cold.  The plot is full of clever 
twists and reversals, but those are twists on subplots that have been 
building over the course of many issues, and reversals of events that 
were first posted months if not years ago.

And so, while one can appreciate the plotting and to some degree the 
execution, it does leave a new reader without a sense of context.  I'm 
not saying that this is necessarily a fault of Dvandom's; I'm just 
saying, looking at his writing, this is a tendency I see.

I think his real strength is that plotting, and world-building, and 
that the development of his craft is geared towards those two aims.  
His prose is calculated to service the plot, to move it along, and to 
introduce the elements of his world.  It is perfectly utilitarian and 
there's nothing wrong with that.

I think he's at his best when he's using dialogue.  Again, this 
dialogue is usually more in service of the plot than in service of 
"character" moments, the character moments slipping in under our radar 
and absorbed by osmosis, so to speak.  I think when it comes to long 
passages of description, he's not quite as formidable:

>      It was a beautiful late afternoon day, and had been for a few weeks.
> The weather on Venus had settled down, with the most severe storm systems
> staying mainly at the day-night terminator, and only occasional brief showers
> roaming across the day side.
>      Thousands of people were gathered in the natural amphitheater facing the
> bay, repesenting nearly the entire population of the settlement, plus guests
> flown in from Earth or even from other settlements on the planet.  A pair of
> centaurs represented the "ruler" of Venus, while Conflicto of the CSV was
> present and actually behaving himself.
>      But the places of honor on either side of the main stage were taken by
> friends and family of the couple.  To one side was most of the membership of
> ASH, as well as those agents of STRAFE who had gone to school with Peregryn
> and Essay, and a scattering of North American Combine government officials.
> To the other were the dozens of Rodriguezes, Ybarras, Martinezes and other
> members of the extended clan Essay called family.  Foremost among them was
> Mama Rodriguez, matriarch of the clan, who radiated enough force of
> personality to match the entire other side's luminaries.
>      Peregryn and Essay stood together on the central stage, flanked by
> JakZak Taylor and Clara Ybarra as Best Man and Maid of Honor.  Peregryn wore
> robes that evoked his usual uniform, but were fuller and longer, and billowed
> in the light sea breeze.  Essay wore the elaborate bridal gown that her
> mother swore was the spitting image of the one Mama Rodriguez had been
> married in.  JakZak wore his fanciest dress uniform in russet and gold, while
> Clara had on a light blue dress similar to Essay's, but less elaborate.
>      There was no priest, for this was not to be a Catholic ceremony,
> something that had caused some friction on the bride's side, but had been
> settled eventually.  Instead, JakZak added the role of master of ceremonies
> to his other duties.

The best sentence in that passage is the first one--

>      It was a beautiful late afternoon day, and had been for a few weeks.

--and that's because of the novelty of it, of the recognition of the 
fact of how long a day, beautiful or otherwise, lasts on Venus.  It's 
a beautiful sentence in its simplicity, very clever and memorable.  
The rest of it--

>      Peregryn and Essay stood together on the central stage, flanked by
> JakZak Taylor and Clara Ybarra as Best Man and Maid of Honor.  Peregryn wore
> robes that evoked his usual uniform, but were fuller and longer, and billowed
> in the light sea breeze.  Essay wore the elaborate bridal gown that her
> mother swore was the spitting image of the one Mama Rodriguez had been
> married in.  JakZak wore his fanciest dress uniform in russet and gold, while
> Clara had on a light blue dress similar to Essay's, but less elaborate.

-- I mean, it gets the job done, but it doesn't _sing_ the way that 
first sentence does, the way the plotting does.  It's not as 
memorable, and it's harder to hold the image in my head.

Now, again, I'm not saying this is a bad thing, per se; I mean, what's 
wrong with getting the job done?  We don't all have to write with the 
flair of Marcel Proust, for heaven's sake.  Not every line needs to be 
memorable or quotable or clever.

But I think when he does have to slow down to describe a tableau, it 
does kind of bog down the story.  This is the kind of thing that 
Martin Phipps is wary of, only doing it when he needs to do it and 
then getting it out of the way.

In fact, both Phipps and Dvandom tend to tell their stories with a lot 
of dialogue, and that dialogue does tend to service the plot.  At the 
same time, Phipps is more likely to digress and gives us immediately 
accessible characterization.

Both Phipps and Dvandom have a tendency to start off a scene with a 
line of dialogue, to begin with it already in progress, in media res, 
and then to catch the reader up in the few lines following.  ASH # 76 
doesn't start with the teleconference briefing, but rather afterwards; 
the next scene starts with Essay already in the dress; the next, with 
a roll-call of the Rodriguez clan.  This certainly keeps the plot 
moving, and it does serve to emphasize the wedding scene, because the 
wedding scene does not start with action, but rather with a tableau.  
Good structural instincts all around, and that's one of the things 
that makes ASH enjoyable to read.  I don't think I'm enjoying it as 
much as someone who has been following it from day one, but I am 
enjoying it enough to keep reading it. :- )


There is one more thing I noticed about ASH # 76 that I couldn't find 
a way to work into all the above yammering, and so I'll finish off 
with it.  (See?  This is my _bad_ strucutral instinct.)

And this is a matter of point of view.  This first part is from the 

> Clara was an Ybarra, related on
> Sara's mother's side, but the massive quake that hit the Los Angeles area in
> 2013 had taken so many chunks out of the extended family structure that
> Essay's mother had ended up becoming just "Mama" to most of the kids who
> survived.

And the second starts the scene following:

>                *              *              *              *
> [March 18, 2026 - San Francisco, California Sector]
>      "Okay, we got five Rodriguezes, seven Ybarras, two Martinezes, and one
> Matsui," Tom ticked off the names on his list and compared them to the
> passengers strapped into the shuttle.  "Anyone else I don't know about
> supposed to show up at this pickup point?"  The one Japanese man was a bit of
> a surprise, but apparently the extended Rodriguez clan had "adopted" several
> orphaned kids after the quake, and weren't too picky about racial
> background.  There was more diversity among the Rodriguezes than there had
> been in his entire hometown growing up, if you ignored the college students.

Basically, the same information-- Mama Rodriguez adopted those 
orphaned by the quake-- is imparted twice and in quick succession.  

Well, for one thing, it reinforces the importance of it, and the 
almost mythical force-of-personality of Mama Rodriguez.  Secondly, it 
reminds us fairly early on that these two scenes are related, and that 
increases anticipation of the wedding to come.  So, again, clarity, 
plot, and structure all kinda come together.

It's also imparted in two different ways: in the first scene, the 
exposition is given from Sara's point of view and how she relates to 
the information, and in the second scene, it's how Tom (love that 
name) relates to the information.  Fancy-schmancy writing professors 
call this a limited-but-shifting-third-person point of view (or 
something along those lines).

To tell you the truth, it's not my favourite point-of-view.  You ever 
read a story where you know one character, and then the POV shifts to 
another character, and they meet, only since the second character 
hasn't met the first one the narration doesn't call him or her by 
their name, the name by which the reader already knows the character, 
but rather, by "the tall man in green" or some such nonsense?

I hate that!

Now, I'm happy to say that Dvandom doesn't do that.  (At least, not in 
this story, anyway.)  But that is why I hate that particular POV, 
perferring a single character's indirect third POV in a single 
character's story, and a omnipresent all-knowing third person in an 
ensemble.  The thing about using that second choice, the all-knowing 
narrator, is that it's more likely to produce clever and ornate turns 
of phrase and description.

If you narrate from a particular character's point of view, it's less 
likely, for example, that they will use words like "azure". :- )

And I think that might be something else that's lacking in the wedding 
tableau-- since he uses a character's POV indirectly in most other 
instances, the tableau lacks a point-of-view.  It feels kind of out-of-
place-- which, also, sets it apart, makes it more important.  So it 
could very well be a strucutral choice.

I dunno.  These are just some random thoughts of mine.  Take them for 
what they are.


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