Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair

"We solved every case we worked on. It's just that the solutions weren't always pretty. An explosion here, an inferno there, and in the end, we're left with a mountain of corpses, and, incidentally, a solution."--Kei, "The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair"


When science fiction writer A. Bertram Chandler visited Japan in the late 1970s, he had no idea that a stray comment would spark a multimedia science fiction franchise. When his hosts, including Haruka Takachiho of Crusher Joe fame, took Chandler to see a joshi (women's) wrestling match, the antics of Takachiho's assistants prompted Chandler to say, ""the two women in the ring may be the Beauty Pair, but those two with you ought to be called 'the Dirty Pair'." That stray comment sparked a novella that mixed Western pulp science fiction, Japanese joshi wrestling and idol singing, and a double-helping of chaos into what would be a classic raygun romance--if the Dirty Pair's infamy didn't keep scaring off potential suitors.

The Lovely Angels (don't ever call them the Dirty Pair to their faces) is the code name for a pair of young trouble consultants. Kei, the narrator for the stories, is a brash, boastful, and lively hothead lifted from the covers of the pulps. Her partner, Yuri, is a demure Japanese beauty that acts as the brake to Kei's recklessness--and the occasional focus of Kei's jealousy as well. Together, Kei and Yuri form a set of complementary opposites--and a psionic duo straight out of John W. Campbell's dreams. The resulting property damage, however, is straight out of a nightmare. In the best tradition of wrestling heels, the ensuing chaos is never quite their fault.

Like many Japanese stories, The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair wears its inspirations on its sleeve. From wrestling, the series gets the outfits, names such as Lucha and the WWWA ( World Welfare Works Association/World Women's Wrestling Association), Kei and Yuri's larger than life personalities, and their heelish yet sincere protests that the disasters in their wake are never their fault. The names Kei and Yuri are taken from the same assistants who entertained Chandler. From American science fiction pulps, the Dirty Pair steal liberally. Rayguns, heatguns, flying saucers, and Campbelline psionics feature prominently in the stories. Kei's hair and build is classic pulp cover-girl, while the interior art is a mix of 1940s Weird Tales and manga. Their adventures are the sort of trigger happy-detective story that filled the hero pulps. And, yes, that is a coeurl Kei and Yuri are riding on the cover, complete with the nickname "Black Destroyer"--and the ensuing special diet and property damage. The result is a strange East-meets-West version of Northwest Smith, if Northwest Smith and Yarol were replaced by sorority girls.

While the two novellas in The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair are standard and futuristic versions of crime tales, complete with the requisite twists and betrayals, Kei's narrative voice is the star of the show. Her larger-than-life exuberance practically drips from each word, even after translation into English. Some of this is due to Kei's constant wrestling-style self-promotion, but Dark Horse did a masterful job in translation. Few English-language science fiction stories--and almost no light novels translated since--have such a vivid, unrestrained, and selfish voice animating their words, much less one trying to style herself as a heartbreaker and a lifetaker to potential partners and rivals alike.

At the end, when the villains are arrested, all the worlds are wrecked, and the refugees resettled, the Dirty Pair novel always preserves its.pulpy sincerity, complete with the foreboding that the Lovely Angels will soon visit a new world.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Oklahoma Tradition

I've long said that instead of talking about science fiction and fantasy, we should instead be talking about science fictions and fantasies. Various mini-traditions are apparent, whether regional, such as John W. Campbell's New York coterie of writers and the Mormon writers of Utah, or by connecting lines of friendship and mentorship, such as the insufficiently celebrated mentor/protege line of Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, and Ray Bradbury. While different styles and perspectives gravitated around writers, editors, and regions, I had downplayed another pole around which writers cluster.

Fortunately, Bryce Beattie of StoryHack Magazine investigated one such group of writers:
And so the fiction writing theories I like best have their roots in this pulp era, which should be obvious to anyone who knows the online me (shameless self promotion.) There is one particular set of teachings that arose from that time I find most useful. For lack of a better phrase, I call it the Oklahoma Tradition. 
The first such teacher I became aware of was Dwight V. Swain. I was (and am) a fan of Randy Ingermanson’s writing instruction. In an article called “Writing the Perfect Scene” he mentioned Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” which has since become my favorite book on the craft of fiction. 
Dwight V. Swain was a pulp author, and he wrote dozens of published stories. Eventually, he was able to leverage that writing success and became a professor at the University of Oklahoma. 
Somehow, I came across Jim Butcher’s articles on writing. I liked him as an author, so I hoped he would have something valuable to say. The concepts he described were extremely familiar. A tiny bit of Googling, and low and behold, he went to the University of Oklahoma. 
At some point I decided I needed to know more where all these ideas came from, so I decided to do some digging.
Working back from articles by Butcher and other writers, Beattie discovered a teaching lineage stretching back to the 1940s and earlier, one whose alumni include Tony Hillerman and Louis L’Amour.

For more information on this formative group of Oklahoma professors and a taste of what they taught, check out the StoryHack blog.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Galaxy's Edge: The Reservist

They promised him one weekend a month. The House or Reason swore the 9th would never leave their gentle homeworld. But after Kublar, things changed for Sergeant Fetch and the Caledonian Reserve Legion Corps. Thrown into a meat grinder conflict in a desperate bid to hold the line, it doesn’t matter whether you’re reserve or active, only that you kill and survive.

The first book in the Galaxy's Edge series, Legionnaire, began as an attempt to bring back a little of that Star Wars magic in a form palatable to modern military science fiction and military veteran sensibilities. What Nick Cole and Jason Anspach delivered was science fiction's version of Black Hawk Down, a classic military science fiction novel worthy of mention alongside Starship Troopers and The Forever War. After completing the main series, Cole and Anspach opened up the Galaxy's Edge universe to their fellow writers with the Order of the Centurion series. While the tone of each novel varies from that set down by the first, Order of the Centurion (reviewed here), each new book delivered competent military science fiction action and heroism by some of the best military science fiction writers in independent science fiction.

Then came J. R. Handley's The Reservist.

Military science fiction--and military fiction in general--tends to fall into competence porn, or, in the case of farce, incompetence porn. Generally, the protagonist's leadership is sure, decisive, and unwavering, as are his troops. Incompetence, leadership failings, and, just as often, gross moral failings are reserved for the inevitable conflict between the protagonist and his risk-adverse superiors. What does not get shown is the forging process by which a newly promoted NCO or officer, often green and squirrelly, matures into a proper leader worthy of his position. That involves a lot of mistakes, counseling, and, more often that not, a "Come to Jesus" meeting or two. In garrison, there's time and space to learn the ropes in relative safety--for the leader and his troops. But on the battlefield, where dead leejs mean instant promotion, the learning process becomes a crucible.

That's the situation the newly-minted Lieutenant "Fetch" Ocampo finds himself in after a mine and an infiltrator leaves the former sergeant as the most senior legionnaire of Rage Company. He has to adapt to his new position as an officer in the middle of the latest Legion meatgrinder fueled by the Mid Core Rebellion's treachery. But the futuristic version of Isandlwana forces Fetch to come to grips with his shortcomings as a leader elevated above his current capabilities, and each growing pain threatens to cost lives.

It's a far different spin on a reservist's duty than the tired-out weekend warrior tropes thrown at the reserves. And Fetch's pain comes raw, from the first shot of whiskey at a legionnaire's dive bar to the slow whittling down of Rage Company on its way to its last stand. Faith is a solace here, a rarity in science fiction, and it is given the same authenticity seen in Civil War battlefield letters. In general, Handley avoids the common war story tropes cemented by decades of World War Two and Vietnam stories, and delivers a story that's personal and authentic, even to the ear of an extremely real-echelon commo puke.

The result is that Handley has given Galaxy's Edge its second entry into the military science fiction canon.

Currently, The Reservist is available only through Audible, or in ebook for Galaxy's Edge Insiders. A paperback version is on its way, as soon as the exclusivity window with Audible passes.