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Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]
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Fiction and Excerpts [3]

A Pair of Magical Shoes: Variations on “Cinderella”

What do you do when you find yourself downtrodden, turned into a servant by trusted family members, dressed in mud and rags, without, apparently, a friend in the world? Get some magical footwear—and go dancing.

It’s the sort of tale that could easily seize a world. And for the most part, has.

[Social climbing in elegant footwear]

Disney’s Post-War Constraints: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

Walt Disney spent the years after World War II scrambling to recover. Most of his pre-war films had lost money, and World War II had been a particularly hard financial blow for the studio, which survived only by making training films and propaganda shorts featuring Donald Duck. Disney, always ambitious, wanted far more than that: a return, if possible, to the glory days of Pinocchio. Instead, he found himself cobbling together anthologies of cartoon shorts, releasing six between the full length features Bambi and Cinderella.

The last of these was The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It is, to put it kindly, mixed.

[Or, to put it less kindly, one of the weakest parts of the Disney canon.]

The Challenge of Realistic Animation: Disney’s Bambi

Oh, this film.

This film.

Wait. I can do this. I can put together a reasonable, thoughtful blog post on Walt Disney’s Bambi without interrupting the post every few paragraphs with a KILL THUMPER ALREADY, right? I can put aside my feelings about the jarring pacing and tone of the film and the supposedly romantic twitterpating stuff and write some lovely, touching (KILL THUMPER) words about what even I have to admit is a lovely ice scene involving a bunny and an adorable deer on ice, and comment on the great forest fire bit (KILL THUMPER) and put the film into its historic context, with a few words comparing the film to the book. I can do this. I can.

I think.

[Maybe.]

Death and Survival: Felix Salten’s Bambi: A Life in the Woods

In his lifetime, author Felix Salten straddled many worlds: as a hanger on to Hapsburg courts, a member of various Viennese literary circles, the author himself of what is reportedly one of the most depressing pornographic novels ever written (tracking down a reliable English translation is tricky), an occasional political activist, and a fierce Zionist. For financial reasons, he was barely able to attend school, much less enter a university program, but he considered himself an intellectual. He loved Vienna, but saved his deepest love for Austria’s mountains and forests, becoming an avid hiker and cyclist.

All of these blended together in his masterpiece, Bambi: A Life in the Woods, a deceptively simple story about a deer named Bambi and the animals he meets in the forest.

[A book about death, defeat, and the slow return of spring. Not recommended for readers who are even slightly depressed. Very spoilery.]

Smoking and Heroism: Disney’s Pinocchio

Buoyed by the success of his first full length animated film, Snow White, Walt Disney decided to plunge ahead with more animated films, despite (justified) concerns about their expense and continued profitability. Far from worrying about tiny issues like budgets—at least at this point—the new movies, he decided, would not merely follow Snow White’s success and innovative filming techniques, but be even more innovative and lavishly detailed. Starting with Pinocchio.

[Heavy smoking and an adorable kitten.]

Arrested for Puppet Assault: Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio

Italian author Carlo Collodi had gained a minor name for himself as a satirist and translator of fairy tales when he was asked to write a serial novel for children. It was a rather odd choice: Collodi, bitter and angry over Italian politics—he fought in two different independence wars, but was unhappy with the resulting unified government, a feeling many of his fellow citizens shared—was perhaps not the first person most would have chosen to write an adorable, child-friendly book, especially since many of the fairy tales he had translated were those aimed at an adult audience. But he needed either the money, or the distraction, or both, and sat down to write a quick story about a puppet.

Somewhere along the way—that is, by page two—it turned into a the sort of story that demonstrated just why Collodi was not the sort of person anyone would hire to write an adorable, child-friendly book, but would hire to write the sort of tale where everyone hits each other a lot, suffers a lot, and dies horribly. With the occasional “Oh, right, I need a moral message for the kiddies.”

[If you hate donkeys, then guys, do I have a book for you. Also, mean things done to puppets.]

It All Started with a Fairy Tale: Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

By the early 1930s Walt Disney faced a dilemma: his popular cartoon shorts about Mickey Mouse were starting to lose money. His competitors could afford to produce cartoons at a loss as lead-ins to their live action films; Disney, who did not have a movie studio, could not.

But he had another idea: he could produce a full-length film of his own. Only, instead of making a live action film, he could produce a full-length cartoon feature, running, say, for about 88 minutes. Good length. Sure, it might cost as much as $500,000. (Cue gasps.) He would need 300 artists. It had never been done before.

It’s safe to say that very few people thought this was a good idea. And that $500,000 turned out to be a very wrong estimate. It’s also very safe to say that this idea is why we have the entertainment megacorporation of Disney as it exists today.

[The very first Disney princess, and the most heartwarming element of the film: a little tortoise.]

Introducing the Disney Read-Watch: A Grimm Snow White

Welcome to the Disney Read-Watch, in which we’ll be reading the texts that inspired classic Disney films, then watching the films. Today we’re starting with the prose story of Disney’s very first feature-length film: Snow White, by the Brothers Grimm.

You know the story, right? Girl flees evil stepmother for a life of unending housework with seven little men before falling over from an overconsumption of apples and placed in a coffin until finally a prince swings by to rescue her from all this crap.

Or do you?

[In which I proceed to destroy more childhoods. Spoilery for a story published way back in the early 19th century.]

A Bleak and Desperate Future: Monica Hughes’ Invitation to the Game

In previous books, Monica Hughes had given quick side looks at a badly overpopulated, dreary, desperate world. In Invitation to the Game, she takes us to that world, and it’s even bleaker and more desperate than it sounded at first glance.

So desperate, that when people get even a hint of something else—say, a mysterious, high risk game taking place in another location—they will do anything to enter it. Anything.

[Including just possibly giving up technology for a more low-tech, primitive culture. I know you’re shocked. Spoilery.]

Keeping Someone Else’s Promise: The Promise

Sandwriter was enough of a success that four years later, Monica Hughes returned with a sequel, The Promise. Antia and Jodril have now escaped the desert (yay) and are living a privileged, luxurious life in the royal palace of Malan, ruling the twin continents of Kamalant and Komilant. So that’s nice.

Alas, their marriage is not going all that well, since in the intervening eleven years, Antia has discovered that when she and Jodril wrote their names in the sand at the end of the last book, they were not, as she had fondly thought, just engaging in some romantic sand art to seal their bond, but actually promising to send their first born daughter, Rania, to the Sandwriter, as soon as the girl turns ten—to live as a hermit in the desert for the rest of her life.

And Jodril is insisting they go along with this, because, they made a promise.

Wait. WHAT?

[Do you have to keep a promise that you weren’t aware that you were making?]

A Spoiled Princess in an Unspoiled Desert: Sandwriter

For the most part, Monica Hughes’ work for young adults had focused on science fiction. In 1985, however, she tried something different: Sandwriter, a fantasy partly inspired by her early life in Egypt, partly inspired by her ongoing concerns about the environment.

As a princess and heir to two kingdoms, each of which spans a continent, Antia has grown up in luxury, ignorance, isolation and above all, boredom. She is not quite bored enough, however, to jump at the chance to spend several months on the desert island of Roshan, something she regards as a punishment since, as she immediately tells her aunt—and, more regrettably, Lady Sofi, the woman extending the invitation—that Roshan is nothing but desert and dirt and flies. And that’s the nicer part.

[In which everyone and everything except for the useful oil ends up getting exploited. Also, an annoyingly realistic princess. Spoilers.]

Telepaths Versus Evil Computers: The Dream Catcher

In Monica Hughes’ The Dream Catcher, fourteen year old Ruth lives in what many people would consider a utopia: ArkThree, a post-apocalyptic society of telepaths and healers who live in nearly perfect harmony, sharing work and joy alike, with almost no conflict.

If this sounds a bit, well, idealistic, or even questionable: no, it’s real. These are telepaths, who find that joining their minds together in a great Web brings them happiness and security—and that they can only merge their minds if they remain largely conflict free. Thus, a discipline of pacifism and of sharing the most unpleasant tasks, with even the leaders having to take a turn at cleaning out the latrines now and again. With plenty of leisure time.

But Ruth is unhappy.

[Just wait until she finds out about the evil computer.]

You Mean Computers in Spines Aren’t A Great Idea? Devil on my Back

Monica Hughes’ Devil on my Back opens on a terrifying scene of five boys about to be hooked up to computers. The terror of this scene isn’t the computers, or the horrible food they are served directly before this (bad scrambled eggs and nearly inedible soy toast) but the people around them: slaves with horrible scars from surgically implanted sockets. The boys are thankful that they aren’t women who only think about worthless things.

And oh, yes, if they fail to access knowledge through their own surgically implanted sockets, their memories will be wiped and they will be turned into slaves. By page five, that happens to one of them. By page seven, another.

[This is the cheerful part!]

An Increasing Hatred of Science: Space Trap

“It’s progress,” said Frank definitively. “And you can’t stop progress.”

At a certain point in her life and career, Monica Hughes most definitely became interested in stopping progress—or at least, persuading many of us that progress was not a great idea. From exploring initial concerns of overpopulation, exploitation, and resource depletion, but maintaining hope that people could continue to find joy in such places, her novels gradually became calls to return to less technology based, smaller societies. (Often, I must add, by the happy expedient of just happening to find a nice unpopulated planet with plenty of oxygen and water and soil.) Space Trap, though focused largely on aliens, is one of her novels exploring that attitude shift.

[Also, moral questions about zoos.]

Exploiting Regression: The Isis Pedlar

The Isis Pedlar, the third book in Monica Hughes’ Isis trilogy, starts not on Isis as you might expect, but rather in deep space, where Irish conman Mike and his long suffering teenage daughter and partial enabler Moira are in trouble. Again. In this case fairly serious trouble: the hyperdrive on their spaceship has died, again, and Mike’s major response to this is to express faith in his daughter, which is nice, and drink. A lot. Because, of course, Irish.

Somewhat fortunately for them, Moira realizes that they are near a planet and its colony and may be able to make repairs and get supplies. Less fortunately for everyone, this planet is Isis.

[In which I scream out loud at a book while reading it. In an enraged way.]

Rejecting Technology for Taboo: The Guardian of Isis

Four generations—or at least sixty years—have passed on Isis since The Keeper of the Isis Light. For the colony that mutually rejected Olwen, the Keeper, and her AI Guardian years ago, however, things have not been going all that well. The colony is still trapped in the same valley, and, probably because this is a Monica Hughes book, is starting to run short on food.

Far worse, apparently in reaction to the events in the previous book, the colonists have deliberately gone backwards. They’ve discarded technology (including rather important elements like water gauges to track just how high the lake is getting), turned Guardian and Olwen into mythological figures to be worshipped instead of approached for technological assistance, discarded literacy, and added elements like “taboo” and sexism. I knew rejecting Olwen was going to be a bad thing, but this bad? Harsh.

See what your meddling led to, Guardian of Isis?

[A sequel that doesn’t quite live up to its introduction. Spoilery.]

Pirates, Poisoning and Still More Singing: Galavant Wraps Its First Season

So, it’s been a few weeks since ABC’s Galavant first marched across our screens, singing. Now that the first, short season is over, how did it do?

Well, the middle was muddled. The singing remained questionable. Many of the jokes were complete misses. But in the end, I gotta say, this show started singing its way into my heart—and not just because it finally gave me something I’ve longed to see in Downton Abbey from the very first season.

But we’ll get there.

[Pirates, monks, dungeons and tap dancing your way to a botched assassination. Mildly spoilery.]

A Question of Humanity: Keeper of the Isis Light

Depending upon what calendar you use, Olwen is either ten (Isis years) or sixteen (Earth years.) She thinks and remembers in Isis years, however, so let’s go with that. Despite this very young age, she actually has a fairly important, responsible job: transmitting various reports from the planet she lives on back to Earth.

She does this not because she is qualified, exactly, but because everyone else on the planet is either dead, unable to speak in words, or a not-completely trusted AI. And because, for various reasons, she can. That ability—well, strangeness, really—is what makes her The Keeper of the Isis Light.

[How much can you be changed, and still stay human? Mildly spoilery.]