Storytelling: The Betrayer

Diane Duane-0The punchline is that I was suddenly struck by how modern fiction seems to have conditioned me to expect an apparent White Hat to secretly be a Black Hat. The question I find myself asking now is whether fiction has actually changed (and if so why) or is it just me? The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to think modern fiction has changed.

If so, does that reflect a modern sensibility about people today? Does the rise of the modern anti-hero bring with it the idea of the betrayer? Do we expect so little of people anymore that our heroes need to be dirty and double-agents seem matter of course?

This all started with Diane Duane

boxes of books

Hello, old friends!

I’ve been going through my library and doing what is in many cases one last re-read of books I’ve carted from place to place for decades. Many of my older books have lived with me in six different domiciles. (One of the big pains of moving is boxing up all those books. Some never make it out of the boxes before I’ve moved again.)

I’ve learned that saving interesting web links for later often means I never get back to them because new interesting links come along every day. The availability of content these days is overwhelming!

So I’ve been asking myself: Self, why do we have such a large library of books, CDs, DVDs? Is this sheer collectorism and acquisitiveness? Clothes, shoes, jewelry, these things have never caught my eye (I haven’t even worn a watch in several decades).

shelf of DVDs

One of five shelves!

But books and comics, yes! And then CDs came along — another thing to collect! (We were fairly poor growing up, so I never had the scratch to collect vinyl albums, eight-tracks, or cassettes.)

It got worse when you could buy movies — it wasn’t too bad through the VHS era, but I probably have well over 2,000 DVDs. (Those $4.99 bins are a never-ending source of, “Oh, this! Well, for five bucks, yeah, sure!”)

[Which explains why I actually own copies of Event Horizon, Bedazzled, Swordfish, and Ghosts of Mars. For only five bucks? You betcha! For a number of reasons!]

The point is, that while I have no plans to move, I have been thinking of reducing all that freight. For example, why do I still own books about programming in C and C++? I’ll never use those languages again; I’m not even a “working programmer” anymore (and any hobby programming I do absolutely won’t include those increasing ancient languages).

Z80 book

Remember Steve Ciarcia and his great hardware hobby books and articles?

Worse, I have books on programming the Z80 and 6502!

Or had. To come back from the above tangent, I’m going through my book and video library and culling the herd for donations to my local library. Last year I brought them five boxes of books along with a selection of “why do I even own this?” DVDs.

And I’m just getting started. Most of what I’ve given them so far is the obviously worthless-to-me-but-maybe-valuable-to-someone-else stuff, a lot of it related to computer technology. What a bibliophile most wants for their discards is that they find love elsewhere. Trashing (let alone burning) books is a heart-breaking thing for us.

[If I could change one event in history, I believe it would be to prevent the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. Or at least sneak in with a digital scanner and preserve those works.]

C Pitfalls book

There were so many!

I’d considered giving stuff away to people I knew would appreciate them (which I have done some of), but then it occurred to me that, as library books, perhaps many might benefit from them. And libraries do share their catalogs, so maybe somewhere out there is someone who really needs a book about the 6502 or the pitfalls of C programming.

I’d like to believe that, and library donations at least allow that belief.

And while I’m not at all interested in re-reading old programming books, I just have to re-read the science fiction stories one more time before I send them out into the world to fare for themselves (and hopefully find love).

At the moment I’m going through boxes of books not unpacked since I moved into this condo in 2003. Which means I haven’t read any of them in at least 12 years (in some cases longer — some haven’t been unboxed in maybe twice that long).

My recent posts about Larry Niven’s Ringworld and John Varley’s books both sprang from this journey to re-visit old friends.


I made a scale-sized model of Ringworld using that ray-tracing software that I’ve mentioned before (POV-Ray). [Click for wallpaper-sized version.]

So, to bring this jam home, I was re-reading the first three of Diane Duane’s Young Wizards novels.

Serious Star Trek fans (serious enough to buy the published fan fiction novels) are familiar with Duane. She has nearly a dozen original Trek novels, and they are some of the best of breed.

Spock's World[Fan fiction, to my eye, varies from “script-worthy” to “embarrassing” with the worthy being scant wheat amid a whole lotta chaff — Sturgeon’s Revelation was never more appropriate or accurate. I have the first 100 TOS novels, and I’m not sure I’m up to re-reading them all — some of them make me feel like I’m in someone’s semi-sexual fantasies about Spock or Kirk.]

For all her Star Trek work, Diane Duane also works in the fantasy genre, and she’s done a lot of young adult science fiction. Her Young Wizards series is both fantasy (hello: wizards!) and young adult.

And as young adult fiction, the three I read were pretty good. Well, the first two were, anyway. She lost me on the third one (High Wizardry) so badly it became one of those let’s-just-get-through-this reads.  Not bad enough to stop reading, but not engaging at all.

Deep Wizardry

Loved this one!

Which surprised me considering the second one (Deep Wizardry) touched me… well, I just have to say “deeply.” The first one (So You Want to Be a Wizard) was a good read (for a young adult novel) that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I won’t describe the books; you can read the linked Wikipedia pages for that. I will say this: the second book involves whales. Wizard whales. The two protagonists spend much of the book transformed into whales (for important reasons). And all that whale stuff really sang to me and really moved me.

And it’s not just that I like whales. I like computers, too, and the third book centers on computers just as the second centers on whales. But the third one left me stone cold and waiting for the end. I think part of the problem was that Duane seemed to break her own rules.

High Wizardry

This one not so much.

Wizards are picked “by the universe” and are fairly rare. And while you can “copy” a person, that copy lacks an essential spark (call it a soul). That latter rule is in the third book, and yet Duane breaks both rules in a big way in service of the third book’s plot.

I think another problem is that the scope of the story just got out of hand. My canonical reference there is a novel Isaac Asimov‘s wife penned as J.O. Jepperson (her maiden name). By the end of the novel we have intelligent galaxies talking to each other. That’s just too big (and silly) for me. High Wizardry, likewise, expands so far beyond Duane’s original scope that it doesn’t work for me.

And, finally, I think maybe — in centering on computers — Duane was outside her comfort zone. I’ve worked with computers all my adult life, and her writing regarding them felt clumsy and inorganic. (That could obviously just be me.)

So You Want to Be a Wizard

The first one was good.

To top it all off, I didn’t really like — or more importantly, respect — the main character (the younger sister of the main character in the first two books). It was weird being so moved by the second book and so WTF? by the third.

Which at long last brings me to my point.

During all three novels (as well as in the Poul Anderson Time Patrol stories I’m reading now), several times a secondary character is presented that set my “antenna” a-twitching. “Ah, ha!” I said to myself, “This character seems good and yet a bit off. I bet that’s a false front!”

Nope. The characters were, in fact, good. There never came the expected betrayal. I suddenly realized I’d lost my trust in characters. I seem to be expecting the double-agent, the Judas, the betrayer. Part of modern storytelling seems to involve the game of trying to guess who that hidden enemy is.

The Shield of Time

Question of the moment: Is the Shalten character actually a White Hat? (Guess: Probably.)

It got me thinking about how common that meme has gotten in stories today, especially in episodic TV. It’s obviously not a new meme — I mentioned Judas. But has it gotten more prevalent? Has it become an expected part of stories?

My reaction to Duane’s and Anderson’s stories suggest maybe so. (Or have I just gotten paranoid in my dotage?) Some of those Time Patrol stories go back to the 1950s. The first two Duane books are from the 1980s (the third from 1990 — which is 25 years ago).

And what connection might this have with the rise of the modern anti-hero, the besmirched and dirty, get-it-done-by-any-means operator who skates outside the law in the name of justice (hence making mockery of the rule of law and erasing the line between good and bad).

We now have as heroes outright criminals! Consider Dexter (a “good” serial killer), Weeds (marijuana-dealing single mom), or the almost canonical Breaking Bad (meth maker and dealer). The TV series Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder offer morally reprehensible people in almost all the character slots.

We’ve come a long way from the “Crime does not pay!” days.


I have to admit: it was a clever and interesting (and funny) show that evolved in fascinating ways during its run. Each season seemed to take it in a new direction.

Of course, those days were also characterized by a serious lack of reality in our stories. We seemed to depict life more as we idealized it than it really was. Perhaps this is all a reaction to that lack of realism. Perhaps the pendulum can’t help but swing past the center mark.

[Does this mean that someday in the future, when someone is shot on TV they will merely clutch their stomach, groan, and fall down? You know, someone ought to do a story like that just for fun.]

The bottom of the page approaches, and it’s time for some lunch and to return to the last of my Time Patrol stories.

Where I left off, non-anti-hero (that is: hero) Manse Everard has completed a mission and is about to return to one of those characters that set my antenna twitching. Even Manse thinks he’s a bit weird.

Odds on whether he’s a secret villain or just odd because he comes from a distant time? I’ll answer that in the comments once I finish the book (and send it off the the Library).

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “Storytelling: The Betrayer

  • rung2diotimasladder

    While we don’t have much of a movie collection, we do have the books (I really can’t count them, but we estimated over 2000). And yes, after a while it can become this oppressive thing if you have to move. I know we will never move, and I know this because of the books. I had to box all of them up and carry each box out to the moving pod. I don’t think I could do that again. Especially since when we arrived, we found the books had escaped their boxes and we had a spectacular pile to clean up.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh, wow. The only thing worse than having to lug boxes of books would be having to lug the books by themselves. I can just see it, and I sympathize! How do you guys handle bookshelves? Is that also part of the difficultly?

      For most of the places I’ve lived, I’ve installed those rails you screw to the wall and mount board-supporting brackets on. I like the flexibility those allow. Short shelves for paperbacks, tall shelves for the big guys, and you can stagger them interestingly so everything isn’t library-shelf rectangular and regular.

      But if you move… then you get to decide whether to leave what is now part of the wall for the next tenant, or take them down. (And if you take them down, do you patch the screw holes, or leave that for the next tenant.) And if you leave them, you have to buy them all over again. Plus, do you leave just the rails? The rails and the brackets? Or the whole thing? (I’ve been using this kind of shelving since high school, so I’ve had time to try all the above.)

      On the other hand, “real” bookshelves are furniture in their own right, so you have style issues, big bulk issues, and I-can’t-quite-fit-these-books-into-that-shelf issues. (If I’d known how much trouble — on so many levels — books were going to be, I’d have opted to be a jock in high school. (No, not really.))

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Well, my husband does a lot of wood working, so in our old house, he built custom shelves. (Yeah, awesome, I know.) This time around we just went to Ikea and got seven enormous shelves with add-ons at the top. These do screw into the walls and I imagine if we were to move, we’d probably leave the shelves in. I remember putting the shelves together was fairly easy, but I don’t know about taking them down. Plus, they’re really really huge. I can’t reach the shelf second from the top. Who knows if they’d fit in another house. These just so happened to fit perfectly—they look like they were custom made. It’s kind of astonishing how well they fit the wall…there’s only less than half an inch of space between the countertop in the kitchen and the shelves.

        My husband made some shelves in his office and bought three stand alone shelves. He also made me a painting easel a while back. I used that for a while, then I stopped painting. So he turned that into a bookshelf which can convert back to an easel at any time by simply unscrewing the shelves. Pretty awesome!

        So yeah, my solution is just: “Hey Boo, you think you could make this?”

        Still, I don’t think we’ll be moving any time soon. We put so much work into this house, our own sweat and blood…so we’re kind of attached. I do like the idea of paring down on junk. (Books are entirely off-limits. My husband would flip out even if I got rid of some crappy books.) However, getting myself motivated to get rid of stuff is another story.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The ability to work with wood and make things is very useful, isn’t it! Your hubby sounds like he’s on a higher level with it than I am. I did make a few good bookshelves and a couple of dog houses in my younger days. When I was a kid, my dad had a wood shop in the basement, which is where I learned what little I know about it. I used to love just planing down a chuck of wood and making all those neat curly wood shavings! 🙂

        It’s only in my dotage that I’m willing to part with those books and things. One reaches a point where one realizes there’s really just not enough time left to see and read them all, plus much of their potential use belongs in my past. Many of the DVDs I own were bought with the intent of being able to share them or to reference given scenes during film discussions. (The books more just because I love books.)

        These days the sharing can take place on the blog, and being able to quickly check out a given scene or grab a frame still applies, so I’ll probably hang on to more DVDs than not. (I could donate hundreds and still have more than enough to write or talk about!)

        But in my younger days you’d have had to pry them from my cold, dead hands! That’s probably going to remain true for the ones I really love. Some friends you just have to keep close no matter any downsides!

  • reocochran

    I heard a librarian at our local library say they take donations, some they will put on the shelves, others may be sold at our annual May book and media fundraiser for the library. It makes me feel better to have certain books and films, but didn’t have the same amount of space that you do, so had to give or sell a lot of my collection away. I admire your choices and variety, too. Take care and thanks for the finger crossing, W.S.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, I’m hoping my donations will either end up on the shelves (I know a lot of the SF and DVDs will) or be cataloged and archived just in case someone wants that book. The idea of a book sale hadn’t occurred to me, but that works too. My biggest concern is that they’ll just toss some of the obscure stuff. (But at least I won’t have to see it or be part of it!)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Update: Yep, as expected, Shalten is a White Hat. Just a bit odd.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Watching last week’s shows, the latest episode of Constantine ended on a note that suggests a major White Hat may be a covert Black Hat. And we hear a prediction that John will be betrayed by someone close to him.

    The meme persists!

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