Novel – The Wiz Biz

…and since I seem to be reviewing books in reverse order from when I read and took notes on them, today’s review will be The Wiz Biz by Rick Cook… an omnibus of Wizard’s Bane and The Wizardry Compiled and another book that spent some time in the Baen Free Library but isn’t there anymore.

(And, since it’s an omnibus, prepare for a long review.)

The first book is a story about a human computer wiz (named Walter Irving “Wiz” Zumwalt) who gets summoned into a fantasy land where the good guys are losing… he’s destined to be the hero, despite everyone (including him) thinking that he was summoned by mistake.

Eventually, he realizes that magic is kind of like programming and it becomes clear to the readers that what allows him to win is a bit more than that. While his programming knowledge is technically what allows him to win, what really makes him the hero is that he’s an Outside-Context Problem to the villains who, until now, were inexorably winning the war.

It is a classic 80s “male geek becomes a hero” story, and the first volume doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test as far as I can remember, but it does pass the Sexy Lamp Test (at least one female character who’s important enough to the story that you couldn’t replace her with a sexy lamp bearing a post-it note), so it’s more a matter of demographics than bad writing. (There are at least half a dozen female characters who have meaningful conversations and are crucial to the story, but the main character, who happens to be male, is so central to the story that it’s hard to find any scenes where people talk without him coming up, female or otherwise. It’s just that kind of story.)

The story also has an interesting approach to the interaction between the hero and Moira, the lead female: It flat-out lampshades the clichés. He’s attracted to her because the wizard who gave his life to summon him cast an infatuation spell and he comes right out and says she’s not his usual type (he prefers willowy blondes). Not only does she not like him for most of the story, she has every right to that view because he’s as likely to get them both killed as an unattended toddler. Worse, because he’s an adult male, he’s used to being competent and that makes him even more of a liability.

As I mentioned earlier, his “secret power” is that he’s a walking Outside-Context Problem, so I’d like to go a little more into that.

First, he’s such an unexpected thing that the bad guys assume their future-scrying must be on the fritz. Beyond that, much of the driving conflict revolves around him struggling to recognize that he actually is relevant and how so, rather than just possibly being a misfire of the summoning.

Second, the story likes to draw parallels between computer hackers and wizards and, more narrowly, the secret of his success is simple: All the other wizards are programming raw machine code and a good wizard is someone who can do so without accidentally corrupting or deleting themself. On the other hand, his post-secondary education taught him how to think like a computer scientist. (Something he finally realizes two thirds of the way through the first book.)

Like most good novels (and like far too few pieces of fanfiction), it does a good job of combining sections where a lot happens in a short amount of time with sections where a lot of time is glossed over in very little prose, and doing it without the reader getting confused.

…and, like George O. Scott’s Venus Equilateral (another omnibus I highly recommend), this is a story where, once the character realizes his role, you get a strong sense that the author has real-life experience. George O. Scott was a radio engineer, and Rick Cook clearly has training in the kinds of low-level programming Wiz gets up to. That in and of itself is fascinating and it’s the essence of one of the meanings of the phrase “write what you know”.

I have high-level programming experience, but it still would have taken me some thought and research to come up with this. We’re just so used to modern processor architectures being boring and same-y… even compared to what actually existed around the middle of the 20th century. (Even the stuff that still exists is likely to surprise higher-level programmers who didn’t encounter alternatives at school, such as AVR chips using a modified Harvard architecture rather than a Von Neumann one.)

…of course, reveals never go well with technology-like things, and, when he demonstrates his first magic program, it has a bug that results in just about every bad thing that could happen without the magic going truly out of control. (It destroys his progress with the female lead, alerts the enemy to their position, gets orders issued to have their little sanctuary burnt to the ground, etc.)

…but, at the same time, it’s also used to explore his motivations and bring about character development before he even realizes the magnitude of his screw-up, and, again, it’s told from that delightful perspective of interpreting what’s going on through the lens of computing before it became ubiquitous.

There’s also a recurring theme of his approach to programming being so alien that, when perfectly reasonable assumptions are made about what a magic user is, it leads people to the wrong conclusions about Wiz… especially the bad guys.

The secret to a good fantasy crossover is to ensure that your “modern” character isn’t any smarter (or even necessarily as smart as) the natives, but has knowledge or life experience that provides a truly unorthodox solution to the problems without making the natives feel incompetent.

I also like the irony in tweaking the old “hero rescues the girl” trope by having the mass of bad guy henchmen take Moira by surprise and capture her specifically because she’s the biggest threat as a magic-user, so she obviously must be the hero. (and leave Wiz to become the hero because he has no magical aptitude they can sense at all.)

Finally, sometimes formula exists for a reason, but a good author will always find ways to play that to their advantage. I got a real kick out of how, at the point where a movie would have something like a training montage, Wiz has his “I’m not going to take it any more” moment and discovers the local equivalent to energy drinks. (Vile stuff that tastes like coffee you could stand a spoon up in and works the same.) What could be more fitting for a programmer? 😛

…which brings me to one of the things I find most personally noteworthy about the story… how it feels.

I’m not sure if it has a proper name, but there’s an atmosphere that I’ve felt from various Interactive Fiction (text adventure) games and Legend Entertainment games I sampled, as well as from amateur fiction in subcultures that originated on Usenet and wound up on sites like Sapphire’s Place and The Transformation Story Archive. As far as I can intuit, what I’m picking up on is the ambient feel of 1980s and early 1990s college/university geek culture which got flooded out by the original Eternal September.

Some of the plot elements I’ve described feel familiar to 80s movies, but this goes beyond that and I think it has to do with prose being better at communicating certain elements to someone who didn’t live through them.

(Speaking of which, I’d appreciate any suggestions for how to find more of it in an efficient way, given that I’m a little too young to have experienced it firsthand.)

Now, before I move onto the second volume, Wizardry Compiled, I’d like to touch on something that is best explored across both books together: How they handle female characters.

I did say that it fails the Bechdel test for not having a scene where two females talk to each other without Wiz coming up but, despite that, it has a nice amount of depth for the type of story it is.

For example, there’s a scene where Wiz encounters a fleeing caravan of Fae refugees and it’s a conversation with a brownie mother that makes him realize that he’s unintentionally become a peddler of horrible weapons… but that’s just one scene. Let’s talk Moira.

As I mentioned, Moira is the love interest who starts out hating Wiz, but there’s a very nicely couched reveal involved. It turns out that she doesn’t just resent Wiz for the obvious reason, but also for deeper reasons that have to do with her own past. (And I like how it lampshades that pattern: There’s actually a scene where Wiz has to keep shooting down her excuses until, finally, she has to admit the real reason just as much to herself as to him.)

Beyond that, she’s also integral to the second book, which is structured into two independent stories: One following Wiz, who’s out in the world and uncontactable, and one following those back in the capital, including Moira, who takes a leap into the unknown to visit our world and hire more programmers. (A part of her arc involving her dissatisfaction at now living in the shadow of the man who is revolutionizing magic.)

…yeah. The first arc, originally published as Wizard’s Bane, is what most people would write and call things done. He learns how to do magic like a programmer, defeats the bad guys, gets the girl, decides to stick around, and is set on a path to revolutionize the world. The second book is all about how “happily ever after” isn’t so simple.

(And the conversation which allows the second volume to pass the Bechdel test is thematically related, with Moira helping one of the hired programmers, Judith, come to terms with the loss of her childhood fantasies about dragons.)

The Wizardry Compiled, is all the stuff that would normally be boiled down into a mere epilogue. It takes place two years later and covers Wiz training wizards to think like programmers when teaching was never his strength, navigating the politics of the wizarding hierarchy when politics is even less so, overcoming the tendency to neglect everything else for his work before he loses Moira, and Moira actually making what is effectively first contact between the fantasy setting and our world and importing more programmers to help with what he started, all while a conspiracy festers between good guys and bad guys to preserve the status quo and prevent their own obsolescence.

It’s dedicating an entire book to this “epilogue fodder” which takes the story from merely “good with some great scenes surrounding the invention of a magic toolchain” to “classic and legendary” in my eyes. In fact, the first chapter of it feels sort of like an epilogue that realized it had more to say.

It begins with a very nicely chosen quote, and continues to introduce the chapters with good quotes throughout:

You can always tell a really good idea by the enemies it makes

programmers’ axiom

Like the first book, it continues the theme that the biggest hazard of magic is unintended side-effects but, unlike the first, this one has the unintended side-effects stem from unintended ways that humans will intentionally use what Wiz has given them, rather than what the “computer” will do with what humans ask.

In essence, it’s shifted from bugs in the code that is magic to bugs in the end users who run the code that is knowledge. The first book touched on that in the form of the Black League (ie. villains) but now it’s focused on the casual cruelty of ordinary humans against those not of their tribe.

In keeping with the style, it makes use of the same out-of-the-box wit as the first volume, with moments like Wiz surviving a death trap because “even death traps need regular maintenance”, a fire-breathing dragon accidentally giving itself steam burns, flawed magic code being literally buggy, and a different bit with a dragon which reminds me of a scene in the 1996 Steve Martin movie, Sgt. Bilko.

The best part, in my opinion, is the part of the second book beginning about half-way through when they hire more programmers from our world. Aside from that being entertaining in itself, something about the mindset required for writing them made the cuts back to Wiz significantly punchier.

It’s a shame that Rick Cook didn’t fully grasp what he had though. The sequels to these two volumes feel too much like cargo cult copies of the first two… similar, but with an unsatisfying shallowness to them and focused more on the programmer culture references and less on the deeper technical and social commonalities between magic/wizards and programming/silicon valley.

I think it’s that he got so into the appeal of the latter half of the second book that he overcompensated and jettisoned the deeper aspects that made the first book work and made the second one an even better balance. Even the second half of the second book feels like it’s toeing the line on that “too much shallow humour” front. (I also noticed the second book starting to show hints of the “shallow humour and action starting to crowd out deeper elements, which get squashed into the end” pattern I vaguely remember observing in the later books.)

Still, both volumes in The Wiz Biz are definitely excellent and I don’t want to fault them just because I’m able to see room for improvement. (It’d be a pretty sad existence if I couldn’t just relax and enjoy things.) It’s just that, if you do try to analyze the experience, you can see how the first book was more serious, while the second book slides from where the first book left off, to an optimal balance of deep insight and shallow humour, then fails to settle there and starts to hint at what the sequels would be before it ends.

Get the first two, but don’t get the later ones. They’ll feel like a disappointment.

That said, people do say to try to get the two books separately if you can, because The Wiz Biz was edited sloppily. I did notice the odd typo, but my main problem with the omnibus is that it doesn’t always use proper scene breaks, which means I have to occasionally stop and rewind to make sense of what’s going on.

In the end, whichever version you get, these are classic fiction that I’d highly recommend. 5 out of 5.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Novel – The Wiz Biz by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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