Novel – Nightfall

Since I was re-reading it anyway, I thought I might as well review one of my old sci-fi favourites:

Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg.

Originally written in 1941 as a novelette and one of Asimov’s earlier works and expanded into a novel by Asimov and Silverberg in 1990, this is a classic example of sci-fi imaginativeness combined with a nice touch of literary pragmatism.

Beginning with the beautifully well-chosen first sentence “It was a dazzling four-sun afternoon,” the story takes places on the planet Kalgash, where the six suns ensure that there’s never less than one sun in the sky. As such, the people have evolved with darkness as one of their deepest instinctual fears.

Ironically, it was written at the prompting of Asimov’s editor, in disagreement with the following Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!

Now, before I get into the plot, I should explain what I mean by “literary pragmatism”. The book begins with a foreword which can be summed up as follows: This is an alien world and these people aren’t human… but the languages and physical forms of the characters are irrelevant, so we wrote them as humans to save effort and reduce the load on your memory. Feel free to imagine more alien appearances and words if you want.

To be honest, I wish more sci-fi authors did that. Prioritize the details that are important to telling the story. If there are details that are dear to you but irrelevant, write another book in the same setting or include some supplementary artwork or an appendix.

When it comes to the narrative itself, Nightfall does something else that I don’t see enough of, but which is nothing new for Asimov (For example, he also did it in Foundation): The first few chapters introduce several different groups of characters, each interesting enough that many authors would (and have) let the whole book revolve around them… and then we watch as the narrative slowly leads them to meet.

In this case, different professionals following small pieces of evidence (a psychologist, an archaeologist, and an astrophysicist) which will lead them to the same horrible truth: That, in less than a year, a quirk in their orbital system will bring about the first bout of darkness in two millennia, and their civilization will tear itself apart.

It’s a concept with a ton of potential, but there are two things which really make it satisfying to me:

First, despite the rough details sounding like yet another take on the spate of post-apocalyptic survival shows and other media that have become popular lately, this doesn’t pump the character drama to the detriment of the story. (And, yes, I’m aware that’s neither a recent thing nor an objective sign of bad writing. Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero was written in 1970 and nominated for the Hugo award, but, to me, it read like a soap opera about boring characters set in a context that should have been interesting.)

Second, the convergent narrative really makes the story. Rather than getting bogged down in showing a long build-up as a single character or set of characters plays detective, the reader is treated to the best parts of multiple different ways of arriving at the same conclusion… each with its own pleasant sprinkling of flavor text.

Finally, despite it feeling very contemporary to the 1940s in style, it still remains engaging, with characters I enjoy reading about and enjoyable world-building details, such as talk of the “Beklimot culture” which was being researched at the site where evidence of prior civilization is revealed. With Asimov’s skill at writing engaging characters and effectively managing reader expectations, even the heavy character interaction meant to drag out the build-up to the eclipse still avoids the “dull soap opera” feel I got from Tau Zero.

The story is broken down into three parts: Twilight (the build-up to the realization, months before the eclipse), Nightfall (the day of the eclipse), and Daybreak (the aftermath)… and I agree with the general consensus that Daybreak, which wasn’t part of the original novelette, is the weakest part. While Twilight and Nightfall are tightly written and punchy, Daybreak feels like it doesn’t quite know what kind of pacing it wants to follow, and comes across very much like a modern post-apocalyptic survival TV series.

Beyond that, the ending has a sense to it that the author shouldn’t have set out to portray Daybreak, because there wasn’t really a good way to live up to the standard set by the first two parts within the constraints given.

That said, it’s still an excellent story and I’d certainly give the first two parts a 5 out of 5 rating. Maybe a 4.8 for the story as a whole.

Finally, after having read so much fanfiction and other electronic fiction recently, the feeling of re-reading that inherently sub-optimal ending made me realize something: There’s nothing quite like the sense of completion you get from finishing a print novel. With a computer screen, or an eReader, the end is just a milestone like any other, marked by nothing unique except the removal of the “Next” button, which could also merely signify an incomplete work. …but with a book, you’ve felt the balance of pages under left and right hands slowly change for hours. Finally, you reach the last page, you read the last word, and then you close the back cover… and contemplate.

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A Blueprint for Creating FLOSS-Safe Replacements for BWCC.DLL Stock Icons

TL;DR: Here’s a detailed description that should be sufficient to design knock-offs of the most iconic of Borland OWL’s stock icons for use Windows 3.1 hobby projects intended to be compiled with non-Borland compilers.

In the name making my planned retro-hobbyist programming projects both as easy as possible for me to write and as authentic-feeling as legally possible, I’ve been trying to collect period resources and tooling. However, I still want them to be open-source things that can be built using only legally free tooling.

(For example, while I intend to offer an older version of InnoSetup as the primary means of installation, “InstallShield” is a trademark and “setup is preparing the InstallShield wizard” was an iconic part of the Windows 9x era, so I took advantage of an opportunity to cheaply acquire a still-sealed New Old Stock copy of InstallShield Express 2.01 so users can choose between freedom and authenticity.)

This presents a problem when it comes to the stock icons from Borland’s BWCC.DLL which everyone remembers from the 16-bit Windows era. They’re an essential part of my childhood nostalgia, but I want people to be able to legally build and distribute my retro-projects using only OpenWatcom C/C++ or Free Pascal.

As such, I’ve decided to put together a description of said icons, suitable for designing from-scratch replacements which capture the same aesthetic and, in some cases, improve on the originals.

Here are the icons that I consider to be worth re-creating, in order from most to least desirable:

  1. OK/Yes (It’s used in the most places and has a very nice aesthetic.)
  2. Cancel (Probably the most used after OK/Cancel, also has a very nice aesthetic.)
  3. Help (It fits with the aesthetic of the other three.)
  4. Abort (I remember encountering this and it’s aged reasonably well for what it is. That said, it’s certainly a more complex thing to describe and draw than the “No” icon.)
  5. No (The iconography feels less elegant and it’s only strictly necessary if you need to have Cancel and No in the same dialog, given that the checkmark already does double duty as OK/Yes and the X for “Cancel” would really do better as “No”.)

Given that BWCCMessageBox takes the same arguments as MessageBox from the 16-bit Windows API, the following other icons also exist, but I don’t consider them iconic enough to justify the effort to put together detailed descriptions without some sign that they’ll actually see use:

  • Retry (A yellow slot machine where the handle pulls and the wheels take on different positions when the mouse button is held down.)
  • Ignore (A black-on-white speed limit sign where the numbers change from 55 to when the mouse button is held.)
  • MB_ICONINFORMATION / MB_ICONASTERISK (Either a blue lowercase, serif “i” in a speech balloon or a large, yellow, 3D, rounded exclamation mark with dithered shading, depending on context.)
  • MB_ICONQUESTION (A blue question mark in a speech balloon or possibly something else depending on context.)
  • MB_ICONSTOP / MB_ICONERROR / MB_ICONHAND (A white X inside a red circle or, if my memory is correct, a white hand inside a red stop-sign octagon depending on context.)

(I’m unsure whether the “depending on context” is a matter of which GUI widgets they’re requested for or which version of Borland OWL they were build against.)

That said, if you’re in a creative mood, feel free to try to come up with your own replacements that one-up Borland’s originals in sticking to a consistent aesthetic.

Release Considerations

First, in order to make it clear that you were working from these descriptions, please reference this post when you share your icons. This is for your benefit, since it will reassure potential users as to the legality of your icons if you re-create the Borland aesthetic too well.

Second, as the original icons were embedded within  BWCC.DLL, users of these icons are likely to also want to embed them in their own code. For them to do this, you need to release them under a license that won’t conflict with whatever license they choose.

I advise either the MIT or Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license or both (both would be best). Given the following concerns, that would be most in line with the spirit of creating a free replacement for proprietary resources:

  1. The proprietary versions aren’t sold anymore… so people who don’t want to GPL can’t just buy the paid originals instead.
  2. The only people who target Windows 3.1 anymore are hobbyists and you’re unlikely to see anyone who cares so much about authenticity that they’ll either pay you or change their mind about how they want to license their creation.
  3. Retro City Rampage for DOS and Windows 3.1 is a personal programming challenge that got offered as a bonus to buyers of the modern copy because the tools to legally offer such a thing were free for commercial projects. The same is likely to be true for anything your license choice affects.

That said, if you choose to use a copyleft license, bear in mind that choosing something like the GPL or CC-BY-SA rather than the MPL 2.0 will likely result in people bundling a period-inappropriate folder full of unpacked .ico files with their application (possibly with a bundle of token alternative icons) rather than a .dll and no other change.

Copyleft licenses only extend to derivative works and a program isn’t legally a derivative work of your icons if the program works perfectly well without them and they can be trivially swapped out. (That’s why game engine re-creations like ScummVM are legal and why it’s legal to put GPLed stuff and closed-source freeware on the same shovelware CD.)

Icon Specs

Common Characteristics

  • Icon Size: Either 23px or 26px
  • Color Palette: Default EGA 16-color palette
  • Shading: Flat, using a three-color scheme: An EGA low-intensity color for the body, its high-intensity counterpart for the lit portions of the edge, and black for the portions of the edge in shadow.
  • Border: 1px, with the diagonal portions using a stairstep pattern which makes them appear heavier.
  • Lighting: Lit from above and to the left.
  • Drop Shadow: 2px down and to the right of the icon, in the low-intensity counterpart to the standard Windows button background color… but not to be drawn as part of the icon itself. (It moves independently when the button is pressed down to give the illusion that the icon is floating over the button, so it may be OWL generating it at runtime using the icon’s transparency mask.)
  • Aesthetic: The icons which best embody the desired aesthetic evoke a sense of being pixel-art recreations of calligraphy done with an extra-broad italic nib. (Example)

OK/Yes Icon

The icon used for stock OK and Yes buttons is a green checkmark, with an outline almost identical to the Liberation Serif glyph for the U+2714 HEAVY CHECK MARK codepoint. The original icon is 23px wide by 23px tall.

For easy reference, the EGA greens are #00AA00 and #55FF55 according to Wikipedia.

The hook of the checkmark is perfectly vertical, but with a slight curve on the top-left corner and a larger, shallower curve on the bottom-left corner.

The tail of the checkmark runs at a perfect 45° angle toward the top-right, with the top edge being perfectly straight 45° line, while the bottom edge appears to have a nick in it about 2/3rds of the way up, as it transitions from the width at the bottom to the width at the top.

The hook appears to be one pixel thicker than the tail and the tail ends in a perfectly vertical line, giving the “calligraphy pen with an extra-wide italic nib” effect.

The line appears to range from 3 to 4 pixels thick.

Cancel Icon

The Cancel icon is a red X similar to the Liberation Serif glyph for the U+2718 HEAVY BALLOT X codepoint but with the ends of the strokes being straight, rather than mimicking the output of a marker with a crenellated tip. The original icon is 20px wide by 23px tall.

For easy reference, the EGA reds are #AA0000 and #FF5555 according to Wikipedia.

It takes the form of two perpendicular strokes, running diagonally at approximately 45°.

The stroke from the top-left to the bottom-right curves upward very slightly over its length, and the stroke from the bottom-left to the top-right curves downward very slightly over its length.

Both strokes have square ends on the right side and are slightly curved on their upper corners on their left ends. Both strokes are approximately 4 pixels thick and have the same “calligraphy pen with an extra-wide italic nib” feel to them as with the checkmark.

Help Icon

The help icon is a cyan question mark. The original icon is 15px wide by 26px tall.

For easy reference, the EGA cyans are #00AAAA and #55FFFF according to Wikipedia.

Unlike the other two icons, it appears to have been drawn with a fine-pointed calligraphy brush, rather than a calligraphy pen, being composed of a round dot and a line with a rounded top end and a tail at the bottom end of the curl, characteristic of moving such a calligraphy brush off to the side as it is being lifted.

It gives the impression that its vertical centre line leans somewhere between 5° and 10° right of centre, and the shape of the question mark’s hook gives the impression that this might have been accomplished by taking a more ordinary question mark’s outline and pulling the right-hand edge of the question mark one part rightward and two or three parts upward.

When viewed without magnification, the tail at the bottom of the primary stroke appears to exit at roughly 45° down and to the left, but closer inspection reveals that this impression is partly due to the shadow and the icon actually extends the mid-point of the stroke’s bottom end straight rightward, and then curves the opposing edge of the stroke outward to meet it.

No Icon

The icon for stock No buttons is the ISO 3864-1 prohibition sign (U+1F6AB NO ENTRY SIGN or U+1F6C7 PROHIBITED SIGN). The original icon is 26px wide by 26px tall.

It is rendered in the same EGA reds as the Cancel icon (#AA0000 and #FF5555) with a stroke width matching or perhaps slightly thinner than the thinnest part of the checkmark.

Take note, the stroke within the circle runs from the top-left to the bottom-right. Some fonts will get this reversed for at least one of the two codepoints.

Stylistically, I think the mechanical precision of this icon’s design feels bland and the thinner lines reinforce the impression that it was a lazy effort. I would welcome efforts to design an alternative which feels more in line with the calligraphic style used for OK/Yes and Cancel.

Abort Icon

The icon for stock Abort buttons is an undithered EGA-palette drawing of a cylindrical red pushbutton set into a silver collar. Its proportions resemble a DS-426, model 6054 though it may be a pixel or two more squat. It is rendered in what is probably an oblique perspective, which makes it appear to be rising directly toward the light source.

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Fanfiction – Harry Potter and the Daft Morons

…and another thing I decided to review on the first read-through. This one a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Harry Potter and the Daft Morons by Sinyk

As unsophisticated as it may sound, every now and then, I do enjoy reading a well-written fic which says “screw it” to canon. …where Harry Potter one-ups the kind of manipulative Dumbledore who may or may not be evil and may or may not be conspiring with some of the Weasleys.

This fic does that well. It’s not perfect, being a bit exposition-y at first, but it’s fun nonetheless.

Dumbledore isn’t portrayed as over-the-top evil… he’s just manipulative and arrogant to the point of self-destructiveness. The Weasleys as a whole aren’t bad… but Molly and Ron need an attitude adjustment. (And Percy even gets a chance to shine in a very natural and in-character way during a family meeting.)

…though, when, after several novels worth of events, they finally get Dumbledore dosed with Veritaserum, it is very novel to see a formal interrogation result in Dumbledore getting officially and legally declared a Dark Lord by Amelia Bones.

It’s also a “The Potters are wizarding nobility” fic, but I also enjoy those on occasion and this, again, does a pretty good job of not making it merely an excuse to fix-fic things, going into a fair bit of detail on the social norms and hierarchy.

On that note, it’s a story of a specific type I’m not sure I’ve seen before. I’ve seen stories where Harry outwits the wizarding world, often by staying one step ahead of the Order while on the run. I’ve also seen fix-fics and politics fics. This has a little bit of all of them, but focuses on a blend of “foolish wizards” and hard politics that I haven’t seen before. (Usually, “foolish wizards” is for the light fics and hard politics is for the serious ones.)

Harry reveals that he’s a lot smarter than people think he is, but then makes a habit of pointing out things readers probably noticed, to the chargrin of those around him… such as his three amusingly paced, should-be-obvious suggestions for how to get in contact with Sirius Black so he can finally get a trial. (Owl him, try a messenger Patronus, or ask a house elf to try delivering a letter)

It’s also nice to see a Dumbledore who’s always outwitted, yet still doesn’t get beaten and dismissed too handily. He manages to parlay his way out of getting sent to Azkaban and keeps his job at Hogwarts because he’s got tenure, but his own arrogance and obsession leads to him being demoted to a mere professor because he was away from Hogwarts, scheming, when notice was sent for the hearing with the board of governors. He still tries to get Harry back, but gets the maximum allowable wait in a Ministry holding cell after getting picked up for trespassing because Harry had the anti-apparation and anti-portkey wards set a metre back from the actual property line. etc. etc. etc.

The key to this clever alternative interpretation, which made me appreciate it so much more, was when one of the unspeakables clued me in… He’s running circles around everyone because, in this story, “marked as the Dark Lord’s equal” is referring to mental and political prowess. (And, as Dumbledore realizes, possibly not about Voldemort at all)

At the same time, it mixes in some nice “summer at Hermione’s” bits when Hogwarts gets shut down pending the hiring of replacements for the newly vacated positions. The interactions between Harry, Hermione, and her parents are an enjoyable read. (And the author clearly understands how to use one-off characters to good effect, which is something I almost never see. In this case, a brief interaction with a little old lady Hermione clearly knows.)

Also, very notably, it manages to detail what Harry makes when he decides to cook for Hermione’s family for fun without it feeling like a drain on the story. In fact, I find myself curious to see what Harry will make next… which is another nod to the author’s skill.

That said, I do wish it hadn’t taken 16 chapters to reveal the narrative justification for making “Harry” short for “Harrison” early in the first chapter (a classic “Author didn’t do the research or gratuitously breaks from canon” warning sign) and I don’t like how, at least in the earliest chapters, it seems to muddle together elements of the book and movie continuities. (Which is a crying shame because later chapters clearly show that “the research” was done on multiple occasions. I especially loved having Harry and Hermione see The Santa Clause in the theatre and then having Harry draw a parallel with his own “stuck in a contract he didn’t agree to” situation.)

All in all, in the context of what it’s aiming to be, I’d give it a 4.3 out of 5. At times, it’s a 4.0 and, at times, it’s 4.5. Either way, it’s 745,285 words long, still actively going as of this review, and hard to put down.

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Fanfiction – Wind Shear

…and another one that’s worth a review on the first read.

Wind Shear by Chilord (complete at 126,280 words long)

This is a well done “Harry Potter in the past” fic. Specifically, this is one of those post-canon stories where Harry has become a competent auror or hitwizard before he gets thrown back to 1970. It’s also a well-done Harry-Bellatrix pairing.

Yes, the concept has been done many times before and, yes, doing this does make Harry a bit of an OC but, when you’re in the mood for something like this, it’s nice to have something good on hand when you’re not up for re-reading Delenda Est.

What made me decide to review this wasn’t any one specific detail, but, rather, the writing in general.

For Harry himself, Chilord has a good grasp on how to write a post-canon Harry so that his James Bond-esque blend of professionalism and wit in combat is entertaining, yet he still has his canon blend of wanting to be a nobody, having a “saving people thing”, and having trouble decide to occur in his vicinity. (I especially enjoy his reaction when he discovers that he’s accidentally set himself on the path to being the leader of a third side in the impending civil war.)

At the same time, it also features a Bellatrix Black pairing that, surprisingly enough, comes across as plausible. When her initiation into the Knights of Walpurgis happens to pick the same tavern Harry is trying to get drunk in, Harry leaves her alive as the messenger, not realizing that she was originally drawn to Voldemort by the same terrifying blend of skill and power that Harry used to cut down her companions… and that young Bellatrix was much more receptive than Bellatrix Lestrange would be to his advice (with object lesson) on blood-status and power.

Furthermore, it doesn’t focus excessively on Harry, which is a flaw in many of the poorer stories of this type. Rather, it spends plenty of time on Voldemort and at least as much time with the Black and Potter family members as with Harry… something I actually wish Delenda Est’s plot had more room for.

While the older generations were a lot of fun in Delenda Est, this story one-ups it. Not only does it spend more time on the older generations, it shows off a wider range of characters and their interactions with each other and with Harry are a lot of fun. (Or, in the case of Dumbledore, a view of an idealist who is set-in-his-ways that feels much more realistic than most.)

It also gives Bellatrix a lot more freedom to show off her character, which is nice. In Delenda Est, while the story is plausible enough, it is quite focused on the conflict, with Bellatrix and Harry becoming allies from the beginning, then growing and developing within that. Here, Bellatrix grows and changes before she can form a connection with Harry. (and I do enjoy seeing Bellatrix discovering Andromeda’s muggle clothing and asking Andi to teach her how to “go muggle”.)

Heck, even the references in passing are fun, such as when mention of the Lovegoods enters a conversation.

Of course, the cherry on top is that Chilord recognizes that Voldemort is secondary and Bellatrix’s story arc is primary. When Voldemort is defeated, it feels like its main relevance to the story isn’t for its own sake, but for what it does as part of Bellatrix’s character arc.

Now, personally, I wish it had a few more chapters after that, to further distance the resolution of her character arc from it, but it’s complete and it worked well nonetheless. In fact, that distances it from Delenda Est, because Delenda Est followed them as they grew close, while this follows them reaching a point where becoming a couple is even possible, then jumps to the epilogue.

I’d give the story 4.6 out of 5. It’s a little better than what I’d typically call a 4.5 out of 5, but I’m not getting the strong indecision between 4.5 and 5.0 that I normally use to decide on 4.7.

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Fanfiction – The Parselmouth of Gryffindor

Today, I have a new fic which I enjoyed enough to share on my first read-through.

The Parselmouth of Gryffindor by Achille Talon

The basic premise of this story is not, as you might first guess, that Harry Potter’s ability is more widely known and accepted, but, rather, that Hermione Granger is also a parselmouth.

Novel concept aside (the author even mentions the rarity of such fics), it derives two further advantages from it:

First, we see a Hermione Granger who is different, yet the same.

On the one hand, her outlook has more of the practicality and unique “snake logic” that she was exposed to while growing up.

On the other hand, having “what makes her special” be something others can’t take from her, like they would a title of “the smartest”, has led her to have more self-confidence.

Second, it provides a good reason to mix up the plot.

That does introduce one downside that’s somewhat apparent in the first few chapters, though. The author has a tendency to use her to avoid mistakes the canon cast made. (A pattern exacerbated in the first few chapters when first-year Ron is holding his own in a prank war with the twins without any hint that it will be explained a few years later.)

That issue is resolved once the story drifts more firmly into a lighter, less serious tone, but, until it does, it cheapens the first impression the story makes.

On that note, what makes the story really shine is the humour and how the author expands the setting… and they often blend together.

For example, Hermione’s first encounter with a goblin has the goblin wondering if she thought he was a hippogriff because the one thing she’s certain about from her fairy tale books is to never disrespect a non-human sapient.

…or Hermione managing to get past the gargoyle guarding Dumbledore’s office by poking it until it gets so annoyed it can’t play dumb, then suggesting that it ask the The Hat whether she should be allowed in.

In fact, that touches on another nice detail about this story. Just as the original books followed Harry, this follows Hermione to the same degree and it’s really entertaining to see this Hermione’s take on canon events… such as accidentally discovering the Chamber of Secrets and befriending Slytherin’s basilisk. (Which is quite an understatement for how much effect it has on the plot.)

I’ll offer one quick example to that:

“Well, Potter?” sneered Professor Snape. “Would you mind explaining how in Pyrrhus Ocelot’s name you and your toothy muggle-born girlfriend somehow found yourself in the same room as a petrified hybrid of the Dark Lord and one of your own teachers?”

Harry was obviously about to lash out against the recently-arrived Snape, who was, to be fair, clearly looking for friction. Hermione, recognizing the warning signs, answered in his place:

“Well, it all began with Professor Quirrell’s turban giving Harry a headache.”

That said, before I drift too far away from the topic of the Sorting Hat, I need to say that this is only the second story I’ve ever read, after The Lie I’ve Lived, where I truly enjoy the Sorting Hat as a character, so keep that in mind.

More generally, the story has a recurring theme of there being more sapients in the Wizarding World than canon acknowledges, and exploring the origins and implications of that fact. The nice part is that, aside from how it ties in with the general “only believable because this is light comedy” aspect of the story, it actually feels like it fits. (Unlike so many other fics which fall down because they tried to mix in species with an air of high fantasy and messed up the setting’s atmosphere.)

That includes an entertaining original character… a boggart who through the “proximity to a light, comic main character” effect, tried to copy a fear of a person a little too closely and gained sapience, eventually befriending Hermione and becoming a Hogwarts student.

Later in the narrative, it also develops another recurring theme: Hermione “overachieving at solving things” to the point where she finds herself becoming the puppetmaster behing Minister Fudge and Lucius Malfoy.

On the downside, for as much as I like it, I do get a sense that the story could have been so much more if the author had taken the setting more seriously. Anyone with this kind of skill level can pull off a light, comic Harry Potter story, but being light and comic like this so also limits how much depth the story can have. (ie. The same “not taking things too seriously” that excuses implausible things also limits the ability of the story to explore deeper, more complex narrative elements.) That leaves me feeling as if the tone is acting as an artificial cap on what the author could have achieved with the concept… which is a real waste for a concept as un-explored as Hermione Grander, the parselmouth.

I also worry about whether I’m sensing that, as a side-effect of the whole “Hermione, the puppet-master” becoming a little too dominant, the story’s quality might have peaked and started to decline as a result of the narrative becoming a little too shallow for the “it’s light, silly comedy” to justify it.

Either way, time will tell. As of chapter 49, I’m giving it a 4.4 out of 5. The hiccups in the initial stuff before it hits its stride pin those chapters to a 4.0 rating, while the later chapters deserve a 4.7 once they hit their stride.

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Fanfiction – Harry Potter and the Champion’s Champion

How about something that’s a guilty pleasure of mine and memorable for how well it pulls off a running fart joke, a comically Too Stupid To Live™ Ron Weasley, and a half-senile Dumbledore?

Harry Potter and the Champion’s Champion by DriftWood1965

Yes, this is a guilty pleasure. It focuses heavily on very low-brow humour, it bashes the most cartoonishly flanderized Ron Weasley you’ll ever see, the treatment of the Malfoys is excessive, and it freely uses caricatured parodies of secondary characters for comic effect… but I can’t help that it makes me laugh out loud at times. Because of that, I’ve re-read it several times in the many years since I discovered it. (Definitely a sign that it’s doing something right.)

When the story starts out, it’s pretty clear that the author knows how to write good Harry and Hermione characters for the romantic elements and the comedy clearly shows creativity, but, at the same time, the story quickly chooses to focus primarily on the cartoonish, low-brow comedy instead. (And, in what is clearly an intentional set up for said comedy, it sprinkles caricatures around liberally. Most notably, the change to Ron Weasley that I mentioned at the beginning.)

McGonagall stared at the ginger-topped Gryffindor as she pondered whether overeating could cause brain damage.

The basic plot is that Harry and Hermione discover a loophole which allows Harry to appoint a champion to go through the Triwizard Tournament on his behalf. They give it to Ron to try to curb his jealousy but, in the process, Harry has also realized that he’s attracted to Hermione and they start dating… something which also makes Ron jealous.

That’s where the running fart joke comes in, because Hermione, feeling vindictive at Ron’s behaviour and echoing her canon self’s idea for the DA, had worked up a magical contract for the champion substitution that included a vindictive punishment clause for jealous thoughts.

The punishment is flatulent, it can’t be cancelled until the contract runs its course because Hermione underestimated Ron’s capacity for jealousy, and a large part of the running gag has to do with the various inordinately amusing approaches taken over the course of the year to deal with the smell and their side-effects.

Of course, what really makes it is the author’s use of phrasing and imagery with lines like this:

Seeing them in the common room, he turned and stormed back up the steps with a minor “pbrrrrrp” trailing him, leaving an odorous barrier at the entry to the staircase.

…and this:

The mixture of Gillyweed, Canary Creams and Horntail Honey’s turned the fourth champion into a five and a half foot tall, fire-breathing duck which had to keep ducking its head under the water to breathe.

That said, it’s not purely limited to that and it attempts to broaden the scope of the humor around the first Triwizard task. (Personally, I think the task is memorable for its creative events but not really that funny. That said, it is a transitional period.) For example, that’s when Dumbledore starts to come into play and and we start to see Crouch Jr. driven mad by how stupid this Ron Weasley is.

Through the pain, only one thought emerged. ‘How can there be this much stupidity locked inside of a single mind?’

Ron watched his defense teacher slump to the ground and smiled. ‘He’s amazed at my ability to solve it without his help. He’ll never underestimate me again.’ He trotted off down the hallway headed for the kitchens while wondering what prospect tasted like.

As for the romance, when it’s actually focused on, DriftWood1965 does put the effort in. In the very first chapter, there’s some nicely satisfying interaction between Harry and Hermione and I especially like how readers get to see signs that the relationship has promise, with both Harry and Hermione demonstrating how well they already know each other when they decide to become a couple.

(To be honest, it reminds me of Ranma ½, where Season 1 of the anime and the portion of the manga it’s adapted from feel more romance-oriented than the later stuff. I’ve often mused on how the series might have unfolded if that had continued on.)

All in all, it’s a cracky comedy with some flaws and some legitimate romantic scenes and it’s one of those stories that you’ll either love or hate. If, like me, you’re willing to accept huge deviations from canon characterizations as long as the overall effect is entertaining, and you’re not above laughing at crude humour, then you’ll likely enjoy it as a well-done source of “cheap fun”. Otherwise, it won’t be your thing.

It’s 108,953 words, it’s complete, and, based on my overall experience of reading it, I’d rate it at 4.0 out of 5… though, given how much that relies on the humour connecting, you might rate it as low as 2.5 out of 5.

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Fanfiction – A Thin Veneer

Ironically, I still haven’t reviewed the fic that usually comes to mind when I think “memorable sci-fi crossover fanfiction”, so let’s remedy that now.

A Thin Veneer by AlbertG (Albert Green Jr.) et al

This crossover between the original Star Trek and Babylon 5  is part of a larger universe of stories by the authors in question but I consider it a good thing that you can ignore that. I’ve always found that Comic Book Multiverse™-style writing interferes with the process of immersing the reader even in original works, where the fanfic “all deviations from canon should ripple out from a single ‘freebie'” rule of thumb is in effect.

The part of the plot that’s relevant to this story is that the Minbari stumble upon a hyperspatial wormhole of sorts while chasing some human refugees and almost interfere with the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Upon reading their report, the Grey Council decide that it’s too dangerous to leave what must be a small lost colony to eventually seek vengeance when they discover the extermination of Earth humans and, in the process, also give the Klingon Empire a slap on the wrists (two destroyed patrol ships) to warn them to never attack a Minbari ship again.

Needless to say, both efforts backfire when the Federation declares war on the Minbari for the murder of over 20 million civilians and the newly allied Klingon Empire refuses to let the insult and associated destruction go unpunished. Basically, this is what you get when you want to write an “X curb-stomps the Minbari” fic, but you can’t because you have standards.

For example, the story gives the federation a handicap, by setting this during the 23rd century and, while they’re technologically behind and tactically complacent, the Minbari aren’t stupid. Sometimes, the Minbari do discover effective counters or take prisoners, so the Klingons, the Federation, and the readers aren’t allowed to get complacent.

However, the thing that gives the strongest sense of “this is making a good effort to be quality writing” is the recurring theme that the title alludes to: The nature of civility in society, as first confirmed when the ever-eloquent General Chang delivers the first title drop in chapter 5. While the story touches on this from various angles (eg. the Klingons get plenty of story time), one of the more notable avenues it explores is using Admiral James T. Kirk to explore wartime morality and the boundary between righteous and monstrous as he prosecutes a war against the Minbari, having had no prior experience as a wartime commander and just coming out of negotiations that reminded him of the death of his son.

Diplomacy, tactical combat, curb-stomps, philosophy, interesting secondary characters, and more. This fic has a bit of everything.

On a less uncommon note, I also like the ways in which the two settings were merged. For example, it’s already known that, in Star Trek, the Preservers transplanted humans and terraformed planets… what’s one more Earth that’s unusually far and an unusually perfect copy of ours?

Likewise, if the Vorlons and Shadows are shepherding their little group of species, what’s stopping them from mucking with ours? Why, a collection of more hands-off, balance-oriented species such as the Organians, Metrons, and Medusans that won’t allow immature stagnancy-chasers to throw tantrums in the territory of others and will send ambassadors to sway misguided chaos-seekers if necessary. (An uncommon but pleasing twist, to have the “evil gods” swayed by reason while the “good gods” are revealed to be petulant children.) Best of all, what they see in accelerated transit across the galaxy suggests that the Preservers are still actively shuffling around planets, but working behind the scenes.

The other two reasons this probably sticks with me are:

  1. Star Trek and Babylon 5 are two series I perceive as “proper sci-fi” moreso than many others I’ve reviewed good things in, such as Stargate: SG-1, Battlestar Galactica, or Star Wars. I think it’s that the latter examples just feel too focused on some blend of contemporary-ness, personal stories, and fantasy-esque simplified morality to live up to the sense of exploration, scale, and/or philosophical depth that I look for in sci-fi.
  2. Despite being unfinished, it’s 445,720 words long and very close to the end of its story arc most of the way to completion, so it still satisfies. (And it may still get completed.)

That said, it also has its fun moments that aren’t memorable, so I re-discover them anew each time. For example, managing to find a way to make a meme reference work through a similar approach to Tom Paris’s love for old sci-fi:

“We get signal!”

Acaltha turned in his chair and directed a sharp look at his communications officer. “Mr. Vickers, I believe I mentioned something previously about a certain officer trying break the tension on the bridge by reviving three hundred year old Terran jokes?”

…or some delightful exchanges between old friends that I’ll leave you to discover on your own.

I’d say it definitely earns a 5 out of 5 rating for how it blends cathartic curb-stomping, enough challenge for the Federation to keep things interesting, and a lot of detail in the philosophical and character elements of war. That’s a combination you just don’t see every day, and I enjoy it very much.

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