Notes on The Dance of Gods

While they're not hotlinked to the text of the books in the best Wiki or Web 2.0 style, at least not yet, anyway, this page contains "director's (or writer's) commentary" on The Dance of Gods, on the occasion of re-reading and re-editing them after a long time away. Spoilers are pervasive, so if you're interested enough to read these notes, you've hopefully been interested enough to read the actual text first from this page. Be warned, but please feel welcome, too!

The original computer files for Catastrophe and Intrigue, at least, no longer being available, I've been scanning the manuscript (for Catastrophe) and the page proofs (for Intrigue) and using somewhat problematic OCR software to recreate the digital versions, before the editing pass. Still, I'm sure this process has been freshly minting typos that have eluded me thus far. (The OCR software has a lovely yet consistent tendency to read the 1986 dot-matrix "f" as "£", so I've probably found all of those, anyway.) That said, I'd appreciate hearing about any typos you notice while you're reading. Come to think of it, I'll credit you on the Typo page.

Notes on Spell of Catastrophe

As long as I was diving back into The Dance of Gods, and especially Spell of Catastrophe, which I haven't dared to read in almost twenty years, I thought it might be amusing to use the opportunity for some reminiscences about the experience and some of what I was thinking at the time, and perhaps the influences that led to particular decisions, too. A narcissistic exercise, I'm sure, but it's not as though I expect a whole lot of people to be paying attention. On the other hand, the web is an unpredictable and often magical place, and a little ego is probably mandatory for an exercise such as this, anyway...

As I said, I hadn't opened any of these books in a long time. I've noticed that many writers - perhaps most - don't enjoy revisiting old works, unless there's a reason to market them again and often not even then. You've moved on, and whether you've gotten better or fallen off, why would you remind yourself of where you used to live, class reunions notwithstanding. With Dance of Gods, the resounding commercial failure left me soured on the books themselves, along with the fact that once the books were out of my system, so to speak, I had thought that my tastes in fiction had moved on to the point that I wouldn't like those kinds of things any more, regardless of who had written them.

SOC Chapter 1: "Max on the Road"

In a way, this entire project started with Max. During college, a friend dragged me down to San Diego for a small Society for Creative Anachronism meet. When I was asked at the registration table who I was, and we got through the usual Alphonse and Gaston routine my real name typically kicks up and I finally understood that I needed to produce an SCA handle of some puckish sort, Maximillian came easily to mind, followed almost immediately by "the Vaguely Disreputable". The root of the Max portion was easy enough - from Maximillian Meen, the character played by Peter Falk in Blake Edwards' 1965 film, The Great Race - but the rest was free association, although the "Disreputable" may have also have a subconscious Great Race link; Max's colleague, Professor Fate, has a line including one of the few appearances of the word "disreputable" in a major motion picture. Some of the characteristics of Peter Falk's Max did make their way into my mental image of the early Dance of Gods Max, although his iron bar wound up in the hands of Shaa, and even though my Max diverged fairly quickly and far, you won't go too far wrong from my own picture of Max if you imagine a squinty-eyed guy slinking around in a half-crouch.

SOC Chapter 2: "The Creeping Sword"

I don't recall if anyone had tried a hard-boiled detective pastiche in a fantasy context before, but whether I'd read one or not, it was clearly an idea whose time was ready, most prominently with the arrival of Glen Cook's Garrett not longer afterwards (Sweet Silver Blues, 1987). The first Garrett book in particular is more Nero Wolfe than Hammett, as Mr. Cook launched on his tour of famous fictional detectives, but of course Archie is a classic hard-boiled man anyway; it's obviously the interplay between Wolfe and Archie or the Dead Man and Garrett that gives their own special dynamic. There was the other Garrett, too, although Lord Darcy was rooted much more in Sherlock Holmes (and in Mr. Garrett's social milieu and famous love of puns, of course). But Lord Darcy was one of my earliest introductions to the wide world of SF through the hardcover edition of Too Many Magicians, not long after I'd graduated from the kids' section of the Robertson branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. (The library was two blocks from the family house, and when I got my first library card, around the age of nine, I was in there two or three times a week, going home with the maximum number of books each time under the traditional approach of starting at the A's on the childrens' shelves and working my way around to the Z's, with extended stays in the B's, especially Walter R. Brooks, and the H's for Hugh Lofting. I'm not sure what decoyed me out of the beginning of Adult Fiction and into the limited half-height case of Science Fiction, but it was either the Heinleins, the Nortons, or Too Many Magicians itself.)

SOC Chapter 3: "The Great Karlini's Problem"

Here's something else that also put this book ahead of the curve: you'll notice that the seeds of the bioengineered nanotech plot that become so important in the later books are right here. Engines of Creation was published in 1986, but I'd already been thinking about the biology of magic generation since medical school. The throw-away reference in this chapter was already the tip of a highly developed iceberg...

Of course, there's very little point in tooting a horn that went almost totally unheard, unless it involved a prescient filing with the Patent Office, so feel free to pay it no heed and move smartly along.

SOC Chapter 4: "Shaa Out of Practice"

When I was starting to pull together strands and turn them into a book, I sent an earlier version of Shaa as another standalone story to Gardner Dozois at Asimov's. At that time, the character's name was Sha. I recall the terse rejection letter noted that that the editor had been unable to read through the submission because he kept reading "Sha" as "She". Okay, I thought, reasonable enough, which is how the name acquired an additional "a".

For what it's worth, my vehicle license plate is "ZYN SHAA". It's now followed me through three cars, being re-registered three times. Of course, the plates do have the discontinued California rising sun design that's been unavailable for years.

Oh, so what does "zalzyn shaa" mean, if anything? It's from the Yiddish for "be still," often applied in practice as "shut up." It was my grandfather-in-law's favorite expression, although I'd already named the character before I met him.

SOC Chapter 5: "Shop Talk"

The seagull is the sort of character I obviously enjoy using, who comes into the story in one context, usually in a secondary or background role, and ultimately - after they've been part of the landscape long enough to be pigeon-holed and taken for granted - turns out to be something else. Or perhaps sometimes a seagull is just a seagull.

The stage business with the snacks in the first part of the chapter is, if you can believe, a nod toward Roger Zelazny. Specifically, the wonderful bit at the end of the first short chapter of Lord of Light, when the first characters on stage have been discussing their grand, world-shaking plot, and then one of them, who is currently incarnated as an ape, leads into the scene-change blackout by requesting a banana.

SOC Chapter 6: "The Creeping Sword Stalks Again"

The prototype for Philnn Arol is obviously Errol Flynn. What better mold for an Adventurer's God could there be, personal problems and all, except perhaps Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (a name which didn't lend itself nearly as well to being mangled). The Flynn of The Adventures of Robin Hood is clearly the one in the descriptions, complete with the brighter-than-life nod to three-strip Technicolor. - oh, right, he doesn't actually appear here. Well, just carry on, then. Nothing to see.

And Gashanatantra? Made up, out of whole cloth. Not at random, of course - names are important, and often you don't know you have the right one until you've tried it out for a bit  - but sometimes you can use found words, and sometimes you just have to tinker bit by bit until you converge on the solution. Gash was one of the latter. I knew I needed a word with (1) multiple syllables, (2) vaguely Indian in tenor, and (3) lending itself to a natural abbreviation. Q.E.D.

The name of the chapter, on the other hand, is another Hammett reference, this time to The Thin Man. Actually, the reference is more to the movie series than the book. The Thin Man in the novel was not actually Nick Charles, the co-hero, but in order to establish series title continuity for the films, the Thin Man moniker was pulled along and applied retroactively, in effect, to Mr. Charles himself. When the name of the Creeping Sword appears here in this chapter title it doesn't, strictly speaking, seem to make sense; this can always be read as a potential hint of foreshadowing, if the author knows what he's doing, or example of malpractice, if he doesn't.

SOC Chapter 7: "Shaa Converses"

For many years, the late Theodore Sturgeon took every natural opportunity, and quite a few beyond that, to discourse on his advocacy of rhythmic prose. I was reminded of that particularly in this chapter, which is basically one long conversation, punctuated by stage directions and some minor beats of scene setting. Trying to pay attention to the natural rhythm of words on a page always seemed like a natural goal to me, not that I make any great claims to mastery. Finding and playing with the cadence - as though the text is actually being performed - just seems to make thing flow better. And it definitely helps to punch up any jokes, especially the droll ones.

SOC Chapter 8: "Scientific Interlude"

In this chapter, a central theme of the whole series is starting to raise its eye out of the ooze. I had been thinking through the biological and cellular link to magic for some time before the plot began to precipitate out.

Another theme that intersects with the first is on display here as well, at least in an initial foggy hinted form. One of the main reasons for having a group of characters running around, some even aligned with each other, is to have their goals conflict and collide, producing trouble of a scale that none of them would have anticipated. If they could have anticipated this, they would have been appalled - but then the only place that plots often seem to run on rails is in works of fiction. In a way, the cast of protagonists in The Dance of Gods are designed to be fully qualified to address the challenges they face ... but even people who are super-competent and well grounded, with an accurately jaundiced view of their world and the best of motives, can still screw up. Or can find that events are bigger than their ability to control them.

SOC Chapter 9: "What I Didn't Know"

There's another "inspired by The Great Race" reference in here that probably only I would ever have noticed. The line "You were smoking a payroll?" bears the same relationship to the scene it's embedded in as the famous "Leslie escaped with a chicken?" If I could have worked a chicken into this scene, though, I would have.

The Black Legion, which plays a walk-on role in this chapter? With my admiration for Glen Cook, you'd think it would be a nod toward the Black Company, which first appeared while I was writing. It might have been. This is one I can't remember, though.

The name Iskendarian makes its first appearance here, too. One of my most felicitous discoveries, a completely found name, that I noticed for the first time on a storefront in Culver City. The company is still there; Iskendarian Racing Cams.

SOC Chapter 11: "The Curse of the Creeping Sword"

Some of my most important formative experiences were the pulps, especially Doc Savage and The Shadow, as channeled through the Bantam reprints (and the various incarnations of The Shadow in paperback), but also including the G-8 and His Battle Aces paperbacks with the Steranko covers, The Avenger, and the really bizarre semi-updated versions of The Spider, Master of Men (and if you've ever read The Spider, you know it takes a real act of will to make him even weirder than he already was). As you can see, I was well-steeped in the old-pulp Valhalla  before I ever opened a comic. Given this background, the increasingly purple character of the chapter titles in particular should come as no surprise.

Doc Savage and The Shadow also had a more structural effect on Catastrophe, along with Mission: Impossible. The concept of a loose network of collaborating specialists pulled together randomly or by design to accomplish a specific task is one that aligned perfectly with Catastrophe's sprawling cast... although I let them act at cross-purposes much more than the inspirational prototypes.

SOC Chapter 12: "Shaa and Mont Go to Jail"

By this time in the book, I was enjoying writing dialogue for Shaa and Mont so much that I'd started throwing in stuff that was, frankly, a little loopy - and knowing Shaa, this took some doing. Hence, the barely concealed quotation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's maxim on "Action is character." It had been drummed into my head enough that I thought I should get some more use out of it. It was also nice to see that my characters had absorbed the lesson as well.

Catastrophe, and the larger Dance of Gods, were not outlined and plotted in meticulous detail. I've done this on other projects, and have sometimes had to undo it, too, once the characters started to head off in their own directions. Leaving the plotting on the loose side, though, at least until the cascading complexities of Fate and Apocalypse required more formal choreography, let characters seize the stage in combinations I had not initially anticipated. The interplay between Mont and Shaa, and then Mont's extended family, was one of these opportunities.

SOC Chapter 13: "Max Drops In"

One of the most interesting lessons I've learned as I've been going back over my work of twenty years ago is the fallibility of memory. For all this time, I'd remembered that this chapter held one particularly infelicitous turn of phrase, which I was eager for the chance to edit out; whenever I thought of it, it made me wince, being so pedestrian and unfulfilled. While I don't always turn up my nose at pedestrian, routine prose betrays a lack of vision and a wasted opportunity. Not that prose has to be fancy to work - to the contrary, more often than not - but to settle for a cheap stock reference means the writer hasn't done his job. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that I had already edited away this unfortunate episode prior to the original publication, and that the only place this unfortunate glitch remained was in my own annoyingly erratic mind. It was almost enough to make me want to try to dredge up the old royalty statements and see if I had imagined the lack of sales, too, but some things are too traumatic to be fabricated.

SOC Chapter 15: "Big Trouble"

Although I've alluded to it before in these notes, this chapter includes one of the most explicit references to the philosophy behind the multiple overlapping plotlines. We have this:

As usual, Shaa thought sardonically, it looks like I've wandered into somebody else's ongoing plot.   

The events in these books are so packed with activity that they clearly defy credulity, even given the fact that we're talking about adventures in a fantastic setting to start out with. By splitting the the activities among a group of characters, each one has to do less in order to advance the story. Along with this, when one character is off the scene, is engaged in a less interesting task, or perhaps is even catching a quick nap, another character can keep things moving along. (Which is to say that none of these characters is Jack Bauer, staying up twenty-four hours a day, in frenetic motion, being bashed and tortured on a regular basis.) But it also seems reasonable that these individually well-cast plans keep running afoul of each other, with consequences that spin wildly out of control.

SOC Chapter 18: "Repercussions"

When Catastrophe's Spell had just been published, I appeared on a local SF-centric radio program with another first-time novelist (who subsequently has gone on to a long and apparently fruitful career). The host of the show and I did not, shall we say, experience a felicitous and harmonious meeting of minds. The grand entrance of the Former Lion of the Oolvaan Plain at the beginning of this chapter was his proof text to illustrate my unworthiness. Being young, easily flummoxed, and somewhat intimidated by elders in authority positions, I had no ready answers.

I had not yet realized that sometimes a work doesn't just speak for itself.

I thought, at that time, that no one could read "mighty thews" and not realize that something was going on that did not necessarily mean the inability to distinguish over-the-top purple prose from "good writing". I assumed that no one reasonably conversant with classic genre texts would fail to grasp that a Conan reference was at hand, and that some level of parody playing off Conan and the whole barbarian mythos of which he is the archetype must be the goal.

SOC Chapter 19: "The Castle of Death"

A recurring theme throughout these notes are the previous works that influenced me and that I've drawn on, and subsequent works with similar strains or aims that I respect. It would be inappropriate and downright wrong to claim that any of these works published after mine were similarly influenced by me, for no other reason than it's hard to claim influence when you can't even claim more than a cumulative handful of readers. I'd be overjoyed at the thought that something I'd written had an impact on another writer - positively or negatively - and I'd have absolutely no problem with it. (Within certain limits. I'm completely aghast at the type of literary strip mining practiced by, for example, Michael Crichton. For an example that I am not nearly the first to point out, compare Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather and Dr. Crichton's Twister.) But I am a huge believer, as these notes emphasize, in the ongoing dialogue that has continued over years and even generations between creative works, a phenomenon that has been particularly powerful in the evolution of speculative fiction, from the hard scientific to the out-and-out fantastical. Watching this call-and-response ping-pong game is quite a rewarding spectator sport.

SOC: The DAW Cover

I actually own the cover painting for Catastrophe's Spell, even though I've never been completely happy with it. The proportions are wrong, for one thing - Max and Haddo are way too large and the bird is far too small for one, although much of that can be explained by the need to fit them on the short dimension of a paperback cover and still have some slight idea of what you're seeing. Overall, though, not bad, and clearly a scene drawn from the book. The artist is Walter Velez.

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SOI Chapter 1: "The World Already in Progress"

This title had been kicking around in the back of my mind for years before it finally appeared at the opening of Spell of Intrigue. Until I started ransacking my old papers in storage, I had forgotten just how far I'd been carrying it around: the first limited draft of what later grew into Catastrophe, dated 1980, had this title. (I'll post this version, unedited, after I finish the main series.) It was inspired by what used to be the standard broadcast seque from a program interruption for some item of emergency news: "We return you now to the program already in progress."


One of the most enjoyable parts of doing a series is the opportunity to reintroduce your surviving characters in each new installment. One exemplar of whom I'm particularly font is Dorothy Dunnett. She  was one of the greatest practitioners of the art of clever character introductions; in at least three books (Niccolo Rising, Queen's Play, and King Hereafter) she concealed the introduction of her main character for a good stretch of each story, hiding him in plain sight but in disguise, under another name, or through other chameleonic subterfuges.

SOI Chapter 2: "A Crisis of Identity"

The incident with the ox, the sheep, and well is, of course, a small greatest hits version of several famous cases from the Talmud, from a tractate commonly encountered by beginners.  This scene in the book had grown organically out of the narrative - I hadn't seen it coming or taken notes on it until the Sword was actually narrating it - but as I reflected on it I realized I might be able to mine this motif further as things moved ahead.

SOI Chapter 5: "Ice Cubes"

This chapter presents as good an example as I can think of of the worldview of my characters. In a situation of unanticipated but increasingly mortal peril, there is no panicked rushing about or frantic raising of voices, but rather a generally blase and workmanlike acceptance of whatever nuttiness happens by. In this, they are attempting to follow in the footsteps of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the coolest characters in fantasy fiction, who somehow managed to keep up a running flow of situationally-appropriate yet unimpressedly jaded commentary, no matter the provocation.

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