Friday, May 31, 2013

Follow Friday - 17 U.S.C. § 109 Supports the Existence of Used Book Stores in the United States

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Mad Hatter Reads and The Fiction Conniption.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What blogger would you most like to meet in real life? Tell us about him or her.

For the purposes of this question I'm going to leave out people who I would like to meet for other reasons but just happen to blog such as John Scalzi, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Nicola Griffith, and so on. They all have blogs that are interesting, informative, and fun to read, but their blogging is not why I'd like to meet them. In all of those cases, they are well-known for something other than blogging, and their blog is merely a conduit by which they communicate with the public outside of their "real" work.

With that in mind, I'm going to pick someone who is an author, but who I know primarily through her blogging and other online activities: Julia Rachel Barrett who writes the blog Julia Barrett's World. I know, I sound a little like a broken record because I've referred to her so many times before, but that is because she is just that awesome. Her blog posts are always interesting, and interacting with her online is always enjoyable. In addition to being smart and witty, she is also one of the nicest people you could meet online.And for all these reasons, and more, she is the blogger that I would most like to meet in real life.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: J.R.R. Tolkien Coined the Word "Eleventy"

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review - Seven Years of Highly Defective People by Scott Adams

Short review: A compilation of Dilbert strips focused on the individual recurring characters including Dogbert, Ratbert, Tina, Wally, the Pointy Haired Boss, and the remaining familiar cast of miscreants, slackers, clueless idiots, and other defective personalities.

Dilbert characters
And how they were developed
With commentary

Full review: After seven years of making the Dilbert comic strip, Scott Adams decided to put together a retrospective that focused on the various characters that had been developed to populate his depiction of the life of a nerdy engineer living in cubicle hell. Seven Years of Highly Defective People is the result.

The book starts off by introducing Dilbert and the formative strips that went into creating him. The strips about Dilbert cover the various issues relating to the character such as his relationship with Dogbert and his own ego, his troubles with technology and work,  his fumbling attempts to meet and date women, and of course, his somewhat temporary death. Throughout the book Adams has included side comments on many strips giving insights into his thinking behind some strips, discussing reactions the comics evoked, and the origins of many characters and strip ideas.

The book then moves on to Dogbert, showing his transformation from a somewhat sarcastic pet dog to the evil scheming dictator-in-waiting that he has become. The book moves on from the inflated ego of Dogbert to the nonexistent self-esteem of Ratbert. Later sections cover the most intelligent garbage man in the world, Liz, the one woman on Earth who seems to want to date Dilbert, Dilbert's Mom (and absent Dad), Bob the Dinosaur, Catbert, and Phil of Insufficient Light.

Just as the strip did, the book then turns to focus primarily on the characters related to Dilbert's workplace. Asok the clueless intern, Tina the Tech Writer (and her opposite Antnia), the pointy-haired boss (who wavers between active evil and simple cluelessness), Alice, Wally, and Carol. Even the Elbonians and Ted the generic guy get a chapter, as do the random creatures that show up (who aren't Dogbert, Catbert, Ratbert, or Bob). Each chapter shows how the character in question developed from an idea into the form they have taken today - in many cases what is now a single character developed out of a category of characters.

The strips are all great, which should be no surprise. The commentary provided by Adams is funny and often illuminating. (My favorite element to the commentary is seeing how many times Adams killed off side characters simply because he was bored with the story line they were in). The book even has a chapter titled "Dogbert in Hats", and any book that features an entire segment about headgear for an evil dog is definitely worth reading.

The only thing about the book that amounts to something of a flaw is that by grouping the strips by character, some of the context of the original story lines in which the strips appeared in is lost - a problem shared with Dilbert Gives You the Business. Because these strips focus on characters and character development, however, there is much less of a disjointed feeling than shows up in that volume. For someone wanting an introduction to the skewed world of Dilbert, this would be a good start. For someone who is a fan of the series, this is an exceptionally fun book to read due to the author commentary. This is simply a great collection of comics from a great strip.

Previous book in the series: Casual Day Has Gone Too Far
Subsequent book in the series: I'm Not Anti-Business, I'm Anti-Idiot

Scott Adams     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, May 27, 2013

Musical Monday - Band of Brothers Opening Theme

For Memorial Day, I'm posting the opening theme from Band of Brothers as my Musical Monday selection. The miniseries about Easy Company of the 506th of the 101st Airborne Infantry Division during World War II is a little bit of family history for me. My grandfather, Paul Wright, wasn't part of Easy Company, but he was a member of the 101st Airborne, and their story was, in large part, also his story.

His story doesn't coincide perfectly. Every man who served in World War II lived a different experience, and although I don't know all of his story, I know some. Because he was a truck driver for an oil company, he had to get a special exemption to join the U.S. Army. He wasn't part of the Normandy invasion, but rather participated in the invasion of southern France from North Africa. He may or may not have been part of Operation Market Garden, but he was definitely at Bastogne, and stayed with the division for the rest of the war. Eventually he transferred into the 82nd Airborne and participated in the occupation of Berlin. Those are the broad strokes of his service, but that's most of what we know about it. There are some details here and there, but like many men who served, after the war he came home afterwards, took up his old life, and rarely spoke about his experiences.

This song is for him, and all the other men and women who have served, including my other grandfather who had his own, very different story as part of the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II.

Previous Musical Monday: It's Not Easy Being Green by Big Bird
Subsequent Musical Monday: Firefly Opening Theme by Sonny Rhodes

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Musical Monday     Home

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review - Dark Dawning by Auguste Dinoto

Short review: A nonsensical plot with a nonsensical central character. The ludicrousness is leavened with heaping helpings of misogyny and paranoia.

Brick the manly man
Lives in a oil poor world
Ludicrousness ensues

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: In general, one can usually find at least one good thing to say about any book. For this book, here it is: This book is short. This is a merciful element, as the story is so awful it isn't even laughably bad, the characters are offensive, the writing is weak, and the setting is both ludicrous and poorly researched. In short, there are no redeeming characteristics of this book other than the fact that at 189 pages of large sized text it shouldn't take more than a couple hours to finish, assuming that one wants to devote a couple of hours to reading a really crappy book.

Dark Dawning aspires to be a near future techno-thriller set in the future in which a cataclysmic earthquake has caused the world's supply of oil to be dramatically reduced, resulting in a Fascist movement taking control of the U.S. government and declaring war on Mexico to gain control of its oil fields. Striding across this oil-free dystopian landscape is the protagonist Brick Saunders, a manly man who is so very manly that one wonders how he walks anywhere without tripping on his enormous manly penis. Brick is an investigative reporter living in San Diego, which seems to be one of the acceptable occupations for manly men, along with airplane pilot and football player. Oddly, Brick doesn't seem to much like his job, and it is implied that he was assigned the job by a government agency. This isn't entirely clear, because, like so many other elements of the book it is mentioned in passing and then never referenced again. Brick's job doesn't really matter much, since he doesn't spend a whole lot of time doing it, instead spending his hours getting drunk and high, trying to scrounge up gas so he can get out of San Diego, and having sex with almost every female character who crosses his path.

If one thinks that Brick seems a little bit like a Mary Sue character, then I would agree with you. However, Brick's manly wish-fulfillment nature is only a small part of the problem with this book. The book is riddled with typos, misspellings, and awkward or incorrect grammar. For example, several characters say "comon", when what what intended was for them to say "come on", or possibly, "c'mon". In addition to the poor quality of the writing, it is apparent that Dinoto simply didn't do much research when writing the book. The enormous earthquake that sets the stage for the book is reported as being a "15.5 magnitude" earthquake. The largest recorded magnitude for an earthquake was the 9.5 scale Valvida, Chile quake recorded in 1960, the equivalent of 2.7 gigatons of TNT. But the Richter Scale is logarithmic, meaning that each time one increases the magnitude of a quake, one increases the intensity multiple times. The largest quake that geologists think is possible is a magnitude 10 quake, which would be the equivalent to about ten gigatons of TNT. The Yucatan Peninsula impact that created the Chicxulub crater 65 million years ago and may have wiped out much of the life on Earth is estimated to have been the equivalent of a 12.5 magnitude seismic event, resulting in the release of the equivalent of 100 teratons of TNT. A 15.5 magnitude quake is virtually impossible, and even if it did happen, it would probably crack the Earth into pieces like a shattered egg. This sort of sloppiness and lack of attention to detail is evident throughout the book. At one point the reader is told that the Mexican forces have sunk a pair of the U.S. Navy's "two hundred thousand ton destroyers". The largest military ships ever built have been some of the U.S. Navy's supercarriers, which displace just over one hundred thousand tons. The largest ships ever built are enormous and clumsy oil tankers and bulk container ships, that have displaced more than two hundred thousand tons. Modern destroyers, on the other hand, generally displace between 7,000 and 10,000 tons. Given that the book takes place in 2036, it seems implausible that destroyers will grow twenty times as large as they are now. Several references are made to the use of "nuclear grenades", a weapon that seems like it would be as dangerous to the user as it was to the intended target, and as a result, adds a distinctly cartoonish flair to the story.

The story doesn't even seem to believe in itself. The cover quote says that the price of gasoline rises to $500 per gallon. References are made in the book to the price of gasoline rising into the tens of thousands of dollars per gallon. I suppose if all of the Middle-Eastern oil reserves were made unusable that this is marginally possible. But other than severely restricting consumption of fuel, the universe Dinoto created seems not to react at all. The government still uses tanker trucks to haul gasoline from place to place, people take gas, which costs upwards of a half a grand per gallon, and put it into cars to drive around. To conserve fuel, no one has hot water, and electricity is shut off every night. But most electricity in the United States is not produced using oil. Seventy-five percent of the energy currently produced in the United States comes from non-petroleum sources such as coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar. Losing access to oil would certainly have negative consequences, but the world would react in ways other than simply shutting down the hot water heaters. Why are people still shipping goods using trucks, which consume valuable oil? Why are they not using much more efficient diesel trains, or even pulling steam engines out of mothballs and shipping goods using coal power? Where are the electric cars? While renewable energy sources like wind and solar power might or might not be economically feasible right now, if the cost of oil skyrocketed as it is posited in this book, they certainly would be. So one has to ask, where are the wind farms and the solar fields? Why has the U.S. not embarked on a building program to bring numerous nuclear reactors on line? It seems that Dinoto didn't even stop to consider any of these elements in his rush to create an oil-shortage driven fascist government for the United States. The author didn't think through the implications of his own hypothetical future, leaving the reader to wonder why humans became idiots when the oil vanished.

But those are just background details, and the fact that Dinoto gets them hilariously wrong is only distracting, and not fatal. The author's lack of research shows in the political setting that is imagined to result from the oil shortage. As one might expect, the result was chaos, and apparently one man named Alib Deeds "shouted loud and long" for order, and as a result ended up in charge of the country. Not as President, but rather as Chairman of the "Oil Appropriations Committee". Given the name, one might expect that the OAC was a Congressional committee of some sort, which would make Alib a Congressman or Senator. But as the book goes on, it becomes obvious that Alib is not part of Congress, nor is the OAC a Congressional committee. Perhaps Dinoto meant for the OAC to be a powerful executive agency and just misnamed it a "committee" rather than a "commission" or an "administration". But that would place Deeds under the authority of the President, and that is decidedly not the case, as Deeds orders the actual U.S. President around any time the two of them show up together in the book. The OAC just doesn't seem to fit anywhere in the structure of the U.S. government, but since the actions deeds is supposed to have taken included federalizing all fuel producing companies, Dinoto seems to think it should. The OAC is supposedly backed by a paramilitary group called "Fledgling One", but they don't seem to fit in the government anywhere either. Late in the book, after the OAC has been overthrown, one of the characters remarks that the U.S. is "going back to a civilian government", but since the OAC is not the military, the U.S. never had a military government to begin with. The net result is that nothing about Alib Deeds' takeover of the U.S. government, the OAC, or Fledgling One makes any sense at all. It seems that Dinoto decided he wanted a fascistic government to take over the U.S., but he didn't understand anything about the U.S. government at all, and just came up with a lazy and somewhat silly story. And because the author clearly doesn't care enough about the story to strive for at least something plausible, or to give an explanation that is more than simply saying "Deeds waved his arms and yelled louder than anyone else", the reader doesn't have any reason to care about the story either.

Oddly, Brick isn't actually involved in much of the political machinations surrounding Deeds, the OAC, or the small coalition of Senators that forms to oppose them. Nor is Brick involved in any substantial way with the war between the United States and Mexico, other than living in San Diego near the border. Brick does some perfunctory reporting at parts of the story, uncovering the fact that the government is only pretending to ship oil to the San Diego fuel depot, and that the government is covering up the military successes of a particularly brutal Mexican general, but like pretty much everything else about the plot that involves Brick these revelations don't really go anywhere. Brick does decide to try to scheme his way out of San Diego, and much of the book involves his machinations aimed towards that goal. A cartoonish goon named Shlevert is provided as an obstacle, as is Cannon Leeds, who is ostensibly Brick's boss at the news station, but mostly exists in the story to harass Brick at work once in a while. And to be perfectly fair to Leeds, Brick is a pretty lousy employee: he spends most of his time at work sharpening pencils when he is not staring lasciviously at the female staff members, he shows up to work drunk or hungover multiple times in the book, he fabricates reasons to use the company vehicle. We're clearly supposed to side with Brick because Dinoto has painted "EVIL" on the ruling government in great big red neon colored letters, but the truth is that it is difficult to root for Brick because he's a horrible person.

Among Brick's many reprehensible qualities, the most glaring is that he is, bluntly, a misogynist in a book that wholeheartedly approves of his misogyny. Brick lusts after his beautiful coworker Tyra, and she is smitten with him as well. But when she suggests that maybe they should spend the night together as equals because, as she says "women are free", he glares at the stack of "feminist magazines" and turns her down before storming out to engage in an internal monologue about how women run society and whining about how men have to follow rules laid down by women. While still mooning over Tyra (and trying to figure out how to get her away from her "feminist magazines"), Brick fills in the time by having a drunken night of sex with their other coworker Blanchie, who reads romance novels, which seem to be on brick's list of acceptable reading material for women. A no-strings attached night of sex with Tyra is apparently offensive to Brick's "men's rights" sensibilities, but to show he is still a manly man, it is okay for him to have a no-string attached night of sex with the disposable Blanchie. But the misogynistic tone of the book reaches its height when Brick and Tyra scheme to get Shlevert out of the way in order to make their escape from San Diego. They cook up a plot that involves tricking Shlevert into an amateur sex club where Leeds' daughter Denise is a regular performer so they can take photos of Shlevert having sex with Denise to use as blackmail material. Of course, both the club's owner Roz and Denise find Brick irresistible, and he has sex with both of them. Apparently having sex with the boss' daughter is fine, so long as you don't get photographed doing it. Both Roz and Denise aren't so much characters in the story as they are two walking sets of breasts equipped with vaginas who exist to serve as wish fulfillment fantasies for the author and provide a plot point that turns out to be mostly irrelevant to the story.

And this last point highlights the final failing of Dark Dawning: Despite containing a lot of motion, the book doesn't contain a lot of plot. The various characters do a lot of things, but most of the things they do end up being more or less irrelevant to how events proceed. Brick, Tyra, Shlevert, and the rest of the characters in San Diego have no effect one way or another on the political struggle, or the war between the U.S. and its southern neighbor. Brick and Tyra spend a lot of time scheming to get out of the city, but in the end their plans collapse to "drive really fast in a car and shoot anyone who gets in our way". Despite the fact that the Mexican army is imminently going to sack and despoil San Diego, Brick isn't even able to manage the simple goal of broadcasting a warning to the citizenry. In the end, the only people who manage to leave before the incoming invasion are Brick and Tyra. And in a way that is a fitting end for this terrible book: A horrible self-absorbed narcissist flies into the sunset accompanied by the arm-candy he managed to browbeat out of considering herself to be his equal. In the end, Dark Dawning is a terrible book in almost every way that it is possible for a book to be terrible, with bad writing, a bad story, an implausible setting, and despicable characters that are somehow still two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. There is really no good reason for anyone who is not Brick Saunders to ever read this book.

Auguste Dinoto     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Saturday, May 18, 2013

2013 Nebula Award Nominees

Location: San Jose, California

Comments: 2013 was the year that the SFWA purged itself of the taint of one of the most racist, sexist, homophobic asshats in genre fiction. This is relevant here, because the main reason for this individual's removal from the organization was his attacks upon author N.K. Jemisin, nominated for a Nebula Award for her novel The Killing Moon. His attacks upon Jemisin were beyond the pale, so the poetic justice of her being nominated for one of the highest awards in genre fiction in the same year should be readily apparent. She didn't win, but the nomination of her work is recognition of its excellence that is far beyond anything that her attacker will ever attain.

On a more mundane, and enjoyable front, this year proved to be a very good year for Ken Liu, who received three nominations for his work, as well as Aliette de Bodard, who received two for hers. Joss Weedon also did very well this year, garnering nominations his participation in The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods.

Best Novel

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Other Nominees:
The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal
Ironskin by Tina Connolly
The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Best Novella

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress

Other Nominees:
All the Flavors by Ken Liu
Barry's Tale by Lawrence M. Schoen
Katabasis by Robert Reed
On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake

Best Novelette

Close Encounters by Andy Duncan

Other Nominees:
Fade to White by Catherynne M. Valente
The Finite Canvas by Brit Mandelo
Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia by Rachel Swirsky
The Pyre of New Day by Catherine Asaro
Swift, Brutal Retaliation by Meghan McCarron
The Waves by Ken Liu

Best Short Story

Immersion by Aliette de Bodard

Other Nominees:
The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species by Ken Liu
Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain by Cat Rambo
Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes by Tom Crosshill
Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream by Maria Dahvana Headley
Nanny's Day by Leah Cypess
Robot by Helena Bell

Ray Bradbury Award

Beasts of the Southern Wild directed by Benh Zeitlin; written by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Abilar

Other Nominees:
The Avengers directed by Joss Whedon; written by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn
The Cabin in the Woods directed by Drew Goddard; written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard
The Hunger Games directed by Gary Ross, written by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray
John Carter directed by Andrew Stanton; written by Michael Chabon, Mark Andrews, and Andrew Stanton
Looper by Rian Johnson

Andre Norton Award

Fair Coin by E.C. Myers

Other Nominees:
Above by Leah Bobet
Above World by Jenn Reese
Black Heart by Holly Black
The Diviners by Libba Bray
Enchanted by Alethea Kontis
Every Day by David Levithan
Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill
Railsea by China Miéville
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst

Go to previous year's nominees: 2012
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2014

Book Award Reviews     Home

Friday, May 17, 2013

Follow Friday - Ulysses Killed All 108 of Penelope's Unwelcome Suitors

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - The Bookish Confections and Picture Me Reading.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: School is out! What is your favorite Summer Reading book?

Summer time for me always feels like Tolkien. I'm not as obsessive as Christopher Lee, who asserts that he rereads the entirety of The Lord of the Rings once a year, but I have reread Tolkien's work several times. And it almost always happens during the summer months. The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and works like The Tolkien Reader have all been on my summer reading list more than once.

But the most quintessentially "summer-ish" book for me is, and always has been The Hobbit. And it is all about how I first came to read the book. My father was, and remains a Tolkien fan. Probably not as much of a Tolkien fan as I am, but sufficiently enough of one to introduce me to The Hobbit at a fairly early age. When I was seven or eight, he began reading to book to me a page or two at a time as bedtime stories during summer break. When the school year started up again, this sort of petered out - I think we got through about a third of the book before we more or less just stopped. Shortly thereafter, the Rankin-Bass animated version aired on television, which I eagerly watched and loved.

When we moved to Tanzania just before I entered the fourth grade, my parents bought me John Huston's narrated album version of the Rankin-Bass adaptation. While in Tanzania, I pretty much wore the grooves out on the album by listening to it incessantly. Finally, in the summer in between my fourth and fifth grade school years, I sat down with The Hobbit again and started reading. I read through the night, and finished the book just as the sun started to rise. From then on, I was hooked. I read The Lord of the Rings over the next week, and moved on to The Silmarillion as soon as I could get my hands on it. I found Tolkien during my summers in between school years. When I return to his work, it always seems to be summer.

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Review - The Forever Knight by John Marco

Short review: Lukien is a knight who cannot die, so he takes a teenage girl as a squire and leads her into danger.

An immortal knight
Looks for a worthy mission
Gets his squire killed

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Forever Knight is a fantasy novel centered around the titular character, also known as Lukien the Bronze Knight, an apparently immortal warrior bound to Malator, the spirit of the dead wizard contained inside of his magic sword. The novel is a fairly standard fantasy story complete with a questing knight, a squire with a memory problem, an unscrupulous merchant, and a evil warlord who comes with a sadistic henchman and an army of creepy half-dead soldiers. The story has definite strong points, with interesting set piece scenes that are generally interesting and well-executed, but has a few minor flaws, mostly involving some weak characterization and difficulty in transition scenes.

The book opens with Lukien busy hunting a Rass, a dangerous and giant snake-like creature, near the city of Jador. The difficulties of the hunt serve to define Lukien's somewhat lukewarm death-wish, and his odd love-hate relationship with Malator, and results in Lukien returning to the city victorious and in possession of the skin of a Rass. It quickly becomes apparent that The Forever Knight is the fourth book in the series, and that the collection of preexisting character relationships and established world-lore will shape Lukien's actions throughout the novel. Because the plot of this novel involves Lukien heading off into uncharted territory with only a preteen girl as his companion, this is not a huge issue, but early in the book the reader is confronted with a cast of established characters accompanied by little more than some perfunctory exposition as to who they are and how they fit in. And while there are glimmers that indicate that the story of how these characters got to this point might have been interesting, there is little in this volume that helps the reader feel the weight of that history. And this is unfortunate, because without that foundation, many of Lukien's actions seem to lack any sort of real motivation.

So, after returning to Jador, a city full of people who are immortal because the Akari, who seem to be somewhat mercurial guardian spirits, have elected to bind with them, Lukien moons over his lost love for a bit, and then meets up with his friends from the previous books and is told that he should go and become a knight-errant, probably in the Broken Lands because that's where there are adventures to be had and wrongs to be righted. Against the advice of Malator, Lukien decides to bring Cricket, a young girl from Akyre in the Broken Lands, as his squire. Cricket has lost her memory, and both she and Lukien think that taking her to the Broken Lands might unlock her hidden past. Malator, on the other hand, thinks that the Broken Lands are incredibly dangerous and it would be foolish to take a preteen girl into them. Based upon nothing more and a fairly undefined desire to do good deeds and a vague plan to restore Cricket's memory, Lukien packs up and hauls Cricket across the desert into the war-torn Broken Lands. And the somewhat ill-defined reasons motivating Lukien herald one of the recurring issues of The Forever Knight: Once Marco has gotten his characters to where he wants them to be, he is able to write interesting scenes, but transitioning from one scene to another frequently feels forced and artificial, with people taking actions for poorly defined and even more poorly articulated reasons. Lukien's fight with the Rass is interesting. The encounter between Lukien and Cricket and the desert caravan of Sariyah is interesting. Lukien and Cricket's brief stay in the city of Arad is interesting. But, by contrast, the links that move Lukien from one place to another are incredibly flimsy.

As a result, Lukien's character seems to drift through the plot of the book as events unfold around him. There is a good story here, featuring Anton the amoral merchant and his relationship with the tyrannical and power-crazed King Diriel which foments a war that draws in most of the Broken Kingdoms by the end. But Lukien himself seems to just wander aimlessly from place to place for much of the book. Lukien meets Marilius, a mercenary captain, who cryptically asks the knight for help, leading him to Anton, who cryptically explains that the merchant has been plagued by some sort of monster, which Malator had earlier cryptically warned Lukien about. lukien then heads off to confront the monster without much of a plan other than "ride up to it with my sword", a plan that somewhat predictably fails, because if that was a solid plan one would think that one of the dozens of mercenaries that Anton had hired to guard him might have been able to pull it off already. But this sort of floundering about without a plan seems to be standard for Lukien as he wanders about the Broken Lands. Lukien goes to meet Direl, and his creepy pedophile henchman Wrestler (who seems to have a fixation on Cricket), after tangling with the monster, Lukien thinks maybe he should investigate where it came from, and so on. One thing he doesn't do, and which he makes cryptic excuses for several times, is take Cricket to the one location in the Broken Lands that she seems to remember, despite her repeated requests to do so, and despite the fact that helping her recover her memory was the only actual plan Lukien had when he set out for the Broken Lands.

And this highlights the fact that Cricket isn't actually a character, but is rather a plot device. Cricket seems to exist in the story to be around to deliver some unexpected exposition concerning a strange piece of writing, and to provide Lukien with a reason to seek revenge against Diriel and Wrestler. This point is driven home when the mystery of Cricket's memory loss is solved and it turns out to have no bearing at all on the plot of the novel. Cricket is, for the most part, simply a convenient way to move Lukien about the countryside, and when her usefulness has expired, she is perfunctorily discarded from the narrative. To a certain extent this is also true of Malator, but since he is a spirit confined within a magical sword, the fact that he is a plot device is somewhat more justifiable. Malator seems to exist solely to provide Lukien with the necessary dribs and drabs of information required to keep the plot going, and to provide supernatural aid to keep Lukien alive when he runs hilariously dangerous risks. The problem is that other than the fact that the author doesn't want to let the reader in on information yet, there seems to be no reason for Malator to retreat into cryptic utterances when Lukien understandably asks what Malator's plan for him is, or when Lukien asks for pretty much any other information. This sort of cryptic adviser is a common trope in fantasy fiction, but, like here, it often doesn't make sense. There's no apparent character-driven reason for Malator to withhold what he knows from Lukien, other than perhaps a desire to annoy the knight that he purports to have such lofty plans for.

Fortunately, once Cricket leaves the story, the pace begins to pick up. Lucien, having meandered through the story up to this point, seems to focus on a goal, and takes an active role in shaping events, as opposed to his earlier pattern of indifferently allowing events to happen around him. When Lukien begins to take charge, the book seems to come to life and a pretty good fantasy war story is revealed, as he and his chosen side desperately try to scrape together friends and allies to confront Direl's larger army with its magically enhanced elite forces. There are a few puzzling plot contrivances even at this stage - for example, everyone seems surprised that Direl has been waging a successful war against their neighbors and Lukien seems to unravel the mystery of the deadly monster more or less by guessing, but these niggling issues are trampled under the hooves to the galloping plot as it rushes to its action-packed conclusion. Once again, the fact that this is the fourth book in the series comes in to play as fighting men arrive to aid Lukien in his endeavors, drawn by his reputation as a valiant warrior. But nothing Lukien does before these men arrive in this book would warrant such adulation, which means that anyone reading this book simply has to take it on faith that the aimless hero that wandered about for the first half of the book had done something worthwhile prior to that point.

I am somewhat concerned that my review of The Forever Knight may make it sound like it is a book I didn't enjoy. Let me be clear: This is a perfectly good fantasy book, with some decent characters, well-written scenes, and a plot that is interesting once it gets rolling. But throughout the book there seems to be the feeling that this is merely a placeholder for a series in transition. After the plot of this book is complete, Malator reveals to Lukien that the knight has a strange and unique power that has resulted from the loss of his own soul. The revelation of this power, it seems, is at the heart of Malator's purported plan for Lukien, and might have saved a lot of trouble had Malator revealed it to the hero earlier. In the end, it seems like this entire book has merely been a dilatory diversion intended to delay the introduction of the new and improved Lukien who will presumably be featured in future installments of the series. Even so, it is a reasonably enjoyable diversion that will entertain a fantasy fan. Those who have read and enjoyed previous books in the series will probably love this book. Those who have not should probably go and read them first before reading this one.

John Marco     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, May 13, 2013

Musical Monday - It's Not Easy Being Green by Big Bird

This past week has been something of a lost week for me. During first part of the week I was swamped at work, and in the second half of the week I got sick and as a result I was unmotivated to do anything productive for two days. I followed this week up with an emotionally draining weekend that involved dealing with a passively-aggressive surly teenager who was himself dealing with a tough situation. And although the surliness is understandable, it didn't make it any easier to deal with. To top things off, I was so worn out that I forgot to try to call my mother until fairly late in the evening yesterday, and she didn't answer her cell phone. So now she's annoyed with me too. I think I'm just going to forget last week ever happened and start this one as if it was actually May 6th instead of May 13th.

So I'm going to kick off this week on a down note with a Musical Monday that is both depressing and bittersweet. This Thursday, May 16th, will mark the 23rd anniversary of Jim Henson's death. Anyone who has been paying attention will know that Henson's work has played a significant role in my life. I grew up on Sesame Street, was enraptured by The Muppet Show, eagerly rushed to the theater to watch The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and The Dark Crystal. I loved the Jim Henson Storyteller series and Fraggle Rock. Even after his death, the influence of Henson's legacy continued for me, with the release of his production company's space opera Farscape. I have determined, based on the range that Henson's work covers, that everything he did counts as science fiction or fantasy, and thus will probably eventually review and comment much of it on this blog. I am who I am, in no small part, because of Henson. And that is why his untimely death from an untreated streptococcal infection was such a blow.

After Henson died, his friends and family organized a public memorial service so that the millions of people whose lives he had touched could say goodbye. As was typical for Henson, he left some instructions: No one was to wear black, and he wanted singing and butterflies. Big Bird came to the service and sang It's Not Easy Being Green. Just try not to tear up when he says, "Thank you Kermit".

Previous Musical Monday: Blake's 7 Closing Scene and Theme
Subsequent Musical Monday: Band of Brothers Opening Theme

Caroll Spinney     Musical Monday     Home

Monday, May 6, 2013

Musical Monday - Blake's 7 Closing Scene and Theme

Continuing my project of incorporating the music from my list of the Top Ten Science Fiction Television Shows into my Musical Monday series, this week's choice is from the dystopian British television series Blake's 7. This series has sometimes been called the anti-Star Trek due to its bleak and cynical vision of the future, and this assessment is not far off. In many ways, the show seems to have intentionally subverted the tropes used by Star Trek, inverting what was good and hopeful in the previous series into a twisted and horrifying parody.

Just to demonstrate how dark Blake's 7 truly was as a series, the sequence that runs here is the final scene of the final episode. Avon, the central character on screen, is the last member of the seven left standing after a collection of twists and turns have led to internal dissension and apparent betrayal. Avon, suspecting that Blake has turned against the rebellion he helped created, has killed him (that's the body that Avon straddles at the very end), after which another person revealed themselves to be a Federation spy. The troops that enter and surround Avon are Federation soldiers - essentially the minions of the evil government that Blake's group has been striving against for the entire series. Although not shown, it is implied that Avon dies. The evil Federation wins.

Despite this, the series is brilliant. The setting is interesting, the characters are well-written and well acted. Granted, the special effects are awful, a fact that is true for most classic British science fiction shows, but the characters and stories more than make up for it.

Note that this version has been slightly modified from the original ending. In the original, after the screen went black, there was a brief period of silence followed by the sounds of a firefight. Some people have declared that based upon the various gun sounds, they think Avon lived and defeated the Federation soldiers, although I have to say that seems extraordinarily unlikely.

Subsequent Musical Monday: It's Not Easy Being Green by Big Bird

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Musical Monday     Home

Friday, May 3, 2013

Follow Friday - There Are Currently One Hundred and Seven Nobel Laureates in Literature

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Pretty Deadly Reviews and Boarding with Books.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Give us a sneak! What are you reading? Tell us about a fun or fail scene in your current read.

I am currently reading The Iron King, a historical fiction novel by Maurice Druon. The novel, written originally in French, is the first of a seven book series about the intrigues of the Capetian and Plantagenet dynasties that led to the Hundred Years War. The series has been cited by George R.R. Martin as one of the inspirations for his Song of Ice and Fire series, and the influence easy to see when one is reading The Iron King.

One of the interesting scenes takes place when Grand Marshall Jacques de Molay of the Templars is being executed. The fact that he and his fellow Templars would be executed was more or less a foregone conclusion in the book, since it is a well-documents event in history, and if things had turned out differently then all pretense at being historical fiction would have been lost. And since his final words were also a matter of historical record, the fact that he announced that his persecutors would soon stand before God's judgment was also no surprise. But the scene is so well-written that it seems fresh, and even though a reasonably informed reader will already know what is coming, it still seems almost shocking when it happens.

Another compelling scene is the banishment of all three of the princesses of France for adultery. Once again, this is a well-documented historical fact, as two of the daughters-in-law of Philip the Fair were actually convicted of adultery and sentenced to life imprisonment, while the third was convicted of conspiring to aid the others in their adultery and sentenced to imprisonment for an indefinite period of time. The scenes surrounding this event, which is the pivotal moment in the novel, and the pivotal moment in the series, as it cast the line of succession to the throne of France into chaos, are fascinating to read, not just for the historical content, but for the deft way in which Druon makes these momentous events clearly human events, driven by vanity, greed, jealousy, and anger. For example, the princesses live are spared not because of any particular magnanimity on the part of the King, but rather because to execute them would have impoverished one of his sons. The accusations against the princesses were instigated by Isabella of England and Robert of Artois, who laid a trap to reveal the affairs. In the book, Isabella is motivated by personal animosity, while Robert is motivated by a desire to gain the upper hand against his aunt in a dispute over property, and the result of these petty aims is to throw the entire nation into chaos, and spark a war that would last a century. But it all revolves around a scene in which the three princesses are before the King, their heads shaved in shame, saying goodbye to their husbands forever after watching their lovers get flayed alive. And the scene is gripping, and brilliant.

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review - L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume XXVIII by K.D. Wentworth (editor)

Stories included:
Of Woven Wood by Marie Croke
The Rings of Mars by William Ledbetter
The Paradise Aperture by David Carani
Fast Draw by Roy Hardin
The Siren by M.O. Muriel
Contact Authority by William Mitchell
The Command for Love by Nick Tchan
My Name Is Angela by Harry Lang
Lost Pine by Jacob A. Boyd
Shutdown by Corry L. Lee
While Ireland Holds These Graves by Tom Doyle
The Poly Islands by Gerald Warfield
Insect Sculptor by Scott T. Barnes

Essays included:
Story Vitality by L. Ron Hubbard
The Importance of Short Fiction by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Advice for a New Illustrator by Shaun Tan

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The twenty-eighth installment of the L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future anthology continues the tradition of showcasing the best science fiction authors whose work has previously not been professionally published. As usual, the stories in this collection are all pretty good, and some reveal authors who one could very easily see writing great stories in the future. The only thing that is a little disturbing about this selection of works is that although some of the writers included are young up and comers, there seem to be far too many older authors represented in their ranks. While the contest rules are clear, and the only requirement an author has to meet is that they do not have any previous professional sales, it seems to defeat the purpose of a contest titled "Writers of the Future" when middle-aged authors who have turned to fiction writing as a second career are featured.

One element that runs through the stories in the volume is that many feel like they should be longer stories, feeling oddly truncated or somehow incomplete. The first story in the book, Of Woven Wood by Marie Croke, displays this characteristic, told from the perspective of a magical construct named Lan made from wood full of internal containers used by the apothecary Haigh to store his supplies. But Haigh is dead, killed by a fire that destroyed most of his laboratory, and Lan is taking refuge with the apothecary's neighbor Jaddi. As the story opens, Lan's head aches, a condition which he attributes to the fact that his head container is empty. But none of his other containers ever hurt when they are empty, which confuses Lan. The story is complicated when visitors from the royal court arrive claiming that Haigh stole something valuable from the queen, although for most of the story they won't say what it is that they are looking for. The queen's emissaries leave for a bit, Lan cleans up Haigh's house, goes through his notes, and begins filling in for Haigh as an apothecary, and the story meanders along for a bit until  the queen herself shows up and everything ties up in a little bow in the last few pages. The problem I have with the story is that the transition from the mystery of Lan's confusion to the resolution of the story feels incredibly abrupt, as if there were chunks of plot development left out of the middle. The premise and characters are interesting, and the world that the story takes place in seems interesting, but the plot just doesn't seem to be fully fleshed out. I enjoyed the story, but it needed to be developed more.

The Rings of Mars by William Ledbetter is another story that seems like there should have been more story, or at least there should be a sequel. A somewhat eccentric explorer on Mars named Jack has discovered a pattern of anomalies that lead him to believe that intelligent life left a message for travelers from Earth to find. For reasons that aren't ever really explained, Jack is being prematurely shipped home by the company sponsoring the expedition, and blames his friend Malcom at least partially for this turn of events. After a perfunctory tiff between the two, Jack and Malcolm patch up their differences to thumb their nose at the evil corporation that paid a fortune to transport them to Mars and explore the anomalies themselves. Helped be a cooperative sandstorm, the pair have just enough time to do some destructive archaeology and uncover the secret message left behind by the mysterious alien benefactors. Still intent on foiling the corporation that pays them and makes their explorations even possible, the story ends with Malcolm and Jack splitting up so that they can upload the message publicly to everyone. The story is a fairly standard alien archaeology story, albeit one that is told fairly well. But it seems like the middle of a larger, more complete story. The set-up, explaining why Jack is being ejected from Mars, and exactly why the corporation is supposed to be nefarious, seems to be missing, and the story just seems to end abruptly when things started to get really interesting.

Sometimes a story has an interesting idea, is well-written, has sympathetic characters and a coherent plot, and yet it still adds up to an unsatisfying read. The Paradise Aperture by David Carani is one of those stories. Jon is a photographer with an unusual talent: when he takes pictures of certain doors, those pictures then become doorways to other worlds. He has become rich off of this talent, but it also caused him to lose his wife when she retreated behind such a door picture to escape their burning house. Five years later, Jon searches the world with his daughter Irene looking for just the right door that will lead him into the pocket universe where his wife is trapped. The story meanders along, giving hints that there is a religious backlash against his ability, which eventually results in a government ban on him using his talent. For no apparent reason Jon decides to set up a pair of doors facing one another, and somehow this proves to be the secret to finding his wife, and results in the multiverse of hidden universes behind the door pictures shattering. Every piece of the story works, but somehow it adds up to less than the individual pieces suggest it should. The reason for Jon's power is never explained, nor is how his power works. He just "knows" which doors to photograph. The multiverse of pocket dimensions behind the doors is never explained or described in any way, and as a result when Jon does his "two doors facing one another" trick, it seems to come out of left field, because the reader has no reason to believe it would work, and no clue as to why it works. The story ends up being an example of a man's dedication to keep going in the hope of finding his lost love, but without any real indication as to how she got lost or how he found her again, the search feels almost pointless, and the resolution seems contrived.

The singularity, the concept that at a certain point artificial intelligence will become as capable as human intelligence, and will then rapidly surpass us as succeeding and increasingly sophisticated generations of new artificial intelligences are built, has become a fairly common science fiction trope in recent years. Fast Draw by Roy Hardin draws upon this well, and couples it with a story of love gone wrong as Jack, a relatively old AI that is still far superior to normal humans, is threatened by his human ex-girlfriend Gloria in a bar. Most of the story takes place in the time it takes for Gloria to draw her gun and fire, which is an eternity for the accelerated thought processes of an AI of Jack's capabilities. The story alternates between Jack's flirtation with a pretty bar patron as Gloria draws her weapon, and digressions explaining the development of powerful AIs and the resulting stratified society driven by the fact that AIs separated by more than a handful of generations have such disparate capabilities that they find it hard to interact directly. The story moves along until there is a fairly predictable twist involving the pretty AI that Jack is talking with at the bar, and then another more or less unexpected twist that comes out of left field. The story is decently written and readable but most of it is simply explaining how the singularity would work, and as a result it isn't particularly memorable.

Since the release of the Matrix movies, there seems to have been a modest trend towards Matrix -like science fiction in print. The idea of humans sleeping away their lives while controlled by some outside entity isn't new - I first encountered it when I was a teenager reading Dean Koontz' Wake Up to Thunder - but it does make for some good science fiction. And The Siren by M.O. Muriel, follows this tradition, and the resulting story is pretty good science fiction. Janie is a troubled teenager who wakes up one day in a strange coffin-like bed in a honeycomb of countless sleeping people. Through the course of the story it is revealed that this is the collective human unconscious, and everyone on Earth has essentially had their minds shut off so that an alien race of invaders can occupy our bodies. Janie's mind is "fractured" as a result of her schizophrenia, and as a result, she can dissociate enough to "wake up" in the collective unconscious and move about. She meets several other people with similar abilities, most of whom have various mental illnesses that fracture their minds. What was a disability in the "normal" world becomes a valuable attribute in the collective human unconsciousness that allows humanity to fight back against the alien interlopers. The Siren is told out of order, as one might expect from the somewhat jumbled mind of a schizophrenic teenager, and was yet another story that left me feeling like it was a truncated excerpt drawn from a larger one, leaving me wondering, for example, what happened to the aliens who were lured by Janie and disposed of. Even so, it is an interesting and well-written story, and one of the best in the volume.

Most alien contact stories place humans either as the technologically superior race interacting with a nation of supposedly primitive aliens, or as comparative barbarians faced with advanced and inscrutable denizens from afar. Contact Authority by William Mitchell manages to place humans in both positions at once, sandwiching his characters between the awesome might of the Alliance, and the almost incomprehensible Caronoi. Humanity is the most freshly minted member of the somewhat misnamed "Alliance", a vast interstellar community that evaluates every race when it achieves gravity control technology and either admits them as a member or annihilates them. The Alliance has handed humans the task of investigating the Caronoi, a new race that seems to be on the verge of discovering gravity control technology, but is a strange race that lives what seem to be pre-agricultural lives punctuated by massive singing sessions in which they hatch technologically advanced ideas and then execute them, such as building and sending out robot probes to explore their solar system. The story focuses on Jared, a special agent sent by the human Office of Alliance Liaison to investigate what appear to be premature contacts between the human observers and the Caronoi. His covert sleuthing is exposed and becomes an official inquiry, leading him to Rory Temple, the grandson of the man who had established humanity's contact with the Alliance and supposedly saved us from destruction. Jared discards Rory as suspect, and then comes back to him, and then learns what the Alliance really wants to know about both the Caronoi and us, and everything ends up turning on a couple of mathematical models that economists use to evaluate behavior. The story is an interesting twist on the traditional alien contact story that reminded me a little bit of that found in David Brin's Uplift setting. In the end, I wanted to read more about the Alliance and the aliens that comprised it, which seems to me to be an indication that the story was successful.

As I said earlier, several of the stories in this volume seem like they are actually novel length stories that have been squashed until they fit into a short fiction format. The Command for Love by Nick T. Chan definitely feels like a novel length story that has been compressed into a shorter work. The story centers on Ligish, an ancient war golem now serving the mostly senile Master Grey as a house servant. Ligish is concerned, because the homunculus that directs his subconscious has been giving him commands to love his master's daughter Anna. The plot is driven by an unwelcome marriage contract arranged by General Maul for Anna's hand, who it is implied took advantage of Master Grey's mental infirmity to force the contract into existence. Because the law in this world only recognizes men as self-aware beings, and thus all women, golems, and homunculi are required to obey them. Ligish sets out to prove Anna is self-aware, and ends up on a quest across the strange golem-shaped landscape to talk to God. The story is so densely packed that the reader is left wanting to know more about the elements that make it up. The story offers only tantalizing glimpses of the strange clockwork golem world,and its strange clockwork golem God, and the strange regimented society that inhabits it. The various characters are interesting, but the story has to rush by them so fast in order to get through the vast scope of the plot that they are given a short shrift. We are told that Master Grey is a beloved but doddering man, but we don't ever get to see him as such. We are told that Anna is a brilliant young woman, but we have only a limited amount of characterization in the story to establish this. The priest Ligish consults seems like an interesting character, but he's never developed. Maul is very villainous, but there really seems to be almost nothing to him other than sneering arrogance. In the middle of the story, Gabriel, the King of the Golems, drops in without any warning, or really even any indication that such a character existed prior to his intrusion into Ligish's story. If The Command for Love were a novel length story, all of these elements could have been explored, and when I was reading the story, I found myself wishing they were. The story as presented gives the framework for the achingly tragic love story that it intends to be, but everything about it felt truncated and incomplete. I liked the short story presented here, but I wanted to read the novel it yearns to be.

Some stories remind you of other stories you read previously, and make you think about those sotires again. My Name Is Angela by Harry Lang is one of those stories, because when I was reading it, I found myself comparing it to the Robot stories of Isaac Asimov. In this story Angela is an elementary school teacher, but she doesn't recognize her students and seems emotionally detached. She goes home to her companion Bruno who watches wrestling on television and doesn't seem to be able to recognize any of the participants. She cooks their food, irons their clothes, grades tests, and has sex with Bruno. And she hits him with an iron when she's mad at him. But even though she's human, she's product and so is her partner, manufactured to serve as a permanent underclass to handle menial tasks. And when one realizes this, one's mind recoils at the idea of creating people in this way for this purpose. Which is where the Robot stories come in. In Asimov's books, robots are given positronic brains that function as well as human brains with built in limitations, and are intended to serve as servants to handle menial and dangerous jobs so humans don't have to. But the moral question that confronts the reader in My Name Is Angela simply doesn't work into the Robot stories at all. Creating a race of self-aware slaves seems perfectly fine if they are made of metal and wires, but morally abhorrent if they are mentally limited constructs of flesh and blood. One wonders why this is. Is it because Angela cooks oatmeal for Bruno? Because she irons clothes and has sex? But this is the central horror of the story: what if a corporation did create human constructs to live among us. Angela isn't a person, but is rather property, and is treated as such. But Angela is human, with human desires and human aspirations, which collides with her manufacturer's goals. My Name is Angela is a sad, terrifying, and ultimately very human tale, and is quite good and truly frightening at the same time.

Featuring children left to fend for themselves after all the adults in the world have been overcome by an alien plague that encases them in hardened amber called "the crud", Lost Pine by Jacob A. Boyd seems to be somewhat reminiscent of a science fiction version of Lord of the Flies, with enigmatic aliens thrown in for good measure. The story features a pair of teens named Gage and Adah living at the Lost Pine Inn, having taken over when they found it abandoned after the encasement of its former owners. The pair are hiding from the mobs of lawless gangs that have taken control of the cities following the collapse of civilization. They are visited by another refugee, a kid using the pseudonym Monk, which raises Gage's suspicions, because he reasons that anyone who uses a pseudonym has something to hide. The three children work out an accommodation that they all can live with, and the story proceeds to unload some exposition on the reader, outlining where the crud came from, how Gage and Adah figured out how to fend for themselves, and Gage's obsession with opening a locked gun safe in the basement of the Lost Pine. After some twists and turns, the aliens themselves show up and the kids figure out their plan, which turns out to be potentially benevolent, but which seems almost insanely cruel by human standards. The story is decent, but with so much left unexplained, it seems like the first act of a story rather than a complete story in itself.

One of the oddest things about Shutdown by Corry L. Lee is that I enjoyed everything about the story except the actual story. The world that Lee imagines is interesting, with humanity threatened by a strange alien invasion of mechanical flora and fauna that the characters aren't even sure is actually an invasion. The character at the center of the story - an aspiring ballet dancer named Adanna who joins the military because she needs prosthetic fingers to realize her dream of being a professional dancer - is unusual, interesting, and fairly well-characterized. And the situation Adanna finds herself in where she is called upon to voluntarily shut her entire body down in order to avoid alien detection, is also interesting. But once Adanna succeeds in penetrating the alien habitat, causes some trouble, and then makes her escape, the what little there is to the plot more or less peters out. The nature of the aliens is never expanded upon. The importance of Adanna's actions is never elucidated. And Adanna, having accomplished enough to realize her dream of being in a professional ballet company decides to throw that dream aside for no particularly apparent reason. This is another story that felt like it should have been part of a larger story, probably serving as the expository prologue for whatever story that it was part of. And while what was delivered was interesting, what was delivered is ultimately a disappointment due to the unfinished feeling provided by the plot.

One recurring theme that crops up in science fiction is the use of high technology to emulate a more primitive time, usually to extol the virtues or wisdom of some particular culture. In While Ireland Holds These Graves by Tom Doyle, nanotechnology and advanced artificial intelligence has been used to transform Ireland into a sort of Irish Disneyland, with quaint pubs, twisty country roads, and the reconstructed personalities of Irish literary giants. Except that the reconstructed version of Ireland seems to have sparked a spate of Irish nationalism in the face of an apparently homogenized world society, to the point where non-Irish individuals want to come to Ireland and pretend to be Irish, and in response, the Irish government gets ready to close itself off from the rest of the world so that anyone who wants to stay in Ireland must commit to staying for an entire year. Dev, one of the architects of the literary AIs, arrives to try to persuade his lost love to give up Ireland, who happens to have been the other architect of the literary AIs. He meets up with James Joyce, wanders about and finds a couple incarnations of Yeats, and is eventually dragged to the girl he is looking for. After some perfunctory back and forth, Dev accomplishes his hitherto unrevealed objective and promptly kills himself, resulting in a boy seeks girl, boy finds girl, boy loses girl and commits suicide story that has a bit of a twist at the end that makes most of what went before seem kind of pointless. Though the idea of reviving literary figures as AIs seems somewhat interesting, the story that results is not particularly interesting, and it doesn't really go anywhere.

Another story that has an interesting premise, but a plot that is oddly unconnected with the background is The Poly Islands by Gerald Warfield. The story takes place on the "Poly Islands", large accretions of plastics floating in the Pacific Ocean than have been drawn together with signaling buoys. But the story itself only tangentially deals with this scenery, involving a young Chinese woman named Liyang fleeing the Hong Kong tongs after making off with large amounts of their money and a pile of advanced computer chips. Once she reaches the Poly Islands, Liyang finds a quirky multi-ethnic community of outcasts apparently led by an Indian guru called Crab. Some of the inhabitants are Chinese, and have organized into a pair of small Chinese tongs which both try to recruit Liyang to their ranks. Liyang sides with neither of the tongs, but more or less on a whim instead aligns herself with a man named Adam who turns out to be a researcher studying the structure of the Poly Islands. The story proceeds along two tracks: one path that is basically an extended piece of exposition in which Liyang learns about the structure of the islands, how they came to be, who Adam and Crab really are, and why her chips are important to their work, and a second, mostly irrelevant path in which the tongs vie with each other and with Crab for authority over the islands. The entire tong plot seems to be included mostly to break up the expository sequences, and turns out to be almost entirely irrelevant to the actual main plot. The resulting story is disjointed, with the reader left feeling like they read a good short story that had been padded out with a mostly pointless conflict to lengthen it.

The final story in the book is Insect Sculptor by Scott T. Barnes, an odd story involving the use of mind-sharing technology to use groups of insects to make sculptures. The technology posited in the story is interesting, essentially allowing a human to mentally direct, and if the humans is skilled enough possibly enter the mind of insects under their control, but the use the technology is put to in the story seems to be about the least interesting use one could come up with. Making termites gather together in a big mass to form the shape of an elephant or a miniature Taj Mahal is cute, but less interesting than all of the industrial or military uses that such technology could be put to. In this story, a man named Adam travels to Abidjan offer himself as an apprentice to the greatest insect sculptor in the world, the Gajah-mada. He is met by the Gajah-mada's assistant Isabella, who tests him and finds his skills wanting. But Adam is persistent and he eventually becomes part of the Gajah-mada's retinue of performers working at his cabaret style show. Adam, of course, has a problem he has to overcome, and he does so with Isabella's help, eventually learning her secret and becoming Gajah-mada's chosen heir. The story is serviceable, but has an interesting almost off-handed remark about how Adam and the Gajah-mada may have created an almost immortal intelligence, and frustratingly, like so much else in the story, the implications of this technology are simply skipped over. Insect Sculptor has so many interesting ideas contained in it that it is disappointing that the story Barnes produced using them was so pedestrian. This could have been a brilliant story, but unfortunately it is merely average.

There is something of a tradition in the Writers of the Future volumes of dusting off an old essay written by L.Ron Hubbard and inserting it into the book. I am not sure if this is a misguided attempt to honor Hubbard, or an easy way to make fun of him, because the essays are almost always hilariously awful. The Hubbard essay in this volume is Story Vitality, in which he pontificates on the importance of doing research for a story to make it have more impact. The story he chooses to highlight is a piece of nautical adventure about the commander of a Coast Guard cutter named The Phantom Patrol. Hubbard talks about how terrible the story was until he went and talked to some actual Coast Guard members, and then tries to illustrate how doing this legwork improved his story. The trouble is, the writing in the essay, and the selected passages from The Phantom Patrol are so poorly written that it is hard to imagine how bad they were before Hubbard "improved" them with his research.

Fortunately, the other two essays included in the volume are far less unintentionally hilarious, and are instead insightful and interesting. The Importance of Short Fiction by Kristine Kathryn Rusch discusses, naturally enough, short fiction in speculative fiction writing, coming out in favor of it as a starting point for new authors. Not because it is easy - Rusch makes clear that she thinks that writing good short fiction is much harder than novel-length fiction, but rather because it is short, and as a result an author can complete projects, get them on the market, and get feedback on a regular basis. There's not much more to Rusch's essay, but advice from one of the most business-savvy authors working today is always useful. The other essay in the volume is Shaun Tan's Advice for a New Illustrator, offering, naturally enough, career advice to young artists. Tan starts off by saying that no two careers are comparable, and so he can't offer any universal advice, but then proceeds to offer some universal advice that more or less boils down to keep improving your skills and finish projects that you get. Tan doesn't offer particularly revelatory advice, but it does seem to be sound, albeit fairly mundane advice.

As one might expect, the stories in this installment of Writers of the Future are all at least serviceable, with a few stand-outs here and there. All of the stories are by writers who clearly have some talent, but are all still clearly honing their craft. All of the stories show flashes of the superior writer each of the authors featured in this volume could become, with interesting ideas, character, and plots cropping up in several of the stories. In almost every case, however, all of the pieces necessary for making the leap from a good story to a great story are not yet all present. Every writer in this volume could have an excellent career ahead of them, and almost all of them could crash and burn as well, and all of them could simply fade away. The only things that one can be certain of following reading this book are that Hubbard has a hilariously inflated opinion of the quality of his own writing, and that both Rusch and Tan are capable professionals who are willing to offer clear advice to newcomers to the industry. This collection is, in the end, a very readable look into the creative minds of a collection of promising new speculative fiction authors.

Subsequent book in the series: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume XXIX

K.D. Wentworth     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

2013 Clarke Award Nominees

Location: Sci-Fi London at the Stratford Picturehouse in London, United Kingdom.

Comments: The 2013 slate of Clarke Award nominees was entirely male. I note this because it may be the first time this has happened. Coming on the heels of the win for the Testament of Jessie Lamb in 2012, this exclusively male ballot suggests the possibility that British science fiction publishing is moving in a non-egalitarian direction. I'm not prepared to accept this as true just yet, but when coupled together, they do form the beginnings of a disturbing picture.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
Nod by Adrian Barnes

What Are the Arthur C. Clarke Awards?

Go to previous year's nominees: 2012
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2014

Book Award Reviews     Home