Monthly Archives: March 2015

A couple of good reads…

So, I haven't been writing much lately -- I got about an hour in at the computer yesterday and just couldn't seem to get any momentum on any of the tales that I have going.  Probably wrote less than 200 words.  Instead, I've been getting a bit of reading done. I have about four books going, and two of them grabbed me and held on -- both of them ebooks by Tim Pratt.  The first was the eighth entry in his Marla Mason series (he mentions that he's now written as many (or more) self-published books in the series as he had written for a publisher), titled LADY OF MISRULE.  The second was a $0.99 novel called HEIRS OF GRACE, which was originally published as a Kindle Serial. I've been a Marla Mason fan since I read the first one many years ago, and while I enjoyed this one, where Marla et al battle a seemingly-undefeatable extra-dimensional monster, it felt a little scattershot (is that a word?) compared to some of the others.  Less focused.  More "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" in plot.  Which is not to say it was bad -- it was a pretty fun, pretty fast read.  Lots of imaginative stuff there.  Maybe a little too much.  Still, I'm looking forward to the next installment for further adventures of Marla Mason. The second, HEIRS OF GRACE, impressed me.  I went into the read with almost no expectations, and the book grabbed me from the first page.  This one features recent art school graduate Rebekah Lull, who has inherited from her biological father a fair sized sum of money and a house in North (?) Carolina.   And what she finds out is that she isn't exactly all human -- her father is a sorcerer at the least and maybe a whole lot more.  And she has some biological siblings -- not all human either. There's a lawyer named Trey who she finds herself attracted to and it appears that the attraction is quite mutual, but there's a bit of a conflict seeing as how he's her lawyer. Oh, and the house is magic. This was a really inventive story with lots of cool characters and plenty of peril for our main character as she fights against her siblings and contends with the risks that her inheritance poses to her.  Not to mention complications with the relationship with Trey...  I had a hard time putting this book down.  It was also a fun and fast read, and was unlike much of what I've read before. Tim Pratt is a very gifted writer of fantasy and SF, and both of these were well worth my time. Now, I'll just hope that I get some inspiration to actually write something. *****

Review of ILIUM and OLYMPOS by Dan Simmons

Once upon a time there was a vibrant and eclectic field of genre fiction known as science fiction.  Here the giants played: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith, PK Dick, and many, many others.  But alas, over time the field dwindled.  Oh, there were some new voices, writers like David Brin, Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, Orson Scott Card, Robert Sawyer, and James Hogan turned out many interesting stories in the field.  And now, the field is experiencing something of a rebound as self-publishers skip the Big 5's filters and publish the stories they want to tell without being told that "it can't sell." Occasionally a writer transcends genre, finds that he or she is able to write in more than one style, tell more than one type of tale, with power and passion.  I believe that writer, in this time period, is DAN SIMMONS. Dan Simmons has written a lot of excellent fiction, crossing genres with works such as CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT and CARRION COMFORT in the horror genre, HARDCASE and DARWIN’S BLADE in the mystery genre, and THE CROOK FACTORY, a spy thriller starring Ernest Hemingway.  But some of his most ambitious fiction has been done in the science/speculative fiction field.  He wrote the excellent four book series featuring HYPERION, THE FALL OF HYPERION, ENDYMION and THE RISE OF ENDYMION.  And now, he works again in the SF field with  his latest two volume tale, ILIUM and OLYMPOS. ILIUM, as the title suggests, starts off as a story based on the Trojan War and Homer’s ILIAD.  The familiar heroes of that saga, Achilles and Hector, Agamemnon, Paris, Ajax, King Priam, and of course, Odysseus, are present as they fight the war according to Homer’s ILIAD.  There is a notable exception, however.  Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., a classical literature professor from Indiana University, is on hand to watch events unfold.  Hockenberry has been “reanimated” to report the unfolding events to his Muse, and in turn to all of the Greek gods.  Yes, the gods themselves are on hand, in person, to watch these battles be fought, and to interfere anywhere they might.  Hockenberry’s job is to report to the gods if the battle deviates from the history he knows so well.  He isn’t alone – the gods have other resurrected “scholics” to also report on the war.  Hockenberry is the senior scholic present;  the gods do not have any compunction against eliminating scholics as they see fit, and most end up being destroyed when they anger the gods in any way shape or form.   Somehow Hockenberry has so far escaped their wrath. Hockenberry, however, has another secret.  He’s been ordered by Aphrodite to spy on and ultimately kill Athena.  And since he knows that it will be his demise either way he acts in this situation, he looks for a way to change the course of the war.  And finds it. Two other threads of story are progressing at the same time.  First, the sentient machines of the Jovian moons, known as “moravecs”, have detected unusual quantum activity on the planet Mars, which has been “terraformed” in less than 200 years, a feat that should be impossible.  The moravecs decide to send a delegation to investigate.  With this group go Mahnmet, a deep sea explorer moravec who is also very interested in Shakespeare’s works, especially currently the Sonnets, and Orphu, a huge crab-like moravec who is interested in the works of Proust. The second thread is of a group of old style humans living on the surface of Earth.  They live an idyllic existence, free of stress and worry.  But they are limited in their lifespan to 100 years, at which time they “fax” up to the ring cities circling the planet at the equator and around the poles and join the “post humans”, the next step of human evolution.  But for 100 years, they live a very nice life, protected by strange creatures called the “voynix” and taken care of by robotic “servitors”.  Every 20 years they fax up to the firmary to get a sort of tune-up to rejuvenate them before faxing back to their Earth. The story threads seem to be independent of one another until the moravec delegation is attacked, and their ship basically destroyed, when they reach Mars, by a very tall humanoid on what appears to be a chariot.  Greek god?  Olympos?  Aha.  Things are more related than they seem. In OLYMPOS, we find out more about who these gods are, how they terraformed Mars in just 150 years, and what the source of the excessive quantum activity is on Mars.  We also meet zeks, also referred to as little green men, chlorophyll-based beings on Mars who have no mouths or ears and who communicate by physical touch.  Our friend Hockenberry has succeeded in changing the course of the war, thanks in part to the timely arrival of the moravecs who seem to always be there to save him.  The heroes of Troy and Greece have declared war on the gods themselves, and have taken the battle to Mt. Olympos through a rip in space-time called a “brane hole”.  Back on Earth, the power has been shut down and the humans, so used to being taken care of, have to act to save their lives, as the mysterious voynix have taken to hunting them down.  And one of them, Harman, has been shanghaied into a voyage where the answers become clearer. I loved this story as it unfolded.  Simmons has a vision of the future that is actually quite beautiful and quite frightening at the same time.  The technology that he envisions, and the story that he tells, does not depend on traveling faster than light.  It uses the theories and speculations of today’s physicists and scientists and extrapolates forward to a future where some of the theoretical possibilities of quantum physics become useful realities, and even the Star Trek transporter technology becomes doable. And who would have thought about using the Trojan War in a work of science fiction?  THE ILIAD was written as a sort of accurate history, poetic as it may be, and the idea that perhaps the “gods” are actually present and their magic is actually very advanced science ala Clarke’s rule is a neat premise for a novel.  I would have been happy with just that. But the rest of the story weaves in nicely and finally it starts to become evident just how these divergent plot lines are going to converge.  If it wasn’t almost 700 pages long, I’d probably read it again right now.  I almost certainly will revisit the tale some day. If you enjoy speculative fiction, this is a winner, albeit a long one. ***** (I wrote this review several years ago, before self-publishing became a real option -- I had to add in the part about the rebirth of the field of SF...) *****

Labels in fiction…

I was reading one of my favorite blogs, The Passive Voice, when I happened across an article by Ursula K. LeGuin (yes, the famous SF author of such classics as The Dispossessed) titled "Are they going to say this is fantasy?" It discusses an author who wrote a book about post-Arthurian England, where everyone has lost their memories because of a sleeping dragon whose breath causes forgetfulness.  I haven't read the book, but it sort of sounds like "fantasy" to me.  The author is not happy with that label, however.  Ms. LeGuin says that it appears the author takes the label as an insult, and Ms. LeGuin says that she finds his attitude about the label as an insult, as well. My blog article isn't about the mislabeling of books, or eschewing certain labels because they represent a literary ghetto or whatever.  I'm thinking more about labels themselves.  Are they a good thing?  Why do so many authors seem to despise any attempt to categorize their stories?  To fit them onto some overly broad (or overly narrow) shelf where there are other books that might be "like" them? I can't say I understand it completely.  I realize that everyone feels that their story is something unique.  Something personal.  Something that has meaning beyond the story.  Something that educates or informs beyond the devices used to convey that meaning.  And I admit that sometimes (not always) I have a bit of an agenda in writing a certain story; I'm trying to explore something I see in society in some manner through the characters in my story.  I may be trying to make a bit of a statement about how I see something in the world through the way my story unfolds.  Sometimes I do that.  But I never do it at the expense of the story I'm telling, at least in my view. Mostly I just want to tell a good story.  Whether a reader is going to enjoy it, I don't know.  I hope they do.  Some people have enjoyed my stories (at least they said they did) in the past.  But I have to admit that my main goal is to tell a story that keeps my readers (assuming I have any) interested until I finish.  Sort of like sitting around a campfire, except with more (and more interesting) words. So as a writer, I don't mind being labeled.  I like my stories; I find them interesting enough to think that others might enjoy them as well.  But I'm not thinking that they're some sort of high art; that in a hundred years they'll be placed on pedestals in the Book Museum or whatever.  So go right ahead and label them.  If I could label them myself, I would.  I actually do label them, in fact, by fitting them into categories on Amazon.  Am I labeling them correctly?  I don't know.  I'm not real good at giving my own work a label. As a reader, I appreciate labels.  I like recommendations, and labels, to me, seem to be the heart of recommendations.  "If you like 'x', you will probably like 'y'."    That statement, to me, is labeling two stories as appealing to the same group of readers, readers who like 'z' types of stories.  So I like it when someone tells me that something is post-apocalyptic or dystopian science fiction, because I have a certain expectation for those labels.  If someone says something is fantasy, I might steer away from it, because I am not a big fantasy reader (Eddings, Tolkein and Donaldson excepted).  But if someone says something is 'urban fantasy', I might check it out because I associate that label with Jim Butcher, Laura Resnick and Tim Pratt (among others).  If something is labeled 'serial killer horror,' I might give it a look because I've enjoyed stories by Thomas Harris and by William Malmborg and Jeffrey Deaver (three very different examples of authors with stories about serial killers). As a writer, I'd love it if my readers could label my fiction.  So far, all of it is short.  But as I've said, I have a couple more things ready to go.  If I can finish up my editing work and get some covers done, I have two or three that could be released before the summer.  Would you like to label them?  I'd call all three horror thrillers, and two of them have very human criminals who create the horror.  The third is a bit more supernatural. In any case, I don't think labels say anything about a work beyond offering a sort of classification system which is useful to readers, especially power readers who plow through and love certain types of stories.  They don't say anything about the depth of the story, the quality of the storytelling or the technical skill of the author, but they do provide a handle for readers looking for new authors to discover.  As discovery tools how can they hurt?  Labels may be the only thing that writers today have in their bag to help them get discovered, since most of us (99.9% or more) do not have access to those front tables at a bookstore. *****