Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Today I am starting a series of posts called Courseware. This came about from a classic thought experiment from film school. “What movies would I use if I was teaching the class?” It’s actually something I would talk about with my buddies somewhat frequently for whatever reason. The thought train that brought me around to applying this to SF books started with the recent Tim Powers book.

See there actually is a Science Fiction as Literature class at the Community College of Rhode Island where my wife works. She took it when she was a student and enjoyed it even though her reading lists skews much more towards horror and supernatural. I know some other people who’ve taken it as well and everyone enjoys it. Unfortunately, it’s permanently in the 10am timeslot, effectively ruining it for anyone with a day job. The class as taught has a lot of short stories and one novel, The Anubis Gates by the aforementioned Tim Powers. I’ve read it. Good book.

So in thinking about how to structure a SF-F class, the first thing I realized is that the subject is way to broad to cram it all into one class. This is why I expect this to be a series. We did the same thing back in film school too and seperated Intro to Film Analysis from Intro to Film History. Let’s split it up here. Today is Intro to Sci Fi and later we’ll hit Intro to Fantasy. Let’s also assume it’s a once a week thing. Back when I was in college, my school was transitioning from a three credit system to a four. For a once a week class, it’s not that different, just an hour longer. Ideally, that gives the class maximum time to talk shop and read excerpts from the books being discussed.

The next ground rule is one book every two weeks for a six book total. When I was working nights, I’d polish off six to eight in two weeks but not everyone has that kind of time. Even now with the day job and the toddler, only doorstop size pagecounts take two weeks or more. This also gives ample time for discussions and such. A lot of the discussions would revolve around the background of the genre, the societal influences on the work and other works surrounding the ones chosen.

Specific to Intro to Sci Fi, the books I’ve chosen are going to skew modern. The reason for this is accessibility. I could go back to the very first sci fi book, Frankenstein but have you actually tried to read it? I have. Gah it’s not easy. The language is very dated and it’s not a very easy read because of it. Think of this as Sci Fi for newbies. We’re not trying to scare them off, we’re trying to rope them in. Things like the Foundation Trilogy and Ringworld are classics, but for a newbie could be like throwing them in the deep end without telling them which way is up.

I also want to showcase sci fi at it’s best. As a genre we’re concerned with the future of all people, not just the all too unfortunate demographic spread the old guard wants to cling on to for some reason. Only two of the six are written by white guys and four of the six have people of color and/or women as the protags. If we want to encourage the genre to be all encompassing going forward, one of the best ways to do it is by talking about the books that showcase it.

Without any further ramblings, the courseware for Intro to Science Fiction.

windupgirl The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a near future book that takes place in a world saddled by environmental collapse. Too much genetic engineering has killed off biodeversity and engineered plagues are a very real threat. One protag works for Big Agriculture skulking around Bangkok looking for hidden foodstuff. The other is a genetically created human. Oil and petrols are restricted to the government and the super rich. When I first read this book, I felt it was a touch creepy that I could see the world really going down this path. For an introduction to the genre, familiar real world problems and technologies only a step or two away from what exists now can ease new readers into it. There’s a lot of room to open up the discussion to how sci fi can talk about things in a different way than plain old literature can

arcticrisingArctic Rising by Tobias S Buckell

I debated making this the first book as it is another near future book. Arctic Rising doesn’t have such a bleak outlook on the future. I also thing it has a more international feel to it even though both books so far take place outside of the US. Again, global warming is screwing with the earth. The nations boarding the arctic circle find themselves a lot more powerful all of a sudden with new resources opening up. The last icebergs on earth have formed a new geopolitical entity part of no nation. Anika Duncan is a bad ass airship pilot working for the UN thrown into a big mess. There’s a lot of politicking and action rolling around in this. Discussion could veer towards sci fi and thriller tropes interacting together.

merchantersluckMerchanter’s Luck by CJ  Cherryh

I specifically wanted this book to follow Arctic Rising because Buckell has said how it hit home with him growing up in the Caribbean. Sometimes tradition in our genre isn’t a bad thing and can create fascinating stepping stones across different generations of writers. Bam. There’s a lot of discussion from this right there. The book itself stands alone but takes place in a larger universe created by Cherryh. I would definitely brush up on the other books in the world to tie it together. Sprawl is often a key part in sci fi.

onbasiliskstationOn Basilisk Station by David Weber

Want to talk sprawl? Honorverse time. On Basilisk Station is the first of the (currently) thirteen book series tracking naval officer Honor Harrington from her first posting out of the academy. I’m horribly out of date on my Honor books, but the last I read she was an Admiral in two different nations. I first read this when I was maybe twelve and was my first non-Star Trek foray into space opera. Even though this was first published in 1992, there is a Cold War feel to the start of this series. Discussion could start off with the historical analogues of the cold war and the Manticore-Peep war in the making and space opera tropes here as compared to well known space operas on television and film (ie Trek and Babylon 5)

fuzzynationFuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

I couldn’t run an intro level science fiction anything without including Scalzi. He purposely writes science fiction that is accessible without needing a huge background in the genre. Old Man’s War may be more well known and what propelled him onto the scene, but Fuzzy Nation has the ethics of human-alien interaction. The OMW series has a lot of alien interaction but is mainly concerned with curbstomping them until book three. Which makes sense in the context of that series. Fuzzy is wholly concerned with the ethics of alien and sentience. Kind of self explanatory where the discussion would be going with that.

livesoftao The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

This is the most recent of all the books I’ve chosen, not even a year old. The premise here is a reverse of what Scalzi was doing in Fuzzy Nation. In Tao, humanity is the “lesser” species while the Prophus and Genjix, two factions of an ancient species, are the advanced race shepherding us along. It turns out the aliens crashed on earth before evolution even gave us fish. They piggyback on humans and animals, sharing the same bodies. It turns out all of human history has been influences by their war. Roen, an out of shape IT guy, gets a secret agent in his head by accident and is part of the war all of a sudden. I think it’s important to look at the trope of “advanced civilization interacting with a lesser” from the other direction.

The Lives of Tao

Posted: May 12, 2013 in Reading
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From time to time I’ve mentioned that one of the greatest things I’ve discovered from creating this site is that I really enjoy spreading the word of good books. I like shouting out to other authors and giving that digital high five because I know how great it feels for someone to like your writing, but I seriously like recommending books to other people. It’s why I tend to write a lot of posts on the stuff I’ve been reading rather than posting about my own slog through the wordmines. The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu is already tops for the Most Recommended Book this year. It was before I even finished it.

Lives of Tao has been on my radar since Angry Robot Books announced they picked it up as part of their Open Door period of 2011. (The one I wasn’t ready for and the last one that took sci fi. Lucky me.) So Angry Robot is enough to get something on my radar. Toss in some blurbs by authors I already read like Myke Cole and Lavie Tidhar? Yes please. Now for the kicker, aliens living inside people’s noggins? Aw yeah, sign me up.

Back of the book time!

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen wakes up and starts hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumes he’s losing it.

He isn’t.

As of last night, he has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life for called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Over the millennia his people have trained human heroes to be great leaders, to advance our species at a rate far beyond what it would have achieved on its own. Split into two opposing factions – the peace loving by underrepresented Prophus, and the savage powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet… and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

So now Roen must train to be a hero worthy of his unwanted companion. Like that’s going to end up well…

Seriously, the two consciousnesses inside one head is something I really enjoy reading about. It’s something I don’t see often enough or well enough. The twist here that makes it so good, is that Tao can’t make Roen do anything. He’s full of the wisdom of a thousand lives but he’s got to coax action out of Roen. It makes the whole story into a sci-fi action Odd Couple.

And that’s one of the biggest strengths of Lives of Tao. Roen and Tao have a relationship that takes a lot of work. Tao shines a light on Roen’s life and unsubtly points out that it’s not where he wants it to be. It doesn’t help that Tao is gearing Roen up to be a secret agent. There are stretches where they don’t even talk, which I imagine would be difficult when sharing a thought pattern. Tao is no parasite though. Roen gets a lot out of the relationship that I don’t really want to mention because the discovery of that is one of the great parts of the book.

This is science fiction that has cross-genre appeal. I think fans of the thriller genre, especially Clive Cussler readers, would enjoy Lives of Tao quite a bit. If you took out Tao and just had Roen being dragged into a spy organization and it would be perfectly readable. Clearly aliens are a lot cooler, so the point is more that all the action of the book stands up on its own. The fight scenes have this quick brutality to them. There’s no minutiae of each exact move. Blur pain deadguy. For me, that adds a layer of believability to the fighting of the book, that its not choreographed like a kung fu movie. Choreography has its place, but I don’t think it would fit the tone of this novel.

Chu has written a lot of intensely emotional moments into his novel too. Roen has to make a lot of tough choices. Tao can only help, but he can’t make Roen do anything he doesn’t choose on his own. Tao’s story is spread out throughout the book too and he had some tough times of his own going back to Genghis Kahn. The climax of the book is very rewarding and I’m going to distract you with shiny objects now by saying how the book has funny bits in it too. I caught references to Monty Python, Killer Klowns from Outer Space and others I got excited about but didn’t write down. One of these days I’m going to remember to take notes. But yeah. Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Seriously. That’s awesome.

Something that makes Lives of Tao extra awesome is the potential for more. The aliens among us for our entire history thing has… well… all of history at its disposal. There’s plenty of story left for Roen and Tao but there’s story everywhere for this one. Anything ever done can be folded into this world and I am excited and impatient to know what’s next.


Posted: May 8, 2013 in Reading
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One of the great things about the internet, is that authors can use their awesomeness to make me want to buy their books just by hanging out online and not much more really. This is doubly so at cons where you can see them actually talk. I’ve yammered on about that before, but the first line of a blog post always stymies me and there’s a good chance I’m going to go back and change all this before I post it. Or not. Rambling intro or not, this is one of my finds from the last Boskone, Undertow by Elizabeth Bear. Spend any time in the SF circles and you’re bound to hear her name. She’s a beast when it comes to productivity with a massive laundry list of books out. She’s got award noms all over the place. In fact, she was nominated for three more today, about three hours ago.

Also can I say, Holy shit New England! Woo! Finally, some SF writers that aren’t from the Great Lakes corridor or the Pacific Northwest. It’s almost a rule you’ve got to be from there or at least lived there for a while. I swear it’s most of the authors I follow with the exception of an Arizona enclave and a couple in Brooklyn.

Now if only Rhode Island can become a hotbed of SF….

No more distractions, I’m on a schedule! Back of the book time!

A frontier world on the back end of nowhere is the sort of place people go to get lost. And some of those people have secrets worth hiding, secrets that can change the future – assuming there is one…

Andre Deschenes is a hired assassin, but he wants to be so much more. If only he can find a teacher two will forgive his murderous past – and train him to manipulate odds and control probability. It’s called the art of conjuring, and it’s Andre’s only route to freedom. For the world he lives on is run by the ruthless Charter Trade Company, and his floating city, Novo Haven, is little more than a company town where humans and aliens alike either work for one tyrannical family – or are destroyed by it. But beneath Novo Haven’s murky waters, within its tangled bayous, reedy banks and back alleys, revolution is stirring. And one more death may be all it takes to shift the balance…

So as I said, I picked this book up at Boskone a couple months ago and when I was standing at the huskster’s table I had an oh shit moment. My plague ridden phone wasn’t about to play nice with the internet to reassure me I was picking a Book One or a Standalone. And like I said, Bear has a lot of books out. A large part of my decision to start with Undertow was simply that it was the most standalone sounding of all the books at the table that day. I didn’t want to poke around the internet too much about it and spoil the book so there were times during the book where I wasn’t sure.

All the human characters have pasts that weigh heavy on them. Cricket, who is as much of a protag as Andre, has an especially heavy past. Greene and Closs, the antagonists who do the running of the planet, have interactions together that seem much bigger than just one story. Andre himself has a lot of baggage with his family. Because of all this, I kept flip flopping in my head if Undertow was truly a standalone book or part of a bigger world. In the end, it’s just a good book. The characters have serious depth and that’s really the important part. If it is perfectly standalone, Bear should totally mine those backstories for more books. If it’s or becomes part of a bigger world, it reads like the Clockwork Century books do, connected but not dependent on the other stories.

Ever get tired of Star Trek/Wars type aliens that are humans with makeup? Undertow has one of the best written alien species I’ve ever read. The ranids of Green’s World are amphibians that reminded me a bit of EverQuest frogloks. The ranid POV chapters are some of the most fascinating reading I’ve done recently. Everything about their from their social structure and how their effected by humans down to their communication methods and use of unique pronouns are all seriously well thought out. They think fundamentally different than people and that’s ridiculously difficult technical thing to write and have any sort of readability leftover.

The ranids are easily in the top three aliens I’ve ever read, right there with the cheela from Dragon’s Egg and the drapsk from Julie Czerneda’s Trade Pact Universe.

Mega character depth and kick ass aliens. There’s got to be something cool to tie it all together, right? Hell yes there is. Andre is a professional assassin after all. The planet is on the brink of rebellion to begin with and he pushes it past the point of no return with his latest hit. He falls in with Jean Gris, a conjure man who does all that bending of probability, and Cricket, the archinformist (hacker). The POV moves around, which is good because I liked the other two better than Andre. Fight against the man, stop the bad guys’ heinous plan and try to make a clean getaway. It sounds very basic but when you’re boiling things down to barest plot points to avoid spoilers (and hide the fact that I don’t take notes when I do this and I don’t always type these right when I finish a book), of course it’s going to sound basic. It’s a character driven story anyways. If this crew was doing their laundry, I’m sure it would be interesting. There’s some nifty tech that shows up in the latter half of the book that throws a cool twist in matters. I love it when philosophy and tech combine. Quantum anything makes me happy.

Closing statement? Sure I’ll make one.

Undertow is a great book. Simple right? It’s also perfect if you want a primer on how to write aliens that are actually alien.

Editing: First Pass

Posted: March 18, 2013 in Writing
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Amity v1.6 is a thing. At least on paper. I just finished my first complete read through of the novel and need to input the results into the computer so I can print it up for the beta readers. By the way, holy crap printing is expensive.

So even though I had to transcribe the entire thing from my hand written notebooks to the computer, chunks of it were already transcribed prior to my completion of the novel. There was a stretch a while back where I used the act of typing it into a word file as a kick to the pants to get going with new words. Something to get me back into the swing of things, I guess. So this pass really was the first time I had read it cover to cover. Three people have read the first two chapters before, my wife and two buddies from work who kept bugging me to read part of what I was working.

I’m digesting my thoughts on it as I type this blog post. I literally did just finish about ten minutes before firing up wordpress. I think my initial thought is “Holy crap I’m a bad typist.” EverQuest may have taught me to type fast, but not particularly well. I’m really glad I did a pass before giving it out to the beta readers just to catch all the fuck ups that spellcheck didn’t catch. I spell a lot of things wrong that are really other words it seems.

Names are something I screwed up with minor characters a lot too. I had a lot of bracket notes saying [Doctor’s name] in them. The protag’s mother had three different middle names in the course of the book. A few names didn’t even get fixed in the pass, I decided to wait to use the search function in word before fixing them. I think a lot of that happened because I didn’t always expect minor characters to show up more than once. Even though I often made notes on the opposite page of the notebook as I was going (I only write on one side of the page to leave space for said notes), sometimes I’d be in a new notebook by the time the character showed up again. In the next book, I think I’m going to make it a point to keep a character list on the inside cover of my notebooks and transfer it from one to the next as I go. It’ll save myself a lot of trouble.

Plot points. This is something I’m a bit worried about, mostly because I didn’t seem to worry in my first pass. Aren’t I supposed to be worrying? I only found two points that I had to juggle about. I never felt the need to slash scenes out or deconstruct things and rearrange them about. I am going to hope that’s because the skeleton of my novel was written long before the actual novel itself. I don’t detail every single nuance ahead of time. I like to leave space for my characters and narrative to surprise me, but I need a road map of where I’m going. Not having that road map caused the first three attempts at a novel to founder. The plot map changed significantly six or eight times as I went where I had to stop and re-write all the plot points on out to the end. I’m hoping that got most of it out of my system. I also think that the overall structure is something that more sets of eyes are going to help with majorly. The plot as it stands was set in stone six-ish months ago so it is probably engrained into my noggin to much for me to see what it needs.

I do know that I want to add more in a few spots, but I want those other opinions before I start adding them in wantonly just to have to cut them out. The novel stands at a trim 72k. That’s a bit shorter than average. Before I was typing it, I was estimating that it’d come in at an average 80k upwards to 85k. I guess I wrote the last few chapters large. The front end of act three is where I think I can meat up the story the best. I have bracket notes suggesting just that.

Originally, as I was going, I was worried that the two sisters would sound too much alike. I use three POVs in the novel and it was touchy towards the beginning when I wasn’t fully committed to just those three. I want to make sure each character had a flavor to the text. I think I got better at that as I went so some of the first act might need to be rearranged.

And speaking of POV… halfway through typing the novel into the computer I had a horrible realization… The book might be better if I take the primary protag and rewrite her chapters as first person instead of the limited third I use. Just her chapters though, leave the other two as is. It’s a scary thinking of rewriting a third of the damn book already. After the beta reads are in, I may just do a couple test chapters and see how it goes.

My only other big concern is the tech level in my book. I’ve been contemplating a whole blog post on that subject in SF in general. It threw me for a loop when I read Redshirts and everyone has a smart phone. I had to stop and realize… yeah all that stuff I grew up watching in Star Trek TNG, that’s just daily life now. And that’s my default vision of science fiction more often than not because it was the fancy stuff when I was a kid. I had to consciously change every reference to a ‘data pad’ to a ‘tablet’ in my book because data pads don’t make sense anymore.

Anyways. The next step is beta readers which is pretty fucking scary if I do say so. But they’re going to be instructed to red pen the hell out of it. The worst I can do is say “Nope, gonna leave it as is” but that’s the sort of thing that will stop sounding great until I get a manuscript full of red ink back.

So it finally happened. An ereader entered my hands for Christmas. My wife has been enjoying the one I bought for her birthday so much, and there is a growing library out there not available in paper. I’m not going to get rid of my dead trees, but my circuits will live in harmony with them. The first thing I jumped at was The Apocalypse Ocean by Tobias Buckell. That’s the novel he funded with Kickstarter back at the front end of this year. This post about his experience should be required reading for anyone thinking about Kickstarter. All for new ways for writers to get their words out there but I was a bit bummed out that it was $50 to get a hard cover copy. Once the books went out into the world, everything I’ve heard is that they’re very high quality copies. But fifty bucks is a lot of walking around money for one book, especially since mass market paperback is my preferred format. I have a little kiddo, got to maximize my book money.

So I pounced now that I’ve got the technology.

Back of the book… er… back of the nook? Um… Summary time?

Humanity continues to gain control of the Forty Eight Worlds as they deorbit wormholes and join the many worlds and civilizations together. But as they do so, they must deal with the horrors of past injustices as humanity forms new societies out of the wreckage of the old.

And some of those horrors aren’t content to rest. Kay, who has rescued herself from a hellish life dominated by uncaring alien creatures, seeks bloody twisted revenge for what was done to her.

And a new force is not happy about the manner in which the Forty Eight worlds are reshaping themselves. In fact, it’s about to put a stop to it all.

This is book four of the series that began with Crystal Rain. Sly Mongoose, which I read earlier this year, is book three. Part of the beauty of these books is that you can jump right in without getting lost. You get enough of the overarching story that you’re not clueless if it has been a while. All the pieces of the saga are told from different points of view. Pepper is still our overarching hero and the catalyst for Ocean but he’s not the proper point-of-view protag here. The aforementioned Kay, teenaged ganglord, and Tiago, pickpocket who bumps into the wrong person, are our proper main characters.

The Survivor is a character type I find inherently interesting because they’re always the ones who live in a moral grey area. Black and white are much harder to make interesting than grey. Tiago is the more likable of the two main characters living on the fringes of society. He gets swept up in way over his head but he’s a real smart guy. Of course, being a smart thief is why he drew all the attention that pulled in into the action. Tiago doesn’t start out as the most active character, hard to do when surrounded by so many strong personalities like Kay, Nashara and later on, Pepper. But Tiago evolves and changes for the better with a very solid character arc.

Kay is a Survivor too, but much farther along on her path even though she is younger. She’s a bona fide ganglord in a rough and tumble town. That makes her a lot less likable, but as Ocean progresses, Kay becomes much more understandable. I don’t want to ruin anything so I’ll awkwardly tiptoe around it. She’s got very distinct way of thinking about the people around her. It seems almost alien, but it makes sense. When we finally get to find out the reasons, Kay becomes one of the most interesting characters I’ve read in a while. There were times I felt Kay overshadowed Tiago and I was wanting more of her.

The prose flows between kinetic and thoughtful. Blasting through firefights and “downtime” both feel natural. Things are always moving even when they’re standing still. It’s a writing style that pulls you along making the book hard to put down. The grander parts of the Xenowealth saga come into play farther along in Ocean. If I didn’t know better, it would be easy to figure on this book being a standalone with references that tie it in with the others rather than a proper installment. Wouldn’t bother me even if I did get it wrong because I like discovering how one narrative relates to another, but I don’t think that’s a universal feeling. I enjoyed finding out how all the “local” events fit into the larger scheme of things. None of it is ever forced and I found the plotting pretty streamlined.

The plotting leads right into the world building. I think Buckell is one of the best, both here in the Xenowealth books and the near-future Arctic Rising. One of the Kickstarter goals for Ocean commissioned some original artwork for a map. I love maps! They don’t show up in SF as much as they used to and it’s something that needs to come back. The wormhole map of the Forty Eight Worlds is wonderfully done and shows all the worlds that haven’t even been mentioned yet. There’s even one called Pawtucket, although uh! The Bucket… It’s a pretty nasty place. There are better towns in Rhode Island to name a planet after. Tangent over with, there is so much potential for expansion with the Forty Eight Worlds, they all had aliens before humanity showed up. The diversity of realms already seen in the series makes all those blips on the map tantalizing.

I will always love my dead tree books. But Apocalypse Ocean is my favorite book of Buckell’s to date and the exact reason why I have an ereader now. Publishing is diversifying so reading habits need to diversify along with it. For my first ebook, I was not disappointed.

It was inevitable.

It only happens a couple times a year but it does happen. I couldn’t make it thought The Map of Time by Felix J Palma.

I really don’t have much more of a lead in than that, so let’s go right to the Back of the Book, what little there is.

Characters real and imaginary come vividly to life in this whimsical triple play of interwined plots, in which a skeptical HG Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel and to save lives and literary classics, including Dracula and The Time Machine, from being wiped from existence.

What hapens if we change history?

Felix J Palma explores this provocative question, weaving a historical fantasy as imaginative as it is exciting – a story full of love and adventure that transports readers from a haunting setting in Victorian London to a magical reality.

So there’s really not a lot going on with this Back of the Book. But hey! It’s got time travel. Victorian time travel. There’s some shades of Jasper Fford going on with that too. Most of the back cover was filled with acolades and apparently the author is a big deal in Spain. Spoilers ahead, if you’re worried about spoilers in a book I didn’t care for. I know sometimes I tend to get vague about books when I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but I feel when being critical, specifics need to be cited or it comes off as ranty.

First impression? Skip the first 80 pages. They’re completely unnessicary. Map starts out with Andrew, a wealthy Victorian 20-something who wants to kill himself. It’s a very maudlin opening. Chapters two through page 80 are the backstory leading up to where he is in the slums with the gun to his chin. The backstory plants some promising seeds though. Remember, it’s 1880s London, we’ve got some Jack the Ripper stuff going on here.

So ok, this Andrew is still way too overdramatic and it’s hard to identify with a super rich kid. But between Jack the Ripper and time travel, I’m still working with this. It’s not easy. There’s a very weird tone to it. I think this comes from a combination of trying to sound like it’s old timey and the fact that Map isn’t native to English. I couldn’t help but feel that it was a lot less awkward in Spanish, but I’m not about to get all Rosetta Stone on this. I’m saving Rosetta Stone so I can achieve my goal of telling dirty limericks in near-dead languages like Welch. The odd tone, ok I can get over that. The narrator however, is a different story.

I didn’t mind an extra narrator in Railsea because it felt like part of the story. The narrator showed up right on page one and kept a consistant tone and presence with the rest of the tale. This one didn’t. I don’t know if it’s a cultrual thing. Maybe in Madrid they’d eat that stuff up but it absolutely didn’t work here. The narrator would jump into the middle of a paragraph with things like “Andrew couldn’t have possibley known what I’m about to tell you but my nature is all seeing and all knowing, nothing can hide from me so we’re going to change points of view because Charles knows all about this stuff that’s going down so I’m going to move the perspective over to him because I know you would rather listen to him than me.” Middle of the paragraph, seroiusly.

But I can get over all these things if the story delivers. These dandys plan on traveling through time to throw down with Jack the Ripper and they need HG Wells to do it. After twenty pages of biography of Wells, which really didn’t have much to do with what was actually going on, there’s finally some time travel. Jack the Ripper is killed and Andrew saves his lady friend, who just happens to be the Ripper’s last victim. When he gets back, they use the branching world theory so Andrew can get out of his funk. His version of Marie Kelly is still dead, but there was another version of the universe where they were happily married. On the way out, Charles goes back to Wells’ house and FOOLED YOU! No time travel, they were just fucking with Andrew to cheer him up and keep him from being suicidal.

Wait what? Fooled you?? The time travel was all a hoax, and completely out of the blue too. There were no clues leading up to it. People who read science fiction books are perfectly ok with the fact that someone is traveling through time. The fact that it was all a hoax came off as very condencending to the reader.

So I’m bristled by this. 400 pages to go though and Part Two gives us a new character, a young woman who doesn’t really like being a young woman in Victorian times. They’re gearing up to do the one way travel to the future adventure. Out in the year 2000 there’s a ruined London and a battle between the human rebels and an automaton army. Cool. We’re back to something I can get behind. This woman, Claire, is getting onto the time traveling tram where the whole crowd is told “oh we’re going to keep aaaaaall the windows closed so you can’t see outside becaus big lizards.”

Seriously? Again? You’re fucking with me again aren’t you book? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, what the fuck am I doing then?

I’m not being ranty, but that did deserve swears. I feel like this book is sci-fi written for people that don’t like sci-fi. Which really doesn’t make sence to me but there must people people out there who like it because it was a NY Times best seller. This book was not my cup of tea at all, but I really did try. 300 pages was half of this book and as long as some of the other novels I’ve read. What this comes down to is that I’m not the type of reader that appreciates a ‘Fooled you!” moment. All those other faults I could have slogged my way through, but not that.

So I was called out on being tired and/or child distracted at the end of the last post about First Lines. It took much longer to type than I thought it would what with needing to hold the book with one hand and do the 3rd grade hunt and peck typing. The people have spoken, here I am to deconstruct the first line.

As a reader, it’s very easy to gloss over the first line. As a writer, I know I tend to agonize over it.

When I start reading a new book, I’m running pellmell face first into it, I can’t stop for just one line. For me, the first dozen pages are where I get my quote unquote, first impression, from. In fact, some of the first lines off the Shelf of Honor books give a different impression than what I remember of the openings. Specifically I’m thinking of A Thousand Words for Stranger and Boneshaker. In regards to Stranger, I remember Sira waking up not knowing who she is. Amnesiatic characters is something I find fascinating (also, see Zelazny for that) so that’s probably why it tends to jump at me. My first memories of Boneshaker are of Briar shleping through the muck of Seattle coming home from work, not of a mood moment.

Opening lines tend to be mood moments or action. Both can set the pace of what’s going on but even as I type this, I’m thinking of all the ones that do the opposite. Look at Un Lun Dun, the word ‘nondescript’ is used twice. You get a juxtaposition out of that one. When I write my own stuff, I tend to be of the ‘start with a bang’ school of thought. I vaguely remember it being taught in school at some point. I’ve tried mood openings or informational openings and they just don’t pop for me. In my in-process novel, I actually lopped off the first four pages and ended up with two people dying on page one. It made for a much better hook. It’s a show don’t tell kind of thing for me.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a book with a mood opening, the Shelf of Honor First Lines clearly shows that, but deconstructed as a single opening line, action speaks much louder than words. Actions make you ask Why? That little question propels the reader just as much as the writer. Actions? Questions? What single lines are the flavors I like best? I’m getting there. They’re next in fact.

“At the height of the long wet summer of the seventy-seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy.” —The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

There’s a lot of information going on here. The weather and the year, they don’t do anything for me, but fortunately this is a nice long line. Thiefmaker and Eyeless Priest… who are these people? They’re titles so unique, they demand answers in themselves. But that’s informational. What’s the action? Why he’s got Lamora up for sale. The title character is for sale in the first line? Do tell more.

“Colin saw Walter’s foot a moment before it connected with his stomach.” —Well of Sorrows by Benjamin Tate

This is all action, simple and impactful. Both literally and figuratively. By starting off the whole book right in the middle of the fight, we’re instantly involved with what’s going on. There’s no lead in for us to choose sides nor are we shown the aftermath yet with the winner dusting himself off. We’re not even given a chance to take a breath before stuff’s going down.

“In a cold jail cell in Boston in Massachusetts Bay Colony on November 16, 1699, a weather-beaten man with hard scarred features unbuttoned his trousers.” —The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks

This one is a little bit odd in that it’s the only non-fiction book on the Shelf of Honor. But take a look at that. This book doesn’t read like a history text. It’s researched just the same but it reads like a novel. We’ve got action in a place that could easily start out as “Captain Kidd was in jail in Boston on November 16, 1699.” What we got instead is a lot more interesting, even if the image of a pantsless angry Scotsman in jail isn’t exactly an image we want willingly.

I just now spent twenty minutes going through my shelves for more first lines that really pop for me. What’s surprising me is that so many books I enjoy the b’jebus out of, have regular first lines. This goes back to running headlong into a new novel. When there are 400 pages, you’ve got at least fifty to hook me, one hundred if I’m being generous and you’ve got an awesome premise. In the last twenty minutes though, I did find two more that really jab the hooks in before the first punctuation mark.

“On the last true day of spring the nine worlds will ever know, my brother and I fly recon through the land of the gods.” —Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout

Godpunk is one of my favorite subgenres and the Norse are especially awesome. Not only do we have the ominous declaration that might as well be a Ned Stark saying “Winter is coming… everywhere,” we’ve got this awesome action of flying recon in the land of the gods. Something dicey is going on. There are so many questions in that half statement. There’s got to be danger a plenty in doing that, you don’t fly recon in safe zones. Expound on this danger! Tell me more!

“She let Johnny gag her mouth with a belt, that way she wouldn’t scream when he amputated her two mangled fingers.” —Johnny Zed by John Gregory Betancourt

Take a look at this book and read it’s synopsis and it sounds like a very dated 1980s popcorn muncher and then holy hell back alley amputations! I’m not so sure if I need to say much more about that. We’re starting in the middle of the action but it’s simultaneously the aftermath of another. What starts off as something sounding like it needs an R rating, turns out to be a lot more squeamish and intense than that. The question “What next?” drips off the page.

So there’s a thousand words about first lines, none more than 41 words themselves. One of the primary reasons I run this blog, is so that when I talk about these things, I become conscious of what works and doesn’t work in the books I read so I can apply those lessons to my own novel writing endeavors. So what have I learned, or more accurately, what have I become more aware of? Well, novels don’t have to get you in one line. Most of the Shelf of Honor books don’t hook me as fast as the 80s popcorn muncher that is Johnny Zed. When a first line really clicks though, it’s magic. Things are happening, things are moving and you’ve got no time to wonder what’s going on. All those magnificent questions these wonderful first lines raise, well hell, there’s no time to stop and think of them. We’re swept up in what’s going on without coming up for air.

There’s a whole novel for us to come up for air, but you’ve got to shove the reader back under the tide of words anyways. Make them work for it.

China Miéville.
Review over. You know all you need to know. Go read it.


Seriously, I left that bit sitting there for a long time thinking I was going to post just that. That’s all the convincing I took. A new China Miéville book is something that gets written on my calendar in January and if I bought my calendar any earlier than that, trust me, the date would be written on earlier. Miéville could write a phone book and I’d be all over that.

It’s been years since I’ve bothered to read the back of a Miéville book before cracking it open and Railsea was no exception. Reading it for the first time while typing it here! Back of the book time!

On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea – even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-colored mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict – a kind of treasure map indicating a mythincal place untouched by iron rails – leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters & salvage-scrabblers. & it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

Here’s a novel for readers of all ages, a gripping & brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that confirms China Miéville’s status as “the most original & talented voice to appear in several years” (Science Fiction Chronicle).

So when I first heard about this book the only think Amazon or Del Ray really talked about was “YA sci fi Moby Dick! woo!” My first thought was “Eh… YA… I don’t even like it’s acronym.” It’s a weird, nebulous term that doesn’t really mean much beyond a marketing tool. But Un Lun Dun was considered YA too and I enjoyed that immensely. I think YA is really just anything that involves a protagonist around the age of fourteen (although at times I had Sham pegged as older than that). In the end I went Meh and bought the hell out of it anyways.

Where to begin… Railsea reaffirms that in my dream D&D game, China Miéville is DMing. Place becomes a character in his books more so than most authors. I’ve often talked about worldbuilding, it’s something I like a lot so I’m going to do it again. Where most of Miéville’s books focus on one city, in this book it takes on a scale equal to that of the Bas-Lag novels. The whole notion of an ocean of railroads an utterly unique starting point for creating a whole world. It’s the first “what if” that drives the whole cascade of “and thens.”

Weird quirk of the book that you’ll notice right away. The word “and” never shows up once in all 424 pages. Every single instance is replaced with &. It bothered me for the first chapter but trust me, it’s ok and makes sense.

What’s filling the content of this world with rails and without ands? Well the Moby Dick parallels are obvious without being derivative. Sham is a noob doctor’s assistant on a moletrain crew. Moles and other such underground beasties are a lot different in the world of Railsea. The dirt between the rails is solid but acts like water for the creatures that burrow through it. Captain Naphi has herself a “philosophy,” her giant ivory colored mole nemesis takes on a more metaphysical quality to it. The other key players to this tale are the Shroake siblings, Caldera and Dero, the children of salvagers and explorers.

They’ve all got these elusive goals at the end of the world. Most of the story is that of Sham, occasionally we get side trips to others and this narrator voice that jumps in every now and then. Storyteller sounds better than narrator. It doesn’t show up very often but when it does, it steers the story in the right direction and will go so far as to tell you why and muse about the philosophy of storytelling.

Conclusions, reactions, satisfactions? Sham makes an incredible journey of growth from greenhorn to a proper trainsman out to fulfill his own quest. There’s a gradual buildup in his character and then this one point where he actually realizes it himself. It’s a very satisfying moment which leads Sham to overcome one of the more tricky obstacles in his path. Captain Naphi’s character arc is more like a roller coaster once things get going.

We get a glimpse at city life, and a sliver of a salvager’s world. This is the sort of thing that beg for more attention (in fact, the storyteller comments on this) but Railsea moves along at such a clip you never get a desire to wander off on other tracks.

As in Un Lun Dun, Miéville does some illustrations in the book. They’re a series of gorgeous line art pieces that add a lot to it. The burrowing owl in particular is my favorite.

So where does this leave us? Right back where I started.

China Miéville. I don’t need to say more even though I did.

Kings of Eternity

Posted: May 16, 2012 in Reading
Tags: , ,

A bit late to the party with this one, what with the aforementioned small child who was birthed last week. But the little guy is sleeping now and I already took a dad-nap so I’m going to cram in as much work as I can.

This time I’m going to throw down the Back Of The Book not out of laziness, but because Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown has a Big Question going for it which frankly will make talking about it a bit hard without ruining it.

1999. On the threshold of a new millennium, the novelist Daniel Langham lives a reclusive life on an idyllic Greek island, hiding away from humanity and the events of the past. All that changes, however, when he meets artist Caroline Platt and finds himself falling in love. But what is his secret, and what are the horrors that haunt him?

1935. Writers Jonathon Langham and Edward Vaughan are summoned from London by their editor friend Jasper Carnegie to help investigate strange goings-on in Hopton Wood. What they discover there – no less than a strange creature from another world – will change their lives forever.

What they become and their link to the novelist of the future, is the subject of Eric Brown’s most ambitious novel to date. Almost ten years in the writing,The Kings of Eternity is a novel of vast scope and depth, yet imbued with humanity and characters you’ll come to love.

So the Back Of The Book here says a bit less than usual and I didn’t realize that until typing it out. I suspect the person over at Solaris Books writing that summary had the same trouble dancing around the same Big Question I’m going to have. I was drawn toKings in part because of the cover, frankly. If you click that Goodreads link above and check out the cover, it gives you a pretty good hint about the “goings-on in Hopton Wood.” It shows a man dressed in 30’s suit and fedora dwarfed by a gaping blue portal to another world. This is the kind of novel where you really can judge a book by its cover as it shares almost as much information as the back cover.

Kings is a little bit of a departure from the usual stuff I read. It’s really a character study on the two Langhams, the one in the 30s and the one in the 90s. For the first 150 pages or so, almost half the book, there is very little overtly science fiction about Kings. The first page and a half, then almost nothing until the 150 mark. I never found myself struggling to get through the book though. The writing and the characters are compelling enough to pull me along the pages.

Speaking of the hard to speak about Big Question… It’s what ties the two tangents and the two Langhams, grandfather and grandson, together. I figured it out around page 100, well before the book actually tells it to me. There’s still enough going on to keep me reading as it’s not the only Big Question, just the one that makes it really, really hard to talk about the book without ruining it.

I enjoyed this book, but I can’t be completely fluffy rainbows about this little review. There’s a very important side character who gets killed in one of the more actiony scenes and the book never really takes any time to dwell on it. He’s not the protagonist, but has strong ties with the Langham of that tangent so a little bit of dwelling should have been in order once the characters had time to pause. The guy’s death was “Eh, he was at peace with himself” and onto the next paragraph.

In all reality, it was probably longer than that one short line, but it felt that short and left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, even five days after finished. The short little sentence is truthful, that particular character was at peace with himself, but still. Dwell a little bit. Some sort of closure before moving on would have been appreciated.

But don’t let that make you think I didn’t enjoy Kings. It’s got some very intriguing Big Questions and satisfying answers to them. I wouldn’t pick this one up if you’re looking for an action heavy sort of thing, but as an in depth character piece, Kings is well worth the read.