Monday, August 6, 2018

Book Review: Wool (Omnibus edition)

Book cover for Wool Omnibus editionThis is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.

The omnibus edition collects what were five separately published parts into one complete volume. I'm glad that I waited as if I had to read each of these parts individually I would've been frustrated. While part one would've been fine as a standalone, parts two through four ended with cliffhangers and so much of the overall story unresolved that I would've felt I'd been played. That's not to say that I didn't like Wool, quite the opposite. From a publishing perspective (and Howey was still indie back then), it's a risky move. You either leave readers clamoring for more (and you'd better deliver!) or you alienate them for selling a story piecemeal.

The first three parts are told from the perspective of a single character (barring the final chapter of part three). And it works. It serves as an introduction to the Silo and what life is like for those living there. Too many POVs might've proved overwhelming for the reader. By focusing on individual storylines, the reader is slowly acclimated to this world that Howey has created. But events transpire in part three that necessitated multiple POVs for parts four and five.

Part one is Holston's tale. A widower, he pines for his recently departed wife and can no longer bear to live without her. He introduces us to the Silo, a massive underground structure where humanity lives after some apocalyptic catastrophe. His actions serve as a preamble for what's to come.

Part two is Mayor Jahns' tale. She's escorted by Deputy Marnes as they journey through the Silo to interview the next sheriff. Besides learning her story, we learn more details about the Silo: It comprises 140 levels, each level serves some function to maintaining life here, and it has its own unique set of politics.

Part three deals with Juliette Nichols, the newly appointed sheriff. Having worked down in Mechanical for a couple of decades, she's not used to dealing with the politics that comes with her new job. She doesn't realize it at first, but she's been stepping on toes since long before becoming sheriff. The head of a rival department is stepping in to fill a power vacuum, and he doesn't like her. The feeling is mutual. As she strives to solve the mystery behind a couple of deaths, she uncovers a secret that threatens to throw the entire Silo into chaos.

Howey does a great job getting the reader to like these characters. You learn so much about them that you can't help but bond with them. They seem familiar, despite their circumstances. Even the antagonist was well drawn for a bad guy. He wasn't wholly evil, just convinced that he knew what was best for the Silo and control must be maintained by any means necessary (a common belief that has led to the downfall of many leaders).

Parts four and five deal with the fallout of Juliette's discovery. All does not go according to the antagonist's plan, and thus contingency plans are put in place to deal with these events. Sinister secrets are revealed, and the nefarious origins of the Silo are dredged up. Two factions struggle for control of the Silo, but one side has a strategic advantage that is unknown to the population at large: It has always been in control.

The ending gave me a bit of a surprise, but I liked it. All in all, it made for a highly entertaining read. Engaging characters, post-apocalyptic setting, secrets to be discovered, decent plot resolution. I can see why it was such a hit. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it was made into a TV series. 4 out of 5 stars.


Monday, July 2, 2018

Book Review: Swords and Deviltry

book cover for Swords and DeviltryThis book contains the origin stories for Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the popular pair of adventurers from the mind of Fritz Leiber.

"The Snow Women" is Fafhrd's story. He's all of 18 and it shows. Leiber captures all the raging hormones and misguided idealism of guys that age. Think of this as the barbarian equivalent of Alice Cooper's song "I'm Eighteen" (both were published in 1970 by the way). He has a hot girlfriend, Mara, who loves him dearly, but he's smitten by Vlana, a sultry actress who rides into town with a caravan of entertainers. He's confused. Tired of life in the snow-covered forest, he longs to see the civilized world. So far, his view of the world is as pillager as his tribe of "ice men" ransack towns along the coast as a way of life. Vlana represents his idea of civilization, and his attraction is dual. He wants to bang her, but his mind wants to learn more about the "civilized world" and what it has to offer.

Vlana struck me as being a few years older, if not in age then surely in mind. She knows how the world works and uses her beauty to her advantage. Fafhrd is an open book to her. His naivete about civilization is cute. While she isn't cruel to him, she does play him to her advantage.

Mara knows that Fafhrd lusts for Vlana. She doesn't buy the whole civilization line he tries to sell her. It pisses her off (rightly so!), and she's torn between kicking Fafhrd's ass and forgiving him.

The arrival of the caravan is an annual event organized by the men of the tribe. There are acting performances with musical accompaniment, but it's primarily striptease. The men are dogs and are dumb about barring the women from watching. The women of the tribe resent it. They've resorted to witchcraft and ice-laden snowballs to interfere with the show and wrest their husbands and sons away. It's gone on for so long that the grudge has festered. Fafhrd's mother, bitter from her husband's death while mountain climbing, is their leader. She's strong with the dark arts and continues to escalate the conflict. Fafhrd feels smothered by her. In turn, he feels like Mara is turning into his mother.

"The Unholy Grail" is the Grey Mouser's origin story. While serving as an apprentice to a wizard, he came to meet the local duke's daughter Ivrian. Love blossomed for a time, but Mouser knew of the duke's disdain for him and the wizard. He returned one day from an errand to find the wizard dead and his home burned. From here, the Mouser's tale becomes all about vengeance.

As for Ivrian, she's torn between helping Mouser and obeying her cruel father. He verbally abused her often, comparing Ivrian to her deceased mother and how drastically she fell short. It isn't pretty; and the emotional abuse has left Ivrian scarred and fearful of her father's wrath. There are few things worse for a child than to grow up with abusive parents, so criticism of Ivrian's alleged weakness should be tempered accordingly.

"Ill Met in Lankhmar" is where our two heroes' stories come together. Each is eyeing a group of thieves on their way back to the guild with a successful haul, but they're unaware of each other. As fate would have it, they simultaneously attack the thieves. But rather than fight over the spoils, they see something in the other that draws them together. They decide to celebrate their success and new found friendship by getting drunk and introducing the other to their girlfriends. But the Thieves' Guild isn't about to take this affront lying down.

I enjoyed Leiber's writing style. I think the bookgator said it best: "Reading these stories feels a little like sitting at the feet of an old, old storyteller while he reminisces about childhood heroes." And I couldn't agree more.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Book Review: Armor

book cover for ArmorThe planet is called Banshee. The air is unbreathable, the water is poisonous. It is home to the most implacable enemies that humanity, in all its interstellar expansion, has ever encountered.

Body armor has been devised for the commando forces that are to be dropped on Banshee—the culmination of ten thousand years of the armorers’ craft. A trooper in this armor is a one-man, atomic powered battle fortress. But he will have to fight a nearly endless horde of berserk, hard-shelled monsters—the fighting arm of a species which uses biological technology to design perfect, mindless war minions.

Felix is a scout in A-team Two. Highly competent, he is the sole survivor of mission after mission. Yet he is a man consumed by fear and hatred. And he is protected, not only by his custom-fitted body armor, but by an odd being which seems to live within him, a cold killing machine he calls “The Engine.”

This is Felix’s story—a story of the horror, the courage, and the aftermath of combat, and the story, too, of how strength of spirit can be the greatest armor of all.

The story starts out with what you'd expect after reading the book blurb (Goodreads or paperback): a non-stop brutal assault. Felix is but one soldier of thousands dumped on Banshee, the alien homeworld, to fight the enemy on their turf. While not stated outright, they're treated as disposable heroes. Lessons are never learned. Tactics never change. Mistakes are repeated, sending the casualty count higher and higher. Published in 1984, I wonder if the hangover from Vietnam factored into Steakley's writing.

Felix's battles are epic, but there's no glory here. The "ants"—giant, mass-produced, mindless biological killing machines—relentlessly attack Felix and his fellow soldiers. Swarm after swarm come at them, and eventually, everyone dies. Except Felix. Steakley writes up Felix's battles in gory detail, which wears on the reader, but that's his point. He wants you to connect with Felix, who is physically and psychologically drained from all the killing, watching his comrades die, and being ordered to repeat the process over and over and over. It's madness, and it threatens to take Felix down with it. He's too afraid to live, but too angry to die.

But in the second part of the book, we shift from Felix to Jack Crow, interstellar celebrity rogue. He violently escapes from prison to a starship on a landing pad, only to be caught up with a group of mutineers. He's coerced into working with them in a scam to secure more fuel from a Fleet Scientific Colony. Jack is to use his celebrity status to his advantage to get the mutineers past the planet's defenses. Jack uses his reputation and charisma to gain audience and then presents a Trojan Horse of sorts to the project's chief scientist, Hollis Ware. Not only does it snare Hollis's curiosity, but Jack's too.

This second story takes over for quite a large chunk of the book, but Felix isn't forgotten. Steakley eventually weaves the two storylines together, and we learn more about what happened to Felix as well as his past before enlisting. Along the way, Steakley works on evolving Jack from selfish to selfless in a way that remained true to the character.

There are a few women characters of note in the book, and each is treated differently. Forest is a soldier just like Felix. She's fantastic: smart, brave, and skilled. Colonel Canada seemed like someone fresh out of college: book smart and eager, but not all that experienced. When she appears, it's like an episode of Spring Break: Banshee. Lya is a psychologist and Hollis's handler, not to mention very much in love with him. Karen is the Project Administrator Let's just say that when we learn her backstory, it strikes a chord with the #metoo movement. All four impact either Felix or Jack in some way that shapes their worldview.

There's been a lot of comparison of this novel to Starship Troopers and The Forever War. Yes, there are big mean bugs that attacked Earth (ST), and there's a bleak outlook on the futility of war and those calling the shots (FW), but there are major differences. ST was more about patriotism and duty as Heinlein saw a moral decline in 1950s America. Armor rejects patriotism as an excuse for stupidity. FW was a mirror of Haldeman's experiences fighting in Vietnam and the difficulty returning to civilian life. Armor acknowledges it, but forges a different path, concerning itself with the toll taken on the human psyche.

There are some parts, including the ending, that beg for further story exploration. Sadly, Steakley died in 2010 from liver disease, having never completed a sequel.

Overall, a fantastic book (please ignore the typos) that worked for me on numerous levels. 5 stars.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Book Review: Burning Chrome

Book cover for Burning ChromeNewer editions have better covers. This was the 1987 cover, which is the one I own.

This is a short story collection of Gibson's early work, ranging from 1977-1985. In it, he lays the groundwork for his Sprawl trilogy, which includes Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. But more importantly, he gave sci-fi a much needed boost in the arm by securing the foundation of what would become known as cyberpunk.

One has to remember that during the time that Gibson wrote these stories, the internet was a domain limited to a select few militaries, government institutions, and universities. The web didn't even exist until 1991. But he saw the potential of where it could lead. While his biotech visions are just starting to show signs of emergence, by and large, he got his computer technology right.

First up is "Johnny Mnemonic." How a 22-page short story led to the movie of the same name is beyond me. It's like the studio cherry-picked several elements from the story that they liked and came up with something else entirely. This story is fine. It rushes by so fast, everything is lost in the world building. I had to re-read a couple of passages as the segues were easily overlooked.

The story was published in 1981, it helped define a cyberpunk future that fortunately hasn't come to pass, though some of the technological elements ring true. Though with the ubiquity of high-density, tiny storage devices (i.e. thumb drives), requiring someone to have wetware for a few megabytes of info is quaint. Tera- or Petabytes would've impressed.

"The Gernsback Continuum": While on assignment, a photographer starts hallucinating about a future that was forecast in the 1930s.

"Fragments of a Hologram Rose": Trying to put a broken heart back together with holograms in a ruined American landscape.

Gibson co-wrote "The Belonging Kind" with John Shirley. In this one, a socially awkward man is smitten by a woman at a bar. As he follows her through the city, he soon learns that she's more than she appears to be, which only makes her even more intriguing.

In "Hinterlands," humanity accidentally stumbles upon interstellar travel, but it's really rough on the people that experience it. There's a team at the L5 station that do their best to help those that come back. It's about as easy as putting a broken egg back together.

After cornering the oil market, the Soviet Union forced the US to concede human spaceflight in "Red Star, Winter Orbit", co-written with Bruce Sterling. Colonel Komarov, the first person on Mars, calls the Soviet space station home, but after two decades in space, it's also a prison. Returning to Earth's gravity would crush him, but that's exactly what the government wants.

"New Rose Hotel": Being a headhunter in the biotech market is a ruthless business. Like love, there's nothing that stings more than betrayal. Substitute thumb drives for diskettes and you'll be ok.

"The Winter Market": When dreams sell like popular music does today (or yesterday), it'll give rise to its own rock stars, complete with their own tragic stories.

In "Dogfight," co-written with Michael Swanwick, a loser drifter decides that he's going to make his mark by being the best holovideogame player in the whole podunk town, and he's willing to do anything to accomplish it, even if it means being a dick.

"Burning Chrome" wraps up this collection with the quintessential cyberpunk story: Two console jockeys set out for that one final score that'll make them rich. To do it, they'll need to take down a criminal kingpin via the internet matrix.

The first three stories are too obsessed with describing Gibson's world and throwing cool, new jargon at the reader than in crafting good stories. Style over substance. But after that, the real storytelling begins. Gibson eases off the nuevo lingo, particularly when writing with others, to develop the characters into people we can recognize beneath the veneer of tech. Definitely worth checking out to see a successful writer when he was still hungry and passionate about writing down his vision of the future.


Friday, April 27, 2018

I Killed MySpace

MySpace logo
No, not really. It's just a coincidence that the #1 social networking outlet went into decline shortly after I joined up. It's also very much alive, albeit largely irrelevant in the social media landscape, as a music and entertainment platform.

I resisted joining for years, but I finally gave in to peer pressure. While I was connecting with obscure indie metal bands, scandals rocked the platform. It was labelled a "vortex of perversion" after sensationalized stories of teen sex, drugs, and kidnapping surfaced, reinforced by unsavory ads that everyone could see regardless of age and "moral standing." Throw in technical difficulties and the platform quickly hemorrhaged users. If you want, you can read a thorough story here.

MySpace was displaced by Facebook, and the rest is history.

I'm still not on Facebook. Why? So many reasons, but they can be categorized into two camps: the politics of personal relationships and Facebook's use of my data. I think both are pretty self-explanatory, but I'll elaborate.

The politics of personal relationships requires that I friend people who I don't like or don't really connect with in real life. And then I have to like things that they post like "sitting on the couch with a bag of Doritos watching TV" or "here are 32 pictures of my kid". Some people don't understand the concept of oversharing. In either case, if I don't play along, I'm a dick. When I see them in person, I then have to explain why I didn't "like" their post or refused their friend request. Makes for some really awkward times. I much prefer to be polite and keep my interactions with them in small doses.

If that makes me seem like a jerk, I'll accept that. But one should bear in my mind, that politeness in uncomfortable situations keeps things civil. Human history is rife with violence. The polite veneer of civility helps us all get along, but it can be exhausting. Do I really need to play this game with people who overshare? Do we really need more drama?

Facebook uses its members' data to make money. Nothing is off limits. It seems like people are just waking up to this. The counter argument is that you can't something for nothing. Yeah, I get that. I'd pay a reasonable subscription for a social media platform (I already pay for my website) where I had full control over how my data was used. But nothing sells like FREE.

I'll spare you the whole fake news crap that surfaced during the last election. Like I want to have a page of lies clogging up my screen.

So why am I considering joining? Because nearly everyone is on there! That isn't hyperbole: 40 million businesses, 2 billion people. Start up companies (breweries come to mind) forego having websites in favor of a Facebook page due to cost and simplicity. But even mature businesses have a presence on Facebook to drum up interest and will use it to handle their communications.

As an indie author, I need to find ways to reach out to people. Websites and blogs are just islands in the vast sea of the internet. Facebook is a continent. If you don't have some connection, you won't necessarily die, but you won't flourish either. If one person likes something, it shows up in their feed, which their friends see. Some might actually follow up and see what their friend liked. Such is the power of the network.

I've tried two other social media platforms (besides MySpace), but neither compares to the Pangaea of Facebook.

Google+ is fine, but its activity is tepid. Yes, I realize that Google is using my data, but I'm careful about what I share. Also, I haven't had any of the liking pressure. Of course, nearly no one I know uses it. I keep wondering when Alphabet is going to pull the plug on it.

Goodreads is a haven for bookworms. Its defined structure means I don't have to worry about drowning in cat videos. Again, no pressure to like someone's review or update. But maybe that's because I don't have a big network of people I connect with there. That's not to say it doesn't have issues, but I haven't had a problem avoiding them. It also offers authors a means to self-promote. I haven't taken full advantage of them yet, but plan to once I finish Gateway to Empire. Maybe that will be enough, but I'm inclined to think not.

But maybe this angst is all for naught. There's anecdotal evidence that Facebook usage is in decline. By the time I get around to joining it, maybe all of its issues will have finally caught up to it and send the company down into a death spiral. I don't think so. It's too big to fail, and there aren't any real alternatives. Unless there's an anti-social media movement where we downplay the importance of its role in our lives, I don't see that happening.

So I guess I'd better get ready to like a lot of cat videos and baby pictures.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: The Practice Effect

book cover for The Practice EffectPhysicist Dennis Nuel is the first human to probe the strange realms called anomaly worlds: alternate universes where the laws of science are unpredictably changed. But the world Dennis discovers seems almost like our own—with one perplexing difference. To his astonishment, he’s hailed as a wizard, meets a beautiful woman with strange powers, and finds himself fighting a mysterious warlord as he struggles to solve the riddle of this baffling world.

While this novel is couched as sci-fi, it reads like fantasy. Sure, the beginning of the novel takes place in a near future Earth, and there's the zievatron thingee that allows Nuel to travel to another world, but it ends there. The rest of the novel is spent in a medieval world, and Nuel must put his wits to use inventing things to gain favor and the upper hand in his struggles with the denizens of this world. There's a princess who needs rescuing, castles and dungeons, and superstitious peasants.

So what is "the practice effect?" Well, you know how you have to practice playing the clarinet to learn a song or get on the ice and skate to improve your hockey skills (maybe not the best examples, but you should get my point)? On this world, that's how you make objects better. The more you use them as they're intended, the better they get. Got a pair of ripped jeans? Wear them a lot and let them practice being jeans and those rips will go away. Got a crude stone axe? Go chop some wood with it, and it'll slowly sharpen on its own accord.

If you remember physics class, you'll know which law has been turned on its head to make worn out things magically like new. Just another element to bolster the case for this being a fantasy novel.

90+% of the story is told from Nuel's POV. Fortunately that 10% exists as it affords the reader a chance to learn that the villainous Baron and Princess Linnora aren't two-dimensional stock characters. The Baron is greedy and lusts for power, but he does have a few principles. It was especially nice to see that, while the princess was in need of rescuing, she carried her own weight as the novel wore on.

None of this is said to infer that this is a bad book. It's definitely not. I enjoyed it. The pacing is good, and the story is entertaining. The characters are fine, though they could've used a little more depth. They're likable, you still root for them to succeed. The story could've devolved into one of those stereotypical square-jawed male heroic fantasy tropes that were so popular decades ago, but it didn't. Not Brin's best work, but still fun.

3 stars


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Book Review: Mission of Gravity

Book cover for Mission of Gravity2.5 stars.

Clement's world building is the highlight of this sci-fi classic from 1954. Mesklin is a large, disc-shaped world that spins so fast that days are only 18 minutes long. Gravity runs from 3 G at the equator to 700 G at the poles. It is a world of liquid methane seas and ammonia snow. The humans have special environmental suits to protect them from the hostile atmosphere and tanks to get around, provided they stay close to the equator. And yet there's sentient life: 15 inch-long centipede-like beings who are in the early stages of civilization.

And that's the high point of this book.

Characterization is flat. Even the aliens show very little depth, behaving very much like their human counterparts. Interactions between Barlennan, the local Meskinite captain, and Lackland, his human contact, are rather easy. Lackland taught Barlennan English (before the story begins) and except for the occasional idiom or scientific concept, there is little lost in translation. The most interesting part is that the humans and Barlennan's trade group work together to solve problems rather than trying to kill one another.

Science fiction doesn't really age well. Unforeseen technological advances (Computers!) and cultural progression trip up most stories. While the technological hiccups here are few and easy enough to skip over (slide rule, film projector reel), and there isn't any cultural baggage, the writing style is stuck in the time period from when it was written. It's stale. Conversations are all business. The prose is stark, all too objective. It's the Asteroids video game equivalent of literature, with far fewer explosions.

The story is a very linear progression from one encounter to another as the Mesklinites journey from the equator, where they encountered to the south pole of their world to retrieve very expensive equipment from an incapacitated human rocket. It's as much a mission of exploration for the north pole dwelling Barlennan as it is for the visiting humans (though they're keeping an eye on the action via a radio). Unfortunately, we drown in minutiae, both travelogue and mathematical. At times, it seems as if Clement has written this story for boys yearning for careers in science. "Look lads, you can have all sorts of adventures if you study hard!"

It isn't bad, but it isn't terribly exciting either.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Review: Aftermath

book cover for AftermathAs the Empire reels from its critical defeats at the Battle of Endor, the Rebel Alliance—now a fledgling New Republic—presses its advantage by hunting down the enemy’s scattered forces before they can regroup and retaliate. But above the remote planet Akiva, an ominous show of the enemy’s strength is unfolding. Out on a lone reconnaissance mission, pilot Wedge Antilles watches Imperial Star Destroyers gather like birds of prey circling for a kill, but he’s taken captive before he can report back to the New Republic leaders.

Meanwhile, on the planet’s surface, former rebel fighter Norra Wexley has returned to her native world—war weary, ready to reunite with her estranged son, and eager to build a new life in some distant place. But when Norra intercepts Wedge Antilles’s urgent distress call, she realizes her time as a freedom fighter is not yet over. What she doesn’t know is just how close the enemy is—or how decisive and dangerous her new mission will be.

Determined to preserve the Empire’s power, the surviving Imperial elite are converging on Akiva for a top-secret emergency summit—to consolidate their forces and rally for a counterstrike. But they haven’t reckoned on Norra and her newfound allies—her technical-genius son, a Zabrak bounty hunter, and a reprobate Imperial defector—who are prepared to do whatever they must to end the Empire’s oppressive reign once and for all.

I wasn't planning on reading this one. After reading reviews by those whom I follow, it didn't strike me as a must-read. It's not an angry fan boy thing. Except for two volumes of the Knights of the Old Republic graphic novels, I haven't read any of the pre-Disney Star Wars novels either. But then I received this book for Christmas and so I had to read it.

I didn't like the writing at the beginning of the book. It was all short, choppy sentences, a good many of them incomplete. It was more like someone blocking a scene in the script to a movie. Fortunately, that style was abandoned and a true narrative took over. This is my first Wendig novel, so I have no idea if he does that sort of thing. Maybe he felt the need to set the scene that way, give the feel of a watching a movie. I liked his writing the rest of the way. Action scenes were choreographed well and his descriptions of the setting made it easy for me to visualize the scenes.

Other reviewers have pointed out how difficult it was to connect with characters that have never made it into film. I get that, but that wasn't much of a problem for me. Wendig's characters were well-developed. I particularly liked Jas the bounty hunter and Sinjir the ex-Imperial loyalty officer. I couldn't stand Norra's teen-aged son Temmin because Wendig nailed it (being a parent of one and a soon-to-be one I can attest to it), so props to you, sir! I think that Wendig had more freedom to develop these new characters than the familiar faces—I found Wedge Antilles to be sorely lacking, but Admiral Ackbar was ok, albeit limited.

Every few chapters there are "interludes." These short tales offered a glimpse into the lives of the everyday people on several worlds and how they dealt with the aftermath of the fall of the Empire. To be honest, I enjoyed these more than the story itself.

Which brings me to the reason why I didn't really love this book: the perceived significance of the events portrayed here. There's more drama packed into the lives of the Interlude characters than the main story. Sure it's entertaining, but I never got the impression that the stakes were high. The Epilogue may have teased something, but it was left too vague to ascertain what was actually teased. If Aftermath were a collection of Interlude short stories, I think I would've enjoyed it more.

All in all, this is still a fine book by an author forced to write with one hand tied behind his back. Three and a half stars.


Monday, March 5, 2018

First Milestone in a While

Murphy saying hello to a frogEvery winter for the last several years, I've made it my resolve to take advantage of being cooped up indoors and write. If you've paid any attention to me whatsoever, you know that I haven't been successful at all at seeing that resolution come to fruition. Sometimes the reasons are good: I have a freelance job editing or coding and I'm actually earning money. Sometimes the reasons aren't so good.

I'll confess here and now: I have seasonal affective disorder. I've had it at least as far back as my teens. It varies in intensity over spans of weeks and from one year to the next. Most years, it just wears on me, dragging on me like I'm pulling a sled full of firewood uphill in the snow. But occasionally, it pulls me down into a pit of despair. Over the last few years, I've had back-to-back bad winters and life came to a grinding halt. Fortunately, I have a loving wife and family to help me get through it.

I don't bring this up because I'm seeking pity. I don't like talking about it in general. When I grew up, admitting that you had a problem like this was a sign of weakness (I can only imagine what it's like for veterans with PTSD), and that hasn't left me, though society seems to be getting better about it. The reason why I'm bringing it up at all is that I feel like I owe an explanation to anyone and everyone who has paid any sort of attention to me as a writer. I feel like I've let them down. I want them to know that I'm not lazy or apathetic; I self-sabotage. I make up reasons not to write, or I'm such a zombie that before I know it, the day is gone. And this goes on every year.

But this winter I've managed to keep plugging away. I still throw up roadblocks to progress, but I've been able to make my way through the barricades more often than not. So I'm happy to announce that I've reached the 30,000-word milestone with the manuscript. To me, that could very well be halfway. Armistice Day wound up at 66,000 words over 250 pages, so there's that. For me, it's a psychological milestone, and I felt like sharing. It gives me a measure of hope that I'll actually keep my word about finishing the book this year.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book Review: Equoid

Book cover for EquoidIf this story had come out ten years earlier, I would never have let my daughter play with those MyLittlePony™ things. But she grew to love giraffes instead of horses or unicorns, so I suppose that worry would've been for naught anyway. At least until Stross pens something horrific about those ungainly ungulates.

If you're new to the Laundry Files, this series is a bit of James Bond battles Lovecraftian beasties and the occult with a healthy dose of The Office thrown in. But our intrepid hero (Bob Howard) resembles John Oliver more than Daniel Craig. In Equoid, Bob is sent to investigate reports of an equoid infestation (unicorns) at a farm in southern England.

Stross has managed to take the wholesome creature of little girl fantasies (here's why) and, after running it through a Lovecraftian filter, turned it into a horrific monstrosity replete with squishy, icky things and pubescent nightmares (If I had read this at 14...[shudder]). It's so bad that, in all seriousness, some readers will be genuinely disturbed by the imagery. But it all fits. If you understand Lovecraft's universe and the biology of anglerfish well enough, you'll recognize that none of the horror is gratuitous.

Stross also offers a glimpse into what drove the first of several nervous breakdowns that HPL suffered during his teens. He does so by offering snippets of a letter "written" by HPL, which the Laundry has on file. I think Stross did a great job mimicking HPL's style for the letter.

If you've read any of the books in the Laundry Files series, you'll be familiar with the writing style and story structure. It's a great addition to the series, and I highly recommend it to all those who enjoy it.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Book Review: Caliban's War

We are not alone.

On Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier. On Earth, a high-level politician struggles to prevent interplanetary war from reigniting. And on Venus, an alien protomolecule has overrun the planet, wreaking massive, mysterious changes and threatening to spread out into the solar system.

In the vast wilderness of space, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have been keeping the peace for the Outer Planets Alliance. When they agree to help a scientist search war-torn Ganymede for a missing child, the future of humanity rests on whether a single ship can prevent an alien invasion that may have already begun . . .

Caliban's War is a breakneck science fiction adventure following the critically acclaimed Leviathan Wakes.

I really enjoyed this book, even more so than Leviathan Wakes, and that was great. This time around, I think the book is better than the TV show (too much chopped out so far), though there's still the second half of this book that season three of the TV show needs to cover.

For POV, Holden's still here, but gone is Miller's noir. In its place is Martian Marine Sgt Bobbie Draper, the political machinations of UN Assistant Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala, and the forlorn quest of Prax, a Ganymede biologist. It's a diverse cast with wildly different perspectives and personalities.

Prax's daughter was kidnapped just before the war started on Ganymede, so he spends all of his waking hours searching for her. He's wasting away, praying that she's still alive, but expecting the worst. By the time Holden and the others encounter him, he's so far gone that he's barely capable of speech.

Chrisjen is a foulmouthed bureaucrat. She cusses like a sailor, possibly worse. When asked why her language is so "colorful", she replies that it's to prevent others from thinking she's soft. Why would anyone think that of her? It's not because she's happily married and a grandmother. It's because she "won't kill children." It's a brutal insight into the political landscape of The Expanse. It's all a game, but she can't give it up because she doesn't trust the other players. Her repartee with Holden was excellent. I hope it holds up on the TV show. If it doesn't, it won't be because Shohreh Aghdashloo didn't hold up her end. Her portrayal of Chrisjen is spot on.

Bobbie's coping with PTSD after her squad was obliterated by the aforementioned "monstrous supersoldier" (I don't want to spoil it, but the title is a clue.). She wants answers; she wants revenge. IIRC, she's two meters tall and intimidates anyone who has a clue. And that's before she puts on battle armor. After the Martian government lets her down, she goes to work for Chrisjen, because she's the one person whose objectives are in line with her own. It's not without bumps along the way though. Bobbie is a stranger in a strange land and must confront her perceptions about Terrans (Mars seems a bit like Sparta).

So you have Bobbie and Chrisjen hunting down the bastards that made the supersoldiers while Prax and Holden's gang are searching for Prax's daughter. The plot lines converge, and all hell breaks loose. It's all so epic that I couldn't help but love it. I had too much fun reading this, which isn't an easy things for me to say about a book that's spitting distance from 600 pages. I can't wait to see season three and read Abaddon's Gate.