Friday, December 22, 2017

Book Review: Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1

book cover for Transmetropolitan Volume 1After years of self-imposed exile from a civilization rife with degradation and indecency, cynical journalist Spider Jerusalem is forced to return to a job that he hates and a city that he loathes. Working as an investigative reporter for the newspaper The Word, Spider attacks the injustices of his surreal 23rd Century surroundings. Combining black humor, life-threatening situations, and moral ambiguity, this book is the first look into the mind of an outlaw journalist and the world he seeks to destroy.

Spider Jerusalem is the cyberpunk homage to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. You can see it in his appearance, demeanor, personality, and politics. And he's always smoking. Like HST, he savagely attacks what he perceives as a corrupt system filled with politicians, aristocrats, and cult leaders on the take with the use of his trusty computer. He's an anti-hero sticking it to—and sometimes kicking—the man. But he's also flawed. In Spider's case, it's manifold: booze and drugs, loyal to no one but himself, sloth, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur that manifest in the form of a self-righteous arbiter of morality attacking the powerful. He's judge, jury, and punisher (he doesn't execute anyone) who takes too much delight in carrying out his sentences.

Forced out of retirement due to bankruptcy and a publishing contract, Spider returns to the city he loves and loathes. He feeds off that loathing to craft his column for one of the local newspapers. His editor rewards Spider with a generous stipend and improved lodging (and later an assistant), which feeds Spider's ego and gives him all the justification he needs to continue his crusade.

Volume 1 collects the first six issues. The first three issues see Spider's return to the city from his mountain retreat. We learn about this world of his as he gets re-acquainted with it, noting what has changed, what hasn't. Along the way we discover that there are transients, humans who are re-writing their DNA to become aliens. Spider decides to make their story the subject of his first column.

The next three issues are one-offs where Spider meets his assistant (Channon, who deserves hazard pay for putting up with Spider's eccentricities) and runs into the President in a public bathroom, spends an afternoon watching TV (watch out for the ad bombs!), and visits a religious cult convention.

Darick Robertson's artwork is spot on. He perfectly captures the commercial chaos of the city, filled with the circus sideshow of humanity with all of its quirks, cultures, fashions and fetishes. I love scrutinizing the wide shot panels, combing through the debris of this world to catch a glimpse of the detritus and details that offer clues into what this world is all about: Ebola Cola, Necro Porn and Playgray magazines, Sin Gin, Dead Boyz cigarettes.

On a personal note, I just finished this volume before attending a corporate Christmas party. When I wasn't engaged in polite conversations with people who would soon forget I existed, Spider Jerusalem's commentary was there, running through my head with acerbic opinions about the occasion and its attendees. Having a character stick with you like that is a good sign that the author did his homework.

Given the current political climate, Transmetropolitan seems more relevant now than when it debuted 20 years ago. One major difference: the caricatures of people in the comic have now come to life.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Book Review: Foundation

book cover for FoundationFor twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future—to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire—both scientists and scholars—and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.

But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind's last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun—or fight them and be destroyed.

If you can look past certain technological anachronisms like paper still being a medium for the storage of information in a technologically advanced civilization with FTL travel or archaic cultural limitations on women (I didn't see a single female character that wasn't a secretary or wife, and these were throwaway roles), then this classic sci-fi novel (and later series) from the 1950s still merits reading (assuming you haven't done so already).

At this point in the series (several novels were written that take place before this one, although they were published later), the Galactic Empire has begun to decline, though there's little visible evidence for it. Hari Seldon, the leader of a group of psychohistorians, has declared that the empire will crumble, leading to a galaxy-wide dark ages that will last for thirty millennia. Seldon's scientific work leaves him without a doubt that the collapse is inevitable, but the recovery period doesn't have to be nearly as long. His plan involves the creation of a foundation that will work to preserve the empire's knowledge and minimize the damage from its fall.

The book is broken up into five sections. The first, the Psychohistorians, deals with Seldon's announcement and subsequent arrest. He's put on trial for treason and must successfully argue his case or face the death penalty. Although modeled after the Roman Empire, I found an interesting parallel to Seldon's argument about the eventual collapse of the empire in 500 years time and those individuals, most notably James Hansen, warning the American government and the world about climate change. Just as too many people have a problem envisioning how climate change is happening or that its effects will be more severely felt decades from now (or want to cover it up by discrediting the messengers), the Imperial government denies that the empire is crumbling, can't see the cracks that will take centuries to manifest, discredits Seldon's work, and seeks to silence him permanently. After all, who wants to hear that their way of life is having a deleterious effect upon the world (galaxy) around them?

From here, the remaining sections deal with pivotal moments in the Foundation's early years. These are dubbed "Seldon crises." In each one, the protagonist is a man who sees that the current political environment, if not handled correctly, will lead the Foundation down the wrong path. Sometimes the system needs to be overthrown; sometimes it needs a steady hand. Each one uses his wits rather than brute force to defeat his opponent. Like all successful chess players, he's able to see his opponents moves several steps in advance and plans accordingly.

While I wouldn't say it's an exciting work, it nonetheless makes for an entertaining read. Despite the aforementioned anachronisms, its influence is widespread and can be seen throughout sci-fi. When people as far apart on the ideological spectrum as Newt Gingrich and Paul Krugman cite it as an influential work, it bears looking into.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: Ronin

book cover for RoninIn this tale of a legendary warrior, the Ronin, a dishonored, masterless 13th Century samurai, is mystically given a second chance to avenge his master's death.Suddenly finding himself reborn in a futuristic and corrupt 21st Century New York City, the samurai discovers he has one last chance to regain his honor: he must defeat the reincarnation of his master's killer, the ancient demon Agat. In a time and place foreign and unfathomable to him, the Ronin stands against his greatest enemy with his life and, more importantly, his soul at stake.

When I first encountered comic books in the 70s, I thought they were garbage. The stories weren't worth the tissue paper they were printed on. But when I went to college, a roommate of mine told me that was no longer the case (more on that here). He used three graphic novels to make his case: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Ronin.

Suffice it to say, I was convinced.

Having had a warm reunion with Watchmen, I decided to re-visit Ronin to see if still held up after all these years.

The artwork certainly isn't as good as I remember it. Most of the art strikes me as a rough draft or conceptual sketches meant to be passed on to the illustrator. I can see what imagery Miller was attempting to convey and the feelings he wanted to evoke, but the execution seemed amateurish.

And the color palette! Blech! Algae green and muddled browns. Scenes of the facility viewed from above reveal it to be an amorphous mass of greens ovals infecting the grey and brown straight lines of the city like a fungus.

However, I still enjoyed the story. We have a samurai who's lost his master (hence ronin) battling a demon in the distant past only to be carried into the future (the inspiration for Samurai Jack?). In the future, we have a limbless child (Billy) attempting to master telekinesis with the help of an AI (Virgo) with a grandmother complex. Both work for an advanced biotech company looking to resurrect Manhattan from severe degradation.

When the storylines converge, the tale hits its stride. All is not as it seems. Magic, technology, fantasy, identity: It all blurs. Caught up in the middle of it all are Peter and Casey, a couple who work at the facility. Peter is a research scientist responsible for most of the science behind the technology. Casey is head of security. Each tries to hold firm to reality despite what their eyes are telling them. When people start dying, they refuse the easy answers and dig deeper to find the truth.

Since I first read the story, I'd heard about Miller's negative view of Manhattan. To paraphrase, he felt that the city was overrun by degenerates. He projected the future Manhattan in Ronin to be filled with racists, criminals, and cannibalistic mutants. Life holds very little value. It makes me question why a biotech company would bother building a mammoth (and expensive) facility among such filth and decay. The corporate directors talked about revitalizing the city, but we never saw anyone outside of the company that wasn't a degenerate. So why bother? But such a viewpoint works perfectly for Batman, which Miller would write (but not illustrate) not long after this one.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Finished That Writing Course

Cover for DVDAfter all of the home repairs and seasonal chores, I finally got around to finishing this DVD writing course that I started back in February. I have to say that it was fantastic. I'm talking 5 stars. Landon opened my eyes to the potential of the sentence. I was a long sentence skeptic, but Landon demonstrated that they can be done well and delivered eloquently. He fights the notion that style should be invisible as it drains writing of its joy and makes it a tiresome burden for many a student. He sees long sentences as instrumental in the development of a writer's style, the text lending shape to the writer's voice.

The guidebook that accompanies the DVD, while complete, lacks Landon's delivery and many examples that he presents in the lecture. It's like the "Cliff Notes" version of the lectures. Let me put it another way: The lectures have been boiled down, and this guidebook is the precipitate. While it covers the essential nuggets and provides what you need to know, it doesn't deliver the goods in the same way as Landon's lectures.

In the DVD, Landon's delivery clearly demonstrates his passion for literature. Not only is he lively, but he also punctuates his lectures with emphatic gesture and wit. At no point did I ever find myself bored, even when the material seemed too technical for my needs. The time spent viewing these lectures was well worth it. While I don't see myself trying to emulate Faulkner, following his lengthy written footsteps, I do feel that I can apply what I've learned to my writing. I highly recommend it for all aspiring authors.

Here's the link to their website. I bought it when it went on sale, so check back periodically if you're on a budget (like me).


Friday, October 13, 2017

Book Review: Ancillary Justice

Book cover for Ancillary JusticeOn a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

I was initially intrigued by the concept of a ship's AI out for revenge, but hesitated when the hype machine started rolling. When something gets hyped up, I tend to keep my distance until things cool down. I won't say I regretted waiting, but I can see where the praise (and backlash) came from.

The story is told from the POV of the starship Justice of Toren. Each of these massive ship's is run by an AI that not only embodies the ship, but thousands of its cyborgs (basically mindwiped POWs), known as ancillaries. So during the flashback chapters, Justice of Toren is in multiple places at once. I thought Leckie did a great job with managing this as the narrator always specified which ancillary (they have designations) was observing which scene.

But with an AI as narrator, we're given a character that isn't human and thus doesn't make for an easy read. The AI isn't going to wax poetic about the view, nor will it pay attention to a person's physical features unless they're relevant. We get a very clinical description of other characters' behavior, and the AI's algorithms determine said behavior to mean a particular state of mind. Reading other reviews, I see that turned some people off. It can be dull and repetitive, but I appreciated it. This is how I'd expect an AI to narrate.

Then there's the whole matter of gender. The Radch Empire, or rather their language, doesn't acknowledge gender, so the default pronoun is "she" (though "it" would've been more accurate). There were scenes were Justice of Toren was required to speak in other languages and guess the proper pronoun to use. It wasn't always successful. To readers, it was such a surprise that some praised it for its radical linguistic treatment of gender. Some critics saw this as some liberal plot; others just found it confusing. I was in the latter camp until I got used to it and figured out characters' genders.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot can be boiled down to "AI seeks revenge." But revenge implies an emotional response. So while the AI won't describe the sunset, it can develop emotional attachments to certain humans. Justice of Toren mentions that some ships became attached to their captains and became catastrophically despondent upon their deaths. There's no explanation for how these AIs came into existence (the story is set at least several thousand years in the future), but I got the impression that emotion wasn't in their programming (obeying orders is though). I found this part, the AI wrestling with emotions and programming, the most enjoyable.

The other disturbing part of the Radch, besides its conversion of POWs as ancillaries, was the fact that it was a surveillance state. Cameras were everywhere, recording everything. One misspoken sentence could have dire consequences. I'll leave it at that. Saying anymore would reveal too much of the story.

One last thing I have to mention: What is up with everyone drinking tea all the time? Holy crap! There was one reference to some sailors returning from shore leave flat out drunk, but otherwise it's all about bowls of tea.

Overall, I really enjoyed the story. It wasn't an easy read, but it was an honest one. By that I mean, I really had to follow the dialogue to pick up the clues. I think that Leckie did a great job providing us with a conflicted AI (the best since 2001's HAL?), but I recognize that it won't be everyone's cup of tea (Sorry, couldn't help myself).


Friday, October 6, 2017

But it wasn't all bad

Lest I give you the wrong impression, my summer wasn't all work and no play. For instance, in July my wife and I got to see the Church perform at Darryl's House in Pawling, which is just over the border in New York.

The Church performing at Daryl's House.
While most people only remember them for their 80's hit "Under the Milky Way," they actually have twenty-five studio albums. A new one, Man Woman Life Death Infinity, has just been released. They remain one of my all-time favorite bands.

Despite the small size of the club, there was a VIP section (basically right in front of us). VIPs were treated to a meet & greet with the band. It was weird. We were separated from the VIP section by a bar rail, so we looked on as the band talked with VIP fans right next to us but we were forbidden. Kind of silly.

Tim PowlesTowards the end of meet and greet period, Tim Powles, the drummer, was oblivious to the divider and, unbidden, came over to talk to us. When we informed him that we weren't VIP, he shrugged. I don't want to misquote him, so I'll just say that he didn't really care, having had enough pre-show wine. We were unprepared and scrambling for something to talk about. We noticed was that he was barefoot. Presto! Instant conversation starter. We pointed out their naked condition and wasn't he worried about stepping on something. He knew he probably should be, but he was more relaxed. I mentioned that one couldn't go too many place barefoot in the US due to liability issues. I asked if other places were as litigious as the US. He said, "No," with conviction.

We chatted with a little while longer, then let him go before he got in trouble with management (club or band). Nice guy.

The show was great. Old favorites dominated the set, with some newer tracks mixed in.

Every July our town hosts a small brewfest. This was the first time we had a chance to go. Normally it's one of the hottest weekends of the year. When the thermometer climbs into the 90s, the last thing I want to do is drink beer. But this year it was cloudy, drizzly, and cool enough to wear jeans. In fact, it's 78°F (25.5°C) today and I'm in shorts. You know the weather's gone weird in the northern hemisphere when an October day is warmer than a day in July. Anyway, it was pretty good. A few new local startup breweries (Nod Hill, Broken Symmetry) were present, which was nice to see.

Every year, the Newtown public library hosts a large book sale in one of the schools. My daughter and I got to go this year. Here's my haul:
Newtown book sale 2017
While I've always enjoyed perusing book stores (an activity all but extinct), I think this is the first time I've had a chance to go with my daughter. Yeah, she goes to the library, but that's always seemed to be satisfying some school requirement as opposed to reading because she enjoys it. It was a nice moment to connect with her over something we both enjoy.

But the highlight of the summer was witnessing the great North American eclipse of 2017! My parents live in the path of totality down in Tennessee, so we trekked on down to watch it from their front yard. The weather was perfect.

While I knew that the internet was going to be flooded with professional pictures and video, I just had to try and take some myself (Isn't that what people do?). I cut up one of the cheap (but Discover magazine approved) solar eclipse glasses and put one of the lenses in front of my phone camera lens. It didn't work very well. Most of the pictures were fuzzy blobs. This one was probably the best:

Obviously not good at all!

I waited until totality before I brought out my Olympus. I didn't want to risk damaging it (or my eyes) during the partial phase. I had much better results.

For these next four, I cropped the pictures so that I didn't have to re-size them. I think the pictures look better from a distance as the zooms reveal the limits of my camera.

This last picture is the same as the previous one, just zoomed out.

Venus made an appearance in the west once totality began, the reflected sunlight finally visible once the sky went dark. I didn't think to take a picture of it however.

If you've never seen a total solar eclipse in person, you should put it on your list of things to do. It was a sight to behold that my pictures don't do justice (or even the professional ones). It was like a hole in the sky, something physical yet completely dark. I understand why eclipses were viewed as ominous portents and signs from God (or the gods). For those two minutes and twenty seconds, it was as though a great secret had been revealed, but we all forgot just as soon as it was over.

I can't wait for the next one.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

How I Spent My Summer (2017)

Like every other summer, I had my usual assortment of tasks: take the kids to their various summer camps (band camp, Irish dancing camp, sewing & embroidery class, field hockey, ice hockey), chop some wood for winter, and finish random small outdoor projects (like power wash and re-stain the deck). I got off to a good start by finishing a small retaining wall for a flower bed and collecting a couple of cords of wood from my in-laws (they had a couple of trees taken down). But while I was in the shower one day, my daughter answered the door for a guy going house to house to set up sales meetings for a home remodeling company.

I was a bit taken aback by this behavior of hers. She's 11; I thought she knew better. We went through a plague of Jehovah's Witness visits whereupon we hid and pretended we weren't home. But no. I get out of the shower and learn from my son that his sister is talking to a guy through her window. I scrambled to get dressed and send this guy on his way as nicely as possible, but once I went outside to talk to him, I was already caught in his net. When I explained that my wife wouldn't meet with anyone after work—her average arrival time home is 7—he countered with a weekend visit. The time was drawing near that I had to drive my overly friendly daughter to her Irish dancing class. I couldn't get rid of him without being a jerk so I gave up and agreed to a weekend meeting.

My wife and I were impressed by the sales presentation, so we took the plunge on vinyl siding with a side order of new (and bigger) gutters. We'd been wanting to go vinyl for several years, but opted not to make the huge investment. The materials technology has improved over the past decade. That and the company's size made me feel confident that we weren't going to have any issues down the road. And new gutters...I've been struggling with the ones we had since year one.

So this meant that I had a few weeks to split and stack the wood in the driveway. They needed the space for the materials and the ginormous dumpster—7 feet high! It was doable, but one week later, after we'd returned from "celebrating" the move, fate threw a wrench into our plans. A pipe burst in the bathroom on the ground floor, flooding most of the lower level. I opened the garage door on my way to the main shutoff valve, and a wave of water rolled out and down my driveway. While it was only a couple inches, anyone who's been flooded will tell you that it doesn't take much water to cause damage (I can imagine what Harvey's victims are going through).

broken pipes

We pumped out as much water we could and used every non-bath towel in the house to absorb the rest. We thought that we were going to be ok. I left the dehumidifier on all night and hoped for the best. The next day we discovered that the wood parquet flooring in the foyer was trashed once and for all. The carpeting in the den was soggy. We tried the shop vac, but that was a joke. The padding underneath was a sponge and not letting go. It had to go. The more we ripped up, the more wet stuff we found. By the time we were done, half of the den and a quarter of the office was lost. We got to most furniture in time, but an old particle board shelf tower disintegrated.

Sheet rock is also notorious for disintegrating about immersion in water. If it doesn't crumble, that evil black mold grows on the surface. I had to rip out the bottom two feet of sheet rock in the bathroom and laundry room. The other rooms were spared as the carpet and padding sponginess worked in our favor, hogging the water to itself.

We kinda knew this day was coming. We've had water issues many times before. The guy who built our house in 1973 used the cheaper, thin-walled copper pipe meant to be used for re-circulating water heating systems. We have electric heat; so either he was an idiot or a cheapskate. 25+ years of hard and acidic water led to pinhole leaks and cracked pipes. As projects arose and pipes failed, we replaced the copper pipes throughout the house with PEX, except for the laundry room and downstairs bathroom. The pipe failed on the wrong side of the shutoff valve. It sheared right off, and at four gallons/minute (~15 liters/minute) it may well have been a fire hose.

I exposed the old copper pipes so that my plumber could get in there and make the swap. He also suggested getting our water tested so that we could get the proper water treatment system installed. We came in with a pH of 6.1 and a hardness of 154 ppm. That meant we had to install a water filter, neutralizer, and softener. It was a big expenditure on top of an already large investment, neither of which we'd planned on making.

Someone asked me if my insurance company was covering any of the cost. Honestly, I hadn't even considered it. So I decided to call my insurance agent and hear what they had to say. I was informed that the insurance company would cover the expense for the damaged flooring (minus the deductible) but not the corrective equipment we'd installed to get our water in line. After filing said claim, our rates would then go up as we'd lose our 20% discount for being claim free. Factoring the rate increase with the high deductible, we decided not to file a claim.

After I got this taken care of...

...I got to work on repairs. All the sheet rock has been replaced, spackled, primed, and painted. Both the bathroom and laundry room are fully functional again. All of the foyer flooring and old carpet have been disposed of (Thank you, ginormous dumpster).

I still have half the old padding and all the tack strips to remove and dispose of. Since we have to replace the foyer flooring, we decided to completely renovate it. That's on my plate for September. After that, we'll have someone install carpet (That's beyond my skill set) in the den and office. So you can see that I won't have a whole lot of time for writing in the weeks ahead. All is not lost though. I did manage to find the time to write up this explanation for my whereabouts.

EDIT 9/14/17: Forgot to mention that our microwave oven died the week before the siding guys arrived. So that was yet another thing to buy and install.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: Timing (Far from the Spaceports #2)

book cover for TimingWhen quick wits and loyalty are put to the test...

Mitnash and his AI companion Slate, coders and investigators of interplanetary fraud, are at work again in
Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports.

This time their travels take them from Jupiter to Mars, chasing a small-scale scam which seems a waste of their time. Then the case escalates dramatically into threats and extortion. Robin's Rebels, a new player in the game, is determined to bring down the financial world, and Slate's fellow AIs are the targets. Will Slate be the next victim?

The clues lead them back to the asteroid belt, and to their friends on the Scilly Isles. The next attack will be here, and Mitnash and Slate must put themselves in the line of fire. To solve the case, they need to team up with an old adversary - the only person this far from Earth who has the necessary skills to help them. But can they trust somebody who keeps their own agenda so well hidden?

It was good to get back to Abbott's Far from the Spaceports series. In the first book, we're introduced to Mitnash and his AI companion, Slate. They work for the financial regulatory body ECRB (Economic Crime Review Board) and are periodically sent off-world to investigate financial shenanigans. I found Abbott's world-building solid and his take on AI refreshing (full review here).

This book adds more of the travelogue aspect of this series. Abbott sends his duo to Phobos and Mars before their return to the Scilly Isles, a cluster of settlements in the asteroid belt that was the setting for the first book. Abbott provides more detail on life on Phobos, demonstrating how the geology of the fragile moon has shaped the culture of the settlements there.

Abbott also delves more into the characters' relationships. Mitnash struggles with maintaining a long distance relationship (astronomical units!) while a local woman intrigues him. And it's not just Mitnash's relationships, but Slate's as well. I don't know how we'll imbue emotion into AIs, but in Abbott's universe, it happened and each AI has a unique personality. With their consciousness capable of living the human equivalent of decades in a fraction of the time, they seek out relationships with other AIs, hoping for a match. Mitnash is put into a situation where he has to consider that Slate's feelings are no less valid than his.

While the story remains non-violent, save for a couple of off-camera incidents, Abbott manages to build tension, primarily through the "old adversary" mentioned in the blurb. Mitnash is slowly learning that life (on multiple fronts) is seldom as simple and straightforward as it seems. There are complications during the investigation, and Mitnash finds himself in a predicament that isn't easily remedied and will hang over his head as his story continues.

4.2 out of 5 stars. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

It took me longer than expected to finish this book. The delay had nothing to do with the quality of the material, rather most nights I was too tired from the day's activities to read more than a page. Details forthcoming when I have time for a lengthy post.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: The God Engines

book cover for the god enginesCaptain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this—and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given. Tephe knows from the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It's what he doesn't know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put—and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely

"It was time to whip the god."

Now that's an opening line! It grabs hold of the reader (this one anyway) and immediately begs the question: What the hell is going on here? Aspiring authors should take note. Actually, I've noticed that some established authors should make note of it as well.

Scalzi is noted for writing science fiction. Although this story mostly takes place on a starship, it's dark fantasy. There are no sci-fi elements other than the starship and a bit of interstellar travel. Space fantasy, perhaps. It is a distant cousin to the Barsoom saga in terms of genre. But don't go expecting a Burroughs-style adventure; this is much darker.

Being just a novella, the pace feels a bit rushed. Backstory for the characters is hard to come by, so every tidbit that Scalzi shares is valuable. If the page count had been doubled, Scalzi could've gone into more detail about this strange universe where faith powers technology, maybe revealed more detail about the setting and how things work. But maybe that's a good thing as Scalzi just sticks to the molten core of this story, and more detail might slow things down too much.

The conflict between Captain Tephe and Priest Andso is well done. The two are locked in a power struggle and clash often to see who will come out ahead. All the while, the aforementioned god taunts Tephe, assailing his faith. Both interpersonal relationships maintain the tension until the first contact meeting with a heathen people, when Scalzi reveals his hand (I must say, I was caught off guard). From there it's a mad dash to the book's bloody conclusion.

It was nice to see Scalzi break from his established style and go dark. I can see why the novella was nominated for a Hugo. 4.5 stars.

A slightly shorter version of this review appears on Goodreads.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: Echoes of Avalon

book cover for Echoes of AvalonPatrick Gawain knows monsters. He's seen plenty of the human sort in the Holy Lands, and as he sails home from The First Crusade, a hooded apparition begins to stalk him. Convinced that he's lost his mind, he holes up in a monastery to convalesce and, if recovery proves impossible, to hide his demons from the world. But a stranger comes to find him and presents a barely credible invitation: travel to Avalon and serve with the Avangarde, an order of knights sworn to protect young scholars from around the world.

Thinking it will be a fresh start, Patrick agrees, and soon discovers that Avalon is more than a myth; it is the site of a vibrant secret academy - and it's also full of ghosts, goblins, and talking wolves. He can capably protect the castle from the island's supernatural beasts, but in the relative peace of the academy life, his hooded demon returns and his troubled heart causes him to sabotage the love of a young woman, Katherina. When an ancient being with sinister designs for the island infiltrates the academy, Patrick is the first to suspect its true nature when it begins its quest by seducing Katherina.

Patrick soon learns that before he can defeat monsters, he must first defeat his personal demons.

This was a tough book to finish, but after taking a break midway through, I was able to get it done. It could've used a developmental edit to whittle out 150-200 pages. Why is that? Well, as someone complained in the Goodreads comments, nothing happens for the longest time. This isn't epic fantasy. There's no great quest. It's clearly not Arthurian legend. It took forever to even learn who the villain was. This is a character driven story, and that's generally incapable of supporting a 500+ page novel.

At first, I thought this was going to be a story about a knight with PTSD, suffering from what he witnessed during the Crusades, but then the hooded apparition and Gawain's dwelling on the war disappeared from the story. It was replaced by day-to-day life on Avalon, which turned out to be rather mundane given the mysterious opening regarding how one gained access to the island. It all seemed like so much soap opera: Which knight is courting which lady? Will Gawain ever realize the affections of a certain handmaiden?

The villain arrived late and was more annoying than threatening. His relationship with his minion, Minion, was like watching a Saturday morning cartoon in the 70s. I won't say his name as that would certainly spoil it for future readers, but it's a name that carries a lot of literary baggage. The villain's origin story in the middle of the novel was wholly unnecessary as it didn't change my opinion of him nor enlighten me to his motivations. A shorter version could've worked as a prologue in a shorter novel, but randomly dumped in the middle of the book was too much, too late.

I would give this 2.5 stars if that were possible on Goodreads. I rounded up to three as Copeland shows that he firmly grasps characterization (I stuck with the story because I cared about Gawain). He's also capable of fine world-building and garnishing it with the proper descriptive prose to render the scene, even negative ones—the opening scene on the boat stirred up a recent seasickness memory. He just needs the right editor to tighten the narrative and make it less tedious.

This review previously appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book Review: The Dreaming Void

book cover for The Dreaming VoidTo read the book blurb, click here.

I don't give up on books; I always see them through to the end. I came close to quitting Rainbow's End, but I stuck with it. But not this time. 80 pages in and I'm done.

When I ran an indie book review blog, I had a simple system set in place. If the blurb piqued my interest, I'd read the first chapter to see if I was hooked. It was a good system, but not perfect. Some clunkers got through. Apparently, I need to apply that same system to traditionally published books. Blurbs (and Goodreads recommendation engines) aren't enough.

The opening sentence was a dud. The Prologue was dull. Every single bit of writer's advice that I've heard and read states that you have to hook your reader with the first sentence, the first paragraph at the very latest, but this doesn't do that. The first sentence:

The starship slipped down out of a night sky, its gray and scarlet hull illuminated by the pale iridescence of the massive ion storms that beset space for light-years in every direction.

Pretty, but not exactly hook worthy. The rest of the Prologue describes this guy's arrival at an scientific observation post and then his attendance at a party. When he's tired and had his fill of socializing, he goes to his quarters to sleep. And then he has "the dream." End of Prologue. I think "the dream" was meant to be the hook.

The book blurb says that said dream was of a paradise that lies within the spatial anomaly that the observation post has been studying for centuries. This is the fantasy setting that people have referred to in the Goodreads comments. Apparently the dreams spawned a religion and everyone wants to migrate there. But why? Magic? These people already benefit from FTL spaceships that reduce travel time to distant stars to mere hours and have all the body modification abilities that transhumanist wannabes could possibly desire. I found it lacking. Maybe transhumanists in the future are bored (spoiled?) with centuries long lifespans and want more.

There wasn't any action until page 57, and it came out of nowhere. Everything was character introduction and gee whiz fantastic tech. The character who participated in the action scene never revealed any indication in his previous scenes that he was anything more than a pilgrim just chillin' before the big trip. I had trouble forging any sort of connection with the characters. I felt lost and bored, struggling to read more than five pages at a time.

If I'm reading Hamilton's bibliography correctly, this was his 11th novel. His publisher must figure that he's got his audience. No need to mess with the formula; it works. No hooks necessary. The man is the hook.

Even though I didn't like the book to this point, I'm giving this at least two stars for world building, pretty prose, and—I'm going to make an assumption here—an intricate story. With the right audience, it works. However, I'm not that audience. And that's a pity. I'd read "Blessed by an Angel" and I was keen to explore the worlds he created. Now, not so much.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Review: Skullcrack City

book cover for Skullcrack CityLife as a corporate drone was killing S.P. Doyle, so he decided to bring down the whole corrupt system from the inside. But after discovering something monstrous in the bank's files, he was framed for murder and trapped inside a conspiracy beyond reason.

Now Doyle's doing his best to survive against a nightmare cabal of crooked conglomerates, DNA-doped mutants, drug-addled freak show celebs, experimental surgeons, depraved doomsday cults, and the ultra-bad mojo of a full-blown Hexadrine habit. Joined by his pet turtle Deckard, and Dara, a beautiful missionary with a murderous past, Doyle must find a way to save humankind and fight the terrible truth at the heart of...SKULLCRACK CITY

It's been five years since I read We Live Inside You, JRJ's second collection of short stories. I'd forgotten how much he can get under your skin—I won't go any further with that metaphor. He has this wonderful ability to get you to care about his characters (with exceptions of course), be silent witness to their suffering, and re-assure them that they're still human no matter what.

One could say that Skullcrack City is an outgrowth of "The League of Zeroes," the opening short story in JRJ's first short story collection, Angel Dust Apocalypse. But while the body modification elements of "The League of Zeroes" factor into Skullcrack City (it's not a novel for the squeamish), the novel is so much bigger. "The League of Zeroes" is actually the origin story for Buddy the Brain, a minor character in the novel—the two doctors from the novel appear in a limited fashion in the short story.

JRJ's writing style shifts fluidly in Skullcrack City as the protagonist, S.P. Doyle, changes. The Doyle we meet in the Prologue struck me as sinister. He hardly seemed like the guy we were supposed to be rooting for. But then the story proper starts and we meet the Hex-addicted Doyle. The guy is a total mess, spiraling out of control with paranoid fantasies, and it shows up in the narrative. You're not sure what's real and what's hallucination as one sentence runs head on into the next. And just when you think he can't go any further, he crashes as his paranoid fears are confirmed. But we're only a third of the way through the book.

In the middle third, the Hex is purged from his system, but Doyle struggles like a newly hatched chick as his body returns to normal and he awkwardly tries to grow into the would-be hero role. The narrative slows down to a manageable pace with periods of introspection, letting the reader catch their breath. But it's also punctuated by episodes of violence to prevent reader complacency and prod Doyle out of episodes of navel gazing.

In the final third, Doyle is forced to adapt or die. His struggle to survive forces him to shed the awkward persona and stand for something. As certainty of purpose kicks in, a calm settles over Doyle. There's a sense of purpose now. As the world teeters on the edge of insanity and terrible monstrosities, it is Doyle who's now the rational one. We recognize the guy from the Prologue as the story has come full circle.

While this is standalone novel that eliminates any chance of sequels, I'd still like to make a request for more JRJ novels. Please.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Walking Dead: Compendium 1 vs TV Show

Book cover for Walking Dead Compendium #1I have never been a fan of zombie fiction, but several years ago, a friend of mine—who is very much into both horror and comics—highly recommended The Walking Dead TV show. My wife and I binge watched season one just before season two came out, and we loved it. Now I knew from watching Talking Dead that the show differed from the comic in several ways, most notably the absence of the Dixon brothers from the comics. But I wondered in what other ways the two differed, so I decided to check out the source material.

Wow, I had no idea.

Sure, the TV show hits on the main places and events (Rick waking up in the hospital, the camp outside Atlanta, Hershel's Farm, the prison, Woodbury), but the nature of these places, how they're encountered, and the events that play out there are very different.

More drastically though are the differences in the characters. Except for Maggie, Hershel's kids are completely different people. No Beth. Tyrese shows up much earlier, but with a daughter and her boyfriend. No Sasha. And there are characters in the comic that don't exist on the show, though none of them are memorable enough to be missed.

But I'm not just talking about the absence of characters from one world to the other, the characters that exist in both worlds are different. Nearly every character shows some degree of difference, some more than others. I think it's really noticeable with the female characters. If you liked Carol in the TV show, her version in the comics is completely unrecognizable. You probably won't like her, too obsessed with how others perceive her. Lori seems to nag Rick all of the time. Michonne is underdeveloped. Maggie and Glen are ok, but still inferior to their TV versions. Except for Andrea, and to a lesser extent Tyreese, I found that I preferred the TV show version of the characters over the comic. And that goes double for the primary villain here in volume 1: the Governor.

The TV version of the Governor was a far more complex character than the comic version. On the TV show, the Governor is out to woo newcomers and attempts to be a gracious host. He seems to be wrestling with caring for the people of Woodbury while doing terrible things to hold onto power and keeping his secrets hidden. Not so the comic version. The latter was just a maniacal sadist with sick hobbies. Demonstrating why he was such a charismatic figure to the inhabitants of Woodbury, the true source of his strength, seemed more of an afterthought.

So I give the producers of the TV show credit for recognizing the potential here, and I give Kirkman credit for being humble enough to work with other writers as they rearranged and revised the characters and events of his beloved work. I can see why the fans of the comic, who were there from the beginning, don't like what the show has done. However, I'm glad that I watched the show first. Not too sure I need to keep reading the comic.

A slightly shorter version of this review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Visit from Red Fox

On cloudy days during the week, we sometimes get a visit from a red fox that lives in the neighborhood. He/She usually just trots past my office window and is gone before I can get my camera or my phone. Four weeks ago, I finally got my chance.

Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox

Those first five photos were taken with an Olympus Camedia C-3020, a 16-year-old digital camera with a resolution of 3.2 Megapixels and a 3X zoom lens. The next four photos were taken with my Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini with a 5 Megapixel resolution. However, the zoom sucks. I think the pictures are grainier, the color more washed out.

Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox
Red Fox

That last picture should've been the money shot, but it's blurry. My wife got me a zoom lens attachment for the S3 Mini, but I haven't tried it out yet. It's going to require me to remove my phone's armor—it triples the phone's thickness—in order to attach it.

Anyway, the fox is one of the more interesting critters we have the pleasure of sharing our yard with. The moles, chipmunks, and squirrels don't think so, and I'm not sure my cats will be too keen when they find out.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Review: Dreams Before the Start of Time

Book cover for Dreams Before the Start of TimeIn a near-future London, Millie Dack places her hand on her belly to feel her baby kick, resolute in her decision to be a single parent. Across town, her closest friend—a hungover Toni Munroe—steps into the shower and places her hand on a medic console. The diagnosis is devastating.

In this stunning, bittersweet family saga, Millie and Toni experience the aftershocks of human progress as their children and grandchildren embrace new ways of making babies. When infertility is a thing of the past, a man can create a child without a woman, a woman can create a child without a man, and artificial wombs eliminate the struggles of pregnancy. But what does it mean to be a parent? A child? A family?

Through a series of interconnected vignettes that spans five generations and three continents, this emotionally taut story explores the anxieties that arise when the science of fertility claims to deliver all the answers.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Anne Charnock takes a look at how scientific advances lead to the technological cure for infertility and birth defects. With the introduction of the artificial womb and genetic engineering, anyone can become the parent of a healthy baby. But rather than dwell on the tech itself, Charnock chooses to write about the impact of these developments on the very definition of family.

The novel follows a pair of families across five generations and is told through a series of vignettes. Each one is a snapshot into a character's life when familial decisions are made or pivotal character development is revealed. There are arguments across generations regarding the nature of relationships and reproductive choices. There are contrasting scenes where sperm donors are forced to confront the fruits of their offerings. There are passages where genetic tinkering beyond curing maladies is debated. But all of it is coaxed in the language of everyday life.

While Charnock's characters treat these choices as eyebrow raising, we don't get to see the public's reaction to the technology's development. The whole of society is largely kept in the background, but every now and then there are hints and passing mentions of rules and regulations meant to maintain reproductive integrity. Again, this is all kept in the family as it were. I don't know if this is an American vs. European cultural difference, but I believe that there would be a raging wildfire of debate in the States over this development along the lines of the decades-long argument over reproductive rights.

But that's not the point of this work: Charnock is here to focus on the impact on families. She plots a course straight down the middle, neither praising nor condemning choices. Pros and cons to the choices her characters make are deftly shown and presented without judgement. That is left up to the reader to make. Some characters only have one or two opportunities have their stories told before retreating to the background, but other characters in the spotlight refer to them and how they've fared.

Pacing may come as a surprise to some readers. There is no dramatic rise and fall. Instead, the book moves steadily through the characters lives like a river, the occasional dramatic point emphasized like rocks in the riverbed. One generation after the next, families go on. They change just as a river meanders through different terrains, but on it goes.

We've already seen how the definition of family has changed over the last several decades, Charnock suggests that it will continue to evolve as science comes to a greater understanding of how human reproduction works. All in all, there's plenty of food for thought on how it could all play out in Dreams Before the Start of Time. If you're looking for a book that makes you contemplate how breakthrough technologies could affect our lives, then this is the book for you.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Started a New Writing Course

This was originally posted on my Launchpad blog on February 14th. I felt that it deserved to be resurrected from the abyss.

Two years ago, I purchased two courses (at discount) from the Great Courses, a site that sells collegiate level lecture series on DVD. No, you won’t get college credit, but you will learn something.

Sadly, they’ve sat on a shelf waiting for me since I purchased. Not exactly a rousing endorsement. I won’t bother you with my excuses why I haven’t watched them. None of them has anything to do with the products themselves.

Anyway, I finally started one of them today: “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft.” The course consists of 24 lectures taught by Professor Brooks Landon, Ph.D. of the University of Iowa. I bought it because I know there’s room for improvement in my creative writing, especially since I spent my college days writing lab reports and engineering feasibility studies.

After watching the first lecture, I have to say that Professor Landon seems like an excellent choice to teach the class. He definitely struck me as passionate about the craft of writing, even after 30+ years teaching the subject. He kept what could easily be a dry subject—sentence structure—interesting. There were even a few instances where I had a chuckle. Hopefully, it continues all the way through.


Friday, March 31, 2017

Back to Blogger

I had a blog on Blogger back before Google bought them. It was called "The Dedly Blog." But instead of letting Google host it, I had it point to a directory on my web server. I don't recall the specifics, but that function went away in 2010. So I brought all the old files in house. That was a mistake. All of the xml and style sheet settings. Ugh. What a mess. After a while, I gave up trying to re-format it. I save all the old content. Maybe I can import them.

In 2010 I published my first novel, Armistice Day. Since marketing is a necessary evil, a self-hosted blog wasn't enough, and my social media skills were are lacking. Fortunately Amazon, Goodreads, and Smashwords all have a spot on author pages for adding a RSS feed. My webhost didn't offer that tech and wasn't friendly to third party software. So I started another blog on WordPress and made that the source of my RSS feed.

Fast forward to 2016. SiteLock, a new security partner for my webhost (Fatcow) starts sending me alerts that I have malware on my site. Unless I pay for their service—which ain't cheap—they don't do anything about it. So I resort to Fatcow tech service. They told me where the bad files were (in the WordPress directory), and I deleted them. Since then, I've received several alerts from SiteLock, accompanied with threats of shutting down my website, but tech service couldn't find them. Coincidentally, WordPress updates happened shortly thereafter.

WordPress is also partnered with FatCow, so I'm caught in the middle between two Fatcow partners butting heads. When I went to login to the WordPress control panel today to correct the latest complaint, I couldn't establish a secure connection, and Firefox freaked out. I'm tired of this bullshit, so I just FTP'd in and deleted all of the WordPress files.

And now I'm back at Blogger. Why? Too lazy to look elsewhere, and I know it works. Well, mostly. They did have a blogroll hiccup last year that was a pain in the ass to fix. If someone wants to try and convince me there's a better (free) blogger service out there, go ahead. I have to move my website anyway as Fatcow's rates have gone up. They were $99/yr as recently as 2010, but since then they've gone up steadily. This summer's renewal will cost me $179.40 if I want to stay.

Ok, I've blathered on long enough. I've got to reset those RSS feeds and start customizing the look of this place.