Before he turned to writing, Graham Sharp Paul served as a commissioned officer in the British and Australian Navies, and then worked in finance and business consulting until he retired to write in 2003. His debut The Battle at the Moons of Hell marks his entry to the field of military science fiction. It is the first book in Paul’s “Helfort’s War” series, which thus far also includes The Battle of the Hammer Worlds and The Battle of Devastation Reef, though it still stands alone well as a self-contained story.
I read this book almost purely by chance: I was at the bookstore, didn't see anything that I particularly wanted, and finally picked it because I didn't want to feel like I'd wasted the trip by going home empty handed. Happily, my choice paid off. Score one for the sunk-cost fallacy.
The Battle at the Moons of Hell focuses on the story of Michael Helfort, newly commissioned Junior Lieutenant in the fleet of the Federated Worlds, one of the preeminent polities in human space. Helfort is assigned to the DLS-387, a small reconnaissance vessel. DLS-387 is traveling on a routine patrol when it receives urgent news: a Federated Worlds civilian liner, the Mumtaz, has been hijacked and the advanced terraforming equipment it carried stolen by agents of the Hammer of Kraa, a brutal theocratic regime that has been a frequent enemy of the Federated Worlds. An informant in the Hammer government has revealed that Mumtaz’s passengers and crew have been taken to the world of Hell, a barely-habitable planet where the Hammer puts prisoners, dissidents, and heretics to work in nightmarish labor camps.
DLS-387 is ordered to change course for Hammer space for a covert reconnaissance flyby that will provide intelligence for a Federated Worlds rescue mission and retaliatory strike. Penetrating so deep into enemy space will be dangerous, and if DLS-387 succeeds the larger conflcit with the Hammer still lies ahead. The Federated Worlds cannot allow hostile powers to abduct and enslave its citizens – and Helfort cannot leave his mother and younger sister, passengers on the Mumtaz, to die hundreds of light-years from home.
The Battle at the Moons of Hell is a promising debut for Paul. The action is exciting and extremely tense. Paul does a nice job of providing a panoramic view of events, moving from Helfort and his crewmates at the front to the imprisoned passengers of the Mumtaz to the highest levels of government on both sides. Paul also largely avoids resorting to the sort of large lumps of exposition that many people find frustrating about military science fiction and space opera.
My primary complaint is that the characterization of Michael Helfort himself is lacking; he is defined enough to make me care about what happens to him, but he still seemed rather flat. Most of the secondary characters suffered a similar problem. (I should note that this aspect improves considerably in the subsequent books.)
I thought the action scenes were great, on the other hand. Paul’s descriptions of battle do a good job of bringing out the sheer size of space, with ships exchanging salvos that take several minutes to reach their targets, while the crews hold their breath as ship defenses duel with vast clouds of rail gun-propelled metal slugs to decide the ship’s fate. Paul exploits this to the hilt, and generates a tremendous sense of tension from it. His details and description are highly effective and give Paul’s description of space combat a ferocious tone that feels almost physically punishing.
The setting is somewhat lightly sketched in, but still interesting. In his portrayal of the Federated Worlds, Paul does some interesting things with the idea of a society where neural implants are widespread and people can download data (including the equivalent of mail and phone calls) directly into their brains, carry recordings of everything they see and do in their heads, or have behavioral blocks installed. I especially liked the book's portrayal of the internal politics of the Hammer of Kraa; its almost Stalinist brutality and ruthless, bloody purges as members of the ruling elite struggle for dominance did a great job of evoking an utterly nightmarish society.
I liked The Battle at the Moons of Helland would recommend it to fans of space opera and military science fiction in the vein of authors like David Weber. The next two books in the series thus far, The Battle of the Hammer Worldsand TThe Battle of Devastation Reef, are also worth reading. Graham Sharp Paul is a promising addition to military science fiction, and I look forward to seeing more from him.
(Note: This is a revised and expanded version of a review originally written for Crucial Taunt.)
Monday, December 28, 2009
Before he turned to writing, Graham Sharp Paul served as a commissioned officer in the British and Australian Navies, and then worked in finance and business consulting until he retired to write in 2003. His debut The Battle at the Moons of Hell marks his entry to the field of military science fiction. It is the first book in Paul’s “Helfort’s War” series, which thus far also includes The Battle of the Hammer Worlds and The Battle of Devastation Reef, though it still stands alone well as a self-contained story.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Over at the SFWA blog, Nisi Shawl writes on the subject of writing about characters from races and cultures other than your own. It's a great article and has some excellent ideas for improving one's own knowledge and insight.
The number of aspiring authors who shy away from writing about characters of other races because they believe themselves unable to do so well is strange, since there is probably no genre that spends more time with people or beings unlike the author than science fiction. Jack McDevitt is not an archaeologist. Elizabeth Moon is not autistic. Iain M. Banks is not a machine intelligence. David Drake is not a psychologically reconditioned rapist. Neal Asher is not an alien space-faring biomechanical sphereoid with a penchant for strange, cryptic pronouncements. Dan Simmons is not a Jewish college professor who has spent the last twenty years grappling with his religious beliefs while watching helplessly as his beloved daughter ages backwards into infancy.
Writing about characters of another race or culture is not an insurmountable challenge compared to this. There is, of course, an added degree of risk if it is done badly, in terms of causing real-world offense or anger, that doesn't apply to portraying the inhuman; Peter Watts need not fear being upbraided by space-going philosophical zombies who thought the aliens in Blindsight were offensive stereotypes.
Anyway, I definitely recommend checking out Shawl's article. Discussion of racial and cultural diversity in science fiction topic tends to be vague and platitudinous, so it's great to see more writing about the nuts and bolts of actually doing something about it.
Monday, September 28, 2009
It is widely agreed, I think, that the most prominent technological trend generally unanticipated by science fiction is the enormous growth in computer technology. This results in older science fiction often having technology that seems like a mismatched jumble of the astonishing and primitive: interstellar civilizations with faster-than-light travel where microfilm is the state-of-the-art in data storage is a common example. I'm not bothered by it, but it certainly jumps out. (And there are exceptions, including what is arguably the most prescient SF story ever- Murray Leinster's astonishing "A Logic Named Joe," which predicted home personal computers, the internet, search engines, and internet telephones. Not bad for a story published in 1946, when a cutting-edge computer cost more than five million inflation-adjusted dollars and weighed 30 tons.)
What brought this to mind was an amusing example I was recently reminded of. A friend of mine caught the movie Short Circuit 2 on television few days ago. Not exactly rigorously hard science fiction, but it was, in its time, one of the more prominent popular depictions of the idea of artificial intelligence. (And perhaps the high-water mark of the obsession with wacky comic relief robots that loomed like a vast black shadow over much of the 1980s. ) Protagonist Johnny 5, a self-aware robot with at least human-level intellect, boasts at one point that he possesses "5oo hundred megabytes of memory."
I'm typing this on the computer I use for work and most other things writing-related. It's a few years olds, and was not a top-end model even when it was made. It has 160 gigabytes of memory. I have a 1 gigabyte USB flash drive shorter than my pinky finger. I paid about $20-30 for it a few years ago; compared to what you can get now for the same price, 1 gigabyte is nothing impressive.
A figure intended to make audiences think "amazing computer technology from a secret government lab" when I was a child is now dwarfed by cheap consumer electronics you can buy in a Wal-Mart clearance aisle and carry in your shirt pocket. It makes me wonder what technological trends (and soical trends, for that matter) present-day science fiction is missing, and what glaring omissions will strike readers 40 years from now as the equivalent of "Wow, 500 megabytes!" or interstellar starships that calculate their trajectories with microfilm records and a slide rule. If anyone has any guesses, I'd love to hear them.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Stephen Hunt’s steampunk/fantasy novel The Court of the Air was one of the best books I read last year (see my review), so I was quite excited when the follow-up The Kingdom Beyond the Waves made its recent arrival in the United States. It is set in the same world as its predecessor, and ideally I’d recommend reading them in order to get a better feel for Hunt’s setting, but The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is a self-contained story that works well on its own.
Like The Court of the Air, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is set in a world where magic and steampunk technology exist side-by-side. Sorcerers who draw energy from the ley lines of the earth exist alongside industrial mass production, steam power, airships, primitive firearms, and huge mechanical computing devices. The focus is once again on the Kingdom of Jackals, a mercantile nation kept safe by its monopoly on the jealously guarded technology to build airships.
The story focuses on Amelia Harsh, an archaeologist who has dedicated herself to the search for lost Camlantis, a glorious ancient civilization that the academic establishment of jackals regards as a myth. Regarded as a crank for her obsession with Camlantis, she has been shut out of academia and deprived of funding when an unexpected benefactor appears: Abraham Quest, the greatest industrialist in Jackals, a renowned philanthropist, humanitarian, and social reformer, and the man whose brilliant manipulations of the stock market led to the bankruptcy and suicide of Amelia’s father. Amelia is reluctant to work with him, but he can offer what she has sought all her life- ancient records revealing the place where Camlantis once stood and the chance to vindicate her theories at last.
Unfortunately, what had been fabled Camlantis 10,000 years ago is now a deadly, almost impenetrable jungle filled with hostile inhuman natives, huge predatory reptiles, and the agents of a vast collective mind that rules the deepest parts of the jungle and tries to subsume anyone who wanders to close into itself. Harsh must travel upriver into the jungle via U-boat, accompanied by her old friend Commodore Black, Quest’s force of deadly drug-enhanced foreign mercenaries, a U-boat crew recruited from convicted slavers who have been promised clemency if they survive, and a steam man jungle guide of dubious mental stability.
Into these events is drawn Cornelius Fortune, a reclusive aristocrat who lives a secret life as Furnace-Breath Nick, feared vigilante and scourge of the brutal revolutionary regime that rules Jackals’ neighbor and greatest foe, Quatershift. When a brilliant inventor he has rescued from the prison camps of Quatershift and brought to Jackals suddenly vanishes without a trace, Fortune is confronted with deadly political machinations involving the Jackelian criminal underworld, steam man bodies vanishing from their graves, and mysterious attempts on the life of Abraham Quest. Somehow, these events are also connected to ancient Camlantis, and both Cornelius Fortune and Amelia Harsh will have to confront the legacy left by that ancient the utopia- a legacy that could mean the death of every human being on the planet.
The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is an excellent follow-up to The Court of the Air. Like The Court of the Air, it is very fast-paced and has lots of action, though it didn’t feel quite as frantic as its predecessor, perhaps because at least some of the concepts were already familiar to me from the previous book. Nevertheless, the rapid progression of events, continuing revelations, and the book’s sheer volume of creative ideas give the book the same manic quality that I enjoyed in The Court of the Air.
The characters are not especially deep or complex, but nevertheless they are interesting and succeed well in inspiring emotional investment. The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is somewhat dark in tone, but less so than The Court of the Air, and like its predecessor its relentless energy allows it to be dark without being depressing or dispiriting. Some of the prominent themes of The Court of the Air are seen again here, with both books reflecting a sense of striving and hope combined with a distrust of utopianism.
Like its predecessor, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves does a great job of being extremely dense in both events and ideas without seeming overstuffed, and of being diverse and varied without seeming jumbled or incoherent. In Hunt’s hands it feels perfectly natural that airships, lost civilizations, sorcery, a heterodox archaeologist/pulp adventurer, submarines, a race of intelligent steam-powered robots, a jungle ruled by an evil hive mind, and a character best described as “The Scarlet Pimpernel, if The Scarlet Pimpernel had been a shapeshifting steampunk cyborg” all show up in the same story.
Just like its predecessor, I can’t recommend The Kingdom Beyond the Waves enough. It’s a fantastic book for people who like either fantasy or steampunk, or for anyone who likes fast-paced adventure stories. Stephen Hunt has very quickly become one of the most exciting authors in fantasy, and I can’t wait to see the third book in the series, The Rise of the Iron Moon, reach the United States.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
I've been kept busy lately by some work-related stuff, along with the seven or eight distinct illnessess that have all apparently taken up residence in my digestive system simultaenously and started battling for supremacy, but I'm back in action. Look for new reviews both here and at BSCreview very soon.
Here's some very good news, via SF Crowsnest: Solaris Books has found a buyer. It was announced a few months ago that their parent company, the Black Library, was going to start focusing solely on its primary purpose as the fiction-publishing arm of Games Workshop. Solaris' new owner is British game developer Rebellion Developments. Rebellion has experience with publishing, through creating their own SF/Fantasy/Horror imprint Abaddon Books and by acquiring seminal weekly comics anthology 2000 AD and RPG/tabletop game company Mongoose Publishing. 2000 AD is the source of Judge Dredd, among other things, and Mongoose is the publisher of the current edition of the legendary Traveller and the new RPG based on David Drake's Hammers Slammers stories, so presumably the new guys in charge know their way around the SF field.
(Though their greatest accolade may be this line from the Rebellion Developments Wikipedia page: "Their first known title was Alien Vs. Predator for the Atari Jaguar, which was considered one of the few good games for that console." Seldom has a single sentence been so coldly factual and hilariously brutal at the same. Poor Jaguar. I guess the world just wasn't ready for your 64 bits of processing power and godawful controllers.)
I've really come to like Solaris over the past year or so, and it's through Solaris that I've discovered a number of authors, such as Andy Remic, Eric Brown, and Jeffrey Thomas. I'm very happy to see it will continue.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
The second edition of the Grasping for the Wind Linkup Meme is live, with what is almost certainly the largest collection of SF blog links ever assembled by mortal man. If you have a blog and want to participate, check out Grasping for the Wind to add your site and get the code to put the links on your own blog. And now, in all its cyclopean grandeur, the list:
Romanian French Chinese Danish Portuguese German
7 Foot Shelves
The Accidental Bard
A Boy Goes on a Journey
A Dribble Of Ink
Adventures in Reading
A Fantasy Reader
The Agony Column
A Hoyden's Look at Literature
All Booked Up
Alexia's Books and Such...
The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
Australia Specfic In Focus
Author 2 Author
Babbling about Books
Bees (and Books) on the Knob
Big Dumb Object
The Billion Light-Year Bookshelf
Bitten by Books
The Black Library Blog
Blog, Jvstin Style
Blood of the Muse
The Book Bind
The Book Smugglers
The Book Swede
Book View Cafe [Authors Group Blog]
Cheaper Ironies [pro columnist]
The Crotchety Old Fan
Daily Dose - Fantasy and Romance
Damien G. Walter
It's Dark in the Dark
Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews
Dave Brendon's Fantasy and Sci-Fi Weblog
Dead Book Darling
The Deckled Edge
The Doctor is In...
Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
The Discriminating Fangirl
Dusk Before the Dawn
Enter the Octopus
Errant Dreams Reviews
Fan News Denmark [in English]
Fantastic Reviews Blog
Fantasy Book Banner
Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Book Reviews and News
Fantasy Dreamer's Ramblings
Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin' News and Reviews
Feminist SF - The Blog!
Fiction is so Overrated
The Foghorn Review
Follow that Raven
Free SF Reader
From a Sci-Fi Standpoint
From the Heart of Europe
The Future Fire
The Galaxy Express
The Gamer Rat
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Grasping for the Wind
The Green Man Review
Highlander's Book Reviews
The Hub Magazine
Hyperpat's Hyper Day
I Hope I Didn't Just Give Away The Ending
Ink and Keys
Ink and Paper
The Internet Review of Science Fiction
Jumpdrives and Cantrips
Keeping the Door
King of the Nerds
Lair of the Undead Rat
Layers of Thought
League of Reluctant Adults
The Lensman's Children
Mad Hatter's Bookshelf and Book Review
Mari's Midnight Garden
Mark Freeman's Journal
Marooned: Science Fiction Books on Mars
Michele Lee's Book Love
Missions Unknown [Author and Artist Blog Devoted to SF/F/H in San Antonio]
The Mistress of Ancient Revelry
MIT Science Fiction Society
More Words, Deeper Hole
Mostly Harmless Books
Musings from the Weirdside
My Favourite Books
The New Book Review
Not Free SF Reader
OF Blog of the Fallen
The Old Bat's Belfry
Only The Best SciFi/Fantasy
The Ostentatious Ogre
Outside of a Dog
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Patricia's Vampire Notes
The Persistence of Vision
Pizza's Book Discussion
Random Acts of Mediocrity
Ray Gun Revival
Realms of Speculative Fiction
Reading the Leaves
Review From Here
The Road Not Taken
Rob's Blog o' Stuff
Robots and Vamps
Satisfying the Need to Read
Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics
Science Fiction Times
Sci-Fi Fan Letter
The Sci-Fi Gene
Sci-Fi Songs [Musical Reviews]
Scifi UK Reviews
Sci Fi Wire
The Sequential Rat
Severian's Fantastic Worlds
SFF World's Book Reviews
Slice of SciFi
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Speculative Fiction Junkie
Spiral Galaxy Reviews
Sporadic Book Reviews
Stainless Steel Droppings
Stuff as Dreams are Made on...
The Sudden Curve
The Sword Review
Temple Library Reviews
things mean a lot
Tor.com [also a publisher]
True Science Fiction
Urban Fantasy Land
Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
Walker of Worlds
Wands and Worlds
With Intent to Commit Horror
The Wizard of Duke Street
WJ Fantasy Reviews
The Word Nest
The World in a Satin Bag
Young Adult Science Fiction
Cititor SF [with English Translation]
Foundation of Krantas
The SF Commonwealth Office in Taiwan [with some English essays]
Life and Times of a Talkative Bookworm
Ponto De Convergencia
Welt der fantasy
Romanian French Chinese Danish Portuguese German
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
David Weber finally has a proper website, and an extremely nice one at that. I love an extensive author site, especially one like this that includes a lot of Weber’s own commentary on his books. It’s unfortunate that more writers don’t have something like this, since books- and especially SF books- are precisely the kind of thing that can be greatly enriched by supplementary information for a look into the thoughts of the creator.
Tobias Buckell has a post about his experience as a lecturer at Shared Worlds camp, a creative writing program for teenagers with a focus on worldbuilding. It sounds extremely cool, though reading about it brings back some unfortunate childhood memories about my disastrous week at Lutheran summer camp. (Jason Voorhees is never around when you need him.)
This is a real shame: Jim Baen’s Universe magazine is shutting down next year. Editor Eric Flint explains here.
Grasping for the Wind is having a second iteration of its popular Book Reviewers Linkup Meme. If you have a blog about science fiction or fantasy and want to add it, or just want to see what is probably the most exhaustive list of SF blogs ever compiled, check it out.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
John Meaney is known for his work in the science fiction field, most notably the Nulapeiron sequence (Paradox, Context, Resolution). They are well-worth reading for their combination of an imaginative and unusual setting, scientific speculations, and furious action. With Bone Song (Hardcover, Paperback ,Kindle), he enters the genre of dark fantasy, and yet also retains the virtues of the science fiction writer along the way. The follow-up, Black Blood (Dark Blood in the United Kingdom), came out earlier this year.
Bone Song is set in Tristopolis, a city covered by a perpetually dark, purple skies that rain mercury, inhabited by humans both living and undead, as well as by incorporeal beings called wraiths. Its technology is a bizarre amalgam of machinery and the supernatural, kept running by underground “necroflux” reactors that generate power from the bones of the dead.
The main character of the story is Lieutenant Donal Riordan, an officer in the Tristopolis police. He is assigned to the task of protecting an international opera star making a stop in Tristopolis. The energies of the thoughts, feelings, and memories of humans during life become embedded in their bones, and the bones of great artists are prized for the ecstatic experiences they can provide. A mysterious organization has begun murdering famous artists and stealing their bodies, and the visiting diva may be their next target.
What starts as an assignment to protect a single woman soon expands up into something much bigger as Riordan is recruited into a special federal task force after narrowly surviving a sorcerous attack on his mind. There he meets Xelia, a free wraith, and Commander Laura Steele, the group’s undead leader. They are dedicated to pursuing the Black Circle, a secret society with an interest in the bones of the dead, agents all over the world, and members in the highest levels of Tristopolis society.
I greatly enjoyed Bone Song. John Meaney creates a truly fascinating and bizarre setting in Tristopolis. The book’s tone is interesting and a bit atypical. The mood of Tristopolis is relentlessly dark and sinister, hanging oppressively over everything, and the premise of the plot is quite grim. However, the story itself, with its combination of mystery and fast action, is intensely energizing and feels almost exuberant at times. The book does a nice job of being extremely dark in setting and premise, and sometimes quite sad, without feeling dreary or depressing. I don’t see that sort of contrast very often, but Meaney does it well.
Much of this comes from Meaney’s style of writing, which gives events, and especially rapid or physically intensive events, a tremendous sense of raw immediacy. In the book’s more intense sections, Riordan’s actions and thoughts often felt as if they were being poured directly into me, without the mediation of words. As in the Nulapeiron trilogy, Meaney’s own background in the martial arts definitely shows, not only in his technical knowledge but in the way he evokes a state in which events move faster than the fully conscious mind can keep up with.
The setting is very imaginative, and straddles typical genre distinctions in an interesting way. The supernatural (at least by real-world standards) is so ubiquitous in Tristopolis society that much of it feels more like technology. Necroflux energy harvested from the memories and emotions of the dead powers the city like electricity. Wraiths are bound to complex machines like automobiles and elevators to give animation and at least limited capacity for thought. The newly dead can be revived as the undead through a procedure that has supernatural elements but resembles surgery more than anything else. Even victims of sorcerous mental attacks undergo medical treatment and rehabilitation analogous to real-world physical therapy. Thus, while Bone Song is dark fantasy, in many ways it could also be described as science fiction set in an animistic universe.
I would strongly recommend Bone Song for anyone who likes intense, action-heavy stories or unusual worldbuilding. I think it could appeal to a number of different groups: fantasy fans looking for something different from the usual high fantasy settings, science fiction fans who want to see a science fiction-influenced take on a world with some very different underlying principles, and perhaps people who like modern/urban fantasy (e.g. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books) and want a story in a more distant and unusual setting. John Meaney has a great talent for truly creative imaginary worlds, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Found the test via Andrew Wheeler. I'm actually not a big Moorcock reader, but this still seems right somehow. I'm not sure I'd call myself "high-brow," but the rest of it- violent, traditional, cynical, ruggedly manly facial hair- all fit. If you try out the test yourself, let me know what you get in the comments.
Your result for Which fantasy writer are you?...
Michael Moorcock (b. 1939)
19 High-Brow, 21 Violent, -17 Experimental and 21 Cynical!
Congratulations! You are High-Brow, Violent, Traditional and Cynical! These concepts are defined below.
Michael Moorcock is one of the most influential fantasy writers of all times, his impact rivalling that of Tolkien's. Perhaps China Miéville described it best when he said: "I think we are all post-Moorcock." Apart from being the editor of New Worlds twice in the 60s and 70s, thereby being instrumental in bringing on the so-called "new wave" of science fiction which changed all fantastic literature forever, Moorcock's own work has been an inspiration to more recent writers. He is also known for not hiding or blunting his views on fiction which he regards as inferior, a trait which has lead him to apply harsh criticism on authors such as J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis an H P Lovecraft.
His most popular work are the Elric books. Elric was originally conceived as a sort of critical comment to or even parody of R E Howard's Conan, but the character and his world soon grew to form a tragic and somewhat fatalistic drama. Elric's world is, in turn, only a small part of the huge Multiverse, a set of stories from all sorts of worlds (including our own) which is forever locked in a struggle between the two powers of Law and Chaos. Whenever one of these powers is threatening to become too powerful, an incarnation of the Eternal Champion, a group of warriors possessing the same spirit, is forced to fight to maintain the delicate balance between the two. Moorcock has worked several of his heroes into this cycle of books, including Hawkmoon, Corum and, of course, Elric.
Moorcock's stories are often stories about warriors, however reluctant they may be, and are usually explicitly violent, even if the purpose of all the hacking and slashing is to free humans and other beings from oppression and, ultimately, fear. There is little happiness, though, for those who are forced to do the fighting and all they can hope for is a short time of respite, sometimes in the town of Tanelorn, the only place in the multiverse that the eternal struggle between Law and Chaos can't reach.
It should also be mentioned that, even though Moorcock has done quite some experimenting in his days, it can't be ignored that a major part of his books are traditional adventure stories that become more than that by their inclusion into a grand vision. A little ironically , perhaps, for an author who has criticized the "world-building school" of fantasy, Moorcock achieves much of his popularity through building, if not a world, a world vision.
You are also a lot like China Miéville
If you want something more gentle, try Ursula K le Guin
If you'd like a challenge, try your exact opposite, Katharine Kerr
This is how to interpret your score: Your attitudes have been measured on four different scales, called 1) High-Brow vs. Low-Brow, 2) Violent vs. Peaceful, 3) Experimental vs. Traditional and 4) Cynical vs. Romantic. Imagine that when you were born, you were in a state of innocence, a tabula rasa who would have scored zero on each scale. Since then, a number of circumstances (including genetic, cultural and environmental factors) have pushed you towards either end of these scales. If you're at 45 or -45 you would be almost entirely cynical, low-brow or whatever. The closer to zero you are, the less extreme your attitude. However, you should always be more of either (eg more romantic than cynical). Please note that even though High-Brow, Violent, Experimental and Cynical have positive numbers (1 through 45) and their opposites negative numbers (-1 through -45), this doesn't mean that either quality is better. All attitudes have their positive and negative sides, as explained below.
High-Brow vs. Low-Brow
You received 19 points, making you more High-Brow than Low-Brow. Being high-browed in this context refers to being more fascinated with the sort of art that critics and scholars tend to favour, rather than the best-selling kind. At their best, high-brows are cultured, able to appreciate the finer nuances of literature and not content with simplifications. At their worst they are, well, snobs.
Violent vs. Peaceful
You received 21 points, making you more Violent than Peaceful. Please note that violent in this context does not mean that you, personally, are prone to violence. This scale is a measurement of a) if you are tolerant to violence in fiction and b) whether you see violence as a means that can be used to achieve a good end. If you are, and you do, then you are violent as defined here. At their best, violent people are the heroes who don't hesitate to stop the villain threatening innocents by means of a good kick. At their worst, they are the villains themselves.
Experimental vs. Traditional
You received -17 points, making you more Traditional than Experimental. Your position on this scale indicates if you're more likely to seek out the new and unexpected or if you are more comfortable with the familiar, especially in regards to culture. Note that traditional as defined here does not equal conservative, in the political sense. At their best, traditional people don't change winning concepts, favouring storytelling over empty poses. At their worst, they are somewhat narrow-minded.
Cynical vs. Romantic
You received 21 points, making you more Cynical than Romantic. Your position on this scale indicates if you are more likely to be wary, suspicious and skeptical to people around you and the world at large, or if you are more likely to believe in grand schemes, happy endings and the basic goodness of humankind. It is by far the most vaguely defined scale, which is why you'll find the sentence "you are also a lot like x" above. If you feel that your position on this scale is wrong, then you are probably more like author x. At their best, cynical people are able to see through lies and spot crucial flaws in plans and schemes. At their worst, they are overly negative, bringing everybody else down.
Author image by Catriona Sparks from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Moorcock.jpg Click for license info.
Take Which fantasy writer are you? at HelloQuizzy
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
This sounds very interesting: VIZ Media, the popular manga publisher, has created a new venture called Haikasoru dedicated to translating Japanese science fiction books into English. The first releases are planned for next month. Haikasoru editor Nick Mamatas has an entry on the Haikasoru blog about the Japanese science fiction field and how it compares to SF in the English speaking world. Definitely sounds interesting.
Besides my interest in the books themselves, I'm excited by the potential this may have for bringing more readers to the field, especially younger readers. Most big bookstores I've been to have the Science Fiction/Fantasy section next to the manga. When school isn't in session, the manga section is usually quite busy, in large part with kids at or within a few years of the age I was at when I became a serious SF reader. Japanese science fiction marketed by a manga company has all sorts of potential for creating long-term fans.
I'm definitely looking forward to seeing how this turns out.
Friday, May 8, 2009
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, died earlier this month at the age of 61. A lot of things I said when Gary Gygax died are fitting here as well.
I know far more about Dungeons and Dragons than is reasonable for someone who has never actually played it, save through computer game adaptations like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. Tabletop roleplaying games aren’t my thing; I’m too shy and too uncomfortable in groups for it. (Yes, that’s right: I’m too nerdy to play Dungeons and Dragons. God have mercy on me.) As far as I can recall, my first exposure to role-playing games was in the mid to late 80’s, when I would hang out with some older kids on my block who played it.
Arneson’s legacy first seriously touched my life in 1989 or 1990, though I wouldn’t realize it until years later. I was a video game fan, and Nintendo Power magazine was advertising a promotion in which every subscription came with a free copy of a game called Dragon Warrior. (This was when they still insisted on calling games “GamePaks,” which stuck me as very silly even at the age of nine.) I’m not sure how it made financial sense to give away a $40 game to sell $15 magazine subscriptions, but apparently it did. I didn’t know what Dragon Warrior was, but my greedy, calculating young heart couldn’t say no to a deal like that. I mailed in my $15, and a few weeks later the game and my first issue of the magazine arrived.
I had never played anything like it before. Fighting enemies was turn-based. Everything seemed to revolve around numbers- character stats, enemy stats, weapon and armor attributes, calculating what to spend your scarce money on to give you a better chance of surviving. My friends were alternately baffled and bored to tears by it.
It was the greatest game I had ever played.
I had (and have) problems with fine motor control. I liked video games, but I was all but hopeless at most of them. Suddenly, there was a game that did not require reflexes and dexterity I didn’t have, and actually favored my preference for strategy and careful planning. A short while later, I discovered the first Final Fantasy for the NES as well, and I realized I had found my gaming niche. RPGs and strategy games have been my video games of choice ever since.
That first Dragon Warrior seems a bit creaky now, of course. The combat was very simplistic, and the story was scarcely more involved than Super Mario Brothers. But when I was a little kid, it was magic. That game opened up whole imaginative worlds for me, and did so in a time when the real world was not at all a good place.
Dragon Warrior was largely based on previous computer role-playing games like Wizardry and Ultima, which were based on still older games, which were based on the original tabletop Dungeons and Dragons. So, there’s a direct line of descent from Dave Arneson to many of my favorite games today, and I owe him a great deal. Rest in peace.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
This should have been posted a while ago, but my usual sloth, combined with a savage and unprovoked squirrel attack on my telephone cables, has delayed me in getting it online. Imagine you’re reading this three weeks ago and it’ll probably be more interesting.
As most people know by now, the Sci Fi Channel has now changed its name to the “SyFy Channel.” There’s really nothing unkind I can say about the name “SyFy” itself that would be more damning than just reproducing it accurately. It’s not unknown for a TV station to radically change its identity while trying to keep some vestige of the name, as when TNN changed from the country music-focused “The Nashville Network” to the action/testosterone-themed “The National Network.” (Which then became Spike, which is both less generic and more appropriately phallic and bellicose-sounding.) Thus, I’m not surprised that they went with a name that maintains a tie to the old one, though you’d think with the amount of money TV networks spend on consulting firms and focus groups they could have come up with something that didn’t sound like a government agency from a David Weber novel.
I don’t even know what their new slogan, “Imagine Greater,” is supposed to mean. It sounds like something that Babelfish has translated from English to Japanese and back again two or three times.
I often get annoyed at this sort of attempt to hide from the Nerd Cooties stigma, but this seems entirely appropriate to me, given how much of the channel seems to be devoted to monster movies, schlock horror, pro wrestling, and reality shows with washed up quasi-celebrities who didn’t quite have the Q factor to hang out with Corey Feldman and Chyna on The Surreal Life. Really, ditching the “Sci Fi” is just a simple acknowledgment of reality. (In that same spirit of accuracy, perhaps “SciFi Channel Original Movie” could be changed to “Not Even Good Enough for Direct-to-Video Theatre.") So, no big loss.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
In the short time since its creation, Solaris Books has really impressed me, both with their authors and with their Solaris Book of New Science Fiction anthology series. It was through the latter that I first became aware of English science fiction author Eric Brown. Necropath is the first book in a planned three-books series, to be followed by Xenopath and Cosmopath. However, it is a self-contained story in itself.
Bengal Station is a huge spaceport in the sea between India and Burma, the entry point to Earth for the faster-than-light ships linking Earth to her colonies, and to alien civilizations beyond. Its tremendous volume is home to millions of people, ranging from the richest to the poorest. Jeff Vaughan is a telepath employed at the station, using his powers to help inspect incoming ships. He is a tormented man, plagued by his memories of the past, dependent on drugs to help him shut out the endless roar of other people’s thoughts, and utterly without hope.
Strange events are taking place at Bengel Station. Mysterious shipments are arriving from offworld, shipments Vaughn’s mind-shielded boss has forbidden him to inspect. A series of men involved in space exploration in their younger days are mysteriously murdered. A bizarre cult with origins beyond Earth is growing on the station, offering a mind-altering “communion” and promising to make all people one with their God.
Vaughn’s search for the truth behind these events takes him through the depths of Bengal Station, and will eventually lead him from Earth to one of humanity’s new settlements among the stars. He faces corruption and betrayal among his colleagues, a mysterious figure hell-bent on hunting him down and killing him, and his own fear and despair accumulated from a past spent exposed to things no one should see. Finally, he will face the force behind the disturbing events on Bengal Station- something far more horrible than a mere criminal conspiracy.
I liked Necropath quite a bit. The central mystery develops well and becomes increasingly eerie as it progresses. Jeff Vaughn is an interesting protagonist, and Brown does a nice job of putting a different spin on the much-used idea of a hero with a grim past. Bengal Station itself is a great environment for a story, and its close juxtaposition of astonishing futuristic technology and desperate Third World poverty is striking.
While Necropath is largely a thriller/mystery story, it has a strong element of horror, and had a number of elements that made me think of H.P. Lovecraft- bizarre and cruelly uncaring intelligences, communities that conceal horrifying secrets, local people with stories of incomprehensible horrors, and knowledge so disturbing that brushing up against it is psychologically damaging. Parts of the book are quite creepy, and the buildup to Vaughn’s discovery of the truth is effectively chilling. I liked the way the horror, mystery, and science fiction elements of the book mesh. The horrific elements are not merely grafted onto a science fiction base- rather, they are directly integrated with the science fiction and would not be possible outside that context.
I liked the book’s use of the idea of telepathy- some people have a natural affinity for it, but artificial augmentation is necessary to make the potential useful. Especially intriguing- and feeding nicely into what I said about the horror element- is the idea of using telepathy on the recently dead, searching through a person’s thoughts for information as their nervous system sputters out. This is portrayed as suitably disturbing, both to the reader and to the unfortunate telepath who has to feel the disintegration of another person’s self in the most intimate way possible.
I would recommend Necropath for any science fiction fan who enjoys elements of mystery or horror in their stories, and I look forward to Xenopath. Telepathy doesn’t seem to appear in science fiction nearly as much as it used to, and I enjoyed Brown’s take on this venerable trope.
Monday, March 2, 2009
Life is full of surprises. Some people consider this one of its charms, a position that’s always been baffling to me. Case in point: Thursday afternoon, while I was inoffensively going about my business, a flower pot that someone had evidently positioned insecurely fell from its perch and hit me. Luckily it hit me in the shoulder instead of the head, but it’s still a hell of a shock to have a heavy object whack you from out of nowhere from above and cover you in a shower of dirt.
So basically, my life has turned into a cartoon. And, sadly, it’s a traditional American cartoon based around subjecting the protagonist to sadistic and increasingly outlandish physical abuse, not one of the Japanese ones about an endearingly nerby schlub forced by circumstances to pilot some sort of 50-foot battle robot and/or share a house with a group of foxy female stock characters who are inexplicably attracted to him. Life is not fair.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
I've got a review of Sean Williams' Saturn Returns, the first book in his "Astropolis" series, over at BookSpotCentral. Have a look.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
This is not even tangentially related to this site’s subject, but there’s little point to having your own blog if you can’t follow your own arbitrary whims from time to time. I’m planning on getting a cat from the animal shelter within a week or two, and I’d wanted to post something in memory of my old cat for a while, so now seems like the time.
I got Kira from a local shelter in 2000, when she was about 9 months old. I noticed her when I was walking past the rows of cages, and she reached out her front paw and touched me, then pushed her cheek against the cage bars and tried to rub against my hand. Quite a stroke of good fortune for both of us- she had been abandoned there for a while, and was a few days away from being euthanized. Despite being fairly skittish with most people, she seemed to take to me quickly, and so I adopted her.
She loved to sit by the windows, where she could enjoy the sunlight and watch the birds. Once she got used to company, she liked to come up to people, sit nearby, and stick one of her paws out and rest it on the person’s hand. She would always sleep in someone’s bed, preferably with someone in it. She was quite noisy; she had a very loud rumbling purr and would greet people she liked with a sort of chirping sound.
She died too soon. On June 30th of 2008, a tumor that had been growing in her stomach suddenly burst. She had no chance of recovery, and she was put down the same day. It was very sudden; she continued on happily with her usual activities until the last few hours of her life. I’m grateful for that small mercy.
She was a wonderful cat, and I was lucky to have her in my life for 8 years. The woman in charge of the cats at the shelter (I’ve always mentally referred to her as the “cat wrangler,” though sadly her real job title probably wasn’t as cool) said she had been neglected and possibly abused by her prior owners, so I guess I was able to give her something better than she would have had otherwise. I hope I did. She deserved it.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Via Grasping for the Wind, I came upon this interesting post by James Enge, in which Enge talks about the role played in each person by the “naïve reader” and the “sophisticated reader.” As Enge describes it:
The naive reader wants the hero to kill the bad guy and marry the space-princess (or space-prince, or what have you). The sophisticated reader is muttering, “Yes, this is much like the plot Burroughs used, with overtones of Hamlet and the occasional oblique reference to postmodernism which is de rigueur for self-consciously retrogenerical pastiche, n’est-ce pas?” The naive reader just wants to sit back and enjoy the movie. The sophisticated reader is the guy sitting in the row behind who won’t STFU.
Each person contains both. The naïve reader experiences the story directly- as Enge says, it is “the one for whom the reading experience is emotionally fulfilling.” The sophisticated reader, through deeper analysis and understanding of things beyond what’s up in the foreground, can augment the enjoyment of the naïve reader-or disrupt it, either by identifying issues the naïve reader would miss or running wild and nitpicking everything.
This made me think of a related question: What aspects of fiction are the primary sources of enjoyment, and what aspects are secondary or in the realm of peripheral details or nitpicking? These categories don’t correspond precisely to Enge’s casual and sophisticated reader, but they are somewhat related.
I think one of the biggest and most common barriers to understanding when considering fiction is the assumption that all fiction is ultimately about, or at least ought to be about, the same things, and that likewise all readers enjoy or ought to enjoy the same things. One of the distinguishing characteristics of science fiction, especially (but by no means exclusively) hard science fiction, is that it often moves issues of scientific and technical realism, along with things like creativity and logical consistency of background, from the peripheral/nitpicking realm to the foreground.
For me, and I think for many people who like science fiction (especially written), getting science and technology right isn’t just something that appeases my desire to nitpick or allows me to appreciate a story on an additional, supplementary level, it’s a source of pleasure in the same way that the plot and characters are. Background and setting are similar. I enjoy it when a setting is put together well, when the extrapolated social and technological effects of the science presented makes sense-and again, this is front and center in my mind in the same way that character and plot is. It’s primary, not supplementary. Fantasy often does something like this too, with J.R.R. Tolkien being the most obvious and striking example. This is quite different from most other forms of fiction, where the setting may have thematic relevance but is usually not an object of interest in itself. (Historical fiction is an exception, since the historical veracity of the setting is often a significant part of the reader's enjoyment. It would be interesting to know how much overlap there is between historical fiction readers and SF readers)
Indeed, some science fiction works more or less invert the normal hierarchy entirely, not only putting science, extrapolation of technology, and logical construction of setting up in front as sources of enjoyment, but pushing things that are conventionally considered the core of what good fiction should be about, such as characterization and prose style, into the background, or almost into oblivion altogether. If I’m reading a science fiction book with imaginative and well thought-out ideas, the quality of characterization often becomes a nitpicky background concern to me. A science fiction story is certainly not harmed by good characters, but often it isn’t much harmed by their absence either. A lot of the complaints about characterization in science fiction often strikes me as sort of like hearing someone complain that magical realist author Gabriel Garcia Marquez failed to explore the physical mechanism or social effects of the technology of the giant magnet that the gypsies had in One Hundred Years of Solitude, or about the improbable and melodramatic plots of many operas.
This is not an absolute rule, and it’s certainly possible to write science fiction that is primarily based on character or stylistic flair. There are plenty of character-based stories I like. I think my description captures the genre’s general thrust, however. This has serious implications for other issues, such as the desire of some people for science fiction and fantasy to gain greater respectability, but this post is long enough for now. I’d be interested in hearing how other readers experience science fiction, and if your take on the nature of the genre is similar to mine.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Neal Asher has become one of my favorite authors as of late. This makes for some frustration when you’re living in the United States, where much of his work has not been published, making it necessary to either import or scour eBay and the like. (Aside from Asher and Stephen Baxter, I almost never import books- I’m too cheap, I prefer to buy domestic editions of books by foreign authors to encourage the publishers to bring more of their stuff to this country, and my vast backlog makes waiting for a domestic release basically a non-issue.) Fortunately, Night Shade Books has been bringing more of Asher’s work to the U.S., first with Prador Moon and now with the prequel to Asher’s Ian Cormac series, Shadow of the Scorpion: A Novel of the Polity.
Part of Neal Asher’s Polity future history (Gridlinked, The Skinner, etc.), Shadow of the Scorpion is a story of the early days of future Earth Central Security agent Ian Cormac. The young Cormac enters the service of the Polity as an infantryman in the aftermath of the Prador War, a cataclysmic conflict between humans and the monstrous Prador that lasted decades, destroyed whole worlds, and took billions of lives. Fresh out of training, Cormac is assigned to the security forces on the devastated planet of Hagren, a Polity world that suffered ecological devastation and the death of half of its human inhabitants during the war. Now rebuilding has begun, but the inhabitants are threatened by surviving Prador still lurking in the wreckage of a crashed Prador dreadnought, and by human Separatist terrorists who will commit any atrocity to overthrow the Polity and the artificial intelligences that rule it.
What should have been a relatively simple assignment policing Hagren while its society is rebuilt and civic order restored becomes much more when treason is discovered amongst Cormac’s squad mates, and Cormac is chosen by his superiors for a hazardous mission to infiltrate a local separatist cell. This sets Cormac on a dangerous journey across the devastated former battlefields of the Prador War, pursuing humans as lethal and pitiless as the Prador themselves.
Interspersed throughout this story, Shadow of the Scorpion also tells of Cormac’s youth in the dark days of the war, and of the mysterious scorpion-shaped AI war drone that haunted his childhood- and that has seemingly reappeared.
I really liked this book. It provides plenty of the intense action Asher is known for, and continues to explore the setting of Asher’s future history. On a purely action/adventure level, the book definitely delivers, with Asher’s usual talent for excitement, description, and visceral power brought to the forefront. It also gave me what were probably the two things I most wanted from Asher: more information about the character Ian Cormac, and a closer look at the society of the Polity itself.
Most of the Polity universe books are set primarily on worlds outside the Polity, or on the Polity’s frontier, or on worlds suffering some crisis, and are shown mostly from the perspective of Earth Central Security personnel or people outside normal society. The flashback portions of The Shadow of the Scorpion gives us a nice look at Polity’s society on Earth itself, as experienced by average people. I love the world-building aspect of science fiction, so I enjoyed this a lot.
An important part of the flashbacks revolves around technology to edit or erase your own memories, sought by Cormac’s shell-shocked older brother after returning from a tour of duty as a field medic on the front lines of the Prador War. Quite plausibly, this is a much-sought service during the war, common enough to support the existence of large clinics dedicated to it, and Asher explores it well. The book chillingly juxtaposes the psychological devastation of war and the grotesque physical injuries wrought by Prador military technology, with the Polity’s enormously advanced medical science seeking to reassemble shattered minds with same casual efficiency with which it repairs broken bodies.
While there is still plenty of action, this is a more character-based story than is typical for Asher, and fortunately I think the characterization here is stronger than what I’ve seen from him previously. The portrayal of a newly recruited Ian Cormac several decades younger than the one we first met in Gridlinked is well done- Cormac is still recognizably Cormac, but he displays a previously unseen degree of emotional vulnerability befitting a man who has not yet become desensitized by decades of violence and horror.
The flashback sequences from Cormac’s childhood are also well-done. Asher’s portrayal of the young Cormac, a bright, introverted, precociously serious-minded child, rang very true to me. (There’s a brief line suggesting that Cormac has been diagnosed with mild autistic tendencies, and while it’s not the focus of the story, I think Asher’s portrayal is one of the more insightful and understanding fictional portraits of it that I’ve seen.)
The flashback scenes about Cormac’s older brother’s return from the war are also effective, and do a good job of portraying something often unexplored in stories of soldiers returning home. Mixed with the happiness of seeing your loved one safely home, there is the tension and awkwardness of reuniting with someone you care about who has been profoundly changed, the trepidation of wanting to reach out and reconnect with someone deeply marked by experiences you can never truly understand and not really knowing how. The portrayal of this is fairly subtle, yet to me unmistakable and quite poignant.
Shadow of the Scorpion is well worth reading for any fan of Neal Asher, action stories, vivid far-future societies, or examinations of some of the questions raised by technologies to reshape the human mind. I think you’ll get more out of it if you’re already familiar with Ian Cormac and the Polity (Gridlinked would be the place to start there), but it is a self-contained story that stands well on its own. I highly recommend it, and I hope Nightshade continues to bring this sort of book to the U.S.
Monday, January 5, 2009
When not distracted by the laborious task of making my thrice-yearly posts to this blog, I also run the Space Opera group on Facebook. I'm proud to say that we just exceeded 200 members after being in operation for a little under a year. If you're on Facebook and you like science fiction, come check us out.