Harry Potter and the Two-Hour Prologue

Last week the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings & Half-Baked Ideas and I decided to watch the first Harry Potter movie. It was my first exposure to the franchise. Considering all the hype, and the penetration of the film into pop culture, the movie was surprisingly mediocre. Of course, it’s possible to make a crappy movie no matter how brilliant the source material is, but in this case the biggest problem with the movie was simply in its storytelling. I suspect it is a faithful reflection of flaws in the novel itself.

The biggest storytelling flaw in this flick is that it takes forever for the story to actually begin. I have been accused of “walking to the story” often enough to recognize it when I see it.

We start with a prologue that reveals nothing which isn’t amply explained in short order. Then we have many scenes that do nothing but establish setting. Crappy home life (perhaps more interesting if we didn’t know what we already do), shopping for school supplies, and so forth. As far as the actual story goes, we finally hear a whisper of the name that will shape his young life. But only a whisper, and we proceed with a series of events that aren’t moving anywhere. There are, James Bond-style, offhand mentions of things that conveniently turn out to be important later, but that’s about it.

Once he’s at school, we get closer to a plot, but not very quickly. We get to meet important friends and rivals, but mostly it’s still establishing setting, building a whimsical and magical world. Don’t get me wrong, the movie does a fine job of this, but it’s all done through a series of unrelated events.

One of those disconnected events is that Harry’s natural broom-riding ability leads him to be the “seeker” for his house team in the sport of Quidditch. The game is like this: A bunch of people fly around under very complicated rules, scoring points here and there, then the seeker from one of the teams catches a tiny flying robot-magic-thingie and the game is over, all the rest of the activity having been rendered moot. It makes for some good action scenes, but they are not in service of the story.

The story, what there is of it, is that there’s an important thing that bad guys want to steal. The most interesting part of that story is Snape, a teacher and the head of the “asshole” house at the school. So many things suggest he’s a bad guy, but… when shit gets real his actions are noticeably absent of evil.

When one makes a movie based on a novel, the hardest decisions the screenplay writers face is what to cut. A movie simply can’t contain an entire novel. I wonder, looking at what they decided to keep, looking at scene after scene that did not serve the story, what they decided to chop. More of the same? Or were they worried that rabid Harry Potter fans would riot if the movie didn’t include the gratuitous prologue that was in the novel, and instead cut more interesting things to remain “faithful”?

The next night OSoMR&HBI and I watched the next movie in the series, and now we have consumed two more. So clearly HP-1 was not so awful we walked away from the franchise. This was partly because friends assured us the following movies got better.

Today I realized why. The first movie is ALL prologue. It is the reading you are supposed to do before coming to class. Being a story is a secondary goal, behind introducing us to the world.

Aspiring writers take note: WORLD BUILDING IS NOT STORYTELLING. I recently had the privilege of reading a friend’s draft of a novel, and I realize now I forgot to compliment her on the way she built a really strange world through the telling of her story. She hit the ground running and we got to see the world as the action unfolded, in a natural way. So, just do that.

1

Wrath of Athena

Before we get to the story, let me tell you a little about the author, Dale Cozort. He is part of a loose confederation of writers I have dubbed the “Kansas Bunch”, of which I am a member, though none of the others have adopted that name. Dale is unusual in our group, because he comes, gets advice, ignores a lot of it, and publishes his damn books. There are other published writers in the Kansas Bunch, some even famous or becoming so. But Dale is special in that regard. He plugs away, doing what he loves. He’s a very blue-collar sort of writer. No pretentious airs, just a story he feels good about.

So while I usually refer to authors by their last name in these little blurbs, Dale is “Dale” to me.

“Doing what he loves” means, for Dale, mashing different parts of history together to see what happens. Some of his stories might be called alternate histories, but most of his work is more like bizarro history, where space and time twist to rub cultures together that should have no business with one another. Most of his stories lean toward action/adventure, but now and then he’ll take a break and have a little fun.

Which brings us to Wrath of Athena: A Snapshot Novella. A petting zoo with a pair of talking dinosaurs (that may or may not have been won off some Nazis in a card game) is running into trouble in twenty-million-year-ago Madagascar (or, as I would call it if I lived there, Lemurpalooza). A breeding pair of talking dinosaurs, in fact, threatening disaster for the lemur-based ecology.

The setting is a little complicated, but pure Dale. Some alien intelligence we have no hope of understanding has been taking “snapshots” of parts of Earth at different times throughout history. So there’s 1942 Europe, 1950’s California, ancient Madagascar, and on and on, sliced out of reality, copied exactly including the people, and linked to each other through portals. Why do the mysterious intelligences do this? So Dale can have fun, that’s why.

This story unfolds like a whodunnit, and manages to keep that contract with the readers pretty well. The bad guys’ scheme is convoluted enough to keep readers guessing. Our main character is the official shit-shoveler of the traveling zoo, but he has some other skills as well. Dale has fun with stereotypes, and this gives the story a 1950’s-ish feel. Short-tempered redhead, insufferable brat, lecherous boss, and so forth.

Our shit-shoveling narrator talks like a shit-shoveler, and his voice is comfortable and honest. When he talks about his relationship with Athena you can nod and say, “I feel you, bud.” He’s playing catch-up much of the time, but he’s used to that.

Is it good? I enjoyed it. It’s a light read, and it moves right along. I was about to say that I don’t see Hollywood banging down Dale’s door for screenplay rights for this one, but then I hesitated. It’s about the right length for a screenplay and… talking dinosaurs? Lemurpalooza? Nazis and hot redheads? What’s not to like? CALL THE MONEY PEOPLE! I’m already casting Bruce Campbell as the shit-shoveler.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or an amazingly ugly watch), I get a kickback.

Starmind: Chapters 3 and 4

It’s not often I find a novel where every damn chapter is worthy of comment. Starmind, by Dave Van Arnam, turns out to be one of those. Not because it’s good, oh no, not all all.

When last we left this little yarn, I was wondering what possible excuse the author could find for medical professionals to even want to try to put the halves of two different people’s brains into one body.

Dr. Brian pretty much says he just wants to see what will happen. There’s a first time for everything, after all.

Yeah, Dr. Brian. The Brain surgeon. I have stopped correcting myself as I read. Nascent writers out there, if for some reason you want to call your guy Dr. Brain, just do it. No need to be coy. (Or better yet, call him Dr. Mtumbo.)

At this time, there are six characters of note. Inside the head, there are two men and one woman (although one of the men is more of an emotive blob). Outside the head, there are also two men and one woman. Both women are attractive, in nonspecific ways. Only one of the men has been described at all.

In chapter three, two of the three men capable of this sort of thought decide it might be kinda cool to have their brains installed in a hot female body. Both women find the idea of being installed in a man’s body to be loathsome. So… 1969.

On the second page of chapter three I laughed more than once. The dialog! Holy crap!

Here’s a choice nugget — the doctor, talking to the reporter:

I will not speculate on any emotional ties that might exist between you and Miss Rost, but it is obvious that your concern runs deeper than I, as a medical researcher and practitioner, dare to take cognizance of.

He better not dare to take cognizance of it! Or this gem three tiresome paragraphs later, as Parker, the reporter, continues his stilted verbal sparring with Dr. Brain Brian:

I am a professional in my own field, as you are in yours, doctor; and in my case it means I know how to research those necessary background facts that make conversations such as this more meaningful than the customary exchange of platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position.

Both those quotes are parts of much longer paragraphs. Despite this unbearable verbal mass, they do little more than exchange platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position, along with a heapin’ helpin’ of as-you-know-Bobs. The reporter, for instance, tells the brian brain surgeon that it has been eleven years since the first successful brain transplant.

But I will say this: although there are some horrible moments in the discourse between the characters inside the head, it is way better that the interactions outside the head. At lest so far; the head occupants aren’t to a stage where they can engage in stilted verbal exchanges. Though there are plenty of problems inside the cranium, as well. Jailyn is witness to one of Joe’s sex fantasies, then exercises her will to make it stop. She apparently has none of her own. Sex, it seems, is something men want and women allocate.

There’s a nice twist, though, as the “simple” thoughts of the Idiot Adonis unexpectedly rise from the previously-unmentioned surviving lower parts of his brain and provide an emotional foundation for the two intellects who discover themselves so intimately connected. In the hands of a skilled writer, that might make the premise of a great story. I could picture a one-act play based on that theme.

Alas, we are not in the hands of a skilled writer, my friends. Yet still I read on, finding comedy where none was intended, hoping the pretty nurse kicks her boss of irrelevant appearance in the balls, knowing she won’t. The mystery of “why would anyone do something so stupid” has been answered with a “why not?” and on we go. The next question is: how will the author contrive to expose this odd trio to pseudogravitic multiwaves? And will he manage that before the ridiculous dialog slips from funny to tiresome?

Stay tuned, dear readers, for the answers to these burning questions!

1

Starmind

I found a battered old paperback in a box I packed up back in 2004, as I was preparing for the Homeless Tour. It was not with other books; it was jumbled with stuff that had come from my desk in my previous job. Starmind, it’s called, by Dave Van Arnam. It didn’t look even remotely familiar. The crappy copy on the back cover, circa 1969, did not stir any recollections.

The cover carries the tagline, “What ships can be launched on the far seas of the mind?”

I have now read the first two chapters, and I think that’s enough for me to stop and write a brief commentary. You don’t have to thank me; it’s what I do.

In chapter one, we meet three people and a technology. The three people are: a super-studly super-rich super-idiot, a super-clever super-sexy super-rich woman, and a super-intuitive super-smart engineer. The engineer is taking care of one of the massive pseudogravitic multiwave generators humanity has constructed out in space. Multiwave is… well, that’s not clear yet, but the Boss of Earth has made a huge commitment to the technology, with the hope of achieving faster-than-light travel. The engineer (Joe) also has a broken back, which gives him a chance to muse about how amazing it was that modern microsurgery can even repair nerves.

First note: I don’t care how far away the year 2057 might seem when you’re writing a story, there’s no need to be so specific. There’s no need to mention that the engineer’s dad was born in 1997. There’s no need to put dates on medical breakthroughs.

Anyway, chapter two (uh, this is a spoiler, but it’s only chapter two so get over it) comes along and all three of our main people are killed. One is burned to a crisp in a spaceship explosion, one is baked by multiwaves, and one simply falls to his death.

But get this: half of super-clever Jailyn’s brain was preserved, and half of super-intuitive Joe’s brain was also put into deep-freeze. And poor, idiot adonis Benjy is still completely intact, except his brain was destroyed in the fall.

So that’s where I’m at in this story, but what comes next is pretty obvious. Someone, for some mind-boggling reason, is going to decide it’s a good idea to put the two half-brains together in Benjy’s head. Pseudogravitic multiwaves will get into the mix, and a transhuman will be created. One whose mind, I might guess, will hold far seas upon which ships might travel. Or something like that.

The writing really isn’t all that good, I’m afraid; at points the dialog is downright odd. Van Arman invented a reporter as a foil for the Jailyn’s exposition in chapter one, and the conversation between the two doesn’t really resemble human conversation. “Trumped!” the reporter shouts once.

Good or not, I’m reading on! I must learn the logic that will be used to even consider putting two halves of different brains in the same body, and why anyone would think the outcome would be other than a horribly deranged monstrosity not even capable of governing the body they occupy. But someone’s going to suggest it, and others are going to approve.

Unless… maybe the multiwaves are behind the whole thing…

With that in mind, consider the way the book reached me, here in 2016. Perhaps there are larger, subtler forces at work. Maybe the multiwaves put the book in that box. If that’s the case, the fate of the world may hinge on me finishing this book.

1

The Unlikely Ones

I just finished reading a fantasy novel, and I really enjoyed it. In some ways it was a lot like other fantasy novels, but it was very different in several important ways.

It starts with the Unlikely Ones themselves. They are an odd assortment, seven souls brought together by the evil of a witch, bound to a quest to free them from the tyranny of her enchantments.

Ho, hum. Another Quest Story. But… consider. One of the seven is a fish. Another is a Toad. There is a gallant knight, and a lady fair broken and twisted young girl named Thing, along with a crippled kitten, a flightless raven, and a lovelorn unicorn who has lost his horn.

This quest is personal. None wish to change the world; they wish merely to be relieved of their burdens, to return to a normal life.

The setting of the story is England. Some kind of mystical between-the-ages England, but definitely not any sort of Middle Earth thing. I would like to go back and review the story and connect the events in the book with actual places. Because I’m absolutely confident the writer of this story had the full Ordinance Survey at her disposal while she pulled the party from place to place.

Back to the story. It is a play in three acts, clearly delineated by the chapter titles. At the beginning, just like in every fantasy tale, the questers come together. Even here, things aren’t completely according to script because, well… I’m not going to tell you. But you know how Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy starts with the world being destroyed? There’s a bit of that here, too, with one of the main staples of the quest story getting wrapped up right at the get-go.

The second act is perhaps the most predictable, as the unlikely ones are bound to each other, and Thing falls in love with the knight, and each of the seven must past a test of courage, or quick thought, or what have you. Before this stage of the quest is over, it is apparent to them that the quest has been specifically designed this way, so by the last test everyone knows whose turn it is. Which is kind of nice, because as readers we see it coming a mile away, and it would be disappointing if the characters in the story were too stupid to see the pattern as well.

The thing I most like about this story, however, is that victory has a cost. The story doesn’t end with the completion of the quest; there is a final movement in the book in which we watch the Unlikely Ones, no longer united by purpose, quietly return to lives suited to their various species. The world moves on, the ordinary triumphs.

I believe the book is targeted at young adults, but there is some “mature content” (rhymes with penises). I think some of Thing’s self-image issues would resonate more with a 15-year-old girl than with a 50-something male engineer, as we all wait for Conn to see her how she really is.

Overall, a mighty good read. A quest story that keeps things personal, avoiding the tiresome “Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy” mold, but for that, perhaps more poignant.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or a $1000 Generic Men’s 3D Print Skeleton Playing Guitar T-shirt), I get a kickback.

1

Strava vs. MapMyRide

One of the first decisions I made after choosing a bicycle was choosing an app. I did a search on the ol’ app store and found quite a few options, but only a few were what you might call “feature-rich”. Strava, the most popular app for bicyclists, did not appear in my search results for whatever reason, and I ended up choosing MapMyRide.

Later I heard about Strava — first from a comment on this very blog, and realized that most of the cyclists around me were using that service. Strava is especially popular among “serious” cyclists, which I’m really not, despite the miles I rack up.

There are, I’ve heard, people who ride bicycles without an app, if you can believe that. I find the app extremely valuable, from logging how well I did and guessing calories I burned (MapMyRide seems… optimistic in that regard) to totaling up my miles for my maintenance log. (Hint to both services – maintenance log would be sweet.)

When I got my Apple Watch I found that Strava has a a watch app but MapMyRide does not. It was time to try out the senior service, but I wasn’t ready to walk away from MMR quite yet. It’s about the data. In MMR’s database there are hundreds of my workouts – not just bike rides but walks and machine training as well. MapMyRide is part of a family of apps and Web sites that go under the general moniker MapMyFitness. MapMyWhatever started with MapMyRun, so its features aren’t terribly bike-centric. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While I was interested in Strava, I was not about to abandon all that data. The obvious answer: use both for a while, and then choose the better service.

So I have been using both for quite some time now, and this episode is intended to compare and contrast the two services. The comparison is, of course, subjective, but I think I can be honest about where my subjectivity comes from.

Technology:
Strava wins hands-down. The core functionality of the two apps is similar — you push the start button when you begin riding, you push the stop button when you’re done. Both apps (and the corresponding Web sites) show how you did and draw your path on a map. Both apps have a lot of other features that are done better on the Web sites. It’s a fundamental law of human nature: time on task is inversely proportional to screen size.

Strava’s iPhone app just works better, and MapMyRide doesn’t even have a watch app. MMR’s app crashed my phone on a couple of rides, but that problem seems to have been fixed.

Technology doesn’t end with the app. While MapMyRide.com has a cool-but-useless feature that allows you to relive your ride in 3-D, Strava has a mind-blowing heat map that will show you where the locals ride, anywhere in the world. It’s great for finding the best route in unfamiliar terrain, and it’s great for city planners and those with a vested interest in improving bicycle infrastructure. And heck, it’s just fun to drift through. It’s awesome.

They sure do ride a lot of bikes in England.

Also Strava offers a “fly-by” feature. If you interact with someone on your route, or are merely curious about the guy who blew past you while you slogged up Homestead Ave, you can use the fly-by feature and if the person was using Strava and makes their data public you can see a little about them. (I have chosen not to share my data close to home, but the rest of my trip I have made public. It seems like a good compromise.)

Bike-centricity:
Strava. Strava is a bike service that now does running as well; MapMyRide is a running service that expanded to cover all fitness. This has echoes though both services. For you, bike-centric might be a plus, it might be a minus.

Web Site – General:
The phone apps gather the data, but it’s the Web site where you really dig in. I’m giving MapMyRide the nod here. The dashboard is what a dashboard should be, not just a list of events but a meaningful summary of your recent activity. When you look at a particular ride, you get the information you’re most likely interested in, in a simple-to-survey, color-enhanced display (were I red-green colorblind, I might not feel the same way). Overall, I think the information design is better at MMR.

Web Site – Social:
Both sites have ways for you to connect with other riders. I don’t use them. I ride alone, mo-fo’s. Though I am part of a group of Apple riders on Strava, and it does motivate me to be in the top ten for mileage each week. Last summer I could hang in there on weekdays, but I got blown away when the weekend warriors come out. I’m trying to get back up there again this month. But really, as a guy who’s no big fan of Facebook, I’m not qualified to judge this category.

Web Site – Performance:
Performance in this case means your performance. Both services offer a great deal of analytics to help you evaluate how your ride stacks up. The way the information is presented demonstrates the fundamental difference in thinking between the two services, and it probably defines which service is right for you.

Here’s the deal: Strava pits your best against everyone else’s best. MapMyRide compares you to your previous efforts, and rewards consistency.

Each service starts with a similar concept. Strava calls them “segments”, MapMyRide calls them “courses”. They are (usually) fairly short bits of your overall ride. The mighty servers in their air-conditioned warehouses recognize when you traverse a segment/course (hereafter, “bit”) and provide a wealth of analytics to compare you with everyone else who has ridden the same bit.

The analytics offered between the services are very different. Strava ranks your best performance on that bit with the best performance of everyone else. If you pay for premium service, you can filter those numbers so that you can measure yourself against people of your own gender and age. If you’re riding your bike to break records, then this is what you would want to see.

MapMyRide instead has a point system. Sure you get points for being fast, but you get even more points for being consistent. You might not be the fastest over that half-mile stretch of trail that month, or even the tenth-fastest, but if you do it day after day you will rise to the top of the rankings.

Here are a couple of screen shots, showing one small part of the data each gives. Both show data from my ride this morning. On the surface, Map My Ride shows much more. Each allows you to dig deeper into your performance on each bit. Map My Ride shows how you stack up using their points system (which greatly rewards riding the same course many times), while over at Strava the most important thing is how your best time stacks up against other riders’ best times.

Here’s a look at the top of the summary of my morning’s ride from Strava. At a glance, there’s not much information, but with a click one can dig deeper. On the right of the expanded section is my best time compared to the best times of everyone else. My other rides aren't really represented. But holy crap – how did I get in the top 10%? Now that I think about it, I don’t even think that’s right. So, that’s a bit of a problem.

Strava data about my morning ride

Below are the first three bits of my ride summary from this morning on MapMyRide, comparing my times with my own past performance. I was not exactly fast this morning, but I’m slowly getting back to form. You can dig down into each of the courses in the list to see how you’re doing compared to others for speed and consistency. The default period for the comparison is this month.

Map My Ride course summary

The difference between Strava and MapMyRide might be summarized as performance vs. health. The MapMyFitness family is about habits, about getting out there every day and doing what has to be done. Strava is about the result of that fitness regimen, that one day when you fly over the hill and bank a great time. They both have their merit.

Missing from both (as far as I can tell):
I want to have my own, private, way to stack overall commutes and chart my progress, without creating a route that is visible to the public. I want it to be a little flexible so if I take a different zig through the cemetery or a zag through Santa Clara it will still be in the comparison.

As mentioned above, a maintenance log integrated with the service would be awesome, and would provide ample selling opportunities. “Hey, that’s a lot of miles on your chain…”

Web Site – Promotions:
MapMyRide has better promotions with better free stuff.

Data Freedom
I won a premium membership in a MapMyRide promotion, otherwise my data would be hostage to that service. Dicks. Strava acknowledges that my data is mine. This is actually a big deal.

Use of Spaces
Ugh. I wrote this whole episode with words separated by spaces – “Map My Ride” and whatnot. But their own copy smushes the words together, so I went back and applied a global-smush algorithm.

Conclusion
Are you a plodder? An everyday grind kind of person hoping to maybe get stronger but mainly getting from place to place and burning a few extra calories in the process? Perhaps you’re trying to lose weight, and the most important measure is whether or not you’re doing what needs to be done. Then MapMyRide is for you.

Are you a competitor? When you get on your bike is your primary goal to kick ass? Then probably Strava is for you.

Personally, I’ve managed to get into the top 66% on most of my Strava segments (ignoring the clearly incorrect reading I’ve discovered lately). I’m right around the bottom third. On a couple of odd backwater segments, I’m actually way up there. If I were to pay for a premium membership I could see how I stack up against other 50-year-olds, but in all likelihood the results would be more depressing, since my main excuse for slowness will be stripped away, so honestly I don’t want to know. MapMyRide, on the other hand, says, “Good job, Jerry, you got back out there and did it again today.” I don’t need to be best. I need to ride.

BUT — Today I chatted with a spandex-clad man on a fancy bike. A teacher, celebrating the first day of summer vacation. He even rode slowly enough to chat with me for a bit after the light changed. As soon as I got to work I fired up Strava and checked the fly-bys for my ride to see if he was there. Alas, he was not. But if I hadn’t been running Strava I would have been gnashing my teeth and rending my clothing over not being able to check. So I can’t ride without Strava anymore. I just can’t. You never know when you’ll run into an engineer from Tesla on your ride and want to follow him.

But the information provided by MapMyRide fits my style so much better. I have to use that.

For the foreseeable future, then, I’ll be using both.

9

The Expanse Trilogy

I recently wrapped up reading The Expanse Boxed Set by James S. Corey, and I must say I enjoyed it quite a bit. It is Space Opera — space ships shooting at each other is a pretty common occurrence.

Humanity is expanding out into the Solar system; Mars is populous and prosperous, Earth is crowded but surviving, and the population of the asteroid belt is growing. The belters are few in numbers, but if armed conflict should arise, they would just have to throw rocks at Earth and Mars and let gravity do the rest. The three factions are in balance at the start of the story, but it wouldn’t take much to really mess things up.

Something like, say, the discovery of some sort of bizarre, obviously-manufactured molecule on a moon of Saturn. The molecule, when it comes into contact with organic life, reshapes it to its own purpose, whatever that is. A weapon? A tool? Impossible to say without putting the molecule somewhere where’s there’s a lot of living matter. Best guess is that a distant alien intelligence threw the protomolecule-bearing rock at Earth two billion years ago, but Saturn caught the incoming rock and held it in cold storage while life continued to get more complex on Earth.

But if the protomolecule was the fuel to plunge the solar system into chaos, the spark that touched it off is named James Holden.

In the first book there are two main characters, moral-high-ground-hugging Holden and a dissolute detective named Miller. They find themselves looking for the same woman, but for very different reasons.

Time for a fairly lengthy sidebar, here. Not long ago, a bunch of jerks fucked up the Hugo awards, ostensibly lamenting that all this inclusiveness and feel-goodiness was ruining Good ‘ol Science Fiction. Before us today is a massive work of GoSF. How does it compare to the Sick Puppies’ agenda?

In the first book, the main two characters are male. The third-most important character is Naomi, who apparently has hit the genetic jackpot, inheriting the best features of many of the races of earth. More time is spent on her more relevant differences in appearance, however; people who grow up in microgravity look different.

But still, the main female character in book one is attractive. Of course. The men? A little harder to tell. They’re not described in the same terms.

I wonder if Corey reviewed book one and decided that book two needed to be more diverse, or if he just felt the story had expanded enough to include more diversity. There are more characters, and one of the major ones, a skilled and powerful politician, is a grandmother with a foul mouth and a buddhist shrine in her office. She spends a lot of time with a Martian gunnery sergeant who also happens to be female. It’s not a big deal.

And that’s the answer to the Sick Puppies. There is a scene in which parents have to make difficult decisions about how to raise their daughter. It just so happens the parents are both women. But the argument is the same, the love is the same, and that’s what the story is about. Saying, “Fuck you, sick puppies! In my story everyone is gay!” is not the answer. But a heartbreaking moment between two people can happen no matter the genders of the actors.

OK, back to the books. A quick hit list:

Not to say that’s there’s no shooting in the first book, but it felt to me like shooting became ever more important as the story moved along. In book one, there was substantial opportunity for cleverness to prevail; by the end of the trilogy cleverness was more about gaining tactical advantage in a firefight. In that way, even as the story expanded in scope, the options open to the participants grew ever more narrow.

Favorite phrase: “vomit zombies”.

At one point, a character says, “Don’t you FUCKING touch me,” and I went, “oh holy shit.”

Later, another character says “We need to talk,” and I said “oh holy shit” again.

I’m willing to bet this is the first work in this genre to specifically mention Hatch green chile. Out there, the treasures of home are even more special. Bull is a good man, a long way from New Mexico. (Though it seems like he’s from northern New Mexico, and therefore might prefer chile from the Española area instead, given his druthers.*)

I’m very curious now about the TVizaion of this series of books (on SyFy). How will they make the Belters look distinctly different? Will they commit to the intimate moments between the action sequences? Will the cast be able to carry those moments? Will they make the spaceships sleek?

If you enjoy GoSF for the right reasons, I think you will appreciate this trilogy.

Note: if you use the above links to buy these books (or Bose Lifestyle SoundTouch 535 Entertainment System), I get a kickback.

___
* And with that, I win the award for ‘most pedantic, picky-ass novel criticism ever’. I’ve been working hard for this honor, and this effort finally put me over the top. We all covet the Hatch when we’re beyond the borders of the Land of Enchantment. Unless the Española is available, is all I’m sayin’. Seems to me Bull is from Española, but it never actually says so.

2

Altered Carbon and Spin State

It’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts about books I’ve read. While I tag the episodes as “reviews”, I’m not really trying to write something to help you decide whether or not you want to read the story — it’s more an analysis of the writing to give me new ways to look at my own work.

Recently I bowed to the suggestions of Amazon and bought two Science Fiction novels, Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan and Spin State by Chris Moriarty. I must say that the Amazon suggest-o-matic did a fine job.

The two books have much in common. For instance, both take place in universes where information is not bound by the speed of light. This gives the universe the absolute timeline that makes faster-than-light stories so much simpler. Spin State uses Quantum mechanics sleight-of-hand (thus the title), while Altered Carbon uses less well-defined hand-wavery.

This leads to the core thesis in both books: If information can go faster than light, and humans can be described as information, then people can go faster than light. And if people are information, then information can be a person. Both stories have characters who are Artificial Intelligences. (They would argue that they are not artificial at all.)

In Carbon, (almost) everyone has a module installed in their head that records the current state of their brain. In the event of untimely death (‘untimely’ open to interpretation, budget, and religious belief), that personality and everything it knew up until the moment the recorder stopped working can be restored into someone else’s head (unless, of course, the recorder was also destroyed). Bodies are now referred to as “sleeves”, and there are more people than there are sleeves. The deceased and the incarcerated are now just files in a database, waiting for flesh to host them once more.

If you have enough money, you can live forever. You can even clone up a batch of replacement bodies, keep them in cold storage all over the place, and hop from one to another as a form of instantaneous travel. You can even have multiple copies of yourself, but that’s illegal, of course.

When you can live forever, it changes you. You’re lose a little of what it means to be human. You become a Methuselah.

Takeshi Kovacs is a bad-ass Envoy for the U.N., trained to withstand the stress of dropping cold into a new world, in a new body, and Doing What Needs to be Done. This time he finds himself on Mother Earth, the memory of his last death (and the death of good friends) only minutes old, subjectively. His sleeve this time has some fairly high-end cybernetic upgrades that make him stronger, faster, etc. He’s been called in by one of the wealthy immortals of Earth to solve that man’s murder — a murder so thorough that the ancient one lost two days of memory. The police have ruled it a suicide.

Takeshi has been downloaded into a body that used to belong to a cop who has been convicted of Horrible Crimes. The Envoy’s new employer chose that sleeve partly out of spite, as it’s the cop’s lover who is in charge of the murder case. She hates the Methusalahs, and they don’t miss a chance to rub her face in their power. Now she has to deal with some other asshole in the flesh of the man she loves.

It leads to some interesting questions about identity and what it is that attracts one person to another. Is part of attraction chemical, not governed by the information of who we are and how we think, but instead by glands and receptors and the stuff that’s built into our meat? Do we become chemically familiar with the people around us?

One thing I didn’t buy: criminals are put on the shelf for a given period of time. This is supposed to be a punishment, but think about it: if you rob a bank and get caught, you will be instantly (as far as you experience) shot a hundred years into the future. Sure there’s some shock there, but unless you posit that society and technology has completely ground to a halt, the future looks pretty bright to me.

Altered Carbon is a detective story with Science Fiction clothing, and it follows the Detective Story Contract: The reader is given the information needed to figure out the answer, so when the detective reaches the conclusion you say, “ah, sweet!” rather than, “Hey, I call shenanigans!” Morgan does this well, though there are a lot of moving parts. For a while I was reading this at bedtime, and not in big chunks, and found myself going “wait – who’s that again?” a few times. If your memory’s like mine, this is a novel to read in big chunks.

I had several theories as the story progressed, and was right often enough to feel clever but there were still plenty of surprises. It was a fun read.

Notable side effect of the technology: once everyone’s wired up, advertising goes straight into your head. And it’s really effective.

In Spin State, Catherine Li is a bad-ass Soldier with the U.N., specially trained to drop in on a planet and Do What Needs to be Done. Her body has some fairly high-end cybernetic upgrades that make her stronger, faster, etc, but it’s past time she took them in to the shop for maintenance. We first meet her on a commando raid on a facility on some backwater planet. Their mission: get into the facility and stand by while a kick-ass AI gets what is needed from their data systems. An AI has no physical presence, but it can temporarily take control of a body that has special hardware installed.

The raid doesn’t go perfectly; the person who was the host for the AI gets killed, and Li blames the AI. Then she’s sent off to her next mission, which turns out to be a real bitch. It’s on her home world, and a past she doesn’t remember starts to catch up with her.

There’s a wrinkle when people are sent across the void using quantum-mechanical spin state stuff: A person’s memories don’t always come out intact on the other side. As a person makes more jumps, they become more and more reliant on hardware installed in their heads to remember things for them. That means that their bosses see everything, and soldiers only remember what their boss wants them to. Li has a vague notion that she’s done some things she’s not proud of during a grinding, protracted struggle in a war that’s over but not really. It makes me think of Stalingrad. The enemy in this case is a system of worlds called the Syndicate who have decided that the old way of making new people is obsolete; instead they clone up batches and throw away all but the best, culling them as they develop until there is a family of exceptional humans who all have the same face.

It turns out Li has one of those faces, but she’s had it surgically altered to escape discrimination in UN space. Another woman with the same face is a famous scientist who has been murdered. And Whaddayaknow? We have an action-mystery story. You see, the quantum-spin faster-than-light mechanism relies on an exotic material that only comes from one place. Once that supply runs out, humanity must return to decades-long (centuries-long?) journeys between planets, and the UN’s benign rule becomes impossible to maintain. So Famous Scientist was trying to figure out a way to synthesize the material. Or at least, that’s what she told people she was doing.

So that AI that flaked and may have cause the death of Li’s comrade? It goes by the name Cohen, was born on Earth (when Earth was still a pleasant place to be), and clearly has designs of its own, however much it may be working with the UN right now. And it has a history with Li. Cohen interfaces with the world through a variety of people who have shunts installed, and I have to tip my hat to Moriarty for his carefully natural-sounding language differentiating the host meat from the personality within.

Lesson one: Don’t turn your back on someone with a shunt installed. You never know who might show up.

Li is the natural pivot point in all this: she has hidden Syndicate roots but embodies rugged individualism; she has a connection with a powerful AI, and she does the ugly jobs for her boss who is a Big Wheel at the UN. She’s a good soldier and accepts that she remembers what her superiors choose, but she’s convinced that it’s all for the right reasons. She roots for the wrong baseball team, but I’ll forgive her that.

Warning: Spoilerish paragraph:

While the AI in Altered Carbon is an interesting side character, Cohen in Spin State is central. He (yes, ‘he’) was one of the first machine intelligences to emerge, and much of the time he seems, well, human. Later Moriarty shows us that ‘Cohen’ is not really singular, and that the nature of machine intelligence is entirely different than our mushy biological intelligence. Yet they share one thing with us: a desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are also better than us at just about everything. In that light, the human engineering programs of the Syndicate start to make a lot of sense. Alter humanity or get left behind.

There were, I must say, a couple of things that bothered me about this story. I simply cannot believe that the mine for the material that the entire economy is based on would be run the way it was in this story. Even if extracting the mineral is an art form, the rest of the labor would be more cheaply done by robots in a society this advanced. I think the writer could have found plenty of other ways to create local unrest.

Also, virtual reality has advanced to the point where it’s indistinguishable from physical reality. I’m having a hard time articulating what it is about that that bothers me, except that it seems to be unable to let go of physical reality. People meet in virtual representations of real places, and can be embarrassed by the arrival of other people in that place also. If you’re a super-AI, how do you allow that to happen?

But for those nit-picks, I enjoyed this story quite a lot.

Two stories of hard-nosed people in over their heads. There is shooting, and sex, and explosions, and questions of identity. People die horribly when their heads are hacked. Philip Morris will be glad to know that tobacco has followed mankind to the stars and back again, to be thrown in an acid-rain puddle under a flickering streetlamp while taxis rush by.

Note: if you use the above links to buy one of these books (or The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey), I get a kickback.

I Broke a Solemn Vow

A few years ago I read the novel Step on a Crack by (ostensibly) James Patterson and (reprehensibly) Michael Ledwidge. It was awful. Really, really horrible. After reading it, not only did I vow never to read anything with James Patterson’s name on it ever again, I vowed to stay clear of anything published by Little, Brown and Company, as clearly there was no editor there, just marketers trying to find ways to put Patterson’s name in larger type on the cover.

So-called critics gushed over the steaming pile of poo, which shows how professional critics make a living.

In fact, before I get to the actual subject of this episode, let me step into the way-back machine and relive just how ghastly awful Step on a Crack was.

Let’s you and I imagine for a moment that we are bad guys — wait, no, we are criminal masterminds. Let’s also imagine that criminal masterminds have a place they like to hang out and discuss evil plots. We’re sitting, having a beer, discussing which root certificate authority is the most vulnerable, when a new guy bellies up to the bar.

“Got a big thing going on,” he says.

“Oh?” You ask, not wanting to be rude.

“I know some stuff about this Cathedral,” he says. “If I can get a bunch of A-listers and world leaders in there all at once, I can do some damage.”

“Nice,” I say. We’re all evil here, and this sounds promising.

“How you going to get them in there?” you ask.

“A funeral,” he says, and that appeals to both of us. “Former first lady. Beloved the world over. She dies, the world comes callin'”

“Nice,” I say again. I’m not terribly creative.

“So you’re going to kill the former first lady?” you ask.

“Damn straight,” our newcomer says. “There’s this restaurant they go to every year. Anniversary or something like that.”

“And you’re going to shoot her at the restaurant,” you say.

“Even better,” the man says, “She’s allergic to peanuts.” You start to get that sinking feeling. Real masterminds keep things simple.

“You don’t say,” you say.

“Yep. I’m going to get a guy hired there as a cook, and he’s going to put peanut oil in her food.”

Questions start to bubble up in your mind. How does this man know that his peanut-oil slinger will be scheduled to work that day? How does he know that he will be on the line and get that dish? What if the chef decides to do the one for the first lady personally? This plan is starting to sound pretty fishy. “Or you could shoot her,” you suggest.

“Then people will know it’s murder. There will be too much security at the funeral.”

“Huh,” we say together. “She’ll have an Epipen,” I say. “One blast of adrenaline and she’ll last long enough to get to the hospital.”

Our fellow mastermind shakes his head. “I’m thinking what with all the excitement of the anniversary and all, she’ll forget it.”

“Isn’t she protected by the Secret Service?” you ask.

“Sure, but they won’t know about her life-threatening allergy. They’re just there to protect her life.”

“So…” I say.

You sum it up. “Your entire plan is predicated on the assumption that no one will be able to handle a food allergy, even though there will be several people there with a vested interest in being prepared for it, and she will die as a result.”

“What about your guy on the inside?” I ask. “They’re going to grill him pretty hard.”

“Nah, why would they?”

“Because he killed the former first lady.” You remind him. “They’re going to put the entire kitchen through the wringer.”

“I don’t think they’ll bother,” our fellow mastermind says. “Accidents happen, you know.” He slaps the bartop. “And that’s only step one! Wait ’till I tell you how we get away!”

The above part of the “mastermind’s” plan gets us though the first few preposterous pages of the Patterson/Ledwidge farce Step on a Crack. I read the whole damn thing, and I promise you it doesn’t get any better. Thus I vowed to boycott the whole Patterson swindle.

If you have already guessed by the title of this episode that I broke that vow, congratulations! You are smarter than any character in Crack. A while back I was early to pick up an order at Panda Express (as Chinese as McDonalds is Scottish, but some days nothing else will do) and I needed something to read. iBookstore was quick to tell me that the latest Patterson was FREE! I decided, for science, to see if the opening few pages of the latest work compared with Crack.

So I downloaded Private, only realizing later that by doing so I participated in the swindle. I helped produce inflated numbers for the book, which will ultimately lead to more people paying money for the rot. You see, each Patterson book is called a #1 best-seller because book stores order lots of copies, not because people buy them. THEN people buy them because it looks like the book is really successful. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Anyway, I read the prolog. The first sentence was really quite good. I stopped to savor the moment before continuing. The rest of that first very short chapter wasn’t too bad either, although the contortions the writer went through to make the protagonist as heroic as fuckin’ possible got pretty ridiculous. In one paragraph the dude is dead from unspecified war-related injuries, heart stopped and everything, then maybe three sentences later he’s knocked his buddy down and is running toward a burning helicopter. I think if the author could have worked in puppies in mortal peril he would have.

Still, better than Crack. The writer at least has some sort of voice.

In the second chapter of the prolog he visits his father in prison and learns he will inherit fifteen million dollars and a (thoroughly discredited) private detective agency (named “Private”) that caters to the rich and famous. His n’er-do-well twin brother is not to know about this.

There’s a few hundred pages after that, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read them to know what’s going to happen. Hot movie star almost-girlfriend imperiled by evil twin, (only of course that’s the big surprise), yadda yadda.

Not bad for a Patterson, though, I’ll give ’em that.

Drowning Mermaids

I just finished reading a book called Drowning Mermaids. I’m not sure why I finished it; several times I set my electro-book thingie down and asked the ceiling, “Why am I still reading this?”

I don’t have a good answer. My first warning came on the second page, when a veteran sailor refers to the ‘washroom’ on the boat. First note to writer: If you’re going to write scenes on a boat, take a little time to learn about boats, and the vocabulary of sailors.

This may seem like a nitpick, but it’s an indicator of the poor polish and care of the writer. Later, we learn that this industrial fishing boat had a bathtub. I don’t expect everyone who reads these words to know how absolutely ridiculous that is (although… come on), but I expect the writer of this story to know.

On the other hand, I was entirely able to accept the genetic branch of the human species that enabled under-water breathing. Scientifically it’s preposterous, but in this context played just fine. Crazy species are popping up all the time. I needed one more mutation to make this story work, however — a human in arctic water has about thirty seconds to live, and it has nothing to do with oxygen. Odd to make underwater breathing scientific, but resistance to cold magical.

Structurally, the story isn’t bad. If each chapter were rendered with half the words, we’d have a good start on a decent yarn. Those chapters, they need trimming. They just drift along, whacking on the same points over and over. Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be another way to beat that horse, you’re treated to another few paragraphs of the same stuff. Even the individual points reviewed repeatedly are unnecessarily long-winded with each iteration, often using the same language each time. It just keeps going on. Kind of like this paragraph. It gets annoying fast, doesn’t it?

I am fully aware of the irony of me accusing others of rambling, but when Main Dude asks Main Chick for forgiveness for the third damn time in the chapter, and gets the same answer each time, you have to think that maybe things could have been tightened up a smigde. Here’s a digest of that conversation:

“I’m sorry I was such an asshole.”
“It’s all right.”
“Are you sure? I mean, I’ve been a monumental asshole.”
“I love you, and I have to take the good with the bad. You are forgiven.”
“But… I’ve been preposterously assholish. You can’t possibly forgive me.”
“How many times are we going to go around this subject? Believe you’re forgiven and shut up, or call me a liar and get the fuck out. Asshole.”

That last line is not an accurate representation of the story. At all. That conversation? It took several pages (whatever ‘page’ means these days) in the book, as each party internally reviewed stuff we already knew, reacting the same way they did the last time they internally reviewed it, picking at the scabs over old wounds. Sharply-written dialog, a couple of telling gestures, and all those pages of smoke can be compressed into a half-page firecracker.

Tightening the narrative would have reduced the number of times I paused to look at the ceiling to wonder if I should go on. By the end of the book my pauses were longer and more frequent, and the only answer to “why am I still reading this?” became, Because it’s almost over. I’d made it this far, I would see it to the end.

Even that motivation almost wasn’t enough. The big confrontation is going down and our main mermaid has an opportunity to spend five frickin’ seconds to simplify her situation dramatically. The narrator tells us “Aazuria knew that she should stop and XXX, but…” and a lame excuse follows. (Five frickin’ seconds!) You know what that phrase really says? “The writer knew she should find a better way to resolve this situation in a way that propels the plot forward, but she didn’t bother.”

Those are the moments that separate the pros from the amateurs.

To tie with my comments about brevity above, Aazuria stops to review her unbelievable decision in the next chapter as well, accomplishing nothing but chewing up words to remind us that we got to this point in the story through artificial means. The writer’s guilty conscience peeks through again.

Ultimately this is a romance story, so all that other stuff is subordinate to the relationship between Main Mermaid and Boss Fisherman. There’s good news on this front: There was a point that I actually doubted the outcome of the romance. That’s a huge compliment for the writer, considering the contract romance writers make with their readers. Love damn well better conquer all in these stories; that’s why people read them. Probably if I was a more regular consumer of the genre I would not have had my (enjoyable) moments of doubt.

Uh, I guess that was a spoiler. But come on. Love conquers all.

Side note: it’s almost comical how much the people on the cover don’t resemble the descriptions in the story. Especially the dude.

Hey, do you mind if I slip a couple more spoilers in here? If you think you might be reading Drowning Mermaids then you’ve probably already stopped reading this review, so I’m not too worried. But things get even spoilier from here on out.

The writer flirted with daring on a couple of occasions. Big Names Die… almost. They will all be back for the sequels, but now we know that they are safe. The writer has squandered the ability to make us worry for the fate of the major characters; they could be boiling in acidic lava while sharks eat their entrails and I’d be pretty comfortable betting they they would be back before the denouement for that episode.

Speaking of episodes, here’s something I must recognize: This story had an ending. Kind of crazy that I have to mention that as a plus, but these days it’s no slam dunk that a story will reach some sort of conclusion when the pages run out. There’s plenty of stuff still going on, Big Danger on the horizon, but we get to a place where specific issues have been resolved. It’s a good stopping point, and the underlying structure shows favorably.

I wasn’t going to bother providing a link to the novel on Amazon, but the cover is worth a chuckle. I’ll be adding the image shortly. Unless I don’t.

A Quest of Heroes

I have just read the sixty-fourth virtual page of the 400+ virtual pages of the first volume of a series of ten (and counting!). I have just met the Sword of Destiny. I have some predictions.

First there’s Thor. No, not the Norse God of Thunder, but a farm boy less strapping (and less loved) than his brothers. Let’s give the author credit for not even trying to hide the fact that Thor is the Chosen One. Argon the kick-ass druid told us so, in that wizard-not-revealing-things-that-will-break-the-plot kind of way, before vanishing. Thor seems like a good kid.

Interesting wrinkle: When Thor first discovers his power, it’s after praying (at a time of distress) to Big-G God. Not very druid-like; it remains to be seen if that’s going to be a theme or if that was just the writer accidentally slipping monotheism into the text.

And yes, the Top Druid in this story is named after an element. I’m waiting for Xenon to show up and challenge him. But while that remains unknown, there are many certainties.

Thor is a loyal subject of Good King. The lands of Good King have known peace for a long time; geographically, the kingdom is well-protected. Good King rules half of a circle of territory surrounded by a circular valley and a magical barrier, which keeps the unwashed barbarians without at bay. Inside, Good King has only one rival: Bad King. In the story they have different names (Scottish ones, actually).

I’ve read to the point in the story where the King is regarding the Sword of Destiny, which is almost literally the sword in the stone of Arthurian legend. Good King hoped to be the guy to lift it from the spikes or whatever-the-hell is restraining it. No dice.

So here’s what’s happening right now: Good King’s elder daughter is getting married to Bad King’s son. It’s happening in the capital city of Good Kingdom. Lots of Bad King’s people will be in Good City. Barbarians seem to be gathering for an attack outside the magical barrier. Somewhere far away, Thor has decided to say “Fuck you, dad! I’m going to force the army to take me!”

So, the predictions: Treachery! Bad King uses the happy occasion to overwhelm Good City! Somehow, his Evil Druid (Xenon?) finds the magical switch that turns off the barrier that protects both their kingdoms from the hordes outside. Our kid Thor arrives to find the city in turmoil. Events, fortitude, and whatnot bring Thor to the palace.

Good King will be killed. He will die with honor.

Remember when I said Good King’s elder daughter is getting married? That implies a younger one. There has been no hint of her in the narrative so far, but it’s a slam dunk that Thor will be in the palace, assholes will be sniffing around her ankles, and the Sword of Destiny will come to hand. And shit will go down. A princess will be impressed.

All of which has me ready to be a little disappointed. You see, Thor’s brothers are all about living by the sword, while Thor has developed a near-supernatural skill with the sling. I’m going to be a little sad when Thor surpasses his brothers by being better at the sword rather than rendering the sword obsolete.

I might hope that the writer could surprise me, but a key formative moment has already been lost. Thor doesn’t like killing things. He’s a gentle soul. When a terrible creature has one of Thor’s sheep in its jaws, Thor’s first bullet is to kill the sheep, to end her suffering.

So then it’s ON between Thor and this huge-ass killing machine. Thor’s taking a right beating until he prays to big-G God and finds the power he needs to survive. This was a pivotal moment for me, as a reader. “How much do you value life?” I asked through the text. Thor killed the thing. Given the time and context, an obvious decision. Not even a decision, really, just the way things are done. Mankind asserting its dominance over the world.

But in that context, how powerful would it have been if Thor had let the predator go free?

It’s not fair, really, to ask those questions of someone else’s work. It’s just that Thor has been presented as a champion of life, and when faced with the ultimate predator he has to accept that most lives feed on others.

____

Time has passed, pages have turned, and while structurally things are moving in the inescapable grooves reserved for fantasies like this, grooves that have been gouged in the rocky soil of storydom over the years, etched in the very bedrock by the passage of countless interchangeable plots, many of my predictions above proved, while not wrong, to be impatient. Bad King and Outer Hordes are definitely going to attack. Sword of Desitny will end up in Thor’s hand. Younger princess (who has been chosen to rule the land when Good King dies) has arrived and is definitely sweet on Thor.

The story reads like a novel aimed at middle-school kids; the sentence structure is very basic and the vocabulary is limited. More than that, the plot seems more geared toward gratification than conflict. Thor’s trajectory has been steadily upward, and he’s started to collect plot tokens.

Ojects appear out of nowhere when needed and disappear again when inconvenient. One of Thor’s mystical plot-token pets, a white leopard cub, has only been fed a mouthful of beer as far as I can tell, despite Thor worrying about caring for the beast.

Then there’s the second sun, which doesn’t seem to have a name, and doesn’t affect the world much at all. It may be some sort of variable star, because plenty of times, the day is delimited by the position of ‘the sun’. Singular. Note to the writer: if you’re going to add a romantic detail like two suns, you need to work it. For instance, some days Big Sun (man sun?) will rise before Little Sun (woman?). Other times, it will be the other way around. In a world bound by prophesy and destiny, you can get a lot of mileage out of stuff like that.

Despite those warts, I’ve been enjoying the read, up until last night. What can I say? Sometimes I like an easy read geared toward gratification. But last night…

This is going to be a spoiler, if such a thing can possibly happen when discussing a story like this.

… last night as I read, Thor learned that Good King was going to be poisoned. Thor must warn GK! He goes to the castle, but Good King is out. The warning will have to wait.

Not long after that, Thor is talking to Good King’s youngest son. Thor doesn’t mention his fears to someone particularly well-suited to help prevent the catastrophe. Then Thor talks to another guy who could help, but doesn’t bring it up. Instead, Thor volunteers to spend the entire fucking day riding far from the castle – so far he might not get back in time to deliver his warning.

Oh, and he easily could have passed word to Good King’s Eldest Son somewhere along the way.

In exchange for this horrible plot contrivance, we do get a very good treatise on the nature of chivalry and heroism. Rough paraphrase: “Don’t work to be better than the other guy, work to be a better person than you are now.” I liked that part. The titular Quest, it turns out, is more internal — the quest to always be better than you were yesterday. That, kids, is how you turn the theme of your story.

But then I thought about the context. While Thor is hearing this lecture, he’s being incredibly derelict. When he learned the King was not in the castle, did Thor go and try to find him? Nope. Sure, ditching his training might have got him kicked out of the army, but that’s exactly the kind of sacrifice he should be willing to make.

I’d actually talked myself into paying for the second installment of this escapist fluff, but now I’m not so sure. It’s the convenient forgetting-of-things that’s undermining my pleasure. The last one, forgetting that Good King is in deadly peril and that Thor’s every act should be to thwart the plot, is the killer.

All Timelines Lead to Rome

Dale Cozort is an interesting guy. He’s a hard-working writer, and he’s a friend of mine. Among the Kansas Bunch, Dale’s the guy who gets things done.

At summer camp in Kansas this year, during the book signing event, I picked up Dale’s latest work and gave it to him to sign. We chatted a bit and he hesitated over the page, and wrote his name. No personal message, no ready quip. (In contrast, Kevin Anderson wrote “faster than light!” in my copy of Tau Ceti, a generic message in what turned out to be a generic story.) Dale hesitated and just wrote his name in functional cursive. It made me laugh. That’s Dale.

I am biased in favor of Mr. Cozort, but I will never say I liked something I didn’t, just because the writer is my pal. If I didn’t like it, I’d just say nothing. I liked All Timelines Lead to Rome.

I’ve seen early drafts of some of his other stories and they’re problematic, as are the early drafts of every story. Seeing those drafts colors my expectations, even as people who read my drafts form their own conclusions. But Dale’s a hard-working writer, and an intelligent man, and he’s not afraid of a rewrite. Even if he doesn’t agree with a particular criticism, he will use his defense of it to improve the story. What comes out in the end is a solid tale.

Dale loves to mash cultures together. I think he spends his idle time just pondering things like “what would a pre-columbian Apache think of Beethoven?” It’s what Dale does. (My own thought: what would Beethoven do with electric guitars?) This time, we have discovered that with an adequate application of energy, we can cross to an alternate Earth where the Romans are still in control after all this time. But two thousand years later, they still haven’t sailed across the Atlantic. Technological advancement has stopped over in Europe. In America, the Indians are entering the bronze age.

The reason the Romans have maintained their power yet have ceased any technological advancement is a fascinating one. Without the intervention of our timeline, I imagine Indians in Pennsylvania learning steel and kicking Europe’s ass.

There’s nothing like that in the book, but it’s a credit to Dale’s idea that one is tempted to spin new what-ifs against the original conceit. It’s fun that way.

And while Dale loves to mash cultures together, his main guy in this story is devoted to keeping them apart. He’s on a team to limit the harm done to both worlds by free interaction. An impossible job. Around him are people drooling over the oil fields in alternate Texas, coveting the real estate in the alternate Montana, and smuggling sweet (and potentially plague-bearing) artifacts from alternate Rome.

Perhaps the best idea in the story is the realization that what has caused alternate Rome to stagnate is contageous (in a social sense of the word, not a biological one). Once alternate Rome’s secret comes over to our world, technology might stagnate here, too. There are some really tricky ethical questions that come along for the ride. There’s a government cover-up, and at first I thought it was silly, and not a strength of the story. Even the current US Government wouldn’t blindly try to cover up something like this, right? Oh, wait, I take that back.

For all the good ideas, there are some rough edges to the book. Some gripes, intentionally left vague:

I just don’t buy the spunky cop/street gang thing. It just doesn’t make sense; gangs aren’t that patient. Too big an investment with no specific reward. The stretch would be easier to take if resulting events weren’t so central to the plot. And then there’s the personal history between two of the other characters that seems, well, convenient. And the resource-endowed member of that pair would probably have played things differently. Then there is a decision by the good guys that puts our hero in the right place, but it doesn’t hold up well under the spotlight, protect-both-worlds-wise.

None of those things stopped me from reading the story, and enjoying it. Sometimes you just have to turn off the damn spotlight.

To be honest, I didn’t expect to like this story as much as I did. (Sorry, Dale.) You see enough early versions by a writer and it colors your perception. But as I mentioned before Dale’s a hard worker, and we all start with crappy drafts. Best thing: the real strength of this tale is not any of the stuff I’ve mentioned so far. It’s the people. While I must be careful not to spoil things, not everyone is who they seem to be. Loyalty is the highest virtue and it shows up in surprising places. The crisis that foments the action comes from someone acting on the highest ideals.

And there are people with serious personal issues whom you like anyway. As a reader I found some of their bruises tougher to buy than others, but none of the main people is entirely whole. Everyone’s a little bit broken, and that makes a good story.

Generally I’m not hesitant to throw out spoilers, but this time I’m being coy, because I’d like you to read the story. I’m a little worried I’m overselling it; it’s not perfect, but I had a genuine good time reading this. Maybe you will too.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Judith Leiber Nabila Crocodile Exotic Shoulder Bag), I get a kickback.

Are You Shitting Me, <name of my employer here>?

One of the things I do is read. Another thing I do is review what I read. Occasionally, at least. Right now I’m wrapping up a review of a novel I downloaded from xBookstore (where x is an arbitrary letter of the alphabet) and I decided that I should share that review with others who might be interested in the story.

Oddly, I couldn’t figure out how to leave the review from my laptop. Then I realized I couldn’t figure out how to read the story from my laptop. Apparently that’s not a feature of that particular electronic bookstore. You must use an xDevice. Frankly I’m stunned. Boggled.

Also, I have more respect for the people whose reviews appear on that site; they were typed in adverse conditions.

Darwin’s Radio

Greg Bear has written before about the end of the human race. One thing he does well is making the end of mankind as we know it not such a bad thing. He’s also better at science than many Science Fiction writers out there.

Darwin’s Radio is a pretty good story with some really interesting science. You see, our DNA is filled with junk. It’s possible that some of that junk came from viruses that made themselves a permanent home in our genome. Now they’re just camped there, never activated, hitchhiking in the backwaters of our chromosomes. Mission accomplished, as far as preserving that pattern goes.

So what if some trigger kicked one of these garbage genes into production? And what if the resultant virus could hop from person to person and activate that gene in the new host’s cells? The virus could actually move DNA from one person to another.

Finally, what if that new virus activated a sequence of events that fundamentally changed our offspring? Perhaps it has happened in the past; evolution seems to be more a series of little jumps (and occasionally a big jump) rather than a continuous progression.

In this story, the time is roughly now. Biology, the ascendant science, is starting to produce astonishing results. And just as we start to understand the human genome, some crazy shit starts going down. DNA is moving laterally — being exchanged between people — and that’s never happened before. Bacteria share DNA willy-nilly, but they don’t keep their genetic material bundled up and cataloged they way more complex organisms do.

Children are coming out broken. And when they’re not broken, they’re weird. What would you do, if your job was to protect the people of your society? What if, as time passed, you realized that you were working to protect not just your society but humanity as we know it? Would you slaughter an entire village to contain the epidemic?

Maybe you wouldn’t, but you can bet your boots that there are plenty who would. And if saving the human race isn’t justification for a few atrocities, I don’t know what is. And the effects of the virus are really, really bad. Lots and lots of dead babies. People are doing the math and there might be a time when there are no children born alive at all.

Then there’s the guy who has evidence that all this has happened before, to the Neanderthals.

Despite all the science flying around, the root of the drama is political. How does a civilized, law-respecting society face a horrific health crisis that just keeps getting worse and worse? What effect can the ambitions of a few key people have on a global calamity?

Mr. Bear went out of his way to create a peripheral precondition for the virus to take effect: The parents have to be in love. Sex without love produces normal human babies. This makes love a biological condition, and I’m all right with that. Presumably the virus is designed to work in the cases where the new child has the best chance at success. Makes sense, but biology is rarely self-limiting like that. Even if the chance of success is zero, biology will give it a try.

Parents are also altered, and the disfigurement they suffer becomes a social stigma. They carry the virus.

There are some really good scenes in this story. The scene that first springs to mind is when one of our favorite characters is in a crowd. There is a surge, a change of atmosphere, and the peaceful gathering crosses a threshold and becomes a mob. It’s a moment impossible to define but obvious when you see it.

That said, there are also some events and one element of the science that I just couldn’t buy. That wasn’t enough to stop me from staying up later than I should to read a few extra pages each night.

The story ends with a lot of questions, but enough is known to allow the enthusiastic reader to set down the book and imagine a wide range of scenarios, all with one inevitable outcome. Any by the end, that outcome seems like a pretty cool thing.

If you like Science Fiction with actual science in it, you will likely enjoy this book.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Millage Flying Tourbillon (3826) Collection), I get a kickback.

Reading some Grimm

Most mornings, I spend my first waking half-hour slogging on an exercise machine. For the first two-thirds of the workout I’m able to read, as long as the story does not require intense concentration. I’m also a cheap bastard, so I gravitate toward e-publications that are free.

Lately as I’ve slaved over the machine, I’ve been reading stories translated from the original texts of the Brothers Grimm. Honestly, they’re not that compelling. They’re like pop songs; each story has a hook and some are more successful than others. If there’s one thing the stories do well, it’s repetition. Escalating cycles. Humility and standing up to your word are paramount.

As I was pumping the exercise machine the other day, appreciating the closure of a particularly contrived parable, I asked myself, “Is this how short stories worked back then?”

In fact, that is how short stories worked back then. The whole idea of ‘short story’ as we think of it today had not been defined. And while we credit Poe and Doyle with inventing the short story, we have to give a respectful nod to Wilhelm Grimm as a progenitor of the form.

I’m smiling as I picture poor Wilhelm in a modern writers’ workshop. “So,” the perceptive critic starts, “the cat has sleeves.” The critic raises exactly one eyebrow as she pins her gaze on the writer. Wilhelm smiles sheepishly. “When you have sleeves it changes you,” he says. He’s right, but the helpful critic never buys it. The problem isn’t really the sleeves, it’s the structure.

Willy Grimm wrote stories, and they are short, but they are by no approximation short stories as we understand the form today. Mostly they are shaggy dog stories. There’s a cadence to the stories, complete with rhymes, as folks who do the right thing are rewarded, as long as they don’t get uppity afterward. But lacking is the development of an idea. Short stories today are the retroviruses of ideas. Somehow what you read injects itself into who you are.

The ideas in Bros. Grimm’s tales are pretty simple, if you can call them ideas at all. “You shouldn’t be greedy because greed is bad, m-kay?”

There are some points of interest. Many of the stories as we know them have been pretty seriously watered down from the original. The princess and the frog? Not the story I was given as a kid. The bitch makes a promise to a frog just to get her ball back, with no intention whatsoever of honoring her word. Later the frog shows up on her doorstep and her dad the king forced her to live up to her word. She resists the frog and makes a liar of herself all the way, until he turns into a handsome prince of some sort. Then she’s all over him. If I’m the prince getting my body back after all those years, I’m saying, “seeya, gold digger, you lied and whined and now suddenly you’re my friend? Methinks not.” and finding my own happy pond. Probably a reflection of the times, but women in these stories are rewards. Do right, you get yourself a hot princess. Her opinion doesn’t matter much, because obviously to get to that position where you deserve the reward you are a virtuous prince, and she’s not going to argue with that.

OK, so modern ideas of sexual roles in society can’t be used to indict Msrs. Grimm. How were they to know that women were relevant unto themselves? But still, the stories come off as clumsy. Not really stories at all, but anecdotes which sometimes have a conclusion but just as often don’t. The characters go through a series of events and at the end, they are finished with those events, and life goes on.

Which makes these fantastic tales surprisingly realistic.