From Little Red Reviewer

I heard about Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month thanks to my friend Lydia Schoch, whose own post about Philip K. Dick’s novelette Second Variety you can read here. It so happened I had recently read The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and so this seemed a perfect chance to give my thoughts on it.

The Caves of Steel is an interesting blend of genres: it combines many of the tropes of hardboiled detective fiction with sci-fi elements. It’s set in the distant future, when humanity has colonized other planets and turned the Earth into a kind of sprawling city.

The humans who have colonized the outer worlds view the people of Earth with trepidation. These “Spacers,” who are regarded as nearly super-human, with exceptional physical conditioning, nevertheless fear Earth-borne diseases and so have isolated themselves in a place called, appropriately enough, Spacetown.

Earthlings, for their part, view the Spacers with distrust bordering on hatred, seeing them as arrogant elitists who look down their noses on the good citizens of Earth. And then there’s the Spacer’s routine use of robots, which are already despised on Earth because they threaten to take jobs away from human beings.

Indeed, the first character we meet is R. Sammy–the “R” is for robot, and he has taken the job of a man who worked at the police station, much to the annoyance of our protagonist, Elijah Baley. Baley is a classic detective character–a good, honest, somewhat curmudgeonly-but-basically-good-hearted man.

Baley is assigned to investigate the murder of a prominent Spacer, Dr. Sarton. With tensions already rising between the people of Earth and the Spacers, the murder could prove politically devastating if it is found to have been committed by an Earth-person. However, the Spacers have agreed to allow an Earth policeman to investigate the case–as long as he is partnered with one of their own personnel, by the name of R. Daneel Olivaw.

220px-The-caves-of-steel-doubleday-cover
Image via Wikipedia

Yes, you guessed it–the “R” again stands for robot. Baley is required to work with an extremely human-like robot, and their early investigations are a classic buddy cop story, with the two first clashing, then gradually learning each other’s styles.

Baley and Olivaw uncover the activities of a group known as the Medievalists–a luddite-like outfit whose members despise robots and other aspects of modern life, seeking to cultivate and preserve habits of the distant past. Some more radical elements of the group seem capable of carrying out the crime that occurred at Spacetown. Then again, as Baley repeatedly argues, perhaps the Spacers are trying to frame the people of Earth to further their own agenda.

It all builds up to a conclusion that, I have to admit, I didn’t see coming. And that’s always the key element in a successful mystery.

There are a lot of elements to the story that seem highly-relevant today: political and terrorist movements motivated by nostalgia, automatons replacing human laborers, prejudice against foreigners, colonialism… the list goes on. Asimov was a keen observer of human nature, and that’s why his books still feel so fresh today.

That said, not everything about the book rang true. The idea of underground cities where millions live packed together, never venturing out into the sunshine and open countryside, feels like a hellish dystopia to me, even if Asimov himself loved the idea.

Also, there’s a subplot with Baley’s wife, whose name is Jezebel, a fact which is of more significance to her than I would think is normal. It’s not a bad sub-plot, it’s just… odd. The depiction of female characters here was not great–women are mostly portrayed as irrational gossips, to the extent they are portrayed at all.

Still, it was an enjoyable mystery with a lot of fascinating social commentaries woven into the world Asimov built. Baley’s dry, sometimes cynical musings are the most enjoyable thing, followed closely by his interactions with Olivaw.

I originally read this book because Ben Trube mentioned that its combination of the science-fiction and detective genres influenced his own novel Surreality, which I love. There is a certain comfort in being guided through an unfamiliar futuristic world by a recognizable stock character like the Grizzled Veteran Detective. It makes an excellent foundation for a story.

SechaThe Secha is an ambiguous and somewhat disturbing short science fiction story. The Secha are a race enslaved by another species known as the Bakkens. Although initially the female Secha narrating the story seems resigned to the Bakkens’ treatment of her and her species, gradually it becomes apparent that the order of things she seemingly takes for granted is anything but pleasant.

There isn’t much detailed description of the Secha, which makes their exact physiology a mystery. I liked this; it left it to the reader to imagine their characteristics. The Bakkens are described in a bit more detail, as are another species known as the Ediks.

The disturbing part comes as the Secha describes the things to which the Bakkens subject her and others of her species. It is both interesting and unsettling; and all the more so because of the ambiguity regarding just what the Secha are. 

Like some other science fiction I’ve reviewed lately, it’s short, but raises a lot of interesting questions for readers to ponder. 

Wounded EagleThis was a tough review to write, because this book is part two of a series, and part one ends on a massive cliffhanger. The majority of part two is therefore about the protagonist, Captain Robbin Nikalishin, dealing with the repercussions of that cliffhanger.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of plot, for fear that people would stumble upon this review without having read part one, and it would be spoiled. Normally, I’m content to give spoiler warnings, but in this case I don’t even want to risk that.

Many of the things I said in my review of part one still apply: The story is still engaging, the characters are still memorable and vivid, the world-building is impeccable, the prose is still crisp, and Capt. Nikalishin is still a brave man who nonetheless can be profoundly irritating in some respects. His stubborn pride remains, although it kind of morphs into something else as he grapples with the consequences of the events at the end of the first book. And his relationship with his mother continues to make me want to grab him by the shoulders and say, “Grow up, you big baby!”

And, as I said in my review of the first book, none of these latter points about the captain’s character should be interpreted as negative comments on the book itself. Quite the contrary. Even more than the first, this book is a character study of Nikalishin, and he is certainly a very interesting, multi-faceted personality. 

Again, no spoilers, but one of the central plot elements in Wounded Eagle involves Nikalishin being forced to choose whether to reveal certain information to punish a particularly despicable character, but at the cost that revealing this information will be deeply painful to an innocent third party. Nikalishin’s choice, and the reasoning behind it, are very well thought-out and described, and was satisfying to read, even if I can’t honestly claim I’d have made the same decision.

Read my review of the first one, and if that doesn’t make you want to go out and read this series, I don’t know what will. It’s a sci-fi epic that focuses on human drama, with lots of interesting world-building, as well as some deep philosophical and religious ideas woven into the story, in the form of the “Mythmaker Precepts”—the philosophical pillars at the core of Taylor’s 28th century society.

Now, with all that out of the way, I want to have a word about my favorite character in the series: Prof. Anezka Lara. She’s not actually in this book as much as she is in part one, but when she’s around, she’s a lot of fun. Her gruff, no-nonsense personality reminds me of several academics I’ve known, and frankly, I adore the way she bluntly tells Nikalishin what she thinks. It’s especially nice in this book where—and here I’m straying close to spoiler territory—he’s kind of a big deal, and most people are treating him with kid gloves. Not Lara. She’s never one to mince words.

Again, if you like sci-fi at all, read this series. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, there’s a good chance you’ll be captivated by the narrative Taylor weaves. 

Now, I’m off to write some fan-fiction about Prof. Lara and…

JUST KIDDING! That is a joke; don’t worry. But if you want to understand the joke, you should read the series. 😉

CGThe Cursed Gift is a fantasy novel about a young woman named Leah, a warrior in training and daughter of the King of in a place called Orenheart. Leah’s day-to-day life of combat drills, horseback riding and the drama of being young and in love is disrupted after brigands attack her family, and a mysterious figure named Shalyer appears to threaten the kingdom.

Shalyer is an unfortunate soul, whose tragic past leads him to make a deal with a sinister supernatural beings, the leader of whom is known as Belosh. Belosh is a demon lord who toys with the fates of mortals, chiefly through granting them the power of magic, which the gods have long forbidden them. Belosh drives Shalyer and Leah into conflict, ultimately leading them into a showdown.

As Leah tries to resist the temptation of the dark powers the Demon Lord has granted her, the kingdom increasingly becomes threatened by brigand gangs. Meanwhile, the youthful romances, indiscretions and heartbreaks among Leah’s fellows begin to cripple them, leading to misunderstandings, fights, and worse.

Eventually, Belosh creates a situation where Leah is forced to choose between saving her family or resisting the allure of giving herself fully to the Demon lord. There are more brigand attacks, an extremely memorable funeral scene for a fallen warrior, and, of course, a dramatic final confrontation.

While high fantasy is not a genre I read often, I enjoyed this story and the world in which it is set. One thing that really stood out to me was the description—or more accurately, the lack thereof. Fantasy (like Science Fiction) usually requires a good deal of background and world-building, which means lots of description. But that’s not the case here—there was very little, and that was fine with me. I was impressed at how easily I could visualize things without having to have it all spelled out. It made the book an easy, accessible read. 

I admit this might not be to everyone’s tastes—my rocky relationship with description in fiction is well-known, and perhaps other readers will wish for more detail about Orenheart, Kurabar, and other locales in the tale.

Personally, what I wanted more of was detail about some of the supporting cast. Leah is a strong character, but so are many of the others, especially Shalyer, and I would have liked to know more about them. Also, there is one sub-plot involving King Edmon which never seems fully resolved. (It’s not that it’s unclear—we readers know the whole story, but some of the relevant characters don’t, and it seemed to me like something that would need to be discussed.)

Still, it’s clearly meant to be Leah’s story that’s being told here, and in that regard Spicer definitely succeeded. While preparing this review, I came across this post on Spicer’s blog in which she discusses her process in writing The Cursed Gift. She wanted to write a fantasy that didn’t feel overlong or dragged-out the way so many of them do, and that’s exactly what she did.  It’s a tight, well-paced tale that doesn’t bog the reader down with minutiae. I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy or adventure novels.

Best Food: Pizza. Once again, these cheese and tomato sauce miracles captured the title.

Best Halloween: 2017. Because it was the first time I did this:

pumpkin 2017

Best Buffalo Bills victory: the Bengals beating the Ravens.

Best Football Team That Doesn’t Seem To Constantly Cheat: the Seattle Seahawks

Best Maxwell’s Maximum:

Best Political Story: “House Stenographer Seizes Microphone In Bizarre Rant”–this would make a great opening scene for a thriller novel. It was so surreal.

Best Batman: Will Arnett

Best New Toy: Space Explorer Remote Control Helicopter.

Best Computer: My MacBook Air. It survived a major scare with water, so extra points for toughness.

Best Movie: Jane Got a Gun. My in-depth take on it here.

Best Book: There were many–see list here.

Best Video Game: Fallout: New Vegas. This was a tough call. The Outer Worlds, Spec Ops: The Line and Mass Effect: Andromeda all made strong cases, but in the end I had to go with the epic post-apocalyptic wasteland that I put nearly 200 hours into. Don’t forget to get the DLC.

Best Awards Show Besides This One: 2017 Academy Awards

Best Tree: The Big One Near the Middle.Tree.jpg

Best Sky:

september sky

 

Best Gilbert and Sullivan Production: The Stanford Savoyards’ 2012 Ruddigore.

Best Wildlife Moment: 

Best TV series: Angie Tribeca. Tragically, ended after four seasons. But we’ll always have detective Hoffman.

 

Best New Album: Stripped Down, by Jo’Rinda Johnsen

Best Video Game Analysis Series: Ross’s Game Dungeon

Best Presidential Candidate for Gilbert and Sullivan Lovers: Russ Sype

Best Presidential Candidate for Literary Fiction Lovers: Mark Paxson (Technically, Mark’s campaign is for 2020, but he declared in 2019, so I’m counting it. If that’s wrong… then Mark will just have to pardon me when he wins.)

Best 52 Short Stories in 52 weeks Challenge Winner: Phillip McCollum

Best Eastern Canadian Blogger: Lydia Schoch

Best Western Canadian Blogger: Audrey Driscoll

Best Western Canadian Napoleonic Historian: Shannon Selin

Best Byzantine Historian: Eileen Stephenson 

Best At Overcoming Technical Difficulties: R.J. Llewellyn 

Best Review of Anything Star Wars-related: Joy V. Spicer’s review of Kenobi

Best Author of a Book About the Dark Side of Academia: Geoffrey Cooper for Nondisclosure

Best Epic Science Fiction Author: Lorinda J. Taylor for The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars

Best Book Vlogger: Book Club Mom

Best Army Black Knights Fan: Barb Harvey-Knowles 

Best ESXIII: ESXIII

Best Author of a Novel about a Virtual World, United States: Ben Trube

Best Author of a Novel about a Virtual World, Australia: A.C. Flory

Best Mass Effect fan: Isabella Norse

Best KotOR II fan: S

Best W.S. Gilbert historian: Andrew Crowther

Best W.S. Gilbert quoter: Charlee

Best Short Story That You Can Read For Free Right Now: Snowlight by Noah Goats

Best Visual Artist: Katie Dawn. She does lots of great work, but this is one of my favorites:

Best Wisconsin Blogger and Raging Agnostic Snowflake Vegetarian Who Never Learned To Whistle: Thingy

Best Golfer, Historian, Author, Literary Critic, Book Blogger Friend: Pat Prescott

Best Social Commentator, Writing Blogger, Thriller Author, and Ally An Indie Writer Could Ever Have: Carrie Rubin

Best Blog Reader: You!

Berthold Thanks You 2

On the face of it, it hasn’t taken me that long to write any of my books. The long short stories are very quick: I wrote the first draft of 1NG4 in about three days last year, and had it published in a couple of weeks. Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival took about two weeks to write, and about a month before I finally published it.

As for novels, I started writing The House of Teufelvelt in mid-February, and had it finished by late July or early August. And The Directorate, my longest book, as I have recounted before, I started on August 17, 2017, and finished a first draft by October 5 of that year. For the next two months, I did revisions and gathered feedback, before publishing it in January.

Looking at the start and end dates of when I began writing something and when I finished, it seems logical to conclude that a long short story takes about a month to produce, and a novel takes maybe 4-5 months. Not too bad, right?

Except this is deceptive. Because when I first began putting down the words on what would eventually become a recognizable first draft of something is not really when I started working on it. 

Take 1NG4: I’d wanted to do a weird, cyberpunk-ish story full of mystery and conspiracies for years before writing that. My 2014 novella Start of the Majestic World is a primitive forerunner of it. The November before I wrote it, I wrote a complete first draft of another story full of weird conspiracies and hints of the paranormal. And I was completely unsatisfied with it. Only one line from it lives on in 1NG4.

Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival is another example: I’d been obsessed with doing a story about a mysterious cryptid living in rural hill country since reading Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness in 2009, and doubly so after discovering the Mothman legend in 2013. A lot of the scenery and descriptions came from trips to West Virginia and Southern Ohio made in 2012 and 2015. (Again, my less-successful attempts at these ideas appear in Majestic World.)

With novels, it gets even more dramatic: The House of Teufelvelt was also the title of a short unpublished novella I wrote in 2013. It also featured a character with a dark past named Roderick Teufelvelt, a place called Leviathan State University, and a few other shared story elements. But it was very different in a number of ways, and I was a not happy with it, even after reading every bit of Gothic literature I could find for inspiration. I had to let it simmer a bit, and come back with a fresh perspective.

Taking this more expansive view, the true “production time” on 1NG4 goes from two weeks to at least five years, Teufelvelt’s goes from six months to six years and Vespasian Moon’s goes from one month to ten years.

And then, of course, there’s The Directorate. I’ve discussed this before, but to recap: In 2002, I tried making a stop-motion film with action figures about a station, accessible by a space elevator, that had an ulterior purpose unbeknownst to most of the occupants. In 2007, I made another animated film around the same theme. In 2012, I wrote yet another outline of the same plot, but eventually abandoned it.

I essentially kept playing with the same idea for fifteen years before I finally told the story in a way that satisfied me. I didn’t realize this until after publishing The Directorate, but in retrospect, it looks as if I was on a schedule where I would try telling a new version every five years. That wasn’t deliberate, though; it just worked out that way.

In summary, while the time from when I began writing might seem short, in reality there is a much longer, less obvious stage of storytelling, during which ideas get generated, examined, changed, and in some cases, thrown out and replaced with new ones. 

This isn’t a huge revelation. Indeed, it may seem quite obvious to creative types. But to their audiences, it may be completely invisible. This, incidentally, is probably why sequels are almost never as good as originals, and why artists so often “burn out” at some point in their careers: they amass a stock of ideas they work on in the back of their minds for years, and finally are able to mold them into a coherent whole, which they are able to show to the world. And if their work is popular, people immediately want more, not realizing that what they have just enjoyed is the result of years, or perhaps decades, of the creator tweaking various aspects of a concept. 

It’s commonplace to hear of creative people being “out of ideas” or feeling like they’ve lost their creative energy. I wonder if this is actually because it’s not obvious, even to them, how long it takes their mind to create ideas. I know I didn’t realize how long I’d worked on some ideas until I made a conscious effort to remember. An analogy: if you were used to going out to harvest the crop from a flourishing garden, and then one day you arrived to find that it was all gone, it would be kind of a shock, especially if you’re not aware of how the growing process works.

Generating ideas—for stories, for music, for art, for new inventions—takes a long time. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that our brains do it best when it’s not their primary focus. The idea of a flash of inspiration is largely an illusion—but it’s a powerful illusion, because the moment the “missing piece” clicks into place and you have a great idea is so exhilarating that it feels as if it just came to you all of sudden, rather than being the last step in a long, laborious process.

So if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, a good cure can be to revisit old ideas you hadn’t thought about in a long time. If you’re a creative person, and I think everyone who reads this blog is, you very likely have some. In fact, you might even have some you didn’t remember you had. While I was working on this post, I suddenly remembered the existence of a short story of mine that I had completely forgotten about. It’s an uncanny feeling, reading something you know that you wrote, and all the time wondering Why did I write that? 

But uncanny is good.  It means you’ve found something interesting. Which is why it pays to revisit your old ideas—it’s the best way our minds’ have of looking at something from the perspective of the creator and the audience at the same time. 

volsungsThis isn’t one of my normal book reviews, because this is not a work of fiction per se, but rather a translation of Old Norse myths and legends. So, it cannot be subjected to the same standards of literary criticism I would normally use.

But then, to paraphrase Bernie Kopell’s character from Get Smart: “Zis is Ruined Chapel by Moonlight! Ve don’t ‘normal’ here!”

There are two distinct sagas, but they both tell similar tales of bold warriors and beautiful women. In fact, the majority of women were described as “the most beautiful of all women.” I guess ancient Scandinavia was like Lake Woebegon.

There is, of course, lots of back-stabbing and sex and murder and revenge and incest and never-ending wars of conquest. I never actually read or watched the Game of Thrones series, but based on these tales, it seems to just be following in a long mythological tradition.

Oh, and of course there are familiar mythological elements such as dragon-slaying and a rather interesting story early on in which Odin sticks a sword into a tree trunk and says only the most powerful of men shall be able to remove it; which seems like an obvious relative of Excalibur from Arthurian legend. 

At times, the whole thing can get a bit confusing, and I sometimes get the sense that the bards who recounted these legends didn’t pay attention to things like time and continuity. For instance, there is one story in which a woman keeps having children, only to discover, one by one, around the age of 10 or so, that they are unworthy for the quest that fate has ordained for them. I mean… was there really time to wait around and go through that process repeatedly?

The story feels as though it’s being told rather than written—which is very much a credit to Dr. Crawford’s translation, as I would assume most of these kinds of tales were initially passed down as an oral tradition, and only subsequently written down. Reading it, I felt like I was sitting around a camp-fire in a dense forest of snow-covered evergreens, listening to a mysterious one-eyed old man spinning off-the-cuff yarns: “Now there was one time when it is told that Svanhild…”

As I said, you can’t subject an ancient work like this to the standards of modern criticism. It’s a convoluted intergenerational epic, full of confusing family bloodlines, prophecies that people ignore or misinterpret at great cost to themselves, and bizarre and inexplicable plot developments.

Wait, hold on… sorry, I was just reading Twitter, which at the moment is full of people talking about the latest Star Wars movie…

You know, now that I think about it, you can see how people would have been fascinated by these myths. So many of the common tropes of ancient mythology still persist in storytelling to this day. Perhaps these ancient tales of great wars, betrayals, and revenges, are more than just interesting pieces of history. They speak to some deeply-rooted impulse in human nature—a desire to imagine the exploits of larger-than-life characters and their impossible deeds. Thanks to these very accessible translations, modern readers such as myself, even with almost zero prior knowledge of Norse mythology, can do just that.

(Post-script: I came across Dr. Crawford’s works via my friend and fellow author, Noah Goats. Thank you, Noah!)

DTTAfter reading Lydia Schoch’s review of this book, I just had to give it a try. It’s a collection of four very short stories best described as “weird sci-fi comedies.” Each story starts out with an unusual premise, and just lets things play out from there.

What do I mean by an “unusual” premise? Well, here’s a quick sketch of each: A roguish shape-shifting alien breaks the bank at a casino. A robot couple moves into an organic neighborhood. Intelligent rhinoceros-like beings with a fondness for ‘80s music invade the earth. And finally, an odd, voyeuristic character pays a heavy price for spying on an alien in a restroom.

The stories are short, but for the most part feel complete. The only one I thought needed a bit more fleshing out (pun not intended) was the robot one. The ending was good, but felt a bit abrupt. Otherwise, each story is a self-contained, bizarre, and funny universe. The twist in the casino story was particularly great. I didn’t see it coming, and after it was revealed, I was kicking myself because I didn’t. The best twists always feel obvious in retrospect.

These stories are sort of like a prose version of Gary Larson’s Far Side comics: a quick sketch of a strange situation, which follows its own internal logic to an even stranger, and very funny, conclusion. Yes, they’re short, but each story packs a strong comedic punch that makes it satisfying. Fans of sci-fi comedy should definitely check it out.

DVDual Void is a very short story that I would describe as experimental fiction. It is written from the point of view of an artificial intelligence named “Kes” that is achieving self-consciousness.

Despite its brevity, the story deals with deep, complicated ideas. Many of the concepts Kes considers are drawn from the world of computer programming and formal logic, which makes the narration feel exactly like what one would expect from an artificial intelligence—a distinct voice, but also not quite a human one. 

It’s a very interesting philosophical exercise, and certainly gives a reader plenty to mull over, but I can’t help feeling like this is only one part of a larger story, and it would be nice to read more background information about Kes, her creator Zvi, and the world around them. This feels like an intriguing prologue to a longer and bigger story.

Still, for $0.99, a well-written short story that makes you ponder concepts like mortality, consciousness, and free will is a pretty good deal.