It all started when I said something on Twitter about Amazon being a good platform for indie authors.

Out of the blue, I got this reply from someone not in the initial conversation:

I want to point out that this is a great way of making a Twitter argument. He never used rude language, and he actually went and looked up my book. (Which will help me, marginally, in future searches.)

I have actual, real-life friends who can’t be bothered to go look up my book. The fact that this guy did it, just for the purpose of arguing with me, is actually kind of amazing. Most people would just say something on the order of “LOL u suck” and call it a day. Not him.

I give him a lot of credit for this.

bobI don’t often review widely-read books, as you may have noticed. I like seeking out hidden indie gems. This book has over 2000 reviews on Amazon, so it’s not really hidden. But it came recommended to me by not one, but two friends whose tastes run along the same lines as my own, so I had to give it a try. And am I ever glad I did.

The titular “Bob” is Bob Johansson, a software developer and science-fiction fan who signs up to have his brain preserved after his death, to be revived in some distant future. He little expects that a freak accident will cause that death shortly after he does so.

Bob wakes up in the distant future to find himself the subject of a study conducted under the auspices of a religious extremist government called FAITH. The ultimate objective of the operation is to place one of the revived minds aboard a deep-space probe, to be sent out to explore the galaxy. While Bob only gets limited information from the scientists conducting the operation, it soon becomes clear that political tensions on Earth—both within FAITH and elsewhere—are reaching a boiling point, and Bob is fortunate to have his mind sent off into the cosmos just as disaster strikes and full-scale nuclear war erupts.

From there, Bob begins creating a virtual reality interface for himself, just to feel more human, as well as countless “copies” of his mind, using the powerful autofactories at his disposal to deploy more “Bobs” to other parts of the galaxy.

The Bobs begin to develop their own names and personalities, and become different characters in their own right. Some return to Earth, to help what remains of humanity recover from the aftermath of the war, while others venture to new worlds, and encounter new forms of life, including one, the Deltans, who resemble primitive humans in ways that lead to some of the Bobs taking them under their care.

This book is a marvelous exercise in hard sci-fi—Mr. Taylor clearly did his research on every aspect, from space stations to interstellar travel to artificial intelligences. The Bobs make a few derisive references to “hand-waving about nanomachines” in sci-fi, which made me smile since I have been guilty of just that. While obviously any science-fiction work is bound to have some unexplained elements—it has to, otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction—the amount of research and scientific knowledge that went into We Are Legion is impressive.

But despite the technological elements, and the occasionally very abstract scenes where Bob exists as a consciousness with no apparent physical form, the book is written with a light, relatable touch. The tone is humorous, and all the Bobs share a sarcastic sense of humor, a penchant for references to classic sci-fi, and a fundamentally good nature.

I do have a few small criticisms. There is a brief period in the book, when Bob is first sent out into the universe, where things are so abstract it was hard for me to visualize what was happening. But this ends quickly when Bob creates the VR interface.

The religious fanatic government mentioned in the early chapters felt a bit over the top to me, but just as I was feeling this, Bob headed into space, and it became a relatively small part of the plot.

The lack of a large cast of characters might be a problem for some readers. Indeed, there’s really only one true “character”, albeit with multiple versions. For me, this worked–more on that shortly–but I can see that if you don’t like the basic Bob character, the whole book would be less appealing. It’s pretty much all Bob, all the time.

Finally, the ending felt a little abrupt–but then, it’s only the first installment in a series, so leaving the reader wanting more is really a good thing. There are certainly plenty of interesting themes here.

We Are Legion touches on a number of sensitive matters like politics, religion and philosophy. From the fundamentalist rulers of the former United States, to the struggles of humans in the post-war fight for resources, to the arguments among the Deltans on a distant world, the book explores both how political discord occurs and how it can be resolved. There are elements of satire here, but only rarely does it get too heavy-handed.

Religion too is handled in a very interesting way, quite apart from the FAITH government. By the end of the book, one of the Bobs is essentially playing God to an alien race. Again, Taylor is subtle about it, but the theological and philosophical ideas this raises are absolutely fascinating. It reminded me a little of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic, Childhood’s End.

But what I liked most of all is how the book plays with the concept of “self”—as I mentioned, most of the major characters are all copies of the original Bob, but they each evolve in distinct ways. The more senior “Bobs” liken this to having children, and that might be true. What it reminded me of was the experience of writing—as a writer, you create these characters who all have little facets of yourself in them. At least, that’s how it is for me. I can recognize aspects of me in every character I write, even the bad ones or the ones I consciously based on other people. 

This examination of multiple aspects of the same personality by spreading it across different characters is really interesting to me. It reminded me of the different incarnations of the Nameless One in Planescape: Torment. And I think you all know what high praise that is, coming from me.

I can’t say too much more without spoiling major plot points, but you get the idea by now: this is a really fun science-fiction novel, and I recommend it. It’s the first in a series, and I am looking forward to reading the next one. 

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Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

[Thanks to Lydia Schoch for inspiring me to write this. Be sure to check out her post on fictional romances.]

You’ll notice I don’t often write romantic sub-plots in my stories. I was feeling pretty bold with 1NG4 and included one, but it’s largely implied and in the background of the larger story. 

Romance is hard to write. You need characters who work on their own, and also complement one another. It’s about balance. If you get unbalanced characters, it doesn’t work—or at best, it only works as wish-fulfillment for people who want to imagine their perfectly ordinary self being married to a demigod or goddess. 

And if you’re writing a story where the romance is the plot, then you also have to come up with some reason why two characters who clearly belong together aren’t. Usually social expectations are the best mechanism for doing this, to the point that it’s a cliché—A can’t marry B because it would violate all of their society’s most sacred traditions!

The problem with these sorts of stories is that too often, it becomes more about the pursuit, and in the process, one character gets reduced to nothing more than a McGuffin that the other character is trying to get. I hate that.

Here are some fictional romances I consider effective. You’ll notice that they are generally sub-plots, or at least not the sole focus of the story.

Evie Carnahan and Rick O’Connell (The Mummy) 

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Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) The Mummy. Universal Pictures. Re-used under Fair Use

This works because it’s pretty well-balanced—Evie’s brains and Rick’s adventuring skills make them a natural team. This is what I mean—if Evie were always a helpless damsel in distress, or Rick were always a big stupid lug, it would be dopey. But as it is, you can see why they would gravitate to one another, apart from “It’s a movie and we need a romance.”

Thomasin Yeobright and Diggory Venn (The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy)

When you read about Return of the Native, 90% of what you hear about is Eustacia Vye this, Damon Wildeve that. I love the book, but as far as I’m concerned, both of them can go soak their heads. Oh, wait—I guess they do. Sorry if I spoiled this 141-year-old book. Anyway, what I like about the book is Venn’s loyalty to Thomasin, and his (admittedly credulity-straining) adventures as the almost super-human “Reddleman” looking out for her.) 

Miranda Lawson and Commander Shepard (Mass Effect 2-3)

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Commander Shepard (voiced by Mark Meer) and Miranda Lawson (voiced and modeled on Yvonne Strahovski) Mass Effect 3. Electronic Arts. Re-used under Fair Use.

Am I the only person who doesn’t hate Miranda? I might well be. Most players find her stuck-up, but I like her. Maybe part of it is that because ME 2/3 built up Commander Shepard as this awesome hero, and Miranda seems like the nearest thing to his equal in a universe that otherwise regards him as something close to a God. She saved his life, and she’s genetically engineered to be perfect, so she  can meet him on even ground. I like that. I don’t see an equivalent romantic interest for female Shepard.

But maybe it’s just my fondness for Australian accents that’s making me biased here.

Honorable Mentions: Unrequited Romances

I started out to make a list of good requited romances, because those are harder for me to write than unrequited ones. But that’s not to say that an unrequited romance can’t make for a good story, because it absolutely can. In fact, the advantage of these stories is that they have conflict inherent in them, as opposed to having to be introduced externally. So, here are some good ones:

-The Carlo/Corelli sub-plot in Corelli’s Mandolin. One of the most interesting things about the disastrous movie adaptation was that this was the only romantic sub-plot that even remotely made sense. 

– The Atris/Jedi Exile relationship in Knights of the Old Republic II. I talk a little about that here. Actually, KotOR II is brimming with tons of unfulfilled or outright doomed romances. Chris Avellone is great at writing those.

-Elsie Maynard and Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. Just listen to this.

And now, for my favorite fictional romance…

Jane Ballard and Dan Frost (Jane Got a Gun)

Jane and Dan
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) and Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) Jane Got a Gun. The Weinstein Co. Re-used under Fair Use.

Come on, you all knew this would be here. I love this movie, and a big reason why is the relationship between the two leads. The way they gradually rekindle their relationship under brutal circumstances makes for a great story, and the carefree romance of their past contrasted with the grim present is very powerful. True, a lot of what makes it work is the acting as much as anything—the same lines with lesser actors wouldn’t work as well.

I suppose that writing romance for the screen or the stage is easier than writing it in a novel. In a visual medium, putting two attractive people with great chemistry together gets you at least halfway to making the audience to buy in. On the page, though, you have to do a lot more work.

I’ll keep this short; since I haven’t been following football as closely as in the past. In the preseason, I predicted the Rams would lose the Super Bowl, albeit to the Steelers. I’m tempted to just say well, that was my pick going in, and leave it at that.

But no; you deserve better. In the conference title round, I predicted the Rams would somehow win despite the Saints being the better team, and sure enough, that’s what happened–the refs (and bone-headed Saints’ play-calling) handed the game to the Rams.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have been left for dead multiple times this season, only to rise again like the Terminator coming after Linda Hamilton. Can the Rams beat them, and avenge the loss of 17 years ago that started it all?

Let’s go back to first principles: defense wins championships. While neither team has a great defense, the Patriots at least have a decent one, whereas the Rams, despite having all-star talent, have a pretty bad defense.

Ironically, the Rams’ main defensive strength–their linemen–would have been better equipped to beat the Patriots of past years, who were very pass-happy and almost entirely dependent on Brady. But this New England team relies more on the power running game than previous editions.

The Rams will still get pressure, but I suspect it won’t matter as much as it would have in the past. The Patriots will run the ball to slow down the rush. When the Rams are on offense, the Patriots will take away their running game and force Goff to beat them through the air. He may do OK, but I doubt he’ll be able to repeat the performance Foles put up last year against New England.

I would love an ugly, defensive slugfest that ended with a score like 9-6. Mostly just to spite the NFL executives and TV people who were hoping for a Rams/Chiefs rematch so they could have another ridiculous 54-51 game. There is beauty in well-played defense, I tell you!

Oh, well. That probably won’t happen. I applaud the Rams for wearing their beautiful throwback jerseys, which I’ve always thought were some of the best in football, and I wish them well. But, in the end, I’m sticking with my pre-season prediction that the Rams will come up short.

NE: 28

LA: 20

…and think, if not for their mystifying inability to beat bad teams, it might so easily have been the Steelers!

 

51fFraKeUML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is a light-hearted novel about two imaginary expansion NFL teams, the Los Angeles Leopards and the Portland Pioneers. The two teams enter the league simultaneously—the Leopards led by coach Bobby Russell, who takes a methodical, conservative approach to slowly building a team. 

After a few seasons, Leopards owner Cedric B. Medill (yes, he’s a movie producer) grows impatient, and fires Russell, replacing him with brash, loud-mouthed defensive coordinator Randy Dolbermeier. Russell gets picked up as defensive coordinator by the Pioneers and, after a car accident leaves Pioneers coach Denzel Jackson incapacitated, takes over as interim head coach. And—can you believe it?—finds himself coaching in the Super Bowl against his old team and Dolbermeier.

Interwoven with the on-field exploits of the Pioneers and the Leopards is a subplot with a sportswriter/poet and a few of his colorful friends, who have been gradually uncovering that Dolbermeier is more than just an arrogant jerk—he’s an outright cheater, using underhanded methods to gain an advantage over his opponents. There have been hints of this beginning with his time as defensive coordinator for the Leopards, and once he’s given full control of the team, it gets really out of hand. And of course, they finish building their case against Dolbermeier just as the Leopards/Pioneers Super Bowl is about to be played, setting up a denouement which I won’t give away here.

The book is written with a light touch—Levy tends to favor warm, sometimes downright corny humor over tension or drama. A good example is when the journalist and his friends are investigating the visitors’ locker room at the Leopards’ stadium, suspecting that Dolbermeier has bugged it. I figured it would be a thriller-like sequence, where they have to sneak in to Dolbermeier’s hidden room and avoid getting caught. But no, they just end one chapter by saying “let’s go check it out” and in the next chapter, they say, “Yep, sure enough, it’s bugged.”

Don’t get me wrong; Levy’s humor and good-nature are infectious. Some of the malapropisms uttered by the heavily-accented equipment manager made me chuckle. And then, of course, there are Levy’s countless references to the NFL’s heyday. 

For those who didn’t recognize the name, Levy isn’t just a football fan. He is a Hall of Fame NFL coach who guided the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive AFC titles. (Alas, they went 0-4 in their Super Bowls.) His novel is filled with references to the football stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In particular, characters like Kelly James, Thomas Thurber and Deuce Smithers, among others, are clearly modeled on Bills greats who played for Levy. (The names that aren’t clear references to famous players or coaches are usually groaner puns—e.g. the front-office secretaries, sisters Nina and Ada Klock.) 

Even if you don’t like football, it’s an amusing book. Football fans will get the most out of it though, with all the references to famous players, and the discussions of football philosophy—Russell’s conservative, defensive-minded approach versus the glitzy, high-scoring style is part of the conflict at the heart of the story.

It’s also interesting to speculate as to who Levy had in mind as the model for coach Dolbermeier. While most of the good characters are pretty thinly-veiled, Dolbermeier is a little harder to figure out. His “whatever it takes to win” philosophy and his contempt for rules will make most football fans think immediately of Bill Belichick, but his brash, loudmouth manner seems more Rex Ryan-ish.  He might also be based on Chuck Dickerson, a defensive line coach for the Bills whom Levy fired for publicly trash-talking an opponent.

It’s worth noting that many of the cheating methods Dolbermeier employs have been used in the real NFL. The New England Patriots’ videotaping scandal is the most obvious parallel—although they’ve never been found guilty of taping other teams at practice. It is said that Peyton Manning believed the locker room at Gillette Stadium was bugged, although again, no one ever proved this. And coaches’ headsets are notorious for malfunctioning in Foxboro, another tactic that Levy’s villain uses. Dolbermeier also implements a bounty system like the one the New Orleans Saints used during their Super Bowl season. (Levy’s book was published in 2011, before that scandal broke.) 

It’s remarkable to me that a Hall of Fame coach would write a book like this, with cheating in the Super Bowl as the heart of the plot. It almost makes me wonder if Levy was trying to hint that cheating really is occurring in the NFL. Or at least, suggesting that the league is employing too many dishonorable, Dolbermeier-like coaches, and not enough forthright, honest ones like Russell and Jackson.

In any case, Between the Lies is a fun read for anyone who enjoys football, and especially for Bills fans like me, who long for the glorious days when Coach Levy had us winning the AFC, and the Patriots were in the cellar.

51Uao-BtASL-1._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_W.S. Gilbert is a major reason—possibly the major reason—I’m a writer. As a teenager, my mom introduced me to the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and I was fascinated by Gilbert’s lyrics, and then later, by his dialogues and his entire style of storytelling. He wrote stories that were clever and strange and witty, and that usually included some veiled social commentary. And as often as not, he did it in rhymes that were both intricate and yet easy to understand, thanks to his massive vocabulary. 

And the really amazing thing is that so much of his commentary still seems relevant. Sometimes, I read about politics, and immediately what comes to my mind is some line of Gilbert’s, though he died more than a century ago. That’s a testament to the power of his words and his ideas.

At some point, probably around the age of 14 or 15 years old, I unconsciously began thinking, I want to be like that!

Strangely, I was always drawn more to Gilbert’s poems and his stage works than to his short stories. So when I saw that Andrew Crowther, the secretary of W.S. Gilbert Society, had released a collection of Gilbert’s short stories, I realized I needed to seize the opportunity to correct that.

Most of the stories contain Gilbert’s trademark sense of humor—the concept of introducing tropes of fairy tales and stage plays with practical, everyday life occurs frequently. I admit that the stories about pantomime and harlequinade baffle me to a degree. I read about pantomime, and I still don’t fully “get” it, and as a result, don’t totally get Gilbert’s stories riffing on them, either. It probably made sense to people who were familiar with pantomime. I’m not saying these stories are bad—far from it. “The Fairy’s Dilemma” in particular is quite good, it’s just hard for me to appreciate the Harlequin references.

Many of the stories in the collection were later adapted by Gilbert for the stage. Such is the case withAn Elixir of Love”, which he later turned into an operetta set by Sullivan, The Sorcerer.

I’ve always thought The Sorcerer was one of the weaker G&S operettas. But “An Elixir of Love” is absolutely hilarious. I laughed out loud multiple times reading it—the humorous idea of ordinary, sober businessmen who happen to deal in supernatural curses and love potions etc. is played to great effect here. (It’s in The Sorcerer too, but in my opinion, it just kind of gets lost amid all the demon-summoning.)

“Wide Awake” is an exercise in one of Gilbert’s other favorite motifs: people disguising their pure, black-hearted selfishness with a sop to politeness and decorum. Most of the characters are out for themselves, but they try to cloak it with manners and solicitude. 

“A Tale of a Dry Plate” is short and very sweet.

“The Story of a Twelfth Cake” is extremely funny and clever. It is marred by one unfortunate thing that I’ll address shortly, but overall it might be the funniest story in the collection. It’s another that Gilbert later adapted for the stage. 

“Lady Mildred’s Little Escapade” is a delightful tale—probably packed more of a punch in Victorian times than today, just because of changing social mores, but it’s still very clever.

“A Christian Frame of Mind” is downright shocking, for its time. A Swiftian satire, I would say.

There are more stories in this collection, and all of them are must-reads for Gilbert fans, and should-probably-reads for everyone else. And now, about that one little thing I have to address.

To a degree, everyone is a product of their time and place. Gilbert lived in Victorian England, and was a middle-class and later wealthy man. As you might expect, he held many of the typical attitudes of his time on such matters as race and sex. He was, by nature, a kind-hearted man, and so generally he seems well-disposed towards people, but that doesn’t stop him from writing things that modern readers will find shocking. The “n” word occurs in these pages, so be warned. Similarly, while Gilbert is no misogynist, and many of his female characters are actually quite interesting, there’s no doubt he could be patronizing towards them at times.

The book also includes Gilbert’s own illustrations to accompany his stories. These are a nice addition, although here again there is a problem with how Gilbert depicts non-white characters. (Interestingly, they are often depicted sympathetically in the stories.) Nevertheless, I do agree with the decision to present the stories and drawings uncensored, as Gilbert originally intended. The point of these things is, at least partly, their value as reflections of a bygone era, and it’s important for history’s sake to get an undistorted view of it, for good or ill.

Now, I know this book is a departure from what most people read. Indeed, Mr. Crowther had to work very hard to find a publisher for it. In this world of thrillers and horror and literary fiction, the modern reader may ask, “Why should I read this book of satirical Victorian fairy tales?”

Well, I’m going to make that case.

First of all, I have to address the fact that most of the modern books I read aren’t discernibly Gilbertian, unless you want to count Noah Goats’s comic novels, but he’s closer to a literary descendant of Wodehouse than Gilbert. Moreover, the books I’ve written aren’t especially Gilbertian. The influence that H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers and various pulp and YA science-fiction authors had upon me is much more obvious. And yet, when you ask who got me into this writing business, there’s absolutely no question that the answer is Gilbert.

Precisely because Gilbert’s stories are mostly fairy tales and/or deal with superficially simple things like the stereotypical characters of low comedy, they are accessible as fiction. But because Gilbert was putting his own spin on them—playing with the conventions of fiction and of theater, they get at the most basic principles of telling a story. There’s always a lot more going on under the surface of a Gilbert story than you realize at first, and that’s what makes them interesting: they teach you how to think about fiction.

Short stories are better suited to experimentation than novels are. If you write a whole novel with an odd twist or a “meta” ending, there’s a huge risk you’ll leave the reader feeling like they’ve been shortchanged—like they invested in something that didn’t pan out. Whereas short stories encourage twists and unexpected endings. The goal of a short story is to surprise, to take a common trope and turn it on its head. This is what Gilbert excelled at.

As I was reading The Triumph of Vice, I realized Gilbert has a lot in common with my other unlikely storytelling hero, the great game-designer Chris Avellone. Both of them tell stories that upend the common conventions of their chosen medium. Gilbert wrote of honest burglars and incompetent demons, just as Avellone writes Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasy with chaste succubi and super-powerful rats.   

This willingness to play with tropes, to subvert convention, is the sign of somebody who really knows their stuff. When you’re a master of the craft, you know which rules you can break, and you’re always testing the limits. Gilbert was a great stage director because he was always pushing the edge of what stage directors could do.

And that’s what I want you to take away from this: Gilbert was great at what he did, and reading his work offers you a chance to see a brilliant creative mind working in a time very different from our own, without the constraints of current fads and fashion. Somebody who wrote nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, and his work is still read today. That’s what every writer wants, isn’t it?

[This started out as a comment on this post by Phillip McCollum. Then I couldn’t post it for some reason, and I realized it was really too long to work as a comment anyway. But you should read Phillip’s post before reading this.]

The big mistake I initially made when I started writing fiction was not doing enough description. I’ve talked about this before, and how it took my friend Pat Prescott repeatedly encouraging me to do more description before I finally got the message.

In my arrogance, I thought that description was boring and a waste of time, and that I was a genius for not doing it. But description isn’t boring—only bad description is boring. Done well, it seems like an integral part of the story.

There are probably other ways that I’ve gotten better at writing over the years, but this is the one that comes immediately to mind. And I want to stress that it was only because I was lucky enough to have a reader like Pat who would tell me (more than once; kudos to him for his patience) that I needed more description. If not for that, I would probably still be blithely bumbling along, writing stuff that contained no description, and thinking I was brilliant for doing so.

The real point here is less about description than about listening. Listen to what your readers tell you. A reader who is willing to comment honestly on your work is the most valuable thing a writer can have.

51t4ES+OgsLYou ever flip through the TV channels and see infomercials for all sorts of bogus products? These can be pretty funny to watch until you realize there are people who fall for it.

Say Uncle is a comic novel about a young man named Toby who works at a company that churns out just such a product. His uncle Theo has amassed a fortune by pulling one scam after another. The latest is diet pills, which Theo ropes his nephew into advertising. Toby is forced to juggle the ethical dilemma this presents with the pressure of courting the company’s receptionist–whose affections Theo is also competing for–and the constant meddling of one of his uncle’s pompous employees.

It’s a fast-paced and amusing book. I read Goats’s earlier comic novel, Incomplete Works, and loved it. This book is shorter, but just as funny. As in Incomplete Works, there are some particularly hilarious burgling antics. This is a highly enjoyable leitmotif in Mr. Goats’s comic stories.

The characters are all good, but the standout is uncle Theo–a charming and utterly amoral businessman who is completely forthright about his total dishonesty. Almost every line of his is a comic gem. A close second for the prize of funniest character is the hilariously irritating Mr. Winston-Frobisher, who constantly interferes with Toby in vain attempts to secure his position at Theo’s fly-by-night company.

It’s a quick, well-plotted, and funny story. The only quibble I have with it is that I didn’t like how the romantic subplot ended–but I could make the same complaint about some stories of W.S. Gilbert’s, and that doesn’t stop him from being one of my favorite writers, and it won’t stop Goats from being another.

If you liked Incomplete Works, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t like Incomplete Works, it’s probably because you didn’t read it, and there’s an easy cure for that. Read both of them if you enjoy a good comic caper.