A Shameless Plug

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m trying to get back into the game of fiction writing. Along the way, I’ve met plenty of awesome people who got involved in the game after I left, or never left and went on to do amazing things. Charles Barouch is one of the latter. We worked together years ago when we both wrote game review columns for Gateways magazine, which has long since disappeared into the mists of time.

Charles now had his own small press, HDWP Books, and is currently producing an intriguing short fiction series called “Theme-Thologies.” The idea is simple: create a theme for a book then find the best stories possible to fill the space.

I’m not in any of the books currently on the shelf but I am working to get a piece into one of the future anthologies. I do believe in the project and the staff and writers involved, however, so I’ll be putting some cash down for these titles. You may consider doing the same. If nothing else, let’s share this far and wide and get some exposure for these guys.

 Charles’s post as it appeared on his G+ account earlier today reads as follows:
I need $6
You are all nice people. I’m sure if I asked you for $6, just because I needed it — or even wanted it — a lot of you would reach into your pocket. I’m not asking for me. Well, not exactly for me…
Here’s my problem: I need to jumpstart the sales on Theme-Thology. These are really good books but we aren’t visible enough. Can you spare $6 to help 18 authors and artists?A Promise: From now until April 21st, if you buy the first two Theme-Thologies (total: $5.98) and post a review of either of them (on Amazon, B&N, or Kobo, or GoodReads), I will send you the first eBook from our new science fiction series: Interrogative: Tiago and the Masterless. Just post a link to the review at http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/thankyou and the book is yours.A Prize: Additionally, from now until April 21st, if you buy any of the first three Theme-Thologies ($2.99 each), I will enter you into a drawing to win one of the following eBooks: one of five different Mike Reeves-McMillan books (City of Masks, Hope and the Patient Man, Hope and the Clever Man, Realmgolds, Gu), A Noble’s Quest by Ryan Toxopeus, Adjacent Fields by Charles Barouch, or The Tower’s Alchemist by Alesha Escobar.
Just buy the Theme-Thology of your choice and post at http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/thankyou.● Already bought them? Post a review (on Amazon, B&N, or Kobo, or GoodReads) and I will send you the first eBook of our new science fiction series: Interrogative: Tiago and the Masterless and put you in the drawing. Just post a link to the review at http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/thankyou.

● Received the Adjacent Fields signed, limited edition print book at Spectrum 2013? Post a review (on Amazon, B&N, or Kobo, or GoodReads) and I will send you the first eBook of our new science fiction series: Interrogative: Tiago and the Masterless and put you in the drawing. Just post a link to the review at http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/thankyou.

Full Details Here: http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/thankyou

Buy if you can, click on one of the share buttons below if you can’t.

RIP Richard Matheson, Story Teller

Richard Matheson, best known as a science fiction writer, died Monday night. He was 87.

I say ‘best known as a sci-fi writer’ because that’s how the obituaries are identifying him. Reuters did so, The Atlantic Wire says that he “defined sci-fi”. Others, like io9.com, remember him as the author of I Am Legend.

I don’t want to take any of that away from him. It’s just that I never thought of Matheson as strictly a science fiction writer. I thought he had a greater range than that. He told fantastic, memorable stories that spoke to legions of fans.

My first encounter with Matheson’s work was a copy of his Shock! anthology that my parents bought me when I was ten. I had encountered his work earlier than that–multiple episodes of the Twilight Zone (including favorites like “Mute“, “Death Ship“, “Steel“, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet“, “Night Call“, “Spur of the Moment“) and a particularly wacky episode of Star Trek TOS (“The Enemy Within“)–but it wasn’t until much later that I started paying attention to him specifically. Shock! has a bunch of sciencey-type stories between the covers: “Dance of the Dead”, about battlefield zombies harnessed by unscrupulous nightclubs for entertainment; “Lemmings”, a very strange short-short about a country-wide suicide episode, and “The Creeping Terror” about a madness-inducing fungus that spreads across North America, are three that stay with me.

Other works from that collection have nothing to do with empirical reality but are just plain fun to read: “The Ledge”, about a wager gone horribly wrong; “The Legion of Plotters”, about a touch of persecution, and “Death Ship”, about three astronauts forever trying to get home and failing miserably, are three without any science at all but which are compelling fiction nonetheless.

Then there are stories like “The Splendid Source” (which was recently turned into a Family Guy episode) which are just a good, weird flavor of awesome.

Anyway, I got older, and I read everything from Matheson I could find. Luckily, his work was in constant circulation and I come from a long line of old school sci-fi geeks, enabling me to find original prints of stories like “Born of Man and Woman” which appeared in the Year’s Best Science Fiction of 1950. Considering that gems like “The Weapon Shop” by A.E. van Vogt and “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby were in the same volume, Matheson had excellent company. “Steel” of course gave rise to the Twilight Zone episode of the same name and while I haven’t seen Real Steel yet, I want to eventually. I mean, come on, who doesn’t really want to see Wolverine teach a ten foot robot how to box like a pro?

I purposely stayed away from his longer works for years. I liked his short stories so much, I didn’t want to ruin the appreciation I had for them. But I was in the habit of seeing the films that had been made of his longer work before reading the books. (That was how we rolled in the 70s, yo.) Films like The Omega Man and The Incredible Shrinking Man were enjoyable in their own campy ways. They weren’t great works of art but they were fun. The Legend of Hell House was a fair adaptation of the frankly terrifying book of the same name–except the movie managed to be even creepier in the way that only 1970s ghost movies can be. As for the film Robin Williams made of What Dreams May Come . . . well, after having finally read the book, let’s just say the film didn’t quite measure up. I read I Am Legend for the first time around the time the Will Smith film came out (never saw it, not planning to) and thought it one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read.

I admit I haven’t read The Incredible Shrinking Man yet, either, although it sits on my shelf. That book is a big deal, or became a big deal once I found out that Scott Carey was a stand in for Matheson’s father who lost his job and his confidence some time in middle age. That hits a little close to home.

Then there are books like The Path. I read that one years ago, right after reading What Dreams may Come . . . which, Matheson swore in the acknowledgements, was written purely from research except for the characters. I’m still not sure if it’s meant to be fiction or not.

If you’re a good enough story teller, then the science doesn’t really matter. Richard Matheson was. He will be missed.


A Book A Week: The Explorer

I spent this week taking in the horrors that James Smythe imposed upon his characters in The Explorer. It’s a lot of fun but not for the reasons you would probably expect.

What the author had to say on where the book came from was instructive: On the Apollo 11 mission while Aldrin and Armstrong were bouncing around collecting moon rocks, astronaut Michael Collins was alone in the command module, absolutely cut off from human contact for nearly an hour. Collins reported it as a liberating feeling, but then astronauts are supposed to be made of sterner stuff. What would some guy do in his place?

Well, in this case, some guy is Cormac Easton. And he handles it badly.

Cormac is a journalist turned astronaut, assigned to cover the story of the century: the first manned space mission to the reaches beyond the Moon. The idea is to head out as far as possible, with a crew that’s been trained to handle the daily rigors of running the ship as well as the media aspects of selling it to the public. All the funding is provided by corporate sponsors, and the result is a ship filled with brands and logos: the food bars, the uniforms, the equipment, the hardware. The news networks will be watching everything they do. The point is to make space exploration awesome again to a world that has  lost the bug for manned space missions.

The optimistic crew climbs into their sleep pods, the ship blasts off. All is well. Then the crew awakens to find that Arlen, the ship’s pilot, is floating outside of his pod, dead. They call it an accident, Ground Control insists that they push onwards, and life goes on.

Things keep going wrong. The ship’s systems malfunction and shut down. The crew die, one by one, and while each death is tragic, the communications from Ground Control are consistent: deal with it, forge ahead, the mission comes first. Eventually, the radio goes and that’s the end of that.

Finally, Cormac is left alone after having to sedate the ship’s doctor and stuff her into her sleep pod, comatose. He mopes, writes, broods, eats, drinks, breathes, writes, laments, writes , sleeps, all in total isolation. The crew is gone, Ground Control is gone, his family on Earth is gone. Finally, the ship itself proves damaged beyond his ability to repair or even comprehend. He grasps one thing: the ship’s fuel supply will run out in a few days and with it, his air. There is no hope of going home; the ship’s autopilot is also gone, and he doesn’t know how to fix it, anyway.

Cormac finally decides that enough enough. Destroying the ship is the only way out. He heads to the pilot’s chair, brings the engines to full power, says his goodbyes to the universe, pushes the button–

–and then wakes up in complete darkness, freezing, oxygen starved, and freaking out. His hands find what he recognizes as a sleep pod, pulls it open, displaces the body inside with his own, and sleeps. He wakes, opens the pod, sees the now dead body of Arlen, the ship’s pilot, and realizes that not only has he somehow gone back to the beginning, but he’s becom(ing) the cause of his ship’s problem.

Then things get really strange.

This is a difficult book to read, primarily because it brings up the question that all nifty time-travel stories have: where does agency fit in to a world that is looped in on itself ? In Cormac Easton’s case, he finds out the hard way. Once he realizes what he’s done and where he is, he retreats from his crew mates, choosing to live in the ship’s storeroom and later literally crawls into the lining of the hull, watching the others go about their lives through the grill work. I found the choice of the lining fascinating, like a weird kind of ascension even as he devolves into an insect.

This strategy lets the reader take a look at the story and the metastory at the same time. It makes for an always fascinating, frequently infuriating, and occasional aggravating read. Cormac finds out exactly what happens by being able to observe everyone, very much in a fly-on-the-wall point of view. He discovers that the ship’s mission was a hoax: they were never meant to come home. Their deaths were meant to inspire a new wave of space exploration.He discovers that the accident that killed one crewman was no accident, but a suicide, and that the ship’s engineer was actually paid to sabotage the ship.

My trouble was the question of agency.  It’s there, but as Cormac watches himself and his coworkers go through the motions and we find out what really happened to each crew member in turn, his own detachment from them and from his first self compounds. Finally, you just want to reach into the page and shake the poor guy, slap him across the face a few times, and scream DON’T JUST TELL YOURSELF IT’S HOPELESS, YOU IDIOT! DOOOOOO SOMETHING!

Yeah. Maybe it’s just me expecting a book other than the one that Smythe wrote, but that really bugged me. It’d be one thing if he tried to change things and was thwarted by whatever, but to tell yourself that something can’t be changed because it can’t be changed sounds like giving up.

And yet, it made sense. Cormac is a reporter, an observer. Watching everything and paying almost voyeuristic attention to people and how they interact is what he does. And in fairness to the author, that’s how he shows us just how screwed up everything in this story is. It worked.

So if you’re into giant space battles, you might want to pass this one up. If, on the other hand, you enjoy tortured explorations into the human soul, then this book is just your speed.

A Book A Week: The Long Earth

I spent the week burning through The Long Earth, the most recent work by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I almost but not quite wish that I hadn’t.

The premise is simple: infinite Earths just a step away from our own along an “East” or “West” axis. They’re all ours, the planet is the same, along with the geography, and they all occupy the same time. But due to variation of circumstance along the same time span, some are very close to ours while others are just plain weird. The one thing that none of them seem to have (except ours, of course) is people.

All this was made apparent after a rather eccentric scientist posted plans for a stepper to the internet. It’s a simple device made from a varnished wooden box, ten dollars’ worth of parts from Radio Shack and a potato. Days later, two millon children put these things together and disappear from the planet.

One of these kids, a boy named Joshua Valiente, is hyper attuned to stepping, and it turns out was liteally the first person born while his mother was stepping. Joshua only feels truly at home in the absence of other people and spends more time visiting other Earths than he does on this one. Which is why he’s recruited by the transEarth Corporation to find out just how many worlds there are and what they are like. That’s where he meets Lobsang, a reincarnated mind inside a computer who plans a bit of hard core exploration of the new worlds with Joshua in tow.

Step Day changes everything but not in the way you might first think. There are limits to stepping, for instance. Step boxes must be hand made by their owners. Some people step far and wide with no afteraffects but most get violently ill after each transition. Some people can’t step at all and are stuck at home forever. You can take anything with you as you step like your clothes, or a bag of goods, or your unborn child, but metallic iron can’t. The iron thing prevents the industrialized nations from exploiting the natural resources of a billion new earths as logically as they might want. Having to step to a new world then start from scratch slows things down.

People head to the new frontier. The slums of London empty out, the Australian aborigines head out in huge groups to live like their ancestors did, blending modern sensibilities with ancient dreamtime memories. A few folks go out to carve empires. Entire convoys go to create new communities and suddenly having an MBA doesn’t get you very far at all.

But the further out you step, the stranger the worlds get and some of them are just plain bad places for humans to visit much less settle.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. The story is told along a multitude of axes, much like the nature of the Long Earth. The main thrust of the action is centered on Joshua and Lobsang and their journey towards the far reaches of the Long Earth. It’s never boring but it starts to drag around page 200 and never truly recovers. Throughout the book we get glimpses of what else is going on: Officer Monica Jansson keeps tabs on an anti-stepper hate group; the Green family moves out into the Long Earth to play frontier folk while abandoning their thirteen year old son at home (he can’t step); entrepreneur Jim Russo aims to build a trading empire in the new worlds and just doesn’t have the hang of it. All of these folks get their fifteen minutes of fame as it were, but we don’t stick with any of them long enough to really care about them.

I had a similar problem with the nature of the Long Earth itself. We are constantly shown Earths that might have been but we don’t stay in any of them long enough to process the implications. There’s a rush to get to the next world in the chain. To be fair, one of the characters Joshua picks up in his travels chides him for this. Through her we find a settlement in the middle of the distant realm of the Long Earth where people have been accidentally stepping and congregating for millennia, and it’s interesting but it doesn’t last long enough to satisfy.

This is not too unlike the way that Baxter wrote Evolution a few years ago, but at least there he was dealing with a single environment that was being looked at from a few poignant time-frames over a single four billion year history. In that respect, The Long Earth is a book about dimension hopping the way that Evolution was a textbook on biology.

And yet there is a fascinating discussion of community and individuality, the nature of consciousness and how it shapes reality, and how that truth of quantum physics shaped the Long Earth in the hands of non-human sapient species. It also quickly became clear which portions of the story were written by Baxter and which were devised by Pratchett. It never stopped being entertaining.

But I wish I had liked it more than I did.

A Book A Week: Daemon

Have you ever gotten a phone call that promises to ruin your whole day? Detective Peter Sebeck just did:

“Detective Sebeck. I was Matthew Sobol. Chief technology officer of CyberStorm Entertainment. I am dead.

“I see you’ve been assigned to the Josef Pavlos and Chopra Singh murder cases. Let me save you some time: I killed both men. Soon you’ll know why. But you have a problem: because I’m dead, you can’t arrest me. More importantly: you can’t stop me.”

Some days, the word “oops” just doesn’t go far enough.

And so we come to the meat of Daemon by Daniel Suraez, a particularly harrowing techno-thriller for anyone who comes from the world of IT and anyone with a bevvy of microchips in their daily life.

The deaths of two top level programmers at CyberStorm Entertainment attract the attention of the police and Detective Sergeant Peter Sebeck is assigned to cover the case. One man died from an apparent electrocution and another was decapitated by a gate winch. Sebeck declares both deaths to be homicide and investigates. Along the way, he gets a crash introduction to hackers, crackers, spoofs,  spear-phishing, identity theft, server protocols, and other tools of the IT trade. He quickly realizes that he’s out of his element and calls in the FBI to take the case over; an unsavory but necessary decision. But Sebeck doesn’t stop there. He meets a programmer named Jon Ross who figures out that the murders were the work of a daemon–a computer program that lives in the background–and lets Sebeck know that the mayhem has only just started.

Ultimately, the daemon is the work of a genius level programmer turned gaming tycoon: Matthew Sobol, father of CyberStorm Entertainment, who died weeks earlier of a brain tumor. But the daemon lives on, working in the background, reading the news as it’s posted on the internet and recruiting new “players” as they become required to beat the police and establish itself as a power in the real world.

The closest thing to this book I’ve seen was years ago when I first read The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer. In that story, an ambitious M.D. proves the existence of the human soul (the “soulwave”) which survives the death of the body. In order to learn more about whether consciousness itself survives, he creates copies of his own mind, alters them for control and experimental status and lets them loose in cyberspace. Murder and mayhem ensue.

Suarez’s story takes the idea further than Sawyer could have, both because of the greater depth which which he presents the world of information technology to the reader, and the powerful agency that his daemon possesses. That’s not Sawyer’s fault by any means; the technology and complexity of the world of computers has increased manyfold since The Terminal Experiment hit the shelves in 1995 and Sawyer was telling a different, much more intimate story.

Suarez, on the other hand, ninja dives straight into the world of computers and the people who use them, and never truly surfaces. He’s one of the few sci-fi writers to comprehend that the world we live in here and now is made of computers. But because 99% of the machines we interact with operate in the background, we don’t think of them or about them until they fail to work properly. In that respect, microchips are very much light electricity or plumbing, and just as vital to our daily lives.

More to the point, nobody complains as bitterly when the toilet stops up or the sink clogs . . . we think of it as annoying as hell, but a call to a plumber is enough to resolve the problem. The worst we do is gripe to our workers are and friends about to $200 bill the correction cost. But if you have worked on a Helpdesk, you know just how shrilly people complain about their gizmos and gadgets. We’ve never really recovered from the revolution in chip manufacturing that enable a single iPod to carry more computational power than in all the computers built before 1980. Hell, my iPhone carries 125,000 times the memory of the multi-billion dollar computers that were built for the Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s. Suarez makes this sense of entitlement work for him (and against us) as he shows us what a world run by computers for their own benefit looks like, right up to deploying computer-operated drone weapons built from stock Hummers and motorcycles. (Hint: if you see a vanity plate that reads AUTOM8D, run like hell.)

The second part of the story is found in the sequel, Freedom, which I haven’t read yet (but will.) in the mean time, Daemon is frightening, timely, and worth looking at. Carefully.


A Book A Week: Old Man’s War

I have a dilemma: too little time to read and too damn many books on my “To Read” pile. So, this is the day that I do something about it.

Jonathan Coulton got a project going back when where he would write, record, and release a new song every seven days for a year. He called it A Thing A Week and it gave him a platform to establish himself as a geek song lord. I’m not going for anything that ambitious other than the ambition of purchasing all of JoCo’s work, which I’ve already done. But I do like the discipline of getting through and reporting on the texts one week at a time.

So, every Friday I’ll post a reader advisory of a book off my shelf and I’ll call it A Book a Week. It gets its own category and everything so you can set the pages to scan according to tags or category filters.

I figured I’d do a bit on Old Man’s War by John Scalzi to start. One because I like Scalzi’s work, and two I just finished the book so it’s still fresh in my mind. A not-too distant third is that the novel is a clear riff on Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, and I’ve been a giant Heinlein freak for a very long time.

Here we go:

John Perry has just turned 75. And he does what any other red-blooded American septugenarian might do on his birthday: he visits the grave of his dead wife, wraps up his affairs, and joins the Colonial Defense Forces.

Perry’s experience in boot camp gives us the basics. The CDF is Earth’s first and only line of defense in a universe that has nothing good to offer humanity except new planets to colonize, and the rare alliance with an alien race that doesn’t want to kill us. This has been going on for centuries, and we’ve learned a few important lessons while traipsing among the stars.

First, there are more of them than there are of us. Second, many of them don’t like us except as a potential hors d’hourve with dinner (if not as dinner). Third, even those alien races who do like us, think of us as too evenly matched to really fight with. Fourth and most importantly, they all want the same real estate we do and are willing to kill us for it.

The Colonial Defense Force is therefore very necessary and recruits from the best Earth has to offer: the oldsters.

It makes a wacky sort of sense. Older people have interpersonal skills, life experience, and job-related skills that no nineteen year old can hope to match. The main thing the kids bring to the party is the physicality of youth: strength, endurance, stamina, and-near limitless energy.

The CDF can fix that, though. We learn that the Colonial Defense Forces have access to technology that nobody on Earth ever even sees, because well, the folks back home don’t need it. The fancy stuff–the beanstalk and orbital space station, the skip drives, the starships, the weapons and armor, and especially the new genetically enhanced bodies that each soldiers is wired into during their orientation–is due to the trade the CDF has managed with other, more advanced, alien races. Humanity gets technology, yes, but it’s universally applied to colonizing and defending other planets. That includes defending said colonists, and that means a huge infantry.

Oh, and nobody who enlists, either as a colonist or as a soldier, ever sets foot on Earth again. Ever. One more reason to take the old ones rather than the kids. People with a lifetime’s worth of experience have a better basis from which to choose to leave.

It’s a fun read, both for the main character’s personality, and the way that Scalzi unfolds the universe for us. There’s not a lot of descriptive verse which works, as it’s an action story, but I happen to like that sort of thing. Similarly, space battles and boots on the ground sequences are told explicitly from Perry’s POV. None of this is problematic and it’s all fun. But Starship Troopers included enough of the wacky bureaucratic nonsense one expects of the military to give the story an extra dimension that I didn’t feel coming off the pages from this book.  On the other hand, the story engages to the point where that added bulk isn’t necessary.

Besides which the book’s main character is an old guy. As I plod through middle age, it’s easier to identify with older characters–one reason why I liked the movie Red so damn much–and I thought that Scalzi brought out that aspect of John Perry’s character nicely. You get old, you watch everyone you know die, then you sign up, get young again (Woo!), make some new friends who then die half a galaxy away . . . After a while, it gets to you. But in the meantime, you do your job, you check your rifle, and hope the guy leading your platoon knows his business.

This book came out in 2004; there has since been a sequel to it (The Ghost Brigades), but I’ll get to that a future post. I just got a copy of Scalzi’s Redhirts and need to deal with that first.

Top Genre Fiction Titles

Our reference librarian asked me to think about what we might want on the shelves to represent genre fiction titles.

My writing for genre fiction has been limited to a couple of RPG adventure books a long time ago and an epic SF series (The Blockade) that I hope will be published sooner rather than later. I have shared opinions on Andrew Burt’s Critters workshop. I’ve taken writing workshops in college, which, to my mind, is the only time anyone needs to take such classes, because, hey, 3 credits!  I know my own writing here can be kind of rushed sometimes (like, when I’m in a rush) and I try to avoid that.

On the other hand, I know what I like to read. I can tell a good story from a bad one. I know what good writing looks like, or I think I do. And God help me, I know what bad writing looks like. That said, I do enjoy thinking about what titles I’ve read recently (or not) that remain with me.

Granted, the genre stuff I read these days  is limited to sci-fi. I have read and enjoyed fantasy books in the past but it’s been years since I found anything in that space that I like enough to suggest.

At the same time, I’m slogging through titles which I think are amazing (The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, for one) which I don’t think our students are likely to enjoy. My favorite horror write of all time is Joe R. Landsdale, but unless you really enjoy reading about the freakish things that happen in East Texas, you’re unlikely to share that opinion. We got requests for Urban fantasy, too, but in that realm, your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, because your guess is as good as mine I’m looking for feedback on this one. I’d appreciate hearing from readers (all three of you) what you’d suggest for the genre fiction shelf.

My nowhere nearly exhaustive sci-fi list is as follows:

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Long Earth by Terry Prachett and Steven Baxter

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Expiration Date by Tim Powers

Good Omens by Terry Prachett and Neil Gaiman

Moonfall by Jack McDevitt


And on the fantasy side:

The first two Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson

The River of Dancing Gods series by Jack L. Chalker

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkein (obviously)


What do you think? What did I miss?

R.I.P Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

You've heard by now that author Ray Bradbury passed on yesterday. There's not much more to say beyond the fact that he will be missed. I choose to think of the fact that he published a short piece in the New Yorker a few days before his death titled "Take me Home" in which he discusses the inspiration for "The Fire Balloons" a beautiful short story that appeared in The Illustrated Man and some editions of The Martian Chronicles as a bit of vaguely supernatural nifty. It explores the intersection of religion and science fiction, as a priest from Earth seeks to evangelize alien entities on Mars, only to discover that he has things to learn from them.


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