Friday, March 28, 2014

Reviews of "Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key"

I've received several thoughtful personal notes about the story; I thought I'd post here the links to some online reviews.

Tangent Online

Singular Points

SteveReads

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Regarding "Each in His Prison" in the new Asimov's

The fourth story in my "Old Man" series is in the April/May 2014 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, on shelves this week.

"Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key" is a direct sequel to "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down," my Doc Savage/pulp hero homage that appeared in Asimov's in 2010. This latest story relies on not only the first "Old Man" tale but also 2011's "Clockworks," which takes place in 1962, and 2012's "Unearthed," which takes place in 1925. (All three stories appeared in Asimov's and are available in e-format via Amazon.) Readers will learn what has become of the Old Man in the five years since "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" and will join a "gifted" young lieutenant who wants to solve the dangerous puzzles surrounding the Old Man. The story also sets up readers for a final tale, "The World Will Be the World Again," coming in the not-too-distant future. (I'm working on it! I'm working on it!)

I appreciate readers' continuing (and new!) interest in these tales. Let me know what you think of these stories.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Going Too Far: PILGRIM'S WILDERNESS and TRANSCENDENTAL

Last week I read two books. One book took me someplace I'd never been, provided rich descriptions of a strange world, and delved into a history of discomfiting beliefs and beings. The other book was science fiction.

Tom Kizzia's Pilgrim's Wilderness is stunningly good. A non-fiction account of a dominating and demon-haunted family patriarch who takes his wife and 14 (later 15) children into the Alaskan wilds, the book is written with such energy, it feels novelistic—but not in the way of some fake suspenser masquerading as nonfiction, like The Hot Zone. The book is novelistic in style—employing rich language to provide vivid descriptions—and in structure, shifting through time according to the demands of the narrative. To say much about what happens is to spoil some of the book's surprises. Suffice it to say that "Mr. Pilgrim's" story begins in a past cluttered with privilege, tragedy, and unexpected connections. It would end with deprivation, tragedy, and horror. What the man did to his family makes for a disturbing tale, but reporter Kizzia also wants us to see how people responded to "Pilgrim," how communities struggled to both accommodate the varying impressions the man purveyed while also being mindful of his children.

Some of the actors have much to answer for, as their own paranoid politics fuel perspectives just as damaged as Pilgrim's. But Kizzia is evenhanded in treating both the people of the town of McCarthy (and other human developments through which the family passed) and the U.S. government, which in some ways mishandles the Alaskan wilderness and the people who live there. The author has a dog in the fight, too, as he and his wife (now deceased) had constructed a cabin in the region, drawn by the beauty and isolation. This is an American story. People do sometimes want to be left alone. Yet sometimes people only say they want to be left alone. Some people head into isolation for reasons that may not be isolating, but binding, as they look for connections amidst the vast emptiness. And some people are hiding. Like many stories of the American wilderness, it's a story of survival—and as in many stories of survival, the most dangerous animal is human.

Read Pilgrim's Wilderness.

The book was such a dramatic contrast to James Gunn's deeply disappointing Transcendental, about which the less said, the better. The blurbs that hawk its connections to Chaucer are disingenuous: there's a ship named the Geoffrey and some aliens tell stories on the way to wherever-they're-going, but beyond those superficial nods (and occasional other tossed-off literary hiccups), there's no deeper commitment to the types of wild stories told by Chaucer's pilgrims; in fact, all of the stories are similar, the voices are similar, and the aliens weirdly lean toward thinking that, annoying as humans are, maybe their systems of culture and government are better, with the elephant-type creature going so far as to declare that maybe humans, with their monogamy, have the right idea. Almost nothing happens in the novel; "transcendence" itself doesn't seem especially transcendental, once it's explained (so the final let-down isn't much of a surprise), and the novel appears to be a set-up for a series of books . . . unless Gunn truly intended for this to be merely a shaggy dog tale.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Next "Old Man" story

The next story in my "Old Man" sequence, "Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key," will come out in the April/May 2014 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction (which, due to the magic of magazine time travel, will be available beginning at the end of February).

The previous stories in the sequence ("Helping Them Take the Old Man Down," "Clockworks," and "Unearthed") continue to be available via Amazon.

The final story, "The World Will Be the World Again," is still being written.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Privacy Lost: Dave Eggers's THE CIRCLE


Why is this book typeset in “ragged right” rather than “justified”? Beats me. Mostly, it’s not noticeable, but at times, it’s sloppily done, with large gaps on the right that would easily accommodate the next word, and tremendous inconsistency with regard to hyphenation. Why mention it? It’s an odd choice that, to some readers, will stand out; also, in a book so concerned with technological innovation, the nefarious uses of technology, and the thoughtlessness with which some changes are embraced, the typesetting decision looks like what Eggers warns against: sloppy thinking in service to some ideal.

I hadn’t finished an Eggers novel before this one; I read perhaps a quarter of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius before losing interest. This novel does have a page-turning quality to it—enough of a narrative drive is generated, once you’re past the slow and uncompelling opening scenes—so one can move through it pretty quickly. With the exception of a few scenes in which descriptive writing takes over (often in ways that feel force-fed with symbolism and significance), the story is carried by dialogue. It’s not especially good dialogue. Everyone has the same voice, and only one character ever asks the questions an intelligent reader would ask. The main character is not only charmless, she’s a cypher. It’s possible that that’s what Eggers intends, given how she never makes a single good decision. (I’m not sure I’ve read another novel of which I could say that of the main character; I think even Humbert Humbert probably makes a few good decisions, or at least defensible ones.) This quality of hers may be why she’s hired, promoted, and successful.

In short: Mae is brought in, via an old friend, Annie, to work for The Circle, a Google/Facebook stand-in that has a cool campus in California and outsized ambitions to change the world using online technology. Mae quickly learns that one doesn’t merely work for The Circle; rather, one joins a community—a community that doesn’t like being snubbed and that wants to know everything about her. That, of course, becomes the tension-generating pivot around which the story turns, though Eggers’s handling of the technology isn’t convincing (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore does a better job of leaping several minutes into the future by way of Google while also feeling more grounded in tech-type thinking). There’s an interesting question at the heart of this book about knowing and being known, but the big moments are telegraphed, the insights are blunt, and the book’s set-up is so gradual and surface-level, it felt to me as if Eggers needed to rethink at least the opening in light of where he was going to take the character, shaping the narrative more subtly.

Fifty years ago, or even twenty, this novel would be a satire. For their times, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World were satires, taking real things to their next level as a way of critiquing them. This book, at this time, can’t find anything to satirize. Mostly, Eggers describes things as they already are. The sole satirical element, to my eyes, was the proliferation of screens on our protagonist’s desk. “No one told you about monitoring your third screen? Here,”—and another computer screen is hauled within view. The way in which information is thuddingly and incongruously dropped into our protagonist’s lap seems the stuff of comedy, but it comes across as flat, especially since Mae simply yields to whatever is thrown at her.

I did enjoy the novel, but it’s not an especially well-crafted thing. Fittingly, it seems to be getting the critical praise it was crowd-designed to earn, but I was happy to see that citizen reviewers weren’t quite so impressed. It’s light entertainment with some half-considered ideas and no real surprises.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Long-Distance Romance: Burroughs's A PRINCESS OF MARS


As if to prove my lack of pulp and SF cred: I had not read this book before.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first John Carter adventure, A Princess of Mars was originally serialized as Under the Moons of Mars. I prefer that more evocative title (the moons being an oft-referenced motif in the story), though in fact, A Princess of Mars suits the resulting story better—and identifies one of the novel’s two chief faults.

The tale starts well enough, and I was familiar with the beginning (or at least its most necessary elements) from the Marvel Comics adaptation from the 1970s. Trapped in a cave by a group of hostile Apache, one-time Confederate officer John Carter steps out of his body and is transported to the planet Mars. Burroughs does a wonderful job setting up his premise, providing teasing bits of information in advance, creating tense scenes, and capturing our hero’s confusion at each turn of events. Then there’s the implied subtext of the novel, with the Native/white man conflict in the U.S. providing a lead-in to warring species on Mars learning to cooperate through John Carter’s intervention (though largely they cooperate in slaughtering other peoples). Though the green, gigantic, tusked, four-armed Martians and the red-skinned, human-like Martians seem to each contain components of Native Americans, the green folks get the sorry end of the comparison, with their communal rearing of children, pragmatic dispatching of the disabled, and their warlike ways seen as barbaric in contrast with the culture of the red Martians, who only make war when they need to. However, by the time the book wraps up, it becomes evident that the culture is not its people, and green Martians aren’t innately bad, just badly led. I’m sure someone’s written a dissertation on how ERB distributes good and bad traits among the various Martian peoples.

I have no idea what the idea is behind the white Martian apes, who, like the green Martians, claim squatters’ rights in the ancient abandoned cities but only show up when the plot requires it.

The story’s main weaknesses are two: the Dejah Thoris thread, and the shaggy construction of the novel’s second half. Once the beautiful Dejah Thoris enters the narrative, John Carter is in love; not a terribly well-defined character prior to this, he now becomes focused on the source of his adoration, and thus his mood shifts depending on his reading of the moods of his beloved. It’s exhausting and not terribly interesting, and Burroughs withholds information so that he can provide us with some late-story entanglements that could have easily been avoided. Also, though the princess gets some bold speeches to indicate her self-regard, she’s a less interesting character than Carter—and somewhat petty emotionally. (This is repaired in the 2012 film version, though the movie was lumbered with a poor choice for its lead and a jumpy narrative.)

There comes a point where the story lapses fully into pulpiness in the style of A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with psychic powers that come and go, convenient coincidences in every scene, and the clear case of a writer merely chattering away (and sending his characters lurching about) until he’s filled his word quota. Certain fight scenes which seem crucial get rushed as if Burroughs lost interest, while other moments drag out as he works to tie up the many narrative threads. The story does become vivid again near the end, setting up the reader marvelously for further adventures and intentionally leaving several elements unexplained and unresolved.

All-in-all, a mixed bag, but worth it for the premise, the sporadic strong scenes, and the many flights of invention.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Asimov's and the Old Man stories

My newest story in Asimov's Science Fiction, "Vox ex Machina," is a stand-alone tale that only exists because, in the real world, the guys who built the Philip K. Dick "android" lost the thing's head. Commence fiction.

My next story in the "Old Man" sequence, "Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key," will appear in the April/May issue of Asimov's, which comes out in February. The previous stories in the sequence continue (for now) to be available via Amazon for Kindle and the Kindle app. (Here's hoping that once I write the fifth and final story, "The World Will Be the World Again," someone will assemble all five stories between two covers.)

Though the stories jump around chronologically, they should be read in the order in which they were written: "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down," "Clockworks," and "Unearthed," which take place in 2001/2, 1962, and 1925, respectively. The new story takes place in 2006. As for the final story . . . you'll see.