Book Review: The Rebels by Elizabeth Lang

The Rebels, by Elizabeth Lang, sequel to The Empire, is an entertaining, clever book.

I say 'clever' for several reasons. Firstly, Lang's greatest strength is her dialogue, which engages the reader with the characters and adds a sense of realism. Secondly, her backdrop is tangible, a future society where dystopian nightmares come true, but on a galactic level. Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, Lang cleverly continues themes from her first book, but at the same time twists them in ingenious ways.

In The Empire, a great amount of Lang's book is devoted to Adrian, the tortured soul of a genius scientist. It continues into The Rebels, but we have another soul (the bounty hunter Drel Argus) who in fact is the most poignant, noticeable tortured character.

I simplify when it would be unfair to Lang. There are many characters who have depth and turn this science fiction novel into a memorable one indeed.

The Rebels Cover

Five deserved stars.

Market News: scifi Flash Piece Now in Print

Happy to announce that my scifi flash fiction, 'Fred Has A Productive Day', is now out in Kindle and Paperback through Amazon, in the anthology Battlespace Vol1 (a military themed science fiction). It has an extensive and quality selection of short stories and flash pieces, and all proceeds go to a worthy cause. Details are here.


Market News: scifi short story, Whistle In The Wind

Happy to announce that my historical scifi piece, Whistle In The Wind, set in post WWII Netherlands and Germany, has been accepted by Another Sky Press' Alien Sky Anthology. Pleased with this in part because it is quirky, only touching on scifi in terms of total words, and also because there is a tinge of my father's background involved.

Book Review: Ferryman by Jonathon Wise

Paul Goat Allen, B&N speculative fiction reviewer, says that 2012 will be the year for post apocalyptic fiction, in no small way to do with the media beat up of the Mayan end of the world predictions. I heartily agree, not just because of his logical reasoning, but because if Jonathon Wise's new novel, Ferryman, is indicative of what's turning up in 2012, I'm happy to read many more.

Ferryman is, in my mind, treating well worn tropes in a fresh way, and I am impressed with the extent to which he raised the bar in this sub-genre of science fiction. These are, in my mind, the main reasons why it is fresh:

1. There are no zombies.
2. There are no zombies. There, I got that out of the way.
3. While there have been top notch virus-based post-apocalyptic fiction in the past – the one that comes to mind as one of the best, was Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain, most such stories are focused on the main protagonists solving the problem – finding the cure for the virus, snuffing out the contagion, or some other rescue technique. This is goodness, but it is also, in mind, rather well-worn. Ferryman is clearly about the effects of the virus that affects humanity (and in fact, most animals – naaaasty), but this is secondary, the backdrop. This story is about people – how they are affected in various ways by a catastrophic disaster and how the human spirit rises. Again the human spirit thing is not new, but the way Wise balances the science/effects and placing focus on those who survived, is remarkably fresh.
4. This isn't about good versus evil, which is so well constructed by Stephen King in The Stand. There is definitely evil generated in the aftermath of the pandemic, but it isn't intrinsic. It has reasons attached to it, explored in detail by Wise's excellent narrative. There are moments in his story that wrench your heart – both in terms of brutality as well as sacrifice or unjust loss among some of the characters the reader emphathises with – this is a differentiating feature of the Ferryman.
5. The conclusion. I won't give it away, but I found it appropriate, well balanced, and unexpected. We don't have a cataclysmic good versus evil clash, nor a laboratory cure of a disease. But we have a very good ending nevertheless.

Ferryman is appropriately titled because the main protagonist is a man who, through complex and evolving reasons, turns into a hero. A man who saves others, by getting them from one place to another. A ferryman. Wise develops complex and vivid characters, which is certainly another key feature of this novel.

This is a stand-out novel of 2012, and well aligned with the popular interest in post-apocalyptic fiction (I should mention here that no mention is made of the Mayan end of world prediction – this is also, in my mind, refreshing).

Five well deserved stars.

Market Update: Special

I have my science fiction short story, Special, now available in Flying Island Press' Autism Benefit mixed genre anthology, Pieces of Eight: Autism Awareness. This is important to me, as my daughter has autism and I wanted to contribute to this worthwhile book. It is currently available in various e-formats, and I believe it will come out soon in voice.

Please buy this to help society better understand our cousins who are different, but nevertheless Special.

It can be purchased at Flying Island Press.

Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Like all avid scifi readers, I heard of Bacigalupi’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel, and I certainly wanted to read it. I fairly recently read a great short story of his previously, ‘Pop Squad’, in Brave New Worlds (a very well written, disturbing dystopian story), and I wanted to read more of him.

The Windup Girl is one of the best novels of any genre I have read, in many years. It deserves its Hugo and Nebula awards, as it is a masterpiece of futuristic world building, within the confines of Earth’s future. It’s characters are sensitively portrayed in detail, and the plot is intricate, surprising in its turns, and penetrating in theme. It is what any aspiring speculative fiction writer wants to achieve. It is a benchmark, a masterpiece. I don’t use superlatives like these too often. The novel is that good.

Perhaps the only criticism I can lay before you – and it is more a case of personal taste than a technicality – is that I am not overly enamored of the third person, present tense POV for works of any substantial length. It took me quite a while to avoid the distraction of this less-than comfortable style of writing (albeit, I accept that it was useful for enhancing the immediacy of the tension of the tenor of the novel). Even in Bacigalupi’s case, I don’t necessarily think pros outweighed the cons with regard to this matter. Given the mastery of the writing, plot, characterization and themes, this criticism is a small matter.

The world building astonishes me. As I hinted above, Bacigalupi creates a future society within the context of a future Earth, but transformed beyond expectation. Genetics is the keystone of what technically (and culturally) drives society, in a backdrop of an energy-starved population. It smack of truth, given the inroads in genetics and the Monsantos of this world. It also smacks of truth with current issues with regard to environmentalism. What makes this particular powerful, however, is representing this future world in the microcosm of a future Thailand. This was masterful, and Bacigalupi clearly researched this part of the world meticulously. I use the term ‘microcosm’ lightly, because it turns out that this future Thailand is a special place, unique and more than just a representative of humanity-to-come – it is in many ways the center of humanity’s universe.

Bacigalupi paints his characters well, and not a single one of them is just noble and righteous. They are all flawed, due to the circumstances of their lives, and because, quite simply, they are human. Even the New People. The key characters, Anderson, Hock Seng, Kanya, Jaidee, and The Windup Girl (Emiko), are expertly drawn and attract reader empathy, and yet are scrutinized for their frailties, whether they were self-constructed or were thrust upon them.

Anyone with a predilection for speculative fiction, and particularly dystopian themes, will be immersed in The Windup Girl, and will want to read more. If you have discomfort with the Third Person, Present Tense POV style, try hard to ignore it – it’s still well worth it.

Five sparkling stars.

Simplifying What Has Been Made Complex

I have been noticing interesting discussions in various blog sites and forums, regarding, in particular, the definition, or purpose (for want of a better word) of steampunk, and satellite discussions of a similar nature on fantasy and science fiction (perennial, those last two). Being in the IT industry, a maxim that I follow is to simplify, not over-complicate or over-analyze, and I humbly suggest that this is where we go with these topics.

I will not go to dictionary or wikipedia definitions of the terms in question, and I will wing this without research, other than what’s in my head. At the least, you will get an insight into how my head works. I should add that my comments are in terms of literature, not lifestyles, subcultures, etc.

With regard to steampunk, I have read much on concepts, like it being inherently utopian, optimistic, etc. While I have read a lot that are, I fail to see this core definition as working, and I think it deviates from what it intrinsically is. Some of the best steampunk stories that I have read are in fact dystopian in nature and provide a deep insight into the darker side of society, and like all good science fiction and fantasy stories, say something about us (Excellent Service by Tonia Brown, is an very good example – Steampunk Anthology – Sonar4, 2010). I have written 3 steampunk short stories (1 published, 1 to be published this year) and I admit to preferring to exploit the dark side of the subgenre.

I recently joined a steampunk group on Facebook that has a HUGE membership, and absolutely love its definition: ‘steampunk is Victorian science fiction’. That’s it. And in my mind it materially works. While stories do not have to take place in Great Britain or one of her Empirical settings per se, nor for that matter strictly while Queen Victoria was alive (hey, nothing wrong with a 1910 setting, right?), it couldn’t be steampunk without the Victorian flavor. What I like about the setting element of the definition is that it still has huge potential for variety – US Western setting, or in the case of one of my stories, on a planet in a far off stellar system. Steampunk is about a society that is still largely technologically oriented toward steam mechanisms and its derivatives, and this originated largely during the Victorian era. Steam technology is critical to the definition and atmosphere of the subgenre – I contend that little else matters.

Now to the second part of the "steampunk is Victorian science fiction" definition – yes, it is science fiction. It is the science fiction of the Victorian era, such as Jules Verne and H G Wells (at least part of his career). It is, as I recall Jay Lake referencing recently, the science fiction extrapolations that emanate from the Victorian era. It becomes, in essence, an alternate reality set in the Victorian era.

I really like this definition as it is simple, despite my long explanation. It begs, of course, for a definition of science fiction, and also asks the question, why isn’t steampunk fantasy?

Firstly, steampunk in some references, is defined as a subgenre of fantasy, and in other sources, co-subgenred with scifi and fantasy.

Again, trying to simplify, and accepting criticism from hard-core speculative fiction commentators, I believe science fiction is about ‘what if’, but consistent with the understanding of known science and human behavior/history. It can be set in any timeframe, and it doesn’t need to have high science content, but it has to speculate scenarios with consistency to science (it can in fact achieve this by avoiding science, up to a certain extent). This is why ‘science’ is in the category name. I should add, however, that some elements of extrapolated science can be untested, and in my mind still falls within science fiction.

Fantasy, on the other hand, expects the suspension of disbelief to work harder, and poses ‘what if’ scenarios in contradiction to current science and current knowledge.

Yes, one could argue there is a gray area between the two genres, but I think it is a moot point. If in doubt, categorize as fantasy and be done with it.

Science Fantasy is a funny category. I see it, at a high level, as contradictory (particularly against my simplified definitions), but I see it as a handy subgenre of fantasy, where ‘harder’ science is interspersed with fantasy.

So, returning to steampunk, it could be expanded (for definitional purposes) to mean "Victorian ‘what if’ stories, set within consistent science as understood in that era". It is important to point out the importance of ‘understood in that era’ – as the writer of a steampunk story will assert that reality (truth, science) is relative to Victorian society’s understanding. If it doesn’t it becomes a quaint and interesting fantasy sub-subgenre of steampunk.

Hmm, a lot of writing to assert something simply, but hey, my definition contains 13 words.