A bleeding metaphor with all its bones broken

I’ve always been more of a fantasy reader than a science fiction reader.  However, in recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to the over-the-top contemporary space opera by the likes of Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books.  But head of the pack is Peter Watts.

I’ve described his novel Blindsight  to friends as  what you’d get if Cormac McCarthy and Iain Banks collaborated on Guardians of the Galaxy.  It’s a tale of first contact, damaged yet hyper-functioning humans, space vampires, and the future of the human race packed with searing prose and delivering a dizzying and ultimately bleak analysis of the evolution, function, and value of consciousness.

I recently finished the sequel, Echopraxia. Once again, Watts delivers a fast-paced, meticulously-researched, outrageous adventure. This expedition sees an old soldier, an unmodified human biologist, a desperately-obsessed pilot, a pseudo-religious hive mind, their translator, and the obligatory space vampire encountering an alien artifact that could be the answer to all their prayers or damn them all and humanity with them.

Both Blindsight and Echopraxia are impossible to finish without calling into question concepts you’ve taken for granted all your life. Where Blindsight looked at consciousness, Echopraxia wrestles with issues of autonomy, belonging, reality, (trans)humanity, and the existence of God. Watts bases all of his science fiction in real science–his books end with thirty page essays explaining the sources of the concepts the populate the novels and sharing what is speculation and what is current state. He packs all this information into the body of his story and does it without being pedantic or boring.  There are no lectures or overlong stretches of exposition.

Part of his success is his mastery of pacing, but most of it is his vivid and savage language.  Even the simplest discussions by his characters are peppered with gems like:

You could resort to analogies, I suppose. Force transhuman insights into human cookie-cutter shapes. But most of the time that would just get you a bleeding metaphor with all its bones broken.

Or this exchange as one character tries to understand the transhuman hive mind Bicameral Order:

“They micromanage tornadoes, Lee. They turn people into puppets with a wink and a wave, they own half the patent office. They’re about as helpless as a T. rex in a daycare center. So why haven’t they been running things for years?”

“That’s like a chimp asking why those hairless apes aren’t slinging bigger feces than everyone else, if they’re so damned clever.”

And yes, he just had a character use an analogy to explain transhuman insights after having another character criticize the practice, calling into question the entire second exchange while acknowledging that the only way we can understand something as alien as the Bicamerals is through analogy.

Kind of hurts my head, but in a good way.

This is exactly the reason why I read Watts.  He makes me think and pulls no punches doing it.  Yet at the same time, he delivers the action, adventure, adrenaline, high technology, and speculation about the future that I expect from the best of today’s science fiction.

But be warned, he’s not for the faint of heart.  His vision of the world is bleak.  One review on Goodreads called Blindsight the best book they’d ever read, but one they were unlikely to read again. The clearest warning I’ve seen is reviewer James Nicoll’s comment (which is prominently-displayed on Watts’ own web site):

Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.

It’s a serious warning and should be taken that way.  But if you’re willing to look into the abyss and want to be challenged while being entertained, you can’t do better than Watts.

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I’m the best!

Or at least one of the best.  I mentioned this was coming, but I’m deeply pleased that my story, “Monster in the Mountains”, is featured in the Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly: Volume 1, 2009 – 2011.

The collection is available in print and Kindle formats and contains a range of heroic fantasy short fiction and poetry (yes, poetry).  My story is in some very good company.  Especially satisfying is the fact that I wrote “Monster” explicitly for HFQ.  I’d heard that they were starting up and looking for classic  tales of sword and sorcery.  I wrote what I thought was one, and not only did they accept it for their second “issue” but it’s now in their first “Best of.”

While all their material is available on their web site for free, I recommend picking up the collection as the money will help them fund additional efforts.  Plus, it’s got a fantastic cover.  Very proud to be behind that art by Justin Sweet.

John O'Neill quote 1(1)

2015 Year in Review

The 1440 books project began with a projection of how many books I had left to read in my life.  This was based on an average of about 44 books a year.  This last year put a real dent in that plan, as my reading rate plunged to 25 books.  Still, I’ll stay optimistic and hope that somewhere in the future, I’ll make up for lost ground.

In the interim, I thought it would be a good time to look back at what I read in 2015.  I posted about a number of them, but there are a few that I didn’t post about that are worth mentioning–and worth your time.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is the best cyberpunk novel I’ve read in years.  Just replace “cyber” with “water.”  Set in the southwestern United States in a depressingly-near future, The Water Knife tells about savage fights for water rights between barely-united states.  Full of politics, technology, and predictions of our bleak future, at its heart, the novel is a rocket-paced thriller with well-crafted characters that builds to a satisyfing conclusion.

In his blurb for The Builders by Daniel Polansky, Myke Cole says “The Builders is Redwall meets Unforgiven, combining the endearing wit of Disney’s Robin Hood with all the grit and violence of a spaghetti western.”  If that appeals, just buy it now.  Trust me.  If it doesn’t, then you’re going to miss out on a gem.  I’d call this novella delightful if it weren’t so dark, but one can’t help but enjoy language like this:

The two old friends stood silently in the fading light, though you wouldn’t have known it to look at them.  That they were old friends, I mean.  Anyone could see it was getting dark.

The Shadow of the Ship by Robert Wilfred Franson and Lords of the Starship by Mark S. Geston were both “forgotten” classics of SF that I learned about at a conference many years ago and finally got around to reading.  Both delivered concepts and stories that would never sell today, but that I found deeply engaging.  Franson’s vision of subspace travel on roads of color and the quest for a ship that can go “off road” is a psychedelic odyssey in the vein of M. John Harrison’s science fiction.  Geston’s Lords of the Starship is less a novel than a work of imaginary history that rolls along nicely before suddenly, surprisingly, becoming a totally different novel at the end–in a way not everyone will appreciate, but I enjoyed.

Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin is exactly what it claims to be, but Goodwin makes vast swathes of time go down easily with evocative prose:

As rough country people whose women went unveiled, they preferred holy men who knew how to keep up to the supple intellectuals of the old cities. Tramps and wanderers they liked, fierce talk and wild habits; madmen with their plausible but unexpected utterances, whose ravings were the scorching words of God, direct and necessarily hard to understand.

For the curious, the full list of books for 2015 is:

  1. Batman: Year 100 by Paul Pope
  2. Faded Steel Heat (Garrett P.I., #9) by Glen Cook
  3. World War One: A Narrative by Philip Warner
  4. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
  5. Wildwood (Wildwood Chronicles, #1) by Colin Meloy
  6. The Golden Age Hawkman Archives, Vol. 1 by Gardner F. Fox
  7. The Whispering Swarm (Sanctuary of the White Friars, #1) by Michael Moorcock
  8. Nation by Terry Pratchett
  9. A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce, #3) by Alan Bradley
  10. Angry Lead Skies (Garrett P.I., #10) by Glen Cook
  11. The End of the Story by Clark Ashton Smith
  12. Climbers by M. John Harrison
  13. The Shadow of the Ship by Robert Wilfred Franson
  14. Dune by Frank Herbert
  15. Speaking from Among the Bones (Flavia de Luce, #5 ) by Alan Bradley
  16. Isle of the Dead by Roger Zelazny
  17. Night of Knives (Malazan Empire, #1) by Ian C. Esslemont
  18. The Getaway Man by Andrew Vachss
  19. Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance
  20. Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel
  21. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin
  22. Lords Of The Starship by Mark S. Geston
  23. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
  24. The Builders by Daniel Polansky
  25. Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure by Cecil Castellucci

Look forward to new books in 2016 and, hopefully, a few updates on my own writing.

When we are dead, the opportunity is past

Jack Vance is best known for his Dying Earth books, but I’ve been picking my way through some of his Gaean Reach science fiction as I’ve been able to snag cheap copies.  The latest was Maske: Thaery, which I picked up at a New Hampshire flea market.

Maske: Thaery tells the story of Jubal Droad, a young inhabitant of the planet Thaery who is “obstinate, forthright, and sometimes acts the swashbuckler” as one character describes him.  While on his Yallow, the youthful pilgrimage of all Thariots, Jubal is crossed and nearly killed by a stranger.  His subsequent pursuit of that stranger and a career in the Thaery equivalent of the “big city” leads him to become a hotel inspector, an interplanetary spy, and a major player in the politics of the Droad family and two planets.

Vance does not trouble with the boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and science fantasy, and so his science fiction feels more like Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy–light on science and heavy on action and witty dialogue.  While not as droll as the Dying Earth books, Maske: Thaery has its share of witty repartee and dry humor, as in this passage (names redacted to avoid spoilers):

A, understanding that B was too stubborn to cook for C and that C would starve before she troubled to feed herself, much less serve himself and B, philosophically took himself to the galley and prepared a stew of meat and herbs

It also has plenty of Vance’s characteristic prose, which manages to be both light and dense at the same time–swift, clean language packed with strange terms and references that seem more to lift it up than weigh it down, creating a sense of an alien landscape with familiar resonances:

Dawn illuminated the sky.  Across the southern horizon extended a dark smudge: Thaery.  By the presence of land the emptiness of sea and sky was emphasized.  Mora rose, and the shore was revealed in detail.  Due south the Cham reached a tree-shadowed arm around Duskerl Bay; beyond spread the gray texture of Wysrod.  The Clanche, with all kites drawing, drove onward with ponderous and fateful motion.

Like much vintage genre fiction, Maske: Thaery is nice and short. Vance packs it with twists, turns, and reversals.  A series of scuffles and a dramatic, set piece confrontation break up the intrigues and keep the story humming neatly along.

The tone, content, and pace of the novel are perhaps best summed up in the words of Vaidro Droad, Jubal’s uncle and sometime mentor:

While we are alive we should sit among colored lights and taste good wines, and discuss our adventures in far places; when we are dead, the opportunity is past.

“Step into the gap, soldier.”

Steven Erikson is a genius. His Malazan Books of the Fallen are the only books I’ve read that rival–possibly exceed–Tolkein for the sheer weight of imagined history.

But Erikson eschews Tolkein’s formality. His characters live and fight and die in the muck and dirt. Generals and soldiers, gods and monsters, ancient races and undead warriors, they all tread the same dusty roads as the rest of us. They feel like real people in a way the Riders of Rohan and the defenders of Gondor, for all their glory, never do. I care about these characters, and I’m excited when a favorite turns up–or is even just mentioned in passing–in one of the novels.

And yet for all that they are military fantasy and dwell on the fate of armies and empires, a streak of incredible compassion runs through Erikson’s work. He’s written some about it here, and I freely admit that Reaper’s Gale is one of the few books in the last ten years to make me tear up.

So I’ve wanted to check out Ian Esselmont’s Malazan books for a while. He and Erikson created the world and many of the characters together, and Erikson’s success provided a springboard for Esselmont to sell his own novels. Having read all of Erikson’s books, I wondered if Esselmont’s would scratch that itch for more.

Night of Knives came close. The novel tells of a pivotal event that closely precedes the start of Erikson’s books. It takes place in the course of a single night and focuses largely on two new, minor characters–a young thief named Kiska, desperate to get out of a town she sees as a dead-end backwater, and a veteran soldier named Temper, semi-retired but unable to let go of old loyalties. Both find themselves caught in a conjunction of powers far beyond their understanding, but both play a key role in the events that follow. Readers familiar with the Malazan mythos will know how the night ends, but not how we get there and who pays what price in the conflict.

Esselmont isn’t the storyteller Erikson is. The prose drags at time. The characters are interesting, but not quite as engaging as Erikson’s. But it’s his first novel. And looking back with honesty, Erikson’s first novel–Gardens of the Moon–has some pretty clunky bits. He honed his craft pretty heavily between that and Deadhouse Gates and continued to grow as a writer throughout all ten Malazan books.

Esselmont has an advantage, though. Where Erikson was introducing readers to the world, Esselmont gets to leverage the weight and gravitas that Erikson has built up around their shared characters. Names like Kellanvad, Dancer, Surly and Tayschrenn still resonate, and when these iconic characters appear and interact with the new characters, the frisson of recognition and wonder is right there.

In the end Night of Knives comes close enough that I plan to pick up the second book and give him another shot.

“Monster in the Mountains” to see print in Best Of

It is with great pleasure that I announce the impending release of the Heroic Fantasy Quarterly‘s first “Best of…” compilation, which includes my story “Monster in the Mountains.”  The book will be available for pre-order shortly, and they are targeting availability for ebook and Print on Demand versions by Black Friday.

I’m proud of all my stories, but since “Monster” was written and targeted explicitly at HFQ, it’s a special honor to be included in their first print publication.

More links and information on release day.

That sensation which tells you this is something you’ve always known

A group of us got together recently to watch Jupiter Ascending, the recent effort from the Wachowskis. We were less than impressed. The weak characters with unclear, shifting motivations and a non-sensical plot could not be saved by the gonzo world and over-the-top visuals. But the stunning imagery and story revolving around warring family members in a culture that was an odd blend of the mercantile and medieval got me thinking about Frank Herbert’s Dune, and so I picked up the Kindle version of that classic novel and gave it a re-read.

I don’t think I’ve read Dune since 1984 when the David Lynch movie came out and blew my young mind.

Lynch’s Guild Navigator

I still remember how they provided a glossary of terms to the audience. They needed to.  New concepts and terms come at the reader fast and furious–Gom jabbar, Bene Gesserit, Kwisatz Haderach, sietch, Fremen, Landsraad–each evoking the exotic setting.

From Mark Molnar’s Concept Art Project (worth checking out; every painting is a gem)

This time round, I noticed Herbert’s effective use of 3rd person omniscient, a point of view that is largely out of favor these days.  It is often associated with novice writers who just don’t understand point of view, but Herbert uses it to great effect (much like Louis L’Amour, but that’s another post).

Trust and betrayal are central themes of the novel. Because Herbert moves seamlessly from one character’s thoughts to another, you get a conversation between a traitor and the soon-to-be betrayed where you see how much and how foolishly the traitor is trusted or a confrontation between two people who suspect each other of being a traitor, when neither is. And the dinner party scene with the local notables and the Duke’s household is like watching an eight-way fencing match.

Knife fights in space!

Herbert’s style is spare, which leaves our minds to fill in the imagery.  And boy do they.  No description could convey the majesty, wonder, and strangeness that resonates with the reader and finds answer in their imagination.  Artists and filmmakers through the years have felt that call and done their best with depictions of strange worlds…

The Atreides homeworld of Caladan by Angelitoon (from deviantart)

…advanced technology…

A spice harvester and escort by Brad Wright (from deviantart)

…exotic heroes and villains…

Character studies for Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune movie by the comic artist Moebius

…and the worms.  Everyone loves the worms…

Also from Mark Molnar because his work is just that good

…except this poor donkey.  He doesn’t love the worms…

It’s probably clear that I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Dune and firmly believe it’s time someone tackled it with a new and faithful movie.  Maybe a trilogy.  Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the new Star Wars films have all paved the way, and the popular audience is ready for the majesty and mystery of Herbert’s imagined future.

(All images copyright their creators or owners and are shared because Dune, and their work depicting it, are visually stunning.)

The smartest one about doing what’s right

On a trip to Florida, I stumbled across about a dozen of Andrew Vachss’s Burke novels in a used book store. I’d been interested in his work for some time, so I picked one up. I burned through it in a couple days, returned to the store, bought all the rest, and took them back home with me. I’ve been working my way through the stack for years.

You see Vachss books aren’t ones you can read one after another. The world he shares is bleak, the characters hard, the situations terrible, gut and heart-wrenching and often uncomfortable. Vachss’s background gives him the ability and experience to write about criminals and victims, abusers and the abused, users and the used with a raw, hard edge and a brutal authenticity that can be difficult to take.

And yet there is thread of decency, loyalty, justice, and compassion in the midst of all this darkness. They’re not happy books, Good people are hurt, often long before the novel starts, and they keep on hurting throughout. But justice is usually served on the worst people–although always at a price.

On a recent trip, I grabbed my copy of Vachss’s The Getaway Man, a short, stand-alone novel that tells the story of a guy named Eddie who just wants to drive.

Vachss follows Eddie from childhood to juvie to crime to prison and out again to more and bigger crime. It’s a classic noir tale, a story of innocence and guilt, of dirty heroes, and squeaky clean villains, of lines crossed, and uncertainty about who should be trusted. Eddie is a likeable character, simple but not stupid, an innocent but not an idiot. Vachss shows the world through his eyes in a way that the astute reader can see more then Eddie sees but never lose sympathy for him. I can never quite say I enjoyed a Vachss novel, but I blazed through this one like I usually do.

Where the Burke novels have become densely-populated and richly textured with recurring characters and the history that shapes them, The Getaway Man is a stand-alone novel and an excellent entry point for readers new to Vachss and wanting to give him a try. It has its tough-to-read stretches and its share of damaged people just trying to get through their broken lives in one piece, but it’s not as brutal as the Burke novels. If you read it and find yourself wanting more of the same, then you’re probably ready to check out the rest of Vachss’s work.

Besides, who could resist the brilliant old-school pulp cover by Richie Fahey.

Breaking Radio Silence

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, with no other excuse than life getting in the way.  The books to write about are stacking up, and I hope to find some time to post a few soon.

In writing news, I just got the final edits back from my story in the forthcoming second Pen-Ultimate Speculative Fiction Anthology.  It’s the second collection of short stories from participants in Jeffrey Carver and Craig Shaw Gardner’s Ultimate Science Fiction Writing Workshop, which I attended a number of years ago and promises to include even more excellent fiction than the first anthology–including several more from folks from my workshop class.

My story, “Oldest Friends”, appears in the first anthology, which is available in print and e-book on Amazon.  All proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) emergency medical fund.

The second promises even more contributors, including several more from my workshop class.  I’ll post updates on release dates here.

They keep on trying

There’s something a bit disingenuous about reviewing the tenth book in a series.  After all, if I’ve read this far, obviously I enjoy them.  The best one can do is discuss its merits relative to other books in the series.  Fortunately, as I’ve noted before, these are not reviews so much as thoughts about my reading experience, so I’ll bull ahead anyway.

First, a bit of context.  Glen Cook’s Garrett books began as an homage to Raymond Chandler.  Cook planted a Marlowe-like detective in the midst of a carnivalesque high-fantasy city.  He mixed in his own sense of history, especially working class and military history.  TunFaire is a city in the throes of an extended war.  It’s US in the midst of WWII, with all the men away and their jobs being taken by elves and dwarfs and rat people.  There’s politics, race, PTSD, and socio-economic commentary alongside crazy magic and classic mystery.

Subsequent novels added layers in the form of a dense tapestry of recurring characters.  Minor characters from early books become major ones later on.  Sidekicks become allies and friends.  Lovers come and go.  Secondary characters have their own trajectories–changing careers, falling in and out of love, making connections among themselves.  History progresses, the tides of war shift, and these have an impact on the character of the city and the characters in the city.

Yet Cook never loses the sense of what initially made the series work–wisecracking hero, complex mysteries, beautiful and mysterious women, baleful magic.  In short, all the pieces that make it prime, lightweight summer beach reading (or whatever your equivalent is).

Angry Lead Skies is a pretty straightforward Garrett tale.  It lacks the direct line to Chandler that characterizes Old Tin Sorrows (#4), the gonzo feel of Petty Pewter Gods (#8), or the bleak, paranoia-fueled grimness of Faded Steel Heat (#9).  My initial reaction was that the introduction of bug-eyed aliens was going to be a disaster (minor spoiler there, but it becomes pretty obvious, pretty fast).  But as the book rolls on, Cook turns it into a typical Garret caper with a healthy dose of twists and turns.

A number of favorite characters return, and Cook uses them well to suggest our hero may actually be growing.  The events of the previous novel were pretty grim, even by Garrett’s standards, and left a bit of a hollow feel at the end.  In this one, we see a somewhat more mellow Garrett.  His treatment of Pular Singe, the rat-woman, is especially interesting, as we see Garrett reevaluating his own opinions and focusing a bit more on the needs of others.  Even his interactions with new character, Kip, suggest a growing maturity:

I felt like somebody’s dad, spouting clichés. Then, of course, I felt really awful because I was old enough to understand what the clichés were all about. Embarrassment followed that as I remembered the cocksure boys we’d been when we were getting showered with the stupid stuff that turned out to be Joe Everyman’s way of trying to pass along his accumulated wisdom.  I resented his advice almost as much as I’d resented advice from men of my father’s generation when I was fifteen. I guess neither the old men nor the young men ever learn, but they keep on trying.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few books as there seems to be a gradual character progression going on.  It reminds me a bit of, well, life.  Many books or series show powerful or transformative character arcs, but we all know the real world rarely works that way.  If people change, it is most often by degrees, slowly and gradually, until they wake up and realize they’re in a different place than they were ten years ago.  It feels a bit like Cook is working that sort of magic here.

That sort of magic is Cook’s trademark.  As much as his typical material is fantastical, it feels more real than most fantastic fiction because it fails to deliver standard narratives or arcs.  He messes with time, breaks plot formulas, kills characters in accidents or in ways that are frankly undramatic but have subsequent dramatic impact.  In short, his fiction emulates life in it’s frequent lack of pattern.  Some people see it as a fault in his work, but considering where he learned to write, I see it as a deliberate break from the restrictions of genre and formula.  But I digress.  Some other day I’ll share a longer essay on why I so deeply admire Cook’s work.

For now, I’ll say simply that Angry Lead Skies is another solid entry in an enjoyable series.  It’s the kind of thing you’ll like, if you like this kind of thing.

(And a good example of why you should never judge a book by its cover.  The covers for most editions of this series are just awful.)