Archive for the ‘Books and Writing’ Category

The Hugo Hat Trick: Thoughts Prompted by The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Winner of three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel:

2016  The Fifth Season

2017  The Obelisk Gate

2018  The Stone Sky

**Although to date I’ve written about Hugo-winning novels in chronological order, I’ve also read a few recent winners (some before they won) and rather than waiting years to get around to them, I will occasionally jump ahead.**

Far more often than not, I discover a new-to-me author through recommendations from acquaintances who are fellow readers. In fact, this process so dominates book selection that I can’t remember the last time I bought one just because it looked interesting.

The Broken Earth trilogy stands as a curious exception to that rule. I picked up the first book, The Fifth Season, because someone disliked it. It was the manner in which that reader expressed his dislike – in phrases that I frankly found offensive – that prompted me to take a look. It was only then that I discovered it was a Hugo winner, having lost track of the winners in recent years. Also that it was the first of three successive winners of the award. That a trilogy could achieve such success while prompting someone to treat it so harshly only increased my curiosity. By the time I finished The Fifth Season I owned copies of The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky. In due time I read them all. To say I do not share that reviewer’s opinion of the trilogy would be an understatement.

The story is set in a world prone to repeated, violent seismic upheavals. So frequent are these events – called “Seasons” by the inhabitants of this world – that everything about their civilization is geared toward preparation for the next inevitable occurrence. Some people have special abilities that allow them to influence such things as earthquakes using inherited psychic powers, and although you might think that would make them highly valued members of a society built on shaky ground, you would be wrong. They are called orogenes, a term that is used in ways that bring to mind cruel words in our own world, used to insult and belittle those who are different. Orogenes are instead, and ironically, feared for their abilities, discriminated against and often murdered without consequence to their killers. The fear that drives the hatred behind such acts is rooted in a time long past, and is a matter of belief, not of reason. Some members of this marginalized group are taken away by an agency known as the Fulcrum. In its hands they are trained and used for their abilities, but while they are protected and usually well cared for, they are little better than slaves. They are also entirely expendable.

The story blends science fiction and fantasy in a way I’ve rarely seen done, and even more rarely done so well. Many of the magical elements (not sure what else to call them) seem to be expressions of one of Clarke’s Laws, the one stating that any technology, sufficiently advanced, would be indistinguishable from magic. In the distant past of this world there existed a form of technology that might as well be magical. The present day events and troubles are the legacy of questionable use of that technology.

The heart of the story deals with the trials one orogene, who has for many years managed to conceal her true nature. The start of a new Season comes on, just in time for her family to self-destruct when her husband discovers that their son is an orogene – resulting in the boy’s murder. What follows is a backstory and history told in flashbacks, and a present time quest to rescue her remaining child, a daughter. The girl is also an orogene, but one of particular strength and power. The quest to rescue this girl takes place in a time of complexity and chaos, during which an already dysfunctional society is coming unraveled.  N.K. Jemisin writes some strong stuff, spinning this intricate tale, and pulls no punches. For me as a reader it was absolutely compelling. As a writer, I can’t help admiring – among other aspects – her ability to weave all the disparate threads of this tale together in the end.

The trilogy is unconventional in storytelling style, switching back and forth from first person present tense to a more ordinary narrative point of view as things unfold. Many readers find this not to their taste, which is quite all right. No writing style will ever have universal appeal. But the criticisms that led me to take a closer look at The Broken Earth trilogy were not confined to expressions of dislike regarding the narrative structure, although such are regularly seen in reviews.

The world built by N.K. Jemisin to hold this story could be our own Earth in a distant future, a thing not explicitly stated, although it’s all too easy to imagine it evolving from our real one. I say this because the people in it, especially their attitudes toward others who are not acceptable to the mainstream, are all too real. Change and crisis so often bring out the worst in people, especially when a marginalized population such as the orogenes is available as a target to be blamed, and punished. Our own very real history is filled with such tragedies, as are current events.

It’s this theme that that I believe triggers a negative reaction in some readers. They resent the mirror these stories seem to hold up, uncomfortable with what is reflected there. They react badly to a story that doesn’t shy away from depicting bigotry for the evil it truly is, and it seems to me they resent being reminded of its painful reality. They complain, as did the reviewer I recall being the most spiteful, that they want to read fiction, and not be “preached at.” For the record, saying that these books are at all preachy in the way they employ certain themes about inequality and prejudice goes beyond overstatement. It’s dishonest. Yes, the themes are there, and as I said earlier, the author pulls no punches. And I have no trouble believing that these themes are informed by the life of the author. How could it be otherwise? We all write from where we are, informed by our own life experiences. That’s simply how it works. That how it should work.

Grounded   1 comment

In a previous essay, I told of a friend who asked how I was coping with the sense of isolation experienced by so many, while trying to stay safe from the Covid-19 virus. My flippant response at the time was to remind her that I’m a writer. Isolation is just part of the job. It was said in jest, but this is a case where the thing is funny because it’s true.

The idea that isolation is just part of my job description reflects a fundamental truth of my profession. Writing is a thing generally done alone. The focus required to turn ideas and, sometimes, dream images into strings of words can be pretty intense. It’s no small thing to arrange words in such a way that they convey not only mental images and information, but also feelings. Sometimes powerful emotions, indeed. Interruptions are not in the writer’s best interest. For most of us, such focus can only be achieved in isolation – although in my case that isolation merely involves listening to epic music through a pair of headphones. Necessary as isolation may be for most writers, it can be costly in terms of mental stamina, and mental health. That stamina will at times need restoration; the mental health must, of course, be preserved.

How? By not writing.

In December of 2021, just days after releasing my most recent novel – Variation on a Theme – I found myself entirely lacking in motivation for writing. Variation on a Theme had been a challenging project, one that wore me out, and the last thing I wanted to do was launch into the next story I had in mind. Although this is the first time in ten years it happened with writing, I’ve experienced such a loss of motivation in other contexts in the past, and recognized that I needed a break if I wanted to avoid full-blown burnout. So I shifted my attention for a time to other things, activities for which isolation is not required.

There are plenty of ways to spend time away from writing, and any writer will tell you that one of the challenges we face is to keep these things from feeding the natural tendency to procrastinate that bedevils many storytellers. As dominant as the need to create is, I’ve always known that I need a diversity of interests to properly feed that creativity. And so, when it came time to take a break, I was anything but at a loss for things to do.

In general, when I’m not writing, I’m gardening, reading, studying natural history, stargazing, or cooking, to name a few prominent uses of my time. Of these, gardening filled the most time during this mini-vacation in which I indulged. Over the ten years during which I’ve pursued the indie publishing option, few activities have kept me more firmly connected to the real world. Grounded, in other words. And yes, there’s the possibility here for a lame pun, but I’m going to exercise uncharacteristic restraint and leave it to your imagination.

In terms of day-to-day activities, cooking comes in at a solid second place to gardening. Talk about a creative activity! (It helps that I’m pretty good at it, or so says my ever-supportive wife.) While cooking is about as real-world as it gets, gardening still beats it as a means to stand completely in the real world, while feeling rested and relaxed. Mentally relaxed, at any rate. Gardening does often involve hard work, but that’s something that I find actually enhances the restorative power of the garden. The experience of gardening produces such a powerful here-and-now state of mind for me that the stories in my head – very few of which involve the here-and-now – leave me in peace, without being lost entirely.

In December of 2021, I set those stories aside for a good three weeks. I worked in the garden. There were other things done, of course, but it was mostly the garden. By the time the New Year was at hand, I was back at the keyboard and ready to work. The garden was, and still is, out there when I need it, a need I know from experience to be inevitable.

Posted April 18, 2022 by underdesertstars in Books and Writing, Essays, Gardening, Life, writing

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Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre   Leave a comment

Winner of the 1979 Hugo Award for Best Novel

I’ve read Hugo Award-winning novels that I greatly enjoyed, and in a few cases, changed the way I see the genre. I’ve read others that left me frowning, wondering how the book could have risen to such prominence. (Very few of these, I’m happy to report.) Until now, there’s never been anything in the flatland known as “Meh.” If asked before now, I’d have maintained that such a reaction was highly unlikely. So imagine my surprise to find that the winner of the 1979 Hugo for best novel – Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre – left me without a strong reaction one way of the other.

The story takes place on a future Earth that, at an unspecified time in the past, was ravaged by a nuclear holocaust. The event is recent enough that spending time in a still radioactive crater can have lethal consequences. The descendants of the war’s survivors have adapted to a changed world, splintering into well-defined groups: desert nomads in the arid lowlands, clannish scavengers, scattered communities of town folk in the hills and mountain valleys, and a single city of high-tech xenophobes who have maintained a tenuous connection with an off-world civilization. (Whether or not these “off-worlders” are human was never clear to me.) One splinter of the human population is made up of Healers, who travel the region providing health care. Each of them is a sort of medical knight-errant. In addition to mundane healing skills, these Healers carry with them genetically engineered venomous snakes – an albino cobra, a diamondback rattlesnake, and the eponymous dreamsnake in this case – that are living pharmaceutical factories. These altered snakes can be used to provide anything from vaccines to cures for cancer. The dreamsnakes, one of which is assigned to each Healer, have a more specific purpose. They are alien creatures with a venom that has mind-altering properties, used to ease the ending of a life when death cannot be averted. The dreamsnakes came to Earth from that off-world civilization. They are difficult to breed and are therefore scarce and greatly valued. Without one, a Healer isn’t really a Healer.

While tending to a cancer-stricken child of desert nomads, a Healer named Snake – a name that is rarely bestowed upon one of her calling – badly misjudges the people she is helping. This results in the death of her dreamsnake, a gentle creature named Grass. The loss of her dreamsnake is devastating, leaving Snake unable to perform one of her most important functions. Snake’s quiet confidence runs headlong into her overwhelming guilt over the death of Grass, leading to a complicated combination of self-doubts and determination. What follows is a quest for redemption and understanding, as Snake seeks to replace Grass. Along the way she must endure a stalking lunatic, and comes to the rescue of an abused child.

Meanwhile, a young desert nomad, guilt-stricken over the crime his people committed in killing the dreamsnake, follows Snake with the intention of defending her reputation when the Healer community learns of the loss of Grass. The handling of this character weakened the story for me. He appears too seldom to make for an effective subplot, and the relationship between the two characters is rather sketchy, based essentially on a single scene at the beginning of the book. As he follows Snake, she goes on a quest to seek aid from the high-tech City, where she and her adopted daughter – the child she rescues – are coldly rebuffed. By pure chance, that event, and an encounter with the “crazy” who is following her, leads Snake to a very dangerous solution for her problem. The young nomad never really figures into any of her darker adventures, so until the very end I was never quite sure why he was in the story at all. How he does fit in at the end, I’ll leave readers to discover and judge for themselves.

All of this takes place in a landscape that came across to me as little more than stage dressing. Much of the setting is described only in broad strokes, with a sprinkling of details. As a result, for me the setting never really develops a life of its own. It’s just there, decorated with such exotica as tiger-striped horses, otherworldly seasonal storms in the desert, and – of course – dreamsnakes. The story seems to drift through this imagined landscape without the two really coming together as parts of the whole.

Fiction that works best for me balances world building with character development and plot. When this doesn’t happen, I find the story overall just sort of slips by me. I never fully engage. And that’s what happened when I read Dreamsnake. There were moments of interest and a lot of intriguing concepts – such as the ability of people, through training, to control their own fertility – but the balance of character, plot (the young nomad was a sporadic distraction that never quite gelled as a subplot), and world building wasn’t there for me. I don’t regret reading the story – it was an unusual tale and otherwise well-written – but I’m afraid that Dreamsnake goes on that list of books for which a single reading was quite enough. As for winning the award, this is a novel that would have stood out in the late 1970s on the strength of its unusual concepts, and the main character Snake. I’m not too surprised that it won. And so my recommendation is to read it for yourself, and see what you think.

The Latest – Variation on a Theme: A Fantasy in Four Moments   Leave a comment

When I decided to self-publish fiction a little over nine years ago, I started with a space opera that turned into the five book series War of the Second Iteration. Science fiction was already my default setting, so I led off with the sort of fiction I know best. This was followed by The Gryphon Stone, a story that blends science fiction and fantasy. From the very beginning, I knew I would not limit myself to space opera style sci-fi. How far from this default setting I might stray wasn’t clear even to me until I published Toby, a story that has nothing of fantasy or science fiction in it at all. That project made it very clear to me that I should stop referring to myself as a science fiction writer and simply think of myself as a storyteller, one not overly concerned with genre constraints. It’s a more comfortable and, I believe, more honest assessment.

My newest book clearly reflects that decision. It’s not science fiction by any stretch, although two of the main characters are serious fans of that genre. Variation on a Theme is a fantasy, one set in the real world of the late 1970s. The fantasy element has nothing to do with any epic themes. There are no sword-swinging heroes, axe-wielding dwarves, or ancient wizards. It’s more of a metaphysical fantasy, one built around a very old idea. What would you do differently, given the chance to relive part of your life? What would you be willing to give up, to take that chance?

An old theme to be sure, and here is yet another variation on it.

Remembering Gateway by Frederik Pohl   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1978

I went through a phase as a reader when short fiction – science fiction specifically – was my thing. Publications such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Galaxy, made up the bulk of my reading. For reasons I’ve now forgotten (this was at least forty years ago), I’d become fascinated by science fiction in its short form. Because of that fixation (one that I’ve never entirely lost) I came to read a serialized novel in Galaxy entitled “Gateway” by Frederik Pohl, one of the masters of the genre. I’m no longer sure what sort of impression the serialized version of what became an award-winning novel left on me, but it was strong enough that I recognized the title on the list of Hugo Award nominations when I started receiving material from the 36th World Science Fiction Convention.

I had such literature showing up in the mail because I’d acquired a membership and intended to attend. How could I not? It was being held in Phoenix, Arizona, the city to which my entire family had relocated two years before. No travel needed; even a hotel room was unnecessary. I’d read so much about WorldCon, as it’s generally known, mostly through the Hugo Award short-story anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov. I wanted to see one for myself. I stumbled over the fact that the WorldCon was happening in Phoenix when I start patronized a bookstore devoted to the genre (that, in itself, being a mind-blowing novelty for a small town guy). Long story short, when the Hugo Award for Best Novel was bestowed, I was there to watch it happen.

Though I read it as a serial, the version of Gateway that I now remember is the book, recently reread for this essay. If there were changes from magazine to book forms, they are lost to me. Picking it up again after so many years, all I could recall was that it had something to do with abandoned alien starships, a guy with serious issues, and a black hole. That proved accurate, as far as it went, though the novel turns out to be considerably more complex than those vague memories gave me to believe.

In a nutshell, Gateway takes place on a near future, somewhat dystopic Earth, that at the time I read it surely seemed a plausible extrapolation of the late 1970s. Human society is even more stratified than we see today, and poverty is an all-too-common way of life. The main character, Robinette Broadhead (who regularly reminds the reader that he is male, name notwithstanding) is a man from such a background who gets lucky in a lottery. He uses the money to buy his way into a place called Gateway, an asteroid full of alien technology left behind by a race humans have decided to call the Heechee. Among the artifacts, and central to the story, are hundreds of preprogrammed starships. People try their luck making voyages on these ships, hoping to return with artifacts or knowledge worth significant sums of money. And a great deal of luck is involved. Very few strike it rich, missions frequently return empty-handed, and death is an all-too-common fate for those who take the risk. In spite of the danger, there’s no shortage of volunteer “prospectors,” and Broadhead decides to be one of them. That is, until he arrives and finds out just how dangerous being a prospector can be.

The structure of the novel alternates chapters of Broadhead’s life after his Gateway experience, during which he is undergoing serious psychotherapy, and the events that took place while he was aboard the asteroid. (Sprinkled through the tale are “sidebars” made up of mission reports and personal ads from Gateway that add significantly to the world building.) It’s obvious from the start that Broadhead is a mess, and as the halves of the story, present and past, alternate, the reader gradually comes to understand the mental health issues he brought with him, to which Gateway added a massive burden of guilt.

Robinette Broadhead comes across, to me at least, as something of an anti-hero in spite of himself. He has the best of intentions, but his courage almost always hangs by a thread, and when the tension causes him to snap, he proves to be a danger to himself and others. He is also a man of considerable compassion, and has a capacity for love that is often at odds with his insecurities. All of this conspires to lead him into some poor decisions, and therein lies the tale. He does eventually take flights aboard three Heechee spacecraft. The first is a bust, he succeeds in spite of himself on another, and on the last – well, that’s where the black hole comes into it. It seems a standard of science fiction that black holes almost never do anyone any favors. And this one, while it leaves Broadhead a wealthy man after all, also bestows that burden of guilt I mentioned earlier. A burden that leads to the therapy that makes up half the story.

The story ends with Broadhead finally accepting an unpleasant truth, even as he manages to hold it all at arm’s length, ambivalent to the end. It feels as if the story dangles somewhat loosely instead of coming to a firm conclusion, but as this turned out to be the first book of a series, that’s understandable. The story doesn’t really end here. I’ve read the others, and if you like this one, they’re definitely worth your time.

The 1978 WorldCon, known also as IguanaCon II (even though there’s only ever been one of them – go figure) remains the only WorldCon I’ve ever attended. It represented a turning point in my life. Through it, I made a connection with the science fiction fan community in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, resulting in friendships that have endured to this day. Many memories from that event are held dear, and among them stands the one and only time I watched a book I’d read and enjoyed win one of these Hugo Awards.

Honest Sensitivity   1 comment

One aspect of this writing business always seems to take newly published authors by surprise. For some it’s a matter of “I never thought of that” puzzlement; for many others, it’s a serious shock to their creative impulses. What I’m talking about is this: the realization that, once you’ve published something – be it a short essay or a full-length novel – in a certain sense, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. To be very clear, I’m not talking about copyrights. I’m talking about the story and the reader’s experience of it. It’s your story when you write it, but it becomes their story as they read it. You no longer control the development of the story as it comes to life for readers, and how they react to the story as they read, interpret, and internalize the experience is entirely up to them.

Far more often than not, and assuming you’ve told the story at all well, readers will be on the same page with you, page after page. This is especially true of readers who already know your work. But there will be a few – and there will always be a few, for anything you publish – who have responses to the work that will puzzle you, or perhaps even shock you. “What,” you may well wonder, “brought that on?”

It’s a good question.

Reading and writing are flip sides of the literary coin. Heads you write, tails you read – which does rather strain a metaphor, but you get the idea. The coin itself consists of a lifetime of experiences, all the good and the bad; of being there and doing that, and having the essence of who and what you are shaped by these things. Reader or writer, you are that which exceeds the sum of those parts. Heads or tails, you bring all of that with you when you write and when you read. It will inform what you write, or your reactions to what you read. For some of us, meaning writers, it works both ways. Either way, it can’t be helped.

So, consider just the reader, for a moment, as seen by the writer of something that has invoked in that reader something of a negative reaction, be it distress or offense. What, indeed, brought that on? Nothing less than the sum of all those parts; those experiences that shaped the who, what, and why of the reader holding your book – or throwing it at the wall. A reader may like your work, and merely interpret it in an unexpected – or even embarrassing – way. But from time to time a scene or character touches a sore spot and triggers a stronger reaction than you intended, anything from emotional discomfort to actual anger or outrage. As a result, you might find yourself the recipient of a one-star rating and an angry rant for a review. You might even endure a public attack on your personal character. In a worst-case scenario, you might find yourself dealing with a snowball effect in the social media, as people sympathetic to that reader’s sensitivity respond to that person’s outrage by piling on, without bothering to read for themselves whatever it was you published. Suddenly, your work is getting all the wrong sorts of attention. And yes, I know a famous person once declared that there was no such thing as “bad publicity,” but there was no internet back then. Need I say more?

Anything you write and publish runs the risk of such a reaction, and if you want the general public to read what you’ve written, you really have no choice but to accept that risk. This isn’t to say you can’t be somewhat proactive when you write. Being slow to offend and slower still to take offense is always a fine policy. Deliberately writing something with the intent to cause hurt feelings or invoke anger in someone is difficult to excuse, and not a thing I’ve ever done. There’s rarely an excuse for trolling in any venue. But the possibility of giving offense exists nonetheless, regardless of your intentions.

So for my own part, I don’t seek the sort of reactions from readers that amount to being poked in the head with a sharp stick. And yet, for any sort of writing to be worth a damn, the reader absolutely must react to some degree to that arrangement of words. Where’s the point of balance to be found? Aside from not deliberately making that sharp stick and poking people, I’m not sure there really is one. You write with the best of intentions and hope readers see that this is the case. And you accept the possibility that not everyone will do so, as a sort of occupational hazard.

When I write, I’m guided by the belief that the story must be told honestly, and to the best of my current ability. That means that whatever the story requires to succeed, I’ll put into the most readable arrangement of words I can produce. There are lines I will not cross. For example, I won’t set down a graphic account of sexual violence. What if the story requires it? No story I ever write will require anything like that; I just don’t have that sort of imagination. For me to attempt such a scene would violate my principle of writing honestly; I would be faking it, writing something that simply does not come naturally to me. I might place such an event in the background of a character, to explain why that character behaves as he or she does. And I might hint or insinuate that a character is that sort of bastard, capable of such abuse, but you won’t witness any of his or her acts. To those who insist that such grim realities are a part of the real world from which we all must draw our inspiration and material, I like to point out that the same is true of bowel movements. But by all means feel free to define your own storytelling honesty – so long as you’re willing to accept the consequences without complaint.

There are a few other things I won’t include in a story. I won’t use the notorious “N word”, and I do my best to avoid obvious stereotypes regarding gender and race. However, as I write, I don’t work at being endlessly mindful that there are people out there who flinch easily at, for example, the use of profanity, or descriptions of characters enjoying alcoholic beverages. There is no way I could possibly write readable fiction while trying to keep my eyes open for every conceivable offense or objection that could be raised. It wouldn’t help if I did. Remember all those readers with all those wildly varying life experiences? I don’t know any of them personally. How can I possibly know about everything I should avoid for their sakes?

Whatever I write, there is almost certain to be someone who reads it and finds something objectionable. More often than not, I’ll never know about it, but I get just enough feedback of that sort to know it’s happening. So I write as well and honestly as I can, and I work within the assumption that a minority of readers will flinch at something, meaning the smaller number of readers, and not those who happen to belong to a group considered a minority.

You might take exception to something I write. Your life experiences may well leave you sensitive to one thing or another, and I just happened to put something in that story that touched the sore spot. It came too close to home, and something unpleasant was triggered. As you react, be assured it was never my intention to do so. Stories that are true to life will sometimes hold unpleasant things, for someone, whatever limits an author might embrace.

It’s like juggling eggs. No matter how good I manage to become at this writing thing, for some readers, I’m going to drop an egg or two. I didn’t mean to make that mess, but there it is.

The Box Tipped Over: Writing a Story Called Toby   Leave a comment

The phrase “outside the box” may rate as one of the most over-used (if not actually abused) metaphors of our time. It’s all too often a glib admonition issued by a person passing the proverbial buck and expecting someone else to solve an intractable problem for them. If you’ve ever worked for a living in any capacity at all, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve heard it and heard the smug sarcasm that goes with it.

Used correctly, when faced with a situation in which others have failed to arrive at a solution to a problem, or when a creative person wants to pursue a new and innovative form of self-expression, the mental habit labeled “think outside the box” can be a powerful tool. It becomes a way to focus skills and imagination in a way that has the potential to create something new. I certainly have no problem hearing the phrase used in this context, being a fan of, and a participant in, the creative world myself. There’s definitely a place in the world for those who think outside the box. Or, more specifically, those who write outside the box.

Although the bulk of my writing has been in the science fiction genre, I haven’t exactly felt constrained by that single genre. Or even to the writing of fiction; my first book was the amateur astronomy-related memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies. I’ve also written short fiction of a darkly fantastical nature that might play well on a remake of The Twilight Zone, some of which can be found in 179 Degrees From Now. But I’m not sure any of this could honestly be referred to as writing outside the box. Rather, it’s more an indication that the box I’m sitting in has plenty of room in which to move around. After all, science fiction, fantasy, and astronomy are all, in their own ways, out there.

But I have now, beyond any realistic doubt, written outside that roomy box. Reached so far over the lid the damned thing tipped right over.

My most recent book, Toby, is neither sci-fi nor fantasy, and for sure has nothing to do with amateur astronomy. It’s a tale of a boy and his dog. Okay, so the main character has a few too many years on him to wear the label “boy” easily. And it isn’t his dog. Therein lies the tale. Or the tail, as the case may be. Like all the fiction I write, Toby started out as a handful of unrelated daydreams: images and scenes that just sort of coalesced in my imagination. Happens all the time, these daydreams. I’ve been an unrepentant woolgatherer all my life. Just ask any of my middle school teachers. In this most recent case, however, the usual elements of science fiction never materialized. This time it started with an ordinary guy confronting a large, growling dog, who it turns out isn’t growling at the guy. There’s this bear, you see. From that point, things get complicated.

Anyway, as sometimes happens, the daydream started to roll like a short film in my head, and all that stuff that builds up inside your brain due to life happening started mixing in. The guy was there for a reason, and so was the dog. The reason, once I puzzled it out, became the vague suggestion of a story. Closer examination led to questions about who they were, and why they were in that situation. Ideas rose into view. Some lent themselves well to the trail I needed to blaze, and others were best left to one side and forgotten. The meeting between man and dog turned into a journey, and once they were on the road, I quickly developed a clear sense of direction. To put it another way, the story developed a life of its own, an internal logic that directed its development. In other words, it told itself. I just worked the keyboard.

Okay, that doesn’t really happen, but that’s the way it feels, when it works just so.

All the way through the process of writing this short novel (or novella, depending on which definition based on word counts you prefer) I felt a growing sense of surprise and delight. Where was this all coming from? How was it that I was to be this tale’s author? It was, for me, a very different writing experience; fresh and new and exciting, writing of a sort I’d never even considered in the past. It was also a revelation of sorts, that I could write this way, that I could write outside of my comfortable and familiar box. There was a sense of greater possibilities than I’d considered before. I’ve written in the past of my writing process being something like exploring new lands and cutting trails through them for others to follow. Writing Toby was like traveling to a different continent and starting the process there.

The box is tipped over on its side now, and I’m sitting out on one of the flaps, quite comfortable and very pleased by how this all turned out. I wonder what else is outside the box, waiting for me? Well, while I ponder that one, meet Toby, a very good dog.

Toby_final

Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple Books, as well as in paperback.

With Neither a Bang nor a Whimper   Leave a comment

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, winner of the Hugo Award for best Novel, 1977

The subgenre of science fiction that deals with visions of a post-apocalyptic world is certainly nothing new. In this rather drawn-out series of essays on Hugo Winners, I’ve reviewed The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953) and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1961), both of which deal in some fashion – one more overt than the other – with a world that has crawled out of the ashes of destruction. An argument could be made that Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in The High Castle (1963) is a post-apocalyptic vision of a different sort. In recent years, interest in this subgenre seems to have increased significantly. Considering the state of the world, these days, I suppose that’s not terribly surprising.

It’s not a style of fiction I often get into. Perhaps the unsettled times in which we currently live have made me too sensitive to disturbing visions for such tales to be entertaining or thought-provoking. For my money it’s bad enough the real world is overflowing with tales of a dysfunctional world; I need something different when I read for pleasure. So it’s a rare work of this subgenre that finds its way to my reading list, and when that happens, it’s generally a book that in some way transcends its marketing niche. A case in point would be the subject of this entry, a book that for me counts as one of the most outstanding and unusual examples of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a different take on this subgenre, something that is illustrated clearly by the way the apocalypse itself is handled. It’s clear at the beginning that terrible things are happening, and that both the natural world and human civilization are collapsing. Multiple symptoms of the slowly unrolling catastrophe are seen, but there’s no specific disaster scene, no single blow up that takes everything down, and no single smoking gun as a culprit. The crash is more of a long slide that takes years and generations to unfold, but is no less devastating for that slow pace. The reader knows what is going wrong with the world at large through discussions of the situation by the viewpoint characters, a group of families living in a valley off the beaten track, as they watch the combined ecological and social collapse close in around them. The world of Humanity seems to simply fall apart and die under its own weight, regrettably taking much of the natural world, or at least the animal kingdom, down with it. A truly massive, if slow, extinction that, for humankind, takes the form of a plague of sterility; extinction through attrition. When the collapse is complete, the extended families of the valley are all that remain, and it is how they survive that drives this story. They keep the human species alive, dealing with the plague of sterility, by cloning themselves. Multiple copies and multiple generations of cloned individuals push back the final extinction of humanity, while changing what humanity means with unforeseen and possibly unhealthy consequences.

More than that glimpse of the plot would give away too much of the story, something I try very hard not to do. Suffice it to say that the grand scheme for survival proves more complicated than anyone imagined, leading to serious problems as flaws in the society of clones come to light. The story is of a world fallen silent, as the title implies, and in that silent and ruined world this pocket of survivors struggles to move forward and to remain human, even as they come to question, and then attempt to redefine, what it means to be human.

To my mind, the point of this story isn’t the apocalypse or its cause; the author certainly doesn’t dwell on the calamity as if writing the script for a disaster flick. For all that there is a clear message here regarding our ghastly track record regarding treatment of this world that sustains us, this is as much (or more) a story about the conflict between the value of the individual and the community, and the double-edged sword of conformity. Not enough conformity, and you can’t hold a society together. Too much, and you have a system incapable of responding to the unavoidable changes brought by the passage of time. It also, in its way, underscores the danger of reduced diversity, of relying too much on too few to bear the weight of all that matters.

Some feel this story ends on a hopeful note, others think it depressing to the end. I must confess that my own opinion is divided between the two extremes. In the end, my recommendation is that you read the book and decide for yourself. In my opinion, it truly deserves its place among the classics of science fiction.

The Book That Changed You   Leave a comment

People often ask me to name the writers who have influenced my own work. It’s a question writers of fiction are asked almost as often as “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s an easier question to answer, believe me. When you’re focused on a given genre, science fiction and fantasy in my case, the question tends to be asked by fans of that genre, and they expect to hear familiar names. More often than not, they do hear them, from me, at least. Committed writers of science fiction and fantasy are readers of the same. To tell such tales well and honestly, you need a lot of experience reading stories written by others. That familiarity with a genre is necessary, if you want to produce anything new in it that fans of science fiction and fantasy will want to read. A long familiarity allows you to do this without producing work likely to be branded as derivative, since you will generally recognize when something sounds just a little too familiar.

So when I’m asked that question, recognizable names come readily to mind. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.R.R. Tolkien, David Brin, Gene Wolfe, Larry Niven, C.J. Cherryh, Anne McCaffrey – I could fill many pages with nameable influences on my development as a story teller, but by now you surely get the point. But whichever recognizable names come quickly to mind in a conversation of this sort, I invariably add other authors names that in most cases do not provoke a nod of recognition. Authors of work lumped under the broad heading of nonfiction have had as much of, and as long-lasting, an influence on me as a writer as most of the fiction I’ve enjoyed over the years. The historian Page Smith, Isaac Asimov (again), naturalist Edwin Way Teale, Annie Dillard, John McPhee, and Stephen Jay Gould, among a great many others, have altered my way of perceiving and thinking about the world time and time again. There’s no way I can talk about the multitude of influences on my own writing, that have come to me through reading, without mentioning authors such as these. It’s all storytelling, after all.

Because I’m a writer, anything that has directly influenced me as a writer assumes great importance in any discussion of my work. But the influence of things read, be they books or shorter works, can and does affect how a person lives in a more general sense. I grew up reading various works of science fiction aimed at younger audiences: the Tom Swift Jr. adventures and certain works by Heinlein come immediately to mind. These set a lifelong habit of reading fantastical things firmly in place, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1973, when I first read Dune by Frank Herbert and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, that I realized that good fiction could do more than provide a few hours of escape from the pressures of so-called real life. It could be said that those books changed me as a reader of fiction, encouraging me to read more and more widely, and in that change opening me up to endless possibilities. You could say those books changed my life.

You could say that, but to be honest, a change in reading habits would be the equivalent, for most people, of a side hustle. Real life – whatever the hell that really means – can go on, with all its cares and concerns largely unaffected by altered tastes in literature. That might well have been the case for me, all other things being equal, but because I cast a wider net at that time, I found myself including short story anthologies in my reading, something I hadn’t done until then. And because of such inclusions, ended up reading a book that literally changed my life.

I may have been given a copy of this book, or may have purchased it myself; I can no longer remember clearly how I came to read it. But I read this collection of short fiction and the autobiographical anecdotes included by the author, and my love of writing changed from a pastime to a career goal. The book – especially the autobiographical material – made me realize that being a writer in the professional sense was an achievable goal, and one well worth pursuing. It might take a long time (Oh, I had no idea!), but it was doable. This anthology provided an example of how it might work, and inspired me to give it a try.

The book in question is The Early Asimov or, Eleven Years of Trying by, of course, Isaac Asimov. These are his first published stories, accompanied by the stories of his life in those time, and how all of that led to the stories being written and published. And I was, indeed, inspired to give writing a try as a profession because of this book. Would I have gone on to be a writer anyway? There’s no way to know, and the question is moot in any case. I did read this book, and it did prompt me to type up my first ever short story and send it off to a magazine. What followed took considerably more than eleven years, along with a technological revolution of truly sci-fi proportions into the bargain, but here I am at last placing my work out there in view of the reading public, and acquiring readers.

One book made me decide to give this a try, and that life-long effort to produce worthwhile stories and find a viable means for their distribution, has shaped or influenced almost every aspect of my life ever since. Everything that has happened to me since then has happened because where I was and what I was doing at that time was influenced, to some degree, by that decision to make writing the focus of my life. Every major decision has been made with writing added to one side or another of the balance. This is no exaggeration. My life decisions have all been made with thought given to how they might influence the writing I did at that time. Even my ill-advised decision to quit writing fits this pattern, since there would be no need to contemplate defeat if I hadn’t been in the fight in the first place. The Early Asimov actually changed the path my life followed. It was the trigger, and provides proof a single book – almost any book – can alter the trajectory of a life with profound consequences.

That’s my book, the one that set it all in motion.

What’s yours?

SOME STILL HEAR THE ECHOES   Leave a comment

Musings Prompted by Rereading The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1976
(Mild spoiler warning.)

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman was not a book I picked up in a timely fashion, and it was already considered a classic of modern science fiction when I first read it in the mid-1980s. The 60s and early 70s were still relatively recent history for me, then, and so I had no trouble drawing the connections between this story and the Vietnam War so many, including the author, have pointed out. Having witnessed first-hand the consequences of PTSD in a Vietnam veteran I once knew, these connections resonated more strongly than might otherwise have been the case.

The story is told from the point of view (first person) of a man conscripted to serve in an elite military force meant to defend the human species from a hostile alien life form. Contact with that other species did not go well, although the recruits are a little unclear as to how and why it went wrong. Chosen for their unusually high intelligence, they are put through a basic military training that is as brutal as it is dangerous. Mistakes and mishaps can be immediately lethal, and casualties are all too common. Their first engagement with the enemy turns out to be a battle with a largely defenseless foe, and becomes an uncontrolled massacre. The enemy responds by upping the proverbial ante with lethal consequences for humanity as the war spreads. After surviving the required tour of duty, the narrator returns to an Earth so changed by the passage of time that he and his comrades simply cannot fit in. They are used as propaganda tools and then rejected by the society they fought to protect. Unable to navigate through a strange new world, the narrator and his closest comrade and lover re-enlist. Sent on separate missions, they are lost to each other due to the same temporal displacements that put them so out of touch with the Earth. (These displacements are caused by the style of space travel employed.) The narrator becomes a man out of synch with the times in which he lives, and cannot relate to the people he now commands in any effective way. The conflict in which he and the others are trapped alternately escalates and then stalemates, and even though the plot is complicated by the sci-fi trope of the relativistic consequences of interstellar travel, it all sounds horribly familiar.

As a story in its own right, The Forever War deserves its status as a classic. It’s a powerfully human story, full of the sort of speculations and imaginings that make science fiction what it is, a genre of ideas generated by the iconic question, “What if…?” The big what if question raised by this book, it seems to me, is what if we leave the confines of this world before we learn from the mistakes we’ve made here? What might the consequences be? The potential answer presented in The Forever War is all too easy to believe.

Many of us who grew up when I did, and more to the point, those somewhat older than me who were directly caught up in the Vietnam War, see the parallels here between fiction and reality all too clearly, from the false assumptions that led to the conflict all the way through to the dislocation and rejection of the veterans of that war. The Forever War is a mirror held up to our recent history, one that reflects it all too clearly.

Rereading The Forever War for this essay, I was at first quite surprised by how well it had “aged.” It still seems so relevant, even today. Then I realized I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. We are a society that places little value on history, our own or others, preferring mythologized versions of the events that made us what we are today to the truth, with its blemishes and all too frequent contradictions of dearly held beliefs. Because of this we are, again as a society, very slow to learn the lessons of even the recent past. There’s an old saying, that those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat that history. This is all too true, and although the bells and whistles and the power of the bombs may change, the song remains eerily familiar. It’s also said that those who do come to understand the lessons of history are doomed to watch humanity reiterate its mistakes, often feeling powerless to prevent the repeated cycles, even as they listen to the echoes of their own recent past.

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