Friday, October 16, 2009

Comic Review: Batman and Tarzan: Claws of the Cat-woman

Over at my crime fiction blog, I review the first (and only?) team-up of Batman and Tarzan, Claws of the Cat-woman, by Ron Marz and Igor Kordey.

One question for comic fans: are there other modern titles in comics with Tarzan? I know about Superman/Tarzan (have it here somewhere) and The Lost Adventure. I'm wondering if there are more stories out there or, perhaps, a collection of the Joe Kubert, DC Comics stories.

Thanks.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Book Review: The Beasts of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Despite the imprint of my copy of 1916's The Beasts of Tarzan (Ace Science Fiction Classic, 1963), it's not really an SF book. However, since I've listed the other two here, I thought I'd let everyone know that I've reviewed The Beasts of Tarzan over at my crime/pulp fiction blog.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Adventure Week #4: Tarzan of the Apes

Over at my crime fiction blog, I've reviewed the first Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Take a look if you'd like.

Here's a question specifically for SF fans: has anyone read Philip Jose Farmer's Tarzan Alive? If so, what did you think? Should I start hunting down this title or not bother?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Adventure Week #3: King Solomon's Mines

Over at my crime fiction blog, I have a review of King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard. It's part 3 of 4 of my Adventure Week Series. Book #4 will be revealed tomorrow as part of Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Adventure Week #2: Treasure Island Book Review

Over at my crime fiction blog, I reviewed Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. It's Part 2 of Adventure Week, my reviews of some classic adventure tales I read for the first time this year. Yeah, it's not exactly science fiction and that's why I'm posting it on my crime fiction blog. Check it out. I consider it my favorite classic novel of the year. Not sure what can top it.

Up next: King Solomon's Mines (tomorrow).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Book Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Over at my crime fiction blog, I've started Adventure Week. It's my review of four classic adventure novels that most people read when their a kid...and I waited until I was a forty-year-old kid. First up is Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It's a SF novel--and the only true one on the list--and probably should have posted it here. However, I wanted to keep all the reviews together.

So, if you have a mind, head on over to my crime fiction blog and take a read. Up tomorrow is Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines is unearthed on Thursday, and Friday is the mystery book. You'll have to tune in on Friday to see what I've got planned for Friday's Forgotten Books.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Book Review Club

For those of you looking for my September book review, it's here, at my crime blog. Apologies for the extra jump.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

SF/F/H Reviewer List

Over at Grasping for the Wind (a great place for all things literary SF), SF Safari is now included in the gigantic reviewer list. I've also answered the meme about which fantasy world would I like to live in. Look for my answer tomorrow. For now, here's part one.

Coming later this week: the write-up of Science Fiction Book Club #1: Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell and the revelation of SFBC #2.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mercury Men Trailer #2 - Now Online!

It's difficult to overstate how much I'm looking forward to the new web series, The Mercury Men. I've written about here back in May after Lou Anders posted it on his blog.

The Mercury Men is a glorious throwback to the Cold War days and science fiction adventure from the days long gone. If you like the Republic serials of the 1930s, the movies of Indiana Jones, or the new novels of Gabriel Hunt, then you enjoy good, old-fashioned cliffhanger storytelling. That's exactly what the creators of The Mercury Men are tapping into and putting up on the web this fall. What caught my attention was the varied influences writer/director Christopher Preksta distilled into his work on the Mercury Men, especially the original Star Wars movie.

Take a read at the synopsis from the Mercury Men website:

Edward Borman, a lowly government office drone, finds himself trapped, when the deadly Mercury Men seize his office building as a staging ground for their nefarious plot. Aided by a daring aerospace engineer from a mysterious organization known as “The League,” Edward must stop the invaders and their doomsday device, the Gravity Engine.

The look and feel of the project are pure Outer Limits or Twilight Zone. This serial would have found a home right next to these 1960s seminal SF programs. Take a look at the trailer here. For an HD version (recommended), head on over to the Mercury Men website.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Tar-Aiyam Krang by Alan Dean Foster

My latest contribution to the Forgotten Books Project started by Patti Abbott. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.

Back in the late 1970s, Alan Dean Foster was my introduction to science fiction. He wrote the novelizations to the Star Trek Animated Series, expanding 22-minute cartoons into longer stories with more depth and characterizations (here's my review from earlier this year). Naturally, I gravitated toward Foster's own work and started with his first book, The Tar-Aiyam Krang. Thirty some-odd years later, I frankly can't remember a thing about that book. Now that Audible.com has The Tar-Aiyam Krang on audio, I decided to read it again.

Foster's first novel, The Tar-Aiyam Krang (1972) is the first to feature his young hero, Flinx, and his 'minidrag,' Pip (basically, a flying snake-like thing). Flinx is an orphan on the planet Moth, part of the interstellar Human-Thranx Commonwealth. The Thranx are incectoid creatures who have a good relationship with the humans. Flinx, who is a partial telepath, happens upon a mugging in which Pip played a role, an event where both muggers and victim all die. Snagging something from the victim's pocket, Flinx soon discovers it's a star map that might lead to the Krang, a large weapon or musical instrument created by a long-dead race, the Tar-Aiyam. Two gentlebeings, one human (Tse-Mallory) and one Thranx (Truzenzuzex) hire Flinx as a guide through his city. The trio end up at the home of a merchant, Malaika. Armed with the star map, they all board Malaika's starship and set off on their adventure.

The irony of reading this book when I did is all one of timing. I recently read Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island for the first time as well as Scott Lynch's The Lies of LockeLamora (my review). It's clear that Foster was at least inspired by Treasure Island (treasure map; star map; young hero) and Lynch's 2005 novel is part of a long line of orphan heroes (Oliver Twist, Batman, etc.). Foster's book was good and lighter than I remembered. With youngFlinx along, he gets the chance to ask Big Questions that result in an info dump on the reader. Thankfully, the info dumps were not too long but they still slowed the story. But the story's kind of slow anyway. Treasure Island had more action than this book. But, at least, The Tar-Aiyam Krang did have the huge ending, setting up Foster's later books. One thing that annoyed me back in the day was the names of aliens. When I read the book, I could not even figure out how to pronounce Truzenzuzex. Now, with the audiobook, I know. More importantly, I know what the name means. Okay, I get it now. My bad.

The Tar-Aiyam Krang is the first of four books Foster wrote in the 70s (Orphan Star, The End of the Matter, Bloodhype) and Flinx and Pip returns sporadically throughout the 80s and 90s. Just this year, Foster published Flinx Transcendant, the fourteeth and final novel in the series. The Tar-Aiyam Krang is a first book and it has all the good things a first book contains (new ideas, new characters, new universe) and a few minor nits (the need to explain everything at the expense of action). With most, if not all, the Flinx books now available on audio, I'm likely to forge through more Flinx books in the coming months and years. He's a fun character and, besides, are you going to argue with a teenager who has a venomous flying reptile resting on his shoulder?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Forgotten Books: Naked in Death by J. D. Robb

(This is a slightly reworked version of a review I did way back when I had few, if any, readers on my crime blog. The original review appeared in March 2008.)

(This is a contribution to Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books.)

Call me bi-curious. No, not in that way. I’m talking in the way of romance books.

I’m a red-blooded American male. I write mysteries, I read mysteries, SF, thrillers, history, food tomes, almost everything but romance books. Up until now, I’ve always thought of romance books as trite throwaways that contain a couple of good sex scenes. Read those and forget about the rest of the book.

But something happened about a month ago: I actually noticed, really, for the first time, how many romance books there actually are in a bookstore. Hundreds. Thousands? And, for the first time, my countenance faltered. I realized that I might actually be up to read a romance. But which one? I asked a fellow writer who she liked and, among the names was Nora Roberts. I know Nora Roberts just like people who don’t read horror stories knows Stephen King. I went the local library, picked up a few Nora Roberts books, but none of them really caught my attention.

Then I remembered J.D. Robb. I knew that Roberts wrote stories as Robb so I checked them out. And I found my beachhead in the field of romance books. Lead character is a police detective. I’m writing a book about a female lead detective. Stories take place in 2059. Hmm, that sounds like SF. I like SF. The books are characterized as romantic suspense. I like suspense. My first novel was a suspense novel. And I’m a romantic. What’s not to like? I verified which book was the first in the series, Naked in Death, checked out the audiobook from the library, and inserted the CD.

The first disc was not even halfway through before I was hooked. And not just mild interest but hook, line, and sinker. I was all in. The book has a nice pace, not slow at all. Since the book was written in 1995, it is interesting to note some of the futuristic discrepancies but just as cool to note the stuff Roberts got right. Eve Dallas, the lead character, carries around a device that will surely be what the iPhone is going to be: the all-in-one gadget that basically does everything. I also appreciated the more mundane aspects of 2059 NYC: cars that don’t fly. Sure, I want my flying car. Who doesn’t? But we’re probably not going to get there in 50 years.

Back to the story: Eve Dallas must investigate the murders of a licensed companion, a prostitute, who just happens to be the granddaughter of a prominent US Senator. It was pretty interesting to read this book, with legalized prostitution, during the week NY governor Eliot Spitzer resigned for being with one. Roberts really let us readers get into Eve’s head and thoughts. I found myself being mad when she was and happy when she was. I’ll admit the POV shifts that frequent this book is not the style in which I write. It was annoying at first but then I got used to it.

The story was great. But what about the romance? This was a romance book after all. Rourke, the all-everything Irish guy who starts as a suspect and becomes Eve’s lover, is the kind of guy, I’ll admit, seems to inhabit romance books. Now, I’m saying this purely from a stereotypical standpoint. But, hey, the first romance book I read has one of “those” guys in it. How’s a regular guy supposed to compete with that? Anyway, the romantic aspects of the novel seemed even, believable. Even the sex scene—there’s one main one, with intimate details—was good and hot. I give a hat tip to Ms. Roberts in the many ways to describe sexual intercourse without using actual physical words.

One of my biggest questions to see Roberts answers is how the series characters Eve and Rourke go on being together, their daily interactions, their passion. Naked in Death was the ‘getting together’ book. Those are easier. Just look at all the movies out there (and probably half the romance books). What I want to know is how the characters grow together.

For the more forgotten gems, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Comic Review: Joker by Brian Azzerello and Lee Bermejo

(This review originally appeared on my crime blog. I'm posting it here during my vacation away from the blog.)

Of all the things Heath Ledger did for the character of the Joker, making the Clown Prince of Crime a thug tops my list. I’ll not go so far as to say that the comic book version of Joker was genteel. He was always a murderous character, more so in the last twenty-five years. But you always got the sense that the Comic Book Joker didn’t want to get his hands dirty. Sure, he’s shoot you but he’s leave it up to someone else to clean up the mess.

Not so with Ledger’s Joker. He’s a thug. He’s dirty. He’s vicious. And he’d just as soon stab you with a knife and have you bleed on his hand as shoot you. It was a characteristic of Joker that I welcomed. It’s the difference between noir and pulp. Pulp is fun, gritty at times, but, in the end, kinda light. Noir is dark, brutal, always gritty, seamy, unsettling.

With the new original graphic novel, Joker, that sensibility is alive and well. Joker is noir.

The graphic novel is about Joker but it’s also about Jonny Frost. He’s the narrator, a young punk who doesn’t know what he’s getting into when he agrees to go pick up Joker from Arkham Asylum. It seems someone thought the Joker cured and got him released. Wonder if that doctor isn’t an inmate in the asylum. Nonetheless, Frost picks up Joker and starts his crash course in revenge, Joker-style.

Another difference with Ledger’s Joker is his obsession with controlling the crime in Gotham. As that stack of money burns, Ledger’s Joker announces he controls Gotham now. In the comics, you never really got the sense that Joker was after power or control. He was just out to have some demented fun at everyone else’s expense. Azzerello’s Joker is, again, more in the Ledger vein than previous incarnations. Joker, upon his release, discovers that his organization has gone to the crapper. And he’s out to fix that situation no matter how many bodies pile up.

The first body is that of Monty, the man who is a lieutenant in Joker’s army who didn’t please the master well during the master's absence. Literally, Monty is skinned alive. Frost is shocked (as are we readers) but then Joker gives a little speech. And Frost is…awestruck. The artwork by Lee Bermejo is painted, not your typical four-color art. Every frame is beautiful despite its occasional grisly nature. The frame with a starstruck Jonny Frost tells more than an hundred words. Jonny Frost is in the spell of the Joker.

The story progresses as we watch Joker, Frost, and Harley Quinn (a stripper) go see various members of Gotham’s rouges gallery. “Killer” Croc is a big-ass black man with acne scars. Croc is drawn so huge on the page that it feels like the white frames surrounding the artwork won’t be enough to hold him in. Abner (aka Penguin) is the moneyman of Gotham, something Joker doesn’t have enough of and something that he craves. Two-Face is here and he seems to be as vain as Harvey Dent used to be before a punk threw acid on his face. He’s the big cheese, too. It’s all about Joker getting back what’s his from Two-Face. And the Riddler, er, Edward Nigma, is here and he’s, well, weird.

All this is to say that this is almost an alternate universe kind of thing but it speaks to what makes the Joker tick just as good as The Killing Joke (my review here) or other famous Joker-centric stories. There’s a few scenes of honest empathy if you’ll allow yourself to feel for a psychopath. In one crucial four-page sequence, Joker takes a broken bottle to the face of another thug, blows up a building, and then, is seen crying and hugging on Harley. This is almost as shocking as the violence.

If Joker’s involved, you just know Batman will eventually make an appearance. For the most part, however, he's merely a looming presence off-screen. To be honest, the way the story moves, I didn’t need Batman to show up. I knew he was coming...and I almost didn't want him to. Just as I enjoy the Gotham Central (my review) comics (featuring the police officer of the G. C. P. D.), I was quite enjoying all the criminals without the hero. But he’s called (you’ll never guess by whom and how) and dispatched. Quick as lightening, the story wraps up.

A bit too quickly for my tastes. The ending, while decent, wasn’t the gee-whiz ending of, say, The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns or Branded Woman by Wade Miller. It was just an ending. It spoke to why the Joker was released from the asylum but never really answered the question why he was released. Unless the answer is in some subtext, I missed it.

Azzarello can do believable dialogue with the best of’em. It’s fun seeing these hardened, yet flamboyant criminals talk trash to each other. In a cast full of insanity, it’s even fun to read two of them joke about a third person:
Abner/Penguin: Someone is very sore at you.
Joker: Really? That’s wonderful news. I just like to make him sore. It’s what drags me out of bed.
Abner/Penguin: No, not him. Though I’m certain he’s not very happy about what you’ve been up to either. I’m speaking of Dent.
Joker: Harvey’s mad? Which one?
Abner/Penguin: Ha!
Joker: You think it’s funny, Abner?
Abner/Penguin: I think it’s a fair question. I don’t know how to answer it.
What about Jonny Frost? Well, let’s just say he’s us. He’s the “us” who looks at the movies and comics and sees all the havoc created by a man who looks like a clown and thinks “That’s cool. I want to be like the Joker.” Jonny Frost thinks that, too, at the beginning. He gets his first row seat to the madness that is Joker. Jonny looks into the abyss and makes a decision. It’s the most crucial decision of his life.

What this book boils down to, for me, is this: it’s a sequel to this past summer’s “The Dark Knight.” Visually, Joker is drawn as the perfect blend of Ledger’s Joker with the comic book Joker. Characteristically, he’s more Ledger’s Joker than the gentlemanly version from the comics. You get in the head of a killer. And you see things you never expected. Just be sure to go into the story with an open mind. It’s a good story and well worth your time.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Comics Review: DC's Wednesday Comics

Now, this is what I'm talking about!

DC Comics is always one to play with a theme or a marketing gimmick. But, this time, they've come up gold. Wednesday Comics is a 12-issue weekly comic title that, in this digital age, seeks to recreate the golden age. It's printed in a 20 x 28" tabloid, 16-page newspaper-type format. It’s gorgeous. And the feel of it in your hands (and the smell of it) will evoke days of childhood. The paper is folded twice, bringing the size down to basic comic book size. Carrying it around, it’s kind of like being a business man carrying around the Wall Street Journal except more fun.

Gimmick or not, the folks at DC still have to produce something worth reading. They haven’t skimped here, either. Clearly written in episodic format, the first issue gives readers a taste of what to expect. Here’s the breakdown.
  • Batman by Brian Azzarello and Risso - Yes, this is the same Azzarello that wrote 100 Bullets and last year's Joker (my review). An investment banker has been kidnapped by forces unknown. Gordon sends up the Bat-Signal but it's too late. The art is sepia-toned, evoking some of the scenes from Batman Begins.
  • Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth - This one gives you a bit of background as to who Kamandi is. The original Jack Kirby art is hinted at as well as the lettering from the old Prince Valiant comic strip.
  • Superman - The artist, Lee Bermejo, is spectacular. You can tell that Supes is wearing boots and cloth in his costume, the detail is that good. You also get one of the funniest lines in this issue. As Kal-el is about to fight an alien, he ponders "I just wish somebody could tell me why every 'close encounter' has to end in a fight."
  • Deadman - A murder-mystery, nothing less for the Dearly Departed Detective. And we end by seeing the back of the killer's head!
  • Green Lantern - This one goes retro with the story taking place in the early 1960s as the Gemini project (NASA) is getting off the ground.
  • Metamorpho: The Element Man - None other than Neal Gaiman writes this one. Again, another wonderful retro look-and-feel to this one, especially in the art. You even get the head shot roll call like the JLA titles back in the day.
  • Teen Titans - The villain (or maybe he's not?) gives us a peek as to how he's going to destroy the Titans.
  • Strange Adventures - Adam Strange, the spaceman, returns! Here, the Rock-People of Ragathann invade his city. These ape-like, blue monsters look mean and ugly. What's Adam to do? Blast off into the sky, gun in hand.
  • Supergirl - The funniest entry of the issue. Best thing: Supergirl *looks* like a girl, not some tramped-up teenage object of lust. I knew about Krypto the Superdog. When did Streaky the Super Cat show up?
  • Metal Men - I never read this title back when I was younger. Just reading the one page and the humor involved, I think I'm going to have to find some old issues.
  • Wonder Woman - Okay, this one was trippy. It's almost an origin story. Diana is dreaming but, for almost the entire page, we (and she) don't know it. She's about to be sent to the Mortal Land (i.e., the rest of earth). Best thing here: she talks, in her dream, to two birds who hold a running commentary not unlike Pat Oliphant cartoons or the old Pogo comic strip. Trippy, but in a good way.
  • Sgt. Rock - Written by Adam Kubert and drawn by his dad (and co-creator), Joe Kubert. Yeah! Rock's captured by a SS Officer and is getting pummeled. Dunno why but you know Rock's got stones of, uh, steel.
  • The Flash - This one's a twofer. The top half of the page is Flash battling Gorilla Grodd. The bottom half is "Iris West." That's Flash's wife. This one has that soap opera look and feel (complete with the Warhol-esque dots for color) of comic strips like "Apartment 3-G." But what she sees makes her wonder...
  • The Demon and the Cat - Demon doesn't make an appearance here but the Cat is Catwoman. And I think she might trying to steal something. No, really!
  • Hawkman - Again, a peripheral character for me but there's a huge splash panel of a sky full of Hawkmen, flying upward to retake a hijacked plane. Oh yeah.
Basically, if you can't tell, these stories are intended to be FUN! And I had a blast reading them. Can't wait until Wednesday. Or the next one. Or the next one...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Robert E. Howard's Conan Stories on Audio

Audible.com just made my day. I just discovered the first 13 Conan stories on audio. A quick peek at Wikipedia, "The Source of All Things True," reveals these are the 13:

* "The Phoenix on the Sword"
* "The Frost Giant's Daughter"
* "The God in the Bowl"
* "The Tower of the Elephant"
* "The Scarlet Citadel"
* "Queen of the Black Coast"
* "Black Colossus"
* "Iron Shadows in the Moon"
* "Xuthal of the Dusk"
* "The Pool of the Black One"
* "Rogues in the House"
* "The Vale of Lost Women"
* "The Devil in Iron"

I am one happy dude!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Which is more fun: Alternate Earth/History or Brand-new Land?

One thing that's come about as I write and conceive my steampunk tale is where to set the story. Right now, it's an alternate Earth, not yet in the 20th Century, but with steampowered trains as well as airships and other SFnal crafts. Originally, I thought of creating an entirely new land, complete with different names for cities, land masses, and history. Gradually, I've begun to think of creating an alt-Earth with alt-history.

Which do you prefer? Do you like seeing freshly-conceived worlds with new ideas, characters, cities, creatures, etc. Or do you like seeing known historical figures/concepts in a different manner?

As a historian, I'll admit that I tend to prefer the latter, alternate history. I like seeing how authors/filmmakers create interesting "what ifs" in history. I also think alternate history can be easier for the author, to be sure, but also the reader. Abraham Lincoln is pretty much going to be the same no matter what alt-Earth you place him in, right?

Okay, y'all's turn.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Which is the better term: Steampunk or "Historical SF"?

I stumbled across a new blog for me: The Steampunk Scholar. (hat tip to Chris Roberson). The post Roberson linked to was an interview with Rudy Rucker. The entire interview is enlightening but I gravitated toward one exchange (bold text by me):
MP: Do you think the recent reprint of The Hollow Earth by Monkeybrains Books has something to do with the current increased interest in steampunk?

RR: I think the reprint of The Hollow Earth was a personal decision by Chris Roberson, the author who runs Monkeybrains Books. He enjoys reading and writing historical SF.
Rucker goes on to describe steampunk as a literary movement and a term.

"Historical SF." I seriously like that term mainly because I think it can apply to any story with historical elements and SFnal elements that take place out of the typical Victorian Era that steampunk seems to occupy.

Even now, as I conceive and write my own "historical SF" novel, I still use the word "steampunk" but, more and more, it's not, really, a steampunk story. I've got magic in the story, but also airships. I've got conjured cities and, yet, regular old six-shooters. I'm not necessarily all that interested in how some of my technologies work, just that they do. I have a group of people, ostensibly heroes, who have different pieces of technology based on their needs and talents. It's not all steampowered. Much of it is.

Thus, I think I'll start using the phrase "historical SF" when I refer to my story. If I get strange looks, I'll probably still drop the word "steampunk," but, even then, I'll still have to explain myself.

So, Readers, which term do you like? And, just like in school, please explain your answer. ;-)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Apollocon 2009: "SF: Then and Now"

Of all the panels I attended, this one was the best. Moderated by Bill Crider, the panel included Alexis Glynn Latner, Bennie Grezlik, Larry Friesen, and Lawrence Person.

Bill started off the discussion with an obvious question: where do we start? Does SF/F begin with Jules Verne and H. G. Wells or somewhere else? Lawrence chimed in with his take: SF started great with Verne and Wells, then proceeded to "suck" for a few years, then, gradually, started to get good again. Larry stepped and reminded everyone that Edgar Rice Burroughs used then-current science as the basis for the science in his Mars books. Sure, it's a little cheesy now but back then, it was current thought. Bill made a point that we know too much now. All the panelists and many audience members nodded their heads.

Bill then posed the question using Lawrence's term: Did SF really "suck" back in the days when Hugo Gernsback, the editor of Amazing Stories. Alexis said it was like comparing apples, oranges, and key limes. She mentioned Sturgeon's Law: Ninety percent of everything is crud. Lawrence countered by saying that modern crud is so much better and more proficient than Golden Age crud.

A member of the audience asked the panel to discuss "science fiction" before Gernsbeck, that is how Wells, Verne, and Burroughs rose up to the prominence they have now. Lawrence stated that in those years, "science fiction" wasn't a genre as we know it now. They were just stories. Gernsbeck realized that there was a market for a magazine that features these kinds of stories. Thus, he created Amazing Stories.

In these days, many times authors wrote stories where the idea was the hero. Larry pointed out that authors would take a known situation, even if it was in space, and examine what would happen when an Idea intruded. This led, eventually, to sub-par stories, something John W. Campbell tried to rectify when he was editor Astounding Stories in the 1940s.

The next question was: Why should we care about the old stuff if so much of it is bad? Larry said that in 1970, when the New-Wave SF was being written, he didn't like it. A story, for him, has to be worth telling. He'd rather read an interesting story badly written than a story with a bad concept excellently written. For a good overview of pre-Golden Age SF, Lawrence suggest Isaac Asimov's Before the Golden Age, a time more or less from the mid-late 1930s through the 1950s. Among the name floated: Van Vogt, Heinlein, de Camp, Doc Smith, Robert E. Howard.

Bill made sure that everyone was on the same page with the term "SF." Was it science fiction or speculative fiction? Speculative, the panel agreed. Larry then asked posed a question and answered it: What is SF? It's a story about stuff you think could happen, not necessarily about stuff you know couldn't happen. That is, if you know that Mars doesn't have any living thing on it, that would be "fantasy" if you wrote about it now, but it wasn't when Burroughs wrote his stories.

The panel discussed the short fiction market back in the day as well as the various media available back then and now. Bill's next topic was space opera. We had it back then and we have it again now. Bennie, like Lawrence, said that the stuff we have now is so much better than it was back in earlier ages. Larry brought up John Campbell's guideline: treat the background as the background unless your reader need to know something. (Goes back to the world building ideas I've been writing about, including the Epic Fantasy panel.) Bill said that modern readers and writers are much more sophisticated nowadays. Larry misses the way certain authors like Burroughs composed sentences. He flags the first paragraph, which happens to be one sentence, of Warlord of Mars, Burroughs' third Barsoom book. Here is is.
In the shadows of the forest that flanks the crimson plain by the
side of the Lost Sea of Korus in the Valley Dor, beneath the hurtling
moons of Mars, speeding their meteoric way close above the bosom of
the dying planet, I crept stealthily along the trail of a shadowy
form that hugged the darker places with a persistency that proclaimed
the sinister nature of its errand.
The panel discussed a topic near and dear to Bill's heart: artwork. It, like the stories, is much more sophisticated. Weird Tales was mentioned as a good example of artwork that is both good and cheesy. Alexis mentioned that imagery we now get from the Hubble telescope or any of the Voyager missions. Talk about sense of wonder. Larry said you can't write like Burroughs anymore. Lawrence countered and said you can, you just have to change you science.

Speaking of change, a last point Bill made was to read the following authors: Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Jack Williamson, and Clifford Simak. You should read some early material and then some later material to discern how they changed their styles with the times.

The discussions went right up to the end of the hour. It was a highly informative panel and I learned quite a bit. Hope you did, too.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Book Review Club: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

(My July entry in Barrie Summy's Book Review Club)

The Lies of Locke Lamora
by Scott Lynch is a tale I’ve wanted to read for about three years now. I can’t remember where and when I first learned about it but the premise (gentlemen thieves and con games) and cover blurbs intrigued me. “…One part Robin Hood, one part Ocean’s Eleven, and entirely enthralling…” “…a high-octane fantasy caper around a refreshingly original hero…” Sometimes, reviewers name-dropped authors: Dickens, Mieville, David Liss. All these things percolated in my head, made some preconceived notions, and let me know that this book was one I really must read.

Prologues can be good and bad things. Here, it obscured the first paragraph of chapter one: “Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.” With my tastes for fun capers and con games, that would be enough for me. I’m probably not alone. There’s a reason why Ocean’s Eleven, The Thomas Crown Affair, and other movies and books that feature clever criminals do so well. We all like to know how the bad guy does it. And, frankly, we want him to win. The prologue, while serving to give us some background and an origin for Locke, slows down the action. I wanted to get to the adult Locke doing his cons.

When the present-day story starts, the Gentlemen Bastards—Locke, Jean Tannen, the twins Carlo and Galdo, and Bug, the youngest member—are engaged in a long con to trick one Don Lorenzo Salvara and his wife into paying for a non-existent shipment of rare wine. The level of detail Locke and his pals use to deceive Salvara and everyone around him is intricate and fun to watch. Salvara brings Locke (disguised as Lukas Fehrwight, the wine merchant) into his sphere of influence and promptly starts being robbed (although Lorenzo is, of course, giving away his money).

Locke, you see, is known as The Thorn of Camorr. Camorr is the fantasy city based upon Renaissance Venice. No one has yet linked the identities of Locke and the Thorn. They think Locke is just a sneak thief under the jurisdiction of Capa Barsavi, the crime lord of Camorr. The Gentlemen Bastards are content to keep up that appearance, paying Barsavi his ‘royalties,’ and stealing from the wealthy citizens of Camorr.

Over the horizon, however, is the Grey King, a mysterious figure who seems to be killing some of Barsavi’s lieutenants. The Grey King employs a Bondsmage, the only source of magic in the entire book. The Bondsmage is a sorcerer of a sort and one not to be trifled with. The Grey King deduces the true identity of The Thorn of Camorr and makes Locke an offer he can’t refuse.

Double crosses, bloody fights, and revelations ensue from here. The structure of the book is very much like the TV show “Lost.” For those who haven’t seen the show, an episode features a main storyline of a certain character. At certain points in the show, you get a flashback that gives you a better understanding of the character and why a certain action/decision was made. Same thing with The Lies of Locke Lamora. I’ll admit that, at times, the “Interludes,” as Lynch names these flashbacks, seem like an easy way out of a lot of exposition. Sometimes, these Interludes are useful, as when we learn about the Bondsmages. However, as informative and entertaining as the Interludes sometimes are, Lynch probably could have done with less of them and handled the exposition via dialogue or reader inference. Other times, the Interludes provide a detail that isn’t immediately used like when Lynch describes how the Thiefmaker forced all of his boys to travel, become apprentices to various groups around Camorr, only to return to the Thiefmaker’s headquarters and teach him and the other boys all the details of said group. That’s a cool idea and Locke and the other Gentlemen Bastards use this information later in the book.

The world building in The Lies of Locke Lamora is engrossing. The level of detail Lynch puts in the text is thorough and it enriches the story. But, again, he could have trimmed a bit here and there. For example, when Jean Tannen apprentices for a swordsman, he has to traverse a “garden” of glass. These glass-flowers will, if you cut yourself, suck the blood from you and you may never get out alive. Cool! Lynch tells us about this in a page or two (I listened to the recent audio version via Audible.com so, for me, it was a few minutes) and then we’re back in the story. Too often, for me, at least, the background-via-interlude was too long and disrupted the action. It was a huge info dump. Didn’t need quite so much. A little goes a long way. I know people who love the minutest of details in all fantasy worlds and The Lies of Locke Lamora will satisfy folks like me and will leave others wanting more.

Speaking of wanting, I really wanted to love this book. Again, read the blurbs: “…One part Robin Hood, one part Ocean’s Eleven, and entirely enthralling…” “…a high-octane fantasy caper around a refreshingly original hero…” “One part caper, one part swashbuckle, and one part Mission: Impossible…” Don’t know about you but when I read those words (“high-octane” “Ocean’s Eleven” “swashbuckle”), a certain type of story emerges in my mind. To me, swashbuckle equals “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “high-octane” equals Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity (my review), and “Ocean’s Eleven” equals an entertaining movie that’s fun to watch with lots of chuckles. Quite frankly, The Lies of Locke Lamora isn’t all of these things. That’s not to say it wasn’t entertaining. It was. I just expected to be more entertained than I was. Don’t think that I fall prey to the modern affliction of Having To Be Entertained All The Time. I enjoy slower burn books (Dan Simmons’ Drood is a good example (my review) as is Megan Abbott’s Die a Little (my review)) and I don’t always want or expect the fast-paced action a la Hard Case Crime, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian tales, or The Da Vinci Code. But with blurbs like the ones I quoted, I expected The Lies of Locke Lamora to be more like those other titles. It wasn’t. It was its own thing, which is good.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. And I’ll easily be reading the second book, Red Seas Under Red Skies (it’s got friggin’ pirates; I am SO there), if not the entire proposed set of seven books. I’ll just be doing it with a slightly-revised set of expectations.

BTW, Scott Lynch is the Guest of Honor this year at Armadillocon 31 in Austin, TX.


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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Apollocon 2009: Astronaut Stanley G. Love

Without a doubt, the coolest thing I did at Apollocon 2009 was watch the presentation by Astronaut Stanley G. Love. (here's the official NASA bio; here's some cool photos of Love in training)

He brought an 18-minute video which he narrated and told us interesting stories and details. The video images were amazing, things we earth-bound humans never get to see. Perhaps the coolest shot was of the International Space Station after the Shuttle Atlantis left. There was the ISS, floating majestically above the Earth, a shining example of human ingenuity. Absolutely gorgeous.

Other facts we all learned from the video and the Q&A session:
  • The orange suits weight 80 lb.
  • As soon as the fuel tank is jettisoned, the astronauts start working. That is, they are barely in orbit.
  • The entire first day or orbit is devoted to an examination of the heat shields. A camera is put on Atlantis' arm and they take video of the bottle of the shuttle.
  • A normal airplane, when landing, comes in on a 3-degree angle. The shuttle lands at a 20-degree angle. (Yikes!)
  • When the shuttle lands, without engines don't forget, it is traveling at 345 MPH.
  • Love went on two spacewalks. The suit is 350 lb (on earth). He said that trying to close one's hand in the spacewalk suit is about the same as trying to squeeze a tennis ball. Numerous times, in training mainly, his body got a little bruised and bloody from being in the suit.
  • The shuttle orbits the Earth every 90 minutes at a rate of approximately 55 minutes of light and 35 minutes of darkness. You have no dawn or twilight. One second it's dark, the next it's noontime bright. (That was my question, BTW.)
  • The movie "Apollo 13" got the science right.
  • He knew, within the first frame of "Independence Day" that they got the science all wrong.
One of the audience members asked about claustrophobia. Love told us about one of the tests NASA conducts. They strap electrical stuff to your body to monitor your heart rate, etc. Then, they zip you up in a three-foot canvas 'ball'. This ball has a fan for fresh air so you don't necessarily get too hot. They put you in a room, turn off the lights, *and don't tell you* how long they'll keep you there. He said the NASA scientists know within minutes who's a good candidate and who isn't.

Another question came about nausea in space. About one to two hours after lift-off, you begin to have 'stomach awareness,' a nice euphemistic way of saying nausea. The nausea, to one degree or another, usually lasts one to two days. Most astronauts who just get in space are directed to keep Earth-like visual cues. That is, the floor is 'down' and the ceiling is 'up.' After days and weeks in space, you're brain adjusts and you can eat, sleep, rest anywhere in the 3D space inside the ISS.

After the Q&A, Love signed photos and made himself available for additional questions. I got one for my son who was duly impressed that his dad met a real, live astronaut. A NASA rep brought with her scale models of the Ares class of rocket, the ones that'll replace the shuttle. These rockets are massive, almost twice as high as the shuttle and the Saturn V rocket that took our astronauts to the moon forty years ago.

I don't know about y'all but I just eat up all this space exploration stuff. NASA, its history and all that it accomplished, is utterly fascinating. After seeing the Ares rocket models, I'm really looking forward to humans returning to the moon. I just want to see it.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Apollocon 2009: "Does Fantasy Have to be Epic?"

I was interested in this sessions mainly because I'm interested in where the short SF/F books went. The panelists included Martha Wells (moderator), Lillian Stewart Carl, Dee Beetem, Gail Dayton, and A. Lee Martinez.

Lillian, who is up for a Hugo later this summer, started the process with the obvious: epics and multi-book stories are publisher driven. Back in the day, Robert E. Howard wrote many stories about Conan but they were all stand-alones. All fantasy lives in the shadow of J. R. R. Tolkien. He wrote a multi-book epic with grand sweep (forget that the book is really one large book) and he set the bar and the mold. However, Tolkien was an exception. He wrote The Lord of the Rings without the market in mind. Indeed, there was not a market at all.

Dee brought up a good point: writers spend a lot of time building a world. Once built, it better pay off dividends. Lee stated that series is what people want. While he didn't come out and say it, I think series characters, like our TV series and late-night talk show hosts, are essentially comfort food. We want to return to that galaxy far, far away or read the latest Harry Bosch novel time and again.

The talk progressed to writing style. Lillian said that readers will be tolerant of bad writing if the story is good. (Kind of like Nora Roberts' first rule of writing I mentioned in the "Raiders of the Lost Maguffin" write-up)

Lee finds himself bored with the same old worlds. That's why he writes stand-alones and builds the world up every time. At this, Martha brought up another obvious point: readers nowadays are so sophisticated and they have so many genre tropes ingrained in our Reader DNA that a writer doesn't necessarily have to world-build the way they used to (like Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example). Again, Robert E. Howard was mentioned. He wrote what he knew. Sure, he used a different name for a four-legged animal you ride but its really a horse. All the panelists said they disliked wacky names for the sense of being wacky. I agree with them. Some of the names Alan Dean Foster used in his early books were a bunch of consonants. Lee said it best: we writers put too much pressure on ourselves to world build. It's not all that necessary to have the entire global structure in place before you write a story. You can world build with what's around the character and, as Martha said, you can fill in some gaps in the next book. Gail concluded about world building that you can explain as you go.

A funny aside: all the panelists, when they discussed Epic Fantasy, would take their hands and make an arc with one hand, almost like a rainbow. That morphed into visual code for "epic fantasy." It became the funny joke of the hour and Lee ran with it, visually describing other books with shorter arcs, choppy arcs, or none at all.

In summary, I think the panelists came to the same conclusion: sure, there is a market for massive, epic fantasy stories with tons of world building. But that's not the end-all, be-all in fantasy literature. There's more out there that's good.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Apollocon 2009: "Raiders of the Lost Maguffin"

The Lost Maguffin session, Friday night at 8pm, was the first one I attended. The panelists were Rosemary Clement-Moore (M), Tim Frayser, Joe McKinney, Gail Dayton. Here's the write-up that enticed me in the room: "Adventure novels sweep us up and take us away. Our panelists talk about the way adventure novels work in spec fic and why we love them."

The audience totaled about 20 people including A. Lee Martinez, an author an panelist of other topics. Rosemary, the moderator, had with her a sheet with guidelines and questions to help the panelists and audience members discuss various topics within the subject. The most obvious question is about the appeal of adventure fiction. Why is it important. Tim answered with an obvious statement: adventure fiction is a character study. In an adventure story, certain traits of a person's character will be revealed through the trials of the story. Most of the panelists agreed.

Next, we discussed Joseph Campbell's Myth arc and whether or not the "Thing" being sought ought to be physical or metaphysical. Gail agreed that the Thing can be either, especially in light of the character-based definition of the previous question. Joe McKinney, a homicide detective in San Antonio, reminded everyone that the ring in the Lord of the Rings was something to be destroyed, not obtained.

From this lofty discussion, the panel quickly started discussing science and plausibility in adventure fiction. Unfortunately, a certain archaeologist with a bullwhip didn't fare well. For most, the Atomic Bomb/Fridge scene in Indy 4 was so bad as to make the film unwatchable. For others, it was the aliens and the flying spaceship. Rosemary did say, however, that since the film was supposed to be about the 1950s and all the stuff we were fixated on, aliens and invasion was actually okay with her. Others brought up the tricorders in Star Trek as examples of things that use spurious science.

The gradual consensus was summed up in Nora Roberts single rule of writing: Don't Bore the Reader. If a writer sets up a world with certain rules, even if they have questionable scientific merit, a reader is more than willing to go along As Long As The Story Is Good.

In all, the session was fun and informative. It helped me sort out my current WIP (the steampunk thing; see here and here for sample sentences) and has put me on a new course for the project.

Apollocon 2009: Introduction

Well, I've finished my first full day here at Apollocon. It's being held up at the Doubletree near Intercontinental Airport, a fair drive for me (about 50 minutes or so). I have a main goal for this convention: to attend the writer's workshop and receive some feedback on my new WIP, a steampunk mystery thing. (I'm not really sure what it's all going to be yet.)

Also, I hope to make some contacts and just enjoy the con.

Here is a list of the panels I plan on attending (some I already did).
  • Raiders of the Lost Maguffin
  • Does Fantasy Have to be Epic?
  • Special guest: Astronaut Stanley G. Love
  • Anachrohnism Mash-up: Steampunk, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica
  • Then and Now -- How SF has Changed (moderated by Bill Crider)
  • Batman Turns 70
I'll provide write-ups on all the panels as well as the results of the writing workshop here at SF Safari.

Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Unnecessary sequels to SF/F books & movies

I.J. Parnham’s response to my post about watching the movie “2010” in 2009 got me to thinking. Here’s the money quote:
I could never see the point of the book Ten past Eight, or the other sequels. And I've only tried to watch the film once, but didn't get even halfway through. It's a classic case to me of the utterly unneeded sequel that does slightly diminish the impact of the original.
Now, as I wrote in my responses, as a youngster, I appreciated both the book and movie “2010” because it explained the first movie. Because the ending of “2001: A Space Odyssey” says different things to different people, there must have been some driving need for Clarke to Tell Us All Exactly What Everything Means. That, or the need for the next book in a contract. Or writer’s block.

Anyway, the movie/book “2010” struck I.J. as unnecessary. Are there other sequels/prequels to fantasy and SF books/movies you think are unnecessary?

I’ll answer my own question and stay with Arthur C. Clarke. Rendezvous with Rama was an excellent book filled, like "2001," with big ideas. The immediate sequel, Rama II, was the same book with different characters. But when some of the characters got marooned on Rama II and Clarke wrote two more books, I barely got through books two and three. I only finished book three just to see what the Rama craft was. I can’t remember now but I remember being unimpressed.

I’ve only read the first Dune book. I’ve heard that, starting with Book 4, Frank Hebert went off the deep end. Then there are the scads of prequel trilogies out there. Do they help or hinder your enjoyment of the original Dune books?

On the movie front, I didn’t think we needed Alien 3 or Alien 4. Well, the ending of Alien 3 was okay but #4 was excess. I didn’t like Terminator 3 either (and have yet to see the new one).

Those are the ones that come immediately to my mind. How about y’all? What are sequels/prequels to SF/F movie or books you think are unnecessary?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Thoughts on "2010" (the movie)

I caught most of "2010" the movie on Friday night. The movie, released in 1984, is, of course, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Here's what I found fascinating about "2010" as I watched it again for the first time in many a year and only six months away from the actual 2010.

Back in 1968, the year 2001 really felt like the future. Not so any more. I think from 1968, the concept of a Hilton in space and a moon base probably seemed doable, what with the thrill of the Apollo missions and such. Besides, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the book so you know it was grounded in real science.

However, come 1984, things were quite different. While 2001 still seemed futuristic, I think most of us knew that there would not be orbiting Hiltons in space and a moon base wasn't going to get made. By 1984, we hadn't been back to the moon in a dozen years. And, yet, the filmmakers (and Clarke) had to create the sequel with the 1968 mindset. They had to maintain the world Clarke and Stanley Kubrick showed us in 1968.

Thus, you get Heywood Floyd talking about data on "cassettes." Odd that Clarke didn't see the new CDs then emerging as the next thing in data storage. You still have the clunky keyboards that were basically IBM Selectrics. You also have the computer screens which, for the most part, still hold up even though they look like Atari 2600 video games.

What I did like about the film, even more so now than in 1984 when I first saw the film, was the "normal" stuff. When the spirit of Dave Bowman returns to Earth to say a final farewell to his mom and wife, each woman lives in a hospital or apartment, respectively, that looks like something a person from 1984 (or 2009) would recognize. The domestic scenes in the movie "2001" seemed out there and cool. I think Clarke realized that the future he saw in 1968 wasn't going to come to pass by 2001 or 2010. So he and the filmmakers made good choices. It grounds the film in reality, a hallmark of Clarke's stories.

I visited Disneyworld's Epcot Center in 1984. I can't remember if I was reading the Clarke novel at the same time or not but I do remember feeling a connection between the book and the things on display at Epcot. Epcot really did feel futuristic even if what I read in "2010" was going to come to pass for awhile. There was a connection, a common destination point. Thing is now, that point seems farther away.

Anyway, just wanted to pass along a few thoughts on watching a show that supposedly takes place in a year less than six months away. Wow. We're really living in the future. Reminds me of the Springsteen lyric: "We're livin' in the future and none of this has happened yet"

What do y'all think of the concepts presented in 2001 and 2010, both the books and movies?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

SF Book Club #1: Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

Recently, three friends and I were talking about the idea of starting a small SF/F book club. The main rationale is that we tend to get in the same reading rut and, if others choose books, we'll read some books/authors we might not normally read. It's a little like the SF/F reading list by Lou Anders I posted early in this blog's history.

We decided to read whatever we all voted on, be it classic SF/F or modern. To start things off, we voted to go modern and yours truly was nominated to pick the first book. I reviewed Lou Anders's recommendations and those readers who commented as well as some of the books I have on my own personal reading list that I didn't mention online. It's summer and it's hot so I didn't feel like reading a book like Midwinter. I had just finished reading John Scalzi's Old Man's War (my review) otherwise I'd have put that book forward. I'm 3/4 done with The Lies of Locke Lamora or I'd have chosen it. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station is high on my list but it's a challenge (from what I hear).

Deciding to keep things light and fun, I settled on Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell.

I've been wanting to read Crystal Rain for awhile mainly because I want to know what Caribbean-influenced SF looks and reads like. And other, established SF authors and editors love Buckell's work so I figured it would be a good place to start. Besides, just look at that gorgeous cover painting and tell me you *don't* want to read this book. The dude's got a hook where a hand should be. I am SO there.

We've given ourselves two months to read Crystal Rain. Wouldn't you know it: I selected a book without an audio adaptation. So, look for my review of the book later this summer (perhaps even for the Book Review Club from Barrie Summy) and any insights we all gain from the communal reading experience.

Anyone out there part of a SF/F-specific reading group?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Batmobile website

With a hat tip to Bish's Beat, here's a fun website devoted to the 1966 Batmobile from the TV show.

My story with the Batmobile is much like the website's author. I thoroughly dug that car and had my own Hot Wheels version sometime in the 1970s. At a car show once, I actually got to see it. A young boy's wish fulfilled.

Cut to this year: in a recent episode of the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Robin was the partner. In the intro scene, it was a flashback of Robin when he was the Boy Wonder. In stylized tones, they paid homage to the 1960s TV show as B&R slid down the pole, jumped in the Batmobile, fastened their seat belts, and rocketed out of the cave. Brilliant!

Monday, June 8, 2009

"New" Classic SF books

One branch of the Harris County library has a small used book room. After checking out some books, I stuck my head in there. Glad I did. Someone dropped a lot of classic SF/F. Since I'm wanting to read some classic SF as well as modern SF, I picked up a few, at a quarter a book. And two of the books were doubles, so that 12.5 cents/book. How can you not?

Note: the covers in these links are the covers of the copies I just bought except the Delany books.

The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 (1972) by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop - How can I, a Texan, not get this book. Besides, I remember seeing it back in the day. Anyone remember The Ayes of Texas?

The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965)/Empire Star (1966) by Samual R. Delany - One of The Names in SF. Have to start somewhere.

The Mightiest Machine
(1935, 1947) by John W. Campbell - Another giant in early SF

Enigma from Tantalus
(1965)/Repairman of Cyclops (1965) by John Brunner - This is my first real Ace double. Again, for a quarter, it's worth it for the collector value alone.

I'll be reading and blogging them starting this summer.

Anyone out there know these titles?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

New SF Tale at Beat to a Pulp

For those that don't know, Beat to a Pulp is the brainchild of David Cranmer, the blogger behind The Education of a Pulp Writer. Late in 2008, David launched Beat to a Pulp, an ezine devoted to stories and adventures you'd likely find in a pulp magazine back in the 30s. To date, most of the stories have been hard-boiled tales of crime or horror or westerns. My first published story, a western (go figure) was published at Beat to a Pulp in April. Science fiction hasn't had a big part--yet--mainly, I think, because not many folks have sent in stories. Many SF readers forget the genre's pulp origins. I've read very little pre-1950s SF, something I'm rectifying starting this summer. I have read the only SF story in the archives, Sandra Seamans' wonderful "Brother Justice."

That ends today.

Chad Eagleton's "Six Bullets for John Carter" is Beat to a Pulp's second SF tale and, man, I have to tell you, it's fantastic. The title alone should make all true SF die-hards rush to read it. Evoking one of the classic names in all of SF, "John Carter" is, at once, an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs and a brand-new story looking forward.

I don't want to say much more because you really just have to read the story. I've lamented recently about the lack of short SF books on the market. Too often, the world building eats up huge chunks of a novel that, parceled out more judiciously, would make quicker, more enjoyable reads. Eagleton world-builds in just a short story. You really get the sense that there is a greater, wider universe where the events of this story take place. And it's got one of the greatest locales in all of SF: Mars.

Read this story. You won't be disappointed. And you SF writers out there: head on over to the Guidelines section of Beat to a Pulp and read up on what David would like. Send in some stories. Join in on one of the most exciting places for fiction on the Internet. Beat to a Pulp is now one of my weekly fixes. Make it one of yours, too.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Comics Review: Batman and Robin #1

Whoa! What the heck did I miss?

That was my first thought upon reading Issue #1 of Batman and Robin, a new monthly title written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely. Dick Grayson as Batman? What about Nightwing, his persona after he bequeathed the Robin costume to Jason Todd and Tim Drake. Then there's this Damien guy now dressed up as Robin. Where's Drake? And the issue comes under the overall heading of Batman: Reborn.

What?

Well, I have some catching up to do, that's for sure. I did a little research and Damien, it seems, is Bruce Wayne's real son, Wayne himself is missing/dead/I'm not sure, Dick Grayson has taken 'the mantle of the cowl' away from ...someone, and the two of them now operate in Gotham in a flying Batmobile. Yes, I said flying Batmobile.

The opening pages show a toad-guy driving a car through a tunnel. Enter the aforementioned Batmobile that looks like a red version of the helmet worn by Aquaman's arch-nemesis, Black Manta. As a huge fan of Cartoon Network's Batman: Brave and the Bold (where Bats is returned to his fun, comedic days), I can buy the flying Batmobile. Seems odd that they'd paint a giant red bat emblem on it but I can still buy it. Honestly, I can't help but wonder if it's a nod to Batman Beyond, the great cartoon series of the 1990s.

Anyway, the issue lays out the story lines pretty well. You get to see Damien interact with Alfred, you see Commissioner James Gordan back in action, you even get some of the backstory about Bruce Wayne and how much pressure Grayson's under to carry on the Bat mantle.

The issue ends way too abruptly, probably a result of the usual practice of story arcs being gathered into a trade paperback. We get to see a man dressed up in a pig mask doing some 'reconstructive surgery' on another guy. Guess we'll learn about that a bit later on. We also get introduced to another storyline with a guy, probably a baddie, who looks like Marvel's Human Torch but wearing clothes. Guess that storyline's for a later issue, too.

The artwork by Quitely is superb. It's a far cry from the comic art in the 70s and 80s. It looks like real people wearing real costumes and real shoes. There are a few shots of Grayson in the Batman costume where it looks, slightly, as if the costume's just a few inches too big. Is that some visual representation of Grayson's hesitancy? In terms of the writing, can't say for sure yet. The issue sets up everything and I haven't read a Morrison story before so I can't compare. I do have the trade version of Batman and Son which will, I hope, reveal the origin of Damien Wayne. I'll be reading that shortly.

Once I heard about this title being launched, I wanted to eschew my usual practice of waiting for the trades. I enjoyed the issue and I'm game for some revamping of the Batman storyline (Heck, we've seen it for James Bond and Star Trek, why not Batman?). He has been and will always be my favorite comic book character. I'm the kind of Bat-fan who can drool over "The Dark Knight" movie and then come home and watch the Brave and the Bold cartoon and enjoy both. I'm looking forward to seeing where this title goes.

And I want to know what happened to Bruce Wayne. Can anyone out there tell me which titles I need to read to figure out what happened to Wayne?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Book Review Club: Star Trek: Countdown

This is the June entry for Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club. For the complete list, click on the Book Review Club icon at the bottom of this post.)

If only they had filmed this…

What I’m referring to is the graphic novel Star Trek: Countdown. It is not merely a graphic novel. It is a prequel to the new “Star Trek” film now in theaters and a sequel to the Next Generation universe last seen in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. The four-issue story was originally published starting in January and has now been collected in a trade paperback edition.

And it’s fantastic.

I didn’t read the story until I had seen the movie so I can’t tell you what it would have been like to read the comic before seeing the film. I’m not a fan of spoilers so I would not have read it anyway (had I known about it). Suffice it to say, it’s one of those fill-in-the-gaps kind of tales that geek boys and geek gals really dig but your general audience doesn’t care to know.

(Speaking of spoilers, if you haven’t seen the new film and want to know nothing about it, stop reading now.)

Star Trek: Countdown begins in the Next Generation years following the last Next Gen film, Nemesis. An aged Spock is now the Federation ambassador to Romulus and he’s imploring the Romulan High Council to put their trust in Vulcan science to save their planet from a star that threatens to go supernova. His staunchest ally is a miner, Nero (played by Eric Bana in the new film), a simple Romulan with a pregnant wife who has witnessed the star’s destructive power first-hand. The solution is to allow the transport of a special mineral to Vulcan where it can be converted into “red matter,” a substance that can create a black hole in the place of the troubled star (!), rendering it inert. The Romulan High Council refuses. Thus, Nero and Spock conspire to transport the mineral in secret.

Naturally, the Remans, Romulans’ bad step siblings, interfere and damage Nero’s mining ship. Who comes to the rescue? None other than the Enterprise-E, helmed by Captain Data. (Wait! I thought Data 'died' in Nemesis. It's explained) They save the day and head off to Vulcan. Guess what? The Vulcan High Council refuses to help the Romulans. Nero vows revenge on all of Vulcan if the planet Romulus is destroyed. Spock convinces Nero there’s still one more hope. Nero, of course, blames the entire thing on Spock when the star does go supernova and destroys Romulus, including his wife and unborn child.

What does Nero do now? He goes on a killing binge. He takes out some Federation medical ships and kills the remaining members of the Romulan High Council. We learn the reason behind the tattoos Eric Bana wears in the movie as well as the axe/staff thing he carries. To go on now would ruin it for those of y’all who still want to read this story. Three more Next Gen folks walk on stage (one’s on the cover so it’s no mystery) before the story ends right where the movie begins.

My one quibble is with the artwork. Don’t get me wrong: the art, by David Messina, is beautiful. He recreates scenes from both the new movie and the Next Gen movies perfectly well. He, however, rarely draws pictures of people, who are talking, with their mouths open. I found it rather annoying.

I’ve always been a fan of Star Trek. One of my biggest kicks out of the new movie is all the in jokes. Well, there are more in Countdown. It’s just cool to see the Next Gen folks with Spock (again) and Nero. If Star Trek VII (i.e., Generations) was the movie where the original crew (read: Kirk) handed off the franchise to the Next Gen crew and the new movie is where the original crew (read: Spock) hands things off to the 2.0 versions of themselves, Star Trek: Countdown is the connecting link. It's the Next Gen crew handing the franchise to Spock who, in turn, hands it to the new, rebooted franchise. It isn’t to be missed.


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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Two Sentence Tuesday: Fantasy Edition (2 June 2009)

I'm still listening to The Lies of Locke Lamora and, as such, it's a bit difficult to pick out a pair of sentences. There are quite a few I like. One is at the 2:44 hour mark in part II. You know that one, don't you? ;-)

The format of Scott Lynch's book is interesting. There's the main story (where Locke is an adult) and then he adds in interludes. The interludes, so far, is the story of how Lamora as a young boy got in with the group called the Gentlemen Bastards. It's very "Lost"-like: they are flashbacks. So far, no flash-forwards. A part of me thinks this is just Lynch's way of adding exposition without going through the motions of an information dump. There was one in particular that was like that. Others were better. When I finish, I'll give my thoughts.

For my two sentences, three actually, I've decided to post the next paragraph to my steampunk book I started in a previous Two Sentence Tuesday post.
The murderer Serkis leaped down from his perch on the wall, his shoes smacking the cold floor and sending curls of dust into the air. He shuffled towards Kionell, who was chained to the floor by the invisible bonds of the trance the murderer had placed upon him, and then past him. The fluttering grew louder until the Serkis held the dying bird in front of Kionell's face. Kionell and the bird held each other's gaze, each knowing that they would die today.
I know the last sentence is a bit melodramatic and I'll probably cut it later but that's where it is now.

I'm not the only one offering up a twofer today. Head on over to Women of Mystery for more.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Summer 2009: SF Edition

As I wrote about in my crime fiction blog, there are certain things I just enjoy doing during the weeks and days between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Summer is a state of mind and the most nostalgic for me outside of Christmas. I’ve made a short list of non-SF things I want to do this summer over at my crime fiction blog. Here are the SF-related goals.

Books: Lou Anders and others gave me a great list of SF books to read in order to ‘catch up’ in the genre. That list is still valid but I won’t get anywhere near to finishing the entire list. The books are just too darn long. I have read Old Man’s War and I’m reading The Lies of Locke Lamora right now. The other books on my SF reading list are these: The Tar-Ayiam Krang by Alan Dean Foster; Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell; Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs; Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber; Steampunk edited by the Vandermeers; The New Weird also edited by the Vandermeers.

Comics: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; various Batman titles (the omnibus volumes from the 60s; The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul; Tales of the Demon; Batman and Son); the Brian Azzerello Superman story For Tomorrow; the Dark Horse Indiana Jones volumes; and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. What I’m looking forward to is re-reading the Star War comics from Marvel starting at Issue #7, the first one after Star Wars. I’ll probably read a few and blog about them.

Movies: Other than the SF/F blockbusters, I really like old SF movies during the summer months. After I finish reading John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, I’ll be re-watching The Thing from Outer Space. I also have It Came from Outer Space somewhere on tape. Others will pop us as I go along.

TV: Firefly. I’ve started watching the episodes and I’ve written about the first episode. Watch for additional blogs, perhaps one a week, as my wife and I get our Nathan Fillion fix with the crew of Serenity.

Writing: my next novel is my steampunk novel. Thus, my only SF-related writing goal is the same one I wrote about on my crime fiction blog: finish half the book by Labor Day. An extended goal is to write and submit a SF/F short story. I’m putting it out there for the record.

So, what about y’all? Do y’all plan on doing things just during the summer months? If so, what are your goals this summer?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Book Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

When you get right down to it, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is a time machine. It’s the first book in a long, long time that filled me with the sense of wonder I felt back when I was in elementary school reading science fiction for the first time.

Even before I started reading SF again, I knew who John Scalzi was. He was the blogger whose column a friend of mine suggested I read. So I did. He was the guy who wrote That Book, the one that just about everyone around says I should read. Finally, I did, and only one question comes to mind: what the heck took so long?

Old Man’s War, crisply written and gripping with actual human emotion, is now one of the books on The List I tell just about everyone I know to read.*

Like few things in the literary world, I appreciate opening lines. I know that we writers are supposed to have killer opening lines to make the agent, first, the editor, second, and, finally, the reader, continue reading through the first paragraph, the first page, and the first chapter. I admit that this focus on openings lends itself to missing a book like, say, Megan Abbott’s Die a Little (my review), that has a slow burn to a satisfying conclusion. Old Man’s War has an opening that, while it doesn’t grab you by the suit jacket, throw your against a wall, and demand you read further, nevertheless makes you curious and want to know more.
I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army.
If you’re like me, you did a double-take. How in the heck can a seventy-five year old man join the army? Scalzi’s first person POV narrator, John Perry, is your guide and, through his eyes, we experience a second life.

It’s not giving anything away, I think, to reveal that Perry and all the old farts receive new bodies. I mean, how else are they going to fight all the aliens out in our galaxy. What gives Old Man’s War its humor is the transition from old human to young newer human. And I think you can figure out what the new/young do as soon as they get their new bodies. Just like the old codgers in the movie “Cocoon,” these new recruits hump each other like rabbits.

Things get down to business after the new recruits to the Colonial Defense Force arrive at basic training. As a writer well versed in pop culture, Scalzi knows that we’ve all seen this type of thing before in countless movies and books. Inexperienced recruits arrive at basic training with a hard-ass drill sergeant who torments and reshapes the young men into fighting men only later to relent and tell them they’ve made him proud. Thing is, Scalzi’s drill sergeant has *also* seen those movies and proceeds to blow away all the stereotypes of a drill sergeant...while being just what you’d expect. It’s during these chapters where Old Man’s War comes the closest to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, one of the seminal SF books out there. Wisely, I think, Scalzi doesn’t stay too long here and moves us into the broader war.

Act III of the book is John Perry and his fellow troopers fighting various aliens on various planets. It seems humanity was born in an out-of-the-way part of the Milky Way and there are only so many hospitable planets in the galaxy to colonize. Those same planets, for various reasons, are also being colonized by other alien races. It’s the job of the Colonial Defense Force to secure a place for humans to establish a beachhead colony or take out any indigenous or invading force. This section is full of good war prose and action and John and his team get into some hair-raising situations.

What got me in Act III was, of all things, the introduction of a new mystery. The first mystery was how do old people fight wars. Perry solved that mystery early. It’s in Act III, when Perry is down bad, where a new mystery emerges. I thought to myself “Why is Scalzi introducing a brand-new mystery this far into the book?” A quick scan of my ebook version revealed that, in fact, he had planted the clues earlier on and I’d just missed them. It was a brilliant thing to do and his explanation of who and what the ghost brigades are brought the story even more to a human level. Of course, had I actually remembered that the sequel to Old Man’s War was titled The Ghost Brigades, I’d have been less surprised. Let’s chalk one up to forgetfulness.

For all of the whiz-bang gadgetry of this story, it’s the human element that drives the novel and gives it life. We care about Perry and he makes a sympathetic character. Early on, when the new recruits are talking about what they miss about Earth--the only caveat of joining the CDF is that you can never return to Earth--Perry says that he misses being married. The others laugh until they realize Perry’s being serious. Throughout the story, you learn about Perry’s first life and, just like the rest of us, his marriage wasn’t perfect. But he appreciated his life with his wife and that knowledge fuels his drive to fight for Earth.

Moreover, Scalzi grounds the novel in realism with real things we all recognize. The story takes place in some future that is never dated. But Perry talks about cars, computers, movies, music...things we know and love. This is the kind of SF I can really get behind, SF that projects itself forward from our current time and to imagine what life might really be like here, on Earth, decades in the future.

A word about the audiobook: I listened to this story as read by William Dufris. Like few voice actors doing audiobooks, Dufris brings his characters to life. With it being a first person POV, you get the sense that Dufris himself *is* John Perry. He drags out certain phrases and gives others a certain intonation that, frankly, makes the words being spoken funnier than on the page. Dufris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite audiobook readers.

Like SF from the golden age of Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein, Old Man’s War transports you to a future that is at once dire, fascinating, and hopeful. In the end, however, it’s an optimistic future. Yes, we humans still have to struggle to maintain our race in the galaxy. Yes, it takes the blood of the young to defend the homeworld. But that’s what we humans have been doing from the beginning. We fight for what we believe in. We lay down our lives for our brethren. It’s a fundamental truth about our race, a truth that John Scalzi shows us in his fantastic book.

Thus, Old Man’s War is a time machine in that it can take us readers back to our younger days with its glorious sense of wonder. But the book is also a time capsule. If some future alien race wanted to know about humanity, who we are and why we do the things we do, Old Man’s War could be one of the books the alien could read to understand what it’s like to be human.

*Other books on The List include The Dawn Patrol, Mystic River, The Shadow of the Wind, Ender’s Game, Hyperion, and Money Shot, among others.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Alternate history: SF, Fantasy, or Something else?

Over at Tor.com, Jo Walton asks this question and a lively discussion has ensued.

For most of its time on earth--at least, this version of earth--Alt History has been considered science fiction. Now, folks are thinking it ought to be given it's own genre title, "Alternate History" under the broader genre term of "Speculative Fiction." I'm inclined to agree with this sentiment. I like the term speculative fiction because it encompasses a broad range of genres and tropes: SF, fantasy, horror, alt history, etc.

Honestly, I think this kind of discussion started as a result of Michael Chabon's wonderful alt-history book The Yiddish Policeman's Union. He's not a SF writer, he's a literary writer with SFnal leanings. The mainstream public read the book and probably didn't think of it as SF. Yet, it won a slew of SF awards. So it much be science fiction, right? Well, not so fast. It was also nominated for an Edgar, the awards given for best mystery stories. It *is* a mystery, after all, but it's set in an alternate universe. So what is it really?

It's more than one thing. That, to me, is most important. It's just a book that amalgamates many tropes into one single thing: an enjoyable novel.

What does this all mean about genres and tropes and labels? Don't know. But I will make this point: with my viewing and reading of Charles Dickens this spring, an obvious thing emerged. Your typical Dickens story had the tropes of many different genres in the same book. Since there weren't genres labels yet, Dickens' stories were just that: stories. Genres are labels that are good to have for marketers and readers, to be sure. If I want a cozy mytery with cats, I know where to go.

But what about just good stories, regardless of label or genre? Who really cares on what branch alt-history finds itself on the giant tree of fiction? If it's a good story, it's a good story. If the story involves witches or serial killers or soldiers or astronauts or four women living in NYC, read the story (or not) because you want to. Fiction is supposed to be fun. And alt-history is really fun, no matter what genre it is.

How about you? What do you think of alt-history? Where should it fall?

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame by Ben Bova

It's funny the things you find resting on your bookshelves, barely noticing them. Last night, I rediscovered an old two volume set entitled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2 (1973), edited by Ben Bova. I searched online for the table of contents and found a Wikipedia entry. Turns out this volume collects twenty-two great novellas published before 1961, the year the Nebula Awards began. Volume 1 brings together great short stories also from the pre-Nebula Era.

Here is the Table of Contents for Volume 2 - The Novellas:

Volume Two A
Poul Anderson, "Call me Joe" 1957
John W. Campbell, "Who Goes There?" 1938
Lester del Rey, "Nerves" 1942
Robert A. Heinlein, "Universe" 1941
Cyril M. Kornbluth, "The Marching Morons" 1951
Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, "Vintage Season" 1946
Eric Frank Russell, "...And Then There Were None" 1951
Cordwainer Smith, "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" 1962
Theodore Sturgeon, "Baby is Three" 1952
H.G. Wells, "The Time Machine" 1895
Jack Williamson, "With Folded Hands" 1947

Volume Two B
Isaac Asimov, "The Martian Way" 1952
James Blish, "Earthman Come Home" 1953
Algis Budrys, "Rogue Moon" 1960
Theodore Cogswell, "The Spectre General" 1952
E.M. Forster, "The Machine Stops" 1909
Frederik Pohl, "The Midas Plague" 1954
James H. Schmitz, "The Witches of Karres" 1949
T. L. Sherred, "E for Effort" 1947
Wilmar H. Shiras, "In Hiding" 1948
Clifford D. Simak, "The Big Front Yard" 1958
Jack Vance, "The Moon Moth" 1961

I'll admit that I've read exactly one of these stories, the oldest, H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. I know most of the names, however. Any SF reader should know most if not all these names. The one that stands out is E. M. Forster. Who knew that the A Passage to India guy wrote SF? Another observation about this collection is the dates. You have exactly three stories (Wells', Forster's, and Campbell's) written prior to the 1940s. If you include the two stories published in in 1941 (Heinlein) and 1942 (del Rey), that makes five stories published prior to World War II. The other seventeen all were published after the war and, more importantly (I think; haven't read these stories yet) after the Atomic Age had begun. That says a lot about how we humans probably viewed the world post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki.

But you can't discount the lack of material in the first half of the twentieth-century. No story from the 1910s, nothing from the 1920s, and only one story from the 1930s. I know SF was being published during those decades (Burroughs, at least) but, perhaps, Bova and the other folks who compiled these novellas didn't think those offerings worthy of a collection.

This presumption only makes me more curious about the types of stories selected. I'm curious to know how SF is defined within these 22 stories. I'll let you know what I find out. I'm thinking about reading the stories chronologically just to see how the definition of SF progressed.

Anybody read any of these novellas? Have any favorites?

Friday, May 8, 2009

New Star Trek Film - Mini Review

Got back a few hours ago from seeing the new Star Trek film. If I have to use only one word to describe this film, it would be "awesome!" Easily the best film I've seen since The Dark Knight last year and probably the most fun I've had with a film like this ("Death at a Funeral" is very funny but very different) since Iron Man.

I laughed more than I thought I would. There were more loving nods back to TOS that I expected. And, with all due respect to the original actors whom I have come to love lo these forty years, I basically forgot them as I watched the new cast do their thing. Karl Urban does a great Deforest Kelley but makes McCoy his own. Sulu's just as dashing as before. Chekhov actually shows that he belongs on the Enterprise. Ditto for Uhura whose skill and expertise help the ship. Pine as Kirk is fantastic and different than Shatner's which is good. I'd hate to see a parody. And Quinto as Spock is brilliant. I don't watch Heroes so I don't have to get Skylar out of my head. Quinto does so good and you can physically see the emotions broiling just under his skin.

The action sequences are phenominal. Sometimes, yes, the action's too close up to get a true understanding of what's going on but that's the nature of modern action filmmaking. The space sequences with the starships are fantastic and believably 3D with ships rising and falling and soaring through space.

And dangit if I didn't get a bit misty during the U.S.S. Kelvin sequence. That's me: a softy. But that made the actions of the characters that much more human and it gets to some of the essence of why Star Trek is so good. It's not the starships, the aliens, or the fights. It's the people.

I'll probably say more later when I've gathered my thoughts. But, in short, this is a great film, and probably The Film of the Year. It should appeal to Trekkies like me and non-Trekkies as well.

Thanks, J. J. Abrams. You Did Great!