Weekly Read – The Great War

Ever just fall down a rabbit hole and disappear into a topic for a while? For the past couple of months I’ve been reading nothing but books on the First World War. I hadn’t been driven to do so during the 100th anniversary observances over the past few years, so what dragged me in? Would you believe me if I said it was an interest in genre fiction?

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror is exactly what it sounds like – an exploration of how men (mostly) who fought in World War I impacted the development of horror, particularly in the nascent motion picture industry.

Wasteland

Many of the early classic horror films – from Nosferatu through Bride of Frankenstein – have connections that date back to the carnage of World War I. Wasteland does a good job of surveying the various developments in the arts as people began to process the industrial scale of death that the war brought, different in orders of magnitude from anything before. Plus, I had no idea Salvador Dali was such an asshole!

Reading Wasteland made me realize that, aside from some broad brush strokes I picked up in school, I really didn’t know much about World War I, so I decided to dive into some of the history of it. Where better to start than the beginning, right?

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist name Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (and his wife), heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Most people know that as the “start” of the war, but the truth is much more complex (and interesting). In fact it was a month before hostilities broke out, a month during which diplomatic wheels were constantly in motion. That month, the “July Crisis,” is the focus of July 1914: Countdown to War, which exhaustively covers the debates, maneuverings, and petty squabbles of parties all over Europe as the continent slouched towards war.

Coutdown

What was most amazing to me (aside from the fact that in a large number of states a hereditary autocrat was actually in charge – 100 year ago!) is how little emotional investment the various players had in Ferdinand’s death. Certain his own father didn’t seem all the broken up, as did most of the power brokers in Austria-Hungary, who saw him as a potential reformer and were happy to be rid of him. Only German Kaiser Wilhelm really seemed broken up about it. So what Ferdinand’s death just a cynical crisis used to give everybody an excuse to go to war? No, the roots of the war date back into the 19th century (who knew the integrity of an independent Belgium was so important?), but what is clear is that everybody involved had a plan if war was coming and once they committed to them, the die was pretty much cast.

Moving on from the start of the war, my next read was A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.

WorldUndone

Rather than getting bogged down in the details of a particular battle of campaign, the book provides a swift (if lengthy) overview of the war on all fronts. Sometimes it’s a little too much overview. For example, the chapter on Gallipoli mentions how a British force could have taken advantage of something had it moved quickly, but it took four weeks – we never learn why. Unfortunately for me, it spends the first section (of six) on the July Crisis, so it was a little redundant for me. More disappointing, it didn’t deal in similar detail with what happened after the war and during the various peace talks. In between, though, it’s a depressingly fascinating catalog of the various failures of the parties to figure out something to do other than grind millions of people through useless battle after useless battle. You’d think, for example, that generals and politicians could put aside petty personal differences in the face of existential threats to their country (one of the interesting recurring themes is how the propaganda of the war made pursuing peace settlements hard – who wants to make peace with the devil?), but, alas, people are people, even in the middle of the Great War.

Since A World Undone didn’t touch much on what happened after the war I decided that I needed one more book to finish things up. Rather than dive into a book about the peace conferences and treaties (of which the Treaty of Versailles was just one) I went with The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End. Provocative title, no?

Vanquished

The point of The Vanquished is that the war destabilized Europe and the Middle East to such an extent that the “peace” actually constituted a lot of revolutionary violence and civil wars. Most of it was in Eastern Europe (don’t forget that Russia got out of the war once the czar was deposed) and the places that had been carved out of the late Ottoman Empire like new-fangled countries Iraq and Jordan. Of course, Germany didn’t escape unscathed by all this, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler. Even countries on the winning side, like Italy, fell to popular revolution.

On the one hand he First World War wrought huge changes in the world. It swept away the last vestiges of most European monarchies, at least as the people who actually ran their countries. It launched the United States into place as a major international player. And, technologically, it introduced a host or horrible things to modern warfare. But, in a lot of ways, it didn’t change much. Or, more accurately, it left so much unresolved that the Second World War was almost inevitable.

I’ve got a better handle on that now, thanks to all this reading. I can’t say it restored any of my faith in humanity, though. I recommend all these books – but maybe not to read all in one go.

Advertisements

Favorite Reads of 2018

Since it’s getting down to the wire – I’m not down with “Best of” lists that show up in October – I figured now was the time to give a shout out to my favorite books from 2018. Two important notes: (1) these are favorites, not necessarily bests or whatever; I just loved them, and (2) the key phrase is “that I read in 2018,” so it includes books from before 2018. With that said, here we go (in no particular order) . . .

Nemesis Games (2015)

Nemesis

I’ve basically been keeping one book ahead of where the TV version of The Expanse is, but with the next season on Amazon taking parts from both the fourth (Cibola Burn) and fifth (this one) books, I figured I had to get a little more down the road with this series. I read Cibola Burn this year, too, and while I got the criticisms some people had with it, I didn’t think it was this bad. In comparison to Nemesis Games, however, it was a wet patch on the road. To say “things change” in Nemesis Games is to severely undersell it. That the writing hive mind that is James S.A. Corey managed to explode the cast, sending them off in different directions before pulling them back together, is no small feat, either.

Saga, Vol. 9 (2018)

Saga9

Oh, boy, that last twist. The good news is that after nine volumes Saga continues to be inventive, thrilling, thoughtful, and capable of numerous gut punches. The bad news is that writer Bryan K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples are taking “at least” a year off from the series before getting back to work on it. Part of me thinks that’s a good idea, but part of me worries if this shunts Saga into the realm of great, unfinished stories. Given the way this one ended, I sure hope not.

If you’re not reading Saga yet, here’s why I think you should.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)

FieldofBlood

Many people know that, in the run up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by one of his Southern colleagues with a cane, providing the perfect metaphor for the turmoil that would soon rip the nation apart. What most folks don’t know is that, while Sumner’s beating stood out for its brutality, it was merely different in degree, rather than in kind, from numerous other incidents of Congressional violence. One Congressman even died in a duel (not on the House floor, to be fair). Not just a colorful “you were there” history, The Field of Blood looks back at another time when the political norms broke down and things sound frighteningly familiar to modern ears.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)

JohannesCabal

Pure fun. Well, pure darkly humorous fun, at the very least. Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil. To get it back, he’s have to deal in bulk, gathering 100 souls for the devil to replace his own, all while running a demonic travelling circus right out of the darker portions of Ray Bradbury’s psyche. This was probably the most fun I had with a book this year, partly because of what I’d just read before (see below), but also because there’s a sharp, dark wit that runs all the way through it.

Shattered Earth trilogy (2015-2017)

Broken

N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy – The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – made history early this year when it won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, an unprecedented achievement. Is it that good? Absolutely. The Fifth Season, in particular, is a structural high-wire act that shouldn’t work, but completely does and leaves the reader knowing precisely why it was done. The other two books don’t quite reach that level, but the overall arc of the story and the characters that drive it is brilliant. Pretty heavy (I needed Johannes Cabal . . . to brighten me up a bit), but completely worth it.

I’ve written before about these books here and here.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)

CadaverKing

I wrote a review of this one here, so I won’t say much more. If you want to get really pissed off about what “justice” looks like in this country (and you should), this is the book for you.

Neuromancer  (1984)

Neuromancer

Yeah, I know, very late to the party on this one. My college roommate read it and, for some reason, I let it get away from me. Does it hold up? Pretty much, although it’s clearly a product of its time. As a foundational text for cyberpunk it’s something every sci-fi fan and writer should check out. That it continues to tell a gripping story while introducing a lot of ideas we now take for granted is icing on the cake.

Children of Time (2015)

ChildrenofTime

I gushed about this one right after I read it, so check out the details here. Suffice to say, any book that can make you care about the macro evolutionary development of sentient spiders is an achievement.

Dystopia Versus Utopia

I think I was first exposed to dystopia in fifth grade. Not that my fifth grade teacher was some kind of demon or sadist, mind you. But it was around that time that I read for the first time, in quick succession, 1984, Brave New World, and Anthem (not to mention discovered its musical adaptation). There’s something seductive and compelling about dystopias, warnings about how things can go so very wrong. I’ve dived back into them a lot over the years, on the screen and on the page.

I’ve had less experience with utopias. I’ve never read the Thomas More work that gave birth to the name, if not the concept. I did read Plato’s Republic in college, but it’s hard to look at that as really being utopic to modern eyes. The other utopian novel I really remember reading is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Written in 1888, it’s about a guy who sleeps for more than a century and awakes to find it a socialist paradise. Given what had actually happened by the time 2000 rolled around, it was a hilariously out of date prediction.

But I started thinking more about utopias as works of fiction recently after I read Island.

Island

It’s Aldous Huxley’s last novel and a kind of rejoinder to Brave New World. It covers a lot of the same big ideas as the earlier dystopian novel, but in an (allegedly) positive way. There’s a chart in the Wikipedia entry for the book that does a good job of boiling down the comparison:

IslandChart

Whatever the charms of Pala, the fictional southeast Asian island nation that provides the backdrop for Island, it’s not a very engaging work of fiction. Nominally it’s about a Brit, Will, who washes ashore there (intentionally, it seems) and experiences all the island’s many facets while recovering from his injuries. Said facets are a blend Buddhism, western liberalism, and (to at least one person’s eyes) Scientology and make sense in a lot of ways. Still, Will just basically drifts from place to place and while some individual scenes are well executed (there’s a very expected death later on that’s really touching), there isn’t much of a story.

I think this might be a problem inherent to utopian stories. Dystopias are about struggle, usually individuals standing up to some kind of overwhelming force. It’s easy to empathize with those characters, to buy into their struggle. Likewise, it’s easy to see where the antagonists in such stories are coming from. Written well, they think they’re doing the right thing, too. It’s the basis of good conflict, which is what drama is all about. In utopias, by contrast, everyone is pretty much happy. There’s not much conflict and, thus, not much drama. The narrative can be interesting, maybe even occasionally compelling, but it’s hardly something that sucks you in as a reader.

Another issue with utopias is that they can often seem kind of dystopic, depending on your point of view. I mentioned Plato’s Republic earlier, in which he sketches out his version of an ideal society – one that is anti-democratic, requires a rigid class system, and squishes individuals for the benefit of the state – that sounds more like a dystopia to me. Huxley’s Pala sounds like a pretty nice place – tropical weather, mind expanding drugs, all the sex you can have, creative alternatives to criminal justice – but it’s not perfect. For one thing there are mynah birds constantly harping out slogans (“Attention! Here and now, boys!”) that would be aggravating to no end. For another, all this apparently comes from the top down, mandated via a government overhaul that happened a generation or two back. There’s no indication what happens when somebody dissents from this version of the perfect life, how that’s handled. The only naysayers are the soon-to-be ruler and his European mother who are so out of touch that it’s clear Huxley doesn’t want you to take them seriously.

But the thing that struck me the most as dystopic in Island comes near the end, when the main character is talking with a local child about Oedipus Rex. They have the play in Pala, but it has a happy ending, wherein two children from Pala enter the play and convince everyone not to kill or maim themselves because none of this is their fault. To the problem of Oedipus being married to his mother, they simply advice stop being married to her. It all reeks of one of those stories modified by a totalitarian regime to show Dear Leader giving wisdom to historical figures and changing history. It’s also bizarrely simple minded in terms of a “solution” to the problem.

In the end, what makes it most difficult for me to get into utopias is that they are, at bottom, dreams that we know will never come true. Dystopias, by contrast, always seem prescient and just over the horizon (the good ones, at least). It’s not for nothing the More’s term means “no place.” Huxley basically concedes this in Island, as the book ends with the island’s new ruler (the one with the European mother) joining forces with the neighboring nation’s strongman to begin a quest to “modernize” Pala. Even in fiction, such places can’t last long.

UtopiaDystopia

Weekly Read: Saturn Run

As I think I’ve said before, one of my least favorite criticism of a book or movie is that it “has no plot.” Unless we’re talking about some really experimental stuff, every story has a plot because in every story SOMETHING happens. It might not be huge, it might not be life changing, but it’s something. What folks mean when they say that, I’ve decided, is not that “nothing happens,” but that “nothing happens that I care about.” In other words, the events of the story just wash over you and leave no residue.

It would be wrong to say nothing happens in Saturn Run, a collaboration between novelist John Sandford and Ctein (the first a long-time writer of thrillers, the second an artist, apparently). Quite a bit happens, given the setup and all, but I can safely say that nothing happens that I cared about, at least until the last quarter of the book or so. By that point, I couldn’t be roused to give much of a shit.

The setup is fairly standard – an alien ship appears in our solar system, is discovered by accident, and we humans head out to make first contact. What Saturn Run adds to the mix is a race to get there run by American and Chinese spacecraft, each taking different routes using different tech to make it to Saturn first. We spend almost all of the first three quarters of the book on the American ship (including its dealings with the American government back here on Earth), which wins the race. It’s reward? Being the first to a kind of interstellar truck stop full of fuel, science, and tech. Actual aliens are nowhere to be found.

The journey to get there is long and shot through with lots of technical data dumps, but precious little of concern actually happens. Partly this is down to the characters, who basically just function as pieces to move around as the plot requires. The closest thing to a main character, Sandy, begins as a skirt-chasing surfer waiting to inherit family money, only for us to learn he’s actually a kick ass solder suffering from PTSD; but he goes back to surfer mode on the trip while acting as the official expedition cinematographer (at which he’s also kick ass). None of this ultimately matters, since he has no motivation and we don’t care why he does anything he does.

In fact, it’s hard to care about anything that happens. For instance, before the American ship (named after Richard Nixon, a clever nod to his dealings with China) leaves Earth orbit there is a test of its system for dealing with excess heat built up by its drive system. The test goes wrong, but there’s no drama in this. The chief engineer explains calmly that this kind of thing happens, it’s why you test first, and it’s just a problem to be solved (and it is). This is a great attitude to have in the real world, but it sucks when it comes to fiction. If every problem gets solved without much consequence, why should I care about them? Same goes for the mysterious failure of half the drive system once they’re underway, which doesn’t matter because the ship already has enough momentum to get to Saturn before the Chinese.

Even when stuff happens to people there isn’t really much to it. The engineer? She dies mid trip due to another accident, just after she and Sandy have started sleeping together. Thanks to spiffy drugs and just the way this book is written this basically has no impact on anybody. It doesn’t even impact the ship in general, as her second chair engineer steps up and does a fine job. That kind of sums up this book in a nutshell to me – if a main character dies and nobody in the book cares, why should I? And don’t even get me started about the cat.

Things improve once the Chinese arrive on the scene, but not enough. For one thing, all of a sudden we begin to get POV scenes from the Chinese involving character’s we’ve never met through the rest of the book. I should care about them why? Kept at a distance they could have been vague bad guys with shady motivations, but we get enough into their heads to know what’s going on without any emotional investment to go along with it. The book builds some goodwill toward the end as it powers to a fairly cynical conclusion, but it weaves at the last moment and destroys that, too.

It’s entirely possible that I’m not the target audience for Saturn Run. It’s hard science fiction in the most literal sense – the space travel and what happens at Saturn are based on extrapolations from known science and are pretty realistic. There are no warp drives or teleporters here. In fact, there’s a half-hour afterword on the audiobook version diving deeply into the science involved. That I skipped it indicates that this book was never for me in the first place.

But there’s no reason why hard sci-fi, focused on known science and clever, plausible problem solving, can’t also be compelling drama. If you only care about the engineering challenges and how they’re met, this is the book for you. If you want characters that matter to you going through situations that have consequences that matter, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

SaturnRun

Ten Books I Love

Remember that list of 10 albums that were particularly important to me I did? It evolved from a Facebook thing. Shortly thereafter, I started seeing other folks do the same for books. Sure enough, one of my friends tagged me and so I had to come up with a list of books (hers was seven, I bumped mine out to ten) that I “love.” Not necessarily meaningful or insightful, just favorites. With that in mind, let’s dive in (in no particular order) . . .

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

HHGttG

This is almost a cheat, as the Guide has so many iterations and my favorite will always be the BBC television version (cheepnis and all). Still, I remember pouring through the book (and the other two in the original trilogy) that my brother had. Funny, thoughtful, clever, and an entirely different way to approach science fiction. It stuck to the same part of my brain as Monty Python.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)

OnWriting

There are lots of books about writing (some of them actually written by writers!) and people will tell you not to rely on one of them if you’re trying to figure out how to be a writer yourself. As true as that is, the one that everyone seems to recommend is Stephen King’s memoir. For good reason – it’s a brutally honest, open exploration of what it means to be a writer. It doesn’t bury itself in inspirational bullshit, but it also doesn’t make writing seem like something that’s out of anyone’s reach. Reading about writing doesn’t end here, but it probably ought to start here.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Mockingbird

Since I’m a defense lawyer by trade it’s practically required that I have great reverence for this one. I’d like to say I don’t, that I go against the cliché, but what would be the point? Atticus Finch is, in a lot of respects what lawyers aspire to be, particularly defense lawyers. He seems to resonate particularly with defenders since after a noble and capable defense, he still loses. That’s the life of a defense attorney, after all.

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death (1969)

 Slaughterhousefive

I’m not sure whether this was my introduction to Vonnegut (it might have been Galapagos or “Harrison Bergeron”), but it is the one that made me fall hard for his work. The dark humor and deep humanity that runs through his work speaks to me, I guess. Plus, he gave no fucks when it came to style and form – I mean, what kind of book is this anyway? Science fiction? Social commentary? Historical fiction? Who the fuck cares! It’s brilliant.

Candide: or, The Optimist (1759)

Candide

I am, at my core, a cynic. On my better days, I’d say I was a realist. Regardless, a bit reason why is Candide, which skewers the idea of this is the best of all possible worlds. Although the story is all about breaking down the titular character’s naiveté, it’s not depressing. It’s darkly comic (there that phrase is again) and liberating, as we see the scales fall from his eyes. While the ending isn’t one you’d call happy, it’s at least hopeful, in that it puts the power for our own happiness in our own hands. Besides, it’s inspired both a fabulous musical/operetta by Bernstein and a concept album by Rush (LINKS)!

The Private Eye (2015)

PriavteEye

Usually when it comes to dystopias the world of the future is completely fucked. Some plague or aliens or nuclear war or whatever has returned life to a primitive state, with characters reduced to hunter gatherers as they try to rebuild society. The dystopia of The Private Eye, by contrast, looks pretty sweet. There’s technology, food is plentiful – it looks like what we think of as “the future.” So what’s the problem? The problem is that everyone stored their data in “the cloud” and one day, “the cloud broke.” From the simple idea that everybody’s data is loose in the world, Bryan K. Vaughn builds a stylish, neo-noir tale for the 21st century. And it looks amazing.

The Devil In the White City (2003)

Devil

History is supposed to be dull, a lifeless parade of facts, dates, and names that it can be hard to care much about. It’s not, really (my undergrad degree is in history – trust me!), but that’s the rep. Thankfully, a generation of writers producing “narrative nonfiction” have done a good job bringing the past to life. None is better than Erik Larson and, while all his books are good, this one is my favorite. It’s the story of a grizzly serial killer who uses the DATE World’s Fair in Chicago as cover to lure his victims. That story alone would be good enough, but woven with the story of the fair itself and how it was developed really makes things pop.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

Strange

This is a horrible admission for a writer of fantasy, but I’m not a big fan of magic (hence the lack of any in The Water Road). There’s something random and unearned about it lots of times, where the people who wield magic do so by grace of birth or whatnot. What I deeply love about this book is that magic is all about knowledge and, more precisely, books. In fact, the way magic is learned and used in this book makes me think of how law was taught in the pre-modern age, when students apprenticed with members of the bar. Take all that, wrap it up in a magical history of England (and, oh by the way, the Napoleonic Wars), and it makes for an epic read.

Oryx and Crake (2003)

Oryx

There are many ways of imagining the future. Only Margaret Atwood has come up with one that includes revolting, genetically engineered “chickens” called ChickieNobs:

’This is the latest,’ said Crake.

What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

‘What the hell is it?’ said Jimmy.

‘Those are chickens,’ said Crake. “Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.

‘But there aren’t any heads…’

‘That’s the head in the middle,’ said the woman. ‘There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.’[quote]

That sort of captures the whole feel of this book – at the same time horrible and morbidly funny. It’s a great beginning to a wonderful sci-fi (sorry, Margaret) trilogy.

UPDATE: Eagle eyed readers, or just those with all their digits, will notice I’m one short. Not sure how that happened, since I have the cover and everything, but, alas, I left out one of my absolute all time favorites! Better late, a they say . . .

Good Omens (1990)

GoodOmens

Another bit of a cheat, as I get two favorite authors for the price of one – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I think this was my first exposure to them on the printed page (I’d come across Gaiman via Babylon 5, of all places) and it melds their styles perfectly. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Hilariously funny and darkly compelling.

Why You Should Be Reading Saga

I didn’t grow up reading comic books. I can’t say why. They weren’t verboten in our house and their residence in the same ghetto as science fiction and fantasy, but for some reason I never really dove in. Maybe it was because I perceived comics as being about super heroes and they never interested me much. It wasn’t until I got to college and my roommate corrupted me with some Batman did I get a chance to read them.

Even then, I didn’t really get into comics or graphic novels (I prefer waiting for a bunch of issues to get collected – makes for a more satisfying reading experience) until I got exposed to a pair of the traditional gateway drugs for the genre – in other words, stuff so good that even people who don’t read comics read them. One was Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a deconstruction of the entire superhero genre; the other, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which follows the exploits of Morpheus, the god of dreams, and his extended family.

While both of those are great ways for readers not familiar with comics to dip their toes into the graphic waters, they’re both “classics” by this point, held in such reverence that people might risk approaching them like you would Homer or Hemingway – things you should read because they’re important and exemplars of the form, but maybe not just for the enjoyment of it.

Thus, allow me to suggest another gateway, one that’s fresh, ongoing, and just released its 50th issue – Saga.

Created by Bryan K. Vaughn (words) and Fiona Staples (images), it’s a sprawling science fantasy saga with a heavy helping of just plain weirdness. Vaughn and Staples take full advantage of their chosen format to give the story a scope and a visual sense that would be impossible to pull off in another format. In the same way that 2001 epitomizes what a motion picture can be (an completely immersive audio-visual experience), Saga is the apex of what comics can be.

As amazing as Staples’s art is, Saga wouldn’t be worth reading without a compelling story and characters we care about. The basic setup is simple – a world, Landfall, has been at war with its moon, Wreath, for years. In the middle of the war, Alana (from Landfall) and Marko (from Wreath) fall in love and produce a kid, Hazel (who is the narrator), who really shouldn’t have been able to happen. They try and survive in a world where damned near everyone wants to hunt them down, from soldiers to bounty hunters with sentient lie-detecting cats.

Lying_Cat_Saga_001

Along the way, as they blast from world to world in a spaceship that is also a tree (did I mention this is science Fantasy? Definitely a capital “F”), collecting other outcasts to form a very bizarre, very fractured, but very sweet extended family (as this article points out, Saga is almost impossibly diverse in its characters). Vaughn has said that’s what Saga is really about:

I now have two kids. I first starting thinking about this while waiting for our first kid. And I always used writing as an outlet to talk about my fears, concerns, and passions. I really wanted to talk about creating new life. And I found talking to my friends who are strangers to the fatherhood experience—I would watch them start yawning or looking at their watch–difficult. If you’re outside of that world you don’t really give a shit. When you’re living in it, it’s really exciting. So I wanted to find a way to make people who don’t have kids or who never intend to have kids feel what it’s like to be a parent.

That’s where Saga was born.

Not having kids I can’t say whether having them makes Saga more meaningful, but it does emphasize the foundation of the story. All the amazing art and “holy shit” concepts don’t add up to much if the characters aren’t ones we care about in the first place. That’s true of good fiction in general, but particularly good speculative fiction. At bottom, it’s a story about love, fear, and survival. The tree ships and arachnid bounty hunters are just gravy.

saga-the-stalk

What I’m trying say is that Saga isn’t something I recommend to comic newbies because it’s a classic (although it’s on its way to becoming that) or because it’s something, to channel one of my high school English teachers, “that well read people know.” It’s because it’s a great story, involving people you will care deeply about, told across a stunningly inventive backdrop. I mean, really, what else do you need?

SagaVol1

Weekly Read: Children of Time

One of the great things about speculative fiction is that you get to write about characters who aren’t human. One of the hard things, as a result, can be making readers care about characters who, at least on the surface, aren’t anything like them. To be able to pull that off is something special.

Children of Time starts off with human characters who seem all to relatable. A ship is in orbit around a planet that’s been freshly terraformed. A scientist is making ready to start a bold experiment – seeding the planet with a group of monkeys, followed by a spiffy nanovirus that will help jumpstart and guide their evolution. To “uplift” them, in the David Brin sense of the word.

Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. The experiment is disrupted before it’s really begun by a quasi-Luddite faction that things humanity going to the stars was a mistake. The monkeys burn up over the planet. The nanovirus . . . well, what becomes of the nanovirus is what Children of Time is all about.

You see, just because the monkeys didn’t make it to the planet doesn’t mean other life didn’t. Instead of finding its intended host, the nanovirus finds a species of spiders into which it can insert itself. It does and, for half the ensuing chapters in Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky puts us in the brains of various spiders as their society develops over thousands of years. That society itself is a supreme feat of imagination on Tchaikovsky ‘s part, but what really matters is that you come to care for these non-human beings, creatures that are more likely to conjure nightmares than sympathy.

That’s certainly true for the crew of Gilgamesh, the humans who make up the other half of the chapters. After the experiment at the beginning of the book goes awry humanity itself follows suit. Eventually, the only humans left alive are the crew of Gilgamesh and its “cargo” – hundreds of thousands of people in suspended animation.

It’s no spoiler to say that the humans and spiders have a coming together (two of them, sort of) and while the ultimate confrontation is wonderfully done, the paths they take getting there are equally fascinating. While the spiders slowly develop a technologically advanced society (the things they do with webs), humanity on board Gilgamesh is slowly falling apart. As seen through the eyes of a “classicist,” who gets woken up every so often to observe another crisis, it’s like the entire universe is falling apart at the seams. By the time the end comes the desperation among the humans is palpable.

Along the way, Tchaikovsky uses his characters to explore lots of big issues in a classic sci-fi way – religion, politics, and the like. More than anything, however, it shows how two intelligent groups can nearly destroy each other based mostly on the fact that they don’t have accurate information about the other group. The ending keeps this from being completely depressing, but it is kind of bleak. The day is saved by something the real world doesn’t have, after all.

There’s a lot to unpack in Children of Time. It doesn’t shy away from the fairly bleak state of the human condition, while suggesting that it’s not something specific to humans. And it does offer some hope, for while the source of the ending isn’t real, the effects could be. Either way, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a while (and I don’t see any way to adapt it to film). I was completely blown away. Highest recommendation, of course.

ChildrenofTime

In Praise of Not Finishing Books

As a writer, the idea of people starting to read a book but not finishing it intuitively honks me off. After all, the author went through the trouble to create an entire package that, at least on some level, appealed to you – give them a chance to redeem whatever fault you’ve found in the end! But if I’m honest, as a reader, I’d push back against that – hard.

I wouldn’t be alone. A few years ago eBook platform Kobo (on which all my books are available, by the way), released some data that compared their best seller list with the list of books that readers most often finished. Not surprisingly, some of the best sellers were also some of the least finished. I love the cynical take on this from The Guardian, with respect to Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch (2014’s Pulitzer Prize winner: 37th best selling, only finished by 44% of readers):

Most-unfinished book of the year isn’t a title anyone would hope to win. But her core fans probably read the book to the end, as did a whole raft of new readers, which propelled her up the bestseller charts. And those readers who didn’t finish it still paid for it, so Donna Tartt can mop up those tears with crisp tenners, which will surely ease the pain.

Still, it’s a bit disheartening to know that so many people couldn’t even finish what you’ve written.

Alas, I occasionally find myself in that category as a reader. Even though I see every book I read (or listen to) as a learning experience when it comes to writing, sometimes I still can’t stick it out to the end (witness my “unfinished” shelf at Goodreads, to which I just had to add Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass, alas). Thus I’m on board with this piece over at Electric Literature that, without shame, promotes non finishing books:

There are many factors that go into whether or when a reader finishes a book. I imagine many people’s reading habits are, like mine, scattered. I have at least a dozen in-progress books on my nightstand — and several more on my phone and e-reader. Readers stop reading a book they enjoy when they put it down and forget to come back. Readers finish books they hate when they are assigned it for book clubs or else they want to hate-read and laugh about with their friends. (Certainly a large percentage of Fifty Shades readers fall into that second category.) Just as a half-read book isn’t necessarily a failure, a completed book is not necessarily a success.

This makes a lot of sense. I said before, in other contexts, that reaction to art is inherently personal. What rocks one person to the core of the their soul will make another yawn. That’s neither right nor wrong, it’s just the way things work. So there’s really no reason to expect everybody to love a book so much that everyone who starts it finishes it. As the saying (attributed to James Joyce) goes:

LifeTooShort

Ultimately, the job of keeping a reader engaged with a book is the author’s. It’s a responsibility we should take seriously. But we shouldn’t forget that readers come to our works in all kinds of ways and for all sorts of reasons. No book is going to connect with all of them, just like some books you’ve read didn’t connect with you. We have to accept that sometimes saying “this isn’t for me” and moving on is best for everybody involved.

Remember the lesson of the WOPR:

WOPR

It applies to books, too.

Weekly Read: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

There are a lot of things to like about The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It’s set in an interesting universe where humans aren’t dominant and there are lots of interesting alien species to deal with. The characters, for the most part, are interesting and fun to spend time with. And the writing it pretty quippy and moves at a good clip. It should be a fun read and it is, but it doesn’t go much further than that.

I’ve read a lot of commentary about the book that it’s about characters and not plot. While that’s true it wouldn’t be correct to say “nothing happens” in the book. Several things – exciting things! – happen. It’s just that they’re resolved fairly easily and don’t really have any impact on things going forward.

Take, for example, an early crisis. The ship, Wayfarer, is off on the titular long trip in order to bore a new wormhole in space. Fairly early in this journey they’re set upon by pirates! A sticky enough situation, made all the more so by the fact that the ship’s captain is a pacifist and, thus, everyone on the ship is unarmed. That is a fantastic twist on a typical space opera trope. It’s not really a spoiler to say they talk themselves out of it. It’s a pretty exciting scene.

Yet it has almost no residual effect. One character has a brief bit of PTSD, but it goes away just as quickly. More annoying, our heroes escape the pirates by giving them some of their supplies – supplies which, apparently, were completely superfluous to the main mission. Thus, while there’s talk about getting reimbursed for them, there’s no complaint that it will make their job harder or require extra stops along the way. It’s a problem, it’s solved, and the book plows ahead.

The effect is kind of like an old-fashioned TV show from before the current golden age of serialized TV. Each episode is basically a standalone story, with little ongoing plot to drive things along. Thus, along The Long Way . . . we get “episodes” for just about all of the Wayfarer’s crew that all play out the same way – some crises appears, it’s resolved, and everyone goes on their merry way.

Consider Rosemary, who if not the main character of the book (it bounces POVs around a bunch), is at last our audience surrogate, the new person on the ship who has to learn how things work (our Tim Bayliss, if you will). We know from the beginning that she has a big secret in her past. If she’s not running from something, she’s at least in search of a new start in a new life. We find out why about halfway through (her father’s a war criminal, in essence) and she worries this will impact the life she’s made on the ship, cost her friends. It doesn’t, because everyone on board is so incredibly understanding – even the alien chef/doctor (another neat touch) whose species is about to be extinct due to the war Rosemary’s father fueled. A great potential for tension is completely squandered.

And so it goes. With the exception of the ship’s algae specialist (that’s what fuels the ship – don’t ask, it’s never explained) everybody gets along swimmingly through the voyage. When his “episode” comes it falls flat because we suddenly need to care about somebody nobody else does (particular shame given the issues it raises). The goal of the actual “long trip” basically disappears once they embark, only to rear its head at the very end.

I’ve seen lots of references to “imagination” in reviews praising The Long Way . . . and that’s a spot on description. Becky Chambers let her imagination run wild in creating the universe in which the book is set. It’s just a shame more interesting things don’t happen in it. In that way it reminds me a bit of The Goblin Emperor, another book with a fascinating setting and interesting characters that didn’t really amount to much.

There’s something to be said for an author who just takes her readers and drops them into a fascinating place filled with interesting characters. Ultimately, I want a little bit more than that. Others might not care so much and, so, your mileage may vary when it comes to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Still recommended, if with a little hesitation.

LongWay Cover.png

Weekly Read: The Lost City of Z

I generally roll my eyes at people who see a movie based on a book and then tut tut that “the book was better.” Even as a writer, it comes off as snobbish to me. The written word is a different medium than film, which makes adaptations their own things. One’s rarely “better,” even in a subjective sense, than the other. They’re just different.

The film, The Lost City of Z (released last year), got a good amount of praise when it was released. I’ve even seen people list it as being snubbed in the Oscar race. It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, who repeatedly search the Amazon jungle for evidence of a lost city in the early part of the last century. The wife and I put it on our list of flicks to see and, the other weekend, were able to pay per view it. My thoughts at the time was that it was a fine flick, but it suffered in comparison to such jungle fever dreams as Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

It did interest me enough to go read the book upon which the movie is based. Also called The Lost City of Z, it weaves the history of Fawcett’s expeditions in with the attempt of author David Grann to track down evidence of Fawcett’s final expedition (no spoiler alert – Fawcett’s disappearance in 1925 is one of the everlasting mysteries of the golden age of exploration). I’m glad I did, not just because the book provides more detail than any movie possibly could, but it makes clear that large hunks of the movie are complete and utter fiction.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about whether the film itself, or the book, is “accurate” from an historical standpoint. There was a lively debate at the time the movie came out with historians arguing that it portrayed Fawcett in a much more positive, progressive light than the historical record supports (also, he sucked at exploring). Naturally, the director’s response to this was, in essence, “it’s art and you can’t talk like that about it.” That’s not what I’m really interested in. However, I will note this observation from one critique of the movie version of Fawcett:

The original book, by David Grann, was much more intelligent and nuanced, as one would expect from a staff writer on the New Yorker. But everything has gone wrong in its clumsy adaptation for the screen by director James Gray, who has written his own script and then filmed it with great reverence – almost always a mistake.

That sounds about right, although “clumsy” is perhaps too kind. It’s simply bizarre for a movie based on a particular non-fiction book – it even uses the title! – to break from the book in so many fundamental ways. I’m not talking about the inevitable compression that happens to turn a biography into a movie – that Fawcett had 8 Amazon expeditions, not 3, or that he and his son had a third person on their final voyage makes sense. I’m talking about things that get the character so wrong I don’t understand why the writer/director used the name of a real person.

For example, one of the most obvious diversions from the book is the in the film Fawcett is portrayed as having fallen into exploration after being tapped by the military and Royal Geographical Society to survey a river on the border of Brazil and Bolivia. In fact, Fawcett caught the exploration bug while stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) when he fell hard for a story of buried treasure (he didn’t find that, either). He’d already attended a 1-year course at the RGS before the surveying mission came up.

Or take the depiction of Fawcett’s relationship with his eldest son, Jack. In the film Jack is shown as an angry kid, raging against his father as a failure after an expedition collapses spectacularly (bonus point – the book never mentions that Fawcett resigned from the RGS in the aftermath, as the film portrays). They’re reconnection as they plan the last expedition is a moving part of the film. But, according to Grann’s book at least (the source material for the film!), the two were always close and Jack wanted to join his father in his explorations almost as soon as he could.

But the most egregious example involves World War I. Fawcett was well into his Amazon explorations when the war broke out. He went back to England and, eventually, to the Western Front. The film portrays Fawcett leading a Paths of Glory style assault over the top (after consulting with a Madame Blavatsky type – she died in 1891) during which he’s wounded by gas. No just wounded – blinded. A doctor even tells the blind Fawcett that he’ll never see the jungle again. This is utter fiction, unless Grann decided to skip the episode completely in his book. Fawcett wasn’t wounded, much less blinded, and didn’t sit around the English countryside recuperating for years until his son convinced him to give it one more go. Why the director (who also wrote the script) decided to put it in is anybody’s guess.

Somebody could have made a really interesting movie out of the Grann’s book. Even without the modern day overlay of Grann’s own expedition, the atmosphere of doom that clung to Fawcett’s final expedition could have really worked as the backbone of the movie (cover what else needs to be covered in flashbacks). Or, alternately, somebody could have used Fawcett as the basis for a truly fictional character and played around with the details as he saw fit. The Lost City of Z the movie isn’t either of those and it suffers for it. The Fawcett of the book is much more interesting than his celluloid counterpart.

But it did lead me to the book, for which I thank it. For, in this instance, the tutters would be right – the book really is better than the movie.

lost city z bookLost City of Z film