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A Writer Reviews: Total Recall

No no, not the new one. Look, I didn’t dislike the new one, but it’s the first shot of a troubling new trend in the film industry: remaking Paul Verhoeven movies that are still perfectly good on their own. We had a new Total Recall in 2012, a new Robocop a month ago, and there is fresh rumblings of a new attempt at Starship Troopers that hews a little more closely to the book.

I’m a huge fan of all three of these Verhoeven movies. They make for a fantastic triple feature if you want to just sit down and enjoy some fantastic satire connected through their jaded view of televised entertainment. But this isn’t about fawning over some of my favorite movies, it’s about taking one of them to task.

So what’s the big question at the center of Total Recall? The one question that people debate when they’re actually debating something so silly as 90s Schwarzenegger movies?

Does the movie happen or not?

Answer one: Yes. The movie is chronicling the actual events as Douglas Quaid learns that he is a secret agent who had his memory wiped and is living out a humdrum life on earth. Answer two: No. The movie is entirely the memory that Rekall has implanted into Quaid.

It’s a fun question. It’s at the heart of any unreliable narrator, just what parts can you believe or not? Unfortunately, and I hate to find such a glaring flaw in a Verhoeven movie, there’s only one possible correct answer. Douglas Quaid is, unambiguously, as the movie presents him. I will accept no other answer, because the movie makes it very clear in one important way.

Parts of the movie happen without Quaid on-screen.

If the movie was meant to be an implanted memory, these scenes wouldn’t exist. They couldn’t There is no way for Quaid to know what happens in these scenes, and thus no way for these scenes to otherwise exist. Sorry, the whole thing falls apart on that one moment, and any exploration about the nature of memory or reality is destroyed, leaving only a ridiculously fun story.

In the world of writing, this is what we call “head hopping.” That moment that a narrative jumps from one person’s point of view to another. On its own, head hopping is not a problem. Some stories (I’m looking at you, Frank Herbert) do it constantly. Some stories will switch between points of view at scene or chapter breaks. Some will stay firmly in a single point of view. Some will back off it all. The problem comes when head hopping happens accidentally. When that happens, it can feel like a cheat, pull the reader out of the story, or even destroy some of the potential drama.

So pick your point of view. If it’s not working, change it up. Just make sure it’s internally consistent.


Star Trek Into Darkness

First, this isn’t a “Writer Reviews” feature because my goal here isn’t to dredge out writing lessons. It’s to rant. Second, this rant is going to have LOTS OF SPOILERS. As in if you still care at all about not knowing any plot elements of the film, not just who Cumberbatch is playing, then this is the place for you to get off. Everyone else, meet me after the break.

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Hugos: A Dramatic Presentation

I’m not a Hugo voter. I never have been. It’s not an exclusive club by any means, one just needs to buy a Worldcon membership. Not even attend or intend to attend. Each Worldcon tends to offer a membership level for those who don’t plan on attending but want a chance to vote for the Hugo awards. You can, quite literally, buy a ballot. One of these years, when I feel I have the income to spare, I’ll become at least a voting member of Worldcon so that I may nominate and vote.

So I have no agency when it comes to nominating for the Hugos. Or the voting for the Hugos. Certainly I have no agency when it comes to how the Hugos are conducted, that process involves an open meeting at Worldcon so does require attendance. I say this before setting down to my main point: the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation is broken, and needs to be fixed.

In 1958, Solacon saw the first Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation. It went to the movie The Incredible Shrinking Man. This new Hugo category recognized that the basis of any dramatic presentation is its writing. Until 2002 it was a single category and winners included movies, episodes of TV series, entire seasons of TV series, and even the news coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Starting with the 2003 Hugo Awards the category was split into Long Form and Short Form, with the defining line of 90 minutes.

In practical terms this means that there’s a Hugo category for movies, and a Hugo category for television episodes. Oh, it doesn’t always work that way. Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) has included a web series, a YouTube video, even an acceptance speech from the previous Hugo ceremony. The Short Form category Hugo has been awarded to eight television episodes, the made-for-the-internet series Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, and Gollum’s acceptance speech at the MTV movie awards. However, for the most part, it’s movies and television episodes. Since the split only two Long Form nominees weren’t movies (both were entire seasons of a TV show nominated as a unit), and only nine Short Form nominees weren’t TV episodes.

Lately that means Doctor Who episodes.

Wait wait wait, Whovians and Wholigans, before you crucify me, understand that I am one of you. I love the show. However, since the relaunch of the series, 22 episodes have been nominated. 2009 is the last year to see only two episodes nominated.

This isn’t specifically a Doctor Who problem, the show is just the latest incarnation of a phenomenon that dates back to the 1968 awards when all five nominees were episodes of the original Star Trek. Enterprise, Firefly, and Angel have also all been double nominated since the Long Form/Short Form split. With the exception of Star Trek landing eight nominations in two years, no show has ever dominated the nominations more than Doctor Who. No show has ever dominated the nominations for as long. And I think that’s a detriment to other shows and to the award.

Fringe, one of the best science fiction shows of the last decade, got its first and last nomination this year. That ties it with Community. Continuum, an original and compelling time travel drama from Canada saw no nominations. Eureka came and went without a single nomination.

I see three potential fixes for the Dramatic Presentation category. Fix number one: a cap in place for the number of episodes a series can have nominated in a single year. Yes, it would be immediately called the “Doctor Who Rule,” I’m sure. Yes, it would see some outcry, and I doubt this proposal could get through the rule amendment process. Which is a shame, as there’s plenty of fantastic science fiction on television that isn’t being recognized.

Fix number two? This is unrelated to the Who dominance. I think there needs to be a clarification of eligibility.

No video game has ever been nominated for a Hugo Award. Ever. io9 ran a series of posts about this a few months ago, and the answers ranged from “but they’re not eligible” to “should they be long or short form” to “they don’t have the same exposure.” The last issue isn’t going to go away by action of the Hugo committee, but the first two can. They absolutely are eligible, it’s right there in the text for the award. A dramatic presentation is defined as, “a dramatized production in any medium, including film, television, radio, live theater, computer games or music.” That there are nominators who might not know they’re eligible is hurdle one. Hurdle two can be solved by some clarification as to how to count a video game. Are we talking just the cut scenes? The full play-through length of a game? The latter is problematic because it varies from player to player.

There are other problems clarification could solve. 90 minutes is the dividing line, however the 2011 winner for Short Form was roughly 105 minutes long. In 2012, Game of Thrones was nominated as a season for Long Form, in 2013 a single episode was nominated for Short Form. Movies that are under 90 minutes, such as Safety Not Guaranteed have no clear home, ineligible for long form and likely overlooked for Short Form.

I think all of these have a single solution, which is my fix number three. Split the category one more time so there are three Dramatic Presentation Hugos:

  • Theatrical Presentation for works originally released on the big screen.
  • Televised Presentation for works originally intended for television, with a one episode per show cap. Nominations would work the way Emmy nominations work. One episode of a longer series, one portion of a miniseries, or the entirety of a made-for-TV movie. Want a good eligibility rule of thumb? A nominee can only have a single set of opening and closing credits.
  • Special Presentation for all other presentations, including video games, animated shorts, web videos, and whatever other silliness the nominators want to include. Basically it’s a home for the other nine nominees that have been featured in the Short Form category in a fabulously eclectic category.

So I’m creating an addition award sub-category. This is with fine precedent. In 1963 the written fiction awards expanded from three categories to four. In 2002, Dramatic Presentation split into Long and Short Form. In 2007, Professional Editor followed suit.

Perhaps we’d still see Doctor Who dominating as winner of Television Presentation, but that’s not a problem. If the voters legitimately think it is producing the best episodes of television, then it should. Some might argue this makes Doctor Who even more powerful, as there’s not chance of a vote split (not that this has cost it Hugos in the past). However, it would be nice to see other shows are least get some recognition that science fiction and fantasy exist on television. And it would give a clear home to worthy nominees that live on the outskirts of the current categories.

I don’t expect any of these changes to happen, but it feels good just to talk about them. Agree? Disagree? Have any Hugo categories you’d change? I’ll be in the comments waiting to hear.



A Writer Reviews: Robot & Frank

Robot_and_frank_posterSet an unspecified number of years in the future, Robot & Frank combines two elements that I wouldn’t expect in the same movie. Frank Langella and a robot. Wait, no, I meant science fiction used as a lens for looking at dementia. It focuses on an elderly cat burglar who is slowly losing his grip with reality and reduced to pocketing soap cats at the local store, and the robot his son buys him to keep him company and exercise both his mind and his body. It’s a sweet movie, focused much more on the nature of aging than on being science fiction. The script, through Frank Langella, captures dementia with a heart breaking realism. Solid 7/10, and I’d recommend it, but avoid seeing the trailer if you can as it’s about 95% of the plot.

It feels odd to come out of a movie like Robot & Frank and say it reminds me of a line from Plan 9 from Outer Space. But…well, there you have it. Specifically Criswell’s awkwardly written monologue at the beginning: “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” The movie comes down to an elderly man coming to grips with spending the rest of his life in the future. The library he walks to daily is being digitized. His new companion is a robot. The world is changing around him, as it will change around all of us as we get older. This is, perhaps, getting a little philosophical about the nature of time and technology, but this movie reminds us that there are generations growing old today with technology they couldn’t imagine and children, and so shall we probably all. Looking at near futurism through the perspective of an elderly protagonist is a fascinating twist.

And there’s the two word phrase I wanted to focus on with this review. Not “fascinating twist,” “near futurism.” This is science fiction set next year. Not specifically 2014, but at a time where technology has made a few steps but not yet any great leaps. On current television the best expression of near futurism is Person of Interest. It’s set “today” with just a little bit of magic tech thrown in, but magic tech that feels fully plausible. In days gone by the best expression was the Mystery Science Theater theme song placing the show “next Sunday, AD.” That’s as good a definition of near futurism as any.

So in the next Sunday, AD of Robot & Frank the primary bit of new tech are robot assistants. Mr. Darcy at the closing library. Frank’s robot “Robot.” They’ve clearly moved just beyond being toys, but haven’t reached a full saturation. There are moral questions surrounding these robots, what they represent, whether it’s fair to enslave them. These all happen on the outskirts of the story, and primarily through Liv Tyler’s character, but they deepen the world by hinting at broad debates that don’t apply to the central plot. It’s good to know the questions are being asked, but it’s not necessary to hash them all out on-screen.

There are other little expressions of advanced technology. James Marsden’s skinny one seat wide car (based on a concept vehicle dating back to 2009). Video phones channeled through the television (already offered in some areas). See-through cell phones. All just little tweaks in the world we live in, none out of place as potential advances of the next five years. The biggest leap is in the robotics. Even then, the closing credits of the movie shows the current state of the art in domestic robots. These shots are footnotes to everything Robot can do in the movie, consolidated into a single machine.

So let’s briefly compare the subtle future of Robot & Frank with another movie that may happen the same year. Robot & Frank makes no actual claims, but let’s say this technology could exist within six years. That’s probably optimistic on the robotics, but I’m choosing it as a handy date because 2019 places it in the same year as Blade Runner. With the two movies we have potential views of the same year, but imagined nearly 30 years apart from each other. One is set in the near future and one in a much more hypothetical and, at the time, distant future. If you want a difference between near futurism and more distance futurism, there it is. In one 2019 there are cell phones and helper robots. In another there are wars happening in deep space and earth is partially inhabited by almost indistinguishable robots.

One of the real strengths of Robot & Frank is this handling of the near future. It’s hiding around the corners of the movie in very subtle ways. Slight changes to fashion. Slight changes to technology. And, most important, slight abstractions from current trends. This is the best tool for handling the near future, and why a prospective author of near future needs to pay attention to where the state of the art is, where technology is going, and where controversies lie. These are where story details thrive. It’s not about being “right” about the future, it’s about using the abstraction to make a commentary. Are we ever going to have assistants quite like Robot? Perhaps not. Is it possible we’ll see a new round of robot labor issues? It is. Could the digitization of books lead to the closing of libraries? It already has, just not quite in the way depicted in the movie.

The near future is tough. Some writers may feel a pressure to be prescient, may feel that they’ll be held to their predictions. Some may be worried that the story could quickly be dated. I can’t say how well Robot & Frank will hold up as we slip into, then past the future predicted. The point may not even be for it to hold up, but for it to be a product of a moment of time. And, in this moment of time, it’s a very effective little story.


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A Writer Reviews: Django Unchained

It’s hard to talk about Django Unchained the way I want to talk about Django Unchained without bringing up rather big moments of the plot. So I’m going to hide it all behind a more tag. If you directly linked to this article and haven’t seen the movie, this is your cue to exit until you do.

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A Writer Reviews: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beats-of-the-southern-wild-movie-posterWith the Oscar nominations announced this morning, I wanted to take some time to talk about movies that I’ve meant to talk about, but haven’t. Two in particular that took home nine nominations between them, including two of the nine Best Picture slots. Today, as you can tell from the subject line and the poster on the right, it’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Tomorrow it’ll be Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy Django Unchained.

Typically these reviews are about pulling out some aspect of the movie or television show and turning it into a lesson for those of us who create visual, rather than produced, fiction. This is a little different. Today, I’d just like to talk about a movie that left me awed when I left the theater, and talk in terms of pure admiration for film craft and production.

There are two massive challenges when crafting a child character for film. First comes the challenge that all writers must face, creating a young voice that is believable, approachable, without turning the audience away with treacle. It’s about capturing innocence or earnestness. It is, perhaps, the most difficult character one can approach. Which is odd, we were all children once, we all have those experiences, but our memories are so clouded by time that it takes a true craftsman to get everything down on page.

Those of us who write for the page wrap it up there. For better or worse, we’ve tried our damnedest, and it’s up to the reader. When producing a television show, or especially a movie, the larger challenge now begins. Now it’s time to find the right kid, that rare child actor who can step up to the duties of carrying a movie, especially one who must carry a movie so thoroughly as Quvenzhané Wallis carried Beasts of the Southern Wild, acting as both lead actress and narrator. Really, this is a two-part challenge in itself. You need the actress who can carry a role beyond her years, and the director who can get that performance out of her.

I’m thrilled all three aspects of Hushpuppy’s character landed nominations: the screenplay, the actress, and the director. Add in a nomination for Best Picture, and today is really the day for Beasts of the Southern Wild. And let it have its day, I unfortunately foresee the movie going 0-for-4 on the night of the Oscars itself. So let’s ride the high for this movie, and we can talk about Lincoln and Les Mis another day.

In the broadest strokes, the movie is the story of Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father in a place only every called the Bathtub. Where the Bathtub is doesn’t actually matter, this is a community cut off from the world, figuratively by their customs and spirit, and literally by their existence on the wrong side of a series of levees built to protect the mainland. Through Hushpuppy we experience a storm that is almost, but not quite, Katrina, her father’s illness, a quest to find her mother, and a community trying to hold together when threatened by a nameless government entity that is almost, but not quite, FEMA.

The entire movie plays out through her perspective. We get enough hints to piece together the larger narrative, but not all of it. The movie was billed as fantasy, and that’s what I went in expecting, but the real fantasy element is spending two hours living in the mind of a six-year-old girl. Magical realism comes from her imagination and understandings of the world. Things feel bigger and perspectives shift. It’s a movie that, in each of its moments, will make you cheer for this lifestyle because it’s all Hushpuppy knows. To make you want to get in there and fight everything intended to make her life “better” because that’s not what she wants, and it isn’t what anyone else in the Bathtub wants.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the few movies I’ve seen that I would describe as beautiful. There is not a single element of the movie that pulls at you and says “this is a work of fiction.” This goes right down to the cast, composed entirely of unknown, local, and first-time actors. There’s no known faces to remind you these are people in roles, creating an odd purity of the experience.

Oh man, I’m starting to use phrases like “purity of the experience” when talking about a movie. I better dial this back now. But that’s just what this movie did to me. It’s not one I would typically have seen in theaters, it’s not a movie that I would say is fun to watch by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one I’m very glad that I did watch. While I have low hopes for it capitalizing on any of these nominations next month, I really hope the movie proves me wrong.

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A Writer Reviews: Adventure Time

Adventure Time continually surprises me. If you’re not aware of the show, it’s hiding over on Cartoon Network, typically airing new episodes on Monday nights at 7:30 and rerunning older episodes throughout the week. Each episode is a fifteen minute chunk of pure surrealism. One recent episode featured the lead character, Finn the human, traveling to Mars to save his best friend, a magical stretching dog named Jake. To do so, he must plead his case to the king of Mars, Abraham Lincoln, who surrenders his immortality to the coyote-skull faced avatar of Death to save Jake.

Yeah. It’s often a seriously trippy show. It’s probably one of the hardest shows to determine the exact age range for, and that I’m uncertain when I think my daughter will be the right age for. Sure, several of the characters are sentient pieces of candy…but then there’s the Lich, and the denizens of the Nightosphere straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.

So why am I talking Adventure Time?

Clearly there’s going to be a difference between a seven minute short and a series of 15 minute episodes. Characters need to be fleshed out. The penguins, or at least the lead penguin, now has occasional desires to take over the world and break glass bottles. Lady Rainicorn now speaks Korean, in which she delivers the occasional double entendre, and is pregnant with Jake’s puppies. Finn has to deal with puberty and crushes. Princess Bubblegum is turning more and more into a mad scientist, and perhaps even tyrant. But I’m not really interested in talking about any of them. I want to talk about the Ice King.

Somewhere along the line the cartoonishly evil antagonist of that seven minute short has become one of the most complex long-running antagonists I’ve seen of any show. For any age group. He has a real name now (Simon) and a back story that becomes increasingly heart breaking with every new turn, all while never not being evil in some way.

He had an opportunity to have a son (“What is Life?”), albeit a son who is a sentient pie-flinging microwave. Through the episode he talks about training this son to help him abduct princesses, but in the end his wistful daydream is about just sitting and watching the sunset. And hearing the toaster say he loves him.

He spends an episode (“The Eyes”) spying on Finn and Jake, trying to learn how to be happy.

He creates a wife for himself (“Princess Monster Wife”). He does it through stealing individual body parts from the princesses throughout the land of Ooo and assembling them into a horrible monster, incapable of even eating…but that he shows legitimate affection for.

These are wonderful humanizing moments on their own, and I appreciate any show that can generate such sympathy for an antagonist. He never stops being the antagonist, he and Finn are working almost constantly at cross purposes and the Ice King is a serial kidnapper, but there’s also an odd caring there. In one episode (“Hitman”) it’s made very clear that the Ice King could kill Finn and Jake whenever he chooses to do so. But he doesn’t.

And then there’s Simon.

He was human at one point. He was in love. Then he bought a crown, wore it as a joke, and it simultaneously extended his life and destroyed his mind. Turned him crazy. It’s sucked so much of his brain, made him so diabolically single-focused, that he cannot remember forming a bond with the only other apparent survivor of the thermonuclear “Mushroom War.” There is so much tragedy built into this character, made more so by not being his fault. An accident created the Ice King.

Whenever they deepen his character another notch, I get tempted to write this blog post, to track the path by which a kids’ show born of a silly seven minute animated short has crafted one of the most nuanced characters I’ve come across in any television show. I’ve wanted to talk about the Ice King as the antagonist, and what lessons he can teach us, as writers, about how to create antagonists who are rich, interesting, and may even tug at the reader’s heart strings. I’ve always stopped myself because then I would be That Guy talking about a kids show on his blog. However, the last step they took, showing us those few moments of kindness that he has now forgotten in a form of magically induced Alzheimer’s… Now the problem isn’t the worry of being That Guy, instead it’s that the Ice King is no longer about how to create a compelling antagonist. He’s about how to create a compelling character period. And how even characters with a single apparent motivation, in this case kidnapping a princess and forcing her to marry him, can have a stunning depth of character.

In the end, it’ll create characters that people love. Perhaps in spite of themselves. Force them to sit back, as I’ve done on occasion, and say “damn, Adventure Time, why do you keep making me feel sympathetic for the Ice King?” Why? Because it’s good story telling.

Now, a television show will always have that advantage of time. Dozens, even hundreds of hours to develop characters. We’re writers, we don’t have that time? I say that’s a piss poor excuse. No, you’re not going to be able to give every single character in your short story, or even your novel, as rich and nuanced of a back story as the Ice King. But everyone still has that story. Everyone still is nuanced. It’s likely no one in your story is purely good, or purely evil, certainly not to themselves. And if you know what that nugget is deep inside the character, even if the character himself can’t remember, it can still shine through in their thoughts, words, and actions.


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Ace Double Review F-149

I first bought Ace Doubles from a library sale, where they were clearly donated by a single collector. Later I bought a lot from eBay, all signed with the same name. Both of these collections shared F-149 in common with its fantastic covers. So, I figured I should read it.

King of the Fourth Planet

The god-king, the man-wolf, and the I-machine

John Rolf fled his own guilt when he abandoned the corruption of Earth for a life of meditation on the many levels of Mars’ mountain, ruled as tradition had it by a king with amazing powers. In this serene climate, Rolf perfect an invention that would explore the human mind–and thereby unearthed a menace that threatened to annihilate the ancient Martian culture.

The discovery confronted Rolf with the crisis of his loyalty and his past. To defy Earth, to save Mars?

Yet only the KING OF THE FOURTH PLANET would have the power to do so–and everyone believed the king to be a myth.

I love stories of an inhabited Mars, and I’ve made no secret about that. Why I waited so long to pull out a book that has “…of the Fourth Planet” I’m not sure, especially one that’s clearly about men in white fright wigs plugging into machines to fight ghost soldiers. On the fourth planet!

This novel serves as a sort of origin story for the classic science fiction trope of a civilization evolving beyond the need of their physical bodies. In his attempt to build a mind-reading machine, John Rolf instead builds a machine that completely divorces his awareness from his body. The result is a book that has an excuse to break a lot of recent writing rules. It slips from third person limited to third person omniscient, and at the same time starts a lot of head hopping. Largely because Rolf spends several chapters being omniscient and hopping from head to head through both the human and Martian citizens of the fourth planet.

Mars is always different in these books, always some form of metaphor. In John Carter they’re noble savages needing a savior. In War of the Worlds they’re savage invaders. In King, they’re a highly stratified people, both figuratively and literally as the higher and more civilized Martians live on successively higher tiers of the great holy mountain of Mars, with the vast plains suited only to the basest among them. These lowest plains are also largely the homes of humans on Mars, with Rolf being the rare exception allowed to live on the fourth of seven tiers and even visit the fifth on occasion.

So what happens when you’ve got a self-stratified Martian population who are willing to peacefully work to secure positions for themselves and descendents at higher levels of the mountains? Humans come and dick it all up. Sure enough, the primary drama revolves around a human-led uprising from the lower levels, where it’s made quite clear the citizens of the first and second levels are fighting out of fear of the humans than out of a legitimate desire to overturn the hierarchy. This mixes in with two plot points clearly intended to be twists. First is Rolf himself creating the voluntary sex slavery that lets young women (including his daughter) come to Mars as “secretaries.” Second is the inevitable twist that the most obviously “non-obvious” member of Martian society is the King.

That I enjoyed the story in spite of these telegraphed twists is a testament to the writing and plotting. Rolf isn’t the typical pulp hero I’ve read. No, the typical pulp hero is the one at the bottom of the mountain couching an insurgent uprising in terms of egalitarianism while keeping a private harem back at the ship. Things are, perhaps, a little pat. The book certainly falls in the good-not-great territory, and I’m not going to bust out a five rating, but it lived up to the fun of the cover admirably.

4 out of 5 I-machines.

Cosmic Checkmate

10,000 worlds against one.

“I’ll beat you the second game,” was the Earthman’s challenge to the planet Velda–whose culture was indeed based on a complicated super-chess of skill and concentration. A Human and a Veldian could meet over a game board, but was there any other ground for understanding?

For the code of Velda was strange and savage, based on a concept of honor no Earthman could comprehend. The men were warriors and the women were–mysteries.

One world was challenging a galaxy, as one man was challenging that world. And in the contest for a universe, would there be a second game?

Some of my favorite mysteries are ones I don’t recognize as mysteries until the solution is spread out in front of me. There’s no murder to solve, no theft to uncover, no kidnapping to correct. Instead there’s one human risking his life by visiting the hostile world of Velda and learning the complex board game at the heart of the society. To that, I must give the book some credit for degree of difficulty. Much of the drama surrounds an entirely fictional game which, as Quidditch proves, is not the easiest plot point. This is done by using mostly chess terminology.

The mystery hidden in the book is how best for humanity, in spite of its presence on 10,000 worlds across the galaxy, to combat the threat posed by the relatively small planet of Velda. As with any good mystery, all elements of the solution are hidden in the pages of the book. Nothing is hidden, save that the book is written in the standard mystery format, and there are no cheats.

Well. There’s one cheat. In a book where the pacing was a few hours per chapter for the majority, the pacing suddenly becomes weeks, months, or even years per chapter for the conclusion. This is all really a protracted epilogue showing the results of the solution in action. Also, some might consider it a cheat that humans and Veldians can interbreed, a trope that I know isn’t popular, at least it does provide one of the puzzle pieces that come together for the solution. No throwaway details here, Ace Doubles, they’re short and they need to get shit done. I do have one of the yellow spined “mystery” doubles, and I might actually give it a try if this is the pacing they use.

As to this, hiding a mystery, implementing a game, and being damned readable in the progress?

4 out of 5 Veldian-Human hybrids.

I haven’t been posting averages, but anyone following my reviews will note this is the highest average rating I’ve given a double. It didn’t contain my favorite individual story, but it’s been my favorite pairing. For now, at least.

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Ace Double Review G-618

This book won my little vote of which Emil Petaja story to read first. For obvious reasons: Vikings in Space! We’re stepping away from space opera with G-618 and into the world of the fantasy double, two stories taking place on a forgotten earth of the deep past. Though first, I’ll warn you…there were no vikings in space. Sorry.

The Stolen Sun

He had to bridge 100 generations

Like an umbilical cord, the cortical hook-up linking Wayne Panu to his ship involved them in an unheard-of rapport, even in the ranks of the unique esper-pilot fleet that warred against the world-engulfing Mephiti.

In the outward surge into the far-flung galactic worlds for colonization Man had found but few habitable planets–but now even those few worlds were challenged. The Mephiti–dread, all-embracing fog forms–were Man’s match as they fought him planet for planet in the race for habitable space.

And only Wayne Panu, with his extraordinary ESP talents that went beyond the mind and the here and now–whose senses were strangely linked in the past to the heroes and legends of the ancient Kalevala–could retaliate in this fantastic war that devoured suns and swept across the ages of eternity.

Yes, I know what I just said about G-618 being a break from space opera and towards fantasy, then I post the summary from inside the cover and it’s a story about Mankind’s massive war against their dreaded alien enemy the Mephiti. And, yes, that is what the first act of the book is about. Wayne Panu is a specially trained military pilot who is psychically linked to his ship, and together they bomb planets, destroying all higher order forms of life. Often preemptively, without visiting the planet. Because in the end it’s easier to completely wipe out an entire intelligent civilization if you know nothing about it. Same reason you don’t name a lab rat you’ll need to one day kill and dissect, I suppose. It’s a job that Panu is good at, which troubles him deeply, especially when a young pilot learning from him is killed by the Mephiti. It’s a story that I really wish I read more of. However, act two open with Panu chasing a giant bronze ship, which results in him being thrown back into time and into Northern European fantasy.

That’s right about where the story lost me.

I understand that the man out of place, even the man out of time, is a common trope within the fantasy genre. However, creating such a rich and fascinating world, and keeping me in that world for so long before pulling the rug away, was a bait-and-switch that I never entirely forgave the book for as I read. I’ve heard tell of a fake Harry Potter book in which Harry is transformed into a Hobbit, and then the entire text of the Hobbit is copied before an epilogue where Harry once again becomes a wizard person, dear reader. I would not for a moment suggest The Stolen Sun was created in the same cynical effort to dupe readers, I give it far more credit than that, but just in the way that it presents one story then tells a completely different one…yeah, I wish I could disguise my frustration, but there it is.

That’s not to say the interior story wasn’t interesting, but it had several elements that felt like they were about to tie into the act one narrative that didn’t. The Mephiti have no sense of sight, and they engulf worlds in darkness. In the interior story the sun, as the title suggests, has been stolen. My expectation was always that our hero would end up fighting the Mephiti in the old north. Nope. Or that he might have to use his enhance psychic senses to solve the underlying problems. Again, nope. So I was torn away from a story I was quite liking to plop down into another story where the character has a fantastically identical name and otherwise doesn’t feel like the same character. Panu is a complex character in act one, through the rest of the book we’re presented with a character whose development includes making the decision to not rape the 16 year old girl he’s pinned to the ground, which I guess is a point in his favor, though not one I would have actively sought to award. He’s fantastic at figuring out his way through a series of three page-filling tasks assigned by a witch whom he is trying to impress to have a chance to marry his near-victim.

At least there was a cameo by the sampo, which cheered my inner Mystery Science Theater fan.

In the end, this was the book decided upon by the choose-based-on-the-cover poll I ran, which proves that it’s not the best way to judge a book. The story telling was strong enough, especially in act one, I just feel too betrayed to give it a good score.

Two out of five sampos.

The Ship from Atlantis

The epic sequel to King of the World’s Edge

When the warrior Gwalchmai set out from his homeland to bring world of new conquests to his father’s emperor, he sailed into perils more strange and awesome than even the King of the World’s Edge had known.

For Gwalchmai was cast adrift in a dread Sargasso where ships from all the world’s past were entombed, and there he found the enigmatic Ship from Atlantis, last artifact of a once-great civilization…and the beautiful Corenice, sorceress and woman of star-metal.

Together they face a menace as old as Atlantis itself, and fought to save the Earth’s peoples from the powers of ancient darkness.

First, I’m going to say I need to track down King of the World’s Edge. The Ship from Atlantis starts with a “Last time on Merlin’s Godson” chapter that includes King Arthur, Vikings, Merlin and Mesoamericans. The two books were later combined into a single title called Merlin’s Godson, prequel to Merlin’s Ring, which has a cover fantastic enough that it landed on Good Show Sir.

Shockingly, the fire-breathing swan makes sense.

The book can be seen as either the middle book of a trilogy, or the second half of a full-length novel. Either of those makes it an awkward entry point to the story. At least it has a distinct beginning, even if it does come with a catch-up infodump, and a distinct ending, even if it does come with a cliff-hanger to lead the reader into Merlin’s Ring. In many ways the story reminds me of video games.

Stay with me, it’s a two-part analogy.

Part one: In the sequels to Assassin’s Creed II, there was always a mechanism near the beginning of the game to strip Ezio of all the fantastic lethal gear he’d earned in the previous game, everything that made him far too deadly of a character to play at the beginning of a game. At the beginning of The Ship from Atlantis our hero sets out with a longship full of magical gear and capable men, just to lose his crew in a massive fight off the Florida keys, and his own memory while floating through the Sargasso Sea. Thus he ends up fittingly reset to start an adventure.

Part two: In video games, as well as movies and books, Nazis are a fantastic bad guy. They represent such an unmitigated evil that the media consumer doesn’t fret over them being dispatched by the hundreds, or even thousands. Such a force of pure evil is a well-traveled trope within fantasy. Orcs, trolls, Uruk-hai. They want our heroes dead, and we see them die in mass numbers without any moral quandary. The “ancient darkness” in Ship from Atlantis are characterized by watching passively as a mother beats her child to death. It’s an efficient way to set up the big evil, space is at a premium in these Doubles, but I can’t say it was an effective method.

The story strings together tropes in an inoffensive way. Fast-formed romances, harrowing battles fought while impossibly outnumbered, the promise of tragic lovers to find each other again in another lifetime, it’s the general construction of a fantasy story. Each element was well written, but none really set my world on fire. That doesn’t sound glowing, nor may the number score below, but at the same time I’ve already mentioned a desire to read the first book, which I understand is disjointed, and certainly the follow-up, which was nominated for the World Fantasy best novel award.

In the end, the two stories share some bits in common. They mix some science fiction in with their fantasy, Ship from Atlantis including ancient Atlantean interactions with aliens. They both present a fantasy secret history of the earth. They both are middle books in longer series. And they both feature their main characters running from fire breathing swan ships bent on exacting revenge.

Wait, no, that’s just this one.

Three out of five swan ships.

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Ace Double Review: F-108

One of the jokes about Ace Doubles is how the two halves rarely had any cohesion.  I’ve already seen that internal themes between the stories isn’t all that important.  Earthman, Go Home had little to do with To The Tombaugh Station.  Spacial Delivery and Delusion World were connected thanks to their shared authorship.  F-108, intentionally or accidentally, does have a shared theme between the two stories.  Both halves explore a universe where humanity came rushing out from earth without considering that they were the new species on the block.  In short, humanity needs to check itself before it wrecks itself.  One succeeded admirably, one…didn’t.  In the order I read them, let’s jump into The Sun Saboteurs and The Light of Lilith.

The Sun Saboteurs

Exiles From a Hostile Universe

Lazlo Cudyk, Seu Min, Father Exarkos — their names suggested vastly different ancestory [sic], dissimilar backgrounds.  But on the Niori planet where they lived, those names also suggested an important common denominator: all of them were immigrants from Earth.

For Earth, having been spent on war and destruction, was no longer capable of supporting anything more than the most primitive agrarian society.  And men of intellect and learning, if they were to find any kind of existence at all, had to find it on alien planets.

It wouldn’t have been a bad life, either, had there been any rapport between the Earthmen and their hosts.  But the Niori had no understanding — or trust — of a people that could kill and destroy.  And the Earthmen were not sure that they could prove their new-found maturity quickly enough to keep from being banished forever to a home-world gone backwards in time!

Typically I start with the covers of these books.  I’ve already discussed this cover in my post about the artist, Ed Valigursky.  While not representative of most of the story in The Sun Saboteurs, it is a scene that takes place late in the book…and is a very dark scene.  In that way, perhaps it is representative of the book at large, which is a fantastically dark story.  Strictly speaking they are not exiled to a hostile universe, but rather exiled in a pointedly non-hostile universe.  But I get ahead of myself.  Oh, and if that giant crease running through the cover breaks your heart, it’s my own fault, and breaks my heart, too.

The Sun Saboteurs, which has also been published under the name The Earth Quarter, presents a series of episodes in the lives of humans living in what amounts to a ghetto on an alien planet after a disaster of a largely unexplored nature has reverted earth to a pre-industrial state.  In the end, the disaster doesn’t matter, those humans who escaped the planet have no real interest in returning, and those who do want a home world seek not to repatriate the earth but rather to set up their own planet in the galaxy.

A galaxy that largely distrusts humanity, as we are the only hostile race.  This part of the premise is a stretch, but the rest of the story gripped me too much to let this bother me.  Original sin means only humans have discovered violence?  Alright, fine, let’s get on with the story.

If I’m enjoying a book, I’ll often think about how it would be adapted as a movie in my head.  It’s just one of those things I do.  While reading The Sun Saboteurs, I kept coming back to it not as a movie, but as a television series.  It wasn’t until the third chapter that I understood why.  We’re presented with a rather set cast of characters existing within a premise, and then shown slices of their lives.  Between chapters the story jumps for months, which was disorienting at first, but as I realized just what story Damon Knight was telling, it made sense.  We’re experiencing the changing emotions in the earth quarter after Rick, a rogue pilot flying the colors of the former earth navy, announces he is setting up a new earth and cannot guarantee the safety of anyone who stays on the Niori planet.

In the end it’s a story of people forced out of their home, trying to create what sort of a community they can in an alien land, then being presented a fresh mandate to leave.

I like the occasional dark slice of science fiction, and The Sun Saboteurs piled the dark up nicely.  It tells a very personal story amid a massive conflict.  Billions of lives may be lost off camera, but Knight makes us care very deeply about the select few lives that we revolve around on the Niori planet.  Somewhere out in the blackness we can see a massive space opera is happening, and in one chapter we go witness it, but in the middle of that regular people are trying to live regular lives.

FIVE out of five total-conversion bombs.

The Light From Lilith

Trapped in Time’s Vortex

In the strange light of the planet Lilith, Mason saw the future:

“Man was being scorched off the face of the Earth, and burned like a pestilence off the other neighboring planets.  For now was the time of the end of his sun.

“And knowing that, for an instant Mason knew also how far he had traveled.  Not some thousands of light-years through space, through swirling galaxies and suns; that, yes, but not only that.  He had also traveled into time, some ten thousand million years into the future to witness the end of the world.

“Not all the resources of the heavens, racing faster than the speed of light, could save the enormous population from its fate…”

But somehow Mason realized that he had been granted this vision for a purpose.  In his foreknowledge lay the hope that this thing might not come to pass.  Somehow, someway, on the eerie world of Lilith, there was a by-pass to that far-off doom.  Would he know it when he saw it?

This cover is everything I love about old grindhouse science fiction movie posters.  Which, I suppose, is fitting.  Pulp and grindhouse are logical playmates when we’re discussing genre fiction.  Both were produced cheaply and given garish artwork to draw in the largest audience possible.  A green man with his skeleton visible, glowing purple.  Some odd sort of polyp on the ground.  Characters posed to tell us this is clearly a Bad Thing what is happening?  Awesome.

Yeah.  So.  That basically exhausts what positive impressions I have of this half of F-108.  While The Sun Saboteurs stands out as the best Ace Double half I’ve read, The Light of Lilith is easily the nadir of the first half dozen.  It wasn’t one single issue that kept me from engaging with this novel, the problems I had with the story came at me from every direction at once.

First was the underlying issue of the planet Lilith itself.  The goal of humanity on the planet is to play with the different colors of light that exist only on that world.  Experimenting with them.  Combining them.  Applying them.  Colors that can be powerful, spur evolution, or even kill.  Colors.  I’m fine with stories that postulate the occasional existence of a color we’re not aware of, whether it’s Octarine in the Discworld series or H. P. Lovecraft’s The Colour out of Space.  I’m even okay with species that experience a different visible spectrum than humanity.  Even the old canard of deep childhood philosophy: what if other people see colors differently than I do.  But I could not, no matter how hard I tried, suspend my disbelief to allow for a planet where the color spectrum was different to the point of lethality.

We’re also exposed to a theory that advancement of a species’ evolution is directly tied to the number of fingers it has.  The primitive life on Lilith has just four, the aliens far more advanced than humanity have six.  This isn’t me reading into things, it is actively pointed out by the narrative.  I was disappointed with how late the aliens appeared on page, even though they were mentioned in passing at several points.  And in the end of it all, the whole plot is solved by odd twin deus ex machinae, as we are presented with a cataclysmic event with no foreshadowing and with the main character certain of exactly when it will happen through what is only a series of guesses.

It’s an odd paring with The Sun Saboteurs, as it feels that everything Wallis does wrong is everything Knight does right.  There’s none of the subtlety about the message of humanity needing to correct its course before going out into the stars.  The main character is given a vision of a far distant future where the last dregs of humanity are bemoaning their inability to evolve and be accepted by the galactic community, and perhaps if they had they would not be stranded on earth as the sun burns out.  Where Saboteurs is a personal story taking place is the background of an epic, Lilith is every attempt to make an epic out of what would be better framed as a very personal story.  Perhaps the two stories are unfairly paired, as it demands a direct comparison of the two, but as much as I try to consider Lilith on its own without the overshadowing Sun Saboteurs, I am left with the same weaknesses and same issues.

There are points where I considered giving this book only a one out of five, however I have to acknowledge two basic facts.  One, I tend to withhold that only for books I abandon reading.  Two, I did get some enjoyment out of this book.  Just not for the reasons I was meant to.  I enjoyed harping about it to my wife.  Reading the occasional passages out loud.  I enjoyed it, basically, as I would a movie on Mystery Science Theater.

Two out of five fingers.

A note for those following me on Goodreads.  These reviews will serve as my scores over on that site.  As I’m more comfortable with the thought of reviewing, I may even include them over there.  I figure it’s important to note that I will use the higher of the two scores in all cases, rather than using some form of average.  Oh, and over there I guess I’ll just use stars, because that’s all they offer.


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