Archive for June, 2013

The Immram of Jack Vance

Not to long ago on this very blog I was looking for a word associated with a type of storytelling that involved going from island to island and solving mysteries on each one, on the way to a final destination. I discovered it’s a story form from Ireland, a place that knows from sailing west towards mystery, called an immram. Remember that? From way back on Wednesday? I thought it sounded like an interesting style of story that could be translated well to science fiction.

Five_Gold_BandsYesterday, I decided to finally pick up one of the Jack Vance Ace Doubles I have in the basement, that whole problem I have with not reading the giants of the science fiction genre until they sadly pass. One side of the Double is his Hugo-winning novella The Dragon Masters. Figuring that the better of the two, I started on the flip side with a novel called The Five Gold Bands (aka The Space Pirate). Here’s the gist of the story: In the future, humans have spread to five planets and rapidly evolved to best live in their new environments. These five races have kept the secret of space travel from their home planet, doling out just ten pre-made black box propulsion drives to the planet every year. Thus, stolen drives can be worth a king’s ransom.

Through an act of self-preserving genocidal assassination, the Irish protagonist gets a series of five clues that will lead him to the segmented instructions on how to make the drives. He travels from planet to planet with these often cryptic clues, and once he lands must solve the clue to get the next piece of the puzzle before arriving at his planned final destination.

The story is, in short, a science fiction immram, right down to the choice of an Irish protagonist. Now, the classic immram features westward travel (to the point that some Celticists discount Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a true immram because they travel east), but the classic immram is also taking place on the surface of a globe where “west” makes sense as a direction of travel. There are other key elements of a classic immram missing, but in terms of finding a story about an Irishman bouncing from planet to planet solving puzzles and riddles on his way?

I suppose the seed could be placed further back in the classic voyaging myths of legend, these kinds of island hopping adventures are not exclusive to the Irish immram, but it was that inclusion of an Irish protagonist, and picking it up so close to discovering the term… I guess what I’m saying is the world is full off odd little coincidences sometimes.

As for the book itself. Oh, gosh. Traveling to five alien worlds in just half of an Ace Double is a rather tightly packed itinerary. It’s a great concept, but I think it would be better told in double, or even triple, the word count. I feel like I’m reading the most detailed outline I’ve ever picked up, but that it’s still an outline, still just bones that need a little more flesh on them. It’s got about 20 pages left, and in that time has to wrap up the fifth planet, retrieve the pieces of the puzzle left on a sixth planet, and get back to earth. That’s the sort of breathless pace this book is built around. Entire planets are visited and left again in the course of 8-10 page chapters.

Still, I see several reviews citing this as an early work and cautioning not to judge Vance’s output on just this one novel, so I’m still looking forward to flipping it over and tucking into The Dragon Masters.

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What’s That Word?

I did this once before, and got the word I was looking for. Today it’s not a word I’ve ever heard before, I cannot vouch for its existence, but my wife recalls it from her childhood, perhaps in a Time/Life Book. So here goes…

There are several stories that feature a hero sailing from place to place. Island to island, frequently along an archipelago. At each stop, the hero must solve some sort of riddle, or problem, or puzzle in order to escape and continue the voyage. A few stories I can think that might fit in this rubric are the Odyssey, the Argonautica, or the Aeneid. Going beyond classical literature, it could also be said to include Gulliver’s Travels, or even the Vinland Saga.

The three important points: (1) a hero (2) sailing (3) from place-to-place. The word may be German. It is not Bildungsroman.

Does this word sound familiar to anyone else? Have you heard it? Do you know it? Do you know of it? Let us know in comments, please, because I’m curious if this is a word as well. Especially since there’s a clear way of translating it from seafaring to spacefaring.

Edit: We may have a winner: Immram. From wikipedia:

An immram (/ˈɪmrÉ™m/; plural immrama; Irish: iomramh, IPA: [ˈʊmˠɾˠəw], voyage) is a class of Old Irish tales concerning a hero’s sea journey to the Otherworld (see Tír na nÓg and Mag Mell). Written in the Christian era and essentially Christian in aspect, they preserve elements of Irish mythology.

The immrama are identifiable by their focus on the exploits of the heroes during their search for the Otherworld, located in these cases in the islands far to the west of Ireland. The hero sets out on his voyage for the sake of adventure or to fulfill his destiny, and generally stops on other fantastic islands before reaching his destination. He may or may not be able to return home again.


One of the first Celticists, Heinrich Zimmerman, attempted to link the immram with the Aeneid and the Odyssey. Some of the parallels they make are between the immortal women in the tales who bestow immortality on their lovers for the time they remain with them and the giant sheep on islands in both stories. These parallels have since been debunked by William Flint Thrall.

I’m waiting to hear back from my wife if this is right, but her suggestion of The Dawn Treader in the comments led me to this word. If this is, in fact, it…well, color me surprised that the word is Irish, rather than German. Though I suppose the Irish know much more about islands.

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P90X Reading

There’s a phenomenon in both the workout and dieting communities called “confusion.” Muscle confusion, working different sets of muscles to maximize ones workout routine, is central to the P90X system. Dietary confusion to keep the body losing weight and not adjusting to one form of dieting is available as a plan from at least one company that advertised heavily here in the DC area. So if confusion, rapidly changing pace to keep the body guessing, is a good idea for losing weight and gaining muscle…why not for the brain?

Thus it is that I believe I’ve created the perfect Mental Confusion transition. Which…needs a better name. I just wrapped up reading Mira Grant’s Deadline, the middle book of her Newsfeed trilogy, and then switched immediately over to Dava Sobel’s Longitude. I believe this is a perfect Mental Confusion switch, because the books can be scientifically proven as exact opposites with the following chart:

Deadline Longitude
Genre Fiction Non-Fiction
Setting The Future The Past
Length 581 Pages 185 Pages
Zombies? Yes Not yet

Granted, I haven’t finished Longitude yet, so I can’t absolutely guarantee that it’s zombie-free. As far as I know, the invention of Longitude was, in part, to properly chart and avoid an island of zombies somewhere in the Indian Ocean. However, I suspect that would have come up in history class if it were true.

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On Books, from David Blight

I’ve started another YouTube history course, this time jumping from my fascination with pre-1500s history right into the rather more popular fascination of the US Civil War. This time around, the professor is David Blight of Yale, author of several books about slavery, the Civil War, and the experiences of freed slaves after the war. But this isn’t so much a post about history as it is to quote what he says about books early in the lecture series.

Now, I like to do a little ritual at the beginning of every class. If you’ll forgive me, it only takes me about ten seconds. But you know we live in a world where all of us in this room take books for granted. We throw books on the floor, we throw books at people, we load them in and out of our backpacks, we drop them here and drop them there, we lose them, we rip them up, we write all over them — I write all over mine. It’s only a few generations ago when there really weren’t any bookstores to go to. Your great-great-grandparents couldn’t meander a bookstore, to speak of, unless they lived in a special section of a special city. Books are precious things. A lot of them are assigned in this course. There’s short ones, little ones, big ones, syntheses, novels, monographs. Think of a book, just for a moment, and then you can forget this if you want. But think of a book, any book. It’s hard to think of a really bad book this way, but think of a good book, one of your favorite books ever, as like a newborn child, a newborn child brought into the world. A book. Probably a lot more planning and thought and design and construction, at least intellectually, goes into that book than goes into most babies. Books have a cover. They have beginnings, middles and ends. They’re somebody’s dream, they’re somebody’s creation. They never satisfy — just like people — but they’re in some ways the greatest things we have, and sometimes it’s nice to remind ourselves of that, in the places where we take them most for granted.

Professor Blight writes non-fiction. That doesn’t make what he says apply any less to those of us who write fiction. Or for those of us who read.

If you’d like this in the broader context of his lecture, I’ve embedded it below. His thoughts about writing are in and among he thoughts on history, revisionism, and whether the story of the past is more interesting than the interpretation of the past. The above quote starts around 15 minutes in.

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Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

(This is expanded from a review posted on Goodreads.)

Captain VorpatrilI’m going to start this review by admitting this is the first Vorkosigan Saga book I’ve read. Normally I wouldn’t go diving into the deep end of a series like this, but my desire to read this year’s Hugo nominees ran headlong into my inexperience with this series, and I had to make a choice. Therefore, I can only review this book as a newcomer to the series. Thus, I’m approaching it with a very specific question in mind: does this book work on its own?

The answer is yes.


First for the plotline. For the most part, I liked the integrated elements of espionage, space opera, and (dare I say it) romantic comedy. Though the romantic comedy elements were about as predictable as most romcoms put out by Hollywood, they weren’t the central focus of the story, so I could forgive the broad clichés for the sake of enjoying their inclusion at all. However, as all the different themes came together, I wasn’t sure which was the driving notion of the book, and which were just along for the ride.

Now, to my main point. Does it stand alone? The story is clearly very well contained, which is aided by (as I understand it) a new protagonist stepping forward as the star of the book. There wasn’t any pickup from a previous book’s cliffhanger. There wasn’t anything left unresolved. It felt like watching a monster-of-the-week episode of the X-Files or Buffy or Angel without being aware of the broader mythology of the series. There were bits that I’m sure went over my head, but if they did they flew so high I didn’t even see the contrails.

However. And this is a big however. At times I was left feeling that I’d stepped into the middle of a conversation between several old friends. They were trying to keep me up to date, explaining their inside jokes, telling me how they met, letting me know where they were coming from. But from the point of view of a reader, I didn’t know which bits of back story were references to older books in the series, and which were new bits of back story being introduced for the first time. Which was…oddly uncomfortable. It was hard not to feel like an interloper.

I do plan on hitting this series up from the beginning, part of my larger quest to read all the past Hugo winners, and the world and writing style leave me looking forward. But as for stepping straight into this book? It’s possible, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Perhaps I’ll revisit this review when I wrap around to this book again in the series, when I understand things better. But for now, three stars is the best I can do.

In terms of looking at this compared to the other Hugo nominees I’ve currently read, I’d have to list this third. With any ongoing series, there’s a question of whether to judge a book on its own or as a member of its broader series. I have no choice but to do the former. It’s not a book I disliked by any stretch, it’s just not a book I enjoyed as well as either Redshirts or Crescent Moon.

Still two more nominees to go, 2312 and Blackout. Which, from the reputation of the former and the prequels to the latter, I expect might end up my top two picks.

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Things to do at World Horror, Other than World Horror

I have a special level of jealousy for those who are attending World Horror this year. Until February, I was going to be among them, but having a ninth month old never made it the best idea and being involuntarily thrown into the job market made the timing awkward. If all goes well we’ll be there in Portland next year. But I was hoping for a chance to meet Ramsay Campbell. Here’s a short story:

Few years ago my wife (then girlfriend) and I were at World Fantasy in Saratoga Springs, where the theme basically made it World Dark Fantasy. Campbell was there to get a lifetime achievement award, and we made sure to go to every reading he did. Shortly after coming home I was poking around eBay, curious what a copy of Campbell’s first published book went for. I found a copy, and knew I had to have it when I saw Campbell had signed the book on the day I was born. Not in the same city, or even continent, but the same day. I got myself the book as a Christmas present, and fully hope to have him re-sign it some day.

I know some of my friends going to World Horror are already in New Orleans. New Orleans. What better place to have World Horror? As someone who has been to New Orleans once for a grand total of about five days, I feel uniquely qualified to serve as your remote tour guide of the city, so much as I did for San Diego, may I present the things to do at World Horror other than World Horror.

1) Eat! If you’re only doing meals at the hotel or convention center you are doing something seriously wrong. I’m not even going to bother looking up where in the city World Horror is before I say, unequivocally, that there are ten fantastic restaurants within walking distance. Because there are ten fantastic restaurants within walking distance of any particular spot in New Orleans. At least. Get some seafood, get some beignets, and for goodness sakes find yourself a snowball stand. They’re more than just snow cones. And say yes if asked about sweetened condensed milk on your snowball.

not_the_bees2) St Louis Cemetery #1 There are any number of walking tours of the cemeteries of New Orleans. Because the cemeteries of New Orleans are fascinating. Tombs built above ground, used and reused, ornate, beautiful and spooky. But if you do a tour, make sure it includes St. Louis #1. Seriously. It’s one of the oldest in the city, probably the most fascinating, and includes as points of interest the crypt (probably) of Marie Laveau, Homer Plessy (as in Plessy v Ferguson) and a white pyramid built to serve as Nicolas Cage’s future crypt. If you get creeped out easily, you’ll be walking through narrow alleys that weave between crypts, you may or may not see this as a selling point.

3) The French Quarter It’s interesting to walk the French Quarter during the day. It feels more quiet, more historic. It’s certainly interesting to walk it just after dawn as the streets are getting hosed down from the night before and everything smells a bit of beer and daddy issues. I skipped Bourbon Street at night while in New Orleans, just not my preferred kind of insanity, but there’s obviously that, too. But if your only mental picture of the French Quarter is Bourbon Street at night, there’s plenty more to do and see, so just wander for awhile.

4) Don’t get on a cruise ship! Seriously. Don’t.

5) Stick around. This is my advise for almost any city. Hang around a few extra days. There’s really no point having conventions like Worldcon and World Horror in fantastic destination cities if everyone is just going to fly in, do the con, then fly right back out again. Go to the aquarium. Get on a bus and do a swamp tour. Be prepared to drive past areas still devastated by Katrina on that bus ride. I understand some people have busy schedules and lives, but nothing makes me sadder than the idea of going to New Orleans and not actually going to New Orleans.

So…know I’m seething with jealously back here in Northern Virginia, and enjoy World Horror. Next year in Portland, I promise. I’ll just have to pack an empty suitcase for my trip to Powell’s.


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On The Deaths of Giants

In my basement, on the shelf that holds all my Ace Doubles, is a copy of F-185. It’s a Jack Vance double feature, The Five Gold Bands on one side and his Hugo winning novella The Dragon Masters on the flip. While it’s on my list of Doubles to get to one day, that day hasn’t happened yet.

On the Kindle account I share with my wife there’s a copy of Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. My wife has read it, I have not.

I’ve read some Banks, in the form of his only non-fiction book-length work Raw Spirit, a travelogue of Scottish whisky distilleries. His style made me thirsty for a drink I’ve never much developed a taste for, and furthered my longing to visit the north of Great Britain. But as for the Culture series? I’ve never touched it. Nor any of his other fiction. I’ve never traveled to the Dying Earth, or spent time with the Demon Princes of Jack Vance.

One of the reasons I started the Great Hugo Read is a recognition that there are holes in my science fiction knowledge. Writers I haven’t read, series I haven’t touched, entire decades that I’ve never even stepped foot in. It drives home just how little breadth of reading I’ve done in my favorite genre when giants like Vance and Banks die and I realize…I’ve never read them. And the Hugo Read won’t even help. Banks was nominated in 2005 but lost to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Vance’s Hugo successes were for his novellas and related works.

I hate that it took the death of giants of the genre for me to realize I’ve never read their science fiction.

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Brewing with Strawberries and Apples

Remember Mustache Cat? If you go digging through the blog archives you’ll see it first show up in April 2011, when I brewed up a combination of Canadian Blonde ale and a lot of strawberries. Six pounds of strawberries, to be precise. It was my first try at full-sized brewing, and it tasted like someone’s first time brewing. Not a bad beer, per say, but what my wife and I kept calling a very “sharp” beer. A little more bitter than either of us liked. A little more alcoholic sting. No real strawberry flavor.

Funny thing happened the other day. I found a few bottles of Mustache Cat hanging out in the basement, and as we were looking to create some empty bottles for the batch I’m about to talk about, we stuck them in the fridge to give them a try. The resulting beer was smooth with a very pronounced strawberry flavor, both on the front end and in the aftertaste. Like some slow working magic trick, it took only two years for a beer we weren’t all that fond of to turn into a fantastic strawberry ale. This is the kind of funny patience that’s necessary for home brewing. I’ve heard people say no stout should be touched for six months, and even then it should still be thought of as immature. Meads, which I hope to get into one day, take years to even approach complete. Part of the fun of home brewing is finding that old bottle from the less than stellar batch and discovering a decent beer inside.

So, yeah, Mustache Cat rocks.

We were emptying bottles, however, ahead of another batch I brewed based on an Austin Homebrew recipe called “Apple Peeler.” Most of the beer I make is through a process called a “partial boil.” This means I don’t boil all the water that goes into the fermenter, instead only boiling about two gallons. This is then topped off with water until there’s about 5.25 gallons (20 liters, actually). Apple Peeler was different. Oh, there were the normal steps of steeping the grains, adding the sugars, bittering with the hops, but when the partial boil went from the pot to the fermenter, it wasn’t topped off with water.

It was topped off with apple juice.

There’s a subtle brilliance to this change. More so if you, like me, are a fan of a pub cocktail called a Snakebite. In its simplest form, a Snakebite is a shandy that mixes equal parts beer with non-alcoholic cider. Or, even better, alcoholic cider. It’s refreshing, and in the shandy form makes a fantastic drink with a pub brunch. This recipe struck me as a pre-made Snakebite, so I couldn’t resist. It’s fermenting in the basement now, and will bottle sometime in July. Hopefully it’ll be ready for a taste before the summer is over, as this strikes me as a late summer, early fall type of beer. If not, it can always wait until next summer and get all the tastier in the process.

Tasting some of the wort, an odd habit of mine, it was more bitter than I expected, and I’m already prepared to dial back the hops if I try the recipe again. It’s fun to have a few go to recipes to double back on, tweak a little, and turn into better and better beer.

I’ll also need a name. Apple Peeler isn’t a bad name, but what fun is it to use the pre-assigned name? I’m thinking just Fall Ale as an allusion not just to the season but the Fall of Man, which feels like a required reference with the combination of apples and snakes. What’s up with all my Biblical beers?

I look forward on reporting the flavor.


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The little bird is teething again. She’s been a reverse rodent for a little over a month with two pronounced lower front teeth and nothing else. Now there’s a little nubbin of a top tooth through her gums and another on its way. Which…really sucks. Teething just strikes me as an unfathomably cruel part of the first year of a child’s life. These nice perfectly smooth gums are being pierced in a slow and deliberate way. I understand the evolutionary advantage to not having holes pre-existing in the gums, but it reminds me of Wolverine feeling it every time he extends his claws. Or that perhaps mythic Chinese torture method of letting sharpened bamboo grow into and through the body of a victim.

But this is somehow worse. At least in those cases, the victim would know the exact source of their pain. May be able to understand it in some way. A baby just knows this constant aching pain, hopefully the worst chronic pain of their life-to-date, and the only possible comfort is a few drops of baby Tylenol. Sometimes I wonder if the old method of a little bourbon on the gums was a decent way forward. Not enough to actually do it, but I can understand it.

Unfortunately it makes sleeping difficult. It makes being awake difficult. And whenever things are difficult on baby, they’re difficult on mommy and daddy. Which was the cause of much exhaustion in the house when the baby decided 6am was a fantastic time to wake up both mornings this weekend. Probably half discomfort, half the sun being fully up and the baby not understanding varying lengths of the day. It’s not her fault she’s ignorant, she doesn’t have much in the way of life experiences.

At least writing is happening. Words are forming, going into computers. Nearly 1000 between my wife and I this previous week. Which might not sound like much for a week, but is nearly 1000 words more than most other weeks these past few months. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the goal, after Tuesdays and Fridays turned into a bad idea after just one week. Finding those little times after the baby has gone to bed, but before we trundle our sorry, exhausted selves to bed as well.

We’ve been invited to a party next month. It’s a birthday party. “Elmo will be there,” my wife explained. This really is a new phase of my life, isn’t it?

Speaking of life changes, I’m officially on my lay-off count down at work. 53 days and counting. Job hunt is moving into a higher gear, and I’m even looking into what steps I’d need to do to become a teacher, in case that looks like the best way forward. Wish me luck.

This week on the blog: adventures in brewing, and thoughts on the deaths of science fiction authors. And other stuff. This updating four times a week thing is working really well so far.

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The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

This is one of those tag-you’re-it blog elements. I was tagged by Day Al-Mohamed of CVS and Unleaded. It’s a floating ten question interview, and since I’ve never been tagged with one of these, I feel I should give it a go.

1. What is the working title of your next book?


2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Two places. The idea for the setting came from Lost States by Michael J. Trinklein, which is a collection of states that were proposed but never created. Trinklein runs a blog in support of the book if you’re curious about the kinds of places he means. It’s where I first learned about the Nickajack movement, which snowballed into a basic plot line. The characters come from a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but with some major modifications. Same names, similar relationship, but in the post-war South rather than a fantasy realm.

3. What genre does your book fall under?


4. What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I don’t tend to think about this when writing a book. One of the main characters would be a CGI construct, anyway.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A conman looking for one last score and an automaton built to command in the Civil War must solve an assassination in the newly created state of Nickajack.

6. Will your book be self-published of represented by an agency?

Agency or bust. I’m still convinced by the agency model.

7. How long did/will is take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

First draft was completed in a few months. Maybe three?

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Boneshaker. Not really because of any thematic or plot elements, more from the attempt to set Steampunk somewhere atypical. Boneshaker moves it to the Pacific Northwest. Nickajack takes it to the American south. It’s not untrod land, but I like getting away from England and the Old West with Steampunk.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It’s the first novel I’ve tried writing with a coauthor, in this case my wife. On this project, she’s the brains and I’m the muscle. It’s a formula that’s worked well for us when working on scripts together, and it’s working thus far on the novel. So she’s a lot of the inspiration.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

I’ve seen Steampunk novels that use the tech to lengthen the Civil War. We decided to go the other way. We’re creating an alternate United States where the North wasn’t afraid of using the technology to conduct a total war on the South, which changes the dynamic of the country. The story itself is set in a conclave of Northern support in the middle of a deeply scarred former Confederacy.

As far as keeping the tag chain going, I feel like a dead end. Most people I might think to tag have been tagged already. So I’ll let this particular chain letter come to an end, though there are many other branches of The Next Big Thing spreading across blogs. But since I like new writers to connect with, I’ll point backwards and sideways since I can’t point forwards. Check out Day’s answers here. She’s part of the same cloud of tagees as Kay Holt, Anthony Cardno, and Sabrina Vourvoulias. And I’ll put some second pressure on the two other writers tagged alongside me, Linda Adams and Wayland Smith.


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