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PostPosted: Fri Aug 03, 2018 8:33 pm 
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The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi


Paolo Bacigalupi was born in Colorado, August 6th 1972. He has appeared in a wide variety of publications, ranging from local newspapers, to Slate, and Wired for nonficition. When it comes to fiction writing he has written stories for middle-school aged kids, young adult fiction, and of course science fiction stories with heavy emphasize on how humanity might possibly deal with climate change. His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and have won three Nebulas, four Hugos, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short fiction. The Windup Girl was actually his first full length novel.

The Windup Girl was published in 2009, and appeared in Time Magazine which declared it one of the top ten fiction novels published in that year. It would win the 2010 Nebula Hugo awards for best novel (tying with China Mieville's The City and the City). It would go on to win the 2010 Compton Crook Award and the Locus Award for best 1st novel. It would also win awards in Japan (the Seiun award), Germany (The Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis), Spain (The Ignotus Award) and France (the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire), proving to be a book of international appeal and acclaim. So let's talk about this book, shall we?

The Windup Girl takes place in the 23rd century, in the Kingdom of Thailand. The world has been devastated by climate change, the end of oil and easy fossil fuels, and if that wasn't enough by a cycle of gene engineered plagues that attack both the people and their crops (Whoo! Those were some vicious resource wars. Damn). Many nations are trapped in a cycle of buying genetically created super crops that are immune from the plagues from international food companies called calorie companies, only to see them destroyed in a few years from brand new plagues that if they weren't created by a competing company were created by the very company they bought their crops from to ensure repeat business (Ok, I don’t think even Monsanto is that dickish. Sygenta maybe). With Peak Oil firmly centuries in the past, most power is provided via methane burning or more commonly muscle power. Giant genetically engineered elephants called megodants aren't just used as heavy transport but to turn the spindles powering factories and generators in this future (What? WHAT!? No. Just… No. WHAT ABOUT NUCLEAR POWER!? WHAT ABOUT WIND, SOLAR, HYDRO, GEO-THERMAL?). That power is stored in kink springs (a fictional technology) that can power scooters and other devices that don't have a heavy energy requirement. Travel times are longer being handled by clipper ships or dirigibles. That said there are still plenty of high technology nations out there. Japan remains an center of technology, having solved it's population problems via the creation of “New People” genetically engineered humans who are created to fit certain tasks from assembly line work to personal security to military assassin. (WITH WHAT ENERGY!? Elephant power? Let’s assume that an elephant can pull 9 tons against a coefficient of friction of .5 at a rate of 5 ft per second. That’s about 81.8 horsepower. Let’s double that for super-elephants. That’s ~122 kilowatts for those keeping track at home and using sane systems of measurement. The average energy use of an industrial facility is about 250,000 kKh per year, and that same elephant can produce about 50,000 kWh per year. So five elephants per human factory, and that assumes 100% efficiency which is certainly not true. Energy loss in those sorts of mechanical work to electricity generators are on the order of 60%, so you’re looking at having to use 13 gigantic elephants per factory rounding up just… why? WHY?!) They of course aren't treated like human beings and are in many places considered soulless monsters because despite everything we've been through, humanity hasn't learned a damn thing (Time for the replicant revolution!). If you're wondering, that's not a criticism of the story, I find such bigotry perfectly believable. I am left wondering what the hell happened to solar, wind and nuclear power and technology like the hydrogen battery. These technologies aren't mentioned and it seems odd that in an age where people are constantly suffering from power shortages no one builds a fission plant or 10 (*editor has a apoplectic fit and dies*).

The Kingdom of Thailand is not a center of high technology or wealth but has through planning, sacrifice and a bit of luck maintained its independence from the hated calorie companies. Because Thailand has managed to keep and maintain something most other nations did not have the resources or foresight to. Thailand has a seed bank, a hidden fortress devoted to maintaining a treasure trove of heirloom seeds from before the dark days of bio-plagues. With their carefully maintained hoard of genetic engineering machines (which they power with WHAT!?{Coal strangely enough}) and trained scientists, Thailand has managed to keep the calorie companies out, using their own resources to create plague resistant crops and their own troops to hold the border shut. The white uniformed troops of the Environment Ministry (Now this idea I like.) have held the line for generations now but the Queen is a child and reduced to a figure head. In the absence of powerful central authority General Pracha of the Environment Ministry and his right hand man, Captain Jaidee are facing political opposition from Akkarat the Minister of Trade (I'll come back to these characters). This internal conflict now has the potential to explode and bring in external forces because the secret of the seed-bank is out and there are people who will lie, cheat, and kill for a chance to harvest it's riches.

One of those people is Anderson Lake, undercover calorie man, whose job it is to comb the world looking for new genetic stock for his Midwest based company (So… Not! Monsanto?) to use as raw material in the race to keep the world fed. For a price of course. Posing as a kink spring factory owner, Lake pushes his way into high stakes politics in the name of profit, food, and gaining access to the seedbank. What's interesting about Lake is that he honestly believes he's doing the right thing and that his work will result in a better life for everyone. Eventually. He isn't an idealist though and seems to have accepted that a large number of people will have to be pushed under the bus before it can roll into the promised land. He's rather cynical and willing to go to extreme ends to fulfill his goals but he's not sitting there scheming to break the Thais. Instead he’s focused on the idea that gaining access to the Thai seed vault will allow his company to bring forth new plenty and prosperity, which would include the Thai people. This makes him a rather human character, in fact Mr. Bacigalupi is very skilled in making a number of these characters very human.

On the other side of the coin, Captain Jaidee is also a true believer willing to go to the very wall to do what he believes is needed to protect Thailand and more importantly it's people. Given his job as an enforcer for the Environment Ministry, that can mean anything from burning a village to ashes to prevent the spread of plague to raiding an airport and seizing the cargo of wealthy and powerful men. Meanwhile he is also a devoted father and gentle husband who wants to see his family taken care of and his sons to grow up healthy and free. It's that very belief that creates his legend and his loyalty to his family that leads him to his fate in the story. Meanwhile his Lt. Kanya is a women torn between conflicting loyalties and working frantically to reconcile them. She is constantly hedging and trying to find a middle path that will let her make everyone happy and it's almost to late when she makes her final choice. She is a good reminder that you cannot serve two masters, sooner or later you must choose one over the other. There are venal and corrupt figures in the story, Minister Akkarat being among them but for the most part many of the characters believe they are doing the right or at least necessary thing in their actions. A good amount of it is rationalization but that's also a very human trait.

I would argue that none of these characters are our main character however, I would argue that Emiko is the main character of the story. Emiko is a genetically engineered human, created and trained in Japan to serve as a personal companion. She's faster and stronger then a baseline human, but due to how her skin was engineered, she overheats easily. She was born, trained, and lived in Japan until brought to Thailand as a translator on a business trip. She was abandoned by her owner in Thailand, because he felt it was easier to simply ditch her in Bangkok and get an upgraded model when he got home (I told you there were venal and vile characters in this story didn't I?). Called a windup girl, her very presence is illegal within the borders of Bangkok and she's forced to work in a sex club being humiliated and sexually sold at night just to survive (Yep. Definitely time for that replicant revolution…). Her mental conditioning trained her to never use her superior speed or strength and to constantly obey baseline humans, especially her owner. However a life of constant hate, humiliation and lack of any hope of improvement is slowly but surely wearing away at that conditioning without her even realizing it. Emiko's story arc is one of realizing that most of the limits forced on her are entirely artificial and that she can strike back and hope to survive while doing so. She grows from a hopeless, embittered person, faced with the fact that she is nothing more than property and worse believing that's her rightful place in the world, to being a woman willing to take action to defend her life and her freedom and fully understanding her abilities. What starts this journey is her meeting Mr. Lake, who reveals that there are communities of New People but what really kicks it into gear is the fact that Lake treats her like a person. This causes Emiko to both have a goal for herself and to see herself as someone who deserves to have goals and a chance to strive for them. I won't say he treats her with any great dignity or such but he acknowledges her as a person with her own interests and agenda which is more than she’s gotten from any other person in her life. Which is heartbreakingly sad when you think about it. Emiko's story is very personal in scope and hidden among grand events that decide the fate of a nation and perhaps an entire people but it's her story, her actions, and her interactions with the other characters that end up driving the plot forward. A whole nation will find its course changed, because a wind up girl wanted to life with her own people and be treated like a human being.

The Windup Girl is a story of tightly written intrigue and action driven by complex characters who are often trying to bridge the gap between conflicting goals, which is an honestly human thing to do. It's set in a world that is plague ridden but with the seeds of new life emerging (I see what you did there.) and the hope that eventually a new ecosystem may arise and move the story of life forward... A new ecosystem that may even have humans in it. It's a story of corruption, humiliation, and enslavement; and how people can rise above such things if they're willing to act and brave the consequences. So while the world of The Windup Girl can be very dark and grim, I can't call the story itself grim, although there is a lot of unavoidable darkness in it. I'm giving The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalup an A. Seriously read it.

To tie back to our theme of Solar punk, I've had people contest The Windup Girl's inclusion within the emerging genre. I have to admit that The Windup Girl may be on the edge of the genre but I do think it lies within it. This is due to its theme of learning to exist in harmony with nature rather then trying to beat it into submission and accepting that life must change if it is to stay in such harmony. That, and it's a world without fossil fuels and dependent on alternative means of power (even if there is no solar power in the story, seriously Mr. Bacigalupi what happened to Solar Panels, I mean we can make massive elephants, super cats, 10-armed people but we can't make Solar panels?[*Screaming*]). So I'm going to argue that a story about how we might get to a environmental harmonious existence (by changing ourselves to fit into the environment instead of the other way around) does fit into it. Now if you excuse me, I have to tranq my editor.

Next week, we see how far we can push these boundaries by looking at Paolo Bacigalupi's other major work, The Water Knife. Join us Sunday, as I discuss one of the roots of Solarpunk, the Cyberpunk genre. Keep reading.

Red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen.
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders.

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 05, 2018 11:03 pm 
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Sidebar VI: The Root of the Tree

“How did I actually create the word? The way any new word comes into being, I guess: through synthesis. I took a handful of roots—cyber, techno, et al—mixed them up with a bunch of terms for socially misdirected youth, and tried out the various combinations until one just plain sounded right.”
Bruce Bethke


Before we can really examine Solarpunk, I feel we need to go back a bit and look at where it sprang. Having looked into it, that would be the Cyberpunk movement for my money. Cyberpunk was the first “punk” genre and was an evolution in how science fiction stories were told and who they were told about and that created in many ways the space that Solarpunk operates and the themes it carries forward. Many supporters of Solarpunk have adopted opposing themes and ideas to the ones common in Cyberpunk but I found on digging that what goes in a Solarpunk novel, of which there aren't many is often more complex but we'll get to that. First let me discuss Cyberpunk. A quick note, this is not exhaustive by any means but should serve to give everyone an idea of where Cyberpunk came from, what it does and let us observe it's donations to Solarpunk.

Cyberpunk has it's roots in the New Wave Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which was a subversive movement in fantasy and science fiction. It was a reaction to the Golden Age of both genres where stories were honestly at times limited in their themes, characterizations and plots. The new generation of writers wanted to attempted stories that would feature things that were rather taboo at the time. Like drug use by protagonists, or protagonists that were deeply flawed or even rather sinister, the exploration of counter culture values and ideas and a rejection of the idea that new technology is always the solution to our problems along with the suggestion that new technology might bring its own problems. Underlying this was a rejection of things like Joseph Campbell's idea of the monomyth, the idea that the hero should always be upholding society and deferring to proper authorities and the utopian views of the future science fiction often provided. Now that's not to say all of this was never happened in the stories of the 1940s and 50s but it wasn't common and definitely wasn't the accepted tone of either genre. It was here that a number of proto Cyberpunk novels would be written like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” which led to the movie Bladerunner. The New Wave grew throughout the 1960 but by the 1970s, it seemed that it's high water mark was behind it. With the closing of the magazines that provided the main voice many were declaring the New Wave dead and gone and were debating if it had any real lasting impact. Enter the 1980s.

In the 1980s the seeds for the massive changes still taking place in our society were being laid and while the average citizen had no damn clue what was coming. There were an increasing number of people who realized that technologies like the home computer, the ability to network them and create things that only existed on those networks were going to make a big noise in the world and soon. This combined with the increasing deregulation in the United States, the increasing inequalities in wealth and economic anxiety that there simply wasn't room in the wondrous future for the American worker. In California the Hardcore Punk movement was eating up the music scene and was seen as overly violent, anti-intellectual and downright anti-social. Interesting it's the outside view of the punk, as opposed to the musicans themselves that seems to have influenced the early writers of Cyberpunk. Despite that, the punk themes of rebellion against authority and social convention and an embrace of what some folks called anti-social behavior would fliter into the behavior of the protagionists of Cyberpunk works. It was Bruce Bethke, an American writer took the word punk and combined it with Cyber, for computer creating the term. By his own admission he was combining terms until he created a word that sounded right to him, but there's a reason the word gelled with the public. While Mr. Bethke gave us the word Cyberpunk, it was William Gibson who gave us the meaning of the word and almost single handly defined the genre for almost a decade and he did with a little book called Neuromancer.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Written in 1984, it was Gibsons first full length novel and according to him was written a state of barely controlled terror and he was sure everyone would think he was ripping off Bladerunner, the film being released while he was a 1/3rd of the way into the novel. But write it he did, in the space of a year and when it was released... There was no fanfare but Gibson had hit a cultural nerve. It became an underground hit, spreading by word of mouth. Honestly if you were born after 1995, I'm not sure you realize how hard that was back then. There were no youtube personalities to help the book become viral, no reddit for fans to spread the word, or twitter. No amazon, so every copy of the book had to be hunted down in book stores or libraries (we also had to read books upside down, in the snow back then, especially in summer!). Word of the book was spread face to face, books passed from hand to hand. It would become the first book to win a Nebula, a Hugo and a Philip K Dick Award for paperback original. It would also become the landmark work of Cyberpunk throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s.

It's from here we get mercenary hackers slipping into Cyberspace to do battle with ICE programs, while Razor Girls and Street Samurai (cybernetic mercenaries who do their work in realspace) guard their inert bodies or seek to find and kill them. The archetype of the Cyberpunk protagonist, an isolated loner alienated from his or her community emerges here as well. This archtype is an enduring one, we see it in Snowcrash and we also saw it in Altered Carbon. What also appeared in the 1980s was a heavy Japanese influence as Japan's economy grew larger and larger at increased speed. Interestingly enough the Japanese themselves would pitch into the growth and development of the Cyberpunk genre through manga and animes like Bubblegum Crisis, Akira and of course Ghost in the Shell, which would in turn heavily influence Anglosphere writers in the future (the state of entertain between the Anglo sphere nations and Japan is something in and of itself that I could happly blather on for hours but we'll stop here). A lot of this would change over time but the themes and core setting ideas of Cyberpunk have remained very carefully nailed in place.

First and most likely the core idea is that technology doesn't actually fix things for everyone, or even most people. The worlds of Cyberpunk are often more high tech ( at least when they don't get tripped up by the writers own assumptions, for example Gibson's suggesting that in the future people would find 3 whole MBs of RAM worth killing over) then our own. That doesn't mean that the majority of people in those worlds are living better then us or even as well as us. Technology in a Cyberpunk world tends to excessively favor the elite and make it easier for them to dominate everyone one else. Second is the idea of alienation, which is the state of being isolated from a group or activity that you should be involved in. Hiro Protagonist (Snowcrash) should be involved in the greater community of programmers and hackers but he plants himself on the margins and refuses to move. Takshi Kovacs (Altered Carbon) is alienated from pretty much his entire species, as a result of the training that the United Nations put him through and the results of constantly moving from world and world, due to the re-sleeving technology Kovac is even alienated from his own body! Which is a profound escalation in the theme if you ask me. This has allowed Cyberpunk works over time to be more and more diverse in their characters and plots, allowing for variation in race, gender and more to expand over the genre. Lastly Cyberpunk also hosts a number of works that are critical of modern society, sometimes ferociously so. Of these a good number of Cyberpunk books have veiled or not so veiled criticisms of capitalism in general and corporate practice and life in specific. I haven't run into any Cyberpunk critical of socialism but that may be because most of the Cyberpunk I'm aware of is written in nations where a style of deregulated and unfettered capitalism is practiced. I suppose it's possible that Denmark for example may have Cyberpunk stories that criticize socialism, as Cyberpunk books also criticize the idea of authority at some level, but I haven't seen any. Additionally, with the fall of the USSR and the PRC turning to capitalism, there's a certain feeling of why bother criticizing ideologies and economic methods that failed so spectacularly and completely? Capitalism is currently the last man standing in the economic debate club in a lot of ways. Even those who champion more nordic styles of government and management are really just arguing for a different style of capitalism. That doesn't mean new ideas and models won't emerge but it's hard criticize something that hasn't been thought up yet.

Cyberpunk is almost 40 years old with precursor works lurking about as far as a half a century ago, so in this it has been more successful then more experimental movements like the New Wave Science Fiction I discussed earlier. It's also spawned a vast number of offshoots and subsets, one of which is the subject of this month. However, children have more then one parent and Cyberpunk did not bring Solarpunk into the world alone. So next week, we're going to take a look at eco or climate fiction and then we should be on a solid footing to look at the emerging genre.




Keep Reading.

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 10, 2018 11:23 pm 
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The Water Knife
by Paolo Bacigalupi


“They have no idea what they're doing. These are the people who are suppose to be pulling all the strings, and they're making it up as they go along.”
Lucy Monroe page 344


You can't live without it. You don't think about it when you have it but when you don't... You do anything to anyone to get enough to keep going. There's a number of things that applies to, but in this review, we're talking about water. We talked about Mr. Bacigalupi last review so let's discuss the book. The Water Knife was published in 2015 by Vintage Books. Vintage Books was founded in 1954 by Alfred A. Knopf. It was purchased by Random House in 1960 and currently operates as a subdivision of Random House. Now's let's dig into it. (I’ve never figured out why he goes through the history of publishers like this.{Someone needs to, do you know how many I've linked back to Random House?})

The Water Knife takes place in a near future American Southwest. The changes in the climate that we see taking effect around us have kept ramping up, to the point that the southern parts of the US are in collapse. Texas and Louisiana have become disaster zones as hurricanes and drought have driven the state governments to their knees. In response to the massive number of refugees, California led a coalition of wealthy states in creating the State Independence and Sovereignty act. This let those wealthy states keep other Americans out so as to avoid having to spend resources on them while they frantically poured resources into protecting their own populations and resources (In reality, California is even more screwed than LA and TX are…). Now your state residence matters and which state you're a citizen of is way more important than being a US citizen. States that can use their national guard units to enforce their borders and resource claims. States that cannot? They use militia groups recruited under the table to keep out undesirables by any means necessary. Meanwhile in the southwest, a resource war over water is being raged between Phoenix, Los Vegas, and California. Folks, no matter who wins Phoenix is the definite loser (Well yes, we’re going to lose in real life too. Even without climate change this metro area is screwed. That’s what we get for living in a monument to the hubris of humanity.). California uses a vast machinery of political, legal, economic, and military power to establish an informal empire in the west. The state drains entire other states of their water to keep themselves going, as an increasingly weak federal government can only half-heartedly protest. Meanwhile Los Vegas rallies behind Catherine Case, a real estate operator and political operator who is using an army of lawyers, crooked politicians, national guardsmen, and when all else fails troubleshooters willing to break the law to keep her arcologies lush and booming. Now, some of you may be wondering what an arcology is. An arcology is a self-contained human habitat that is nearly self sufficient. In science fiction they are often presented as being as large as cities. They show up in the Water Knife as a new model of human habitation that's being created as a response to Climate Change. Catherine Case is building a number of them around Los Vegas and is leaning hard on her less-than-legal operatives to get the water they need.


These operatives are called Water Knives because they cut water from other cities and communities in order to redirect it to their patrons. Angel, a former Mexican (now the Cartel States) refugee who grew up to be a gangbanger only to be turned into a savvy operative in Case's organization is one of the best of those Water Knives. Angel is a very interesting and complex character, someone who fully admits that what he's doing is ruining lives but rationalizes it with the belief that it has to be done. Also it will be done one way or another and it might as well be him. Angel, much like Anderson Lake in The Windup Girl, also tells himself that he's making a better world. Yes, there are losers who are crushed in the attempt, but there are also winners who gain entry into a new paradise of life free from concerns over the rapidly changing environment. Angel puts his faith in Catherine Case's vision and so is willing to be a devil to bring it about. So we get a man who is willing to blow up a water treatment plant and through that kill a city (and a good number of the people living in it) but is a big fan of a T.V series about a Texan trying to protect fellow refugees while hunting for his wife and children in the chaos of a Southwest that is falling apart and is incredibly understanding and forgiving of people trying to kill him. Whether or not that moral complexity is going to help him is an open question as he's sent into a dying Phoenix on the rumor that a game changing source of water is about to found in Arizona and Case's operatives in Phoenix have gone dark and silent. Meanwhile people in Phoenix have their own problems.


Between waves of Texan refugees that can't leave, California, and Las Vegas systematically stripping the state of Arizona of its water rights and the cartels moving north smelling blood on the sand; Phoenix is a dying beast that refuses to believe it's dead. While a Chinese built arcology is rising in the middle of the city, the remainder is turning into a vast slum choked with desperate Texan girls selling themselves for food and water; Mexican gangsters taking control of the city one street and dirty cop at a time; as well as Chinese and Californian business men picking over the corpse for anything of value. Meanwhile Coyotes offer a way north for anyone who can pay enough and is willing to brave the desert while being hunted by militias willing to commit the kind of crimes you usually associate with news about civil wars in the Middle East. Living in this city is Lucy Monroe, a journalist who came to Phoenix to provide front-line coverage of the death of a city and perhaps an entire state. Lucy could leave anytime she wants, she has citizenship in a New England state, has won Pulitzers for her work, and has a sister living in Canada who practically pleads with her to get out of there. But it's to late for Lucy, Phoenix has gotten to her and she has become a part of the dust-ridden sun-blasted hell it's become. That said Lucy still holds out hope that something can be done to at least slow down the dying and while she's not a fan of Catherine Case, her real hatred is reserved for an increasingly imperialist California. When her friend Jamie is tortured to death after telling her about a deal that could change the entire region, Lucy starts digging to find out what the hell happened. Maria Vilarosa can't leave however; a Texan refugee, climate change drove her family out of Texas and has killed the rest of her family one by one. Her life is one of trying to hustle from score to score, find a way to save some money despite the gang claiming almost everything she earns as “tax”, and avoid being turned into a street-walker. This might be impossible as her neighborhood is owned lock stock and barrel by the Vet. The Vet is a criminal madman who has built a violent criminal enterprise and is squeezing the Texan community for every last cent he can. He maintains power through fear, violence, and feeding people who disobey him to the pack of Hyena he keeps in a lock pen outside his home. (...Woah. Points for creativity and animal trafficking I suppose.) Maria has an overriding goal, she is going to get out of Phoenix and she is not letting anything stop her.


The plot moves quickly in The Water Knife as the characters encounter one another, part ways, meet again and create alliances, betray each other and remake alliances and play against an increasingly violent and unstable backdrop. It's a world where the United States has all but fallen and no one seems to realize it (which echos the fate of the Roman Empire in a lot of ways) and it's component parts are increasingly turning on each other for whatever resources those governments can grab for themselves. The story presents us with a world where Americans have abandoned national unity and have turned on each other; where the actions and behaviors we see in the third world are now played out in the United States as a vast chunk of the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the planet is turned into a wasteland by changes in the climate. This story is light years darker and more dystopian then The Windup Girl. There is no strain of hope here, no emerging group of human beings better able to live in harmony with their environment. There are only those lucky enough to be in safe zones, like arcologies or states that have the wealth and power to deal with the changes being wrought, and those who live in the ruins of places that don't. Places where girls who are barely high school age sell themselves for a chance at real food and a shower, where religious fanatics duel with criminal armies. The biggest conflict in The Water Knife isn't between Los Vegas and California, or between criminal gangs and refugees though. It's between people who are trying to keep the old order who still believe in the way things were and could be again; and those who believe that things have changed and there is only finding a way to survive in the world they’re in now. It's not all bleak, Mr. Bacigalupi is careful to show us good people in this world, trying to help others. The Red Cross for example hasn't abandoned Phoenix, nor has the UN, even if the US government has. There are characters who perform good deeds and reach out to help those around them; even Angel is willing to aid and help his fellow man if he can. This creates depth and realism to the story, while only making it more frightening because of it's realism. For me, the most terrifying thought is the idea of the states turning on each other. I have to admit that it isn't impossible, but if it ever got to the point where states where using armed troops to keep other Americans out of their states and launching armed raids on each other to steal resources and destroy infrastructure... Then we're doomed. Our greatest strength despite all the political disagreements and economic competition is that our states work together; that our shared identity as Americans is more important than any party, state, or local loyalty. Without that, we're not a country and much of our power, wealth, and basic safety goes down the drain, most likely never to return. It's my hope that no matter how bad things get, we don't forget that, that those who declare they would prefer serving a foreign nation rather then see their political rivals win are enough a minority that they don't matter. It's my fear that they aren't.


Turning back to our theme this month, while The Water Knife was recommended to me and I defended The Windup Girl as Solarpunk... I can't really do that with this novel. While Mr. Bacigalupi remembers that solar power is a thing in this book (the fact that California would rather loot water from other states then build desalination plants is also pretty believable (Keep in mind, California is vast and so is its need for water. Desalination is good for small populations like Israel, or to smooth out the edges of a drought in a larger region, California has a larger population than Australia or Canada by a wide margin, and staggering agricultural needs to boot. Desal is so energetically expensive that it simply won’t cut it){That’s why you attach a nuclear reactor to your desalination plant(I agree, clearly, but this is California. Even an ecological catastrophe isn’t going to convince them to build more nuclear plants without something I’d be tempted to call an act of God, or a massive federal mandate.)}), it doesn't really have what I would consider the main themes of Solarpunk. It's too dark and too much about the fall from grace rather then the rebuilding or living in balance. So apologies folks I owe everyone another solarpunk novel review (don't hold your breath though it might take a while for me to find one). That said The Water Knife is an amazing read, well plotted, and carried by characters with believable motivations and outlooks on life that just kinda sucks you right into the book. Like water down a drain. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi gets an A.


Join me Sunday when I talk about climate fiction and look at it's influences on Solarpunk. Keep reading!

Red text is your editor, Dr. Ben Allen.
Black text is your reviewer, Garvin Anders.

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"it takes two sides to end a war but only one to start one. And those who do not have swords may still die upon them." Tolken


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PostPosted: Sun Aug 12, 2018 12:55 am 
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California will be totally willing to build nuke plants in order to preserve their living standard . . . as long as they are in the eastern half o the state and not in LA or San Francisco's back yard.

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 12, 2018 8:15 pm 
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Sidebar V: The Other Influence
Climate fiction


Great fiction is often declared timeless and there are certainly timeless themes, fears and hope you can speak to. However, the stories that grab a hold of a culture's imagination and leave deep marks on that culture's mental landscape are those that speak to a certain time. They invoke and speak to the fears and hopes of that time and lay them out in the open for everyone to see. That's what Climate Fiction seeks to do and it's certainly speaking to modern fears. To be blunt on the matter, the hottest years on record are uniformly listed in the last decade. In 2018 alone Japan, Korea, much of Europe (including above the Arctic circle) and the Arabic world (including the Sahara Desert, recording temperatures of 124 F or 51.3C the highest temperature recorded in Africa). Canada has declared this a record summer and it stands as the hottest La Nina on human record. Before this, 2016 was declared the hottest year in record with 2017 coming in 3rd. I point this out to show that frankly, yes to write of climate change is to write of something incredibly pertinent to our modern day lives and to society. Despite what some people would like to think.

That said Climate Fiction didn't spring from the aether fully formed. There were people experimenting with the ideas of climate change as narrative form or setting before the modern day. From Jules Vern distopian novel, Paris in the 20th century to New Wave writer J.G. Ballard's books The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World and The Burning World (all written in the 1960s). These books did explore the effect of climate change on the world in some ways but for example, Paris in the 20th Century focused more on the alienation of it's main character, a man who wanted to be a poet, living in a society that only valued science and business. JG Ballard's book often didn't explore the science and were more often in using climate change to explore the effects of disasters on communities and individuals or to examine psychological effects of disasters. The genre didn't really set itself apart or start gathering steam however until the 21st century.

Today Climate Fiction is sometimes referred to as Cli-fi or eco-fiction. Cli-Fi was a term coined by Dan Bloom. Mr. Bloom is a native of Springfield Massachusetts, where he graduated Tufts University in Boston with a degree in literature. While he wrote a novel he never published it and instead when to work as a journalist where he had a varied career with a number of publications and positions. Two experiences combined to solidify the term in his head however, first seeing the honestly horrible film Day After Tomorrow. Second and likely more important the 2006 report released by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which he read. Mr. Bloom would coin the term Cli-Fi in 2008. It would catch on when NPR did a 5 minute radio with writers about it. Mr. Bloom would also make a concentrated effort to push the term and encourage novels to be published in the new genre. Descirbing himself as a PR person, he contacts publishers to help writers get their stories published, encourages the writers to write stories featuring Climate Change. He also maintains and runs cli-fi.net, a website that focuses on the genre. He does all of this without payment or asking for recognition.

But what is Cli-Fi you're asking. Climate Fiction is made of stories, usually set in the near future where Climate Change and environmental neglect have caught up to humanity and industrialized civilization begins to fail. It often focuses on the poor and down trodden, those least able to shield themselves from the ravages of a new world. In books like The Water Knife for example we can see that the wealthy are retreating into arcologies while the poor are left to the mercy of an increasingly dry and merciless planet. As such there's often a dystopian tone to Climate Fiction novels and a tendencies to focus on people on the margins of society and civilization. This is much like Cyberpunk, however while in much of Cyberpunk, society is shown as corrupt but vital, in Climate Fiction there is often a sense of decay. That society may be in fact living on borrowed time that is rapidly running out. This is very well done in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and the following sequels. Course, Margaret Atwood also mixes in fears about pandemics but that is also common in Climate Fiction as the thought is the strain of dealing with a changing world leaves the door open for traditional human problems we thought we had banished to come creeping back in. Climate Fiction can also take place in the current day however, examining how the current changes in our climate can and are impacting people living today and the role that social and government action, or inaction plays in that. These stories will often have a scientist protagonist as they research the effects of climate change. Although that shouldn't be considered a hard or fast rule as there are also plenty of books that buck that trend.

Climate Fiction is also a call to action. Many of the writers are hoping to spur people to act on the facts of Climate Change to aide in mitigating or avoiding the worse damages. Because to be honest, a good story is often much better at planting an idea in people's head then a dry recitation of facts. That's not to say scientific fact has no place in Climate Fiction, but it is buttressed by the addition of narrative and characters to ensure that it's lodged into the memories and thoughts of the reader. This isn't the first time that the environmental movement has used fiction to help communicate it's goals and beliefs to the greater public and it won't be the last. Hopefully, we'll look back at books like The Water Knife in 50 years and discuss how such books helped avert the future written in those pages or at least the worst of it.

So at long last, next week, we'll tackle Solarpunk itself. I'll try to show what it's derived from it's parent genre and why I've staked Cyberpunk and Climate Fiction as such and we'll discuss... What the hell is Solarpunk anyways?

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 17, 2018 10:26 pm 
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Suncatcher: Seven Days in the Sky
By Alia Gee


Suncatcher is another fine example of what the internet can do, in some ways. Published in 2014 by a Print on Demand company called Booklocker.com (which for a wonder isn't owned by Random House [For now]). So the odds of finding Suncatcher in a bookstore or library are at best vanishingly low, that said you can find the book on Amazon which sells a paperback or kindle version. Suncatcher is Alia Gee's first and at the time of this review only novel. Mrs. Gee, who was named after Alia Atreides from Dune (YAAASSS!) by her parents according to one story, graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and currently lives in New York with her husband and children. She is politically active and while I did not speak to her for this review, I'm sure she wouldn't mind me reminding you to vote this year.

Suncatcher is set in the year 2075 AD, taking place mainly in the free city of Miami. The United States and frankly the world have gone through a lot. Peak oil has left the world mostly devoid of fossil fuels. Pandemics have made travel a lot less common and severely pruned the population of the world. Climate change has turned cities like Miami and New York City, into islands huddled behind great sea walls of concrete and metal holding back the newly risen seas. Indentured servitude is back as people sign life debts to corporations to ensure that they have three hots and a cot (to be honest this doesn't really seem like something corporations would do, reclassifying all their employees as “contractors” so they only have to pay them on a job to job basis seems more in character for a modern corporation). People have found ways to deal with the new stresses and problems of life, but others have found themselves going insane and committing terrorist attacks as part of “blood cults.” Committing mass murder while screaming that God needs blood for atonement(Guys, guys! No! Don’t kill your fellow workers, kill your corporate overlords!). Civilization has however survived (That is debatable. Depends on your definitions I suppose.) and is slowly but surely rebuilding from all of this. People are traveling by airship and train. Cities and states are recreating economies and the education system is roaring back to life. This is all aided via communicating through the Internet 2.0 called the aether, which is accessed through VR goggles or wearable bracelet computers and seems to create a very subjective experience, where each user can visit the same site and see something completely different. I have to admit this kinda fascinates me a bit because the sheer software resources needed to do this alongside the profiling and interactive programming requirements speaks to a civilization that has managed to greatly outdo our own mastery of computers and communication networks. At the same time I am wondering what an aether reddit or facebook would even look like. Maybe Mrs. Gee can address that another novel.

We see this world through the eyes of Professor Radicand Jones, a Muslim women. She is an American of Pakistani and Welsh origin and survivor of the plague that caused the entire American Northwest to be quarantined. That plague took a heavy toll on her family, killing Professor Jones younger brother and her older sister's fiance. As part of a response to that tragedy her older sister Professor Pari Jones took off with an airship she designed with a bunch of graduate students and... Kinda never came back. In fact Radicand and Pari hadn't really seen each other in ten years as of the opening of the novel. If that wasn't enough, their father is also in a coma, with a possibly malfunctioning cybernetic implant that no one seems to be sure how to fix. Despite this, the Jones family has managed to keep moving and build up. Radicand has become a respected professor in New York City. The now Admiral Pari Jones has build a “flock” of airships from that one single ship she built. They move from port to port collecting solar energy in their sails, selling to the cities they visit to pay for supplies while making decisions based on consensus instead of a top down command structure (which means they vote on things instead of Pari just giving orders). However both sisters feel something missing in their lives. With Professor Jones feeling increasingly trapped by her role as a professor but unable to explain her feelings to anyone around her. This, of course, makes her feel more trapped. So when Admiral Jones invites Professor Jones to join her flock for a little vacation and a possible sisterly reunion Radicand jumps at the chance.

However Professor Jones is walking into more then a chance to repair her relationship with a long absent sister. Admiral Jones has attracted some unwelcome attention as her habit of selling energy for the amount of money she needs instead of at what the market will bear has attracted attention from the companies that she's undercutting. As the flock approaches the free city of Miami that’s holding back the seas with walls and hope, they attract pirate attacks, blood cult rampages and ever-deepening mystery. On top of this Radicand has met a perfectly nice young man in the flock named Toby, who also happens to be a martial artist capable of killing you with his toes. So she finds herself trying to reconcile with her sister while juggling the demands of a new romance and keeping pirates and more from killing them all. Of course the Jones aren't the only ones in trouble, that would be too easy. An old friend of Radicand’s from college, a young lady named Charlie whose genetics are about 10% canine is also in trouble as a corporation using bounty hunters and lawyers attempts to kidnap her under the stance that she isn't a person but missing property (Kill Them All).

Charlie is an interesting character in her own right. Charlie is what we refer to as a chimera, in genetics that refers to a creature that has two different sets of DNA, but I’ll let my editor, the man with a PhD, go into that. In Charlie's case she has the DNA of a human spiced with that of a dog.

Ok, there is a distinction we need to make. A chimera is a mix of cells from different sources. They can be naturally occurring in humans. From time to time, two eggs get fertilized and instead of becoming twins, they fuze. When this happens the system of position-based regulation we use during gestation to determine what cells go where means that while the skin or blood might be from one genetic sibling, the liver or brain cells might be from the other. This is occasionally an issue in paternity tests and criminal investigations. If, in this case, the term Chimera is accurate, then she is a human who had dog cells somehow integrated into her embryonic tissue that then, somehow, developed normally into a person who has some dog tissues, or even entire organ systems or gross anatomy in some ways (like her eyes or something being dog eyes). A transgenic would be where dog DNA was inserted into Charlie’s genome likely as an embryo. This might be to give her physiological functions that a dog has that humans don’t (for example: the ability to synthesize vitamin C) without affecting her gross anatomy, or at 10% it might affect her gross anatomy, but it would likely be less… targeted, in a way. It would affect regulatory functions rather than cell fates and for something that disarate would likely end up with something kinda… Ripley-Clone-esque. Given that Charlie is basically human but with certain dog anatomical parts without begging for death, I’d say Chimera is accurate, but talking about her percent of dog DNA is probably an authorial brainbug or cultural shorthand.

That said, she is fully a person here even if her mannerisms and abilities aren't fully human. However in the United States, this is a matter of some dispute. It appears much like in The Water Knife, the federal government is weaker then in our modern day (no shit). In northern states, Charlie is a person and a citizen of the US and is accorded the full protections and rights under the law as such. She is even married (although her husband doesn't appear in the story, he is often mentioned). In the Southern states however, there is a fair amount of resistance to the idea of treating people like Charlie as... People (Because...The South. I can see it, but that might just be my utter contempt for the CSA speaking.). Interestingly enough this appears to be a minority position, likely buttressed by the fact that Charlie makes her living as a roving reporter, using aether technology to live cast a good amount of her travels and investigations. It is however enough of a position that armed bounty hunters can make an attempt on someone in broad daylight and seem to expect support from the government in their kidnapping. Radicand finds herself drawn into Charlie's problem and wondering how it intersects with her issues. For that matter, they have to look into Charlie's most recent investigation into a traveling Evangelical preacher who leaves a trail of violence behind him and what strange connections he might have. Radicand also finds herself puzzling over why all of this reminds her of father, but he's been in a coma for years so what connection could he have to these events? Just in case dealing with, corporate harassment, pirates, bounty hunters, and more isn't enough; Radicand finds herself drawn into her new boyfriend's past as well and what is Toby hiding in his desperate street-rat past? Radicand has to work fast to save her best friend from college, her boyfriend, and her sister's life’s work while trying to repair her relationship with said sister. Why does she need to work fast? Because she's in Miami, living on an airship and it's hurricane season. I bet you thought your deadline issues were serious huh?

While you might think that the world I've outlined is a grim and dark one, it’s Radicand Jones and the other characters around her that keep this from dissolving into a grim dark world. While the world she lives in has many problems, she shows us a good number of people, like Charlie, her sister, and even Toby working to make the world a better place. Whether it's Peri Jones attempt to bring clean cheap solar power to communities that might not have access to it, a Quaker run cafe providing food and shelter to those in need (I’ve always had a deep and abiding respect for Quakers). Or Radicand Jones' attempt to enforce her friend's innate personhood, opposition be damned. There's plenty of that here. One thing that often escapes people when discussing when a setting is grim dark or not is that it’s not the problems that beset the world presented to us, it's whether they can be solved and whether the actions of the characters to address those problems are allowed to matter. I'm going to argue that this is one of the driving themes in Solarpunk; the idea that people and communities working on both the small and large scale can make things better. That in the end, your actions do matter and can change the world one way or another. When you think about the settings where nothing is allowed to change for the better, that's an interesting theme to embrace.

I enjoyed Suncatcher but it does have what I will call “first novel problems”. There are points where the dialogue hits the point where you can write that line but you can't say it. While how people speak to one another does change over time, it still needs to be believable to your audience. I also feel the storyline with her father could have been better foreshadowed and I also find myself wondering if she didn't put in much story for one novel at certain points, as all these problems coming together at once seemed to be stretching it a bit. That said, she does a good job with Radicand and the supporting characters and her world building was downright amazing; she was able to use a breakfast menu to really show the massive difference between the world of 2075 (with 50$ pancakes) and today. So Ms. Gee is able to build an interesting world and fill it with engaging and compelling characters. Honestly, Suncatcher is a pretty good novel and a great example of Solarpunk. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the emerging genre or to anyone would like to see more a woman-focused story, as most of the main characters are ladies. All things considered I'm giving Suncatcher: Seven Days in the Sky by Alia Gee a B. This is really good for a first novel and if Ms. Gee is reading this review. I would really like to see you write more novels, set in the Suncatcher universe or elsewhere.

So this Sunday I'll be talking about Solarpunk itself at last and you should join next week for Implanted by Lauren Teffaeu. Keep reading!

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"it takes two sides to end a war but only one to start one. And those who do not have swords may still die upon them." Tolken


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PostPosted: Sun Aug 19, 2018 10:13 pm 
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Sidebar VI: Canceling the Apocalypse
Solarpunk


Solarpunk is prehaps the youngest genre I've discussed so far, if Cyberpunk was a person (God have mercy on such a man) it would be old enough to run for President. Climate Fiction would be attending grade school. The earliest reference I can find to Solarpunk is from around 2014/2013. That means Solarpunk is barely old enough for kindergarten. Suncatcher for example was first published in 2014 and Alia Gee would have no idea for sometime that there were other novels taking up the banner of Solarpunk. The first mentions I can find (admitly I can only really look at English language sources) on tumbler date from about 2014 as well (http://missolivialouise.tumblr.com/post ... head-for-a). Although the term itself had been floated as early as 2010, I couldn't works I'd really mark as Solarpunk. Let's talk about what Solarpunk gets from from each of it's “parents” and then look at what makes it different from them. .

Solarpunk works tend to be critical of capitalism and of modern society in general. It distrusts authority and hierarchy and often features characters somewhat estranged from society or oppressed by it's norms and mores. Emiko is a great example of this, as she could easily fit into a Cyberpunk book. Solarpunk also brings in the idea that technology doesn't necessarily everything and may not benefit the masses in the end. The Solarpunk books we've looked at present pretty profound ideas of why technology, be it the engineered plagues and blights of The Windup Girl or the genetic experiments present throughout Suncatcher, may in fact be a problem instead of a solution. Solarpunk also adopts the punk idea of rebellion against social expectations and rules and resistance to top down authority. In fact like Cyberpunk, Solarpunk presents these institutions and organizations as inherently dehumanizing and damaging to the psychological and often physical well being of the individual. Solarpunk also is rather critical of elites that profit off the current social set up and is unlikely to present them in a flattering light. These trends are inherited from Cyberpunk and show that the themes of Cyberpunks have been pretty influential, this isn't a surprise as Cyberpunk has soaked into our culture pretty thoroughly and Mr. Bacigalupi shows that he could easily write Cyberpunk. In both Cyberpunk and Solarpunk there's a strain of anarchist influence running throughout the themes and plots of the two genres both expressing in an inherent rejection of the limitations that authority and social expectations place on a person.

From Climate Fiction we see an anxiety about our changing climate and what costs industrialization and pollution will exact from our civilization in the end. I also think the recurring pandemics that show in the Solarpunk books I've examined may have slipped in from Climate Change, representing mankind losing the hard won, if incomplete and spotty, control we've wrestled from the natural world. There's also a reemerging of traditional problems that have tormented humanity until very recently that now need new solutions. Additionally Solarpunk inherits from Climate Fiction the call to action. Where Cyberpunk is often presents it's dark future as unavoidable, Climate Fiction and Solarpunk call on the reader and fans to act. One thing many of the boosters and writers of Solarpunk works is a dissatisfaction with modern society and a strong desire for large scale and often radical change. Alongside with this is the end of the fossil fuel era, Solarpunk takes place post peak oil and Climate Fiction predicts the end of our ability to access cheap, abundant fossil fuels to power our economy. So while Cyberpunk has provided the rebellion and themes of the genre, Climate Fiction provided the general shaping forces of your standard Solarpunk work (such as standard exists, remember we're in the opening stages of the genre here) and the general idea of using fiction to urge for specific social change.

Some of the differences I'm seeing is that there isn't a central figure that has emerged to stamp the definition in place for Solarpunk. There's no Dan Bloom or Gibson in Solarpunk (yet). Solarpunk instead emerges from the fervent discussions of it's adherents, from various short stories and collections and picks up steam from self published or small press novels. This has made Solarpunk rather diffuse and I'd be lying to you if I didn't say there were some disagreements in how the genre is presented. Many would disagree with my calling The Windup Girl, Solarpunk for example due to the darkness of the setting. There is a large dividing line there, Solarpunk is an inherently hopeful genre. That's where the writers and fans of the genre find their rebellion, in confronting the apocalypse dreaded by Climate Fiction and declaring that not only will they find a way to maintain and sustain civilization but they will build a better one. One more adapted to it's environment and more in harmony with the eco-systems that civilization is part of. Solarpunk protagonists don't dwell apart from society but work to change, often being part of alternate organizations working to build what I'll call alternate infrastructure. We see an example of this in this week's book, in Suncatcher by serving as roving solar chargers and selling the energy from that to cities along it's flight path to the point that large energy corporations feel threatened by this competing model is a good example of that. In fact one of the pharses that was repeated over and over by Solarpunk advocates I found was infrastructure as a form of resistance (https://hieroglyph.asu.edu/2014/09/sola ... manifesto/). The act of building a vertical farm or solar powered engine isn't just an act of construction, it's an act of subversion and rebellion. For Solarpunk writers, this is a revolt of hope against despair. Which leds to another difference, the anarchism in Cyberpunk is often nihilistic and expressed by self destructive behavior in the protagonist or apathy. Solarpunk rejects that in favor of communal styles of anarchism or just using more consensus based styles of decision making. The Cyberpunk protagonist is classically a loner who fits into groups uneasily at best. The Solarpunk protagonist is either already part of a group or looking to join one and be a productive member.

Solarpunk also embraces the idea of diversity within it's casts and protagonists. While fantasy and science fiction have become more diverse over time. Solarpunk writers don't have the sheer inertia or at times worrisome history that writers of Space Opera or Lovecraftian horror sometimes have to deal with. Women are well represented here, as are various minority groups be they defined by race, religion or orientation. Part of this I think is the fact that the fiction community simply has a more diverse fandom and more diverse group of creators involved then would ever be admitted in public in the past. Where in the days of Issac Asimov, writing sci-fi was largely seen as a white man's game (never you mind those ladies writing science fiction behind the curtain), today the science fiction and fantasy community is more open (even if there is some pushback) to writers and characters who aren't straight white men. Interestingly, like a lot of science fiction, Solarpunk does have a tendency to use people who were genetically engineered as a way to explore bigotry and oppression without triggering defensiveness from it's readers. Suncatcher uses Charlie, the part dog, part girl, all roving reporter to show how damaging it can be to declare someone a nonperson and The Windup Girl shows up how treating someone as a nonperson can be incredibly dehumanizing to the people doing the oppression. I haven't spoken about transhumanism but so far Solarpunk presents the transhuman supermen of as downtrodden and exiled to the margins of society compared to transhumanism triumphant predictions of post humans ruling the roost. Which is an interesting difference as well.

Solarpunk hasn't yet reached it's fully mature and realized form as a genre. It's very possible it never will and will die a premature death. The opening years of a genre are when it's most likely to simply flop and fade away. That said, in it's brief history Solarpunk has found an interesting niche and is in the process of exploring interesting ideas that bring fresh air to science fiction. Additionally while Climate Fiction does speak to our modern anxieties and fears, Solarpunk dares to suggest that there can be hope even in the face of something so huge and unrelenting. My own thought is that we need a constant exploration of new ideas and ways of looking at the world to prevent becoming stale and out of touch with the world. Also, I not counsel despair. To quote, despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. We may have to take a hard road to the future. A road unforeseen. That said, I would say there are worse things to do then trust to hope, as long as we act to bring that hope about and do not use it as an excuse to be idle. After all sometimes revolutions win.

If you would like to read more about Solarpunk

https://solarpunkanarchists.com/2016/05 ... solarpunk/

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/sol ... ty-future/

https://eco-fiction.com/contest/what-is-solarpunk/

https://theconversation.com/explainer-s ... ical-80275

See you Friday when we review Implanted. Keep Reading.

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"it takes two sides to end a war but only one to start one. And those who do not have swords may still die upon them." Tolken


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PostPosted: Fri Aug 24, 2018 8:41 pm 
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Implanted
By Lauren TeffeAu


Lauren TeffeAu was born on the east coast and traveled south where she graduated with a degree in English and a Master's degree in Mass Communications. She worked in academia for several years before heading to the Southwest where she would attend the Talos Toolbox, a masterclass workshop on writing (George RR Martin showed up for this year’s run). She is also an active member of Critical Mass, a New Mexico based invitation-only critique group of science fiction writers. Implanted is her first book released in August of 2018 (so we're reviewing it hot off the presses!), published by Angry Robot books. Angry Robot books is an imprint focused on science fiction and fantasy founded in 2008 by Marc Gascoigne, a former Black Library (which publishes books for Warhammer 40k and other Games Workshop products) publisher who was working with HarperCollins Publishing. Angry Robot Books was bought in 2010 by... Random House (they are everywhere! [Seriously, someone bring back anti-trust enforcement]).

Implanted takes place over a century in the future, humanity is huddled in a collection of domed cities. Why are we hiding under glass you ask? Well it turns out that two centuries of rampant industrialization can catch up to you pretty damn quick and we screwed things up so bad that people can’t go outside without a gas mask. So we spent over a century slowly and carefully cleaning things up with people huddled under glass domes in crowded cities. This story takes place in the city of New Worth built on the bones of Fort Worth after it was destroyed by out of control tornadoes. With limited space and resources the good people of New Worth find themselves in an increasingly stratified society, with people in the elite classes living in the canopy; the upper part of the dome where you get natural sunlight and real plants! The lower classes live in Terrestrial district, at the bottom of the city, where all the light is artificial and there's little beyond people, rats and cockroaches. What keeps this society going is the hope of emergence, the return to the outside. To that end each city has devoted massive time and effort to slowly detoxifying the outside world. Through back-breaking labor, the use of genetic engineered plants to draw toxic elements from the soil and water, and more. In the meantime to keep people from tearing each other apart, new technologies were needed; one of those was the implant. The implant is a computer interface that goes into the base of your skull and lets you plug directly into the internet. Facebook, snapchat, 4chan, all of it, directly in your head. I'll wait for you to stop screaming in horror. As a result augmented reality is present everywhere in the domes and VR is the most popular way of spending time. From massive Arcades where you can play full body simulation video games to real time chat systems. Of course there are a number of issues with this.

One of these issues is that as you get closer to a person, the more they get into your head due to the implant. You see, you can not only pass each other audio and text messages through the implant but also emotions and even memories. This is made more intense through physical contact. Even a handshake can get you “calibrated” with someone, connected at a level that you can feel them in your head. This is horrifying to me, the one place that should always remain private is the inside of your own mind (It is worth noting that this is definitely something people have to actively permit). The idea of never being able to get away from an alien presence in my own head is one that disturbs me greatly. The fact that people in this society consider it not just a normal but a desirable part of their lives seems incredibly alien to me. I'm not the only one, there are people who for mental, emotional, or ideological reasons can't or won't have a implant. There are even people who just can't afford one. They're called Disconnects and they're the lowest of the lowest. They can't work most jobs, they can't qualify for most educational opportunities and live in the worst parts of the dome. They are discontented as the world outside looks greener and greener but they are placed under more and more constraints. Because the long, painful clean up effort has born fruit, the cities are surrounded by slowly but steadily growing green belts and you can finally go outside and breathe without a mask. It's not finished yet however, the outside world is still dangerous and filled with toxic soil, water and other dangers but people are growing increasingly impatient. It's in this simmering social stew of clashing desires and resentments that our story takes place.

Emery Discoll grew up in the Terrestrial District but is on her way up. The sacrifices of her parents to get her the best implant and the best education have paid off. Emery is set to graduate from the best college in the city. She's networked with wealthy men and women and is best friends with the daughter of the man running the most powerful news network. She already has a job as a data analyst set up after graduation. The job is boring but it's well-paying and safe. With this job and her degree Emery can escape up to the Understory and take her parents with her. She's even got a kinda-sorta boyfriend, who she's been trading emotions with over the implant link for a while now. Things are looking up for her, as long as no one finds out about her after-school hobby. See, even in New Worth, or I should say especially in New Worth there is crime. One such crime is hunting the unsuspecting, attacking them, cutting out their implant,, wiping it and selling it on the black market to people who need an implant but can't afford one legally. Emery hunts them in turn, seeking to neutralize them so the police can capture them. This is dangerous however has the cops in New Worth don't like vigilantes and the merest hint of out of bounds behavior can ruin Emery's life forever. This makes sense given just how little space there is for everyone under the dome, New Worth isn't Mega City One, it occupies a small space and has a million people in that space. In such densely packed areas keeping anyone from acting wildly becomes a major priority, you see this in modern cities like Tokyo for example.

Of course, Emery's behavior catches up to her and her secret crusade is used as a means to blackmail her into abandoning her life, faking her death and wiping her implant clean so no one can find her on the internet (Isn’t… the destruction of her life what she seeks to avoid in being blackmailed?{There's a difference between disappearing utterly for 10 years and going to jail for longer and destroying your family and possibly close friends in the process}). She's blackmailed by a shadowy corporation that specializes in transporting data that people want kept secret using foot mobile couriers. They encode the data in the couriers blood, have the courier walk over to the drop point. Blood is drawn the data decoded and the freshly scrubbed blood is put right back into the courier. There's a time limit, after 3 days the alteration to the couriers blood starts making them sick and will eventually kill them, the couriers call it the curdle. This process only works on people with a rare trait in their DNA that allow their blood to carry the data. Emery, unlucky girl, is one of those people. I'm going to be honest, I have no idea how any part of that process would even work, but Ms. Teffaeu does a good job of outlining the limitations of the technology and its effects, which is all you need to do to tell an effective story. Plus given that I've literally reviewed stories about water-magic using elves in this review series, I don't think I'm going to be to picky on whether or not the technology is even possible. Ms. Teffaeu also does a good job of exploring Emery's complicated relationship with her employer and her fellow employees. In one sense they're her capturers, they have forced her into this job and cut her off from all contact with the outside world and she hates that. On the other side, they have taught her a wide variety of new skills and given her access to all sorts of new knowledge. On top of this her employers are fairly skilled in the use of carrot and stick. Promising her that if she follows the rules and provides good service that she will be allowed to recontact her friends and family. On top of that they provide a living to her parents disguised as a death benefit. On the flip side if she ever breaks the rules, she'll have her implant removed and be dumped in the Terrestrial District as a blacklisted Disconnect. They're even smart enough to have a handler who is mainly there to train her and look after her, so she has a sympathetic figure to serve as an authority figure. Her handler helps her deal with a couple of problems from before her conscription and giving her, among other things, closure. This is honestly a pretty good way to develop Stockholm Syndrome in an person. They feel they have reasons to be grateful and enjoy the work despite the fact that the only reasons they don't qualify as slave labor is that they’re paid and they are allowed to go free in 10 years. I suppose to be fair I should note that a good many of her coworkers are there voluntarily, having accepted an offer of secretive and dangerous but highly paid work. So Emery being a sort of highly paid hostage of sorts is not the norm for her employers and gives us a sense of just how rare her genotype is that they would resort to those methods.

Of course everything goes sideways when Emery is tapped for a super secret run with government data that goes bad. With unknown people trying to hijack the data (which means hijacking her) and her unable to tell who to trust, Emery has to go to ground. She must figure out who she can trust, what's she carrying and who would want this data so bad that they would kill for it. In the process she finds herself between an increasingly militant Disconnect movement determined to escape the city and an unknown conspiracy determined to control emergence into the new world. Can Emery figure out what she's carrying, why everyone is determined to get it out of her veins with or without her help and can she do so before the curdle kills her? You'll have to read to find out.

Much like The Windup Girl, there's a lot of Cyberpunk in Implanted but I do think it can be fairly called a Solarpunk story. It takes place in a world after climate change and the collapse of fossil fuels and focuses on a society trying to rebuild itself to live in greater harmony with a environment that it is slowly rebuilding after our modern abuses. There's a thread of hope that runs through the story and an idea of community as well as a sense of slowly pulling ourselves back from the brink. The story is told completely from Emery's point of view, thankfully she is an engaging and sympathetic character even as she navigates divided loyalties and tries to sort out her messy conflicting emotions about the situation that's she in. Which is fairly realistic; while I'm unaware of any corporations that make a habit of blackmailing people into doing very sensitive work, Ms. Teffaeu avoids the trap of making them too cruel or brutal to their workers. This is a solid work, especially for a first novel. That said the actual villains of the book get very little development. In fact almost no one gets a lot of development beyond Emery and the main supporting character Rik (which will often happen from an entirely personal perspective). The book was first conceived as young adult fiction and later made into an adult work and that shows a bit with Emery retaining a very young personality. It's not unreasonably young however (but seriously she went through college without a single boyfriend and only one friend she can name off the top of her head without her implant?). More work could have been done with the other couriers for example, as we know very little about them. On top of that Emery's training period seems ridiculously short as I got the impression that it was measured in weeks considering what she's being asked to do, months would seem a better time frame. Lastly, why have them fake their deaths? Why not just keep them undercover? That way they could do courier runs as part of their cover jobs and it would be one extra layer of security. The claim that it would protect their families and friends kinda fall flat because if someone figures out who the couriers are, the family members are still there to threaten, and it being a crowded city state, it's harder to hide that these people keep showing up even with the fact that the majority of the population is buried in the world of their implants and not paying attention, and couriers have means of defeating electronic surveillance. I feel like someone who knows about the existence of the business (of which there are a good number, since people pay them to run data for them!) could devote the resources to crack things open and then what? Even with that, Implanted by Lauren Teffeau rates a solid B and I really hope to see more of her in the future.

Welp that wraps up Solarpunk month... Wonder what I should next?

You did pick up a bunch of books at ComicCon...

Oh... Right. The books I bought at ComicCon... In May. I should read those... Now. So we're doing independent authors September! Starting with Fourteen by Colette Black! Keep Reading!

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 31, 2018 10:51 pm 
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Fourteen (The Number Prophecy)
By Colette Black


So during Phoenix ComicCo…*coughCOPYRIGHTcough* Oh right, San Diego went nuts.... So during Phoenix Comicfest 2018, I picked up a couple books that were either self published or small press. If you're interested in exploring books that don't have the approval of Random House (Someone bring back Teddy Roosevelt), events like this are a good place to try your luck. Just beware that anyone can self publish a book. Anyone. Ms. Black was born in the United States and has lived in the Philippines and Switzerland. She currently lives in the greater Phoenix area with her children, dogs and a cat; thus joining the ranks of writers who huddle beneath the merciless sun of this blasted land (It must be the spice. It’s everywhere. In the air, in the food...). Fourteen was published in 2015 with Ms. Black noting the idea came from her children constantly picking up rocks and bringing them home (in their defense Ms. Black, there is just something comforting about an interesting rock in your pocket). Let's take a look at this shall we.

Almost all the world rests under one roof (one world government, for clarification), under the rule of the self proclaimed divine emperor. All the world is organized and structured into ten castes. Each caste has their own responsibilities and duties; their own areas set aside where they can live. Specifically tailored education for the children of these caste ensures that every person knows exactly what they need to know to be a proper contributing member of society. If this sounds good to you, I'm going to have to suggest that you grab 1984 and give it another read. From his palace in the sacred city, the Emperor rules over all, dictating everything from the thrust of scientific research, the availability of goods and the mobility of the masses that he rules. He lives surrounded by his servants, advisers, concubines and sons, each son being a near mirror image of himself in his youth. To avoid confusion the boys are numbered instead of named, the number comes from their birth order. In this environment Fourteen, the 14th son of the emperor lives a life of luxury and constant struggle as he is locked in constant competition against his brothers for who will become the next emperor. You see, every couple of decades the Emperor retires, and in a mystic ceremony passes on his knowledge, wisdom, and connection to the Vasheri who are the gods of the people and supposedly dwell in the center of the earth. The competition grows urgent because the Emperor has announced that this year is the year of his retirement. So 14 strains himself to show every drop of strength, intelligence and craftiness he has. He also turns to his servant Aednat, a lovely young woman who sees him as a younger brother, and his mentor Master Den. Unfortunately to his view, neither Aednat or Master Den are really what you could call allies in this struggle, as they keep encouraging him to give up the idea of becoming Emperor and instead focusing on escape.

Escape is also on the mind of Mariessa. A low born subject of the Empire, she lives in constant battle to keep her stepfather's hands off of her and her life her own. Her real parents raised her with a unbroken sense of self worth and right and backed it up by training her in how to kill people with knives. Mariessa is going to need every scrap of skill and every drop of determination that she has, because her venal stepfather has decided to sell her off. Not to just anyone however but to the Emperor's Men themselves. In this case they’re not looking for just another concubine for the Emperor but a woman to bear the first son of the new Emperor. Mariessa has no desire for such an honor viewing it as slavery and frankly... She's not wrong. So she maneuvers, plots, fights, and runs every step of the way refusing to give up her attempts at escape even has she is dragged into the very palace itself by her curly dark hair.

It's when the competition ends and the winner is declared that everything goes bad. Mariessa, Aednat, Master Den and Fourteen himself are going to have to flee from fates worse than death from the very heart of imperial power. Their opponent is a madman who wields the power of the entire world and has lived entire life times. Against them are arrayed armies and in a way society itself. On their side is the lifetime of preparation that Master Den has made against this day; a network of angry citizens and officials from the highest levels of glittering society to the lowest dregs of civilization; some mysterious powers long thought extinct; and an ominous prophecy that predicts that the 13th son of the Emperor will be his doom.

I'd like to talk about prophecy, both specifically this one and in general for a moment.

For me this is the weakest part of the book and feels largely unnecessary. Part of that might be a general exhaustion with prophesy when it comes to fantasy stories. Prophesy stories tend to be real easy to screw up and there's also a chance of the prophecy draining all the tension out of your book. If everything is foreordained then why does anyone need to worry? There's the option of being “clever” in how you fulfill the prophecy but to be honest, most of these clever fulfillments aren't very clever. Ethier falling flat by twisting the prophecy around so much you might as well not have it, or just being unconvincing. Additionally, the prophecy just kinda makes the Emperor look... Well kinda dumb, which is another risk of these plots. I mean look if you had rock solid information that your 13th son would one day kill you... Why have a 13th son? For that matter why not limit yourself to 6 or 7 sons to ensure that there's a vast amount of wiggle room? Why even bother rolling that dice? There's no benefit to winning! So don't play! You're the Emperor of humanity! Just invest in some damn condoms and make sure you don't father any children you don't mean to. It's not that hard, billions of men have figured out how not to leave bastards behind and so can you! Of course our villain doesn't do that, he does the other plan where he murders an infant and the baby's mother for having the gall to give birth at the wrong moment. Look, even ignoring morality, any plan that includes “Let's murder the newborn child and it's mother” is a bad plan! Infanticide tends to create vastly more enemies than it removes and quite often you kill the wrong infant. Just ask King Herod and the Pharaoh from Exodus about that! When the Old Testament is pointing out that your plan has problems... It's time for a new plan! Ms. Black tries to get around this by not revealing the full prophecy until the end of the book, mostly just dropping a few lines here and there but anyone who's read older fantasy books (Like say... David Eddings) knows right away what we're dealing with. So for me at least the trick fell flat. It doesn't help that prophecy is in many ways overdone and frankly I think it's time to put that specific toy back in the toy box for a bit and let it rest.

That said, I do like the world the characters inhabit, even if I would never want to live there. In contrast to her leaning on prophesy, the world is very distinct and different from your bog standard fantasy world. While she has harvested some Asian influences here and there, Ms. Black has been content mostly to build something new. The Empire has a pre-WWII feel for its technology, but heavily impacted by the totalitarian government squatting on society. For example they have airplanes and cars, but due to the Emperor's decrees only the elite can actually have any access to them. Indoor plumbing is only common among the top levels of society because the Emperor and his administrators have no interest in improving the lot of the common man. Scientific research is slowed by the fact that every research project has to justify itself to a single all powerful authority whose only interest is in what will produce tangible benefits to him in the short-term. This is really brought home in a scene where the Emperor decides to suppress further airplane research (planes becoming cheaper and more powerful increases the chances of a rebel gaining access to a plane and causing damage, whereas the Empire has enough ground troops to win any confrontation it wants to) and research into atoms. I don't think I have to explain why suppressing the research into atoms made me laugh. It's a world where the elite have comfortable toilets, 20th century medicine and electric lights. The poor have to cart off lepers to death colonies and watch their children growing up half starved and illiterate. Ms. Black shows us exactly what a centralized state with complete control of industry and research looks like in these scenes and it's not pretty. Another interesting bit of the world are the heartstones. The soil has creatures called xicao that strip the body of all flesh rather quickly, this process leaves behind a small stone-like object called a heartstone. Traditionally the heartstone is presented to a loved one as a memorial to the lost one. Most of them simply generate light and are useful as long as you don't think to much about where they come from. A minority of heartstones do other things, like help you find a specific thing or person, or ensure that your children will look just like you or things even more strange or sinister.

Fourteen and Mariessa are the main characters of the book and they're both teenagers with a lot of growing to do. Both of them have a lot of baggage and preconceptions from their upbringing and prior experiences that they need to shake off. Along with learning how to deal with each other while avoiding being hunted down and murdered for daring to exist. Ms. Black handles this rather well, keeping the two fairly realistic but keeping either of them from getting to obnoxious so I only wanted to strangle them a few times in the book. Considering there are adults I want to straggle on a regular basis, this is well done. Especially given Fourteen's deep ignorance and classism. Master Den, while the older character and more settled in his ways is, on the edge of being consumed by a desire for revenge and chewing on old grudges and secrets. He's honestly the character we learn the least about in this story. Aedat mostly serves as the steadying influence of the group that everyone loves. Her main duty is keeping the group together and keeping them from killing each other until they learn to live and work together. Ironically given that she's barely into her 20s, she's the most mature character in the book. This includes the villains.

The big negatives for this book to me were the prophecy arc and the fact that some powers just seem to pop up out of nowhere, which a strange feeling of a lack of foreshadowing considering we're dealing with a fantasy revolving around a foretelling of the future. If you're going to have a character with secret magic powers, put in some build up. Additionally there were unnecessary plot elements (did we really need two palace escapes?) that ate up time that could have better used. Balancing against that, the characters of Fourteen and Mariessa are fairly well done and while they could use some more in-depth work, you get a good sense of what kind of people they are by the end of the book. The world is incredibly interesting, avoiding the fantasy traditions of NotEurope and the more recent one of NotJapan or NotChina. While there's a slight Pan-Asian feel to the Empire, there's enough variety of people and customs that it feels like a real world state inhabited by all kinds of people across the world. Ms. Black's strength is very much in the characters she creates and the world she allows them to inhabit. So I have hopes that any future books will be better. That said, I'm going to have to give Fourteen by Colette Black a C due to the plot issues. If prophesies and pacing issues don't bother you as much as they do me however the book is easily above average.

This Sunday, we bring in Joshua Simpson one of the co-writers of the Warpworld series to tell us a bit about worldbuilding. Join us next Friday for the review of The Warrior's Stone by Matthew O. Duncan. Keep Reading!

Red textis your editor, Dr. Ben Allen.
Black text is your reviewer, Garvin Anders.

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"it takes two sides to end a war but only one to start one. And those who do not have swords may still die upon them." Tolken


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PostPosted: Fri Sep 07, 2018 7:54 pm 
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The Warrior's Stone
Matthew O Duncan


Another book I bought at ComicFest 2018, The Warrior's Stone was self published in 2014 by Matthew O Duncan and reprinted in 2018 using Lulu. Lulu is a self publishing company that was founded in 2002 by Bob Young, who’s mostly known for founding the open source software company Red Hat. He founded Lulu after trying to get a book (titled Under the Radar) about his experiences founding Red Hat published and being frustrated with the experience. Lulu.com also takes steps to ensure that books published with them can be sold on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles.com and the Apple store if the writer applies for an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) which is free. Mr. Duncan also lives in the Phoenix area with his wife (Reviewed authors shall be part of the Fremen army that invades the state capitol during a giant Haboob. Long live the fighters of Mua’Dib!)

The Warrior's Stone takes place in the year 2319; humanity has expanded to the stars and met many other alien races. It even joined an interstellar alliance of races for peace and trade. For a long time humanity wasn't seen as an important member of the alliance and Earth was a backwater world which served as the capital for a minor race. Then, as you might have guessed, war happened. The Serken, a reptilian race of slaving war happy carnivores who think eating other species is fun and profitable attacked the alliance. The Alliance promptly... Kinda feel apart and it was up to humanity and a number of other races to pull together and fight off the monsters. It's taken decades and hundreds of millions if not billions of deaths and billions if not trillions of tons of materials reduced to burning wreckage in the void, but the war is turning in the favor of the alliance. As the Serken struggle to build new ships and weapon platforms to offset the Alliance's logistical and industrial advantages, the Alliance plans an attack into the home system of the Serken to cripple their war-making ability and force a final peace. Roy O'Hara, widower, fighter pilot, and squadron leader operating from the Alliance Carrier T.S.S Phoenix leads his squadron in an ambush to destroy one of those new ships; a Super Destroyer with a main cannon capable of wrecking anything it hits in a single shot (We need to sit down with scifi writers and have a chat about ship classifications). There doesn't seem to be a lot of those around however so if his fighters can take it out before the invasion, that's a major piece off the board. The problem being that the Serken know that too and while they're savage and fairly monstrous, they ain't stupid.

Meanwhile, on the pleasant planet of New Terra, the Princess Katreena is in mourning. Her husband George and her father were killed in a freak accident and while she misses her husband George, it's her father she really mourns. Her marriage was an arranged one and while George was respectful, kind, and friendly, he was also away regularly visiting another girl from a relationship prior to their marriage. Katreena's father the King on the other hand was someone close to Katreena, especially since her mother passed away working as a healer during a plague. Princess Katreena herself is a healer, due to being able to use the magical healing stones. There are a number of different stones with different powers, healing stones, which can be used mostly by the women of the the eleven royal families, can heal physical injury, pain, and illness. There is a cost in that the healer ends up taking on some of that pain, which means repeated use can weaken or even kill the user. Warrior Stones are mostly used by the men of the royal families to generate energy blasts that can be used as weapons. There are also prophecy stones which means... We're looking at a prophecy story... Again. Anyway, while Princess Katreena still has remaining family in her Uncle and her Aunt, who have become King and Queen, she is left without anyone she can confide in as her position isolates her in a lot of ways. Although I am left wondering why she doesn't have a favorite servant or a fellow noble woman she can talk to. There don't seem to be a lot of nobles around honestly but there are some that show up in the book. Frankly it seems odd to me that Katreena doesn't have a single friend her own age but that's not impossible. As a result of the stress Katreena decides to sneak off to an out of the way cottage that her father maintained, where he and his family could go and pretend to not to be royals (historically a number of folks have done this) and no one else knows where it is. I have a harder problem believing that part honestly. If the King is the only one who can make certain decisions, people kinda have to know where he is. I mean if the kingdom starts burning down while he's pretending to be peasant and no one knows where he is... What then?

These two very different settings are about to collide as Roy O'Hara is forced to crash land on New Terra after chasing a Serken fighter bomber (FTL doesn't seem to take much space or energy in this setting as you can fit it into a single-man craft) into the system during battle. His ship is pretty banged up but repairable due to him having repair drones that basically make replacement parts as long as they have metal (the implications of his repair drones being basically Von Neumann probes is never really gotten into. [Hi! For those of you who don’t know what a Von Neumann Probe is, they are self-replicating machines that are capable of exponential growth {That means the more of them there are, the faster they can make more}. Basically, a drone capable of producing advanced technology for a spacecraft can in principle make more of themselves unless their programming is somehow constrained. This capability, if turned on accidentally or on purpose, could lead to the exponential growth of those probes and the eventual conversion of all matter within travel distance into more probes.]) but more importantly is the fact that Roy is grievously injured in the crash and metaphorically left at death's door (you ever notice that death doesn't open his door all that often? [Not in fiction, anyway.]). In a more literal sense he's left at Katreena's door and in an effort to preserve his life she is forced to break out the big stones, the Boto Stone, which is a special type of healer's stone with a lot more mojo than your standard magic rock. It does have a side effect however of “soul bonding” the healer and the healee to the point that they can share dreams and sometimes even memories. I'm sure that my readers know where we're going with this. Roy and Katreena start sharing dreams, memories and more... Intimate moments. Katreena, realizing what's going on, decides that the responsible thing to do is to break contact. She takes Roy to a nearby settlement once he's stable and runs home. It's a bit too late for that, as she finds out when she gets home and using the magical rock pregnancy test finds out that she's expecting, which results in her promptly panicking.

It's here that we get the major world building, we find out that New Terra is ruled by eleven royal families, all descended from eleven people who were able to use the magic rocks to throw off their alien enslavers. You see, the people of New Terra are all descended from a Scottish village that was kidnapped about 1500 years ago to use as slave labor to mine the magic rocks (Oh god, the background inbreeding. There’s a reason Icelanders have an app!). After kicking out the aliens and shooting up their spaceships with really big magic rocks called land stones (these things also grant extra sensory information so you can see targets in interstellar space and shoot them down, if you know where to look). Afterwards these eleven people set themselves as kings and queens, created their kingdoms, and begin setting up rules. Now, the rules start to make sense when you consider what’s going on. The power of the royal families is completely dependent on being able to use the magic rocks, no one else is supposed to be able to. The ability seems to have a genetic component, as it is passed down from parent to child. The Royal Families have adopted strict rules on sexual relationships, flat out banning sex outside of marriage (with even Royal Heirs being branded and banished if they're found doing so) and a number of rules dictating who royals can marry. Mostly the children of royals, or nobles who tend to be distant relatives of royals (Oh. My. God. After 1500 years, approximately 60 generations of introgression - serial inbreeding - they would all basically be clones, there would be no heterozygosity left, they’d have no immune system and they’d be completely incapable of successful reproduction because every single embryo would have more recessive lethals than you can shake a stick at. The Spanish Habsburgs have absolutely nothing on this shit, even the Targaryens have a healthier genome! Hell, out-crossing to other families won’t even help, because they’re all inbred to hell and back too from just the small population size. Her brother would be identical to her….brother-cousin-husband and he’d be deformed. Stillbirths, so many fucking stillbirths. It’s a miracle the society hasn’t collapsed under its own Arkansanian weight!). Roy being from an entirely different planet doesn't qualify and Katreena is beside herself, thinking her only shot is to jump into another marriage and claim the kid is from her new husband.

Now I can understand why Katreena would be frantic about this and frankly I don't blame her for the whole thing with Roy, as the sex happened during a walking-dream when she wasn't entirely in her right mind (neither was Roy) and she had no idea what the consequences would be. I don't blame her for deciding to lie about it because... The alternative is anything from being flogged and banished to having a massive X branded on her face and banished. That said... Her husband George died three weeks ago. Wouldn't it be a hell of a lot easier to just claim it was George's kid? (Ironically enough, no, because the kid would look very much like someone else’s kid! Really she’s screwed either way!) I mean if they have magic that would prevent you from doing that, wouldn't it prevent you from passing the kid off as her new husbands? Sure the kid may be born a bit late (and not suspiciously Quasimodoesque) but that happens fairly often. Is it dishonest? Yes, but so is marrying another dude and telling him that the kid is his! At least this way you minimize the people you have to lie to and the harm you do. For that matter, what do you think George was doing the whole time visiting his ex-girlfriend? This whole plotline just comes off as unnecessary to give Katreena something to fret over and have a conflict that she needs to resolve. If you realize the solution that I did, it has the side effect of making Katreena look like an idiot on top of that. I don't think that was Mr. Duncan's intention but there is it. (And yet, it is realistic. Assuming she survived being an embryo and a fetus, and then somehow doesn’t die from ‘not having a functional immune system’ and not being physically deformed, chances are she’d be as dumb as a box of rocks! This plot line makes an unintentional but huge amount of sense.)

Thankfully this isn't the only conflict in the book. The Serken find New Terra and send troops looking for their lost pilot. Roy finds himself pulled into a new theater of war, as he has to convince the kings of New Terra to follow him against the alien invaders and push them off the world. He is aided in this by a... Of course... A prophecy proclaiming the aliens would come again and a Commander from elsewhere would appear to lead the armies of the kings. Not everyone is happy to see Roy because the prophecy also promises the kingdoms will fall. I'm not going to repeat my rant on prophecies I think most of you got the gist of it in the last review. I will say that the prophecy in this book brings the story down, often being used by characters to resolve problems and avoid conflict. This robs the book of suspense and makes the solutions feel a bit cheap. It's prophecy that causes the Kings give him command for example and is used to slap down every challenge to his authority. I don't think that was Mr. Duncan's intention but it's hard to avoid when you make a prophecy front and center of your plot.

The story is well paced and bringing these two settings together under a single roof is rather difficult, which makes it interesting that Mr. Duncan would set such a tall task for what is as far as I can tell, his first book. There are a number of first book problems; the dialogue is overly formal and at parts a bit stilted. Mr. Duncan also has a tendency to tell the reader things instead of showing them. We are told Roy's emotional states rather then shown them, we are told about problems in the Alliance rather then shown them and how they're impacting the story. I'll admit this can be a problem because if you want to focus on say, a single confrontation taking place on a out-of-the-way planet, how do you show the problems in an interstellar alliance? Another thing is we don't meet any of the allied aliens. In fact the only aliens we really see are the Serken and if it wasn't for their advanced tool use I wouldn't be sure they were sapient. I also have problems with elements of the setting; for example, why would you spend the time and effort to kidnap a small Scottish village to do your mining when it would be easier and cheaper to just build robots? Plus non-sapient robots don't use magic rocks to rebel against you and can work longer without rest periods. New Terra's society works alright and Roy is a very believable and interesting character, he's a full grown man who while carrying a heavy loss (the death of his wife) is able to function and have friendships and develop goals for the future. Katreena was less impressive to me and I'm not sure Roy would be all that interested in her without the influence of a magic rock. This damages my ability to buy into their relationship, which is one of the big plots of the book. To be honest in each scene that they were together in, I wasn't really sold on Roy's feelings for Katreena and was left wondering how much of that was actually them vs the rock (Maybe intentional?). I do have to give Mr. Duncan points for aiming high and trying to tell an original story but I think another draft or two would have been very helpful. I have to give The Warrior's Stone by Matthew Duncan a C-.

Alright, next week, we're giving Colette Black another shot with Noble Ark. This Sunday join us as Kristene Perron discusses her take on worldbuilding. Keep Reading!

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 09, 2018 3:47 pm 
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From One World, Many
By Kristene Perron


One of the most frequent comments I receive as a speculative fiction author is, “Where do you get those crazy ideas?” My response could easily be, “Have you seen our world?” Worldbuilding is one of my favourite parts of the writing process because there is so much source material to draw on.

The natural world is a treasure chest of weird, scary, and positively puzzling creatures and behaviours. Consider the Acanthaspis petax, a member of the Assassin Bug (Reduviidae) family, found in East Africa and Malaysia. This clever little psychopath injects ants with a paralysis-inducing saliva and a venom that dissolves the ant’s innards, then piles the exoskeletons (up to 20!) onto its back and glues them together with a sticky excretion. Hidden under its victims’ bodies, Acanthaspis petax can move around freely and enjoy protection from spiders (spiders are reluctant to attack ants because they swarm). Now, imagine this Assassin Bug on a bigger scale, make it intelligent and sapient, give it language and culture, give it bigger and more intelligent prey and predators and, voila, you have yourself a race of creepy aliens.

The human world is no less fascinating.

When Joshua Simpson and I sat down to hash out details of our co-authored Warpworld series, we frequently drew upon human history and culture as a guide. Our different backgrounds were an excellent jumping off point for discussions of gender, nationality, politics, religion, colonization, and other issues that thread through our story. Though our books are not set on earth, all the problems and challenges our characters face have happened right here at home.

Conflict is the heart of fiction and nowhere is conflict more apparent and volatile than between cultures. Even countries that share a border and a language can hold wildly differing views and the farther you travel from home the more striking these differences can become.

In 1992, like so many other English speakers with a desire to travel, I moved to Japan and taught conversational English. Never before, nor since, have I encountered a culture with such a complex and rigid set of rules for social etiquette. My employer once laughed as she recounted a joke she had played on a visiting Canadian friend. According to Japanese custom, however you are greeted, you must follow the same level of protocol. If someone bows to you with a simple nod of the head, you do the same. If they bow deeply, you bow deeply. My boss’s Canadian friend, having been made aware of this and wanting to make a good impression, dutifully got down on hands and knees in several public locations to return the ultra-formal bows offered to him by Mrs. Kakegawa’s friends, who were, of course, all in on the prank. And while that particular cultural anecdote is humorous she also told me about how she was forced by her family to break off a happy relationship with the man she loved because of a supposedly long-dead caste system, a concept that was barbaric to my Canadian way of thinking but was completely normal to her.

Travel is an excellent tool for worldbuilding, but you don’t need to travel to the other side of the world to build an alien culture, you only need to look in the mirror. What are your customs, beliefs, superstitions, celebrations, rituals, etc, and where did they originate? Why do we shake hands when we meet someone new? Why do we knock on wood for luck? Why do we put trees inside our house and decorate them with lights in December? What would an alien with no prior knowledge of earth or humanity assume about us by these actions? At its heart, building new worlds is how we create a lens to look at our own without the biases of our geography and culture.

Thanks for listening and if you’d like a peek at how Josh and I built our warped worlds, you can pick up a free copy of Warpworld Vol. 1 anywhere fine ebooks are sold or visit www.warpworld.ca.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2018 9:55 pm 
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Noble Ark
By Colette Black


Like Fourteen, I picked up Noble Ark at Comicfest 2018 in Phoenix. I've already discussed that and our author in that review that was all of two weeks ago, so let's just into it.

In the far future, humanity has fled Earth and settled on the planet Saeana. They rebuilt civilization and branched outward meeting a number of alien species, engaging in trade and diplomatic relations with most of them. However, things went bad when the Mwalgi, depending on who you believe, either started attacking humans for their Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) or asked the government of Saeana for CSF and started attacking when their request was refused. In the twenty years since, marauding Mwalgi pirates have hunted human merchants ships across the civilized systems. When they find a human ship, they attack, board it and kill everyone they find by draining them dry of CSF (WHY!? Seriously why!? These are advanced space-faring aliens, surely they have discovered the miracle of genetically modified bacteria that are capable of making human CSF in mass production vats like we do fucking insulin!). Among the victims of these bluntly brutal attacks were the family of Aline Taylor our main character, but let's talk about the Mwalgi and the war first.

The Mwalgi have a number of physical advantages. They are stronger and tougher than human beings, have fangs and built in talons capable of cutting through a wide variety of materials. On top of that their skins are covered by heavy scales that are even resistant against a great number of the weapons humanity possess. The Mwalgi appear to avoid large scale attacks and confronting human military ships, at the same time it seems that the human fleet isn't strong enough to attack the Mwalgi home world. So human merchant ships have become the main field of battle. A series of agreements enforced by a number of other alien races forces the Mwalgi to limit themselves to single ship raids on merchants and to not attack humans in certain areas marked off limits. The details aren't gone into, but from what is said, it seems the other aliens were mostly interested in keeping the war off their territory and ships while maintaining the benefits of trade with humanity and not having to get involved (... What the fuck? No, seriously what the fuck? “Well Mwalgi, we can’t have you draining ALL the humans, we like their trinkets. So we’re only going to let you drain still-living fellow sapient beings of their CSF under sustainable harvest quotas”.) The war was frankly bloody but humanity has managed to slowly shift the tide through series of social, tactical, and technological adaptations. First is the creation of private military contractors, who actually serve as training beds for the military as well a good place to stick a junior officer you want to gain combat experience rapidly. They deploy aboard human merchant ships which are now built on vast scales to make carrying large crews profitable. Humans have also adapted tactics to draw Mwalgi, who are often driven half mad by the scent of humans into prepared ambush zones, with the ships themselves being built according to these tactics. Lastly is the adoption of acid guns, by which I don't mean ‘melt your bones’ acid but something closely related to the drug Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, aka LSD. The weapons in question fire pellets or darts small and sharp enough to penetrate the scales of a Mwalgi killer. While if you or I (I assume that all my audience is human) would experience a hallucinogenic trip if we were hit, the chemicals are nearly instantly toxic to the Mwalgi resulting in a painful and messy death. For bonus points they even figured out how to configure the acid guns into pretty good melee weapons for when you run out of ammo. So the killing doesn't have to stop simply because there's more Mwalgi then you have acid. Which as you can imagine suits most humans just fine.

Aline Taylor is definitely one of those humans, as I mentioned earlier she lost her entire family in a particularly violent Mwalgi assault that she witnessed at a young age (Holy PTSD, Batman!). This left her with a pathological (No no, it is entirely justified and normal. Granted it is also probably PTSD...) hatred of the Mwalgi and a desire to make killing them her life's work. She's gotten off to a good start having focused on making a military career with the kind of obsessive focus you don't see in sane people. However she's too young to get into the military academy and rather then calmly wait for nature to take its course, she's looking to force her way in. Preferably by creating a vast ramp of Mwalgi corpses to walk over to the admissions board. I have to admit I admire her focus on a certain level even if I'm a bit terrified by her laundry list of psychological issues. To Ms. Black's credit, she doesn't spend a lot of time dressing up Aline as some sort of perfect soldier, but as a damaged and in some ways frail individual who happens to be pretty good at xenocide. That said I wouldn't bring someone like Aline into the field if I had any choice in the matter, since people like that eventually break and tend to do so in an very dramatic fashion (There is that, yes). Until she faces her issues and comes to terms with them, she's basically a time bomb only the timer doesn't have numbers on it, it has animals and you have to figure out if she'll explode at half past octopus or a quarter to sparrow. Again Ms. Black confronts this by having her authority figures be painfully aware of this and constantly pushing Aline to do healthy things, like have non-murder hobbies and get therapy, with actual therapists (I’d recommend MDMA assisted psychotherapy and ALL the anti-depressants!). Course our next main character is going to force the issue by virtue of his existence, let's talk about him.

Larkin Travgar is a Mwalgi, sort of. He claims to have a Saeana mother and a Mwalgi father, which makes him half human. Now as my editor will explain, in painful depth if I let him, this is impossible (*Screams into the void*). The medical and science characters of the book agree with this being impossible, pointing out that the Mwalgi evolved on an alien world and even have a different number of chromosome pairs then humans (Okay, that doesn’t even scratch the surface. Different chromosome pairs might not even be that bad provided there is at least one copy and no recessive lethals that get unmasked by only having the one copy. No no. The problem comes in gene regulation, particularly in morphogenesis, and nuclear-mitochondrial incompatibilities that make cellular respiration impossible.) All that said, Larkin, or Lars for short, exists and clearly combines human and Mwalgi physical characteristics. This isn't explained in the book, but given that it's the first book of a series, I'm willing to give that a pass. While I demand a complete story, that doesn't mean you have to explain everything, some plot elements can be left to be resolved in future books. Due to his hybrid nature, Lars doesn't crave CSF but was drafted by his government and basically thrown onto a pirate ship and told to murder people. He instead saves Aline during a raid and murders a bunch of his own crew members. This leads to an awkward situation, as Aline hates Lars due to him being... Well Mwalgi but admits that she owes him her life and has a debt. So she repeatedly puts herself on the line to ensure Lars fair and just treatment despite her dislike of him. It doesn't help that Lars is a very likable sort on his own, he's honestly more mature then Aline, fair minded and even charming in his own rough way. Which sets us up for the main conflict of the book... The love triangle.

The love triangle (well to be fair it's not a triangle but I'll get into that) involves a third character, David Blake. Blake is pretty, charming, an accomplished soldier with the private contractors and from a wealthy and powerful military family. David Blake is also utterly toxic as a person, being a manipulative, controlling, entitled little shit of a man. This is illustrated in his relationship with Yone, another crew member who has the bad taste to fall in love with David. He's perfectly happy to use Yone’s talents to try and manipulate Aline and when Aline isn't available he's perfectly happy to sleep with Yone, all while giving Aline the impression that he wants an exclusive relationship with her.

Meanwhile Lars is undergoing a physical change as he starts basically imprinting on Aline, as the Mwalgi have physiological process that basically lock them into a single monogamous relationship for life. I'll come back to that but the takeaway is that Lars is in love with Aline. Aline is somewhat confused as she has a mountain of hate, fear and resentment for Lars’ species, but Lars himself is attractive to her. This puts Lars into the archetype of the monster boyfriend, other examples are Edward Cullen (or Jacob) from Twilight, Beast from Beauty and the Beast (so many versions that I don't have time to list them) and you've likely thought of half a dozen examples by now yourself, gentle reader. To be honest most of the monster girlfriend characters I've run into are from Japanese sources, either books or anime (Ryoko from the grandfather of all harem anime Tenchi Muyo comes to mind). Basically the Monster boy/girlfriend is physically powerful (often supernaturally so) and dangerous, often with fangs, talons or claws to serve as an example of their dangerousness. They are usually from a larger group that are considered predatory towards normal humans (vampires, werewolves, aliens who drink our spinal fluid, you get the idea) but this specific individual is either through voluntarily means or outside circumstances rendered safe for the hero or heroine. They are also usually shown as devoted beyond the human norm to their human love interest to the point of fighting a large list of dangerous enemies for the safety and well being of their human love interest. Most of the time, the human love interest is rendered helpless, in order to highlight the power and savagery that the monster boy/girlfriend is capable of. I will say that Aline is a better protagonist than most, being a capable and accomplished fighter, willing and able to pursue her own agenda. So bonus points there. Additionally, there are a wide number of situations in the book that would normally result in angst and drama that are solved by people talking out their problems like adults. Unless it involves David, who for pretty much the vast majority of the book makes such a pain of himself that I find myself asking what most of the other characters are asking, what the hell does Aline see in him beyond his pretty face and officer tabs? I'm not a fan of love triangles as the main plot honestly and in this case I was more interested in the war and exploring the societies of the humans and Mwalgi that have formed in response to a two-decade struggle for survival. David doesn't help this, as frankly the best love triangles are ones where you can at least see the virtues in everyone involved and realize why this is a difficult choice. In this, you're just waiting for David to screw up badly enough that Aline realizes what he is and gives him the boot.

My big struggle this review is objectively reviewing a book that tells a story other then the one I want. That's not Ms. Black fault. There are plenty of readers who would roll their eyes at any story I would write in this universe of hers and would vastly prefer her own work. The world building is interesting, although Ms. Black does attempt several time to make the struggle between humans and Mwalgi morally grey by suggesting that the human government was approached peacefully to provide CSF to the Mwalgi but refused. So the Mwalgi marched to war. The problem here is that after discussing this with several biologist I know... Well first while there are differences in the CSF of us and say... cows? They're not huge differences. Second, any chemical in CSF can be created in a lab, in large amounts. So while the Mwalgi might not have the technology to do so (technology that I am assured that 21st century earth has) there are plenty of other alien powers out there that do (Including us! You go up to any government asking if you can harvest their citizens they’ll say no. Ask if that government can make something to sell you? Sure!). So why hasn't anyone tried to tap this vast market and reap the economic and political benefits of having Mwalgi in hock to them? Why haven't the Mwalgi pursued this technology? Why would I believe that anyone has a right to my spinal fluid and why would I feel bad for people who will murder children violently for it? Given that there are two other books in the series that likely have those answers I don't want to throw too many rocks there. As it is possible that those questions are answered in those books. But it does undercut a lot of the good work she did in worldbuilding here. Because as long as you can accept the premise of alien pirates coming for our precious bodily fluids, everything else makes sense and is great work! The LSD guns are incredibly imaginative and I love the idea. The small touches of life in a merchant ship built to serve as a death trap to invading aliens are very well done. The characters are very believable as functional adults, they talk out their problems, they plan ahead, etc. So I'm just going to say if you're a fan of monster boy or girlfriends and of romances with love triangles, then this book is likely for you. If you're not? Skip this one. I'm giving Noble Ark by Colette Black a C+, but if you're into the plot I've outlined, then it's going to reach up into the B tier.

You know, I think it's time to break out the big guns of independent authors. Next week, Brute Force by K.B. Spangler. Keep reading!

As always red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders.

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"it takes two sides to end a war but only one to start one. And those who do not have swords may still die upon them." Tolken


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PostPosted: Sun Sep 16, 2018 4:20 pm 
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Review Sidebar: Worldbuilding by Max Florschutz

Hey all! My name is Max Florschutz, and I'm the author of a couple of Science-Fiction and Fantasy books you might have heard of, like Colony and the more recent Shadow of an Empire. Today I'm going to talk a little about worldbuilding.

I love it. I'm just going to open with that. Part of the experience of opening up a book is discovering a new world to get lost in. Seeing all its nooks and corners, figuring out how all the pieces stick together, and discovering fantastic places or people. As an author that makes one of my primary responsibilities to the reader to make those people and places come to life. To give them dimension, depth, and character. For characters, sure, that's a given ... but in many books, the world in which the story takes place is just as much an important "character" as the characters themselves are. Shadow of an Empire wouldn't feel the same, for example, without the harsh desert landscape that the protagonists journey through (and sometimes battle against). Colony wouldn't be the same without the world of Pisces that much of its story takes place on, complete with its people, culture, and unique requirements for living there.

So it is with just about any other story. A setting really does matter: A good setting can be the difference between an okay story, and a great one. I like to use video games a lot as examples, mostly because they're so visual they're an easy bridge, but if you look at standout games such as Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime, or even the first Halo, one similarity you'll notice between them is that the world they take place in leaves an impression on the player. The village in Resident Evil 4, for example, oozes atmosphere and contributes heavily to the tone of the game's opening areas. Now, I'm not here to talk about games, rather books, but the illustrating principle remains the same: the setting, IE the world in which your story takes place, can leave a vast, massive impression on the reader. The more sense this world makes, and the more it fits together ... the better off your story will be.

Now, a lot of different writers and creators go about achieving this "togetherness" a lot of different ways, but the point of this sidebar is for me to share my methods and what matter most to me, as well as how I sit down and work out that process. And for me, the process of building a world for the characters to inhabit is one of the most important and early parts of the process, because that world will shape everything the characters do and say.

On a side note, this is why some "epic" books out there come off flat: Their world is generic, and therefore the characters actions and reactions, no matter how well-written, don't have much to play off of. Think of it like a pinball table: A good player (character, for a story) can "succeed" on any table, even if it's just a flat surface with a few bumpers and the flippers, but a good pinball table? It has bumpers, ramps ... all sorts of bits of scenery and mechanics for the player to interact with. And yes, that last bit is important enough to warrant a highlight. "Poor" pinball tables are often explained as those where the elements are just flashy and for show, or don't interact with one another. The great ones? All those elements of the table don't just provider interaction with the player, but the can interact with one another as well. For example, bouncing off of a series of bumpers to end up on a ramp that sends the player to another part of the table—the player has to interact with the bumpers first to get to the other elements, usually with some sense of skill (or dumb luck).

So, when I sit down to work on a story? The world had better be one of the first things I look at, because it's going to be something that directs and interacts with the characters on all levels.

For example, the first thing I did with Shadow of an Empire was work out the magic system. I sat down and built on the initial idea I had (gifted folks who can absorb and then emit the basic forms of energy), writing out the different kinds of energy at their disposal, and how an individual used their powers. From there, though, I wasn't done. In fact, just laying out what the powers were was barely half a job. I next had to sit down and say "Okay, we have people that can absorb and emit heat energy. How would this change the society in which these powers were discovered? How long ago were they discovered?" From there I worked backward and forward, reaching into the past (Where did these powers come from? When did they first arise, and how did people react?) and into the "future" (How would culture look if these powers had been around for several hundred years or longer? How would people refer to them? What would religion think? What would science think?).

Why start there? Because such a system would change the world, which meant it was going to be one of the most important things that shaped the world I was about to write. For example, a culture in which people can absorb and emit heat would sidestep some of the problems of creating steam engines, such as a high-energy fuel source—which meant that steam power was going to rule the world I created, and be a bit more capable and important than steam power in our world ever was (as well as hang on longer over alternatives). Likewise, since this heat was so important, cities would likely spring up around areas with access to heat in addition to other things ... Which lead to the capital city of the Indrim Empire being founded on a host of geothermal springs for that readily available heat energy (Just toss your heat-absorbing employee in a hot spring for a few hours!).

However, I didn't stop with the big changes. As I sat and worked out the larger pieces (the Indrim Empire, its history, how people reacted to the gifted, etc), I also started working out smaller, more down-to-earth details. Culture and clothing, for example. Folks who can absorb light through their skin and emit it later, for example, are going to want to wear clothing that protects but also exposes a larger amount of their skin to light. People that can control that visible emission are probably going to create "art" with it (and then there were light-dancers). People who can absorb sound will be in high demand by those who don't want to be overheard, or even by those who just want to keep something loud quiet.

And it didn't stop. I came up with slang names for each type of gifted, sometimes more than just a few. And in figuring out how these gifts changed the society of the world I was building, I was able to answer other questions about the world as well. Government, religion, markets ... the list goes on.

Was all of this important? Well, yeah! It outlined the world that the characters lived in, the world that they interacted with and were acted upon on a daily basis. Greater steam power meant that steam trains were the lifeblood of this empire. Roads between towns? Not as much of importance, at least in outskirt areas of the civilization. The presence of that magic also meant that their steam trains could be much larger and more powerful than ours. And is that important to the story?

Well ... yeah. It was. Not only as an element of the setting, but the characters themselves took trips aboard the trains, traveled on them, and even faced death on them. They interacted with them.

Pisces (from Colony) was a similar situation where worldbuilding was concerned. I had to sit down and ask a whole host of questions, from logical applications of the technology present in the story to how people living on Pisces would find solutions to certain problems. Sands, or even what those problems might be. Extrapolation, in other words. How is this fixed? What could someone else do with that? Etc, etc, etc. Again, there was a whole host of things to consider with how sweeping differences could occur, or what they were.

Oh, and did I mention the research? Yeah, research plays a big part in this. I won't go into details, but a lot of this development often involves sitting down and reading/looking up information on whatever it is I'm creating. For example, the jump drives used by the subs in Colony actually stem from a real-world "supercavitation drive" technology that involves ... well, exactly what it was in the story: Use of an electrical field to create low-drag vacuum bubbles around something. In the real world thus far, that has meant torpedoes that surpass speeds of 320 KPH. Sometimes worldbuilding has meant digging into real-world approaches, events, and people to see how similar problems were dealt with or solved. Can an old-world solution to long-distance communication, for example, work in a new way within what I'm working on? It may seem like an odd question, but in Shadow of an Empire, there is a mention of a group of folks experimenting with shockers' electrical talents to send electrical signals down lengths of wire ...

Which, by the way, is a one-off line in the book, but was there for another reason other than just "I thought of this." It was there to make the world feel organic. Which leads into this next part of what I do ... After I've got the big stuff figured out (like the magic, and how that changed the society, and the history), I start thinking about the important small stuff. One of the key ones?

Money. No joke, with Shadow I sat down and wrote a whole system out. Why? Because part of worldbuilding is the small details, the little tiny ones that we all know of but don't always acknowledge ... until they're missing.

Money? That's a small detail ... but think about how much of a day to day life can revolve around money. How it's used, who uses it ... even how to pay for a sandwich.

If that still seems odd to you, think about it this way. When was the last time you commented to a friend about their lunch, and they replied "Yes, I bought it with money!"

Seem weird? That's because it is. Most folks don't talk like that. If they tell you how much it was worth, it'll likely be something like "Yeah, and it was only like four bucks!"

Spot the slang is in that last sentence? If you're thinking "bucks" then you're right. "Bucks" is slang for "US dollars." Now how many of you have read a book where a detail-oriented character simply says 'I gave the waiter some money to cover my meal" or something similarly vague? I've noticed it before. The issue there is that the one doing the worldbuilding didn't think of the small but important details in their world, like cash.

Think of it as the difference between a picture of a scene that doesn't move, and a video of a scene where the flowers gently sway back and forth in the breeze. One feels more real than the other. Similarly, the small details of worldbuilding can go a long way. In my Being a Better Writer articles, I've sometimes referred to this as 'remembering the butterflies near the flowers.' A character that says 'Give 'em five bucks" to pay for information feels a little bit more real than a character that says "give them their money" because readers use money on a daily basis. Even if the form of currency isn't quite the same, just having the characters stay consistent with it can really ground a reader in a story.

In summation? I work out all the big, large pieces of the world first, but then after that I sit down and poke at all the details to make sure they all line up with one another, or at the very least exist beforehand so that if they do come up in my story, rather than panicking and making something up on the spot that feels "rough" by comparison, I can simply nod, check my notes, and then roll right on with my story. I have the large bits, and the small bits, and if I've done my job right, they'll come together without grinding against one another (unless, you know, that's part of the plot).

And again, this stuff isn't window dressing. It's not flashy lights that the characters just walk past. The characters live in the world I build, which means that the story, their day-to-day actions ... all of it will be shaped by it. Amacitia Varay is a serial killer that uses her power over sound to hunt and deceive her victims, and likewise the peacekeepers responsible for hunting her use their own powers (as well special tools just for dealing with gifted criminals). The city around them is shaped by these powers. And they make choices based on that city (that holds true for Colony as well, but with science and location rather than magic powers).

Okay, this is getting long (though it is my process), so I'm going to wrap this up with a final point to make: I've had some that aren't writers say that my worldbuilding process sounds too detailed, like too much work. Some even say it's "wasted time I could spend writing."

I disagree, obviously. My rebuttal would be this: If I weren't using what I spent so much time worldbuilding, then yes, it would be wasted time. If I wasn't using my worldbuilding to shape the story, wasn't putting it into effect? Yeah, no disagreement.

But that's not what happens. Instead, I spend a good amount of time (usually a week or so) working out all these details, big and small, about the world. Then, when I drop my characters into this setting, they can interact with it, be shaped by it, shape it in turn, etc etc etc, because it's all already there. There aren't any "blank" spots in the setting that stump the story, because even if things bounce in a new direction, I still have all the tools and elements that shaped the rest of the world to work off of. And what results ... well, it's a world that feels real, from the characters to the setting. It feels like a place that could exist.

That's a win for me and my readers.

A quick summary, just as a recap: The world and setting can be as much a character for the reader as the characters. What's more, they should both act on the characters and be acted upon by them, rather than just be there. I worldbuild by starting with the biggest elements, such as magic or an underwater planet, and extrapolate what sort of "world" would come from those elements. I also work out the tiny details, like money. The little stuff. I do research!

And then? I get to writing, and bring that world to life.



If you liked the sound of what you read here, feel free to swing by my site, Unusual Things, and check out Being a Better Writer, a weekly series on ... well, it's not a misnomer. Writing tips, advice, and so on. Plus books, some of which have been reviewed by Frigidmagi!

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 21, 2018 9:49 pm 
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Brute Force
By K.B. Spangler


Ms. Spangler lives in North Carolina with her husband Brown and her many dogs. Among her hobbies is struggling with the upkeep of a famous American poets house when she's not laboring to write and draw her webcomic. K.B. Spangler is one of the more successful independent authors I've had on this review series. Her first novel was published in 2013, Digital Divide (feel free to check out my review on that) was set in the same universe as A Girl and her Fed. In the five years since she’s published seven more books and a graphic novel; along with a number of short stories. With the exception of Stoneskin (which I reviewed back in October of 2017) they're all set in the universe of a Girl and her Fed. There are spoilers so I'm not going to cover everything but let me give you the basic setup if you haven't read the other reviews.

Right after 9/11, everyone was in shock and the average member of the civil service community were horrified at what happened on their watch and desperate for ways to ensure it would never happen again. In the following year a wealthy businessman would offer the government an exciting new technology that would allow government agents to exchange information and coordinate on a level that couldn't be matched. All it would require is massively invasive brain surgery and a lifelong commitment on the part of the agents, so you know, nothing too big. They approved the program and used 500 volunteers from across the civil service. The agents in question were from everywhere, IRS, FBI, the military, CIA, etc. They received a cybernetic implant that basically connected their brains not just to the internet but gave them the ability to access any electronic device capable of being communicated with, even if it didn't typically have networking capability. Of course dealing with all of that would be overwhelming so an ever-so-helpful interface was added, it would appear as a cartoon version of President George W Bush. The interface proceeded to drive the agents insane (readers feel free to insert their own political joke here [Can I? Please?! There are so many!]). The powers-that-be, realizing they had made a teeny tiny mistake by utterly destroying the lives of 500 loyal Americans with improperly tested technology (or was it?) and that the voting public had a shocking inability to take such minor mistakes with grace and humor, decided to bury it as deep as possible. Before someone demanded heads roll for this one. So the 500 volunteers who wanted to serve their nation were all rolled together into a single agency with two departments and given quiet non-demanding busy-work and all the drugs they would need to make their lives marginally bearable. Five years passed and they learned that if they just stopped feeling feelings and thinking thoughts, that the interface was almost workable. It's about this point that an agent was assigned to shadow a very special young lady named Hope and things broke open.

Brute Force is the 4th book in the Rachael Peng series, which takes place after the public revelation of everything that happened in the above paragraph and the agents received the help they need to live as human beings again. Rachael Peng, as a former member of the Army Criminal Investigation Command, was seconded out to the Washington DC Metro Police. She often finds herself on the forefront of difficult and politically sensitive cases that could spell doom for herself and the remaining 400 or so cyborgs who are fending off political threats that could see them reduced to tools or worse. This is on top of dealing with the other parts of her life that complicate matters, such as being a 3rd generation American born Chinese woman, being gay, and technically blind thanks to a really bad reaction to her implant. Agent Peng may have used direct sunlight to reduce her eyeballs to barely functional bags of jelly, you see. That said, she kinda sees better than the rest of us combined, with her eyes down, her implant has taken over and allows here to see on a number of spectrums that are unavailable to us mere mortals. Among them is a spectrum that seems to allow her to directly observe someone's emotions (she sees them as colors, so for her the average person is a rolling combination of colors and shades that constantly shift according to their emotional state). This makes her really good at sussing out when someone is lying or hiding something. She can also see the density of objects and if she wants, see through things at times. This helps her be a really good shot among other things. So Agent Peng is a cyborg with superpowers with her own police unit that she fights crime with and she is gonna need every superpower and every friend she can get because crime has come knocking with boots on.

So Hope Blackwell, the woman who was instrumental to freeing the agents from their imposed hell; and Avery the barely-out-of-diapers first born child of a pair of agents (also the first born child of any agents) have been kidnapped by a militia being led by a Sovereign Citizen Lawyer (Oh look, a contradiction in terms!) named Jeremy Nicholson. A Sovereign Citizen (which I should note is a label not all members of the movement accept) to put it briefly is someone who believes that federal laws do not apply to them and they can declare themselves not citizens of the United States but citizens of their states and thus opt out of having to follow federal laws. Most of the time this involves refusing to pay taxes, but there have been times when it turns violent and sovereign citizens have killed police officers for a variety of reasons, including have a police officer pull over their car. So there's every reason to worry that the militia may turn violent (Kidnapping is violent. Ship sailed!) ... More violent and worse Hope and Avery aren't the only people they've kidnapped. The hostages and the militia have holed up in a ruined factory that was owned by Jeremy's father but closed down by a corrupt EPA agent decades ago. On top of that, this has turned into a media circus as the militia as made sure every news outfit who can reach them has been told what's going on. Jeremy claims he's doing this as a protest and tells everyone that Hope and the other hostages are there willingly (Because clearly the toddler can hold high ideals about Militias). No one's buying that and while everyone is worried about the confrontation with the militia turning violent, they're actually a bomb ticking away here. You see, Hope is perhaps the most dangerous woman in the world, being burdened with a number of mental issues (I'm pretty sure she has ADHD just to start with) and has a natural talent for the art of maiming and murder, as if she was the unholy spawn of Bruce Lee and Miesha Tate. If that wasn't bad enough she also great at escaping and if her meds should wear off while she's tied to a chair and being starved...

Look guys, speaking from my own experience, strength, speed, and size do matter in a fight. Bigger stronger people tend to win and the bigger and stronger you are the less skill you need to put people down. That said, with enough skill and raw screaming desire to hurt people? You can make up for a lack in size, strength, or speed. Add in this, none of the militia guys are big enough, strong enough or fast enough to make up for the difference in skill level between them and Hope. So if her discipline snaps? She will kill a good number of them before one of them finally shoots her, which will drive her husband - a man big and strong enough to lift cars for fun and skilled enough to spar with his wife even without his cyborg super powers - over the line. Before I forget, the factory is also full of stolen Chinese firearms, so it's entirely possible that the Chinese government is involved or at least someone wants everyone to think so. Rachel has to figure out what the bad guy’s game actually is, because there's more going on here than a protest about an unjustly shut down factory. Who is backing Nicholson, where did he get the equipment, how did he come up with this game plan and who is this plan really aimed at? Can she crack this before her bosses or before Hope cracks? Can she do this without turning it into a public relations disaster and triggering a political backlash against the Cyborgs that might just turn them into tools of the government without legal rights? But she also has to tackle this while dealing with ghosts of her past haunting her. An old enemy has shown up out of nowhere, wearing the face of her old army buddy and having moved into her neighborhood. So now Rachael has to deal with the fact that a cold blooded killer is attending the neighborhood cookouts; a cold blooded killer who knows too many of her secrets for her to just turn in to the police. So Rachael has to work backwards using a person she cant trust to hunt down the origin of a militia armed with stolen Chinese firearms led by a rich kid lawyer turned sovereign citizen, and do so without letting any secrets leak out. At least she's not under pressure right?

K.B Spangler does a great job telling a tense story with complex characters and motivations while keeping the plot moving at a good pace. Although I'll admit that I think she glossed over a good amount of what Sovereign Citizens actually believe and might have been a tad too generous to them (despite making one of them the bad guy). That said, Ms. Spangler does a good job presenting people who believe that they're doing things for the right reason, even while they're crossing just about every moral line imaginable. Of course her protagonists also do a number of shifty things, but I would argue they never get near as dirty as their enemies. Her books tend to show a very good understanding of how things work in the federal government and present a convincing example of the culture within the civil services that actually make our country functional, even when they're under attack. Rachael is a great character and plays well off the others, although I have to admit that I am disappointed that Santino (her partner) was barely in this book. In fact a good amount of the supporting cast doesn't really get to involved in this one, with most of the supporting work taken up by fellow agents like Josh Glassmen or the gentleman I'm going to refer to as Wyatt. To be honest Wyatt and Rachael don't play off each other as well as Santino, Hill, and the others do. That might be because I just flat out don't like Wyatt. I just don't find an outright psychopath (or is he a sociopath with violent tendencies?[Depends on personal history. Psychopaths are born, sociopaths are made… usually but not always from psychopaths]) a compelling character and if we're going to be honest, I may have been really looking forward to Rachael finally tracking him down. It's still a fun read with a well thought out plot, good crisp action, and as always snappy dialogue. Brute Force by KB Spangler gets an -A.

Next week, we go further into science fiction with Poor Man Fights by Kay Elliott, this Sunday our very own editor would like to discuss something in our first From the Editor's Chair. Keep reading!

Red text is your editor, Dr. Ben Allen.
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders.

Other reviews in this series are:
Digital Divide http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2016/11 ... ngler.html
Maker Space http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2017/01 ... ngler.html
State Machine http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2017/04 ... ngler.html
Greek Key http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2017/06 ... ngler.html

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 24, 2018 12:44 am 
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Editor's Chair I

Hello everyone. This is your editor Dr. Allen speaking, and we need to talk. No, I’m not going to bemoan my never-ending war to keep the reviews readable. No, today we need to talk about biology in speculative fiction. You’ve all been subject to my screaming red-inked rants lately, and for good reason. You see, physics in speculative fiction often gets discarded in the interests of storytelling. You see, in space nobody can hear you scream and writing space combat at a light-second remove is boring. Plus Faster than Light Travel is necessary. These are deliberate choices the authors make, and that’s okay. Biology though, it just gets forgotten, or mistakes are made in absolute ignorance because the authors just don’t care to look something up. This is unacceptable.

Don’t believe me? Gaze upon some of the recent reviews for evidence of it. The Noble Ark? What is this? Let’s leave the half-human/half-alien out of it for a moment, at least there probably is some explanation for that in subsequent books even if it’s bad. But why do the aliens have a craving for human CSF? If they need it so much they’re willing to torture people to death, how did they survive without it? Why not just make their own? It’s mostly electrolytes with a very low concentration of extremely common proteins like albumin. There is absolutely nothing there that couldn’t be synthesized! Then there’s the inbreeding. Everyone always forgets the inbreeding.

This problem goes far beyond relatively obscure science fiction novels and extends into extremely popular works as well. Let’s leave out the fact that raptors in Jurassic Park should have feathers and can’t bend their wrists the way they’re portrayed. The novel and movie have problems going down to the very core of the narrative; specifically that all the dinosaurs would be female. No. Reptiles don’t develop the same way mammals do. Denying a reptile the hormonal signals for sex differentiation will result in males because in reptiles, it’s high levels of the hormone aromatase that create females. With birds, we don’t even know for sure whether males or females are the developmental default, and it’s entirely possible that sex is determined at the cellular level before morphogenesis even progresses beyond a hollow sphere of cells. That whole thing is just wrong. Also, no biologist in the history of humanity would fill in the gaps with DNA from amphibians. They’d use the nearest relatives like crocodiles or birds to minimize the chance of genetic interactions leading to embryonic death. And the author is an MD for hell’s sake! Then there’s Interstellar. Don’t even get me started on Interstellar and the “blight” that somehow metabolizes nitrogen and yet somehow kills plants. Or how all the crops are dying but the trees and grass are somehow not completely denuded from the face of the Earth.

Do not despair. There are those who do their homework. Hambone (the person who writes Deathworlders) actually did do his homework. He thought through the consequences of different species growing up in different environmental regimes, not just biologically but psychologically and culturally. Even better, he thought through the consequences of certain exotic pharmaceuticals and what their mechanisms would be; then what the consequences of those mechanisms were. He never actually laid it out verbally, but those side effects are plainly obvious. Basically, there’s an anti-agapic/regenerative drug that works by messing around with some cell signaling pathways. However, the consequence of doing it that way is that people (special forces) on this drug are basically psychologically stuck in their late teens to early twenties. It is magnificent. Honestly, the whole thing is magnificent as far as I am concerned and it’s recommended reading. Warning, it is at this point rather huge.

None of this means, oh dear aspiring authors, that you have to shackle yourselves to known science or anything like that. What you should do - if you don’t want me to rip my hair out - is think about how biology affects your story and what kind of consequences there are for what you decide to do. You don’t want to have your plot turning on the fact that you’ve made a massive error by forgetting the consequences of a thousand years of ruthless inbreeding. So do your homework.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 28, 2018 8:53 pm 
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Poor Man's Fight
By Elliott Kay


Elliot Kay was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. He has since then lived in Phoenix (What is up with Phoenix? Is it the heat? Does it warp our brains and turn is into authors?), Seattle and various other places. Before turning to writing Mr. Kay served in the Coast Guard and taught High School, as well as managing to pick up a bachelors in History. He also managed to survive at least one motorcycle crash and several severe electric shocks. His first novel was the kind that can't be discussed on a review series trying to avoid an adults only rating (Give us the title at least come on! Probably straight smut though? Gross.), it was published on Amazon in 2011. Poor Man's Fight, the first of a five book series was his first science fiction novel and was published in 2015 under the Skyscape imprint of Amazon Publishing. It is one of fifteen such imprints that Amazon maintains. This has a been a mixed blessing for some as a number of bookstores flat out refuse to carry Amazon published books, seeing Amazon as a competitor and the publishing company is seen as under-performing in its first decade. I kinda see this as a good look at the radically changing world of writing and publishing, but we're here to talk about a specific novel.

In the far flung future, humanity has expanded to the stars and colonized hundreds of star systems in a grand expansion across the galaxy. We have found ways to extend the human life span and perhaps more importantly extend our youth for decades if not more. Advances in medicine, infrastructure, and computer technology have made life easier, longer, and better then they have ever been. Also? We have for some profoundly bizarre reason completely privatized our education system (GGAAAAAAAHHH!). As far as I can tell, every human government contracts its education system out to a multi-planetary corporation who in exchange provides education to every citizen and when you're 18 and have finished high school, you take a test. How well you do on the test determines your debt. Do extremely well and you can walk out completely debt free, do poorly and you could be in the kind of debt that only PhD students can tell you about (*Editor Weeps* I’m probably never buying a house. Also what the fuck kind of exploitative bullshit is this? Without reading any further, this is going to trap billions into a cycle of debt because the ones who do poorly in school get the crappy jobs, and as a result can’t pay off the debt.). There are ways to adjust your odds of course, if you're a good student whose parents can pay the monthly dues for a corporate sponsored honors society, why you can get the kind of study materials and tutors that will ensure a pleasant test taking experience, as well as a test tailored for you. If not, well your test will still be tailored to you, just not in a way that's beneficial to you. My good readers, if you are smelling a rodent here, it's because the system has been so infested with rats that they have built a society and are plotting our downfall from the shadows!

Enter our hero, Tanner Malone; intelligent, helpful, good natured, and an utter nerd. He also has parents that aren't wealthy, and have informed him the night before the biggest test of his life that they are moving out of system (Jesus Christ, they couldn’t wait a day?). So he'll have figure out his own living arrangements if he wants to stick around for the unpaid internship (yeah it's not bad enough you're in debt for your bloody high school education, but we still have unpaid internships in the future!?! This shit keeps up and I'll start singing the Internationale at this rate! [Hi there. I’m here to tell you the good news about the most important economist and political philosopher in all of human history, Karl Marx.] At least Lenin would just shoot me and get it over with!) that will seal the deal on an academic future of success and glory. Tanner, being 18 and middle class handles this stress about as well you would think. Facing a test rigged against him, with no sleep and no breakfast... He's now always 70k in the hole, will have nowhere to live in a week and no way of supporting himself while laboring for free in a lab. Tanner of course calmly and coolly considers his options while being a nervous wreck and joins the military on the advice of a girl he has a crush on. I should note that I do actually like the relationship between Madelyn and Tanner, she knows that he has a crush on her but isn't interested in that way. He takes the rejection and moves on without being an entitled ass about it and as such leaves himself open to relationships with other girls who are actually interested in him. In other ways though Tanner has a lot of growing up to do (Well he is eighteen. He’s still a child no matter what the law says. He hasn’t even finished neural pruning yet.) and he doesn't handle stress very well. He also has trouble standing up for himself. To be fair, Tanner is a product of a system that doesn't do a good job teaching people how to handle stress, despite it making stress an everyday part of life. Put a pin in this because I'll come back to that.

This book also spends a good amount of time with our villain. The Space Pirate Captain Casey. (Really? Because it looks like the Villain is the entire society in which this poor kid lives.{Yes, but Captain Casey throws children out of airlocks, it's hard to top that}) Unlike modern media, which has a tendency to whitewash what pirates actually do, Casey is the kind of guy who attacks a luxury liner and tortures the passengers and officers for their money and then throws them out an airlock, including the children. In short, while Captain Casey uses rhetoric about the awfulness of the corporate system, he's honestly just a faster, less restrained, more charismatic version of it. Mr. Kay actually shows his history chops here as the pirates in his book operate a lot like the actual factual historical pirates. The ship crews are democratic, with the Captain only having authority when they're on a combat operation, the loot is divided fairly and they're as likely to attack a port or city as they are a ship in the void. Mr. Kay takes us through the process of recruitment and how the pirates operate actually letting us get to know the pirates. The result of this is when Tanner and the pirates end up fighting each other for their very lives, it's not Tanner Malone versus a bunch of faceless mooks, it's Tanner Malone versus a group of villainous viewpoint characters that we've spent chapters with. This actually is a pretty good twist, as it increases the weight of the confrontation and brings home rather vividly the human costs of violence. That said I can't sympathize with the pirates too much here. This is because the story makes it clear that the pirates aren't rebels against the system, they are parasites on that system; using the excesses and abuses of the corporations as a recruiting tool while never actually doing anything to undermine or overthrow the system because they're too busy criminally profiting from it. This is also something that real life pirates and bandits would do; claim to be heroically resisting very real oppression while in fact just using it as a cover for their own benefit. Ironically in doing so they help the forces they claim to be against by providing a justification for their oppression. In this case the corporations can claim that increased costs are necessary for greater security because of pirates, who use the great costs to claim their own aroticities as heroism and thus we go around and around.

Ironically, if there are any rebels to be found here, it's in Tanner's own government. Throughout the book, we see the elected government of Archangel pushing back against corporate power and abuse. We see the President and his staff privately and publicly maneuvering to provide services and protection to their citizens over the objections of foreign states and the multi-planetary corporations who see them as just another revenue stream. While they're not angels, they do come off as authority figures who are actually interested in serving the interests of the people who elected them. In fiction with super powerful corporations that's a rare thing to see. More often it's that the corporations have captured the government and turned it into a lackey (although I should point out that Max Florschutz's book Colony also had government/corporate conflict). So Mr. Kay presents us an honestly good elected government led by thoughtful people struggling to do right by the common voter in a complex and dangerous system. Even when doing so arrays them against powerful actors who are willing to operate on several fronts to destroy this resistance. I honestly enjoyed seeing this for a change, as all to often the power of a national government or the desire of elected leaders to do well by their voters is often cynically dismissed as mere posturing. This book also doesn't glorify or villainize the military, we’re shown that the ship that Tanner serves on isn't full of good people, in fact a number of them are jerks. However, we do see good people in the military trying to do a demanding and dangerous job under circumstances that they have no control over. Speaking from experience that's pretty much true to life, you'll find good people, you'll find terrible people, and every kind of person in between while serving in uniform. By presenting a military full of human beings Mr. Kay gives us a balanced view of what the service is like.

Which leads me to the system itself which is really just an exaggeration of our own system in a lot ways (I say looking at my college debts, that I racked up despite having the GI Bill, which isn't nearly as generous as y'all might think). Tanner lives in Archangel, a religiously founded colony system that has turned into a more or less secular nation state where the population is wracked by heavy debate over the role of corporations in their public life. He's driven by economic necessity and an ambition to better his life to enlist in the military despite his misgivings about the role the military plays in politics. If you're an American, you might be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu on reading that, as Poor Man Fight's is not only a good adventure story about a young man coming of age but a really pointed commentary in a lot of ways on our own system. Tanner emerged from a schooling system that did not really prepare him for the test that would determine his life's direction nor did it prepare him for dealing with stress. (Something that the school system is very likely systematically designed for.) It's also a system that provides advantages to people who already have them and disadvantages to those who are already struggling. Poor Man's Fight uses an action adventure set in space to hold up a mirror to elements of the modern day and ask us if we really care for what we see. That's something that science fiction can do really well and while this wasn't a story of deep political thought, preferring to focus on things happening on the front lines, it still pulled off its commentary rather well.

Poor Man's Fight is basically the story of Tanner Malone coming to age in some of the worse possible circumstances and then he has to fight pirates. It's a fun story with plenty of action, good characters, and fairly solid world building. Mr. Kay's choice to follow along with the pirates and giving us a peek at what is going on in the corridors of power provides us with a wider view of Tanner's world and gives us context for his actions. I honestly recommend this to anyone interested in science fiction or anyone just interested in a good book. Poor Man's Fight by Elliott Kay gets an A. I’ve got high hopes for the other four books in the series. I'd also for no reason what so ever would like to remind everyone that I am not responsible for my editors comments, nor do I always agree with his statements.

Next week, I'm kinda feeling good about this streak of self published books and it is Halloween, so I suppose we should get spooky. So next week, we examine The People's Necromancer by Rex Jameson. Keep Reading!

Red text is your editor.
Black text is your reviewer.

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 05, 2018 8:51 pm 
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The People's Necromancer
By Dr. Rex Jameson


Dr. Rex Jameson was born in Alabama, near the beginning of the 1980s. He was raised in the Mt. Juliet area of Tennessee and graduated high school in 1999. He then attended college looking to get a degree in Computer Science but left after a year to get a job in a software startup in Minnesota. However after the dotcom bust in the mid 2000s he moved back to Tennessee and enrolled at Middle Tennessee State and finished his Computer Science degree. He would proceed to Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee to get his masters and PhD focusing on operating systems and AI. He currently lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and works with Research Stall at Carnegie Mellon University. He wrote the Primal Patterns series and The People's Necromancer (By the way, I am really liking the title for obvious reasons) is the first in a new series of books; with the first installment being self-published. Thus bridging our theme of last month with more self published work and bringing us something a bit spooky for Halloween.

The Kingdom of Surdel has had it relativity easy all things considered. While there are orcs on the borders, they are held off by the armies of feudal lords in alliance with the local wood elves. The Dark Elves are allied to the Kingdom but heavily focused on their own affairs in their last city of Uxmal. While there are great empires to the south doing mighty deeds and using fell magics, the Monarchs of Surdel have had to deal with smaller scale struggles between their feudal lords, easily solved disputes with their allies and tribal level raids and invasions by the above mentioned orcs. The easy life is over however and things are about to get worse. This is because things aren’t as nice as they seem; the Dark Elves of Uxmal are focused on holding back a demonic invasion and bluntly... They're losing. Meanwhile unaware of what's cooking beneath their feet the blood feuds and quarreling of the nobility is about to explode as two noble families using bandit armies to wreck each other’s land are about to tear open a box they can't close again. (This seems like a very stupid strategic move for the Dark Elves. Shouldn’t they be sending an ambassador up screaming bloody murder about a demonic invasion?)

Meanwhile Ashton Jeraldson is having a bad day in a bad life. It's not enough that his father disappeared on him as a child, his mother died, and that he's struggling as a blacksmith's apprentice. Ashton's best friend Clayton is dead too, killed when he was run over by the local lord's carriage without so much as an Ooops from said lord. In fact the book opens with Ashton attending the funeral with Clayton's widow Riley, a woman who has been rendered heartbroken by her loss. Ashton isn't much better and finds himself at Clayton's graveside screaming at him to get back up, because he's still needed. Ashton's bad life is about get even worse, because Clayton is doing exactly as he’s told. This kickstarts Ashton entry into a much darker and confusing world of competing supernatural beings, strange mystic rules and of course, power politics. Because Ashton, whether he likes it or not, is a necromancer. Ashton has to figure out how and on whose behalf he's going to wield a power that is widely feared and considered evil. He doesn't have a lot of time or space to do his figuring however, as his fellow villagers react to the idea of a necromancer among them by embarking on a witch hunt. The wild lands aren't safe either as a bandit army gathers, one that is capable of destroying entire towns and putting their populations to the sword. Ashton has to answer the question of whether he can he be a force for good and aide his fellow man; or is he doomed to a dark path where he becomes a plague and terror upon the innocent?

Now necromancy was originally believed to be the art of summoning the spirits of the dead in order to find out information and divine the future. By the time of the Medieval era, it was widely believed that necromancers were tricksters as only God could resurrect the dead or summon forth their spirits. Therefore it was widely believed that necromancers were summoning demons from hell to take the form of the dead and lure the unwary into damnation. In the modern era, the necromancer has been tied into the zombie (which actually comes to us from Haitian beliefs, which were in turn derived from beliefs from west and central Africa... Isn't a globalized mythology fun?) and turned into a figure that violates tombs and cemeteries to raise armies of undead monsters as his slaves and soldiers. I should note however that there's been a modern move to give zombies more depth then just mindless slaves. You see this in TV shows like Izombie for example. Ashton seems to raise both types of zombie. For example Clayton and at least one man he raises at the request of the man's young daughter, are sapient. They can speak, think and operate independently of Ashton, they have separate desires. Others seem more mindless, driven by Ashton's call for vengeance for their own violent deaths and the deaths of other common folk at the hands of forces beyond their control (So… they ARE killing the nobility and the class traitors!?<Editor Laughs in Communist>). That said both Clayton and the mindless horde seems to share a taste for human flesh. Clayton murders and devours bandits trying to kill Ashton, while the horde destroys the army that killed them in the first place. Dr. Jameson also weaves in medieval beliefs about necromancy, while Ashton has the ability to bring back a person's soul into their dead body... He can call something else into a dead body if he isn't careful. I won't go to far into it as we run the risk of spoilers but suffice to say necromancy in Dr. Jameson world is a dangerous occupation, not just to you but to everyone around you. So it's no surprise the first reaction people have is panic and terror.

Dr. Jameson’s characterization of Ashton is interesting as he's a basically a nice person who wants to be helpful. There's not really much else there I could grab onto in the story however. So Ashton comes off as a nice young man who is devoted to his friend and has some unresolved issues over his absent father but... There's not a lot else. A lot more effort is put into Julian the noblemen who actually killed Clayton and kick-started this whole thing in the first place. Julian is a the heir to the Mallory lordship, which is locked in kind of a on again-off again feud with the Vossen noble family. Both sides have turned to using bandits as disposable assets in causing damage to each other but it's mostly the common folk getting damaged. This is one of the better done parts of the book, it displays a level of political backstabbery that is believable, without getting so complex that you don't start wondering why the the plans don't collapse under the weight of all the moving parts. Julian has mixed feelings about unleashing bandits on people but is mostly focused on hiding a secret from his father. He’s also dealing with the guilt of killing Clayton, as he had intentionally sped up the carriage not because he needed to but to give his half sister Julia a thrill. Julia unfortunately doesn't really get a lot of time on scene. Her role seems mostly to tempt Julian into doing things he shouldn't. Julian doesn't come across so much as evil but as morally weak really. He’s unable to resist temptation and despite feeling guilty for his mistakes and misdeeds, he's unwilling to stop doing them. We also spend a bit of time with Prince Jayden, the prince of the Dark Elves who is desperately looking for some means to save his people from the endless onslaught they face. Jayden comes across as a man who is caught in quicksand, knows he's caught in quicksand and is begging for a rope but everyone keeps throwing him bricks while screaming about how they're helping. Dr. Jameson does a good job letting Jaydens tightly controlled frustration leak through here and there while having him maintain a diplomatic front.

The world building is fairly simple, if solid. In short if you've read fantasy or played dungeons and dragons, you kinda know this world. Part of that is the fact that book clocks in at 220 pages and is trying to cover a lot of ground, which doesn't allow him to get too deep into depth on any one thing. I kinda feel like there were parts of the book that could have cut or moved to the second book without hurting the plot and leaving more room to focus on Ashton so the readers could get a better sense of the protagonist or focus more deeply on the world. As it stands are there are a lot of secondary plots that get rolling in this book but aren't completely resolved. This leaves the book feeling like something like a prologue as there are a lot of set ups that do not pay off in the book. That said none of this is done poorly, it's just not done enough for my taste. I do also want to mention that the battles are well written, with Dr. Jameson showing among other things why a fully armored knight is a very scary thing to face if you're not a well armored and armed man and why you should never remove your helmet until you're out of a combat zone and I'm not kidding about that. For anyone in our armed services, take this tip from an old Corporal, keep your helmet on until you are out of the combat zone. The skull you save could be your own. I honestly feel that most of the issues I have with the story come from Dr. Jameson trying to cram in so much into so few pages. That said he presents an interesting view of a young man grappling with powers we normally reverse for the villains of our stories and trying to turn it around and do good for the people around him. I'm giving The People's Necromancer a B-. I have high hopes for the next book though, so rejoin us next week!

Because next week we tackle the sequel to The People's Necromancer, The Dark Paladin!

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 12, 2018 9:22 pm 
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The Dark Paladin
By Rex Jameson


I've covered Dr. Jameson and the publishing last week, so let me just say that, The Dark Paladin was published in 2018. Before I continue, a warning: this review has massive spoilers for The People's Necromancer. You have been warned. Now let's jump right in.

Ashton Jeraldson was a nice kid, happy to spend his days with his best friend Clayton, struggling to learn how to become a decent smith. That was then, now he's a necromancer and wanted all throughout the Kingdom of Surdel for rising an army of the dead and attacking the Mallory Keep, the fortress of his feudal overlord (Workers of the world unite you have nothing to lose but your chains!{I would like to remind everyone that I am not responsible for my editor}). Of course, Ashton was raising his friends and neighbors who were murdered by bandits hired by competing lords looking to cause each other hell in a cut throat political feud. That detail is however overlooked by the great and good of the Kingdom of Surdel in the rising panic, a panic not helped by Ashton accidentally summoning a demon when trying to raise his long absent father (Opps). A demon that killed the beloved Crown Prince and caused the death of the tolerated Lord Mallory. Ashton has bigger problems than his king declaring his life forfeit (Although I am left to question if killing someone who raises the dead is really a good idea? Do we really want to see what happens when you throw someone with the power to cross the boundary of life and death into death?). Ashton, has found himself on a much bigger game board facing much more dangerous players then the King of a rather out of the way nation. Because Ashton is now dealing more than bandits and struggling with the ethics and practical limitations of necromancy; but literal Lords of the Abyss and the legions of world-ending demons and abominations. What may be even worse is that he's also attracted the attention of a creature older then those lords and likely much, much more dangerous. The self styled Queen of Chaos and the being who claims to have created the demonic races in the first place. When one of those Demon Lords reaches the surface and begins raising his own undead army of a size and scale that puts Ashton to shame, he begins feeling the clock ticking. Worse is the fact that he's been kidnapped, you see the Crown Prince wasn't the only loved figure that was killed in the fighting. A young man name Frederick, one of the best young knights of his generation was also killed trying to fight off the bandit army. The big issue is the that Frederick was the son of the King's General, who has grabbed Ashton and is willing to do anything to force him to bring his son back. Even risk loosing another demon within the very halls of the King's palace itself. Of course Ashton can get himself out of this. All he has to do is accept the Queen of Chaos' offer. Become her general, do her bidding, save his world and possibly lose his soul in the process.

Interestingly enough, while the Queen of Chaos will bargain with Ashton, try to seduce him, bribe him, threaten him and more; she doesn't seem to lie to him, or at least everything she tells him is true up to a point. She does feel perfectly free not to volunteer information however and to try getting out of telling the whole story though, so I can't say she's perfectly honest. In fact I'm pretty sure I wouldn't trust her or take everything she says at face value, but throughout the story she makes it a point not to directly lie to the people she speaks to and lives up to the terms of her bargains to the letter and in some ways to the spirit of the bargain as well. So while the other Demon Lords want to pull Ashton's world to the Abyss and turn it into a miniature hell for their own gain, I kinda believe her when she says that she has no such interest in this world and in exchange for helping her find the things she's looking for, she get rid of the Demon Lords and simply leave. Of course I'm also thinking that she may have engineered the whole situation so that everyone would have no other option but help and support her. Bluntly she is not a good or benevolent force and is perfectly willing to let good or innocent people die to get what she wants. She is however also willing to give the mortals in this story what they want to get what she wants. We get a sense of what being in a Pact with her is like because Ashton isn't the only character she's involved with.

Cedric Arrington is a paladin, a warrior who wields the power of light to defeat the undead and demons menacing the people of the land. Now in most fantasy stories paladins serve a god/ess of light and order and go forth to smite evil from temple fortresses. Cedric's order has been outlawed and reduced to a couple dozen families huddled in the forests around a mountain where demons appear regularly (in a world without cars you want to be able to walk to work after all). Cedric's order also isn't in the service of some great divine being of light and order. Instead their Pact is with the Queen of Chaos, or as they call her when discussing her with outsiders, The Holy One. Interestingly enough the name isn't entirely a lie but something that the demons call her, as they credit her with their creation. The Pact is pretty simple, kill demons, obey her in all things, keep the Pact secret and bring your sons to take up the oath when they are old enough and she'll empower you and your weapons with the ability to smite demons and protect your world, when you die, you will be welcomed into the afterlife she keeps for all her faithful servants. Break the Pact and she destroys every member of your family down to the tenth degree and fling your bleeding soul into the abyss to suffer for eternity. Dr. Jameson shows us this by taking us back to when Cedric swore the oath and lets us feel the shock and horror that Cedric feels when he realizes that instead of swearing to a Holy Goddess, he's made an oath to a creature that is just as indifferent to life and justice as a demon. We also met Cedric's family; his wife and children as well as his father in law and see his motivation for continuing even as he feels he has made a bad bargain (see kids this is why you have to be careful with your soul, it's hard to get it back once you've sold it). Dr. Jameson however, provides a counterpoint in Cedric's wife, Allison, who is also a paladin. Allison while having made the same oath at the same time as Cedric, sees the Queen of Chaos as the best possible hope for her world and doesn't feel like she was trapped into the oath. If anything she feels the opposite that she would have still chosen the Pact with full awareness of the Queen's true nature.

The Queen of Chaos isn't the only one recruiting however. A Demon Lord named Orcus has escaped to the surface and is unleashing his own army of the undead on the world. To counter the Queen of Chaos' recruitment of champions, he goes hunting for his own lieutenants. Orcus offers those who would follow him a dark bargain, follow him, abandon all morality and empathy, and he will give you power and eternal existence as a remorseless predator on those you used to love and cherish. As Pacts with forces go, it's fairly standard (I’ve always wondered who takes these bargains…){Generally people who are dying or have a dying loved one, or people so backed into a corner that they don't care}. Which brings us to why I've been using the word Pact to describe the relationship between the Queen of Chaos, Orcus and the mortals they bargain with. An Oath is a solemn promise that doesn't have to be a two way street. I can swear an Oath to someone to do something without an expectation of payment. However the oaths the Paladins swear, the deal Ashton makes, and the bargain that Orcus all offer the same thing. A formal agreement between at least two parties. In this case it's a formal exchange, the Queen and Orcus get servants that can carry out their agendas and plans without needing their constant attention and supervision. On the flip side the mortals get the power needed to carry out their own goals.

Cedric and Ashton are the main character focuses of the book here, with Allison and the returning Dark Prince Jayden mainly playing supporting roles to give us a better look at their characters. I would like to note that the magic items that we see Prince Jayden using, a whip of plasma from a far off star and a hilt that generates blades of ice from a far off world are amazingly creative. In the last review I mentioned I didn't feel like we got a real look at Ashton, in this book we get a better look at his character. Out of all the characters in this book, he's the one who puts up the most resistance to forming a Pact with a greater power, to the point of forcing the Queen of Chaos to basically lay everything out for him in black and white with no quibbling. He doesn't do this by being especially clever but by being wise enough to realize that he can't in good faith make a deal without vital information and doggedly clinging to that point even when his life might be at stake. Even when he caves, I got the feeling he did so because he couldn't figure out a better way to save his world. Not out of any self interest. Ashton is in a lot of ways the most selfless character in the story and the story does a good job of showing us how even being selfless can lead to you being hated in extreme circumstances. Cedric is also a selfless character, he's willing to risk his life for people who hate and fear him after all. He does so in a battle that in many ways seems hopeless, there are only maybe 2 dozen paladins left in his order against an endless sea of demons all looking for a way out to the surface. What makes Cedric different is that he is way more sure of his place in the world and his sense of pride, which is deeply injured over having made the Pact with the Queen of Chaos. His pride causes him to constantly wrestle over it and makes him believe he is damned no matter what he does. This makes his insistence on fighting to protect the people around him more heroic honestly at the same time this does blind him to certain things that are going on around him.

The characterization and worldbuilding have been expanded in this book, aided by the fact that it's a direct continuation of The People's Necromancer. It also manages to tell a complete story in it's own right. That said entire chapters are also devoted to planting seeds for the next book with no pay off in this book. I think that is going to affect how much you enjoy the story. I’m also disappointed to see Clayton drop out of the story, although I did enjoy seeing what the undead that Ashton had already raised were up to. I have to say that The Dark Paladin is an improvement over The People's Necromancer but there's still issues with plot pacing and spending time sequel baiting that I'm not a fan of, although there is less of it. I'm giving The Dark Paladin a B. I should mention that I am onboard with the next book and you should expect to see it reviewed here at some point.

Next week, we hit the Monster Blood Tattoo series with Foundling. Keep Reading!

Red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 26, 2018 9:30 pm 
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Solaris
by Stanislaw Lem


Stanislaw Lem was born in Lwow, Poland in 1921, to illustrate how much change he would have seen in his life, the city of his birth is now Lvov, Ukraine. It was annexed into the USSR in 1939 in the aftermath of the Soviet-Nazi invasion of Poland and became part of the Ukraine in 1991 upon the breakup of the USSR. Lem would not be outdone by his birth city. The son of a doctor and a housewife, Lem was raised Roman Catholic but would attend Jewish religious studies in school and converted to atheism later in life. He was refused entry into Lwow Polytechnic due to his “bourgeois origin” as was standard for the USSR in the early years to refuse higher education or government employment to people from the wrong class. However his father maintained connections and got him into Lwow University to study medicine in 1940. This was interrupted when the Nazi's broke the treaty with the Soviets and invaded the Soviet Union. His father was prepared with forged papers to cover up the families Jewish ancestry so they were able to avoid the ghettos and the camps. Under Nazi occupation he worked as a car mechanic and a welder, stealing German munitions to pass to the Polish resistance when the opportunity presented itself. After the Soviets threw back the Nazi war machine, the Polish citizens of Lwow were resettled (whether they liked it or not) in Krakow. Once there, he attended Jagiellonian University, he completed his studies but refused to take the final exams and graduate to avoid the compulsory military service required of medical graduates. He did find work in a maternity ward where he learned something very important, he utterly hated the sight of blood. That led him to quit medicine.

Throughout the 1950s he would write, although many of his books didn't make it past the Soviet censors. It's only after the Polish October and the resulting Destalinization that he would really be able to explore the themes and ideas that he wanted to (Thanks Kruschev!). Even then he chose to work in science fiction, because the censorship was lightest in that area. He published Solaris in 1961 and it would become his most famous novel. To date it has been adapted to Opera four different times, turned into play twice and been made into film three times; the most recent being the 2002 version with George Clooney. You can also see its influence in a large number of science fiction and horror works, for example the Silent Hill 2 plot has many of the same elements and themes running through it. It has been translated into dozens of languages but unfortunately the English translation is considered one of the worst, perhaps due to the reality of the Cold War. The English translation isn't a Polish-English translation, it's a translation of the French translation of the book which according to Lem leads to a number of subtle distortions and some ideas not quite getting through the way he would like. One of the not so subtle changes is two characters flat out having their names changed, the engineer Snaut becomes Snow and the main characters girlfriend goes from Harey to Rheya. Since most of my readers are English speakers I'll be using the English names to avoid confusion, even if I can't find a single reason for the names being changed. Legal issues however prevent the publishing of a better translation, which is currently published by mariner books, owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt company. Let's actually get to the book shall we? Quick note, there may be some spoilers here but come on the book is older then you are (well... Most of you).

Solaris takes place in the far retro-future, humanity has spread across the galaxy seeking new worlds and strange new civilizations. While it seems they have not yet made contact with an alien intelligence, they have found marvels and mysteries as they reach across the stars. One of those is the the planet Solaris. A planet orbiting twin stars, it immediately grabbed Earth's attention by having an orbit that defies our understanding of gravity and orbital mechanics, always maintaining a stable, uniform orbit (It isn’t impossible for this to occur if I recall correctly. There are a lot of exoplanets in binary systems, but the perturbation dynamics get complicated and a lot depends on your definition of a stable orbit). When the first manned mission arrived they found another impossibility, the planet save for a few barren rocky isles is covered in some sort of semi-liquid gel. An entire ocean of the stuff. An ocean that seems to respond to outside stimuli and create structures randomly. This creates a scientific firestorm of debate and argument and the creation of an entire scientific discipline centered around the study of the planet and it's ocean sized inhabitant, although no one can agree if the damn thing is even alive or what it's made of let alone if it's sapient or if we can communicate with it. Still, generations have tried and as the fervor died down in the face of no results, the science remains and a few men still doggedly continue studying and probing in an effort to figure something - anything - out about the planet. A permanent station was built to hover in the upper reaches of Solaris atmosphere but over the decades the crew has dwindled in number and resources as a result of flagging interest back on Earth.

Our main character Dr. Kris Kelvin is a psychologist who arrives on Solaris station following a call from his mentor from university (You know, if Jürgen put such a call out for me, I’d go). For Dr. Kelvin this is the result of years and years of work and sacrifices, some more intense than others. However when he arrives, he finds an outpost in shambles and the last two scientists working on the station reduced to paranoid and deeply anti-social men, one of whom refuses to venture out of his lab or allow anyone into it. The other one, Dr. Snow is a rambling wreck of a man who is barely coherent. It is here that he learns the man he came to see, Dr. Gibarian committed suicide, injecting himself with a poison and spending his last moments hiding in a locker in his quarters. The only warning that Dr. Kelvin gets about the strangeness of his situation is when Snow warns him that if he sees anyone besides himself or Dr. Sartorius he should not react or interact with the person he sees (Oh no. Ooooh Noooo). Things start to go surreal on us when Dr. Kelvin is approaching Gabarian's quarters and finds himself being passed by a half naked black woman who promptly disappears. Disturbed by this and his investigations turning up nothing - as he's a psychologist not a criminal forensic scientist after all - he barricades himself in his quarters and gets a very fitful night of sleep. Which is going to turn out to be his easiest night on the station because when he wakes up, sitting right next to him is Rheya, his girlfriend...Who’s been dead for years, because she killed herself when he left her (Woah there! Talk about mentally unbalanced ex girlfriends, holy crap!).

Dr. Kelvin then finds that each member of the station also has a “visitor” as they call them and although they don't seem hostile, they do insist on having “their” scientist in view and within earshot at all times. If their scientist retreats out of view, they flip out and proceed to utterly destroy any obstacle between them and the scientist in question. Whether it be doors, walls... You get the idea. They are made up of subatomic particles they call neutrinos too small for earth microscopes to see, as they can only see to the level of atoms (I’m just gonna leave this alone…). Frankly there's only one place that the visitors could come from but why? What caused Solaris to send phantoms pulled from the heads of it's researchers? Why is it sending these phantoms? What are the scientists and Dr. Kelvin suppose to do about it?

It doesn't help that Rheya herself is completely unaware of the motives and processes behind her apparent resurrection and her appearance is enough to throw Dr. Kelvin out of balance as he starts to slowly wrestle with his guilt and remorse over the original Rheya's death. This makes his investigations haphazard and somewhat sloppy, although to be fair he is operating far outside of his field. He's a psychologist not a physicist or biologist so his knowledge regarding how to investigate such a thing is going to be limited. Meanwhile Rheya starts to have her own suspicions that she might not be who she thinks she is. Dr Kelvin's reaction is one of utter dread; he worries what she might do with that realization and the possibility of losing her all over again. The struggles and worries of our other two scientists are only vaguely illustrated and their own visitors are never shown. On one hand it works amazingly well as a metaphor for how we never really know or understand the demons and struggles of others around us. Snow and Sartorius own manic efforts to hide their visitors from each other and Kelvin and their utter and complete refusal to even discuss it certainly could be used to illustrate how we often draw a veil over our mental scars and emotional troubles. Especially in the time when the book was written when it was common to completely refuse to discuss mental illness in any meaningful fashion; except behind closed doors and closer company. Dr. Kelvin is the odd man out in refusing to hide Rheya, instead he’s willing to fight tooth and nail to keep her with him even in the face of the discomfort and disapproval of his fellows. I could even argue for Solaris being a stand in for our own unconscious mind; vast, unknowable in many ways and always moving, creating and destroying without any real recognizable rhyme or reason (Then why are you pointedly not arguing that?) It smacks of Death of the Author however for me to take that stance and frankly without Lem giving any statement that I could find to support that... I am very loath to project the thoughts and feelings of a 21st century American on the writing and creativity of mid 20th century Pole. I’m arrogant enough to review the book but not arrogant enough to claim I understand it better then the author is what I guess it comes down to. As for what Death of the Author is and my ambivalence towards it, I'll be discussing that in a sidebar so stay tuned.

The bulk of the book, which is a slim 200 pages, is taken up by Dr. Kelvin's turmoil and his own exploration of the science of Solaris and the debates between different schools of thought and theories of what Solaris actually is and what to do about it. Lem honestly seems more interested in using the book to show how he thinks scientific thought and theory work out in a social setting with academic conflict then addressing the various questions he raises in his story. This is a bit hampered by the fact that he is showing us the finest retro future he can. For example his station's library is a mountain of books (heavy books, that would have to be shipped out of a gravity well) while any person born after 1980 would expect the library to be digital. This shouldn't be held against the book and doesn't affect its grade, as asking Lem to accurately predict the future from 1961 is unfair. The President of IBM famously failed to foresee the miniaturization of computer technology for example and one would expect him to have some knowledge on the topic. That said the text makes it very clear that not answering the questions is part of Lem's point. I can understand his desire to write a story where he makes the argument that not all things can be known and that contact with an alien mind may in fact be utterly impossible. He does this masterfully as well, the book is so well written that I can see the craft and skill even through a second-hand translation. I am however utterly frustrated by the lack of catharsis in the book (Come on, the author is from Eastern Europe. What do you expect?), things build up and build up only to slide away without a final confrontation with the mystery or even a real grapple with it. We are left like the main character on the shore of a vast alien ocean, staring out over it with no real solution in sight or even a better understanding then we started with. Lem instead builds up the mystery and then turns away from it to focus on other things. Which leaves me a bit frustrated. I have to be honest and say I struggled with the grade for this book for days after finishing it. Solaris could also be called “Questions Without Answers” or perhaps “Expectations Without Hope”. That said, Solaris is going to stay with me for a quite a while and the questions it raises aren't ones that can be easily answered and they are presented with a fair amount of skill. I find myself thinking this is a book that should be read, but I can't promise you'll enjoy it. Solaris gets an A- from me. It's earned its place in science fiction but I can't say that I like book.

Join me Saturday for a sidebar on Death of the Author and Sunday we'll be looking at the 1972 film of Solaris. Keep Reading.

Red is of course your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black is your reviewer Garvin Anders

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Solaris 1972
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Soviet cinema is a different beast from the capitalist cinema that I grew up with. Where as in the western world, film companies are private entities striving to capture large masses of an audience on an increasingly international stage for profit. Soviet cinema was a government enterprise and considered a very important one at that. Lenin would argue that film was the idea medium and art form to spread the Soviet message and ensure the masses received the right ideological education. In 1924, the State Committee for Cinema (also called Goskino) was founded and it would exist in one form or another, with many name changes over the years right up to 2008. It's purpose was to not only create and fund Soviet movies but to ensure the right kind of movies were made. Now the level of censorship and control would wax and wane over the the years, the Stalin years saw a tight grip being used while in the 1960s and 1970s, controls were looser. Directors, actors and other staff were basically government employees but often were allowed to present ideas and write their own scripts for approval. It was in this environment that Director Andrei Tarkovsky decided to create the 2nd film version of Solaris.

Andrei Tarkovsky was born in 1932 and had an eventual and if we're going to be honest an unstable childhood. Not only did he have to evacuate ahead of Nazi armies, his father would leave the family and he would suffer through a year long bout with tuberculosis. In school he was a bit of troublemaker and considered a poor student. Despite this he still graduated and enrolled at the Oriental Institute study Arabic but dropped out after a year to become a prospector for the Academy of Science. During this he participated in a year long research expedition into the wilderness, where he decided he would study film. He was admitted into the film directing program in 1954, in the same class as his first wife, who he would divorce in 1970. His first film Ivan's Childhood was released in 1962 and achieved acclaim. His second film would run into a lot of trouble as he would struggle with the censors but eventually a cut version was released. Solaris was his third film and while it also would have some trouble with censors (who wanted among other things to edit out all references to God or religion in the movie but he resisted them. Let's go ahead and discuss the film.

Solaris the film takes place on Earth and in the orbit of the planet Solaris. Like the book it is about Dr. Kris Kelvin's experiences on the station orbiting Solaris. It's a long movie, with the first hour honestly being the slowest paced of the film (Mr. Tarkovsky stated this was on purpose to get the “idiots” out the theater) and it's about 3 hours long. Events pick up rapidly once Dr. Kelvin reaches the station with the movie doing a good job of showing the surreal atmosphere of the place and what's it like to walk into an insane situation. The other scientist are shown as being under amazing stress, often acting erratically. At first Dr. Kelvin is critical of their behavior but with the appearance of his dead wife Hari, he swiftly becomes stressed and emotional himself. This often results in clashes with the other 2 scientists, especially Sartorius, who repeatedly insists that Hari isn't real. This provoked some discussion among my friends who were kind enough to watch the film with me. My own thought was that Hari clearly wasn't human, not in the biological sense but that was frankly irrelevant to the fact that she was a person. Like in the book, Hari is an independent agent, she has no idea why she has been sent here or what has sent her. Only that she is here now with memories and emotions of her own and the ability to grow in her abilities. Given her awareness of herself, her ability to have thoughts, emotions and desires her origin doesn't matter to me when we are determining if she is a person. Let me explain there a bit, when I say person, I mean a thinking (sapient), feeling being who deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Someone deserving of rights if you will. Currently that really only applies to humans but I think we are being arrogant if we proclaim that all persons must be human. An artificial intelligence, would be a person, as would an alien, as long as they were sapient. The cinematography is often amazing with many well framed shots and interesting if slow pans across the scenery. The result is a slowly paced, philosophical film that lets us watch Dr. Kelvin slowly fall apart as he struggles to reconcile his guilt over his wife's death, his love for the Hari on the station and his fear of losing her.

Now as usual I am going to give two grades to the film. The first is the grade as an adaptation and the second as a stand alone story. As an adaptation I have to point out the many changes made. In the film a much greater focus is given to Dr. Kelvin's feelings and the psychological elements of the story, where the novel devoted a good deal of space to discussing the scientific history of the research into Solaris, the film glosses over it. Addition changes are made by adding scenes on Earth and examining Dr. Kelvin's relationship with his father, who will likely die while he is in space. The space station is used to present a view of the impact of space exploration on the human psyche. In fact the original draft of the script had two thirds of the film happening on Earth, which made Lem furious. The film still has a good chunk of the first hour taking place on Earth. A much greater focus is given to Hari, letting her argue her case that she is a person even if she is not human against the disbelieving Sartorius. Now, most of these changes are to make it a better film but they are still really deep changes, so I have to give Solaris a C- as an adaptation. That said as a stand alone film, Solaris while long and slow is a thoughtful movie that tells the story of the novel in a way that works much better for me. I didn't expect to like the film more then the book, so I'm giving the 1972 Solaris film an A. This movie isn't going to be for everyone, there's no action, it's in Russian and 3 hours long. But if you're willing to try it out, you might find some surprising food for thought.

Next week we're going non-fiction with Judith Herrin Byzantium, the Surprising life of a Medieval Empire. Keep reading.

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 02, 2018 9:57 pm 
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Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
by Professor Judith Herrin


Professor Judith Herrin was born in the United Kingdom in 1942, she was educated at Bedales School and studied history at the University of Cambridge and was awarded her Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham. She would also train in Paris, Athens, and Munich. Dr. Herrin, would work as an archaeologist with the British School at Athens and on-site in Istanbul. Between 1991 and 1995 she would serve as Professor of Byzantine History at Princeton University. Afterward, she was appointed Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King College London and also the head of the college's, Center for Hellenic Studies. She would retire from the post in 2008 becoming Professor Emeritus. She would in 2011 become President of the International Congress of Byzantine Studies. In 2015 she would win the Dr. A.H Heineken Prize for History for her work. She would also be awarded a Golden Cross by the Republic of Greece, a Medal from the College de Franc and become a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. To boil it all down folks, this woman has not only spent a good chunk of her life studying the Byzantine Empire, she is one of, if not the authoritative voice on Byzantine history.

Course some of you might be wondering, what the hell is the Byzantine Empire? It's a legitimate question since even the people of that state wouldn't have recognized that title. It was given to them by outsiders and only became popular after their conquest by the Ottoman Turks. For the majority of that state's long existence and to the majority of the people who knew of and interacted with it, it was the Roman Empire. What we call the Byzantine Empire is the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Basically, in the latter half of what we call the Classical period of history (when you could divide Europe into Roman and not Roman parts), the Emperors of Rome began to realize that they couldn't effectively administer and govern the Empire. It was just too large, that seems odd to us today but remember, they didn't have the internet, radio, or even telegraphs. Every message could only travel at the speed of a physical messenger. Which means that it could take months to get information from one side of the Empire to another, which can be fatal if that message is “huge army pouring over the border and killing everyone, send help!” In response to this, the Empire was divided and an Eastern Emperor was appointed to run affairs in the east. The western empire would be gone by the 400s AD. The Eastern Empire would endure for another 1000 years until finally meeting its fate in 1453. For much of that thousand years, it would be considered a titan among nations and the final word on art, culture, power, and civilization in Europe and much of the Middle East. Even the Islamic states (who would hold most European and Christian states in disdain, to be honest with good reason), viewed and spoke of it in glowing terms. Even while they openly desired it's conquest. For many of them, the conquest of the Byzantine Empire would be the great milestone in their mission to bring the word of their Prophet to the world, because for generations that same empire was the biggest obstacle to that goal. This conquest was thwarted for centuries by a combination of military strength, brilliant diplomatic maneuvering, technological and social innovation and depending on what you believe the grace of Almighty God or pure dumb luck.

Americans tend not to know much about this stage of history because it's popularly assumed that the Byzantine Empire doesn't have a lot of impact on American history and history teachers already have a lot to cover and little time to do it in. For that matter, your average western European doesn't know much more of the Empire's history for much of the same reasons. On top of that, there is often the view that the Byzantine Empire was a relic of a bygone age. A moribund, decaying state that did nothing but slowly collapse for centuries, soaked in degeneracy and overly complex and prone to self-defeating scheming and backbiting. The very word byzantine is used to communicate this. Dr. Herrin, however, has taken the field to not only combat this viewpoint but give us an overview of the history, economy, and culture of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The book starts us with Emperor Constantine selecting the city of Byzantine as his new capital and describes his efforts to build a grand city worthy of being the capital of a massive Empire. The city of Constantinople would grow to be one of the greatest cities of the Mediterranean and a major port that not only connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean but would be a major crossroad between the east and the west. Throughout the vast majority of the empire's history, the city of Constantine would be the heart of imperial power and the seat of the ruling family, whoever they were at the time. From there, we get a look at the Byzantine Empire before the medieval period, this Byzantine Empire ruled the entire Eastern Mediterranean, from Egypt in the south to the river of the Danube in the north. At it's greatest extent, it would rule from Naples and Carthage in the west to Jerusalem and Damascus in the east. In this period the Byzantines would struggle with the Persian Empire and barbarians coming from the north and west. Emperors would often encourage these barbarians to go settle in western Europe and pick over the remains of the western empire. Which is a bit cold-blooded perhaps but there wasn't much they could do to save the western empire, so they focused on preserving the east. During this period they build a system for feeding Constantinople with grain from Egypt and using resources from the southern parts of the empire to feed crafts and trade in the north. This was also a time of intense religious discussion, as Christianity moved from a widespread but disorganized movement to an organized, hierarchical, national religion. The Emperors of the time would organize the church and host meetings of church leaders to decide just what the newly organized Christian Church would believe and preach. This was not an easy question either! Debates over the nature of Christ and God raged alongside questions of Church organization and whether not priests would marry (in the east priests can marry, in the Latin West, they can't) the role of women in the church and more would explode into violence and rioting. This shows that this wasn't just a preoccupation of the elites but a pressing question to the common men and women of the empire. The efforts to enforce Orthodoxy at all costs, however, would end up causing some Christian groups to prefer Muslim rule, as while they might charge an extra tax, they wouldn't imprison you for your beliefs.

The emergence of the armies of Islam from the Arabic desert is where Dr. Herrin marks the change of the Byzantine Empire from an empire of the classic period to a medieval state. The Arabic armies would conquer Egypt, Syria, and Palestine from an empire already reeling from plague and war. This shattered the old economic system and forced the Byzantines to develop new sources of raw materials and food, most of them in the European provinces of the Empire. It also led the Emperors of Byzantines to develop new military and administrative systems that were not only successful in holding off Arabic conquest but began to push them back and reclaim ground. While reduced in territory, the empire remained powerful and wealthy and the Arabs would look to it as a model, alongside the conquered Persian Empire and eventually the Caliphs would treat the Emperor of the Byzantines as an equal in diplomacy, trade and cultural exchange. The Byzantines did have a rich culture, it was incredibly literate with a lot of effort put into teaching people how to read and write. Their literacy rate was nowhere near modern standards but compared to the standards of the time, their educational system was amazing in its reach and depth. It was focused on teaching people how to read and write Greek and Latin would gradually die out. The death blow came when the Eastern Church decided that all services would be given in the native languages of the congregation instead of Latin (the western church would continue Latin services as the norm until 1967). This led to them calling western Europe and the people of Western Europe Latins (or Franks if they wanted to remind that they were a bunch of johnny come lately jumped up barbarians)

In fact, Byzantine Church was so devoted to this that it bankrolled the creation of the Slavic alphabet and wrote the first bibles in Slavic languages. This would create a 3 part division in the old Roman world, where you had the Latin West, the Byzantine East and the Muslim South. However, it was the Byzantines who would most successfully bridge the practices and ideas of the ancient world and the Medieval world of Christianity and Islam. While western access to classical works was spotty at best, in the east entire libraries were preserved (many of these would be lost later, as many to western invaders as to Muslim ones to be blunt but I'll get there) and this influenced religious and secular thought very deeply. One example is the practice of hesychasm, which is a type of meditative prayer. This is done to practice a strict mental discipline, where the mind is focused by repeating the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner." ) to still the mind and remove all temptation, until the person making the prayer can experience God directly, even if only for a moment. This moment is described as seeing uncreated light (we just don't have space to get into this but it's an intriguing piece of eastern theology). If my Buddhist readers feel some similarities to their own practices, that should give you an idea of how radically different the evolution of the Eastern Orthodox church was from the Latin western church. One point of interest to me was that literacy was so widespread that not only were there novel series written about adventurers on the frontiers but there were book reviewers and critics such as the church official Photios (also called Photios I of Constantinople), who wrote letters for circulation among a large group of friends and family where he discusses different books he's read and whether he thought they were any good or not. As you can imagine I'm somewhat tickled to find a kindred soul so many centuries ago and so many miles away. He is also a major historical figure but I'll let you find out more about him on your own.

Dr. Herrin also discussed the fall of Constantinople but points out that the real fatal blow came from the betrayal of the Republic of Venice. I call this betrayal because the book shows us that trade with Byzantine is very responsible for Venice rise in the first place. In fact, the merchants of Venice didn't have to pay any taxes on goods bought and sold in the empire. This gave them a huge advantage even over native Byzantine merchants. This betrayal occurred in the 4th Crusade, also called the one where they didn't even fight any Muslims (I don't approve of religious warfare but if there's something that smacks of spectacular failure when you declare a war and then march off to fight... Anyone but the people you declared war on). Instead at the urging of Venetian money lenders, they attacked the Christian city of Zora and then assaulted Constantinople... Twice. The first time to place a puppet emperor on the throne and when he refused to pay the Crusaders, they sacked the city and placed a Latin (western) Emperor on the throne in 1204. This split the Byzantine Empire into a trio of rump states and the Turks, already steadily pushing into Byzantine territory began to flood in. While the Byzantines would manage to fight back, retaking the city in 1261... The damage was done and it would be mainly a city-state with a long history until it's final conquest by the Turks. Interestingly enough the Turks didn't see themselves as killing the Byzantine Empire but as inheriting it. The Ottomans would repeatably lay claim to the glories of Rome as their rightful inheritance, even if no one else would agree with them. Which shows the allure and power of the Roman Empire, one that holds true today as you'll hear people compare nations like the United States to the Romans, proving that even half a millennia later they remain the benchmark for civilization in the west. And the Byzantines? I think this book makes a powerful case that they were the true carriers of the Roman flame during the Dark Ages and the Medieval Era. They didn't let themselves be trapped by tradition but they did honor it and learned from it as well as fusing it with new practices to create a powerful state that stood as a model of civilization, art and military strength for centuries. That's something to be proud of. Dr. Herrin manages to give us a good overview of the empire while keeping at a level that a layman could understand and follow. It's a great text for anyone who wants to learn more but isn't sure where to start or someone with some knowledge of the state but who wants to go deeper Byzantium the Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin gets an A. Go take a look.

It's been a busy week for me, so we're going to indulge a bit next week. Join me for Log Horizon: Homesteading the Noosphere. Thank you and Keep Reading!

No editor this week, he took an early vacation but don't worry my hunting parties assure me he will rejoin us soon.

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 09, 2018 8:56 pm 
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Log Horizon 10: Homesteading the Noosphere
By Mamare Touno

“I don't want that to have been temporary!” page 233


It's been half a year since I discussed Log Horizon so let me go over the high points. Elder Tales was the world's most popular MMO and was releasing a new expansion across the world. It hit midnight Japan time, the moment the new expansion went live every logged in player found themselves in the game world, for real. The novels have focused mostly on Japan but book 9 gave us peeks of the rest of the world. Given that this is a Japanese novel series written by a Japanese author, one can't be surprised that Japan is the center of events for the most part. Now in the player starting city of Akiba, a self-governing organization was set up due to the machinations of our protagonist Shiroe. Shiroe is a young man, who in real life is a graduate student but in-game has a reputation as a brilliant if somewhat diabolical strategist. Through a combination of bribery, reasoned argument and blackmail, he created the Round Table Council of Akiba, where the representation is done by Player Guilds. It's not very democratic but it managed to bring order and a measure of prosperity to Akiba. However the players (referred to in story as Adventurers) aren't the only sapient beings on the world, as there are the People of the Earth, who were NPCs in the game but now are fully sapient beings (or were they sapient the whole time?) as well as the various monster races who prey on the People of the Earth if the adventures don't keep them under control. Neither was the Round Table the only organization set up by stranded players, as the players on the western half of Japan chose to unite under a single guild (Plant Hwyaden) and make an alliance with the leading People of Earth State of the region, the Holy Empire Westelande. The combat power, magic, and technology that those adventurers provide have caused the Holy Empire to engage on an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. The Holy Empire considers itself the rightful successor state of an empire that united all of Japan and thus the other People of the Earth states in rebellion. Including the one that has allied itself with the Round Table, the League of Free Cities of Eastal.

Meanwhile, Shiroe is also trying to head off internal problems in the city of Akiba as the expanding economy isn't working for everyone. Yes, some adventurers are able to create new technologies and services and reap the rewards but others... Others are barely coasting along and the emerging class divide could cause rifts in adventurer society. However, there are limited ways of addressing that, since the Round Table isn't a proper government but a self-governing organization. That might sound like hair-splitting but the distinction would become very important to you when it comes time to discuss who has the right to tax you or enforce laws by imprisoning you or seizing your goods. So far in the prior novels, Shiroe has acted decisively and even ruthlessly to solve or minimize these problems before they get too big but he finds himself paralyzed with doubt as what an effective solution that is acceptable to everyone might be. Especially since he also has to deal with the fact that a major war might be kicking off on his doorstep and he's not sure what to do about that either. As if this wasn't enough, another problem rears its head. It turns out that there's yet another group of sapient creatures knocking about and they have their own agenda as well (fair warning, spoilers past this point).

It turns out that a group of alien beings was also pulled into the world of Elder Tales, although this might be all their fault. They're artificial life forms from an alternate universe and they're running low of an energy resource that they believe is plentiful on the world of Elder Tales. They were created in their home universe to come to the world of Elder Tales and harvest this resource and get as much possible home. However, their understanding of the laws of reality states that there can only be one type of intelligence in every universe so they figured any place they could reach wouldn't have any intelligent natives to protests their resource harvesting. Turns out they landed in a place where sapient creatures are actually kind of plentiful. Interestingly enough when discussing sapient creatures they don't make racial distinctions, to them an elf Person of the Earth is pretty the same as a human one. To them, the only real distinction in intelligence types is between the Adventures, themselves and the People of the Earth. In response to realizing that there were other people involved in this giant beautiful mess, they responded by splitting into two factions. The book translates the two factions into Fools and Genius but some research on my end has suggested the better translation might be Inspector and Collector. That said I'll use the book terms to avoid confusion. The Fools, believe in observation and making contact with the Adventurers and trying diplomacy and possibly cooperation to achieve their goals. If nothing else they can exchange their superior understanding about how they all got here for services from the Adventurers. The Geniuses feel this takes to long and is a silly way to solve problems, they'll use the monsters to take the resources they need and if the People of the Earth and the Adventurers get in the way? So much the worse for them!

Now the aliens in question didn't have physical bodies the way we understood them. So they had to, well... Borrow bodies they could find lying around. These bodies tend to belong to inactive accounts and one of them is an alternate character of Shiroe. See when you play an MMO, you often create more than one character so you can try out different classes and story-lines. In this case, Shiroe had kinda parked his spare on the bloody moon, which suggests that's where the Fools are hanging out. Interestingly it seems that there were a number of bodies on the moon, which the characters state a test server was located. The Fool in question, going by Roe-2 also helps out by sending a letter to Shiroe to give him some additional information. Now, Roe-2 was a character that had met the younger members of the Log Horizon guild, so this letter does clear up the mystery around her character. That said, it feels a bit like an info dump and I have to honestly say the insertion of the Genius/Fool plot was rather sudden. It's clear in hindsight that he had something like this in mind but I feel it could have been foreshadowed a bit more. Meanwhile, Shiroe has to figure out a way to contact the rest of the Fools and he also has to do while keeping the Geniuses from burning down the planet in the meantime. Which is gonna be harder than you think because they kinda lit the match on that fire 35 minutes ago. In the face of a sudden and surprising threat, Shiroe has to react quickly and decide on what goals he's going to prioritize here.

This is actually the main conflict of the book, as Shiroe's hesitation in deciding on a single goal and carry it out bogs him down and degrades his performance. Which is honestly true to life, nothing will cripple your ability to achieve your goals than your own hesitation and half-hearted measures. This is one of the reasons why the Marines will teach their members that an imperfect plan executed aggressively and with commitment will beat out a perfect plan that is carried out timidly or too late to matter. Shiroe has actually been pretty good about this once he commits but getting him to commit is sometimes a problem. I actually like this, it's a real flaw that drags Shiroe down. He is by nature indecisive, he wants to sit down and think things through and carefully plot out his response. Mamare Touino shows a good level of skill in writing characters that are flawed, in a way that would normally drive me insane but he manages to make me root for them in the end. Whether they be lazy princesses, anti-social ninjas or hesitant plotters. That's a skill worth developing in a writer. Log Horizon 10 is carried on the strength of the characterization and character interactions, it's also where we see a new plot development in full. That said, there is a bit of clumsiness here and I'm not sure if it's due to the translation or not but I have to grade what I see. Log Horizon 10: Homesteading the Noosphere by Mamare Touno gets a B+.

Next week, the Poppy War by R.F Kuang. Additionally, I have been informed that our editor has been brought to ground so he will be rejoining us next week. Keep reading!

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 16, 2018 10:18 pm 
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The Poppy War
By R.F Kuang


Ms. Kuang was born in Guangzhou, China on May 29th, 1996. In the year 2000 her father - a former student who was at Tiananmen Square - took his family to Dallas Texas where Ms. Kuang would grow up. She graduated from the Greenhill school in 2013 and attracted by the debate team attended Georgetown University. She took a gap year in China working as a debate coach and like many newly liberated students found herself feeling strange without the specter of homework hanging over her every moment (the lack of homework can lead people who've been in school too long to do strange things, like review a novel a week). So she decided to write a book. She was 19. The book was published when she was 22. She is currently attending the University of Cambridge with a Marshall scholarship to earn a Masters in Chinese studies. Much like Ms. Kuang herself, The Poppy War is a result of the global system that we live in, allowing us to see stories we would never have seen in generations past; written by a person who in the past wouldn't have been allowed space to tell her story to western audiences. I'll get to that in a bit though, first let me discuss the story itself and the world that Ms. Kuang has been kind enough to write for us.

The Poppy War takes place in the Nikara Empire; once a vast and powerful state the empire could now be more rightfully considered a creaky confederacy of semi-autonomous provinces. Each province has its own money, it's own rulers and it's own army. In theory, they are united under the rule of the benevolent Empress Su Daji but in fact, they could barely be considered to be working together at times. This is unfortunate because the Empire has powerful enemies, chief among them is the island nation the Federation of Mugen. The Empire was once occupied by the Mugen, after being defeated in a conflict called the 1st Poppy War. The wars gained their name due to a strategy adopted by the Mugen. While the island is densely populated the fact is that the people of Nikara greatly outnumber them. Facing the problem of occupying a nation larger than their own and with a greater population base, the Mugen flooded the Nikara Empire with cheap poppy drugs. This reduced a good amount of the population to the state of hopeless drug addiction and the frank fact is that poppy addicts don't make good soldiers. On top of this, the Mugen played games of divide and conquer, pitting the rulers of the various provinces (called warlords) against one another so they wouldn't be able to cooperate effectively (This whole strategy seems remarkably similar to something that occurred historically…). During the occupation, however, three heroes, the Dragon Emperor, the Gatekeeper and the Vipress arose to unite the country and wage a long war called the 2nd Poppy War and drive the Mugen out. Two of the three heroes have disappeared and now only the Vipress remains to rule as Empress trying to hold together a nation in the face of possible destruction. What really ended the 2nd Poppy War though was when the western nation of Hesperia intervened after the Mugen committed genocide on the island of Speer wiping out all of its inhabitants due to their special gifts. The Speerlies were able to summon fire and they used that to fight the enemies of Nikara, as you can imagine that made them utterly devastating. The Mugen, fearing this ability, attacked one-night using advanced weapons and wiped out every Speerly they could find. This was over a decade ago now and Hesperia's attention is elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Federation of Mugen has a new emperor fully committed to conquering Nikara and taking its lands and resources for his people. He could honestly care less if the Nikarans come with that land, however. Which if you're a Nikaran kinda makes the whole thing even worse.

Our main character, Runin Fang (or Fang Runin, as the Nikarans put the family name first) is deeply aware of that. Rin is an orphan, raised by a foster family thanks to the Empress’ decree that every family with less than 3 children should take in at least one orphan. For many orphans, this was likely the difference between life and death and for a good number of them likely delivered them to happy homes. Rin was raised by poppy smugglers, who used her as cheap labor and were planning to marry her off to a man old enough to be her grandfather as a bribe to continue their work. Rin isn't just not-excited about the idea, she's violently opposed. She's only got one shot out of this however, she needs to ace the Keju, the Empire-wide test meant to find the best youths to study at the various academies of the Empire. She can't just pass it, however since most of the academies charge for the honor of studying there. She needs to utterly dominate the scores so she can enter Sinegard, the elite military academy where the best of the best study to become of the officers of the Nikara Militia. Their nations best hope of preventing a physical and cultural genocide at the hands of the Mugen military. The military is also Rin's best hope of advancement and doing work that actually matters to her. Of course getting to Sinegard is only the start of the battle, because Rin will now be competing directly with the children of the upper class for the right to stay in an academy with a 20% washout rate in the first year. She has to deal with students who look down on her for her skin color (the south part of Nikara is darker then the northern part, the northern part of Nikara is wealthier), her accent and her class origins. She'll also have to deal with the fact that some of the instructors think teaching her is a waste of time. So she has a year to learn enough martial arts, logic, strategy and more to compete with people who have been training for this from the cradle. The book does a good job showing just how desperate Rin's situation is and the kind of lengths she has to go to make up the gap. It also shows us how such a thing builds and fuels a desire for power within Rin. A desire to be taken seriously, to be free from the constant threat of having to live a terrible life or not even have a life to live and how far that will drive her. As a fun little cherry on top of all this, Rin may also have mystic gifts that most had believed to be just empty stories told to children. Rin might just have the power to contact gods that the people of Nikara don't believe in anymore and summon their power into the material world. Such gifts are dangerous though and there's a good chance that she may lose herself entirely using them, or worse, find that there's no barrier between her desires and reality. All of this while a possible Mugen invasion is constantly looming in the background.

The Poppy War is based on real-life events, specifically, the 2nd Sino-Japanese War or as many of us in the west would call it, the Chinese front of World War II (although if we're gonna be honest it started a good two years before any other part of the war). This is a forgotten part of the war in most of the West honestly but it's not forgotten in China. Nor is it forgotten in Ms. Kuang's family, her maternal grandfather fought for Chiang Kai-Shek, her paternal grandfather lived under Japanese occupation. During that time the people of China suffered horribly, as the Japanese military had for over a decade instilled blood-thirsty fanaticism within its troops and a disregard for the lives or even the basic humanity of their opponents. This was graphically illustrated in the Rape of Nanjing, the then capital of the Republic of China, where according to Western, Chinese, and Japanese sources (including members of the Japanese Imperial Army[But denied/minimized by the Japanese government in violation of all logic.]) the Japanese Military engaged in a six weeks of utterly brutal behavior murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians, killing surrendered Chinese soldiers, along with untold amounts of torture, rape, and theft. I mention this because Ms. Kuang bases part of her book on the Rape of Nanking and she doesn't spare any punches. To paraphrase her own words in a number of interviews she has given, she felt it was important to tell this story, especially given that there is a faction of Japanese academia who either claims that the Rape of Nanking was over-inflated (some of them claiming 20,000 deaths as opposed to over 300,000) or that it never happened and it was completely made up the Republic of China as wartime propaganda. In the west, the Rape of Nanjing was virtually unknown until the 1980s and 1990s [The Rape of Nanjing was one of those rare times where a Nazi could be classified as good. A Nazi official by the name of John Rabe -he was the liaison between the chinese government, the Nazi Party, and Siemens at the time - held his swastika armband up like a shield while protecting chinese civilians with his own body. That’s how fucked up it was. Granted John Rabe was very bad at actually being a Nazi and he’d been in China prior to the Nazi takeover.] While Ms. Kuang doesn't write out explicit scenes of such behavior, she makes it clear that these things are happening in the story and doesn't pull any punches. I would honestly defend this, as unlike some stories which use such scenes in a pornographic manner, this is presented starkly and coldly. It's not meant to titillate but communicate the sheer madness being unleashed in such a war. That said, it does make the book hard to read at some places and there are parts of the books that some readers would be advised to avoid and there are some people I would tell to avoid the book entirely for their own health.

Ms. Kuang as created a very well realized world for her characters to inhabit and shows us a high stakes conflict where losing could be the end of an entire people and the vanishing of an ancient culture as it's members are raped, tortured, and murdered. She unflinching shows us the stakes of such a conflict and the very human cost of refusing to admit to the basic humanity of your enemies while asking us how far would you go in such a situation? While the internet has gifted Ms. Kuang with the title of Grimdark's darkest daughter, I wouldn't call this book grimdark. For those of my readers who are unaware grimdark is a term for fantasy and science fiction that trade heavily on dark themes and grim endings. In a Grimdark fantasy, the hero is often little different from the villains he or she fights and the world is always a brutal, unfair violent place where the best you can hope for is being the one who does unto others before they can do unto you. There is also usually no hope of any improvement or change for the better, the wide eye reformer will end up the power-hungry cynic swiftly, the pure-hearted hero will be corrupted and twisted, left more brute than man. The Poppy War, while dark, isn't grimdark. Ms. Kuang take a great amount of pain to clearly present to us that Rin has a choice at every step along her path. That there are options beyond embracing the darkness. The question is whether Rin will realize that or throw herself off the cliff in the pursuit of power? The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang gets an A, along with my hopes that future generations will find a way to avoid bringing such stories to life.

I would also like to welcome back our editor (whose comments are in the red text), who gave the hunting parties a good run but no one escapes forever.

I am the most dangerous game, many of them died at my hand, but even I am not immune to intravenous ketamine.

Next week we return to comics, via Monstress Vol III. Keep Reading!

_________________
"it takes two sides to end a war but only one to start one. And those who do not have swords may still die upon them." Tolken


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