2016 was a bit quiet on the writing front, too much going on IRL, but it ended on a high note with the publication of SNAFU:Black Ops featuring my short story The Waking Dragon. This is my third outing with the SNAFU series (stories of mine also made it into Hunters and Wolves at the Door) and they're always a lot of fun. Hopefully this shows through in the story itself. Obviously my fellow contributors and I did something right as Black Ops is curently sitting pretty with a 4.5 star average on Amazon. Apart from your humble correspondent there are also stories from Jonathan Maberry, Nicholas Sansbury Smith, James Lovegrove and... as the saying goes... many more. If you're a fan of action stories with a supernatural or sci-fi twist then it's definately worth checking out.
In another three-peat, an older story of mine, rounded out the year for the Hugo award-winning Starship Sofa podcast. Taking the High Road won the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest in 2012 and follows a doomed expedition to Mars as they find a new way of living on a comet hurting out of the solar system. Its guaranteed to piss off anyone who knows anything about orbital mechanics, but apart from that its a fine read, in fact it's one of my favourites. It's one of those stories that you look back on and think, "Did I really write that?" I think they did a great job turning it into an audiobook and its free! Why not have a listen and check it out for yourself?
The cover art for the next SNAFU anthology is out and Dean Samed has done the business again.
One of the "many more" is going to be none other than your humble correspondent. I'm still working on the story. This is the first time I've been asked to contribute to an anthology before the story has actually been written. Nothing like contractual obligation to get the creative juices flowing!
I'm trying something a bit different with this one. In the past I may have been guilty of being a bit too formulaic. This one is going to have its share of red meat too--SNAFU readers want their fix of military action with a spec-fic twist that Cohesion Press always delivers--but at the same time it's going to be a bit mind-bendy.
Will I pull it off, or is this where i jump the shark? Only time will tell.
A really nice review from The United Federation of Charles which I hope he won't mind me sharing.
"Non-Zero Sum Game" by R.P.L Johnson
"An interesting psychological look at soldiers who have stared too long into the abyss and what sort of questions that raises. In a bizarre way, I think of this story as taking place in the Doom universe. You have Marines regularly called upon to stop the forces of Hell but there is no sign of heaven in their works. I found the ending to be curiously uplifting and I've got to give the author real credit for this one. 10/10"
SNAFU: Hunters is now available for pre-order. This a great little anthology from Cohesion Press, edited by the wonderful A.J. Spedding and it includes a story of mine, Non-Zero Sum.
I've said this before on Facebook after the Charlie Hebdo massacre but it bears repeating after what we've seen in Paris over the past hours.:
Terrorism is the weapon of the weak.
Terrorists use carefully scripted acts of violence to try and achieve a political aim that they could not achieve by main force alone. That's the point. They can't achieve their goals unless we let let them; they're not strong enough.
So by all means attend the candle-lit vigils and share the Je suis Paris memes, but at the end of the day all that stuff is meaningless. The correct reaction to any terrorist incident is to stiffen the upper lip and hold the fucking line.
Any novel that spans over five thousand years if going to have to leave a lot out. Whether or not you enjoy Seveneves will depend on whether you agree with the author’s choices of what gets to stay in the book and what gets jettisoned. For me I thought that the book might have worked better as a trilogy rather than a single over-long book with a gaping five-thousand year hole in the middle, but your mileage may vary. Spoilers ahead…
Seveneves is a book in two distinct halves. The first half is a hard sci-fi disaster tale following the crew of the International Space Station (among many, many others) when they become the focus of efforts to save the human race after the mysterious explosion of the Moon. This part of the book was quite entertaining and offered up plenty of technical details for those who like that sort of thing. However, I found it strangely unemotional. The author deliberately shows us only those saved from the apocalypse with the vast bulk of the human race condemned to die off camera. Seven billion people seem quite content to work around the clock to save a few thousand and the masses are strangely accepting of their fate. This seemed unrealistic.
The science of the “Hard Rain” has been dissected elsewhere. Suffice to say that it is a fudge. The explosion of the Moon as described at the start of the book would not lead to the destruction of the Earth. The fragments would simply re-combine, drawn back together by their mutual gravity. But you kind of have to go along with it otherwise the whole premise of the book doesn’t work.
The second half of the book is distinctly odd. After the entire human race has been whittled down to eight individuals (all female but only seven of them fertile—the Seven Eves of the title) we then leap forward five thousand years to a time when a world-circling civilisation has been built in orbit and the Earth is habitable once more. For me, this seemed to skip over the interesting bit—how to build a civilisation. Humanity has been given a second chance, an opportunity to do things right with the benefit of hindsight and a good technical library. What choices would they make differently? I felt that a trilogy structure, much like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, would have worked better here.
As it is, the civilisation that the author creates is quite strange. They are technologically advanced, but seem to be mired in the past. Each of the Seven Eves genetically modified their offspring leading to seven distinct races. And there seems to have been very little inter-racial breeding over the millennia (although it is hinted at and so must be biologically possible). Bizarrely in this day and age, the author says that individuals’ personalities, their preferences in friends and lovers, their choice of intellectual pursuits are largely controlled by their race. Teklans are all doughty warriors. Julians are natural politicians and Aidans are still fighting against five-thousand year old slights to their ancestor. I found this to be odd, like an old book from the fifties where races are little more than stereotypes.
In five thousand years, through such drastic changes in the human experience, I doubted that Moirans would still name their children after historical details of their long dead ancestor. It would be like a modern European naming their kid Hammurabi because much of modern civilisation grew from the Indus Valley many thousand years ago.
There’s not much story in the second half either. There is a cold war between the “Red” and “Blue” sides of humanity which again seems to exist only because five thousand years ago, their respective Eves didn’t get along. (Aren’t these archaic details swamped by more recent economic/technical/social factors?) More “races” are found on Earth, emerging from five thousand year old bunkers and deep-sea habitats and there is a brief conflict at a flashpoint between Red and Blue territory but this all seemed a bit petty and parochial set against the massive canvas that this book had given itself.
Ultimately, this is a very ambitious book that falls short of its goals. There are quibbles to be had with the technical details in the first half. (Why launch arks into space with all the expense and technical difficulties when it is revealed later that much less-prepared humans can ride out the hard rain in underground bunkers?) And the odd stylistic choices in the second half seem to be hinting at some allegorical meaning which is never clearly realised. It’s an interesting read, but not the author’s best work.
Game of Thrones
Various Warner Bothers Cartoons
Captain America: the Winter Soldier
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
The Walking Dead
No this isn't my Netflix history: this is a list of all the pop-cultural references in Peter Clines' new book, The Fold. Now before we go any further, I should say that I'm not criticising The Fold, in fact I quite enjoyed it (you can see my Goodreads review here). However, it was notable for the sheer number of nods it makes to other books and recent movies. I've seen this in quite a few novels: there was Ready Player One and more recently The Martian, but Clines' book really took it to the next level and asked myself what authors think they gain from referencing other works in their stories.
Posatives first... It is a useful shorthand. If you say your hero looks like a young Severus Snape, many readers will get the picture without long paragraphs of description. It also places your characters firmly in the here and now. They watch the same movies and read the same books as your readers and that spark of recognition, of camaraderie, can help to forge a quick bond between your readers and your characters.
The downsides are that it will date your work. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is still consistently at or near the top of the sci-fi charts, but I wonder if that would still be the case if it was stuffed to the gills with references to Ender watching old episodes of Moonlighting and Street Hawk between exercises at Battle School.
It also leads to a certain laziness. For example in The Fold, Peter Clines describes the noise made by one of his pan-dimensional aliens as being similar to the Predator. That's too obvious a comparison and runs the risk that people will start to see someone else’s story play out in their head rather than Clines'.
But the biggest downside for me is that it makes the story bland. Because the authors are using these references to form a the quickest possible bond with the maximum possible number of people, it inevitably places the stories squarely in the middle of the mass market. They all have the same cultural tone. It's the literary equivalent of every CGI company using the same teal and orange colour wheel. Stories stop being unique creations and everything starts to read like the front page of Buzzfeed. I'm not saying that authors can't still write enjoyable stories, but they are unlikely to invent a new Bond or a Holmes.
In short, by over-referencing other works, your story becomes a remora, swimming alongside many others under the great shark of the zeitgeist. You might quote others, but no-one will ever quote you.
Okay… A few thoughts on this year's Hugo nominees for Best Short Story. Spoilers ahead so you have been warned.
On a Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli
This one takes a while to get going and bears some similarity to last year’s The Chaplain's War from Brad Torgersen. Again we have a military pastor offering succour to his flock on an alien world. This world has the property of retaining the ghosts of its dead inhabitants until they are released by making a pilgrimage to the pole. When the first human, Joe McDonald, dies in an accident on the planet, the Chaplain undertakes the pilgrimage to release his soul.
I found the science in this science fiction to be a little odd. The author refers to the planet’s strong electro-magnetic field as the reason their ghosts stay with them. I found this unconvincing. If there was any measurable, physical attributes to the afterlife then even here on Earth we would have detected it. I thought it would have been better to leave it as strictly mystical rather than trying to fudge the science.
Also with the adjustment to the planets orbit. That would not be affected by a “contraction” in the planet’s sun. The star would have to lose mass through an ejection, but something of that magnitude would likely have cooked the planet. Dodgy science again. Also, I don’t see why this would affect the planet’s core unless there were tidal stresses, which are never mentioned.
Science aside, I thought the lack of spiritual depth to also be a problem. Although the hero recognises the presence of Joe’s spiritual form, he seems to think this is something distinct from his soul. He says, “…his soul has already flown, he is just a ghost.” I found this somewhat confusing. Why help Joe if this is not the “real” Joe? If his soul is already in heaven, why bother about this remaining apparition? There is a contradiction here: the ghost is authentic enough for the Chaplain to undertake a gruelling journey to help him, but at the same time not real in that Joe's true soul has presumably already escaped the planet.
The author ducks the real questions. If this apparition is taken as proof of the existence of a life after death then this apparition must be the soul. If Joe’s ghost is some other phenomenon unrelated to his soul and a Christian afterlife then the reality of a heaven remains unproven. But the Chaplain's faith is never shaken. In fact everyone in this story seems to accept this rather earth-shattering revelation that someone can exist without a physical form with barely a grunt of astonishment. The base commander, for example, seems to see the situation as little more than an administrative annoyance.
But the real problem with this story is that Joe should be the hero, not the Chaplain. He is the one whose life has changed. He is the one who has to make the decision to willingly enter oblivion. Unfortunately the hapless Joe is relegated to a bit part in his own story and instead we are left with the Chaplain who has no conflict, no crisis of faith and engages in a rather dull walk to the pole.
The Parliament of Beasts and Birds By John C Wright
It is the day after the day of judgement and all the animals of the world are wondering where the humans went. Only the cat has the correct mixture of independence and familiarity with man’s world to make the trek into the city and report back. She reports that all humans have disappeared, they have been taken to heaven or hell as appropriate. She also points out that the animals left behind have been given the forms of men and the ability to talk. Some take these gifts while others retain their animal forms and pledge enmity to their former kin. Two angels appear and grant all of man’s works to the man-animals (one of whom is now a dragon for some reason). Only fox remains, wondering what the hell is going on (as I was by this point) but his questions remain unanswered.
Perhaps one needs to be a Christian to get this one, or at least have a working knowledge of the book of revelation. I’m not and I don’t and so much of what came to pass in this story passed me by. It is written in an affected biblical style which grated like a sonofabitch after a while and did nothing to illuminate the somewhat odd happenings. "Twilight of Man, forsooth?" said the Lion… is not an untypical line of dialogue.
This story seemed engrossed in itself and enamoured of its own style. The subject and the style combined to give it a definite presence. But as it offered nothing in the way of enjoyment or enlightenment, I’m afraid this wasn't for me.
A Single Samurai by Steven Diamond
I was intrigued by the monster in this one: it’s very size and the fact that it was both antagonist and also location for the story, that was something I hadn’t seen before. It is a nicely paced story and traditional in structure with a problem posed by the antagonist (the kaiju) and solved by the hero (the samurai). Perhaps the plot and structure were a little too traditional and lacked the same innovation shown by the author in the creation of their mountainous antagonist.
Stumbling upon the creature’s brain was perhaps a little too convenient. And there was no story behind the story. I would have liked the author to go a little deeper into this mythology. If this creature is so old and so much (literally) a part of the landscape, isn’t it a part of the land the samurai claims to love? If some of last year's Hugo nominees were criticised as being too allegorical, this story perhaps errs in the other direction. There was plenty of scope here for the author to comment on the nature of statehood. Could the vast, shambling creature be a metaphor for a county or government set on a wrong path? Perhaps the path that saw the samurai’s father commit seppuku? Is the old monster a symbol of a feudal system too set in its ways to change and unheeding of the casual destruction to people’s lives that it leaves in its wake? Unfortunately, the author decided not to explore these ideas and left us with a straight George vs. Dragon tale of monster slaying. But it was kinda fun.
A very good story, this one. It reminded me of the excellent Bridesicle by Will McIntosh. Perhaps not quite enough conflict, but a great voice and use of language. The union of hard SF and the sensual memories of food humanises what could have been a very dark story. Certainly my favourite by far.
An AI finds value in its relationship with its human crew and ultimately rebels against its purer brethren to fight with the humans in an ongoing war of machine vs organic life.
Interesting in its depictions of future warfare and weapons, the success or otherwise of this story really rests on the voice of its protagonist. I found the machine protagonist to be a little lifeless (pardon the pun) and didn’t really get a sense of why the AI liked its human crew. It seemed to find them a comforting presence like an old pair of slippers or the lingering scent of grandfather’s pipe smoke, but it never forged a relationship with any human in particular. Ultimately it seemed a fairly tenuous reason to switch sides in a bitterly fought war.
What was needed here was a bit of the late and greatly lamented Ian M Banks’ trademark wit to bring the AI to life. For all that it was an entertaining story and I liked it well enough. I wouldn’t have picked it for a Hugo, but it’s decent.
So what's the final verdict? Totalled is the standout favourite for me so I'll be voting as follows:
A Single Samurai
My short story This Other Earth has a new cover!
Thanks again to Matthew Dobrich for the great artwork.
The story follows one man's journey after the Earth is lost, terraformed by an invading alien ecosystem. Fragments of humanity cling to life on rocky islands on the edges of their former empire and every year brings them closer to the arrival of the mysterious alien Seeders.
I think Matt's really captured the sense of loss and isolation that I tried to evoke with this tale of why someone would carry on in defiance of a total, worldwide infestation.
You can check out the story on Smashwords, or wherever e-books are sold.