Friday, January 25, 2008

Machine King

Last night, I posted my review of Andy Remic’s War Machine another title from Solaris Books’ firts season of books. While the book based on this book I wouldn’t quite consider Remic the “new master of f rock-hard military science fiction,” the book was still pretty enjoyable. I haven’t thoroughly read Military Science fiction as much as other subsets of Science Fiction so I can’t authoritatively rank War Machine against its peers and predecessors, but as I said, it was a solid novel. It provided some good action scenes, big ideas, and a nice mix of character focus and epic.

Stephen King
has a new book out now, Duma Key. I haven’t read any King since The Dark Tower concluded, but he was the first real “adult” writer I read as a kid. Over the years, I’ve read the majority of his stuff, but two recent books really didn’t work for me Dreamcatcher and From a Buick 8, which I thought was one of, if not his worst book. However, The Talisman and The Stand both still stand as all time favorites. Whether I pick up Duma Key right now, I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll eventually get to it, but I still haven’t read Lisey’s Story either.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Mrs. Blog 'o Stuff and I saw Cloverfield today. It was the biggest movie of the weekend, and if Lost didn't already do it, this film completely cemented J.J. Abrams as an A-List guy in Hollywood. Everybody who is interested in this film already knows the premise, a giant monster wreaks havoc in Manhattan. Unlike the predecessors of this particular sub-genre, the story is told by the people most affected by the attack - the people who live in NYC.

The writers/director/producer gave this move such a human feel. By introducing the characters the way they did, you built up an emotional attachment to them, you felt as if you knew them. That, plus all the viral marketing like the character myspace pages, gives the feeling that these people might be your friends.

It was pretty close to brilliant film making, from beginning to end. I want to see this movie again. I want to pick up on some of the clues that were peppered throughout, a trademark of J.J. Abrams' storytelling.

I'm only getting to the monster right now - the monster is and isn't important. Yes movie-goers want to see what the monster looks like. But like the characters from the "retrieved video camera," the important element that helps to build up the emotional tension is the characters themselves, and how they are affected by the monster.

Of course once the film ends and I sat through the credits (which anybody should do for this film), I wanted to know more about the monster's origins. What is it? From whence did it come? The movie works on a lot of levels, it pulls the heart strings with these characters, keeps you on the edge of your seat, and has you asking questions at film's end. It was a risky although proven successful method of film-making, see The Blair Witch. The night of the monster's "attack" isn't the only thing we see on the video, the video held something prior to the night of the monster attack. Two of the characters, Rob and Beth, spent a day together months prior to the Rob's going away part and those little snippits may (or may not) provide some hints, and more than anything, gives the characters more depth.

Go see the movie before you find out too much more about the monster and the plot.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Weekly Writerly Wrap

Some new things for authors whose work I like:

John Marco recently sold a YA Fantasy series, tentatively titled The Skylords, to DAW

Tad Williams relaunced a new official Web site

Patrick Rothfuss explains the delays to Wise Man's Fear. I've intimated before and I will again (as I did with GRRM), I would rather the author take some extra time to make the book better rather than rush to the end. It always bears out in the book

Jim Butcher is publishing a non-Harry Dresden novelette in the Dresden universe with Subterranean Press. Get this, Mike Mignola will be providing illustrations. Sounds like a can't miss to me.

I'm really trying some new approaches to writing with the new project I started - working off an outline, approaching chapter construction differently, and being more focused on the goals of each chapter and how that relates to the overall book/story. It feels right, so I need to get back to writing it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

SPOTLIGHT: Catching up with the Classics - Starship Troopers

So, here's the new "feature" at the Blog o' Stuff. Once a month (at the very least, I hope), I'll be taking a look at a classic book or novel from the Fantasy/Science Fiction genres. This will either be a book I haven't read in a while, or the case of in this installment's book Starship Troopers, a classic I have yet to read. How can I never have read this book? I just never got around to it, simple.

What I can I say about one of the most famous, acclaimed, influential, popular, and important Science Fiction books of all time and a Hugo winner, to boot? What can I add to all the words that have been extolled or exhorted in frustration? I don’t know, except for my opinion and my own response. Suffice it to say, it is virtually impossible to open up this book and read it for the first time without knowing about it, its reputation, or having some preconceived notions.

Much of the novel deals with Johnny Rico’s experiences in the Mobile Infantry and how he deals with the equivalent of boot camp in the future. Heinlein basically paints a picture of the life of one volunteer in what amounts to the Space Marines. Throughout, Rico’s thoughts about life, politics become shaped by his training, his superiors, his “drops,” and the battles in which he engages with the “Bugs.” He goes from one who is unsure of his thoughts to a man with strong-held convictions, and in this sense, the story works as a coming-of-age story.

One thing that surprised me as I was reading the book was how little action and science-fictiony stuff happens for the better part of the novel. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think the best science fiction novels, like this one, have an utterly human quality to them. Even if Johnny Rico serves as something of a mouthpiece for Heinlein (as some have said), the character comes across as genuinely human.

Another part of the story that surprised me was the nonchalance with which Rico reacts to the attack of the Bugs and the beginnings and of the Bug War. Despite Rico losing his mother and the momentary grief he experienced because of it, the attack and break out of the war are dealt with very matter-of-factly. I understand that Rico and his peers are training for war, but there didn’’t seem to be any kind of panic or any great swell of emotion when the Bugs attack Earth, or not as much as I would have expected.

I don’t know Heinlein’s writing well enough, but one item in particular struck me as very far sighted. Much of the novel, probably because it is in an unspecified future, has a timeless air about it. You get the sense that Heinlein was writing this both as a reaction to what he saw as well as a treatise as what he thought. One can also get the feeling that he wrote this book with the intention that it could ring true for many years to come, particularly the chapter where Rico describes something he takes for granted, what most people of that time take for granted, and something that has become a staple of the Military Science Fiction genre – Power Armor:

No need to describe what it looks like, since it has been pictured so often. Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapos. … But the suits are considerably stronger than a gorilla. If an M.I. in a suit swapped hugs with a gorilla, the gorilla would be dead, crushed; the M.I. and the suit wouldn’t be mussed. (Page 100 Ace mmpb)

That description says more in the words it doesn’t use than it does in anything else. It allows the reader to visualize something big and powerful; something iconic. It doesn’t rigidly define the thing and allows the thing to stand the test of time.

Although (as I said) I’ve never read the book before now, I do know of its reputation and influence, it arguably spawned the entire Military Science Fiction subgenre. Half of the authors of Baen Books were likely heavily influenced by Heinlein, and this book specifically. As I was reading through the book, I recalled some of the books I’ve read and realized how they were influenced by Starship Troopers Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Mr. Scalzi admits to patterning his novel off Heinlein’s. Robert Buettner’s Orphanage* is a very similar story line (the alien enemies are Slugs, close enough to bugs for me), though a good book in its own right. Ender’s Game also has a strong similarity. The whole drop scene and group of Space Marines from the film Aliens were likely patterned after the Mobile Infantry. Look at any of the popular science fiction video games, many can trace their origins and influences back to this book.

Lastly, I have to believe Stanley Kubrick read Starship Troopers at some point in his life prior to making his war masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket. The depiction of boot camp is very similar and there is a point in both stories where they seem like two different novels/movies. As soon as Private Pyle blows off his head and Private Joker heads off to Viet Nam, it seems like a different film. Granted, Full Metal Jacket is an adapted screenplay so the source material may be structured this way, but Starship Troopers fits the mold, to a degree. The cut isn’t as drastic in Starship Troopers, but the tone of the book changes, at least in my internal reading voice, after Rico leaves.

Obviously, I can’t speak on how much the novel is “of its times” nor can I speak directly of how much validity there is that certain characters in the book are simply mouthpieces for Heinlein, I haven’t read all that much by him. What I can say is that the novel is very powerful and I agree with William Lexner’s sentiments – this is a must read and probably one of the five most important Science Fiction novels ever written. I’d go as far as to say one of the most important books written in the 20th Century considering it is on the reading list for three of the four US Military Academies.

I still haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not making any plans to watch or TiVo it. So, have I added anything to the discourse that has been going on about this book since its publication nearly 50 years ago**? Perhaps. If nothing else, it shows that the book is still effective to an experienced reader of the genre like myself.
In sum, I really enjoyed the book and am torn. On one hand, I feel I should have read it many years ago. On the other, I'm glad I just read it for the first time. I'm not sure what my next book will be for this "feature" but I certainly started it off with a bang.

* Buettner's next Jason Wander novel, Orphan's Destiny, publishes later this year through the new Orbit US imprint, which absorbed the WarnerAspect Science Fiction line. Good for Robert, the books are a lot of fun. The covers are redesigned and look very good, but I still like this original piece from Fred Gambino.

**I wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of fancy 50th anniversary edition of the novel will be published next year.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pulling the Killswitch, Another Writing Project, Cloverfield

I skipped a week with posting a review, so here’s my latest – Killswitch by Joel Shepherd. This novel wraps up Cassandra Kresnov’s story, for now. Shepherd brought closure to the story but left it wide open enough for more stories, should he choose to return to Sandy’s world.

I started a new writing project this week, using some ideas that have been percolating for a few years. I’m approaching this one a bit differently – I prepared an outline and brief character sketches before actually writing the story. I wanted to get a good sense of what ingredients I was dealing with before I started cooking the stew, to borrow a metaphor. That said, I started the prologue last night with some of the outline still unfinished; I wanted to get a feel for my writing voice in this story, which I think/thought might help me put the finishing touches on the outline.

I’m also considering posting some of this stuff online, perhaps on a blog all itself. It worked for some authors and it would the first bunch of my fiction writing up for public consumption. I have to admit, it daunts me a bit, but I need to get over it. I will.

I’ve got something cooking as a regular feature here at the world famous Blog ‘o Stuff, which might go up this week.

The more I see of Cloverfield, the more I HAVE to see it.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

2007: A Review of Rob's Readings

Well, everybody else is doing it, so why not me. Right? I’m of course referring to a brief summary of what books I liked best from my readings in 2007. Sure, I mentioned a few books in my contribution to the annual SFFWorld round up, but that was limited to only those books published in 2007. As is the case with most readers like myself, not all of my reading is comprised of books published in that specific year. Though in my personal ratings, no book I read last year received a “10,” quite a few received a “9.”
The best science fiction book I read last year was Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo-award winning novel, Spin. As I said on the blog a few weeks ago:

On the whole, I really REALLY enjoyed this book. I thought it was an extremely human look at a near future where people were confronted with a technological event far beyond anything people in the world are capable of doing. I am not surprised it received the Hugo and think it will be considered a top SF book for a while. The ending was a little frustrating because I wanted to see what would happen next, but I also consider the ending to be appropriate.

The best collection, perhaps the best overall fantasy book I read last year was Jeffrey Ford’s The Empire of Ice Cream. The book contains award-winning stories, which is becoming par for the course with Mr. Ford’s collections. Here’ what I said back in Novermber:

I don’t know if this collection is better than his previous World Fantasy Award winning collection, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, but it isn’t any lesser a collection. What we have here is a writer unrestrained by bounds of genre and imagination. Jeffrey Ford’s writing has such an authenticity about it, you cannot help but trust that the stories he tells have a ring of truth to them. More importantly, you want to believe them as real and year for the next stories to be told.

Every year has it fair share of debut novelists, the three whose work most connected with me were Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, and the “hot new star” Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. I reviewed both of these for SFFWorld. Here’s a snippet from my review of Heart-Shaped Box:

Where the story transcends both the genre and just being a “good story” is how effectively Joe Hill puts forth the reality of Jude’s situation. One gets the sense that the story could be an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music after taking a very dark turn. Even though Jude is a living legend of an almost Ozzy Osbourne status, Hill paints a picture of a real man haunted by his past and current demons.

Here's a snippet of what I said about The Blade Itself when Pyr delivered the book to US readers:

I thought the novel started a bit slow, I was thinking all the hype surrounding the book upon its UK release last year was going to leave me disappointed. It has happened with other books in the past for me. Thankfully, Abercrombie’s story, and more convincingly, his characters pulled me into the story unheeded. ... Abercrombie is a damned frustrating writer. He writes so well and his story is so infectious it is difficult to stop reading and even thinking about the layers of his story and world.

From The Name of the Wind (which I was lucky enough to read before much of the hype took hold of the book):

Where will The Name of the Wind stand at year’s end and over the next few years in the genre? At least for this year, Rothfuss has set the bar very high for any other author publishing their first novel in 2007. As for where the book will stand in the years to come, it will likely stand as the start of one of the bright careers in fantasy fiction. Suffice it to say, the book is very good and has all the elements of greatness – characters with which the reader can empathize, a fascinating backdrop where these characters live, and the key ingredient: leaving the reader wanting for more. Since this is just the first book in a trilogy, that want will be met.

Though not a new author, I came across her work for the first time in 2007 and the book turned out to be the Science Fiction novel I enjoyed the most, Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon.

With a rich and vivid setting, peopled with believable and sympathetic characters and fascinating aliens, Kay Kenyon has launched an impressive saga with Bright of the Sky. My only criticism involves some of the scenes where the narratives point of view character switches from Quinn to those who interact with him in the Entire. The transitions aren’t entirely smooth and I found myself re-reading passages to be sure to whom the words were being attributed. These scenes were very few, but did jar the otherwise smooth and quick pace of the story. That said, Bright of the Sky, like the best novels opening a larger sequence, balances closure with open plot strands.

Scott Lynch’s second book was just as good as his first. This is not surprising because he made Locke Lamora and Jean pirates. I loved the dialogue and interplay betwixt the two and really liked the non-straightforward timeline Lynch used to tell the story in Red Seas Under Red Skies.
As sequels go, Red Seas Under Red Skies is fabulous and a more accomplished, more tightly written novel than its predecessor. Considering what a top notch job Lynch did with his debut, this is impressive. As importantly, Red Seas Under Red Skies doesn’t work so bad as an introduction to the Gentleman Bastards. I found myself smiling throughout most of the book, grinning at the dialogue, and riding right along with Jean and Locke on their pirate adventure. At its heart, Red Seas Under Red Skies is pure fun.

Even though I knew the events that form the backdrop of the book, Buster Olney’s The Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty was a superb book. Being a Yankees fan for the past 30+ years, I’ve followed the team through ups and downs, and none were more “up” than the championship run at the turn of the Century. Even knowing much of the outcome, Olney managed to keep my glued to every word on the page.

The Author I rediscovered in 2007 was Steven Erikson. I’m still slowly making my way through the Malazan Book of the Fallen, but the saga took hold of me fully in the summer of 2007 when I read the first two books whilst serving Jury Duty in May and June.

Another series I rediscovered, after breezing through much of it a few years ago, was Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. Specifically, the latest book, Dzur, which I liked very much.Other books that stood out for me were Peter David’s
Darkness of the Light, Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin, David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Book I, and the two books in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.

I also read a couple of stinkers last year, David Keck’s In the Eye of Heaven. The book seems to be somewhat polarizing, I’m in the camp that didn’t care much for it. Gail Z. Martin’s The Summoner didn’t work for me either, I couldn’t even finish the book. I hate when that happens, but buy the halfway point, nothing worked for me and I felt it was a story I read many times before with more originality. Brian Ruckley’s
Winterbirth didn’t work so well for me either, I just couldn’t find anything in the story about which to care. The book, coincidentally, is the January 2008 Fantasy Book Club of the Month at SFFWorld, others have reacted differently than I did. The most disappointing; however, was Robin Hobb’s Forest Mage. I love Hobb’s writing, but this story angered my like almost no other book I’ve read.

So that’s it, the brief summary of the highlights and lowlights of my 2007 readings.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Happy New Year

In what has become something of a Christmas/New Year’s tradition in the Blog o’ Stuff household I watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As much as I love the movies, and know how the story ends, all those fade to blacks at the end of Return of the King set one up to think the film has ended. To keep the Tolkien theme in mind, I read The Children of Húrin yesterday. The story reminded me of a Greek Tragedy, in both style and theme Tolkien employed to tell the story as well as the grandeur and power. Though I read it over a day or two, the story is still resonating with me.

Yesterday, aside from the first day of 2008, was also the first NHL Winter Classic. Even though I probably would have had a difficult time seeing the game from the stadium seats, it would have been very cool to be there. It was a solid game with an ending the NHL couldn’t have scripted any better, with the Kid scoring the winning goal in a shootout. I would love to see this become an annual tradition, with perhaps a game in New Yankees Stadium in 2009 or a game in Pittsburgh, or in RFK Stadium with some rotating teams. Maybe the previous Stanley Cup champion being involved in the game, though having the Anaheim Ducks as the host tem would kind of defeat the purpose.

The first day of 2008 was a busy day, as it turned out; I posted my latest review, The Solaris Book of New Fantasy edited by George Mann. I liked the majority of the stories and may pick up their New Book of Science Fiction. In addition, we jiggered up the front page of SFFWorld yesterday.