Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Conspiracy Theorizing

I liked Abraham Thornton's novel Zero Point so much I quickly bought its sequel Retribution. Here's my review thereof.

Retribution picks up where Zero Point leaves off, which is brutally. It's always good to put a corpse in your first chapter. And I think you could easily regard both Zero Point and Retribution as mystery novels. And this fits with the corpse in the hotel room.

A detective of the local constabulary on one of the planets of the dystopian Union gets the homicide case. And this case has him almost immediately frozen out of the investigation by the federales who run the Union. You see, the victim is a spy and he's been offed by some deadly people we met in Zero Point.

This is a risky move on Mr. Thornton's part, because the killers are the people we grew to like in Zero Point, and the detective is a policeman in a police state. It's easy to start rooting against Our Heroes and the detective, Roland Hendrick, seems like not a bad sort. Despite being a cop in a police state.

The story moves along nicely and we discover the homicide was sorta justified and the victim was not a nice person. You see, Our Heroes are seeking justice and the vic has the blood of the crew of the starship Marco Polo on his hands.

The perspective quickly shifts to Volya and the beautiful Alainn, who show the circumstances of the killing and the process they follow to investigate the crimes perpetrated by the conspiracy that made up the bulk of Zero Point.

They leave Alainn's home planet, that I call Galt's Gulch In Space, and return to the dystopian Union where Mr. Thornton hits the reader over the head with the fact that when guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns. Don't the police have guns? Yes, they do. I said, only outlaws have guns.

Along the way they break up some human trafficking and figure out who screwed over Volya. Despite having some difficulties with the local police and one huge red herring, they end up figuring out who did what and meting out justice.

In the process Volya comes to understand scope-creep in the business of seeking justice. And though it was not explicitly stated, Retribution says something more about the Union (and by extension those aspects of our own society that mirror it).

Pretty much every character in both novels who is a Union citizen has direct experience with government malfeasance and cover-up. The first novel gives you the impression the Union is uniformly an Evil Empire on the order of yet another Obama/Bush term. But the second novel shows that overarching state control without checks & balances breeds lawlessness at every level. Whenever anything goes wrong in anything as small as an traffic stop in space, or an act of state-sponsored piracy, the regime of cover-up and scapegoating establishes a web of lies to perpetuate the status quo.

That's the good news, both for Volya and Alainn, and for us. The revolution doesn't consist of a violent overthrow of those in power, because if that's all we get, you'll find the new boss is just like the old boss. To the contrary, the revolution is a matter of establishing personal integrity, and insisting upon it in everyone around you.

I said it's good news, because it's a personal, not a political thing. Edmund Burke asserted that Freedom and Liberty require virtue in the general public. The virtuous citizen will generally get along with others, tell the truth, and expect the truth from his elected representatives.

But Steve, your moralizing is only to individuals, not the collective. What if the collective lies and accepts liars? In that case, we get the government we deserve. And if you want to see one vision of what that's like read Abraham Thornton's Union stories.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Galt's Gulch In Space

I just finished Zero Point by Abraham Thornton. I made the mistake of taking the review on Amazon too seriously. This is a fun Space Opera that I thoroughly enjoyed. It reminded me a lot of the Jon and Lobo stories by Mark Van Name.

The novel starts out in deep space. The hero, Volya Fry, is minding his own business running a space salvage business when two unusual things coincide. His engineer informs him that the reactor running his decrepit 3-man salvage ship is going to blow up and everyone's going to die. And a few minutes later his navigator informs him there's a mysterious space ship within range.

So, they make for the ship and when they get there they find a mystery. The crew is gone. The logs are wiped. There's no transponder. And... horror of horrors, there's a fully stocked armory. It seems there's no 2nd Amendment in the dystopian space empire where Volya comes from. In fact, the space empire with its interlocking network of impossible to navigate rules and regulations seems to be an elaborate conspiracy to screw over the little guy.

Sort of like America after the Democrats and the Republicans get everything they want. Which is the point, really. Mr. Thornton grinds a libertarian axe when he describes the Union. He has designed a future world where the galaxy is inhabited by humans in one of two empires: Crony Capitalists, or Peoples Republic Commies. Plus a number of non-aligned worlds.

After Volya does the right thing and obeys all the regulations to the letter, he's arrested and then framed for piracy. Adventures ensue as Volya undergoes a transformation from compliant subject/sheep to a free citizen of the galaxy.

Along the way he hooks up with a beautiful bounty hunter who takes him home to her libertarian paradise. Whereas moneyed interests and governments like the status quo, the girl's planet has a different set of priorities. I like to think of it as Galt's Gulch In Space.

Freedom means different things to different people. Some people think that nobody is truly free if any one of us suffers. And others think freedom means making your own choices without coercion and that includes being free to starve to death. The former is a more collectivist notion that I can't fathom. The latter is twisted into something heartless. And that's what I took too seriously in the Amazon review. I think the he felt this heartlessness was inherent in libertarianism and the story absolutely HAD to include that. Screw that.

Free men can cooperate freely of their free will to advance their mutual interests. And they can do so more efficiently than any centralized bureaucracy can. If you don't believe that, consider why the Soviets are on the ash-heap of history. The problem is information. Free markets have the information to allocate resources more efficiently than centralized planning that can't even distribute toilet paper without long queues.

After showing us the dystopian Union in juxtapose with a libertarian utopia, our heroes goes on to find out who framed him and to settle some scores.

It's an altogether pleasing romp across space, and I give a hearty 5-stars to Zero Point. It's not perfect. Mr. Thornton has room to grow as a writer, but it was just such a fun read I can't ding him.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

My Faith Has Found A Resting Place

I'm having breakfast with my friend Ed and after we'd finished eating, we went outside and sat in the lawn chairs in front of the restaurant to finish our conversation. The topic included Soren Kierkegaard's teleological suspension of the ethical as well as a more general discussion of the character of deity.

Then I made mention of the leap of faith.

You see, you can see the chair and you can believe the chair will support your weight, but you actually have to sit in the chair and put your weight on that chair. This is a key distinction in believing Christ and believing in Christ. That matter of head knowledge versus heart commitment that us Evangelicals go on about. If you've been around Baptists like me for any length of time you may have heard this.

And slowly, gently, the back legs of the chair collapsed and I tipped back. I ended up resting on my back with my feet sticking up in the air. I was trapped sort of like a turtle until I could extricate myself with Ed's help from the chair.

I hope deity, or the ghost of Kierkegaard, or my old philosophy prof at least gets a chuckle from this story.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Uller Uprising

I've mentioned H. Beam Piper before. Though he died tragically. he left behind a marvelous corpus of golden-age Science Fiction. One of his stories was "The Uller Uprising." What makes this story interesting is that it is a retelling in space of the Indian Rebellion, better known (to me) as the Sepoy Rebellion.

I have mixed feelings toward the British Raj. I thoroughly approve of the treasonous actions of George Washington, et al., in throwing off the yoke of British Rule. Individual people know how to run their lives much better than some commissar hundreds of miles away. Nevertheless, I think India is better off today than if the Moguls had remained unmolested.

In The Uller Uprising, a bunch of Earthlings are doing what I imagine that the British did in India. They're working with people from another culture, doing commerce, and making money. Since the Earthlings have a more advanced technology, they can pay better wages than the local despots who are into slavery and coercion. The Earthlings do a pretty good job of winning hearts and minds by improving everyone's standard of living.

On the other side, the local despots who see their power eroding have a clear edge in the tradition, and religion side of the hearts and minds equation. The Earthlings maintain cordial relations with the existing feudal lords who are being paid off to go along with continued trade and development. This seems to correspond to what little I know of the Brits in India.

The Uller Uprising predates multiculturalism and its notion that all cultures are morally equivalent. Thus we see abolitionist colonial officials depicted as morally superior to the slave-taking indigenous rulers. The story is written from the colonial government's perspective and by extension it made me feel more sympathetic of the Brits.

After a treacherous betrayal by a coalition of indigenous rulers, the Ullerans go to war and the primary interest of the Earthlings becomes surviving the unpleasantness.

As is usually the case, when two elites compete for supremacy on the battlefield, the non-elite common people do most of the dying.

In the aftermath of the uprising, the Earthlings' relationship with the Ullerans changes from a mostly commercial one to a more authoritarian one with a lot more soldiers and a much heavier hand.

Local rule is fine and all, but a tribal chief is screwing me over is not much different from some British dude screwing me over. And if my tribal chief is illiterate and that British dude is an Oxford grad, the latter will do a better job of  figuring out where to build roads and setting up public institutions.

The trouble with colonial rule is that the British dude will look primarily to his interests and not my interests. Of course, in a feudal society, the nobility's interests are just as divorced from the common people's interests as some foreign dude's. Same goes when the guys calling the shots are members of the "revolutionary people's committee." Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Some animals are more equal than other animals. And all that.

Though you might think H. Beam Piper is a reprobate colonialist, he does not regard the indigenous alien Ullerans as any less capable than their human counterparts. The aliens manage to start with a roughly Middle Ages level of technological development and in short order figure out how to build nukes. And just for fun, the humans have to scramble to find blueprints for their own bomb--in the pages of a pornographic romance novel.

For these reasons I give The Uller Uprising 5-stars.

Like I said before, I have mixed feelings about the British Raj. My sympathies were as much for the colonials in The Uller Uprising as they were against the colonials in Thunder In The East. My friend from Delhi is adamant that independence--despite the murderous transition of the partition--is a good thing and good riddance to the Brits.

Yet, he plays the bagpipes and enjoys cricket. Maybe it would have been better if India kicked out the Brits when we did.
Or maybe not. Like I said, mixed feelings.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Omega Rising

Sometimes you read a book and you think, "this is what I wished for when I was a kid."

Omega Rising is one such book. Jason Burke, a former military special operator ninja type living in his cabin in the mountains sees a crash landing and goes to render aid. As it turns out it isn't an airplane crash, but a temporarily disabled UFO. And it turn out that instead of rendering aid, he gets trapped onboard and shortly thereafter he enlists as a crewman.

How cool is that?

Turns out his mad weapons skillz translate well to what's needed in this part of the galaxy. And off he goes finding friendly aliens to fill missing slots in the crew. He ends up righting wrongs and fighting intergalactic crime and becoming a regular hero.

Fun stuff.

Is it deep literature that'll make you think about the human condition and man's place in the universe? Nope. It's popcorn, buttered, tasty and salty.

And that's what I loved and what I see as the novel's weakness. Salty language doesn't fit in here.

When the Good Lord sent Moses down from the Mount with the tablets of the Law, the 3rd Commandment said not to take the name of deity uselessly. It did not say, "Thou Shalt Not Say F*ck."

As far as my own moralistic whining is concerned, I have much more trouble with OMG than WTF, because OMG uses the name in a profane fashion, whereas WTF employs a mere vulgarity. There's a commandment for the former, not for the latter.

But my friends at church, and my family members take a dim view of the latter. I have a cousin who likes Science Fiction, but any swear words had better be in Mandarin or munged into euphemisms like, "frack." Thus he won't enjoy Omega Rising for reason of the salty language alone.

I thought Omega Rising would be an excellent juvenile. Since our hero is the only human, and he's pretty busy saving the galaxy, there are no sex scenes. But junior might get a vocabulary lesson that mom or dad might not appreciate. If you're cool with that, then by all means you should read Omega Rising and then hand it over to your favorite adventure-loving boy or girl.

5-Stars if you don't mind the f-word.

Since I've mentioned bad language, I want to open my mind a bit on the subject. From a moral standpoint, something is not right or wrong if I approve or not. If you believe deity cares about the 3rd Commandment, then you'll have to worry about answering to him about it. Not me.

Strong language extends beyond profanity to other usage that is socially inappropriate. The f-word is a vulgarity, the s-word is a coprology, and the n-word is an insulting term. None of these words are good or bad in and of themselves, but how & when they are used. My mother-in-law was a devout Christian whose moral example met the highest standard was beyond any reproach. Yet, she was a farm wife and when discussing the cleaning of a barn, I heard her use s-word in a matter-of-fact matter. She wasn't any more or less righteous for that usage. It merely reflected her agricultural background.

Likewise, when in college I made the acquaintance of someone from Australia. He used different swear words. He couldn't say words that I found innocuous and vice versa.

I'm not saying all this to preach at you, but to establish that these words have an effect on your audience that you want to control. If you think X is a shocking word, you should use it when you want your reader to be shocked.

Usage should be fitting for the character. Your elderly nun probably should not curse like a sailor, while your sailor has a license to use whatever ribaldry the scene calls for.

I worked in a factory beside a fellow who would use curse words as a sort of mantra. They didn't mean anything as he said them, they just came out of his mouth in a continuous stream. I'm not condemning the fellow, but such words are a coin that is easily debased.

Consider how you use spicy peppers, they add a certain piquancy to a dish that some people, like my sister-in-law, have zero tolerance for. Conversely, leave them out and I find the disk bland and boring. Though you will find lots of spicy peppers in my insanity chili, they are a spice, not a main ingredient.

I think this is how you should use strong language. Don't overdo it. Include enough to avoid blandness. But be sensitive to a market that may have zero tolerance.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Check Your Premises

We all know what happened a while back in that criminal case about that person who was killed by that other person. And we all know the verdict the jury came to was all about race, or politics, or both. And we're outraged about the actions of the judge, prosecution and/or defense counsel.

Then you meet someone who also has just as strong a sense of outrage over the case THE OPPOSITE WAY. (When this happens to me, I know why. It's because I'm a Whig, and everyone else is a Republican Democrat or a Democrat Republican). I'm a thoughtful, intelligent human being and that idiot is just plain evil.


Or maybe not. Maybe I just drank too much Whig kool-aid. The truth is more complicated and the innocent party wasn't innocent, and the guilty party wasn't guilty, or some combination of the two.

But we're too busy to do a thorough inquiry into the facts of the case, and all our friends have strong opinions, so we just repeat the most appealing snippets of the news that we've paid attention to. It doesn't matter whether it bears on the verdict the jury came to.

All I remember is that if the glove does not fit, you must acquit. Or something equally inane.

Because we just accept the cartoonish narrative of Our Partisan Side, we have no alternative but to think the other fella is a dangerous lunatic.

Like the KKK members in rural Michigan who didn't have any blacks or Jews nearby. They had to look to Catholics to hate. But they knew their Catholic neighbors were good people. So they created the bogus category of "good Catholics" and "bad Catholics" and the bad ones lived in the big cities and hid guns in their churches. Completely bogus consequences follow from uncritical acceptance of completely bogus premises.

Did O. J. kill Nicole? Or is he sincerely looking for the real killer? I wasn't on the jury. I don't know the facts of the case. Ergo, I have no opinion. Same goes for the guilt or innocence of any other newsworthy case I wasn't on the jury of.

I trust the judicial system just enough to believe that the relevant facts of the case will be presented to the jury. The rest of us will get whatever sells newspapers and whatever advances activists' careers. Did the jury make the right decision? I don't know.

When I don't know, the my reasonable response is skepticism.

My skepticism extends to whether Sarah Palin is an idiot or George Bush is a white-knuckle drunk.

I have no skepticism about Barack Obama, however. I'm sure he is a Keynesian.

And I'm sure that when I talk to someone who is on the other side of whatever strong opinion I hold, that person had just good a set of reasons for that position. Just as I do for mine.

I have a friend from India who is a devout a statist. When probing his opinions, I find that where I distrust the state, he trusts the state, and where I trust the individual, he distrusts the individual. Anything else we might argue about--guns, abortion, taxes, or welfare--are just theorems derived from these divergent axioms.

When I debug software, I see things that ought not be, and often the most blatant obvious problems are consequences of a much smaller error upstream. I liken the process to surveying a railroad train derailment and then setting aside all the obvious twisted metal to find the much more subtle point where the train went off the rails. Fix that and you don't have to worry about all that twisted metal next time.

And that's what I think I should do when I encounter some person who doesn't have the good sense to be a Whig like me. Set aside the distracting bits that everyone is wringing their hands about and focus on the person and the ultimate premises that give rise to their way of thinking. That's where the useful conversation takes place.

Let's not talk about ObamaCare, tell me what you think the obligations of the state should be.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Depiction is not Endorsement

I was discussing a movie with a friend, A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick. And my friend casually said that there were a lot of misogynistic movies in the '60s. This bothered me, because it implied that Clockwork Orange was misogynistic. I don't think so and here's why.

The movie follows the exploits of a band of evil men, termed droogs, moving about a utopian socialist Britain. I think that is an important aspect of the movie's message. These young men aren't stealing loves of bread for starving loved ones, they have every material need supplied by a generous government. Yet they are evil.

To demonstrate how evil they are the movie shows them perpetrate serial rapes, assault, and murder. (I've said elsewhere that this movie could not be set in America with its Second Amendment. An armed citizen would put put down a rampaging droog like a mad dog.) In particular, the movie shows brutal rapes and assaults to remind the viewer that these aren't just boys out having fun, but murderous villains.

IF the movie showed women "asking for it" by dressing or acting provocatively, then excused the droogs on that basis, YEAH that would be misogynistic. Big Time. This movie does the opposite of excusing or justifying violence against others, it condemns it and uses it as a premise for what happens in the 2nd and 3rd reels.

Ergo, I don't think the depiction of violent assaults perpetrated against women makes the movie misogynistic. You may disapprove of the crimes Stanley Kubrick depicted. For the love of God I hope you disapprove!

Where it might be sexist, I suppose, is that women were victims to evoke greater sympathy in audiences. Is it sexist to think women are inherently weaker or less capable of defending themselves? Is it sexist to think viewers will be naturally sympathetic to a female rape victim. Maybe, but that's a bit of a stretch. (And the 2nd Amendment empowers women to carry an equalizer.)

EVIL is part of the human condition. The Problem of Evil won't be solved this side of Judgment Day, so evil is a worthy subject of depiction in art. Art tells the truth and there are truths about evil that art should depict and explore. In my own prose, I've depicted various acts of evil. I desperately hope none of them are ever regarded as endorsements for those crimes. Yet, because I want my art to tell the truth, I feel I should accurately depict criminal acts of which I do not approve.

As stated elsewhere, criminal acts are more common in the small than in the large. For every criminal mastermind there are a legion of petty crooks. Now, if you're the kind of writer who wants to Tell The Truth About The Human Condition, then you'll want to depict a mix of petty acts of crime and major cases. There is such a thing as horrendous atrocities--like shooting up a grade school--but those things are relatively rare. If you're going to tell the truth about the human condition, then you should depict both venal and mortal sins.

The hard thing about good and evil is knowing the difference. There are things that I think are evil, that if I told you, you'd think I'm evil for thinking them evil. Should those things come up, I'll depict them as accurately and as honestly as I can, while leaving the reader to make his/her own mind up about good and evil regarding these things. Other things like rape, murder, and assault are not in this category, the writer can express disapproval, but the wise writer doesn't hit the reader over the head with a moral club.

Or let's consider the n-word. Suppose you have a low-income white boy using the n-word a LOT. And let's suppose he even says of an industrial accident, "nobody was killed except a couple <<n-words>>." Now, if I tell you the white boy is the hero of the novel, you'd think the novel and the novelist racist. Right?

BUT suppose I tell you a little more about this white boy who uses the n-word: He's a fugitive and he's helping Jim, an escaped slave, get away down the Mississippi river. And the author is playing a sly game of showing a noble black man surrounded by white savages. Huckleberry Finn is in the middle coming to realize Jim is a better man than the whites known as "the duke" and "the king" who are scalawags.

By depicting Huck Finn's moral journey from unthinking racist to enlightenment, the novel is the opposite of racist. It is anti-racist. Depicting the evil of racism in this novel is Mark Twain's sly method of condemning racism.

When you find your story taking you into something you don't approve of, you should tell the truth of it. If it's something we all agree about like Nazis, we'll understand the irony of Springtime for Hitler. If it's something like rape and murder, it should be clear you're not endorsing it. But a reader like my friend can err by thinking it's misogynist or racist.

That's a risk, but I think the game is definitely worth the candle.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sell the Sequel

I often say that you use the last chapter to sell the sequel. Make it an aircraft carrier catapult.

There's a business to writing and the writer is wise to be mindful of business considerations while creating his or her dazzling work of stunning magnificence. And if you haven't gotten Max Perkins or his equivalent at one of the big publishing houses backing you with a book deal, you may be considering self-publishing. In self-publishing, you must be VERY MINDFUL of business considerations.

And the biggest consideration (even bigger than getting paid) is reaching your audience, which people prettier and smarter than I can attest is the big challenge in today.

Mindful of this, consider the sequel.

People who like one novel by an author are more likely to like another novel by that author. How many times have you noticed that the novel ends with a chapter or two worth of text to the right of the thumb on the spine only to discover that the publisher has thoughtfully provided sample chapters of similar works?

It should go without saying--but I'm saying it--that when a reader is reading your work, you have a free opportunity to reach one of the people most likely to buy another one of your works.

Have you ever felt that let-down when you finish a novel and wish you could enjoy it a little more? What better way is there to enjoy a little more than by picking up the sequel!

For this reason the author is wise to use this opportunity to sell the sequel. Sure, you should have links to your author platform and to your other works, but you have an opportunity within the body of your current novel to sell the sequel.

Let's jump up to 10,000 feet, or maybe even Low-Earth-Orbit and view your writing project very abstractly: It starts out introducing a setting and characters, then proceeds to a climax, then winds down through a denouement. The End.

Mindful of your reader, I hope you have maintained a steady stream of story questions and you've answered them faithfully enough to maintain the reader's trust.

If you have no sequels planned for this work, you are wise to make sure no story questions remain unanswered. (Unless you have some cool ambiguity thing you're working where maybe the supernatural stuff is a hallucination or maybe not. But ambiguity works better for short stories than for novels.)

But if you do have one or more sequels in mind, you'll want to devise just a few story questions you intend to leave unanswered in this novel, but that you intend to answer in a sequel. Be careful not to annoy your reader with too many of these.

Consider the first of the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, you see a shadowy figure who was obviously pulling the strings of this movie's antagonist, but you don't see who that figure is. You'll have to wait until Game of Shadows to find out.

In Science Fiction the writer does a fair bit of world-building and this creates a LOT of backstory that the writer is wise to regard as scaffolding and share only the essentials. Use something in that backstory to stimulate a story-question. Make it big and make it vague. THEN in the last chapter of your novel, add a reminder of this unanswered story question to intrigue your reader. That's what you're going for. Don't do a cliff-hanger, I've griped about that earlier.

Be careful not to annoy your reader with something gratuitous without any foreshadowing. The second novel of the Evan Gabriel trilogy ends fairly well, then somebody gets kidnapped in the last chapter. No foreshadowing. No set up. It just happened. Now you know the hero has to go rescue the kidnap victim and in so doing destroy the evil conspiracy that's been pulling the strings in the prior novels. That's a bad job of selling the sequel. I disapprove.

Instead, I think you should be as subtle as possible giving just a whiff that something's up in the first third of the novel, then just a sound like a rustling leaf in the middle of the novel, and then make it clear in the last chapter. Elliot Kay did the setup fairly well in Poor Man's Fight. BUT the last chapter led me to believe that the sequel might undo the hero's main accomplishment in this novel. We'll have to see.

You can write your whole novel, then review it figuring out how you want to set up your sequel in a way that'll appeal to your readers. Then add just a touch here, and a sentence there to set up your last chapter where you make it clear that such-and-such is not a dangling thread, but the reason why your dear readers MUST buy the sequel.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Poor Man's Fight

There's a point where one wrong tends to bring about another wrong through an appeal to something right. I remember the '60s and its appeal to freedom and its contempt for regimentation. It was pretty cool, despite being morally handicapped.

It's common in GOP West Michigan to think that Ann Arbor is the Democrat Nirvana. But that's not true, there are a lot more Libertarians (of the secular kind) in Ann Arbor than Democrats. If you want to do weed in AA, it's a non-criminal infraction.

Poor Man's Fight starts out on planet Sally Mae. Not really, but I want you to think about a future where every bit of education mandated by the state, costs money, and is borrowed from an Interstellar Sally Mae. (Its a perversion of the separation of School and State gone horribly wrong.)

If you are unaware of how US higher education gets funded, the gubmint artificially keeps tuition dollars flowing into universities by promiscuously offering student loans to anybody who wants to get a degree in feminist post-colonial film studies or something less fashionable. (My daughter, the nuclear engineer, printed the paperwork for her last Sally Mae check onto a sheet of paper on which she'd placed an image of a blood-sucking tick. Education loans are one of those paving stones on the road to hell good intentions that makes wage-slaves of young college graduates.)

Now, imagine Sally Mae debt-slavery cranked to eleven.

Poor Man's Fight begins with our protagonist, Tanner Malone, blowing an achievement test that's clearly rigged against him. (Good move that.) And by failing, he is indebted to a greater degree than had he passed the test. It's an ingenious form of slavery. And I give Elliot Kay high marks for thinking of it and putting it in his book.

Debt slavery is the dynamic force moving Poor Man's Fight along.

The protagonist, Tanner Malone, enlists in the military to acquire some debt-forgiveness. He then is enrolled into a Space Navy boot camp that's quite brutal and intense.

Alternating chapters follow the exploits of the Space Pirates that we know Tanner is going to be fighting in the third act. I'm something of a broken record about antagonist design, however. You have to be careful about that, because AFTER seeing how Tanner Malone gets screwed over, I started to sympathize and identify with the pirates. The pirate captain recruits among the crews of the ships he captures with an opening question, "How much debt do you carry?" Since I've seen the system is rigged to enslave everyone through debt, I found his sales pitch most appealing.

I started wondering whether the Space Pirates were the heroes.

In particular, the Space Pirates seemed cool in an Ann Arbor kind of way. I started wondering whether the pirate base would be Galt's Gulch.

Meanwhile, Our Hero goes through boot camp and despite the brutality of the training and his unsuitable temperament to fighting, he excels. I think everyone who writes Military Science Fiction has to write a few boot camp chapters. It's probably in a NATO treaty or something.

After Our Hero graduates from boot camp he gets assigned to a space ship where he is the low man who's unfairly treated. Just like that poor, nice Mr. Midshipman Hornblower was mistreated. And like Midshipman Mr. Hornblower, he acquits himself very well in action against the Space Pirates.

In fact, he becomes quite adept at killing pirates. So much so that he loses touch with his humanity. That's pretty cool. It's one thing to see John Carter of Mars going from adventure to adventure, but an altogether different thing to see a sensitive human being turn into a killing machine.

The final third of the book gets a little rushed, and I think a few points could be fleshed out a little.

The last chapter is where you sell the sequel. And that's where Elliot Kay lost me. In the opening chapters of any novel you wonder, "who's pulling the strings" as the author shows you his/her world-building. He does a good job of teasing out a few clues in the middle of the novel to set up the final scene. But he showed he's going to take the sequels someplace I don't wanna go.

Poor Man's Fight 5-stars well deserved.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

You Mean That's All?

Over a year ago, I met a pleasant writer on Twitter who had an ebook for sale. I bought it for a buck and it was a really good read. BUT I learned something unpleasant about the Kindle that day. The hero had just gotten out of trouble, and then...

The book ended.

Several story questions remained unanswered. There is a difference between holding a paperback in your sweaty palm and holding an ebook therein. For one thing, you're holding a Kindle, an iPad, or something, but the big thing is that a Kindle feels the same when the book is on page one as it does on page three hundred.

In my decades of reading paperbacks, I could always feel the number of pages on the right side of the spine. When they got thin that gave me tactile feedback that this novel is almost over.

I recall reading Cryptonomicon and thinking, "wow, there's a lot of dangling threads of this novel and there's not that much paper under my thumb." And that novel tied most of them up, but the last chapters felt like a train wreck.

In an ebook, a novel can end without warning. Well, actually, there is a warning, but you have to look for it. There's a progress bar that will tell you if you have the sense to look at it. It's less automatic than a thumb on the book's spine.

My friend clearly intended to write more later. And I had to wait for a sequel future installment. That never came...

Earlier this week I had a similar experience when I read Sliding Void by Stephen Hunt. To be fair, he advertises the work as a novella, and he gives it away free. So, I have no basis to complain. And unlike my friend who hasn't published another installment, both the 2nd and 3rd novellas in Mr. Hunt's series are currently available.

I like the immediacy of independently published ebooks. I also like the fact that the reader is closer to the writer. I don't like having a work abruptly end. When you buy the super-cheap or free ebook, check to see what you're getting and whether you want to buy the rest of the story in parts, or wait for those parts to get written, or risk those parts never getting published.

So, how many stars for Stephen Hunt's Sliding Void? I liked it, but I'm giving him an "incomplete" I'll let you know when I finish the 2nd and 3rd installments.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ripple Effects

The old Soviet Union was famous for manipulating images. If you made Stalin mad, he'd airbrush you out of the photos from the good old days when you and he were yucking it up. When that happened you'd better have your long underwear packed because you'd be on your way to Siberia or worse.

My favorite fakes show a crowd of faithful smiling and clapping at Dear Leader's speech while overhead a huge squadron of the most awesome bombers fly overhead.

But nobody looks up at them.

People can be very highly regimented true believers in Dear Leader's agenda, but at least one or two will look up at the huge squadron of awesome bombers.

That's one easy way to spot fakes. If you see big-foot or anything extraordinary in the picture, look at what's going on in the bigger picture. The bombers would have an effect on the crowd. If you don't see the effect, there's a problem. It looks contrived.

Going beyond the commies, consider movies these days where actors stand in front of a green screen and behind them some computer wizardry is showing a futuristic cityscape or a surreal historical battlefield. The events in that background have to be carefully crafted to be interesting to the audience, but not so interesting as make the characters in the foreground notice.

Or not. That's what I liked about Mad Magazine's little cartoons in the margins, and what I liked about the Zucker movies like Airplane, Top Secret or Police Squad. Folks in the background would be doing something ridiculous while the actors in the foreground would Not Notice. But the viewer noticed and would find it funny.

But if this isn't intentional, the joke is on you.

Let's suppose your story starts out with a bang. Suppose Godzilla eats Cleveland or something. Your story cannot have your characters sitting in a diner in Toledo or lining up for a ride at Cedar Point as if nothing happened. Big events have ripple effects.

You remember where you were on 9/11 and what you did. I'll bet you didn't get a lot of work done that day. Or if you tried to, you were pretty distracted.

Let's suppose you're an Asian living happily and comfortably in California, you get along fine with your neighbors and your shop has a happy clientele. And then it's 8 December 1941. You may be Korean or Chinese, but you look enough like the guys who bombed Pearl Harbor that your neighbors aren't as friendly anymore. Big events have ripple effects.

I was on the campus of MSU when Jimmy Carter goofed up Iran. A lot of people were unhappy with the hostage situation. Overnight, a lot of foreign students started wearing western attire whereas they had worn traditional clothes the week before.

All it takes is a scowl on the face of a stranger to make a person feel paranoid.

No, you didn't do anything bad to anybody, but your keffiyeh reminds me of something that makes me angry. I'm not mad at you, and I wouldn't dream of taking my anger out on you, but you don't know all that from the look on my face.

That's what made District 9 cool. Aliens show up and though they've got awesome tech, they're poor and disadvantaged. With this huge space ship hovering overhead, society adapts and establishes new institutions to accommodate this new reality. (And guilty white South Afrikan filmmakers get to tell a morality play about apartheid.) Big events have ripple effects.

I hope you realize that good stories need not have the same scope as an alien invasion, monster attack, or a World War. The big event might be a father dying and the ripple effects propagate through his immediate family. And that father might be the fella who pulled a gun on the clerk in 7/11 who shot in self-defense. He can't sleep at night, because big events have ripple effects.

You may have one thing in mind for your story. Boy meets girl in the context of an alien invasion. But every bullet fired defines an expanding cone of ripple effects. And these ripple effects may not be what you had in mind for your story. You needn't throw a lot of prose at these ripple effects, but you can't ignore them.

Otherwise, your story may come off as fake as a photoshopped Soviet May Day parade.

Those more worthy than I: