Friday, December 30, 2016

The Elfs Control Hollywood

Skip the film, play the game.
The title to this post hit me like a brick while reading John C. Wright's The Swan Knight's Son. Given that elfs serve as the primary antagonists in a world where they represent the primary threat to Christendom, it's a throwaway line meant to serve as red meat for the faithful.  Yet it serves as a throwaway line that gives the reader's just plausible enough to make you wonder how fictional the book really is.

Case in point, the recent Hollywood version of Ben Hur.  There are all kinds of problems with this film.  The secular problems are easy:
  • They paid for Morgan Freeman to be in it, so of course they have to get their money's worth by having him narrate the opening scene.  It may be the most superfluous narration I've ever seen.  Freeman literally tells us what we are watching, right now.
  • The characters are unlikable. The mother is so obnoxious, I enjoyed seeing her arrested by the Romans and didn't care about her fate. The protagonist dooms his family for the sake of a stranger who never receives his comeuppance for all the trouble he causes.
  • The sister and love interest are pretty much indistinguishable. That makes for some really confusing make-out sessions.
  • The Roman empire is painted as a wonderfully diverse realm where everyone lives and works and trades together in peace and harmony.  Every single crowd scene was carefully crafted to show people of all races and colors and creeds and dress.  Okay, fine, but you're doing this to me right after telling me the Roman Empire was totes xenophobics, guys, 'cause the only reason Rome invaded her neighbors was because they were different.  Does. Not. Compute.
The religious problems were infinitely worse.
  • One of the two main leads responds to Hippy Jesus' call for love with the words, "How progressive of you."  Nice and subtle, Hollywood.
  • The jerk that caused Ben Hur's downfall and all the pain and suffering in Act One by failing to assassinate Pontius Pilate re-appears in Act Three. Instead of his just desserts, he is revealed to be the crucified thief Jesus promises will sit at his side in Heaven.  You can't paint a character that unsympathetically and then reward him at the end without some serious character growth or character beats.
  • The most unforgiveable deviation from scripture occurs when Pontius Pilate identifies Jesus as the real threat to Roman control over Israel. Apparently the writers aren't familiar with Pilate trying on multiple occasions to avoid crucifying Jesus.  Apparently, the writers are familiar with the fact that Christianity worked to preserve the Roman Empire (and the subsequent Eastern Empire in particular) for centuries.
The whole thing, top to bottom, was just dreadful.  You can give them some credit for a great galley-slave battle scene and a great chariot race scene, but without the emotional investment in the characters those are hollow stage-pieces.  Compare the weight of any arena scene in Gladiator.  The fact that Maximus is so much more heroic, wise, and likeable imbues those scenes with a deeper impact than the herky-jerky visuals could ever achieve on their own.

In short, Ben Hur, wins my award for 'worst movie I saw in 2016', right at the final turn.  Congratulations on butchering film-making and the story of Christ both, Hollywood.  You've made the elfs proud once more.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Invisible City, By Brian K. Lowe

This is my kind of throwback. 

Brian K. Lowe is one of those authors that Cirsova introduced to me.  His story, Hoskin's War, in the second issue featured a grossly under-utilized setting for fantasy - the American frontier in the days of the American War of Independence.  It took a nudge and a Christmas sale, but I've finally confirmed that Brian's long form work is as good as his short form work.

The story kicks off with that wonderful trope of a WWI soldier stumbling into a far flung world so very much unlike his own.  Through grit, wariness, cleverness, and a bit of luck, he survives his first few days in this alien place and goes on to fight for love, honor, and freedom.

Brian's writing style is great.  This book is told in the first person, and he never forgets to describe the advanced tech thrown at the hero in a way that a 1920's young officer would.  Clee, the hero, references Wells and Verne, indicating some familiarity with science-fiction that give him a leg up when it comes to dealing with the fantastic.  The prose is solid.  It has an brutal musicality to it that just works.  Check it:
How ironic, then, that such was my own goal, to track Farren down wherever he might run and wrest from him that which I  desired with my heart, and which he desired with only the basest animal emotions: Hana Wen. Whence he would fly, I knew not, but the answer would likely be found in the midst of his fellows. With that end in mind, I marched boldly into the aliens' headquarters, planning to elicit advice from the Library. Hardly had I stopped before the elevator than two Nuum pulled up even with me, seized me by the arms, and whisked me away.
That's some great stuff, right there.  Feels almost Zelznian, you dig?  It's plain spoken, yet it also has a rolling rhythm to it you don't often find these days. Here's another way you can tell that this guy writes with a #PulpRevolution aesthetic - he isn't afraid to stick Christian words into the mouth of a character born and raised in an early-twentieth century Christendom:
Someday, when the final horn sounds and the multitudes of Mankind gather around the Lord's throne for judgment, He will rise up to His full magnificent height, and He will point His majestic finger, and He will say: "Behold the irony of Man, that I should grant him reason, and he should squander it." And He will be pointing at me.
Used to be passages like this were hen's teeth.  They used to be refreshing to read, but I've been reading a lot of Wright these days, so that sort of reference is no longer just a nice change of pace.  Over the course of 2016, this sort of thing has become damn near a requirement for me.

The one downside is that the middle act seems to meander a bit. It doesn't really.  It turns out the meandering about is important for the resolution of the book, but until you see how it pays off, it does seem like something of a wandering travelogue of the new world the hero finds himself in.  Stick with it, it's worth it.

When people talk about #RegressHarder, this is exactly what they are talking about.  Everything from the basic plot, to the inclusion of an honest to gosh hero, a bit of genuine romance handled with a deft touch, and even the narrator's voice, it all harkens back to earlier days of science-fiction.  And yet, Brian K. Lowe doesn't just write a 1950's work of fiction, he writes a modern day story using all the best bits of the 1950s style.  The voice, the romance, the heroism, and the unbridled sense of optimism all make reading The Invisible City a joy.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Yanthus Prime Job

It looks like this blog may just be turning into a book review blog.  Things are pretty crazy right now what with the audio book recording, trying to finish "Five Dragons" before the end of the year - a long shot, to be honest - cranking away on a couple of sooper seekrit projects that will be revealed in the new year or forever hidden...oh, and family and overtime in the salt mines. 

Those are all excuses.  To be honest, in the last few months I've just been thrilled to discover great writer after great writer.  Reading Cirsova, and finding a couple of great social nodes on Twitter, have introduced me to a number of great writers.  It's an embarrassment of riches.  Combine that with technology that allows me to sneak in a chapter or two at lunch or in quiet moments at work, and it's almost embarrassing how much reading I've been able to accomplish over the last few month.

Eventually things change, as they are wont to do, and you may find things in these spaces other than reviews.  You know, things like politics, film, writing, wargaming...I do miss wargaming...and philosophy.  But for now, it's books, Books, BOOKS!
 Why, lookee here!  It's another book.  Not just another book, but another @RobKroese book.  Remember when I said, "[Starship Grifter is] just not my cuppa joe."?

Yeah...about that.

The Yanthus Prime Job is a novella for a dollar.  It's short.  It's fun.  It's protagonist has the standard, "one last job" motivation, but we all know that for characters like this, there's always another job waiting just around the corner.  A writer's gotta eat, after all.

This title is set in the same universe as Starship Grifters, and it features the same sorts of characters - grifters, conmen, and thieves.  The protagonist of this work is a bartender trying to go straight after a career working for the Ursa Minor Mafia*.  Deep in debt, she hatches a plot to steal a valuable thing and use the proceeds to buy her way out of debt to the mafia and escape Yanthus Prime for parts unknown. 

The story is half standard heist, half science-fiction.  The heist is easily recognizable from movies ranging from the 1940s to today - break into a secure museum and steal a valuable macGuffin - but includes several clever science-fiction nods.  Her (sort of?) low tech solution to defeat the standard high-tech security measures is the sort of plan that could only work in science-fiction or fantasy.  Otherwise, most of her gear (grapple guns, chameleon suits, and plasma glass cutters, for example) is the standard thief kit.  Aside from the key plot-point used to defeat the security cameras, the break-in and escape could be plunked into any setting.  That's actually a compliment.  Rather than succumb to the temptation to make everything whiz-bang gee-whillickers new SF you've never seen before, Kroese wisely stops while the stopping is good.  The hook is all you need.

If you've watched a lot of heist movies, you'll see a few of the double and triple crosses coming a mile away, but there are enough surprises left in Kroese's pockets to make it worth reading through to the end.

  *  Get it?  Ursa Minor Mafia?  Ursa means "bear".  It's the Russians.  Kroese has a gift for nomenclature that is downright Futuramaian.  I mean, the man has a book out called Shrodingers Gat, for crying out loud.  How can you not love that?


Sunday, December 25, 2016

See, Your King Comes To You

And he brings the greatest gift of all.
It's yours if you want it.  All you have to do is accept it.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Let's Get This Over With, or, Two Reviews

Writing difficult reviews isn’t a lot of fun, so this post features two.  Let’s get them out of the way so we can get back to the good stuff.  I’ve got a hard copy of Cirsova burning a hole in my queue.

First up, Castalia House’s Loki’s Child, by Fenris Wulf - one of the all time great names.  This came highly recommended, but it just didn’t float my boat.  It’s a modern day comedy about the music industry, what the film types call a slapstick caper?  I guess?

The set-ups, the characters, the plot, everything about it is extremely well done, but it all rests on an understanding of the music culture that I lack.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the music industry, I’m talking about the music culture.  This isn’t one of those books that would only be funny to people working inside the music industry, but to should be appealing to anyone who loves music and follows music culture (or one of the subcultures).  They would catch a lot of references and see the loving tribute to the culture that this book represents.

For me, it just felt like watching a Bollywood movie.  It’s very well done, and it’s understandable why somebody else would like it, but it just isn’t for me.
Why was that so hard?  Well, I love Castalia House.  This is the first book they’ve published that didn’t grab me by the lapels and force me to sit up and take notice.  I wish them all the best, and not just because they pay me to record audio books for them.  I don’t love their works because I do voice work for them, I do voice work for them because I love their works. 

So it goes with JD Cowan’s “Knights of the End”.  Cowan is one of my favorite book bloggers.  His posts are well thought out, appeal to my sense of righteous anger at a culture that was drifted too far from its roots, and force me to think hard about aspects of the culture in ways that would never have occurred to me.  But don’t take my word for that – he made Castalia House’s list of Top Book Bloggers of 2016.
I had high hopes for this book.  Cowan is a smart man who understands the deeper connotations of publishing and storytelling, and I was eager to see how he used his insights and understandings.  This was a prime opportunity to forget about theory for a bit and look at implementation.  Theory is easy, it’s where the rubber meets the road that things get hard.
“Knights of the End” has its heart and its mind in the right place, but it didn’t work for me.  This may be because I am not the target audience.  Cowan has explicitly said that this book is written for younger teens, and as a modern day juvenile adventure it could be that it works like magic.  Everything from the bullied protagonist being granted terrific powers, an exploration of a world beyond the mundane, and a supporting cast that just doesn’t understand the hero of the story seems calculated to appeal to younger readers.
My chief complaints – that the Chekov’s guns are broadcast to heavily, that the mentor’s alternate between acting wise and childish, that the descriptions lack subtlety and nuance – likely result from Cowan’s desire to match the text to the target audience.  If so, this is the one area where we disagree.  He has a great position on heroism, responsibility, and fighting back not just against alien invaders but against a culture that feels wrong.  But these are all conveyed by older works written for more adult tastes and still enjoyed by pre-teens to this day.  The pulp authors beloved by so many of us as youths ( Howard, Burroughs, and I’d argue even Rowling) didn’t scale back the grade-level readability in order to appeal to younger readers, nor should Cowan.
“Knights of the End” has a great super-heroic plot, and a number of high points.  It has the right beats and the right twists and turns in the right places.  I particularly enjoyed the an early switcheroo Cowan plays on the reader with the protagonist’s best friend.  But in the end, it’s really written for younger tastes than mine.  If you have a younger teen in your life that you’d like to introduce to a more modern take on the fantastic, and one where you can feel comfortable that the plot serves traditional values more than those foisted on us by the maintstream culture, then you can be comfortable giving this to him or her.  But I wouldn’t recommend it for more mature tastes.
Perhaps it mitigates my review when I say that I’m looking forward to Cowan’s next work.  He’s doing the right things, his head is in the right place, and my hopes remain high that when writing for more mature audiences, the problems that kept me from enjoying this book will vanish.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Freedom and Power of Failure

Have you ever been to a freeform jazz concert, or maybe a Phish or Grateful Dead concert?  In these shows the artists give themselves license to play around and freely experiment on stage in front of a live audience.  The audience knows this going in, and understands that sometimes the experiment fails.  Sometimes the bass and drums just aren’t jiving with the lead guitar, and sometimes the modulation that one guy tried didn’t get matched right by the rest of the crew and the whole thing comes crashing to a halt.  Everyone takes a deep breath, shrugs, and then the show resumes with a new song.

That’s not the end of the story, though.  Because jazz fans are often jazz musicians themselves.  And sometimes a guy in the audience hears the glimmer of an interesting riff in the experiment that crashed and burned, and he takes that back to his garage studio and plays around with it a little more.  He might even do so subconsciously.  Maybe four bars wedged into the back of his mind and gestated for a week or so.  Then it crawls out during a Friday night garage jam session with his friends.  So they play with it, iron it out, smooth out the rough edges, and take it to their next show.  The next time they have a gig, they play “their” new song for an audience that falls in love with it.  This happens more often than you think.
It’s a lot harder for that magic to occur in the preparation of a big budget studio album.  It can only really happen in small venues where the stakes are lower.  But when it does, oh man, it looks and feels like magic.
Even more interesting, this constant churning and boiling and experimenting that occurs on stage and backstage can shift tastes on a national scale.  Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit smashed into the public’s consciousness like a hurricane, but it spun out of a Seattle music scene that had spent years grinding through a number of different sounds, styles, and iterations.  Had that song hit five years earlier, it may just have bombed, because it needed earlier, less successful, efforts in the grunge sound, to set the stage.  There are probably a number of other examples of cultures tucked into out of the way corners of the market detonating the establishment’s plans for future sound.  I’m not a music guy, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for those examples.
The recent democratization of publishing has changed the culture of literature such that it now operates the same way.  You’ve never needed the permission of record producers, and you’ve never needed to sell massive numbers of albums or travel the country to build an audience, to play in front of crowds.  You no longer need the permission of New York editors, and you don’t need to sell massive numbers of hard copies or do national book tours to get your writing in front of an audience.
As I said, I’m not a music guy.  I’m actually more of an internet nerd guy, so the culture that I’m more familiar with is the Chan culture.  By which I mean the anonymous websites where people are free to throw threads up on anything and everything.  A lot of it is simply dreadful, if not outright horrifying, but the good stuff gets shared and passed around, and the best of it even penetrates all the way to the public awareness.  (Why, hello there, Pepe!)  That Darwinian approach to ideas is an incredibly powerful thing.
Just as the failures in Seattle provided an incubator for the grunge sound, the chan culture provided an incubator for the strategies that made GamerGate an unmitigated success and even – if the chan’s press is to be believed – enabled the ascension of the God-Emperor to the Cherry Blossom Throne.  Sturgeon’s Law holds for music and for the chan’s.  We needed ten cities playing around with new styles of rock to generate one Seattle sound.  We needed ten thousand anonymous threads to generate the hundred or so brilliant ideas that paved the way for GamerGate to unleash the fatal combo on the press that left them ripe for the Trumpening.  And this is all coming from a guy who is not active on any of the chans.  I’m as normie as the come, and rely heavily on the weeding-out process to occur such that I’m far more familiar with the one success than the nine failures, both in music and internet rage comics.  As are most people.
And really, that’s the point of this post.  The freedom to fail gives creative types the power to create.
That holds true for music.  And for memes.  And for writing.
For a long time, writers did not have the freedom to fail.  Gatekeepers held them out of the market and prevented their voices from ever having a chance.  But those days are done.  Now, the bulldozed barriers to entry facing writers had created the same culture in literature as already existed in music and meme magic.
Today, writers can whip up a story, throw it into the mix, and maybe they pull a Neimeier, make solid money in sales, and even win a prestigious award.  We read about those successes all the time.  But what happens if a writer fails?  Well then…meh.  They’ll be forgotten and no one will care.  But the act of failing does a number of very important things:
  • It gives the writer a chance to try, fail, learn, and get better.  It offers the writer a chance to see what works and what doesn’t, and since the experimenting doesn’t cost all that much, there’s no reason not to keep on doing it.
  • It gets the ideas out there, like a jazz riff, that some other writer might pick up and play with it.  It allows other minds to pick up the notes, smooth out the rough edges, and build something even better.
  • Those combined help push the general culture in a direction that it never could under the old centrally planned autocratic culture.  Even the failures help move things along – we could never find the one success if we didn’t have the nine failures to lead the way.
This power that arises from the freedom to fail is an amazing thing.  It’s a deadly threat to the gatekeepers, because it means that even the clumsy voices are pushing back against their plans.  It means even books and stories that sell five or six copies are moving the culture in a direction that the gatekeepers didn’t pre-ordain.  That’s got to scare the hell out of them.

At the end of the day, this amazing power of failure means that there really are NO failures.  There are only varying degrees of success.  If you throw a title down on Amazon and sell a dozen copies, you didn't have no effect, you just added your voice and your vote to the conversation.  You just struck a blow for what you believe, for what you think should be in the market, and maybe only a few people immediately agree.  But maybe you planted a mustard seed.  Regardless, you just added - you had an effect.  It's an amazingly liberating feeling. 

If you take away only one thing from this post - take that.  Everything helps.  Every little straw aids in breaking the back of the jackasses who don't like your taste, who don't like your works, and who don't like you.

This is the reason that even a Pulp Revolutionary like myself loves the New Pulp and the Sad Puppies and the Superversives and Chuck Tingle and the Blue Sci-Fi Crowd and the half dozen movements that I haven’t even heard of yet.  They are all a part of this grand and glorious soup that will allow the literary version of Curt Cobain to splatter the contents of his mind all over the bathroom wall of the market.  And that literary version couldn’t hope to pull the trigger on his ideas if the rest of us weren’t out there jamming on the Amazon stage, playing with themes and ideas and word riffs and moving the culture away from New York City and towards something bigger, better, more creative, and maybe even a little bit grungy.



Monday, December 19, 2016

Don't Read Anything Written After 1980

The adventures of King Conas returns, and we learn why the three sorcerers attempted to kill him in Issue 13.  The January Issue of Marvel's King Conan sees the barbarian explore a demon haunted volcano home to an artifact that contains the soul of the first King of Aquilonia.  Written by Doug Moench, it includes this scene where-in Conan's bride, Zenobia, insists of accompanying the King on his quest:

Check the date - yep, 1983.  You can tell.  She doesn't just prove her mettle.  She doesn't surprise Conan with a cheap shot.  She completely bests him in open combat.  Because of course she does.

And not for any real reason, either.  Through the rest of the issue she never really does anything but stand back and give Conan somebody to talk to other than his chief advisor.  She never faces any real danger, never provides any aid, and never provides any solid advice.

Disappointing, but not entirely unexpected.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Lost Castle

You might think you're done with sprawling multi-volume works of fiction, but if you're the sort to read 30+ books per year - and since you're reading this blog it's a safe bet you are - then you know full well you can run but not escape falling into a one now and then.

Nick Cole's The Wyrd Series, is the latest honey trap to snare me, and the latest title in the series, The Lost Castle, is also my latest dip into post-apocalypse fiction.  As is usual with Nick Cole, the action moves, the characters intrigue, and the prose bounces back and forth between gritty and dreamy.  If you're a fan of good PA tales, you need to add this one to your queue.

I'm actually not going to review the series does for readers here.  Rather, I'm going to talk about what the book does for writers.  Nick is a smart guy and a great writer, and he does a few things with this series that aren't obvious.

The first thing to understand is that the Wyrd series isn't really an epic start to finish tale.  It's a framing device for different kinds of stories.  We've seen this in television shows such as Doctor Who, X-Files, or Lost.  All of these franchises are specifically set up to tell different stories from week to week.  This week may be a gangster story, the next a closed dining room Victorian murder mystery, and the next a mad scientist unleashing a monster of the week story.  There may be a an overarching story line within each, but the set-up is such that the writers can play around with different kinds of stories within the setting.

So it is with Cole's version of the apocalypse.  Without spoiling any details that you can't learn from the back blurbs, this isn't An apocalypse, it's All The apocalypses.  So what starts as a zombie story morphs into a robots-victorious story.  What starts as the story of a drunkards redemption segues into an autistic child's glimpse into the last days of humanity.  The latest book bounces around a bit, (we continue to follow two other character's story lines,) but it is primarily a 1970's Lovecraftian spy thriller. 

The other thing for readers to note when reading this book is how Cole plays with tenses.  It took me some time to notice how he did this, but it's really quite simple.  The primary narrative is written in the past tense, but Cole uses present tense writing for the flashback scenes, which lends them an airy, dream-like quality that reinforces the narrative in some subtle and powerful ways.  There's more to the magic of his prose than that, but it's an obvious and effective tactic that every writer should add to their quiver.

The last thing to point out is that Cole's creativity consists largely of taking a lot of old ideas and throwing them into a single pot and stirring them up to create a new kind of tale that is both complex and approachable.  He doesn't need to reinvent zombies.  We know.  He doesn't need to reinvent terminator bots.  We know.  He doesn't need to invent dark suited devils orchestrating the end of the world. We know.  But by writing the old stories in surprisingly new ways, and tying them together in ways we haven't seen before, he gives us a whole new kind of fiction that is both familiar and refreshingly new.

Maybe we readers can get a lot of enjoyment from the Wyrd series, but we writers can learn a lot from it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas Come Early, or Come on In, The Water's Fine

Come on in!
Jeffro Johnson, the editor over at the Castalia House blog just published his year-end retrospective of the best book bloggers of 2016, and it turns out your host made the list.  I won't spoil the surprise for those of you who haven't read that post yet.

If you have any interest in the Pulp Revolution or the burgeoning literary discussion of the old masters and the new talent, you need to read through that list.  It's a veritable who-is-who of the literary smart set, and if you look close you'll see that it's the source of most of my own magic.

As mentioned in the comments, I jumped into the blogging pool because the Puppies, both Rabid and Sad, showed me that there really was good stuff out there after all.  I'd pretty much given up on the sf/f genre for reasons already elucidated on this blog and elsewhere.  Jeffro showed me that talking about great books wasn't just something that established authors like Vox and Hoyt and Wright could do, but that there was room in the swimming hole for average everyday fans like you and me.  On the flip side, Cirsova showed me that there was great new stuff worth talking about - stuff that wasn't getting near enough attention from fans.

So I did what any self-respecting fan would do - I went on the internet and complained about it.

For a while I just dove into the comments sections of places like Castalia House and Cirsova and such.  After a while, my comments became long enough and drew from enough different posts from other people, that it only made sense to kick off my own blog to expand and expound on my comments elsewhere.

Turns out, that's a great way to drive traffic to your blog.  Talking about books actually leads you to other people who like talking about books.  Elementary, dear reader.  Put together a few observations or tie together observations made by two other bloggers, and before've got a blog.

You see how easy that is?  If you're here, it's because you're at least a little interested in this stuff.  So why don't you start a blog and join the conversation?  It's a mighty wide swimming hole, and there's always room for more. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Available for Pre-Order: Sorcerer's Serpent

"Jon's writing is lean and mean, Chuck Norris meets Hemingway."
      - Schuyler Hernstrom, author of Thune's Vision

Great news for those of you waiting for the third installment in the Five Dragons series of novellas!  The Sorcerer's Serpent will be available for purchase this Friday, December 16th.  For those who can't wiat, it's available for pre-order on now.

This time a band of hapless sneak thieves interrupts an aged wizard's study when they accidently unleash the wizard's guard dragon.  Now loose in the wizard's basement and threatening to revive an age of terror, the man who locked the dragon safely away for centuries is forced to deal with the monster once and for all.  It's a vicious battle that sprawls through caves, alien planets, and even through the arms of a seductive temptress, with the fate of worlds hanging in the balance.

For those of you playing along at home, the first book in this series featured an armored man with a sword, the second featured a clever street thief, and this one features an aged wizard.  If you sense a pattern here, you can guess what the fourth installment will bring.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Dipping a Toe in the #NewPulp Waters

You may have noticed that I talk a big game.  Well, over on twitter, Barry Reese called me out. 

When I opined in 140 characters or less that the New Pulp writers trade on the term pulp by slapping on the chrome while the Pulp Revolution focusses on the horsepower under the engine Reese wanted to know what New Pulp stories I was talking about, because he could name check two authors that he considered to be the best of the New Pulp writers working today.
Challenge accepted!
Within minutes I had bought a copy of Four Bullets for Dillon, by Derrick Ferguson.

Just to be clear, the conversation was civil, and even if Mr. Reese and I have different tastes, he’s a good guy that I’d gladly sit down  with and talk books for hours.  We’re going to bypass the subject of which modern pulp writers soured me on ‘pulp’ as a term any more indicative of quality than ‘punk’.  Instead, we're going to look at a pair of modern action stories from Derrick Ferguson.
This review was difficult to write.  Reviews in the one star and five star range are easy.  These middle-of-the-road reviews of works that show so much potential but just miss the mark mean that I can’t just rant or rave, but have to really analyze and understand where the problems lie.  And Four Bullets for Dillon has a few problems.  It’s not a bad work, but it's go issues.

The first story in the book, Dillon and the Bad-Ass Belt Buckle, features the eponymous hero and his sidekick Eli rescuing an Oscar winning actress from the jungles of Cambodia.  It starts with the duo having already rescued the actress from the clutches of the kidnappers and – wait, what?  Go back, Derrick, that sounds like a great story.  How did they get her out?  The dynamic duo mention lots of bullets and action…can I read that?  Perhaps that is another story in the Dillon-verse, but if so, the reader is given no indication – even editorially – of that. 
For my money, in cinema res serves as the gold standard for opening up action heavy stories. In any media.  This story opens at least twenty minutes after the cinema is done res-ing.  Which forces an early-story pause in the already limited action to provide the reader with an awkward information dump.  “Here’s what you missed out on,” paired with a blunt recitation of the damsel in distress’s resume, and a dry explanation that our hero is a soldier of fortune hired by outside agents to save her.  The whole opening section of this purported action story chooses exposition over action.

Compare that to my own ‘rescuing the damsel’ story.  In Bring Back Our Girls, the action starts just as the hero is on the cusp of breaking into the compound of the bad guys.  The first line of the story features the hero slitting the throat of one of the sentries.  The backstory leading up to that point is only slowly introduced over the first half of the story.  Thatset-up is wedged into the spaces between action, with only the goal, save kidnapped girls from vaguely Boko Haram-esque terrorists, mentioned in the first few parargraphs.  And that was crammed in just to ensure that the reader knew where their sympathies should lie – that the guy they just saw commit murder was the good guy killing a modern day slaver.
Speaking of opening, the introduction to Derrick features him climbing out from under the shot-up getaway Jeep and beating it with a wrench, frustrated that he cannot repair it.  He explicitly says if it was a horse, he’d shoot it.  Even granting that as the hyperbole it clearly is, following the “show, don’t tell” pattern, Ferguson shows us the hero is a petulant man-child for whom violence isn’t a last resort, but a means of expressing himself.  That doesn’t sound very heroic.  You might get away with that scene if Dillon has already been established as a hero in other ways, or if this was the last of a dozen bad breaks, but it’s a strange choice for setting up reader expectations.

Then you have the damsel in distress.  She is a fierce and independent successful modern woman who doesn’t need no man…except when it comes to being rescued.  Even that can be forgiven.  A high value hero needs a high value damsel, and although this seems to be the only kind of woman we see in media these days, they exist, they add drama, and my weariness of the trope amounts to mere personal preference.  What cannot be forgiven is that for all that we are told how great she is, we are shown a rather stupid woman.  Stupid or unbelievable.  Neither is flattering.
Let me explain.  The trio leaves their broken Jeep and sets out through the jungle on foot.  They come upon a new asphalt road and follow it to a small bandit settlement surrounded by log walls topped by sharp wire and broken glass.  With little choice, they decide to enter the settlement.  This provides an excuse for an important character moment.  The hero must explain to the damsel, Jenise, that this is serious.  There is danger here.  If she doesn’t listen to him, she could get badly hurt.  She resists at first, not understanding that she is out of her element, and that his words are not patronizing, but are driven by legitimate concern.  Did you notice what just happened there?  Having been kidnapped by a gang of violent men seeking to ransom her back to her benefactors, and rescued by a pair of violent men in a manner we are reliably informed was most violent, she doesn’t understand how high the stakes are at this moment. 

I can’t stress how damaging this is to the narrative of the story.  We’ve been told how smart and fierce she is.  Now we’re being told that getting kidnapped, shot at, and stranded in a jungle miles from civilization wasn’t enough evidence for her to understand.  We are expected to believe in a contradiction.  That sucks all the wind out of the sails.

Finally, about a third of the way into the story we have some real tension as Jenise is essentially kidnapped by the leader of the bandit camp.  We have a threat and some tension and we're starting to get invested turns out Jenise has seduced the bandit leader and is going to be fine without the hero after all.  So the ensuing action is driven entirely by Dillon's ego with a touch of greed and envy on his part for a minor MacGuffin.  That's it.  There are no outside stakes involved at all.  It's just action for the sake of pew-pew-pew. 
I’m going to stop here.  These are all problems, and they get repeated throughout the book.  Rather than list them off in great detail, let’s look at the positives for a bit.

But before we do, I’m going to throw in one last complaint.  The book has for stories… and no Table of Contents.  That’s an editorial comment, but a valid complaint.  Self-publishers, you’ve got to do the little things to make your reader’s lives easier.  If you don’t take care of the little things, readers have no reason to think you’ll take care of the big ones.
I'm done, seriously this time.  Back to the positives.

Ferguson's descriptions are great, and his writing just plain works.  His prose is solid without un-necessary touches or flash.  Some of his descriptions are tight from a word count, but really fire the imagination in ways that I found impressive.

Ferguson's action is ferocious.  The man knows how to write fast and fun action scenes.  He knows how to ratchet up the physical tension.  He knows how to pace the action with those all-important breaks to catch your breath, and he throws in enough twists and turns to keep the reader just off-kilter enough that they can't possibly guess what's around the next bend.  Dillon's skills at swinging away from bad guys Tarzan-style was a nice nod to the old pulps and much appreciated by this reader.

The twists in the plot are well executed.  The good guy and bad guy are forced to work together, and the way that happens is...if not believable, at least understandable.  This is a pulp story we're talking about here.

Ferguson himself is fearless in the settings of his stories.  He pays just enough attention to the real world to keep them grounded, but doesn't let overly complex rationales interfere with a good story.  The lost bandit camp city in the heart of Cambodia was a brilliant setting.  It's preposterous and over the top from a real world standpoint, but that shouldn't stop an action writer from using it anyway. It's just the sort of setting that you should expect - nay, demand! - in a pulp story.  That goes double for the characters who are without exception distinct and personable.  Even the bit players are provided with enough character to draw the reader in.

In the final analysis, I can't recommend this book.  Ferguson's writing is solid, his descriptions great, but it's all surface detail.  There's no depth to this work.  There's nothing to hook the reader into the protagonist except for the protagonist himself.  Everything he does is for him, and we don't have any real reason to care what happens to him outside of the fact that he is the central character in the story.  Dillon could have walked away from any of these stories at multiple moments with no affect on anyone in the world but himself.  An arrogant narcissist can make for a fine protagonist, but the pulps that excite me don't just have protagonists - they have heroes.

You might like this book.  You might like empty action, and you don't need actual heroics done by a hero.  In which case, go crazy.  Enjoy.  Who am I to judge your tastes.  I just need more that that.  I need a reason to root for the good guy other than that he is really handsome and cool.  I need him to struggle and take risks and sacrifice himself for others.  I need him to fight for something bigger than himself, and Four Bullets for Dillon just doesn't meet that need.

Reading these stories just confirmed my complaint about so much of the new pulp fiction on the market today.  There's a lot of flash and chrome, but there's no heart and soul to it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Pulp Clique

Grab me by the neck, push me into the stall, and threaten me with a humiliation shampoo and toilet water rinse, and I’ll admit to being a member of the Pulp Revolution.  But I may not be a very good member, because I’m not all that interested in which branch of the literary renaissance you want to stick me on.  Granted, I have more in common with the guys really digging into the heart and soul of the pulp attitude, and that crew shows up in my social media circles more than any other.  But I fear too much spent time defining and pigeonholing writers and works will prove to be counter-productive.

Gang, cult, or club, sign me up for recapturing some of this!
You’re reading words written by a guy who participates in the Puppy of the Month Book Club – that alone should tell you that I’m not so much interested in reading the ‘right’ group of writers as I am in reading the ‘high quality’ group of writers.  It doesn’t matter which of the publishing revolutions the book stems from.  It could be pulp revolution, superversiveSF, Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy, or none of the above.  If it’s a fun read full of adventure, exploration, action, and mystery (or any combination of the above), with a strong moral center, then it’s for me.

There may even be a few oddball titles produced by New York publishing houses that meet that criteria, and I’d read those in a New York minute.  But I’m a busy guy, and have no interest in playing the long odds presented by New York when I’m batting one hundred percent sticking with books recommended by people in the big four rebellions.

It could very well be that the 20 year drought of great writing generated by the great Narrativist takeover of publishing left me a thirsty man with low standards.  That might explain why 2016 felt like the best year of reading since high school.   Regardless, it’s nice to see that people in other camps are also lobbing arrows at the dinosaur publishing houses.  They may not be doing the same thing as the people in my camp, but if their target selection is sound, they are all friends of mine.

Monday, December 5, 2016

That's What I'm Talking About

Kevyn Winkless has been establishing himself as one of my favorite G+ denizens lately.  His blog deserves to be in any writer's feed as it is always though provoking and informative.  Even better, he drops idle thoughts in G+ that leave me feeling like Watson watching the whole mystery unravel before mine very eyes.  Here's one example:

He recently posted a link to Charles Akin's Dyvers Blog which was ostensibly about describing things in RPGs using terse language.  The rule of thumb for maintaining people's attention is about three sentences, and Charles touches upon that rule when he says:
One of my strengths as a GM has always been my ability to describe the locations that my players explore with a brevity that leaned heavy on mood and the big details.

Kevyn drags this back to narrative fiction:
Yet another brick in the Pulp edifice elucidated. This is critical I think, in getting the aesthetic heart of pulp style fiction right, and is something many authors aiming for "pulpiness" fail to grasp. Yes, the vocabulary may be rich, there may also be lovingly lingering description, but the skill with which the best pulp era authors paint scenes in a handful of sentences is amazing.
Anyone who has read my work knows that I favor that level of terseness in my descriptions.  But that's not why I'm telling you about Kevyn today.  We got to talking about pulp writing and - aside from feeling like one of those late-night dorm room speculative conversations - it really opened my eyes to a few trends.  In particular, Spence Hart chimed in with this idea bomb:
I don't think it's a coincidence that a fair amount of us starting up the Pulp Revolution come from a background in RPGs... specifically the OSR movement. We've already been through rejecting what the gatekeeper publishers were trying to force-feed us and went back to older-style games, then after a period of re-acquaintance building on the old games into new directions.
It gets better.  Click here and read the whole thing.

You see that thread?  That's what I call writing advice.  That's what I call literary criticism.  That's what I call, "The Good Stuff".

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Grown Up Book Report: Starship Grifters

Most of what you'll find reviewed here at Seagull Rising are works that really blow my skirt up or that really grind my gears.  Starship Grifters, by Rob Kroese, is neither.  Instead, it's a very funny book with, that is really well written, and just isn't for me. 

The basic plot of the story follows the adventures of Rex Nihilo as he desperately tries to rid himself of a massive debt.  (The details of how he assumed that debt are left vague here for the purposes of saving potential readers the fun of discovery.)  Rex is a narcissistic, back stabbing, lying, no-good, dirty, double dealing swindler, but like all the best grifters he has a fearless arrogance and under-dog appeal that soften him up.  To make him an easier character to swallow, he is the best of a lot of bad actors - the people he swindles and who swindle him right back are so much worse that you can't help but root for Rex.

The book is narrated by his faux-femme robot sidekick, Sasha.  Sasha is a one of a kind, almost-sentient robot prevented from achieving true sentience by forced reboots every time she gets too clever.  This gives Kroese an excuse to deliberately set-up mysteries that Sasha just barely solves - only to blank her mind and deny readers the resolution until events can unfold for themselves.  It's one weird trick that that is as effective and funny as it is transparent. 

The leads in this book remind me of a gender-swapped Bender and Fry, of Futurama infamy.  You've got a lovable rogue - this time a human - and a dim-witted assistant - this time a female robot.  It's a classic pairing, and for good reason.  Making the straight man a largely emotionless robot results in a lot of very dry wit being tossed around right alongside some humdinger one liners like these:
  • The name of the evil imperial government is the Malarchy.
  • It takes a massive, well-funded bureaucracy to solve problems caused by a massive, well-funded bureaucracy
  • The Strong Misanthropic Principle, which asserts that the universe exists in order to screw with us.
Then there's the Douglas Adams-esque rationalization for faster-than-light travel:
It was actually well known by the twentieth century that Euclidean geometry is arbitrary, being only one possible way of describing the relations of objects in space.  There are a theoretically infinite number of other geometries that all employ their own set of rules.  The trick is to find a geometry in which the distance you want to traverse is significantly shorter than in Euclidean geometry.  Essentially you reverse-engineer a an entirely new set of geometric rules based on the trip you want to take, and then employ those rules for only as long as the trip lasts.
This is literally called rationalizing a hypergeometric course.  Talk about hanging a lampshade on something.

So far I've name checked two of the best humor sci-fi franchises around, and you can throw the Stainless Steel Rat onto that pile.  This is a book can stand shoulder to shoulder with any of those franchises.  It is that funny and well written.

Here's where this review gets a little trickier to write.  Although everything I've said up to this point has been glowing, and while I'll certainly add Kroese to my stable of authors to look for, this isn't a book that appeals to me these days.

I'm just not a big fan of stories about con-jobs and heists.  At this point in my life, I've consumed enough moral ambiguity and anti-heroism.  My tastes run towards moral reinforcement and true heroism.  Rex Nihilo is just a grafter looking out for number one, and that leaves me cold.  Bear in mind, I finished this book on the strength of Kroese's humor and writing, but as pretty as its chrome sparkles it just doesn't have much under the hood. 

To understand where it fails, let's take a look at how well it meets Misha Burnett's Five Pillars of Pulp:
  1. Action Oriented Storytelling:  Starship Grifters passes this with flying colors.  Those flying colors are typically those of lazer blasts, but it also features space chases and fistfights as well. 
  2. Protagonists with a clear moral compass:  Pure fail.  Rex's moral compass always points straight towards himself.  His sidekick, Sasha, does what she can to help him, but is constrained by her programming.
  3. An element of romance in the classical sense of decisive action:  None worth mentioning.
  4. As well as the modern sense of interpersonal passion:  This one is a mixed bag. Rex is passionate about money and his own skin, but see number 2.  We'll score a half-point for the passion, but no more because the passion is not in service to anything greater than Rex himself.
  5. An unapologetic view of violence as the proper tool for overcoming evil:  Rex, like all good grifters, believes violence is a tool best used on his behalf by others.
That's 1.5 out of 5 pillars.  That's a C level effort on the Pulp-O-Meter.  This is not to say that Starshp Grifters is a bad book.  It's a lot of fun, and those who enjoy madcap hijinks featuring as many as five separate groups bounce around the galaxy in a constant effort to outlie, out-cheat, and out-swindle each other would be hard pressed to find a book that does it better than Starship Grifters.

That's just not my cuppa joe.

And really, that may be the highest compliment one could pay an author:  I liked this book, even though it's not the sort of book I typically enjoy.