Tag Archives: writing

Double shot of Locke Lamora isn’t enough

20130906162408!Locke_Lamora“I can’t wait to have words with the Gray King when this shit is all finished. There’s a few things I want to ask him. Philosophical questions. Like, ‘How does it feel to be dangled out a window by a rope tied around your balls, motherfucker?’ ” Locke Lamora, The Lies of Locke Lamora

I’ve previously written about a conversation with a pal, who, after I said I had some issues with Game of Thrones (while enjoying it overall), went on a rant about the quality of fantasy tomes for adult readers. After he spewed forth his wrath against the genre in general, he then pointed me toward Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series and said, “Read this.”

So I did. The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in the Gentleman Bastard series, is a combination of Ocean’s 11-esque heist movie and Game of Thrones level violence. The backstabbing is metaphorical, literal and frequent. Lamora and his gang of confidence men violate the peace between the old money of the city of Camorr and its criminal underworld, going after the elite targets while generally being rewarded for their efforts. Until the Grey King shows up and it all goes to shit. The twists are marvelous, the characters are many and varied, the world that Lynch has created is broad, unique and detailed. I can’t recommend the Lies of Locke Lamora enough.

887877Book two of the Gentleman Bastard series, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is … effective. Some of the fun of the first book is gone, as Locke has lost too much to continue to be nothing but a light-hearted rogue. But some of what we lose in Locke is just as much about the story as the evolution of character, a tale which takes Locke out of the con too frequently. It isn’t that Lamora’s time on the high seas isn’t rewarding, but what gives these books their vitality is the thrill of the crime. Don’t get me wrong: Red Seas Under Red Skies is still a great read. But my hope is as I delve deeper into this series, Lynch is able to find the fun a bit more. With the dark ending of the second book, however, that may be difficult to do.

But I have faith in Locke, Jean, Scott Lynch and the Crooked Warden. So bring on book three and whatever violence, chicanery and humor it holds.

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‘Lullaby’: Chuck Palahniuk for everyone!

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby passes the “Would my mom read this?” test.

That’s not an easy test to pass. My mom’s pop culture tastes run fairly mainstream and somewhat bland. She’ll jump into something that’s not in her wheelhouse here and there, but you get much beyond Oprah-NCIS-movies starring Matt Damon, and my mom won’t follow.

But I think I could get her to read Lullaby, and crazier yet, I think she might even enjoy it. That doesn’t say so much about my mom’s adventurous (or lack thereof) spirit, and more about the tale itself, which is about as close to conventional as Palahniuk is probably ever going to get.

Palahniuk starts by focusing on the mystery of crib death, how it happens all the time, yet there’s no real cause there. Certain things can be done to help prevent it – we think – but sometimes, babies just go to sleep and don’t wake up. That in and of itself is horrifying enough, but Lullaby supposes there is a cause: a poem.

Called a culling poem, this particular verse, when read to anyone, leads to their immediate death by no obvious cause. They just cease living, right there, right then. Two of Lullaby‘s characters realize what’s going on, and decide to find all of the copies of the obscure children’s book that contain the culling verse and destroy them.

It’s pretty straightforward as a plot, while thematically Lullaby mostly explores the potential for abuse if you control the power of death and would likely never be held accountable for wielding said power. Would you use it to kill an evil dictator in a foreign land? Would you travel to a poor neighborhood and cull the drug dealers from the street? Or would you give the hairy eyeball to the asshole in front of you in the 12-items-or-less line who clearly has closer to 20 things in his cart?

Delivered in Palahniuk’s dense, brusque prose and with his trademark attention to the oddest of details, Lullaby is a macabre, grotesque commentary on what America is now, and how unchecked power turned it into the nation of invasive species, extinct flora and fauna and polluted beauty that we now know.

Give a copy to your mom. Who knows? She might just like it.

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What to make of ‘WWW: Wake’

www-wake

The upside: The premise of WWW: Wake, the first of Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, is ingenious. What happens when the Internet evolves and gains consciousness? This is about that inception, when that consciousness first emerges and how it comes to realize exactly what it is. This happens with the help of a blind teenager, Caitlin. Caitlin has a unique type of sightlessness, one that Dr. Kuroda, a Japanese researcher, believes he can cure. He does cure her (partially), although initially Caitlin can’t see the real world, just the virtual world. And this is how she discovers and nurtures the being that becomes known as Webmind.

It’s hard for me to explain the brilliance of what Sawyer does here. The evolution of the Webmind is subtle, realistic, creative. The teen Caitlin is one of those kids who comes off as mature for her age, a math geek with a quick wit, but someone who is also very much ruled by her hormones, pop music and the whims of her fellow teens. The relationship between Caitlin the mentor and Webmind the student never feels ridiculous or forced. This is probably the best virtual creation since Hal in 2001.

The downside: Let’s be clear: I haven’t read the entirety of the WWW trilogy, so my beefs here may be resolved over the course of the three books. But there are two other minor plot threads that dissolve as the book evolves. In one, a hacker tries to find his way out of a shutdown of any Internet connection between China and the outside world. In the other, an orangutan hybrid starts to show true artistic and creative ability never before seen in non-human primates.

Both play to the idea of the evolution of consciousness that is the main theme over the course of the story. But neither directly ties into the Caitlin-Webmind plot thread, and both just … end before the final third of the book, when everything is about our new friend in the Internet. Again, maybe these threads come together as the trilogy plays out, but it really cripples the first book, leaving me feeling as if I was cheated for paying attention to details that in no way matter to the story. Interesting side trips, but ultimately pointless.

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‘Old Man’s War’ satisfying science fiction

It’s hard to know where to begin with this look at John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. Do I start by noting that it’s screaming for a big-screen adaptation, this novel with a cinematic feel woven into it’s DNA? Do I talk about all of the other influences that popped into my head, from The Matrix to Halo to Starship Troopers to Gulliver’s Travels? Do I write about the Buddhist feel of it all, ascension to the heavens in the body of a higher being, a chance for re-birth, a clean slate upon which to build a new universe?

I think it’s safe to say I got into Old Man’s War. I felt like it worked on a few levels. Yes, if you want a quick, cinematic read, Old Man’s War can be that book. The scene where our hero, John Perry, launches from a spaceship toward the nearest planet with nothing but his weapon and the high-tech, skin-tight body suit that will protect him as he enters the atmosphere is a heart-pounding sequence. Earlier, the Colonial Defense Force discovers the individual defenses of the Consu will absorb the first shot from the CDF’s MP-35 rifles. As they are about to be overrun by the Consu, Perry realizes the key is firing two shots in succession, one to break the defenses, the second to kill, turning the tide of the battle. It’s a thrill ride and a half.

But what really suckered me in was the consciousness transfer, which enables a 75-year-old retiree who has been Earth-bound for life to evolve into a human hybrid that runs faster, jumps higher, heals quickly and is … green, skipping across the universe to do battle among the stars. A lot goes on with Perry and his pals as they adapt to the changes, and there’s this undercurrent of, “What does this mean to our humanity?” Yes, these people who were traipsing slowly to the grave now feel wonderful, are full of energy and are capable of doing things even their younger selves were never able to accomplish. But all of this new power is focused into turning them into efficient, cold-hearted killing machines that will travel the universe to eradicate any non-human life occupying the space the CDF wants to colonize. It’s a perverse trade-off: Be young again, and use that youth to exterminate the other, the new, the unknown.

The final part of the deal is that, after the 2-year mandatory commitment, up to 10 years if the CDF requires it (which they always do, if you’re lucky enough to live that long), you are returned to a new copy of your human body and allowed to become one of the pioneers you have spent your military career defending. This is where the Buddhist idea of karma comes in. After living 75 good years on Earth, you ascend – literally – to a new plane as a super being. Then you spend 10 years as a super being doing your worst to the rest of the universe. After those 10 years, you are returned to your previous human life, forced to live it all over again, but knowing this time, this is it, no more.

There’s a lot more of this identity confusion in the novel, but it’s not something that overwhelms the action. A good comparison is Starship Troopers, not that they cover the same ground, but that the novel is greater than just its alien-killing plot. But I think Scalzi’s touch is more deft than Robert Heinlein’s, much to the benefit of Old Man’s War, as well as Scalzi’s readers.

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What if an alien told you God’s existence could be scientifically proven?

Not a bad premise for a novel, right?

Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God starts here, with an insect-like alien named Hollus landing outside the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, walking in through the front door and asking to see a paleontologist. The first paleontologist to answer the call is Thomas Jericho. There starts a relationship built on the bones of animals dead millions of years that ends four hundred years in the future on a space craft near the remains of Betelgeuse after it has gone supernova.

Where does God fit in to this story? When Hollus meets Jericho, she explains that her people, the Forhilnor, humans and another race, the Wreeds, are the only three forms of intelligent life currently in the universe (that they know of), and that all three have something very important in common. Each of their planets has has had five extinction level events, all that the same time in their individual histories. Meanwhile, all three races are at similar points in their development. Jericho is stunned. He asks Hollus if they have an idea as to why this would be possible. Hollus’s answer: God.

Jericho can hardly believe what he’s hearing. And thus begins the real thrust of Calculating God, the give and take between Jericho, an athiest dying of cancer who is bitter and resistant to the idea of a God that would allow that to happen, and Hollus, a serious scientist with more than a little humanity of her own.

What makes the give and take in Calculating God so fascinating is the science. Sawyer is willing to admit the holes in evolutionary theory, of which there are a few. For example, the idea that everything evolves slowly over time to come to where we are today isn’t necessarily entirely accurate. In many cases, there seem to be evolutionary jumps, possibly mutations, that advance the process significantly. Is that the hand of God, guiding development at key points in the evolution? Or is it chance, the chaos inherent in nature?

There are other examples. Hollus notes that water is the most unique liquid in the universe and, without it, there would be no life. All life comes from water, and for water to exist, specific conditions must be present that are also necessary for the development of life.

Or what about Jupiter? Part of the reason life has had the opportunity to develop on Earth is that the gravitational pull of Jupiter sucks in most of the space debris that would do our planet harm. Doesn’t that indicate the presence of an intelligent designer protecting its creation?

As an agnostic, I found Calculating God compelling. Much of Hollus’s pro-God argument is based on the delicate, statistically near-impossible things found in nature that, if something were altered by just a percentage point or a degree, would mean that life as we know it would not be possible. It’s the threading of biological, chemical and physical needles that really gives support to the idea that, to make these things happen, there needs to be a steady hand on the wheel. And that hand may be God’s.

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‘Quantum Thief’: Is the juice worth the squeeze?

In any heist situation, it helps if you have wings.

In any heist situation, it helps if you have wings.

In The Girl Next Door, when Kelly asks Matthew if the juice is worth the squeeze, he wants to know if Matthew is ready to face the repercussions of his actions, and if those repercussions are worth the end result.

With regards to The Quantum Thief, I ask the same question with a slightly different meaning. Is the juice – the reward of finishing the complex, fast-paced novel – worth the squeeze – the fact that the complexity is almost mind-boggling in the early chapters of the book?

Part of the brilliance of The Quantum Thief is its speed. The Mars-based heist perpetrated by scoundrel/thief Jean Le Flambeur at the behest of the Oori warrior Mieli is grand, fun and brilliant. It’s hard not to get swept up in it.

Actually, I take that back. It is kind of hard to get caught up in it. Know what a gevulot is? Tzaddikim? Sobornost? You won’t, at least at first. And author Hannu Rajaniemi isn’t big with the explanations, instead expecting you to go along for the ride and figure it out as the novel unfolds.

An appendix, glossary or something would have been nice, akin to what was added to the end of A Clockwork Orange. A reviewer over at the Speculative Scotsman admits that while normally he hates that sort of thing, he’d have been consulting it throughout the entirety of the book.

In the end, the juice was worth it for me. I found it to a be a simultaneously confusing and fun experience, and I look forward to reading Rajaniemi’s next tale of Jean’s exploits.

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Will I continue to walk with the ‘Dead’?

Our plucky band off survivors just keeps on plucking.

Our plucky band off survivors just keeps on plucking.

Lots of spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Instead of “those who arrive survive,” how about “slowly but surely”? Because that both describes the trek to Terminus and seasons 2-4 of The Walking Dead.

Harsh? Maybe. To their credit, the Walking Dead folks know how to create a cliffhanger, both at their mid-season break and at the end of the season. From the execution of Carol’s zombie daughter to the fall of the prison and the death of Herschel, the minds behind The Walking Dead hit the big notes big. Rick finally getting back into kick-ass mode after being so lost for a season and a half was terrific, and I look forward to seeing what happens next fall.

Maybe.

Season 4 was an exercise in frustration for the most part. I was willing to forgive slow starts to both Seasons 2 and 3 because AMC had excised significant portions of the writing and producing staff each time. The death of zombie Sophia in the middle of Season 2 was awesome, but preceded by a lot of twiddling thumbs. At that point, Walking Dead was starting to remind me a lot of the worst of Lost: Two people isolated in some beautiful setting, saying deep, serious shit while staring off toward the horizon.

But, again, the turnover behind the scenes, the knowledge that these people were kind of being thrown into the middle of a hugely popular show, it all made me be patient, even if I was a bit on the annoyed side.

The problem is there is no such excuse for Season 4. There was no purge, no turnover. There should have been an amazing plan for the whole season heading into it, not just a nice start, terrific middle and gripping – if abrupt – end. All of that Governor background in the fall, what exactly was the point of that? We knew he was a selfish, brutal (and possibly slightly mentally ill) guy with a taste for blood and power who never really even believed in the possibility of peace. Were we supposed to believe he’d soften up with his new “family”? Because if so, that wasn’t sold very well. I never bought into it. It played like wheels spinning in snow, a waste of screen time for a character who the Walking Dead folks then proceeded to kill. Not that I have a problem with that, but if you’re just going to kill him anyway and not really make him integral in any part of the future show except the execution of Herschel, then why bother with the lame, useless back-story?

When The Walking Dead returned from Christmas break, we got more background and less plot and action. Michonne had a family, and it broke her heart when they died? Name one character who doesn’t have the same back story. Daryl was a dipshit redneck before the apocalypse? Gee, who would have guessed that? Rick isn’t sure what to do next? Been there, done that. Glen and Maggie love each other? Sweet, but no value added. And in between we get plod, plod, plod, plus a few characters added who, at this point, aren’t very interesting or are already dead.

Really, the second-to-last episode of Season 4, The Grove, where Carol is forced to make another hard choice, is far superior to either of the two that follow it. The second-to-last was another mildly interesting episode that’s sole purpose was to reunite Glen with Maggie. The final episode starts with serious intensity, then watch it crumble to pieces as Rick, Carl, Michonne and Darryl practically run into Terminus without a thought, followed with a display of automatic weapon fire so hokey and poorly choreographed that I’m reasonably certain it was stock footage from The A-Team, and – finally – one great, final line.

Is it worth it? It has been, to an extent. I guess the real question is will The Walking Dead be worth it moving forward? That, I’m not so sure about.

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Hollywood, please don’t make ‘Neuromancer’ into a movie

A wise man and one helluva writer.

A wise man and one helluva writer.

A friend of the family has a son who, at a younger age, was a huge fan of the Percy Jackson book series. So when the first movie hit theaters, he was one excited kid. Until he saw the movie. About 2/3 of the way through, he leaned over and said to his mom, “I don’t think the people who made this ever read the book.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

I thought about this as I re-read William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It’s a book that is almost aching for a big-screen adaptation. Gibson’s book is one part heist film, one part psychedelic punk anarchy and one part hacker manifesto. Neuromancer‘s action cuts quickly, giving it a very cinematic feel.

And Gibson’s prose is vividly descriptive without bogging down Neuromancer‘s action. Such as …

Cold steel odor. Ice caressed his spine. Lost, so small amid that dark, hands grown cold, body image fading down corridors of television sky. Voices. Then black fire found the branching tributaries of the nerves, pain beyond anything to which the name of pain is given …

Or how about this?

Nothing. Gray void. No matrix, no grid. No cyberspace. The deck was gone. His fingers were … And on the far rim of consciousness, a scurrying, fleeting impression of something rushing toward him, across leagues of black mirror. He tried to scream.

But would it work on the big screen? When I ask myself this, I keep returning to two films: 1995’s Hackers and The Matrix. Hacker‘s cyberspace scenes are ridiculous and cheesy, much like the entire film itself. Low-grade special effects, quick cuts to people typing, Fisher Stevens going apeshit as Angelina Jolie and a bunch of other young, B-list stars attempt to undo his all-knowing, all-commanding software. Yes, it was 1995, but Hackers and its backers lacked both vision and the budget necessary to make it work. When Gibson describes large walls of data and the viral assault on the Tessier-Ashpool mainframe, it’s both menacing and frightening. In the hands of the wrong director, it’s Hackers.

The Matrix, of course, is a classic, one that ripped its title from Neuromancer‘s very pages. And there are moments, such as when Case talks to the virtual Finn who represents the artificial intelligence known as Wintermute, that I can see Neuromancer done in the manner of Wachowski’s trilogy. Which seems odd: A movie based on a book that looks like another movie inspired by the book. Plus, knowing how too many moviegoers are brainless buttheads, most are going to think Neuromancer ripped off The Matrix. Much like the morons who think the Avett Brothers are just riding in the wake of Mumford & Sons, that happening would drive me out of my damn mind.

In the end, I’m not sure how any combination of writers and directors would do justice to Neuromancer on the big screen. I fear some sort of Michael Bay-Garrett Hedlund disaster that would probably barely break even and have the overall quality of a Spy Kids movie.

So ignore me, Hollywood. Forget I ever brought up Neuromancer. There is nothing to see here. Move along. Anyway, I’m sure Stephenie Meyer or Stephen King has something new for you to crap out, anyway. That would be better for all parties involved, especially since – in the end – a Neuromancer movie would probably be made by people who had never bothered to read the book.

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Sometimes, it’s hard to move on with an author

I recently read W.A.R.P.: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer. It was a bit of a disappointment. It’s not that it’s not a nice piece of Y.A. fiction. The story is unique and interesting, the villain Albert Garrick is a powerful and nasty mix of Michael Myers and Fagin, and the story displays Colfer’s trademark humor.

And yet … I love me some Artemis Fowl. I’ll take Artemis over Harry Potter any day of the week, and twice on Tuesday. The characters of Artemis’s world – LeP Captain Holly Short, the massive Butler, Foaly the centaur, Julius Root, the most awesome thief ever in Mulch Duggums and the titular sociopath himself – are immediately fully realized and adapt and change throughout the series in realistic, thoughtful ways. The villains are crafty and crazy, the adventures are a hoot and Colfer isn’t afraid to go dark.

The problem is nothing else I’ve read from Colfer – W.A.N.D.,  The Supernaturalist, The Wish List, Half Moon Investigations – has that same … spark, for a lack of a better word. The books are well-plotted, the characters are unique, and Colfer’s a funny dude. But there’s something about Artemis that separates that series from the rest of Colfer’s work.

Does that mean I’ll stop reading Colfer? No, because even an under-cooked book from Colfer is 75% better than anything else out there. It’s just frustrating to not make the same connection to his other work that I made immediately to Artemis Fowl and his cohorts.

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An end in sight?

I don’t write a lot about my novel-in-progress, precisely because this blog is more my opportunity to both get away from it for a bit, as well as take a critical look at the work of others to see what I can learn from what others have done. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I think it’s pretty boring to listen to people gripe about their works-in-progress.

But this isn’t a gripe. I sat down today and looked at my notes, trying to figure out just what exactly I needed to do. And that list is a lot smaller than I expected. I have about a half-dozen chapters to write, and another 3 or 4 – including the end – that will need some re-writing.

Twenty nine chapters in total. It’s right in front of me that beautiful, terrifying finish. I can hardly believe it.

Of course, maybe I shouldn’t be too excited. I’m sure there will be much re-writing to be done after I’ve received some notes on this draft.

Maybe it’s more like the beginning of the end. Still, it feels pretty good.

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