Archive for the 'Fiction' Category

Old Man’s War: Decent, but not revolutionary

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

I discovered John Scalzi’s blog Whatever a couple months back and I’ve been reading nearly everything he’s posted to it since. The name of the blog is blah, but don’t let that fool you. He’s been doing this blogging thing for longer than the word “blog” has existed, so the name of his site was more passable then than now. But ignoring that issue, he’s a very witty writer, and his blog posts are consistently entertaining. And since he’s become a published science fiction author in recent years, he’s also done a fair bit of promotion of his books (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Android’s Dream, The Last Colony, and the upcoming Zoe’s Tale). So for my flight back from Phoenix, I bought Old Man’s War and settled in for a marathon reading session.

First off, let me begin by saying that I started the book about an hour into the flight, didn’t put it down until I deplaned, read most of the rest of it after driving home from the airport, fell asleep, woke up, and read the remaining few pages before breakfast. So on that count alone, I won’t deny liking it. I’ve read many novels that simply weren’t able to grab me; Old Man’s War did. Heck, some novels I find so lacking in entertainment that I don’t ever get around to finishing.

But I did have some problems with the novel. John Scalzi seems to possess only one writing style. On his blog, it works excellently, but his absurdist humor kind of felt out of place in a novel that takes itself so seriously. For instance, his main character, John Perry, gets blown out of an exploded shuttle, with shrapnel slicing away the lower part of his head, and then as his body ragdolls through mid-air, he becomes “possibly the first person in history to kick himself in the uvula.” Come on. It had me chuckling, or rather, marveling at the absurdity of what I had just read. It was also jarring, and temporarily broke my immersion in the story. The rest of the novel contains similar snippets like this. And John Perry is so consistently making dark and dry jokes you can just tell John Scalzi based John Perry off himself. If that and the shared first name aren’t enough of a clue, John Perry was a writer before he became a soldier.

I also had some problems with some of the cliché characters. There’s an idiotic loud-mouthed soldier, the standard caricature of a gung-ho, cock-sure warrior with more machismo than sense, who is so impatient for battle to begin that he promptly gets himself killed by peeking out from cover in excitement after killing an alien as he mouths off about the awesomeness of war. And then the description of his death is especially visceral, with bullet-shockwave-pressurized brain matter spewing forth from his head as he’s shot, as if to especially emphasize to the reader that this guy deserved to die for his foolishness.

There’s also a smarmy, condescending politician-cum-soldier who thinks so highly of himself that he believes he can single-handedly negotiate peace in the middle of war; he drops his weapon, approaches a group of aliens, and is instantly turned into a fine bloody mist when all of the aliens simultaneously fire their club-shaped traditional weapons (which just so happen to be shotguns). It was another especially gruesome death, carefully written by Scalzi as if to say “This jerkwad deserved it”. And I’m not sure I like the message of it either; it’s a non sequitur attack against giving diplomacy a chance.

You could see the deaths of both of these cliché characters telegraphed from pages away. While I suppose these scenes were intended to be satisfying, indulging a schadenfreudist delight in watching idiots get their just desserts, they just left me feeling hollow, and especially in the case of the first character, contradictory. The soldiers in these scenes are all 75-year-olds given new bodies right before being shipped off to war; how many of the elderly still retain such levels of foolishness and impudence that can only be found in youth?

And now here’s where I really get really nit picky. I had some fundamental problems with the universe of Old Man’s War. It’s full of alien races all vying for a limited number of star systems, all of them at a sufficiently equal enough level of technology so as to make all battles fair. This simply doesn’t make any sense. Considering how far warfare progresses in a single generation here on Earth, and considering that the universe is 13.5 billion years old, the odds of having many different civilizations all at essentially equal levels of technology are zilch. The first species to achieve intelligence, even if they only won the race by a thousand years, would dominate the galaxy. There wouldn’t be battles, there would be massacres. Here on Earth we’ve progressed from cavalry to nuclear aircraft carriers in the span of a single century. Picture how imbalanced that war would be, and then expand the difference in war-fighting technology out to millions of years.

Don’t go thinking, from all of my criticism, that I didn’t enjoy the book; I did. I purchased the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, and I will be reading it. But I just wouldn’t call this novel revolutionary. It sits squarely within Robert A. Heinlein’s and Joe Haldeman’s genre of action-packed military science fiction, with some of Scalzi’s own quirks, but it does not push its boundaries or attempt to transcend them. This is most unfortunate, because what I appreciate more than anything else in my science fiction is making me think. I would attempt to compare this novel against another scifi novel that I recently read, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, but there really is no comparison there. I would love to see Scalzi make one possible with a future novel, though.

Planning out a science fiction short story

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Last week I tried out a new ideation technique I sort of figured out on my own. Basically, I developed the shortest possible summary of a story, and then continued asking myself questions about more details of the story. As I asked more questions, some of the parts of the story became pretty fleshed out, while other parts of the story remain unresolved. So asking the questions is step one.

Step two is actually going back through and answering all of the questions, which is a bit more difficult (and will require more careful thought, because I actually have to come up with clever ideas that all fit into a cohesive whole). I haven’t done step two yet. But here are the unedited, flow of consciousness results of step one (and please, nobody steal my story idea, I plan on turning it into a full story). And, in the comments below, tell me if you think this method for coming up with story ideas is any good. Or, I suppose, if you think the story idea itself is any good.

Two main characters:
Jocques, a deserter soldier who has fled war not because he is a pacifist, but for more pragmatic concerns: he didn’t think the war was worth fighting for, and he did not want to chance his life.
Mehrit, a hermit living alone high up on a forested hill. His past is a secret and society simply seems to have forgotten about him. [And yes, the name is an anagram of Hermit, and yes, that name probably isn’t final.]

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Lunar colony nomenclature

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

So, I was musing about Lunar colonies on the commute home from work tonight, as I am often wont to do, and I came up with an apt name for humankind’s first permanent colony on Luna.

Second Basket

Think about it for a few seconds and you should get it. I know it sounds a little funny now, but then again, people living on Luna aren’t exactly going to be normal by our standards anyway, so I suspect this is exactly the kind of quirky nomenclature they will appreciate.

Arthur C. Clarke heads off to that great Rama in the sky

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

It is with much sadness that I learn of the death of Arthur C. Clarke at the age of 90 in his country of residence, Sri Lanka. Arthur C. Clarke was the last surviving member of the trio of great golden age science fiction writers affectionately known as the “Big Three”, which also included Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. Arthur C. Clarke’s work was hugely influential in the genre of science fiction. In particular, he co-wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick (and a novel of the same name), yielding a groundbreaking science fiction film that still stands on its own decades later.

Arthur C. Clarke was also hugely influential on a very personal level to me. He was my first introduction to the amazing genre of adult science fiction (up until that point I had read a lot of Tom Swift novels, but that’s more adventure than true scifi). I still remember, as an elementary school kid, finding a mysterious slim black volume amongst my dad’s book collection entitled Rendezvous with Rama. I don’t know what drew me to it, but I know I wanted to read it, and once I cracked that cover, I couldn’t put it down. It was unlike anything I had been exposed to up until that point. It had fantastic concepts, a ridiculously huge enigmatic alien spaceship, a vision of the future in which travel to space was becoming commonplace, forward thinking, and philosophical questions about how first contact would affect humanity. It even had a little bit of sex in it, something my young mind wasn’t quite ready to grasp but found fascinating nonetheless. I didn’t even realize something that awesome existed up until that point. I was enthralled.

From Rama I began branching out into other works by Arthur C. Clarke (2001 amongst them). Then I discovered Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Stephen Baxter, and other greats of the field. I have read dozens, perhaps hundreds, of speculative fiction novels since then, but I will never forget my first. It affected me in a profound way. Within short order at school I was writing stories about spaceships for class assignments. I lacked the skills to come up with a setting of my own that even came close to rivaling that of Rama’s, my gold standard at the time, so I shamelessly ripped it off, writing a story about a hollowed-out, rotating spaceship with a four letter name that came unannounced to Earth, exactly like Rama, except only bigger: I multiplied all of the dimensions by two. Surely that made it even better than Rama?

I will go to bed tonight sadder than when I awoke this morning, knowing that the world is a little poorer off for seeing the passing of one of its great creative minds. You may never have read any of his works, but Arthur C. Clarke touched generations of people, filling their minds with wonder and their hearts with hope. I know not how many people like me were introduced to science fiction through his works, but I do know that all of us, however many there are, will be mourning his death tonight. Rest in peace, and may your singular works continue to inspire for generations to come.

Blogging and writing, a dichotomy?

Friday, March 14th, 2008

Robin Hobb wrote a very thought-provoking piece on why she thinks blogging is evil, at least for writers. The argument goes that there’s only so much creative output one person can produce in a day, so any creativity going into a blog post isn’t going into writing a serious work. Blogging is easy; posts are written in bite-sized chunks and can be dashed off in thirty minutes. Compare that to writing a novel, which takes months if not years. Blogging also offers instant gratification and feedback, whereas serious writing involves toiling alone in the dark with no immediate reward.

Blogging is thus kind of like the fast food of the writing world. Sure, it tastes good and it’s quick and convenient, but overall, it’s not good for you. John Scalzi, another author, agrees with this argument. I reluctantly have to agree as well. Since I wrote my novel for National Novel Writing Month in November, I haven’t touched any serious writing. Why? Because any time I’ve had the urge to write, which is often, I’ve simply come to this blog and dashed off another post. It’s like fast food for the creative mind. There’s a stark dichotomy that I must face: Do I want to be a blogger, or do I want to be a writer? I cannot decide.

Unfortunately I don’t have the luxury afforded to me of being both writer and blogger like John Scalzi, because he generates enough income from his writing to not need a full-time job. I’m not anywhere close to having that kind of freedom. My time outside of work is limited enough that I do have to make careful writing decisions, and I can easily see that all of this blogging is cutting down my time for other writing to non-existent levels.

I don’t know what I’ll end up doing in the long run. But for now, I am going to consciously decide to take some of my blogging time and use it for writing instead. Writing makes me happy, and if I ever am going to try to make a go of it, I will need some works. Thanks to Robin Hobb and John Scalzi for jolting me into awareness of the situation. I wouldn’t have wanted to go another three months without writing, but that’s the path I was heading on.

You got your zombie in my Pride and Prejudice!

Monday, February 11th, 2008

This has to be the best contest ever: Take a paragraph from a book and add a zombie. Think about how that might work for a few seconds, then read an example of how it works with a Jane Austen novel. Pure awesome. I cannot believe nobody’s ever done this before.

I shan’t be entering the contest, but I most definitely will be zombifying a famous work of literature and posting it here for your (hopeful) enjoyment. How could I not? This is the best idea ever.

A Stay At Motel Z

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

The upper crest of the Sun languished above the horizon, casting the long rays and shadows of dusk across the scene in front of me. The sky smoothly transitioned from a brilliant swirl of purple and red near the setting Sun to a dark, dull blue on the opposite side. The palm trees lining the highway swayed in the gentle breeze, vibrant verdure leaves and husky brown trunks shimmying to and fro, their tiniest movements amplified in their imposing hundred-foot shadows. Just above the nearest tree, I could see a faint grayish arc blazed across the sky, our most unexpected and unwelcome visitor.

The parking lot below was half-filled with vehicles atop the cracked, aging, uneven asphalt. Autumn seems to have chased away many of the motel’s guests. The vehicles were nothing special, just a typical mix of compacts, SUVs, pick-up trucks, vans, and one solitary BMW with a large gash on its driver’s door parked selfishly across a yellow parking space demarcation line. Almost directly below me, I could see the top of a tacky jumbo umbrella, alternating segments white and red, perched sloppily in the center of a cheap white plastic picnic table. The railing along the second floor of the motel was eerily low. Without a moment’s pause, I could hurdle over it and throw myself onto the umbrella, hoping it would break my fall, and make a run for it. That plan increasingly seemed more and more appealing.

To my left, a woman peered anxiously out the slightly ajar door of room 215, the privacy chain secured in place. Tears ran down the woman’s pretty asymmetric face even as her brow was furrowed and her green eyes focused in a look of grim determination. Wisps of her blond hair fluttered in the breeze, trying to escape the confines of the room. Her brown-haired daughter was trying to peer out the door as well, but her mother had her hands tightly wrapped around the girl’s face. Behind them, room 217 was tightly boarded up, though I knew not who was inside. I could see the bed and dressers pressed up against the window on the inside through the sagging yellowing white venetian blinds.

Standing next to me was the brown-haired, brown-eyed, tall, muscular, and compact husband of the pretty woman in room 215. He was exactly her type. He wore jean shorts and a new, glistening white wife beater, already growing damp from his profuse sweating. He tightly clutched a fire ax in his hands, the red paint on its handle faded after many decades of neglect. Its head was rusty and the blade jagged and dull from oxidation and corrosion over these many years of disuse. It looked like it had not ever been sharpened. But that made it all the better for the task we so desperately needed it for, because sharp blades have a tendency to get deeply embedded into bone, stuck. A hefty fire extinguisher sat on the concrete next to his left foot, its indicator needle way out of the green zone and a tag marking its last inspection date as March, 1999.

To my right, three opened blue boxes of 20 gauge buckshot shotgun shells, all but one of them empty, lay on top of a cheap nightstand I had wrenched out of my room. The bolts were still attached to two of the nightstand’s legs, covered in jagged plaster. Including those loaded in the magazine of the Remington 11-87 I held, we had just fourteen shells left. Not nearly enough. The acrid smell of gunpowder wafted up from the many red shell casings scattered around my feet. My arms no longer quaked with fear, but held firm with resolute determination, even as my shoulder ached from absorbing the brunt of repeated firings.

In front of me, an otherworldly monster was trying to scramble up the concrete stairs, over the large heap of leaking, broken monsters that had come before. Bits of putrid flesh had already fallen off from many places on its body, especially its head, where I could see cheekbones and parts of its eye socket exposed. This sight no longer fazed me. Its flesh was a pallid yellowish gray, and the tatters of what were once its clothes were mostly collected around its feet. Its left arm was missing from a few inches below the shoulder, where I had blown it clear off earlier with a poorly aimed, panicked shot. The yellow fluid slowly leaking from inside the jagged terminus of its humerus and the pulsating, blackened muscle surrounding it left no doubts as to the advanced and irreversible stage of conversion of this former human. With just one remaining arm and the slick pile of beheaded creatures and body parts beneath it, it kept comically slipping as it tried to reach me. I stifled a laugh, for its sake.

I was more concerned about the other, fully intact monsters behind it. Some were milling around in the parking lot, others clambering up the stairway behind the one-armed one I now recognized as Fred, the Customer Service Representative who had been behind the counter here when I first checked in and who later provided me with a toothbrush, at no charge, when I realized I had left mine at home. They all had no sense of urgency or fear. They would keep coming at their leisurely, unconcerned pace until there were none left or they got to us. Counting them up quickly, I saw that there were still many more than we had shotgun shells remaining. Conserving ammunition was our highest priority. I unshouldered the Remington and relaxed my tight grip on its stock, taking one last look at the crippled, floundering monster on the stairs, then motioned the man with the ax forward. As he stepped forward and raised the ax above his head, it cast long shadows across my face, and I chuckled at the guilty thought that there was no better way to go out.

And thus concludes the extended Zombie Week here at Cyde Weys Musings. I hope you enjoyed it, and hey, if you didn’t, at least now it’s over, and I will return to my usual (mostly) zombie-free routine. This is my second short story written in a moment-in-time style; my first was Invasion Day.

Revisiting one of my terrible first attempts at writing science fiction

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

I’m a digital pack rat. I have everything I’ve ever written on a computer squirreled away on my current computer, including over a dozen years of homework assignments. It’s not too hard to do. Each time I’ve upgraded computers, I’ve simply copied the Documents folder on the old computer into the new Documents folder on the new computer. In this way, I have them nested several deep, and delving farther into the nesting of my Documents folders is like peeling back the archaeological layers and looking further and further into my past. This is possible because hard drive space has increased exponentially over the years (my current computer’s hard drives store 400GB each; my first computer’s, 100MB).

Every now and again I look back through my old documents to refresh myself on how I once was. Memories fade with time, but the things I’ve written haven’t changed at all in these intermittent years, and give my present self an enlightening window into my past. Recently, I was looking through my documents from eighth grade (nine years ago) and I came across a science fiction short story I wrote that I still vaguely remembered to this day. Now, if anyone else were to do what I am about to do, I would call foul, saying they had no right to make fun of my work from when I was just a kid, still learning how to write. But since I’m doing it to myself, I have the freedom to be as merciless as the sheer awfulness of my work merits.

I’m going to spare you the displeasure of reading the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt.

As Blop went outside to chat with his friends, something horribly fiendish was happening right outside of the Lyloxian solar system. Something big was going on; a convention of ships. Not any ships, though, for these were the flagships of the Baborian Navy. Destroyers and battleships kept on appearing out of the blue mist that was hyperspace. The ships all seemed to have a focal point. They were meeting on the spatial coordinates (342.007, 486.430, 477.573). Their target was the homeworld of the binary starsystem Zol, comprised of the stars Unan and Uras, Unan being the larger one. Their target was Lyloxia. They meant business. Rarg had specifically stated that he wanted the inhabitants of Lyloxia eradicated completely so that a living colony could be set up.

There are so many things wrong with this single paragraph that it would be impossible to list all of them, so let’s cover the most grievous. Back then, my idea of science fiction seemed to be constituted mainly of aliens, weird unpronounceable names, spaceships (of course!), and meaningless technobabble numbers (you can tell I watched an unhealthy amount of Star Trek as a youth). I picked this excerpt because it is representative, not because it is especially egregious. The whole story was like this. Each new sentence reveals a fresh smattering of random letters I’d pulled directly from my ass. Out of the 2,556 words in this story, my spell checker doesn’t recognize 188. That’s 7.4%!

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I really need to read more novels

Saturday, December 1st, 2007

Competing in (and winning!) 2007’s National Novel Writing Month made me realize something: I really need to read more novels. It’s pathetic how few novels I’ve read recently. I don’t remember reading even one in the past year. And when I was writing my own novel, I realized what a huge problem that is. See, I read blogs and news stories all the time, and I am learning all sorts of things, but I’m not learning literary style.

Writing a novel has a large problem-solving component to it. How do I write several pages of dialog without it getting repetitive? (Many lines of “He said”, “She said” gets very repetitive.) How should I write in a character’s thoughts? (Quotes, italics, what?) What’s another way of indicating a state of inaction has ceased besides using the word “finally”? There are all sorts of tricks to the trade of novel-writing, and these things simply don’t stick with you if you haven’t read a novel recently. They’re style issues; if they’re done well, you don’t notice them. So I need to go back through and read some novels with a critical eye towards how they handle all of the problems I had during the writing of my novel. I will do this before I go through and edit my novel.

So I’ve been thinking, what kinds of books do I want to glean stylistic inspiration from? That’s an easy question to answer: literary masterpieces! You know, the classics in the field that students are typically assigned to read in high school and in college. I read a fair number of them going through school, but there are a lot more out there that I haven’t read (e.g. The Catcher in the Rye). I think it’ll do good for my writing style. Yes, my story is nominally a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid, and if I was having thematic issues, I would read some novels of those genres as a refresher. But since I’m having style issues, I’ll stick to the literary masterpieces.

The sad thing is, it wasn’t always this way. All the way up through high school I was a voracious reader. It wasn’t uncommon for me to read more than one book per week. I had a long bus ride to my magnet school and reading on the bus was my major way to pass the time (that, and Game Boy). But when I entered college, all of that changed, as it did for all of my friends I’ve asked about it. The free time one has available for reading simply vanishes in college. Now that I’m done, and that I’m done with the rush of finishing 50,000 words in one month, I have time to read more novels again. I’ll put that down as my next project. I’ll thoroughly enjoy it.

I did it! I wrote a novel in a month

Friday, November 30th, 2007

NaNoWriMo 2007 winner
What a crazy month it’s been. Computer gaming has fallen by the wayside as the largest chunk of my free time has been poured into the novel I’ve been working on for National Novel Writing Month. But I did it! I just finished, and a day early to boot! Check out my erratic rate of progress in this graph. Notice all the catching up I had to do in the end.

NaNoWriMo graph over time

My novel isn’t actually done though. It’s probably going to end up being at least 60,000 words long when all is said and done. But no matter. I’ve won NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words in under a month. Now I can finish the rest of it off (including that desperately needed editing) at a more leisurely pace.

So what have I learned? That I can do it. That’s really the biggest reward. Once you’ve written a novel in a month, well, suddenly there are lots of other things you realize are within your grasp. Like writing a good novel. I’m not going to pretend that the novel I’ve written is good. It was written in a month, at breakneck speed. There are large plot holes and inconsistencies owing to me making things up as I went along. But I finished, dammit, and that’s worth something. Writing a novel period is the hardest step. Going from that to writing a novel is a much easier step.

I’ll write some more about my novel in the coming days, what it’s about and all that good stuff. Maybe, if I’m feeling especially brave, I’ll post it for all the world to see when I’m done writing it. But for now, just allow me to bask in the glory of having completed it. I definitely need a bit of time to decompress. I’m very glad I did it, but it does take a good bit out of you.