Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Notice of Absence

**Due to unforeseen circumstances, I have had to begin my
end-of-summer hiatus earlier than I anticipated.
Blogging at Right Fans will resume on September 3, 2014.
Please see the sidebar for additional scheduling information.**

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Karen Myers' Bound into the Blood (Hounds of Annwn, Book 4)

It's been almost a year since George Talbot Traherne was pulled from his home in modern-day Virginia and plunked into the parallel kingdom of Annwn, and in that time, he has been kept very busy. He has assumed the role of Huntsman under the reign of Gwyn ap Nudd and thwarted an attempt to disrupt the annual Wild Hunt. He has played a role in defeating one of Gwyn's most dangerous enemies and has opened a diplomatic relationship with the rock wights, elementals who possess the ability to create "ways" across time and space. And he has helped his royal patron to secure Annwn's political independence, thereby touching off an era of tremendous social change. But what is George to make of his personal connection to the god Cernunnos? Where did it come from? And might it have something to do with his parents, who supposedly died when he was very young? These questions drive the plot of Bound into the Blood, the fourth book of Karen Myers' Hounds of Annwn series. It is, perhaps, a smaller tale than its predecessors, but if you enjoy Karen's characters as much as I do, you will still find this novel well worth reading.

Mind you, there are a few elements of the main plot that didn't quite work for me. If a character (whose identity I won't spoil) demonstrates no hesitation or remorse when it comes to murdering those who, in his mind, stand in the way of his absolute freedom, it seems unlikely to me that he would undergo a change of heart simply because George shows him some compassion. As a Christian, I would like to think that mercy could be that powerful, but said character is basically written as a selfish sociopath, and in reality, it's tough to change that particular leopard's spots.

Still, I definitely enjoyed the "outsider perspective" Bound provides on our own society. You see, while George comes back to Earth to learn the truth about his heritage, Benitoe and Seething Magma also come along to pursue their own interests, and when the story switches to either supporting character's point of view, what results is often amusing. At one point, for example, Mag tries to sit underneath Penn State to glean geological information from the minds of the professors there and immediately gets frustrated when she discovers that we humans spend a lot of time thinking about "useless" trivia -- like, for example, whether our fellow humans are desirable for mating. ( :-) ) Benitoe, meanwhile, develops a rather adorable fondness for ice cream, which doesn't exist in the technologically stagnant Annwn.

On the whole, I do hope Karen continues this series, as I think there are many more stories of Annwn she can tell. Will there ever be a confrontation between the world of the fae and our world? Will conflicts arise between Annwn and their new neighbors to the south? And how will free creation of the "ways" impact the way Annwn's society develops over time? Will overland routes become partially or wholly obsolete? Will we see a technological revolution of sorts that will mirror what's happening in the 21st century US? The potential here, in my view, is far from exhausted.

Final Verdict: Recommended.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Cedar Sanderson's The God's Wolfling

As you know, teaching is my mundane profession -- and as most of my students fall in the 12-17 age range, I consequently have several years' worth of experience working with teenagers and discovering what they really need academically and developmentally. What does this have to do with Cedar Sanderson's latest, The God's Wolfling? Plenty. Cedar, in my opinion, really gets it. She doesn't talk down to her young audience; rather, she invites them into our adult world by giving her adolescent protagonists mature responsibilities and, overall, demanding more. Linn - whom you may remember from last year's Vulcan's Kittens (reviewed here) - is not treated as helpless; on the contrary, when she displays a restless desire to contribute, the adults in her life recognize the need and give her the opportunity to prove herself, sending her to the court of the sea god Manannan Mac'Lir and into potentially mortal danger.

The God's Wolfling isn't really a direct sequel to Vulcan's Kittens but more an additional stand-alone story in the same universe. Vulcan's Kittens sets up a future confrontation between humanity and the alien "gods" who feel Earth's technological development is a threat to their power, but oddly, The God's Wolfling doesn't seem to address that conflict at all. Instead, the antagonists here are the goblins, who resent being trapped on Earth and are looking for the portal back to the "gods'" home planet. The story is interesting and engaging, but I am a little surprised that Cedar chose to drop the "Old Ones" from the story; the battle at the end of Vulcan's Kittens, after all, didn't seem to end the war.

On the other hand, as I noted above, Cedar has a sure hand when it comes to writing teenagers, and her refusal to yield to the "helicopter parenting" trends of our age is immensely refreshing. Additionally, she manages to add a young male character to the tale without immediately succumbing to the urge to pair him off with Linn. Indeed, Linn's attitude regarding boys in general is, thankfully, quite balanced; she notices them but doesn't let those thoughts consume her life. Ironic, isn't it? Cedar is an outspoken opponent of the "social justice warrior" faction, and yet she's one of the few writers out there who successfully writes female characters who aren't defined by their male counterparts. Could it be that libertarian individualism has more to offer the cause of "equality"?

But I digress. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed The God's Wolfling. It's not a perfect book, but it's very, very good.

Final Verdict: Recommended.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Dave Freer's Stardogs

So -- I've fallen behind the past several days, and for that delay, I apologize. In truth, I've run into a block, and I think what's been holding me back is the fact that I disagree with some folks I respect regarding Dave Freer's Stardogs. While said folks seemed to enjoy it, I really struggled -- especially through the first twenty percent. (I'm a Kindle reader here, so sadly, I have no pages to reference.)

Granted, the universe Freer establishes is pretty damned amazing. Basically, well before humanity attempted interstellar travel, two other races fought a total war that led to their mutual annihilation. But while the giants may have exited the playground, the remains of their respective civilizations were left littered throughout the galaxy -- and when human beings discovered these remnants centuries later, they essentially built their own empire on the wreckage. Unfortunately, this empire evolved into a cross between a corrupt monarchy and a corrupt oligarchy in which the Stardogs - works of alien bio-engineering that have mastered FTL travel - and their human riders are ruthlessly exploited for the power and profit of their rulers.

Yes: It's certainly a setting ripe for conflict. My problems with the execution, however, are two:
  1. It takes too long to get to the core plot. The opening chapters are devoted to the entire history of the human empire from the accidental discovery of the Stardogs to the present day, and for me, that was an extremely difficult slog. Given the third-person-omniscient point-of-view, I feel those details could've been provided on an "as-needed" basis instead of all at once -- and indeed, when Freer switches to that approach in the back half of the book, the pacing of the story improves immensely.
  2. The core plot doesn't take full advantage of the set-up. After you've sowed the seeds for rebellion -- I'm not sure the right answer is to focus solely on a "bottle story" set on a planet that is currently out of circulation. True: The characters involved all represent key factions of the aforementioned political ferment, but their bickering among themselves doesn't really present the social divides in the empire in the most interesting possible way. And pushing the actual revolution entirely off screen? To be honest, I felt cheated.    
But hey: Perhaps I was just tired this past week and that somehow contributed to my frustration. If I've mentioned anything here that piques your interest, go ahead and give Stardogs a look. I certainly won't stop you!

Final Verdict: Your Mileage May Vary.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Interesting News!

As reported on the official site for the Hugo Awards:
This year’s Worldcon, Loncon 3, has announced that participation in the Hugo Awards is now officially at an all-time high. Loncon 3 received 3,587 valid Hugo Award final ballots (3,571 online, 16 paper). The previous high was 2,100 final ballots cast by members of the 2011 Worldcon, Renovation.
OOH-RAH! If we want the Hugo Award to represent the preferences of more than just the inner clique, this is a trend that must continue -- and that means getting even more people involved. Sad Puppies 2 was great, but Sad Puppies 3 should blow its predecessors out of the water.

Which means, of course, that during the closing months of 2014, we Human Wavers - and anyone else who, in Eric S. Raymond's formulation, wants to drag science fiction "back into the gutter where it belongs" - need to get busy and do the following:
  1. Convince friends and family to participate. I for one am going to do my damnedest to persuade both my father and my co-author to buy supporting memberships for the next World Con. If you know anyone who's a fan of science fiction and/or fantasy but hasn't yet participated as a World Con voter because he or she doesn't feel said participation would matter, point them to this bit of news and remind them that a supporting membership is quite affordable and - oh by the way - comes with a lot of free stuff.
  2. Start assembling our nominations lists for 2015. I will be scrolling back through this year's reviews to select my favorites, and you all should do that too. But beyond that, we also need to come together in online reading groups and discuss the worthies we find. In the down-ballot categories especially, it's hard to generate enough votes to seize a nomination unless you have a dedicated group of backers who are all willing to vote for the same thing. The upside? The dedicated group of backers does not have to be that large. Among our motley crew of Huns, Barflies, and Monster Hunters, we have enough people to seriously kick some ass. We just need to get organized. (Yes, I know, I know -- it's like herding cats. But Larry Correia seems to have had some luck.)
I'm hoping the high participation rate for this year's Hugo Awards leads to an upset in at least one category -- but regardless of the outcome, I'm still very excited. We have a real chance to turn things around and restore the Hugo to its former glory as a people's choice award. Let's not let this opportunity pass us by!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Wednesday Short: Cedar Sanderson's Stargazer

I have a real affection for short fiction. Indeed, I've written a fair amount -- though it's all fanfiction, so I'm not sure it really counts. Short fiction, in my view, requires a somewhat different approach. Because you have fewer pages in which to accomplish your objectives, you have to economize -- which forces you to think more carefully about your word choices.

The history of sci-fi/fantasy boasts some damned fine short fiction writers. Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein -- all of them accomplished some amazing things in less than a hundred pages (or sometimes less than twenty). Alas, these days, the short fiction market seems to be overrun with pretentious pseudo-sci-fi/fantasy masquerading as the real thing. The few gems - like Brad Torgersen - are the exceptions that prove the rule.

But perhaps my impression is wrong; perhaps I need to work harder to find the short fiction that's actually good. Which brings me to the purpose of my new feature: The Wednesday Short. From this week onward, I will be reviewing works that come in under a hundred pages every Wednesday night -- and maybe, along the way, I will discover reasons to have hope.

First on the docket: Cedar Sanderson's "Stargazer". "Stargazer" is the story of a mother whose options are few. Because she is hiding from her own government - and her own husband - she can't take a standard job or live in a proper home. Realizing that her children are suffering, she reaches out for help -- and in the process makes a great sacrifice.

This story is a teasing glimpse at a universe that absolutely begs for further development. When I finished it, I found myself wondering what happened next -- not to mention what brought Cedar's protagonist to her current desperate state. Without the full context, there were certain moments of the tale that felt slightly overwrought -- but when it comes to depicting the selfless nature of love, Cedar certainly does a much better job than does the author of a certain Nebula-winning short story, who cheaply manipulates her readers by playing on their worst instincts. And while "Stargazer" ends on a bittersweet note, it is still wholly worthy of the "Human Wave" label, as every character here is trying his or her best to do the right thing.

In sum? "Stargazer" is definitely worth dropping a buck. I can only pray that Cedar will revisit this particular universe and give us even more.

Final Verdict: Recommended.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Link of Interest: Warning Signs of LSE (Literary Status Envy)

Eric S. Raymond has written some interesting reflections on the current state of science fiction, and while I don't agree with him on every particular, his most recent post is freakishly reminiscent of my own complaints in re: recent short lists for the Hugo Awards. Behold! Here are just a few of the key warning signs of "literary status envy", a terrible affliction that has turned much of today's science fiction into unpalatable grey goo:
  1. Evinces desire to be considered “serious artist”.
  2. Idea content is absent or limited to politicized social criticism.
  3. Heroism does not occur except as anti-heroic mockery.
  4. All major characters are psychologically damaged.
  5. Wordage devoted to any character’s interior monologues exceeds wordage in same character’s dialog.
  6. Repeated character torture, especially of the self-destructive variety.
  7. Inability to write an unambiguously happy ending. In advanced cases, the ability to write any ending at all may be lost...
Etc. There are seven more signs at the link, and all of them are pretty damned accurate. I do wonder, though, whether we should change the name of this master list to "Warning Signs of Post-Modern Literary Status Envy." Granted, I'm no expert -- but I could swear literary fiction used to have heroes and plots and happy endings once upon a time. My high school English career - spent largely in honors and AP-level courses - was not an unending sea of pointless torment. If I recall correctly, mush didn't really enter the picture until we hit the twentieth century and literary movements that emphasized form over substance. Am I wrong?

Edited to Add: And by the way, if you're looking for ways to combat LSE, Cedar Sanderson has a very good "anti" list over at her blog.