Monday, January 5, 2015

Guest Post: How B5 & JMS Changed My Life, by Declan Finn

I have sentiments similar to those expressed by Declan below -- although in my case, JMS's major impact was less on my writing style and more on my reading and viewing preferences. I am a bit older than Declan (apparently), but I was still an adolescent when B5 aired for the first time and consequently imprinted quite strongly on that particular style of science fiction. To this day, I still look for epic narratives in which the main characters seek to serve some cause above themselves. 

After talking once about Babylon 5, I feel this strong urge to discuss about the creator, J. Michael Straczynski, influenced me an my own work.  Odd, since he has always been an avowed atheist, and I have always been a Catholic.  JMS has also, in recent years, come out as a bit of a liberal, yet Babylon 5 helped shape my politics and my writing. He wrote military sci-fi in which people stood up to an Orwellian despot and were willing to die for what they believed.

When B5 first went on the air, I was 10. By the time it was over, I was 16 and reading everything JMS had posted on writing.  Then I started using JMS on writing to create B5 fan fiction. There were aspects of this rich, vivid world I wanted to explore, and the only place I could explore them was on paper. I pondered what religious orders there might have been, and I created the Holy Order of St. Patrick, a missionary order created by Father Patrick Itzak Patel … The members of the HOP were called “hoppies” by the public or “a real PIP” by members within the order.

I had come up with how the order had been founded, but that was generally background material. The HOP had been founded by a priest who had once been sent to the People's Republic of China and was captured, tortured, and escaped. He planned to come back and convert the people who had enslaved him, just like St. Patrick had when he had been kidnapped by the Celts.

The real work of the novels was my character Sean Patrick Ryan (He had originally been John Ryan, but I realized that the name belong to a Tom Clancy character). He was two meters tall and one wide, with an Irish cop gene, a high telepath rating, and a decided attitude problem.

And so many storylines grew out of small, offhand lines.  The enemy from the B5 pilot became a “Minbari mafia” and a whole book unto itself. Sean Ryan was introduced taking down a local B5 mobster named N'Grath – basically an evil preying mantis that was 7-feet tall. And we don't even discuss the terrorist takeover of Disneyplanet (written before the takeover of EuroDisney in Tom Clancy's novel Rainbow 6. How's that for timing?).

It turned into a four thousand page novel that I'm still trying to disentangle from Babylon 5.

After that, I was hooked on writing. Characters wouldn't leave me alone. I suddenly had voices in my head (being a writer: legal schizoprenia.)  And now the books that have been rewritten OUT of the Babylon 5 universe are even longer, with short episodes in the books now becoming books of their own.

That's not the odd part. The fallout is the odd part.

In my novel Codename: Winterborn, my coauthor and I have a strange dystopia variant in the city of San Francisco.  Basically, WW3 was a short affair, and missile shields in conservative states kept the Eastern half of the country alive, while some were killed by general fallout. San Francisco survived, but the general population of the planet thinks it's dead.

However, governments know that San Francisco is still there.  I thought, “Gee, wouldn't that include the Vatican? And wouldn't they send SOMEBODY over to San Francisco?”

And suddenly, I had priest who was an ex-cop with a missionary order, trained to act in hostile territory, covertly preaching with hostage negotiation skills, nonlethal hand-to-hand combat skills, and “how to covert the newly disarmed” skills.

It was the Holy Order of St. Patrick, and their leader was Father Patrick Itzak Patel – just called him “Fr. Jack.”

So, yeah, that happened.

When I first created It Was Only on Stun! (a murder mystery at a science fiction convention) I had to have a civilian on security.  I needed someone who was bat guano insane and didn't mind putting himself in harm's way.  I couldn't start the book until I named him. It didn't come together until he became Sean Aloysius Patricus Ryan.  And he became 5'6” tall and became his own person.

Even my magnum opus, the Pius Trilogy, a thriller series meant to dismantle Dan Brown and “Hitler's Pope” supporters, was influenced by JMS and B5.  How?  Well, it started with a dead academic researching Pope Pius XII. His assassin was then blown up, and landed on the car of the head of papal security – Giovanni Figlia. Giovanni had been escorting a Secret Service agent who was auditing Vatican security (written before Pope Francis declared his war on the Swiss Guard), and was coordinating with a visiting dignitary who was to set up the Pope's security in his country.

The three of them fall into the case, but something was missing.  My Pope Pius XIII was a man who had enemies, and wanted security to protect the people around him (Suicide Bomb + St. Peter's square = dead tourists).  That's why the Secret Service was there.

As the Secret Service agent is being shown around, Giovanni shows her another security consultant. Sean AP Ryan.

I would then apply almost everything JMS and B5 ever taught me into action.  I would kill off major characters. I had no problems making them suffer if it served the story – let's just say that when I torture one major player, it owed a lot to the B5 episodes Comes the Inquisitor, A Sky Full of Stars, and Intersections in Real time.  Even the ending was much like Babylon 5 – it ended in fire.

Not to mention a lot of my speeches sound like they were written by John Sheridan.

At the end of the day, almost my entire writing career has been echoes of the first spark lit by JMS.  I've written 15 books by now (maybe 20), but they all come back, in some way, to Babylon 5.  The themes of the show constantly run through my own writing: standing up against tyranny in any form, being willing to die for what you believe, being willing to put your main characters through Hell and back, and be sure to include consequences for every action.

Joe Straczynski gave me the gift of writing. It's a gift I can't repay.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Guest Post: The Baptism of Contemporary Science Fiction, by Declan Finn

Stephanie remarks: For many years, I've wanted to write an extended essay on the Catholic-friendly philosophical and spiritual undertones of Babylon 5, so when Declan sent this to me, I squealed like a little girl. One day, when I have more time, I will write an extended addendum; for now, please enjoy Declan's contribution!

While I have been both a cradle Catholic and a cradle geek, I can honestly say that the two rarely intersected for a good chunk of my life.  Most of the time, my thoughts on faith and science fiction consisted of wondering why the starship Enterprise was a naval vessel without a chaplain.
Then the year was 1993, and the name of the show was Babylon 5.

While never as big a hit as Star Trek, Babylon 5 – or simple B5, as fans call it – was one of the few science fiction shows that fought and won against the Star Trek franchise without being run over by the monolith.

But one thing that made it special was religion.

Originally, Babylon 5 had been easily dismissed as a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 ripoff, even though the creator, Joseph Michael Straczynski (best known as simply JMS) had pitched Babylon 5 to paramount the year before Deep Space 9. Even my family were a little wary of it at first. It was fun, but nothing particularly special.

Then came the episode By Any Means Necessary. A subplot revolved around an alien ambassador trying to obtain an artifact necessary for his religious ritual. The ritual involved burning a plant in the sunlight that touched a particular mountain on a particular day. Since they're in space, the ambassador had to acquire the plant, and lead the ceremony at the same time as his people back home. When the station Commander finds a way to get the required plant, it was too late, the time had past. Until science fiction and faith collided. As the commander says:

What you forgot to take into account, is that sunlight also travels through space....The sunlight that touched the …. mountain 10 of your years ago, will reach this station in 12 hours …. But it's still the same sunlight.
The ambassador agrees, and comments, “Commander, you're a far more spiritual man than I give you credit for.”

The commander answers, “There are a couple of Jesuit teachers I know who might disagree with you.”

Welcome to Babylon 5, with the first openly Catholic commander in science fiction. My family was hooked.

Later on, in Season 2, there were two strong episodes that hit home. The first was called Comes the Inquisitor. The plot was simple: our heroes are in a war with an ancient enemy that make Sauron in Lord of the Rings look nice, and an alien ally known as the Vorlons want to make certain that one of our heroes, named Delenn, is in it for the right reasons. What are the wrong reasons? To be a hero! To be adulated! To be the leader of a holy crusade!

The theme of the episode was actually summarized by the T.S. Eliot poem “Murder in the Cathedral.” If you don't know the context, “Murder in the Cathedral” was about the last days of Thomas Beckett, and his final temptation is actually a suggestion that Beckett should embrace the glory or martyrdom.
To which Eliot has Becket reply:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

A line from the actual episode is: “If you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, the work becomes corrupted, impure, and ultimately self-destructive.”

The antagonist for Comes the Inquisitor, named only “Sebastian” is only satisfied with Delenn when the Captain, Sheridan, comes charging in to the rescue, and is himself captured.  When Sebastian threatens to kill Delenn if she tries to save Sheridan, she dismisses his threat, saying that to save one life or a billion, it doesn't matter. If that doesn't have overtones of “He who saves one man saves the whole world,” I don't know what does.

Delenn going toe-to-toe with Sebastian really does look like it will end badly for her. However, Sebastian declares that they have passed his test.

How do you know the chosen ones? No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother. Not for millions, not for glory, not for fame. For one person, in the dark...where no one will ever know...or see.

Yes. The punchline was John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Soon after, in the season two finale, The Fall of Night the Vorlons enter into the picture again.  For The Fall of Night, we see what they look like outside of their environmental suits – angels. They even look like different angels to different aliens.  It's revealed that Vorlons modified all aliens in order to make them see Vorlons as beings of light that correspond to their religions. The nice thing about this is that there are no implications that the Vorlons invented religion, but mimicked religions already in place.  It's a nice change of pace for science fiction, where the trend is to say that an advanced race created God.

The final bits that made Babylon 5 hit home with my faith came in season three.  A group of religious pilgrims arrive on the station. They're Dominicans. Yes, the Order of Preachers arrived on the station.
Okay, JMS insists they're Benedictines.. But their outfits are Dominican, which might be a costume error. Why are they on the station? Their leader, Brother Theo, explains:

To learn, and to teach. It says in the Bible that even the smallest sparrow does not fall, without God seeing it.  What then of all these other races from distant worlds? Would he abandon them … or reveal himself in some other way? God goes by many names. Perhaps some are alien sounding, different faces and histories, but all describing the same Creator We are here to learn all those names, in hopes of better understanding the one who is behind them....

When Theo says that he brought experts that are in much demand on earth, the station commander asks that, if they're in such demand, why are they on B5? “They also believe.”

Over time, Babylon 5 explored a lot of themes that, if not blatantly Catholic, were at least Judeo-Christian. There were themes of sin and redemption all over the place, though there were parts of it that were secular humanist in nature, and sometimes even straight up Judaic. Let's just say that several characters would have been helped had they simply had a confessor to go to.

Then there's Passing Through Gethsemane. In the world of B5, the death penalty has been largely replaced with “mindwiping,” and reprogramming a person to serve the community he harmed.
Enter an ethical dilemma where a serial killer has been mindwiped, and now serving in Br. Theo's group. When the families of his victims come for him, revealing who is was, he goes crazy, pondering how he can be forgiven when he doesn't even remember his sins. The answer to most of us is simple: in confession, we ask forgiveness for these and all our sins. But he was clearly going crazy at the time, so we'll forgive the character that slip.

By the end, one man kills the former murderer, and is himself mindwiped, and sent to join Br. Theo and company as “Brother Malcom.” When he tries to shake Sheridan's hand, Sheridan looks at him like a snake. Theo, however, explains:

You must forgive the captain, Malcolm. You interrupted his train of thought. I believe he was saying that forgiveness is a hard thing, but something every to be strived for....

At the end of the day, JMS describes himself as an atheist, that he was “born Catholic but it wore off.” Despite this, JMS may have written one of the most Catholic science fiction shows of this generation. He allowed religion into a genre that traditionally wouldn't touch faith with a ten-foot pole, or would blatantly reject it. It was nice to, at long last, find a piece of science fiction that would honestly practice the tolerance it preached, and would let this nerd carry his cross for the ride.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Guest Post: Reinhardt Remembrances, by David Dubrow

Context: David wanted to share some thoughts about Hank Reinhardt, Toni Weisskopf's late husband. Since we're all Baen fans here, I thought his comments fit the general theme and tone of this blog.

I was lucky enough to have worked with Hank Reinhardt on two instructional video productions: The Myth of the Sword and Viking Sword.  Hank was a great man, a scholar of the blade who practiced what he researched to determine what worked from what didn’t.  While our short association doesn’t permit me to call him a friend, I will say that I am greatly honored to have spent time with him, to have been a guest in his house, to have talked with him about his life and work and family.  We shot The Myth of the Sword in 1999 and Viking Sword in 2000 at his house in Georgia.

A few months before the Myth of the Sword shoot, I went with my wife to visit her parents, who happened to live in Atlanta at the time.   My employer suggested that I make it something of a business trip, so I visited Hank at his office at Museum Replicas, the business he’d founded.  I remember that his office was pleasantly cluttered, with sharp things and cans of Dr. Pepper everywhere.  We chatted about things in general and what we planned to do on the shoot.  On the way out, I went to the storefront and purchased a Hunga Munga for my boss.  The nature of my employment was such that this was not unusual.

The video crew was small: me and my boss.  We did everything: set design, lighting, sound, cameras, the works.  To make things easier, on the Myth of the Sword shoot, Hank suggested we stay at his house.  One of the things he said about that was, “You’ll find that there are swords in every room of the house except for the guest rooms.  Why would I want to arm a guest?”  I can still hear it echoing in memory, and it always makes me smile. 

For the Myth of the Sword shoot, two of Hank’s friends from Canada came in to help with some of the historical reenactments.  One was a man named Peter Fuller, and the other was a man named Kelly.  Peter Fuller, if you haven’t heard of him, is one of the greatest reproduction armorers in the world.  I worked with him on two videos: one on making a medieval great helm, and the other on making hourglass gauntlets.  Over the course of time, Peter and I became friends.  He’s incredibly skilled, humble, and ethical, and was a great friend of Hank’s.  Kelly was a good guy, too, just for the record. 

One of the things we did on both shoots was test swords on various materials.  Due to Hank’s association with Museum Replicas, we had plenty of cardboard shipping tubes available, so he slashed some of those into chunks.  With a two-handed sword called a grossemesser he chopped a phone book in half.  The most interesting experiments were when we put a gambeson and mail onto a pork shoulder and cut that to show what a sword could do against armor.  One valuable lesson we learned was that if you’re going to put on mail, make sure you have something on underneath it: a gambeson, a shirt, something.  Because if you don’t and you take a good chop to the armor, whoever fixes you up (if you survive) is going to have a hell of a time pulling links of mail out of your flesh later. 

On the Viking Sword shoot, we had a number of Hank’s friends show up to help, all of them local.  At least one of them was an armorer from Museum Replicas.  They were a great group of people, and after the longest day of shooting, they set up a dinner party.  I chatted with a number of really interesting folks, including Toni Weisskopf Reinhardt, Hank’s wife.  At the time, I only knew Baen because they’d picked up the Wild Cards series and published three new books, so I got to talk to her about that.

I’ve worked with many fascinating people during my time in publishing, but none made quite the impression on me that Hank did.  I wish I had known him better. 

*****

David Dubrow is a writer who lives in Florida.  His first novel is titled The Blessed Man and the Witch.  You can read more about him here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Guest Post: GamerGate, by Declan Finn

The other day, we discussed SJWs, Social Justice Warriors, and why they're various and sundry types of lying pond scum. Mostly because they are. And while I would like to seek revenge for all the harm they've done to normal people, we don't have to resort to any such tactics, because, well, they're going to do it to themselves in the long run.

Also discussed the other day was one Anita Sarkissian, lying sociopath. She's part of the larger whole that is GamerGate? It started with one Madam Zoe Quinn, a female video game developer in a world that generally lacks female developers.  During her declared monogamous relationship with her boyfriend Quinn, she cheated on him.

Do we care? Not one whit. So why does it matter? Because Quinn, this bastion of womanhood, this secular saint among women … slept with her married boss, as well as video game reviewers. What was that I heard about feminism? Is this thing on?

So yeah, it's not about Quinn. It's about how video games – and mostly gamer journalism – is corrupt. Sleeping with reviewers? Journalistic ethics? Anyone?

Quinn and her company released a minor game that hasn't gotten many reviews.

However, the SJWs protect their own. What happens when the story doesn't serve the ends of an SJW? If you answered “Change the story,” you can pat yourself on the back.

How is this possible, you ask? Because gaming journalists have been using a mailing list to coordinate on how to shape the news on the Quinn scandal – making it less about the corruption in their industry, and all about the gamer. Their customer.

Yup. I note that the “jerks” here are the gamers. Not the ones who gave good reviews in exchange for “favors.” Not Quinn’s married employer. Not even Quinn.  Quinn is a delicate flower who must be protected, not a sociopathic liar and manipulator.

It gets better. Here are some other choice quotes from the gaming industry:

  • Gamers are “socially awkward weirdos who dress like garbage”. (Devin Faraci, Badassdigest)
  • “These obtuse s***slingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers — they are not my audience.” (Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra)
  • Regarding the scandal, gamers represented the side who “folded its arms, slumped its shoulders while pouting like an obstinate child”. (Chris Plante, Editor-at-Large, Polygon)

Yup. Zoe Quinn is a good little SJW. “All” of the critics were single white male losers (and we can ignore all of those who are plainly not white or male).  Let’s also ignore that Quinn has actively gone after other women who want to get into the gaming industry.  Quinn might find it difficult to be special if she was one of dozens.

The story is misogyny. That's it. And if you disagree, make sure you're behind bulletproof glass.

Enter standard censorship.  Anyone with an opinion was no longer allowed to have one on comment threads. Gamers couldn’t even comment on the silence from news outlets. Forget gaming journalists, now gamers were told to sit down and shut up.

This is an unholy mess, and the gaming journalists conspiring to manipulate the media coverage of GamerGate to distract from their own corruption? That’s just icing on the cake.  It’s hard to imagine any other industry that would deliberately twist the story to paint their own consumers as the villains.

No matter what anyone says, GamerGate is about media corruption, and the lengths journalists will go to in order to cover their asses.  The gamer media have declared war on the casual gamer, the serious gamer, and anyone who isn’t out and out “One of Us,” on the their side of the spectrum.

But just remember, they're SJWs, and they care.

Yes. Caring kills.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Guest Post: The Social Justice Warrior, by Declan Finn

Do not change your channel. We are in control. We control the justification. We control the font...

Anyway, now that that's out of the way, I should introduce myself. I am Declan Finn, author of the novel Codename: Winterborn, and a few other books that are in the wrong genre. Stephanie will return eventually, after she chews through the restraints in the closet (don't worry, I left air holes). So, what shall we talk about today?

Well, let's perform a study of an SJW, a Social Justice Warrior. A rare, but vicious breed, the SJW knows all, sees all, and is quite happy to tell you what's wrong with you, what you like, what you think, and all of your bad habits. The Corps is mother, the Corps is father … oh, wait, never mind.

It's why a bunch of Staten Island cops piled onto a New Yorker for selling loose cigarettes: Cigarettes are bad for you, after all. Didn't you know that? Don't worry, the SJW knew all about it, and they're happy to set you straight. If they happen to kill you along the way, well, omelets, eggs, you know how that works.

That's a real-life example of an SJW, you ask? Let's take someone we in the video game industry all know well – one Anita Sarkeesian. If you've not heard of this creature from the black lagoon, she's the one who insists that video games demean women, are cruel, vicious, and just plain mean about it. If you happen to disagree with her, you're a misogynist. If you're a woman and disagree with her, you're a brainwashed woman who needs to be reeducated by Anita. Don't worry, I hear they'll have camps for that sort of reeducation soon enough.

What's that? I'm being harsh with Anita? Well, she and her ilk have accused gamers like me of putting threats on her life. Nevermind that the FBI have dismissed these threats after a thorough investigation, she's quite happy to say her life is under threat. After all, if people want to kill her, that means she's right. See how that works?

A particularly fun bit of business is when Sarkeesian labels particular video games as sexist. Usually, in order to do this, she cherry picks at will. Like ….

A Metal Gear Solid game, where the hero saves himself!

… Except that the same video game has a heroine fighting her way past guards, while the guy fakes being ill.

Or how about Hitman: Absolution, where there's a strip club! With strippers! That you murder!

… Except that to even run into said strippers is to use one of three routes through said club. And the game penalizes you for being seen by them, or harming them.

Then there's Watch Dogs, where the game shows you topless women!

… Except that it's a sex slave ring that our hero is going to break up. And why should the game soften the horrors of this sort of thing?

But Anita is an SJW! She knows what's best for you. She cares. She says the right things to the right people, and she's a secular saint. Understand? If you know what's good for you, you'll smile, nod, or the SJWs will care for you until you can't breathe.

The nice thing about the SJW is that they don't breed very often. Well, they breed quite a bit, actually, but thankfully, they never spawn. They an an endangered species, and the only way they can germinate their beliefs is to inject it into other people. Unless something radically changes, Anita Sarkeesian will never spawn, because motherhood is demeaning, don't you know? It oppresses women. The SJWs tell us so.

Thankfully, normal people like us – graded for values of normal – don't have to go to any extreme to fight off this menace. They are a self-defeating group whose very ideas spell their doom.

Stephanie speaks from the closet: If only I could be so optimistic. The problem with these SJWs is that they still have most of the organs of culture on their side. Anita learned her mendacious feminist analysis from professors in our universities, and she's backed whole-heartedly by our media. Until we retake those leftist strongholds, there's always a chance our children will be led to the dark side (which, unfortunately, does not have cookies -- or fun either).

Monday, November 3, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Kal Spriggs' Echo of the High Kings

When Matt, my co-author, stepped in to review Daniella Bova's Tears Of Paradox, he made a very important observation: Indy publishing - aided by the eeeeeevil, "literature-destroying" Amazon - is a remarkably vibrant "proving ground" for aspiring authors. I have had the privilege to read quite a few Amazon-published novels and have consequently discovered many talented writers who, for various reasons, may have been unfairly ignored by legacy publishers who, to maintain their brands, accept a very narrow range of works. Kal Spriggs' Echo of the High Kings is one illustrative example. Like Bova's book, Echo is somewhat unpolished -- but like Bova's book, Echo reveals its author's raw talent when it comes to crafting complex characters and complex worlds.

It took me a while to finish reading Echo. Now don't get me wrong: This is not because the book is awful and/or tedious. Still, this novel is long, covers a lot of ground, and contains a wealth of complicated scene-setting. Spriggs has tasked himself with juggling a "mega-ensemble," and at times, this leads him down alley ways that, while interesting, don't (yet) feel important to the central plot. Indeed, until the back third of the book, there were moments when I wasn't quite sure where Spriggs was actually going with his cast -- moments when I had no sense of the ultimate goal. Moreover, by the end of the novel, nothing was actually resolved, which may frustrate those readers who expect books to stand on their own. Granted, this novel is intended to be the first of a series -- but even within a series, individual books should satisfy at least some of the reader's desire for an "end".

On the upside, the multiple threads and side stories do reveal the thoughtfulness of Spriggs' world-building. You can really feel that Eoriel is a world steeped in history -- a colony world on which many different cultures and kingdoms have left their marks, building societies on each other's ruins. After finishing the novel, I definitely do want to learn more about Eoriel's past and how it has shaped Eoriel's disorganized and fascinating present.

Another thing that becomes apparent as you read Echo is Spriggs' ability to create complex, multi-layered characters. Hector, for example, is one of Spriggs' principal "villains" - a man who has made deals with objectively awful people to further his own ends - but even he has comprehensible motives for his actions. Indeed, said character is strongly reminiscent of other characters I've adored who've allowed their single-minded focus on protecting their nations to cloud their moral judgments. And I get the sense that Hector's arc could be going in a direction we may not expect -- that he may still retain some small spark of heroism that will become apparent as the plot of this saga continues to unfold.

On the whole, Echo is a book that could use some firm editing to tighten the plot -- but it is still very much worth a read. As an epic fantasy writer, Spriggs has a great deal of potential, and I'm eager to see where he takes the Eoriel Saga in future books.

Final Verdict: Recommended 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Robert A. Hoyt's Cat's Paw

Unbeknownst to all but a privileged few, the end of the world is drawing near. A royal family has been charged with protecting our fragile status quo, but many among their number have fallen prey to a sinister cult that is eager to see the earth remade in its preferred image. Should a drunk old cynic really get himself mixed up in such an apocalyptic struggle? Of course not -- but destiny makes his choice for him when he saves the life of a lovely lady and finds himself duty-bound to protect her as she sets off on a quest to defeat the aforementioned cult and save the world.

The basic outline of this story sounds pretty familiar, right? But allow me to add just one more important detail: the protagonists and the principal villains are cats. Thus we have discovered the premise of Robert Hoyt's Cat's Paw.

For me, this novel was something of a shock. I was anticipating something "crackier" -- something, perhaps, that poked fun at standard cat behaviors. But the characters in Cat's Paw didn't strike me as especially "cat-like" despite their surface descriptions. I didn't see the indoor cat complain about needing a nap, for example -- and no one randomly flopped down in an "ideal" patch of sunlight.

To be fair, though, my expectations were definitely colored by my experiences with my own fuzzy friend, who is probably the most spoiled and lazy cat on the planet -- and once I set aside said expectations, I was wholly able to just sit back and enjoy the story. The quest plot, again, is a relatively well-worn idea, but Robert gives it a clever spin by "peopling" his universe with cats of all types and breeds, psychotic squirrels, mountain-destroying birds, and -- I think you get the picture. I also liked the character development we see in the male and female leads. The pregnant indoor cat turns out to have more layers than her initial presentation as a ditz might suggest -- and the alcoholic tom's evolution from jaded loner to genuine hero was pleasant to read and certainly deserving of the Human Wave label (even if, technically, the character in question isn't a human being).

The amazing thing? Robert wrote this when he was thirteen. I teach adolescents for a living, and I have yet to encounter a student of that age who is capable of this kind of sustained and adult storytelling. Hell: While I was frequently singled out for the high quality of my own writing at thirteen, that attention was all for my non-fiction; my fiction, meanwhile, tended toward the "Mary Sue" self-insert. To put it another way: Robert clearly had some scary, bad-ass talent, and I'm a teensy bit jealous!

So -- if you're looking for something light and fun to read, I recommend giving Cat's Paw a try. Who knows? It might surprise you too!

Final Verdict: Recommended.