Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why I Love Amazon: A Consumer's Take

Many folks in the fandom, I hear, have been dumping on Amazon lately for a whole host of perceived evils -- and to a certain extent, I understand the fear. As my mother remarked just last week, "Amazon does everything." That's not 100% true, of course; as far as I know, for example, Amazon has not yet gone the Netflix route and started offering "Amazon original" television content. When it comes to writing, however, Amazon is both a publisher in its own right and a major distributor, and its vertical integration and resultant influence have bankrupted booksellers and eaten into other publishers' profits. But, per Frederic Bastiat, I would like to invite you to consider That Which Is Unseen: the positive impact Amazon has had on its consumers.

In a number of ways, Amazon has made my life a lot more pleasant:
  • First of all, it's easy to access. Both my mother and I love shopping, but we also have chronic medical conditions which make trawling through brick-and-mortar stores especially onerous, so the opportunity Amazon provides to stay home and shop is a great boon. Do other people who are sick and/or disabled feel the same way? I suspect so.
  • Second, it offers more. I love an out-of-the-way used bookstore as much as the next person. Indeed, the last time I was in New York City, I visited a few just to explore. But because Amazon has assembled a huge associated network of outside sellers, its selection is simply better. If I pop into the local C&W, the chances are pretty slim that I will find, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Carson of Venus; just now, however, I typed "carson of venus" in the Amazon search box and found twenty-seven listings. That's amazing -- and convenient.
  • Third, while Amazon doesn't always have the lowest available price, its prices are usually reasonable. It's a little like Wal-Mart in that way. Now, people crap on Wal-Mart too - and sometimes for good reason - but the fact remains that most of us can't pay the premiums attached to boutique goods that make our social betters feel good about themselves, and without Amazon and Wal-Mart, we would not be living quite as comfortably as we are now (in absolute terms).
  • Fourth - and probably most important - Amazon has radically democratized the sci-fi/fantasy genre, thus giving voice to writers who would not be heard otherwise. Yes -- Sturgeon's Law applies. But I love being wholly free to decide on my own what I would like to read without prissy elites butting in and controlling what's made available. And personally, I find it ironic that the same people who are so concerned about making fandom a "safe" and "welcoming" space are also the ones most likely to denigrate what is probably the most promising platform for promoting diversity currently in existence. Folks: Because of Amazon, there are no more gatekeepers. True -- if you go indie and publish on Amazon, you and you alone have to do the hard work of finding your likely audience and promoting your book. But if you really want more stories that "explode the gender binary," there is literally no one who'll stop you from writing them yourself. Amazon has created wild and perfect liberty.
So before you start talking about "regulating the behemoth," please take the time to see things from the customer's point of view. We are willing to give Amazon our cash not because we are mindless sheeple but because Amazon offers concrete benefits that we feel are worth the expense.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My (Delayed) Liberty Con AAR, Part II

Continuing from here.

Saturday morning at Liberty Con was spent shopping and, for the most part, attending readings. Bright and early at 10 AM,  Cedar and a gentleman by the name of Ernie Dempsey were sharing a reading period in the American Car, so after breakfast, I headed over there and camped out. Cedar read one of the more exciting bits from her latest, Trickster Noir, and Dempsey read from The Dream Rider. The latter I have not yet had a chance to check out, but what I heard at the con sounded promising -- as did the selection from Islands of Rage and Hope, which John Ringo read in the following hour. Interestingly enough, even Mom, who is really more of a horror fan, was laughing a lot at Ringo's reading; I think she appreciated all the military in-jokes. Meanwhile, come lunch, it was time for Dan and Robert Hoyt to have their reading, but I guess everyone else was answering the call of their stomachs because I was the only one there. Oh well: That was the rest of the con's loss, as the reading in question was epic. Dan and Robert are destined to become giants in the genre. Giants! I laughed, I cried, I -- well, you get the idea. (Okay -- I'm kidding around a bit. But really: You guys should've been there.)

After I went to get pizza and an ice cream cone, it was finally time for the climax of Liberty Con: The Baen Roadshow and Traveling Prize Patrol. I mentioned before that calling Liberty Con "Southern Libertarian Con" is pretty close to accurate, but you could also call it "Baen Con" without going too wide off the mark, as Baen is clearly Liberty Con's most popular traditional publisher. The stated purpose of the Road Show is to show off the authors and the wares -- i.e., to give the audience a sense of what's coming down the pipe for Baen. But the true purpose, as anyone who has ever been to a Road Show surely knows, is to give the readers and authors an opportunity to heckle Toni Weisskopf -- and to give Toni a chance to heckle back. ("That book is now done and will be in Toni's inbox by Tuesday." Sarcastic: "And I believe you!") As you might expect, it got quite loud in that conference room! I'm glad, though, that Mom and Dad got a chance to hear how Ringo once got over his writer's block by using the random tables in his Dungeon Master's Guide. It was also pretty funny when Robert (Hoyt) yelled to his mother that she should kick her husband in a rather delicate place to get him to shut up and let her write and Sarah responded with, "I have uses for those!"

Saturday night for me was devoted to dinner, the ARTC show, and the ongoing party in the Con Suite. I didn't stay up that late - and I swear I only had a taste of someone's personal drink recipe - but on Sunday morning, I felt really woozy and hung over. (I'm guessing it was dehydration and low blood sugar, as I started to feel better later in the day after I had a butt-ton of water and the house burger in the Gardens.) However, I did make it back to the con to see a few more panels. One of these was Doc Travis' solo show, at which we discussed the challenge of getting our space program back off the ground. Financing and building the tech is one issue, obviously, but there's also the cultural angle to consider. I observed from my seat in the audience that young people these days don't really have a Star Trek or space-based juveniles to inspire them, and as a consequence, people are no longer convinced that space travel is a worthwhile - even necessary - pursuit. Want to go back to the Moon? Want to send men to Mars? Well, those of us who take seriously the observation that "politics is downstream from culture" should address the market's dire need for exciting, optimistic young adult space opera -- and we should get to it as soon as possible. (This topic, by the way, is going to be expanded into another blog post at some point in the near future.)

Later in the day, I also got a chance to catch up with Jason Cordova at his Kaiju panel (and Jason: I'm still willing to pay for that "Kitty Kaiju" story if you're still willing to write it) -- and I hung out at the after-con party for a little while with Sue Phillips, Bill Rich, and some other associates from Dragon Con. I do wish, however, that I had had more time to talk to Cedar, the Hoyts, James Young, and the other Huns in attendance. I guess next year, we should arrange some quick get-togethers in advance -- and probably not in the AM, since so many of you like to party until the wee hours.

As I remarked in yesterday's post, though, I'm not at all sorry I came. On the contrary: I think I'm going to add Liberty Con to my regular trip circuit, as it fits my personality and attracts folks I really enjoy.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

My (Delayed) Liberty Con AAR, Part I

Last month, I took a trip to Chattanooga to attend my very first Liberty Con, and even though the drive was as insanely long as my annual drive to Atlanta, the stiff joints and numb gluteus maximus were totally worth it. Liberty Con, you see, is My People. The con com is both friendly and open-minded; consequently, the con itself attracts a strong contingent of Barflies, Huns, and other right-leaning science fiction fans and conservative/libertarian viewpoints are very well represented. Hell: I'm tempted to dub Liberty Con "Southern Libertarian Con" and then call it a night because, let's be honest, that's pretty much what it was.

But let's start at the beginning. Thursday morning, I started off my adventure by winding my way through Shenandoah National Park via the renowned Skyline Drive. Everyone should do this at least once; every time the forest opens up, you are treated to stunning panoramas of the Shenandoah Valley that really have to be seen to be fully appreciated. Your chances of running into the local wildlife while on the Drive are also pretty high, as I discovered when, at one point, I had to slow down to allow a black bear to amble its way across the road.

Many, many hours later, I rolled into Chattanooga and immediately got lost. Fortunately, the nice hipster girl at the front desk of the Crash Pad - my temporary place of residence for the weekend - was able to turn me around and steer me back in the right direction. The Crash Pad, by the way, is the hostel situated a few blocks away from the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, and as hostels go, it was definitely on the "high end." The bunk rooms and bathrooms were both extremely well-maintained, and I had my own locked luggage cabinet, power outlets, and a privacy curtain. At the very least, I think I made out better than Cedar Sanderson, who informed me the following day that her Days Inn (on Ringgold Road) was a pretty seedy dive. At the Crash Pad, I didn't have to worry about filthy linens or blood stains on my mattress. The only downside to sharing a room with a bunch of strangers is that I couldn't sleep in! At 8 AM, without fail, people would start getting up and unzipping their suitcases, and as I am a light sleeper and very, very sensitive to ambient noises, that meant I was forced out of bed as well.

Which means that come Friday morning, I was at the Choo-Choo well before most of the con crowd. On the upside, this gave me the perfect opportunity to orient myself and find all the convention rooms, which were scattered throughout the complex. Readings were held in one of the Victorian train cars. Other events were held in a second floor theater in the main building. Still more events were held in the building next to the parking garage. Liberty Con may be 1.5% of the size of Dragon Con, but for me, it demanded almost as much walking -- especially since my parents were staying in Hotel 3, which was even further away from the rest of the action. Granted, I could've occasionally hitched a ride on one of the hotel's complimentary carts, but I figured all the exercise would allow me to stuff my face with Moon Pies (Chattanooga staples, they are!), ice cream, and other con-related junk.

In addition to being sprawling in size, the Choo-Choo is also quite cute in a kitschy way. If you were walking to the ice cream shop or the con suite, you were guaranteed to be greeted by ZOLTAR THE FORTUNE TELLER, who really, really wanted you to pop in a few quarters so he could tell you your future. And past good-old ZOLTAR was a portrait machine that insisted, on a continuous loop, that its rendering of your image would be a true work of art. I will say this, though: The hotel gift shop was selling some genuinely nice items. I bought a t-shirt and a few bracelets. Mom went to the shop on Saturday and spent quite a bit more on jewelry and an antique vanity set.

For lunch on Friday, I walked downtown to the City Cafe to meet Cedar Sanderson, Sanford Begley (who would so get in trouble for his flirting if my hoo-ha were inclined to glitter), and Vanessa and Matt Landry. Apathetic waitress aside, the food was good and the conversation was even better. While discussing the PC nonsense that has infected SFWA and certain con coms that shall remain nameless, I joked at one point that it's hardly "safe" to be a practicing Christian in any fannish space outside cons held in the Southeast, and Cedar encouraged me to expand upon that comment in a blog post; later this week, I shall oblige her, because there really are some nasty anti-Christian memes floating around in the sci-fi/fantasy fandom that need to be called out for what they are -- and plus, I think it might be fun to use the Social Justice Warriors' own rhetoric against them.

After lunch, I went to the first few science panels; at 3 PM was a presentation on the Keystone XL pipeline, and at 4 PM was a presentation on solar weather. Both were quite interesting and informative. When 5 PM rolled around, however, it was finally time for Opening Ceremonies! Baen's Jim Minz was the MC, and he made hay out of the fact that he was a Northerner in a con full of Southerners by pulling out a carpet bag and declaring that a Yank was finally going to tell us how to run things. As you might imagine, the audience assembled thought that was hilarious.

Mom and Dad, meanwhile, were still on the road. They decided to leave the family abode on Friday morning, so they didn't arrive at the con until later in the evening. After Opening Ceremonies, I finally caught up with them and we headed to the hotel's restaurant for dinner. We all agreed that Dad's portion of fried chicken that night was enormous enough to feed all of us; it looked like the kitchen gave him the entire bird! But the food at said restaurant did taste pretty good overall, which is more than I can say for other hotel-associated establishments I've visited in my time. Indeed, between the Gardens and the Con Suite, I never really had to venture far to get a decent meal. Someone complained on Sunday that there wasn't enough junk in the Con Suite, but in all honesty, I really appreciated the salads and vegetable spreads the indefatigable Vonn provided. As I suggested above, I do like eating junk at con, but my stomach can only take so much before I develop a serious case of heartburn; the occasional carrot, therefore, was a godsend.

Late Friday night, Mom, Dad, and I trooped off to Sarah Hoyt's reading -- and I swear to you that Sarah and I must have the same brain wiring gene. At one time, apparently, she tried to write a Regency romance, but, in her words, she "got bored," and after one earnest and exquisitely described chapter, one of the characters turned into a giant alien spider and started eating everyone in the ballroom. Readers who know me: Doesn't that sound like something I would do if I were forced into similar circumstances? Somewhere deep in Europe's distant past, Sarah's ancestors and mine must be related.

And that -- was pretty much the end of our Friday at the con. I did make a quick appearance at the Con Suite to reconnect with Sue Phillips and some other Dragon Con folks, but these days, I find it very difficult to stay up past midnight, so it wasn't long before I was trundling off to bed.

Tomorrow: Saturday & Sunday!   

Friday, July 18, 2014

Steph Reads Baened Books: Larry Correia's Monster Hunter Nemesis

At the moment, I'm sitting in front of my laptop cackling madly. Why? Well, this always happens after I've read a book by Larry Correia. And you know, I've really done this blog a disservice by failing to publicly review any of Larry's work (besides Monster Hunter International, which I capsule reviewed back in 2011) until today. After all, everyone should know why Larry's been able to quit his day job and write full time after only a few years in the business -- and no, it's not because he's appealing to a rising swell of fascist/racist/homophobic/misogynistic/whatever-ist urban fantasy fans. It's because Larry Correia is one of the best action writers alive. Seriously: The people who produce our standard crop of summer blockbusters need to hire the hell out of the man. Movie-makers would rake in millions not because Larry is a purveyor of brainless gore, but because he writes violence with smarts.

This summer, Larry's blockbuster is Monster Hunter Nemesis, the fifth book in the MHI universe and a novel that focuses on the life and times of Agent Franks. For those readers who are, sadly, not acquainted with this character, Franks is Larry's version of Frankenstein's monster: a reanimated mass of cadaver parts inhabited by a demon. Franks doesn't grasp human concepts like compassion and mercy; indeed, he thinks Mary Shelley's version of his life was insultingly emo. He triple parks in handicapped spaces, loves killing things, and doesn't really worry about collateral damage. But Franks has also made a deal with God: If he protects humanity by destroying all the unholy monsters who are even worse than he is, he gets to stay out of Hell.

Now, I'm certainly not going to insult Franks by claiming that Nemesis "humanizes" him. Oh no! Those of you who heard Larry was writing a book about Franks and immediately thought "Yay! Cue destruction and mayhem!" will not be disappointed. The promised bloodshed is all there, and it's all Franks; indeed, one of the advantages of making the POV character a ridiculously overpowered, almost immortal demonic being is all the opportunities that provides for humorous understatement of the "the demon shot a bullet through one of Franks' hearts and it really threw off his aim" variety. But Nemesis - like all of Larry's other novels - isn't just about the violence. Larry also fills in Franks' back story, and it's really damned interesting -- and wholly deserving of the "violence with smarts" label I used above. (True: The cosmology is a little theologically suspect, but - hand wave, hand wave - I think the Rule of Cool applies.) Additionally, Nemesis rewards established readers by following up on Stricken's clandestine schemes at Special Task Force Unicorn (or STFU; don't think I don't see what you did there, Larry!) -- and by continuing to drop hints about the even bigger threats to mankind that loom on the horizon.

Overall, Larry seems to be ramping up to an epic climax, and I for one can't wait to see what happens next!

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Middle Grade & Young Adult Corner: Andrew Peterson's The Warden & the Wolf King (Wingfeather Saga, Book 4)

The last time I sang the praises of Andrew Peterson was three summers ago. Since I've gained quite a few more readers since then - and since the fourth and final novel of Peterson's series is slated to be released everywhere at the end of this month - come! Gather 'round and let me bring you up to speed on the hidden treasure of juvenile fantasy that is the Wingfeather Saga, in which three siblings must dig deep within themselves to rise to the awesome challenge of defeating a cruel tyrant and healing their broken world.

Did you - or your children - like The Chronicles of Narnia? Then Peterson's books are your next logical step. A Christian musician, Peterson has taken C.S. Lewis' torch and run with it in creating the world of Aerwiar, where fearsome beasts (like the toothy cows of Skree) share space with the miraculous and adventure can be found just around the corner. Like Lewis, Peterson has gone as far as to imagine a creation story for his new world -- and he draws on his talents as a lyricist to add music and folklore as well, which makes Aerwiar feel as real and as whole as Tolkien's Middle Earth. That I can sit back and imagine thousands of other stories that could be told in Peterson's universe is an achievement in itself; that Peterson accomplishes this world-building without overwhelming the principle thrust of his story - and without losing his child-like sense of humor - is simply incredible.

But wait! There's more! I know that many of you have lamented the insidious grey goo that is currently being marketed to our kids. Well, if glancing at a typical school reading list has recently made you urk, I suggest the Wingfeather Saga as a powerful antidote. First of all, Peterson doesn't talk down to his young readers; he's upfront about the horrors of war without being overly explicit and frank about the existence of evil while also showing that it can be overcome. As a matter of fact, I think these books perfectly embody the Chestertonian ideal. As G.K. Chesterton wrote: "Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." The Wingfeather Saga features both literal and metaphorical dragons, and I hope it will not spoil the story to say that they prove to be far from invincible.

Secondly, Leeli, Kalmar and Janner are genuine role models. They have their moments of weakness - indeed, Kalmar very nearly becomes a Fang due to his own selfishness - but they grow into legitimate heroes because they are surrounded by a cast of adult supporting characters who actively push them to be mature and responsible and to look beyond their own petty desires. Some may object to the idea that children of nine, eleven, and thirteen years would be capable fighting battles, penetrating enemy strongholds, and leading kingdoms -- but before the invention of "youth culture," children almost as young were serving as secretaries to diplomats and traveling the world. Could we be doing the current generation a disservice by limiting them - and their fiction - to the concerns of the school yard? I certainly think so.

Because Peterson is Christian, the Wingfeather Saga is suffused with Christian themes -- but even if you are not Christian, I urge you to keep an open mind, as Peterson covers many universals too, including the healing impact of self-sacrificial love and mercy (and the damage caused by its absence), the struggle to find meaning in a universe that seems heartless and unforgiving, the lure of security as a threat to human liberty and flourishing, and archetypal villains who seek power above all else. And honestly, if you read this series as an adult, you'll catch things your children probably will not. I could write an essay focusing entirely on the symbolism of the cloven. The layering here is just that sophisticated.

This weekend, I had a chance to read an advance copy of the The Warden & the Wolf King, the aforementioned final installment of the Wingfeather Saga, and it wholly lives up to the promise of the first three novels, delivering an ending that makes my previous investment in these characters 100% worth the time. If you would like to discover this series for yourself - and I strongly urge you to do so - then follow the links below. I for one would love to see Peterson get more exposure!

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (The Wingfeather Saga, Book 1)

North! Or Be Eaten (The Wingfeather Saga, Book 2)

The Monster in the Hollows (The Wingfeather Saga, Book 3)

The Warden and the Wolf King (The Wingfeather Saga, Book 4) (Pre-order link.)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: D. Jason Fleming's Spring That Never Came

As far as I can tell, no one has reviewed D. Jason Fleming's new novella, Spring That Never Came -- which means I have the privilege of being the first to share my impressions of his tale, which features an out-of-work Hollywood actress who's recruited to repel a Lovecraftian invasion at the precise moment her personal and professional lives have hit rock-bottom.

Overall, I liked Spring. The choice Fleming makes regarding Tammy's fellow soldiers is especially intriguing -- though, unfortunately, the short format doesn't allow much time to explore the tragic consequences of pulling potentially valuable human lives out of mainstream society. I should also note that I found the ending rather grim -- but given the principal theme of the story, I'm not sure that wasn't wholly appropriate.

Ultimately, Spring is not about battling eldritch monsters from a distant dimension in space-time. Indeed, if that's what you're seeking, you might want to look elsewhere, as said monsters are mere supporting players -- and minor supporting players at that. What concerns Fleming most, I think, are more prosaic forms of evil. The key villain, you see, is a human with a serious entitlement complex who's perfectly happy to make a Faustian bargain for the sake of exercising petty power over others. And yes, let's face it: While we're highly unlikely to confront Cthulhu-type beasts in our day-to-day lives, we will confront sociopaths who think nothing of scuttling basic morality and human decency for their own personal gain.

Whether you believe in the Biblical Fall of Man or not, there's no question that the human condition is flawed in a profound and fundamental way -- which means that our fight against corruption and evil will never truly be over (at least, not until the End of Days). In an oblique way, Fleming acknowledges this reality -- and out of all the positive qualities of Spring, this is probably what I appreciate most.

Final Verdict: Recommended.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Sam Schall's Vengeance from Ashes

Are you looking for some more military science fiction? Well, yes, of course you are! You're reading this blog, after all, and this blog has a history of boosting books with military themes. Which is why when I came across Sam Schall's Vengeance from Ashes, I thought it'd be an appropriate selection for one of my traditional weekly reviews. Vengeance stars a Marine captain by the name of Ashlyn Shaw who, years ago, was unjustly convicted of war crimes, stripped of her rank, and shipped to a brutal military prison with several of her fellow soldiers. When the book opens, a change in presidential administrations has finally opened the way to Shaw's pardon -- but, of course, the people behind her incarceration are still waiting in the wings and are still willing to make trouble in order to cover up their own treason.

Vengeance is intended to be the first book of series, so fair warning: You will find no satisfying resolution here just yet. What you will find is a lot of set-up. You get the sense, for example, that Shaw's antagonists are cooperating with the enemy, but by the end of the novel, you are no closer to understanding the motivations behind their betrayal of their own government than you were at the start. It is also strongly suggested that Shaw's final mission before her imprisonment resulted in a great deal of collateral damage, but here too, the full story is withheld.

I also feel, personally, that Schall's writing is repetitive in parts. Once you've shown that the guards at the aforementioned prison have been violating regs and abusing their prisoners - including Shaw herself - the point doesn't have to be belabored. Similarly, once you've established that Shaw is determined to protect the other members of her team, you don't need to keep mentioning her loyalty in the narration. Shaw's actions should hammer the idea home just fine. Indeed, I think it's better for a character's behavior to speak for itself.

Still, the incompleteness and occasional redundancy aside, the larger story launched by Vengeance has potential. In particular, I'm hoping that future installments will tell us more about Fuercon's internal and external enemies. How did their conflict with Fuercon arise, and what exactly do they want? If the next book offers more back-story and more world building, I will be even more engaged in Shaw's story and more eager to see her succeed.

Final Verdict: Recommended, But With Notes