Mercury Retrograde

“Mercury retrograde” is an expression that has burst the bonds of conventional western astrology and become almost a commonplace term. It’s so common that people do a reverse-inference now; if electronic communication devices aren’t working, if satellites go down, if someone “mis-speaks” on TV, if Google goes down, we all say, “Is Mercury retrograde or something?”

In Western astrology, Mercury is the planet that influences communication, thought, and intellectual energy (sometimes it’s said to govern education). There is a definitely a belief that when Mercury is “retrograde” (appears to be moving backward in our skies), communication and transportation, deliveries and documents can all be at risk.

It’s like this; you reconnect with an old high school friend, who, it turns out, lives in the same town as you. The two of you make plans to meet at a local coffee place. At the chosen time, you show up, and wait. And wait. You try to call or text your friend, but you forgot your phone. Or, your phone is dead. Or, for some reason, you can’t get any bars. You get home and fire off an angry instant message – only to see you have an angry message from the friend, who sat waiting for you for nearly an hour. Neither of you bothered to check. There are two coffee places with the same name in your town.

Or, you forget to back-up the important document you are working on, and it gets corrupted. Or, an offhanded comment you make sends your partner into a rage of hurt feelings; or your partner says something incredibly hurtful to you, and can’t seem to understand why you’re upset. “Is Mercury retrograde?” you wonder.

Mercury takes about 88 earth-days to travel around the sun; earth takes 365. Because of the positions of the two planets relative to each other at various times in the orbit, in our skies, Mercury sometimes appears to be moving backwards, retracing its progress across the sky. We call this Mercury going retrograde although it’s really no such thing. Remember that astrology is a geocentric system that has nothing to do with the real solar system. It uses planets and constellation as they appear to us from earth as symbols for inner growth.

In the latest issues of Witches and Pagans, columnist Diotima Mantineia discusses ways to work with Mercury retrograde. (She recommends backing up your documents, just as a good practice.) She suggests turning the principals of the planet inward; using Mercury retrograde, for example, as a way to quietly listen to impulses and messages from what she calls the Deep Self. Follow those impulses and go outside for a walk instead of hunching over your computer or tablet. Drive home a different way. Focus and listen for the signal through the noise. She also recommends using this time period (it’s usually about two weeks) to examine your own assumptions about what you want in your life. This is the internal signal-to-noise ratio.

You can find out in advance when Mercury is next slated to appear retrograde (it happens about three times a year) and calendar it. Then you can batten down the hatches and decide whether you want to sign that important business contract right then. Or here’s something else you can do. You can make a note of the dates somewhere (not on your calendar) and put that file out of sight. Then, for the rest of the year, keep a journal; just four or five lines at the end of each day, about the key issue of the day. In 2016, you can pull up your Mercury retrograde file and check it against your journal. Were there really communication issues? Or did it make no difference at all? I have no idea what the answer to that question would be.

I am so easily distracted these days; haring off after internet tidbits, plumping up with outrage over something on Facebook, running around on errands as if they were important. I like the idea of using the Mercury retrograde period as a time to reflect on the signal, instead of the noise.

 

Posted in Ruminations | Leave a comment

The Mercy of the Night by David Corbett

It’s impossible for me to talk about David Corbett’s The Mercy of the Night without talking about archetypes; not as the word is used currently in publishing and reviews, as in “a perfect example of a type,” but the psychological archetype, the deep, recurrent symbols that show up in our art and our stories. Corbett’s book is filled with archetypal characters, and at the center of them is Jacqi Garza, the girl who won’t accept the “types” being forced on her by her family, by law enforcement, and by her town.

When she was eight years old, Jacqi and another little girl were abducted by a child molester. Jacqi escaped. The other little girl didn’t, and her body was never found. Jacqi’s testimony put the abductor away for life, and made her a celebrity, a hero, in her home town of Rio Mirada. Jacqi was the Little Girl Lost, the Little Girl Come Home, but the town turned against her when she grew up to be a rebellious adolescent and a prostitute. Now Jacqi is involved in a high-profile crime again, again as a witness, and she struggles against the conflicting demands of the police, the media, the town and her family.

Rio Mirada is really the northern California town of Vallejo. Lately, Vallejo has been known for two things; in 1999, the abduction and murder of Xania Fairchild, and in 2008, a municipal bankruptcy. Corbett melded both of these incidents into The Mercy of the Night. The victim, Mike Verrazzo, is the head of the powerful fire-fighter’s union. During the numerous meetings leading up to the bankruptcy, the fire-fighter’s union refused to compromise or negotiate. When the bankruptcy orders came down, allowing the city to vacate its pension agreements, the fire-fighters, who were early in line as creditors, still came out better than some other municipal unions. Verrazzo is another classic archetype, the Scapegoat, and his murder is described in a way that is almost sacrificial.

Jacqi saw who dealt the killing blow, and everyone wants her. The police want to interview her. Her mother’s gangster boyfriend wants her out of town, so that she won’t bring attention to him. Her older brother Richie has secrets of his own he doesn’t want coming out. Nina Garza, Jacqi’s emotionally cold mother, just wants her gone.

Although Nina is Jacqi’s biological mother, she functions more like the Wicked Stepmother. (This mother, by the way, cold, withholding, obviously loving one child more than the other, is a familiar Corbett character.) Nina is actually over the top and her final act is melodramatic, if you try to see her as a realistic character. As the Wicked Stepmother, she’s about the middle of the pack. Against the victim child who is not the Princess, the Whore or the Little Girl Lost, Nina is a plausible foil.

Jacqi works as an archetype because she is also a thoroughly developed character. A true archetype is not just a mask and costume that the reader fills in, and Jacqi is a convincing adolescent, a convincing portrait of a damaged child. She is a smart woman who makes terrible decisions, partly because she is young and has the buoyance of adolescence, and partly because, in spite of herself, she has internalized the lessons of her brother and most especially her mother, whose one rule is that the women must “protect their men.” “Protecting them” means lying for them, accepting their blows and verbal violence, whoring for them and muling for them if necessary. It means always, always putting the needs of the men around you ahead of your own. As badly as she is doing it, Jacqi is trying to say “no” to that rule.

Phelan Tierney is a suspended lawyer currently working as a private investigator. He helps out at a diversion program for street prostitutes, and is tutoring Jacqi toward her GED. When “Fireman Mike” is killed, Tierney begins searching for Jacqi, wanting to help her. If Tierney is an archetype, he’d probably be The Man in the Dark Maze. He’s smart, verbal and brave, but is haunted by the death of his wife from cancer several years earlier. His girlfriend Cass was his wife’s oncology nurse. Clearly, Tierney is stuck. By the end of the book, he does come to see that he is using Jacqi as a substitute for his wife – trying to save one woman to make up for the one he couldn’t save.

Since the story is mostly Jacqi’s, I could accept that Tierney’s girlfriend is basically just “the good woman.” I would have liked to have seen a bit more of her inner life, but she is only there to help lead Tierney out of the maze and back into the world. She doesn’t succeed completely, as the disappointing final pages show. Corbett, surprisingly, resorts to a literary contrivance to finish up the book.

I was disappointed that Corbett didn’t cover the bankruptcy in more detail. The town, and to a large extent the story, accept the premise that the problems were all the fault of unions. There is one brief paragraph about a city council that “cooked the books,” but nothing more. Since the story focuses more on how people feel about the bankruptcy than the facts, I think my disappointment is more a question of expectation. While the bankruptcy could have used more air time, the subplot involving a police detective and his artistic son didn’t seem to add anything to this story. What matters in this book is that Vallejo, even more than usual, is financially devastated. Police patrols have been cut nearly in half due to staffing reductions and some areas are lawless. People like Nina Garza’s gangster boyfriend are moving into that vacuum and they don’t want their plans messed up because a teenaged girl saw a murder.

Corbett loves Vallejo, and it shows in tiny descriptions, like the papusa restaurant, and in more lyrical passages like the one where Tierney and Cass stop and study the landscape along the river. Scenes range from the mundane (a Marriott’s motel room) to the phantasmagorical, like the terrifying segment in a suburb filled with foreclosed homes turned into grow-houses.

What archetype is Jacqi? In some ways, she is like the Wanderer, as described in Jody Gentian Bower’s book Jane Eyre’s Sisters. The “journey of the wanderer” doesn’t match Jacqi’s quest completely, but many elements fit. Jacqi is a girl who won’t accept other people’s labels. She isn’t the Golden Girl; she isn’t the Little Girl Lost… she isn’t the “attention whore” or the rebellious child. She wants to make her own decisions and live her own life.

I liked The Mercy of the Night, and I liked it best when I was watching Jacqi trying to make her way through a wounded city. Corbett tells her story with economy and grace. I can’t help thinking what a fine independent movie this could be, and I hope it would be filmed in Vallejo.

Posted in Book Reviews | Leave a comment

The Silkworm; The Second Cormoran Strike Novel

The Silkworm is the second mystery in the Cormoran Strike series by British writer Robert Galbraith. Galbraith is a pseudonym for a much better known fantasy writer, J.K. Rowling. Rowling’s nom de plume got leaked shortly after the first book came out, but like many mystery writers she is maintaining the name. This makes the book a little hard for me to review. I want to review it as a mystery by a writer who is trying to establish an identity as a mystery writer (Galbraith), but every once in a while something pops up that seems to be more from the experience of a gigantically successful celebrity (Rowling). So, as I review the book in general, I’m going to refer to Galbraith. When I think it’s the other thing, I’ll use Rowling’s name. This won’t be confusing at all.

Eight months after the solution to the Lula Landry death in The Cuckoo’s Calling, Cormoran Strike, a disabled veteran of the Afghanistan war turned private detective, is doing much better financially. His assistant Robin, who started as a temp, is still with him, keeping him organized and often helping him unofficially with his cases. As The Silkworm opens, Robin has a lot on her mind. She is getting married in just a few months, and her fiance resents Strike and his demands on Robin’s time.

Strike is contacted by the wife of a literary writer, who has been missing for about ten days. Leonora Quine is a very strange woman, who seems only to care (or at least be distracted by) her daughter. At first, it sounds as if the daughter Orlando is a toddler, with Leonora’s anxiety about leaving her with a neighbor. Owen, the missing husband, sounds like less and less of a “catch” as Leonora describes him. As Cormoran starts investigating, he discovers that Quine’s new novel is a vicious roman a clef that gives practically everyone who knows Quine a motive for killing him… and shortly after that, he discovers Quine’s mutilated body in the one house where everyone swore he would never go.

What I liked best here was the deepening relationship between Strike and Robin. It is not sexual although the tension is there. Robin’s marriage is going forward. The bond between Strike and Robin seems to be about respect, and mutual discovery, as each learns more about the other. The other thing Galbraith does well is discuss Cormoran’s prosthetic leg and the problems he has with it, although this issue is at risk of getting over-worked. We also get a chance to meet one of Cormoran’s family members, his half-brother Al. This is nice bit. Cormoran never knew his father growing up; dad is mega-famous (think Rolling Stones famous) musician and mom was a groupie. Al is the only person in the legitimate side of the family Strike will tolerate. Robin’s mother, who is absolutely delightful, also puts in an appearance in one telling scene.

Galbraith learned a few things from The Cuckoo’s Calling. That mystery’s solution was so intricate and detailed that it beggared belief. While the mystery in Silkworm is also elaborate, the book left itself some breathing room. By tying the story to Jacobean revenge tragedies, Galbraith makes it plausible that the murderer would indeed wait this long to get some much-needed revenge, and the scheme behind the murder has enough leeway in it let the reader accept it. That said, the murder, and the murder scene is gleefully horrifying — horror novel horrifying. Just be warned.

The writers, editors and agents who show up as Strike continues his search are a strange lot indeed. I didn’t really like any of them, but I was intrigued by them all. Orlando, Quine’s daughter, is not a toddler. She is a developmentally delayed young adult, an interesting choice and one which explains some of the choices Quine has made in his life. A couple of the sub-plots play obviously like red herrings, but the clues are fairly planted throughout.

One of my favorite passages is a breath-taking car scene in the midst of a blizzard. Robin is driving; Strike’s knee has swollen so that he can’t wear his prosthetic, and the could not rent a car with an automatic transmission. Strike has a bias about women drivers. When a tanker truck skids on ice and jack-knives in front of them, Robin instants cures Strike of any prejudices. It’s a great action moment in a book that is mostly, by design, talky and cerebral.

Jacobean revenge tragedies are gory, gruesome and kind of fascinating, and the book capitalizes on that in a great way.

It’s when the book talks about writing and publishing that I feel a tiny bit uncomfortable. In a book that is filled with people we don’t necessarily like Quine’s mistress, who writes “erotica with a fantasy element” is treated very harshly by the story. I think this is Rowling. The mistress is self-published and keeps a blog. Rowling skewers the blog with uncomfortable accuracy. It feels mean-spirited. All the authors come off a little bit like feuding left-bank artists… only one, the elderly gray-haired avuncular children’s book writer, who has a cameo, is treated with respect by the story.

Throughout the book, people approach Strike about a memoir, and this does seem plausible. He wonders at several points about what the urge to see your work in print is all about, which again, from the three most-printed writers in the English language (Rowling, not Galbraith) seems … well, again, mean-spirited, unless it is meant as a rather dry joke. Is this something she asks herself? It could be. It didn’t feel right.

That aside, there is some emotional depth and emotional inconsistency here that is realistic and good. When her fiance’s mother dies suddenly, Robin flies off to his side, but a few days later, one day before the funeral, she is on that icy road driving Strike to an interview, and barely makes it to the funeral on time. Later, she thinks to herself that Matthew is kind of self-centered. It’s a nice bit of pot-and-kettle.

I also loved many of the descriptions in The Silkworm. Interiors seemed a bit labored, but in several places simple descriptions of London streets or the snow-covered garden court of a trendy restaurant, the Thames glinting in the background, were so good that I stopped and read them again.

Based on the improved murder-plotting and the interesting relationship between Robin and her boss, I will keep reading these. I think they’re only going to get better.

Posted in Book Reviews | 2 Comments

Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, 75th Anniversary Edition

Here’s a change of pace for me. Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, 75th Anniversary Edition is a recipe book for hundreds of cocktails. The book is a fixture with its red covers, a bit narrower and taller than a mass market paperback, the perfect size to slip in next to the cash register or under the bar.

The introduction credits Leo Cotton, a sales rep for Mr. Boston Liquor Company, with compiling and editing the very first edition. Drinks have been added over the years, of course, many by members of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, which I didn’t even know existed until I started flipping through the book.

The drinks are categorized by the primary spirit, in alphabetical order, starting with Brandy and ending with Wine and Beer. There is a short Bar Basics section, a resource section (I was pleased to see Sonoma Syrups listed as a simple syrup source) a glossary and an index. The book has a number of color plates of cocktails that look elegant, yummy, or, like the Pickleback, downright weird.

I’m developing an interest in drink-mixing even if I don’t drink that many of them, because it’s kind of cool, and it seems related to magic. It does, doesn’t it? It’s all about proportions, sequence, timing and alchemy. There’s a weird thing that happens when you’re shaking a drink with ice and somehow the feel of the shaker changes – and it’s not just it’s frosted. No, the texture of the stuff inside seems to have changed. Why does fresh lemon juice give such a different taste experience than lemonade? What is the difference between a stirred drink and a shaken drink? Plus, the history of distilled spirits is interesting. Plus, sidecars? Yummy.

I have browsed The Official Bartender’s Guide heavily and overall, it’s pretty impressive. The color plates do beautiful justice to the drinks. The categories let a novice begin to create a model, from the logic of the “original” cocktails to all the variations that spring from it. The book’s organization would make it easier for a newbie to start memorizing the “150 or so classic and popular drinks that are 90 percent of a bartender’s regular repertoire.”

Those “classic and popular” are what you would expect. Many drinks are descended from the old-fashioned, the Manhattan, the martini, the daiquiri or the margarita. Relative newcomers to the US include the mojito. Shot drinks, labeled “shooters” in The Official Bartender’s Guide, have become quite elaborate.

I have two problems with this book. One is trivial and more is more serious.
The trivial first; the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide offers nearly a dozen martini variations, including a rum martini (page 145). When I flipped to Vodka Martini, however, I found this “recipe:”

“If you insist on making your martini with vodka, see the gin version on page 98 and substitute the former for the latter.”

They’re gin purists. I get it. Still, this is blatant prejudice, and somewhat hypocritical since they go one to list at least six more vodka drinks with “martini” in the title. Really, people, it’s the 21st century. Move on.

The second problem is more serious, and that’s the index. It contains at least three errors (drinks not listed on the page that was given). Several of the drinks shown in the color plates, like the Ingrid Bergman and the Devil’s Tail weren’t in the index at all that I could see. With the Bergman, I could look at the photo and guess that beer was a primary ingredient, and I found it in the Wine and Beer category. The Devil’s Tail was harder until I figured out that it was a blender drink. The book is a reference tool; indices are important to reference tools and this is too high a proportion of error.

Still, there is interesting stuff here. Did you know that in the US, England and Ireland, the grain liquor aged in wood is spelled “whiskey” and in Scotland and Canada it’s “whisky?”  Did you know that the story behind the “sidecar” is that it was invented for an American army officer in Paris, who arrived at his favorite bar in a sidecar? Have you ever had a crusta? Did you know that ginger ale is probably an ingredient in any drink with “buck” in the name? Pretty cool stuff.

It makes me want to go mix a drink.

Posted in Book Reviews | 2 Comments

House-keeping

I’ve been having some problems with the blog. Sonic.net just helped me out, but part of it involved deleting some people who had registered to post comments. Some of them may have been you.

If so, I am sorry for the inconvenience. I am hoping the problems will stop now, and Deeds and Words will go on to have a long and happy life.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

And Now For Something Completely Different; the 2015 Nebulas

The Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) awarded the Nebulas Saturday night, in Chicago.  Here are the writing winners:

Best Novel:

Annihilation, Book One of Jeff VanderMeer’s creepy, deliciously paranoiac Southern Reach trilogy. Here is a review.

Best Novella:

“Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress. You can read a review by Terry Weyna, of Fantasy Literature, here.

Best Novelette:

“A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i by Alaya Dawn Johnson (review here)

Best Short Story:

“Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon (review here)

Alaya Dawn Johnson also won the Andre Norton Award for Love is the Drug, and Guardians of the Galaxy the Ray Bradbury Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

About Annihilation… I am glad it won. I didn’t warm up to a single character in that entire trilogy, but I am glad it won simply for the superb quality of the execution.

Posted in Thoughts about Writing | Leave a comment

The Hugos, 2015, Chapter Six; Novelettes

Here are the five novelettes that are short-listed for the Hugo. Wikipedia gives the novelette word-count range as 7500-17,500. A couple of these read as longer than that.

  • “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014)
  • “Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014)
  • “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014)
  • “The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014)
  • “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014)

 

The novelette category was heavily influenced by the splinter group(s). The challenge in this category is similar to the problem I had with the novellas. A couple of these are decent reads, or interesting stories, but are these really the best novelettes published in 2014?

“Championship B’Tok,” by Edward M. Lerner, has an interesting idea. I like the continued metaphor of the game-of-strategy that runs through the work. “Championship B’Tok” does not stand alone. This is probably Part One of a longer work, and it ends on a suspenseful note, but it is not a complete story. Lerner abandoned the two characters I cared about after the first chapter, and I never re-engaged with the various other super-spies and wily merchants. The spy-versus-spy action and time-traveling Interveners were interesting, not compelling. My favorite part of this story is its name with its lovely Vulcan echo (no Vulcans in the story, sorry).

“The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, translated by Lia Belt, is an intriguing thought exercise, a surrealistic tour de force filled with vivid imagery. One day after the first-person’s narrator’s girlfriend, Sophia, broke up with him, turning his world upside down, the world literally turns upside down. The narrator rescues Sophia’s goldfish and decides to take it to her. Along the way he encounters an abandoned little girl, an ultra-light pilot, and two women who plan to plait flax into ropes so that they can climb “up” to the ground. The two women bring a folkloric aspect to the piece. Heuvelt compares the broken relationship to the topsy-turvy world in so many words but the imagery is gorgeous. Lia Belt’s translation gets high marks. It was pretty, weird and fascinating… but again, not a story. The character I identified with the most was Bubbles the goldfish, trapped in a 7-Up bottle, an involuntary companion dragged along to each episodic encounter.

“The Journeyman; In the Stone House” also felt like a piece from a larger work. In Michael F. Flynn’s adventure, we meet two nomads, Teodorq and Sammi o’ the Eagles, who are captured by another group of nomads on a vast grassland. Apparently, this is future earth, with various nomadic tribes warring for territory. The captors are called the ironmen. Teodorq wonders if they are the “starmen” that the ghost on the “shuttle” they found before (we learn about this in a flashback) told them about. Teo and Sammi hang out with the ironmen and eventually are drafted into their army. This novelette reminded me forcibly of The Horseclans books Robert Adams wrote so long ago. Think “Horseclans Lite.” The story read like a “buddy movie” with little plot. I could picture Seth Rogen and Zack Galifianakis playing the two main characters. Despite a wonderful hand-to-hand combat sequence in the last third, nothing really happens here.

“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium” by Grey Rinehart, is a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end. How refreshing! The story takes place on Alluvia, where a human colony has been subjugated by another space-faring race, the lizardish Peshari. Toro Cerna, a human, takes his human friend Phil to a Peshari monument engraver. As the story continues, we see that the human colony is falling on harder times as the Peshari slowly withdraw supplies. Humans have rebelled on several occasions, leading to their deaths. Phil, who is sick, has an idea, one so bizarre that Toro and the other humans can’t quite wrap their minds around it. Toro has to decide if he will help Phil. His final decision, and the result, will result in dramatic changes on the planet.

In “The Triple Sun; A Golden Age Tale,” by Rajnar Vajnar, an engaging narrative voice and the partnership of the three young Exo-planetary Explorer cadets who are the main characters give this tale some life. I enjoyed “The Triple Sun” but thought it was too long for the idea. The mystery of the natives was clever, but it didn’t seem very scientific. At the climax of the story, though, the three young cadets, who haven’t functioned all that well as a team, do pull together. I thought the final denouement suffered from a bit too much cuteness and dragged on.

The two I enjoyed the most are “The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” and “The Triple Sun; A Golden Age Tale.”

I did make an interesting side discovery while reading these. To my complete lack of surprise, the “hard science” stories don’t have very much actual science. “The Triple Sun,” “Championship B’tok” and “Ashes to Ashes… ” all contain extra-terrestrial life forms that are lizard-like, snake-like, or called Snakes. (Reptiles don’t fare well with “hard science fiction” writers.) The Abreathons in “The Triple Sun” are not terribly convincing, and seem a lot like a group of aliens on Doctor Who. Time-travel in “Championsip B’tok” is not much different from magic. Where are the stories like David Walton’s Superposition, or 2013’s Afterparty by Daryl Gregory, where the story springs directly and organically from the science? I really do want to know.

 

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Hugos, 2015, Chapter Five: Big Boys Don’t Cry

Trigger warning; this post contains an explicit discussion of sadomasochism and sexual exploitation.

Spoiler alert; I’m going to discuss the plot in detail.

Whining alert; I made an offhanded comment about this story needing its own post. Scores of you – okay, well, two – followed up and asked for one. I had to read the story twice and go back into the story and check quotes. That was painful. The things I do for you guys!

*

“Big Boys Don’t Cry” by Tom Kratman could raise serious, thoughtful questions about the costs of war and the systematic creation of “innocent killers” who die to protect the treasure or political power of others. Unfortunately, those questions suffocate under the weight of weird psycho-sexual quirks and a number of story problems that should have been caught and corrected after the first draft.

Here’s a brief summary of the plot. A few hundred years in the future, humanity is fighting numerous wars on numerous planets. Some are wars of imperialism as humans invade worlds; some are civil wars between human colonists. The military has created anti-grav tanks operated by an onboard AI, a “crystalline brain” (like Data’s brain on Star Trek, Next Generation) called a Ratha. Rathas are self-aware. They assign themselves human gender-roles and assume human European-American nicknames. (There is no story-reason for them to do either of those things.) One tank, Magnolia, identifies as female. After an ambush, Magnolia is seriously damaged and hauled back for scrap. The wounds she sustained make some hidden programming in her crystalline brain available to her. She discovers the truth of her early programming and the evil humans who programmed her. Learning this, she decides to act.

*

Rather than tell the story that might be suggested by self-aware tanks, rather than explore the serious conflicts and dilemmas that are raised by our expanding military technology, Kratman goes for shock value at the end of the story, equating the pleasure that Magnolia gets from killing with an orgasm. Later, realizing how her pain and pleasure centers have been manipulated in her conditioning, Magnolia describes her experience as a “rape.” I am not exaggerating or drawing an inference from the text.

“With our first five shots, three of the enemy vehicles are destroyed. The pleasure is overpowering, indescribable. I search my data banks for a word for what I am feeling. It is ‘orgasm’” (That’s Magnolia, remembering a VR training experience.)

“I know how it feels to be raped.” (That’s her too.)

Setting aside the whole sexual weirdness of tank sadomasochism and the endless questions it inspires, let’s just look at the story for a moment. Why do you give your tank’s artificial brain a “pleasure center?” As a strategic choice, why on earth do you give your tank “pain receptors?” The tank will know it’s damaged; why incapacitate it on the battlefield?

There are seven or eight tanks named in the story. Only one, Magnolia, is female. Why is Magnolia female? I don’t know. She’s pretty poorly written as a female, but then, she’s not a very convincing machine either. Why is there only one “female” tank? I don’t know that either.

In addition to using pain-and-sexual-pleasure conditioning on Magnolia, the humans installed other secret coding. When Magnolia’s ethical programming stops her from, oh, let’s say, firing on civilians, the military humans can override her “will” and force her to do it. When Magnolia realizes what’s been done to her, she plans her revenge. The basic plot is “Tank as Red Sonja.”

As creepy, sexually weird and strategically stupid as the “reveal” of the story is, there is plenty more wrong with BBDC. Shock value doesn’t distract from the other deficits of prose, characterization, or insufficient world-building.

Prose: The prose does not fit the story.

Kratman can write a grammatical sentence. He can craft a paragraph. He is trustworthy with dependent clauses and competent with commas. All of this is good and if he were writing an essay on WWII desert warfare, I would expect a comprehensible, if dry, read.

Story-telling requires more than this. It requires rhythmic shifts, clear point of view shifts, pacing changes and tonal changes, and, mostly, prose that enhances the related events. This story does not show us that Kratman can use language to do that.

Early in BBDC, Magnolia’s patrol is ambushed. This should be tense, exciting, suspenseful. It isn’t. Things plod along, paragraph after paragraph, ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump, in the tone of… well, in the tone of an essay on WWII desert warfare. Nothing reads as if it’s happening to Magnolia right now. Kratman chooses distancing, qualifying words, and overuses modifiers:

“…in the kill zone of what was, in Ratha terms, a near ambush.”

“…From around the Ratha some twenty-seven pairs of Slugs began to rise…”

Magnolia, beleaguered and outnumbered, reacts the way any AI or woman under attack would, with an internal monologue that goes like this:

“This is preposterous! There’s no benefit to the Slugs in destroying me that’s remotely commensurate with the price they’ve already paid, let alone what they’re going to have to pay! No wonder we haven’t talked; we don’t share even rudimentary mathematics!”

All the exclamation points in the world cannot help the rhythm of those sentences.

Characters: They are shallow.

To be fair, it’s difficult to write a deep-learning machine character convincingly, because we don’t even have a real starting point yet. That said, this story does not demonstrate that Kratman can write human characters either. No one is terribly complex or believable. The humans are callous, evil and corrupt. Why? Well, because they are, that’s why. The tanks are innocent killers, obedient and loyal. The one glimmer of real characterization with Magnolia (who, like the Cylons, has an interest in spirituality,) fades away with no resolution.

The most interesting tank character, THN, who has chosen not to assume a human gender-role or a nickname, disappears out of the story after one paragraph. THN is closest thing to a “smart tank” in the novella’s entire 58 pages. It acknowledges that it is a machine. I would have enjoyed seeing Magnolia interact with it. We are told that THN never fit in with the other tanks; I guess it wasn’t allowed to eat lunch at the “cool tank” table in high school. With THN, Kratman introduces a potentially interesting character and then abandons it.

Then there are the human characters. Here we see one interacting with a Ratha tank named Samuel, who is questioning an order that is unsound.

“… surrounded by a bevy of admiring females from the regimental administrative staff, the commander said, ‘Pooh, pooh, Sam! Are you a Ratha or a wheelbarrow? The order stands.’”

(Until the next paragraph, where our snooty commander pours champagne for the redheaded person standing next to him, I wasn’t sure that “females” in this case meant “human women.”)

This champagne-swilling, pooh-poohing commander is only one of a series of stereotypical human characters. My personal favorite is the governor of an obscure planet.

“Magda Dunkelmeier, the new governor, was a modern woman, certainly modern in her attitudes. She was certain – absolutely convinced – that only some sort of men’s conspiracy had removed her from the center of moving and shaking. Either a conspiracy, or perhaps the machinations of a little bimbo of the CD-Seven who had not only caught the eye of the Secretary, but coveted Dunkelmeier’s previous job.”

Yep, 24th-century Magda is a real “modern woman,” all right, or would be, if she had been a character in Mad Men. And I think “center of moving and shaking” does not mean that she lives on an earthquake prone planet, I think it is meant to refer to a center of political power.

World-Building: It is inadequate to non-existent.

We know we’re about two hundred years in the future because we are given dates, and we’re out among the stars. Kratman also includes some “found documents,” some purporting to be academic-styled papers, written by Thaddeus Nnaji-Olokomo, a 30th century historian looking back at the time period in which Magnolia functions. We know we’re at war and that there is a military. We know humans either developed or found the Ratha brains. Beyond the basic conflicts between the “grunts” (the Ratha tanks and their drones) and the “brass,” we know nothing about the overarching government or governments. We know there was once a United Planets Organization, and that it was located on our earth, but we don’t know what authority it had.

Nnaji-Olokomo is writing in 2936. Strangely, he uses idioms like “a baker’s dozen,” and compares “a snail to a thoroughbred” in discussing speed; yet he is writing 9 centuries from now, born and raised, presumably, on a planet that doesn’t have snails or horses. I hope, for his sake, that it has bakers. In discussing an attack on the United Planets Organization (an attack of which he apparently approves), Nnaji-Olokomo tells us:

“…It probably didn’t hurt matters when, one Friday afternoon, following the fall of Bernharnais and the presumed deaths of almost half a billion people, a Washyorkston mob stormed the offices of the United Planets Organization, trampled the security guards into bloody jam and dragged to the lampposts some one hundred and twenty-seven members of the Assembly of Man. There would have been more had most of the members not signed out earlier that morning on a long paid weekend. Among the lynched were several hundred time-serving bureaucrats, sixty or seventy of whom were, at least in theory, members of the military.”

We know this attack took place on earth, presumably in an urban area that is a mix of Washington, New York and Boston. This entire passage doesn’t serve much purpose, except perhaps to exercise some wish-fulfillment on the part of the writer (“Tee-hee! I murdered the United Nations; I’m so naughty!”). Writing several hundred years after the fact, this historian doesn’t see the need to explain phrases like “security guards,” “lampposts,” and “lynched,” to his audience.

“Washyorkston” is a clue to a savvy SF reader that the writer doesn’t care to invest in building a plausible world. That’s a placeholder name; the kind of thing you find in first-draft stories or work by beginning writers. It means you didn’t want to bother with imagining an actual mega-city on the USA’s eastern seaboard, but you wanted the paragraph to look “futuristic.”

It’s too long.

I haven’t done an exact word count, but this thing must run about 14,000 words. That is at least 4,000 words too long. A look on the Hugo Awards page tells us that a shorter version of this appeared earlier and this version, which is longer, was published in 2014. If the longer version had provided context it could have been fine. The words here now are like empty calories, and gives a reader too much time to ask too many questions, questions the writer doesn’t answer.

*

The violation of the self-hood of the Rathas is a serious question, and the heart of a serious story, a story that is not told here. Whatever purpose the tank sadomasochism serves, it isn’t necessary. When the Rathas discover that their autonomy, their agency, can be overridden at a whim, that should be enough to create the disillusionment with their corrupt human creators. Theoretically then, the Rathas would have to do something. That would be an interesting story. Of course, many of my SF friends will say that it’s already been done; that was the Battlestar Galactica reboot.

BBDC desperately needed a decent editor and a disciplined writer who could put aside self-indulgence in service to his story. As it is, this demonstrates amateur-hour mistakes. It’s 58 pages that just were not ready for prime time.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

$3.4 Million Deal for Science Fiction Writer

Here’s the link to the article about John Scalzi’s deal with Tor. Yaay, him.

Scalzi linked to it on his blog and followed up with a “Q&A” style column about the details. (13 books, 3 of which will be YA).

The amount of money, when you just see it up there, looks huge. When you amortize it (so to speak) over 13 books, it looks more… well, realistic. Still good, though, but maybe not overwhelming.  And nothing says, “Confidence in you,” quite like a 13-book contract.

Now I’m going to go a bit sideways. There is That Guy Who Hates Scalzi. As you know, I won’t link to him, but if you Google, “Hugo, Rabid Puppies” you’ll probably find him easily.  That Guy Who Hates Scalzi (TGWHS) devoted a blog post to the NY Times story. He broke down the $3.4 million by book and by increment, thus, somehow, showing, that it wasn’t very much money after all.

I wouldn’t have seen it, but other blogs that were commenting on the contract alluded to it. I broke down. I had to go look.

What stands out is the amount of time TGWHS had to spend. I’m sure he’s good at arithmetic, but still, more time than I would be willing to invest. He also spent a good number of words explaining how, since Scalzi is a hack, 13 books won’t be hard for him.

Okay. I look at $3.4 million dollars and think, “He might be a hack. He’s a successful hack.”

As for me, I’m happy for Scalzi. He may or may not be a hack, but he writes things that entertain me, so I like him. The article has an interesting observation by Scalzi’s editor at Tor. The editor says basically that Scalzi does well in the midlist, and that people who find and read their first Scalzi book often immediately seek out others by him. Tor understands that Scalzi’s work has legs. This seems like an optimistic point for other SF writers who are, to quote Mary Robinett Kowal, “comfortably in the midlist.”

As far as I’m concerned, good news all around.

Posted in Thoughts about Writing | Leave a comment

Word Horde at Petaluma Copperfield’s Books

word horde_resizedCopperfield’s in Petaluma recently devoted an evening to Word Horde, an independent publisher (in Petaluma) and its new release, Giallo Fantastique. This anthology follows a style of decadent, paranormal crime fiction popularized in the late 1890s and early in the 20th century; revitalized in the 1950s and 60s through cinema (cinema fantastique). As it says on the back of the book, these stories live “at the intersection of crime, terror and supernatural fiction.”

Ross Lockhart is the editor, and he spoke a little bit about the subgenre. Then he read a bit from a few of the stories. Lockhart is a performer, and I enjoyed skimming along in my copy while he read in the voices of various narrators. (Fiction Giallo is associated with the “black-gloved” killer hiding in your house… one story is narrated by a pair of those black gloves.)

elinor and lockhart_resized

While not strictly horror, many of these stories are consciously horrific, and while this isn’t exactly my kind of thing, the stories I’ve read hit their intended mark. So far, my favorite is the last story in the book, “Exit Strategies.” That title is a play on words.

Lockhart brought his “assistant editor,” Elinor Phantom, and, and you can see, she was correctly attired for a book about “Yellow” fiction.

Posted in View from the Road | Leave a comment