It’s been too long since I’ve read a book with a spaceship on the cover. It’s also been too long since I’ve read something by John Scalzi.
Let’s fix that!
The Collapsing Empire centers on, well, a collapsing empire. See, thousands upon thousands of years in the future, humanity has spread across the galaxy in a star-spanning empire called the Interdependency. This collection of colony-worlds and space-stations all rely on each other for survival, connected by a FTL network called the Flow. Kind of like a river network through space-time, to boil it down to a too-simple metaphor. It’s a solid, self-sustaining system.
–that’s about to fall apart.
See, the Flow is shifting, “dying up,” to belabor the metaphor some more. It’s a civilization-threatening natural disaster, steadily looming while most of humanity either ignores it altogether, or denies that it’s going to happen in the first place. A bit … too on the nose there, when you start thinking about it.
And so, it falls on a young scientist and a scion of a merchant guild-house to make their way from the literal ass-end of the Interdependency (seriously, the planet’s called End) in order to warn the newly-crowned (and horribly unprepared) Empress about this impending doom.
Summarizing The Collapsing Empire this way is technically accurate, but it doesn’t get the whole point across. While The Collapsing Empire is a big sprawling space opera, it’s still a John Scalzi novel, so it’s often vulgar, hilarious, and even occasionally touching. Scalzi never loses sight of the fact that his characters are people, with all the little quirks that accompany it. It’s this attention to the details of humanity that distinguishes The Collapsing Empire from the earlier space operas it draws inspiration from.
And there’s a lot of inspiration here. For whatever reason, it took me until now to realize that Scalzi is a writer who builds a lot of his stuff on earlier sci-fi. I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word “derivitave” but there’s a direct line of inspiration in a lot of his work. For example, Old Man’s War is more or less “Starship Troopers for liberals,” while the inspiration for Redshirts is right there in the title. In The Collapsing Empire, Scalzi pulls from a bunch of classic sci-fi: there’s hints of Foundation in there, the merchant-guild-houses are vaguely reminiscent of those in Dune, and even the silly names of spaceships (such as the Yes Sir, That’s My Baby and her sister ship No Sir, I Don’t Mean Maybe) reminded me of The Culture. It’s a fun mix of elements, one that Scalzi has a lot of fun subverting and playing around with. For example, there’s a big climactic plot point that doesn’t rely on a space-battle or a laser sword duel, but on academic peer review.
This isn’t to say The Collapsing Empire is a perfect novel. For one, it’s got “first in a series-itis,” in which there are a whole bunch of dangling plot points left unresolved. Furthermore, I’m not quite sure what to make of the book’s villains, a power-hungry merchant-house family. They plot and scheme … but at the same time, they don’t seem very good at it. Seriously, they’re only a hair better at planning than, say, Starscream. So it’s kind of gratifying to see the villains’ plots fall apart, but it’d also be nice if the heroes had to try a little bit harder to win the day.
Silver lining is the sequel, The Consuming Fire, comes out in October, so at least there’s a follow up coming soon. Though now I’m wondering just how many books Scalzi’s planning on writing in the series, and whether I should just wait ’til the whole dang thing is finished before digging in. But hey, I’ve got an ever-growing to-read pile these days, so it’s not like I’ll ever be at a lack of something to read.
Sometimes, where you find a book can be a story in and of itself.
Don’t get me wrong, the convenience of Amazon and the local library is a great thing. However, I still can’t resist the siren call of the dollar bin, where one can stumble across all sorts of obscure, out-of print material. Though in this particular case, things are one upped even more, as I stumbled across A Prince of Swindlers in a Dollar General, of all places. I can’t help but wonder what sort of overstock shenanigans went on to get it there, but it was a pleasant surprise, nonetheless.
Published in 1900, Guy Boothby’s A Prince of Swindlers pre-dates other famed gentleman thieves such as Raffles or Arsene Lupin. The book centers on one Simon Carne, brilliant criminal and master of disguise. Over the course of the novel, Carne moves to London and sets himself up as a proper gentleman and man-about-town, which gives him ample opportunity to rob high society blind.
A Prince of Swindlers, like many other gentleman-thief stories, is something of a response and rebuttal to Sherlock Holmes and his ilk. It functions as the reverse of the typical detective tale, less of a “whodunnit” than a “howdunnit.” However, where things get really interesting is that one of Simon Carne’s go-to disguises is that of the great Amateur Detective Klimo, who invariably gets called in to investigate Simon’s own crimes. It’s a delicious little twist, one that I’m kind of surprised that nobody’s used since.
The book is light and episodic– after a short introduction detailing how Carne came to London, it launches into six chapters, each their own little crime-adventure. Carne steals priceless jewels, a champion racehorse, and hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash. And, like a proper gentleman-thief, Carne even has a chapter where he foils a villainous bombing plot (and makes off with a bunch of money in the process). Still, Carne’s still something of a bastard, as he also makes it a point to steal a bunch of money from a charity fundraiser as well. Though after the crime, the money gets re-raised anyway, so no harm, no foul, I guess?
Boothby has a readable, turn-of-the-century style, full of dry, English snark. He has a lot of fun using Carne to lampoon high society of the time, and take them down a peg by lifting their most prized possessions. My only real complaint about the book is that some of the latter chapters’ schemes aren’t quite as intricate or interesting as the earlier ones.
For a book pushing 120 years old, I’m kind of surprised nobody’s made a Simon Carne movie yet. I mean, the character’s probably in the public domain by now, right? Plus, there’s a whole bunch of potential in the stories. There’s Carne himself, of course, but it’s also worth noting that Carne’s schemes are bankrolled by Tirincomalee Liz, a half French/half Indian pirate queen, who is one of those characters who is only around long enough to make one want to know more about her.
This wouldn’t be the only time Boothby wrote about fantastical crime– his most famous creation is one Dr. Nikola, a criminal mastermind-type along the lines of Fu Manchu (just without the Yellow Peril). He also wrote a book called Pharos the Egyptian, with an immortal mummy as the villain, which I may have to dig up sometime.
But yeah. If you’re a Holmes fan, or just a fan of crime stories in general, I highly recommend giving A Prince of Swindlers a read sometime. And, if your local Dollar General doesn’t have a copy, you can find the book on Project Gutenberg, so bonus!
Oh hey, I still have a blog!
Not that you probably noticed, but I’ve been incommunicado for the last week and a half– that’s because I’ve been on vacation! Went traipsing around Colorado for a bit, which was super fun. But don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with vacation pictures (that’s what facebook is for). Instead, I’m gonna hammer out a couple of reviews of the books I read during the trip! So, uh, that’s good, right?
And to start, we have Glen Cook’s The Black Company.
I’ve read Cook before– namely, a couple of his Garrett: PI books (detective noir in fantasyland, pretty much), way back before I started this blog. I’d heard mention of the Black Company series in passing a couple of times, however– and when Tor.com gave the first one away in ebook form (to promote the newest release, natch), I figured I’d give it a go.
The Black Company is about, well, The Black Company, a band of cutthroat mercenaries in a generic fantasy land. The ‘gimmick’ to the book, as it were, is that Cook writes from the perspective of the bad guy. Early on in book, the Black Company gets recruited by agents of The Lady– who’s essentially a prettier version of Sauron, complete with Ringwraith-esque lieutenants and a big glaring magic eye in the middle of her doom-fortress. The book chronicles the various adventures and campaigns that the Black Company goes through, as told from the perspective of their archivist and physician, Croaker.
The Black Company really is a response to the “standard” Tolkien-derivative fantasy, and not just in how its protagonists would be the villains of such a book. For one, the names of characters and places are simple and straightforward: Croaker, Goblin, One-Eye, The Lady, Soulcatcher, Raven, Limper– I could go on and on. They’re intentionally simplistic, in contrast to the apostrophe-laden gobbledegook one often sees in other fantasy books. Heck, the names almost sound like a list of He-Man villains or something, which is a heck of an image, considering how dark things can get.
The term “Grimdark” is bandied around a lot these days, and the blurb on this particular e-book said The Black Company (published in 1984) was one of the cornerstones in the, uh, sub-genre, I guess. Which … well, I wouldn’t say that Cook was the first one to do dark fantasy along these lines– Moorcock comes to mind, and possibly Lovecraft before him (even if Lovecraft didn’t write about dudes with swords).
And indeed, The Black Company is pretty dark– there’s plenty of death and betrayal and murder to go around. Additionally, while there’s a rebellion against The Lady, complete with prophesied Chosen One(tm), it’s shown early on that the Rebels are just as cutthroat and bastardly as the bad guys. The thing is, Cook never revels in how grim things are. It seems in a lot of modern “grimdark” fiction, authors go out of their way to one-up each other in acts of violence and depravity, taking special care to have awful things happen to anybody halfway decent, because wanton sadism and cynicism is SO REALISTIC YOU GUYS. It’s all usually handled with all the subtlety of a twelve year old kid with a subscription to Fangoria magazine.
Thankfully, Cook doesn’t go that route. As mentioned before, The Black Company is written from the perspective of the Company’s archivist. As such, Croaker wants to pretend that he’s a good man, just one doing his job. He mentions several times how he’s an unreliable narrator, and how his comrades give him crap for sugar-coating the chronicles. Interspersed with these are moments where Croaker lets the facade slip as he mentions some act of torture, murder, or pillage perpetrated by his fellows. It’s all very casual, to the point where a reader could miss a throwaway line about a massacre if they were reading too fast. It’s this casual, jaded view of things that makes the dark parts hit all the harder. It’s like the old horror adage: it’s what you don’t see that scares you.
While The Black Company isn’t my typical cup of tea, and it made for something of a grim double-feature after Pirates of the Levant, I still enjoyed the read. It’s a solid fantasy adventure with enough of a different spin on it to make things interesting, which is even more impressive considering the book’s a couple decades old now. There are several more in the series, which I’ll have to keep an eye out for next time I’m at the bookstore.
Plus, there’s rumor of a Black Company TV show getting produced (starring Eliza Dushku as The Lady, even), no doubt hoping to fill the gap Game of Thrones will leave when it wraps its run up. Should be interesting to see how that goes.
I know I’m late to the party here, but Overdrive is super neat.
Basically, it’s an app that lets you access ebooks through your local library. Isn’t that neat? I’ll always enjoy getting my hands on a physical copy of a book, but when that’s inconvenient, or just plain unfeasible, Overdrive provides a nice (and free!) alternative to the likes of Amazon. You should check it out!
Which brings us to a book that I’ve been searching for, but never could find in person (and never quite could bring myself to buy it on Amazon): Arturo Perez Reverte’s Pirates of the Levant.
Pirates of the Levant is the latest (or, well, at least the latest one that hasn’t been translated to English yet) book in the Captain Alatriste series. They’re set in the early part of the 17th century, detailing the exploits of the titular Captain Alatriste, a professional soldier and swordsman. Think The Three Musketeers, only with thicker mustaches. Incidentally, given the time period in which the books take place, it’d be entirely possible to write a 1632 / Captain Alatriste crossover. I figure the Venn diagram overlap between fans of those two series is either really big, or really small.
When a book has “pirates” in the title, it brings up a certain set of expectations. Swashuckling swordfights, plunder and treasure, heaving bosoms, bad Johnny Depp impersonations, and what have you. Pirates of the Levant doesn’t short the high-seas action, but at the same time Reverte makes it very clear early on that pirates are not good people. Case in point, the book opens with a naval battle, in which the slave-galley Alatriste is sailing on captures a Moorish galley and promptly enslaves the captured crew. Then, in the next chapter, Alatriste (and his sidekick/ward/narrator, Inigo) join a slaving raid on a North African village. Reverte doesn’t shy away from portraying this as awful and ugly– but it’s still a huge change from the capes and courtly conspiracies of earlier Alatriste novels.
There’s always been a sense of grim, Spanish fatalism to the Alatriste novels, but Pirates of the Levant really piles the ugliness on right off the bat. I’m not sure if things get less grimdark as the novel goes on, or if I just got used to it. Pirates of the Levant centers on Alatriste and Inigo as they cruise around the Mediterranean, chasing down Turkish ships (while trying to avoid having the tables turned). Reverte paints a compelling picture of 17th century Italy and North Africa as a nigh-lawless border between hostile Empires. As one can expect from a book like this, the Turks & Moors are villainized– but part of that comes from the obviously biased (and very Spanish) narrator, and part comes from the fact that everybody is something of a bastard at sea. Things don’t lapse into a Baen-esque brown panic, but I could still see things being a bit uncomfortable for some readers.
Still, once things get going, there’s plenty of sailing and swordfighting to be done (along with occasional lapses into characteristic Spanish melancholy). The book reaches its climax with another big sea battle– a genuinely compelling one that had me second-guessing just how it was going to play out. Perez is great at writing gritty, bloody action, and Pirates of the Levant certainly delivers. And even in the quieter moments, Perez’s lush prose is a delight to read.
Finally, it’s also worth noting that Pirates of the Levant is something of a turning point in the Alatriste novels. Inigo Balboa, the narrator of the series, has a larger role to play. In the earlier novels, Inigo is just a boy, relating the exploits of Alatriste. In Pirates of the Levant, Inigo’s seventeen years old (not to mention a veteran of the Breda campaign), so he starts coming into his own as a swaggering, too-full-of-himself teenager. Between this and some allusions to future events made throughout the Alatriste series, it’s enough to make me eager to read the next volume … whenever it gets translated. Or, y’know, I guess there are worse reasons to learn Spanish.
But yeah. If you can get past the book’s intentional ugliness, Pirates of the Levant is a fun read. This said, if you bounce off the first two chapters, I certainly wouldn’t blame you. Might be better to just stick with the first couple Captain Alatriste novels instead. Or just watch the movie. It’s got Viggo Mortensen in it!
Steampunk is still a thing, I guess?
I’ll admit, I’ve got a pair of motorcycle goggles laying around somewhere, but I never glued gears onto a top hat, so there’s at least one line I haven’t crossed.
Regardless, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels were some of the most popular ones to come out during the big steampunk trend from about ten years back. And so, when I stumbled across a copy of Fiddlehead at a used book sale, I figured it’d be worth a dollar, and now here we are!
The Clockwork Century novels are set in a late 19th century America where the Civil War never ended, due to the fact that somebody pushed the tech tree about fifty years forward so the development of diesel engines and airships and other toys has kept the war going. Oh, and Seattle was leveled by an earthquake that caused spouts of a mysterious gas that turns people into zombies. And also people make a drug from said gas (that also turns people into zombies).
“What if the South won (or at least didn’t lose) the Civil War?” is a pretty common trope in alt-history stuff, and one that I honestly find myself looking askance at these days. To be nitpicky, there’s the whole logistical thing in which states reliant on slave labor tend to collapse economically (see: Sparta, ancient Rome, and probably a couple of other examples a proper historian could bring up). Priest … kind of addresses this, in a way I’ve seen in other alt-history books, in which her alt-C.S.A. eventually phases out slavery, because … reasons? Except for Arkansas & Mississippi, however, which keep to the ‘peculiar institution’ because nobody in the deep south reads steampunk novels I guess.
Oh, since this blog’s called “Dial H for Houston,” I feel obligated to note that Texas has in turn seceded from the CSA in this series because seceding is a very Texas thing to do.
Complaints about the historical accuracy of a series about zombies and zeppelins aside, Priest does well to focus on a bunch of women and people of color as protagonists. Too often, steampunk forgets the “punk” part, so we’re just left watching the exploits of Lord Wigglebottom running around to foil yet another plot against Queen Victoria. So Priest gets points there.
By now, the astute readers among you (and if you’re reading this blog, I like to think you’re all astute readers), may have noticed I’m more speaking about the series as a whole than Fiddlehead in particular. Y’see, I didn’t know this when I nabbed the book at the book fair, but Fiddlehead is in fact the last of the Clockwork Century series. I read two of the early books (Boneshaker and Dreadnaught) way back before I even kept track of what I read on this blog, so my memories were … a bit hazy. Think watching the series finale of a show despite only having watched like the first season. (Sidenote: this is what I’m probably going to do with Game of Thrones).
So yeah, Fiddlehead is a serviceable enough adventure novel, in which a motley collection of characters (including a one-eyed, wheelchair-bound Abraham Lincoln who survived John Wilkes Booth’s assassination attempt) work and fight to prevent a zombie apocalypse predicted by the titular Fiddlehead, a steampunky supercomputer. As you do. And while there are surprisingly few zombies shambling around in Fiddlehead, there are quite a few war profiteers putting together zombie-gas superweapons to keep the Civil War going, which makes things difficult.
A lot of the payoff of Fiddlehead is seeing characters from the previous couple novels crossing paths and quipping at each other. The book doesn’t require you’ve read all the previous books to know what’s going on (it’s more coherent than, say, the most recent Avengers flick in that respect), but it certainly helps.
With that in mind, I enjoyed Fiddlehead, though I really didn’t take as much from it as I might have if I’d read the rest of the series. Since I didn’t, I mostly found Fiddlehead only as a serviceable adventure, rather than the triumphant conclusion to a long-running series. Which is kind of my own fault, I guess?
So yeah. If you’re in the mood for some steampunky adventure, go ahead and just start at the beginning with Boneshaker. And if you’ve already read the rest of Priest’s Clockwork Century books, I’m pretty sure you’d read Fiddlehead anyway.
But yeah. Zombies and zeppelins. That’s what these books are about. You should be able to make your decisions accordingly.
I miss VHS.
Admittedly, there’s more than a little nostalgia at play here. And I will admit the age of streaming we live in is pretty great. I mean, we (theoretically) have just about any entertainment we could want at our very fingertips. But, no matter what kind of algorithms Netflix cooks up based on your viewing history, it’s still not quite a replacement for the feeling of browsing through the little video place attached to the grocery store.
The dawn of home video soon built up a huge demand for new content, one that dozens of low-budget studios stepped up to fill. It Came From the Video Aisle! covers one of the most prolific of these direct-to-video production companies, Full Moon Studios.
Appropriately enough It Came From the Video Aisle! starts en medias res, with producer Charles Band recovering from the collapse of his previous company, Empire Pictures (producers of Re-Animator, among other flicks). See, Empire Pictures went bankrupt while filming Robot Jox, at which point Band said ‘screw it, I’ll start all over!’ Also appropriately enough, David Jay wrote a book on Emipre Pictures as well. Might check that out later.
Full Moon studios has produced literal hundreds of movies over the course of its existence, in genres ranging from the expected schlocky sci-fi & horror to more kid-friendly adventures. What made Full Moon productions unique, however, is the fact that Band (along with the other writers, directors & SFX artists he gathered over the years) is a super nerd. As a result, a lot of the best Full Moon movies have a slightly unhinged take on things– be it the Dr. Strange knockoff of Dr. Mordrid, the kaiju mayhem of Zarkorr! The Inavader, or Charles Band’s strange obsession with killer dolls, as seen in flicks like Puppet Master, Demonic Toys, Ragdoll, Doll Graveyard, and a bunch more I’m probably missing. Though it should be noted that Dollman doesn’t quite fit into this sub-genre, as that movie is about a gritty alien space-cop who happens to be only 13 inches tall.
That should tell you the kind of movies we’re dealing with here.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the limited budget these productions dealt with, Full Moon managed to produce a couple of schlocky gems over the years (I’ve heard good things about Dr. Mordrid. It’s even got Jeffrey Combs in it!), though there’s more than a little chaff in there as well. But then again, that’s part of the fun of watching terrible movies, right?
In some ways, Band was a man ahead of his time. He glommed onto the home video market pretty quickly, built up a working relationship with Redbox when it started to replace the video store, and even got on board with streaming media as well. Heck, Band even had ideas for a Marvel-style cinematic universe back in the 90’s, as he put together an unproduced script for a crossover flick between Dr. Mordrid, Dollman, Mandroid, and The Invisible Man. Though Full Moon did produce Dollman vs. Demonic Toys, so … that’s a thing, I guess. Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys doesn’t count, however, since the rights to a one-off crossover were bought by the Sci Fi network (back before they spelled things with a y). Or, on the production side of things, Band pioneered filming for cheap in Eastern Europe, as he built his own sound stage in Romania in order to make more movie for less cash.
It Came From the Video Aisle! provides more detail than you could ever want on the history of Full Moon studios, complete with production photos and interviews. It can occasionally come off as just a little fawning– there are a few fleeting mentions of Band’s less-pleasant character traits (like cheapness, stubbornness, or borderline obsession), but most of the book paints a rosy picture of a scrappy, shameless movie company, even as they cranked out movies like, uh, Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong.
The most interesting thing about Full Moon Productions is that, at least early on, Charles Band made the kind of flicks that I would make if I had my own movie studio. Which is to say: crazy sci-fi flicks full of cool monsters and gratuitous nudity.
So yeah, if you dig 80’s & 90’s era VHS horror, It Came From the Video Aisle! is well worth a read. On the other hand, if you’re not a huge horror nerd, I imagine it’d be easy to bounce off of the book as well. Of course, being the nerd I am, I rather enjoyed it– even if it makes me want to track down a copy of Puppet Master III now.
The puppets kill Nazis in that one.
From the start, Science Fiction has always had an undercurrent of social commentary. While not as widely recognized as a lot of “literary” fiction wabout middle-aged divorcees buying boats or whatever, it’s still an integral part of the genre. Fantasy … not so much.
Oh, sure, there’s plenty of stuff to sink one’s academic teeth into in Tolkien, or even pulpier writers like Howard, Lovecraft, and Moorcock. This said, a great deal of modern fantasy is the author’s favorite D&D campaign with the serial numbers filed off. Which can be fun enough if you’re in the mood for a quick adventure, but it doesn’t make for deep reading.
There are, of course, exceptions.
Daniel Abraham’s A Shadow in Summer is the first book in The Long Price Quartet. (’cause trilogies are for losers, I guess). I snagged a copy from Tor’s ebook of the month club and basically went in blind, not having read any of Abraham’s other work before. And … hoo boy, this was a trip.
A Shadow in Summer is a hard book to summarize– the plot is twisty, and I don’t want to spoil the book’s several surprises. Though one thing I will say is that the book’s back-cover blurb on Amazon makes A Shadow in Summer seem a lot more like a ‘traditional’ fantasy novel than it really is.
On top of that, Abraham presents a completely original setting. Where the ‘standard’ fantasy novel takes place in some hodgepodge of medieval Europe, A Shadow in Summer is set in a vaguely Asian milieu, coming off as both Indian-ish and Chinese-ish in different parts. On the one hand, this shows Abraham’s skill at worldbuilding, that he doesn’t just say “Oh, it’s like The Mongols, only with wizards.” On the other, this can also make it a little hard to build a frame of reference early on.
The most obvious example of A Shadow in Summer‘s oddness is in the concept of ‘posing.’ Basically, in the Khaiate, the loose collection of city states in which the book takes place, people speak with a very developed repetoire of body language. There are poses of acceptance, poses of denial, poses of gratitude, poses of inquiry, poses of command, and so on and so on. Which, honestly, is only slightly exaggerated from the way we actually speak today. It’s an interesting concept, though I think Abraham is a little too much in love with it– the issue is, the book keeps telling us that the characters are making poses, but it very rarely describes just what those poses are. Again, it’s all done very intentionally to differentiate the world of the book from our own, but it can still come off as a little too clever for it’s own good.
Even still, this is a minor complaint. A Shadow in Summer focuses on far deeper themes than the typical adventure-Fantasy, dealing with (among other things), slavery, prostitution, and abortion. The first two are common-ish enough in a lot of Fantasy novels, though typically just as background elements so Conan can break loose from a slave-galley and then celebrate with the dancing girls later. Instead, A Shadow in Summer focuses on these issues in a far more realistic manner: prostitution is shown to be an ugly, ugly business, and most of the novel takes place in a city dependent on the cotton trade, in case the metaphor wasn’t clear enough. And then there’s a key plot point that centers on an abortion, which is honestly something I’ve never seen in a Fantasy novel before.
That A Shadow in Summer explores these themes isn’t a bad thing– far from it. Even still, it pays to know what one’s getting into when reading the book. There are the barest vestiges of ‘traditional’ fantasy tropes in there: the bound fey-creature, the wizard’s apprentice, the long-lost prince in disguise … but Abraham also makes it a point that the book’s most active character is a fifty-something female accountant with a bad hip instead of a steely-thewed mercenary or a farmboy with a great destiny.
After finishing A Shadow in Summer, I did a bit of research (read: google), which dredged up some interesting stuff. First off, Daniel Abraham is one of the guys behind The Expanse novels, which I’ve heard a lot of good stuff about. On top of that, the other books in The Long Price Quartet have a set structure to them: each one is set 15 years after the last, giving the world & characters room to expand and grow. It’s a rather interesting concept, and one that I might check out later.
So yeah, A Shadow in Summer is a solid novel– a tragic tale, told in an alien-but-logical setting. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re in the mood for a fantasy novel that’s different, and dare I say, literary.
And now, for something completely different.
A friend of mentioned I Love My Computer Because My Friends Live In It: Stories from an Online Life awhile back (on facebook, appropriately enough) and I got curious. While I’ve never read anything from Jess Kimball Leslie, that’s still a heck of a title– not to mention one that appeals to a nerd such as myself. I, too, can recall the heady days of AOL Instant Messenger, and even more primitive forums and chatrooms before that, which were a major social outlet for a nerdy teenager with no car and no friends within walking distance. I could go on with many, many embarassing stories of my online exploits in my teenage years … but hey, this is a book review blog, so let’s talk about Leslie’s embarrassing teenage years instead?
Leslie starts her book by regaling us with the story of how her family got their first Gateway computer, and how she quickly glommed onto it and the wonders of the internet. The internet, it’s worth noting, before Google, Facebook, Youtube, Social Media, and pretty much every other bookmark in your web browser. Leslie soon found a niche in a Bette Midler online fanclub, of all places (Leslie’s something of a weirdo, as she’ll be glad to tell you) and then things branched out from there.
While Leslie presents a compelling (and often hilarious) picture of teenage awkwardness, she soon goes beyond that, as the book goes on to show her as an awkward (and often hilarious) adult. Basically, Leslie presents a loose memoir, with each anecdotal chapter tied into a particular internet trend: AOL Instant Messenger, Myspace, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Match.com, and so on. She even details the rise (but not the fall) of Gawker. Some of the chapters even have a happy ending, as the Match.com ends with Leslie meeting her wife. Aaaaw.
The most entertaining of these chapters centers on Twitter, and Leslie’s time at a social-media company that just got a contract to create and manage a Twitter account for a huge mega-corporation. It’s an absurd situation, made possible by the fact that Twitter itself is pretty absurd. The whole affair culminates in a #RememberTheMaine hashtag.
I Love My Computer Because My Friends Live In It is a lot broader in scope than I had expected, spanning from the mid 90’s to the modern day. This is probably for the best, as there’s more to say about computers in general than just dwelling on the weirdness of the caveman-like times of early internet. The whole thing is a light, fluffy book, albeit with occasional sharp barbs at the screwiness of modern technology and the culture around it. These bits of commentary and satire keep the book from becoming an exercise in nostalgia.
Ultimately, I Love My Computer Because My Friends Live In It isn’t an essential read– but it’s still quite entertaining if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.
Have you ever bought store-brand breakfast cereal?
I mean, it’s thrifty, right? Saving a bit of cash is the smart thing to do. The packaging’s almost the same, and the ingredients are the same … so these ‘Toasted O’s’ should taste just the same as your favorite Cheerios, right? And yet, once you shovel that spoonful (or handful, I won’t judge) of cereal into your mouth, you realize, there’s just something … off.
Reading Roland Green’s Conan the Valiant is kind of like that.
See, Tor picked up the rights to Conan in the 80’s, and, no doubt eager to ride the hype train from the (totally sweet) Schwarzenegger movie, started hiring writers (including the likes of Robert Jordan and Steve Perry) to crank out original Conan novels. Conan the Valiant is the first (but not the last) time Roland Green would play in Robert E. Howard’s sandbox. I’d say I picked it up because of this but the truth is I mostly picked up this book at random, and I can’t honestly remember where. I … may have a problem when it comes to dollar bin paperbacks, you guys.
In any case, Green gets the basic elements of a Conan story right– he portrays Conan as a cunning warrior, more than the slab-o-beef portrayal Arnie made famous. Past that, there’s the typical stuff one would expect from a Conan tale: swords, sorcery, and a bunch of scantily clad women. The plot is pretty straightforward: Conan gets ‘recruited’ to escort a sexy sorceress (and her sexy swordswoman bodyguard) into the wilds of Fantasy-Central-Asia, in order to stop the plans of an eeeevil sorcerer who’s raising an army of demons to conquer the world. As you do. At which point Conan makes his way through it all by virtue of being awesome and super killy.
The thing is, while Green has a grasp of the fundemental building blocks of a Conan story, he’s not very good at putting them together. Admittedly, this is more than a little unfair, as Howard is one of the great adventure-writers of the modern era, and Green … isn’t. Which isn’t to say Green doesn’t know how to write a good fight scene, as Conan the Valiant is filled with them. But rather, it’s in the structure of the novel itself where Green falls flat.
For one, Conan stories often work best as short stories, or even novellas. They’re just little snippets of adventure, only long enough to show Conan getting into (and out of) some new bit of trouble, with plenty of swordfights and mayhem worked in. Extending things to novel length makes the plot (such as it is) drag. There’s at least one ‘filler’ subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere, making Conan the Valiant feel padded out.
Conan first appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, which in turn lent its title to the sub-genre of “weird fiction.” And the problem here is that Conan the Valiant … isn’t very weird. See, Green lays out the evil sorcerer’s evil plan in the first chapter, before Conan even shows up. See, sorcerer guy has a magic jewel that gives him the power to transform people into demon servants, which he calls … the Transformed. Better than Transformers, at least (even if I’m fairly certain both Conan and the Autobots have met Spider Man). There’s nothing arcane or mysterious or even Lovecraftian about the bad guy’s plan. There’s no nuance, or sense of surprise, and so we’re left waiting for 250 pages or so until Conan can come sword this dude in the face. Furthermore, the magic that’s slung about is used … well, not quite willy-nilly, but it doesn’t feel as dark or secretive as dark magic does in a classic Conan story.
Of course, Conan the Valiant was written in the 80’s, so it’s going to have a different vibe than something written in the 30’s. And in the case of Conan the Valiant, it’s … sexier? Kinda? It’s not explicit (thankfully), but there’s a lot of sex in this book. Now, mostly-naked people are staples of sword & sorcery fiction, because a cover with a big muscley dude and a chick in a chainmail bikini is a heck of an attention grabber. However, it kinda feels like Green went a little overboard on the gratuitous nudity front. Like, the amazon swordswoman is constantly getting her clothes torn off in battle. That, or she and Conan get ambushed at night when they’re not dressed … which, well, you’d think she’d start wearing armor to bed after the first time this happens. And it’s not just her, either. ’cause of course the sexy sorceress has to cast her spells in the nude. And that’s before you get into the multiple dancing girls and wenches that are there in the background. The term “rouged nipples” is used. More than once. I mean, probably the most telling thing is that Green thanks the Guild of Exotic Dancers from the Society of Creative Anachronism in the acknowledgments at the beginning of the book. So, that’s a thing.
So yeah. Conan the Valiant delivers the sex and violence one would expect from a swords & sorcery novel, and … well, not much else. If that’s what you’re in the mood for, that’s fine … but you’d probably do better to track down the original Robert E. Howard stories instead.
I think I’ve finally gotten my head around this ‘ebook’ thing.
Don’t get me wrong– whenever possible, I prefer a legit physical copy of a book. Buuuut, sometimes it’s inconvenient to carry around a fat paperback in your back pocket, especially when it’s become socially acceptable to stare at your phone when you don’t have anything better to do.
Amusingly enough, Baen Books was something ahead of the game in this regard, in that they established the Baen Free Library back in 1999. Makes sense for a sci-fi publisher to be ahead of the game, I guess. And, seeing as of how Tor’s ebook of the month club is, well, only monthly, I figured I’d poke around.
Which is what brings us to Eric Flint’s 1632. It’s the first in Flint’s “Ring of Fire” series, which is something of a cornerstone of Baen Books. There’s a good dozen novels in the series, and probably three times as many short stories, written by a whole gaggle of authors. It’s equivalent to Weber’s “Honorverse,” in that a bunch of Baen writers play around in that particular sandbox. I’d been aware of the series for awhile, so when I saw the first book for free, I went ahead and gave it a go.
So buckle up, ’cause this shit is bananas.
Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire (no relation to the Johnny Cash song) series centers on the West Virginian town of Grantville. Due to the sort of timey-wimey shenanigans usually reserved for an episode of Dr. Who (or possibly Legends of Tomorrow, ’cause that’s my favorite show on television these days), Grantville, and the surrounding 3-mile radius sphere of territory, gets inexplicably time-warped into southern Germany, right in the middle of the 30 Years War. Right to the year 1632, to be precise, which is where the title comes from.
Lucky for everybody in Grantville, they’ve got a lot going for them. They’ve got all that 20th century know how, of course– not to mention a working power plant, an abandoned coal mine, and enough guns and ammo to conquer a sizable chunk of Europe.
That last part is the most believable thing about the novel, come to think of it.
So yeah. If you have a couple of beers and squint, 1632 is basically a post apocalyptic novel, as it centers on a bunch of people rebuilding civilization after being suddenly cut off from the rest of the world. Only instead of hordes of zombies, you’ve got blocks of pikemen. Instead of biker gang raiders, you’ve got marauding Croat cavalry, and so on. But don’t worry! The citizens of Grantville are more than ready to Second Amendment the hell out of the many (many) foes they wind up facing. A lot of the encounters proceed as follows:
SOME 17th CENTURY MERCENARY ASSHOLE: “Rar! Time to steal all the horses and rape all the women!”
SOMEBODY FROM GRANTVILLE: “Yeah, nope.” *rifle noises*
Eric Flint’s 1632 is basically the “This is my BOOMSTICK!” monologue from Army of Darkness extended to novel length. But even with Grantville’s superior firepower, 1632 is a surprisingly optimistic book. The characters don’t dwell on their situation for very long, and immediately start organizing (thanks to the leadership of local Union President Mike Stearns) to defend themselves and build a new nation in the middle of 17th century Germany. Because while all the firepower is really nice, Grantville’s real advantages are its 20th century knowledge and can-do attitude. This said, Flint’s optimism can come off as occasionally naive. For example, Grantville must be the healthiest town in West Virginia, as of everyone who gets zapped back in time, not a one needs anything like insulin, chemotherapy, or dialysis– which is convenient, considering a hospital wasn’t among the buildings in the 3-mile radius. Furthermore, apparently nobody in Grantville smokes, because nobody complains about the lack of cigarettes (though I suppose it wouldn’t be out of the question to have a few tobacco plants somewhere in West Virginia), and the lack of coffee isn’t mentioned ’til about 3/4ths of the way through the book– right when Grantville is setting up trade routes with Turkey to get the stuff.
A lot of the optimism comes from Flint’s position as Baen’s token lefty. The dude was a socialist before it was cool. Flint lays this on pretty thick: from the first page, there’s a lot of ‘union forever!’ stuff, complete with a strawman conservative banker who’s just there to shake his fist at Mike Stearns and the United Mine Workers of America. Furthermore, Flint takes a distinctly anti-imperialist stance with Grantville, Stearns and the other characters make it a point to welcome the peasant refugees who soon come streaming in, teaching and helping the immigrants so they can build Grantville up further. It’s a noble sentiment, one that seems all the more poignant given the current political climate (not to mention the Republican party’s obsession with coal).
The funny thing is, while Flint hammers hard on how awesome unions are, a lot of 1632’s other themes are surprisingly conservative. There’s a definite anti-elitist undercurrent to the books, in which the blue-collar workin’ men (and women) of Grantville have nothing but scorn for poncy noblemen or fat-cat bankers. Heck, the whole time-warp thing that kicks off the whole book is explained as the byproduct of an alien modern art instillation (no, really). It’s a similar undercurrent to what I’ve seen in a lot of mil-SF books, except it’s coming from UMWA members, rather than space-marines or whatever.
Furthermore, Flint also has a fairly conservative take on romance. There’s a definite focus on marriage in 1632, even if couples are allowed to have a little hanky-panky so long as they get hitched before long. The book even starts with a wedding, and has several more peppered throughout. It’s all very Norman Rockwell.
I did roll my eyes just a little bit at the wish-fufillment character of Jeff, a chubby D&D nerd who becomes a hero and winds up marrying a gorgeous German peasant girl named Gretchen. Flint then spends a whole chapter on their wedding night– it’s not explicit, but the flowery language he uses almost makes it worse. Plus, Flint just keeps on and on and on … I’m not gonna say Flint has a thing for tall blondes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
The appeal of 1632 and its sequels is the same as that of an empire-builder video game, like Civilization. Especially the kind of game where, by
cheating playing really well, you’ve built up your tech tree so you’ve got tanks rolling over the computer’s pikemen. Plus, the setting (along with the bunches of characters) makes it ripe for other writers to go in and play around in Flint’s sandbox. Heck, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about potential stories to explore myself. Like, did Grantville have a video rental place? Or what would happen if some kid introduced Super Nintendo to 17th century Germany? Or hell, for a more socially conscious take, are there any gay people in Grantville? I mean, it’s hard enough being gay in rural America, but if you’re thrown back to a time period in which homosexuality is a capital crime … There’s a lot of stuff to play with here.
So yeah, while 1632 has its flaws, it’s still written well enough to keep me reading. I’m a bit curious about the sequels, but I don’t think I’m gonna do a deep-dive into the full series. Yet.
Might snag another one if Baen’s giving it away for free, though.