Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of Connie Willis's Crosstalk

Almost two years ago, I attended a panel discussion at MileHiCon in Denver about animated movies in speculative fiction. I picked up a lot of good suggestions for my Netflix list, but was a bit surprised when Colorado author and SFWA
Grand Master Connie Willis said her favorite was "Tangled."

"That's mine too!" I exclaimed (under my breath).

Ah, at last I know why Connie singled out "Tangled."

Her new science fiction novel, Crosstalk, explores what it might be like if we could read each others' thoughts--or at least some of us could.

Beautiful red-haired Briddie works for a company that is competing with Apple to develop the next breakthrough phone device. She works hard, fielding constant interruptions from her large but lovable Irish family. She is beginning to despair of ever keeping any secrets to herself, including the fact that she is practically engaged to her boyfriend, when C.B. Schwartz, the freakshow nerd from the company basement, steps into her thoughts.

It's a roller coaster ride from there, as Briddie and Schwartz try to hide their telepathic connection from the boyfriend and the relatives, who, it turns out, really do have the Sight. We learn that the boyfriend is a cad, and that Briddie's nine-year-old niece Maeve is also telepathic. She's been blocking other family members from finding out she watches zombie movies, to say nothing of her all-time favorite, "Tangled."

Willis is a master at getting her characters in and out of farcical situations, and the pace of Crosstalk is breathtaking. It's a story of dramatic reversals (romance-wise), with a dash of Irish genealogy thrown in for good measure.

As the song says, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might get what you need." In Crosstalk, Briddie finds that mental telepathy works that way. Just as in "Tangled," she finds it's possible to fall hopelessly in love despite your best efforts.

Crosstalk is available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00WPQ98JG.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Cat's Breakfast: Kurt Vonnegut Tribute--The Editor's Notes

      What distinguishes contemporary fiction from classic literature? We believe "classic" in this context means writing that has stood the test of time by appealing to multiple generations. The work of Kurt Vonnegut, through layered masterpieces such as Cat's Cradle and Breakfast of Champions, continue to fascinate us and encourage repeat readings.  For this short story anthology, we asked contributors to channel the "attitude" of Kurt Vonnegut, without explicitly using his characters or settings. It turns out that works incredibly well. Welcome to Cat's Breakfast, a double issue featuring the wide-ranging work of thirty international authors. This anthology is gratefully dedicated to Mr. Vonnegut.
      As you might expect, the majority of these stories are humorous, often downright hilarious. But not every story is funny. Some straightforwardly address serious themes, such as free will, mental illness, social cruelty, loneliness, and even relationships with parents. And there is that age-old question: What are we doing here?
      We lead with a story by David A. Kilman, "Spooky Action." What if until now God never knew we existed? Then after listening carefully to our complaints, what if He set about correcting His mistakes?
      In this divisive political era, we truly miss Vonnegut's sardonic input. One of the authors of this anthology, Neil James Hudson, quotes him as having said: "The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers." But it's some consolation that we've learned so much from Vonnegut's rich legacy and defense of freedom.
      Vonnegut served his country in the military during the Big One and later shared with us the insanity of military strategy in Slaughterhouse Five. A tart reminder arrives in James Beamon's "Command Decision." I wouldn't want to be in those soldiers' boots. August Marion's "Drop Dead Date" is an enlightening tale about the war with the robots and the lengths people are willing to go to deny reality. It doesn't look good for humanity.
      The book is filled with coincidences. Maybe that's to be expected when many authors consider a theme from many angles. The main section bookends with Molotov cocktails ("Spooky" and Corrie Parrish's "Violadors on the Run"). The prime number 37 makes an appearance in two stories, Dan Koboldt's "37" and Ville Nummenpää 's cheeky "Beyond the Borders of Boredom." Sentient luncheon meat is mentioned both in "Spooky" and in Konstantine Paradias's uproarious "They Grow Up So Fast." Disturbing uses for chainsaws are suggested in two stories (Anne E. Johnson's "Formica Joe," and Peter Hagelslag's "Scenes from a Post-Scarcity, Post-Death Society").
      And then there are a whole lotta tentacles (viz. Rati Mehrotra's "The Jim-Aaargh School of Philosophy," and "They Grow Up So Fast").
      Vonnegut made an intriguing contribution to the literature by inventing a new religion, Bokonism. Heaven plays a role in two Cat's Breakfast stories, but not the Western-style heaven. There's reincarnation and karma instead (Rekha Valliappan's "Snakes and Ladders" and "Jim-Aaargh").
      Vonnegut's characters often met aliens from outer space, before which they were usually powerless. Our authors let loose their creepy imaginations about alien appearance and behavior in Keyan Bowes's "Picnic, With Xels," Jason Lairamore's "A Static Fall to a Standing Walk," and John J. Kennedy's "The Bringers." What if we did finally hear from an alien civilization? Tim Jeffrey's tale, "Hear," tells of a distress call that reaches us too late. Jonathan Shipley's "Monkeyline" describes a conspiracy by aliens at a galactic university to make humans look bad. It almost succeeds.
      Cat's Breakfast is not, by a long shot, the first Vonnegut tribute short story anthology. James Dorr's "Dead Girls, Dying Girls" was originally published in Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing's So It Goes. Editor's note: Perhaps a resurgence in popularity (and sales) is in order?
      Is life really a dream, or a simulation like in "The Matrix?" A recent BBC Earth program noted that several physicists have suggested that our Universe is not real and is instead a giant simulation (http://bbc.in/2rDeUiG). S. E. Foley's "Quality Testing" helps us decide how we would feel about such a revelation.
      Even if we accept that the Universe is pulling the strings, what if there's a Multiverse? Check out Vaughan Stanger's "One Is One"—and try to keep your Twitter comments to yourself.
      Modern society imposes a number of, shall we say, cruel conditions on us, as Vonnegut often pointed out. Ryan Dull's "The Confrontation Station" takes a painfully comical look at office politics. Authors Iain Hamilton McKinven ("Honour Killing") and Neil James Hudson ("The Losers' Crusade") give their stories a satirical militancy.
      Yet sentimentality and emotion found their place in Vonnegut's work. In Veronica Moyer's heartbreaking tale, "The Edge of Toska," a young girl's adolescence on a tiny planet ends a happy childhood.
      Vonnegut raised a lot of kids, both his own and his sister's, so even when he had a lot of crazy stuff on his mind, the family was always present in his thoughts. Christopher Mark Rose's affecting "Emerging Grammars" is magical realism that hits just the right soft spot.
      Sometimes animals talk, or they only seem to talk, or somebody might be crazy, or. . . (Jill Hand's "Talk to the Animals," Gregg Chamberlain's "The Pigeon Drop"). Horses are specifically mentioned as not being able to talk, so it turns out that Mr. Ed is completely fictional. Who knew, right?
      Ultimately, we're all losers, as Hudson explains in the foreboding "The Losers' Crusade." There's nothing for it but to eat our breakfast and be our own champions. So it goes.
      In "Grins and Gurgles" (our flash humor section), Benjamin C. Kinney gets the show running with "Cyborg Shark Battle (Season 4, O’ahu Frenzy)," a futuristic reality TV show. Laurence Raphael Brothers's "Strange Stars," is a dating guide on mass ejections; E. E. King's "iPhone 17,000" is for those too much in love with their devices; and Edward Ahern's "The Service Call" warns you to keep your software maintenance plan up to date. Sometimes tech life just makes us WannaCry.
      One of Vonnegut's admirable accomplishments was having his books banned in some libraries, most notably Slaughterhouse Five. While we hope this anthology won't be banned (quite the opposite!), we do encourage everyone to participate in Banned Books Week (September 24-30 in 2017), sponsored by the American Library Association.
      And if you're ever in Indianapolis, Indiana, be sure to visit the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library.
      Until then, keep rubbing that Formica. No, not like that. In a circle. Like this. . .
Cat's Breakfast is available in ebook for Kindle and print paperback from Amazon.
See Third Flatiron's website for a Table of Contents and further details.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Principia Ponderosa: Notes from the Editor

Wikipedia defines Weird West as a literary subgenre that combines elements of the Western with another literary genre, usually horror, occult, fantasy, or science fiction. The seventeen authors of
Third Flatiron's Spring anthology dig into the principles that have made the Old West and Victoriana such rich ground for speculative fiction and adventure. Let the mining begin.

Such an anthology would not be complete without a steam-powered zeppelin or two. Principia Ponderosa leads off with "Blazing Beamard," by Stanley Webb, in which we discover that a formidable dragon is really a coal-fed monster put to work raiding trains for their gold. "The Great Man's Iron Horse" by Mark Mellon introduces another ground-devouring invention that threatens to drive the railroads out of business. But new inventions can't solve every problem, as we see when a lumbering machine becomes the peacemaker in Philip DiBoise's "Closing the Frontier."

As you expect, there are a lot of trains. Trains that built the west, and transported a strange assortment of denizens, both living and spectral, to their proper destinations. In Salinda Tyson's "The Hunt," an avenging eco-spirit decides enough is enough and changes the hearts of hunters shooting buffalo from trains for sport.

A lovely bit of magical realism worms its way into our psyches when a bunch of outlaws ride into the town of "Mourning Dove" by Jackson Kuhl, only to find their fates predicted in the morning paper.

Do not forsake me, oh, my darling. You've been challenged to a gunfight at high noon in front of the saloon, and it's pouring rain. Why haven't you gotten out of Dodge? A great new entry from Martin M. Clark is "No Country for Young Men," a slow build to an explosive duel fought with particle beam sidearms.

A thread running through many of the stories is justice for women in the old west. The scream of a woman starts the action in Robert Walton's Gold Rush tale. Should the men rush to her aid, or will "La Loca" take care of business? In "Lampblack and Dust," J. L. Forrest's witch summons her moving tattoos to rescue her protégé, in a tale reminiscent of Vonda N. McIntyre's Dreamsnake. The steampunk heroine tends to be strong too, as we see in John J. Kennedy's "The Gleaming," who overcomes the loss of an arm to become the first bionic woman.

The solitude of the lonely prairie sometimes plays tricks with the imagination, so we include a taste of horror in this collection. Premee Mohamed's practical farm family is used to losing stock to the harsh conditions of the prairie, but they also have to be "Willing" to sacrifice even further to ensure a good harvest. Jordan Ashley Moore's retired sheriff revisits the scene of an unsolved murder in "The Quiet Crime"—unable to forget how the killer simply vanished into thin air.

Appearances can be deceiving, as we see in Columbkill Noonan's "The Groks of Kruk County," a hilarious tale of drug-addicted mountain folks who end up dead, but keep up their haunting ways even though people see right through them. In Angus McIntyre's "The Monster Hunter," we wonder how he can keep killing monsters that everyone is pretty sure are imaginary.

Anchoring the collection is Geoff Gander's powerful chiller, "The Wind Father." Homesteaders are brutally murdered, but when Canadian Northwest Mounties investigate, instead of a frontier conflict, they encounter an entity thirsting for power—and human blood.

To lighten the mood, we close as usual with our "Grins and Gurgles" flash humor section, with pieces by Lisa Timpf ("Dealing with the Ship's Cat"), Sheryl Normandeau ("Gardening in a Post-Apocalyptic World"), and Brian Trent ("The JPEG of Dorian Gray"). Hmm, does it seem like our northern authors have a lock on humor?

We're happy this time around to have discovered some great new writers, It's gratifying to feature and encourage budding talent. We hope you'll thoroughly enjoy these sagas, told by an international group of excellent storytellers. Saddle up and ride with us into the sunset.

Principia Ponderosa is available in ebook for Kindle from Amazon (free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers) and also in paperback.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

It's hot news that "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda will be working with Patrick Rothfuss to film the Kingkiller Chronicles. Last year, I purchased Rothfuss's critically acclaimed novella, "The Slow Regard of Silent Things," but then noted that he recommended reading at least some of the Kingkiller Chronicles as an introduction to the world. I read the first volume of Patrick Rothfuss's trilogy (“The Name of the Wind”), so I’ve “done my homework.”

“The Name of the Wind” was enjoyable, similar to epic fantasy series by Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, and Stephen R. Donaldson, so if you’re a fan, I think you'll like it. But, as Rothfuss warns, “The Slow Regard of Silent Things” is quite different. In my opinion, different is better.

“Regard” stars Auri, a fairly minor character from “Wind.” She is an ex-student at the University who has obviously experienced some sort of psychic break during her magical studies that has caused her to become insane. She is living alone in the bowels of the city, avoiding people and slowly starving. She prepares for a visitor she expects in seven days. We worry that she won’t survive the whole week, but in spite of her OCD foot- and hand-washing and other bizarre behavior, she knows the secret names of things, so she wields considerable power. It turns out that the visitor is Kvothe, who has stumbled across her lair while finding a secluded place to practice his lute. They become fast friends.

Auri obviously loves Kvothe, and we’ll have to wait to see if he can help her regain herself.

Rothfuss dedicated the novella to “all the slightly broken people out there.” I don’t *feel* broken, but, come to think of it, I think we can all identify with Auri.

The ebook features beautiful art by Nathan Taylor. His illustrations of the dark crevices and tunnels beneath the city of Tarbean illuminate the story almost as much as Rothfuss’ prose.

A nice bit of music to read this by is “Lock All the Doors” by Noel Gallagher.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

So sorry for you

I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry
I also mirror this apology
This idealogy of sorry
In part of the liberal theology that's leading us to hari-kari
It's like a mythology, almost
Like a malingering ghost
As we slowly decompose
Writing in the grave of the polls
Cryin' for Senator Wellstone and then proceeding to moan
At our own supposed sabotage of the elections at home
"oh somebody phone home!
The American people have spoken!"
Now is that certain?
Maybe those nice Midwestern folks were just jokin'
In any case there's no use in dopin' chokin' mopin' and sobbin'
Come on you disheartenin' dobbins
Sayin' sorry is my problem

"Sari" by Nellie McKay

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik

This year's Nebula winner, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, is a tour de force of fantasy world building. Agnieszka lives in a magical, medieval version of a valley between Poland and Russia. At first the story seems like standard sword and sorcery fare, when we learn "the Dragon" will be coming for one of the village girls. All girls born in October know they may be the one sacrified.

But we are immediately hooked when we learn the Dragon is not a fire-breathing beast but a wizard who trains a girl every 10 years in tribute for his protection from the evil Wood bordering their valley.

Much to her surprise, the sloppy Nieshka is chosen to go to the Dragon's tower instead of her beautiful friend Kasia. It turns out she has a knack for magic, if only to do foolish things like find fresh berries in winter in the Wood. She is always covered in dirt no matter how careful she is, and she becomes a poor maid and apprentice of the meticulous and disdainful Dragon. Her roots in the valley seem too strong for her to rise above.

We see the foreshadowing that Agnieszka will become a wizard herself like the famous witch Jaga and fight the evil of the Wood. When the Wood claims her friend Kasia, Agnieszka impetuously retrieves her from imprisonment within a giant tree. The Dragon helps her remove any taint of Wood-sickness from Kasia, but it is customary to execute all who have fallen victim to the Wood.

Holding Kasia hostage, the prince of Polya demands that Agnieszka save his mother the Queen, who was lured into the Wood 20 years earlier by an agent of Rosya. Agnieszka and the Dragon find the Queen, and she appears free of evil. But as we've been told, no one goes into the Wood and comes out again, at least not whole and themselves.

Some battle scenes do become tedious as soldiers fighting against the Queen and the Wood are sliced, hacked, beheaded, speared, gored, and dismembered.

The reason for the Wood's corruption and anger is revealed as we follow Agnieszka, Kasia, and the Dragon in their dreadful battle to save humanity from the encroaching Wood.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review of Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson’s 2015 novel, Seveneves, concerns an issue that will someday affect us all: the end of the world as we know it. Divided into three parts, it begins with the destruction of the moon by an unknown “Agent,” followed by Humanity’s realization that the moon will soon come down in a “Hard Rain,” obliterating all life on Earth. A desperate undertaking to launch as many people up to the International Space Station as possible begins.

Stephenson’s descriptions are fascinating, and we root for the characters, including astronaut Dinah MacQuarie and her father Rufus, a miner who remains on Earth. Stephenson fans will recognize these descendants from his other historical sagas. After a hair-raising struggle punctuated with many disasters, only seven female humans manage to make it to a haven safe from the falling moon’s debris.

Where it seems to go off the rails is Part 3, a full novel in itself. Verbose detailed descriptions try to catch us up on 5,000 years of history since the Hard Rain. We lose the connection we developed with the characters in Parts 1 and 2, and their descendants seem to be blanks. Human civilization now consists of 3 billion humans orbiting Earth, and the task to reseed and reclaim the planet is underway. The seven female survivors (“Eves”) have bred seven races of humans.

I felt that use of the term “race” does a serious disservice to the story. Race is an invention of the 17th Century. (Reflect that in 15th Century Florence, the city-state was ruled by a black member of the Medici family. Few cared a whit about his skin color.)

The genetic engineering of the children of the original seven Eves in order to repopulate the world is interesting, of course, but the eventual development of seven different “races” sounds like a step backwards. The idea was for the women to have viable offspring, right? This is the definition of species, not race. The Human species can interbreed. Stephenson seems to get around this a bit with the concept of “epigenetics." But, even if some offspring are able to express their genetic coding differently, that still doesn’t make them a separate species. Stephenson would have done better to have coined a new term instead of race. Older terms such as “nation” and "breed" no longer serve: Israeli Jews and Arabs are different nations, but they are still humans.

There seems to be a tendency for prolific SF writers to overripen, i.e., to trend ever rightward politically. As I matured I eventually had to stop taking everything seriously I read by Heinlein and Simmons and. . . (sigh). They started out rebelliously creative, but evolved into mining political tropes (or is it tripes?) and recent science news. (For example, was it necessary to include the recent discovery of Neanderthal DNA into one of Stephenson’s new “races”? David Brin jumped around similarly in “Existence,” instead of exploring one or two big ideas.)

Maybe I am being too harsh. But I view PD James’s 1992 novel, “The Children of Men” as an example of what I mean about exploring a single big idea. The plot is simple: Humanity has become infertile, and the last child has died.  Somehow one woman manages to become pregnant, and if we can protect her, she is our salvation. It’s a masterpiece.

Unfortunately, we don’t suffer the same uncertainty with Seveneves. We always knew that Rufus and the Diggers would survive the Hard Rain.