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Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Time (2015)

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If I understand correctly, this book has been making waves (gravitational waves?) in the sci-fi community. Regardless of whether or not that’s actually the case, Children of Time made it onto my reading list and found itself devoured pretty quickly; I was burping up papery sci-fi gas for a while after that. This book is a pretty good example of what happens when two stories collide – a grand terraforming project gone mad meets the last vestiges of the civilization that birthed it. That alone you could glean from the dust jacket, but it was more than enough to grab my attention.

I don’t know what your tolerance for spoilers are, but at the risk of revealing too much, read on beyond the line.

Read more…

Walter M. Miller Jr – A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)

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After a nuclear apocalypse, Catholic monks are Earth’s only hope for rebuilding a technological civilization in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Well, not really, since humanity eventually recovers, but you get the idea. The subject matter, along with my recent reading, does mean I have trouble not comparing this one to recent Neal Stephenson (and it’s always possible there was a direct influence). However, since Miller’s work predates what I have in mind by about 50 years…

This book is organized into three short novellas, each separated by hundreds of years, and each one was initially published separately. Emphasis is ultimately placed on the Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz, holed up somewhere around what was once Utah and dedicated both to spreading Catholicism and preserving technological knowledge from before the apocalypse. We get a few glimpses into the progress of the outside world as well, from the restored Catholic Church in New Rome, to the nomadic hordes of the Great Plains, to hints of what’s been going on in Eurasia since the war. The actual worldbuilding is fairly light, but if someone devoted enough (and insane) wanted to flesh the settings out, there’s more than enough to get started.

Despite this, it’s actually the later sections of the book that pay off most effectively. The first section of the book (“Fiat Homo”) is honestly kind of a slog. The main character of this section spends much of his time fasting or fretting in a desert landscape that is apparently still overrun with mutants and reactionaries before eventually devoting himself to a megaproject involving a fortuitous find in a nuclear fallout shelter. By the eras of later sections, though, the Order of Saint Leibowitz interacts more with the world Miller has built in the distance, as their goals of spreading knowledge and piety come into conflict with temporal powers. By those points in the book, it might simply be a matter of the subject matter appealing more to my interests; if you’ve been reading my scattered book reviews (and reading some of my literature), you’ll know that I’m something of a history nerd and understand why I latched onto the parts of the book I did.

Needless to say, this book deserves its status as a classic of the genre, at least for the latter half, which gets quite poignant at times, especially in the climax of the third section. To explain why would spoil it, but the buildup to that point is worth your time as a reader. This isn’t something I can say about much media; never underestimate the power of a poor beginning to sour an entire experience, although I would argue that the alternative (a strong introduction that leads to a weak conclusion) is more depressing in the long run.

Olaf Stapledon – Last and First Men (1930)

last and first menI think a reasonable, intelligible first response to this book would go along the lines of “lolololol u w0t m8”. Last and First Men covers the rise and fall of eighteen separate human species who struggle with the rudiments of information science, space travel, electrical power generation, and other tasks. It discusses billions of years at an ever increasing pace, abandoning pronouns, dialogue, and anything but magisterial, moralistic, stilted prose as tools of its rhetoric. These humanities end up exterminating or assimilating the rest of the life in a highly inaccurate solar system before succumbing to their own difficulties with innovation, and it becomes clear that Olaf Stapledon is full of uncomfortable prejudices and cognitive dissonance. However, Last and First Men is also considered a high point of sci-fi, at least for its decade; one that influenced countless scores of further writers in the genre, influencing authors as wide-ranging as Arthur C. Clarke and H.P Lovecraft. I personally started and finished the book of my own will; clearly there’s something of value here.

It turns out that Olaf Stapledon is one of the most imaginative writers of his era, and for all the scientific concepts that didn’t show up until after this book’s initial publication, Stapledon does go quite in depth on the ones that he does manage – for instance, most of the humans (starting from the Third Men onwards) engage in massive genetic and psychological engineering projects that directly lead to the creation of further human species, at least when they’re not being sired by horrific natural disasters like a Martian invasion or the death of the solar system. The implication I got from much of this book is that for all its suffering, humanity is surprisingly resilient if just as malleable. Last and First Men also goes into great detail about the societies the human species form, although as the pace of the novel accelerates, some of the later species are denied such world building.

Before that, though, readers are exposed to what is allegedly the book’s weakest section – its beginning chapters, which bear some resemblance to modern history, showcasing WWI and the rise of Fascist Italy, but rapidly lose it to Stapledon’s lofty ideals. Personally, as an alternate history nut, I didn’t find these sections difficult or boring, but since they hold fast to “no men, only mankind” rule (given that they kind of establish it) and tend to alternate between horrific tragedy and foolish accidents, I can see why other people find them distasteful. While these chapters labor under the most obvious of Olaf Stapledon’s various prejudices, they do contain some poignant passages that feel surprisingly relevant from the vantage point of 2014 fast bleeding into 2015 – American influence everywhere, much to the chagrin of everyone else, people blindly convinced of their various nations’ superiority, and scattered philosophers screech that humanity as a whole is tumbling into decline. What the author intended and what I get from these passages probably doesn’t line up, but you might find some other value in these early sections if you give them a chance.

As for the book as a whole? In many ways, it’s difficult, and in many ways it could be improved by more direct prose or simply a few decades postponement to give it some perspective. Again, Last and First Men wins points for the strength of its worldbuilding and its unique style, but it also loses points because a lot of the worldbuilding is quite frankly illogical and ridiculous, and at times also the prose. Double edged sword, folks. I personally find that this book was good enough to keep my interest, but I would be amiss not to criticize it. I’d probably also be amiss not to read Stapledon’s other works, like Star Maker, and see if they improve upon the formula established here, but that’s a story for another blogpost.

Nocturnus – The Key (1990)

FolderSimultaneously more advanced and more primitive than Mike Browning’s later project After Death, The Key should perhaps be called The Keyboards, as it’s notorious for being an early work of death metal to not only use prominent synthesizers, but to properly incorporate them into the local songwriting. It’s also got a weird mix of occult and sci-fi themes in its lyrics and packaging that was novel at the time. Needless to say, it took a while for anyone else to imitate this approach in full. In the mean time, Nocturnus, everyone!

Even with the synthesizers and electronic effects on hand, Nocturnus tends towards the thrashier, earlier forms of death metal popularized by bands like Morbid Angel as opposed to some of the more downtuned, sludgey stuff that would come out only a few years later. Given Mike Browning’s status as a Morbid Angel alumni, you shouldn’t be surprised. Guitar solos are pyrotechnic and flashy, but they retain a sense of melody and consonance that you don’t often see in old death metal records. In general, the melodic aspects here are more pronounced than pretty much every death metal recording I’ve listened to before The Red In The Sky Is Ours … maybe that doesn’t mean very much, since there are still some pretty gaping holes in what I’ve listened to. The key here is that Nocturnus has more to their sound than the obvious keyboard patches.

However (and this is a big however), the idea to explore synthesizers and sci-fi has irrevocably altered what’s on display here. The keys often tend towards either ambient ‘pads’ (complicated, “evolving” sounds) or sound effects, although they occasionally take up the role of melody, such as in “Neolithic”. Combine that with the songwriting, and you have one artificial sounding album – Nocturnus avoids verse/chorus in favor of what is often called the “riff salad” approach, where every section of a song brings in new phrases to repeat. This is one of those albums with abrupt transitions, but here I would argue it can actually work due to the intended aesthetic. That’s a relatively subjective position, given that the band was still young and the sci-fi elements were actually quite new to them; the next album (Thresholds) really delved into this, but I digress.

Given that Morbid Angel had a lot of proto-black metal ideas in their early recordings that would later be explored by that genre’s musicians, and that Nocturnus doesn’t otherwise deviate hugely from MA’s formulae, you could say that The Key is something of an evolutionary cousin to black metal. The next works I’m aware of to explore similar territory are the Timeghoul demos, but those saw very limited distribution at the time of release, and I don’t know if Nocturnus was a direct inspiration for them. This album remains in unique and fertile territory, and that’s lead a lot of people to overlook the (admittedly limited) flaws of this work.

Highlights: “Lake of Fire”, “Neolithic”, “Andromeda Strain”, “Droid Sector”

Scanner – Hypertrace (1988)

folderScanner is one of those ’80s metal bands from Germany. Specifically, they are the types to play speed/power metal, similar to Kiske-era Helloween or Rage. The main difference, though, is that the members of Scanner read Foundation instead of Lord of the Rings, so their lyrical content is understandably a little different. It doesn’t really carry over that heavily into the instrumentation, outside of a particularly shiny guitar tone and a few sound effects, so what the band ended up with was again, basically comparable to the rest of the 1980s European power metal scene.

This, of course, was released before someone decided power metal had to be especially fast and flowery. As a result, Hypertrace, like many of its contemporaries, wears its influences from older metal on its sleeves – this not only includes things like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden (the big, obvious two), but perhaps some actual NWOBHM and early thrash metal bands as well, even if the former compose a greater amount of the mix. The emphasis is essentially split between speed/thrash flavored riffing and high pitched, scream flavored vocals. The thing about this early power metal is that it keeps one foot firmly in the pop camp, so most songs work towards an “epic” chorus, and extremity is essentially limited to levels most associated with Helloween’s debut, which codified much of the songwriting formulas for later forms of power metal.

Hypertrace has a moderately high concept factor, in that each track forms part of an overarching story. For some reason, these pieces aren’t arranged in chronological order, so that one has to skip to the sixth track (“The Grapes of Fear”) in order to hear the beginning. With this in mind, the album doesn’t really form a sense of inter-track continuity beyond what basic arrangement decisions gives it – the fast intro, the hit single, the miniature epic, and so forth. This is probably a mistake on the part of the band, and I honestly don’t know why they decided to arrange the tracks in this fashion. Either way, the storyline is somewhat incidental – much is said on the topics of war and peace, in somewhat broken, Westphalianized English (more coherent than contemporary work by Destruction, though), but I highly doubt the average listener seeks out Scanner primarily for their lyrical content.

In the end, it’s the poppy, accessible elements that save this album and that have given it at least some notoriety in amongst ’80s power metal fans, although the contract with Noise Records might’ve helped sell a few copies.  The riffing is not particularly strong, but the vocalist is able to provide the “epic” choruses Scanner’s style calls for. In addition, the leads have a distinctive style of dancing around the riffs that makes said sections particularly memorable, but I would still claim that the vocal side of this album is the strongest, and that it along with the uncommon science fiction aesthetic put this on a few metalheads’ record shelves.

Highlights: “Warp 7”, “Locked Out”, “R.M.U”, “The Grapes of Fear”

First Contact Is Bad For You

What’s First Contact Is Bad For You really about?

Primarily, I’d say it’s actually about how people take advantage of technology. It’s also about how various peoples respond to intrusions from foreigners, how powerful people try to mold society to suit their interests, how private enterprise can drive (or inhibit) progress, and how people cope with hardships in their lives.

Also, one of the protagonists (Ted Decker) is an cybernetic bear with a human brain. How many literary protagonists have that in their favor?

First Contact Is Bad For You is my debut science fiction novel, released in August 2011 through Bookbaby. If you’re into the more irreverent sort of speculative fiction (see Terry Pratchett, Neal Stephenson, etc.), you’ll definitely find it entertaining. Currently, it’s only available as an ebook (DRM free) , but if sales are good, I might bring out an actual paper edition. It costs $4.95, although I’ve seen Barnes and Noble occasionally list it at a lower price. Thanks to Bookbaby, who provided the distribution, and the cover art.

Bookbaby now distributes to more stores than I can conveniently link to! If you see it for sale in an odd place, check Bookbaby’s list of distributed platforms, as I have opted into letting them send it anywhere they wish. Most of them should provide free samples, giving you the first 10-20 pages or so. Note that this also includes Apple’s iBookStore, but I can not conveniently link to that, unfortunately.

Notes:

Here is a link to an early storyboard from May 2008. If you’re interested in seeing some early ideas I had, definitely check it out, although it’s substantially different from what this eventually became.

A sequel is in the works. I’ll post about it on this blog when it’s nearing completion.

Check out my other works by clicking the “Published Works” button at the top of the page.

I am currently not doing any public free distribution of this book. In the past, I ran a small giveaway on the official forums for ZDoom, a modified version of the engine used in the video game DooM. Check back occasionally – I might do this sort of thing again in the future.

A preview of things to come

“You think they’re a threat?” Decker said, eyes quickly sizing up the people in the crowd. Some of them were either well armed, dangerously muscular, or some combination of both.

“Might be,” Bob replied, “How much face will we lose if they overcome us?”

“… Probably all of it, but over the course of a few months. Because corpses decay.”

I’m working on a novel!

Technically, I’ve been doing such for quite some time now, and I think the job’s nearly complete. The writing process began in the middle of 2008, reached its conclusion in the middle of 2010, and everything up until now has been revision and publishing research. Right now, the draft’s length is approximately 72,000 words – not incredibly long, but it should give prospective readers a decent bite to chew.

A few things about the contents:

1. It’s a science fiction novel, in that the main plot thread is about a first contact scenario.

2. It’s not written as a comedy, although you might find some humorous sections.

3. I plan to write at least one short story that takes place in the universe. I have also written a rough outline of a possible sequel, but I don’t know if I want to write it out ccompletely.

4. I’m hoping I can get the work out before Fall 2011.

5. I am initially going to publish this as an eBook. If desire is high enough, I’ll try to get a physical copy out.

More details in the future.