Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Manhattan Projects, Volume 1 "Science. Bad."

The Manhattan Projects, Volume 1 The Manhattan Projects, Volume 1 "Science. Bad." by Jonathan Hickman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Twisted, bizarre, with insane clarity. This is a brilliant graphic novel that promises to grow into a fantastic series. There's more to The Manhattan Projects than The Manhattan Project. Atomic bombs? Child's play. There's much more afoot and much more at stake in this secret history of science. And the government's aims are not the only layered ambitions. There's also the question of Oppenheimer, Einstein, Feynman, Fermi, Daghlian, and Von Braun and their individual aims, let alone their real identities. This is complex storytelling, spaghetti code in graphic novel format. Each character is fascinating in and of himself. Throw them together in the context of super-secret projects that could change, and possibly destroy, the world, or possibly many worlds, and you've got a knockout combination. The artwork is evocative and well-presented, the dialogue shows just enough restraint to let the underlying genius of the storytelling leak through, and the plot, while incomplete in this volume, has the most potential for being something monumental that I've seen in a graphic novel in some time. Even the colors ring of Moebius in all the right ways. This is "the whole package," utterly coherent. I'm hoping against hope that Hickman can sustain the excitement and intrigue in upcoming volumes and look forward to watching his next trick.

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Amazon, Goodreads, Questions

As many have already noted in the blogosphere, Amazon has acquired Goodreads. Of course, no one knows what this portends. An email I received from Goodreads sounds all well and fine. Here it is in its entirety:

"Hello Forrest,

Today is a very big day for all of us at Goodreads. As you may have seen on our blog, we are joining the Amazon family.

We greatly appreciate all you do as a Goodreads Librarian so we wanted to reach out to you individually since you play an important role in our community.

You’ll be glad to know that this announcement is great news for our catalog. Amazon metadata will be returning to the site, and we will have an even more comprehensive record of self-published books, as well as more complete records of international books. We will continue to link to a variety of sites on our book pages, of course, including OCLC WorldCat for library data. All of your reviews and ratings will remain on Goodreads.

By joining the Amazon family, the Goodreads team will be able to invest more in the things that our members care about. We’ll also be working together on inventing new services for readers and authors. As part of this, we’ll be increasing the size of our team over time, and will be able to add lots of great new features that members and librarians will be excited about!

I can’t make this clear enough – we plan to continue growing Goodreads and investing in making it a great community for librarians, and everyone else.

We said in our blog post that our team gets out of bed every day motivated by the belief that the right book in the right hands can change the world. Now Goodreads can help make that happen in an even bigger and more meaningful way as part of the Amazon family.

Here’s to the next chapter!

Otis, Elizabeth, and the Goodreads Team"
Seems tame enough. My first reaction was to ask whether or not Goodreads will be forced to comply with the recent decision, made by and for the Amazon website, that authors can no longer review other authors' work. Now, I can see why Amazon would put such a policy into play (to avoid conflict of interest and the subversion of another authors work, etc), but I disagree with it. Whether or not I disagree with it is largely irrelevant. Amazon is a corporate superpower and will decide what it decides regardless of what I think. And that's its right as a private enterprise. I don't like it, I don't have to like it, but I do have to live with it. C'est la vie. When I'm CEO of Amazon for a day, I can change that policy. i.e., I'll have to suck it up.
My concern is that Goodreads, which has, up to this point, remained largely aloof from any one corporate interest, suddenly seems to be in the pocket of an organization whose censorship policies I am forced to live with. And as I've said many times before, I love Goodreads.
Another question I have: Will Goodreads, then, only allow reviews of books available on Amazon? What about the thousands of independent works published at Smashwords and other venues not currently associated with Goodreads is a great place for these voices to be heard, or at least a great place for independent authors to get reviewed and noticed (or reviewed and ignored). Will that door be shutting?
Finally, what about the wonderfully snarky reviews I love of books that I hate. Will there be a place for that, or will Amazon's quest for feel-good reviews and their seeming need to raise the self-esteem of authors who have written rather poor work (by limiting or eliminating negative reviews, which they have been known to do) make it even more difficult to winnow through the chaff that exists out there?
On the one hand, there is a danger that Goodreads may come under the thumb of those who hold the marketing dollars, limiting the breadth of the books we are allowed to review, which is akin to libraries being bought out by corporations and censored by their executive boards, in my book (no pun intended). On the other, there is the danger that the Amazon positive-review-fest might further confuse potential readers and allow for much more dreck to be gussied up with clever marketing schemes and undeserved positive reviews, muddying the waters for those of us on the lookout for a good book (partially by avoiding books that most or all of your friends and those with your tastes agree are not worth your time).
I've sent a missive to Goodreads in response to the above letter, asking these very questions. I don't know that I'll hear back - I don't expect to, honestly. 
But the one question that I could not ask, that I dare not ask of the honeymooning Goodreads and Amazon teams, is: "Can you really maintain the balance that makes Goodreads such a wonderful place to freely discuss books without censorship?"
I'm very afraid that I'm not going to like the answer.
Just in case: Is there an alternative to Goodreads not named "Facebook"?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Techno logyMr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Techno logy by Lawrence Weschler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Somewhere between a Sotheby's catalog and a bizarre issue of McSweeney's, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder is . . . well, a cabinet of wonder. If Devo, They Might Be Giants, and Talking Heads all ate way too much turkey, then had a collective dream set in a museum, this is the book they'd write. It's one of those great books where the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred, both by auctorial intent and by the subject matter itself. This is a deliciously misleading book, full of subterfuge and teasings, a shadow play of fact and fiction mixing popular culture, philosophy, the history of science, and a touch of political intrigue. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what kind of writing this is. Is it journalism? Is it fiction? Is it creative non-fiction? Do I really care? This is unabashed writing; indulgent, with moments of brilliance. Alas, it was all over too soon. All the more reason to go visit the subject of the book, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, the next time I'm out California way (which is every couple of years, since The Parents live out there). If you can't visit the museum itself (I have yet to do so myself, but will be remedying that), put on a beanie cap, play some Devo, eat as much turkey as you can handle, and read this book through a kaleidoscope while reciting aloud Pliny the Elder, Charles Darwin, and Hunter S. Thompson as if rewritten by Terry Gilliam and . . . well, you get the idea. Or not. It doesn't really matter, does it? Speaking of not mattering, are you aware that you can buy a Devo action figure? No, really!

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation

The Roots Of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings Of Man's First Art, Symbol And NotationThe Roots Of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings Of Man's First Art, Symbol And Notation by Alexander Marshack
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's been quite some time since I've read Marshack's profound work, The Roots of Civilization. I'll have to get a library copy and read it again soon. When I spotted the title on Goodreads, memories flooded my mind. The Roots of Civilization made a deep impression on me when I first picked it up while browsing through the library in San Jacinto, CA. In fact, this book spurred me to minoring in anthropology when I did my undergraduate work a couple of years later. The general argument of the book is that primitive man observed the sky and used artistic representation to symbolize the phases of the moon, seasons, and so forth. The evidence is compelling. Taken largely from carved bone and antlers, along with some rock art, Marshack presents a microscopic analysis (literally examining the evidence with a microscope so as to allow no room for doubt) of what appear to be moon phases being recorded by prehistoric man on bone fragments. This isn't a gimmicky stretch, like one might expect from a Von Daniken. There are no ancient astronauts here. No, this is an anthropological text about how early man communicated what he was seeing through the use of symbols, not a work straddling the line between science fact and science fiction. The next time I read this, I shall have to follow it with one of my favorite non-fiction reads of all time, Hamlet's Mill, which also takes the longue duree approach to the history of cosmology and man's interpretation of his place among the stars.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

The Troika

The TroikaThe Troika by Stepan Chapman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I say this book saved me; some will claim it condemned me.

After a promising start as a young reader of fantasy and science fiction (and, yes, I admit it, a lot of Hardy Boys and comic books), I temporarily lost my way in the maze of teenage-hood and young adulthood. From the age of about 15 to 26, I hardly read anything that wasn't an academic textbook. There were exceptions, but they were rare. Still, this didn't stop me from browsing bookstores and libraries, on the off chance that an opening of time (ie, between semesters when I wasn't working on a senior thesis or Master's thesis) would coincide with an irresistible book.

Such an happy occurrence came my way in 1998, when I stumbled on Stepan Chapman's The Troika at our local Borders. Though it was a chain book store, the local staff, being Madisonians, were very good about finding more obscure titles. By this time, The Troika had won the coveted Philip K. Dick Award (for which I was once a finalist, but, alas, not a winner), so it was not wallowing in ignominy. Still, it was a small press book so it had not garnered a lot of attention outside of those who follow speculative fiction awards. And I was not one of those people at that time.

One of the employees, apparently, did follow the awards. This intrepid indie had done up a little review on a card and put it in front of the book, explaining (and I paraphrase) that the main characters of this work were a brontosaurus, a jeep, and an old Mexican woman who wander in a strange landscape lit by purple suns, exchanging minds whenever a sandstorm blows in. Add to that an assassin angel and a music box that contains the world and . . . well, need I say more?

I was thunderstruck. I read the book and was completely blown away. In hindsight, there are a couple of difficulties with the story, but no deal-breakers. Could it have been a bit more coherent? Of course, but take a look at the Dramatis Personae - how much coherence can you expect?

The Troika is a surreal romp. Not for those seeking a pastoral landscape with milquetoast characters. However, if you've got an existential streak, love language, and are looking for something at the nexus of science fiction, surrealism, high literature, and an acid trip, this is it. The first time I read it, I kept asking myself the question "You can do that"? I had no idea that something so bizarre could be so compelling and well-written.

So a spark was set off inside my head and heart. I thought, "heck, if Chapman can write something that strange, I can get some of the stuff in my head out onto paper"! And I did. This book was the trigger on the starting gun of my writing career. Hence, my statement at the beginning. I was saved in that a new window opened up in my life. Condemned, possibly, to become addicted to writing.

Since that fateful night when I picked up the book, I have developed a friendship with Stepan and have published a couple of his stories in anthologies I've edited. He continues to produce strange tales of wild imagination, as well as doing some cartooning (more on that in an upcoming review or two). I owe Stepan and The Troika much credit for having opened up the writer in me and introducing me to a very important part of my life. Thanks, Stepan. Here's to you, The Troika, and the happy accident that brought us together.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Old Man and His Sons

The Old Man and His SonsThe Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Brú
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What a strange reaction I'm having to this book.

"Tragicomical" is the first word that comes to mind as I flail around for an explanation. If The Old Man and His Sons does anything, it makes the reader uncomfortable. I didn't know whether to laugh or cringe as I read the book. As I approached the end, I thought that my feelings might resolve themselves, but now, in the post-reading pondering, I'm still baffled. Was the novel supposed to elicit pity for the pathetic characters or some kind of quaint longing for a simpler life?

While the setting of the work is important, for the sake of providing context, geography did little to influence the plot (such as it was) outside of the opening scene wherein the old man Ketil and his idiotic son Kalvur participate in a whale hunt. After the whale hunt, Ketil foolishly incurs debt for a large portion of whale meat.

This indebtedness serves to accentuate the decline of traditional Faroese culture, as contrasted to the rise of more modern culture. A lack of skills, unwillingness to travel, and a deeply ingrained fear of public shame, all of which seem to be part and parcel of old Faroese culture, push Ketil, his wife, and Kalvur into a tighter and tighter economic pinch. It's a clear case of the poorer getting poorer, and while darkly comical, the "one step forward, two steps back" progression of the family's fortunes is painful to see.

Now, I've never been in as bad a set of circumstances as this family, but I have known poverty and how difficult, seemingly impossible, at times, it is to climb out of the hole of deep indebtedness. Maybe that's why I couldn't enjoy the work as much as I would have liked, because it brought back memories of some times in my life that I'd like to forget. I suppose that if I had been raised on a silver spoon, as they say, I would have been rolling on the floor laughing watching these ignorant people fumble their way around in the dark, blinded by stubbornness and cultural assumptions that they don't even understand.

The simple prose of the book reflects the simplicity of the characters. The slow, meandering plot reflects the unsteady and aimless trajectory of the lives of Ketil and his family. Even the subject matter of their dialogue is banal, focused on immediate gains and longer-term fears.

Despite all of this, there is a certain sophistication of feeling that affects the reader. By seeing the characters so helpless and, frankly, stupid in their extremities, one feels something akin to pity, but a sort of pity wrapped in warmth. While I feel sorry for the characters, I don't grieve for them. And while I enjoy their well-meaning banter, I have to shake my head at their foolishness.

This pull between emotions, though, is not extreme in either direction, leaving me a bit ambivalent about the book as a whole. It's "a good book, well written," as the saying goes, but lacked the punch that I had hoped I would find. Not a bad way to spend time reading, and maybe my opinion will change as I have more time to reflect on it. But for now, I'm left, like the old Faroese, aimless and wandering, searching for some kind of resolution.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control

Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate ControlFixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control by James Rodger Fleming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last Summer, I was driving with my oldest son down to what would become his chosen school for freshman orientation day. On the way from Madison to Ames, we encountered a monster of a Midwest thunderstorm, the sort of storm that might just drive you off the road and into a flooding ditch. It had been a few years since I had last experienced that kind of deluge and seen the sky turn so dark. I was keeping my eyes open for anything alarming and felt a palpable shock as I caught what looked like a tornado touching the ground not 100 yards off the highway. I told my son to keep his eyes on it while I slowed down so we could find a low spot. As I looked again, I saw something strange - there was a fire, a fire raging at the bottom of the spout. Then it hit me, this wasn't a tornado at all. Against all common sense, a farmer was burning a house-sized pile of brush in the midst of this maelstrom. Flames fought against sheets of rain, wind whipping a funnel-shaped smoke cloud into the black sky.

Had I been a very young child, I might have observed the situation and come to a very wrong conclusion: The fire sent black smoke clouds up into the sky and made them bigger, as a result, the enlarged clouds had to give up their rain. Sounds silly, doesn't it? Childish, even.

Believe it or not, this was the prevalent theory behind early attempts at rainmaking. Smoke up the sky, and it will give rain. Give the moisture in the atmosphere something to condense around, and water will fall from the sky, right? Well, no, not really. At least not without setting entire regions of a nation on fire. Even then, the results are unimpressive.

So smoking the rain out doesn't work. How about shooting it out? It stands to reason that if dense clouds are more likely to produce rain, one could simply push the clouds together, say, with torpedoes hung off a hydrogen balloon then detonated at the right height. That way we squeeze the water out of the clouds with concussions! Better yet, let's get entire batteries of artillery lined up (at taxpayer expense, of course) and let loose a barrage on the sky that will verily smash the rain out of the clouds and onto our crops!

And even if we know it doesn't work, let's convince a few naive people that it does and get a little money in our pockets.

That's essentially the first half of Fixing the Sky, a history of ill-informed suppositions about how to make (or prevent) rain and the methods employed to do so. Some did it with an honest desire to control the weather, others in a dishonest attempt to bilk people of their money. You'd be surprised how many were successful at this chicanery, who they were able to fool, and even when this happened. Some of it's recent history. Very recent. Scary how a lack of professional oversight can leave the uneducated or over-eager seeker of weather control to believe what they want to believe, individually or as governing bodies.

Even some of the scientists who should know better get caught up in what Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir dubbed "Pathological Science". This happens when those on the cutting edge of science make excessive claims for their results. They can convince themselves and colleagues about the truth of their suppositions, stretching observations beyond the bounds of experiment and creating theoretical constructs that justify these extrapolations. Fleming elaborates:

By attributing causation to events that are barely detectable or poorly understood, they may convince themselves and co-workers of their "discovery." If they persist, weaving theoretical justifications with claims of great accuracy and responding to criticisms with ad hoc excuses, they may cross the boundary into pathological science. If other researchers cannot reproduce any part of the alleged effect, or of (sic) the experiment fails repeatedly in the presence of an objective observer, the rules of good scientific practice are supposed to kick in, with support dropping off rapidly until nothing is left to salvage - according to Langmuir.

The sad irony is that Langmuir himself was caught up in pathological science when he repeatedly insisted on the benefits of large-scale weather control, particularly by jumping to a series of questionable, and some outright false, conclusions regarding military cloud-seeding experiments that took place in New Mexico in the late 1940s. Fellow scientists who questioned him were met with a condescending attitude and an implication that they weren't smart enough to see what he saw. Caught up in his own unsubstantiated claims, he was still regarded, when he passed on in 1957, as one of the world's greatest scientists in the popular press, while many of his colleagues were distraught at his entrapment by the very pathological science he had identified so many years before.

As one might expect, the military was heavily involved in weather control experiments from the beginning. My father served in the Air Force during the time of some of these experiments as an intelligence gatherer. Later, after international treaties forbade such dabbling in the weather, he became an Air Force meteorologist. This he did for most of his working career in the Air Force, as a Government Service employee, and as a civilian contractor - with one small exception. For one year, Dad went to Korea on a remote assignment (meaning my mom and brother and I didn't get to go with him). Years after he retired, I asked him what he did there, really. He was a War Planner. I recall saying something to him about planning a conventional war against North Korea, and he said: "Oh, not just conventional. Nuclear, biological, chemical, whatever. We planned everything." It's the "whatever" that makes me curious. Right smack in the middle of his career as a meteorologist, he's called to be a War Planner, helping to plan for future contingencies that involved invading North Korea. Was weather manipulation a part of it? I may never know. I've pressed my Dad a couple of times for details on what he knows, but, being the good soldier that he is, he remains vague. He's even told me "I'll take some secrets to the grave with me." Very mysterious, given what I've learned from Fleming's book.

So don't be surprised when you read about some of the crazy experiments the military has sponsored over the years. One of the strangest is Project Westford, begun in 1963, in which the Department of Defense, along with MIT, launched millions of tiny copper wires into an orbital ring around the earth. These were meant to serve as a giant radio antenna circling the globe. Of course, over time, the wires' orbit degraded. They are still falling from the sky.

Several other experiments are outlined in the book, but I won't spoil all the fun of discovery for you. Suffice it to say that the 19th century idea that man could shoot rain from the sky has morphed into the notion that global warming can be reversed by shooting aerosols into the atmosphere using naval cannons or even tank cannons - though there has been no proof-of-concept that might expose undesirable side effects of such an assault on the atmosphere. In fact, there are many proposals being floated now on how to battle global warming, all of them seemingly "crazy". The ultimate argument of Fleming's last chapters is that theories of extreme Geo-engineering (on a climatic scale) are being used to divert attention away from the middle road of mitigating damage, rather than ignoring the problem, on one hand, and endangering the human race by using untested large-scale methods of climate control, on the other. In essence, he's saying we need to cut emissions. Drive less. Use less fossil fuel. Plant more trees. The easy stuff that we find so hard to do.

If this review seems "scattered," it's because Fixing the Sky is itself scattered. For the life of me, I can't figure out why Fleming took an entire chapter at the beginning to point out science fictional stories about climate control. They had no place in his thesis and seemed "tacked on" to the beginning of the rest of the book. Speaking of theses, Fleming's minor theses and his major thesis are annoyingly found, respectively, at the end of chapters and at the end of the book. I would have much rather have had those right up front so that I could then judge the content of the book based on his theses. It felt like there was a bit of sleight-of-hand going on here, structurally speaking. Of course, this work was published by Columbia University Press, so you can bet it wallows in the worst sort of intentional academic editorial confusion. I found it, not merely annoying, but downright enraging. There were times I wanted to throw the book out the window. Throw away a chapter of the drivel and reverse the internal structure of each remaining chapter, and you've got an outstanding read. As it is, I found that the editing (or lack thereof) got in the way of the material, much to my disappointment.

Maybe a case of "Pathological Academic Editing"?

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T. Ott's Tales of Error

T. Ott's Tales of ErrorT. Ott's Tales of Error by Thomas Ott
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Maybe I went about this all backwards. I read Ott's phenomenal Cinema Panopticum first, then his lesser, but still worthy Dead End, and, finally, Tales of Error. To be fair, this is Ott's first graphic novel, and I'm reading it last of the three graphic novels of his that I've read. So this backward chronological crawl has been a disappointment. It's easy to see Ott's progression as a storyteller over time. I suppose I was operating under the mistaken notion that an author's/artist's first work is oftentimes his best. Well, forget that theory. Of the six vignettes contained in Tales of Error, I felt the first, "Honeymoon," and the third, "Clean Up," were decent. Not great, but decent. The others . . . mmm, not so much. The whole volume seemed like a more stylized pastiche of Robert Crumb mingled with the old Creepy comic book. My least favorite of Ott's work so far, but not enough to stop me from wanting to read The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8.

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Dead End

Dead EndDead End by Thomas Ott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two graphic shorts, one tedious, the other brilliant. I was not impressed with the first story about a suitcase full of money and its evil effect on those who come in contact with it. The movie Heavy Metal did this trope much better a long, long time ago.

The second short, "Washing Day," about a private investigator sent to shadow a dwarf magician, is much better. Reminiscent of the best moments of Cinema Panopticum, one of my favorite graphic novel reads of late. Had this story been paired with another of a similar ilk, something more playful and surreal than the first tale in the volume, this review would likely have been five stars.

When Ott's hot, he's hot. When Ott's not hot, he's not.

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OrbiterOrbiter by Warren Ellis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The last manned space shuttle returns to Earth . . . only it's ten years late and covered in skin. Fleshy skin. Not weird enough? There's sand from Mars lodged in the wheel well, and the only surviving crew member has gone insane.

This extremely interesting plot hook was "too big" for the unfolding of the plot, which seemed rushed. It was a bit too "sudden" for my tastes, even for a graphic novel. I find myself wondering what this book might have been, had it been a bit longer, with more breathing room for deeper characterization and a slowly-expanding sense of wonder. The answers come a little too easy to those investigating the incident.

Still, this is a good graphic novel. The illustrations, by Colleen Doran, are very good, bordering on great. The characters in their happiest moments look almost maniacal, but other than that, the work was reminiscent of some of my favorite graphic novels.

With the changes that have taken place in the manned spaceflight program lately, it's difficult to say whether this work is anachronistic or prophetic. Any work that causes one to have to consider this must be worth a read.

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Saturday, March 9, 2013

B.P.R.D., Vol. 12: War on Frogs

B.P.R.D., Vol. 12: War on FrogsB.P.R.D., Vol. 12: War on Frogs by Mike Mignola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a short story reader and writer, and I love the graphic novel format. So I was likely predisposed to like this volume of BPRD. Or maybe its just the fact that it was so well-drawn and well-written. Mmm?

Of course, like any other work in the BPRD series, there are plenty of juicy shoot-em-up scenes of frogs being blown into quivering technicolor bits. And there is much of the usual grim, determined, hard-nosed characterizations that one would expect from a bunch of super-freaks who have been (condemned, or blessed?) to play out their days hunting down and killing a host of pseudo-cthulhoid monsters.

But what shines in these little vignettes is the humanity of the BPRD team and, more importantly, the humanity of those who they hunt - the frogs themselves. Can you feel sympathy, even empathy, for a thorn-tongued, fanged amphibian demon-thing even as you cut it down with a assault rifle? Well, when you realize (view spoiler)[that your victim was once human, with loves and desires and a family (hide spoiler)], the answer is an emphatic "yes!". And it's precisely this realization that affects several of the BPRD team members in a, yes, I'll say it, touching way, that pushes this volume beyond a mere telling of macabre war stories and into the realm of the profound. Not all of the stories are of the same poignancy, but none are duds, either. And in war, you can't afford to shoot duds.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

The Traveller Book

The Traveller BookThe Traveller Book by Marc W. Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the grand-daddy of pen and paper Science Fiction Role-playing games. The system, love it or hate it, was and is unique. I happen to love the system. Lack of character growth and the possibility of one's character's demise before the character is even fully created, seem to be the top reasons that people dislike the system. But how many gamers have really taken part in a full-fledged campaign that lasts for years? I've been in two, and I've gamed a lot and have been gaming a long time. Fact is, most role-playing is done in stop-and-start fits of one, two, maybe three sessions in a "campaign". So who cares if your character doesn't grow? In fact, who cares if your character dies before he or she is fully formed? Big deal. Roll up another. You're not the one dying, the character is. If you're that tied to an imaginary character you've just begun generating by rolling a few dice, I advise you to seek help quickly.

Now, I don't think that The Traveller Book is sufficient, in and of itself, to run a well-fleshed out game. I recommend supplementing it with Traveller: Book 4: Mercenary and Traveller: Book 5: High Guard. The supplements beyond these two tend to upset game play a bit, though they do flesh out the Traveller universe, which is as comprehensive and thorough a gaming universe as I've seen.

The real wonder of the game is it's simplicity. Yes, there are charts giving pluses and minuses for varying conditions under which characters use their skills, but overall, skill use and the combat system are pretty slick and quick. If you have the relevant charts in front of you, it's not terribly complicated. Furthermore, the combat system feels realistic. I'm not a trauma doctor, so I can't speak to the reality of it, but the sudden shock of being hit by a weapon and the subsequent wearing down of a person's ability to stay in the fight as combat wears on, feels "real".

Had Mercenary and High Guard been integrated into the original game, it might have been close to perfect. Even by itself, though, The Traveller Book can set you and your friends well on your way to adventuring among the stars in the far future. Just don't get too attached to those characters, okay? After all, it is only a game.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Free Stuff Yet Again

Just a very quick missive: all of the e-books that I have published at Smashwords is available for free this week. This happens mmmmmmaybe once a year, so here's your chance. Go here for the goodies, and enjoy! That's a fair dose of free fiction. I'd love to hear what you think in the form of reviews on Smashwords, Goodreads, or your corner of the blogosphere. Please let me know if you post anything and, as always, thanks for your time and support!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Keeping it Honest on Goodreads, part iii

Previously, (twice, actually) I raved about my favorite social networking site (loosely defined), Goodreads. My opinion remains unchanged, I absolutely love Goodreads. I can gush on and on about it -and, fair warning, I probably will continue to do so. The reason is that before I was ever a writer, I was a reader. I love reading. I love books. I love libraries. I know some very cool librarians. In another life, I might have gone on to a Master's in Library Science with an emphasis on archives and preservation. Alas, I don't have another life to live. But Goodreads puts me in touch with people who both love reading and love books, people after my own heart.

That said, I have a confession to make that pains me: I have, from time to time, "unfriended" people on Goodreads. In fact, I've been doing more of that lately. At one point I had over 1,000 friends on Goodreads, due to my over-enthusiasm. After a while, though, I got to thinking about the wonderful interactions, discussions, and even debates I'd participated in with a select few (by this, I mean probably somewhere around 200-300 people) and how much I enjoyed interfacing with these Goodreads friends. Then I thought about the many hundreds of people who, while sharing some of the same "likes" and taste in books, I had never really interacted with in any meaningful way. Beyond that was a tier of people, mostly self-published authors, who had friended me with, I think, the notion that it would help them market their books to me.

As an author myself, I have to walk a fine line at Goodreads. Yes, I write. And, yes, I market my books. I'll tweet about them occasionally, though not with the obnoxious frequency of many self-published authors. I prefer a more subtle approach, and maybe that's to the detriment of my writing career. Of course, writing is not my full-time job, so reaching every reader in the world is not my primary concern. Mostly, I just love writing.

At Goodreads, I am careful about how and where I mention my own work. Do I mention it? Of course. Do I direct people to it? Yes, by providing "easter egg" links in my postings. I did that in the fourth sentence of this blog post. I hope it doesn't seem to self-referential and weird that I mention it "down" here, but I wanted to make the point that many of you likely missed the link, and that's fine. I'm not about being "all in your face" about my work. If you like it, great. If not, great. No hard feelings.

 Again, I was a reader before I was a writer. And I love reading and sharing my opinions about books with others, as well as enjoying others' insight into whatever books they happen to have read. When I'm at Goodreads, I am first and foremost, by a long way, a reader, not a writer.

So when I get friend requests from authors at Goodreads, I've learned to go through a vetting process. Before I outline that, let me say that I am not a fan of Goodreads users who use an arbitrary rule for screening friends. The most common one I see is: "If you have more friends than books, don't bother friending me". I understand the sentiment behind the statement. Life can be cluttered enough as it is, and this "rule" provides an easy way to keep the clutter down. But it's lazy, disingenuous, and just plain un-friendly. If I had made and enforced such a rule, I would have missed out on several outstanding Goodreads friendships that have developed with some people who have many more friends than books rated. If everyone were to enforce such a rule, then some others, because of their need to feel accepted, would falsely rate books they haven't even read in order to meet the books/friends ratio criterion. Not that I don't think that goes on anyway (I voiced my suspicion of this in my first entry about Goodreads), but the incidence of such behavior would likely skyrocket under those conditions. Furthermore, many people would miss out on many wonderful friendships if such a rule were to become the norm.

No, the books/friends ration rule is not the answer. If you're serious about fully participating in Goodreads, managing your friends requires real work, real attention, and genuineness (yes, that's a word. I just looked it up). Of course, you might prefer facebook, twitter, or Google+, and that's fine. But if your goal is to really talk books in a meaningful way with people who share your interest, without wasting your valuable time on those who don't participate in the way you'd like, you've got some decisions to make regarding those requesting your friendship or those you are considering friending.

First, have you used the book comparison tool that Goodreads provides for matching your tastes with another reader? That's the first thing I do if I suspect I'd like to friend someone or if I receive a friend request. This is almost never enough to make a decision either way, but it does provide a good starting point. If I don't share at least some measure of commonality in my tastes with the other person, how do I know whether or not to trust their opinions on books I have not read? That's not to say that our tastes need to match exactly - that's almost statistically impossible. And there are times where I've read erudite, insightful reviews of books I hate by Goodreads friends who loved the same book (and vice-versa). But overall, has the person read some of the same books that I've read, and if so, do they rate them, on the whole, similarly to me?

Of course, star ratings can seem rather arbitrary. My 3-star might not be the equivalent of yours. So it's necessary for me to go and check out the potential friend's reviews. This can be done by going to the person's profile page and looking immediately below their profile picture. Underneath that picture will be something that says "X reviews," with X being the number of books that person has reviewed. If there are 0 reviews, I really have nothing to go by. I often ask myself if those with 0 reviews really spend any time on Goodreads. Sometimes, they are new to Goodreads, so they won't have any or many reviews. Do take into consideration how long a person has been on Goodreads. For most people, you can find this information in their profile under "member since" or alongside "activity" there should be a notation showing when the person joined and when they were last active on the site. This is modifiable by the user, so sometimes this information isn't there, but that's rare.

You'll also need to determine what kind of insight you're looking for regarding listed books. Is a one-liner good enough? Or do you require more? Do you want a plot summary, or are you looking for deeper analysis? Finally, do you like the reviewer's style? I've seen some really incredible reviews, some insightful, some blazingly sarcastic, some done in the style of the book in question, and some just plain funny. I, for one, enjoy a great review like I enjoy dark chocolate, savoring it, soaking it up, and letting it carry me away - hopefully to the "my books" section where I can add the book to my "to read" pile.

Finally, there are a lot of intangibles that could go into your decision to friend or not to friend. Is the reviewer active in groups that I'm interested in? This can be ascertained by scrolling down on the reviewer's profile page to see the list of groups of which she or he is a part. Who are the reviewer's other friends, and are they people you'd like to get to know, or people you already know, on Goodreads? How often does the person do updates? Are they active? Check the quotes section on their profile page - any potential political or religious arguments in the making, based on their "liked" author quotes? And, based on their comments, whether about others' reviews, in reading/book groups, or on their status updates, is this a person you can get along with?

That's a lot to digest. It's a lot like real work. But if you're careful, you might save yourself the embarrassment of having to unfriend someone down the road. That brings up another point - you may want to make your decisions over time. I've friended some people who have just joined Goodreads and done due diligence making contact with them, liking reviews of theirs that I genuinely liked, commenting on their status updates when appropriate, etc. Then, months later, I've noticed no further activity on the part of that person. In that case, I'm likely to "ping" them again somehow in an attempt to see if they're really interested in participating. And if they're not, I might just unfriend them. I don't ever threaten people with this, nor do I let them know, I just quietly slip out the door and let them sleep, as it were. If they wake up at some point and decide to participate later on, they can find me. Or I might just peek in every once in a while to see how they're doing.

Last thing: back to authors. The danger of authors friending other authors en masse is that it can lead to what Paula Guran called "tribalism," something she noticed among small-press horror writers in a long-dead forum thread that I can no longer locate online. She pointed out the hyperbolic praise on the part of these authors for one anothers' work polluting the air waves with unwarranted online congratulatory pats on the back. The community, she said, had become self-absorbed and lacking in good, critical analysis, largely because these authors were not very well-read - they didn't know the roots from which they had grown and frequently repeated tropes and plots that had been done over many times in the past, usually with much more skill than the current bevy of copy-cats. But because these authors had not read widely or well, they thought that what their companions were presenting (some of it bordering on plagiarism) was new, original, and cool. This resulted in good, critical analysis of contemporary work being buried under the tyranny of the majority, which would be turned on those doing the analysis, those who were keeping it honest. The defensiveness of some authors and the way their friends "ganged up" on those with legitimate arguments about the quality of work at the time sometimes turned downright acidic. In the outside world, we call this "bullying" and it's not okay.

That's not to say that I see much of that going on at Goodreads, but it's there, and the potential for things going sideways is going to remain. I have confidence that Goodreads will remain good, though, so long as we remain civil, know how to pick good friends, and avoid bullying.

Sounds a lot like the lessons Mom taught me as a kid. Thanks, Mom!