Book Review: Deck of Cards by Rebecca Lickiss

00001Before we even begin the review, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to do two things: ignore the cover, and ignore the title. Seriously. Pretend that somebody who hated the book and wanted to make sure it sold zero copies somehow got control and slapped the cover onto it.

I’ll come back to this later.

Rebecca Lickiss’s Deck of Cards is a space opera, with heavy elements of thriller and comedy of manners thrown in for good measure. Imagine early Lois McMaster Bujold, as this fits very well with Shards of Honor and Barrayar, despite being a wildly different story.

The story is also set in a very complicated world.

Five is a resident of the planet Fenris, and somewhere in the top dozen or two slots for the line of succession to the throne to rule the planet.

As the novel opens, we quickly learn that Five, whose real name is Valor, works with his siblings together to protect the youngest ones from their mutual father, Sigil. There are more than twenty siblings, nearly all called by number by their father, and the protection is needed. The opening scenes have Sigil returning from an audience with the King and taking out his fury, causes unknown, on Five’s right hand, breaking every bone in it. Five’s relative acceptance of this clearly signals that, while this attack was extreme, it was simply of a piece with all the previous treatment by his father. Further, it’s very clear that Five takes abuse on himself so that the other siblings won’t be targeted.

Almost immediately following, Five learns that he has a required audience with the King the following day, and there is a rush with the doctor to get his hand into presentable shape in time.

The audience with the King is, if anything, even more disastrous than his encounter with his father. The King tells Five that he will marry a daughter of the king of Ariel, the mysterious Princess Dedalean Leonargus, as a means of easing tensions between Ariel and Fenris, and encouraging trade.

Which explains Sigil’s vicious attention to Five’s right hand, since that’s the hand that will hold the wedding ring.

Yes, the wedding ring goes on the right hand.

Lickiss’s novel has many, many impressive accomplishments, not least of which is the detailed world-building. In this case, I’m referring to the cultures and histories of the two worlds featured, rather than the climate, geography, or other physical features.

Fenris and Ariel orbit the same star, Ariel having the much larger orbit, and according to legend, they were colonized at the same time, four hundred years ago, in a desperate last-ditch effort not to lose a revolution. We don’t get much more detail about that, but the legend includes the fact that the two worlds will unite again in a hundred years to re-take “Target”, a planet somewhere outside of the system, whose location nobody seems to know.

In the meantime, Fenris and Ariel have been at near-constant war, all the while looking over their shoulders dreading outside invasion, in spite of the fact that many (including five) don’t actually believe the legends. Five’s marriage is publicly part of an effort to reconcile the two cultures ahead of the fulfillment of the forefathers’ plans to re-take Target.

Privately, however, there is another purpose.

Five’s father, Sigil, is a wildly violent, unstable, unpredictible psychopath, as has already been established. And several people in line for the throne have died in mysterious, not-quite-provably murdery circumstances, including the King’s two sons. Sigil wants the throne, and the King knows it, but can’t move against Sigil for unknown reasons, though part of it is clearly fear.

And the secret reason Five is being sent to Ariel, along with his youngest siblings and other children currently in Sigil’s path, is to provide a safe haven for the King’s as-yet unborn son, about whom nobody knows except the King, the Queen, and now, Five. Once established, and the prince born, the child is to be sent to Ariel as a bastard child of a royal cousin, as cover. The real reason is to keep him completely out of Sigil’s purview.

Following all of this so far? Good, because that’s merely a part of the first two chapters. This is all merely set-up. I haven’t even gotten to Arielan culture, the large cast of characters over there, or the delightful interactions between the emigrants and the Arielans.

And it’s all handled magnificently, with only a few minor missteps, none of them relating to the story itself.

Lickiss handles a very, very large cast, with complicated and shifting interrelationships, in a way that makes me jealous. And once you tune into the cultures that she has built, it’s pretty much all crystal clear, except when it needs not to be, to keep the reader in suspense. She also develops two related, but markedly different cultures, almost purely through showing them to you, not lecturing the reader much at all, except when characters truly don’t or wouldn’t know things, and need to be lectured about them.

The story is engaging and interesting all the way through, leads to a very satisfying ending, and leaves the door wide open to further stories in this setting. We never find out much about Target or the circumstances that led to Ariel and Fenris being colonized, for example.

It’s all quite excellent and entertaining, and I recommend it highly.

That said, there are some minor defects, technical things really, in the story itself.

And there is also the cover, and the visual presentation of the Kindle edition of the book.

Within the story, there were a very few times where Lickiss did not signal things quite clearly enough, at least for this reader. It is, as I indicated, a masterful job of juggling a very large cast, keeping all the interrelationships straight in the reader’s head, and showing the different cultures to boot. However, a few times, she slips. There is an important conversation between Five and the King of Fenris, private, that I started out thinking was between Five and his father, because she used the King’s given name, something that had been mentioned once, I think, but hadn’t stuck in my head for some reason. That was the worst example, but there were a few other times in the book where I had to stop for a moment, go back and reread a paragraph or two, to make sure I was oriented correctly within the story. (Also, toward the end, there were a few obvious typos that pulled me out of the story briefly, simply because there had been so few, possibly none, in the early going, so they stood out.)

The title works once you have read the story, because one of Five’s idiosyncracies is that he uses a deck of cards (unique to the story and world) to play solitaire as a way of helping him sort out relationships and figure out how to solve problems between people. However, it is not a title that indicates “space opera” or “science fiction” in any way, which is why I said to ignore it. It’s not a bad title, but it fails to signal the reader what kind of story it is.

And the cover. Oh, alas, the cover.

Look, within the story, both Fenris and Ariel have strongly feudalistic tendencies, and some primitivism, such that the aristocracy live in castles, and on one planet, they are horrified at the very mention of indoor plumbing, because that might give away their real level of technology should Target attempt to invade. And no, that makes no sense, as characters in the story realize, but it’s a brilliant bit of world-building that rings true.

However, a plain picture of a castle-like structure? That, really and truly, gives you zero idea what kind of book this is. On top of which, it’s bland rather than intriguing. And currently, SF covers still tend strongly toward artwork rather than photographic realism, for obvious reasons.

So, ignore the cover, don’t let the title fool you, this is a fun, exciting space opera of a fairly unique kind, and I want a sequel, or even a prequel, dammit!

[This post was first published at According To Hoyt.]

Book Review: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

coverI started reading S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game for two reasons.

First, and most importantly, the premise had not one but two brilliant “high concept” elements, either one of which would have been enough to make me want to read it, but together made it a must-read for me. “High concept” is a now-dated screenwriting term that can be defined a number of ways, one of which is: an exciting premise that can be stated in 25 words or less.

Huang’s double-barrelled high concept is that her protagonist sees the world as math (I’m oversimplifying a bit), and that whoever or whatever her antagonist is, it gets inside the protagonist’s head and can edit, delete, and plant new thoughts. So the protagonist has to figure out how to beat someone who is very literally inside her head.

I mean, damn. Right there, you should want to run out and read this book, knowing nothing else about it. (And if you don’t, the failure is mine in communicating it, I promise.)

The second reason you might say is almost out of guilt. If you follow me at all, you know that I’m an advocate of the Creative Commons. My own work goes out under CC licenses, and I share all kinds of music I find in the commons that I think is worth telling people about.

But I haven’t really done much regarding CC-licensed books. Part of that is that the ones of much quality that I came across were from big(-ish) names that published through major publishing houses. If you read SF and F much, you’ve probably at least heard of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, e.g. And the few I’ve read that were totally indie were… not “bad”, but each had idiosyncracies and self-indulgences that rubbed me wrong, and as an advocate, I want to share The Good Stuff, not rag on authors with different tastes than mine.

So when I came across the summary of Zero Sum Game at Unglue.It, I instantly downloaded it and put it into my (terrifyingly lengthy) to-read list.

And now I’ve read it.

Holy crap is it good!

S.L. Huang has, in her very first novel, completely mastered the craft of writing a thriller. On a chapter-by-chapter basis, it is a joy to read. The laying of hooks, the timing of twists, the deft handling of exposition that also reveals character. She is, first novel, indie published, absolutely professional.

Cas Russell is the narrator and protagonist, and we meet her in the middle of doing her job — she’s a retrieval specialist, and on the first page of chapter one, she’s retrieving a young lady from a drug cartel’s compound. In fact, we first meet Cas as she’s punching in the face the only person in the world whom she trusts.

She hadn’t realized when taking the job that this man was in fact undercover with the cartel on his own mission, but it makes sense to her, since he was the one who gave her name to her client.

Except, as it turns out a bit later on, he’s never heard of her client and didn’t give her name to anybody recently.

Again, I’m just completely in love with Huang’s skill at putting this all together. The story starts off in the middle of an elaborate action scene, and only gets more tense once the action lets up.

I don’t want to go into the plot much more than that, but there are several observations I must make.

Cas Russell’s gift/curse of seeing everything as math essentially gives her superpowers. She sees, instantly and automatically, tiny little windows of probability, and how to use them, which (believably, within the story) gets her to such astonishing acts as breaking into a barred third-story window without any means of support or leverage, and figuring out a sniper’s precise location and taking him out with a pistol.

The “telepathy” in the story is not anything “psionic” or magical. It’s more like charisma at it’s most extreme degree, something done purely through vocal and physical presence and interaction. I’ve never seen it handled this way before, and it was terribly interesting, had restrictions I hadn’t encountered before because of its unique nature, and was made believable in part by the reader’s buying into Cas’s own gifts.

Huang is a fan of Firefly and the movie that followed it, Serenity. There is a character very much inspired by The Operative from Serenity, and this is acknowledged within the story by a nice reference, only once but enough to let the reader know that the influence was neither unconscious nor accidental.

If I have a quibble, it is incredibly minor and it is this: Zero Sum Game is the first book of a series, and does (excellent) spadework in establishing characters and relationships that are clearly going to play out over many stories. However, the nature of the story it tells feels, to me, like a story that should have occurred in an already-going series. For instance, the way that Cas is made to realize that some of her thoughts are not her own is dependent on a pre-existing relationship. As presented in the story, it’s set up expertly and is effective. But, it would have worked better if the relationship had already been going, in the reader’s head, for a book or several books already. There are a few other little details like this throughout the story. It’s not that they don’t work, because they do. It’s that they would have worked better if the series already had backstory in the reader’s mind. Again, this is an incredibly minor quibble, but I felt I should note it.

Finally, before going off on the political tangent, I’ll note that the resolution is open-ended and some readers might find it less than totally satisfying. As will become clear by implication below, I do not consider this a flaw, but a necessary and intentional consequence of how Huang approached the thematic issues she’s handling in the story. I won’t say I found the way things end up in the story unsatisfying, I enjoyed the whole book right up to the very end. But I do hope, at some future point, that she returns to the situation at the end of this story and explores further the conflict between different, incompatible ideals that she seems to hold.

Political stuff: You may or may not know it, but I am a member of the supposedly-evil, supposedly-racist, supposedly-misogynist Sad Puppies campaign that led to so much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the media in the past few months, and exposed the folks behind the Hugo Awards to be the whiny, glory-grabbing twits that we always said that they were.

I didn’t know it when I began the book, and only learned it inadvertently while reading, but S.L. Huang aligns with the “social justice warriors” of science fiction, the putative heroes saving the world from all the evils there are, especially racistsexistmisogynist Sad Puppies and other troglodytes. As far as I know, Ms. Huang was not involved in this past year’s Hugo kerfuffle at all, but her sympathies are indisputably at odds with mine, and others on her side of things would say that I’m more interested in pushing minorities out of the genre than anything else.

Which is exactly why I wrote this ecstatic, laudatory, five-star review. Obviously.

Snark aside, there is a point in the story where Huang’s social justice ideology comes up. The phrase “social justice” even gets used. And it’s not an aside or a throw-away; it’s inextricably tied into the theme of the book, to the point that the discussion gives the book its title.

If I were what the SJWs portrayed all the Sad Puppies as being (again, not Huang in particular, as I don’t think she got much involved in the controversy this year), then I would denounce this intrusion of the author’s axe-grinding into the story.

And if it did harm to the actual story, I would denounce it.

But it does not.

Huang grapples, in the story, with some of the negative consequences of her beliefs. Cas Russell is faced with a moral dilemma, and both possible outcomes offend her, in different ways. She has a choice (broadly and vaguely speaking) between enacting “social justice”, explicitly stated to be what she considers a good, or defending individual free will, and thus permitting individual people to do evil and commit social injustices.

This is presented honestly and fairly, without the author putting her thumb on the scales or magically making her pet ideas work where they wouldn’t and haven’t in the real world. She explores the conundrum she sets in good faith.

And I can’t help but think that she has problems with the choice her heroine makes. It’s certainly not an easy choice for Cas, and one that sits uncomfortably with her after she makes it.

I applaud this. I can do nothing else.

(As a minor note, of course I think she gets things wrong, because she’s proceeding from a false premise, but that’s beside the point. She’s dealing fairly, doesn’t cheat, and it makes the story a richer and more interesting experience. One can hardly ask for more than that from anybody.)

Buy Zero Sum Game by SL Huang from Amazon.

Download it for free under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License from Unglue.It (where you can also send money the author’s direction as a way of saying “thanks” for releasing it to the Creative Commons).

The Good Old Stuff, Jack Webb, and oh, by the way, A Review

I meant to write a review of David Burkhead’s short story “EMT“. But, well, it takes me a bit to actually get to the story.

Jack Webb, unappreciated auteur.
Jack Webb, unappreciated auteur.
Jack Webb is overdue for rediscovery and re-evaluation as an artist.

I’m not being ironic or sarcastic.

The time might be right. A young man I know, when we watched Sunset Blvd. together, was completely clueless when I cheered on seeing Webb’s name in the credits (I had completely forgotten he was in it in the 20-ish years since my last viewing). I said “Dragnet”, and he still hadn’t a notion. And this is a smart, media-savvy guy who likes going down cultural rabbit-holes in his research.

He grew up in the aughts. I grew up in the ’80s. I grew up on reruns of Dragnet and Adam-12 (without, at the time, knowing about Webb’s involvement in the latter). As a wee little brat, Emergency was one of my favorite shows.

But I also grew up knowing that Webb was a cultural punchline. Endlessly parodied in cartoons and comedy recordings.

The thing is, while it is indeed easy to parody Webb’s style, in my re-encounters with his work and career in recent years, I have been astonished at just how accomplished he was.

The joke in Hollywood is that any given “overnight success” story took about ten years to happen. Webb’s path to being a household name was quite a bit shorter, though still not overnight.

He began as an actor on the radio in San Francisco, starring in the detective series Pat Novak, for Hire in 1946.

That show went so well that he moved back to Hollywood and made a very similar one, Johnny Madero, in ’47, then Jeff Regan Private Investigator in ’48.

As he went from show to show, Webb took on more and more responsibilities, not only starring but writing and producing them. As a sideline, he got featured roles in films like He Walked By Night (1948) and Sunset Blvd. (1950), among others.

It was He Walked By Night that led to Webb striking gold. On that film, he played a police technician, and made friends with one of the LAPD advisors on the film. From that contact and friendship, Webb created the show he is known for to this day, Dragnet, which launched on the radio in 1949. Webb created the show, wrote many of the scripts in consultation with the police, and of course starred as Joe Friday. It was a nationwide hit.

Such a hit that he took it to TV in 1951. From 1951, Webb was starring in, producing, often writing, and not infrequently directing Dragnet for both radio and television, a new episode every week in each medium, until 1957, when the radio show ended. (The TV show continued through 1959, then returned from 1967 through 1970.)

Not content to have two shows running simultaneously, in this same time frame Webb wrote for other TV series, created, wrote, and starred in other radio programs (my favorite, and possibly his, was the non-hit Pete Kelly’s Blues). Then, apparently just for the fun of it, he went into movies. Not merely acting, no, he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in nearly one movie a year from 1954 into the early 1960s.

In his spare time he also wrote popular nonfiction books. I am so not kidding.

Yep, I’m a Jack Webb nerd. Guilty as charged. But why am I going on and on about him?

Webb was, himself, a nerd. (I’m not even talking about how I am absolutely sure that Paul Reubens took Pee Wee Herman’s sense of style and physical movements and mannerisms from Webb’s performance in the Pete Kelly’s Blues movie.)

Once he had his hit with Dragnet, his interests and fascinations came into focus and appear in virtually every project in which he was involved thereafter.

If you don’t like Jack Webb, it is easy to dismiss him as a mere propagandist for The Establishment. That dismissal is basically what happened to him, culturally, starting in the late 1960s.

I won’t argue that he wasn’t a propagandist for The Establishment; he was, at least in part. But that’s not what his interest was, it’s a byproduct of his actual concerns.

Jack Webb was fascinated, deeply, deeply fascinated, by what you might call social infrastructure. If you look at everything he had a creative hand in, from 1950 onward, everything he produced was, in one way or another, about how human beings work together, in capacities official and unofficial. How things work smoothly, and why they sometimes don’t. And most of all, taking things that don’t work smoothly, and fixing (or at least addressing) that.

Dragnet? Police detectives and the crimes they worked. Also, believe it or not, it was probably the first TV show to present cops realistically both on and off-duty, even if it strongly emphasized the “on”. It showed Joe Friday and his partners having love lives, his partners being in mortal peril, and bringing issues to 1950s American television that you really wouldn’t expect. There’s an episode of Dragnet about finding a child molester(!).

Pete Kelly’s Blues, in its every incarnation (not just radio, but an excellent 1955 film, and a 1959 TV series — told you it looked like his favorite) explored how society dealt with prohibition, racism, and more in the 1920s.

The D.I. showed basic training for Marines.

-30- looked at the inner workings of the newspaper business and its effect on society.

The Last Time I Saw Archie is an attempt at a light-hearted military homefront comedy, but its central figure (Robert Mitchum) is an army man who can talk his way into or out of almost anything, becoming a human monkey wrench to a not-so-smoothly-running military machine, and never once giving a damn that he fouls things up for most everybody else. (I’m sorry to say that it’s not a very good film, especially given that it’s based on the very real exploits of one Arch Hall, Sr., but I’ll go into him some other time.)

Adam-12 was another look into police work, this time from the uniformed patrol cop’s perspective.

I’ve only just discovered that he created a show in the early ’70s called O’Hara, US Treasury, but just try telling me that title doesn’t fit in with my thesis.

And Emergency! dealt with paramedics and the situations they had to deal with, under intense pressure.

(Another show I just learned about, Sam, dealt with a police-K9 partnership.)

Every single one of these creations is primarily concerned with how the world presented operates, and how it copes when things don’t operate correctly.

Leaving aside questions of the quality of Webb’s work, his interest in How Things Work is old-fashioned.

The fact that it is old-fashioned is not a bad thing.

How Things Work is important. Culturally, we seem to have gotten stuck on stories about How Things Don’t Work and stories about How To Make People Pay. But stories about the healthy functioning of society? Nobody seems interested in presenting that anymore, and hasn’t in a long time. Mocking people who find that interesting has been the default mode of the overculture since the ’80s at least. Witness the awful 1987 film of Dragnet, starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks.

Shorter review: Buy it and read.
Shorter review: Buy it and read.
Well, I have read EMT by David Burkhead, and I’m telling you that his interests, at least based on this story, are very much in line with Jack Webb’s. He’s interested in How Things (Will) Work, and How To Fix Them When Something (Or Someone) Goes Very Wrong.

Furthermore, he expresses that interest in terms of an engaging, dramatic story that pointedly sidesteps the pitfalls of focusing too much on the “mystery” or the villain.

EMT takes place (almost entirely) on the Moon. We follow two characters who you might expect to be very different, but ultimately have the most important things in common.

Schneider is the CEO of a large corporation, who has come to the moon to track down the source of certain discrepancies between what his outfit has been reporting, and what the raw numbers are telling him. There is an accounting shell game going on, and he’s going to do more than stop it.

Kristine is an EMT on the moon, and coping with Things Gone Wrong is her entire job. Which is being made harder and harder by budget and staff cuts, meaning cheaper equipment, longer hours, fewer EMTs on duty, and just about everything else you don’t want for your emergency first responders.

If Burkhead had wanted to spin this out to novel length, he could have dug into the details of the “mystery”, added in more viewpoint characters, and made it all work.

But he’s not interested in the mystery or the villain. He’s interested in Process, in how things work, and how to get them working again after things have gone pear-shaped. There is little mystery in the cause of the problems, and even the details of how Schneider nails down the whole thing are basically in the background. What is important is that Schneider takes a look at the whole operation. He doesn’t just assume “it should work”, as many non-technical people assume these days. He cares about how.

And the story follows that theme.

It’s entirely entertaining, but you need to check some assumptions at the door. Don’t look for a mystery, or an obsession with villainy or human weakness. Don’t look for a shiny new, easy-to-render-with-CGI tech idea that you’ve never seen before.

What you will find, instead of those things, is a thoughtful look at how things can be made to work in a not-too-distant future on a private Moon colony.

I liked that. I liked it a lot. I was sorry there wasn’t more, but what is there is entirely entertaining and worthwhile.

Irene Gallo, Unrepentant Bigot

(There is an update at the bottom of the post.)

Bigot n. A person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.

Irene Gallo, the Creative Director for Tor Books, is a bigot.

This is not hyperbole. Over the weekend, on a Facebook post promoting an upcoming book from Tor, she posted the following:

There are two extreme right-wing to neo-nazi groups, called the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies respectively, that are calling for the end of social justice in science fiction and fantasy. They are unrepentantly racist, misogynist, and homophobic. A noisy few but they’ve been able to gather some Gamergate folks around them and elect a slate of bad-to-reprehensible works on this year’s Hugo ballot.

source, alternate source, in case of memory-holing

As somebody pointed out (I’m afraid I’ve lost track of who it was), there is exactly this much truth in her statement: there are, indeed, two groups, called the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies. Everything else is a lie.

The statement set off quite a firestorm across social media and the blogosphere.

There were several reasons it set people off, not least of which is that it tarred at least two of Tor’s own authors, John C. Wright and Kevin Anderson.

Many of us have been waiting to see what Tor would do, as an institution. Especially in light of the fact that this bigotry was unleashed in direct relation to promoting an upcoming book from Tor. Patience was counselled by many, since this past weekend was the weekend that the Nebula Awards were announced, meaning that the adults at Tor were all likely to be busy with convention activities and festivities.

Well, the weekend is over, and two things have happened.

First, Tor’s Facebook page has taken the official position of “not our problem, dude”:

Happy Monday! We appreciate your comments & would like to remind you that the views of our employees do not reflect those of the publisher.


Also, somebody seems to have advised the redoubtable Ms. Gallo that her spewing of hatred was perhaps a bit unwise, especially since some of it splashed onto the people who actually produce the product that her employer sells, and therefore upon whom her livelihood depends.

So she apologized. For how other people took what she said, of course, not for the content of her statement:

About my Sad/Rabid Puppies comments: They were solely mine. This is my personal page; I do not speak on behalf of Tor Books or I realize I painted too broad a brush and hurt some individuals, some of whom are published by Tor Books and some of whom are Hugo Award winners. I apologize to anyone hurt by my comments.


This, as I pointed out in the reply pictured, is not an apology.

It is a passive-aggressive insult: “I’m sorry you’re so stupid that your feelings were hurt when you didn’t understand what I was really saying,” more or less.

She does not apologize for impugning the characters of a very large number of people. She does not apologize for impugning authors who work for her employer, in particular. She does not apologize for her immaturity in prancing about demonstrating that she’s not part of a tribe she hates. She does not apologize for her bigotry in any way, shape, or form.

She only apologizes for the feelings of people who might have been hurt by what she said.

What she said, then, must still stand.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the very essence of the non-apology apology. She said the words “I apologize”, but in a form that makes it clear that she is not at all sorry, and she damn well wants everyone to know she’s not.

And Tor Books, so far, seems perfectly willing to accept this smearing of its authors, its colleagues, and its reading customers.

Tor used to be a good company. They used to publish an ideologically wide range of authors. They used to treat their readers and their authors with respect.

Also, they used to get no small amount of my book-buying money.

But not anymore.

UPDATE: Tor’s publisher, Tom Doherty, has made a post on the matter. In part:

Tor employees, including Ms. Gallo, have been reminded that they are required to clarify when they are speaking for Tor and when they are speaking for themselves. We apologize for any confusion Ms. Gallo’s comments may have caused. Let me reiterate: the views expressed by Ms. Gallo are not those of Tor as an organization and are not my own views. Rest assured, Tor remains committed to bringing readers the finest in science fiction – on a broad range of topics, from a broad range of authors.

This is good, and Tor’s now-official stance that the Sad Puppies are simply organized fans is also good.

However, I do not deem it enough.

First, Ms. Gallo did not apologize for her bigoted remarks, she did the passive-aggressive non-apology for anyone whose feelings might have been hurt. Her remarks and her bigotry are unacceptable, and letting her off with an “I’m sorry you didn’t like what I said” doesn’t cut it.

And secondly, while she has since made clear that her views do not reflect Tor’s, she expressed them while promoting a Tor book. That reflects on the company, no matter how much it is now disavowed.

I am, in short, unmoved in my decision to give Tor no more of my money.

“This was a Golden Age… but nobody thought so.”


This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice… but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks… but nobody loved it.

— Alfred Bester, The Stars, My Destination

Over at the Mad Genius Club yesterday, Dave Freer asked about the Golden Age:

Inevitably, when the subject of the Golden Age of SF comes up, we have a chorus of ‘Heinlein’….

Or we could try something completely different.

We could say ‘and who else’?

His list is almost nothing like mine. Except that this cannot possibly be repeated loudly or often enough:

If you haven’t read Poul Anderson and are trying to write sf/fantasy… you’re doing it wrong.

Just so. I consider Poul Anderson to be my greatest teacher, though I never corresponded with him, let alone met him. Every book, every story, everything I read by him teaches me something. (And most of them are also really damn good, to boot.)

As I understand his challenge (when I read it yesterday, the post could have stood a little proofing), what Freer wants is the golden age writers who most influenced you. Well, me, but really, I can’t imagine many people give a fig what I think. (Last weekend’s giveaway of Spring that never came made that clear.)

And as he noted, the Heinlein is obvious. Past RAH and Asimov, though, I didn’t read a whole bunch of golden age stuff when I was at the golden age. I was 14 in the ’80s, when a lot of classics were simply not in print. (As I noted to a friend last week, I could read dozens and dozens of Conan books if I wanted, but none of the original Robert E. Howard stories was available. It was a bit of a messed up time. Which is why I’m only just reading them now, in fact. But that’s another post.)

But I can scrounge a list of a few golden age names, sure.

Ray Bradbury. I’ll come clean and admit that I never much liked Bradbury. I first read Fahrenheit 451 in fourth grade (Yes, I was precocious), and while it was well-written, as is just about everything Bradbury published, I knew even from very early on that this writer hated technology, hated progress, and just always came off as a grouchy curmudgeon to me. Truly, he had a way with words. And a number of his books are certainly worth reading. And he wrote possibly the sharpest, most brutal story of school days’ humiliation avenged ever (“The Utterly Perfect Murder”). But when I first read him, he struck me as a joyless grump, and as I followed him at a distance over the years, I came to think he was, actually, a joyful grump. But I’m quite grumpy enough myself to need an infusion of it beyond that. So you could say he had an effect on me, even if it was negative, and I am not someone who thinks early 20th Century midwestern small town life is the epitome of human existence, because I happened to grow up in a midwestern small town, and no thank you, I’ll take vanilla.

Philip José Farmer. Farmer was, in style, pretty much a pure pulp writer. Reading any one of his books, you can’t help but believe that he was making it up as he went along, pulling ideas out of… the air just as fast as he was typing, and rarely going back to revise and include things like foreshadowing, scene-setting, and logical through-lines. Slam-bang all the way through, and no time to catch your breath. I started with some of his good stuff (Riverworld), then got into some of his mediocre stuff (Riverworld), then came across some really bad stuff (Dayworld). It was Dayworld Rebel that flipped the switch in my teenage brain: “It’s like he’s just writing down every ‘cool’ thing that pops into his head and then building action scenes and cliffhangers around it. This sucks. I bet I could do this!” To this day, I have that love/hate relationship to his work. When he was good, he was grand. And when he wasn’t… oy.

Alfred Bester. Quoted above. The Stars My Destination blew my mind at age 13, thanks to a yard sale and Tony Boucher’s A Treasury of Great Science Fiction two-volume set. Couple years later I chanced into a ’70s paperback of The Demolished Man (Soon A Major Motion Picture!) [Yeah, um… not so much.] and loved it very nearly as much.

Arthur C. Clarke. Inhaled a lot of his books at a certain age. Loved the worlds he created — or, rather, the way he created whole worlds, and clearly thought them the hell through — always thought he people were lacking (with a very few exceptions).

Frederick Pohl. Again, his influence on me was largely negative, as his fascination with incompetence and buffonery held no interest for me. That said, Gateway was a damn well-written book, and Man-Plus had one of the best-carried-off twists I read at the time, where it completely caught me off guard at the same time I saw immediately how it had been set up from the beginning.

Murray Leinster. This one is cheating, because I only started reading Leinster recently. But he was (unlike one or two others on my list here) inarguably a golden age writer, and what I’ve been reading has been hitting my buttons just right, taking an economic view of how future societies might work, and working through that logic of things.

How about you? Which golden age authors (loosely defined) molded you as a writer or reader?

Atlas Shrugged as an alternate reality tale

Some readers new to Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged find the setting to be disconcerting. The novel purposely does not name the years in which it takes place, but there’s more to it than that.

Certain cultural references seem to be from the late 1920s or the 1930s American pop culture, throw-away details like a tagline on a movie poster, or the smallness of the society of the literary and cultural elite.

Others come from later, like the fact that television is common.

And others clearly indicate, from the viewpoint of the year the book was published, that it was meant to be in the future.

This was all by design.

While she was writing The Fountainhead, which is set in a very specific timeframe (1921-1940, give or take), Rand’s friend and fellow writer Isabel Paterson insisted that she cut out all references to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, and not to include any references to the European situation sliding toward war. The purpose was to let the novel be seen more clearly for what it is: a timeless story, rather than a critique bound to a contemporary conversation. There are many cultural details that are spot-on for the time period, but nothing that acts as an anchor on the book’s themes, nothing to let the snide dismiss it as “simply an anti-FDR book”.

When she set out to write Atlas Shrugged, Rand explicitly decided to set the story in her own universe, a world over which she had total control, not bound by a time or set of fashions in even the slightest detail. So she took Paterson’s suggested technique that much further.

(I find it fascinating that Rand, so devoted to reality, was so disdainful of realism in fiction. Yes, she had her reasons, which she explained a number of places, but that doesn’t alter the fact that she kept pulling her fiction into an ideal world, away from the dirty “naturalistic” one. But that’s a post for another time, perhaps.)

So Atlas’s background is intentionally left to the reader’s imagination except insofar as it is important to the plot.

I submit, however, that these choices place the novel pretty clearly in a fascinating alternate history.

(Rand would detest the term, especially as it is associated with science fiction, a genre she disdained. And yet two of her four novels are clearly science fiction, even if she would have been indignant at the label. But I digress.)

Look at what is missing. None of the characters makes any reference to a great war of any kind. World War II impacted everyone in the nation in ways that are almost impossible to comprehend today. There was nationwide rationing of food and fuel, to begin with. A striking percentage of men served in the military. The economy, in awful shape during the Great Depression (due in large part to FDR’s many attempts to “fix” it, in fact), got even worse during the war, of necessity. (If you’re shipping tons of food off to the boys overseas, those are tons that are not getting eaten at home. Hence the rationing.)

The US culture for at least fifteen years was utterly shaped by everybody’s experience of WWII.

Such a culture-shaping event is totally absent from the lives and histories of the characters in Atlas.

There also seems to have been no Great Depression. The world is experiencing one at the time of the story, but before that there was prosperity, and no mention of having been in a similar downturn before.

In fact, there was not even a World War I. I’m on shakier ground here, but I believe this is a solid inference from the textual evidence.

The world situation is largely ignored in the novel, outside of Francisco d’Anconia’s Argentinian background, and his San Sebastian Mines project in Mexico. The relatively rare references to the world outside the USA make clear that all other countries are “People’s States”, variations on communist totalitarianism. And while no sense of a timeline for this happening is given, it appears to have been the situation for at least the adult lifetimes of the characters in the book. Any revolutions have been over and done with long enough that they don’t get commented upon.

Given that the nations of the world all seem to have fallen from within (again, no reference to war is made that I can recall), and that it seems to have been the case for some time, it seems reasonable to infer that, instead of a “war to end all wars”, something else happened between the turn of the Twentieth Century and the 1930s. A wave of revolutions, ending in People’s States, perhaps most happening within the same year, as with 1848.

In any case, if such revolutions took place across the globe, rather than the Great War, then the proximate causes of WWII are removed from history, and the energy spent in destroying other nations and peoples seems to have been turned into a series of self-destructions.

This also goes to explain the most glaring absence in the book. You see, for a book that was begun in the autumn of 1946, one that was intended to change the world, it is distinctly odd that there is no atomic bomb, nor nuclear energy.

It’s not like Rand was ignorant of it. Who, in 1946 America, could be? But more than that, Rand spent considerable time researching and outlining a screenplay for Hal Wallis on the Manhattan Project, the secret effort that led to the atom bomb. She certainly could have included it in some fashion in the book, but chose not to.

It’s a bit of a shame that the Ayn Rand estate is so harsh about fan fiction, because there would seem to be a myriad of stories one could write against this alternate history. Citizens on vacation abroad when revolution cascades across the globe is just the first thing to come to mind. I’m sure much, much more could be mined from it, as well.

1979: A Snapshot of Hell

You lie in bed staring at the ceiling fan creaking round and round. You get up, go to the window.

1979, you think. Shit. I’m still only in 1979.

Wait, you’re not there. You’re here in 2013, reading my blog and wondering why I began with a cheesy reference to a classic film.

“Jason,” you say, “what is your beef with the 1970s?”

Well, my friend, let’s look at the aforementioned 1979 a bit, shall we? Through the magic of cinema.

Great, you say? 1979 gave us so many world classics, you say? Like the already-referenced Apocalypse Now, as well as Alien, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and several more to boot?

Yeah, sure. There were several classics that year. But the classics are not the temperature of the culture at any given time. Sometimes, they are. Other times, it’s far more helpful to look at the non-classics. The mid-range movies that were just trying to make a buck by fitting into the culture, to serve some profitable segment of it.

So, to begin your descent into the hell of the end of the ’70s, I give you C.H.O.M.P.S..

I mean, Hanna-Barbera — 1970s Hanna-Barbera! — in partnership with American International Pictures? Right at the tail end of AIP’s death rattle? Even if you knew nothing else about it, there is just no formula by which a good movie results from that partnership, right? Then you watch the trailer, and it’s even more joyless and inane than you imagined.

Next up, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh:

Dr. J, Meadowlark Lemon (you’re old if that name has any meaning for you, I’m afraid), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jonathan Winters, and Stockard Channing all in the same film? About a disco-dancing basketball team saved by … astrology!?

Yes. Yes, indeed. Welcome to Hell, ladies and gentleman. The Hell named 1979. If you didn’t believe me with C.H.O.M.P.S., you now begin to understand true horror.

Oh, but there’s more!

How about Patrick Swayze and Marcia Brady and Scott Baio and Horschack in a disco rollerskating movie? I’ve got just the flick for you — Skatetown U.S.A.:

In an early sign of hope for the world at large, that one died at the box office, coming out two months after Disco Demolition Night. Even so, gaze into that abyss and try not to be unsettled.

What about a serious science fictionish film about genetic engineering with an all-star cast? Those never turn out badly! Then try out Goldengirl, featuring enough people you know to make you wonder why in hell you never heard of it:

Yeah, watching the trailer, you now know why you never heard of it. Seriously, what dark secrets did the producers have on Robert Culp and James Coburn?

Satire, you say? A fun, wacky, goofy comedy? They can’t possibly mess that up, right? I mean, this is right in that sweet spot between Kentucky Fried Movie and Airplane!, so it was almost a golden age! Mel Brooks was still funny in 1979, at least intermittently. So, the trailer for Americathon should be fun and amusing, and not soul-sucking at all, yes?


The French! you think. The French are always to be relied on for wacky hijinks! And babes! Sure, their comedies may be juvenile, but still funny, like the Three Stooges… and… Jerry Lewis… maybe?

Well, at least the French babes were all babe-ish. Le gendarme et les extra-terrestres does appear to have a few things going for it — babes, scenery — but man, did you laugh even once? (You have some consolation, however, if you’re a real francophile: right around ’79, nearly everybody in the French film industry was making at least some hard core porn. I’ll wait while you go searching for your favorites, to make a list of their dirty films.)

Still, there must be something redeeming about non-classic 1979 cinema…

Kung-fu! There were still chopsocky flicks in ’79 (outside of Hong Kong, you mean), and it’s very, very hard to mess up a kung-fu actioner, right? Especially with an all-star cast including Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, John Huston(!!!), and Barbara Bach!

OK, I admit, that one makes me actually want to see Jaguar Lives!, but I’m not fooled into thinking that it’s “good”, even by Kung Fu Theater standards.

And so, we turn, at last, to Nocturna:

John Carradine as a bedentured Dracula. Megahot Eurasian actress as his granddaughter. (No, seriously, she’s mega-hot — does she look almost 40 to you in the trailer? Because she was.) Lots and lots and lots of disco.

But I admit it: this one looks like fun. Bad, with awful music, but fun.

Oh, 1979, we hardly knew ye.

And for that, we are eternally thankful.