I just read: Seveneves

Wow, this was a really great book.

I’ve heard people praise Neal Stephenson, but I’ve always assumed I would find his books to be somewhat… impenetrable. Mainly that’s because of their heady subject matter and their cryptic titles. For instance: Reamde, Anathem, Cryptonomicon. (See that last one even has ‘Cryptic’ in it!) And his author’s photo doesn’t help with his approachability quotient, since it shows him sporting a kick-ass, ‘evil-mirror-universe’ goatee. Pop-culture has conditioned me to stay away from the likes of that facial hair configuration.

Evil Doppleganger Goateesseveneves_coverJudging by Seveneves, I was very wrong to stay away. This is very fun ‘hard’ science-fiction. Imaginative and thrumming with intriguing characters and ideas and edge-of-the-seat action sequences. It’s an apocalyptic, sublunar space-opera that kept me riveted for all of its 850+ pages.

Here’s the rundown: One day, something (a mysterious ‘Agent’) flies through the moon and shatters it. There’s no explanation as to what the Agent is, and the astronomers in Seveneves are quick to point out that the cosmic phenomena we understand are far outnumbered by the phenomena that we don’t even know exist. Eventually, these scientists figure out that the destruction of the moon will inevitably lead to the destruction of all life on Earth. (I won’t tell you how. I don’t want to spoil it. But it is spectacularly awful.) Nations begin to ally themselves under a global ‘Ark’ project to get a robust representation of the human race into orbit, where they’ll have to survive for 5,000 years, until the Earth’s surface becomes inhabitable again.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 2.47.47 PMFirst of all, I have to say I’m fascinated by the idea of society on the verge of a doomsday that they know is coming. On the Beach, World War Z, The Last Policeman, Y the Last Man. What will happen to humanity in the face of certain extinction? Will we rise to the occasion? Will we devolve into violence and anarchy? How many people will resort to suicide? Does the birth rate drop? Does everyone quit their jobs and start working on their bucket lists? Are the DMVs and the gyms deserted? Are the beaches overflowing?

If all of that sounds a bit too morbid for your tastes, you’ll be glad to know that Stephenson doesn’t spend a whole lot of time dwelling on his doomsday scenario. That’s not to say he gives it short shrift, either. For most of the first part of the book, we’re following a Neil deGrasse Tyson analog who is nicknamed Doob. Just like the real-life Dr. Tyson, Doob is a world-famous astrophysicist who is present for a lot of the seminal moments in the planning of Ark project. For instance, he’s there for a solemn ceremony in Bhutan as one community send off their best and brightest to hopefully be selected to join the sampling of humans in space. There are also poignant moments with Doob’s loved ones. His second wife: whom he meets and marries AFTER the moon is destroyed. And one of his college-aged sons, whom he follows on a road-trip to a sort of populist space-launch platform.

Overall, the Earthlings in Stephenson’s book respond to their eminent extinction with gumption and ingenuity. Stephenson’s narrative is not focused on the potential for melodrama. Instead he’s often detours into the prospects of orbital mechanics, geopolitical wheeling-dealing, genetics, jerry-rigged space habitats, and more. Stephenson makes all of these subjects fascinating.

The second part of the book focuses on the exceedingly brilliant and/or brave people who have been chosen to be shot into orbit. Among them are a Hillary Clinton archetype, and a young muslim who seems to be modeled after activist Malala Yousafzai. (I guess Seveneves is big on cultural analogs!) One of the big themes here is leadership, and we see lots of different styles at work here. The Clintonian political maven. A Captain Kirk type. A tech billionaire who registers on the Aspergers spectrum.

And these pioneers have a lot to deal with. Cosmic radiation. Meteors. Solar flares. The drag of the atmosphere. Reactor radiation. Explosive decompression. Space travel has never seemed this lethal, and even though the first part of the book stacks up a body-count in the billions, the book’s second part seems particularly hair-raising.

The third part of the book begins with a time-jump 5,000 years into the future. I’m not a big fan of time-jumps. The first one that pops to mind is from the epic horror novel, The Passage. In that book, the story shifts from an apocalyptic vampire story, to a post-apocalyptic vampire story. And the plot—in my mind—hits a brick wall.

The third section of Seveneves gets off to a bad start when the first character introduced is named Kath Two. (Enter Sci-fi trope #154: If you want your characters to seem ‘futuristic,’ drop a number into their name!) But Stephenson reveals a very intriguing reason for Kath Two’s nomenclature. It has to do with the genetic manipulation that the Ark’s leaders had to resort to ensure the survival of their descendants. (Again, I won’t spoil anything, by describing the last few harrowing and heartbreaking scenes in the second part of the book.)

After all this genetic tampering, the results are slightly troubling. Basically, the descendants are separated into seven different genetic stocks. And those genes determine almost everything about them, from their personalities to their competencies. In the interest of survival, these ethnicities have been created and specialized so that they’re like pure-bred dogs.

seveneves_mal_dragoFor instance, there’s a heroic race of Mal-Reynold-types. And there’s a race of Ivan Dragos. A race of science-focused Asians. And charismatic but shifty Romans. If you consider this for a while, it comes off as quasi-racist. Then there’s the unlikely fact that these racial pigeonholes seem to have held for 5000 years, with very little cross-breeding. That seems like a segregationist’s wet-dream.

But enough focusing on that. Again, Stephenson throws in all kinds of fascinating ideas, and characters that are easy to care about and to root for.

With around fifty pages left in the book, I was worried that the story wouldn’t have space to wrap up in a satisfying manner. But then we get one final excellent action sequence. And room for a sequel?

If you’re a fan of science-fiction, post-apocalyptic stories, or space operas, I’d strongly recommend this book.

P.S:
Sonar Taxlaw. I love this character’s name, and the reason for it. (Again, no spoilers.) I’m just adding it here to hopefully add to it’s Google results. Long live Sonar Taxlaw!!

The Pulchritude Award: Inflammable

Nick_RivieraHi, everybody! The Pulchritude Award goes to words that don’t sound like what they actually mean. Today’s winner…

In the immortal words of the all-too-mortal Dr. Nick: “Inflammable means flammable? What a country!”
‘What a country,’ indeed, Dr. Nick. And what a word!
Or should I say ‘What a prefix?’
Or should I say ‘What a series of prefixes?’
Or should I just shut up?

You see, there are a couple of ‘in-’ prefixes, that come from a variety of Latin roots. Most obviously, ‘in-’ can mean ‘un-’ or ‘not,’ as in invisible, incredible, or inadequate.

But there’s also an ‘in-’ prefix that means ‘in,’ ‘into,’ or ’toward,’ as in income or inundate. This is also the prefix for inhibit, which comes from Latin roots that roughly mean ‘hold in.’ Therefore, uninhibited is not a double-negative. That’s also where inflammable comes from—an adjective that means something is liable to burst ‘INTO’ flame.

Now if someone could just explain why invaluable is better than valuable!

Past winners of the Pulchritude Award are:
Alacrity and Phlegmatic

I just read: The Martian

The MartianOK, I’m gonna almost brag and say I almost discovered Andy Weir before he blew up. A couple of years ago, I was looking to read a book about life on a planet with gravity that was lower than Earth’s. Mars seemed like an obvious place to start. I stumbled upon this self-published book, ‘The Martian,’ that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I added it to my to-read list. A few months later I went back to its page on the Kindle Store, and I was greeted with a weird message, something to the effect of: “The Martian is not available at this time. It will be re-released by Random House on such-and-such a date.”

Good for that guy, I thought. And I decided to keep an eye for the re-published ebook.

At this point, it would be nearly impossible to be regular reader and to not know about Andy Weir’s novel. In less than two years, he has rocketed to the stratosphere of self-published success stories, among the likes of E.L. James and Hugh Howey. Now he’s clocking in with a multi-spread interview in Entertainment Weekly, and a huge movie adaptation of The Martian starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kirsten Wiig… pretty much everybody. You can watch the trailer here.

What’s even more impressive is that Weir reached escape velocity with just one book. Guess what? The book is just that good.

The elevator pitch for the novel would be something like ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars.’ After a freak storm, Mark Watney, an engineer and botanist, is assumed dead and stranded on Mars by his astronaut buddies. The book takes place in the near future, so his landing zone is one of the few spots on the planet where he can find abandoned supplies and technology. It takes an Earth vessel something like a year to reach the red planet, and even longer to prep the flight. And Watney doesn’t even have a way to let NASA know that he’s alive.

First off, if ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ sounds even more boring than the original Robinson Crusoe (take THAT Daniel Defoe!), let me assuage your concerns. Sure, the hero spends most of his time holed up inside tiny habitats or an even tinier rover vehicle, and these settings COULD get monotonous. But Weir deftly turns the narrative to the colorful characters at Mission Control at just the right moments. We also check in with Watney’s heroic former shipmates, who are still traveling back to Earth.

Because of those breaks, Watney’s story stays fresh—and it is riveting. Our lonesome astronaut has to make his own food, recycle his water, recycle his poop, nourish the bacteria in his poop, create oxygen, create electricity, generate heat, get rid of heat, get rid of carbon dioxide, customize a land vehicle, rebuild his shelter. Watney’s challenges are constant, and his solutions are fascinating. There’s no question that Weir knows his science, and his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. I’ve heard that the publishers are considering excising the swear-words from the book to make an educational version for school curriculums. I think that would be great. If this book doesn’t inspire a whole generation of impressionable youths join NASA, I’ll eat a Sputnik!

But Weir is not only an excellent teacher, he’s an expert storyteller. He uses several POVs and narrative devices to wring drama or  funnies from each scene. Most of the story is told in 1st-person, from passages in Watney’s log. But when the narrative occasionally shifts perspective—and time-frame—to explain how the outer shell on Watney’s habitat was manufactured and assembled… Well you have some good old-fashioned sweaty-palm foreshadowing that something bad is about to go down with that outer shell. Weir uses these narrative shifts to great effect. There’s one toward the end of the book—I won’t explain it here, to avoid spoilers—where the ‘perspective’ of the book shifts cinematically to a very faraway shot of Watney on the silent landscape of Mars. I think that will make a great scene in the movie.

Lastly, let me gush over the character of Mark Watney. Dude is like the nerd version of Indiana Jones. Weir writes him to be funny, and rousingly positive, considering his dire situation. Sure some of that is ‘whistling past the graveyard,’ and it is explained as such. But an upbeat protagonist is a welcome surprise, considering the subject matter. Honestly, I was expecting long, pensive passages as the castaway struggles with depression and loneliness. There is not much of that.

Often in sci-fi or fantasy, you’re presented with a hero that other characters will totally mark out over, and all that fictionally generated admiration can get a little grating. (I’m looking at you, Doctor Who!) But when characters in The Martian start saying stuff like “If anyone can do it, Watney can…” or “With Watney out there, anything is possible…” you start to believe it too. I’m sure Watney is meant to encapsulate what should be our can-do aspirations on space exploration, and Weir flat-out pulls it off. The book ends with a ‘Rah-Rah’ speech about the innate goodness and ingenuity of humanity that almost made me well up. And I never almost do that over a book.

Here’s hoping that Weir’s next book, a more far-flung sci-fi story, will be half as good.

Shadow Sideways

Shadow SidewaysFor a moment allow me to channel cinema bad-ass Steven Seagal, who, according to legend, once had this conversation:

SS: “I just read the greatest script ever written.”

Random person: “Wow! Who wrote it?”

SS: “I did.”

With that said, I’d like to say I just published the greatest sci-fi novelette ever written about super-powered ex-spies living in a nudist colony! OK, maybe it’s the greatest sci-fi novelette about super-powered nudists—WRITTEN THIS MONTH. OK, the month is still young. Maybe I should just drop it and go right into the blurb:

–––

SHADOW SIDEWAYS reads like Carl Hiassen meets Robert Ludlum meets H.G. Wells. It’s a near-future science fiction thriller—a novelette that is a quick, witty beach read.

Sly Severance is a retired spy—a man with extraordinary ‘enhancements’ who served with the United States’ most cutting-edge and clandestine special forces team.

Now he lives on a Mexican beach with an adopted family of similarly enhanced retirees. Together they have created the world’s weirdest—and most reclusive—nudist colony. They used to be thieves, mercenaries, and assassins, and now they will go to great lengths to maintain the safety and the secrecy of their beach.

“We don’t like strangers. We don’t like prying eyes.”
“I’ve pried eyes before. I didn’t mind it.”

When a CIA officer ambles onto the colony’s beach, Sly is forced to return to his old way of life. To protect his home, he will lie, steal, fight, and draw blood. And he will find himself in a very dark place, a vantage point where the differences between right and wrong can be as hard to see as a SHADOW SIDEWAYS.

Check it out on Amazon!

 

My top ten beach reads

The sign of a true nerd: He or she doesn’t remember a beach trip based on bitchin’ waves or a hot summer fling. Nerds get nostalgic over beach reads.

Here are the top ten favorite books I’ve read at the beach (in no particular order).

The Scar by China MievilleThe Scar by China Mieville
This was my first—and still my favorite—Mieville novel. The Scar is an autonomous novel set in the ‘New Crobuzon’ universe. Actually, it takes place on a floating city of ships connected together into Venetian-style neighborhoods. The book is teeming with Mieville’s typically brain-bending fantasy, and his eye-crossingly dense (and fascinating) prose. But don’t let bulk of the craft discourage you. At its heart, The Scar, is a rollicking-good adventure yarn. Kick off your flip-flops and prepare to have your buckles swashed!

The Perfect StormThe Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
Some people might say that this book isn’t conducive to beach reading, what with its painstaking and painful recreations of what it’s like to drown. I say it’s never a bad time to dust off this classic narrative nonfiction account of a fishing vessel that, in 1991, disappeared in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of lethal storms.

Gyo_volume_1Gyo by Junji Ito
Or, as it’s subtitled: ‘The Death-Stench Creeps.’ Okay, at this point you’re probably questioning my taste in beach books. This Japanese comic is told from the POV of a boy who finds out his girlfriend is haunted by a horrible fishy odor. (Umm. Whuh?) That’s pretty creepy in and of itself, but then her island home is overrun by chimeric sea-creature zombies.

Ito writes weird, truly disturbing, stuff, and illustrates it beautiful. If you’ve never heard of it, do yourself a favor and Google one of his other classic series, the Uzumaki Manga.

Gyo Shark

91icZ9KND7L._SL1500_We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
A young-adult book that I read recently on a trip to Jekyll Island. It follows the teen progeny of a wealth New England family who own a private island estate. A very clean, lyrical writing style that builds to a surprising and haunting end.

Killer EliteKiller Elite by Ranulph Fiennes
Here’s me when I read this book: “Whoa! I can’t believe this stuff really happened!” Well, it seems that this novel, ‘based on true events,’ is too good to be true. The story is sparked by a modern Arab royal who is pressured into fulfilling an ancient tradition of vengeance on the specific British soldiers who may or may not have killed his sons during a military engagement. He reluctantly hires an all-star team of hitmen, who carry out the vendetta to vary degrees of success. Their final target was is the author himself. (Umm. Double Whuh?) Their appears to be a mire of controversy surrounding this book, and I had a difficult time parsing through all of it. It seems that most of the assassins’ targets are real British veterans who died of seemingly accidental ways, and the many Britons are upset that Fiennes would conjecture that foul play was involved.

hornsHorns by Joe Hill
Maybe my favorite straight-up horror read (of the last few years anyway). Ig is wholeheartedly devoted to his girlfriend. He’s devastated when she’s killed, and more devastated when most people in his hometown (including his own parents) believe he is the murderer. Ig’s despair turns blasphemous, and he finds himself cursed with horns growing out of his forehead—and strangely blessed with inhibition-negating superpowers which might help him find the true killer. Joe Hill covers a lot of ground, flipping between time-frames and POVs including a switch from the bedeviled protagonist to a whole section of the book that follows a creepily realistic (and narcissistic) villain.

817OxAm5WrL._SL1500_Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden
Like The Perfect Storm, this is another famously riveting example of narrative nonfiction. Bowden ‘un-splinters’ the stories of dozens of U.S. Army Rangers caught in a chaotic firefight that covers a full day and a few city blocks in the Somalian port city of Mogadishu. You’ll often have to refer to the index of names at the end of this book, but cross-referencing has never been so exhilarating.

 

512pvHV6z9LA Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
What nerdy book-list would be complete without a little George R.R. Martin? This was the second book in the epic series, featuring the Battle of the Blackwater, which was a scene I read while in watching container ships pass by in Hilton Head.

 

 

51bD1E1t-DLSpin by Robert Charles Wilson
A sci-fi story that is uniquely character-driven and earthbound. Our planet is trapped in a gigantic bubble, glued in time, while the rest of the universe whizzes by, millions of years per day. This book, written in 2010, finds some fascinating ways to play with the passage of time. One of the most serious dilemmas facing the young main characters: At this rate, the sun will die of old age before they do.

 

81hdZB3eJ9L._SL1500_Beach edited by Gideon Bosker and Lena Lencek
A collection of stories about (you guessed it) beaches. There are some great classics in here: Salinger, John Cheever, J.G. Ballard, Rachel Carson, John Updike, and John Steinbeck. If you’re a fan of short stories, or the Golden Age of ‘Modern’ literature (1930-1970), you can’t go wrong with this one.

 

The writing tip that ruined me: Strict definitions

Mullet? Pinstripe shirt? Bare feet? Check. This  will be the least downloaded stock photo ever.

Mullet? Pinstripe shirt? Bare feet? Check. This will be the least downloaded stock photo ever.

Knowledge is power. But then again, ignorance is bliss. Hmm…

Colorful words are great. As a writer, I love to throw them out there willy-nilly. But what to do when some smarty-britches points out the strict definition of a word, and that definition is a little too strict for your purposes? Urgh. Over the last few years, I can think of two words that have been ruined for me. Now I’m going to pass that ruinous wisdom on to you… You’re welcome?

Max Brooks’ World War Z is a great book. I saw about 20 minutes of the Brad Pitt adaptation, and it seemed alright. But Brooks’ book is very different. It’s a bunch of snippets of narration that show how most of the planet’s most prominent nations handle a worldwide zombie outbreak. The cultural and historical ground that Brooks covers is way more interesting than the zombie action. Although some of the zombie scenes are pretty kick-ass as well.

But when Brooks speculates on how Russia would deal with a pandemic, he spends a few lines clarifying the true definition of ‘decimate.’ Decimate, as in ‘the Russian army decimated an entire town.’ Right? No, historically, ‘decimate’ means to kill one-in-ten. Doesn’t sound quite as apocalyptic does it?

So if you’re writing a sci-fi book about a super-contagious narcolepsy that wipes out more than 10% of a planet’s population (IDYLL, hopefully coming out soon), then you better do a find-and-replace if you use the word ‘decimate’ anywhere. Right?

The next word I can no longer use is ’nauseous.’ In the movie ‘Never Been Kissed’ Drew Barrymore plays a nerd who points out that ‘nauseous’ is an adjective that can refer to a gross scene or a gross smell but not a grossed-out person. So if you are describing a person in a state of nausea, you can’t use ‘nauseous.’ You should use ‘nauseated.’

‘Nauseated?’ Blech.

OK, now run along and never use these two words again.

Oh, but wait! It seems that Merriam and Webster and Roget have already dumbed down the lexicon to match common usage. So feel free to decimate the English language until you’re nauseous. Woohoo! Ignorance wins again!

Other writing tips that ruined me:
Prologues
Subjunctive Mood
Using ‘Said’

Review of #DarkFantasy LINE OF DESCENT, plus interview & excerpt

James Derry:

So excited to be featured with a review and interview on BarbTaub.com!

Originally posted on Barb Taub:

The darkness and the light are both alike to thee. (Psalm 139:12)

twins-kubrickAdorable little sisters or scariest twins ever?

What’s the difference between dark fantasy and horror as genres? As far as I can tell, it all comes down to the author’s intent. Does he want us to share in the trauma that makes the ultimate victory over darkness that much more precious? Or does he just want to scare the bejeezus out of us?

Or, to turn it around, what is the scariest, most horrific thing you can imagine? For me, as a parent, it would be evil stalking a child. And if that evil was her own parent?


Line of Descent by James Derry

Upside Down 3
 
The Gardeners are incredibly wealthy, with a dark secret to their success. One evening on their private island estate, their matriarch strolls into the ocean and doesn’t return. Her suicide sparks a chain of…

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