Monthly Archives: February 2015

First Fleet


I’ve dropped some hints before, but here’s the official blog unveiling: the first two installments of my novel, First Fleet, are now available through Retrofit Publishing!

Go to there! See it! They’re doing some pretty exciting stuff over there, and I’m humbled and delighted to be a part of it.

What business have I, you ask, who have never ventured beyond the short story or occasional novella, in writing a novel? I place the blame solely on the shoulders of my editor, who liked one of my published stories enough to contract for a novel based on the premises I started exploring in that first bit. And that first bit, retitled Bones (the awesome cover of which you see above), appears now as the teaser/intro to the novel proper, setting the stage and presenting the initial mystery of the First Fleet. The tone is Lovecraftian horror in space. The plot involves technology used to regenerate soldiers in a war going suddenly very badly.

You can (and should) download Bones. It’s free, and you can get it direct from the Retrofit website or from places like Amazon or Smashwords.

Wake (cover below) is the first installment of the novel proper, which follows the narratives of two women who get entangled in the mystery of the Fleet. I had a lot of fun building these characters and these worlds, as well as the technological systems that support them, and sending them off to solve the Fleet’s mystery. (I talk a bit more about the plot in a recent blog post at Retrofit.)

Besides the process of writing the novel itself, I’ve been blown away by how Retrofit has marketed and promoted this. The editing and formatting has been top-notch, and seeing the covers they designed (capturing perfectly the “old timey” pulp feel of the paperback novels I grew up reading) has been among the coolest parts of the process.

Take a look at the first two installments if you get a chance. If you’re a reviewer and you want a review copy of Wake, please let me know. It’s pulp scifi– with all the pulpy goodness of aliens, catastrophe, military espionage, and space ships you’d expect. If you’ve read my other pieces, you know short-form fiction, veering toward fantasy realism, has been my forte so far. This was an exciting and rewarding (and challenging) departure.

Descent, the second portion of the novel, is done and is due out in April. And I’m working on final edits to the third portion, tentatively titled Memory, as we speak.

Or I will be, as soon as I post this.

And maybe bathe the kids.


More than Meets the Eye: Volume 6

UnknownTransformers: More Than Meets the Eye Volume 6 by James Roberts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An open letter to James Roberts:

Dear Mr. Roberts,

Thank you. I have lots of questions, certainly, and I have plenty of comments, but I need to start with that: thanks. When I read a work I love, that seems the first and most necessary response. I know that writing is a difficult labor– no matter how easy some people make it look and no matter what a reward it must be to see those stories given form by Milne’s artwork. It’s probably still worth something (I hope) to hear a heartfelt thank you from a reader.

But let’s talk about why we should be thanking you for a moment, shall we? Obviously there were a lot of us who grew up loving Transformers, who filled afternoons with sagas enacted by forms of molded plastic on bedroom floors. There were probably less of us, but still a significant number, who bought wholeheartedly into the mythology that Furman created in his brief stint on the original Marvel run, who realized that of course these characters were scions of a god and the universe’s last line of defense against the Chaos-bringer, that of course they were more than simply robots that transformed into cars.

And then we grew up.

We passed the broken survivors of garage sales that hung on in basements and attics to our kids. We went to Botcon maybe once or twice, taped Beast Wars when it was on television, and tried our hand at fan fiction with embarrassing results. We had our hopes dashed by the live action movies. We waited. We knew what we had glimpsed once upon a time, but it appeared as though the deep well of mythology and potentiality in story and mystique– in the epic of a million years’ war– would remain untapped.

But then there was More Than Meets the Eye, and now six volumes of trades into it, here we are. We can talk about the journey that it’s been– what it was like to realize that someone else got it and was going to start telling those stories– but the primary feeling throughout has been: of course. It’s about time. It felt as though these were stories being uncovered as much as they were being created. They were in the bones of the thing itself– spark, cog, and marrow– waiting to be told. We knew they were there. We half-remembered them ourselves. And now, we can nod and gasp and laugh and cry over the pages with recognition.

Except, of course, surprises linger. I read and then I re-read volume 6, trying to imagine the voice of Frank Welker speaking the lines you’ve given Megatron. You are doing a new thing here, because you refuse to let anything be taken as a given. You’re going to give us character and depth, even in what had been the most single-dimensional villain in the entire franchise. In each volume of MTMTE so far we’re provided a new angle, a new insight, and in this one it is the character of the former Decepticon leader himself.

Very well done.

We get new characters as well, showing your continued determination to make this a series about the second-stringers, and pushing against convention when the second-stringers themselves begin to feel established in the limelight by bringing in new faces and introducing them in ways that don’t seem contrived. We get what we expect as well in the sense of science fiction tropes done well and done with Autobots. We also get all of this given form in the continually impressive, subtle, and just so darn wonderful artwork of Milne. Can we talk for just a minute about the care he took in eviscerating everyone’s favorite spaceship?

Okay, so you obviously don’t need any advice besides: keep doing this, but I’m going to give some anyway. Feel free to skip over this to the part at the end when I say thank you one more time and promise to keep reading.

1. Can we all just agree that we’ll do everything we can to keep Milne happy and drawing these comics? I’m not saying that there’s no one else out there who could do it as well but– no, I think I am saying exactly that. Please, guys, don’t ever break up.

2. Do anything you want. Really. I was a bit annoyed at first (okay, I still am) that characters aren’t getting killed off fast enough and that some of them have started coming back. I get it. It’s a comic thing and a franchise thing. But–

3. Kill off at least one cute sidekick. With Swerve and everyone it’s great. With Rewind and Chromedome it’s sweet. With Tailgate and Cyclonus it’s getting old.

4. Spoiler: start dropping some hints about who or what the Lost Light transforms into. I know, I know, I’m a bit slow. It took me until this volume before it hit me: she’s going to transform some day, and it’s going to be awesome.

That’s all. You’re a British subject, right? I think we could probably make a case for you being knighted for service to science fiction literature and sentient robotic lifeforms. It’s probably not how these things work, but you’d have my vote.

Thank you. I promise to keep reading.

Your fan,

The Wizard’s House


I like the idea of flying castles. I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (not technically a flying castle) and Castle in the Sky. I love the idea of something so heavy and earthbound given levity, drifting through the sky like a cloud. (There’s a flying castle at the beginning of Wolfe’s Wizard Knight series as well.)

That idea was the germ for writing “The Wizard’s House.” I wanted to play in a landscape similar to that of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (another Miyazaki film). I wrote this piece about a young man and his search for a wizard’s flying house, and then I wrote the second installment, called “The Unborn God.” It was the second installment that was picked up first and ran in an earlier issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, garnering a positive review from Locus. Now the “prequel” has appeared, and you can read it here.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize these stories. BCS publishes “literary adventure fantasy,” and that probably fits pretty well. I might also affix descriptions like “surrealist” or “magical realist” to these. I try to describe the fantastic elements in as concrete, everyday language as possible, as they would appear to the characters. And I’ve had quite a bit of fun with these characters: the timepiece, the wizard, and Sylva.

These were enjoyable stories to write, and I hope you enjoy reading them. My favorite parts are the descriptions of the clouds through which the characters pass on their travels. I love watching the skies from airplane windows; the shifting cartography of clouds and the landscape below. That’s what I’ve tried to capture here.

(Artwork above by Takeshi Oga.)

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of GlobalizationScience and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization by Efthymios Nicolaidis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The complete history of science in the Christian East remains to be told. But it is certainly a narrative the broad strokes of which need to be outlined, if only because Orthodoxy remains a lacuna in most generalized histories of scientific thought. There are a lot of writings about Greek science, about its transmission, appropriation, and development in Arabic and Islamic contexts, and about its reintroduction to Western Europe. Yet about the Eastern Roman Empire, which endured more or less until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, very little has been said, even less in popular surveys for a non-specialized audience. (One popularization treating the topic, though not focusing specifically on science, is Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium.)

The essential difference between science in the Greek East as opposed to the Latin West is that whereas Europe lost linguist links to the corpus of classical Greek texts, these works were never lost to the eastern, Greek portions of the Roman Empire. The interplay between this knowledge and the rapidly Christianized culture of Byzantium has often been portrayed negatively with the assumption that Greek learning was neglected because it was seen as inconsequential or hostile to Christian theology. Greek culture, so the narrative goes, was decadent, and the scientific knowledge soon flourishing in the Arabic world was stagnant or forgotten in the empire of Constantinople.

As with anything else in history, the closer one looks the more complicated the true picture becomes. Even the high-altitude overview provided by Nicolaidis’s Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization has plenty of room for the wide range of reactions and reassessments of science taking place during this period. Indeed, the relationship between the state, Christianity, and science is the true theme of Nicolaidis’s survey. In this he is consciously following the footsteps of Numbers and Lindberg, and in some respects this volume could even be considered a companion to the two volumes that Lindberg and Numbers have co-edited outlining the relationship between science and Christianity in the West. However, whereas those are collections of essays treating the topic from a broad range of chronological and thematic angles, Nicolaidis’s work is a chronological survey.

The extent of this survey is quite impressive. Nicolaidis begins with the hexaemerons– commentaries on the six days of creation– by the early Christian fathers Basil and Gregory. He hits the familiar points of Byzantine history: the impact of the iconoclastic controversy, hesychasm, and the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204. This final event, Nicolaidis argues, actually had a positive effect on Orthodox science, illustrating the possibility of radical social and cultural change and ushering in the first Byzantine humanist revival as rulers in the new capital of Nicea built a cosmopolitan group of administrators who valued classical learning. The narrative continues all the way into the modern period, chronicling the Orthodox Church’s largely conservative stance toward modern science (Darwinism usually equated with materialism), primarily because it and the modern ideas accompanying were seen as potential threats to the privileged status Christian enjoyed in the Ottoman empire.

In some respects though, this detailed account simply proves the initial assumption that there wasn’t such a thing as Byzantine or Orthodox science. Instead there was a tradition of commentary and preservation of the classical body of Greek learning, at times appreciated and shared and at times viewed with suspicion, depending on the vicissitudes of church and state policy. Nicolaidis’s account is full of Greek scholars from all periods, explaining who they are and what they taught and how in many cases they were essential for transferring texts and knowledge to the West. But true “scientists” or natural philosophers are distinctly lacking. This doesn’t mean that they are not necessarily there, and this account gives lots of potential leads to pursue in a body of work that is remains largely unexplored. Unlike a popular account of Chinese or Arabic science though, which would be rife with examples of breakthroughs or technological developments, the story of science and Eastern Orthodoxy is largely that of continuity, preservation, and tension (albeit not always a negative tension) with the Church.

As an overview, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy is an invaluable introduction to the topic of Greek learning in Byzantium, the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire, and its successor Balkan states (with the focus on Greece) and the interaction between natural philosophy and Christian thought in these contexts. There are dozens of useful references and sources if one wants to dig deeper into any of the various topics, time periods, or individuals surveyed. For an English-language introduction to the history of science in the Christian East, this is the place to begin.

Viper’s Tangle

Viper's TangleViper’s Tangle by François Mauriac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things that always struck me about C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is how effectively Lewis wrote in a demon’s voice. The character of Screwtape was believable, because Lewis understood how young Christians thought, the beliefs and desires that motivated them. He understood temptation enough to compellingly examine it from a unique and “alien” point of view that was at the same time disturbingly familiar. As strange a connection as that may be, I couldn’t help but compare the first portions of Mauriac’s Viper’s Tangle to Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.

In Viper’s Tangle we’re given a surprisingly compelling and (for me, at least) an uncomfortably familiar view into the mind of a bitter man nearing death and reflecting on his life. Mauriac’s character, Louis, lives in a state of quiet warfare with his family, whom he sees as hovering around him waiting for his death so they can claim his fortune. He knew love once– or thought he did– early in his marriage, but has for the past forty years lived in symbolic silence with a wife he believes neither understands nor appreciates him. He is embittered and hateful, and we as readers quickly become suspicious of his view of the world around him because it’s so colored by his own perceptions and beliefs. Are things really as bleak and tangled as he represents them? Is he correctly interpreting the present and past actions of his wife and children?

I certainly don’t believe I’m in a similar situation as Mauriac’s protagonist, who begins writing his account as an explanatory letter to his wife to be read upon his death. Yet the power of the account is what I felt years ago reading Lewis’s Screwtape: a certain amount of recognition. If I’m not as hateful and vindictive as Louis, I can see the seeds of such fruit in some of my own attitudes, in my own petty feelings of injury that can easily be nursed into a deep resentment, similar to those Louis uses to justify his attitudes and outlook. As embittered as Louis is, Mauriac effectively outlines how he became this way, and it’s a mirror to some of my own worst days.

This is the second novel we have read in the course I’m auditing on the Catholic imagination in twentieth-century literature. Mauriac’s Louis has nothing but contempt for the lukewarm religiosity of his family members (nominal Catholics) and takes a great deal of pleasure in antagonizing them. He sees them as hypocritical, unable to admit they care only for the same thing that drive him: their wealth. Yet whereas they are unaware of the misery obsession with money brings, he lives and breathes within the center of the web it has cast across his life. He sees clearly how little happiness it brings, and he doesn’t cloak his pursuit of it in any sort of noble or selfless terms, does not justify it with the trappings of middle class Catholicism as do the members of his family.

It’s compelling watching Louis in his own net of vindictiveness and self-destruction. Yet the book is ultimately about Louis’s transformation. This is not a simple Dickensian transformation. Louis does not wake up one morning, like Scrooge, a new man. There is instead one final plot of Louis’s to disinherit his conniving children as he realizes the tangle of vipers is not simply within his own heart but has extended to the actions of those around him. Louis’s final endeavor is concluded by an unexpected death, and then comes– near the end of the novel– the transformation in which his hatred abruptly drains away. Mauriac depicts Louis as paradoxically, finally, realizing the true object of his love in his own loathing for his fortune and his desire to become free of it.

What makes this more than a straightforward conversion tale is the skill Mauriac uses in detailing the weaving of Louis’s tangle of hate and weak, tired avarice. It’s a picture of the furious futility of a selfish life, of hatred that is simply an emptiness. It is believable. Yet there is also, all around Louis, the glimmer of a greater reality breaking in that reminds– like a brilliance glimpse around the edges of cloud– of the wonder of Chesterton’s world. Louis is aware of this, fleetingly, in the world he sees and in a few of the characters who love him unselfishly, uninterested in what they can take from him. This is a story of someone trapped in the wonder of a Chestertonian world and unable to perceive it from the prison of self-loathing until almost too late.

There is a final plot twist near the end of the novel, which enhances the narrative of Louis attempting to reconcile himself– or allow himself to be reconciled– to his children. The question of the unreliable narrator again emerges as we get a glimpse of the ways in which his children perceive his sudden transformation. Indeed, I thought the way Mauriac ended the novel, with letters by Louis’s son and his granddaughter, was especially effective. Each of them present a perception of who Louis ultimately became, and trying to work out which aspects of which were correct or at least understandable adds a final layer of intricacy to the tangle from which Louis attempted to extricate himself at his life’s end.

Drying Grass Moon


Last week was a good one as far as publication go, as I had two stories go live in two different online magazines. The first appeared in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, a quarterly magazine in which one of my previous stories, My Bicycle, 4500 A.D., appeared a few years ago. One of the cool things about having a story in AE is that each one is illustrated, so I get the treat of seeing how an artist interprets what I had to say. (The illustration above is by Al Sirois.)

I wrote “Drying Grass Moon” on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, which is when a lot of my writing seems to take place: sitting in bed with the kids playing upstairs and my wife napping beside me. Like many of my stories, it was based on a fragment I had sketched out in one of the voluminous free-write files that I try to keep regularly with varying degrees of success. The title itself, an old Native American (I think) designation of one of the full moons, had stuck in my mind. I wanted to play with that image, imagining settlement and abandonment on the lunar surface.

One of the challenges was trying to write about the passage of time on the Moon, about what that would actually look like. The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth, so the Earth remains motionless in the lunar sky. Your location on the Moon determines the Earth’s position in your sky, and that position does not vary over the course of the month-long lunar day. The Earth would, however, go through phases in its fixed spot in the sky. I wanted those realities to be the background of the story, as well as the developing reality of exoplanetary discovery and how that might transform the way we view human expansion into our own planetary system.

The twist in the story is about old age, youth, companionship, and– of course– sexbots. I’ll let you tell me whether or not you found it effective. Read “Drying Grass Moon” here.

The First World War

The First World WarThe First World War by John Keegan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are not many books out there about the First World War, and there are even fewer good one-volume popularizations. This might be because the Great War lacks the pathos and the apparent aspects of heroism of its sequel European tragedy. There are no big names that stand out, neither are there many spectacular and critical battles. Nor are there retrospectively clear “good guys” and “bad guys”. The whole thing has the feeling of a mistake, a muddy, avoidable, immense waste of life in which millions of men were sacrificed along fronts that hardly budged, a pointless conflict which saw the dismemberment of three empires: the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian.

I’ve mentioned before that the Great War seemed to be prowling in the background of several books I had read recently: The Remains of the Day, Wittgenstein’s biography, and Logicomix. The truth was that I had plenty of general knowledge about the War but very little specific information. It knew it as an event that set the groundwork for the Second World War, but the actual waging of the war, its antecedents and its outcomes, were pretty vague in my mind. If that’s the case for you as well, Keegan’s book is the antidote.

Keegan’s The First World War is a straightforward narrative of the conflict, beginning with a brief cultural and political survey of Europe at the outbreak of war and ending with an explanation of how the outcome and terms imposed on Germany as well as the way national boundaries were re-drawn in its wake from the ruins of empires set the stage for the Second World War, which Keegan understands as a natural progression of the First. Both these topics– the causes and the results of the war– merit books of their own (which have likely been written), but they show the comprehensive ease that Keegan brings to his topic: treating cultural, political, economic, and technological aspects with enough depth as to be meaningful but never moving beyond the scope of a single-volume treatment.

Between these two chronological bookends, the narrative is that of the progress of the Great War itself, as divided and shifting as the scope of the conflict itself. Most chapters deal with progress (or lack thereof) on the Western Front and the details of the trench warfare involved. Keegan puts in a bit of biography, so that the many commanders involved become at least a bit multidimensional, as well as frequent quotes from letters and accounts of troops on the front. This is one of his great accomplishments of the work: humanizing those who fought, on both sides.

The work is slightly Eurocentric because those are the conflicts for which we have the most detailed sources and accounts, and Keegan draws on them to paint each pointless back and forth with specific details. He is careful to show, however, that the conflict was indeed worldwide. There is plenty of discussion of what was happening on the Eastern front as well, including the ultimate collapse of the Russian armies, and around the world. For example, the conflict in the Middle East, the assault on Germany’s African colonial holdings, and the naval battles of the North Sea are all chronicled. One of the interesting points that Keegan makes and that shapes subsequent narratives of the war is the contrast between the education and background of soldiers on the Eastern versus the Western front: the Eastern front soldiers were often illiterate peasants, so besides a very few surviving accounts such as those by Wittgenstein, our knowledge of the conflicts in the East is much more tenuous, acerbated by the fact that the antagonists in those regions– Russia and the Hapsburg Empire– disintegrated by the war’s end. The conflict there did not “set” in the cultural and literary imagination like the war in the West.

There is history of technology in this treatment as well, though not in detail and not in abundance (which is just about right for a general treatment). Specifically, Keegan discusses the construction of the dreadnought class of warship and their role in the conflict, as well as the coming of tanks used alongside infantry. In his discussion of tactics on the battlefield, he highlights the dawning strategy of armies being considered moveable fortresses and the difficulty in the essential coordination of artillary assault with ground attack. Artillary and massed armies– these were the primary format of the conflict.

The entire treatment is accessible, and the narrative momentum does not bog even when the conflict itself does. Keegan captures both the drama and tragedy of the entire war without simplifying or villainizing either side. Indeed, it is the courtesy and camaraderie often showed across lines even in the face of unmitigated slaughter that seems to strike Keegan most about life in the trenches. Empires died in the Great War, and millions of soldiers, for no clear reason. Yet to treat the whole thing as senseless mistake and therefore ignore it would also be a tragedy. Keegan accomplishes the very difficult by telling the story of the Great War without glorifying or dismissing it.