Monthly Archives: June 2015

FantasyCon!

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Last week I participated in my first con, a local one here in my hometown. I thought it would be a good way to get the word out about First Fleet, especially as we get close to the fourth and final installment being released this summer. I approached my publisher about getting some promotional materials printed for distribution, and he had the idea to print up pamphlets of First Fleet 1: Bones with links on the back to the rest of the installments on Amazon.

I did a bit of research online about what makes a good convention table stand out. My goal was to look professional, catch people’s eyes, and get copies of Bones into as many hands as possible. Also to have fun.

I had business cards printed through Vistaprint with a QR code on the back that links to my Amazon author’s page. I considered going with Moo, but as cool as their card designs look, the price differential was just too high. There are some complaints online about the quality of Vistaprint’s cards, but I was quite pleased. I had mine printed vertically on Vistaprint’s recycled paper option and found a couple old Gundam figurines in the basement that served quite nicely as card-holders (and got attention from the sort of people who like robot figurines– of whom there were many).

The table was focused on First Fleet, but I also wanted to highlight some of my other publications. I borrowed a book display from work and set out copies of some of the magazines in which my work has appeared. None of these were for sale (though you can access them through my Amazon author’s page), but several people stopped to thumb through them. The Lore cover in particular with the lovely monster drew a few..

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I read that a table should have something with good height, and the fantastic poster my publisher sent featuring the cover of First Fleet 2: Wake (which was available for free download the day of the con) served this function nicely. If I was going to do this again, I might replace the poster (which took up table space) with a collapsable vertical banner to stand behind my table.

Again, my goal was primarily to make local contacts, have fun, and get the word out about First Fleet. To that end, I think it was successful. I distributed about 250 copies of Bones, and online stats showed almost 200 downloads of Wake that day. That’s a pretty good “activation rate,” considering it means that many people took the additional step of going online and downloading the first portion of the novel.

Plus, I learned that our town once again has a local comic book shop.

So, wins all around.

Stations of the Tide

Stations of the TideStations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’ve read or are familiar with Saga, the gorgeous comic series that re-imagines the science fiction epic with a generous helping of fantasy, you won’t be completely at sea with Station of the Tide by Michael Swanwick. Swanwick had been on my to-read list for a while, mainly due to associations with other authors I enjoy, but I had embargoed his work due to my attempt to finish out this year only beginning works of fiction by minority writers. Not long into this commitment though, I found myself in Chicago with time on my hands, nothing to read, and a paperback edition staring up at me from a bookstore shelf with a price of only a few dollars.

I was weak.

It had been on my radar for a while as a fairly recent cult classic among science fiction enthusiasts. The Gene Wolfe list-serv I follow has buzzed about his work occasionally in the past, and I was reminded recently he was someone I needed to check out when one of his essays appeared in the recently-reviewed issue of Feast of Laughter.

I was not disappointed. Stations of the Tide is surreal, gorgeous, and stand-alone. It’s also dream-like, a bit chauvinistic, and at times opaque. Like Saga it’s a tale that artfully blends elements of fantasy with science on a large interplanetary backdrop. There are lots of science fiction elements dropped causally in the background as aspects and support of the plot, but you never get the feeling– as you sometimes do in hard scifi– that the plot is simply an excuse to highlight or features some new piece of speculative technology.

The story is set on Miranda, an alien world fully colonized by humans but upon which (a la Gene Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus) indigenous inhabitants are rumored to survive. Once every two centuries, the climate of the planet shifts and huge jubilee tides rise to cover the lowlands. The plot takes place primarily in these backwoods Tidewaters, as the protagonist– never named, always simply called the bureaucrat– hunts for a fugitive among towns being abandoned and evacuated in anticipation of the coming, cataclysmic floodwaters.

The power of the book is not in the characters. None of them seem real, except perhaps the bureaucrat’s local partner, Chu, and the story’s villain, Gregorian, a Mirandan accused of stealing forbidden technology but believed on the planet to be a powerful wizard. The rest are caricatures: the administrative superiors the bureaucrat is working for, the woman he falls in love with, and of course– as perhaps intentional and illustrated by his name– the bureaucrat himself. If he’s meant to be a faceless everyman the (presumably male) reader can put himself into the place of relatively easily, this succeeds.

No, the real strength of the novel is the setting and the story-telling itself, which consists of vignette-like chapters in which the bureaucrat moves through this surreal, dream-like (and yet vivid) setting in the wake of Gregorian. And here I think is where the novel illustrates something important about story-telling (important and encouraging to me at least): it’s a powerful example of how to provide a sense of wonder through the “show, don’t tell” maxim used effectively. More than that though, it illustrates an author absolutely comfortable in the world he creates. The history of Miranda is never completely spelled out. It’s simply the world we find ourselves in; it forms a background organically and naturally glimpsed (sometimes frustratingly incompletely) as the story progresses. Same with the technology: no one ever sits us down and tediously explains how surrogates work or the internal functioning of the bureaucrat’s suitcase. The snippets of explanation we do get, mainly between the bureaucrat and his local partner, seem natural because the control of off-planet technology is central to the story and the political tensions on the planet. This is also true of the flora and fauna of the planet itself. Again, these are details mentioned casually in the background: the orchid-crabs, the barnacle flies, the behemoths. Most of them are never actually described in detail, yet you’re given enough to build an image of this world. It’s a strange, alien bayou, with cities being abandoned before the rising waters with a carnival-like Mardi Gras feeling.

Television is an important thematic element throughout. There’s always a television on somewhere in the background, and throughout the novel we’re given glimpses of a serial playing out along the lines of the grotesque pirate adventure that is threaded through Watchmen. It also reminds again of Saga, the ever-present and shifting images on the screen-face of Prince Robot.

Something should also be said about the tantric sex scenes, though I’m not sure what. They’re there and pretty vivid, but what’s vaguely disturbing about their inclusion is that they seem to do little but play into stereotypes that science fiction– even good science fiction like this– is a playground for men and their fantasies, both sexual and technological. The character of Undine, the bureaucrat’s love interest, has the sole purpose of teaching the bureaucrat a couple neat sex tricks and providing an emotional motivation for what is otherwise a straightforward sense of duty (though ultimately these two motivations come to a play briefly in a scene of conflict that for a moment gives the bureaucrat pathos). Yet she doesn’t do this by being any sort of actual character besides a really, really good lover who just happens to take a fancy to the main character.

If Undine represents standard male science fiction sexual fantasies, the bureaucrat’s briefcase represents technological fantasy. The briefcase is a character itself, something like a smartphone might be in several hundred years. It can manufacture anything, integrate into any computer system, and get around on its own. And it’s the perfect servant, always obedient and quick to save the day. Indeed, it becomes one of the most endearing characters because of its faithfulness and resourcefulness. Which makes the final scene with it all the more poignant. I think Swanwick knew what he was doing here, and it’s an ironic commentary on man’s love affair with the technology he creates and controls.

If you’re willing to overlook the awkward deployment of eroticism, Stations tells a powerful, compelling, and enjoyable tale. The plot is meandering, and at times I had trouble figuring out why the characters were going to certain locations or keeping track of characters who disappeared and reappeared throughout the novel. Scenes come and go, only vaguely held together by the pursuit of Gregorian. Some of the reveals at the end seemed forced, and a few were unsurprising. We realize early in the novel that Gregorian is deceptive and the bureaucrat naive. We know to expect a few tricks. But the trick the bureaucrat himself pulls at the novel’s very end took me by surprise, and I’m eager to read it again to tie many pieces together but especially for clues to see if I should have caught the final twist coming.

That’s why it’s a great book. You can’t toss it aside and forget it. It’s going to sit on my shelf, and in another year or two I’ll read it again and figure out how many tangles I can unravel now that I know that whole story. Yet I didn’t leave the first reading disappointed or confused. It’s like a good puzzle. There’s some satisfaction, but I’ll return to it not because I feel l need to in order to fully “get it” but because it’s going to be even better exploring the second time. Maybe it’s less like a puzzle and more like a rambling house. That balance– satisfaction with a single read but awareness that there’s more to return to– is difficult to achieve and I think a mark of a new classic.

The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

The Unsettling of America: Culture and AgricultureThe Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I told my friend that reading a book by Wendell Berry was like your father sitting you down to have a difficult talk. You remember the kind. The kind you dreaded because you knew he was going to be right, you knew he was going to tell you things you didn’t necessarily want to hear, and you knew you were going to have to change. I told my friend this because we’re creating a course for next semester on sustainable agriculture and we’ll be using this as one of our texts. But I told my friend we needed to start with something easier, something to ease the students into considerations of food production, industrial agriculture, and sustainability, because Berry’s going to be difficult.

He’s not difficult to read because he’s a poor writer. He’s a fantastic, lucid, compelling writer. But he’s difficult because what he’s saying is correct and devastating. He says things you don’t want to but need to hear. And you hate it a little bit because you’re embarrassed that you never realized these things for yourself and you’re going to have to do the difficult work of changing.

Berry is the Kentuckian farmer, essayist, and activist who is the patron saint of much of the back-to-the-farm, slow-food, locavore movement. Some might argue he’s the guy who started these movements, though his books are simply about the land and our connection to it and the way this has been lost and abused by industrial agriculture and destructive practices and structures– what Berry calls “agribusiness.” He writes fiction and poetry as well, but from what I’ve read and heard of these works the central theme is the same: fidelity to place.

The Unsettling of America is a collection of some of Berry’s classic and most influential essays. Most were originally published elsewhere, but they all fit together in a structural whole yet independent enough to be read on their own. This makes the work especially useful as a primary text to give readers some introduction to Berry.

Berry’s major claims are that our relationship with the land– primarily through agriculture and animal husbandry– is an essential part of our culture and has been lost through the machinations of agribusiness. In the past, small farmers owned their land and grew a variety of crops with care and attention to the local constraints and conditions of culture and soil. Far from being “quaint” or “rustic,” this represented an integrated, varied system that was robust, culturally-rich, and sustainable. It was, Berry argues, drawing on the writings of Thomas Jefferson and others, an essential part of the structural fiber of our nation: independent land-holders tied to the land and local communities. Berry takes this analogy even farther, offering a holistic view of health as concentric circles radiating from the marriage bed to the family to the land and local community.

Berry has written a jeremiad. He’s mourning the loss of something most of us don’t even realize is gone or– most frustratingly for him– that we’ve been convinced was a good or inevitable thing to lose. He’s arguing small scale, independent farming was more effective for community stability and more efficient at producing a sustainable, varied, intelligent harvest that respected locality, soil, and climate. Essentially, it preserved culture. We’ve lost all that, Berry says, and we’ve been told it was a good thing to lose, that it was backward and dated and couldn’t feed a hungry world.

Berry’s not buying it. He denies the technological determinism most of us accept without thought. Why should a certain way of doing farming– a way dominated by industrial agriculture– be presented as the only effective way when it so obviously has led to the erosion of soil, the dependence on foreign oil and chemicals, and the erosion of local communities. Why is farming such a mess? Why are small family farms being forced out to make way for ever larger, ever less stable, ever more environmentally degrading farms? We’ve broken connections, Berry argues, and he argues this methodically and relentlessly, giving dozens of examples self-evident in retrospect.

Consider something as simple as the relationship between animals and crops on a small farm. Leaving aside the question of horse-powered agriculture, which is also something Berry says has been dismissed completely for no good reason, raising animals on the farm in the context of raising crops simply made sense. They were linked together. Industrial agriculture separates these and immediately creates problems. The huge concentrations of animal waste, which on smaller farms served as important fertilizer, now become pollutants to be disposed of. And for fertilizers, of which good manure would be ideal, farmers now must purchase chemically-prepared substitutes. With Berry’s characteristic, weary sarcasm, he points out the fact that the “efficiency” of industrial farming had separated two solutions and elegantly created multiple problems.

People could protest. Probably many do. They think Berry is old-fashioned or idealistic or that his offered solutions don’t make economic sense. Some of these people simply haven’t read Berry carefully. He patiently gives argument after argument that I’ve never heard truly refuted, let alone directly responded to. But some of these people are right: Berry’s not offering economic solutions, because they don’t work. That sort of thinking is what got us in this mess to begin with, he maintains. You can’t discuss agriculture– our relationship with the land– solely in economic or business terms. It’s a much deeper question, a question of culture, and that’s what’s been lost.

Another way of looking at it is the a question of hidden costs. Agribusiness isn’t interested in the hidden costs to the environment, to the community, and to a culture that values farming as an art and heritage. And neither, unfortunately, are most of us. Berry’s work will remind you why you should be.

More than Meets the Eye, Vol. 7 continued (an interview with James Roberts!)

1James Roberts is without a doubt my favorite writer working in comics right now– not simply because he’s working with the legends of my childhood but because he’s not afraid to use those characters to do new, creative, compelling storytelling in the Transformers universe. I’ve expounded on his work here before, most recently earlier this week, where I explained that I’d posed Roberts and artist Alex Milne some questions on their work on the series and that they’d been gracious enough to respond. Milne’s responses are here, and Roberts’ are below:

Q: What’s it like writing inside a franchise universe? Are there narrative constraints you run up against? You’ve done some incredibly creative things with characters like Ultra Magnus and Megatron, but is there ever a frustration that at the end of the day certain things can’t change?

JR: I can’t speak for other writers working with other licensed characters, but there really are very few restrictions within IDW’s TF universe. Hasbro have the final say as to what goes out, but I’m confident that their vision for the G1 side of things is the same as IDW’s. It helps enormously – certainly in terms of the stories that I want to write – that Michael Kelly (Senior Director of Global Publishing at Hasbro, and the person who, after John [Barber, senior editor at IDW], signs off the scripts) has always been keen to humanise the TFs – to make them characterful. 

It’s true that efforts are being made on both sides to make the comics complement the toys (see ‘Combiner Wars’ for example), but we’re in a good place right now in that the comics are starting to influence the toys. You mention Ultra Magnus. In Season 1 of MTMTE we learned that these days ‘Ultra Magnus’ is a title, inherited – along with a hulking suit of armour – by law enforcers. Currently the armour is worn by Minimus Ambus, someone I created and Alex designed for ‘Remain in Light’, the S1 finale. Now, in the last few months Hasbro have brought out a new version of Magnus and it’s very much the MTMTE version, complete with a Minimus figure. 

And no, I’ve never felt frustrated that certain things can’t change. Quite the opposite: I genuinely believe that the IDW TF universe is one of the most unrestrictive, status-quo-avoiding, open-ended, ever-evolving universes in modern comics. Since John and I started on ‘Phase 2’, as it’s now called, the war has finished (and stayed finished), the Neutrals have returned, Starscream has become ruler of Cybertron, Bumblebee has died etc etc. The clock hasn’t been turned back and we’re not re-setting anything. It’s great. 

Q: For those of us who aren’t following the series each month in the comic book but who get it for the first time in the trades, can you talk a bit about how those are packaged? Is it simply a new one every six issues or so, or is there intention behind how they’re divided?

JR: The latter. John and I structure the ‘seasons’ so that there’s a natural break point every five or six issues. That’s normally not too difficult. At the beginning of MTMTE and Robots in Disguise, he and I said – publicly, too, I think – that we wanted to tell more one- and two-part stories (which you didn’t really get much of, and still don’t get much of, in mainstream comics). Telling shorter tales makes it easier to group the stories into the trades. 

TF_MTMTE_35_cvr1Q: Help someone who’s fairly ignorant of the artistic process understand the relationship between art and narrative. Do the scripts go to Alex fairly finalized, or is it an iterative process? Has the artwork ever transformed the narrative, either in a particular instance or over the course of the series?

JR: I think Alex describes the process well. There are two ways of writing a script, generally speaking: ‘the Marvel method’ and ‘full script’. The former is when the writer breaks down the issue into scenes and describes each one in a few paragraphs; then the artists translates that into layouts and pencils, and the writer adds dialog at the end. With the exception of some Dark Cybertron issues, I’ve always preferred to write ‘full script’, which breaks down each page into panels and describes what’s in the panels, and writes dialog then. The whole package is passed to John, then Alex, and Alex works his magic. As he says, that can involve deviating from the panel descriptions. We trust each other enough that he can interpret moments a different way without prior discussion.

Q: Which character has surprised you most over the course of the series? Are there some you wish you could have spent more time with? (I’m thinking, for instance, of the abrupt departures of Red Alert, Fortress Maximus, and Drift.)

JR: I did think I’d do more with Red Alert in Season 1 but found I was struggling to line things up for him after his attempted suicide; that’s not to say I don’t want to ‘work’ with him again. Fort Max was never going to stick around because he was originally going to die at Overlord’s hands in #15, and then he was going to do something so beyond the pale it would have meant taking him off the board for a long, long time. Dropping him off on Luna 1, so to speak, was more about putting him in a holding position so I think more about how to use him. 

Over the course of the series I’ve found myself more invested than I anticipated in the likes of Whirl, Magnus, Tailgate, Brainstorm and Nautica.

Q: I’m not going to ask the forbidden question of how much you had mapped out at the beginning of the series, but how seriously should we be taking the Necrobot’s list? And when are we going to see Misfire’s misfits again? (Free band name suggestion there.)

JR: Ah, well, the Necrobot list mystery has kind of been cleared up… but for the avoidance of doubt: the famous names on the list we saw at the end of #8 relate to the ‘copy’ characters who were killed on the duplicate Lost Light in issues #32 and #33.

The Scavengers return very, very shortly.

3Q: Apart from making good art, telling good stories, and making fans very, very happy, what relevancy do giant transforming robots have today? Do you see your work as having significance outside the comics alone?

JR: We’re using giant transforming robots to tell all sorts of stories about life, love, death, illness, society, the government, faith, friendship and the rest. The best science fiction – the best fiction – holds a mirror up to the reader. It’s like Swerve says in #41: we valorise fiction because it tells us about ourselves. I’m not putting MTMTE up there with the best, but beyond the giant robots – or rather *through* the giant robots – we’re trying to tell the best stories we can; and the best stories touch a chord because you relate to them, or the characters in them.

Alex is right about TF comics – and licensed comics generally – getting a bit of a cold shoulder on the basis that, somehow, they’re not legitimate comics – which is patently absurd. But it’s changing! Attitudes are changing. People are far more open. We’re benefiting from a new generations of readers and critics who are more open and less dismissive, because good stories are good stories. 

And, you know, MTMTE and RiD and Windblade sell well. In print form they’re rock solid, in digital they do VERY well. I can’t speak for the other titles because I only focus obsessively on MTMTE’s ‘rank’, but on Comixology the most recent issue hit #3 in the UK, #8 in the rest of Europe and #9 in the US. People are still checking it and sticking around.