Adult Onset Atheist

Thursday, June 4, 2015

SNARL: The Journeyman: In the Stone House

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). I have reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella, the five Short Story Nominees, The Five Best Dramatic Presentation Long, and the five Best Dramatic Presentation Short-form nominees .  This is the second of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "Novelette" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of “The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn

I really wanted to like this story. It had some fun characters engaging in delightful dialog. It even provided some jokes for the reader to enjoy at the expense of the characters. I hope the author had fun writing this, because it read as if he did. Unfortunately this does not have enough story in it to make it a great story, and some of the failed experiments the author tried do hold it back from even being a good story. However, I had fun reading this story, and that should count for something; actually it counts for quite a bit, and this story will get five stars (out of ten).

The protagonists are a Mutt and Jeff styled pair of affable primitives called Sammi and Teo. They joke their way through life-and-death situations usually involving their enemy primitive called Kal which is short for Karakalan or Karakalan sunna Vikeram of clan Serpentine. The infusion of dialog humor –especially from the otherwise stoic Sammi- could have pushed this into the realm of reading like a passably entertaining television script, but it did not. Two… no three stars for these entertaining interactions.

The heroes basically become conscripts of a tribe living in a castle. They are taught how to be ass-kicking scouts, and hilarity ensues.

Unfortunately the author’s fetish for long alien words –especially names- grinds some of the dialog down. The author also likes to jump between monikers in a single dialog. It only requires a momentary adjustment to deduce that “The Serp” is “Kal” who was called “Karakalan” in the previous sentence, but it is a moment stolen from otherwise flowing dialog.

The author’s alien word fetish extends beyond names. Luckily he italicizes most of the made-up words. Here is a probably incomplete list: Sawak, schmuck, sprock, plavver, yuke, kospathin, elik, gristlebar, fodanny, valadenny, bo-yashiq. Three of these words are actually names of languages, and one is the name of an honorary title. Some of them sound real enough that I wasted some time trying to look them up; there should actually be something called a gristlebar. When I was done with the list I was struck by how short it was. Reading the story I felt like every-other word was made up.

Looking up words from this story was not always fruitless. Kraal is a South African word for village, and Subedar is a Pakistani name for a military rank that falls between lieutenant and Master Sergeant. The use of somewhat arcane military terms displayed a depth of knowledge by the author that was enlightening. I was left, however, wondering how, given one interesting angle to the novelette, the primitives knew those words.

I do like the ancient astronaut mythos. At some point before the story begins the two protagonists stumbled upon the ancient, but not completely dead, wreckage of Shuttle Starbright-17. The computer (“Ghost Jamly”) makes them “Authorized Personnel”, gives them a quest, and off they go; hilarity and ass-kicking ensues. I love it when an author stitches together spaceships and primitive culture; one more star for this.

Unfortunately the inclusion of the spaceship appears to only be the mechanism for sending up a rather week joke. The people of the castle worship the mythical space-farers, and have a funny holy relic from them. The author provides a picture of the sign from the relic. It includes the rather universal Men’s Bathroom man and some words in three languages including a couple characters in classic Chinese. Are they really worshiping a bathroom door? Google translate tells me the Chinese translates to “Male Toilet, so, yah, I guess so.

A swordfight between Teo and Kal takes up what seems like a lot of the story. I am going to give the author a full star for this fight simply because it is interesting, although somewhat tedious, to read a detailed description of a sword battle.

He stepped out in the batter’s stance, made a right passing step forward and settled the blade onto his upper right arm as he turned his body into a left “augur.” From there, he lifted the hilt up, over, and behind his head to settle into a left-handed batter; then took a left passing step backwards, settling the blade on his left arm in a right augur as he turned.

In the final analysis the author loses more than he gains in his word swamp. For instance I read the term “batter’s stance” and knew what he meant; I pictured a batter at baseball holding his bat. Then I wondered why anyone in this singularly thesaurized story would know what baseball was? And then I began wondering how arcane words had been preserved to accurately describe the items they are used for when people did could not even figure out what a bathroom door was given a choice of three languages and a universal symbol.

The ending would have been a better ending for a chapter than a novelette, but it was a real ending.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

SNARL: Championship B’tok

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). I have reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella, the five Short Story Nominees, The Five Best Dramatic Presentation Long, and the five Best Dramatic Presentation Short-form nominees .  This is the first of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "Novelette" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of “Championship B’tok” by Edward M. Lerner

This novelette lacks several of the critical elements that any string of words needs to tie it up into a story; the most glaring of these exposes itself as a regular disregard for continuity. It is impossible to tell if this story is actually a chapter of a larger story, or it is just half-written. I get the impression that this author may be able to write, and write stories, but this is not one of them. I will eventually pull out a reasonably good excuse for awarding one whole star to this novelette.

The first 1300 words or so (about 10% of the median length for a novelette) is a little character introduction for Captain Lyle Logan and his AI pilot Corrigan. They play chess, and bond, and then set out to investigate a downed MS129 autonomous mining spacecraft. Lyle suits up and examines the crash site to discover what might be a precision attack only to feel something poke him in his back and then “On the emergency radio band, a synthed voice directed, ‘Do not move.’”. Then Lyle and Corrigan are never heard about again, we also never hear anything described as an MS129. We have moved on, or at least the story has, and we don’t need to concern ourselves with those details anymore.

Next we are treated to the first of two chapters from the “Internetopedia”. In it we are introduced to an entire race of aliens known as Hunters or Snakes or K’vithians. We learn they have an “enclave” on a moon of Uranus as a result of some incident. We learn where their home-world star is in the earth’s night sky. We learn they evolved from pack-based carnivores and that because of this they have “developed an economic system of pure laissez-faire, caveat-emptor capitalism, centered on competing clan-based corporations.”. We do not, however, learn what they look like or are we provided any clues as to how they might interact with simple elements of a story, like characters. At first blush this might appear to be done to provide some expert reveal later on in the story, but no, eventually the author just tells you what they look like so you can catch up to what is going on.

“Snakes: Two arms, two legs, and a head. Upright posture. And there any resemblance to humans ended. Whippet-thin. Nostrils set flat in the plane of the face—and a third, upward-gazing eye set near the apex of the skull. Hairless and iridescent-scaled. Glimpses of retractable talons in each fingertip (and, as they wore sandals, each toe). The tallest Snakes stood a quarter meter shorter than she—“

During the course of this novelette we are also “introduced” to the mysterious “Interveners” . This species can apparently look like either Humans or Snakes (and probably whatevers) and have been intervening in Human development through undefined mechanisms for hundreds of millions of years, at least. The Interveners caused the Cambrian explosion of species. They whispered in Marry Shelly’s ear to help create the novel Frankenstein, and by the time this novelette rolls around they are planting bombs and making bad art.

There is something potentially interesting about reading a novelette about aliens where it is revealed that aliens influence the writing of books in order to change the future in which this novel about aliens is written. Unfortunately the author does not develop that spin well, and we are force-fed the notion that the novel Frankenstein prevented Humans from developing certain fruitful types of technology; the fact that I find such a premise preposterous may have made it difficult for me to understand it. Perhaps the author literally meant that the aliens “whispered in Mary Shelly’s ear” and simply wanted to infer that Lord Byron was an alien, and that, by inference, the Intervener aliens were “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know”?

One thing the author did treat well was the idea of boredom. Some of the more exciting elements of the story occurred when the characters were either really bored or feigning boredom. I really got the feel that boredom was in the air when the author brought it into a scene. This is where this story will earn its star.

The titular game of b’tok is described as if it is a war-simulation video game. The last game is even a simulation of the WWII battle of Midway. Championship b’tok is played “with distraction” and so is “more Machiavellian” than normal b’tok. They play the battle of Midway simulation in a cafeteria for the championship effect the other diners provide.

I’m also not too pleased with the use of the word “Machiavellian” to describe the game. Certainly an AI could be Machiavellian, and there are enough game-play-capable AIs in the story, but b’tok is played between two meat-bag players each time it is played in this novelette. Certainly one, or both, of the players could be “Machiavellian”, but the term is not used to describe the players. Certainly a player’s strategy or tactics could be “Machiavellian”, but the game board is described as being equally difficult for both players. Egalitarianism, even some highly challenging form of indifferent egalitarianism, is not well described using the term “Machiavellian”.

Despite the fact that I eviscerate this novelette I can’t help but picture it as part of a larger story that might work. That larger story may even work well. However, this novelette does not work.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Don't crush THAT Hugo, hand me the SNARL

My ballots for the Best Dramatic Presentation categories are, except where they are not, fairly well developed. I probably will not decide until the last minute about Captain America and the Lego Movie, but one of these will come in 3rd place, and the other will be 4th.

 Best Dramatic Presentation
 Short Form
 Long Form
  1.  Orphan Black: “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried
  2. Doctor Who: “Listen
  3. No Award
  4. The Flash: “Pilot
  5. Grimm: “Once We Were Gods

  1.  Interstellar
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  4. The Lego Movie
  5. Edge of Tomorrow

I will be using “No Award” in the short form category, but only to distinguish the two works I really think are worthy of a Hugo from the two I do not. The GOT nominee does not appear on my ballot because I have not had access to it; I suspect it would have been a preferred choice, perhaps even my top choice.

The Best Dramatic Presentation category(s) is not a stranger to the “No Award” option. In fact it represents the only real remaining category that has been won overall by “No Award”. “No Award” has won the Best Dramatic Presentation category four times (1959, 1963, 1971, and 1977).  It was not divided into the short and long form categories until 2002. 

I am still wounded over the 1971 loss of “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” to “No Award”. I remember people using the title of that slab of vinyl to improvise tests of human cognition and communication. Aldus Huxley may have theorized about the “Doors of Perception”, but the Firesign Theater tried to adjust the hinges of those doors with pliers. By manipulating the intonation, spacing, and emphasis of that Hugo-nominated album title one could develop multiple meanings. The spaces within conversations could be filled with experimental versions of the title:

  • Don’t crush THAT dwarf! Hand me the pliers.
  • Don’t Crush THAT! DWARF! Hand me the pliers.
  • Don’t CRUSH that dwarf. Hand me the PLIERS!
  • Don’t crush that dwarf, hand ME the pliers.

Decades later I would find out that “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” did not barely lose out to “No Award”, and that “Blows Against the Empire “ by Jefferson Starship had actually come in second place. I know that the Jefferson Starship supergroup that put out “Blows Against the Empire” was not really the same band that “Built This City” in  1985 ("Worst song of the 80s" by a Rolling Stone Reader's poll), but the fact that they had the same name, and several of the same members, makes me think it was better that "No Award" won in that year.

In addition to the dubious distinctions of most “No Award” winners, and for propelling films like "Flesh Gordon" (nominated 1975) to prominence, the Best Dramatic Presentation has been a place where stories too far ahead of their time could be reconsidered in a digested visual format some of the members of fandom could better relate to.

During his life none of Ray Bradbury’s stories would be nominated for a standard timeline Hugo. Ray Bradbury is a name that defines the genre of science fiction to generations of readers. The first science fiction I read was Ray Bradbury. In 2004 Worldcon did use their time machine to go back to 1954 and present Bradbury with a Hugo trophy for the novel "Fahrenheit 451", and the adaptations of two of his stories were nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation on that same time-travel excursion. A film version of "Fahrenheit 451" had been nominated for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo in 1967; it was the first of four (1967, 1970, 1981,1984) Best Dramatic Presentation nominations that adaptations of Bradbury’s stories would receive before the time travel trip from 2004 to 1954. Because of the timeless excellence of Bradbury’s science fiction and fantasy it is likely that adaptations of his stories will sporadically be nominated far into a future where our Hugo votes are pulled effortlessly from the fabric of our thoughts by the glowing blue Worldcon-being of pure energy.

I am happy with this year’s Best Dramatic Presentation nominations lists. If you vote exactly like me the best nominee will win. If you decide to be wrong and vote differently, and if enough of you vote differently as well, then it is highly likely that another Hugo-worthy nominee will win in these categories.

Remember, that if you want to vote there is still time to buy a sustaining (voting) membership for only $40.