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Review: Neuromancer

 Neuromancer is undoubtedly an original, at what was once the cutting edge of science fiction, breeding a whole new genre known as cyberpunk, from which much of what we now take for granted was invented. I can see why it’s on many “must-read” sci-fi lists.

But I don’t much care for it.

Despite the reviews saying it’s about a hacker and a big conceptual challenge, the challenge I faced for the full first third of the book was just figuring out what the heck was going on. The main character, Case, is a washed-up drug addict and former “cowboy.” Apparently “cowboy” means “hacker,” but it took a lot of reading to really grok that. Case is pulled into a weird “team” of characters to kill an AI, which supposedly can’t be done, for reasons. I never really did figure out what motivated most of the characters to be willingly on this quest or interact with each other. A lot of imagined jargon is thrown at you from the outset, and I found it so foreign I had no context to help. And because Case is so drug-addled–particularly at the beginning–it’s immensely hard to figure out what is even real.

I really was confused when a brand-new character, a “razor girl”–woman with retractable razor blade claws–meets Case and then a scene later has sex with him. I’m all for characters being bonded and all, but they just met! And she tried to kill him! How is that attraction or flirtation? I almost gave up on the book then, but it’s a classic, so I persevered.

I got it, eventually, fell into the flow of the language and found the story, but I had already lost some of the mystique the book had held from being a first. I just didn’t love it.

However, I can absolutely see its value as literature. It is a definite pioneer of the new, of the future of technology. It tries to comprehend what eventually became the Web, and even though it is conceptually very different from today’s user experience, you can trace the gene pool.

The “matrix” looks an awful lot like Tron or Reboot and it’s an immersive alternate reality, perhaps like some movie in 1999 called, oh, I dunno, The Matrix. Dub step music almost certainly hardens at least partially to this book, as does almost any movie where a guy behind a screen can be a hero.

Neuromancer is an important book…but probably not one I’d read again.

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Thanks to ‘Sad Puppies,’ Hugo Awards Were a Mess

This year’s prestigious Hugo Awards were far more dramatic than usual, and not for any good reason. In case you haven’t been following the hoopla, the long and the short of it is that a group of (white, male) writers who felt that white, male authors’ stories about space marines weren’t getting enough attention through a hissy fit and manipulated the awards to try to get awards for people and stories they deemed more acceptable.

And, it didn’t work: None of the people the self-named “Sad Puppies” put forward won.

Wired has an outstanding article about it: Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, And Why It Matters. You should go read it right now.

Some particularly salient quotes:

“Would sci-fi focus, as it has for much of its history, largely on brave white male engineers with ray guns fighting either a) hideous aliens or b) hideous governments who don’t want them to mine asteroids in space? Or would it continue its embrace of a broader sci-fi: stories about non-traditionally gendered explorers and post-singularity, post-ethnic characters who are sometimes not men and often even have feelings?”

It’s crazy that it’s even an argument.

“Not a single Puppy-endorsed candidate took home a rocket. In the five categories that had only Puppy-provided nominees on the ballot—Best Novella, Best Short Story, Best Related Work, and Best Editor for Short and for Long Form—voters instead preferred ‘No Award.'”

Honestly, as glad as I am that the rigged votes didn’t result in wins, I feel terrible for those authors. In fact for all the authors on this years’ ballot. It’s hard to know the exact effect of the Sad Puppies’ campaign, and therefore hard to tell which authors had a groundswell of deserved support and how many were picked just because someone didn’t like the other guy (or gal). How terrible that such an incredible award should be tainted. And how sad that so many categories resulted in a “No Award” this year, when I’m sure there are many deserving authors who got either locked out by the manipulated ballot or tainted by the Puppies’ touch.

I sincerely hope the Hugo folks manage to figure out a way to improve the voting process to make this better next year and going forward, but I feel certain that this culture shift (and resulting puppy-pooping) is not going to go away overnight.

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The Gender Bias in Books

Last week, a coworker left me speechless. I was reading my book at lunch when she asked me what I was reading (I hate when people interrupt me that way, but you’re not allowed to be huffy about it!). I was reading Abaddon’s Gate and was about to start telling her how much I enjoyed it when she asked: “Is that science fiction?” This, honest to goodness, is how that conversation progressed from there:

“Yeah, it is.”

“Oh… Does your husband science fiction?”

“Oh yeah, my husband and I both love it, and–”

“Did you like it before you met him?”

“…uh, well, yeah, I mean, it was practically a requirement for me to–”

“Oh.” (pauses, biting her lip) “Well, it’s lucky you found a husband who liked it. I guess it’s probably easier for a woman to find a man like that than the other way around, though!”

I think I gave her this face:

Apparently being a woman and liking science fiction means I’m basically unmarriable and should be incredibly lucky that I found a forgiving man to marry me.

And if that were it, that would be one thing. I could shrug off one lady as just being kinda crazy.

And then author Catherine Nichols wrote about her query experiment—she sent her exact same book and exact same query letter to agents under a male name. And the male version of her got far, FAR more favorable responses than her real name.

Read about it here.

Here is one of the more salient points:

Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.

And even the rejections she got were more favorable, with more long-form responses and positive reactions.

This article—particularly following those outdated, sexist comments from my coworker—just was a real punch in the gut. I may be getting tanked before a single word is written, all because of unconscious (or perhaps a little bit conscious) bias on the part of the agents, the very first gatekeepers in the traditional publishing journey.

Bias against female authors in sci-fi/horror is part of why I use my initials with my book, Undead Rising. But I thought that was just for the reader who may be wary of a “girly” book…I had no idea that this sort of bias had leeched all the way through the system. But I can’t say I’m truly that surprised. Publishing is one of the most opaque, challenging industries, with a convoluted process and a lot of gut feel on the part of agents and editors in determining who gets in the door. And with the recent events at the Hugo Awards, I think there is a good reason to be concerned.

I used to sign my query letters with my name, thinking it would be more personal and therefore welcoming for the agent on the other end. I thought I was improving my odds by being warm and friendly. But perhaps I need to switch to only using my initials there, too; perhaps that is what it will take for my fiction to get a fair shake (especially as the book I’m querying is either sci-fi or literary fiction…both genres which carry a reputation as a boys’ club).

I’m deeply frustrated by this revelation, and sure, it’s one woman’s experiment with a relatively small sample. But her results are huge. I hope it leads to some careful thought in literary circles.

Do you see a bias in publishing? What should we do about it?

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Review: Abaddon’s Gate

Abaddon's Gate (Expanse, #3)Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another riveting book in the Expanse series! Only pick these books up when you’ve got some time to read, because otherwise you’ll stay up too late to read “just one more page.”
Abaddon’s Gate follows in the footsteps of Caliban’s War, dealing with the ongoing repercussions of the discovery of the protomolecule by Capt. James Holden and his crew.

And, as is now typical, things get bad fast—the mysterious molecule has constructed a large portal. To where?

For what purpose? Is something coming…or are humans being called?
We’re introduced to a new set of characters for this group, including a no-nonsense security chief, an annoying socialite along for the ride, and a minister who just can’t stop helping people, even when it means putting her life at risk. Through these characters–particularly Pastor Anna–Abaddon’s Gate reaches out to try to explore some of the greater mysteries of life: what is our purpose? How should we interact with each other? Is there a God in all the great expanse of the universe? If there are hyper-intelligent alien species, what does it mean for Earth and for religion?

Sidenote: I love that a character is gay with a family and that it is absolutely no big deal at all. Hurrah for a more inclusive future!

It’s an interesting book, if a little more philosophical and yet action-oriented than the prior two. While I still very much enjoyed it and would recommend it to sci-fi fans, this story just didn’t resonate with me quite as much as the first two. I even found a handful of glaring editing mistakes, adding to my feeling that this one was a smidge rushed. I miss some of the characters we’ve met before (though they do get notable mentions). Some parts were a little far-out, which is hard to believe when we’re dealing with hyper-advanced space-zombie-making molecules.

It’s still absolutely worth the read, but I’m hoping the next book in the series “gels” a little better.

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The Nine Elements of Worldbuilding

This awesome fictional map of "Clichea," created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

This awesome fictional map of “Clichea,” created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

I attended a really interesting lecture by prolific fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson on the fundamentals of worldbuilding. I don’t want to crib too much from his lecture—and the pending book on the same topic (keep an eye out for it; he can explain a lot better than he can!)—but I figure it’s still fair for y’all to benefit from my conference-attending.

The nine elements of creating a realistic, or at least believable, fictional world are: geography; climate; politics; economics; society; religion; intellectual/scientific; arts; and history.

When considering the setting and general plot for your totally rad fiction work, ask yourself some questions (and maybe more, as you put the pieces together):

  • Geography—could this landmass exist in the real world? Should it?
    • Make sure the actual structure of the land a) makes sense and b) fits with your plot. You’re unlikely to have a successful pirate story in a landlocked nation.
  • Climate—what’s the weather like?
    • Temperatures will inform clothing, and may affect culture. Would Jurassic Park or The Left Hand of Darkness be the same without their respective climates?
  • Politics—how does your society run?
    • A monarchy is going to look pretty different from a tribal theocracy.
  • Economics—what do people do for a living?
    • Anderson wrote a few Dune novels; of course, those books would not exist without the fictional “spice” upon which intergalactic travel relied.
  • Society—how are people treated? Are they generally happy?
    • There are a lot of components to consider here. Keep asking questions until it feels realistic.
  • Religion—what god/gods are worshiped? Are the benevolent…or scary? Incarnate…or imagined?
    • It seemed to me that religion could have a great deal of overlap with the “society” and “politics” questions.
  • Intellectual/Scientific—How do people feel about science?
    • Are they “burning the witches”?
  • Arts—What is the look and feel of your society? Do they have freedom of expression?
    • This is going to inform a lot of the descriptions! Everything from textiles up to architecture might be related to the arts.
  • History—what came before: constant upheaval? Centuries of peace?
    • A peaceful nation may react dramatically differently from a violent one.

I love those little maps in the front of books, but I’ve never endeavored to make on. Anderson’s class made me feel like I ought to try…or at least doodle some.

Bonus: Check out these cool “real” maps of fictional places!

Do you create elaborate fictional worlds? How do you put them together?

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Review: Atlanta Burns

Atlanta Burns (Atlanta Burns #1-2)Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Atlanta Burns is what Veronica Mars would have been if, instead of growing up in sunny California with an understanding father, she’d been transplanted suddenly into “Pennsyltucky”—the rural/backwoods center of Pennsylvania—with an impoverished lost-soul mother and no one to fall back on. Atlanta Burns is Veronica Mars with red hair, a cut lip, dirt all over her face, and the vocabulary your momma wouldn’t approve of.

The story is good, but rough, hard to take. Atlanta is still recovering from the sexual assault she suffered at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, and her unwanted legendary status she earned with a well-placed shotgun hit to his bait-and-tackle. It is in part because of this reputation, however, that she attracts the downtrodden, the friendless, and begins to help them fight back, too.

The only thing you can really say Atlanta has going for her is grit. She’s not always the smartest girl; she’s into way more drugs than I am even familiar with, often in tandem; she makes really shitty decisions and has a hard time remembering who her friends are. But she doesn’t give up, doesn’t back down, even as she stumbles into bigger and greater crimes against those who can’t fight back.

Chuck Wendig spins a good story, but I think he inserts a little bit too much of himself sometimes, making his agenda too clear and creating a gap in the fourth wall, like when his drug-dealing lowlife happens to be a frequent reader of Margaret Atwood. I don’t disagree with his message, and, true, it’s one of these clear agenda items that makes up the overall story arch, but there were times it drew me out of the story and had me rolling my eyes.

Overall, Wendig does good work here: it doesn’t always get better. Sometimes the bad guys are too big to fight. Sometimes you’re the dog in the ring, just having to fight to survive. It’s a good story, with a hard message to swallow, but it’s a bit too gritty and intense for me. Tread carefully, readers; this is a solid book but you’re going to need a steel stomach to get through it.

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Review: The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Martian is a gem, an instant science-fiction classic that will blow your mind and make you long for (and fear) space travel. If this book (and its soon-to-be-produced movie) isn’t enough to reignite interest in NASA’s Mars mission, I don’t know what will.

The plot is simple: Mars astronaut Mark Watney is left behind on Mars after an accident; he is on his own to survive until NASA can figure out a way to pick him up…years later.

What’s particularly amazing is that with any other author, this book could have been an exhausting, emotionally-draining beat-down. It could have focused on how much it would suck to be totally alone on Mars; Watney could have spent the whole book being a pathetic, barely-surviving drag.

But “The Martian” is surprisingly funny, the kind of funny that means you’ll be laughing aloud and poking your spouse to share it with him. Watney is completely sarcastic, a naturally buoyant personality who, when faced with adversity, says, This is going to suck, but I am going to survive, damnit.
And then he’ll name rock formations on Mars after himself and declare himself King of Mars. And maybe institute worship of duct tape.

Another way this book distinguishes itself from pretty much all fiction is how clearly it was written by a science- and math-inclined mind. Author Andy Weir saves the reader from all the equations, but it is no less clear that there is intense math right under the surface; he even provides the variables used, in case another math-inclined person wants to try to figure it out, too. Most science-fiction, it need not be said, is more of the fiction, less of the science. But Weir is a world-class nerd of the best kind, and the hard science backbone to “The Martian” is what makes it so utterly believable.

“The Martian” is an outstanding book. What may make it truly great is its ability to transcend normal book-readers and reach those who care about hard numbers, math, and science, as well as those who could use a good laugh. It’s first-class writing that makes me believe we can send a man to Mars (but hopefully not leave him there).

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