Blog Archives

It’s Not About the Money

I’ve published seven books since 2011 and will be publishing another one this year. I write every day, sometimes just for a couple hours, sometimes for eight or more. Admittedly, it feels a bit too much like work at times, but it’s an enjoyable hobby. I especially appreciate every review readers post to Amazon or Goodreads or wherever—even those that aren’t five stars. Honest reviews are how I gauge a book’s success. The number of purchases is secondary, and the money I receive in royalties doesn’t enter into the calculation at all. It’s not about the money. I’d be extremely pleased if my books made a gazillion dollars, but it’s not why I write them.

Being an indie writer, I have a lot of control over the pricing of my books. The prices for my trade paperback editions have to be enough to cover production, shipping, and handling, but since eBooks are cheap to reproduce and cost almost nothing to deliver, I’ve priced most of mine at 99¢. This is mainly because that’s as low as the big distributors will allow. I have managed to convince some retailers to offer a couple of my books free, but Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Sony, and others frown on free eBooks because, unlike me, they measure success in terms of money. Free books don’t make any for them.

There is one notable exception to the 99¢ rule. Smashwords is an online digital publisher that has almost 400,000 books available, both fiction and nonfiction, which can be downloaded in pretty much any format you need (epub, mobi, pdf, rtf, lrf, pdb, txt, or html). They, too, are a business and need to make money to stay in business, but they have a unique entrepreneurial flair to their pricing model. Authors can let readers decide what they want to pay for a book. If the author has selected this as an option, you will see You set the price! at the top right side of the screen just above the Buy button. This isn’t a joke or a bait and switch gimmick. You really can set the price. You’re more than welcome to pay any amount of money you wish, or you can pay nothing. Absolutely nothing, and you get the same book with the same content, in the same format as anyone else who buys it. You decide what that book is worth to you and pay as you see fit. It’s as simple as that.

All of my books on Smashwords, other than those I’ve specifically made free, have this option.* If you wish to pay for them, you may. If you don’t, that’s fine. I don’t mind. Seriously. I really don’t mind. I’d much prefer they be read for nothing than not read at all. It’s not about the money.

BraneChildDigital3-15Brane Child by D.L. Morrese
Price: Free! Words: 75,380. Language: English. Published: December 21, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » Adventure, Fiction » Themes & motifs » Technological

The Brane Skip device may allow a spaceship to skip between layers of reality, bypass normal space, and avoid the universal speed limit—the speed of light. Lisa Chang, mission commander for its first crewed test, doesn’t trust it. It seems like magic to her, and she doesn’t believe in magic, not even after the ship skips to a fantasy version of Earth, complete with dragons, orcs, and wizards.

 
ScarecrowCover1aThe Scarecrow’s Brane by D.L. Morrese
You set the price! Words: 79,940. Language: English. Published: July 3, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » Adventure, Fiction » Science fiction » Adventure

The spaceship Brane Child emerges from skip-space into a whirlwind and accidentally squashes the only effective protection Emerald City had against the tyrannical Red Witch of the South. Now, Lisa Chang and her crew must make their way through the Wild Lands of Oddz to convince the Blue Wizards to create a new protector for the Republic of Emerald.

 
DogTaleseBook11-13aAn Android Dog’s Tale by D.L. Morrese
Price: Free! Words: 74,640. Language: English. Published: November 15, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » General

The Corporation made him to observe humans and make sure they weren’t up dangerous things like inventing, exploring, or learning to read. But as the years go by and he works with them day after day, century after century, he grows to like them. Is it right to keep them happy but ignorant? Shouldn’t this be a choice they make for themselves?

 
TWT EBookCover12(comp)The Warden Threat by D.L. Morrese
Price: Free! Words: 84,320. Language: English. Published: September 10, 2011. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » General

A different kind of lighthearted science fiction story for epic fantasy fans. On a not so distant planet, a young, naive prince encounters reality and tries to prevent a war.

 

 

TWWEBookCover14(comp)The Warden War by D.L. Morrese
You set the price! Words: 86,480. Language: English. Published: September 13, 2011. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » General

The Warden War continues the adventures of Prince Donald of Westgrove and completes the lighthearted tale of looming war, subversion, and a terrible magical weapon begun in The Warden Threat. The Warden books are a delight. They are sure to appeal to readers of fantasy and science fiction who may be looking for something fresh and different.

 
Pendant e-book Cover 13-2Amy’s Pendant by D.L. Morrese
You set the price! Words: 77,250. Language: English. Published: March 11, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » Adventure, Fiction » Young adult or teen » Sci-Fi & fantasy

The antique pendant Amy receives for her fourteenth birthday unlocks an ancient mystery and traps her inside an alien labyrinth populated with strange robots, android animals, and a central intelligence that does not want her to leave.

 

ClockworkEbook13-3Disturbing Clockwork by D.L. Morrese
You set the price! Words: 107,520. Language: English. Published: April 21, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » Steampunk & retropunk, Fiction » Fantasy » Epic

Benkin, a brilliant but quirky inventor, stumbles upon something extraordinary—clockwork automatons. All he wants is to understand them. Snyde, a fugitive from the king’s justice, has other plans.

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*I haven’t made them all free, as opposed to ‘Set your own price’, because I really don’t want to piss off Amazon (which outsells all my other distributors by about 1000 to 1). I also wouldn’t mind making some money out of this. I’d be content if my royalties covered my writing expenses. (e.g. I wore out a keyboard last week and had to buy a new one, which I bought from Amazon)

Defying Fate – An Epic SFF Free Kindle Promotion

Defying Fate – An Epic SFF Free Kindle Promotion

DefyingFateCoverRev15Amazon will be running a FREE Kindle promotion of Defying Fate starting on Thursday 27 August 2015 and running through Monday 31 August. This exclusive Kindle edition includes two full-length novels, The Warden Threat and its sequel, The Warden War. These books tell the exciting and lighthearted tale of a young, naive prince and his quest to prevent an unnecessary war prompted by claims of a mysterious WMD (Warden of Mystic Defiance). Combining epic fantasy with light science fiction, this is a great story for readers of all speculative fiction genres yearning for something fresh and different.

If you haven’t read these yet, now is your chance. Grab a copy for your Kindle while this promotion lasts. Then, check out D.L. Morrese’s other books. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy Reading!

Originally posted in Defying Fate – An Epic SFF Free Kindle Promotion.

What is Counter-Fantasy?

Counter-FantasyCounter-Fantasy: noun – a subgenre of science fiction

There are, as I see it, two major subdivisions of speculative fiction.

There’s science fiction, in which the setting and all (or at least most) of the props and trappings have a basis (albeit sometimes implausibly) in known science. Within the context of the story, the aliens, whiz-bang technology, and special effects are presumed to be scientifically explicable. We may not know how to create warp drive or gravity plates, for example, but if the people of a science-fictional universe figured it out, the story implies that they did so using scientific principles and (importantly) without violating any known laws of physics.

And then, there’s fantasy, in which imagination has free rein to disregard physics, or any other scientific constraint if the author so chooses. In fantasy, mythological creatures, mystical forces, and magic dominate the setting, and their scientific inexplicability (or impossibility) is no detriment to their existence within the story.

This is, of course, a purely academic distinction. It defines different genres of fiction, but individual stories are often a mix of several. Fantasy, romance, sci-fi, adventure, comedy, and mystery can all coexist happily in a single and entirely enjoyable story. Star Wars is one well-known example that mixes both science fiction and fantasy. The setting, with its space ships and blasters, looks like science fiction, but it’s the mystical Force that drives the story.* If you want to attach a genre label to it, ‘science fantasy’ works about as well as any.

But, getting back to reality…I mean fantasy, there is a subgenre sometimes referred to as ‘magic realism’. This may sound like an oxymoron, and I suppose in some ways it is, but stories in this subgenre place magic and supernatural elements in a setting that otherwise feels realistic. Within the story, the characters may regard magic as an ordinary part of everyday life. The distinction between natural and supernatural doesn’t exist. While immersed in the story, the reader is encouraged to suspend disbelief and accept that the magic could exist in the real world.

Counter-fantasy is the reverse of that. The stories are set in worlds that feel like traditional fantasy, but either the magic doesn’t work the way characters in the story think it does, or it is clear to the reader that the magic can only exist within the confines of the fictional fantasy universe. Rather than blur the line between fantasy and reality, it emphasizes it.

The idea for counter-fantasy came to me due to the influence of two great writers, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. For reasons I could not explain at first, their books seemed different from those by other writers. I enjoyed them more, and it wasn’t simply because of the humor. After several re-readings, the underlying reason finally dawned on me**; they don’t ask me to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. They don’t require that I abandon reason, intellect, or common sense to visit their fictional worlds. It is always clear that their settings are not real and that the reader is not supposed to believe that they could be real. They’re fiction, pure and simple. The stories aren’t to be taken seriously, but, at the same time, they present serious truths beneath the absurdity. They do what traditional fairy tales were intended to do. They provide a clearly fictional example to convey a serious nonfictional point.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a short book about some poor sap named Arthur Dent who hitches a ride with belligerent aliens just as they’re blowing up Earth…but that part of the story is nonsense. The aliens are ridiculous. Their motive of creating a hyperspace bypass is absurd. It’s a surface story, and the reader isn’t supposed to regard it as anything other than that. It is simply an entertaining framework that ties together several observations about humanity, from the soulless momentum of bureaucracy to the human search for meaning in a vast, uncaring universe. Kind of depressing, that, but couched in humor, the point, the ultimate point in the book comes through. Don’t Panic! The universe is what it is, it will do what it does, and if we think we can make much of a difference in that, well, that’s funny.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy stories make a different point—several in fact***. They don’t laugh at the ultimate absurdity of human action; they stress its importance. Humans choose what they will do and what they will be. This may not matter to the overall fate of the universe, but it matters to individual people and to those around them. Pratchett’s stories address greed, sexism, prejudice, jingoism, religion, belief, tradition…. And they do so in stories featuring witches and wizards. But unlike magic realism, Pratchett isn’t trying to make the setting feel real. After all, the stories take place on a flat world resting on the backs of four huge elephants standing atop a planet-size turtle. This absurdity provides a constant reminder that the surface story is fiction and shouldn’t be regarded as anything else.

Both of these great authors create superbly entertaining stories that readers should not take seriously to convey points that they should. That’s what I saw in them, anyway, and that’s what most impressed me. I have a fairly skeptical nature. I don’t suspend disbelief easily, and both Adams and Pratchett provided meaningful and enjoyable stories that didn’t require me to.

A lot of modern fantasy, and even some science fiction, carries a serious tone that clashes with settings that simply cannot be taken seriously. Basic absurdities are presented as if they are not. It’s as if the author expects the reader not to notice clear violations of the laws of gravity, motion, thermodynamics, or probability. Perhaps I have a hair-trigger BS**** reflex, but things like this tend to ruin the story for me. If the story has a serious tone and I read, for example, that some witch or wizard turned someone into a frog, my immediate reaction is, “Where did all the extra mass go?”*****

The thing is, I like fantasy. I enjoy fairy tales. But a good many of the more recent fantasy stories I’ve read (or began to read and gave up on) seemed to take themselves far too seriously. It was as if the writers forgot the meaning of fantasy. It’s not real.******

So, that’s how I got the idea for counter-fantasy. It’s lighthearted speculative fiction with a fantasy-like feel, but it doesn’t try to make the fantasy elements in the story seem as if they could exist outside of it. It maintains, even emphasizes the lines between natural and supernatural, rational and irrational, and knowledge and belief. This, I hope, allows readers to enjoy the story without triggering their BS reflexes. It’s a bit less immersive, a bit less escapist than some fantasy, but I think it provides a good alternative for readers who like to keep one metaphorical foot grounded in reality even when enjoying a work of speculative fiction.

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Footnotes:
* I’m fairly sure George Lucas intended Star Wars to be a fairy tale with space ships. “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…” is far too much like the traditional fairy tale beginning (“A Long Time Ago, In a Land Far Away…”) to be a coincidence.
**I can be a terribly slow learner at times.
***With over 40 Discworld books in the series, a lot of points can be made.
**** BS, of course, stands for Balderdash & Stupidity. What else could it possible mean?
*****In Pratchett’s story A Hat Full of Sky, a young witch turns an unlucky fellow into a small frog and Sir Terry wisely notes that the extra mass manifests as a pink blob nearby.
******Sometimes, I also suspect that there must be some kind of competition going on to see who can create the darkest, most depressing, and unenjoyable books possible, but that’s a separate issue.

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Related Posts:

Release of The Scarecrow’s Brane

ScarecrowCover1aThe Scarecrow’s Brane, the second adventure of the Brane Child, will be released on 3 July 2015.

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The Story: Commander Lisa Chang and the crew of the experimental spaceship Brane Child make a hasty emergency landing on a planet that resembles Oz and accidentally open Emerald City to the covetous ambitions of tyrannical Red Witch of the South. The only way to fix the mess they’ve made is to embark on a hazardous journey through the Wild Lands to Munchkinland, where Lisa must somehow convince the Great and Powerful Blue Wizards of the East to construct a new protector for Emerald City.

~*~

The digital edition of this book can now be preordered for only 99¢ (U.S.) from any of these fine online retailers:

Please note, regardless of where this book is sold, it is in one of the contemporary dialects of American English.

~*~

Questions and Answers about this book:

How does this book relate to your previous books?
The Scarecrow’s Brane is a sequel to Brane Child. Like the previous book, this one is positive science fiction—upbeat, hopeful, and sometimes even funny. There is also a smidgeon of cultural satire. In this episode, the crew finds themselves in a land a bit like Oz with lots of characters and situations from other stories and fairy tales.

Why is it only 99¢?
As far as my writing is concerned, I’m more concerned with obtaining readers than I am with making money. Everyone should have access to stories they enjoy regardless of their finances, and the price for the digital edition is the lowest many eBook distributors will allow. (The paperback editions are more because of the cost of printing.) The low cost does not imply a short book or poor editing. The trade paperback edition of The Scarecrow’s Brane is 328 pages or about 80,000 words. (For comparison, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Fahrenheit 451 are each about 47,000 words. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is over 587,000 words. My books tend to be around the same length as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or Terry Pratchett’s earlier Discworld books. They are also edited, revised, and extensively proofread prior to publication to meet or exceed reader expectations.)

So, What comes next?
The next book in this series will be the third and final I currently have planned for it. All I can tell you right now is that it will bring Lisa and her crew somewhere unexpected.

Brane Child will be released on 21 December 2014

TBraneChildDigital10-14his is a story of humanity venturing into the unknown, as it has always done. One step leads to another, but not all are as sturdy as one might hope. Sometimes you just have to put your foot forward and hope for the best.

The Brane Skip Device, which may allow a spaceship to skip between layers of reality, bypass normal space, and avoid the universal speed limit—the speed of light—is unproven. The theory behind it is poorly understood. Lisa Chang, mission commander for its first crewed test, doesn’t trust it. It seems like magic to her, and she doesn’t believe in magic—not even after the ship skips to a fantasy version of Earth, complete with dragons, orcs, and wizards. This, ultimately, is her greatest advantage.

The release date for Brane Child is 21 December 2014 at the astoundingly low price of just 99¢ for digital editions.

The prices of all of my other books in eBook formats are also just 99¢ from now through December. (Due to the cost of production, prices for paper formats are not discounted and remain significantly higher.)

Brane Child is available for preorder here:
Amazon (US) Link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00PIPTRIS
Amazon (UK) Link: www.amazon.co.uk/Brane-Child-Science-Fiction-Counter-Fantasy-ebook/dp/B00PIPTRIS/
Smashwords Link: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/492149

Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes Books, and other online retailers should also be accepting preorders soon. The trade paperback edition of the book is not available for preorder but will be released on or about the same time.

~*~

Questions and Answers about this book:

How does this book relate to your previous books?
In the immortal words of Monty Python, it’s ‘something completely different’. Well, Okay, maybe not completely different. I am still the author and it falls firmly in the same ‘counter-fantasy’ subgenre of science fiction that my other books do, but the setting and characters are new and (I think) original. It is positive science fiction—upbeat, hopeful, and sometimes even a bit funny. There is also a smidgeon of cultural satire. My goal for this book was to combine science, history, philosophy, fantasy, games, and humor into a satisfying story about stories.

A story about stories?
Yes, in part. It is about how readers shape stories as much as writers do. The writer sketches the characters and settings, but the reader completes them. No two readers experience exactly the same story. Brane Child is about how beliefs and expectations shape perspective. It touches on human achievement, quantum physics (specifically M-theory), and the idea that reality is much more complex than it seems. The physics (and metaphysics) are warped a bit (Okay, more than a bit) to fit this particular story, but I believe there is a thought or two in here that some people will find intriguing. I also think it’s a fun story.

~*~

And now for a short video..

Book Review – The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianTitle: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction

Do you remember the 1964 movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars?

No?

Just as well. It was bad.

The Martian has a similar plot — a lone astronaut trying to survive on Mars and hoping for rescue. Unlike the aforesaid movie, this book isn’t bad. In fact, it’s quite good.

The protagonist (Mark Watney) is almost unbelievably clever, emotionally stable, and indefatigable. Of course most of the story is told through his journals, that is, from his personal perspective, and don’t we all tend to gloss over our own shortcomings? I did not see his portrayal as ‘too good to be true’ a flaw, although I must admit that his achievements did stretch credulity a bit.

There is a great deal of detail about how Watney uses and misuses the technology available to him. I’m not qualified to comment extensively on that or on the raw science behind it, but it all seemed plausible to my inexpert eyes.

Almost all of the other characters in the book are equally admirable. But then most are astronauts or scientists, which are noted for including some of the best examples of what humanity has to offer. These aren’t average people. They’re the cream of the crop, and they are portrayed as such. Most of them are the NASA people back on Earth. They come into the story in scenes that show us how they eventually realize that Watney is not dead (as they initially believed) and how they pull together to keep him that way.

What I like most about the book is that it shows humanity at its best, when people are being clever, inventive, selfless, and cooperating to achieve a worthwhile goal. There should be more stories like this.

More on the Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

SF-Fant2I wrote my original post on this subject in April 2012. At the time, I realized that some people were hazy on the distinction between these two genres of speculative fiction, but I had no idea it was controversial. I’m still not sure it is, but the question can certainly lead to some heated debate if you stray from the main subject far enough. This is what happened in a Goodreads SciFi and Fantasy Book Club member’s chat entitled, innocuously enough, Fantasy vs Science Fiction. Who knew such a question could be so divisive?

The Goodreads discussion began on December 8, 2012 with this innocent enough distinction:

  • Fantasy – magic and/or supernatural creatures and/or a made-up world
  • Science fiction – advanced technology (usually set in the future)

That was over ten months ago, and the thread briefly returned to sanity the past weekend after a few months abroad, although I fear it may reverse course yet again. The discussion continues. It is now the length of an epic novel. I’m not kidding. By copying and pasting one page to Word and having it count the number of words, and then multiplying that by the number of pages, I estimated there were over 126,000 words in the posts that are still showing. Depending on the font and page size, this could be as much as 500 pages in a novel, and it does not count the posts written by one of the more active participants, which he afterwards deleted (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

In general, the above definitions provide a fair generalization, and most people agreed on the basic distinction between the two genres. Participants in the discussion offered quotes and aphorisms both famous and obscure, such as:

  • “…science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” ~ Isaac Asimov
  • “It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction: the improbable made possible; fantasy: the impossible made probable…”  ~ Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone
  • “Succinctly: there’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction.” ~ Robert J. Sawyer
  • “A true SF writer is allowed only one unexplained scientific ‘miracle’ per story. Beyond that, SF becomes Fantasy.” ~ A few people participating were familiar with this or something much like it, but no one was entirely sure where it originated.

But wait a second. Don’t those definitions reflect a Western bias toward science (as one participant suggested)?

I don’t personally think so. Science may not be the only method of understanding the world we live in, but it works better than reading entrails, trying to see portents in the positions of stars, prophecies of various kinds, and all the other stuff people have used. This may seem like a cultural bias, but it’s just a recognition of what has worked reasonably well (so far) and what hasn’t. But that’s not really the point. Science fiction implies the use of science. That’s what makes it science fiction.

There seemed to be no violent disagreement over this, so why did the discussion go on?

Well, one of the problems soon becomes obvious when you try to apply the definitions to actual books. People brought up examples of stories they suspected might exist in a gray area between the two. There may be a reasonably clear academic difference between science fiction and fantasy, but it is often difficult to assign one label or the other to a specific story. This is because authors mix genres. One work of speculative fiction may include both science fiction and fantasy elements (along with romance, history, and other things). In cases like this, what genre best applies?

(The discussion did not unfold as linearly as the following account may suggest, but it remained civil… for the most part… at first.)

There was some discussion about what should be considered ‘science’ in science fiction. Some argued that FTL (faster than light) vehicles, time travel, antigravity, and other highly speculative technology should be considered fantasy because they are probably impossible. These, they claimed, were no more ‘scientific’ than hobbits, demons, or dragons. A related point was that since our understanding of reality is imperfect, we can’t know for sure what is possible.

Someone suggested the concept of a continuous line between science fiction and fantasy, that many speculative fiction stories fall somewhere between the two ends, and therefore could be placed in either genre. Others disagreed. They insisted that it is simple to make a clear call by being stringent about the exclusion of fantasy elements in science fiction. It seemed to bother no one to have a fantasy story include science-like elements, but some people argued that once an element of fantasy entered a science fiction story, that story should be considered fantasy, rather the way adding one red towel to a wash-load of white towels turns everything pink. Such stories could, however, possibly be labeled in a subgenre of fantasy such as ‘science-fantasy.’

There was some talk about the relationship of science fiction and fantasy to other genres, including romance, horror, comedy, and even history and religion. Once religion entered the discussion, all hell broke loose (figuratively speaking). One participant (the one who originally brought religion into the discussion and who later deleted all of his posts) said a plot hinging on divine miracles should not make a fictional story fantasy because many people believe in them. I think that was the point he was trying to make, anyway. It was never clear to most of us, but he did succeed in diverting the conversation onto religion for a long time and ended up repeatedly insulting a number of other people. Finally, a moderator intervened and he went away. That was a few days ago. The discussion became far more sedate after this, but he returned on Tuesday and things got lively for a while. The moderator intervened again early Wednesday morning. The poster deleted all his new posts and the moderator banned further references to religious texts from the discussion.

I think part of the problem, as someone in the forum pointed out, was that different people were using the same words but held different ideas about what they meant. That made sense to me, so I provided the following definitions from Wikipedia: (It’s not a definitive reference source, but it’s the first one that came up, and I felt that the definitions I found there would suffice.)

‘Science (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.’

The same source defines fiction as ‘the form of any work that deals, in part or in whole, with information or events that are not real, but rather, imaginary and theoretical—that is, invented by the author.’

At the time, I did not feel it was necessary to define fantasy, but for the sake of thoroughness, I’ll do so now (again using Wikipedia). ‘Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three, all of which are subgenres of speculative fiction.’

I did not participate in any way in writing these definitions, but I do consider them a fine place to begin. Judging from recent experience, I suspect some people may find them controversial. I’m beginning to wonder if there is anything, no matter how straightforward, that enjoys universal agreement. Be that as it may, a word means what people agree it means. These definitions seem common enough, and I think they provide a way to better define what can be considered science fiction and, by exclusion, what can be considered fantasy.

First of all, I want to stress that the two things we are differentiating are categories of fiction. They are made up. They aren’t real. Some confusion may have occurred in the Goodreads discussion because the word ‘fantasy’ is also used as an antonym of ‘reality,’ and so, by implication, science fiction should be more ‘real’ than fantasy. The question we were attempting to answer wasn’t about fantasy as opposed to reality, though, but fantasy as a genre of fiction. While it is true that science fiction must be grounded in science whereas fantasy can float free of any anchor to mundane reality, this does not imply that everything in science fiction must be possible or that everything in fantasy must be impossible. Both are fiction. They both tell stories about people and things that do not exist, things that may not even be able to exist. This is true for both genres. (Yes, I’m disagreeing with the late great Isaac Asimov on this. It’s not something I do lightly, but I have a reason.)

To define science fiction, it’s important to understand what science is and what it is not. Science is not a collection of known facts. It is a process for revealing facts about the cosmos, or at least for identifying things that can be regarded as true. The popularity of an idea or the number of believers it has is irrelevant. That’s not how science works.

The defining characteristic of science as opposed to other ways of trying to understand the natural universe is the concept of systematic observation and testing, the scientific method, and this, I think, can provide the key for a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy.

If, within the context of a story, it is stated or implied that all the fantastic things described—spaceships, androids, warp drive, whatever—came about using the procedures of science, it can be science fiction. In the world of the story, these things are natural (as opposed to supernatural) and explicable to science. Science fiction requires an anchor in this world, but to insist that everything in science fiction should be possible, some even argue probable, is far too restrictive, I think.

Fantasy, on the other hand, can include anything—magic wands, dragons, mystical powers—anything, without any implication of how they came to be or how they relate to the world the reader calls home. In this sense, science fiction is more restrictive than fantasy.

But this allows things that are clearly impossible to enter science fiction. Surely that can’t be right, right?

Remember, this is fiction. Impossible things happen all the time in all genres of fiction, and we may not even notice. Take, for example, a car exploding after a crash. You’ve probably seen it a hundred times. But you’ve seen it in fiction. In the real world, a car might catch fire, but unless there’s a bomb (or explosive chemicals or the like) inside, it’s not going to explode. The probability of the events described in a speculative fiction story happening in the real world is irrelevant. The story doesn’t take place in the real world. But the rules of science must apply within the context of the fictional story for it to be considered science fiction because those rules are science. Without them, the scientific element of the story does not exist and it’s not science fiction.

But this leads to another point. Not all science fiction is created equal. If something in a science fiction story violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it’s almost certainly bad science, which means it’s probably bad science fiction, although not everyone is going to notice, just as they don’t notice that cars don’t explode on their own outside of stories. Sometimes a bit of scientific implausibility does not hurt. If an author wants to include dragons of the big, fire-breathing and flying variety in a book, and provides techno-babble to explain how this is possible, many readers will let it pass. An aeronautical engineer probably won’t, but that does not mean it’s not science fiction. It may even be a great story. But take the example of clockwork robots winding themselves (or one another for that matter). I’ve actually seen this in a couple stories. The fact that this is scientifically impossible does not, by itself, mean that the story is not science fiction, but it does suggest that it is not good science fiction. It goes from scientifically implausible, which I’m willing to let pass for the sake of an otherwise good story, to scientifically impossible, which I’m usually not, with one notable exception. If the science fiction story is intended to be funny or intentionally absurd, then I’m Okay with scientific impossibilities for the sake of humor. Scientifically impossible things in a humorous novel remind us that the story is just a story. It doesn’t take itself seriously and neither should the reader.

So, what’s the bottom line? Well, two short proposed definitions:

  • Fantasy is a subgenre of speculative fiction that includes forces or entities for which no natural and testable explanation is implied within the context of the story.
  • Science fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction that includes creatures or technologies of a speculative nature that are governed by natural laws based on those of the real world and which are scientifically explicable within the context of the story.

What I tried to do here is separate the two genres, making the application of science the key differentiating point while still allowing for highly speculative and varied worlds to be included in the realm of science fiction. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded, but I am sure this won’t end the discussion.
 

Related Post: The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

 For Further Reading: The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy? (by David Brin)

Book Review – Paw-Prints of the Gods by Steph Bennion

PawPrintsofGodsTitle:  Paw Prints of the Gods
Author:
Steph Bennion
Publisher:
Wyrdstar Books
First Published:
2013
Genre:
Science Fiction (YA)

Ravana O’Brien resumes her role as an intrepid teenage heroine in this sequel to Hollow Moon, which ends with… well, to avoid spoilers, let’s just say you should not count your dead villains until you see their desiccated corpses. In this story, the residents of her home inside a recently crippled hollowed-out asteroid have become refugees on Ascension, a nearby planet orbiting Barnard’s Star. They are not entirely welcome. In fact, they are not at all welcome. Ravana, now a student at Newbrum University, is not there, though. Her father believes she is on an archeological dig on the distant and inhospitable planet of Falsafah in the Tau Ceti system, but when the story opens, she finds herself in a hospital with very unlikely nurses, and she has no idea how or why she is there. Thus begins a well-told tale of mysteries, escapes, cyberclones, aliens, spies, spaceships, and giant spiders. It is a hard-to-put-down book.

I found the prose, editing, and formatting for the digital edition above average. Pacing is also good. Although some of the science is highly speculative, it is not outlandish within the context of the story. A little suspension of disbelief is required, but this is YA science fiction, so you expect that. The story is written with a limited omniscient point of view from the perspective of several characters, although primarily from that of Ravana. I had no trouble following it, and it was clear who was on center stage at all times. I found the characters quite believable, and I would put Ravana ahead of most teenage heroines I’ve seen in recent fiction. She is brave, intelligent, resourceful, and kind to short grey aliens and rude little boys.

YA science fiction has become something of a rarity these days, and it was delightful for me to find some that was so well done. I highly recommend Paw-Prints of the Gods for YA science fiction readers, but I suggest reading Hollow Moon first.

Full Disclosure: I received a promotional digital copy of this book through Awesome Indies.

Related Post: Book Review – Hollow Moon by Steph Bennion

Book Review – Voyage to the Red Planet by Terry Bisson

VoyagetotheRedPlanetTitle: Voyage to the Red Planet
Author: Terry Bisson
Publisher: William Morrow and Company
First Published: 1991
Genre: Near Future Science Fiction / Space Exploration / Cultural Satire

What struck me when I was reading this near future space adventure is how dated it is. Much has happened since this was originally published in 1991 (not all that long ago), such as further (robotic) exploration of Mars and the collapse of the Soviet Union, both of which never occurred in this story. A couple of the things that did happen in this fictional tale were a rapid decline of the American space program and the privatization of most aspects of government, including NASA and the U.S. Navy. The book does not present a very hopeful future as a result, but it does provide a bit of subtle cultural satire.

It is told from and omniscient point of view with multiple characters, although the central one is Bass, an aging astronaut from NASA’s glory days. He is approached by an entertainment conglomerate to help ‘salvage’ a spacecraft built (but never used) by NASA and the Soviets, and to bring a crew of movie stars to Mars to make a movie and, as a result, a lot of money.

The writing is good, the characters are plausible and their individual motivations make sense, but the premise itself, in addition to being dated, just doesn’t. At least not much. I accept the exaggerations about corporate takeovers of government functions for the sake of cultural satire, but how could a huge spaceship be built in orbit without it being common knowledge? Why would it be fully provisioned and then abandoned until it is salvaged by a movie company twenty years later? And sunlight digitized and stored on CDs to provide a power source? Sorry. That’s not ridiculous enough to be funny or realistic enough to be believable.

All in all, this is a fairly enjoyable hard science fiction tale. It has some satire, a bit of humor, decent characters, and a plot that hangs together well. I can recommend it for Science Fiction fans looking for a good, old-fashioned story of near space.

Book Review – The Lady Astronomer by Katy O’Dowd

LadyAstronomerTitle: The Lady Astronomer
Author: Katy O’Dowd
Publisher: Untold Press
First Published: 2012
Genre:
Science Fiction / Fantasy / Steampunk / Young Adult

Lucretia makes hats. She also assists her brother, a noted astronomer. Her other brother is an inventor. Their lives change when they are summoned to build a large telescope for the king. There are setbacks. There is some rather nasty court intrigue. There is a bit of romance. There are also a couple of far too clever animals, impossible clockwork automatons, seven hardworking short guys and their giant of a boss, and, well, a supporting cast of characters, all with exaggerated quirkiness, which lets you know that this story is not to be taken seriously — at least not on the surface. It is supposed to be fun, and it is.

The characters and the prose style of this charming little book give it the feel of a children’s story from early in the last century, something along the lines of Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh. Today, I think it would be appropriately categorized as Young Adult Steampunk with a touch of fantasy. The steampunk element is provided by the quasi-Victorian tech, such as clockwork automatons and Lucretia’s eyepiece. The fantasy bit comes from the use of living things as ‘animators’ for clockwork mechanisms and from the unbelievable intelligence of Lucretia’s animal companions. It all works together well in the story, though.

It does commit the one, single most unforgivable transgression that I’ve seen now in a few steampunk novels. At one point, it has one of the mechanisms wind itself. I admit that I may be being inconsistent in my capacity for suspending disbelief. For the sake of a good, humorous story, I’m perfectly willing to accept that a potted plant can animate a mechanical butler, but a clockwork bird CANNOT wind itself by flapping its wings. Sorry, but that just crosses my credulity line. I’m willing to overlook it this time, but please don’t let it happen again.

The scenes, especially at the beginning, were sparsely sketched, making it difficult to visualize or even to be sure what was happening or why much of the time. There were also a few minor technical issues with word usage and punctuation, I think, but I only noticed one obvious typo (‘smiled’ instead of ‘smile’).

On the whole, I found this book well-written, adequately edited, and quite enjoyable. I recommend it for readers of all ages. It is the kind of light and charming story that is perfect to fill a rainy afternoon.

The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian

OfficeofMercyTitle: The Office of Mercy
Author: Ariel Djanikian
Publisher: Viking
First Published: 2013
Genre:
Dark Science Fiction / Post Apocalyptic Dystopian Romance

The setting is the mostly depopulated eastern portion of North America a few centuries from the present in a bunker/city known as America-Five. Other Americas are said to exist, but they do not factor into the story.

The backstory, revealed appropriately in bits of conversation and introspection, suggests that most of humanity was intentionally exterminated by the Yangs, the group that originally built and populated the America bunker cities, and perhaps other places. Who exactly the Yangs were, a bunch of ultra-rich survivalists, a governmental hierarchy, a religious cult, or something else, is left vague. Their intent was apparently to kill all of the people on the planet other than themselves, and their justification for this seems to be that the population had become unsustainable and civilization was on the verge of collapse. People were killing one another in conflicts over resources. Others were dying of starvation. Exterminating them all would end their pointless suffering. It would be merciful.

The Yangs failed in this. Some small populations of humanity survived and went on to create the ‘tribes.’ The Yangs themselves were overthrown by the Alphas, who may have been a faction or the children of the original Yangs. So much for the backstory.

The main character of the book, Natasha, is a resident of America-Five. She works in the Office of Mercy. Their job is to locate and ‘sweep’ any tribes entering the area around their bunker city. The preferred method is to use a ‘nova’ (assumed to be something like a tactical nuke) to exterminate whole tribes at a time, although manual sweeps using Office of Mercy ground troops with small arms are also done when necessary.

Natasha comes to question what she is doing, about the rightness of it, which leads her to take actions and make discoveries, some of which are unexpected.

This book is technically well-written. The prose is professional. There is no dump of information to relate the backstory in a prologue or in lengthy exposition. The writing is good, but the story isn’t. I didn’t find it so, in any case. I read fiction primarily for enjoyment, and in that regard, this book fails for reasons both large and small.

Apart from being depressingly dark and dismal, the book contains no characters I could force myself to care about. None of them is admirable. None tries to achieve anything that I felt worthy of succeeding. None captured my sympathy. None was even especially likeable.

I found the backstory implausible. Although no one can accurately foresee the future, the one that preceded the ‘Storm’ (the attempted global extermination) left far too many questions as to how it came about. To me, it seemed so unlikely I could not suspend disbelief enough to accept it for the sake of a story that had no characters or goals I could care about.

The philosophical questions it seems to ask are: Is mercy killing of people ethical? Is it ever justifiable? Can genocide ever be seen as an unfortunate necessity? This story takes no clear stand, but seems to lean toward a ‘yes’ to all of these. Maybe the point is that sometimes things are so bad there are no ethical choices. I’m not prepared to say this is true, but this is a work of fiction. Sometimes fiction can reveal deep truths using events that never have and never will happen. This does not do that.

There are also some little, niggling things. Two especially struck me as strange. America-Five grows its children in vats. They grow replacement organs for their citizens the same way. Okay. Not a problem. This is a plausible future tech. But America-Five also keeps livestock. Why aren’t they growing their meat in vats? It’s the same technology. The other minor logical disconnect was that they have something like tactical nukes and satellites, but they rely on security cameras mounted in trees to monitor the tribes. Why no spy satellites? Why no surveillance drones? They obviously have the technology for these, but they leave themselves blind to the movements of the tribes they both fear and wish to ‘help’ by killing them mercifully.

I expect this book will appeal to some readers. Dark, dystopian novels do have a following, which is why I suppose traditional publishers keep publishing them. This is just another of that type. It did not appeal to me, however, and I cannot recommend it.

Book Review – Makers by Cory Doctorow

MakersTitle: Makers
Author: Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Tor
First Published: 2009
Genre:
Science Fiction, (Near Future, Culture)

In an economically struggling America, two good friends, Perry and Lester, invent and sell novelty items made of junk. This places them in the vanguard of the New Work movement, and they ride that wave until it busts in obvious parallel to the bursting of the dot-com bubble. They shake themselves off, and build an ever-changing amusement ride in south Florida. It seems to be catching on, which in turn, catches the attention of a nervous Disney executive concerned about declining attendance at the Disney World attraction he oversees in Orlando.

And that’s pretty much the plot. It’s the story of Perry and Lester, two guys with lots of imagination but not much business sense. They are joined by Suzanne Church, a journalist turned blogger who reports on what they are doing, and by a few other supporting cast members.

Mainly this is a book of social commentary. It highlights contrasts between protecting vested interests and investment in new ideas, open and proprietary technology, and big corporations and small entrepreneurs. It did all of this fairly well, I thought, and the future it paints is somewhat depressing but believable.

The characters are also believable, for the most part. I have only read one other Doctorow novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and the characters in this one are a definite improvement. They aren’t admirable or even especially likeable, but they have understandable motivations and personalities. Even the two characters serving in the role of villains are more pitiable than evil.

The prose is serviceable and the story flows logically. My biggest gripe about the storytelling was the inclusion of a far too descriptive sex scene, which felt like it was cut and pasted out of some steamy erotic romance novel. It wasn’t required, and it didn’t fit. Oh, and it talks about people smoking clove cigarettes, which are no longer legal in the U.S. and I doubt they will be again in the near future. You can still buy small, clove cigars, but they’re not as good. (Yeah, I used to smoke the things.)

Anyway, as a near future tale about two average geeky guys, this isn’t bad. It’s not silly. It doesn’t rant. The characters aren’t cardboard stereotypes, and it brings up some interesting ideas. I can recommend it for readers interested in seeing one possible future that believable extensions of current technology and economic trends make possible.

Related Post: Book Review – Down And Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Book Review – Take the All-Mart by J.I. Greco

TakeTheAll-MartTitle: Take the All-Mart
Author: J.I. Greco
Publisher: Evil Universe
First Published: 2011
Genre:
Science Fiction, Post Apocalyptic, Humor, Horror (zombies)

This short novel follows the exploits of Trip and Rudy as they roam a post-apocalyptic America in their armored, nuclear-powered, antique Dodge.

The main characters aren’t likeable. They’re thieves and conmen. They’re sexist, sex-obsessed, buffoons who are perpetually high, or drunk, or both. Their only redeeming quality is that they are not worse. They don’t kick puppies, well, not that we know, although one did kick a cat.

They are funny, though, but in a vulgar, base kind of way. They are clowns to be laughed at rather than identified with, and the humor relies on sex, drugs, guns, zombies, and lots of beer. The banter between the characters as they interact with these things can be quite entertaining in a juvenile sort of way.

The setting is imaginative, and there are clever, satirical bits, like the self-expanding mega store used as a weapon that creates zombie associates and shoppers, and the Sisters of No Mercy, nuns who seem to regard sex as a sacrament.

I’m a bit torn about this book. It’s quite good for what it is—crude, juvenile humor. It’s just that this particular type of comedy has limited appeal to me, personally. I tired of it quickly, but I can recommend it for those who like this kind of thing.

 

Related Post: Book Review – Rocketship Patrol by J.I. Greco

Amy’s Pendant is now Available

Pendant e-book Cover 13-2A day late, but the paperback edition of my latest published book is now available on Amazon.

Amy’s Pendant is set in the same world as my ‘Warden’ novels but features a 14-year-old protagonist. I hesitate to call it YA because I did not ‘dumb down’ the vocabulary or simplify the ideas in the book for children. There is no sex, violence, or extremely vulgar language, but it is more of a YA for MA type of book, suitable, I think, for readers 14 and older.

Her father’s inventions aren’t selling, her mother has just lost her job, and there is chance Amy and her parents may soon find themselves homeless. When her aunt suggests that the mysterious pendant Amy received from her cousin for her fourteenth birthday might be a magical treasure finder, she is more determined than ever to solve the puzzle it represents. At first, her efforts lead nowhere, and then they lead to disaster when she becomes trapped inside an underground alien labyrinth populated with strange robots, android animals, and a central intelligence that does not want her to leave.

 

You can get your very own copy at these fine online retailers:
Paperback ($8.99) CreateSpace / Amazon.com
eBook ($1.75) Amazon.com (Kindle) / Smashwords (all eBook formats)

(It is also available from other Amazon sites worldwide.)

Book Review – Farside by Ben Bova

FarsideTitle: Farside
Author: Ben Bova
Publisher: Tor
First Published:
2013
Genre:
Science Fiction

A blind astronomer in charge of an observatory being built on the far side of the moon sacrifices safety in his obsession for winning a Nobel Prize.

A highly competent engineer falsely convicted of negligent homicide on Earth tries to redeem himself on the moon by taking performance-enhancing drugs.

A beautiful woman seeks revenge for a broken heart, heedless of the collateral damage she may cause.

These are just a few of the flawed characters populating Farside.

In some ways, this book feels like a 1950s detective novel—but without the detective. The characters and prose seem more suited to that genre than a modern space opera. When, in the first chapter, a young post-doc reflects on what a hunk the guy sitting near her on the rocket ship is, I began to regard it as such rather than as serious science fiction. If you look at it this way, this is a fine story. There is intrigue, mystery, believable characters with understandable (although often juvenile) motivations… Unfortunately, none of these things fit well in this setting.

The observatory station feels like a regular office complex (but with airlocks). The characters seem like average people.

And that’s the problem. This isn’t most places. It’s an observatory being built on the moon. It includes the largest interferometer ever constructed, which is intended to make observations of what may be the first truly earthlike planet ever discovered, and which all known laws of astrophysics say should not exist in orbit around Sirius. In other words, it’s an important place from a scientific standpoint. One would expect that only the best and the brightest would be working there. The characters in this book are clearly not that exceptional.

This is still an engaging story. The characters, although not well suited to this setting, would be believable in others. They may not be exactly likeable, but each has some attributes most of us can identify with. But there is no ‘sense of wonder’ you get from the best science fiction.

This book may be intended to set the scene for Bova’s next novel in his Grand Tour series, New Earth, in which a human expedition is sent to the mystery planet orbiting Sirius. I’ll probably read it.

It’s not great science fiction, but I can recommend Farside to readers looking for a serviceable story about ambition, revenge, and redemption with a bit of space science thrown in.

Book Review – Doctor Who: The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter

Who-WheelofIceTitle: Doctor Who: The Wheel of Ice
Author: Stephen Baxter
Publisher: Ace Books
Genre: Science Fiction

Although this was published in 2012, it is a story of the second Doctor with companions Zoe and Jammie. The story is reminiscent of the Doctor Who adventure in which Zoe first appears, The Wheel in Space, which aired in 1968. The recordings of it, unfortunately, were ‘misplaced’ by the BBC and it now exists only in fragments. It, too, takes place in the future, in space, and features the rare element ‘bernalium.’

In Baxter’s tale of the Doctor, the TARDIS detects a ‘Relative Continuum Displacement Zone’ and interrupts their journey in order for the Doctor to investigate. They materialize in the rings of Saturn where a mining colony is harvesting one of the gas giant’s icy moons for bernalium. This is annomalous. Beranalium is almost unknown in our solar system. Why such a concentration of it exists here and why there are indications of time travel are the mysteries the Doctor must solve.

The second Doctor was my first, the one I first watched on TV, and I could picture him and his companions in this story. If I had not already been familiar with them, I doubt Baxter’s characterizations in this book would have been sufficient, though. This may have been intentional. If you did not already know these characters, you would not be reading this book, and any development the author tried to do, might conflict with your already established mental images of them.

The other characters were also sketched just enough to get an idea of who they were. Perhaps the one developed most was MMAC, an artificial intelligence embodied in a large construction machine. I found the idea of this gentle android with a heavy Scottish accent endearing. His backstory about having been raised to believe he was human was intriguing.

The villain in this story is a beautiful but otherwise loathsome corporate lackey, whose only goal is the efficient extraction of bernalium. She’s a bit one-dimensional and not easily believable, but she suffices for the sake of the story.

The setting is, I think typical of Stephen Baxter, at least judging from the few books I’ve read of his. It goes into detail about aerospace type science elements of the story, especially about Saturn’s rings and moons, in this case. There are other similarities with his other science fiction, too.

I’ve read a few books by Baxter, and I’ve always found his prose it a bit, well, ‘stiff’ for my taste. I also noticed the inclusion of something called skinsuits, clear, lightweight spacesuits, which I’ve seen in at least one of his other books. I imagine them to be something like cellophane but with amazing thermal properties. They don’t make sense to me, so much so that I find them distracting from the story.

Other than that, I found this to be a well-done Doctor Who tale. It held my interest and I found the read enjoyable. But then, I’m a fan of the Doctor. He’s a kind of anti-action hero in that violence is never his first and best solution to a problem. I find this refreshing.

I recommend the book to all Whovians, especially those who remember the second Doctor.

Book Review – Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells

This novel, set in 1921 and published in 1923 is in a subgenre you don’t see much now — utopian science fiction. Yes, I did say ‘utopian.’ You may be more familiar with this subgenre’s ugly brother, dystopian science fiction. The latter has more shock value so it gets more attention, but I prefer the older, wiser sibling.

The essential difference between utopian and dystopian fiction that I see is their different perceptions of humanity. Although both begin with the premise that the human race has problems, utopian fiction posits that, in the course of time, mankind will solve them. Dystopian fiction, on the other hand, posits that humanity, if it is lucky, might survive.

I don’t read fiction to be shocked. I can get that from the news. I read fiction to be entertained. Occasionally I come across novels that also present a new thought or uncommon perspective, and I consider these welcome bonuses. ‘Men Like Gods’ provides all of these.

The protagonist, Mr. Barnstaple (no first name) is stressed and in desperate need of a holiday. The way he contrives to get away unaccompanied by wife of children, is humorous and charming, in an understated British way, as are his musings on the events of the time. He succeeds in escaping by himself in his little yellow car with no specific destination in mind but ends up much farther away than he could have imagined. A scientific experiment in an alternate dimension goes awry, and Barnstaple and a few others on the road that day find themselves in a strange land with clean air, tame animals, and beautiful people who enjoy unparalleled personal freedom. He’s obviously not in England anymore. The rest of the novel explores how he and his fellow Earthlings react to this strange utopia and how the Utopians react to them.

Considering this book was written almost a century ago, and making certain allowances for that, one thing that struck me was how relevant it remains. There are passages about droughts, famines, and fighting going on around the world that sound almost as if they could be referring to today. This description of economic concerns especially caught my attention:

… The great masses of population that had been blundered into existence, swayed by damaged and decaying traditions and amenable to the crudest suggestions, were the natural prey and support of every adventurer with a mind blatant enough and a conception of success coarse enough to appeal to them. The economic system, clumsily and convulsively reconstructed to meet the new conditions of mechanical production and distribution, became more and more a cruel and impudent exploitation of the multitudinous congestion of the common man by the predatory acquisitive few. That all too common common man was hustled through misery and subjection from his cradle to his grave; he was cajoled and lied to, he was bought, sold and dominated by an impudent minority, bolder and no doubt more energetic, but in all other respects no more intelligent than himself.

The economic system he speaks of is, essentially, the one we still have; one in which common people simply trying to survive can be economically used and abused by those with wealth, power, and low morals. Although, on the bright side, we do have laws and regulations in place now to mitigate the worst examples of such things.

Then there was this about the media of the time:

…newspapers had ceased to be impartial vehicles of news; they omitted, they mutilated, they misstated. They were no better than propaganda rags.

This claim especially seems appropriate to some of today’s media outlets.

What you won’t see in this novel is a detailed description of how the civilization in this alternate universe got from something like early Twentieth Century Earth to a free and peaceful utopia, although the process is said to have taken three thousand years. The point is that people not unlike us were able to overcome things like superstition, prejudice, selfish ambition, and violence. They were able to work together to build a better society in which each individual is free to think, act, and explore the mysteries of the world as they wish.

I won’t say the utopia presented here is exactly one that I would imagine or hope for, but it does seem attractive and maybe even possible. The ideas the novel presents are certainly worth thinking about, in any case, and the story is enjoyable in its own right. I highly recommend it.

Book Review – Redshirts by John Scalzi

I could summarize the plot of this novel in a short paragraph, but I won’t because if I did, you won’t have the “Oh, that’s different” experiences I had reading it, and I quite enjoyed them. I wouldn’t want to ruin those for you.

At one level, this is obviously a parody of Star Trek, The Original Series, told from the perspective of the poor unfortunate crewmembers sent on away missions for the sole purpose of dying in interesting and dramatic ways to advance the plot. As such, it’s a hoot. It has aliens, space travel, split realities, and inexplicable tech stuff. It also has additional layers that make it more than a comic ride through the galaxy aboard the Universal Union Spaceship Intrepid. These layers provide depth and make this a solid, thought provoking read. But even with all the philosophical and existential brain-bending, it is still a lighthearted and charming book.

When I started reading this, it reminded me of the movie Galaxy Quest. Then it became more like Star Trek IV. Then it turned a corner and seemed a bit like the Thursday Next books (by Jasper Fforde) with maybe a touch of The Never Ending Story. (Yes, I confess to being something of a geek, but who else would be reading stuff like this?) My point is that there is more than one story being told here. It’s rather like a thought experiment in novel form. I loved it.

The story has interesting, likeable characters, witty dialogue, and a very Star Trek-like setting. But if you’re looking for a mindless action adventure with a few jokes, this isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a simple slapstick parody of Star Trek, this isn’t it. It is also nothing like Scalzi’s Old Man Goes to War books (which are also very good) or even Fuzzy Nation (also a winner for me). Scalzi continues to grow as a writer, and this book proves it. I won’t say it’s better than his other books, but it is definitely different. What I will say is that I thought it was so good I wished I wrote it.

Book Review – The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

This is a different kind of novel. It could be said that the setting is the story, but what a remarkable setting — a multidimensional string of planets, each one slightly different from our own unique Earth. And, after a missing scientist discloses the trick for stepping from one dimension to another using a potato and some common electronic hardware, we learn how unique. Our home planet is the only one of the countless earths upon which Homo sapiens have evolved. Not that the others are empty. Many contain many familiar and not so familiar species, but ours is the only one with people like us.

The story is related from multiple points of view with no clear protagonist or antagonist. Instead, we are treated to several interesting characters trying to deal with this new multidimensional reality in their own ways.

The primary character is Joshua Valienté, an orphan from Madison Wisconsin who has a rare talent. He can step between Earths without the help of a potato-powered stepper. This attracts the attention of the Black Corporation, a powerful, influential, and extremely wealthy organization, and especially the attention of Lobsang, one of Black Corp’s part owners. Lobsang is the character I found most interesting and entertaining. He is either a delusional artificial intelligence or a dead Tibetan motorcycle mechanic reincarnated as a computer program. Once we get to know him, it hardly matters which. If he has a heart, it’s a good one, although, true to Pratchett form, he has his flaws that only seem to make him more charming.

Joshua and Lobsang travel the long earth and discover that… well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? You’ll have to read it yourself to find out. Let’s just say they learn much more about our sister earths and discover a mystery that could threaten the whole string.

There is one thing I found a bit off. The character of Joshua Valienté is an American but he speaks British. Not intentionally so, I’m sure, but his word choices in a couple places are clearly from that green and pleasant land, and, at one point, he chooses fried slice for breakfast. I’m sorry, but I doubt may Americans even know what is meant by that. (For those of my countrymen who do not, imagine a thick slice of bread fried in hot oil and then, for the brave or foolhardy, topped with butter. If you really want to be traditional, you can fry it in bacon or sausage fat. It’s actually quite delicious but instantly causes the consumer to gain five pounds and increases their likelihood of heart attack by about five percent.)

This is an easily forgivable flaw, if flaw it is. The authors may simply be translating American into English for their readers, much as if they might translate the words of characters from Ankh-Morpork from Morporkian into English and, in the process, make them sound like they’re from Liverpool. That’s fine because we all know they are really speaking Morporkian. Of course, this doesn’t explain the ‘fried slice’ thing.

I enjoyed this book, and I would like to spend some more time in the company of Lobsang and some of the others. I look forward to a sequel, or an infinite string of sequels that further explore this remarkable setting.

Book Review – The Sheriff of Yrnameer by Michael Rubens

My Rating: 5 Stars

I almost did not pick up this book. The cover sucks. I mean, some covers are simply bad but the cover of this book crosses over bad without looking down and lands well over the border to ‘WTF were they thinking?’ The blurb on the back cover by Stephen Colbert doesn’t help things. It says nothing about the story and, if fact, makes it sound sophomoric. The blurb on the inside dust jacket that compared it to Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett attracted me, though, so I gave it a try.

It’s good. It’s not the wild, bizarre ride of the Hitchhiker’s guide or the insightful, satirical humor of Discworld, but it is lighthearted and fun and a thoroughly enjoyable romp with an almost competent space faring rogue trying to escape his luck and his past. I found it a very welcome addition to the far too small field of humorous science fiction. I recommend it.

The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Both science fiction and fantasy present things that do not exist. All fiction does this, of course. That’s what makes it fiction. But science fiction and fantasy include not only imaginary characters and events but settings, creatures, concepts, or devices that are qualitatively beyond our normal, everyday experience. If you are fortunate enough to have a brick and mortar bookstore near you, you are likely to find science fiction and fantasy grouped together in the same section of the store, probably labeled (logically enough) “Science Fiction / Fantasy,” and although they share some characteristics, there is, I think, a clear and unambiguous distinction between them.

Fantasy may be as old as speech. From the time we, well, not us specifically, I mean our ancestors, could communicate more than simple facts, people probably made up stories to explain the inexplicable, like where rain, thunder and babies come from. I’m talking about our earliest ancestors here, not those now living at a ’55-or-older’ community in south Florida, although they probably made up some good stories, too. The people I mean are those who first discovered that they could chip flint to make sharp points to put on the end of long sticks, which they then used to hunt for food and intimidate their neighbors who had wild cave-painting parties late into the night or played their music too loud. I can easily imagine them huddled around a fire, once they got around to discovering that, telling tales filled with imaginary creatures and mystical forces, which remain the defining characteristics of fantasy to this day. Fantasy is as old as mankind.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is a relative upstart, a form of fiction that has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment. Science was an element in fiction as early as the Seventeenth Century, included in works by Francis Bacon (New Atlantis 1617), Johannes Kepler (Somnium 1634), and Francis Godwin (The Man in the Moone 1638). The term ‘science-fiction’ wasn’t coined until 1851 by the English author, William Wilson. The first known reference to ‘science-fiction’ appears in Chapter Ten of his book A Little Earnest Book on a Great Old Subject, but it did not come into common use, apparently, until the 1930’s. I’m not quite that old, so I can’t say I have any first hand knowledge of this, but I have it on good authority that this is true (see references below).

It may be hard for us living in the 21st century to imagine, but people did not always regard the scientific method, that is, empirical evidence obtained through observation and experimentation, as the best way to understand things about the world. In many societies prior to the Enlightenment, reality was what your tradition, king, or priest said it was, and you had a much better chance at living to a ripe old age of about 40 by not questioning them. (The average European life expectancy in the 17th Century was 35.)

According to my old and somewhat tattered copy of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, (you knew I’d include a dictionary definition in this somewhere, didn’t you?) science fiction is “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.” In other words, science fiction relies on a scientific foundation for the speculative elements of the story. The tone of such stories was originally a positive one, supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about the possibilities science creates. Wilson’s usage of the term in 1851 is in reference to the laudable goal of using science fiction to popularize real science. The best of the genre, in my opinion, still does this.

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are two of the earliest true modern science fiction writers. Both stretched the bounds of what was known at the time to posit things that did not exist. Unlike earlier, and even much of the other speculative fiction of the time, though, they based their plot devices on extrapolations from current science and technology. Previous visits to improbable lands, encounters with strange creatures, and even fictional travels through time were often the result of a dream or mystical insight. Both Wells and Verne presented their readers with fantastic machines, but these were based on scientifically explained principles. They included strange creatures, but they were natural rather than supernatural, with abilities explainable, at least in theory, solely in terms of biology and evolution.

Fantasy is less constrained. It can include just about anything — magic wands, vampires, dragons, demons, werewolves, genies, talking rabbits in waistcoats with pocket watches, … well, you get the idea. These things just ‘are’ and don’t need to be explained from a scientific, naturalistic, post-Enlightenment perspective. The magical elements must be internally consistent, but they don’t need to be based on known science. If the story includes supernatural or mythological characters or forces that cannot be supported with plausible sounding techno-babble in scientific terms, then it is fantasy. Well known examples would include Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and (my personal favorite) Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

There are, of course, books that fall into a gray area and even merge these two genres. A term that has been applied to these is ‘science fantasy.’ An example would be Star Wars, which is mainly a fantasy adventure with some science fiction trappings. The fantasy element is the Force, which is described as a mystical ‘energy’ field. The science fiction elements, obviously, are extraterrestrial aliens and space ships, although there is never much of an explanation for how the latter are supposed to work. Another example would be Star Trek, which is mainly science fiction but with some fantasy thrown in. One of the science fiction elements is super-luminal space travel, which the various series explain is achieved through a matter/antimatter reaction creating a warp in space-time. The fantasy aspects of Star Trek include such things as the scientifically unexplained psychic abilities exhibited by Vulcans and Betazoids.

Although there are many exceptions, science fiction stories also tend to take place in an imagined future or futuristic setting while fantasy tends to be set in an imaginary past, often a medieval type setting. This is not always the case, of course. There seems to be a growing popularity for fantasy that is set in current times with stories such as Harry Potter and a plethora of vampire and zombie novels. The possible combinations of settings and mixtures of fantasy and science fiction elements are extensive, and many subcategories of both genres have been identified. I won’t go into these here because they are beside the point of this post, but if you are interested, SF Site put together a good list (http://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm).

When asked to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy, Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer of mystery, science, and history but known mostly for his science fiction, replied, “science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” (http://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm) Although I am a great fan and admirer of Asimov, I think this statement is presumptuous because it implies that we know everything that is possible. I’m inclined to believe we don’t.

A distinction I like better was provided by the Canadian science fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer who I had the honor of chatting with at the 100 Year Starship Symposium hosted by DARPA in 2011. He said, “Succinctly: there’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction.” (http://www.sfwriter.com/2007/08/difference-between-science-fiction-and.html) To expand on this just a bit, I believe he is saying that fantasy proposes the existence of things we can’t begin to explain rationally. Science fiction, on the other hand, must present at least some backstory for how such things could exist and at least imply a plausible theoretical explanation rooted in what we currently know. Where did they come from? How might they work? What allowed them to evolve the way they did? Works of science fiction don’t need to answer such questions in any detail. They don’t require elaborate explanations in the stories, but the reader must feel that scientific explanations for them are possible. Somehow, the fictional marvels that are components of the plot or setting must link back to our current scientific understanding of the real world.

This is the key distinction. Fantasy does not require such things to have a basis in known science. Science fiction does. Science fiction, in the original sense of the term, is supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about humanity’s ability to use science to explain the universe and create a brighter future. In this respect, it is almost the antithesis of Fantasy, which has a mystical basis, positing the existence of things science cannot explain or, quite possibly, deal with.

To appreciate the distinction between the two genres requires some knowledge of science, of course. Without it, the reader has no foundation for distinguishing between ideas that are plausible, unlikely, or almost certainly impossible from a scientific point of view. You don’t have to be a scientist; you don’t need to have a firm grasp of general relativity or quantum mechanics (I certainly don’t), but you must have some familiarity with the major findings of science and an appreciation for how science approaches questions about the world through careful observation and experimentation. As Carl Sagan once said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” (Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, 1979)

 This, I believe, may be the major cause of confusion about these two related but distinct genres. Scientific literacy, especially in America, could be better. If readers believe an opinion is the same as a theory or that intuition and insight are as likely to provide as reliable an answer to a question as controlled testing, then they will not be able tell the difference between fantasy and science fiction. Regular science fiction readers may be more scientifically astute than the general population and therefore more likely to understand the difference, although I know of no survey or study that has been done on this. I do know, at least from anecdotal evidence, that many current scientists and engineers were inspired by reading or watching science fiction when they were young, so at least in that respect, there is a connection.

But even people who believe a magic wand is no less implausible than a TV remote control or that telepathy is as likely as reliable cell phone coverage can read and enjoy fantasy and science fiction. Stories from both genres can be insightful, thought provoking, mind stretching and evoke a sense of wonder. Both can take us to strange and fascinating worlds. There is a difference between the two, but you don’t need to recognize it to enjoy the tales. Personally, I would imagine they are more enjoyable if you do, but this is just my opinion. It’s not science.

 

Related Post: More on the Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy (15 Oct. 2013)

 Select References:

(This article is cross-posted on 1889 Labs – The Future of Fiction: http://1889.ca/2012/04/the-difference-between-science-fiction-and-fantasy/)

Book Review – Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein & Spider Robinson

My Rating: 4 Stars

Don’t believe the cover. This is not a Heinlein novel. It’s a Spider Robinson novel based on an incomplete outline and some notes Heinlein prepared in 1955. It makes for an odd collaboration, but I enjoyed the story. It’s mostly Robinson, though, with a characteristically crude and flawed main character, fond of drink and socially awkward. It includes clichés, snarky asides, and has a first person conversational style that constantly reminds you that this is just a story. Don’t take it seriously. Much of the plot, though, is classic Heinlein. It’s pure science fiction in the original, positive, sense of the term with scientists and spaceships and a spotlight on the importance of free choice and individual human achievement. Somehow, the combination works. It’s not the silly, unsophisticated humor of Robinson, and it’s not the serious comment on humanity of Heinlein, but it succeeds in showing mankind progressing despite mistakes and setbacks, which is what I enjoy most in science fiction and which was the predominant theme of the classic stories from the 1950’s.

Announcing the Paperback Release of The Warden War

The Warden War

The Second Volume of Defying Fate

by
DL Morrese

 

His nation is headed for war, his father thinks he’s imagining things, and his mother still regards him as a child. How can Prince Donald convince the king that the real threat to his kingdom comes from his most trusted adviser? The young prince has only his wits, his courage, and his friends, including two ancient androids, one of which has four legs and barks.

~*~

Book Details:
Word Count: 85,500

Page Count: 335
Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Paperback available from Amazon.com
E-book available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, & Smashwords

 The Warden War continues the quest begun by Prince Donald in The Warden Threat. His father, King Leonard of Westgrove, has been told that the neighboring kingdom of Gotrox has discovered a magical means to animate a mysterious and gigantic ancient stone warrior, the Warden of Mystic Defiance, which it plans to use it to spearhead an invasion of his country. Donald is convinced this is a hoax carefully crafted by his father’s chief adviser to bring about a war to gain control of Gotroxian resources. Donald is determined to thwart him. It will not be easy. Chief Adviser Horace Barter has resources, connections, influence, and the almost unquestioned trust of the king. Donald, sadly, has none of these.

He is not without some resources, though. Although he does not realize it, two of his friends, well, one of his friends and the dog that recently seems to have adopted him as its new master, are androids. They were left behind by an ancient commercial enterprise established on the planet centuries before and have now decided to assist humanity, starting with the prince. The best way to help, they believe, is to reactivate the almost omnipotent artificial intelligence that once ran the now defunct alien business project. This could be risky. One of the reasons it was shutdown two-thousand years ago was that it was quite insane, dangerously so.

~*~

Technically science fiction, the first two Warden novels are almost anti-fantasies, which poke a fair, or perhaps an unfair amount of good-natured fun at the serious tone and dependence on magic common to many epic fantasy adventure genre novels. Because they are loosely based on the U.S. buildup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, they include elements of political and cultural satire as well. With their charming and truly likeable characters, witty, intelligent humor, and prose style blending humorous science fiction and epic fantasy elements, they are a fun read. I believe they will appeal to readers of these genres who may be looking for something fresh and different.

Cover Update

After spending far more time on this than I wished, I think I finally have a cover I can live with for the paperback edition of The Warden Threat. I thought I had this several times before, but I received multiple comments that previous versions looked too much like a Photo-shopped photograph (among other things). I hope this one overcomes that. Anyway, here it is. I welcome comments.

You may notice –how could you help not– that the title is in large font and bright colors. This is mainly so that it will show up well as a thumbnail, but it is also meant to convey that this book contains humor. The scene depicted, although not accurately, is one from about the middle of the book in which the protagonist, Prince Donald of Westgrove, is trying to animate the ancient and mysterious statue known as the Warden of Mystic Defiance. It sits high in the mountains of the neighboring Kingdom of Gotrox in a crater-like canyon with silvered walls. He is naked because the “spell” he has found, which he believes is the means to bring this huge enigmatic artifact to life and obey the commands of the caster, specifies that a prince, “naked to the Warden’s love,” must recite it. After his first failed attempt, Prince Donald reluctantly concludes that this line must be taken literally.

In other news, my edits and revisions of this book are now done. I would like to do one more proofreading before it goes to print, however. Look for the revised ebook in the next couple of months and the paperback shortly thereafter. The cover for the ebook will be pretty much the same as the front cover of the paperback.

I’m in the middle of editing and revising the sequel, The Warden War. I don’t have a cover for this one yet but I’ve been corresponding with the cover artist, and I am optimistic about it. I sent some files to her yesterday for her consideration.

The first draft of my third book is complete and awaiting additional work until I’ve put the first two to bed. It is more Young Adult oriented with a younger protagonist. She is briefly mentioned in the previous books but this is her first appearance. Some of the characters from the first books appear in it as well though. The third book is more clearly science fiction and reveals more about the now defunct commercial enterprise established on this planet several thousand years ago by the Galactic Organic Development Corporation. I have not decided, but I am considering attempting to go the traditional publishing route with this one. Self-publishing may be more advantageous to authors, but it is a lot more work, and these extra duties take time away from what I really want to do, which is write more stories.

Book Review – Crystal Eyes by Allen Donnelly

 My Rating: 4.8 Stars

The people of Earth have achieved, if not a utopia, then at least a reasonably comfortable existence. There is still a great divide between rich and poor but no one starves. Everyone can get medical attention. No one has to live on the streets. Humans are just beginning to break their ties with Earth and establish a foothold in space. But then a massive and inexplicable solar flare erupts, destroying all electrical equipment out to the farthest reaches of the solar system and irradiating the Earth, causing mutations both hideous and fantastic.

But life is tenacious and humanity goes on. A new religion is born, the Solanists, worshipers of the Sun that has wreaked its vengeance upon mankind. They become dominant, at least in the portion of North America in which the story is set. They impose order and, with a religious fervor not seen since the Inquisition, seek to cleanse the world of evil.

It is in this post-apocalyptic, Wild West world that Christine is born. She’s a demon. At least that is what the Solanists call her and the other mutants. Unlike many others, Christine’s deformities are not immediately obvious. Other than a ghostly pale complexion, one would not know she is a demon – that is, not until she opens her eyes of dark, faceted crystal.

And that is all I will say about the plot to avoid spoilers. Now I’ll talk about what I liked about the book and what I think might be seen as detractors.

First of all, the characters are wonderful. You immediately feel sympathy with the main character, Christine, who will eventually be known as Crystal or Crystal Eyes. She is the heroine of the story and becomes almost a mythic and inspirational figure to those oppressed by the rigid Solanists. She has amazing abilities but she is not invincible. To compare her to comic book heroes, she is more Spiderman than Superman. She is a loner until she meets up with two companions, a relatively suave but impetuous rogue named Drake and a quiet and thoughtful giant of a man named Tarak. They remind me of Inigo and Fezzik from The Princess Bride.

The prose style is remarkably good with just enough description to convey the look and feel of the setting without going overboard into literary extremes. This is an action adventure but the author wisely avoids graphic descriptions of the violence. He is not out to shock or disgust his readers. There are several scenes of violent and deadly confrontation but he does not dwell on the dripping blood and gore that result. There is no need. The story is more than strong enough to hold your attention without urging you to toss your cookies.

Which brings me to the plot once again. This is your basic good, oppressed minority fighting against a strong, oppressive majority kind of story.  Yeah, that’s been done thousands of times but when the story is imaginative, when it has likeable characters, when the setting is believable, then it’s the kind of story we enjoy reading. This one is.

Okay, now for the stuff that might be considered detractors. The book begins with a prologue that provides the backstory of what human civilization was like before the solar flare. This is seldom advisable but I think it may have been necessary for this story. It heightens the reader’s appreciation for what has been lost. Still, there is a fair amount of backstory, interesting though it may be, to slog through before chapter one.

At the beginning, the Solanists are almost too evil. They seem to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. But as the story progresses, the author starts to humanize them. They are no longer cookie cutter bad guys.

The only other thing of note on the negative side that I saw was a few typos that escaped the editing process. There were not enough to detract from the story and, given that this is a self published novel and that it carries an extremely low price because of that, I find these easy to forgive.

I am not normally a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction because it is often fairly depressing. This is not. Yes, there has been a catastrophe and humanity is being held under the thumb of small minded and often sadistic zealots but there is resistance and most people are portrayed, realistically, as fairly decent folks just trying to get by. When the last page is read, you feel hopeful that the world described in the prologue can eventually be reborn.

My overall rating for this book is 4.8 stars and I recommend it.

 

Full disclosure: I was given a free download of this book by the author with no strings attached. I am doing this review because it is a damn good story. I hope he writes more.

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