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Book Review – Few Are Chosen, K’Barthan Trilogy: Part 1 by M T McGuire

Few-are-ChosenTitle: Few Are Chosen, K’Barthan Trilogy: Part 1
Author: M T McGuire
Publisher: Hamgee University Press
Genre: Lighthearted Science Fiction

This is a cross-genre story that feels like it should be classified somewhere between Doctor Who and Discworld. I’m calling it science fiction rather than fantasy because at one point the ‘magic’ is described as the clever application of the strange effects of quantum mechanics. This is no more outlandish than the Doctor’s TARDIS, although instead of the unlikely time travel of Doctor Who, this story includes travel between our reality and an unlikely alternate dimension.

It’s an interesting place.

This alternate Earth is run as a police state, and our reluctant hero, The Pan of Hamgee, is a Goverment Blacklisted Indivdual. His existence is therefore illegal, and the fact that he has survived as a GBI for five years, which is about four and a half years longer than normal, proves that he is very good at not being caught. This talent comes to the attention of Big Merv, a major crime boss who recruits him as his new getaway driver. For the Pan of Hamgee, this is good news for two reasons. As a GBI, no legitimate employer will hire him, and Merv’s other option was dumping him in the river – with cement overshoes – but these are details we don’t need to go into here.

This story has flying car chases, a bad guy you love to loath, likable gangsters, and a hero you can really identify with since, like most of us, he’s not terribly heroic – at least not intentionally. He reminds me a bit of Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. He’s a professional coward whose talent for getting into unintended trouble is only exceeded by his talent for escaping from it. All he wants is a simple, normal life, but the universe seems to have another fate planned for him. The book also has a few laughs, a lot of smiles, and even a bit of political and religious satire. There are far too few books like this. Great characters, interesting setting, humor, and cultural satire, with a genuinely good plot providing a framework holding them all together is a hard blend to achieve and an even more difficult one to do well. This book does.

The prose is well executed with just enough description for the reader to visualize the scenes. Backstory, where needed, is integrated seamlessly into the narrative. Dialog is believable and suitable to the characters and to the situation. Grammar, spelling, formatting, and other of technical requirements of the storyteller’s trade that sometimes pose a problem for the independent writer are executed professionally in this book.

It passes my personal 5-star test. In addition to all the basics needed for a well-told tale, it has that something extra that would prompt me to read it again. I enjoyed following the misadventures of The Pan of Hamgee, a likeable sod thrown into an uncomfortable situation in an imaginative world that has certain parallels to our own. I highly recommend it to readers of lighthearted speculative fiction or anyone who may be looking for something a bit different and a lot of fun.

Book Review – Star Begotten by H.G. Wells

This short novel was first published in 1937, and seventy-five years later, I finally got around to reading it. It took me a while because I had to wait around for things like my parents to reach puberty, me being born, learning to read, and then realizing this book existed. I find this last thing surprising because, after reading it, I am amazed it does not have a cult following. There should be T-shirts and buttons for people who wish to identify themselves as Star-Begotten or Star-Born. Once you read it, you’ll know what I mean.

The story centers on Joseph Davis, a popular writer of romanticized histories, who comes to believe that some people differ fundamentally from most of us. They are more rational, possibly more talented and intelligent. Who are these people? Why are they different?

After what amount to BS sessions with his friends and associates, Davis entertains the hypothesis that genetic mutations caused by cosmic rays are responsible for this new step in human evolution. One of his compatriots suggests that since the mutations appear neither random nor harmful, they must be intentional. Martians (as a euphemism for aliens) are tagged as likely agents. There is an interesting contrast presented here in which people of today (well, people of 75 years ago) jump to unscientific, irrational speculation to explain how people are becoming more rational. Wells is indulging in a bit of dry, tongue-in-cheek humor with this, I suspect.

But the cause of the mutations is not the central point, it’s simply a dryly humorous plot device. The thought provoking question behind it is, ‘Is humanity really becoming more intelligent and more rational?’ And the other question is, ‘Should it?’

This is not your average kind of novel. In some ways, it’s a philosophical treatise on politics and humanity like Plato’s Republic or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, except, unlike the latter, Star Begotten is enjoyable, optimistic, and well-written. It’s one of those books that can make you think, if you let it. It can give you ideas. And this may be why it never rose to cult classic status. Ideas can be uncomfortable things. This is what Wells himself says about them:

A notion is something you can handle. But an idea, a general idea, has a way of getting all over you and subjugating you, and no free spirit submits to that. Confronted with an idea the American says: ‘Oh, yeah!’ or ‘Sez you,’ and the Englishman says: ‘I don’t fink,’ or at a higher social level: ‘Piffle—piffle before the wind.’ These simple expressions are as good against ideas as the sign of the cross used to be against the medieval devil. The pressure is at once relieved.’ (Another case of Wells’ dry humor.)

There are about ten other sections, mostly assessments about the current state of mankind, that I marked because I thought they deserved to be shared. But this would make for a very long book review, or whatever this is, so I’ll refrain from doing that. I will, however, share this summation of how Wells says you can recognize these star-begotten people:

one characteristic of this new type of mind is its resistance to crowd suggestions, crowd loyalties, instinctive mass prejudices, and mere phrases, … these strongminded individualists … doing sensible things and refusing to do cruel, monstrous, and foolish things…

Is humanity progressing? Is it overcoming its infancy? Is it becoming rational? I don’t know but I would like to believe so. I’ve met sane, intelligent people and I suspect there are a lot of them. If you think you may be one, Wells provides this cautionary statement in the voice of one of the book’s more cynical characters:

There are bad times ahead for uncompliant sane men. They will be hated by the right and by the left with an equal intensity.

I found this short novel refreshingly different from popular contemporary ‘action-packed’ and largely idea-barren novels. It is a thought provoking social commentary about ideas, the evolution of ideas, and human potential. The charming characters, bits of dry humor, and the hopeful, optimistic outlook also appealed to me. I highly recommend it for those seeking something other than mindless entertainment.

 

Links:

Star-Begotten e-book (free html format) on Project Guttenberg – http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0701231h.html

Positive Science Fiction – A Better World

   In the first post in this series, I defined a work of positive fiction as one that conveys a hopeful, optimistic, or other positive mood. In the second post, I argued that the positive image of humanity that supports this mood in science fiction is a realistic one. In this, the final post of the series (or the last one I’ve planned anyway), I will discuss why I think positive science fiction is especially appealing and why I think there should be more of it.

I struggled with how to present this case because there are several points that need to be made. Let me start out with this one, which may be a bit controversial. Speculative fiction is fundamentally a more intellectual genre than others. That may be something of a value call though so let me rephrase it. Speculative fiction, especially science fiction, causes us to step outside our current world and look back at it. In this way it is the most philosophical and scientific of fiction genres because it can question pretty much anything. Every belief, every assumption, every aspect of culture is open to scrutiny. Like other genres, speculative fiction begins with our real world but it isn’t set there. It wouldn’t be speculative if it was. Something must be different and I don’t mean just ray guns or flying cars. The addition of some high tech hardware or alien life does not make a work of fiction speculative by itself. I try to avoid the pejorative use of the term ‘sci-fi’ (sometimes pronounced skiffy) because I don’t necessarily agree that the distinction between sci-fi and SF is as clear as some seem to believe. But a novel with flying cars isn’t true science fiction if all other aspects of the setting are essentially the same as those where the reader lives. It may be ‘sci-fi’ but not SF or speculative fiction.

Science fiction posits a truly different world that would feel strange to us if we were dropped into it. It can have flying cars or ray guns or even ghosts, gremlins, or two-headed crocodile gods but these must have some plausible explanation, at least plausible enough for an intelligent reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. I hope this doesn’t sound elitist but some means of differentiation is needed.

Speculative fiction often begins by asking, “What if?” What if history unfolded differently? What if something happens tomorrow that challenges our current assumptions? What would we do? How would our world be changed? Many works of soft science fiction especially look at current human cultures and contrast them to what could be. They remind us that human society as it exists today is just one of an almost infinite number of conceivable possibilities, some of which may appear better and some worse.

This questioning of everything is the defining characteristic of speculative fiction and it is what sets it apart from other fiction genres. It is also what makes some people truly dislike it. This brings me to my next point.

People who read speculative fiction are especially bright. The intellectual challenge of being exposed to a different world where very little can be assumed excites them. They want to figure out what makes this fictional world different from their own and how it works. They are open minded and willing to entertain questions about their own beliefs and assumptions. They understand that they occupy a single point in space-time and that it is not a privileged position. Not everyone is comfortable with this. Some may not be capable of it. But speculative fiction readers thrive on such mind stretching questions.

In all speculative fiction something is different than it is in our world and science fiction stories show us how people are affected by those differences. In order to do this believingly, or entertainingly in the case of fiction that is humorous, satirical, or intentionally unbelievable (e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the author needs an understanding of humanity and how it might react to such differences, which brings us back to that underlying question about the fundamental nature of mankind. The one thing fictional stories must retain is a realistic image of humanity otherwise readers will not be able to identify or empathize with the characters.

The types of people who are drawn to speculative fiction are capable of asking big questions and they are capable of seeing the big picture. I believe that are also likely to understand that a species such as our own cannot go from flint knives to spaceships without having something going for it. Humanity has demonstrated that it can accomplish great things and readers of speculative fiction especially are likely to appreciate this either consciously or subconsciously. If a fictional story is based upon the mistaken premise that humanity as a whole is stupid, warlike, aggressive, cruel, and selfish then the story will seem contrived to them. They may have a hard time understanding exactly why but it will feel wrong.

For intelligent and insightful readers such as these, positive science fiction can provide a tonic to cure the misconceptions about humanity and its future that the news and mainstream fiction can convey. It can remind us that humanity has progressed and is likely to continue to progress, it can help us put current events into a more historical perspective so they can be seen more accurately, and it can reaffirm a sense of hope and optimism for our future.

Consider what is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of science fiction in the middle of the last century. The stories that mark this period were often a celebration of human achievement and they inspired not only a sense of wonder about the universe but a hopeful image of continued human exploration and discovery. Stories such as these are the true roots of science fiction. They were a different type of story for a different type of reader and I think part of their appeal was because they were based on a truer understanding of what humanity was and what it is capable of.

It may be something of a cliché but fiction really does shape our future. This is especially true for science fiction. I attended the 100 Year Starship Symposium sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was held the first weekend of October 2011 here in Orlando. This was a gathering of scientists, engineers, and even science fiction writers and philosophers to discuss the future of human space exploration. A point that was made in several talks was how much science fiction had inspired people. One speaker said that an impromptu survey he took of his engineering students revealed that over 80% of them listed Scotty from Star Trek as their primary motivation for going into that discipline. The works of Asimov, Heinlein, and others from the golden age of science fiction were also credited as being major inspirations for scientists and engineers.

Think about that and consider what current mainstream science fiction might be inspiring young people to become if anything. As writers it is our job to entertain, not shape the future but intentionally or not this is something that fiction can do. And I think we should ask ourselves if we are helping to create a bright future or a dismal one.

I would like to see science fiction return to its golden age roots. Other fiction genres can take the dark side but true science fiction should not. I suppose a subgenre distinction could be make between “mainstream” science fiction, which follows the tone and mood of other genres to appeal to wider audiences and “true” or “positive” science fiction, which carries a more hopeful (and truer) tone and mood but I can find no indication that this distinction is being widely made. Perhaps it should be.

Related Posts:

Positive Science Fiction Part 1 – Emerging From The Dark
Positive Science Fiction Part 2 – Understanding Humanity

The 100 Year Starship Symposium (100YSS) – Resurgence of a Dream
On Digital Books And The Evolution Of Genre Fiction
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs

Book Review – Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

  My Rating: 4 Stars

I met Robert J. Sawyer, an award winning science fiction author from Toronto, Ontario last weekend at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Orlando, Florida. He was outside in the warm Florida sunshine looking over some of the literature from the symposium and I had just come out to puff on a clove cigar, a recently reacquired vice that I should never have started again and should quit.

I recognized him immediately from the photos on his website, which I had visited a few times before. When we met, I would have loved to tell him how much I had enjoyed his books but the fact is I had never read any. Instead, I just thanked him for coming to speak at the symposium. The next day, we met again during a break and I told him how much I enjoyed his comments during one of the science fiction author panels the symposium hosted. At both brief chance encounters, I found him quite friendly and engaging.

Mr. Sawyer is one of a few authors on my “to get around to someday” list. I hadn’t gotten around to his books yet because they sounded a little “heavy” to me. I really enjoy novels that explore deep, philosophical questions, as his appeared to do, but I prefer those with a humorous, lighthearted, or satirical tone. From the descriptions I’d read, his seemed to be more serious and possibly even a bit preachy.

But a few days after the symposium, I went to the local library and picked up three of his novels. I just finished reading the first of these.

Hominids is an engrossing tale of cultural contrasts. In this novel, Ponter, a physicist from a parallel universe, and his partner accidentally open a portal between their Earth and ours. Ponter is sucked into ours and his arrival makes quite an impression, not because of its unexpected nature or because of what it means to our understanding of physics but because Ponter is a Neanderthal.

The book flips back and forth between showing what the consequences of this accident are in both worlds. In so doing, Sawyer provides an interesting contrast between their physiology, culture, religion (or lack thereof), and technology and ours. Looking at ourselves from the outside is one of the things I find most compelling about speculative fiction and Sawyer does that in this book. There were a few things I thought fairly contrived, poorly explained, or simply unlikely though.

The human (Homo sapiens) characters in the book are either one dimensional or simply unbelievable. One, a female geneticist called in to verify that Ponter’s DNA is, in fact, Neanderthal, seems especially so. She quickly falls for this gentle hunk of man after having been raped just prior to learning of his sudden appearance. The fact that this supposedly brilliant scientist who, somewhat oxymoronically, is a fairly devout Catholic, allows herself to be swept away emotionally in this way, especially after such a traumatic event, makes little sense. A hesitant friendship would be understandable but a romantic attraction, although it remains chaste, is not.

There is a discussion on consciousness between Mary, the geneticist, and another character toward the end of the book that also had me scratching my head. They are speculating on what it is that causes people, either us or the Neanderthals, to develop consciousness. The proposed hypothesis that this is somehow due to a sudden and poorly explained quantum event sounds almost magical. Mary doesn’t challenge the idea. In fact she seems to seriously consider it.

A third thing that I have a hard time with is the description of the Neanderthal society. It is described as a hunter-gatherer culture with a very small global population that never developed farming. Things like furniture are made individually by craftsmen (or crafts-women). No mention is made of any type of industry or mass production and yet they have somehow developed a technology capable of developing sophisticated robots and seemingly sentient artificial intelligence. How? Is this another mystical quantum thing?

This book gets three stars by default from me because it looks at our society from the outside and does so competently. The reason for the extra star is because it is highly absorbing at the beginning. I found it hard to put down and it did hold my attention. Another reason for the extra star is that I’ve met Mr. Sawyer and he’s a very charming fellow.

How to Create Covers for Ebooks

Today’s post is about my own experience but hopefully it will be helpful to some of the people out there in cyberspace looking to publish their own ebooks.

One of the most frustrating things I had to do to self publish was to create ‘covers’ for my books. I am a man of limited artistic talent although I did take an art class once when I was younger to meet girls and no, I’m not saying how long ago that was. I got no dates but I did learn how to draw a banana in charcoal. If I ever write a book on bananas this will certainly come in handy but since I haven’t yet, I was at something of a loss with my book cover.

I did what most of us would do at a time like this. I searched the web and found all sorts of sites offering to sell me their software. I tried some free samples. They worked, more or less, but none was especially easy to use and none came with anything I thought was suitable artwork. I write speculative fiction so a stock photo of a pretty girl picking flowers, or sailboats or a landscape of green hills just won’t work.

It was time to go back to the web. I found sites offering to create a unique cover custom designed for my books for a surprisingly wide range of prices, from less than a hundred to over a thousand dollars. But I’m also a fairly cheap, I mean frugal man and this writing habit was already costing me money. I was reluctant to shell out much cash to support it unless it started paying me back. So what is a frugal writer who is only marginally adept at drawing a banana supposed to do?

I did more research. Research is free. I looked at my bookshelf first; the physical one with the paper books. There were some lovely covers there but most were far too complex for me to have any chance of using as a template — with one notable exception; Thud by Terry Pratchett. A copy is posted above. There are a couple of things about this I like but the first thing that attracted me was how simple it was. And since it was by my favorite author, I knew it had to be good. (That’s a Pratchett plug by the way. Remuneration from his publisher will be gladly accepted — preferably before the next mortgage payment is due.)

I also researched the covers of books on Amazon and one thing became clear right away. Covers that look good in a bookstore do not necessarily look good when they are shrunk down and displayed on a computer monitor. Those that did were much like the cover for Thud. They were simple and had bright colors and large letters. But I still couldn’t do the art. Yes, it was just a cartoon drawing but the best I might manage would still probably look like a banana.

I went back to the web. I searched for free stock photos, clipart and cartoons. There are some but none that really grabbed me. But while searching, I hit on something I wasn’t really looking for. Avatars. Those little images people use for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Apparently avatars are also used by online gamers and I found a few sites where you can make your own. And best of all, they were free.

So that’s what I did. I went to a few of them. (You can do your own search to find the ones you like best.) Most are pretty limited and you can’t do a lot of tailoring of the images you create. Some were also fairly difficult to use but I managed to make some JPG files that could be used as raw material. The image on the home page of this blog came from one of those.

I took the JPG files and opened them in a program on my computer called Paint. It came with my Microsoft Windows software so I didn’t need to buy anything new. There are also free programs like Gimp that can edit JPG pictures but I used Paint. I won’t say it was easy to tailor the images to what I thought would work for my covers and it wasn’t quick but it was possible. I cropped, touched up, altered, recolored and resized.

So I finally had some JPG art that I thought might work. Now I had to turn them into ebook covers. This is when inspiration hit. I already had a program on my computer that might be able to do this and, best of all, I knew how to use it. I just didn’t know how to use it to make book covers. I had used Microsoft PowerPoint for years to make slides for briefings and reports; not as part of my real job as a writer but as part of my paying job. It took me a while but I think I finally figured it out. It’s really rather simple, especially if you are familiar with PowerPoint.

The first thing you need to do, and the thing that eluded me the longest, is to change the orientation of the slide. On my version of PowerPoint you do this by gong to the “File” tab and selecting “Page Setup” from the dropdown. A window opens up with radio buttons. Change the “Slides” selection from “Landscape” to “Portrait” and this will give you a template ideal for an ebook cover. Delete any text boxes that automatically come up so you have a blank page to work with.

I’m not going to go through how to use PowerPoint. I’m sure Mircosoft has guidance out there on how to do this but I will list what I did. These are in no particular order and you can do them in any sequence you want.

After I finally figured out how to change the orientation of the slide, I selected a background color and pattern. There are a lot of combinations to choose from.

Then I inserted my JPG file images. You can also use the clipart that comes with the program to add things like vines or frames or other doodads. I decided not to after playing with some of them because it detracted from the clean and simple look I wanted that would show up well as a small icon next to the “order now” button.

I positioned the images, set the transparency color (the one you want to be invisible), and brought them forward or back behind others as needed. You just right click the image for this option.

The last thing was the text. Again I wanted it simple; just title and author. I tried a few options for the text but using WordArt provided the best result in my opinion. PowerPoint gives you the same kind of options for WordArt as you have for any other kind of picture you insert.

Once I had a cover I thought looked good, I simply saved it as a JPG file. It is already the correct size for an ebook cover so you don’t have to do anything else unless you want to do some minor tweaks using Paint or a similar program. I had to do this if my transparency color made some things invisible that shouldn’t have been.

That’s it. The covers I came up with are the ones you see on my Warden Novels tab. They have what I was looking for; bright colors, simple design, and large text. If you have a moment, let me know what you think of them. Or if you have a better way of doing this for free please let me know that too.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My Rating: 5 Stars

Let me start out by saying that I found this book mind-bendingly hilarious.  There are those who will disagree, some who found it silly, pointless, or even unreadable and all I can think of is that they just didn’t get it.  (Just check out some of the reviews on Amazon.)  Of course as with music, art, and food, not every book will appeal to everyone.  This one appealed to me though and I think it ranks as a notable work of speculative fiction.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy forces readers to see the world from a different perspective and it drags them to this new vantage point laughing all the way if they allow it to, if they can suspend their disbelief long enough to let it.  It begins with Arthur Dent doing the mundane things all of us do in our mundane world, shaving, brushing his teeth, and then he suddenly realizes that his house is about to be knocked down to build a bypass.  Shift perspective.  His normal routine is disrupted by a new, bigger picture.  He is trying to stop the bulldozers when his friend Ford Prefect shows up.  He has something important to say to him and he wants to say it at the local pub.  The Earth is going to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass.  Shift perspective again.  His world has gone from being, well, the whole world to a minor nuisance so much so that the only reference to Earth in the Encyclopedia Galactica is that it is “mostly harmless.”  And then as the book progresses it continues to challenge some very fundamental assumptions.  Is the universe really as orderly and logical as we assume it to be or do the laws of nature we understand amount to just one of an infinite number of possibilities?  What really is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything—and does the question really make any sense?  But whatever infinitely improbable circumstance you may find yourself in, the Hitchhiker’s Guide provides one bit of sagely advice—DON’T PANIC!

Star Trek

Star Trek (the original series) wasn’t the first science fiction T.V. show I ever saw but it was the first that was geared for adults with live actors.  By today’s standards the special effects were hokey and the dialog sometimes seemed a bit contrived but the show had many of the things I think of as components of great speculative fiction.  It was not a simple man versus monster, human versus alien, good guy versus bad guy space swashbuckler (although those can be fun).  No, Star Trek had substance.  It provoked thought.  It explored fundamental aspects of human nature and culture.  But I think what I liked most about Star Trek (in all of its incarnations) was that it provided a hopeful picture of humanity’s future.  It showed a humanity that had overcome prejudice and superstition, had learned to work together, and which strived to understand those who were different, not fear them.  Of course when all else failed they could still fire a full spread of photon torpedoes but that was a last resort, not the preferred option.

Some of the many “big issue” topics that the original series examined were:

Absolute power.  Star Trek: The Original Series – Where No Man Has Gone Before

Being human.  Star Trek: The Original Series – What are Little Girls Made Of

Cultural stagnation.  Star Trek: The Original Series – The Return of the Archons

Freedom and slavery. Star Trek: The Original Series – The Gamesters of Triskelion

Racial prejudice. Star Trek: The Original Series – Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

Here is a link to the Star Trek website where you can watch full length original series episodes.  Fair warning though, there are ads so you will need to disable your ad blocker.

http://www.startrek.com/

Fireball XL5

Fireball XL5 was a marionette T.V. show in the 1960s.  It centered on a group of heroes from the World Space Patrol protecting the solar system from alien invasion.  It sounds corny now but back then I thought this was really cool and I wanted to join up.

I had a plastic Fireball XL5 toy ship that you could shoot up in the air and, if you folded up the parachute just right, it would float down safely although I had more fun with it acting out adventures in our living room, especially after the parachute became hopelessly tangled.  It was still my favorite toy when I was ten.  I actually found a site that had a picture of it.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/modern_fred/3327852255/

The show also had a jazzy theme song that you can listen to here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXGGuqXB8h4

Surprisingly a DVD set of this old show can still be purchased.  The link below also has a good summary of the series.

http://www.amazon.com/Fireball-XL5-Complete-Paul-Maxwell/dp/B00007J6DN

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