Thursday, November 24, 2016

Karl Schroeder's Lockstep

I don't review as much SF as I used to because editing keeps me too busy reading manuscripts to be able to find time to read much else. But I had occasion to drive across Canada this week, and my wife suggested that I play some audio books in the car to keep focused, and to make the drive a little more enjoyable.

[I have also enjoyed the scenery. The Canadian Shield is pretty awesome this time of year: frozen waterfalls along every cliff face, the evergreens frosted in snow, a deer on the road, and I think I spotted a Bobcat at one point. True, everything along the TransCanada around Lake Superior is closed for the season and boarded up, and there were like four other cars on the highway the whole 1,000k, so had the seasonal blizzards I had been warned against actually materialized, I would have been a dead man, not having winter tires, but made it through okay.]

My first choice was Raising Steam the one Discworld novel I hadn't had a chance to read yet, though it has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years already. You don't need me to review it: it's a Discworld novel, so you already know all you need to know about it.

The second was Lockstep, the one Karl Schroeder novel I hadn't gotten around to yet because it is marketed as YA.

Not that I have anything against good YA, but one can only take so many dystopian novels where the young hero(ine) overthrows the corrupt establishment. They are all pretty much the same book/series, lately, followed by the same movie(s).

But this is Karl Schroeder and he has never disappointed me before, so I went for it. And I have to say, Lockstep turned out to be absolutely brilliant.

First, the setting is utterly unique. A completely original idea in a field where really new ideas have become depressingly rare. Schroeder, professional futurist that he is, refuses to write SF that violates the laws of physics (no warp drives!) so he has instead come up with the very first completely logical, probably doable, interstellar civilization without faster-than-light drive. That alone qualifies the novel as "absolutely brilliant". This is the equivalent of when Arthur C. Clarke invented geostationary satellites before there were satellites. Someday, some historian will write a thesis on how Schroeder predicted/invented the lockstep system x number of decades before it came to pass.

But this is Schroeder we're talking about here, so he doesn't stop with just coming up with a fundamentally new concept; he works through all the implications of his invention: all the functions and dysfunctions and unintentional side effects that logically follow from the lockstep system. And a completely credible history of how the system might have evolved organically from humble, essentially accidental beginnings. One of the things that has always attracted me to Schroeder's SF is that the economics of his worlds are always thoroughly worked out, along with the social relations that would invariably follow from his newly invented means of production. (In contrast to most American mass market SF where authors see nothing wrong with, say, having an aristocracy running a post-industrial society. Head::Desk.)He also throws in a couple of completely original, yet oddly credible, new forms of representative government for good measure. His world is so completely realized, that I find myself thinking of a dozen stories I'd like to set in that universe....that, or write a couple of economics papers. And most amazing of all, he manages to accomplish all this without lumps of exposition getting in the way of the story. Instead, he establishes a narrative structure in which it is perfectly reasonable for our protagonist not to know, and to have to figure out, how everything works.

And as is the case with all of Schroeder's novels, underneath the SF is a social critique of our own society and foibles, but so subtly woven into the background that it's never intrusive. His novel, Permenence, for example, is a nice little space adventure; only I haven't ever been able to use an ATM machine since without thinking of that novel and getting really, really mad at the banks' manipulation of microfinances. In Lockstep he provides an insightful critique of multiplayer video games without ever saying a word against them...

The lockstep concept would be enough to make this a must read SF novel, the first really new idea in the genre in a long time, but this is a multilayered novel, and the book really isn't about Lockstep. That's just the setting. The real point of the novel is the conflict between tradition and progress, between a destiny that pushes one from behind, and the hope that pulls one into the future. Well, Schroeder explains it a lot better than that, but this is the sort of philosophical debate that I want my daughters to be reading and wrestling with. What makes this great YA is not that the protagonist is a teen, but that it presents the reader with the really big ideas about life and choice and meaning. And he does it all with a beautifully simple image which is as easy to understand as it is memorable.

And then there is the plot. I was enjoying the usual protagonist-trying-to-figure-out-what-is-going-on mystery one often gets in the better sort of YA, but then Schroeder throws in a twist that I did not see coming at all. I thought I was reading a sociological mystery, but it suddenly turned into a psychological mystery. As with the movie, Sixth Sense, I was so thoroughly surprised, I thought at first he must have cheated; but no, going back over the book, everything was laid out for the reader, if the reader was only sharp enough to catch the clues. I wasn't. And believe me, that doesn't happen very often.

And the romance, of course. But it wasn't even the tiniest bit annoying! It affirming. Yeah, I know! But what can I say? It felt authentic, and I really enjoyed it!

And did I mention the cute space cats? Well, okay, not actually cats, but you get the idea. The book has everything.

And yes, if you really insist, Lockstep is indeed novel about a rebellious teen recognizing the corruption of the current social structures and tearing them down. But this time it's different because its, you know, really good! And because instead of just overthrowing the corrupt status quo, our hero actually comes up with solutions, takes responsibility for making things better.

In a word, Lockstep is: flawless.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The True Story of Hamlet and the Danes

Saw Benedict Cumberbatch version of Hamlet yesterday. It was breath-taking. Cumberbatch's portrayal is the best Hamlet I have ever seen, and the rest of the cast/production up to that same outstanding standard. Very, very impressed.


I could not help but notice that the only one who survives to tell the tale is Horatio, so we really only have HIS version of what happened. Which is ludicrous in the extreme. So here is what I think went down:

Fortinbras wants to invade Denmark to recapture the lands lost by his father. He gathers an army and is ready to march when the King of Norway stops him, at Denmark’s request. So Fortinbras makes up the ridiculous excuse that he just wants to march through Denmark enroute to Poland, though it is obvious to everyone that the targeted Polish territory is worthless--so clearly just an excuse to enter Denmark with his 20,000 troops. Then Fortinbras sends his agent Horatio to Denmark where Horatio murders the entire royal family and the chief minister and his daughter and son (the only witnesses) and invents this completely ridiculous story of how he--Horatio, friend to Hamlet--helped uncover the murder of Hamlet’s father by Hamlet’s uncle and the uncle’s marriage to the queen (Horatio thus undermining the legitimacy of the then current rulers) and how the current king’s attempt to murder Hamlet led to the deaths of the rest of the royal family and advisors. Thus, when Fortinbras arrives (conveniently timed to the exact moment to find the entire royal family dead of poison, the chief minister stabbed, and his daughter drowned) Fortinbras is well positioned to take over Denmark. With all the legitimate claimants to the throne dead simultaneously, and backed by a mobilized army of 20,000 already in place in Denmark with the Danes disorganized, rulerless, and the royal line discredited, Fortinbras is the only winner in this scenario…

What other possible explanation for events is there? Because clearly, Horatio’s versions of the events is so over-complicated as to be completely unbelievable.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Matthew Hughes A Wizard's Henchman

I have more than once called Matthew Hughes a national treasure, and regular Hughes fans won’t need me to urge them to pick up the latest collection set in the Archonate/Spray universe. Hughes is the Canadian/21st century Jack Vance, the oddly optimistic cynic, the seriously funny creator of a brilliantly original universe. This is the latest in the series which posits that the universe periodically swings between the fundamental principles of cause & effect and sympathetic association (magic). The book’s protagonist is Erm Kaslo, a top level confidential agent who suddenly finds that none of his skills are relevant when cause and effect no longer apply. As technology fails, civilization crashes, and powerful thaumaturges rise from the ashes, Kaslo falls in with one particular wizard as his henchman. If you are a fan of the Archonate or the adventures of Henghis Hapthorn, the collection of Erm Kaslo will be right up your alley.

I offer, however, two mild cautions: First. readers unfamiliar with the Archonate should start with another in the series, as the Kaslo stories are really the ultimate climax to everything else that has happened so far; better not to know how things end until you’ve read how they begin. But by all means, go find Fools Errant and enter the marvelous universe of the Acrhonate.

Regular Hughes fans may find that—as a collection of shorts/serialized novel (in Lightspeed magazine)—there is a certain amount of repetition as ‘chapters’ recap events in earlier ‘chapters’ because these were originally published separately. The repetition is only mildly distracting, however, and should not significantly detract from readers’ enjoyment.

Any time Hughes puts pen to paper is a reason to celebrate, and the Adventures of Erm Kaslo do not disappoint.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Robot Surgery

I can't say I was particularly pumped when doctor told me I needed major surgery—until he said, "Oh, and the surgery will be done by robot..."

"Wow! That's great! Woohoo!" I exclaimed. Because as a science fiction editor/writer/fan, I've waited my whole life to be operated on by robots, you know? Because I didn't get the flying cars and I didn't get weather control, so the least I feel I'm owed is a bit of Beverly-Crusher-level medical care.

The doctor was clearly taken aback. "Usually I have to reassure people when I mention about the robot."

When I explained to him—and subsequently, the actual surgeon and his team—about my SF background, they are amused and relieved because, really, that is one hell of a scary-looking robot.

The above photo doesn't really do it justice: I looked around online but couldn't seem to find a good photo of what I actually saw in the operating room, though I have to concede that the thing might have loomed somewhat larger seen from the perspective of lying underneath it on a gurney. From my perspective the thing appeared to be a giant spider-shaped dome with eight legs ending in Edward Scissor hands that took up half the operating theatre. Viewing images later on-line, I am forced to the conclusion that I was interpreting two separate pieces as one--the tentacled-robot pictured above, and the remote control dome. So maybe not quite as intimidating/impressive as my initial impression...but still!

the DeVinci Robot...when I first saw it, the front of the dome (far right, facing the wall) was pushed up in front of the arms (on the left) to give the impression of a single wickedly intimidating robot invader from very bad scifi movie ever...

Having actually had the surgery, I have to attest that I was stunned how little pain I was in. The surgery was 7:30AM to 11:00AM on a Monday, I was up in my hospital room by about 4PM and out the door Tuesday at 4:00 PM. I had proper pain meds in the hospital, and a prescription against need for the next few days, but I was down to Tylenol and Advil within a day or three, which given I had seven new holes in me, a couple of which were several inches long, and was now missing a major chunk of my insides, is pretty astounding. I had anticipated being in severe pain for weeks, but as long as I am reasonably cautious about following the guidelines given on not picking anything up or moving stupidly, I'm just 'sore'. I contrast this to my previous medical procedure, about which my then surgeon had predicted that I 'may experience some mild discomfort', which had left me weeping and wailing in bed for weeks. My family frequently refers to that period to contrast with my wife's, shall we say, more stoic acceptance of pain, so I had always assumed my pain tolerance lower than most. So it was with considerable relief that the pain remained (knock on wood, and with the possible exception of coughing) entirely manageable.

Which is not to say I am recovered. I am still tremendously weak, tire immediately, and sleep most of the day. Walking downstairs to the kitchen remains a significant expedition, and this Facebook post looks to be the major accomplishment of the day, so I believe it when they say I won't be back at work for another five weeks. I am also dreading the follow-up appointment to extract the various tubes still sticking out of me which I am told 'may involve some mild discomfort'. But I've got to say, compared to regular surgery, the robot stuff is to be highly recommended.

And, yes, for the record I know that having a talented surgeon and team of doctors is the key here, and that the actual phrase is 'robot-assisted surgery'. The doctor who referred me to the surgeon and his team said he was the best in the country, and various nurses I met along the way confirmed I was lucky to get him, so credit where credit is due. But given the option, I highly recommend the minimally invasive robot version of the surgery.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Undead Redhead by Jen Frankle

These days, I don't often have a chance to read books I'm not paid to edit, but I met Jen Frankle at Limestone GenreCon this summer, and instantly enjoyed our conversation and hearing her on panels, so pulled Undead Redhead out of my 'to be read pile' and actually spent some time reading just for fun.

The novel is a quirky, funny, and touching satire of modern life as seen through the eyes of newly undead vegan redhead. Some very funny bits, some great writing (nice depiction of heroine's initial denial!) but mostly a light touch takes us through Toronto, social media, and the importance of identity... A nicely Canadian take on the zombie motif.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Pokemon Go: An Observation

While travelling across country this summer, we've been fascinated to watch how Pokemon Go manifests different community to community. In some, players were sitting around in a park, chatting with each other; in the next, exact same circumstances but here all the people were ignoring each other! How one ignores someone standing next to you playing the exact same game and not start a conversation about it confuses me.

In some communities, people arrived at a park or museum or whatever would look up from their phones and say, ‘hey, that looks interesting’ and go explore; while in another community with similarly engaging locale, nobody looked up from their phones to see where they were. The difference between player groups community to community was striking!

Similarly, we saw staff at one railway museum shooing kids away from their lawn; at the park in next community official welcomed everybody, gave tips on which path to go for best catches, just asked one player to put cigarette out in receptacle rather than flowerbed. (Seemed fair comment to me.) These all seemed sponteous acts, not a matter of policy.

There’s a sociological article about community cultures in there somewhere, but I’m sure somebody is already writing it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Best Analysis of Donald Trump Yet

Author and lawyer Den Valdron had this to say on Facebook about Donald Trump:

I still worry about Trump as 'leader of the freeworld' though. His wanting to make America great means making the rest of us less great.... And as Republican comedian P.J. O'Rourke said, "I have to endorse Hillary because, while she is the second worst thing that could happen to America, at least she won't blow the world up. You can't let Trump have access to the briefcase with the launch codes. That would be like giving your teenage boys the key to the liquor cabinet and then leaving them alone at home for the weekend." (or words to that effect--quoting from memory)

Friday, May 06, 2016

Ian Adam's The Trudeau Papers Re-Evaluated.

We need today to re-evaluate Ian Adam's 1971 novel The Trudeau Papers.

The basic plot was that America had invaded Canada in response to the newly elected NDP government in Ottawa trying to raise the price on Canadian natural resources going to the US, and possibly cutting the US off entirely to meet Canadian demand. The book follows a small band of resistance fighters. Canada as Viet Nam.

The title, our narrator tells us, was a reference to one of Canada's last elected Prime Ministers before the invasion. When the novel came out in 1971, we all assumed the author meant Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and the book was a 'contemporary political thriller'. But clearly, Ian Adams was in fact writing predictive speculative fiction. The title was actually a prescient reference to Justin Trudeau as one of the last elected Canadian PMs. The novel seemed pretty far-fetched in 1971; but with Trump running for President of the US, and American running out of water... Yeah, maybe time to dig out an old copy of the "Trudeau Papers", dust it off, and have another read....

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Strangers Among Us Anthology

Got my contributor's copy of Strangers Among Us in the mail yesterday. Pretty pleased with the production values, and the company I am keeping in this anthology.

The anthology will be officially launched at When Words Collide Festival in Calgary August 12-14, 2016 (at which, coincidentally, I am Editor Guest. I'm told as Editor Guest I get to do a 15 minute reading, so will have to see if I can maybe read this one..though it might be a little long.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Quote of the Month

"Sadly, when human beings are let loose with computers and internet access, their work product does not necessarily compare favourably to… monkeys with typewriters." Justice Fergus O'Donnell (Ontario)

Thursday, March 03, 2016

My Last Class

Today was the exam for my last official class, ever. (Well, I might teach some other courses as a sessional instructor after retirement...but this was my last class as faculty member.)

It was a great cohort, one of the most collegial and hard working, and very smart. Lots of very insightful discussion, comments that previous classes had never come up with on those topics. So a very positive note for me to end on.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Zen of Comedy

A few years ago I wrote about the Zen of Comedy for Broken Pencil magazine. They had kept the essay up on their website for a very long time, so whenever I wanted to explain the concept to someone new, I would simply point them to that article. Eventually BP took the essay down to make room for more recent articles, and about that time, author Nate Hendley asked to do an interview with me as part of the promotion for his book, Motivate to Create A Guide for Writers and Other Artistic Creators and I covered the same basic concept there. That interview included a few other topics, however, so I am reprinting just the Zen of Comedy principle here in this abridged version:

Interviewed by Nate Hendley

What motivates you to write? Is it the promise of money, fame, power, recognition, self-fulfillment or something else?

I’d have to say that in my case, it’s “something else”.


In terms of my own writing, my motivation can be largely summed up as the Zen of Comedy: The principle that nothing so bad can happen to one that it can’t later be turned into a funny anecdote. As a writer, everything that happens to me becomes fodder for my writing. Even the most mundane visit to the dentist or annoying encounter with a bureaucratic clerk can be magically transmuted (thanks to judicious editing) into heroic journeys, righteous battles, and gleeful victories, the better to entertain my readers. Consequently, whereas others often seem to go through life as mere sleepwalkers, the writer remains sharply attuned to his/her environment, ever alert to the detail of plot and character, the possibilities of imagery and metaphor, as we seek to turn our lives into life stories. In imposing a narrative structure on our lives, we heighten our attention to foreshadowing and significance, and in so doing, are often able to anticipate decisions and to find meaning in situations that others may experience as unexpected or soul-destroying. Just as a reader I can almost always see that next plot twist coming, as I write my life, a lot of things become clearer than might otherwise have been the case.

Second, knowing that whatever happens I’m going to get a good story out of it often helps to place my current difficulties into perspective. I learned this principle from Karl Johanson, the editor of Neo-opsis magazine. Listening to his hilarious account of traveling through the mountains to attend the convention where I first met him, I interrupted to ask him why his misadventures hadn’t led him to turn back. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “Even as I watched our van roll down the hill and over the cliff, I knew it would make a great story, and I’d be able to come here and keep you lot in stitches for an hour. And nobody was hurt, so what the hell? And when you stop to think about it, the way it happened, it really was very funny!”

That’s the point, of course. As a writer, one always does stop to think about it, to see the humour in any situation, more or less as it is happening. Karl is one of the most laid back and together people I know, and I can’t help thinking that this is due at least in part to his also being one of the best satirists publishing today. Ever since meeting Karl, I’ve realized that the bastards could never get me down again, because as a humorist, sweet revenge is always but a pen stroke away.

Third, in editing one’s autobiography one is in large measure editing one’s real life. This is hard to explain to someone who isn’t a humorist, but the thing of it is, once one has written up some troublesome incident as an amusing anecdote, there is a strong tendency to remember the anecdote rather than the actual incident. Remember that boring job that sucked the life out of you for the eighteen months you stood it? Out of that whole period there were maybe two funny things that happened—but if those were the two incidents you wrote up in your novel, ten years from now, that’s what you’d remember about that job. And since one is one’s memories, one can effectively edit one’s life to make it way better than it actually was.

Thus, as a writer I’m able to find meaning in the meaningless day-to-day trivia of modern life; can adopt the stance of ironic observer where others would cast themselves as victim; and instead of the alienation that has become the norm in our society, I am afforded a Zen-like detachment.

And all that comes out of the act of writing itself. With the subsequent publication and distribution of my essays to an audience, I collect the added bonus of being able to create a community of readers and correspondents. Who doesn’t feel better about their life when given a sympathetic ear? As a zine publisher, I had a ready-made audience, a veritable convention of barmen to listen patiently and perhaps offer the occasional “Got that right, buddy!” As five or 10 or 50 of my readers responded with relevant anecdotes of their own, and as I excerpted the best of these for publication in the next issue of my zine, we together created the community, identity, and meaning that might otherwise have been lacking in our everyday lives.

I suppose that could be mistaken for seeking fame or reputation, but I was writing for a relatively small readership, so it’s really not the same. It’s not so much seeking fame, of wanting to be a household name, as of just having an audience. I think everyone needs an audience, someone who is interested in what they have to say, even if it’s only their dog. Otherwise, what’s the point of getting up in the morning if no one notices you’re there? Having a loyal readership goes a long way to filling that need.

(Nate Hendley is the Toronto-based author of Motivate to Create: A Guide for Writers and authors. He has also written numerous other books, primarily in the true-crime genre.)