Wednesday, March 31, 2021

New Short Story Published

Just received my copy of Mythic #15 with my story, "Jerry" in it. Pleased to find my name on the cover, rather than my usual "and other stories" spot.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Review of Encrypted by Lindsay Buroker

[Reprinted from Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine, #21, Spring, 2012.]

The basic problem in this new era of e-publishing is trying to identify the few gems among the avalanche of self-published tailings. One can, of course, wait for the recommendations of reviewers, but given the odds against successful prospecting, most reviewers won’t deign to even glance at a novel they know to be self-published. (We used to warn wannabe’s against the vanity press, but no one had any idea just how bad ‘vanity’ could get until the emergence of e-book self-publishing.) But to dismiss all self-published fiction out of hand is to miss that we’re in the midst of a revolution, and that the some of the brighter lights in SF have figured out the advantages of taking their fiction directly to consumers.

Take Lindsay Buroker’s Encrypted. I had never heard of Buroker before coming across Encrypted, but Buroker made it easy for me to find this odd little steampunk, fantasy romance amongst the 12,000 other titles in the Kobo SciFic/Fantasy catalog. First, although not quite strong enough for me to want to frame and mount on my wall, the cover caught my eye and stood out easily among the hundreds of amateurish efforts with which it competed. I’m pretty sure Buroker paid actual money for that cover (just as a publisher would have done), rather than settle for something by some neighbour’s cousin. Encrypted’s professional artwork contrasted sharply with the covers of most other self-published works, whose amateur illustration and lack of design helpfully identify them as the products of individuals who lack either professional standards or imagination; or worse, have such inflated egos they not only believe themselves brilliant authors, but professional-level cover artists as well.

Second, the one-word title was provocative, not just because it implies both a puzzle and potential conflict, but because it avoids allusions to any of the usual SF tropes. Weak writers often opt for titles like The Aliens from Planet ZXG393, or The Dark Wizard of The Lost Empire of Quzom, that instantly reveal their clichéd premises, and so effectively warn readers off. Where other titles allowed me to scroll past without even slowing down, the title and cover for Encrypted gave me pause.

Third, having paused to click on Encrypted’s thumbnail, the synopsis that appeared was both original and intriguing: “Professor Tikaya Komitopis isn’t a great beauty, a fearless warrior, or even someone who can walk and chew chicle at the same time, but her cryptography skills earn her wartime notoriety. When enemy marines show up at her family’s plantation, she expects the worst. But they’re not there to kill her. They need her to decode mysterious runes before their secrets destroy the world...” Here again, Encrypted stood out from other self-published works: I am constantly astounded at the number of author-supplied synopses that are self-aggrandizing rather than informative (“the greatest new SF novel ever--a must buy!”-- okay, but, what’s it about?); self-referential (“following the events in book #3, Chip decides it’s time to reveal all to Melissa”-- who, what?); ironically self-revealing (“book #15 in the Invasion Milwaukee series which I launched just two weeks ago” --you’re writing these how fast?); or, all too often, simply incoherent.

In contrast, Buroker demonstrated she could write by giving me a synopsis that was itself well written: concise; character-driven; informative, yet without any real spoilers; and with just an undercurrent of humor. My kind of read! Fourth, because I’m a cautious buyer and inherently suspicious of self-published work, even with a good cover, a good title, and a good synopsis, I still insisted on googling Lindsay Buroker before proceeding to purchase. A positive review by a well-known reviewer would have helped, but none of the dozens of favorable reviews that popped up were by anyone I recognized. Given the widespread pollution of sock puppet reviews (in which self-published authors take the further step of self-publishing multiple reviews of their own work under various pseudonyms), one simply cannot take online reviews or ‘reader’ ratings at face value. So, I went directly to Buroker’s own profile, and once again, she made it easy for me to say ‘yes’. As with my complaints about the online synopses of self-published vanity titles, the profiles and blogs of the talentless tend to be similarly self-aggrandizing, self-referential, ego-centric rants with little to offer beyond self-congratulatory marketing of their vanity titles. Buroker’s blog, by contrast, was thoughtful, well-written, wide-ranging, and above all, her profile made me laugh. That was all I needed: at $2.99, I could risk adding Buroker to the list of authors vying for a limited number of slots on my leisure reading schedule.

I’m glad I penciled Buroker in! Encrypted is a fine little novel, as good or better than anything out of the legacy publishing houses. Buroker’s world building is consistent and compelling; Encrypted’s protagonist is a satisfyingly strong female (but without the usual clichéd depictions of ‘strong’ in militaristic SF-- no Honor Harringtons here, thank you very much!); the action and conflict are thoughtfully motivated; the intrigue is satisfying; and the romance is nicely balanced against the SF elements, such that neither distracts overly from the other. Buroker deserves as wide an audience as word of mouth can bring her, and at $2.99, Encrypted is excellent value for the money. I ended up reading Encrypted on my phone while waiting to chauffeur the kids around, and it’s amazing how fast five minutes here and ten minutes there add up. If you don’t already own a Kindle, Kobo or similar, maybe try ebooks on your phone.

Buroker is not only a clear illustration of current trends in publishing, she demonstrates that it is indeed possible for talented new writers to distinguish themselves from the zombie armies of vanity self-publishing sufficiently for readers to find, enjoy, and reward their work. Encrypted is recommended; Buroker definitely a writer worth following.

I am reposting some of my reviews which were originally in print magazines or are no longer available online.]

The Boys Own Jedi Handbook

[I'm reprinting some reviews that have since vanished.]

"The Boys Own Jedi Handbook" by Alberta playwright, Stephen Massicotte, is a delightful one-act play. The play was first produced in 1997 when it played to sold out audiences and held over houses in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver; but if you don't happen to live in one of those cities, or didn't happen to catch it then, it just might be worth dropping an email to your local theatre director or little theater group to suggest they mount it. It is funny and warm and perhaps a little bit profound, and a must-see for every SF fan.

I was lucky enough to see the Next Step Theatre presentation January, 2008, starring Jeremy Mason (who was born to play this role) as the Kid, well supported by Neil James as his side-kick James, and Kathy Zaborsky as Ms. Karpowich, his Grade 4 teacher. The story moves seamlessly between the nostalgia of the adult narrator recalling the first time he saw Star Wars (1977) and analyzing its impact on his life from the perspective of twenty years on, and the hilarious reenactment of his year in Grade 4 as seen through the eyes of a 10 year old. Indeed, my favorite scene is when the adult finishes his very sophisticated introduction to what made the original Star Wars movie so special, and says, "Of course, that's not quite how I would have phrased it back then," and the scene shifts to the Kid and his buddy trying to explain the movie to his mom. My 9-year-old daughter literally fell out of her seat laughing as the boys turned their mom's vacuum into R2D2 and completely failed to convey the magnificence of the movie to their harassed mother. (Hearing the entire movie breathlessly retold from start to finish in six minutes is worth the price of admission alone.)

As a long-time fan, I loved all the Star Wars references, and was only slightly embarrassed to realize that I could still recite key dialog along with the boys in the play.

But underneath all the slapstick physical humor and the nostalgic reenactments of scenes from the original movie -- playfully transformed as our Grade 4 heroes recast themselves as rebel pilots, their teacher as Grand Moff Tarkin, and intercepted notes as the secret plans to the death star -- is another layer of thoughtful 'coming of age' theatre. Even those for whom Star Wars was just another movie will find something universal to relate to in the depiction of the enthusiasms and fears of Grade 4 boys.

Massicotte brilliantly contrasts kids' reaction to Star Wars with the equally familiar (if perhaps less life-changing) classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Through the Grade 4 students production of this school play, they come to understand the true meaning of The Force, and we come to appreciate the true meaning of growing up. Its pretty good stuff!

So. You need to see this play, and unlike dropping into your local bookstore to grab a book, you are going to have to sell your local theatre on producing it for you. Luckily, the play has several things going for it. First, it's a one-act play; second it only requires 3 actors; and third it uses only minimal sets/props, so it is relatively easy to mount. Furthermore, it's the first in a trilogy (the logical consequence of it's subject matter), the sequels being The Girls Strike Back (2002) and The Return of the Jedi Handbook, so if your local theater doesn't happen to be into one-act plays, it could mount all three as an integrated evening. Or, if it does do one act plays, they could pair it with another suitable production; I saw it with I, Claudia (a similarly comic coming of age drama, but of a 12 year old girl dealing with her parents' divorce). You could then point out that they will be able to build on the inevitable success of this first production to do the two sequels in subsequent seasons. Point out that just as Dr. Who proved a steady money-maker for PBS, The Boys Own Jedi Handbook is a sure thing for live theatre.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Review of James Alan Gardner's Darklings Vs. Sparks Books 1 & 2

All Those Exlosions Were Someone Else's FaultThey Promised Me The Gun Wasn't Loaded

The Darklings vs. Sparks series:
Book 1: "All those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault" and
Book 2: "They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded"
by James Alan Gardner.Tor, 2017.

Reviewed by Robert Runté in N3F Review of Books, Nov 2019.

As soon as I read the titles, I knew I had to buy these two books, and they didn't disappoint. In fact, they were both much better than one might expect, given that the back cover description is completely accurate: They're novels about superheroes vs vampires, werewolves, ghosts and so on. That wouldn't normally might not be a promising premise, but James Alan Gardner is a writer I trust more than most and he pulls it off beautifully.

The story of the first book (All Those Explosions Were Somebody Else's Fault) is told seriously from the perspective of a newly created superhero and while less haha-funny then the title might suggest, there is a strong element of the absurd underneath it all that nicely balances the page-turning action and some pretty dark characterization. The story arc and the personal growth of the viewpoint character are way better than any comic while staying faithful to the form. There's even some depth to Gardner's examination of human motivation and the line between good and evil, morality and viewpoint. Gardner's love of comic books is obvious, but he raises the genre a step above anything from Marvel or DC.

The viewpoint character, Kim, is trying to cope with her new superpowers at the same time as sorting out her maybe trans identity, her dark backstory, and her relationships with her three undergraduate roommates—all of whom were turned into superheroes at the same moment. Personal reflection has to take a back seat, however, to doing battle with the supervillain currently attacking their city, and worrying about the international conspiracy of darklings who in this universe are also the superrich 1% (because only the superrich can afford to buy the magic that makes them both immortal and powerful magical beings).

My only very minor reservation is that Garnder occasionally breaks the fourth wall by having our narrator explain that the sometimes outrageous coincidences in the plot are actually part of the world-building, a natural consequence of the magic/super-science of this world--only I hadn't noticed the lapse in verisimilitude until Gardner pointed it out. I was going with it because the edge-of-your-seat action kept me from thinking about it too deeply and because it did all make sense within the rules of Gardner's universe. I suppose we can forgive Gardner these rare lapses if we accept that the novel is also intended as a meta examination of the superhero genre as a whole--those comments really aren't about his book, but about why we should accept superhero plotlines in general. All in all, a very satisfying romp!

The second book in the series (They Promised Me The Gun Wasn't Loaded) is every bit as good as the first and perhaps even more enjoyable as we already know how the world works, so there's a bit less breaking the fourth wall to explain things.

The story picks up exactly where book 1 left off, but the viewpoint character shifts to another of the four newly created superheroes. Shifting POV fleshes out that character nicely as the plot plows forward. Presumably, the next two books will cover the other two characters in turn, so that we'll end up with the whole set. The villains from the first book remain, with several more thrown in, as well as a lot more moral ambiguity around exactly who counts as a good/bad guy in this universe. The action is pure superhero adventure, but the text format allows for a lot more nuance, and better coverage of the viewpoint character's interior life. It all works very, very well.

Looking forward to the next two books in the series...and wondering what the overall story arch is going to turn out to be...

[I am reprinting some old reviews here so that I can link to them on my list of reviews.]

Review of Beyond: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars

Beyond: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars
Scott Overton, No Walls Publishing, 2018.
371 pp.

Reviewed by Robert Runté (Reprinted from Neo-Opsis #30, Fall, 2019.)

Until one becomes a household name, getting a collection published is almost impossible, so it's no surprise when authors end up self-publishing their own short stories. The lack of a publisher's endorsement, though, makes it harder for readers to guess whether the collection is worth buying, or yet another exercise in vanity self-publication.

Happily, Scott Overton is the real deal. A third of the stories included in this volume have been previously published by respectable venues like NeoOpsis and On Spec and none of the stories are less than professional quality. That leaves the somewhat tougher question of whether they will be stories the reader will enjoy.

As one might suspect from the inclusion of "technology" in the subtitle, Overton is an 'ideas' man, where the majority of his stories are based on, and written around, cutting edge concepts from various sciences. It's obvious that Scott has done his research, and some of the science is pretty intriguing, but these are not character-driven stories. Indeed, the characters sometimes appear as intrusions into what should remain a purely idea-driven story. It occasionally feels like Scott is trying to up the characterization by giving us unnecessary and distracting backstory. On the desert world of "Marathon of the Devil", for example, I don't really care about the character's inappropriate feelings for his too-hot boss, or that another boss died of cancer. The man-against-desert theme and Scott's ideas would have been sufficient, without artificially inserting redundant inter-personal conflicts.

Which is not to say Scott can't do character. "A Taste of Time" is my favorite story in the collection, and it's at the opposite end of that spectrum: a character study which paints a time and a place, and perhaps makes a philosophical point…but no technology, no science. My second favorite story is a sociologically-themed account of an investigative reporter poking around a suspect democracy. That story's only short-coming was an early line that telegraphed the 'surprise' ending, but even seeing that cliché-ending coming, it was a charming commentary on contemporary politics.

Some of the stories are refreshingly original, some a bit 'seen-it-before'. There were no really outstanding stories that make the book a must-buy, but neither were there any stinkers. (Well, there is one outrageous pun for which Scott needs to be slapped with a dead mackerel, but it's remotely possible I even laughed a tiny bit at that one.)

This volume is an omnibus print edition of stories previously released as a series of ebooks. At 377 pages, Scott’s kept the price a reasonable $20.65, but I’d recommend buying one of the $2.99 ebooks first, to get a sense of Scott’s style, and more importantly, because Scott’s stories are perfect read-on-your-phone material while standing in line or sitting through a commute. Hopefully, Scott will bring out an ebook edition of the omnibus too, but even if you have to buy them all at $2.99 a time, worthwhile phone-reading.

[I am reprinting some old reviews here so that I can link to them on my list of reviews. Other of my reviews which originally appeared in Neo-Opsis can be found here.]