Short Fiction: The Challenger’s Garland

The first short story in Schuyler Herntrom’s collection, Thune’s Vision, is The Challenger’s Garland, is the worst thing I’ve ever read by Mr. Hernstrom.

If you’ve been following this blog you know that doesn’t tell you much.  His stories included in the first two issues of Cirsova Magazine, were brilliant, and this very brief tale doesn’t reach those heights.  It’s still a great story and highly recommended.

The plot is as epic as it is simple, Death’s Champion rides forth to challenge the unbeaten White Knight.  It’s a basic fight between the white hat and the black hat with the former representing everything good and decent and the latter representing only death and destruction, and yet the story reflects the myriad subtleties that lurk within the details of that constant battle on a fallen earth.

The story does feel like a bit of an experiment – can one strip away the chrome that is normally added to modern versions of a battle between black and white and still wind up with an interesting story? It also reads like a first time author playing with the concept of a fairy tale tone, pace, and theme.  These are not complaints, merely observations.  If anything, they add to the charm of the piece.

Here’s a brief excerpt that jumped out at me:

In the Kinniverse jungle the apes scattered from his shadow, scurrying up the massive trees in which stood their wondrous city.  They peered down from latticed towers, unwilling to shower the lone horseman with missiles, as was their usual practice.  The towering trees shrank as the jungle ended.

He entered a land of rolling hills and verdant pastures.

Molok dismounted, walking through a field of flowers.  The grass was still fresh with dew.  Ahead he saw the silhouette of a young woman.  She turned upon the hearing his heavy steps.

“I hear the step of an armored knight.  Are you from the citadel?”

Molok looked into her eyes, two orbs of milky white without iris or pupil. 

That kind of easy and evocative writing, that taps into the timeless tropes of myth and legend, is a joy to read. 

For another take on this book, here’s The Frisky Pagan.

Posted in recommendation, short stuff | Comments Off on Short Fiction: The Challenger’s Garland

Let’s Get Something Straight Here, People

When you come around these parts, and you see a lot of links to the Puppy of the Month Club, recommendations for The Good Stuff, and pointers to blogs by The Usual Suspects?  There’s a reason for that, and no, it’s not because I’m desperate for filler posts or trying to earn clicks by glomming onto the cool-kids crowd or even trying to ride on the coat-tails of my betters. 

This blog started off as an, I-Wanna-Be-A-Successful-Writer blog, and has subtly morphed into more of a, I-Want-You-To-Be-A-Successful-Writer blog.  The point of view of the blog remains that of a guy trying to escape the cubicle farm, but the content is more focused on reading and sorting the good from the bad.  There’s a lot of great writers out there who deserve a lot more attention than they’ll ever get from the big publishing houses, and most of them are part-timers writing in brief snatches when they aren’t putting food on the table.  If I can direct a few more sales their way, and that helps keep them motivated to sit down and bang on the keyboard for a few more minutes every night?  Mission accomplished.

More than that, though, this blog represents another node in the greater community of readers who appreciate the rising tide of fun adventure fiction written by people who love sf/f for its own sake rather than as another club to wield against the latest social boogeymen.  It’s by no means a central node, but it stands as a signal booster to support the efforts of everyone from the lone guy self-publishing his work through Amazon to the growing indie-publisher thumbing his nose at the big boys.

You see those links in the preceding paragraph?  Even if you didn’t click on them, somewhere there’s a bot zipping down the threads of the internet, and it will.  It will think to itself, “Hey, here’s somebody else that thinks Justin’s blog is worth linking to, I’d better move him up in the rankings.”  Then when the next kid does a search for sci-fi writer, Justin shows up a lot sooner, and there’s a better chance that this relative unknown picks up another reader.  Each link is just one little data point, but you put enough of them together and eventually you don’t just have an improved search engine rating, you have a culture.

That’s what we’re building here – a counter-reformation of the world of sci-fi and fantasy, a revolution of pulp fiction, if you will.  As the new guys on the block, we can’t sit around waiting for others to do the heavy lifting.  No publisher is going to hand a fat contract to the sorts of authors that we like.  No publisher is going to pay for fake tweets to market our crew.  No publisher is going to reach down and pluck a pulp revolutionary out of obscurity, fete them like royalty, and cart them around the country selling their work.

Which is great!  It gives us – authors and fans alike – a lot more freedom of movement, a lot more freedom to experiment, and a lot more freedom to choose.  They have to be stodgy and conservative to protect their interests, where we don’t have anything to lose.  Except for the few moments it took to write up this blog post – and that’s a small price to pay to lay another brick in the road to better authors, better fiction, and a better culture.

I’m a fan of the better culture that being built, and don’t mind praising the guys who are building that culture.  If that results in my coming off as a bit of a carnival barker for works that fit into that culture, so be it.  There’s some really amazing freaks in this freakshow, and I intend to do what I can to lure the townies in to take a look.

Posted in maga, pulpy fun, read moar, signal boost | Comments Off on Let’s Get Something Straight Here, People

Signal Boost: Geek Gab With Schuyler Hernstrom

Pictured above: Me

I make no apologies nor excuses for being a raging Schuyler Hernstrom fanboy.  (The only reason that I haven’t already read everything the man has written is that I’m savoring the wait.  That, and the Puppy of the Month Book Club dictating my reading list and sucking up most of my spare reading time.) So of course I’d listen to the interview that Schuyler did with Geek Gab.

That interview, below, has only enhanced my opinion of the man.  His surfer-cool attitude towards the new take on yesterday’s blender approach to sci-fi is a refreshing change from the usual fare, and his point about going off and doing your own thing and letting the CHORFs do theirs hit me particularly hard.  Stoking the fuel of righteous anger at what the…expletive deleteds, have done to my beloved sci-fi and fantasy is all well and good, but only as a catalyst for the creation of work that makes more worthy heirs to the forerunners of sf/f than the drek peddled by the people who live east of the Hudson.  As the true heirs to the throne, all we have to do is keep producing and pimping the pulp revolutionary style, and trust readers to recognize the huge gap in quality between message fiction and fun fiction.  The truth will out.

I realize this video may be old news to many readers, having dropped an eon ago in internet time – five whole days! But it’s well worth a listen.  Just fast forward past Daddy Warpig’s intro – his affectations taper off after a minute or two and he becomes much more sufferable.

Posted in pulpy fun, recommendation, signal boost | Comments Off on Signal Boost: Geek Gab With Schuyler Hernstrom

Ten Gentle Opportunities, by Jeff Duntemann

Last Friday’s post was essentially a call to arms for readers who enjoy the counter-culture movement within science fiction and fantasy to take a few risks and try novels by newer authors.  It is young, this backlash against modern identitarian…stories?  (It’s hard to use the term ‘stories’ when so often they are little more than characters bouncing off each other and pining for surcease from the crushing ennui of a life unfilled thanks entirely to factors and ideologies completely outside the protagonist’s control and oh my God why am I reading this somebody lock up my shotgun before I stick it in my mouth.)  And that youth is both blessing and curse.

These new(ish) writers, backtracking to pre-1980 works and charting their own destinations, are taking readers to new shores.  That sense that anything goes, provides readers with an inherent sense of adventure and discovery that you just won’t find in fiction written to adhere to the publishing houses’ established and approved literary paths of today.  The downside of living through this rebirth in adventure and exploration is that most of the guys writing the good stuff have a very limited back catalog.  Many of these authors have grown out of the crop of readers tired of the prevailing zeitgeist spitting on their hands, rolling up their sleeves, and hoisting the black flag by writing their own damn stories, thank you very much. 

Jeff Duntemann is one such author.  Sort of.  He has been writing for decades.  His first published science fiction work was way back in 1974.  He has written reams of non-fiction books about computer programming and technical articles and other things, and a fair few sci-fi short stories as well.  If you check Amazon, you’ll find just six titles, two of which are short story collections.  That’s not a whole lot of books, and given his major focus on non-fiction, it’s understandable that you may not have heard of him.  At least one of Those titles fits right in with the nascent counter-counter-culture.

Enter Ten Gentle Opportunities.

I read this book cold.  I knew nothing about it save what could be gleaned from the cover.

Imagine my surprise when the book opens with a wizard-slash-conman, Stypek, fleeing a powerful sorcerer through the streets of a fantasy city.  Stypek had used magic of a mundane nature – a deck of marked playing cards – to cheat his pursuer out of a powerful artifact and winds up fleeing the much more powerful sorcerer by opening a portal to another dimension. 

Incidentally, that powerful artifact has ten charges that work as a kind of doomsday timer counting down to the final climax.  It’s a neat trick that ramps up the tension in the book in a novel way.

After Stypek is dragged through the portal to another dimension, the book shifts gears to a modern day story that weaves together the tale of a computer programmer and his ex-wife with the tale of a small group of proto-AI programs.  So abrupt was the shift that it left me wondering if this was actually a book of short stories.  Old Stypek doesn’t drop into the ‘real universe’ until several chapters have passed.

Once Stypek reappears, things get complicated.  I may have missed an important plot point somewhere in here – that or Duntemann plays his cards a little too close to his chest.  Something goes very wrong with the programming at the world’s first fully automated copy machine factory, and all three of our protagonist groups, wizard, programming couple, and AIs, fight to unravel the mystery of what went wrong, and then fight to stop the force behind what went wrong.

In a lot of ways, this book reminds me of Nick Cole’s wonderful Ctrl-Alt-Revolt.  An AI goes berserk and the only way to stop it is to break into its compound and fight through an army of robots while simultaneously beating the thing inside the digital universe.  Where Ctrl-Alt-Delete uses the narrative short cut of placing the software fight inside an MMORPG, Ten Gentle Opportunities effortlessly slides back and forth between a more Sims style narrative and evocative descriptions of pure program-on-program battles where code itself is both weapon, shield, and battleground. 

This book differs from Ctrl-Alt-Revolt in that the ultimate bad guy is something of a mystery.  It’s never entirely clear exactly what the stakes are in the fight, and the human characters aren’t quite likable enough to carry the load.  For my money, the AI characters are much more likable than their human counterparts, and it was the question of their fate that kept me turning pages.  That might be a function of my own limited intellect.  Clever readers may solve the mystery long before this reviewer did; in which case clever readers will draw even more enjoyment out of Ten Gentle Opportunities

This is a book that could only have been written by an experience programmer.  Duntemann seamlessly presents a long string of puzzles, mysteries, and complications within both meat space and virtual space within the book, and his explanations of the programming problems are excellent.  They never feel like an information dump or lecture, instead they are seamlessly woven into the story in ways that drive the narrative rather than stall it out while we learn the basics of programming and debugging.

Even more impressive is the way Mr. Duntemann ties together wizardry and programming in a way that allows Stypek to work as a natural born hacker despite having grown up in a world where progress followed the mystic path rather than the physics track.  The two work in parallel, even as they never really cross paths.  Two sentences cannot do this world-building exercise justice – suffice it to say that Duntemann has a firm grasp of how the rules in both universes work, how they tie together, and how to relay these things to the reader in an unobtrusive way.  It’s clever, original, and well done.

Ten Gentle Opportunities represents the best that science-fiction and fantasy have to offer.  It blends the two genres in a clever and original way.  It presents near future tech that is plausible, delightful, and a little scare.  Best of all, it provides a exuberant and unapologetic adventure that incorporates action, violence, romance, and robots in ways that are both exciting, fun to read, and even a little bit educational.

Posted in grown up book report, recommendation | Comments Off on Ten Gentle Opportunities, by Jeff Duntemann

The New World of Longshot Reads

A while back a guy by the name of Jeff Duntemann crossed my Twit Box path.  Two tweets in he tossed me a link to a book he had written called Ten Gentle Opportunities.  The plug was so natural that it made me laugh…and it made me three dollar poorer.  At the time it looked like Ten Gentle Opportunities would languish at the bottom of my reading list – my choices are largely constrained by the Puppy of the Month Book Club these days – but even if the book sucked, it was worth tossing him a couple of bucks just to encourage that kind of behavior.

I almost didn’t pull the trigger on the purchase.  Too busy.  No previous contact with the author.  No recommendations from third parties.  After two decades of playing long odds on reading materials and losing, why would I fall back into that old habit?  In this case, Jeff was running in the right circles.  Whoever introduced Jeff to me via Twitter was an author with a name that I trusted.  While Jeff’s taste didn’t align with mine exactly, he was talking in good faith and treated our differences the way they should be treated – as novelties and not deal-breakers.

Besides all that, it was clear that Jeff wasn’t part of the Borg Publishing Alliance.  He was a self-published guy not restricted by the demands of a few New York aesthetes.  His work at least carried the possibility of new ideas and a fresh voice that hadn’t been milked of all personality by the normal meat-grinder of editors trained the same ways in a few schools to conform to the boiler plate voice coming out of the big publishing houses.

What kind of Pulp Revolutionary would I be if I can’t support a guy doing his own marketing for his own writing on his own time?
The bad kind, that’s what.
So I bought the book, and thought that would be the end of it for a good long while.  Well, it now looks like each month will leave me with a gap to fill.  Fellow readers will understand the twitchy feeling that results from not having a bookmark stashed in a current read.  The thought of reading a book sight unseen by an author about whom I knew practically nothing appealed to me more than reading Castalia House’s latest blockbuster – sorry, Loki’s Child, you’ll have to wait until October – and so Ten Gentle Opportunities rocketed to the top of my list.

At a third of the way through this book I can only say thank god for self-publishers and social media.  This is not a review of Ten Gentle Opportunities – I’m only a third of the way through, so it’s too early to say more than that I’m loving it – rather, it is a morality play about of the benefits of the self-publishing model.  It is a call to arms for readers to get out there and take chances on the little guys.  They might not all provide books as entertaining and different as Duntemann’s, but you’ll face better odds than you will with the Big Five Publishers.  Better yet, when you hit that jackpot, you’ll have a new name and a new backlog to start pillaging for even more material.

The social media scene has been a god-send for readers and a fantastic way to push back against the SJW narrative, but at times the Puppy crowd tends to focus on the biggest names and the biggest fights.  That’s all well and good, but when you’re spreading around the Pepe Memes and barking back against the Hugo Crowd, don’t forget to spread the love when it comes to the lesser known lights, because some of them – like Jeff Duntermann – are bright indeed.
Posted in read moar, recommendation | Comments Off on The New World of Longshot Reads

The MAGA Mutual Aid Society

Living in a deep blue state carries with it a host of disadvantages that aren’t worth dwelling upon here.  The deep blue denizens of my particular blue state tend to run to the more passive-aggressive end of the spectrum.  Learning that a Trump supporter walks in their midst will cause them to raise their eyebrows and toss off a bit of snark that is easily countered by direct confrontation.  Mind you, my car’s bumper remains sticker free; the sorts who engage in passive-aggressive sarcasm in face to face conversation are also the sorts to vandalize un-attended car whose owner clearly engages in badthink.

I’m also too lazy to visit the local campaign HQ and pick one up, and way too lazy to scrape the dang thing off in December.  Self-awareness alone precludes me from driving around a car that bears a years-out-of-date political bumper sticker.

A baseball hat, on the other hand, that’s a whole different ballgame.  My “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hat never goes anywhere without me, so there’s no need to worry about cowardly backstab-style vandalism.  After the campaign season ends, it can live in the back corner of the closet with the “Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup Champions” t-shirts.

Wearing the MAGA hat around town, here’s no doubt in my mind that it catches people’s attention.  Not a lot of people, but enough.  People that you pass on the sidewalk can be hard to read, so often it isn’t clear whether the raised eyebrows are an expression of disgust, disbelief, or pleasure.  They barely register, and so likely go un-noticed in most cases.  The people that stop and comment, those are a lot easier to quantify and qualify.

The worst comment I’ve had in three months of wearing the hat has been one guy who said, “Hey man!” and continued walking away showing me a double barreled middle-finger salute.  Far more often has been the thirty-ish beardo asking if I’m wearing the hat ironically.  My response: “Irony is for chumps.”  They never really know how to respond beyond an awkward chuckle and slow, “oookay.”

Far more often, people shout out, “Love the hat!”  Although about half of them feel the need to lean in close and whisper a conspiratorial, “We’re going to win this thing.”  That level of theatrics isn’t necessary, but we live in relatively turbulent times where not everyone is comfortable letting their alt-right freak flag fly.  They’ll get no criticism from me on that score – I save my criticism for people on the other side of the political fight.

The best story I have to date happened this past weekend.  I’m a cardio guy who runs long distance races.  For fun.  My thinning hair now forces me to wear a sweat band to keep my eyes salt-free. The bright red MAGA hat is my favorite sweat band*, and it helps my fan support recognize me as I come trundling up the course.  On Sunday, at mile eight of a half-marathon my stride had slowed to a dispirited walk.  The realization that I’d gone out too fast too early, and that trying to keep up with the younger crowd might have been a mistake, had sucked all the wind out of my sails.  After a minute of walking, some random stranger passed me up, but slowed long enough for a fist bump, a “nice hat”, and then gave me a nice little “let’s go” wave.
It was all the encouragement I needed.  I gutted out the next five miles, and while I might not have set any land speed records, or even beat five years younger Jon’s time, without that little moment of mutual aid, it would have been a much longer day on the course without that bright red hat.

 

* That hat is actually a terrible sweat band.  It’s hot and it doesn’t wick moisture away from the body like my dedicated runner’s hat.  At times the sweat beads up and drips off the brim, and when it dries out you can see the white salt staining on it.  In just a few months it’s faded a shade or two, and picked up a few grease and dirt stains.  The one wag who pointed out how grubby my MAGA hat is had no response to my counter, “Making America Great Again is hard work.”
Posted in alt right, politics | Comments Off on The MAGA Mutual Aid Society

I See What You Did There, Frank

Chris Cutalik runs the phenomenal D&D blog, Hill Cantons.  A recent post over there featured this Frank Frazetta painting of John Carter putting the hurt on a trio of (what I think are) Black Martians. 

Dude.  Black Martian Lives Matter.

Frank Frazetta is one of my favorite artists, for obvious reasons.  Technically gifted, with a wealth of material painted for genre fiction, he paints what I see in my head when reading.  Whether his style taps into my psyche or I see it this way because that’s how he showed it is irrelevant, the man is just a damn fine painter.  The constrast in that painting, with the white building make a silhouette of John Carter, the composition of the work drawing the eye to John and around the space and back into the work, the implied action and ferocity of the battle, Frank is the real deal.

This is a self portrait of the man himself.

 
Notice anything?
 

 

The jaded cynics out there will think, “Duh, of course he used himself as a model, he’s always available, it’s cheap, and it’s convenient.” 

Well that’s just great.  Do you walk around the malls come Christmas time throwing water on the dreams of children?

All I know is that, if I could paint like that, and if I had to pick a face for John Carter, you bet your sweet ass I’d use my own face.  That’s rather the point of the books, isn’t it?  To put you in John Carter’s harness and boots (and not much else)?  To feel the sands of Mars and embrace of Dejah Thoris?  Why wouldn’t an artist do the same thing?

No, I like to think that Frank Frazetta, a man who clearly paid attention to details and whose work is full of deliberate choices, made the deliberate choice to put his own face on John Carter.  That’s exactly the sort of decision that dreamers and creative types should be making.  It shows a level of passion and commitment to the form that is far more admirable than, “Meh, this’ll save a few bucks,” or worse, “This’ll prove how sensitive I am to current fashion.”

Posted in pulpy fun | 1 Comment

An Amusing Amazon Recommendation

Amazon’s recommendations don’t bother me.  They know what I like and have helped me find some interesting reads.  This one showed up in my inbox and amused me enough to share:

 
Yeah.  Yeah, I think I might like that one.  Thanks, Amazon!
 
Posted in k-bar, writing | Comments Off on An Amusing Amazon Recommendation

As Goes the Lovecraft, So Goes the Hugo

Last November, the World Fantasy Award stopped using Lovecraft’s name and image for their top prize due to his disturbing tendency to engage in crimethink.

What I want to know is, when will the SFWA follow suit and change the name of their trophy to something more appropriate than just another old white guy?  Hugo Gernsback, the man for whom the award is named, spent his whole life as an old white guy, and never once apologized for it!

More salient, the Hugo award hasn’t been about rewarding the Gernbeckian style of fantasy and science fiction in well over a decade.  There must be somebody far more suitable to the SFWA’s style of genre fiction that they could name the award after.  Somebody who writes dull prose about identitarian politics or pro-socialist treatises dressed up in spaceships and silver spandex suits.  Somebody who more accurately reflects the Current Year.  Maybe even somebody who isn’t so white-ish and man-ish.  I mean, not on purpose, just on principle, you see.

Yes, it’s high time the SFWA selected a more diverse person to represent their fine award.  Not Leigh Brackett – she wrote space opera.  Not Andre Norton – she wrote books that appeared in Appendix N.  In fact, you can’t really use any woman writing science fiction or fantasy during the 1950s and 1960s.  Their existence doesn’t fit the narrative, so naming the award after one of them would go against SFWA’s policy of erasing their memory, which plays a key role in proving that The Man always erases women from history.

So we need a diverse author who really nails the current SFWA mindset.  For that, there’s really only two choices:

  1. The Marion Award, after Marion Zimmer Bradley.  What could be more suitable than naming the trophy after a child molesting writer whose works are admired for their politics rather than being exemplars of science fiction and fantasy writing?
  2. The Sammy Award, after Samuel R. Delaney.  Again, a known pedophile who spoke favorably about NAMBLA, and whose works of science fiction and fantasy are loved by the SFWA for their graphic depictions of child sex abuse.  He has the advantage of being a person of color, but unfortunately he is isn’t quite dead yet.

The only reasonable solution is a compromise.  The SFWA should change the Hugo to the Marion until Delaney dies, and then change it to the Sammy.  That would really show the world where the SFWA’s priorities lie.

Posted in hugo time | 1 Comment

Puppy of the Month: New Post

This month we are discussing Brian Niemeier’s Nethereal over at the Puppy of the Month Book Club.  My initial thoughts on the book went live yesterday.  Here’s a taste:

The setting of Nethereal is different.  Very different.  Mention has been made that it blends fantasy and science fiction in a way that harkens back to the days when science fiction and fantasy were considered one and the same.  This is true, but it doesn’t really help nail down where on the spectrum the setting truly lies.  Consider Disney’s animated film Treasure Planet, which was for all practical effects, was simply the novel Treasure Island dressed up in a steam-punk style of science fiction.  Yes, it featured planets and aliens, but the setting and plot were no different from an age of sail adventure.  The setting for Nethereal on the other hand, could not exist without both the science fiction and the fantasy aspects.  The two are intertwined in ways that go well beyond the cosmetic.

There’s talk of Warhammer 40K novels, too.  You should totes check it out. 

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