Letter From The Editor - Issue 41 - September 2014

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Writing Fantasy

  
Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
March 2006

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
Tor, 2006, $23.95

Although John Scalzi is a relative newcomer to the genre (debuting just last year with his terrific Old Man's War and Agent to the Stars [which you can read online for free]), he's a veteran writer, with years of non-fiction writing under his belt. That experience has transferred over successfully to his SF work, resulting in his first few novels reading as if they're the work of a long-time pro.

The titular "Ghost Brigades" are the Special Forces division of humanity's Colonial Defense Force—an elite squadron of genetically-engineered soldiers created from the DNA of the dead. They are "born as adults, with skills and ability, but no memory. No self. No morality. No restraint.... No humanity" we are told. They're grown quickly in a creche (reaching full maturity in just months instead of years) and are born without memory, but thanks to their BrainPals—a cybernetic supercomputer that integrates with the brain—they come into the world with certain skills already in place, and are able to become fully-functional soldiers just days out of the tank.

In an interesting twist, the novel's protagonist, Jared Dirac, is a Ghost Brigade clone of the novel's antagonist, Charles Boutin.

Boutin is a traitor to humanity—a scientist who took military secrets and gave them to the enemy. And with three alien races forming a heretofore unheard of alliance against the Colonial Union, Boutin's betrayal comes at the worst possible time.

Boutin was thought to be dead and buried, but a captured alien scientist says that Boutin is still very much alive. Boutin's body is exhumed, and it is discovered that he faked his own death by murdering a clone of himself. Which means that he's still out there, still helping the enemy.

Boutin was studying consciousness transfers before his defection, and part of his experimentation resulted in a copy of his own consciousness being stored on a Colonial Union computer. Seeing an opportunity, CDF scientists take this copy of Boutin's consciousness and DNA from Boutin's clone, and use them to engineer a clone of Boutin in order to extract information from the consciousness he left behind.

If this sounds complex, well...it is. The reason Boutin needs to be cloned is that you can't slap a consciousness into any old brain; it's got to go into a brain that's just like the one it originated in. But even with a cloned brain, there's no guarantee that the consciousness overlay will take; it's never been tried before, and no one's sure if it will work. Since resources are not unlimited, the body the CDF clones for the Boutin consciousness is a Special Forces body; the brass figures that if it doesn't work, then at least they'll have a new soldier.

The consciousness overlay doesn't appear to work. This results in a new member of the Ghost Brigades, whom they name Jared Dirac. Although the overlay didn't take, scientists speculate that Dirac might need to accumulate some human experiences before the consciousness can root itself in his brain—that is, when he sees or feels something that was important to Boutin, some memories may be triggered.

In the meantime, Dirac is assigned to a platoon and is put under the command of Lt. Jane Sagan. He goes through his training and becomes an exemplary soldier…until a mission goes wrong, and he loses a member of his team that he cared about. This loss is the first of several events that start to trigger Boutin's memories, and as the remembrances of another man are integrated into Jared's own mind, he finds himself changing—not into Boutin, but into a hybrid of the man he'd come to be and the man Boutin was, and he begins to understand why Boutin did what he did.

Like Old Man's War, the best part of The Ghost Brigades is not in its originality, but in its execution. Scalzi does not apologize for the debts his books owe to various other writers—most notably Robert A. Heinlein. And why should he? What writer of militaristic adventure-SF doesn't owe Heinlein? Some writers who borrow as many tropes as Scalzi does would churn out the sort of stuff that is nothing more than derivative drivel, but Scalzi doesn't fall into that trap. He injects his novels with enough of his own voice and his own unique spin on those familiar concepts to make his novels distinctly his own.

First and foremost, The Ghost Brigades is fun. But that's not all it is. It's got a lot of heart too. The reader cannot help but empathize with Dirac, and the relationships that form between the Ghost Brigade soldiers—though different than normal human relationships—nonetheless feel very real. Scalzi also explores some philosophical conundrums brought up by the futuristic technologies in the novel, and shows humanity exploiting those technologies in very believable (and not always pleasant) ways.

One other nice thing about Scalzi's work is that he pulls off an interesting hat-trick having to do with accessibility. First, both Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades, though set in the same milieu, were written to (and do in fact) standalone - you needn't read one to enjoy the other. Perhaps just as importantly, Scalzi's work is what you might consider entry-level SF—that is, you could hand it to someone not well-versed in the genre and expect them to be able to read it and enjoy it without difficulty—but at the same time works just as well for those of us who are well-read SFphiles. In short—it's the sort of thing that you can enthusiastically recommend to anyone who loves great characters, compelling plot, and action/adventure—whether they've read hundreds of SF novels, or none at all.

If you enjoy Scalzi's work, you might also want to check out Questions for a Soldier, his limited-edition chapbook from Subterranean Press (2006, $18.00).

Questions for a Soldier is a transcript of a Q&A session with Captain John Perry (protagonist of Old Man's War). Or, as the story describes itself "Capt. Perry meets with citizens of village of New Goa on Huckleberry Colony; answers questions about life of CDF servicepersons and other queries." Over the course of the interview, Perry relates several adventures of his past, including a trip to a seemingly ideal planet that turns out to be inhabited by a race of giant worms that make it not quite ideal after all. (And yes, this seems to be a nod to Frank Herbert's worms of Dune, and this fact is only emphasized by Bob Eggleton's artwork.) But perhaps the most interesting Q&A exchange occurs when one of the New Goa residents accuses the political structure of the Colonial Union to be "one of imperial colonialism and totalitarianism, and that [Perry] represent[s] the racist, colonial impulses of that system of control," and Perry honestly explores the issue in his reply.

It's a little pricey for a very-short story (though at Amazon, you can get it for the more reasonable price of $11.70), but it's a good read with interesting pencil artwork from Bob Eggleton, and those who have read Old Man's War won't want to miss it.

The Plot to Save Socrates by Paul Levinson
Tor, 2006, $25.95

As the title suggests, this compelling, idea-driven SF novel revolves around a number of time travelers who attempt to save the life of the philosopher Socrates

It all begins when a heretofore undiscovered Platonic dialog is discovered, ostensibly between Socrates and a visitor who offers the sentenced-to-die philosopher an escape from death via time travel. Carbon-14 dating proves the manuscript's authenticity, leading to many questions. Graduate student Sierra Waters is lured into this plot by her mentor Thomas O'Leary, who disappears shortly after showing her the document. Her curiosity and her concern for her mentor lead her to The Millennium Club in Manhattan, where she discovers a time machine hidden in one of the exclusive club's rooms. Sierra's investigation of the mysterious manuscript takes her back to ancient Greece and into her own future; along the way she encounters a number of notable historical figures and even falls in love.

The novel's primary flaw, which renders it merely a good read rather than a great one, is that little to no time is spent on character development; for the most part the characters are rather flat and lifeless, merely pawns used to drive the plot; also, the action sequences are rather pedestrian and lackluster—like the sterile recounting of a surgical procedure. But several narrative threads are skillfully woven together in presenting this intricate and thought-provoking plot, and when everything comes together in the end, all the possibilities brought up in the novel feel resolved.

All in all, an elaborately-reasoned temporal tale—a novelized thought experiment whose logic and ideas Socrates would have approved of.

In the Eye of Heaven by David Keck
Tor, 2006, $25.95

Durand is the son of a baron, but not being the firstborn, he's out of luck when it comes to an inheritance.  However, one of the baron's vassals is dying and without an heir, so once Durand becomes a knight, he is due to inherit this land.  But when the vassal's long-lost son unexpectedly returns, Durand's hopes are dashed and his 14 years of preparation are rendered worthless. With no other options, Durand sets out for a life of knight-errantry.  He soon becomes embroiled a long-brewing conflict between man and an ancient race known as the Banished, and finds himself in the position of possibly being humanity's best hope for winning the battle.

The richly-developed characters are the highlight of the novel. Durand, in particular, emerges as a memorable hero, and the Banished serve as an unsettling and serviceable foil. Unlike many fantasy heroes, Durand does not rely only on his physical prowess; he's a thinking, intelligent warrior whose mind is as sharp as his sword.

Though the fantasy world portrayed here is not exceedingly original, the world-building is praise-worthy despite this, as the author succeeds quite well in making this other-world come alive for the reader.  Keck's prose, meanwhile, is tight and lean despite this being his first novel, although the characters' constant fantasy-swearing ("Host of Heaven!") does get a bit repetitious.

The plot doesn't often stray far from the heroic fantasy template—the characters spend much of their time traveling or engaging in physical and verbal battles—but the book excels when it does. There's plenty of adventure and action, but it never overwhelms the story, and instead ably serves to ratchet up the tension, making this not only a fast read, but a gripping one. 

Despite its flaws, it's an entertaining coming-of-age heroic fantasy, and a promising debut.  

MechMuse Audio Magazine, March/April 2006
MechMuse.com, 2006, $5.00, 13 hours (unabridged)

MechMuse is a new digital audio magazine which will be appearing monthly, though it debuts with a March/April double-issue to get things started in grand fashion.

My favorite piece here was "After a Lean Winter" by David Farland, which originally appeared in the anthology War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, edited by Kevin J. Anderson. The idea of that anthology was that War of the Worlds was an account of the Martian invasion, told from only one point of view: that of H.G. Wells. The anthology, then, tells the same story but from 18 different points of view, all from famous personages of that era. Some of the "narrators" include Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Teddy Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Jack London, the last of whom is the subject of Farland's tale.

The story is basically a survival tale in the frozen north—The Call of the Wild meets War of the Worlds—with some interesting twists. Farland shows an obvious love for both London's and Wells' work, and demonstrates his depth of knowledge about the two as well. The result is a story that works remarkably well, and left me sorry when the story ended.

Performer Rick Jelinek reads with a rugged, manly tone that is an ideal fit for the Londonesque narrative. He also shifts nicely into a variety of voices, including a great French accent for one of the characters, and overall does a fine job of keeping the listener riveted.

Farland's other contribution to this issue is the first part of a serialized novel, On My Way to Paradise, which was originally published in 1989 by Bantam. I was a bit disappointed in narrator David Wilkinson—his voice is a bit too nasal for my liking, and overall he sounds sort of bland and disinterested, though he does do a good job with the occasional Spanish accent. Only the first three chapters are available thus far, so it's a bit early to review it, but suffice to say that those opening chapters are gripping and exciting, and definitely have me looking forward to more.

David Barr Kirtley's "Veil of Ignorance" (also read by Jelinek) tells the story of a group of friends aboard an orbital vacation house who unwittingly find themselves experimenting with an alien drug that "creates localized telepathy with scrambled ego," resulting in the group of friends experiencing everyone's thoughts, with no one knowing which set of thoughts is his own.

The story itself is terrific, but this audio adaptation doesn't do it justice. I've previously read this story, and heard Kirtley read it, so I know how I interpreted it on the page, and I've heard how the author himself intended it. Jelinek just seemed to be way off; he was never in sync with Kirtley's voice or pacing. Also, though he excelled with Farland's tale, here he tends toward melodrama in his performance, diminishing an otherwise superb SF story.

Luckily, Kirtley's other offering, "The Second Rat," fares much better in its adaptation. In "The Second Rat," a man discovers he has the ability to travel backward in time by "rewinding" life. Narrator Bob Barnes delivers a solid performance, his raspy, intense voice adding an extra sense of urgency to the narrative.

This issue of MechMuse also includes stories by Richard Raleigh, Edmund R. Schubert, Miles Romney (who also serves as editor), and a selection from early 20th century fantasist Francis Stevens.

The site itself is very slickly-designed, with a built-in audio player that lets you listen to samples from the magazine as you browse the site. Each story has its own artwork, and includes a brief note from the author about what the story means to him or what inspired it.

But of course, no matter how pretty the site is, the real question is: is the audio any good? The answer is: it's a bit of a mixed bag, but I felt like there's enough good audio content here to justify the five dollar price tag.


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