Dave and Liz and Chicago Save the World: A Short Story, John Scalzi

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

 

I’ve had this story bookmarked for about two months now, in preparation for that week in NaNoWriMo when I want to stab myself in the eye for ever thinking this novel-writing thing was a good idea. I knew this time would come because it always does. Sometimes it’s as early as the second weekend of November, but I’ve had the icy terror of reality (reality being that this novel is terrible, makes no sense and should be dismantled one letter at a time while I cry in a corner) hit me as late as Thanksgiving. This year, I thought I’d celebrate my father’s birthday with my own personal writer’s breakdown.

Fortunately, this story is what I’ve kept behind the “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” sign. I didn’t read it when Scalzi posted it in September; instead I squirreled it away for safekeeping because I have discovered that he is one writer who can make me laugh in the face of giant plot holes. There is something about his style and his storytelling – my roommates in college would have called it, oh so delicately, “balls to the wall” – that makes me feel just that much more invincible wielding this pen as a sword. He seems like the sort of person who wouldn’t be afraid to kick down the door of a terrible story, and that is exactly the kind of attitude I need right now.

I love Redshirts. I love Scalzi’s blog. I especially love that this little story is free, and that you can all read it right now, if you so choose. But mostly I love that he is the kind of writer who inspires me to take no prisoners in my own war against novel-writing. Because I love these silly, lovesick, snarky characters I’ve created who never quite get around to fighting for justice because they’re too busy pining for each other (even when I hate them because theyjustneedtogetoverthemselvesandsaysomethingalready).

I may lose control of this ship, crash and burn before I reach the 30th, but then again, there may be a damn good story waiting to be written from the life boat where I watch it all go under. I’ll let you know in fifteen days…

In the meantime, go read Whatever. Scalzi’s always got something to say about something.

UnWholly, Neal Shusterman

I managed to read one book on my two-week vacation to Australia – one. It might be a record low, but I was so busy petting koalas, trying to figure out if the water in toilets ran in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere, and learning how to drive on the left side of the road without intermittently screaming that I just couldn’t settle into anything I brought along on the Kindle. I found it much easier to write while I was there, actually, and I spent most mornings regretting that the only computer I brought with me was an iPad; although I normally don’t hate the touch screen keyboard, it’s difficult to write thousands of words in the only position I find convenient to type in on that thing (for the record, balancing it on my knees while sitting in bed or on a couch).

When I finally forced myself to choose something – anything – to read, I ended up with the sequel to UnWind, a fantastic science fiction young adult novel I read last year. I had been anxiously awaiting the release of the sequel (the second book of what I think will be a trilogy), but when it finally came out at the end of August, I didn’t have time to sit down and enjoy it the way I planned. I put it off and put it off until I decided I simply wasn’t going to have opportunity to read a book straight through until December…maybe even January, the way my schedule is looking right now, and I would simply have to live with the fact that this was going to be what I call an “interrupted reading experience.”

Before I quit my teaching job to write fulltime, almost all books were read that way, but I’ve become spoiled in the last two years. I don’t always expect a book to compel me to read it cover to cover in one sitting, but when I have expectations, as I did with UnWholly, I found myself annoyed that it would have to be any other way. As I said, spoiled. The funny thing is, once I started reading, I found that I didn’t want or need to read this one straight through (as I had with the first book). I often have this problem with the second book in a series, regardless of how many books are slated to follow. I find that I’ve worked myself into a lather over a book that is either a pale ripoff of the first or a bridge to the third. This one fell into the latter category.

I was about halfway through it and struggling to connect to characters I had loved in the original novel when I got into a discussion with my best friend (currently living in Sydney – hence the visit) about books we’ve recommended to each other and hated (example rec from me: The Fionavar Trilogy, example rec from her: The Vorkosigan Saga). It was a much more heated conversation than I had been expecting, mainly because 1) we rarely fight, 2) it turns out we have a surprisingly narrow overlapping Venn diagram of taste when it comes to books, and 3) we tend to keep our fanning and our friendship somewhat separate because of reasons 1 and 2. Regardless of reasons 2 and 3, I enjoy talking to her about books and about what makes them special since we have always shared a love of reading, even if we don’t always like the same stories. As a bonus, her intense involvement in fanning communities for the last fifteen years, coupled with a Master’s degree essentially on that subject means she has a fascinating perspective.

This discussion led me to share with her my disappointment in this book I had so anticipated reading. She immediately uncovered the root problem. She asked me, “Did the author create a world you love, or does the book instead revolve around a single, interesting topic? Because if it’s the first, chances are you’ll love the whole series – if it’s the second, you may be in trouble.”  She had nailed it. Shusterman absolutely came up with a brilliant, terrifying idea in the first book, and he told his story about that idea with wonderful characters and a compelling plot. My problem with the second was that the story didn’t provide me with much more than the first had. Also, I felt that the stakes had been lowered in the second book, and since the first was a complete adrenaline rush, it was a let down.

That being said, I’m looking forward to the third one. I can’t stop thinking about this whole “world vs idea” concept, and I find myself hoping that in the final novel, he’ll find a way to bring his big idea into a more fully developed time and place. I also think that although UnWholly is not the book UnWind  managed to be, he has set himself up for a powerful conclusion. Having been so thoroughly impressed by the first novel, and knowing that I’m often more critical of the second, I’ve decided to keep the faith. During a time like this, when women’s health has become a major topic of debate, he is telling an especially important story for a young generation of readers, and I look forward to seeing what he decides to do with this terrifying future he has unleashed.

 

To learn more about Neal Schusterman, head over here.

The Abyss, Orson Scott Card

I’m on vacation though October 25, so for the next few posts, I’ll be sharing brief reviews of some of my favorite books.

Is it weird that one of my favorite books is actually an adaptation written to flesh out a movie that had already been made? I’d seen the film many times before I even knew the book existed. I loved it – the special effects, the wonderful characters, the awe and terror of being trapped so deep in the ocean, the aliens – it’s still one of the all-time greatest movies I’ve ever seen.

And yet, the book is better. Card was hired by James Cameron to improve upon the movie script, to give the characters more depth and logical reasoning for taking the actions they do, and in just three chapters, he nails it. That is one of his gifts as a writer; he will make a person care about both the worst human beings and the best in the span of a few lines.

It was especially powerful to see what he could with a story that wasn’t his own. In a world created by another talented artist, he took what was already canon and created completely believable, rich backstories. When I read the book the first time, I actually thought that it must be the basis for the film rather than the reverse – he was that good at taking what had already been created and merging what could be into one amazing story.

This is probably the one instance when I’ll ever suggest watching the movie before reading the book. It’s the only time that the relationship between these two very different formats does not ruin either, but rather, makes each more beautiful.

Interested in Orson Scott Card? Go here. For more on James Cameron, I recommend his twitter feed.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer, Michael Rubens

This book was exactly what I needed to take on this vacation. As my friend Ruby, who recommended it to me, said, “it’s a space opera with the sort of witty, slightly scummy hero you usually only get in hard-boiled detective pulp.” Seriously, how can you go wrong?

I’ll tell you. You can’t.

The book is like a wonderful, extended episode of Firefly, a show I loved (and miss) with the passion of a thousand fan girls (you really don’t want to be on the wrong end of a thousand fan girls either – I’ve seen them in action and just thinking about it makes me retreat into the fetal position). Did you see The Avengers? What’s that? You liked it? This book is for you. Picked up Scalzi’s Redshirts and laughed until you wept with joy? Here’s the next book in your queue.

Are you the kind of person who likes to giggle in public? Say, on a train, plane, or  automobile (preferably one you aren’t driving)? Michael Rubens has your number. Maybe you prefer to read shamelessly hilarious cowboy space romps while at the beach with an ice-cold beer stuck in the sand beside you, or on that Kindle app on your computer (sure, right now it’s hidden behind TPS reports, but we all know it’s there and whole heartedly support you getting through a long day at the office adventuring through the universe with a Sheriff tab open).

A personal favorite method of mine, the “sneak a read while visiting family” technique utilizes the smart phone. God bless whoever invented the technology that allows me to get through a delightful chapter while everyone else is debating what we should do for the day (or making dinner, walking the dog, or taking forever to get ready in the morning). This is how I managed to read seven of twelve Sookie Stackhouse books in just over a week the last time I was in NH (I’m, like, a level nine ninja kindle phone reader after that) and made it possible to easily devour this one in less than a day.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer  is perfect for practicing any of the above techniques. Rubens’ characters are, in turns, sweet and ridiculous, his plot maintains a spritely pace throughout, and his sense of humor and mine have clearly been involved in a mind meld. It’s just the kind of light fare that goes hand-in-hand with a short summer attention span…in other words, ideal for both vacation and break-up-the-office-tedium.

Seriously. Just read it. Or don’t (but then, don’t come crying to me when your days are that much less filled with joy).

Head over here to find out more about Michael Rubens. I’ll race you.

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi

I think most of us have realized by this point in the existence of the interwebs that we cannot read or follow every blog we want to or think we should. We all handle this disappointment in different ways. I prefer to follow only as many people as I can reasonably enjoy, while my husband doesn’t mind following so many that he requires fifty hour days to keep caught up – a fundamental difference in our life view being that he loves knowledge for the sake of knowledge while I prefer to know everything within a subset I can control. For me, this means making hard choices about once every six months, when I go through all the blogs I’ve accumulated on Google Reader and weed out those that no longer interest me or have been abandoned by the author.

You might surmise from this, and you would be correct, that I am not a hoarder. In all aspects of my life, I get great pleasure from purging the unnecessary – old yearbooks, pictures of me from junior high, gifts people have given that I no longer need – and yes, I did actually just feel the massive intake of breath from all of you who cannot understand the monster in me I’ve just revealed. I get it. I married into a family of hoarders savers.

The thing is, I don’t have the emotional energy to keep all my old physical possessions because I’m already full up with memories. I don’t need an old beach towel hanging around to remember how much I loved swimming at Walden Pond every summer when I was a kid. I don’t save awards I won for writing in the fifth grade because all I have to do is sit down at a computer to relive the joy they brought me. And I certainly don’t need stacks of photos I cut out of magazines when I was fifteen to remember the crushes I had on Will Riker and Wesley Crusher because nobody (and I mean nobody) forgets being the butt of other Trekkies’ jokes for being in love with those two.

So when John Scalzi, a blogger who always manages to survive my stringent cuts, wrote a book tangentially related to one of my oldest and (until now) most secret loves, I had no choice but to read it. And love it. And weep over it, just a little.

For those of you who aren’t in the know, the term “redshirt” originated with fans of the original Star Trek series to describe a character with little or no back story who dies shortly after being introduced (often before the opening credits); the purpose of such a character was to provide the viewer with a glimpse of what the show’s protagonists were up against. Scalzi takes this premise and turns it into a novel that just about ripped my damn heart out.

Usually with a book this excellent, I have no doubt that the vast majority of my readers could pick it up and experience (at least on some level) the euphoria I have, but for once I’m stumped. I have no idea whether or not this book will resonate with non science-fiction fans (although I would love for those of you who aren’t to read it and report back). When I laughed, many times it was at jokes so ingrained in the person I am, and the person I was when I was thirteen, that I can’t objectively determine whether, say, my father would also laugh if he read the same passage. If I left this book on a train, would the only people tempted to pick it up be those already on the inside?

I don’t know! And it’s killing me! I hate not knowing things! I’m nosy (I consider it to be one of my finer little sister traits, in fact), and I like to be right, so I don’t want to just waltz in here and insist that you read this book if I’m wrong about non-geeks being susceptible to the awesome. (That would be embarrassing, and the only thing worse than being wrong is being embarrassed by how very wrong you are.)

But if you just give it a chance…

I mean, look at me. I’m not into video games or going to any event that ends in the word “con.” I don’t write fanfic (although I think we’ve previously agreed that it’s perfectly acceptable for me to have occasionally dabbled in reading it). I don’t like getting dressed up in costume for any reason whatsoever, and I’ve never made it through Dune (although apparently I have read five of the top ten  most iconic sci-fi books…but let’s ignore that for the sake of argument). I shop at the Gap, for God’s sake! At best, I’m like a junior member geek who’s legitimacy is constantly questioned by how poorly I score on the geek entrance exam.

So if I can love the book this hard, how inaccessible can it really be? I say that if you can name even one character from any of the iterations of Star Trek (and that includes the 2009 movie, which we all know you totally saw, so don’t even pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about), you’ll enjoy this book on some level. It may not be to the extent that hardcore fans (or even geeks on the fringe) do, but that’s no reason not to give it a try. It’s funny, I promise. And surprisingly touching. In fact, you’ll probably cry, then have to pretend some sand from the beach just got in your eye, which will get you thinking about how we’re all as insignificant as grains of sand, and the philosophy major in you will just explode with this unexpected opportunity to make an appearance while you’re on vacation, so just do us all a favor and stop fighting it. Your inner hoarder needs this.

(I’msorryIjustcan’tstopmyself) Resistance is futile.

Now go give John Scalzi some love here. His blog has been around for like fourteen years, so it’s like, practically a history credit just clicking that link.

Ender in Exile, Orson Scott Card

I found Ender in Exile a few months ago when I was with my husband on one of our bookstore dates. Those dates always involve me spending way too much on books I mostly read a few pages of and then decide to take a chance on. I didn’t need to read a few pages of this one to know I wanted it.

You see, Ender is an old, dear friend of mine. Reading Ender in Exile is, for me, what I imagine Facebook must be for people who like Facebook. In reading it, I’m picking up again with old acquaintances, characters I’ve known since I was 13 years old. Sure, they’re fictional, but how real are those people from high school who “friend” us – people we never ate lunch with or called on the phone but who recognize our names from the bowels of memory and seek a connection because of what? Nostalgia, maybe. A desire for shared history, more likely. Ender is as real to me as any of those people whose names I have literally erased from memory, just as their lives are as much fiction to me as any of the books in Ender’s universe.

If you’ve never read Ender’s Game, the first of the books in this collection, you should. (Even if you think you don’t like science fiction, you should still check it out.) Maybe it won’t mean as much to you as it did to me as a teenager, but I have since read all the books in the series, and to varying degrees, I have loved them. Orson Scott Card has a talent for writing characters who are easily taken into the heart to love and despise in equal degree, and his gift for storytelling is worthy of the many awards he’s won.

The books in this series are so much more than genre fiction. They remind me in some ways of opera (I know – I’m making them even more appealing to you now, aren’t I?) in that the emotions are soaring yet intimate, the scenarios both implausible and familiar. In one of my favorite moments in Ender in Exile, Ender’s parents, who we see little of in other books, are discussing the enormous difficulties they face in deciding what’s best for all three of their superlatively brilliant children:

   “Teresa, we have to decide: What’s best for Ender? What’s best for Peter and Valentine? What’s best for the future of the world?”
   “Sitting here on our bed, in the middle of the night, the two of us are deciding the fate of the world?” (pg 5)

Maybe I’m alone in having nights that feel like this, but I don’t think so. I don’t even have to have my own children to know that parents feel the pressure of the world bearing down, worrying at them, even when their children aren’t military geniuses. The fact of the matter is, living in a community puts an impetus on each of us to care about something more than ourselves. It puts us in the way of all sorts of decisions, and that’s what these books are about. What happens when you place people – people too young or smart or ordinary or evil – in the path of decisions that affect, not only the world, but the entire unknown universe?

In light of that, there is one other thing I feel I need to add to this discussion, and while it’s not always a conscious consideration when choosing books to read, this discovery has influenced my perception of Orson Scott Card (and burdened my heart in no small part). He has been, for many years, an outspoken advocate against gay rights. People have attributed this to his Mormon faith – and he does identify that his plots around care for children stem from these beliefs – but I personally know many Mormons who are tolerant and open-minded about issues of orientation, so I prefer not to make the assumption that this is where his opinion stems from. I admit I didn’t know this about him when I first started reading his books; I didn’t learn of it until about two years ago, and since then, I have been trying to put together the novelist who has written characters seeking justice and tolerance, his stories, which embrace hugely different cultures and upbringings, and the man, who has such a conservative social view-point.

I’m not sure whether I would have read his books had I known then that he uses his position as a well-loved author to forward ideas I find abhorrent. This is what my favorite English teacher would have called an existential crisis. On the one hand, I love his books. The characters are so dear to me that I can’t imagine my literary life without them. On the other, I was raised to act with compassion toward all people, even those others denigrate, and especially, most difficultly, those who hold ideas I find repugnant.

The benediction at our wedding was from our favorite passage in Micah: “What does God require of you but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” To me, this is the end all and be all of my entire faith. I am not asked to judge others, or despise them for their hatred, or force my opinions on them. Certainly people rarely let go of intolerance because others have hated them into it. Even in Card’s books, the worst villains were never truly beaten by violence or superior strength but by others meeting them with love and patience.

Existential crises are hard. If I knew the answer for sure, I would be much happier. If all the people whose writing I liked could be as liberal as I am, it would be so much easier. But I don’t, and they aren’t. Life is sort of like the best book ever written that way. Nothing is as plainly good or evil as you hope it will be. Villains may redeem themselves or not. Conflict that rips you open from gut to gills can end up changing the world into a much better place than it was when you were nice and put together. There are sacrifices worth the heartache and things done for the greater good that are worthless. It’s a story filled with unfair plot twists and too much death with little enough adventure and romance to balance out the cosmic scales.

So we do little things. We complicate other people’s beliefs by giving them as much information as possible then allowing them the freedom to choose. We bite our lashing-out tongues one moment, then stand up and take the punches meant for another in the next. We fail one day and live to fight another.

I love Card’s books. I can’t help it. I hate that buying his books might in some way support propagating hatred though, so in the future, I’ll check them out of the library instead of purchasing them myself. This is the best answer I have right now, and it’s nowhere near satisfying. In five or ten or fifty years I might come up with a more perfect solution, but for now, this is where I stand. These books may hold undercurrents of his ideals, but they are in no way stories of intolerance or prejudice, and I can’t bring myself to throw them on the pyre because I disagree with the author. Down that road, tempted though we may sometimes be, lies chaos, unearned self-righteousness, and the death of free speech.

If you’d care to read more about Orson Scott Card’s work, he has a comprehensive site here.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

I’m going to start by saying, I’m not very good at being a geek. Sure, I like ST:TNG and the original Star Wars movies. I’ve seen a couple of Monty Python flicks. My brother and I owned a Sega Genesis back in the day (although we only owned the game that came with it – Sonic the Hedgehog – so that should tell you something right there about our commitment level to gaming). I know who Wil Wheaton is, and I know why he is so beloved on the interwebs years after TNG ended. I even know how to handle a number of computery problems by myself (though, again, the fact that I even used the word “computery” gives you an idea of my depth of expertise). I’ve watched most of Ranma 1/2 in the original Japanese, and my first really big celebrity crush was on Jonathan Frakes.

My only strong interests in geekdom currently, however, are in fantasy and sci-fi literature and in the mildly appalling fact that I occasionally get sucked down fan fic wormholes. I’ve never been to a con. I can’t stand reading graphic novels (not because they aren’t cool, but because it hurts my eyes and brain when I try to process information that way). My closet is filled with many non-black tee shirts. I have the attention span of a gnat for any kind of video game, and probably most damning of all, I’m a morning person.

That being said, I married a geek. One of my best friends is a geek. In fact, many of my friends are insanely geeky, awesome, stupefyingly brilliant people, and I’m often jealous of the cozy little world that has evolved alongside the internet, allowing geeks to rise up their proper place in the social order. When my husband and I first started dating, he even gave me a copy of The Geek Handbook, which I read cover to cover that very night (I’m also not a procrastinator, which I’m pretty sure bans me from full geek status on its own). I then went on to let him know exactly how and why I already knew all about the care and handling of geek humans – which might have been the moment he fell for me.

I was raised on the edge of geek culture, and I’ve always enjoyed it – even the parts I didn’t understand (and there are many) – maybe that’s why I fell in love with Ready Player One before I finished the first chapter. It was like reading little bits of history out of the lives of so many people I love. I have no doubt that Cline is a supreme geek, aw=s well as knowledgable in the extreme about 80s culture, and reading his story (because you can’t be even a little bit geek without this sort of being your story too), I was sucked in.

The funniest thing is, it takes place almost entirely inside a virtual reality gaming system, and one of my worst nightmares is that someday the world will be so bad, or so bored, that this is what will happen. The lines between reality and gaming will blur almost to extinction. We’ll all be living in an artificial world because the real one is just not enough. This scares me more than being caught on a suspension bridge during a huge earthquake. Or drowning. Or that scene in Indiana Jones where he falls into a train car full of snakes…and that scares me a lot.

I would never want to live in a world like that, not even if it meant I could control an avatar that was fiercer and more graceful than I am. It might allow me to do all the things I could ever dream of, but at the end of the day, I would know that I hadn’t done anything at all, and I think it would break my heart.

But if it ever did have to come to pass, I would want to see it as Ernest Cline has envisioned it – as a place where children can get an equal education regardless of wealth or situation, where friends can emerge from the most unlikely places, and where noble men and women emerge to protect a system of open source information sharing…

Because honestly, he makes it seem pretty great.

Ernest Cline can be found at http://www.ernestcline.com/. Also, I hear the audio version of this book is pretty fabulous (and narrated by Wil Wheaton), so if that’s more your speed, definitely check it out at your local library or on audible.com.