Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reinventing the Novel: Thoughts on Publishing in the 21st Century

When the 'Novel' isn't novel any more ...

... where do we turn for the bright ideas that can reinvigorate this fading art form?  The surprising answer: to the very technology that's destroying it.

I'm not talking about e-books here.  I'm talking a complete revolution in the way we think about publishing.  It's a revolution that has already begun, though the battle lines and alliances are shifting so rapidly that it seems almost impossible to imagine the final outcome.  But that's what I'm here to attempt to do.

Books are quaint old things--nothing but bulky lumps of stained wood fiber that lost their revolutionary status half a millennium ago once the world embraced Guttenberg's movable type.  Yet they live on.  Honestly, sometimes it amazes me that the simple paper book has outlived the vinyl record and the floppy disc as staples in the average person's household.  The latter two are information devices with roughly similar storage density as books but with far better interconnectivity, yet they are museum pieces today.  What's the deal?  Books don't connect with anything but the reader's mind.  To call any book 'novel' in this digital age is, to say the least, a stretch.

The term has become an oxymoron.  The word 'novel' comes from the Latin 'novellus', diminutive of 'novus', meaning 'new'.  A novel is literally 'a little something new'.  My obsolete ten-pound door-stop known as Webster's Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, 1986, defines the noun 'novel' as "an invented prose narrative ..."

Invented ... an invented work of prose narrative.  An author has a 'light bulb moment' and proceeds to turn it into an epic tale, as George R.R. Martin did when the idea of a set of siblings adopting wild dire-wolf pups became his mega-successful 'Game of Thrones' franchise.

Thomas Edison, I think, gets the credit for connecting invention and light bulbs in our cultural vernacular.  And ironically it was another Edison invention--the phonograph--that began the novel's slow decline as an art form.

Before there were books, the "invented prose narrative" was the exclusive purview of the storyteller.  What Johannes Gutenberg did for the written word, Edison did for the spoken.  Suddenly the oral storyteller was back in business.  Cold, impersonal black-and-white print now had an equally distributable competitor with value added: voice inflection, sound effects, even musical accompaniment.

If "video killed the radio star," then radio surely killed the novel, no?  If audio was the first nail in the novel's coffin, then today's cheap, ubiquitous, digital multi-media must certainly have cremated the novel and scattered its ashes to the four winds.

Not exactly.  Here's the case for the defense--exhibit A:  Long before Gutenberg, books had already proven their potential for supplemental content.  Cloistered monks devoted their lives to creating heavily illuminated volumes--visual works of art of highest caliber, complete with multi-color illustrations.

"But," the dour prosecutor raises a pointed finger and remonstrates, "illustrations cannot properly be considered 'narrative', and certainly not 'prose'."

"Sir," the defense calmly responds, "Have you heard of the 'graphic novel'?"

We'll leave the little courtroom dramatization hanging there, with that last parry as a rhetorical question -- 'question as answer'.  Even before the digital revolution, professional critics such as our prosecutor were already forging coffin nails and holding wakes: "The Death of the Novel !!!" they proclaimed. These pundits played at parsing definitions (such as the definition of "narrative"), setting up straw-man criteria for judging what is and is not a novel so they could create a sensational 'headline' and sell an article to a broadsheet.  Even today that practice continues - see this recent high-brow essay by Will Self.

I'll tell you what I think of people who parse definitions for a living.  For one thing, they're not novelists.  They do the opposite of inventing prose, they eviscerate it.  In addition to the light bulb and the phonograph, the 19th century saw the invention of the term 'scientist' (in 1834), whereupon the art of parsing all aspects of reality went rampant and even acquired its own name: reductionism.

This was the dawn of the 'age of the expert' - an apparently short lived era in which a 'credential' in a narrow field of specialty was required to express a worthy opinion, and during which the generalist/naturalist (the Renaissance man) lost favor.  I argue that we have, thankfully for the field of the "invented prose narrative", entered the 'post-expert era': a term I first heard used by Amy Luers just this year (June 2014).


Screen shot from Google.com, showing the relative frequency of use of the word 'Expert' over time.

Cheap, ubiquitous, real-time digital multi-media has democratized public discourse.  The expert's voice is drowned and marginalized beneath the din.  And the same chaos threatens the extinction of the novel by engulfing it in creative alternatives.

That is, unless the Novel can become novel once again.  Unless the "invented prose narrative" can be re-invented.

The medieval monks cloistered in their cells with pen and parchment pointed the way to comic books and graphic novels.  Journeyman actors and actresses take night work recording audio-books.  In many genres novels are delivered more often as e-books than in print. And high-profile screen-writers/directors turn novels into blockbuster movies and television series.  Cross-pollination is good.

So here is my proposed seven-part 21st-century publishing plan for my epic fantasy/sci-fi novel 'Eden's Womb':

1. Small installments.  Instead of starting by doing any sort of static 'publishing' of a 'book', I propose to release the novel a chapter at a time here on this blog first and add value from there.

2. Free.  The reader can partake free of charge.  This is part of a 'loss-leader' marketing strategy applied in an unprecedented direction.  See item 5 below.

3. Multi-media.  The blog posts will include not only text but illustrations, videos, links to external content, to an index and to appendix and glossary pages.  Among the videos will be yours truly simply reading from the manuscript and/or offering commentary.

4. Interactive.  Each installment will be dynamic--changing to add new content.  Fans can contribute artwork, videos and written commentary, including questions, critiques, and suggestions for improvement.  There will be contests and give-aways and other promotions.

5. Subscription based:  As demand develops, further installments or advance views may be made available first through subscription on a 'members only' section of the web site.  Note that major software publishing has converted from packaged CDs to monthly subscription.  Big example is Adobe Photoshop.  It seems to be the wave of the future.

6. Branded.  'Eden's Womb' will not just be the title of a novel.  It will be a brand.  The paperback book will be one of a suite of products, and not the first one.  As/when demand develops, other merchandise will be produced--t-shirts, decals, action figures, etc. etc.  Sale of the rights to a movie producer is, of course, a significant part of this.

7. Entrepreneurial.  A successful novel becomes an ongoing enterprise.  But if less successful, the modest start-up (a domain name and web site, social media presence, etc.) need not cost the author a penny.

So why has the print book remained a (barely, and admittedly fading) commercially viable commodity while the vinyl disc has dwindled?  Why do we remain so enamored with the old-fashioned printed word--so nostalgically loyal to a half-millennium-old technology?  I have some surprising and off-beat thoughts about that, which I hope to share in another post.  My short answer is that there's something very fundamental about symbolic expression that defines us as civilized humans.  Words have 'magic' - a real-world sort of magic that is emergent yet quantifiable in its effect, employed with exquisite skill by good writers yet shrouded in the mystery of human consciousness.  Note well: the novel 'Eden's Womb' explores this subject in some depth.

But will the magic last?  Will the print book survive to see the 22nd century? With the seven-part strategy that I've outlined above, I'm able to hedge my bets while still embracing the newest developments.  Novel becomes hyper-novel.  Seems like a fun idea to play with.  It's an experiment--an epic adventure in its own right.  And I welcome you to come along for the ride.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Cracking the code of the 'Game of Thrones'

In what key is the 'Song of Ice and Fire' composed?  No minor key, that's for certain.

I've just finished a six week 'total immersion' experience, reading all five available books in George R.R. Martin's famous fantasy novel series, 'A Song of Ice and Fire'.

This was an epic adventure, and I'm not just talking about the plot.  It was quite a feat of reading.  We're talking about plowing through five volumes--roughly 1000 pages each--in 42 days.  I estimate that I read 40,000 words a day.

And now that I've 'finished' - meaning only that I've caught up to the present (the series has two more books yet to be released) - I'm here to report some of my reactions to what I read as well as some insights into the man behind this truly epic project.

What I write here is not exactly a book review, but it's not exactly not a book review either.  Specifically, it's a list of seven subjective, sometimes off-beat observations.  Let's call it "Seven Keys to the Seven Kingdoms": a look into the dungeons and secret passages in the hidden, unexpected underbelly beneath the castle--the untold 'story behind the story'.

There's a lot of buzz about author George R.R. Martin right now, coming in conjunction with the October 28th 2014 release of his Christmas-gift-worthy coffee-table-book, The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones.  Martin has given several new interviews, both in print and on TV.  Here's a link to a fine fifteen-minute interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos broadcast late last week.

The headline of the ABC interview provides the first of the unexpected keys:

1.  George R.R. Martin had his first 'fifteen minutes of fame' long before he started writing 'Game of Thrones'.  He made his first TV appearance in 1987, four years before he even conceived of the 'Song of Ice and Fire' novels.  It happened as a result of his position as one of four screen-writers of the short-lived TV series 'Beauty and the Beast'.  He made a cameo appearance sitting in a restaurant chomping a cheeseburger while reading one of his own books.

In the Stephanopoulos interview, Martin says that it took eight takes to get the scene right--that meant eight big chomps on a soggy, luke-warm, microwaved cheeseburger.

The larger take-away point from this:  George R.R. Martin did not just burst on the scene out of nowhere.  He had been writing and publishing novels since the early 1970's and when his career in fiction stalled, he became a reasonably successful Hollywood screen writer.  Then in 1991 he had the germ of inspiration for the 'Ice and Fire' novels ... and that leads to the next interesting observation ...

2.  'The Song of Ice and Fire' sold before even two percent of it was written.  This proved to be a bad idea, in my opinion.  Though he never intended to do so, Martin played 'bait and switch' with his eager publisher.  Here's more detail:  After writing just the first 100 pages of the first novel and a two page general summary of the rest of the plot, Martin sent his agent out to seek a publisher.  The result: four different major publishing houses bid on it.  He had a contract and a commitment, but hardly any actual written manuscript.  He naively told his chosen publisher that he might take a year to get out the first book.  Three years later (1995) he finally delivered the first volume, 'Game of Thrones'.  And twenty-five years later we're still waiting on the sixth and seventh volumes ('The Winds of Winter' and 'A Dream of Spring').  This leads to another unexpected point ...

3.  After 1.85 million words, nothing is resolved.  For God's sake, the Christian Bible only took 783,137 words (KJV) to tell a pretty epic story in its entirety.  Yet after more than twice that length, Martin still leaves a dozen or more plot lines hanging at the end of the fifth book.  This is the result of his decision to follow the points of view of so many different primary characters.  The result ...

4.  You can't tell the players without a scorecard.  The scope and ambition of this saga is unprecedented, as far as I know, in the entire history of alternate-world fiction.  By Martin's rough count, he has written roughly 1000 characters into the story, all of which have back-story and entanglements with the main characters and with each other.  Each of the five volumes published thus far has an extended appendix--an organized list of the characters and their relationships.  These are EIGHTY PAGE rosters, consisting of nothing but lists of names.

I chose to read the books without referring to those lists.  If I didn't remember who somebody was (which happened often), I just assumed they weren't important enough to matter.  That made some of the multi-page stretches of political scheming rather tedious if not downright boring but ... surprise ... it didn't cause me to lose the important threads of the plot.

My take-away reaction: Martin could have written a 'normal' sized novel with far fewer characters on the page and, in my opinion, it would have been tighter, cleaner, crisper, with better pace.  Would I use the word 'bloated' to describe the product as written?  Would I do that?  Nahhhhh.  The readers adore Martin's attention to detail and the depth of the story as it is.  The avid fans love being immersed in all the political nuances and intricacies.  That these books continue to increase in popularity with every new release tells all that needs to be told.  There will be an honored place in the history of literature for this work.

One wonders whether some future author will try to outdo this feat.  Just imagine ... !  Imagine an appendix the size of the New York City phone book.

For Martin, the characters and their entanglements matter more than anything.  He once said that his ultimate aim in writing was to explore the internal conflicts that define the human condition, and he described that as the only reason to read any literature, regardless of genre.  So ...

5.  The fantasy elements were (practically) afterthoughts.  Yes, Martin's prime inspiration came from his dual-middle-initial counterpart J.R.R. Tolkien, but this little tidbit intrigued me:  At one point during the writing, Martin was not going to include dragons.  It took the prompting of a writer friend, Phyllis Eisenstein (to whom he dedicated the third book) to change his mind:  "George, it's a fantasy - you've got to put in the dragons."

Martin himself has said that early in the process he was considering it as just a pseudo-historical-fiction story modeled after the War of the Roses - what I'd call a medieval soap opera.  And in my opinion 90% of the final product remains that--not Fantasy but historical-style fiction.  The themes of family and power far outweigh the impact of magic and supernatural elements.  Even Tolkien's influence on Martin largely comes from the quirky post-climax ending of the Lord of the Rings trilogy - the tale of the 'Scouring of the Shire' where gritty, uncomfortable reality trumped the simple good-wins-out-over-evil paradigm of the primary plot.  Martin likes to keep his readers uncomfortable (in suspense) regarding the fate of their 'favorite' characters.  And this preference goes back to some of his earliest writing experiences ...

6.  The key word is not Ice, not Fire, but Blood.  Martin relates that as part of a high school essay assignment he rewrote the last scene of Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Pit and the Pendulum' to create a hideous bloody ending where the victim is slashed by the pendulum and dies in a pool of blood.  Subsequently the rats come and eat out his eyes as the body festers.  Sound familiar?  His teacher praised his originality, and that positive reinforcement, coming as it did during those vulnerable formative years, has stuck with him to this day.

In my review of the first volume, which appears elsewhere on this blog, I noted that Martin manages to include a bloody element in virtually every scene.  One of the things that I did as I read, beginning with the second book, was to circle every occurrence of the word 'blood'.  On average it shows up at least once per page.  It seems almost an obsession with him.

Martin has stated that he wants his novels to have the 'gritty feel of historical fiction', and he succeeds at that. Uncomfortable cruelty is a common theme throughout the books, with characters who seem critical to the story being brutalized, maimed, and/or just plain killed off.  Furthermore, almost every significant character has some fatal flaw that, if it doesn't actually kill them, leads to bad decisions with major negative consequences.  And underlying all that real 'grit' is the ubiquitous greasy slime of blood.

The unexpected, often brutally sudden twists in plot come so often that - well - you begin to expect them.  But let us hope that one particular unexpected twist does not happen ...

7.  The mortality issue.  There are three epic fantasy authors who have projects of seven books length or more who were born within 1 1/2 months of one another in the fall of 1948:  George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan (whose endorsement helped 'Game of Thrones' become a success), and me (audacious, aren't I?).  We're no longer young.  We're on Medicare--we are officially senior citizens.  I'm doing okay--I exercise regularly, have a Body Fat percentage around fifteen, and seem to have good genes.  Both my father and mother remain alive and in decent health in their 92nd years of life.  Martin, on the other hand, is 100 pounds overweight.   And Robert Jordan did not survive long enough to go on Medicare.  He passed away in 2007, leaving his epic 'Wheel of Time' series unfinished.  On his blog, back in 2009, George R.R. Martin wrote:
"After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don't want me to 'pull a Robert Jordan' on you and deny you your book. Okay, I've got the message. You don't want me doing anything except A Song of Ice and Fire. Ever. (Well, maybe it's okay if I take a leak once in a while?)"
Just so long as you're not leaking blood, George.  Live long and prosper.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Confessions of a Dime Store Recluse

This is me  -  self portrait from the Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park, October 9, 2012

When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail both ways in 2012 my trail name was 'Seeks It'.  As I proceeded through that ten month Odyssey/Pilgrimage many people I met on the trail asked me 'What is it that you seek?' Others would ask 'Have you found it?'

It's taken two years.  The second anniversary of the completion of my 4368.4-mile sojourn comes up on November 3rd.  But now, on the threshold of my 67th year, I know precisely what I was seeking.  And I know that I found it.

The self portrait above contains no human being.  Yet it is a better picture of who I am than almost any other picture I could show.  It is the timeless in me, the selfless.  This is what nature - my nature - has called me to seek since I was a child.

It is delicate.  It only whispers--quieter than the wind.  It is so shy and so reticent--so easily overwhelmed by the chaos of human entanglements--that it only comes forth for me when the wind has stilled and civilization has retreated to a box in the closet of my mind.

And that is why I need to be a recluse - at least every so often.

Ahhh, yes.  Of course I know we humans are social animals.  I crave companionship as we all do.  While on the trail I felt as though I was able to regulate my surroundings so that I could get just about the right mix of solitude and human comfort.  A little of the latter goes a long way for me.  Too much, and I'm seeking to retreat deeper into the woods.  Too little and ...

... well, have I ever really had too little?  The world these days seems so utterly saturated with human influences.  Even on a still summer morning while sitting alone watching the sun rise from a ragged mountain top, the twittering of birds in the underbrush is usually accompanied by the throaty moan of a jetliner high in the stratosphere, doggedly devouring the dreary miles between Hither and Yon.  No, I'm not entirely sure that I have ever experienced too little connection with my fellow man.

And that is why I am a recluse - at least by comparison to most.

---------------------

So as I write this reflection of past experience, I'm projecting it into the future.  I'm too old to waste time doing things that burden me needlessly, especially when so much that I love is left to live for.

I want to 'hike my own hike' as they say in Appalachian Trail parlance, sharing experiences along life's trail via social media (through my freely offered writing, mainly on this blog) where others who might appreciate my ramblings can do so free of charge, anonymously, and without overt judgment, where those who find me tedious are free to ignore me without appearing rude, and where I can share myself without undue entanglement in the rigors of self-promotion, without the bane of unmet expectations, and without stumbling into the shadowed pits of narcissism.

If you meet me in person along life's trail, I'd prefer it to be 'out there' - under the open sky - sharing nature's sanctuary, with civilization no closer to us than the stratosphere, or in a box in the closet.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hiking Moloka'i

Mokapu Island and Moloka'i's rugged north shore as seen from the Kalaupapa peninsula

Moloka'i (pronounced MO-lo-kah'-ee with a glottal stop--shut off all air output through your throat-- between the last two syllables) is one of the least visited and one of the most purely Hawaiian of the Hawai'i Island Chain.  I spent a week here in 1986 and several more days in 2009.  The memories are indelible.  And the best of them were experienced on foot, in places automobiles can't go.

On both visits I hiked the rambling undeveloped beaches of Kephui Beach and Papohaku Beach Park on the western end of the island, with views of Oahu just across the Kaiwi Channel:

Looking SW from Kephui Beach at sunset
 
Kephui Beach, looking N to the three lonely coconut palms
 
 
Sunset over Oahu, seen from Kephui Beach, western Moloka'i

And on both visits I walked the famous mule trail, which switches back and forth down a 1500 foot cliff to the inaccessible Leper Colony, home of the recently Sainted Father Damien, on the Kalaupapa Peninsula.  The trail starts at Pala'au State Park, famous for its sacred phallic rock, a place of pilgrimage for barren women, accessible via a quarter mile foot-only trail ...



... as well as the overlook to the Kalaupapa Peninsula and Awahua Beach:


The 2.9 mile trail does indeed descend the precipitous cliff you see in the foreground above and then follows alongside Awahua Beach, ending at the leper colony at Kalaupapa, the town in the forefront of the peninsula.  Here's a helicopter shot of the steep part of the trail taken from a post card followed by my own shot of the route of the trail, taken from the harbor area:




Most people travel this trail by mule, but I've done it four times now on foot -- twice down and twice up.


At the bottom, both times, I joined a tour of the leper colony where Father Damien served and ministered to the ill, eventually catching the disease himself and perishing.  He was canonized on October 11, 2009, just a month after these photos were taken:


Father Damien's grave beside St. Philomena Church in Kalawao
Panorama of Moloka'i's north shore with Okala Island at center
Father Damien mosaic beside St. Francis Church, Kalaupapa
Pristine Awahua Beach at the bottom of the 2.9 mile trail, accessible only by foot or mule
 
I won't extend this post into the other sights and cultural experiences on Moloka'i beyond pointing out my hands-down most authentic Island dining experience - If you stop at only one restaurant on Moloka'i, make it the Kualapu'u Cookhouse - a quaint little spot out in the country where locals gather for music every weekday evening, where the food is Island style with heaping portions, and the service is as laid back as you could hope for:



One of the books I found most helpful to understanding the natural beauty of Molokai was this one, chock full of color photos on every page, written by Ph.D. biological researchers who have scoured the island end to end.  My review is below:



Majestic Molokai: A Nature Lover's GuideMajestic Molokai: A Nature Lover's Guide by Cameron Kepler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a coffee table book in the guise of an ordinary trade paperback. It is full of color photos on every page and text written by scientists who have spent a great deal of time doing wildlife surveys on Molokai and other Pacific Islands. They cover the Island end to end, with heavy emphasis on nature, though the culture and people are also featured. It's a fine insider's look at this most Hawaiian of the Hawaiian Islands.

I have spent nearly two weeks on Molokai on two separate trips twenty years apart, and bought this book on the first of these trips. My first hand experience dovetails with the experiences portrayed by the authors in pictures and text. Although the book is dated (nearly a quarter century old now), and therefore does not discuss some of the more recent issues such as the Molokai Ranch water rights and wind farm issues. But as a guide to the island's enduring culture and natural beauty, it's pretty much timeless. If you're thinking of visiting 'The Friendly Isle', especially if you're going to do some exploring, I'd recommend you pick up this book to help with your planning.

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Commuters - a delicious new novel by Patrick S. Lafferty


Patrick S. Lafferty has written a first class novel. Were I to categorize it—and that is not my strong suit—I’d call it a Suspense-Thriller-Murder Mystery, or perhaps an Occult Thriller that skims the fringes of both Historical Fiction and Fantasy. But those are only labels. What matters is that this is an engaging, pulse-quickening read from start to finish.

The only difference between ‘Commuters’ and some of the New York Times best sellers that I’ve read recently is that this imaginative, meticulously crafted story is better.

The plot lines of most novels, including the best sellers, have weaknesses that trigger my very sensitive “BS” alarm—that response in me that says ‘not plausible’ or ‘far too contrived.’ ‘Commuters’ triggered this alarm in only one respect: there were too many coincidences. But in response to this, Lafferty has an ‘out’: things are not all what they seem—supernatural forces are at work here. Regardless, for me stories such as these should not be trying to emulate the messy real world. Rather, they ought to strive to heighten reality, thus practicing the time-honored storyteller's art.

I can easily picture ‘Commuters’ becoming a Hollywood blockbuster. As the theater lights dim and the curtain rises, an opening prologue depicts a scene in a king's court from the year 1106 in the southern Iberian Peninsula. It is a ceremony of human sacrifice in the inner sanctum of the aging swart-skinned Sultan of Morocco, Yusuf ibn Tashfin and presided over by his fair skinned sorceress wife Zainab ben Ishaq al-Nafzawiyya. As Yusuf plunges a dagger into the victim’s heart, Zainab invokes the jinn, and these Islamic spirit-entities made of smokeless fire bestow immortality on the aged monarch—a covenant that must be renewed yearly with further human sacrifice.

As the credits finish rolling, the scene shifts to a deteriorating suburban center-town intersection where affluent Mitchell Treadwell, driving by in his BMW, notices his teenage son standing at the busy corner. They meet nearby at the curb and exchange a few inconsequential words. We hear Davis promising to be home in just a few minutes. The camera pans back as Mitchell drives away, then it follows Davis as he pulls his car keys from his pocket and walks into a dark alley, beyond which is a parking lot. A smaller man approaches. Words are exchanged. The man is soliciting sex. Davis refuses and continues toward his car. There is a scuffle, a blunt instrument slams against Davis’ temple and the screen goes dark.

This is how I imagine a screenplay writer might re-envision the opening of the story for big screen appeal. The written word requires a different tack, and it is not until 1/3 of the way through the book that the occult element begins to surface. Instead the book begins with this simple yet captivating sentence:

“Twenty-eight years ago Mitchell Treadwell witnessed his first murder. In just a few hours he’d witness his last.”

What follows is the well-crafted and suspenseful action that surrounds and interweaves Davis’ abduction with several recent murders and a tension-filled fender-bender at an urban intersection. We are introduced to the players and the stage. Key characters, richly realized by the author, are Mitchell Treadwell, his police-woman sister-in-law Connie Wysczyzewski, Jenkins, her jerk of a partner, two city detectives named Brown and Watts who are working on three dozen cold-case homicides that they suspect may all be related, a ghetto king-pin named Willie Spence, an old African-American community pillar who everyone calls ‘Uncle Max,’ and a peculiar obsessive suburban ‘road warrior’ named Andy Walker, whose prime goal in life seems to be nothing more than to be a flawless driver during his twice daily 50-minute commute to and from a mundane job across town.

During these introductory scenes we are almost left wondering who the central protagonist is going to be. But it soon becomes starkly clear. The affluent and respected businessman, Mitchell Treadwell, has a secret life. Here’s another quote, words spoken to Treadwell by Connie:

“Sometimes you scare me, Mitch. Greek mythology. Serial killers. You know way too much about way too many things. Way too many creepy things.”

What follows is a heart-pumping page turner of the first magnitude as Mitchell seeks to learn the fate of his son—a fate that he may have inadvertently caused. I have not recently read a book that kept my attention more riveted as the deftly crafted plot unfolds and the unexpected entanglements reveal themselves. Highly recommended. Tell your friends.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Stephen King's 'The Stand' - fantastic, yet flawed


The StandThe Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stephen King produced a winner here. You certainly didn't need me to confirm that. 'The Stand' is an apocalyptic/post apocalyptic road story--exactly the kind of story I dreamed about writing as a teenager back in the 1960's - just the kind of story I have an insatiable appetite for.

Too bad it was written by an icon of the Horror genre. King has to throw in plenty of those contrived horror-style frightening moments. You know - a character looks at a fluffy white cloud and starts imagining that it's a malevolent ghost or spirit come to haunt him/her, gets heart palpitations, sees eyes looking back and feels some unspeakable sense of terror and foreboding, eventually screams and runs, looking for somewhere to hide - oh, wait, it's just a puff of condensed water vapor.

As you can see, I am no fan of the horror genre. Thankfully, 'The Stand' is not predominantly horror-oriented. I'd call it a dark adventure-fantasy that sometimes verges on a morality play. We pick up the story just hours after the accidental release of a government produced biological warfare virus called super-flu (and various other names). The disease is 99.9% fatal and kills within a few days. The story gels around the experiences of a number of survivors. King introduces a large number of completely disconnected story lines, so the book seems too disjointed at first. In this 'uncut' 1141 page version he also burdens the reader with way too many irrelevant anecdotal background vignettes for many of the characters. For me these became terribly tedious.

Despite King's protestations to the contrary in an introduction written specifically for this expanded version, the added material does not improve the story or make it richer. If anything it does the opposite. This is one good book I can honestly say is NOT a 'page turner', and is anything but 'fast paced'.

The main plot lines develop at a snail's pace. We eventually realize that the story centers on one man and one woman, Stu Redman and Fran Goldsmith and on two opposing quasi-human spiritual beings, the 108-year-old Mother Abigail and the apparently immortal Randall Flagg, representing the good and the evil impulses/guidance that tug at each of us.

The one common experience of all the super-flu survivors is that they are haunted by virtually identical dreams in which the two spiritual antagonists beckon. All the separate story lines converge on these two as the survivors make pilgrimage to their respective centers of power in Boulder, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada.

The story seems wonderfully poised for a grand confrontation of these two, but it never happens. Stephen King has written elsewhere that he suffered writer's block at this point in the story. I cannot believe he would have written this much without having had a firm conclusion in mind. But apparently he did not.

Yes, the author himself seems to have lost the plot.  Or lost his courage to exercise his imagination. The ending is rather disjointed and vacuous. It dissipates much of the potential that I was envisioning. A handful of characters from the 'good' camp travel to the 'evil' camp but accomplish nothing then either die or limp back home to Boulder while the two quasi-human spiritual beings meet their demise separately and without confrontation.  What a disappointment.

So, although I give this book five stars, it's really more like 4 1/2. It's an absolutely wonderful story despite the flaws, and I highly recommend it, yet it could have been so much better.

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Friday, September 5, 2014

'Galaxies like Grains of Sand' by Brian Aldiss - a review



Galaxies Like Grains of SandGalaxies Like Grains of Sand by Brian W. Aldiss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of short stories that Aldiss wrote many years ago, recompiled and republished recently. The stories stitch together the future history of mankind from the near future through to the galaxy's demise due to a form of proton decay. It is quaintly anachronistic, referring to 'reels' of holographic 3-D cinematography, intelligent machines communicating their digital information to each other by punch card, and using the term 'island universe' for the Milky Way galaxy--a term that fell out of favor in the first half of the 20th century.

Yet most of the stories themselves remain imaginative and fresh for this new generation audience. Aldiss' distinctive world-view (and the primary mode of human space travel he depicts) incorporates and heavily depends on elements of eastern religious mysticism. This is sure to irk hard sci-fi fans - there is no attempt to extrapolate these imagined 'technologies' from known science concepts. I think this is Aldiss' attempt to foresee what cannot be foreseen, and so I find it a laudable enterprise. I'm not averse to finding spiritual elements in my imagined future worlds, so I enjoyed this, but I would not choose to call this science fiction. For me, it crosses the threshold into fantasy.

A few of the stories suffer from a disease started by Isaac Asimov - I call it 'board-room-itis', a malady whose symptoms are the desire to write about people sitting about facing one another in a board room discussing the action and its futuristic settings rather than boldly venturing out into the rich, colorfully envisioned world itself and showing it to the reader first-hand.

I believe Aldiss may have been the first to explore the demise of the universe as we know it. At a time when most science fiction writers were content with envisioning events of the next few tens of thousands of years, Aldiss was seeking the end-game. For this alone, I believe 'Galaxies like Grains of Sand' is a worthwhile read.

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