NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2018

Hello everyone! Sorry for the long delay between posts. I’ve been busy this summer. Some of it was even with writing! I’ll update more on that later. For now, I’m getting geared up for Round Two in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. We just received our scores and feedback on Round One, so I thought I’d share with you. My assignment was:

Genre – Mystery
Location – a skywalk
Object – a syringe
Word count – 1000 max

I placed #9 out of about 30 people in my category and will be taking 7 points with me as I go into Round Two tomorrow night. The feedback I received from the judges will follow the story. Please have a read and let me know what you think in the comments!

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“Via Ferrata” by S.C. Jensen

 

Amy startled awake. Shards of glass pressed against her cheek and she stiffened, terrified to move. No. Not glass. Cool air, thick with earthiness, permeated her senses. Rock. Sharp Rock.

Her fingers scrabbled against gravel. Amy tried to push herself off the ground. A shockwave burst behind her eyes in kaleidoscopic spirals of pain. She couldn’t think where she was; it was as if something has plucked her out of her normal life and dropped her in a hole.

Crevasse.

It came to her suddenly, like turning on a switch. Mount Tribute, Sam’s new-hobby-enthusiasm, the Skywalker Club. Had she fallen on a skywalk? The rungs of the via ferrata had looked like they were rotten with rust in places, but Sam had been certain everything was safe. You’re just being negative again. Why are you such a wet blanket all the time? Can’t you at least try to have fun?

Am I having fun yet, she wondered, bitterly.

“Sam?” Amy’s voice rasped. Her tongue filled her mouth like a lump of dry dirt. She swallowed and tried again. “Sam!”

No reply. Water trickled somewhere; the gentle susurrus made her throat ache desperately. How long had she been down there? Where was Sam? Probably gone for help already. He’d get her out of there. It was only a matter of time.

Amy peered into the darkness around her, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the thin, grey light at the bottom of the fissure. Pain screamed in her skull as she craned her neck to look upward. A crack of blue sky teased just at the edge of her vision. Then it disappeared in an explosion of black spots. Amy closed her eyes against a wave of nausea.

She wiggled her right arm underneath her chest for leverage and pushed hard against the rocky surface. Jolts of searing pain shot from her head down the left side of her body. Her left arm didn’t move at all. Amy rolled herself onto her back and slowly, excruciatingly, managed to sit up.

It figured she was the one stuck at the bottom of a hole. She hadn’t wanted to come on this trip in the first place. Sam insisted and, as always, got his way. It would build trust, he’d said. Bring them closer as a couple, he’d said. Why couldn’t they build trust at the symphony?

Amy needed water. And drugs. Insulin. When was her last injection? Was there ibuprofen in her first aid kit? Better yet, there was Morphine. It’s just a precaution. You never know. If she had her backpack she could find something. A jacket, too. Her whole body trembled. It was cold, and she was going into shock.

Why didn’t she have her backpack? Had it come off when she fell? That didn’t seem likely. She always had the chest and hip belts fastened. She hated when the weight of her bag shifted, pulling her this way and that. As if she didn’t already feel off-balance up there.

God dammit, Sam! This was the last time she’d give in to one of his schemes. She should have just gotten on the plane. New job, new city, new life.

Sam was livid when she’d told him.

But after he cooled off, he’d begged her to stay. Just one more month, he’d said. They’d join the Skywalkers. Do something epic together. Remember why they fell in love, he’d said. You’re always so quick to quit. Don’t the last five years mean anything to you? You can’t always just run away from your problems, Amy. Sometimes you have to stand up and face them. She’d heard it all before.

The guilt won out. It always did. He was right, wasn’t he? Sam tried so hard to make things work. When is the last time you thought about anyone but yourself? Not since her diagnosis, she could admit that much. Diabetes wasn’t fatal, but it made Amy consider the brevity of life. Was this how she wanted to spend hers? Was Sam who she wanted to spend it with?

A shaft of sunlight pierced the surrounding pitch so suddenly it startled her. The hot, white midday sun hovered directly over the mouth of the crevasse. Amy stared at it dumbly. Midday. When had she fallen? Morning?

She still couldn’t picture the accident. The last thing she remembered was dinner the night before. Sam helped with her injection; she was still squeamish about the needles, but it was something she’d have to get used to. You don’t have to be such a baby about it. Poor Amy. You’re lucky I’m here to take care of you. Didn’t think of that when you applied for new job without telling me, did you? Did you even consider how I felt? No. Of course not—

A flash of metal glinted at Amy from the darkness. Her backpack? The memory of Sam’s voice cut off sharply. How had her bag landed so far from where she had? Amy half-crawled, half-dragged her way towards it, desperate for water and something to eat. She needed to check her sugars. Oblivious to the pain in her arm and head, Amy pulled the bag toward her.

It was lighter than it should be.

No water bottle. No protein bars. No trail mix. A sweater, at least. She draped it over her shoulders, trying not to move her left arm too much. Where was the first-aid kit? Amy’s fingers scraped against the rough canvas of the kit bag and relief surged through her. There! But when she tore open the Velcro fastener, her heart stopped.

Her insulin wasn’t there. One disposable syringe, opened, lay at the bottom of the kit. Two empty vials clinked together. Morphine. You never know.

She remembered struggling against him, limbs leaden—

You want to be rid of me? Fine. You’ll never see me again.

—the impossible vertigo as he rolled her closer to the edge.

Have a good trip.

You never know. You just never know.

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Genre Definition as per competition guidelines:

Mystery

A story that frequently involves a mysterious death or a crime to be solved, though not always. The main character is often a detective who must consider a small group of suspects–each of whom must have a reasonable motive and opportunity for committing the crime. The detective eventually cracks the code by logical deduction from clues presented to the reader or filmgoer. Common elements: overt clues, hidden evidence, inference gaps, suspense, foreshadowing, red herrings. Mystery books include Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Mystery films include Clue (1985) and The Usual Suspects (1995).

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY 

{1597}  I liked Amy’s philosophy of life and how this diagnosis caused her to reexamine it. I thought you did a good job of portraying that process in her, and how it affected her relationship. I liked the way you interwove the past and the present.

{1771}  I enjoyed your emotional story. Very engaging. Good job!

{1837}  Amy’s disoriented sensations and memories throughout add a nice air of mystery. She has an interesting balance of panic and reflection as she pieces together what happened. Sam is a wonderfully despicable character and his dialogue is dripping with attitude and a very specific personality.

 

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK 

{1597}  One issue with this story as it is currently written is that I think it gives too much away, too soon. It’s clear from early on in the story that Sam pushed her. I think you need to lessen her sense that this hike was all Sam’s idea. I would also cut out the paragraph about building trust, as I think it gives too much away.

{1771}  I liked the premise of your story. But I would say it was a little unbelievable to me. The morphine was a little over the top for me.

{1837}  That final reveal of Sam’s plan is dark and dynamic. Is there any more to explore as her memory of his betrayal comes back? Any sensory details or emotion?

SF Book Review: Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

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3/5 Stars

This first book in Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy tackled a lot of interesting ideas and touched on some interesting subjects. Unfortunately, I had trouble reconciling Sawyer’s high-concept plot with his flimsy and contradictory characters. Much of the book came across as unnecessarily preachy, and by the end of the trilogy it was more like beating a dead horse. Of the three, Hominids was the most intriguing novel and ultimately why I chose to continue with the trilogy. Humans did little for me, and felt a bit like a bridge between #1 and #3 and nothing else. Hybrids had potential, but I think the plot got bogged down in Sawyer’s extreme social commentary. This review is mainly of Hominids, although I can’t promise that the other two novels aren’t colouring my perception of it in hindsight.

I have no issues with the science behind Hominids. Granted much of it went over my head, and I’m not much of a hard-SF fangirl to begin with. But it didn’t get in my way, and Sawyer seems to have a good grasp of the concepts that he’s employing. I just went along with it, for the most part. I did find it interesting to read now that we have a little better understanding of prehistoric relations between human and Neanderthal than at the time that was published. For example, studies are showing that most people of European decent actually have some Neanderthal DNA which contributes to our ability to fight certain kinds of cancer and other diseases. Neanderthal may have been absorbed by modern humans rather than wiped out. Interesting, but inconsequential to this review 😉

My issue with Hominds is really an issue with Mary. A Catholic geneticist studying human evolution? Her attachment to the Catholic church makes absolutely no sense. Her work flies in the face of her religion, yet she somehow manages to make excuses for the inconsistencies in her belief as far as it is needed for her professional self. Meanwhile, she gives her personal self little leeway, being ashamed of using birth control throughout her failed marriage and refusing to divorce her estranged husband for fear of excommunication. Throughout the novel she steadfastly defends the more ridiculous notions of her religion with a blindness that is disturbing to witness in a supposed scientist.

And Mary is not the only religious scientist in the novel. I don’t think there was a single atheist character, other than the Neanderthals. As if being human and being religious were one and the same. As an atheist, I found this a little hard to understand and, frankly, to stomach. I couldn’t tell if Sawyer was intentionally pointing out the inconsistencies between religious belief and scientific progress, or if he is himself struggling with two opposing world views and using his confused characters to sort out his own issues. Mary’s confusion distanced me from her and really just ended up being irritating.

Her religiosity is not the only issue. Mary is fickle in her moods and opinions, continually on the defensive about her own position, closed minded, and shallow. This is really difficult to reconcile with what we are told of her being a brilliant scientist. She comes across as a caricature of a woman: jealous and suspicious of attractive females, angry at all men for the failures of a few, constantly insecure about her own body, etc.

Her relationship with the Neanderthal Ponter Boddit is confusingly shallow. It is as if she becomes attracted to him solely because of her negative experiences with human males, whom she blames for all of the world’s problems. This becomes more of an issue in the later novels when we are asked to believe in their relationship without any kind of understanding of what attracts each to the other. But in Hominids it’s more superficial. Why would a woman who has been recently raped be attracted to the biggest, most masculine male she finds? Granted, Ponter is a gentle giant. But Mary often comments on his size, his strength, even his massive penis (which she catches a glimpse of one morning), while at the same time she seems to be repulsed by masculinity in her own species.

The subplot occurring in the Neanderthal world is really what kept this book alive for me. Ponter’s observations of our world are interesting at first, but quickly come across as preachy (not in Ponter’s voice but in the author’s). While things are different in the Neanderthal world, they clearly would not be suitable solutions for our own. And there are obvious issues with the Neanderthal way of life as well, as we see in Adikor’s legal fight after the disappearance of Ponter. Hominids provides the best balance between the two worlds where, increasingly throughout the trilogy, Sawyer seems to lean towards idealization or idolization of his own creation in the Neanderthal society.

Overall, I think Hominids is definitely worth the read. The trilogy itself is pretty quick and easy, and I don’t regret finishing it. But there are some serious flaws in the characterization that make it difficult to be truly satisfied with the outcome of the plot.

SF Book Review: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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4.5/5 Stars

Why did it take me so long to read this book? It should be mandatory reading material for anyone interested in dystopian Spec Fic, or any SF for that matter. What Burgess has done here, in relatively few pages, is so mind-bogglingly brilliant I wish I could exhume his corpse and dance into the sunset with it. The language! My Bog, the language! It’s amazing how a little thing like inventing your own slang can breathe life into a novel in a way that mere imagery, characters, and plot could never achieve.

But Anthony Burgess was an asshole, you say! The movie was so much better, you say! A Clockwork Orange is nothing like the rest of his work, you say! I say, “Shut up.” I’m sure he was an asshole. I don’t care. Here’s a little secret about writers—the good ones are all assholes! If we wrote off every writer who verbally abused his family, packed his nose full of cocaine and/or bled pure gin we’d have precious little left. And they’re never happy with their work. That’s probably why they’re assholes. Embrace it.

(I have no comment on the movie. I’ve tried to watch it a couple of times and always get bored after Alex goes to prison. I’m sure Kubrick is doing some amazingly wonderful cinematic magic in his rendition of the novel, but I didn’t get it. I get books.)

In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess does everything you’re not supposed to do in a novel—he makes up words, his characters are putrid irredeemable shit-bags, he revels in the cruelty and violence of human nature without giving us any respite—and yet this is one of the most readable un-readable novels I’ve ever encountered. Unlike Riddley Walker, which I’ve started and stopped more times than I can count, A Clockwork Orange lets you slip into its world on a wave of milk and blood. By the time you realize you have no idea what the fuck you’re reading, it’s too late. You’re in.

No, there are no likeable characters in this dystopian tale of horror and ultra-violence. Why are you so hung up on that? Why do you have to like someone to be able to learn from them? Alex and his droogs are the bi-product of a violent and controlling world. We are supposed to be horrified by them. That’s the whole point! They are the street-level doppelganger of the very government they think they are rebelling against. That’s what is horrifying about them.

It’s not just the suggestion that young men are capable of violence—robbery, rape and murder—for entertainment. Burgess’ not-so-subtle hint here is that all people are capable of this, that to be good or to be evil is a choice. There are no good people and bad people, there are good acts and evil acts, and any one person is capable of doing either. In our lives we may make a combination of choices, some good and some bad, and none are capable of defining us in that one singular act. This choice is what makes us human, rather than animals (governed by instinct) or robots (programed by their maker). If we take away this choice, human life becomes meaningless. We become nothing but an empty shell. A clockwork orange.

Yet for most, the empty shell is a preferable state to the human who makes anti-social choices. We are the ones being condemned by Burgess’ novel. Those of us who value humanity only when it is subscribing to society’s definition of right and wrong, even when that society is as corrupt and evil at its core as the “evil” people it breeds. The only time in which Alex is truly beyond redemption in A Clockwork Orange is when his programming has disabled his ability to make his own choices. At this point, he has no soul. He is little more than an object, a pawn in the world to be shoved about by others—whether this is to his detriment or to his gain is irrelevant.

When Alex is reconditioned again, when he is given back his ability to choose, we are disappointed that he goes right back to his old ways. What we forget is that it is the choice that makes him human and alive. And in the final chapter we see an inkling that perhaps Alex’s days of bad choices, of violent choices, are coming to an end. He beings to see other choices, other paths he might take. Had he remained in his conditioned state Alex would never have been able to evolve. He would have remained a toothless monster—a zombie—until the day he died, unable to defend himself from the world.

Anthony Burgess uses Speculative Fiction exactly the way it is meant to be used. This little novella explores more deeply into the idea of humanity than many philosophical and spiritual texts I’ve read. And it is able to do so because it’s not afraid to embrace the inner asshole lurking in every one of us. No, it’s not a complicated thesis. But it is one that is too often overlooked and glossed over. Our world is built upon the idea that we can categorize and classify everything in it from pond scum to architectural designs to personality types. Burgess suggests that things might not be as simple as we wish them to be.

SF Book Review: “Undead Reckoning” by Mike Slabon

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2.5/5 Stars

I’m giving Undead Reckoning, a debut novel from Canadian author Mike Slabon, 2.5 out of 5 stars. This rating is based on Goodreads’ rating system with 2 meaning “it was ok” and 3 meaning “I liked it!”. Undead Reckoning is a difficult novel to categorize, falling somewhere in between SF and Horror and genre parody of the two, but I can safely say that it’s not a genre I typically read. I’ll try not to let that colour my review too much, though, I promise! Undead Reckoning was better than just okay, and there are parts of it that I really liked which is why I’m sticking with 2.5. But I felt the really good parts were dragged down a bit by areas that could have used a little tighter editing. That being said, Slabon shows definite potential as a developing writer and I will look forward to reading his work in the future.

I should clarify that by “tighter editing” I do not mean proof-reading. I was actually impressed by how few minor punctuation/typo style errors I found in the text. This is a huge challenge for indie press writers who often must rely on beta-readers to catch typographical errors, rather than professional editors (whose services are extremely expensive). I’m referring, rather, to content editing for pacing, clarity, and balance. I’m also going to question a couple of Slabon’s stylistic choices, which could have been used to greater effect with a couple of tweaks.

Tangent/ This review will probably be long. I apologize in advance for that. But I believe that new writers, especially independent writers, need and deserve precise and meaningful feedback in order to hone their craft. As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to come by honest constructive criticism and I hope that some of what I have to say will be helpful to Slabon and any other writers who may be reading. /end tangent.

Okay, let’s begin.

Slabon essentially has two different novels competing against one another in Undead Reckoning, and I feel that each would have been served better had they been given their own space. On one hand, Undead Reckoning is a kind of horror spoof. It’s a parody of the zombie genre, almost a parody of a parody it gets so goofy at times. Which is fine, if that is what it is. And I thought it was, at first. However, the hack and slash zombie slaying is used as a trope to move the subplots along, rather than being the meat of the novel. The subplots themselves are so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that blowing up zombies appears to be the only unifying theme (NOTE: the subplots are one area that could have been aggressively pared down without losing anything of the main plot, but more on this later). The effect is actually quite disorienting at first, and it took me well over 100 pages to get a handle on what was going on.

This is when I began to realize that there was something more to Undead Reckoning than the simple spoof I thought I was reading. There are aspects of the novel which move outside the necessarily simple landscape of a zombie parody and into more serious speculative fiction. The main plot of Undead Reckoning is layered with complexity, and Slabon ultimately does an impressive job of tying his subplots together into a cohesive whole by the end of the novel. But I almost felt that he was afraid to give his main plot, the spec fic novel, the attention and seriousness it deserved. In the end, the underlying parody novel, acted as a defence mechanism to deflect from Slabon’s “real” writing—I actually think Slabon is a better writer than he is giving himself credit for, and the dual-genre does him a disservice in his debut novel.

When we first meet our hero, NFL superstar Eddie Griffin, we land smack-dab in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Griffin is coming to terms with the new world he’s living in as he helps Lieutenant Jim Shrike with a top secret mission investigating Undead activity at a nearby abandoned military base. We jump right into the action with limbs flying and brains exploding in typical zombie annihilating style. Fight scenes are interrupted by the obligatory wise-cracks and expletives, but otherwise make up the majority of the first hundred pages. This brings us to the issue of pacing.

Nothing is worse than reading a novel where nothing happens. It’s boring. I think everyone will agree with me there. So a novel that is full of non-stop action should be super awesome, right? Well, not necessarily. For non-stop action to equal good pacing, a couple of things need to happen. For one, “telling” must be balanced with “showing”. Too much telling, and the action reads more like stage directions in a screenplay than a paragraph (or chapter) in a novel.

Player A enters on right, weapon drawn. Player B turns at the sound and shouts in surprise. Player A shoots Player B between the eyes and exits stage slowly. Curtains drop.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Reading these initial action scenes, and some subsequent ones, was a little like grinding MOBs. Or worse, it was like reading about grinding MOBs—I didn’t even get to level up or loot anything. And with too much “telling” there is little opportunity for the reader to visualize the world and the action for him/herself. Other than knowing that Eddie Griffin was a big guy who used to play football, I had little idea what he looked like. Same with Jim Shrike. This isn’t too much of an issue for secondary characters, but main characters and setting should be clearly defined as soon as possible (I’d say first 20 pages). Putting this off disconnects the reader from the text, and limits empathy for the characters.

So action is great, but too much action is problematic for a couple of reasons: 1) The “big picture” plot gets lost in the grind, and 2) The lack of “showing” limits character development and world building. For example: For the first seventy pages or so, I was picturing Eddie Griffin as a thick, ruddy skinned white boy with a buzz cut and Jim Shrike as a lean, muscular black man who didn’t smile a lot. By the time I realized that Eddie was black and Jim was actually green—my first WTF moment—it was too late. My original pictures stuck with me, and I had to keep reminding myself of what they actually looked like as I read. Which is really too bad, because minority groups are severely under-represented in SF literature.

Tangent/ I think it’s great that Eddie Griffin is a young black man. But I think that it’s especially important to let the reader know that he’s black, specifically because there are so few non-white protagonists in the world of SF and Horror. It’s easy enough to do without rubbing it in the readers’ face. In the first couple of pages, a single sentence such as “My dark skin did little to protect me from the harsh rays of the sun” for example, could have clued us in without being too obvious (the fact that Eddie is a football player wasn’t enough for me—I thought there was a pretty even mix of black/white football players, but I know nothing about football). I know some will argue that the colour of his skin shouldn’t matter, but I disagree. I think it’s important that literary characters are representative of the world we live in: there should be many races, religions, genders and sexualities, and we shouldn’t shy away from defining them as such. Otherwise the tendency is just to assume that all characters are white, heterosexual men because for so long, that’s the way it has been. I had the same problem in my own novel, with identifying my main character as female. I left her gender ambiguous on purpose, but found that too many people were confused when I did finally describe her as “her”. I later ended up identifying her as female early on and then emphasizing her androgyny after that, which was better received. /end tangent.

Another thing that I found detracted from the main plot was that there were too many subplots. Each chapter seemed to have a new villain or conflict which, once resolved, didn’t carry over into the next scene. While some subplots did end up tying in to the main plot in the end, it was impossible to differentiate between the two. Slabon gets extra points for creativity, though. There are some gems hiding in the confusion, lots of good ideas that could have been great if they were working on their own (Juan the spider demon could have been the villain of a Christopher Moore-esqe comdey-horror novel) but just ended up competing with one another for attention. Kind of like a mini-version of the genre competition I mentioned earlier.

This brings us to the two stylistic choices that I felt could have been used differently. One: footnotes. Footnotes are largely unnecessary, and interrupt the flow of the narrative. Unless you’re Terry Pratchett, in which case you have elevated the footnote to an art form in and of itself–rife with sly humour, supplemental story lines, and lessons in magic and/or physics. For the rest of us, 95% of material that could be footnoted could also be worked into the text or simply left up to the reader to figure out. The only exception to this rule would be for language translation if a word or phrase from another language is used without enough context to be understood on its own. Anagrams can be spelled out in full, and then abbreviated later if they’re going to be recurrent in the novel. For example, military anagrams like CFB (Canadian Forces Base) or LAV (Light Armoured Vehicle). Slang, military or otherwise, should only be defined by the context that it is used in not by footnote. I just finished reading Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, and I never needed to use the glossary once. Language is like that, we’re pretty good at filling in the blanks. Not only slang, but any words that were made up and only exist in the world of your novel should be defined by context or dialogue, not footnotes. Real words should never be footnoted. If you’ve chosen a word that is so obscure you doubt your reader will know it, use a different word. If it’s necessary, have another character be confused by it so that you can explain it in dialogue. Example: thanatology. If your reader doesn’t know what C-4 is, that’s his problem. Let him google that shit and give the rest of us some credit!

Stylistic Choice Two: Sound effects. Less is more when it comes to BANG! SMACK! RATTATATAT! and/or KABOOM! This isn’t a comic book. Again, this is just my opinion. I can see how the onomatopoeia lends itself to the parody genre, but I also preferred the non-parodical stuff, so that’s just my take.

Okay, I hope you’ve stuck with my ramblings this far, because now I’d like to talk about what I really liked about this novel. There are three sections of Undead Reckoning that really stood out to me. The first is in Keek’s lair. Slabon does a great job of describing the underground lair and entrance to Nabisusha. The novel started to feel alive to me at this point. And it is because of this scene that I feel justified in wishing there were more descriptions of characters and settings earlier in the book. Once I realized that Slabon had all this great imagery up his sleeve, I felt extra ripped off when I didn’t get it. The next scene that really stands out is in the Anomalies Amok fantasy that Eddie gets trapped in. Slabon shows real potential for world building here, and I’m curious to see what he would do with a high fantasy novel. Not only this, but the characterization of the AA players trapped in this fantasy are better developed, and the fight scenes better realized than anywhere else in the novel up to this point. Finally, the flashback scene explaining the fate of the Masters and Custodians—much high fantasy and speculative fiction potential is demonstrated in this scene. Again, Slabon is a much better writer than he gives himself credit for, or than he seems to, by hiding behind the goofier aspects of this novel. The complexity of the final plot actually stunned me, and I really wished that this main plot line had been more heavily invested in throughout the novel.

Really, Undead Reckoning had all the elements of a strong SF novel, but they were obscured by the sillier subplots and could have been enhanced by aggressive editing. Slabon could easily have written a spoof novel akin to Night of the Living Dead, a couple of Christopher Moore style comedy/horror novels, and have an SF trilogy started with the material that is in this book. It’s a little much for one novel to bear, but there’s no denying Slabon’s potential as an up and coming writer. I’d like to see him move with confidence into speculative fiction. Or parody, for that matter. But I think we’ll find that his strengths lie in those areas he was reluctant to meet head on in his debut novel—complex plots, intriguing characters, and fascinating worlds—and it’s my opinion that those strengths will be best realized in an SF or fantasy series. Whatever he chooses to do, though, I’ll be reading.

PS This novel and future novels need more ladies! Undead Reckoning was a serious sausage fest. I realize that half the world has been zombified, but shouldn’t half the survivors still be women? Especially with the reveal at the end of the novel about why some people turned and some didn’t. I doubt Slabon intended to make a comment about how fulfilling women’s lives are, and how many of us are essentially “dead already”. But that’s the conclusion I was forced to draw! I want to see chicks with machine guns riding on dire-wolves in the follow up. Make it happen!

SF Book Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

This is the first Philip K. Dick that I have ever read, and having finished it, I’m now sure it won’t be the last. I have never seen “Blade Runner,” so let’s get that out in the open right now. And I cannot, for that matter, understand the apparent need of book reviewers to compare the book to the movie. Not just this book, but any book. The book came first, and should, therefore be judged on its own merit. On a book review site, at least.

I can understand the need to compare a movie to the book that inspired it, but really not the other way around. The movie is an evolution of the ideas in the book, where it differs or omits information is valid to our interpretation of the filmmaker’s intentions. It doesn’t work in reverse!

I just had to get that out of my system.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Is a brief and easy read with surprising depth, in my opinion. I admit that it took me a little longer than usual to jump into this novel. I actually had to take a couple of attempts at reading the second chapter; I stumbled over it and couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what was going on. But I pressed on and suddenly the book took off! I was hooked.

I think what I loved most about this novel is the underlying question, in every moment of the text, as to what makes us human. The play between human and android is complex, and at various points in the novel I found myself empathizing with both parties; now that I’m finished the novel, I’m a little creeped out by that. The ability to empathize is significant in the novel, as it marks one of the only remaining differences between humans and the Nexus-6 android.

Yet, in the beginning, this trait appears superficial. SPOILERS AHEAD!!! When Deckard meets Rachel Rosen and Luba Luft, one has to seriously question the morality of his position. Rosen appears to be an innocent, and the fact that we are surprised that she is, in fact, an android goes to prove how similar the two “species” (if you can call them that) really are. In fact, she nearly passes the Voigt-Kampff empathy tests with a little explanation. Luba Luft is a brilliant performer, and her voice would have been a gift to human kind had she been allowed to live. These characters seem to beg the question, how important is empathy? Is that what really makes us human?

Certainly, J. R. Isodore’s position seems to have been improved because of his relationship with the androids. As a special—a human without the necessary IQ to emigrate to Mars—Isodore is alienated from a society whose acceptance he desperately craves. The illusion of acceptance, in the company of the androids he is harbouring, gives sudden meaning to his otherwise dreary existence.

And it is through Isodore’s eyes that we first see the shift in the androids. Isodore is a model of nearly perfect empathy, and I would argue that it is his limited intellectual intelligence that enables his advanced emotional intelligence. In comparison to Isodore, Deckard appears nearly android himself. There are moments in the book when we suspect him of being so—Deckard is never given an empathy test—and it is not until the final chapters of the novel that we are ever really assured that he is human. However, when Deckard is compared to Rachel Rosen, we can see the difference. The androids, with their nearly flawless intellectualism, are dreadfully cold. They are able to fear for their own existence, and it is this primitive urge to survive which makes them appear human. As Rachel Rosen says, she is capable of feeling empathy only for herself. The tidy analytical minds of androids are capable of anything except empathy, which cannot be rationalized. Deckard’s horror at discovering that he feels empathy for certain androids—which is connected to physical desire—is crude, but it goes to prove just how irrational the feeling of empathy can be.

When Pris cuts the legs off of Isodore’s spider—she claims to want to see why it has eight, if it can get by with only four—we understand just how dangerous such a purely intellectual mind could be. To the android, there is no difference between the spider and Isodore. He is a tool for their survival, and nothing more. When Buster Friendly and his Friendly-Friends reveal that Wilbur Mercer—the prophet of Mercerism, and a unifying figure for all human empathy on Earth—is a fraud, Isodore’s androids are amused by his shock and confusion. They believe this justifies their existence, that empathy itself is a fraud.

Yet it is the androids who will be confused, ultimately. Isodore tells them that Mercerism will not end because of this revelation, though he does not know why. Deckard, after a kind of psychological breakdown in the desert, comes to the same conclusion. This is because empathy, which Mercer embodies, is real. And it is the sense of community that empathy creates amongst humans that gives Mercerism its meaning.

I liked a lot of the ideas that Dick brings to the table with this novel. I liked the sliding scale between empathy and intelligence, and the implications of such an idea. And I liked, even if I don’t agree with it, the parallel comparison between Faith and science; at least, I felt that the idea was well-executed in this book. It is my discomfort with this idea that made me give Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep four stars instead of five.

I think that much of what Dick seems to be saying is true; humans have an ability to rationalize away our empathy, and this act makes us less human. What I didn’t like was the implication that empathy and religiosity are somehow inextricably linked, and that lack of Faith somehow makes us less human. People are just as able to rationalize based on religious reasons as scientific ones. It is the act of attempting to rationalize empathy that is the problem, no matter what a person’s individual motivations for doing so are.

Then again, maybe that wasn’t the point. Mercerism is really a kind of worship of empathy, rather than a religion in the sense of the word that we are accustomed to today. So maybe Dick is saying that, in order to remain true to ourselves, we must learn to recognize and embrace the things that make us human and not lose them in either religion or science.

Hmmm. Maybe I need to change that rating after all.

Non-Fiction Book Review: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

ImageIf you haven’t heard of Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality yet, then you can send me a nice thank you note for this post. Maybe some wheat-free brownies, if you’ve never heard of Dawkins’ or The Magic of Reality. Because you owe me, now.

The Magic of Reality is a book that I wish had been written in 1995, so that it could have fed my science-hungry little brain when it still accepted real-life instead of retreating into itself in an ostrichy homage to make-believe. It might have changed my life, literally. Although, if it had been I might, right now, be a exobiologist (it’s a thing!) instead of a struggling sci-fi writer with an unhealthy penchant for books. I’ll let you decide how great a loss that would be.

Hint: It would be earth-shattering.

Now, if you’re not already a massive Dawkins fan–well, I won’t tell you how to live your life. But we can’t be friends anymore. However, even if you don’t support his call for militant atheism you may still be able to appreciate The Magic of Reality. Because it’s not about atheism per-say. It’s about reality. Specifically, it is about how we know what’s really true–the book’s subtitle–and what is myth, legend, or just plain lies.

And what’s best about this book is that it’s for kids! The Magic of Reality is Dawkins’ attempt to make science and reality interesting for kids. Even kids who aren’t otherwise that into science, kids who like the ideas but not necessarily the equations, hypotheses, and lab-experiments that don’t involve things that go boom. Kids like me!

And, if you’re like me, you probably had a moment–possibly after you just fell asleep on your desk and drooled on your assignment sheet–where the question dawned upon you: When did Science get so boring? Like me, you probably have fond memories of your elementary school years where you learned about volcanoes and dinosaurs and outer-space. You know, back when science was fun!

Unfortunately, there comes a time in most school curricula when the fun seems to get siphoned out and replaced with pedantic memorization of terminology, formulas, and diagrams. For most of us, Science class becomes just another thing you have to force yourself through in order to pass onto the next grade.

Sure, there are a few who are intrigued by the more practical applications of these courses. Fortunately there are enough that we still have people who go on to become chemists, physicists, and biologists. But for most of us, school ruins science. Forever.

The Magic of Reality makes Science fun and interesting again. No, really. It does. Dawkins’ begins each chapter with a question about the world, or the universe, and how it works. He then discusses ways in which human beings have tried to explain these things–like rainbows, earthquakes, and miracles–without the aid of science. He tells colourful myths from all across the globe which, along with the rest of the text, are illustrated by the brilliant artist Dave McKean (you may recognize his work with Neil Gaiman on Coraline).

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After poking a little fun at ourselves for all of the silly things we have believed about the world in the past, Dawkins goes on to tell us the truth about the world. And he tells us how we know that it’s the truth through science. Although The Magic of Reality is a kids’ book it never comes off as dumbed down or patronizing. Dawkins gives his readers an admirable amount of credit which, for the 13 year old reader, will likely add a lot of credence to what he has to say. He’s also not shy about pointing out where his knowledge is limited and never tries to explain things vaguely when he doesn’t have the necessary know-how.

As an adult who, as I’m sure is true of many of you, hasn’t though much about the nitty gritty of Science–elements, atoms, sound waves, natural selection, etc.–The Magic of Reality is a wonderful refresher course. Even topics that I’m a littler more well versed in were worth a read, simply for the unique perspective that Dawkins takes. And to be honest, there’s a lot of “basic” stuff in here that I haven’t fully grasped until reading this book. Impressive, sir, impressive.

McKean’s illustrations are beautiful, often full-page, works of art. The entire text is wonderfully supported and enhanced by these images, and the effect is quite stunning. In case that isn’t enough, Dawkins includes website addresses for video demonstrations, and virtual experimentation tools to supplement the work itself. If The Magic of Reality doesn’t reach out to an internet savvy multi-tasking pre-teen brain, I’m not sure there is a print media capable of the task.

Oh. In case you’re not interested in print media version–check out the iPad app.

Really, the only beef I have with this book is Dawkins’ handling of the myths. I love that he included them, and I love that he included Judeo-Christian myths as well. I think this is important to give a little perspective on why we believe the things we believe (but I won’t go into that too much, here. I’ll either be preaching to the choir or causing a ruckus)

I think The Magic of Realitya great way to teach kids how to evaluate the information that they receive on a daily basis from all kinds of sources–church, school, parents, television, books–about what makes a fact a fact, and how to decide what is true.

What I don’t love about the inclusion of the myths is that they seem to be used merely as a tool to demonstrate our past ignorance and celebrate our intellectual development in the last couple of centuries. Since this is a book about truth and knowledge, it would have been nice if Dawkins gave a little props to his fellows in the Social Sciences and Arts who study myths and what they can teach us about the cultures from which they originate. Dawkins treats myths as silly stories, kind of fun to talk about, but ultimately discrediting them as “not true”. This is an unfortunate and potentially damaging position for Dawkins to take, and to encourage children to take, when so many cultures are losing their traditions and beliefs to modernization.

Folklore and Mythology, although not strictly “true”, still have much to teach us. We can derive cultural information from oral-histories and traditions that are not implicit in the mere study of artifacts and burial sites. Mythology helps to supplement what little information we have about many ancient religious practices, ritual objects, and cosmologies. Not to mention what it can tell us about social structures, gender roles, cultural taboos, etc. Myths should be treated as living history, and I feel Dawkins should have given them their due.

That being said, The Magic of Reality is definitely a book that I would recommend to any and everyone. Even those people who think science is boring. Because there is nothing boring about life, and that’s essentially what The Magic of Reality is all about. Dawkins does a fantastic job of showing just how spectacular the world around us is, even without magic and miracles.