We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Shelf

new age occult

When I was accepted to Viable Paradise, one of the many pieces of information available to us was a list of suggested reading recommended by the instructors. Unsurprisingly, the instructors’ own works featured prominently on this list.1 Now, I knew who all of them are, but I had only ever read anything by Elizabeth Bear and Steven Gould before.

I quickly bought one of each instructors’ works for my Kindle. Or two in a couple of cases. I tried to pick first books in series or standalone novels when possible. I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I walked into, for instance, Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy shoots the sword master with his gun, in no way could I make sense of the movie. I feel the same way about book series. Don’t ask me to start reading at book 5 and try to make sense of what’s going on. I need context.

You probably already know what happened based on the title of this post. There isn’t one dud in the lot. I have thoroughly enjoyed every single thing I’ve read, including the book of essays. Most of these are books I wouldn’t have given a second look at in the book store. Not because the cover art isn’t eye-catching or the authors not well-known enough or the blurb ineffective.

Because I simply have so many books on my to-read shelf that it groans audibly when I come into my library (read: my third guest bedroom) with new, unread books. I have three seven-foot sets of book shelves on one side of the room, piled floor to ceiling with books. The middle shelves of all three are loaded with the books on my "to-read" list. Those are also stuffed. Across the room, I have another tall shelf also stuffed with books (mostly hardback), many of them also unread. In my bedroom is another, small (only three feet tall) metal shelf stacked high with all unread books. In the office where I sit typing this post is another shelf, this one stacked with unread professional books (books on programming and the like; not all that fun to read).

And then there’s Kindle. I could write a whole post on that subject by itself.

With all those unread books calling out to me, I find it hard to convince myself to pick up books by unknown (to me) authors. But in this case, I was motivated by something else.

And now, I have to continue reading these new(-to-me) series, as well, because I have to know what happens.

Yep. I’m gonna need a bigger shelf. Or two. Or maybe three . . .

  1. This is not a conceit. If we’re going to receive instruction on how to make our own writing better from a group of professional writers and editors, it makes sense to have sampled their work so we know if we even like that instructor’s style. Maybe someone finds out that they can’t stand an instructor’s style, and they know to weigh what that instructor says differently than the advice of someone whose style they do like.

Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter, Internationally Bestselling Thriller / Crime Fiction Author

Hey, everybody. Well, mostly to the everybodies who are in Atlanta, GA, and will be over the weekend after the 4th of July. That would be the 7th and 8th. Specifically, Saturday the 7th of July.

You see, that’s when Karin Slaughter, the author pictured to the right (or above, depending on how this gets formatted), will be kicking off her signing tour for her latest release, Criminal.

Now, I don’t make it a secret that I love science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. In fact, those are the genres I choose to write because those are the genres I cut my reading teeth on, and what I primarily like to read.

But I also read thrillers, historical novels, non-fiction . . . I just don’t talk about it a lot. I’m about to change that.

I am a member of a writers group — we call ourselves the Forum Writing Group — and have been for just a smidge over four years. The group has existed for very close to ten years, and we’ve always met in the Barnes & Noble at the Forum (hence our name) in Norcross, GA.

For seven of those years1 (as well as our fearless leader can recall), Karin Slaughter has been kicking off her tours with this Barnes & Noble. She’s local to Atlanta, and she could pick just about any store in the city and they’d be glad to have her. She comes to this store primarily because of our group.

The store sets aside a good-sized area, sets up chairs and a lectern for Karin, and she reads a selection from her latest book, then chats with us for a while, answering questions. Our group is generally well-represented, and we ask her questions about writing, publishing, plotting, characters, where she gets her ideas (Authors love this question. Really. No, really.), etc. She tells stories about her time spent researching for her novels by riding with the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation), and other fun stuff. She answers the questions and tells the stories with wit and humor. She not only looks a tiny bit like Ellen DeGeneres, she has a similar sense of humor. I really enjoy her annual visits to the store, even if it usually does mean an evening of no critiques.

After the Q&A, she signs books until everyone gets their copy signed. And then she typically comes up to the coffee shop inside the store and sits with our writing group for at least a little while, and visits.

So, like, think of that thing you do that you really like to do, that you’re maybe not professional-level at, yet, but you want to be, and then you get the chance to sit and talk with someone who is internationally known for doing what that thing is. Even for 20 minutes.


I would be happy about just that aspect, but it just so happens that her books are actually really good, too! So, you know, it’s like a whole bonus kind of a thing! :)

My first time at one of her signings was in 2008, and the newly released book was Fractured, which is the second book in her series of stories involving GBI agent Will Trent. She read part of the first chapter . . . and had me hooked.

But it was the second book in a series, and she had another series. What else was I to do? I got the hardback signed, then went to get her other books. I read them all, one after another, enjoying each one fully. By the time I read Fractured, I knew I was a solid fan.

Her style is engaging, her pace just right, her characters believable, likable, and flawed.2 Her plots are logical and believable. Give her first book Blindsighted a read. It’s good stuff.

I could continue to gush — and under normal circumstances, I probably would — but the point of this post is to get people to come out to the store. Why? Well, it would be great if there are a lot of people there for Karin (there usually are enough that some end up standing and the children’s section of the store is full of adult fans of a thriller author), but also because Karin is also a huge — and I do mean huge3 — advocate for public libraries. Her appearance at the store on Saturday, July 7th is a joint event for the B&N store and the Gwinnett County Public Library System. The store will be donating a portion of their sales to the GCPL.

So, to sum up: Not only will you get a good book signed by the author, you will get to hear her speak and help the Gwinnett County Public Library at the same time.

So, what are you waiting for? Huh?

Oh! I should maybe give the time and address. That might help.

Saturday, July 7th at 3pm
Barnes & Noble with Gwinnett County Public Library
Talk & Signing
5141 Peachtree Parkway
Norcross, GA 30092
Store #: (770) 209-4244

Come early to get a decent seat. Come prepared to ask questions. Come prepared to enjoy yourself and get a good book to read as well.

  1. Does it feel like this is one of those math word problems? A train leaves New York at 40 mph and a tomato in Kansas grows at the rate of 4cm every 3 days. When will the restaurant in Dubuque get the tomato to slice for sandwiches? There won’t be a quiz.
  2. I could just kick Lena for some of her bad choices!
  3. When you see Karin, you’ll understand why this is a complete scream. I mean, it’s really funny. Really.

Strange PerceptionsStrange Perceptions by Chuck Heintzelman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a collection of fourteen of Chuck’s short stories, all of which have one thing in common: They’re strange. :)

I certainly don’t mean that in a bad way, either. What’s neat about these stories is that whether they be science fiction, fantasy, or straight-up horror, they’re all really strange. The world depicted in Chuck’s stories is just a little off-kilter. From “The Death Gerbil,” which has all the earmarks of a horror story, but with a quirky ending that brought a chuckle; “The Wizard Lottery,” which is a straight-up fantasy with all the earmarks of the genre; “Freshly Ghost,” which tantalizes the reader with a huge world of which we see only a tiny slice; “In the Closet,” which has a very creepy premise and a logical ending, something that most horror stories lack, in my humble opinion; to “Memory Fades,” which is a heartwarming, touching story with a supernatural twist.

I enjoyed all fourteen stories. I read about a third of them before on Chuck’s website, but seeing them all combined into one volume like this really brings that strangeness to light.

There’s something for everyone, here.

View all my reviews

Dead Mann Walking (Hessius Mann #1)Dead Mann Walking by Stefan Petrucha
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dead Mann Walking is an urban fantasy that manages to break free from the pack of most of the other urban fantasies I’ve read. Most of those others involve sexy vampires, sexy werewolves, wizards, or other…well, romantic figures. Ghosts. Fairies. Elves. That kind of thing.

Hessius Mann is a zombie. But they don’t call them that. They call them chakz, after the Spanish word for “jerky,” or “dried meat.”

Mann, who was a policeman in life, was accused of murdering his wife (for good reason), and found guilty. He was executed for the crime. And then exonerated. To give him a “second chance” of sorts, he was revived. The hell of it is, he doesn’t remember whether he actually did it or not. It’s all lost in a haze. Chakz’ memories aren’t what they were in life. Mann doesn’t like to think about it too much. What if he remembers…and it turns out he did kill her? Could he “live” with himself, knowing that?

Unlike most chakz, Mann is pretty lucky. He’s in one piece with few nicks and cuts, although the injuries he’s received since his raising are easy enough for his assistant Misty to fix with an exacto knife, needle, thread, and super glue.

He’s running a mostly unsuccessful private investigation business. Chakz are universally reviled. Not only are they outcast, they have to deal with the constant threat of harassment by Hakkers, gangs of young thugs who think it’s fun to torture and/or destroy the undead. And even though most chakz are able to hold things together pretty well, mentally…occasionally one slips and turns feral, becoming like those Romero-type zombies that mindlessly kill and eat any living humans–Livebloods–they come across. That doesn’t make chakz any more loved.

A lawyer visits Mann at his office one day to offer him a substantial sum of cash to find his client’s heir–who is a chak–and bring him home into the loving arms of his family so he can inherit the family fortune. Mann doesn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and takes the money–and the case. But then, several chakz are discovered in pieces. Minus their heads.

Mann soon realizes that the cases are related, and once he starts investigating it, he stirs up all kinds of trouble in the community, and uncovers a plot that will endanger his unlife several times over. But the police are no help–they all think he killed his wife, after all, and it’s just chakz who are being disposed of, not real people–and the only liveblood who’ll help is Misty, who has her own demons.

What I really liked about this novel is that not only does it have the requisite Mystery That Must Be Solved™, there’s quite a few things in there that hold a bright light up to how society tends to treat those it values least. The people it chooses not to notice. The people it wishes would just go away. A chakz’ existence is pretty bleak, and most of them didn’t ask for it. It’s not really life they’re living so much as it is mere existence. They don’t have any of the animal drives of the living–sleep, food, water, air, sex–and they aren’t welcome anywhere. What’s left to them?

The book doesn’t shy away from these questions, either. It addresses them head on. At the end of the book, the legal status of chakz comes under scrutiny and undergoes a drastic change, which should provide a very interesting backdrop for subsequent books in the series.

Make no doubt about it: In many ways, this is a bleak story. With bleak characters. Living in a bleak world. It is not light-hearted and fluffy. It is probably not going to uplift your soul or make you shed tears of happiness and joy. There are no wise-cracking heroes who always get the girl, here. In fact, even the good guys aren’t always so great. But I think that makes them more interesting to read.

And it is a very good read. The plot makes sense. The pacing is good. The characters are not just flat caricatures of movie monsters, but have some actual depth. There are some very interesting secondary characters that I look forward to seeing come back in later volumes. There are a few places where you’ll laugh, and there are a few places where you’ll squirm. And there’s at least one scene that should give you the heebie-jeebies. (Heh-heh!)

But you’ll keep turning the page because you want to know what happens next.

And isn’t that the hallmark of a good book?

I’ll definitely be looking for the subsequent volumes.

View all my reviews


MICE: The Milieu

Stage, © 2011 by George Foster


In my last post about Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, I talked about The Idea. As I said in that first post, MICE represents the four elements every story must have at least one (but preferably more) of: Milieu (Setting), Idea, Character, and Event.

The next one of the four items I want to talk about is Milieu, or Setting. As I said before, Card only chose “milieu” instead of “setting” because SICE doesn’t make a word.

There are a lot of stories I can think of that are inextricably rooted in the setting. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit spring immediately to mind. These stories were as much about Middle Earth as they were about the characters and the events and ideas that they involve. Mirkwood, The Shire, Tom Bombadil’s wood, Smaug’s lair, Khazad Dûm, the Ents’ forest, Mordor…such riches of setting, and so beautifully described by Tolkien. Chances are, if you’ve read them—and if you’re reading this and you haven’t read them, then stop reading this right now and go read them—as soon as you read the words “Mirkwood” or “Smaug’s lair,” you knew exactly what I was talking about, right down to the creep factor. Because they were so vividly described.

Another that fits in this category is Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Green Sky trilogy. Again, if you haven’t read these wonderful books, go do so. The world of Green Sky is vividly described, and is as integral to the story as any of the characters. The characters are of Green Sky and the stories evolve from Green Sky.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I mean . . . come on. I’d still go to Narnia as readily today—as a 46-year-old with a mortgage and several thousand dollars in credit card debt—as I would have as a 12-year-old suffering through the Chicken Pox first reading them. Because Lewis made the world of Narnia come alive for me. It is a real place to me, every bit as three-dimensional as my own hometown. And I think I’d recognize Cair Paravel, the Beaver’s Lodge, the Lamp Post, or The Stone Table if I saw them today . . . off on the horizon . . . beckoning.

I think therein lies the key. To matter, the setting of the story must be at least as integral to the story as any of the other aspects. The characters must exist in the world described by the setting, and the events and ideas must interweave with it. Unless you have this, your story could literally happen anywhere.

Would Dune have been as good if it had been set on a lush, forest world like Yoda’s Dagobah? Perhaps. But it would not have been Dune; it would have been some other work. Because the desert planet with its Fremen and its worms and its place in the empire were the solid foundation upon which the story we know—again, go read it if you haven’t—was built.

If Idea is the framework of a story, then surely Milieu must be the foundation. And without a strong foundation, it doesn’t matter how sturdy the framework is.

As much as the stories I mentioned above depend on their settings to be the stories we know and love, there are those for which the setting is more of a convenience, and it’s fairly easy to tell when that is the case.

Take, for instance, The Belgariad and The Malloreon by David Eddings. I thoroughly enjoyed all ten books and can’t recommend them highly enough . . . but they did have a certain sense to them. A sense of, “I drew this map, and I spent a lot of time on it, and by god I’m going to make you read about every square centimeter of it!”

I was going to mention some settings from the books to see if they’d immediately put as much of a picture in your head as “Mirkwood” or “Narnia” did. But the only ones I could think of were “the farm where Garion grew up with ‘Aunt Pol,'” “Belgarath’s tower,” and “the forest of the dryads.” I can’t even remember the names of these places. Ten books. I read all ten book—multiple times, I admit—and I can’t recall one single place name that is more than a suggestion. But I remember the events, the ideas, and mostly the characters. As far as Milieu goes, these two series could have been set in Cleveland and it would probably have been just as entertaining.

Well, OK, maybe not Cleveland.

Sometimes it works for other reasons. Take The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever and the sequel series both by Stephen R. Donaldson. He spends a good amount of time describing how wonderful The Land is in the first book because his character, Thomas Covenant, is a leper in the real world, but in The Land, he’s not. So everything there is new and fresh and he experiences it all in a rush of heady abandon. And in the second trilogy, The Land has been destroyed and it is only in the ugly contrast to the first books’ descriptions of The Land that we are led to despair as much as Covenant does to see how it has changed. He uses his Milieu as a tool to show us, the reader, how everything has changed, and to make us feel the change as badly as his character.

C. S. Lewis does this in The Last Battle, as well. We all know how wonderful Narnia is, but in the last book, the wonderful Narnia of old is . . . diminished. The dryads are dying because their trees are being chopped down. Aslan is believed to be a myth because He hasn’t visited in so long. The horrible creature Tashlan has been gathering followers, and as readers, we are as upset as the characters living there because our Narnia has been blighted.

Sometimes the Milieu can take on a life of its own. For instance, in Star Trek, the Milieu is a utopian future wherein all mankind is happy and fulfilled. Aliens live and work side-by-side with humans on Earth and other planets. Transporter technology, replicator technology, holodeck technology, and a myriad of other technologies have made everything perfect for everyone everywhere. No one wants for anything they can’t get instantly.

So what stories can we possibly tell? There can’t be a story about a regular guy living on a regular planet with a regular job because he can’t want for anything. He can push a button and get whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. So the only stories that can be told are the ones on the fringes of the utopia. The frontier. During conflicts with alien races who—for whatever reason—want to destroy the Federation Way of Life™.

Superman would be bored in the Federation. He’d have to become a Q to have any fun whatsoever.

This is why every episode of every Star Trek series was an exercise in how to subvert the utopia to get to a problem. We have infinite power . . . but what if the dilithium crystal submatrix decrystalized because of an isolinear ovolithic radiation discharge that destabilized the anamorphic subspace field? Chaos, that’s what! Or so we were led to believe, until the end of the 45-minute episode, at which point the problem was solved by the application of good old-fashioned human—or alien—ingenuity and technology.

Or, you know . . . Wesley.

I lay most of this on the utopian society in which the Star Trek shows and novels were set. (Which, incidentally, is what was intended. It was literally Gunsmoke In Space™, so the whole ‘frontier’ thing wasn’t an accident.) Where there is no conflict, there simply is no story. The biblical story of Solomon and the two women who claimed the same baby could not have happened in the world of Star Trek. Solomon could simply use the transporter to create an exact replica/clone of the baby. Then both women could have the baby. Problem solved. No wisdom required.

I could (continue to) expound at length on Star Trek, and drag in the three Stargate series and Babylon 5 as well. My point is this: when the world—the Setting, the Milieu—is well-developed, it and the characters, events, and ideas will be inextricable from one another.

I seem to have stumbled into writing urban fantasy. You can’t talk about urban fantasy without Milieu. That’s the ‘urban’ part. The city in which the stories are set is an inextricable part of the lives of the characters. The events take place in that city.

True Blood, The Dresden Files, the Greywalker Series, the Anita Blake series, the Kate Daniels series, the Kitty Norville series . . . all of these take place in a known city or one very similar to one we know. The authors weave the stories into the real cities, overlaying them with magic and fantastical creatures, but they are still Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Denver. True Blood takes place in a fictional small town in Louisiana called Bon Temps, but anyone from the south will recognize the town as being like every other small town in the south. With very few name changes, it could be set in my hometown of Eutaw, Alabama. (Population: 1800! SaaaaaaLUTE!)

The difference between Milieu and Idea is, I believe, that while Idea can ‘carry’ a story by itself, Milieu can’t.

Not entirely. Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward is set on the surface of a neutron star. I mean wow! But he had to have characters, ideas, and events to make me want to keep reading past the first few pages. Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott is almost entirely Milieu, but to carry it, he has to develop equally interesting characters and events and ideas (mostly ideas). Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought books depend deeply on his Milieu, but again, without interesting characters, ideas, and events, it wouldn’t be readable.

Imagine a novel written like a travelogue. Travelogues are fun if you’re, say, in Greece, and you want to know more about the place. But then, you are the character having your own ideas and making your own events. You wouldn’t read the travelogue of Greece if you weren’t either in Greece or going soon.

Unless someone comes up with a really interesting second-person-POV Choose Your Own Adventure book in which exploring a place is the only goal, I don’t really see Milieu as being capable of carrying a story. Not a very long one, anyway.

So, to sum up: Milieu = foundation. Idea = framework. We still have Character and Event to go. Stay tuned!


MICE: The Idea

"idea" © 2005 by Tony Dowler

"idea" © 2005 by Tony Dowler

I was listening to a recent episode of the Writing Excuses podcast. It’s about Orson Scott Card’s M.I.C.E. quotient.

M = Milieu (Setting, but S.I.C.E. doesn’t spell anything useful.)
I = Idea
C = Character
E = Event

Good stories will have more than one of these present. Novels may have all four. But one will usually stand dominant above the rest.

I was thinking about this as I was driving to work the other day listening to a totally different podcast (Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing). They were talking on that podcast about whether published authors ever give negative book reviews.

And I got to thinking about what makes even a book I wasn’t overly enthused about worth reading all the way through.

I can forgive a lot of things, but I think Card’s M.I.C.E. quotient is a pretty good indicator of what I won’t forgive.

In this post, I’ll talk about Idea, because it’s what came to mind first, and I think it’s the most unforgivable deficiency in these genres when it’s not there. Subsequent posts will deal with the other three components.


Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Fuzzy Nation
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy in the early 80s while I was in high school. I loved the Fuzzies and I wanted more. I found the second book of the trilogy (Fuzzy Sapiens), but got very frustrated with my book store when they did not have the third book available.

It was at this point that I discovered that Piper had died before publishing the third volume of the trilogy. GAH! I wanted to know how it ended!

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Shortly after I read the first two, I discovered that author William Tuning had published his version of the final volume, called Fuzzy Bones. I read it. Then, yet another author—this time Ardath Mayhar—published yet another version of the final volume, called Golden Dream: A Fuzzy Odyssey. I read it.

I liked both of the non-Piper versions. But then, in 1984, Piper’s widow discovered the completed manuscript of the third novel in her husband’s effects. It was published as Fuzzies and Other People. Finally, at long last, the trilogy had not one, not two, but three complete, slightly different, third volumes.

I was skeptical when I heard Scalzi was rebooting the story. It reminded me of the silly attempts to remake “Planet of the Apes” and “Revenge of the Nerds”: Why tamper with something that’s already great as it is? Isn’t three endings enough?

I heard him interviewed on a couple of podcasts. He explained that the reboot was a labor of love and that it had been endorsed by the Piper estate. He said all he was trying to do was to update the story with more modern sensibilities, but that he tried to preserve the essence of the original.

I snapped up the novel the day it hit the book store. But before I could get a chance to start reading, a friend reminded me of something I had forgotten: Wil Wheaton had recorded the audio version of the novel.

Well. That clenched that. I’ve been a fan of Wheaton for a long time. I bought the audio version as well. (Hey, it would be hard for Scalzi to autograph the audio version if I ever meet him at Dragon*Con. I like to think of it as “planning ahead.”)

Not to mince words: I enjoyed the hell out of this book. Scalzi did exactly as he promised. The book is, in essence, the same story that Piper told nearly five decades ago, but updated to appeal to a more modern audience. This is the first Scalzi book I’ve read, so I can’t say much about his usual style, but if they’re all anything like this, I’ll be reading more, rest assured.

The character of Jack Holloway was deeply flawed, but also, at the core, a decent man. Maybe his motives weren’t noble, maybe his irreverent, sarcastic, f**k-you attitude toward everything made him come across as unlikable at some level. But you can’t help but pull for him. After all, he did have the Fuzzies’ best interest at heart. And so what if it benefitted him, as well? As flawed as the good guys were, the bad guys were truly evil. It wasn’t hard at all to dislike Wheaton Aubrey, Joe Delise, and the entirety of Zarathustra Corporation. But it also wasn’t at all difficult to believe that such people exist, because we all know people like them. Well, hopefully not just like them…

I loved Carl the dog. I don’t remember Piper’s characterization of Carl, but I think Scalzi did a great job of using Carl to make Jack come across as more human and less mercenary. It was just the right mix.

And the Fuzzies! Scalzi put so much depth of character into those little guys, you couldn’t help but love them. Just like the original books. Their wide-eyed, innocent cuteness hiding intelligent, feeling, sentient persons. When Papa Fuzzy testified in court…I admit, I not only laughed out loud, I pumped my fist in a “YES!” motion a few times, and shed a few tears, as well. On a plane. My seatmate edged away from me.

As good as Scalzi’s writing is, and as wonderful as I thought his characters were, I think Wil Wheaton’s performance really pushed my appreciation over the edge. He has just the right tone of voice for Holloway. And when he read that court scene where Papa Fuzzy testified…well, as I said above, it moved me in more than one way. With just his voice, Wheaton was able to turn in a fantastic performance that added so much depth to the story.

I do hope that this book does well enough to allow Scalzi to continue the trilogy, or even to turn it into a series. I look forward to reading more from him, and not just in the Fuzzy universe. I highly recommend the book—audio or otherwise—to anyone who likes science fiction with a twist of courtroom drama; cute, sentient aliens; intelligent dogs; or characters who know how to dish out just desserts.

View all my reviews

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A NovelHow to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel by Charles Yu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By all rights, I should not have enjoyed this book. Sure, it’s a book about time travel, and I do love those. But it’s the oddest book about time travel that I think I’ve ever read.

The protagonist is a man in his early 30s who has spent the last 10 years living in a box the size of a phone booth. With his non-existent dog, Ed. He sleeps, eats, and, one presumes, does everything else a person needs to do inside the walls of his time machine.

(Spoilers follow…)


A Quandary

"In a Pickle" © 2008 by Mike Bitzenhofer

"In a Pickle" © 2008 by Mike Bitzenhofer

These days, e-book sales are burgeoning. They’re not up to the level of traditional books, yet (according to what source you listen to, that is). Kindles, nooks (oh, that lowercase ‘n’ really gets to me . . . ), iPads, and other electronic readers are becoming more and more prevalent.

I’ve now read a total of two books on my Kindle app for my Android phone. I’m in the middle of a third, and I have a number of others queued up. I have the Kindle app on my (work) Windows XP machine, my Windows 7 machine, and my MacBook Pro. And I’m definitely seeing the advantages to having the books electronically. I can read them literally anywhere I am, at any time, without having to tote around a huge backpack or satchel, and without having to have a bright light.

But there’s one major question that this trend brings up: when I see my favorite authors at conventions, what do I give them to sign?

It’s not an issue for me, yet, because I still buy five or six dead-tree books for every one e-book, but at some point, the convenience is going to win out over the “nostalgia,” for want of a better word. The tactile feel of the paper, the smell of the ink and paper, the weight of the book, the sound of pages turning . . . It’s a multisensory experience that just isn’t the same when the book is just electrons. And yet, if the book is good enough, the medium just isn’t as important. I’d read Jim Butcher’s books shaved into the backs of baboons. Granted, it might be a little difficult to mark my place, but . . .

So, have authors found a solution to this, yet? Or do we just need to start carrying around a deck of index cards at conventions and book signings?

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this to be an easy read. The story kept me entertained, turning pages to find out what was going to happen next. I enjoyed the Bitchun Society, and how seamlessly Doctorow blended both the high-tech narrative and the deep Disneymania into the story in a supportive way. The plot depended on it, but didn’t get overwhelmed by it. So the exposition was handled well, I thought.

Setting the story as a conflict between two teams of hereditary Disney employees bent on making the park a better experience for all involved made the story simultaneously more approachable and more obscure. By setting the action against a backdrop that is essentially the same in whatever far-flung future Doctorow has imagined as it is today, it gives him a familiar anchor point to highlight how different things are. At the same time, however, for those of us who haven’t been to Disney in a long time or who are unfamiliar with the various rides featured in the story (I have never seen the Hall of Presidents or the Haunted Mansion because both have always been closed for maintenance during my visits to both Disneyworld and Disneyland.), it is more than a little frustrating.

The problem I had with the book at the beginning was that nothing was really at stake. For anyone. The park was not going anywhere (as in “static”), and all the changes being made were done to preserve the experience for the visiting public. So no matter how it came out, nothing would truly change. Sure, maybe some of the characters would be inconvenienced, but it would be just that–an inconvenience.

Julius, the main character, goes on and on at some length about how death–even his own murder–is not that big a deal. Serious, debilitating health problems–such as, say, murder–are easily fixable: just clone a new body, make a backup, and restore into the new body, better than the previous one. With multiple lifetimes to live, humans tend to lose the urgency that makes every minute of our lives precious, and this is nicely portrayed throughout.

When Julius loses all of that about halfway through the book, this is when it “picked up” for me. Now we have a character who genuinely has something to lose. His every moment becomes precious because he can’t back up, so if he renews, he’ll lose a large chunk of his life, including the last year of the life of one of his best friends. This underlying story was what kept me turning the page, wondering how it was going to be resolved.

I didn’t really expect the revelation at the end (the Whodunnit), but it made sense within the framework of the story, and didn’t betray the characters’ personalities. I thought Doctorow handled it well.

The reason I gave this three stars instead of four (I did really enjoy it while I was reading it) is that the ending…just sort of petered out. Again, nothing was really at stake. Once Julius agreed to be restored if anything happened to him and forgave his murderers, there just wasn’t any reason to care anymore what happened to him. Which may be exactly what Doctorow had in mind. Julius moved on, Disneyworld went back to whatever passes for “normal” in the Bitchun Society, and the story ends. What eventually happens to everyone other than Julius is left unrevealed, and as a reader, that didn’t bother me.

Because nothing is at stake for any of them.

My main dilemma right now is trying to decide whether this story was Utopian or dystopian. I could go either way.

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