Book Review: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover: 'Aurora,' by Kim Stanley RobinsonRecognize that book cover? No, I’m not referring to the whole thing — just to the idea: remind you of another science-fiction image of recent vintage?

I’ll tell you what it made me think of: this classic movie-poster shot, from Gravity. I’ve used a wallpaper-sized variant of that image as a computer desktop for several years now, which sharpens the point of the message: When you’re in space, you are really, really alone.

The main cast who populate the pages of Aurora aren’t quite as aware of their utter aloneness in space as viewers of that book cover are. True, they know they live in an interstellar spaceship, their mission’s purpose to populate a world beyond the solar system. They know the distance to their new home is vast — nearly eight light years — and the duration of their journey there likewise almost unimaginably long.

Oh, sure: how could they not know it, at least at an intellectual level? After all, when we first encounter these people, we’re seeing not the original passengers and crew, but their descendants six and seven generations removed: people who’ve never set foot on — or even seen — Earth. Their starship left the orbit of Saturn about one hundred sixty years ago. It takes only a single spacesuited trip out of an airlock — just a glance through a telescope — to tell them how isolated they are.

But the book-cover image of that starship deceives: the ship is big. I mean, forget Starship Enterprise-class big: really big. It consists of these main components:

  • The spine — that single central stem surrounded by the rings — is itself ten kilometers (six and a quarter miles) long.
  • The two outer rings: each torus-shaped outer ring (designated Ring A and Ring B) contains twelve “biomes” (about which, more shortly) — cylinders, each a kilometer in diameter and four kilometers long.
  • Six spokes connecting the spine to each ring: although their dimensions are is never specified, a seat-of-the-pants estimate would make the total diameter about eighteen to twenty kilometers. Thus, each spoke would be about nine to ten kilometers long (depending on various factors).
  • Two inner rings: these are purely structural in nature, serving to “lock” the outer rings to the spine.

Like I said: really big. And it’s populated not just by a couple hundred people, but by a couple thousand. On top of which are all the animals: Earth species which in some cases, yes, are raised as livestock, but in others are simply left feral. This ship is not just a starship; it’s an ark…

[Read more…]

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Book Review: Mort(e), by Robert Repino

Cover: 'Mort(e),' by Robert RepinoStriking cover, wot? About which I’ll have more to say later, but for now you can already tell a few things about the book even if you haven’t read about it elsewhere:

  • You might wonder about the color, but clearly a cat — or at least catness in general — figures prominently herein.
  • The fonts are strikingly artificial. (Cutouts? Stencils?)
  • And although any old cover includes the book’s title, this cover practically fetishizes the title’s… well, the title’s novelty, its weirdness. It doesn’t just include but highlights the internal parentheses: it makes you notice them.

So let’s concede those details right up front (er, so to speak):

Yes, Mort(e) features a cat — not incidentally, but as its protagonist. The cat has chosen the name “Mort(e)” for himself, parentheses and all (right down to the human associations of morte-with-an-e, and mort-without-an-e). Which must imply that while the cat may be an animal, he’s probably not a natural animal. He is, in fact, something of a made creature…

[Read more…]

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Book Review: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

'The Magicians,' by Lev Grossman (cover)I don’t know the process whereby Lev Grossman came to write the first of his trilogy, but I can imagine its developing something like this…

The germ of the story would be a what-if question an author might ask of himself, a rather involved question along these lines:

Stories centered around magic and fantasy lands are all so damned full of wonder: of the characters’ (sometimes just the reader’s) slack-jawed omigosh-so-utterly-amazing appreciation of the miraculous. Suppose such a book, with such a subject and setting, was populated instead by realistic, no, by out-and-out cynical characters: characters bored of magic, characters who sneer at the course of their lives which has led them to magic, characters — no matter how magically talented — who often out-and-out hate magic and refuse to use it? What would such a book be like? Hmm. Let me see…

The most direct route to an answer would start with the age of cynicism, “age” in the sense of both an historical era and a time of individual human lifespan. It would start, in short, with 21st-century American teenagers — even better, perhaps, teenagers from New York City (and specifically, best of all, from finger-snapping nasal-voweled Brooklyn).

[Read more…]

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An E-Publishing Experiment (2): Short Holiday Reading for Under a Buck

How It Was: Christmas (cover)Moving right along…

So I’ve had a short story for sale for a week so far, as described in this post. (The book itself can be found on; that’s the Amazon US link, although it’s also available at the company’s UK, Australia, Brazil, Germany, India, [etc.] sites.) At 99 cents apiece (less Amazon’s cut), I’ve sold about a dozen copies of that story to date (one was “refunded,” for reasons unknown — probably a double download).

As I mentioned at the time, I haven’t really done anything to promote it, other than to announce its availability on Facebook and Twitter. I did a follow-up on Facebook, a day or two later, and — for what it’s worth — sold more copies via the follow-up than from the original announcement. I made a point of not urging anyone to spread the word, buy copies for friends and family, and so on; I just announced the story’s availability, to see what happened next.

From this small chunk of data, so far at least, I (not very earth-shakingly) conclude:

  • People who see the announcement are more likely to respond to it. Thus, the timing of the announcement is critical: almost no one can read every single posting in his or her Facebook and/or Twitter feeds. Follow-up can greatly announcements improve the odds of likely purchasers even knowing about the sale in the first place.
  • Since Facebook and Twitter (and RAMH itself, for that matter) are self-selected population samples — only people who “know” me in one way or another — presumably all of those dozen sales so far came not via word-of-mouth, but in direct response to the announcement.

I don’t know how to encourage word-of-mouth sales without constantly nudging the people who’ve bought it so far — remember, people I “know” — and risking wearing out my welcome, so to speak. Especially now, at this time of year, people (even generous friends) simply don’t want, let alone need, to be badgered repeatedly to buy something.

So, let’s move on to phase 2, applying some of these lessons (and leaving some of the mysteries unresolved for now).

You can find my next 99-cent offering here, at Amazon’s US site: “How It Was: Christmas.” If you’ve been reading RAMH for a while, you’ve seen this (both the overall series, and this specific volume) referenced before. One of my very first posts here described the series’ genesis, and what to expect from the individual booklets.

Of all four books, this one is most likely to “sell,” I think — especially at this time of year. I’ve done a couple of things to open it up a little further:

  • I’ve enrolled the title in Amazon’s “Kindle Select”KDP Select” program. This will provide me some promotional opportunities downstream. Chief among these: I will be able to RAISE the sale price, with the intention of immediately offering it for sale at a deep discount back to the 99-cents level.
  • The book will also be available for free “library” lending to Amazon Prime customers. I won’t get a direct royalty from these so-called borrowings, but I will get a small bit from some kind of Amazon’s global library promotions.
  • I’ll do more than one follow-up announcement on Facebook, and also make a point of following up a couple of times on Twitter. (As ever, I don’t want to wear out my welcome. If anyone sees me approaching that limit, I hope you’ll let me know!)
  • A bigger risk, maybe: I’m offering the book free of all digital-rights-management constraints. This means that someone who BUYS a copy can simply turn around and give the book file to anyone else. Of everything I’ve written, maybe, this Christmas booklet is “most likely to succeed,” at some point (perhaps years in the future). To the extent that more and more people read (and of course like) it, future sales of both other How It Was books and everything else I might e-publish might get a boost.

Again, let’s just see how things play out. And I’ll report back on this phase, too, at some point.

Thanks as always for reading anything at all which I’ve written… and of course, thanks extra if you’ve paid for it, and/or encouraged someone else to do so. ;)


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An E-Publishing Experiment: Short Fiction for Under a Buck

AtmospheresI am not even close to the first person to wonder: is it possible — let alone worthwhile — to sell short short stories piecemeal, directly to readers, without going through the intermediary of a magazine or publisher?

Answering the first part of that question comes (relatively) easily, as it happens. Pursuing the answer to the second, however, can be messier. More… fraught.

So, the experiment:

I’ve uploaded a short story to Amazon, where it will sell as an e-“book” for 99¢ (US) and the equivalent price in other currencies. If I could have, I’d have priced it even lower; for now, though, that represents the lowest price which Amazon even allows for an e-book. Still, I have no plans to lower the price later. Let’s just see how it goes.

What do you need to know about the story?

  • The cover appears at the top right of this post; the title, obviously, is “Atmospheres.”
  • Genre? Fiction, of course. Maybe literary fiction (although that does carry an unseemly whiff of self-congratulation, doesn’t it?). Some might consider it to be a fantasy. A, well… let’s say a light contemporary fantasy. Don’t expect any pixies or elves, however, nor dragons, trolls, wizards, and the rest of that lot.
  • Excerpt: here’s how it begins…

Nathan DeKuyper had often dreamed of flying — not in some engined or lighter-than-air contraption, but personally, on his own. Springing-into-the-air flying. Aerodynamically-stretched-out-extremities flying, like Superman, requiring no wings of his own nor flapping of arms. Propelled in three dimensions by mere intent, by wanting to be there instead of here. Gliding, climbing, barrel rolling, power diving, treetop skimming, with the wind threatening to strip his glasses from his head, his eyes tearing, his hearing aid clattering dangerously, his clothes snapping and ballooning about him. No one would see him, or if they saw him they’d look away, rub their eyes, look up again… but he’d be gone by then, already dismissed as an illusion, all but forgotten.

Of course he had dreamed of flying. Hadn’t everyone? But — well, of course — he’d never actually flown.

Until the day he did.

  • How short is it? (Regular readers of my prose here and elsewhere may especially need reassurance on this score.) Only about 7,000 words: easily consumed at a sitting, I think (hope).
  • As an e-book sold through Amazon, it’s in Kindle-readable format. However — this is important — you do not need a Kindle to read it. Once you purchase it, you should be able to read it with Amazon’s Kindle software, available both as a regular Web browser plug-in and as a smartphone/tablet app.
  • Oh, duh: where to get it. Of course. You can get it here.

As I said, let’s just see how it goes. I’ll mention the whole thing on Facebook and Twitter, maybe even more than once, but have no “promotional” plans beyond that — word-of-mouth will carry it, or it won’t. And yes, I’ll report back on the whole thing. Sometime, haha.

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Book Review: The Blue Jar, by Marta Pelrine-Bacon

Cover: 'The Blue Jar,' by Marta Pelrine-Bacon (electronic edition)[Note: please be sure to read the disclosure at the foot of this review.]

Marta Pelrine-Bacon is a fan of the old Twin Peaks TV series; she has actually named one of her several online abodes Searching for Agent Dale Cooper (the FBI agent in the series, played by Kyle Maclachlan). In the promotional copy for her debut novel, The Blue Jar, her publisher says:

Fans of the quirky and off-beat will love this atmospheric, psychological tale of revenge and obsession with its unexpected twists and turns. Lake Belle, reminiscent of Twin Peaks set in the deep American South, provides the atmospheric setting for this thrilling psycho-drama with its underlying theme of weird justice.  Is it magic? Or is something else at work?

All of which pretty much lays it out there for anyone else familiar with the program — or its reputation, for that matter: expect the off-center.

So, how off-center is it? Let’s see…

[Read more…]

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ADMIN: Sending Long RAMH Posts to Your Kindle

I’ve added a new feature to the blog which, in one respect, gives me something you could easily call pause. But on balance I think it’s a good thing:

You probably already know you can subscribe to RAMH either via email or using some blog-subscription application like Google Reader (soon to go away), Feedly, etc. (See the “Subscription Options” area in the right sidebar, just below “Hats Recently Chased.”) But if you don’t want to subscribe to the blog that way, just want to save occasional individual posts for later offline reading, wouldn’t that be nice? After all, I do tend to write awfully long posts…

At the foot of each post at the site — also on each non-post “page,” as WordPress calls them (like the About page, for instance) — you’ll now find a little button, which looks like this:

'Send to Kindle' button

It does pretty much what you’d expect: transmits the corresponding post’s content to your Kindle-reading device. (This can be either a Kindle (duh), or a smartphone/pad Kindle app. Unfortunately this does not yet include the Amazon Cloud Reader app for desktop PCs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that got added at some point.) When you click on it, you’ll get the usual Amazon page which prompts you for your login credentials. If you’ve got more than one reading device, you can select it at the next screen.

…and a moment or two later, you’ll have that post at your disposal for offline reading.

Now obviously, actually using this feature on a very short post — like this one, or like Thursday’s cartoon-and-commentary post — doesn’t make a lot of sense. And if non-textual/-pictorial content is important, you probably won’t find it anywhere on the target device; I’ve got my most recent Midweek Music Break post open in my Android app at the moment, and it includes neither (a) the video clip, nor (b) the two little audio-player widgets which let you stream music and spoken content to your browser.

Note 1: If you have the secret RAMH square-bracket decoder ring, though, you can still listen to the audio clips I post here.

One other caveat: As you may know, when you’re looking at the RAMH home page in your browser, not every post appears in its entirety. (For instance, the weekly whiskey river Friday posts show only the selected quotations from whiskey river for that week.) In order to continue reading the rest of the post, you click on a Continue reading link (or of course, you can click on the post title to see the whole thing.) The caveat is that the send-to-Kindle button also appears on the RAMH home page below every Continue reading link: clicking on one of these buttons sends to your device only the portion of the post visible from the home page, not the full post. To send the full post, you must have the full post open in your browser, and click the send-to-Kindle button there.

Either the Amazon folks will eventually provide workarounds for the above, or I’ll figure out some other approach.

So what’s the thing which gives me pause? Just this: it requires you to use Amazon’s own little porthole to the content. True, you don’t need to own a Kindle per se. But requiring the use of any vendor-specific technology, even if in the form of apparently benign smartphone or pad apps, doesn’t feel like a comfortable fit to me.

Note 2: You can also read a post later by using the “Share/Save” button which has been at the foot of every post for years now. However, this doesn’t really let you read it offline; all it really does is make a link available to be clicked on. I don’t know, though. Maybe it’s a small distinction.

I’d be curious to know what any of your experiences might be with this, especially if you try it out using something other than a plain old Kindle or Android smartphone. If you’re using a Kindle Fire, can you see the audio widgets/videos? If you’re using an iPhone?

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Midweek Music Break: Theme-Park Earworms

The Missus and I took a much-needed mini-vacation this past weekend, trekking off to central Florida for (among other things) our first visit to the other theme park in that neighborhood. We love amusement parks and fairs (county, state, you name it), but neither of us is a big roller-coaster fan; most of the rides at our destination park were pure roller coasters, or adaptations of the genre. And if you look through the place’s Web site, you will observe that pretty much all the happy, screaming people in the photos are no more than half our age, and the majority much younger.

Still, we found plenty to do, although we spent only about five or six hours at the park itself (counting a full dinner).

The single activity I spent most of the four days engaged in — other than driving, haha — was reading. It felt almost irresponsible, reading so much. I finished one book I’d been reading for weeks; started and finished another in the next 24 hours; and put a huge dent in a third. I read for hours at a clip. (Of course, it helped that I’d sorta-but-not-quiiiiiite-finished this draft of Seems to Fit a couple days before. The very last chapter still needs work, but even so, my head was largely empty of responsibility to my own story.)

Anyway, headed into the midweek I got thinking about theme- and amusement-park music. Usually — at least to my mind — this music is associated with carousels, merry-go-rounds, whatever-you-call them, and often has that characteristic hurdy-gurdy sound. (The rides’ up-and-down round-and-round rhythms favor short songs played over, and over, and over, and over…) When I was a kid, a carousel appeared on the streets of our own town every now and again in summer, and the single number I remember it playing was (maybe unsurprisingly) “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down.”

Wikipedia says:

[It was] written in 1937 by Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin. It is best known as the theme tune for the Looney Tunes cartoon series produced by Warner Bros. Cartoons, used from 1937 to 1969.

Here’s one Looney Tunes rendition, not the opening-titles instrumental but as sung by an early version of guess-who in “Daffy Duck and Egghead” (1938):

But the cartoon version was (is) waaay too fast to be played by any carousel other than one about to fly apart at its welded seams. The one I remember was paced more like this disturbing version from television’s old Lawrence Welk Show:

(The cartoon version of the song, though, provided me with the title for Merry-Go-Round. The sequel to that, called Merrily We Roll Along, gets its title from the theme song for the Merry Melodies cartoon series — also by Warner Brothers.)

Now it occurs to me that another carousel song was adapted for use in short comedies from the same mid-1930s era: “Listen to the Mockingbird,” the first theme song for The Three Stooges’ films. (They later switched to “Three Blind Mice,” but I’ve never heard a carousel play that one. Maybe the transference works in only one direction.)

At any rate, no matter how much I enjoy theme and amusement parks, especially those in central Florida, I can never dissociate them from this song:

Yeah. That (the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair) was the first place I ever heard it, too — maybe fifteen, twenty years before first re-encountering it at Disney World. What a surprise *cough* that it stayed with me during all that time in between!

In the above clip, the voiceover celebrates how many languages sing the song during the ride. Of course, the more languages in which it’s sung and instruments on which it’s played, the more times the maddening tune must be played, and the more desperate the riders grow to be freed from the little boats they’re trapped in. I like to imagine the Disney crew in their white short-sleeved shirts and ties, brainstorming around a table in a bar in late-1950s Southern California, laughing, growing ever drunker as they call out, “We’ve gotta do it in Sanskrit!” “Wait — Tagalog!” “Don’t forget Urdu!” “Old Norse!” “Pygmy Bantu!”…

I opted here not to use any of the videos which play all of “It’s a Small World.” If you’re a glutton for punishment, you’ve got a lot of them to choose from.

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Book Review: Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell

A few weeks ago I reviewed Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow at the Book Book review blog. I just posted a follow-up there, a review of The Sparrow‘s sequel, called Children of God. However, if you have not read The Sparrow, please don’t read my Children of God review: it assumes that you know what happened on the planet Rakhat.

Briefly, I found the later book much harder to like than the earlier (although I continued to appreciate Russell’s skill):

  • We’re forced to spend much time in the company (and minds) of The Sparrow‘s less pleasant characters.
  • Much of the fun of The Sparrow came from the kidding, affectionate, and sometimes flirtatious interaction among the humans who made the trip to Rakhat. That original cast of characters is almost completely absent from this book; in their place we have a much more serious bunch. (There are reasons why they’re so serious. That doesn’t magically transform them into a larky gang of back-slappers, however.)

As I mention at the end of the Book Book review, I’d probably rate Children of God something like 85 out of 100, vs. The Sparrow‘s 95. Still worth a read, though — if for no other reason, than that it completes the circle of Emilio Sandoz’s story, while redeeming some of its predecessor’s horror.

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Book Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

Over at The Book Book, I’ve posted my recent review. This time around, the subject is Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow, first published in 1996.

Russell seems one of those novelists in the enviable position of writing whatever she wants, irrespective of genre. The Sparrow (and its 1998 sequel, Children of God) are frank science fiction. Since then, she has to my knowledge written no science fiction at all. Instead, she’s written a novel about Jews in World War II-era Italy; one about an unlikely participant in the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference; and, most recently, a Western/mystery about Doc Holliday. I mention this because (among other implications) it shows her to have a wide-ranging mind and an awareness of the importance of history — even in the writing of fiction.

In bare-bones form, The Sparrow‘s plot might be described thusly:

  • We meet aliens.
  • Some very pleasant and some very unpleasant things happen.

But there’s nothing bare-bones about the book. It’s well-researched. It’s well-written. It tugs in multiple directions at once — sympathy, laughter, wonder, horror. It provokes thought as well as sensation. When you turn the last page you may think (as I did): Damn. Now that was a read! It won numerous awards, and sold — continues to sell — quite well.

Yet somehow I’d managed to get through the last 15 years without ever hearing of it, or Russell,until Marta mentioned it and its sequel in an offhand comment back in January (with intriguing follow-up comments both from her and from a/b). Weird.

Anyhow, it’s great. Put aside any qualms you might harbor about science fiction or, for that matter, about theology. Brace yourself for confronting some of those very unpleasant things. And dive in.

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