Do Characters Matter?

Of course, they do, but I think that some people assign too much importance to the characters when considering the merits of a given book. You all probably know by now that Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds has been my latest hyper-fixation. On a few occasions, I’ve gone over to Reddit or to the books’ wiki to see if any fanart made depicting the ships or technology in the books. During these trips, I came across a few comments from people whose main criticism of the books concerns the depth of the characters or lack thereof.

Personally, I like the characters, we may not often get to see a detailed view of what is going on inside their heads, but we also don’t need to. The novels and short stories set in the Revelation Space Universe cover a period of time extending out to 40,000 CE. The fastest a ship can go is just below the speed of light. It takes decades to travel between planets, and the characters of the novel face enemies that can tear planets apart. The scale of these stories is just too large for the characters to matter very much. Sure, they play an important role in events, but the effects of their actions will be relatively small in the end.

And there is another reason why we might not completely understand the characters; they are old. Many of the characters have already led extensive lives by the time we meet them. They’ve been traveling the stars for decades. They don’t experience time the way we do. Travel at relativistic speeds will change them; it separates them from everyone they had known before. There isn’t time to see all the past events of their lives, and the motivations of someone who has lived 400 years separated by time and space from everyone they have ever known will have a psychology that is much different than ours.

As examples, I am going to look at three criticisms that I came across online and talk about why I don’t think they are fair.

The Single Mindedness of Dan Sylvest

Dan Sylvest is one of the POV characters in “Revelation Space.” He’s about 200 years old by the time we meet him, and he is the scion of a very wealthy family from the planet of Yellowstone. When we see him, he is first leading and then loses a colony on the world of Resurgam, a colony that he founded to study an extinct alien race known as the Amarantin. There are other things about him, he resents his father Calvin, who he speaks with frequently as a computer simulation, he’s been married a few times, and he has shown a willingness to risk his life and the lives of others in pursuit of his scientific goals. I’ve seen some complain that he does not get much character development in the book and that his wife Pascal is flat and basically just someone for Dan to lecture about his discoveries.

None of these complaints are really that valid. Dan is a POV character, yes, but he is also incredibly arrogant and, as we find out later, driven by an alien memetic virus that has inspired his obsessions in order to push towards a particular goal. In that context, his behaviors and apparent lack of depth make sense. He is someone who makes everything about himself and his work. Of course his wife seems flat, we see things from his POV, and he really just likes to talk at her. Let’s not forget that he was driven by an alien virus that did its best to ensure that he only focused on a single objective. Dan is not a character who is written poorly. He does exactly what the story needs of him.

Ana Khouri’s Lost Husband and her Role as an “Action Girl”

On her home planet of Sky’s Edge, Ana was a soldier; almost everyone was. She and her husband were both soldiers who were wounded, and after they were wounded and brought to orbit for treatment. Things did not end well for the couple after this, as a clerical error caused Ana to be shipped to Yellowstone, a thirty-year round trip that ensured that even if she tried to return home to her husband, he would be either dead or remarried by the time she arrived. When we first meet her, she is working as an assassin and offered a job in which she has to travel to a different planet to kill Dan Sylvest, and in return, she will be reunited with her husband, who, as it turns out, was in hibernation on Yellowstone the entire time. She does not complete her mission because, in the process, she discovers that she has become involved in something much larger than a pair of starstruck lovers. She also realized that her mysterious employer might have lied about their ability to bring her husband back. Some have complained that Ana’s husband rarely comes up for how important he was to her, but it’s also important to remember by the time we meet Ana, she has come to terms with what happened. She has accepted that she will never see him again. He’s basically dead to her. Her husband does come in later books, however, when she initially resists taking a new lover.

Skade and the Night Council

Skade is a conjoiner, one who hears a voice in her head that she believes to be the “Night Council” and extremely classified group within the conjoiners. She is willing to do bad things for good reasons, and the things she does cause respected leaders among the conjoiners like Clavain and Remontoire to defect in order to oppose her. Eventually, this conflict evolves into a personal vendetta against Clavain. Some have said that Skade’s death was anticlimactic and that her inclusion in the story introduced unresolved plotlines. But I think that was the point. Skade may have been trying to save her fellow conjoiners, but in doing so, she strayed far from what a conjoiner was supposed to be, and it destroyed her.

Conclusion

Finally, my last argument against the criticism that these characters are flat is that a single book in the series might cover many decades. By necessity, a great deal of interactions between characters is going to take place off-screen. I’m okay with that, and personally, I think Reynolds does a great job deciding what needs to be shown and what does not.

First Impressions: The Bad Batch

I know I’m late for the party again. I’ve just started watching The Bad Batch on Disney+. I wasn’t a fan of the Bad Batch when they first appeared in an episode of The Clone Wars, but now that they’ve their own series, I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised.

Here are some first impressions.

First, the armor design is great. Clone armor is fascinating because there is so much room for customization between individual clones, and the Bad Batch’s armor is heavily customized.

Second, we get a look at the birth of the Empire. The first episode begins at the very end of the Clone Wars as Order 66 begins. Being a group of deviant clones, the Bad Batch can think freely compared to standard clones with fully functioning control chips. It’s really nice to have a canon depiction of the days and weeks directly following Order 66.

The characters are okay. I’m not a huge fan of the individuals that make up the Bad Batch, but I love the idea of clones with experimental gene sequences. It makes the Bad Batch a good focus for a series about clones since they each are visually different and have very different personalities.

Third, there is Omega. I know I said that the characters are just okay, but I think Omega might be an exception. Omega is another clone variant, and unlike the others, is female. Forcing the hardened soldiers of Bad Batch to learn how to deal with and take care of a child is an interesting plotline that I am interested in following going forward.

In my opinion, getting to see more of the Star Wars galaxy is always a good reason to watch, at least once. But enough about what I think. What do you think of the series? Is it worth a watch?

Love, Death & Robots: The Tall Grass

It’s a little early for me to say how I feel about the second season of Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots. Each episode may be short, but each presents us with so many ideas that they need a few viewings to really sink in. But I don’t think it’s too early to say that The Tall Grass is my favorite episode of this new season.

The episode’s plot is beautifully simple. A man is on a train that has run out of steam. While the train is stopped, he decides to step off the train for a quick smoke that the conductor only begrudging allows. But he soon wanders off into the tall grass beside the tracks where he is chased by strange monsters, only rescued by the conductor as the train starts moving again. We then learn that the train regularly runs out of steam along this particular stretch of track and that the conductor has had to deal with these monsters before.

It’s a simple story, and it leaves us with questions. In short, it’s a perfect short story. It gives us just a taste of excitement and mystery in a way that causes our minds to fill in the blanks. For a writer, it’s the perfect story, the kind that makes you imagine the wider world that the story hints at.

Go watch it.

Army of the Dead Review

Netflix and Zack Snyder teamed up to make a movie! And I actually liked it quite a bit.

The plot is simple. Zombies overran Las Vegas. Years later, it is still overrun by zombies kept trapped in the city by a makeshift wall. But that’s all about to change because the government has decided to evacuate the refugee/quarantine camps around the city and nuke the whole place.

Pretty good idea…maybe…probably…right?

Anyway, the bombing is imminent, but at the last minute, the protagonist (don’t worry about the names; they’re all very forgettable) is approached by a wealthy businessman who wants him to assemble a team to retrieve two million dollars in cash under his old casino. In exchange, our hero will get fifty million dollars to divide among his team as he sees fit. There is, of course, more to this offer than meets the eye, but we don’t need to get into that now.

The movie was a lot of fun, for a few reasons.

  1. No convoluted plots. It’s a simple action/zombie movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
  2. Not all of the zombies are mindless shamblers. Some of them are organized and are seen using tools.
  3. There is a zombie tiger.

Overall I’d say watch it. It’s exactly what I want in an action movie; action. There are no unnecessary side plots, no boring romances. It’s not perfect, there are certainly a few things that could have been done better, but it’s worth a watch.

What is Vancian Magic?

You might have heard that the magic used by the spellcasters of Dungeons & Dragons is “Vancian magic.” Just that is probably enough for you to discern that the magic of dungeons and dragons falls under a “type” of magic systems employed by fantasy writers and worldbuilders. But what is Vancian magic?

Vancian Magic gets its name from the speculative fiction author Jack Vance who won many awards during his life. A few of his stories include the Dying Earth Series, which has inspired an anthology titled Songs of the Dying Earth. In his works, Vance portrayed an Earth far in the future when the continents have rearranged, and the Sun has just a few million years left.

The wizards of this distant future are limited to knowing just a small handful of spells at a time. Two, three, maybe four if they work hard. Once they cast a spell, they forget it and have to memorize it again later. Why is this? It’s clear that memorizing a spell takes a great deal of mental effort, and some characters allude to these spells having a basis in math. Because only a handful of spells can be known at once, the wizards of this world spend their time creating things, and when they anticipate a need, they sit down and memorize spells that they think they might need.

From all this we can make a few “rules” to describe a Vancian magic system.

  1. Magic is a scholarly affair.
  2. Memorizing a spell takes a great amount of effort.
  3. Casters are limited to memorizing just a few spells at a time.
  4. Once a spell is cast it must be learned again.

Lastly, we have the flavor! One of my favorite things about Vancian Magic! Many of the spells in these systems will be named after their creators. I know many writers will probably use these names as throwaways without any deeper backstory, but I love the sense of history that the names imply.

Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair Reynolds versus Beyond the Aquila Rift from Love, Death & Robots

I was torn when I did this for Zima Blue. I understand that movies will always be different from the stories they are based on. These differences are completely understandable in many cases. Some things don’t translate well, would be too expensive to depict, or need to be cut for the sake of time. In Love, Death & Robots, the screenwriters only had about ten minutes for each story. That isn’t a lot of time to portray the complexity of even a short story. With that in mind, I think Netflix could have done a lot better with this one.

Beyond the Aquilla Rift is about a starship that finds itself light years off course. The ship’s captain emerges from hibernation to find that he has traveled so far for so long that everyone he ever knew back home is long dead. But it’s not all bad because at this remote outpost, he meets an old flame by the name of “Greta.” Greta changes her story a few times but eventually tells him that her ship became stranded in this remote locale through a mishap similar to what stranded his. This is also a lie. His ship is, in fact, the first human ship to ever arrive at this remote station. The captain, we learn, never woke up from hibernation. Everything he experienced was a simulation fed to him by the entity that took care of all the lost souls that came to it.

The animation LDR’s version is gorgeous, and like all good sci-fi, the ending both answers questions and introduces new ones. But I can’t bring myself to hold both versions at the same level as I did with Zima Blue. They are different, and that is okay, but the adaptation makes too many jumps. The protagonist’s realization that things are not as they seem is far too abrupt. Rather than spend as much time as they did on a gratuitous sex scene, I think the writers would have done the story better justice if they had shown us some of the inconsistencies in the simulation, the little details that hinted that something just wasn’t right.

If I had to give both a rating, I would say the LDR’s version would get a 2/5, and the original written version would get a 3.5/5. I am not a fan of this kind of story in general, but I think it is well done. LDR’s version is visually stunning, but it doesn’t show us enough to really understand the predicament the protagonist finds himself in.

I hope you liked this review. Because I just found out that all the short stories that inspired season one is available as a single anthology, so there are going to be a lot more posts like this.

Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds versus Zima Blue from Love, Death & Robots

I’ve been on a bit of an Alastair Reynolds kick lately, mainly centered on the author’s revelation space books. As usual, whenever I get invested in a new series, I seek out more in search of more doses of dopamine, which led me to purchase a collection of short stories that Reynolds has written over the years. This endless search for dopamine brought me back to one of my favorite Netflix originals; Love, Death & Robots.

Love, Death & Robots is a Netflix original series consisting of short episodes that bring science fiction short stories to life. Alistair Reynolds had two stories featured in the first season, one of them being Zima Blue.

The story is about a cyborg artist in the far future named Zima. It is told from the perspective of a journalist who has finally been granted an interview with the reclusive artist on the eve of the unveiling of his final work. Zima, we are told, began his work in painting portraits of the cosmos before graduating to increasingly abstract works featuring his trademark blue color, works so large that a single mural could encapsulate a planet. But the story is not so much about Zima’s art as it is Zima’s search for his truth, and in the written version, it is also about how Zima inspires the journalist to search for her own truth.

Both versions of the story are good. Netflix’s version portrays Zima’s story in a much clearer fashion than Reynolds did. However, I can’t help but feel that the story’s message is lost in the retelling. The story is not just about Zima’s search for truth; it is also about his interviewing coming to grapple with what the truth is. Zima, for example, asserts that the falsehoods created by our imperfect memories are what allow truth to come about. Truth in art anyway.

Both versions of the story are great, and I recommend both. Both make the audience ask questions, but I recommend reading the original for a complete formulation of that question.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Revelation Space (The Inhibitor Trilogy Book 1) by [Alastair Reynolds]
Book One of the Inhibitor Trilogy

Lately, I have been listening to a lot of audiobooks. It’s helped to make tedious tasks more enjoyable, and it has helped me cross A LOT of books off of my to-be-read list. A few of these books have been Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor Trilogy. These books have me obsessed.

For those who don’t know, Alastair Reynolds is a prolific science fiction author who studied astrophysics with the European Space Agency. He holds a doctorate in astronomy and his experience shines through in his writing.

He has an incredibly engaging style that he peppers with just the right amount of scientific jargon to make his settings convincing. He also does an amazing job of bringing seemingly disparate story threads together at the end in ways so obvious in retrospect.

I could go on and on about why I like these books. Instead, I want to talk about one thing that Reynolds does very well. Conflict. Or should I call it fluff? You know those fight scenes that drag on too long or the infiltrations that seem a little too contrived? I know I can’t be the only one, which is why I was so happy when Reynolds chose to fade to black for those scenes that another author might instead drag along for a chapter or two.

That’s not to say that these books don’t have fight scenes or are free of violence, but Reynolds seems to know exactly how much of the fight we need to be shown, and much of the violence in the series takes place between starships. Starships so far apart that a commander will not know if their attack was successful for several hours. In a book like this, conflict is best shown through the thoughts and worries of the commanders rather than the minutia that many authors get stuck in.

Fantastic books. 5/5. Go read.

How To Read More Books

Start listening to audiobooks.

There was a time when I looked down on people who liked audiobooks. I ignorantly thought listening to a book was somehow a lesser experience than reading the words on a page. I was so wrong.

I began with a few books that were gifted to me on Audible, and I was a near-immediate convert. I began with a re-read of Dune, and it reignited my love for the series. Then I started listening to the Great Courses, and I’ve found a whole new way to learn that I wasn’t aware of before. It didn’t take me long to get my own audible subscription, and since I have, the benefits have expanded. Not only do I get one credit each month to buy a new book, but I also get access to a whole library of audible books included with my subscription. I’ve searched for certain titles on multiple occasions and found that they were already included with my subscription. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Now, I’m not just recommending Audible because I will financially benefit if you sign up for a free trial. I think it’s a really great service. But I understand if you don’t want to support Amazon by supporting Audible. So for the rest of this post, I will focus on why you should give audiobooks a chance and a few examples of audiobooks I’ve especially enjoyed.

They’re Efficient

I know I’m not the only one who is busy. These days it’s hard for me to find the time to read a 1000 page doorstopper. As much as I love them, I just don’t have the time. Audiobooks have been a lifesaver in this segment of my literary experience. I can download an audiobook and listen to it while driving, while I’m doing chores, even while brushing my teeth in the morning. All the moments in my day where I turn my brain off while my body does something tedious, I listen to audiobooks. It’s allowed me to make those parts of my day infinitely more enjoyable while finally getting to experience the books I’ve always wanted to read.

They’re More Engaging

I tried to read American Gods on several occasions. I really did. I just couldn’t get into it. Then one day, I was browsing and found the full-cast recording of American Gods. Honestly, it was just better than the print version. A good narrator(s) can do so much to change and enhance the experience.

Recommended

Revelation Space – This is another one of those books that I would not have had time to read if I had gotten the text edition. The audiobook was over twenty hours long, and there are at least five books in the series. The narrator, John Lee, does a phenomenal job with voices. Overall the series is a great example of interstellar hard science fiction.

American Gods – This was a book I tried to read on several occasions and never got past the first chapter. For some reason, it just didn’t work. Then I downloaded the full-cast audiobook on a whim, and I blew through it. There are so many little stories inside the larger one, I know some people don’t like Shadow’s extended stay in Michigan, but that was one of my favorite segments of the book.

The Anatomy of Fascism – I often forget that Audible subscriptions come with a library of free audiobooks now. The Anatomy of Fascism, which I wrote about a few months ago, was one of those books. It’s a fascinating analysis of Hitler and Mussolini’s respective brands of fascism.

The Story of Human Language – This is one of the Great Courses offered on Audible, and I heartily recommended it. It’s a fascinating introduction to linguists and what it can tell us about our past.

How to Start Writing

workplace with laptop and opened diary
Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

I am not a published author, but sometimes I write things, and from what people tell me, it’s pretty good. But what I am is a writer. When you pick this hobby, you are also picking a lot of doubt and imposter syndrome, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

A writer is someone who writes. Not some who is published or writes 2000 words per day. Someone who writes. I would love to get paid for this, and I would love to write thousands of words per day and go to conventions and sign copies of my book for people. But none of those things are why I started writing.

I started writing because I love reading, and after reading enough, I realized that I had stories I want to tell. So I grabbed a pencil and a few pieces of paper, and I started writing. That was about fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve written on and off frequently, but life frequently got in the way. That changes a few years ago when I started this blog and committed to getting better. I would like to think I have succeeded so far. I still have a long way to go, but I’m also proud of how far I’ve come.

I would never have been able to get to this point where I actually feel good about my work if I hadn’t picked up a pen and started dumping word vomit onto a page fifteen years ago. Now I’m getting better and more comfortable with sharing my work.

So if you want to start writing, all you need to do is start. Write because you want to and because you have stories to tell. Accept that your writing won’t be perfect, and start writing. You’ll be happier that way. Confidence will come with time.