The Last Watch: A Novel Of The Divide by J.S. Dewes

The Last Watch (The Divide Series Book 1) by [J. S. Dewes]

This book first came to my attention thanks to a “Big Idea” post on John Scalzi’s blog Whatever. In that post, Dewes explained that the original inspiration for the book came from a single line sung by Johnny Cash in the song “Highwayman.”

“I’ll fly a starship across the universe divide.”

That instantly hooked me because like Dewes I’ve listened to that song many times and thought that there must be a story somewhere in that line. Turns out Dewes found it.

The Last Watch follows a group of Sentinels, soldiers sent to stand guard at the edge of the universe as a punishment. That’s how Adequin got there at least. The other POV character, Cavalon, was once the heir-apparent to one of humanity’s royal houses, THE royal house in fact, or as close to this universe has to one. Forcing him to enlist in the Sentinels was a convenient way to get rid of him.

In a way, both Cavalon and Adequin are out of place in their current posting and are in conflict with each other. At the start, Adequin is trying to beat Cavalon into an acceptable soldier and Cavalon is just trying to be…Cavalon? He really wants to be better he just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut.

Both of them will learn a lot by the end of the book. They accomplish a lot too. In this book, Dewes manages to tell a small story with large implications. I think that’s a skill. We are so used to protagonists with outsized importance. The characters that Dewes created do have a great deal of importance, but they have also been completely relegated to the edges of society. And I mean it when I say edges.

The book’s back cover promised an existential threat that only the Sentinels could avert. It didn’t disappoint. There are a lot of ideas in this book coupled to a lot of fun. The dialogue is great, the ideas are better, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the second book. You should go read it. Right now.

Dan Simmons’ Mystery Box

Mystery can be a great driver of plot and a trap at the same time. J.J Abrams is notorious for using this strategy in Lost and blowing it at the end. The problem is if you set up some huge mystery at the beginning of a narrative you better have a satisfying answer to the mystery by the end. Or do you?

I would argue that you don’t. If you do it right.

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, Book 1) by [Dan Simmons]

If you have a great answer to the mystery you present to your audience at the beginning then by all means share it, but if you do you better make sure you are very confident in the answer. Your audience will not thank you if your answer fails to live up to their expectations. Remember how disappointed Spongebob was to find out Patrick has just spent the entire episode hiding the string in his secret box?

I am here to argue that sometimes it’s best to leave mysteries unsolved. There is both terror and wonder in the unknown, that’s part of being human, there’s no reason the stories we tell shouldn’t reflect that.

I am using Dan Simmons as an example here because his 1989 science fiction novel “Hyperion” is fantastic. It’s the kind of “genre fiction” that gets literature snobs to lower their barriers. But I think it would have been better if Simmons had never written a sequel. Let me explain.

Hyperion, unsurprisingly, centers around the planet Hyperion. A planet at the edge of known space, one that is not incorporated into the network of gates that allow instantaneous travel between worlds.

Traveling to Hyperion means sacrificing a great deal of time and accepting a certain amount of risk. Many accept this because Hyperion is a planet of mysteries. It is one of the labyrinthine worlds, worlds with great labyrinths constructed by unknown aliens. It is also home to the Shrike and the Time Tombs. Both have been sent back in time for an unknown purpose.

shallow focus photography of gray concrete building
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One group of humans, the Shrike Church, believe that the Shrike is a punishment for humanity’s sins and traveling willingly on pilgrimages to Hyperion where most of them will be killed in various horrible ways by the Shrike. It’s strange how the bishops never go themselves, isn’t it?

The protagonists of Hyperion have all been selected for what will probably be the last Shrike pilgrimage. At the start of the book, it is stated that the Time Tombs are opening and that a group of transhumans called Ousters are about to attack the planet. There’s not much hope that the planet will hold out either. None of them are members of the Shrike Church, none of them know exactly why they were selected, all of them have their own reasons for accepting the missions.

The book is a futuristic retelling of the Canterbury Tales. In between chapters that narrate their journey to the planet and their attempts to determine who among them might be a spy, they each share their stories about what led them to accept their place on the pilgrimage.

Through their stories and their motivations, Simmons explores imperialism, artistic integrity, betrayal, love, artificial intelligence, technological reincarnation, fatherhood, and many more themes. In some ways, the book is also a love letter to John Keats.

In the end, despite their differences, they joined hands and walked to their fate. Then the book ends. The series should have ended there too.

photo of people near wooden table
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Instead, Simmons continued to write in this universe, which eventually became the Hyperion Cantos. The second book, The Fall of Hyperion, wasn’t that bad. It largely follows an artificial reincarnation of John Keats and much of the book’s events are told through his experiences. But we also see the POVs of the characters from the first novel. This is where the problem arises.

In writing the second novel Simmons had to explain all of the questions that arose in the first. In doing so he brings up a lot of interesting ideas that were totally unprecedented in the first novel. So instead of leaving the mysteries of the first book as mysteries, he chose to answer them with time-traveling agents from the future and messianic powers that came out of nowhere.

The first book was an amazing opportunity to explore multiple stories at once, to get close to deeply flawed characters with mixed motivations for being where they are, and to see them accept the uncertain future in front of them. I think the series would have ended beautifully with just one book. Instead, Simmons decided to keep writing.

That’s not to say that I hated the second book. I enjoyed most of it. Just not as much. I think I would have enjoyed it more if some of the concepts introduced in the first actually mattered in the second. Powers that destroy the Shrike don’t bother me as long as we the readers were given reason to think they might be possible beforehand.

But we weren’t.

I keep looking at the third book on my shelf and I don’t know if I can convince myself to read it. Hyperion is a great book and if it was the only book of the Hyperion Cantos that you read it will likely remain a great book in your eyes. Because the answers provided in the later books simply don’t hold up to the questions posed by the first. If you haven’t read Hyperion yet then you definitely should, but consider skipping the books that follow.

Page Break with Brian McClellan: The Perfect Podcast for Creatives?

In short. Yes.

Brian McClellan is the author of The Powder Mage Trilogy and Uncanny Collateral. Now he’s a podcaster as well.

Page Break is an interview-style podcast where Brian sits down with other creatives and talks to them about their work. But don’t worry, you won’t need to be familiar with the person’s work to understand the conversation. Instead of focusing on any specific work by that episode’s guest, Brian talks to them about their career path, their creative styles, what their segment of the industry is like, and their recent meals.

The best part of all this is how relatable it all is, and affirming too.

It’s easy to see a name on a book cover or in end credits and forget that there is a real person behind the name. It’s also hard to convince yourself that you might be able to be the person behind the name one day. Page Break brings the people behind the names into the light in an incredibly relatable way. A way that makes you think that you could do it too.

Each of them has a different path that brought them to where they are. A great reminder that there is no one right way to create, you just have to keep working at it.

Netflix Movie Review: Gunpowder Milkshake

Imagine that John Wick and a stick of bubblegum had a baby, and then paid one of the designers from Fallout to design the nursery. That’s the feeling I got watching Gunpowder Milkshake.

Right from the beginning, the movie has a few things going for it. It’s got Karen Gillan playing the lead, a lead who is a very competent assassin, a nefarious underworld with its own rules and an impressive amount of infrastructure, and a delightfully nostalgic pastel aesthetic.

Did I love this movie? I don’t think so. But I did like it.

Unlike John Wick, Karen Gillan’s character isn’t a retired killer, she is very much still active in the industry as she follows in the footsteps of her estranged mother, who disappeared from her life some fifteen years before. Her life as an emotionally distant killer comes to an end when her employer, The Firm, sends her to recover a horde of stolen money and discovered that the accountant that stole the money did so to pay the ransom for his kidnapped daughter.

This revelation immediately brings her back to a childhood of feeling alone and abandoned. Her decision to save the girls brings down the wrath of her former employees and sets her on a path to reconnect with the people who influenced her childhood, and reconnect with her mother.

Overall I found it to be an entertaining movie. Sometimes it’s nice to watch a protagonist carve a bloody path through a crowd of faceless thugs. I really liked the set designs and color choices but I do wish that the world felt a little bigger. Most of the sets, while visually appealing, show us few hints of the city around them. I also wish that we had gotten to learn a bit more about the Library, where weapons can be found hidden inside thematically linked books on the library shelves. With how important the librarians were to the movie and to the protagonist’s backstory I wish we had gotten just a few minutes more exposition.

Overall I would give it a 3/5 or maybe a 2.5/5. I’m not sure. It’s an entertaining movie that doesn’t demand a lot of thought from the audience, but I can’t help but feel like it could have been more. If you watched the movie drop a comment and let me know what you think.

My Favorite Pens: 2021 Edition

It’s been a while since I’ve done something like this. So here is a shortlist of my current favorite pens.

  1. If love was a pen it would be the Jotter. I love the jotter, there is so much history and so many imperfections contained within each pen. After more than fifty years Parker has come upon the closest thing to perfect that is possible in this plane of existence: the Parker Jotter XL. The original jotter has everything I love in a pen without the size. I have big hands. The Jotter XL takes everything I love about these pens and makes them all fit my big meaty claws.

2. Even before I came to know Parker I knew Rotring. This German brand does not have as large a catalog as its competitors but it beats their quantity with quality. Rotring was one of my first loves, and I have never left it. They have so many good pencils and pens. Nearly all of them are built on the same design and each one of them is great for its own reasons. Rotring is one of the few brands that can make both a good pen and a good pencil.

3. Michael’s Fatboy was a pen I didn’t know I needed. When I first got into this hobby I was buying pens left and right. Now I have a solid core collection of pens that I use on a regular basis and another group of pens that I just like to have. Michael’s Fatboys were an outlier. I never knew I needed one until I signed a receipt with one at Bittner Pens. The experience was brief but it stuck with me. The Fatboys have a distinctive appearance and a pleasurable writing experience. Other pens might be better for long writing sessions, but nothing can beat the look of a Fatboy on your desk.

4. Kaweco is a brand that I have ignored for too long. From what I have seen they have an extensive collection of fountain pens. I only know them from their mechanical pencil; the kaweco special mechanical pencil. It has everything you would want in a pencil; ease of use and a comfortable feel.

5. I just can’t get away from LAMY. Especially the LAMY 2000. I only have the ballpoint. I have nothing bad to say about this pen, except that they use a proprietary ink cartridge. But the feel of using this pen…it’s an instant classic. If LAMY didn’t insist on a proprietary ink I might have made this pen number one. It got just the right amount of girth and the ink flows smoothly.

So that’s my top five pens of this year so far. What have you been writing with?

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I admit I have never read a book by Naomi Novik until about a week ago. I didn’t even realize that she was the author of Temeraire, a series that has been on my radar for a while, but I just hadn’t gotten around to picking up yet. That will be changing shortly because I was blown away by how well done A Deadly Education is. Stop reading this review now and come back after you’ve bought a copy.

Done? Good. On with the review.

Like I said, I have never read a book by Naomi Novik until a week ago. I had seen A Deadly Education in bookstores several times and read reviews about it, but the tipping point for me was when I saw a Twitter mutual (Bryanna Gary go follow her) post about how great the book is. So I bought it during one of my monthly therapy shopping sessions at the local book store.

The premise of the book is that it takes place in a somewhat evil magical school. A place with no teachers where students are left on their own for four years, forced to fend for themselves and survive near-constant attacks from monsters intent on devouring them in a myriad of horrific ways. The moment that everyone dreads is graduation when the senior class will be forced to fight their way through the worst of the monsters that couldn’t squeeze their way into the cracks in the school’s wards.

And all that is the best solution the magical community could come up with to protect their children from being preyed upon by the monsters in their closest.

At first glance, the book seems to promise a grimdark setting with a protagonist who is something of an antihero. Don’t get me wrong; this school seems to be a terrible place to live. But the protagonist Galadriel, rather than being an antihero, is someone who has been given every reason to believe that she will become one. Everyone around her seems to dislike her instantly, and she has an unwanted gift for casting spells of mass destruction.

All this has made her bitter and angry, and she tends to lash out at those around her, even on the rare occasions that they do try to be friends. The book is also written in first person, so we get to see that she is fully aware that she is making these mistakes as she makes them. By the end of the book, she finally begins to make friends and even seems to force some of her classmates to become better people in the process or at least try. We also get a look into a deeply fascinating new fantasy setting that includes a school that seems determined to torture its students in an almost loving way.

It’s a good book. Go buy it.

NYRA Gave My Dad A Race

Readers will probably know that my father passed away from COVID back in January. We knew he was sick, but he seemed to be getting better, until he wasn’t.

Tributes included this very touching musical tribute at Cafe Lena

In the months since, I have been busy managing his estate, and many in town have come forward to offer their condolences and to ask permission to do various tribute concerts and such. Even the New York Racing Association wanted to do a tribute at the Saratoga Race Track. They gave us a race on July 23rd and let us name it, and I got to hand the trophy off to the jockey. At least that was the plan, in reality there was a mix-up and the jockey was not brought over. But it was still a fun day and a really touching tribute.

Despite living in Saratoga my entire life, I’ve only been to the race track a handful of times, with the last time being about ten years ago. This was the first time I ever went as an adult who can both drink and gamble. I invited both my advisor and lab mates and we had a lot of fun.

Despite losing a whole $10 gambling, I still managed to smile at the end of the day

At the end, I was a little nervous. Thanks to COVID, I haven’t performed in front of a crowd in a long time so being on camera in the winner’s circle was a little nerve-wracking, but many people from the Downtown Business Association were there, and it was great to see them.

Me with the DBA. We were all looking at the tv camera in this picture

Finally, the announcer read off a short but touching tribute about my dad on the big screen. The whole thing was just a few minutes, but it was a really nice gesture and a nice break after all the time I’ve spent managing my dad’s estate this year.

A friend of ours got the event on camera. I’ll upload a video of it as soon as I can.

Edit: The video is up!

What Was The Point of Forever Peace?

If you like scifi you need to read Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. I loved Forever War. It was my first exposure to science fiction where travel between stars takes a very very long time. Seeing the characters leave Earth repeatedly and return many years late after subjective months and having to adjust to the changes they found was fascinating and induced just a little bit of existential dread.

I LOVED the first book, but I was confused when I read Forever Free. Now, years later, I think I might finally understand why Hademan wrote the two books the way that he did.

First, I will give a very truncated summary of both books.

Forever War: In the late twentieth-century humanity goes to war with a species of aliens called Taurans. Many centuries later it is discovered that the war began as the result of a misunderstanding. Because of relativistic effects veterans of the war return home centuries or millennia after they left.

Forever Peace: By the end of the forever war humanity transcended the normal bounds of evolution and is now a race of clones living in harmony with the Taurans who are also a clone race. Veterans of the war are discontent and decided to leave the galaxy and return in 2000 years. Their journey is impeded and they learn that the galaxy has all been an experiment controlled by a god-like entity who ensured that two species on the same technological level came into contact when they did. The being leaves, and the protagonist spends the rest of their life studying the changes the being made to universal constants before they left.

If you couldn’t tell already, the second needs a lot more explanation and also makes a lot less sense.

When I first read it my first guess was that the meaninglessness of it all that was revealed in the second book was a result of Haldeman’s effort to portray a feeling of pointlessness that he and many veterans of the Vietnam War experienced when they go back home.

In retrospect, I think that a slightly more nuanced view is more appropriate.

The war between humanity and the taurans was pointless. That much is clear by the end of the first book. It is made especially clear by the end of the second.

When I first read it I was extremely put off. I hated that I had watched the characters I loved struggle for nothing…and then I realized that was the point.

Did the Vietnam war have a point? Was anything made better by it happening?

That’s the point of the two books.

In the first book our MC is faced with plenty of standard scifi conflicts and returns home to find that all of them were pointless. Then he tries to live in the world he returned to. That doesn’t work either. Finally he and many other veterans tries to escape the world they came home to and they fail, all because some greater being wanted them to fight to begin with. In the end he finds joy in discovering the changes wrought by that great being. And by small I mean minor changes to cosmological constants.

When I first finished Forever Peace I was very confused and I felt a little cheated. There hadn’t been any hint before that in either of the books. What was the point of getting invested in the characters and their struggles? With time and some perspective, I think I know.

I think that Joe Haldeman was trying to come to terms with his experiences as a Vietnam Veteran. He and thousands of others were taken away from their families, forced to fight and die, and when they came home they returned to a society that had been changed by the war. A war that history would later find was largely pointless. After suffering through a pointless conflict Haldeman was left to find some kind of meaning in life. Which is exactly what our protagonist did.

I think that this is something that should feel especially relatable to those of us who have lived through the COVID pandemic. There is no reason for more than half a million people to have died except because Trump wanted them to. Vietnam can be thought of in the same way. People died for no real reason. None of the dead sacrificed their lives for a greater future, they died because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Haldeman’s work was all about understanding this pointlessness. It’s an amazing piece of science fiction and it has never been more relevant than now. At once it makes us question the society we find ourselves in and at the same time encourages us to find something to enjoy.

I think that’s both beautiful and tragic.

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?