Review: Under the Dome by Stephen King

by David Steffen

Stephen King is not known for his brevity. Many of his books are above the 500-page mark, with a few surpassing 1000. This can be good or bad. I never minded the longer books until I started writing, but now it’s hard to look at a 1000-page book and wish it had been trimmed down. Not that I only like short books, but I like a story that is exactly as long as it needs to be. Every part has some purpose, whether it moves the plot forward, illuminates character background, or a variety of other purposes.

Some of his books, like Duma Key are just far too long, and start much too slowly. In that book, there’s not much in the way of plot until about 3/4 of the way through at which point everything suddenly happens all at once. His recent novel Cell is not long by King standards, only a few hundred pages, but it seems long because the characters are not his usual well-rounded sort. They’re little more than placeholders, one-dimensional and uninteresting.

But when he finds a story and a cast of characters that merits the length, he can really make that cast come to life. This was the reason I really loved It and The Stand despite their gargantuan length. And now I can add Under the Dome to that list.

Synopsis

The premise is absurdly simple to explain–it’s the cast that makes it interesting. An invisible, impenetrable, and apparently indestructible barrier inexplicably appears along the boundary of a small town in Maine. Yes, in Maine. If I had a nickel for every inexplicable and paranormal event that occurs in Maine in Stephen King’s stories, I’d never have to work again. I do wish that he’d try some other settings once in a while. Write what you know, I suppose, but I think Mr. King could afford some traveling to make his settings more diverse. Anyway, so that’s basically it. No one knows where the dome came from, not even the government. Because the barrier is invisible, most of the boundaries are found first on the highway when cars smash into it. It also extends down into the ground, severing telephone and power lines. This inconvenience is alleviated somewhat because many of the rural Maine folk have generators, but it causes problems here and there, and they’re limited to the amount of propane they have on hand to run the gennies.

Now, populate this little town with a diverse cast from a pack of skateboarding teens to reporters to doctors to government officials, and we throw in our hero who is naturally an outsider. Dale Barbara, known to most as Barbie, is just headed out of town after a recent bar fight with some of the town’s less savory youth. Barbie is ex-military, hitchhiking around the countryside, and had stopped here for a while, but he’s decided it’s time to move on. The barrier pops into existence just before he’s able to leave town. Early on in the story he tries to mind his own business, but Big Jim Rennie, the power-hungry politician who runs the town, has a grudge against Barbie (it was Jim Rennie Jr. who Barbie bested in the bar fight). There are all kinds of conflicts going on in this town, many of them centering around Big Jim, a man you can truly love to hate. Among other things, the accidental death of the police chief leaves the police force in the palm of Big Jim’s hand. Without a chance of outside intervention, Big Jim is a dangerous man. He’s enough of a nasty character to be a threatening enemy without crossing the line into cartoon villain.

My Views

Overall, I very much liked the book, and I’d recommend it if you’re interested for a long haul. There were a few things that bothered me, though.

One thing that bothered me about the book is that no one, in general, seems that interested in figuring out why the barrier is there or how to get past it. There are a few dedicated individuals trying to deal with this, but for the most part people are just living their everyday lives under there altered in the minimum way to deal with their newfound seclusion.

Another thing that really bugged me seems to just be a problem with his technical research. It could’ve been fixed without substantially changing the plot, so it just annoys me that King didn’t realize it. A thirty second Google search could’ve found more accurate information. More on this in the Spoiler section, just in case you want to try to find the technical flub on your own.

There are occasional sections in the book, thankfully VERY occasional, where instead of telling the story in 3rd person close point of view, Stephen King writes a section as himself. I found this very irritating. He seems to think this writer’s voice is charming, but really it was grating. Ideally, I never think of the writer at all when I’m reading a story. I want to sink into the world and not surface again until I’m done reading. And speaking from the author’s voice ruins that. Example from the book, a section starts with “We have toured the sock-shape that is Chester’s Mill and arrived back at Route 119. And, thanks to the magic of narration, not an an instant has passed since …” I can like the occasional omniscient narrator, but mentioning the “magic of narration” is a worthless gimmick that he only gets away with because he’s Stephen King, He Who Shall Not Be Edited.

Though I’d recommend the book overall, there are definitely slow patches. At least 150 pages could be cut from the middle without harming the story. But it starts with a bang, and ends with a bang, so if you can power through that mid-book slump, I think you’ll enjoy it. And, though the ending section has lots going on, the actual manner in which it resolves wasn’t all that satisfying.

SPOILERS

Okay, so there are a couple spoiler-based things I’d like to complain about in this book.

1. The technical flub I referenced earlier. When the barrier pops into place, it’s not just above ground, but slices down below at least 50 feet (as far as they try to dig). This means that it severs any kind of utility lines laid within the ground. Electricity and phone services are cut off, which makes sense, but they still have internet access. Mr. King justifies this simply by calling it WiFi. Now, I realize there are forms of internet access that pass data via satellite, but those are very rare and very expensive. And are not called WiFi. Likewise, you can run a cell phone WiFi hotspot, but neither of these seem to be what King was referring to. Maybe he doesn’t have WiFi at home, but your standard WiFi is only wireless in the sense that your computer is untethered. The computer is sending signals to your wireless router, which then sends signals through your wall through your cable jack or phone line–both of which would’ve been severed. The plot never hinged upon having the internet available, so it would’ve been easy to just remove it.

2. The ending was rather weak. Like I said earlier, almost nobody is really interested in trying to figure out what put the dome in place or how to take it down. A long way into the story someone does find the generator, a little bit of alien technology sitting on the tallest hill in town. Touching it connects you telepathically with alien lifeforms who have apparently put the barrier in place just as a form of entertainment. The device is immovable, and putting a lead shield over it just melts the lead shield. When they realize that neither of these things work, they just give up and don’t try anything else until the very end of the book. Me, I’d be blasting it with dynamite, pouring acid on it, placing a lead shield at a distance without touching it to the device, etc… At the end, everything takes a turn for the worse, fires run rampant, and the fresh air is very limited. Almost everyone dies. (I’m happy to say that one dog actually survives! King seems to have a vendetta against dogs, they never survive in one piece, except for this one). As a desparate last ditch effort, a few of the characters go back to the device and they beg for their lives to the aliens. And the aliens lift the barrier and then the book is pretty much over. Seriously? No one thought of that before? Why wait until almost everyone is dead? It seemed to me that he just got to the end of what he’d planned and said “oh shit, how do I get them out of this now?” and wrote it on the fly.

Review: Redstone Science Fiction #1

written by Frank Dutkiewicz

Welcome to the first issue of Redstone Science Fiction. Thanks for dropping byâ€.

Thus opens the newest pro-market, SFWA wannabe, magazine to hit the speculative market scene. It is the brainchild of Michael Ray (previously interviewed here on Diabolical Plots) and Paul Clemmons. Mr Ray has been waging an ambitious ‘get out the word’ campaign for his project. He has used facebook, blogs, emails, and my favorite writers workshop, hatrack, to alert as many lovers of speculative fiction of its coming arrival and to solicit material for its pages. Like a wise man bearing gifts from the east, I followed the newest star shining in the skyâ€.and I wasn’t alone.

They received over 200 submissions for their first call, including one of mine. As of May 11th, they accepted 10 of them for publication (not one of mine), with one they were on the bubble on. Since that time, they have re-opened and re-closed for submissions, its editors choosing to stick to a strict reading schedule.

Their debut issue has two of their earliest acceptances, as well as a couple of essays and a few interviews.

The Fiction

Raising Tom Chambers by Daniel Powell

Penelope Crump may be the last person alive on Earth. A devastating plague has wiped out the human population, leaving Penelope to fend for herself. Surviving a plague is one thing, overcoming loneliness is quite another. The Astras, little parasitic aliens brought back from Mars, are affected by their host’s sudden disappearance. Penelope is learning that even when you’re the only one left, you needn’t be alone.

Raising Tom Chambers follows Penelope’s life after she awakes from a disease that claims most of humanity. Doing her best to keep on, the last of the Astras find her. They need humans to survive. Penelope tries to stay indoors until the winter cold takes the last of them but one manages to latch onto her ribcage. At first she tries to pry it off, then does her best to get used to it. Like a lapdog that is always at its master’s side, Penelope becomes attached to the parasite that won’t let go. She names it Tom Chambers (long story) and the two live out the rest of their lives as the remaining members of their species.

The first third of Raising Tom Chambers was all back-story. We learn of who Penelope is, and of the couple of people she met, before they keeled over. The info of what the Astras are gets crowbar in, mid-stream. We discover that they were brought home on the second to last manned trip to Mars in 2013 (How did I miss the first mission?), and like a lamprey eel, they need a host to survive, but instead of fish, human is the limit of their diet (How’d they survive on Mars?). Which leaves for some mighty big holes in the premise.

The story is told from a very distant perspective, as if Penelope’s life is being examined through a TV news magazine profile. It is more of a fictional op-ed than it is a fictional life experience. The portion involving the Astra parasite is glossed over and Penelope’s life with Tom is compressed. More was said on how the Martian got its name than the effect it had on Penelope.

I believe I recalled reading that Raising Tom Chambers was the first story the entire staff of Redstone agreed upon. Fortunately for Mr Daniels, I am not a member of the editorial committee. It is obvious that they weren’t concerned about opening with an upbeat tale for their launch.

I love Sci-Fi, and eat up post-apocalyptic tales like they’re potato chips, but this story I found depressing with a capital D. Even though Raising Tom Chambers is about mankind’s last survivor, I can’t classify it as a dark tale. I believe gray is the right shade for it.

Freefall by Peter Roberts

How long is forever? A crewmember of a shattered ship would love to know the answer. Locked in an isolation chamber from an injury, she is adrift in space, waiting for an unlikely rescue, the chamber’s power to fail, or the end of the timeâ€whichever comes first.

Freefall starts off with a nameless character in the midst of insanity. She doesn’t know where she is or what has happened to her. Forced by immobility, she pieces together her sanity and the events that led her to her horrifying predicament. The chamber in which she is in allows her mind to be functional but nothing else, the equivalent of experiencing a complete paralysis with a fully conscience mind.

Freefall is good sci-fi. It presents a potential future problem that a modern person can identify with. Although I liked the idea, there were a few things that bugged me.

I didn’t understand the voices. No explanation was provided and I failed to see how she was able to hear them. I didn’t get why the MC didn’t have a name either. Author’s discretion, I suppose.

Freefall is a good example of how to write a story in so few words. Nice piece.

Essays

The Future Imperfect by Sarah Einstein

The world is changing. Technology has changed it in ways that would make it seem alien to our grandparents. Phones that aren’t secured to a wall but instead are as mobile as their owners. A device that can get us anywhere we desire, saving us the trouble of asking for directions or figuring out to refold a map the right way. Technology has made things easier for us, but does it attempt to make it better? How about the unlucky of us that are disabled? What if technology chose to exploit the imperfect of society instead of the imperfect exploiting technology?

Sarah Einstein examined this possibility while listening to Anne McCafferty’s masterpiece The Ship Who Sang. For those that are unfamiliar with it, society has decided to use the healthy minds of damaged people to make things better for the rest of us. The very notion bothered Ms Einstein, concerned that Ms McCafferty’s novel may be a foretelling of things to come.

Sarah’s deep thoughts on the subject set up Redstone’s first contest, The Future Imperfect. The editors seek submissions that deal with futures that incorporate the disabled. The criteria for the contest appears to be wide open, but it needs to about the handicap (a future disability would be welcomed, I believe).

The crux of Sarah’s concern (I’m guessing here) is the disabled are still shunned. Technological improvements in many fields leap forward, but any real advancements that help the ones in need, seem to crawl. That frustration is compounded when you have a loved one that suffers with an infliction. We land a man on the moon and bring him back safely, why can’t we make people whole again? Tweak this apparent insensitivity with a ‘sacrifice the few for the benefit of many’ philosophy and a future like McCafferty’s becomes a reality. Interesting thought, but highly unlikely.

Technology goes where the money is. Ipod’s sell well, and are improved constantly, because everyone wants one. A wheelchair lift for a car with a low gas mileage? Sorry, not a big market.

Truth is society hasn’t the stomach to inflict needless pain on another. Keep their inflictions hidden and ignore it, sure. The reason is the disable make the healthy uncomfortable. We see a blind man being led by a seeing eye dog and say ‘but from the grace of god go I’.

I submit that mankind would bend over backward for the disabled, if we thought we could end their affliction for good. If an elixir were presented that could make every person whole, but for a price, we would collectively break out our checkbooks and ask ‘how much’? However, if told we could all ride for free, and we would never need to burn an ounce of fossil fuel again, as long as we were willing to harvest the brains of a few of the lame, we would all say ‘No thanks, we’ll walk’.

Nevertheless, I do like the premise of the upcoming contest. Can’t wait to see what wins.

Barsoom or Bust! by Henry Cribbs

Quick! Name the first person to go to Mars. Times up! John Carter, confederate soldier transported to the planet in Edgar Rice Burroughs very first novel, A Princess of Mars.

Barsoom, for those who are unaware that Mr Burroughs wrote something other than Tarzan, is what his fiction characters call their world in his Martian Tales series. It was created almost a century ago and is on the way to becoming Pixar’s next big project. Which should make fans of the series excited, until they see how Hollywood butchers the story.

Henry Cribbs points out that fact, and I can’t help but agree with him. Burroughs collective works, in the early 20th century, would likely be a tough sell if written today. They’re filled with gratuitous violence and had characters with a chauvinistic spin. Burroughs is likely the master of the popular literary style, pulp. Young males love reading it but don’t expect accolades from the critics of today.

The influence that E G Burroughs has on the speculative fiction genres cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the first to create an entirely new world to support his tales, complete with its own geography, culture, and unique life. He may be the first author who had readers that couldn’t wait to get their hands on the next book. Carl Sagan admitted his love for the series, perhaps sparking a love with a greater universe.

Mr Cribbs has every right to be nervous about Hollywood interpretation of the late Burroughs classic. It could be they do it justice, as they did Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but I doubt it. I do know if Pixar is handling the project, we will likely get something worth watching.

Interviews

An Interview with Lou Anders by David Alastair Hayden

There are plenty of people in every industry that rise to the top. They have an inside track of trends, and set the standard for everyone else. Than there is the person those people look up to. I wouldn’t know who that person is in the speculative fiction market, but I’d bet Lou Anders would be a leading candidate for the position.

If your desire is to become an award-winning author, Lou Anders is likely one of the people you will need to deal with along the way. Mr Anders has a very impressive resume and is one of those saints that keep the speculative fiction market alive.

In Mr Hayden’s interview, Mr Anders speaks of the trends in speculative fiction market. I was impressed on how well he knows the authors of today and which ones are the leading writers in the offshoot genres of the industry. He speaks of what makes an anthology worth reading and what it takes to get a book ready for the bookshelf. Mr Anders wisely stresses the importance of a good cover artist. As one that found all my favorite artists trolling through the bookstores, great writers get you to buy more of their books, it takes a great cover to get you buy their first one.

I enjoyed reading about Lou Anders. Nice interview.

An Interview with Kittyhawk by Michael Ray

Kittyhawk is an artist. She does the cover for Redstone’s first issue. Michael Ray proudly introduces her and asks what she has been up to. Judging by her upcoming schedule, she is a very busy girl.

Interview with Joel Hardy by Michael Ray

Joel Hardy has a job that I wouldn’t mind trying out. As an independent contractor for NASA, he is one of the lucky that lends his talents to the International Space Station. Mr Hardy tells Redstone of the work he does for NASA and shares his thoughts on the future of space.

The Skinny

I commend Michael Ray and Paul Clemmons. To start up a new pro-paying market when so many publications are pulling up their stakes is music in the ears of the writer and reader in me. They really want Redstone to be a SFWA qualified magazine. I hope they get their wish. Speculative fiction is the richest literature out there, in my opinion. So much can be done when the realm of possibility has no limits.

For a magazine to make a mark on the industry, its content should leave a mark on the reader. I thought the essays and interviews in this debut issue were interesting and enjoyable. The two fictional pieces? Not so much. The flash fiction I thought was okay, but it was the short piece. It could be just a matter of taste but if others feel the way I do, Redstone could have a rough time building a readership.

Now I could stress how well I thought the essays and interviews were done but not a lot of people pick up Sci-Fi magazines for its non-fictional content. That’s like if Playboy dressed all the woman in muumuus, but made up for it with great articles.

I think, the opening story to the debut issue of the next major magazine should have been from an author of star power, or at least a story that stood out above all the rest. I mean Nebula consideration good. Granted, it is just my opinion. Perhaps Raising Tom Chambers is Redstone’s Marilyn Monroe, a real knockout. Maybe it’s just not my type. That still doesn’t dismiss the lack of fictional content. Redstone Issue # 1 had a total of 5000 words of Sci-Fi in it. Two stories, that’s it. It will need to, at least, double that amount. 4 stories each issue, minimum. A magazine meant to capture the imagination of readers should have half (or more) of its pages devoted to imaginative content. A fiction magazine needs fiction.

Redstone can be excused, partially, because they are a monthly publication. Money could be the issue as well. Easy for me to say that they should shell out more cash when I’m not the one paying the bills, but a magazine needs readers first. If a limited budget is the issue, I suggest they scale back their pay rates. I know the editors want their magazine to be a professionally paying one, but I am betting the quality of the submissions they receive won’t dip all that much if they lower their rate a penny or two a word. Build readership up first, then raise the rates. I would also recommend soliciting material from a known name in the industry. Don’t wait for one to submit to the magazine, ask if they would be willing to part with one of their gems. Plenty of successful authors with a fan base. Start at the top and work your way down. A novel excerpt might also help. Free advertising for a grateful publisher (you do know Lou Anders, after all.)

I hope Redstone takes off. I really did enjoy Henry Cribbs’ essay and David Hayden’s interview with Lou Anders. I wish I could tell you I enjoyed the fiction as much. A lot of ambitious projects like Redstone hit the floor running, eager to head to the front of the line in the speculative fiction race. Perhaps the editors thought it would be wise to stretch first.

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Frank Dutkiewicz is every bit as cute and cuddly as his picture suggests. He has nine storiesÂthat have been published.ÂHis first eightÂwere all flash fiction then he got wise and rode Dave’s coattailsÂand sold one to the upcoming Shadows of the Emerald City anthology. The chicks digÂFrank andÂcan’t keep their hands off him but hate his cold nose. Frank’s owner is a truck driver for a car hauling company. He travels all across the country and may have ran you off the road at one point. He has a lovely wife and two equally as lovely teenage daughters.

Review: Eight Against Reality

written by Frank Dutkiewicz

I’ve sold stories. Dave’s sold stories. A sizable portion of the people reading this blog have sold them as well. Everyone (don’t deny it if you have sold one) couldn’t have done it without help. A friend to give it a look, lend a helping hand, and tell you when you are off your rocker and to change that thing you thought was so clever when you wrote it.

Writers never go it alone. Stories are their babies, babies that have had more than one uncle or aunt to help bring it to maturity. Most writers belong to a critique group. Some are large with an open door policy to all that want to join (Critters, Hatrack), while others are exclusive (Codex).

Eight Against Reality is an anthology put together by a very exclusive writers group called Written in Blood. It’s eight members vowed to help each other through thick and thin. So confident are they with each other’s abilities that they all contributed a story for all of us to read.

Let’s just see how good this exclusive club of writers isâ€

The Eminence’s Match by Juliette Wade

Eminence Nekantor is a difficult man to please. If His Eminence isn’t happy, then no one will be happy, and His Eminence is rarely happy. Bureaucrats run from his fury. The house-servants cringe from his cruelty. An entire nation will suffer when His Eminence is on a rampage. The task of pleasing Nekantor, and suffer the brunt of his fury, falls upon his Imbati manservant, a job that proves difficult to fill.

Kurek, an experienced manservant, is the latest to fail. Now the Service Academy must ready another. The Director is set to send one of its top students, but Details Master Arkad believes Xinta is the only one capable of handling His Eminence’s extrinsic need for perfection. Xinta has proved to have trouble dealing with the abuse of the academy, but Arkad senses a quality in him that may be just what His Eminence has desired all along.

The Eminence’s Match is a tale of a powerful man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that has run amuck. It opens with the reader experiencing Nekantor tormenting his manservant, Kurek. Nekantor expects a level of perfection that any rational person would consider impossible. Trapped in his own sickness, Nekantor seeks to share his misery by making a game of breaking his Imbati manservants’ calm disposition.

The Service Academy is a school designed to teach young men to endure the abuse Grobal noblemen dish out on their manservants. The students must suffer through a gauntlet of physical abuse while a Grobal instructor verbally assaults them. The lessons taught within its walls would be considered felonious in any modern day western society. Xinta is a convincing timid and meek man-child that has been stripped of most of his pride so he will be able to live a life as a human punching bag.

The strength of this story is the characters. The tale is told from four separate points of view with most of it done through Nekantor and Xinta’s eyes. All the people are under an enormous amount of stress. From the start, the reader is led to believe that Nekantor is a spoiled man that is cruel only because it gives him pleasure, but he is in reality suffering from a mental illness that has him on the verge of rendering him incapacitated. The OCD that has consumed him is overwhelming, but not obvious from Nekantor’s perspective. In fact, Ms Wade did such a splendid job that the reader is able to piece together what is wrong with Nekantor without the character being aware of it himself.

The story done from Xinta’s eyes is equally as astounding. The academy challenges its students to defy the ‘turning the other cheek’ axiom they need to adhere to if they are to succeed. Ms Wade offers how such a character could rationalize enduring such an irrational task. I found him convincing and very likeable.

The Eminence’s Match is about insane people set in a crazy circumstance that is told so rational people can sympathize with it all. Juliette Wade managed an impossible task by bringing these people to life and making it all believable. I found the characters delightful and the story powerful, but like the theme of her story, all was not perfect. I have one complaint, and it is a big one.

The tale ended just as the really story was about to begin. The title and plot led me to believe that a titanic battle of wills was about to commence. The story from the first word to the last scene was written as a set up for a classic ‘unstoppable force vs the immovable object’ struggle. Instead, Ms Wade chose a different ending. The resolution was too simple and unsatisfying. I wanted, and expected, more.

The writing in The Eminence’s Match is first class. I loved Ms Wade’s style and her ability to bring her dysfunctional people to life. The story is fitting for an opening act for any best selling anthology.

Kip, Running by Genevieve Williams

Kip is a freerunner. She runs in a future Seattle that has grown tall and is connected with a complex mass-transit system. The races are run through the city’s skyline and the rules are simple; get to the finish line any way you can but you must do it on foot or by riding for free. Kip’s aim is to beat her rival, Narciso, and win the object of her affection in the process, Lily, Narciso’s girlfriend and freerunner groupie.

A freerunner race is a daring and dangerous game. The object of the race is to grab onto anything that moves to get you to the finish line, not unlike what modern day skateboarders do by grabbing the bumpers of passing cars, except this game has a 3-dimensional element to it with mass-transit lines running 80 stories above the ground. The racers give a whole new meaning to the concept of train jumping.

Kip, Running is a rollercoaster of a story. Kip glides through the tall skyline like a flying squirrel in a redwood forest. Following her run is an exciting adventure. Particularly enticing is the futuristic Seattle. The fast-paced city is very different from today, but not so different that it is alien to the reader. I could visualize Kip flying through its skyline, very well done.

Not as exciting is Kip’s obsession with Lily. Kip believes defeating her rival will win his girlfriend’s heart. It becomes the reason for her to risk her life, not the adrenaline surges of leaping from train to slidewalk hundreds of feet above an unseen street. Her obsession dulls the edge of a sharp adventure. It cheapened the thrill of the piece and made me less sympathetic for Kip. The sidebar story set up for a disappointing finish. I cannot remember an ending line that I disliked more. I would have preferred reading ‘The End’ in its place.

Despite my disappointment with the ending, I found Ms Williams’ story telling professionally well done. The writing is very solid and the visual narrative first class. I did enjoy 90% of Kip, Running and can see why it was chosen for this anthology.

The Lonely Heart by Aliette de Bodard

A thin street girl named Xia eyes a statue at Chen’s merchant stall. The girl is reminder of a life Chen escaped, but unlike Chen, Xia has fallen prey to a pimp. Powerless to help her, Chen returns home to the husband that rescued her ten years before and his mother. She tries to put the tormented child, and her pimp’s threatening words, out of her mind. Then Xia appears at her door. Chen is torn between looking out for her family’s best interest and the guilt of Xia’s empty life. But there is more to Xia than meets the eye. Chen has yet to learn how empty of life Xia is.

The Lonely Heart is a sad story that shifts unexpectedly to a creepy one. Chen is portrayed as one of the fortunate early in the story. She was lucky to survive the homeless existence of her youth to become a member of China’s lower middle-class. She is grateful to her husband for rescuing her. Ms Bodard does a masterful job of showing a life that most would find dismal as a blessing.

Xia has an effect on Chen immediately. Her presence tugs at Chen’s conscience. As the story progresses, Xia forces Chen to realize her role in her marriage, and why her husband rescued her long ago. The story would have been great if Ms Bodard would have stuck with this extraordinary theme, but she inserted a twist that I didn’t see coming. High marks for that.

I found The Lonely Heart special. A disguised horror that was so much more. Ms Bodard successfully created a character that is subtly filled with guilt. She set up a convincing past and a unique set of circumstances to make Chen’s choice believable. For anyone else, the price she paid at the end would be too high. Ms Bodard sold me that it wouldn’t be too high for Chen. Masterfully done.

The Flying Squids of Zondor: The Movie Script by Doug Sharp

Commandrix Dron and her valiant (and dense) crew of the Trigon have been saddled to play host to the female prince, and heir to the Tandori crown, Galina. To relieve her indignity of being relegated to a ‘whoremonger’, Dron spots a planet filled with flying squids to take her anger out on. The Planet Zondor is ruled by the giant squid Zondor the Fertile. The squids are a peaceful race (except for the second in command, Zondor 2). The primitive Zondor squids spot the Trigon approaching from deep space (no explanation how they were able to detect it), and do nothing.

Dron instructs her rocket crew to attack and floors it. Galina does her best to yank on the steering wheel (interstellar ships have steering wheels?). They crash on the planet, suffering only 60% casualties in the process. They proceed to attack the palace (the only structure on the planet) and that is when things get really weird.

The Flying Squids of Zondor: The Movie Script is more of a 20 minute skit than a movie script. If written, it would need a lot of actors. There of 17 speaking parts, 32 actually, considering MAN-16 is in fact 16 humans melded into one being. Reading it as a script is odd in itself. The narrative is preachy (just like a script), which made the story fast, as in a blur. Smooth prose was not an objective for this piece.

It is clear that Mr Sharp really wasn’t pitching the next great movie. The story is really a Sci-Fi satire. Well, more of a farce. I believe Mr Sharp was really writing a bit, but not one you would find on Saturday Night Live. I’m guessing Doug was going for more of a Monty Python flavor. The dialog, for example, was way over the top.

Treat Commandrix Den Dron like a whoremonger will you? Hump blatantly in my fearsome Trigon?

Record my vow: I shall wreak dreadful vengeance upon the Tandori crown.

The Flying Squids of Zondor: The Movie Script is simply silly. A silly premise filled with ridiculous characters. Some of the funniest comedies in history are controversial and misunderstood. The more over the top (Three Stooges, Family Guy, Cheech and Chong), the more diverse the opinions will be about them.

Writing funny stories in the fantasy/sci-fi genre is something I like to do, at least I think they’re funny when I write them. I bet Doug thought the same thing when he wrote this.

Humor is subjective, but when you are pushing the line on ridiculous, there is a point when the effort negates the humor. Kind of like when a horror movie goes way over on the gore and screaming women, it ceases to be scary to anyone.

I believe writing this as a movie script was a mistake. Sticking to the tried and true prose of a short story could have made this work. Some jokes need a set up, not much set up here. The Flying Squids of Zondor: The Movie Script is a story of punch lines, but no substance.

Spoiling Veena by Keyan Bowes

Shalini worked hard to make Veena’s birthday special and her best efforts are falling short. The snowfall she ordered became hail. The cake she bought was supposed to be a replica of the Snow Castle, instead they got America’s Congressional Capital. All Shalini wanted for her gender-manipulated daughter, was to make her princess happy. What will make Veena happy may be more change than Shalini expected.

Spoiling Veena is a tale of a parents desire to do what is best for their child. The story explores a future where gender tailoring is a possibility and how it affects the people around them. The author wisely sets the tale inside a future India, where old prejudices still linger in the progressively advancing society. Shalini’s generation is caught between her daughter’s ‘do what makes you happy’ philosophy and her mother’s ‘god intended people to be one way’ morals. The premise is a potential future problem, which makes for good Sci-Fi.

I liked the idea but I didn’t like the author’s decision to write it in a present tense format. The story is written over a time frame that covered a few months. I am not against the present tense style but it didn’t feel right for this one.

I found the ending fitting, one of those little twists that I like. Good idea. The story didn’t bowl me over but did make me think.

Man’s Best Enemy by Janice Hardy

The people of Atlanta, all 98 of them, are expecting this year to be one of the best in a long time, then one of their own falls to a juvie. News that the dogs are near is tragic. Hunters are needed to take it down. Shawna volunteers, but no one wants the doctor’s apprentice to go. Armed with only javelins, bringing down a juvie isn’t always easy. Juvies have a way of becoming adults, and if you aren’t careful, you may find yourself on the wrong end the food chain.

Man’s Best Enemy is set inside an Atlanta a generation removed from a devastating plague. Man’s best friend has become its vicious enemy. Searching for remnants of dwindling supplies is dangerous, but finding an undisturbed store may be worth the risk.

The dogs of Atlanta have grown and are now the top predator. The few people left are holding the downtown area, protecting their dwindling livestock in the abandoned stadiums, and doing their best to rebound in hopes of rebuilding a civilization. Shawna wants to become a hunter like her mother was and brother is. A fallen hunter, and her brother’s infection from a dog bite, has granted her a rare opportunity.

Man’s Best Enemy is hair-raising excitement. The young teens have become the front line defenders against a lion-sized enemy. The people of Atlanta are under siege and are holding the last bit of ground that isn’t overrun by packs of vicious maneaters. Ms Hardy has done a splendid job with this dystopia tale. I found the MC likeable and the Atlanta’s blight believable. I could see why they would be wary of using the last of their guns’ ammunition but found it odd they only brought javelins with them. Spears are easy to make and would do well against even a large dog. The tactics the young defenders used seemed foolish as well. Trying to outrun a predator is just plain suicide.

Although I could poke all kinds of holes in it, I still found Man’s Best Enemy a good story. I liked it.

Love, Blood and Octli by T. L. Morganfield

Ayomichi has found favor with a feathered serpent. Ehecatl is the wind god and gives Ayomichi a gift for her people, creating happiness for all. Ayomichi becomes priestess for her Ehecatl. She discovers that gods do have more than one side to them. Ayomichi and her people learn that gods are like strangers, and that you should be wary when they come bearing gifts.

Love, Blood, and Octli is a fable, a retelling of an Aztec myth. The story is told as Ayomichi grows from a small child to a leader of her tribe. Mankind is changed by Ehecatl’s gifts. Ehecatl himself changes as the story progresses. In the form of a snake, the god molts, and takes on a new personality when he does.

If you are one that can’t get enough of Aesop, than you’ll probably love Love, Blood, and Octli. The story does run a lot longer than a Greek fable and the moral isn’t as clear as the ones reflected in Aesop’s wisdom. In fact, I’m not all sure there is a moral in this tale. Never lose faith, perhaps?

I must say that I think it was a mistake sticking to the fable format. Yes, this was based on a myth, but it could have still been written in a style that was less like a religious lesson than a work of fictional entertainment. I think I would have enjoyed it more if it were.

Dancing by Numbers by Dario Ciriello

Lyra is a dedicated ballerina. She has been working on her focus, concentrating her whole being to find her center of balance, when she slips into another world and different Lyra. She has discovered a new reality, and realizes that she can repeat the process. Lyra becomes an explorer, an explorer of other Lyras. Her friends and workmates worry that she is losing it. When every decision that was ever made can spawn a new reality, losing it becomes just another possibility.

Dancing by Numbers is a new look at alternate universes. Dario Ciriello came up with a concept that makes it seem almost possible. Lyra One (as she comes to call herself) starts a trend. Once combined with her other selves, memories and thoughts become one. The brief visits spur her counterparts to make their own leaps. Lyra One becomes the pebble that starts a ripple in a sea of multi-able universes.

Mr Ciriello’s knowledge of history is a big plus. The universe of a Carthage victory I would have liked to know more about. Too bad he didn’t delve deeper into the different universes for us to learn more.

Alternate universe stories are like time travel ones. Questions that defy the premise arise for readers. For me, the story is too tight. I would have liked more of Lyra(s). The tale is crisp, but brief. I liked the idea and Mr Ciriello’s style, but the tale needed more story for me to fall into it.

Final Thoughts

I envy the Written in Blood writers group for their perseverance. I was once part of a group that attempted the same thing they did. We were about the same size with the same goal; get a group of emerging writers together and work for the benefit of all. Instead of equals that were eager to help each other, we devolved into something like a dysfunctional family sitting together for a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner. The group lasted less than a month. Three years later, Written in Blood is still going strong. Standing ovation for that feat.

Eight Against Reality is a risky endeavor. The separate styles in writing and shifting genres may turn some away. I love reading such anthologies but more than a few gravitate to collections that share a theme that interests them. The only theme to this collection is a shared history between the authors. However, if the only criteria that concerns you is the quality of the writing, then you have nothing to worry about.

I have yet to read an anthology with so many different authors where I liked all the stories. Eight Against Reality does not break that streak. However, rarely will you find the quality of writing this consistently high.

I found almost all the stories professionally done. Two were exceptional, in my opinion.

If you are looking for an example of a character driven story, study Aliette de Bodard’s The Lonely Heart. Ms Bodard took a character who lived a life that I could never envision, and brought her to life for me. Masterfully done.

Juliette Wade’s The Eminence’s Match was that and so much more. Yes, I was disappointed with the end, but only because I was not ready for it to end. Her characters, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt, made for a powerful reading experience. If I were granted the honor of nominating one story for a major award (Nebula, Hugo, Campbell), I would be placing The Eminence’s Match on my short list of ones to consider at the end of the year.

Eight Against Reality was a pleasure to read. I give this anthology of virtual unknowns a solid recommendation.

This is the gold award that Frank proudly displays in his home. Emery Huang threw it through his living room window after readingÂFrank’s review of Writers of the Future Vol 25. Frank now plans on reviewing Eugie Foster’s works so he can add a Nebula to his collection.

She & Him Concert

So, Heather and I went to a She & Him concert at First Avenue for our 6th wedding anniversary.

“Music?” I hear you say. “WTF? Since when does Diabolical Plots cover music?”

Well, hypothetical questioner, there is a tie-in (however tenuous) to our more typical material, which I’ll explain in a bit, so hold onto your horses. What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?

Anyhoo, if you’re not familiar with She & Him, then you’re missing out. The “She” in the band name is one of my favorite actresses, Zooey Deschanel. She’s been in more and more movies over the last few years, and I just can’t get enough of them. The first movie that I really noticed her in was “Elf”, the only Will Ferrell movie that I like. She really caught my ear in that movie with her “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” duet with Ferrell. She has an amazing voice with crystal clear tones that seem to linger in the air, and a style that I associate more with styles of previous decades, most notably the 1920s. It’s no surprise that other movie directors have taken advantage of her musical talent, so if you want a wider sample, check out “500 Days of Summer”, a great story about love which is not a love story–an amazing movie on many levels. And, of course, her character in the movie “Yes Man” (co-starring Jim Carrey) had her own band called Munchausen by Proxy (best band name ever), in which they had several original and very catchy songs with Zooey as the lead singer. Also, for those of you who are programming geeks like myself, IMDB reports that she is scheduled to play Ada Lovelace (generally considered the person to write the very first computer program) in an upcoming movie.

“So…” you say. “Where’s that tie-in you were talking about?” Okay, okay. Well, Zooey is no stranger to speculative fiction movies. Elf is one, with its Christmas elves and Santa Claus. But, of more traditional SF, she played the role of Trillian in the 2005 movie adaptation of the late, great Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And she also played DG (the Dorothy Gale analog) in the Sci Fi original Tin Man, one of the few Sci Fi originals that’re worth the time to watch (yes I know they call themselves SyFy but I die a little each time I use their official name). Oz is one of my favorite fictional worlds of all time, and my very first publication (The Utility of Love) was a horror retelling of The Wizard of Oz, so I was delighted to see Zooey in the lead role of the Sci Fi miniseries. I would really love to interview her for Diabolical Plots, and movies like that give me ample excuses to do so (If I didn’t have such excuses, I would still want to do an interview anyway because she is simply awesome). The trouble is, Hollywood people are rather hard to reach, for obvious reasons, and I have no idea how to go about it. So, while I try to figure that out, in the meantime I’m posting this article. If anyone has any ideas about how to initiate such contact, feel free to post a comment. Writers and editors tend to be much easier to find, because their careers depend on self-promotion, getting the news out about their next big book, so most have a Facebook or Livejournal account which can field messages. Actresses are much harder to reach, of course–I have found a Zooey Deschanel on Facebook but I seriously doubt it is the Real McCoy.

So anyway, like I was saying, She & Him has released two CD’s so far, cleverly named Volume One and Volume Two. We picked up Volume One pretty much the moment that we first heard that Zooey had a band, and loved it enough that the purchase of Volume Two was a foregone conclusion. The “Him” of the band’s name is M. Ward, another very worthy talent, who plays guitar for the band and also sings vocals for some of the songs (though not nearly as many as Zooey). The CDs include some familiar songs (like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot) but are mostly original music, generally with a catchy beat, often about love or breakups. My favorite from these two CDs is “I’ll Get Along Without You Now”, a story of a recently ended romance. But my favorite lyric is from “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today”: I somehow see what’s beautiful in things that are ephemeral. The lyrics are well-written, the melodies stick in my head all day, and Zooey’s amazing voice takes these great components and turns them into one marvelous whole.

Back to the concert. Unfortunately, Heather had to work late that day, so we weren’t in line at the door when they opened up. This is a bit of a pain at First Ave because there are only a few actual seats (which we were way too late for), the rest is standing room. So we had to stand, though we found a place where we had a decent vantage point.

The opening band was The Chapin Sisters, a duo who were working double-duty as She & Him’s backup singers. They were… okay. We like their backup singing, (to the extent that Heather’s considering a complete career change to audition for a position as back-up singer for She & Him), but they didn’t wow me as their own group. I think this was largely due to two factors:
1. The sound levels weren’t very well adjusted for this portion of the concert. As a result, one of the two sisters was so loud that she was both borderline painful to the ears and also nearly impossible to understand.
2. Of the lyrics that I could understand, the songs didn’t really catch my interest that much. The one that I do remember involved sitting in the dusty branches of a palm tree, which didn’t really make sense and simultaneously wasn’t an intriguing fiction.

Often I complain when bands talk too much, to the point that they just seem more interested in ranting and pushing their own agendas–usually long monologues about the general desirability of living in a constant muddled drug haze. Or, in the case of Rufus Wainwright, long long inflammatory political rants, occasionally interrupted by him “performing” his music, which he both managed to forget the words to, and also sang quite off key.

She & Him was on the opposite end of the spectrum, to the point that they barely spoke at all, generally flowing from one song into the next without a pause for breath. They stopped two or three times just for a moment to ask how we were doing and to let us know they were having a good time, once for Zooey to ask people to turn off the flashes on their camera, and once to ask one particularly obstinate individual to PLEASE turn his flash off who didn’t listen the first time. They introduced the band members only at the very end, with simply a listing of their names and no further elaboration.  The upside of this is that there was a lot of music packed into not much time. The downside was that I would’ve actually liked to hear them talk about themselves, to hear some more from Zooey, and to hear anything at all about M. Ward about whom I know almost nothing. He is Ferb to Zooey’s Phineas, almost entirely silent to the other half of the more vocal duo (if you don’t get that reference you need to watch more cartoons).

They were fun to watch, and they performed everything very closely to how it sounds on the album, which is always a plus for those who, like me, like to sing along. I have no complaints about the concert, they provided a great night of music. Check out their CDs and catch their concert the next time they come through town.

Bull Spec #1 Review

written by Frank Dutkiewicz

Bull Spec is the newest pro-paying magazine to hit the speculative fiction bookstore shelves. It is the brainchild of Durham, North Carolina’s favorite son, Samuel Montgomery-Blinn. Sam has an ambitious plan for his magazine; display the best North Carolina has to offer, showcase all that is new and relevant in the world of speculative fiction, and become the next SFWA qualifying magazine.

Sam was kind enough to send me his first copy to find out what I thought. At 72 pages, there wasn’t a shortage of things for me to comment on.

Rise Up by C S Fuqua

Life took a turn for the better the day Bobby walked into Sharps & Flats. Not only did he find a jewel of a music store but he also found Wynne, the love of his life and missing piece to his band. True, the old lady who owned the store was a bit odd, speaking nonsense on how music had power and was a conduit to the spirit world, but she did know her music. With Wynne’s help, Bobby’s band found new heights. A drive to meet a record executive brought it all to halt.

When he pulled Wynne’s lifeless body from the twisted car, Bobby thought his world just ended. The old lady said he had the power in him, a power over life and death. Bobby had no idea that the line between life and death wouldn’t be so clear.

C S Fuqua employed a tactic that I am finding more common these days. Open your story with the most dramatic part of your story then flashback to show the events that led up to it, risky and difficult to pull off. It almost didn’t work, almost.

Rise Up opened with a car crash (which was done well). After the dynamic opening, half of the story became a build up to the crash. The flashback, I thought, was slow developing and my interest waned. The story had a familiar tone to it and I believed I could see where it was heading from a mile away. Mr. Fuqua proved that I wasn’t a bright as I thought I was.

Good horror (which is what I believe this is) isn’t about gore but about the unexpected, and I admit I didn’t expect where Rise Up ended up. C S Fuqua is a master of prose. I found his writing crisp, filled with details that make a story come to life. But for my tastes, Rise Up wasn’t all that grand. The characters weren’t all that interesting and their story wasn’t that deep. For a large section I found the story dull and wondered if the payoff for sticking with it would be worth it. I am happy to say it was.

Rise Up is a solid but thin story. The writing is worthy of a professional publication. Not too bad for an opening to the magazines first publication.

Almost A Good Day To Go Outside by Peter Wood

Ricardo has brought home the latest fad for his family to enjoy, a TV. Just in time to catch the 1950’s programming that is just now reaching the terraforming colonist. The TV is a distraction for Ricardo’s cabin-fevered family. The entire population of the colony is confined into a single mammoth structure called the hive. The terraforming is taking longer than anticipated and depression is setting in. Daily routine with no place to go is having an adverse effect, one that is tearing Ricardo’s family apart.

Imagine working in a large factory, raising your family inside its walls, and never being able to leave. Peter Wood effectively showed a small slice of such a problem. In Almost A Good Day To Go Outside we also see the flipside of the problem. On a planet light-years from Earth, workers can’t be replaced, no matter how badly they do their jobs.

Almost A Good Day To Go Outside is a good Sci-Fi story. I liked the dilemma presented and the solution at the end. It was an idea I’d imagine the great writers of the 70’s would think of, yet would be still relevant today. Although I thought the story lacked a depth of detail and settings that C S Fuqua so eloquently provided, it had a quick pace with characters I could relate to.

I enjoyed reading this one.

Doctor Adderson’s Lens by Natania Barron
(reprinted from Gatehouse Gazette)

It was not unusual for Dellacarta to be summoned by her employer, Dr Adderson, even if it was by her reanimated zombie brother, Anton. She is used to the unusual and strange as an aide to the brilliant doctor, or she thought she was. One look through his latest invention, a monocle that grants sight of an unseen realm, and she realized that there is more to fear than an undead brother.

I classify this one as something that came out of left field. Steampunk stories can be strange but Doctor Adderson’s Lens has to be one of the oddest stories that I have ever read. Ms Barron effectively made reanimated corpses as servants seem normal. The unseen bird/parasites were an abrupt turn in an odd piece. The style of writing a story as a past tense recollection I found distracting.

Doctor Adderson’s Lens is not my type of story but I can see how many would love it. I found the plot a bit compressed but it did amuse me.

A Gathering of Doorways by Michael Jasper
(novel excerpt)

We get a glimpse of Mr. Jasper’s prologue and first chapter in his latest novel. The prologue is a recollection of dream Gil has of a place called the ‘Undercity’. We learn of his wife plus one family, and a real life problem with polluted water on their farm. Much of the prologue is devoted to his dream of the Undercity, which looks like any old, normal city, but for reasons unknown, the dream keeps him awake most nights.

In the first chapter, Gil is looking for his recently missing son, Noah. He is joined in the search by his neighbor Ray and his dog. Both men are disabled and there is an underlying fear of the forest that young Noah has wandered into.

I found the prologue to be unclear. It didn’t build a curiosity about Gil, his problem, or about the mysterious ‘Undercity’. The first chapter was more relevant but the flashback, which couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before the opening dilemma, and the unexplained mysteries of the forest, polluted water, and Undercity, left me more lost than intrigued. Gil’s bad hip, judgmental wife, and dark reference to a shovel and a squatter, wasn’t enough for me to want to know more.

When shopping for a novel, I like to read a sample of the book, especially when the author is new to me. The sample Bull Spec provided should be a perfect length to draw a conclusion. May I suggested to future authors, that take advantage of the mutually beneficial service, that you need not present the beginning of the novel, just an early portion. I suspect a better scene to hook potential readers could be found in a later chapter for A Gathering of Doorways.

The excerpt should be enough for readers to get a feel for Mr. Jaspers writing. Not for me, but judging by the reviews that he had for the entire novel, I’m sure more than a few readers will want a closer look.

Closed System Part One: The Author of Time by Mike Gallagher
(comic strip)

The hero of Mr. Gallagher’s work is Cambridge University’s chosen time traveler. He is traveling back in his flying ape-headed time machine to ‘document false historical facts’ as one of his tasks, which he finds many of, as well as few faux pas the got by the author (potatoes in the middle ages, George Washington at the signing of the Declaration of Independence).

The art of the strip is done well, and the story he created is fitting for a comic strip. I am sure a few readers would be interested in the ongoing adventures of the traveler.

D Harlan Wilson an interview and review of his works.

Huh?

It was the first word a writer used in his review of Wilson’s novel Peckinpah, and a word that summed up my thoughts of the first half of Bull Spec’s interview with Mr. Wilson.

In Sam Montgomery-Blinn’s in depth interview, we learn that his latest novel has been long-listed for a Bram Stroker award, that he has sold many other works of fiction, is regarded as a respected literary critic and analyst, has a masters in SF studies (who knew that existed), and has a PH.D devoted to a genre that he admits ‘â€academia still consider(s) (SF literature and scholarships) as trash, detritus of the literary ghetto‒

Quite an impressive resume, which proves the point that just because I never heard of him, doesn’t mean he isn’t important.

In Mr. Blinn’s lengthy review of D Harlan’s Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction we get a glimpse of his critiquing talents as well as his opinions on the direction of Science Fiction as well as how it relates to the attitudes of today’s society. Mr. Blinn’s sums up D Harlan’s theme with his quote “the universe of consumer-capitalism is an illusory prison from which there is no escape,despite the fact that it is illusory” and delves deeper into his description of Sci-Fi’s tendencies toward “technocapitalist” futures, a dark and dreary existence for man, one where “free will is fiction”.

In J. David Osbourne’s review of Mr. Wilson’s Peckinpah: An Ultraviolent Romance, we get a view of D Harlan’s fictional prowess. By Mr. Osbourne’s brief analysis, the novel sounds every bit as bloody as the title suggests. J. David summarizes it to be a “â€satirical meta mash up of microfiction and microcriticism into something that maybe resembles a novel,

Both reviewers thought highly of the novels, as did the editors of D Harlan Wilson in the interview. They know him better than I, but unfortunately (like most first time readers to Bull Spec) I base all my impressions on what I have read in these few pages.

Mr. Wilson comes off as a bright but bitter man. He sounds as ostentatious as his lengthy book titles, and as sure of his opinions as the blunt messages in them (the titles). Of course, good critics aren’t afraid to share their opinions, and D Harlan is all too happy to share what he thinks.

He used his boyhood town of Celina, OH as a template for his fictional novel, a place he admitted he “hated’. He sums up his time at Michigan State University as a “sh*t experience” while earning his PH.D, describing the program as “â€full of glitches ranging from structural disorderliness to crummy and/or meatheaded faculty.” The critic Mr. Wilson also commented on his contemporary, Stephen King. Admitting that he respected him — not for his writing, but for the fact he got rich writing it.

D Harlan’s dour outlook on society and mankind’s fate really comes through on his criticisms of Science Fiction over the past few decades, especially in the art of film. He focuses on the darkest of works, choosing to stick with the Blade Runner blueprint of a dire future, one’s that examine the depressing eventualities where technology and human physiology merge in a parasitic relationship (and it’s unsure which is the parasite). He concludes the evolution of SF and mankind’s fate is likely to head toward a future of “no choice but to live as a technopathological extension of the machine.” Mr. Wilson comes to these conclusions by saying capitalistic technologies shape SF ‘for “unrelenting socioeconomic ends” in an increasingly violent, self-perpetuating cycle of production and consumption.’

While reading Sam’s interview and the two reviews of D Harlan’s fictional work and analytical critique, I couldn’t help to think ‘this guy is overeducated and probably hasn’t held a real job in his life’. Noticing how he used the word ‘capitalism’ as if it were a curse word only solidified my first impression. Mr. Wilson’s bases his conclusions on an assumption of capitalistic societies are evil and counter productive to mankind, as an accepted universal truth.

Mr. Wilson furthers his conclusions of Science Fiction reflecting the cynical nature of man eventual demise through a symbiotic relationship with technology, fueled by a capitalistic engine, by examining the darkest of SF works such as A Clockwork Orange, Fire on the Mountain, and Army of Darkness. While looking on how a world would come about in the Matrix trilogy.

His works of fiction also reflect his cynical attitudes. He is proud of his works but finds them difficult to classify, describing his style as “creative freedom in narrative catastrophe,albeit catastrophe with order and purpose.” His latest accomplishments are of trilogy he calls “Scikungfi” (good grief), a story of a time jumping man that knows kung fu. His Peckinpah novel is filled with what the reviewer described as “hyperviolence”. His novels follow the same path as the ones he gravitates to in his critical analysis, reflecting the worst of human nature. All of which makes for some very depressing reading, which brings me to my own theory on how a bright mind could have such a bleak outlook and reflect it in his writings and criticisms.

D Harlan Wilson admitted he didn’t discover Science Fiction until his early twenties, when he was already hip deep in academic studies at a high-pressured Masters program. That time of life is usually the most cynical in a person’s life. The world seems to be against you and people in power appear to be interested in their own ends instead of working toward the good of the people. Most Sci-Fi and fantasy genre fans first discover the genre at an earlier age, mid to early teens. It is a time when the world looks bright; full of hope and opportunity. Most readers look for the type of entertainment that fits their ideal outlook. What you first fall in love with is what tends to stick with you.

It is the reason why the Star Trek phenomenon has such legs (a fictional work Mr. Wilson ignored). It is an idealistic future, one that shows a promising future without limits. Most works of SF I read followed this theme. Granted, I don’t read as much SF novels as I used to, but most of the mountain of short stories I’ve sample over the past couple of years has stayed true to this future of hope.

D Harlan Wilson may be correct of the future of SF and mankind but I tend to doubt it. Humans are not inheritably evil beings that are after their own narrow interests, nor are they sheep that will accept techno-attachments so willingly, as a decree from the powers that be. Capitalism is not an engine that is out to control and subvert man. Corporations need customers. Zombies make lousy consumers.

Any person that becomes a parent realizes that a future is important. As long as children grace our lives, I choose to see man’s future as a promising one, and most SF will continue to reflect that promise.

I wonder if D Harlan Wilson would buy my notion of a bright future? He better. Resistance is futile.

The Other Stuffâ€

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (as reviewed by Blue Tyson) is a novel set in a future where most of Earth’s oil reserves have been exhausted. Set around Bangkok, much of the power generated is done so by the kinetic energy from human labor and genetically engineered animals. The novel is done from more than one perspective and brings to life a world that must deal with mutated animals and diseases brought upon by meddling with genetics. New political lines, old technologies, and fresh technological solutions for a power-starved world appear to be the draw of this novel.

Tyson’s review describes Bacigalupi’s novel as a dystopia, one that “leaves you uneasy the whole way through, but fascinated”. Mr. Tyson is so enamored with it that he gave it 5 stars, and believes that it will be important to the future of Sci-Fi. I can’t imagine a higher praise than that.

Panverse One edited by Dario Cireillo (as reviewed by Charles Tan) is an anthology with five original novellas. The theme is unclear but Mr. Tan does provide a small review for each story. I found the cover of the book fascinating and Charles leads me to believe the work within is fitting for it. He writes favorably of each story but reserves his highest praise for “Delusion’s Song” written by Alan Smale, proclaiming that it is deserving of an award.

Although short, Charles Tan’s review was the most convincing as a sales pitch. I just may buy myself a copy.

There are two poems in Bull Spec. Inspired by Windmills by Kaolin Imago Fire and Ratang by Ralan Conley.

As one not drawn to poetry I have little to offer. If I were to pick from the two I would choose Ratang for its humor.

In Sam Montgomery-Blinn’s interview of game developer, Lee Hammock, we learn of the creation and premise of one of the most anticipated RPG games of the year, Fallen Earth.

The premise of the game is set in the year 2156 in the Grand Canyon. It is a hundred years after a plague has wiped out 99.9% of life on Earth. The Shiva virus has mutant life. Players in the game are immune carriers that battle deadly monsters while escaping from a revolt of dictatorship that controls the Hoover Dam.

Mr. Hammock provides insight to what potential players may face in the game as well as the direction the designers are planning for future adaptations to the game as well as the collaborative process involved in creating the game.

The conversation between Sam and Lee changes to Lee’s earlier RPG games and to his contributions to the graphic novels of the Halo RPG. Mr. Hammock speaks highly of his writing team as well as rubbing elbows with his colleagues, even showing a little envy for a successful competitorâ€

“â€you’re going for a burrito, why are you driving the Lamborghini? That’s just rubbing our noses in it!”

If only I could face such problems.

I am not one to play computer RPG games. However, it would be naÃ’ ve to ignore their effect on today’s SF market. The shelves of the bookstores are filling with these fan-fic popular books. Lee Hammock, I imagine, is a person that fascinates many people. This interview should provide a glimpse many are after.

Sam also interviews the owner (Jennifer Bedell) and manager (Zachary Boyd) of SCI-FI GENRE COMICS AND GAMES. The store, located at 3125 Old Chapel Hill RD, Durham, NC, is set in an old warehouse. It is a haven for those that love the games, D&D games, and collectable game cards, like the Magic Gathering that have become popular.

The store boasts a sizeable staff that can provide you help that no ordinary department store can. The duo have a business plan that I hope keeps it alive for years to come. It sounds like a fun place to visit.

There is also one micro-flash story titled There Are No Orcs by Josh Whiton, short but sweet. It is translated into French and Spanish. Wouldn’t it be something if it were to become the Rosetta Stone for future generations?

If you are looking for variety in your Speculative Fiction, Bull Spec is the magazine for you. The stories cover a wide spectrum for fans of all types. The reviews and interviews follow the same pattern. I believe that is wise if the editors are looking for a wide audience. I did see one thing that linked them all together. All the stories, as well as the subject in the chief interview, were a shade on the darker side. Could be it was just a coincidence but I worry it could become common because of the prevailing tastes. Knowing that all the works of fiction carry that same theme would make them predictable over time.

Other than the slightly shaded theme, all the storytellers varied in quality and style. The differences were good and added to my enjoyment. However, the most thought provoking item in the magazine was D Harlan Wilson’s interview.

Of the three short stories I thought Rise Up was written the best but A Good Day To Go Outside I enjoyed the most. All the reviews I found helpful and I encourage Bull Spec to continue this service. I also appreciated the novel excerpt. Keep that up as well.

Sam Montgomery-Blinn’s interviews were well done. He asked relevant questions and steered the conversations on an engaging path, getting his subjects to relax, which made for a lot of information given freely. Quite a skill he has for this. Perhaps that microphone Sam is talking into on page 63 explains how he fine-tuned that skill.

I thought the artwork was well done, the announcements at the end informative, and the GUD ad fitting. The quality and set up of Bull Spec is worthy of any pro-magazine. However, for Bull Spec to become a SFWA it needs to stand out.

The cover art by Mike Gallagher is drawn well, a little too well. If Bull Spec is sitting on a long rack in a bookstore among a hundred of other magazines, I may assume it to be an American Art Review knock off. Although the old woman presenting a mandolin did fit the lead story it wouldn’t have been enough to capture my eye.

Bull Spec is full of variety but it isn’t set up that way. The first third is all stories, then all reviews and interviews from that point on. It is wise to place your lead story in the opening pages but the interviews, I thought, should have been mixed in with the fictional works. The readers that aren’t so inclined to read interviews may toss the magazine aside and remember Bull Spec to be thin in content because only the first 20 to 30 pages interested them.

Bull Spec did make for a nice read. Enjoyed all the stories, liked that they were spread across a variety of genres, appreciated the reviews, and was impressed by the interviews. What I would like to see from future issues would be more of a mixed format. Also there were four stories to enjoy but only two were original shorts and one of the four a novel excerpt. The interviews were nice but three was one too many. Lee Hammock and D Harlan Wilson were both worthy of headlining promotion, splitting them up onto separate issues might have been a better idea. One more original work of fiction and one less interview I think is the way to go, and it is that additional work of fiction I believe would put Bull Spec on the map.

The only thing the magazine needs to make it stand out is star power, a recognizable name on its cover. Without knowing the inner workings of running or editing a magazine (which may make me naÃ’ ve), the editors should reach out and offer a spot in its pages, even if it is sight unseen, to a big name in SF. It would be the magnet Bull Spec needs. True, C S Fuqua and Michael Jasper are not first time writers, but there are several well known attention grabbers that may be all to happy to showcase there work for a new audience. All it might take is contacting them or their agents. In fact, D Harlan Wilson may have been able to provide one of his short works for the magazine. I learned of who he was in the interview, what the reviewers thought of his two books, but aside from a brief excerpt in one of the reviews, I have no idea of what his writing was like.

All in all, I thought Sam and his staff did a fine job with their debut issue.

Look for Bull Spec to be gracing the shelves of your favorite bookstore, or you can order a print copy or PDF copy online. The PDF copy is available for “donate what you want”, and yes that includes $0 (but if you like it I hope you consider chipping in a few bucks). I recommend that you get yourself a copy.

Frank is a truck driver that pretends that he can write. He’s managed to fool a few publishers, with the latest being Strange, Weird, and Wonderful, where his story Playgel Riser will debut this summer. Frank has been driving for over twenty years without an accident or traffic ticket on his record. HeÂis able to boast this claim because ofÂhis professional attitude, skilled driving, and a really good lawyer.

Review–Cell by Stephen King

My verdict: Don’t bother. Flat characters, ridiculous plot points, terrible resolution.

Cell is one of King’s weakest books to date. The flaws of this book are different than his usual, so I’ll give him a credit for trying something different. Usually he spends the first three-fourths of a book giving character background before getting to the main plot of the book. This one was very short for him, at only 350 pages, and the action starts right away on page 2, but the characters in Cell are surprisingly lacking in defining features. Each of them is one-dimensional and none of them felt like real people to me.

In the first section, the crap really hits the fan. One moment, the world is going on as it always does, and the protagonist is complaining about inconsiderate people with cell phones, ignoring cashiers as they buy things and talk and their phones, and whatnot. The next moment everyone who’s talking on a cell phone… changes, basically going all zombie, attacking anything in sight with their teeth. And, of course, those people who didn’t happen to be on their cell phones tend to reach for cell phone and they’re changed as well. It’s an interesting idea to create a new source of zombies besides the usual curse or virus, but his message is just too transparent. In the author bio, he even points out that he doesn’t have a cell phone. As I was reading I was often distracted imagining the origin of the story–King in a department store waiting in the checkout line behind someone chatting away on their cell phone, and King thinks “You know what? I wish that person would turn into a flesh-eating zombie! Hey, that’s an idea for a book!”

I believe that a writer should be transparent while I’m reading his story. If I think about him, then he has failed. One thing that breaks this is overwrought prose like “Malden was just one more fucked-up town in the Unicel States of America, and now that country was out of service, off the hook, so sorry, please try your call again later.” That in the middle of an otherwise ordinary paragraph. That’s not the protagonist speaking, that’s the author trying to be clever.

And, seriously, I’ve really got to wonder what King has against dogs. I’ve read most of his books, and I do not believe I’ve read a single one that had a dog in it which was not killed or seriously injured. I mean, I realize that dogs, being man’s best friend, are an easy way to pull the emotional strings, but seriously! In this book, a dog dies right on page 2, and another one’s ear gets torn off by a zombie person another page later. A bit much for me already.

I stuck with it, though, hoping it would get better. About halfway through it finally strayed from just standard zombie-ism. I’ll save more details for after the spoiler warning below. But, even after that point, there were still no multi-dimensional characters. The only explanations given for the sudden change in people (now nicknamed the Pulse) is speculation by the characters which is presented as though it’s the truth even though it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. The “resolution” of the main thread is terribly done, tacked on as though he just got bored and just ran a random plot-resolution-generator to decide how to end it. Not only that, but the plot conflict, as presented in the story, would not have been resolved by this AT ALL! More on that later.

That’s about all I can say without giving major details away, so:

SPOILER WARNING!

Okay, so back to my complaints about the implausibility of what caused the Pulse. Along the way they meet a 12-year old prep school student named Jordan, who makes some guesses about what created the “phone-crazies” based on what he knows about computers. Theories are all well and good, but later in the book they keep expanding on these theories as though they’re the truth. He theorizes that the phones wiped the minds like an EMP wipes could wipe a hard drive. Someone even points out that brains don’t work like hard drives, which gets the response that hard drive work like brains because they’re designed after brains. Brains are not like hard drives. Yes, they store things, but that is where the similarity ends. Yet they keep on going on about how the Pulse has wiped their brains and their brains are trying to rebooting, even receiving “new programming” from the Pulse every night. Which I found really odd because no one actually seemed to be intentionally creating the Pulse. If there IS such a thing as an audible signal that can scramble your brain within the range of what a phone speaker can broadcast (and I don’t think there is) then it’s not going to happen by accident, and even if it did, there would be no “new programming” for it to impart. As the story goes on, the “phone-crazies” develop telepathy, telekinesis, and create a hive-mind all based on this “programming”. Then they start speculating that there is a “computer worm” that has infected the signal and is making the “phone-crazies” degrade, which makes no sense on so many levels, since they have no idea what the signal’s intent is, who sent it, and that it’s even vulnerable to a computer virus. The whole plot hinges on it, and it just doesn’t make any sense, nor does he really make any attempt to try to explain it.

Back to the flat characters, there are four main characters for about the first half of the book. Then one of them dies, which seemed like it was really supposed to tug on my heartstrings, but I just didn’t give a crap. Near the end, 3 new characters are introduced, then leave a page later. They come back a couple chapters later, and one of them sets in motion the plot resolution just before committing suicide to keep the “phone-crazies” from reading it in his mind. The other two have no effect on the plot, and a handful of lines between them.

What is this resolution, you ask? A bus full of explosives. I’m not kidding. Yes, they take out this worldwide newborn race of telepathic psychopathic altered humans with a single bus packed with explosives. They take out a single group of them, which may number about 8000, which is certainly a large number, but when you consider how widespread cell phone usage is across the world right now, it doesn’t accomplish a thing. But good for New England and it’s momentary respite from the zombie hordes.

But that’s not quite the end. Through the whole book Clay, the main protagonist, is looking for his son. And he finds him, but his mind has been partially wiped by a phone so that he is little more than an animal. He’s not violent, but he can’t talk, and about all he does is crap and eat. Back to the “programming” theory with the “worm”, they have theorized that the phone signal has changed, somehow, and therefore guess that it has a different “worm”. He guesses that maybe if he makes his son make a phone call again then he can infect him with the other signal and the other “worm” and then the two “worms” might balance each other out and allow the boy’s mind to “reboot” and become normal again. Even if he does become normal again, even if the hard drive theory is sound, he’s not going to have any of his memories! He’s going to be like an infant! And that’s assuming that another phone call doesn’t just make the damage worse! To me that’s like finding out that your friend has memory loss from brain damage caused by a heavy blow to the head, and to solve it you give him ANOTHER heavy blow to the head. It won’t help but it most likely will hurt. And hurt alot. And in the end we don’t even get to find out if his ridiculous plan works, because the book ends as he hands the phone to his boy.

Review–Writers of the Future XXV

written by Frank Dutkiewicz

It is astounding that a contest set up for amateur writers in the very narrow genres of fantasy and science fiction still thrives after 25 years. I bought that first edition, and many others that followed. This contest has spawned the careers of many of the writers you will see gracing the shelves of your favorite bookstore today. I could spend the time listing them but this review isn’t about the writers of past, but of the future.

Garden of Tian Zi by Emery Huang. First place fourth quarter and grand prize winner.

Tian Zi harvests the skins of genetically altered frogs, a key ingredient needed for the processors in the computers of the time. He is a member of the ‘Movement’, an organization that seeks to undermine the megacorps that rule the world. He is set in an isolated village in the dissolved Peoples Republic of China to set up shop. He enlists the aid of a local beggar girl, Khulan. Tian Zi plays a dangerous game. Harvesting and selling his valuable peptides for the benefit of all of mankind does not fit the corporate goals in charge.

Garden of Tian Zi is an inventive sci-fi set in an intriguing world. A world without governments and technology that is fairly unique is the pull of this story. Tian Zi is revealed later to be far more then a bio-electronic technologists as the opening suggests. His character started out like Eddie Albert’s ‘Oliver’ in Green Acres and evolved into a James Bond/Steve Austin superhero by the end. Khulan is the teenager street rat that Tian Zi becomes attached to. I believe her character was created to bring out Tian Zi’s softer side and show that he is human and not an unemotional robot.

I found the story easy to get through but the premise hard to buy. I thought the Movement’s plan to have one person grow and sell the skins, in a public fruit stand in a busy market, to be needlessly risky. Why not sell the frogs to the competition if they’re after ending a monopoly instead? Many of the twists in the story are sprung on the reader as the story progresses. Coupled with the jumps in time, the twists have a jarring effect. The story is constantly changing and the plot becomes more fantastic with each scene. Khulan has little impact in the plot, IMO. She is there only to provide the MC depth but lacks it herself. To me her character wasn’t much more than wallpaper except for the ending when her safety becomes the real goal of Tian Zi.

Garden of Tian Zi is a head-scratcher to me. I found more to dislike about it than I did to like.

Grade C

The Shadow Man by Donald Mead. First place second quarter

Jito Ota is the shadow man. He collects atomic shadows, the silhouettes of the victims frozen on the walls of Hiroshima at the moment of the blast, for a museum in late 1950’s Japan. He is doing this for closure. Closure for Jito, who lost his mother that day, and for the victims locked in time. The horrible event of 1945 did more than destroy a city, effects that Jito has yet to discover.

The Shadow Man is a delightfully creepy tale. Jito’s has a gift of hearing the shadows on the walls, still reliving the final moments of their lives before the bomb detonated. Jito’s quest to bring this museum to life forced him to make a pact with a mobster, a pact he is hoping to sever for good. The idea for this story is first class, an original concept that is fitting a classic Twilight Zone episode.

I can see why this tale captured a first place award. I was thoroughly consumed with it as I read it. But like some movies that I sat on the edge of my seat in the threater, the luster of this piece dulled as I thought about it the next day. I wanted more of the shadows and less of Jito dealing with a gangster. Although the main antagonist in the climactic scene was well done, I did find Jito’s resolution to his problem predictable.

Another problem I had with it was the final scene. I really liked what Mr. Mead had in mind but the scene was too brief for it to work effectively (I won’t elaborate so not to spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet).

This story was on the way to a top grade, however the rushed ending felt too forced. Still a wonderful piece.

Grade B+

Life of Steam by Gra Linnaea. Third place second quarter

Mendel is an Inquisitor for the Dominican Order. His job is to determine if the Babbage machines of competing planets are just simple computation tools or abominations to god’s creation. The planet Wood has one that far exceeds the churches rules. Mendel is conflicted. Fulfilling the Dominicans directive means ending a miracle of life.

A universe where planets are flat islands of rock embedded in the firmament of the sphere of heaven? Spiderships powered by steam? An orthodox religion that holds sway over entire worlds? Life of Steam is as an original concept that I have ever read. I love this author’s imagination and the incorporation of a sci-fi element into such a fantastic fantasy.

I liked this MC and the dilemma that he is confronted with. A previous conflict in his past boosted this story up a notch for me. The ending and resolution came off as a predictable and a bit flat, however. I don’t know why but somehow it felt as if this story deserved more. High marks on originality.

Grade A-

The Assignment of Runner ETI by Fiona Lehn. Third place first quarter

Runner ETI runs for her charity, ‘End Terminal Illness’. She competes with other worthy causes for the yearly government gift. Because of an ongoing war, funds are limited, so only one charity is awarded the generous prize each year. With such high stakes the race has become one that is a matter of life or death.

If you take the blueprint from the movie Running Man, set it in a world where the environment is devastated from misuse, implant the contestants with some technological enhancements, and you have The Assignment of Runner ETI. The first half of the story had some edge of the seat moments. With assassins along a treacherous route, and a world where a dying nature is lashing out in anger, the race becomes a wild ride for the reader. However, like Running Man, the plot changed from a dangerous race with high stakes to a story about an oppressive government distracting the masses with the race. In other words, the fun went out of it for me.

Much like running in a real marathon, The Assignment of Runner ETI started off as an energetic and exciting endeavor only to become long and exhausting by its end.

Grade B

The Candy Store by Heather McDougal. Second place fourth quarter

John is the sheriff of a gold rush town that is slowly dying from dwindling strikes. Over night, a candy store opens in the abandon hardware store. Shaky Jay knows something ain’t right about it. Mrs. Limerick wants John to send the new owners away. The townspeople and miners can’t get enough of the candy, though. For it is filled with something far more sweeter than sugar. John’s wife, Maddy, has an idea what makes the candy special. Protecting the people is the role of a sheriff, but how can an honest working candy merchant be a threat to anyone?

The Candy Store is slow developing. It took me a good while to realize that it wasn’t an alternate history I was reading but a fantasy. The characters are rich and John makes a swell MC. The magic in the story I found intriguing. But, I thought the story got thinner and predictable as it went along. I wasn’t quite sure what happened at the end.

Many of the characters in The Candy Store were written like old western support characters, moseying along about their day. The story flowed the same way for me. Consistent, just not very exciting.

Grade C+

Risqueman by Mike Wood. Second place second quarter.

Jenkin Morgan’s love of his life, Leonie Fenech, has created an algorithm that is destined to benefit mankind. Risqueman is a self-learning mathematical formula that determines an individuals risk assessment, a boost for insurance companies. The government buys the company that employs Leonie and assumes control of Risqueman. Leonie warns that selling the algorithm, instead of providing it for free to everyone, will have dire consequences for the entire world.

Stories that involve a mathematician as a hero, and an equation as a premise, are rare but fun, for someone like me. I didn’t find Risqueman all that fun, I’m afraid. The MC was a delightful character but the story was more about Leonie. She came off as a high-minded liberal, brilliant yet narrow in focus. So sure of her own clarity that she believes everything she thinks is a universal truth. Not very likeable at all. (reviewer note: I find high-minded conservatives just as detestable). The two flashbacks in the first half I found particularly jarring. Trying to piece together what was going on with Leonie was a struggle as well. I found the entire premise to this story to be a real stretch. Much of it depended on flimsy economical system as well as a government that was blind of the events unfolding, and of the cause and effect relation, to do anything about it.

The first half of Risqueman was not enjoyable for me. Leonie and Jenkin’s past was just not that interesting. The second half did pick up, enough for me to think favorably of it.

Grade B-

Gray Queen Homecoming by Scohn M. Zackman. Third quarter third place.

Soliste Louzon and his AI mate, Alissa are all that makes up the crew of the starship ‘Wander of this Sea of Stars’. The travelers have returned to the Sol system, eager to see what has happened to Earth after all these years. The reception they receive is an icy one. They are instructed to an orbit around Saturn’s moon of Titan. The two people that board their ship have revealed much since they have been away. The Solar system has no place for Alissa’s kind, but needs Soliste for it to survive.

The real story of Gray Queen Homecoming is the delightful interaction between Soliste and Alissa. Their telepathic connection, and long life together, made for one very good ‘Odd Couple’ sci-fi angle. I found the relationship between the two believable and enticing. The author’s ability to provide information on what happened before in the middle of a conversation is first class. Although I really did like the relationship of the two main characters, the story itself wasn’t as grand. Without providing too much information, the betrayal I could see coming from a mile away.

Gray Queen Homecoming is a solid story. My only complaint about it is the ending didn’t live up to such a finely crafted piece.

Grade B+

The Dizzy Bridge by Krista Hoeppner Leahy. Fourth quarter third place.

Brindisi is a stone worker hired by a small town to construct a bridge. Although the community needs him, many see him as a demon. Little Lin does not. Brindisi enjoys the excited young boys company and discovers that Lin’s happiness is important to him. A new visitor arrives in the town, an illusionist with an extraordinary act as a bird. Lin is taken with the illusionist. Brindisi’s past makes him suspicious of the illusionist but puts it aside for the impressionable Lin. The little boy forces Brindisi to examine his own prejudice when things go badly for the bird lady.

The Dizzy Bridge‘s plot relies heavily on a world filled with magic. Brindisi’s own magical powers I found intriguing. His mismatched arms (one of metal, the other wood) and fingers of different consistency, I loved visualizing. His gift is finding stones that have different purposes, very complicated magic. The bird lady’s act seemed more than simple illusions to me. The story, I feel, didn’t develop like I would have liked. It all centered around the illusionist when a deeper one was there with Brindisi.

This story was based in a world where the parameters of magic were unclear. It appeared to me that anything was possible. I couldn’t get grounded in the setting and the story didn’t appeal to me. Too bad because I could see promise with its main character.

Grade C+

Gone Black by Matthew S Rotundo

Sergeant Manny Gutierres has the worst job on Hargas base. He has the classified duty of empting the latrine for the lone Walphin prisoner in human space. The Walphin are aquatic aliens that are just as comfortable on land as they are in the water. The Intell officer in charge of the prisoner is attempting to communicate with it. To Manny, the walphin isn’t looking so well. The base that has gone black for secrecy, information on what is going on in the rest of the galaxy is light, which makes the base ripe for wild rumors. Manny’s honor is leaving him conflicted and it was his honor that got him assigned to his duty in the first place. On a base sitting on a powder keg, will he know what is right thing to do when it counts?

Gone Black is the type of story that I would have gravitated to in my youth with its alien/human conflict as a backdrop and thick layers of tension among the military personal under the surface. I think the name of the alien species is clever. Learning how violent they were, with the artist depiction (Luke Eidenschink) of it, really helped this piece. Manny is as likeable as can be. His dilemma, along with his moral character, is the driving force of this story. His past lends much to it.

I think this story is first class. The ending isâ€unexpected. I contemplated lowering my grade a mark because of it, but upon reflection I have decided not to. It caught me off guard, which is usually a plus for me, and is consistent with what Mr Rotundo was building.

Grade A-

The Reflection of Memory by C L Holland

A nameless girl awakes in the cold snow with amnesia. Kestrin, in the shape of a jackdaw, finds her and brings her back to his family’s hold. It is strange that she has no name, for names mean everything. Kestrin’s family is concerned for her and seek the help of their uncle, Yaphen. The wise uncle, who seems to have answers before questions are asked, does not know what to make of the nameless girl. There is one place that may be able to help her. The nameless girl is scared to find the answer, and terrified of her reflection.

Who says a clichÃ’ d opening is doomed to fail? The majority of the story is about discovering the identity of the mysterious MC. Most of Kestrin’s family have a gift of magic and use it to help her. For such a noble-privileged family, it was odd they would expel so much effort into helping, what could be easily assumed to be, a peasant girl lost in a medieval society. There is a point in the story in which the MC has a challenge with her reflection. This part was done extremely well. However, the rest of the story dragged. It was long and read even longer. I couldn’t help to wonder if half of it was even needed.

Aside from the one dynamic scene, I thought this story crawled. The characters weren’t all that compelling and the interaction between them felt uncomfortable. I recommend picking a point in the middle to start. You won’t be missing much if you do and the story will be more enjoyable if you did.

Grade C

After the Final Sunset, Again by Jordan Lapp. First place third quarter.

With another sunrise, the Phoenix is reborn. The fabled bird assumes the form of a human, compelled to make the world a bit better. As it rises from its ashes, it draws upon the experiences of the people that live in its apartment building so it can form its own personality. At the moment of her rebirth, the man in an adjoining apartment dies. Feeling deaths touch has left the Phoenix in fear. Keenly aware that her time is short, she takes extraordinary steps to lengthen her life.

After the Final Sunset, Again takes an old idea and made it original. We get a clear view of a being that is meant to live a life that spans hours and is supposed to accomplish more than what mere humans can do in years. The Phoenix’s unfortunate experience of feeling another’s death has scarred her and gives her a perspective about life any person could sympathize with. For one who is supposed to die at sunset, it inhibits her destiny. Although the majority of the story centers around one character, the addition of Father Baytilus helped bring the message of the piece out. He is the “guardian angel for (mankinds) guardian angel”.

I could rave about this story all day. Mr Lapp has tapped into what makes the Sci-fi and fantasy genre great, delving into a deeper meaning of man through a character that isn’t human. I found this story unique, gripping, compelling, and moving. From the title to the ending I could find no fault with it.

Grade A+

The Farthest Born by Gary Kloster

Nathan will do anything for his family. On the colony of Far London, he takes them on picnics, plays baseball with them, and takes on a full grown Tavi to save his daughter, Lilly, life; all from the safe confines of a space station light years away. The parents of the children of the colony assume the bodies of androids while they raise Earth’s first interstellar settlers. The ability of the adoptive parents to reach across light years instantly allows them to protect their children from the harsh world. Lord help them if the link is ever severed.

The opening scene to The Farthest Born was one of the most dynamic beginnings that I have ever read. If Mr Kloster decided to end it there, this story would have been great as it was. But he took it to the next level and wrote something grand. The twin perspectives of Nathan and Lilly were done well. I can imagine a novel or a whole series of stories done on Far London.

I really liked this story. Job well done.

Grade A

The Art

I would like to acknowledge two artist’s interpretations of the stories they were assigned.

Luke Eidenschink’s rendition of Gone Black helped me visualize the alien. He took a moment within Mr. Rotundo’s story and brought it to life. It was done just as I imagined it and, I thought, was the point of the story that deserved to be drawn. Mr. Eidenschink may have raised the grade of Gone Black a notch or two for me.

Ryan Behrens account of Life in Steam was a masterpiece. The detail in the background, and look of pain on the main characters face, is something that I would have loved to see in full color. It was beautiful.

A Tale of Two Tales (and the authors that wrote them)

I happened to watch the awards last year live. Well, kinda. The stream over the poor quality, shared network I was stuck with gave me a jumpy screen with an audio that rarely matched the video. The ribbon dancers were still on my screen, while the voice of some guy from NASA talked about all the cool stuff that I couldn’t see. Fortunately, it got worked out in time for me to watch the authors as they were presented their heavy looking pyramid shaped prizes. Two authors stuck out above the rest in my memory of the event, mostly because how they embraced their moment in the light.

Emery Huang appeared to me as if bounty hunters had to drag him to LA. He looked every bit the part of an amateur writer that just won the biggest event of the year — nervous, humbled, and unsure if it all is just a dream, one he would be waking up from in any minute.

Jordan Lapp, on the other hand, I remembered as comfortable. Almost as if he knew this day was coming all along. He looked calm and confident. His speech sounded prepared and practiced. The event — a dress rehearsal for bigger and better things down the road.

The two authors put me in mind of rookie batters stepping up to the plate in the majors for the first time. Emery, the shaking kid that looks too nervous to be able to swing the bat. You watch him and wonder even if he manages to put the bat on the ball, will he trip over his own feet running to first? Jordan on the other hand†steps up to the batter box swinging three bats at once. Discards two of them over his shoulders as if they were cans of beer he just downed. Spits a cheek full of chaw at the ump’s feet. Gives the pitcher a knowing wink. And contemplates pointing to the outfield stands, just for the audacity of it. Even if he is playing for your team, you half want him to strike out, just to see the priceless look on his face.

As charming as Mr Huang — what am I doing here? — demeanor was, it didn’t change how I felt about his piece. Now I can’t remember my personal favorite ever winning the top prize. Last year’s winner for example, Ian McHugh’s Bitter Dreams (I misidentified the winner in my review), wasn’t my favorite, but all it took for me was to read the first two paragraphs of his story to see why it won. His elegant style was evident there, a rare display of natural talent that is so difficult to match. I did not see any such magic in the Garden of Tian Zi.

Now, I don’t think extraordinary prose should be the criteria for a winning story, nor am I saying Mr Huang’s writing is sub-par. In fact, I would be the first to admit that Emery’s ability to string two words together far exceeds mine, but as a reader, I just don’t get how this story beat out three solid tales.

If you were to take KD Wentworth’s advice, and follow a check list on how to write a winning story, then you could give Garden of Tian Zi a passing grade, but just barely.

Did the opening grab you? Hmmm. Sure.

Was the speculative element present in the first page? A future where corporations rule the world? Okay, I suppose there is.

Is the story an original and/or fresh concept? Let me think. Megacorp organizations? Bionic enhancements? Underground society undermining monopolies? Not so far. Package it all together and it just might be enough.

Is the protagonist likeable? Wow. Tough call. He ran away from his responsibilities. He abused a small street girl. But he is sacrificing all he could have had for the greater good, and he does care for the street girl. Guess he’s likeable enough.

Does the main character change by the end of the story? Can someone so flat change? By the strict definition of the question, the answer is yes. He does change.

Of course, my interpretation of Mr Huang’s tale may be too narrow. Others liked it. Mr Lapp said himself he felt it was the best story, in the best WOTF anthology ever. If this was only a matter of plot, characters, setting, and prose that I didn’t find inspiring, I wouldn’t be questioning the judges’ decision. What I can’t understand is how a group of professional writers — about half of which works I have religiously followed — would pick a piece whose storyline changed with every scene.

The shifting scenes in Garden of Tian Zi are jarring. Instead of bridges that connect the reader to each scene, there are wide chasms that the reader must leap. In every new scene, a new element to the main characters predicament is sprung on the reader and the MC is granted these sudden incredible abilities to help him deal with these fresh dangers. We have changes in politics, strategies, contacts, friends, and foesâ€the story goes from something fantastic to something fan-TAS-tic. I liken the reading experience to playing a new board game and the person teaching you the game introduces new rules as you play. Difficult to get grounded.

Jordan Lapp, and his story, is as different to Emery Huang’s, and his work, as you can get. Investigating the two writers, and what they have been up to, revealed that Mr Huang just about disappeared from the face of the Earth. No further interviews (none that I found), no announcements of follow up work. No advice, news, blogs; nothing. Jordan however, has not been sitting still.

On his one-on-one interview at the award ceremony, Jordan eluded that the WotF prize was a step to help further his career, and he must have meant career with a capital C. Not only has he done an interview for Diabolical Plots, he has done them for podcasts, Innsmouth free press, Sirius/XM’s book radio (sorry I missed that one), and likely other outlets that I have yet to discover. His twitter blog, Without Really Trying (interesting name for it) is growing in followers (well, I just joined so it has grown by at least one). His online magazine, Every Day Fiction, has been gaining in popularity, at least it has with the small circles of writers that I know. Reading and watching his opinions on writing, the industry, and his own success does leave an impression.

Mr Lapp may be surprised that more than a few do pay attention to winners of the Writers of the Future contest. If you can take his own estimates that as many as 1800 submissions make it to KDW’s desk every quarter, you can see why so many are eager to find the secret formula to writing a winning entry. Some of what he has said has raised an eyebrow or two. A close friend of mine remarked that he (let me put this kindly) is guilty of pride. I can see why another writer would think that when Jordan declared that the 25 year anthology, he won first in, was “the best ever” (I disagree, BTW. I thought issue 24 was better but the final two stories made it close).

I want everyone to know that I am not writing this to assassinate Jordan Lapp’s character, nor do I find anything wrong with his promotion of WotF vol XXV and his own works, but my first impression of him and his opinions did leave a strike in my not-so-sub-conscience. I never want to go into a story not wanting to like it, but I must admit a small part of me wouldn’t have been disappointed if Mr Lapp’s self-assured confidence went down swinging. Just like a cocky rookie stepping up to the plate for the first time, he hit it out of the park with his first swing.

Last year I gave one story my highest grade (Crown of Thorns by Sonia Helbig). Between the two, After the Final Sunset, Again beats it hands down. It is the type of story that I found inspiring, the type of inspiration that first time writers leave a mark on their readers, just as another new time writer did with a novella called Ender’s Game decades ago. Although After the Final Sunset, Again failed to win the top prize in the Writers of the Future contest, I do believe that it is good enough that it should be considered for others.

So in the unlikely event that anyone with the pull (and the patience to read through this entire post) to award a lesser-known writer the honor, I recommend that they give Jordan Lapp’s story a good look. After the Final Sunset, Again is deserving a Hugo nomination. It might kill me to see this rookie hit it out of the park, again, with his second swing, but when a kid’s got it, you have to acknowledge when you see it.

Frank has been lurking around publishers, writers, and bloggers long enough that a few have decided to give him stuff to do, just to get him out of their hair. Frank’s needling has earned him publications in Atomjack, Alienskin, Twisted Tongue, Space squid, Flash Me, and Goldenvision magazines, as well as a story in the Oz anthology Shadows of the Emerald City. He also has stories set to debut in Strange, Weird, and Wonderful and On The Premises this summer, unless the editors change their minds. Aside from writing, Frank’s other life goal is to become a World-class professional Tic-Tac-Toe champion. His current record is two wins, one loss, and 17,685 ties.

Game Review: InFamous (PS3)

written by Melissa Shaw

In 2002, Sucker Punch Productions came out with a cartoonish children’s game for the PS2 called Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus, the first of a trio of Sly Cooper games. The title character was a thief who snuck around cities, climbed up buildings, and ran across wires. Sly’s loyal companions gave him intel and assigned him capers over a radio connection. The various games in the series featured elements like a villain dumping tar into the water supply, our hero following specific NPCs through a city without being spotted, and a blimp filled with “spice” gas whose evil purpose was to drive a city’s denizens insane.

Fast-forward to 2009, and InFamous, Sucker Punch’s new action-adventure game whose main character, Cole, prowls around a city, climbs up buildings, and runs across wires. His companions — some friendly, some hostile — give him intel and assign him capers over a cell phone. Some game elements include a villain dumping tar into the water supply, our hero following specific NPCs through the city without being spotted, and several zeppelins filled with toxic gas whose evil purpose is drive the city’s denizens insane.

To be fair, both the Sly Cooper series and InFamous are highly entertaining, and both offer a great deal more than just those similarities. But the family resemblance is striking enough to make you wonder why Sucker Punch felt so comfortable blatantly ripping off its own games, and why they didn’t at least file off the serial numbers and change enough details to make those familiar elements seem fresher. Maybe they didn’t expect any overlap in the audiences of the two games; InFamous is certainly a far more grown-up and darker game. Where the Sly Cooper games felt like bubblegum comics, InFamous has the feel of a graphic novel. (The Sucker Punch games also share a stylized form of cut-scenes made up of largely still images, with a voiceover narrative.)

The premise of InFamous is that Cole survives a bomb explosion that imbues him with various electrical powers: shooting lightning bolts, throwing energy grenades, and a host of other abilities he gains as you progress through the game. The city Cole lives in comprises three islands, which are quarantined because of a suspected infection from the bomb. Cole’s purpose is to fight the evil gangs who were also transmogrified by the bomb, to help restore order to the shattered city, and to try to find out who set the bomb and why he was affected the way he was.

An interesting game element is that of karma and choice: Cole often has two distinct choices when faced with certain situations, one of which will enhance his good karma, while the other will enhance his evil karma. Heading down either karma path leads to consequences exclusive to that path, in terms of the abilities you gain and the missions available to you. While the overall story is the same either way, there are some interesting differences; the evil karma path leads to the city’s inhabitants shouting insults at you and pelting you with rocks, and to a deeper explanation of the backstory between Cole and an evil sub-boss character, his ex-girlfriend, Sasha. The pinnacle of evil karma is the game’s eponymous “InFamous” ranking.

One of the best things about InFamous is its gameplay, which is fun, varied, and exhilarating. You can climb to the top of the highest building and leap off without getting hurt; in fact, you can slam into the ground in a satisfying attack that sends out a shock wave proportional to the distance you drop. Combat is challenging and unusual, with great visuals of the lightning powers (blue if you’re good, red if you’re evil). A late power in the game even lets you glide through the air for a short distance on electrical currents generated by your hands. Added to the electrical abilities are the game’s climbing moves, which you use extensively. (As Sly’s friend Bentley says in the Sly Cooper games, “The view is always better from the rooftops.”) Almost every vertical surface is climbable, which leads to a great variety of ways to travel around the city. The only downside to the gameplay is that it’s hard to prevent Cole from grabbing a ledge or pipe when you want to just drop straight down, which can get a bit annoying.

Empire City, the game’s setting, is beautifully realized. Its undamaged buildings are varied and convincing, and the effects of the blast — a ground-zero crater area, shattered and toppled buildings, and lots of rubble — are appropriately sobering and affecting. You see the destruction and the fear of the city’s inhabitants, and you want to do something to restore order.

Cole’s relationships with the NPCs are interesting, and they help advance the story. The twist at the end is unexpected but reasonable; it shows that the game’s creators really put some thought into not just the events of the game itself but the history leading up to them.

Overall, InFamous has a strong story, exciting and varied gameplay, and a well-realized setting. Despite game elements clearly borrowed from earlier Sucker Punch games, InFamous stands on its own as a satisfying action-adventure game.

Melissa Shaw’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Analog, and several anthologies. Melissa is a Clarion West graduate and a “Writers of the Future” contest winner. She is currently writing for an as-yet-unreleased video game.

Niche Game: Earthworm Jim 1 & 2

Niche games: Âwe’ve all played them. ÂThey’re the games that you remember for a long time because they’re so unique. ÂSometimes they’re the only ones ever made like them. ÂOther times they were trailblazers for their kind of gameplay. ÂBut what they have in common is the bravery to try something new, allowing them to rise above the imitators. ÂEven though there might be newer games with shinier graphics, these games are still worth playing mecause they’re something different, something special.

Earthworm Jim is a side-scroller action science fiction game with a ridiculous sense of humor. It was released in 1994 for the Super NES (and many other systems about the same time). The following excerpt from the story is typical of the style: “Psy-Crow is chasing a small renegade ship. The ship’s pilot has stolen an ultra-high-tech-indestructible-super-space-cyber-suit. Psy-Crow overtakes the renegade ship and they face off head-to-head. Psy-Crow pulls his gun. The renegade pulls an even bigger gun. Wrought with gun envy, Psy-Crow pulls out a huge monster gun. The renegade, realizing he has been outmatched, pleads for mercy. But Psy-Crow, under direct orders from the evil Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed, Slug-for-a-behind, blasts the renegade and his entire ship to smithereens. The suit falls gently to a strange planet below. The strange planet is our planet. PLANET EARTH.”

As it turns out, the suit is indestructible as advertised, but the person wearing it can still be blown to smithereens (oops, bad design). The suit happens to land over the top of a typical earthworm. The suit is so powerful it mutates the earthworm so that it grows much larger and (somewhat) more intelligent worm. Even though he’s wearing a human-shaped suit, Jim is still an earthworm, which becomes obvious when he uses his worm whip. The hand of the suit grabs Jims neck and pulls the worm out of the suit, cracking it like a whip to attack enemies, before replacing it back in the suit. He can also spin the worm like a helicopter to extend his jump a bit. His other usual weapon is his blaster gun which regenerates ammo up to a certain level, though if you drain it the recharge time can cost you. He can also pick up gun power-ups like mega shot and homing missiles.

The stages and villains of the game are weird and varied, Psy-Crow being the least interesting of the group. “What the Heck?” takes place on a Hell-like planet called Heck, which is ruled by Evil the Cat (we all knew a cat was behind it, admit it). The background music for that one involves elevator music and tortured screams. The level is patrolled by briefcase toting lawyers who use their briefcase to block your blaster fire, and also snowmen. In the end you face off against Evil himself. Then there’s Major Mucus, a being made entirely out of phlegm. You have a bungee jumping battle where each of you try to knock the other into rock walls to break the other’s cord.

My favorite character in the game is Peter the Puppy. Peter skips happily along, oblivious of the many dangerous enemies and obstacles along the way. If he gets hurt, then he loses his temper mutates into a bloated purple monster, grabs Jim and chomps away a huge chunk of his health. Then he reverts to his cute puppy form and continues on. To make it through the level alive, Jim not only has to avoid danger himself, but he has to keep Peter safe as well. Besides destroying enemies, he also needs to use the worm whip on Peter, which will make him jump in the air. If timed right he will clear gaps and the carnivorous plants along the way.

Between each level, Earthworm Jim jumps on his Pocket Rocket (an actual rocket, get your minds out of the gutters) and races Psy-Crow on the ways between planets. This offers some welcome variety to the gameplay.

Earthworm Jim 2 was released in 1995, and was a very worthwhile sequel. Jim is back with some changes in play control. Instead of using the worm to whip and to helicopter down, he has a new buddy he keeps in his backpack called Snott who performs similar functions.

Many of the villains from the original game return here in different forms. This time instead of bungee jumping against Major Mucus, you are flying your Pocket Rocket, transporting a balloon-lifted explosive to Mucus’s headquarters. You have to keep the explosive in one piece despite enemy attackers, and blow up Mucus with it.

Again, my absolute favorite level in this game is the one with Peter the Puppy. In the year that’s passed, Peter Puppy has had a litter (puppies having puppies!). Psy-Crow has broken into Peter’s house and kidnapped the baby’s.

Being the evil creature he is, he is tossing the little doggies out the window one by one as Peter watches from the other end of yard in dismay. Luckily Jim happens to be carrying a giant marshmallow that he can use the bounce the pups over to their father who will catch them and set them down gently.

If the pups hit the ground they go squish, and too many dropped pups makes Peter lose his temper and chomp on Jim. You have to keep this up until Psy-Crow tosses out a bomb. When you bounce the bomb to Peter he will chuck it back at Psy-Crow again (You’d think he’d be blowing up his own children that way, but whatever). The concept makes no sense, but that’s okay, Earthworm Jim doesn’t HAVE to make sense, and it’s extremely fun and a good challenge.

Shortly after the second game, a TV series was spawned that lasted about a year. I’m afraid I’ve never seen it, so I can’t comment on its quality. That sounds like a mission for Hulu!

1999 marked the most recent entry in the series with Earthworm Jim 3-D for Nintendo 64. It was.. okay. I liked the animation, which was a well-done 3-D rendition of Jim and his friends and enemies. The plot is silly as ever: a cow has landed on Jim’s head, fracturing his brain. The game takes place inside his damaged brain. Jim is tasked with collecting his marbles, and finding golden udders to allow him to give them to the Sacred Cow of Contemplation to unlock new areas. The levels were okay, definitely weird, though they got a little long. But the thing that really broke my enjoyment of the game was the boss battles. In the previous EWJ games, each boss battle is very different from one another. In this one they are all too similar and last WAY too long. In each you are driving around an arena, as is your opponent, collecting marbles. To complete the level, you must get every marble, including those held by your opponent. Attacking your opponent makes them drop some marbles, and vice versa. Each of these fights just lasted forever as you swap a few marbles back and froth. Way too much of a time sink, even when I was in high school and had nothing better to do with my time. I doubt I’d ever have the patience nowadays to complete one of the boss battles, let alone to battle through the rest of the game. Also, I reached a point in the game, where there didn’t seem to be enough marbles to pass on regardless of what I did. I don’t know if that was something I did wrong, or if there was a glitch in the game, but after spending days trying to move on with no success I gave up and had to return to the game to Blockbuster. So I wouldn’t go out of your way to find the 3rd game, but the first two in the series are rock solid.

Finding Earthworm Jim 1 and 2 is easy if you have a Wii, as both are now available for Nintendo’s Virtual Console. If you’re willing to pay a little money for it then you can download it onto your Wii hard drive and have it forever. An eBay search also came up with quite a few hits for various systems. So you shouldn’t have a problem tracking it down. Try it out. It’s hard, it’s fun, it’s totally worth it. Enjoy!

Review: The Golden Compass and His Dark Materials trilogy

My advice: Read the first book and watch the movie. Don’t bother with the rest, which betrays the characters created in the first book and is driven by a message as subtle as a bludgeon. If you’re a parent pre-screening books for your kids to read, do not judge on the first book alone. At the very least, get a summary of the rest of the series. This is especially true if religious beliefs are important to you.

His Dark Materials is a trilogy of fantasy novels written by Phillip Pullman comprised of The Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The first book of the series was adapted to a movie in 2007.

The series first came to my attention when The Golden Compass movie came out. The previews looked interesting enough, but what really grabbed my attention was the religious groups protesting what they saw as an open attack against organized religion, and especially the portrayal of this within a movie that’s being marketed to children.

As an avid fantasy reader, I’m used to this sort of reaction from certain groups, and usually these reactions seem to be based on the assumption that magic is inherently evil, and so a plot that portrays the side of good using magic is somehow blasphemous. The Harry Potter series is the most memorable such example. I’ve read that series and have not found a single thing in it that I see as damaging or offensive to religion in any way, so I expected His Dark Materials to be the same way.

So first I went to The Golden Compass movie.

The Golden Compass movie

The movie primarily concerns 11-year old Lyra Balacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon (Pan for short). Now, “daemon” in this context has nothing to do with evil creatures of the underworld. The story takes place in a world parallel to ours where every person has a daemon. The daemon is the physical manifestation of each person’s soul. Instead of residing within the body, it exists as an independently thinking animal familiar which can never venture far from its human. For each adult, their daemon’s form resembles their own personality. So a guard might have a dog daemon, someone stubborn might have a badger, and so on. Children’s daemon’s are ever-changing, able to take a variety of forms at will, due to the fact that the child is not yet the adult they will become–so Pan’s shape is ever-shifting to whatever is most convenient at the time. This idea of the daemon souls is one of the coolest things about the series.

Lyra has grown up an orphan raised by Jordan College in Oxford. She eavesdrops on a conversation with Lord Azrael (Daniel Craig) talking to the Magisterium (the church that controls much of the known world), discussing an expedition to the north related to Dust. Dust is a secret well kept by the Magisterium, one of their many secrets.  Soon after that she is placed in the custody of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) which seems to be a blessing, but events soon take a turn for the worse. Along the way she meets Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellan), an ice bear, one of a race of sentient armored bears and Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) a Texan aeronaut.

The movie is well worth watching. The visuals are stunning and do a good job capturing the cool idea of the daemon familiars. The stars in the cast, while offering poster appeal, do not rest on their laurels. Each of them plays their part well, convincing me of the people they’re portraying. And it’s mostly faithful to the book, which is a rarity. Most of what is changed is that the book ends after revealing one more major plot point than the book (more on that in the spoiler section).

But throughout the whole movie, I didn’t see a single thing as objectionable. The church of this world plays a major villainous role but even in our world, regardless of what you think of modern religion, past religions have done some terrible things in the name of their god. To portray one religion as villainous, especially a fictional religion, does not imply an overall anti-religion message. After watching the movie, my only guess was simply the fact that the word “daemon” was used to represent the soul.

His Dark Materials trilogy of novels

My interest still piqued, I picked up the books. As I said the movie was mostly faithful to the first book. I enjoyed the writing style, the characters were rich and interesting, the descriptions were fun, the worldbuilding was superb, and still no anti-religious undertones that I could detect.

But starting with the second book, The Subtle Knife, the anti-religion message began to coalesce even as the quality of the story declined. The third book, The Amber Spyglass, has an anti-religion message as subtle as a club with nails in, which I might’ve been able to overlook with great effort except that the story was weak as well, serving only to provide the framework with which to hang the message. Major characters constantly take a 180 degree turn in traits without any warning or provocation, even including our protagonist, Lyra! They spend embark on quests with no clear goal and much of the time is spent with secondary characters in other worlds that end up having no appreciable effect on anything! More details after the spoiler warning just below.

Now, finally, the reasons why I hated the series (other than the first book):

1. Story vs. Message– I often like a story that carries messages inherent in it, but the writing has to be a story, first and foremost. But I don’t like tales where the message carries the story, or in this case, robs and leaves the story bleeding and half-dead by the side of the road. Pullman is capable of writing a really great story, as evidenced by book 1, but the quality of the story steadily declined as the strength of the message increased.

2. Betraying Characters– Not only does Pullman disrespect his readers, but disrespects his own creations by destroying the characters he took so much time characterizing in the first book. Nearly every major character makes a 180 turn in character traits without inciting incident or really for any reason whatsoever. I want to find out what happened to the real Lyra, not the doppelganger that takes her place for most of the series!

3. The Grand Con–But above all, Pullman’s plot is structured to fly under the radar of concerned parents. If a parent reads the first book of the series and sees no objectionable material, they may decide it’s okay for their kids to read. Above all, my main objection is not that I hate the message, it’s the fact that the story is structured to conceal the message for so long. The message is clearly anti-religion, and I can totally understand why parents with strong religious beliefs would not want their kids reading it. He’s pulled off the oldest con in the book–the bait and switch. My advice: concerned parents should at least read a synopsis of the series before deciding if it’s objectionable–do not judge based on book 1 alone. For this reason, I think that the religious groups’ protests are completely merited in this case, and serve as a warning to parents who would otherwise have been duped by Pullman.

I’ve heard that Pullman intended His Dark Materials to counterbalance C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Narnia is well-known for it’s religious allegory, particularly the Aslan to Jesus comparison with the self-sacrifice and resurrection themes. Pullman hates Narnia, and more power to him: he can dislike whatever books he wishes to. But, regardless if you agree with Lewis’s religious message or not, he was upfront about it. The religious themes are present in the first book, so any parent who didn’t want their children to read religious themes could easily see that and just set the book aside. Lewis’s story carried a message, but he managed to do so without having to resort to the bait and switch. Also, Lewis’s stories stay true to their characters and carry their message much more seamlessly than Pullman has managed. I can read Lewis’s stories and just enjoy the stories.

Begin Spoilers!

And, for those of you who don’t mind knowing the plot details, I’ll now give details to back up my claims.

As the series go on we learn that Lord Asrael plans to kill God. That alone doesn’t make the series anti-religious, of course. The character is not the author, and at the end of book one it becomes very clear that Asrael is a psychopath, bent on reaching his own goals regardless of who he hurts along the way. I hesitate to use the word “evil”, but he is representative of some of the worst parts of humanity: selfish, greedy, void of compassion. Where this storyline does become anti-religious is the portrayal of God. He is no creator, merely the oldest surviving angel who has succeeded in duping everyone into believing he is all-powerful and the maker of everything. And even angels are nothing particularly special. They are merely a species that happens to look rather human-like, and have very long lifespans, but otherwise are like humans in every way. God, in the story, has gone completely senile. He is a drooling idiot without any clue what’s going on around. He is merely a figurehead, a puppet in the hands of the Metatron. And, shortly after he’s shown, God dies. Not only that, but the death scene is so unremarkably, remorselessly written that it may have well have been a description of someone eating breakfast.

Another message that I absolutely hated was the lessons learned in the afterlife. In the second book, a knife is introduced which can slice gateways between worlds. In the third book, they decide to go to the land of the dead, which is reachable through this sort of gateway. Why they want to go there is never adequately explained, but it somehow becomes a major goal, and they pursuit it with great ambition and no point. Every soul goes to the same afterlife, a lightless place where everyone is tortured by harpies. Why this should be is never explained, this is just how it works. Lyra’s grand solution is to cut a hole into another world and strike a bargain with the harpies. When souls pass through the portal they dissolve into nothingness. The harpies gain nourishment from hearing stories, so they will let souls pass through the gateway if they have stories to tell. This is where one of Pullman’s grand morals comes from: Live your life with curiosity, ask questions, learn, so that your grand reward will be nothingness. If you live any other way, then you will suffer through eternal torture. I enjoy contemplation of the afterlife, but to determine placement in heaven or hell by such an arbitrary concept is very annoying to me. I’m a curious person who enjoys many sorts of learning, but I don’t think that incuriousity should condemn you to hell. It seemed to me this was just his further condemnation of religion. If you rely on faith for your beliefs then you deserve such a fate, he is saying. That is just as bad as religious groups claiming that non-believers will be condemned to hell for their lack of belief–odd that someone who so readily condemns fate is the creator of such an illogical theological system.

One element that Pullman apparently meant to use for shock value is the presence of homosexual angels. I’m not objecting about the presence of homosexuals or homosexual angels. Historically, I think that angels are generally considered to be devoid of sexual organs or even gender differences, so the idea of them being homosexual is a little bit silly, but whatever. What bothers me about these characters is they have no other distinguishing characteristics other than their homosexuality, as if being gay is the only trait they have that is worth mentioning. I wish he’d taken the time to flesh them out a little bit more so that I could believe that he really meant them to be real people in his world, not just token gay characters who are present only to get a rise out of the more vocal religious groups.

As for how he betrays the characters: worst of all is how he treats Lyra throughout. She very well characterized in the first book, charismatic, a constant liar but not an immoral person. She’s very strong-willed and always willing to fight for what’s right, no matter the risk. The biggest change between the movie and the first book is that the movie truncates one huge plot element. At the end of the book, Lyra sets out to rescue Lord Asriel from captivity. That’s where the movie ends, but in the book she finds him, and he rewards her by kidnapping her best friend, carrying him away and forcibly separating him from his daemon. He’s discovered that the bond between a human and their daemon holds massive amounts of energy. By severing the link, the energy is released all at once. He harnesses the energy to open a portal to another world, remorselessly leaving her friend a shattered husk of a human being. This lowers my opinion of Lord Asriel’s character to a point that he can never be redeemed from, and especially since Lyra’s best friend was the victim, I would expect her to do the same. She’s mad at first, but as the books go on, she has more and more sympathy for Asriel, and seems to have completely forgotten what he’s done. This is never resolved in any way that makes sense for her character. Her feelings simply dissolve as if nothing had ever happened.

Worse than that, is the price she pays to get into the underworld. She is told that she cannot take her daemon with her into the underworld, when she boards the raft that will carry her into the underworld. After a shockingly short time of deliberation, she agrees. There’s no apparent reason that he couldn’t turn into a bird and follow along behind, but this doesn’t happen. Once the distant is too great, the bond breaks, and they are separated. This is her SOUL, for the love of Pete. And, in this world, the sould is a separate mind, so she is causing torture to this other individual for no reason. And remember, she had no reason to go to the underworld in the first place! I lost all respect for her at that point, and never regained it.

The end result is that I wasted weeks of reading time finishing these, and wish I’d read something else instead. But I hope this review will make the time somewhat worthwhile to share the information with others.