The Walking Dead Ends Unexpectedly

Cover of The Walking Dead 193 by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff RathburnThe Walking Dead issue 193 is worthy of a Hugo Awards nomination next year. It is a conclusion to the comic sprung entirely by surprise on the readership. To keep it under wraps, they solicited fake issues 194, 195 and 196 and made issue 193 a giant-sized finale at the regular price. Orders for those fake issues have been refunded.

Without spoiling the content, it's a time jump that is intriguingly ambiguous about the proper lesson to take from the zombie apocalypse. I often find Robert Kirkman's writing to be heavy on obvious dialogue that could go unsaid, but the story he's told in 193 is effective. There's one particular moment between two sons that will stick with me for a while. The art is exceptional, including some multi-page spreads that are as good as anything Charlie Adlard has ever done.

Kirkman ends the comic with a multi-page essay explaining the decision to end the story and the reason he did it so abruptly without the marketing hype and massive orders that would've come from announcing it many issues in advance. (The short answer is that he hates knowing when the end of a book, movie or TV series is coming because it lessens the impact.)

In the essay he concludes by thanking a lot of people. Surprisingly, one of them is original series artist Tony Moore, who was engaged in a seven-year legal battle with Kirkman involving the rights to the comic before they reached a confidential settlement in 2012.

Review: 'Eternity Road' by Jack McDevitt

Cover of Eternity Road by Jack McDevittThis post-apocalyptic novel occurs long after the fall of civilization. Humans in an agrarian society along the Mississippi River yearn to learn more about the Roadmakers, so named because of the enormous network of roads left behind. Little else survives other than six books and a lot of garbage impervious to decay. Ten years after a quest to learn more ends in tragedy, the lone survivor's death leads to a discovery in his belongings. This sparks a dangerous new quest by a small band to cross the continent and find a legendary place where civilization endured.

Jack McDevitt's novel is a love letter to the importance of books. The best moments see the protagonists puzzle over ancient objects and places they encounter. The pacing is pokey until it races to a last-third payoff resolving the core mystery in a satisfying way. Seeing humans grapple with ways to invent better engines for river travel reminded me of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld, another work that venerates human ingenuity.

Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

Cover of Behind the Throne by K.B. WagersThis book was highly recommended by six avid readers on File 770 and they were right. Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol, a gunrunner who left her family 20 years ago and never looked back, is brought home when the assassinations of her sisters and niece leave her heir to the empire.

The story mixes palace intrigue with well-spun action as Haili struggles to survive long enough to figure out who's behind the attempted coup. The India-inspired, far-future society Wagers has created is richly drawn and contains surprises too good to spoil. A lot of the charm comes from the fact that Haili's accomplished criminal life made her a fish out of water as a potential empress. She's always clashing with her ever-present bodyguards over her desire to carry her own weapons and is sometimes less the protected than the protector.

One minor criticism is that the large cast of characters around Haili made it tough to remember them all when they showed up again. The novel is a fantastic opener to a trilogy.

Gamer Fantastic RPG Fiction Anthology

Cover of Gamer Fantastic RPG fiction anthologyThis anthology doesn't live up to the inventive premise of telling stories where roleplaying games and reality intersect. I was ready to quit after the introductory material and early stories all hammered the same worn-out joke about gamers being slovenly fast-food addicts, but I stuck around to see what Jim C. Hines would do with his story "Mightier Than the Sword." His entertaining tale was about libriomancers who could pull weapons and creatures out of SF/F novels, a premise he later expanded into a book of that name. I liked his references to real writers and novels, including a subtle, self-deprecating joke about himself. Reading Jody Lynn Nye's engaging "Roles We Play" about roleplaying being used as a therapeutic tool in the 19th century has motivated me to seek out her novels. Kristine Kathryn Rusch ended with an intriguing story about a magical RPG store in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The rest was forgettable, including a short perfunctory tribute to E. Gary Gygax after his death.

Star Wars: Rebel Dream by Aaron Allston

Cover of Star Wars: Rebel Dream by Aaron Allston

As a fan of Aaron Allston going back to his earliest RPG designs for Car Wars and Champions in the 1980s, I liked this book but felt like his creativity was constrained by the plot requirements required of the 12th book in a 19-book series (which I haven't read prior to this installment). The novel follows the fall of Coruscant to the Yuuzhan Vong. Starfighter squadrons and Jedi commanded by Wedge Antilles must take and hold the planet Borleias to help Coruscant refugees escape and regroup. Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Mara Jade Skywalker and Jaina Solo participate in dogfights and one covert mission to set up book 13. Most of the novel's appeal was seeing familiar faces engaged in expected derring-do, but the Yuuzhan Vong are as appealingly weird a foe as The Borg in Star Trek. They loathe tech and instead rely on pervasive and sadistic bioengineering. My favorite scenes were told from their perspective. Allston, who died in 2014 at age 53, was one of the best media tie-in writers in SF/F.

Everything About You by Heather Child

Cover of Everything About You by Heather Child

An engrossing novel that explores where Amazon Echo, Facebook, AI and VR are taking us. I kept waiting for something big to happen in this near-future science fiction thriller, but I learned later it already had and I didn't recognize the significance. A twentysomething grieving for her missing and presumed dead sister begins using technology called a smartface that can mimic the personality of anyone through data mining their entire digital footprint, producing an effect so compelling that people aren't sure whether an idea came from their own brains or the tech. Freya, a London resident who has fallen off the affluent career track because of a phobia to VR, can't get past the loss of her foster sister Ruby, who disappears during a dangerous late-night walk to retrieve her from a party after they argued. Child has clearly spent a lot of time contemplating the pervasive and oppressive places modern tech could be sending us. I only spent a week there as a reader and I'm pretty unnerved.

Brad Torgersen's 'Science Fiction Civil War'

Brad Torgersen

Since 2008 I have voted in the Hugo Awards, the science fiction/fantasy honors that have the most prestige. The ballot for this year's awards has been hijacked by three right-wing authors -- Larry Correia, Brad Torgersen and Vox Day -- who ran bloc-voting campaigns that put their nominations all over the ballot to the exclusion of everyone else's. For months, they campaigned for people to vote for their slate of nominees by saying this act would stick it to a secret cabal of "social justice warriors" who had been keeping conservatives like them from winning.

There is no cabal.

Anyone can vote for the Hugos by buying a $40 supporting membership in the next Worldcon. That's what I did seven years ago, and since then I've been nominating works I liked without outside interference from anybody else, just like thousands of other fans.

To give you an idea of how cynical and politically motivated the bloc-voting campaign was, Correia reached out to GamerGate for support in his attack on the Hugos. ("I think GamerGate has been awesome," he declared yesterday on Twitter.)

Rather than cover the entire mess a week later than everybody else, I'll direct you to the blog of Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, who has written an excellent series of posts as an author who has participated in the Hugos since the 1960s and loves the institution of Worldcon.

There's a lot about this situation that gets me all het up, but I'm beginning to savor the insane grandiosity of Torgersen (pictured above), a previously obscure SF/F author who led the bloc-voting campaign this year and dubbed it "Sad Puppies 3."

On April 8, Torgersen wrote a blog post on his personal site called "The Science Fiction Civil War" that he later deleted.

Here's the text of that post, which offers a fantastic glimpse into the preening self-regard that inspired him to lead a culture war against a much-loved SF/F award that fans of all political beliefs have nurtured since 1953:

A personal note, from a guy who has been trying hard of late to recapture some of the sense-of-wonder he felt for science fiction, when he was a boy.

The cannon have been fired. There's no doubting it now. Decades of simmering tension are being unleashed in an emotional struggle for the future of the field. The Hugo award is just a thing; a mere football. These divisions go far beyond a silver rocketship. They are drawn along political lines -- liberal, and conservative; progressive, and libertarian -- as well as along artistic lines -- taste, expression, and the desire for meaning. If one side has announced angry shock that Sumter got shelled, it's because that side had the luxury of ignoring the other side. At least until now. The grays have thrown off their teeth-grit veneer of second-class citizenship, and the blues are rallying to the status quo. Voices long quiet, have erupted with the yell of rebellion. And there is every sign in the world that the blues will stop at nothing to put down the grays.

I remember when I used to think science fiction was this happy, fraternal place. If there were disagreements, they were small things, and no adult would let them stand in the way of a rousing all-for-one-and-one-for-all cheer. A round on the house for everybody, ladies and gentlemen! Hip-hip-hooray!

I believe there may have been a time when the reality at least approached this naive impression -- an idea planted in my imagination, and fueled by the dreams of ambitious youth.

Now I am no longer green. This year finds me a veteran. I have seen the quiet hate in the eyes of so many colleagues. For each other. For the other guys. For the people beyond the next rise of mountains. It is a hate bred by a thousand slights and prejudices, snobberies and injustices and cuts which have bled quietly into the night. You see it every time one professional's celebration is conducted so as to kick sand in the face of another professional. The fans -- volunteers from the common parts of every locale -- line up along the fence rows and rock walls, nervously checking their cartridge boxes, and wondering when they can get a chance to lick the enemy.

Many people never thought it would come to this.

Now that we're in it, I have to ask: how could it not have come to this?

You can only paper over cracks in the foundation so many times, before the foundation falls apart.

The silhouette of Larry Correia stands on a lonely knoll, his beard jutting proudly like Robert E. Lee's -- or is it Ulysses S. Grant's?

The judgments of history -- far removed from the sound of the guns and the bloody casualties laying like cord wood across the fields and in the gullies and meadows -- will have to judge which "side" in this fight is the blue, and which is the gray.

I knew the moment I took up the flag for Sad Puppies 3, that I was sacrificing forever any chance of ever being a Hugo award winner. There would be no forgiveness. Not from the traditionalists who jealously guard their trophy and consider all complaints against it to be heresy. But I was resolved. As an object of merit, the thing had fallen into question for me -- along with so much of the rosy history I thought I understood, before I was published.

Now there is only the war. A war which nobody wants, and yet nobody can avoid. All the rancor and chaffing and preening distaste for "those who are not like us" ... flooding forth in a wave of bitter rage that is enabled from behind the immunity and protection of ten thousand keyboards.

I have the sense that this thing is going to change us all in some way, forever -- those of us who make some part of our lives in this country called science fiction. Now splintered and divided.

What's left for a man now is to do what his heart, and God, tell him is right.

And it will be up to the future to decide if I am a hero, or a villain. Perhaps I am both?

I will either be Phil Sheridan, or A.P. Hill. George Henry Thomas, or Stonewall Jackson.

If I hope for anything -- when all of this is over -- it's that the Hugo means something again, and that the blind spots, biases, prejudices, and petty shadowing are reduced, if not erased. So that other people who come to it in the future, won't find it the way we found it -- before the fighting turned hot.

Most folks will stay home. Many already bitterly resent the conflict. Damn all flags.

When the survivors are old and all the generals long dead, they may ask, "Was it worth it?"

Lord, I sure hope so.

Torgersen and Correia, who have cultivated an enormous sense of personal aggrievement about alleged anti-conservative bias in the Hugo Awards, were both nominated by Worldcon voters to the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in the last four years. That's the highest compliment that we pay to new writers and often a springboard to a successful career in SF/F.

But neither of them won. Correia lost to Lev Grossman in 2011 and Torgersen to E. Lily Yu in 2012.

So to them, I guess "THIS MEANS WAR!"

Frederik Pohl Remembers Jack Vance

Frederik Pohl, one of the founders of science fiction, is still writing novels at age 93 and has a blog he updates regularly. The Way the Future Blogs recently noted the death of another legend of the genre, Jack Vance. Pohl recalls being editor of Galaxy magazine in the early '60s when a Vance manuscript came in:

... "I've got a new story from Jack Vance that I love. It's called The Dragon Masters, and it's about a race of dragon-like creatures from a distant planet who are at war with the human race. The dragons have captured some humans and the humans have captured some dragons and they both have genetically modified their captives to fight for them. Altogether there are around a dozen modified races, and I want a portrait of each, plus anything else you want to draw. I think Hugos will rain for this, so come get the ms."

I'm an avid reader of Pohl's blog. I recently read All the Lives He Led, his 2011 novel, and would like to say good things -- but it was a mess. There's some fun in Pohl describing a world so nihilistic in 2079 that acts of terrorism are committed daily by ridiculously silly groups, but his main character is a passive dolt who makes a series of dumb decisions.

At one point, after he's escaped police forces under a cloud of suspicion and smuggled himself by airship from Pompei, Italy, to Egypt, over the course of several chapters, he just turns himself back in. The protagonist's so inconsequential to the events of the novel that the last third consists of him watching video of what other people did and telling you what he sees.

The Pitch for My First Novel

I completed my first novel and entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough contest last month. A few days ago I learned that it advanced to the second round along with 399 other thrillers based on this pitch:

No marriage is without its secrets, but Clemson University professor Jessup Clark accidentally uncovers one that threatens more than his happiness.

A discovered airplane ticket stub reveals that his wife Shani lied to him and took a flight to Chicago when she claimed to be in Atlanta for business. When he confronts his wife about what looks like an affair, she undertakes a ruthless campaign to destroy his life, take away his job and rob him of his freedom. A happy marriage shatters as she concocts a domestic violence charge and has a mysterious associate punch her brutally in the face, telling the police she was hit by Jessup. A loaded gun is planted in his car, scaring his workplace after a tip is called in to security before he arrives one morning. A story is planted in the newspaper, sharing Jessup's darkest family secret to make him look even more guilty.

It makes no sense that Shani, a loving spouse and the dignified daughter of academics, would engage in an extramarital affair -- much less go to such extreme lengths to destroy Jessup after getting caught.

While his life is being taken apart piece by piece and the police begin pursuing him over the crimes for which she has framed him, Jessup must uncover the real reason she is doing this -- an event that occurred 10 years earlier at an Afghanistan tribal leader's compound in the Shah-i-Kot Valley.

THE ENGINEER is a thriller about marriage and other disasters.

On March 12, I find out if it's one of the 100 thrillers to reach the next round based on what judges thought of the first 5,000 words. The first prize is a $50,000 publishing contract.

Christopher Tolkien Hates the Peter Jackson Movies

Handwritten 1992 letter from Christopher Tolkien

Christopher Tolkien, the son of J.R.R. Tolkien, gave his first interview to the media last year after being his father's literary executor for four decades. Speaking to the French newspaper Le Monde, the 87-year-old expressed great unhappiness with the Peter Jackson movies even though they helped sell 25 million copies of the books in three years, a 1,000 percent increase:

Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? "They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25," Christopher says regretfully. "And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film."

This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. "Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time," Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. "The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away."

I grew up reading Tolkien and eagerly attended the first Lord of the Rings movie. I haven't seen the rest yet, but the original film did not cheapen the books, which were full of action that appealed to young readers. When I was a teen, I did not devour The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings because of their "seriousness," though I suspect I would value that upon a rereading. I don't see how any movie or TV adaptation could damage the experience of reading the book on which it's based, particularly an enduring classic like the novels of Tolkien. The words are still there in the proper order.

Amazingly, the studio that made Jackson's films told Tolkien's estate they didn't make any money -- so it wasn't entitled to a cut of profits. "We were receiving statements saying that the producers did not owe the Tolkien Estate a dime," said Cathleen Blackburn, an attorney for the estate.

I hope the accountants were mumbling "my precioussssss" to themselves as they cooked the books.

The World Already Has Enough Artists?

I maintain a list on Twitter of all Hugo Award-nominated best novel writers who use the service. A lot of cool stuff comes over the relatively low-traffic list, particularly related to science and creativity. At a Connecticut Forum event for high school students, the comics and science fiction writer Neil Gaiman was questioned by a teen who had been discouraged from being a director because there are "enough artists in the world."

Gaiman's answer is perfect.

Attending the Florida Heritage Book Festival

At the Florida Heritage Book Festival in St. Augustine this past weekend I saw speeches by novelists Jeff Lindsay (Darkly Dreaming Dexter), Steve Berry (The Templar Legacy) and Diana Abu-Jaber (Arabian Jazz).

I have an unpublished thriller in its second draft that's around 60,000 words long, so I go to these festivals looking for tips on how to become a more gooder writer and also to establish a daily writing routine to finish it. I've proven conclusively in the past year the novel won't finish itself.

Lindsay said that he gets up every morning at 3 a.m. to write about grisly serial murder until it's time to wake up his daughters for school. "I write best when I don't get in my own way," he said. "I write semi-conscious, then when I'm alert, rewrite."

It wasn't until his 50s that he could work full-time as a novelist once the first Dexter book made a killing. He advised writers to learn a marketable skill that lets them set their own hours. "I recommend arc welding," he said.

His most critically well-received book is one he can't admit to writing. "I ghost wrote a book that got the greatest review of my life, and it kills me," he said.

Abu-Jaber wrote a memoir, The Language of Baklava, that revealed some disturbing stories she was afraid would anger relatives. She hears frequently from writers who won't tell their own life story while some family members still around to take offense. To that concern Abu-Jaber said, "If you wait for everyone to die, who is going to read your book?"

Berry, who lives near St. Augustine, is a former lawyer and county commissioner who began writing fiction at age 35. Until Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code reinvented the commercially moribund spy thriller genre with historical conspiracies, secrets and international settings, Berry had five completed thrillers that plowed the same ground which had been rejected 85 times. "Twelve years ago, I couldn't give away a manuscript," he said.

One aspiring writer asked about going the solo route instead of seeking an agent and publisher. Berry said that's a bad idea if you'd actually like to sell books and build a career as a novelist, but he did share one factoid that suggests there's an opportunity for self-publishers in his genre. "Seventy percent of my sales are e-sales," he said. "Five years ago it was 5 percent."

Green plastic swim fin

The children's novelist Adrian Fogelin taught a three-hour fiction seminar Thursday on creating a character in which she asked audience members to pick one shoe among 20 pairs. She then put us through a series of writing exercises to create a person to occupy that footwear. I chose a child's green dollar-store swim fin.

I went into the event with no desire to write anything after subjecting myself to hours of dire news coverage about the U.S. ambassador's murder in Libya. But as the exercises went on, I became fond of the 10-year-old aspiring oceanographer who explored the murky depths of a pool at the King for a Day motel outside Joplin, Mo., and counted the minutes until Shark Week.

One exercise asked us to reveal the character's traits through dialogue:

"The shark is the apex predator of the ocean," Ernest explained to the woman on the bus, who nodded in a manner that demonstrated she was obviously impressed with his expertise.

"As such," he continued, "it serves a vital role in the aquatic ecosystem. What is your favorite species of shark?"

"No habla Inglés," she replied.

Seminars like this always make you think you've created the next Holden Caulfield or Boo Radley. But after it was over, I realized I'd been recreating the irrepressible kid from Calvin & Hobbes.

Two Science Fiction Novels I Didn't Finish

I hit a bad streak reading novels this month. My house is overflowing with books I've been meaning to read, so I will give up on a novel when I've abandoned all hope of being entertained. I figure if I'm not enjoying a book after 50 to 75 pages, it's time to bail. I reached that point with Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) and Philip K. Dick's The Divine Invasion (1981).

Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet SunQuiet Sun is a Nebula Award-nominated time-travel novel by the late Wilson "Bob" Tucker. He was an active science fiction fan who belonged to the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA) and coined the term "space opera."

As a current member of FAPA and a time-travel geek I wanted to like the book, but after 70 pages Tucker was still putting the main characters together. Nothing had happened yet. No time travel. No plot twists. Just talk talk talk. The male protagonists pass the time pontificating about their fields of study and making moves on the young female bureaucrat who recruited them. She's in her 20s and the prospective time travelers are an older scholar and two military officers. Their constant attempts to flirt with her may have been standard operating procedure in the free-love-and-sideburn '70s, but Tucker never shows her reciprocate anyone's interest -- so it feels like actionable sexual harassment.

Wikipedia's synopsis of the novel reveals that the time-traveling Don Drapers go to the future and find a U.S. embroiled in race war: "Moresby goes first and travels to July 4, 1999 ... only to emerge in the middle of a racial civil war in which Chicago had recently been attacked with a nuclear bomb launched from China on behalf of black guerrillas." I might have stuck with the novel if I knew it was fueled by early '70s fear of a black planet.

I hadn't read anything by Philip K. Dick before trying Divine Invasion. The book's about a virgin conception on a remote industrial planet. The savior fetus Emmanuel is the son of Yahweh, and he needs to return to Earth to take the planet back from the devil Belial, who has been running things since the fall of Masada in the first century AD. Belial controls Earth through a one-world government that's a "unification of the Communist Party and the Catholic Church."

This is odd enough to catch my interest, but Dick's plot feels like an excuse to engage in ponderous theological ruminations on God, the Bible and the Torah. Here's an example:

Emmanuel watched, and presently the cat came to him and asked to speak to him. He lifted it up and held it in his arms and the cat placed its paw against his face. With its paw it told him that mice were annoying and a bother and yet the cat did not wish to see an end of mice because, as annoying as they were, still there was something about them that was fascinating, more fascinating than annoying; and so the cat sought out mice, although the cat did not respect the mice. The cat wanted there to be mice and yet the cat despised mice.

All this the cat communicated by means of its paw against the boy's cheek.

I usually struggle with this kind of pass-the-bong storytelling. Give me literal fiction with relatable characters. I have an allergy to allegory.

Predicting the Next Hugo Award-Winning Novel

Hugo Award from the 2007 WorldCon in Japan, derived from photo by Cory DoctorowFor the last two years I've voted in the Hugo Awards, yearly literary honors for science fiction and fantasy (but mostly science fiction). I skipped the best novel category because I hadn't read most of the works, which is no fun at all since that's the biggest award. So when the 2010 Hugos are decided next spring, I'd like to have completed enough of the nominated novels to make an informed vote.

This won't be easy, since I only read around one book a month. But after digging into the history of the awards, I've found that most best-novel nominated authors have been there before. If you're nominated for one novel, you have a pretty good shot that your next will be nominated as well. During the past decade, 34 out of 50 nominees were retreads. Here are the only first-timers over that period:

  • 2000: J.K. Rowling
  • 2001: Nalo Hopkinson, Ken McLeod, George R.R. Martin
  • 2002: Neil Gaiman, China Mieville
  • 2003: None
  • 2004: Charles Stross
  • 2005: Iain M. Banks, Susanna Clarke, Ian McDonald
  • 2006: John Scalzi
  • 2007: Michael F. Flynn, Naomi Novik, Peter Watts
  • 2008: Michael Chabon
  • 2009: Cory Doctorow

There are currently 68 living Hugo-nominated best novel authors, ranging in age from Naomi Novik at 36 to Frederik Pohl, who turns 90 next week on Nov. 26 and recently began his own blog. I put together an Amazon wish list of 22 novels by these authors coming out this year, leaving off some books that have no shot at all, such as book five in a genre series and every co-authored novel except for David Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Escape from Hell, the sequel to their 1976 Hugo-nominated novel Inferno.

I'm guessing that four out of five Hugo nominees and the eventual winner are on this list. I recently finished Transition by Iain M. Banks and began reading This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams, who was nominated 11 years ago for the novel City on Fire.

If you'd like to vote in the Hugos, all that's required is to become a supporting member of the next WorldCon science fiction convention before voting begins. A supporting membership in AussieCon 4, the 2010 WorldCon in Melbourne, Australia, currently costs $50 and can be upgraded later if you decide to attend. One cool perk of being a Hugo voter is that you're sent ebook copies of most nominated novels and many other nominated works for private review. Unfortunately, by the time they arrive you only have a few weeks in which to read them.

I'll be posting a review of Transition later this week.

Credit: The photo of a 2007 Hugo Award statue was derived from a photo taken by Doctorow available under a Creative Commons license.