Announcement

Attention! Attention! Read all about it!

LOCAL WRITER TO PUBLISH BOOK

Stephan James, a writer currently residing near St. Louis, Missouri, announces today that in just under one month, on February 1, his first volume of short stories will be available for sale. Titled Predatory Behavior and Other Stories, this slim yet powerful volume will bring to light multiple issues facing society today.

“‘Predatory Behavior’ was born after seeing just how easy the publishing process really can be,” James says. “I used to think that bringing my ideas to life would be difficult. That it would take months and months, and I’d just toil in obscurity, scribbling in my notebook without ever getting the chance to see my work in book form. But now, it’s easier than ever to make my writing available to a much wider audience than I ever could have imagined. I’m excited that others can now read what I’ve written and use that as the catalyst for additional conversations about important issues within our society.”

There are ten stories included with this publication. The keystone story, “Predatory Behavior”, takes place in a world similar to the modern day, but with one key difference. A population of “Wolves” has sprung up over the past half-century, to help weed out those who are too sick to care for themselves. Not for the faint of heart, for this story contains scenes which may be considered graphic, “Predatory Behavior” nonetheless brings to light issues of health sustainability within our modern society.

Other stories deal with the last humans alive and trying to remake humanity while living on another planet; the implications of selling one’s body, though not in the way we’ve been conditioned to believe is “selling”; and how many people wish to have a new life, yet often times are unwilling to take the steps necessary to achieve it. Plus additional entries are micro-stories, also called Story Art, and highlight James’s prowess at weaving together seemingly unconnected concepts into a wonderfully taut presentation.

Predatory Behavior will be available starting February 1 on Amazon.com or directly from the author at author fairs and trade shows. “My birthday is February 11, and I wanted to give myself a unique birthday present, so I set that as the target publication date. That we’re going to have it ready before then is so exciting. I can’t wait to see the reviews.”

Predatory Behavior is published with help from SJM Copywriting, a local firm engaged in helping small businesses and nonprofits to tell better stories and get better results. More information about James and his writing can be found at stephanjameswrites.com. More information about how SJM Copywriting can support authors, small businesses, and nonprofits can be found at sjmcopywriting.com.

Book Review – The Stand, by Stephen King

The Stand was published first in 1978. This review covers the “complete & uncut” version published in May, 1991.

***

WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

***

I first read The Stand in high school, probably. It was this exact copy, too, a brick-sized hunk of paper and miniscule type and black-and-white drawings that enthralled me for weeks back then. Of course, anything by Stephen King was fodder for a wild Saturday night spent lounging on the couch for hours, book propped up on my chest, lost in the stories of Bangor, Maine or, in this one, Boulder, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Stand is one of King’s more controversial books. Not for its subject matter (the oft-repeated battle between good and evil) but for the preceding editorial decisions which were made to cut about 1/2 of the original manuscript for publication. King lays out, in a two-part Preface, that this book is not the original manuscript simply restored. Instead, this version is an expansion of that original story. Characters, settings, backstory, even whole subplots were removed from the original in a publication decision: a smaller book would cost less, and therefore sell more copies, and make more profit, so a smaller book was published.

Once King became more popular, and had the legion of fans which would buy anything, a new version was made to capitalize on that profit opportunity. Thus, the version I bought in high school (as one of the legion) and trundled with me as I moved 3 times while an adult.

I did not read that slimmed-down version. I only read this “restored” version, and thus loved it. Also, I was pretty well brainwashed into reading King and only King in those days, so I hadn’t seen enough of the broader story-telling world to reasonably consider the merits of the book by itself.

However, 25 years on, I have been exposed to many more authors and styles, and even critically studied the editorial process and revisionist. As such, I feel in a much better place to evaluate this book on its merits.

To be honest, I find it lacking.

First of all, it is bloated. We get approximately 200 named characters (I may exaggerate, because I don’t want to go through them all, but I’m confident it’s closer to that than 100). Plus there are many characters and subplots that, ultimately, don’t really contribute to the finale of the story. Now, not everyone has to. But there were just too many side stories to consider each one necessary to the tale.

And perhaps there are people who enjoy reading every little detail about as many characters as possible. Don’t get me wrong – I read every word. I enjoyed it and King’s style does keep one moving through the text. Yet I’m fairly confident that the “accountant’s” decision to cut words to make a smaller volume actually forced an editorial process that critically examined every word and ensured each one was necessary.

Second, the illogicalities of the action stand out in stark contrast to the overarching idea contained therein. The premise is that a major, nearly-100% fatal illness is released into the community. Then, what happens to the survivors? It’s the story of a nuclear war without the actual war, and how the survivors must adapt in the aftermath. Yes, in such a situation, there will be much that is lying around just waiting to be picked up and used, but there are still some things which didn’t get explained: how did the survivors who travelled by car (many of them), get the gas out of the pumps into those cars without electricity? We saw one scene in which Larry Underwood pries up a manhole cover to access gas. Does he do this every 300 miles as the tank empties? What about those who don’t have access to the same tools as him? With the electricity off (because all the power generators have nobody to run them), the pumps don’t work, and refrigeration goes out, soon allowing most of the remaining food supply to spoil. Does everyone live on tinned beef and Saltines? There’s just a lot of logistics that seem to be covered, but really aren’t.

Third, the production of this volume seemed to be less-than-perfect. I noticed many typos. Now, some can be expected. Maybe 1 every 100 pages? So in 1,130 pages there could reasonably be 11. I marked 3 in the last 50 pages alone. It was only in the latter fifth of the book that I started keeping track, and I’m not about to go back through just for that, but one would think that the copy editor would have caught more of these.

Finally, though, my major criticism of this story is one which The Stand shares with many of King’s works of similar length. That is, the finale, the conclusion, the climax where all of the tension has been building to finally gets resolved, is, in the end, nothing more than a deus ex machina. We criticize this technique in lower writers as a cop-out. Why not here?

Ultimately, the ending is where this all comes together and lacks substance. Larry Underwood, Ralph Brentner, Glen Bateman, and Stu Redman (accompanied by Kojak the dog) set off from Boulder on a God-given quest, delivered through the mouthpiece that is Abagail Freemantle. This is not something they developed on their own, not something they brought on, or something they actually had any “agency” in. [“Agency” is a fancy writer’s word for the whole of authority and power and action that a character has in a scene or a book.] When 3 of them (not Stu, who fell down a hill and broke his leg and was left behind with Kojak) arrive in Las Vegas for the final confrontation with Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, the Walkin’ Dude, they don’t ultimately DO anything.

The protagonists are not the solution to the problem. They don’t have or exercise any power at all. They simply exist, and wait for the story to take place around them, and the final end to happen for them. Which it does. The hand of God comes down out of the sky and does for them what they were unable to do.

Which begs the question – why did they have to go in the first place? Why were they even there? If this whole thing is a set-up from God to end the R.F. Man, why have the plague only kill most of the people? Why not have it kill them all and start fresh again? And if it was not from God, then what exactly was the thing which came out of the sky and detonated the nuclear bomb, anyway?

This is the same sort of deus ex machina that showed up in other King novels, specifically Under the Dome. It almost seems like he started writing a story, got to a place where he said, “Now how do I end this?”, answered with, “hell if I know. Let’s make it all a dream!” And there you have it.

So: while I enjoyed the book (I must have, because it took me about a month to read it), I’m starting to think that it would have been better as the shorter version. I don’t have that one, and at this point I’m not going to get it, but I have to wonder: is this what Successful Author Syndrome looks like?

***

P.S. Before you get into the whole “Yeah, let’s see you do it better!” commentary on my inability to critique due to lack of peer-ness with Mr. King, note that I don’t have to be a peer in order to give my opinion. That’s the beauty of self-publishing on this internet thing. Any jerk with a keyboard can make his voice heard, I don’t have to have “agency” in this to be able to say what I think. Nobody’s forcing you to agree with me, or even listen.

Non-review of books

Here’s a few books I’ve read recently that I’m not going to review.

The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway, by Ben Mezrich. Interesting, but in order to make a point it has to ignore a lot that doesn’t fit with the theme of the book.

Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny. Read this one so I could participate in a book discussion group. I liked it, but apparently I missed one of the major points in the narrative when it was either implied or directly stated that what was coming next was flashback.

Aesop’s Illustrated Fables, Barnes & Noble edition. I liked it. I could see a lot of parallels to other morality tales. Just flipping through right now, I find “The Farmer and His Sons”, which is almost perfectly preserved in Jesus’s teaching (700 years later) of the gardener who had a dream that there was treasure buried beneath a tree. I liked reading the whole tale from which we often just distill the lesson. Plus I was intrigued to see Aesop break the 4th wall when he told stories about the slave Aesop.

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin. This won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the National Book Award when it was published in 1974. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s the passage of time and seeing a fair amount of sci-fi since this was published, but I don’t really get why this would have been so spectacularly received.

Writers of the Future, Volume 34, edited by David Farland. I read this and WotF Vol 33 this spring, to get a better feel for the stories that win the contest, as this is a writing contest I try to enter every quarter. I’ve had Honorable Mentions and one Semi-Finalist. I’d still like to win, as long as I’m eligible. I’ll take being not eligible, because I’ve been published, too.

I think there’s more, but I don’t remember. I used to keep a list of books I’ve read. I haven’t maintained that this year. Unfortunately.

 

P.S. Edited to add – I remembered one!

Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest, by Laura Moss. Gave me things to think about as I try to train my cat to come with me camping, hiking, and bicycling.

Book Review – The Book of Strange New Things

In my experience, there are two major kinds of sci-fi stories to be told. One is an action story. Think Battlefield Earth, Princess of Mars, or Dune. The driving force is the things that happen, the rising tension, potential sabotage, the question of whether or not the protagonist will finally defeat the big bad bugs with their own laser guns or go down in a blaze of glory.

The other kind is a thinking story. Examples here are Speaker for the Dead, or even Frankenstein. In these kinds of books, there isn’t so much action driving the reader on, it’s an intellectual understanding, an investigation into the human condition viewed through an external lens. As such, it may offer elements of introspection that action stories cannot, and should not be asked about.

The Book of Strange New Things falls into the second category. In this story, Michel Faber has transplanted a naïve, if well-intentioned, Christian minister named Peter from some generic English Presbytery to the far-off planet of Oasis. While there, Peter is to be the chaplain to two groups of individuals: the residents of the USIC base on Oasis, and the native Oasans themselves.

This is not an action story. It is a story about relationships: Peter’s relationship with USIC: a for-profit company doing whatever it can to salvage an investment, thus their recruitment of Peter. The relationship between USIC and the Oasans: who is dependent on whom in this situation? Who profits? And at what cost or at what critical threshold? Peter’s relationship to the Oasans, who view him as, not necessarily a savior, but as someone who can finally help them understand the Book of Strange New Things, which, strangely enough to Peter, is the Bible, because, news flash! They already had a chaplain before, and where is he now?

This is a story about Peter’s relationship with his left-behind wife, Beatrice. It is a story about one-dimensional relationships, about one-dimensional communications, about censorship and the internal mental gymnastics we go through (but never actually reveal) when communicating with people we care for. Or don’t.

This is a story about Peter’s relationship with God, or his image of God, or his ideal of God. Peter is a broken man – by his own admission, he comes from a hard life, of drugs, of sex, of lawbreaking. But God cleaned him up, saved him, gave him purpose and a wife and a church, and now God has given him a mission, so he will, by golly, do everything he can for that mission, even if it means he must sacrifice his own self and his prior commitments, and rationality be buggered.

To be honest, I didn’t quite know where this book was going most of the time. A lot remains undefined, like what USIC stands for, how the Oasis environment would have allowed the ecosystem to develop, or even things often described in sci-fi like the “first contact” experience and subsequent information transfer. Many of these are just taken for granted, and, while I suppose the author thinks they aren’t critical to the story, I found myself just confused at times.

In terms of style, I will admit that the initial impression I got was of a very nice, very safe style. Something warm and comforting. You know how you read a book and you often have a narrator in your head, a voice that you hear reading the words to you? [If you don’t, just play along.] For the first 2/3 of this book, I could not hear anything but Winnie the Pooh reading to me. For some reason the tone just struck me as unassuming, a reserved “Oh bother” type of narration. It did change a bit near the latter part, but perhaps that was because I had experienced enough of Peter to start to hear the narrator in a more masculine voice.

Anyway – I’ll give this book 4 of 5 stars. Interesting ideas, good for a read now, one that I didn’t want to stop reading and stayed up late to finish, but not something I’ll read again or buy to have on my bookshelf. Read if you wish; I’d love to have a discussion.

Book Review – Gravity Box and Other Spaces

Mark W. Tiedemann is a St. Louis, Missouri native and current resident. He’s been professionally published in various markets over the years, and had a couple of novels shortlisted for awards.

Stephan James is a Wooster, Ohio native, transplanted to St. Louis through Indiana. He’s been paid only a few dollars from his speculative fiction, despite racking up an impressive rejection catalogue. What audacity would he have to have in order to write a review of a book by a working author?

Well, to be honest, I think anyone can write a review. Isn’t that the point of literature and of storytelling? That we make it accessible to anyone, and we don’t require them to be exactly on par with us in order to have an opinion. Should he take my comments to heart as strongly as his editor’s or his agent’s or his writing group’s? Clearly not. But does that completely disqualify me from judging how I feel when reading these stories? Not at all.

Therefore:

Gravity Box and Other Spaces, by Mark W. Tiedemann

I picked this up from the library based on the title alone, not knowing that Mr. Tiedemann is from St. Louis, so what a happy surprise it was to learn that I’m in pretty close proximity to a man who has made his living from writing the kind of stories I like to read and write. I began to read, then, with earnest.

As stories go, then, the 11 tales within this volume are complete stories. They have characters, in places, doing things. They’re clearly speculative – a pretty even split of fantasy and science fiction themes. No horror, that I could tell. Space travel/time dilation, artificial intelligence, dryads/land spirits, fossil “awakenings”, etc.

I skipped around a bit, so if there was any intended continuity from reading the stories in the order presented I missed it. There are two, “Miller’s Wife” and “Along the Grain”, set in the same world. They have different sets of characters, though, which allows for independence between the two. And in the second, “Along the Grain”, Tiedemann did a good job of not assuming that the reader was familiar with the world. He provided enough details and descriptions that the reader never felt out of place or confused.

Pros:  As above, these feel like full stories. The characters are fully fleshed out, with names, backstories, desires, needs, and flaws. The places are described enough that we get a feel for the setting, without overkill that would otherwise distract from the flo. And these are all character-driving stories, rather than sci- or fae-driven. That is, the stories are about the people in them, not about the technology or the magic of the world. As such, this was a good way to organize these stories.

Cons:   Many of the main characters in these stories “lack agency”, which is just a fancy way of saying they don’t really do much. That is, they may be the main character, but the climax of the tension often does not revolve around such characters and their actions. For example, in “The Disinterred”, Thomas Auerbach is searching for his departed wife. She is with a traveling band of religious fanatics protesting the excavation of dinosaur remains. And yet, at the end of the story, Thomas didn’t really do anything. He went to the dig site, he observed, he argued with a few others, and then just sort of… watched the events unfold around him. It’s hard to feel like he either triumphed or failed in his quest at the end of this story, and at the end of most others.

Perhaps this is why most of these stories were previously unpublished. A few were, with appropriate credits. But maybe the lack of main character power to decide their fate is why the rest were not.

And this may be picking a nit, but I noticed a style convention that eventually rubbed me the wrong way. In almost all of the stories (9 of 11), the first sentence begins with the main character’s name. “Egan Ginger pulled into Saletcroix…” “Bruce held Ro-boy tight against his chest…” “Jen Cable awoke before the alarm sounded.” While it is always better to name characters early, so the reader can begin to picture him or her in the mind sooner, this felt like too much all the time. I would have preferred some variety in how the stories began. Because once I noticed it, I couldn’t not notice it again, and that may have distracted from my reading pleasure.

Favorites:  Because these two had characters taking charge of their situation, I found “Along the Grain” and “Forever and a Day” to be the strongest stories. Their main characters didn’t just watch; they tried. They strove for something. They may have failed, depending on the definition, but at least they didn’t just sit and watch as the world passed them by. For that reason, I would put these two at the top of the collection.

Rating:  Overall, I would give this one 3 of 5 stars. Enjoyable read, but nothing I’ll want to pick up again or have in my permanent collection.

Book Review: Apes and Angels

Warning – spoilers ahead

I browsed through the library haphazardly, not really intent on any specific author, or genre, or title, or length. Ben Bova’s Apes and Angels was displayed on the endcap, quite prominently, and I recognized the name. Plus above it I see “Six-time Hugo Award Winner”, so I think, hmm, he’s a good writer, let’s see what this has to say.

On the dust jacket inside I read about Predecessors and humanity traveling 200 light years to another planet to save them from some death wave of gamma radiation. Intrigued enough, I picked up the book and took it home.

Instantly I found it a quick read. I got to at least page 100 in the first hour or so, which was a relative oddity among what I’ve read recently. I attribute this to what seems rather simplistic writing – much of what happens is rather straight-forward description of action. People talk, then they walk somewhere, they make food and eat it, they have internal dialogue. I feel like the author wasn’t asking me to think too much, as he was spelling everything out, which allowed me to almost skim without worrying that I was missing something. Ultimately this means the pages just sped along. I finished this morning with about the last 180 pages in <2 hours.

The plot? Well, there were things that happened. Brad MacDaniels, the protagonist, does some various things, struggles against the emotional residue from the loss of his family, goes against his superiors time and again with always positive results (unrealistic), and ultimately saves the day. I would have liked to see more actual action, though. There was only one scene, during a flood on Mithra Gamma, in which I felt some tension, some fear for this guy that you’ve spend 300 pages building up in my mind. I wanted more of that, more danger, more real consequence for error. Plus, with a 5-year timeline for the spaceship in orbit, any “deadlines” always seemed rather nebulous and rather unimposing. Perhaps this could be better accentuated with some more pressing demands that ultimately impose greater stakes for the characters.

The characters – are rather shallow, all of them. Brad is the naive, impetuous, internal-demon-battling young adventurer. Felicia is his companion then wife, herself drawn seemingly to simply accentuate him, rather than to provide a full person in her own right, without any kinds of desires or ambition other than for Brad and his body. Kosoff, the scientific research captain, is the big bad wolf, always scheming, always plotting to turn Brad’s discoveries either against Brad or for his own benefit. Even the humanoids of planet Gamma are stock figures,  “intelligent but subservient to religion” that has been done many, many times before. I think Bova missed an opportunity here for greater depth, for character arcs, that would have shown some changes and, ultimately, humanity rather than roboticism.

The premise: Here is where I find the biggest failures of the book. Early on, Brad recognizes that the master computer, Emcee (MC), and the humans have become symbiotes. Neither can exist without the other. Unfortunately, the symbiosis between the predatory beasts of planet Beta and the prey humanoids on planet Gamma is left unidentified. Also left unexplored and unexplained is the parallelism between the Predecessors and the Sky Masters. Predecessors came to Earth, created New Earth and populated it with humanity, and gave those resultant humans vastly advanced technology. Sky Masters came to Mithra system’s Alpha, Beta, and Gamma planets, made vast changes therein (perhaps even so much as radically reorienting their biological systems), and then departed too. Are the Sky Masters the same as the Predecessors? Are either group completely benign, or simply manipulating the Earth system and the Mithra system for their own benefits? And what about the parallels between the interventions of hundreds of thousands of years ago and those that the Earthlings are doing on Alpha, Beta, and Gamma? So many potentials for true sci-fi understanding left unexplored.

Side note – I think that the distractions of the action on planet Alpha are less than helpful. They take up real estate on the page that would be better used to consider the debates listed above, and they don’t really add anything to any characterization or plot elements. Plus, the fact that the humans “save” the planet from destruction that is a million years off is rather flimsy. I think that it would have been better to just presume Alpha was uninhabited an therefore unimportant, devoting those hundred pages or so to the important intellectual debate only touched on above.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book. It drew me on, it entertained me, it got me thinking (a little bit), but I was left unsatisfied. Like a moderate make-out session that just doesn’t get to the sex part. That’s it? I want more! You tease…

If this were Amazon.com, I’d give it 3 stars. A fun way to pass a few hours, but nothing I’d want to read again. 

For examples of good, intelligent sci-fi I do want to read again, think The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doris Russell, or the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. Both of those treat interaction by humans and non-humans in a much more comprehensive, intellectually stimulating way.