Review – Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

I am trying to work my way through the Arthur C. Clarke award and Hugo award Shortlists before their award ceremonies at the end of this month and the start of next respectively. It’s quite a task, and I’m already a little bit behind. I will probably never get through them in time, which is a shame as I am entitled to vote for the Hugo, but it is a noble effort.

As I’m trying to do some reviews, both to get my mind in PhD setting, and to provide some content for this website, the best thing to do is review these as I go along.

I’m sure I will return to posting about writing and some writing advice soon.

For this week I thought I would talk about Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, published by Solaris. I’ve seen this posted everywhere on social media, and it has quite a striking cover, so I’ve wanted to read it for a while. It was handy that it happens to be on both the Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo shortlists.

The first thing I noticed is that the opening is quite clumsy and there is a lot of exposition, trying to bring the reader into the world immediately. Exposition is a necessary and often important trope of science fiction, but it has to be done properly. It felt like reading a history text book for this particular world. I almost didn’t continue, it was that hard going. However, I’m someone that has to get to the end of the story whether I want to or not. My friend, and fellow writer, Reece has a 50 page limit where if it doesn’t catch him within the first 50 pages he moves onto another book. I’m 99% sure he would not have read past 50 pages for Ninefox Gambit, but I’m kinda happy I did.

While the description is nice the sense of being in the midst of a battle isn’t there. The character has time to stop and tell us about the different calendars and formations that their people use, but it makes it feel like there is a real disconnect between the action and description. There’s a lot of tell, but not so much show. The only description we get of the enemy that they’re fighting is that they are like the main character’s species, but alien. Not all that helpful, or really mental-image forming. It’s clear it’s a well thought-out world, but the technique isn’t great for getting that across to the reader.

I found the rhythm of the prose a bit jarring as almost every sentence had an interjection. “Nothing he kept in the office would intimidate Kujen, anyway, not the paintings of ninefoxes with their staring tails, not the lack of visible weapons, or the pattern-stones board with its halfway game, or the randomly selected images of still life.” I understand trying to have a narrative voice, but this isn’t one that’s particularly easy to enjoy. However, once the exposition is largely out of the way we start to see more of the character.

It could have started from chapter 3 as this is where the character and setting really start to come out and blossom into something that the reader can engage with. There is still some info-dumping, in an almost autistic way (I’m not sure how the reader is supposed to remember all the different signifiers), but it is much more from the character’s point of view, more natural, and the prose feels tighter for it.

In the middle of chapters there are often letters that the heretics send to one another. This are a nice touch, and it’s a decent framing device. It serves to give a lot more context than to the world that the main character is fighting against, and why they are doing what they’re doing. .

The relationship between Cheris (the main character) and Jadeo is by far the most interesting part of the novel, and really what this novel is about. It’s when the main character starts to really become a character rather than just a blank mathematical all-obeying nothing. While the dialogue can be a bit too much at times – chapters are often dialogue between the two without much else happening – it helps place the two characters, or rather give them character.

The fighting bits once the setting finally gets to the fortress (there’s a long and rather unnecessary setup) are good. They portray the common soldier quite well, and they often have more actual character traits, and are more engaging than the main character herself. These sections are much more compelling, and as a reader I want to follow the soldiers and what happens to them. They give a truer understanding of the world. It made me think of this quote by Orson Scott Card:

“Anyone who knows anything about the military will tell you, the commanders of ships and armies don’t have many interesting adventures. They’re mostly […] sending out the orders to the people who do the physically dangerous work.” (Scott Card, 1990)

While I don’t always agree with this point, I think it’s relevant here.

I like the use of flashbacks towards the end of the novel. Without trying to give too much away there is a clever device to it, and they really start to show you Jadeo’s character. The only downside is that it shows again how blank the main character, Cheris. It’s partly the nature of the fact that she belongs to the Kel clan, which as far as I can tell are brainwashed soldier class. However she does have independent thought, but none of it is compelling enough to really care about her.

Then again, the more you read this novel the more it’s about Jadeo than Cheris.

Overall, the novel is an interesting critique of a fascist regime (or perhaps of the author’s Korean background – I don’t know enough about Korea to say for sure), against democracy, but when the regime is so mind bogglingly complex that you don’t understand it, it’s hard to find empathy. (How on earth can technology be based on a Calendar system?!) I’m fairly mathematical, to the point that I can teach it, but this idea just seems bizarre and frustratingly complex.

You may think that I didn’t like the novel, and sure there is a lot that could be improved. I did spend up to page 300 not wanting to read the sequel, but then I read the ending, and I can’t help but feel that this is a set up for a much more interesting sequel.

Perhaps the author has got over the problems of technique and style in the second book, and the clever world and setting will come to the fore. I will be picking it up at some point.

Thanks for reading.

Bibliography

Lee, Y.H. (2016) Ninefox Gambit. Solaris Books.

Scott Card, O (1990) How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Writer’s Digest Books.

 

Review – Neuromancer by William Gibson

You may have noticed that I missed a week – ooops! This time it wasn’t because I was at Download. I don’t really have an excuse other than that I was in Weymouth at my parents house and after a ridiculously long, and delayed, journey on Sunday I was pretty tired. So, I forgot!

I’ve been meaning to do a number of reviews for a while, as it’s something that should help me with my PhD and give me some publications to my name. I thought I would start with a small one, as I’d forgotten last week’s post. In future I will try to do these reviews in a more academic style, but it has been a while since I read Neuromancer (I finished it on the 15 May) so I thought it would be best to give you a general overview of the novel, and to get in the habit of doing this.

Some would be surprised that it took me until 2017 to read Neuromancer – my mum actually read it before me, and she doesn’t read sci fi -, as it’s on top of a lot of Science Fiction reader’s recommended list, but as you know I read a lot and I didn’t get round to it until last year’s reissue showed up. I then read it in only 13 days. Although being a short novel, that’s slightly longer than average for me.

It was first published in 1984, and I would imagine that it was a fair bit more interesting then that it is now, some 33 years later. People say that it gave us the terms cyberspace and the matrix (although I suspect these ideas were well known to computer scientists at the time at least), but these terms are much more part of the common lexicon these days. I think this means that it is a lot less dramatic and alien than it might have felt at the time. It also gave us, or pioneered, the genre cyberpunk, and this is where it really comes into its own.

The story is loosely about a hacker, that down on his luck, having lost the ability to hack, is hired by an unknown business enterprise to do some hacking.

That’s probably the simplest and easiest to understand way to describe this novel, because there’s a lot here that doesn’t make sense. Or rather, what I should say is that Gibson knew exactly what he was writing, but there are a lot of terms that are difficult to understand and follow, especially given that this is a science fiction world in the future. (A future Earth, but still different enough to require a learning curve).

There’s a lot of talk about this online, some people saying it’s just difficult to read. I believe as some others do, that this was on purpose. I think Gibson even went as far as to suggest this himself. The main character is taken along for the ride, and as he is constantly in and out of cyberspace he only understand a little of what is going on. Gibson wanted the reader to be confused by this so that they appreciated the danger the character was in.

Regardless of what you think on the issue, the prose is good. There are some really lovely descriptive passages which put you right in this world and make you want to keep reading. Even if some sections are a little confusing – although I must say that I never felt that I needed to go back and reread pages, it was just a world I wasn’t part of – it is still well worth reading if you’re a fan of Science Fiction, and even if you’re not.

 

How to Write When You’re Not Writing

Okay, so today’s post is a day late. No, it’s not because I spent ages trying to think of a pun for the title. As you can see I failed in that anyway. No, it was was to do with the fact that I was away at Download Festival in Donington Park all weekend. I fully intended to write a post when I got home yesterday, but energy and time escaped me. So, you can have it today instead. Aren’t I kind to you?

Today’s blog is in a way about Download Festival. Not directly as such, but more what happens when things like festivals, conventions, and other events get in the way of your writing. If you’re an aspiring writer then you probably will be, and should be, attending all sorts of conventions and events to meet fellow writers, agents, and publishers. Things like writing retreats are great to get away and put pen to paper. But what if the event you’re attending isn’t conducive to writing? What if it’s something like a festival where you are stuck in a field for days, cut off from the internet, and horror of horrors, having fun? *gasp*

Well, I would say that this is where ‘thinking’ comes in. Yes, it sounds silly, but it’s something I’ve talked about before. There is a lot more to writing than just typing words on a page. There’s research, planning, and plotting. All of which I’ve covered in previous blogs.

When I’m not by the computer, and even when I’m not carrying a notepad (this isn’t very often, but sometimes I forget it), I spend a lot of time thinking about my story. This can be absolutely anything to do with your story, but it’s a good idea to sometimes take some distance from the page and to just think about it. As I’ve said before before you start writing you need to know certain things about your story and characters.

A writer is always writing.

Right now, as I type this, I’m thinking about a few plot points of the novel I’m currently working on. Because to be fully immersed in it, to be able to write it well, it can never leave you.

I find it useful at the very least to run through dialogue. This can often be tricky to write, and young/inexperience writers often try and cram too much information into dialogue. It needs to be natural. Just sit somewhere and listen to how people talk. Most of what they’re saying is in what they’re not saying.

So, what I’ll do is run through the dialogue in my head, before I’ve even written it. What would that character say in that situation. No that doesn’t sound right, try again. Yes, that’s what they’re trying to say, but this is what they’re actually saying. By the time it gets to the page it’ll feel more ‘real’. As far as you’re concerned those characters have already had that conversation, you’re not making it up on the spot any more.

Dialogue isn’t the only think that you can think through. This weekend, I spent a bit of time, on the bus between Nottingham and Donington Park, thinking about the hierarchies in my novel. Who represents the main organisation, and what are their job roles? This all works towards having a workable, relatable world, even if it is science fiction. By thinking through this, it also brought up relationships between characters: if that was so and so’s job role, then actually they would treat so and so like this…

In short, there is so much that you can be doing, when you don’t have a chance to actually write prose, that will benefit your story. Try not to beat yourself up about not ‘writing’ and realise that actually what you are doing is ‘writing’, just not the physical side of it. I’m not saying drift off and waste time daydreaming and never get you’re writing down. But if you can’t write, then thinking through dialogue, characters, setting, or scenes can help you when you come back to the computer and that blank page that you left behind.

Thanks for reading, and if you liked what I have to say, or even disagree with it please comment below.

Science Fact-ion

“It’s Science Fiction, you can just make it up!”

One of the biggest assumptions and mistakes I have made is that writing Science Fiction is easier because, well, it takes place in a made up world. That means I’ve got my own sandbox to play in; I can do what I want.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy – writing, in general, never is.

The first full length novel I wrote was a Historical Fiction novel. It took hours and hours (and hours!) of research to just be able to start it. I wrote one chapter at the very beginning, and it just felt wrong. I didn’t want to approach the subject matter until I had got it right, and I felt like I already had a pretty good handle on the World Wars. Even now, after reading piles of books, there is still more that I could learn about these particular settings. As it was a World War One novel, about the trenches and conscientious objectors, I felt that it was too sensitive a subject to get any detail wrong. Sure, there’s room for artistic license. The characters I created didn’t actually exist, despite getting family names from censuses at the time, but everything else had to be right. The Liverpool Rifles couldn’t suddenly turn up at Gallipoli, because they weren’t there!

So, turn to Science Fiction and these sorts of things should be easier, right? My characters can go where-ever, and do whatever they want? Again, it’s not that easy.

Science Fiction readers are particularly attentive to detail. It’s an important part of the genre. After all, you can’t have Science Fiction without Science. If a ship goes between two planets in a matter of hours you’d better make sure you know how. I guarantee you someone will ask. Or worse, it will take someone out of the story and they’ll put your book down. As a writer, that’s the last thing you want.

I started planning my current novel thinking, ‘ack, I can sort that as I go along.’ However, the more I tried to plan and work out what was happening to the characters the more something didn’t feel right. What they were doing and how they were reacting didn’t make sense, because I didn’t yet have a sense of their world. This is a little easier in short stories, as the story world itself is usually smaller.

There are a few planets and cultures, with different factions, involved in the story and I first needed to work out how these worked. What made the humans tick? What were the aliens’ motives? If both cultures were on this planet, why? What did they eat, drink? How did their economy work.

Some of this may seem a little indulgent, but unless these places and cultures are real living, breathing things, at least in my head, then the readers won’t believe in them either. I ended up reading books about quantum physics and various other things. At least I find that stuff interesting. Writing, for me, is another way of learning, of absorbing information.

I still don’t think I’ve got everything right, and sure more will come out as I tell the story, but the chapters I’ve written are starting to feel more right, more real, as I go along.

Maybe someday you’ll be able to read it and see what I mean?

How to right a blog?

No, it’s not a typo. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to write a blog post, particularly as I write here on my personal blog, and on The Brush and Boltgun. What makes a good blog? What should you talk about? Why would anyone want to read it?

I think I’ve spent a lot of time in the past really planning out a blog post and trying to have a particular message, or piece of advice across. While that’s probably necessary for something like Brush and Boltgun, which is about the hobby, this blog is to showcase my skills as a writer and keep people up to date with what I’m doing.

As I’ve talked about before, planning and writing a blog can take up a lot of time. Time which I would rather spend writing stories, or working toward my PhD.

For a story, novel, short story, whatever format it may take, planning can be really important. Today I’ve been working on the plot outline for a submission I’m about to make. It can be quite tricky, but that time spent in preparation can pay dividends later on. It definitely helps me to think about things in the story I wouldn’t normally talk about.

But what is a blog if not just a log? This space should be for me to talk to you, my reader. Planning it out can be useful, but I think sometimes I just need to take off that handbrake and type. Sometimes you just need to put your thoughts down on the page.

So I think from now on, that’s what I’m going to do: tell you what I’m thinking.

Today, as I said, I’ve been planning a novella for a submission. I don’t want to tell you too much about that yet, but I will do soon. (I often keep things quite, because I have a slight superstition that when I tell people abut projects they fall through.) But it is a publisher I have submitted to before. However, last time they said they liked my writing, but that it was too similar to something they already published. I take that as encouragement, and this time I hope that not only is the writing good, but it’s suitably different, and interesting, for them to publish. I have had successful submissions before (although not all of them have then come to fruition – once accepted there is still some way to go to be published) so fingers crossed!

Tomorrow is my last day on a contract as a lecturer. That might be quite a shock to some of you. But with my health, I have decided to spend more time on my PhD (which I am supposed to be doing full time anyway), and make sure that I do the best possible work on it.

In order to pay the bills I will still be doing some freelance lecturing. Although, I am on the look out for more freelance work. If you know anything that might be suitable for me, particularly freelance writing or editing then please do get in touch.

I think that will do for now. I’ll be back next week with a further update, and perhaps a book review.

As always, thanks for reading!

 

To blog, or not to blog?

Yes, it seems I’m officially out of clever titles. I may have even used this one before, but any excuse to poorly paraphrase Shakespeare is okay in my book! (The academic in me really wanted to put a citation then.)

I’m annoyed with myself because I haven’t posted a blog in a few weeks. I promised myself that I would do a regular blog and try to build up my readership – you guys. But I’ve been busy – sure that’s everyone’s excuse. Trying to keep up with a part-time academic job, and a full-time PhD isn’t easy, but I should be able to find time to write a little blog, right? I’d hope so, and I’m definitely going to try harder, even if it’s just a book of the week post so you can hear what I’m reading at the moment.

The other reason I haven’t blogged is because I haven’t asked my students to in a few weeks. They’ve been too busy with assessments and it wouldn’t have been fair to make them do a blog too. They’re too busy…

I want to ask you a few questions. I will do some proper research on this, but I want a few opinions first to get a rough idea. (Feel free to comment below)

How important is a regular blog post, or is it better to wait for good content/ideas? Is it good to write a regular post so that people know when to expect it?  When should that be?

I’m trying to work out how to manage this blog, and I want to know how people interact with blogs. Such as how long a decent post should be?

I’ve made a short survey that you can fill out to help me with this, if you have time: Blogging Survey


I’m also looking at increasing my freelance workload. (After complaining about being busy? I know…)

So if you’re a student and you want sometime to check through your work for you and check the content (no promises about grading!) or just to edit/proofread, or if you’re an aspiring author and you want some critique on your writing/some help, then please get in touch. We can work out what you need and sort out an appropriate way of payment.

If this sounds like you, then please send me an email and we can sort something out!


Book of the Week

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky

So, I’ve finally got to last year’s Arthur C. Clarke award winning novel. I was going to wait a bit to read this as I’ve got a few things on my reading list that I really want to read, but then I got a few recommendations for this in a matter of days.

I’m now 150 pages in (which may sound like a lot, but it’s only a quarter of its 600 pages), and I’m really enjoying it. It’s nice to pick up a sci fi book that feels fresh and pulls you along for the ride. Adrian is typically a fantasy writer and this is his first science fiction book. It reads like a fantasy writer writing sci fi, but that’s not a criticism. The world building is so strong and so believable that it can only be written by someone who has written fantasy. A common pitfall, and one that I am guilty of, with sci fi is to assume that you can make everything up. But you must absolutely understand how your world works, in as much detail as possible.

Adrian provides that detail, but unlike a lot of sci fi authors he doesn’t hit you over the head with it with long exposition, but rather intertwines it expertly into the narrative.

The other thing that I really like, and it was so subtle it took me about 80 pages to notice, is that both the civilisations represented in the novel are represented by a different tense. The humans are a typical third person past tense, which feels natural. Then the aliens (no spoilers!) have a third person present tense narrative. A subtle difference when kept to different chapters, but a striking one when you realise what it means.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this technique pans out, and how it helps the story.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, and please get in contact/leave a comment below!

Comedy you say? I’ve never heard of him!

Back to the writing! in this weeks class we had some great exercises orchestrated by the thoroughly interesting Peter Salmon. The aussie author used to work and teach at a writing retreat so he had plenty of great advice for us. I have to say though, a lot of what he said seemed to contradict what I have learnt over the last year. Mainly his idea that you just write, don’t outline, let your imagination guide you and then do the research and fact checking during the editing stage. I think the main thing I have to learn from this is that everyone crafts differently. At the Black Library weekender one of the key suggestions was to outline everything and so the last few weeks I have been writing rough outlines for the stories I’m writing. I think in the long run this will help me get a better handle on those particular stories. If I ever struggle for an idea I will just put pen to paper as Peter suggested and see what happens. 

The first exercise we did involved writing down something we loved. Then write down a gender and age. Pass the thing you love to your left and the gender to the right. Thusly I ended up with a 32 year old male who loved technology. My immediate response was ‘I can work with this.’ We were then given some time (I can’t recall how much!) to start a story with this character. The following, as yet, untitled piece is what resulted:

 

 

David looked vacantly into thin air as the phone rang incessantly on the hook. He wouldn’t answer it. It would be the same old rubbish as before and the time before that. They would get bored and hang up eventually. Then only the really struggling ones would come down and see him, trying to drag him away from his task.

He looked at the phone, disgusted as the imperial march played its last beat. His colleagues often wondered how he’d managed to set the ringtone. The force works in mysterious ways.

David had thought about disconnecting it, but someone would notice. He didn’t fancy getting in trouble again. Forget that.

He pushed the phone to one side and covered it in papers, anything to keep it away. Now hidden, out of hands-reach and twin monitors he carried on his work. The important work that is.

One once screen the black and green of a Unix coding screen, the other halfway through a raid, his elfin princess resplendent in kicking butt.

Meaty fists hammered the keyboard as he worked away. Deftly inserting code with the left, repeatedly tapping the ‘1’ key with the right. Who said men couldn’t multitask?

A message pop-up popped-up annoyingly over is game window and he brushed it away with a click. Some other idiot on floor five, who couldn’t open their disk drive and probably thought the tab key was a drinks ordering facility. He once met someone who was scared of the space bar.

‘forward-slash pizza,’ he chuckled to himself, second chin wobbling in sympathetic irony.

Over the rumble of his laughter he heard the door to the office open and close with a click, but his dismissed it as he had the pop-up, with a lazy sweep of the hand. 

 

You can probably see the influences already, but I had in my mind this IT guy that was fairly disgruntled and felt he had a higher calling. It then turned into a sort of comedy piece. I’ve never written comedy before, and as Peter suggested we try to go outside our comfort zone, I thought ‘why not?’ I don’t know if its any good, or if people would find it funny, but I have an idea of where I want to go with this and I think I will write it at some point. It may change drastically from what you see here, as it is, in its first draft. It’ll be a kind of spoof. That’s all I’m saying. 

The next task was to give this character, well, a character. Peter asked us a series of questions about the character and we had to write the first thing that came to mind. He didn’t ask us to share the answers and I don’t think I will as I want to write him first without giving too much away. But if people ask nicely I may change my mind. 

The third and final task was to write down a list of 50 things about a person close to you. I chose my mum and as such chose not to read any of it out. (I will read out something in class soon, promise!)

And that was that for the day. 

I’m off to carry on writing about a Far World, intersected with lunch and probably staring out of the window. Hopefully I will be able to tell you more about that soon! (its a great view) I mean the story, silly! 

Thanks for reading.

Keep reading, keep writing.