Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

redshirts-coverThose of you who have been following this blog for the last few months, know that I have been unable to read much of anything lately due to issues caused by my bout with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Those of you who have read this blog for the last couple of years, know that I am also a huge fan of John Scalzi’s writing. So when Scalzi released his latest book, Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, I found myself with a dilemma: I could forgo reading the book for months, hope that I didn’t stumble across any kind of spoilers, and I could refuse to talk to my wife (who is also a big fan) about it. Or I could read it at a ridiculously slow pace, hope I didn’t damage my eyes any further, and hope that the slow pace didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.

I split the difference.

First, I delayed starting the book until I had talked to my vision therapist about how to go about reading when I absolutely had to. He gave me a few tips and a device that allowed my eyes to focus on a single line of text at a time. This miracle tool? A colored piece of translucent plastic attached to a piece of cardboard. But even with this device, I could only read for ten minutes at a time, and at most, a half an hour a day, and only on days where I wasn’t already fatigued from my day job. Which meant weekends only. Ten minutes is barely long enough to get comfortable in a chair, let alone get engrossed in a book—especially a fast paced book like Redshirts.

And Redshirts is fast paced… driven by witty dialogue that probably accounts for 90% of the text. This science fiction tale is based on the legacy of the Star Trek, and it’s tendency to make the junior—and very unknown—away-team members, expendable. They always wore red shirts, and while the main characters came back with a few scratches, many of the ‘redshirts’ never came back at all. But in Redshirts, the redshirts start to notice this pattern, and in doing so, become the story.

Redshirts is a bowling ball that rolls right down the center of an alley filled with ComicCon goers and cosplay enthusiasts, spinning hard and fast, with a little English on it at the end to take their feet right out from under them. Other folk (i.e. people not previously aware of the term ‘redshirt’), can enjoy this book, but there are definitely Easter eggs hidden about for the more-than-casual fan of the genre. While I have seen most of the episodes of the various Star Trek series and spinoffs, I wouldn’t call myself a true-Trekkie. I’m sure I missed a few things a more die-hard fan would have picked up. Scalzi didn’t write this just for Trekkies… but there is no doubt they will get the most out of this book.

The dialogue in the book does tend towards, well, “adult-realistic”, so be a little bit careful giving this one to someone who may not be completely up on the birds-and-the-bees. Read it first, then decide if it is appropriate for your youngsters. Otherwise, you may find yourself being asked a few questions you weren’t quite ready to hear.

I have no doubt that I had I been perfectly healthy the day this book launched, I would have finished it before bedtime. Spreading out the reading did, probably, taint my enjoyment of the book. Perhaps ‘taint’ is too strong a word. I just wasn’t able to connect with it as well as I wanted to because I couldn’t stay in the story due to my condition. It took me over a month to read it, ten minutes here and ten minutes there, weekends only. And there were definitely days I regretted reading because even those few minutes hurt.

But I did enjoy it, and if Scalzi released another book tomorrow, I’d buy it, and start reading it next weekend. I’m a fan, and he writes good stuff. If you’ve ever enjoyed an episode of any Trek series, I think you’ll enjoy this one too.

How to Depress a Writer

Today, though I was fighting the remains of the cold / flu that wiped me out most of last week, started off well enough. I actually got on the train and went to work, which meant I was able to return to my regular writing schedule. I opened my laptop to the place I left off last Monday, and resumed planning my next novel. I have the beginning, and I have the ending. I just had to get the two to meet in a logical and gripping middle. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m getting there. Finding words in the ether after a break is always a calming feeling.

During the middle of the day, I came across two articles on the web that turned my sunny outlook a little bit gloomy. First, this story from The Guardian regarding “the self-epublishing bubble” in which Ewan Morrison parallels the economics of the housing and internet bubbles to the publishing industry. It’s a fascinating and frightening read, and I recommend it for authors, both self-pubbed and not. I actually recommended to the folks at Amazon in the hopes that they realize they are killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

At the present time, I have no intention of self-publishing. I worked too hard to get an agent, and am working too hard to improve my work to make said agent’s job as easy as possible when she goes to sell my polished work, to give up just yet. But I am glad that self-publishing is out there, so that should my novels not find an appropriate audience in a major house (through no fault of my own or my agent’s, of course), I could self publish and make it big that way. I’d like to think that I understand what is involved in self publishing, and that because I understand it, I would be one of the few that could sell more than the 100 book average.

But the article seems to drive a spike through the theory that self-publishing is here to stay because sooner or later, those authors who were only in it for the money, will find out that the money isn’t there and their time is better spent elsewhere. That’s great for those of us who truly love to write, right? Well, not exactly. Morrison theorizes that once the publishing bubble bursts, there may not be much left of a once grand industry to allow the rest of us to be able to reach the audience we need in order to make ends meet.  Had I been writing ten years ago, it seems, my chances of breaking in to the market and breaking out as an author would have been much better, assuming the same quality of work. But I wasn’t writing back then. I was goofing off. That’s a little depressing.

Then, later in the day, I read John Scalzi’s take on the legacy authors leave behind. This one struck a bit hard, because honestly, I place a great deal of value in the idea of leaving some kind of legacy from my life. I always have. When I was a teenager and a college student, I wanted to work for NASA to help put a man on Mars. That was something I could be proud of at the end of my career. I could tell my kids that I was gone all day long, five days a week (or more) because I was working on something the human race needed.

But my aspirations for contributing through my work were short lived. Instead, I found myself working on car assembly line systems, junk-mail billing systems, financial systems and Y2K systems for morally and ethically challenged companies, and revenue management systems for airlines. Those early years were fine for my career, but not great for my pride or optimism. I’ve pretty much given up on working on ‘great ideas’ for work, and now see work as something that enables me to take care of my family. Don’t get me wrong – I completely realize that my family is my true legacy and I hope that my kids find something they love to do and do it well and leave their own positive mark on the world.

However, it doesn’t stop me from hoping that something I write won’t leave a legacy as well. I call it my “Beatles moment”. I look back at the music those boys from Liverpool created, and I know that a hundred years from now, their music will still be played, and will still be inspiring people. Sure, it may not be to the same extent that it was played in the 60’s and 70’s, but it will still be recognized when heard.

Notice that I didn’t say I expected to be as famous as The Beatles. I said I ‘hoped’. Perhaps it won’t be me, but one of my stories that is instantly recognizable, even though my name may be forgotten. Perhaps someone will read one of my stories and be inspired to write one of their own, which inspires some grand idea for someone else. I hope for a legacy of story-telling that continues on through me. That legacy was inspired by Farley Mowat and Johann David Wyss and Stephen King and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I want to be part of that chain.

Scalzi, in his so-effective way, pointed out that of the top 10 books in 1912 (100 years ago), not a single one was one that I have read or is by an author I have heard of. Other people commented that they were aware of the books, or of the authors, but I was not. And my hopes on leaving another long term legacy through my writing, drooped just a little more.

Now none of this would have affected me so much had I not already been facing a few doubts of my own coming out of the weekend. I haven’t written a lot lately, and I always get a bit glum between books. Also, I just read a very good book by one of the members of my writing group. This book was a very early draft, but seemed to me to be head and shoulders above anything I write. The author tells the story so effortlessly, and there doesn’t seem to be much left to do to it. I measured this against my writing. I have been working on some of my stories for over three years, and I still have at least ‘one more edit left’, and can reasonably expect that just one more edit won’t do. The story doesn’t seem effortless yet, and maybe it never will. While I am a better writer now than I was three years ago, and the stories come easy, the prose does not, and that will always worry me.

Tonight, on the way home from work, I pulled out the laptop and worked again on the plot for my next book.  I’m very close now to tying the beginning to the end. But it was a bit of a struggle, and my mind wasn’t fully into it. Perhaps tomorrow it will be. Perhaps tomorrow, I will read through some of my writing and realize that “Hey, this isn’t so bad.”

Maybe I’ll play The Beatles as I write tomorrow. Maybe “Let it be”. That usually does it for me. But I’ll stay away from “Paperback Writer”. Just for a couple of days, anyway,

Book Review: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing (2007) by John Scalzi

NotFoolingANyoneFor the most part, writers are solitary creatures. Unless you’re collaborating with a group of other writers, you’re probably spending long hours, either looking for inspiration, or trying to take the inspiration you have and get it down on paper, or into that laptop you lug around, and you’re doing it by yourself. You could do that just about anywhere, like in a library or in your bedroom, but writers, almost without exclusion, flock to coffee shops to write. It’s the ‘writer’ thing to do, and, as John Scalzi points out in his book You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing, it’s pretty cliché. Writers go to coffee shops not because it’s a tranquil place to work (we all know it’s not), but because it a) has the kaffe which most of us writer types drink and b) because it’s a social – a sexy – thing to do, even though we likely sit there with headphones on and scowl at anyone who talks too loud or invades our space. Writers are an odd bunch. And Scalzi, in this book, is pretty good about pointing that out, while at the same time doling out advice on writing that goes well beyond the craft of the task.

In fact, You’re Not Fooling… is far more a book about the business of writing than it is about the craft. Want to learn about how to arc your plots or remove melodrama? Find a different book. But you want to know how to make money writing – what it’s really going to take? By all means, read this.

The book is a collection of blog entries written by Scalzi between 2001 and 2006 on his blog whatever.scalzi.com and was published in 2007. There are some intros to the chapters and to the blog entries to put the content into perspective, but for the most part, what he wrote in 2001 or 2002 (etc.) is there, as best I can tell. The blog entries all have something to do with writing, whether it be how he got his start, or how the publishing world works, or they discuss some kind of controversy that was brewing in the publishing world at the time. For the most part, the entries hold up well. There are a few things that are a little dated (i.e. ebooks prior to 2006 were nearly non-existent.), but even those entries are still worth reading because they talk about just how unimportant the medium is for writers. Those who get all upset because of the number of printed books they aren’t selling and don’t look at the e-market as an equivalent and viable market, are doomed to fail. Scalzi was all over that fact ten years ago, and it’s a major reason why he’s the success he is today.

If you’re a writer and you’re writing for the romance of writing (and enjoy being that misunderstood, under-appreciated, literary genius that isn’t published because, man, those idiots in the publishing house just don’t get just how much of a genius you truly are), Scalzi would like to slap you with a carp. This book isn’t for you, unless you’re in the mood to get the ass-whooping you’ve been needing. Writing, as Scalzi reminds us, is a business, and successful writers treat it as such in every way. You produce product. You refine your product. You market said product. You produce more product. If your product is good, you sell the product. Hopefully you make money doing it, and even better, hopefully, you enjoy the process as a whole, at least more than you could enjoy any other type of job you could get.

This is the second book of Scalzi’s blog entries that I have read and reviewed here, with Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded being the first. I enjoyed this one just a tad more because, as a writer, hearing the details of someone else’s writing career is inspiring. Scalzi’s blogging style is tremendously readable. His acerbic wit and immense vocabulary makes me a tad bit jealous of his skills. He makes me want to be a better writer. And frankly, reading books like Your Not Fooling… does make me a better writer, because, damn it, writing these days is so much more than just the art of the word. It’s the business of the word, and a matter of creating a platform and a strategy for your career that allows you to be the most successful writer you can be. It doesn’t mean just writing novels. If you want to be a full time writer, then diversify your income base around multiple streams: freelance, fiction, non-fiction, etc. It means building a platform where the readers and the jobs chase you, so that you’re not spending so much time chasing them. It’s a business and it must be treated so.

In a way, Your Not Fooling… is a complete rip off, because, well, Scalzi originally wrote all of these entries for free, and posted them on his blog to draw in more readers, who bought his other books because of liking these entries.  And now, a couple years later, that free material becomes another revenue stream. “Suckers!” he says as he gleefully counts his loot. Damn he’s good.

But I’m ripping him off now, too. I’m taking that advice… the advice I paid a pittance for, and I’m using it to break into the business too. I’m stealing his ideas. I’m learning from his mistakes. If you’re smart, and you’re a writer, you’ll do the same.

Book Review(s): Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi, Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

LittleFuzzyFuzzyNationI will admit that until John Scalzi wrote Fuzzy Nation, I had never heard of Little Fuzzy or even H. Beam Piper.  Piper wrote Little Fuzzy back in 1962 and was nominated for a Hugo Award. As the story goes, Little Fuzzy was one of John Scalzi favorite books of his younger years, and when another writing project fell apart, John decided to reboot this series for fun. This is not a sequel or a prequel, but a different take on the premise of the original story, updated with a more modern twist, and told the ‘Scalzi’ way.

I read Fuzzy Nation first, because a) I’m a big John Scalzi fan, b) I got the book at his Seattle appearance on his book tour (but did not get it signed because I had to get home to relieve the baby sitter). I read Little Fuzzy shortly thereafter on my iPhone. It’s in the public domain and available for free from Amazon Kindle, and I still don’t have a Kindle. Reading a book on an iPhone is still not a completely enjoyable experience, but I’ll try not to let that affect this review. I’ve covered that before.

Both stories center on a prospector name Jack Holloway, on a remote planet called Zarathustra, searching for precious gems called Sunstones. The planet is a Class III planet, which means there are critters of all sorts (many of them dangerous), but nothing that is sentient. A mega-corporation runs the planet to exploit it for all of its resources. The last thing the corporation wants to have happen is for something to be discovered that puts their claim in jeopardy. But Holloway does just that when he finds the Fuzzies, or rather they find them.

The concept for both plots is nearly identical. The resolutions are not. The characters, outside of Holloway, are substantially different. In Little Fuzzy, Jack Holloway is older, filled with a quiet authority and a long history of prospecting.  In Fuzzy Nation, Jack is younger, and has far less experience, and has a very complex past. The language used by the writers is very different. I’d compare reading Piper’s work to reading the Hardy Boys, full of outdated colloquialisms and stilted dialog. Scalzi is at his best when he writes conversations, and the rapid fire exchanges of conversation are both witty and poignant. The plot of Fuzzy Nation is more complex as well, with plenty of twists and turns that Scalzi is just a little better at presenting to the reader.

Both books are quite short, and very fast reads. You could easily read both in a day – in the same day – if you wanted to. I don’t recommend that. Both are very good books, and should be savored. I liked Scalzi’s just a bit better, but I will give Piper his due for coming up with the story in the first place, almost fifty years ago. Piper’s story is quite readable, and since the plots differ significantly, you won’t lose anything by reading both. Order doesn’t matter either.

This ‘reboot a book’ idea is a new concept for me. Movie studios do it all the time now, but it seems like rebooting a book, oddly, would be a lot of work. I worry that opening this avenue up to less talented authors could result in a deluge of ruined memories of the books of my childhood. But Scalzi does this really well, and respects the original work. It’s an homage, not a lazy man’s way to generate revenue. I applaud him for it, and it has opened my eyes to another author from the past who I will try to go back and read when I have the time.

Book Review: Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded – John Scalzi

HateMailWillBeGrade

If you’ve read this blog since the beginning, you already know I’m a big John Scalzi fan.  I’ve reviewed his science fiction books, mentioned his blog, and submitted short stories to his contests.  But I’ll point the finger straight at my wife for getting this book and suggesting that I read it.  Frankly, I somehow missed that this one existed until she found it.  I guess I’m not the fan I thought I was, and I am duly ashamed.

It’s a rather unusual book in that it is a collection of blog entries from Whatever.Scalzi.com (there I go again) he did from (as the cover points out) 1998 to 2008.  It’s not all of his entries.  Good lord, the man is way too prolific for that.  But it is a good sampling of his work.  The topics he covers are broad: from writing, to politics, to history, to the media, to family and beyond.  Every one of them is uniquely Scalzi-esqe – witty, acerbic, irreverent, poignant, sometimes outrageous.  Scalzi routinely challenges your vocabulary and make obtuse allusions that in anyone else’s hands would seem esoteric.  But what he writes works, and you just know, even though you don’t know the full context of the allusion,  that that was the perfect reference to make at the right time.  There is a reason he gets paid the big bucks for writing.  He knows his shit.

Scalzi leans heavily to the left, so those people who agree with him, will love this book.  Those on the right, well, they’ll probably be offended by it. There were a couple of political hot-button issues like gay marriage and creationists versus evolutionists that he spent perhaps a bit too much time on.  But it is his book, and he can write what he wants.  That’s the whole point. He wrote about and included what he feels passionate about, and I will not condemn a man for that.  I hope that someday I have the nerve to do the same.  As a writer just starting out, I know I have to avoid politics and religion in my opinion columns.  I can’t afford to lose any readers to satisfy my need to rail against the establishment.  Not yet, anyway.

If there was an aspect of the book I didn’t like, it was that perhaps he didn’t cover his writing enough.  I wanted to know more about where his ideas come from, or how he works on his books (does he plot them out, how many people review them, etc).  He provides some very sage advice for teenager writers, and a reality check for writers who are ready to give up their day job to write full time.  I think he calls them ‘idjits’, though that may have been somebody else he was referring to.

I read this book on my IPhone, since my wife downloaded from ITunes before she got her Kindle.  It’s actually not a bad book to read on an e-media device (see, still not calling them e-books).  The entries are short, and surprisingly, I liked the IPhone–IBook interface a lot better than the Kindle.  That said, I wouldn’t want to read a novel on it, but a work like this, eh, not so bad.

By the end of this book I realized that John Scalzi is not a man I would ever want to get into a debate with.  He would flat out wipe the floor with me.  I’d be resorting to “Nuh-uh” and ‘Oh yeah?” in no-time, while I slowly try to slink out of the room in sheer embarrassment.  Debating with John Scalzi would be like trying to heckle a really, really good comedian.  And I’ve done that.  Let me tell you. You don’t want to heckle someone who gets paid a hundred bucks a minute to make jokes, and you don’t want to get into any kind of debate with someone like Scalzi if you are someone like me.  Better off to sit back, drink your drink, enjoy the show, and let some other poor schmuck who thinks he is smarter than he is, become fodder for the cannons  in John Scalzi’s head.

Book Review: The Android’s Dream–John Scalzi

TheAndroidsDream

I’m a big, big John Scalzi fan.  I started reading his blog and his books in early 2010.  I haven’t read all his books yet, but I’m getting there.  My latest read from his collection is The Android’s Dream.  The murder of an alien diplomat puts Earth on the verge of war and likely eradication, and it is up to one man to find the key to preventing an untimely end to the human race.

This is 100% science fiction.  With a dozen alien species discussed, gigantic space ships and a futuristic earth, it can’t be classified as anything else.  If you don’t like science fiction, you won’t like this one.  But if you do like science fiction, you probably will like this one.  I say probably, with just a little hesitation.  If you are a dedicated Scalzi fan, you will like it.  It’s pretty typical Scalzi, with his usual brand of acerbic wit, deep characters with multiple layers of motivations, and a complex plot.  There are political undertones in here as well – or at least what might be classified as social commentary.  I’d be lying if I said I understood or picked up all of them.

My hesitation comes as a recommendation for people who have never read Scalzi before, either his books or his blog.  If you haven’t read (and liked) Old Man’s War, then start there.  And read Agent to the Stars first as well.  This is a harder book to read, and if you don’t know there will be a reward at the end, you may get a little frustrated.  It’s a complicated book, with a lot of characters and a very intricate plot.  There’s a lot of things in motion, and at times I felt a little dizzy reading it.

Overall, I liked this book, though not as much as the rest of Scalzi’s work.  The complexity of the story works against the excellent characters, and there are some tangents in the backstory that seem a little unnecessary.  I skimmed through some of those.  But the plot is indeed unique and confirms that Scalzi is definitely one of the best writers out there. 

Book Review – Agent to the Stars – John Scalzi

AgentToTheStars John Scalzi continues to be one of my favorite authors, and Agent to the Stars is both original and wonderful.  Benevolent aliens discover earth and want to make first contact, but everything they have seen and heard about Earth (through watching seventy odd years of television broadcasts) indicates that humans are a nervous and twitchy bunch when it comes to interacting with aliens who don’t look like themselves.  And these aliens don’t look anything like humans.  They come up with an unorthodox idea of how to make humans understand that they come in peace.  And it doesn’t involve showing up in a big spaceship on the White House lawn.

This is, as I understand it, John Scalzi’s very first novel, one that he first released on line and told people that if they liked it, to send him a dollar.  Eventually, after thousands of downloads, Scalzi was discovered, and the book was published.  It has since been reprinted twice, and as of last week, is being made into an audio book, read by Wil Wheaton.  This, therefore is the book that kicked off a wonderful career (to this point).

Agent to the Stars is not your average first novel. It is solid and funny and there are few of what we in the writing business call ‘mechanical errors’.  Maybe none.  Certainly none that distracted in any way from the book. 

Scalzi works magic in his dialog, like no other author I know.  Every line fits the character perfectly and adds to the bond between the reader and the story.  You don’t need heavy tag lines in the story to know how the characters said things.  You’re sitting in the same room with them, and you just know how they said it.

Agent to the Stars is a great read, and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

Zoe'sTale Scalzi has done it again with Zoe’s Tale.  He throws us back into the universe he created for The Last Colony and shows us the world from through the eyes of John and Jane Perry’s seventeen year old adopted daughter Zoe Boutin-Perry.

There is nothing not to like about this story, and if my previous reviews of Scalzi’s work haven’t already convinced you to go out and read his books, you are either not paying attention or not a science fiction fan.  This series is required reading for anyone who has ever looked up at the stars and thought ‘What if…’

My only regret is that I didn’t have the time to just curl up and thoroughly dump myself into this book for hours on end.  With the distractions of writing to a deadline and everything else going on at the end of a busy summer, I read this book in fits and starts, and really did myself, and the book, a disservice.

It’s one of those books I can’t wait to hand to my son and my daughter when they say they are bored in a few years.  It exemplifies why I love collecting good books, and have hundreds stacked on my shelf for the next generation of the family to read, and why I can’t box them up and store them in a closet somewhere.  You keep books like Zoe’s Tale out on the shelf where everyone can see it, and when someone asks if you can recommend a good book, you point to the Scalzi shelf and say ‘Take your pick.’

Under a Molten Sky

I’ve added a new short story to my collection called ‘Under A Molten Sky’, a contest entry for the Wil Wheaton/John Scalzi Fan Fiction Contest to Benefit the Lupus Alliance of America. You can read the whole thing here. The contest winners won’t be announced until the end of the summer, but whether or not I win, I still enjoyed writing it.

I am currently preparing for the 2010 PNWA Conference in Seattle where I will not only be attending, but moderating a session as well. Should be lots of fun, if not a little nerve-racking. My other preparation includes preparing my pitch for my agent and editor meetings, and reviewing ‘The Forgotten Road’. I will also be working with Book Doctor Jason Black to do a final edit on TFR so I can, pardon the pun, close the book on that one, and decide where to go with that series. The series itself is on hold pending this edit, and pending the completion of some other work.

The biggest news is that my latest novel, with a working title of ‘The Unexplored Territory’, is going really well, and should be first draft complete by the end of the summer. I know this will sound self serving, but I absolutely love this story, and it just keeps coming. I can’t wait to put it in front of people and see their reaction.