Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Some of you may know that Arthur C. Clarke is my favorite science fiction author. It may seem strange that it's taken me this long to read Rendezvous with Rama, but it happened that over the years I had collected two of the other Rama books but never the first so hadn't begun the series. When I happened across it in a used book store the other day, I snatched it up.

The premise of the novel is this: a 50-kilometer long cylindrical space ship enters our solar system, giving the first proof humanity has that they are not alone in the Universe. A ship, The Endeavour, is scrambled to rendezvous with it and, if possible, enter the ship. Time, however, is limited, because as it approaches the Sun and perihelion, no one knows if it will change course and establish itself in orbit around the Sun or slingshot around it, sending it back into interstellar space.

Many of Clarke's most famous works deal with first contact: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Childhood's End, and this novel. Like the monolith in 2001, no one knows if the ship Rama is under direct control of those who created it or if it is now acting on its own, completing a program that was set in motion eons ago, the writers of that program having long since died out.

2001 answers this question, if not for humanity at large, then at least for Dave Bowman as he is transported through the stargate. In Rendezvous with Rama, the question is never answered. Even after the crew of The Endeavour enter Rama and watch it begin to "come alive," they are left not knowing if the Ramans themselves are still present, or even if they can and will be recreated by the ship, as they assume the biological machines that begin to appear have been created from base elements present in a body of water that rings the center of the ship.

In the introduction to Rama II, which I have already begun reading, Clarke mentions that he didn't originally plan a sequel. The purpose of Rama and what it meant for humanity was meant to be left open; it was meant for each reader to decide for him- or herself. I know that a lot of readers are unhappy when a book ends without closure but I personally love it. Perhaps as a writer I am more likely to continue the story in my own mind than non-writers. And I think that the highest purpose of art is not to answer questions but to ask them.

Rendezvous with Rama is highly satisfying both artistically and as a work of entertainment. There is, after all, a reason it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, the two most prestigious awards in science fiction. As I read Rama II and the rest of the series, I will be anxious to find out if the way I answered the questions asked in Rendezvous with Rama is the same way Clarke and his co-author, Gentry Lee have chosen to answer them if, indeed, they answer them at all. But knowing Clarke, I feel that he will continue to surprise me and leave me, as always, asking questions.

5/5 stars and enthusiastically recommended!

Update: See my review of the rest of the Rama series here.

Image: Public Domain, downloaded from Wikipedia. (Source)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Separating Man from Manuscript

I was having a cigar and listening to excerpts from Wagner's Ring cycle this evening (don't judge me!) and I began reflecting on how such a horrible man could write such beautiful music. But then I realized I was being unfair. Was Wagner really a horrible man? His antisemitism is a matter of public record. But as with most things, it was quite a bit more complicated than that. He had Jewish friends; he described one of those friendships as "one of the most beautiful friendships of my life." Few men—or women—are entirely good or entirely bad. Bad people can do good things and good people can do—and believe—bad things.

So where should one stand when it comes to literature? Must I not read another word of Lovecraft after being exposed to this poem? Should Orson Scott Card's views on homosexuality prevent me from reading his books? What if I found out that an author whose work I enjoy is an unrepentant asshole? How do I—how does anyone—separate the man from the manuscript?

Yes, good people can believe what I, from my perspective, would consider bad things. But as long as that perspective is not overtly manifested in their artwork, is it still "ethical" for me to enjoy that work? Axl Rose seems to be a generally despicable human being, but in my mind "November Rain" will always stand as one of the greatest rock songs of the early 90s. Do I have to stop liking Manhattan and Chinatown because of Allen's and Polanski's inappropriate (and criminal, in the latter case) behavior with young women? I read a great deal of Victorian literature and racism and sexism are often on display.

Is there a certain line an artist must not cross before his or her work should be universally shunned? I really don't know. As with all things ethical, it is often situational. I may be able to overlook something another may not and vice versa. I think what a responsible person must do is acknowledge that all people are flawed in some way. We must acknowledge the uncomfortable positions some of the great artists of the past have held and understand that we are all products of the time and place in which we live. It cannot excuse everything but this understanding should help us to not let the ugly details of their lives detract from the good or beautiful things they may produce. So I will continue to listen to Wagner. I'll continue to read Lovecraft. And I'd like to know what you think about the issue. Leave a comment below if you'd like to chime in.

Before I close, I'd like to bring up one more aspect of this "separating man from manuscript" idea. If you are reading this, there is a good chance you follow writers on Facebook or Twitter. Social media has enabled readers to have unprecedented access to the people who are writing the books they enjoy. If a writer posted something that, to you, seemed racist/sexist/bigoted/what-have-you, how would it affect the way you buy and read their work?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Authors for Ethical Reviews - Will You Add Your Name?

Recently, there have been quite a few revelations about prominent authors either buying reviews, creating fake reviews or disparaging their competitors in reviews. Benjamin X. Wretlind, in a very strongly-worded blog post, links to some of the articles discussing this and, in his post, states unequivocally that he will not game the ratings system. I would like to join him in making that pledge and hope many other authors will do so as well.

The authors listed below have come together for one simple purpose: to state, publicly and proudly, that they are making a choice to only give and receive reviews ethically and based on any given work's merits.

Simply, we pledge that:

1. We will not pay for reviews.
2. We will not engage in quid pro quo review exchanges with other authors.
3. We will not leave reviews on the works of other authors if we have not read the work in question.

The full explanation behind each of these items follows.

1. It is wrong to pay for a review. Period. Even if the person/agency claims they will write an "honest" review, they are driven by financial concerns to ensure that writers keep coming back to them. This will not happen if many of their reviews are negative.

2. It is, of course, acceptable to write a review for someone you know. Many of the writers I now consider friends I met because either I reviewed their work or they reviewed mine. It is even alright to ask for a review if you know someone has read/is reading/will read your work, as long as you express to them that a quid pro quo is not implied by the request. But to enter into an agreement with another author in which you exchange reviews is unethical. Even if you both agree to leave honest reviews, the fear that a bad review will be answered with another bad review is always present. If you read and like a book, review it, no matter your relationship with the author. It is as simple as that. Personally, I will not leave a negative review if I do not like a book (and I know many other authors who do the same). This, however, is your choice as long as you pledge that your negative reviews will be as honest as your positive reviews.

3. The desire to help a friend may lead some to leave positive reviews on works they have not read. Conversely, the desire to harm the sales of a "competitor" may lead one to leave negative reviews. I would urge all reviewers, not just writers, to refrain from leaving a review on any work they have not read in full. Those "slow" first few chapters may be setting up the most incredible story you've ever read.

The following authors, listed in the order that I received them, have made the above pledge. There is little doubt that most authors agree with the above statements and no assumptions should be made about any authors not on the list. However, readers can trust that those listed below have done what is in their power to ensure that the reviews of their work are as fair and unbiased as possible. Each name will be linked to the author's website. If you feel as strongly about this issue as Ben and I do and would like to add your name to this list, leave a comment below with your name (or pen name, if you use one) and the website to which you would like me to link. (Edit: I don't know if some of you are just commenting or wanting to be added. If you want to be added, write "Add me" followed by the name you write under and your website/blog.)

AUTHORS FOR ETHICAL REVIEWS

4. Claude Bouchard
5. A.B. Potts
6. Mary Gottschalk

Monday, September 10, 2012

Interview: Craig McGray

Craig McGray is a new author who has just published The Somnibus: Book I, the beginning of a paranormal horror trilogy. Craig lives on the east coast of Florida with his wife, Andrea, and two beautiful daughters, Emma and Chloe. He works as an administrator for an oral and maxillofacial surgical practice in Daytona Beach, Florida. If that wasn't enough, he's also a triathlon athlete and many of his thoughts and ideas come to him during those quiet times while running, biking, or swimming.

Today, I am very pleased to present this interview with Craig, conducted in August via email.

***

Michael K. Rose: Your newest release, The Somnibus: Book I, is a horror/paranormal thriller. What drew you to that genre?

Craig McGray: Well, I've always enjoyed reading the genre. It was only natural that when I started writing, I wrote those kinds of stories. Even as a kid, my stories were along those lines. I often wrote stories and kept them to myself. Part of it was the lack of belief in myself as a writer, and another part was the content. Even when I was young. I would creep myself out sometimes when I wrote certain stories. I find myself fighting the urge to put a twist of horror in everything I write, so I guess my answer is, it feels natural to me. It's usually appropriate for the type of stories I write, but when I'm writing with my daughter (Emma is 8) it's better if I keep the premise of the fairy in our story boring into the little girl's brain through her ear and making her do bad things, to myself.

I enjoy reading things that scare me. When I have someone tell me that my story was scary, as in they had to leave the lights on to go to bed, I am thrilled. To me that is the biggest compliment I can receive. Well, there are others, but that's for a different interview. ;-) I am experimenting with stepping out of my comfort zone and writing in other genres. I was surprised to find that I am beginning to enjoy that aspect of my writing. Maybe it's my ripe old age of 40, but I think I just like doing something new; learning new things.

MKR: Do you believe in anything paranormal, or is it all fiction to you? And if you do believe, have you ever had a paranormal experience?

CM: I work in the medical field, so I believe in science. I also know there are things that science can't explain. Personally, I have never had anything happen to me that I thought was paranormal in nature. I do enjoy hearing the accounts of others that say they have experienced it, but I think it's the result of an overactive imagination more than anything. Now, do I think those people are lying? Absolutely not. I think they truly believe they had a paranormal experience. Well, some of them may be lying just to get attention. I'm also not saying I want to go stay the night in some abandoned asylum or anything, though I would if the opportunity came up, but I have yet to see any real proof that haunting, or ghosts, exist. I think loved ones do somehow visit those they've left behind. My daughters have both told me things that I believe about that, but that may be a different discussion.

In other words, I guess I believe in some things paranormal, but since I haven't seen it myself, I would put an asterisk next to the believe part. As far as haunted houses and the like, I don't buy it. I think our mind is very strong and plays tricks on us sometimes. I get creeped out by watching the movies, but not because I think it's real or could happen to me. With that being said, if I actually did experience an attack from a ghost, or I saw something in a haunted house that I thought was a ghost, I would probably need a new pair of shorts after I ran out like a teenage schoolgirl.

MKR: As a marathon runner, I'm sure that your training would serve you well as you ran out screaming like a schoolgirl. Now, The Somnibus series is about a young man named Michael who learns that he possesses, via a mysterious stone that belonged to his mother, the ability to access a shadowy other world where creatures called the Somnibus exist and from which he can actually enter into the bodies of other people. You mention there are things science can't explain, and as Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Are you approaching your story from a purely fantastical point of view, or could there be something of science (parallel worlds, for example) behind it? You've mentioned in another interview that you are a fan of Lovecraft and for me, the most remarkable thing about his writing is that in many of his stories he is able to take seemingly supernatural events and ascribe scientific explanations to them. Without giving too much away, is this a possibility you're going to explore with the rest of the series?

CM: Yeah, my triathlon training would definitely have me out of there before anyone else. What do they say about avoiding Zombies, "You don't have to be faster than everyone, just faster than someone." or something like that. Anyway, as far as The Somnibus series goes, it is based on fantasy. The world I want to create with the series could be nothing but fantasy. As my answer may have pointed to earlier, I don't think there are any in between worlds, or other dimensions that we are going to find, at least none that science has shown yet. Now, other worlds as in other planets, I do think that will happen, eventually. That's probably more your area of expertise, but I do believe the science fiction of today may be the reality of tomorrow, or maybe a couple hundred tomorrows from now.

MKR: The Somnibus is your first major project as a writer. I know how exciting it is to get that first major work out to the public. I also know the doubts and fears that accompany that. So what do you hope will come of it? What is your goal as a writer, where do you want it to take you? You've mentioned being worried about how others will receive your work. What other fears do you have?

CM: Great question. I guess I just hope I can create stories and worlds that people enjoy reading about. I know that seems like a cookie cutter answer, but it's true. I haven't come into this with some great expectations of being the next Stephen King, James Patterson, or Michael K. Rose (though I wouldn't run away from the label). I just want to put out stories that people can read and be satisfied with when they are done. Reading is time consuming, so if I'm fortunate enough to have someone spend their valuable time reading my book, then I don't want them to feel like it was a waste of time. Time is a limited commodity, and I understand that.

As far as where I hope to go as a writer, honestly I'm not sure. I plan to write stories that I like to read, and see where it takes me. Of course I want to sell a few books, but that's not the main reason for my writing. I have a full time job to pay the bills and that's my first priority behind my family. Much like my stories, I have a loose outline for myself when it comes to writing. I'll let life and readers help to put me on the right path. That, and I'd love to walk into a bookstore and see one of my covers staring at me and my family from the shelves.

Fears. Let's see. I don't like to say I'm scared of anything. However, I'm not a big fan of roller coasters, or spiders. It's not that I'm worried about being attacked by spiders or anything, they just give me the creeps for some reason. I don't mind snakes, or any other animals or insects, just not a fan of spiders. I'm getting better with roller coasters to some degree. My 8-year-old Emma is getting into roller coasters, which I have never really enjoyed. I get through it by acting like it's no big deal, like any tough guy dad would do, but I secretly hope she changes her mind sometimes. A more serious fear is the fear of something happening to my kids. I don't know how parents deal with a true tragedy or illness when it comes to children. Sorry to bring down the tone of the piece, but it's a legit fear for me.

MKR: The Somnibus will be a trilogy, correct? Do you have your next project planned? Do you think you might continue The Somnibus beyond those first three books?

CM: My plans when starting The Somnibus series was to have a trilogy when it was all said and done. As I'm working through Book II, there may be more story to tell. I'll just have to see where the characters lead the story, and what the readers want.

I am also working on a collection of short stories. I love writing the short stuff, so I always have a few of those going at the same time. Sometimes, if I'm stuck on one project, I'll go back over some unfinished work. That may get me through my block, or I might put more work into the shorter story. It just depends on the mood.

I have this premise for a sci-fi type project that I can't stop coming back to. I haven't put much down yet, but I think I'll have to start it. It keeps tapping on my forehead, wanting the story to be told. That project will be a large project and take a considerable amount of time, I think. We'll just have to see with that one. I may need a little science-fiction creative direction. I've heard of this kick ass writer, Michael K. something, I think. You ever heard of him?

MKR: Haha! I may have. Care to give us a teaser on what that science fiction story will be about?

CM: Well, when aliens try to take over the earth, there's always this big battle with violent aliens. I think there are smarter aliens out there, aliens that could rid the earth of humans without destroying everything in their path. They are more patient in waiting for us to be gone. The characters have to figure out a way to undo what the aliens have done before it's too late to recover and the human race is no more. Here's a hint, it's not a disease that threatens to rid the earth of humans.

MKR: It sounds intriguing! Thank you for your time Craig. Anything else you'd like to mention?

CM: I'd just like to thank you for the great interview. I'd, also like to thank you for all of your help and support. It's nice to know that there are authors out there willing to help each other out. I hope to release The Somnibus: Book II by late fall, and my collection of short stories before year end. Maybe I'll make it a creepy Christmas time release. Thanks again for the fun interview.

***

You can connect with Craig at his website, Facebook or Twitter. The Somnibus is available at Amazon's Kindle stores (US, UK).

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Join the SpecFicPick Community

Hello, all! Most of you probably know about my speculative fiction blog/webzine, SpecFicPick. I'm just doing a little cross promotion on my personal blog today to tell you that I've started up a Facebook group called SpecFicPick Community. Everyone is free to join this group; it's a place to talk about speculative fiction and post your book links and announcements. You can join here. Also be sure to like SpecFicPic's Facebook page while you're at it. You can follow SpecFicPick on Twitter as well.

I'd also like to put out another call for articles and reviews for SpecFicPick. You can see the submission guidelines here. I've gotten a lot of requests for Book Features but would like to expand the scope of the website, so please keep SpecFicPick in mind if you have an idea for an article. Writing guest articles is a great way to expand your audience.

Best wishes to you all!
Michael K. Rose

Friday, September 7, 2012

An Interview with Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Today, I am very pleased to share this interview I conducted with Scott Fitzgerald Gray, author of the science fiction novel We Can Be Heroes (see the SpecFicPick Book Feature here). Scott describes himself as a specially constructed biogenetic simulacrum built around an array of experimental consciousness-sharing techniques—a product of the finest minds of Canadian science until the grant money ran out. Accidentally set loose during an unauthorized midnight rave at the lab, the S.F. Gray entity is currently at large amongst an unsuspecting populace, where his work as an author, screenwriter, editor, RPG designer, and story editor for feature film keeps him off the streets.

Michael K. Rose: Scott, I'd like to start by asking a question I ask the writers I interview for my webzine SpecFicPick. I know you already answered it when I interviewed you for the site in July, but I'd like to ask it again because I think it offers a fantastic insight into not only the mind of a particular writer, but into the shared culture of speculative fiction writers: What role do you believe speculative fiction plays in society?

Scott Fitzgerald Gray: I mostly just repeat what people far smarter than me have already said in response to this question, which is that speculative fiction is a literature of unrestricted ideas. SF is a place where literally any question can be asked dramatically—questions of technology, sociology, culture, ethics, morality—with the ramifications and repercussions of those questions generating new questions in the reader. A kind of catalytic cycle of ideas and philosophy, as it were. When I answered the same question on the site in July, I mentioned how the use of “speculative fiction” as opposed to “science fiction” sums up my own personal take on the genre, which at its best is about wrapping the live wires of raw ideas in the protective sheath of narrative so that we can grab onto them without killing ourselves. Speculative fiction is an exchange of raw ideas and unbridled imagination, and shows us how to map those ideas onto the framework of human experience. There's absolutely nothing wrong with analyzing or exposing the big questions of life through philosophy or history or sociology or any other strictly academic pursuit. But in the end, academic analysis can rarely hit us in the heart like speculative fiction can—and it's when we get hit in the heart that we really start to care about things.

MKR: I, too, am drawn to speculative fiction because of it's ability to act as a catalyst for ideas. I believe that if we want our society to continue in a generally positive direction, we need more literature that does this as opposed to the generally meaningless pop fiction that seems to dominate the bestsellers lists. Do you think it is the responsibility of all writers to hit someone "in the heart," as you say? How much room should we allow for those who only want to entertain? In other words, what would be your ideal ratio for meaningful fiction versus entertaining pop fiction?

SFG: I don’t have a problem with people who want to write solely to entertain, or with people whose purpose in reading is just to be entertained. But I think stories that pack a real emotional punch are invariably better stories than those that shoot for mere entertainment—and as writers, I think we should all be obsessed with telling the best possible stories. I don’t view it merely as a social or intellectual obligation. To me, there’s never been a conflict between stories that entertain and stories rich in meaning and ideas, because I think the best stories do both. Whether you’re talking about George R.R. Martin or Frank Herbert, Andr√© Norton or Marion Zimmer Bradley, Hemingway or Joseph Conrad, there’s a vast field of popular writers whose works manage to marry exciting narrative and bold ideas, and those are the writers whose creative example I desperately try to follow.

Having said that, though, I’m not sure that there is an optimal ratio, just because the balance really depends on the story. As an example, it’s interesting to think about The Lord of the Rings and the films based on that novel. A book like The Lord of the Rings is necessarily built on the intellectual foundations of its historical backstory. Without that backstory, it’s hard to imagine the book being as amazing as it is. But at the same time, the films were forced to dispense with a lot of that backstory strictly because of time constraints, yet the films still managed to create a story that’s emotionally compelling in its own way.

MKR: I fully agree with you that the best stories contain both elements. However, it is my opinion that (unfortunately) much of what is "popular" is geared almost exclusively for entertainment as opposed to delivering meaningful ideas. As a writer, do you find yourself intentionally trying to insert meaning into your work, or does it happen naturally? Do you give serious thought to elements like themes and motifs?

SFG: Full (and equally unfortunate) agreement. But from my perspective, I think it’s important to say that I don’t think it’s all that much harder to write emotionally compelling, thoughtful, character-driven fiction than it is to write fiction that’s just entertaining. I think some writers might believe otherwise, though, and I think writers are sometimes reluctant to dig deeper into their stories because they’ve gotten used to simply writing on the surface. Delivering meaningful ideas in fiction is really just a matter of wanting to explore those meaningful ideas. As writers, if we have the will to push a story, the story will respond.

As far as analyzing the process by which I cram meaning into my own work, I’m not sure that “intentionally” is as apt a word as “compulsively.” It’s not like I craft a story and then look for places to nail down the thematic elements and the big ideas and the deeper character story. Those elements just kind of come together in the process of digging into the story. Sometimes you start out with an idea or theme that you know you want to explore, whether it be something like emotional loss, the perspective of madness, political allegory, or what have you. But sometimes you just start out with raw plot and the inclination to tell a story that’s exciting and memorable—only to discover that themes and motifs you never expected to focus on have woven themselves into the work and demand that you address them. One of the things I’m very evangelistic about as a writer is outlining, and I think that my own process of outlining has a lot to do with how my stories unfold and expand on different levels. Working on an outline, I feel like I’m working with story at its most primal, and it’s easy to see themes and motifs unfold at that level of raw narrative energy.

MKR: Can you tell me a bit about your most recent work, We Can Be Heroes, and the meaningful ideas you compulsively explore in it?

SFG: LOL, etc. But the new book is actually a pretty good example, because it was a story in which I both started with some specific themes I wanted to explore, then found myself exploring new things in the course of the writing that I hadn’t expected to. Without giving too much away, one of the Big Points in the book is to examine the notion of what it means to be truly alive versus what it means to just go through the motions of life. What is human versus what only appears to be human—which is a concept I hope a lot of people know because it’s a big part of the work of Philip K. Dick, and his books were a huge inspiration for We Can Be Heroes. Not in the sense that I think the book feels in any way like a PKD novel, but because my inspiration for that underlying theme came about as a response to his work, and to parallel questions raised by William Gibson in Neuromancer. But even as I knew from the get-go that those ideas were ones I wanted to explore in the story, I discovered that as the story took shape, I was inspired to dig a lot more into personal themes of isolation, alienation, and love than I had originally intended.

In its earliest outline-level incarnation, the story was more focused on the action/adventure side of things. And though there’s still plenty of that in the book, and though the characters were strong enough in the original concept, the character story got stronger as I reworked the outline and the writing eventually kicked into gear. A couple of the darker plot points and the mechanics of the relationships between the characters were things that came very late to the narrative mix, because I discovered that the more things I threw at the characters, the more resilient they were forced to become and the stronger their story became. There’s a line very near the front of the book (in the chapter that relates the significance of the title) that talks about living in a world in which telling someone you love them is the bravest thing you’ll ever do. That became one of the key meaningful ideas in the book, and was one of the last parts of the book I wrote, and I would never have predicted at the outset that it would have become as important an idea as it did.

MKR: Thank you for your great answers, Scott. Is there anything else you'd like to mention or links you’d  like to share?

SFG: Thanks to you for the questions, and for the chance to prattle on. As far as links to share, I’d be cementing my reputation as the worst self-promoter on earth if I didn't mention my website as a good place to go for more info on my writing and other projects (including an extended free sample of We Can Be Heroes. But for more useful information of benefit to the struggling writer, I’m a big fan of the collective of voices that is the AmWriting blog (to which I’m an occasional contributor), Phil Athans’ Fantasy Writer’s Handbook, David Farland’s Writing Tips, and Chuck Wendig’s TerribleMinds. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a part of the community of writers, and particularly the community of fantasists. Being able to share the experience of, and the ideas underlying, a book like We Can Be Heroes is a huge treat, so thanks.