Thursday, March 29, 2012


With a genetically-engineered "jelligantic" (think of the Blob with state-of-the-art giant robot arms meant to crush entire cities with each blow) , hilariously litigious Atlanteans (literally; they believe in "optimism through litigation"), Bermuda Triangle-dwelling pterodactyls that fire laser beams from their eyes, a rampaging mecha-Marie Curie and a protagonist whom it's impossible not to picture as a (somewhat benevolent) Dalek out of its shell , Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain may possibly just represent the last stages of A. Lee Martinez (who, after all, brought us vampire cows in  his debut novel, Gil's All-Fright  Diner) completely losing his mind in an effort to top himself.* But I think a completely off-his-rocker Martinez is a Martinez who will continue entertaining us for quite some time to come and can only applaud the madness. If he must be locked up and straitjacketed, at least give him a laptop and Dragon Naturally Speaking. For great justice.

And what I've described above is really just the surface of what is, amidst the insanity, the best non-musical supervillain autobiography since Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, and probably even better than that.

All of this silliness makes the book worth reading right there -- I could quote awesome lines at you for pages and pages -- but Martinez isn't just out to make us chuckle. Buried amongst the one-liners and the absurd accounts of, e.g. using the Eiffel Tower to repel an actual alien invasion and Neil Armstrong having been eaten alive by the natives of Luna, is a sound and thoughtful critique of megalomania: once you've conquered a planet, a solar system, a galaxy, what do you do with it?

If you're Emperor Mollusk, apparently, you spend a hell of a lot of your time saving it from the deleterious effects of your own presence: your super science falling into the wrong hands, your days constantly being interrupted by the semi-enslaved sentient population insisting on throwing you a giant parade every afternoon, your alien enemies constantly invading... The story of how all of this is resolved makes an engaging and amusing series of set-piece battles that often teeter on the brink of being unsatisfying -- Emperor Mollusk is a tiny bit too close to omnipotence to ever really be believably in jeopardy -- but the sense that all of said set pieces are leading to something bigger and more intriguing never goes away, and by the mind-bending, paradoxical Bill-and-Ted-ish climax, is more than justified. This is a journey with kickass scenery and a destination worth reaching.

Plus, it's also, you know, really, really funny.

*Oh, and Emperor Mollusk's pet-cum-guard animal? A giant cyber centipede named Snarg. "Radiation just makes her hungry." How can I not love this book?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Faith Manages [FGC #7]

a brand new feeder
a new notebook, opened up
  I have to believe
bird by bird and word by word
these vacancies won't remain

This week's Form and Genre Challenge was a doozy: writing a Japanese Tanka poem. Japanese poetry has such a powerful aesthetic; I cannot think of it without thinking of nature, of drifting cherry blossoms and the strum of a koto. It's weirdly intimidating, even to a sonneteer like myself (read my sonnets, though, and you'll see how dainty they aren't). It haunted me all week, this challenge. But then I got a new bird feeder for my birthday, put it together, hung it up, filled it with seed, and this came to me while I watched, seemingly in vain, for the birds to start visiting it.

Funny enough, just this evening as I was leaving for work after scribbling down some lines I wanted to use, a purple finch and another, less easily identifiable finch, showed up and started pigging out, wolfing it down, and other animal metaphors for eating!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

100 Books #25 - Adolfo Bioy Casares' THE INVENTION OF MOREL

I first became interested in Argentine fantasist Adolfo Bioy Casares last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, when I had the unique opportunity to see on the big screen a film, Invasión, which he and my all-time hero, Jorge Luis Borges, helped write. It's a dreamy, trippy police procedural fantasy that is also often described as an updating of The Iliad. And it was almost lost; it was only by a supreme international effort in 1999 that it was reassembled and restored, and it was worth every bit of effort those dedicated cinephiles made. You can see it broken up into twelve pieces on YouTube right now (with English subtitles only; when Laroquod and I saw it in Toronto, the subtitles were in French and a volunteer read hasty a English translation into a microphone, which as you might imagine just added to the surreality of the experience) and I strongly suggest that you do!

Casares' experience with and love of film deeply informs this short work, which Borges praised as one with a "perfect plot" and which I found reproduced for me the deep and enjoyable weirdness of watching Invasión or reading W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn, one of my favorite books from last year's 100 Books Challenge attempt. Indeed, I think the phrase "Rings of Saturn with a perfect plot" describes this novella, well, perfectly, for in fewer than 100 pages, Casares managed to hit it all -- romance, obsession, the paranoia of a fugitive, the fear of contamination and invasion, isolation, ghosts, jealousy...

I wouldn't dream of spoiling the plot for you, or the language, beautifully rendered by translator Ruth L.C. Simms. But I will say that anyone who loves a good Borgesian fantasy/thought experiment really, really owes it to him or herself to explore Casares' work as well, and make sure that The Invention of Morel makes the "to read" pile soon.

Now, I think I'm going to indulge myself in a re-watch of Invasión over at YouTube.

*Blogger's note: despite its brevity, I am counting this as one of my 100 books, not only because New York Review Classics chose to publish it in its own volume (with a lovely prologue by Borges), but also because I just read at least two full novels that I counted as one in The Wool Omnibus. Golly, have I had some enjoyable reading lately!

100 Books #24 - Hugh Howey's THE WOOL OMNIBUS

Since I have been unable to ride my bicycle for a few months, I have taken to climbing the stairs at my workplace from the basement to the sixth floor four times a night for my main cardiovascular exercise. I started out wheezing, out of shape, after just one floor; now I make two climbs to the top in a row each time I take a break from my night gig. I was really, really proud of this until I started reading these stories set in yet another vertical city (c.f. Alastair Reynolds' Terminal World and Ian Whate's City of Dreams and Nightmare), its floor-districts linked only by a spiral staircase, up and down which all goods and services must tramp on human feet on ancient metal stair treads, for some 140 floors. Ow.

Now I feel like a huge, huge wimp. All the more so for having spent hours immersed in the world of Wool instead of my own, eyes glued to the page, butt to various seats, instead of getting more exercise...

A bit of explanation here: The Wool Omnibus is not really this volume's title, more of a descriptor for a collection of short stories, novels and novellas, five in all, that the author later gathered into one book to give his fans a great deal.

For fans Mr. Howey has, and rightly so, for this post-apocalyptic world he has created, in which Earth has become a toxic sewer completely inhospitable to life and what's left of humanity lives deep underground in a vast silo. There are "windows" in this silo in the form of what amount to vast computer monitors that render images captured by a bank of sensors aboveground -- but these sensors get blurry, dirty, exposed to corrosive air and dust storms and all manner of filth...

The wool in the stories' titles refers to the cleaning pads people are given to clean off these sensors every once in a while, and perhaps also to the thick tangle of inherited folk belief and carefully fostered ignorance in which the silo's inhabitants live, for no one knows how long, for how many generations, humanity has lived this way; many don't believe the planet's surface was ever inhabitable at all. And to question the dogma perpetuated by priest and sheriff and IT staff (who function themselves as sort of the ultimate priesthood) is to get sentenced to cleaning, to be packed into a barely functional anti-contamination suit, handed a set of wool pads, and sent outside to clean the sensors -- and die.

These are seriously compelling tales, full of wonderfully imagined characters and a well-envisioned culture with  unique rituals and folkways and mores. Howey has a particularly deft hand with taking up the metaphor of the silo as a vast machine for survival and making it an overarching theme even before introducing his primary heroine, Juliette, a machinist and handywoman with a passion for preventative maintenance and real knack for problem-solving, for following the trail of effect back to cause and fixing what's wrong. She's a completely engaging and wonderfully strong character right from the start, so when circumstances draw her out of her world of generators and pumps at the bottom of the silo and she applies these talents to the (comparatively) larger world, the results are unforgettable. Her story is a marvel of tension and release, of the acquisition of awful knowledge, of misguided fervor and unbearable loss. It's not a terribly uplifting one, but it's a compulsively readable one.

Never have 548 pages gone by so fast for me.

This is (and I only even noticed this as I raced toward the very end of the last novel, Stranded), in part because the prose is damn near flawless; I have seen books coming out of the Big Six publishing houses with considerably more errors. And Howey published these himself, and by so doing has really set the standard for what indie authors should be striving to achieve. Because there were next to no lexical howlers to drag me out of the story, I  became, for a few tangled days, reduced to a thing that wanted to read Wool stories.

And so I read. And rubbed my calf muscles in sympathy with my heart in my throat. And then I went and bought some of Howey's other work, because this guy, this guy is good.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

100 Books #23 - Iain M. Banks' THE PLAYER OF GAMES

I never thought I would ever find myself saying this, but I could have used a bit more exposition in this one, specifically, a section explaining how this culture-engulfing (but not Culture-engulfing, for yes, The Player of Games is another Culture novel, the second Banks wrote), empire-determining game that our protagonist travels for over a year (and that's a hyperspeed year, so a very great distance indeed) to join in on, actually works or is played. I know that adding such would not increase the tension or enhance the character moments or affect the plot in anyway, but when so much of a story's "action" consists of game play, wouldn't it be nifty to understand the moves and know what the boards look like and understand how things progress from cards to... to... to what's the next stage, actually?

I want to believe that this game, called Azad (also the name of the galaxy-spanning empire in which the game is played, determines civil services rankings right up to the job of Emperor [yeah, that's right: the Emperor of Azad is the empire's best player of the game of Azad), is playable and consistent, its moves as described in many, many parts of this novel actually part of something rather than just thrown together to suit the narrative and I'm just not sure that I believe it is so.

Because, yes, I am a player of games, and I care about these things, probably too much. Enough so, at least, to have had a lot of trouble putting this aside and just enjoying the story, which is really just a way for a man and a drone from Banks' free-wheeling, anarchistic, post-scarcity Culture to be the "Man from Mars" through whose eyes a barbaric, hierarchical, violent and very much scarcity-based, zero-sum Empire can be viewed (of course Azad is a lot more like what we 20th/21st century humans are used to than the Culture is. Of course). I'm gathering as I survey the Culture novels that Banks has decided to define his creation principally by showing us example after example of what it is not.

Since the non-Culture society in this is dominated by its game, a Culture citizen who has devoted pretty much his entire life to playing and mastering games is the perfect way to covertly explore it, and so in goes our man Gurgeh, accompanied only by a tiny* drone who has been instructed to play dumb and hum and buzz a lot and move around in a big fake carapace so that the Azadians don't catch on to how advanced Culture technology really is; play the game, learn the society, spy on them but don't give any of us away, ho ho! Best line: "You're saying  my balls are some sort of state secret?"

Despite my annoyance at not understanding the game of Azad, I wound up enjoying this novel quite a lot -- more so than the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. Like in that story, some of the most interesting passages concern an artificial life form, in this case Flere-Imsaho, the drone who accompanies our game player to Azad. Like most Culture drones, the machine that houses its consciousness is compact and simple-looking, almost like a floating metal head, but it can interact with the world as deftly as any biological citizen through its manipulation of fields; also like a biological citizen, it has a distinct, and amusingly foul-mouthed, personality. It gets snippy at having to lumber around in its clumsy disguise; it gets bored pretending to be just a sort of glorified calculator (but no, never reaches Marvin levels thereof); it would really rather be birdwatching on the Azad homeworld than pretending to be Gurgeh's translator bot. I sort of love Flere-Imsaho.

Excellent also is the opportunity to reflect on our own society, presented here in an (alas!) only slightly exaggerated and extreme form, that this foray offers (and no, it really doesn't come off very well, society doesn't). For of course my sympathies and aspirations are much  more Cultural than actual, as it were.

But something else has occurred to me as I consider this book. What would a Man from Mars think of us, say, if he arrived on our planet during March Madness? How certain could we be that he did not interpret this as an overall contest for supremacy, a planetary power struggle given game form? Watch the bracket making of the pool bettors, the frenzy of the crowds that are present and the people gathered at sports bars and private parties, consider the rewards showered on players who stand out and succeed.

And then consider: how irritated would the Man from Mars be if no one ever sat him down and explained basketball to him?

*Very tiny. I was more than halfway through the story before I realized this Flere-Imsaho was that small. We're talking earring-sized. And for good reason. Naughty drone, naughty puss!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

100 Books #22 - Gav Thorpe's CROWN OF THE CONQUEROR

I was unabashed about my glee at the offerings of the first book in Gav Thorpe's pulp fantasy sandalpunk series, Crown of the Blood, and so my expectations for this second foray into the world of Ullsaard, sometime legionnaire and general in the armies of the Rome-like empire of Askhor, who ended that first book seizing the empire's throne after learning he was the illegitimate son of its prior occupant, were pretty high.

I'm glad to say they were more than met. There is so much pulpy goodness in these books it's hard to know where to start. The lion-riding calvary (after reading this book, I'm inclined more to picture them riding smilodons; anyway, these cats are big and mean, so mean they spend most of their lives helmeted and blinkered lest they go into berserker frenzies!), and that when not riding cats some of the soldiers ride giant lizard-snake things? The endless rounds of betrayals and counter-betrayals in and out of court? The epic battles and dramatic single combats that would delight any military SF/fantasy buff's bloodthirsty little heart? All of that is still there, but wait, there's more.

There wasn't a great deal of magic in the first volume, but Crown of the Conqueror more than makes up for that lack, chiefly in the storyline of one Erlaan, legitimate grandson of the king Ullsaard deposed and killed, who wants the throne back and takes extreme measures to try doing so. The scenes in which he is transformed into a 10-12 foot tall monster with tough, leathery rune-etched skin (shades of Pete V. Brett's Warded Man, only carved instead of painted or tattooed, motherfolklore!) and bronze armor plating riveted directly to his body are among the most gruesome I've read in a long time, at least since the Aztec blood-magic stomach-turning that was Aliette de Bodard's Servant of the Underworld), and when this ensorcelled freak is then presented to a mob of desert tribes as their new king, and they start traveling over the mountains on the backs of giant herbivorous dinosaurs, well, it's hard not to chant "Mu'ad Dib meets Hannibal!" under one's breath as one reads. Which is awesome.

The desert tribes under their new freak king are far from Ullsaard's only trouble, though (just the most entertaining), for he is fighting off, in both a literalized and a figurative way, the restrictions and constrictions that come with kingship, with usurpation; let's just say the ancien regime really doesn't go away in this world. But despite this, he's going ahead with the plan mapped out by his ancestors, of conquering the rest of the known world, and the next in line, well, it sounds a lot like he's taking on the Franks and/or Teutons. You don't have to have read Julius Caesar's commentaries to enjoy this stuff, but I bet it's more fun if you have. Of course, I had just spent four hours listening to Dan Carlin's big ol audiobook/podcast hybrid "Thor's Angels", which is all about the post-Roman world of the Franks and Merovingians and Carolingians, so maybe I just had them on the brain. Anyway, worked for me.

My only regret now is that I have a good seven month wait before Crown of the Usurper comes out. Good thing I have some Conan stories left...

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sitrep [FGC #5]

The transmission was a surprise, its message, once decrypted, both hopeful and dismaying. "We made it but we had to fry the robots. Sorry!!"

This week's Form and Genre Challenge category is "Twitfic," in which the writer is challenged to write an entire story in exactly 140 characters. And yes, this is a sequel of sorts to last week's entry "Settlers' Woes" but I like to think it stands on its own.

100 Books #21 - Anetta Ribken's ATHENA'S PROMISE

I was pretty much primed from the beginning to enjoy this book, early chapter drafts of which I was privileged to see because the author is a good internet friend of mine -- but not only because of that.

Set in a hotel on the edge of the questionable part of town, Athena's Promise concerns the struggles of its front desk manager, Pallas (and the naming is no coincidence, there, but I'll get to that in a minute), made all the more difficult as the story kicks in by two unwelcome events: a murder that has taken place in one of the guest rooms, and a new, unlikable and unpleasant "guest services manager" imposed on the hotel by its owners to beef up the "numbahs" and make sure it retains its corporate flag.

This new guest services manager, by the way, is a werewolf.

And he's far from the weirdest thing in this hotel or this world, for Athena's Promise is, in addition to being what is termed a "cozy mystery", an exploration of what life would be like if somehow the old Greek gods and goddesses came back (she doesn't bother explaining how that has happened, just refers to "The Crossing" and leaves it at that) and brought the whole stable of mythological creatures along for the ride. Thus one front desk clerk at Traveler's Haven is a pixie and the night auditor is a vampire, the hotel manager is Medusa (yeah, that Medusa) and the housekeeping staff consists of a lot of very kind-hearted and well-behaved and hard-working zombies. Zombies, of course, being all of those things naturally, at least before they "Turn" and become the shambling brain-eaters of familiar lore.

And the guests make the staff look plumb dull: randy centaurs flashing trashy bling and showing up demanding rooms by the hour, the better to ravish their too-willing groupies; Elementals for Environmental Protection in town to supervise work on cleaning up the Mississippi River (the city of St. Louis is never explicitly named as the locale for this story, but it is Ribken's home and the novel has the feel of St. Louis throughout); and mermaid divas who travel from city to city and strip club to strip club putting on shows and mezmerising men who then abandon wives, families and girlfriends to become the mermaids' too-devoted followers and, incidentally, steady guests at motels like Traveler's Haven.

And that isn't all, for Pallas herself, bustling around trying to maintain order AND solve the murder, is not an ordinary girl, either, and her mystery is expertly teased out in little doses throughout the novel, complementing and beefing up the neatness of the main plot.

She is, too, the narrator, and it's her unique, fierce, feisty voice that really makes this novel enjoyable. Her protectiveness towards her staff, especially the much-misunderstood zombies, her impatience with the foibles of centaur studs and barely competent cops and Guido the cheesy werewolf who thinks he's the boss of her, is wickedly fun to read, and even if you think you know her secrets from reading between the lines and applying your own meta-knowledge of Greek mythology, you really don't, not quite, but it all works very well.

This is a self-published paperback and it does have a few flaws in formatting that might bother some: the page numbers on the left-hand pages are in the wrong corner, and there are a few passages of text that, bizarrely, are centered instead of left-justified, but I urge anyone who thinks he or she might enjoy a story like this to forgive these. Ribken is a one-woman operation (except for her cover artist, Rebecca Treadway) and an original, amusing voice in fiction writing who deserves to be read.

Bring on Athena's Chains, the sequel to Athena's Promise!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Settler's Woes (FGC #4)

"Fuck!" Paul "Spudis" Spiegel said as he realized what was wrong. "We're not going to make it."

Spudis was staring, not at a fuel gauge or altimeter or any dashboard read-out -- A New Hope didn't have any -- but out the window at what he and Tyler "Tycho" Powe had sent themselves hurtling, somewhat prematurely, towards on a one-way trip: the surface of the moon.

"We knew this'd probably happen," Tycho said. "We weren't able to make enough fuel."

"We were so close, man. All because of one fucking guard."

The ship shuddered as if to emphasize their plight. The moon's gravity had hold of it, so at least they weren't going to die adrift in space, slowly suffocating in their little tin can. No. They were going to crash.

"I love you, man. I'm sorry." Tyler wrestled a hand free from the tight confines of his seat and harness. His limbs were numb from two days like this, but he wanted to grab his buddy's hand for the end. Spudis took it, but turned to look Tyler in the eyes and shook his head. Had he had a change of heart? Figured out a brilliant way to save them?

"Nothing to be sorry for. This isn't the end," Spudis said. "It isn't."

And then they crashed.

Spudis regained consciousness first, waking to a headache but no other pain apart from the wound in his calf from the doberman's tooth that was still embedded in it. The safety harnesses Tycho had insisted they install and use, harnesses that bound them up like babies in swaddling clothes, had kept them safe and alive.

Or at least they'd kept Paul alive.

"Yo. Tycho. TYCHO," he said, shaking his head to clear it.

Tycho said nothing.



A faceted jewel winking mockingly at mankind from the lower-right quadrant of the moon, Tranquility City sat empty in the night sky, waiting for inhabitants as it had for some 25 years. Politicians insisting that the colonization effort would start back up soon came and went with promises unfulfilled; conditions earthside kept deteriorating and more pressing matters always cropped up. Resource crises. Famines. Wars. Religious arguments. Environmental degradation.

Soon the knowledge and the will to continue existed only in small, deeply encrypted bits of what was left of the internet, mostly in the form of a giant info-dump of technical specifications and study results uploaded by a few soon-to-be-ex NASA employees in a rush before that agency was eliminated for good. Hobbyists and dreamers had rejoiced in secret and begun to plan, to speculate, to imagine.

But only a few isolated crackpots actually tried to do anything.

Such were Tycho and Spudis. Just children when the NASA info-dump happened, they had grown up in a world for which the robot-built Tranquility City represented the high-water mark of society's folly. Most shook their fists at it when they could be bothered to look up at it at all. The uninformed and the office-seekers who pandered to them used it as an example of the waste of resources that had caused all of the world's current problems. That no earthly materials except for those in the robots sent up to build that city had been used was just so much irrelevant data.

Tycho and Spudis, though, were into such irrelevant data. They were into it a lot. They spent most of their teenage years learning all they could from the info-dump, exercising, and tinkering.

A mostly-abandoned airplane hangar became their workshop and their first source for raw materials. The ship that would be christened A New Hope was built as much from cannibalized airplane parts as anything else.

There were no test flights, which would draw unwanted, possibly fatal attention. The boys were trusting their schematics, their 3D prints of early craft from the Smithsonian's collection, and the gigabytes and gigabytes of data analyzing and criticizing every design new and old ever to come out of Huntsville and Houston and California -- and anyplace that ever hurled a hunk of metal into orbit.

Then there was the matter of fuel. It had quickly become obvious that "ALice" -- a fuel comprising finely powdered aluminum and ordinary water ice -- was what they'd need, which meant a series of daring raids on a local recycling plant. Foil and soda cans were still made, but closely monitored by a corporate-government complex that no longer had easy access to the cheap products of Haiti's bauxite operations after a revolution put a group in power there that imposed such strict environmental regulations on the island that the mines had shut down. Similar shortages of other raw materials led, in North America, to compulsory recycling and reuse -- and draconian security protocols on recycling plants.

It was on their last raid on the plant that Tycho and Spudis were finally, almost, caught, and that Spudis took a guard dog's savage bite to the leg. Their last load of aluminum went unground and uncombined, which is why A New Hope's maiden and only voyage had ended in a violent impact instead of a gentle landing in the Sea of Tranquility.


"TYCHO!" Spudis screamed again, frantically struggling to free himself from the straps and webs that had kept him immobile for the crash.

"What the hell..." Tycho muttered at last. "Ugh. Where are we?"

"We're here, man, we're really here!"

"We made it to Tranq City?"

"Well, we made it to the moon anyway. I don't know how far we are from the city."

"What are we waiting for?"

"Well, for one thing, I wanted to make sure you survived. I wasn't feeling the Robinson Crusoe thing."

Tycho just laughed and started working his way out of his harness.

"Hurry up, man. We're losing air. Get your helmet on."

"Shit. Right."


Spudis had won the coin toss when they were 15, and so it was he who staggered out of the remains of A New Hope first. The latest man on the moon's first words on setting foot there were not as profound as those of the first.

"Ow, my freaking leg hurts!"

"It'll heal, man," Tycho said, following him out of the wreckage. "If we survive here."

"Guess the radio works, then," Spudis said, tapping on the glass of his space helmet.


"Hey, man, we're in luck. I can see the edge of the solar fields from here," Spudis said, turning around to share his excitement with his friend. "Oh, you freaking lunatic!"

Tycho was cavorting on the regolith, having his first fun with one-sixth gravity and a "next generation" NASA surplus space suit that even let him turn a somewhat clumsy cartwheel.

"Ha ha. Lunatic. Why have I never heard that before," he said as he walked several steps on his hands.

"Well, yeah. But, you know, stop screwing around. We better try and salvage our stuff."

"Oh yeah."

The pair's gear had been stowed as tightly as themselves, but some things fared better than others. The steel containers with a month's supply of water and NASA surplus space food were mostly intact, and Spudis and Tycho reckoned they could save most of the seed, at least what wasn't now scattered and mingling with the lunar dust. The electronics... would have to be examined more closely when they were at leisure in the city, as would the bent wheel on the stationary bike that, hooked up to a generator of their own design, had powered so many of their web searches and kept the lights on in the hangar back home.

But the robots had done their work well here. Where there were solar panels -- and the original colonial plans for Tranq City called for a hell of a lot of them, mostly to create power to be relayed back to earth via microwave -- there would be electricity. And from where Spudis and Tycho and the crashed A New Hope stood, there seemed to be quite a lot of solar panels.

"I wonder if any of the robots are still working," Tycho wondered as they sorted through what to take on the first haul.


Robots, untouched for 20 or 30 years and left to manage the wear and tear and dust-clogs on their own do not, on the whole, fare well, and these had worked very hard indeed, once. Programming glitches, mechanical failures, an AI that had gone slightly mad in its isolation, all can combine to interesting effect, as Tycho and Spudis were soon to discover.

While the pair were still exulting over the amount of mass they were able to carry across the lunar mare and through the rows of solar panels, they were being observed most carefully. But they didn't realize this at first.

What they noticed was that a lot of robots were now moribund; the first one they saw lay decrepit and dust-covered next to a panel it appeared to have been in the process of repairing, a once-new panel of moon-manufactured glass still clutched in its manipulator.

Tycho and Spudis put down their burdens and moved to examine it more closely. It was, after all, their first time actually seeing one of the "bots that built the moon." Tycho excitedly brushed the lunar dust from its control panel. Sure enough, an Uqbar Model 27-C. They had a 3D print of it back in the hangar, but that was just plastic and it didn't work. Neither did this, but still...

"Wow!" Tycho said.

"Come on, man, we gotta get moving. Time for that later. After all," Spudis said, looking ahead at the faceted dome looming in the near distance, "We're spending the rest of our lives here."


Neither of them noticed the feeble light that had begun to glow on the Uqbar's sensor panel.


"Just a couple more trips," Spudis said, pleased at the growing stack of salvage they had piled up next to the entrance ramp that led down into Tranq City. They were delaying gratification; they would finally go in and explore when the hauling was done.

"Let's get the electronics next. I really want to get the radio fired up so we can send our signal to the Luna-bes back home."

"Ok, I guess the topsoil can wait. Maybe we can even get the cart fixed."

"Now that's what I call thinking!"

"Shut up."

As they resumed trudging amongst the solar panels that surrounded the dome on all sides, something stalked them.

And soon it was joined by its fellows, with no sound of their passage through the panels and the dust to warn these newcomers to what had been a robot-only world of their presence.

Intent on their purpose, Tycho and Spudis continued not to notice the small army of bots that had assembled to follow them back to the wreck of A New Hope.

They rummaged through the cargo hold once again, still unaware -- until Spudis, who had paused to admire the view of Earth this part of the mare currently afforded, noticed their pursuers.

"Um... Tych..."

"What? Hey, look, I'm sure I can straighten this wheel out. We're golden!"

"Turn around."

"Whoa. There's your bots."

"Why are they acting like this?"

"Maybe...  waiting... maybe for instructions?"

"Um. Then why approach with their claws up and snapping like that?"

"I dunno."

The first robot, a little taller than a human, closed in on Spudis and grabbed viciously at the instrument panel of his suit. Spudis swatted the claw away with enough force to knock the robot off balance, but it quickly recovered and came at him again.

Another menaced Tycho. Struggling not to panic, he took in the field of approaching bots with an anxious glance. The bot nearest him swiped at his suit's panel just as the other had gone for Spudis's, but this one was more successful, coming away with most of the monitor. Tycho instinctively clutched at his chest, but could feel nothing through his gloves.

The robot that had attacked him turned around, the monitor and a cluster of dangling wires firmly caught in its claw. Bursts of purposeful-sounding noise assaulted Tycho's ears as the bot sent some kind of signal to its fellows.

The Uqbars were always described as "temperamental" but he wasn't sure this was quite what was meant. While he watched, another bot swiped at the oxygen tank on his back.

"They want the equipment, I think!" Spudis said, barely audible through the bots' communications.

Tycho eyed one of the containers that housed all of his radio and microwave gear, glad it appeared to be sealed tight but worried that it might attract the bots' notice.

"Well that's great but what the hell we gonna do?"

Spudis smacked away another pair of claws worrying at his own tanks.

Tycho froze. There was a hissing noise. He had thought the bot had gotten nothing vital but what if --?

"Spudis, I think I'm leaking."

"Dude, I peed myself already. Don't worry. That's what the astro-diapers are for."

"No, I mean air."

"Shit." Spudis bounded over to help his friend -- and got an idea.

The bots seemed pretty much earthbound -- or, rather, moonbound. And they weren't that much taller than humans...

"Jump over them! Quick!"

"What the --?"

"Look!" Spudis said, bounding over the top of a would-be assailant. Its claws snapped closed on nothing and, more importantly, were too stubby reach up to make another try as he sailed over. Spudis landed gracefully and immediately jumped again before one of the other bots in the crowd could get at him.

Tycho didn't need to be told again. Grabbing an electronics case, he mimicked his friend, making a giant leap for it, then another, then another.

The pair continued to bound between the rows of solar panels, gaining distance on their confused pursuers. Soon they were next to the moribund bot they had first discovered, now partially animated but still rooted to the spot where it had originally gone dead.

Behind the bounding pair, the hive mind of the small swarm of lunar bots had come to a decision on what to do next. Uqbars were versatile machines, modeled partially on fleas.

And like fleas, they could leap.

Soon they were gaining on Tycho and Spudis.

The stacks of metal crates and plastic containers hove into view as Spudis felt the first swipe against his oxygen tank. A claw ripped into the leg of his suit and tore into his calf, ripping his dog bite wound open even wider in the process. Now he'd be losing air, too.

Tycho was at the entrance to the tunnel that led to Tranq City, flailing at the lever that had probably not seen action in 25 years.

"I can't move this alone," he said, gasping. "Get up here."

It took their combined force to work the dust-clogged lever that released the door. With metal claws looming near, they heaved on the crank that would open that door and let them in. Slowly, agonizingly, the door began to rise.

They didn't even try to get it open all the way. As soon as there was room for them to squeeze under, they did. But the bots clustered behind them, their arms and bodies clanking loudly against the metal.

"Go, get the inner door open. I have an idea," Tycho said, tugging at the back of his suit. Spudis didn't wait to argue and raced down the ramp.

Tycho heaved with all his might and tore the oxygen tanks from his suit, ripping frantically at the hoses and clamps until they were completely free. He shoved the apparatus under the door.

The robots backed off, content, for a moment, with this prize. It was just long enough for Tycho to crank the door closed again.

He dashed down the ramp.


"That was a helluva run, wasn't it?" Spudis said, grinning and helmetless in the city's entrance gallery.

"Well yeah, but..."

"But what? Just rest here with me a minute. We're gonna be okay."

"All our stuff's still out there, though."

"What are a bunch of robots going to do with crates of water and dippin' dots?"

"What are we going to do without them?"


"And Spudis -- what about in here. There are probably robots in here."


"I have an idea, though," Tycho said, brandishing the case he'd held on to at all costs during their escape. He opened it. An ancient shortwave radio -- so ancient it used vacuum tubes -- and a jumble of other equipment of various vintages tumbled out.

"If this works, we'll be okay, maybe. We'll survive this, but, uh, the rest of our lives will be really, really boring if nobody else joins the party."

"Whatever, dude." Spudis sighed. He had a pretty good idea of what Tycho was planning and briefly imagined a life without anything to read or any games to play -- or any information they didn't already have in their own heads and shuddered, but quickly realized they had no choice. Drawing deep, dust-scented breaths of dry and stale dome air, he watched as his best friend built a jury-rigged EMP emitter.

"Man, I knew we were gonna be pioneers, but I didn't think we were gonna be, you know, pioneers," he joked weakly.

"Better than dead," Tycho said, wrapping coils of wire around one of the steel columns supporting the gallery's roof. "Which we'll be if the bots kill us or if we can't get at our supplies without the bots killing us."

"But wait. We haven't even explored the dome yet. There are supposed to be greenhouses..."

"Supposed to be. You wanna take that chance?"

A skittering sound caught Spudis' attention. It was coming from the other end of the gallery. What else could it be?  Spudis swallowed hard and looked back at his friend, who had stepped back to admire his quick handiwork.

"No. Do it."

Tycho did.

The skittering stopped.

3000 words.

Many thanks to Christopher Lee Butler, aka Isoban, for the artwork accompanying this story.

100 Books #20 - Bernard Cornwell's EXCALIBUR

With this third and final book of Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy, the jig is up: the warlord these chronicles are really about is narrator Derfel Cadarn, the Saxon-born spearman in Arthur's British armies who rises to equal and in some ways surpass Arthur in terms of military prowess, wisdom, the attainment of domestic (if not marital) happiness and pretty much every other way but actual fame. And the fame given to Arthur is really kind of given to him by Derfel, in these novels, to whose lot it  has fallen in his waning years to write what he hopes is the definitive chronicle of the British-Saxon standoff in which both men are supposed to have been instrumental -- a chronicle that sets the record straight, he maintains, that demystifies and de-romanticizes all the tale's principal figures without diminishing their importance or their worth.

Except for that of Derfel himself, too modest, we are led to understand, to make much of his own achievements, which, he insists, are nothing beside those of his charismatic hero, Arthur.

Much of the action in this final book centers on a legendary battle, that of Mount Baddon, or Mons Badonicus, to which Arthur is supposed to have managed to rally most of the kingdoms of southern Britain to make a stand against a pair of invading Saxon hordes, one of which is headed by none other than Derfel's father, Aelle. The build-up to this battle is a bit agonizing; some 75 pages go by before the shield walls clash, but within that slow burn is an extraordinary accomplishment: Derfel, and by him, Cornwell, made me like Guinevere. This has never happened before!

All of the major themes and ideas of the series are tied together here quite satisfyingly -- the conflict between the native Celtic paganism and the new Christianity (which is early Celtic Christianity, the pre-Elviran kind in which bishops still married and anyone they said was a saint, was a saint, and so on), the encroachment of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes that so changed the landscape and language of Britain, the power of oaths and the importance of kings as the embodiment and ultimate engine of all those oaths, the difference between remembered truth and romanticized history and myth -- all come into play as everything falls apart for faithful Derfel and idealistic Arthur, ambitious Guinevere and patient Ceinwyn, pure-hearted Galahad and fierce Sagramor and all the rest with whom one has spent over 900 pages and most of a lifetime. It's all so wonderfully melancholy. After all, all this Arthur ever wanted was "a hall, some lands and friends about him," * and that's very close to exactly what he never really got.

Indeed lot of reviewers have complained that this final book in the trilogy is a bit of a let down, the characters diminished or altered beyond recognition, the tone bleak and forboding, the fit with the other two books poor, but I ask what we could reasonably expect of a book detailing the decline of Arthur and his companions into old age and misery and illness and loss and defeat? Were they to remain heroic and awesome to the bitter end, that would betray the spirit of the legend, which is as much about this decline as in the flowering of Arthur and his knights of ladies, no matter what details one cares to incorporate or ignore. Every mythic golden age takes on its tarnish, that it might become something that can reasonably be thought to lead to our present in which it is celebrated.

So yes, Excalibur is a bittersweet book, but I was ready for that, and am anyway once again impressed with all of the rethinking Cornwell has done while still preserving the broad outlines of the mythology we know and love. So here, for instance, we have Nimue's betrayal and imprisonment of Merlin, rendered into a far more powerful and wrenching tale (indeed, rather horrifying, the scenes depicting this being some of the most vivid and memorable of the entire trilogy) than any mere story of a pretty lady luring him into a tree. Her reasons for doing so are compelling and terrible and utterly understandable, even if we don't share Derfel's love for her.

In addition to these amazing reinterpretations of Arthurian myth, these books have also given a fascinating look at Dark Ages, post-Roman British (especially Welsh) culture. I am no expert on same, so cannot pronounce on the historical accuracy here, but I can say that it feels right and plausible and while I'm pretty glad I didn't live then, I wouldn't mind visiting for a bit, or should I say, just for a spell. But then I would need to come back to our time to take a shower. Or two.

I hate to see this series end, but am also kind of glad, because now I'm finally free of its spell and can move on to all of the other books I have ready to go, you know?

But yes, I cried at the end.

*Which is all any sensible person wants, really, no?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Essential Listening: Snap Judgment

My life has recently been turned upside-down and inside-out and I did it to myself pretty much deliberately.

I started working the graveyard shift at that job of mine that I can't talk about in public. Suddenly morning is night (and it's y'all's morning now, creeping slowly up on 6am local time) and night is morning; Thursday is Monday and Sunday is Friday, but it was like that a lot before... but now, now I'm a daysleeper.

And that means I miss a lot of stuff I dig on public radio, once my sole resource for culture and news living out here on the edge of a Martian plateau (as my friend Scott Bieser describes it a lot in his fantastic blog Living on Mars). No more Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, no more Splendid Table, no more This American Life. They're available as podcasts, of course, but there's something so great about just having one of these shows rambling on when I start up my car, keeping me company on my commute or my errands.

But this isn't my first graveyard rodeo. No sir. Several years ago, before the KATE STATION was even a glimmer of fancy and I was doing time in the Vertical Trailer Park (a wretched apartment complex that seems to be the only place in this city that lets tenants have dogs), I was a daysleeper then, too. And I discovered that public radio had some pretty fantastic offerings for my wee hours commute home: my local station has The Commonwealth Club of California on Sundays, and that's maybe worth a blog post sometime, too, but on Saturdays, oh, on Saturday's there is Snap Judgment.

Snap Judgment, for those who've not followed my links or regarded my shout-outs on Twitter, is a themed storytelling program that might be considered broadly similar to This American Life, but it's far from a TAL clone. Both shows are lively and fun and often funny and often heartwarming, but where TAL tends to go for the ironic, the arch, the too-knowing, the, sorry to say it, hipster angle on these qualities, Snap Judgment is sincere and earnest and sweet and, above all, affirming. I make it sound like some kind of religious program, but that's not really what's going on here. Snap Judgment, as its tag line names it, is "storytelling with a beat", and that's not just the music they're talking about (though the music is fantastic!); click on over to the show's homepage and click on any episode and listen for a moment. I recommend the first track for each show, which is usually a personal story of host Glynn Washington's, and  he sets the tone. His narration has a lilt, a verve, a rhythm all its own, warm and funny and enthusiastic, no matter the subject matter, no matter how his story portrays him. This is a curious man who wants to know more about everything, and wants to share what he's learned, and everything he shares, he shares with a wow. He shares with wonder. And that's contagious.

Like pretty much every program on public radio these days, this one is available as a podcast, or you can stream it from the site. Do! It's great. But for me, I like to hear it in its obscenely early local time slot, bopping gently along in my car on my way home from a long night's work and smiling. Sometimes I wind up sitting in my garage to hear the end of a story or a song (and where TAL has great music, too, it's usually used as a sort of ironic counterpoint or commentary on what its storytellers are talking about. SJ's music just punctuates the stories told and maybe, just maybe, gets my ass moving in the car seat, but never intrudes). And then, fondly, I shut off the car and I shuffle into my house and go to bed full of my favorite emotions, hope, awe, and a basic enthusiasm for my own species that can sometimes feel a lot like faith. Because really, humans are amazing, and so is the world if you just let yourself be open to appreciating it.

I am one happy Snapper.

Good night!