That Good Story

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Posted on : 5/19/2016 03:38:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

In a conversation I am having at File 770, I was asked to define what makes a science fiction/fantasy book "great" for me.  Rather than losing these radiant pearls of wisdom to the effluence of teh intertoobery, I thought I would cement them here in my personal record.

As this is the season of Hugo 2016, there will be some references to the current finalists for Best Novel as well as others from the recent past.

[In looking at my examples, it might appear that I am unfairly focused on N.K. Jemisin's work.  I am not.

I just finished her book "The Fifth Season" as part of my reading for the Hugo awards and thus it is simply the most current example with which people may be familiar.  I enjoyed that book a great deal.  I'm glad that I bought it.  I wish her every success in the future.  She has some work to do before her work should be considered the best of the best, IMHO.  added afterwards - ed.]

You may find the following links to other blog entries to be useful as well.

I Have Already Read Something Better

Naming the Names (books that were not as good as those in the first link, IMHO)

I know that the following is numbered.  Don't think of them as being particularly prioritized in that order.

1.  It Works For Me

Every book has a certain un-quantifiable factor, a je ne sais quoi if you will permit, that engages the reader in a unique, ethereal bond of the soul.  What moves me at my deepest core (or in the case of MilSF, my corps) may not be nearly as impressive for another individual.

Another person who does not enjoy a of similarly satisfying experience with a given book is not defective.  They might well be defective, but that difference of opinion about a book isn't enough to define the defect.  The same works in the other direction as well, or at least it should.

But that isn't really very definitive, so perhaps we should look at factors that are more je sais quoi instead.

2.  Take Me Some Place New

We have all ready books about elves and dwarves and tentacled gods from other dimensions and interstellar navies and armored soldiers.  There are a couple thousand new books in the genre being published each year.  Coming up with something genuinely new is pretty hard.  So make it a new twist on an old trope.  Or use a different configuration of old tropes.  Just do not follow the herd.

Just imagine how many fewer sparkly vampire novels we would have if more writers followed that sage advice.

3.  Focus On Interesting Characters

I'm not terribly interested in what characters look like.  Get them dressed/undressed as the story demands and we can move on.  What is interesting are the motivations and actions of those characters as they unfold in the story.

This is where "The Goblin Emperor" fell down just a bit for me.  There was an awful lot of focus jewelry and other adornments that had did not do much for me in terms of character/plot development.  Some of that activity was certainly required to tell the story, but at some point it detracted from my experience with the book.

4.  Value Humanity/Value The Individual

This is where I think Robert Heinlein shined.  He put the focus on valuing the individual rather than talking about groups.

N.K. Jemisin's "The Fifth Season" was a very enjoyable read.  But I have already read something better....link above.  One area where her book feel fell short for me was the emphasis on class/caste structures.  Very few had problems with class/caste structures existing.  The ones we followed had more of a problem with the way those structures were being administered.

There was also a minor theme where the refugees/pirates had some sort of communal lifestyle where all cooking was done daily by one smaller group for the larger group.  They were detailed (in a manner akin to a command economy) to that task.  Child care was also communal.  And I mention "pirates" as that is precisely what they were; remorselessly stealing the wealth produced by others.

"Socialism" is truly the economic system of fantasy writing as fantasy literature is the only place where it can produce desirable results.  When socialism stops being evil in reality, then I'll adopt a different attitude towards socialism in fiction.

4.  Be Tied To Reality In Some Way

SF/F stretches the boundaries of human conception for the purpose of giving us new ways of thinking about old issues.  That is a property that makes the genre so influential and satisfying.  However, there should always be some useful connection between the fictional characters/story and real human interactions.

Jim Butcher's "The Aeronaut's Windlass" did a very credible job of using the unusual circumstances of his imagined world to talk about a bit about race/class issues.  He did so in a way that didn't beat the reader over the head.  He was also able to create feelings of empathy for both of the military groups present within the story.  At the very least, you could understand/appreciate some of the motivations of the "bad guys" group even if you disagreed with the actions they ended up taking.

Naomi Novik's "Uprooted" accomplished much the same thing towards the end when you got a chance to examine the experiences of the "evil" forest from their perspective.

5.  Show A Sense Of Humor...or Humour

Give me a reason to smile.  Even in the grim darkiest of the grim dark sub-genre there are examples of humor used to help lighten the mood.  Humor also serves to provide a contrast that highlights the more serious events experienced by the characters.

Joe Ambercrombie's "The First Law" trilogy contains characters that use a fair amount of humor....typically gallows humor....to help them get through the challenges in their lives.  Sebastien de Castell's deft use of humor in his "Greatcoats" series provides such a tremendous contrast that his books had me in tears over the breaking of his characters.

Real....live....man....tears.

N.K. Jemisin's "The Fifth Season" lacked an appreciable amount of humor and as a result my experience suffered.

6.  Show Don't Tell

SF/F works traditionally involve a fair amount of info dumping.  Topics ranging from orbital mechanics to computer based intelligence to sword play to the function of gemstones as a power source are generally beyond the daily experience of the average reader.  So the author has to draw the reader into their fictional world by describing what makes that world work.

One way of describing that fictional world is to dump pages and pages of dry dissertation, treatise, and exposition on the reader.  Erg.

Another method is to have one of the characters experience the limitations of the fictional world as a way of giving the reader a window into those limitations.

I have generally shied away from the steampunk genre precisely because they involve a fair amount of info dumping.  That process has generally been along the lines of "Look!  Gemstones!  Chemicals!  Miraculous hand-waving!  Stuff happens!"  Given how well I can suspend disbelief for tales involving magic, you would think that I could get past that sort of hand-waving.  Alas no.  So I haven't delved deeply into that sub-genre.

This year's Hugo nominee, "The Aeronaut's Windlass" by Jim Butcher, involves some heavy steampunk elements.  But he limited the info dumping and had most of it occur in conjunction with events experienced by his characters.  He did a good job of making his steampunk elements seem credible and translating them to the reader in a convincing manner.

Another Hugo nominee that has thus far (I'm still reading it) done a credible job with info dumping is Neal Stephenson's "Seveneves".

In comparison with those two novels, Ms. Jemisin's "The Fifth Season" made greater use of the dry expository passage approach.

7.  Stay Away From Check Boxes

Whoo boy.  I can smell trouble burning at the other end of the wire already.

"Check box" fiction really undermines the quality of my reading experience.  What is "check box" fiction?  It is a story that includes elements indicating diversity in the cast of characters that has zero impact on the the story.

In a reverse of the above, I'd like to suggest N.K. Jemisin's "The Fifth Season" as a good example of not doing "check box" fiction.  One cluster of protagonists included a character that is straight, one that is seemingly bi-sexual, and one that is decidedly homosexual.  They have a three-way.

And while the more patently descriptive passages of those events didn't do much for me, the fact that their respective sexuality helped inform their motivations and moved the story forward made the effort in describing their sexuality worthwhile reading.  She also did a reasonable job at expressing how physical appearances differed based on regionalism.  [There were one or two other moments that could be considered "check box(es)", but for the most part it wasn't a factor in this book.]

IMHO, including a character that is "different" without having that difference impact the story is at the very least a waste of time that detracts from the story and at the very worst insultingly dismissive of the people that possess the same characters characteristics.

Unfortunately, there has been a developing trend where authors appear to think that including such elements is the same thing as quality story-telling.  Water is still wet.  People still exist in a multiplicity of skin tones and gender identities.  If they story takes place in the desert, then we should probably be focused on something other than how wet water can be.

And yes, I realize that the absence of water spoils the analogy.  Work with me on this.

8.  Tell A Good Story


That heading seems about as nebulous as the first one, no?  But it isn't.

A lot of writers have "big ideas" about "meaningful stories".  Which is fine.

Don't let those big ideas get in the way of good story-telling.  Given the option of reading an engaging story without deep meaning or an OK story with deep meaning, I'd rather read the engaging story.

The Dragonlance series written/shepherded by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman includes good examples of good story-telling.  Some of those stories had some sub-textual themes.  Mostly they were just entertaining.

And I loved almost every book from that fictional world that I read.  In fact I would take "Dragons of Winter Night" and/or "Dragons of Spring Dawning" over Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" precisely because they are better told stories.  (I haven't read all of the books from the Dragonlance 'verse, but of those that I did read, the stinkers were few and far between.)

Tell a good story.  Make the characters interesting.  Make the factors of their personality matter to the story.  Let the characters experience the world instead of dropping endless pages of exposition.  Don't add characterizations if those characterizations do not have an impact on the story arc.  Have a sense of humor.  Place a high value on individuals.  Have a tie to reality so that the story is relevant outside of itself.

Do this and I will enjoy your book.  Do it not and I probably will not.

Pardon me whilst I don my asbestos Underoos.....

Naming The Names

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Posted on : 5/11/2016 01:41:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

As I have become more focused on reading for the Hugo Awards, I have spent quite a bit of time looking over some recent nominees.  I have pointed out that I have read other works that I found to be better reading experiences in comparison with recent nominees.  What I have not done is pointed out those nominees that I found to be less than stellar.

A note just in case.  I have enjoyed reading all of these books.  I am proud to own at least a signed copy of at least one of these books.  I am glad that all of these authors are experiencing different levels of success.

I just do not happen to think that these are one of the five best SFF novels produced in their respective years.  I have read something better.

  • 2016 - The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin[3]
  • 2015 - The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
  • 2012 - A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
  • 2011 - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
  • 2009 - Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi[1]
  • 2008 - The Last Colony by John Scalzi[1]
  • 2000 - A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge[2]


I can't comment on the rest of the nominees as I haven't given them a full reading.

[1] By John's own admission, The Last Colony was missing something.  Which is how Zoe's Tale came into being.  Two halves of a good book are not independently worthy of being a top 5 book, IMHO.

[2] This was the winner in 2000!  I enjoyed it, but didn't think it was that great.  Curiously, I did like A Fire Upon the Deep by Mr. Vinge a great deal and can see why it won in 1993.  The two books are related.

[3] Added on 5/16/2016.  I just finished it over the weekend.  While it was a very good book, I have, indeed, read better books.

A Surprising Accord

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Posted on : 3/23/2016 04:14:00 PM | By : Dann | In :

Michael Mann is a well known scientist for folks following the science behind climate change policies.  He is lauded by people that endorse rigorous government responses to curb carbon dioxide emissions.  He is held in somewhat lower esteem by people that are skeptical on the issue.

I would fall into that latter group, FWIW.

However, I remain committed to giving credit where credit is due.

In 2015, NOAA "updated" their temperature records and insisted that there had been no "pause" in the increasing temperatures of the planet.  Two of the many reasons for my skepticism are the regular fiddling with the temperature records that go on from time to time and the documented pause in global warming that began in 1998.

While there are many legitimate reasons to adjust the recorded temperature data (i.e. change in recording equipment/location, etc.) it seems that there have been other adjustments to the record that are less legitimate.  In this case, the NOAA "update" was timed to coincide with the Paris climate conference.  Such a coincidence inspires the suspicion that this particular adjustment was done to provide a media opportunity in support of additional carbon restrictions.

There have been other examples of "adjustments" that are questionable as well.  For example, there were questionable changes made to 20th century data collected from long term sites in Australia.

As I know someone will misconstrue this, let me reiterate: there are many legitimate reasons for adjusting the temperature record.  And those legitimate adjustments can and will push the recorded data higher.

The pause in global warming is important because it was not predicted by the many models used by scientists to evaluate the impact of carbon dioxide on our environment.  Skeptics, like me, point to that oversight and respectfully suggest that the models may not accurately reflect the actual functioning of the environment.

Do you know who happens to agree with me?  Michael Mann and a host of other scientists that have published a letter in Nature Climate Change.  This summary by Scientific American is also helpful.

Now I think it is fair to say that Mr. Mann still believes that anthropogenic CO2 is a significant problem that is worthy of immediate government action.

My perspective on government action is a bit complex.  I think there are things we could do to reduce CO2 emissions that would benefit humanity even if science inevitably discovers that the climate isn't very susceptible to those emissions.  Things like promoting power via nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and various biofuels come to mind.  I think there are things that we could do that would devastate humanity such as the various carbon tax proposals.

However, I also believe in giving credit where it is due.  In this case, Mr. Mann participated in countering a flawed process and insisted on doing the hard scientific work to make the models accurately reflect our world.  Getting it right matters.  On that subject, I agree with Michael Mann.

Proving A Negative Is A Tough Task

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Posted on : 3/21/2016 05:18:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , ,

Those following the Hugo Awards serial kerfuffles know that the whole mess really got started after Larry Correia was nominated for the Campbell back in 2011.  Mr. Correia reported that he had read message boards and other sources where his nomination was received with something well short of warmth much less thoughtful consideration.

Mr. Correia has told a couple different versions about what was said.  The earliest version that I found was here.

I am the least favored to win by the literary critical types, (in fact, I’ve seen a few places where they have ranked me #6 out of the 5 finalists) but that’s cool, because I am the only author eligible that has had a gnome fight or trailer park elves. (or as one critic pointed out, I am a relentlessly single tone throw back, and another said that if I win it is an insult and a black mark on the entire field of writing.) SWEET!  I’m so unabashadly pulpy and just happy to entertain, and thus offensive, that I make the inteligensia weep bitter blood tears of rage.
Emphasis added.

Now I have not found that quote verbatim elsewhere that was not citing Mr. Correia's post above.  Nor have I found the other version where the critic opined that a Correia win would "end writing forever" that did not lead back something other than a Correia re-telling.

I'm adding this entry to my blog as a personal reference.  There are people that deny that this episode ever occurred because they cannot find the source posting/message board/smoke signal.

Those folks are setting themselves up for a tough task; proving a negative.  Mr. Correia is not obligated to provide a verbatim quote.  I suspect that he is providing a translation of the events where someone made a more polite-ish statement that suggested that the Correia nomination was not in keeping with high literary standards/traditions/etc.

The inability to locate an exact citation is not proof that the episode did not occur.

And his nomination for the Campbell award was entirely appropriate and in keeping with the origins and traditions of the genre.  Perhaps if the folks that are so agitated about what happened post-2011 Hugos had been a little more concerned about the snobbery going on that year, we might have been able to avoid all of the current conflict.

I Have Already Read Something Better

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Posted on : 3/19/2016 11:12:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , ,

The bickering in the SFF community exists for a couple of reasons.  As far cooler heads than mine have observed, the field has gotten so large that no one person can truly survey all of the published works in order to have an informed opinion.  Therefore there will always be works that are overlooked.

Given that the Hugo Awards acknowledge five finalists and one winner each year, it is entirely predictable that high quality work will pass under the radar of enough voters to end up being left without acknowledgement.  Specifically, the rest of this entry will reference the Best Novel category.

In looking back over the list of nominees and winners, I find 1986 to be a turning point.  Prior to that year, I had found most of the nominated works that I encountered to be quite enjoyable.  Some had a serious message.  Some were just plain fun pieces of fiction.  But they almost uniformly provided an enjoyable reading experience.  I have not read all of them, but I have read a high percentage of them.

1986 was the year that Orson Scott Card won the Hugo novel award for "Ender's Game".  I got around to reading "Ender's Game" a few years back after the movie came out.  I ignored the movie.  And quite frankly I found the book to be less than impressive.  The storyline dragged at times and the prose wasn't all that great.  It was not a bad experience.  It just was not an experience that I would put at the same level as the great SFF works from the preceding years and decades.

Considering the explosion in SFF works published each year, it is not unreasonable to find that my chanced experiences with Hugo nominated works have declined over the years.  Now that I have spent a couple of years paying closer attention to the theoretically superior books that are nominated for the Hugo awards, I have sought out more of those works.  Quite frankly, my response is that while they are largely enjoyable works, I have already read something better.

Going back a few years, I think about David Weber and his "Hammer's Slammers" series.  I also think about Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman's work on the Dragonlance series.  From that series comes one of my top ten books "The Legend of Huma" by Richard Knaack.  Dave Duncan and L.E. Modesitt Jr. are also authors of interest that have not had any Hugo nominations.

Jumping into the 1990s, Mercedes Lackey, Sara Douglass, Barbara Hambly and Melanie Rawn are a quintet of ladies that produced a wealth of fiction that I devoured.  Yet none of them have received Hugo Award nominations.

Terry Goodkind, Tad Williams, and R.A. Salvatore....the list could go on and on and on.

Someone could almost write a book listing authors of quality SFF works that have not been able to make it into the final round of the Hugo Awards.

Does this mean that the authors that did make into the final round produced bad work?  Nope.  Nor does it mean that the works that did make into the final round were in some way objectively "the best" of those years.  The pool of voters has been small enough that it may not accurately reflect what readers of SFF fiction truly feel are the best works in the field.

As I encounter more nominated works from the last 10-15 years, I find myself more and more frequently arriving at the conclusion that "I have already read something better".  What would be better than some of those works?  What other books have provided me with a better reading experience than the nominated works that I have read?

Here is a quick, short list of authors and series that have done a great job of scratching my particular SFF itch.  I have included the name of the first book in the series where possible. Some of these works include a diverse range of characters.  Some do not.  Some have commentary on our modern world.  Some do not.  All of them provide a unique approach to storytelling.

E.E. Knight - Age of Fire Series

Peter V. Brett - The Demon Cycle (5 books) - Book 1 - The Warded Man

Justin Cronin - vampire trilogy (3 books - natch) Book 1 - The Passage

Sebastien de Castell - Greatcoats (4 books) Book 1 - Traitor's Blade (made me weep man tears - this one was series is great)

James A. Moore - Seven Forges (4 books thus far) Book 1 - Seven Forges

Joe Abercrombie - The First Law (3 books) - The Blade Itself

Hugh Howey - The Wool Series - Wool

Sarah Beth Durst - The Lost - I've only read the first book and can't vouch for the series.  The first book was great!***

If you have not heard of these authors or these works, then perhaps you ought to read more widely.  I promise that you will not waste your time with any of these works.

**edited/cleaned up on 3/21/2016
***added a book on 5/11/2016
****added another book on 5/13/2016

The Literary Hammer/Shield

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Posted on : 3/17/2016 09:42:00 AM | By : Dann | In : , ,

People aware of the Sad Puppies imbroglio within the SFF community should be aware that a large part of that issue centers around a diverse range of opinions as to what constitutes the "best" writing within the genre.  That such a range of opinion exists is a testament to the success of SFF authors in publishing a large volume of works that cover a broad spectrum of perspectives.


There are scientifically rigorous treatments that project current technological trends on the future.  There are less rigorous treatments that attempt to look at current social issues.  There are books from the fantasy end of the genre that toss science to the wind.  There are books from across the spectrum that are just plain fun to read.

The history of the SFF genre embraces (or should embrace) all of those various modes of expression.  What has developed within the genre is a condition where it is impossible for one person, or even a few people, to be sufficiently well read to be able to select the very best works and have that selection be meaningful for the entire genre.

The history of the written word includes a centuries long debate as to what is "literary".  That word has long become something between a cudgel and a shield used to exclude certain works/authors from serious consideration.

My first contact with the word "literary" goes way back to high school.  I had just discovered this new author; Stephen King.  When attempting to engage a teacher on the subject, I was met with the attitude that Mr. King's work would never be worthy of serious consideration.  His work simply wasn't literary.

It is my understanding that Mr. King has published a couple of successful books and had his work converted into a couple of decent movies/TV shows since that time.  I hear that he doesn't have to worry about starving.

I had similar experiences throughout my education.  In particular, my preference for SFF was routinely and nonchalantly dismissed as an interest in something that wasn't "literary".

Due to those experiences, I find it terribly difficult to take someone seriously when they attempt to use the word "literary" as a weapon-cum-shield to stave off the works of authors and/or publishing houses.  Instead of providing the critical reasoning in support of their position, they declare that a work isn't "literary" and move on.

There should not be a place in a genre that was born out of popular pulp novels and magazines for excluding popular works.  There is nothing wrong with valuing an enjoyable reading experience at least as much as other aspects of the genre.  At the very least, there is nothing wrong with readers supporting works that they have enjoyed reading for awards that are presented due to reader participation.  Being popular should not disqualify a work from consideration.


Hard Luck Hank: Screw the Galaxy - A Goodreads Review

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Posted on : 2/02/2016 12:24:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

Screw The Galaxy (Hard Luck Hank #1)Screw The Galaxy by Steven  Campbell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

2 star review. In book it was a book that wasn't all that good. I did finish the book.

The protagonist is a Mary Sue from beginning to end. Falls repeatedly into piles of excrement and comes out smelling of daffodils.


View all my reviews