The Indispensable Podcast Listing


Posted on : 12/27/2016 03:40:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , , , , ,

I got into listening to podcasts a while back.  Most of those early podcasts were focused on the Fantasy & Science Fiction genre(s).  My early interest was motivated by a couple of different factors.

The first factor is that I love the genre and have hopes (more probably ethereal ravings) of writing in the field some day.  Even if I never get a chance to pursue that interest, it is always interesting to hear about authors, their writing process, and their challenges within the industry.

The other factor at the time was in learning more about the industry due to my interest in the Sad Puppies imbroglio.  I didn't learn as much about that, but it was an early motivating factor.

My podcast list grew from there due to my continuing interest in a few public radio programs.

While I know that the trend is to make everything seem to be larger than life these days, this list really, really isn't indispensable.  It isn't huge.  Or huuuuuuge! in modern presidential parlance, I suppose.

However, it is a great starting point for people that are curious about podcasting.  Take a look, and then give a listen.

I have scored each podcast in three areas; Production Values, Entertainment, and Information.  Production values represent the recording quality, the voice quality of the participants, and the general organization of the podcast.  Entertainment is pretty self-explanatory; how much does the podcast engage me from an entertainment perspective.  Essentially, the giggle factor.  Information is equally self-explanatory; how much new information does the podcast present.

There may be some bleed-through from one category to another.  For example, a regular participant with a less than entertaining voice may drag down both the production values and the entertainment scores.

I don't listen to all of these podcasts every week.  Some are on hiatus.  Some come out on an irregular basis.  A few of the podcasts will provide re-runs to fill in on weeks when they don't have something new.

I have filtered through some podcasts and dropped many that just were not worth the effort.  While there are some overtly political podcasts on the list, I think that most of these programs are worthy of consideration.  For someone new to podcasts, this list is a decent place to start.

A Presidential Molehill - Mountains Need Not Apply


Posted on : 12/20/2016 04:47:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , ,

So my social media is being infested with stories about President Obama granting a large number of pardons and clemencies yesterday.  It made me a little curious, so I did a little digging.

First, it is useful to know the difference.  A "pardon" essentially sets aside all of the facts of the case as well as the verdict and punishment.  It is a complete forgiveness that erases the act from the criminal record.  A pardoned person recovers all of their rights and is no longer considered convicted of any crime.

Clemency involves ending or reducing the sentence of a convicted individual.  Their crime remains a matter of public record.  However, their punishment, typically confinement, is reduced or terminated.  This is frequently granted to individuals where the President (or state Governor) feels that the sentence imposed by the court far exceeded what the conditions of the crime merited.

Mr. Obama apparently did set a record for the number of combined pardons/clemencies granted by a President in a single day.  But what is the larger context?  (Special note, the statistics on the site were last updated in October and therefore do not reflect actions since then.)

Mr. Obama has been quite frugal with respect to granting pardons.  Prior to yesterday's actions, he actually had granted the fewest pardons of any President dating back to the 19th century.  Now he is just at the low end of the range.  He has granted a little over 100 full pardons.  As a comparison, Richard Nixon granted 863 full pardons and Dwight Eisenhower granted 1110.

Mr. Obama has been far more generous with granting clemency.  Given how much our legislatures have taken to creating statutory sentencing minimum, it is no surprise to learn that we are giving lengthy prison sentences to people who either cannot afford a good attorney or who simply are not able to assist in other prosecutions.  Essentially, these people cannot get the sort of "deal" that is routinely offered to other defendants.  Also, Mr. Obama has correctly questioned the results of a system that offers disparate punishments for the possession of powdered cocaine and the possession of crack cocaine.  The drug is the same in both cases.

And so he has been far more generous in granting clemency.  Properly so.

There is a bit of hypocrisy here as one might expect.  One of the sentencing modifiers created by the Congress is the presence of a weapon; specifically some sort of gun.  The intent is to give prosecutors the ability to put extra bad people in prison for extra long periods of time based on factors that have little to do with the actual crime that was committed.

For example, the DEA busts into an apartment and arrests everyone on drug charges due to the boxes of criminalized drugs stacked up along the walls.  The find a gun and are able to add more prison time onto the sentence(s).  People who intend to do bad things being kept in prison for a longer period of time is probably better for society.

Unfortunately, such laws get twisted into serving injustice.  For example, someone hides a gun in their girlfriend's apartment.  She smokes some weed from time to time and gets busted.  The cops find the gun and multiply the girlfriend's sentence.  The result is certainly more expensive for society but in a non-trivial number of cases it probably doesn't make society better as a result.

So where is the hypocrisy?  Most of the folks that are appalled at Mr. Obama's use of his clemency powers for cases involving gun possession would probably be apoplectic at the prospect of someone in possession of a couple of ducks/fish/etc. over the legal limit being given an extra long sentence due to the presence of a gun.  Yet that can and does happen just as well.

Correcting prosecutorial indiscretion is an appropriate use of Presidential powers.

In any case, this really isn't that big of a deal.  Mr. Obama has granted far fewer pardons that most Presidents.  When you take it down to a per-year and per-capita consideration, he has been downright stingy in his use of that Presidential prerogative.  He has granted clemency at a much higher rate.  Combining pardons with clemency, he isn't really doing anything that differs from other Presidents.

Christmas 2016 - A Wish List


Posted on : 12/07/2016 09:53:00 PM | By : Dann

Due to several requests, I am going to provide a list of books that I would like to receive for Christmas.  Naturally, I do not expect to get them all.  However, I think it would be good if people were to check with one another to ensure that people are not duplicating efforts.

As always, you can check out my open Amazon wish list for other ideas.

On to the books.  This is going to be graphic novel heavy.  I have been reading quite a few of them this year and am enjoying these series immensely.  The print versions are highly preferred.

East of West

Morning Glories
The Last Zombie by Brian Keene

Update - all links should be good.

A second update.  Erg.  I thought I published this.  But I didn't.  Or something.  In any case, recent acquisitions are not indicated.

The Election 2016


Posted on : 10/17/2016 04:39:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

Like most of the rest of the U.S., this election has me shaking my damned head.  This year has been the worst in my lifetime in terms of the dearth of candidate character and substituting personal attacks for rational debate of the issues.

I usually have post-election thoughts that I share every four years.  But I see no need to wait.  I'll share them now and then intend to take the next month off of political/election oriented reading and writing.

Soooooo, here we go.

On Donald Trump:  We may well wake up on November 9th with Mr. Trump as our President-elect.  If so, then he will be my President.  I will support his policies when I can and respectfully oppose them when I cannot.  I will criticize him when he steps outside of the law and/or otherwise fails our Constitution.  But it will be done with respect and without vitriol to the best of my ability.

All elections matter.  If Mr. Trump wins, then he will be my President.

On Hillary Clinton:  We probably will wake up on November 9th with Mrs. Clinton as our President-elect.  If so, then she will be my President.  I will support her policies when I can and respectfully oppose them when I cannot.  I will criticize her when she steps outside of the law and/or otherwise fails our Constitution.  But it will be done with respect and without vitriol to the best of my ability.

All elections matter.  If Mrs. Clinton wins, then she will be my President.

On the GOP:  I'm not looking to change your vote.  However, your candidate is heavily flawed.  He's about as attractive as a bucket of warm moose drool.  If you cannot identify and understand those flaws, then you are part of the problem with American politics these days.

You had other choices.  You had a whole raft of other choices running from John Kasich to Marco Rubio to Carly Fiorina.  Any of them would have left Mrs. Clinton in the dust.  And you opted for a bucket of warm moose drool.

When your candidate loses, don't look at the rest of us.  Take a good long look at yourselves.

On the Democrats:  I'm not looking to change your vote, either.  However, your candidate is heavily flawed.  She's about as attractive as a bucket of warm pig drool.  If you cannot identify and understand those flaws, then you are part of the problem with American politics these days.

You had other choices.  Jim Webb would have been a solid candidate that would have left Mr. Trump in the dust.  You have an entire party of worthwhile candidates.  And you opted for a bucket of warm pig drool.

When your candidate loses, don't look at the rest of us.  Take a good long look at yourselves.

On buckets of drool:  If you are interested in debating the relative merits of moose drool vs. pig drool, then you are also part of the problem with American politics these days.

ETA - well crap.  You always forget a couple things.

On those threatening to leave:  So you have threatened to leave the U.S. if your candidate doesn't win the Presidency.  Samuel Adams covered this quite well.
"...May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen."
You haven't got what it takes to be an American.

I enjoy a wealth of acquaintances and friends from across the political spectrum.  We argue.  We fight...rhetorically.  To a person, every single one of them is an American in their heart and in their head.  The(y) love freedom even though we disagree on the best means of pursuing that freedom.

There are millions of people that have immigrated to the U.S. in pursuit of that freedom.  People from Iran and Iraq and other parts of the Middle East that are fed up with living under various flavor of dictatorship; theocratic or otherwise.  Millions more have come from south of our border to escape dictatorships, oligarchies, kleptocracies and other offenses to the cause of individual liberty.

And you know what?  Millions more have the same unquenchable thirst for freedom.  They have in their heads and in their hearts the desire to be left to live their lives in peace and liberty and away from the bullying nose of government.

And if you lack that thirst, then please find the nearest exit.  Leave your citizenship at the door.  You don't have what it takes.
"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace.  We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you.  May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen. - Samuel Adams"
On those threatening to move to Canada:  You have a particularly ignorant and racist position there.

It is ignorant in that Canada has some pretty strict rules for immigration when compared with the U.S.  They want young people with skills and/or education to be in their labor force for a long time.  The old, uneducated, and unskilled need not apply.  The election of either of the major candidates will not qualify you as a political refugee in any place beyond your imagination.

It is racist in that these folks never threaten to move to Mexico.  As most of the "or I'm moving to Canada" folks seem to be quite a bit left of center, I'm also surprised that they don't want to move to the Chavista paradise that is Venezuela.  They have bucket loads of that "democratic socialism" down there.  And yet they almost always offer to move to Canada.....or less often to "Europe".

They never offer to move to a place where they could use their skills and education to improve life for the people in their new country.  Must be too many brown skinned people for their taste.

Review: The Grim Company


Posted on : 10/13/2016 04:31:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , ,

The Grim Company The Grim Company by Luke Scull
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

2 stars. Did not finish. Made it about 12% through. Mostly cardboard characters. Lots of telling without much showing. Standard adventure fare without any compelling character or plot lines to hold my attention.

View all my reviews

Review: The Children of Húrin


Posted on : 9/22/2016 09:31:00 AM | By : Dann

The Children of Húrin The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fair book that does not compare well with the Hobbit or LotR. So if you are looking for that level of Tolkien story-telling, this book will be a bit of a disappointment.

It presents a couple of good stories that contain an excess amount of exposition. It also presents some story fragments that were clearly not previously published for good reason.

A good book for hard core Tolkien fans. Not so good for a casual reader expecting a fully developed story.

View all my reviews

2016 Hugos - Fancast


Posted on : 7/08/2016 03:12:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

Cane and Rinse - No episode specified in the nomination.  Sampled Episode 197 from 10/11/2015 covering Halo 4.

Can and Rinse reviews various video games.  They had been reviewing the entire series of Halo games.  Previously, my primary experience was with Halo CE which I enjoyed a great deal.

The hosts did a great job of sharing the "air time" and providing individual perspectives on Halo 4.  They were entertaining and informative.

In fact, I went searching on their website for podcast commentary regarding a couple other games as a result.  Unfortunately, either they have yet to cover those games via podcast, or the GUI for their search results is cluttered to the point of obfuscation.

Were I spending more time playing games, I would definitely subscribe to this podcast.

The Rageaholic - No episode specified.  Sampled:

The Rageaholic appears to be a persona of a stereotypical person that lives in their parent's basement known as RazörFist.  The presentation style is borderline hyperventilating and spittle flying rage; hence one supposes the "Rage" in Rageaholic.

Surprisingly, he loved Jessica Jones for the most part.  He had little use for flipping one manipulative male character into being a manipulative lesbian character.  He thought Carrie Ann Moss' acting salvaged that change to the plot.  His general perspective seemed to be along the line of suggesting that people should worry more about telling a compelling story and less about the supporting/non-critical elements that get incorporated.

He also loved Sudden Impact.  That was unsurprising based on the persona.

In the review of Skyrim Online, his chief complaint was that the software publisher had taken everything that was interesting about Skyrim and chucked it aside in order to make something that was played online.

The gaming journalism was the weakest of the four episodes I sampled.  Central to his argument was that the percentage of magazine pages dedicated to promoting the products being reviewed was significantly higher in gaming oriented publications.

While I would not want a steady diet of this persona, these videos were entertaining and engaging.  I can understand why someone would subscribe to them.

HelloGreedo - No episode specified.  Sampled:

The podcast features a presenter named Greedo wearing a storm trooper helmet(!) who discusses various aspects of the Star Wars franchise.  In general, his presentation is lucid and passionate without going overboard.  Greedo has a speaking style that conveys his interest in a clear and measured speaking style.  It is clear that our host is thoroughly invested in the Star Wars 'verse.  

In the first episode I sampled, Greedo breaks down a series of deleted scenes and why (or why not) their omission from the final film served the interest of telling a compelling story.  It was an interesting look at some of the editorial decisions that were made in putting the story together.

The second episode was a fannish treatment of the trailer for The Force Awakens that could be best summarized as "I love Star Wars and this trailer designed to appeal to people that love Star Wars appeals to me a great deal".  The substance of the commentary wasn't all that great.  But the presentation was good.

The final episode I sampled broken down all of the issues surrounding the plot...or lack The Phantom Menace.  Given the megabytes that have been written excoriating this installment of the franchise, none of Greedo's were all that surprising.  But again, his presentation was excellent.

Tales to Terrify - No episode specified in the nomination.  Sampled episodes 164 and 204.

Tales to Terrify is essentially a reading of selected short horror stories.  Episode 164 wasn't really terrifying, but one story was definitely disgusting.  I'm not sure if the characters were supposed to be self-aware zombies that were subjected to all manner of abuse, or people held captive for zombie food that were subjected to all manner of abuse, or just people held captive that were abused.  But there was a lot of abuse going on.  I bailed on episode 164 after the n-th iteration of "arseholes leaking shit, blood, and cum".

Episode 204 was much better. The two stories presented were Angela Slatter's Sourdough and Patrick O'Neill's Underwriting Department.  Both were well written and well read.  While not necessarily terrifying, they fit within the horror/fantasy spectrum quite well.

The presentation in both episodes was good but not great.  Having a couple more readers to create more of a radio theater experience might have improved things.  The editorial decisions for Episode 164 certainly weighed into my ranking for the Hugo Awards this year.


8>4 Play Japan Game Panic - No episode specified in the nomination.  Sampled Happy Little Cloud from 11/13/2015.

Quite frankly, this podcast was a mess.  All four (?) of the hosts were talking over one another and none of them really had much to add to the conversation.

This episode seemed to focus on classic/older games from the 1990s.  Mostly it was a case of "I own this, you own that, how neat is that".  I was neither entertained nor informed by this podcast.  It reminded me heavily of last year's Galactic Suburbia Podcast; the eventual winner for 2015 that I put below "No Award".

Precisely How Elite Are They?


Posted on : 6/28/2016 05:27:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

A number of thoughts come to mind in the wake of the British referendum on leaving the European Union as well as events in this year's US Presidential elections.

Central to those conflicts, large and small, is the perceived sense of self-worth of the self-described elites; the folks whose opinion should matter just a little more than the hoi polloi.  The suggestion is that the world would be better off if we let those elites offer a bit firmer guidance in the affairs of state.

This perspective is shockingly highlighted by the usually progressive....more accurately socialist leaning....Rolling Stone magazine.  Matt Taibbi's article suggests that the reaction to Brexit justifies why Brexit became an issue in the first place.

The overall message in every case is the same: Let us handle things.

But whatever, let's assume that the Brexit voters, like Trump voters, are wrong, ignorant, dangerous and unjustified.

Even stipulating to that, the reaction to both Brexit and Trump reveals a problem potentially more serious than either Brexit or the Trump campaign. It's become perilously fashionable all over the Western world to reach for non-democratic solutions whenever society drifts in a direction people don't like. Here in America the problem is snowballing on both the right and the left.

Even the quote from Mr. Taibbi illustrates the sort of non-self-aware perspective that pervades the leftist perspective.  It is most certainly undeniable that Mr. Trump has used indelicate language on the subject of race on mulitple occasions; specifically in commenting on American immigration policies..  It is equally undeniable that blatantly racist individuals and groups have come out of the proverbial woodwork in support of Mr. Trump.  Similarly, there were racists supporting the Brexit initiative.

Mr. Taibbi fails, as do many critics of Mr. Trump, when he conflates the small but vocal racist component with the respective larger movements.

Permit me to pause here to note that I didn't have any position on Brexit...that is for British citizens to decide....and I am 99+% certain to vote for Gary Johnson in the U.S. Presidential election this fall.  Back to the issue at hand.....

What Mr. Taibbi and those critics fail to understand is that the U.S. government has the authority and the responsibility to determine who gets to immigrate into our country.  There is nothing racist with expecting that immigrants obey our immigration laws.  There is nothing racist with the expectation that potential new citizens abandon the governmental traditions of their home nations in favor of the governmental traditions expressed by the Constitution of the United States.

I possess a passion for the US Constitution.  It describes a limited scope of authority for the federal government and presents an expansive view of individual liberty.  American liberals have generally been successful on those issues that can be properly framed as pursuing the interest of individual liberty.  American conservatives have similarly been successful on issues that are framed by the Constitution's limits on the size and scope of government.

The Constitution is the rhetorical DNA of the American political system.  America succeeds when the plain language of the Constitution succeeds.  We falter when that same language is subverted.

A similar perspective applies in the case of Brexit where an unelected and largely unconstrained government in Brussels perceives itself to be superior to the founding documents of the British commonwealth.  The British people have the reasonable expectation that they will be governed in a manner consistent with which they have previously given their consent.

Michael Totten, an author I hold in high esteem, offered his perspective on Brexit.

If I lived in the United Kingdom, I would have voted to Remain in the EU, but it’s not hard to see why the majority voted to Leave. I wouldn’t want the United States to join the EU for the same reasons the Brexiters want out of it.

The EU is a brilliant idea. Unite splendidly diverse yet like-minded nations into a powerful bloc that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Provide minimum standards and guidelines for countries that aren’t as advanced (such as Greece and Romania). Pull down trade barriers and do business in a common market. Open up job opportunities and leg-stretching room for all. (I wouldn’t want to be confined to a place as cramped as Belgium for the rest of my life, but I’m one of those cosmopolitan "elites" everyone likes to complain about nowadays.)

The actually existing EU, though, isn’t so brilliant. It includes all the good stuff, yet it’s crushed by a staggering amount of centralized regulatory bureaucracy and a disregard for the wishes of its individual member states. It’s hardly a gulag empire, but it’s autocratic enough that Europe’s democracy deficit has its own Wikipedia page.

Mr. Totten is what I consider to be liberal of the old-school variety; open-minded and tolerant.  While I suspect that we would disagree on some of the particulars that describe an appropriate level of government, we most definitely agree on the basic instrument of the role of the people in establishing and maintaining that government.

It is regrettable to note that the "elites" have little interest in analyzing where they went wrong.  Instead they work for another referendum, another election, another opportunity to get an answer of which they approve.  If only we can give them enough time, they will develop a system of mathematics that will let two plus two equal five.

In their minds, the only election that matters is the one they win.

I do have to offer some appreciation for former President Bill Clinton in his response to the 1994 elections that saw both houses of the US Congress to the Republicans.  Rather than dig in his heels, he eventually modified his agenda to work with the Congress.  The Republicans did the same.  It wasn't perfect, as illustrated by the government shut-down.  But Mr. Clinton did demonstrate an appreciation for the fact that ALL elections matter; not just the one that he won.

In contrast, American leftists only seem to care about Mr. Obama's election.  Mr. Obama himself has demonstrated little interest in working with Congress to achieve whatever might be possible within two very different philosophical agendas.  Hence the his lack of success when compared with Mr. Clinton.

While I would certainly disagree with the average Briton about what constitutes an appropriate level of government, I wholeheartedly agree that the perspective of the average voter ought to influence the actions of government.  When a government undermines the legitimate objectives of all people to freely pursue a satisfying life, those same people have the right to change their government, or institute a new one, in a manner that to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

When the elites in government lose the tangible supports of the average citizen, it is incumbent upon those elites to undertake serious self-evaluation and reflection on their actions and whether or not they have been good stewards of the public interest.  Their first step should not be to change the rules of the game so as to ensure a different (electoral) result.  Their purpose should be to respond in a manner that is above the brown-shirts attacking people peaceably attending political rallies in California.  It shouldn't be to join them.

*modestly edited 6/29/2016

Stand-up Philosophy Or Bullshit Art?


Posted on : 6/10/2016 04:12:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , ,

This just came to me today, but someone else might have come up with it already.  Enjoy....

That Good Story


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 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 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.

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 the 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


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]
  • 2015, 2017, 2018 - Saga (graphic novels) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples. [4]

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.

[4]  This entire series just seems like an identity journey with some science-fictionium and fantasium slathered on.  The artwork isn't terribly interesting.  I've never seen the attraction of reading it and can think of several other series that I'd rather read.  And yet it will get nominated in almost every year.  I enjoy the author's work in other series immensely.  This one?  Leave it.

A Surprising Accord


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


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


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 - Stop after the first book.******

Sarah Beth Durst - The Lost - I've only read the first book and can't vouch for the series.  The first book was great!***  [The second book was declined by the publisher.  I'm sad.]

Emma Newman - Split World Series (5 Books) - Between Two Thorns*****

Frank Cho - Skybourrne (graphic novel) [6*]

Peter V. Brett - Red Sonja: Unchained (graphic novel) [6*]

Alec Hutson - The Crimson Queen [6*]

Myke Cole - The Armored Saint [6*]

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
*****added another series on 8/8/2016
******added comment on 11/10/2016. Reviews forthcoming.
 [6*] added on 1/11/2019

The Literary Hammer/Shield


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


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.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens - A Review


Posted on : 1/18/2016 10:47:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , , ,

So I finally made it to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  My initial take: at least it wasn't another Phantom Menace.  I enjoyed the movie.  It was entertaining.  But it just didn't have the pop of the original movies of the 70s and 80s.

Most of my major criticisms can be covered by reading this thread over at John Scalzi's "Whatever" blog.  Probably the most significant item is that I saw this movie already.  In 1977.  It was called Star Wars: A New Hope.  The plot points for the new movie were pretty much the same as the first movie.

There were a couple of additional elements that were of mild concern.

One was the new main character, Rey.  Rey was sold into slavery** at a young age.  She worked collecting scrap for a salvage yard.

And yet without any obvious reason, she is a master mechanic, a skilled interstellar navigator/pilot, and outstanding at fighting with a light saber.  For reasons unknown, she can also outfight multiple male opponents that out weigh her by a large margin.

The character Rey wanders dangerously close to Mary Sue territory.

As a contrast, Anakin was shown to repair speeders for several scenes before he was asked to drive one.  It wasn't exactly a big jump for him to fly a speeder well.

Also as a contrast, consider how firmly Han Solo slapped down Luke when he suggested that he could fly a spaceship without any training or experience.  And consider how much time that Luke put in learning to use a light saber in A New Hope despite never having a chance to actually use it until The Empire Strikes Back.

It just flat bad character development.

A secondary element was the hard political message contained within the story.

Early on, Finn (a failed/renegade storm trooper) determines that Rey was in trouble and attempts to save her.  So he grabs her hand.

Not her arm, not a "come on let's go", he grabs her hand.  Several times in a row.  It suggested to me a clear message that he was the man, he would do the saving, and she should just follow along.  She responds exactly as a person should when a stranger grabs your hand by pulling back and essentially saying "who are you and what makes you think you can take me anywhere".  Her reaction is perfectly appropriate.  Putting her in that position was just off-putting; poor plot development.

Then there was the heavy emasculating of Finn.  He is inept at almost everything he does.  He is a storm trooper that worked in.....wait for it....sanitation!  That makes absolutely no sense.  Support forces do sanitation.  Storm troopers are first class fighters.

The gender set up smacked of Helen Reddy and Homer Simpson; on steroids.  It seemed a little heavy handed.

Then there is Darth Emo....I mean Kylo Ren.  Every other Force capable person we have seen has had a sense of self control.  Yet Kylo Ren explodes in destructive rampages on two occasions.  What he needs a couple of sessions with his nose in the corner and an admonition to put on his big boy pants.

The movie was otherwise quite enjoyable.  The cinematography was excellent.  The use of 3D effects was stellar.  It would have been nice if we could have had a new story and less focus on blowing things up.

**A modest update.  Rey was not sold into slavery.  She was abandoned in some way.  The place where we find her in the movie is akin to a company owned mining town.  While a person living in a company town is usually free to leave, the attachment to other people or to the town itself may be strong enough to prevent a person from making the more beneficial/rewarding choice to leave.

My initial impression was "sold into slavery" when in reality she was purposefully left behind.  Perhaps she was left in good circumstances, but various incidents have moved her down the economic ladder.  That part of her story will hopefully be cleared up with future episodes.

My misreading of her free/slave status does not undermine my other observations about her character development within the movie.

The Vagrant by Peter Newman - A Goodreads Review


Posted on : 1/10/2016 01:39:00 PM | By : Dann | In : , ,

The VagrantThe Vagrant by Peter  Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You will have seen the hooks already.

Through the wastelands walks a man, the Vagrant. He carries with him a baby and drags along a goat. A man, a baby, and a goat.

He walks the world mute; unable to utter a single sound.

An odd collection of characters and an individual that is unable to speak with everyone around them. How do you make a good book out of that?

Peter Newman has managed it quite well.

The Vagrant is on a mission to get out of a demon infested land and back to the lands occupied by humans and the six angels remaining of seven angels. He is almost a knight. The Vagrant is cursed by the sword he carries that he did not earn.

Peter Newman's use of language leaves the impression of Japanese anime. Bodies that grow new shapes laced with green veins. Demons inhabiting people that are revealed in divergent shadows. Cities made from the remains of floating citadels that have crash landed. Subterranean passages that evoke the remains of technology left to rust.

Along the way, the Vagrant travels from place to place. He saves everyone he can from the demons that rule the land; even when it would have been more prudent to pass them by and focus on his mission to reach sanctuary.

The one criticism that I have is that the book starts to drag a bit. We know the Vagrant aspires to be a true knight. He attempts to live up the knight's code of protecting all who ask for protection. So at some point, the additional stops along the way become a bit repetitive.

Otherwise, this is a fine read and well worthy of your time.

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