Con Kasterborous ( www.conkasterborous.com ) is a Doctor Who convention in Huntsville, Alabama, which also happens to be the location for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the US Army’s Redstone Arsenal. Con Kasterborous was until this year a rather small local convention where area fans came to groove with other Doctor Who fans after the season was over. But this year marked the first time they had a media guest, Caitlin Blackwood, who played young Amelia Pond during Amy’s and Rory’s time in the TARDIS. Attendance at the convention tripled and they are looking for a larger hotel for 2014. Huntsville fans are no strangers to running conventions because ConStellation has been running yearly since the 1970s, when Your Humble Columnists were young local fans in the area. This resulted in a new convention with a very well trained staff. They were very organized, had very obvious security personnel (all staff had color-coded shirts according to function, sort of like the brightly- colored Daleks of recent seasons), and worked very hard to make sure the extremely large crowd for the convention space all had a good time while staying safe.
The dealer’s room was fantastic as the local FYE and Books-a-Million stores had ordered extra Doctor Who merchandise and brought it across the parking lot to the hotel. Also there is a local SF shop which has 3 stores in the area and they had brought merchandise as well. Huntsville’s chain shops have always catered to a very SF-heavy crowd because the newer shopping areas all are located near most of the contractors who work for Marshall and the Arsenal as well as being near an Arsenal gate. In the 70s and 80s, NASA publications were frequently featured as local interest publications in the bookstores and the SF section of the Waldenbooks then was nearly half the store. Even today the stores have more geeky merchandise than the same stores in other locations.
Caitlin Blackwood is now a charming twelve year old who is already getting her adult height, rather than the nine-year old who filmed the series. She is a dancer and a veteran of several conventions on both sides of the Atlantic, so she handled the crowds and the microphone with grace and charm. On Saturday, the autograph and picture session ran for longer than they had planned in order to get everyone through who was in line when they called a cutoff. Caitlin signed for nearly 2 hours, and was starting to look tired but she is a pro and never complained.
They stopped between signing and pictures to let the poor child have some cake, which she must have been dying for, because all the fans had been getting cupcakes off the table and munching while they waited in line. After 2 hours, any 12-year-old’s patience would be at an end after seeing everyone else in the room having cake, but you couldn’t because no one wants frosting on their autographs. She didn’t complain, and was very lady-like with her eating, not wearing any afterwards, unlike some fans who had various colors of frosting on them the rest of the day. The Doctor Who-themed cupcakes and TARDIS cake were definitely a hit with everyone, even if some frosting went places it probably shouldn’t have. The fans included many children because of Caitlin’s presence and the fact that many Huntsville fans had got together and made more little fans. Some families had 3 or 4 generations present, which was great to see.
Costumes spanned the generations too, with people from infants to grandparents wearing costumes. It was fun to see many people in store bought costumes, because this is really the first year that any have been widely available in the US. Having chains like Hot Topic, FYE and Books-a-Million carry Doctor Who wear has really changed the clothing choices for DW fans. Even people without costumes seemed to all have at least one Doctor Who shirt in their weekend wardrobe.
No DW convention is complete without a TARDIS and this convention had two! And a working Dalek!
The Dalek was remotely controlled by a Doctor cosplayer and he had quite a sense of humor, so the Dalek scared several little Doctors who approached not realizing it talked and moved. It even gave some adults a fright when it was still and quiet, and then suddenly would blare out “EXTERMINATE!” or “THE DOCTOR MUST DIE!” when someone walked in front of the gun and sucker. On Sunday he used a very short version of the Dalek scream to make it sound like the Dalek had done too much partying on Saturday night and was cursed with the burps, which gave us all a laugh, even if the children didn’t get why he was “burping”.
The convention had excellent panels with Caitlin doing a question and answer session, a group of podcasters talking about their work, and artist Kelly Yates talking about working on the IDW Doctor Who comic books. Kelly is a friend from Greensboro, NC but we had never seen him do panels alone before. He did a great job and showed us some great behind the scenes things. Hopefully next year they can plan to connect his tablet to a projector (he has already agreed to return for 2014).
In addition to the convention, we visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (www.rocketcenter.com) again. We are members of the museum because we are in Huntsville several times a year. This time in addition to the displays of the Pathfinder shuttle, the Saturn rockets and the IMAX dome, there was a special exhibit on black holes which gave up to date information on theoretical information as well as information gained from astronomical research. It was interesting and informative. There are two Saturn V rockets at the center, one suspended in sections in the Davidson Center, which is the new building built to house it, and a vertical one in the rocket park outside the Davidson Center. To someone who saw the Saturn IB become part of the Huntsville’s skyline in 1970, walked under it in amazement as a very small child, then saw modern construction of overpasses and interstates hide it, the vertical Saturn V has returned Huntsville’s skyline to its proper look. It is even protected by law now so no construction can hide the rocket from the skyline. For first time visitors to Huntsville who come in from the airport or Interstate 65, it is quite a sight to see. Caitlin and her mom were quite amazed by it when they first arrived.
In addition to the museum, which is also a visitor center for Marshall Space Flight Center, there are tours of Redstone Arsenal including Marshall Space Flight Center available. Camps are available for all ages through Space Camp, Space Academy, and Aviation Challenge.
The ultimate in geeky weekends away: Con Kasterborous and a trip to the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The next convention will be held in June of 2014, but the location is still being determined due to this year’s large crowd, so watch the website listed at the top of the review!
Review of Eight Million Gods by Wen Spencer (Baen hardcover June 4, 2013)
Eight Million Gods is the story about a young adult American author named Nikki Delany, who is on the run from her mother, and she runs to Osaka, Japan where she has friends from the internet. While in Japan she is doing research for her second novel; the book is under contract and she is really stressed about completing it on time, because her muse strikes suddenly and causes her to write in torrents but the multiple scenes of her stories don’t always meet until the end so she stresses out until the story starts to come together.
Things take a turn for the strange when someone starts making her books into reality. At least that’s what Nikki thinks when it happens the first time and she is questioned by the police, but the truth is actually much stranger. It is a tale with Japanese gods, mothers who aren’t what they seem, tanuki, a kitten, a much loved adoptive father, and a scary guy with catlike moves.
Japanese mythological characters are running around on the streets of Japan but aren’t noticed by most people. Nikki tries to sort out the mess caused by the gods fighting and at the same time change the end of her story so everyone doesn’t die. She meets some really interesting people and makes a good friend along the way. She also discovers her writing is indeed a gift from the gods and with practice is better at controlling the mad urges to write which hit her in times of stress.
For fans of anime, manga or Japanese culture, this book offers a wonderful immersion into that culture. Descriptions of everyday life are very detailed: food, drink, finding a place to live, and the general attitude toward Americans. Nikki is a very quirky but highly detailed character who immediately gets sympathy because of her crazy politician mother who is constantly trying to disrupt Nikki’s life (and who, as it turns out, has some secrets of her own). There is plenty of action with swords, magic…and blenders.
Eight Million Gods offers a fresh look at urban fantasy without Western ideas of werewolves and vampires in it. As with all Wen Spencer’s work it is easy to read, so if your anime fan doesn’t read then you might get them to try this.
Review of In Thunder Forged Iron Kingdom Chronicles The Fall of Llael: Book One by Ari Marmell
This is the first tie-in book based upon the Warmachine steam-powered fantasy game and the Iron Kingdoms roleplaying game, but that being said, we don’t play either of those but still enjoyed the book. The background is interesting and complex and the politics would probably be more detailed in the game material, but the characters and the plot did not depend on the reader knowing anything ahead of time.
It is a steam-tech fantasy wartime adventure but it is from the viewpoint of different individuals, not from a group or unit, when a unit is dealt with it is from the sergeant’s point of view. There is cloak and dagger espionage as well as battles in the book. It is an interesting take on steampunk because the world’s tech is steam power but the world is very magic heavy so technology combines the two. War robots are steam and magic powered. Alchemy is also used to good effect. There are even mages whose only magic is done on guns or ammunition so they can’t miss and shots sometimes have special effects.
The character at the focus of the espionage scenes is Garland, a bright, charming female who uses all her gifts to get what she wants. She also makes interesting use of all the layers of clothing common in fancy female dress. Sergeant Bracewell is in charge of a small unit of soldiers; bravely leading by example, she is devoted to her troops and will do anything to keep them safe.
When Garland and Bracewell team up with the assistance of female knight Lieutenant Laddermore on behalf of Cygnar, it results in great amounts of gunfire, explosions and running. The bad guys (section three of Khador) are led by another strong female character named Vorona. Vorona and Garland keep trying to blow each other up but neither is successful. Both sides want the alchemical formula needed for a new weapon. All this makes for some complex characters who interact with others from their side and the opposite ones in interesting ways.
Hopefully other volumes of the Iron Kingdom Chronicles will feature some of these characters. Most tie-in books are badly written and are aimed at a demographic who wants sexist depictions of women so it was a pleasant surprise to find a well written one with strong female characters who wear clothing appropriate for their professions.
Review of Earth Afire : The First Formic War Volume 2 of the Formic Wars by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston (Tor hardback, June 4, 2013)
This book is part of a newer series in the Ender’s Game universe which looks at the Formic Wars. It is the story of Captain Mazer Rackham of the New Zealand Special Air Services from the time before his appearance as a major character in Ender’s Game.
While everyone is denying the validity of images of alien attacks which have been posted to the web, Mazer is sent to China to train their pilots to operate the new planes their government has purchased. While he is there the Formics blow up some news shuttles and a UN ship on their approach to earth. This sets everyone on high alert as the Formic send down landers into southeast China. The Chinese lock down all access to their satellites so Rackham and his team can’t get any intelligence. They steal one of the planes and go to the countryside where there is no jamming and land.
There are two narrative threads, one of a boy named Bingwen and his family and friends who are in the Formic landing zone in southeast China which starts as a separate thread but merges with the Mazer Rackham thread and then a thread which is set off of earth and follows the people who are trying to do something about the Formics, Lem and Rena. Their thread is not complete in this volume, but they manage to get in the same place and start to plan, so volume three will probably see action against the Formics from them.
Mazer helps rescue the Chinese peasants and then a little later they return the favor. As Mazer travels to the alien lander, he tries to get Bingwen to safety since he is alone now, but Bingwen won’t go. The interplay and discussion of war between them gets Mazer thinking about children and war, some of his thoughts give a clue as to where the idea for Battle School came from.
Mazer and Bingwen are both very interesting characters. You can see Bingwen is sort of like Ender but his upbringing makes him have a slightly different view of things. This time period shaped much of the Mazer we see in Ender’s Game so it is interesting to see the events which changed him. Most of Earth’s governments and the off-planetary government entities are made to look like idiots as a result of the Formic War, so some major changes will be coming. At the time of Ender’s Game, society infrastructure has completely changed in attitude, so it will be interesting to watch things change over later volumes.
The book is a well written adventure story but it is more of a war on the ground version of events than other things we have seen in this universe. It will be interesting to see if this view continues or if we will get more overall or off-earth views of the war in later volumes. The off-earth views in this volume are not of people at war yet, but they are trying to get new technology on-line to get rid of the Formics so they will be more important later. If you are an Ender’s Game fan, then this is a good read. Note that while the book is not marketed at teens, it is a safe read as the war scenes are not graphic and major portions of it have child characters.
Review of ConCarolinas May 31-June2, 2013
The Charlotte Hilton University Place hotel used for the convention is in a good location to reach it from the interstates (I-85 and I-40) and the surrounding area has both fast food restaurants and sit-down restaurants within walking distance. The hotel also has a catering area setup to feed some people on site, but the food is only adequate so unless you are in a rush, I would definitely go elsewhere. The temperature in the meeting spaces was fine, but there were many reports of hotel rooms being too hot, so definitely pack for the heat. June can be pleasant in NC but it can also get quite hot quite quickly so it is best to be prepared. Also, it can be quite rainy this time of year, and because so many people drive to the convention the journey from the parking lot can become a bit of a hike for those not staying at the hotel.
This is a very writing-oriented convention with at least two writer panels going on in most time slots. The Magical Words blog participants are out in force, both as guests and as attendees. Their panels were completely full all weekend. The scheduling for the panels for this convention is good with enough time in between panels to run to the restroom, travel from one side of the hotel to another or to arrive very early in order to camp in a seat (a requirement for some of the more popular panels). The panels can run quite late, and the topics of late night panels are not always strictly adult, which can sometimes be a problem for very young con-goers, but the convention uses all the available hotel spaces and so has to run late panels in order to fit them all in the schedule. The panels were all very well attended until about 9 p.m. when things dropped off. The writing panels we attended were quite good, with participants being prepared and the audience members asking intelligent questions. The panel topics ranged widely from ones for more experienced writers about marketing and social media to ones for new writers about the mechanics of writing. Writers of any level could find something to take home from the panels.
The dealer room was well laid out so there was enough walk space. There was a wide variety of dealers, with wares running the gamut from sweets to toys to books. The dealer room hours were late enough on Friday that even those people who came after work could get in there to look around and they closed early enough on Saturday that the dealers didn’t miss all the night time panels and events. Note that at this convention authors are given table space to sell books and sign them, only a small space though so guests like Tim Zahn still set-up a dealers table. This does mean that authors have a fair chance of selling enough to recoup their costs, but they need someone to man the table when they are in panels.
Overall this is a very well-run convention with a great deal to offer people interested in gaming (which runs most of the weekend on multiple tables) or writing. Note that for 2014 the headline guests are George R.R. Martin and David Weber so the convention may sell out before the weekend and not sell any on-the-day badges. Check on the website www.concarolinas.org for updates about 2014.
Durham author Richard Dansky has helped hawk Bull Spec to passers-by at the Bimbe Cultural Arts Festival while wearing a vintage Montreal Expos shirt; he let me excerpt his novel, Firefly Rain, in Bull Spec #2; he’s been pressed to participate in several NC Speculative Fiction Night events, most recently in April, where he read from his new collection Snowbird Gothic; and he’s written a long list of reviews, interviews, and articles for Bull Spec, most recently a tribute to the late Ray Bradbury in issue #8. Here, Rich takes part in the guest author series “The Hardest Part” as it applies to his just-released novel, Vaporware.
Vaporware by Richard Dansky
JournalStone, May 2013
By Richard Dansky:
The hardest part of writing Vaporware was knowing where to draw lines.
It’s the subject matter that made things difficult, as well as interesting. Vaporware is set at a video game company, and I am a video game developer by trade. I have been for fourteen years, give or take, with four years in-house at a tabletop game company before that. That’s a lot of years spent making games, a lot of games worked on, and a lot of years hanging out with other people who make games.
And here’s something that probably shouldn’t be a surprise: not every game development cycle goes smoothly. Even the best ones demand long hours, hard work, and sacrifice of personal time. As for the ones that aren’t the best, well, the less said about those, the better. I’ve seen good and I’ve seen bad, and just as importantly, I’ve swapped stories with friends and professional peers. I’ve heard their stories of the good, the bad, the ugly, the really ugly, and the “why did this not produce an armed insurrection?”
All of which is an extremely long-winded and ominous way of saying that I know a fair bit about how video games get made, the people who make them, and what it takes to get a game from “I have an idea! Let’s have the game star a robot ninja Dimetrodon!” to finished product. Not everything, not by a long shot, and I’m constantly aware that different studios have different ways of doing things so that no experience is universal, but it’s something I feel comfortable talking and writing about.
Which is where the notion of lines comes in, and yes, I said “lines”, as in “plural”. Because on this project, there was the creative line that had to be drawn, and there was the professional line, and there was the emotional line.
The creative line took the longest to draw, but in a lot of ways, it was the easiest. Basically, it’s the manifestation of the question: How much accuracy is too much. Sure, there are technothrillers that drown the reader in jargon; that’s part of the appeal to an audience that likes that sort of thing. But there are other audiences that don’t like it, or who get overwhelmed by it, and while the urge to get every last detail juuuuust right was strong, so was the urge to not frighten off readers who don’t necessarily want to internalize data check-in procedures along with their fiction. So a line had to be drawn there, one that delineated how much realism was too much for readers who weren’t subject matter experts, and how little was too little for people to understand what goes on during game development. So one draft had a little too much inside baseball and confused people; another didn’t have enough and genericized the game development aspect of the book too much. It was, as they say, a process.
The professional line that had to be drawn was about what I could or couldn’t say. The book was never intended as a roman a clef about my employer, and I didn’t want it to be taken that way. I also felt I had a professional obligation not to whitewash some of the craziness that happens making games; to do less would be to do a disservice to my peers. But again, the question was “how much is too much” – how much could I include without doing my profession a disservice, or creating misapprehensions about what I was trying to do.
Then there was the personal line – how much of myself was I willing to put out there before it was too much. Vaporware was in many places a difficult book to write, dredging up some old memories and rough patches. And when you’re writing material you’re intimately familiar with, what goes in may not be what you intended. I don’t view the book as autobiographical, and I don’t view the protagonist – who is not, in my opinion, a hero – as a stand in for yours truly. But in writing him, in watching the behaviors that he exhibited, it was easy to see echoes of my own in there, or of places I could have gone. Self-examination was unavoidable and, to be honest, not particularly pleasant.
In the end, I think it was worth it to wrestle long and hard with the question of how much to show – of the biz, of the details, of myself. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t easy. But if you wanted to hear about the easiest part of writing the book, well, that’s a whole other piece.
Briefly known as the world’s greatest living authority on Denebian Slime Devils (a true fact), Richard Dansky works as the Central Clancy Writer for Red Storm/Ubisoft. In 2009 he was named one of the Top 20 Videogame Writers by Gamasutra, and his numerous credits include the acclaimed Splinter Cell: Conviction, Far Cry, and Rainbow Six: Black Arrow. A prolific fiction author as well, Richard has published five novels and a short fiction collection, Snowbird Gothic. His latest novel, Vaporware, was released in May by JournalStone, and he writes regularly for magazines such as Bull Spec and Green Man Review.
Review of Nebula Awards Showcase 2013 edited by Catherine Asaro (Pyr, May 14, 2013)
This volume showcases those works published in 2011 that were on the 2011 Nebula ballot. All the stories were enjoyable and it was convenient to get them in one volume. Many of the items appearing on the Nebula ballot are not from places the average reader would be able to access after the ballot is out because the magazine volumes in which they appeared have long since left the bookstore shelves. If you miss issues of the print magazines, it can be difficult to find the missing ones without resorting to a used magazine dealer online and for most people the one story they want to read in a single issue would not be worth the trouble. The showcase is a good way to provide access to all the stories that SFWA members thought were the best of 2011 publications.
Our favorite short story in this volume was Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie”. It has a real world setting with just the slightest bit of magic. Because the magic was in childhood toys made by the mother, it makes you feel nostalgic for childhood treasures and you can easily believe those treasures have a bit of magic in them which made them come to life. Also the issues of the immigrant mother not speaking English reminded us of friends who have a similar problem because their children cannot speak to their grandmother. Immigrants not speaking English is certainly an issue many families and towns are dealing with today. The mother’s lack of English makes her bringing the animals to life using Chinese even more magical because it is something the son and mother shared between themselves and it excluded the father and the boy’s friends. The son did not understand this until the end of the story because as a child he wanted to fit in and stopped talking in Chinese. The end of the story was very sad because by the time the son understood his mother, she was gone.
The excerpt from Jo Walton’s Among Others was also exceptional. All of Jo’s work is good and we have enjoyed it since her first novel was published, but this work was the first time she had used her childhood in Wales as a resource to produce a fantasy setting. After reading the excerpt we bought the novel while traveling and read it in a couple of days. If you have not been to Wales, you have missed a beautiful part of the world. The mountains and coast are so beautiful, it is not hard to believe some of the people living there can do magic. Hidden away from most tourists are areas damaged by mining and quarrying, with buildings abandoned when the resources ran out. These are the areas where protagonist Morwenna goes to play in and that her fairies inhabit. It lends to this suburban fantasy a feel of a mix of the very ancient mixed with the only slightly old (like from our childhoods). The characters in the story are all interesting, with Morwenna as the viewpoint character giving us a slanted view of many of the adults. Morwenna had her own ideas about who was a family member and who was not, this did not agree with that of the adults. It will be interesting to see further work in this universe since Morwenna still has several years of school to get through.
This volume has several excellent short works and excerpts of a few longer ones. If you like some variety to your reading and appreciate a good short story then this volume is for you.
UNC/Duke professor Tyler Curtain has an avid interest in literary sf and fantasy translations, and introduced me to Duke ecology PhD student Matthew Ross, whose translation from the French of Pierre Grimbert’s bestselling and award-winning The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs was about to be published by AmazonCrossing (Publishers Weekly review) and Brilliance Audio (SFFAudio review). Ross talked a bit about this process at the recent NC Speculative Fiction Night in April, where he also gave a reading from the book, and here writes about the difficulties of translating the untranslatable.
By Matthew Ross:
At the beginning of W.S. Merwin’s career as a poet, Ezra Pound told the aspiring writer that he couldn’t possibly have enough experience to write about anything at the age of 18. So Pound told Merwin to learn a language and translate. The translation would be the way to learn your own language and practice. And so it has been in our translation of Pierre Grimbert’s Le Secret de Ji.
I say “our” because my translation partner, Eric Lamb, and I equally contributed to the work and it was a completely shared experience. Eric and I have been friends since early college. At the time of our first meeting in 2006, he spoke French fluently, and I had never taken a class. A year later he became my mentor as I began French lessons. Three years later, Eric helped me work through some of the trickier parts of a few Baudelaire translations from Les Fleurs du Mal. Four years later, we were both teaching English in France. The jobs entailed only about 20 hours a week, so Eric took on a translation project of his own, and I followed my friend and mentor by starting a translation of Le Secret de Ji. Finally, when the project solidified, I knew I would need help finishing such a large project, so I asked Eric to join and we have been translating together for two years now. But this partnership isn’t the hardest part, it may be the easiest.
Instead our difficulties translating stem from the growing pains of learning our own language, as Pound noted to Merwin. Of course, there are other difficulties in translating a French fantasy novel, especially French-specific concepts, such as dividing time into periods of tens. A ten-day work week, a ten “hour” day, a hundred “minutes” in an hour, etc. . . In essence these concepts of décade, décan, décille are untranslatable.
They stem from a brief period in France’s history right after the French Revolution when the revolutionaries wanted to abandon all Christian concepts, so they created the time system based on base tens. Of course, in English, we have no concept of this time system, so the concept requires a lot of introduction or abandonment. We went with the former, and many readers have found it alienating and difficult. But this part of the translation is quite exciting and fun. The oulipo, a group of primarily French writers who write with ridiculous constraints such as no e’s in an entire novel, knows the joy and freedom writing within strict constraints can provide. Translating a fantasy novel provides some of these strict constraints, given how important it is to recreate the original author’s world-building effort. So these “untranslatable” terms were not the hardest part.
Rather it was most difficult to work on recreating a tone, pacing, and feeling in English. This difficulty has nothing to do with our abilities in French, but rather our experience as writers in English. Since my background is primarily in science writing, and Eric had done a very literary translation prior to The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs, we both had a formal, sometimes stilted tone that pervaded much of our initial translations.
I found this stilted part of my writing particularly difficult to fix because it was so embedded in who I am. I have spent the last six years focusing on being a better science writer, and though many of the skills cross over to fiction writing, creating the proper tone for storytelling is not one of them. Furthermore (see that sciencey formalism?), unlike the untranslatable terms, tone cannot be precisely extracted, identified, and reworked to some satisfactory state. It permeates every aspect of the novel and every moment of translation. How do you fix that?
For us, we really worked hard in editing each other’s work, but we still have a lot more to learn and have opened up our second translation of The Secret of Ji (it’s a series!) to more comments and edits from outsiders, namely our partners, Nicole and Cassidy, and our editor Joel Bahr. They see subtle, but easily fixable, moments that create a stilted tone. Like changing “the details were finalized,” to “Together, they finalized the last details.” Though this little change seems minor at first, compounded with hundreds of others it was quite difficult to extract and perfect these kinds of simple moments where we failed to keep an active, exciting tone.
As Merwin has, I hope to use translation as a way to work on my knowledge, not of French, but of English. But this part of writing, for us at least, was one of the hardest and we hope we keep improving as the next Ji book comes out.
About Matthew Ross:
Born in 1987 in Colorado, Matthew Ross grew up in the rapidly suburbanizing rangelands outside of Monument, CO. The youngest member of the family, he first fell in love with the speculative fiction genre when he read Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea on a trip to his parents’ native home of Amarillo, Texas. His mom, a school teacher, always encouraged his sometimes distracting obsession with books, while his dad, a salesman, made sure he got outside and learned something about the actual world we live in. His brother, an avid cyclist and sports enthusiast, still tries to keep him in shape and well-rounded.
As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which left him yearning for some non-science conversation. He tried to add a major in English, but after an English professor strongly encouraged him to major in some language other than English, he began taking French. From there, he fell in love with the language, moved to France for a year, and began a search for an excellent French Fantasy author. He found Pierre Grimbert and tentatively began translating his novel. After sending out samples to a few publishing companies, he heard nothing back and moved ahead with his plans to start his PhD in ecology at Duke University.
Two months before he started at Duke, Amazon Crossing contacted him and asked if he wanted to translate The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs. Knowing he might need help, he called his close friend and French mentor, Eric Lamb and asked if he wanted to join the project. They have been translating together since. Eric has been speaking French for ten years and has lived in France for two of those years. Now he is a high-school French teacher, who lives in Carbondale, CO with his fiancée, Cassidy. Ross lives in the Braggtown neighborhood of Durham with his wife, Nicole.
I met North Carolina author Tonia Brown at ConTemporal last summer, mostly by accident as she was on a panel with Cherie Priest and Phil and Kaja Foglio. But she was funny, she had a clear idea of how to tell her stories, her way, and when she handed me a copy of Railroad!, the print version of her (ongoing!) web serial, it was an easy thing to have on hand to remember to look up her other work later. That led me to find out about this strange book she published earlier this year, Gnomageddon. As the title implies, it’s a little… quirky. So is Tonia, and so is her entry in “The Hardest Part” guest column series. Enjoy!
“Dancing with Myself”
By Tonia Brown
Gnomageddon was a pain in my tail pouch before I even started working on it. The trouble came from the onset of the idea—an idea that would not leave me alone until it saw completion. You see, for me writing has always been less like crafting a story, and more like taking dictation while my imagination runs amok. In this case, my imagination had chosen to manifest itself the form of a mouthy, bossy, merciless gnome. I was already working on a novel, as well as trying to update my web serial, when the gnome first nudged me.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey yourself,” I said, not surprised to see the little guy. It wasn’t unusual for ideas to crop up now and again, introduce themselves, explain their plot and purpose, and then take a backseat to wait their turn.
Only this one wasn’t interested in waiting. He watched over my shoulder as I typed for a few moments before he asked, “Whatcha working on?”
“A novel about a serial killer that is bitten by a werewolf.”
“Yeah. It’s going to not only challenge the genre but change the entire idea of good versus evil. It’ll blur the line between man and beast, between hunger and appetite, between sin and salvation.” What could I say? I had pretty lofty hopes for that werewolf.
Unimpressed by my hopes, lofty or otherwise, the gnome yawned. “Sounds boring. You should write a story about a bunch of undead gnomes.”
“Lawn gnomes or fantasy gnomes?”
“Fantasy, of course. It’ll be great. It’ll be funny and sexy and I’ll be the star. Write it. I command you.”
“Okay, okay. I will, but not right now. I’m busy with this serial killer werewolf.”
“Blech! No one likes that kind of stuff. Everyone loves a laugh, sweet cheeks. Write me instead.”
“I’m busy. And besides, if I am going to write anything else, I have to finish the next volume of Railroad. I’m already behind schedule and my editor is going to kill-”
“Pffft,” he said over me. “Railroad schmailroad. No one reads that trash. Write me. Write me now!”
“It’s not trash and people do so read it.” I stopped arguing here because I realized I was exchanging angry words with a figment of my imagination.
Sometimes you have to draw a line when it comes to your inner narrative.
I pushed the gnome away for several weeks, refusing to give the idea voice, or rather listen to the voice the idea had given itself. Instead, I cracked down on volume six of Railroad, hoping to get it in before the deadline. There is a certain rhythm to running a web serial, and I was dangerously close to disrupting it by dragging my heels on the latest update. I also kept my mind on the werewolf novel, assuming I could work on each a bit at a time. But the gnome was persistent, as well as heavy handed.
“Whatcha working on?” he asked. “And you better say me, or I’ll break both your legs.”
“I don’t see how you plan on …” I started, but paused when I saw the war hammer he was carrying.
“What was it you were working on?” he asked.
“Your story,” I said as I closed the serial killer werewolf novel and opened a blank document. “I was working on your story.”
He grinned as he leaned on the handle of the hammer. “Damn right you are.”
I wished that was the only trouble the gnome gave me, but no, there was more. There was always more. The next problem to arise dealt with the length of the story. The gnome was always meant to be short. A quick read filled with cheap laughs. A few dirty jokes wrapped in a parody. But again, when it came time to write him, he had ideas of his own.
He looked over my shoulder as I wrote him. “You haven’t built enough world. Build more.”
“I’ve built plenty of world,” I said, pushing him away. “You don’t need any more world. You’re only a novella.”
“I don’t want to be a novella. I wanna be an epic series.”
“Too bad, because that’s not how I plotted you.”
“I’ll fix that.” The gnome tossed something at my manuscript. It landed between two very different characters.
“What was that?”
“An unexpected love story.”
“Oh, man. Now I have to work that out.”
He lobbed a few more things. “Have a moral dilemma or two. Some betrayal. A touch of intrigue.”
“Good grief! That’ll triple the story.”
“And to top it all off,” he said as he took a potshot at my document, “a couple of reoccurring jokes.”
I glanced down at his ammo and found myself giggling uncontrollably. “Actually, that is funny. Thanks.”
“My pleasure. Now, more world building. Chop! Chop!”
With a sigh, I did as asked, and without my consent a thirty thousand word novella evolved into a ninety five thousand word novel; an epic parody with loads of gore, tons of humor, plenty of filth, great sequel potential and every word of it written under duress. Thus, Gnomageddon was born.
Of course that isn’t how it really happened, yet when I look back on it, I can’t help but remember it just that way. Sometimes an idea gets stuck in your craw, and you have no choice but to drop everything else and work on it, lest it go crazy on you with a war hammer. Seriously, have you seen those things?
By the way, volume six of Railroad came in just under the wire, and at long last the serial killer werewolf had his chance to tell his hairy, scary tale—which, funny enough, ended up as a novella instead of a novel. Turns out he had less bark and much more bite.
Tonia Brown is a southern author with a penchant for Victorian dead things. She lives in the backwoods of North Carolina with her genius husband and an ever fluctuating number of cats. She likes fudgesicles and coffee, though not always together. Her current novel, Gnomageddon, is a horrible fantasy with just enough gore and filth to make you want to wash your hands when you’re done reading it. When not writing, or talking to herself, she raises unicorns and fights crime with her husband under the code names Dr. Weird and his sexy sidekick Butternut. You can learn more about her at: www.thebackseatwriter.com
Review of Kevin (from Archie Comics) by Paul Kupperberg (Grosset& Dunlap paper-over-board novel, April 18, 2013)
Kevin Keller is the first openly gay kid at Riverdale High. He had a comic miniseries which was very successful, so he went to an ongoing series which is now on its eighth issue. The second issue of that series dealt with Kevin’s first high school prom. Kevin had been elected class president in issue four of the miniseries, so it fell to him to select a theme for the prom and get all the decorating done. Being a smart leader he delegated most of the decorating to classmates Veronica Lodge and Jughead Jones.
The time the three characters spent decorating for the prom is the framing story for this novel, which tells of Kevin’s middle school prom. As with all Archie tales, the teenage characters are realistic and have a wide variety of family situations. This novel has a strong anti-bullying message and shows how both victims and bystanders can change the situation. One character has a particularly bad home situation where even his father bullies him. Kevin befriends the boy, whose name is Luke, and ends up helping him accept that many students at Medford Middle School are willing to be his friends.
In a time of crisis, Luke comes out as gay to Kevin, trying to show Kevin that no one will want to be his friend because of what he is. Kevin has a nice speech about what he thinks of people who will hate someone for being gay and tells Luke, everyone but the bully will like you for who you are, not who you love (Note that at this time Kevin was not identifying as gay). Helping Luke makes Kevin realize something about himself which had caused him a great deal of confusion and eventually leads to Kevin coming out to his middle-school friends (how he came out to his parents is shown in the comics).
This coming-out story of Kevin and Luke is sweet with a hint of sadness, as well as funny in some places, particularly when Kevin tries to figure out why he doesn’t think his female best mate Sammie is sexy. Luckily for Kevin she is understanding and she is more relieved that there is not something wrong with the way she looks than she is concerned that Kevin likes boys. For anyone who is struggling to find who they are, for people who want to understand those who are doing so, and for those who did so in a time when Luke’s words about hatred were true almost everywhere, this is an excellent read. Read it yourself to see how great it can be when you have understanding friends and family. Riverdale is a fictional place, but the relationships are realistic; share it with friends and family members to make your own coming-out story an easier one. For adults, sharing this book with your teen can help them understand themselves or someone they know because the message is not just about coming out as gay, it is about standing up to bullies and how people with differences can be accepted. It truthfully shows how sometimes having two differences can lead to acceptance, because identifying as a geek makes you fit in that crowd, no matter what other differences you have. If you have ever attended a science fiction convention, you have seen this idea in action because you see every type of person imaginable and they are all part of the geek crowd, and they don’t notice the differences of others because they feel different too.
If you like the Kevin Keller character and would like to read more, check your local comic or book store for comic issues, and compilation paperbacks. Issues can also be read by way of digital comic book apps.
In honor of the finale of this season of Doctor Who, Your Humble Columnists present a review of our trip to the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay. First of all, pay attention when you buy tickets because they offer a package deal with a brochure, a t-shirt, some postcards and a cool certificate that says you flew the TARDIS, which looks expensive at first until you realize that most of the stuff you can’t buy even at the Experience. They even have a way to buy a family-of-four package. When buying tickets in the US for events in the UK, pre-paying for extras is always a wise move because of fluctuations in the exchange rate and the usual cash shortage when on holiday overseas. The Doctor Who Experience is a bit of a hike from the closest bank machine so you are better off to pre-pay for some goodies and save your cash for those “I MUST have this!” moments in the little shop.
One of the first things you will notice upon arrival in Cardiff Bay is that as you look out over the water with the Millennium Center and the Torchwood Tower behind you, looking off to the left you will see the TARDIS parked rather unsteadily on an outcropping of rock. This marks the entrance to the Doctor Who Experience, so you simply hike or take a taxi (recommended if you have little ones) as close to the TARDIS as you can get, then you will be outside the building for the Experience. Once inside you will see that there is a little café and a ticket counter. The café is a good place to rest after your hike and to take turns watching your things as everyone makes a restroom run. The Experience is like a museum with a specific path to follow through which is timed by the electronic things going on around you, so leaving to go to the restroom can cause you to miss most of it.
The interactive parts of the Experience which you enter first are quite well-done, with things in the room reacting, videos turning themselves on, and a TARDIS to fly. This is quite good fun even for adults, as all the sides of the console have controls so many people have the chance to fly it and you get directions as to what to do. Of course you have some monster experiences, which are quite exciting and possibly a bit scary for the under 8s, just like the show.
After you exit the interactive portion of the Experience, you enter a section with costumes of companions and monsters, models of technology from the show and an exhibit of all eleven Doctors’ primary costumes from 1963 to present day. There you can also step onto the edge of The Tenth Doctor’s TARDIS console and you can take a picture of yourself there. Nearby is a photography area where you stand in front of a green-screen and it places you in the background of your choice. This is quite cool because you can end up with a souvenir photo of your group with the TARDIS on an alien planet. Like this:
Once you exit the museum area you end up in the souvenir shop, which sells a large variety of Doctor Who merchandise. If you are interested in t-shirts, be sure to ask which ones are not available anywhere else. Also they have other special merchandise for the Experience only, so check on which these are before making your buying choices. The prices are standard retail so unless one of the main street stores is having a special you will not pay any more for things than you would at Toys R Us (there is a large one of these in a Cardiff retail park) or Argos (a UK store sort of like Service Merchandise used to be).
On return to Cardiff Bay, there are several sites which were used as filming locations both in the Bay and short distances away by car or taxi. Look for a list on the web of these sites before heading out to explore. Some food suggestions: you must not miss Welsh cakes which are sold hot from a shop in the bay. Also for child-friendly fare there is a good hamburger restaurant in the bay and a Pizza Express which carries many American style entrees. For Asian fusion food there are branches of the Wagamama chain in Cardiff. For inexpensive UK entrees try one of the pubs in the area, there are several with good food near the bay and in town. There is a massive shopping center in town which has just about every chain in the UK and some stores you don’t find in London, like the wonderful shoe store Hotter.
Hopefully this information will make all our Whovian readers want to visit Cardiff; it is well worth the train trip from London. Too many Americans think a visit to London means they have visited the UK, but by skipping Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland they have really missed out on some beautiful countryside with much cleaner air.
The Exploding Spaceship Reviews Transgalactic and World Divided Book Two of the Secret World ChroniclesPosted: 8 May, 2013
Coming to paperback this month, Transgalactic by A.E. van Vogt and World Divided Book Two of the Secret World Chronicles by Mercedes Lackey, Cody Martin, Dennis Lee and Veronica Giguere.
In case you missed it last year when the hardback was released, Mercedes Lackey has a second book in her (and her co-authors) superhero series. It goes to paperback this month. Echo and CCCP including John Murdock continue to battle the Thulians. In this volume a rare chance at some intelligence on the Thulians allows Echo and friends to attack in the Thulians’ space rather than waiting for them to attack. This gives some of Echoe’s misfits some field experience working together but also reveals some weaknesses embedded in the group.
The angel does her best to steer people to the best path for humans to beat the Thulians, but this isn’t always so pleasant in the short term. Tesla is still hamstrung by the democratic processes of Metis in this volume but communication to him is restored somewhat.
There are some changes in the Echo management and oversight which cause the heroes to do more things off the book but even with the problems many members of Echo and CCCP do not feel as helpless by the end of this volume. Hope has been restored in a limited way even though the Thulians are far from defeated.
This volume shows more depth of some younger characters presented in the last volume and shows maturing relationships of the characters on which the action was centered in the last volume. Several of the troubled characters make psychological progress in this volume. These changes make the cast of supers more interesting and the action not as predictable since the changing psychology can result in surprise behavior.
If you like superheroes in any form, whether in media, science fiction or action-adventure then this is a good reading choice. The details of the partially-destroyed present-day Atlanta are particularly interesting to those who live or visit there, which is a surprising number of readers since Dragon*Con is held there. This is a fast-paced adventure with plenty of danger filled moments to keep you reading until the very last page.
It will be interesting to see the Thulian response to the attack in volume three, but we must wait until January 2014 for the release of Revolution.
Also coming to paperback this month from Baen is a reprint volume of classic science fiction from A.E. van Vogt, edited by Eric Flint and David Drake, which came out in hardcover back in 2006. Transgalactic contains Empire of the Atom and The Wizard of Linn which are set in a civilization which has fallen but still contains some remnants of science, and Mission to the Stars along with two short novels from the Ezwal series which are all space adventure.
These are all classic adventures which haven’t seen print in some years, so for classic science fiction fans this volume is a treat. Many of today’s readers have probably never read any of them, but they are all good stories with action, good characterization and that bit of a strange view of our civilization which is common to van Vogt. There are quite a few quirky characters in the fallen civilization novels and the Ezwal short novels have a very strange but interesting alien.