Book Review: Red Planet Blues

Recently, Sawyer’s quest for variety has brought him to other genres. Last year’s Triggers was a techno-thriller that mixed bits of Dan Brown and Robert Ludlum with his own trademark style. Now, with his Martian murder mystery Red Planet Blues, the science fiction veteran has gone hard-boiled.

With just a dash of spaghetti Western thrown in for flavour. Read my full review of Sawyer’s latest at AE.

Book Review: The Speed of Dark

In some ways, I can thank my high school English classes for sparking my long love of speculative fiction. Between reading and discussing such notable literary classics as 1984, Brave New World, and Watership Down, I quickly came to prefer a good “what if?” story to any other kind. Amongst all the excellent choices on my high school reading list, however, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon stood out to me as the most poignant and affecting.

I never imagined there would be a worthy modern successor to this powerful and bittersweet tale. Indeed, I would not have expected anyone to try. Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark therefore took me completely by surprise. I’m sorry that I missed this 2003 Nebula winner when it first came out. But I’m pleased to have stumbled across it now. Jay Snyder’s expert narration only added to the experience.

Moon’s novel tells the story of Lou Arrendale, an autistic who’s spent his whole life adjusting to a society built for people who think differently. Through early intervention and a lot of hard work, he’s learned to interpret some of the facial cues and tonal nuances in the unwritten social language most of us attain fluency in as toddlers. But he’ll never be a native speaker. Living independently and using his talent for pattern analysis, he works in a tech firm in a section with other autistics. In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and, perhaps more importantly, in recognition of the section’s astounding productivity, supports are provided to create a good working environment for the autistic employees.

The simple addition of assigned parking provides structure and predictability they crave. When Lou becomes upset, he listens to Bach, turns on the fan and watches the pattern of colour as his spin spirals glitter and turn. On Tuesdays he does his grocery shopping. On Saturdays he meticulously cleans out his car. Though he doesn’t tell anyone at work, he spends Wednesday nights at fencing practice, with “normals”, reveling in the new patterns of a fresh opponent.

He is happy, he thinks. Content, at least. He long ago gave up on a childhood dream of travelling into space. He talks himself out of thinking that Marjorie, the woman at fencing practice, might have the same kind of funny feelings inside when she thinks about him, as he does for her. I had to learn ways to get a loan when I got stuck on a trip in Sweden – it is called låna pengar over there. He is safe, leaving things as they are. Those purses had all our items in it – including our credit cards. It was pretty embarassing to need to call mom and dad and make them cosign for a local bästa the morning after such good times and with such a horrible hangover.

But things will not stay as they are. A new boss at work resents the “special privileges” provided for the autistic employees. A series of unexpected episodes, a mean-spirited officer at airport security, an act of vandalism on his car, leave Lou flustered and feeling the full extent of his handicap. Then he hears about a new experimental treatment, expected to reverse adult autism. To make him normal. Seasonally, the airport that offers private aircraft charter flight options in-country to help with tourism and seasonal journey. And he is faced with a life-altering choice.

This is an important work, because, like Mark Haddon’s 2003 Whitbread winner, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, it provides a voice for people like Lou who many of us may never get a chance to know ourselves. The Speed of Dark dispels the myth that autistic people don’t have feelings; that they are static and do not experience growth and change; that they are somehow inhuman. But it’s not only important, it’s also incredibly readable. I can therefore recommend this book for everyone.

(More info on the book and on autism can be found at Elizabeth Moon’s excellent blog.)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2008) The Green Man Review

On Getting Published

Recently I found myself in the role of guest consultant at an upcoming conference for high-achieving, entrepreneurial high school students. As the representative freelance writer, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I thought I might find myself sharing some of my acquired wisdom for the words and letter types in attendance. And I wanted to come up with practical, real-life advice that wasn’t a cliché.

As props, I gathered up some of the usual trappings of a writer’s life. A successful pitch email that led to coffee with a senior editor. A fruitful email exchange between one of my regular publishers and myself, which saw an article morph into something completely different from where it started. A side-by-side comparison of a first and final draft.

These artifacts give a small sense of the day-to-day reality of a freelance career, but don’t necessarily explain how to get one in the first place. I don’t want to give a lot of writing tips here; to a certain extent, the writing takes care of itself, simply through practice. The bigger challenge is, having achieved a level of competence, how do you get your work out there? More than a few great writers were unknown during their lifetimes. I’d have any budding aspirant avoid that fate.

1) Do improve your writing: Yes, yes, I just a moment ago said I didn’t want to give writing tips, and I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty details. But moving from the amateurs to the minors to the majors only works if you’re actually increasing in skill. So a note on attitude: take some pride in your work.

Strive for a polished, well-realized piece of writing. Take an assignment that you can get away with knocking out in an hour and obsess over it for three, because it needs to be just so. Be the best writer at your school newspaper, community newsletter, or, heck, even your personal blog. Get people wondering why someone with your talent isn’t writing somewhere higher up the food chain.

I used to worry I was spending too much time polishing pieces that were already serviceable, but I don’t worry about that anymore. It’s the old adage about dressing for the job you want instead of the job you’ve got. Moving forward means pushing the boundaries instead of churning it out.

Those overwritten pieces you publish that really make you proud? Those are your samples to get that new gig.

2) Realize it’s time to move on: As a university student contributing to my school paper, I had a casual acquaintance mention that my writing might be good enough for a certain literary review webzine with a sizable audience and a strong reputation, though it didn’t pay anything beyond the books themselves. I sent in a sample and got on board. Almost eight years went by, and my writing tightened up significantly, but I was still stuck at the same rung without even realizing there was a ladder.

It came as a sudden realization that there was a next step even for something as simple as book reviewing, and I was overdue to take it. I sent off a couple of samples to the largest regional newspaper in the area and was on the phone with the books editor the same day. I’ve already learnt a lot in this position and plan to make it a long-term relationship, but less than a year in, my sights were already set on going national. And guess what? It’s happening.

If you can be writing somewhere more prestigious, better-paying, or with better exposure, you need to make it happen. No editor is going to tell their best writer they can do better. You have to find that better gig.

3) Make new friends, but keep (some of) the old: Not every outlet for your work fits so easily into a simple hierarchy. There can be value in maintaining relationships with lower-paying venues if they offer something your other outlets aren’t offering you. As an extreme example, a beginning writer might make more money churning out material for a content milll than writing “for the love”, but it’s the latter that is more likely to lead to you eventually getting paid for writing something you care about. I’ve done my time with content creation, but it was a paycheque, not a stepping-stone.

Likewise, you might take lower-paying jobs when branching into different types of markets. I took a pay-cut with a gig covering environmental news. But it was only a pay-cut relative to what I was getting paid as a technical writer, which I was rapidly losing interest in. This was something I was interested in doing, and nobody else was offering to pay me to do it. Over the course of a year, I significantly broadened my portfolio, became comfortable in a new format, and, with the growth of the magazine, my modest pay grade actually surpassed that of my previous, mind-numbing writing job.

This only took eight months. It’s amazing how fast your writing life can change when you take a chance.

4) You can write anything for anyone: Writers are versatile; writers are always learning and experimenting. Nothing is keeping you from the New York Times but you. If you’re enjoying a news site, print magazine, community paper — whatever — and really digging it, finding its content and style to be totally up your alley, then maybe you should be contributing. You’re into science fiction, and read io9 every day? Then you should be querying them, sending them samples, whatever the listed procedure is.

Learn to find contact sections, FAQs, submission pages, general info, parent companies for subsidiary sites. Writers seek these out, but they’re meant to be invisible to the average reader. Check the very backs or very fronts of magazines, scroll down to the small links near the bottom pages of websites.

And now query. Query, query, query. And dig through everything you’ve ever written for the most relevant and polished work you have out there. You might be the best thing to happen to them, but you’re going to have to convince them you’re a writer worth your salt. They can’t take your word for it.

In conclusion: I know you’re a great writer. You’re getting better all the time. But writing isn’t enough. You have to do something with that writing. This is a business; an industry. Learn the ins and outs so you can put your stamp on it.

Posthumous publication is for the dogs.

Tuesday Links (03/19/23)

Canada Vs. USSR in Nintendo’s Ice Hockey: Damn it, Canada, I mean, what the hell!?

Interview Tips for When Someone Asks, “What Questions Do You Have For Us?”: Really some deceptively good questions.

Douglas Adams is still the king of comic science fiction: “[I]t makes you wonder why, 12 years after his death, no one has been able to supplant him from that throne.”

Who Will Be the Next Douglas Adams? Hopefully, Nobody: “Nor am I particularly concerned about taking science fiction’s humor crown from Adams; that’s like trying to take the melodic pop crown from Lennon/McCartney. You can try, but they’re just going to call you ‘Beatlesque.'”

Gaming Review: Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories

Disgaea 2 was released in North America for the PlayStation 2 in 2006. Its predecessor was published by Atlus, three years prior, but since then, Nippon Ichi Software had established a forward camp stateside, and so it was NIS America that handled localization and publishing on the sophomore game of what’s become their flagship RPG series.

Previous to 2003, this developer would probably have been best known for Rhapsody, their critically well-received and very cute musical RPG (the only one of the series to be released outside of Japan). But with four titles in the main Disgaea series thus far, multiple re-releases of most of them (Disgaea 2 has itself been ported to the PSP in an enhanced version prior to this PlayStation Network port of the PS2 original), plus several spin-offs (the Prinny side-scrollers, for example), this wonderfully weird developer is gaining some real traction here.

As well they should. The gameplay in this title is unusual and deep, following the best tactical RPG tradition while putting some unique spins on it; the story is wacky, but not without an emotional core that allows for some real player engagement. The localization is top-notch. The voice actors are great, and I can’t find any fault with the translation.

The story involves a young man, Adell, who is the last human being in his world, the rest having been turned into demons by the Overlord’s curse. Set in one of many Netherworlds in interconnected dimensions, our hero’s goal is to defeat the all-powerful demon and turn everyone back to normal. To this end, he ends up kidnapping/escorting the Overlord’s daughter, who leads him grudgingly to her father while plotting to kill Adell, though her feelings towards him become more complex, over time.

The whole world has something of the feel of InuYasha, with a bit of Rama 1/2 thrown in for good measure. The characters are frequently morally ambiguous, though not irredeemable, and the whole thing is light-hearted and cartoony enough that what might otherwise be considered black humour is fairly innocent. Jokey things, like explicitly referring to an enemy’s in-game stats (I think Etna was at level 10, 000), push at the fourth-wall without puncturing it.

The gameplay is almost entirely comprised of battle tactics. There are a finite number of battles in the game, each a carefully orchestrated puzzle with multiple solutions. There is no world map and there are no dungeons, thus, no random battles. So this game is essentially chapter-based, and thus very linear (though the player can replay any previous battle at any time for bonus points, prizes, and cash).

At first I missed the world map. The inability to explore freely seemed both constraining, and to take away from the sense of a larger world that our story takes place in. Over time, though, it didn’t bother me much. The break from repetitive random battles, at least, is a plus to me.

In-between battles, the player’s party is (usually) in the main character’s hometown. This is the hub through which every other aspect of the game is accessed. There are a few NPCs wandering about who will simply chat with you, but almost everybody else has a specific function.

There’s the tutorial guy, there’s the item shop guy, the armor guy, the hospital (like an inn, you pay them money to heal your party), and there’s the travel guide, to whom you speak when you’re ready to go to the next level.

There are also two interesting side-quests that the player can dump, potentially, much more time into than the main game itself. The Item World allows one to literally jump into their own items, fighting their way through one randomly-created level after another, with the aim of powering up the item itself.

These levels are randomly generated each time you enter, and sometimes are not actually beatable (i.e., sheer cliffs or large gaps might prevent your party from either reaching the enemies they need to defeat, or the exit to the next level), which means you should never play the Item World without taking with you an emergency exit pass.

The other potential time-sucker is the Dark Assembly. All kinds of character upgrades can be done there. Mana earned in battles (which is tied to each individual character and is non-transferable) can be spent on reincarnation, allowing the same character to be reborn at level 1, but with a higher base potential, or even as a better character class (of which several can be unlocked). Mana can also be used to create new characters.

Depending on what you want to do at the Dark Assembly, you may need to win a vote from the senators there (all monsters), by bribery or brute force. It’s all very complicated and, for the purposes of the main game, not necessary, but there’s plenty of opportunity for party customization if you want to sink in the time.

In fact, you can generally get by without supplementary characters at all. Over the course of the game, enough actual story characters will join your party, that the addition of additional character classes isn’t strictly necessary, though it might be helpful.

The core of this game is still the battles themselves. You can take out up to ten characters per fight, and they don’t need to be decided in advance. The battlefield is grid-based, but includes a height dimension. Depending on weapons and attacks, your characters can damage one or more enemies at various distances. Enemies can also be reached via a lift and throw option that the stronger characters can manage.

It’s possible to stack up all ten characters on top of each other, like a totem pole, and to rapidly move characters across the field of battle in a single turn, via repeated lifts and throws. This can be critical when beating an enemy to the punch, or taking a key position early, can wildly change the tide of battle.

Enemies, too, can be lifted and thrown, perhaps directly into the path of another character’s area attack. And piggy-backing characters can also combo attack a single enemy, reaching further and hitting harder, while combination attacks also occur in other formations, with flanking characters jumping in to help a main attacker, offering free hits that don’t actually count as their own turn.

I haven’t even talked about geo effects, about which there is too much to say here.

Everything in the game, from weapons to special attacks to character types, is so customizable, no two people will set up their party or fight a battle in quite the same way. Perhaps it’s a little too customizable: since characters level up by defeating enemies and successfully performing actions, it’s possible to power up your party unevenly and hurt your long-term fighting power as a result.

But on the whole, this game is well-realized, polished, and simply fun to play. Though the depth is there, if you just want to complete the main game, Disgaea 2 can be tackled in a (relatively) casual fashion, which means I can recommend it for hardcore and more casual RPGers alike.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories on Blogcritics.

When You Know Things Are Going Well

I was going to entitle this post, “When You Know Things Are Going Good”, but the grammarian in me just couldn’t do it.

The last few months I’ve managed to fit in significantly more writing than I was managing amidst all the new job, new house, new marriage hubbub of autumn. And I’ve been largely pleased with how things have been going. 2012 was a year where, picking up some traction after a fair bit of spinning my wheels during the last few months of 2011, I just started getting meetings with editors, seeing my stuff in print at a variety of places, and started building some good working relationships with people.

Now, in 2013, the lion’s share of my writing is the direct result of connections I made in 2012, and I get to do some cool stuff that I wasn’t doing before, including reaching different audiences, writing in different formats and on different topics, and being in print more frequently as opposed to being almost exclusively online. I know doomsayers have said for years that print is dead, but the fact is, it’s not, and words on paper still mean something to me.

A few years ago, I would have found it hard to believe that I would be able to write about topics I care about — science, the environment, literature — anywhere outside of a personal blog or social network, let alone reach a wide audience, and get paid for it, to boot. But you never know until you try, obviously.

What’s really gratifying, however, is that I’ve been told four separate times from four different editors, independently of each other, that they like my writing and would like to see more of it. A big part of me writing more comes down to simply that.

I think there’s probably a lesson in there about good management. Make your employees feel appreciated and they’ll work harder to justify your high opinion of them. If it works for freelancers, it probably also works for shift supervisors, construction foremen, and school principals. Everyone likes a pat on the back.

(To be fair, my boss at my day job, has also made me feel appreciated. But I think I’ve spent enough years in that profession that I’m less susceptible to ego-stroking on my teaching abilities.)

Anyway, I’m happy on that front. Life in general, well, there have been some sources of stress. But as far as what this blog is about — my writing — I really can’t complain much.