Thursday, June 30, 2016

Q&A with Charles Stross + Giveaway

In case you missed it, The Nightmare Stacks is out, and I absolutely loved it.

Well, Charles Stross took some time to answer a few questions about The Nightmare Stacks, and if you don't read his blog it's a nice little glimpse into his incredibly brilliant and complex brain.  I made an attempt to come up with questions he hasn't already answered countless times or talked about on his blog, and I think I met with mixed success.  I will say this, he did drop some hints about The Delirium Brief, and gave some splendid answers to my inquiries.

The Nightmare Stacks marks the 7th book of the Laundry Files, and CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is no longer simply a looming future.  It's here.  Right in the middle of it all is former merchant bandker and under-prepared neophyte Laundry Agent (and f neophyte PHANG, but that's a different story) Alex.  The most pressing things on Alex's mind dealing with his v-parasite, hoping his new roomates (Pinky and the Brain) don't blow everything up, learning how to interact with the lovely but rather odd Cassie, and how to tell his parents about his various life changes.  Things are about to get rather... messy in Leeds.

I'm running a giveaway contest through July 5th, if you haven't entered already, you can enter here.

Hello!  First off, thank you so much for your time.  Nightmare Stacks is brilliant, and I've been eagerly awaiting it especially since you posted "let's just say that when the Deep Ones are anxiously offering you their assistance in dealing with your problem, you know you've got a Problem."

You've discussed on your blog the issue with a series and the main character leveling up, and in particular that being one of the reasons you wanted to step away from Bob for a few books.  Mo was distinctly different, but still both powerful and experienced.  Alex, on the other hand, is newer to the Laundry than we've ever seen Bob, even if he has a few tricks of his own.  What was it like to write an organizational neophyte at this stage of the CASE NIGHTMARE progressions?

It was a very deliberate move. Many ongoing SF/F series works suffer from the problem of the protagonist "leveling up" -- "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" must be one of the dominant cliches of genre fiction, and unless you want to be writing about a PTSD-afflicted physical mess by book six, it's probably unavoidable. But with experience comes power, and that's a problem too: by book five Bob wasn't merely formidable, he knew too much about the way the world of the Laundry Files worked. Book six ("The Annihilation Score") was intentionally narrated by Bob's wife, Mo, as a faux-reality check on Bob's rampant self-delusional perspective. Bob *is* actually a damaged protagonist, albeit a very strong one with rampant self-protective delusions; Mo sees past them, although she, too, has big problems ("The Annihilation Score" was a nervous breakdown novel, with added superheroes). So in an attempt to clear the slate I switched to Alex.

At the outset of "The Nightmare Stacks" Alex is actually in pretty much the same position Bob was in at the start of "The Atrocity Archive". The big difference is that we're a decade further into the grand conjunction known to the Laundry as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN; occult weirdness is crawling out of the woodwork on all sides, and the threats they have to contend with are much more dangerous. Alex, as a PHANG (a victim of the paranormal medical condition that vampire legends are based loosely on) is in a much stronger position than Bob was, but he's still grappling with his own ignorance. Meanwhile, the author had a decade and a half to work on the background and underlying story; there's an ensemble cast who have been introduced over half a dozen earlier books to put Alex in perspective.

Did you learn anything writing The Nightmare Stacks?  You stated a deliberate intention to subvert certain overbearing trends, what challenges and pitfalls did you encounter (both writing and post publication, as you've kept an active discussion on your blog)?

"The Nightmare Stacks" set out to hit several targets. One of the first was to break the Laundry Files out of its rut of being All About Bob. Arguably "The Annihilation Score" did that ... but as Mo and Bob are a couple, some readers might mistake it for merely being a chance to look at the back of Bob's head. Whereas the Laundry Files has grown over time to be about more than just Bob Howard; and I wanted to make a clean break. Bob plays a very minor part in this book, and it's also mostly narrated in the third person -- unlike Bob's first person monologues. Consequently the voice of the book is rather different.

The second goal was to mark a key turning point in the overall series. At the beginning of "The Nightmare Stacks" the Laundry is still part of the secret state, trying desperately to maintain its plausible invisibility. By the end of this book, that's no longer possible: the TV news crews are out in force and questions are being asked in Parliament. (Indeed, the next novel, "The Delirium Brief" -- which is back to Bob -- opens with Bob being grilled by a TV news anchor ...) After "The Nightmare Stacks" the series takes a different direction as the underlying long-term story arc comes to the foreground and the elder gods return.

Elves ... as with the previous few books, this novel was set up to integrate non-mythos chunks of supernatural/urban fantasy lore into the Laundryverse: in this case, elves. But the elves are about as Tolkeinesque and noble as the unicorns in "Equoid" are cuddly. As ever, a chunk of evolutionary psychology crops up in their design and the background to their culture: what would a hominin species with a strong predisposition for ritual magic (as developed in the Laundry Files) actually look like, and how would they run their society?

I had a few other objectives along the way, too, although they're less obvious. A personal irritant is the way incidental love interest characters get played in fiction; we're all over-familiar with the manic pixie dream girl trope, for example: what would it *really* look like? Again, another familiar irritant is the way magical warfare is treated in fiction. We have Arthur C. Clarke's law to remind us that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; but that law works equally well in reverse, and the armies of an ancient magical civilization are going to look less like a Renn Faire and more like a NATO-spec armoured brigade with death spells and close air support dragons ...

You seem to stay well on top of technology trends and forecasts, both in your fiction and on your blog.  Has progressing technology changed your plans for the series?  What did you account for?  Did anything surprise you?

Yes, progressing technology has changed small aspects of the series -- but it's been a gradual change. I wrote Bob's first five novels from 1998 to 2012 and he aged in line with the real world, moving from a crude cellphone and a bulky duct-taped digital camera with basilisk capabilities to an early smartphone -- a Palm Treo 650 -- and then an iPhone as these things were introduced. The big new angle is the internet and streaming video (which played a vital role in the villain's plans in "The Annihilation Score") and will be ever more significant later on -- but here in the UK we've had streaming CCTV since the 90s, so the general shape of the urban surveillance landscape hasn't changed overmuch.

Developing tech makes it much harder for me to write near future SF than near-present fantasy, frankly. Hence the non-appearance of a third near-future Scottish police procedural novel after "Halting State" and "Rule 34". The UK is also currently going through a period of insane political instability that will probably result in the break-up of a three-century-old union within the next couple of years: that sort of chaos makes fantasy or far-future SF an easier call than predictive-mode near future stuff. By the time things settle down I expect to be pushing sixty years old, and I think that sort of fiction is a young writer's game.

While you've definitely written post-human characters before, but I think this is the first time I've read you writing non-naturalized human type intelligence as a narrative voice.  What was the experience like?  Anything about it particularly fun or challenging?

Cassie isn't non-human; she's a closely related sub-species, about as similar to our own as we are to the Neanderthals. She's actually more human than the human-identifying androids of "Saturn's Children" and "Neptune's Brood", so I had a fair bit of prior experience to draw on. The real challenge with the People is that their entire social organisational structure by-passes human-style cooperative and tribal models and instead relies on hierarchical magical compulsion -- what is it like to grow up in a ruthless dictatorship where alternatives are literally impossible to conceive of, and there's a strong selection pressure for sociopathy? Agent First is actually insane in the context of her own species, insofar as an overdeveloped sense of empathy -- vital to a deep cover spy -- is a vulnerability and a character flaw among psychopaths. But by the same token, it made her easier for me to write as a sympathetic character. Meanwhile, Alex isn't human either. But he hasn't fully internalized that yet: he relates to his PHANG syndrome vampirism as to an unfortunate disease, rather than a source of superhuman power. (Which in turn makes him easier to write as a sympathetic protagonist.)

The real character-writing challenge is the one I'm facing in "The Delirium Brief", in dealing with a return to Bob -- a Bob who is in deep denial about being in effect a walking nuclear weapon: he still identifies as human, but while Alex's powers are limited to his close proximity, Bob is the new Eater of Souls. And in the context of what he's up against in the next novel, he's as out-gunned as Alex is in the current one: but that, as they say, is another story (and one you'll have to wait until June 2017 for).

Who is Charles Stross

Charles Stross, 51, is a full-time science fiction writer and resident of Edinburgh, Scotland. The author of six Hugo-nominated novels and winner of the 2005, 2010, and 2014 Hugo awards for best novella, he has won numerous other awards and been translated into at least 12 other languages.

He can be found online in a number of places, but his blog is a fantastic starting point.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

[Book Review + Giveaway] The Nightmare Stacks

The Nightmare Stacks (Laundry Files #7) / Charles Stross

There is so much about this series that I geek out on, it's a wonderful mix of sardonic humor, tech geekery, and tentacles from beyond.  "Case Nightmare Green" and "Jesus Phone" are phrases anyone hanging out with me for an extended period of time may hear.  Needless to say, I was both quite excited for The Nightmare Stacks and curious how a rather new side character would fare center stage.

And then I read this little snipped on Stross' blog:
"I have plans for book 7: let's just say that when the Deep Ones are anxiously offering you their assistance in dealing with your problem, you know you've got a Problem."
There might have been gleeful chortling on my part.

Of course, when writing a near present day CASE NIGHTMARE situation, there's always the risk of reality stepping in and jumping all over your plot.  Or as Stross commented on his blog, we now are in the middle of CASE NIGHTMARE TWEED.
"And in a classic example of the universe trying to obsolete my stories before publication, the UK went into total political, diplomatic, and financial meltdown last Friday. (There's a meltdown of similar proportions in the novel, but it's triggered by a much more fixable cause than a referendum-gone-wrong, namely an alien invasion.) So I guess that means "The Nightmare Stacks" is now lightweight escapism rather than a horrible threat!"
Is it wrong that I find his cuttingly sardonic books of looming horrific threat lightweight escapism regardless?

So, how did The Nightmare Stacks stack up against its predecessors?  Brilliantly.  I squealed excitedly when my review copy showed up in the mailbox, was immediately hooked by the opening lines, and then proceeded to tear through story with enthusiasm.

Alex, quite frankly, is in over his head.  This isn't exactly an unusual situation for us to encounter in the Laundry Files, but things have been getting worse since we first met Bob and the universe has not seen fit to go easy on Alex.  On the bright side, being a part of a (sensibly) paranoid top secret organization staffed with an unusual concentration of mad geniuses (sometimes more mad than genius, possibly as a side effect of the working environment) that's in the know about our impending doom means that Alex isn't completely alone.  Though he probably would be happier if said organization didn't deploy him in a role that guinea pigs and canaries would find familiar.

We've gone a bit beyond misguided cultists and the zealously inquisitive digging into things best left undisturbed.  This time, the great unknown is coming knocking on its own (and you thought Mormons were a hassle).

If you're looking at starting this book with minimal exposure to the series I recommend reading The Rhesus Chart, so at the very least you'll have some idea of who Alex is, his background, and exactly why the Laundry is in such a bother (beyond the looming CASE NIGHTMARE scenarios).  But if this book is your introduction to the Laundry Files, so be it, and I hope it inspires you to start at the beginning.  I also refuse to apologize for my overuse of parentheticals.

That being said, The Nightmare Stacks is out in the US today and Penguin Random House is providing me with a giveaway copy.  I'll keep this open until end of day July 5th.  Information collected will only be used to notify the winner and for shipping.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of Ace (Penguin RandomHouse) in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 3, Chapter 1

This week's late chapter comes to you from the harried mind of someone less than two weeks from helping launch a LARP.

"The Departure of Boromir" is a bit euphemistic, but not wholly inaccurate.

I do love how hobbits are such a consistently underestimated race since they're generally small and keep to themselves.  Without even trying, hobbit "footprints are not easy even for a Ranger to read."  We know they tend towards wicked hand-eye coordination and amazing fortitude.  If they were of interested I can't help but wonder if they'd give elves a run for their money.  On the other hand, that might in many ways defeat the point.  Subtly is  a good part of their power.

Boromir is mourned in soliloquy.  Alas, poor Yorick, etc.  It is what they find among the dead that makes for much more focused conversation.  It's not just a band of orcs, its orcs from different regions of Middle Earth working together, and under the banner of Saruman.

Here, as Gimli remarks, "maybe there is no right choice."  The Fellowship is broken, and several paths lie before them.  However, I think in the end they made both the easy and the right choice, to rescue their friends in unwilling captivity and let Frodo and Sam succeed where as a group might fail.

Jackson (and the acting chops of Sean Bean) this whole film has heavily foreshadowed Boromir's fall, but I want to give him (them) credit for Boromir's redemption.  Very well done.

We're given multiple heroic combat encounters when the orcs come upon the party, and even a brief stay of execution of the mortally wounded man, rather than just aftermath of the confrontation with Boromir.  Seeing our party fight orcs does certainly make for a more visually charged scene, and generally makes everyone seem more heroic.  I also can't fault the decision to show over tell.

Chronologically, the merging of the two chapters make sense, the events themselves overlap.  Ending with both the death of Boromir and the parting of the hobbits gives us an ending with high urgency leading into the changed environment of The Two Towers.  Also, it probably made things easier to kill off Sean Bean in the first movie.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

[Book Review] From a High Tower

From a High Tower (Elemental Masters) / Mercedes Lackey

Like most Grimm's Fairy Tales, Rapunzel isn't necessarily the cheeriest of stories, though the level of darkness depends on the telling.  But, they tend to stay true to several points; a mother with an irresistible craving for rampion or other greens growing in someone else's garden, the thieving father trading away their unborn child, the child growing into a young woman with very long hair who lives in a tower, and a young man climbing the tower and then falling from it.

More or less, that is the opening of From a High Tower, an introduction to the chosen fairy tale inspiration.  Some notable differences exist, such as the benevolence of the "witch" who raises "Rapunzel," the elemental mastery they both possess, and the villainous nature of the "prince" who comes a courting.

The real literary tribute is to that of a German author who wrote fantastical stories of the Wild West with a very loose grasp on actual American frontier life.  The story continues the Elemental Masters story arc started (I believe) in Blood Red, taking place in German with a strong connection to the Schwarzwald Lodge.

There's a good emphasis on the friendships in this story, which is always good.  I feel like the elementals have become increasingly magical-fairy helpers, and I liked them more when they were less human, but that's a personal opinion.  I am however pretty damn fed up with the casual threat of rape to go "HERE is the villain."  Quibbles aside, it fits well within the newer Elemental Masters books (past few years vs. the earlier less defined as a series books).

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of DAW (Penguin RandomHouse) in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lord of the Rings : Fellowship of the Read - Book 2, Chapter 10

Orcs are near but not an immediate threat, and things are uneasy.  A choice must be made, and the decision rests on Frodo.  Aragorn may lead the Fellowship, but Frodo is the one to decide where the Ring goes. He asks for time to consider and walks off to be with his thoughts

In the woods he feels as if unfriendly eyes are upon him and finds a smiling Boromir instead.  I'm reminded of the comment on meeting Aragorn the first time about the enemy seeming more fair.  Boromir seems more kind and caring than he has before, yet he is firmly under the Ring's influence.  He asks that Frodo consider his council, yet he rejects the council of others, believing that men are of truer heart than elves or wizards (which I find a bit ironic).

The effect of the Ring reminds me of the draw of addiction.  Boromir is definitely pulling on some deep seated feelings and desires, but ones that he knows to keep suppressed because they are not who he is overall.  He is an honorable man.  He is proud, but he also respects authority of those above him.  Even in his madness, his desire that men claim the gift of the ring, he feels that Aragorn should have first claim above himself.  The angry, grasping man he becomes is not his true character.  His shock, confusion, and dismay when he cries "What have I done?" I believe is entirely genuine.

Meanwhile, Frodo has run in grief and terror from Boromir while the Ring takes him on a trip, showing him visions of war across all Middle Earth.  It is a small margin by which Frodo avoids complete betrayal by the Ring, removing it before the Eye ensnares him.

The party itself wishes to journey to Minas Tirith if they could, though Gimli keenly desires to return to the heaven of Lothlorien.  Aragorn attempts to divide the party, allowing most to make way to the city and seeking to improve the chances of success on approaching Mount Doom by reducing the size of those slipping in.  The hobbits kindly tell him where to shove that idea, since there's no way they will willingly abandon Frodo, and Samwise has Frodo's measure spot on, stating that Frodo is working himself up to continuing his quest alone.  That alone is what allows Sam to continue with Frodo, realizing what next steps his dear friend would need to take to split off from the rest.

The film mixes the ending of Fellowship with the beginning of The Two Towers, which has some sense to it.  I'm going to attempt to save the combat and the death of Boromir for next week's review.

Some of the discussions from earlier in the journey down the river take place here, as they prepare to camp for the night.  Path to take, unease at the shadow under which they are operating, and a discovery that both Frodo and Boromir are missing.  Boromir's presence seems natural, as he collects wood for the fire, while Frodo appears at first unreasonably cagey then sensibly cautious as Boromir loses control to the Ring's influence.  Sean Bean does a masterful job, both as a maddened and repentant man.

As Frodo runs he sees visions, but less extensive than those in the book, and Aragorn does find him before he slips away.  He hears the whispers of the ring and rejects its call as he concedes to what both he and Frodo know must happen, the division of the party.  Merry and Pippin also sacrifice, realizing that Frodo is deciding not to hide but to leave, and that they stand a chance at allowing him to keep is freedom.  As for Sam's throwing himself in the river, attempting to catch up to Frodo, that whole scene still manages to choke me up a little.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Lord of the Rings : Fellowship of the Read - Book 2, Chapter 9

I'm really late on this one.  Words just weren't working for me.  We'll blame it on the long ponderous days of travel in this chapter.

Sam could be a bit agoraphobic, or he could just be sensibly paranoid about floating down the river with open plains all around.  I'm going with a little bit of Column A and a little bit of Column B.  I think anyone sane would be "sensibly paranoid."  Aragorn at the very least counts as such in his fears of the Dark Lord's machinations while the Fellowship rested with the elves.

Much of this chapter is a lull before the storm.

Boromir's resolve is clearly cracking, and his fall is hinted at with all the subtly of a boulder.  We've known the he is prideful and that he holds a belief that the Ring could be turned against the Dark Lord.  He's actually starting to behave in a way that reminds me of Renfield (minus consuming lives).  He's twitchy, shifty, muttering to himself, and compulsively biting his nails.  He's having difficulty not actively stalking Frodo, and it's only Frodo's steadfast support of Aragorn that largely keeps Boromir staying in line with Aragorn's leadership.

This chapter also addresses the elephant in the room, Gollum following the party is now acknowledged and discussed.  Not only has Aragorn known of Gollum, but he has even made attempts to capture their tail.  That method failing, and the secret in the open, they switch to attempts at faster travel and journeying by night.  I'm honestly not sure what they hope to gain by night travel.  Many of the Dark Lord's agents can see in the dark, and Gollum likely sees better in the dark than in light.  And the presence of orcs and a dark flier who's presence touches Frodo's Nazgul-inflicted wound definitely puts true to the lack of safety in night travel.

Portaging is hard work.  We'll just leave it at that.  No one's happy with that part of the trip.

On approaching of the Argonath, the Pillars of the King, we perhaps truly see Aragorn in his royal visage for the first time.  His whole affect changes: his voice seems strange, his posture strong and erect, and a light in his eyes.  In claiming his heritage he assures the safety of the Fellowship in the shadow of the Gates, but then the moment is past and he withdraws back to a state of questioning and uncertainty.  I think Aragorn and Boromir are designed as studies in opposition.  At the core, they want the same thing, the safety of their people and the vanquishing of Sauron.  But they have different relationships with power and even entitlement.  By and large, Aragorn stands true against the Ring, while Boromir becomes more consumed by the Ring and his own self-doubt.

At the end, I find a small bit of amusement.  I know it's not meant as particularly humorous, but i can't get over the final sentence of the chapter. "The last stage of the Quest was before them."

Looking briefly at the film, Jackson found some beautiful locations to shoot the travel down the river, but traveling at night and the discovery of Gollum is removed.  Instead we get cuts of orcs seeking the party, with no daytime river ambush.  The Argonath stand magestic and large, but without the dark gate that so inspires fear in Sam, nor without the change in affect of Aragorn.  We're also saved from the portaging, and Aragorn has set the plan for travel that Boromir espouses in the book, that Gimli's objects to using Aragorn's written word.

Things will come to a head soon.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

20 Books of Summer!

Jumping in on a Summer Reading challenge by Moonlight Reader over on BookLikes.

Not sure how much of this I'll manage to check off, but going with a June 1st starting date (for simplicity) I should be able to manage a bunch of these.