Introducing “Venom”

My newest story/novella, Venom, is now available in all formats (Kindle, iBooks, Nook, EPUB, and HTML). Maybe it’s just because Venom is the most recent thing I’ve written, but I feel like it’s one of my favorites.

Venom is sort of a parallel story to Human Legacy Project. It takes place in the Human Legacy Project universe, but it’s an entirely independent story describing the rise of the People’s Party, and the HLP’s attempts to infiltrate it.

If you like fiction — especially science fiction — give Venom a try. For this much hard-core sci-fi, you can’t beat the price.

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Just Released My First Science Fiction Novel

I just released my first science fiction novel, Containment. I’m releasing it in two formats:

  • Kindle version: available for the Kindle, iPhone, iPod touch, Blackberry devices, and Windows computers (Mac coming soon).
  • Free HTML version: can be read on any device with even the most basic web browser.

If you like a good high-tech sci-fi plot with interesting and unusual characters, have a look.

Review of “Little Brother” by Cory Doctorow

Without giving too much away (since I recommend reading the book), Little Brother is about what happens to San Francisco after the deadliest terrorist attack in US history: the destruction of the fully laden Bay Bridge. It’s about how the measures and policies implemented by the Department of Homeland Security mix with the culture of San Francisco, and in particular, how one teenage boy reacts to the gradual erosion of his freedom.

Given that synopsis, you might be surprised to hear me describe Little Brother as a fun book, but in many ways, it is. It’s written in first person from the perspective of a very likable kid, and it does a great job of capturing and conveying the culture of one of America’s most diverse and important cities (I used to live close to where the main character went to school). It’s full of action, nerdy references, political allusions, and it even manages to tell an endearing love story.

But in addition to being fun, Little Brother is an important book for young people because it teaches relevant and vital lessons about privacy and security in an age where both are at risk. When you grow up so submerged in technology that you can’t imagine life without it, it’s critical to understand its risks and weaknesses as well as its advantages and strengths.

Little Brother is not suspicious of technology. Cory Doctorow is no technophobe. This book is not about old people warning young people about the dangers of video games and the internet. Quite the opposite, in fact. Little Brother is, in many ways, a celebration of technology, but only when it’s used to work for you rather than against you. Doctorow doesn’t suggest being distrustful of technology, but rather to embrace it to such an extent that you really understand it — that you can control it rather than letting it control you. He even encourages readers to learn to write a little code if they really want to be in control of their machines rather than letting their machines constantly control them.

What I like best about Little Brother is that it asks young readers to question things — even things presented as fact by people we’re not supposed to question like law enforcement, teachers, and parents. There’s nothing more important to the functioning of a democracy than the ability for its citizens to question what they see around them. When citizens stop thinking critically and looking objectively at issues and at messages from the media, democracies have a tendency to devolve into entities that look suspiciously like plutocracies.

This isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. Let’s take a look at some messages most of us encounter on a regular basis:

  • Socialized medicine is evil. Is this because our current system is so healthy and comprehensive and works so well that it’s obviously superior to what most of the developed world does, or is it because insurance companies make so much money that they can pay the right people to deliver their messages and use terms like "death panels?"
  • The American Dream is to own a home. Is it because there’s something distinctly American about having a mortgage, or is it because mortgage companies want to make sure that young people and immigrants won’t feel fulfilled unless they are burdened by a long-term loan?
  • Diamonds are a girl’s best friend (and you should be spending two months salary on an engagement ring). Is this because diamonds are actually precious stones with mystical powers, or because the diamond industry has manufactured scarcity and bombarded consumers with images equating expensive jewelry with love and devotion?
  • You should get a credit card and start establishing your credit early in life. Is this really sound financial advice for inexperienced young people, or a system designed to perpetuate debt? (Personally, I’d rather lend money to someone who has never even needed a credit card as opposed to someone who has shown they can keep up with one.)
  • Outsourcing keeps America competitive. It probably does in the short term, but that’s not the whole story. What industries save in manufacturing and consumers save at the register, we all end up paying for in exploited labor, impact on the environment, and the loss of domestic manufacturing knowledge and capabilities (which I can almost guarantee we will have to relearn someday).

You get the idea. I could go on and on. The point is that we are all surrounded by policies and messages that aren’t good for us, aren’t the entire truth, and aren’t actually for our own protection, believe it or not. They are designed to benefit those who created them. In a free society, people have that right, but we also have the right to question them, and to vote against them both literally and with our wallets, and even to rebel against them, if necessary. That’s the real story that Little Brother tells.

Review of “The Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon

It’s not uncommon for me to be slow to warm up to a novel only to find myself writing a glowing review and recommending it by the end. (For some reason, these are the novels I’m most compelled to review.) It happened with Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. It happened again with Douglas Coupland’s JPod. And, as you probably guessed by now, it happened most recently with Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark.

I started off loving the voice that Moon writes in which is that of Lou Arrendale, an autistic bioinformatic specialist. In fact, it was only on the second page (of the Kindle version, anyway) that I came across this fantastic quote (which, by the way, I think speaks for far too many of us “normal” people as well as autistics). But as I read on, I was disappointed to find that book was plagued by what I initially interpreted as cliches:

  • The ultra-evil executive at Lou’s office before whom all his minions tremble, and who is constantly on the prowl for cost savings.
  • The buffoon from Lou’s fencing class who reminds me of Clint from Chad Vador.
  • The girl who you are certain Lou is going to end up with by the end of the novel.
  • The prospect of Lou undergoing surgery to become “normal” and losing that which makes him special.

Confident that I had the book figured out, I read on only to find the story tilt and shift out from under me in unexpected ways (spoiler warning):

  • The executive in Lou’s office turns out to be way too over-the-top even for future corporate America, and is therefore unceremoniously canned.
  • The bully who targets Lou transitions from an annoying crybaby into a dangerous and borderline psychotic stalker.
  • Lou ends up entirely losing interest in the girl I kept waiting for him to finally muster up the courage to ask out on a date. No sappy tear jerking, after all.
  • After his surgery, Lou becomes neither better nor worse: simply different in a way that turns out to be impossible to judge.

I’m currently reading Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age which contains some wonderful and poignant passages on moral ambiguity, hypocrisy, and contradiction, all of which I believe are signs of sophistication in both worldview and art. The word “ambiguous” is exactly how I would ultimately describe The Speed of Dark . None of the characters reach the place you expect them to, and where they do end up is neither good nor bad. As in the real world, it just is.

Review of Watchmen (the book and the movie)

First off, I have to admit that I’m kind of a comic book/graphic novel poser. I read a few when I was a kid, but like most people, I gave up the genre early on in life — probably by the time I got to middle school. A few movies rekindled my interest over the years (namely Batman), but it was Alan Moore’s Watchmen that really made me realize what incredible stories I’ve been missing out on all these years.

Like most people, my first exposure to Watchmen was the movie trailer (which I’ve probably watched a dozen times by now). I was so intrigued that I saw the movie the day it came out (not a simple feat for someone with two small children), then again about a week later with my wife. At some point, I ordered the book and added it to my fiction queue. Two weeks of business travel between the east and west coasts finally gave me the uninterrupted blocks of time I was waiting for to immerse myself in what I can honestly say is one of the most creative and riveting pieces of fiction I’ve ever experienced.

Before I get into the book, I should mention that I was surprised by the general reception of the movie. I thought it was one of the best action/hero/fantasy movies I’d ever seen, but in general, I’d say the reaction I witnessed in the theater, and then later saw online, ranged from subdued to negative. I thought the movie was extremely sophisticated and challenging in a way I’d ceased hoping for — especially in the hero genre — since the original Batman series got so bad (which was basically right after the first movie). Fortunately, movies like Batman Begins and Ironman kept my interest in hero movies alive, proving that the genre could still be done in a way that wasn’t insultingly sappy (yes, Spiderman, I’m talking about you). But I thought Watchmen took hero movies to an entirely new level.

As complex as the movie was (and I’m talking about character as much as plot), the book is an order of magnitude more complex. The graphic novel format not only provides the additional space the characters need to unfold, but it also provides additional dimensions for them to exist in, and devices for the writer and artist to use in order to create an incredibly rich and meaningful universe. For example:

  • Multiple stories being told simultaneously. There are almost always at least two different stories being told at any given time. Sometimes we’re in two different geographical locations at once, sometimes the past and present are being woven together, and sometimes there are literally two different but complementary stories simply superimposed and intertwined (the most obvious example being the Black Freighter comic which we watch unfold between and amongst frames).
  • Temporal fluidity. Just as Jon needn’t experience time in a linear fashion, neither must the reader. One of the best examples is chapter 4, “Watchmaker,” which is told entirely from Jon’s perspective. Events unfold completely out of sequence, but in a way that reveals a different, more interesting reality, and startling relationships.
  • Excerpts. Between each chapter are excerpts which temporarily take us out of the immediate story, and into what appear to be tangential stories, but which ultimately add additional layers of meaning to the entire book. I especially like the excerpts from Hollis Mason’s book, Under the Hood. They are so well done, in fact, that they stand entirely on their own.
  • Transitions and artistic detail. Even when the story gets riveting, make sure you examine each and every panel. No detail is random: newspaper headlines, posters, advertisements, graffiti, framed photographs, facial expressions — even the evolution of the heros’ costumes. And don’t just watch the frame you’re one; pay attention to the transitions between frames, and if something strikes you as meaningful (for example, a silhouette of a couple standing together, spray-painted throughout the city by gangs), it probably is.

I think what I like best about Watchmen is that the entire story, along with all the characters, exist squarely in the gray area between good and evil. I think this moral complexity is exaggerated by the fact that many of the characters are costumed heros or villains which traditionally have always been portrayed as moral booleans — either good or evil — or at best, perhaps slightly conflicted. The characters in Watchmen have such depth and complexity that even when they perform the most horrific acts, they seem worthy of redemption. In other words, they feel real.

Review of “I Am Legend” (the novel, not the movie)

Ever since I reviewed the movie I Am Legend last year, I’ve been meaning to read the book. After finishing Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, I wanted something a little lighter (figuratively and literally), so I decided it was finally time to give I Am Legend a read. Not only is the book far more interesting than the movie, but it’s also far more meaningful.

I Am Legend goes much deeper than just fantasy and horror. It’s a very well written novel which explores the psychological challenges of solitude, and concepts of human (and inhuman) perspective and compassion. I’m not surprised that I Am Legend refuses to translate into a movie (it was first adapted in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, then in 1971 as The Omega Man, and in 2007 as I Am Legend). Since the most recent attempt replaces pages and pages of Robert Neville’s ruminations and discoveries with special effects, suspense, and heroism, a great deal of the interest of the novel is lost.

Without giving too much away, there are three important differences between the novel and its most recent adaptation:

  1. In the book, Neville isn’t a scientist. He’s a blue-collar worker at some sort of plant (the book never discloses what kind), and he is forced to become an amateur scientist in order to understand what’s happening around him. Neville is often frustrated by his inability to understand what he reads and to operate the equipment he finds until he eventually overcomes his own self-doubt.
  2. The creatures in the book are vampires rather than zombie-like. This may seem like a minor distinction, but in fact, it changes the story significantly. Initially, the vampires in the novel seem like run-of-the-mill, blood-sucking clichés, but in fact, Neville is able to scientifically explain their behavior which has been misinterpreted and canonized into legend over the years. It turns out that there’s nothing mythical or fantastic about vampires when examined under the scrutiny of objective, modern science.
  3. The title of the work actually makes sense in the book whereas I don’t think it ever comes through in the movie. The alternate ending of the movie does a credible job of at least acknowledging the theme of the story, but it can’t possibly capture the gravity of the final three words of the novel: "I am legend."

I don’t want to sound overly critical of the movie, especially after giving it a good review last year. They are both, in fact, good stories, and both very much worth your time. Just don’t think that just because you’ve seen the movie, you know the story. The book will still surprise you both in terms of plot and depth.

Review of “JPod” by Douglas Coupland

Read it? If you’re a self-proclaimed geek, by all means.

If you’re looking for a book that celebrates geekdom and video games like Death in the Afternoon celebrates virility, then read Douglas Coupland’s JPod.

JPod is about five cube mates — each with their own manias, neuroses, and complexes — who work for an overly corporate and bureaucratic gaming company in Vancouver. I use the term "work" loosely, however. The majority of their time is spent managing their dysfunctional families, soothing their angst, indulging their fetishes, placating their idiotic managers, and either issuing or participating in bizarre challenges like taking the first hundred thousand digits of pi, inserting a single incorrect digit, and seeing who can find it first. If you’re a software developer, or if you’ve ever worked with software developers, you’re probably following right along.

I have to admit that I’m a little surprised that I’m recommending this book. I actually started out actively disliking it. In fact, I disliked it until exactly page 184 (once I start reading a fiction book, I finish it come hell or high water — imagine my dismay after casually picking up Moby Dick one day). It was page 184, and in particular the passage below, that taught me how to read JPod:

"Ethan, watching you play Manhunt is like watching a steak being carved at Benihana."
"It’s only pretend gore."
"With characters customized to resemble people here at work?"

Can’t you just hear the laugh track? This was this passage that made me realize I was reading a 448 page sitcom — a story where everyone either knows exactly what to say, or says precisely the wrong thing; where every exchange is witty and quick enough to keep you from losing interesting and changing the channel; where characters are either impossibly intelligent and successful, or fantastically stupid.

Once I figured all this out, I found that I really liked the book.

JPod is a book for and about the video game generation: a group of people who paradoxically have superhuman powers of concentration, yet can’t seem to focus on anything. Similarly, JPod briefly touches on dozens of different topics like autism, gore sites, human trafficking, marijuana cultivation, Chinese industrialization, and ballroom dancing, yet still manages to explore in painstaking detail such critical and stimulating topics as the history of Zima, and the best way to convince Roland McDonald to go on a date with you. The book is as ADD as its characters (and probably most of its readers).

Aside from confusion over the genre of the book, I had one other issue with JPod that I had to come to terms with: Coupland actually wrote himself in as a character. Not just any character, but a bona fide asshole. In fact, the very first passage of the book goes like this:

"Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel."
"That asshole."
"Who does he think he is?"

If I’d read that passage while still in the bookstore, I guarantee I wouldn’t be writing about JPod right now. I would have gone with the David Foster Wallace novel I was holding in my other hand. For some reason, Coupland’s technique seems a little narcissistic to me, like a really obvious and sort of sad attempt to turn yourself into a cultural icon. But refusing to admit defeat so soon (and having just paid $14.95), I kept reading. Coupland appeared in the book a few other times, and by the time he became a full-blown character, I had come to understand and like the book enough that I was ready to roll with it.

One thing I never doubted about JPod was that I really enjoyed the writing. Coupland has a way of expressing things in very human and immediately familiar terms. There were dozens of great lines like "Everyone suddenly remembered they were supposed to look interested," "I hoped to God that would shake my Etch-a-Sketch clean," and "Dad went over to the TV and touched one of those little black knobs beneath the screen that nobody ever touches." JPod has a way of talking to you like a good friend.

Reading JPod for me was like visiting my in-laws: a bit awkward at first, but in the end, I had a blast. If you’re a neurotic, pod servant gamer yourself, JPod is a great way to get a little reading in without straying too far from your comfort zone.

Review of “Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town” by Cory Doctorow

Read it: Yes

I wanted to read a book by Cory Doctorow for two reasons:

  1. I like Boing Boing, and since Cory is a Boing Boing editor, I figured I’d like a book written by someone who writes for Boing Boing.
  2. Cory releases all his books under a Creative Commons license and makes them available for free in a variety of formats which I think is very cool. Ironically, I actually bought the book in order to support the idea of giving books away for free. Hmm.

Anyway, I picked Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (which I will refer to from here on out as Someone) from his canon of five books for no other reason than I thought it had the most intriguing name, and the most compelling cover art.

I’ll warn you right from the beginning that if you’re not an open-minded reader, don’t bother with this review, or this book. Save yourself the time. Someone is so unique that I’m not even sure what genre it fits in to other than fiction. Science Fiction? Fantasy? Cyberpunk? Yes.

I’m not into spoiling plots, but just to give you some idea of what you’re getting into by reading this book, Someone is about a man who will answer to any name which begins with the letter "A". He seems to be most commonly called Alan, so we’ll go with that. Alan’s father is a mountain, and his mother is a washing machine. Literally. And his brothers are Russian nesting dolls, a clairvoyant, and a psychopath. Alan’s neighbor has wings which she’s so committed to hiding from the world that she has her sadistic boyfriend saw them off on a regular basis.

The book follows two paths:

  1. Alan’s unconventional childhood growing up in a cave.
  2. Alan’s present day struggle to restore an old house, deal with the return of his psychopathic brother who is supposed to be dead, blanket a bohemian neighborhood in Toronto with free WiFi, and come to terms with his depressed winged neighbor.

I want to say that Someone is an unconventional book, but it’s not so much the book or the writing style that is unconventional as it is the plot and the characters. In fact, that’s what struck me most about this novel (and what I liked best about it): the plot and the characters are completely bizarre, however Doctorow treats it all with a great deal of literary care and respect. I’ve read strange books before where the author seemed to revel in the oddity of his work, adopting a writing style as unconventional as his subject matter. Doctorow, on the other hand, takes this world he’s created extremely seriously and writes about it passionately, almost as though he’s unaware of how strange it is.

Someone is certainly not for everyone, but I found myself entirely immersed in Doctorow’s world, and able to take it every bit as seriously as Doctorow himself.