Review of “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton

Great premise and I love that it’s bio hard science fiction, a sub-genre that I wish there were more of. Especially given recent advances in genetics, neuroscience, and prostheses, I feel as though there are lot of questions related to the intersection of science and society that the genre could be addressing, but isn’t.

The novel was written in the late 60’s, and some aspects of it haven’t aged well. All of the characters with any agency are educated, scientifically-minded, white men, and it was honestly difficult to tell them apart by anything other than their names and blunt descriptions. Counterpoints were Peter Jackson and Officer Willis, who had unique and well-crafted dialogue that I enjoyed reading “aloud in my head” if that makes sense.

The exposition is fairly heavy-handed, with technical (but at least interesting) info dumps roughly every other page. Like many thrillers, this novel is overwhelmingly plot-driven, with little in the way of introspection, reflection, or emotion shown by any of the characters. However, at least the hooks are laid well throughout the story — I definitely wanted to keep reading to find out what happened, and though the ending seemed a little too easily and quickly tied up, the journey was thought-provoking.

I’m glad to have checked off a classic I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time. Overall: enjoyable but dated, interesting but hardly enthralling.

3/5 Stars

Read an Ebook Week!

Smashwords is having their 10th Annual Read an Ebook Week Sale, and I’ve enrolled Red Soil Through Our Fingers in the 100% off category for this sitewide promotion! So, if you’ve been meaning to check out the start to the Red Soil series (more coming soon… I swear), this would be a great time to hop on board.

From March 3-9, just use code EB100 when you checkout to get the book for free. Also, absolutely browse the large collection of other fine ebooks available on Smashwords and their distribution channels, which are discounted this week at either 25%, 50%, 75%, or 100% off.

Writing Studio!

I’ve been accepted to an advanced fiction studio at The Muse Writing Center down in Norfolk! While I’ve attended many one-off writing classes and workshops, this will be the first time I will be a part of an ongoing fiction studio, where fellow writers submit work to be critiqued regularly and study the writing techniques of various authors under the guidance of a professional instructor.

My goals are twofold:

  1. Level up my fiction writing chops, particular in the areas of character depth and weaving together multiple subplots within an overarching structure.
  2. Use the requirement to regularly submit new work to supplement my motivation for finishing the sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers. I’ve tentatively titled Book 2 When the Ground Beneath Us Shifted, and there is a loose plan for a third book as well.

Objective 2 is one that I’ve been struggling with for two years, as a glance back through my previous writing updates over this time will show. It’s been a tumultuous couple of years, professionally and personally. I’ve been keeping up momentum though, and project a completion of Draft Alpha (first complete draft + self-editing pass) by mid-May.

Normally, at that point, I would send Draft Alpha to my Writing Group, but alas the one that I had in Boston is, for various reasons, disbanded at the moment, with only vague possibilities of re-forming. So, perhaps a tertiary goal of the fiction studio (and getting involved with The Muse in general) will be to make connections with new writers in this area who may be interested in forming a new group.

Super ambitious, probably impossible goal, but one that I want to aim for anyway: a book launch party at RavenCon 15 in April 2020!

For now, I’ve got three writing submissions from my new classmates to read and critique by Monday… gotta get to it! Probably another update next week after the first class.

Recap of MarsCon 2019, Saturday

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series MarsCon 2019

Most of my Saturday at the con was taken up by meetings for RavenCon programming (in particular the new Science Track, for which I am very excited!). However I did get a chance to browse the dealer floor, the art room, and attend a couple of panels.

In How Does One Write Near-Future Science Fiction?, panelists Patrick Dugan, Jason T. Graves, Drew A. Avera, and Gray Rinehart were moderated by Jim Beall. Unfortunately, though Jim was quite well prepared (a wonderful thing in a moderator), the authors on the panel did not seem to be well-suited for the panel topic, as most did not seem to have a lot of stories set in the near future themselves. However, most were writers of Hard Science Fiction (which is not necessarily the same thing). This mismatch is hardly the fault of the panelists, but perhaps Programming can take a note for future cons.

Though the panel did not spend much time actually answering the question posed in its title, I did walk away with several nuggets of useful information. One suggested way of avoiding the pitfall of having certain readers get too caught up in the numbers or “realness” of the story elements as if they are meant to be predictions is to a) generally avoid numbers all together if possible, and b) stick to explication only where you actually have expertise or knowledge based on research, leaving the rest implied. We discussed the questions of whether near-term science fiction has to also be hard science fiction to be good/enjoyable (not necessarily, and Neuromancer was offered as a counter-example), and also if near-term science fiction needs to attempt to predict the future to be useful (generally no).

I later attended The Big World of Small Press and Indie Publishing, featuring Michael Thomson, Leslie Heath, Melissa McArthur, Kacey Ezell, and moderated by Chris Kennedy. The panelists were all in some fashion indie or small press authors and/or publishers, with a good bit of diversity in how it was implemented (full-time, part-time, completely indie, traditional + indie, etc). All generally agreed that the major benefits to small press and indie publishing were: much more rapid turnaround at all points of the publication timeline (editing, feedback, cover selection, proof, release, etc), a much greater degree of control and input by the author at all points in the process, a more personal connection with everyone involved, and generally a larger percentage of the overall pie. The two major downsides being that mass exposure is much less likely or perhaps impossible, and that the author is expected and required to take on more (or complete) personal responsibility for the product at every step of the process.

The panelists listed the following mistakes they have made in the past that future indie or small press authors should avoid

  • Series sell the most, and waiting too long to continue a series can kill its inherent momentum.
  • Always read a contract, or even better, get a lawyer to look over it (it’s probably cheaper than you think).
  • Don’t forget about pre-marketing, and make sure to do the work to build up a community around a work before releasing it.

Further big news from the con, though it was not particularly con-related… I found out that I got in to the advanced fiction studio at The Muse Writing Center in Norfolk that I applied to last week! I’ll be starting that on February 4th, and I’m looking forward to focusing on my sequel to Red Soil.

Recap of MarsCon 2019, Friday

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series MarsCon 2019

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I missed MarsCon the first year I was living here in Virginia. I saw the name come up on a list of area conventions, and assumed it was a technical and semi-technical con specific to Mars and Mars colonization (like a Mars Society convention or something), not a sci-fi and fantasy con. Then this year, I was expecting to not be able to make it at all due to work travel, but here I am furloughed with all official travel cancelled so… against many headwinds, here I am at MarsCon 2019!

Today I attended two panels. The first was entitled Writing Military Themed Stories, featuring John “Cal” Baldari (Army veteran and a professor of military ethics), Chris Kennedy (Navy veteran and author and publisher of military science fiction), and moderator Kacey Ezell (active duty Air Force helicopter pilot).

We discussed several themes and motifs that appeal to readers, and give war stories lasting appeal: the ideals of duty / honor / sacrifice / service / etc, the vicarious power to use authorized / sanctioned / “moral” force (when in modern civilian life violence is generally prohibited), and the inner journey of becoming a soldier and pushing oneself beyond previously perceived limits to do great things.

We also got several recommendations from the panel for books/movies/stories that they felt portrayed some aspect of the military experience well: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (for the day to day experience), Full Metal Jacket for the training portion, Twelve O’Clock High for the how and how-not-to on leadership and command chain, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller for the insight into military bureaucracy, The Black Company for the moral ambiguity, and several others

The second panel I attended was Moral Conflict in Genre Fiction, which featured Michael D. Pederson (moderator), Professor John “Cal” Baldari, Jason Gilbert, Kettle Macaulay, and Valerie J. Mikles. The panel was less a primer on how to create morally conflicted characters (which is what I was hoping for) and more a discussion of of characters that create moral conflict for the reader/viewer, such as sympathetic villains (which was still interesting). However, I still got several useful nuggets from the discussion. Particularly, I was intrigued by the idea of science-fiction and fantasy settings being actually advantageous for presenting the audience with contemporary moral challenges, as the speculative elements help control / hone the message while cushioning against defensiveness that can arise in real world depictions of complex issues.

The most useful takeaway for me personally from the panel was a realization that I think I have a tendency to try to provoke moral conflict in the reader, and use that to get around creating characters that are truly morally conflicted themselves. It was an epiphany that caps off some recent reading of The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas. It goes to show that participation in these types of in-person con discussions can often prompt synthesized realizations that may not be obvious from simply getting the information content from somewhere!

Looking forward to tomorrow’s panels, as well as a chance to meet the rest of the RavenCon planning committee for the first time. (I’ve been helping with the new Science Track.) Onward to Day 2!

Review of “Splintered Suns” by Michael Cobley

Despite the high praise on the back cover and intriguing premise, this novel left me feeling kinda meh.

The worldbuilding and the plot were at least interesting enough that I wanted to keep going for awhile, and I did manage to make it through twelve chapters before setting it aside. However, the characters are as flat as a Kiskashin’s sense of humor, and often take actions that don’t seem to be motivated by anything except it would lead to a gosh so cool scene or situation.

While intellectually interesting and many-layered, the plot and side-plots weren’t tightly bound to a cohesive story thread enough for me to become emotionally invested in what was happening. It doesn’t help that the star of the show, Brennan Pike, comes off as a happy-go-lucky cross between Han Solo, a leprechaun, and a cartoon pirate. The dialogue as-written reflects this. So annoying.

Highlights: expansive world-building, huge ancient alien starship, creative meshing of artificial and advanced biological life forms, interesting side plot that takes place inside a mind crystal

Lowlights: somehow manages to be pretty boring overall, despite all of the above

DNF (pg 252 of 483). 3/5 Stars.

Review of “Exit West”, by Mohsin Hamid

Rating: 3/5 stars.

When Saeed and Nadia finally had coffee together in the cafeteria, which happened the following week, after the very next session of their class, Saaed asked her about her conservative and virtually all-concealing black rode.

“If you don’t pray,” he said, lowering his voice, “why do you wear it?”

They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screen-down between them, like the weapons of desperados at parley.

She smiled. Took a sip. And spoke, the lower half of her face obscured by her cup.

“So men don’t fuck with me,” she said.

The quote above appears at the end of Chapter One, and sums up the essence of what I like about the novel. It does equally well as an example of what turns me off as well.

I love that the setting and characters give me a unique and interesting perspective on the world, one which I seldom have access to. They surprised me, and confronted me with assumptions and prejudices that I wasn’t aware I harbored, even considering myself fairly open-minded and educated about the world. In this way, Exit West demonstrates to me that there simply aren’t enough diverse voices from a Middle Eastern lens that are making it into the mainstream consciousness, leading to a limited set of narratives from which we draw our judgments and conclusions about its culture and diaspora. I appreciate that this novel expands that perspective. Further, the characters are likeable and I immediately sympathized with their position, foibles, and desires.

With such strengths, it might seem odd that I am giving a rating of 3/5 stars. The fatal flow in the novel is this: despite the unique perspective and sympathetic characters, it was hard for me to feel engaged with the story itself. The tone, while sometimes genuinely funny and surprising, often just comes off as smug and cheeky to me. The style is literary and detached; even violent deaths are described matter-of-factly, and it feels like it takes a very long time for things to happen. Given the violence and suffering of the backdrop of civil war, I found myself craving something more direct, clear, and raw to bring it home emotionally.

That, or perhaps I’m just not literary enough to appreciate the excellently crafted prose when the plot feels understated and beneath the surface… I’m no pulp reader — lack of character depth and hacked-together stocked plots do really annoy me. I do want to think when I read, but in the sense that I want to learn something new, maybe have my mind blown, and perhaps be inspired. I don’t want to be craving more connection while applauding politely, as artisan turns of phrase pirouette on by.

Overall, I’m glad this novel exists, and I don’t think I wasted my time reading it… but you won’t find me singing it’s praises or strongly recommending it to friends.

My Digital Communications

I posted this to my Facebook account earlier, and am cross-posting here.

Hello friends! There continues to be some (understandable) confusion about my ongoing transition in digital communication, which has lately resulted in some missed communications and misunderstandings.

*** I will NOT see or respond to any Facebook updates, event invites, messages, etc from you. ***

The short story is: I am eliminating (to the greatest extent possible) Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon, and all subsidiary services owned by these companies (such as GoodReads, Instagram, WholeFoods, etc) from my life.

As you can imagine, this is not very easy to do (not the least because Amazon keeps buying yet more companies), which is why the process has been happening in stages, will likely forever be imperfect, and is taking a really long time (2 years so far).

The remaining exceptions are my Facebook Author Page (which is why I still need a personal FB account… for now), and WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook, but at least it’s end-to-end encrypted). I may keep the FB account active with just this post to refer people elsewhere, since it does seem to be where people will look first.

You can reach me in the following ways:

Phone – call/text/iMessage
Email – ProtonMail
Secure Messaging Services – Signal (preferred), or WhatsApp
Microblogging/Updates – Mastodon (https://wandering.shop/@quantumcowboy)
Photos – Snapchat or Mastodon
Books – BookLikes (http://naratnayake.booklikes.com/, transition from GoodReads in progress)
Professional – LinkedIn
Blog – https://naratnayake.com

I will probably cross-post this to my blog as well. Sorry for any confusion or misunderstanding, and I’d love to stay in touch with you! Just, you know, not through supporting these companies and the profound negative impact they have on our personal identities, privacy, civil cohesion and democracy, local economies, wealth inequality, and the weaponization of information.

Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you and your loved ones are well.

“The Storyteller” Picked Up by Rampant Loon!

My latest short story, The Storyteller, has been bought by Rampant Loon Press! I’ve been working on this one on-and-off for about five years now. It’s gone through several periods of mothball status and at least two rounds of workshop critique from my writer group — so by no means an easy road to the finish. Ringing in at around 5700 words (pared down from over 7000), it’s also one my longest short stories.

The Storyteller is a response to a couple of converging thought threads that I’ve had in recent years. Firstly, I wondered if it was possible to envision a scenario in which humanity unites around something besides a common external threat. I wanted to attempt the kind of  “optimistic” scifi that also doesn’t avoid meaningful conflict, which it seems many people are looking for but can’t quite find these days.

Secondly, I have been itching for a long time to write something a little more “out there” than the near-future, hard-scifi of Red Soil Through Our Fingers. This story is a step in the direction of the more fantastic and mind-bending science fiction that I enjoy reading, but still falls short of my ideal. Still, I think it at least better reflects who I am as a writer today, more so than the other works of mine that are currently available.

Finally, it’s also just a relief to get something new out there at all. For various reasons, my writing really bogged down following the publication of Red Soil Through Our Fingers, and it’s been over two and a half years since I’ve been able to publish anything new. I’m hoping that this gives me a motivation spurt to get my writing back on track, and get my finished story portfolio caught up a bit with the idea queue in my head.

Now that The Storyteller has been purchased, I have hopes it will appear in a forthcoming issue of Stupefying Stories magazine. I’ll be sure to blog and toot when it is released!

Review of “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Loved it. Fantastic, mind-blowing ideas and many-layered cultural setting, social systems, and characters. My only complaints are 1) the dialogue comes off as stiff and overly-constructed (which I assume I can attribute to the difficulty of translating from Chinese), and 2) the exposition and plot advancement (especially as we begin to learn more about the Trisolarans) often feels very heavy-handed.

Let’s see how it scores on the Nalin Scale of SciFi Elements that really hook me:

  • Ideas: Excellent
  • Wonder and Awe: Excellent
  • Identity: Excellent
  • Myth/Ritual/Infinity: Very Good (and I suspect the sequels will push even further)

Some of the best science fiction I’ve read in awhile. Will definitely read the sequels.

View all my reviews