A Pivotal Moment, a Wobbly Boat, and Adventure

I’m sitting in a cafe-slash-brewery-slash-eatery on the corner of Frederikinkatu and another long-named street. It’s just about 6pm, and the sun is beaming on a diverse, alive, beautiful city I’m visiting for the first time. Helsinki is breathtaking and relatable. It is ancient and new. Also, it has pulled moose sandwiches, which…like…I mean, moose. To eat.

They’ve also got some fantastic vegan options, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Writing Excuses Retreat ended on…was that Saturday? It’s hard to say, because time has blurred on this trip, but I’ve been in Helsinki a couple days now, and though I’m not even halfway through processing the wonder that was the writing retreat, I do have something I thought would be fun to share with you. As we were preparing to disembark from our ship—and summarily delayed in that, of course—I began writing a poem, inspired by Dr. Seuss, about my experience. While it might be a “you had to be there” situation, it might still make you smile.

Enjoy.

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“I do not like this boat,” I said.

“I do not like this boat,” I said,

“This shaking goes straight to my head.”

The golden-vested staffer nodded,

Then carried on, ‘till poked and prodded,

I gave to him my cruise ship card

And purchased water, how bizarre!

 

Photographers go to and fro,

Refusing every plea to “go!”

See, they insist on shutter-bugging

Despite our efforts at mean-mugging,

Making dinner time a chore,

But with our company, not a bore.

 

For Writers, we, have a strange power,

To take all moments, sweet and sour,

Transform them into story fodder,

All our darlings, which we slaughter.

Which we learned to do, with glee,

From Cleaver’s sociopathy.

 

The elevators, quelle horreur!

No semblance of any ordeur,

Though push the button, you did try,

The elevators pass you by.

And when they did decide to stay,

Inaccessible were they.

 

See, other patrons were quite different,

From the world over, wide and distant.

With several customs, strange and new:

An inability to queue,

And smoke in every nook and cranny,

Be they near a child or granny.

 

Excursions to fantastic cities,

Copenhagen’s castle, pretty!

Stockholm’s old town, with it’s bookstore,

Tallin’s KGB enclosure,

St. Petersburg was not so droll,

Because of the passport control.

 

Within the ship, we writers learned,

New concepts in our minds were burned,

And challenges came on the daily,

To write—or not, so cockamamie!

Some writers’ fingers were too restive

Those final word-counts were impressive!

 

But let’s go back, friends, to the shaking,

That oh-so-ever-present quaking!

Fantasia bucked and leaned and wobbled,

My brains inside my skull were boggled,

So if I left an odd impression,

Please forgive me. Did I mention?

 

This was my first, my only cruise,

And while the ship, that cursed un-muse,

Did its best to turn me dour,

I was impervious, ripe with power!

Because of you, my tribe, my crew,

My stable point in world askew.

 

You welcomed me, and took me in,

A stranger, one not free from sin,

Unkempt a tad, unbathéd, too,

You forged me into something new!

For I, like you, do not “aspire,”

I’m proud to call myself a “Writer.”

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What a magnificent experience. I still can’t believe some of it actually happened.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe – Kij Johnson

A strange and delightful congruity connects The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe with the last Hugo-nominated book I reviewed, The Ballad of Black Tom. Both reach back toward Lovecraft, grab hearty handfuls of story, and mold it into works that manage the requisite respect for the author of such incredible tales while openly challenging his prejudices. You can refresh your memory about how Victor LaValle elegantly reframes Lovecraft into a tale of loss and revenge in last month’s review. We’re here today to talk about Kij Johnson’s brilliant, expansive, and enthralling The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

Most of the story takes place in the same world as Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, complete with the array of fantastical locales and creatures that populate Lovecraft’s dreamlands—that’s right folks, there are zoogs, gugs, and ghouls aplenty in Vellitt Boe. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read Lovecraft’s Unknown Kadath, but based on some cursory research it’s a bit of an outlier in Lovecraft’s body of work, particularly because it isn’t as macabre as his other works. In fact, some people on the web called it “uplifting.” I’ll reserve my own commentary until such time as I have read the book in question. I’m certain that an intimacy with Unknown Kadath would make reading Vellitt Boe all the sweeter, but even without knowing the context in which the story’s told, Vellitt Boe is a terrific work of writing.

In contrast to where LaValle took Lovecraft’s horror, Kij Johnson took the wonder and fantasy of Lovecraft and cranked them up to eleven. But there’s a stunning reversal at the heart of the story, specifically to do with wonder, which I’ll go into further below. Where LaValle took Lovecraft’s bigotry and reformed it into a story of loss and cathartic revenge, Johnson looked at the complete lack of women—his dismissive sexism—in Unknown Kadath and, occupying the space he glossed over, tells a story about adventure, fear, wonder, and the subversion of the divine.

Vellitt Boe, the eponymous protagonist of the novella, is a professor at the Women’s College at Ulthar (one of the dreamlands). That there is a Women’s College at all, and the hinted-at fragility of its existence, is clear commentary on Lovecraft’s treatment of women in general, but it isn’t a focal point of the story. It’s the foundation upon which the stakes are built for Vellitt and, though they remain throughout the story, an odd distance grows between Vellitt and the College she defends; her need to protect the school, its staff, and its students never falters, but her personal connection to it wanes.

A brief overview of the story’s events before I dive into what captivated me about it: Vellitt Boe is awoken in the middle of the night to discover that one of her brightest students, Clarie Jurat, has run away with a man from the waking world. As Clarie’s father is one of the benefactors of the Women’s College, this scandalous event could have far-reaching ramifications, up to (and including) the closing of the Women’s College. Vellitt volunteers to go after Claire and return her to the College, and sets off immediately. At this point, we know little of Vellitt aside from her role at the school and tidbits about her personality. As she travels, we learn more about her past and her passions—the story is a story of growth and change that is inspired by (and mirrored in) her adventure. Ultimately, the quest takes Vellitt out of the dreamlands and into the waking world where she finds Clarie and delivers her message—that Clarie must return to the dreamlands. That she must go home. It so happens that, because of the quest itself, Vellitt is barred from returning to the dreamlands. She is unable to go home.

Connection to home, or a lack thereof, is a recurring theme in the story, and there’s a kind of inverse relationship between Vellitt’s fading connection to her home and the overall story arc. As she travels, we learn that Vellitt lived an adventurous and nomadic youth, finally settling at Ulthar and hanging up her traveling cloak and boots for what she thought would be the remainder of her life. But at 55 and back on the road, Vellitt feels the breath of new life in her, and though she sees how she has aged since her traveling years, she realizes that while she was happy at Ulthar, she was stagnating. She was home at Ulthar. But she’s at home on the road—at home at the helm of her own moment-to-moment experience.

As she travels, she’s presented with difficult trials, and each is surmounted with the intervention of Vellitt’s own lived experience. The people she traveled with, the loves and abuses and terrors and strengths of her youth, they all inform her and propel her in strength toward finding her goal, which happens to be restricting that selfsame adventurous streak in a young girl. Vellitt feels for Clarie, for her desire to see the waking world, but she knows that tragedy could befall the Women’s College if this one girl’s thirst for adventure isn’t curbed. The sacrifices she must make so that the progress women made in that world wouldn’t be nullified. It’s a conundrum. It’s thought provoking and gives pause.

Before I spoil the whole book for you, I’d like to talk about one more thing I found particularly compelling about The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe: The dreamlands are extraordinary, vivid, and magical. To us—and to waking-world dreamers who visit—it is a fantastical delight. In many respects it is to Vellitt and Clarie, but it is home. Having both been involved with dreamers, they yearn to see the waking world, with its infinite sky of billions of stars, with its enormous scale and properly behaved physics. A tessellating sky that’s something between paper maché and silken lacework is beautiful, but limited. Through the eyes of Vellitt, the awesome landscape of the dreamlands is dimmed, and when she finally opens her eyes in the waking world, a Wisconsin blue sky on a clear day holds the majesty of all the prismatic crystalline cliff-sides you can imagine. The simplicity—mundanity, even—of the real world isn’t replaced. Rather, it is seen from a different perspective, and I was as enchanted with the infinite sky, one I’ve seen every day for my whole life, as Vellitt when she first saw it.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is available on Amazon.

The Last Sacrifice – James A. Moore

What happens when the great antagonist, the villainous figure bent on destroying the world, is the divine? The Last Sacrifice, the first book in James A. Moore’s Tides of War series, places that conflict at its core. And while it’s an interesting question—what if the gods themselves are the enemy—the book invests a great deal of time in worldbuilding and stage setting, leaving the “meat” of the plot on the back burner while hopping between points of view.

The Last Sacrifice is Grimdark, which is to say it’s brutal and gory, and deals with some of the darker aspects of human behavior. The inciting incident of the story, which pits the protagonist against the gods, asks about the lengths to which anyone would go to get revenge for losing their entire family for nebulous reasons. It’s a familiar concept—man loses wife and children, becomes enraged, goes on a rampage to avenge his family’s killers. Rinse, repeat. But the execution in The Last Sacrifice breaks that trope open, making the revenge itself a secondary incident which ignites the entire world. The scope of consequences changes, and the man’s blind rage doesn’t get quenched in a vacuum. I really appreciated that exploration, because oftentimes our media that glorifies righteous violence and revenge doesn’t address the fallout of those actions—it lets the protagonist win, and washes its hands of the brutal reality that such violence visits on the world around it. But it’s revenge atop revenge in The Last Sacrifice. In getting his revenge, Brogan McTyre enrages the gods, who want to punish the entire world in revenge for their monthly sacrifices being interrupted by Brogan’s actions. Predictably, chaos ensues.

Structurally, The Last Sacrifice jumps between characters and locations, building a large secondary world complete with features that are to be expected in this kind of fantasy: slavers, wretched towns, groups of kingdoms, mysterious geological phenomena, strange humanoid creatures that represent the gods, kilts, guilds, etcetera. It’s no more or less inventive than other fantasy in the same vein, but it’s well executed and feels complete.

I liked The Last Sacrifice, especially as an audiobook (as always, many thanks to Audible for providing the review copy), but I became so hung up on one detail that I couldn’t get really into the book. Let me set the scene.

The world in which Brogan McTyre lives has been sacrificing four humans every season to appease the gods. The sacrifices are (seemingly) arbitrarily chosen, and exchanged for valuable coins that act as reparations for the humans who lost loved ones. This sacrifice has been taking place multiple times every year since time began. Presumably, people would be used to the idea, wouldn’t they? Granted, the Grakhul (the humanoid divine servants who make the sacrifices) took Brogan’s entire family, an unusual event to be sure, but this has been happening literally forever. Brogan and everyone he knows have been raised to accept this sacrifice as part of life, yet when his own family is taken he goes ballistic, rounds up his mercenary friends, and exacts bloody revenge on the messengers of the gods. Throughout the book, characters flout the conventions that the world’s been accepting for its entire existence. Though there are mentions of past lapses in appeasement of the gods on the humans’ part, I kept getting hung up on the idea that so many people would be somewhat blaze about disregarding deeply-held beliefs regarding a global phenomenon that is as old as the world itself.

So when Brogan confronted the king of his country and asked what the King would do in his shoes, I’d expect the king to say he’d tow the line. When Brogan ropes his sellsword friends into the revenge, I’d expect a little less enthusiastic following of the rash actions that lead to the impending destruction of the world. Instead, everyone’s pretty much on board with the revenge plan. And when Brogan decides to sell the remaining Grakhul he hasn’t killed, the women and children, into slavery—a thing they all despise—the group goes along with that too. There’s some recalcitrance, but I always expected some internal conflict among the sellswords, which never fully coalesced. I expected more pushback from those who feel that “this is just how the world works” is a sufficient explanation for Brogan’s loss. There wasn’t much of that, though.

Those issues aren’t digs at the book, per se. Maybe it’s just me inserting my own writing voice into the story. Decisions I’d have made if I were telling the story. The Last Sacrifice will tickle the fancy of any fans of Grimdark fantasy, with its large cast of characters and earth-shattering consequences. The narrator, Adam Sims, does a great job of bringing intensity to the story, and at just under 10 hours, the book is easy to consume in a week of here-and-there listening sessions. Grimdark isn’t for everyone, but if you like it, pick up The Last Sacrifice. You’ll enjoy it.

The Last Sacrifice is available on Audible.

The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle

Note: Herein begins a series of reviews of books nominated for this years Hugo Awards. For those who don’t know, I will be attending the Hugos this year in Helsinki, Finland, and have more than a little catching up to do in regards to the nominees. I’ve already reviewed a few nominated stories, which will be back-tagged with the Hugo tag, should you be interested in seeing the group together. 

When my dad first saw Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, he expressed an emotion that, at first, struck me as odd, but as I thought about it, made a great deal of sense. He found the film deeply cathartic. To watch a group of empowered Jews brutalize Nazis, he said, felt good. Really good.

I thought about that for a long while. The second world war carved a deep wound on the entire world, and the holocaust left horrid scar tissue in my people across the diaspora. We are all affected, generations later, no matter our ties to survivors or victims, no matter our beliefs or shifting religious affiliations. As my father said to me once, during my time as a rather angry atheist in college (I’ve since calmed down), the Nazis wouldn’t have cared what you believed. To them, you are a Jew.

The scars left on a people from having atrocities visited upon them last generations, a metastatic stiffness that has a rippling affect on our capacity for integrating into the world around us. And because humanity displays a tremendous weakness for even short-term memory, the victims of history are often blamed for the cultural wounds that shape our collective neuroses.

And so when my dad saw Inglorious Basterds, he saw a power fantasy for a people disempowered by history, in the heart of the greatest and most terrible robbery of their dignity and humanity. He had a chance to live out a dream he’d never known lived deep in him. Watching the film again, I saw what he meant, and completely agreed.

In many respects, I imagine that The Ballad of Black Tom can foster similar catharsis for black Americans. The protagonist undergoes a transformation through the novella, from a wily young man using ignorance and intolerance to his advantage to a powerful, somewhat divine being visiting destruction on those who robbed him of everything. He plays by the rules, bending and weaving through them as he will, getting slightly ahead in a world that perpetually pushes him behind. When he’s pushed into encounters with the supernatural, the comfortable—if harsh and dehumanizing—world cracks at the seams.

And when his father is executed by police for absolutely no reason, the world shatters and Tommy Tester wonders why the rules mattered at all. No matter what he believed, no matter his actions or efforts, he is subhuman. Second-class and worse. He gives in to the darkness that lingers nearby, reaches for the horror that’s held at bay and wraps himself in it. Then, he finds revenge.

Victor LaValle’s writing is spectacular, harkening to Lovecraft (by whom the story must have been inspired, especially given the presence of Cthulhu) but exceeding it. It fits in with the canonical mythos while proving that Lovecraft’s defects—his intolerance, his bigotry—aren’t what makes his brand of horror great. They detract from it. The scars from the horrors visited upon African Americans are ripe for the kind of horrors these tales visit upon the world. With LaValle’s brilliant novella, we get a taste of how sweet that revenge might be.

The Ballad of Black Tom, published by Tor.com, is available on Amazon.

Forest of Memory – Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m steadily working my way up to total fanboy status regarding Mary Robinette Kowal’s work. As I’ve mentioned several times on the blog, her insight, perspective, and wit are one of the great draws of Writing Excuses, and her work that I’ve read (Shades of Milk and Honey, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, and her contribution to the Shadows Beneath anthology) I have absolutely loved.

I have her most recent novel, Ghost Talkers, on my to-read list, as well as Word Puppets, a collection of her shorts, but the book that drew me first was Forest of Memory, a novella published by Tor.com. The cover art, by Victo Ngai, of a surreal forest with an etherial buck jumping away from the viewer, captured my attention wholly.

Paired with the title, the image piqued my interest, and I wanted to know how the seemingly disparate images would connect to each other.

What I found in the novella is yet another example of Kowal’s stellar craftsmanship. The world, though never explicitly seen, feels enormous and lived-in, and the characterization is shows remarkable depth for its quickness.

Forest of Memory also asks a question that is increasingly important these days: in a world of perpetual connectivity, what would it feel like to suddenly find yourself alone? Unable to reach out to the entire world at a moment’s notice? Cut off from the global conversation?

I think about it often, because while I used to disconnect for several months at a time (as a result of working in the mountains), I haven’t truly disconnected from the web in almost a decade.

Almost 10 years of using the internet every single day. It’s remarkable. I wonder if it’s an inextricable part of my life and future. But it’s not all bad, of course. I socialize on the web, and have used the internet to build a life for myself in the writing community, which has been terrifically rewarding and healthy, not to mention profitable in some ways. I use the internet to learn, to laugh, to play, to connect. But I also use it to distract, to numb, to shout into an echo chamber with rage at the political problems of today. It is counterproductive and addictive.

What would it be like to lose something so wonderful and so destructive??

Kowal’s story is near-future science fiction, where the internet is ubiquitous, and devices are directly integrated into the body and brain. The protagonist collects antiquities, and deals in authenticity—the sale of legitimate artifacts and their stories. That last bit might be a little on the nose, but it’s worked well into the plot and setting, and it doesn’t feel as overbearing as it might have with a less skilled author. It does raise a good point, though. Digital facsimiles are all around us, and there may come a time, soon, when replicas are more readily available than the real thing.

I’m digressing from the story again. Spoilers follow, so if you want to read Forest of Memory—and you do—come back here when you’ve finished the 88-page story.

Kowal’s protagonist is riding along on a highway through the forests  Oregon when a group of deer cross her path. She stops and begins recording them, knowing she can sell this moment, this experience, on the web. The moment is interrupted when one of the group, a buck, is shot. An illegal act. The hunter appears and begins working   on the body of the buck, so the protagonist tries to run. She, too, is shot. Tranquilized, it turns out. Like the buck.

She wakes, kidnapped by the hunter, who is doing  something  to the bucks and deer. When she tries to use her tech to connect to the web, to call for help, she discovers that she can’t. She’s offline. She is terrified.

What follows is her strange captivity, watching the man work, wondering what he’s doing to the animals before releasing them, coming to some sort of terms with the discomfort of being disconnected. The hunter assures her that, once his work is done, he will release her and she’ll be able to connect to the net.

She tries to sleuth out what he’s doing, and the reader is lead to understand that he’s installing some sort of signal-blocking technology into the animals, so that the web doesn’t work around them. Through their conversations, he informs her that a wealthy party is interested in having him complete the work, and is additionally interested in purchasing an antique from her—a typewriter—and a story written on the selfsame typewriter about her experience. After her days of captivity, she is released, and soon is able to reconnect to the net.

The experience shakes her, but leaves her (largely) unharmed. For me, reading it, I was left thinking about technology addiction, unadulterated appreciation of nature, and just how good Mary Robnette Kowal is at this whole “writing” thing.

I can’t wait to learn more from her. (I took a short story class with her earlier this year, and am attending the week-long writing excuses cruise this July.)

Forest of Memory is available on Amazon.

New Video: Author Tag!

My friend Elayna tagged me in a YouTube game/challenge/greeting called “Author Tag,” wherein writers answer ten questions about themselves. A sort of “get to know me” video. My submission, for your viewing pleasure, can be found below.

Pirate Utopia – Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia is a delightful and odd read. It is a fine work of alternate history focused on a particularly odd time in a little-known city in Europe after the Great War. Because the story of Fiume is so obscure (or, at least was completely unknown to me prior to reading Pirate Utopia), it reads more like historical fantasy than alternate history, and had me pausing regularly to look up people and places I’d never heard of before.

The Free State of Fiume (which is now Rijeka, in Croatia) was an incredible experiment, a strange city-state on the Adriatic run by artists and revolutionaries who were looking toward the future. From the ooze that was the meeting of minds and cultures, drugs and uncertainty, came ideas of socialism, fascism, and anarcho-syndicalism (wherein workers form syndicates in which they control their industrial manufactories; power of the collective in influencing economy and society, etc.). From the moment Fiume declared its independence, it was fought over by its denizens. The four-year experiment ended when Italy decided to annex Fiume in 1924, but the exiled government of Fiume rejected the exile and continued to function, despite the whole affair fizzling out, only to resurface briefly after WWII. Fiume is a fascinating piece of history, well worth examination if this kind of history is your cup of tea.

But I’m not here to talk about the actual history of Fiume. I’m here to talk about Pirate Utopia.

Sterling’s writing conjured an amalgam of Miyazaki (particularly because of Porco Rosso, which is set in the Adriatic) and The Triplets of Belleville, for its surreality and darkness. It’s a book driven not by plot but by character and setting, which have enough going for them to make it a riveting read. The cast have deeply held principles, they’re people of action, deep thinkers, artists, revolutionaries!

But they’re also absurd, in their own way. In a gratifying way. They’re almost caricatures, but I don’t think they’d be that far off from the real thing, given the immense shifts in technology and thought taking place in the twenties. What must it have been like, to be on tons of cocaine and working on radio-controlled weapons and casting down the archaic notions of the past, forging on to a future lit by the fires of industry and war? The thought is intoxicating to some of the characters, even more than the intoxicants themselves.

Pirate Utopia is strange fiction about a time and zeitgeist that may be stranger than the fiction itself. It made me want to discover other odd spandrels left by massive leaps and changes in the world. Was there ever a similar free state nestled in the Americas? In Eurasia? In Africa? Things like Cargo Cults in the pacific, the strange results of colliding culture and knowledge…that’s what Pirate Utopia piqued in my mind.

So, absolutely get this book. Then, maybe join me in a deep dive through Wikipedia to find more cool moments in history.

Pirate Utopia is available on Amazon and from Tachyon Publications.

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi

John Scalzi is a somewhat enormous figure in genre fiction, having published some 20+ novels, eight non-fiction books, and a generous handful of short fiction and essays. Not only that, but his role as “influencer” is further cemented by the popularity of his “Whatever” blog and his more-than 110,000 followers on Twitter. But we’re not here to talk about Scalzi’s reach as an author, prodigious though it may be. We’re here to talk about the audiobook of Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi I listened to, courtesy of Audible.

The eighteen stories in Miniatures are, as the title suggests, very short. In the introduction, Scalzi says that the longest piece in the collection is only 2,300 words long. The audiobook for the collection is teeny-tiny, clocking in at just under three hours. The stories are funny, and all hover around the central of subverting “conventional” science fiction tropes or dropping a surprise reveal at the end of the story. I enjoyed Miniatures tremendously. The different narrators for each story (and sometimes multiple narrators in a single story) were all excellent, bringing precisely the right kind of humor each moment demanded. Some were deadpan, others matter-of-fact, others over-the-top dramatic. More than once, I found myself having to stifle giggles at my desk, lest I inform the whole world that I’m multitasking.

Some of the stories were more compelling for me than others, as is often the case with collections, but rather than talk about one story that really did. “The Other Large Thing” was a delightful story that introduces a curious protagonist, master of his domain, who watches as a new entity is introduced into his world. This new thing learns to communicate with Sanchez, the protagonist, and acquiesces to all of Sanchez’s demands. Sanchez plots to use this thing to take over the world.

Spoiler: Sanchez is a cat. But you don’t know that until later in the story—though on a second listen, it’s rather obvious. Something about the way that story unfolded had me grinning the entire time I listened to it. Bolstered by the gravelly delivery of the narrator, the Sanchez character is at once absurd and very serious. The way he makes demands, punishes and rewards his “others” and the “other large thing” is delightful. Long story short (no pun intended), it’s a great story that left me curious about how to pull of a similar feat.

For those of us who enjoy audiobooks but are not particularly keen on forty-hour epic fantasies, Miniatures is perfect. Short and sweet, with a host of narrators and wildly different settings (though, like I said, there’s a thematic thread throughout), it’s something I recommend to anyone and everyone. And hey, if it’s not your cup of tea, at least it’s only a few hours long.

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi is available on Audible and Amazon.

Missing Link – Frank Herbert

When I read Frank Herbert’s Dune as a teenager, it was a revelatory experience. Dune is widely considered to be a crowning achievement in science fiction, and I’ve heard it called “The Lord of the Rings of SF.” I’m aware that it’s polarizing as a book, and that the series as a whole isn’t as well-loved as I’d initially thought, but none of that changes my relationship with those books.

I remember days in high school where I’d float from class to class, not listening to a word any of my teachers were saying, because I was so immersed in the political dealings of the Atreides and Harkonnen, in the zealous fury of the Fremen, and of the extraordinary universe they occupied. Dune hit me like blast to the chest, and changed the way I read.

And even if I hadn’t read anything else by Frank Herbert until somewhat recently (Destination: Voida few years back, which I thought was strange and wonderful), I considered him one of my writing idols. So you can imagine my delight at discovering a short he’d published in 1959 in the Astounding Science Fiction anthology edited by John W. Campbell.

Missing Link is a great example of Frank Herbert’s work. It’s certainly a product of its time, and not without its representational issues, but at its core is intrigue, political maneuvering, and a clever protagonist with an uncanny ability to read between blurry lines in moments. The story revolves around two conversations, though one’s a bit more action-packed than the other.

In the first conversation our protagonist, Lewis Orne, is talking with the superior officer on his ship regarding the risky mission on which he is about to embark. The conversation smacks of Herbert’s other works; tempers brandished like rapiers, a subtle back-and-forth that’s more fencing than discussion. In this case, we have military personnel frustrated with the bureaucracy, and a scientist caught between. The conversation serves to set the why of the short story. A ship has gone missing near the planet they currently orbit. It’s Lewis’s job to investigate, potentially by encountering the—and here’s the representational issue at the heart of the work—the barbaric/savage denizens of the planet.

The second conversation is another great—and very different—example of classic Herbert. Lewis is on the planet, talking with the leader of the hunting party that found him and attacked his vehicle. During the conversation there’s much to distract us, from the fantastic scenery to the seemingly incongruous amount of technological development on the part of the natives—again, that representation thing. But what happens during that conversation behind the scenes, inside of Lewis’s mind, is Herbertian perfection.

Lewis deduces the location of the missing spaceship and its fate by paying close attention to his captor/passenger’s choice of words. He quickly connects linguistics to anthropological phenomena he witnesses, then subtly shifts the conversation in order to corroborate his hypothesis. It’s that kind of intellect, and that approach to sleuthing out the facts, that attracted me to the Dune universe. And though it’s short, Missing Link was an excellent soupçon of the writing I fell in love with as a teenager.

It also provided some important perspective on how the zeitgeist in speculative fiction has changed. After reading Missing Link, I read a few other pieces, including Mary Robinette Kowal’s Forest of Memory, which I’ll review later this week or next week. The two pieces are radically different, and demonstrate how technological advances have changed the way we view the future, how social changes have changed the way we view the world around us, and how exploration needn’t happen at the expense of the explored. There was a beautiful counterpoint in those reading experiences, which together served as yet another reminder that I’m a fortunate person to be able to spend so much of my time reading and thinking about books.

Missing Link is available for free from Gutenberg, or can be purchased on Amazon.

Author Interview: Matthew Isaac Sobin

Warbler’s Note: I’m thrilled to bring you the words of Matt Sobin, author of a beautiful novelette called THE LAST MACHINE IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM. If this interview intrigues you enough to want the book—and it should—let me know in the comments below and you will be entered to win one of two copies of the book! 

I repeat: leave a comment below the post for a chance to win a copy of this book!


Q:  Much of THE LAST MACHINE, stylistically, is highly poetic. As I understand it, your background is in poetry. Is this your first long-form piece? How did your work as a poet influence the way you approached this story?

A: I love this question. Since the story is told from Jonathan’s perspective, perhaps I’ve created the first robot poet? That’s kind of cool to think about. I thought that an android with knowledge of all of Earth’s languages, who had analyzed every written work, should be eloquent. Not stilted and mechanical. Why shouldn’t he tell his story poetically with striking visual images?

This is my first published work but not my first long-form piece. I have a completed novel that I am preparing to publish. I am considering entering it into the upcoming Launchpad competition on Inkshares. It’s very different from The Last Machine in the Solar System. It’s literary fiction instead of SciFi. For both the unpublished novel, and this novella, I think my poetry plays a role in terms of how I think about imagery. I really want people to see what is being described. With The Last Machine, I tried to describe big beautiful images on Earth, on terraformed Mars, and then in outer space, so that the reader would see it alongside Jonathan. The feeling an image conveys is also important to me. When Jonathan and Nikolai stand next to the Atlantic Ocean and see the buildings half-drowned in the distance, it should be a striking image, and emotional too. I hope readers see the image in their minds while feeling it in their hearts.

Q: Working with Jack Katz on designs for Jonathan must have been remarkable. Did working with him influence or change the story in any substantial way?

A: Working with Jack is my greatest privilege. I always tell people who ask that I never tell Jack how to illustrate my work – whether it was this story or one of my poems. I am obviously biased, but from an artistic perspective, the man can do no wrong. So to your initial premise of us working on designs together, I would say that we would talk about how it would be great to have an image of Nikolai constructing Jonathan in his Ukrainian laboratory, or Jonathan flying by Jupiter or Saturn. But our discussions were always in the most general terms, and then I would let myself be surprised with what he came up with. And it was always great.

Conversations with Jack influence me but don’t change the story, per se – let me explain. He is one of the purest creatives out there since he’s unimpeded by the noise on the internet or even on TV. He has his books, his art, classical music and a collection of movies. When Jack starts speaking about Nikolai, the creator, like he’s a real person, I listen closely. He wants to know, did he have siblings? What were his parents like? What sports did he play in school? Would he care about politics? So Jack was very invested in not only The Last Machine but in the larger narrative of Nikolai’s life, which I plan to write. And I thought about a lot of these questions. I wasn’t always sure of the answer but I usually had a leaning in one direction. Jack would say something along the lines of, “Nikolai is inside you, he is you, you just have to unearth that fossil within.” So in theory, the story has already been written.

Q: THE LAST MACHINE is a lament to humanity, delivered as a eulogy for a lost friend that scales outward through the telling. Did you find any contemporary events pushing you to tell this story? Can you remember what was going on in the world in general when the idea struck you?

A: Well, let’s see. I started writing The Last Machine in the Solar System on October 1, 2015. I know exactly because I always write longhand and date the pages! The Presidential campaign was underway, but I don’t really remember that influencing me. Initially, I didn’t even know I was writing The Last Machine. I was just writing to write. I had watched a really fascinating show on the Science channel about the life cycle of the solar system. I was mesmerized, particularly about the death of the sun. And then of course the question, what would it mean for humans? Would we even be around at the point? Then it was easy to make the jump: Maybe humans would be gone, but a robot might still be around. I didn’t go in with any plans to make a big statement or comment on politics – though in the end, there are a few subtle commentaries. I thought it would be cool to visually tell the story of the life and death of the solar system, and it evolved from there. That humanity’s future seems so precarious and uncertain right now made the ultimate direction and end of the story straightforward, and perhaps inevitable.

Q: Are there other stories that you want to tell in the universe of THE LAST MACHINE?

A: Absolutely! One short story is already complete. It’s called The Creator and the Machine. It’s more of a true short story, about half the length of the novella. And it’s told very differently than The Last Machine. A lot more dialogue and action, which I’m sure readers will appreciate. It takes place during the period on Earth right after Nikolai and Jonathan conclude their travels, but before they depart for Mars. The story was an opportunity to explore the relationship between Jonathan and his creator. We delve more into Nikolai and his personality. But the story is really about Jonathan trying to understand the concept of physical pain, and ultimately emotional pain. So I think it’s quite interesting.

I’m hoping to publish The Creator and the Machine as an eBook in the next few months. The longer term goal is to write a full length biography of Nikolai with Jonathan as its author. I’ve only just gotten started.

Q: What are you reading now, and what’s the one book you’d recommend to anyone?

A: As a writer, I find myself interested in how other writers write. So I am constantly picking up new books, and reading a few pages, tasting their words and sentence structure like I’m at a restaurant with a sampling plate. I read a lot of book openings. Sometimes I pick up books and open to a page at random to check out what’s going on there. So I sample from a lot more books than books I actually read cover to cover. The other day I read the opening to Gravity’s Rainbow; that was fascinating. A very different style.

One book I’m reading (and plan to read most of) is a collection of essays by Albert Einstein called Out of My Later Years. I find both Tesla and Einstein very intriguing. There’s a lot of the two of them in Nikolai.

A book I’d recommend to anyone? Do I have to go SciFi? If it’s SciFi and folks haven’t read it, then of course, Foundation by Asimov is #1 in my hierarchy. If I am going outside SciFi, I would say that it’s time to bring the short story form back to prominence. Especially with the demands on our time, short story collections are a lot of fun. I love reading stories by Fitzgerald and Kipling because of their ability to impact readers emotionally in just a few pages.


Special thanks to Angela Melamud at Inkshares for arranging this interview and providing the books for the giveaway. Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win the book!

As always, if you want to pick up the book and  support the blog, you can do so on Amazon.

EDIT: The contest portion is closed. Winners have been contacted. Thanks for participating!