Jonathan Abel

Really lacking inspiration at the moment. The writing challenge petered out. The truth is, I thought I had my first novel, but that just turned out to be a bag of tropes. I’m trying to find a project now into which I can pour the same amount of time and passion, but I’m struggling. Here’s me trying to work out who the hell my sci-fi narrator is from here. This serves as a kind of prologue to the following post.

secret_agent1Jonathan Abel “Able Johnny” Reyes was famous, even if that wasn’t his real name. Not “lots of results on the Metanet” famous, but he was famous. Certain circles knew the right number to call to get something done. Indeed, as the human race started to expand out of the atmosphere, his kind were needed more and more.

For more than twenty years he was one of the best. No coup, industrial sabotage or revolution succeeded under his watchful eye. Of course, given the long leash the Human Alliance gave him, Johnny was able to partake in a wide variety of side projects. There wasn’t a gambler, importer or specialist retailer who didn’t know him in one context or another.

Then one day he disappeared. Able Johnny was just no longer on the grid. His comms went to answer services, his holos bounced and his name was irradiated from all records. That same week, though no one made the connection, a man apparently in his mid-thirties took over a grotty bar a mile above the London Gutters. He had cheap cybernetics in the shape of a left hand and walked with a limp a bar owner ought to be able to fix. That was five years ago.

Marcus Rodriguez didn’t like guests from his past. He assumed he didn’t, anyway. Tina was the first.

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Living the Life Fantastic

Living on the Earth, living in the sky and living above the sky are three very different states of being. You have no idea.

On Earth

Earth

They don’t do tours of the Ground Floor, as a lot of city-dwellers call it. They can’t afford the insurance on the necessary gas masks. Even the Guttersnipes don’t walk around the Ground Floor without some kind of air filter or mask. The air smells like oil, grease and damp. The secretions of a couple of centuries of oil abuse now coat what we used to call ‘street level’. Even with modern electronic transport and the space fuel the throw down at us, we still can’t clear the filth that’s already here. And of course there are the industries down below who cannot or will not make that great extraterrestrial leap and who still pump their poison into the world. The Toffs have to have their tennis balls after all.

Of course, some ‘Snipes have their implants to keep them safe. Hell, sometimes you see a Joe on the street and he looks more toaster than man. Don’t know how they manage it myself. I like the pink squishy parts of a person myself. Then again, I don’t smuggle, smash or slide to earn my money. Not usually anyway.

Speaking of which, down here you can buy anything. I know that a lot of people say that, but I mean it. I once sat in a bar while a guy scarfed down a brown paper bag full of what looked like eyeballs. All blue. I stuck around though. Good beer in that place.

My advice? Wear a barker on your hip to save any part of you from ending up in a brown paper bag.

In the Sky

Sky

 

Here in the clouds you’ve got your styles and your fashions and whatnot. Up here with the Toffs, you can buy anything fancy. The architecture ranges from glass and steel from historical. None of the Old Earth landmarks are down where they started. A lot of them have been status-locked or reproduced up on Cloud 9.

The fashions are a little unpredictable. “Future of the Past” was a thing for a while; all silver jumpsuits and skin tints. A lot of the sentient gadgets got a boost for a while too. All pug-ugly if you ask me. Although I shagged a green ‘Martian’ fashionista once. That was fun. Couple of months later it was Victoriana chic. You couldn’t swing your cane without knocking off someone’s topper. I like Cloud 9, but it is a silly place.

In Space

SpaceI lived on an Outpost for a couple of years back in the ’20s. Just a small solar mine out near Venus. The funny thing about space and the asteroid quarries is that building this stuff is dirt cheap, so everyone lives in this idyllic Mediterranean community with a simulated sky and simulated sea breezes. The European ones, anyway. They’re also really subcultural. Aphro-3 was made up entirely of Italian Cybergoths and their families. Beautiful to behold but damn strange in their little mock-terracotta houses. Still, the pasta was good.

It’s funny the detail the build into these places though. I remember the fishing being excellent. In space. They were real fish, too. Not like the creepy little robots you get in the Earth resorts. I remember eating an Aphro-Salmon that was absolutely delicious. And not a circuit board in site.

As you can imagine, the night life is a bit niche-y, but an awful lot of fun. If you fancy getting off with a girl with a short skirt and plastic hair then I recommend Aphro-3 immensely. I’d skip Metabilis, though. Those chicks are freaks.

 

Under the Dome by Stephen King

I’ve been looking at the cover of this book in bookshops since it came out in 2009 – having had a similar idea for an isolated small town myself. After reading “On Writing” and having heard it was soon to become a TV show, I knew that this would be my next read.

First thing: it’s a big book. I mean seriously. Just look at this picture I’ve stolen from another WordPress blog:

Big.

It came in at over a thousand Kindle pages. That said, it’s a rare moment when the story feels slow, wordy or padded. These pages are all story.

I have to admit, though, the first act was a little slow-going for me. As King himself states in his afterword, it is a densely-populated universe he has created here under the dome. Every other chapter seems to introduce a new family or set of characters to learn and love, before having them cruelly wrenched off=stage for another handful of chapters.

Nevertheless, this all pays of in the end, with each and every character receiving an filling and sometimes emotional ending. The main characters are strong but flawed, and the small-town enemies soon become magnified through the non-glass of the dome.

The story slowly grows as we get to know this community inside and out. We know the friendly, unfriendly, weird and drunken as well or better than we do those of our own friendship circles.

I would thoroughly recommend this book, but not as light summer reading – both literally and metaphorically. At one point, the fate of one character made me stop reading, as tears were obscuring my vision.

This is a short, fast review as I’ve got a lot of other things to do right now. But for what it’s worth, it’s a “yes” from me, and I’ll definitely be tuning in to watch my favourite characters (both loved and hated) appear on-screen.

 

under-the-dome

Review Triple-Bill!

I promised you a post about entertainment, didn’t I? Well, here’s three! I’m so good to you.

Anyway, I reached a point where I had watched everything on Geek and Sundry, a YouTube channel from Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton. This is a channel that includes:

  • The Guild – a hilarious and sometimes uncomfortable web comedy about a group of online gamers meeting IRL.
  • Tabletop – Wil Wheaton playing different board games with a range of (geeky) celebrity guests.
  • The Flog – Felicia’s video blog where she does random things (blacksmithy, ice sculpture) and talks about the things she likes.
  • Sword & Laser – a formerly audio-only book group that specialises in sci-fi and fantasy. They also have a pet dragon.

Tabletop has been a lifesaver for me, allowing me to get my geeky gamer fix far away from the nearest English-speaking dungeon master.

I was railing around for something else to watch, when I came across Vaginal Fantasy on Ms. Day’s personal YouTube channel. Basically, the Vaginal Fantasy Hangout is a four-woman book group hosted on G+ (then uploaded to YouTube). They discuss books which have both strong romantic and/or sexual subplots and exist within “genre fiction” such as sci-fi, fantasy or steampunk.  As a fan of both genre fiction and the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton (not to mention Felicia Day), I knew it was for me.

The hangouts themselves are silly, disorganised and regularly slide off-topic. This makes them a hell of a lot more fun than your traditional book review show, and allows for more honest and varied opinions on the books they read. Even if you don’t read the books, I recommend you tune in and have a laugh.

Because it made me laugh, not because I believe it.

This month’s primary pic is Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, which is the third item in our three-part review today.

Kushiel’s Dart is the first piece of high fantasy I’ve read and enjoyed for quite some time1. The world-building is thorough, as one might expect from the genre, based loosely on a medieval cum Renaissance version of Europe.

I loved the world-building. It really allowed me to immerse myself in a world I could see myself living in, rather than the worlds of other fantasy authors, whose worlds seem to be entirely bereft of normal, everyday people.

Beyond this, though, what kept me reading were the characters and the unpredictable story. Although it is a long book (over 300,000 words if my Google-related sources are correct), it allows for so much story to happen in that space of time.

Although I know the world building put some people off in the early chapters, but it drew me in so completely – I was utterly immersed once the plot got moving. It’s one of those epic fantasies where you have to pay attention, I think. I understand the paper edition has a character list and map in the front, which would make it a little easier. Please don’t let this put you off. I totally intend to go back to Terre D’Ange as soon as possible.

I found the motivations of the main characters very realistic and relatable. Putting aside the Machiavellian machinations of the powerful characters (which I also enjoyed), characters are driven by money, freedom, love and evangelical belief. They have flirty frissons, sacrilegious temptations and regrets for lost loves. A love triangle that emerges towards the end kept me wrapped while they were trying to save their world.

Phédre, the main character, is born into a life of religiously-sanctioned prostitution in a highly-cultured society. Marked as imperfect by the red mote in her left eye, she is saddened to think that she will never enter the service of one of the 13 Houses (ancient, high-class brothels).

It turns out that she’s been marked by the angel of punishment as someone destined to take it and enjoy it. She discovers this when she’s beaten for having an adventure outside her House at night. Te mote in her eye is the nominal Kushiel’s Dart.

I won’t tell you about the plot any more, as it twists and turns in unexpected ways. The theme, I think, is one of female strength. Although she is a prostitute and a professional victim, she becomes one of the most influential people in the world. At one point in the book, a character receives a prediction:

That which yields is not necessarily weak.

I think this is very much the message of this piece.

One thing that the Vaginal Fantasy ladies have picked up on in past reading efforts is the lack of gay or bisexual relationships in the romance genre. In Kushiel’s Dart, sexuality is a non-issue. Men and women are trained as prostitutes for the preferences of whomever choses them. There is no stigma or stereotype attached to choosing someone of the same sex, save some parents despairing that their children will have no heirs (a concern very real to some members of the LGBT community). In a society where their religion decrees “love as thou wilt” they really mean it. Totally respect to the author for that.

Honestly, I loved this story. There have been some criticisms in the Vaginal Fantasy Goodreads Forum which I’d like to address.

“The opening chapters are boring”, “too much world building and not enough action”, etc. I discussed this a little above, but I want to reiterate: The world building does take up a lot of the early part of the book. You’ll either enjoy that or not, but it’s definitely worth sticking with it in my humble opinion.

I think this criticism comes in comparison to other “vaginal fantasy” books, which focus much more solidly on action and romance. In Kushiel’s Dart, the focus is more on the world, politics and how a lowly prostitute could possibly (eventually) affect it. The sex comes later, the action later still and the romance yet later. The slow politicking is the story and a big part of the plot. That’s why it’s a big part of the novel. Perhaps it could have been spread out more, but personally I loved it.

Kushiel’s Dart is epic fantasy with a courtesan as the main character. It’s like Lord of the Rings if it had any characters who weren’t asexual.

The BDSM was “too much”. Yeah, BDSM and punishment are big parts of Phédre and her story. This is not playful handcuffs and light spanking. This is torture with sex thrown in. If those are things that will completely turn you off to a character or story, then this isn’t for you.

If you do know a little about BDSM, however, this is a great book to see how it can be handled in a responsible way. Consent and a safe word are contractually agreed upon before anything happens. They are massive issues that are highlighted regularly. These are issues that needn’t be referenced by a fantasy author, and yet become a central part of the plot on occasion. For that, Carey gets more respect from me.

In conclusion: this is epic fantasy with sex and certainly not the other way around. Be prepared for world building and BDSM, but if you can get into them, prepare to be absorbed by an original, yet recognisable world and one lowly courtesan’s  journey through it.

To finish, gratuitous pictures of Felicia Day dancing in an elevator in a recent episode of Supernatural2:

   

 

1 Don’t argue with my definition. Wikipedia says I’m right:

High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the real, or “primary” world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent but its rules differ in some way(s) from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or “real” world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.

2 Yes, it’s a cliché, a self-proclaimed geek having a crush on Felicia Day. So sue me.

Iron Sky and Trollhunter (Trolljegeren): Both Worth Watching

This weekend, I watched a couple of foreign films. I realise that’s not a genre, but it seemed  enough of a category to group them together in one post. The first was Iron Sky:Iron Sky

The Nazis are back – and this time they’re sexy!

Iron Sky is the most ridiculous movie I’ve seen in quite a long time. Nazis escaped to the moon and live a 1940s cartoon lifestyle on the dark side, where they can’t be found. It’s not explained how, given all the 40s tech they still use, they managed to get there in the first place. Not least get up there unnoticed.

The president of the United States is a… okay. She’s Sarah Palin. She’s a no-nonsense Republican with a moose head on her wall, a snappy wardrobe of power-suits and an overriding sense of American privilege. She is also represented as Hitler in a scene dragged straight from Downfall.

The actual Hitler figure in this movie is Udo Kier, who I still struggle to see as anything but “king of the wampires”. He plays a completely irredeemable villain, as does his sex-starved successor, Götz Otto. The Führer is dead, long live the Führer!

Let me list a few of the silly things that happen in Iron Sky:

  • An Alfred Einstein wannabe bleaches a black guy white
  • Zeppelins in space
  •  A swastika-shaped HQ
  • The president’s aid climbing on board a space ship dressed as Maleficant
  • North Korea is laughed into silence during a UN meeting

A big Michael Jackson fan. And a hot Nazi. And another dude.

This is a very silly movie, although the final scene struck a few realistic chords. Quote:

Americans: You you all gave me your word!

UN: But you broke yours!

America: We always break ours. That’s just what we do!

And:

” [Found resource]

America: That’s ours.

UN: Boo

America: Here me out. The moon is American soil. Moon flag: Stars and Stripes…”

So… yeah. Space Nazis and America-bashing. What more of a review do you need? Also, if anyone has Ms. Julia Dietze‘s phone number…

Next up, and made with a slightly more serious tone, was Trolljegeren (Troll Hunter).

Now, at the beginning of this movie you expect something like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. The shaky cam is shaky, there are woods and a premise for them having a camera (chasing bear poachers). We chase a shady-looking guy (a Norwegian comedian who I thought looked a little like Michael Gambon) and, twenty-minutes into the movie, during the first shaky-cam scare, we see a troll in full night vision. No hiding behind things or shaky cameras. He’s just… there. At first I was disappointed. Jon Landis has always said that he wished he’d shown less  of the wolf in his seminal An American Werewolf in London.

That said, though, the tone of the film changes completely. Rather than a thing out to scare us with glimpses of poorly-shot monster, we’re now on what seems to be a real-life hunt. We are confronted by the troll-related bureaucrats trying to cover things up, and the cheerful Polish immigrants they employ to do so. The troll hunter is miserable and rebellious, while the film-makers go from cynical outsiders to his ignorant allies. The trolls are often quite cute, and look a lot like the traditional images of Norwegian folk law.

Particular highlights include shots of the beautiful Northern European landscape, the sometimes tear-jerkings stories of the troll hunter himself, and the sense that if you sing hymns loud enough in deepest, darkest Norway you might just get eaten.

The movie develops an intriguing back story, makes a few barbs at Norwegian administration and allows us to see that vampires aren’t the only ones who still have that Hollywood magic.

One depressing piece of news, that I don’t entirely understand, is that an American production company have bought the rights to remake it. Now, I’m not a movie snob, but I don’t see why it needs to be made. Troll hunter is perfectly watchable to an English-speaker. Sure, most of the dialogue is in Norwegian, but surely that adds to the authenticity of the “found footage” model? I will see the remake, if it ever happens, but I honestly don’t see it being better than this charming, heart-wrenching and beautifully shot original.

 

Final thought: