Tag Archives: science fiction

Bizzaro Book Review: The Abyss Above Us by Ryan Notch

Many times when I set out to write one of these reviews I worry about how it’s going to impact you guys at the other end. I’m a critical kind of reader, someone who obsesses with stories and how they could be made better. So naturally, its exceedingly rare that I’m going to gush about a story without saying something negative.

That said, I want you all to understand that these days I almost never write a review for a book that I wouldn’t recommend to someone else.

And there are times when the part of me that wants you to read the books I recommend really worries that the analytical part of me making its critiques and criticisms will convince you that they really aren’t worth your time or money. This is one of those times.

The Abyss Above Us has its flaws; and you should read it anyway.

I suppose I should say right from the get go that this is a nerd’s book. That is neither criticism nor praise, by the way. It just is. There is jargon in this book, abstract concepts, references to computer programming and black hat hackers, and — to top it all off — a throwaway reference to the idea that beautiful women only want to date jerks. And yet somehow very little of that gets in the way of the actual story. If you get the computer programming and networking references, great; if not, there’s plenty here to keep your interest. I like to think that I’m a reasonably intelligent individual and even I wasn’t able to follow some of the jargon and technical talk.

That said, it never came across as talking down to the reader. Much like the unbelievably convoluted time travel film Primer you don’t actually have to be able to understand what the characters are talking about, to understand what’s happening. And rather than take away from the story, the use of jargon adds a gripping air of authenticity to the tale.

The tale is this: a young IT professional named Shaw is called in to solve a problem with the local university’s radio telescope. As it turns out the ancient computer network that runs the telescope overrides the whatever the equipment is supposed to be doing every night at one in the morning and points it at the same seemingly random patch of sky. Only it turns out there’s something special about this particular patch of sky: it is dark, utterly devoid of stars or anything else.

Our intrepid IT hero traces the problem through the network until he discovers something amazing. A room with a single computer inside, walled up for years, a thick matt of black hairy mold growing over every surface in the room. And every night at one in the morning, the computer receives a signal from that dark point in space.

The signal becomes the focus of interest among the astronomers and scientists at the college, all of them enthralled by its strange sound, a sound that resonates just on the edge of understanding. And then…

Well I don’t want to spoil too much for you. But suffice it to say that what I just described was only the opening of this story. It gets weirder. Lots weirder.

The greatest strength of The Abyss Above Us is the way it maintains a sense of mystery. There is almost never a moment in which the reader is not compelled to ask himself, “Yes, but what happens next?” I’ve come to believe that mystery is the greatest driving force of fiction — weirdly enough the stories that get this wrong most often are actual mysteries — and it’s clear that Ryan Notch gets it.

Now for the bad. I haven’t mentioned up until this point that this is a self-published book. And I’m only mentioning it now because the problems The Abyss Above Us has aren’t problems that most traditionally published books have to deal with.

For one thing: typos. Now let me moderate that. There aren’t misspelled words on every page, okay? I will not put up with that kind of laziness. It’s clear the author worked hard to make his work look professional. Unfortunately it’s also clear that he didn’t know the difference between the spelling of “dying” and “dyeing”. He gets that one wrong literally every time, and in a story where characters dye left and right it got to the point where I was joking with myself about how this story should have been set in a textile processing plant. That’s not the only mistake, just the most prevalent, and it’s a great example of why authors need competent beta-readers. We all make mistakes. An extra set of eyes never hurts.

The second issue I had with The Abyss Above Us is more fundamental. The first half of the book is phenomenal, but later, particularly the latter part of the second act, the story starts to feel repetitive. More than that, I almost got the feeling that the author was beginning to get tired of the story at that point. The prose grows weaker, “be” verbs water down sentences, the whole thing has this sense of sagging. That’s the best way I know how to put it.

And again, a another pair of eyes could have helped. A decent editor could have helped the author tighten up those sagging sentences, and break up the monotony the plot falls into near the end of the second act.

I want to reiterate: you should read this book. It’s not perfect, no, but it’s fresh and compelling, in spite of any faults it may have. It blends science fiction and horror beautifully, pulling the best traits of both genres together in a way that I’ve seen very few stories pull off.

In the off-chance that Ryan Notch should happen to read this review let me just say, “Dude, “dying” =/= “dyeing”. Do a find/replace and you’re golden on, like, 90% of your typo issues.

The rest of you, go buy The Abyss Above Us. Seriously. It’s awesome.

From the Mail Bag (Sort of): On Description

Last week, you may remember, I made this post about minimalism in writing, particularly in the area of description and information.

In response to that post one reader, Alex Keir, posed this question:

“Is it not the job of the author to paint a picture? I think we can all agree that genre subjects, science fiction, fantasy, etc., and specialized genre, spies, wall street, political, etc., all require additional description to bring the reader into the world.”

Mr. Keir (I realize Alex could also be a girl’s name, but I’m choosing to assume the masculine here, because frankly there ain’t enough dudes in this writing game) went on to share the concern that keeping descriptions to a minimum is really a symptom of our TV junky society, trying to dumb things down as much as possible.

I answer to both of these concerns, I’ve decided to elaborate a bit more on my original post.

It is true that some worlds require more description than others. For instance, me and Ellie Soderstrom just finished the first draft of a steampunk/fantasy novel in which there are clockwork robots and insectile aliens in addition to several other quirks of setting.

Clearly, those things are going to need a fair amount of description if the reader is going to fully understand what is happening in our story. But even so there’s a very real danger in doing this wrong.

For instance the alien species first appears during “hook” of our book, the first action scene that really lets the reader know they’re in for an exciting ride. But to stop in the middle of the chase scene to describe the sun glinting off the gleam on the alien’s shell, to describe the horror of it’s multifaceted eyes, to paint every hair-like bristle on their multi-segmented arms in the reader’s mind and…

Hey, where did you go? I’m making a point here. Okay, where was I? Oh, yes. We want to give the reader a few details to give them the impression of what our protagonist is facing, but we don’t wont to overload the action with description.

Why? Because reading a book isn’t like watching a movie. The visuals aren’t the important part. Most people won’t even notice when they’re missing. In fact there are stories built around this “blind spot”, seemingly normal scenes that are only revealed to be abnormal through the revelation of previously unknown details.

You can’t do a scene in a movie where the two men talking about trying to keep an animal alive in a zoo turn out to be aliens talking about a human child. But in print you can totally get away with that stuff.

I’m not saying you should do that. I’m merely making a point. Before you explicitly state some detail about a scene, your reader is already making assumptions.

And that is exactly what you as a writer want. Because the world the reader will build in their own head will be far more elaborate and detailed than anything you can describe on paper.

The purpose of description is not to tell the reader everything about your world, but rather to give them a nudge in the right direction, so that they can create the world for themselves. After all if they’re just sitting there, might as well put them to work right?

And don’t dump it all in their lap at one go if you can help it. Remember, little details go a long way toward making your world seem more real. Scatter little tidbits of world-building throughout your story, and build on the details you’ve established already. That way your descriptions won’t become ponderous paragraphs of story-stopping information, but instead they will arise organically from the flow of the story.

Remember, description is like salt.

It can bring wonderful taste to your cooking. But if it becomes the main ingredient you might want to check your recipe.

How I Got Screwed Up (And You Can Too!)

I still remember the day I found out about short stories. I was in the kid’s section of the Milton Public Library and I found a book called Bug Awful in a series called Science Fiction Shorts, edited by Issac Asimov.

Science Fiction Shorts was apparently Asimov’s attempt to drive the children of the world stark raving mad by tricking them into reading truly unnerving stories, stories clearly written by adults for adults.

Your parents would look at the book and say, “Oh how sweet, it has pictures in it. Nothing could possibly be wrong with such a wholesome format as a picture book.”

But when I opened that book, when I gazed upon those words…

The first story was called “Mimic.” It started out with an explanation of how insects protect themselves by the mimicry of their predators. And who could be a greater predator than man himself? The story went on to detail how one such insect, a bug with a human face and a carapace that looked like a long overcoat lived in a neighborhood for years until one day until one day the tenants in his apartment complex found him in his death throes, giving birth to thousands of tiny suit wearing bugs that flew off into the night.

You know, FOR KIDS!

It was disgusting. It was terrifying.

And I loved it.

After that I started to seek out these kinds of stories, short, unnerving, and almost always with a twist at the end. For me short stories weren’t just another kind of fiction. They were a revelation.

Because short stories had something that none of the books I had read up until that point had. Downer endings. There was no requirement that a short story end on an up note, no law that said the good guys had to win over the bad guys. And more often than not these types of stories reveled in the negative, affecting the reader through their darkness rather than light.

And anyone who’s read my fiction can attest that I’m still in love with the downer ending. I’m not sure why. I think it might have something to do with the fact that when you don’t give the reader what they want the story lives on for them, gnawing at the back of their minds, making them wonder if they could have found a way out of the labyrinth of misery my characters had navigated.

Or possibly it’s because I’m just a sick puppy.

I don’t know. All I do know is that of all the wonderful things my recent collaboration with Ellie Soderstrom has brought about, the one real point of contention between us is the ending. For some reason she stubbornly refuses to let me leave our protagonists mired in an inescapable pit of despair.

Personally I think it’s a girl thing.

How about you? Do you like to see your stories end with honey, joy and light? Or do you, like me, require a little bitter to go with your sweet?

P.S. Also, if you encountered Bug Awful or any of the other Science Fiction Shorts books, please share your experience in the comments. These were really fantastic books, and they appear to be out of print and somewhat rare. I’m going to have to snap up some used copies for my future kids.

A Clockwork Avacado

 

I love Guillermo Del Toro.  I won’t be talking about him much this post, mostly because I can’t spell his name to save my life, but he’s an amazing dude.  Why do I hold Del Torro in such high regard?  Well a lot of reasons really.  The man understands stories, and character.  He understands how to meld fantasy and reality in a believable way.  He’s a got a wonderful visual style that gives you just a hint that the world of his movies isn’t quite the same world we live in.  But mostly, it’s because the man loves gears.

Yes, gears.  There aren’t nearly enough of them around anymore.  The gear has become something of an endangered species, an animal which has been banished to the bowels of big machinery and occasionally used for decoration in clocks that no longer require them.  In fact I saw a clock the other day that had gears just glued on to it behind the hands.  Can you imagine?  The sacrilege!

For me, the gear represents a era of history when things were simpler.  You will notice I didn’t say better.  I am not one to wish to be able to live in a different century.  I’m fine right when I am thank you very much.  But even so, there is a part of me that has a strange affinity for the mechanical things of the age before electricity, things that ticked and tocked and bonged out the time.

I recently had a conversation with a man who believed that the steampunk genre, was a reaction to mankind’s uncertainty about his future.  If you’re not familiar with steampunk, it’s basically science fiction set in the age before science fiction, in the heyday of steam power and electrical exploration.  And, of course, gears feature prominently.

My first reaction to this man’s claim was complete denial.  Steampunk doesn’t need some deep seated psycological reason to be cool.  It’s just cool.  Can’t we leave it at that?  But then, two things happened.

First, I was shopping at the thrift store, and I found one of those aniversery clocks.  You know the kind with the thing that spins around back and forth on the bottom?  Only most of the ones you see today just have the spinning thing for effect.  But this one was old and covered in dust, and when I whiped the glass of the bell with my sleeve and peered inside, I saw it was one-hundred percent mechanical.  And for a price of only twenty dollars? Jackpot!

The second thing that happened came a couple of weeks later at Christmas.  I wasn’t expecting much for Christmas last year.  I didn’t think there was much I really had to have.  But when I opened a small box from my father I found it contained something better than any gift I could have hoped to ask for.  It was a pocket watch.

“I think it belonged to your great-grandfather,” dad told me. “Possibly your great-great-grandfather.  The history’s a little fuzzy.”

It was, hands down, bar none, the coolest Christmas gift I have ever received.  I keep it on my nightstand by my bed and wind it up approximately twice a day.  It’s too old for me to feel safe bringing it with me anywhere, but every night before bed I pop open the little hinged cover to look down at the delicate hands, and hold it up to my ear to listen to the musical sound of its ticking.

And it was some time around then when I started thinking again about the conversation I had had about the popularity of steampunk.  I still thing the guy I was discussing it with was wrong, but he was less wrong than I was.  He said that steampunk plays on our uncertainty about the future.  But the more that I think about it, the more I think that the fascination many people have with gears and steam is driven by an uncertainty about the present.

Think about it.  Think about where you are right now.  No, not your physical location.  Think about the fact that you’re sitting in front of your computer peering into it’s softly glowing screen.  Do you understand this computer thing? I’m not asking if you know how to use it, I’m asking if you understand how it works.

No.  You don’t.  I don’t care if you’re a expert in computer science with years of programming experience, you’ll never convince me that you have a top-level overview understanding of this magical box we call a computer.  And our lives are filled with this kind of stuff.  Stuff that works, but that we can’t possibly hope to understand.  We take it at faith that these things will go on working, but we’re disconnected from the mechanics of the whole thing by the necessity of our limited understanding.

But when we go back to the devices of a hundred years ago things are different.  Now we can pry off the casing and look into the bowels of the machine and say, “That thing connects to that thing, and this thing over here spins which causes…”

That is why I love clockwork so much.  Because it’s something I can understand.  I can connect to it with my mind, in a way that I will never be able to connect with my computer, or my cell phone, or even those dime-a-dozen digital clocks that have supplanted the less accurate gear-driven watches of the past.

Arthur C. Clarke famously once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Today, I would argue that the magic is here.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Because these magical machines have opened up doors we could never have dreamed of without them.  But while the digital age may be amazing and wonderful, there will always be a part of me that pines for the comprehensible curiosities of clockwork.

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[If you’re wondering what happened to your regularly scheduled writing blog, Do Not Panic.  It will return on Monday.  For the time being, I am designating weekends as “whatever I feel like” days, so the topics will be a little more varied. Thanks for reading.]

A Miserable Success

I’ve just written a new short story called, “A Miserable Success.”  In this story, I experimented with using nothing but dialog to convey the plot. The story is told as a series of dinner conversations between a man and his wife, each successive bringing us to a different point in their history.  You can read it here.  Let me know what you think.