Harrison Re-Read: Make Room! Make Room!

Make Room! Make Room!
by Harry Harrison
ISBN-13: 978-0765318855
Amazon: Paperback | Kindle
Goodreads | LibraryThing

Cover by Alan Aldridge.

 

Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is a classic look at overpopulation in crowded cities, so of course it makes sense that I would look to it for some inspiration in regards to my own story of an overcrowded world, The Only City Left. Make Room!x2 was written in 1966 and takes place in 1999, where no one is partying because there’s barely enough food, water, and space to survive, much less dance with Prince.

As in The Caves of Steel, New York is used here as the ideal City (in the Platonic sense, not the “I’d want to live there” sense). Life in this New York is miserable and crowded, with none of the amenities of far-future technology: “There was nothing to do, no place to go, the city pressed in around him and every square foot of it was like this, filled with people, children, noise, heat.”

Also similar to The Caves of Steel, Make Room!x2 (sort of) revolves around a murder.

Detective Andy Rusch is barely scraping by, sharing a small apartment with his elderly roommate, Sol, who has lived long enough to know just what he’s missing. Andy, like the rest of the cops, is overworked, and underpaid. Most crimes go unsolved because the police don’t have the time to follow up on them, but when Big Mike O’Brien is killed, political pressure is applied to make sure this case is solved.

Possible spoilers from here on out. You have been warned.

While Make Room! Make Room! is an interesting, if very depressing, look at the perils of overpopulation, it’s a bit disjointed as far as the story goes. It’s a murder mystery but not really, as the focus is only intermittently on Andy solving the crime. Instead the story jumps around from Andy to street rat Billy Chung to O’Brien’s ex-moll Shirl Greene, and to Sol, Andy’s roommate, never sticking to one point of view to any satisfying conclusion.

The characters are there to provide a look at life in New York City, and that life is horrible unless you’re into organized crime or politics (between which there is a very thin line if there is one at all). Each character has bleak, wandering story in which they are barely in control of their own existence, impotent in their endeavors, enjoying only meager and temporary successes.

No matter how well Andy does his job, he only gets crap from his boss, more assignments, and in trouble with Shirl. Shirl, for her part, is more than willing to live in poverty with Andy, but he is so caught up in his job that he ignores her to the point she must abandon him. Billy Chung resorts to crime to improve his life, ends up murdering Big Mike and fleeing without any valuables, and wanders around for the rest of the story until he dies resisting arrest. And Sol is fine until he gets fed up enough to march in protest and ends up breaking his hip and passing away for lack of proper medical care.

While this all adds to the feeling of dread and uselessness that underpins the story, which I’m sure is the point, the story is tough to read. It ends with Andy bumped back down to beat cop, completely unfairly, and the population only growing, growing, growing.

Towards the end of the book, Andy’s roommate Sol gives a long speech about overpopulation, religion, and the lack of political will to fix the world’s problems. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but the damnable thing is that it is as true today as it was when Harrison wrote the book. We might have passed by 1999 without a problem, but there’s no indication that we’re not simply kicking the world of Make Room! Make Room! down the road a bit. 2050? 2099? Who knows.

It’s a classic book, and it definitely informs the history of my far-future Earth in The Only City Left, but having read it twice now, I think it’s one I will retire from my re-read list. I can watch the news to be this depressed, but for my fiction I’d prefer a little more adventure to go with my social commentary.

Note: Although the movie Soylent Green is based on Make Room! Make Room!, there is no plot in the book about people being turned into food. Soylent steaks are mentioned but they’re only fake steaks made of soybeans and lentils.

Pro-Lithic Ramblings: 8/16/12

It’s been a while since my last post but I can say I have spent the time well and I am feeling refreshed. So what’s new? Well for one I have a short story coming out in Electric Spec at the end of this month, called False Negative. There are some kind words about it from editor Lesley Smith here. Needless to say, I’m pretty happy about that. Also, I’m back to work on The Only City Left parts 31 and up and I’m quite excited about that as well. Besides those (and other) writing projects, I have also been reading a lot of short stories to get into the short story mindset, and I’ve managed to read a few novels and discover a few new-to-me webcomics, too. Here’s a sampling.

Tales of the Emerald Serpent (Shared World Anthology)

I grew up reading a lot of books (surprise!), and some of my favorites were the Thieves’ World books, edited by Robert Lynn Asprin and later him and Lynn Abbey together. Not only were the stories full of swords-and-sorcery fun, the characters that each author brought to the book would sometimes pop up in the other authors’ stories, and there was an overarching plot that all the writers were working to build together. I loved it.

So when I saw a Kickstarter for Tales of the Emerald Serpent that promised to revive the old-school shared world anthology model, it was an easy decision to pledge for an e-book so I could at least check it out. How to judge a new shared world, though, against my glowing memories of books I hadn’t read in years? I would be happy if the book had: 1) an interwoven, overarching plot; 2) fun swords-and-sorcery stories with characters that I found intriguing; and 3) an interesting setting. Tales of the Emerald Serpent met my criteria and managed to surprise and impress me along the way. Here’s why.

Thieves’ World had the city of Sanctuary, an outpost city that contained a dangerous ghetto called the Maze. Emerald Serpent has Taux, a stone-carved city whose previous inhabitants fell prey to some Lovecraftian doom, leaving an empty but cursed city behind which was eventually reinhabited by those willing to risk life in a city whose very stones whisper curses at them. As settings go, it has great story potential and it feels well-realized. While this first volume focuses on the Maze-like Black Gate district, there are hints of other parts of the city that I hope will be fleshed out more in another volume, like the Wizards’ Tower.

The characters are a nice mix of scoundrels, mages, and fighters of various races, and in this universe different races have access to different elemental magic to a greater or lesser degree. I can easily say that I would be happy to read about all the main characters again, which goes along with my opinion that all the stories in this first volume are well-done. Standouts for me include editor Scott Taylor’s story “Charlatan,” for the sheer bravado of its main character, Savino; “Water Remembers” by Julie E. Czerneda, for crafting a story that works well in itself but that also left me wanting to find out what happened before the story began and what happens next; and “The One Thing You Can Never Trust” by Harry Connolly, for creating an unlikely action hero in Emil Lacosta, a mage who specializes in love potions. Talk about the power of love, Emil has it and he’s not afraid to use it, to deadly effect.

Those stories were great, but like I said, all the stories were good. The surprising part for me was how well woven together they were, too. I went into the book expecting the events in each story to follow the events of the one before it, and it took me a while to realize that the stories jump around in time quite a bit. Once I realized that, I also noticed how they fit together like intricate puzzle pieces, and by the end of the book I wanted to re-read the whole thing now that I “got it,” like when you got to the end of the Sixth Sense for the first time and wanted to immediately re-watch it. (I didn’t re-read it, though. Too much to do!)

If you like dueling swordsmen (and -women), magic-filled action and adventure, love both true and enchanted, and stories that work on their own and as part of a shared whole, get thee hence and pick up a copy of Tales of the Emerald Serpent. What Scott and the involved writers have accomplished is not only a solid shared-world book, but stories and characters that call out for a sequel. Here’s to a new era of shared worlds!

Requiem in the Key of Prose (short story)

Here’s your assignment: Write a gripping, touching science-fiction short story that is also a primer on a variety of writing techniques such as first person, present tense, flashback, metaphor, etc. Go ahead. It’s not that easy, is it? But Jake Kerr manages it quite deftly in the July 2012 issue of Lightspeed Magazine with his short story, “Requiem in the Key of Prose.” Kerr manages to speedily set up a world in which the Earth’s atmosphere has become unbreathable, forcing cities to dome themselves off and create their own oxygen. Into that setting enter Adam and Violet, a young couple who become inextricably tied up with ensuring the continued working of one dome city.

I was impressed with the speed and clarity with which Kerr sets up the world, Adam and Violet’s relationship, and the central conflict, and also how each segment of the story is a lesson in a specific writing techniques, without feeling at all pedantic. But don’t take my word for it. At less than 2500 words, this is a quick read I can recommend to even the most casual of readers.

The Adventures of Athena Wheatley (long-form webcomic)

The full title of this reality-skewing, time-traveling, gender-bending webcomic by Sylvan Migdal is The Adventures of Athena Wheatley, or, Warp & Weft; A Graphic Novel. I would describe it as The Time Machine meets Futurama by way of the sexual revolution, but that doesn’t really capture the fun and lunacy of this webcomic.

In the first three panels, a large piece of an Earth-like planet is shaved off from the rest of the planet by some mysterious force. (Maybe it’s the Earth in the future… the landmasses look different and there are two moons, but, well, anything is possible, as we later discover.) Anyway, in the aftermath of this apocalyptic event, we meet super-physicist Athena Wheatley, who is struck in the head by a protester’s rock and wakes up in the year 1841, where she runs a clock shop and, oh yeah, has a time machine in her basement.

So is the vision of the future we saw a true one, or is it all in Athena’s dreams? The answer is unclear because when Athena does travel to the future, it doesn’t look like the one she was dreaming about. The story shifts back and forth between realities as we are introduced to the evil Dr. Moultrie (you know he’s evil because not only does he steal Athena’s journal and claim credit for her work, but he eats some of her cheese and wipes his hands on her curtains, the fiend), an artist named Dave, an edutainment bot with wings named Twan, and a spaceship full of earth cheese, to name a few of the major players so far.

I may not understand what’s going on all the time, but the future world(s?) Athena adventures through are ridiculous and entertaining, and with the evil Dr. Moultrie on her trail and a planet sliced nearly in half, there is definitely an element of danger and tension that keeps the story from being merely a travelogue of future insanity. This is one webcomic that once I found it, I could not stop reading until I had caught up on it, so if you haven’t already, I recommend you go check it out. One caveat: if you’re put off by cartoon nudity and sexually explicit situations, you might want to stay away. The future (or at least one of them) is full of the stuff.

Review: 2312

You may remember that a while back I was excited to start reading 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) the moment it came out. I started it on May 22nd, and finished it on July 6th. One-and-a-half months. I do not take that long to read books, but with 2312 I had to put it down a little over halfway through because I was just not that into it.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” I told the book before letting it languish in the recesses of my Kindle, but like most everyone who uses that line, it was a half-truth at best.

You see, 2312 starts off well enough, with the Mercurian artist Swan er Hong dealing with the death of her beloved grandmother, Alex. As it turns out, Alex was a leader in the politics of the solar system, and her death may not have been natural. Enter inspector Jean Genette, a pint-sized human known as a ‘small,’ and Fitz Wahram, a roundish, toad-like human from Titan, who both are curious to know if Alex left Swan any information to pass along to them. Alex would not have used the network of artificial intelligences, or qubes, to pass along the information, because she and others are not sure anymore if they can trust that the qubes are working for humanity or for their own purposes.

I had high hopes for the book based on that premise, and back on 5/25/12, when I was about 10% in, I wrote, “I have trouble getting my head around some of the science, but it is balanced with interesting characters and a mystery to pull me past the parts that make my brain melt.” Unfortunately, the book turned up the power on the brain-melt ray after that and the plot became lost amidst a travelogue of the solar system. In the year 2312, we find, humans have spread throughout the system and genetically modified themselves as needed to fit each area’s niche (or just for the sake of it, I guess). You have the aforementioned smalls, who are about a third the size of a “normal” human, toad-like beings who live near Saturn, and relatively Earth-normal humans like Swan who nevertheless are both male and female and may have several genetic modifications made to their bodies for adaptive or cosmetic reasons.

There are also many wondrous settings to explore: hollowed-out asteroids that float between the planets, a flooded Manhattan, space elevators, and a rolling city that circumnavigates Mercury, to name a few. But as KSR geeks out on all the neat things we’ll be able to do to our bodies and environment in the future, he neglects to move the plot along for large swaths of the novel. I needed a lot less observations on how people live in crafted worlds and have sex in endless variations and more focus on characters and plot.

For much of the book, though, we only touch on moments in the lives of Swan, Wahram, and Genette, moving the plot forward minutely, while the large chunks of the book around each of these moments are as drowned in poetic language and techno-speak as future Manhattan is in water. I also found it too convenient that, while on Earth, Swan befriends an Earth native named Kiran who she rescues from poverty on Earth and deposits with friends on Venus, where he ends up discovering crucial information to move the plot along.

Add to all this a series of connective chapters that are “Extracts” and “Lists” that felt like a chore to read and which I only skimmed through past a certain point, and it slowed my reading speed down considerably, as nothing was pulling me forward. This would be when I stopped reading 2312 for an entire month, at about the 60% point of the book.

A couple of days ago, I picked 2312 back up to see if I could get through the rest; I hate leaving books unfinished. Lo and behold, the last third (roughly) of the book was much more plot- and character-focused. While it still didn’t have the satisfying thrill and pull of, say, KSR’s Mars trilogy, it moved a lot faster and at least provided an answer to the main mystery in the book and some character growth.

Maybe I am judging 2312 unfairly against some idealized memory of the Mars Trilogy, but in my mind at least, the Mars books were full of characters I cared about (whether I was rooting for or against them), with exciting and relatable science and politics thrown in. With 2312, even if I began to care about Swan or Wahram, the focus jumped around so much, and the places were given just as much emphasis as the characters (or more, usually), that I couldn’t nestle into the character’s minds and get to know them enough to care what happened to them next.

I feel like KSR wanted this book to be a piece of art more than one of fiction. He paints the world of 2312 vividly and in great detail, but there was not enough story woven through that world for me to want to explore it. It ended up being a bigger disappointment for being so highly anticipated.

Oh well, we’ll always have Mars.

Book Review: vN

So, I haven’t blogged in a while as I have been busy on other writing projects. However, I have some time, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on a book I enjoyed recently, vN by Madeline Ashby.

vN refers to “von Neumann-type humanoids,” but it might be easier to think of them as replicants (if you are at all familiar with Blade Runner, that is). vN is the story of one such replicant, Amy, who is thrust from childhood to adulthood in an instant (and oh what an instant!) and whose adventures in the great wide world make up the majority of the book.

Let me back up, though. The book’s prologue begins with a focus on her human “father,” Jack, and her mother, Charlotte. It was a little difficult for me to get into, with lots of information to digest about vNs and the near-future world that vN is set in. To summarize: Amy is a clone, or iteration, of Charlotte. She will eventually be an exact physical copy, but her parents are keeping her diet controlled to keep her growing at the same rate as a normal human child, which is a controversial decision. If Amy is given enough food, she would grow into her adult form almost immediately; to keep her child-like, her parents are sort of starving her.

So where did vNs come from in this world? The answer is kind of messed up. A religious zealot created them to remain on Earth after the rapture to serve the remaining humans and make their life easier. And “serve” is true in every sense. As one character explains to Amy later in the book: “That’s why you’ve got all the right holes and such. So people can indulge themselves without sin.” To ensure that vNs serve properly, they have a failsafe built in: if they see a human get hurt, they literally lose their mind and shut down. Not only that, this means that they have a built-in need to love humans and make them happy.

Yes, it is a bit sick and twisted, and much as in Blade Runner, this sets up vNs as second-class citizens, to be used and discarded as needed. Indeed, there are questions of whether or not vNs are even truly sentient, i.e., would they pass a Turing test? Jack is sure they would, but his vN wife Charlotte sometimes doubts that he is. Or is she programmed to express doubt to appear more sentient? Not even the vNs themselves are sure.

Once I got my head around the happenings in the prologue, I was able to read through the rest of the book much faster. The story is like the flip side of Blade Runner. Instead of being told from the bounty hunter’s point of view, we see the world through Amy’s eyes as she flees her hunters. Why is she being hunted? Well, it has to do with her grandmother, who is able to commit violent acts against humans. This means the built-in failsafe is not working for her, and if not for her, it might not be working for Amy either, since Amy belongs to the same clade as her grandmother. Understandably, the thought of a super-strong vN who can freely do violence to humans is something the human ruling class is fearful of, especially given the way vNs are treated.

vN is full of fantastic ideas and philosophical questions, which I enjoyed, but it is the plight of the all-too-human Amy which kept me reading in order to find out what would happen next. While vN is only Book One in The Machine Dynasty, I was satisfied with the book as a stand-alone novel (although I will definitely read any sequels). There were a few odd jumps from one scene to another in the book, but nothing I couldn’t figure out. If you like stories about artificial intelligence and  the question of what it means to be a person and a human, check out vN when it is released on 7/31/12.

Note: I received vN as an e-book Advanced Reading Copy from the publisher, Angry Robot Books. Why did I get an eARC? Long story short, after reading and enjoying a couple of other Angry Robot releases (Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Matt Forbeck’s Vegas Knights), I was exploring the Angry Robot website and found out about their Angry Robot Army, signed up, and was accepted. So here we are. Yes, I got the book for free. No, that doesn’t mean I am going to say I loved it if I didn’t, but in this case I actually liked vN a lot.

Webcomics Wednesday: 6/6/12

There are a lot of webcomics out there. I read ‘em, and if I like ‘em, they end up here. This week I’m talking about The Forgotten Order and Polar, plus: the return of Spacedock 7!

The Forgotten Order

The Forgotten Order, by Christy Morgan, is destined to be about “Trystan, a young witch who is dismal at best with magic …, [and] a cursed doll who escaped the madness of its design by way of dreaming.” The story starts not with Trystan, though, but with a Dreamer who adventures in the dream realms to try to forget about its curse and remember what it is like to be human again. Presumably, then, the Dreamer and the cursed doll are one and the same character.

I quite enjoyed this beginning. For one thing, dream realms hold a special fascination for me (see my reviews for Xander and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, for example), so I was happy to see that Christy was influenced by H.P. Lovecraft’s dream stories. But I also particularly liked how tragic the Dreamer’s story is. It has intrigued me and makes me want to find out who the Dreamer is, how and why they were cursed, and what can be done about it. If only someone in the comic might be able to help with that….

Enter Trystan, an object of pity for her weak magic and doormat personality, but something tells me she and the Dreamer might be perfect for each other. Along with Trystan comes an entirely new art style, more detailed, less fantastical. I like it in its own way, but I’m also glad to hear that the dream world will show up again at some point.

The Forgotten Order is still early in its story, so now is a perfect time to catch up and jump on board.

Polar

You may have heard of Dialogue-Free Comics Day, but how about a dialogue-free comic altogether? Polar, by Victor Santos, pulls off that trick quite nicely. It is the story of a Nick Fury-esque man who just wants to be left alone, but when a team of killers ambushes him, he realizes that his former masters will never leave him be, so he will have to take the fight to them.

Actually, except for the part where the main character reminds me of Nick Fury (he has an eye patch and he’s an expert marksman, that much is clear) and killers are after him, I made up the rest. That is what I found fascinating about Polar. While I could clearly see what was happening (which mostly involves people shooting each other), I found that without any dialogue or captions, I filled in the “why” myself, coming up with motivations and histories for the characters. The lack of dialogue meant that I took a more active role in the story-telling. That’s a neat trick.

The art itself is beautiful, using only black, white, and red to great effect in the style of Frank Miller’s Sin City but with more of a Mike Mignola feel. The action is almost always clearly delineated, as it should be since the story relies on the art alone. I could try to explain how effective Victor’s art is, but it speaks for itself, really. Check out this image for one example; I think I’ll make it my desktop image for a while.

The site navigation leaves a little to be desired. There’s no “First,” “Previous,” or “Next” buttons, so here’s the link to the first page to make it easier . Your best bet is to start there and then click on “Newer Post” on the left below each page. That minor inconvenience aside, I think this webcomic rocks. I can’t wait to find out/make up the rest of not-Nick’s story.

Spacedock 7

One of the first webcomics I read and reviewed when I started this blog was Cleopatra in Spaaaace! When I was looking for more science-fiction webcomics to read, I naturally followed the link from Cleo to the rest of the Spacedock 7 webcomics, only to find that they were mostly all defunct. Well, it looks like Spacedock 7 is back in action, now with James Anderson’s Ellie on Planet X as part of the science-fiction webcomic crew. I’m already caught up on Red’s Planet, Cleo, and Ellie; I guess I’ll have to catch up on the rest of the SD7 as well!

Here are the other members of the SD7 and their current status (so far as I can tell): Joel Carroll’s Topaz returns on Friday. Dani Jones’ My Sister, the FREAK re-started at the end of May. A new page of Otis Frampton’s Escape from Planet Nowhere showed up on Monday. And as for Katie Cook’s Gronk: A Monster’s Story, it looks like it never went away. I must have missed it before, but as I was glancing through it today, I saw this page about having a Philosophy degree. Yeowch! That burns. Now I have to read the whole thing to see if there are any other jokes that hit so close to home for me.

Quick Hits

Here are some pages from the webcomics I follow that I especially enjoyed this week: Howard Hughes showed up in The Adventures of the 19xx. Oliver faced off with Salvaro in Clockworks. Kick Girl proved that she’s never happy, even in flashbacks. Amya returned with an awesome cover to Chapter Four. Mizha’s looking pretty shattered over at Leylines. Modest Medusa started a Kickstarter for their Season 2 graphic novel. And finally, I’d talk about how fun Power Nap continues to be, but you wouldn’t be able to hear me over the deafening screams.

Up Next

Sunday: Part 17 of The Only City Left, my own SF/F serial action-adventure story. This is Allin’s darkest hour, so lend him your ear as he concludes the story of how his parents died.

Webcomics Wednesday: 5/23/12

I have two science-fiction webcomics to talk about today: Beardy Bastards and Red’s Planet.

Beardy Bastards

Beardy Bastards,  by T.E. “Teb” van Dijk and Jorine Houweling, pretty much had me at the idea of dwarves in a science-fiction setting. What can I say, I’m easy that way. Luckily, the series delivers on the promise of its premise. The story starts in the middle of a worst-case scenario: aliens are invading a mining outpost and have overrun all its defenses within hours. Thekki (pictured below) is the first dwarf we meet, and as you can see, he’s not taking this alien invasion lying down. He is one of the wise-cracking, tough-talking, hard-drinking dwarves who we will follow as they try to warn their superiors about this unexpected threat.

Beardy Bastards is almost 60 pages in and so far there has been plenty of humor, cool action sequences, some nice misdirection, the feeling of real peril for our main characters, and distinctive personalities for each member of the team. The group of dwarves reminds me of how well the colonial marines are fleshed out in Aliens (which is obviously a touchstone for this story). That’s another thing I like. The creators obviously have an appreciation for some classic SF movies like Aliens, Predator, and The Fifth Element. Sometimes it comes out in the comic itself, sometimes in Teb’s comments below the page. In any case, these shared references make the comic even more fun for me. That, and dwarves with flame-throwers. Can’t go wrong with that.

Red’s Planet

Red’s Planet, by Eddie Pittman, is the story of an orphan called Red (though she can’t stand that nickname), who runs away from her foster home and ends up in outer space. The art style here is very fun and cartoony, especially with all the alien races that we meet. (Check out this page from Chapter 2 (follow the link on the page for a hi-res image) to see a lot of alien and SF in-jokes (let’s play Where’s Han Solo!). I also enjoy the detailed touches on the more everyday parts of the story, like when Red takes her sweater off, it pulls her shirt up, too (don’t you hate when that happens?), or the way her sock flops over at the toes after she loses her shoe. It is Eddie’s keen eye for little details like this that make me pay close attention to each page to see what he has come up with.

I came across Red’s Planet once before but didn’t read it because it appeared to be left unfinished, so when I saw it was up and running again, I was happy to give it another shot and I’m glad I did. (More good news: another Spacedock 7 webcomic returns soon: Cleopatra in Spaaaace! on June 4th.) Red is a fun character and I am looking forward to following her adventures among the aliens.

Quick Hits

The Adventures of the 19XX: I never mind dinosaurs in my pulp fiction. Hmmm, someone should do a dinosaur version of Pulp Fiction.

Hunter Black: I like that the Divine Quintet are not all weapons. Each of these items could have a nice series of stories about its history.

LeyLines: The whole sequence leading up to this scene is great, but this page rocks (and it took me by surprise).

Battlepug: There is a history of cute, oversized animal monsters in Battlepug. Gil is no exception.

Up Next on Lithicbee

Fiction Friday: More of what I’ve been reading lately.

Sunday: The Only City Left Part 15, as Allin’s flashback to the time of his parents’ death continues.

The Only City Left: Behind The Scenes #1

Note: This post originally went live between Part 13 and Part 14.

Since this blog is supposed to be about the things I am interested/involved in at any given moment, today’s post is going to be about my own serial SF, The Only City Left.

When I re-started this blog, I set a goal of three posts a week, to push myself to write more and stay on a schedule. I started writing The Only City Left (TOCL) because I figured it would be a good way to take care of one of the three weekly posts.

I started the story with an idea, which was to have a fun, scary adventure through a future Earth where the entire planet is one gigantic layer-cake of a city. The setting would allow me to throw almost any fantasy or science-fiction element that I wanted into the mix. Fun would trump realism as needed. I knew that my main character, Allin, would be alone. Allin, alone, get it? Gosh, I amaze myself sometimes (not now, but sometimes). He would be in danger. And he would be trying to reach the surface of the city and see the Sun. Except for a list of all the cool things I would want in a story (sample: vampires, kung fu, robots), I had no particular outline of what would happen. I like to write this way, to discover the world and characters as I write.

I am now 13 Parts and 14,000 words or so in (Pt 13 was double-sized), with another 5,000 words in the buffer. And while I won’t say it has become more difficult to write TOCL, I will say that I am putting more care into it now. The story has come to life for me and I don’t want to give it short shrift.

So what does that mean for me? For one thing, I had to go back and do a thorough re-reading of my work recently, to take notes on the people and creatures who show up, the plot points that are hinted at, gadgets and technology that are mentioned, that sort of thing. I also discovered pieces of the story that didn’t make sense together. Yikes, only 14,000 words in and I’m contradicting myself already?

That’s okay, though (for me, at least). This is a first draft, for all that I am trying to make it a good one. So what kind of errors have I found? Here are a couple:

In Part 1, Allin narrates: “If I had a last name, I’ve forgotten it.” Ummmm, really? Later on, he is addressed by his first and last name and he doesn’t think, “So that’s my last name!” And it doesn’t make sense for him to have forgotten his last name, actually. It was fun to write at the time, but that little tidbit can and will be removed from later versions of the story.

Part 4: In the original flashback, it starts with Allin saying he was 13. This doesn’t make sense for many reasons, not the least of which is that his love for Tyena, while perhaps naive at 15, is a bit creepy and weird at 13. I’ve already changed this one on the website for any new readers who come along.

(I saw something today that made me feel better about my errors: On Peter F. Hamilton’s Facebook Wall today, he talks about an error that made it into the advanced reader’s proofs before being caught by a copy editor: “It’ll be interesting to see how many reviewers notice a minor character who gets decapitated then turns up driving a jeep a few scenes later.” Of course, his book is 1000+ pages long, but still…)

There are other items that I caught that I would not call errors so much as items that need to be explained at some point. For instance, the werewolf ghost that chases Allin interacts with his environment in a more physically destructive manner than other ghosts in the story, and he doesn’t pass through inanimate objects like the other ghosts. I’ll admit I didn’t really notice I was doing this at the time, but I have since come up with reasons for this and it actually dovetails amazingly well with the plot that is brewing. It is an example of what I like to call a “Thank you, subconscious” (TYS) moment. Yes, I do believe that sometimes my subconscious nudges me in one direction or another or outright inserts something into the story that I don’t think much about at the time, but which makes sense when I look back on it later.

With a little wiggle room going for me thanks to the 5-week buffer, I am starting to outline the “tentpole” moments in the story (a good piece of advice that Chuck Wendig recently tweeted); I am using note-cards and a bulletin board to put events in order (inspiration courtesy of Travis Kotzebue), and most importantly, I am figuring out how I want the story to end (good advice from one of my favorite comic book writers, Greg Pak). Yes, I started the story without knowing the ending. Shame on me.

Finally, I have been reading other serials on the web lately, and one of the ideas I am taking away from them is that a title banner for the story would be nice. I’m no artist, but here’s some concepts I scribbled today.

Letters as buildings, “O” as planet covered in buildings, “C” as crescent moon: 

Thin letters, “O” as planet covered in buildings, “C” as crescent moon: 

Small letters except for planet-city “O”, with crescent-moon “C” in orbit around the “O”: 

Just some ideas; not essential to the story but it might catch the eye more than the current wall of text.

Okay, so that’s a look into my TOCL-ized brain at the moment. I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you Sunday for Part 14 of The Only City Left!

The Only City Left: Part Eleven

Need to read Part Ten first? Please do. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Eleven

I allowed myself a second or two of panic and then called out, “Tumble?”

“One moment, young sir,” the cat called back from somewhere up ahead.

I closed my eyes and rested my head sideways on the bottom of the duct. The cool metal felt wonderful on my flushed cheek and I stayed like that until I heard the scamper of tiny feet approaching.

“Okay, the way is clear now. Please follow me,” Tumble said.

He stood hunched over, bent nearly in half, but he would not resort to walking on all fours, which I thought was kind of funny. Then I noticed that he had his gun in his left hand and my cocoon bag in his right.

“Anything I should be worried about?” I asked as I begin to pull and shimmy my way through the ventilation system.

Tumble stopped and looked back at me. “There are rats in here the size of, well, me. Nasty creatures, I assure you. Since you barely fit in here”—Did he have to remind me?—“I had to disable a few traps along the way that you can’t maneuver around.”

He continued on a few steps and then looked back at me over his shoulder.

“I’m almost certain I remembered them all.”

He chuckled a raspy feline laugh and proceeded forward.

“Cat humor,” I replied. “Now my day is complete.”

This made Tumble laugh all the harder.

I blinked stinging sweat from my eyes. Whether it was from my fever, the exercise, or the tight fear at the back of my throat when I imagined becoming stuck in the duct, I didn’t dare dwell on it.

The journey was interminable and Tumble had certainly lied when he claimed it would only take a short while.

After seeming miles of conduits, some terrifying chimney climbs up vertical shafts, and a close call with a rat who sunk his teeth into Tumble’s shoulder before he could bring his gun to bear on it—(“On the plus side,” Tumble told me, proudly holding up the two-foot long rat by its tail. “Dinner!”)—we exited the ventilation system.

I unceremoniously slid out onto the floor, barely able to catch myself, and took some time to lie there, luxuriating in the freedom to move my arms and legs about and not hit anything except the floor. I had spent entirely too much time today in shafts, tunnels, and ductwork; I vowed to stay away from tight spaces for at least a week unless my life depended on it.

“Come now, friend, we are almost there,” Tumble interrupted my reverie.

“Like it was only a ‘short while’ to get here?” I groused.

“No, this time it is truly nearby, so make yourself presentable. You will soon be in the presence of His Illustriousness, He Whose Claws Can Slice Air Itself, The Most—”

I took advantage of the lengthy list of honorifics to get to my feet. Weary and woozy, I had to lean against the wall for support. Seeing me like that, Tumble cut himself off.

“Come, the sooner you are presented at court, the sooner you can rest and recover.”

He returned my cocoon bag and we were off again, but this time through corridors that felt decidedly more lived in than those I had frequented as of late. For one thing, they had power and light, so I turned off my coil and slid it into my shirt. For another, everything was clean. Most of the city I’d seen was grungy, run-down. Even the settlements I passed through were barely cleared of the debris of ages. Here, the walls were freshly painted, the carpet clean, and the air fresh. I mentioned as much to Tumble.

“And this is just the outer bailey!” he preened. “Wait ’til you see the real city! Ah-ha, here we are.”

We reached the end of a hallway and stood before a solid-looking metal door that was flanked by two gun-wielding cats, one jet black, the other calico. As we were expected, the guards did not put up a fuss but simply entered a code onto a keypad.

The door slid open silently for all its weight. These cats certainly had their tiny corner of the city running smoothly.

Tumble led me into a narrow, short hallway that I had to crouch-walk along to pass through. I noticed the thin openings regularly spaced along the walls and ceiling; murder holes. Either the cats were paranoid or they had more than just unusually large rats to worry about.

Once we were through a second gate at the far end, I could stand up again. Hands on my hips, I leaned back to give myself a good stretch and found my gaze traveling up, up, up.

The cat city filled a cavernous chamber whose upper reaches I could not make out. It had obviously been built on and around pre-existing old-world skyscrapers. The old city had been completely remade through the addition of myriad ramps and rooms that hung suspended between the existing buildings on massive strands of braided rope.

From far overhead, bright yellow light shone from an unseen but obviously artificial sun. The skyscrapers were tall, but not so tall as to make me believe I had reached the surface.

Tiny birds sang their songs as they dived and banked in and out of the cat-cradle city, and everywhere I looked, the bipedal cat-folk went about their business.

“Welcome to Pudlington,” Tumble announced proudly. “We hope you enjoy our hospitality for as long as you like.”

“How many cats live here?” I asked, jaw stuck open as I gaped at the sights.

“Not as many as there once were,” Tumble replied, his tone uncharacteristically dark.

I glanced down at him and grimaced. “That’s Earth in a nutshell, isn’t it?”

Tumble nodded and then did a full body shiver from head to tail.

“Enough of that,” he said, his tone boisterous once more. “The Emperor awaits!”

* * *

Meet the Emperor in Part Twelve, but take a gander below at my notes first, if you like.

4/29/12 News: I had fun writing Tumble’s lines (the one about “Dinner!” makes me laugh each time I read it) and I gave him a little more personality this week. Thanks to my cousin Gillian for saying she liked the little guy (and for reading each week!); it made me want to flesh him out more.

Why Pudlington as the name for the cat city, you may ask? No reason other than it sounded cute, and as much as the cats have sought to shed their past as domestic pets, their names are still very much influenced by their history as adorable companions for humans. It also makes me think of a tiny hamlet somewhere in the countryside, so… ironic, yeah.

I have been including little homages here and there in the story (besides the great big homage to Isaac Asimov’s Lije Bailey and Foundation novels). This week’s homage had to do with the unusually large rats. Can you name the movie this came from?

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Webcomics Wednesday: 4/4/12

Today I review two webcomics and some indie physical comic books that I picked up at WonderCon. If you are looking for more great webcomics, check out my Links page for all the comics I have reviewed so far. And if you’re into science fiction, check out my serial SF adventure, The Only City Left. Thanks!

Planet Pantheon

Last week I covered Hunter Black and this week I am reviewing Planet Pantheon, both of which are written by Justin Peniston. I hope he doesn’t think I’m stalking him. Correction: I hope he doesn’t realize I’m stalking him. Kidding aside, I really enjoyed Planet Pantheon, which is as different from Hunter Black as can be. I have been actively seeking a science-fiction webcomic in the mold of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers and while Planet Pantheon is not a space opera per se, the art style is exactly what I was looking for, a sort of classic science-fiction comic look, in this case provided by Michael Turda (artwork), Jacob Bascle (lettering/SFX), and Rainer Petter (colorist).

Planet Pantheon is still in its early days, about 20 pages in, but here is what I get from it so far. Alaric is a rogue who stumbles back into his father’s life just as dear old dad, Dr. Argus Abernathy, finds the lost birthplace of humanity, planet Earth. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Earth turns out to be a tad more populated than expected and it looks like it will be up to Alaric to save his dad’s bacon when landfall does not go well.

I like the father-son antagonism present in the comic. Alaric and Argus may be related but it is clear that they are two individual adults separated by time, distance, and attitude. And I cannot say enough about the art and visual story-telling. There are two pages in a row that are my favorite so far: the first showcases the retro-SF look I am really enjoying, while the five panels on the bottom of the second page tell a great story with only one word of dialogue.

I also have to share this page; it carries more emotional heft than anything I have read in a webcomic. It’s horrible but not gratuitous, as it gives you insight into one of the cultures in the comic. Obviously I don’t recommend reading it out of context, spoiler-wise, so be sure to catch up on Planet Pantheon first, but I couldn’t review this comic without mentioning such a strong scene.

Finally, the comic is called Planet Pantheon, so it should come as no surprise that there will be gods involved in the story, or at least people who worship them, and I am really digging the first set of worshippers we run into. Dare I hope for a larger clash of cultures/religions on this retro-future Earth? I think it’s almost guaranteed and I can’t wait to read it. Jump on board now while the comic is still in its early days.

Xander

Xander is a fun adventure through dream-land, written by Taylor Machnick with art by Ian Gibson. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am fascinated by dreams and I love a well-done story involving dreams. I spent one summer about a decade ago recording my dreams, reading about them, and working on lucid dreaming, and while I don’t have the time to repeat that experiment, it was pretty awesome. So a webcomic about a boy who becomes stuck in a lucid dream? Yes please.

The art is light and playful and very well done; it fits perfectly with an action/adventure story set in a fantastical dream world. The story could be a typical hero’s quest, but the main character, Xander, is likeable and excited by the possibilities of adventuring through dreamland, and this is infectious. In one scene he says, “So you’re giving me a quest? I have to cross the dream world, facing all kinds of danger along the way? And if I don’t make it fast enough, my own life will be in peril? Awesome!” It is a kind of knowing nod that this story has of course been done before, but who cares as long as it is fun and exciting.

Since anything can happen in dreams, the possibilities for story-telling are endless and could easily spiral off into the bizarre, but in this dream world, there are distinct locales each with their own story or theme, which keeps things under control. The different realms are populated with a number of interesting characters, from Sir Henry the knight, to the cyborg children of the City of the Future, to co-dreamer, goth girl Leila. And let’s not forget Xander’s unnamed dog, who is as cute as can be and also serves to point the way to the familiar First, Previous, Next, and Last comics.

This comic may resonate more with me due to my research into lucid dreams and love of dreams in general. I actually did a double-take because the small house on the hill on page 89 is very similar to a location I visited in my dreams more than once. Perhaps it is an archetypal dream location? (At any rate, the inside of the house was different.)

I am also curious to see if Xander’s lucid dreaming abilities come at any cost. I know that when I pulled off those sort of world-bending powers while lucid dreaming, it tended to wake me up, but Xander is stuck in the dream world, so can he work as much magic as he wants to? I think this may be discussed soon in the comic (as of this writing, it is up to page 92).

In the end, whether or not you have had these types of dreams, I think you’ll find Xander’s adventures fun and exciting, at turns light-hearted and foreboding, like any good night of dreaming.

WonderCon Comics

To wrap up my report of my day at WonderCon, I want to share some of the comics I picked up there. Once upon a time, I actually went to comic book conventions primarily for the comic books. Now that I am not as into collecting comics, I still like to stop by some tables and see what’s what in the world of independent comics.

One of the tables I approached was that of Committed Comics. The guys at the table were friendly and fun and did a good job of running down the comics they had on offer. I left with all three issues of a comic called Java!, which is a fun/silly action story about a future in which most of the world’s coffee supply has been tainted, causing the caffeine levels to be so high they are lethal. It falls upon the B.E.A.N. Force to protect the remaining, untainted supply of coffee. The heroine, Java, wears a caffeine patch to control her levels of caffeine, because if she has too much, she goes crazy with super-strength and fire-breathing. If it sounds ridiculous, it is, but that’s the fun of it. And as a coffee drinker who needs his cup in the morning to function, I appreciate the comic’s premise. The creative team is: Kensuke Okabayashi (creator/illustrator), Peter Palmiotti (inks), and Lee Stacy (digital colors).

Forever Freshman (and the Cunning Code Crackers of the Girl Network!) issue #1 is a black-and-white comic written by Ray Mendivil with art by Neil Segura. It is a comedic take on some clueless band geeks in high school who are look to the “girl network” for information on a new classmate, rather than talk to the girl herself. Think less “American Pie” and more “Li’l Archie” for this high school adventure.

I picked this one up because I can relate to being clueless about girls in high school and to support two guys who went the extra mile and made a comic book out of their (mis)adventures.

Wuvable Oaf #1 by Ed Luce… how can I describe this black-and-white comic? Let me just share the beginning of the book: Oaf is asleep in bed in all his hairy glory, surrounded by his cats. They proceed to give him a tongue bath and then a hairball assault. He wakes up, takes a shower, shaves off all his body hair and collects it in a box. With a grunt of effort, he regrows the hair in seconds. Then he uses the hair he collected as filling for little stuffed animals he has handmade, which he then sells to a store called “Debbie Does Dollies.”

It sounds crazy but it is a lot of fun. Wuvable Oaf, the man and the comic book, is weird, sweet, and funny. Of the comics I mentioned, I would have to say Wuvable Oaf is my favorite. I should note that it is probably for mature audiences only due to sexual situations, but there is nothing truly graphic in here.

One final note: The Five Ghosts Kickstarter is well over its goal, but I wanted to mention it again. The art looks great and the premise is pure awesome. Here is the synopsis: “Five Ghosts follows the story of Fabian Gray, an infamous 1930’s treasure hunter who makes a living seeking out rare items for private clients. After an encounter with a strange artifact known as “the dreamstone,” Fabian finds himself possessed by five literary ghosts (Merlin, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Musashi, and Dracula) and is granted access to their unique abilities.  These powers have come at a price, however: the dreamstone consumed the soul of Fabian’s closest ally, his twin sister, and has left her in a lifeless coma.  Fabian now tirelessly travels the globe searching for a “cure” for her condition while trying to control his own ghostly affliction.”

I recommend getting in on this Kickstarter while the getting is good!

The Only City Left: Part Seven

Read Part Six first if you need to. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Seven

We trudged through utility corridors for at least half an hour before I worked up the courage to ask my parents, “What did you mean earlier? About someone being on to us. Did you do something bad?”

Without stopping or looking back, Dad replied, “Never mind, Allin. It’s none of your concern.”

“I think it is,” I surprised myself by saying. It must have surprised Dad, too, because he stopped in his tracks and swung around to face me.

His face looked angrier than I had ever seen it before. Instinctively I flinched and stepped back, expecting to be hit even though Dad had never and would never do such a thing. Mom put a hand on his arm, lightly, and he seemed to deflate a little bit. I took that as an opening.

“I have friends back in Glin’s Rising,” I said. “If you stole something from them….”

I trailed off as Dad’s face changed from angry to weary. He looked to Mom, they shared some of that telepathic adult-speak that was all glances and subtle nods, and he turned back to me.

“Let’s sit down, we’ll talk about it.”

We loosened our packs and sat uncomfortably against the assorted pipes that ran along both walls.

“First, we didn’t do anything to the folks back at Glin’s Rising, okay? That’s not who your mother and I are concerned about.”

I nodded, already relieved, but eager to hear where this was going.

“I’m sure you’ve wondered why we keep moving, why we can’t settle down someplace like Glin’s and just live out our days farming. Fact is, even though there’s not a lot of people left in the city, there’s still people out there who just want to destroy life when they find it. We, we got on the bad side of some of those people and now they won’t leave us alone.”

“So why can’t we fight them, pick a place, set up some traps, and take ’em down?” I asked.

“It’s not that easy, Allin,” Mom cut in. “They’re dangerous. Very. And there’s more of them than there are of us. Your father and I know what we’re doing. Trust us.”

“Dangerous?” I squeaked. “So you’re saying these very dangerous people are following us, and we’re leading them through town after town? What happens after we leave? Did you even warn the Glinites?”

My voice rose higher and higher as realization set in. In my mind’s eye I saw Tyena running toward me, waving. Was she running toward me, or away from someone else? I jumped up and slung my backpack over my shoulders, and Mom and Dad stood up, too.

“Allin, we have to focus on our family. Everyone else is on their own.”

His words were like an icy knife in my heart. This was a side to Dad I had never seen before, and instead of refuting him, Mom stood at his side in silent agreement.

“Tyena’s back there. She’s in danger. I’m going back to help her.”

“Allin, you can’t. Our family—”

“Screw our family!” I yelled, and in the shocked quiet after that, the only sound that could be heard was my hurried footfalls as I ran back the way we had come. Back to Glin’s Rising. Back to Tyena. Back, back.

* * *

I came back to consciousness with a coughing sputter and found that I was slipping off the ladder back into the water-filled tunnel below. As I struggled to get my bearings I slipped under and swallowed a mouthful of that cold, foul brew before I shot back up and latched on to the ladder again.

Needless to say, I spent the next minute coughing and retching, trying uselessly to get every bit of the water out of my system. As it was, if I made it out of these ducts alive, I would need some Restorit if I didn’t want to catch some nasty disease.

Satisfied that I had done as much as I could, I let out a huge sigh and forced my tired muscles to pull my sodden mass up the ladder. It was only a couple of stories later that I hit the top of the circular shaft, which was closed with a hatch secured by a wheel lock. By the light of my coil, I could see writing on the hatch, “HAB-221-X” something or other. The rest was obscured, but it didn’t matter. HAB would hopefully mean habitat, and somewhere I could rest and dry off.

Then I heard something that sent a new shiver up my already shaking spine. Deep, booming sounds coming from below, and getting closer.

I looked down and although I couldn’t see him yet, the water below was lit by big and ghosty’s blue glow.

“Doesn’t this guy ever give up?” I asked through shivering lips, and then turned my attention to the hatch above me.

Keeping my legs on the ladder, I grabbed on to the wheel lock and tried to turn it. I could barely feel my hands after my swim through the icy water, and the lock probably hadn’t been turned in ages, so I wasn’t surprised when it refused to budge. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t start to panic. A lot.

I could hear the thum-thum-thum of the monstrous ghost bashing his way through too-tight ducts, and the circle of water below me started to brighten noticeably. All I could think to do was try harder. I knew I had to open that hatch or say goodbye.

I held on to the wheel and walked my feet up the ladder to the second-from-top rung, so I was scrunched up nearly sideways at the top of the shaft. With all my might, I pulled on the wheel and pushed against the ladder with my feet.

Nothing happened.

The light grew brighter.

I gave it one last try.

The wheel spun suddenly and my legs slipped, leaving me hanging from the wheel over a two-story drop to a few feet of water. As I kicked my legs to grab at the ladder, I saw the ghost rise out of the water below me and squeeze himself into the shaft.

* * *

Go straight to Part Eight (or read my comments below first if you can stand the suspense).

4/1/2012 News: Two things: I hope you don’t think I’m being too cruel, returning from the flashback without resolving what happened to Tyena and the rest of Glin’s Rising? Rest assured, I know what happens there and you will find out, but now is not the time. The second is, I feel a little bad about ending another post with Allin running from the big blue ghost. In the final version of this story, these posts will all be part of larger chapters, so instead of cliffhanger-cliffhanger-cliffhanger, Allin’s flight from the ghost will be one long chase scene with a flashback in the middle. I promise you that we are almost done with big, blue, and ghosty for the time being.

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