Crowbar

I like Mark Walker games. I have quite a few from the Lock and Load and Flying Pigs labels, and they are always absorbing, often entertaining. There’s a couple that I don’t take off the shelf that often, like All Things Zombie (‘cause I always suffer dice roll homicide halfway through the first scenario) and I usually have to make a rule adjustment or two on others, like the casualties in Flintlock, but these are signs of good game involvement. Have you ever played First Martians strictly by the rules? You have? [Sidles away].

I saw this one on a Kickstarter Email and was intrigued: a game covering the Ranger assault of Pointe du Hoc. Well, that’s specific, quite a bit more focused than the usual D Day games, like Avalon Hill’s D Day (which I own), where you attack the various beaches with the various forces assigned with usually the same results. When you throw that many people and bombs and tanks at a small space, you’re bound to overwhelm it. And, yes, yes, I know how much of a near thing the landings were and how more of  a near thing was the subsequent breakout.

But I never thought the Pointe du Hoc assault was a near thing. My only prior exposure to it was the five or six minute treatment in the movie The Longest Day. Clean and well dressed American Rangers take about a minute or two to scale the cliffs with rocket propelled grappling hooks and shoot Germans who dutifully throw their hands up in the air and die a bloodless/uneviscerated death as required by 1960s war movies (and cowboy movies. And crime movies), with a couple of obligatory Rangers dying in the same heroic manner to make things look even. And then the Rangers discover the guns they just fought so ferociously and bloodlessly to destroy aren’t even there! SNAFU!

Well, no. Like practically all battles in every war, this was a godawful bloodbath that could have gone either way. And, yes, the guns were there, just not where we thought. Still had to be found and destroyed and the Rangers lost more than half their force doing so, and it took a little more than five minutes. Took three days, actually. And what Crowbar does is capture quite accurately and viscerally this somewhat insane mission and what a near thing it was.

Think about it: you’re asked to climb a sheer cliff face while German soldiers, hands down the best in the world at that time (yes, they were, especially at the squad level), are shooting at you from the top of the cliff and dropping grenades and making nuisances of themselves and you can’t even shoot back until you get to the top, and then, after you get those pesky Germans off you, you gotta go find some gigantic German artillery pieces which aren’t where intel said they are and blow them up. Man.

All that comes through in this rather magnificent game. Yes, magnificent. I mean, look at it. Gorgeous. Big counters, big map. Yeah a little obscure here and there, especially with features like barbed wire, but workable, and readable rules and aid cards and just well done.

This is a chit pull dice roll event card game- everything at once and when I first got it and stopped admiring the art I went, “Oh, man.” This is going to be tough to learn. Movement is through movement dice covered with symbols and combat is with normal dice, and event cards also do some movement or combat, especially for the Germans, and there’s different rules for the different sections of the map- sea hexes, beach hexes, interior- and a relief column attempting to reach you and commander rules and supply and, in typical Mark Walker fashion, not all of it is explained with the clarity you need (fr’instance, what’s the deal with supplies?) but you know what? Doesn’t matter. It works.

Because it makes sense. It’s all intuitive and logical, even the varying colored movement dice which become dicier the more you use them. Which is fairly accurate: whenever a squad starts something, it’s usually successful. It’s when you take those next few steps that things tend to go to crap. About halfway through your movement you have to decide whether enough is enough or are you going on, foolishly, in some cases. Combat is usually hand to hand because fortifications rendered distance fire and artillery somewhat moot so you gotta move and you gotta engage. And you’re going to get your butt handed to you. Over and over.

By ‘you’ I mean the Rangers because this is a solitary game and you command only one side. I thought that was going to be a problem. What? No German turn? How in the world can you call this a game? But you don’t have to worry, the Germans show up. And make themselves quite the nuisance. They have a counterattack track which always initiates at just the most inopportune moment and invariably you’re going to pull a German chit that sends grenadiers running your way and, of course, an event card. Man. 

There is a multiplayer variant in the rules but don’t bother. You’re going to make your Rangers’ job that much tougher if you get your pals to take over a company or two. Unity of command, people.

I played this just once so far. How’d I end up? A dismal failure. I don’t think I earned enough victory points to even move the scale. Fox Company did all right, actually reached the road and set up roadblocks; Dog Company had its problems but Easy got decimated. One German with a machine gun can really screw up your plans.

As we discovered back then.

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Why I Don’t Socialize

More accurately, use social media.

Because you’re supposed to. On every writing/publishing/author website dedicated to us “indie” authors, you know, the ones who can’t catch the interest of a literary agent or legitimate publishing house because our stuff is (a.) dreck and/or (b.) poorly written or (c.) boring or doesn’t meet the stringent politically correct/woke characteristics that the Bryn Mawr interns guarding the slush pile have as criteria, a social media presence is hammered. And hammered. You gotta have a platform. You gotta have a mailing list. A newsletter. You gotta be tweeting and posting and videoing and podding and blogging with a frequency slightly akin to those guys calling about your car warranty. 

Spare me.

I used to be a twitterer and an f’booker and could be found on other with-it sites, believing that frequent postings hither and yon were vital to my success as a writer, but, no more. Yeah, yeah, I still have this blog and the Youtube channel, but, if you check the posting dates, you’ll note they are infrequently updated. And even less frequently visited. Not a lot of people are clinging to my URLs breathlessly awaiting the next pearls of wisdom. No, there’s something else I’ve discovered that is more vital to my success as a writer…

Writing.

Novels. Short stories. Book reviews. Game reviews. You know, the stuff people actually want to read…or, would if they knew who I was so I guess I better tweet and tweet and post and posture and ruminate and pontificate and opine and drop pearls of wisdom in 240 characters or less until somebody decides I’m so cool they’ll take a look at one of my books or stories or something.

Or I could use all that time and energy to write better books. And upload ‘em and one day, somebody goes, “Hmm, this looks interesting” and reads it until the end instead of throwing it across the room and gives it to a friend who gives it to a friend and next thing you know, I’ve got some reviews and a couple of people who don’t think I  suck.

Could happen.

If-I-Write-It-They-Will-Come syndrome, a debilitating condition that drives thousands of mediocrities such as moi to write a 1000 page novel in a weekend, spellcheck it, have your Mom read it and she likes it, slap a generic cover on it and upload to Amazon and then wonder why no one will read much past the first page, much less pay 2.99 for the entire thing. I have, of course, learned those lessons and like to think my quality has improved. I mean, I’m getting at least three phone calls a day from Filipino book publishers desperate to represent me. For a fee, of course.

But I am still one lemming in the herd, indistinguishable from my fellows, the onrush of our indie novels careening over the clifftop and how do I stand out, how do I get noticed? Tweet and blog and Facebook, just like all my herdmates. 

Or just don’t worry about it. Que sera sera. 

Besides, I’m fairly boring. Just read through some of these posts.

Please?

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The Ten Best Novels I Ever Read

At least, so far. Not the top ten horror or fantasy or scifi novels, although all three categories are  represented herein, but books that I still remember, still think about, still reference days or even decades after reading them. Without further ado:

10. The Forgotten Door, by Alexander Key. Jon, a child from another world, falls through a portal and ends up on Earth, where he endures the fear and suspicion of a prejudiced town.

I read this when I was 13 or 14, when a lot of very bad things were happening in my life, and the last scene of this book still haunts me. I wanted to step through that hidden door and live in Jon’s world. It was so much better than this one. Still is. I have not read it since then and, no doubt, if I did so, would find it quaint and simplistic and…juvenile. But it gave me hope and a longing that I still indulge.

9. Knee Deep in Thunder, by Sheila Moon. Maris and a motley gang of bugs- yes, bugs- go on a quest to save a magical land from an evil force.

Another book I read at 13 or 14 in the midst of all those bad things happening and the last scene of this book- where Jetsam disappears down the beach- has also stayed with me but not out of hope or longing, no. Out of loss. That everything you love will be lost, eventually. Which, of course, is not Moon’s intent or message but is the one I derived. The beauty of books: you can find your own meaning.

8. The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk. A sweeping family saga of WW2. 

Yes, I know, not one book but two, the second one being War and Remembrance, and a pretty good TV miniseries to boot, and I have yet to find another WW2 story that so well captures  the massive shock and upheaval of that conflict. Everything and everyone in this book changes, and not always for the best. The scene at the Auschwitz gas chambers is one of the most chilling and revolting ever written.

7. Vanishing Point, by Michaela Roessner. One night, 90% of the world’s population simply vanishes. Forty years later, the surviving 10% are still trying to cope.

This is a scifi novel that leans post-apocalyptic, so I differentiate it from the next book on the list which is pure scifi and leaves me enough wiggle room to declare this one and the next one as the two best scifi books I ever read. Roessner never explains what happened, and I freakin’ love that. Deal with it and move on.

6. The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. A Jesuit priest makes first contact with a race of aliens located near Alpha Centauri.

This is a mind blowing story about faith and cultures and what happens when two completely incompatible groups meet, without realizing they are incompatible until it is too late. One of the most successful depictions of a completely alien species that I’ve read. And the sequel, Children of God, ain’t no slouch, neither.

5. The Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson. An epic sweeping gargantuan and overwhelming world striding mess of a story that covers Europe from the time of the English Civil War through the Glorious Revolution.

As told by a boatload of characters, from Sir Isaac Newton to Half-Cocked Jack (who gained the appellation through a rather unfortunate accident), this is history made palatable. And gripping. And, yes, I know, trilogy, not novel. But once you start with Quicksilver, you’ll become so immersed in this crazy story that you’ll swear it was just one novel. One really big novel, so pack a lunch.

4. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. A couple of aging cattlemen decide to move their ranch from Texas to Montana.

Yes, the miniseries was epic, but doesn’t hold a candle to the novel, which belongs to the Dying West genre: increasingly irrelevant cowboys take a stand for a rapidly fading way of life. This one, though, gilds no lilies, and the casual brutality of the frontier will make you glad you live in modern times.

3. Sometimes a Great Notion. In post-Korean War America, an estranged son returns to his home at the request of his half brother to help the family break a logging strike.

This, and the next entry, are the two Great American novels, at least so far. While everyone knows Ken Kesey from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this one is far superior, a mesmerizing tale of a completely dysfunctional family who is forced to pull together in the face of a town’s hostility. The Stampers are defying a lumber strike by delivering wood to the local mill, earning the enmity of neighbors and union organizers, and each other. Not an easy read because Kesey took the James Joyce approach here and there and you’ll get viewpoint changes sometimes within the same sentence, but worth your time and effort. 

2. East of Eden. A retelling of Cain and Abel, with two sets of brothers a generation apart reprising the roles.

This is post-Civil War America in its broad, mad rush to become itself. A generational saga that begins with probably the most awful father you’ll find outside of a Faulkner novel, the first set of brothers, Charles and Adam, fight that father and each other in an effort to break free and establish themselves. Adam ends up in the Salinas Valley and marries probably the most evil character you’ll find outside of a Stoker novel, leading to the next set of brothers, Caleb and Aron, and their subsequent tragedy. Talk about the three generational curse… 

1. Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut. An engineer leads a revolt against a dystopian society.

You know Vonnegut was going to creep into one of my lists somewhere sometime because the guy is just unique, in a category by himself, like Jack Vance. Everyone thinks Slaughterhouse-5 is his opus but, no, it’s this one, which is more of a straight up story than his later, delightfully absurd,  novels, such as Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. There is still a lot of delightfully absurd writing in this novel, especially when Vonnegut is describing the noises that machines make. In a dystopia run by corporations, where corporate life is all, the individual can only exist within prescribed corporate rules and approval. Break the rules, you are dismissed, or worse, never promoted, but at least that’s better than being in the Army or the Reclamation and Recovery corps, the only two options for anyone not an engineer or manager. This was written in 1952. Yikes.

Note that I left out The Martian Chronicles and The Crystal Cave and Alas Babylon. Ten is ten. I guess I need to start another list, say, the Best Ten Books I Ever Read Besides the Other Ten. We’ll see.

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Meet Frank. Go South. Then Look for Don

July 1st, get Frank Vaughn Killed by his Mom and Southern Gothic for free on Smashwords. Go here: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/dkrauss

And, while you’re at it, pre-order Looking for Don, which is the last of the Frank Vaughn trilogy, and which comes out July 7.

From the 60s through the 90s, America.

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Public Service Announcement

I do not read my book reviews…primarily because there’s hardly enough of them for me to read, sniff sniff. But there’s some on Goodreads and NetGalley for Frank Vaughn Killed by his Mom and they’re generally what I expected: some people loved it, some people hated it. Very little in-between. Which makes sense.

Because this is a story you are either going to love or hate.

It’s not a happy tale. In places, it is downright brutal. And offensive. And does not have a happy ending. Oops, you’re supposed to find that out for yourselves.

What puzzles me is some of the people who hated it expected a completely different story. Doesn’t anybody read the jacket blurbs anymore? I thought it was pretty clear that this is not going to be a happy tale, is, in fact, downright brutal, with little chance of a happy ending.

So if that’s what you’re looking for, don’t read this. Even though the second and improved edition is right now available for pre-order on Smashwords…hey, who said that, who snuck a shameless and unsolicited promotion into the middle of this diatribe?? 

One thing, though, even the people who hated it said it was well written.

I’ll take that any day.

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A New Lease on Life

If you’ve read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, then this is the follow-up novel you expected…except it’s not. John Perry, the hero of the first novel, is barely mentioned; indeed, he is nothing but an offhand remark in one or two places. It’s like an author trying to link up books with a throwaway line or character, say some ghost child named Frank Vaughn or something.

So don’t expect the continuing saga of a favored character you remember from the first novel, but do expect the continuing saga of the world built during that first novel. This is a galaxy of odd alien races all bent on conquering- and, in some cases, eating- other alien races, including us humans. Apparently, we taste like chicken. So we chickens are always coming up with some innovative tech or method to keep us off the dinner plate, like warp drives and space pods and more-or-less cloned soldiers (’cause they’re not really clones but users of dead bodies), complete with an installed BrainPal allowing them to bypass the decades of growing up and maturing and skill development that a naturally born human has to go through before they are combat ready.

Brainpal?

Think of it as distance learning on dilithium crystals.

I thought the Old Man’s War concept was great: take the brains and experience of old people and meld it with superstrong rebuilt bodies to create the Colonial Defense Force. Imagine, a bunch of crotchety old farts running around the galaxy with advanced weaponry and the reflexes and strength of their teenage years and, well, we’d simply rule. I don’t know what happened to that concept in this follow-on novel but it is shrifted. I guess the available supply of crotchety old farts would rather sit around in their wheelchairs watching reruns of Space 1999 or something. The clone brigades now take on the heavy lifting. Bit disappointing. I was looking forward to being 18 years old again with a plasma rifle in the 40 watt range and 60 years of accumulated attitude.

Oh well.

As yarns go, this is a pretty good one. Jared Dirac, a newly decanted BrainPal soldier, is fitted with an extra conscience, that of traitor Charles Boutin, in an effort to find out (a) what exactly did Boutin give to our alien enemies and (b) why did he do that? This make Dirac’s already stressful birth even more stressful by adding the memories and motivations of a traitor and actually it makes this story far more interesting than a Clone Wars rehash. For one thing, you get to see a comparison between a fully developed conscience and a newly emerged one…even if the fully developed one is about as superficial as one can get. When you find out Boutin’s reason for betraying the entire human race to a coalition of cockroaches and BEMs your first reaction will probably be, “Really? Dude, get a grip.”

Overall, this is a space shoot-em-up with fun weapons and tactics that miraculously appear in the supply chain at just the right moment because that always happens…okay, yes, suspend much belief, but if you know that going in, you’ll probably enjoy this.

With or without a Brainpal.

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In from the cold

I have wandered the bleak, apocalyptic landscape of independent publishing for nigh on ten years. scrabbling through the wreckage for a crust of book sale or book review, watching the corporations plunder the best seller lists and advertising venues, hovering on the edge hoping to pick off some of their leavings.  Grim existence, this. But, one dark night I spotted a shining city on a distant hill and now, now, have made my way through its gates:

Indies United Publishing House, LLC.

Alright, alright, bit overblown, but sometimes it feels like Road Warrior out here. You can either become an Amazon sensation like Mark Dawson or remain so obscure that if I send up a flare, the Iron Dome knocks it down.

Too soon?

Anyways, ever since Rebel E was exiled into the Great Empty, I have been stateless, with no home base to which I can deposit titles and seek advice and commiseration. Then, lo! A voice from the darkness when Genghis Jayne told me about IUPH (not a birth control device) and made intros and the Goddess of Indie, Lisa Orban, granted me entry. And I am feted with honied hummingbird wings and ambrosia.

Alright, alright.

I am transferring all of my titles to their umbrella, with a re-written Frank Vaughn and Southern Gothic as first offerings. Everything else will follow over the next few months. As well as some new stuff.

Stay tuned.

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The Top 10 Horror Novels of All Time

The other day I ran across a video in which some guy listed the ten best horror novels of all time and well, no, no they weren’t. Over half them were more properly classified as scifi or thrillers, not horror. I mean, c’mon!

In the guy’s defense, horror has been ill defined and most books thus categorized are so because (a) some authority said they were or (b) there is a generalized consensus to that effect. 

Don’t listen to these people.

Horror is pretty much viewed as anything that scares you, which is a category so broad as to make it meaningless. I mean, poison ivy scares me but unless it becomes self-aware and starts chasing me around the yard (hmm, story idea, write it down…) it’s not horror. Serial killers are not horror, either, although they can be horrifying. Neither are tyrannical oppressive governments a la Catching Fire or Starting a Fire or whatever that thing is, nor bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, although it comes close.

Scaring you is only part of the formula; there are at least two other elements necessary before it is true horror. First, some supernatural influence, preferably associated with some religious concept of good and evil. The supernatural doesn’t have to be an actual supernatural force, but an adherence, a belief, a dedication to it. That’s why Red Dragon is horror while Silence of the Lambs isn’t; it’s a thriller. And second, a sense of helplessness in the face of forces too powerful for mortals to comprehend, much less resist.

In other words, ghosts, monsters, witches, cults, entities, demons, and all their acolytes. Everything else is either scifi, fantasy, thrillers, or crime. 

You can see already how my definition violates the norms. Alien and Aliens are considered horror movies, but they’re actually scifi. Scary scifi, to be sure, but scaring you is not sufficient criteria. The aliens are science based, not supernatural, and there’s no sense of helplessness against them, just the need to find the proper weapon. Hannibal Lecter is a criminal, not a monster, although that’s an apt one word description of his sociopathology. And elves and dwarves and hobbits and dragons are part of a world-building exercise, although there’s plenty of supernatural things like wizards and Balrogs running around in those books. You expect dragons and Balrogs in that world, though, so it’s not a sense of helplessness that overwhelms the hobbits but the need to deal with what used to be a distant problem. 

The sense of helplessness is key. When normalcy is confronted by something out of ken, then normal human responses are rendered ineffective, and the human has to look beyond his usual resources for a solution. Hannibal Lector can be shot, but what do you do about Dracula? Need a cross and garlic, which is just silly in the human  world. But unless you do that, you are helpless before the Lord of the Vampires.

So, given the above criteria and without further ado, the best 10 horror novels of all time:

10. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Stoker’s compilation of old wives and folk tales in the person of Count Dracula, an evil creature bent on slaughter and domination, remains the classic horror novel, probably the first true horror novel although there are preceding candidates, such as Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. But Dracula is light years beyond those. Stoker pulls no punches. The Count is evil and malevolent and has no redeeming value and there is no compromise  and he is darn near impossible to kill, at least by human methods. Stoker introduced the time honored horror trope of the Unexpected Expert. Jonathan Harker and Mina and the rest of the gang are helpless before Count Dracula’s onslaught until Van Helsing shows up. One of the best aspects of this novel is the aftermath: no one remains untouched, no one remains unscarred, which is the nature of evil. It corrupts everyone it touches.

9. At the Mountains of Madness, H. P. Lovecraft. Alright, okay, not an actual novel, a story collection, with only the title story long enough to be considered a novella. But, these stories form the core of the Cthulhu Mythos, one of the most terrifying alternate realities in literature, with its Old Ones and sacrifices and Dunwich Horrors and distorted, malevolent gods bent on eating us. Lovecraft almost single handedly created the dark forces genre, and King and Connolly and Straub owe him. Was he a racist? Oh, distressingly so. Was his prose turgid and stiff? You betcha. But his descriptions of the horrors lurking in the dark will curl your hair. 

8. The Exorcist. The movie was scary as crap and ushered in the entire demons-are-gonna-get-ya flicks of the 70s, like The Amityville Horror and The Omen, but those all missed the novel’s larger point: our souls are battlegrounds for ancient powers. An unbelieving world dismisses these powers as quaint relics of a superstitious age, at its peril.

7. The Dead Zone. I have railed about Stephen King in other places and most of his usual suspects, like It and Pet Sematary, are not on this list because, well, they’ve got problems, but this one deserves a spot. Uncle Ben’s adage that with great power goes great responsibility is the core of this novel. When an accident gives Johnny Smith the ability to tell the future by merely grasping someone’s hand, he decides to use this power for the betterment of mankind. With terrible results. 

6. Red Dragon. My only entry of the serial killer/slasher type novels which I generally categorize as thrillers because this serial killer, dubbed the Tooth Fairy, is doing all his butchering so he may transform into something else, William Blake’s painting called Red Dragon. Take a look at it above: that ain’t Smaug, that’s the devil, and while there are no actual supernatural elements in this book, the Tooth Fairy’s enthusiastic dedication makes up for that lack. This book introduces a minor character named Hannibal Lecter, who isn’t as interesting as the Tooth Fairy. This is a much better novel than Silence of the Lambs, which ain’t no slouch of a novel, either.

5. Salem’s Lot. This King novel, in my opinion, is sheer genius, as close to genius, anyway, that the King can reach. His vampire is the traditional Stoker kind, not something cool and glittery and angst-ridden, and is pretty terrifying in a Nosferatu kind of way. Worse, though, is the monster’s familiar, Straker, who, ever since the 1979 TV series, I always picture as James Mason. It’s quite something that you’re actually more terrified of the human servant than it’s evil master.

4. The Other. One could easily make the argument that this does not meet my criteria because there’s no clear supernatural element here. Holland and Niles seem like your typical creepy thirteen year old twins, but are they actually twins? Are they actually alive? Who knows? That uncertainty gives this extraordinarily well written novel an air of constant dread.

3. The Returned. More eerie than frightening, this is one of the most unnerving zombie novels written. Well, technically not zombies but revenants…except we don’t know how the dead were raised and there could be some voodoo involved so, benefit of the doubt. The zombies don’t want to eat our brains, they just want to resume lives so rudely interrupted by death some years, even decades before. And the non-dead aren’t too happy with this. Half the time this novel is a moral tale of acceptance, and/or a metaphor for prejudice, but dead people coming back and asking for their old jobs and houses back may be a bridge too far for even the most tolerant among us. Especially when no one has any idea why this is happening.

2. NOS4A2. Apples not falling far from trees here, and it is so good that Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son, completely understands the nature of horror, more so, I believe, than his Dad does. At least, recently. This is a scary, scary book of a monster/ghoul/vampire whatever keeping himself young by corrupting the souls of children. Yes, there’s some oddness, such as the telekinetic/teleportation powers of the heroine, Victoria McQueen, but all forgivable because Hill weaves it all so well.

1. Nightworld. This is absolutely the most hair-raising novel I have ever read. There are scenes that made me gasp out loud. Maybe I’m a sucker for end-of-the-world gotterdammerung apocalyptic divine judgment novels…are there really that many of those?…but this remains for me the best horror novel ever. That may come as some surprise because Wilson is kind of scattershot. He tried to create a series around a character named Repairman Jack but it didn’t really go anywhere. Nightworld is a Repairman Jack story, the last of what Wilson loosely called The Adversary cycle. You probably know the first book, The Keep, which was made into a fairly decent movie, but it and the other Adversary novels don’t really seem connected to each other. Until you get to this one. Which will blow you away.

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Kafkaesque, almost

A friend of mine well north of 60 years old — like me– needed to renew his driver’s license. Now my friend is reasonably computer adept — like me — despite all the commercials showing he and I and everyone else in our demographic as hopelessly befuddled by them there new fangled whatchamacallit Yoonivacs (despite the fact that my demographic INVENTED them new fangled whatchamacallits) and so logged on to the DMV site for the routine license renewal we’ve all  been doing the past 4 decades or more. Except, being north of sixty, he suffers from a common ailment of our demographic called forgetfulness, and he put in the wrong answer to one of his security questions and was immediately locked out.

So begins our epic.

The helpful DMV robot directed my friend to call an operator to get his account unlocked, so he did…over the next five days. Busy signal mostly, then on hold for two or three hours and then disconnected, busy, hold, disconnect, wash, repeat, until, Holy Mother of God, he actually reached a living, breathing human being. Said human advised the account could only be unlocked at an actual DMV office. “But,” my friend pointed out, ‘they’re closed for COVID.” “That’s alright, sir, we will make you an appointment…three months from today. Be sure to bring your ID.”

“But, my license expires next week.”

“Then try not to get stopped, sir. See you in three months.”

So three months rolls around and my furtively driving friend, wise in the way of bureaucracy, not only brings his old license but also his military ID, his birth certificate, and three separate utility bills, all dated within the last 30 days. Masked and social distanced, he is admitted into the DMV and approaches the counter and explains his purpose.

“Fine, sir. Do you have your passport?”

“Uh, no. I wasn’t planning on leaving the country.”

“Sir, are you being funny?”

“No, Ma’am. I do have my birth certificate. It’s from Pennsylvania so proves I am a US citizen.”

The DMVr takes the birth certificate and examines it with the scrutiny of a crime scene expert then throws it back. “I’m sorry, sir, this is not acceptable.”

“Pardon? Why not?”

“Because you parents didn’t sign it.”

Apparently there is a block on the back of PA birth certificates which parents sign acknowledging ownership of a professed child. “Okay,” my friend said, “what do I do?”

“You have to get your parents to sign it.”

“But they’re dead.”

“Still.”

‘Can I just go get my passport and bring it back to you?”

“Certainly sir. Call the same number through which you booked this appointment and we’ll set you up again. The next available date is three months from now. Have a nice day. Now get out.”

My friend, somewhat bewildered, leaves and goes home and examines the birth certificate and discovers parent signatures are only required if there is an error on the birth certificate, such as the wrong name or wrong date or wrong parent. Since everything documented on the certificate was accurate, no signatures needed.

My friend, wise in the way of bureaucracy, realized this explanation would fall on uncomprehending ears, decided to get a certified and notarized copy of his birth certificate to take back to DMV in 3 months, along with his passport because Heaven knows what new requirements will be in place by then, maybe even a DNA sample, so he called the PA Registrar’s office.

“Oh, sure, sir!” some eagerly helpful clerk gushed, “We can do that, no problem. And it will be as valid as the original.”

“Without signatures?”

“No signatures needed, sir. Unless there is something wrong with the certificate, then your parents need to sign.”

“No no, everything’s fine. So what do I do?”

“Send us a self addressed stamped envelope, a $5.00 money order………….

….and a copy of your valid, unexpired driver’s license.”

My friend has decided to simply take his chances with furtive driving.

Posted in Tales of the Tragically Hilarious | Comments Off on Kafkaesque, almost

From Red to Blue

No, this is not a political statement but a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars novels (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) … see? They go from Red to Blue. And since these were published from 1992- 1996, pre-date that whole silly red state/blue state thing, which is in itself wrong because red is the color of Marxism and what we currently consider red states are as far from Marxism as the color blue is, or was, until Tim Russert

thought he’d be cute in the 2000 election and switched the colors and for reasons I still don’t get, everyone has followed along. I mean, all you have to do is take a casual glance at Soviet flags

to see what red really stands for. But it may be appropriate here because Robinson’s Mars moves from a free and downright anarchic society in the first book to an unbelievably sophisticated (and unrealistic) communo-socialist-capitalist-barter system in the last one. Red to Blue. Get it?

The story itself is fairly straightforward: Earth selects 100 people (dubbed the First Hundred. Catchy) to colonize Mars and, from their arrival to about 200 years later, Mars is turned from an arid, dead, frozen hell into somewhat of a nice place, say Alaska in the summertime. Replete with polar bears. No seriously; Ann Clayborne, one of the highlighted characters who manages to survive through all three novels, gets chased by a polar bear while hiking the outback. There are about ten highlighted First Hundred characters, from John Boone, the first man on Mars, to Hiroko Ai, a ghostly highly influential non-presence from Green Mars on (but hold on, she’s actually everywhere. Even back on Earth), who bring the story along, from training in the Arctic to sailing on Martian seas. Then there are the children of the Hundred, decanted mostly from various in vitro tubes (with a few natural childbirth outliers here and there) and immigrants and later arrivals and spies and cops and paramilitaries all over the place who add their two cents but, mostly, it’s the story of these ten or so First Hundred, over a couple hundred years. Wait, what? Yeah, folks are living well past their shelf life, thanks to Martian science, which is science done on Mars, as opposed to done on Earth, which somehow becomes tainted and evil if it’s done on Earth, unlike the science on Mars, which is pure. Depending on your viewpoint.

And viewpoints are all over the place, from the ultra Reds to the ultra Greens, which also does not mean what is does today: the Reds are those who want to keep Mars untouched, therefore red, as opposed to the colonists who want to terraform into a more earth-like place, turning it green, so to speak. See? Those colors should be reversed, by today’s definitions. Which makes this somewhat of a confusing read, that is, if you try to apply today’s definitions to novels written 20 years ago. Which is revisionism. Which you should not do. Have to read a book in its context, not in modern parlance trying to impress someone with how sophisticated and with-it you are.

But I digress.

And digression is the watchword because, Holy, Hannah, does this trilogy range all over the place. Red Mars

begins at a festival 33 years after John Boone lands on Mars, and, after he is murdered during that festival, flashes all the way back to the Hundred’s selection and training and then launching of the first colony ship, the Ares (natch), and then landing and putting things together resulting in the first actual town, Underhill, and then we’re back to the point John is killed and then revolution. Which doesn’t go very well. See, it’s a little difficult to revolt against Earth when all they have to do is pop the bubble of your little town and let all that nice fresh oxygen out into the not so fresh Martian atmosphere. Which may be an incentive to green the place up so Earth can’t do that and then we are in Green Mars

with the terraforming going apace, except for the Reds who are willing to blow up and/or flood your town to keep Mars an arid, dead, frozen hell. Really? Really? And then Earth basically blows up and Mars becomes more of a liferaft than a science experiment and who do you think is going to win this argument? Ergo, Blue Mars.

Man.

It feels very much like we are taking the long way around, out past Jupiter and back, to get to Mars. This has much to do with Captain Digression, Mr Kim Stanley himself,

who simply cannot resist writing overlong descriptions of things that were better left on the editor’s floor, such as a painfully detailed exposition on lichens and fungus, which is far more about both topics than anyone actually wants to know, except the micro specialists involved. This is the problem when big-brained scientists write scifi, they are bent on (a) showing how much they know and (b) keeping their other big-brained colleagues from finding fault: “Aha, you said the lichen spyrogyra numnutsias grows at 25 Kelvin when in reality it can only grow at 26 Kelvin! So therefore you are an idiot and your book is invalid!” You know stuff like that, like everybody yelling at Ray Bradbury because he had the sunrise on Mars coming up at the wrong place. Or was it the sunset? Don’t know. Don’t care. It’s friggin’ fiction. Lighten up.


But Kim Stanley does not, giving us several more interludes, including a painfully detailed political convention reminiscent of the Simpson’s take on the Galactic Senate in The Phantom Menace.

Oy. Stop. And I almost did, but forged on because this was my second attempt to read this trilogy and by God, I was going to do it this time and not throw it across the room like I did 20 years earlier because of all. These. Sidebars!

And I’m so glad I did because, halfway through Blue Mars, you see the point. And the point is, we keep going. To Jupiter. To the Kuiper Belt. And past.

And that’s marvelous.

Posted in Reading itself | Comments Off on From Red to Blue