Most fantasy worlds manage to sustain a roughly medieval level of development for thousands of years at a stretch. (I blame hyperconservative nigh-immortal elves for quietly holding back technological progress.) Walter Jon Williams’ Metropolitan takes that restriction off and follows it to its logical conclusion, with geomantic public works and the essence of magic on tap as a utility; it’s a great read for gamers and anyone who likes to play with the idea of technomagic. The author discusses the worldbuilding and where to find the ebook.

I’m hoping there will be enough interest in this (and the sequel, City On Fire, when it comes out soon) that we can talk WJW into holding a Kickstarter for writing the third book that answers some of the questions raised in City On Fire.

mithriltabby: Serene silver tabby (R'lyeh)
( Dec. 30th, 2011 11:19 pm)

The biggest retailers of ebooks are Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, both of which are in the habit of locking their books with DRM that prevents the books from being read by anything other than an approved device. (Barnes and Noble, to their credit, will allow an author to turn off DRM on their books, but they don’t give you a way to search for this, so you have to ask the author directly; Tim Pratt, Linda Nagata, and Walter Jon Williams are good sports.) These sorts of ebooks aren’t really being sold to you; they’re just rentals, only good as long as the store is open. We’ve seen music providers go under and take online music collections with them.

So where does one go for unlocked books, if you want to reward the good sports who are willing to trust their customers and sell them ebooks that will still be readable even if the store goes away? There are a number of formats, though it looks like EPUB (essentially a bunch of XHTML/CSS files in a ZIP container) is winning out. You can crack open an EPUB and edit it with open source tools like Sigil, making your own tweaks if you want to fix something. On Android, Aldiko is a good reader.

MOBI files are less popular, and I haven’t been paying as much attention to them; many electronic bookstores offer EPUB, MOBI, and PDF options.

  • Webscription is the first place to check for science fiction and fantasy. They have pretty much everything that Baen publishes, as well as a smattering of titles from other publishers.
  • Smashwords also has a good variety, including the Liaden chapbooks by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller; Walter Jon Williams is releasing his backlist there as well.
  • Book View Café is publishing the out-of-print backlist for a number of science fiction authors.
  • Weightless Books has a sparse selection, but is worth checking— they have some of Elizabeth Bear’s work from Subterranean Press.
  • FS& have a very small selection thus far, but they have Daniel Keys Moran’s tales of the Continuing Time and Steve Perry’s Matador books.
  • DriveThruFiction very rarely have work from known science fiction authors; I usually visit their sister site, DriveThruRPG, for PDFs of gaming books, and just turned up some of Alan Moore’s 2000AD work (in PDF form) on DriveThruComics.
  • Fictionwise
  • Wildside Press
  • ereads

The different stores have their various foibles. Some allow keeping a wish list (useful if you want to keep track of books to purchase over time, in moderation, when freeing up physical shelf space), some don’t; some allow purchasing in bulk, while others make each book a separate transaction.

This is one of the better Fate implementations I’ve seen, providing a very flexible framework for storytelling at power levels ranging from mundane to epic. Fate normally has a set of skills that each have several trappings, and then stunts that modify how the skills work. The variant in The Kerberos Club provides a system for rearranging the trappings into different skills, and spending the stunt slots on changing the “power tier” of a skill or adding particular “gifts”, chosen from a list of half a dozen, that provide anything from loyal companions to extra skills to special equipment. Mechanically, this would be superb for a supers game.

The game also has a splendidly visualized steampunk setting, with a variant 19th century that starts out similar to our own history and then begins to gradually go off the rails as the “Strange” phenomena in the game begin to come into the light. The blending of inspiration from numerous sources is just as much fun as Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, with the strangeness of the story centering around Queen Victoria displaying her own peculiar powers— I suspect as an avatar of Britannia, though the writer leaves it mysterious. The game facilitates classic tropes ranging from occultism to mad science, as well as reflections of ideas from our own era (such as Lady Ada Lovelace developing punchcard-driven humanoid automata that go horribly awry in ways clearly inspired by modern computers).

The Dresden Files RPG is an excellent one for its setting, but needs adaptation to fit other ones; this one is much easier to generalize, and has all the delightful pulpness of Spirit of the Century.

Reynolds develops the idea of a dying world in the far future where the laws of physics vary from place to place, based on the changing resolution of the underlying “grid” on which matter is laid out. In the high-resolution areas, extremely precise things like nanotechnology work; in others, cybernetics are fine but nanotech is out; in some, electronics works but microchips don’t (I did a double take early on in the book when someone has a rotary dial cellphone); in some, only steam technology works (and there is a highly amusing encounter with a cyborg warrior who has been retrofitted to survive in a steam-only zone); in the lowest habitable regions, it’s just living beings made of flexible proteins. (Some areas don’t support life at all.) Changing zones, however, plays hell with the nervous systems of humans, leading to a need for medicines to help them adapt when they travel.

The center of the action is a Big Dumb Object named Spearpoint: an artificial mountain spiraling up into the stratosphere, on which the zones of varying technology vary quite quickly, with nanotech-enabled “angels” in the Celestial Levels soaring over places with names like Circuit City, Neon Heights, Steamville, and Horsetown. Our hero, Quillon, is a fallen “angel”, using his expertise in medicine to hide out in Neon Heights working as a coroner... until he discovers that his former colleagues from the Celestial Levels intend to hunt him down.

This leads to an odyssey into the outside world, complete with some never-well-explained antagonists, the Skullboys, who provide a Mad Max-ish postapocalyptic vibe to the tale, discoveries about the forgotten history of the world, and an eventual return to Spearpoint. The main threads of the story get wrapped up at the end, but Reynolds doesn’t give a lot of insight into the motivations of the antagonists, and while he hints of conspiracies going on, he never sheds much light on them. (It’s realistic that the protagonists never get a chance to find out, but dissatisfying for the reader.) A fun read, but not up to the quality of his other work.

China Miéville turns his pen toward science fiction, in a far-future setting where Earth is a distant memory and the mapping between his version of hyperspace (the “immer”, a term derived from “immerse”, a realm as perilous as Earth’s oceans in the days of sail) and our realm may have your neighbor for trade purposes being in an entirely different galaxy. Our heroine, Avice Benner Cho, is from a backwater world at the edge of navigable hyperspace, where the native Ariekei have a language that requires two separate mouths, working simultaneously to pronounce it. As the story unfolds, we find out that the language has some unusual properties: the Ariekei can’t comprehend the language when synthesized by a machine, and can’t even imagine that a being who doesn’t speak their language is anything more than a pet. And they can’t lie in that language... though humans can. The place where the rest of the universe talks to the Ariekei is Embassytown.

Avice has the talent to become an immerser, crew on a faster-than-light starship, and leaves to seek her fortune. When she returns home, her broader perspective puts her in a position of being able to get involved in events that stem from the surprising things that happen when a species that never knew what lies were begins to learn from a species that is quite good at it. The festivals where humans tell obvious, blatant lies for the amusement of the Ariekei, and the Ariekei attempt to tell their own lies, are just the beginning of a much, much bigger mess.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Miéville never figured out how Ariekei speech works; early on, for example, he establishes that the Ariekei can’t comprehend machine-generated speech, and later on, recordings of speech in their language is significant to the plot. That, and other “wait, what are the rules now?” moments detracted from an otherwise interesting plot.

[livejournal.com profile] divertimento introduced me to Starstruck back in the mid-1980s, and I was impressed at the depth of creativity involved in the stories of a far-future galaxy. The storytelling is nonlinear, and the entanglements between the characters tricky to follow, but the richness of the universe makes it worth the effort. As Tym Stevens puts it, “You didn’t read STARSTRUCK...you held on like a rollercoaster and tried to keep up.” So when I found out that the whole thing was being collected and republished, I put in a preorder.

The good news: the deluxe edition fills in more of the back story that was hinted at in the original comics, giving more perspective on the multilayered intrigue going on. It also comes with a lot of extra fun details, tales of Brucilla’s past among the Galactic Girl Guides, writings and postcards from inside the universe, and bonus art.

The bad news: there’s still a big honking To Be Continued hovering there. According to an interview with Elaine Lee, this is about ⅓ of what she has planned. So if you’ve been waiting for a quarter of a century to find out what happens next, you have to wait some more— but you should pick up this volume now to encourage the next one to come out.

After many years, Daniel Keys Moran is publishing tales from the Continuing Time again as ebooks. You can get the whole lot as an omnibus deal.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Continuing Time, it’s an impressively gonzo science fiction setting (most of the published tales being set in the latter part of the 21st century) featuring cyborgs, genetic engineering, artificial intelligences, audacious capers, telepaths, mystic martial arts, time travel, aliens, and gods, all of which fit together in a coherent narrative, along with the only form of cinematic hacking (as in Neuromancer) I’ve ever seen in fiction that I found remotely believable. While the internal chronology goes Emerald Eyes, The Long Run, The Last Dancer, The Big Boost, I would recommend reading The Long Run or The Last Dancer first— Emerald Eyes is a bit depressing.

Re-reading the earlier books to refresh my memory before picking up The Big Boost has been keeping me up late this past week; they’re all page-turners. (Virtual page-turners, anyway; I’m using Aldiko to read them on my Android phone.)

The Big Boost gives us the return of Trent the Uncatchable, the greatest thief in the Solar System. After the events of The Last Dancer he is, in the eyes of the Unification that governs Earth, the most wanted criminal ever. And after laying low in the asteroid belt for several years, he’s decided it’s time for him to come back home.

With Trent in the spotlight, we naturally get a caper story: a good mix of drama and humor, leading up to a confrontation between Trent and his nemesis, Elite Commissioner Vance, whom Trent humiliated in The Long Run.

The Big Boost has the scene that I’ve quoted for many of you, with characters eschewing a game of Good Cop/Bad Cop for a game of Bad Cop/Anti-Christ. (“That was the worst Bad Cop/Antichrist routine I ever saw.” “Well, the important thing is that we enjoyed ourselves.”)

An anthology of hard science fiction from a variety of authors, from veterans like Gregory Benford to newcomers like Hannu Rajaniemi. The settings vary from the very near future of Peter Watts’ “Malak” (applying a very interesting if-this-goes-on to drone warfare in Afghanistan) to the very far future of David Moles’ “A Soldier of the City”. Charles Stross’ “Bit Rot” will be of interest to people who enjoyed his novel Saturn’s Children— it takes place centuries down the line from the events of that book (and manages to put a high-tech twist on the popular phenomenon of zombies [spoiler, highlight to read]). Overall, a good look at the current state of hard sf writing.

Willow Palecek has created a very streamlined version of the Fate RPG (available from Lulu Press). This is Fate with no stunts and no stress tracks, distilled down to telling stories with epic narratives. Because it’s so minimal, it focuses on the storytelling, which makes it well worth the (very quick) read just to see how she puts it together. The game comes down to just skills and aspects, and matters of game balance are handled by just cranking everything up to “awesome”— rather than defining any special powers or gadgets with stunts, you just spend fate points to invoke aspects for effect in any scene where they matter, whether they’re Latest Prototype from Q Division, MKULTRA Psychic Powers, My Cyberarm is Full of Surprises, Pedigreed Werewolf, or Arch-Mage of the Sequoia Tower. This would be a good system for running fast-moving, free-form stories.

In the sequel to Counting Heads, Marusek picks up the story several months later with several continuing viewpoint characters and a few new ones. He doesn’t spend a lot of time getting new readers up to speed, and I wish I had re-read the first book before I’d opened this one, to get all of the characters and their agendas fresh in my mind. The intrigues surrounding Earth’s first fleet of interstellar colony ships continue, and we get to see them from high-level maneuvering as well as the front lines. Marusek begins to weave in a few posthuman themes, highlighting different branches that superhuman intelligence could take, and continues to explore the ramifications of clone labor forces. The book leaves one of its larger themes unresolved, so expect this to grow into a trilogy soon.

Jim Butcher has written short stories and novelettes in the continuity of his Dresden Files series, and this collects together all of the ones that have appeared in other works (other than the one in the Dresden Files RPG), along with a previously-unpublished novelette showing what some of the other characters get involved in after the events of Changes. Other than that latter, these are asides from the plot arc of the novels; they’re fun to read for a visit to the universe, but there isn’t any crucial long-term exposition in here. But it’s nice to see how Michael, the former Knight of the Cross, is dealing with his forced retirement from adventuring, and to see a story told from the perspective of Harry’s brother Thomas. This is a good way to get your Dresden Files fix while waiting for Ghost Story to come off the presses.

The Doctrine of Labyrinths is a four-book fantasy series from [livejournal.com profile] truepenny, set in a richly imagined world. The level of worldbuilding is quite impressive, with all manner of intriguing cultural detail surfacing within the story; she uses Latin and Greek and French names to provide flavor to particular cultures, but she’s done a much more thorough job than simply filing the serial numbers off a particular stage of European history. Her viewpoint characters are all quite distinctive, with their own patterns of speech and perspectives, each choosing different idioms to express themselves, and each having their own well-earned psychological triggers while still remaining sympathetic. Unlike most high fantasy, this is not epic fantasy— the story turns on human-scale developments that prevent massive battles before anyone even tries to put a grand army together.

The series opens with Mélusine and the viewpoints of Felix Harrowgate, a wizard of the Mirador— housing the court— in the city of Mélusine, and Mildmay the Fox, a cat burglar and former assassin. Their paths would ordinarily have no occasion to cross, save that a foreign wizard arrives in the city with divinations that say the two of them will be necessary for him to gain revenge on a third wizard. The ensuing complications wind up dragging Felix and Mildmay halfway across a continent, and introducing the theme of the labyrinth that winds through all four books. Part of the difficulty in the stories comes from the characters themselves, but Monette always keeps them sympathetic, even though some of their flaws can be exasperating.

In The Virtu, Felix and Mildmay return to Mélusine, where the Virtu, a powerful enchanted artifact that is crucial to the integrity of the community of wizards that protect the city, has been damaged. Neither of them are expecting a welcome on their homecoming— but Felix is the only person with a chance to repair the Virtu before the neighboring Kekropian Empire takes advantage of Mélusine’s weakness. And the solution involves a labyrinth beneath the Mirador itself. This book resolves the significant threads left hanging from Mélusine. While our heroes have clearly learned from their journey, they still have a lot of room to grow.

The Mirador brings in a third viewpoint character, the actress Mehitabel Parr, who joined Felix and Mildmay in The Virtu. We learn early on that Mehitabel is an unwilling spy for the Kekropian Empire, and court intrigue unfolds while Felix studies ghosts in the depths of the Mirador. The character development gets pretty grueling in this one; Monette is definitely the sort to put her characters in the crucible. The worldbuilding continues to be excellent, right down to Mehitabel’s narrative style referencing stage plays that are famous in her world.

In Corambis, Felix and Mildmay have been exiled from Mélusine to the nation of Corambis; they leave Mehitabel Parr behind, but a new viewpoint comes in with Kay Brightmore, the former Margrave of Rothmarlin and a failed rebel against the Corambin government. Corambis is technologically ahead of the rest of the continent, with railroads and subways (though no gunpowder— plausible, given developments in the Roman Empire, but quite exotic for a fantasy), and a legacy of dangerous magical clockwork mechanisms. And there’s a very nasty such clockwork device at the heart of a labyrinth. This volume finally sees Felix and Mildmay making solid progress on learning to deal with their own character flaws and each other, and makes for a satisfying conclusion— though there is certainly room for more stories ahead.

In the sequel to Leviathan, the action is in Istanbul, where an alliance with the Ottoman Empire is being courted by both Germany— source of steam-powered robotic technology— and biotech Great Britain. The heroes from the first book find themselves entangled in everything from diplomacy to sabotage to revolution, and have to make some tricky decisions about their own loyalties. Westerfeld creates a very believable narrative for two teenagers to make a significant contribution to the progress of a war without needing to dumb down any of the adults.

The latest tale of the Culture is set against a backdrop of a struggle between two factions of galactic societies: one is using mind uploads and virtual reality to punish physically-deceased people by running their personalities in simulated Hells, and the other opposes this practice as cruel and inhumane. The struggle is taking place in a virtual reality of its own, to avoid the cost of a physical war— but the virtual war is drawing to a close and the losers are getting desperate.

The Culture has the firepower to deal with purely military situations, but firepower alone isn’t the way to deal with galactic politics. They’ve been staying out of the simulated War in Heaven (though morally they support the anti-Hell faction), and it’s up to the occasional starship that’s in the right place at the right time to find useful ways to nudge the course of events. The story gets into gear as the result of a long shot taken years ago by the Limited Offensive Unit Me, I’m Counting suddenly comes into play, unraveling a number of convoluted schemes.

This is a good addition to the Culture series, but I would still start readers with The Player of Games. We still get to see Banks’ skill as a horror writer, particularly in the depiction of the Hells, though this is nowhere near as dark as Use of Weapons. An interview with Banks shows some of the themes in the book are intended as critique of our own society, but it’s not heavy-handed.

The Heart Sūtra is one of the most-studied scriptures in Zen Buddhism; while it’s one of the shortest, it’s packed with references to overloaded terms like emptiness. Red Pine unpacks a lot of the baggage, examining the original Sanskrit writings (and tracking down their variations) and creating his own translation from scratch, then going over it line by line in as much detail as needed to give the context of the words. His perspective seems generally Mahāyāna rather than particularly Zen.

I quite like how he’ll dig into Sanskrit etymology when he feels it’s necessary to examine the details of a verb conjugation to try and get at the original meaning intended by the unknown writer of the sūtra. He also provides the context necessary to see that the Heart Sūtra is as much an academic manifesto as it is a work of Buddhist scripture, and includes historical commentary as well as his own. (He even brings in some of the 7th century monastic infighting, which hilariously look a lot like modern academic pissing contests— I can see why Eihei Dōgen was inspired to start a back-to-basics movement!)

This is an excellent look at the scholarly underpinnings of the Heart Sūtra. It does a fairly good job of not requiring a background in academic Buddhism to understand it, though I want to grab a kyôsaku and smack a lot of these ancient scholars he quotes when they take the logical equivalent of a running broad jump with the word “thus”.

Stover contributes a good tale to the timeline of events subsequent to Return of the Jedi; the book stands well on its own as another adventure for the heroes of the movie, though consulting Wookieepedia shows he’s filling in the details of events that were already sketched out in the Expanded Universe timeline. This book is an homage to Brian Daley’s Han Solo novels; in the words of the author, “a pop-top can of 100% pure Grade-A whipass”. The writing is very colorful, and Stover captures the voices of the characters from the movie quite well.

Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between is the fourth book from Brad Warner, dubbed both the “Porno Buddhist” (for blogging about Buddhism at the alt-porn site Suicide Girls) and “Buddhism’s enfant terrible”. Warner notes that no one has yet produced a book on the Buddhist perspective on modern issues in sex and relationships, and sets out to give his Hardcore Zen perspective on the matter. It includes a long and interesting interview with pornographic actress Nina Hartley, who shows a much stronger claim on the title “Porno Buddhist”. The writing varies from earnestly serious to hilariously irreverent, and he shows what I see as a sensible approach to everything from masturbation to BDSM. Like his other books, it stands on its own without requiring material from the others; this could serve as a (possibly shocking) introduction to Buddhist thought by showing how it reflects on familiar issues.

Karpyshyn (the writer on the excellent videogames Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect) has an excellent grasp on the viewpoint of the followers of the dark side of the Force, and can make even Sith Lords into sympathetic characters. In the conclusion of the Darth Bane trilogy, the Dark Lord of the Sith, having taken the trouble to eliminate all other Sith and establish the Rule of Two— that there is, at a given time, only one Sith master and one apprentice who will surpass and destroy him— is dubious as to whether his apprentice Darth Zannah is going to be able to be a proper successor to him, and seeks out dark rituals of immortality so the mantle of Sith succession will not fall on unworthy shoulders.

In addition to bringing in some of Darth Bane’s ties established in the earlier books, he also provides a Dark Jedi and a wild-talent dark side assassin for contrast to the more formal philosophy of the Sith. I strongly recommend this trilogy for anyone who needs to create competent, believable villains for their stories and games: none of the characters are mad, cackling evil-for-evil’s-sake; they are all heroes in their own minds.

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma explores Brad Warner’s “Hardcore Zen” perspective through an annus horribilis in which he dealt with his mother and grandmother dying, his marriage breaking up, and losing his dream job. (A lot of the material will be familiar to people who have followed his blog at Suicide Girls.) One of Warner’s goals in writing the book is to point out that Zen masters (he prefers the term “Zen teacher”) are not paragons of virtue, and need to be held to the same standards as everybody else, and he shows it by giving a blunt, warts-and-all look at his own foibles as well as some things that he sees as outright scams being perpetrated in the name of Buddhism. Like his first two books, this is a good look at Zen and the effects you can really expect from investing large amounts of time in zazen, without any of the mystical hype.

Maya Deren is better known as a dancer and filmmaker. This book is the result of her traveling to Haiti with a plan to film the local dances for representation purely as an art form, and coming to the realization that she couldn’t do so with artistic integrity. Instead, she felt the need to understand the local religion of voudoun.

The book gives a good look at the mythology and culture of voudoun, and how the religion integrates into the community. Haiti’s slaves were brought from several different regions in Africa, and Deren shows how the different heritages manifest in everything from the various loa to the ritual drumbeats.

Deren provides copious footnotes and references to anthropological literature; in 1953, it would have been a good starting point for more extensive research. Her up-close perspective is interesting, but the structure is rather academic and makes it a slow read.

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