Review: Lydia Millet’s Pills and Starships

Pills and Starships cover

Pills and Starships, by Lydia Millet

One of the great problems with discussions of climate change is the bleak future they tend to paint. In the worst cases, the ice caps melt, rising seas flood coastal cities, diseases mutate and run rampant, institutions value people by their carbon footprint, and mega-storms wreak havoc on what’s left. Add to this rising economic inequality and the domination of the poor by the rich and you have a pretty depressing mix. It’s no wonder most people would rather talk about the latest celebrity meltdown. Unless you’re a writer. In that case, climate change is a setup for a perfect dystopia.

That’s what debut author Lydia Millet gives us in Pills and Starships, an engaging epistolary novel that’s part science fiction and part cautionary tale. It features Nat, a bright if detached 17-year-old girl living as one of the privileged few a couple of decades after the “tipping point,” when global warming finally pushes the earth over the edge. For the first half of Pills and Starships, Nat appears to take her world in stride, aware that things have gone to hell, compared to what the earth was like according to her elderly parents, but accepting things as they are. Don’t all old people claim that things were better in the past? All a young person knows is what they know. History is bunk. Continue reading

Review: Homer’s Odyssey As An LGBT Road Trip

Love in the Time of Global Warming cover

Love in the Time of Global Warming, by Francesca Lia Block

Love in the Time of Global Warming, a short novel by Francesa Lia Block, author of the controversial Dangerous Angels (Weetzie Bat) series for teens, has almost nothing to do with global warming. But it has everything to do with a teenage girl whose world has lost its shape and whose idea of love has yet to take shape. The dystopian world in which she lives is in the same jumble as her emotions, and it takes an epic road trip to clarify who she is and what’s important. For the adult reader familiar with the literary references to Homer’s Odyssey, it’s a fun way to pass a weekend. For the young adult reader, it’s a typical fantasy with LGBT overtones that a daring high school lit teacher could use as a companion to the classic story.

The narrative concerns Pen, short for Penelope, a geeky, art-loving, wisp of a girl whose mother, father, and little brother are feared dead after an enormous earthquake and follow-on tsunami that destroys Los Angeles and points inland. Pen likes nothing better than to immerse herself in the fantasies of the classical age, and her life soon mirrors Odysseus’ voyage from shipwreck to Ithaca. Sent on a journey in a VW bus that burns vegetable oil, Pen meets up with the requisite crew of other teenage misfits. They encounter their share of mythical creatures and magical humans, all straight from Homer, including 21st-century versions of Cyclops, Circe the witch, the Sirens, and the drugged-out Lotus Eaters. Continue reading

Review: Giving the Cold Shoulder to Antarctica

Antarctica cover

Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I’ve been a fan of master science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson ever since the Mars Trilogy, which dealt with terraforming the Red Planet. Now that humanity is engaged in an accidental terraforming experiment on its own world, it was the right time for me to read Antarctica, one of Robinson’s lesser-known novels. I was curious how he treated the changes sure to come to the South Pole, because I’m looking at a similar scenario in my own current project, The Princes of Antarctica.

Published in 1997, Robinson’s story takes place more than 50 years later, just after the expiration of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The treaty and several other agreements set aside the entire continent as a nature and science reserve. But the politics of preservation versus wealth creation stalls renewal of the treaty, and a series of unexplained incidents sparks an informal investigation by an aide of an influential senator with progressive leanings. Robinson weaves his trademark mix of science, history, politics, and human aspiration into a sprawling narrative. Climate change overhangs the novel, making it an early example of the climate fiction / nature fiction genre. Continue reading

A New Heritage Area in Washington State?

Maritime Heritage Area announcement

Congressman Derek Kilmer of Washington State discusses a proposal to create a Washington Maritime National Heritage Area on Puget Sound and nearby waters.

I’ve been monitoring efforts to create a maritime heritage area in Washington State that would cover Puget Sound (including Seattle), the Strait of Juan de Fuca between the U.S. and Canada, and the Pacific Coast of Washington State. This week, two Washington State congressmen, Derek Kilmer of the 6th district and Denny Heck of the 10th district, announced their intent to introduce a bill to designate the region’s shoreline as the Washington Maritime National Heritage Area. During an event at the Foss Waterway Seaport museum in Tacoma, Washington State’s historic preservation officer, Allyson Brooks, said Sen. Maria Cantwell would sponsor a version of the bill in the U.S. Senate.

Maritime heritage enthusiasts and scholars have pushed the idea of a national heritage area in western Washington for about 10 years. If enacted, the area would fall under the National Park Service’s Heritage Area program, which oversees 49 similar areas across the U.S., mostly east of the Mississippi River. The areas promote local economic growth and preserve sites and landmarks with cultural and historical significance. Each area is managed by local officials, with no new regulatory authority over management or preservation given to the National Park Service. Washington State supporters see a heritage area as a major tourism draw, especially to rural counties. A small amount of money for promoting the area comes with the designation.

The Kilmer/Heck/Cantwell proposal raises the profile of a heritage area in Washington State, but the legislation’s immediate prospects in Congress are dim. The Republican-controlled House opposes any new law perceived as an extension of federal power, no matter how benign. A heritage area is mostly an honorific, and as Brooks pointed out several times, carries no new regulatory authority.

Opponents have prevailed so far. For example, a proposal to create a similar area around the mouth of the Columbia River failed after conservative local residents used the weak, but effective “slippery slope” argument: If you let the feds declare a heritage area, what’s to stop them from confiscating your land, taking your guns, making you sign up for Obamacare, and similar silliness. The GOP wants to reform the law governing heritage areas, but a bill to do just that is stuck in committee, and the website gives that measure an 11 percent chance of passage. Even state lawmakers are leery of the idea of a heritage area; A measure in the Washington Legislature to designate a state version died in the state senate earlier this year.

Despite the good a maritime heritage area would do for local communities, DC politics will likely keep the idea on the back-burner for a long time. Cantwell might be able to push a bill through the Senate, but the House is another matter entirely. Kilmer and Heck are Democratic newcomers to Congress, and their influence is limited. It’s going to be a case of introducing legislation every year until the Congress moves left or the supporters get lucky enough to find a majority.

Disclosure: I’m communications director for Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, which could benefit from a maritime heritage area. Opinions expressed here are my own.

Review: A Being Darkly Wise

A Being Darkly Wise Cover

A Being Darkly Wise, by John Atcheson

Environmentalists share a kinship with devotees of religion the former prefers to ignore and the latter enjoys lampooning. Extremists in both camps have a matching emotional commitment to their cause an anarchist or Taliban mullah would admire. Both have a mystical attachment to an idea, one an invisible spiritual value of nature, the other a devotion to an unseen God. Except for Jake Christianson, the antagonist in John Atcheson’s self-published psychological thriller, A Being Darkly Wise. Christianson brings both traditions together into a megalomanical monster, while another monster worthy of Greek or Norse mythology lurks nearby.

The protagonist, Pete Andersen, is a middle-aged, mid-level bureaucrat in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sick of the insularity and unresponsiveness of Washington D.C. politics. He’s disillusioned by his careerist colleagues, whose drive for power leads to watered-down policies on combating climate change. And he suffers a guilt complex over the murder of his brother, which prevents him from taking on K Street lobbyists working for the coal and oil industries. Andersen is the cubicle drone ordinary people fear becoming. Continue reading

Review: Memory of Water

Memory of Water cover

The cover of Memory of Water

The stereotypical dystopian film and novel, such as A Clockwork Orange or 1984, presents a dark, violent, dysfunctional world with humans under the thumb of an oppressive regime. Memory of Water, the debut novel from Finnish author Emmi Itäranta, adds an extra dimension to her dystopia, a drying Earth where fresh water is protected by secrets and violating the government’s right to control water resources can get you executed. The Earth’s changing climate is as tyrannical as the military government in Itäranta’s story, and as deadly.

The story is simple and straightforward: Noria Kaitio, the 17-year-old daughter of a master in an ancient line of tea ceremony practitioners, is about to graduate into the family business. Her gruff, but loving father shows her the family secret, a freshwater spring hidden from the local village and the military, which controls all water resources. Her father dies and her emotionally distant mother departs the village, and Noria must decide whether to protect her secret and her own future, or reveal it to relieve a crisis in the village.

I’ve always loved films and books from Scandinavian countries for their moody atmospherics, and Itäranta does not disappoint. Her style is light, almost contemplative, even as the inevitable consequences of Noria’s choice bear down on her. The primary color of Memory of Water is blue: the blue of a Scandinavian sky, the blue of sky reflected on water, and the blue of the circle painted on the doors of water law breakers. But blue does not describe Noria’s mood. She is remarkably serene as her world falls apart. Continue reading

How to write a gripping news release for your new book

This is me writing a news release in 1947. Just kidding.

In my day job as communications director for a pair of tall ships, I write a lot of news releases, mostly announcing where the ships will be and when. Our non-profit company has no money for advertising, so we depend on local TV stations, newspapers, and bloggers to help us get the word out. I’m assuming that you, as an independent author, have little or no funds for a full-scale publicity campaign. Some of the techniques I’ve learned can help you get the attention of editors for your new book. You start with the tried-and-true of answering the basic questions: Who, what, when, where, how, and most importantly, why.

Who: Tell the editor who you are in one paragraph, sticking to facts relevant to your book. What other books have you written? How long have you been writing? What makes you qualified to write this book?

What: Tell the editor about your book in a single paragraph. What is the title? What is a one-sentence summary of your book? What is its genre? How long is it? What are the other books in the series?

When: The time elements of your news release take two forms, those related to the release of your book, and those related to promotional events, such as signings or readings. When will your book be available for purchase? When will you appear for author signings? (“Where” is also important for the latter element.) Continue reading

How to abandon a draft without feeling like a failure

Pink Floyd’s Time reminds us that time is limited. But false starts offer the promise of a second chance.

I scribbled my way through the first six and a half chapters of my latest project, The Princes of Antarctica, when I ran out of gas this week. The feeling was just like the shock and disappointment I had in 1987 as I drove up Interstate 5 from Redding, Calif., to see my girlfriend in Ashland, Ore. With no warning, the motor in my cherry red ‘66 Impala gave a few lurches and quit, forcing me to the shoulder. Gas was not reaching the carburetor. I was going nowhere. The same happened with the draft. Halfway through chapter seven, the motor in my head failed. I had to abandon 30-odd pages by the side of the road.

Inspiration is a devil armed with false promises. It shows you a shiny object but doesn’t tell you its worthless until you’ve played with it, sometimes for weeks or months. You can see the result in any writer’s trash, virtual or otherwise. Disgusted with what he sees, he rips the “half a page of scribbled lines” from the yellow pad and tosses it into the pile of other “plans that have come to naught.” (Thank you, Pink Floyd.) Understanding that the story is implausible or the characters boring can tear at a writers’ confidence. He may think the dream is lost, that the great thing he wanted to say is not so important.

Is a false start a sign of failure? No, it’s a signal for patience. You’ve left the starting block prematurely. Your idea may be sound, but the execution is broken. It’s okay to quit and begin again. For one writer’s perspective on false starts, read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay, “One Hundred False Starts,” published in 1933. For him, starting over was part of the game.

Fitzgerald advises to start with a compelling emotion from the writer’s experience. He doesn’t mean autobiography, but it helps if you know what you’re talking about. That’s what I did with the latest re-start of The Princes of Antarctica. With the emotion in mind (no spoilers), I plunged into a new opening on Thursday, and found the words flowing from my fingers. Here’s hoping for a fair start.

Excerpt: Extinction’s Kapitan Gore tells his story

Tiger in the Jungle

A detail from Tiger in the Jungle, by Yuri Kravchenko.

As the corsair sub Extinction cruises the open waters of the Arctic Ocean, a cooling system on its ancient nuclear reactor fails. Brother Martin Scribb, kidnapped and made one of the crew, saves the boat with some quick thinking. He is invited to the cabin of Kapitan Gore, the boat’s commander. The monstrous master of Extinction reveals his story in this excerpt from chapter 21 of Carbon Run.

Martin Scribb sat in the captain’s great cabin, sweating. Extinction’s air was kept at a low humidity to resist corrosion, but here in Gore’s living space, the humidity had to be 90 to 100 percent, Martin thought. Tropical plants lined the walls, some with huge flowers with exotic scents that matched the thickness of the air. Mixed with the moisture and perfume was a whiff of decaying leaf litter. It was the smell of slow death. The only thing missing was the cacophony of insects mating, killing, and dying in a true jungle. The metal walls and deck were clear of the rust Martin would’ve expected in a humid environment. A special paint or coating fought off the inevitable oxidation.

Gore tapped at a tablet keyboard, his fingers dexterous despite their thickness and covering of tawny hair. The curved claws that the creature showed on Martin’s arrival were retracted, much like a real cat’s. Gore’s green-yellow eyes bored into Martin. “Well, Mr. Scribb. It seems you have saved Extinction.”

“Please, sir.” Martin picked up on the military forms of address favored on the sub. “I’m a brother of the Penitents of Saint Francis.”

“I see… Brother Scribb.” Gore grimaced, which Martin took as a kind of smile, though the teeth were that of a carnivore, not an omnivore. “Allow me to say thank-you. You are the hero of the hour.”

Martin, like most people who act quickly in an emergency, did not feel himself a hero. “If I had not acted, everyone on board might’ve died, myself included.”

“Indeed. And you are responsible for enough death, aren’t you?” Continue reading

10 omens that auger self-publishing for your novel

Crystal ball

Look into my crystal ball and learn if self-publishing is for you.

Authors new and established face a question unthinkable a few years ago: Should I publish my book myself? Some writers finish a novel and go right to self-publishing. Others go the traditional route to see if an agent or publisher will take a chance on their work. For the latter group, here’s 10 omens that auger self-publishing your novel.

  • The volume of rejection emails from publishers and agents forces your email provider to suspend your account.
  • The pile of hard-copy unpublished manuscripts on your desk falls over and crushes your cat.
  • On your 54th birthday, your mother asks you if you’re ever going to make something of that masters in English you got in 1983.
  • You’re the only person in your writing group who hasn’t had his/her third novel published. Or second. Or first.
  • You measure success by the ratio of actual rejections by agents and publishers to no-response whatsoever.
  • Your royalty checks fail to cover your checking account’s overdraft fees.
  • You realize that three of your unpublished novels have the same ideas as A Time to Kill, Wool, and Fifty Shades of Grey.
  • The rejected manuscript the UPS guy delivered was typed on the IBM Selectric you owned before you bought the 1999 iMac you use now.
  • Your collection of rejection letters would paper the outside walls of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum combined.
  • A museum curator asks to use your early rejection letter for an exhibit on obsolete publishing models.

What signs and portents foretell self-publishing for you?

Joe Follansbee

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