Category Archives: Reading

Review: The Quantum Magician

I don’t do a lot of book reviews on here, mostly because I don’t read enough of the latest stuff for it to really make sense. I am, however, going to do one today, because I just finished reading Derek Kunsken’s The Quantum Magician.

Now, full disclosure, and as you will know from previous blogs, Derek and I are friends, so factor that into your calculations as you read. However that may be, I had not read The Quantum Magician prior to it being published, and had only a very vague sense of what it was about – really just Derek’s one-sentence pitch of ‘Ocean’s Eleven in space’, which turns out to be about right.

Here’s the thing with Quantum Magician, though. Derek writes hard SF, and (as you will also know from previous blogs) I am not, in general, much of a hard SF fan. Very often when I read hard SF stories, I come away thinking that the ideas were neat but that there were no characters. All the stories I write are basically about people, and in a lot of hard SF I feel like there are hardly any actual people at all. Now, I have had this reaction to very well-loved and major award-winning stories, so I know this isn’t any kind of objective measure of quality, it’s just what I happen to like.

And The Quantum Magician definitely counts as hard SF. All of the science in it has clearly been very carefully thought through; nothing happens, and none of the characters do anything, without there being a rigorously established explanation as to how they do that thing and why that thing happens. I assume the science is all accurate. I would be lying if I said I fully understood all of it. But, after a thorough sensor sweep, we find no detectable levels of Handwavium here.

But, and here’s the big thing for me, the characters are amazing. The people we meet in this book are all really interesting and fun to spend some of your time with. I wanted to know more about all of them. A lot of love and care has very obviously gone into crafting each one of these imaginary people, and the result is a story, or interweaving of stories, that works on a human level just as much as it does on a scientific one.

So, I reckon hard SF fans will love The Quantum Magician, but if you’re like me and generally steer away from that particular flavour, I would still heartily recommend giving this one a shot. I’m not really qualified to assess whether the characters are better than the science, or vice versa, but they’re both really compelling and good. I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series.

—–

There’s been a lot of really upsetting and difficult things happen in the world since I wrote the last blog entry, and although I feel like I should write some kind of response, I’m also not sure what there is to be said about any of it. There’s a lot of darkness in the world right now, and it isn’t always easy to feel very hopeful.

I don’t have any deeply wise observations or magic solutions. About all I can think to say is that each of us can and should keep doing the best we can in the world around us, every day. We can’t single-handedly fix the big issues, but we can do little things every day. We can also call out the big problems when we see them. I think that’s important, too.

Part of doing both of those things is telling great stories. Let’s all keep doing that, too.

Thank you for reading.

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Infinite Wars

This entry is not about the Infinity War trailer, although it is kind of caused by it. I’m pretty sure.

The more direct cause is a friend of mine complaining/observing on the internet that there are a great many movies about war. I guess the immediate reaction to that might be that of course there are, because wars are exciting (whether it’s a good kind of excitement or not depends on the reader/viewer) and people like to make exciting stories. It is also, of course, a weathered old chestnut that there is no story without a conflict, and a war is in a lot ways conflict writ large.

So it makes sense that there are a lot of war stories. Humanity has also, it is undeniably true, fought a great many wars, and many of those make for dramatic and exciting stories, either told as-is or used as fodder for embellishments, reweavings, and reimaginings. So again, it makes sense that there are a lot of war stories.

Particular to movies like Infinity War, superhero stories seem particularly to depend on violent conflict, good guys vs bad guys, and superhero stories are notably popular right now (although I reckon the wave is close to cresting, if it hasn’t already), so again – lots of violent stories to be told. At first glance, there isn’t much of a tale to be told about Tony Stark in a board meeting – at least, not compared to the whiz-bang-kaboom of the heroes fighting. So it makes sense, the stories that get told.

And yet.

There are of course many kinds of stories that do not include any kind of war or violence, that people find engrossing and thrilling and enjoy a great deal. There are whole genres of entertainment devoted to stories that, although they have conflict, don’t have any kind of fight. I suppose they tend not to get promoted quite as loudly as the warlike ones, which probably suits the subject matter.

This all seems relatively straightforward, and yet I don’t really think my friend was wrong in his complaint, because when you look at the particular genre of fiction that write and tend to consume the most – fantastic fiction – it does tend to skew very heavily towards stories that centre around violent conflict, in some form.

Not every story, of course, and the conflict is there to greater and lesser degrees in different stories, but it is a rare SFF story that doesn’t have a bomb go off at some point, or at least an assassin lurking in the shadows. We tend to tell fairly bloody stories, much of the time. Again, this is at least in part because conflict, violent conflict, is exciting. This has all been true for a very long time.

What I got to thinking was a very interesting question from all this, though, was whether or not there are equally exciting SFF stories to be told that are about peace rather than war. About solving problems, one would suppose, but solutions that do not involve shooting anything, hitting anything with a sword, or blowing anything up. It seems as though the answer very much should be yes – doesn’t it?

I’m sure I’m far from the first to think about this, I don’t have any good answers as to what such a story would look like, yet, and I feel ever-so-slightly hypocritical to be mulling this over at the same time as I’m finishing (he said hopefully) my tale of a rather lethal Victorian spy. But I think it’s an interesting question, I think it’s potentially an important question, as we consider what kind of stories we want to add to this intensely violent world we live in, and I’m going to keep working on it in the weeks ahead.

Maybe I can make that one friend stop complaining.

(I hope it goes without saying that if you have favourite non-violent SFF tales, shoot ’em my way. I would love to add to my mountainous ‘to read’ pile.)

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In Praise of Readers

Late last week I sent out another (by which I really mean ‘the second’) chunk of the current WIP to some Eager Volunteers to see what they thought. I’ve been finding the writing hard going of late and I hoped this might help.

It did.

The Volunteers emailed back almost right away, one having read the piece while plagued by insomnia (which is a decision that’s possible to read in a couple ways, but never mind) and sent back their usual thoughtful response, which included some useful criticism, some questions, and some compliments.

On some level the praise is most obviously useful to me in my current situation. Everyone likes a pat on the head and having someone whose opinion I respect say that they’re enjoying what I’m working on will probably always feel good. So that’s a nice shot of positivity to encourage me to keep working away. It also helps to hear that someone wants to learn more about a particular character, or to know what’s going to happen; I guess obviously a writer is always hoping to generate interest and it’s both pleasing and a relief to know that in at least a couple of cases, I’m setting the hook okay.

The criticism is very nearly as useful, though, because concrete areas where the story needs work are better than a sense of generalized unease where I know there are things that aren’t right but not exactly what they are, much less how to fix them. It’s always easier to have something like a bullet list (har) of things that need to be taken care of than a vague idea that Stuff needs to be Fixed. Having people where there’s a strong enough trust that they tell me what they really think, and they know that I really do want to know what they really think, and not just get a pat on the head, is (as I am discovering) both rare and incredibly valuable.

The questions never cease to fascinate me, because the things readers are intrigued by and want to know more about seem always to include things that I never anticipated. I wrote a while ago about how a character in The King in Darkness that I didn’t think anyone would have any particular interest in ended up getting a scene added to the final draft to finish their story, because readers kept asking about it. So it already is with this piece, and what it mostly does is make me happy that what I’m writing can be interpreted and understood in a variety of ways (because if a reader understood it exactly the same way as I do, writing it, they wouldn’t have some of these questions), which is something I always enjoy when I’m reading and very much want to create when I’m writing. It also gives me ideas for things to do next, which is also very valuable.

All of which to say that the responses I get from my Eager Volunteers is a treasure to me as a writer, and makes my task in creating the story so much easier and the final project immeasurably better. I have had a good number of genuinely well-meaning people offer to take on the task and had it not work out (which I completely understand – if nothing else, it’s not easy to devote some of one’s precious store of free time to reading something they may not even like), so that makes the people who are willing to put in the time struggling through a rough-hewn story and then also take the time to share their responses and reactions to it with me a very special breed.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank them once again, because I appreciate what they do more than I can say. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day. Thank you very much indeed.

I am also aware that I owe a similar debt to each and every one of my readers, without whom my stories would be silent words on the page and none of my characters, who I love very much, would ever have a chance to live. If you’ve read one of my stories, and thereby given some of my made-up people a home in your imagination, at least for a while, I thank you as well.

It is, of course, a truism that without readers there are really no writers in a meaningful sense, but sometimes it’s the obviously true facts that need to be acknowledged. I’m grateful to everyone who has ever taken the time to read one of my stories; I can think of few better compliments for a writer than ‘I would like to spend some time with your imagination’. I am especially grateful to the readers who let me know what they thought about what they read. A lot of it makes me better, and all of it helps me want to write more. Without writers, people have nothing to read, and without readers, it would be the next thing to impossible to call oneself a writer.

So once again, I thank my readers.

Now to try to do some more of my half of the bargain.

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Point of No Return

This is a little bit more of a reading issue than a writing issue for this week but I have writing questions about it as well, and anyway what the heck. There are no rules here.

Over the last week I’ve been enjoying a fantastic book by a friend of mine (it’s Daughter of the Wolf by Victoria Whitworth, and you should check it out) and I reached a point in the story where I knew I had to read through to the end. That meant staying up a little later than I planned, but it didn’t matter. The story had gone past some kind of tipping point where the idea of stopping was now unacceptable and I had to see how things were going to work out. Sometimes there is nothing you can do.

This doesn’t happen with every book I read. There have been plenty of stories that I have read, even ones that I enjoyed very much, where I didn’t experience this feeling of momentum or narrative gravity where going on to the end was inevitable. To be clear, I almost always finish a book once I start it, and I feel guilty on the rare occasions when I don’t. However, that doesn’t mean that I always get that feeling of ‘I must finish this story immediately’.

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on in the books where this does happen to trigger the feeling off. Most well-crafted stories have a narrative that builds towards an exciting or engaging climax and jack up the tension or stakes as they go along, so on some level you want to know what happens. A story that doesn’t do that doesn’t really work very well. So I would just say that this ‘tipping point’ I experience is just the sign of a good story, except, again – there are lots of stories that I’ve enjoyed very much overall where it didn’t happen. Like, I don’t remember it happening with Lord of the Rings, for example.

I guess there may be some arcane literary alchemy of suspense, plot, and character that generates the tipping point for me, and it likely includes something from my end of things as well. Probably my own mood and energy level are involved somehow – although again, in this most recent example it was late (for me) and my intention was (as it always is in the evening) to read a little to help me wind down and let the day go and get ready for sleep, as I’ve done for as long as I can remember. Instead I urgently needed to finish this story.

I’m not complaining – it was a great story with a good ending. I just wish I understood how it worked, both out of curiosity as a reader and also as a writer, because if I knew the trick I would love to be able to ensure that my stories all had such ‘tipping points’ where the reader is drawn irresistibly along for the rest of the ride. It’s a very fun feeling as a reader, and I guess obviously I’d like it if it was there in what I write as well.

Of course I suspect that there is no actual formula, and that it probably varies from reader to reader, and that probably some readers never experience the feeling at all. I think it’s a shame for those who never do, only because it is honestly quite exhilarating to have a story take you in its grasp and take you where it wants you to go, for a while.

I suppose it’s also better that it doesn’t always happen, because then starting a new book, I never know when, or if, I’ll hit the tipping point.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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