A Little Exposure for the Little Guys
This is the third instalment of my survey of small press and self-published books received at the SF Site office over the past few months -- books you may not otherwise have heard about. My aim is to offer a quick look at some of these lesser known works and my initial impressions of them. Plus, in this instalment, I'll sum up my overall perceptions of what I've looked at so far.
The author is currently a Professor of Systems Engineering at the University of Virginia and "has spent his entire professional life in High Tech Hell." This satiric and often amusing novel will be of interest primarily to those who are deeply enmeshed in the high tech culture -- which, at this point, is probably most of us. I'm no techie, so maybe one or two of the references and jokes went over my head, but I still found this to be a worthwhile tour.
Les Smart is the Dante character; Marvin ("just call me Tour Guide") Cuddlesworth is his Virgil; and Pamela the Poster Girl is his Beatrice. The sins of the modern world have resulted in a need for new torments in Hell, and Les is given a preview of this new High Tech Hell so that he might make some changes in his life to avoid his possible fate of a more permanent visit sometime down the road.
The opening, when we first meet embittered telemarketer Les Smart, is intensely funny. The absurdity of Earth, Hell and Heaven, and the caustic satire never let up, but the humour -- particularly the "what in the hell" line of joking -- does begin to grow a bit stale after a while. Ignizio takes pot shots at a whole range of people and aspects of modern culture. Some favourite high tech targets include cell phones, call waiting, telemarketing, computer games, the Internet, and -- perhaps the favourite -- Microsoft. Other modern culture targets include fast food, malls, Hollywood, lawyers, and the "beauty" industry:
"I turned around and found myself face to face with the thinnest woman I had ever seen outside of pictures of concentration camps. She made Lucy, my wafer-thin wife, look like a candidate for Weight Watchers. The woman was perhaps 30 years old, but her eyes made her seem far older. Her lips, particularly her lower lip, seemed puffy and pouty. In short, she looked like a real life TV or movie actress -- or possibly a supermodel."It's a short book and a fast read, sure to satisfy your high tech cynicism -- and give you a few grins along the way.
The Grandfather Paradox and Treachery on the Dark Side
Steven Burgauer is a man bristling with ideas. The Grandfather Paradox is filled with explanations (often with diagrams included) of such concepts as time-travel, gravity wells, Confederate and Union troop movements leading up to the battle of Shiloh, and a lengthy discourse on the history and strategies of Poker. Although his topic is generally interesting, the presentation is often somewhat pedantic. Yes, it's true that the author may take great pains to set up a situation in the course of the narrative that requires one character lecture another (with diagrams included), but when this happens too often it begins to push at the bounds of a reader's patience.
Nevertheless, The Grandfather Paradox is a fairly entertaining, if somewhat flawed, time-travel story. The (token?) sex scene, which appears relatively early on, is essentially an adolescent male's fantasy. And true to adolescent male form, it's all over with in no time at all. The only reason why the plot requires 3 beautiful young identical female clones seems to be to satisfy this fantasy sex scene. After the sex is over with, 2 of the clones are quickly killed off so that the story may continue. The remaining clone, Margaret (née Prime Alpha), is a completely unbelievable character, unfortunately.
The story follows the hero, Andu Nehrengel, across light years of space -- a space without any known sentient life -- to a distant world in search of the originators of what appears to be a message. The message turns out to be, ironically enough, from an Earth colony ship that went astray centuries ago. These folks had a lot of time to think so one of their brilliant thinkers came up with a theory of time travel. Nehrengel puts the theory to the test and returns to the United States of the mid 19th century, during the Civil War years, in search of a distant forebear in order to cure himself of a degenerative genetic disorder. The second half of the book, therefore, takes place in the early 1860s -- and Samuel Clemens plays a not insignificant role.
I found Treachery on the Dark Side to be a more straightforward and overall more enjoyable story. Burgauer still drops all sorts of interesting information on the reader -- from chaos theory to the evolutionary functions of the female orgasm -- but it's done a little more smoothly this time.
This novel is the story of Fornax Nehrengel, grandfather to Andu Nehrengel from the previous novel. Either book, however, can be read without knowledge of the other. Fornax is an unwilling soldier in the Afghan army of the 25th century during a war with China. After an outrageously lucky shot with an old-fashioned pistol, which saves his own life and ends that of the son of the Chinese Overlord Ling, Fornax deserts and resumes his academic pursuits elsewhere in the world. He discovers a potential use for the energy seeping into space from the dark side of the moon, which has become a dumping ground for Earth's nuclear waste. Fornax is clever enough to find his way to the moon in order to run some tests and do a little undercover research, but he needs funding in a major way. Plus Overlord Ling is out for revenge. Plus Fornax has secret service operatives on his tail. There are spies spying on spies and Fornax is caught up in the middle of it all.
All in all, plenty of action and adventure, some interesting ideas and fun concepts, but relatively two-dimensional characters. I've always preferred credible characters; I find that if the characters aren't alive for me, the story isn't either.
If you've stayed with me over the course of all 3 parts to my overview of small press and self-published material, you'll already know that my experiences have been hit and miss. I've found one or two real gems, one or two real stinkers, and the rest have fallen somewhere in the middle. Probably the same findings you could expect from a random sampling of genre titles from the big-name presses.
Every one of the books I've looked at so far has been a trade paperback. (A couple of them are also available as e-books, but I'll be talking about digital books over the course of the next few weeks; right now I'm talking about the real thing -- books that trees died for.) On the whole, the artwork has been of a lesser quality than what you'll find from the big publishing houses. I'm not saying that all or even most of it sucks; just that these books don't have Michael Whelan covers on them -- not surprising. Despite that, the packaging has been of a fairly high quality: good paper, solid binding, no pages printed upside down or blank. Art aside, they look and feel like any other books on your shelves. Nothing to be afraid of on that score.
The quality of the writing has been all over the map, from amateur to highly professional. Likewise the editing. In fact, the two generally go hand in hand. (And there's certainly nothing new about that!) Some of the publishers don't offer editing services, so all they're doing is putting the author's text into print, and some of the authors obviously haven't hired professional editors. The results can be more or less disastrous. On the other hand, others have maintained consistently high standards. Most of the books I've looked at, and a great many more small press and self-published titles, are available on Amazon.com (or Amazon.co.uk), often accompanied by reader reviews. Some of the presses and/or authors have websites of their own and offer excerpts online so you can see if you might be interested enough to read the whole thing.
The "cool factor" also varies widely, from nothing really new to some truly amazing SF concepts. And this may be the key to what I'm trying to get across. There are some small press and self-published books out there that are well-written, professionally packaged, and exploring cutting-edge SF ideas. So why not give the little guys a try.
Next up: e-books...
Next time (SF Site mid-June issue), I'll have a look at a few e-books that have come our way.
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