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Month: May 2020

Review: Network Effect (Murderbot #5)

I adore Murderbot. Martha Wells’ dissociative, depressive, anxious, asexual, agender, soap-opera-loving AI is among the most brilliant and deeply human characters of modern science fiction. The four novellas that form the first arc of SecUnit’s life as a free agent are an absolute delight of cyberpunk espionage and military SF. So, when I knew a full-blown novel was coming, I. Could. Not. Wait.

Network Effect is listed as “Book 5” in the series, but really, it’s kind of Arc 2. Or possibly even just the beginning of it. The story follows Murderbot, living on the planet Preservation after the events in Exit Strategy. On the way back from a survey mission, its team is intercepted by a familiar space vessel. Some of them are taken captive, including Murderbot itself.

Things only get weird from there.

Network Effect is a more ambitious work than the preceding stories. It expands into various directions — from alien remnants and corporate intrigue, to AI identity and the extreme awkwardness of bots trying to figure out how friendship works. Some-magical-how, Murderbot manages to both be its lovable autistic self, and visibly grow before the reader’s eyes. The book even offers the POV of another SecUnit at some point, in a brilliant demonstration of how unique these individuals are.

The book takes a second to fire up all cylinders (like I know how cars work…). The first third is a tad slower than I would have liked. But it makes up for it with a much higher level of mystery, and a way more complex story. Once the entire cast is on stage, and the revelations start piling up, Network Effect not only reaches, but surpasses its predecessors on practically every level.

Martha Wells has unlimited credit with me at this point. If she only writes Murderbot novels for the rest of her life (I hope she does not, but, yunno, if), I will still be the happiest non-augmented human on Earth. And if you are yet to experience the brilliance of this series, there is a solution! First, find a shame nun meme, and look at it until you regret the choices that led you here. Then attack All Systems Red with extreme prejudice.

And for those of us up to date — Book 6, Fugitive Telemetry is coming out in less than a year!

Reading Update 05/27/20 – Ethan of Athos is Gay

My Vorkossigan Saga re-“reading” project on Audible just covered a book I had never read before. Ethan of Athos is a side story that only mentions Miles. Furthermore, it wasn’t even published in Bulgarian back when I read the series as a teenager. So, it was fun to experience something new in that universe.

It’s a lukewarm spy action story on a space station. We’ve all read those (and if you haven’t — what’s the matter with you?!), and Ethan delivers nothing new. With that said, it is also a story of a gay man, coming from an all-male planet that relies on technology for procreation. It does it awkwardly, with outdated ideas of bigotry that already aren’t all that prevalent, and are unlikely to survive a galactic expansion.

Now, we can all agree that the Vorkossigan Saga isn’t the most progressive series in the galaxy by today’s standards. The rigid duality of male and female, the cringe-inducing use of “it” to describe in-between genders. The overtly patriarchal and classist undertones. It doesn’t hold up when placed next to works like Ancillary Justice for example.

But most of the Vorkossigan Saga was written a long time ago, and by those standards, it is staggering how progressive it actually is.

Ethan of Athos was published in 1986. For all that I find Ethan himself to be obnoxiously naive, snooty, and annoying, he is a sympathetic portrayal of a gay man dealing with homophobia and misguided prejudice. And thriving. What’s more, Bujold gave him to us in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, in the year when the term “HIV” was created. In a mainstream entertainment genre, as part of an already successful series.

When viewed through the lens of that time period, Ethan of Athos is a truly remarkable work. And while it will never get near my favorite list of stories in that universe, I am very happy to have read it. Apparently, I could love Lois McMaster Bujold more.

Working on the Craft: Absent

Today’s exceptionally dorky text aims to describe a person who isn’t there. As Kiteley himself says, there are plenty of ways to do this — through physical observation, recounting actions, etc. For some reason, I immediately decided that my character would have just left a place and the POV would be that of people who are hiding from him. Then it got a little weird…

“Is he gone?” I asked, peering through the slits of the supply locker.

“He has to be, right?” Shari mumbled, doing the same to my right.

The locker was pretty intimate, what with the amount of mummified heads stacked neatly on every available surface – and imagine, if you will, my need to be trapped in a place devoid of dried-up body parts – but right now neither Shari, nor I were in any rush to get out.

“I haven’t heard an air cycle signal so far,” I pointed out. The only response was a groan.

I was groaning too, on the inside. Why either of us had thought it was a good plan to sneak aboard this particular ship, just as it was about to jump into Gatespace, was beyond me. No, wait. It wasn’t. We needed to make ourselves scarce, and fast. The station Lyctor had decided we were just the right shape and size to be scapegoated for the string of murders. It made sense to run away before she closed in on us.

It didn’t make sense to find ourselves into the ship of the actual killer. If that’s what the tall man with the strange globular helmet was.

“These were sounds of docking,” Shuri said after some more silence, punctuated only by the creaks and beeps of Gateship interior. “He was putting on an exposure tunic, you saw him.”

“Could mean he is going somewhere,” I agreed. “Could mean he is about to collect some more heads.”

I didn’t look her way, but I could smell her disapproval. “Even if that’s the case, Lim, let’s take it to the logical conclusion. Where does he keep his heads.”

“One is poking my butt,” I had to admit.


“Yes, therefore.”

I had no more arguments. The Gateship was small enough, that coming out of the supply locker was a risk. But the supply locker was small enough, that we would certainly be extremely discovered if he were to open it.

She began pressing her hands against the door, searching for the opening mechanism. “Did you see his eyes? He looks so–“

“Sexy, I know.”

“–psychotic,” Shari finished, her effort to open the door paused.

“Yep.” I was too diligent in trying to find the mechanism myself to meet her eyes. “Psychotic. Took the words right out of my mouth.”

“He kills people and decapitates them, Lim. Not even you are that desperate.” But she returned to her work.

Soon, there was a soft beeping sound – my memoirs will claim I’d found the lock first – and the door opened. We came out, both of us trying to look in every direction at once. There was no sound of footsteps, but then again, there hadn’t been any when he’d appeared in the hallway an hour ago either. He seemed to almost glide above the metal floor, his lean frame like some kind of attractive, decapitating kite.

“How long have we been out of Gatespace, do you think?” I asked Shari, trying to distract myself.

“About half an hour.” She was fairly distracted herself, leading the way down the corridor, peering behind corners before motioning me to follow.

“Do you think he docked with another station, or a ship?”

“No stations that close to ours.”


Another station would have meant a chance to slip out of the ship and escape. A ship? Well, where there was one sexy murderer, there could be more.

“Why do you think he kept the heads?” I asked.

Shari paused, turned around. “Lim.”



“Stop that. I am just curious.”

She rolled her eyes. “You have to stop this. Your taste in men is what got us into this?”

This was too much. It was exaggerated enough that I could ignore the kernel of truth and opt for being indignant. “Come on! In what universe is this my fault?”

Shari crossed her arms, raised her chin. I cringed.

“They have to be excessively damaged for you to like them. They have to be emotionally unavailable.”

“I don’t see how–“

AND…” She raised a finger to shush me. “They have to be borderline criminals.”

“I am not sure that’s fair.”

“That boy in the hyposlam ring?”

“He was duped.”

“The psycho that was skimming feed from engineering?”

“It was never proven…”

The actual literal burglar you tried to date after he robbed us?!

I had nothing for that one, so I kept silent. Shari’s crossed arms were judging me. “So, I am telling you, right now. I am drawing the line at “guy who cuts heads and mummifies them,” she continued. “I have been with you through a lot, but this is my hard no. And before you say anything more, know that–“

I never found out what I was supposed to know before I said anything more. She found it suddenly hard to express herself, due to the extremely prejudiced decapitation. An impressive length of flat, sharp metal hovered around where her head had just been, attached to a long, muscular arm. I suddenly found myself unable to look past that hand, so instead, I stared at the floor.

“Hi. I’m Lim,” I said. I was sure I was blushing.

How to Be a Dick to People, And Make a Good Story Out of It

At this point, I have vomited several hundred thousand words of text unto the world. A “practice” insta-trunk novel, nearly two complete drafts of a second one. A novella and several short stories. One might say I am beginning to gain “some experience”.

But in that experience, nothing gives me more cold sweat, than creating conflicts for my characters.

(Disclaimer: I am bundling here interpersonal, emotional, and outside conflicts. Naturally, all of those are profoundly different, and require different solutions. But the core principle of resolving them is, I believe, similar.)

Conflicts are tough for anxious people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. One, I try to avoid them at all cost in real life. Two, my mind goes into overdrive, scrambling to figure out the optimal course of resolution. Add it all together, and my writing really resists lending itself to making life hard for my characters.

Don’t get me wrong. I do it. But creating the conflict is actually the easy part. Ultimately, we can all imagine bad shit happening to us or people around us. We can all come up with hurtful or otherwise problematic interpersonal interaction. The real problem is the resolution. As a discovery writer, I constantly catch myself failing to use tools such as “try/fail” cycles. My instinct is always to just have the characters come up with what I see as the perfect solution, and then have it work.

But a working solution is not a working solution. It makes for a boring linear story. So, in my present writing, I am doing my damnedest to stick to at least the spirit, if not the letter of the following pattern. (I take no credit, of course. This has been invented by much smarter and far more experienced people than myself.)

1. What is the worst/most problematic thing that could happen in the current situation the character is in? DO THAT!

2. What is the smartest possible solution that the character could use? Have them try it, and make it fail spectacularly. Maybe even create further problems.

3. What is a new thing that could solve the problem? Have them try that too, and maybe resolve only part of the problem.

4. Keep going until your character is an emotional or physical wreck. Then repeat.

Of course, this is fiction. There are numerable permutations. But the most important storytelling tool I have found so far, is to challenge myself to fail at the “best course”. If I can have my own best laid plans collapse in flames, I am pushed to come up with a less obvious solution. And sure enough, one could overdo this and get into Convolution Town. But ultimately, it is the right course to create a conflict that won’t bore the reader.

I just wish it came to me easier. Maybe that’s my own try/fail cycle…

Reading Update 05/20/20 – The Bujold Cascade

In this week’s thrilling episode of “Adventures in Audiobooks”, our intrepid hero discovers another new thing about himself! Something magical occurred, and I don’t quite know how to explain it. Of course, it is of interest exclusively to me, and literally no one else in the universe, but hey! It’s my blog ^_^

So, after finishing Barrayar, I naturally slid into the next book in Bujold’s Vorkossigan Saga The Warrior’s Apprentice. Miles’ first adventure is cute, if far from her best work, but what happened next MIGHT SHOCK YOU!

Just kidding. I started listening to The Vor Game. Finished that one last night. Guess what I am listening to now? Yep, you got it — Cetaganda.

What is the point of this boring list, you ask?

Here’s the thing. I am not a serial reader. I have always struggled to maintain interest for the same writer/series over more than a couple of books. This has nothing to do with engagement or quality of the works. It genuinely hasn’t seemed to matter how interested I was when I read the last page. If it is a second or third novel in the same series, or by the same author, I find my capacity to continue drastically diminished. I need a break of pacing, a change in direction. Always have. My reading lists, when they include series, tend to be a checkerboard.

Not so with audiobooks. It seems that my brain is treating the information differently. Perhaps it’s due to how used I am to listening to podcasts. However, unless something changes, it appears that I can just keep going with a series indefinitely. Already 4 books into the Vorkossigan Saga, I feel like I can go on forever.

Moral of the story — as far as Simeon is concerned, audiobooks are good for re-reads and long series!

Working on the Craft: Evil

This cute little exercise aims to describe the scene of a murder from the perspective of the murderer. The goal is to have him get away, feel no remorse, and try to make him sympathetic to the reader. I don’t know if I succeeded in that last part, but it was creepy how easy it was to get into the pettiness of the character. Oh well, something to work on in therapy, I guess. For now, enjoy my murder scene ^_^

I walked into the commander’s office. He sat at his desk, hands directing the overlaying holos like a concert pianist. But there was no artistry in what he did. His back was straight even when nobody was around. His posture rigid, even when sitting. A military officer through and through, all hard edges and lack of imagination.

He looked up at me now, annoyed. The commander lived in a system of fixed rank-based value, and I – a lowly civilian – did not rank high. That I served a Magister directly was of no consequence. Here was an officer of the king’s army. In his mind, I was so far below him, that I wasn’t even on the same chart.

“What is it, advisor?” he asked gruffly. No names. Never names with the commander. You were your rank, if you had one, your profession otherwise. “I am incredibly busy, and I don’t recall seeing you on the schedule. In fact…” He looked at a chrono display on the left side of the desk’s surface. “I have no meetings scheduled at all for the afternoon.”

I could see his mind already composing the stern admonition he was going to give his assistant – a wormy ensign I had only passing compassion for. Letting the obnoxious Magisterial advisor walk unimpeded on his station was compromise enough, as far as the commander was concerned. But coming into his quarters unscheduled? Blasphemy.

“What is so funny?” His harsh voice interrupted my thoughts, and I fixed him with my most placating smile. I knew it would piss him off further.

“I apologize for coming unannounced,” I said, and sat in the chair in front of the desk, feeling a shiver of delight pass through me at his outrage. He hadn’t offered me a seat. “I fear this could not wait.”

“Advisor, may I remind you that you are on this station purely as a sign of my respect for your… superiors?” The commander’s stiff posture was now bristling. “You have a free run of the public areas here, as per your request, and that is as far as my generosity goes.”

“I am, of course, eternally grateful,” I responded, not trying to hide from my tone of voice just how eternally grateful I wasn’t. “Alas, I have found myself… dissatisfied with this arrangement.”

The sleet-gray eyes widened. “Dissatisfied? I am under no obligation to satisfy you, advisor.”

“See? It is this attitude.” I was keeping my cool now, though I could hardly contain how smug I felt. “When I arrived here, it was to observe the workings of the station for my lord Magister. He is interested in overthrowing the King, you understand, and it is outposts like this one that will serve him best.”

The commander stood still, stunned by my conversational candidness.

“Treachery,” he whispered.

“I wasn’t to do anything, of course. His plans are nowhere near completion.” I kept talking, as if the man before me wasn’t just about ready to jump across the desk, and strangle me. “But I just… I find you so unlikable, commander. So extremely unlikable.”

“You dare speak this way to me, in my own quarters.” He almost seemed to need to state the circumstances out loud, so he could believe them. Lack of imagination, as previously mentioned. “I only have to call out, and there will be a squad of soldiers here to arrest you.”

“You reckon? How would they hear you?”

“My assistant…”

“…is not at his post, I am afraid. And with him not around, who even knows you are at your office? It is, after all, way past your office hours.” He looked at his chrono, confused. “These desks are embarrassingly easy to hack and disconnect from the network,” I offered. I hadn’t thought his eyes had more bulge in them. I was delighted to be proven wrong. Any moment now, I thought. Time for the coup de grace. “Does anybody actually know where you are at this very moment, commander? Did you let your wife know you’d be working late? Poor thing must be so worried.”

He darted for the weapon under the desk. He was fast.

I was faster. My stunner bolt threw him back in his chair, paralyzed but still conscious. His eyes traced me as I rose from the chair, gun in hand, and walked around the desk, fiddling with the controls.

“I just want you to know, commander, that this is not part of a plan.” I spoke mildly now, fully engrossed in my villainous role. “Sure, you would have likely been removed once things were in motion. But this?” I looked at the now lethal energy weapon in my hand. Then I looked back at his mute face. “This is sheer pettiness. Because I genuinely, sincerely…” I put the gun to his temple. “…do not like you.”

The beam passed through his head, cauterizing each entry point as it evaporated his brain. His face remained frozen in its dumb expression of fear, eyes turned sideways, toward the gun that was no longer there. I wiped the weapon with a piece of cloth, then arranged his fingers around it.

There would be an investigation. It would find nothing. And most of the base hated the commander, so they wouldn’t look too deep, unless forced. By which point, I would likely be very far away from here.

I started whistling as the door closed behind me.

When Your Writing is Just Absolute Shit

I have been semi-hard at work on the second draft of my fantasy novel for the past many moons. It’s a chonker, clocking at about 200,000 words (which is definitely where you want to be with a debut novel, but that’s a different stress point). This draft has yielded a lot of new material, rearrangements, as well as the realization that a side character is completely unnecessary, and should be excised in the next round of edits.

However, I want to talk about sucking. More specifically about me sucking. I do that, sometimes.

Somewhere around the beginning of the last quarter of the story, I realized that events needed to take a detour, for the purposes of tension building, try/fail cycling, and the like. Whether that detour has been successful, or even necessary, I won’t know until I get to the point where the book feels tight enough to do a speed-read. But the point is — I wrote a whole lot of new material.

Then I came back to the point where the story merged with the already existing chapters, and realized that said point also needed a complete rewrite. Characters were now in different places, their relationships changed, new information had come to light, and so forth. So I rewrote the chapter. I had some cool character beats. I felt great about it, and let it marinate for a day, before coming back to quick-edit it, and add it to the whole.

Boy, was it awful! The beats still felt cool, the story still went the way I felt it needed to. But the writing. Oh my god, the word choices, the sentence structure! It was tres tres garbage. I patched what I could, left the rest for a future re-read.

Stay with me. There is a point to this, I promise.

See, even as I was establishing my incompetence, lack of talent, and utter unworthiness to exist as anything but a cautionary tale of the hubris of thinking you can be creative when you obviously can’t… I knew that I couldn’t trust that feeling. Quarantine is tough. Anxiety. Depression. Getting on your loved ones’ nerves, and them trampling all over yours. For every moment of manic productivity, there has to be one of hopeless self-flagellation. Or rather, there doesn’t have to be one. But in my personal experience there usually is.

The point (as promised) of my sad exhibitionist ramblings is — it doesn’t matter.

I might actually, objectively, suck. I might be brilliant, but depressed. Likely, I’m somewhere in the middle, with most of humanity. But I know what I want, and what I want, is to keep writing. I believe that the only way for me to do this, is to accept that there will be moments where insecurity (or, hey — objectivity!) will get the better of me. Where even my best effort will seem like a vomit sundae. And that those moments don’t truly define what I can accomplish, how far I can go.

Accepting the feeling of suck, and moving past it. Writing even when it really seems like all you write is despicable trash. It’s the only way forward I can conceive of, if I want to come out on the other side of it.

Reading Update 05/13/20 – Barrayar

Today’s post will be a short one. An actual “update” if you will.

As previously mentioned, I decided to use the audiobook medium as a means of re-“reading” books. There is a lot of stuff I’ve wanted to get back to for the longest time, but couldn’t, because there was always something new to read. So, adding audiobooks to my “non-reading” time has been a game changer!

After finishing Dune, I went to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkossigan Saga, which I have been aching to come back to. I am going through them in order of internal chronology, and since I read Shards of Honor last year ago, I started listening to Barrayar. It is absolutely fantastic, just as I remembered it from my teens! Bujold’s writing is effortlessly engrossing, in a way that fills me with dark envy.

Sidebar: I am taking a stance against male narrators pitching their voice high when reading female-coded dialogue. Come on, dudes, it just makes the characters sound scared all the time!

Working on the Craft: Loving

The title says it all. The exercise asks that you write a short scene about someone you love. It challenges you to both make a conscious choice about the type of love you will be focusing on, and the means by which you do it. It is easy to become sappy, or to fall into stock phrases. I found it very exciting, however, because to me love is always in the details, whatever kind of love we talk about. So, here is my exhibitionist little scene about my boyfriend ^_^

He looks down at his notes, and I fall in love with him all over again.

He doesn’t lean, even though you’d think he would. He has this grace that tall, slim people sometimes have, a swan-like curve of the neck, where he just encompasses the notebook below him, rather than bending to read it. A pen is moving between his long fingers, sometimes touching his lips in an unconscious sign of thoughtfulness. You could draw a line from the feet of his crossed legs, running all the way up to that pen. It would be a bold line – a single fluid movement with no sharp angles, yet it would still look like a lightning.

The laptop is open on the desk in front of him, and it’s all gibberish to me. High mathematics are for people with better brains than mine. But to him it’s a language, and he is fluent in it. The code of the universe, and he can crack it. That is what stops me at the open door – a realization that strikes every time I see him work. His mind can encompass something so profoundly complex, that I have no choice but to be in awe of him. More so, for knowing how little of his ego is involved in the equation.

He works with quiet intensity. Not the dramatic movie style “10 seconds until detonation” type of intensity, but rather the deeply human drive to know and understand. To discover. I know the face I will see if I call out to him. Thin. Elegant. Beautiful. And deeply annoyed at me. His eyes will do the slow blink as he takes a moment to stop himself from snapping. I love him for that as well. He is in his zone, and I would be a distraction. Sometimes I draw his attention regardless. But not now. He is an explorer, and I’d rather just watch him explore.

Often, that is all I need.

He rolls the chair away from the desk, gets up, and walks to the mobile whiteboard by the wall. His movements carry an effortless grace. He is a dancer, even if his dance happens inside his mind. It has nothing to do with the music in his AirPods. When he traces the marker on the board, you can see the artistry. His movements are always broad, because even his confusion is underlined by confidence in his ability to comprehend. To solve.

His back is straight as he works, and he never hunches, although – again – you would expect him to. Tall people, especially tall people who stare at screens or boards all day, so often do. But in his office, in his natural habitat, he has made his world to fit his stature. He doesn’t hunch, because he never has to. There is beauty in this.

He notices me, standing by the door, and I act like I haven’t been there a while, but am just now passing by. He smiles.

There is beauty in this as well.

Magic as a Storytelling Tool

As someone who deeply loves magic, be it in fantasy, or Science Fiction, I have always been excited by different systems and the ways in which they are integrated within the story. Brandon Sanderson — a huge inspiration on various axes — has an entire theory about how magic should be used. I greatly recommend reading his First Law article, which sets down a strong correlation between magic systems and plotting. The entire thing is worth the time, but the law itself reads:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

On the surface of it, this makes a ton of sense — the less explicable your supernatural forces are, the more unsatisfying it is when they resolve a problem. Gandalf can wave his hands and divert storms. He can win willpower battles against gods and ancient spirits. But do we understand what the parameters and limitations of his magic are? We do not. Would we like it if, after three books of toil and strife, he shows up and just solves all problems? We would not. We are barely ok with the Gandalf Ex Machina already present in the trilogy!

But magic is not binary. Sure, prophecies, totemic and symbolic powers, and destiny are lazy ways to solve a problem. But they are certainly awesome at creating one. A world can be governed by laws far different from the reality we inhabit, and its heroes can still fight against those different laws. Magic doesn’t need to be systematically defined, in order to be part of a satisfying story. It just can’t solve that story’s main problems.

However, I think those two ways of approaching supernatural powers aren’t mutually exclusive. “Soft” magic can be your inciting incident. It can fully govern the world of your story and create all its problems. “Hard” magic can save the day. Because it is bound by rules and limitations which the reader understands, it is perceived as just another skill in the characters’ toolbox, and as such, it does not break the ability of the story to put them through the grinder.

Of course, this is all relative. Rules exist to be broken. Your story can be about the inevitability of failure in the face of overwhelming powers. Or it can be about a godlike being and their awesome abilities that we understand fully, but which no one can stand against. Or your “soft” magic can be a higher form of a hard system that you have just not revealed to the reader yet.

Still, to break a rule, you have to understand it. And I believe that Sanderson’s First Law is a unique attempt at discovering how the tropes of speculative fiction actually apply to literary structures. Magic is a great tool we have. But unless you are writing a role-playing system, or do not care about structure in your story, you have to use that tool in a way that enhances your work, rather than breaks it.