Book of the Month: Dark Matter

My September Book of the Month selection was enjoyable enough to read, but ultimately a disappointment.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch57b3642421eed-image

Jason Dessen is a family man, a brilliant physicist who chose domestic bliss over career success a decade and a half before we meet him. One night, after going out for a quick drink to celebrate a colleague’s achievement, Dessen is abducted by an unseen man asking “Are you happy with your life?”

Dessen is knocked unconscious, awakening to find himself in a world where he is at the cutting edge of theoretical physics…but his wife is a stranger and his son doesn’t exist.

Now, it may just be that I usually love this sort of story and have watched/read this kind of thing too much, but I immediately knew who had kidnapped Dessen and why. This story held zero surprises, but that actually wouldn’t have bothered me if it were better written. The plot felt rushed, giving us little time to connect to the gravity of Dessen’s situation or his feelings about it. His feelings are often stated directly in a single sentence that doesn’t evoke much. He is desperately in love with his wife because she has “Spanish eyes” and an “architecturally impossible” smile. We see several different iterations of this woman and none of them has much personality.

The whole story hinges on Dessen himself, he is our only true through-line, and he is just not particularly interesting. The most interesting side character doesn’t last long at all, and departs in a manner that makes it feel as though a critical scene was cut from the novel. The opening and the climax are the book’s strongest points, but the end fell short for me.

Overall, Dark Matter wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t a great one. The idea was stretched thin without the richness of engaging characters to sustain it. There was enough plot for a TV episode, but not a novel spanning hundreds of pages. Then again, I passed it off to a chemist friend who hasn’t been able to put it down. Make of that what you will.

If you like this type of story, I would recommend: Quantum Leap, the first two Terminator movies, the Back to the Future trilogy, Primer, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The One I Love, William Sleator’s Strange Attractors or Singularity, or The Twilight Zone series.

Random Review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

All the charm of a guy standing, arms folded, at a magic show and loudly explaining how he figured out all the tricks.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory DoctorowDownandout

In a future, deathless, society people with computers in their brains try to run Disney World.

That’s really all I can muster as far as a synopsis. I really did not like this book. I didn’t dislike it as much as Ready Player One, but it was close.

This book was so narratively uneven, I’m just going to analyze it using a list:

The Major:

  • The main character is horrible. Pompous, condescending, narrow-minded, and limited in both emotional range and depth of feeling. He verges on sociopathic, valuing people primarily for the benefits the offer in his life. The character acknowledges some of these flaws from time to time, but makes no effort to change or compensate for them. He just expects everyone to recognize his inherent rightness and fall in line.
  • I love Disneyland and Disney World, even hearing about the technical development and detailed work so many brilliant creative minds put into it. Somehow Doctorow makes the behind-the-scenes stuff dry as an overcooked pork-chop. He often comes off as smug, describing the nuts and bolts of the attractions, even as his author-insertion main character berates other characters for the same.
  • The resolution feels somehow both too obvious and a like bit of a cheat in the narrative.
  • There are frequent contradictions in the world-building. There is a currency of inter-personal esteem, and somehow a person with none at all can’t get an elevator door to open for him but can get into Disney World. The story loops back on itself several times in whiplash fashion, undoing what has just seemed accomplished in the previous chapter.

The Minor: 

  • The main character has a girlfriend with a Bella Swan/Edward Cullen-level age disparity. This could be an interesting comment on connection in a society where apparent age has become irrelevant, even deceiving. Instead, it is depicted in a way that makes the main character appear immature at best, creepily perverted at worst. Like when, upon meeting, his teenage girlfriend’s youthful innocence and hygiene makes him want to pinch “either set” of her cheeks.

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  • There is limited invented slang in the novel, but “Whuffie” and “Bitchun Society” seemed like juvenile place-holders that should have been replaced in editing.
  • All of the relationships are paper-thin.
  • It is awfully hard to get invested in a murder-mystery when the person is replaced with a clone with a near-identical memory mere days after it happens. Particularly when the character just spent some time talking about how death is merely an inconvenience. His sudden outrage became comical, “it’s okay when other people die, NOT ME!” The entire story hinges on this self-important jerk imagining that nothing can possibly go right unless he is there to manage it personally. A more skilled writer probably could have gotten me to buy-in, but that was not the case.
  • All of the relationships were paper-thin. Familial, “best” friendships, collegial, adversarial. All the characters were paper-thin. Placeholders for the interesting people who might have been. “Love” was meaningless, people who had wronged one-another basically made a sad face and kept right on doing wrong. That might have been intentional, again to show the superficiality of what a world without scarcity had become, but you still need a skilled writer to find a way for the reader to invest and engage.

This novel brought out all my worst anxieties as a person who sometimes writes things: that I might assemble a novel that is a string of interesting ideas poorly joined, that I might write unrelatable characters, that I might frequently contradict myself within the lines of my own world and premise.

Overall, this was a really frustrating read. Not good or bad enough to enjoy. I would say it was a waste of interesting ideas, if M.T. Anderson hadn’t written a book with essentially all the same ideas which I love: Feed.

Seriously, read Feed. Take the time to get acclimated to the slang, and read it.

Chair Rating:

Flat, uncomfortable, and essentially broken.

Flat, uncomfortable, and essentially broken.

Top Ten Tuesdays

This week The Broke and the Bookish have us serving up a heaping helping of authors in a genre of our choice. I have prepared a fine selection of YA sci-fi authors, and suggested some of the works I most enjoyed by each. Authors like Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card, or Isaac Asimov didn’t make my list because I haven’t read their YA work (yet).

Top Ten YA Sci-Fi Authors

1. William Sleator

To me, Sleator is like Pixar. Even his worst book is miles better than the average in the genre. That said, I’d recommend:

Interstellar Pig for gamers.

Strange Attractors for folks who love a love triangle, especially one where two of the people involved are actually alternate-dimension versions of the same girl.

House of Stairs for those who like dystopia.

2. M.T. Anderson

Read Feed! Read it now! Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger shouting that last sentence!

3. Scott Westerfeld

Uglies is a series that gets better with each book (though Extras is skippable for the picky reader).

4. Suzanne Collins

Hmmmm. Suddenly I am having trouble thinking of the sci-fi series that everyone has been talking about for the past two years. The Hunger Games. Quit trying to be cool and just read it already.

5. Robert A. Heinlein

Not strictly a YA sci-fi writer, but many of his books focus on that age group. Tunnel in the Sky is a good choice for survivalist fans who enjoyed books like The Hunger Games for reasons beyone romance.

6. Madeleine L’Engle

My heart will always be with Meg and Charles Wallace, so of course I recommend A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Many Waters was very enjoyable, but not so much sci-fi as Christian Myth…and An Acceptable Time was a slog.

7. K.A. Applegate

Animorphs series, what up! I particularly recommend the companion books to the series: The Ellimist Chronicles is still a favorite, and I loved The Andalite Chronicles. Both make sense for someone not ready to take on the whole series.

8. Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker is a solidly scientific, thoroughly entertaining environmentally-oriented novel.

9. Ben Jeapes

He wrote the outstanding novel The Ark, which I borrowed off my brother in seventh grade and still remember. It is a space ark sci-fi for purists reading in the genre. Excellent, intricate plot and very intriguing aliens.

10. Aldous Huxley

Maybe not strictly a YA author, but since many folks read Brave New World in high school, I’m including it. Love that book.

Who would you add to this list? Book recommendations?

Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Blogs That Aren’t About Books

Back this week on time, even though I am out of town and stayed up all night helping my brother write his ten-page English final (worth 20% of his grade, naturally). This week The Broke and The Bookish are asking us to step away from the books and share another slice of our cyber lives. I admit, when I get up and stumble to the computer each morning I have my “rounds”, a certain set of sites I check for the new and interesting before I move on to more productive endeavours (or get sucked into a game of Angry Birds).

1. Tom and Lorenzo

This is a website that began its existence as Project Rungay: a gay couple blogging their thoughts on episodes of fashion reality-show Project Runway. As the site has become more popular (and its original inspiration has declined in quality), the boys have branched out into red-carpet fashion critique, blogging the latest designer collections, and detailed analysis of shows like Mad Men and Glee. Their Mad Fashion feature, analyzing the fashions worn in each episode of Mad Men in relation to the story, is a must-read for any fan. The site always has something pretty to look at, and something funny to read.

2. Questionable Content

This long-running web-comic about Boston hipsters in a world with advanced artificial intelligence has come a long way since its early days of blocky art and indie band references. The diverse cast of characters have developed surprising depth over the years and the comic consistently strikes a nice balance between the sentimental, absurd, crude, and cerebral. It’s a soap opera for silly nerds. Bonus points for music nerds.

3. Inkteraction

This social networking site for Printmakers might not catch the fancy of those not artistically-inclined, but I could spend hours checking out people’s projects and looking at their new work.

4. Hulu and Netflix

I need noise in the background while I’m working, to distract the racing part of my brain just enough to let me focus on what I’m doing. I like to stream trashy, easy-to-ignore dramas like Felicity and Desperate Housewives while I work (which isn’t to say I wasn’t totally rooting for Tom and Lynette to get back together).

5. A.V. Club

I’ve gone through a series of pop culture blogs, reading along and becoming an active member of the commentariat only to abandon ship when the site gets popular and becomes more about being in on all the jokes than discussing the site’s content. Former haunts include the Alternative Press Mosh Pit, Pajiba, and Jezebel. Lately I’ve been hanging around the A.V. Club’s music and TV pages, enjoying the sound reviews and fun features, and appreciating the lack of cooler-than-thou posturing.

6. io9

Part of the gawker network of blogs, io9 streams up to-the-minute Science Fiction news. This might include show reviews, scientific studies, interviews with sci-fi darlings, or canon-inspired art. They also tend to post on a lot of Fantasy-related topics which is fine by me, they know their audience of gamer geeks and comic-book nerds.

7. XKCD

Once upon a time, before I skipped off into the land of French and Art degrees, I was a Mechanical Engineering major. I had taken calculus and foregone free periods my senior year to take extra science just ‘cuz I liked it. Is it any suprise, then, that this science-and-math heavy comic still tickles my funny bone on a regular basis? I think not. A lot of people I know find it too technical, but my brother and I still dig it. It’s worth a look, and some of the featured comics at the bottom are the least scientific and most-memorable of the series.

8. Postsecret

Many of you have probably heard of Postsecret, but for those that haven’t I’ll explain. Artist Frank Warren created hundreds of blank postcards and left them in random public locations with directions to share a secret and mail them back to him. His art project went viral and now he receives hundreds of thousands of secrets every year. Each Sunday he posts a new curated batch online. Warren also publishes Postsecret books, gives artists talks at universities, has given a TED talk, and many secrets were featured in the All-American-Rejects video for “Dirty Little Secret”. Many of the secrets are beautifully presented, shocking, creative, mundane, or sad.

9. Dear Abby

I’m not sure why, but every night at ten PST I surf on over to see what advice Dear Abby is dispensing. I used to read her column before I read the comics in the Sunday paper.

10. Food 52

I love to cook and Food 52 is an amazing community of foodies creating and tweaking recipes and sharing their findings. Most of the recipes are time or labor-intensive, but the results are always worth it. I made a roasted tomato soup with rosemary infused oil from a recipe I found on the site which takes awhile but is nothing short of divine.

Like a Fine Roux, the Plot Thickens

In case you don’t fanatically read the (four) comments left on this blog, I will re-post the one that inspired this entry:

“You won? Just like that? Tell me more! Congrats. Do you write sci fi? Too many questions for such a celebrity, I know, I know. But could you give me advice on plotline techniques?”

Perhaps I should address these points in order to make sure I don’t miss anything.

1. Yes, I did win. No, not quite “just like that”. I became aware of NaNoWriMo in 2010 when various friends-of-friends were involved, and it sounded interesting. It should be noted here that nearly impossible challenges are my favorite kind, I find them almost irresistible, much like Marty McFly finds any dare in which he is called “chicken”. However, as I said before, I didn’t think of myself as a writer so the idea of participating floated through my brain and out, never to be thought of again.

Until the next year.

Cut to October of this year, in which I had both an idea and a nudge. The idea came in the shower, the nudge came from a very popular YA Fiction writer: in the form of a blog she wrote about NaNoWriMo and why it isn’t for her, and a couple of comments she made in response to my own. So on October 31st, I went on over to the NaNo website and signed up an hour before it began.  

2. There was definitely more to it than Idea, Register, Win. Signing up at the last minute meant that I hadn’t done any character sketches, research, or outlining on paper. I dove in that first day and wrote three thousand words, then discovered the second day that I had only saved half of them. I started over writing my story from the end, which worked much better for me as it turned out. I discovered that when I write forward I fall into a pattern of describing things minute-by-minute. This is very boring. Writing backward from major event to major event, then filling in more character-building scenes in between kept things humming along.

3. Thank you.

4. As I mentioned before, this novel was YA Fantasy. Since it was my first, I cannot really say that I write sci-fi. I did have an idea for a sci-fi novel that I was pretty excited about, but as I did research and thought about the plot it turned into Fantasy. I love sci-fi, I hope that writing some awesome and interesting sci-fi lies somewhere in my future, but it hasn’t happened yet.

5. There is no such thing as too many questions. I love them, I ask them endlessly, life is richer for locating the answers. This is why two-year-olds are some of my favorite people. So curious, and never self-conscious about it.

6. I am not sure how useful my advice on plotting techniques will be, given that this is my first novel,  but I will tell you what I learned in writing it. I mentioned that I pretty much didn’t prepare to write this novel ahead of time at all, other than brainstorming sessions in the shower. That works for me, I have a good memory and just outlining things in my head leaves me flexibility. Sometimes if I commit an outline to paper I get married to it and everything becomes very dry and formulaic, following all the bullet points. One helpful thing about this particular novel is that the ending came to me first, I always knew where it was going. The overall plot developed from the ending, with three specific events dictated by the calendar. This was probably what got me over the finish line.

Three major events is a convenient number for plotting, in this case it corresponded with the beginning, middle, and end of an experience the main character was having. There are chapters before the first event and after the third, but the plot is divided by them into sections. Before the first event, the scene is being set, but only a little. The reader is given a basic idea of the main players and where they are, socially and mentally.

The first event acts as a catalyst, the characters are in new and unfamiliar territory, requiring them to make choices that show the reader more about who they are. For inert characters, it may spur them into action. Between the first and second events the world and characters become more three dimensional, in hopes that the reader will be immersed by the second event.

The second event is the game-changer, characters are thrown thoroughly off-balance and they will either find their way back to center or fall completely.The action between the second and third events develops which course each character is taking. When I say each, I mean your main characters. Focusing on each and every character could become unwieldy, and boring.

The third event is the beginning of the end. Realizations are made, big mistakes are made, secrets may be revealed. Characters may part ways for good (or they may think they are parting ways for good). Everything between the third event and the ending will seem momentous. Not much room for fluff, everything should be speeding up to slam the reader home at the climax.

The ending, the big reveal (if there is one), whatever you have been leading up to all this time. I am a fan of books that continue a bit after the ending, because in life the curtain doesn’t come down right after the big event. There is an aftermath, maybe a fallout, or a return to daily life (or not, both can be interesting). Ending at the climax feels gimmicky and unsatisfying, save it for romantic comedies.

So there it is, how I plotted and won my first NaNoWriMo. I started with the tasty melted butter of humor and character interaction, whisked in the hearty thickening flour of world-building, then went to town with the spice of conflict. One delicious novel (or roux, if you only follow the food-based portion of that analogy).

10 People You Don’t Want to be in a Stephen King Novel

10. A Man of the Law: Things never seem to work out well for lawmen in Stephen King novels. In fact, they often enjoy “ensign redshirt” status: sent to check out the Big Bad, only to be added to the mounting list of casualties. For some reason this only applies to lawmen, female officers have plenty of uncomfortable situations but nothing compared to what happens to the fellas.

F’rinstance:

  • Chief Howard “Duke” Perkins, Under the Dome
  • Constable Lander Neary, Cycle of the Werewolf
  • A nameless Colorado State Trooper, Misery

9. A Fat Woman: In many Stephen King novels there is at least one fat woman, often of the extremely lazy variety, who meets with a grisly end. These characters are often stupid in addition to being fat, and they often bring their deaths upon themselves.

  • Rebecca Paulson, The Tommyknockers
  • Cora Rusk and Myra Evans, Needful Things

8. A Grandfatherly Type: Sometimes actually the grandfather of a main character, other times just elderly men, these poor fellows have already been through the ringer and it ain’t over yet. Several kindly old gentlemen in King’s novels knowingly put themselves in harm’s way trying to save/help a main character. 

  • Ev Hillman, The Tommyknockers
  • Jud Crandall, Pet Sematary
  • Don Gaffney, The Langoliers

7. A Younger Brother: Life as a younger sibling is always tough: never getting first pick, getting left behind on all the really good adventures; but in a Stephen King story it’s worse than you ever imagined. One might have one’s arm ripped off, be run over by a truck (then buried, dug up, buried again, and killed again by your own father), or be sent to an alien planet in another dimension. Serves you right for breaking the crayons.

  • Georgie Denbrough, It
  • David Brown, The Tommyknockers
  • Gage Creed, Pet Sematary

6. An Abusive Husband: Not that this is high on my list of things to be in any case, but King has a history of seeing that the handsy jerks get what’s coming to them.

  • Joe St. George, Dolores Claiborne
  • Tom Rogan, It
  • Danforth “Buster” Keeton, Needful Things

5. A Man of the Cloth: This is another gender-specific affliction. While female spiritual leaders end up all right in the end, and are even instrumental to salvation, the men aren’t so lucky. To be a male spiritual leader in a King tale is to be troubled, insane, or downright sheisty. Multiple stories include a Priest or Minister who tries to turn it around and do the right thing, only to find it is too late for redemption.

  • Father Callahan, ‘Salem’s Lot
  • Reverend Lester Coggins, Under the Dome
  • Reverend Lester Lowe (maybe King knew a really crappy Lester?), Cycle of the Werewolf

4. A Person With A Sensory Disability: Finally, some gender-equality! The deaf or blind are guaranteed something spectacular like psychic ability or intended-savior status, but they will definitely die (violently).

  • Dinah Bellman, The Langoliers
  • Nick Andross, The Stand

3. A Socially Awkward Person: Life is just one humiliation after another until you kill everyone! Following which you are killed by the one person who gave you the time of day.

  • Carrietta “Carrie” White, Carrie
  • Harold Lauder, The Stand

2. A Writer: Drunk, delusional, doomed, or all three this particular occupation can only mean suffering and lots of it. One thing is for sure: the writer is Afflicted. However, it’s a crapshoot whether they are causing or receiving the suffering (and again, sometimes it’s both).

  • Paul Sheldon, Misery
  • Roberta “Bobbi” Anderson and James Eric “Gard” Gardener, The Tommyknockers
  • Mike Noonan, Bag of Bones
  • Thad Beaumont, The Dark Half
  • Mort Rainey; Secret Window, Secret Garden
  • Ben Mears, ‘Salem’s Lot

And the number one absolute worst thing to be in a Stephen King novel is:

1. The Everyman: This poor sap is just an Average Joe trying to get by without hurting anyone, but he somehow ends up in the middle of everything. He might be persecuted, see everyone he loves die around him, sit-half starved with a broken leg in the desert for weeks hoping the apocalypse doesn’t happen, he might be beset from the outside with mysterious deadly monsters and from the inside with fanatics. Worst of all, he will live to tell the tale and get to suffer with the memories for the rest of his days. Couldn’t pay me to be the Everyman.

  • Gordie LaChance, The Body
  • Stuart Redman, The Stand
  • Dale Barbara, Under the Dome
  • David Drayton, The Mist
  • Bill Denbrough, It

Now, all of this may have you asking “Well, if I ever were a character in a Stephen King novel, I mean, you know, for the sake of argument…what is it safest to be?

The answer:

The Little Girl or The Loudmouth