Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

Monday, December 27, 2021

Network Effects by Martha Wells Review


The reviewer’s bias: I prefer stories with well developed, pleasant characters. I like writing that is clever and witty – entertaining in itself. I prefer first person narratives, or close third person narratives. I dislike thinly disguised fanfic and stories with gaping plot holes.

Network Effect won the 2021 Hugo Award for best novel. Murderbot won the 2021 Hugo Award for best SF series. Artificial Condition won the 2019 Hugo award for novella. All Systems Red won the 2018 Hugo Award for best novella.

Murderbot stories are popular. Everyone loves Murderbot.

I found Network Effect to be okay.

Murderbot is an original and entertaining character. It is also the first person narrator of the stories. The thing with first person narrators, as a writer who uses them, is that they narrate the story from their perspective within the story. They tell the story as they see it, they tell what is important to them. And they tell it as they want to. In short, good first person narrators stay in character. Or more accurately, a good writer keeps his or her first person narrator within the story and the character. Wells keeps Murderbot within its character, which is good – until its not.

For me the Murderbot stories fall off a cliff as soon as you get beyond the internal dialog. I’ve identified several reasons for this. The first is that Murderbot doesn’t much care about scenery or mood, and so both are lacking in its narratives. To be honest, the stories generate little to no visual imagery in my mind. For the most part its just a series of corridors and doors – an interior dungeon and dragon landscape that I can't seem to picture. For example, in this story I have no idea what the space ships look like. Or what sort of platform could float on water, have decks to greet traders, fly into space and become an intricate part of another space ship. And it seems that for Wells/Murderbot, it doesn’t matter. While she does set out some details of settings, they just don’t seem to gel for me to create an image in my mind. They may work for other readers, but for me, they’re just a string of techno-jargon words that can be ignored because these sorts of details apparently aren’t important to either Wells or Murderbot.

Which brings me to my second problem with these books. The story structure is a loop of the same elements slightly rearranged every time the come around. Danger. In response, Murderbot use drones, hacks systems, gets semi-destroyed, but at the end of the loop, saves its clients. Again and again within the story and within series as a whole. Reasons and details may change, but given the limited narrative focus of Murderbot, it all just blurs together. And gets old.

The third issue is that the human characters are more or less interchangeable. While she does make an effort to make them distinct, you’d have to be paying very close attention to them to notice that, since, after all, they’re all only minor characters. It’s been a while since I had read the first three novellas, so I wasn’t up to speed who was who when starting this novel, and I don’t think it would’ve made any difference to me if I had read the stories back to back.

The fourth issue, a minor gripe, but still... I have a problem with the mega-setting. Everyone’s an indentured worker of one corporation or another. Whole planets of indentured workers? I know that its a popular concept these days. I’ve run across it before, but I doubt that its possible. And even if it is, it’s an unpleasant world to spend time in.

So to sum it all up for me – while it may be a failure of my imagination to attach images of locales to descriptions in the book, the repetition of the same plot over and over again has made Murderbot, despite being an interesting character, become a rather tedious read for me. I couldn’t wait to finish this book and that’s not good. A good story is one that you don’t want to end.

Still, I will be the first to admit that the perceived failings of Network Effect may be mine rather than Martha Wells. Indeed, given the popularity of the series, this is likely the case. Oh well.

While there is a one Murderbot novella out that I haven’t read, which is set before Network Effect, that may describe the basis of the flashbacks told in this novel, I think I’m done with Murderbot, even if TOR offers any more Murderbot books for free.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Happy Holidays!


Sledding in Pangone by C Litka

Hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful Winter Holiday, whatever you celebrate, and an even better New Year!  

Friday, December 17, 2021

A Tale of Two Tales


Staff of the Hotel Del Luna

Comments on Cowboy Bebop and Hotel Del Luna, two recent Netflix series.

I recently watched two tv shows on Netflix, four episodes of the science fiction series Cowboy Bebop and so far, 14 of  the 16, episode Korean fantasy show Hotel Del Luna, and they couldn’t be more different.

Cowboy Bebop is a sf space adventure with the premise of, you guessed it, bounty hunters in space. Besides alien invasion, what other premise is there for a tv sf show? It is the live action version of an anime show featuring two losers as main characters. One is a cop who lost his job and wife, and the other is a criminal who lost this job in the syndicate and his girl. The ex-cop is responsible and relatively competent, the ex-criminal is cool and incompetent. But did I mention that he’s one cool dude? The basic show format is that every episode the pair go after a Batman (The TV show) type villain to collect a bounty, They usually screw up. The show has already been axed by Netflix. Critics said that it had poor pacing. It actually had none, as far as I could see. It was a sliced and diced series of scenes with the characters’ backstories slipped in whenever they ran out of dialog or in an attempt to extend the tension of the episode's main story line. Plus, as critics also noted, they weren’t spending their production money on sets. Most outdoor sets looked to have been filmed either in a back ally, or on some old movie studio back lot. They didn’t even look retro/cyber futurist.

Main Characters of Cowboy Bebop

As usual with TV sf, there were dumb things to serve the action sequences. Like the opening action scene where a hole was blow in a space station, and everyone was being sucked out into space. They have to reach a switch to activate a patch to seal the hull. Even without wondering how the patch could be applied at the exactly the right place, the fact that it had to be triggered manually is senseless -- any sort of patch would need to be automatic to work. Just nick picking. Or take a rooftop fight scene set on Mars. With Mars having only 1/3 the gravity of Earth, you could’ve filmed a semi-realistically flying ninjas fight like you see in any kung-fu movie. But no, it was a very choreographed, dance-like sequence. And did I mention a powder that turned people into trees? Yeah, that too. Character development was on par with its comic book origin.

It will not be missed. We’ll just have to await the reboot of Firefly that I gather is in the works. That was a dumb show as well,  but done a whole lot better, mainly because it had more fully fleshed out characters, I enjoyed it, despite how stupid it often was.

Turning now to Hotel Del Luna, we find something completely different – Korean fantasy/soap opera. I believe that when it was first shown in Korea, the episode length was probably different, so that in its 16 episodes you get something of a mishmash of story lines that might have been more episode-orientated in its original format. The premise of the show is that the Hotel Del Luna is a hotel for ghosts – souls who have either lost their way to the afterlife, or have hung around on Earth because of some unfinished business they feel they must attend to. The basic structure of the story are the various ghosts and their issues which must be solved for them to continue on to the afterlife and eventual reincarnation.

Two Lead Characters

The main point of view character is a fellow who’s childhood and expensive education was financed by the owner of the Hotel Del Luna with the understanding with his father that once he came of age, he would take over the management of the hotel, at least as far as dealing with the real world, which the hotel has one foot in. The hotel owner is a thousand year old ex-bandit woman, who is paying for her evil actions as a bandit. Her punishment is that she’s tied to the hotel and denied entry into the afterlife, somehow redeems herself. She and the new hotel manager make up the long drawn out main romance story at the center of the show. There is also a trio of employees of the hotel, and the hotel manager’s outside friends who are also woven into the story.

I am totally unfamiliar with the religion(s) of Korea, but the story line seems to be a mishmash of various religious and folk believes, that serve whatever story line the show writers come up with. I’m not sure they make much sense. You just have to go with the flow. The ghosts are people in makeup and look pretty tacky, and the scary parts, are likely not too scary, but then, not being a fan of horror, I’m not one to judge how scary the scenes stack up. There is some blood, but not the gore true horror/action movie fans have likely come to accept/expect. Outside of the ghosts, the production values are up to the typical high Korean standard.

The Hotel Luna unseen by the living

I’m not into film, so I’m really not one to judge acting quality. Korean (and Chinese) shows have their cultural quirks. That said, the acting in this series is somewhat of a mix of good and bland. I've found that the typical romantic lead in Asian shows is a guy who stands around looking serious without saying much. And this can be dragged out for half a minute with the characters just starring at each other wordlessly. If they would actually say what’s on their mind, you wouldn’t need 16 hours plus to tell their story. Drama/melodrama, I guess. In this show in particular, they often have the lead characters in slow, extended dialog just standing facing each other, about four feet away, hands at their side, with all the animation of a department store manikin. Really. Maybe that’s a Korean thing, but you’d think that you’d want some sort at business going on as they talked as well – walking, occasionally gesturing, looking away from each other, whatever. Maybe it’s just easier and quicker to film these scenes standing still talking, as these shows are often still being filmed even as the first episodes are being aired. And of course with all these Asian shows, the first hug, the first kiss takes five minuets with a lush soundtrack to accomplish. Watch enough Asian shows and you come to expect that. And as a bonus every Asian show has at least one scene where someone administers first aid to the the person they're in love with, so show how much they care for them. Oh, and they all have close ups shots of the characters clenching their fists when they’re mad or stressed. You could probably make a drinking game out of these scenes. 

So with Hotel Del Luna we have a rather silly premise that I think it plays rather fast and loose with to serve the plot. A ghost or two with problems to be solved in each episode. Usually there are flashback to the time where the Hotel Owner was a bandit that piece by piece builds the back story of the reason why she’s being punished. And this slow burning romance between the two leads.

The ex-bandit owner of Hotel Del Luna

The thing about Hotel Del Luna, unlike Cowboy Bebop, which has its story serve as a link between action sequences, is that Hotel Del Luna tells not only an intricate core story and romance, but weaves all sorts of other stories in and out of it. Supporting characters all have backstories. And each ghost has a story as well. Plus the main story lines -- Hotel Owner's tragic romantic past and present reluctant romance. Unlike Cowboy Bebop, it has characters who are more than just cool. Characters you can come to care about. Let me repeat that. It is a story with people that you can come to care about. Cowboy Bebop’s characters are mostly light, enigmatic sketches, probably because of the medium the story is drawn from – animated comic books. Having true characters is, for me, what makes all the difference in the world when it comes to enjoying a story in any medium. And for that, I’m willing to give its sometimes silliness a pass.

Is Hotel Del Luna great? No, I could recommend maybe half a dozen better Korean shows. That said, it was still well worth an hour plus of my day for a couple of weeks. (I still have two episodes to go...) On the other hand, the four hours I spent with Cowboy Bebop were spent hoping that it would get better so I wouldn’t have been wasted my time watching them. Reviews said that they did get better near the end, but by the end of the fourth episode, I no longer cared, so I did not finish it.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Mini Reviews of Free Books


If you agree to  receive TOR Publishing’s promotional emails, they will offer you a free ebook every month or so. Usually the books offered are related to that particular author’s newest release. I signed up a year or so ago, and thought I’d just write mini-reviews of some of the books I’ve received through this program – in alphabetical order of Author.

Victories Greater that Death by Charlie Jane Anders. This is a YA or a Middle School sf title, I’m not sure which. It has a high school girl as the main character, which almost seems to make it a middle school story. There was nothing in the first chapter or so that I read that seemed inappropriate for junior high readers, at least judging from the fantasy books my granddaughter reads. I’m not into YA, or middle school books --  the writing is too simple, and HS characters don’t appeal, so I called it a day after the first chapter or so of this book.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P Djeli Clark This novella was... okay. Set in an alternate history where supernatural beings have been released into the world, to aid and annoy people, it had an inventive premise and world building – a lot of promise. But seeing that it was only a detective story novella, it would be hard to fully realize the full potential of the premise. And I don’t think it quite did. We’ll see what he does with full novels set in this world. (On an unrelated note, why is this paragraph's spacing different than all the others, seeing that it is just one of the paragraphs in the whole essay that I copied and pasted onto the blog page? It's a mystery to me. The working of a Jinn?)

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton A story with dragons as characters. I didn’t connect with the characters, which is important to my reading experience. Called it a day after a chapter.

Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw Another novella. It featured such  an over-the-top hardboiled PI story writing style that I didn’t know if it as meant to be read as a satire or straight. In either case, it was annoyingly badly written. All of the characters, including the PI narrator were unpleasant. I don’t spend my time with unpleasant people if I can help it. Quit reading at the 20% mark.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir I actually believe that I read the first chapter on the TOR website when the book came out, and only downloaded the complete book when it was offered as a free book just before the release of the second book in the series. Much talked about. Very weird. I might give it a bit more rope at some point. Or not.

A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel The introduction has the narrator killing her loving husband of 20 years on a transatlantic ocean liner by sticking a pen up his nose and into his brain and throwing his body overboard because he read something he wasn’t meant to read, discovering what she was (a mystery). If this is the type of  (cheesy) intro that hooks you into a story, this may be your type of book. It repelled me. As I've already said, I don’t care to spend time with unpleasant people in life or fiction.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I’m not much of a lad for fantasy these days. This one starts out with a prologue set on a bloody battlefield with some immortal warriors, and then jumps 4,500 years forward to recount an assassin's attempt to kill a king using magic. Another book with an unpleasant character as the main character in the first chapter. Not my thing. Plus, I can’t help but think that if you allow magic in a story, you can make up anything you want or need for your plot, because, you know, it’s magic. That’s not my thing. I like some underlying basis of reality. DNF this one at the 1% mark (but its a long book...)

Murderbot, the first 3 novellas, by Martha Wells. I reviewed these stories in some depth some time ago, so I’ll just say that I enjoyed them, not as much as many people seem to, but they were the best of the lot so far. Have the first novel on order from the library.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson Another fantasy novel in which I didn’t connect with the characters. Plus, I gather that the story is one of those grimdark ones, so I called it a day after a chapter or two.

The Unspoken Name by A K Larkwood Yet, another fantasy. Clearly fantasy is far more popular than science fiction, given the samples TOR gives away when publishing a new story by the author. In this case, I read the first chapter and put it down, undecided. I’ll give it some more rope, but I just haven’t felt any great desire to return to it yet. We’ll see.

I still have a number of books to sample, but nothing very enticing. There are a couple more fantasy books, including Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson, which I gather is another big name in fantasy. Plus some YA titles that are probably not worth my time.

As you can see, I’m a very fussy reader – darn hard to please. I have, however, downloaded a lot of old books from the Gutenberg Project, as well as my own books, on my new ebook reader so I do have a lot of potentially enjoyable books choose from.

Friday, December 3, 2021

My 2021 NaNoWrMo Effort Wrap-up

This year, for the first time ever, I decided to give NaNoWrMo (National Novel Writing Month) a go. I had taken the summer off from writing to come up my next great novel – without any success. So without that novel to write, I opted for Plan B – a return to Mars with Molly and Mons with a novel length story that would continue their story. I wrote the opening 8,000 words of that story before deciding that the story I was writing wasn’t going to work, or perhaps wasn’t the direction I wanted to take them in. However, I didn’t have an alternative direction in anything more than a vague alternate idea, so I abandoned writing that story it mid-September. In October it was on to Plan C.

Plan C – the any port in the storm plan, anything to write during the long Wisconsin winter project – evolved during the month of October into a new Nine Star Nebula Mystery/Adventure story. I had planned to give that series a rest, but as an any port in a storm story, I hammered out a rough plot. I came up with a mystery, another pirate prince villain, with an outline of action, and an ending that I am quite happy with. It looked to be a go. So with National Novel Writing Month approaching, I decided to use that as a motivator to get started writing.

So how did it work? The short answer, not very well. While I never actually intended to write the entire first draft of the novel in the month of November, I did hope to get at least half of it written. I fell significantly short of that goal. I did write 17,000 words, which is something – a beginning. But it’s still far short of the 50,000 word novel, or even the 25-30,000 words I would’ve like to have written in the month. So what happened?

I am of the school that if you want to get a book written, you sit down and write every day until it is done. Unlike most authors, I don’t use word count goals. Rather I’m content to put in 1/12 to 2 hours every morning, and if things are going well, an optional hour or two in the evening. I save each day’s work as a separate file so that if I screw something up, I only lose a day’s work. Thus, my files tell the story of my faltering efforts at this book. I have a file for every day until the 17th of November. My next files were dated November 23rd and 24th, and my next file after those was November 29th. Doing the math, you’ll see that I spent 20 days producing 17,000 words, less than a 1,000 words a day, on average. That number is a bit misleading in that probably half of those days I spent going over what I had already written rather than forging ahead. This is common practice for me these days when I’ve outrun the story in my head. If I can’t go forward, I go back to do a second or a third pass over what I’ve already written rather than writing nothing. Of course there were days when I was writing nothing -- or these blog posts --  as well… But, well… I’d reached a gaping hole in my plans. And I’ve yet to fill it.

I found that the outline I had in my head would make a good novella – a 30-35,000 word story, but not a 50,000+ word novel. Novels in this series run more in the 60,000 words plus range, but I’ll settle for 50K story. But not for a 35K novella. Essentially, I discovered that I was missing act two – I had a beginning written, and the fast paced ending in my head, but was missing the 20K word middle act. I’m always tempted to make it too easy for my heroes, so I usually need to find more ways to throw sand in the gears – to give them more stuff to overcome. I’ve got a couple twists and turns at the ending that I’d like to get to, but now I need to find something for them to do – 20K words more to do -- than I had originally planned, before I get to the ending scenes that I do have planned out. I’ve settled on a location for the second act, but that’s about all. As of this writing, I’m still not pushing ahead until its all settled in my mind.

Alas, that’s the story of writing these days. I don’t spend the time daydreaming the story over and over again until its major scenes are clear in my head like I may’ve with my first books. Instead I set out with an idea for a beginning and an end, but with only a vague middle act in mind, so that, when I reach it, I must stop and actually figure out what I need and want to do. Oh well, we’ll get it done sooner or later. However, I don’t think I’ll attempt a NaNoWrMo again. It isn’t my style.