Monday 30 April 2012

Coming Attractions | Railsea by China Mieville

So here's something to get excited about.

Railsea is almost here!

Specifically speaking, it's not more than a month out, wherever in the world you are... that is assuming you're either in the UK or the United States, where Railsea will be released on May 24th and May 15th respectively.

In the unlikely event that you're wondering what Railsea is - why it's only the new novel by our man Mieville! - here's a bit of blurbage to whet your appetite:

On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea – even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago.
When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict — a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible — leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for.

Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea...

Doesn't that sound superb?

Railsea is YA, as I understand it, and while that mightn't be the most optimistic of omens - the consensus seems to be that Mieville's only other YA effort, Un Lun Dun, is his weakest work to date, and truth be told I don't know that I'd disagree - but while that mightn't be the most optimistic of omens, as I was saying, I'm still hella hopeful. Mieville's been on a winning streak ever since that Gaiman-esque digression, and last year's Embassytown stands among his best books yet.

Add to that: this tantalising new novel looks to touch on the selfsame subject matter as Iron Council, and I dare say it may have a whiff of The Scar about it as well. That's already a damn sight more Bas-Lag than I'd expected. And the more Bas-Lag the better, yes?

Not to speak too soon, but I haven't had an advance copy of Railsea yet myself, so we're all in the same boat this time. Or else the same, uh... train.


In any case, besides my enthusiasm for anything and everything Mieville, the material reason I opted to blog about Railsea today was this excerpt, published on late last week. It features the prologue and the full first chapter of the book, and needless to say, it floated my goat.

So off you go, folks! Read it. Weep that there isn't more. Meanwhile we'll compare our notes a little later...

Friday 27 April 2012

Science Faction | Why Do Old Books Smell So Good?

Despite my initial resistance to books, the new breed, I do actually own an e-reader. We've talked about it before. In point of fact, it's a tablet in disguise - the original Transformer, if you must know - but after a period of experimentation with Aldiko and several other alternatives, the increasingly full-featured Kindle app has served me very well.

Well enough that these days, the ratio of my reading habits - which is to say the number of e-books I read versus the number of tree-books - is fast approaching 1:1. That said, if I love a book, I'll buy the hardcover, regardless of whether or not I already own an electronic copy. This has become something of an issue in itself... but it's not the issue I want to talk about today.

What I want to talk about today is why I still tend to buy tree-books over e-books. There are many reasons, really, but whenever I have to rationalise my fondness for physical copies, one of the first factors I look to is, oddly, the aroma of a beloved old book. The savoury scent of printed paper. The musty wonders of something second-hand. The way that a simple smell can take you back years - decades, even - to the time you first read through a particular book. A favourite, say.

Speaking of which, I have a mind to spend a minute sniffing my first edition of The Scar, but for the sake of this bitty blog post - already many weeks in the making - I'll resist.

Now I'm not a complete idiot. I don't lead with my nose in altogether too many of my decisions, but when it comes to books, the smell of an old paperback means a great deal to me. Or rather, it did... before I watched the short video embedded below, which aims to explain some of the starter science behind that marvelous musk.

Fair warning and all: this clip has taken the wind out of my sails somewhat, so watch it at your own peril.

So how about now? Still love the smell of old books? Even now you know the aroma is essentially a combination of chemical reactions and rot?

Sniffing The Scar will never be the same again! :/

Thursday 26 April 2012

Video Game Review | I Am Alive, dev. Ubisoft Shanghai

If it is recalled at all - and let me say off the bat that I absolutely believe it should be - I Am Alive is likely to be remembered as 2012's best worst game. It's not a fundamentally broken product, as a few frustrated industry critics have alleged, but it is clunky, ugly and oddly arcadey in spite of its self-professed video game vérité aesthetic. In terms of certain aspects of its conception and execution, additionally, I am afraid I Am Alive looks and feels tragically misguided.

That said, I had a hell of a time with it.

In the first, because it's no small wonder that I Am Alive is alive, in any way, shape or form. Understand, if you aren't already aware, that it was five years in the making under the the care of various different developers working out of several entirelyseparate studios, and that's just going from the information available in the public domain; I don't doubt the whole story is still more sordid. Be aware, also - be very aware - that I Am Alive was scrapped and restarted who knows how many times before Ubisoft Shanghai hit upon the downloadable, Uncharted-esque design let loose upon the Xbox Live Marketplace and latterly the PlayStation Store this Spring.

Thus, the extent of I Am Alive's existence as an actual buyable entity is an achievement in itself. And though some amount of the tumult behind the scenes of this strange game's creation comes through in the final product, as a matter of fact there's less of that than I'd expected. Seems to me the single greatest issue this latest iteration of the core idea animating I Am Alive suffers from is a rush to get it out of the door well before it was primed and polished for public consumption.

Needless to say, I have no inside information here... only the knowledge that I Am Alive plays, in a lot of ways, like a preview build of an incomplete product. Like a game with a couple months of beta testing ahead of it yet. I wouldn't dare to damn the thing in this fashion if Ubisoft - the erstwhile purveyors of annual installments of the Assassin's Creed franchise - hadn't crapped it out in its current state.

But I Am Alive is what it is, and what it is isn't all bad... not by any stretch of the imagination. Speaking of which, there's another thing I Am Alive lacks: imagination. That is, in terms of its narrative, its characters, and the awkward way the player interacts with both and neither. The story, to be sure, is a derivative dreg. A filthy swill of the begged and the borrowed distilled from any number of better, smarter, more exciting apocalypses. The people you meet, meanwhile - you being Adam, a husband and a father separated from his family by the lack of a proper public transport infrastructure in the immediate aftermath of The Event - are flat, uninspired, or outright insipid to a one.

Still and all, I Am Alive is incredible. Or else: it very nearly is.

Much as I might like to, I don't suppose I can overlook all its problems. The unresponsive, generations-removed controls that make simple platforming an almighty chore; the ghastly map which puts paid to any notion of either planning or on-the-fly navigation in the city of Haventon; the frustrating dead ends in the level design, a la Silent Hill's shattered streets but lacking that series' rhyme or reason; the crappy combat. Oh, the crappy combat!

But we needn't get into that, and we certainly won't so late in the game. Like so many of the crude component parts that factor into I Am Alive - like the cheap checkpoints and the fetch quests - once you get your head around how combat works, it... well, it works, and that's all it needs to do, really. I mean, say it had looked or felt more satisfying; presumably players would want to do more of it, and that'd be a complete contradiction of I Am Alive's bleakly unique take on the survival horror genre, which casts you as a half-dead dude instead of some superhuman, with a single bullet in the chamber of your rusted old gun if you're lucky - and only then if you've used your exceedingly rare resources sparingly - or a paltry box-cutter if not. Versus the world.

And what a world.

That's why I love I Am Alive, for all its faults. Because of what it tries to do, and what to some extent it succeeds in doing. Because of the breathlessly oppressive atmosphere it evokes, and the insensible terror the presence of someone who hopes to hurt you invariably brings about. Because of the fear, basically. I love a good scare - don't we all? - thus this last outweighs all else: I have rarely felt so afraid playing a video game as I did in the midst of this inimitable, if shockingly unpolished eight-hour experience.

I Am Alive is essentially the Dark Souls of survival horror. Punishing, practically impenetrable, and resolutely old school. Given its relatively tiny price whatever platform you buy it on, I'd recommend you give it a go. Just be sure to bring spare underwear...

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Book Review | The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King

In The Wind Through the Keyhole, Stephen King returns to the rich landscape of Mid-World, the spectacular territory of The Dark Tower fantasy saga that stands as his most beguiling achievement.

Roland Deschain and his ka-tet — Jake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy, the billy-bumbler — encounter a ferocious storm just after crossing the River Whye on their way to the Outer Baronies. As they shelter from the howling gale, Roland tells his friends not just one strange story but two... and in so doing, casts new light on his own troubled past.

In his early days as a gunslinger, in the guilt-ridden year following his mother’s death, Roland is sent by his father to investigate evidence of a murderous shape-shifter, a “skin-man” preying upon the population around Debaria. Roland takes charge of Bill Streeter, the brave but terrified boy who is the sole surviving witness to the beast’s most recent slaughter. Only a teenager himself, Roland calms the boy and prepares him for the following day’s trials by reciting a story from the Magic Tales of the Eld that his mother often read to him at bedtime. “A person’s never too old for stories,” Roland says to Bill. “Man and boy, girl and woman, never too old. We live for them.” And indeed, the tale that Roland unfolds, the legend of Tim Stoutheart, is a timeless treasure for all ages, a story that lives for us.

King began the Dark Tower series in 1974; it gained momentum in the 1980s; and he brought it to a thrilling conclusion when the last three novels were published in 2003 and 2004. The Wind Through the Keyhole is sure to fascinate avid fans of The Dark Tower epic. But this novel also stands on its own for all readers, an enchanting and haunting journey to Roland’s world and testimony to the power of Stephen King’s storytelling magic.


Almost a decade ago from the time of this writing, The Dark Tower - a saga near and dear to the hearts of many fantasy fans, and at least as meaningful to a multitude of mainstream Stephen King readers who would never think to identify themselves as such - drew to a calamitous close. It marked an end to the entire affair, assuredly - and these days there is worth in that and that alone - but a dissatisfying one, I dare say, courtesy three long novels composed and published within months of one another versus the twenty-odd years their author had occasionally dedicated to unraveling this epic weird western before the awful accident that seems to have defined his career since.

The subsequent rush to wrap things up showed, of course. But on the bright side, at least the thing was finished.

Back then, though, I couldn't quite bring myself to believe that The Dark Tower was actually over... that the series I'd spent my whole reading life looking forward to following through most of the rest of it was suddenly done and dusted, and with what passed for a whimper rather than the thunderous bang I still insist it had earned.

Well: good news, everyone!

That being said, there's bad news too. The Wind Through the Keyhole may motivate a few Johnny-come-lately types into giving The Gunslinger a shot, and perhaps thereafter the remainder of the mostly magnificent series it begins. Old timers, however - which is to say those of us who have been there, done that before (AND ALL WE GOT WAS THIS STUPID SIDEARM!) - are likely to find themselves frustrated by this so-called midquel's essential insignificance.

"Time is a keyhole. [...] We sometimes bend and peer through it. And the wind we feel on our cheeks when we do - the wind that blows through the keyhole - is the breath of all the living universe." (p.263)

Ostensibly, The Wind Through the Keyhole takes place between Volumes IV and V of The Dark Tower saga, so after Roland's stupefying showdown with Marten Broadcloak in the Emerald City but momentarily before the ka-tet come to Calla Bryn Sturgis and Father Callahan. That, alas, is only important insofar as it represents an empty spot in the mythology where King can stage this postscript of sorts, composed of three stories nestled one within the other within the other.

In the first, whilst traveling along the Path of the Beam, Roland and his oddball posse - including fan-favourite Oy, the billy-bumbler - sense the coming of a Starkblast, and take shelter in an abandoned building to wait out the storm. To help while away the time that night, the wizened old gunslinger of Gilead tells a tale about a tale he was himself told, and once, in his youth, told in turn. This is "The Skin-Man," and though it recalls the extended fiction Peter David has purveyed in Marvel's current comic book cut of The Dark Tower more than anything in the official King canon, it's not half bad for all that. If anything, in (ahem) stark contrast to the narrative within which the other narratives nestle, it's overstuffed... particularly in terms of character.

To his credit, one senses that King is completely cognisant of how very little room he has to maneuver in "The Skin-Man," given that his constant readers know both what comes before it, and after. Thus, there can be no real jeopardy in terms of those folks we know and adore - or not - in advance. In the attempt to redress this balance, however, King goes too far in the other direction, introducing a host of nobodies it's honestly tough to tell apart, far less give a fig for.

It certainly doesn't help that "The Skin-Man" is sliced in half, either. Bifurcated, if you will, by the titular tale, a long novella wherein a woodsman's son, spurred on by two adults - one abusive, the other attractively enigmatic - comes of age after the death of his dear departed father. "The Wind Through the Keyhole" also takes in dark forests, black magics, dragons, SatNav spirits and - to come full circle - a Starkblast, the sister of the very storm you will recall inspired the telling of this old story.

But I've saved the best for last, haven't I? Because finally, not to mention fittingly, there is a reason you need to read The Wind Through the Keyhole, and "The Wind Through the Keyhole" is it. It's a tour de force story: an endearing olde world fable much more ambitious than "The Skin-Man," vastly more satisfying than "Starkblast" or "Storm's Over" - the pointless short with which this midquel concludes - and far better put than anything else in this curiously fragmented collection of loose ends.

Be you a die-hard fan of The Dark Tower or a complete newcomer to King's fiction - assuming such a species of people still exists - "The Wind Through the Keyhole," at least, is well worth the investment. Deeply resonant and sweetly redolent of the good old days of this sadly slightly stymied fantasy saga, it chronicles an author at the top of his game, with some terrific stories yet to tell, and a natural talent for telling them that - at its best, as in this novella - knows no equal.

As to the rest of The Wind Through the Keyhole, though? Well thankee-sai, sincerely... but no thanks.


The Wind Through the Keyhole:
A Dark Tower Novel
by Stephen King

UK Publication: April 2012, Hodder & Stoughton
US Publication: April 2012, Scribner

Recommended and Related Reading

Monday 23 April 2012

Letters From America | Week Four: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Fin.

All good things come to an end, eventually.

So it was with my month in America. After seeing some but certainly not all of Texas and more than I might have liked of New Orleans, as well as a sweet spot in homely Alabama - and it wouldn't do to forget the beautiful beaches and bawdy bars of Panama City - my time in the United States drew to a close more crushing than any holiday doldrums I've experienced.

Before I said goodbye to America, however, I spent the better part of a week frolicking in Fort Lauderdale and its surrounding areas. In Boca Raton, South Beach and Central Miami -- not to mention all the other places whose names I can't recall, for obvious reasons.

But wait, there's more! See, the folks we were staying with in Fort Lauderdale just so happened to have a huge boat moored on the Intracoastal Waterway, so we spent a couple of days motoring across the ocean. Fun was had, especially because no-one got seasick. Proper lite beers were drank in proper American proportions on the deck, from dawn till dusk. After that, I even managed to sleep for a few minutes!

That aside, I don't know that I have a great deal to say about Florida. Having recharged my batteries during the last leg of my trip - both figuratively and literally - I was good and ready to spend all my stamina points (also my remaining Monopoly money) on one last hurrah... but beyond a few short jaunts, Fort Lauderdale didn't really feel like the place for the variety of antics I had in mind. Truth be told, it's not exactly entertainment central. More like a massive rich person's retirement community.

Now that I think on it, though, there was at least one awesome spot. Namely the nearby watering hole: a pirate-themed put called Muddy Waters, which had swinging seats, neon toilets, and a sign that promised FREE BEER TOMORROW. Thus intrigued, I came back the next night, and then the next, but both times the sign said the same thing. I never did get my free beer.

What we did get was a lovely bit of local colour. We met a few fine folks, of course, all of whom seemed to want nothing more than to listen to us talk in our broadest Scottish accents. And on those rare occasions where there weren't gangs of Americans blackmailing us with booze, my traveling companions and I reminisced over delicious tropical cocktails about all the incredible things we'd seen and done in the States so far, up to and including said delicious tropical cocktails; I'd recommend the Blue Hawaiian and the Alco Pop.

Anyway, a few drinks down, the conversation invariably turned to more miserable matters. We'd all loved our time in America, but the sad fact of the matter was ever-present on our final nights. Our holiday was almost over. Like it or not, we were going to have to go back to Scotland shortly.

And Scotland? For all that living here has its plus points - the stark beauty of the highlands comes to mind, and the clime, which I'll politely describe as milder - there aren't an awful lot of 'em. The people are mostly mean, where in America almost everyone was warm and welcoming. The food is assuredly not as good. Gas is twice the price. Our government is like a spiteful childminder.

I know I shouldn't bemoan my homeland - I don't suppose it's all so awful - but coming home was a heady hammer-blow to the heart, and I'll admit I'm still reeling from it somewhat. Given which, you guys might have to give me a little time to remember myself, but here, I've been through this before... haven't we all? I'm sure I'll be back up to scratch before you know it.

One last thing before I go, in part because it's become a bit of tradition in these diaries, but also to give you an idea of what's to come on The Speculative Scotsman now that all the awesome guest bloggers whose work I've had the honour of hosting have spoiled you for quality content: on the long flight back, which was very long - did I mention that? - I squeezed shall we say a fair bit of reading in.

In the first, I powered through A Confusion of Prices by Garth Nix, Steve Rasnic Tem's terrific Deadfall Hotel, and the very fine first third of Aidan's favourite urban fantasy, Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht. Expect reviews of each of these three, in addition to most everything else I read whilst in America - excepting A Game of Thrones, because I have other things planned for that - on The Speculative Scotsman in the not-too-distant.

I also read a whole load of Y - The Last Man whilst in Florida, on good sir Ryan's recommendation, and like the man said, it was stunning stuff. Which is to say, another one of those unbelievably awesome things that, sadly, has to end eventually... like this once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

I say that, but equally this: I'll be back!

Because dang it all, I only saw six states. That means I have another 44 still to visit. :D

Friday 20 April 2012

Letters From America | Week Three: The Cabin In The Woods

I've had a hell of a time in America, this past month. There've been good bit and bad, but of course -- as ever, the great and the terrible come together. Given which, it might be a trifle disingenuous of me to say I wouldn't trade a second of my many and various experiences here - there are a few I'd be glad to get shot off, in all honesty - so I won't. But by and large, I've had the time of my life.

Hard to believe, then, that it's almost over. But it is. Come Monday I'll be back in my proper place, installed before the curious control panel of The Speculative Scotsman, reading and writing and teaching - and talking about reading and writing and teaching to anyone who'll listen - just as if I'd never been gone at all. But I was. Gone. And I was gone a long time.

You haven't even heard the half of it, either. In the last of my Letters From America, dated near enough a fortnight ago now, we talked about New Orleans, and touched on Panama City Beach. So what happened after that? Hell, only everything! But let me cast my mind back...

In brief, simply because there's so much I want to burble about: from Panama City Beach the other half and I saw the third member of our impromptu party off to the airport for a quick hop along the panhandle; to Fort Lauderdale, where we'd be catching up with her again shortly. But not before more than 1000 miles of driving on the wrong side of the road, the perfect storm, a legion of oversized insects, and at long last, rather a lot of reading.

The thinking was, smack bang in the middle of our hectic month in America, we might just need a holiday from our holiday... a little downtime, to catch our breath and consider what we could and should expel it on next. To wit, we booked a couple of nights in a cabin in the woods between Dogtown and Fort Payne in innermost Alabama.

Surprisingly, this worried everyone we made mention of it to - though it's worth noting that none of them had ever been to Alabama themselves - and I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the names of the towns on either side of our quaint little cabin didn't help matters. We were told to make doubly sure we had appropriate plates on our rental car, and our Texan friends also insisted we stick to main roads wherever possible. Furthermore, we were advised to keep ourselves to ourselves. Basically to keep our mouths shut unless we couldn't possibly avoid it. Oh, and no taking the lord's name in vain!

As it happened, however, the most perilous thing about Alabama was the weather. Our cabin in the woods was far enough removed from it all that we only met a few folks, and those that we did meet were perfectly friendly. That said, several of the locals we encountered in the midst of our holiday-within-a-holiday essentially echoed the advice we'd been given earlier. So yes, we were careful. We hardly left the house, except to see a few incredible natural landmarks, and forage for foodstuffs. But then, that's all we'd planned on doing anyway, so our time in the cabin went off without a hitch, excepting the huge bugs that ate perhaps half of my body mass.

We weren't so lucky getting to the cabin in the first place, I'm afraid: the mildly strenuous six hour drive from Panama City Beach turned into an stressful eight hour affair when we hit massive traffic, and alas, almost immediately after that, we drove right into what I'm going to call a tropical storm... though I sincerely doubt it was anything out of the ordinary for Americans.

For wee British people like my pocket-sized traveling companion and I, it felt a lot like I imagine the end of the world would: in a matter of minutes, it went from late in the day but still quite light to night as thick as pitch. The sweltering warmth we'd almost gotten used to erupted into thunder the likes of which I'd never ever heard, and with it spikes of lightning that seemed to split the sky. To add insult to injury, seconds later huge hailstones started attacking us.

It was truly terrifying - certainly the scariest thing that I encountered in the six states I saw - but at the time, I thought the thing to do was push on through it. Me and my pride! I only pulled over when all the other drivers I'd been keeping pace with took to the hard shoulder themselves... then I happily hit my hazards and called a momentary halt to our adventure.

Nor was the drive up to Fort Lauderdale any laughing matter at the time, though I have had call to look back on it since, and laugh. On this occasion, ambition was my deadly sin. We were going to do two six to eight hour over a pair of days, but so close to the end of our time in America - or so it seemed to me - I didn't want to drag the thing out. I wanted to do it all in a day so we could get on with the last leg of our trip, and I did.

More's the pity.

But between one gargantuan drive and the other: happy days. Relaxing days. Also excruciating, exhilarating days. And why such a spread of emotions? Well, because I spend most of them reading, at long last, A Game of Thrones... which was magnificent. I did this ostensibly in readiness for the second season of the TV series, which I now plan to watch when it's concluded, and I've had the time to take in A Clash of Kings too.

Because once you pop, you can't very well stop, can you? :)

On which note, I'd better get packing, but I'll back on Monday with one last installment of Letters From America -- though truth be told it won't be a letter from America at all, because by then I'll be home again, home again.

Jiggety jig?

Sadly no... not so much.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Guest Post | Stefan of Far Beyond Reality Reviews Her Husband's Hands by Adam-Troy Castro

Ladies and gentlemen: welcome once again to The Speculative Scotsman!

You may or may not know that I’m in America at the moment – if not, yes, it’s true... in fact I’m as far AFK as I’ve ever been before – but never ye fear! For in my absence, a few good men and women have volunteered to make the site their own, albeit only momentarily. They’re bloggers, by and large, but also friends; fine folks one and all that I’ve met on the internet (and occasionally off) in the course of keeping this shared space set aside for burbling about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes.

They all have blogs of their own, of course, and I’d urge you to seek them out. I care a lot about what goes on here on The Speculative Scotsman, so let me stress this one thing before I get to giving over the floor: the fact that I’m hosting the work of each of these excellent writers here speaks to my admiration and my respect for every last one among them.

If you enjoy some or all of these terrific reviews and opinion pieces, do the decent thing and click through the links in the intro and outro of each. Follow a few of my favourite internet critics. :)  

I'm afraid today marks the last of the great guest posts. Which is to say the last of the guest posts, period... not that there are more coming up that are rubbish. Obviously. 

Anyway, to top this whole thing off, it is my inestimable pleasure to welcome Stefan Raets of Far Beyond Reality to TSS. For all that it's clearly hit its stride already, Far Beyond Reality is a fairly new blog, but I've been a fan of Stefan's superlative reviews since they started appearing on, which which I also contribute to on occasion. He's truly a terrific critic - one of my very favourites of late - and going solely on the guest post below, in which Stefan considers a certain Nebula Award-nominee, I'm sure you'll be inclined to agree.


I’m currently writing an article about the Nebula-nominated short stories for, covering all seven stories on the final ballot in one post. However, I quickly discovered that I have much more to say about one of the stories than would fit in the one paragraph or so I can devote to it. So when Niall invited me to contribute a guest post to The Speculative Scotsman during his trip abroad, I decided to devote it to that story: Her Husbands Handsby Adam-Troy Castro

First of all, you can read the entire story here. I recommend doing this before reading the rest of this post, because doing it the other way around will significantly reduce your enjoyment of both.

One thing that struck me early on about this story is that there’s initially a huge amount of dissonance between the science fiction component and the emotional tone. I’m afraid this dissonance may cause some readers to dismiss the story, which would be a huge shame. There’s a bit of an adjustment required on the part of the reader, early on during “Her Husband’s Hands,” but once you’ve made that adjustment, you can expect one of the most emotionally gripping stories you’ll read all year. 

The science fiction component of the story initially seems to border on the absurd: any part of the body can be revived and loaded with the most recent backup of the owner’s personality and memories. It’s more or less exactly the negative of an amputation: instead of a soldier returning home without a limb, the limb returns home without the soldier. Sometimes this results in a person coming home as “just enough meat to qualify as alive.” The situation these survivors and their families find themselves in is so horrifying that “it was impossible to know whether to scream in horror at their predicament or giggle uncontrollably at its madness.” 

And so it happens with the story’s main character, Rebecca, whose husband’s hands are solemnly returned home to her, delivered by two serious soldiers. They arrive in a pretty box with an American flag draped over it, a grim parody of an American military funeral that becomes acutely meaningful later on. She’s told she’s lucky: it could have been just a random chunk of flesh in a box, not two perfectly preserved and functional hands. Still, there she is, sitting across the table from her husband, who has been reduced to two faceless extremities.

The strength of the story lies in the way Castro swings from absurdism to genuinely painful emotion in no time. He explores the complexity of Rebecca’s pain in unflinching detail: her husband is technically still alive, but all that remains of the man she loved are these faceless hands. She can’t help but feel revulsion for the sentient body parts. When he asks her to kiss them, she does so out of a sense of obligation. When he moves over to touch her, it’s described as “crab-crawling over,” like one of those scenes in zombie movies where mindless body parts keep moving. She longs for the man who could “arouse her passions as well as her pity,” and most painfully for her (and for the reader), she feels guilty as she does so. 

Rebecca can’t help but feel like a war widow. There’s not enough left for her to relate to. She feels like her husband is gone. That’s why the delivery scene, with the flag draped over the box, is so poignant: Bob is not a person to her anymore. It feels as if he’s dead. As if he should be dead. Before long, Rebecca feels trapped. She has to care for her husband. She can’t leave. She realizes the rest of her life is going to be spent in service to the remnants of the man she loved and the remnants of her marriage. She’s uncomfortable sitting across from him during lunch, and by dinner time she realizes that “the silence of their meals would soon be a familiar ritual, for as long as the future still stretched.” 

The other side of the coin is of course Bob, her husband, whose body has been almost completely destroyed. The story doesn’t touch as much on his feelings towards his wife, because it’s told from Rebecca’s perspective, but it does deal with the issue of PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In this future, the possibility of backing up your personality and memories also means that, after death or injury, the revived victim can decide how much he or she wants to remember. Bob initially claims that he’s had most memories of the horrors of war erased (so he can live “blessedly free of some experiences that would have crippled him even more than his current condition”), but eventually it becomes clear that this is untrue and that he remembers everything. The first hint of this comes when he tries to strangle Rebecca in her sleep during a nightmare, which leads directly to the support group, one of the most memorable scenes in the story. 

The support group is another part of the story where the absurd and the poignant walk hand in hand, creating what has to be some of the most uncomfortable reading on this year’s Nebula ballot. The other people in the group are all mirrors for Rebecca. One person has been so fragmented that she has to be carried around in a suitcase. One couple is in a situation that’s almost identical to Bob and Rebecca’s, except that the woman has had her hands amputated so her husband’s surviving body parts could be grafted onto her own body. Rebecca wonders if her own husband expects something similar and if she could ever bring herself to do it, which is the most overt example of the struggle between guilt and self-sacrifice that she’s going through: how much of her life is she supposed to give up to accommodate what happened to her husband? 

The most meaningful scene at the support group comes when a woman who is almost entirely intact - only her face has been replaced by the reflective silver interface - gives Rebecca a hug and says “You’re not alone.” She is literally a mirror: Rebecca sees herself, faceless. All of her identity is being removed now her life has been completely taken over by the return of her husband’s hands. Her reaction sums up the darkness at the core of this story perfectly: “She wanted to tell the other woman, of course I’m alone, and my husband’s alone, and you’re alone, and we’re all alone; the very point of being in hell is that there’s a gulf between us and all our efforts to bridge it for even a moment give us nothing but a respite and the illusion of comfort before those bridges retract and we’re left to face the same problems from our own separate islands. She wanted to say it, but of course she couldn’t, not if it meant embracing despair in defiance of this sectioned woman’s kindness, and so she wept herself blind and took the hug as the gift it was meant to be.” 

And then, at the very end, the story suddenly ends on a hopeful note, when Bob comes clean and admits that he didn’t have all his memories expunged, because “the only thing worth remembering about any of it was how much of it i spent wanting to return to you.” The couple finally find common ground, despite everything that’s happened. It’s a surprisingly gentle and tender ending to this story. 

Amputees sometimes refer to “phantom pain,” a strange neurological phenomenon that can cause them to have feelings in a limb that’s no longer there. In “Her Husband’s Hands” that phantom pain seems to happen to the spouse, whose husband is almost completely gone, leaving a gaping hole in her life that she is struggling to cope with. It shows in painful, direct language the unspoken feelings of helplessness and guilt that may be experienced by some military families. It’s an incredibly poignant story that’s firmly in the realm of science fiction but still deals with issues that are relevant today. I’m not a member of SFWA so I can’t vote in the Nebulas, but if I could, “Her Husband’s Hands” would have my vote on a very strong final ballot.


Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find many of his reviews at and on his own site, Far Beyond Reality.


Thank you again, Stefan, for rounding off this month of fine friends and great guests with such style. I'll be sure to check "Her Husband's Hands" out myself just as soon as I have reliable internet access again, meanwhile you all have to promise me you'll bookmark Far Beyond Reality immediately.

In other news, please do stay tuned for the last of my Letters From America tomorrow.

And then? Well... that'll be that.

How sad. :(

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Guest Post | Bryce of Only the Best SF&F Considers... Pretty Much Everything?

Ladies and gentlemen: welcome once again to The Speculative Scotsman!

You may or may not know that I’m in America at the moment – if not, yes, it’s true... in fact I’m as far AFK as I’ve ever been before – but never ye fear! For in my absence, a few good men and women have volunteered to make the site their own, albeit only momentarily. They’re bloggers, by and large, but also friends; fine folks one and all that I’ve met on the internet (and occasionally off) in the course of keeping this shared space set aside for burbling about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes.

They all have blogs of their own, of course, and I’d urge you to seek them out. I care a lot about what goes on here on The Speculative Scotsman, so let me stress this thing before I get to giving over the floor: the fact that I’m hosting the work of each of these excellent writers here speaks to my admiration and my respect for every last one among them.

If you enjoy some or all of these terrific reviews and opinion pieces, do the decent thing and click through the links in the intro and outro of each. Follow a few of my favourite internet critics. :)

Speaking of which: Bryce Lee, of Only the Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. Bryce was one of the first folks I met when I started doing this thing in early 2010, and even today, nearly three years later, I look forward to those all too rare occasions when our paths cross, because he's honestly one of the warmest, friendliest, most generous people I know -- not to mention one of the very best bloggers I currently keep up with.

Today, for your pleasure and mine, Bryce has set his inimitable sights on... well, it's not so simple as that, actually. In fact, I'm going to let the nice man tell you himself.


I’m really honored to be here today. I’ve been keeping up with The Speculative Scotsman since its infancy and it continues to be one of my favorite blogs even without all that cute baby fat. [You see what I mean? :) - Niall]

One of the main reasons for that is Niall’s way with words, so I apologize in advance for not being nearly as erudite or eloquent in this post. Ah look at that, I’ve already exhausted my vocabulary.

My initial plan was to post about one single subject, but I had a hard time sticking with one idea, so my solution – shotgun effect - write about all of it. You’re welcome in advance. I’ll go from subjects such as Self-Published books to ratings to navel-gazing... oh my!
  • Blogging and Self-Pubs --- When I started blogging, I had this idea that I needed to read a bunch of Self-Published books to sort of earn my way in the scene. What was I thinking? Don’t worry, I was really bad at it.
  • Independent and Self-Published Books --- I have a love-hate relationship with Indie and Self-Pubbed books. Admittedly, I’ve read some amazing books that were not published by one of the Big 6, but then again I’ve read some of the worst books of my life because of them. Anymore, I’ll wait until they’ve been reviewed elsewhere and read ones others have enjoyed. But that’s not fair is it? I think Justin has a pretty good solution.  
  • Two and a Half Men --- I don’t only wonder how it’s still on the air, but how is it the number 1 comedy? “That girl is soooobangable” “I’m no good with women” *pushes glasses up nose* I just wrote 5 episodes. Now Community is a show to watch and it just barely scrapes by.
  • In Defense of Ratings --- Lots of people don’t use ratings such as said Scotsman (luckily he’s out of the country at the moment so he’ll never see this) and I understand their reasons, but for me it’s the perfect punchline to the review. I can’t always read the full review, like what if it’s a sequel to a book I haven’t read? But I can still see how a trusted reviewer felt. Sometimes you don’t really have anything bad to say about a book, but it still wasn’t a perfect book. Tack on a rating to keep it in check.
  • Speaking of Ratings --- I propose a new rating system in addition to “out of 5” or “out of 10.” I admit the number system is a bit flawed. How do you compare the complexity of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen to let’s say, The Dresden Files. I love them all but in different ways. So, new categories are “Long in the Wind (not a fart joke…okay it is),” “Fast and Furious,” “Complex as a Cat [or insert alliteration or complex animal here],” “Fun and Funny.” Then you can give the book a number rating. I’m only half joking on this one, I do think ratings need a bit of a push, but at least need to be read in conjunction with the review. Incidentally and while I write this, Patrick (the YetiStomper) just changed up his rating system.
  • Ever enter the freeway and think, “You always told me to stay off the freeway…” “Then let us hope…that I was wrong.” (the “…” was my Morpheus impression)
  • Publishers Not Finishing Series --- There are few things I hate more than getting into a series only to find out the final volume won’t be released because of low sales of the first book(s). This has happened to a few authors recently and it drives me up the wall! LianeMerciel, Harry Connolly, and David Anthony Durham are a few off the top of my head. I get publishers’ reasons, but I don’t think publishers are thinking long term. You’re teaching readers not to trust new authors, thus opting to wait until series are complete. In the long run, this is a bad call. 
  • The Walking Dead TV Show --- I am a HUGE fan of this series and I can’t wait for more, especially after that last scene in season two, you know, the one with guy who … But there’s something I gotta know: what’s the deal with their surprise zombie attacks? Lots of zombie films get this right by having someone in the house, usually at the beginning of the movie before it’s well-known that there are zombies everywhere. But The Walking Dead keeps doing surprise attacks out in the middle of nowhere. The human turns around and suddenly – zombiefied! And then afterward the zombie is moaning and stumbling along just like every. other. zombie. Wha? How did the character possibly not hear that?

These were my thoughts, it’s now time to wake up. Thanks again to The Speculative Scotsman for the chance to grace a great blog. At least take heart in the fact that Niall will be back in no time! 


The man tells it true. Alas, we're already in our final week of great guest blogs... I'll be home before it's even over, and come Monday, the blog will be back to boring old me, and me alone, mostly. So sad. :(

But let's keep our chins up. It's easy enough, really, particularly given how happy I am that Bryce was good enough to go on record on all of the above subjects for TSS. You should know this by now, but he blogs away his days over at Only the Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and trust me when I tell you you really need to be along for the ride. Thanks again, Bryce!

Tomorrow: the last guest blog you'll be seeing on The Speculative Scotsman for some time, given that this holiday of a lifetime I've been on is almost at an end. And of course I've saved some of the best for last, haven't I?

Stay tuned, in short, for Stefan the Second! :)

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Guest Post | Zoe of Fantasy Bytes Considers Small Press SF&F

Ladies and gentlemen: welcome once again to The Speculative Scotsman!

You may or may not know that I’m in America at the moment – if not, yes, it’s true... in fact I’m as far AFK as I’ve ever been before – but never ye fear! For in my absence, a few good men and women have volunteered to make the site their own, albeit only momentarily. They’re bloggers, by and large, but also friends; fine folks one and all that I’ve met on the internet (and occasionally off) in the course of keeping this shared space set aside for burbling about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes.

They all have blogs of their own, of course, and I’d urge you to seek them out. I care a lot about what goes on here on The Speculative Scotsman, so let me stress this one thing before I get to giving over the floor: the fact that I’m hosting the work of each of these excellent writers here speaks to my admiration and my respect for every last one among them.

If you enjoy some or all of these terrific reviews and opinion pieces, do the decent thing and click through the links in the intro and outro of each. Follow a few of my favourite internet critics. :)  

Today, the lovely Zoe of Fantasy Bytes (nee Fantasy Nibbles) sets her inimitable sights on small press and self-published science fiction and fantasy. Is it all rubbish? For so sayeth the received wisdom, let's make no bones about it. 

Zoe, however, says no...


It's been around six months now since I started book blogging, creating a site purely as a place to record and briefly review my reads. As I slowly got up and running I stumbled across other like-minded bloggers and had my eyes opened to the world of ARCs, and was rapidly introduced to the quagmire of SF&F publishers out there. Up until this point I'd been essentially just reading titles from 'the Big Boys', Epic Fantasy from the likes of Voyager & Orbit etc., pure mass market fantasy from the bestseller list on Amazon. I was completely unaware of the hordes of smaller publishers out there, and of the way in which the publishing world is so intertwined: a colossal, swollen mass of imprints and sister companies, a vast many-tentacled beast sucking up submissions and churning out titles. I was equally clueless as to the real power of blogging, and had no idea that the larger publishers would happily ship out ARCs to small-time bloggers, eager for mentions and reviews. My little site had opened up a massive new world to me. 

(There's a point to my reminiscing, honestly, I'm almost there now...)

Once I started enjoying ARCs from the better known publishers, I began paying more attention to the many other blogs similar to mine, and at this point it occurred to me to add some kind of "contact me if you’d like me to review your book" section to my site. I felt a bit daft in all honesty, and didn't expect anyone to use it, but within a couple of days the requests started trickling in. This is the point when things really got interesting for me, as I was suddenly being sent titles from all sorts of authors and publishers that would otherwise never have registered on my radar at all.

To be 100% honest, I wasn't expecting much... I had a kind of subconscious publisher snobbery thing going on [I know exactly what you mean --- Niall]. If these titles were really any good they'd have been taken up by the Big Boys I said to myself. But there was one called "My Sparkling Misfortune" which from the blurb sounded like fun, and just the thing for a rainy afternoon, so I delved in and gave it a go. And I absolutely loved it, it was extremely well written and engaging, and not only could I not put it down I also couldn't fault it. And then I hoovered up the sequel. And my eyes were opened to an whole new world of titles. I've since read and enjoyed a massive amount of novels from often tiny publishers (other notable examples being CassaStar, CassaFire & Overlord Rising ), and whilst each one that blows me away is a treat, I can't help feeling hugely disappointed when I think how many fantasy readers will never see these books.

Obviously with the increasing popularity of e-readers the odds of titles like this taking off are vastly improved. One of the main barriers to hard copies from independents, in my experience at least, is the price. If I want the newest Voyager paperback I'm usually looking at around a fiver on Amazon, but if I want a small paperback from an Indie it can be up around $20, which is an instant put-off. Kindle versions are usually a much better deal. It's much easier to take a risk on an unknown quantity with a significantly smaller price-tag.

Some of my absolute favourite reads since starting the blog have been from independent publishers. However much I shout them out on my site though, I only have a small readership and these titles don't get anywhere near the recognition they deserve. And that really bothers me. In many cases the writing is vastly superior to many of the big titles out there, so what is it that determines who gets picked up by the big names? Is it a case of 50% talent and 50% luck? Or are the odds even worse than that? Maybe it's who you know as much as it's what you write...

Let me use an example from the Urban Fantasy genre. Penguin's new imprint, Berkley UK, have got a title due out this Spring, a werewolf novel that's a walking, talking, trite and tired cliche (IMO of course). With the might of Penguin behind it they've already sold the film rights, and it will no doubt rake in gazillions of monies. Candlemark and Gleam have recently published Matchbox Girls, a fresh and innovative (IMO of course) Urban Fantasy that spurns the usual stereotypes and would make a truly fantastic film, if only it would get some serious notice. It's beautifully written, and damn near cliche free. It's not right! These two are the wrong way around.

These are of course just my personal ramblings and foot-stompings. I don't know if authors aim for a certain publisher initially, or if they try many, and go with the first one who seems keen. Maybe many of them make a conscious decision to avoid the larger houses; I clearly don't know the process. I just have an assumption that you would start high and then go lower if you're not successful. I have to admit it's a topic increasingly close to my heart as I struggle to coax the fantasy novel that has been brewing in my head for the last couple of years, out, and onto paper.

I've noticed that some of the older and more established review blogs won't touch independent titles at all. I presume time spent on reviews like this hurts their site's stats and they don't want to take the hit. They're missing out one some absolute gems though. And so are their readers. I’m thankful to have widened my reading experience, and tend to be on the lookout for the Davids more than the Goliaths these days.


Inspiring words, Zoe! And thank you ever so much for putting them thus here on The Speculative Scotsman. For my part, I'm all for underdogs - at the very least I like to think I am - so I'll make a note to pay more attention to the small press review requests that come in through the site from here on out.

Remember, everyone: you can find Zoe blogging ALL THE TIME over at Fantasy Bytes. Get in on the action on the ground floor now!

So what's coming up tomorrow? Again, I'm not 100% sure myself yet, so we'll all just have to wait and see... but judging by the last couple of weeks' worth of content, odds on it's going to be awesome.

Monday 16 April 2012

Guest Post | Sarah of Bookworm Blues Considers Her Comfort Zone

Ladies and gentlemen: welcome once again to The Speculative Scotsman!

You may or may not know that I’m in America at the moment – if not, yes, it’s true... in fact I’m as far AFK as I’ve ever been before – but never ye fear! For in my absence, a few good men and women have volunteered to make the site their own, albeit only momentarily. They’re bloggers, by and large, but also friends; fine folks one and all that I’ve met on the internet (and occasionally off) in the course of keeping this shared space set aside for burbling about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes.

They all have blogs of their own, of course, and I’d urge you to seek them out. I care a lot about what goes on here on The Speculative Scotsman, so let me stress this one thing before I get to giving over the floor: the fact that I’m hosting the work of each of these excellent writers here speaks to my admiration and my respect for every last one among them.

If you enjoy some or all of these terrific reviews and opinion pieces, do the decent thing and click through the links in the intro and outro of each. Follow a few of my favourite internet critics. :)

Now then. In honour of the time-tested blueness of Mondays, I thought the thing to do
this Monday was to host a blueish guest post, and truly, who could be better qualified for the job than Sarah of Bookworm Blues

Like all the other guests we've had on TSS this last little while, and those still to come, Sarah is a fantastic blogger, and a mainstay on my favoured feed-eater. It's a real honour to have her here on the blog, and doubly so considering the post she's got in store for us: a frank, intimate and considered article on how our comfort zones can become, counter-intuitively, too comfortable.

It is, in short, exactly the sort of thing I had hoped Sarah would write for the site, though I'd never have asked. It's what she does best -- though I should say she does everything else very well indeed. I'm going to let her tell the rest of this tale, but if you're not on the Bookworm Blues bandwagon already, by the end of this blog you bloody well will be.


First, I want to thank Niall for asking me to guest blog. It’s incredibly flattering to think that Niall thinks I’m good enough to write on his fantastic blog. [Oh, I know so --- Niall] Secondly, I should admit that I wracked my brain for weeks about what to write about. Niall told me to review something I don’t typically review. That leaves comics and movies and I don’t read/watch either and I usually post all the reviews of the book I read directly onto my blog as soon as possible, so I had no reviews of books left to write about. I decided to review something else entirely.

Well, “review” might be quite a stretch.

I need to give you some background. In November of 2010 I was diagnosed with cancer. You can imagine how terrifying it was to hear that I had a potentially terminal disease at the age of 28. I had surgery to remove my tumor two weeks after I was diagnosed. In the beginning of January I went to start my cancer treatment in the hospital and found out I was (surprise!) pregnant. It was the last thing I expected. The pregnancy was very difficult, not only because I was worried about my cancer spreading due to my inability to treat it while pregnant, but I also faced other health problems. My daughter was born via c-section on August 15. A few weeks later I had an ultrasound done and learned that my cancer probably spread while pregnant. Now I’m sitting here waiting to start the next leg of my treatment at a cancer center, probably sometime this summer.

I’m not saying any of this for sympathy. I’m saying it to give you some background. I’ve had a hell of a year (and a bit). It’s been very difficult for my family and me and I can tell you that sometimes the only thing that got me through was taking a vacation from myself and the best way to do that is by reading some damn good books. I’ve devoured more books during this period of my life than at any other.

Now, why on earth am I writing any of this on Niall’s blog?

After I was diagnosed with cancer I read to escape my own skin. I wanted to forget all the issues facing me. Then, when my back went out during my pregnancy and rendered me basically paralyzed for six months, I really started really flipping out. I was fighting cancer, trying to grow a healthy baby and unable to walk. My usual everything didn’t cut it anymore. I needed unusual. I needed to escape everything, even my reading comfort zone. So what did I do? I read the books I wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole a few months earlier. And I liked them. That’s the real crazy part. I liked them.

Avid bookworms like myself tend to have a comfort zone. We like what we like and we tend to disregard everything else. [All too true --- Niall] However, this period in my life taught me how closed I was to myriads of good books I had spent years ignoring. Before I’d only read a book if it was epic fantasy. It had to be bloody and filled with tons of complicated plot elements. Politics were always a plus. Then, this period of my life happened and I ventured out. I read urban fantasy, sci-fi, military sci-fi, fantasy with assassins, thieves, steampunk, new weird, young adult and whatever else. I even read Twilight. I didn’t like it, but I read it.

Not every book was a hit and I didn’t enjoy every author, but I learned that right outside of my comfort zone there were worlds that I had never dreamed about and talented authors that I had closed myself off to simply because my comfort zone was too comfortable. Why try something else when you know exactly what you like?

Well, sometimes life needs a bit of extra spice. Sometimes your usual meal needs to be changed out for something new. What’s amazing to me is how many authors there are who are incredibly talented that I overlooked before simply because I was too comfortable to move over and see what books were on the next shelf. I’m lucky, I get plenty of books sent to me by publishers from myriads of different areas of speculative fiction and while I would have ignored most of them before, now I read all of them. It might take me a while to get to them, but I read them. I read the new authors and the time-tested authors. I read epic fantasy, urban fantasy and young adult, as well as whatever else is thrown my way. I feel rather ashamed of how closed I was to many books before. My tastes are far broader than I had expected and I never would have known that unless all of this health stuff happened to me.

Cancer has changed me forever. Once you hear those fateful words, “you have cancer” there’s no going back. While I am still fighting my battle, and I will win it, there are lessons it has taught me that I would have never learned any other way. One of them is not judging a book by its genre, or it’s cover. Each book has a new world and vision to offer, and each book deserves its chance. Comfort zones are nice. I will always favor epic fantasy, but now I realize that epic fantasy isn’t all that’s worth reading.

I guess you could say that this post is a review of reading styles and the lesson in the end is, maybe the next time you go to the library or the book store, stop at the isle next to the one you prefer and maybe choose a book you’d avoided before because it’s not your typical fare. You might just learn that breaking out of your comfort zone can add some incredible spice and flavor into your usual literary feast.


Absolutely fascinating stuff, Sarah -- thank you so much!

So we want to know: what are your comfort zones, folks? And how often do you read outside them? One book in ten, would you say? More, or less?

Now I'm not sure what's coming up tomorrow on The Speculative Scotsman, but... it'll be brilliant. Or else it'll be me, with a belated Letters From America! Meantime, Bookworm Blues is where you'll find Sarah, and I think you and I both know you want to.

Friday 13 April 2012

Guest Post | Justin of Staffer's Book Review on Sex in SFF

Ladies and gentlemen: welcome once again to The Speculative Scotsman!

You may or may not know that I’m in America at the moment – if not, yes, it’s true... in fact I’m as far AFK as I’ve ever been before – but never ye fear! For in my absence, a few good men and women have volunteered to make the site their own, albeit only momentarily. They’re bloggers, by and large, but also friends; fine folks one and all that I’ve met on the internet (and occasionally off) in the course of keeping this shared space set aside for burbling about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes.

They all have blogs of their own, of course, and I’d urge you to seek them out. I care a lot about what goes on here on The Speculative Scotsman, so let me stress this one thing before I get to giving over the floor: the fact that I’m hosting the work of each of these excellent writers here speaks to my admiration and my respect for every last one among them.

If you enjoy some or all of these terrific reviews and opinion pieces, do the decent thing and click through the links in the intro and outro of each. Follow a few of my favourite internet critics. :)

On this fine Friday, it's entirely my pleasure to welcome one Justin Landon to TSS. Justin, as you may well be aware, is the writer behind one of my favourite genre blogs of recent years, namely Staffer's Book Review.

By all means, click through that link and come on back here when you're good and ready... after all, it should only take a minute for you to realise why having Justin here is such a treat.

Now that we're all on the same page, behold this musing amongst musings!


Sex. Dirty, icky, squishy, sloppy, romantic, loving, and harmoanious (sic) sex. Most fantasy novels have it to one degree or another, but very few seem to get it right. Ask any author, what's the hardest thing to write? Most of them, I suspect, would answer sex. Although, Sam Sykes would probably say something like words. Smart asses aside, sex is hard because everyone's had it. Unlike sword fights, or politics, or horse riding, sex is a universal experience. If an author gets it wrong, readers will know it on a visceral level.

Maybe it's easier to write sex for young adults, those little punks don't know any better!

I've had sex. Not a lot of it - I mean I do read SFF - but I like to think I've had enough to identify what sex is like. Not what it should be like, or what it could be like, or what I wish it were like, but what it actually is. A few weeks ago I read an early review copy of Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts, a second world fantasy built on the foundation of steppe culture. In the early going she wrote a sex scene that I immediately dubbed, THE BEST SEX SCENE IN FANTASY NOVEL HISTORY. Bold words! Why is it the best? What makes Bear's scene capture what it's like to do the dirty?

Before I get into that, let's talk about what other authors are doing wrong. I don't mean a failure to use sex for a purpose -- to serve story telling, or to communicate theme and tone (something Joe Abercrombie does brilliantly) -- rather a failure to capture the perfect balance of pornography and romance. Since I mentioned Abercrombie, let's use his Best Served Cold as Exhibit A.

"Uh, uh, their mindless grunting. Creak, creak, the bed moaning alone with them. Squelch, squelch, his skin slapping hard against against her arse." Best Served Cold -- Joe Abercrombie

This scene captures a lot of what Abercromie tries to do with sex. There's a cinematic aspect to it, but also a detachment. His sex lacks investment from his characters and maintains a psychic distance from the act. There is a self consciousness to it that translates the kinds of characters he writes. The result is something inherently pornographic, a dead behind the eyes kind of fucking. Is it effective? Absolutely. But, as a sex scene, as a series of words meant to convey the act of sex and all that it is, it fails. There's an inherent lack of emotion that I believe cannot be separate from sex -- even in the most casual of relationships.

What would Abercrombie's on-line porn website be called? Before They Are Banged?

Then there's Charlaine Harris who wields sex like a laugh-track.

"While I stood stock-still, paralyzed by conflicting waves of emotion, Eric took the soap out of my hands and lathered up his own, set the soap back in its little niche, and began to wash my arms, raising each in turn to stroke my armpit, down my side, never touching my breasts, which were practically quivering like puppies who wanted to be petted." – Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

I'm sorry, did she say quivering puppies? I can't recall the last time my wife's chest barked at me. I must be doing it wrong. And then we have pure unadulterated stereotypical paranormal romance:

"I let my hand stroke boldly downward, my fingers aching to set him free, to grasp his turgid magnificence." – A Brush of Darkness by Allison Pang

I don't know about the other men reading this, but if my partner called mine turgid magnificence I'd be hers forever. [Amen - Niall] I asked my wife to say this sentence out loud and she couldn't do it. I asked her to think it next time we were mid coitus. She ended up laughing at a rather inopportune moment. All that goes to say that neither Harris nor Pang portray sex that carries any approximation to the real thing. Just as Abercrombie creates a false image that belongs in a Van Nuys garage illuminated with 1,000 watt bulbs, the PNR community trends toward over-glorification of the act, an idealized image of what sex should be. Or more specifically, some warped perception of what it should be. It lacks the selfishness, the craving of power, and the fear of failure that are inescapable realities between the sheets

It's not just me, right? Oh God, it is just me... isn't it? [I'm saying nothing! - Niall]

Kameron Hurley, author of God's War and Infidel, who I have in the past compared to Abercrombie, demands similar results from her sex, but restrains herself:

"She kissed and licked Jaks in a detached sort of way. It was like watching two people she didn't know have sex. God's War -- Kameron Hurley

Like Abercrombie she's using sex to develop character and set a tone for the novel, a tone similar in nature to the one quoted above. Unlike him, she eschews the graphic descriptions, the two quoted lines making up the entirety of the scene. This restraint is something likewise exhibited by Brandon Sanderson:

"...." Everything He's Written -- Brandon Sanderson

I'm kidding, in so far as to say that Sanderson mentions sex about as often as he mentions Satan as his Lord and Savior. For his purposes, story telling and otherwise, Sanderson ignores sex, a perfectly reasonable endeavor albeit somewhat willful in its denial of a fundamental human activity. Hurley doesn't ignore it, but prefers not to describe it. She recognizes it and uses it as a character device without risking the land mine that is an awkwardly written sex scene.

For my money, I'd rather Hurley's approach than many other's. As I sat down to write this article, making a list of sex scenes in my mind, I remembered that one from God's War. In my memory it was far more graphic than Hurley wrote it. I filled in the blanks. It's effective use of sex, but it's not really a sex scene, is it? This gets at the question, of why write a sex scene at all? I respond, why write a fight scene? And the answer is because people want to read them. Sex, just like action, can make for compelling theater. Just as a carefully orchestrated duel between two equally matched fighters can make for a breathless climax (pun intended!), so too can sex. The problem is that few authors attempt it in such a role, and fewer still can succeed.

Man lance. Seriously. Someone called it a man lance. Hey baby, want to get lanced?

To come full circle, Elizabeth Bear takes the rawness of Abercrombie, the idealism of Pang, and the purposefulness of Hurley. She uses sex as a character builder and a plot device, but also chooses to write in the details. She captures the selfishness, the self consciousness, the passion, and the romance. It is equal parts fucking and love making. It resonates for me as the realest thing I've read in something that's inherently fantasy. Bear creates excitement, anticipation, and release as her two character clash in a battle not of swords, or wits, but of their loins (awkward sex scene word!).

It is, in short, perfect. I leave you, fair reader, with a taste:

"She was softness, lush dimpled softness of arms and flanks wrapped around strength, like a bent bow. She was the fall of cool hair across his throat and his burning face, like water to a man sick with sun. She was the smell of sweat and pungent oils. She was the warmth of the night, and seventeen moons rose over her shoulders while she rode him with the purpose and intensity with which she raced her mare." Range of Ghosts -- Elizabeth Bear

Brilliant stuff, Justin... just brilliant! And one more time: thanks so much for putting it all together for The Speculative Scotsman.

Remember, you can and you assuredly should point your browsers towards Staffer's Book Review for more of Justin's masterful musings. Would you believe this bloke's been on the scene for barely a year? And already methinks he puts most of the rest of us to shame.

On that note, you may have noticed today was supposed to be the appointed day for another installment of Letters From America. Well, it's still coming... but it'll either be a little late, or I'll wrap this week's random recollections in with next week's, so hold your horses, y'all. :)

Everyone have a happy weekend, now. I'll see you on the other side!