"Far from the Spaceports" among Abbott's best

FarfromthespaceportsProfessionals in the traditional publishing business advise that authors should stick with the same literary genre in order to maximize their name recognition. If your debut novel is science fiction, then your tenth novel (and all the ones in between) should be as well.

I've never liked this stipulation. I've always thought that fans will follow a good author wherever he goes, if that author stays faithful to what makes his books good.

Which is why I'm pleased to report that Richard Abbott's Far from the Spaceports is vintage Richard Abbott, a splendid good read, even if it is science rather than historical fiction, the genre of his three previous novels.

Abbott's work has a characteristic flavor profile: less emphasis on plot, more on character and world development. The action is satisfying enough, but it is never earth-shaking. Abbott does not send his characters off on impossible missions that require multiple dei ex machinibus for the resolution to take place.

This is particularly gratifying for me as someone who last delved into the science fiction genre by way of the movie "Interstellar." Ugh.

The plot of FFTS orbits around a kind of interplanetary economic fraud case somewhere in the future (AD 2100? No year is given), investigated by the one and only Mitnash Thakur, a swashbuckling coding genius who works for the Economic Crime Review Board, an agency I can only hope will be created by a future, benevolent technocratic government.

Sound underwhelming? Well, maybe. It's not going to involve a lot of laser cannons, tempting fembots, and journeys to the center of a black hole.

Instead, you have Mit, who uses computer programming the way Indiana Jones uses his whip. You also have Mitnash's "persona," Slate, a fascinating AI computer who (have to use that pronoun, it's really not an it) combines some of the aspects of the HAL "2001: A Space Odyssey" computer with what can only be termed sexy geek girl partner. Slate is linked with Mit through a neurotransmitter, so "she" can practically hear his thoughts. The result is quite an intimate portrait of hand-in-bot computer sleuthing and hacking.

The world Abbott creates is no less engaging: a set of asteroids in linked orbit called the Scilly Isles, remote outposts used as a base for miners. Think Antarctic Research Station, but without the penguins, or the oxygen. 

But the real star of the show may be the hyperauthentic codespeak, which is indicative of the kind of science fiction this novel represents: a reasonable, plausible future where computers and computer hacking are by an order of magnitude more important in everyone's day-to-day life than is now true.

Here's a quick sample from a Slate communication to Mit about an enemy persona: 

"Carreg's a very recent model Sarsen, with all upgrades to date, and some custom work done just a few weeks ago. Nothing unusual that I can see, but then I can't access most of the real content across the Pebble interface. Response time is quite a bit faster than I'd expect, but erratic. He's busy doing something else in the background, I guess. There's some kind of Dust code running some kind of daemon service, can't make out what it does. And there could be anything outside his public zone."

It gets more specialized than this, but as with Shakespeare (particularly Henry V, my favorite Kenneth Branagh movie, where you start out with an unintelligible prologue and end with the stirring "band of brothers" speech), the learning curve with the vocabulary smooths out by the end, and enhances the immersion in the world.

Add to this a number of well-drawn supporting characters (including the dashing South Asian spaceship captain Parvati and her partner Maureen, and Mrs. Riley, who is more than just an old lady B&B proprietress), a non-obvious economic mystery to unravel, and an ugly little persona that hacks in to Slate, and you have a nifty and entertaining short novel with much room for further adventures, possibly the best thing the author has done to date.

In short, another bottle of Richard Abbott, perhaps this time a Pinot Noir rather than a Cabernet, but all from the same winemaker and the same literary terroir.

Bottoms up.


A new review of Skater in a Strange Land

Picture 1This one is from Mark Lee of the book review site The Masquerade Crew; he gives it the equivalent of 3 stars out of 5, and I appreciate his honesty.

(Image: Screenshot of TMC website. You like book reviews? Visit the site; lots there)

I love that Mark thinks Skater is "unique" and "a nice story underneath the rough exterior." He's less happy about the writing, calling it "sloppy" in places and that "the grammar/punctuation... could have used sprucing up in some places." (Ouch! Would love to hear some specific examples, and how far it goes beyond typos.)

Mark also thinks our hero Sherm should've reacted more strongly to the talking bears. That is a great point and really important for the book. To get into the book, you do have to get over the talking bears-- and the parallel universe, and the fact that no one has heard of Borschland, and...

I think if I were the hero of the book I might have reacted more strongly, but when I try to find a parallel, I go back to my first experience in a foreign country where they didn't speak English-- France. That might have been the most hair-raising experience of my young life (I was twenty at the time). I had studied French, but the reality of hearing it in "real time" was terrifying. Still, I got on the train to Paris and I did what I needed to do. You pretty much have to go with the flow when you're in a foreign country.

The bears, at least, speak perfect English.

Now, Sherm, he's naturally a go-with-the-flow guy-- he doesn't get excited about a whole lot, and I think that's one reason he's able to play a game where there is always a chance of getting your jugular sliced by a stray skate blade.

And anyway, he had nothing to lose, and had been flying for about 20 hours at that point.

But I'm really pleased Mark stuck with the thing and read closely enough to have specific opinions. That's an honor in itself.

Kudos also to the Masquerade retweet crew. Within hours of the review going live, there were bunches of retweets. 


A few words about Bearland

AndmomNote: this post is in a series of occasional reprints of articles from Rejsgaang Oot, the magazine of the Borschland National Tourist Board.

The adventurer tourist who has decided on a stay in Borschland may find himself with time on his hands if there is a phase shift that outlasts the traveler's visa. 

No problem. The Borschland Foreign Ministry is happy to extend visas in case of unexpected phase shifts.

But what to do until the Continent shifts back to our earth?

If you have had your fill of Borschland, you may wish to visit Bearland.

Image: Else Holmelund Minarik's "Little Bear" strongly approximates the joyful character of the bears of Bearland.

Bearland is one of the most unusual nations on earth. It is the only democratic nation administered by sentient creatures other than humans. Some three million bears of all species make up this truly beautiful and scenic land, and it is well worth the shock to see them and it.

Borschland is home for some bears, especially those who work for Bearland's embassy in Staff Borsch. Having a bear address one with a Gut Emorgenweck ("Good morning!") in one of the city's many open squares and markets is practically an everyday occurrence.

But being in a place where most of the inhabitants are large, furry, and equipped with big teeth can be unsettling for some.

Don't be shy. Bears are among the most civilized creatures on the continent. They have benefited from the influence of English suzerainty (1888-1914) and are still an associate member of the UK Commonwealth of Nations. Though the official language of Bearland is Bnoa, a hybrid of several native bear dialects, English is taught and spoken universally, with only the most rustic of bears having no knowledge of the language. A Royal Air Force base is still maintained by the UK in proximity to Bearland's largest city, Waterbrownbear, with a community of some 750 RAF officers, airmen, dependents, and contract personnel.

The bears of Bearland are proud of their advanced civilization. Most bears wear clothing by choice, although naturism is not outlawed. They maintain a modern network of railroads and highways, and are the only nation on the Continent that uses motorcars as a private means of transportation. Bear Air is the official airline for tourists traveling to and from the Continent.

The climate of Bearland is various. It is the northernmost nation on the continent, which is to say, the closest to the equator, and the weather in Waterbrownbear is similar to that of Auckland, New Zealand. The beaches of Bearland are justly celebrated and visited by hundreds of thousands of bears and humans every year.

Farther to the south, the capitol of Brownbakikio is more continental, and the southernmost city, in the mountains near the Fox Territories, Brownbearking, is surrounded by tall mountains and host to fabulous winter sports. 

The "people" of Bearland are among the most hospitable you will see anywhere. They call themselves the "Upright Bears" both because they have evolved as majority bipedal creatures, and because their Bearish Christian Anglican religion calls upon them always to do the right thing in the right situation. The traditional Cathedral of All Souls in Brownbakikio is an awe-inspiring sight with twin Bnoogothic towers reaching to 375 feet and adorned with the unique and glowering bear gargoyles. 02794_0010027659

For guests, the Bearish motto translates to loading them down with the national delicacy, honey.

Honey is an ingredient in almost everything eaten and drunk in Bearland, and it is not uncommon to see honeybees flying about in even the most urban of areas. Bears are avid beekeepers and are proud to show visitors their prized hives. Be sure to ask if proper protective gear is available. Most bears do not mind a sting or two, but human hides are more tender.

Bearland is a sport fisherman's paradise. Bears lovingly maintain wild salmon fisheries, and each year the spawning of salmon is host to many salmon swiping festivals. In smaller streams, bears don the traditional waders and fly fish to their heart's content.

Hibernation is a custom now considered archaic among bears, and tourists will find year-round fun and attractions in Bearland, though the winter months tend to be a quieter time of reflection and relaxation for all but the most ambitious of bears.

Sports in Bearland are a great passion. The national game is Sockey, a combination of field hockey and soccer where players score goals both by hitting the small leather ball with a stick-- or by kicking it. Red Dot is Bearland's answer to Australian Rules Football, and is the most rough-and-ready of the native games. Bears also play soccer, rugby, ice hockey, and other more traditional sports. 

All in all, there is much more than one phase shift's worth of things to do and see in Bearland. As the bears say, "Bearland: a honey of a place where you'll want to 'stick' around."