There's always something Marmite-y about Greg Bear. Either you really enjoy his books or you simply can't be bothered to finish them. Luckily for the purposes of this review I'm firmly in the first camp so each time one of his titles gets published I know I'm in for a treat. I simply enjoy his action packed, cleverly thought out old school science fiction and that's that. While many consider his 2010 generation ship saga “Hull Zero Three” to be a book preceding "War Dogs", since 2010 when it was originally published Bear was in fact a very busy bee. For starters he published an immense trilogy of novels set in the Halo Universe. In typical Bear fashion his Halo:Forerunner trilogy was not just another Halo novel catering to the masses but a feast of high concept action which in equal measures confused and delighted many fans of the franchise. It is this trilogy of Halo novels that, in my opinion, holds the key to his new trilogy, first installment of which is his latest novel "War Dogs".
To put it bluntly, "War Dogs" is military science fiction of finest order which brings together massive conflict on an epic scale that Halo is best known for and Bear's worldbuilding skills. Set in the future after the first contact was made, human race is in the position where it can enjoy the benefits of knowing a more advanced spacefaring species The Gurus. Gurus are miles ahead when it comes to technology and are generally scientifically more developed but are lacking one very crucial thing when it comes to survivability - an ability to wage war. As a species which is very experienced in all matters of causing destruction, human race is asked to help them in their conflict against the Antagonists, malevolent race hot on Gurus' heels. In fact, the Antagonists already set their camp on Mars and it is Master Sergeant Michael Venn, combat expert specialized for off-world missions, who must together with his small team tackle the much more powerful Antags or perish trying. However, once they drop on Mars events quickly escalate beyond their control resulting in such glorious chaos which is a pleasure to read.
If you like Greg Bear's work and you can ignore headline-baiting names like The Gurus, The Antags or Skyrines which for a while made me feel like I'm reading The Sun, "War Dogs" offers an explosive ride across the red planet - that is once after you've passed the initial slow-burning entry. Indeed, for the most of its parts "War Dogs" does feel like a set up for what's coming in the subsequent books but as soon as you get down and dirty with Master Sergeant Venn the results are simply extraordinary. Caught in an unpredictable environment all the training that his team has goes out of the window and luck is suddenly as important as experience. The desperation of a modern soldier is palpable and it is often only the intuitive reflexes that make the difference between life and death. By the end Venn and his team are already battle-weary but their part in this war is only beginning.
"War Dogs" is Bear's best book in years but only if you're ready to commit for a long haul - this is after all just the first third of the story and next two books are still far in the future. The whole set up is engaging and while it does play with some of the more familiar tropes in science fiction its pitch-perfect delivery feels entirely refreshing. An opening to a series well worth checking out!
Review copy provided by Gollancz.
Order War Dogs by Greg Bear here:
This story had many different configurations. Some were in the near future, some in the far future. I rewrote it several times trying out various scenarios, and none of them worked. In reality, I just wasn’t a good enough storyteller, yet. I moved on to dabble in screen writing, which was very hard for me. It’s a restrictive format, with specific requirements within the story structure. It was an excellent lesson for me. I happily returned to novels with a new set of skills.
I had written two screen plays that made quarter finals in a couple contests. That made me feel the stories were good enough to flesh out. The first one I rewrote at least five times before I gave up. It wasn’t until someone questioned the vague setting that I made a breakthrough. Setting adds a unique flavor to the story. I was so focused on the plot that I hadn’t noticed the great yawning lack. Once I firmly placed the story geographically, it worked.
When I came back around to make another stab at writing this story, the first thing I did was place it. I tossed all the other versions and started from scratch with the basic back stories of a few characters in mind. I wanted to place it in the near future. One of the things I knew would impact the world in the future was the weather. So I had a place, western North Carolina, and a time of changed climate. The hot days are hotter; the cold more brutal. The middle of the country has been scoured by tornados and wind storms until it is uninhabitable. That was the bedrock for my world building.
During the SARS epidemic, in 2003, an entire apartment building was quarantined. I wrote a short story about how it must feel to be quarantined in your own home for days. The authorities struggled with how it would impact the economy. Schools, theatres and clubs were forced to close. No one shopped or went to work. I remember hearing that one entire city shut down for three days, trying to stop the contagion cycle. Soldiers were patrolling to keep people inside. I wondered what would happen if it lasted longer, or was more lethal. How would emergency services respond if thousands of people were dying?
I had to do some research on population numbers. If the country only had about 30 million survivors, could they be so spread out that groups would be isolated? According to the 2013 census, California has over 38 million people. It would be like taking the whole population of California and spreading it across the thousands of miles of the entire country. Or in historical terms, about equivalent to the country’s population in 1860.
Also, I had to think about what people would do if the government fell apart. Would you stay in your home or flee to family or friends? Stay where others are for safety in numbers, or seek isolation to avoid contagion? I think the answer changes with every person’s experience. So it makes sense that the general population scattered to whatever made sense to the individual. And it also made sense that some people would try to take advantage of the situation, while others tried to plan for long term survival.
I created a number of questions in the first book. For the second book, I am going to have to do a lot of behind the scenes writing to create histories and hierarchies and power struggles. A lot of that will be for me to refer to as I am writing. Some of it may never see the light of day, but I need to prepare it, in case I need it in the future. There’s a lot going on in this world. Depending on the direction of the story, the reader might not see something until the second, third or fourth book. The more preparation I have ahead of time, the easier it will be to weave into the story line.
Order Lethal Seasons by Alice Sabo here:
The Knight was born of a project I had been nurturing for a long time: writing a historical saga. Or rather, a pseudo-historical saga, since I wanted to move away from real history in order to invent a world of my own. But the models I had in mind were several great series of historical novels, some of which may not be well-known outside of France: The Accursed Kings (Maurice Druon) or Fortunes of France (Robert Merle). But also North and South (John Jakes), for example. In short, I wanted to recount a troubled ‘historical’ period through the destinies of several characters.
Initially, I intended to write short novels that, in France, would be released directly in mass-market paperback. I planned to write two or three per year. But as I kept writing, it seemed to Stéphane Marsan, my French publisher, that my project was growing in scale and that the short novel format was no longer the most appropriate. Stéphane felt that my project deserved a format commensurate with its scope. He persuaded me of this and I found myself writing a big book . . . which would even become the biggest I had ever written! (Although I eventually broke my record with the sequel: L’Héritier.)
The Knight represents a lot of labour and its delivery was at times difficult. But I don’t regret it and I must confess I’m fairly happy with the result. The book is selling well in France and I hope it will be well-received in Britain because I have plenty more stories to tell. The Knight is merely the beginning. With L’Héritier (The Heir, released in France in November 2014), I’ve completed a first duology set in this universe, but I’m already thinking about a stand-alone volume and a trilogy that will bring new characters into play. So I know I’m far from being finished with the High Kingdom. Long may it live!
Order The Knight by Pierre Pevel here:
She’d come out of the ground headless, with someone else’s skull lying loose in her casket.
According to my morning’s Chicago Tribune, the exhumation was supposed to be routine, a modern forensic examination of the victim of a 1948 unsolved murder. Certainly no one had anticipated she’d been buried with someone else’s head—not the sheriff whose predecessors had never effectively worked the case; not the state’s attorney, who’d fought the exhumation; not even the small town’s mayor who’d pushed for the fresh look—at first at the request of a constituent who’d heard old-timers laughing conspiratorially about the murder, then because, some said, he’d gone crazy and begun hearing directly from her ghost.
For me, at first, the switched heads were simply tantalizing nuggets I could work into one of my upcoming Dek Elstrom mysteries, to fool readers into thinking I’m more imaginative that I really am. I figured I could fashion any number of fictions about why a body might come out of a grave sporting, loosely, someone else’s head.
The newspaper story, though, hinted at mysteries beyond why a killer would need her head or, even more bizarrely, bother to replace it with another: Why had the case languished? Why had the sheriff and the states’ attorney fought the exhumation? Was the mayor crazy, hearing from ghosts? Where, exactly, did one go, back in 1948, to get a spare head? And whose head was it?
Not quite mindful that I was in the midst of finishing my third Elstrom novel, due in weeks, and owed the fourth to my publisher in less than a year, I began researching old newspaper accounts. The facts were simple enough: Mary Jane Reed, 17, and Stanley Skridla, 26, had been out drinking on a June night before ending up at a rural roadhouse around midnight. The evening must have passed amicably enough, for they’d then driven the short distance to the local lovers’ lane.
Stanley was found alongside the lane the next morning, shot dead. Strangely, his car had been driven the short distance back to the roadhouse.
Mary Jane Reed had disappeared.
A massive search was undertaken along the nearby river and across the surrounding fields. Five days later she was found, lying easily visible, beneath a tree in a spot that already been searched several times. Though she’d been killed by a single bullet fired into the back of her head, the lone crime scene photograph—why was only one taken?—showed the bullet wound carefully covered by leaves. She was fully dressed except for the slacks folded neatly on her back, and her body lacked any signs of the decomposition that would have resulted from being left out long in the hot June sun. Where had she been for five days?
Numerous leads were pursued but none panned out. Now, almost sixty years later, the new autopsy didn’t pan out either; she’d been too long in the ground. It yielded no new clues to the killer.
Or had it? None of the old newspaper accounts, some of them quite lurid, mentioned anything about a beheading. How could that have been kept quiet?
I called the mayor. Intriguingly, he now owned the roadhouse where the young couple had last been seen alive—except, of course, by whoever killed them. He was eager to talk to anyone interested in the long-ignored case. I drove the eighty miles west from Chicago.
The mayor was coolly methodical as he laid out detail after detail about the long-ago killings, of the people and the places, the jealousies and the rumors and the strange silences that descended whenever he asked local old-timers about the case.
He told me who he thought killed Mary Jane Reed and Stanley Skridla.
He shrugged, admitting there were other viable candidates. “It’s been sixty years; most everybody’s dead,” he said. “Still....” He let the thought dangle, unfinished.
A seventeen year old girl’s murder had gone unsolved, and mostly unremembered, for almost sixty years. Surely Mary Jane was owed more than that.
Perhaps…my thoughts sped up…a telling of her story through the relaxed constraints of truthful fiction.
But to do that, I’d have to know who’d been the most likely killer. And that demanded understanding why her head had been switched and who’d conspired to keep that secret—something that had eluded everyone involved in her recent autopsy.
Even the mayor, the person most knowledgeable about the case, could only offer vague theories. None made sense.
Mary Jane Reed rode with me every minute of my way home, and she stayed close during the next days, weeks, and months as I finished my third Dek Elstrom novel and wrote the fourth. I stole moments, sometimes hours, and often whole days to study the old press clips reporting the deaths of Mary Jane Reed and Stanley Skridla, and to reread the notes I made during my visits with the mayor—yes, I drove back to the roadhouse another half-dozen times, each time returning home with more fresh questions than answers to old ones.
When, at last, I was free to begin the story of Mary Jane Reed, I wrote like a man possessed by devils, except they were details, the hundreds I’d accumulated in my months of on again, off again researching. Deciding which mattered and which to shrug away went well at first, and the first sections of the book, the chapters presenting the events of the murders and the manhunt that ensued, fell quickly into tight shape.
And then, as I knew I would, I slammed into the wall that had always been waiting: Who’d needed her head, and why?
I’d hoped I could puzzle it through by writing. I composed a dozen scenarios, and then a dozen more. No invention worked; I could make no sense of why the skulls had been switched.
Until my mind wandered, unbidden, to the image of a fence post—a simple weathered chunk of wood that likely I’d never actually seen. It set something rocketing loose in my consciousness, something small and bright that had been hiding in plain sight.
I understood why her head had been needed, and why another was given.
I had my killer.
Order Silence the Dead by Jack Fredrickson here:
A few years ago the bottom rather fell out of my world and that left me with a big problem. What are you supposed to do when your whole belief system falls down around your ears? When you find that the only thing that used to make sense turns out to be a phantasm and that you and almost everyone else on the planet has been taken for a ride.
The answer is that you either pick up a gun or you pick up a pen.
For a wishy-washy liberal like me the gun was never a solution but I could instead write about someone who was much braver and firmer in their resolve and not afraid to resort to violence where necessary.
My failed belief system had been Science itself and indeed I had made a successful career as a physics professor but had begun to harbour grave doubts about the whole thing. Whereas once I had been entranced by many of the ideas in physics like multiple universes and cats that were simultaneously dead and alive, I suddenly realised that rather than yielding profound insights into how the universe worked this was instead a sign of massive desperation. That either we weren’t even close to understanding the universe or perhaps, and this was the real heresy, that there was nothing to understand in the first place. That all our laws and principles were like the lines of latitude and longitude we project onto the surface of the Earth. These help us navigate around but they have no effect on the planet which goes serenely about its business with or without them.
When I looked into this further I found to my relief that I wasn’t the only one harbouring these crazy thoughts. I found myself in the company of weighty historical figures like Nietzsche and Feyerabend and Husserl. Amongst the dusty academic texts I found evidence that such heresy extended beyond physics to mathematics and indeed to all the sciences.
Unfortunately these ideas are often couched in dry and opaque academic prose and so I am in the process of writing a non-fiction book which presents these concepts in language accessible to a non-academic reader.
The trouble is that writing a non-fiction book can be rather boring. To make my work a bit more interesting I decided to write a thriller called ‘The Heretic’ in parallel but based on the same central concept. This thriller could contain all the violence and sex that was of necessity sadly lacking from the non-fiction book.
‘The Heretic’ deals with the idea that if we don’t understand how the universe works at all then our research runs the risk of unearthing vast and destructive effects that we cannot even begin to anticipate: effects that could be of extinction level for all life on Earth. Our protagonist becomes aware of such a danger and has to prevent it occurring but not by resorting to measures as benign as picking up a pen.
To give the central character’s back story some authenticity I found myself mining my own experiences from a voyage on a merchant navy ship down to Chile in the 1970s (this was the equivalent of my ‘gap year’ though that term hadn’t even been coined then). It was a nasty time as the democratically elected government had just been toppled in a CIA backed military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. People in their thousands were being ‘disappeared’ then tortured and killed, some of them on a training vessel for naval cadets berthed not far from us (see ‘Esmerelda BE-43’ on Wikipedia if you’re interested). I saw and experienced some terrible things and used these in the book, though at each point giving them a few extra turns of the screw so my character ends up even more messed up by them than I was. In fact I found writing about all this quite cathartic.
So in the end the book is about a messed up man doing messed up things in a messed up world. They should have used that for the blurb.
Order The Heretic by Fergus Bannon here:
I thought for this piece it would be fun to do something a little different and look at things that were in drafts, early or late, that didn’t make it in, and why not. I knew at the outset that I was writing a fantasy novel in a culture that was roughly equivalent to England in 1800 technology-wise (with some aberrations, such as gaslamps and functional plumbing), that it was going to be a love story, and that it would have dragons, but an awful lot of things changed in the mechanics of actually building the world and the story.
In the very first draft, Corin had a cousin. He stayed in until the last draft before submitting to a publisher. I wanted Corin to have a confidante, but the cousin couldn’t really carry his weight as a character of his own, so he was finally pruned.
Early on, Tam was the granddaughter of the palace librarian. This got changed for several reasons: it came out hokey; it was too big of a class gap for a realistic romance pushing the edges; I wanted her to be a lot more knowledgeable about science, so it made more sense to have a scientist father; and it didn’t really give her a good personal reason for being invested in the story.
Aram had a different name and was (unintentionally) a lot less forceful as a person. Corin’s mother had a lot more of a role, but it was all connected to a really terrible subplot. Tam’s parents also had a lot of on-stage time, but it was mostly repetitive and didn’t help the story move.
There was a scientist/experimenter type person, so I could have scenes with experiments and also really sexist men hating Tam, but again, he couldn’t carry his weight on his own, and the subplots weren’t really going anywhere with him either. The good stuff from him got re-assigned to Liko.
In the earliest drafts, the issue was the war with Sarium and Mycene, and the dragons were more incidental. The war plot alone never really held together, because it turned into a kind of complicated and not very interesting mish-mash of guessing at people’s motives without anything really happening.
Even when I got the first two-thirds or so of the book sorted out, I didn’t know what to do after the attack on the palace. Tam split for home, where she waited around for something to happen and kept the marriage secret from her parents. Corin went to Mycene and snuck around the Emperor’s palace to try to find the dragons there. Lots of different variations of these two basic plotlines took place, none of them really working. I finally figured out that I needed Corin to stay in Caithen, but even given that he still had a magical confrontation in the Emperor’s palace at the end. Realizing it all needed to take place in the mountains and not move around so much was one of the big realizations that held the book together.
The other big change needed was to bring Tam and Corin together for the ending, instead of having them doing the resolution of separate (and not very interesting) plot lines. I had wanted the tension of not knowing if the other was alive or dead, but since the reader knew it wasn’t very convincing, and it didn’t move the story forward at all. The characters worked best on the page when they were with each other, and once I reunited them a lot of things fell into place.
Some of the other subplots and plot variations included complicated and elaborate betrayals; Tam being captured and rescued in various forms; an attempt from within Mycene to overthrow the Emperor; the occupation of Dele (which still occurred, but is now offstage); conflict between the Mycenean and Sarian leaders in the occupied palace; hidden weapons caches; and a peasant girl who learned things she shouldn’t. She was intended as sort of an anti-Tam, uneducated and poor, in order to show the grim side of class structure, but there was no convincing way to make her story intersect with the main one. There was too much going on as it was, so her plot got eliminated. It could still be a decent story, but it’s a very different story and trying to force it into the main plot just didn’t work.
Magic, both that done by the dragons and that done by other people, took a lot of different forms. The writing problem I really had with magic was that I was using it as a tool to resolve plot holes, which never works. The tighter my plot got, the less magic I needed. Dragons could make portals, but that became unnecessary once I got over the need to whisk Corin in and out of the Mycenean palace. Conversely, a lot of magic stuff got thrown in because it seemed cool and then was never used. In one draft, the wizards were actual shapechangers, which would still be interesting but only served the story as a way to further complicate the messy betrayal subplots. In another version, the Sarians had magic spells that were woven into cloth and could be use to magically bind people together. I still like this idea, and a variation of it is actually quite important in the Moth and Spark sequel underway, but again, it just muddled things in the story.
The biggest change I made to the magic was the removal of another supernatural evil force. It was basically one of the ancient Greek Furies, and it was pretty much pure monster. It was creepy and bad, and I liked tapping into a different mythos, but it overburdened the story and didn’t have a good reason in the plot. It was not a confusing thing, but there were already enemies and magic enough that it was superfluous.
One of the cuts that was hardest to let go of was a scene where Tam is in a cave and finds the skeleton of a wolf. She makes a pan pipe out of one of the bones, and it brings a wolf, which may or may not be “real” to her as a guide. Animal magic has always fascinated and drawn me, and I still managed to work wolves in a bit, but once I took her out of the cave there was no reason whatsoever for the wolf.
What I essentially learned about magic is that a little can go a long way. I knew this (Gandalf, for example, hardly does any magic in the Lord of the Rings), but I still felt like I had to make it more magic. The problem that created for me is that one of my strengths as a writer is in the details of worldbuilding and portraying daily life, so magic made me flounder around in the aether and became vague instead of compelling.
As a writer I have a “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” method, which has the advantage of letting my creativity run wild. But it’s also a pretty inefficient way to write, requiring a lot of revision and a bit too much time trying to push things I love into a story that doesn’t want them. Writing is a little bit like parenting: I can shape my story and put limits on it, and I know what my raw material is, but the story will take on an independence of its own. I’ve been writing for years, and I am still learning to listen to the story that wants to be told. But that’s one of the things I love about it: when I sit down to type, I can’t be sure where I’ll go. Every day is unpredictable.
Order Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard here:
It started with an innocent story a friend shared with me. Her great-grandfather had an affair with a freed slave who had come across the border into Canada and was hiding on his farm. Given the time and society beliefs of that era, he couldn’t marry her but they had children. They kept it hush-hush so my friend didn’t know more than that. What I heard? She was the result of a forbidden romance!
I had questions.
What slaves? How had she come across the border? Why did she hide on his farm? Why couldn’t he marry her? The lack of facts drove me to writing! I ran my questions by various people and my uncle casually answered that they might have used tunnels to get across the border. TUNNELS? Well, my imagination was off.
Over the years, I searched for facts. I even searched for tunnels. I didn’t find proof that tunnels existed or that freed slaves had come across the border in this area, but! I didn’t find proof that the story from the early 1900’s was a lie either. As for tunnels, well anything is possible on the prairies.
Perhaps the real story was flawed and they were from another area or deeper in the past. Maybe the tunnels are a secret for a very important reason. Doesn’t matter, the idea nagged at me, because I wanted answers. I wanted the story behind the story.
While I researched for another manuscript I was working on, I ran across a picture of a cowboy hat hanging in a barn. It was just an image. Yet it was the answer to all my questions because what I saw was a woman in the dark, huddled in the straw watching a man hang his hat lovingly on a rusty nail so he could talk to her. She wiped her tears before he caught her crying. Yes, she was crying all alone in a barn. Not because she was hurt, but because she longed for something she should not want. Was this something worth the fight it would take? What I saw? The possibility of a forbidden romance!
I had answers.
Each tale I write is a story I need to know. A question I have to answer. I suppose, if I’d have known the entire story; where the hat came from and what the girl yearned for, it would have ended there and not merged with the tale my friend had shared years before. The lack of facts sparked creativity and suddenly the two were one.
Since I was working on another manuscript, I tried to set the new idea aside, but that never works out for me. It haunted me until I had to write these heroes out of my thoughts, even if it was just a few words, a scene or two. So he hung his cowboy hat and shared his story, but before he could start, there was a woman crying in the straw who needed his full attention…
His point of view came off a little western in that first draft. I blame the cowboy hat for that. My few words ended weeks later after a horseback ride of emotions brought me through a world that fascinated me. I had the entire story and it should have ended there but it was just the beginning.
Ghosts on the Prairies fulfilled a fantasy about a romance that might have happened long ago between an innocent guy and a woman cast to the shadows. While they fought to be together, I found the tunnels that eluded me earlier, and they were full of secrets. I found out why a woman cries, and she gave me hope. Before I knew it, a church exploded, tunnel runners were outsmarting me, I had Sacred Land to save, and I faced a bad guy and a ghost with deep painful regrets that sparked another story... and so I wrote about them, too. After all, there’s magic behind every story.
Order Ghosts on the Prairies by Tanya Reimer here:
I trained in medicine at London hospitals, specialising in respiratory and critical care medicine. Motivated to find new treatments I moved into research and obtained a PhD in medical sciences at University College London. My scientific writing has been published widely in scientific journals.
I moved to drug discovery due to my on going aspiration to find new medicines. I now lead a research team trying to find new drugs for severe lung, liver and kidney disease. My background is really where my experience of writing comes from and the inspiration for my novel.
Writing was already a large part of my working life. Originally my skills were honed for writing medical texts and journal papers. Antisense is my first novel. It combines literary themes with the pace of a thriller. In writing it I was able to draw upon my experience as a Doctor of Science and Medicine.
It had always surprised me that so little literature had a medical or scientific basis. As a Doctor, one sees all aspects of the human condition, and from a unique perspective. Additionally the overall goal of medical science is to understand how we tick, so together they provide an incredibly rich seam for fiction. My experience as a doctor and scientist was a fantastic source of literary ideas beyond the more typical medical thriller, which usually involves a murder and a lot of forensic sleuthing. There are so many good starting points for novels it’s difficult to know where to begin!
Antisense isn’t the first novel I’ve written, but it’s the first anyone is going to read! Let’s just say there is always a learning curve, and I have spent the past few years trying to perfect my skills as a writer (hopefully to a high standard) whilst pursuing a career in medical research, which I’m equally as passionate about.
The scientific theory that forms the basis for Antisense is another reason I was compelled to write this novel. Lamarck has received a bit of press in the scientific literature over the past few years. For more information, I would point you to my website: http://rpmarshall.com/the-science-behind-the-books/ but I would only recommend that after reading! It does contain some spoilers.
Interestingly Lamarck didn’t know how his theory would work at a mechanistic level of course, we didn’t even know about DNA, so there was a long way to go. But the leap of imagination was the important step.
When it came down to writing the book I was prepared in terms of the story and research. What I wasn’t prepared for was the hard work required to find the style and quality of prose I wanted to achieve, though I’ll let others be the judge of how successful I’ve been. I also didn’t anticipate how ‘organic’ writing could be. Some people start a book knowing every detail of what’s going to happen, but that wasn’t the case with Antisense. I started in one place and then the characters and story begin to lead me. It’s something you have to let happen, yet remain in control of, which can be exhausting.
R. P. Marshall
Order Antisense by R.P. Marshall here: