“The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet” Book Review [Jalapeño Fiction Award] Becky Chambers

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Jalapeno Score: 37/50


Overall Impression: 

“The Long Way to F*n Nowhere…” Don’t get me wrong, I think Becky Chambers is a talented writer, I really do. I think she has ideas and active imagination. But there is something fundamentally lacking in the book, and it is plot. Imagine you started building the house from the roof, then added balconies, and installed awesome windows, and a swimming pool. What’s wrong with that picture? There is no foundation! To be fare, in this particular book, there was an overarching plot, but the stakes were not as high, the motives were vague. I kept wondering why I was spending over 400 pages with the story that never picked up!

To be fare and balanced, the book has really wonderful ideas and messages. It is my assumption that the fans of the ‘Farscape’ will like its diversity and richness of the world.  I prefer a tightly knit story. As a first book, “The Long Way…” is still one hell of an accomplishment, and I will be looking forward to other books by this author because clearly the talent is there.


Plot:                                   

The story follows a crew of a spaceship Wayfarer, that builds tunnels in space, like cosmic highways of sorts. Everyone on the ship is very sweet and harmless, and even the most divergent characters are in essence just a bit shy or insecure. Everyone is pretty much a cupcake. The old ship receives a lucky break being contracted for a major government project – to drill a tunnel to the faraway planet that recently joined the union. In order to do that, the Wayfarer needs to travel for months away from the familiar space to the point of destination, and from there drill a tunnel back. The entire story develops within the storyline of Wayfarer getting to the point of destination, and every chapter has non-essential, albeit interesting, plot divergences telling the story of every crew member. None of those tangents in any way connected to the central plotline, but some of them are quite interesting in their own right. My perception was that I much rather would follow any of those plot lines, than this particular trip to nowhere. I don’t know if I am being too harsh, hopefully I provide a balanced opinion. For that reason, I have five scales below, so you can see more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the book.


Science-meter: 7

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The author spent a good deal of effort on developing the fictional science of tunneling through subspace.  The space travel science gets the most recognition in the book.  You get the most flavor for it in the Chapter “Blind Punch”. Supposedly the space could not be drilled just about anywhere. I liked that idea, it created potential dangers and richness for the Wayfarer’s job. A punch is the term for making a tunnel. Here’s how one of the characters, Kizzy, explains the tunneling process ‘in simple terms’:

“The area above my bowl of porridge’ she gestured importantly –‘is the fabric of space. The porridge itself is a sublayer – basically space in between space. And this groob’ – she picked up a small black fruit from her plate – ‘is the Wayfarer.’…’We’ve got two ends of space to connect, right? Here and here.’ She pressed  her finger down into the porridge, making indentations on opposite ends of the bowl… ‘Once we are in  position, I turn on the interspatial bore… Runs on ambi cells… Then we punch.’ She slammed the berry down into the porridge. ‘And then it gets weird…’Well, we’re just squishy little three-dimensional creatures. Our brains can’t process what goes on in the sublayer. Technically, the sublayer is outside of what we consider normal time. Understanding what’s going on in there is like … it’slike telling someone – a Human, I mean, to see  in in infrared. We just can’t do it. So in the sublayer, you feel that something is wrong with the world, but you can’t put your finger on what it is’ ”

And so on. You get a fare share of details about the type of a punch and all kinds of issues with the tunneling.

Probably my favorite part about the book, related to the tunneling tech, is the alien species who live a symbiotic relationship with a virus and have a dual identity. You address this creature ‘they’. The one on the Wayfarer is named Ohan, and it is afflicted with a deadly condition, wane, which every virus-affected member eventually develops. Wane dramatically reduces the lifespan of these species, but it also gives them amazing analytical abilities. They understand the sublayer, they can calculate the complicated math necessary to punch through uneven and dangerous sublayer. That’s why I added this creature to the category of science, because it complements the tunneling science premise.

Finally, another cool tech idea is ambi, a type of expensive and effective energy source harvested from, the best I understood it, energy of vacuum. I enjoyed this part as well.

As you see, the story doesn’t really build on a lot of real science, just some sciency speculations, although when done well, I really like these kind of things. This book, in my opinion, accomplished it.


Plot-meter: 5 

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Some people may disagree with my assessment of the plot, although reading through numerous other reviews, I saw some people leaning towards this opinion as well. There are a lot of great subplots, but the central plot in this book was underdeveloped. Remember that saying, that if in the first chapter there is a gun on the wall, in the last one it must fire? It looks like the real story is left for the sequels. This particular book,in my opinion, served as a prequel to the real story. Also, this story was clearly meant to be plot-driven, action-driven, versus the introspective character-driven stories. I think in this respect it missed the mark.


Character-meter: 9 

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Becky Chambers created multiple interesting characters, aliens and humans, AIs and clones, you name it. They all had their stories. My problem was that they all came across saccharine. I have nothing against nice people, but in the fiction, characters must have villains. The absence of a real villain is probably one of the biggest problems of the story. There is a Toremi terrorist in the story, who shows up in the story near the end, but he was not connected to the story of Wayfarer. Not to give too much away, but whatever trouble happened in the end, was not addressed against Wayfarer  per se. Our heroes were just sadly an unfortunate victims of aggression that had nothing to do with them personally. If this was an experimental literary fiction, then I would not rate these flaws of the classic storytelling so harshly. But this is a typical ‘meat and potatoes’ space western. It must have heroes and villains, it must have dangers directly related to the characters and be really life-threatening. Well, check it for yourself. The end was somehow anti-climatic.

Also, I was a bit annoyed with the childishness of the characters, especially their names. Dr. Cheff, really? The ship’s doctor who also was a cook, and his name was Dr. Cheff? Kizzy? Rosemary? Jenks? Lovey? You get the point.


Originality-meter: 8

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I think it’s a great rendition on similar stories, but filled with own innate originality. Great imagination! Great potential for future works.


Writing-meter: 8

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I honestly suspect that Becky Chambers is a great writer in the making. Her writing flows nicely, it is funny at times. I think I’d like to see her write in different voices and styles too. That is why I rate her  writing highly.

Concluding words: uneven, with great potential. Looking forward to the sequel.


Thanks for reading this review. Please let me know what you think, I’m looking forward to read your comments. Do you have a favorite 2015 or 2016 sci fi novel? You can nominate it for the award.

To find out about the Jalapeño Fiction Award, go to this page.

Copyright Ellie Maloney (2016)

 

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“Planetfall” Book Review [Jalapeño Fiction Award] Emma Newman

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Jalapeno Score: 39/50


Overall Impression: 

Reading Planetfall instilled controversial feelings in me. I am going to write this review with some spoilers, because I don’t think I can otherwise express myself properly.  If you read other reviews, there are some people who did not like the controversial aspects of the story, and you can decide for yourself, whether flexible attitude to sexuality is something you are comfortable with or not. This aspect does not influence my rating in any way.


Plot:                                   

The premise of the story is rather unique. I feel like it’s one of those that people will either love or hate. It certainly kept me captivated after I finished reading the book, despite that I struggled through some parts of it in the middle. The narration of the  book keeps you in the dark about everything until the end. Reading it is like holding an end of the thread, and somewhere in the dark room is the rest of the ball of yarn, and you need to untangle it somehow, small bits at a time. For this summary, I will have to summarize it in the linear fashion, so it will demystify the story to a great extant.

So once upon a time, there lived a scientist (botanist) woman named Suh-Mi (pronounced [Sue Me] if you wondered, but I found out about that half way through the book).  She and her girlfriend, from whose POV the story is told, Renatha (Ren) Ghali, went to a nature preserve in France, to smell flowers. There Suh-Mi saw an unusual plant with the seed and felt compelled to eat it. After she ate it, she passed out and spent some time in coma. When she got out from coma, she had the coordinates to a distant planet. Suh Mi claimed that God called her to be a prophet and to guide people from Earth to him, and those coordinates were the God’s address. I kid you not, I am not making up any of it.  It gets better. Suh Mi becomes a genius, and somehow convinces everyone in the world that her knowledge of science is so advanced that it must be from God. Fast forward, the Earthlings gather a delegation, build a ship, and head out at those coordinates. Suh Mi becomes a religious leader, a visionary, and they call her a Pathfinder.

Once they arrive to the planet, all alive and well (of which process we know nothing from the book), they drop to the surface. This descending they call a Planetfall. What is a Planetfall we also find out not right away, but everyone in the book refers to the Planetfall.

On the surface, the conditions are almost perfect for humans, with some unique microbial life, but the team receives immunizations, and that issue is squared out. When they descent, they see a valley, and something like a mountain. And sure enough, they call it a God’s city. The mountain is huge and made of organic tissues. There is a lot of mystique about this ‘thing’, but it is quite clearly a gigantic alien organism, whether sentient or not, we don’t know. But you can walk in it like in a city built from tunnels. These tunnels are built from veins, and arteries, and all kinds of organic-like tissue that react to their presence, contract and change shape. But the Pathfinder tells that they need to climb to the top of the city, because that’s where God is waiting. Sometimes the passages are impossible to walk through and the explorers cut through the walls of this ‘thing’, and they notice that these cuts heal very quickly. It is dark and slimy inside, and the environment is toxic to breathe, so they all wear the protective suits.

Long story short, they get to the top of the ‘God’s city’ with a small group of explorers. There is a ‘room’, and the Pathfinder touches it, it gets transparent, and she slips through. Nobody else can go through though. In some time, the Pathfinder emerges, all distressed, and claims that the God is already dead, and they are too late. She takes off the protective suit and within minutes she is dead.

Now another leader of the group comes to play.  Cillian Mackenzie (Mack), who they call a Ringmaster, and we also do not know why, convinces a few of the present explorers to keep this under wraps, but not everyone agrees. So he shoots those who disagree with the only gun that they brought with them (really???). His argument is that the knowledge about the failure will destroy the colony.

For some reason Mack spares Ren. They were friends on Earth, but I cannot understand their friendship, because it sounds like Mack always manipulates and uses Ren as a puppet. Ren, by the way, is a genius scientist in her own right, and she is the one who invented all the 3D printing technology (I’m pretty sure there are people in our day who can be credited with this invention though, but ok, Ren made significant progress, and the 3D printers became like the Replicator in Star Trek).  Anyway, Mack convinces Ren to fabricate a story that the Pathfinder went to talk to God and ordered to settle down and wait for her. Some of the surviving researchers who Mack didn’t trust to keep this a secret, were sabotaged, and their shuttles experienced a crash during the next time they descended from the orbit. Since then, Ren became an accomplice to unspeakable lie and murder.

Let’s pause right there. So our protagonist is a slimy, easily swayed into major crimes, person. The charm of this character does not stop there.

Ren is not only deeply introspective. She has a complicated mental health situation: clinical anxiety disorder and hoarding, but we don’t know about it right away, we only know that she has a low self esteem, lives in constant fear, feels trapped and stuck. The author explains that Ren lost her small child on Earth, and that started to derail her. On top of that, Ren is hopelessly, pathologically in love with Suh Mi, and when she kills herself, Ren snatches her body, digs a basement in her house, and places the casket there. This is such a traumatic event for Ren, that she manages to forget what is in that room. All she remembers is that under no circumstances anyone can go there. So she starts collecting trash from the recycling facility. Over 20 years, entire Ren’s house is so cluttered that it becomes a hazard to her life, because the piles of garbage, that line up walls and ceiling, can avalanche at any time. Nobody knows about any of this, not even Ren’s accomplice Mack.

I will omit a lot of details. Sufficient to say, that at one point all lies and crimes come to light. Ren is painfully confronted with her problem, which she refuses to recognize, and remains in denial till the end. Ren and Mack become pariahs of the colony and are kicked out after a trial. Then more troubles happen, and Ren feels so hopelessly cornered, that she runs into the ‘God’s city’ without the gear, with the dislocated shoulder, and in the darkness.

What happens in the end is up for an interpretation. My point of view is different from what the protagonist Ren tells us. In her opinion, she goes to God, and the price she needs to pay is to give up all her possessions. This is philosophically reminiscent of Christian and even Buddhist views, but I think the author uses God in a rather agnostic, or even metaphorical way. Ren herself goes back and forth on the issue of faith, being torn between wanting to have easy comforting answers that would tell her weak personality how to live; and between the scientific method, which she aspires to uphold.

My take on the end of the story was that Ren could not cope with the reality. Her compartmentalized identity was confronted so hard, that she couldn’t even lie to herself anymore. Her tribe kicked her out, she had no place to go, and then, all of a sudden, Ren gives herself to blind, irrational faith. That faith gives her the permission to go to the toxic ‘God’s city’, where she hallucinates and experiences religious rush, and, obviously, dies.

There is also an aspect of a story where the scientists suspect that this ‘God’s city’ lured beings from entire universe through those transcendental seeds. I offer an explanation that this whole God’s city thing was just a predatory being, vastly different from us, and it lured creatures in for… anybody’s guess. I’d say, basically for food.  I like my explanation, but I regret that the book was written from the point of view of an unstable Ren with all her mysticism and inability to think critically. I think if the story was told from the point of view of another character, someone like Ellen Ripley, that would be one hell of a thriller. But the author had a totally different bent, emphasizing the trap of mental illness. In that case, the goal is achieved. Through Ren’s eyes, I felt trapped, confused, scared, and, most of all, I absolutely hated myself. Case closed. I guess it is up to everyone to decide whether this type of a protagonist is interesting or not. But hey, look at me, I wrote a ‘War and Peace’ memoir on it, and spent a few days between finishing the book and getting to write a review, in order to sort it out in my head. So at the very least, I was challenged. Now, let’s get to rating.


Science-meter: 9 

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The science and tech is pretty awesome.

3D printing. The major tech pillar of the story is the 3D printing, taken to the heights of technological perfection. The characters could even print on a molecular level, creating basic elements from atoms. Think about that! We have certainly heard about the 3D printers, and what an amazing potential they hold for medicine, infrastructure, and well everything really. So this idea is super thumbs up. However, this is also the reason for deducting a point on this scale. 3D printers, really? I doubt this is how it is going to be called in the future. 3D printers are not exactly sci fi in our days any more. Not that it is a dead end of tech evolution, quite contrary. But if you read the book, you will see that it is 3D print this, 3D print that, it’s just a clumsy phrase that we came up with, and it jars my senses. This tech aspect, however awesome, felt like it came from the last year’s space.com or Scientific American article, and I expected something at least a bit more visionary.

Sustainable environment, total recycling. This part was super cool. The colony was established the way to eliminate waste. Every house had a ‘shute’, where all the waste was dropped, and it traveled along the pipes under the city to the central recycling facility, the Masher. From the Masher, all the raw materials were deposited back to the printers.

Organic tissues combined with inorganic materials. This human civilization developed the ability to combine organic tissues with in-organic materials. For example, their homes were built from different semi-organic compounds. To unlock the door, a home owner pressed the palm to the wall to let the house ‘taste’ him – a form of ID. Inside, the floor was made out of moss. The furniture was also ‘grown’. Some people had aquariums instead of windows. The algae that lived in them produced clean energy. Also, if I understood correctly, the walls of the house were made in part of living human tissue, grown in a lab. If someone watched Stargate Atlanis, the Wraith had all their tech made from organic compounds. The idea is very interesting, because only organic material creates additional matter, like a plant grows from a small seed.

Cloud technology, human-machine singularity. Every member in the colony had a chip, and the author went at great length to describe in what ways they interact with the network. There are elaborate discussions pf privacy issues, levels of access, and other ideas of human-computer singularity. That part was pretty awesome.


Plot-meter: 5 

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That’s the best I can do! There is an interesting premise, but for me it was lacking in many ways. Some of them I touched on in the previous sections of the review, but here I will focus on the limitations of the world-building. The way I can describe the world of the story is that I was shown it through a blind person. I know virtually nothing about the Earth at that time, and hardly anything about the planet where the explorers arrived. The only well-described place is the God’s city, but the description is oddly tactile, rather than visual. No, Ren was not blind in a conventional sense. But in a sense that her mental illness made her blind to everything around her, she did not pay attention to those details as much. Of course I am not a psychologist, but the way I felt in Ren’s skin, was somewhat on the autistic spectrum, academically brilliant, highly functioning at times, but nonetheless with shifted perception focus.


Character-meter: 7 

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Well, I think I understood the characters well. They are not likable, but for the most part well-outlined.

Personally I did not feel that Suh-Mi’s character was well-contextualized. Maybe because everything was narrated through Ren, Suh-Mi was presented as an object of romantic attachment, painful dependency, and even religious worship. I don’t think we can tell who Suh-Mi really was, because she was described through this very warped lens. Honestly I was even questioning if Suh-Mi really loved Ren all that much, or it was all in Ren’s head? The few times that we see them interact on a video, Suh-Mi is rather detached from her lover.

Mack was a sleaze bag, manipulative, self-preserving, power hungry sociopathic leader, and Ren could not break away from his sprawling  tentacles. I felt sorry for her, and also I was angry at her. She is all that we learn to reject in complacent Germans who were ‘just doing their job’.

Here is a good place to state that I am empathetic to mental illness, but when I am critical of Ren’s choices, I stop short of enabling and excusing serious crimes, like the first degree murder. Any mental illness, whether it is anxiety, schizophrenia, or depression, feels like a trap to an affected person.

If I could rewrite the story, or write a script for the movie, my concluding scene would be Ren in a mental hospital, talking to Dr. Kay (a doctor from a colony and a woman that Ren had relationship with after Suh-Mi’s death). This Dr. Kay would be a beautiful woman in a white doctor’s robe, soft-spoken and reliable, and she would be assuring Ren that she is ill, and she needs treatment. That, my friends, would be an appropriate ending for the story, and it would make sense then. The one-dimensional perspective on all the secondary characters would make sense if they were only figments of an ill imagination. Read for yourself, and you will see that there are more clues that hint that the entire story is nothing but a narrative of a schizophrenic, like in the movie “The Beautiful Mind.” Just like in that movie, the characters in the Planetfall also hardly aged. Aha!

Anyway, the way I rewrote the story in my head, I liked it. But the way that it was actually written, I am less definitive.


Originality-meter: 10

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Outside of somewhat less original technology, the story was original.   Since I already deducted points on the science scale, I will give this aspect a high mark.


Writing-meter: 8

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Finally, the writing is not bad, certainly no typos and such. My problem was, again, in the way it was narrated through Ren, who bogged down the story with heavy introspective material. This slowed down the pace and did not contribute to the story as much.

My concluding words: controversial, memorable, ambiguous. This is the one that you will either love or hate, or will grapple with for a long time, like myself.


Thanks for reading this review. Please let me know what you think, I’m looking forward to read your comments. Do you have a favorite 2015 or 2016 sci fi novel? You can nominate it for the award.

To find out about the Jalapeño Fiction Award, go to this page.

Read other 2015 sci fi novel reviews here.

Copyright Ellie Maloney (2016)

Read more "“Planetfall” Book Review [Jalapeño Fiction Award] Emma Newman"

Hugo Award vs Jalapeno Fiction Award: A Call For Guest Posts

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Thousands of science fiction fanciers anticipate August 20, 2016 more than Christmas and Birthday altogether. This is the date when the Hugo Awards will be selected from the shortlisted candidates. From over 4000 submissions this year, only 85 survived the initial voting (that’s five per each of the 17 categories).

We all know Hugo Awards. They are well established in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I think  Hugos are awesome, but I also think there may never be too many awards considering a huge number of qualified submissions. I also believe that there is the room for more contextual look at the science fiction writing. Namely, Hugos do not differentiate between science fiction and fantasy. I believe that these two genres are like sexual orientation: while some people prefer both, many still lean towards one or another. Jalapeño Fiction strongly prefers science fiction. More so, I am trying to come up with the guidelines for the science fiction genre, although this proves to be quite challenging. However, in it’s simplest form, I have  adopted this highly scientific chart as a guide:

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Finally, Jalapeño Fiction tries not to spread too thin, and focus on the long form (novels and movies). That simple. Thus are the guiding  rules for eligibility:

  • Two types of work: novel and movie (long form);
  • Published/aired in the preceding year (currently – 2015);
  • Belongs to the science fiction genre, which excludes fantasy works; and
  • Irrespective of the publisher/production type.

This year, the following novels and movies are shortlisted for the Hugo Award:

BEST NOVEL

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc)
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION (LONG FORM)

  • Avengers: Age of Ultron written and directed by Joss Whedon (Marvel Studios; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
  • Ex Machina written and directed by Alex Garland (Film4; DNA Films; Universal Pictures)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris, directed by George Miller (Village Roadshow Pictures; Kennedy Miller Mitchell; RatPac‐Dune Entertainment; Warner Bros. Pictures)
  • The Martian screenplay by Drew Goddard, directed by Ridley Scott (Scott Free Productions; Kinberg Genre; TSG Entertainment; 20th Century Fox)
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens written by Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt, directed by J.J. Abrams (Lucasfilm Ltd.; Bad Robot Productions; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

OPEN CALL FOR GUEST POSTS

Unfortunately I have to keep my list of the Jalapeño Fiction Award participants open, because as of right now, I am limited to the number of books and movies I can process, review and rate by December 2016. That is unless I find likeminded adventurous readers who would like to team up with me and contribute guest reviews.

If you love reading and watching science fiction, you can accept the Jalapeño Award Challenge and team up with me in search for the best sci fi books and movies of 2015.

If you are interested and would like to check out the format, look at the reviews of:

I am also in the process of writing reviews for the ‘Not Alone’, ‘The End of All Things’, ‘Planetfall’, and ‘The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet’, which I have read. Other than that, you  are free to pick any sci fi novel published in 2015 (some of them are suggested on this page, but the list is far from complete), or movie aired in 2015.

The Novel Review Guidelines:

The review should consist of the following sections:

  1.  Total Jalapeño score XX/50 (sum of 4-8)
  2. Overall impression
  3. Plot summary
  4. Science-meter (1-10 jalapeños)
  5. Plot-meter (1-10 jalapeños)
  6. Character-meter (1-10 jalapeños)
  7. Originality-meter (1-10 jalapeños)
  8. Writing-meter (1-10 jalapeños)

The Movie Review Guidelines:

The movie review should consist of the similar sections:

  1. Total Jalapeno score XX/50 (sum of 4-8)
  2. Overall impression
  3. Plot summary
  4. Science-meter (1-10 jalapeños)
  5. Plot-meter (1-10 jalapeños) (pacing, coherence etc.)
  6. Character-meter (1-10 jalapeños)
  7. Originality-meter (1-10 jalapeños)
  8. Production-meter (1-10 jalapeños) (any visual effects on screen)

Shortlisting and Voting

I suggest to shortlist the candidates with the score  of 35 points and above, and allow the readers to vote on the shortlisted candidates.

If you are interested, please comment on this post or email me at EllieMaloneyFiction@gmail.com

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Exclusive Interview With Branden Frankel, Author of “Snowfall on Mars”

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Credit: Ellie Maloney. All images in this article are used with the permission of the author.

Who is this mysterious  new author Branden Frankel? I came across his novel Snowfall on Mars while picking candidates for the 2016 Jalapeño Fiction Award, my attempt to find the best science fiction novels published in 2015. After reading half the novel, I decided to find out who is the person behind the pages. Aside from a brief bio on his Amazon profile, there was not much information to be found. Curiosity took over, and I emailed Branden with the request for an interview. Thanks to Branden’s extreme generosity and openness, now we know more about this wonderful new author.  Without further ado, here is what we talked about.


Ellie Maloney: First of all, Branden, thank you for taking time to share your story with the WordPress community. From your short bio on Amazon, we learn that you have been involved in many professional endeavors, including legal practice and teaching. How (if any) have these experiences influenced your writing?

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B.F. “Me being a (reluctant) lawyer”

Branden Frankel: One of the strongest teaching tools that I’ve come across is the analogy; it helps separate the transitory subject matter of an idea from its structural essence by showing what can be discarded from the original problem without losing the important parts. I don’t necessarily use a whole lot of analogies in my writing, but attempting to ferret out the structural truths behind the particularities of my story – love, fear, happiness, desperation – helped me keep focused on what elements of the story were crucial and what was filler.

With respect to legal practice, legal writing is its own strange beast  (as you well know). One particularly important, if often overlooked, part of a legal brief is a recitation of the facts germane to an argument. I got significant practice constructing a narrative that served a particular purpose. Cramming the messy facts of real life into such a mold made it relatively easy to piece together “facts” that I made up out of whole cloth.

E.M. When did you discover your passion for fiction? Is the “Snowfall on Mars” your first published novel? Are you working on something right now? If so, would you be willing to share a bit on what?

B.F. I didn’t have any creative writing experience before I started Snowfall on Mars. The book is a metaphor for a particularly difficult period in my life, and it was therapeutic for me to get it out. Now that I’ve had a taste of creative writing, I’m hooked.

I’m about halfway through a draft of my second book, tentatively titled “Ellipse.” The basic idea is that a planet with an advanced civilization gets thrown from the orbit of its sun, wandering through the blackness of space for 100,000 years and eventually becoming caught in the orbit of the Earth’s sun. Let’s just say that we have a tough time getting along with our new neighbors.

E.M. Reading “Snowfall on Mars” was a fantastic experience. How did you come up with the idea? Tell us a bit about the research process.

B.F. Oddly enough, the preliminary idea came from a lyric-writing exercise in a songwriting class I was taking. For this exercise, a time, location, weather condition, and mode of transportation are chosen, and you have to write a brief paragraph communicating each of those things to the reader without actually naming any of them, i.e. show, don’t tell. The parameters of the exercise were, respectively: noon, Mars, snow, and train.

I wrote my paragraph, and the class continued. When I got home that night, I found that the image of a train chugging across the bleak Martian landscape in a snowstorm stuck with me. I sat down and pounded out the first two chapters in a few hours, which had many of the larger themes – the destruction of Earth, the failed terraforming, etc. Then it took me another two years to finish.

Regarding research, I wish I could tell you that I visited JPL or interviewed planetary scientists for the book, but most of my research came in the form of watching space documentaries, which I can’t get enough of, and Internet searches.

E.M. At times, through the eyes of your protagonist David Adler, who, according to the book, hated Mars down to his bones, I sensed your fascination with Mars, like, for example, in your poetic description of Phobos, the Martian moon: “Consequently, Phobos is shaped something like a grossly overinflated football, frozen in time at the moment it pops, the crater serving as the point of rupture. Something about that idea – frozen destruction and chaos – seems particularly germane to the moment.” You clearly have spent a lot of time researching and thinking about Mars. Have you ever wondered about the reality of our future on Mars? Would you like to be among the settlers?

B.F. I think space travel crystallizes what’s best about humankind – our ingenuity, our curiosity, our conviction that life is about more than surviving for a certain number of years.

It pains me that we landed on the moon nearly a half-century ago, and then we gave all that up and stuck to near-Earth orbit. We should’ve colonized the moon long ago and been to Mars a dozen times already. I’m enthusiastic about the Mars One mission as well as the fact that Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, is talking about going to Mars. I think there will be settlements in my lifetime.

I’d go if I could come back. If I didn’t have my daughter, I’d go regardless. However, I can’t just remove myself from her life. I’d be heartbroken, and it’s not fair to her.

E.M. What was the inspiration behind Oksana’s character? “Beautiful, self-obsessed Oksana… [M]ost women on Mars who are intent on avoiding rape or murder must align themselves with men. Some do it in a forthright manner. Others, Oksana foremost among them, play on men’s desires, vanities, and insecurities. Having been one of Oksana’s many meal tickets, I am of an opinion that she is, at best, delaying her inevitable murder with her chosen survival methodology. At worst, she is hastening it…I loved Oksana once. I loved her truly, and, later on, when I found out who she really was – lying, cheating, manipulative – I loved with an unseemly, reproachful desperation… I should’ve known better the moment I saw her… Oksana was resting against the wall next to the door, smoking a cigarette, with one foot pulled up behind her. We locked eyes as I walked by, and stared at one another for so long that I started to get a little uncomfortable. There were no smiles, just that transmission of sexual desire across the distance, like a power line running from my genitals, through my ocular cavities and taking the same route to in reverse her nether regions.” On the backdrop of his love interest, we find out a lot about David Adler, what kind of a person he is, namely, a reliable, decent person, far from a ‘lost cause’, even if the whole world goes apocalypse on him. And yet, I couldn’t help but ponder, why this femme fatale jumps from the pages with a strikingly realistic quality. From the perspective of this character’s creator, is Oksana a bad person or is she a victim of circumstances?

B.F. Oh, jeez. I don’t know how much I want to say on this point. Oksana is modeled after my ex-wife, with some considerable changes. You write what you know, I guess. I won’t reveal where her story line goes except to say that I wouldn’t describe her either as a villain or a victim. Adler’s basic motivation is a desire to make peace with his circumstances, including his relationship with Oksana, whatever form it takes. Oksana has her mode of survival, and Adler has his. It’s not really up to him to judge her. All in all, I think Oksana is a positive, albeit complicated, character.

E.M. The novel is extremely vivid. You paint cinematic quality expositions coupled with a close first-person narrative in present tense. This provides the reader with an immersed reading experience. As a writer, how immersed are you in this story? How real is the universe of your creation for you? Do you feel appreciation for food and luxuries of daily life after writing about these intense scenes of hardships of a dystopian post-apocalyptic world?

B.F. I think of the process of writing this novel as “climbing up into my head.” Dystopian Mars was, for me, an interesting place to visit, and, as I was writing it, I was very much immersed in it. Although it may seem like hell to the reader – and I’m sure living it would be hell – for me, it was almost like a cozy, low-lit lounge that I could sit in and people watch. Is that crazy? I feel like that sounds a little crazy.

As a detached observer, I didn’t feel the deprivation of my characters so much as watch it, and I watched it on a full stomach. It’s real for me, but not my own experience.

E.M. Should we expect a sequel? If so, when?

B.F. There’s room for a sequel. The book I’m writing now is a different story, but I’d like to write a sequel. I currently have no idea what that would look like, and I can’t imagine it’d be out before the middle of 2017.

E.M. Why did you choose the self-publishing route? How is this experience working for you so far? Do you find it difficult to wear all these extra hats, that the self-publishing authors have to wear? Any tips for the aspiring and established self-publishing authors?

B.F. Haha, the self-publishing route chose me. I submitted my manuscript to agents, and I got a few bites, but nobody took it. So I published it myself.

How was it? I had no idea what I was doing to begin with, and I stumbled through all the mechanical parts – formatting for print and Kindle, designing a cover, getting it onto Amazon and other outlets. I didn’t love it, but I know how to do it now.

As far as marketing it, I’ve never been much of a social media hound or a blogger, and those are things you’re supposed to focus on when you publish. (I also have a job and a kid to take care of, which crowd those things out.) To be honest, I just don’t really do that stuff. I’m probably failing to reach a number of people that I would otherwise, but it’s a lot of elbow grease.

Snowfall on Mars has gotten a little traction, which is great, and I’m hoping that will provide a platform for future books. Nothing sells a book better than another book the reader already bought and enjoyed. I hope that, as I churn out books, people will get to know my work.

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B.F.: “Small fry trying to stay calm at Knott’s Berry Farm while a tarantula crawls on her”

E.M. According to your bio, your daughter is the center of your real universe. How do you balance your paycheck-generating work, creative writing, and your family life?

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B.F.:”Silly times”

B.F. I’m blessed to have a job that pays the bills and is (mostly) flexible, and I share custody of my daughter 50-50 with her mother, so half the time I’m kid-free. When I have her, the writing waits.


Branden Frankel is one of those who wanders and is, at least sometimes, lost. From philosophy, to music production, the practice of law, teaching, and raising a kid, he has dipped a figurative toe into many a metaphorical body of water. At 34, after divorce and a career change, Branden began writing fiction, finding his second passion — fatherhood being the first. He lives in Los Angeles, CA with his daughter, Lilah, and Steve, their shockingly aggressive betta fish. – Amazon.com


Thanks for reading the interview. Please share it on your media outlets. Branden appreciates it a lot. Definitely check out his novel “Snowfall on Mars” and don’t forget to write a review on Amazon and Goodreads.


Read the Jalapeño Fiction Award Review of the Snowfall on Mars – my 5 cents on the matter.

Interview by Ellie Maloney

May 14, 2016

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“Snowfall on Mars” Book Review [Jalapeño Fiction Award] Branden Frankel

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Read Exclusive Interview with Branden Frankel!


Jalapeno Score: 42/50


Overall Impression: 

Oh so sad, melodramatic, and dreary this “Snowfall on Mars” is. And I loved it. It had a decent amount of terraformation science, hardships on a hostile planet, quirks of a degraded and disillusioned society, religious cult extremes reminiscent of Holocaust or Jonestown massacre, gripping characters and a sad, sad, sad love story.

Most of all, the novel made me think about the human nature. Are all humans inherently capable of infinite evil, given the right circumstances? Or are there some humans that regardless of a situation would preserve their humanity?

The novel also brought to my attention the unique ways, in which women survive in crisis. We all know that during war and armed conflicts, women are a target of unspeakable atrocities. In peace times, women are subjected to the expectations of a ‘proper’ womanhood: pure, soft, beautiful, and voiceless. Whenever women diverge from this gender stereotype, they are harshly judged through perpetuation of rape myths and victim-blaming (e.g., ‘she called for it’, ‘she was never innocent to begin with, so why spill beans now?’ etc.). Maybe it is not the main topic of the book, and in it’s essence, this book is, first of all, an entertaining thriller and a murder mystery, but what resonated with me the most, is a case study of a human condition.

It seems, that there is always darkness lurking in the corners of our soul, whether we admit it or not.


Plot:                                   

60 years ago, humans pulled together planetary resources to start the most ambitions Exodus yet – to Mars. It was a blitzkrieg terraformation plan, backed by big businesses and dumbfounded scientists, acting like children allowed to play with adult toys. Breathable air was the utmost goal for the project, and it was planned to achieve this goal through introducing tons of chemicals to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of Mars was feverishly developed under the climate-controlled domes. Cities were popping up like wild mushrooms after a summer rain, parcels of Martian land were sold left and right, and lavish lifestyle was imported from Earth.

However, there was some glitch in the terraforming plan, and it had disastrous results. The ecosystem of Mars turned into a poisonous acidic wasteland, with toxic snow and rain falling on the red rusty Martian soil. To make matters worse, something went terribly wrong on Earth, and the settlers saw the video feed, in which nuclear mushroom clouds erupted all over the planet, and the Earth went silent. All communications with the Earth were lost, and the Martian colony became the only surviving outpost of humanity in the universe.

David Adler came to Mars in his early teens, with mom and dad in search of a better life. Adler always hated Mars, and lived with one thought in mind, that someday, when he grows up, he will go back to the Earth and forget all this colonization nightmare. When the End came, “Whoever David Adler was, he died that day… Since then, I haven’t really figured out who, if anyone, took David Adler’s place. That very day, I put my head down, and I guess I haven’t really looked up yet.”.

Twenty years layer, Adler managed somehow to survive, together with a few hundred remaining colonists, leading meaningless day-to-day existence. The concepts of future, family, progress, or any other defining aspects of humanity, vanished from everyone’s vocabulary. What was left, could be wrapped around mundane, purposeless encounters that led nowhere.

Everyone was used to death. Nobody was immune from it, but the remaining few hundred of settlers had no energy even for murder any more, especially when it came down to a few useful and somewhat functioning individuals who maintained living conditions in the colony. That is why a savage murder of an old scientist Epstein shocked David as beyond illogical. Who would murder a person, who kept them alive? He received the news about Epstein’s demise from his former lover, Oksana, “beautiful, self-obsessed Oksana”, who David long accepted to be bad news.

Following the trail of a murder suspect, a sleazy former lawyer Wang, who had a reputation of being able to sell his own mother into slavery given a little profit, Adler stumbles at even bigger danger yet. Evidently, Wang was procuring materials for bombs. The matters quickly get worse, when David finds out that Wang’s client is a sociopathic cult leader Proctor. The problem with Proctor is that over the years after the End, he gathered a following of brainwashed lunatics who believe that they already died and are now in Purgatory. The only way out for them, is kill everyone, and such mass suicide would bring the end to their suffering, sending them straight to Heaven. Naturally, bombs in the hands of these lunatics were bad news.

On the backdrop of this murder mystery, the destiny of the last sparkle of humanity is at stake, and this stakes were never higher.


Science-meter: 7 

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Frankel utilized a fare share of popular Mars colonization ideas, voiced in science and fiction alike. The idea of introducing greenhouse gasses and an artificial magnetic field in order to help Mars to retain the atmosphere, is a good old staple of the genre, and Frenkel put it to a good use. There are other sporadic science considerations that have to do with Martian lower gravity, it’s moons, soil composition etc. Overall, the science in the story plays an instrumental role to make the reader ‘feel’ like traveling through the real Mars, with it’s natural threats. However, the science plays more of a backdrop to the story, plot and characters being it’s main pillars. The readers who appreciate fiction without being overloaded with science info-dumps, will find the story appealing.


Plot-meter: 9 

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The plot of the story is strong, action-packed, and coherent. In the beginning, the author does a fantastic job immersing the reader in the narrative by playing on our survival instincts. Together with the characters, we are scared, anxious, and deprived of civilization. That is why the imminent danger of a murderous cult leader feels real. As far as a murder investigation tactics, they are not very sophisticated. What I mean by that, is that the characters often are guided by their instincts and hearsay, which is far from the rigorous Sherlock Holmes methodology.  But if you think about the circumstances and limitations of the character’s predicament, it only makes sense. That is why I did not deduct any points for that, realizing that the author went for the raw and authentic quality of the story.

What I found mildly distracting, is the short time-scale for the terraformation, and the fact that within a few decades, the colonies ended up becoming rich cities with lavish excesses of human civilization, like flower shops, rich mansions, pawn shops, entertainment and such. I would expect a more austere existence from the new colonies. And at first we don’t realize how sprawled the colonization on Mars was. The information about new buildings and structures keeps popping up as the story progressed, and it felt just a bit too convenient. I would not expect to find any un-vandalized places as well. If the people knew that it was all they could ever get from the remnants of civilization, they would probably try to rob and possess everything there was to possess. However, that is somewhat justified because, according to the narrative, people cannot travel between the domes freely, being limited with the oxygen supply in their space suits, and vast distances between each structure. So that one was a bit of a toss for me. Nonetheless, 9 points is a very high score, and I almost gave it a perfect 10, so don’t be discouraged by it.


Character-meter: 10 

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Character development is a perfect ten, especially for the leading characters.  David Adler is an average guy without any particular special skills, or so we think at first. He feels ill-suited for the post-apocalyptic living, because he never killed anyone, which is rare among the settlers.  He also did not succeed in eliminating all human qualities in his character, such as empathy, compassion, and care about the fellow men. These qualities are well hidden, and truly shine in the moments of crisis.  David still wanted to be useful, unlike the majority of loitering and drinking folks around. Every day, he gets up, and goes to work, a work that he hired himself for, and that nobody expects him to do. His job is to provide the only type of nutrition available in the planet – the sustainability bars, harvested from the waste products of a fungus, that grows in an old mine.

Another main character is David’s flame from years ago Oksana. This woman has a plethora of flaws, infidelity, stealing, cheating, vanity are only some of them. How can a man love someone so damaged, so lost? But somewhere deep down, David knows that Oksana has some redeeming qualities, he may have not found them yet.

Another character, central to the story, is Lane, one of the Panama Boys, a new generation born on Mars. Panama Boys don’t believe in the Earth; to them it is only a myth. These kids grow like tumbleweed, without families, schools, and benefits of civilizations. Lane is their leader. Most of the older generation steer away from guys like Lane, because they know of their sketchy value system.

Overall, the characters are the biggest treasure of this book. They are responsible for the  mood and appeal of the story.


Originality-meter: 8

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It is hard to place the “Snowfall on Mars” on the originality scale, because the genre is so competitive. However, the combination of dystopian, post-apocalypse, and Mars colonization themes lands it in a narrower category of science fiction. The claim of originality is mostly made in the way the author fused the familiar themes, and produced a self-sufficient, character-driven plot.


Writing-meter: 8

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Considering that Branden Frankel is somewhat new to the creative writing genre, “Snowfall on Mars” a raging success, and I am looking forward to his future creations. The most impressive achievement of the “Snowfall on Mars” is the style. Written from the point of view of David Adler, the story is conveyed in the present tense, which gives the reader a close immersed experience. We are following David in his skin, see through his eyes, eat what he eats, and fear what he fears. The story is for the most part fast-pacing, especially in the beginning and the end, with a bit more of exposition in the middle. However, if in no hurry, this is a pleasant read and contributes to the mood.  Another good quality of the writing style is crisp clarity of narration, even when it comes to ambiguous and abstract emotions and concepts. Finally, a great strength of the narration is it’s vivid, cinematic quality.  I could totally see this story made into the movie, because the author made it easy for the reader to make the scenes so visual. This simple, straightforward narration without any false pompousness and weediness won me over from the start.

My concluding words – satisfying, engaging, highly recommended.


Thanks for reading this review. Please let me know what you think, I’m looking forward to read your comments. Do you have a favorite 2015 or 2016 sci fi novel? You can nominate it for the award.

To find out about the Jalapeño Fiction Award, go to this page.

Copyright Ellie Maloney (2016)

 

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