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Continuing TV's tale in literature

It's a sad truth that television doesn't last. Whether it's seven seasons of your favorite Star Trek or a single season of Firefly, all shows get cancelled or go off the air eventually.

Fortunately, the imagination of the show's creators and writers often has a bigger budget than the television medium can afford, allowing them to continue the tales of their heroes in print format. Novels, comic books, and short stories can extend the lives of your favorite shows for many "seasons". Not all shows are fortunate enough to get that extra lease on life, but that doesn't mean your own imagination can't continue the journey.

In that vein, Charlie Jane Anders suggests some awesome books to replace your favorite cancelled TV shows. From Terminator and Angel to Journeyman and Jericho, many of your favorite (but cancelled) science fiction series of the last decade are represented by equally modern literature. Even if you were satisfied with your favorite show's run and are just looking to try some new authors or series, this list is a great place to start.

For my part, I think I'll go add Robopocalypse to my to-read list, making for a nice change from my usual Star Trek pulp.

However, I draw the line at adapting my favorite books into video games.


10 ways to start your story better

As a writer, I often find one the most challenging components of an article to be the beginning. I often instructed my students to write this part last, which surprised them, but I would ask: How do you know where your story is going until after it's gotten there?

That advice may not hold up for a work of fiction, but across genres, the struggle of a perfect opening is universal. Yet it's one that must be overcome, as editors judge manuscripts by the first few paragraphs, and so to do readers. How often have you started a book at the store, the library, or your reading chair, and quickly found it didn't live up to expectations? Better to find a tale that grips you from the get-go.

Readers may have the luxury of skipping an intro, but writers do not. Fortunately, Jacob M. Appel of Writer's Digest offers ten ways to start your story better. Each suggestion includes explanation and example, but to summarize:

  1. Build momentum.
  2. Resist the urge to start too early.
  3. Remember that small hooks catch more fish than big ones.
  4. Open at a distance and close in.
  5. Avoid getting ahead of your reader.
  6. Start with a minor mystery.
  7. Keep talk to a minimum.
  8. Be mindful of what works.
  9. When in doubt, test several options.
  10. Revisit the beginning once you reach the end.

There — that was easy. Now can we get tips on how to write better middles and ends?


Review: Old Man's War

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1)Old Man's War by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd never read anything by John Scalzi, who comes highly recommended, so I chose to start with Old Man's War, which proved an easy and entertaining entry point for his brand of science fiction and character development.

In the future, life on Earth looks pretty similar to today — but one enterprising company has perfected and privatized interstellar travel. The only way to leave Earth is through them, and they don't let you or your messages ever come back. Plus, you have to join their militia — and the minimum age to do so is 75.

So when the elderly John faces life as a widower, does he stay on Earth, get old, and die… or does he say goodbye to everyone and everything he's ever known and leave for the stars, in the hope that, among this company's impressive technology, is the way to make a 75-year-old body into fighting form again?

It'd be a short book if John chose the former. Instead, readers get to follow along as he seeks out new life and new civilizations — and kills them. Apparently, habitable real estate is tough to come by, and humanity is vying against several competing races to colonize them. John, a former graphic designer, is introduced to a military life with a very high fatality rate, where friends come, go, and are replaced. He handles all this change rather smoothly, cramming a lot of material into one book. But the best parts aren't the technology, but the dialogue. Other characters come to life in unexpected ways, whether it's during demanding battle scenes or off-time in the lounge.

One oversight bothered me: it was acknowledged, but never addressed why, that humanity's sole interaction with alien races is combative and not diplomatic. But I didn't discover until the last page that this book is the first in a trilogy. Perhaps future installments will expand on this relationship.

Overall, I found Old Man's War a fun and easy read that would make me receptive to its sequels.

View all my reviews


Review: Gods of Justice

Gods of Justice (Volume 1)Gods of Justice: Edited by Kevin Hosey & K. Stoddard Hayes

Gods of Justice features ten stories, each by a different author and set in its own universes, giving diverse experiences at the applications and implications of superpowers. Some people are about to discover their superpowers; some are confronted with new challenges; others are called out of retirement. Be it the present or future, Earth or elsewhere, the different settings are easy to get into.

My favorites were Lisa Gail Green's "Identity Crisis", about a teenager who finds out her twin sister is a superhero; Kevin Hosey's "Blunt Force Trauma", about a murder-mystery surrounding an old teammate; and K. Stoddard Hayes' "The Dodge", inexplicably set on an Old West planet and starring a sheriff who must keep his power a secret from everyone. Least favorites were "Neutral Ground", set on the battlefields of World War I; "Breaking the Circle", about a temporal paradox; and "The Justice Blues", about an abusive superhusband.

If I understand correctly, this anthology's primary format is an e-book, which may've contributed to the occasional lack of copyediting, allowing "bowls" to be substituted for "bowels", for example. But such issues are rare and don't occur where they could confuse.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Concrete review

Concrete Volume 1: Depths (Concrete)Concrete Volume 1: Depths by Paul Chadwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This B&W graphic novel collects the first several issues of the early 1980s comic book "Concrete", about a political speechwriter whose brain is transplanted into an impenetrable body by aliens. Freed from military directives, Concrete sets out to explore the world and do the things he was always afraid or unable to do before. It's a refreshing change from the typical superhero approach and one that feels like it was written as a reflection of, not contemporary to, the Eighties.

When I first started the book, I felt like I'd come in on the middle of the story, and that the trade paperback must've omitted some origin story. As it turns out, all that is revealed by the end of the book.

I wouldn't mind reading more of these. Thanks for the recommendation, Stepto!

View all my reviews


NPR's top 100 fantasy & sci-fi books

Nearly five years ago, I met perhaps the most well-versed geek I've ever known. His knowledge of not just popular culture but the storied foundations of the science fiction and fantasy genres put me to shame. It made me realize that, in my consumption of the latest Star Trek and Forgotten Realms novels, I'd never made time to expose myself to the classics.

I've slowly been trying to rectify that over the past few years, during which time I've read Dune, Foundation, Discworld, Ringworld, Ender's Game, I Am Legend, and Game of Thrones (before it was a television series). My current assignment is The Left Hand of Darkness, after which I know there are many more books yet to read. But rather than scraping the bottom of the barrel, I instead find myself with the opposite problem: with so many good books to read, which do I tackle next?

NPR has the answer. This summer, they invited readers and listeners to submit their favorite fantasy and science-fiction novels for consideration as the best of all time. Five-thousand submissions, 60,000 votes, and 237 semi-finalists later, they presented the final list of the top one-hundred books (and on a single, unpaginated page, at that!).

Of the top ten books, I've read six; I'm embarrassed to say it was only half that before adding the titles I earlier listed. Altogether, only 23% of the books have crossed my reading list. I still have much work to do. But how to choose from the remaining 77, other than haphazardly?

Unsurprisingly, geeks who like fantasy, sci-fi, and NPR also like flowcharts. SFSignal.com has created a comprehensive visual guide to selecting your next novel. By asking yourself some simple questions, such as "Enjoy quests to prevent great evil from conquering the world?" or "Robots or martians?", you can quickly lead yourself to the genre, topic, series, or allegory of your liking.

Using this flowchart, I've determined that my next three sci-fi novels should be Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, Timothy Zahn's Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End; in the fantasy realm, I'll be looking at T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mrs. Norrell. At least one book in each genre is already in my personal library, sitting in my "to-read" pile for years now. That seems as good a place to start as any.

What sci-fi and fantasy novels are on your list?

(Hat tips to Michele and Barbara)


Publishing your virtual bookshelf online with Goodreads

Last month, I described how I created a virtual bookshelf, resulting in a digital database of my library's metadata. Once I had that local index, I wanted to find an elegant way to publish it online. The software I used offers a "Publish to FTP site" that produces an HTML listing, but it doesn't integrate with any CMS or social network that I use. I chose instead to investigate Web sites that specialize in this service and which offer social networking features that allow me to share my library with friends.

First I looked at LibraryThing, recommended to me by a librarian. Although its online tour presented a visually attractive interface, I eliminated LibraryThing as a potential contender almost immediately upon reading this caveat: "A free account allows you to catalog up to 200 books. A paid account allows you to catalog any number of books." Anyone with a sufficiently extensive collection that warrants indexing likely has more than 200 books. Since mine is in excess of 600, I chose not to join this community of 1.2 million readers.

By contrast, Shelfari is free and features a bookshelf that looks similar to the one on my computer. It's owned by Amazon.com and integrates with one's purchases there, which ostensibly is a benefit, but I actually don't prefer consolidation — Amazon.com is a store, not a social network, and I'd like to keep those needs distinct. Otherwise, I'd likely just use Amazon.com's own media library service.

One online service I did not investigate was aNobii. bookarmy, closed in December 2010, was also not a contender.

Ultimately, I chose Goodreads, which was founded in October 2006 (two months after Shelfari) and has 4.4 million members. Being one of the older and larger online book cataloging services, it seemed more likely to offer an extensive member and book database for me to exploit. Goodreads also provides a widget that I can easily embed into Wordbits.net to dynamically inform visitors what I'm currently reading.

Exporting my library out of my Mac software and into Goodreads was simple but required editing the CSV file's headers from the former's "Creator" to the latter's "Author" and the like. Even then, Goodreads did not acknowledge all metadata made available to it: importation of whether or not I owned a copy of the book, as well as when and where it was purchased, is not supported, even though that same metadata is included in an export out of Goodreads. I had to manually edit batches of my books to identify which I owned (ie, all of them). But since books can exist in my Goodreads collection without me actually owning them, Goodreads thus becomes practical as a list not just of my books, but of any books that I want to read or purchase, or books that I have read without having purchased (courtesy my local public library).

Goodreads has a couple other quirks. For example, it's not immediately obvious how to move a book among the mutually exclusive "To Read", "Currently Reading", and "Read" shelves. Simply removing it from its current shelf won't do; it must instead be added to one of the other two.

But that's a result of Goodreads being used not just for static metadata, like my local index, but also for dynamic content. I can mark when I started reading a book, how far I've progressed each day, when I finished, and what I thought of it when I was done. Each of these updates can be put into a newsfeed for your friends can see and comment on — though, despite its large audience, very few people I know are on the service, which limits its usefulness.

I don't know if I would find myself with more friends if Goodreads tried harder to be more like Facebook, but I'm glad it doesn't. In its discussion groups have been requests for half-star ratings and thumbs up/down on individual comments, both of which have been flatly denied. Neither of those features would encourage the sort of intelligent and literary discourse that will help me find and interpret books, and I'm glad to leave them to other social networks to implement. (That said, the Goodreads application for Facebook seems quite popular.)

I haven't yet found a ton of value in publishing my catalog to Goodreads, though once I start rating more of my books, it may help me find similar books to read — a problem I've never had, as indicated by the 132 entries on my "to-read" shelf! But as a social complement to my own inventory tracking software, I find Goodreads an effective and free service, and one I hope more of my friends will join me on.


Cataloging a collection with Delicious Library

I have what I consider a vast book collection. I'd never quantified its contents except to observe the growing physical space it occupied in my home, not always knowing how it was doing so. A few times, I bought a book twice, not realizing I already had a copy on my "to-read" shelf. I decided it would be a worthwhile undertaking to make some sort of index of my library, not only as reference but also as a backup: should my books ever be lost or damaged, I'll know what to replace.

Delicious Library 2I'd already compiled a similar catalog of my DVDs using the Macintosh program Delicious Library. It was a project that had to wait until I had a computer with an inbuilt webcam, as then I could hold my DVD cases up to the monitor and have their barcodes scanned, downloading all their metadata from Amazon.com. It didn't take long to scan all 200 movies or so.

But books are a different matter: they're larger, bulkier, and sometimes more fragile. It seemed too laborious to lug my laptop to each shelf of books (or to carry each book to my computer desk) and scan the titles individually.

I decided to get a handheld barcode scanner. Delicious Library supports Bluetooth devices and recommends (and sells) the Microvision RoV scanner, which costs hundreds of dollars. I opted instead for a secondhand Microvision Flic scanner off eBay, which proved to be a mistake. Although the scanner paired with my MacBook just fine and emitted the expected red light and beeped in recognition of a barcode, it never transmitted that data back to the computer, indicating a wasted purchase. Faced with that defeat, my project stalled.

But a pending move threatens those books with storage, and I wanted to know what I'd collected before they went out of sight. I finally caved and went about the scanning process the cumbersome way.

The part of the process that was least curmudgeonly was the software. Delicious Library recognized the barcodes easily and spoke their names as it downloaded their information. If I accidentally scanned something twice, it pulled up the existing entry rather than make a new one.

There were a few special cases that required manual entry. Some books didn't list their ISBNs at all, so I went searching on Amazon.com or Google for that data. And many older paperbacks have barcodes on their back covers that scan incorrectly; the right barcode is on the inside front cover.

Altogether, indexing just over 600 books took less time than I'd spent trying to get the Bluetooth scanner working. Many of those books had their original receipts tucked inside, so I later added the purchase date, place, and price to my digital metadata. This second pass was more tedious than the first, requiring as it did no scanning, just data entry.

Delicious Library book collection

A sampling of my actual shelf, represented virtually.

The result is an exhaustive and beautiful virtual bookshelf that catalogs my collection. With the trend toward e-books, this database of metadata only, without the books' actual contents, may seem antiquated — but I find it to be the best of both worlds.