Monday, September 28, 2015

Boys by Scott Semegran

book cover for BoysThese are the stories of three boys living in Texas: one growing up, one dreaming, and one fighting to stay alive in the face of destitution and adversity. There's second-grader William, a shy yet imaginative boy who schemes about how to get back at his school-yard bully, Randy. Then there's Sam, a 15-year-old boy who dreams of getting a 1980 Mazda RX-7 for his sixteenth birthday but has to work at a Greek restaurant to fund his dream. Finally, there's Seff, a 21-year-old on the brink of manhood, trying to survive along with his roommate, working as waiters and barely making ends meet. These three stories are told with heart, humor, and an uncompromising look at what it meant to grow up in Texas during the 1980s and 1990s.

The collection opens with Wiliam's story, "The Great and Powerful, Brave Raideen". It's a short story with a predictable plot element, but it's nicely done. The characters are honestly portrayed; the dialogue genuine. It demonstrates the dual fickle-forgiving nature of children and the power of play.

Sam's story, "Good Night, Jerk Face", comes next. It's a novelette that ends rather abruptly. Semegran builds up the tension between Sam and his parents over Sam's desire to buy the car of his dreams, but it just fizzles out. There's also the potential for conflict between Sam and his boss over the restaurant's delivery van, but that too gets shrugged off. The title of this story implies some kind of confrontation. While Semegran explains who says it, we never find out why. To his credit, Semegran does a good job at capturing adolescent anxiety—learning how to drive, talking to girls, working menial jobs.

The remainder and bulk of the book is "The Discarded Feast". Seff and his roommate, Alfonso, work at a chain restaurant barely getting by on their meager earnings. The story covers their adventures at work and outside of it. A good deal of their free time is spent smoking cigarettes, drinking cheap beer, and wondering if they'll be able to come up with the money for next month's rent. If it were a movie, it could serve in a double feature with Waiting, but the characters are far more realistic.

This isn't so much a story you get wrapped up in for plot; the events pertaining to the story's title make up a fraction of the content. Rather, you tune in for the characters. Everyone has a story, and the people that Seff meets tell him their stories. Some are more interesting than others. I get the feeling that these are people that Semegran met when he was Seff's age, and he felt compelled to honor them by relating their stories here.

Boys is a collection of stories that reads more like a fictionalized memoir. It would've benefited from a run through by an editor to draw a bit more focus in content and to clean up the grammatical mistakes (mostly comma usage). Semegran gets points for realistic characters even if the book falls short on the storytelling.

Scott Semegran is also the author of The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood and The Spectacular Simon Burchwood. For more information about these works, check out the author's website.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Cover Reveal and Kindle Scout Campaign for Citizen Magus

Rob Steiner has started a new series: the Journals of Natta Magus.

Book cover for Citizen Magus

Here to tell us more about the book and its Kindle Scout campaign is Rob Steiner.

I’m really excited to announce a Kindle Scout campaign for my new novel, Citizen Magus.

Remington Blakes, a magus from a 21st century where magic powers the world, has a big problem. His former mentor, William Ford, stranded him in ancient Rome without a memory as to how or why. Well a guy has to eat, so he’s forced to eke out a living as a magus-for-hire among Rome’s plebeians. But when Ford conjures daemons to kidnap a senator’s young daughter, Remi tracks him to the Germanic frontier to not only rescue the child, but learn the terrible secret behind why he left Remi in Rome.

The campaign works like this: Readers can nominate my book for a publishing deal with Kindle Press. If Kindle Press picks up my book, your nomination will earn you a free copy once it’s published. The more nominations I get, the better my chances for a deal and a free ebook for you.

Nominating is easy, quick, and a great way to support new authors (check out the other campaigns on the Scout site, too). Please see my campaign page for more details.

Thanks in advance for your support!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust by Mathias Freese

Book cover for I Truly LamentIn this anthology, Mathias Freese has composed twenty-seven short stories about the Holocaust. They're an attempt to gain some form of understanding about it. In the Preface, Freese states: "All literary depictions of the Holocaust end as failures..." and "Every artist who struggles with the Holocaust must begin with an acceptance of failure, and that must be worked through before art begins." If I'm interpreting him correctly, the reason why all attempts end as failures is because no mere words on a page can ever truly convey what it was like to have been there. But nothing short of a fully immersive virtual reality program (and none has been created yet) ever could, so why set the bar so high?

I'm not sure why Mr. Freese wrote this book. A tribute to the dead? The survivors? He states that: "No piece of art...can ever expunge the Holocaust." To which I rather flippantly say, "Well, duh." If this was ever his intent, it's a fool's errand. But no, this is an attempt to "work through it" despite his insistence that: "We will never work it through."

So it was after reading this conflicted preface, written by a man who so desperately wants answers to the questions he poses, that I read this book.

Obviously, this was no beach read. Rather than compose these stories as entertainment (Can the Holocaust, or any genocide for that matter, ever be formed into entertainment?), they're more like twenty-seven fictional biographies. Alas, they're repetitive. There were three stories involving golems. There were several stories each about Jews fleeing Nazi pursuers, life in the camps, and survivors trying to eke out some kind of life afterwards. While each was slightly different, too many elements were the same. For instance, all but one survivor story took place in Tuscon, Arizona.

But there were stories that broke out of the mold. "Max Weber, Holocaust Revisionist" was more of an essay. Freese explains that when he was writing a story he was derailed by a historian's contention that the Nazis did not make soap out of Jews. Freese researched the historian and learned that the man was a historical revisionist. Freese submitted his The i Tertralogy to him for a book review and published it herein as "Sincerely, Max Weber". I'm assuming both are true. Freese skewers the man in a story entitled "Soap", one of the best stories in the collection.

There are two fictional interviews: "Herr Doktor" and "Der Fuhrer Likes Plain". Both of these were among the better stories. The first one is an interview between an American doctor and a camp doctor. The interviewer is trying to determine at what point the camp doctor lost his ability to follow his Hippocratic Oath. The latter story is a fictional interview with Eva Braun just a few days before her death in Hitler's bunker. While it got off to a good start, it veered off into details about Hitler's sex life that have been gossiped about but never substantiated.

"The Disenchanted Golem" starts out with a golem discussing a few events over the course of his incarnations and what it's like to be a golem. But midway through his conversation with the reader, he tells us about the one he has with a rabbi. It has a bit of a Pinocchio quality to it, but without the Disney effect.

My favorite story was "Cantor Matyas Balogh". The titular character meets a woman in a sweets shop, and the two strike up a conversation. The conversation leads to tea and then to romance. It's a story about finding love when the world is going to hell. Both are aware of the dangers around them, but continue on because love has a power all its own.

In summary, I Truly Lament is a collection of stories centered on the Holocaust. While there are many repetitive story elements, individually, they offer poetic glimpses into the brutality endured. There are standout stories that rise from the miasma of the subject matter. It is a difficult read at times, for the subject matter and the associated suffering can be a bit much. If you can separate the entertaining tales from the pseudo-biographical cathartic soliloquies, then this book could be for you.

For more information about I Truly Lament and Mathias Freese, please visit his website.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Void Contract by Scott Rhine

book cover for Void ContractA veteran of the Gigaparsec War, Dr. Max Culp catches alien war criminals with his skills as a !Kung tribal hunter. Suddenly, his only surviving teammate is kidnapped. To free his friend, Max is forced to take a mob contract on a Saurian fugitive hiding at the borders of Human space. But Max is tired of wet work and alien conspiracies. Can he find a path back to civilian life without losing what’s left of his soul or those closest to him?

This is the first book in a new series, but it takes place in the same universe as Jezebel's Ladder, just 400 years later. While several books followed Jezebel's Ladder, they are not required reading for this book. However, if you enjoy this book and want to know how Earth got to this point, then you should consider picking them up.

The book starts off with a fair amount of action. Rhine does a good job introducing us to Max and the universe he lives in without drowning us in background. Once Max is forced to accept the job from the alien mobster, the action is replaced by intrigue as Max rides a starship to find the fugitive. While there's FTL travel, it's slow enough (weeks instead of years) that Max has time to work on a way to manipulate the situation to accomplish his goals. The action returns in time for an early climax. The last 20% of the story, while still interesting, serves more to set up the next book in the series.

The blurb made it sound to me like Max was an old world bushman living in the Star Wars universe, but that's definitely not the case. Max may have grown up among the !Kung, but he has a modern education and has been culturally assimilated. He was given a new name to fit in. "Max Culp" is actually derived from mea maxima culpa—through my most grievous fault. The story is told from Max's POV, and Rhine is adept at revealing his character and why that name suits him. His past haunts him and affects how he conducts himself. When it comes to planning operations or assessing a rapidly changing situation, Max is sharp as a tack. But when it comes to relationships with women, not being around humans for several years has left him weak. He grovels at the feet of the first one and is hopelessly naive with the second. He's a bit too much the perfect gentleman with the third, but there's still hope he'll get it right.

Rhine makes good use of dialogue to advance the story, and the pacing is solid. His characters have depth, even the aliens. While Rhine tries to keep the story accessible to most adult readers, he's smart about how he does it (i.e. alien foul language gets mistranslated by translator tech). And while there's plenty of the usual sci-fi stuff like spaceships and cool tech, it never steals the show. With Rhine, the plot and the characters keep us engaged.

Rhine has kept busy since Jezebel's Ladder, writing over a dozen books since then. While he's been prolific, I can see that his writing has matured as well. It's nice to see an indie writer work to improve his craft instead of just churning out product.

For more information, please visit the author's website.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Author News - July

July 14th - Mike Reeves-McMillan released The Well-Presented Manuscript, a guide for authors looking to improve their chances of getting published by avoiding the most common issues.

July 20th - Horror maven Michaelbrent Collings released The Deep.

July 24th - Cold Fusion Media, the folks who published the Shared Nightmares anthology, offers Christmas in July. Sort of. The Last Christmas Gift: A Heartwarming Holiday Tale of the Living Dead written by Nathan Shumate is released today. Special book launch party on Facebook!

August 3rd - John Vorhaus will release How to Live Life, his philosophy on—you guessed it—how to live life.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

No Dogs in Philly by Andy Futuro

Book cover for No Dogs in PhillyPhiladelphia. Elzi on every corner, cops just itching to crack a skull, and the Gaespora lordin' it up in their high towers while the rest of the filth dribbled down the sewer. Saru had a way out. All she had to do was find the girl, one skinny stray with blue, blue eyes—bluer than anyone had ever seen—and ten million fat bucks were hers. Except someone was killing blue-eyed girls, and they were A-list, major-league, cold-sweat effective. And something about the end of all existence if she failed.

Don't let the doe-eyed woman on the cover fool you. That's Saru. She'll use that cattle prod on you if you mess with her. While not evident from the cover, she's enhanced with all the doodads that cyberpunk fans would expect of a near future sci-fi heroine. She's connected to the Net 24/7; has a pistol named "Betty" up her sleeve ready to go when adrenaline, pulse rate, and subconscious thought reach a critical threshold; and everything's subdermal. But just as her soft exterior belies the bad ass that she is, her gender hides the fact that she's more macho than most men, certainly the other male characters in the story. She could be Mike Hammer's granddaughter, though with less rage and more cynicism.

I get that she has to be tough. Her world is full of creeps and creepy things. But the hard-boiled persona has its limitations. While Hammer was out for justice, Saru only seems to be out for herself. People can sympathize with vigilantes, not so much the obnoxious brats just looking for a payday. It takes a lot of death before any kind of humanity breaks through the concrete barrier surrounding her heart. Even when it does, I wasn't convinced that she was going to carry through on her promise to set things right.

Futuro's Philadelphia is a complex place with enhanced humans, aliens, and monsters. The aliens and monsters would be right at home in Lovecraft's universe. But whereas Lovecraft's unthinkable creations lurked in the shadows and faraway places, Futuro's creations are out in the open. Considering the obvious menace that some of them pose, I'm surprised that there wasn't more panic among the populace. The elzi seem to be former people that were exposed to dark forces which devolved them into sub-human animals with tech sticking out of their bodies and great appetite (hence the book's title). Sure, there are even worse things lurking underground, but the elzi are out on Broad Street in broad daylight. The city seems to function; why not round them up or put them down?

Futuro is at his best when he taps into that Lovecraft vibe. He reaches out to the infinite and shows how it overwhelms a human mind. There's the plea from a desperate soul that we have to hope that the old, hungry god ignores our world. But it's the elements of indescribable horrors lurking in the dark that do unspeakable things that really fires things up. My favorite part was when Ria took shelter from the rain in a subway tunnel. It was already a tense scene as she sat with a few homeless people around a trash fire while dozens of satiated elzi slept nearby. Will they stay asleep? What if one of them needs a midnight snack? And then there's a rumble that wakes up the elzi, and they scatter. The people start to panic. What could drive an elzi to run away? Then Futuro reveals what that thing is.

Unfortunately, my experience was marred by comma problems (missing or too many) and run on sentences. Sometimes it seemed as if Futuro tried to cram as many adjectives and phrases as possible. These two sentences lack any form of punctuation:
We live as we can can as thoughts within your kind and through thought we drive action and with action we bring your world closer to our own.

She could pound a liter of vodka and walk a line and thread a needle and she remembered exactly what had happened.
Here's an example of a sentence that goes on far too long given its limited punctuation:
She'd tried wearing sunglasses to complete her disguise, but with the clouds and the dark she couldn't see shit, kept stepping in it and glass and syringes and tripping and potholes and the last time she'd had a condom dragging from her heel for about four blocks until the cashier at the liquor store pointed it out by yelling in his angry foreigner language.
While there are more examples, it's not like the whole book is like this. Most of the time, Futuro gets it right. If he had hired a proofreader, I believe that the manuscript would've been much cleaner. If commas and long sentences like these don't bother you, then don't sweat it. Just enjoy the story.

While it might seem from my complaints about grammar and the unsympathetic protagonist that I didn't like the story, that isn't the case. I really enjoyed it. Futuro nicely blends cyberpunk and Lovecraftian horror together in a bleak, near future Philadelphia. While his protagonist is about as warm and cuddly as 80 grit sandpaper, she adds a hard-boiled detective element into the mix that works well given the story's setting and plot.

For more information, please visit the author's website.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Interview with Rob Steiner

Rob SteinerToday we have the pleasure of interviewing Rob Steiner, the author of The Last Key, Aspect of Pale Night, Zervakan, and the Codex Antonius trilogy. His short stories have appeared in Bastion and Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. As has been posted here previously, Steiner has just concluded the Codex Antonius trilogy with the publication of Muses of the Republic. Now, he's here to talk to us about...everything.

New Podler: Thanks for being here with us today, Rob!

Rob Steiner: I appreciate you having me.

NP: Anyone familiar with your recent work, both in novel and short story form, will notice a certain Roman element to it. Is it safe to say you're a Romanophile?

RS: Am I that obvious, lol? Yes, I’m huge Romanophile. I mean, the Western civilization we know today came right out of Rome, from its languages to its religious customs (the Christian/pagan mashups), to its roads (still used throughout Europe), and even its lawyers (Romans sued the bejesus out of each other).

Muses of Roma book coverI’m also an American history nut, so the parallels between Rome and the US have always fascinated me—both threw off monarchs to establish democratic republics, albeit ruled by elites; both had a sense of “manifest destiny” to conquer their respective continents; both became cultural melting pots; both transitioned from regional powers to super powers after defeating a long-term rival (Carthage for Rome and the Soviet Union for the US).

Does that mean I think the US republic will one day fall to emperors or that it’ll last as long as Rome? Who knows? The US is still a baby compared to the Roman Empire, which existed in one form or another from the 500s BC until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The US has a long way to go before it can be considered a match for Rome.

I’m getting into TL;DR territory, so if you’re a budding Romanophile, check out Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome podcast series and anything by Anthony Everitt.

NP: For the people out there who don't know anything about the Codex Antonius series, otherwise known as the Muses books, what would you like to say to introduce them to the series?

Muses of Terra book coverRS: Romans…in…spaaaaaaace!

But if you need more than that: Mark Antony routs Octavius Caesar at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and becomes the sole consul of the Roman Republic. He ushers in an unimaginable golden age, and within 1,000 years, Rome has not only conquered the world but spawned an interstellar civilization.

By the time Muses of Roma starts, Rome has declined over recent decades, and rival worlds have emerged. But it’s still a powerhouse that no nation is crazy enough to take on alone.

NP: What was your inspiration for writing the series?

RS: Since I’m a history nut, it stands to reason that I also love alternate history. Harry Turtledove got me going with Guns of the South, where time travelers show up during the US Civil War, give the Confederacy AK-47s, and enable them to win the war. In addition to his Worldwar series (aliens invade Earth during World War II), his books showed me that sci-fi and alternate history can coexist and make for some exciting stories.

For me, the Roman Empire + space opera = awesome. So I went with it.

But all good alternate history needs that "what if" moment where things take off in a different direction. For my Muses series, I wanted Rome to go from a Mediterranean empire to an interstellar one within a thousand years. That’s an awfully short time period for such a drastic advance, so I figured they’d need help. I wanted that help to be alien, but I didn’t want your standard gray alien whispering in Mark Antony’s ear from behind the curtains. I wanted something different.

Muses of the Republic book coverI once read in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything that 80% of all life on the planet Earth is bacteria. Humans usually fancy themselves at the top of the food chain, but Bryson said that humans exist on this planet because the bacteria allow it. If they turned on us, there wouldn’t be a damn thing we could do.

The way he described bacteria made them sound almost…sentient.


What if a sentient virus, which had existed for millions of years and infected dozens of intelligent species, found its way to Earth and Mark Antony, infected him, and gave him all the knowledge it had accumulated? That sure would kickstart a Roman golden age, to say the least.

But all that knowledge isn’t free, and there’s a terrible price for it. The Codex Antonius series is about Marcus Antonius Cordus, Mark Antony’s distant ancestor, who learns the terrible price and fights to free Rome—and humanity—from Muse enslavement.

NP: You've covered a lot of ground in the series, and many years have passed between books. In "The Vestal" (Bastion November 2014 issue), we got to see Kaeso (my favorite character in the series) back in his Umbra Corps days. Any chance that we'll see more stories from his early days or between the novels?

RS: So to give your readers a quick backstory: Umbra Corps is a super-secret spy agency for the Roman rival world Libertus. Libertus is small and doesn’t have a huge star fleet like Rome, so they use the Umbra Corps with its almost magical technology to infiltrate any government or crime syndicate. Their philosphy is: Why maintain a huge star fleet when you can stop any threat in its planning stages through targeted assassination or sabotage? Umbra Corps is why little Libertus has remained free in an interstellar neighborhood dominated by Rome and petty warlords looking for glory.

Of course, Umbra Corps’ success comes from its own deal with the devil, which I won’t spoil here.

By the time of Muses of Roma, Kaeso Aemilus is a former Umbra Corps agent who used to work in Rome, but was blackballed and now runs his own cargo ship crewed by outcasts like himself.

I’d love to write about Kaeso’s Umbra Corps days, because he did things that would make James Bond wet his pants. However, I want to avoid the Star Wars prequels trap. The answers to the mysteries that Kaeso fought to learn in his Umbra Corps days are revealed in the Codex Antonius series. I need to figure out new stories (and/or novels) where those mysteries aren’t central to the plot (which would bore Codex Antonius readers who know how it all ends), but at the same time keep the Muses as the main bad guys (because they are the reason this alternate history exists, after all). Once I figure out another story like that, I will write it.

Zervakan book coverNP: In Zervakan, you gave us a world where magic and steampunk era technology co-exist, albeit not peacefully. The main character, Taran, tried to bridge the two worlds but was viewed as a pariah. What was your inspiration for writing it?

RS: Zervakan was inspired by my personal belief that science and religion are two sides of the same coin: they both attempt to describe different aspects of reality. And I wanted to wrap that notion up in an exciting fantasy adventure.

Taran’s story is about someone who seeks to bridge the gap between seemingly opposite ways of seeing the world. I wanted to show that just because you’re a scientist doesn’t mean you can’t have spiritual beliefs. And just because you have spiritual beliefs, doesn’t mean you should ignore science.

Science and religion are always in flux anyway, never settled and constantly reinterpreted. For some religions, the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe was sacrosanct; but that belief was reinterpreted in face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. And up until the 1870s, the best minds in science thought it was pure fantasy for “invisible” germs to cause contagious diseases.

I often wonder if people a hundred years from now will look back on today’s “settled” scientific and religious principles and laugh at our naiveté.

NP: Do you have any plans on returning to that world?

RS: When I outlined the book, I intended it as a standalone novel. But as I wrote it, I decided to throw in some plot threads that could lead to future books. I think the novel still holds up well as a standalone, though, so I don’t have any plans for future volumes at this point.

But if it starts selling like gangbusters, I could be persuaded otherwise. ;-)

NP: Now that the Codex Antonius trilogy is complete, do you have anything on the drawing board, or are your creative batteries re-charging?

RS: I just completed a new fantasy novel based on the characters in the two short stories I published on Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. The book and stories are about Natta Magus, a wizard from an alternate 21st century where magic powers the world. He gets stranded in 6 BC Rome (go figure, eh?) by his former mentor and friend and is desperate to find out why. It’s in third draft mode, and I hope to release it in early fall. I’d encourage your readers to sign up for my New Releases mailing list to be among the first to know when it comes out.

NP: That's going to do it for me. If anyone in the audience has any questions for Rob, please post them in the comments.

Thanks again for joining us today, Rob. I suddenly feel the need to stock up on Purell and Lysol.

RS: That would be wise. ;-) And thank you for this opportunity.

NP: To learn more about the Codex Antonius series or any of Rob's other works, please visit his website.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Author News - June

Anne Charnock announced the title of her next book and how it came about.

Mike Reeves-McMillan announced that a story of his has been selected for the Terry Pratchett In Memory anthology. Proceeds go to benefit research into finding a cure for Alzheimer's.

Rob Steiner has been busy lately. Two of his stories have recently appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show: "The Oath Breaker's Daemon" and "The Cloaca Maxima". He also published the third story in his Codex Antonius series, Muses of the Republic.

Michael J. Sullivan started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a third Riyria Chronicles novel entitled The Death of Dulgath. The campaign was successfully funded in just under 48 hours. I find it interesting that after signing a major book deal, he still feels the need to self-publish.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Interview with Michael John Grist

Michael John GristToday we have the pleasure of interviewing Michael John Grist, the author of Mr. Ruins and the Ruins War trilogy. He's also the author of the Ignifer Cycle, two anthologies, and Into the Ruins, an account of his travels through the modern ruins of Japan. His latest work is The Last, the story of a comic book artist in the zombie apocalypse.

New Podler: Thanks for being here with us today, Michael!

Michael John Grist: Happy to be here, thanks for having me!

NP: I found out about you by accident. I was searching for something, and I was directed to the ruins exploration portion of your website. While there are some photos collected from around the internet, the photos from Japan are all yours. Can you tell us how that came about?

MJG: Sure, and it’s sort of by accident too. First off though, I was always into ruins. As a kid I’d explored some of the big abandoned factories near Manchester where I grew up—they were probably cotton mills—as well as taking adventures into whatever dilapidated farmhouses and industrial relics were left over near my house. My friends and I loved that kind of thing, inspired by The Goonies and Indiana Jones.

So I was predisposed towards liking ruins. In Japan I investigated a few when I came across them: a US military base that had been abandoned for 30 or so years, a block of flats left for 20. They were opportunistic explores, before I realized that going to ruins could be a hobby.

That realization came with reading an article about a handful of Japanese people who were going to these ruins, called ‘haikyo’, and writing books about them. They visited all kinds of places: ruined theme parks, factories, spas, ghost towns, etc. They had blogs and some of them had published books. Some of them provided maps. It captured my imagination, as ruins always had, and I started heading out to see the places for myself.

NP: What drew you in? What is it about these abandoned places that grabs your attention?

MJG: It’s a mixture of things, probably starting with the spirit of adventure. There’s a thrill to being in these places, and a special feeling to the sense of discovery as you wander through them. Few people get to experience that, I think, so I count myself lucky.

As I went to more and more ruins though, that sense of thrill was superseded by other feelings: awe at some of the grander ruins, like desolate shipyards from World War Two and theme parks, an ethereal sense of connection to the past in dusty old school-rooms in ghost towns shuttered for a generation, plus the creative challenge of trying to capture the beauty and appeal of these places in photographs.

Copyright Michael John Grist

NP: I can't get over the fact that these places exist in Japan. I was under the impression that land was terribly scarce and nothing went to waste. Is there a common explanation for why these places were abandoned or is it random?

MJG: There is a common explanation, largely due to the economy but also historical reasons. Japan had a huge economic bubble in the 80s, but has been in a deflationary spiral ever since. In the boom days, all kinds of grand investments were made into resort hotels, theme parks, massive hotels and so on, typically far out in the mountainous countryside. The theme parks Sports World and Russian Village are great examples of this; large complexes that opened right around the bubble bursting.

Nobody went there and they went bust. After that these places became toxic assets to the bank, impossible to sell as they were deep in the red, so they just sat there.

Other reasons include the exhaustion of Japanese resources—leaving ghost towns in the mountains which were once thriving mining towns—or because of the war—leaving missile factories and bunkers lying in ruins on isolated coastlines.

Book cover for Mr. RuinsNP: Was your fascination with ruins the inspiration for writing the Ruins War?

MJG: It definitely was. Around that time I stopped exploring ruins in the real world, feeling that I’d exhausted the stock of the country’s best ruins. I wanted to continue exploring still, so through a story seemed the natural extension. I needed bigger, grander ruins, in a new world, so I set the Ruins War world in a post-apocalyptic, tsunami-wrecked future, where massive clusters of wrecked ‘godships’ held all kinds of treasures, and there were shark-fighting arenas, and sunken ‘subglacics’- submarines designed to go under the Arctic ice.

NP: Despite the devastation wrought by the global tsunamis, humanity has rebuilt civilization behind walls, much like medieval castles, only far larger. During Ritry's time in Calico, he seems to have driven all his demons away. Whereas out on the skulks, the floating shanty towns outside the walls of Calico, he was always a total mess. And it seemed that just about everyone else he meets out there was as well. What do Calico and the skulks symbolize to you?

MJG: Well, for Ritry the skulks are a penance, and a purgatory. He survived awful things in the Arctic War, and he feels awful guilt to be the sole survivor of his crew. The War hurt him deeply, and he can’t really get over it. He needs time to heal, and the lawless panacea that the skulks provide- being able to throw himself into booze, violence, women, affords him that chance.

More broadly, the dichotomy between the skulks and Calico behind the wall represent a kind of dystopia/utopia situation. While there has been a terrible war, and civilization in many places has been completely destroyed, we’ve also evolved. Calico is a peaceful, beautiful city, because people have figured out how to make it that way. One way it’s done is to send, or allow, all the people who want a lawless, impermanent life to the skulks, where they can take their chances. Out there fortunes can be made and lives can be lost at the drop of a hat.

In Calico, there’s stability and progression. Maybe these are two aspects to human nature- the order of civilization versus the chaos of nature red in tooth and claw. Ritry’s movement between the two represents his personal evolution from a broken creature controlled by his wilder drives, to a thinking man in full control of his own nature.

NP: Ritry is a graysmith, a blacksmith for the mind. His occupation enables him to implant and delete memories. Where did you come up with the idea?

MJG: I was an English teacher in Japan, and in my earliest ideas, Ritry was a language teacher too. I expanded that role and made it more futuristic with the gray-smithing technology, kind of a Matrix or Johnny Mnemonic tech, and expanded the contents from only language to just about any knowledge or skill. It allowed for the depths of the mind to be plumbed.

NP: But graysmithing is different than either of the mind experiences in those two stories. Both of them involve massive computer networks with constructed realities. Mr. Ruins does not. It's a far more personal experience.

MJG: That's true, it's definitely an organic, evolving experience in the Ruins War world. The secondary world isn't something built up by computers, it exists independently, though machines can be used to help gain access to that world. Part of the skill of being a graysmith is knowing how to use the machine tools necessary to hack through. Of course, the real skill then lies in being able to tailor every 'dive' into another mind so it is a personal experience, not a brute force assault.

NP: There's this theme running through the story that memory is malleable. Maybe fluid is more accurate a term. Was this a conscious decision?

MJG: Definitely. I think we’re on the verge of mastering our own programming as humans, whether that be our genetic code or the knowledge and memories in our heads, that make up our personalities. Granted, ‘on the verge’ may be still 50 or more years away in reality, but it’s so close we can almost reach out and touch it. And when we reach it, a lot of things will change.

It may lead to an answer to the tricky question of the soul. Is the soul real, and if so is it separate from our personalities? Should we consider it a third leg of the nature vs. nurture debate? If we can control for nature by changing genetics, control for nurture by reprogramming the brain, then will we become wholly different people, or will our souls keep us on track?

These questions were very much in my head as I wrote Mr. Ruins and the sequels.

NP: Your "aetheric bridge" reminded me of Emerson's "Over-Soul". Any connection?

MJG: I suppose so, though it wasn't something I had consciously in mind as I came up with the world and its rules. The idea of the 'Oversoul' makes a certain sweet sense to me—that all souls are connected, and the human self/ego is a kind of 'rider' atop the soul, or vice-versa. I really enjoyed writing the scene where Ritry tries to explain to the Don what the soul/aetheric bridge is, and likens each person to a radio that tunes into a bit of something like an 'Oversoul', with that particular bit of frequency comprising their soul, on loan to a human body.

NP: You've recently released, The Last, the story of a comic book artist in the zombie apocalypse. What can you tell us about it?

MJG: It's Robinson Crusoe meets the zombie apocalypse. One man alone survives infection, a sweet and non-violent comic-book artist called Amo (it means 'I love' in Latin). The sudden and total zombification of New York leaves him alone and stranded in an ocean of zombies. First he must survive. Second he must decide what survival even means if he's really the last? What kind of man should he be, and what kind of goals should he have, and most of all, is he truly the last man alive?

NP: Any plans to return to exploring ruins? I hear that Hashima (aka Gunkanjima "Battleship Island") is open to tours. Pripyat, perhaps?

MJG: I explored ruins in a kind of frenzy for about four years, then steadily slacked off. I'd been to pretty much all the major ruins locations in Japan by that time, which left only a lot of similar-looking places on a more minor scale. The number of abandoned hot springs hotels and apartments is immense, and I had no desire to see them all. I was satisfied.

The only really big one I hadn't been to was Hashima, but curiously enough I never felt very compelled to go there. I think that's because of things like the tours. Once a place goes as mainstream as that, it loses its 'explorer' thrill I guess. Even before the tours it was the most over-exposed ruin in Japan. Now I explore the ruins I invent, which can be just as uncharted and fresh as my imagination allows. That's plenty enough excitement for me.

NP: That's going to do it for me. If anyone in the audience has any questions for Michael, please post them in the comments.

Thanks again for joining us today, Michael.

TG: It was my pleasure, thanks again for having me.

NP: To learn more about the Ruins War trilogy, Michael's ruins travelogue, or his other works, please visit his website.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Cover Reveal: Muses of the Republic by Rob Steiner

Rob Steiner has revealed the third cover in the Codex Antonius series, Muses of the Republic. In case you haven't been following it (and why the hell not!), it's a sci-fi/alt history series about a Roman Empire that didn't fall. Instead it thrived, conquered the world, and spawned an interstellar civilization.

Rob hired Tom Edwards to create the cover. Edwards also created the covers for M. Terry Green's Chronicles of White World.

Muses of the Republic book cover

The ebook is out now. The paperback is scheduled to be released later this month. There's a compendium containing all three ebooks. You can get that here.