Review: “Starman Jones” by Robert A. Heinlein

 “Starman Jones” is a timeless story of a young man with a dream. Max Jones is a farm boy who wants to follow in his late uncle’s footsteps. Chester Jones was an astrogator, a master mathematician who navigated spacecraft through the interstellar void. He taught Max everything he knew and the boy, gifted with a photographic memory, was hooked. Max’s feet were still planted in the soil of his farm, but his eyes were set on the stars.

Robert A. Heinlein weaves a story around this extraordinary young man who has been battered by life. Max’s father is dead. His days are ruled by an unpleasant step-mother. Her new husband threatens his future. Max runs away from home, armed with a few items of clothing and a couple of his uncle’s books. And so his quest begins. When the Astrogator’s Guild refuses to admit him, Max obtains forged papers and ships out on the Asgard, an interstellar passenger liner and freighter. He is charged with cleaning the cats’ litter boxes and feeding the animals in the hold. His goal has become an unlikely daydream; but Max is in space.

The story follows Max’s adventures on board the ship and at the various ports of call during her voyage. Heinlein offers an intricate accounting of the Asgard’s chain of command, which forms a richly woven canvas for the narrative. The well-developed characters are the oils which fill the landscape with color and texture.  Heinlein is a grand master, and his literary brushstrokes bring the world of “Starman Jones” to life, inviting the reader to linger there and believe again in the power of hope.

This book was written in 1953. That a computer is part of the ship’s navigation system is impressive, given IBM shipped its first electronic computer during the time when Heinlein wrote this story. Much of the flight deck routine is dated and clearly unbelievable given the level of contemporary technological sophistication, but the heart and soul of this book are timeless. At its core, this is not a story about astrogating the galaxy. It is a coming-of-age novel about a young man who is learning to navigate through life. We all have been surprised by strangers, obstructed by roadblocks and overwhelmed by doubt. Like Max, we have all longed for a preferred future, aspiring to something that seems beyond our grasp.

“Starman Jones” is included among Robert A Heinlein’s juvenile works. I picked it off the shelf of my high school library in the late 1960s, and the tale sparked my interest in science fiction. Later, I would fall in love with another of his classics, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” We live in an age when the future of manned space flight is dimmed by budgetary constraints and society’s faltering sense of wonder. A book like “Starman Jones” can remind us of the implicit value of standing alone in a field and gazing up at the heavens, where we can sense our connection with the bigness of the cosmos and the possibilities that stir within us. Max must follow his bliss, and Heinlein invites us all to do the same.

Moore later…

Review: “Season of the Harvest” by Michael R. Hicks

Reading a novel by Michael R. Hicks is like taking a deep breath of fresh air. From the first sentence, his writing sings. I know at once that I am in the presence of a master storyteller whose writing draws me in and surrounds me with a magnetic plot and equally compelling characters. Hick’s use of description ignites the imagination and places the reader before a vivid landscape filled with texture and dramatic color. “Season of the Harvest” is best read with running shoes; the story, from beginning to end, crackles with action and suspense.

The novel begins when FBI agent Jack Dawson’s best friend is killed. His death is mysterious and horrific, lighting a dramatic match which results in a breathtaking literary inferno whose fury burns continuously to the last page. Dawson is swept up in an unexpected nightmare, beyond his imagining and chilling to the bone. He is caught between two hidden forces: persons unknown who seem to bear the trappings of UFO fanatics and genetic scientists, holding world-changing secrets behind the ironclad security of their research complex. The result is a terrifying game of “cat and mouse” that grips the reader in its claws and never lets go.

Jack Dawson becomes part of a courageous group of people who put their lives in the breach between an unimaginable future and humanity’s survival. Their battle spans the western hemisphere as they risk everything behind a curtain of anonymity. Michael R. Hicks draws his characters with exquisite detail and well researched finesse. There are no “minor” players in this entertaining thrill ride, just competent and dedicated men and women who do their duty with bravery befitting the best humanity can offer.

This novel is a delicious treat for those who like action and adventure. It is a science fiction novel that is at once contemporary and reminiscent of the great novels that have bejeweled the genre through the years. It is a cautionary tale that will haunt the reader, and invite us all to think twice about the simple decisions we make every day.

Moore later…

Review: “The Haunted Stars” by Edmond Hamilton

My brother John introduced me to this book when I was in high school. I don’t recall if he handed it to me, or I simply foraged it from his amazing book collection. In any case, I read it and was immediately captivated by the story’s stunning premise. “The Haunted Stars” is a gem of an old school science fiction story, written by Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977), a popular SF author in the mid 20th century. He wrote for pulp science fiction magazines and was known for his contributions to the Space Opera genre. “The Haunted Stars” came to him late in his career and is a timeless cautionary tale about the consequences of interplanetary space travel.

The United States sends astronauts to the Moon, who land and establish a lunar base in the Gassendi crater. To their surprise, they find the remnants of an alien base, carved into the side of a mountain. Moreover, there is evidence of a great conflict which breached the massive doors of the outpost. The astronauts find damaged machinery and a playback device which has preserved the spoken language of the Ur-men, the term given to the mysterious visitors from three hundred centuries in the past.

The momentous discovery is kept secret by the government and Doctor Robert Fairlie, professor of linguistics at Massachusetts University, is pressed into service to help decipher the Ur-men’s language. As the story unfolds, Fairlie discovers a link between the alien tongue and ancient Sumerian. Understanding the language unlocks the secrets of the advanced technology found in the shattered lunar fortress and makes it possible for humankind to journey beyond the solar system.

“The Haunted Stars” was originally published in 1960. Now, over fifty years later, the story still holds up as an entertaining and thought-provoking tale. It explores the friction between scientific inquiry and the use of technology for military ends. It raises profound questions about humanity’s behavior when confronted with an alien culture and whether “might makes right.”

It seems unlikely that we are the only intelligent species in the universe. Should we ever meet our interstellar counterparts, what will we do? Edmond Hamilton raises a mirror to our collective face and shows us a worrisome reflection. Perhaps we are the ones who will haunt the stars.

Moore later…

REVIEW: “The Trouble With Thieves”

“The Trouble With Thieves: Return to Averia” by Maurice X. Alvarez and Ande Li is an imaginative romp through the cities and floating mountains of Averia; a planet populated by sorcerers and birdlike creatures. The book is a cross between Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and Douglas Adam’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The rabbit hole and thumb are replaced with a portal cube that pierces the boundaries of physics and transports Kormèr Lezàl, the central character and thief, to any time and place in the universe.

The story begins with two jumps through the portal. The first takes Kormèr to a prison and into the company of Jeransy Bolsner, a young, independent minded miscreant. Soon after, a second jump delivers Kormèr and Jeransy to a classroom, where they meet Kormèr’s other traveling companion, Anndrew Lee, a girl in her junior year at St. Yves High School. Their journey to Averia begins when Cecil Murphy, a beleaguered prodigy, accidentally falls through the portal. The magic unfolds as the thief and his two young associates try to rescue the missing boy.

The authors do a great job creating a textured and believable world. Kormèr has been to Averia before (hence the Return to Averia), and has a storied history with Sylvestra, the beautiful chief of Police. From a hotel that seems to resemble a bird-cage, to delightful names inspired by bird vocalizations, the reader is immersed in an amazing magical world. Alveria is a place where the unexpected is commonplace and the usual leaves the reader wide-eyed and flabbergasted.  


Cecil, the lost boy, draws the attention of a sorcerer and is taken to Berdia, a city “devoted to the study of magic.” He is exposed to a vast library of spells and magic in the Hovel, the ancient tree-haven of the Hawk Sorcerers. Here, the primary conflict finds its birth as the boy genius gorges himself on magic spells and castings. His immaturity and immense intellect, combined with his new skills, form a perfect storm, threatening Kormèr and his friends.

There is a drumbeat in the story that strikes a steady cadence, marching toward the inevitable confrontation between the mysterious thief and the young savant. The authors work their literary magic as unexpected twists surprise and delight the reader. My favorite scene in the book is a poignant conversation between Kormèr and his friend Srrcheel, an old Hawk Sorcerer. It is an exchange that touches the reader’s heart and opens a new dimension, transcending magic and even the power of the portal that brought Kormèr and his friends to Averia. By making their character utter one word, the authors create a relational singularity that transports this story and its readers to a profound and wonderful place.

“The Trouble With Thieves: Return to Averia” leaves the reader wanting more. Kormèr Lezàl reminds me of another thief, the stranger who lurked in the great underground empire of the ZORK trilogy. He is a character that is bigger than any one story and more mysterious than any spell conjured by the Hawk Sorcerers. The writers drop clues to his origins, but there isn’t enough to reveal his true identity, or his destination.  We will have to wait for other installments in “The Trouble With Thieves” saga to quench our thirst for this deliciously enigmatic man.

Moore Later…

Get “The Trouble With Thieves” at Amazon

Creativity is a Fickle Mistress

When I was in college, I learned about “teachable moments.” I became aware of when I was like a fence post, impervious to new ideas and concepts and when I was like a sponge, ready to soak up everything. I was a hard working student, spending my time studying or working as a keypunch operator at the Cornell Campus Store. Most of the time, I muddled through my subjects, especially the ones that didn’t interest me. Nevertheless, there were specific times when a window opened, and I felt the cool breeze of knowledge flowing into my brain with almost no effort on my part. It was a lot like jump rope. I had to get in synch with the rope before I stepped over it. If I lost the rhythm, I got all tangled up. Learning to be in step with the teachable moments was the key to my academic success.

Creativity follows the same rules. She is a fickle mistress who arrives on her own terms, appearing like a puff of air on a hot day and disappearing just as quickly. I am sure you know what it’s like to sit and wait for creativity to show her pretty face. Without her, everything seems pointless and ineffectual. The words lay lifeless on the page. The plot is a tar pit, sucking you down into oblivion. The characters are comatose, the drama contrived and wooden.

When creativity sweeps into my study, everything opens up. The words come alive, dancing on the page. The plot clicks together like an intricate puzzle, each piece serving a precise purpose. My characters rise up and tell me exactly what to write. The drama becomes the natural extension of opposing personalities and motivations. These are the moments I live for as a writer. My slogging becomes singing.

Even so, creativity is fickle, and I never know when she will visit me. Sometimes she comes as I am rummaging through my desk drawer, wondering why I saved a piece of detritus from a long forgotten project. Other times she torments me, allowing me to wallow in a dull mire for hours. I have gained a new appreciation for the ancient mariners who found their grand ships trapped in the doldrums, windless wonders listing back and forth on a tranquil and meaningless sea.

I live in the hope of seeing Lady Creativity from time to time. It is her divine presence that makes me glad to be a storyteller. It is the promise of her return that keeps me from laying down my pen in dispair.

Moore later…

Many Motivations

Yesterday I watched my neighbor mow his lawn for the third time this week. My wife and I live in an older established neighborhood with modestly priced houses. There are no millionaires here and no world class yards. Even so, this neighbor of mine: he mows all the time, especially after my lawn has been cut. Did I say he is my immediate next door neighbor?


As I watched him mow, I began to think about the reasons for his serial mowing. Here are some of my ideas.


  1. He wants to put all his neighbors in their places, showing them how great he is.
  2. He is insecure about himself and is trying to win our acceptance.
  3. He has the visual acuity of a fighter pilot and notices when the grass is a fraction of an inch too long.
  4. He is a tester for a lawnmower manufacturer.
  5. He is in training for a lawn-mowing competition.
  6. He is obsessive/compulsive and can’t help himself.
  7. Mowing is one of the few things in life that bring him pleasure.
  8. He is unhappy with the people in his household and needs to get out of the house as much as possible.
  9. He was hypnotized and is suffering from some fiendish post-hypnotic suggestion.
  10. He is a frustrated (and rather unskilled) landscape architect.
  11. He can’t figure out how to turn off the lawnmower.
  12. The sound of the lawnmower brings him back to his idyllic childhood.



I really don’t know why my neighbor mows so much. Yesterday he was at it at 7am. Way too early, if you ask me.


What does my neighbor teach me? He helps me to remember that every action can have many motivations. Exploring the reasons why a character behaves in a certain way will help me   and craft better stories.


Moore later…

Recording Your Novel

I spent a lot of time recording my science fiction novel, Meridian’s Shadow. The finished recording is about fifteen hours and forty minutes in length. In case some of you are thinking of doing the same thing, here are a few tips.

First of all, I have been doing professional sound recording since the 1970′s. I have done much of it for television, although I have produced a number of demos for musicians and have mastered CDs for a number of concerts.

THE MICROPHONE
When you record your stories, use as good a microphone as you can afford. I use a Shure KSM-27. It’s a studio quality microphone that picks up every nuance of my voice. It is a large diaphragm condenser microphone, meaning that it is very sensitive and reproduces low frequencies (sounds) very well.

THE CABLE
It may sound crazy, but not all microphone cables are created equal. A professional microphone will have a three prong connector called an XLR connector. Don’t settled for a microphone that uses a mini-plug (like the plug on your iPod earbuds). Make sure you get a good quality microphone cable. I use what is called “Star-Quad” cable. It uses extra wires in the cable to reduce interference. This is especially helpful if you record near flourescent lighting.


THE RECORDING ENVIRONMENT
You will want to either sit at a table, or stand in front of a music stand. Be sure to pad the surface with a blanket or thick table cloth to eliminate sounds which bounce off the hard surface. Find the quietest room in your house. If you have air conditioning, or you record in the winter, listen for fan noise. Traffic, birds, dogs, etc. will ruin your recording. Make sure the microphone is isolated from vibrations. If you can, get a pop filter (one of those round, screen-like discs you see in American Idol studio shots). This will eliminate any “plosives” as you read. These are the blasts of air from “p’s” “b’s” and sibbilant “s’s.”


THE RECORDER
I used to record into my laptop. You can get a USB microphone preamp, like the M-Audio MobilePre. Make sure you get one that will accommodate XLR connectors. Beware of automatic features on your laptop. I have had recordings interrupted by software updates that restart the computer and sudden computing demands that have caused dropouts in my recordings.


THE SOFTWARE
There are a lot of different software packages that will work fine. I use Adobe Audition 2.0. It not only does a great job of recording the raw tracks, it has a ton of tools for editing as well. This is only one of many audio recording packages you can use. Some of them are shareware.


GO SOLIDSTATE
I finally invested in a TASCAM DR-100 solidstate recorder. It wasn’t too expensive and does an amazing job. It records directly to a memory card and has a USB port so I can download the raw files onto my computer for editing. The DR-100 also has XLR connectors and phantom power (a scheme for powering professional microphones) built in. This is a must, in my opinion.


FORMATS AND LEVELS
You will probably plan to release your book as an mp3 file, but beware. Most audiobook distributors will want your book as a .wav file recorded at a 44.1 MHz sampling rate. They prefer creating their own mp3 files and this is good, because they will make sure your audiobook sounds as good as possible. I record everything as a 44.1 MHz .wav file. It is CD quality which is great for voice and very nice for any music you might use as bumpers between chapters, etc.


In the old analog days, we tried to record everything as loud as possible in order to decrease the noise in the recording. This is not necessary with modern digital recordings. Be sure to set your recording levels so the loudest portions of the recording are at -12db or so. If you record too high a level, the recording will be ruined. Digital is unforgiving.


There are a lot more things to think about when you record your novel, but this is a good starting place. I will add more thoughts in future posts.

Moore later…

Who’s the Villain in Episodic Drama?

SPOILER ALERT! If you use the following scheme, it may ruin your viewing experience. I have figured out a way to identify the villain WITHOUT KNOWING THE PLOT! I know it sounds crazy, but it works most of the time.


My wife and I watch a lot of episodic TV Drama. We enjoy Castle, The Good Wife, The Mentalist and many more. I think we are in a “golden age” of primetime TV drama. There are a lot of good ones out there these days.

An Example:

Last night, we were watching the season finale of Bones. The opening scene was in a bowling alley. The pins weren’t resetting on lane 12. A woman yells to the guy behind the counter. The actor paying the man is Michael Irby of “The Unit.” I turn to my wife and say, “That’s the killer.” Guess what? He was.

Here’s my theory. You have an episodic TV drama with a known cast. You need a villain for the show. The show casts guest stars into the “throw away” character roles. Follow the money. The most well known guest star (the most expensive one) will almost always be the killer, or wrapped up in the dirty work. I have found it almost never fails. After all, why would they pay all that money for a star with an incidental role?

This works best with “who done it” shows with established casts. All bets are off for movies, since everyone is potentially a villain.

Try it. There are even great clues in the casting!

Moore later…

Wandering the Fields

I grew up on 24 acres of the finest weeds in Schuyler County, New York. It’s nestled in the heart of the Finger Lakes region. My parents were from Long Island. We weren’t country folk, but we landed at the corner of Sirrine and Stilwell Roads in 1957. Our nearest neighbor was a quarter mile away.


I spent a lot of time alone. Don’t feel sorry for me. I enjoyed it. (now you can feel sorry!) I would spend hours walking in the fields behind our house. The big propane tank was a submarine. Mowing the lawn was a battlefield fantasy. The hedgerows between fields were hiding places for snipers. My tree fort was a rocket ship. Our old barn was a labyrinth of mystery and intrigue. I had an imaginary friend. His name was Teko and he lived behind Volume Seven of the Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia in our living room. Those days were fantastic.


I wrote science fiction stories, too. I have two spiral bound notebooks filled with them. My claim to fame was submitting a story to Rod Serling (who lived in the Finger Lakes). The story was terrible, but he took the time to write me a long letter.


Some forty five years later, I have come full circle. I am no longer a child. My parent’s house is gone. But I am still wandering the fields of my imagination. I encounter amazing characters who teach me about courage and forgiveness. I discover impossible places where women and men struggle to survive. I see glimpses of myself in all of them. And I am intoxicated by the wonder that wraps its arms around me and takes me to new worlds.


Writing is a very hard thing. Some days the words flow. Some days are as empty as a blank sheet of paper. But the chance to imagine is worth it all.


Moore later…

Three Hits to Make a Sale

A number of moons ago, I took some marketing classes at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. One of the concepts that has stuck with me, and has offered some solace in my present incarnation as a self-published author, is the number of hits necessary to make a sale. For the sake of simplicity, I will assume my potential buyer (PB) is generally interested in my genre and is conversant in English (the language of my storytelling).


THE FIRST HIT

The first hit, or impression, that I make on a potential buyer will probably not result in a sale. It’s purpose is to make the PB aware that my book exists. That’s it. It may take many attempts on my part to make this first contact, but I need to keep my expectations in check. Success is measured in breaking through the awareness of my future customer, NOT making a sale.


THE SECOND HIT

The second hit plays a significant part in the sales process, but it is unlikely to result in a purchase. When (and if) I succeed in breaking through to my potential buyer a second time, the purpose of the impression is for the PB to remember my book. The act of remembering locks the book into their psyche. Once again, the measure of success is not a sale. It’s their realization that they have seen my book before.


THE THIRD HIT

The third hit is the hard part of the sale because it occurs on the potential buyer’s terms. The third encounter must coincide with the PB’s felt need for my book. I have to keep my message out there, hoping to be at the right place at the right time. When the PB is in the mood to buy a book, I must be there for the third hit. If their need and my message line up in that moment, I get a sale. The third hit can take hundreds of misses as I pitch my message in the interim between their remembering the book and when they are ready to make a purchase. This is not easy when there is no advertizing budget. The less money there is to advertise, the longer it takes to score the third hit (but don’t underestimate the power of social media for us micro-advertisers!).


Every day you and I are bombarded with advertising messages hurled at us in the hopes the product in question will be in front of us when we are ready to buy. Selling my self-published book is no different. It helps me to remember that not all hits will result in a sale. It reminds me that the process I have embarked upon is not for short-term gratifiers.


Moore later…


Here’s a hit for you – check out my new book MERIDIAN’S SHADOW!