Review: Sam Gunn Omnibus, Ben Bova (2007)

I read this book years ago, and then I read it again, and again, and just recently… you guessed it, again! Sam Gunn Unlimited is the culminated tales of a 21st Century scoundrel, pioneer, visionary, conman, lothario, hero and villain, the man who single handedly (with a lot of help from a lot of people.. umm…) dragged mankind kicking and screaming from Earth and out into the Solar System, and maybe beyond?

Sam Gunn is the focus oh the book, but he’s not the protagonist, the story really follows a news reporter born and raised on the moon as she learns about the mysterious loved and loathed figure of a man, a former astronaut, operator of the first space hotel, the man who took commercial passengers into orbit for the first time, a cruise liner captain sailing the outer belt for asteroids, this larger than life figure, who was really short, a man who chased and was chased by women in amazing adventures.

See, what I just did there is what most of the characters in the book do, allow Sam Gunn to overshadow everything. In fact, Jade is a fascinating character in her own route, an outsider in a nation of outsiders, the first space orphan, she can never go to Earth due to a genetic condition, but through force of will, she jumps careers from manual labour on the moon’s surface to that of a reporter, giving her the resources, (with some corporate wranglings), to really dig into Sam Gunn and get people to tell her their stories of the greatest reprobate in the Solar system.

Jade’s story sets up the framing device Sam Gunn’s story, she interviews people and then the story switches to those people’s narratives, as unreliable a narrator as you could possibly want, making each story seem personal, but sometimes inconsistent. Perspective is everything, and it’s fascinating.

I mentioned that Sam Gunn even in absence, tends to overshadow everyone, but as with Jade that doesn’t mean the characters, the story tellers, Jade’s supporters and antagonists, they’re nearly all rich, you learn their histories, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, and their shames.

Sam Gunn’s life itself, is a story of an entrepeneur trying to make it rich on the new frontier, every step of the way he’s trying to push that frontier a bit further out so that he can net the profits while everyone else plays it safe and follows in his work. As is a common theme in Ben Bova’s stories, the corporations are the main antagonist in the story, they’re constantly trying to trick, cheat, or outright threaten our eponymous hero, but don’t worry Sam isn’t really a hero, as he’s more than happy to try and trick, cheat, and threaten them.

I love the scope of this book, it covers the preternaturally long life of Sam Gunn from his early days in NASA, until it catches up to the stories’ being told about him by Jade. There’s some fascinating discussions on the legal, ethical, and logistics of future space travel and colonisation. It has a fantastic finish, which leaves you wanting more from the cast of characters that come together at the end.

Literally the only thing I would change about this magical collection of stories is to embed more into the Grand Tour series, however as history is in places significantly different, and I think (off the top of my head), only one characters crosses over into Sam Gunn’s universe, I can see why it’s an independent story.

And one last note to add, and I’ll preface by saying this isn’t paid advertising, my most recent go through with Sam Gunn I did via Audible, where they had a tremendous multi-cast recording, so as you broke off into each of the different narrators it was a different voice, which really embedded the feel of the novel in a way single-voice recordings ever could. Really made you consider the biases, and the untrustworthy elements of the narrator. So I’d highly recommend if you want to experience Sam Gunn yourself, and you don’t have the time to sit down and read the whole thing, check out the Audible version. (Also it’s the Omnibus version, I previously only had the Sam Gunn Unlimited, which didn’t have the last few stories.. so that was a pleasant surprise to find out there was more to the story).

Story Telling… I Admire: Babylon 5

I’ve already mentioned how much I admire Dune, and aspire to that level of writing, so since I’m crap at reviewing, we’ll talk about what I admire about my favourites. Another one my all time favourites series, this time  a TV one, is Babylon 5, created by J. Michael Straczynski back in the 90’s.

So let’s talk about that.

A Bit of History (for those don’t remember the 90’s… which is increasingly more and more adults – darn time!)

Back in the 90’s, and in decades before that, the majority of television shows (though not all by far), were episodic, with arcs focused on that episode, and you could probably air many episodes out of order with little to no effect on the stories being told. Most of Star Trek is like this, and it’s fine – it’s what we expected, nay what we thought we wanted.

However J. Michael Straczynski while in the shower, combined two story ideas he’d been playing with a big space opera and a story taking place aboard a dinky little space station. The big space opera would be too big, and too expensive to make in a TV show, while an episodic TV show set aboard a space station wouldn’t have much life, just a few seasons. His eureka moment in the shower was that in combining the two, you could have a five year story that saw a universe at war, and peace, have politics and a consequences play out, and punctuate some action and fallout on the station to contextualise the space opera, without having to invest too significant parts of the budget for space battles.

They were doing this in the early days of the CGI revolution, now everyone with a some 3d program, and a video editing suite can put together a fleet on fleet battle, in HD or even 4k, with some time and patience.

Side note: I actually wonder if they could make Babylon 5 these days, the restrictions of budget and technology helped to create something amazing, but there aren’t the same limiting factors, you can do whole series in front of blue screens without much need for a set, you don’t need expensive physical models, and people are already trying to make CGI people a thing, so you might not need pricey actors either.

So, what is Babylon 5?

So back to the idea – a small contained space, operating as a space UN of sorts. It ties together smaller character driven stories and a grand epic. The factions have unique motivations to them which drive them, hurt them, and so on, and actions for against a faction has consequences for those factions and the over arcing plot.

I’m trying not to get into spoilers, but you have plots involving a character or characters place and interaction with their own state, you have law and order plots, including local (on the station), internal (with the one of the nations of the galaxy), and international, (with multiple nations involved), you have siege and attack plots, Revolutions, enslavement, spies, survivor stories, medical dramas, but also a sense of magical plots, magical tests and quests, mystical items, after life stuff, and I’m not so be with this yet, then you have interpersonal plots with romance, buddy cops, noir detectives, comedies, arguments and misunderstandings. Basically it has everything.

“But!” I hear you shoot, Star Trek has all of that – and you’re right, but except on DS9, it didn’t add to anything it was just adventure of the week.

Now DS9 was doing something similar, but it didn’t feel as in depth, it was more focused, where as Babylon 5 went in a hundred, but coherent, didn’t directions but brought it back together. What DS9 did do though was better communicate the world was ending and the war stories were just more intense, that’s where the budget differences came in I think. Babylon 5 was more cohesive, and the building blocks all lead to how it ends (taking season 4, not 5 in fairness).

So What Is It I Admire, And Can Learn

So ultimately what I admire is the ability to balance personal and grander story telling. Now it is probably easier in hundreds of 45 minute episodes than writing a novel, but when you look at each series, (1 through 4 anyway), they are beautifully balanced.

Where I fail is I get lost in scenes, specifically dialogue ones, I get stuck in circles, the dialogue in Babylon 5 is what carries the story, and it’s not as punchy as a Sorkin series, but still all the important dialogue is focused, and delivers three things each time, the characters personal feelings and motivations, exposition to explain the current situation, and the plan – what actions do the characters intend to do.

I like that, and I think ultimately that’s what I want to learn, and it doesn’t matter if it’s on screen or on a page I think it’s a good way to do dialogue. It will definitely help to have three things before writing dialogue scenes:

  • History
  • Motivation
  • Plan

Doesn’t matter what the plan is, it’s not the plot of the story, it’s just what the characters intend – actually that’s not true, it does matter, because for the dialogue to be important, whatever the characters decide will drive the plot, it’s just a matter of whether they succeed in their intentions, or are denied by another factor.

Also just to mention, as with Dune, I could go through a lot more, but I wanted to pick an element that is of particular interest to me right now.

Dune – A Tour De Force in Science Fiction

So my previous post was meant to go very differently, it was meant to go very differently, but I decided to focus on the conversion of stories across different mediums. So now we’re back again, and I’m going to see if I can say something intelligent and worthwhile about Dune. I honestly don’t think I can do it justice, but good news it’s my blog, and JL has thoughts to share in spades.

Be warned, spoilers ahead – I’ll make sure there’s a cut in before we get to anything too spoilery.

So…. Dune, the book series by Hugo and Nebula award winning Frank Herbert (Franklin Patrick Herbert Jr.), and it’s easily one of my favourites – I dare say the first book Dune is probably my favourite piece of fiction of all time,.

I still remember my dad giving me the book, I’d been ill, again I think (my memory isn’t always as reliable as I’d like it to be, unlike the Kwisatz Haderach in the story itself), I must have been eleven at the time. At eleven how much of it I could follow is probably debatable, but it’s such a rich story and world that as I grew my understanding and appreciation of it grew with me.

Without going into spoilers, Dune is a series book about the distant future of humanity as it’s spread among the stars. It features themes of survival, power, religion, ecology, economy and evolution, and collectively is a treatise on the human condition as interfaces with the world.

It’s probably the daddy of the epic science fiction, the first book being one of George Lucas’ inspirations for Star Wars. Before it, the idea of so deep a sci-fi story was  rarity. It’s scope is so massive, dealing with from tens of thousands of years into humanity’s future, and the series covers thousands of years from that point onward. The series covers a span of time nearly as great as recorded history today, and the time before the series begins isn’t just dead time, it has a whole back story that you learn as you read through, with many of the functions of future humanity coming about in the thousands of years preceding the books.

Unlike Star Wars, they’re not action orientated – there is some satisfying action in them, but it’s very tactical based, and fleeting, just to support the movement of the story. In fact, overall they’re some of the most dialogue laden stories out there.

So, in short if you like a detailed grand epic science fiction… there’s an awful lot to love. And if you want to go further than the original series Frank Herbert’s son Brian and Kevin J Anderson (who is a major contributor to the Star Wars universe), they’re a lot cleaner writing so easier to read, and some elements maybe didn’t need an explanation, but they do bring the whole thing together at the end and finish of the story in a way Frank Herbert wasn’t able to do before his death, and they do add to the grand richness of the universe created in Dune.

So much to love, the books can be hard to read at times, and you find yourself trying to hold on to factoids, stories,  and ideas as you’ll need them later for reference when something else happens. They’re not a casual reads, but well worth your time.

So that’s a general look at Dune… from here there may be spoilers – somethings I have in my mind to say just can’t avoid it. If you’ve not read the books  go check them out, Frank Herbert’s original series are also all available on Audible if you want an easier time (well read by Simon Vance, Euan Morton,  Orlaigh Cassidy and several others bring the books to life, and they’re unabridged.

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Daily Flash Fiction Challenge 9: Light Speed

This is the eighth in a series of 365 Flash Fiction stories I’m writing from 2nd December 2012 until the 1st December 2013. It’s intent is to keep me writing throughout the year, and not just in November. you can find out more about the challenge here.

Light Speed, by Jonathan L. Lawrence, 10th December 2012

Word count: 1,000

Theme: random acts of violence, crazy, anthropomorphic animals, revenge

The story:

Captain Twigg stood up from his chair, faced the camera’s squarely and held out his hand.

“Next stop…” he held a pause for longer than was comfortable, “Alpha Centauri.”

It was all horribly contrived to Second Lieutenant Carlisle, who was sat two meters away, facing away from the cameras, gladly. He considered it an honour to be on board human kind’s first manned faster than light ship, but he also knew far too much about the cluster fuck this mission had already become. For now he must focus on the mission, those were his orders.

Without skipping a beat he reported on time, “Vector eighteen, three hundred kilometres per second.”

“Hmm…” the captain sat back in his chair thoughtfully, “We need to go faster.”

“Increase velocity, thrusters to maximum, helm,” first lieutenant Jordan Sinclair ordered.

“We’re on schedule,” the Second Lieutenant pointed out, wary not only of the mission parameters that called for no heroics in testing the new engines, but also the thought of being stranded where no one could come rescue them.

“We’re going beyond human knowledge, Second Lieutenant,” the Captain stressed the Lieutenant’s rank, “The people of Earth aren’t looking for safety, they want to see us fly high. The collective breaths of an entire world are holding on to see what we can do, let’s not let them suffocate,” all the time looking at the camera. Second Lieutenant Carlisle realised this would go in his blog tonight, an tale of the Captain’s bravery in the face of the cowardice of his underling.

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