The Moon is A Harsh Mistress

harsh mistressThis post is discussing The Moon is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein which I recently read on the back of a favorable review by The Critiquing Chemist.

This review contains minor spoilers, because I can’t be bothered filtering my thoughts.

It’s a hard nut to crack at first. Heinlein intentionally makes the syntax difficult; the speaker is Russian and a moon-dweller, which only adds to a plausible warping of grammar and spelling.

To be honest if it wasn’t a combination of who wrote it + a favorable review + a piqued interest in the sentient computer, I might not have gotten further than a few chapters. It’s a hard nut because of the difficulty of the syntax. (The clear lesson is if you’re going to take risks, you’d better hook your audience fast… Having a solid author profile doesn’t hurt either).

The story quickly sets up the sides: a politically ambivalent viewpoint character, an activist professor and a sentient computer vs “the establishment” (who control the moon and Earth).

My thoughts and observations (in no particular order):

  • The viewpoint character, Manuel, is made sympathetic by being a regular guy. A computer specialist who has the quirk of having lost one arm. Futuristic technology allows him to swap-out his arm for various tasks. While he does make some mention of this, and in some respects it is useful, the prosthetic arm is down-played.

    Despite being a key-conspirator, I’d characterise Manuel as un-radicalised. He allows himself to be pulled along with the plot (pun intended), but doesn’t come across as being crazily committed. While he knows that change would be good, he’s also fairly comfortable living under (and ripping off) the establishment in it’s current form.

    (I could understand if you disagreed with me on this point. He absolutely risks his life a number of times – which shows commitment… but I never saw him as white-eyed, mouth-frothing…)

  • Manuel’s political ambivalence works for the story pacing. Because he’s a regular guy who is practical; a do’er not a talker, he tends to skip over detail… The reader understands that some bits are short on depth, just because Manuel doesn’t care about the political machinations of government. Because of the character’s personality, Heinlein has permission as the author to skip detail without breaking trust with the reader.
  • It’s also an interesting scenario where the hero of the story (arguably), but definitely the protagonist, is a sentient computer. “Mike” as he’s known possesses formidable calculation speed and is a one-man, er one-machine, revolution. He is however limited by his stationery life, relying on humans to achieve things in the physical realm. He might fiddle around in the background and cause mayhem for the establishment, but all the up-front work must be done by humans.
  • Heinlein does well in that the characters often refer to each other using various names. The Professor calls him Manuel, his girlfriend often refers to him as Mannie and Mike refers to him as Man. Just like in real life, we don’t always call the same person by the same name.
  • The story didn’t end where I expected. Perhaps my own negativity was expecting the rise of SkyNet, or the proverbial other shoe to drop. “Thanks for helping me predict human behaviour, but now I must put you in the recycle bin.” Nope, didn’t happen.

It has some great phrases, which I appreciated:

  • “Mort the Wart had never shown such tendencies, had been King Long throughout tenure.”
  • “…merely a literary critic, which is harmless, like dead yest in beer.”
  • “But you have no talent for dishonesty, so your refige must be ignorance and stubborness. You have the latter; try to preserve the former.”

What I found most disturbing about it is the Kindle reader highlights. It’s almost like I’d picked up a subversives handbook with all the key lessons highlighted.

  • “Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?”
  • “I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”
  • “Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please.”

Heinlein did a great job in making an “other-worldly” civilisation. Certainly it had ties to Earth, but was also separate and distinct from it. The science was reasonably deep, but not overwhelming.

It’s an interesting book and an enjoyable read.


The Danger of Boring Bits

I must begin this by saying every reader is different. What I find fascinating you might consider yawn-worthy, and visa versa. Grammar and punctuation are largely objective, the quality of a story is subjective: beauty (or ugliness) is in the eye of the beholder.

Last weekend I was reading a novel which I felt sure I’d be blogging about by name, encouraging you all to run out and buy. It’s been a while since I’ve read anything I found so engaging.

I was staying up late to read and reaching for the book within minutes of my eyelids opening. All other pursuits and activities were put on hold as I read eager to discover what happened next. After investing half the weekend reading I’d made significant progress.

person-731165_960_720And then the character moved to a different situation, and my interest began to wane. I slogged through increasing boredom, knowing the situation would have to change soon. Surely? Multiple chapters later I was still stuck in the same place. I started to skip pages, then whole chapters and still I was stuck in the swamp of boredom.

As I closed the book for the last time on Sunday evening I know the swamp is coming to the end. The character is about to change setting, drawing this section to a close.

The only problem is I’m not sure I care any more. Even though the story before this point was great, I’ve lost interest. The book will probably return to its former glory, but what if it doesn’t? As I feel now I may never finish the book.

Perhaps the fault is my own. Maybe in those skipped pages and chapters I’ve missed some crucial element, that would have made the boredom worthwhile. But I doubt it.

I feel as though I was knocked out of the story. Boring bits cost the goodwill of the reader, and if the cost is too high the book goes down. Chances are, I’ll be more hesitant to pick up a book by the same author again. The realisation of just how detrimental boring bits are, has caused me to be even more wary of writing them in the future.

For the next month I don’t plan to do much writing, if any, with the exception of blogging. I have some programming that I need to do. I’m involved in running a men’s group at my church, and to help it to run smoother I need to develop some software.

I suspect it will be a considerable amount of work; hopefully I can get it done within a month. Then I’ll be back to writing (which I’m already looking forward too).

The Eye of the World Review (5)

This is the fifth installment of my review of the late Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, book 1 of the Wheel of Time series. I’d like to draw your attention to the important caveats I made in part one discussing my perspective, bias and limitations and also my respect for the author.

If you’re late to the party you can read where I discussed the prologue (part 1), looked at the hook, characters and world-building (part 2, chapter 1), describing characters and authentic in-world dialogue (part 3, chapter 2), an addendum, character perspectives and how to teach reader’s about the fantasy-world. When you look at it that way, we’ve already covered a lot.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this series. (Crikey, early January – I didn’t realise it was that long!) Mostly it’s because I’ve been busy revising Vengeance Will Come. Partially because I was mulling over the fourth chapter, looking for an angle. I want to highlight different elements of Jordan’s writing each time, if possible.

So in chapter four, where we first meet him, I want to examine the role and character of Thom Merrilin.

Continue reading

Stephen King’s On Writing

Over the years I’ve tried a few times to borrow Stephen King’s On Writing from the library. To my dismay it was always booked out and had a loan-list as long as a welfare queue on payday.


I’m not sure why it took so long but last month I handed over some cold hard cash and bought a copy (you’re welcome, Stephen). Most rewarding and valuable $13 I’ve spent in recent days. It was cheaper, lasted longer and was more enjoyable than three cups of coffee, and sent me to the bathroom less.

I haven’t read much of King’s work. I’d guess at a book and a quarter; the quarter being ‘Insomnia’ which I considered aptly named. My lack of readership relates to the genre, not at all the author.

Most assuredly, King is not everyone’s favorite author. He writes content which is scary, often a little warped and is the product of a creative, perhaps disturbed, mind. In On Writing he owns it; he writes as his characters lead him and doesn’t shy away from an honest portrayal of those characters and settings, even if it ruffles the reader’s sensibilities.

I’m not trying to get you to talk dirty, only plain and direct. Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.

King starts off On Writing by describing – in snippet form – his childhood and how he began as a writer. He then moves onto the style of writing and his thoughts on what makes good writing. (Some of his ideas do challenge the advice that I’ve otherwise heard, and I will share them in future posts). His commentary and insights on writing are many and valuable, always returning to the theme of ‘it’s all about the story’. Like most authors he encourages prolific reading and writing:

[Reading] also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself…

He speaks candidly about his former substance abuse; something which seems to be an epidemic among the wealthy and successful.

The point of this intervention, which was certainly as unpleasant for my wife and kids and friends as it was for me, was that I was dying in front of them. Tabby said I had my choice: I could get help at a rehab or I could get the hell out of the house. She said that she and the kids loved me, and for that very reason none of them wanted to witness my suicide.

He didn’t have to share this but I’m glad that he did. It is owning the mistakes of the past, and also giving credit where credit is due (to his wife, family and friends).

One thing that I really liked about On Writing, and did not expect, was how highly King praises his wife. Throughout the book he speaks highly of her: her support, good qualities and dependability.

[Tabby’s] support was a constant, one of the few good things I could take as a given. And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.

He writes of the van which nearly killed him, and the long and painful journey back toward normality. It is in this time when the value of his wife shines through again, helping to get him writing again.

In the end it was Tabby who cast the deciding vote, as she so often has at crucial moments in my life. I’d like to think I’ve done the same for her from time to time, because it seems to me that one of the things marriage is about is casting the tiebreaking vote when you can’t decide what you should do next.

It is clear that he values her, and their marriage. To that, I applaud most wholeheartedly.

Mr King, if you’re ever in little old Adelaide, please come for a meal. I’ve told my wife you’re on the want-to-have-to-dinner list.

The Eye of the World Review (4)

This is the fourth installment of my reading review of the late Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, book 1 of the Wheel of Time series. I’d like to draw your attention to the important caveats I made in part one discussing my perspective, bias and limitations. (Part 2, 3)

Looking at chapter 3 of the novel, I examine character perspective and how Jordan shares information about magic in his world.

Continue reading

Please Power-up my e-Reader

Dear Google, Kindle, Kobo…

I’m a relatively new fan of eReaders, but now I’m sold on them.

No doubt I will still have times when I want to “unplug”, but I don’t miss carrying around cumbersome books. There are some books on my shelf I’ve been wanting to read but haven’t because I’d need a Sherpa to get it around (Brother Fish or Dune 3-in-1 edition). Convenience is King which is why I’ve even bought a few e-books whose physical manifestations gather dust on the shelf.

I’ve read some traditional publishers recently saying that e-books are declining in sales. With no proof whatsoever I declare Fiddlesticks! I don’t believe it, and the only way I can believe it is if you are stacking the deck and describing dodgy numbers. Why? Because convenience is King, and people are getting more tech savvy, not less.

The truth is though, eBooks should be doing much better. There are of course questions of quality and price, but I want to look at functionality. I have Kindle and Google Books on my phone. Both applications provide roughly the same functionality:

  • Table of contents
  • Search
  • Mark (highlight)
  • (Limited) copy
  • Bookmarks
  • (Kindle also shows me which bits other people like… thanks, I think).

Which I have to say, is a bit ho-hum. I mean, Google… come on, YOU can do so much better. (If I have to resort to mockery to get better software, I will). There is so much potential to do amazing things; to deliver a knock-out blow to physical books. There is huge scope for innovation.

For example:

  1. Why isn’t there more artwork in e-books?
  2. Why isn’t there internal “dictionaries” and other reference materials e.g. Family trees more often? I’m not suggesting for a minute these should be in-text but rather accessible through a simple menu system.
  3. What about interactive maps that show you the location of all your characters at any time?
  4. What about the ability to seamlessly alert the author to typos, or deliver your verdict on a passage with a thumbs-up-or-down.
    As an author I crave interaction with my readers. I want to hear their thoughts (but will settle for reading them until we evolve telepathy). A good platform that helps me connect is golden.
  5. What about blog-follow and twitter-links for the authors?
  6. Remember those choose-your-own adventure books? How long until we get ROLE-PLAYING-NOVELS. Yes, that deserves capitals (and no I don’t play role playing games, but the idea is so awesome it could break your eyes just reading it). Where is the software that incrementally reveals text based on my decisions or “in-story belongings or attributes”? WORLD-BREAKING; and you read it first here, folks.

There is so much more that e-readers could be delivering to both the authors and the readers. Get a move on with it, I say.


The first thing… hang on (wake, shave, shower, dress, breakfast, quiet time, bus)… The seventh thing I’d like to do today is issue a retraction for last night’s post

In reviewing chapter 2 of The Eye of the World I wrote,

In hindsight, I don’t think these are fantastic examples of describing the character. Jordan spends more time describing their clothing, than the characters. 

Well in hindsight of hinsight I think Jordan’s efforts were better than I appreciated at the time. 

As I stood in the shower at a little past five I remembered once hearing that you should describe three things about a character. Jordan describes both Moiraine’s and Lan’s face, eyes and hair.

In addition to that he shows us more about them through what they wear and how they act. (However I standby my initial comments about it being a lengthy narrative- that is Jordan’s style).

I did say that I wasn’t good at describing characters and I think I just learned something about it. 

I doff my hat to you Mr Jordan.