The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack

Subtitle

Reviews and More

Hi! And thanks for continuing to hang out in my imagination. This page is a diverse collection of reviews and strange facts about me. Take a moment to look around. I hope you enjoy your visit.

What Have I Read This Month?

Here's a smattering of what I've read or watched in the past few weeks...

Whipping Star by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert excels at the creation of truly alien, incomprehensible cultures, and it is this problem of communication that is the heart of the superb novel, Whipping Star. In the universe of the future multiple alien species live together in a government called the ConSentiency. For several decades, the peoples of the ConSentiency have taken advantage of advanced technology provided to them by a new race called the Caleban. The Caleban are almost impossible to understand, but they have a jump door technology that permits people to instantaneously move anywhere in the universe. At the start of the novel, the Calebans are disappearing from the universe and with each new disappearance millions of beings are going insane or dying. Very quickly, the protagonist Jorj X. McKie, learns that the disappearances and deaths are connected, and if the last Caleban in the universe disappears or dies (a phrase the Caleban refers to as “ultimate discontinuity”) all people (99% of the ConSentiency) who have used a jump door will also die.


So the stakes could not be higher in Whipping Star as McKie tries to determine what could threaten the existence of a being with cosmic power. The answer is totally perplexing, but is also the key to the communication problems which make this book the masterpiece it is. The Caleban is being murdered by the richest woman in the ConSentiency who has an obsession with flogging people, but has had her psyche treated so that she can’t bear the thought of causing suffering. Her answer was to form a contract with a Caleban—a sort of energy creature—and whip her. But why a primitive leather bullwhip could threaten the existence of the most powerful creature in the universe…well that’s the heart of the story.


This is a wonderful novel by a master of the science fiction field.

Fierce Girls at War by Mike Adams

Mike Adams’ Fierce Girls at War is one of the best military SF series I’ve ever read. It holds its own with top series like David Weber’s Honor Harrington and John Ringo’s Troy Rising. Stylistically, it’s a mix of serious infantry action and behind the behind the scenes know how of a W.E.B. Griffin novel. The result is an often gritty, always fascinating, exploration of earth’s first colony and its run in with a peculiar alien species called the Rift.


In addition to the tight military action, politics plays a very important role in this series, but not the traditional high level presidential-style politics. In the Earth of the future, terrorism continues to be a significant problem and much of the anger of the terrorists is focused on the growing interstellar economy. Adams deftly uses this movement not only to establish the foundation of his series, but to add plausible tension at every level of the interstellar enterprise.


Another of the strengths of the series is the multiple view points from which the reader gets to explore Earth’s first interstellar colony. Not only are their multiple POVs in the colony of New Hope, but Adams gets the reader into the nitty-gritty of life on a starship as the great ships transit the vastness of space. There is also usually a couple of chapters in each book grounded in the cast members still located on earth.


The cast is the greatest strength of the novel. Adams opens the series by introducing three generations of the O’Brien family. The matriarch, Kelly O’Brien, is in charge of firearms training for the NYC Police Department. Her children are almost preternaturally gifted marksmen, the beneficiaries of a training technique invented by their deceased father. Rick O’Brien and Sergeant Molly Bennett quickly run afoul of the Hassan Gul terrorist organization by killing several of the chief terrorist’s sons and are eventually forced to leave the planet to keep from being assassinated. From this very exciting beginning the whole series unfolds.


At New Hope Colony, Rick and Molly carve out a place of influence for themselves in the colonial logistics office while the alien Rift begin taking covert steps to reclaim the planet they feel the humans have stolen from them. The Rift are an advanced, economically focused, alien species with very little experience of war. They do their fighting with primitive mercenaries who are physically durable and are indiscriminate carnivores. Over the early books of the series, the reader watches the colony and an approaching starship begin to pick up hints that something is wrong, but not quite putting the facts together before the invasion begins in earnest.


From this moment forward, the series moves into overdrive, as the invasion advances, the colony struggles to respond, and Rick and Molly, together with a group of some fifty high school girls, find themselves marooned in the dangerous back country of New Hope Colony, hundreds of miles from civilization and unable to contact the colonial authorities for help. With their communications satellites rendered inoperative, the colony can’t even communicate with the starships slowly making their way in system. The already high tension continues to ratchet up as the war continues.


If you’re looking for a well-thought-out military sf series with plenty of action, you should take a look at Fierce Girls at War. For more information on the series, take a look at Mike Adams web site at https://fiercegirlsatwar.com.

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

I first read this Heinlein novel in the ninth grade and it remains my absolute favorite of his many books. It’s the story of a down on his luck actor who gets roped into impersonating John Joseph Bonforte, the best known politician in the solar system. Bonforte has been kidnapped and as a result is about to miss his adoption into a Martian nest (the first human to be so honored). This would be considered a great impropriety by the Martians and at the very least would drastically set back human-Martian relations.


The problem? Lorenzo hates Martians and just about everything that Bonforte and his Expansionist Party stands for. But he sticks to the job because he’s a professional with an exceedingly high opinion of himself, and because as the story continues, he grows to despise the dirty tactics of the men working to destroy Bonforte.

Heinlein builds tension not only through the impersonations, but through the behind the scenes personality clashes among Bonforte’s staff. What makes this novel amazing is how Heinlein uses Lorenzo’s basic ignorance in regard to politics and his instinctive prejudice against the non-human races to let him gradually impart his own feelings on the importance of universal civil rights. As Lorenzo learns more and more about Bonforte in order to perform what is always supposed to be just one more impersonation, he grows, becoming far less self-centered and truly respectful of the man he’s had to become.


The ending scenes of this novel are extraordinary as Heinlein brings our hero to the most important decision of his life—one we can sympathize with and pray we’d have the strength to do as Lorenzo did. It’s no wonder that this book won the Hugo.


To a modern audience, this book feels somewhat dated—not just in Heinlein’s imagining of the technology of the future, but in his understanding of the role women could play in his future world. I’m sure that when Heinlein made Bonforte’s female secretary a member of the Grand Assembly he thought that he was demonstrating the capabilities of women, but by modern standards his effort falls flat. Judged by his time, however, it is another example of his remarkable vision. In the end this book stands or falls on his development of the character of Lorenzo, and in my opinion, it not only stands, it jumps towards the heavens.

Blood Prism by E.E. King


This is a beautifully written book with an unusual, heavily descriptive, almost poetic style. There’s not a lot of dialogue and that troubled me a little at first, but the short chapters quickly pulled me in to the parallel lives of Neal and Aidan from their extreme youth to the end of the novel. Neal brings hope and happiness into people’s lives while Aidan brings only misery, fear and despair—although not usually through any overt acts of his own. It amazes me that King somehow succeeded in making a character whom no one likes and whom everyone is uncomfortable around…charming in his own sad way.


This book is inundated in what I would call the “casual supernatural”. It’s all about atmosphere instead of plot. The Fates of Greek mythology overtly manipulate every aspect of the book. In addition, supernatural creatures—vampires, werewolves, minor gods, ghosts—flitter through most of the pages, as does small, potent, but generally unconscious magic. I’d say these supernatural elements drive the plot, but I’m not sure this book has a plot. It certainly doesn’t need one. It’s like a gorgeous intricate painting of a series of lives—endlessly fascinating, telling small stories, but only creating a larger picture in retrospect once the reader has finished. Blood Prism is definitely worth your time.

Judgement's Tale: The Complete Omnibus by William L. Hahn


This is a towering work of fiction that reads much better as a complete work than it does in smaller installments. It’s the Tolkienesque story of the Lands of Hope—at peace for millennia—on the cusp of a renewal of their great war with the forces of Despair. The fulcrum upon which this story is built is Solemn Judgement, a fascinating young man of deep convictions whose outsider status permits him to see the weaknesses in the Lands of Hope that its long term inhabitants are blind to. That blindness is the crack that the forces of Despair intend to exploit to reignite the war and Solemn Judgement is the best “hope” to stop that from happening. Yet Solemn is a flawed hero as well and far from perfect which makes his efforts endlessly fascinating.


I read this omnibus because I had encountered Solemn Judgement in Hahn’s Shards of Light series and absolutely loved the enigmatic character. But there are many more intriguing characters in this story—a prince struggling to keep to the path of honor and avoid a senseless war, a band of adventurers seeking their fortune through the extermination of evil, and an intriguing knight whose religious devotions mask a serious problem in the city of Conar. This is an impressive work of fantasy that deserves to be taken alongside the great tales of Donaldson and Jordan. You won’t regret reading it.

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars reads as a pretty straight forward adventure piece. Earthman John Carter finds himself on the planet Mars, meets the woman of his dreams, and moves the Martian equivalent of heaven and earth to rescue her from a horrible fate. Along the way there are loyal and heroic friends, terrifying monsters and epic fights and battles. When you sum it up like this, the novel doesn’t sound that ground breaking, and yet it has inspired the dreams of generations of readers and many of those readers (such as Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jack Vance) grew up to inspire even more readers of all ages.


This book is also important to western culture in general. First off, it’s inspired two movies, numerous comic books, and an amazing amount of both fan fiction and authorized sequels by ERB’s estate. It’s also an important piece of literature in its own right as it (and its many sequels) popularized the science fiction subgenre called the Planetary Romance.


Planetary Romance is not a term that’s used a lot today, but anyone who’s seen Avatar knows exactly what this subgenre is all about. The hero (or heroine) encounters adventure on a foreign planet and moves heaven and earth because of love. Another prominent modern example is the Planet Hulk and World War Hulk comic series. Classic examples can be seen in Buck Rogers, Adam Strange, Dune, Pern, the World of Tiers, Darkover, and the Hainish Cycle.


So how does A Princess of Mars stack up today? In my opinion it’s one of ERB’s absolutely best works. He will later be accused of being formulaic in his prose, but that charge cannot be brought to bear against this work because it’s the first. What we have instead is a pretty straight forward adventure story with awesome heroes in the form of John Carter and Tars Tarkas, one of the best pets in the history of fiction, and the titular heroine who—while not a fully formed modern heroine—breaks early twentieth century gender expectations both as a stateswoman and as a selfless defender both of John Carter and her nation, Helium.

Legion of the Undead by Michael Whitehead

This novel starts with a bite in the very first chapter and the feeding frenzy continues to the end of the book. A curse of zombies is released in Germania and very quickly threatens the whole Roman Empire. In many ways, this is typical zombie fare—a single source point of infection is vectoring across the planet—but it just doesn’t feel typical when you’re watching Roman legionnaires respond to the threat. The whole novel feels highly authentic as the legions struggle to come to grips with the walking dead. Then things get even more interesting as politics intersects the zombie crisis to make saving civilization—no, saving all of humanity—even more difficult. Strong and memorable characters that the author is not afraid to kill populate an unusual apocalyptic tale. My one serious complaint with the novel is the large number of typographical errors. I expect a few such errors in every book—especially self-published ones—but this novel was riddled with them to the extent that it seriously distracted me from the action.

Free Read - A Delicate Situation

In 2004 after I successfully defended my PhD dissertation, I decided it was time to get serious about my fiction and try to get something published. In January of the next year, I stumbled across a flash fiction contest at Chizine asking for stories dealing with memory, or maybe it was lost memories. (Ironically enough, I can't remember precisely which it was.) I knew nothing about Chizine, but wrote the following 500 word story and submitted it anyway. Since Chizine focuses on very dark horror, they weren't interested in this piece, but I've always liked it anyway. You can read it here.

A Moment of Grateful Recognition

Finally, I'd like to take a few moments to recognize some of the very important people in my life who inspire me and who challenge me to improve my craft.

My wife, Michelle, is the audience I most want to please. From the time we first started dating, she would sit with me while I read my stories to her, and there is no greater motivation than the opportunity to share the work of my heart with the woman I love. Now she's reading my Pandora stories to my son, Michael, and listening to them share my writing is an incredible thrill which simply cannot be equaled any other way.

My most loyal reader and friend of more than twenty-years is Scott Wight. Scott doesn't write himself but he runs fabulous roleplaying games which have honed his skills as a teller of tales. Every one of my stories has been improved by Scott's patient, thoughtful comments. He sees stuff that isn't really ready to be read yet, and not only doesn't complain, he always encourages me to send him more.

Marc Hawkins co-wrote the first two books of the forthcoming Among Us series with me, and the first novel in a new science fiction series, Fissures (also forthcoming). We've been friends since our Freshman year in college when he also started reading my work. Hawk has keen insight into characters and plots which he generously shares and, like Scott, I'm very lucky to have him as a friend and reader.

I learned more about writing from Raymond Hill than any other person. Ray is an extremely harsh critic, but after you realize he's not telling you to throw away your computer and not touch a keyboard ever again, you realize that he's almost always one hundred percent right in his observations. Ray taught me about believing in my imaginary worlds and how to bring the environment to life through the five senses. And I'm still waiting on your novel, Ray! I'm looking forward to reading a great book and sharing some heart felt comments in return.

Finally, I would like to thank Michael McQuillen. Mike and I were friends from the sixth grade until his death on November 4, 1994. We were best friends as kids getting together regularly to hang out, or go backpacking with the Boy Scouts, or play Dungeons and Dragons. But even though we drifted in college, we kept in touch and I sent him all of my stories. After his death when I was visiting his mother, she handed me a thick oversized manilla envelope with all of my stories in them. They weren't crisp anymore. The pages were curled and crumpled as if Mike had read them many times--not just the single reading you owe a friend when they share a work of their heart with you. It was a sign from above that someone out there enjoyed my craft as much as I did and I needed to continue pursuing it. So thanks, Mike, I'd like to think you're still reading my works up in heaven.