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...

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.

Fierce Girls at War 4 First Contact by Mike Adams

The action really heats up in this fourth volume of the Fierce Girls series. The aliens are advancing and the Rangers are scrambling to slow them down long enough to let them evacuate huge sections of the human population from the warzone. Adams is great at showing how confusing the situation is—especially since the aliens took out the communications satellites. All those characters he’s been slowly introducing over the last three books are getting their moments in the spotlight and it looks quite probable that most of them are not going to survive.

 

While all of this is happening, the two people I think of as Adam’s principle heroes (Rick Cassidy and Molly Pitchford) have to figure out how to save the lives of 50 high school girls and a little more than a dozen adults who have crashed with their shuttle a thousand miles deep in hostile wilderness. This second storyline is genius, because it lets Adams develop two very different types of adventure stories. The first half of the book is all military problems, but this second half is in many ways far more concerning. I think any of us can imagine what it would be like to be trapped in the middle of the Amazon with a bunch of high school kids. Even well trained men and women would have a hard time surviving, and that’s the situation facing Rick and Molly. They are going to have to force these kids to grow up fast if any of them have a hope of getting out alive.

 

Can’t wait to get to the next novel to see how our two sets of heroes are going to solve their very different problems. 

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.

The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny

When I was in ninth grade, I joined The Science Fiction Book Club and got a five-book-for-a-dollar deal as part of the introductory offer. I picked The Chronicles of Amber because it had a cool cover and the two volume set counted as one book. At the time I had never heard of Roger Zelazny, but after racing through the two-volume set, I would try and get my hands on everything he’d ever written. Yet even as I devoured his other works, I kept coming back to Amber. I’ve read the books a dozen times, listened to the audio version narrated by Zelazny, himself, played the RPG both in person and in an extended email version, composed my own stories imagining what would come next, and finally happily bought the e-book versions so I can continue to enjoy them again and again. This is one of the greatest adventure stories in science fiction and fantasy and if you haven’t yet read it you should stop reading this review right now and go get yourself a copy.


Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Amber is really one novel broken into many parts, but unlike Tolkien’s masterpiece, Roger Zelazny took advantage of the publisher’s decision to present the work as five separate books to tell five different types of stories. Nine Princes in Amber is a Who Am I? tale. The Guns of Avalon is a straight adventure piece. The Sign of the Unicorn is about politics and intrigue. The Hand of Oberon is a story of manipulation. And finally The Courts of Chaos wraps up the adventure with a great journey which completes the hero’s growth while simultaneously providing an exciting and highly satisfying ending.


So take a visit to Amber, or, if you’ve already read it, return as if you’re seeking out an old friend. I’ve read it enough times to know that there’s something you’ve forgotten or missed that makes each reread make the whole work feel fresh.

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.