Indie Review: Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu

I love dinosaurs.

I wouldn’t consider palaeontology a hobby, and I can’t say I do a lot of research into it–but still, dinosaurs are cool. I love the child-like wonder that comes with them, and the sheer majesty of these enormous creatures.
I’m also fascinated by ants. They have an incredibly complex social structure, have developed a sort of culture, and even a rudimentary “collective intelligence.” Remarkable creatures–so when I came across Of Ants and Dinosaurs by Cixin Liu, a story that threw ants and dinosaurs into a symbiotic relationship in a fantasy/science fiction tale, I couldn’t say no. Nor was I disappointed.

The very premise of this novella–a society of ants and dinosaurs that cooperate symbiotically–was enough for me to put down the $0.97 for it. I expected a light hearted story, a fanciful tale of imagination like something out of Jules Verne. It is that, but the story is also a succinct allegory of cooperation, trust, and suspicion. It would present well to young adult readers, but the message works just as well for adults.
The story begins with a tyrannosaur enjoying lunch…until he gets a blob of meat stuck in his teeth. A colony of ants sees the problem and helps him dislodge it–they actually stream into his mouth to pick it apart while the dinosaur holds his lip back with a claw, how awesome is that?–setting the foundation of an alliance. Over the centuries, this partnership grows as both societies thrive, fitting into their own niches. Ants are masters of micro-circuitry, creating a technological infrastructure the dinosaurs couldn’t hope to because of their size. Meanwhile, the terrible lizards build huge machines of travel and industry, alongside a complicated political structure. The ants have fine motor skills and hard science; the dinosaurs have imagination and ambition. Held apart, neither would get very far, but put together they are more than the sum of their parts.
That in itself would make for a nice story about the value in sharing skills, but it’s when their alliance breaks down that we get some real meaning and conflict. There’s a nice contrast between two dinosaur societies as they develop nuclear weapons (and something even more powerful), causing an arms race and cold war that could only end in mutually assured destruction. But this is only a reflection of the real conflict, as the ants and dinosaurs do the same to each other.

It becomes a cautionary tale, begging the question of how far one should blindly trust, and when it’s appropriate to act in your own best interests. As presented, there are no easy answers. Both races seem doomed from the start because of their attitude towards one another, and I kept saying to myself “if only they could set aside their differences and listen…” Which is exactly the author’s intent, I think. The novella is a well presented moral lesson, one as common as common sense: it’s out there, but nobody seems to pay attention to it.

Suspension of disbelief is a required part of science fiction/fantasy, and in a book written for a younger audience it’s more forgiving. For most of this novella, it’s not a problem–my active imagination not only accepts that ants and dinosaurs could be friends, it does an animated happy dance at the very thought–but there were parts that I found challenging. Mostly, the problem lies in the numbers; the main story takes place some 50,000 years after the “primitive” ant colony and dinosaurs meet. A handful of millennia is an incredibly short time for sentient creatures to evolve into the kind of society presented here–and while it sounds like I’m nitpicking, it’s something that gnawed at the back of my head for the duration. I suspect Liu did this to avoid an “alternate history” book where ants and dinosaurs become the dominant species instead of humans, but I think  (personally) that might have been a better way to go with the story. Still, it’s a tiny criticism–really, the only one–of an otherwise excellent story.

The crafting of the story is well done. At times, it’s a bit heavy handed–there are points where the “show, don’t tell” adage is thrown out the window–and there were some bits that seemed difficult to swallow, even given the not-too-serious tone. Dialogue is a bit too expository at points. But I wouldn’t say that any of this is Liu’s fault–it was written for a Chinese audience–or that of his translator Holger Nahm; those languages being as complex as they are, something is doubtlessly lost in the translation. There are probably thousands of translations of the Tao te Ching, but no single one of them really touches on the nuances of the work. Taking that into account, I’m impressed by this book. I found it refreshing because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time presenting a very serious message.

This is the kind of book I’d read to children; the sheer fun of it would make the message easy to pick up on. Of Ants and Dinosaurs is, in short, a wonderfully fun book to read.  Liu has a series of other books available, and each of them looks intriguing and original. I’m eager to read more!

Cixin Liu’s books can be found at Amazon.com. You can also reach him on Twitter

Beta Readers

One of the steps of editing a new piece of writing is Substantive Editing. This is where you concentrate on the general scope of your work and identify things like plot holes, inconsistencies, and character development. In short, it’s kind of like a professional critique. It’s a service some editors provide–but I think that Beta Readers would fill this role just as well.

This kind of editing is important, because if your story or novel doesn’t make narrative sense or the characters are uninteresting, it’s not going to sell. A story has to be compelling and imaginative, yes; but if the plot is hard to follow, people won’t want to read it. Reading should be entertainment, not work, and a piece that hasn’t gone through this process runs the risk of taking the reader “out of the world of the book” as they pick apart all the problems or try to figure out what just happened.

These are the kinds of things writers (should) know to avoid; if you’ve taken workshops, classes, or read enough literature to understand how narratives work, you should be able to avoid these problems. But a writer is often too close to their own work. These are things that are easy for a writer to miss, and easy for a fresh pair of eyes to pick up on. And this is where Beta Readers come in.

What’s a Beta Reader? Glad you asked.

In the software world, programmers will distribute their work to beta testers, who will play with it to find bugs, discover issues, and generally give input. These contributions are then considered for the product, which is tweaked as needed before final release. The result is software that’s “tried and true.”

Fiction can work the same way. If you’d like to sign up as a Beta Reader for me, send me an email at jparsonswrites@gmail.com. I’ll send you a copy of my collection, The Astrologers and Other Stories, and ask for feedback. You don’t need any special skills for this, and I’m not asking for a detailed 120 page report; all you need to do is read it, and let me know what you think from a constructive standpoint.  I want to know how the characters work, how the plot flows, and if it makes sense. (For further reading, here’s a post by Jami Gold that talks about beta readers.)

Now, I should stress that I’m not asking beta readers to do any editing for me–I just want opinions. It doesn’t have to be in detail, just constructive enough that it’s useful. And what will you get in return? You’ll be the first to receive a free copy of the collection when it goes to print, as well as acknowledgement in the front matter (and if your input is constructive rather than generic, I’ll provide a link to your blog or website). Just for reading a story. I’ll also offer my own services as a beta reader if you have a story you’re ready to publish. Not a bad deal, eh?

On Monday, I have a special treat: an interview with Yesenia Vargas, an indie writer who’s just started offering editing services. She can be found at YeseniaVargas.com. Stay tuned after the weekend for a great talk about the other side of writing!

My Attempt at Steampunk

When I started to get back to my writing, my first question to myself was “what genre will I concentrate on?” The things I’d written spanned a few–sci-fi, fantasy, general fiction, even non-fiction–but I thought it best to stick with one or two genres and build a base there. The larger projects I’m working on are basically fantasy, though I’ve thrown in some weird fiction as well; but science fiction has always been dear to me.

I wanted to share the story that first got me into science fiction. It’s by Issac Asimov, the king of sci-fi. I found this story extant on the internet–though I’m not sure if it’s in the public domain, so if anyone has a problem with my posting it let me know and I’ll be happy to remove the link. It’s called The Last Question, and you can click the title for the text.

This story is a perfect example of what science fiction should be. It’s got some solid (for the time) science to it, has real human concerns, and has a wonderful ending. It blew me away the first time, and still gives me chills whenever I read it. Check it out, even if you’re not a sci-fi fan. It might convert you!

Anyway, I digress. When I was considering concentrating on sci-fi, I started looking at some good examples. I read a lot of Bradbury, Asimov, and so on. I also came across Kevin J. Andseron, who, in a whirl of serendipity, I learned was giving a reading at my public library. I got to meet him, and he passed out pamphlets containing the first three chapters of his new book Clockwork Angels, which is based on the latest album of one of my favourite bands, Rush. Talk about synchronicity!

The book is great, and I can’t wait to read the whole thing when it arrives this fall. It also introduced me to Steampunk–along with the oft mentioned Lindsay Buroker–and it got me thinking. Steampunk, as I understand it, is kind of a blend of science fiction and fantasy; a fantasy world where technology and magic intertwine to create a unique setting. Exciting…and why shouldn’t I experiment with it?

So, for the first time on this blog about writing, I’m going to post a sample of my work. This is my first attempt at the Steampunk genre. I’ve taken ideas and the setting from my planned fantasy novel and am trying it out in a steampunk cast; if this turn out, I’ll refit the novel as a whole. I think it has potential, but I’d appreciate constructive feedback.

Please keep in mind that this is a first draft, hammered out over margaritas. Its not going to be perfect! Here’s the first part:

The Astrologers

The carnival was coming. The most exciting weekend of the year–spun sugar candy, games and prizes, a carousel, the Hall or Horrors (Jim’s favourite); and it was finally here!

Dolle got out of bed early that morning, earlier than she had any right being up, and knocked on her parent’s bedroom door. Their room was separated from the rest of the small cabin because, as daddy said, “adults need their own space;” Dolle had never understood why, but being the adults, she assumed they knew best. And one day, she would be old enough to have her own room too, so it didn’t matter too much. For the time being, she was content–most of the time–to share a corner with her younger brother.

Dolle was ten. She was old enough to know the Important Things in Life (or so she thought,) but still young enough to be enraptured by the magic of it all–and the carnival was the shining example of that magic, the one time each year when there were no chores and they could eat all the candy they wanted, when there were incredible things to be seen and wondrous fun to be had.

As soon as she heard her father grumble something under his breath and his mother sigh a muffled consolation that he’d “promised this months ago,” Dolle went to her brother’s cot and shook him awake. It didn’t take much convincing; he was just as excited as her. He sprang out of bed and immediately started rambling about seeing his first Chimera. The schoolhouse had been talking about it for weeks now, after one of the schoolchildren moved with his family to Dakadain from far off Heira’Kol, one of the earlier stops on the caravan’s tour. It had all Jim had been able to talk about. A real live Chimera!

Dolle didn’t care so much about that–though she had to admit she was curious. Mostly, she didn’t care for the side shows in the carnival. It was the games and food and craft fair she was interested in, something her mother agreed on. This year would be different, though. This year, the Astrologers were coming.

For centuries, the Alchemages had been working with Elemental Magic, working it for the betterment of the Toral, teasing the intricate secrets of nature out into the open for all to see and command. But only in recent years had there been significant progress in one of the obscure schools of elemental magic: artificial anima.

Most of these alchemical constructs were little more than basic tools, insect and rodent shaped objects built from cobalt, silver or steel and imbued with elemental magic. They had been around for some time, their novelty long worn off. Dolle had even seen one at work, at one of the richer farms outside Dakadain: a large brass bison that ran on condensed Earth magic, and helped till the fields. It was an interesting thing to see, but in the end it was little more than a magical tool. Most artificial anima were less useful, really just toys and trinkets.

But rumors had been circulating for years that a certain Alchemage-a powerful Aeromancer by the name of Vesir–had achieved an incredible feat: the creation of sentient, thinking automata. He called them the Astrologers, and they were supposed to be able to tell the future.

Dolle was learning about artificial anima at school, but her teacher had scoffed at the idea of automata when she’d asked. Machines couldn’t have souls, she said, and dismissed the idea out of hand. So Dolle intended to visit Vesir and learn all about them herself.

Her father was finally getting out of bed, and her mother had put a kettle over the fire and was starting to tend the flames when she asked if they could see the Astrologers. Her father dropped a slipper he’d been trying to fit over his foot, and her mother just stifled a laugh behind a hand.

“Dolle, you know better than that, I hope,” her father said. “Those things are just toys, I’m sure. Some sort of machine that only has a certain number of things it says, so that fraud Vesir always knows how to answer them.”

“But daddy,” Dolle whined, “what if they’re really real?” She stamped her foot on the floor to accentuate her point. “If people can make anima, why can’t they make other things?”

Her mother, having got the fire going, put some sausages on the flat-iron balanced over the coals, and started mixing some eggs.

“Because, dear, magic doesn’t work that way. Can you tell me what the Elements do?”

Dolle slumped in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, depressed at the sudden appearance of a school lesson. At first she refused to answer, but with a stern glance from her mother, she reluctantly obliged.

“The four elements each have their special rule over nature,” she recited. It was a textbook answer. “Earth, Air, Fire and Water each have different properties, but none of them stronger than the others. When a mage learns to use Elemental Magic, he learns to bend those properties to his will–but they can never be more than what they were to begin.”

“That’s right,” her mother cooed, placing a plate of eggs and sizzling sausage before her father. He hungrily dug in, grunting his thanks when she added a cup of hot tea to the setting.

The Elements are powerful, but they can only do so much. When they are used for anima, that construct behaves like an extension of its Nature. But a Geoanima wouldn’t be able to fly, no more than a Hydroanima would be able to start a fire. And none of the Elements has the power to animate something so that it can think and feel for itself.”

Dolle had heard this explanation before, from her teachers at school, friends at the playground, and other adults from which she’d tried to learn the secret of automata. Not for the first time, she wondered–not aloud, for she’d learned long ago that such questions would only earn her scoffs and “isn’t she cute-s”–about the Elements. If none of them could animate a thinking, feeling creature on their own, how had GiSek, the Creator, done it for the Toral?

Knowing better than to press the issue, she started eating her eggs, silently chewing and scheming a way to see Vesir, without her parents knowing.

There we are, folks! I’ll put up other samples as they come.