Book Review: Praxis by Justin Knight

I’ve always enjoyed the “ordinary people get stuck in a horrific situation and have to survive” trope in stories. Whether it’s a disaster movie, a survival horror video game, or much of Stephen King’s ouevre, there’s something about ordinary people overcoming extraordinary circumstances that’s both entertaining and provides wonderful food for thought:

  • How would I react? What would I do?
  • What skills do I have that would be useful in a situation like this?
  • Would people work together, or turn against each other?
  • Would I have what it takes to make it?

Tales of superhumans with otherworldy abilities are always fun and have their place in my heart. But I equally enjoy seeing if the pre-school teacher or the accountant can survive the monsters that suddenly appeared in their town, or can evade the hostile army that’s invaded their nation.

And then, on the other hand, I also love classic 80s/90s action movies.

Along comes Justin Knight with his novel  Praxis. Described as “blue-collar sci-fi,” Praxis details the experience of warehouse workers from Vancouver, Canada whose company gets the contract to man the recently constructed titular space station.

Justin Knight (artist’s rendition)

Praxis focuses on Mickey Hemmings and his crew as they travel to the Praxis station with their families for a year-long stint. The station orbits Neptune at the farthest reaches of the solar system, and is meant to be a waypoint for intergalactic travel. Unfortunately, a group of hostile alien pirates fleeing justice decide to use the station to make their last stand, and the Earthlings get caught in the crossfire.

First, I love this concept: A varied cast of warehouse workers have to survive an alien invasion on a remote space station millions of miles from Earth. Though I have some plot-related questions that I didn’t see addressed–Why are there no security officers? Why doesn’t anyone have guns?–they didn’t detract from the white-knuckled action . . .

. . . when the action finally arrives.

You see, Praxis is a slow-burner. I have no problem with slow-burners, but I did notice that, according to my Kindle app, the action did not begin until 69 percent of the way through the book.

Now, Knight does something clever with all of this: He really sets the reader up to grow fond of these characters. And the competing narratives (the human’s travels to Praxis and settling in interspersed with our alien pirates being pursued by an alien police force) builds the anticipation.

And when these disparate threads collide, they make a big boom. Continue reading “Book Review: Praxis by Justin Knight”

Book Review: Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard

My foray into the works of the early pulp masters continues with my first brush with a Conan story, Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard. Having recently read and deeply enjoying some Edgar Rice Burroughs, I was eager to sink my teeth into Conan.

Metaphorically, you understand.

Howard is best known for creating the enduringly popular Cimmerian, as well as Solomon Kane, among other characters in his 30 short years of life. Although first appearing in the pages of Weird Tales in 1932 in a story called The Phoenix on the Sword, I decided to first read Queen of the Black Coast because I found it on Gutenberg.org and I liked the title.

Robert E. Howard

Queen of the Black Coast was published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales. It tells the tale of Conan, on the run from soldiers in the port city of Argos, taking passage on a south-bound trading vessel called the Argus bearing goods to trade with the kingdom of Kush.

It only takes a few sentences for Howard to suck the reader in:

Hoofs drummed down the street that slopes to the wharfs. The folk that yelled and scattered had only a fleeting glimpse of a mailed figure on a black stallion, a wide scarlet cloak flowing out on the wind.

Reading that, and the images it conjured in my mind, I was hooked.

Of course, the Argus doesn’t have an easy trip to Kush. In fact, it never makes, being waylaid by the fearsome pirate woman Bêlit as it hits the coast. The Argus‘ captain is killed, and Conan boards the pirate ship Tigress intending to take as many of Bêlit’s strong, black warriors down with him, but he and Bêlit soon fall for each other, and Conan joins their crew, ravaging the Coast.

Eventually, they journey to the mystical and cursed ruined jungle kingdom up the river Zarkheba in search of more treasure. And that’s where things get really freaky.

I was impressed with Howard’s writing. You won’t find deep characterization, internal conflict, or excursions into socio-political issues. This is pulp, baby!

What you get is a story and prose that grabs you by the gut. Conan’s world is brutal, like the man himself. But this world also has a savage beauty that Howard conveys in his descriptions of the jungle and the spoiled grandeur of the ruined city.

Oh, and also the monsters. You didn’t think Conan was getting out of this without tussling with some freaky monsters, did you?

I shall say no more about the plot save that Queen of the Black Coast is fast-paced without feeling rushed, and short enough to be read in one sitting.

It’s fortuitous that I picked this story, as I just finished playing an old computer game called Quest for Glory III: Wages of War for a chronogaming blog I occasionally contribute to. Quest for Glory III takes place in a jungle realm based on both Egyptian society and more traditional sub-Saharan African cultures, and has an incredibly pulpy vibe, complete with lost cities, romance, demons, and a sense of the eerie and mysterious.

That’s what I appreciated the most from Howard’s writing–the way he was so economically able to put you in his world, feeling the unsettling ancient horrors facing Conan.

The jungle was a black colossus that locked the ruin-littered glade in ebony arms. The moon had not risen; the stars were flecks of hot amber in a breathless sky that reeked of death.

Is it a little over-wrought? Maybe. But to hell with what creative writing professors think; this is effective. Continue reading “Book Review: Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard”

Hail Action!

I ran a poll recently. It was arguably the most important poll in the history of Western Civilization:

Bloodsport vs. Road House vs. Point Break vs. Commando. Who ya got?

Commando won, but each movie got some love. I also got a lot of great reactions about all four films.

In short, these four mainstays of the 1980s/early 1990s action movie genre remain memorable despite of–or maybe because of–their alleged “cheesiness.”

Maybe they’re cheesy. All I know is that I, along with millions of others, love these four films to death.

I have written about Road House before, and Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton’s recommendation to “I want you to be nice . . . until it’s time to not be nice. He also say stuff like “Pain don’t hurt” and “You’re too stupid to have a good time.”

Lines like these are other reasons why the four movies I polled people on remain popular. I mean, Commando is pretty much one big one-liner. Even Point Break has some classics, with “Vaya con dios,” and “Utah! Get me two!”

Bloodsport is a little light on the one-liners, but I still chuckle whenever Ray Jackson, played by Donald Gibb, tells the Federal agent–played by Forrest Whitaker!–“I ain’t your pal, dickface.

Yeah, I’m mature.

But the one-liners aren’t the only reason these movies remain so beloved, or watchable.

Scratch that. They’re not just watchable, they’re re-watchable. Is it because they’re “so bad they’re good”? Kind of. I think it’s deeper than that. I think they are actually well-made movies that do what they set out to do: entertain.

Movies–how do they work? Continue reading “Hail Action!”

Actions “Versus” Introspection: A Defense of Literary Fiction

Action! Adventure! Romance! Inner turmoil!

Wait, what?

Yeah, you heard me. These are things I personally like in stories. And I don’t think I’m alone. Otherwise, explain why one of the biggest tenets in prose fiction screenwriting is create conflict!

This seems self-evident. After all, what good is a story where everyone gets along and everything is perfectly fine? That’s the realm of children’s books, which serve their purpose.

And let me say, as the parent of a young child, the above description actually fits baby books more. You’d be amazed at how soon some form of conflict enters into kids books. Look at Dr. Seuss books, for example. The Sneetches were basically at war! The bitter butter battle was a battle! That dastardly Grinch was out to ruin Christmas!

Even kids need to see conflict be overcome.

Which brings me to an interesting conversation held with several writing friends on Twitter. It started out with Gitabishi’s excellent post about “hard” versus “soft” sci-fi and veered into both the introspective and the ridiculous before Jill Domschot said something that struck me:

I’m inclined to agree with her, hence the use of quotation marks around the word “versus” in the title of this post.

The upshot of the conversation was that everything is a writer’s tool, and the writer uses the appropriate tool for the task at hand. But that’s a bit wishy washy, so I’m going to do something a little against the grain when it comes to action-packed fiction writing, and stick up for a much maligned genre of novel: literary fiction.

Yup. I’m a fan. Take a guy like John Irving, for example. Sure, he has a creepy fixation with characters engaging incest, as well as characters losing limbs (including a certain male member), but it’s not just his prose I enjoy. His situations are crafted to come to a head at the critical point, and his set-ups are expertly foreshadowed and deftly executed in ways that only seem obvious in retrospect–including the unfortunate inadvertent amputation of a man’s body part (I’m looking at you, The World According to Garp).

Or a writer like Michael Chabon. There’s a bit too much affectation in his characters–Telegraph Avenue was particularly painful at times–but their inner dramas are exquisite, and I like how he makes them intersect with the plot’s external conflicts, in explosive and often hilarious ways. .

My goal when I write is to take this approach, and just have more sword fights and explosions. Continue reading “Actions “Versus” Introspection: A Defense of Literary Fiction”