Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Opening Lines: Steel Frame by Andrew Skinner

Some novels have the ability to draw you in from the start. A single line or paragraph can grab your attention in such a way that the novel just demands to be read. Opening Lines is a feature where I'll share some of the best opening lines that hooked me.

The air is heavy with sweat and moist with shipboard rot, mixed so thick that I’m starting to think I’d rather choke than keep on breathing. Hell, there are times I think I might try it just for the change of pace.

STEEL FRAME by Andrew Skinner


Rook is a jockey, a soldier trained and modified to fly ‘shells,’ huge robots that fight for the outer regions of settled space. When her shell is destroyed and her squad killed, Rook is imprisoned, left stranded, scarred and broken. Hollow and helpless without her steel frame, she’s ready to call it quits.

When her cohort of prisoners are sold into indenture to NorCol, a vast frontier corporation, Rook’s given another shell – a near-decrepit Juno, as broken as she is and decades older – and sent to a rusting bucket of a ship on the end of known space to patrol something called “the Eye,” a strange, unnerving permanent storm in space.

But they’re not alone.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Interview: Andrew Skinner

When I first came across the news that South African author, Andrew Skinner, had signed on with Solaris to publish his debut novel, Steel Frame, I immediately jotted down the details in my reading journal, circled it twice and wrote "ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR" in big red letters. That was a bit more than a year ago and Steel Frame is finally being released this month. I jumped at the opportunity to ask Andrew some questions about his work, inspiration and experience writing science fiction as a South African.

Hi Andrew, thanks for agreeing to this interrogation. Err... interview. I meant interview. Let's start with the obligatory life story. Could you tell us a little about yourself. Who are you really? What keeps you up in the dark of the night?

AS: Sure! Thanks for having me.

I am a nerd from smalltown South Africa; coalfire country, with huge mining headgear, chimney-tops and walking dragline machines always on the horizon. I’ve ended up in Johannesburg, somewhere a little madder and a lot bigger, but I don’t think I’ve ever lost my awe of industry.

I’m busy doing my PhD in archaeology, researching ancestral memory in places written histories don’t reach. Like any good grad student, that spiel about humans basically being cucumbers with anxiety resonates a little too closely for comfort.

You work as an archaeologist and anthropologist. How does that influence your writing?

AS: It’s tricky to say what seeps through and what doesn’t, but there were a few choices I made in Steel Frame that probably say a little about where I come from. You could call archaeology ‘object-orientated’ - we infer human behaviour from the material traces people leave behind, and I wanted to work that kind of logic in where I could, especially considering my chosen sub-genre.

Mecha is a great format to explore objects as characters, and you’ll see that in the machine called Juno, in some ways the titular ‘steel frame’. It’s old, and that means that it has a very different shape to the machines and environments around it – it comes from a different time and place, after all, intended to do things the characters in the present can only guess at. As the humans in the story begin to find themselves out of their depth, Juno shows itself to be the right kind of monster for the moment.

The threat in the story is similar; it’s slowly revealed by the shapes it takes, and by the objects the characters encounter in its wake.

Your debut novel, Steel Frame, is out this month. Can you tell us about it?

AS: It follows a small group of jockeys – each the heart and soul of a shell, the huge machines that wage corporate wars across battlefield skies on a hundred different worlds. Each of them disgraced, war criminals and deserters, now offered a shot at freedom.

But there’s a catch – they need to ply their trade in an endless sea of storms, somewhere on the fringes of settled space. A place NorCol, their new employer, barely understands. They’re here to wrestle the company’s competitors for whatever might be hidden in all the cloud and chaos.

They soon come to realise that the storms were made. That there’s a reason you can’t see past the wash and interference.

At the start, you meet Rook, one of the first to understand what the companies have gotten themselves into. Her shell is an ancient Juno, part of an abandoned experiment to see if machines could be made to think for themselves. It’s another prisoner, in a way, and something with scars just as deep as hers. Together, it’s all they can do to keep from being dragged into the dark.

The Steel Frame features giant war-machines duking it out. Where did you draw your inspiration from? Is it the influence of childhood cartoons or more modern blockbusters?

AS: The influences are all over the place. Obviously, Steel Frame has anime in its heritage; the weirder elements owe a lot to Evangelion, and the aesthetic was heavily shaped by Knights of Sidonia and Last Exile, among others.

At the same time, I wanted to capture some of the feel of Ridley Scott’s extended Alien/Blade Runner universe. I love that portrayal of frontier space, and humanity tripping over things in the dark; that bleak and relentless treatment of emergent AI.

Obviously, there’s no getting away from Pacific Rim..

If you had to sum up Steel Frame in just 5 words what would those be?

AS: The steel frame remembers (everything).

I'm always excited to see speculative fiction from South African authors. South Africa has such great genre talent, but it seems that it's extremely difficult to find a market locally. What was your experience with getting your work noticed?

AS: It was pretty obvious, early on, that I had no prospects with mainstream local imprints. I watched for open submission periods, checked websites and social media, but they always made it clear that they weren’t interested in genre. Whether or not that’s a ‘market’ thing, I really couldn’t say. If barely anyone’s publishing local genre, how do you speak to the state of the market?

On the indie side – my first submission was to a small press, but the company went under after ~18 months in operation, not even long enough to get back to me. A friend of mine had a similar experience with another press, not long after publishing their work.

(Shout out to Sera Blue, a small press here in Joburg, who are doing some spectacular work, hauling out new titles on a literally weekly basis. They’re carving themselves a niche, whatever the ‘market’ may say, and it’s pretty amazing.)

In my case, I decided to go the most traditional route possible. It was the process that I could research in most detail (there are plenty of articles on how to find an agent overseas, but next-to-nothing on navigating the local scene), and it worked out for me. In Jamie Cowen, my agent, I found someone who was willing to deal with the distance, the grainy Skype calls, and fleshing out details over email. He’s also been massively understanding about my general anxiety at the whole process happening in another hemisphere, completely out of reach and sight.

What's next for you after Steel Frame? Anything else in the works?

AS: There’s more from the Steel Frame universe in the works (hopefully more news on this soon!). Rook’s story is fairly self-contained, but there’s a lot that you don’t see, plenty of secrets still to be revealed.

In the long run, I’d like to emulate Iain M. Banks’ habit of writing (mostly) disconnected stories against a common background. Mythology is a powerful tool, and I’d like the opportunity to develop one of my own.

Are there any authors that influenced your work or acted as inspiration?

AS: I owe debts to more writers than I’ll remember right now, but writing Steel Frame involved learning a couple of lessons that are really clear to me in retrospect.

I set out aiming for the hardest SF I could manage, but the more I kept the scientific details in focus, the less satisfying the story became. There’s an art to it, I’m sure, but that’s a skill that’s still very much in development for me.

What I realised, though, was that I also didn’t really want something meticulously scientific. In fact, my favourite stories were by people like China Mieville, Yoon Ha Lee, Cassandra Khaw, and Jeff Vandermeer. Not to say that their writing is implausible – rather the opposite. They maintain a kind of essential logic and plausibility behind everything, while going places that are fundamentally, delightfully strange.

Dan Abnett taught me that conflict should always come with loss, and I really tried to reflect that in Steel Frame. It’d be easy to have my jockeys hurling themselves into the fray, over and over, and come out with little more than scratched paint and empty magazines. Too easy, in fact. But I didn’t set out to write an unmitigated power fantasy – I wanted these people to be like the rest of us; often scared, nearly always uncertain. More importantly, they always lose something in contact.

What's your favourite science fiction read? That one book you'd take with you on a trip around the Moon and back.

AS: Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit tickles a really particular place in my brain.

Pick your poison: Robotech, Voltron or Transformers?

AS: Macross.

(And it’s not as much of a copout as it sounds.)

Thank you so much for taking the time. Steel Frame sounds kwaai (amazing) and I'm sure it's going to kick some serious metallic butt!

Order your copy of Steel Frame now!

More about the author:
Andrew Skinner grew up in South Africa’s coal-mining heartland, amidst orange dust and giant machinery. He now works as an archaeologist and anthropologist, interested in folklore, rain-making arts, and resistance; but the machines aren’t done with him yet. Steel Frame is his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter @apocrobot.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Book Packaging Quality Showdown

The biggest tragedy in my life is that I live in an area where there are no bookstores located near me. As a result I have to order all my books online. Over the past couple of years I've tried most of the South African online retailers and narrowed things down to those that offer free shipping if a minimum order threshold is reached. Not only does that give you an excuse to order more books, but it just makes way more economical sense.

When it comes to ordering books online the quality of the packaging used plays a critical role. It can mean the difference between a happy, satisfied customer or the shopping experience from hell. To a book lover there is nothing as disappointing as opening a package only to discover a damaged book inside.

I've put three of South Africa's online retailers to the test and this was my experience based on multiple orders from these retailers.

Loot.co.za (referral link) is my absolute top pick when it comes to ordering new releases. They take extreme care with the packaging of items. Batches of books are carefully packaged in such a way that they won't damage each other, covered with bubble wrap and then, depending on the size of the box used, more protective packaging material is placed around them to prevent the books from shifting around. Single books are wrapped in bubble wrap and securely packaged in a box.

In the past year I've placed 12 book orders from them and only 1 order had an issue. The book in question arrived with 4 pages damaged by a 1cm tear. The book was still sealed in cellophane and it was clear that this was due to a printing issue and not due to poor packaging. The return process was easy and the replacement book arrived without any problems.

Packaging quality: 5/5

Reader's Warehouse offers the best prices on older books. While their selection is somewhat limited the often have the best deals around and since most of the books are in stock they are able to ship your order very quickly. The quickest I've received an order was within 2 days, which is quite an achievement since I'm located in an outlaying area. Reader's Warehouse is the only retailer that sometimes includes extras like bookmarks with your order.

Books are packaged securely and protected with bubble wrap and other protective materials. The only negative is that the company doesn't have standard boxes. They use whichever box is available and this can sometimes lead to slight damage.

In the past year and a half I've placed 5 orders with them. One order arrived with slight dings to the corners of the books due to the fact that they were shipped in a makeshift box which had rounded corners. I was offered a discount voucher as recompense for the damage.

Packaging quality:  4/5

Before the merger between Kalahari.net and Takealot I ordered all my books from Kalahari. Sadly the great service and packaging I grew accustomed to from Kalahari did not transfer during the merger. I love Takelot for electronics, but they do not handle books well. Not at all.

Books are shipped inside a box without any protective packaging whatsoever. Multiple books are stacked on top of each other, and allowed to tumble around inside the box without any protection. In one instance (picture on top) the books were thrown into the box and some of those protective air cushions were placed on top. Of course since their was no padding on the sides this provided no protection whatsoever.

Every couple of months I'm enticed with discount codes/vouchers into ordering from them and most of the time it results in disappointment. My latest order arrived with the corners of the (very expensive) hardcover smashed to hell due to the fact that it was placed in the bottom of a too large box without any protection. I've returned the item and I'm still awaiting a replacement.

In the past 2 years I've placed 8 book orders with them. 2 of these orders had books damaged to such an extend that I requested replacements. 4 of the orders had books with minor damage to the corners of the books/paperbacks. I didn't want to wait for replacements on those so had to live with the damage. 1 order arrived unscathed. Complaints resulted in promises that they will look into improving their book packaging, but since this is a reoccurring problem nothing seems to have been done.

If you order from them it's a gamble whether your book will arrive undamaged. It's best to order a single book at a time since that provides the best chance of success. If Takealot wants to remain a viable option in the online book marketplace they seriously need to take a look at their shipping practices. I'm sure it would cost far less to take more time in packaging books using adequate packaging materials rather than have to deal with returns.

Addendum: A little fiasco
Today I received the replacement package for the book mentioned above. My heart sank when I saw the packaging. Once again the book was jammed into a box that was way too big and some brown paper was thrown on top. No brown paper to the sides where it really needed protection. My immediate thought was "Here we go again". A bit prophetic as it turns out. Same damage to the book and upon further investigation I noticed that the cellophane was cut in the exact way I did with the original damaged book in order to inspect the damage under the dust jacket. It turns out that Takealot sent me the exact same damaged book I returned as the replacement for the damaged book. I can't even...

Now I have to return it to them again and hope for the best. If they'll refund me in full I think I'll just order it elsewhere... 

Packaging quality: 2/5

I would love to hear your experiences with these retailers. Could it be that I'm just extremely unlucky with Takealot?

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

New Arrivals: The Epic Loot Book Haul

A local online retailer, Loot.co.za, had a truly amazing book sale recently. You could get 3 books for the princely sum of R99 (around $6.70 total or $2.25 each). Needless to say I went a bit crazy and emptied their entire speculative fiction section of any books I didn't already own. The end result is an epic haul of 23 books. I think that makes this the biggest book haul I've had in ages.

Behold my precious, precious treasures!

Picture of stacks of 23 speculative fiction novels and comics

I was particularly excited and extremely lucky to be able to grab some comics too. Comics, especially hardcover collections, are extremely expensive over here and they rarely, if ever, go on sale. While these took longer to get here, they were well worth the wait. The two Justice League Omnibus editions wouldn't be something I'd normally pick up since it features work from the 1960's and I'm not sure I'll enjoy the older stuff. But heck, at that price I couldn't resist - it was an absolute steal!

Picture showing the Juste League of America Omnibus and Hellboy Volume 3

Picture showing the front covers of the JLA omnibus and Hellboy editions

Monday, August 5, 2019

Getting Graphic: Die, Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

Title: Die, Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker
Author: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Stephanie Hans
Pages: 478
ISBN: 9781534312708
Publisher: Image
Published: 5 June 2019
Genre: Graphic Novel
Source: Purchased

Buy it from:
The Book Depository

writer KIERON GILLEN teams up with artist supernova STEPHANIE HANS (THE WICKED + THE DIVINE, Journey Into Mystery) for her first ongoing comic! DIE is a pitch-black fantasy where a group of forty-something adults have to deal with the returning, unearthly horror they only just survived as teenage role-players. If KIERON’s in a rush, he describes it as “Goth Jumanji”, but that's only the tip of this critically acclaimed obsidian iceberg. Collects DIE #1-5
When I first heard the premise of Die I just knew I had to get it. The wait for the trade paperback was excruciating, but so worth it. The art by Stephanie Hans is simply amazing, there are times where you turn the page and just have to go "Wow, that's beautiful". Kieran Gillen takes the world of Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs and fantasy lore and uses those well-known mechanics to create a world and characters that are both interesting and unique.  The story is emotionally harrowing and at times verges into horror territory.

The easiest thing would be to call Die a dark Jumanji for adults, but that description doesn't quite do it justice. There are nuances at work which will delight veteran D&D players and goes so much deeper than is first apparent. Gillen manages to explore the emotional scars of his characters both as angsty teens and jaded adults, the impact of the fantasy world, the consequences of their actions and the very act of playing the game itself.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Die. My only complaint is that the story felt quite rushed and that it was over far too quickly. There is so much at play here, so much depth and history to delve into. I want to experience it all, but in this first volume we barely get to scratch the surface. I can't wait to see what comes next.  

Die is definitely a series to keep your eye on!

The Rating: 7/10 (Very good)