Sunday, October 10, 2010
My earliest encounter with his work was the first three or four books of The Annals of the Black Company and, later, The Garrett Files, back when I was just a wee young whelp blazing through as many tomes from the Fantasy and Science Fiction Book Club as I could get my hands on. Later, I read (and loved) The Dragon Never Sleeps, a stand-alone space opera that I found a used copy of a couple of years ago and read again. To my great delight, it was just as good, if not better, the second time around.
So when I recently found myself gazing upon the vast to-read pile that adorns my bookshelves, with an (oddly rare these days) opportunity to read whatever I wanted, I leapt at the chance to read Passage At Arms, one of his lesser known works, a military SF standalone that is, in the words of my esteemed Clarion instructor (and literary hero) Jeff VanderMeer, the "Das Boot of SF." If you look at the picture above closely enough, you can see where he says it, there at the top, above Cook's byline.
Synoptically speaking, Passage at Arms is a first-person narrative account of one ship's patrol into unfriendly space during a protracted war between humanity and an alien race called the Ulant. Told from the perspective of a discharged Navy Lieutenant turned war correspondent, the story revolves primarily around the claustrophobia and paranoia of the crew on their months-long patrol through the vicissitudes and uncertainty of war in space. Despite its science fictional premise, there's a certain verisimilitude here that really brings things home. The narrow focus on surviving the present; the lack of information; the contempt for Command: it all rings true. It all sounds like what it's really like to be at war, or would be, under those circumstances.
And while it takes a bit of time to get going, once the ship is off on its mission, away from human space, where the crew's only hope and solitary focus is surviving long enough to empty their missile silos into appropriate targets, man does this book get harder and harder to put down. Seriously, this stuff is like crack to me; I almost literally can't get enough. This is one of those books that, while I was reading it, I had to make myself do other things, like work, or write, or otherwise take care of business, because all I wanted to do was open it back up and keep reading.
That's not to say that this is a perfect book, or that there aren't things that might have been done better. But once it gets going, the stakes just keep getting higher and higher, the odds of survival lower and lower, until you almost can't believe they're going to make it, even though you want more than anything for them to do so.
For what it's worth, some of the writing gets a bit dense and hard to follow, in part because like many good sci fi writers, Cook invents milieu-specific language and lingo to tell his story in. Some of the tech gets a little deep, though it's consistent and pleasantly non-magical (in the Star Trek/Arthur C. Clarke sense of the term), and it plays just the right role in the story, drawing boundaries in which the story can take place without overwhelming the human element of the story.
And in the end that's important, because in the end what Passage at Arms is about is not spaceships or interstellar war or anything like that. In the end, Passage at Arms is about the people the rest of us come to call heroes, who do their duty in the face of death and uncertainty, each for their own unknowable reasons, who fight and die so that those things worth fighting and dying over can survive.
As for myself, and my own humble undertakings, I am currently around 4500 words into the short story I started last week. I'd hoped to be a little further along by now, but I've been working a fair bit lately, which has taken its toll on my time, focus, and energy, and, to be honest, I ran into kind of a wall early last week with it that made me want to jump up and down and throw things through windows.
Mind you, that's not an uncommon reaction to frustration for me, which may or may not be alarming (or surprising) to my friends and loved ones. And it is, unfortunately, a not uncommon occurrence in my writing life, though, on the plus side, it seems to be getting better. The basic problem (I couldn't tell you how many times this has happened to me) is that I got off to a pretty good start, was feeling pretty good about this thing I was writing, and then, well, then I realized I didn't know where it was going or how I would get it to go there even if I did.
Luckily, I have been experimenting with a new writing program called Scrivener that lets you break stories (and/or longer-form fictions) into scenes, which you can view on a sort of electronic corkboard as a series of note cards. So I created a bunch of blank scenes and then did my plot synopsis on the corkboard. I don't know if it was the tools the program gave me, or just the simple fact of sitting there trying to plan out what I was going to do ahead of time, but whatever it was I managed to get something like a plot figured out over the course of fifteen or so scenes, which seems to have gotten my hindbrain back up and running as far as the story goes. I'm currently in the midst of scene 8, and of course the story is evolving, requiring me to revise my synoptic notes as the story develops in my brain, but having a general idea of the shape of the thing has really helped me to focus in and make some progress, which is good, because I'm hoping to finish at least a first draft, if not a revised draft, by the end of the month, at which time I'll either send it out or put it away for a while and come back to it.
As far as Scrivener goes, the real test will come later this month, and, more specifically, next month, when it comes time to NaNoWriMo. The plan is to use its many features to plan out the novel I've been working up to writing, setting up files for each chapter (or major hunk of text; I may or may not use a chapter format for this) and making notes and so on as to what's supposed to happen and why and how the whole thing fits together. I'm optimistic about it. I think Scrivener will turn out to be a real help, and will put some structure to my normally chaotic novel-planning process. Historically, I've always been a sort of start, and when you get to the end, stop kind of writer, which hasn't always worked out for me, since when I get stuck on something the whole process stops. So I have high hopes for this whole planning things out in advance thing I'm trying these days. Suppose I'll find out next month if it really works.