When I’ve connected with a new book, I almost feel obligated to share a review. I suppose it’s only natural to want to share what one is excited about. But, as a new writer (nowhere near publishing anything yet), I am also beginning to understand how much time and effort it takes to craft a quality story. Once complete, the author sends their creation out into the world, praying others will also love and cherish it as they do. One of the best things we can do for our favorite indie authors is post reviews of their books. I encourage everyone else to do the same.
Book Review: Mother Portia by Nick Pipitone
Science fiction is rife with chilling stories concerning the inevitable emergence of self-aware artificial intelligence. Usually, the reader is confronted with a doomsday scenario, portraying an outmatched humanity battling for survival against its malevolent creation. Nick Pipitone’s novella, Mother Portia, takes a refreshingly different approach to explore what might happen when a supercomputer becomes sentient.
Pipitone imagines a promising future. After decades of teetering on the brink of self-annihilation, humanity’s salvation comes from a benevolent, all-knowing, artificial super-consciousness called Portia. Incredible scientific advances made possible with the help of this AI technology have solved the most pressing problems challenging the planet in the 21st century. But, the reader quickly discovers lurking behind this utopian façade is an enduring culture war fomenting a growing level of distrust, unrest, and acts of violence.
Leave it to humanity to take a good idea and mess it up! Most people happily abdicate power, ambition, and values in a mad rush to enjoy the new freedom Portia offers. There is no need to work. Advances in healthcare have eliminated disease, old age, and even the need for sleep. Life becomes nothing more than the pursuit of pleasure for most. But, not everyone agrees Portia has changed the world for the better. As one can imagine, the rampant rise in hedonistic behavior threatens to undermine the authority of institutions espousing traditional morality and family values. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that a new, increasingly popular cult has emerged dedicated to worshipping and communing with the new god of science, Portia. The world’s traditional faiths begin reeling from a rapid, seemingly irreversible decline in membership and relevancy.
Repulsed by the deification of Portia, members of various faiths have joined together to fight this common enemy. The result is the Collective, a loose alliance committed to ridding the world of artificial intelligence at all costs. It is quickly labeled a terrorist group. Mother Portia is a thought-provoking exploration of humanity’s inclination to use religion to justify even the most heinous acts of violence.
Azibo, a devout Christian, refuses to interact with Portia, leaving him isolated, living a meager existence on the fringes of society. He finds purpose though working as an informant for the Collective. When offered an opportunity to do more for the cause, Azibo is elated and ready to sacrifice everything. But, as in real life, he finds his beliefs challenged as he encounters a broad spectrum of other members of the faithful struggling to respond and adapt to this new world. He soon discovers the notion of truth is easily contorted by those eager to remain in power.
The story’s true antagonist is humanity’s inability to purge itself of hatred and intolerance driven by contrived differences. I appreciate how the author avoids making any overt judgment about the morality of creating artificial intelligence. Mother Portia is a thought-provoking exploration of how one man’s quest to destroy a hated enemy leads him to unexpected good fortune in the arms of what he fears the most.
I love writing, but sometimes coaxing the words on to the page can be a real slog! This week has been especially tough as I returned to working on the next chapter for my book, Jupiter’s Embrace.
I have to admit I’ve struggled a lot with this story and given into the temptation to leave it on the back burner more often than not. But, I’m committed to figuring out what ultimately happens to Riker, Pauline and Johnny.
This project began in response to the word prompt: float.
The original piece was a mere 500 words portraying a snapshot of a prison transport ship ferrying a hardened criminal to a maximum security facility floating deep within Jupiter’s atmosphere.
I found myself wondering how Riker wound up on that spaceship.
Jupiter’s Embrace has become a story about how a man guilty of one crime becomes a convenient scapegoat for an even greater one.
Much remains to be discovered, but I know Riker is a flawed character worthy of redemption. He’s the classic example of someone at the wrong place at the wrong time, who knows too much and wishes he knew nothing at all.
If you have read along so far, I hope you enjoy chapter four. But, if you haven’t read the first three chapters, I encourage you to do that first.
A Short Story Set in a Mythical Nordic Medieval World.
Glossary of Terms and Characters
Völvur: a shamanic order of women capable of foresight and communing with the otherworld.
Jötunn: god-like elemental forces of nature from the mountains, forests and wilds of the tundra. (Giants.)
Gobban: a Norseman, a smith and master craftsman of weapons.
Kalda: servant of Skadi, an ice sprite.
Skadi: winter goddess of jötunnic origins.
Seiomenn: men who practice conjuring magics.
Greta: the queen’s seeress.
Alfar: fairies, elves.
Surtr: Norse god of fire.
Muspellheim: elemental realm of fire.
Steinvegg: a stonewall.
Holde seg: a command to hold, stay, or remain still.
Part 7 “Winter Thaws”
Kalda’s suggestion flummoxed Gobban. The smith stared uncomprehendingly at the ice sprite.
“Isaz?” he asked incredulously.
An involuntary titter escaped Gobban’s pursed lips, replaced by silence as he observed Kalda’s sincerity. Forcing a cough, he cleared his throat to compose himself.
“I typically shy away from Isaz. The cruel cold tends to induce brittle weakness in steel.”
A fiery, azure light flared in Kalda’s eyes as she scowled fiercely. Gobban stepped back, head titled, eyes wide, and hands in the air. He simpered, attempting to mollify Kalda’s rising ire.
“Now, of course, Isaz can represent such things, but I have you, Kalda, to thank for showing me a different side to winter’s power.”
The ice sprite raised an eyebrow inquiringly, emboldening the smith to continue talking.
“With your guidance, my eyes have been opened to intriguing possibilities. Tonight, I have witnessed impossible feats wrought with the help of your wintry magic.”
“You understand then how the ice rune is crucial to achieving your goal?” Kalda asked.
“Isaz’s chill bite may diminish the beast’s inferno, making its fires unequal to those we used in forging this sword.”
“I believe victory will be won by the sword’s ability to endure,” Kalda said.
“Good. How do you affix the sigils to your work?”
Gobban led Kalda to a workbench. He laid the blade before them and fetched a small clay pot from a shelf.
“My family has perfected the recipe for an acid capable of eating into the steel.”
“How can this clay jar contain such a liquid without failing?”
“Simple. Nothing magical is involved. Manure from a cow solely fed spinach and kale greens is liberally mixed into the mud.”
Smirking, the smith removed the jar’s lid and dipped a fine brush into the etching fluid.
“I suppose your brush is made from spinach leaves?” Kalda quipped.
“Nope, just a regular brush. I trim the burnt end off after each use. One will last quite a while.”
The ice sprite rolled her eyes.
“I was hoping for something a little more exciting, master smith.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
Gobban and Kalda giggled, forgetting momentarily the monstrous evil threatening the kingdom. As their laughter subsided, the smith regarded the ice sprite solemnly.
“Thank you for coming to our aide. I admit I was anxious, not knowing what to expect. But, ironically, your laugh, your presence warms my heart.”
Kalda nodded, reflecting.
“It surprises me, but I am pleased to be in your company. My kind and yours so rarely have such close dealings. Many questions arise in my mind. Being here awakes memories I had long forgotten.”
Curiosity gripped Gobban, but he held his tongue. Sensing Kalda would say no more, he clapped his hands, rubbing them together.
“Let me demonstrate the technique I employ,” he said.
Melting a lump of wax, the smith fashioned a mold outlining first one rune and then another until six letters ran down the length of the blade. The ice sprite watched intently as Gobban carefully applied the acid to the spaces surrounded by wax. The liquid fizzed and bubbled, wisps of vapor wafting towards the ceiling.
“It doesn’t take long.” Gobban offered.
Kalda remained quiet, seemingly deep in thought.
“That ought to do it. Here’s where I usually make a mess.”
Juggling the sword and clay pot, Gobban tilted the blade, causing the acid to run down its narrow length haphazardly. Most of the liquid successfully streamed back into the jar. After mopping up the small spill, he gently removed the wax, buffing the steel clean.
“One last thing to do. Then our work is done!”
Gobban attached a bronze guard and sturdy wooden handle to the tang. Fine wire and two strong bolts held everything together tightly. The smith sighed with pride as he presented the finished sword to Kalda.
“It is a beautiful sword.” Gobban beamed.
“Yes, it is. But do you believe it will be sufficient? Will it slay the beast?”
Gobban sighed grimly.
“If our sword fails the prince, my kingdom is doomed. There be nothing left to do but flee. And yet, I dare to hope this weapon will be exactly what his Highness requires.”
The smith smiled wanly, attempting to convey confidence. The ice sprite seemed not to notice. Absorbed in thought, she stared intently at the runes on the sword. Silence stretched as her eyes burned and her face hardened. Gobban struggled to read Kalda.
“What? You wrestle with something. Tell me.”
The ice sprite’s eyes bathed Gobban in a tangible radiance of sapphire light. The set of her chin was tense, her smile ferocious as she stood tall and proud.
“Gobban, there is yet one thing more I can offer to help you and your people.”
Something in the tone of her voice brought a lump to his throat as his heart quickened.
“You have done more than you know already, Kalda. What further aid could you render?”
“A foresight is upon me. Smoke and flame fill my mind. I fear the sword as-is will not be enough.”
Gobban shook his head.
“The beast’s fires will melt this weapon like all the others.”
“Why this sudden doubt?”
The smith squinted, raising a hand against the increasing glare from the aura of blue light surging out to surround Kalda.
“I see clearly now the wisdom in my mistress’ choice to send me to answer your king’s call for aid.”
“What are you doing?” Gobban shouted as her rotating screen of snow whipped faster.
“I will imbue this blade with my essence.”
Horrified, Gobban gasped.
“You can willingly part with an aspect of your life force?”
“I am prepared to hand over the entirety of my power if need be.
“Everything? Can you survive such a sacrifice?”
“My mistress, Skadi, has bestowed a great gift upon me; a means to redemption.”
“I do not understand.”
“The sword must be magically warded against the beast’s infernal fire.”
“The runes will….”
“My wintry spirit will amplify Isaz’s potency, protecting the sword. Its power will overwhelm and subdue the beast, allowing the steel to pierce and freeze its fiery heart.”
“Kalda, no! You are not one of the völvur. Pay no heed to this false vision. I have clouded your judgment, foolishly giving voice to my fears and uncertainty!”
The growing maelstrom of ice and snow writhed around the sprite filling the air with an ethereal sound as if a thousand tiny bells were simultaneously ringing.
“Gobban, for years beyond count I have existed, created when the world slept beneath majestic glaciers blanketing this realm in an endless winter. I am not afraid.”
“Kalda, please no!”
“Gobban, I welcome this. Being here has reminded me of my desire to right past wrongs.”
“Stop! I forbid this!”
Gobban held the sword behind him.
“I have made my choice, human. There is nothing you can do.”
“But, why? The beast will be defeated! The völvur seers foresee it. Think of the weapons, the tools, the art we could create together!”
Kalda’s magical presence expanded, filling the room.
“Please, Kalda. Stop. I know it sounds ludicrous, but I love you.”
“Master smith, you have thawed my icy heart, producing the closest thing to love a winter fairy may feel. Thank you. Goodbye, Gobban.”
A blizzard of energies engulfed the smith. Gobban flung his arms up to shield himself from the icy tempest, the sword clattered to the floor.
“No! Please gods, no!”
Kalda’s voice sung reassuringly above the din.
“I will live on in the winter and within the blade itself. Grieve not, Gobban.”
The smith fell to his knees, numbly watching the vortex of magic quicken. It hovered above the sword, channeling the frigid forces toward the blade. A brilliant orb of sapphire light crackled with energy at the point of contact as Kalda’s power surged into the weapon. Gobban could no longer see Kalda. A blinding radiance obscured everything from view until flashing and disappearing with a loud clap of thunder. The magic exploded, throwing the smith to the ground. The concussion extinguished the forge fire throwing the room into darkness as a wild wind ripped its way outside.
Silence dominated. The smith took a moment to collect himself. He lay on the floor and shivered under a new coating of snow and ice. Ghostly afterimages from the dazzling light danced across Gobban’s vision in the darkness. As his eyes recovered, he became aware of lighter areas of blackness outlining the windows and from somewhere inside a faint blue glimmer.
Sitting up, he beheld the sword gleaming with a radiance absent before. There was no sign of the ice sprite. Gently picking the blade up, Gobban studied it. The runes etched into the steel shimmered with an otherworldly blue light. One rune sparkled more intensely than the others.
“Isaz,” he whispered.
Responding to his voice, the sword crackled with light extending from the runes to illuminate the entire blade. A chill seeped down into the handle nipping his hand. Ignoring the frigid pain caused by touching the sword, Gobban cradled the weapon and wept.
“Kalda, your sacrifice will not be forgotten.”
Gobban’s heart ached to recognize the runes burned with Kalda’s familiar sapphire blue light. Loath to move, to disturb the solemnity of this grievous moment, he knelt quietly. The smith grappled with warring emotions. He knew he should be grateful, consumed with joyous relief. They had succeeded in creating a weapon to defend the kingdom. But sorrow and guilt welled up, threatening to drown him.
Listening to the shutters banging in the breeze, Gobban chided himself. He acknowledged the tragedy of Kalda’s death, but his emotions dumbfounded him. Humans and fey folk rarely interacted. The smith had spent one night with the ice sprite. He did not understand why he felt this way.
A faint, unfamiliar noise pulled Gobban out of his reveries. With dawn beginning to break, he wondered if the sound had come from outside. The smith refused to face the world just yet. He stood, walked to each window, and closed the shutters. He stumbled forward in the gloom using the sword’s light to see. After some effort, Gobban managed to rekindle a frost-covered torch. He grimaced in dismay surveying the sodden remains of the forge fire in the smoky, guttering torchlight.
Again, a muted sound caught his attention. He raised the flickering light to illuminate more of the smithy. A whispering murmur percolated from somewhere inside. Cautiously stepping forward, he searched the room. On the far side of the forge, a figure lay huddled on the floor.
Shocked, Gobban’s heart skipped a beat. His mind raced; he wondered if this was Kalda’s body. He hadn’t anticipated anything corporal remaining behind after the ice sprite had selflessly poured out her spirit. Gobban realized he was shaking, racked with indecision. He dreaded having to gaze upon her lifeless form.
The smith stood rooted in pace, hesitating until he perceived a quiet groan coming from the prone form. With a disbelieving, desperate hope, Gobban catapulted forward. Collapsing next to the body, he gawked. Coarse fabric and the filthy pelt of an unknown animal covered the figure. Long hair hid the person’s face.
Hand trembling, he reached out to turn the body over. Through the grime and dirt, Gobban could see it was a woman. He nearly leaped out of his skin when she coughed. He leaned closer, scrutinizing the stranger. Wild, dark, unkempt hair framed a beautiful face. Tentatively, he leaned forward to listen to her breathe. Instantly, he could feel her warmth and vitality. The woman stirred, eyes fluttering open with a look of surprise.
Gobban studied the woman’s face. He recognized her features, but instead of pale, unnaturally white features, Kalda had a tanned, ruddy complexion. Deep, dark brown eyes gazed back at the smith. Astonished, Kalda studied her hands and felt her face. She smiled, crying. Gobban assumed she shed tears of joy.
“But, how? I don’t understand,” he asked.
“The gods have restored me to what I was eons ago before the völvur’s magic made me into something different.”
“You, you were human? I mean, you’re human?” Gobban whispered.
“Yes, human.” she laughed.
Gobban clasped Kalda tightly in an embrace. Showering her face with kisses.
“I don’t understand. But, it doesn’t matter. You’re alive!” the smith said.
“The gods have forgiven me, Gobban. I have a second chance.”
“But, why? What did you…?”
Kalda touched a finger to Gobban’s lips, silencing him.
“Not yet. Please. I promise I will explain soon,”
Sensing Gobban desperately yearned for some explanation, Kalda sighed, shaking her head.
“I was foolish and vain. Lust for power consumed me, stealing my humanity.”
“But, you’re not… I mean, you’ve… changed?”
“I believe I have. Yes. Yes, I have. After all these years, meeting you has changed everything.”
Kalda smiled broadly and giggled. Gobban smirked, blushing. He shook his head, struggling to reconcile the youthful image before him with her claim to ancientness.
“Older than you can count, master smith. And yet, I am beginning to feel young again.”
You’ve just downloaded a promising new book, found a comfy place to read, have snacks close by and are reasonable sure that no one will bother you for a while. Or perhaps you are old school and have an actual “book”. You hold it, take time to look at the cover, flip through the pages quickly to get a better whiff of the smell of the paper and the ink and then…you crack open the book with that satisfying sound of the spine of the book snapping. Ahh, enjoying the art of reading can be one of life’s simplest pleasures. For us fantasy and science fiction aficionados the thrill of losing ourselves in a brilliant, exciting unknown world with unbelievable technologies, super powers or magic is an addiction. There is always room for a new hero to cheer on as they battle the forces of evil! I’d like to spend some time talking a bit about those bad guys. Let’s put aside for a moment, the main actors. They get the best lines, the coolest powers and more often than not find a way to survive no matter what befalls them. Let’s examine a bit closer the role of the little guy, the minion. They are the poor ones that have to stand in the front row as the powers of good advance. In film and print they are usually dispatched with little effort or regard for who or what they are. Now I enjoy a good battle scene just like most, but let’s consider how these characters are portrayed. Entertainment is influenced by money, hype and flashy effects. Often the bad guys serve only one purpose and that is to give the good people targets. Subsequently, the costume designs, meager backstories and physical characteristics seek to eliminate any hint of individuality or self-worth. Yet, I wonder if one digs deeper into a fantasy world is it possible to garner a better understanding of what motivates the hordes of evil?
It feels right to begin with the Star Wars saga. Stormtroopers. Where to start? When George Lucas began it seems clear he had a larger back story, but had no idea how much of his space opera would actually make it to the screen. Stormtroopers are faceless, featureless, nameless. We get a hint that they might all be the same build when Princess Leia remarks that Luke is a bit short to be a stormtrooper. There is mention of a clone war, but I certainly had no idea what a clone was when I first saw Star Wars. I wonder how many did? The stormtrooper design works great for what Star Wars was in 1977. As the concept was allowed to evolve decades later, we learn what stormtroopers were. Honestly, the idea of clones is not really an improvement since these minor characters are manufactured and can simply be replaced. There is a reality that most fantasy/science fiction tales have a lot of violence in them. Dehumanizing the slaughter of the enemy makes it easier to read. I get it. But, the interesting thing about the Star Wars franchise is, as it became larger than any one story arc, a myriad of writers have set out in many new directions. It isn’t as simple as good and evil anymore. I highly recommend to anyone the animated Clones War series. I like this tv show for many reasons, but I really appreciate how the show addresses war, military conflicts, causalities and most importantly how the clones truly are individuals. In a way that couldn’t happen in a movie, the series shows how the clones name themselves, cut their hair different and have differences in their personalities. It humanizes these characters and changes the whole feel to the battle scenes. Deaths are mourned. The stormtroopers show emotions. The end result is a story that is more authentic and forces us to reflect on our own world’s troops, wars and the value of life.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first and then The Lord of the Rings. Most people do not realize that his true work wasn’t published until after he died. The works he is famous for are spin offs from the central story he had hoped to create. I will forever be enthralled with his attempt to fashion a whole mythology and history for his world. Again we do find ourselves confronted with enormous battles and loss of life. This is through and through an epic tale of great powers battling over the control of the destiny of creation. Tolkien employs a different technique to make the killing of the enemy more palatable to the reader. The orcs or goblins are grotesque, disfigured, ill-kept, unmannered, uncultured, foul-tempered …you name it…they have all the most horrible qualities. I am a person who tends to abhor violence in the real world. I champion the call to allow people the chance to redeem themselves when they have erred. So, what’s the deal with these orcs, trolls, goblins? Were they always this bad? Where did they come from? Being raised Christian, I realize geez…Jesus would probably be hanging out in the orc’s den trying to get them to shape up. I say that somewhat in jest, but I think you get the point I’m driving at. If a reader takes the time to branch out and explore more of Tolkien’s writing, one is shocked to learn that orcs are actually elves. Say what??? Yes, it’s true. Deep in the earlier ages of time after a cataclysmic war between powerful angelic-like beings, the forces of good didn’t really win. They withdrew into a fortress realm to guard against the armies of evil. It was a truce of sorts. The world where elves and men were to appear was left in darkness and all but abandoned. Melkor, an exceedingly powerful demonic being, was ever watchful, waiting for the appearance of the elves. He lied to them presenting himself as friend. He betrayed them and dominated many. They were enslaved and their very nature was twisted into the hideous form of the orc. The equally noble ents are the source material for the creation of trolls. No wonder the orcs, trolls and goblins are they way they are. They hate what they have become and hate anything reminding them of what they lost. Tolkien tells this tale, but does not explore the concept of salvation or remedying this corruption. One has to wonder if slain orcs go to the Undying Halls to await the end of time with the elf spirits. I get the sense Tolkien felt orcs had been damaged beyond any hope of restoration to their original beauty and dignity. Makes me think of how our own world collectively has groups of people it considers twisted beyond deserving the hope of rehabilitation. I would encourage all to take the time to read Tolkien’s masterpiece The Silmarillion. It gives The Hobbit and The Lord for the Rings more clarity and a greater sense of purpose.
So, I return to my poor minions. The message I am trying to impart is these armies of minor characters serve a purpose providing friction against which the hero strives to overcome. They are essential elements which if absent make for no conflict; no story. But, I am eager to find more authors that bring to bear the complexity of hard ethical questions about the value of a life into their writing. I hope, as I begin to contemplate my own villains and legions of bad guys, I can convey hints at least as to why they act so horribly. What will motivate them to walk the dark path? If you have a favorite book, movie or series that you believe does a good job of humanizing the poor minion please share with me.