[This is a review of the 192000 word version of West of ’89, available from Smashwords.com, courtesy of “Dabooda”, followed by my response. These comments were first posted on The Daily Paul.]
You said you’d like to hear my comments on your book West of 89, so here goes.
There’s good news and bad news. First the good news: Things I particularly liked:
1. You handle narrative and dialogue well – professional quality work.
2. I liked the overall libertarian sensibility you brought to the book, and would look forward to reading more of your stuff.
3. It kept me reading – you didn’t let narrative tension lapse at all. Very well done.
4. I particularly liked the Donnie Fleming character: you let him GROW. Everybody else in the book was pretty much unchanging in terms of character, but Donnie discovered “something worth doing,” which, as Heinlein wrote, is the secret of happiness. (“Happiness lies in being privileged to work hard for long hours at whatever you think is worth doing”) It redeemed him, and it was good to see.
5. I liked your use of the gold vs. fiat money issue. Also your portrayal of a restitution-based justice system – those might stir your readers’ brain cells in a worthwhile direction.
I’m afraid there’s a lot of bad news, too.
1. The overall concept of your alternate history really isn’t very interesting. So our continent is infested by a bunch of smaller governments, rather than three large ones? This is interesting – why? You don’t go into enough detail about the nature of the different governments for the reader to know if one is really better than the others – or better than our present ones. Schickler is obviously Evil Incarnate – but that doesn’t automatically make the governments he attacks “the good guys.” Reminds me of the reason I DON”T watch professional sports: I need a REASON to root for one team over another, and geography doesn’t do the trick for me.
2. There’s no theme. Racism and assault and slavery are bad things? Is this news to anyone? I kept hoping that you would come out with a pitch for the PRINCIPLES that men ought to strive for, instead of government-as-usual, but no luck.
3. With the exception of Donnie Fleming, your characters are one-dimensional. Some are likeable, some are hateful, but none of them develop. They don’t learn, they don’t discover any new truths about themselves or their world – and, most disappointingly, neither will the reader of your book.
4. Your villains are cartoons of villainy, not real people. “No man is a villain in his own eyes.” (Heinlein) You should keep that in mind, and try to figure out what makes REAL evil people tick. I’d suggest two reading assignments to help you with that. First, read David Friedman’s essay “Love Is Not Enough,” from his book The Machinery of Freedom. It’s free to read online here (starting down on Page 12)
The second is Larken Rose’s book, The Most Dangerous Superstition.
Friedman’s insight is that there are ONLY three ways to get stuff from other people: love, trade and force. Think about it. People have a gazillion different moral systems, but they have only THREE basic ethical choices, when it comes to dealing with other people. Do some thinking about what allows some people to believe that naked, unprovoked coercion can be a righteous way to treat others.
Larken Rose’s book explores the reasons that governments can wreak such enormous evil in the world – why people go along with monsters like Hitler and Schickler. Hint: It is NOT because people are resentful, envious monsters looking for a way to victimize their neighbors.
5. Nitpicky stuff:
* I’ve never seen “okay” spelled “okeh” before – yes, I found it in a dictionary as a legitimate variant spelling, but it’s very rarely used, and it annoyed me.
* You’re creating an alternate America – why refer to Schinkler as “Herr” and why, at one point, does a character sneeringly refer to him as “Schicklgruber”? (Yes, I know that was Hitler’s father’s original name) But you make no mention of Hitler himself in your story! Why would “Schicklgruber” be used as an insult? Why use the Germanic “Herr” when referring to American Schickler?? In your alternate world, Germany is not even mentioned. Why do you want to imply that all racism is somehow Germanic?
*Anything you put at the beginning of your book is a “prologue”, not an “epilogue”. Doesn’t matter that the events take place after the balance of your story. When I reached your second and third epilogues, you had me scratching my head and turning pages, trying to find the first one.
*Why is the title “West of 89″ ? West of a year? What does THAT mean?
*At one point somewhere in the middle of the book, you have this jarring little cosmological essay with no relationship to anything else in the story, before or after. I’d cut that out, myself.
All in all, the book was not a terrible first effort, and I’d gladly read another . . .
Recommended reading: The Most Dangerous Superstition,
And from me: Please accept my most earnest thanks for the precious gift of your irreplaceable time. Not only the time you expended in actually reading the monstrosity, of course but, more benefit to me, actually articulating what you found in it. I am multiply in your debt, particularly since you are not asking for your money back. I wisely did not guarantee the work.
There seems to be no limit to the amount of stroking that my ego can soak up, so I found your first burst of praise to rush by much too quickly. Nevertheless, I thank you for the kindnesses. While I will make no futile effort to redeem my novel, believing that things must fail on their own merits, I am happy to offer a little post hoc illumination, since much of your insightful, dispassionate, and over-all objective review did include a number of question marks.
The book is not intended to be a touchy feely personal growth coming of age piece, though I realize that SOME of that can serve a story, and too little leaves it a little lacking. That type of stuff is clearly not my strength, and I don’t blanch at your pointing it out. The intent, and I hope I wasn’t too far from the mark, was to be an adventure story with comic elements, with a little mental stimulus and a few historical and cultural tropes thrown in for fun.
Donnie is one of my favorites, too. I started out hating the little weasel, but he kind of took on a life of his own. Fact is, neither Donnie nor Lena were intended for particular greatness in the story, but once I had — not created — channeled?– Once I had fleshed them out they pretty much took over. With most characters I find I have to make a deliberate effort to distinguish them. Because I am lazy, I tend to model my protagonists after me. Harry is me. Clark is me. Sugar is me. Heywood and Brian and Lem are all me. Less so, Lem, of course, as I don’t share his faith, and more so Clark, though still a theist, but we do share a strong female chauvinism. Mostly I’m Harry and Sugar, albeit at different stages of my life, and of course, I never had to escape from an Islamo-Christian-Commie-Death-Cult.
Alternate history not interesting? Everybody‘s right about what he likes. I found it to be a useful device to re-render a blank canvas of the North American continent with many of the same forces contesting it again, and used it as an opportunity to explore different structures of governments. I tried to spice it up with references to separatist and fusion movements throughout history, as well as a few thinly veiled references to people we might think we already know. (Do you think “Rusty Sharpe” or “Fightin’ Fidel” might recognize themselves?) Maybe too ambitious? I went into greater detail in earlier drafts. You think it‘s didactic now? It was positively turgid earlier. You got off easy, even though you may have felt a little adrift at times. Even as it was I think I was a bit heavy handed in pounding my drum vis a‘ vis hard money, human bondage, and bigotry. No defense but, “I‘m still learning?” And faster with your generous guidance.
If there is a “theme“ to the story, I guess it is that history is preposterous and life is precarious. I had hoped that de Tocqueville would have set that tone up front.
Okeh? English orthography has not been formalized for very long and in its brief lifetime has undergone some mutations. I wanted to pepper the text with constant reminders of the “alien-ness“ of my particular California Confederacy. Again, earlier drafts were lousy with variant spellings, but as one alpha reader pointed out, “Whenever I read about someone using his sabre to cut a grey fibre in the theatre my brain skips.” So again, you got off easy. I’m sorry you tripped over okeh. When I “invented” that spelling I didn’t know that it was already an “acceptable” alternative, I just thought it made internal sense. I still do, and you don’t, and we get to disagree, and so far you, at least, have not been disagreeable about it.
In an effort not to club the reader over the head, I may have ended up being too vague, As far as never mentioning Hitler, however, Adam does relate to his guests that his grandfather, after having served his Kaiser, was exiled to German held (formerly British) Guyana (Gaijana). The elder Schickler was hounded out of Europe by “Slavs and Jews”, and then out of Dixie by the christo-commie-muslim revolutionaries. Harry was never casting cultural slurs at Teuts per se, he simply alluded to Schickler’s personal and family history. It may be schoolyard juvenilia to refer to someone inaccurately, either to mispronounce his name, or to hark back to an earlier variant, but if I’m an arrested adolescent, then perhaps Harry can’t help it either. Nevertheless, I thank you for the observation, and I’ll give it a little more thought. While many of my characters are vile and racist and misogynistic, I hope that I am not, nor thought to be.
West of 89? Why not? The dimensional dissonance flags the counterfactual historical aspect of that particular branch of spec-fic., and I thought The Coefficient of Restitution might fallute a little too highly. Other contenders were Hamurabe’s Farm, Death Camp California, and Black Adam.
Cosmological essay. I think you refer to my (poetically pretentious?) recapitulation of the recent geologic history of the Cascadian (Republic of Idaho in the “World of West of ’89” and eastern Oregon and Washington in ours) high desert. I was trying to set up the science behind Harry’s final solution to California’s Aryan problem. I may have overplayed it. You clearly thought so, but I found it rather satisfying. Again, de gustibus non disputandum, ne-c’est pas?
You coaxed me in with kindness, gave me the hearty slapping around I so richly deserved, and then eased me back out with your assurance that on balance you found my effort to be worthy of your time. I couldn’t be more tickled unless I started selling LOTS more copies.
Once again, thank you for your valuable time. I will cherish your good wishes and ponder your pronouncements.
Your comrade for liberty,
(aka Professor Bernardo de la Paz)
update 180703: Since Dabooda’s kind suggestions, I’ve cut some 35000 words (some whole scenes), KEPT the poetically pretentious geological interlude, and added two prologues, and STILL haven’t re-titled “Epilogue One” which appears immediately before Chapter One. Epilogues Two and Three continue to follow Chapter Twenty-five.
You can get your own hard copy, post paid, from Greigh Area Associates or Piracy Press for Fifteen United $tates Legal Tender Federal Reserve “Dollars” (U$LT) in check or money order, or Three Quarters of a Silver Dollar, in silver coin. Send your U$LT to Gene Greigh, c/o Greigh Area Associates // 843 Carson Drive, Lebanon, Ohio; 45036 // An earlier version of this novel, weighing in at a tedious and didactic 192000 words, can be had in digital format from smashwords.com for $1.99 Fe’ral Reserve Digits.