The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Brain Candy

Posted on | October 23, 2014 | 28 Comments

— by Wombat-socho

Many years ago, when I was still an APAhacker, one of my fellow Stipple-APA members introduced me to a term I’d never seen before: “brain candy”. He used it much like “eye candy”, only he was talking about SF novels which didn’t have any hifalutin’ messages, intersectionalism, or any of that other crap; they were just good workmanlike stories that entertained you and made you think your $3 was well spent on that particular paperback. Brain candy seems to have made a comeback thanks to e-book readers and easier self-publishing; instead of wasting eight bucks on some social justice warrior’s notion of a transgressive novel, you can plunk down three or four bucks and enjoy a good story. A good example of this is Vaughn Heppner’s The Lost Starship, which I borrowed through the Amazon Prime Lending Library. It starts with a duel to the death between our hero, Captain Maddox of Star Watch Intelligence, and a scion of the corporate oligarchy and rapidly changes course to a desperate quest with a misfit crew (including a bonafide Mad Scientist and an alcoholic ace pilot) for an six millenia old alien dreadnaught that may be just a legend – all the while being pursued by the New Men, posthumans with superior technology as well as mental and physical advantages over regular humans. As if his job wasn’t verging on impossible already, Maddox has an additional problem: was he deliberately planted as an orphan by the New Men to infiltrate and betray humanity? Lots of adventure, derring-do, and humanity outfoxing its nominal betters. Highly recommended.

Also recommended is the second volume in Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, The Crimson Campaign. The direct sequel to Promise of Blood, it covers the disastrous invasion of Kez by Marshal Tamas, and the resulting counter-invasion by Kez which forces the Marshal’s estranged son, the celebrated hero and powder mage “Two-Shot” Taniel, into the front lines as seemingly the only man who can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – if he can keep the generals in command from hanging him or locking him up in the stockade. Meanwhile, back in the capital city, retired inspector Adamat closes in on Lord Vetas, conspiracies and politics are everywhere, and the last mage of the old king’s cabal has some debts to pay. McClellan does an excellent job of keeping all the plot balls in the air while continuing to develop his characters, and I think he gives S.M. Stirling a good run for his money in his unstinting portrayal of the horrors of Napoleonic-style warfare, only made worse by conventional and powder magic. I found this in the library, which is good since I wasn’t about to pay $12.99 for the Kindle edition; used hardcovers are starting to come onto the market for $14, but paperback copies are still insanely expensive. Recommended, but you may want to wait for the prices to come down and/or Hachette to regain their sanity.

Unlike the Honorverse, which has gotten completely out of hand, I am still following Eric Flint’s 1632 series*, and the most recent installment I’ve read, 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, is a worthy addition to the series. Co-written by Flint and Charles Gannon, it has much in common with The Crimson Campaign in that there are a ton of plot balls and characters aloft, and the team of Flint and Gannon is excellent at keeping everything going without getting bogged down in infodumps or tedious exposition. Also, excellently described naval battles which made it easy for me to visualize the action in a way I haven’t experienced since Forester’s Hornblower novels. I liked it better than Iver Cooper’s 1636: Seas of Fortune, which immediately precedes 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies in the Caribbean; Cooper is not quite as deft as Flint and Gannon, and the book’s division between events in the Caribbean and the Japanese colonization of California (which kept reminding me of Stirling’s The Golden Princess), which I was reading at the time) didn’t help. Seas of Change was okay brain candy, but Commander Cantrell in the West Indies is a LOT better.

Not really SF, but worth reading anyway: The Mongoliad, by Neil Stephenson, Greg Bear and about a squad’s worth of other writers. Stephenson and his little band seem intent on doing for 13th-century Europe in the wake of the Mongol invasion what Stephenson did for Europe in the late 17th century around the time of the Siege of Vienna in his Baroque Cycle.** The Mongoliad is up to five novels and a spate of side-stories, but in the main it starts right after the Battle of Liegnitz, in which the Mongols crushed the Polish army and seemed ready to ride right through Europe until they reached the Atlantic. A small band of warriors decides that in order to win the war, the Mongols must be distracted: half their band will delay the Western Horde by participating in a Circus of Swords, while the other half goes to find the Kha Khan and kill him. Interesting alternate history, or perhaps more of a secret history, but I have the next two books in the series and intend to talk about them more fully next week.

*The first taste is free. 🙂
**The first taste isn’t free, but it’s extremely cheap.


28 Responses to “Brain Candy”

  1. Bumr50
    October 23rd, 2014 @ 10:38 pm

    I used to call marijuana “brain candy.”

  2. DeadMessenger
    October 23rd, 2014 @ 10:44 pm

    But…but…Wombat! What if my idea of brain candy is a nice, entertaining math or physics text? Don’t you know that “Physics Is Phun”? (One of my profs actually wore a sweatshirt like that. And people thought I was a nerd.)

    Or how about a nice political commentary, or an anti-Communist manifesto? You know, just some light weekend reading.

  3. DeadMessenger
    October 23rd, 2014 @ 11:04 pm

    Oh, and also, you’d know this: Stacy usually links to paperbacks on Amazon, but I’m a Kindle kinda girl. If I follow his link, but switch formats, will he still get credit?

  4. Wombat_socho
    October 23rd, 2014 @ 11:09 pm

    Stacy covers politics, I stick to books and linkagery. That’s what I’m getting a gruel ration for. 😉

  5. Wombat_socho
    October 23rd, 2014 @ 11:09 pm

    Yes. My links are all to the Kindle format, except when a book isn’t available that way.

  6. Daniel Freeman
    October 24th, 2014 @ 12:26 am

    “Other Worlds Than These” is a well-selected anthology of alternate-reality SF. I haven’t finished yet, because it has the kinds of stories that make me ponder them for awhile, so I keep on having to take it back to the library. (More holds than copies, can’t renew.) I would recommend buying it instead.

  7. Fail Burton
    October 24th, 2014 @ 1:07 am

    Jack McDevitt has a new SF novel just coming out in his Alex Benedict series called Coming Home and he recently put out another in the Priscilla Hutchins series called Starhawk. McDevitt is capable of writing very good SF and it is devoid of brainless shallowness and gender feminism ideals.

  8. DeadMessenger
    October 24th, 2014 @ 1:45 am

    So Stacy essentially feeds you Michelle Obama school lunches??? 😀

  9. DeadMessenger
    October 24th, 2014 @ 2:03 am

    I like thinky-books, but I don’t care for Star-Wars-bar-scene fantasy-type stuff. In fact, I don’t much like Star Wars (ducks). I would like futuristic or purely alternate reality stories, which might have unusual settings or technology, but where the people act like people. Like we know that people have acted, generally, throughout history, and will continue to act. Is that what this book is like?

  10. Daniel Freeman
    October 24th, 2014 @ 2:34 am

    Yes, exactly. It has been a lot of food for thought. It has also been a lot of food for feeling, touching on existential themes without mercy.

  11. Bob Belvedere
    October 24th, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    Rather, fair Wombaticus, it might be more accurate to say that you stick to ‘books, boobs, and linkagery’.

  12. Quartermaster
    October 24th, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    The Honorverse has gotten out of hand. I still like it even if it’s hard to keep up with coming out. I don’t like the feminist thing of making a woman the central character and maiming her to boot. Hooked on the Safe hold series now.

  13. FLBuckeye
    October 24th, 2014 @ 10:07 am

    I really enjoy Vaughn Heppner’s works. Just finished the Extinction Wars trilogy. Also am a S.M. Stirling addict. Highly recommend his stand alone book “Conquistador” in addition the the Change series.

  14. M. Thompson
    October 24th, 2014 @ 10:35 am

    Safehold is the only thing I’m reading first run right now.

    Mostly the money thing right now, and that Wonder Woman and friends have gotten meh.

  15. M. Thompson
    October 24th, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

    No, it’s thin oatmeal.

    And the beatings will continue until Stacy’s morale improves.

  16. K-Bob
    October 24th, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

    I had the same experience, Wombat. I had a friend who was far more into the media aspects of SF and Fantasy (lurkers note: that means ALL media, not just visual) than me. (I was simply interested in really good explorations of the future by men and women with strong science and math backgrounds.) He introduced me to the term, and loaned me the Lensman series to read.

    Most of Heinlein reads like brain candy, whereas a lot of Neil Stephenson (to merely grab one splendid example) requires the reader to bring a lil’ something to the table as well.

    Gene Wolfe does not write brain candy. Neither does Dan Simmons. With both of those guys, you have to read multiple times to make sure the story turned out the way you suspected it did upon first reading. After a few years, you will remain uncertain.

    I know he’s not most adult readers’ cup of tea, but 98% of the stuff cranked out by Piers Anthony is pure brain candy. I respect his level of output and his ability to write human-readable prose that isn’t pretentious. It tends to the formulaic, but you have to expect that.

    I suspect the kinds of works you call brain candy are still at a higher level of cranial involvement than the ones I would put in that genre. The works I call brain candy are the kinds that give you cavities.

  17. richard mcenroe
    October 24th, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

    They didn’t “maim” her. True to the series roots as Napoleonic naval fiction, they’ve given her every wound Horatio Nelson ever received (OK, outside of killing her husband, no one ever killed Horatio Nelson’s husband although a few husbands might have wanted to kill him.

  18. Wombat_socho
    October 24th, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

    I like that phrasing better!

  19. Quartermaster
    October 24th, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

    Yeah Weber maimed her. Her father had to put her back together. She has an artificial hand and eye. The hand had a pulsar dart gun built in too.
    As I recall, Paul Tankersley and Honor were never married.

  20. Wombat_socho
    October 24th, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

    They were not. I think Baen made a big mistake in not letting Weber kill Harrington off a la Nelson (as he’d originally planned), but it’s not my character.

  21. Wombat_socho
    October 24th, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

    I’m not sure we can really say Stephenson is writing SF any more, though that’s an argument I’m saving for next week’s post.

  22. K-Bob
    October 24th, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

    Mining history. All the good writers seem to want to do historical stuff at some point.

  23. Quartermaster
    October 24th, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

    I can’t remember at what he said he was originally going to kill her, but he didn’t mention Baen. He said the fans would have killed him. Still, I think Weber is have trouble thinking what to do with her now, and so he’s branched out on other threads.
    Safehold is still following a reasonable track. I think Harrington is going to end up petering out.

  24. Dana
    October 25th, 2014 @ 7:24 am

    The Conan short stories by Robert E Howard are my brain candy, and I have read them all, virtually to death.

    In the 1960s,L Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter — mostly Mr deCamp — edited some of Mr Howard’s published stories and completed and rewrote some of his unpublished stuff, and added a couple of complete stories on their own, in the Lancer Books paperback series. I gobbled those up, along with the Tor originals, which were of varying quality.

    Alas! They haven’t been Kindleized!

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  26. havloq
    October 25th, 2014 @ 10:10 pm

    After book 3 or so it became tedious. I liked the strategery, the problem solving, and the military stuff, but having to plow through his weird, repetitive descriptions of Honor that remind you that she’s a towering amazon with a cat. Ooh, space cat. Look everyone! A space cat that’s catty. And she’s tall! Did I mention that she’s tall! No, dude. Like really, really tall. With a space cat. Like a tall, space-faring amazon with a saber tooth-tiger except smaller. I mean the cat is smaller; she’s a gdamn lumbering giant~!


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  28. Daniel Freeman
    October 26th, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

    I have several of the graphic novels (the new ones by Dark Horse). They’re really good.