BOOK REVIEW: “Catalyst” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; And a Chat

Before I do anything else, I must remind all Canadian citizens and residents that tomorrow, Sept. 6, is the deadline to vote for the 2014 Aurora Awards! From R. Graeme Cameron’s Auroran Lights, the “official” newsletter of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association (CSFFA), comes this:

DEADLINE FOR AURORA AWARD VOTING
Is midnight Montreal/Toronto time, 11:00 PM Winnipeg time, 10:00 PM Calgary/Edmonton time & 9:00 PM Vancouver/Victoria time Saturday September 6th. In other words, be aware of the time zones!

That means if you haven’t already voted for me, or for Graeme, or for Dr. Robert Runté in the Best Fan-Related Work category, you have just today (Friday) and tomorrow to do so. Naturally, I would prefer to win the award, but even if you don’t vote for me, please just VOTE! (By the way, it’s www.prixaurorawards.ca!)

(Apologies to Americans, Britons, Aussies, etc.; you’re not eligible unless you hold dual citizenship. Sorry.)

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog entry.

Figure 1 - Catalyst Cover

Figure 1 – Catalyst Cover

I ordered this book from Amazon.ca back in June; the postie (Canadian for “mailman” or “mailperson” [since our regular postie isn’t a man]) delivered it this morning. It’s not even a new book; even as a first edition, the copyright date is 2006. (I just noticed it was typeset—and, I assume, edited—by John D. Berry, whom I used to know in the Seattle area, even though the press—Tachyon Publishers—is based in San Francisco.) I have long been a fan of Nina K. Hoffman’s, and I have been lax in obtaining all her books, which I am now attempting to remedy.

If you don’t already know who Nina K. Hoffman is, you really should. According to the jacket of Catalyst, this is Nina’s first science fiction novel; according to the cover, it’s a “Novel of Alien Contact.” Now, Nina has been writing for a long time—both fiction and non-fiction; her diary (as far as I know) has been written in daily for most of her life. Her very first novel, The Thread that Binds the Bones, won the Bram Stoker Award in 1993. Her second novel, two years later, was called The Silent Strength of Stones and was a finalist for both the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. She has written both adult fantasy and YA books as well as a couple of hundred short stories. And yet, when I go to my local Chapters (a Canadian bookstore chain) I never—repeat, never—see her books on the shelf. I hope enough of you will go to your local bricks-and-mortar bookstore and request some of Nina’s books!

Let’s talk about Catalyst first. This fairly slim volume (it’s a trade paperback) is under 200 pages, but chock full of story. Kaslin Davorna is a “mid-teen” (age unspecified, as far as I can tell), who lives on the planet Chuudoku. Kas first noticed Histly, partially because of her crystalline green eyes, when he first started school. Although he was advised by a boy sitting next to him to lower his eyes and not stare, he was captivated. Which was a mistake: Histly’s parents—obviously rich—had paid for augmentations and implants (some poisonous), supposedly for self-defense, but which Histly has used to bully fellow students. “Kaslin saw Histly and thought, yum. Histly saw Kaslin and thought, prey. After that first day, Kaslin saw Histly and thought, run.” (This is a common thread in much of Nina’s work that I’ve read: the younger or weaker person who is bullied and/or preyed upon by strangers or even family members. Her sympathy for the underdog, combined with her lyrical writing, has led some to compare her with Bradbury. “…this generation’s Ray Bradbury,” crows the Daily Oregonian.

To compare her with Bradbury does both writers, I think, a sort of disservice. Bradbury’s writing, especially that dealing with Martians or small-town America, has an excited, breathless feel of its own, totally unlike what Nina writes. Nina’s books and stories often feature underdog protagonists, and how they usually rise above their tormented status and become whole persons in themselves; her books—unlike Bradbury’s—are usually imbued with actual magic; often a Power that doesn’t manifest itself until the protagonist has learned the hard way what it is like to be the least-powerful person in your group or gathering. There is a certain feel that both writers share; something wistful and sometimes—with Bradbury often—nostalgic. But Nina is her own writer, and I’m glad she’s not a clone, copy or poor imitation of Ray Bradbury, whose writing I’ve admired practically all my life.)

Figure 2 - Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Figure 2 – Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Anyway, Kas’s father is a perennial ne’er-do-well who’s found himself in trouble (and now exiled to Chuudoku) because he’s always looked for the get-rich-quick, take-the-easy-way-even-if-it’s-not-legal scheme. And this time the family has been exiled with him. Chuudoku is a partially Terraformed planet with no native sentient life; some of the native plants and animals are partially inimical to Terrans, but for the most part, if not benign, at least not actively inimical. One day, while trying to escape from Histly, Kas runs into a spike tree grove and, after falling down, finds a low, hitherto unknown cavern entry. Driven by the need to escape (Histly calls, “Oh, Kas… you wait and see what I’ve got for you now. I have five more fingertips to try on you, and my thumbs can do things too. Just you wait.”), Kas scoots into the cave, which is dark, and ends up sliding down two slopes in the darkness on what appear to be slippery flakes, like soap flakes.

While alone in the dark, he hears sounds: what appears to be a voice, saying things like “Bink,” and “Blook.” He tentatively repeats what he hears and discovers that “Bink” makes a light come on, and “Blook” makes the flakes less slippery and more solid. After a time, he discovers what appears to be an alien face under a glassy surface and, with more exploration and experimentation with sounds, Kas discovers he has awakened some sort of alien, on a “Class G” planet which was supposed to have no sentient life forms. The aliens appear to be somewhat spider-like, although they have many more limbs than do spiders, and they quickly surround Kas, removing his clothing and touching his body all over. They also eat all the hair on, not only his head, but also his whole body. (And here the book becomes maybe a bit inappropriate for a younger audience, as there is a bit of sexuality, beginning with the aliens’ touching of Kas. As a parent, I would have no problem allowing my early teen (or even more mature pre-teens) read this, but some people might be uncomfortable with any sexuality at all in a book that they would give younger readers. I might point out, however, that even with a “mid-teen” protagonist, I don’t think this is intended for a YA audience.

Kas learns that Histly has followed him, and even her poisonous fingers and augmentations won’t let her have her way, and she becomes the prisoner of the aliens; Kas himself is given several new words to help him work the flakes, and he finds out that, after releasing Histly, even when she pronounces his words (like “Bink”) they don’t work for her. There is clearly alien technology at work here; and Kas, for once, has the upper hand and the inner track. I will leave the rest of the “first contact” novel for you to discover; my purpose is to introduce you to it, and review it for you, not to tell you the whole story! Review? I thought it was very good, and very well written; I wish it were longer, as I’d like to find out more about Kas’s interactions with both the aliens and Histly after the point the book ends. Like in The Thread That Binds the Bones, the protagonist (Kas) here discovers that he is not entirely powerless, even though the people around him are immensely more powerful than he; it is intimated that eventually he, too, will find his own place in the world and the world will value him for who and what he is. (I’m not going to say “Happy ending,” because the book leaves Kas’s future somewhat vague; I am, however, going to say, “Positive ending,” because you’re sure things will work out somehow for Kas despite Histly and all the other more powerful people. And I don’t think that’s a spoiler.)

So buy this from Amazon.com, or wherever—but if you buy from Amazon, be prepared to wait. (It is, however, worth the wait in my opinion.)

How did I get to know the work of Nina Kiriki Hoffman? Simple; I was there when she started submitting professionally. More than thirty years ago, I lived in the small Eastern Washington college town of Pullman, home of Washington State University. (A town that, like its sister town of Moscow, Idaho, home of the University of Idaho—eight miles away—grows from its normal size of around thirty thousand to about fifty thousand when school is in session. When I lived there it was a lot smaller, maybe half as big as now—according to Wikipedia.) I founded the so-called Palouse Empire SF Association (or PESFA) in about 1974; by 1978 our club was big enough to put on a convention, and MosCon was born—named for Moscow, because there simply wasn’t a hotel in Pullman big enough to put on a convention like what we envisioned. (When I say “we” I’m referring to myself and my best friend, Jon Gustafson as well as the various people who formed PESFA; people like Vicki Mitchell Gustafson, Mike Finkbiner, Nina K. Hoffman, Alexandra “Sasha” Zemanek, Beth Toerne, Dean Wesley Smith, Charlie Bales, Rod Sprague and a host of others. I’m good, but I couldn’t put on a con by myself. We often held PESFA meetings at the Finkbiner home, as it was large and had a hot tub.)

Sometime around or after 1982, after several of us had talked about writing a lot—and after Nina, Jon, Dean, Sasha and I formed a pretty tight group that met almost every night for fellowship and to practice our writing with and on each other—or maybe that was later—after all these years it’s become a bit unclear; I went to each of these people, and Vicki Mitchell and a couple of others, at a PESFA meeting, and said, “Are you serious about wanting to become a published writer? Then let’s do something about it!” And we started Writers’ Bloc, a self-help writers’ group. Now before you go “Oh, Gawd, not another one of them!” at me, let me explain about Writers’ Bloc. (The name was a pun on both “writer’s block” and the late Soviet Union, because of Moscow.)

The sole purpose for us meeting was not to admire each others’ writing; it was not just fellowship, and it certainly wasn’t anything like a “Ladies’ Tea and Writing Society.” We laid down hard and fast rules—which evolved, naturally—about attendance; about writing, about critiques and everything else. We were about the business of writing; and part of that was writing and submitting! Dean Smith, who had gone through various jobs and courses (architecture and law that I know of) and who really wanted to change from being a used-book bookstore owner (and a golf pro and other things) to being a writer, even wrote a weekly newsletter, titled Somewhere Else, as in “Good luck submitting this turkey somewhere else!” We had weekly or monthly challenges (write and submit five stories in five days), workshops on plot, character and so on, and weekly critique sessions. Over time, the people evolved too; but the core group remained, and everyone had a copy of the “Manuscript Submission Format,” (partially thanks to George Scithers, whose badly-laid-out two-sided single-page document was our bible on formatting); everyone was expected to write, dammit, and submit! And whatever negative you may have heard about writers’ groups, it wasn’t true for ours.

We didn’t have instant success; but after a while, success began coming the way of those who stuck with it. Dean Wesley Smith won a prize in Writers of the Future; both he and Nina went to Clarion—the original, not Clarion West; Jon sold a story to the WoF anthology, and so on. Most of us were finalists in Writers of the Future (including me). No less a personage than Algis (A.J.) Budrys lauded our group, labeling us the “Moscow Moffia,” and if you’ve never heard of A.J., as we called him (sometimes he was called the “Lithuanian Songbird,” and was noted for singing the SF version of Streisand’s Evergreen, late night at con parties)—then you need to look up Who? The Kelly Freas portrait of the torso with the polished metal ovoid for a head, smoking a cigarette, is an iconic SF image; and the book is a marvel of Cold War paranoia.

Figure 3 - Algis Budrys

Figure 3 – Algis Budrys

After Dean moved to Eugene, Oregon, marrying Kristine Kathryn Rusch in the process, he started Pulphouse Publishing, which flourished for a number of years. Vicki Mitchell sold a couple of Star Trek novels under the name of V.E. Mitchell, too. What I’m trying to say here is that if you work hard, and have some kind of determination, you can succeed even if you have only a modicum of talent. And the right kind of workshop—with determined personnel—can speed you on your way. (Our folks were more than a little talented; under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms, some of which he won’t even tell me, Dean Smith has now written and sold more novels (over 200, I believe) than Isaac Asimov. Check out his blog on writing at www.deanwesleysmith.com).

Nina Hoffman, sometime in the early part of the workshop, began writing what we were to call her “Kiriki” stories (Kiriki is her middle name) instead of the usual workshop stuff; they were more sensitive and well written than anything any of us were writing, in my opinion—and I often told her so. I’ve often been envious of Nina—not her success, which is well deserved (and she comes from a successful family; her mother’s in the movie “biz,” and her brother heads a well-thought-of band), but her abilities. Besides her writing ability, she also is very gifted musically—she plays guitar, banjo, violin (fiddle) and, I think piano. She probably plays a bunch more by now; I’ve barely seen her since I moved to Canada and she moved to Eugene. She’s insanely talented, in my opinion.

And now you know, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story. Please go to your bookstore, whether real or online, and look up Nina Kiriki Hoffman. I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I would love to see your comment(s) on this week’s column/blog entry. If you haven’t already registered—it’s free, and just takes a moment—go ahead and register, then comment here; or comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I might not agree with your comments, but they’re all welcome. Don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment; my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!

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