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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Michael R. Underwood: GENRENAUTS SERIES

Author:  Michael R. Underwood  
Plot Type:  Portal Fantasy/Other-Dimensional Science Fiction 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—2   
Publisher: Tor
Episode Titles: 
      1.   "The Shootout Solution" (11/17/2015)
      2.  "The Absconded Ambassador" (2/23/2016)
      3.  "The Cupid Reconciliation (TBA)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 2/27/2016 to include a review of "The Absconded Ambassador," the second novella in this series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of the first novella.

                       EPISODE 2:  "The Absconded Ambassador"                          
     When a breach is discovered in Science Fiction World, rookie Genrenaut Leah Tang gets her first taste of space flight. 

     A peace treaty is about to be signed on space station Ahura-3, guaranteeing the end of hostilities between some of the galaxy's most ferocious races, but when the head architect of the treaty is unexpectedly kidnapped, it's up to Leah and her new colleagues to save the day. At any cost. 

     For me, the second episode was a bit disappointing, primarily because I am not a hardcore science fiction fan. Granted, each episode is required to be genre-specific because that's the whole point of its premise, but if you as a reader are not grounded in the genre-center of the story, the whole thing falls flatand that's what happened to me with this story.

     The Genrenauts—King, Roman, Shirin, and Leah—set out for Ahura-3 to rescue the kidnapped diplomat and save the treaty. They split up into boy/girl teams, with King and Roman taking on the action part of the story and Shirin and Leah negotiating with the various parties to the treaty—keeping them calm while the men get to do all of the fighting. We see the women's scenes through Leah's untrained eyes, giving Underwood a chance to add his world-building information to the story by having Shirin explain the oddities of the space station to Leah. Back in the first episode, Leah could choose which role she wanted to play, but in this one, she gets slotted into a passive observer role that briefly blossoms into some minor negotiating. 

     As the women sit through countless dinner parties and afternoon teas with a variety of creatures from other realms, the menfolk fight their way to the space station on which the kidnapped diplomat is being held and come to her rescue. Roman is forced to lean heavily into the action hero role in this story, which brings back memories from his mysterious and—so far—unexplored past.

Cantina customers: Star Wars (1977)
     Both parts of the team meet up with countless weird space creatures, reminiscent of the customers in the iconic Mos Eisley cantina scene in the original Star Wars movie (1977). Click HERE to view a series of behind-the-scenes photos of the cantina customers. Click HERE for cantina scenes on the Star Wars Databank web site. 

     To give you a taste of the complexities of this outer-space world, here is a descriptive list of the six principal civilizations involved in the proposed Alliance: "The Terrans; the Ethkar, a race of warrior-priests with bumpy heads and pointy ears; the Gila-monster-elephant people, who were called the Gaan; as well as the Enber, the tall bearded race…; the Jenr, the four-armed blue people; and  a pair of races that had purple and pink skin, but otherwise looked like humans, called the Nai and Yai, who shared common origins." There is another race, called the Ra'Gar (the villains), but no one is quite sure what they look like. Additionally, "this world had…dozens of cultures and histories, alien technologies, and more." Each time the Genrenauts interact with members of these different races, we get lots more details about their appearance, which mostly serves to slow down the pace. For example: "The Yai thought the Nai were lazy, the Nai thought the Yai were callous and greedy. Most people thought the Gaan were a little slow, the Nbere ambassadors were super-standoffish but had their secret proclivities, and only the Gaan didn't think the Xenei were unnerving." Perhaps this is meant to be humorous, but it just didn't work for me.

     I'll keep reading this series in the hope that it will get back to the quality of the first episode. In the third outing, the wounded Genrenaut Mallery York returns to active duty, leaving Leah to wonder about her own place on the team. This time, the story breach is in the Rom-Com (romantic comedy) genre, so the story should be a good one as the team reunites a pair of soul mates. At the end of "The Absconded Ambassador," King explains that the breach in the Romance world is expected, "given the drop in use of and satisfaction with dating apps and a reduction in applications for marriage licenses."    

     Click HERE to view a video trailer for this novella. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "The Absconded Ambassador" on the novella's page by clicking on the cover art. 

                     INTRODUCTION & WORLD-BUILDING                     
     I am not going to try to explain Underwood's world-building in my own words because he does a fine job of it in this lengthy explanation which I quote below—word-for-word—from his web site: 
"GENRENAUTS is a science fiction series in novellas... Imagined as a TV series in prose form, GENRENAUTS will have six episodes per season, all building toward a larger plot. 
"In GENRENAUTS, our Earth is just one of many in a multiverse. Each other Earth is the home to a familiar narrative genre: Westerns, Fantasy, Romance, Crime, etc. Each world is constantly playing out stories from its genrearchetypes and tale types smashing up against one another making tragedies and happily ever afters. But like any system, sometimes entropy takes hold, and a story breaks down. When that happens, the Genrenauts step in to fix the story.
"Because if they don’t, the dissonance from the broken story ripples over and changes Earth on a fundamental level. ([For example,] Science Fiction world goes off-track and scientific innovation stagnates, exploration halts; Fantasy world goes off-track and xenophobia rises, cultural rifts widen).
"Our series starts when Leah Tang, a struggling stand-up comic, is recruited to join the Genrenauts and discovers that her seemingly useless genre savvy is suddenly an essential skill for survival in the story worlds. She arrives just in time, as story breaches have been ramping upcoming faster and causing more ripples. 
"Genrenauts has a plurality of narrative forebears: Quantum Leap, Planetary, Indexing, Leverage, The Middleman, and more. Compared to my other work, the series is most like the Ree Reyes books (Geekomancy, Celebromancy, etc.) but with its own tone and point of view."
     The motto of the Genrenauts is this: "Every World a Story, Every Story a Proper Ending." Notice—not necessarily a "happy" ending, but a "proper" ending.

Click HERE to view a video trailer for this series. Click HERE to read the Prologue and the first two chapters of "The Shootout Solution."

                        EPISODE 1:  "The Shootout Solution"                          
     Leah Tang just died on stage. Well, not literally. Not yet. Leah's stand-up career isn't going well. But she understands the power of fiction, and when she's offered employment with the mysterious Genrenauts Foundation, she soon discovers that literally dying on stage is a hazard of the job! 

     Her first assignment takes her to a Western world. When a cowboy tale slips off its rails, and the outlaws start to win, it's up to Leah—and the Genrenauts team—to nudge the story back on track and prevent a catastrophe on Earth. But the story's hero isn't interested in winning, and the safety of Earth hangs in the balance. 

     I read this novella just days after reading John Connolly's excellent novella, "The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository" (in his Night Music anthology), which is also an other-dimensional story about literary characters who live off-the-page lives of their own (although Connolly's characters are the "rock stars" of the literary world, while Underwood's are the masses—the often nameless supporting characters who make it possible for the iconic heroes and heroines to achieve celebrity status). The whole idea of adding a literary dimension to our perception of the worldUnderwood calls it the narrative dimensionis quite fascinating. As I began reading "The Shootout Solution," I kept my fingers crossed that he would deliver a story worthy of its inventive mythology, and (to my great relief and delight) he definitely did.

     First, let me say that Underwood does an excellent job with the exposition that must be dealt with at the beginning of all new series. He starts with Leah Tang, a struggling stand-up comedian, and turns her into a new recruit for a team of Genrenauts that is based in Baltimore. Naturally, the team leaderAngstrom Kingmust explain the entire operation to Leaha perfect way to slip the world-building details neatly and seamlessly into the story line. 

     Here are the members of Leah's team of Genrenauts:

  > Dr. Angstrom King, team leader, who masquerades as a professor at the Department of Comparative Literature at Johns Hopkins University, where he runs a "narrative immersion laboratory" at the Mid-Atlantic Astrodome. He has been a Genrenaut for thirty years.

   > Mallery York, who specializes in romance. During the prologue, she is shot several times while on a mission, taking her out of the action for the rest of the story.

   > Preeti, a wheelchair-bound woman who works in the command center, where she handles monitoring and communications for the team.

   > Shirin Tehrani, a trans-gender, Iranian woman in her 50s or 60s who has been in the program for a number of years.

   > Roman De Jagers, a South African man who has been a Genrenaut for about ten years.

    King explains to Leah that "We think of life in three dimensions [length, width, depth]. With time, that makes four....The fifth dimension is narrative. In the fifth dimension, Earth is surrounded on all sides by worlds that are simultaneously familiar and irreducibly distinct…Each world hosts the inspiration for a narrative genre," like western, romance, science fiction, noir, horror, pirates, historical, and so forth. "When something breaks down in one of these worlds, when a story goes wrong, it ripples back on earth." The Genrenauts' job is to enter the world of the broken story (using inter-dimensional vessels) and fix the story, thus saving the Earth from disaster. Leah sums up their job as being "script doctors" and "dimensional cops." 

     Currently a Western story is broken. "Western world's signature is about violence, order vs. lawlessness, and taking the law into your own hands" so the ripple effect of the broken story has resulted in outbreaks of violence across the globe. Leah, King, and Shirin jump into their fifth-dimensional rocket ship and head for the West world, where they meet up with Roman and try to figure out how to get the story back on track. The team members use Personal Phase Manipulators (PPMs) to create false illusions as to their physical appearance. When Leah watches her Asian female body change into a Caucasian man, she describes the experience as having "the feel of LARPing an episode of Quantum Leap by wearing a virtual reality rig." 

     When Leah and her team members enter the Western dimension, it turns out to be basically the theme park version of the Old West that we saw in mid-to-late 20th century movies and TV shows (e.g., Gunsmoke's Dodge City,  Bonanza's Virginia City, Deadwood's Deadwood, Little House on the Prairie's Walnut Grove, My Darling Clementine's Tombstone, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance's Shinbone, Once Upon a Time in the West's Flagstone, Unforgiven's Big Whiskey, High Plains Drifter's Lago, and even Blazing Saddles' Rock Ridge. (O.K., I'll admit it—I truly LOVE classic Old West movies.) Each one of these frontier towns has a similar set of stock characters: the heroic sheriff, cowboys, townsfolk, settlers, bartenders, saloon girls, drunks, gunslingers, outlaws, etc. We've met these people in hundreds of stories/films/plays over the years. This broken-story town, though,  has lost its sheriff and has no hero to step up and save the day.

     As Leah participates in the story-patching adventure, she has to figure out her own role in the action. "She wasn't a hero, not yet. She was the Kid, the helper. And the helper usually ended up kidnapped and/or killed…But...what if I'm the Rookie Sidekick?…In a finale, the Rookie Sidekick fought with whatever they could get their hands on. Their role was to give the hero the chance they need to make the shot." Leah's decision on what role to take could make or break the outcome of the mission. (Note: This passage illustrates one weakness of the book: basic errors in grammar and usage. I hate to be the grammar police, but really, pronoun agreement errorslike the misuses of "they" and "their" in this exampleshould have been caught and corrected very early in the editing process.)

     After the mission, Leah wonders what happens to the characters when their story is over. Shirin explains, "They keep going on. The people here have real lives, but everyone is always in the beginning, middle, or end of a story. They get their happily-ever-afters, too." This is definitely an interesting and entertaining world.

     The Genrenauts are led (and controlled) by the five members of the High Council, a mysterious group that communicates with King only through shadowy images on a computer screen. Currently, there has been an escalation in the number of broken stories, but the Council downplays the problem even though King begs them to deal with it more directly. This situation will almost certainly develop into the series story arc.

     I enjoyed this book tremendously. Leah is a smart, savvy, snarky young woman whose character nicely balances the calm good-heartedness of Shirin, the experienced competency of King, and the attractive cockiness of Roman. They make a great team. We don't see much of Preeti and Mallery, but that will probably change in future episodes. I love the mythology that Underwood has created here, and I'm looking forward to future adventures. 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of "The Shootout Solution" is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

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