Sorcerers of Majipoor: world building on the scale of Lord of the Rings

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Robert Silverberg’s award winning 1980 novel Lord Valentine’s Castle introduced scifi fans to the world of Majipoor, a giant planet settled by humans and other alien races for thousands of years. Since then, the prolific Mr. Silverberg (now 81 years old) has published 6 more novels and countless short stories and novelettes revisiting Majipoor at different points of time across its history, the latest being the short story collection Tales of Majipoor, published in 2013.

The novels deal mainly with the ruling triumvirate of the planet – the Coronal (equivalent to a king), the Pontifex (the head of the bureaucracy, a post into which the ruling Coronal moves upon the death of the previous Pontifex) and the Lady of Sleep (the keeper of morals, a post occupied by the mother/ aunt of the reigning Coronal). Majipoor is a ‘backwater planet’ which has limited contact with Earth. The original human settlers were technologically advanced and were able to tame the planet and its aboriginal inhabitants – the Piurivar – in the early part of the planet’s history. In those early centuries of colonization, the human settlers built great engineering marvels. One of these is the Coronal’s castle, built on top of Castle Mount, the tallest mountain on the planet with springtime weather maintained right to the top using force fields and atmosphere generators. There is also the sprawling underground city called Labyrinth which houses the Pontifex and the entire bureaucracy. Other alien races have since then migrated to Majipoor and become an integral part of the human-dominated society. Interestingly, due to the scarcity of metals on the planet, whatever advanced technology exists on Majipoor (genetically modified draft animals, floater cars and energy guns) is the stuff that’s survived or maintained from the original colonist tech. Since then, Majipoor has settled into an agricultural economy supporting a pastoral society.

This means that the Majipoor stories have more in common with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings fantasy books than the scifi stories of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. In the Majipoor novels, Robert Silverberg has unleashed his world building skills and the sheer amount of detail that pops up in the novels is astonishing. Tolkien likewise had worked for many years to create an extensive historical, geographical and linguistic backdrop to the world of Middle Earth before he embarked upon the task of writing the actual stories of hobbits, elves and the One Ring.

I had read Silverberg’s first Majipoor trilogy – Lord Valentine’s Castle, Majipoor Chronicles and Valentine Pontifex – in the late 90s. The trilogy centred around the character of Valentine and his journey from becoming the Coronal till his succession to the position of Pontifex.

Now, more than 15 years later, I am thoroughly enjoying revisiting this world with the first book of another Majipoor trilogy featuring the books Sorcerers of Majipoor, Lord Prestimion and King of Dreams. These are set thousands of years before the Valentine trilogy and tell the story of Prestimion and his journey to becoming Coronal of Majipoor.

And so, I am in awe all over again of Silverberg’s amazing world building skills and am re-experiencing the sheer joy of reading about this gigantic planet, its flora, fauna and peoples. I have a mental picture of Silverberg sitting down with large sheets of paper and writing out the names of each of the 50 cities (Amblemorn, Dundilmir, Castlethorn, Gimkandale, Vugel, Muldemar…) that dot the slopes of Castle Mount or the names of rivers, lakes, flowers, trees (simbajinder, dyumbataro, mengak, havilbove, jujuga, halatinga), birds, animals and minerals which are mentioned as part of the narrative.

For example, in the Sorcerers of Majipoor there is a page and a half devoted to the description of the dyumbataro tree – how it’s branches uniquely grow from a mass of aerial roots and how the humble fisherfolk living around Lake Roghoiz are able to shape these to build a platform for their houses; how the houses are built from translucent sheets of a glossy mineral cut from the sides of nearby cliffs and the evening sunlight strikes this material to create a sight of extraordinary beauty along the shores of the lake. This scene is a small part of a chapter which covers a journey by the main characters down the River Glayge aboard a riverboat named Termagent, passing the village of Makroposopos, famous for the skill of its weavers, arriving at the impressive Stangard Falls, then onwards past the river towns of Jerrik, Ganbole, Sattinor and Vrove with the cities of Nimivan, Threiz, Hydasp, Davanampiya, Mitripond, Storp visible along the way…

You get the picture!

Many online reader reviews have criticized Sorcerers of Majipoor for its slow pacing and lack of plot progression. That’s something one has to be prepared for when reading the Majipoor books. The whole point of the book is the enjoyment of the world rather than the thrill of a page turner.

Even so, there is a plot in this book, not just descriptions of cities and trees! It is a story of political intrigue played out against the backdrop of old-fashioned jousting games, royal balls, lavish feasts, the above-mentioned river trip and much more. The central character here is Prince Prestimion, who is heir presumptive to the Coronal’s throne but has the crown snatched away from him on the eve of the coronation through the machinations of others. He now has to sort out who are friends, foes and fence-sitters as he attempts to overthrow the usurper. His three closest friends – the noblemen Duke Svor, Septach Melayn and Gialaurys – remind me of the Three Musketeers, each with their own personalities, which get fleshed out over the course of the novel.

The Majipoor novels are not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you enjoy losing yourself in imaginary worlds, then start off with Lord Valentine’s Castle and work your way through the two trilogies. You may want to keep a notebook and pen handy though, to keep track of all the characters and places!


Of Great Houses, Power Crystals and the ability to speak ‘cat’

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Jim Butcher is an American best-selling author, best known for his long-running Dresden Files series of contemporary fantasy/ mystery novels. He’s written one book a year for the past 15 years and they keep popping up whenever I browse Amazon for best-selling books in scifi/ fantasy. I haven’t read a single one as I have no interest in the sub-genre, but I’ve always wished to read one of his books, as surely someone with so much success must be a good writer.

Well, my wish has now been fulfilled because Mr. Butcher has started on a steampunk series and the first entry The Aeronaut’s Windlass was published a few months ago.

Steampunk is one of my favourite scifi sub-genres – a type of alternate history set in Victorian or pre-Victorian times, but with advanced mechanical automation and technology.

There are also steampunk novels that are not set in our world, like Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World which is set on a Mars of the far future where some societies are operating at steampunk tech level. The Aeronaut’s Windlass is similarly set in an unnamed world where instead of nations, we have spires that tower for miles over a misty surface.

The story centres on two warring spires, Spire Albion and Spire Aurora. Albion, as the name suggests is an analog of Great Britain and Aurora stands in for Spain. Spire Albion’s society is identical to that of feudal Britain. Members of high society belong to any number of Great Houses with their own pecking order, Houses Lancaster and Astor being among the richest and most powerful. The Spire is ruled by a Spirearch, the current ruler being His Majesty Addison Orson Magnus Jeremiah Albion.

So far, so normal. Now come the interesting bits.

While gunpowder was the source of power in our world, it’s crystals in this world. Giant crystals tethered inside airships help them levitate and create a protective force field called a shroud. Smaller crystals are used to power ‘light cannons’ on the ships and even smaller ones placed in hand gauntlets allow the wearer to fire blasts of energy in battle. The crystals are grown over several years and are very precious. A destroyed or damaged crystal means a tangible reduction in the Spire’s firepower until a new one of similar size is ready for use.

Another interesting element is that meat is grown in vats and there are ‘vatteries’ all over the spire to provide food for the populace.

Now it gets weirder. Cats occupy a very special place in Spire society. They are very few in number, are as intelligent as the humans and have organized themselves into Clans, some of which are aligned with the Great Houses. Since the cats are generally aloof and arrogant, they are not particularly liked by the general public. A very select group of humans have the ability to speak Cat and are therefore held in very high regard by the Cat Clans but are treated with some degree of hostility and distrust by other people.

While this sort of plot element could easily push a story into the realm of farce, Mr. Butcher keeps it all very straight-faced. When fantasy and scifi authors build imaginary worlds, they run the risk of going into excruciating detail and boring the reader to death, or keeping it too superficial and therefore straining credibility. I’ve only read a quarter of the book so far, but I like the way the layers of this world are being peeled away in every chapter; it’s the sort of journey of discovery I enjoy when reading a book.

The characters are a mixed bag. The humans are rather stereotypical – feisty noblewomen, spoilt rich noblemen, heroic rich noblemen, brave and dedicated ship captains.

Fortunately, the cats make things interesting. Well actually, there’s only one that’s appeared so far. I became an immediate fan of Rowl, the heir apparent of House Silent Paws. He suffers no fools and fiercely protects his ward, the human Bridget, who comes from one of the poorer Houses, Tagwynn (Rowl lovingly calls her ‘Littlemouse’). Bridget and the impetuous Gwendolyn from House Lancaster are both in training at the Spirearch’s Guard, the elite force that defends Spire Albion from Auroran attack. The two ladies become good friends and have to deal with the usual mix of friendships and rivalries that emerge in these situations (think of Top Gun or The Officer and a Gentleman).

The two most boring characters are the captain and the XO of an Albion merchant ship called the Predator – Messrs. Grimm and Creedy. I literally cannot sit through any part of the book when the two of them are together on the ship. Grimm is serious, Creedy is earnest and it’s just impossible to describe how boring it is when two such men speak to each other, even in the heat of battle. I hope to God the heroic guy on the cover of the book doesn’t turn out to be Grimm. That would crush me.

Keeping the cats company on the interesting end of the scale are the etherealists (sort of like wizards). One of them, Efferus Effrenus Ferus is hilarious; think Dumbledore on weed…lots of weed.

At the quarter-way point in the book, things are just warming up. There are some mysterious and dangerous creatures living in the hidden depths of the spires. There are a few people who are called warriorborn, who Rowl refers to as ‘half souls’. I am looking forward to the reveals on these as the story progresses, provided I can get past the boring Grimm-Creedy bits!

The Aeronaut’s Windlass was a 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee in the Fantasy category. The second book The Olympian Affair is likely to be released in early 2017.

Milkweed Triptych: Supermen and wizards fight WW2 in amazing scifi trilogy

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In his books The Joyful Science (1882) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put forward the concept of the Übermensch, which would have a far-reaching impact on literature, science and politics. When Nietzsche’s works were translated into English, the word became ‘Overman’ or ‘Superman’; George Bernard Shaw was inspired to write a 1903 play Man and Superman, based on the concept. In 1933, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel published a comic book with a bald telepathic villain that they named Superman; later they figured it would be a better idea to make Superman the good guy. Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra suggested that humanity should set itself a goal of physiological advancement, to strive to become Übermensch, rather than to allow itself to ‘fall’ into a life of comfort and security, devoid of risks.

Half a century later, the Nazis wholeheartedly adopted the idea, fit it into their ‘master race’ plan and even embarked on some horrific experiments to try and create their own supermen.

Now, imagine the consequences if the experiments had worked.

In Ian Tregillis’ debut novel Bitter Seeds (2010), a brilliant but unhinged German doctor decides to try and build supermen (and women). In 1920 while the German countryside is devastated by poverty and starvation, he starts offering bed and board to orphaned or unwanted children at his farmhouse. He then experiments on them, trying to find the parts of the brain that he believes can allow humans to tap into higher order physical abilities, such as telekinesis, levitation, pyrokinesis, telepathy and precognition. Behind the farmhouse, a makeshift cemetary appears and grows, the result of failed experiments. The doctor discovers that when specific parts of the brain are excited by electric current, it does indeed allow certain subjects to tap into their Willenskräfte (willpower) and exhibit superhuman powers. Over the next decade, his half-dozen ‘children’, powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries strapped to their waists, hone their skills (mainly through coercion and punishment). The mad doctor comes to the attention of the Nazis, who become his patrons and thus the Gotterelektrongruppe (“divine electricity unit”) is formed as a independent unit within the SS.

Soon after the start of WW2, the German army with this superhuman unit at its leading edge, scythes through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest. Suddenly we see a very different history unfold across Europe with the British army completely decimated at Dunkirk in May 1940. Britain is on the verge of losing the war.

Meanwhile, a British secret service agent named Raybould Marsh, while on a mission to Europe comes into possession of some fragments of film and photographs that show the supermen in training exercises. Coupled with the news from the front, the British realize that they are up against something otherworldly. By sheer chance, Marsh recalls a conversation with a friend from his Oxford days who had alluded to secret cults and ancient texts; apparently, there are a very small group of people in Britain who can speak an ancient language to call upon and request favors from inter-dimensional beings called Eidolons. Before long, the secret service have pressed these ‘warlocks’ into national service, forming a ‘black ops unit’ code-named Milkweed which uses the Eidolons to protect England, mainly by playing with the weather, but also some other extraordinary acts. However, the Eidolons are not easily controlled and their ‘asking price’ (which is live human blood) goes up each time the Milkweed warlocks request for some help.

And so the story progresses, at breakneck speed across two more books The Coldest War and Necessary Evil. Marsh and his Milkweed colleagues are pitted against their superhuman enemies while trying to control the otherworldly Eidolons. One of the German superhumans, a clairvoyant named Gretel emerges as their most dangerous adversary; how can you defeat someone who can see the futures…all possible futures?

As ridiculous as this story line may seem to a casual reader, Mr. Tregillis has such command over his language that the entire narrative becomes utterly believable. His descriptions of places and situations are vivid, almost tactile. And the characterizations are deep and realistic – other than Gretel and the mad doctor who are purely evil and beyond redemption, the other key characters are drawn in shades of grey; Marsh and his acquaintances exhibit equal measures of love, jealousy, naiveté, stupidity, panic and thoughtlessness. Every action has its consequences, which come back to haunt them hours, months or years later. The narrative spans several years, into a very different Cold War. Ultimately, all the loose ends are tied up by the end of the third book, but everyone has paid a price and as often is the case, the most heroic people are also the ones who have suffered the most and whose brave exploits remain a secret from the general public. It’s also refreshing to read a scifi story where the US plays absolutely no part!

This is an altogether engrossing and compelling scifi thriller, which will appeal to fans of alternate history, military fiction and mystery thrillers.

A little bit of information about Ian Tregillis. He has a PhD in physics and works at the Los Alamo s National Laboratory in New Mexico, the home of the Manhattan Project and one of only two institutions where classified nuclear weapons research has been conducted in the US. In 2005, he attended the famous Clarion Workshop, a 6-week long annual workshop for aspiring scifi and fantasy writers, conducted each year by a who’s who of established authors of the genre. Five years later, Tregillis published Bitter Seeds, completed its two sequels in the next three years. He is now considered part of the growing band of scifi/ fantasy authors based in New Mexico, whose most famous member is George R.R. Martin, but also consists of other well known authors like John Scalzi, Ty Franck & Daniel Abraham (who publish as James S.A. Corey) and S.M. Stirling.

I am now looking forward to reading Ian Tregillis’ latest book The Mechanical which is the first book of his new trilogy titled The Alchemy Wars.

Pierce Brown’s Red Rising fails to impress

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Having reached the half-way point of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, I have to say I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. The book has been on the several critics’ ‘must read’ lists and has also fared well with readers on Goodreads and Amazon after it was published 12 months ago.

The building blocks of the story sound familiar: a teenage protagonist, a dystopian future society with a ruling class and a downtrodden worker class, plenty of suffering, violence and death. The book clearly caters to the same audience that made bestsellers out of The Hunger Games, Divergent, Wool and Maze Runner series. On the surface, even Harry Potter is built around the same standard Bildungsroman novel structure. With stories as derivative as these, there is not much that the writer can offer in terms of originality, so all one can hope for are appealing characters and fast-paced action, delivered through elegant writing. This is exactly what the Harry Potter books have in superabundance and therefore distinguishes them from all the other pretenders. Sadly, none of these characteristics exist at any level of significance in Pierce Brown’s book.

I must credit Mr. Brown for trying to create a distinct dialect of English for a Mars-based futuristic society, but with the entire story being told in the first person by the protagonist Darrow, it makes for very difficult reading. Strike one for elegant writing.

When it comes to the characters, of course it is normal to have a one or two irritating characters for the protagonist to deal with…who usually become staunch allies later on in the books. Think of Hermione in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or much further back to The White Mountains, a wonderful dystopian YA novel from 1967 (before the term Young Adult existed) where thirteen-year-old Will is forced to go on the run with his hated cousin Henry – in both cases, the irritating companion soon becomes a trusted companion. In Red Rising however, all of Darrow’s allies are focused on using him as a tool to overthrow the ruling class Golds, so friendship and likeability really don’t enter the equation. Strike two for appealing characters.

And as for pace, there is indeed a lot happening, but mostly it just seems tedious rather than breathless. For example, there are pages devoted to the excruciating physical modifications Darrow must undergo in order to infiltrate the Gold society. After a while, I just couldn’t be bothered and felt like skipping paragraphs so I could get to the part where he actually does some infiltrating. Strike three for fast-paced action.

So, I am just going to grind through this book somehow and will not bother to read the sequel Golden Son which has just been released. I am facing similar issues trying to read the much touted Rick Yancey YA novel The 5th Wave. With both these books jumping on to the Hollywood production line, one hopes that the movie rises above the limitations of the books, much as Lionsgate has done with The Hunger Games franchise.

Thunderbirds are Go! again

I’ve just seen the new promotional photo released for the upcoming reboot of classic 1960s British TV show Thunderbirds. The show, scheduled to air in the UK in 2015, is titled Thunderbirds are Go and is being produced by ITV and WETA (Peter Jackson’s company which created the special effects for Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies and King Kong).

The new CGI-based reboot will once again centre around the secretive International Rescue organization, led by ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his 5 sons (Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John), who are featured in the new promotional picture.

When the original Thunderbirds ran on British TV in the mid-60s, it became a cult hit among young boys. The show used marionette puppets and incredibly detailed scale models (for a TV show of that time) to create a very believable high-tech world of the year 2065. I remember watching this show as a kid and being completely blown away by the scale of the settings and the various air-, sea- and spacecraft featured. I was so very excited when a live-action movie version came out in 2004, but it turned out to be an embarrassing critical and commercial failure. Perhaps the charm of the show lay in the artificiality of its puppets and it could not ever translate into the modern age, I thought.

So, I am hoping that a CGI version which creates a similar look and feel on the small screen can bring back the thrill of the original show. Anyway, while reading up about the upcoming show, I discovered that there was a 1966 theatrical film based on the show called Thunderbirds Are Go and the entire film was available on YouTube.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching it this afternoon. The plot centres around the flight of the Zero-X manned mission to Mars. The opening sequence featuring the multi-stage spacecraft taking off is scifi fanboy’s dream.

There are two amusing anecdotes connected with this movie. One of the astronauts Paul Travers was modeled on Sean Connery who had become world famous as James Bond by that time. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but if you check the clip online, you’ll see it’s a fair resemblance.

And there is a bizarre dream sequence in which one of the younger Tracy boys goes to a night club and sees Cliff Richard and the Shadows performing (surprisingly accurately depicted in their marionette form) a song Shooting Star which was written and performed specifically for the film by the great man himself! Here’s what he looks like in his marionette form.

And here’s the cover of the single Shooting Star, featuring a still from that dream sequence in which Cliff Richard is the chauffeur of a 6-wheeled pink Rolls Royce in which the young man is sitting in the back seat with fellow secret agent Lady Penelope, while the other band members are seen sitting on the car and playing along. Yes, I did say it was a bizarre sequence!

Yup, when you insert a sequence like this in the middle of scifi film, you can guess why the 1966 movie failed to replicate the success of the show! I’m pretty sure we won’t be seeing anything like this in the upcoming TV reboot…



Eric Brown’s Helix a worthy addition to the list of artificial sci-fi worlds

Eric Brown’s engaging and enjoyable 2007 sci-fi adventure Helix hooked me sufficiently that I have immediately started on the sequel Helix Wars (2012). The key features of the book – an uncomplicated writing style, likeable characters and a vast and complex artificial structure – recall the works of luminaries like Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama).  R.J. Burgess, who reviewed this novel on the site Strange Horizons refers to the novel as ‘SF-lite bundled up in an interesting idea’; a very apt description indeed.

The story begins in the year 2095; the Earth is dying from the effects of global warming and wars. In a last ditch attempt to create a new beginning for humanity, the European Space Organization outfits a starship with 3000 colonists and sends it out on a 1000-year one-way trip to a habitable planet in a distant star system. The passengers are put into cryo-sleep, with the multinational flight and maintenance crew (3 women and 2 men) scheduled to be revived first on arrival; one of them, a middle-aged Australian pilot named Joe Hendry is one of the lead characters in the story. The starship arrives at its destination as scheduled, but then things start to go horribly wrong. There is a crash, some deaths and the discovery that they have landed not on a planet, but a vast artificial structure which they christen The Helix, due to its spiral shape.

The story details the crew’s struggle for survival and the outcome of their ‘first contact’ with the myriad aliens living on the Helix. Eric Brown’s aliens are not particularly exotic; they seem to behave and emote in a very human-like way, while in form they are anthropomorphized versions of Earth creatures like lemurs, lizards and insects. I enjoyed the book precisely because it is ‘SF-lite’; focusing more on the characters and the story, rather than trying to explain the physics of the Helix or trying to be super-realistic with its exobiology.

With the Helix structure consisting of thousands of different worlds, Eric Brown has a potential franchise on his hands, much as Niven and Clarke did with the Ringworld and Rama series respectively. The sequel Helix Wars is set 200 years after the events of Helix and future books can easily flit back and forth through time and across the different sections of the Helix.

Mr. Brown is a prolific author, churning out a book a year (sometimes two in the same year) in sci-fi and mystery/ crime genres. He has just published his latest work, a steampunk novel set in British India in 1925 titled Jani and the Greater Game, which I’m looking forward to reading as well.

The Martian – Andy Weir’s breathless (literally) Mars survival drama

I’ve just finished reading Andy Weir’s Mars survival drama The Martian. The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads weren’t kidding when they called this a page-turner. For those who enjoyed Ron Howard’s feel-good movie Apollo 13 back in 1995, this is the book for you. In fact, Twentieth Century Fox have optioned the film rights and are working on a screenplay now.

The Martian is the story of Mark Watney, who is part of a 6-member mission to the Mars surface. Six days into their 30-day Mars mission, their site is hit by a super-storm with 175 kph winds which forces a mission abort. As the team are evacuating their habitat module and walking towards their spacecraft in near zero-visibility conditions, Watney is hit by a piece of flying debris which punctures his suit and whisks him away into the storm. With barely seconds to spare before their spacecraft is titled over by the ferocious winds, the crew have no choice but to presume that Watney is dead and they lift off and begin their return journey to Earth. All this happens in the first few pages. Then the adventure begins. Watney has survived and regains consciousness to find himself alone on Mars with communications antenna destroyed and the still-standing habitat module as his only shelter. The reader is then taken through the next ‘x’ days (yeah, read the book to find out how long he survives), as Watney uses all of his scientific knowledge and presence of mind to survive. 

Most of the book is written in the first person, in the form of Mark Watney’s personal logs, which he records faithfully in the event that a future Mars mission will return to this site to recover his body. I was initially put off by Watney’s irreverent, conversational style of log writing. I thought to myself, “This guy is a scientist and fighting for his life; how can he be so casual?”. Then as the book went along, I realized, this was the author’s way of illustrating Watney’s personality; and this was Watney’s way of dealing with his situation. If he had taken it too seriously, he would have just been overwhelmed by his situation, given up, injected himself with a fatal dose of medication and died. 

Anyone with a scientific bent of mind, or who has studied engineering will love this book. Watney’s first person accounts are filled with calculations about various consumables (air, food, energy, fuel) that he has to optimize or produce in order to extend his life. If you dislike numbers, you can skip trying to keep up with the mental math and just read through the sentence. In the initial stages of the book, I actually was working out the numbers as I was reading them. Later on in the book, I was so anxious to know what happens next that I was skimming past the numbers to just see if Watney had enough oxygen/ hydrogen/ food packets/ spare utilities for whatever he was scheming up next.

I won’t spoil any other bits of the book for potential readers, but suffice to say that like Apollo 13 there is indeed a happy ending. But not before we go through a few heart-stopping situations. 

Andy Weir is a computer scientist and actually researched all the scientific facts for the book and worked out all the math. He initially self-published the book on his website for free because he couldn’t find any takers among publishers. He then made it available for Amazon Kindle and once it started rising up the charts, he finally sold the rights for hard copy publishing and for a movie. Just like Hugh Howey’s Wool, this is another example of a self-publishing rags-to-riches success story.