Saturday, April 18, 2015

"We're Home"

The difference between a good trailer and a great/legendary trailer lies not so much in what the trailer contains but rather in what it does. The new Star Wars trailer does more than simply remind fans of why they might want to see the movie, it creates demand for something they didn’t realize they wanted. The opening shot of the trailer, a land speeder glinting in the desert sun as it passes first a downed X-wing and then the derelict hulk of a star destroyer creates instantly a sense of place and time, it generates a question to be answered. How did the enormous spaceship come to this place. Who is passing in front of it? Where and when is this exactly?



The place is familiar but different (Jakku instead of Tatooine). The time is clearly after, a period moved on from what we know. There are echoes of what came before - the mysterious and already much-disected pronouncement from Luke Skywalker, the storm-troopers, and of course the double cameo in the final shot - but there are also disturbing changes.

This clip works because it explictly acknowledges what the prequels implicitly denied - that time passes. Entire generations of children have come of age and grown old under the shadow of this one story. The ruins of the original trilogy tower forlorn in the background of the new world. Star Wars, with all of its Cambellian trappings make a whole hell of a lot more sense than the world does right now. Instead of one iconic, fair-haired hero, we have a plucky staff-weilding young woman, an (ex?) storm-trooper of color, and a very gleeful X—wing pilot, almost as though the simple narrative of the original trilogy has fragmented and moved past simple descriptions even as it tightens focus away from galactic machinations back to the heart of the original story. The destiny of families.

The trailer embraces nostalgia. The music swells, the action on the screen builds towards a simple and powerful climax - the reappearance of Hans Solo and Chewbacca. The statement here is not so much fan-service as it is a communion with a segment of the population.

An overture.

J.J. Abrams seems to understand that images, simple, well-framed images, have the power to drive the imagination. To encourage us dream again.

This trailer forms a compact with fans: trust us and we will do the impossible - return home.

That’s a lot to ask of fans who sat through Jar Jar Binks, gobs of superfluous CGI, and bad dialogue, but the gesture is appreciated.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Review of Year's Best Weird Fiction (edited by Laird Barron)

Anthologies like the Year’s Best Weird Fiction are a great place to catch up on favorite authors and discover new favorites. This anthology took a rather broader look at the meaning of weird fiction than I initially figured it would. Not much of the work was explicitly or even subtly Lovecraftian, which probably increased my enjoyment of it honestly. Tim Jeffrey’s offering, for example, was a twilight zone-style puzzle box rather than anything resembling his Punktown stories.



The stand-outs:


"Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks" by Paul Tremblay. I really liked this story, from the compelling point of view character to the dread filtered through a broken soul. The way Tremblay walks up to the edge of an impending apocalypse without ever letting us look straight at it, is masterful.


"Bor Urus" by John Langan: Stylistically Langan’s offering was in keeping with the beleaguered protagonists of other works I’ve read from him, but perhaps the work was slightly less bent towards horror and more concerned with an uneasy intersection between rage and forgiveness. Ironic considering this story was one of the few in the collection with an explicit and active monster.


“Furnace" by Livia Llewellyn was a compelling work, from an author I expect to hear more from in the future. She released an anthology this year and if this work is any sign, I can’t wait to read more of her complex, intricately wrought style. Her hallucinatory imagery creates an interplay between alternate realties. Without ever becoming explicitly horror, Llewellyn creates a world invested in malignant supernatural menace.


The one more or less Lovecraftian work, “A Quest of Dream” by P.H. Pugmire was actually very good, all things considered. Leaning towards Thomas Ligotti’s dense prose poems in style, the story follows a jovial and already damned dreamer on his quest to find the Dreamlands. There is a thread of current Mythos literature I’ve noticed that plays around with this idea - what if the unimaginable horrors of Lovecraft’s imagination were altogether more human scale than he made them out to be.


Kathe Koja will be editing this year’s Weird collection and I’m curious what side of the ledger another genre writer would tip towards. If the next volume charts as deftly the grey-zone between horror and fantasy, I’m in.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

What I Read in March

March turned out to be a busy month and I fell behind, way behind, on reading short stories. Having caught up, I’m putting down my thoughts on a selection of stories that really grabbed me last month.

- Once Lost, Gone Forever by Gwendolyne Kiste (Electric Spec). Good creepy story about two friends able to disappear people they meet. The theme here is ancient - the ends don’t justify the means - but the horror comes from how thoroughly the casually amoral behavior of the protagonists seeps into the fiber of the story.


- Dogs by Bruce McAllister (Tor.com) Excellently creepy tale of the death dogs of Mexico. Far and away my favorite work from last month. The atmosphere of this story, a visceral and relentless dread, really worked for me. One of those stories that makes other writers very, very jealous.


- Cassandra by Ken Liu. (Clarkesworld) Ken Liu is on fire. I put him on my top five last year for short fiction with "Clockwork Soldier" and here he finds a way of making superhero fiction really resonate. Liu paints a picture of an alternate Superman (Showboat) as he would appear to a precog super villain. What works in this story is how even as the reader comes to understand the villain’s motivation that doesn’t really make her any less of a villain. Loved this story.


- Universe, Sung in Stars by Kat Howard (Lightspeed) A soft sci fi story from Lightspeed about an artist working in miniature universes. She is attempting to find a new home for one tiny white dwarf, and so the conflict I suppose is whether or not she can find a suitable universe for that star. Very strange but beautiful all the same.


- The Museum and the Music Box by Noah Keller (Tor.com) Beautiful slipstream piece about two lovers obsessed with a decaying museum of improbable relics. What I liked about it was how it compared the thrill of discovery embedded in love with the slow destruction that museums represent. With every warehoused treasure there is a a chance for destruction and loss.


- All Original Brightness by Mike Buckley (Clarkesworld) Military cyber-punk centered on injured Marines attempting to carry on their life hooked up to ‘immersos’ or VR rigs that allowing their shattered bodies to still interact. Some aspects of the story felt vague to me and the ending while evocative was a bit abrupt. Still, the bleak and weary tone of the story punched through.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Characters versus Plot

Because a novel is enjoyed over a more extended time period, structure becomes an important component of making sure the experience of reading the novel is, in fact, enjoyable. Structure allows the average reader to follow along with plot, make certain assumptions later borne out or revised, and generally feel grounded in the events of the story.

Novels come in all manner of shapes and sizes obviously but today I’d like to highlight the differences between a plot-driven and character-driven story.
A plot driven novel is one where events drive the course of the story. The protagonist may play an active, even determative role in those events, but the force that compels each page to be turned is the need, on the reader’s part, to see how ‘things will play out.’ We can call this suspense, but I think that suspense is only one thread tying together a novel of this type. One recent example of this is John Scalzi’s very fun “Lock In.” Scalzi’s protagonist, Chris Shane, a well-rounded character, acts almost exclusively in the service of a murder mystery. What drives him is the same thing driving us through each page, a need to know and understand.

A character driven novel is one where the events are secondary to the exploration of the characters. I’ve read a number of books in this vein, but for me I’ll always attach this writing style to Elmore Leonard. In novels such as Get Shorty and Tishimongo Blues, Leonard draws together a cast of compelling individuals, makes plain their driving needs and fears and then lets the plot flow from their actions. Again, there might be external forces that mix this dynamic up, but fundamentally a character-driven novel is one where the characters determine and drive the story.

Recently I finished reading M.R. Carey’s zombie novel “The Girl with All of the Gifts.” This was a nearly perfect example of how to marry these two diverse elements together effectively into a balanced and proportional whole. While there are certainly events external to the characters of the story: the zombie plague itself, the creation of the Echo Base to investigate the intelligent zombies - most of the events flow from the concerns of the five main characters.

Carey has a clever way of introducing these characters. For the first third of the book it isn’t necessarily clear this book will even be an ensemble work. We are introduced to the world of Melanie’s confinement through Melanie’s own limited perspective. Names are withheld, suggested unimportant, a reader might even wonder if this story will be solely taken up in this child’s experiences. Then there is a perspective shift, and another, and finally we have five compelling characters trekking out over the blasted post-apocalyptic world of the novel.
In terms of events in the novel, there are really only two: the attack by ‘junkers' that marks the end of the first act of the novel and a final confrontation in the shadow of a vast fungal mass blighting central London. However, one of the joys of this novel is that it doesn’t really drag during its long middle section between these two events. The reason is Carey effectively balances the characters against each other, placing them together increasingly fraught and compromised situations as the novel progresses through its second act. One can envision Carey drawing up a spreadsheet with each chapter involving two or three encounters with characters, making sure that each character has a chance to share a room with one or two of the others.

Carey’s gift, as a writer, is that none of this feels like the result of anything so antiseptic as a plot spreadsheet, it feels like the organic product of a long and arduous journey through the wilderness. Each conversation supplies a bit more information about the characters and the world. As the revelations build on top of each other, each of these encounters becomes more charged with conflict and drama.

Writing a novel is a different exercise than a short story or even a novella. Where shorter pieces can focus in one single event or conflict, novels must, by necessity, make greater demands upon a reader’s patience and attention. The plot-driven style of novel writing seeks to hold a reader’s attention through action and the responses of the characters. At it’s worst, a plot-driven novel can feel like nothing more than a bad comic book, where each chapter is a big splash page grabbing at the reader’s attention steadily building up a immunity to such flashy overtures. Character-driven pieces can feel claustrophobic and hermetically sealed. If the four or five characters given prominence in the story are really the only forces in the world of the novel, it begins to strain credulity.

Of the many reasons to read “The Girl With All the Gifts,” certainly one of the best, for me, was reading a talented writer unroll a different path, a hybrid narrative driven by characters but unafraid of them coping with circumstances beyond their control.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Public Reading of My Work

As part of a writing workshop I've joined, I'll be participating in a public reading of my work on June 25th, 2015 at the Woburn Public Library. The details are a little hazy at the moment, but it will be in the evening and I will be joining Nick Mancuso, a writer leading the Woburn Writing Workshop. Hopefully other participants of the workshop will also be reading, as I've had the good fortune to join of group of truly talented writers!

I'll give a quick shout-out to Andrea Bunker, the Assistant Librarian at the Woburn Library, for being so receptive to this idea. As I've mentioned before, reading my work before audiences has been one of my absolute favorite aspects of writing so far. Hopefully there will be other possibilities to announce in the near future.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

"The Girl With All of the Gifts" by M.R. Carey

During the Speculative Fiction: Year in Review panel I got interested in the book jacket description of a book from last year, “The Girl With All of the Gifts,” by M.R. Carey. It was the set-up that got me mostly: a zombie story centering around a young girl, Melanie, the eponymous "girl with all of the gifts," the object of a government study in some mysterious military base. She is kept under constant armed guard, taught about Greek myths while lashed to a chair, and fed writhing meal grubs once a week after being sprayed with some sort of chemical that leaves a bitter smell on her skin. It's the kind of set-up, so inherently wrong and enigmatic, that I just had to follow to the end.

"The Girl with All the Gifts" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia 
Without giving too much away, Melanie doesn’t stay at the government research facility all too long. The bulk of the story is a long trek through the post-apocalyptic wastes of England, with Melanie tagging along with a pair of soldiers, a very scary microbiologist, and her teacher at the facility. In addition to a paranoid, violent remnant of the government, the humans and other of the story have to content with Junkers, or humans that have gone all Cormac McCarthy, and the hordes of Hungries, which is the book’s term for mindless, flesh-hungry ghouls other movies and novels might term zombies. There are other echoes in Carey’s novel; she describes Melanie as a Pandora and the journey conforms to the pattern of other famous epics, a modern Odyssey, only with lots of hungry undead.

That brings us to the first refreshing aspect of this book. Nothing goes as expected. I found it difficult to predict what was going to happen in this novel other than in the very broadest strokes. That was very appealing. It’s not that M.R. Carey constantly throws twists and surprises at the reader, it’s just an unsettling sense in the book that nothing quite works out the way it should. There is an appealing novelty to Carey’s monsters, both in the cause of the zombie infestation and how the apocaplyse plays out in England. 

“The Girl With All of the Gifts,” also brings a commitment to verisimilitude. I find it tough to suspend disbelief in zombies. I like the concept and more than a few of my favorite movies, television shows, and books have drawn their inspiration from the idea of mobs of living dead. That said, most recent zombie movies have gone with the rather dubious explanation that a virus could animate corpses, causing them to mindlessly shamble (or sprint) after their living prey. It’s to Carey’s credit that she strikes out in a different and under-utilized direction, incorporating a little more William Hope Hodgson than I’ve seen outside of a Jeff VanderMeer story.

I’m afraid I don’t know much of Carey’s background, but I found myself thoroughly buying the science scenes of the book, which suggests either a heroic level of research or experience in biomedical research. When confronted with something outlandish like the walking dead, using the correct nomenclature and research props go a long way to maintaining the right atmosphere of dread.
 
This is still an uphill fight, however. And I found that what I enjoy about zombies was not necessarily what Carey was interested in writing about. I found myself chafing at points, eager to have her character delve into the meaning of the mindless zombies versus the waking consciousness of the human characters. As this was the basic difference between her young protagonist and the monsters around her, I think some consideration of the nature of consciousness and free will would have been appropriate.

As it is, I can recommend this book to genre fans and non-genre fans willing to veer off from straight reality. There are plenty of speculative elements to the story, moments where Carey is able to pull back away from the human-scale drama of the story to provide a wider sense of the world besieged by the zombie epidemic. These really worked for me. This is easily the best zombie related story I’ve read since World War Z, and well-worth reading.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

What I Read in February

February was a good month for short stories or at least I managed to luck into a great patch of excellent stories.


Sketch by Morgan Crooks (2015)

Under a Blood Red Sky by Edward Ashton, published in Fiction Vortex: I have a couple of reasons to like this story: appealing characters, effective sense of time scale and far-future existence, ad the interesting (if familiar) look at the uses of virtual reality. Close to the end of Earth, as the sun swells into its red giant phase, a survivor of Earth’s civilization spends eons enjoying one single afternoon in-between marshaling the dwindling resources of Earth to fend off vultures in the closing eons of the solar system. This is big scale science fiction, all the more impressive to me appearing in a short story. It reminded me a little bit of why I love Asimov, Stapleton, Bear, and a little short story from last year called “The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye” by Matthew Kressel.

Meshed by Rich Larson, published in Clarkesworld. Loved this story. The concept of the memory implant is an old one, mined effectively in a recent Black Mirror episode, but this one has something powerful to say about the ownership we have of our memories, and how capitalism will ultimately find a way to commoditize all human behavior, all personal choice. An understated sly nightmare and all the more powerful because of it. 

Schrödinger’s Gun by Ray Wood, published in Tor.com. A fun story about a cop investigating a crime with an implant allowing her to sift through all of the multiverse possibilities of interviews and events. I found it mostly enjoyable for the way the sifting through infinite possibilities is handled, not as arty metaphor, more as an outgrowth of noir fatalism. The ending was predictable and inevitable in a very satisfying way. 

Foreknowledge by Mary E. Lowd, published in Apex. I do like heart-breakers and Apex excels in weird, personalized catastrophes like this story. We are not told why in this particular world an expectant parent learns not only the sex of a baby but also its life expectancy and cause of death, but that doesn’t matter. What this story is about is coming to terms with knowledge, of knowing too much, of over-understanding. Lowd strikes, however, a hopeful note towards the end, an interesting thing to say about a story where a parent learns their child will die in her cradle before her first birthday. 

There were a half dozen other stories that I read that I really enjoyed as well - “When a Bunch of People, including Raymond, got Superpowers” has got to be one of the wisest and funniest things I’ve read under 1000 words in a while. I also recommend “Acrobatic Duality” by Tamara Vardomskaya which appeared on Tor.com - one gymnast exists simultaneously into two bodies and wrestles with the demands of fame, greatness, and love.