Monday, December 15, 2014

An Update to Arisia Panels

A couple of weeks ago, I announced my panels for Arisia 2015 and I thought I’d add a bit more information to that post.

First off, here’s my schedule during the weekend:

I have the Speculative Literature: Year in Review panel first, 10:00 pm Friday night in the Marina 2 room. The other panelists are Gillian Daniels, who writes a column for the Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine on new and notable short fiction as well as being a talented writer in her own right. The other panelist is Teegan Mannino, who reviews more than books on her blog than I get to in a year. 

On Saturday, 4:00 pm, at the Marina 2 I’ll be in the True Detective Panel with a whole bunch of knowledgeable folks about my favorite television show last year. Shira Lipkin, the moderator, I’ve seen at a number of Arisia panels. Also there will be John Murphy, Steve Sawicki, and Megan Markland. Everyone seems to be coming at this show from a variety of directions. Personally I got into this show from the weird fiction angle and I’m looking forward to hearing other perspectives on the show.

Sunday, 10:00 am, I’ll be in Marina 1 for my one gaming panel: “Running Great Games.” I probably don’t spend enough time talking about this here at Ancient Logic, but RPGing is a major passion of mine, and has been for nearly a decade. I put my name in for this panel because I just happen to be in the middle of one of my favorite campaigns of all time, based around a system I hacked together from Mouseguard. I know a few of the panelists for this one, and I’ve even been on one with Peter Maranci before. William Blanton (moderator), William Walker, and Lauren Roy will also be there.

Finally, 1:00 pm Monday in the Bullfinch Room Kevin R.A. DiCandido and Stephen Schneyer will be reading their work while I sit next to them and listen. Seriously, I’ve heard both of these guys before and if you can hang on until the afternoon on Monday, it will be worth your time to hear them read. Oh, and I’ll be there too, reading a couple of my published works from the past year.

I’m honestly more excited about this Arisia then I have in a couple of years. From writing to reading, I think I got just the perfect balance of panels for myself. 

As I get closer to January I’ll be putting some of my thoughts down in a post or two. Also, my year-end lists will lean heavily on the fiction I’ve been catching up on for the Year in Review post, so that’ll be a great preview for that panel. If you know of a short fiction piece - published this year - that you think I should know about, just let me know know in the comments section. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

What a Show Will Become: Agents of SHIELD

The winter finale episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a nifty screen capture of that moment when a show passes beyond something merely watchable, and actually becomes necessary to watch. I started watching Agents last year because I really liked Agent Coulson and I thought it would be a sort of the Google Labs of MCU, a place where the weird, unmarketable characters could appear and future movies could be teased. Oh yeah, and Joss Whedon, I’d be lying if I didn’t ‘fess up to that basic misconception of the show.

SPOILERS aplenty to follow.

As we now know, what Agents  provided last year was a surprisingly safe and predictable procedural crime drama. Like NCIS with super-powers. Although the connection with the rest of MCU firmed up towards the end of the season, I left more than a few episodes baffled why I was sticking around. The characters were flat, the dialogue ranged from obvious to grating, and I couldn’t quite shake the sense the show was spinning its wheels. After the Captain America tie-in the course of the show righted considerably. With the advent of SHIELD’s arch-nemesis HYDRA, the show was firmly back into the canon of MCU. In addition, SHIELD again demonstrated the importance of stakes in a show like this. The idea of a vast neo-nazi conspiracy looking to wipe out SHIELD entirely has an immediate narrative force that the super-mutant (or whatever) of the week doesn’t. 

The first half of the second season has followed a steady upwards trend in that regard. HYDRA remains much more powerful than the remnants of SHIELD and thoroughly ruthless. A real sense of danger pervades the early episodes. That was combined with the crucial sub-plot of this season - the discovery that Agent Skye’s father is very much alive and keen on creating a reunion between them. We learned last season that something was up with Skye, but honestly the character was so poorly drawn, it was tough to know if the writers were serious about any of this or simply trying to manufacture interest in her story line.

Now we know.

In a nutshell, “What They  Become” is a rescue story. Skye is kidnapped from the Bus and brought to a reunion with her dad, Cal. We’ve already learned that Cal’s wife and Skye’s mother had a preternaturally long life. Now the pieces of the puzzle fall into place - Cal attempts to have a reconciliation with Skye (who he calls Daisy)  also provides him an opportunity for revenge on the major bad guy of this season, Whitehall. This ex-Nazi and current HYDRA leader vivisected Skye’s mother to steal her longevity. None of Cal’s plans actually pans out, because Cal is - to put it mildly - unstable. Oh yeah, one more complication, all of this drama is located near and within the ruins of an ancient city containing a chamber activated by an obelisk that only select individuals may hold. Cal intends for Skye/Daisy to enter the ruin and claim her destiny: a change that will separate her from the rest of the human race. Whew!

A lot of plotting but the pay-off of all of this is increased relevance for Agents of SHIELD as a show and a story. Skye does go into the ancient chamber and gets hit by some sort of teratogenic mist, causing her to glow and the villainess Raina to grow spines all over her face. This was about the point my Twitter feed started going crazy. Okay, it was going crazy the minute Cal called his daughter, Daisy, because apparently this was the last detail that clued in the extremely comic literate on Skye’s true identity. Apparently there is a super-powered hero called Daisy Miller, AKA Quake who appears in the SHIELD comic books.

This is all detail to me. I care about good television and for me, SHIELD has discovered a way to create just that. The key, I think, is to tap into the deep Marvel catalogue, flesh out the MCU universe with the best bits, while slowly focusing in on the characters of this show with the most resonant stories: Coulson, May, Grant, Fitzsimmons, Mockingbird and now, Skye. It doesn’t so much feel like the show creators demolished their old plans as much as they rediscovered where they were heading. 

I do wish that they had clued in some of this last year, but I guess they were hamstrung by the second Captain America movie. Really, even a hint that they were heading towards the Inhumans instead of the strange science experiment of the week would have made last year more interesting. 

Oh well. Better late than never. 

Hopes for the rest of the season: I had a brief conversation with my friend Dan about what would push SHIELD from being a good show to a great show. He thought that the introduction of the Inhumans would be something new and exciting, a nearly unprecedented example of taking care of the backstory of a future movie in some more rational and entertaining way. I agree with that but I also wonder if the show couldn't go smaller to go bigger. So much happens in a single episode, it’s a little tough to find the true emotional center. A few shows back there was an episode that spend a great deal of time following Coulson and May dancing around a stuffy party. It was a lot of fun. It would be nice to have a novelty episode or two at this point to break up the rhythm of the show. T.R.A.C.K.S. from last year, with its recursive narrative was a step in that direction but honestly I’d love to see the show try a good-old X-Files/Fringe style gimmick. Or pull something from the Buffy hand-book and focus in on a secondary character (like the Koenig(s)!) for a story. 

A thought.

Friday, December 12, 2014

New Stories Are Up!

As announced recently, I had two accepted by publication: "Belongings" a flash sci fi story on the Themes of Absence website and "War-Zones" in the second The New Accelerator anthology. I'm enormously pleased to have both appearing this weekend, available for reading. I'd love to hear what you think of them. Please comment on the websites they appear on, or here at Ancient Logic.

I'm planning a few more updates in coming days, including my write-up of the winter finale for Agents of SHIELD, as well as some thoughts after reading the History and Horror, Oh My! Anthology my story "What the Pridigy Learns"

"Belongings": Note: Theme of Absence also posted an interview of me talking about writing and speculative fiction. I want to give Jason Bougger my thanks for accepting the story and for running a great website. 

"War-zones" available on iTunes and Google Play market through this link: Thank you to the fine folks at The New Accelerator for including my work in this anthology!

Let me know what you think!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Arisia 2015 Panel Assignments

I got my panel assignments this morning for ‪#‎Arisia‬ and I'm very pleased to announce I'll be on the True Detective panel. This was my top pick for the convention and I can't wait to have a good conversation on the weird fiction influences on this show.
I also got on the Speculative Fiction: Year in Review panel which I intend to use to talk up a banner year in electronic publication of short fiction. I also got on a panel on running great (RPG) games, which is timely because I'm currently in one of my absolute favorite campaigns.
I'm also hoping that I get a chance to read some of my work so hopefully in the next few days I can report  good news on that front.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A few announcements

This has been an eventful weekend. "History and Horror, Oh My!" the anthology where my story Roman horror story appears, became available last week. I've also received word that two more of my stories were accepted for publication!

The first is "Belongings," which is a flash sci-fi piece about the difficulty of finding your home, even when it's physically attached to you. It will be appearing on the "Theme of Absence" website on Dec. 12th. Once it's live, I'll post a link here and on my blog. In the meantime, I'd pay the site a visit, it's got plenty of cool stories and interviews.

The second story is "War-Zones" which I wrote last year after watching too many drone gun-cam videos on the news. It will be appearing in the second New Accelerator anthology. I'll be posting the link once I receive word it's available, but for the time being you should definitely check out their page:

Lastly, I'll put in a plug for the History and Horror anthology. It really came out very nicely and it makes me extremely proud to have "What the Prodigy Learns" appear in such distinguished (and frightening) company.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Living on an Alien Earth

In finishing this review of William Gibson’s new novel “The Peripheral,” I tried to find a quote about how science fiction is sometimes more about the present than the future. I found this quote on William Gibson’s Wikipedia page:

"I felt that I was trying to describe an unthinkable present and I actually feel that science fiction's best use today is the exploration of contemporary reality rather than any attempt to predict where we are going... The best thing you can do with science today is use it to explore the present. Earth is the alien planet now."
— William Gibson in an interview on CNN, August 26, 1997.

That’s what reading Gibson often boils down to: the best way to describe his work has often already been said by Gibson himself. That aside, the point is interesting to me when considering this novel. To keep things non-spoilerly for a moment, “The Peripheral” charts the connections and relationships between two very different visions of the future. In one, a young woman named Flynne attempts to survive in a dingy, run-down near-present version of the American Southeast. in another, a hyper-aware media publicist Wilf Netherton struggles to perform damage control when one of his clients sabotages a media campaign. The connection between these two stories, expressed through a disturbing murder observed in a game that’s not a game, forms the bulk of the plot. Although the story weighs in a more than 400 pages, the actual story is very aerodynamic. An event happens with consequences to both futures and the characters are left to navigate the wreckage.

As someone who devoured “The Sprawl” trilogy, Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novels from the 80s and 90s, "The Peripheral" was a very comfortable return to form. The characters, setting, and overall atmosphere wouldn’t be so unfamiliar to anyone whose cracked open a science fiction book written in the past two decades. The central idea behind the story, the “connection” that I mentioned above, is both the most interesting and subversive thing about the novel and the thing that is hardest to describe without spoiling the story. I’ll leave it at “The Peripheral” is a challenging but energetic exploration of several ideas churning through speculative literature circles in the past few years. If you like meditations the big ideas of the future hot-glued to the back of a breezy techno-thriller plot, this book is for you. If you’ve never read Gibson, cyberpunk, or much science fiction, I’d start with Neuromancer and work your way up. One’s man’s opinion.

SPOILER TIME: Okay, now, if you’ve already read this novel, there are a couple things I’m left thinking about after finishing it.

William Gibson remains a challenging writer to read and write about. On one hand, “The Peripheral” is a speculative fiction novel. Of that there is no doubt. You go maybe half a paragraph before encountering the tone and language of current post-cyberpunk genre writing - unfamiliar technology, sociological extrapolations, and buzzy, exotic language. If you are in the habit of reading such novels (which I most certainly am) this is all like a slightly musty, but nevertheless completely familiar and comfortable quilt that you draw over yourself, luxuriating in the decadent warmth. 

However, Gibson is unquestionably a “real” writer by which I mean he also writes fiction that non-genre fiction types don’t get nervous reviewing, most notably his near-future trilogy from past decade. There is also a self-aware, ouborobic quality to his writing, the sense that he is own best audience. His sentences chop, scatter and fragment, spinning off in idiosyncratic directions as though snippets from a conversation you’re only getting one side of.  This presents its own layer of challenge to appreciating a novel like “The Peripheral." An agreeable layer, but nevertheless a barrier to genre types used to reading four-square, non-flashy sentences following the established object verb subject format.

"The Peripheral” does take a while to get going and the first 100 pages or so are like walking into a party mid-way through the night, hopping from one group of strangers to the next, looking for familiar faces. Gibson doesn’t really bother with much explanation or hand-holding. You either know what a thylacine is or you don’t, he’s not going to explain what it is or why one would be walking around a character’s apartment. So you coast like this, soaking the ambiance of the work, quickly picking up that this novel has two distinct levels. On the lower level, the level you encountered in the first chapter, you find a sort of not-so-distant future version of an unspecificied American Southern State. The characters in this part of the party are decidedly living an impoverished and crippled existence, surviving on disability money provided to a veteran of an unspecified foreign war and the occasional gig play-testing a game. Play-testing what they think is a game. The description of this grimy and yet flashy future is probably what most people think of when they think of a Gibson novel.

There is another level to the party, and that is the upper deck. You read about this too, and what will strike any genre aficionado are the great numbers of post-singularity tropes. There is a little Ian Banks description of malleable identities and body modification. But there’s also a dash of Charles Stross’ fragmentation of an impossibly wealthy post-capitalist society through the ubiquitous use of technologies - nanotechnology, body augmentation, and augmented reality. The pervasive sense of otherness. This is the elite section of the party and right from the start you feel out-of-place, slightly menaced by the events narrated here.

These two sections, however separate they appear are nevertheless connected. The game allows characters from the lower level to see characters from the upper level. And ultimately, that proves disastrous. The protagonist of the lower level - Flynne, the younger sister to the disabled and shell-shocked veteran Burke, sees something in the upper level she should not have, the murder mentioned at the beginning of this review. An apparently the fact that she lives in a completely separate time period from the upper level does not matter at all. Her witnessing of the act must but be addressed by the unspeakably powerful forces of the upper level. They begin to pervert the structure of her world, in order to marshall enough force to end her life.

This aspect of a future preying upon a past civization is not without precedent. A story included in the  “Mirrorshades” anthology, the collection that along with Gibson’s Neuromancer popularized the idea of cyberpunk, included a story called "Mozart in Mirrorshades" by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner that described the imperialism of a time-traveling future preying on the past. Gibson acknowledges as much in his afterword, but offers a vision of that interaction between future and past that is if anything, more disturbing. With the earlier story, the predation is material and physical. The future is literally robbing the past of resources. In Gibson’s world, the only interaction is through teleoperate drones and digital processes. But the very act of interacting with the past cleaves off that time-line into what the upper level characters call “a stub reality.” This one idea really seized my imagination - the idea that reality itself could be curated by some future power, that the time stream and population of an entire universe could in a sense be edited like some website, or game. Shortly after the big reveal of what’s really going on, the nature of the connection between upper and lower levels, the powers of the upper begin to take over the economy and political structure of the stub reality for their own ends. Racing against the clock, the two future powers are not gentle and nearly destablize the entire world’s economy in the process. Because certain forces become artificially more valuable, the entire market economy of the stub is distorted. One is reminded of certain flash crashes from the past decade with discomfort. What if everything that you knew was simply a means towards a very personal act of retribution and vengeance, your reality hacked by future gamers. 

Ultimately that’s the notion that sticks with me long after the sketchily drawn characters and plot twists. To his credit Gibson hones in on this aspect of the novel to just the right degree. Describing it, delimiting it, and then gently unspooling its ramifications. If you can get past the first 100 pages or so, what emerges is a description of the central dislocation of our “alien Earth." The sense that our lives’ significance is being actively, aggressively peeled away by technology even while the possibilities for an individual and committed social group are magnified. Gibson suggests that the future is not just a destination but an agency in itself, actively pulling the present away under our feet, sweeping us forwards.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Further Thoughts on Interstellar

Now to the SPOILERS:

I suppose I could approach Interstellar from a number of directions but the thing that stuck with me checking in on the reactions to the story is how incomprehensible the negative reviews of this movie are. The one that +Ludovic CELLE  shared with me from over at i09 really crystallizes the problem for me. Interstellar is not just being held to a different standard, it’s being held to a ridiculously unfair standard. 

Basically, the article by Annalee Newitz boils down the criticism of Interstellar to one of using "new-age platitudes" like the universality of love to muck up hard science fiction. I think this reaction stems from one of the weaker conversations depicted in the movie, the one where Brandt (Ann Hathaway at her most à les miserables) emotes all over the screen about the power of love to inform decision making. I do think this is a troubling moment in the movie, not so much for the sentiment it shares, as who does the sharing. Of course the female astronaut would be the one that allows emotions to cloud her normally analytic reasoning, one that the male characters are able to overcome through an healthy application of man-logic. I like to think that Nolan was savvy enough to realize this in suggesting that Hathaway’s position is ultimately the more or less correct one. However, the dialogue is clumsy and warrants a certain amount of derision.


But that’s not where the i09 article winds up. Instead, the article conflates Brandt’s speech with the final scenes of Cooper entering the Tesseract. The movie, to the best of my memory, never says that it is love that powers the Tesseract or that allows him to transcend time and space. Rather, the movie posits that love comes from meaningful connections between people and that within the infinite continuum of fifth dimensional space, it would be that connection that allows a being to find a specific time and place. This doesn’t exactly privilege love over another emotion. I suppose that fear could have also allowed Cooper’s character to sift through the Tesseract to find a specific moment and place. But to fit the larger themes of the story, the Nolan brothers seized upon love. Within the fiction of this movie, this choice doesn’t seem arbitrary or even particularly sentimental. It seems human. 

I actually rather enjoy a strain of recent movies that contrasts the cold, merciless facts of the unfeeling universe with the fragile hope that comes from being a single, confused human being doing the best with what is given.

I thought Gravity did this very well, and I think something similar happens in Interstellar. Let’s face reality, folks. Interstellar is a massively expensive cinematic endeavor that needs, at some point, to make money for its backers. A cold, completely objective look at space exploration may be a movie I’d like to watch, but I suspect I’m a minority of opinion in that regard. A big movie needs big emotions to sell tickets. And honestly, there are worse ways to go about this.

Take Sunshine for one example. Up until Gravity, this was the one example of hard sci fi in recent cinema. And if you haven’t seen it, it is well worth a watch. It also brings a certain stark realism to space travel, dramatizing the struggle of fragile life in a vast, indifferent universe. The movie also has its moment of beauty and Newtonian physics; the terrifying ballet of transferring between two spaceships under a hellish solar inferno is worth watching on its own. Then we get to the last act and all of the careful world-building and speculation of the first two thirds of the movie go out the window.  We're left watching one long gruesome chase scene, and some preposterous special effects.

My point here is not that Sunshine is a terrible movie for including that element. When you make a film for a wide audience you have to give people something to feel as well as think. To its credit, Interstellar goes for an internally consistent emotional approach. This is a movie about the conflict a father feels between caring for his family versus doing the right thing as a member of the human race. You might not like that particular theme but at least credit Nolan for finding a way to bring emotional resonance to very science-heavy story.

Finally, I’m going to dust off my heart, pin it to my sleeve, and ask: what’s so wrong with love anyway? Love does, to my limited perspective, pervade most aspects of life in one form or another. It brings people together, provides meaning, and allows for continued existence. It also creates conflict, pries people apart, and impairs decision-making. That seems like a fairly complicated and potent force.

Perhaps Nolan could have handled this topic more deftly but to denigrate this one emotion as somehow ‘new-age’ seems a rather blinkered view of the world.