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. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Jupiter Ascending: Quick Review

I think it is difficult sometimes to talk about the lower mid-range of movies. When I try to picture the person who would fawn over the Wachowski siblings Jupiter Ascending, consider it the best movie of all time, I draw a blank. However, for a movie in the basement in terms of critic ratings, sitting at 40% and 23% at the Meteoritic and Rotten Tomatoes respectively, I think it might not be too late to ask for a quick adjustment to the common wisdom.

"'Jupiter Ascending' Theatrical Poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:%27Jupiter_Ascending%27_Theatrical_Poster.jpg#mediaviewer/File:%27Jupiter_Ascending%27_Theatrical_Poster.jpg

I want to be clear, Jupiter Ascending is not a GOOD movie. It doesn’t have particularly good acting, or script, or score. The world building is best described as needlessly ornate, and honestly a clear succinct explanation for the people, events, and creatures thrown up on the screen would have been appreciated. Alas, long gone are the days where the ideas embedded within Morpheus’ monologue could be almost as awesome as the fight scenes.

Allowing for all that, though, I’m left with a distinct impression of that movie, which is I had a good time. Now, I am a sci fi fan. I enjoy subreddits filled with as many beautiful spacecrafts and dystopian cityscapes as I can stand. So, in a sense, if there is a target audience for this movie, I am firmly situated within that auditorium. With that in mind, I had a good two hours. The action was exciting, tense, and for the most part benefited from some spectacular special effects. The big complaint I have about those scenes is that they suffer from the bloat found in many recent SFX heavy movies. There are only so many times we can see fancy space crafts zipping between Chicago sky-scrapers or pieces of burning ore facility crashing through the Great Red Spot of Jupiter.

But that’s just the thing. I can’t remember ever seeing anything quite like this movie before. It certainly shares elements with previous Wachowski movies, including inevitable comparisons with the original Matrix. But, it also has it own elegant, highly saturated style - maybe David Lynch’s Dune mixed with Lord of the Rings. I’d say this movie could be someone’s guilty Netflix pleasure except you really need a large screen and impressive sound system to get the most out of it. If it’s still showing around you, and you’ve caught up on all the Oscar bait you care to for the moment, give Jupiter Ascending a second look. It’s an interesting artifact of the almost-good, like a nonsensical dream that doesn’t quite survive the process of translation after waking up.

It is in a word, diverting.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lock In by John Scalzi: A Review

First of all, there’s the title of this story. Lock In is John Scalzi’s term for people suffering from the lingering aftereffects of an encephalitic flu that will strike the world in the near future. Most people who get this flu recover with no ill-effect. However, a certain percentage are left in a persistent fully paralyzed, conscious state, termed lock-in. They can’t move or speak, and exist completely dependent on society for care. However, Hadens, another term used to describe the survivors of the disease, possess a brain structure altered to a sufficient degree that they are are able to easily download their perceptions into mechanical bodies, called Personal Transports, and into the minds of even rarer subset of people who experienced the flu, Integrators.


"Lock In Cover" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lock_In_Cover.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lock_In_Cover.jpg

A strength of this book is that a reader gradually comes to understand the full scope of the Lock-In future. This fast-moving book provides details of the disease and how Hadens cope with it along the way, rarely through large chunks of undigestible exposition. Conversation, actions of characters, and the occasional helpful aside for the protagonist Chris Shane speed our acclimation to this familiar, albeit altered future.

One thing I really appreciated about this story was this propulsiveness. Scalzi doesn’t waste a lot time doing much of anything other than tell a story. It sets up the pieces of the mystery, offers one or two easily resolvable side plots and then at about the point the reader has it all figured out, the final confrontation is already underway. Although there is more going on here than the average techno-thriller, it reads with same breezy urgency of a Crichton novel.

That’s not to say that the late Michael Crichton was some how a piker on concepts in his novel, it’s just Scalzi has time and inclination, even in his tornado of a novel, to address outside issues raised by his speculation. As will be discussed later on in this review, Scalzi shows a natural ease with complication and ‘soft sciences.’ I have no way of judging whether or not the physics and computer science of this novel is legitimate, but I did buy the sociology. From the issues of tribalism to the more complicated questions of juriprudence, Scalzi paints a world unafraid of nuance. In Lock In people have become accustomed to people walking around in androids, but the way that manifests is more complicated than simply, “oh, some people are able to walk around like C-3PO’s.” Scalzi addresses the economy of care-taking that would develop around a significant population of intermittent invalids, an era of expansionist government intervention that would make Obama look like Rand Paul.

Scalzi also finds cranky, driven characters to set his plot into motion. Perhaps because his physical body is so immobile, the version of Chris out there in the world is fast and jumps around the continent with ease. I also liked that family is not skimped on or avoided. Chris has a dad. His dad has many admirable qualities along with many that are overbearing and suffocating. The way that Chris seeks his own autonomy even though his natural state is completely dependent is a facet of this story that just worked for me. The arc of the protagonist from someone dependent to independent serves the main plot, doesn’t distract from it. Chris’ snarky voice goes a long way to making this future feel lived-in and unglamorous. If this makes sense, I think most of the effects of the movie version of Lock-In would be practical effects, and the androids would be scuffed up and dusty. It is very easy to believe in this future.

Although I’ve already praised Scalzi’s work here to tease out some of the ramifications of his invented technologies, I think more could have been done. For example, perhaps shying away from frittering into a topic already over-worked from other stories, Scalzi spends very little time explaining the virtual world of the Hadens, and even less time actually taking us there. The events of the novel concern the real world, and that’s where the focus is. Still, I would have liked a few more moments exploring just what this kind of technology would make possible in terms of what human would be. Why couldn’t a Haden fork himself into multiple personal transports? Would it be possible to spread his perception across many different input sensors simultaneously, to gain a radically different gestalt of the world? What does it mean to grow up inside of a virtual environment with an awareness of that fact? Granted, Scalzi says this technology hasn’t been approved for non-Hadens yet, but wouldn’t there be a huge black-market for this technology among the unaffected?

In some ways this book serves as a metaphor for geek culture in general. The idea of lock-ins being their own subset of culture, needing intermediaries to exist in the real world, of there being an inaccessible corner of the net, all seems prefigured by what’s going on in the internet right now. Really what this book is doing is taking some of the discussion happening online about identity and anonymity and making them tangible through a murder mystery plot. But the questions this book dramatizing are already happening, have been happening, for decades.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Why I'm Watching Agent Carter

Agent Carter is one of the best shows on television right now and certainly one of the best arguments for a feminist critiques of culture. Whenever I get really interested in a show, to the point I start structuring my schedule around it, I have to wonder why. Why this show? What is it that appeals to me?

Agent Carter Promo Picture
The actress playing the title role, Hayley Atwell is a big part of that. She was a highlight of the surprisingly entertaining if flawed first Captain America movie and, in preparation for the Agent Carter mini-series, appeared in a couple of cool vignettes during the first half of this year’s Agents of Shield. In all of these, Atwell portrayed Agent Carter as an extremely capable and stylish agent, unafraid to use her keen wit or powerful right hook to get the job done. In a one-shot filmed by Marvel and tucked into the extras of the Iron Man 3 DVD, Agent Carter is coping as best she can with the aftermath of losing Steve Rodgers, and the contempt of her male co-workers. Despite these impediments, Carter finds a dangerous McGuffin and impresses Howard Stark sufficiently that he places her in charge of the new “SHIELD” organization. 

Those basic elements are still present in the Carter mini-series but elaborated on, and fleshed out. Carter is still obviously, unabashedly better than any other operative in SSR - smarter, faster, stronger, and more resourceful - and still gets zero respect. Instead, her presence in the office is denigrated as a pity case due to her relationship with Captain America. So, when her war-time friend Howard Stark contacts her on the run from suspected treason, she jumps at the chance to safe-guard the billionaire inventor’s lethal devices and clear his name. Throughout all of this, Atwell adopts the pose of the “happy warrior,” clearly outraged and frustrated by her treatment by the men of SSR but unafraid to take action to do what she knows is right. Part of the actress’s charm comes from how much of this inner turmoil is not expressed through fist-pounding or shouting but the simple flicks of her eyes. Listening to one buffoon after another, Attwell’s eyes are always framed prominently in the scene, scanning through the possibilities of the clues she unearths, gauging the usefulness of the rogues she encounters. I've included a fun gag video below to give an exaggerated example of Atwell's work. 


There is a barely constrained physicality to her portrayal of Carter that I find convincing and powerful. Beyond the timely reversal of  ‘smartest-man-in-the-room’ trope, Atwell mines some deeper level of star-power. Somehow she’s able to find a way to bring across how smart and tough this character is, while preserving an outer charm and control.

Certainly there is a strong element of fantasy to all of this but that’s what super-heroes are all about, ultimately; bringing to life some wish-fullment of power and heroism. But the details of a fantasy matters. It matters that the hero is this case is a smart but fallible woman. Peggy Carter gives us a diesel-punk Athena, beautiful and cultured, but also ready to kick ass. And like an Olympian, the importance here is not whether it’s realistic that Carter could do what she does, but that viewers have an image inspiring wonder about what they could do.

From the Iron Man 3 One-shot
Also like Greek drama, the conflict of the story is created through a violation of ceremony, of human ritual. And I’m not referring to Peggy’s work as an agent in a traditionally male job. The violation here is that Peggy Carter, so clearly shown as capable and effective is relegated to a menial status within the SSR. This mirrors the millions of women in post-war America who were thrown out of good-paying factory jobs as the culture sought to return to some idealized sense of normality. Because of this basic trauma, various other transgressions are permitted. Agents with poor work ethics are promoted above those with talent, wounded veterans are ignored, lies are allowed to continue, and the entire agency is shown to be remarkably incompendent in dealing with its basic responsibility, stopping bad guys. In a patriarchy, women are not the only ones who suffer. Men living in such as  system as well must constantly be reminded that to show emotions is female, that to show a moment of vulnerability or injury is feminine. If women are people that need to be rescued, then men are people who can never be saved. When Carter rescues the arrogant and high-handed Agent Thompson after a raid on a Soviet compound, this doesn’t come of as a final vanquishing of Thompson, the destruction of his value as a human being, but rather a moment where he achieves a kind of catharsis, and is able to admit to guilt over his war-time actions. This catharsis, at least briefly, brings Carter into the fold as an acknowledged and respected member of SSR.

What further complicates this scenario is the fact that Carter is working to clear the name of a lethorio like Stark. Stark, through his duplicitous business dealings and serial promiscuity represents its own violation of social norms, at least within the confines of the show. Carter acts as the moral center of a universe profoundly off-kilter, forced to fight shadowy conspiracies outside the rules and procedures of the law. In Greek tragedy, the problem always stems from some basic violation of the ceremonies of society. In the case of Agent Carter, we’ve learned that the basic violation was first committed by Stark in fraternizing with the wrong Leviathon agent. That error begets all of the rest of it, Stark’s hounding as a public enemy, the spread of weapons so perniciously powerful they could be considered war-crimes in themselves, and the lies. Eventually Carter wises to all of this and all but cuts her ties to him. I’m curious where this is all going to wind up as the one-shot (still officially described as canon) shows Stark with enough standing to raise Carter to the director of SHIELD.

One final winning attribute of this show is its luminous, effortlessly stylish production. It’s Mad Men for Avengers fans, with careful attention paid to details and cinematography.

Agent Jack Thompson (center) with Agent Ray Kryzeminski (left) in a fairly good representation of the Noir style of the show.
Yes, there are plenty of fist-fights, it is a Marvel property.
I couldn't find the shot I really wanted of this scene showing a reactor covered in a layer of asbestos, but this shot gets at the weird cross-genre elements of the show.
I’ve praised the choreography of Agents of Shield this season but Agent Carter takes it to another level. On the last episode in particular, attention was paid to make the action of the scene flow naturally from the conflict. Watch how the snappy dialogue between Carter and Jarvis flows seamlessly into the first pan to the face. The editing is kinetic while preserving a sense of the automat in which the fight occurs. The viewer is always oriented in the scene, able to follow who is being hit and where the action is heading. 



Agent Carter does an excellent job using action build and support characterization. During the second episode, many reviewers have noted the near-genius of editing Carter’s fight scene with a radio play featuring a humiliatingly fragile version of herself needing rescue. Fight-fights and car-chases are not everyone’s cup of tea, but done well, punches and kicks are just one more component to the essential struggle of a television show. I guess another way of saying this is, sometimes and uppercut isn’t just an uppercut when it’s a powerful female throwing the haymakers.

Unfortunately, as awesome as this show is, the ratings haven’t really kept pace. 

Some fatalistic hipster component of my brain says, “Don't like the show? Fine, you’re just not cool enough to get it.” But really, Agent Carter should be a massive hit and the fact that it isn’t says a lot about where our culture is right now. Gamergate is only the latest example of what Susan Faludi once called Backlash, the tendency of culture to react to perceived gains by women as some kind of existential threat. When women move into roles and power traditionally reserved for men, a certain type of individual grows threatened, much like Agent Thompson. They lash out, either physically or through social pressure, striving to shore up once more the crumbling edifice of gender roles. 

As this country gears up for another Presidential election almost certainly featuring an experienced, smart, capable former Secretary of State and Senator matched against a guy with considerably fewer achievements, it might be interesting to reflect on how this show comes to be perceived in years to come. 

Still, if you're like me, snowed in again this week, catch up on this show if you haven't. And watch tomorrow's episode. There are only a few episodes left and a show this good should be able to finish with style.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Boskone 2015

Boskone is the one local convention I’ve never had a chance to visit. It usually occurs at an awkward time for me in the calendar (seriously, Valentine’s Day?) but on the other hand it offers a chance to see all of my favorite authors gathered together in one convention - Laird Barron, Elizabeth Bear, John Langan, Ken Liu, Scott Lynch, Charles Stross, etc. If you want a quick list of authors to track down to find out what’s happening in speculative fiction right now, you’d be well-served just looking through the participant list of Boskone.

What to do, what to do.

The snowy wasteland surrounding the Westin Hotel. Morgan Crooks (2015)

This year I decided to give it a try before the impending blizzard closed down Boston again. In a nutshell I am going to have to go back. Although Boskone is a smaller convention than Arisia (which I’ve gone to for several years) I had a blast.

First off I’d just like to point out that the smaller size for Boskone probably works to its advantage. The focus here is more tightly centered on speculative fiction and the publishing industry, but unlike Readercon in the summer, Boskone also includes panels on media and fandom, which makes for an entertaining and distinct blend. The stand-out for me was Joan Sloncsewski's talk on spending a year in Antartica investigating microbial life there. I could’ve sat through another three hours of her travelogue, honestly. The portrait she gave us of a rugged, inhumanly barren moonscape contrasted with the strange ad hoc community that’s grown up at McMurto Station was just enormously appealing. She took a few videos of flying from the Research Station to her base camp in the desert valleys across the Ross Sea, and the views were simply staggering. As Joan pointed out, these are places where no megalife can survive, and to be clear what Joan meant by mega life was anything bigger than cyanobacterial mats. It has been pointed out that the frozen deserts of Antartica are the closest things we have to visiting Mars, and although the color of the sky looks different, the rugged and sterile slopes of the mountains gave plenty of evidence supporting that.


I also enjoyed the panel called Apocalypse How? with Jeffrey A. Carver, Scott Lynch, Steven Popkes, and Michael Swanwick. As detailed in one of my year-end posts, Swanwick wrote one of my absolute favorite short stories last year, “Passage of Earth,” and so I was compelled to do the whole star-struck fan thing and thank him for the story. I also got a chance to hear Elizabeth Bear talk about her process of writing “Covenant” which was another favorite of mine in a later panel. So, as far as the basic fan dynamic of conventions, Boskone pretty much delivered.

Neil Clarke wound up moderating a very well-attended panel on how "Not to Get Rejected" which was entertaining. As someone who has an Inbox stuffed with form rejection letters it was reassuring to hear from the other side of the equation. I guess my basic take-away is the biggest mistake in submitting stories is stopping. Clarke said plenty of stories he passed on got picked up by other markets and vice versa. It’s all about supply and demand. Oh, and don’t send zombie stories to Clarke, not even as a joke.

I also ran into a fellow panelist from Arisia, Gillian Daniels, and shared our mutual fandom for Agent Carter in a quick escalator conversation. Who knows what’s going to happen with that show but I agree with Gillian that it deserves/demands a second season. What a terrific show.

And that’s about it. I did brave the Boston T system to get to the Westin hotel but that worked out pretty well, actually. No delays either inbound or out and the folks at the Alewife parking garage were very nice not charging me a full amount when I misplaced my ticket. I’m going to add Boskone to my list of conventions next year but I really want to find out a way to be on a panel or two. I’m going to have to do some investigating.