Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Getting Ready for Thursday's Reading

Now that school's out for the summer, I turn my attention to tomorrow's reading at the Woburn Public Library. In case you're interested, I'll be reading first (my friend Nick Mancuso will read later in the evening).

At the moment I've got the two flash pieces I'll be reading: "Children of Frogs" and "Belongings." I'm sort of torn between a sci-fi piece called "Distractions" and a ghost story called "Those in Exile." "Exile" is a bit shorter which might be better for the evening but I really like the other story. I might just call an audible when I get there.

Anyway, if you're interested in listening to a few stories, turn out at the Library at 7:00 pm (45 Pleasant Street, Woburn, MA 01801). There will be refreshments.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Cyberpunk!

Way back in the 80s I'd treasure the few moments I could convince my parents to drive the 15 minutes or so to the local bookstore so I could slip to the back, find the science fiction section and read a few RPGs in the half hour or so it took them to circumnavigate our very small, very sad mall. One of the games I looked for was Cyberspace, which had an 80's awesome cover, truly inexplicable rules, and a courageously specific future-setting.



Last night, my good friend +Alex LaHurreau found a nearly mint copy of this classic RPG in a Worcester used book store. The feelings came in waves.

The cover is every bit as epic as I remember but the true gift was flipping through the timeline the creators put on nearly every page. I've included a few below. The predictions range from comical to poignant. Having hacked a few RPGs myself, I don't post this in the spirit of mockery but in a legitimate sense of awe. I remember reading these pages with absolute credulity and poured through the hyper-specific character generation system (you could buy a voice modulation implant for a character that raises/lowers the frequency of his/her voice - each octave of adjustment sets you back $1500!) with a genuine sense of discovery. Every generation presumes it knows the future, but was there ever an era capable of imagining a world nearly as weird as our own while being wrong in nearly every way?

This book was published in 1989...

Oh, the long and bright future of home faxing.

One of my absolute favorites.

Pretty much right.

Also weirdly close.




Sunday, June 7, 2015

What I Read in May

This list will be a bit longer than previous post if only because there was so much I read this month that really appealed to me. I think two or three of them were instant favorites for the year, but I’ll withhold judgement until a few months have passed. As always, the list presented below is in no particular order.


Pacific Flotsam (2015 Morgan Crooks)
  • The Two Weddings of Bronwyn Hyatt by Alex Bledsoe (TOR.com) Bledsoe’s story is the kind I normally skip as the first scene involves a girl trying on an beautiful dress and making wedding plans. However, something about the protagonist's flinty dialogue kept me reading. I'm glad I did as within a few swift pages I was hooked. Bledsoe sets his fantasy pageant in a backwoods Virginia rife with European fairies intriguing with indigenous fey. The bride, the Bronwyn of the title, navigates through the needs of her own family and the machinations of rivals. This is a genuinely tense scenario with clever twists.
  • An Ocean of Eyes by Cassandra Khaw (The Dark) I’m recommending this story on the basis of its ghastly and strangley dignified setting:  a city ruled by dead, hungry gods and the fools lured to their own destruction. One of a handful of stories I’ve read this year bringing something fresh to Lovecraft Mythos.
  • Time Bomb Time by CC Finlay (Lightspeed) Finlay weaved an elegant mental claw-trap of a story. To say too much about the plot is to ruin the effect but suffice to say it revolves around two characters stuck in a bizarre situation unable to perceive that anything strange is going on at all. Very well constructed. Finlay is able to take a simple idea (almost a gimmick) and make it the heart of a distressing morality play.
  • Disharmony by Ken Poyner (DSF) A weird micro-fiction involving an alien race that uses music for weapons and the terrible results of getting into war with them. Evocative language in service of an unsettling idea.
  • For the Love of Sylvia City by Andrea Pawley (Clarkesworld) Science Fiction stories should introduce a world too weird to be possible and too compelling to be ignored. This story hits the mark on those two levels and so many more. The craft here is notable, Pawley able to conjure up entire post-human societies in the space of time it takes a person to swim to the surface and back.
  • The Red Light is Blinking by Kealan Patrick Burke. (Nightmare) The Red Light is a rather troubling piece seemingly one pitch away from being the next Blumhouse horror movie. Having watched my fair share of Blumhouse films I don’t mean this as a criticism. The writing was taut and effective but also nasty and morally questionable. Just the way horror should be some might say.
  • Poof! by Laura Walden Rabb (Driftwood) A literary speculative piece about an artist striving to reimagine painting for the future. After first creating moveable paint Marx Shepherd invents disappearing paint. All of his work will at some point disappear and the story uses this idea to point to something interesting about the nature of art and life. A small but entertaining story.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Fallout 4

In terms of nerd culture moments, this year has already exceeded my wildest hopes.

And then this morning happened.

Fallout 3 is my favorite game of all time. So yeah, this game has big shoes to fill for me. That said, I'm incredibly excited for it. The graphics look updated and fresh. There are hints of an epic, poignant story (the rumors have it the player character wakes up from Vault 111 after centuries of cryo-sleep looking for his missing family).

And, the setting is Boston (sometimes rumors are right)! I don't even know what more can be said except I look forward to visiting some of the sites in-game and real-life.

The only question left: How many weeks or months do I have left to decide on PS4 or XBOX One?




Thursday, May 21, 2015

Update on Public Reading

II mentioned a couple months ago that I will be reading some of my work at the Woburn Public Library and I now have a few more details to share.

First off, the reading will not just be myself but will also feature the literary talents of Nick Mancuso, who is an incredibly talented writer.

Second, the event will last 7:00 to 8:30pm and refreshments will be available.

I hope to see you there!

Lastly, within the next couple of months I'll have another development to share. It's hard to keep quiet about this but for the moment I'll have to be vague. 

I'm including the posting from the Library's website in case your interested:

Local Author Reading featuring Morgan Crooks and Nicholas Mancuso
Thursday June 25, 20157:00 AM until 8:30 AM


Join us on Thursday, June 25, at 7PM to celebrate the work of two local authors: Morgan Crooks and Nick Mancuso. 
Morgan has had his stories published in the Daily Science Fiction website as well as in anthologies released by Burnt Offerings, Dark Hall Press, and Mystery and Horror LLC. By day, he teaches ancient history. Essays and reviews are also available on his blog ancientlogic.blogspot.com.
Nick Mancuso earned his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Fairfield University and he teaches writing workshops at the Woburn Public Library. His work has appeared in Spry Literary JournalFoliate Oak Literary Magazine and the Garbanzo Literary Journal, among others. You can visit his website at www.nickmancuso.net or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Nick_Mancuso
Light refreshments will be served, and handicapped access can be arranged by calling (781) 933-0148.






 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

There have already been plenty of interesting articles about this movie, an early pick for my favorite of the year (at least until until I have a chance to check out Star Wars). Some have noted the implicit feminism of this movie, the way the story revolves around women and their allies finding a new way forward through the wasteland of the real even while pursued by bellowing and decayed mockeries of the old patriarchies. Others have commented on the quality of the action film-making here, the style of drama sweeping the viewer into a tense and kinetic plot with unbelievable stunts and practical effects.


Two things grabbed my imagination about this excellent movie: its refreshing narrative clarity and coherence and the incredibly detailed and economical world-building.

After watching this movie I had a pretty good sense where everything happened. I understood the path Imperator Furiosa (great names in this film, BTW) took on her flight from the forces of the predatory Immortan Joe and his fanatical War Boys, could even sketch a map of their trek. Beyond that, I had a sense of the intererior space of the war-rig, the heavily-modded tractor trailer Fuiriosa drove, how one might get from the front of the vehicle to the back and where each character was in that space in any given moment of the film.That is a sadly unappreciated detail in modern cinema. I enjoyed Age of Ultron, but thinking about it, I’d have to say Whedon employs the chaos cinema style of post-2000 movies. The impression of battle and action and frenetic motion was more important than any specific understanding of which Avenger was where during the final fight. I am no fundamentalist when it comes to action. I’ve enjoyed what might be called classic cinema and I’ve enjoyed the whirling, bewildering sensorium of “heightened continuity.” That said, I do lean towards the former.

For a movie as simple and keyed-into detail as Fury Road, understanding a sequence of action reassures and engages. Director George Miller clearly wants viewers to participate in this movie as active spectators, not lulled into a fitful slumber by haphazard explosions and showers of punch/kicks. Comprehension of danger here fuels tension, builds suspense.

The details matter.

They matter in the way the chase unfolds and they matter in the participants of this specific, hyper-contextualized drama. Every car, every scarred body, every scene communicates an entire world to the viewer. Very little needs exposition, but every two-headed gecko, tattoo, and car-mod weaves together a bleak and corroded vision of the post-apocalypse. Miller doesn’t both holding our hands, walking through each cute gimmick, its origin or purpose. But neither does he simply dangle it in the background as amusing distractions. This is a world where something as simple as a gearshift conceals a dagger, and a complicated pattern is needed to avoid a truck’s kill-switch. These are important points in the plot, lethal subtleties.

In addition, Miller understands that life is constantly in motion, constantly changing. Even as he presents this world to us, the particulars of it are decaying, flying apart, vanishing.

I’m also going to reserve a sentence or two for the acting - in particular Charise Theron’s Furiosa and Tom Hardy’s Mad Max. In a movie with little dialogue it becomes crucial that every look and gesture sells the leads’ humanity and complexity. Both actors are models of strength and vulnerability, tension and release.

See this movie. Watch it twice.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Prose Forensics

Although not as obvious as poetry, prosody has an important role in making prose enjoyable to read. Chances are a piece of writing you like involves a deliberate and conscious application of rhythm and sound to achieve a certain effect. Sometimes these effects are obvious (Livia Llewellyn comes to mind) and sometimes the effects are vestigial (almost non-existant), such as a writer like Andrew Weir.

Personally I like either type of writing. There are times what I want is simple: writing that gets the job done. Other times I want to wallow in words, savor them, reveling in the heady brew of challenging diction and intricate rhythms.

A handful of works I’ve read recently use prosody to achieve a specific effect within writing that’s not typically thought of requiring close reading. As luck would have it, three of these examples even revolve around a common theme - forensic science. Relatively unadorned style is doubly effective because it goes by unnoticed by readers. Authors able to employ such tricks have a powerful hold on the reader, conjuring reactions and emotions from unknown places. Even when unable to describe why, a reader might single out a passage that affected them, seized their imaginations.

John Scalzi, whose “Lock In” novel I reviewed earlier this year, writes in a subtle but effective register. The craft Scalzi employs is clear from the very beginning. He chooses clean and active verbs to shuttle between scenes of dialogue, never burdening his plot with gobs of exposition. Yet, if you unfold his prose, a surprising amount of poetry appears. The following excerpt appears in an early chapter of Lock In, when the cybernetic protagonist Chris Shane first arrives at the scene of a murder.


There was a dead body in the room, on the floor, facedown in the carpet, throat cut. The carpet was soaked in blood. There were sprays of blood on the walls, on the bed, and on the remaining seat in the room. A breeze turned in the room, provided by the gaping hole in the wall-length window that the love seat had gone through.


There are four sentences here and three of them employ a state-of-being verb, one of those hobgoblins of creative writing courses. And yet, this passage doesn’t stick on the ‘was’s and ‘were’s, each jagged sentence fitting together in a smooth, clinical voice. That first sentence in particular could have been written many different ways, but its staccato, strobe-like pulse, each participle drawing closer to the source of the murder, works. The body is in the room, then he’s on the floor, then pressed against a carpet and finally dead of a slashed throat. One can almost hear David Caruso saying, enhance, enhance, ENHANCE! 

Notice too how the passage gains momentum towards the end. A dead body is as still as still can be, but Scalzi introduces a spreading pool of blood, then sprays of blood, walls streaked with blood and finally the turbulence in the room’s air created by hole in the wall. The final sentence uses the only active verb, again creating a sense of forward momentum, a sense of violence only moments old.

Sometimes it’s helpful to contrast two works to see how different writers do their thing. I finished the first Dresden File book recently, after considerable urging from friends. And I have to say, for the most part, I enjoyed Jim Butcher's “Storm Front." It reads quickly, introduces its world with a minimum of exposition before getting into the plot. However, for all of the hard-boiled noir affectations of Jim Butcher’s writing, the man can pile on the modifiers.


I stepped closer to the bed and walked around it. The carpet squelched as I did. The little screaming part of my brain, safely locked up behind doors of self-control and strict training, continued gibbering. I tried to ignore it. Really I did. But if I didn’t get out of that room in a hurry, I was going to start crying like a little girl.
I’m leaving out the section before and after this paragraph that go into more detail on a pair of lovers murdered in their bed by some unknown assailant. For our purposes this paragraph will suffice. First of all, both of these books are first person narratives, and yet only in the second paragraph do we get that claustrophobic pulse of the character’s interior monologue. Lock-in treats us to a very spare, almost inhuman description of the crime scene. Butcher, in contrast, wants us to feel Dresden’s discomfort with the situation. For some one having under gone ‘strict training,’ he seems pretty freaked out. The relatively uncomplicated sentences reinforce the idea of Dresden as being somewhat out of his depth here. The paragraph does use more active verbs than Scalzi but padded by dids and didn’ts, continueds and going tos.

Finally, let’s take a look at passage early in Michael Swanwick's wonderful short story from last year, “Passage of Earth.” A science fiction story, a forensic investigator is presented with a unique challenge, to dissect the body of a alien killed in a crash landing. Most of the story is in effect a description of that autopsy, the details recorded by the investigator later flipped around at the ending. But first, there is a short passage where Hank confronts the body of the alien.


It was a Worm. 
Hank found himself leaning low over the heavy, swollen body, breathing deep of its heady alien smell, suggestive of wet earth and truffles with sharp hints of ammonia. He thought of the ships in orbit, blind locomotives ten miles long. The photographs of these creatures didn’t do them justice. His hands itched to open this one up.


This passage is somewhat more opulent in description, but still tightly coiled, spare. The proportion of active to static verbs is almost exactly opposite from Lock In, and the tone is more fraught. The narrator paws the ground to get started, already surprised by how eager he is to open up the alien corpse and discover what it had concealed. The rhythm is insistent, a series of trochee adjectives (HEAV-y, SWOL-len)  sagging into messier meters. This creates an interesting cross-current within this paragraph: the first long sentence loping forward on a simple, nursery rhyme beat, while the brief final sentence embraces an anapestic stutter.

A reader might not consciously pick up on any of this, but some portion of his brain will. A truly talented writer like Swanwick bends the infinitely flexible segments of the English language into intricate shapes that can only be read in one fashion. It's the hidden patterns that seize, ensure, and ultimately, create meaning.