Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz

For the most part I'm comfortable with a choice I've made for this blog. As some commenters have already noted, I'm more of a praiser than a critic. I like what I like and I tend to write posts about things I think are stupendous, amazing, and life-affirming. 



Then I read a novel like Junot Diaz' "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," and I feel like I've run out of credible accolades.

I've been casting about this year for main-stream, contemporary fiction books to read. Partly I felt it was time to branch out a little bit after three (five? 10?) years of hard-core speculative reading habits. Partly I thought it was my responsibility after taking the reins as facilitator for my local library writing workshop. Some of the participants write speculative fiction but most don't. Broadening the references I could use to critique stories seemed wise.

So, I did what I usually do in these situations, google the top 10 best novels of the past decade. Or maybe of the 21st century, I'm not too sure. Whatever the list was, I scoped out a local library's audio book stacks, trying to find one of the modern classics. For the most part none of the books on the list were available. That makes me all the more fortunate.

The book that was there, Junot Diaz's, was perfect. Now, I have read his work before, I wasn't wading into this book completely blind. A few of his stories, particularly ones from "This is How You Lose Her," get raised up as exemplars in creative writing classes. They struck me, in previous encounters, as gritty and genuine but not where I was at the time.

"Oscar Wao" is where I am, have been, and probably always will be. The pitch blurb for the book got me immediately. Oscar Wao is a 300 lb. Dominican American with a complicated family life (to say the least) and a need to become the next J.R.R. Tolkien and find true, enduring love. His story is told, in part, by his frenemy from college, "Junior." Through Junior's eyes, Oscar becomes something more than simply a sad pity case, he becomes the symbol of all that connects two countries, two states of being, two individuals, and two existences. Oscar Wao is symbol of transformation and hope but also the ceaseless misery that comes from not really being part of any one world. The book is profane, heart-felt, merciless, empathic, epic, and almost unbearably raw. It is simply one of the best things that I've ever read.

***

A new chapter of Agent Shield and Spaceman is now available. For those keeping score, I've now reached the 33rd chapter of the story, which according to my novel outline is past the half way mark. I'd take that with a grain of salt. I've already added a couple of chapters and might do so again if the story demands it. But still, I feel as though I'm reaching a kind of inflection point for the story. Thank you for reading and, as always, feedback is encouraged.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

New Chapter for "Agent Shield and Spaceman"

After a little bit of delay this week, I have updated my serial web fiction "Agent Shield and Spaceman," with a new chapter, the thirtieth. 

Two quick notes on this chapter.

First off, this is one of my favorites. When I was going through the old manuscript, trying to decide if this project was really worth my time and effort, this was the one that sealed the deal for me. Paradoxically, I'm still not sure if the tale of Igor Splendov really belongs in this novel. This comes very soon after the Interlude chapter which was sort of like this one in form and function. But, I think it's impact would be lost later on in the story. That said, there's something about this episode that I find compelling. Perhaps that's the advantage of this web serial style of fiction. If you'd rather not read this back-story about the Delta Omega base, you can skip ahead.

Well, not now, exactly, but when the whole thing is done, I suppose.

Okay, second note. I recommend listening to this chapter with the following musical accompaniment. If you have not heard Nils Frahm's work before, you are in for a treat. Regardless, "Says," strikes more or less precisely the mood I was going for in this piece.


Monday, September 12, 2016

What I Read in August

One down side to trying to keep up on my schedule for Agent Shield and Spaceman is I've seen my available time for reading awesome short stories dwindle somewhat. I still read a few stories I think are worth your time, but I didn't get to sift through as many magazines as I normally like to. So be it.


In no particular order, here are some stories I can recommend:
  • The Hunt for the Leather Apron by G. Neri. (Nightmare) I liked this story. The challenge imposed by reading a text crafted with purposeful spelling mistakes, the illusion of an authentic document, mostly pays off. It helps that despite the typographical distortions, this is a very immediate and affecting tale. It's interesting that even after many years, Jack the Ripper contains yet enough juice to power genuine terror. In this case, it's the horror of how a violent act corrupts and ruins even the bystanders. 
  • The Dirty American by Lara Elena Donnelly. Reprint in Nightmare which is something I typically avoid for these columns, but in this case I'm happy to make an exception. Sex, death, and high perfume. While not nearly as scandalous as the premise suggests, "The Dirty American" is certainly intense and fascinating, each smooth perversion stalking closer to the reader, daring him or her to take another step closer. 
  • Totem Poles by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling. (Clarkesworld) A crazy drug hazed romp; humanity strains under the pressure to adapt to the coming of living saucer people. The globalist aspect comes from Sterling, but the strange plastic polymorphism is classic Rucker. A pleasure to see new work from both.
  • Fall to Her by Alexis A. Hunter. (Apex) I interpreted this as a short retelling of the Siren episode from Odyssey. In this science fiction retelling, the siren is not just alluring but capable of transportation, of escaping the rusty pointless routines of the capitalistic, exploitive system wrapping the narrator like one more layer of artificiality. The song bewitches because it promises something mech and money can't: meaning.
***

In other news, a new chapter of "Agent Shield and Spaceman," is now available. Spaceman reaches the heart of the Anti-Cerebrists' operations and sees an unwelcome face. I hope you enjoy!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Circle Completed

I finished "The Circle" (by Dave Eggers) yesterday, and boy was I impressed. It's a simple story, and for the most part it's told with style but minimal flourish. Although billed as a technothriller by some, it struck me as a coming-of-age story. Maybe Harry Potter and the Search Engine?

I'm going to have a tough time describing what really clicked for me about this story without delving into spoilers but I think I can describe quickly two things that any writer might be interested in.

First off, the use of comedy to sell the horrific is extremely well-done here. Eggers had any number of set-pieces relying on a slow, almost imperceptible drift towards absurdity. The bit with the ever expanding number of screens May (the novel's protagonist) uses was understated but hysterically funny. The novel straddles present and near-future, but the jokes help humanize the situation and ground the story in something approachable and relatable. Although many of the developments of the story are very tense and exciting, the essential satire of the book keeps that part of the story under wraps until it is too urgent and perilous to ignore.

The second thing is the masterful use of foreshadowing. Very little is wasted in May's journey. Even diversions like May's interest in Kayaking and encounters with the scruffy denizens of the Frisco Bay play incredibly important roles in the later sections of the book. Eggers uses imagery such as transparent sharks and circular trips to reinforce the themes of the book, always returning to an element introduced earlier again or even a third time to see how the imagery plays out.

***

Today's episode of "Agent Shield and Spaceman" starts Part Two of the web serial, catching up with three of the Section Starfire agents in the wake of the confrontation at Thulewaite's ranch. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy!



Tuesday, September 6, 2016

New Chapter for Agent Shield and Spaceman

Short post today, mostly to announce that the next chapter of "Agent Shield and Spaceman" is available. Today is not listed as a Chapter whatever but rather as an interlude. There are only a couple of these interludes in the novel, sections meant to broaden the scope of the work beyond the Agents of Sections Starfire. This one concerns the origin of a character increasingly important to the second part of the novel.

As always, I hope you enjoy and comments/questions are always welcome!

Monday, September 5, 2016

DnD Character Classes, Livecasts, and REM

Last night I caught the live cast of Penny Arcade's Dungeons and Dragons at Pax West with one of my friends Milo. It was hilarious and if you get a chance to see the show or just catch up with the blogs you will not be disappointed. Assuming you like stuff like Dungeons and Dragons, which I obviously do.

Dungeons and Dragons Adventuring Party. Author's character not pictured.

I also like REM which is a fact I'm not sure I've mentioned yet on this blog. Which is weird.

Maybe I don't, on a whole, say enough about my love for REM because during the course of my dinner, Milo asked me on a scale of one to 10 what my fandom for REM is. He was trying to gauge my interest in a MOTH Radio story he had listened to, the one about Peter Buck and Ambien. Anyway, I was taken aback. It made me reflect on my own fandom in an intense and powerful way.

How big of a fan am I, anyway?

I thought of last week when I went out on my porch to read and listened to Murmur. I thought of the intense awe I feel of those songs, how I sang out the choruses, hunched over with the nostalgic ache for times past, childlike wonder causing paroxysms of hands and eyebrows.

My fandom is real.

But...and this is a painful admission...I've never actually gone to a live REM concert. Not that I've gone to many concerts period, as I usually restrict my music fandom to albums and the occasional YouTube live concert, but I've never gone. I also don't own any setlists which I understand to be a thing among the REM superfans, or any signed posters, or really any memorabilia at all. I don't own all the albums, just the ones I like.

And yet, as I write these words, I know secretly I'm wondering if today is the day I listen to "Out of Time," even though the emotions that album cause are very raw and even the happy songs carry with them the almost unbearable foreknowledge of loss and regret.

Listening to Milo's story about Peter Buck and the Ambien that nearly sent him to jail, I started to wonder about fandom, Dungeons and Dragons, and character classes. I wondered out loud what First Edition DnD character class a person would be depending on their particular early 80s favorite band. This provoked a very long and heartfelt consideration of these topics, eventually narrowing down to a few iron-clad assignments.

I'll wait while most of you flee the room.

Okay, still here? There are ten basic character classes in First Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (Two others that are more or less prestige classes so we didn't bother with them): Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Paladin, Thief, Assassin, Ranger, Magic-user, Illusionist, and Monk.

The following ten musicians struck us as being particularly popular in the early 80s and distinct enough to represent specific character classes: Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Replacements, Hüsker Dü, New Order, REM, Sonic Youth, and U2.

Some of the match-ups were very easy to figure out. The Boss is a fighter. Done. Others caused controversy. Milo agreed with my assignment for New Order but not my reasons behind it. At any rate, here, for posterity and for no redeeming social value whatsoever, are the Character Classes for Early 80s Music Fans.

First, the big four. As these are the most common and popular of the character classes, I thought these should go to the big four commericial artists of the 80s.

  • Cleric: Gotta be Madonna even though her songs with more overtly religious themes came out later. Although, I could see a case made for Prince.
  • Fighter: The Boss, 'natch.
  • Magic-User: I think Prince for the elemental wizardry of his music.
  • Thief: Michael Jackson - Smooth Criminal.
Then you have the more esoteric classes:
  • Assassin: I'm not sure if I could point to a specific reason why we both thought this one would go to Replacements but we both felt strongly about this.
  • Druid: Has to be REM, for the reverb alone. Also, they've always struck me as people comfortable conversing about and with trees. That's not meant as an insult.
  • Illusionist: They have a song called "Disease Illusions" and also more than a few songs concerned with the confusion, deception, and comforting illusions. 
  • Monk: The monk is the alternate tuning of Dungeons and Dragons character classes, so Sonic Youth felt right.
  • Paladin: U2, obviously. Has there ever been a more painfully sincere hierophantic band before or since?
  • Ranger: We went with Hüsker Dü. Rangers are quick. Hüsker Dü plays really fast. There was more to it but also probably not.
Okay, so that's what I've got. I'm thinking this could be done as a Dungeon World/Powered by Apocalypse style hack. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Cosmic Horror Reading Guide

I don't really like what I say I do.

When I say I am a fan of Lovecraftian mythos, weird fiction, cosmic horror, cosmic dread, or Dark SF, that doesn't mean I enjoy (for the most part) work derived directly from the Mythos. I think it's safe to say Lovecraft has inspired a great many notable weird fiction writers, and some of them have even included the odd tentacle beastie, or cameo from one of HP's unpronounceable Elder Gods. It's just not what I read this type of fiction for.



Midnight Shadows by Morgan Crooks 2016
What interested me about Lovecraft is the same thing that gets me revved up about Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgens, Arthur Machen, T.E.D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, and Peter Watts - the depiction of an inexplicable universe at odds, fundamentally, with human survival. I'm not sure why this body of work appeals to me, but it does. So, this summer I did a self-directed survey course of literature in this vein, to try and figure out what exactly I like about these works and what might be useful to a writer/fan to emulate.The trick here is to begin to separate out those works I feel do a particularly good job illustrating the universe of weird fiction outside of Lovecraft's influence and those, while containing some element of cosmic horror, that don't quite embody what I'm trying to describe.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article called "Dark Realism," which focused on speculative literature embracing plausible science and a pessimistic attitudes. That article is still available and sums up my opinion on many of the authors included (and excluded) above.

So that leaves a smaller slice of the pie to consider - literature that is weird and advances a pessimistic perspective on the universe and humanity's place within it. I'm also not including authors like Blackwood, Machen, or Hodgson because even though they are impressive and worth tracking down, I feel their names are better known if for no other reason than they often appear in "Cosmic Horror" articles like this. Beyond the work I've read, obviously there are several life times of novels, stories, movies, games, and comics also fitting that criteria. My attention span is short and my interests fickle. I'm comfortable describing what I've read and leaving it as a marker for others to use (or ignore).

Here are a few works I think anyone with interest beyond Lovecraft's take on cosmic horror should read:


Jeff VanderMeer "The Southern Cross" Trilogy" Alex Garland of "Ex Machina," fame is making the first book of VanderMeer's cosmic horror trilogy - "Annihilation," into a movie. I'd recommend all of the books in the trilogy but they are all distinctly different. "Annihilation" follows an unnamed biologist into Area X, a region somehow devastated by an environmental disaster. The expedition quickly runs afoul of menacing topographical anomalies and basic personality conflicts. The second book looks at Area X from the outside and the third book somehow manages to reveal some of the central mysteries of the series without really compromising the underlying enigma. I enjoyed the first book the most and included it in this list not only because its transition to a movie promises to attract more attention to this genre but also because it succeeds, in its own right, as an encapsulation of modern existential dread.
Jorge Luis Borge: "Tlon, Ugbar Orbis Tertius" Borge was an Argentine writer active throughout the 20th century, mostly known for his short story collections. His work ranged from contemporary fiction to exacting speculations on the thin line between reality and dreams. "Tlon, Ugbar, Orbis Tertius" is one of his longer works (although still pretty brief at 5600 words) and describes the search for the Central Asian country of Ugbar and the secret society created to catalogue its existence. Its use of a forbidden tome (an encyclopedia in this case) echoes, Lovecraft's penchant for Necronomicons and Pnakotic Manuscripts, but this goes well beyond simple eldritch window-dressing. Borge's tale explores the uncanny and disturbing way yesterday's dreams become tomorrow's reality.

Laird Barron: "Proboscis" The typical Barron story is a weird-noir story where a haunted and doomed protagonist meets the fate he was always destined for. This owes as much to Thomas Ligotti (described below) as it does to Lovecraft. What makes Barron necessary for this short list is his ability to pierce, however briefly, the central mysteries of his story without resorting to curtains of obscuring prolix. "Proboscis" is my favorite example of this. We follow a bounty hunter gaining awareness of a predatory force that stalks him and his friends. Although we the reader are never told precisely what this force or creature is, we given enough metaphors and clues to summon an appalling picture of what is happening and will happen. 

Thomas Ligotti: "Miss Plar" I came late to an appreciation for Ligotti's work and credit "True Detective's" first season for the introduction. Of his stories I've read, this is far and away my favorite. Ligotti's dark fiction can be challenging. For the most part (and there are exceptions) the horror described in Ligotti's work doesn't reach out with claws, or stab with knives. The best way I can describe it is to say the world of each story, the setting itself, works in silent colusion with the flaws of each story's protagonist. It is almost as though the universe contains an infinite number of doors, each one leading to a very unpleasant end. When the right key meets the right lock, an ugly fate clicks home. "Miss Plar" is a very sedate and atmospheric coming-of-age story, where a family's care-giver gradually awakens a boy to a sinister although very beautiful world. 

Gwendolyn Kiste "Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions" When I recommended this last year I was struck by its darker take on the rapture idea of "The Leftovers." Certain stories linger with me longer than others and I still find myself thinking about how this story paints its picture of the great, predatory unknown lurking just beyond the narrator's ken. This story also display's Kiste's motif of disappearance, how sudden absence can be a metaphor for death but also empowerment. 

Michael Shea: "Autopsy" Michael Shea's "Polyphemus" collection was a non-trivial challenge to track down but worth the effort. The title story describes a prospecting expedition meeting mortal danger at the hands of an alien cyclopean creature more predatory ecosystem than single organism. I enjoyed "The Autopsy" even more as it expressed a particularly visceral and gruesome strain of extraterrestrial body horror. Shea's work falls on the mind-bending side of twentieth century speculative fiction, and the lurid, earthy aspects of his writing often mask profound insights.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky "Roadside Picnic" This novel, renamed as "The Stalker," became one of the most famous movies of the great Russian film-maker Tarkovsky. I'll confess to not having seen the movie other than a few clips but the novel I can definitely recommend. The set-up: aliens stop by earth, leaving behind all manner of trash and pollution at their 'picnic sites.' The reader never really finds what the aliens are or why they've come to earth, but many of the artifacts they leave behind prove incredibly useful to humans. The catch is that the Zone also contains strange devices and insidious residues offering any number of unpleasant ends. Stalkers are quasi-legal prospectors, venturing into the forbidden zones, looking for baubles of some interest or value. According to rumor there is one particular artifact - deep within the quarantined region - that might grant untold riches upon the Stalker who finds it.
Michael Swanwick: "A Passage of Earth" My favorite short story from two years ago, "A Passage of Earth," is another alien autopsy story unfolding into something more complicated and distressing than it first appears. The aliens of Swanwick's story resemble enormous annelids and have a unique method of absorbing and digesting information about the world around them. While this story certainly contain elements meant to disturb or shock, it's not true horror in the sense of many of my other recommendations. It reaches for a vantage point at some remove from human experience, using precise and beautiful language to reveal something ineffable.

At its best these stories express what I love about this genre, pointing towards the inhuman and the terrible cost of awakening to a world filled with awe.


***

Also, the final chapter of the first part of my web fiction serial "Agent Shield and Spaceman," is now available. This novel of weird espionage and cold-war cryptozoological conspiracies is not meant to be terribly serious but I've enjoyed getting to this place. I look forward to moving on to the second part shortly. I hope you enjoy reading!