Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Two related thoughts

Event #1: I have reached the Stone Ages in my Ancient Civ class. Always a merry time, I get to talk about the rise of human civilization, and the great changes that brought about the rise of agriculture, villages and cities in rapid (relatively speaking) succession. One small part of today's lesson was giving a definition of religion (yes, I talk about religion in my history class). Let me write it down and see what you think of it.


Religion is the belief in the unseen. If you can't see it, hear it, touch it, smell it or prove that it exists and yet you still know that it exists -- that's religion. It's one of the most basic characteristics of the human species. The odd pile of flowers over dead Neanderthals aside, we seem to be the only hominid capable of such an interesting assumption. I might quibble with the definition but it seems to work for seventh grade history.

Event #2: This blog popped up on Twitter today and I was blown away by the force of its argument and the clear-eyed, sober realism it expresses. I am a speculative fiction writer. Like the writer of Starship Reckless, I write because the far-fetched ideas of FTL, personality uploading, and radical economics of Cory Doctorow appeal to me. I have faith that even though we haven't seen much space exploration, we will in the near to middling future. I have faith that although artificial intelligence (to borrow a phrase from an RPG I like, Diaspora) has a lot more of the former than the latter, some day computers will meet and quickly exceed our own intelligence. I have faith.

Am I just a religious writer in speculative drag?

I do not have a strong science back ground. I took undergrad anthropology and psychology and left math to the people who liked it. I read a lot of popular science but I'm not so foolish to think that in anyway makes me an expert biology, physics, or computers. I like science. I believe in science. I have faith that the view expressed through science is the correct one although I might not have the best metaphor to explain why.

I felt chastened by Athena Andreadis's blog not because I thought we were going to Alpha Centauri next week but because when something like an earth-sized planet is discovered in a neighboring star system I begin to dream. Dreaming is not rational but it is necessary for life. Dreaming rises above the disordered meaningless clutter of politics, daily life, and the odd natural disaster and casts our eyes upwards. 

Dreaming is not always practical though. I doubt I or anyone I know will ever see what world circles Alpha Centauri and I'm glad blogs like Starship Reckless exist to remind me of that. 

Anyway, read the blog, it's an elegantly phrased, well-supported downer and someone needed to say it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sandy

Sandy is coming.

Right now I hear gusts of wind outside and the gentle patter of drizzle on the porch. But the storm tracks I saw on TV looked awful. I really don't like the looks of a storm that curves back and heads through Massachusetts from west to east. You know that's going to take a long time to flush out.

They already cancelled school for tomorrow. I'm wondering if they'll wait until tomorrow to cancel Tuesday or if I'll hear about it tonight. The storm isn't even supposed to make landfall until Tuesday morning. Ugh.

A helpful soul on FB basically suggested writing off this week, buying a generator and waiting it out. According to her Isaacs wiped out power for five days. I'm not sure I what would happen after five days without power here. Probably nothing good.

Anyway, if you live on the East Coast, I hope you've done your storm prep and ride it out in style. If you're living somewhere else, enjoy the sun. I suspect it will be awhile before I see it again.

Cloud Atlas Review

Cloud Atlas is loud, confusing, awkward, painfully earnest, and a lot of fun. The best way I can explain it is take a half dozen really good trailers for movies you would normally not bother seeing, draw together some obvious thematic parallels and let the trailers find their own way towards a coherent movie. It's like a movie created only from the 'good parts' if by 'good parts' we extend our meaning to include the necessary quiet sections of introspection and character development that appear in trailers right before the music swells and the marquee actors names flash on the screen.

If you don't know much about this movie or the book from which it is adapted, then here's the short version: six stories, taken from a variety of time periods and genres, weave in and out of each other's story lines, the characters from each story in someway influencing or informing the characters of the next. In the movie this idea is reinforced by the gimmick of having the same actor play a variety of roles throughout the movie. Hugo Weaving appears regularly as a face (and voice) of menace. Halle Berry alternates between various heroines and side-characters. Tom Hanks chews up a great deal of pre- and post- industrial scenery.

Rather than picking apart each story, I'd say you need to use use a wider lens to capture what is special about this movie. While none of the stories (with possible exception of the Cavendish misadventure in a geriatric home and the oddly fashioned post-apocalyptic yarn with Zachary (Tom Hanks)), fully registers by itself, the movie builds considerable power by showing how the themes of the movie: power as an act of consumption, freedom as boundary transgression and order as confining tribalism, echo throughout the ages. I found it easy to forgive a movie this ambitious for many of its flaws because I felt the overall vision was interesting.

Don't get me wrong. This is not a great movie. When I say flaws, I am talking about clunky dialogues (something that mars just about every section of the film), pointless action set-pieces (mostly in the Neo Seoul section), and overly pat resolutions (again, most of the sections). I don't mind happy endings, but I dislike it when the hero always gets the last word. Cloud Atlas the novel (which I'll be reviewing in the next week or so) never confuses moral judgements with the necessities of plotting. Cloud Atlas the movie keeps toeing up to the edge of grappling with the despair of the stories before flinching. If the ending is not always happy, it always allows for some moment of catharsis and healing and hope. I think a little more despair could have gone a a long way to making the final few minutes of the film seem more earned.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wabi-sabi

A fun word floated to the top of my head today: Wabi-sabi. It's Japanese, referring to an imperfect, transient melancholy, basically the mood I get into every October around this time. The Wiki on it is pretty good but here's a moment I think defines the word for me:

I was walking back to my apartment where I lived for a year in Japan. I turned a corner and saw this flash of red pass in front of my eyes. A red butterfly, seized by the wind. I froze, watching it flutter down to the sidewalk in front of me. Touching ground it became a red momiji leaf.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The End of the Debates

The Boston Herald has a typically bombastic reaction to last night's debate filling the front cover today. "SNARK ATTACK" in 415 pt. font. Stay classy, Herald.

But it points to the problem Obama has in the last two weeks of the campaign. It's still his campaign to lose but he hasn't found a sure way to win it yet. I would never vote from Romney under any circumstance. I think he's incomprehensible chimera who, to borrow someone's tweet from last night, would ultimately do exactly what Obama is doing, only louder. That said, the guy has momentum heading into the election. He is creeping up in the national polls and he's picking away at the battlegrounds. Slowly but inexorably. It don't like to write that. I think Romney would make the same kind of president he was as a governor: an indolent pompous twit.

But the guy bought the right people for his campaign.

I think back to the lead-up to the first debate with increasing chagrin. There was a New York Times piece on debate prep that basically won the expectations game for Romney. "Debates are all about creating moments" and Romney was memorizing zingers to highlight those differences with Obama. Here's a fairly typical article in the lead-up to that first debate. He had us snowed. You know how you really lower the bar before a debate? Provide lots and lots of evidence you are a complete buffoon and then fail to show up in your clown make-up. A pillbug could've cleared that bar.

Obama has gotten back to his groove these past couple of debates and I think, again as a biased observer, that he has thrashed Romney like an old rug. Is it enough? I doubt it. This election will be won or lost in Ohio and what's going to win it is people remembering to vote in their own interest. If they remember, Obama gets another four years; if they like the shiny mirage Romney is presenting, he will not.

A strange thought has been circulating through my head these past few days. I've been listening to an iTunes U collection on Greek Mythology recently to help me plan one of my classes. The professor was very amused by one incident in the rise of an Athenian tyrant, Peisistratos where he hired a very tall farm girl to portray the goddess Athena and ride beside him into Athens. The professor: Dr. Gillian Shepherd, (whose course I recommend, btw) was incredulous that the rational Athenians could be so taken in by such a patent absurdity. She suggested that something else explained Peisistratos' return to power.

I'm not sure which is the bigger absurdity: the idea of Athenians suddenly believing Athena would suddenly walk through Athens or that $5 trillion of tax cuts can be paid for by a few loop-holes tightened on the rich while simultaneously lowering the deficit by half in four years.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Earthquake and Bear: Flash Fiction

I wrote this a couple months ago as an experiment in rewriting a Chinese fairy tale by Pu Songling as slipstream flash fiction. The original story is simply titled Earthquake. I hope you like it!


The port of San Diego was struck by an earthquake on June 17th, 2027 at seven o'clock in the morning. I was stationed at the barracks then and sipping at tea with my good friend Linda when we heard a sound like thunder rolling from the southeast and going northwest. The lights went out and the video screen toppled from the kitchen table, smashing on the tiles of the kitchen floor. Soon white dust began to seep from the seams of the ceiling and we were thrown from our feet. The walls and rafters shook and shrieked. We looked at each other, our faces gone pale. It took awhile to realize that the sound was coming from outside, in the port. Each of us hurried outside. Two and three story buildings were drunk: swaying to the left and right. The sounds of the disaster, the wails of women and children, the seething uproar of falling walls and collapsing buildings, fused into one. No one could stand, they sat on the sidewalks or in the streets and let the buckling earth toss them around. The waves at the piers crashed 15 feet into the air. Car alarms and dog barks echoed through the streets. Some time later the last of the tremors quieted and my friend and I stood up. In the street, all of Linda's neighbors, who gathered at the street corners, were talking frantically, all of them in their pajamas, nightwear, or in nothing at all. The rumors were already blooming: the water mains had broken the next street over, someone's south-facing exposure now faced east; the Emerald Plaza had imploded; a sinkhole had opened on Madison Ave swallowing an entire apartment. Before too long, both Linda and I retreated to her house to escape the insanity. 
I told her about when I was five, on a camping trip to North Carolina, a bear had come into our campsite. My mother was inside the RV, changing into hiking gear. My brother told me she heard me crying and when she came out the bear was standing right on the other side of the table, looking at me. My mother swung into action. She threw her backpack at the bear and started shrieking at it. The bear, suddenly under attack from a madwoman, actually backed up a few steps before squatting down and staring at us both. By this point, my mother's screams had alerted our neighbors and they came running with axes and air-horns. The bear went away and my mother snatched me up in her arms. She pointed at the bear and held me tight against her chest, describing what had happened to the assembled neighbors. At some point it dawned on her that she was only wearing her panties and bra. Her face went white and off she sprinted back to the RV.  
Somehow these were linked in my mind, the earthquake and the bear, how when seized by panic, men and women forget themselves. We laughed, both at my mother and her neighbors as we began picking up what had fallen and shattered.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What I like and what I don't

Had an hour to watch the season opener for "American Horror Story" last night. I was very nearly blown away with the awesomeness of this series. Unapologetically, I decided to care about this show after an interview with its creator on NPR talked up Jessica Lange as an actress. She is awesome, so I thought I needed to give the show the five minute test.


Five minutes became the whole show very quickly. The character writing is top-notch, Jessica Lange plays a nun, Sister Jude, that showcases her talent for slipping around the edges of expectation. The second season of this show centers around a single story set in the 1960s in a Massachusetts Mental Asylum run by the Catholic Church. One concern I had about the show was whether or not Sister Jude would be another Nurse Ratchet type, a malevolent portrait of female abuse of power. I'm please to say the first episode obliterated those concerns. Sister Jude is a complicated monster, in one episode she ruthlessly commits a reporter with audacity to investigate the asylum; tries to get to the bottom of the disappearing patients of the alarmingly amoral Dr. Arthur Arden (played by James Cromwell with caustic zeal); fantasizes about becoming the Mother Superior to the Asylum's idealistic Monsignor; reluctantly accepts the apology of a subordinate nun and half-shaves the head of Chloe Sevigny. She fills every scene she's in with seething menace and turmoil. It's great TV.


As a sucker for a certain type of show that plays coy with hints and suggestions, there was a lot to keep me interested in the margins. We have hints aliens, werewolves, and ghosts might all make appearances during the show. That might prove too many dishes to keep spinning for one story but I am willing to give American Horror Story a chance to prove me wrong.

Then you've got Paranormal Activity 4. I'm not sure why I keep seeing these movies. The first movie got me interested primarily through the idea the monster in the movie was some sort of demon rather than a ghost. Somehow that seemed fresh and interesting. The conceit of a movie told through surveillance footage was novel in the first movie, well developed by the second and down-right innovative in the third. Now on the fourth movie the central weakness of trying to tell a story through 'found footage' becomes apparent. The movie flounders on the need to broaden the scope of the story: witch covens were introduced in the third film and now elaborated upon in this movie. The scant mythology built up through each movie requires some sort of exposition. There is an entire new family to introduce and develop before they inevitably start dying. All pretty standard stuff for a horror sequel. The problem is that all of these tasks have to be worked in around the edges of minutes of uneventful surveillance footage. One of this series' primary tricks is to set up a loop through several different cameras while you wait to be scared. You know some kind of shadow or inexplicable event is going to happen but you have to wait until it does. The point here is that the movie clears the deck, so to speak, for these set-pieces. No one is walking around, talking about their lives, while the scary stuff is dominating the screen. The family in the movie had a cat that suddenly appeared about 20 minutes into the movie. The cat never got a name, no one in the movie talks about it. It was just this random cat walking through the scenes making me wonder how much else the movie had to cut out just to get to the scary bits.

It doesn't help that this film's big trick in terms of camera work is also a product plug. Apparently the XBOX Kinect achieves its motion capture effect by spraying infrared dots through a room. So a ridiculous number of shots are filmed in low-light footage covered in green glowing polka dots. We know we're going to see some creepy invisible entity stroll through the neon pointillism and so when it  finally happens the anti-climax is deafening.

Anyway, two case studies about what I think works in horror and doesn't. More Jessica Lange and complicated menace, and less XBOX Kinect.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Roller-coaster

I was told today that some excerpts of my review of Chris F. Holm's The Wrong Goodbye made the front page of the Angry Robot "Robot Round-up." If you're checking out my blog from that link, welcome! Make yourself at home! If you're not, then please check out Angry Robot Books and look at their fine selection of genre novels including the excellent first and second volume of the "Collector" series written by the talented crime noir writer Chris F. Holm.

I've felt I've been silent for the past month on this blog mostly because it's hard to talk when you're holding your breath. This election has got me wound up. I can't even watch the news any more. I can't listen to the radio. I have to be careful what websites I go to. I am a mess.

I guess I had gotten so used to the polls not making sense for Obama that I had assumed that the polls didn't need to make sense. Sure the economy is bad and will be bad for the conceivable future. Sure a solid half of the country hates the President with rabid foam-flecked ferocity. Sure the equivalent of the GDPs of small nations have been marshaled to defame and attack Obama. But, for September at least, what was up didn't seem to need to come down.

Gravity has a funny way of announcing itself.

Still, the RCP poll average nosed into positive territory for Obama for the first time in nearly three weeks today so maybe the second debate was a game-changer. I think, in all honesty, it merely stopped the bleeding. My sense is that this thing will be very, very close.

In other news, I put my name in a few hats for panels at 2013 Arisia, including a panel with my friend David Nuremberg on the Future of Schools. I am literally counting the days until the doors open.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Impressions of Looper

I saw Looper on Saturday but my feelings on the movie are still fresh. I've already recommended it to a few friends (the few that haven't already seen it, that is) and I think that's about the right approach to it. It's a movie you tell your friends to see. You caution them that it's not Primer and they shouldn't spend too much time puzzling through all of the Timey Wimey permutations of the plot. You tell them it isn't worth it.

Don't get me wrong, Looper's a lot of fun. The world depicted in the movie is low-rent but believable. The world of 2044 isn't so different from our own: slumping into decay; grimy cars retrofitted for natural gas and solar panels, cities awash in corruption and glittering sky-scrapers. The difference is that the world of Looper is in contact with another future, about 30 year later that keeps sending the people it can't properly kill to be assassinated and disposed of in the more unruly past. The Loopers of the title are contract hit men, paid to kill the people that drop in, bound and hooded from the future. Eventually, every Looper will need to 'close the loop,' in other words kill their future self which future criminals eventually send back to tie up all of the loose ends.

Of course loose ends are what make movies interesting. So it's not much of a spoiler to reveal that Joe Simmons, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is put into an impossible situation when his future self (Bruce Willis) out-foxes him and escapes.

The key moment of the movie, for me, takes place at the end of the first reel when future self finally confronts his past self face-to-face. Gordon-Levitt does a great impression of Willis' grave, furrowed-brow approach to acting. Willis looks into the eyes of his young self and performs a very nifty bit of wish-fulfillment by taking the head of his younger self and slamming it into a diner table. Who hasn't had at least few moments of outrage about the sabotage of past selves.

There's more to the movie than that but for me the principle reasons to see the movie are all in the first hour or so. Weirdly the movie starts big and seems to shrink over time and until we're left with four people in a corn-field. There's an ending and it's best not to dwell on it too much.

See the movie just don't pretend it's something it's not.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review of "Wrong Goodbye" by Chris F. Holm

I finished Chris F. Holm's pulp paranormal thriller 'Wrong Goodbye' this week, the impressive second novel in his 'Collector' series. I had the pleasure of catching up with Chris this summer at Readercon and I have to say this is the writing, foremost, of a committed story-teller. In that, I mean, Chris has a tale to tell and he goes about the business of telling it with style and authority.

If you haven't read the first novel in the series: 'The Dead Harvest,' I suggest you do so, but it isn't strictly speaking necessary in terms of understanding what's going on in the plot. The anti-hero of the series is Sam Thorton, a 'Collector,' a disembodied spirit capable of leaping from one body to the next in pursuit of condemned souls to cast into Hell - basically an infernal repo man. Not the most sympathetic of protagonists but like all the best noire archetypes, the road to his particular hell was paved with good intentions.

Not that Chris's stories waste a lot of time being mopey. Starting with a bang in the steamy jungles of South America, Sam walks into a double-cross at hands if an old friend, Danny Young. Danny lifts a soul Sam was assigned to harvest, an act that puts Sam in very hot-water with the powerful forces he works for. Sam has no choice but to set off on a chase for Danny and the missing soul before it's his own turn to be collected.

What I appreciated most about 'The Wrong Goodbye' is how the swift brutal prose in his first book has begun to mutate into something far more chatty and atmospheric in his second. 'The Dead Harvest' was a pulp crime thriller, 'The Wrong Goodbye' is a pulp road movie. The best I can do to describe it is the first book was like Reservoir Dogs after a script consult by Kevin Smith; this book feels like Tarrantino channelling some Bill Bourroughs on his way to film "On the Road." The first book was all business, the second takes the time out to chill with its appealingly scruffy characters. In the later sections especially, I think Chris really makes the sordid locations come to (un)life with ghoulish skill.

I'd like to see more of that honestly in the next novel. 'The Wrong Goodbye' found a way to weave a great number of disparate locations and literary motifs into one coherent vision. The set-piece inside what amounted to a demon's crack den was pure Lovecraft fan service. The 'amoral pilgrimage' vibe of the second act reminded me of Hunter S Thompson without ever slipping into pastiche. I'd like writing that takes me places I can't visit. So my question is what other places, people, and set-ups The Collector' series can claim its own.