Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Alive in 2014

The only thing more crazy futuristic sounding then 2014 is 2015. That’s a big year for sci fi fans, the year Marty McFly went to the 80’s version of the future, hover boards, holographic Jaws, and all. Periodically I’ll wander around a place and just wonder what my eight year old self would make of it. Would anything stick out as ‘futuristic?’ I’m not usually left with much. What is arguably futuristic is hidden, or buried in the hands of pedestrian web-surfers. Sometimes I see a slick Tesla or a sign that would require thirty years of back story to explain, but for the most part our present feels like the present of my youth. Not terribly strange in the aggregate, only remarkable in the details, the little hints of what might be on the way. If you’re concerned about such details you could find plenty of evidence that we’re heading to a catastrophe or that we’re beginning to pull out of a tailspin. It’s all in how you look at things.

Publishing news: 2014 will be memorable to me for two reasons both of them positive. First off, I was able to get five stories published in a variety of markets this year, from the Daily Science Fiction website to anthologies from Mystery and Horror, LLC to The New Accelerator. I’m lucky to have been published and if you took the time to read any of them I want to personally thank you. Seeing work side-by-side with the other speculative fiction, I’m of course humbled. From my admittedly narrow perspective, 2014 was a fantastic year for stories (some of which I mentioned in the previous post) and its staggering the amount of excellent speculative fiction out there. The best I can do is go back to my stories and try to describe this weird world we live in, and hope that parts of it make sense to you.

This year my wife and I took a trip to Europe. We’ve tried to go on one quality vacation every year, someplace that caters to our overlapping interests. Paris and Barcelona were just about the best places I could imagine going to together. The arts and food, the culture and scenery all made for a very special time. Europe continues to have this singular power to attract and awe the visitor and I personally cannot wait to go back.

News in General: We had an election. It did not go well. However, I don’t leave 2014 feeling particularly discouraged. Partly this is because Obama stopped trying to coax the Republican leadership to do the right thing. He just did what he could do. This election had the lowest turn-out since the Great Depression which says something encouraging about 2016. Given a reason to vote, the people concerned with helping others will vote. When asked to support people who do not support progress, most people stayed home.  I suspect that I am not alone in this assessment. And after two years of Congressional mischief contrasted with progressive economic vigor, i think this country will be well-motivated to support the right side. That’s one man’s take. Not a prediction, just a hunch.

In the world generally this was the year of ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola, and numerous disasters technological and environmental. Pretty depressing stuff. Just keep in mind, despite the horrors, we are actually living in a time of increasing PEACE, not warfare. Violence is being deselected as a viable course of action, and when it does occur it is killing fewer people and causing less damage then any time in our collective history. That is a fact. Take the example of Russia as an example. To begin with Putin felt it necessary to cloak his intervention in Crimea in several layers of subterfuge. And with the sanctions and lower gas prices, he is paying a heavy price for his actions. Is this the way aggression can be handled in the future? Possibly. Although, in a country as predicated upon social advancement and material wealth as our own, it’s not hard to observe that the same economic weapons could be turned against us too. Still, better inflation then bombardment, in my view.

A look to the future: There were parts about this year I wish hadn’t happened, but in the end, this was a year where tens of thousands of people in our country, millions around the world, stood up with the courage to point out injustice. I’m of the opinion that more of this needed, not less. We have been sleep-walking through the past decade, accepting military vehicles in suburbs, children second amendmented, and death as an appropriate punishment for selling loosies.  You don’t have to think our society is some cesspool of hatred and corruption in order to work for it to be better. You simply have to wish it to be better. History is a path, not a destination.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What I Read in 2014

I was finally able to catch up enough with my reading list in 2014 to read books and stories published in 2014. There’s more I hope to read within the next few weeks to prepare for the Speculative Fiction: Year in Review panel for Arisia, but I’ve already found more than a few reasons to celebrate literature this year.

I’m splitting this post in two, the first half dealing with novels and the second half talking up a few of my favorite shorter works.


5) The Peripheral: William Gibson achieves two tricks in this novel. One is stylistic. Gibson writes cool just about better than any living science fiction author. Even though he’s describing a very discouraging brand of dystopia, one can’t help but want to live there, to experience what Gibson is describing. The other trick Gibson manages is showing the cost of such pondering. In this book, characters from two separate time period confront a murder with consequences for both realities. The future isn’t simply a direction in The Peripheral, it’s a force, an often ominous one. Honestly, even though the plot seemed needlessly complicated at points, the ideas presented were so disturbing and compelling, I found this one of the must-read works of the year.

4)The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August: Claire North. As already reviewed, this work is compulsively readable. The character of Harry August is blank, but sharply defined in opposition to his enemy. The concept of the August’s version of immortality is one that bears repeated exploration and consideration. Highly entertaining.

3) Burnt Black Suns: A Collection by Simon Strantzas.  One artifact of having watched True Detective was a year-long quest tracking down weird fiction authors I had not heard of and reading through their works. One of the more obscure - at least to me - was Simon Strantzas. I know he had a work in the Seasons of Carcosa collection put together by Laird Barron and that was about it. Really though, Strantzas probably has more in common with some of the latter-day practioners of weird fiction than Chambers and Lovercraft. Although he certainly embraces the tropes of cosmic horror - vast immortal god-like beings, the oppressive sense of an indifferent and hostile universe - there is something altogether more visceral in Strantzas’ stories. People don’t simply go mad at the experience of encountering the uncanny (although they do that too) they very likely dissolve, degenerate, and fall to pieces. Strantzas’ use of body horror is sophisticated and appalling, describing a universe with little use for any element of the human identity, whether as food, slaves, or adversaries.

2) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: The first of a weird fiction trilogy called the Southern Reach, all conveniently released this year. I’ve yet to read the later two thirds of the book but the first (basically self-contained) volume was striking. Weighing in at under 200 pages, Annihilation introduces the idea of Area X, a bizarre territory being explored by teams sent in by the government. As the nameless characters go about exploring their section of the area they find mystery piled upon mystery. Vandermeer’s style here owes something to  the television show, "LOST" without falling into that show’s pitfalls. From the nature of Area X to the somewhat cosmic nature of the threats within it Vandermeer has larger fish to fry and takes his own rather bizarre path very quickly.

1) Echopraxia by Peter Watts. All Peter Watts novels are events for me. In part that is because his artistry continues to move forwards: crafting of believable characters and propulsive plots all the while raising genuinely thought-provoking science. Watts embraces an inspirational spirit of transparency. Not content to simply name-check a few current concepts or half-digested studies, Watts puts it all up there for the readers at the end of his novel, a point-by-point defense of the ideas, however outlandish, mentioned however briefly in the test. The best thing I can say about Watts as an individual and an artist is that he brings an unflinching gaze upon his subjects.

Short fiction: Not really arranged by order because these are a hard bunch of stories to rank.

"Passage of Earth" by Michael Swanwick (Clarkesworld) A first contact story filtered through the metaphor of an autopsy. What at first seems random and bizarre becomes increasingly predetermined and transcendent. This a story that really does derive a lot of its strength from its ending.

"Covenant" by Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph Anthology) On one hand, this is basically a re-working of the age-old question - if someone is forced to be virtuous can they still be considered good? Clockwork Orange approached this question from the negative, that being ‘reformed’ into positive social behavior negated the concept of both good and evil. "Covenant," befitting its inclusion in the futurist “Hieroglyph” anthology edited by Corey Doctorow, provides a different takes. During a morning job, a former ‘right-minded’ serial killer is kidnapped by a novice predator. After extensive brain therapy the former killer become something capable of considering difficult questions, a moral being in other words. What I enjoyed about this story was even though Bear depicts an unquestionably better future, it is a future filled with tough choices. Is it better for the killer to atone for previous crimes by dying or live to bring the attacker to justice?

"The Clockwork Soldier" by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld) The ‘text-adventure’ story. Aside from the clever device of telling a story through an old-fashioned computer program, there is wonderful ambiguity to this story, right down to the final command prompt.

"Giants" by Peter Watts (Clarkesworld) This was a big year for Watts, from Echopraxia to a very engaging preview story called “The Colonel.” Giants is something else altogether, the riveting account of a generation ship sailing through the eye of a needle between an immense gas giant and the supergiant ripping it apart. Like all Watts stories there is a perfectly valid reason to explain all of the proceedings, but it doesn’t really take away from the fact that this is a story about damaged people forced into impossible actions by circumstances.

"Stoop Sale" by Evan Berkow (Crossed Genres) A very short story, about selling memories and moving on. One of the most poignant stories I read this year.

Update: Various corrections and stylistic clarifications.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

What I Saw in 2014

With one or two exceptions I saw just about every speculative fiction film I wanted to see this year. I didn’t get a lot of the ‘would-be-nice-to-see’ items on my list, but that’s what January’s for. I thought this was a fantastic year for movies, one of my favorite in several years. It was honestly somewhat difficult to choose just five movies that made this year special, but here is my rough attempt.

#5) Snowpiercer: Directed/defended from malicious editing by Boon Joon-ho. Ah yes. I was told repeatedly to watch this film and being mildly allergic to hype stayed away for a few months through sheer perversity. Once I actually saw it, I was, needless to say, very impressed. This is the kind of dystopia I can really get behind - self-aware and loopy, just flashy enough to shoulder aside all of the refrigerator moment plot holes and to lay on the social criticism. If you can watch this film and not feel slightly uncomfortable then you weren’t paying attention.

#4) Blue Ruin: A film of subdued mayhem. Unlike fiasco noir films of recent years, the bleak humor of this film is not underlined or obvious. Basically my pitch to get people to see this film went like this - imagine a revenge film centering around a person with no business running around seeking vengeance. Now imagine that film played as a tragedy. I’m not sure I really saw another movie get closer to what makes this country so fascinated and repelled by violence.

#3) Interstellar: The great Science Fiction epic of this year. Yes, I know, Guardians was a lot more fun and Snowpiercer probably a bit more interesting, but Interstellar kept swinging for the fences. Nolan set out to resurrect as a big movie enterprise the idea of a hopeful, non-franchise science fiction film and nearly succeeded. In terms of sheer cinematic beauty this film will only grow in stature in years to come and if the story doesn’t always hang together or weather repeated watchings, it is nevertheless one of Nolan’s more emotionally honest works. If you can watch the scene of Cooper watching the years of messages from his now adult children and not feel emotionally wracked then I’m not sure movies are your thing.

#2) The Grand Budapest hotel: Another year, another Wes Anderson film. This movie continues Andersons flirtation with being something more than a quirky, beloved art house director. Although all sorts of precious story-within-a-story game-playing went on here, even that can’t distract from one of his most heartfelt and sincere stories. This isn’t really a story about a hotel as much as what the hotel represents. At its core, The Grand Budapest Hotel is about how civilization is built up by love - love for others, love for inanimate objects, love for one old hotel well past its sell-by, still capable of old-world charm.

#1) Boyhood: What more can I saw about this film than already has been said. It was simply the best movie of the year and certainly one of a handful of films destined to find life beyond this decade. More than simply a gimmick, this movie communicates something vital about life itself, how all those moments that we forget, that we minimize, are in fact the material of life itself. The tiny, unnoticed struggles that annoy or horrify, in the end change a boy into a man worth knowing.

Honorable mentions: guardians, captain america, the Lego movie, gone girl, box troll, the edge of tomorrow.

This was also for me the year of True Detective. I might say more about this in my last year-end post, but for the moment I’ll say I haven’t really watched a show the so effortlessly summed up everything I want out of a television show. A true milestone.

Friday, December 26, 2014

What I Heard in 2014

Today’s post begins my series of year-end posts about the music, movies, and books I enjoyed this year. This isn’t meant to be my objective list of the Best of 2014. I certainly listen to a lot of music in a year, but not enough to say with honesty that I’ve heard everything worth praise. I tracked down what seemed interesting, bought my usual dozen or so albums and offer the following selection as a record of what sounds spoke to me and what I suspect I will still be listening to years after 2014.

As usual, I’ll work my way up to my favorite album this year starting at:

 #5: Perfume Genius Too Bright. Mike Hadreas, the singer song-writer responsible for Perfume Genius apparently sings in more of a torch-singer mode than you’ll find him here. Slow, dirgy piano confessions rub shoulders with scorched-earth cyberpunk anthems. Gay, straight, or other, Perfume Genius captures the homesickness of restless souls, and it is impossible to react to these songs in any other way than as simply Perfume Genius songs. That in itself is an achievement, to listen to a person find their voice and take possession of it. In terms of songs, I put “I Decline,” “My Body,” and “Grid” as must-listens for this year.

#4: Rosanne Cash The River and The Thread It’s a shame that this album came out at nearly the exact moment HBO’s True Detective was airing, as any number of songs here could have found a place on that soundtrack. Cash here is in her most prophetic style, marrying bare and rusty chords to songs about feverish horses and money roads where blues legends lie buried. It’s a simple, and familiar sound, not terribly challenging but absolutely heart-felt and genuine. Must-listens: “Etta’s Tune,” “Tell Heaven,” and “Money Road."

#3: Marissa Nadler July. I bought this album on the basis of the sweet menace of the opening track “Drive,” with its lyrics about cars slowly accelerating and a suppressed longing for death. Nadler sings with the fetching chill of a folk singer who just crawled out of her own snow-covered crypt. One of my absolutely favorite songs this year is “Dead City Emily,” which is towering and still, haunted and bleak, like a Laird Barron story in song form.

#2: St. Vincent St. Vincent. Both Annie Clark and Mike Hadreas gave interviews this year praising and claiming inspiration from Polly Jean Harvey which is instructive. Although neither Perfume Genius or St. Vincent sound all that much like PJ Harvey, they do bear that quality of intrinsic self-possession, of arty theatricality raised to an authentic statement of self and personhood. Of course, with St. Vincent, that inspiration produced something a lot more fun and energetic than either Perfume Genius or Polly Jean. St. Vincent reminded me of a lot of things while never really settling on those influences. Her songs bounce around like Talking Heads at their loosest, while including more off-kilter confessions than Kanye West’s last album. Then there’s the overt science fiction metaphors and I find myself thinking of Jannelle Monea. Although this album settles down somewhat in its later tracks, the opening stretch of “Rattlesnake,” “Birth in Reverse,” Prince Johnny,” "Huey S. Newton,” and "Digital Witnesses,” was one of the most compulsively listenable playlist of all last year.

#1: The War on Drugs Lost in a Dream. The mark of growth of an pop artist is not that they suddenly repudiate everything that came before and drop some out-of-nowhere masterpiece, but that the themes and obsessions of previous works come alive, that what came before now draws into focus, lent new meaning by the gradual accretion of wisdom. In that way, Adam Granduciel’s new album is like the 117th permutation of a reoccurring dream, the one where the dreamer suddenly wakes up inside of the old patterns, and leaves with a self-awareness of why these patterns exist. The entire album flows together, the feedback washes of one track foreshadowing the droning intro of the next. That said, the true genius of this album is that it is also a collection of individual and powerful songs. The jubilant whoops of the liberated prisoner in “Red Eyes,” the weary outrage of “The Ocean Between the Waves,” and the true simple longing of “Burning.” In The War on Drugs last effort, Slave Ambient the disparate influences had not quite solidified, Granduceil’s wooly drawl standing apart from the krautrock rhythms and drones. Here, the influences have embraced, intermingled into something with the fire of classic rock n’ roll but the hazy distance of Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine. A nifty trick I look forward to seeing repeated in the years to come.

As I’ve detailed on previous post this was also the year of This American Life’s spin off podcast Serial. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the impact of this one show. I can’t wait for the second season but I also want to see what Serial’s obvious success could mean for the entire universe of podcasts and online media.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August: Review of Novel

This was not the book I intended to read first after finishing Peripheral. But I knew within the first five pages that I would be reading this from cover to cover before I read anything else. That’s the power of a good book, of an arresting story. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (the now uncovered pseudonym of YA author Catherine Web) is that. 

The simple idea behind the novel, a tweak of the Groundhog Day, is that certain individuals, called Kalachakra, are reincarnated into their own lives existence after existence, living the same span of time from infancy to death again and again. Harry August, for example is always born in 1919, spends his routinely traumatic childhood in Northern England, before winding up dying some time around the fall of the Berlin Wall. In different hands I think this novel could have easily been basically  contemporary fiction. Recall the Time Traveller’s Wife as an example of modern literature’s increasing appropriation of the tropes of science fiction in the service of more conventional plots. The First Fifteen Lives is not that, it is inescapably science fiction. The difference lies in how the concept of the novel, the what if question is handled. Where a book like Time Traveller’s Wife might introduce an idea, it is not the focus. A true speculative fiction work will keep turning over an idea, investigating its permutations and repercussions until a full understanding of the idea is reached. That is what this novel does. 

I liked this novel very much, probably better than William Gibson’s The Peripheral. Like Peripheral it investigates ideas of time travel and virtual futures, but unlike Gibson’s novel, none of these feels arch or overly-complicated. North creates in Harry August, a believably , routinely traumatized individual, a man who crawls from the wreckage of the past century as a haunted survivor, aware of his responsibility to set things right. If North doesn’t quite reach the conceptual heights of Gibson, she does a better job giving a character to care about, a world in which to invest.

The unusual structure of the novel goes a long way to explain its success, August, true to the title has lived fifteen of his own lives, a span roughly bookended by the end of WWII, and the fall of the Berlin war. However we don't have to slog through those near seventy years because the book takes a thematic approach to Augusts life, picking moments and lives that highlight certain concepts of the overall plot. The effect of this is always feeling as though you are getting exposition exactly when it is most important, while the momentum of August’s story continues at break-neck speed.

I also appreciated that despite embracing an entire century of settings, events, and characters, the novel is very human-scaled. August’s enemy, once unmasked is a person very similar to himself, and the clash of their personalities is very deftly handled. In science fiction I’ve always enjoyed novels that are able to convincingly manufacture world-ending scenarios from the conflicts of individuals. As a slight preview of the SPOILERS to follow, Harry August doesn’t confront aliens or ominous AI or even global conspiracies (although in a sense, he is part of one). His enemy is a human being with relatable human motivations. The very worst sort of antagonist. 

On to my detailed reactions to this story, which will of necessity include details about the plot meant for folks who’ve already read this novel. SPOILERS ahead:

One of theme that I’ve been tracking through the fiction released this year is the ongoing exploration of utopias versus dystopias. On one hand, just about ever YA released in the past five years (longer, perhaps) has embraced the concept of the coming dystopia - corrupt abusive governments, ecological collapse, and cracked mirror versions of our own troubled present. Confronting that is the growing sense that speculative fiction should consciously, explicitly offer a more positive view of technology and the future generally. The best example I can offer this year is the Heirogylph short story collection put together by Cory Doctorow, but even a fairly grim, post-cyberpunk novel like The Peripheral had room to sneak in a few utopian dreams.

Within that context, I feel Harry August adds a certain world-weary perspective to the question of progress. Very early on in the novel, Harry August hears of Victor Hoeness, a German living in the 17th century who learns of the technological advancements waiting just around the corner from Kalachakra living after him. Seeking to accelerate emergence of a better world, Hoeness becomes a trusted confidante of the French king and quickly introduces as much later technology as he can, in order to force the issue. The result is catastrophe. The world ends in 1937  when radicals from Australia detonate an atomic bomb that triggers a final nuclear holocaust. Something about this vision of the end of the world is appealing in that it forms a natural asymptotic limit to what can be achieved by the Kalachakras. There is no arbitrary force that restricts what can and cannot be done in the past, there is simply the sense that if too much changes the kalachakra to come might never be born. There are human limits.

The maxim that Harry August writes to explain all of this is "complexity should be your excuse for inaction.” Things proceed at their own pace and the end of the world comes from giving any one present too much too quickly. To reduce North’s basic idea somewhat, I feel as though this novel’s theme is that things can always get worse, so enjoy what you have. Every seventy year span could either be a utopia or a dystopia depending on the actions of the people living during that time.

Another big speculative fiction theme this novel reflects is the move towards near-future and pre-singularity fiction. As Harry August’s enemy gets closer and closer to his goals, he begins to distort the course of the future. Ideas breed ideas and by the late seventies, during August’s 14th life, technology not seen until 2030 exists in a world ravaged by ecological disasters. Similar to Victor Hoeness, there is an unspoken assumption that technology is inherently dangerous and context specific, that technological progress must be matched with social progress to avoid catastrophe. While August’s life is too short to see what the near-future will hold, the later sections of the book draw clear conclusions, and the reader grows to react to each new anachronistic innovation with mounting dread.

One minor complaint I have is that the way technological progress is described in the book seems entirely too linear, cause and effect for my taste. It’s almost as though North was consulting one of those wall poster timelines of inventions and just slide-rilling them earlier, assuming that the invention of the telephone at an earlier date will of course lead to an earlier emergence of computers. My own sense is that this is somewhat simplistic. Technology advances through happy and unhappy accidents and the pressures of conflict. If the Soviet Union didn’t pose such an existential threat in the eyes of the leaders of this country during the Cold War, would we have ever gone to the moon? If we hadn’t gone to the moon, would all of the resulting innovation really have occurred? Technology is just as much a product of human culture as literature.

Overall I suspect this book will be brought up at the Speculative Literature Year in Review and will gain readers in the future. Although I think the ending is certainly satisfying, there’s enough wiggle room that I wouldn’t be surprised if a “Second fifteen Lives of Harry August” appears in the future. With an idea this compelling, who’s to say there aren’t universes where that’s happened once, twice, or fifteen times already?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Serial Uncertainty

For the past two months, Sarah Koenig, a journalist who works on the NPR program, “This American Life,” has produced a weekly radio non-fiction exploration of a single murder case called Serial.  The case centers on the murder of a young woman named Have Li occurred in 1999, and the eventual conviction for murder of one Adnan Syed. The format, an ongoing podcast, collects information from the original case, details the ways the Adnan’s defense was bungled or made more difficult by the stubborn refusal of the facts of the murder to cohere into one definitive shape. As new information came to the attention of Koenig she would plug that back into the unraveling story. Serial has created a mini universe of its own, people listening, straining to figure out the whos and whats of the case, spinning off their own theories. Really the closest another work came to the sheer complexity and involvement of Serial this year was True Detective, another sprawling murder mystery that seemed to adore the sheer ambiguity of its source material.

Serial’s Rust Cole is Sarah Koenig, as an exhaustively thorough journalist as could be imagined. Like the fictional Cole, Koenig finds herself confronting "the Sprawl," the massive amount of secondary circumstantial evidence about the crime, the facts and rumors swirling in a dense fog. Unlike Cole, a pessimist, Koenig is simply skeptical. Or as she says in the powerful closing moments of the final episode, “I nurse doubts."

This week was the last installment of “Serial” and appropriately enough, it’s entitled, “What We Know.” That for me is the most interesting question this series raises. All due respect to Adnan, I have trouble determining for myself his guilt or innocence or even what either of those things would mean. For me that’s not a problem. I am not a lawyer, I am not a judge. I’m not even a journalist. At the end of the day, I am a consumer of entertainment. And Adnan’s story, as filtered through Koenig’s skeptical eyes, interests me more on the level of exploring what we, as human beings, can know about anything. There is an existential crisis woven through every episode of this show. We are asked to confront facts that change, testimony that is corrupt, characters that may not be all that we assume them to be. This is a case the relies upon the memories of its participants and as a person constantly reminded of the fallibility of human memory, that's a terrifying prospect. 

A single page from AT&T mobile contract faxed over from a old Maryland class action suit can suddenly obliterate the best evidence the prosecution had for convincing a jury that he was, in fact, guilty. To those sympathetic to Adnan, convinced he is innocent of Hei’s murder, such facts might be the cause of rejoicing. To me it was the final nail in the coffin Koenig spent two months constructing. As a lawyer she brought in for consulting said, "this case is a mess."

I'm left with a simple observation, if Adnan did in fact kill Hei Li and then lied about it for 15 years he would qualify as a very terrifying species of psychopath, a true monster. But to imagine that scenario, I would have to discount my own sense of him as I’ve received it through his taped interviews. The guy sounds…decent. Not unaffected by his experiences, but thoroughly human, soulful in a way nearly hard to fathom considering his life sentence in a maximum security prison. There is a quality of his voice, earnest, charming, and self-aware that paints the picture of a deeply conscientious person. A person aware of his flaws, a person who has come to terms with his fate, if still insistent at this late date that he is innocent, that he himself is a victim of a monstrous injustice. Trying to imagine this voice of a person I’ve never met as a cold, calculating killer is possible in the sense that I suppose anyone is capable of murder in the proper circumstance. However it’s a little like being asked to believe that a 111 year old man completed a triathalon, the basic hypothesis seems unlikely.

This case asks us to confront the possibility that any normal human being might be a murderer, that ultimately we don’t know what actually occurs within the headspace of another person. Perhaps Adnan snapped and then forgot what he did. Perhaps he remembers but can’t bear the shame of admitting it. Perhaps he knows, remembers, and doesn’t care. Maybe, just maybe, he’s completely innocent and if we listened to him, understanding that he is an innocent man, wrongly convicted, everything would be clear.

But, after twelve episodes, that is precisely what is not clear.

To her credit, Koenig not only recognizes these ambiguities, she revels in them. In an interview she said that being certain of anything is just not in her nature. And during her frequent taped conversation with Adnan, we hear her stubborn refusal to simply believe him, to trust he’s innocent. She wants to know the truth. But the truth, 15 years after the events of the crime described is murky, indistinct, and always a few steps out of reach.

Why does Adnan give his phone and car to Jay, a person it appears he had little contact with. Why does Jay’s testimony, filled with lies, nevertheless corroborated by portions of the cell phone record. There is so much about this case that will never, cannot ever, be known. Why was there a phone call at 3:21 pm from Adnan’s phone to a friend that lasts over two minutes that no one seems to remember and yet does more than other piece of evidence to incriminate him. Even getting ahold of the family of the victim, The Li’s proves frustratingly elusive. 

There is a wall between us and Adnan as well. As he confesses in a letter written to Koenig close to the end of the series. He has been weighing his words, carefully presenting a version of himself that adheres as closely as possible to the simple facts of the case. But out of his mouth, that doesn’t sound cold, or calculating. It sounds human.

Again the story shifts, I agree with Koenig. With all of the evidence laid out, with all that is known, it’s hard to believe this case ever went to trial let alone let to a conviction. And yet, and yet…there are doubts.

No work of art, and Serial is unmistakably that, exists free of context. And in the case of Serial, that context is a year in which obvious and monstrous miscarriages of justice have spawned riots, recriminations, and doubt in the American system of justice. It also exists within the context of its parent show, This American Life which has made an entire decade of journalism that seeks out the uncomfortable realm between established paradigms of how this country operates. Then there’s the movement described in the book “Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases,” by Deborah Halber. Although Koenig has more resources at her desposal than the typical individual, she is still not a lawyer, not a police officer, not a judge. She is someone captured by an insanely ambiguous story, using only her own power of skepticism to guide her way through the murk. 

Perhaps, in the end, that is meaning I take away from this Serial, even when you admit that what is known is very, very little, you have to come down on one side or the other. You can’t take a powder, as Koenig describes it, you have the responsibility for making a decision and living with it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

An Update to Arisia Panels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

What a Show Will Become: Agents of SHIELD

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

SPOILERS aplenty to follow.

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

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

Now we know.

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

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

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

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

Oh well. Better late than never. 

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

A thought.

Friday, December 12, 2014

New Stories Are Up!

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

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

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

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

Let me know what you think!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Arisia 2015 Panel Assignments

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A few announcements

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

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

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

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