Wednesday, August 31, 2016

New Chapter for Agent Shield and Spaceman

A new chapter is available for "Agent Shield and Spaceman." In this chapter, Agent Shield decides that he would rather not watch Frankie Two-eyes die in a pit-fight and follows an employee of Thulewaite pharmaceuticals to discover the source of the Burmese Tiger Snake venom.

I hope you enjoy the new chapter and feel free to comment or ask a question through this blog.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Various Updates

First off, I have the next chapter available for "Agent Shield and Spaceman." In this chapter, Frankie wakes up in Waco, Texas oddly refreshed until he remembers that this is the day he must enter a pit-fight with a bunch of deadly snakes. Other than a few glimpses, this is the first time our heroes get a good look at the serpents and the impression, perhaps needless to say, is not favorable.

Summer is over.

I had a really great one. My wife and I renovated the upstairs, went camping, saw plenty of friends and family. I did my writing thing, drafting four new stories and revising a few others. When are they going to be appearing, you ask? Not sure. The simple fact is that none of my stories has been accepted this year. I've made my peace with the fact 2016 might slip past without one of my stories appearing outside of Ancient Logic. I can't remember which writer said it but some years you flap and some years you soar. I think this is a year where I'm doing a lot of flapping. Flapping doesn't always look graceful; might even appear completely ridiculous - but it's necessary if you want to gain altitude.

In other news - I took over facilitating the local Writers' Workshop from the gifted and ambitious Nick Mancuso. I'm grateful to Nick not only for entrusting the group to me but also for helping my writing immeasurably. This especially fortuitous because even as Nick was considering moving on from the group, I was thinking about setting up my own. This seems like the best of both worlds.

So far I've lead two workshops and both seemed to go well. I've found when you're in a group of talented writers, you often find yourself learning more from the conversations around stories than any critique of your own writing. This was very much the case last week. It's also making me wonder if some of the really great observations from the workshop couldn't find a home at this blog.

For the most part I've shied away from the advice column article on Ancient Logic. To put it bluntly, I'm not sure what good any of my advice would be. But I do think there's a value in conversations about writing. If nothing else, talking about the craft might lead to new avenues of exploration, new unconsidered possibilities.

I've got two longer articles coming up. First I'm putting some finishing touches on an article devoted to Cosmic Horror and moving beyond Lovecraft in weird fiction. I've also got a few short stories to recommend once we get into September.

As always, thank you for reading!


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Circle

As the title says, I'm currently listening to Dave Egger's "The Circle," on audio CD. I might have more to say about this book when I finish it but at the moment I can absolutely see how it got a go-ahead for production as a movie. There is something smack dab in the middle of everything about this novel. A way-too-good-to-be-true company pressing for the end to privacy. The snappy "Social Network" dialogue. The futurist optimism about technology and social media. The dystopian terror of the same. Afghanistan, health care, Syria, and kayaking. 

Okay that last part is more about what's going on in my life, but still...

After a summer reading some really heavy speculative literature, the nicest thing about "The Circle" is how it echoes the themes of other books I've read recently without ever losing its sense of charm. The characters in this book feel very real, very familiar in this hyperkinetic, chatty style that probably took an enormous amount of craft to make feel so effortlessly casual.

One more bit of praise. I'm loving how this book - for all of its bright colors and snappy banter - expresses dread for the future more effectively than nearly anything I've read so far this year.


***

Chapter 23 is now available for my espionage thriller, "Agent Shield and Spaceman." We're back with Frankie, dealing with the aftermath of his decision to climb into the pit with some very unpleasant serpents. I hope you enjoy the chapter; feel free to comment either on the blog or in web fiction online, which is hosting this web fiction.

Monday, August 22, 2016

"The Grace of Kings" and Uses of Perspective

Ken Liu's massive silk-punk epic, "The Grace of Kings," is the kind of novel that requires a significant runway in order to achieve flight. The books isn't just long, it's also deliberate and thoughtful in a way at odds with any expectation for instant gratification. Although the pleasures of this book are commensurately immense, it takes a while for the true force of this story to unfold.

As I've said to a few friends when discussing this book, "The Grace of Kings," is in certain respects the "Into the Woods," of fantasy epics. The initial set-up will be familiar to anyone who's read Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Suzanne Collins. A tyrannical ruler causes greater and greater burdens on the people, inspiring a few desperate rebels to resist. This rag-tag collection of heroes experience great adversity and loss until they finally defeat the Evil Empire in one final battle. This is a story as timeless as the Aeneid and Star Wars.

It's also not quite the story Liu is telling here.

The true story, like Sondheim's musical, is what happens after "they lived happily ever after." The two main characters of the book: Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu, represent extremes of personality and behavior. Liu describes Mata as the epitome of classical heroism, a stoic, taciturn force of nature capable of turning a battle through the ferocity of his own indomitable will. Kuni enters the story as a truant, progresses to a lay-about, then a bandit. By the end of the first act, Kuni is declared Duke by acclamation, his every success labeled the product of tricks and luck. Liu's great talent lies in showing how both men's strengths are also their weakness. Although the two join forces in the rebellion, the author never lets us forget the natural tension between the two. The true story emerges from that conflict, like a dark moth from a chrysalis.

A closer comparison then for this novel, at least to me, is Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Although Liu deals in airships and stringless battle kites, mythical sea beasts and alchemical warfare, he is clearly fascinated by the sweep of history, how clever rulers seize opportunity and overthrow tradition in favor of reform and progress. This is not a fantasy story that ends in the same place it began. The world of Dara has been radically, plausibly changed, the technology and culture depicted as a fluid, dynamic thing that I've always found sadly lacking in many other fantasy epics.

Partly this larger perspective comes from the style of storytelling Liu uses. Although the narrative can lean in to hear the thoughts and motivations of a particular character, it can also ascend to a more lofty perch in one smooth transition, detailing the fates of kings, kingdoms, and wars. For me, that was the most instructive thing about this work, and the aspect I'd like to emulate - that humanistic, yet clear-eyed appraisal of the world. It's a voice capable of explaining the motivations of individuals, and also the pressures that move nations.

Looking over other reviews of "The Grace of Kings," I notice that other than its length and deliberate style, some critique its relative paucity of female characters. This is something that troubled me at the beginning as well, with only the wife of one of the characters receiving much attention. In particular, the first third of the book seems to cling to Mata and Kuni, almost as though they alone are all that's needed to describe Dara. During a pivotal battle, Kuni gives a speech praising the sacrifices and valor of women but this could seem tossed-off and gratuitous in the moment. I honestly don't think it is. As the story progresses more females characters enter and one, in particular, provides a much needed counterpoint to the Mata and Kuni. Again, as stated above, Liu doesn't leave Dara in the same place it started. The sequel, "The Wall of Storms," appears set to explore a world open to a great many different types of conflicts and characters.

***

I'm pleased to announced that another chapter is available in my espionage thriller, "Agent Shield and Spaceman." Thank you for reading, and if you get a chance, please let me know what you think by either commenting directly or going over to Web Fiction Online to leave a quick review. Enjoy!





Sunday, August 21, 2016

Listing for "Agent Shield and Spaceman" on Web Fiction Guide

My web fiction, "Agent Shield and Spaceman" is now listed on Web Fiction Guide, a community-run listing of online fiction. In addition to providing a platform for stories, Web Fiction also features reviews of work. If you have a spare second and you've read a few chapters, please consider adding a review (good, bad, whatever) to the site.

As I reach my last week of summer vacation I'm attempting to get as much basic revision done as possible so I can keep this going into the fall. Keep checking back here and on "Agent Shield and Spaceman," to catch updates!

Thanks for reading! Web Fiction Guide (online novels, reviews) Novels Online

Friday, August 19, 2016

New Chapter for "Agent Shield and Spaceman"

Good morning folks!

I have a new chapter up for "Agent Shield and Spaceman," my espionage web fiction. Frankie Two-eyes, already at the Thulewaite party starts to mingle and quickly gets himself over his head.

Other than that, my mind has been preoccupied in recent days by the superlatively good epic 'silk punk' fantasy novel "The Grace of Kings" by Ken Liu. Ken's name has come up a few times on this blog because I have enormous respect for his talent and the clarity of his ideas. This novel is door-stop and I hadn't had enough time to really launch into a massive fantasy epic until this summer. I guess at the moment, all I have time to say is that I'm blown away by it. I think it's easily one of my favorite fantasy stories and ranks pretty high up in terms of general works as well.

I could probably talk for a couple of days about all the reasons I think this novel succeeds at everything it sets out to do and writers of speculative fiction have a lot to learn from its example. I'm going to try to put together some of these thoughts at some point this week and see where it goes. In the meantime, do yourself a favor, pick up "The Grace of Kings" and give it a read. It's a huge, consequential addition to fantasy literature.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Chapter Twenty for "Agent Shield and Spaceman"

We've reached chapter twenty in "Agent Shield and Spaceman," and the rest of Section Starfire Agents (the premier anarchist intelligence agency of the United States government, lest we forget) infiltrates Gunther Thulewaite's social gathering. Marcus Delacroix gathers information important to the mission from a source close to the Anti-cerebrist threat.

This chapter is pretty much the same as when it was written a decade ago. That will not be the case for ones following it. Part of my revision effort centered on making the novel flow better. A lot of this early part of the novel went deep into the backstory of Section Starfire, the Anti-Cerebrists, and Gunter Thulewaite. While interested in that stuff back in the 00's I'm thinking it's better to just keep the story moving now. 

It's a tough balance though. The difference between a successful novel and one that drags (in my opinion) is how to strike the proper balance between significance and momentum. Time spent on interesting details relating to characters and setting helps reader invest in the story. Without that grounding, a novel can quickly become a succession of disjointed events. It's what my brother Justin referred to as the "this then this then this," problem. 

However, if there is too much of that, a longer work loses energy and begins to sag into long block of exposition. At its heart, "Agent Shield and Spaceman" is meant to be fun. Long blocks of exposition, to me, feels not that. 

Is there a director's cut where some of that extra information could go back in? Maybe. I think I'll try to get the whole novel out there first before I worry about it.

Monday, August 15, 2016

I Am Thinking of Ending Things

Ian Reid's "I Am Thinking of Ending Things," is one of the most haunting novels I've read this year. To say too much about the novel would give away the pleasures of the story but it's enough to say that it concerns an unnamed narrator's drive through a snowy evening to visit her boyfriend's family. During the drive, she considers breaking up with him.

Similar to "Disappearance at Devil's Rock," Ian Reid displays a subtle grasp of the tropes of the genre. Although the book is written with enough piercing observational skill to function as a contemporary exploration of relationships, it also knows how to build a sense of dread and alarm through well chosen details. The book functions like a psychological horror story where the killer, haunted house, and heroine exchange places with each other like half-remembered dreams.

I suspect readers of Chuck Palahniuk, Thomas Ligotti, and Mark Z. Danielewski will enjoy this book immensely.

***

I'm releasing a new chapter of my web fiction novel, "Agent Shield and Spaceman," today. I'm making a bit of head way this month revising a few chapters ahead. We are are about ten chapters away from the end of Part One, which is an exciting milestone for me. I hope to keep my schedule of two to three chapters each week through September but then, with the start of my teaching job, things might get dicey. I have a vague plan of finishing up the entire novel sometime in November but I'm giving myself permission to adjust that as necessary to maintain the quality I want out of each chapter. I hope you are enjoying the story so far. 



Friday, August 12, 2016

Disappearance at Devil's Rock

Finished reading "Disappearance at Devil's Rock" by Paul Tremblay and I'm going to put it on the recommended list for 2016 novels. This is one of a handful of works I've read this year that seem directly influenced or reacting to the True Detective phenomena from a couple years back. The first season, I mean, not the second.

The influence in the case of Tremblay is of an established weird fiction writer (His story "Swim Wants to Know If It's As Bad As Swim Thinks" was one of my favorites from the Best Weird Fiction Vol. 1 anthology) embracing the ambiguity of a vaguely supernatural, philosophy major-baiting crime thriller. Like True Detective, the layers of narrative and contradictory witnesses all work to cultivate doubt and suspicion. Unlike True Detective, the setting here is a very fleshed-out and specific evocation of childhood in the media inundated 21st century. Far from lamenting the presence of cell phones, internet, and the 24 hour blizzard of cable news, Tremblay embraces it as one more piece of the horror of the novel. Everyone feels as though they are connected, aware at all times of what surrounds them. Yet, the book suggests that a few misspent evenings and a couple instances of misplaced trust is all that's needed for the lives of a three children to be irrevocably changed.

I'm recommending this book despite some flaws in its narrative. Tremblay is probably trying to say something about trust and our ability to place belief in other people but the lies his plot depends on stretch plausibility. This isn't something that hits you at first and the ending of the book is quite satisfying but the jump between the indistinct menace of the first half of the book to the overt evil of the second is jarring and strains the suspension of disbelief.

***

The next chapter of "Agent Shield and Spaceman" is now available. As the agents draw closer to the Thulewaite Ranch, one member of the team reveals a  useful talent.



Wednesday, August 10, 2016

No Man's Sky

Yesterday, after three years of development, hype and disappointment chasing every footstep along the way, the video game No Man's Sky was released.
Looming Planet by Morgan Crooks (2016 - taken from No Man's Sky)
I first encountered this game while researching a short story based - in small part - on procedural generation. I was flabbergasted when I saw the trailer, imagining the possibilities of a universe entirely created by the application of complex algorithms - every planet, every mountain and valley, every plant and animal. If the trailer released at that point hadn't been so convincing and frankly awe-inspiring, I'm not sure I would have credited its existence.

Now over a year later, I have it in my hands.

Is this a good game? That's a tough question. If your idea of a game is something like Call of Duty, Madden Football or Dark Souls, than this isn't going to be a game for you. There are threats and a story that sort of pushes the player forward from episode to another, but nothing that really raises your blood pressure. This isn't a game in the sense of it being a challenging pulse-pounding amusement. At best the game can be vexing or mildly annoying, but I've never felt that grip of excitement signaled by martial music or a dramatic cut-scene.

It falls basically within the "sandbox" school of video games, Minecraft being an obvious point of comparison. There are moments in a variety of games such as the Elder Scrolls, Witcher, or Fallout that reach for the grandeur of pure exploration, of striking off for the horizon to see what's there. But ultimately, even in if a secluded glade in Skyrim is unknown to you, or you find a clever in-joke in a supply closet in Fallout 4, someone has put that view in your hands, crafting it directly for your amusement. There's no genuine discovery there.

Jump Drive by Morgan Crooks (2016 - taken from No Man's Sky)
No Man's Sky is different. Because its entire existence is the product of a computer program, there are worlds that no one has ever seen. The basic code might be known to the developers, but at 18 quintillion planets, there's no way the small team of a dozen or so programmers could have gone planet by planet to see what's there. When you play No Man's Sky, you are discovering something new.

Is this an exciting prospect? For me, yes. Beyond the outlines of a grand galaxy-wide quest and the occasional troublesome security bot, this game expresses a philosophy and a healthy sense of wonder.

For me, I spent 10 hours yesterday hopping from one planet to the next, naming scenic locations, plants, and animals never finding myself anything less than enthralled. At times I just strolled across the surface of some alien moon, taking snapshots when some particularly lovely scene came into view. Everyonce in a while a vague sadness would seep in as I watched a distant world dip below the horizon. Considering the vastness of this universe, I would probably never see that world again.

There is a distinct mathematical possibility that no one will ever see that world again.

Want to see more? I've put my favorite shots in a imgur gallery for your amusement.





View post on imgur.com

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Preacher Thoughts

Hey, the first season of Preacher's over and I have thoughts.

First off, Preacher was and continues to be one of my favorite graphic novel series of all time. I think I loved it a bit more back then (early 2000s) than I would right now but that's the thing about enjoying art as it's being produced - if it registers with you in the moment it's probably because you're in a unique moment to begin with.

The original Preacher comic was a product and reflection of the 90s in America. It's hard to understand the comic in any other way. The hyper-literate media references, the profane but somehow sincere working of Judeo-Christian mythology, and the generally hilarious mayhem inflicted on the high and mighty seemed like a pretty good summation of a time period enthralled with Garth Brooks, X-Files, Nine Inch Nails, Clinton sex scandals, and Gingrich's Contract on America. This was right before cell phones started sprouting in every one's hands and computers were for nerds.

I think I'm going to have to write a follow-up article where I go deep on the differences and similarities between the show and source material but for now I will say, I liked this show. Not all of it and certainly not all of the time. The show veered constantly between messy distractions that didn't advance the story much and gloriously weird spectacles that didn't advance the story much. Essentially the entire first season of this show took place in between the first and final pages of the first issue of the original comic. I find that to be a curiously uplifting realization.

The important thing is that when all was said and done, Preacher wound up right where I wanted it - three awesomely flawed individuals sitting together in a bad-ass car right before they set off on one of the all-time great road trips.

***

I guess this wouldn't be a bad moment to point out that Preacher was one of my influences in writing "Agent Shield and Spaceman." I love how Garth Ennis used his basic set-up to spin out a great web of anarchic mythology and damaged heroes. In my own clumsy fashion, that's a piece of my aspiration here. For your enjoyment, I offer the next chapter of the story.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Two Upcoming Events in Woburn

The Woburn library is hosting two events that I think might be interesting to readers of this blog living in the Northshore.

First up, this Friday the library is holding a "Board Game Night for Adults." The press release reads:
Here's your chance to put your phone down and spend a lovely summer evening playing some excellent boardgames and meeting other boardgame enthusiasts. After the library closes for regular business on Friday, August 12th, it will reopen at 6 PM, having been magically transformed into an old school gaming parlor. We'll have some games on-hand (Chess, Checkers, Scattergories, Quelf, Scrabble and Bananagrams), but we're encouraging you to bring your favorite ones from home. If the weather cooperates, this will be an indoor/outdoor event (BYO picnic blanket). Register at the main desk by August 11th, or RSVP to rmeehan@minlib.net.I'm planning on being there to bring a few Euro-style games such as Agricola, Power Grid, and my new favorite game - Splendor.

Also, I'll be helping organize a third public reading event for writers and poets. This event will be similar to last December's Open Mike in that writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry are encouraged submit work to be considered. We're looking for around ten readers for the event. The library's press release includes the following additional information:
Read it, speak it, and own it at Woburn Public Library Writers’ Cabaret, a public venue for sharing short fiction and nonfiction, as well as poetry. Share your own work or come to listen to others on Thursday, September 29th in the beautiful John E. Frizzell Study Hall at 7 pm. The theme of this cabaret is “Falling”- falling in love, falling out of favor, falling flat, etc.

Those wishing to participate should contact the Woburn Writing Workshop by email at woburnwritersworkshop@gmail.com with a short description of what you would like to read as well as a sample (less than 1000 words) of your work. Submissions will be accepted from August 1st through August 24th, and the committee will choose 8 to 10 participants by August 31st.
The library will be providing lights refreshments on September 29th. To arrange handicapped access, please call (781) 933-0148. 
So, if you are available Friday or you have a piece you'd like to share in front of an audience, give these two events a try!










Thursday, August 4, 2016

What I Read in July, 2016

Now, this was more like it. The great thing about having a month off is I could really dig into my favorite magazines and journals for the best of current speculative short fiction. That luxury has produced a list of a few stories I think worth your time. At the bottom of the post, I also have a link to the most recent chapter of "Agent Shield and Spaceman."
"Ley Line" by Morgan Crooks (2016) 
  • "Floodwaters" by Kristi DeMeester (The Dark). A ghost story is about the past, a ghost being the literal embodiment of something passed. This story hints and suggests, slowly filling in the gaps of a family's history until the flood waters submerge everything. The language here is simple, direct, and brutal while still preserving a dark species of poetry. One of my favorite works last month and that's saying a lot. 
  • "Some Pebbles in The Palm" by Kenneth Schneyer (Lightspeed). A really excellent philosophical piece concerned with many of the same topics as Andy Weir's classic flash piece, "The Egg:" death, resurrection, and the point of it all. Compared to Weir, Schneyer is a bit more dour in his appraisal of the universe and our role within it, but I have to say the overall impression of the piece is oddly hopeful. Perhaps this stems from the narrator of the piece addressing the reader as the only thing real in the story. The closing passages resemble an exhortation, one particularly powerful coming from a voice at once world-weary and unapologetically empathic. 
  • "Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper " by Douglas F. Warrick edited by Ann VanderMeer (Tor.com). Amazing work of slipstream mind bending. A time traveler attempts to escape the demons of his past by transporting himself into Lincoln's head in the frozen moment before his assassination. There's a little bit of Lynch here and Charlie Kaufman but mostly this is a story about how intention forming habits forms the fractal iterations of our own over-determined histories. In addition to being evocative, the story seems to open up some new terrain in time travel speculation and fantasy literature. 
  • "Find Me, Mommy" by Gwendolyn Kiste (reprinted by The Wicked Library). I would strongly suggest listening to the podcast - it's very short and super creepy. This is the third story I've read of Kiste's centering around disappearance and unexplained loss. This is a shorter, more spooky piece than "Once Gone, Lost Forever," and last year's superlative "Ten Things to Know About The Ten Questions," but also one more knit into a plausible world of quiet imperturbable weekends and grim hospital beds. Like her other stories, disappearance is a complicated phenomena, simultaneously providing a sense of dread and hopelessness but also a curious source of strength. 
  • Fish Dance by Eric Schwitzgebel (Clarkesworld). Interesting look at a future religion centered around the creation of immortal post-humans and their moral choice to become a record of humanity. The ending is what counts here: poetic and surreal, horrifying and tender, the final words answering a question asked at the story's beginning. I am fond of how Schwitzgebel weaves world-building throughout the story, suggesting the course of his imagined future while still keeping the focus tight on the plight of his narrator. 
***

In other news, the next chapter of my weird espionage thriller "Agent Shield and Spaceman," is now available. As Spaceman attempts to infiltrate Gunther Thulewaite's ranch, he takes time to pursue two of his favorite hobbies.