Saturday, December 31, 2016

Alive in 2016


Part of me wants to sum up this year in one or two words - it sucked! - and be done with it. I've spilled a lot of virtual ink in service of pessimism lately so maybe it's time to put paid to 2016 and be done with it.

Instead, I'd like to take a moment to remember some of the good things about this year.

This was a year of friends. I met a bunch of amazing people this year, had time to hang out with old friends, and had some of the best conversations about politics, speculative fiction, movies, and life. If you spent time with me, helped me understand this world a little bit better, filled it with life and laughter and hope, well, the least I can do is thank you. Thank you for reading my stories, putting up with my mistakes, and giving me your support. Thank you Lauren for being the best friend a person could ever hope for and congratulations for finishing your masters.

This was a year of video games. Maybe not the most consequential aspect of life but, you know what, if I'm being honest, playing games occupies a significant chunk of my time. In particular I'll stand up in defense of one of the most maligned games in recent memory. I'm still playing "No Man's Sky," and foresee continuing to do so well into the future. The basic premise of the game still fills me with a sense of peace and wonder. Finding a perfect world in the wide, wide galaxy and being able to stroll over it is somehow all I've ever wanted in a game. I feel at peace, perfectly in the moment, and if that makes it seem more like a meditation device than a traditional game, so be it.

This was a year of reading. I've already listed my favorite new works from the past year but looking over what I actually read during the course of 12 months, I'm not really sure I captured what gave this year its meaning. Around September, when things looked particularly pointless on the election front I stopped listening to the radio, cut my cable news habit way back and simply started reading as much as I could. In retrospect, I can't help but think that was a far better use for my time.

In particular, I started tracking down books in cosmic horror genre for a series of posts. That was a lot of fun and lead me to authors such as Michael Shea, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Kathe Koja, and Robert Aikman. The other big project was listening to the "best books of the 21st Century" which was incredibly rewarding. As you might guess from my posts, I read a lot of speculative literature and not so much of what might be termed "contemporary fiction." After having read "Gilead," and the "Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," I'm glad I finally took steps to rectify that over-sight. My life is better for the books I've read.

This was a year of writing. Having "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," published in Electric Spec was a high point in my short career as a writer. As mentioned before, I think Electric Spec is a terrific magazine and I feel honored to have that story appear there. It's also enormously encouraging. I did not sell many stories this year but the one I did is recent and, in my estimation, one of my better ones. I have a crop of other stories coming down the pipe that I like as much and more.




Friday, December 30, 2016

What I Read in 2016


This was a great year for speculative fiction, both novels and short stories and I had a little trouble narrowing down my favorites to just five. Which is part of the reason this post is running right up to the end of the year. Every story I'm listing below is one that is still sitting with me all these months later. 
For the record, I have one more of these year-end posts left - a sort of wrap-up of everything else.

In comparison to last year, which was nearly all science fiction (and one very Sfnal fantasy novel) I've got a slightly more eclectic list going here.
  1. The Fisherman by John Langan: This is the last novel I read in 2016 and the best. Langan's tale of two widowers bonding over fishing the streams and rivers of Upstate New York combines intensely personal tragedy, with scenes of compelling weirdness and terror. The story raises interesting questions about the nature of language and the responsibilities of those in grief. 
  2. Infomocracy by Malka Older. A political thriller set perhaps half a century in the future when most of the world has embraced a global form of democracy, every 100,000 people choosing their own government every 10 years or so. After 2016, I could certainly understand the desire to never read another sentence about politics and governance but this novel makes a powerful argument in favor of big visions for a better world. 
  3. I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. A very short, disturbing tale of the perils of bringing a significant other home to meet the folks. You may think you know where this story is heading from the beginning but I'm pretty sure you'd be wrong. 
  4. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. A new genre needs to be coined to describe this story. Is it science fiction or fantasy? Is this world set in the far future with technology based on conflicting mathematical axioms or in the distant past riven by mystic war and heresy? A maverick soldier finds herself partnering with the ghost of a war criminal to conquer a rebel fortress. Much of the novel reads like an Ender's Game as written by China Meivile. 
  5. The Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay. I read parts of this alongside watching Stranger Things which made for an interesting pairing. Unlike the Netflix series, The Disappearance is set in the present day Massachusetts with supernatural elements taking a back seat to the anguish of being young, hyper-connected, and completely alone with your own mind. 
On to short stories.
  1. Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper by Carl Wiens. The first line of this story pretty much sums it up: "The time traveler set up a studio apartment in Abraham Lincoln’s skull in the frozen moment before Booth’s bullet burst through and rewired history." This story starts at about a 10 - a masterful hot-wiring of history, science fiction, and great personal loss - before it really gets weird. I read this story in the summer, and felt like I was witnessing an event. 
  2. The Girl Who Escaped from Hell By Rahul Kanakia. A father tries to take care of his biological daughter after her rescue from an apocalyptic cult. The father is well-intentioned but not quite up to the challenge, always falling a step or two behind what is required. 
  3. All the Red Apples Have Withered to Grey by Gwendolyn Kiste. Dark fantasy in the mode of Grimm or Gaiman taking a familiar trope of such stories- the enchanted apple - and imagining a cottage industry of self-administered paralysis. This is first and foremost a compelling and strange tale that just so happens to have a few pointed things to say about life, love, and everything. You know, like all the best fairy tales do. 
  4. Some Pebbles in the Palm by Kenneth Schneyer. I retain faith in the power of short stories to teach and console on the basis of works like this one. A story about a story (or rather stories) concerning the possibility of hope and renewal in a world with a proven track record of tolerating neither. It's the voice that sticks with me: profound and wise, but human and so, so weary. 
  5. A Diet of Worms by Valerie Valdes. In order to work, a horror story should make you feel a connection with a person in peril. No matter what the monster is, we the readers must see ourselves in the story or the effect of terror loses all sense of urgency and risk. Here a young man toils at a movie theater, his job winnowing his dreams, withering him one paragraph at a time. At heart, this story is about the despair of knowing you are much better than the life you can't seem to escape.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

What I Watched in 2016

For my second year-end post, I'd like to talk about movies. There are five movies that stuck with me this year, perhaps not the five best movies, but certainly good ones that meant something to me. From my limited perspective as a routine movie-goer the gap between blockbuster movies and "quality films" continues to grow each year. Are these even in the same genre anymore? While certainly the basic technology employed by movies and films is the same (except when it isn't) the point of films seems to be diverging. The point of a movie like Marvel's Captain America: Civil War is to serve as the vehicle for cathartic spectacle while the point of my favorite movie is something closer to communication - the passing on of knowledge to the audience. In principle, I enjoy both modes but I wish they would cross-pollinate a bit more. It is the rare movie, (The Lord of Rings Trilogy, Star Wars, and Interstellar come to mind) that seems to want to do both: to create a grand and awesome spectacle with the idea of telling human and nuanced stories for adults looking for such things.

Streaming Light by Morgan Crooks 2016
I guess what I'm saying is that while a number of films I saw this year entertained me (Captain America, Doctor Strange, Ghostbusters, etc.) It took until the last fourth before I saw movies that really felt consequential.

  1. Arrival: This was my movie of the year for no other reason than its story asked the most from its audience. The scope required to tell this story meant wrestling all of the various pressures of science fiction, epic film-making, political thrillers, and the rest but still found time for a truly compelling story with interesting characters. This is also a study on how small changes can have profound influence on the meaning of a story. Not to get into spoilers, but the film-makers elected to alter how the aliens' perception of time works in the movie. This is probably defensible in terms of making the movie work as a movie but lends a different note to the main character's story. To be clear, I don't think this is a bad change, it's just an interesting one. For the record, I'd suggest seeing the movie first and then comparing it to the excellent short story, "The Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang. The movie is structured with a big reveal at the end, where the story is more of a slow mediation on facts as presented. 
  2. Manchester by the Sea: I saw this last night and immediately had to change my best-of list. This is a terrific film. Full of sadness, incredible and poignant sadness, this movie is propelled by the conflicting and often counter-productive ways humans deal with the intolerable tragedies of life. It's a deep and very moving film, made all the better by the unflashy cinematography and unhurried, judgement-free witnessing of the characters' story. The story feels inevitable in its conclusions but also hard-won. I went into the film prepared to be depressed, and to be clear, this is a very sad movie, but I was not prepared for how funny and real it was. 
  3. Rogue One: This is a movie about and composed of conflicting pressures. I may be putting this as my third film simply because I haven't quite figured out what I feel about it even after a second viewing. That it ranks as one of the better Star Wars movies doesn't seem too much of a stretch to say. While far from flawless it does excel at doing one thing: provide everything a potential audience might ask for in a movie as well as one or two more things besides. I left the film exhilarated both times. To own the truth, you could easily convince me to watch it a third time for one basic reason: I felt like this movie added more to the stories of Star Wars than it took away. It respected my time and money. On the other hand, I do want to know more about what was going on behind the scenes with this movie. The differences between the trailers and the finished movie suggest that some considerable changes happened late in the film's production. Was this a shift away from a darker tone or was it a push towards one? There's nothing that feels out of tone with the rest of the movie (except perhaps for the not-quite-ready-for-primetime digital actors) so perhaps the reshoots simply exaggerated the movie already there. One final thought: as the first movie of the so-called "Star Wars Story Movies," I found myself interested in the question of fictional provenance. While this movie slides deftly in the beginning of the fourth movie, it does not feel tonally the same as the original trilogy. When discussing this with a friend, I tried this analogy: episodes Four through Six at times feel like the New Testament - using historical cues to provide context for an essentially mythological story. Rogue One is more like the work of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, discussing events propelled by religion and belief in a more or less historical fashion. 
  4. The Witch: Speaking of tone in movies, we have The Witch, a movie I probably respected more than enjoyed. The time period depicted here, the early colonial days of the Massachusetts Colony, is one I find fascinating. The menace and peril of the events of the story really crept under my skin when I watched it, the sense of awful things happening just outside of the camera's view. It's a horror movie to be sure, but its use of historically accurate dialogue and convincing sets separates it from other historical horror pieces this year (the enjoyable Conjuring 2 and Ouija come to mind). Essentially, the movie obeys its own rules, the rules set out at its outset. This is a movie set in Puritan times about people who, if not Puritans, understand the world in those terms. I'm not sure the movie quite fits together as planned but it's undeniably unsettling, especially in its final reel. 
  5. Zootopia: This movie stuck with me. I'm not sure I can write more about it other than as a work of fantasy, it creates a world I didn't feel quite done with at the conclusion of the movie. Contrasting this to "The Secret Life of Pets," which I enjoyed but didn't find myself thinking about later; I think this movie is helped by its theme of tolerance and prejudice. The film-makers also demonstrate the importance of taking seriously their own premise. I'm not sure how this world of predators and prey living together in a slightly futuristic city-scape happened, but I never felt like the film-makers were winking at their material or playing it for a cheap joke. For the story they were trying to tell it was important for there to be animals living together in uneasy collegiality.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

What I Listened to in 2016

Each year, I like to gather together the albums, movies, and stories that meant something to me. I wouldn't call this a "Best of" list, exactly, although I do think that all of these works are worth your time to track down. My intention is simply to record those things that felt important or helped me understand the world in someway. In a confusing, disappointing, and increasingly terrifying year like this one, maybe art doesn't really matter all that much. If that's your response, I say more power to you. For better or worse art keeps me alive and these lists are meant to record what kept me writing, creating, and working.

Skeleton Scene by Morgan Crooks (2016)
Alright, so THIS list is about music and as far as the year goes, while I liked a number albums very much I wasn't blown away by any particular album. While I think this list contains very strong albums, it may not match up with many BOY posts you see elsewhere. These are simply the albums I listened to the most though this year.

  1. Swans, "The Glowing Man." I started listening to this band in a concerted way last year and absolutely couldn’t get them out of my head. A Swans 'song,' isn't really something that can be summed up easily. They alternate between slow atmospheric, wordless chimes and crushing one chord rave-ups lasting several minutes at a time. Interspersed are the growled ravings of Michael Gira, a true nihilist poet. The title track is my favorite off this album. Stretching for nearly half an hour, it reaches a pounding crescendo of loathing and cataclysm perfectly encapsulating the horror of this year. Easy listening it is not but if you are looking for some quality 'feels bad, man' music, this may scratch the itch. Also great: The Cloud of Unknowing and Frankie M. 
  2. Marissa Nadler: "Strangers." I'm not someone with a great affection for live music so when I tell you I went out to see this band, please understand - for me - that's high praise. Marissa Nadler is a exquisite gothic folk singer, painting pictures of miserable specters adrift in a world far too beautiful to endure. I'm not sure this is my favorite Nadler album but it's probably her most consistent evocation of a mood and theme. Recommendations: All the Colors of the Dark, Janie in Love, and Nothing Feels the Same. 
  3. Pinegrove "Cardinal." Six young musicians and their instruments, the singer sounding way more plaintive and sincere than is medically recommended; this is the song of my people. Things that distinguish it from the rest of the post-post-post-indie rock crowd: the raw stop and start of the band's sound and how every lyrical jab of singer Evan Stephans Hall's lands with this sense of his own deep desperation. Although the band has been around for a while, in one configuration or another, this album sounds very new, the unadulterated product of a single evening of confessions and recriminations. Recommended: Old Friends, Size of the Moon, and New Friends. 
  4. 65daysofstatic "No Man's Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe." I knew this album would be on my end of the year list back in September. I listened to it constantly and more often than not, found myself pulled back into the game for which this is the soundtrack, just by the universe of wonder it evokes. Okay, I admit, the game was sort of a mess, but with the most recent update (which I may describe in an upcoming year-end post), the game is no longer quite the target of abuse (according to Steam, its reviews have risen from appallingly bad to merely mixed). However, this album really fulfills the promise of the game in more complete fashion than the game itself. There's something epic and optimistic in these tracks; post-rock instrumentals veering (often during the course of a single 5 minute piece) from ambient synth beeps to towering hard-rock arias. Recommendations: Monolith, Asimov, and End of the World Sun. 
  5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds "Skeleton Key" Written in the wake of his son's death, "Skeleton Key" is understated and mournful. The artistry here is not that the mood is so clearly grim and despondent, that's pretty much been the tone of Nick Cave's work since his Birthday Party days; it's in painting a picture of a world stripped to its most intimate and haunted essentials. This album embraces despair, pares away everything false with the patient ear of a man long accustomed to BS, to set forth a cleared garden, a place where something else may grow. It's optimistic music for people with very little patience for optimism. Recommendations: Jesus Alone, Girl in Amber, and Anthrocene. 
Beyond these five albums I'd also recommend the following: Angel Olson's "MY WOMAN," Bombino's "Azel," Drive-by Truckers' "American Band," Leonard Cohen's "You Want It Darker," and Margo Price's "Midwest Farmer's Daughter."

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Review of Star Wars: Rogue One (no spoilers)


I have to admit it took a little while to get into the new Star Wars movie. The beginning felt weird to me: both in terms of the scattered, start/stop nature of the set-up and also, being honest, the lack of the title crawl. I know it's a small thing but details matter. Without the crawl, some part of the task of determining what is going on and how it fits in with everything else falls to the viewer. Perhaps that's the point here. Without the frame of mythology and a redemption arc, how does the conflict of Star Wars look to the people who actually fought it? 



Gareth Edwards, the director of the new movie, makes some wise decisions early on, despite the muddle: Jyn's story of lost parents and abandonment is classic storytelling in the epic mode - certainly something Star Wars fans have come to expect from the franchise.

Overall, though, none of that really mattered. The ending for this movie is tremendous, perfectly setting up Episode 4, giving a sense of the sacrifice embedded behind the scenes of Luke Skywalker's story. Was any of this absolutely necessary? No, but it's appreciated, especially if like me, you wanted a better sense of how this Galactic Empire actually, you know, works. It also helps if you like epic space battles. And light-saber mayhem. And daring plans that don't quite work out.

Because Rogue One has all of that stuff.

That's basically my take-away from this movie: if you go to Star Wars for some reason, you will find that reason in Rogue One. It didn't feel like over-kill the way the prequels did and while not every line works or every scene come together or every special effect amaze (still trying to puzzle out why they hired Golem to play Peter Cushing's old role), enough of it does to leave a very positive impression.

Put simply, I left the theater exhilarated. Last year's "A Force Awakened," left me in a similar place but for slightly different reasons. By the end of that movie I was desperate to find out more, to know what was going to happen to all of the new characters. Due to REASONS, that's not quite my reaction to this movie. 


It did re-invest me in the original trilogy, so there's that. The final line of the movie, in particular, hit me dead-center. Hope is a major component of this movie, hard-won hope over adversaries that are stronger, smarter, more capable, and more numerous. None of that is missing from the original trilogy but this movie had a way of force-choking the point home. The rebels have no chance. The empire is going to win. There is no hope you can believe.

Except.

Except you can't quite live that way.

I imagine this movie would play differently if the election had gone the way I voted. The tension of this movie might not register in quite the same way. If Hillary won, isn't it possible some red-hatted guy in the mid-west would respond to exhortations not to let the dream die? At the very least, it's hard to imagine a #dumpstarwars campaign in that alternate time-stream.

That's the thing about Star Wars; whatever allegory its creators and inheritors might have intended, it stands largely outside of contemporary politics. (If you miss the rather obvious allusions to Nazism and fascism, that is.) There's a reason why Reagan appropriated the name of the Rebel Alliance's enemy when speaking of Russia. He recognized the power of myth, the way it transcends ideology, religion, background, and nationality. The quest of a young hero in the face of implacable odds is as close to a universal story as any one is likely to find. Mix in a few quasi-Eastern philosophical elements and you have a something for everyone: a fable buffet where you can pick what you want and leave the rest behind.

Which is the strength of this movie. At two and a quarter hours long, there are a great number of moving parts here. I do wish we had a bit more time with the main characters, Jyn Erso (Felcity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), just so the final scenes hit with more force. I feel like the director's cut of this movie, with a few more beats allowed of their relationship, would have solved that. However, I don't think this suffers from some of the defects of the recent Marvel movies where every other scene seems yoked in service to the next movie in the franchise. This makes a necessary addition to the mythology of the universe, a complete story that fit smoothly with already established elements. The grittiness, the shades of grey represented by the characters, provides an interesting contrast with the main trilogies.

It makes me hopeful for the rest of these anthology films.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

What I Read in November 2016


November was a great month fiction and miserable month for just about everything else. First off, I'll mention I'm in process of getting together a "Best of 2016" list together in preparation for the "Short Sharp Shocks," panel I'll be on for next year's Arisia. I'm on the panel with some incredible writers and reviewers of short fiction but one awesome thing is that one of the panelists shares an appreciation for one of my current favorite short fiction writers, Gwendolyn Kiste (highlighted below). This promises to be a great conversation.

I'm also going to make a shameless plug because: why not? "Gazer," by Karen Osborne appears in the same "Electric Spec Magazine," issue as my story "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY." Read her excellent story first and then give my a try in if you're in the mood for a coming-of-age story set in a world beset by virtual creatures come to life. Although not described here, the other stories in the issue (by authors Chris Barnham, Sydney Baylock, and Chris Walker) are also of very high quality and well worth your time.
  • "When You Work For the Old Ones" by Sandra McDonald in Nightmare Magazine. A deceptively straightforward title for a deceptively straightforward concept. This story isn't what it purports to be which I mean in the best possible way. The gestures to Mythos are meant not to describe a world where such terrors exist but rather the conflicted feelings any artist must feel seeing the claw and wing of Lovecraft's generation spanning influence. Still, for a very short work, it creates an impressive fatalistic atmosphere.
  • "The Curtain" by Thana Niveau, reprinted in "The Dark," magazine. This is more terrifying. I've been paying more attention to how stories begin recently, trying to figure out how a writer foreshadows the themes and preoccupations of a story. Some writers go the direct route, stating whatever the speculative or horrific element is right in the first paragraph. Here, Niveau sets up a scuba diver slipping below the waves off a coast devastated by a recent hurricane. There's nothing overtly supernatural or horrific other than isolation and risk suggested by strapping a steel tank to your back and plunging into the black. However, as those initial themes return later in the story they appear in nightmarish distortions. Overall, I recommend this as an effective character study and exercise in establishing and maintaining a very specific mood.
  • "Holiday Playlist for the End of the World" by Gwendolyn Kiste in Daily Science Fiction. Charming and yet disturbing flash piece about how Christmas Carols might presage the end of the world. Considering I've got to start some holiday this weekend, this piece continues to sit with me. This is might be a coincidence but the story shares a structure with an old "Built to Spill," song, "You Were Right."
  • Gazer by Karen Osborne in Electric spec. A powerful story equating fantasy life with addiction. I've seen this motif before but the focus on the concept of the "chosen one," sells it. Plus, and this may be me reading into things, Osborne's alluring fantasy world alludes to sources, Thomas Ligotti and Susanna Clarke, that I could see myself falling victim to. The closing line is chilling.

Friday, December 2, 2016

"The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY" is now available!

My new story, "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," is now available in the current issue of the Electric Spec magazine. I'm very proud that this story is getting published at Electic Spec for the simple reason I've been reading the magazine for years, dreaming of the day I might get a story published there. Well, it's finally happened.

The story of "Yuru-chara" is pretty simple: a young girl wakes up to discover that her old virtual friend, a seven-foot-tall yellow monster named Tama Bell, has come to life. While navigating through waves of other virtual creatures released through a world-wide hack, the young heroine tries to come to grips with her responsibility to her forgotten friend and the losses inherent to growing up.

I hope that you enjoy my story and that you give the other stories a try. They're awesome!

Thank you for your continued support.