Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Middle Shelf Selection: Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination

This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying ... but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice ... but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks ... but nobody loved it.
Science fiction and I have a rocky relationship. When I was young, the genre wooed me with giant mechs stomping across a post-apocalyptic Europe and a 1926 Midwestern American town mysteriously appearing on Mars as a trap set for unwary spacemen. Once I grew up, though, SF shifted from a lover to a pedant, peppering me with overlong descriptions of extraterrestrial terraforming cut with depictions of socialist utopias or space operas every bit as dedicated to genderqueer theory as to star-fighter sorties. Sure, scientific detail and diverse ideologies are all game. But what happened to the compelling storytelling, the universal themes, genre particulars serving as a tale's garnish rather than the main meal? A few contemporary SF works manage to synthesize these elements into an engaging compound, yet I often find myself reaching for another genre I want to unwind. Often—but not always. When science fiction simply must suffice, I’ll always have Alfred Bester's classic The Stars My Destination.
He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind merged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity. Then he lifted his mute face to Eternity and muttered: “What’s a matter, me? Help, you goddamn gods! Help, is all.”

Blasphemy came easily to him: it was half his speech, all his life.
In the 24th century, a new form of travel has arisen, shaking society to its core. Not faster-than-light travel, mind you. Even though mankind has settled every habitable planet and satellite in the solar system, breaking the 3.00 x 10^8 meters-per-second barrier has thus far proven impossible. But jaunting is another matter altogether. This method of movement took its name from a researcher called (appropriately enough) Jaunte who mysteriously teleported himself across a room by the power of mere thought while trying to escape a laboratory fire. It seems that almost everyone has the potential to mentally traverse various distances instantaneously. Of course, jaunting comes with its own peculiar rules. Concussions and lobotomies short circuit a subject’s innate ability, and one has to mentally envision the place to which he wants to jaunt, meaning that he needs to have visited it at least once. Also, no one has ever managed to successfully traverse jaunt through space. This final point is quite the frustration for Gulliver Foyle, Mechanic’s Mate 3rd class upon the S.S. Nomad. The Nomad became caught in the crossfire of a slowly swelling war between the Inner Planets and Outer Satellites, and Foyle alone managed to survive by secreting himself away inside a coffin-sized storage closet, the only air-tight area on the ship. Six months have passed, death creeping ever closer as he scavenges amongst the vacuum-exposed wreckage for supplies. Then the impossible occurs: Another ship, the S.S. Vorga, appears, pausing only as it draws near the Nomad and Foyle—and then passing him by completely. Suddenly, Foyle is reborn, metamorphosisized from a stubbornly surviving dullard to a creature bent entirely on revenge. He’ll find and murder those responsible for leaving him to rot in deep space, even if it means bringing a broken rocket back to life.
“We are The Scientific People,” J♂seph said. “I am J♂seph; these are my brethren.”

He gestured. Foyle gazed at the grinning crowd surrounding his litter. All faces were tattooed into devil masks; all brows had names blazoned across them.

“How long did you drift?” J♂seph asked.

Vorga,” Foyle mumbled.

“You are the first to arrive alive in fifty years. You are a puissant man. Very. Arrival of the fittest in the doctrine of Holy Darwin. Most scientific.”
I suspect that the style of The Stars My Destination will seem a bit archaic to most contemporary readers. Bumpy cadences and the occasional sweeping sentimentality hearken back to the golden age of science fiction, although Bester typically writes with more grit and verve than the authors associated with that movement. His speculations and pacing are also wilder, one outlandish image bumping up against another. That’s part of the reason why I love him. Sure, he’ll reserve a few paragraphs for explaining how to draw down fuel in zero-g using centrifugal force or detail the cognitive niceties of attempting to shock schizophrenics out of their private manias. But he never stays there—or anywhere—for long. The plot and characters almost always stay in fifth gear, both as odd as they are engaging. The descendants of asteroid-marooned researchers descend into a bestial cult based not on any recognized religion, but rather on the scientific method. Indeed, organized religion has been driven underground, and depictions of various liturgies are every bit as scandalous as the rankest pornography. A fission blast has turned a scientist into an asymptomatic radiation carrier, his mere presence blighting any nearby vegetation. Rogue physicians manufacture surgical monstrosities for freak shows, a commune of space ascetics voluntarily mutilate their central nervous systems, and the quite literally high-flying finale bends space and time itself while visually depicting synesthesia on the page.
That operation had cost Foyle a ¢r200,000 bribe to the chief surgeon of the Mars Commando Brigade and had transformed him into an extraordinary fighting machine. Every nerve plexus had been rewired, microscopic transistors and transformers had been buried in muscle and bone, a minute platinum outlet showed at the base of his spine. To this Foyle affixed a power pack the size of a pea and switched it on. His body began an internal electronic vibration that was almost mechanical.
In addition to all that, pundits typically claim that The Stars My Destination is sort of a prototypical cyberpunk book, and they have a point. In his quest for revenge, Foyle undergoes bodily modifications that call to mind William Gibson’s street samurai, and C-suite executives have their fingers in affairs of both national and cosmic importance. But the comparison starts to seem strained as the book unspools. Stars has a broad reach, one much grander than the potboiler plots of most cyberpunk stories, and Bester’s seemingly civil-libertarian critique of centralized power moves beyond big business to also encompass government. The end of Foyle’s adventure finds him transformed into sort of a radical populist, one with such glowing faith in humanity’s potential that it makes sentimental old Ray Bradbury seem almost like a misanthropist. Such a sanguine tone hardly matches the rest of the book, but I don’t really mind. Bester understood how to steer scientific detail and far-flung imaginings toward something higher. He aimed for the stars—and his course stayed true.
If you want to read The Stars My Destination, avoid the most recent edition from iPicturebooks like the plague. An amateurish cover, dull typeface, and numerous grammatical errors render it downright shameful. Seek out a used copy of the far better 1996 Vintage edition.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Music To Write By: Burlap To Cashmere's "Build a Wall"

Why Listen? For modern mythmaking, startling imagery, and unconventional instrumentation.

Next time you find yourself in casual conversation, try steering the proceedings toward the mythopoeic and see what happens. Attempting to discuss Northrop Frye, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Jesus is usually the interpersonal equivalent of potassium nitrate; talk just withers away. Perhaps that’s because few people have any sort of proper conception of myth anymore. I mean, that term has all sorts of negative connotations attached to it. Falsified. Ignorant. Anti-science. But those are wrong-headed associations. Myths are simply stories that purport to tell how the world works at a deep level, to get at the core of reality, to point out the hub around which existence turns. They can claim to be actual historical accounts. Or they can be imaginative, symbolic works that use tangled threads of narrative and association to drag the deep things up to the surface. Burlap to Cashmere’s “Build a Wall” is a good example of the latter.

Founded in the mid-nineties by New Jersey-based singer/songwriter Steven Delopoulos, Burlap to Cashmere broke all sorts of musical rules, melding serious musicianship and unabashedly religious lyrics with ethnic instrumentality and a massive touring band. No sooner had the group achieved a measure of commercial success than it went on a 13-year hiatus, only emerging in 2011 with a rowdy single that had a decidedly mythic cast. “Build a Wall” opens with a troubled woman chasing her woes down the open highway. Her goal? “She was looking for the man with the gun and the hat / Drinking whiskey in the rain and the Bible in his hand.” The verse crashes into a chorus rife with apocalyptic imagery, Greek guitar flourishes sweeping up into the titular allusion:
Shake the light.
Drown the sun.
Close the shades.
Lock the door.
Burn the pages of your life
As your body hits the floor.
And as you weep, you can hear it.
There's an echo of a call.
And through the violent bloody night,
Nehemiah builds the wall.
Can you feel how Delopoulos binds a reference to the ancient, sword-girt Israelite who rebuilt Jerusalem’s broken walls to classic Americana imagery and drives it on with instrumentation that’s anything but native to pop music? It’s a potent blend, one that seems bound up with the very human desire to have someone swoop in to save during times of trouble. Mythic, indeed. Alas, YouTube seems to lack a full studio version of “Build a Wall,” so once you’ve listened to the teaser above, check out the band performing the song live at Guitar Center.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Stross on a Taxonomy of Space Opera Cliches

Over at Charlie’s Diary, Charles Stross (The Atrocity Archives) is in the process of compiling an encyclopedia of clichés related to space opera. Excerpt:
Some of you might remember the Evil Overlord's List, a list of all the generic cliche mistakes that Evil Overlords tend to make in fiction (16: I will never utter the sentence "But before I kill you, there's just one thing I want to know."). I think that it might be a good idea to begin bolting together a similar list of the cliches to which Space Opera is prone, purely as an exercise in making sure that once I get under way I only make new and original mistakes, rather than recycling the same-old same-old.

This is not an exhaustive list—it's merely a start, the tip of a very large iceberg glimpsed on the horizon. And note that I'm specifically excluding the big media franchise products—Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, and similar—from consideration: any one of them could provide a huge cliche list in its own right, but I'm interested in the substance of the literary genre rather than in what TV and film have built using the borrowed furniture of the field.

List follows, below the cut.
Read the whole thing. As I pursued Stross’ list, I found myself puzzling over parts of it. Sure, many of its line items are eye-rollingly overused. “All planets harbour a single apex predator that eats people.” “The only place worse than a Colony World is Old Earth.” “Everywhere on a planet shares a common climate and the same weather patterns.” But others had me scratching my head. Do I really need to concern myself with the length of diurnal periods when writing space opera? Should I worry about intestinal flora when penning descriptions of cryosleep? Ought I to linger over the niceties of supply-chain management and interplanetary shipping? Then it hit me: This taxonomy is more of a breathless love letter to hard SF than a true examination of overused space-opera ideas.

Now, don’t get me wrong. What Stross has constructed here is which is immensely insightful and most definitely worth your time. But it’s worth remembering that hard SF isn’t an inherently worthier genre than the soft sociological stuff. Not every writer wants to be Kim Stanley Robinson or Arthur C. Clarke, nor does space opera necessarily require it. Similarly, not every readers is looking for finely detailed descriptions of interstellar navigation, extraterrestrial terraforming, or genetic manipulation. By all means, seize tired tropes by their roots and forcibly yank them out of your stories. But don’t think that peppering your tales with technical detail is the only way to do it.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Sweetie187)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Your Framework Matters (Kill List)

Ben Wheatley's 2012 crime/horror hybrid Kill List earned enthusiastic praise from more than a few fans of extreme cinema, and no wonder. Focusing on a former grunt named Jay, it's alternately poignant and gut-punch graphic. See, Jay's family is on the rocks. He hasn't pulled down a paycheck for eight months, his joblessness owing primarily to a disastrous failed mission in Kiev. The strain has made him into a pressure cooker of a man, all seething with unfocused rage and ready to rupture. His wife wants to leave. His son skulks sourly about the house. And his best friend Gal thinks he needs professional help. Barring that, though, Gal offers him the next best thing: a job. Assassinate three targets for a mysterious client and make bank. Bing, bam, boom. Seems simple enough, right? Well, "seems" is the operative word, because the job soon becomes anything but. It's not that the targets are particularly troublesome. They're docile as lambs and even thank Jay before he murders them. Then there are the dead animals showing up around Jay's house, a cryptic symbol found on the paperwork of one victim, the way the client insists that Jay seal the contract with blood. It seems a very old organization has had Jay in its sights for ages ...

In one way, I can understand why critics and fans alike love Kill List. Wheatley handles the film's domestic and psychological drama with a deft hand, interspersing naturalistic shots of ferocious arguing with truly tender displays of affection, defaulting to subtlety rather than forever feeling the need to explain. And the violence, well, it's downright horrendous, every bit as stomach clenching as Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Unlike Refn, though, Wheatley obviously isn't in love with gore and grue. The camera doesn't shy away from horrible executions, but neither does it linger there. But Kill List has a more basic problem. It staggers over basic plot structure—and falls hard.

Let's see, how can we discuss this without resorting to spoilers? Suffice it to say that Wheatley divides his film up very deliberately. Each section opens with a splash screen showing the title of the target Jay is supposed to assassinate, stark white lettering splashed against a black backdrop. “The Priest.” “The Librarian.” “The MP.” As the story progresses, the strange group that hired Jay starts to increasingly intrude into the proceedings, and it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that its members’ intentions aren't munificent. The hunter finally becomes the hunted, and right when you think things can’t get worse for Jay, a new splash screen appears: “The Hunchback.” Fighting by firelight, Jay is forced to go mano a mano with a masked, robed, knife-wielding adversary. When he finally triumphs and pulls away the blood-soaked clothing concealing the combatant’s identity, the revelation as to who his enemy actually was proves as earth shattering as a nine on the Richter. Viewers were stunned. “I have been unable to think about anything else since I watched it,” said Jake Ozga of Zero Credibility. But for many (myself included), rumination over that shocker of a conclusion soon turned sour. Why? According to the film’s internal narrative logic, there was no reason for The Hunchback to be there, no reason for that individual to fight Jay, no reason for the person not to cry out and thus end the confrontation even as it began. It’s a baffling narrative problem that brings an otherwise breakneck story to a screeching halt. When one interviewer noted the incongruity and commented how “Kill List begins to feel as though the events of the film are in [Jay’s] head, like he’s losing his mind,” Wheatley responded by saying, “It's a tricky one isn't it? The classic cop-out ending that it's all just a dream. We wanted to avoid that as much as possible. I'm not denying that this could be the case, of course [emphasis added], but I wanted it to be more direct.”

People have occasionally asked me why I like to bang on about literary theory, especially since it seems so removed from the stuff of actual storytelling. Well, consider Kill List to be Exhibit A in the case as to why your critical framework matters. When you run into a storytelling question that you can’t seem to answer, you don’t want an author to equivocate, to coyly offer possibilities, to deny any special authority over the proceedings. You want a word from on high. You want the difficulty explained. You want to know what happened. Some have argued that making meaning dependent on the reader is the humblest course of interpretive action. That’s well intentioned. Yet when the shroud is stripped away, it’s also anything but satisfying.

(Picture: CC 2012 by felixtsao)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Girl Isn't Original—It's Something More

Do you ever stop to think about what various cultures value in their stories? Honestly, I haven't read widely enough to draw more than the most tentative conclusions, but I think it's pretty obvious what Americans hold dear in their narratives—novelty. How did the Hollywood revival of Shakespeare on the big screen get started in the nineties? Not with finely nuanced performances, but rather by having Aussie auteur Baz Luhrmann slip handguns and hyperactive cinematography into Romeo + Juliet. Literary types certainly go in for Shiny New Things, and I suspect that most honest readers of James Joyce's Ulysses will admit that the novel owes its place at the peak of the academy's most ivory tower more to its wildly experimental style than its rather simple themes. (Fun fact: Joyce's magnum opus contains depictions every fluid that the human body can produce!) And genre fans are by no means immune to the allure of the unique and original. I couldn't help but be reminded of that as I read the back-cover blurbs for M.R. Carey's The Girl With All the Gifts. "Original, thrilling and powerful." "As fresh as it is terrifying." "The most original thriller you will read this year." All of this is rather funny, because while The Girl With All the Gifts is many things—most of them good—it's anything but original.

Melanie likes school. She likes learning about math and science, history and literature, myth and religion. She likes how she always does well in evaluations, usually scoring better than anyone else in her class. Most of all, she likes Miss Justineau, the pretty teacher who always gives her students extra attention, always treats them like people. The same can't be said for Sergeant Parks and his men. Every day, they strap her into her wheelchair and cart her from her cell to the classroom. They unstrap an arm so she can write. Some days, they take her to the chemical showers. Then she gets wheeled back to her room. Cell, corridor, classroom—those are almost the entirety of Melanie's life. But one day scary Dr. Caldwell is going to call for Melanie, and she'll get to experience the wide world itself in a most unexpected way.

Okay, in that previous paragraph, I tried to mirror the tone of the dust jacket copy, which makes Melanie's predicament sound kind of mysterious. But if I were to simply mention a couple of titles—let's say, oh, 28 Days Later and The Last of Us—that mystery evaporates like mist struck by summer sun. Indeed, Carey basically "spoils" his own setup within the first three pages, which must've sent the marketing division into apoplectic fits. I imagine them murmuring, "How are we going to sell this thing if everyone knows from the onset it's a retread of horror tropes?" Well, they might've started with Carey's masterful use of language, the way he blends literary style with genre action. When a grenade explodes, "the peristaltic shudder of the shockwave" rocks nearby combatants. After fighting off a fungal monster with a shard of broken glass that flays her palms to ribbons, a desperate researcher "rummages in her pockets, leaving dark red Bézier curves of blood on her white lab coat." While saving Miss Justineau from an assailant, Melanie "sensed the artery singing to her through folds of flesh and fabric." Yeah, Carey can write. He also has a masterful command of myth, turning the story of Pandora (which literally translates into the novel's title) into a tale both bleak and heartening. Though you can see the ending coming for the last few chapters, the lack of surprise does nothing to lessen its piercing pathos. There are truly greater virtues than novelty.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Michael Hensmann)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Music To Write By: Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder”

Why Listen? To hear how artists simultaneously subvert and affirm genre conventions; for literary inspiration turned up to 11.

Heavy metal and all its manifold subgenres don’t exactly have a high-brow reputation, and it’s no wonder why. The thunderous offspring of Malcolm and Angus Young tend to bifurcate when it comes to subject matter, either veering off into grim personal ruminations or indulging in violent fictional narratives extreme enough to make even Stephen King blanch. (Think of, say, Slipknot for the former camp and Cannibal Corpse for the latter.) But one thing almost always remains true no matter a band’s approach: Heavy metal lyrics major in surface-level angst with little room for subtlety of style. Although note my choice of the word “almost,” because many rules have exceptions and Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder” from the 2004 concept album Leviathan is one of metal’s biggest.

On first listen, “Blood and Thunder” does little to dispel prejudices. Jackhammering speed-metal drumwork and guitar riffs so blistering they seem almost unhinged nearly drown out lead singer Troy Sanders. But eventually you start to catch the four words comprising the chorus: “White whale, / Holy Grail.” And you begin to think, “That sounds an awful lot like ... No, no, it can’t be. But I’d almost swear that they’re talking about Moby Dick.”

You’d be right.

Every song on Leviathan references Melville’s magnum opus, with “Blood and Thunder” giving ferocious voice Captain Ahab’s obsession with the titular whale, especially when guest vocalist Neil Fallon of Clutch contributes a howling bridge:
Split your lungs with blood and thunder
When you see the white whale.
Break your backs and crack your oars, men,
If you wish to prevail.
This ivory leg is what propels me.
Harpoons thrust in the sky!
Aim directly for his crooked brow,
And look him straight in the eye.
Is it overreaching to call the song brilliant? Yeah, probably. Still, it manages to simultaneously subvert and affirm genre conventions. Literary yet intense. Fictional yet personal. Aurally careening yet carefully composed. Few artists manage such a feat—especially when the volume is dialed up to 11.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


Dexamethasone. Coumadin. Aspirin. The substances keeping Chuck alive thinned his skin to tissue. So when Maureen heard Honey's yelp at the bright sound of an ornament splintering, she whirled, snapping, “Careful, dammit.”

Blood sluiced from Chuck’s hand. “I didn’t—” he began in shocked tones.

Thirty years offers ample opportunity to strop one’s tongue. Infection. Inconvenience. Idiocy. Maureen berated him for each.

“But it was—”

“Are you stupid or just making a special effort? Clean it.”

Alone in the bathroom and examining the half-dozen new slashes on his arm, Chuck finally finished the sentence: “The dog, Maureen. The dog.”