Friday, April 24, 2015

Carbon Alters the SF Formula With an Infusion of Fun

As I obliquely alluded to in my previous post, the world of science fiction isn’t a happy place right now. I won’t bore you with the details about the recent hullaballoo over the Hugos, arguably the most prestigious award in the field. Suffice it to say that one camp thinks the Hugos have been co-opted by a politically correct clique while the other claims such protests are actually an attempt to hijack the nomination process. For my part, the controversy is mostly academic, because I’ve read less and less SF as I’ve aged. It’s not because I’ve fallen out of love with the genre. Rather, the field has seemed obsessed with disseminating obscure theses and experimenting with artsy styles. Telling solid stories seemed far from its authors’ minds, at least most of them. If they wrote like Richard K. Morgan did in his far-future-meets-hardboiled debut Altered Carbon, maybe I’d be reading more in the field.

Takeshi Lev Kovacs has had a ... distinguished career. Once a U.N. envoy, a super-specialized soldier capable of acclimating to any culture across the galaxy, manipulating any mark, and assassinating almost any target, Kovacs has been called up for everything from police actions to full out war. Then he died. Well, he actually died several times. It’s easy to do when your personality is digitized on a chip implanted in the back of your head. Once your body—or “sleeve”—perishes, you can be resurrected in a clone of yourself if you’re wealthy, in someone else’s sleeve that’s in storage if you’re normal, or in a creaky synthetic if you’re really down and out. Murder is now dubbed “organic damage,” and instead of the death penalty, offenders face time in the stacks, carrying out hundred-year sentences in electronic isolation. Kovacs knows a bit about that. Envoys have the same skill set as career criminals, and he has just gone down after a robbery on his home of Harlan’s World, a slug blasting clear through his chest during a police raid. Then he wakes up on earth in a Caucasian body with a quest. Rather than be consigned to the stacks for a century, he’s now in the employ of one Laurens Bancroft, a three-hundred-year-old tycoon who was recently found dead in his own study. The police say he committed suicide. A freshly reanimated Bancroft believes differently, and Kovacs has six weeks to get to the truth.

Morgan has obviously drunk deeply from the well of William Gibson’s mid-eighties cyberpunk imaginings. Altered Carbon is full of the Gibsonian tropes. Poison-laced needleguns. Clandestine medical clinics. Hallucination-throwing goons. Lots of drugs. But the book is something other than mere pastiche, drawing more from the twisty plots of Raymond Chandler than Neuromancer’s navel gazing. Indeed, at times the action in Altered Carbon gets a bit too tangled, but everything more or less makes sense in the end. Plus, the stupendous speculative setting and jaw-droppingly good action more than make up for any muddled bits. A.I.-managed hotels adopt the personalities of long-dead celebrities (Jimi Hendrix, in the case of Kovac’s temporary abode). Computer viruses and suborbital bombing mix in the middle of a planet-wide war. The final confrontation combines fisticuffs with thermite grenades. And like great SF of the past, it doesn’t fail to ask big questions, musing over human identity and wondering about the nature of love. Would that more authors noted Carbon’s composition and infused their own weighty works with a measure of fun.

(Picture: CC 2010 by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hudson on SF and Social Change

Over at Boing Boing, Laura Hudson reviews the SF anthology Octavia’s Brood while discussion genre fiction’s potential to effect social change. Excerpt:
Can science fiction be a form of social activism? Walidah Imarisha thinks so, and she's recruited everyone from LeVar Burton to Mumia Abu-Jamal to help her prove it.

"Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction," writes Imarisha in Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, an anthology of short sci-fi stories co-edited by her and Adrienne Maree Brown. "Organizers and activists dedicate their lives to creating and envisioning another world, or many other worlds, so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than through writing science fiction stories?"
Read the whole thing. I’m surprised Hudson even felt the need to ask the question. Of course SF—and every other form of fiction—can cause social change. Authors incorporate propositions into their narratives, and when audiences engage with stories, sometimes they come away more than just entertained. To claim otherwise is to deny the power of an art form that has existed for millennia. A better question to ask, I suspect, is to what extent authors should wear their convictions on their sleeves. As the recent hullaballoo over the Hugos has proven, ideological tensions have stretched the field nigh to breaking. I understand the idea of market segmentation, of appealing to the parts of an audience with which you share common ground. But I also suspect that the subtitle alone of Octavia's Brood is enough to disenchant plenty of potential readers. For civility’s sake, perhaps science fiction scribes ought to emphasize the fundamentals. Focusing on storytelling skill, universal human experience, and readerly enjoyment carried the greats; I bet they’d do the same for authors today.

(Picture: CC 2010 by colin)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Tools of the Trade: The Perpetua Pencil

I do not enjoying writing while I’m travelling. This is ironic, because travel is one of the few opportunities I have for uninterrupted composition. Airport terminals, coach seats, quiet hotel rooms—all should afford occasion for concentrated scribbling. But ever since one of my nice rollerball pens ruptured at 39,000 feet (making me look like a rather blotchy version of Bradbury’s illustrated man), I’ve found writing on the road to be challenging. Yes, pens leak in airplane cabins. But regular pencils tend to break while riding around in your pocket, while the mechanical kinds too often run out of lead. You can hardly unfold a laptop in a tiny airline seat or find a free power outlet while waiting at gate A12. Hotel rooms are a little better, although I like to spread out when I write, a computer to one side and a stack of scratch paper to the other as I alternated between jotting and typing. It’s not quite the same with napkin-sized hotel stationery and a cheap ballpoint that quickly runs dry. Thus creativity gets squashed by a thousand small frustrations. If only there was a way to get started while on the plane with a pad and a pencil that wouldn’t break and didn’t need sharpening.

Well, there now is thanks to the Perpetua pencil.

At first glance, the Perpetua looks like something a fifteen-year-old graphic-design wannabe might’ve made for Luc Besson’s 1997 rainbow-colored dystopia The Fifth Element. A matte-black shaft with a single side sheared flat sweeps into an inch-long eraser that comes in any one of 11 bright hues. (Mine is cherry-red.) Stamped lettering on its haft not only promotes the brand name, but proudly proclaims that it’s “80% graphite.” That’s where Perpetua’s first minor miracle comes into play. Most everyone who its surface immediately assumes it’ll rub off on your hands. That’s what graphite does, after all. Only it doesn’t. I gave the Perpetua a test run on a recent trip to the northeast, and it didn’t mar my fingers or pockets. It’s also anything but brittle, the tip breaking only once since I’ve owned it and holding its point for a surprisingly long time. And that seemingly incongruous flat side is actually designed to keep the thing from rolling off a desk—or a plane’s tray table.

Not to say the Perpetua is “a real revolution in the world of writing” as its ad copy claims. It’s simply a tough, attractive pencil some practical virtues and a few unfortunate flaws. For instance, the Perpetua isn’t as bold as a classic no. 2 pencil. That flat edge can make your hand cramp after writing for extended periods. Due to its odd shape, you’ll need a sharpener with a larger mouth. And the $13 price point is a bit steep. Still, the Perpetua helped me reclaim travel time, and I consider that worth the cost.

Monday, April 13, 2015

In Praise of Audiobooks (Again)

So, electronic reading. I’m a bit ambivalent about it, truth be told. On the one hand, I love how convenient ebooks are, the way they let niche authors access previously unreachable readers, and the fact that electronic publishers have seen fit to put me in print. But long sessions with screens make my eyes ache, I miss good typography, and glass and plastic just don’t feel the same as paper. It hardly matters what I think, though. Ebooks are here to stay, and with them comes something I enjoy wholeheartedly: easily downloadable, unabridged audiobooks. Forget swapping CDs or shuffling cassettes. From Audible (the big pay-to-play site) to Overdrive (library collections) to Librivox (free recordings of public-domain works), it's never been easier to get the audiobook of your choosing. And rarely have I been so thankful for this development as when listening to Rob Shapiro's reading of Daniel Polansky's Low Town.

Low Town is a hardboiled/high-fantasy mashup, a scoop of Fritz Leiber that’s mixed with a measure of Donald Westlake and seasoned by a smidgen of H.P. Lovecraft. I enjoyed it in print, but didn’t love it like I thought I would. It looked good on paper, so to speak, yet it fell a little short of my expectations—at least until I heard it. Given that I’m still in the middle of my never-ending MBA program and thus face a regular, fairly lengthy drive, I’m always looking for stuff to listen to. The radio doesn’t cut it after a while, and podcasts simply aren’t long enough. But a digital copy of the audiobook version of Low Town was available from local library, and I snapped it up. Boy, am I glad I did.

Part of the appeal of the title’s audio edition is Shapiro’s performance. Beside possessing the requisite resonant baritone, he has a raft of accents at his command, everything from standard American to Caribbean to virtually all of the British dialects. Add to such strong characterization a steady reading cadence, and suddenly I was picking up on things I missed the first time around. Subtle characterizations. Interwoven plot threads. Lovely use of language. One of audiobooks’ unappreciated virtues is that they force you to hear every word, each adjective and all the descriptions. You can’t flip past paragraphs, at least not easily. And anything that helps you understand just a little bit better what an author wants to communicate is an unmitigated good in my book.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Alosh Bennett)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Phraselet No. 140

She took off her housecoat, then timed it, waiting until he turned before she stepped into her panties, raising the short nightgown and pulling it up over her head.

“I probably got about two hours sleep,” Mitchell said. “I need a bigger couch.”

“Usually it’s the wife who makes the excuse.”

He looked at her, the lines showing her tan and the white breasts. “What?”

“The wife says she has a headache as the husband reaches for her.”

“I’m not making excuses. I’m not only tired, I got to get back to work.”

She reached behind her to hook the bra. “I’ve seen you dead on your feet, but you could always move other parts of you.”

“Barbara—do people argue about making love?”

“I don’t know what other people do.”

“Don’t you think it’s better when it happens naturally? You both want to do it?”

“Let me know when you feel natural again,” she said and put the housecoat back on and went downstairs.

- Elmore Leonard, 52 Pick-Up

Friday, April 3, 2015

52 Pick-Up Never Falls to the Ground

Despite absolutely adoring a television series based on one of his stories, I’d never read a novel by crime-fiction maestro Elmore Leonard. My only exposure to the Edgar Award-winning writer was a short in an anthology whose name I can’t even remember. Bad form for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre. It was time to remedy that deficiency in my reading, so I selected 52 Pick-Up, a Leonard thriller that’s considered by the folks at Litreactor to be one of his best.

Harry Mitchell is a hard worker, a self-made man, a manufacturing force in Detroit, and a decorated war veteran. He’s also dedicated to his wife, Barbara. Well, at least most of the time. For the past three months, he’s enjoyed a fling with a young stripper named Cini, his first ever infidelity. He feels guilty about it, worried that his wandering could one day become known. He’s right to worry. In fact, he has no idea how bad it’s going to get. One night when he goes to meet Cini, he finds three masked men in her apartment. They force him to sit and watch a home movie—a movie that unambiguously proves Mitchell is having an affair. If he doesn’t fork over $150,000 or tries to go to the police, they’ll make sure the papers get hold of it. Mitchell doesn’t plan on doing either. Instead, he’s going to dive into a world of smut, blackmail, and murder to dish out his own very private brand of justice.

52 Pickup was published in 1974, and it shows. That’s not to say it’s a bad book. Leonard’s style is spare as a scraped bone, the kind of verbiage you don’t mind calling Hemingwayesque, and it works well. Deadpan dialogue defines characters as much as descriptions do, sometimes menacing and sometimes droll. Unfortunately, time has sapped the plot’s dramatic bits of their impact. We know the bad guys are going to quickly up the ante. We know that Mitchell is going to play them against one another. We know they’ll threaten his family at some point. And if you pay the least bit of attention to a couple of seemingly throwaway scenes, you know exactly how the novel will end. None of this is Leonard’s fault. Lay the blame, rather, at the foot of genre hacks and Hollywood. But if pop culture has stolen Leonard’s tropes, you can’t say the same for 52 Pick-Up’s moral compass. It doesn’t set out to make A Big Statement, but the degree to which it assumes monogamy should be a social norm and the circumspection with which it handles rough content (of which there is plenty) is refreshing. Ultimately, 52 Pick-Up never falls to the ground.

(Picture: CC 2009 by CitySkylineSouvenir)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Merely One Merit (Banshee)

One of the things I love about the Internet age is how easy it is to access the exact kind of television you want to watch. Recently, I watched the entire fifth season of Justified in about a week and a half (thank you, Amazon Prime membership!) and found myself yearning for more afterward. Few pieces of entertainment, popular or otherwise, manage to marry winning characters, witty dialogue, and wrenching drama like the brainchild of recently deceased hardboiled scribe Elmore Leonard. That’s why I was excited to hear that Cinemax’s Banshee was cut from the same cloth. Then the first few episodes cured me of my enthusiasm.

Banshee seems promising at first blush, what with an opening that’s as spare as it is hard-hitting. Prison gates roll back to release a hardened ex-con. He gets a sandwich, hooks up with a waitress, then tracks down an address from an unwilling contact. He dodges a hitman who comes at him with guns blazing. And after that close call, he makes his way to Banshee, Pennsylvania. He isn’t in town for more than a day before he meets Lucas Hood, the new sheriff. And when I say new, I mean new. No one knows him because Hood hasn’t even set foot in Banshee proper yet—and he never will. A barroom brawl messily ends the man’s life, and before his body has even cooled, the ex-con has stolen both his name and star. He has reasons for wanting to stay in this not-so-sleepy Amish burg and a whole herd of problems he’d rather leave in the past.

As a pitch, that description sounds pretty awesome. But the show itself? Not so much. The characters are as well-rounded as cardboard. The dialogue floats as lightly as a lead ingot. The setting, cinematography, and acting are simply adequate. Instead of focusing on those fundamentals, its creators seem to have put their efforts into violence that would do David Cronenberg proud and sex so explicit it’s almost clinical. As a typical American, I have to say I’m more comfortable with the former, but I’m willing to tolerate the latter if it somehow serves the story and isn’t too graphic. But let’s just say that if you watched the pilot while on the treadmill at the gym, you might be asked to leave the establishment. And if a show slips violence into sex (as Banshee did midway through the third episode), that’s when I nope out entirely.

See, sex is not story. Violence is not story. Neither is profanity or any sort of prurience. They can animate a plot, develop a character, or emphasize a theme. They do that even in sacred books. Read the story of Abner and Asahel with its description of grievous bodily trauma or the parable of Oholah and Oholibah with its decidedly frank descriptions of genitalia. Just please don’t do it when the kids are around. But with those stories, such subjects aren’t the steak on the plate or even the baked potato and broccoli. They’re a sprinkling of salt—at most.

You can’t say the same for Banshee. As far as I got in the series (which was admittedly not very far), breasts and blood were the only reason to keep watching. Twentieth-century novelist E.M. Forster would’ve frowned at that. He once wrote that a story “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.” That fault is a storytelling sin to which Banshee quickly falls prey.

(Picture: CC 2014 by EyesOnFire89)