Saturday, July 19, 2014

Phraselet No. 129

Maxentius doesn't hide his feeling much; the man's all surface, glossy and deep as a four-color page spread.

- Margaret Ronald, "Sunlight Society," Clarkesworld Magazine (Issue #66)

Phraselet No. 119

Topper liked his treasures portable. He was a man who'd left more towns under more clouds than Seattle saw in a year.

- Jay Lake and Shannon Page, "Rolling Steel: A Pre-Apocalyptic Love Story," Clarkesworld Magazine (Issue #31)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Middle Shelf Story: Kij Johnson's "Ponies"

The invitation card has a Western theme. Along its margins, cartoon girls in cowboy hats chase a herd of wild Ponies. The Ponies are no taller than the girls, bright as butterflies, fat, with short round-tipped unicorn horns and small fluffy wings. At the bottom of the card, newly caught Ponies mill about in a corral. The girls have lassoed a pink-and-white Pony. Its eyes and mouth are surprised round Os. There is an exclamation mark over its head.

The little girls are cutting off its horn with curved knives. Its wings are already removed, part of a pile beside the corral.
I have a theory that usually draws howls of protest when I voice it: No matter our age, profession, or position on the dubious strata of class, we will always face the same social dynamic we did in junior high.

You may start howling now.

Okay, okay, I know I'm overstating things. Virtually no one over the age of twenty-five will get his lunch money pilfered or face daily ridicule based on bad puns about his name. (Thank goodness. With a name like Loren Eaton, I faced more than my fair share of teasing.) The crassness of the early teen years bleeds away with time, but you know that beneath all the niceties and the thin veneer of respectability exists two groups -- the in-crowd and the outsiders, those who belong and those who want to. C.S. Lewis rather brilliantly discussed the phenomenon in his essay "The Inner Ring," and Kij Johnson does much the same with her piercing short story "Ponies."
Barbara says, "Do you know what you want to keep?"

Sunny’s tiny wings are a blur as she hops into the air, loops, and then hovers, legs curled under her. "Oh, being able to talk, absolutely! Flying is great, but talking is way better!" She drops to the grass. "I don’t know why any Pony would keep her horn! It’s not like it does anything!"
The way it works is simple. Girls have Ponies, real-life embodiments of the My Little Pony ideal, petite candy-colored unicorns who have tiny wings and can talk. Pretty amazing equine abilities -- and what a shame they don't get to keep them. See, at a certain age all Ponies go to a party where two of the three things that define them get cut away so that their owners can gain some social standing. The Ponies get to chose, and Barbara's Pony Sunny has already decided what she'll give up for the sake of the girl she loves. The very thought makes Barbara queasy, but she doesn't know the half of what it costs to blend in.
And then it’s time. TheOtherGirls and their silent Ponies collect in a ring around Barbara and Sunny. Barbara feels sick.

TopGirl says to Barbara, "What did she pick?"

Sunny looks scared but answers her directly. "I would rather talk than fly or stab things with my horn."

TopGirl says to Barbara, "That’s what Ponies always say."
Incidental detail. That's the stuff that moves a story from the "tell" to "show" category. Johnson excels at it. She instantly informs us as to the age of Barbara's peers by describing the "puffy letters" that spell out Sunny's name on the cutting-out-party invitation. She draws attention to the overcommitment of the social group to which Barbara aspires by describing how TheOtherGirls are "at school and cello lessons and ballet class and soccer practice and play group and the orthodontist's." Even that unique typography plays a role, moving every character except Barbara into archetype territory. There's SuckUpGirl, EveryoneLikesHerGirl, and (of course) TopGirl. This willingness to let the reader do his own emotional legwork proves particularly effective near the end. No spoilers, but you can guess from this simple little summary that things don't end well, right? Personally, the climax makes me feel physically sick every time I read it, and the final line fills me with impotent rage. Not at Johnson, for she's pulled off the best sort of literary magic trick, but at the whole imbecilic popularity game. Barbara will learn what the rest of us already know: Belonging isn't worth the price you have to pay.

You can read "Ponies" for free at Tor.com.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pearson on the Inspiration of History

Over at Tor.com, Mary Pearson (The Kiss of Deception) discusses how a childhood history report made its way into her latest novel. Excerpts:
It's been a long time since I did that report and I can't remember every detail about the Mayans, but I do remember one thing: my research couldn't tell me what happened to them. It was a mystery which delighted my ten year-old self. It seemed that they had simply vanished off the face of the earth. There were even delicious musings that the Mayans had been aliens, and beamed up to their mother ship because they were done with Earth. An advanced civilization, pfft. Gone. ...

It wouldn't be the first time such a mystery went unsolved. We are still discovering ancient civilizations that we had no clue about. Advanced, established civilizations. And so with that little nugget of mystery in mind, I embarked on creating the world of The Remnant Chronicles, a civilization that has sprung from the ashes of another—and a kingdom with only some vague, uninformed understanding of just what that civilization was.

Though my story does have ferns and vines reclaiming ancient ruins for the earth, much like the jungle hid many Mayan ruins, that's where similarities end. This bit of history is a springboard for the world I built and the people who inhabit it, but The Remnant Chronicles didn't come out of thin air. It has precedent as many fantasy settings do -- an author takes bits of a real world and real history and they make it their own.
Read the whole thing. Lots of authors use history as a springboard into imagined worlds, from George R.R. Martin's tapping of The War of the Roses to Jeff VanderMeer's sampling of the tasty bits from Byzantium. It's a tradition with a venerable history. But it's not the only way to reel in inspiration. Science, philosophy, economics, theology -- almost every discipline can serve as a hook upon which to hang you narrative hat. Literary author Larry Woiwode once wrote that memory is a magpie, always going after the shiniest things. He meant that as a caution to memoirists, but it can serve as inspiration for genre scribes. The world is full of bright things for you to write about; all you need to do is find them.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Kim Alaniz)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Apprentice Apprehends the Craft of Good Storytelling

In the speculative-fiction community, there's been a lot of hullabaloo and hand wringing over the gender composition of genre tales. A great number of folks seem concerned about the segregation of the sexes into various compositional camps, and a critically lauded periodical even released a women's-only issue to address the perceived inequity. I guess I understand their concerns. Stories soon grow stale when written from only a single point of view, and men and women have tended to gravitate toward different genres. After all, would you expect a woman to pen an unsentimental dark fantasy about the illegitimate child of a prince who gets groomed to become the crown's secret killer? Well, you might if you've ever picked up Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice.

The boy doesn't have a name. Discovered at the age of six, he holds the infamous distinction of being Prince Chivalry's bastard, a reality that'll cause the beloved Prince-in-Waiting to surrender his claim on the throne. The Farseers (for that is the name of the ruling family of the Six Dutchies) supposedly draw their names from their inherent character, but the boy will soon learn that may be as much fancy as fact. Prince Chivalry showed little of his namesake deference to the son who never met him. Prince Verity's truthfulness borders on being uncouth. Prince Regal shows more interest in the lavish accoutrements of lordship than in behaving as benefits a royal. And the boy, well, he never receives a name. Most seem content to call bastard or Fitz, long-running slang for an illegitimate born of nobility. King Shrewd alone lives up to his namesake. The old ruler knows that a bastard can be a liability -- or an asset. Through his machinations, the boy will transform from an unwanted outcast to a skilled killer.

Though Assassin's Apprentice appears on more than a few must-read lists, the initial chapters prove ... underwhelming. Hobb spends most of the book's first quarter detailing the history of the Six Dutchies, introducing the nobility, laying out a pair of competing magic systems (a blue-blooded riff on psionics called the Skill and an ancient communion with animals dubbed the Wit), detailing the boy's slow transition from pariah to poisoner, and gradually unfurling an ongoing conflict with the Red-Ship Raiders, a mysterious band of hostile seafarers. It's slow going. However, thinking of it as the steady bending of a bow to full draw may help readers soldier on to the good stuff -- and what good stuff there is. The early worldbuilding and characterization get pulled into a finale that's one of the most thrilling I've ever read. Though not quite on George R.R. Martin's level, Hobb shows a willingness to pull few narrative punches, and that commitment to storytelling got me thinking about the whole proportional representation conundrum. In the end, does the sex of an author really matter all that much? Readers want compelling tales first and foremost, and that's exactly what Hobb has provided.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Andrew Kuznetsov)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Middle Shelf Story: Robert Sheckley's "Pilgrimage to Earth"

Most of us know the old high-school English aphorism by heart: Literature is about universal human experience. Birth and death. Dejection and joy. Solidarity and exile. These and more serve as the bedrock for the best sorts of stories. In "Pilgrimage to Earth," Nebula- and Hugo-winning author Robert Sheckley turns his attention to perhaps the most examined subject in literature -- love.
Alfred Simon was born on Kazanga IV, a small agricultural planet near Arcturus, and there he drove a combine through the wheatfields, and in the long, hushed evenings listened to the recorded love songs of Earth.
In the far-flung future, love has vanished from every inhabited world -- except Earth. The fertile colonies are too busy with farming and manufacturing and the stuff of simple survival to busy themselves with romantic notions. If you want to find a spouse and settle down, well, you can manage that much on Detroit III or Moracia. But if you want to feel the fires of passion, want to frantically clutch your beloved in the pale moonlight, want to swear undying fealty to the lover of your dreams, then Earth is the only place for you. Having long exhausted its natural resources, the mother planet has turned to more ... exotic forms of commerce. Earth has strict laws about only one thing: False advertising is completely prohibited. Alfred Simon of Kazanga IV has learned all this from a traveling merchant, and having sold his farm, he's traveled to humanity's homeworld to find true love.
Simon didn't know what to do first. Then he heard a staccato burst of gunfire behind him, and whirled.

It was only a shooting gallery, a long, narrow, brightly painted place with a waist-high counter. The manager, a swarthy fat man with a mole on his chin, sat on a high stool and smiled at Simon.

"Try your luck?"

Simon walked over and saw that, instead of the usual targets, there were four scantily dressed women at the end of the gallery, seated upon bullet-scored chairs. Each had a tiny bullseye painted on her forehead and above her heart.
"Pilgrimage to Earth" certainly stands out from a craft perspective. It reads like a one of those golden-era SF stories, with every planet dominated by a single ecosystem and its protagonist an aw-shucks good old boy. Heinlein's juveniles are probably the best reference point. However, Sheckley slips in pleasantly subversive asides that keep the proceedings interesting. Upon seeing a marquee advertising a film entitled TARZAN BATTLES THE SATURNIAN GHOULS, Simon remembers that the titular hero "was an ancient ethnic hero of earth." An amoral war merchant tries to sell the lad a heroic place in an ongoing conflict, either by aiding "the downtrodden workers of Peru ... engaged in a desperate struggle against a corrupt and decadent monarchy" or assisting "the wise old king of Peru (a philosopher-king in the deepest Platonic sense of the word)." Then there's the shooting gallery excerpted above, a shocking combination of absurdity and horror. Poking fun at old-time conventions is all well and good, but isn't Sheckley going a little far with the suggestion of gleefully gunning down innocents?
Mr. Tate pressed a button. Simon frowned indecisively. The door opened, a girl stepped in, and Simon stopped thinking.

She was tall and slender, and her hair was brown with a sheen of red. Simon could have told you nothing about her face, except that it brought tears to his eyes. And if you asked him about her figure, he might have killed you.

"Miss Penny Bright," said Tate, "meet Mr. Alfred Simon."
That question leads right to the subject with which this post began -- the story's theme. See, Sheckley wants to probe the tender parts of the human experience, its intimate joys and raw aches. Simon experiences one right after the other, because Earth does in fact sell love. How? "We can produce any feeling at will by conditioning and proper stimulation of certain brain centers," the proprietor of Love, Inc. tells hapless Simon. "The result? Penny, completely in love with you!" However, no one said he could keep that love. If you're sensing here something of a critique of morally untethered capitalism and overweening scientism, then your narrative compass is functioning perfectly. But the story also points out something far more basic. The final three sentences hold a twist as nasty as anything you'll find in noir, reminding us of the simple truth that hate lies a mere hair's breadth from love.

You can read "Pilgrimage to Earth" in Is That What People Do?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Music to Write By: Emily Lubitz's "Dumb Ways to Die"

Why Listen? For good-hearted irrationality, aural enjoyment, and a noteworthy approach to placing messages in art.



How do you like incongruity in your humor? If you're a fan of Tom Lehrer (the artist previously featured in this ongoing series), you enjoy lots of wry wit and a heavily sardonic tone that makes you smirk even as you snigger. But that's not the only way to serve up absurdity, as Emily Lubitz's "Dumb Ways to Die" shows us.

Believe it or not, "Dumb Ways to Die" might be one of the most sonically relaxing songs out there. Folksy, fingerpicked guitar, understated drum riffs, and spare piano improvisation underpin Lubitz's tuneful, almost girlish voice. It's enough to make you want to kick back in a favorite chair with your favorite chilled beverage -- until you start paying attention to the lyrics:
Set fire to your hair.
Poke a stick at a grizzly bear.
Eat medicine that's out-of-date.
Use your private parts as piranha bait.

Dumb ways to die.
So many dumb way to day.
Well, you have to say that the catchy little ditty is appropriately named. And not only will its melodic hooks have you humming about gruesome dismemberment, the video might make you want to share the wonton violence with family and friends. Animator Julian Frost populates it with pastel-colored people who dance along to the catchy chorus as they perish in increasingly awful (and funny) ways. A victim of explosive decompression waves his eyeballs back and forth in time with the beat. A pet rattlesnake dangles from its owner's face as he jives. An organ donor who unwisely sold both kidneys online proudly brandishes the earnings.

"Dumb Ways to Die" succeeds, no doubt about it. Yet it might've remained nothing but a cultural curiosity if not for its message. Oh, yes, this combination of cheer and grue is actually a PSA for the Melbourne, Australia, metro service. It ends with a trio of characters dying due to their own stupidity near railroad tracks. Current taste seems to frown upon overt "messages" in art, but perhaps it's instructive that the good-hearted irrationality of "Dumb Ways to Die" was racked up 83 million views on YouTube.