Thursday, September 15, 2016

These Compelling Beasts Aren’t for Kids

I doubt that the 1998 Wesley Snipes vehicle Blade lands high on anyone’s “best of American cinema” list. Broad and bloody, it somehow spawned a franchise with an increasingly steep decline in quality that ended in a TV version dubbed (appropriately enough, I guess) Blade: The Series. Still, one quote from that first film has stuck with me over the years. Early on, the titular vampire hunter has saved a doctor from a supernatural assault and explains that existence isn’t the simple, naturalistic thing everyone believes it to be. “You better wake up,” Blade intones. “The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it—the real world.” Not the most elegant metaphor, but I like it because it encapsulates the fundamentals of urban fantasy. Fiddle with it however they may, authors of the sub-genre keep returning to the world-beneath-the-world idea, and Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s episodic graphic novel Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites is no different. It cleaves to that basic idea like honeymooners to one another on a Caribbean getaway. What distinguishes it, though, is how it replaces typical urban-fantasy protagonists with a cabal of adventuresome house pets.

You see them every day, scampering down the street, scarfing down kibble from their bowls, barking and whining as they beg and bicker. They’re frank Pugsley and brave Ace, kindly Jack and occasionally cowardly Rex—the neighborhood’s dogs. (Oh, yeah, and the Orphan, but he hardly counts since he’s a cat and all.) You hardly take note of them, which is to be expected since you’re only human. But this motley, mostly canine crew does more than simply howl at the moon and chase each other through the woods. Evil forces skulk around the periphery of the community (and sometimes even beneath it), and the only thing standing between you and destruction is often that furry member of the family whom you took for a walk this morning.

Beasts of Burden is a great example of a concept that improves with every iteration. The first tale, “Stray,” clocks in at a mere eight pages and feels more like a plot treatment than a proper narrative, a way to roughly graft classic ghost tropes onto a canine world. (I imagine the pitch going something like, “But what if it was a haunted doghouse?!”) “The Unfamiliar” mars an otherwise serious story with goofy humor and a silly looking main monster. But Dorkin and Thompson started ratcheting up the horror in subsequent issues, and the compilation ends up better for it. Poignant sacrifice turns stale zombie conventions into something compelling (“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”), grue lends added impact to a werewolf riff with a surprise ending (“A Dog and His Boy”), and a grim beauty inhabits a dog’s search for her missing puppies (“Lost”). That being said, vivid watercolors make the blood really seem to splash, so consider yourself forewarned: As compelling as they may be, these Beasts aren’t for the after-school set.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Isengardt)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Girl Is Doggone Good

When you’re an employed parent of two, you have precious little time for hype. In the time it takes you to teach a tot how to tie his shoes or to not tackle his sister over a toy-related disagreement—no, really, stop that right now, young man—fads have already sloughed off their waxen wings, plummeted oceanward, and filled the gullets of hungry fish. So small wonder that I missed out entirely on the phenomenon of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I knew that it sold well, soaring to the top place on The New York Times bestseller list for weeks on end. I knew that it racked up plenty of praise from popular and literary critics alike. I knew it got made into a successful movie starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. What I didn’t know, though, was that it deserved every bit of adulation it received—and then some.

Once upon a time, Nick Dunne had ... well, not exactly everything. But more than a few men would’ve gladly traded lives with him. An admirable career as a pop-culture writer with a major magazine. An impressive home in downtown New York. A beautiful wife with a big bank account. Yes, his spouse, one Amy Dunne, owes her fortune to the Amazing Amy series of children’s novels penned by her parents, quasi-biographical books cribbed from her childhood. Or at least she did until the books stopped selling. And her trust fund ran out. And Nick lost his job. And Nick’s mother got diagnosed with cancer. In a flash, the locus of Nick’s life shifts from Manhattan to Missouri, from penning articles to pushing beer across a bar top. It’s not exactly a glamorous existence—and it’s about to get a whole lot less so. See, on the morning of Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s going to call the cops. Someone will have broken into the house and Amy will have vanished. An upsetting turn of events. So why won’t Nick appear the least bit bothered by it?

Let me say one thing right off the get-go: If you haven’t blundered into Gone Girl yet, do not—do not—read any more plot synopses than what I’ve detailed above. Go into it as cold as an abominable snowman in Antarctica. See, Flynn excels at blending literary stylings with genre plotting. You’re reading along, thinking the whole time that she’s carefully detailing the emotional ups and downs of this attractive couple, gradually unspooling their preferences, peculiarities, and peccadilloes. Then you oh-so-slowly realizes that those literary details aren’t really literary at all. Rather they’re important elements of the story, each carefully woven into the next, catching characters in lies, revealing just what unreliable narrators they are ... But I’ve said too much. Indeed, the only spoiler I really want to drop is this: The ending is as nasty as it is calm, a grim conclusion that reminds me a little of Grifter’s Game, so simultaneously cruel and carefully crafted that you almost enjoy feeling miserable after closing the cover. But don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself. Girl is doggone good.

(Picture: CC 2014 by TunacanJones)

Monday, July 18, 2016

McCue on Giving Up on Your Ideas

Over at 99U, Matt McCue talks about the value of jettisoning your precious, precious ideas. Excerpt:
Growing up, I had a Winston Churchill quote on my desk: “Never, never, never give up.” It served as a daily reminder to continue pushing forward, especially when things were rough.

Persevering against all odds certainly helps in the creative industry where you have to convince art directors and brand managers to buy your abstract and experimental ideas and bring them to life in the real world. However, looking back, I realize that the mentality to keep going at all costs can be an inefficient approach to work. In other words, there are merits to giving up.

I’m not saying give in at the first sign of a struggle. But what if we thought of our ideas less as precious commodities (and battles to be won) and more like stocks we can invest in and cut loose depending on how the market –project managers, clients – feel about them at given times? Things we like and feel are promising, but aren’t married to, should our position become weak or we find a more favorable opportunity.

Ideas, though, are treated with far more care. We often apply a “buy and hold” strategy to them, especially the bigger ones, like building a company or developing a new product. I think it’s because our ideas are often tied to our dreams, and what we’re really unwilling to give up on is the dream itself.
Read the whole thing. If you’ve been a beta reader for any length of time, you know what it’s like to review a piece so fundamentally flawed that you end up thinking, “Okay, I like this part, and that section over there shows some promise. But what this writer really needs to do is bulldoze the whole thing and start over with a whole new foundation.” And if you’ve ever handed over your compositional babies to beta readers, you’ve doubtlessly mused at some point, “I don’t know why people are so down on this piece. I just need to revise it once or twice (or four more times), and it’ll be fine.” I’ve found my portrait blazoned on both sides of that coin, my opinion as indelibly stamped as Lady Liberty on a slab of silver. But as time continues its inexorable march forward, I find myself falling more in line with McCue’s opinion. Ideas are as common as weedy wildflowers, and actually following through with them isn’t as rare as many would have you think. The real dilemma lies in bringing conceptualizations to full fruition that actually work. Letting go of unfruitful options might seem tough at first, but any writer with a well-thumbed commonplace book will soon find he has more ideas than he can possibly hope to flesh out.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Daniele Marlenek)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Grace Is Fantasy Fit for Royalty

Anyone find it apropos that George R.R. Martin’s initials nearly spell out the tone of his books? As the reigning king of postmodern epic fantasy, GRRM has founded his throne on grimly plotted tales where intricate intrigues meet a willingness to rub out any character, no matter how likable. A tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker sums up his uncompromising approach: “Guns don’t kill people. George R.R. Martin kills people.” Of course, uncompromising really isn’t the right word choice, is it? Perhaps evangelistic would be better, because Martin seems to like to preach to readers that the world is (in the words of Stephen Hunter) “a stainless steel rat trap with a 4,000 pound spring.” That’s part of the reason why I’ve never really gotten into the A Song of Fire and Ice series. Sure, critics like to bring up the fact that the books are modeled after The War of the Roses, but having a historical basis doesn’t necessarily imbue a work’s themes with greater verisimilitude. Betrayal, murder, and rape are no more real than valor, love, and sacrifice. Chinese-American author Ken Liu seems to understand this. His debut novel, The Grace of Kings, is equally committed to both virtue and violently executing figures that readers have come to know and love.

The archipelago of Dara has never been a peaceful place. The six nation-states situated on the big island have squabbled for centuries, their conflicts fanned to a fever pitch by a petty pantheon of eternally squabbling gods. But that was before the arrival of Emperor Mapidéré, a Xana king with a grand vision for unifying the islands through the military might of his fleet of airships. And he succeeds, but the resulting empire has more in common with Hoeryong and Piaskowy than Plato’s mythical republic. An iron-handed centralized government. An impenetrable bureaucracy. Cultural colonialism enacted by royal diktat. Plenty of people have reason to hate Mapidéré—as do the gods themselves. Divine disagreements are about to engulf the entirety of Dara in pitched conflict, and the contest for conquest will come down to two men: Mata Zyndu, a ferocious giant of a man who’s the last heir of his noble clan, and Kni Garu, a small-time gangster whose criminal deeds shroud his surprisingly gracious temperament.

The first thing you’ll find after opening The Grace of Kings is a map—a big map awash with colors and names, everything neatly drawn to scale and put in its proper place. Soon after, you’ll discover a pronunciation guide and then three full pages of major characters. None of these things reassured me. I typically read at night, yawning my way through chapters, and the thought of trying to keep a skein of subplots from getting tangled typically just makes me more tired. But Liu does something rather brilliant: He structures the book as a series of interlocking vignettes with the main characters popping into and out of them from time to time. Make no mistake, The Grace of Kings is a beast of a book, so chock full of detail that only the most obsessive readers will manage to puzzle every piece together. But it’s also remarkably easy to page through a chapter after a long day, a refreshing development in a genre whose tomes too often turn plodding after the first few chapters. I found the book’s themes equally engaging. Not only does Liu give even the most seemingly despicable characters a sympathetic twist, often making them downright heroic in unexpected ways, the proceedings also appear to hint that fiscally restrained, democratic, laissez faire governments best respect the needs of the common man. Less welcome is the idea that infidelity can make for a happy marriage or that Mapidéré might have been justified in forcibly quashing local distinctives. Of course, The Grace of Kings is only the first entry in the series, so Liu has plenty of space to unspool such musings even further. Add in epic fight scenes, magnificent shifts in plot, and the surprising sacrifice of character after character, and Grace is fantasy fit for royalty.

(Picture: CC 2013 by jason train)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

When Verisimilitude Detracts (Daredevil)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself mulling over Charles Stross’ taxonomy of space opera clichés. (By the way, my apologies, dear readers, for the recent lack of content. Professional pressures and a pregnant wife do not a flexible schedule make.) Now, I wasn’t thinking about his actual suggestions per se. Rather, I found myself mulling over the entire idea that greater verisimilitude makes for a better story—and increasingly disagreeing with it. Why? Well, consider Netflix’s reimagined-superhero drama Daredevil Exhibit A for the prosecution.

For those not familiar with it, this iteration of Daredevil throws grit, grime, and grue onto Stan Lee’s 1964 blind vigilante-cum-lawyer Matt Murdock, amps up the violence to premium-cable levels, and pumps out plots more reminiscent of Justified or Drive than classic Marvel fare. Not that it makes for bad television. Indeed, thanks to Netflix’s commitment to shoving out an entire season’s worth of episodes at once, I found compulsive viewing a real risk. Creator Drew Goddard knows how to twist comic-book conventions just so, transmuting the ridiculous into compelling drama. And my enjoyment of his uber-dark vision wasn’t at all impacted by a number of utterly implausible details.

Allow me to focus in on one eye-roller in particular: guns. Understand that Daredevil takes great pains to remind viewers that it’s set in New York City in general and the neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen in particular. Murdock regularly references it as the rationale for his decision to practice law during the day and dispense vigilante justice at night. His enemies also view the area as more than a mere staging ground for criminal activity. “I want to make this city, something better than it is, something beautiful,” one baddie intones. Realize, too, that (to quote The Christian Science Monitor) The Big Apple has “perhaps the toughest [gun laws] in the nation, regulating gun sales, ammunition sales, assault weapons, and more.” An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal takes a tougher tone, stating that “New York City's licensing process is almost certainly unconstitutional on a number of grounds, including sheer arbitrariness.” Libertarian journalist John Stossel would likely second that seeing that he made an exposé about his failed attempt to navigate NYC’s labyrinthine bureaucracy and obtain a concealed-carry permit. I don’t bring any of this up to debate the firearm issue, simply to say that you wouldn’t expect a storyteller with a bare-bones commitment to verisimilitude to put pistols in the hands of anyone except the bad guys—right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. All sorts of (more or less) innocents end up packing heat during the show’s first two seasons. In Episode 1.5 (“World On Fire”), the seemingly nebbish gangster Kingpin punctuates a romantic dinner with an art dealer named Vanessa by asking her why she’s packing. (“May I ask you something now? What kind of gun is that you have in your purse?”) A seedy pawn-shop proprietor in “Dogs to a Gunfight” (2.2) advertises “Guns & Gold Bought & Sold” to a high-caliber assassin bent on vengeance. And “The Man in a Box” (2.10) sees Murdock’s secretary, Karen, yanks a pistol from her dresser to level it at that selfsame hitman.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: While all these examples might falter on the ground of plausibility, they do yeoman’s work in developing both characters and plots, in advancing scenarios and revealing personal peculiarities. When Kingpin calls Vanessa on the carpet for concealed carry, viewers learn that she’s not some ingénue, but rather an empowered woman with her own ambitions: “We’ve been sitting here talking for hours, and you’re going to insult me like I have no idea what you really do? ... I know you’re a dangerous man. That’s why I brought a gun to a dinner date.” By selling “an NYPD tactical communications rig ... that gets encrypted tactical frequencies,” the pawn-shop owner sets in motion most of the events of the show’s second season. And the hitman teases all sorts of interesting implications out of Karen’s preferred choice of firearm, noting that “people who don’t know [expletive] about guns usually go for something shiny, you know, something with a fancy grip. There’s always the [expletive] who gets the big hand cannon that kicks like a mule, and they’re too afraid to use it. But a .380 shows thought. Maybe it’s not your first rodeo.”

Now I’m not trying to suggest that genre authors should completely shun reality out of a desire to adhere to their creative vision. We want to avoid obvious howlers like, say, making a monolithic planetary biome or having Space Nazis With Big Guns take over the moon. But we also shouldn’t ignore the fact that a kind of critical cottage industry has sprung up with entire sites dedicated to cataloguing genre conventions, ranking supposedly overused tropes, or sneaking in politically correct themes under the guise of genre-busting. A moment for a personal pet peeve, if I may: There’s nothing necessarily wrong with including a damsel in distress or having a traditionally masculine hero save her. What matters is what the author chooses to do with it.

Therein lies the rub. Blind critique of conventions often ignores an author’s intent. Maybe a writer is subverting a trope. Maybe he’s employing it in an slippery new way. Maybe his compositional attention is elsewhere and further developing a seemingly stale part would detract from the work as a whole. Any number of factors might be in play. So before we begin to rail about stereotypes, let’s first consider what the writer’s trying to do. Sometimes even ice worlds and Nazi lunar bases can make for engaging stories.

(Picture: CC 2015 by peter lowe)

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.