Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Old Man's War Restores My Faith in SF

I like reading all kinds of books. I like reading books about bad with guns and malleable ethics. I like reading books about spell-slinging sorcerers caught up in epic, world-spanning struggles. I read reading books about eldritch evils that prefer to warp your mind before they strip the flesh from your bones. But lately I haven't much liked reading science fiction. I used to, but somewhere along my rocky road to adulthood, SF decided it wanted to be about something bigger than laser battles in outer space. It wanted to be about theories and formulas, concepts and conundrums, the things stories sometimes contain rather than stories themselves. SF became fiction for an academy rather than for fun -- or most of it did. Fortunately, at least one SF author knows how to navigate the genre's extremes. In John Scalzi's Hugo-nominated first novel Old Man's War, the esoteric and enjoyable join hands.

John Perry is a grieving, seventy-five-year-old widower with nothing on earth to live for. That's isn't to say he plans over shuffling off his mortal coil any time soon. Far from it. Rather than fall into dotage, John plans to enlist. Yes, you read that right: A geriatric will join the army. See, few wars are fought on the earth anymore, but amongst the stars it's a different story entirely. Earth's extraterrestrial settlements have to struggle against alien aggressors, and only the Colonial Defense Forces stand between them and destruction. The CDF recruits the elderly with a simple promise: Join and we'll make you young again. The catch is that John and others like him don't know how the CDF will restore their youth -- or the incomprehensible foes they'll have to face.

To start, let's list all the delightful things you'll find in Old Man's War. Scratch that, because it's almost an impossibility. There are just too many. Still, with its military focus you can expect terrific battle scenes, humorous exchanges with a basic-training instructor who makes Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket look friendly, and detailed descriptions of a bullet-firing, grenade-launching, microwave-zapping nanorifle that are so lovingly written they can only be called gun porn. There are crab-like aliens who treat battle like some sort of high-church liturgy. There's a sentient slime mold that digests its enemies from the inside out. There are inch-high humanoids who fly teeny tiny space fighters. Yet for all the enjoyable bits, Scalzi doesn't skimp on scientific details or ethical conundrums, devoting lots of dialogue to quantum entanglement in multiverse travel and the relative merits of negotiating rather than fighting. (The later subject avoids easy answers while still serving delicious comeuppance to an overly idealistic pacifist senator.) Not everything in the book is perfect. I think I found at least one large plot hole, and Scalzi skims over the issue of the brain/mind dichotomy when further exploration would've made the ending much more satisfying. Still, I hardly cared. Old Man's War has restored my faith in science fiction, and that's saying something.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Toruk Macto)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Introducing The Commonplace Book

"And what," you may be asking yourself upon seeing the title of this post, "is a commonplace book?" Good question, dear reader. Some definitions dub it a reference book for logical arguments or philosophical assertions. Others prefer a more generalized designation, terming it a repository of all sorts of interesting bits of knowledge. Several years ago, I learned that H.P. Lovecraft jotted down largely unrealized story ideas in one, and you can read it over at Wired. For a while now, I've filled with fiction ideas a little gray Moleskine with an elastic band that keeps it from flapping open at inconvenient times.

Unfortunately, to me "inconvenient" seems the right word for just such a book. Lacking any semblance of an index or organization, its early entries end up ignored by me more often than not. So I'm migrating all future fictional woolgathering to my own little corner of the Internet. The Commonplace Book is a Tumblr blog, meaning it contains minimal formatting fuss and hopefully an ever-increasing amount of grist for the narrative mill. Photos, news articles, philosophical tidbits, economic adages, musings on genre conventions -- all of it's game. Feel free to stop by. Who knows? Maybe it'll help prompt some story ideas of your own.

(Picture: CC 2007 by vlasta2)

Monday, April 7, 2014

"And Their Days Consumed in Futility"

Sam swiped the brush across the battered cordovan laceups. Back and forth. "Once these are perfectly shined, I'll be able to leave."

Claudius moaned as a python-sized worm slid down his throat, out his sundered chest cavity, and back up to his mouth.

"Laws? Morality? I never let them get between me and excellence. Damn 'em all." Back and forth.

Claudius groaned.

"Sorry. Figure of speech. But who cares? I'll be out soon." Back and forth.

The worm's tail cleared Claudius' teeth, and before its head slithered in, he rasped, "Missed a spot. Again."

Sam could've sworn he was smiling.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Very Bad Men Stumbles Over Its Own Story

Ah, popular thrillers! Can you think of better books to kick back with on the beach? True, over the years so-called beach reads have earned a reputation as the nadir of genre fiction, and that's not entirely unwarranted. With broad characterizations, sensational plots, visceral violence, and salacious sex, they don't so much camp on the lowest common denominator as erect a McMansion and invite you to the housewarming party. But beach reads have one thing going for them: They always seek to entertain, which is something one critic called the first rule of good writing. Such is the case with Harry Dolan's straightforwardly named Very Bad Men. This sequel to his debut novel Bad Things Happen contains more complexity than you might expect.

David Loogan has almost become respectable. As the new editor of Gray Streets (a short-fiction mystery magazine clinging to life in the age of the novel) and husband in all but name to Ann Arbor police detective Elizabeth Waishkey, he has changed from an enigmatic wanderer to a part of the community. Then one day an odd manuscript turns up at his office. It isn't strange because it dishes up details about multiple murders; that sort of stuff is Loogan's stock in trade nowadays. No, what makes it weird is that the story contains no adverbs, mentions details that fit perfectly with a recent pair of killings in the state, affirms the author's intention to strike again -- and came not in the mail, but deposited on his doorstep. Soon Loogan finds himself tracking a synthesia-stricken serial killer named Anthony Lark who's tied to a fast-rising political star, a decades-old bank robbery, and the posse of very bad men who tried to pull it off.

Dolan gets the craft of the thriller, so much so that it's sometimes hard to believe that Very Bad Men is only his second novel. He strings together scenes taut with tension and rarely fails to end a chapter with a cliffhanger. Yet he also subverts a number of genre-related expectations. The Senate candidate proves neither a morally conflicted white knight nor a wolf in sheep's clothing. When Loogan asks the candidate why she's running, she states, "Someone's going to be the next senator from Michigan. I think I could do a passable job. There are other people who could do it -- but they wouldn't do better than I would, and some of them would do much worse." An interesting perspective on politics. Something similar could be said about the portrayal of the serial killer, who proves almost sympathetic when not bludgeoning or strangling people and who plays a surprisingly small part in the overarching plot. In fact, the plot itself is the only real problem point in Very Bad Men. "The story was a tangled one, and as I sat watching ... I tried to work through it myself," Loogan muses near the finale. "If I'd had a notebook like Lark, I might have written it down." I suspect most will find said notebook necessary to sort the proceedings into a semblance of order. What a shame an otherwise entertaining book stumbles over its own story.

(Picture: CC 2007 by david boudjenah)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ross on the Ethics of Murder in Fiction

Over at her blog, Deborah J. Ross (The Seven-Petaled Shield) gets down-and-dirty on the ethics of murder in fiction. Excerpt:
I've been thinking about my best friend, who died last year from ovarian cancer, and about my mother, who was raped and murdered by a neighbor teenager on drugs in 1986. Over the last couple of decades since the latter, I've exchanged stories (and tears, and laughter, and anguish) with other family members of murder victims. Sometimes when I read a story in which killing someone is presented as praiseworthy, I want to scream at the author, "Do you have any idea what you're doing? Do you understand how much pain your characters are causing?" I want to sit down with the writers and make them listen to what it's like to lose someone you love and all the years you might have had together for no good reason. I'm feeling really angry about it right now. Hence the rant below.

I admit that I cannot comprehend why anyone would think that deliberately ending someone's life is laudable. Yes, things happen by accident. People drive around in lethal weapons all the time. People get angry or frightened and lash out. But writing a story is not something that's over in a flash and can never be taken back. It's an act of deliberate creation and as such, calls on us to be mindful. Listen, folks. Life is all too brief, and incredibly precious. It's totally not okay with me to deliberately cut short a human life. For greed, for bigotry, for revenge, for patriotism. In fiction we often do kill off characters. If you do it, do it with full awareness of the cost.
Read the whole thing. If you dig deep enough, I'm sure you can find something to quibble with in Ross' piece. For myself, I'm not so sure it's fair to compare accounts of soldiers fighting in wars with pulpy splatterfic that gleefully reduces antagonists to chunky bits. But that's beside the point. Writers love to preach artistic freedom; they get awful quiet, though, when the subject of artistic responsibility comes up. Ross understands this, and her post is a clarion call for creative types to understand fiction's power to affect others for good -- and for ill. "Good fiction has structure, tension, and resolution," she notes. "The Greek playwrights understood this. Shakespeare knew it. So should you. ... Go deep in your fiction. Go true. And go with compassion." Well said.

(Picture: CC 2010 by paukrus; Hat Tip: My Little Corner)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Music To Write By: Clutch's "Escape from the Prison Planet"

Why Listen? For the aural embodiment of pop-culture conspiracy theories that made The X-Files great.

I miss The X-Files. Somehow Chris Carter's only truth successful series managed to merge disjointed pop-culture conspiracy theories into a narrative whole. Well, at least until the last two seasons, which are best altogether ignored. Perhaps that's why Clutch's "Escape from the Prison Planet" resonates with me; it manages to tap into the imagery that made the show work.

The song starts as a general lamentation over the state of society ("Parties are crashed, skid marks are measured. / The story's in the paper, you may read it at your leisure"), but quickly moves into full-fledged genre territory. Lead singer Neil Fallon howls like a demented street preacher about everything from dark-suited government investigators and extraterrestrial artifacts at the Department of Energy to rebuilding Martian pyramids and UFO "expert" Bob Lazar. Think of a tightly wound theme swiftly unspooling into stream-of-consciousness musings. Only raucous blues riffs and pounding rock interrupt Fallon's ravings, the perfect punctuation to paranoid rants.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hemingway on Book Banning

At The Federalist, Mark Hemingway discusses what he learned about the American Library Association's annual Banned Books Week while serving as a member of a school board. Excerpts:
It turns out that my responsibilities as a father and school board member are seemingly at odds with my vocation as a writer in a significant respect: I am someone who bans books. The younger me would be horrified by this turn of events, but then again, the younger me was an idiot who knew nothing about responsibility or children. ...

[W]e have reached a state of affairs where "book banning" has been defined down to mean "making responsible decisions about what reading material is edifying and and age-appropriate for school children." With great hyperbole, every fall the American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week -- a typical ALA press release is headlined "Book banning alive and well in the U.S."

Except that it’s not. ... If you read the fine print at the ALA, the idea that book banning is "alive and well" is exposed for the lie that it really is. Every year, the "Office for Intellectual Freedom" -- the grandiosely named division of the ALA charged with patrolling the DMZ between civilization and chaos -- celebrates Banned Books week by publishing a list of "Frequently Challenged Books." Again, it’s a list of books that are neither banned or even necessarily removed from shelves, merely "challenged" by people from the community for one reason or another. Yes, many of these reasons are stupid. From time to time a legitimately classic work of fiction ends up on the list. But it’s telling that such books are as likely to be challenged for politically correct reasons as they are for violating narrow ideas about traditional morality. In 2011, To Kill a Mockingbird made the list, and according to the ALA, people objected due to "offensive language [and] racism" despite the obviously righteous context.
Read the whole thing. While Hemingway spends a lot of time decrying the current state of YA fiction, I have little interest in dwelling on that topic. The moral quality of all sorts of literature (to use the term broadly) has fluctuated quite a lot over time, and a current nadir hardly seems newsworthy. However, the ALA's ongoing triumph of marketing over common sense troubles me because of the poisonous atmosphere it creates. Why is it a problem equate public parental distaste for particular titles with prior restraint? Because it equates censorship (a devil word, for those who've studied rhetorical criticism) with disagreement. No one has to stock a particular title. No one has to read it. It needn't grace the shelves of every American library for freedom to remain intact. Rather, freedom requires the existence of open, robust debate, of public give and take. By all means, write your controversial tome. But don't demagogue others if they don't desire to support it.

(Picture: CC 2007 by East Branch of the Dayton Metro Library)