Sunday, June 21, 2015

Monster Hunts Up Smart Fun

Even before the famous theological controversy that fractured their friendship, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis didn't always see eye to eye. Though both allegedly entered into a friendly wager to try penning genre stories, they had distinctly different approaches. Tolkien favored meticulously crafted, internally consistent secondary worlds. But Lewis? He employed a methodological melting pot, mixing up a supernatural jambalaya compounded from characters and conceits across ages and cultures. (My undergraduate literature professor Alan Jacobs vividly dubbed it "mythographic promiscuity.") Tolkien sniffed at such a hodge-podge approach, which makes me wonder what old John Ronald Reuel would think of our age's genre-fiction landscape. From Gaiman's Stardust to Butcher's The Dresden Files, Harry Potter to Discworld, the field is positively saturated with Lewis' methodology. You can add to that list Larry Correia's guns-and-grue first novel Monster Hunter International.

Owen Zavtava Pitt tries his darndest to live an ordinary life, but it’s more challenging than you might think. You can trace his odd upbringing in his name. His survivalist, ex-military father named him after the Owen Machine Carbine, an Australian automatic weapon that kept him alive during clandestine operations in Cambodia. Owen has tried to compensate for his dad's odd apocalyptic outlook by pursuing that dullest of professions—accounting. However, any attempt at normalcy evaporates when he discovers during a full moon that his boss is secretly a werewolf. Owen nearly dies during the ensuing encounter, but holding a lycanthrope off with only a snub-nosed pistol and his bare hands earns him the attention of a small private security firm called Monster Hunter International. For a century and a half, the group had garnered bounties on ghouls, vampires, zombies, wendigos, and unnamed horrors that go squish in the night. Intrigued by the group’s pitch (and a raven-haired beauty who’s a dead eye with a sniper rifle), Owen signs up. Little does he know that he’ll soon be up against monstrosities from beyond the veil of space and time that make his dad’s idea of the end of the world look like a tea party.

Monster Hunter International is every bit as big and loud as you’d expect it to be. Owen is a hulking beast of a guy with a penchant for mouthing B-movie one-liners while he’s turning monsters into jelly or receiving a vicious beatdown of his own. A chapter scarcely goes by without fierce fisticuffs or blazing gun battles. And speaking of firearms, Correia fills the book’s page with weapon descriptions that are so lovingly described it’s almost erotic. For instance, take the fully automatic shotgun boasting a 20-round drum, underslung grenade launcher, and fold-out silver bayonet. It’s name? Abomination. Yeah, you get the idea. "For a competition nut like myself, these [things] were the kind of thing that I dreamed about," Owen intones. 'Normal men had pornography. I had gun magazines." But you know what? The book is also more intelligent than it has any right to be. The occasional political and religious asides not only make for humorous moments, but also prompt serious consideration about the nature of society. The monster hunters have adopted sic transit gloria mundi ("The glory of man is fleeting") as their slogan, which adds some philosophical heft to the proceedings. And Correia’s cryptozoological catalogue includes critters from all sorts of stories both mythical and modern. (There’s a fun inversion of Tolkien’s mythos that had me grinning from ear to ear.) Unfortunately, the romantic bits are stilted and a couple of plot twists seem suspect. But who really cares? Monster hunts up smart fun.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Antoine Gady)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Watterson on Making Creative Fundamentals Fun

In 1990 commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College, Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame discussed the importance of cultivating a curious, creative mind. Excerpts:
It's surprising how hard we'll work when the work is done just for ourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, maybe utilitarianism is overrated. If I've learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it's how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year. ...

We're not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery—it recharges by running.

You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of "just getting by: absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people's expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.

At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you'll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you'll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you'll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.
Read the whole thing. A kaleidoscopic array of memories scattered through my head as I read Watterson’s speech. A undergraduate philosophy professor telling me that the best writers have an abiding love for thinking deeply. The condescending smile of an older friend who said that reading was a luxury in which I wouldn’t be able to indulge as I aged. The way acquaintances’ eyes dull whenever conversation strays into anything more complex than sports scores or sitcom season finales. Heinlein’s famous quote on focused living. (“In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”)

For the adult, time is tight. Engaged thought is a luxury. Finding mental and chronological space to write? That’s beyond precious. I believe that’s part of Watterson’s point: Given that it’s so difficult to engage in the worthy stuff that makes creativity possible, why not make that very stuff part of our ever-shrinking recreational lives? In other words, we should make the fundamentals fun if we want to create.

(Picture: CC 2008 by Brad Arnold; Hat Tip: Between Two Worlds)

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Get Ready for an Obsessively Enjoyable Niche Read

When I was a kid, my dad threatened to throw my Nintendo off of the balcony of the condo where we were living. I can’t say I blamed him. An eminently practical man who made his living farming, he couldn’t stand the idea of electronic entertainment. So when he came home one day to find me clutching a controller in a room with the shades drawn against the sun, he blew a gasket. “You’re just sitting there like a goon in front of that box!” he exclaimed. “It’s a goon box, and I’m going to throw it out the window if you don’t go outside!” I’ll wager that I’m not the only individual of my generation whose parents just didn’t get the idea of video games. But to many children of the eighties, they were a cultural influence every bit as potent as Elvis or the Apollo landing. And it’s for those individuals that I suspect Ernest Cline penned his debut cyberpunk novel Ready Player One.

You wouldn’t say Wade Owen Watts’ world is in decline. Rather, you’d say it’s a semi plummeting down Pikes Peak with its brake lines cut. The worst part? Everybody knows it, which is why OASIS has become so popular. OASIS is essentially Second Life with spells and lasers, a virtual universe studded with planetoids upon which the impossible is commonplace. In OASIS, Wade isn’t some pale, chubby teenager. He’s Parzival, a medieval warrior who goes about killing monsters. OASIS was created by one James Halliday, a neurotic programming genius whose only solace in life was consuming copious amounts of eighties media. A multibillionaire at the time of his death, Halliday pledged his fortune to whoever could find an Easter Egg (or secret content) within the virtual world, a treasure whose location is hidden in cultural references so obscure that egg hunters (a.k.a. gunters) keep encyclopedic cross-referenced commonplace books filled with trivia. The virtual arms race has been going on for five long years with gunters battling the corrupt corporate drones of conglomerate Innovative Online Industries. What no one realizes is that Wade himself in going to stumble over the first clue to Halliday’s fortune almost entirely by accident.

There’s a reason why Crown Publishers put a blurb by Charlaine Harris (whose Sokie Stackhouse novels inspired HBO’s True Blood) at the top of the hardcover I read. (“This non-gamer loved every page of Ready Player One.”) The marketers obviously didn’t want Cline’s first book to be pigeonholed as a geeky nostalgic exercise. True, the book is more than that. Cline makes Wade into more or less a fully realized character with all the hopes and frustrations, dreams and despondencies, achievements and agonies that you’d expect from a teen in a high-tech, opportunity-constrained context. The action also proves enjoyable, and the ending is a truly a nailbiter. But the people who’ll enjoy Ready Player One the most are those who dig obsessively detailed descriptions of Atari-era videogames, Dungeons & Dragons, and virtual combat. Cline also goes all-in with cyberpunk tropes, filling the proceedings with online hijinks, crumbling urban cores, and a corporation so WrongBadUnGood that it’s comical. I don’t see how you could imagine Ready Player One is anything but a niche title. But it’s still a darn enjoyable one for all that.

(Picture: CC 2009 by moparx)

Monday, June 1, 2015

"Fostering"

Before Theresa even opened her eyes, she knew the rain had stopped. The air hung still and silent, devoid of the near-ceaseless pattering that skittered over her roof in the cold months. She knew that the gray dawn sky would soon be filled with gaggles of geese. She knew squirrels would stir from their winter nests.

She also knew that it wouldn’t let Richard lie still.
As a Kentuckian living in south Florida, the state of Oregon is an ongoing mystery to me. The summers are some of the most lovely I’ve ever encountered, temperate and blue-sky-clear all the day long. The region’s long tradition of producing strong coffee, craft beer, and crisp white wine is also equally enjoyable. But the winters are positively hellish, and I say that as someone who studied for four years in Chicago. The sky turns to slate, a color promising snow but only delivering a dour drizzle that continues unabated for months, the world becoming a damp patchwork of gray and green that's colder in its own insistent way than any snowstorm. And I’m not even going to get into the area’s sociopolitical preoccupations, which I find completely perplexing. (What do you mean I can’t legally pump my own gas?!) Still, my wife is from Oregon, and as I’ve gotten a little more familiar with it over the years, I’ve found the region creeping into my fiction.

“Fostering” started as a story my mother-in-law shared with me. (My wife’s parents maintain a homestead farm that’s big enough to almost entirely sustain them, yet small enough to render it manageable.) One day, she explained how something had killed two of their sheep, a lamb and a ewe that didn’t belong to one another. This was problematic in ways I didn't expect, because it left the surviving lamb without any means of sustenance and the surviving ewe at risk for mastitis. Apparently, sheep aren't keen on adoption. The solution was simple, if more than a little macabre: They skinned the dead lamb and made its hide into a coat for the living one. Over the next week or so, the ewe would come to accept the foundling simply because of it bore the scent of her dead offspring.

The horror scribe in me couldn’t let that gruesome image lie.

“Fostering,” a story about the compromises circumstance and time can convince us to make, appears in Acidic Fiction. You can read it for free here. Many thanks to Sharon Roy and Michael Roy for their help with the details of farm life, as well as Scott Garbacz and Acidic Fiction editor Steven Davis for helping whip the manuscript into shape.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Rich on Capitalism, Culture, and Language

Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova discusses poet Adrienne Rich’s artistic antipathy toward capitalism. Excerpt:
Rich begins by considering the perilous interplay of the market and the mind in capitalist culture:
We have become a pyramidic society of the omnivorously acquisitive few, an insecure, dwindling middle class, and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers [resulting in] a kind of public breakdown, with symptoms along a spectrum from acute self-involvement to extreme anxiety to individual and group violence.
Exactly two decades after E.F. Schumacher’s ennobling case for reimagining capitalist society to prioritize people over products and creativity over consumption, Rich laments “the self-congratulatory self-promotion of capitalism” around the world and considers “the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions of all this”—for, lest we forget, the space between words and their true meanings is vast and filled with the fog of confusion. She writes:
In the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.

[…]

Capitalism presents itself as obedience to a law of nature, man’s “natural” and overwhelming predisposition toward activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive. Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital. Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this self-referential monologue put to the question?
Read the whole thing. Rich was literate and literary, an erudite thinker whose poetry and polemics defy cursory treatment. So instead of going on for pages upon pages, allow me to ask a few questions. Does the income inequality inherent in market economies (i.e. “a pyramidic society”) necessarily treat people as “throwaway citizens and workers,” especially when compared to competing economic experiments? Is capitalism entirely—or even mostly—to blame for Prozac prescriptions and public shootings or could other factors be at play? Have market advocates appropriated the word “freedom” in an Orwellian fashion or does it accurately describe one factor in human flourishing?

I’m no Randian evangelist. I’m in general agreement with P.J. O’Rourke’s assertion that capitalism is “the worst economic system anyone ever invented, except for all the others.” The great irony of Rich’s distaste for the free market is that it’s recorded in her book Arts of the Possible. Which is available for $14.69 at Amazon.com. Or $9.99 if you prefer the convenience of a Kindle. But remember that you can receive the physical copy with free second-day shipping if you’ve joined Amazon Prime. You get it: Her complaint itself is part of the market, a bird kvetching about the wind on which it soars.

Perhaps this would be a good place to recall von Mises’ quote about what markets actually are: “The market is not a place, a thing, or a collective entity. The market is a process, actuated by the interplay of the actions of the various individuals cooperating under the division of labor. The forces determining the—continually changing—state of the market are the value judgments of these individuals and their actions as directed by these value judgments.” It’s simply people in action selecting what they desire and spurning what they dislike. As an artist, I wouldn’t have it any other way. No centralized authority can compel you to pick up the product of my pencil. You do that of your own free will—and I hope what I write makes you want to.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Jeremy hunsinger)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Cayman Is Breezy, Beachy Fun

Note: No matter the author, no matter the title, I always acquire books out of my own resources. Review copies are verboten on this blog, and that goes double for ISLF friends—which Eric Douglas most certainly is.

The term “beach read” sometimes carries a pejorative connotation in fiction circles, which is really a shame. There’s nothing wrong with a novel that puts enjoyment on a pedestal, and that’s exactly what Eric Douglas does with Return to Cayman, the sixth installment in his Mike Scott series. A journalist with a yen for adventure that would do Indiana Jones proud, Scott has a way of landing in trouble as much as reporting on it. It’s been years since he returned to his one-time home of Grand Cayman, and this time he has no plans but to party. Old chum Kelly has been married to Tanya, the girl of his dreams, for a decade. Mike has come to this island paradise with a bunch of friends to help them celebrate and to dive the surrounding reefs. But the proceedings take a dark turn when an anchoring mishap with a cruise liner obliterates a stretch of protected coral, nearly killing Mike and Kelly in the process. Something sinister is afoot on Grand Cayman, a cyber plot that will soon ensnare the entire island in a global conspiracy.

If you tossed a shot of Carl Hiaasen’s eco-consciousness into a tall tumbler of Clive Cussler’s action, it would taste a lot like Return to Cayman. After a slightly slow start (which will feel more like a reunion for those who have read any of the earlier Mike Scott books), Douglas kicks the proceedings into high gear. There are gun-toting paramilitary thugs, secret surveillance drones, improvised explosive devices, and lots of near-drowning incidents. The diving bits—of which there are many—are the best parts, but even readers who’ve never donned a scuba mask will find the proceedings enjoyable. Much like Andrew Klavan did in The Identity Man, Douglas pens archetypal characters then shoves them right in danger’s way. Not all is perfect, though. The extremities of the main villain’s narcissistic evil strains credibility, and the ending resolves itself too quickly to really satisfy. Still, Cayman contains plenty of breezy, beachy fun.

(Picture: CC 2010 by Max Elman)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Music To Write By: Blindside’s “Sleepwalking”

Why Listen? To hear art incarnate its subject matter; to tread the fine line between order and chaos; to hear aural sandblasting settle into something soothing.



“Sleepwalking” is one of those songs that smacks you in the face from the word go. Simon Grenehed’s guitar work alternates between rumbling riffs and screeching, palm-muted feedback, bassist Tomas Näslund and drummer Marcus Dahlström set up a syncopated beat, and over it all vocalist Christian Lindskog howls, “Words so secure screaming like an alarm! / Are you trying to wake me up?” Wake me up, indeed. Everything about the introductory verse of this Swedish post-hardcore band’s 2003 single seems calculated to jar listeners. It alternates between consonance and dissonance, melody and cacophony, teetering right on the edge of chaos. Then comes the chorus where the aural sandblasting settles into something almost soothing. The rhythm smooths into a steady cadence. Guitar chords follow suit. And Lindskog drapes the whole thing with angelic harmonies. How appropriate for a song about spiritual blindness and recovering a clear perspective. Blindside understands that art should incarnate its subject matter.