Time Travel Tales: Now Available from Chappy Fiction!

It’s release day! My friend Zach Chapman has just put together a ripping collection of Time Travel Tales, just in time for the holidays, and it is now available in both paperback and e-book.

But don’t just take my word for it! Consult with your FUTURE SELF who is, right at this moment, emerging from my time machine. Here we go…

(opens door)

Hmmm...you've looked better...

Hmmm…you’ve looked better…

(closes door)

Just some…well…technical difficulties. I’m sure you’ll be fine. That you probably wasn’t even from this timeline. Right.

316892976Anyway, this anthology has tons of treats beyond simply my own humble tale (oh, did I not mention that? I HAVE A STORY HERE! Yes! MEEE! MEEEEEEE!)

Ahem. Also included are such luminary authors as Sean Williams, Robert Silverberg, Martin Shoemaker, Stuart C Baker, SL Huang, David Steffen, and many, many more!

So go and get it! Go! Time is wasting!

Well, unless you have a time machine, in which case you can get it now whenever you like.

A Very Special Offer From Your Local FOUL Affiliate

Dear Duke Lothario,

Le Chat Mauve is so mysterious, this is literally the best idea we have of his appearance. It isn't a very good one.

Le Chat Mauve is so mysterious, this is literally the best idea we have of his appearance. It isn’t a very good one.

If you are receiving this correspondence, it is because you have successfully stolen Degas’s The Bellelli Family from Musee D’Orsay in Paris and have found our note taped to the back of the canvas. Congratulations, monsieur, on your successful heist and be assured that our fence, Madame Noir, shall be by tomorrow at midnight to take possession. This note, however, will be stolen off your person by tomorrow morning by the one and only Chat Mauve. Do not try to stop him; you will only embarrass yourself.

Why have we gone to such lengths? It is to inform you of an unparalleled opportunity developing in the United States of America. As you may have heard, inveterate fool and consummate imbecile Donald Trump has managed to achieve the White House (thanks, in no small part, to our meddling, we assure you – your service fees at work!), and now, friends, our true work begins. A golden age of kleptocracy is about to begin in the US of A, and we would love for you to be part of it!

Let it be known that we are contacting every hustler, grifter, sneak-thief, footpad, brigand, con-man, cat burglar, extortion artist, cutpurse, second-story man, bandit, robber, and pickpocket in our network that, once Trump takes office, we are declaring open-season on any and all American goods, artifacts, or government assets. We are buying military equipment, real-estate, physical assets (e.g. gold), and artifacts. Grab all you can carry – we are absolutely certain that the FBI, NSA, and CIA will be entirely too worried tracking down Hispanic farm workers with unpaid parking tickets to bother stopping you from filching weapons-grade plutonium from a government lab. Their eyes will be so fixated on signing unassuming Muslims up on some fascist database that not a single person will notice if the Washington Monument goes missing. Trump isn’t even living in the White House, so the whole damned place is basically unoccupied except by those glorified rent-a-cops in the Secret Service and, let’s face it, you are just three or four high-end strippers away from having the run of the place!

Imagining what even the silverware will fetch? We know--consult our pricing catalogue.

Imagining what even the silverware will fetch? We know – consult our pricing catalogue.

Just to give you a taste of the things we’re looking to purchase off the ambitious villains willing to pull it off, here is an incomplete list:

  • The US Constitution (an easy grab, since we doubt it will be seeing much use)
  • The Declaration of Independence (note: do not look for any secret treasure maps)
  • Lincoln’s Head from the Lincoln Memorial (rest of statue optional)
  • The VA Hospital system (the whole thing–no partial buys)
  • A Commissioned Aircraft Carrier (deliverable to our offices in Arkhangelsk, Russia)
  • Minuteman missiles (for our mad-scientist clients–demand is high, so prices are too!)
  • Trump’s Toupee (careful–it might bite)
  • Mount Vernon and/or Monticello
  • The US Interstate Highway System (suffering from some disrepair, so be delicate)
  • Mount Rushmore (Teddy Roosevelt only)

And on and on and on…

Friend, the possibilities here are literally endless, but act quickly – Trump’s minions are going to be pawning a lot of this stuff off soon, so supplies are more limited than you think!

Good luck, Duke Lothario! Remember: your success is our success!

Sincerely,

Financial Operations and Underwriting Limited (FOUL)

Vrokthar Is Thankful For Your Weakness and Misery

Wretched Wetlanders, Weakling Half-Men of the Fat South, heed the words of Vrokthar the Skull-feaster, on this, the eve of your pathetic day of thanks.

By the decrees of this loyal ensorcelled word-slate, it has become clear to Vrokthar that soon thou shalt feast. This strikes Vrokthar as redundant, as he cannot think of a time when you miserable cowards do not stuff thy obese faces with innumerable decadent confections. How canst thou tell the difference between a feast and thy regular obnoxious gluttony? But no matter.

Truly, a grand time shall be had by all.

Truly, a grand time shall be had by all.

Vrokthar, too, intends to celebrate this coming day. Yes, a feast of true proportions is being prepared by mine own slaves even as I etch my words into the ether. There shall be wolf liver boiled in blood! Goat brain! Many different confections of the boiled entrails of various venomous beasts! And, of course, a great platter of the finest man-bacon, cured from enemies slain by Vrokthar’s own hand.

And then, when the feasting has complete, Vrokthar and his thanes shall recline in his longhouse and boast and drink until the winter sun has risen again. This, by my count, ought to be four and a half days.

During this time, opportunity for contemplation will unfortunately arise. I realize thou must wonder, in your abject terror, what thoughts graces the unstoppable mind of Vrokthar. Does he contemplate razing your pathetic city to ash? Does he have designs upon your cattle and your children to increase he already vast wealth?

The answer is YES! Vrokthar shall take what he pleases, and what pleases him is vast and uncountable. That, however, is not where this conversation is going, you unspeakable toad-people. Think of others for a change!

No, Vrokthar, in those moments of drunken introspection, shall think instead of those things he is grateful for about your miserable, ill-begotten “culture.”

To begin with, Vrokthar is please you have deigned to crown the Trump as thy king. This makes him a worthy foe, and my armies will take great pleasure in setting fire to his golden tower and dragging him away in my battle sledge, there to serve me as a hairless, mewling slave. That is, of course, assuming his orangeness is not a sign of divine protection, in which case Vrokthar will have him skinned and mounted upon his best shield, so that I might be invincible in battle. It goes without saying that the pelt he wears upon his head will join my trophy case or, if it proves large enough (which is doubtful), I may fashion it into a loincloth for formal occasions.

Also, Vrokthar is inordinately pleased this year that many of your most odious and cacophonous musicians have, at long last, saw fit to die and leave mine ears in peace. This has been a most glorious year in that regard, for all wetlander music is decadent and depraved. All Vrokthar wishes to hear is the laments of his enemies and the wails of his suffering servants, and it is good to see that this is becoming the norm. Lo, but thy wails of grief have coddled Vrokthar in this trying time!

Finally, let it be known that Vrokthar is most grateful that the Chicago Cubs have at last won the World Series, and thereby lifted the century-long enchantment that hath protected the City of Wind from my wrath and the wrath of my ancestors. Truly, a great reaping is at hand! The city of Chicago shall weep beneath my heavy boots, and many skulls shall adorn my wall, complete with their Cubs-related paraphernalia (though any doubles shall be sold on EBay – keep an eye on my auction page).

Oh, yes, and of course I am thankful for skulls (and their innumerable uses in home decor and housewares), massive axes, mighty blades, and the howling arctic winds of the vast north, so cold that they might flense the flesh from the weak and give girth and succor to the mighty.

Though, now that I think about it, it is getting unusually warm up here lately, and the ice floes are paltry shadows of their former selves. Do you fools have anything to do with that? What black sorcery have you been devising?

Hmmm…

I may have to come down there. But first, I feast.

Empires and Rebellions

(Looks out window) Whoah. Looking pretty ugly out there in the real world. Politics just got a bit scary, and a lot of people are pretty convinced a lot of bad things are about to happen. In this time of fear and anxiety, what is a person to do if they are expected to maintain their sanity in the face of catastrophe?

This is a pretty old story.

This is a pretty old story.

Well, that’s what fiction is for! Curl up with a good book or throw on the TV and try to escape for a few hours.

Of course, then you’re probably going to see or read something about empires. Or rebellions. Or both. Sometimes those empires and rebellions are literal things (e.g. Star Wars), sometimes they’re a bit more metaphorical (e.g. Footloose), but you’ll be hard pressed to escape the narrative structure provided by the simple tension between the powerful and the powerless or, more simply, between the in-group and the out-group. This, I’m sure, isn’t a revolutionary statement (pun intended): this stuff is woven throughout our culture – throughout all cultures, really. It’s one of the truly, truly basic stories.

9225cd08ef9c7d6c618befb4e861e7afOn the one side you’ve got the Empire. The Empire is the source of power, the seat of wealth, the axis around which the world of the story orbits. The instinct is often to insist that such power is innately evil, but it is portrayed positively almost as often. Consider the average Western, for example. While I haven’t done an intensive survey, I think it’s pretty likely that the number of heroic sheriffs and marshalls (symbols of Empire, or in-group power) is approximately even with the number of heroic outlaws and vagabonds (symbols of Rebellion, or out-group power). The Empire, while big and powerful and potentially scary, is also orderly and cultured and wealthy and safe. Coruscant and Naboo are a lot nicer than Tatooine or Hoth or even Endor’s Forest Moon.

Stories told with the Empire as villain typically display how the Empire can crush dissent, disenfranchise minority groups, or dominate cultures – all of these, of course, drawn from our collective experiences of actual history. These stories resonate in particular with those who feel alienated from the Empires of their own real lives, whether they are actually part of the out-group or whether they have chosen to sympathize with those who have been designated as “other.” I’ll talk a bit more about this when discussing Rebellion, but the underdog is a powerful target for audience sympathy and often has been across the history of literature.

Empire, however, can also be the hero in a story. In these cases, the Empire is typically cast as the defenders of peace and justice against some kind of barbarous hordes. Starship Troopers is an excellent example of this, but it is by no means alone. There is safety and stability in Empire and, even with the conformity that accompanies it, that is a heartening thing. Star Trek favors Empire over Rebellion (the Federation, as demonstration of the in-group, is always securing its goals in the face of barbarous Klingons, Romulans, the Dominion, the Borg, etc..), and this draws attention to the fact that Empire need not be oppressive in any sense we recognize. It must only hold the reins of power and designate who can and cannot belong. Other Empires-as-heroic tropes include an awful lot of Victorian colonial literature, the vast majority of the Arthurian Legend, every heroic cop movie ever made, and any war movie that features patriotism as a positive or redeeming feature (so, in other words, about 90% of all war movies).

Heroic freedom-fighters or dastardly terrorist insurgents?

Heroic freedom-fighters or dastardly terrorist insurgents?

Now, opposed to this you have the Rebellion. The Rebellion is the out-group – those bereft of power or wealth or (frequently) culture. They exist on the fringes or between the cracks of the Empire. If Empire is a force for stability and stasis, the Rebellion is a force for change. Their goal is to upset or subvert the social order. They are your outlaws, your ne’er do-wells, your poor, your vagabonds and wanderers. Your freaks and weirdos. The instinct, in the case of Rebellion, is one of sympathy. We have all felt marginalized in one sense or another in our lives, and our frequent desire is to see those who are harmed by the in-group find a way to subvert the power structure and have justice be served. This, of course, is not always the case: we revile rebels as often as we laud them. Take, by way of real-life example, global terrorism or ISIS. They are, by all measures, the out-group. We are not inspired by their underdog struggle to subvert the power of Empire (i.e. us) because we do not share their goals or morals. They are the barbarous hordes, not the inspiring resistance (even though, by the account of at least one CIA interrogator, they view themselves in this way).

Stories told with the Rebellion as heroic tend to emphasize the overthrow of dictatorial regimes through noble struggle and self-sacrifice. They value the individuality of their followers, they emphasize freedom and self-reliance over safety and wealth. When Han Solo tells his commanding officer on Hoth that he has to leave, the general gives him a handshake and a pat on the back, but when Captain Needa apologizes to Lord Vader, he is strangled to death for his efforts. Such is the narrative of the heroic Rebellion: we will save you from your oppressors. Look at any list of quotable lines from Firefly and you’ll see this sentiment played out in exhaustive detail. They might be filthy and rowdy and quirky and poor, but the crew of Serenity are the plucky underdogs we love and the Alliance are the soulless Imperial types we loathe.

Of course, the Rebellion need not be the hero. One of the interesting things that Star Wars does is flip the Empire and Rebellion roles throughout the series. At the start, the Republic (the in-group) needs to be protected against subversive influence (the Sith and their Separatist tools) whereas, by the end, the Sith-controlled Empire (the in-group) seeks to…well…protect itself against subversive influence (the Jedi-aided Rebellion). The roles are the same, merely our sympathies switch.

That, I think, is an important lesson to glean from all of this: in-group and out-group do not, by their very nature, acquire the veneer of heroism inherently, but rather by whether or not our own beliefs and priorities are represented by one of the groups or the other. Furthermore, and just as importantly, in real life the sides of in-group and out-group are seldom so morally simplistic that there is one that is always superior to the other. Life, unlike fiction, is often too messy to make easy judgements. So, as we go forth into this new world, some of us who thought we’d be the in-group are now filthy rebel scum and others who assumed they’d be the out-group have taken on the mantle of Imperial power. This will have a powerful effect on the stories we tell from here on out, and make no mistake.

My Hierarchy of MCU films (to date)

Watched Doctor Strange this weekend. It was very enjoyable, and if you’re a fan of superhero movies, I’d recommend it. If you aren’t, well, you’ve seen it before (more or less) and shouldn’t trouble yourself.

Multiple stories, same basic arc

Multiple stories, same basic arc

Superhero movies, and most notably the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), tend to be repeated retellings of the same basic stories. There is a reluctant hero of some kind, he (or, much more rarely, she) is granted the mantle of power, sent forth by will or necessity to battle evil, receives wisdom at the foot of a wise elder (who often dies), and at last vanquishes evil and assumes their responsibility as champion of the defenseless. There you go – just about every superhero movie in history, boiled down to a few plot points. If that structure looks familiar, that shouldn’t surprise you – it’s all classic Joseph Campbell, the ancient monomyth reborn and retold in the guise in the modern world.

Now, this often gets held up as a point of criticism: comic book movies, they say, are all the same. Well, first of all, you have to admit that they’re right – they totally are the same. If you’ve seen Iron Man, you’ve also seen Doctor Strange and Thor. The movies – in terms of theme, plot, pacing, and character – just aren’t all that different. There is, however, something that the critics also have to admit: different doesn’t automatically mean “better.” Consider this: how many pizzas have you eaten throughout your lifetime? Probably tons of them, if you’re anything like me, but even if not you don’t need to use pizza – try “bottles of wine” or “blue jeans” or “shoes.” There are lots and lots of things we value and enjoy and crave that are, basically, broadly the same every time we consume or use them. Of course, nobody would ever say that all pizzas are created equal (or all wines, or all jeans, etc.) but also the fact that we’ve experienced “pizza” before does not invalidate future interactions with “pizza.” It’s still pizza; I still like it.

Just so with comic book movies. They all operate in the same basic sphere and run according to the same basic forumla. Even across sequels, a kind of pattern tends to play out. First there’s the “Origin Story” (frequently featuring a Macguffin), then there’s the “Coping with Hero Life” story, then we’ve got the “Everything Falls Apart” sequel, and so on and so forth. We all know the steps. We still like the dance, though.

Now, I’ve lamented the fact that superhero movies rarely break conventions, and I do stand by that – there is substantial room for innovation in the cinematic realm, at least. That said, there is some appreciation to be gleaned from watching talented people polish the old standard to a healthy gleam. Telling a story well is every bit as important as telling a new story. In recent years, this story has been mastered by the folks behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, without rival. Yeah, they all tell the same basic story, but discussing how well each of them does the same task is still worthwhile. We watch sports, remember, and those feature the same exact game with the same basic rules over and over again and yet nothing diminishes our enthusiasm.

Anyway, after getting out of Doctor Strange, my friends and I had a discussion of where the movie ranks in the hierarchy of MCU films. We generally considered it to be in the “top half.”  We then had to discuss what was the median – which MCU movie ranks in the exact middle? My friends said Ant-Man, which is actually the only MCU film I haven’t seen. Given that, and given that Ant-Man may just be the exact center of the MCU, I’ve decided to rank all the other existing MCU movies, from best to worst (in my opinion). Here we go:

13: The Incredible Hulk

12: Iron Man 3

11: Iron Man 2

10: Avengers: Age of Ultron

9: Thor

8: Captain America: The First Avenger

7: Thor: The Dark World

6: Marvel’s The Avengers

5: Doctor Strange

4: Iron Man

3: Guardians of the Galaxy

2: Captain America: Winter Soldier

1: Captain America: Civil War

 

Now, a few of these I’m open to moving around a little. You could swap the Iron Man sequels, if you like. GoTG could be below Iron Man 1, but generally I’m satisfied, here. Notably, few of these movies are actively bad (well, some come close), but clearly some serve up the same dish with a bit more flair. I’ve no idea where Ant Man fits, but currently the median film is Thor: The Dark World, which seems mostly fair.

Well, what do you think?

Convention Report: World Fantasy 2016

Hi there! Haven’t posted in a while. Did you think I was dead? Well, I was. As it’s Halloween, however, I have risen from my grave to tell you what I’ve been doing in the Underworld Columbus, Ohio.

That’s right – just got back from the 2016 World Fantasy Convention! Great times were had and now, in brief and pithy statements, I shall explain such times to you.

Lovely Columbus

First off, I have to say that, despite my little crack above, Columbus is a pretty nice little city. The food was good, the neighborhood around the hotel was really cool, and the weather was downright pleasant. As a highlight, I got to go to a burger place that served not just regular hamburgers, but also burgers made of turkey, duck, elk, wild boar, or bison. I had an elk-burger with bacon, pepper jack, and a variety of interesting mayonnaises and it was quite the flavor explosion. I could probably eat at that particular restaurant every day for a year and not get sick of it.

So…Many…Books…

WFC is a convention of readers above all else. Nowhere is that more noticeable than in the book bag you get as a bonus for attending. Check out this spread:

Wow.

Wow.

Them’s a lot of books, folks. So many books, in fact, that after stuffing said haul into your suitcase by some feat of spatial gymnastics and raw strength, on the way into the airport on the trip home the TSA will yank that suitcase out of the X-Ray machine and hand examine it. The guy unzipped my suitcase, peered inside, and offered up a non-plussed “it’s…just a fine selection of books…”

Yes, TSA guy. Yes it is.

The Panels!

I went to see several panels over the course of the weekend and even sat on two myself (I’ll explain those two later). The panels and the highlights were basically as follows:

I Believe I Can Fly was a panel on the mystique of flight in fantasy fiction. I saw it because my friend, Dan Koboldt, was sitting on it and I knew he and I would be on a panel later together on a similar topic. I was worried I didn’t have a lot to say about flight, but it turned out that I totally did and I wound up talking a bit much during the panel itself even though I wasn’t on it (sorry, folks). One of the better comments came from Curtis Craddock (I think) who said that, as mammals who sleep on our backs and look at the stars, flight has always been important to us. Alan Smale was also on the panel, and his alternate history novel Clash of Eagles (where the Roman Empire has survived to the 13th century and invades North America) sounds cooler and cooler every time I hear him talk about it.

Trilogies? Small Stuff! This was possibly the best panel I saw. You got to watch Mercedes Lackey and Lee Modesitt argue over who has longer running series and more books altogether (the answer is Lackey, by a country mile as it turns out), got to listen to David Drake and Sharon Shinn and Kay Kenyon talk about how to keep from getting burned out (a lot of them switch protagonists or POV as the series develops) and all of them talked about the size of a story you were planning to tell. Quote of the panel was probably from Lackey: “My muse is my mortgage.”

L.E. Modesitt Jr. Guest of Honor Speech Listened to Lee Modesitt talk about how he wound up being an author (basically spending a lot of his life working in jobs he was poorly suited to), how he writes (2.5 mile walk in the morning, then breakfast, then writing from mid-morning until 7 or 10pm, with breaks to shop, eat, etc.), and how he wound up writing fantasy (he found himself as a junior author on a panel as the only scifi writer among fantasy authors. When asked “what do you think about modern fantasy authors’ takes on economics and politics his flustered response was “they don’t seem to know anything about either one of them!”).

Sword and Sorcery Today: Still Slashing Away featured moderator Scott Andrews (of Beneath Ceaseless Skies) trying in vain to get panelists Mercedes Lackey, David Drake, SM Stirling, and James Moore to talk about contemporary sword and sorcery but instead they mostly argued about what it was and whether they wrote in the genre or not and why it mattered.

How Does Who We Are Affect What We Read was an interesting one featuring Robert J Sawyer, David Coe, and others wrestling with the interaction between reader and text and, more importantly, to what extent can we or should we learn from past writers who held reprehensible beliefs by today’s standards (HP Lovecraft, for instance). I found the discussion really interesting and the panelists got very contentious at times, which itself was instructive. No clear answers were arrived upon, as expected.

Old Stories, New Twists talked extensively about re-tellings and fairy tales – a topic that I’m professionally interested in as a professor, even if I haven’t done that myself. The panelists explored how you get into your head to retell something (the stuff that annoys you about the classic tale and exploring that further) and what new you can bring to old texts. There was also a shout-out to the fact that Belle’s behavior in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is textbook battered wife syndrome, which is something I’ve discussed at length before on this very blog.

The Mass Book Signing!

Look at that! I'm all official and such!

Look at that! I’m all official and such!

On Friday night, all authors who were on panels or otherwise part of the convention gathered in the ballroom to meet and chat with fans and sign any books of theirs that happened to be present. To my mild surprise, I had a name tag and everything and was entitled to a seat at the table with everybody else!

Now, I had but one copy of my novel and none were for sale in the dealer’s room, so I figured I wouldn’t be doing much signing. I parked myself next to Sarah Beth Durst (read The Queen of Blood, by the way – it’s great!), who I expected was going to get a lot of traffic (she did!) and maybe, just maybe some of those folks, while waiting in line, would talk to me. It worked pretty well, actually, and I maybe convinced 4-5 people to buy my book.

Then, to my complete surprise, two people (separately, without coordination) came up and asked me to sign my short story “Lord of the Cul-de-Sac” in May 2016 issue of Galaxy’s Edge. So I did get to sign stuff, after all – cool! Of course, next year I need to remember to bring actual books or see that they’re stocked in the dealer’s room, at least.

My Panels!

I got to sit on two separate panels, both of which were a blast.

An Aviary of Beasties was a panel all about flying critters in fantasy and what kinds were at our disposal and what to do with them and so on. It was me, Dan Koboldt, EJ Stevens, Rajan Khanna, and Susan Shell Winston as moderator. I mostly talked about the difficulty of owning or training flying mounts in a fantasy world (what do you feed them? How do you train them? What do you use them for? How expensive are they?) and a fair amount about the evolutionary role such creatures should or ought to play in your environment. EJ Stevens talked a lot about the role of various fey creatures in her own novels and some discussion was had about the dichotomy between the really big flying things (Dragons, the Roc) and the really little ones (Pixies, sprites, etc.). Dan talked a bit about the meeting of high-tech drones and dragons in his work, and Rajan discussed how his post-apocalyptic airship setting had to do a lot with how flight was an escape – freedom, essentially. Me, being the party pooper of a modernist that I am, talked about how that could also be taken as a myth – how conflict can develop from wishing you were free and then finding that you aren’t.

The second panel, and the last panel of the convention, was Atheist Fantasy: Is God Dead? This one was a real treat, with me getting to share the table with Max Gladstone, Lee Modesitt, Larry Hodges, Kevin Maroney, and Jeff Minerd. This, as you can imagine, was a really heady one. We discussed the origins and purposes of religions and how such things were (or were not) distinct from belief in or the existence of a deity figure. I offered the question of whether or not you could have supernatural, super-powerful beings and not have gods (isn’t a god just a supernatural being with a fan club?) and where the line was drawn. Max, of course, was all over the topic (and if you’ve read the Craft Sequence, you know why. If you haven’t, do so!) and Lee Modesitt was an able and provocative moderator. He left as soon as it was over, though, so I didn’t get a chance to ask him to sign my copy of The Magic of Recluse. Alas.

The People!

Much of the purpose of these conventions is to meet people – fans, other writers, editors, agents, etc.. In that regard, this convention was a great success – much better than last year, where I knew no one and nothing. In addition to catching up a bit with Sarah Beth Durst, I met fellow Harper authors Kelley Grant-Kelley, Dan Koboldt, and Laura Bickle. I saw CC Finlay and met Gordon VanGelder (both of whom are the nicest people!). I went out to dinner with a whole lot of authors and editors, had lunch with aspiring authors and fans alike, chatted with people about Neal Stephenson and The Grapes of Wrath and Black Mirror and on and on and on. It was fantastic, and I’m excited to go again next year in lovely San Antonio.

That’s about it about that. I’ll be back to my regular posting habits soon, I’m sure. Just as soon as I beat back this encroaching con-crud. Ugh…

Has to be a downside somewhere, right?

Dramatic Convenience Vs Realism (The Idiot Ball Again)

orphan-blackJust finished watching Season 2 of Orphan Black. I like the show pretty well, but there are a couple things that frequently seem off. Specifically:

  • Everybody always seems to be an hour’s drive from everybody else. (no matter how far away they seem to want to flee)
  • All the bad guys know Felix’s address, yet everybody keeps treating Felix’s loft as safe.
  • For a kid that tends to do things like wander outside at night with random strangers, Kira is left unattended way, way too much.

There are other problems, too, but they’re a little more conceptual than this stuff, and I don’t think Orphan Black is unique in any way, here. Lots and lots of books, stories, shows, and movies do stuff like the above. They are choices made by the writers for narrative convenience, and they are necessary in many ways, but there is a point at which they become silly. Sussing out exactly where that line is strikes me as rather important, so let’s talk about it.

First off, there is a lot of boring things that happen in daily life. You take the train to work, you eat breakfast, you go to the bathroom, you wait for a

But it was lembas-poop, so it was actually quite pleasant.

But it was lembas-poop, so it was actually quite pleasant.

bus, you read through a bunch of random e-mails, etc., etc.. People sitting down to watch a thriller don’t want the pace to get bogged down by the details. So, when the DA slaps down a plea deal on the table in front of a suspect, we don’t sit there for half an hour while the suspect’s lawyer goes over it and then discusses it with her client – that’s dull. So, instead, we just sort of gloss over the fact that those things happened. Yeah, they read and discussed the deal at some point. James Bond has to eat occasionally. Yes, Frodo and Sam pooped in Mordor.

It is frustrating, for a writer’s perspective, to have people point out these little gaps. Stuff like “When does he change clothes?” or “Why didn’t she get change for her coffee?” or “I never see this guy ever cash any of his paychecks!” Had a friend of mine kindly agree to critique a story of mine once in which two survivors of an apocalypse were riding their bikes down an empty interstate highway and his question was “what happens if they get a flat tire?” So, okay, yeah – that could be explained (lot of abandoned bicycle shops out there!). All of this stuff could be explained and pretty easily. The question is, though, whether you want it explained and whether that would be a good use of limited space and time. Do we want to have a pee break on the way through Mirkwood? Do we have to watch Bruce Wayne spend his days popping in and out of charity fundraiser after charity fundraiser and shake hands and make nice and so on and so forth? Or, you know, would you rather we just skip past a lot of that and get to the Batman part? When faced with the choice, a lot of these so-called “important” questions suddenly look like the hair-splitting silliness they are.

He does it with style, too.

He does it with style, too.

There is a point, though, were streamlining can go too far. Getting back to Orphan Black for a second: Sarah knows Dyad is after her and her child, so she goes on the run. She hops in a car and drives…not very far, as it turns out, since when she decides to come back again she’s back in less than a few hours. Now, okay, okay – if Sarah drives clear to the other side of Canada, she’s basically left the sandbox of the world the writers have set up and she can’t be part of the story anymore unless she pulls a Varys and basically teleports across oceans and continents with ease. Viewers don’t really want a whole sideplot for half a season where Sarah tries to start a new life in a new place with new characters, etc, etc.. She needs to be close by so the plot can advance.

But, at the same time, having her stick around that close makes no actual sense. Nor does Felix spontaneously bursting into tears and going back to his deathtrap apartment (sweet a pad as it is). Sarah’s primary priority has always been her daughter above all else and Felix knows going back to his place endangers everybody (chiefly himself), otherwise he wouldn’t have gone with them in the first place, and yet they all do these silly things anyway because, if they didn’t, the plot wouldn’t work. This is sloppy, because it shows the authorial hand too nakedly in the unfolding of events. It’s pulling back the curtain on a magic trick. It’s the writing equivalent of a missed note in a recital. It maybe doesn’t crash the whole thing (as mentioned, I do like the show), but it knocks you out of the dream for a second.

Now, we can argue about how bad an offender this or that story is in this sense, but the fact is that stories often use the Idiot Ball to control action. They make characters stupider or less competent than they should actually be in order to force the plot to fit. This is a different problem than just cutting out the boring bits, but it comes from the same place: things need to be streamlined, to connect, or otherwise you wind up with a crazy unwieldy plot that you can’t handle anymore (hat tip to a lot of epic fantasy authors out there). Streamline the wrong parts, though, and you wind up with Orphan Black‘s tendency to have everyone they meet to be part of some conspiracy of some kind to track, capture, or destroy clones (which, while understandable from a structural point of view, starts to get a little silly after a while).

So what to do? Well, that’s the trick – there’s no easy answer here. The fact is that you, the writer, need to come up with plausible and reasonable ways to make sure the story doesn’t spin off its axis or mutate into the wrong kind of story. I’m struggling with this myself in the next Saga of the Redeemed novel, and it is no cake walk. However, I recognize that I need to do it and do it well if I want my story to transport and be acceptable. I don’t want to knock people out of the dream, if you follow my meaning. I have to separate the important parts from the unimportant, the easily plausible from the implausible. And I don’t ever need to explain to you when and where and why my main character needs to take a leak.

5 Things Life Would Be Better Without

This is me today.

This is me today.

Feel like complaining, but not to the level where I need to awaken Vrokthar. I’m having one of those days that isn’t bad, exactly, but it is annoying. So, after I stepped in dog poop and tripped getting onto the train and had autocorrect try very hard to make me look like a fool and so on, I’m going to tell you about 5 things the world does not need and would be better without. You may or may not agree – I don’t really care that much.

Pictured: me failing to get my touchscreen to do things.

Pictured: me failing to get my touchscreen to do things.

#5: Touchscreens

Let me start with an unpopular choice. Was there something wrong with buttons I was unaware of? Because I felt like buttons worked just fine. They reacted to your touch, they always depressed when you hit them, and they were pretty functional. But no, some jackhole had to go invent the buttonless objects that now pervade my daily existence.

Perhaps I’m a vampire, but touchscreens refuse to consistently acknowledge my touch. I find myself jabbing at a flat sheet of graphene (or whatever they’re made out of) over and over and nothing happens. At least with buttons, I could isolate the root of the problem fairly quickly – if the button was going in, the problem wasn’t with the button – but with touchscreens, who knows? Also, who knows if you’re hitting the right one? They make the damned icons so small that my enormous fingers are constantly doing the wrong thing. I legitimately have to pivot my fingers sideways so I can swipe with the narrow band of flesh alongside my fingernails to get things to work. That is assuming it agrees to acknowledge my existence, which it does not.

Additionally, there is no reason buttons couldn’t work! Put a control cross and two buttons and a scroll wheel or such on the bottom edge of a phone and bam–it would work fine! Keyboards could fold off the back, just like they did in days of old.

Either that, or somebody invent a goddamned touchscreen that reacts to my touch. Unlike now, where they just react to my screams.

#4: DVD Menu Intro Sequences

JUST START THE MOVIE ALREADY OH MY GOD!

JUST START THE MOVIE ALREADY OH MY GOD!

I don’t know about you, but when I put a DVD into a DVD player, I want the movie to begin. Like, right away. Sure, sure – I’m willing to tolerate the existence of previews and such (movie studios have to make their money somehow), but why in hell’s name do I have to watch a five minute sequence of Zazu flying across the damned Pridelands just to start the stupid movie? Is anybody under the illusion that this crap is entertaining? Yeah, sure, a menu ought to exist, but we shouldn’t have to see it unless we want to (by pushing the menu *button*). The idea that somebody, somewhere, spent a boatload of money and wasted hours and hours and hours of labor to create a video animation sequence that NO ONE WANTS TO SEE AT ALL makes me wonder for the sanity of the human race.

Of course, maybe all you hip folks out there haven’t watched a DVD in some years and don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore. Me? I’ve got kids who like to watch DVDs, and Disney is one of the worst offenders for this nonsense.

#3: Autocorrect

This is an old one – been around since we were afflicted by smartphones – but just to reiterate: COMPUTERS SUCK AT GUESSING WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY!

Generally I disapprove of all minion-themed memes. This is an exception.

Generally I disapprove of all minion-themed memes. This is an exception.

Look, I know how to spell, dammit. And, even if I don’t, I’d rather be occasionally bad at spelling than constantly not making sense. My phone’s autocorrect feature is constantly changing the weirdest things – like, not even nouns, but adjectives and articles and stuff. And WHY? Seriously, why? What, people can’t learn to spell anymore? And even if they can’t, it isn’t like autocorrect actively improves anybody’s spelling. C’mon, we’ve all got that one relative in our social media feed who is a living reminder of how spellcheck and autocorrect do NOTHING to help you if your grasp of English is tenuous!

I’m a writer. It drives me bonkers when I make a grammatical or spelling error. The only thing, though, that drives me even more bonkers is when some stupid machine dips into my own writing and makes the mistakes on its own and then passes off such mistakes as mine! Arrrggghhh!

If you gave me a time machine and told me I had to go back in time and kill one person, the person who invented spellcheck would be it.

#2: Movies on TV with “Hosts”

Again, showing my age here a bit, but I still watch things on actual television. Sometimes I’ll catch a movie I haven’t seen yet. And sometimes, for reasons that baffle the sane mind, those movies are “hosted” by people. People who waste time before and after commercials talking to me about nonsense.

STOP TALKING AND PUT TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES BACK ON!

STOP TALKING AND PUT TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES BACK ON!

WHY IS THIS A THING?

Like, this never made sense. Not ever. Not even in the 1970s. The idea that TV networks are still doing this today, 40 years later, is absolutely mind-blowing. Who the hell tunes into Thor: The Dark World on FX and wants to see two smiling, vacuous twits banter artificially on a set somewhere? I just don’t get it. I don’t understand where they find these people. I don’t understand what these people think their job entails. I don’t understand how anybody justifies paying these people money to do this. IT’S A MOVIE! IT DOES NOT NEED A HOST!

You don’t need a concierge to make you appreciate the Godfather movies. You don’t need a spirit guide to take you through the complexities of Kung Fu Panda.

Or, what, maybe people do? Maybe there’s some old lady out there who would be completely lost in the twists and turns of Roadhouse were it not for that smiling couple trying to cook “Roadhouse Hash” while the movie is on? I mean, assuming this is true, here’s my first thought: maybe this person shouldn’t be allowed to watch television unsupervised. Maybe this is the kind of person who turns on Fox News, thinks it’s all true, and votes for Trump. Maybe – just maybe – the tiny demographic who craves or needs or enjoys hosted movies on television are the reason why life is awful and everything is terrible and we’re all going to die of global climate change.

You know, maybe.

It's probably bulletproof. You know, just because.

It’s probably bulletproof. You know, just because.

#1: Hard Plastic Packaging Material

So, Vrokthar has complained about this before, and he says it much more eloquently than I. That said, who the hell thought we wanted to purchase objects so irrevocably sealed into their little plastic containers that neither man nor beast could liberate them? Why do I need to break out a knife to open these things? Seriously – not even scissors is enough. I need a sharp knife, a vice, and time to get my flash drive free. Hell, just yesterday my wife got a package of birthday invitations that were sealed in two separate layers of thick plastic so durable, it would not tear. I needed to cut them out.

I can see the rationale to prevent theft here, I guess – expensive, small objects that can be easily ripped from packaging can get stolen. But is somebody willing to tear open a cardboard box in public like some kind of rabid racoon really going to have a hard time stuffing a slightly larger plastic package into their underwear?

And then how do you explain the packages inside other packages. Like, seriously, the flavoring packages in discount Macaroni and Cheese are build to withstand the strength of five men. Ever try to gracefully open the plastic bag inside a box of Cheerios? What the fuck, Corporate America? Is this some kind of elaborate prank? Is it just funny to you?

One of the most amusing things in movies is the speed with which somebody can purchase an item at an electronics store and then open it to use it. You see this especially often with pay-as-you-go cell phones. They buy one and bam – it’s in their hand. Meanwhile, actual people are asking their friends if they have a hacksaw in their garage because they’ve got to call their mom.

Anyway, I’ve complained enough. If you’d like to add to the list, feel free to comment. Enjoy your Monday.

How Weird is Too Weird?

Something about this book is just a little...off. Can't put my finger on it...

Something about this book is just a little…off. Can’t put my finger on it…

I just re-read Dune over the past few weeks, prepping to teach it in my scifi elective class come spring semester. This is probably my fourth time reading the book and, at this point, it all seems very clear and straightforward. Herbert’s world-building is marvelous as ever and I’m excited to teach it. However, as with any time I read a book with a mind to teach classes on it, I tried to keep in mind just how accessible the work is to a casual reader. If you’ve ever read Herbert’s work, “accessible” is perhaps not the first word that comes to mind. The world of Arrakis is densely layered and context clues to how everything works are relatively rare; there is a glossary and appendices included at the back of the novel for a reason.

So, okay, my students are going to struggle with it a bit. The question becomes “is that a bad thing?”

Part of the purpose of scifi and fantasy is to challenge the reader’s preconceived notions. The author seeks to create a new and alien place for you to inhabit for a while to get you thinking about the real, actual world (even if only subconsciously). Some do this with worlds that are just a touch off of our own (much of the cyberpunk sub-genre, for instance, or near-future hard scifi like The Martian). Some do it with wildly different worlds so far removed from our own, the comparison is more abstract and less direct – works like Herbert’s Dune series or even Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.

Personally, while I don’t dislike the more realistic tales, I really dig a good wild ride in a totally alien universe. The price for entry into these wild settings is high, though. It takes a while to get settled in Iain M. Banks’ Culture setting, for instance, though the pay off when you do is proportionally greater (for me). Novelty, of course, is a special thing in literature of any stripe, and any world as wild and strange (and yet fully realized) as Leckie’s Imperial Radch or anything in a China Mieville novel is something to be treasured and a challenge to be met.

TOO WEIRD

TOO WEIRD

In rattling off these names of books and authors, though, you might have noticed that some of them are easier reads than others. This leads me to my last rumination for the day: where, exactly, should the line be drawn between the alien and the familiar? Let’s be honest: there is a real, actual limit to how strange your world can be before it becomes essentially unreadable. A book no one reads is not the goal of any author, no matter how avant-garde they want to be, so where do you hold back? How weird is too weird?

I haven’t much of an answer to give you, I’m afraid. I don’t know that this is something easily solved by a set of hard and fast rules. I can say, however, that you need something at the heart of your tale to ground the audience in the familiar, otherwise you’ll lose their interest. Paul’s relationship with his parents in Dune is sufficiently understandable to carry you through all the bizarre chat about the Kwisatz Haderach and folding space/time with psychedelic spice. Likewise, no matter how strange the Culture seems, Banks (usually) populates it with main characters who are, in broad strokes, not too different from us in attitude and behavior, even if their cultural background is very strange and their appearance off-kilter. Both of these authors, though, cross the lines in some places. Herbert’s later Dune books are very, very weird to the point where they’re hard to connect to. Banks, likewise, has certain seventh dimensional plotlines circling around the doings of super-intelligent AIs that keeps the reader at a distance. As interesting as those books are, readers tend to love with their hearts, not their minds.

Though my current series of novels isn’t that off the beaten path, I grow restless anyway. One of my earlier novels was a multiple-reality/quantum causality thriller which was, frankly, too weird to work so I toned it down into a stock adventure novel and then it also didn’t work. If I go back to it (and other) ideas I have kicking around that are not the standard fare, I’m going to have to think long and hard about how to balance the strange with the familiar, the bracing with the comfortable, if I plan on selling the idea to anyone. Maybe then I’ll have better luck.

Wherein I Plot My Hostile Takeover of On the Dot Books

No seriously - this is what I look like.

No seriously – this is what I look like.

This Friday (10/7/16) from 12pm-2pm EST, I will be taking over the Twitter feed of local bookstore, On the Dot Books. Thus will my dominance of all local bookchains be assured, as they will quake in terror of my wrath ever after.

(ahem)

By which I mean I hope to have a lovely conversation with all of you wonderful people out there on Twitter regarding my books (read The Saga of the Redeemed!), writing, scifi/fantasy, and whatever you like. Ask questions, trade pithy jabs, and even be exposed to my vast store of stock photography and memes. It should hopefully be a lot of fun and serve to promote not only myself but also a great independent bookstore here in Boston.

So, this Friday, stop by during your lunch-break to pick my brain on Twitter at @onthedotbooks – great fun will be had!