Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tell it Slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
— Emily Dickinson

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Nightspore Forest of Ir

My most recently published story, "The Goblin King's Concubine," has now appeared in podcast form in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Journey through Nightspore Forest of Ir on your commute!

Lois Tilton of Locus Online reviewed the story, and had this to say:
Maugreth is on an expedition to find the lost princess of the house of Adul, there being a reward for her return. After a perilous journey of murder and betrayal, much of it on his part, he discovers her living comfortably in a village of the goblins, here called helborim. She agrees to be rescued but insists on bringing along her half-breed offspring.
"I know what you're thinking," said Minuë. "It's true, we're hideous to them. But to Cheirod I was a peerless prize. He brooks no dissent and consummates his every desire. Several of his wise men objected when he chose to adopt the fruit of my womb as heir. They were promptly impaled."
A dark, cruel fantasy, where the unlucky are devoured by spiders or suffer other gruesome fates. There is a strong retro tone to the tale, as the central image is that of a naked white woman held as a sex slave by a monster – or a creature that most humans would consider a monster. But this princess is a match for human or goblin. There is also a sense here of a larger world beyond the backwater where the story finds itself, nations and races and languages yet unseen. A maugreth, for example, is a term of disgust and we don't know why our character has chosen to call himself by such a name, although it certainly seems fitting, given his actions.
Which I suppose about sums it up. I wrote a bit about the story's inspiration in a previous post. I should probably also mention Heart of Darkness as a rather obvious source of inspiration. As to the sense of a larger world, I appreciate that insight; this is an episode in a cycle of stories centered on Zilla and his fate in Enoch, explored in a number of yet-to-be-published short stories and a complete full-length novel.

UPDATE: Thanks also to Fletcher Vredenburgh for his kind review over at Black Gate. I aim to please!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tom Cruise and Tech-Noir

I've now advanced to the point where, instead of watching only movies that come out in the $5.00 bin at Wal-Mart, I actually rent them online, through a company that shall remain nameless, because I haven't been paid for an advertisement, although it isn't one whose CEO publicly insults the intelligence of its American patrons. Now, generally these movies consist of either sci-fi action flicks from the eighties — preferably with my favorite actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (no, really) — or else Japanese kaiju films, because what I really like is film noir, and it isn't easy to find obscure noir titles available for streaming. But last night I got out of my rut by renting a more recent sci-fi action flick, and that despite its having my least favorite actor, Tom Cruise; the reason being that the flick in question has frequently been described as neo-noir or tech-noir, and was based on a Philip K. Dick story.

I speak, of course, of The Minority Report. Alas, it disappointed in the film noir department. Before I get to that, though, let me discuss…product placement.

Off the top of my head, I saw ads — not just products, but overt ads — for Lexus, Guinness, The Gap, Aquafina, Pepsi… The neat thing about advertisements in the dystopian future is that they scan your eyes so as to tailor their annoying, intrusive, soul-crushing distractions specifically to you, in public places. Now, think about this. We all know what it's like to have Google or Facebook or whatnot try to guess what we're into and adapt their ads accordingly, with sometimes rather mortifying results. Can you imagine a giant animated billboard shouting at you—using your own first name—while you're drifting along with a crowd of strangers, blasting something like: "HEY JOHN WE KNOW YOU SUFFER FROM INCONTINENCE WHY NOT TRY DEPENDS FOR A CHANGE?" Yeah. I mean, would there be an Adblocker for that? And, if that future Adblocker began working so well that it threatened to burst the public advertising bubble, would it begin admitting certain ads so that the world as we know it wouldn't come crashing down around our ears in a case of the parasite killing the host and, thus, itself? But I digress. What I really want to know is why these mega-corporations thought such product placement was a good idea. Do they want to be seen as intrusive, soul-crushing mega-corporations that stalk you every waking moment of every day? Apparently!

This might all seem like a quibble, but I think it says something about the sold-out nature of the movie and of Hollywood in general. The ads obviously aren't intended as dystopian satire, although Spielberg does leave that escape route open to himself, despite having taken whatever money he took to place them in the movie in the first place. How much more cynical can you get? Placing soul-crushing advertisements under cover of satirizing soul-crushing advertisements! Compare it with the true tech-noir, Blade Runner. We do see obtrusive advertisement in Blade Runner, but it's presented as dreary, frightening, and/or weird. Yes, there are some actual brands here and there, but they stay where they're supposed to: in the story.

The comparison with Blade Runner is an apt one. It is, as I said, the true tech-noir. It maintains emotional detachment. It follows an unsympathetic protagonist through a dirty job and a twisted romance with one of the replicants he's assigned to destroy. It closes without closure, bringing the plot to a logical conclusion while leaving you in the air regarding the protagonist's destiny (or identity). It definitely stands in the line of Kiss Me Deadly and The Maltese Falcon.

This is the kind of picture Hollywood is afraid to present us with now, on a large budget at any rate. It can't give us a seemingly unsympathetic character without making sure we know it's only skin deep and stems from some awful tragedy that the character will get over by the end of the film. Another movie that masquerades as noir — L. A. Confidential — shows the same squeamishness. The two movies — L. A. Confidential and The Minority Report — actually have a lot in common, including pivotal scenes and plot elements. That's neither here nor there, perhaps, but at any rate they share this merely superficial resemblance to film noir. The Minority Report borrows classical music from Kiss Me Deadly, makes a variety of nods to various noir motifs, uses a desaturated palette, etc. But just as it takes more than bleached-out filmstrips to approach the stylistic marks of film noir, so does it take a lot more than an emotionally justified substance-abuse problem to make a true noir protagonist.

As an aside, I find it remarkable that, under the restrictions of the Hays Code, Hollywood could plumb the very depths of human depravity — sure, sometimes you have to read between the lines, but it's definitely there — while in our more liberal time it can show you a lot more, but to little effect, because it's evidently lost its sense of good and evil and their dirty mixture in a man's soul. Characters like Orson Welles' Hank Quinlan can't exist anymore. Everyone is a white hat or a black hat, and writers think they're being profound when they reveal a white hat to have secretly been a black hat all along.

More generally, The Minority Report doesn't take up the challenge it sets itself. It has the potential to ask profound questions about time and free will, but is content with letting the protagonist run around trying to clear his name. The philosophical difficulties with using precogs to prevent crimes and incarcerate the would-be offenders are raised but left more or less to the side; in the end the program is shut down because it happened to screw up. This is Philip K. Dick turned it into a Mission Impossible adventure story with a happy ending; indeed, the specific questions Dick raises are lost in the shuffle. And yes, I've heard the argument that the protagonist is hallucinating the last scenes while in deep freeze or whatever, but I don't buy it. If you ask me, it's just another way the movie compromises its principles while leaving an out for the cultists.

All that said, it's not a bad movie. I don't understand the praise lavished upon it, but I enjoyed watching it. The plot holes, though numerous, aren't that obvious, and the backdrops are quite memorable. The technology really does seem prescient at some points. There are a lot of nice little touches, like the dancing figures on the cereal box that won't turn off like they're supposed to. So, if you're reading this (!), and hanging on my very words (!!), I would say, watch it if you haven't. Just don't expect Blade Runner.

And if you're really wanting to see a great Spielberg movie, go watch Duel. That's where it's at.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Goblin King's Concubine

I'm pleased to report that my story "The Goblin King's Concubine" has just appeared in Issue 129 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. BCS is an excellent venue for literary adventure fantasy, and I'm honored to have my work appear there for the second time.

The story itself is in part a subversive tribute to Robert E. Howard. It's inspired by the "rescue" of Cynthia Ann Parker (mother of Quanah Parker) from the Comanches by Sul Ross and the Texas Rangers, an event also echoed in Howard's tale "The Vale of Lost Women." Howard's latent racism, which unfortunately mars several of his stories, is in evidence here, and my story explores chauvinism and otherness (and goblin villages and lycopod forests). But I also admire Howard as a small-town Texan who inhabited his locality through speculative fiction; as a writer, he stands head and shoulders above his various imitators and posthumous collaborators.

The character of Zilla, by the bye, is inspired by certain (to me, chilling) passages of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, e.g.:
Meanwhile there grew up in his son that much more dangerous and harder new type of skepticism—who knows how much it owed precisely to the hatred of the father and the icy melancholy of a will condemned to solitude?—the skepticism of audacious manliness which is most closely related to the genius for war and conquest… This skepticism despises and nevertheless seizes; it undermines and takes possession; it does not believe but does not lose itself in the process; it gives the spirit dangerous freedom, but it is severe on the heart…
They say that you shouldn't reveal the "bones" that went into making the soup of a story, but I presume that people clicking the link to this blog are interested in such things. Anyway, all of this concerns the matter; the form is something else entirely.

America's Great Epic

Last weekend I drove in a single day from the torrid depths of my place in the Texas hinterlands amid prickly pears and palm trees to the airy heights of the Colorado Rockies, then drove all the way back two days later, again in a single day. But it was no wearisome journey, for I had as companion and copilot an unabridged audiobook of Moby-Dick, read by the peerless Frank Muller, who (by gum) did an Ahab that seemed almost enfleshed beside me in the cab of my pickup truck. After twenty-one hours of listening I reached from hell's heart I stab at thee in a town called Eden set upon the rolling uplands of central Texas, with sunset thunderheads flashing in the distance before me.

I recently wrote a post comparing Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun to Moby-Dick. But, oh, while it may be argued that BOTNS is the Moby-Dick of science fiction, being the "Moby-Dick of" something and actually being Moby-Dick are quite different propositions. O sublimity, O profundity, O humor and vivacity of that greatest of American epics!
But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb's boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip's ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.