Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Best of BCS, Year Six

The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year Six e-book anthology is now out! It has twenty-two stories from the sixth year of BCS, including my story "At the Edge of the Sea."
The Best of BCS, Year Six features such authors as Yoon Ha Lee, Helen Marshall, Richard Parks, Gemma Files, Seth Dickinson, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and Cat Rambo. 
It includes "No Sweeter Art" by Tony Pi, a finalist for the 2015 Aurora Awards and 2015 Parsec Awards, and "The Breath of War" by Aliette de Bodard, a finalist for the 2014 Nebula Awards. 
The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine, Year Six will be available in September for only $3.99 from major ebook retailers including Kindle, Barnes & Noble, iTunes/iBooks, Kobo, WeightlessBooks.com, and more.
All proceeds from the anthology go toward supporting such humble wordsmiths as yours truly. Click here for more purchase information.

BCS is also running a sale on the anthology at Weightless Books. Any reader who buys Best of BCS Year Six from WeightlessBooks.com will get a coupon for 30% all other BCS titles at Weightless, including other anthologies, back issues, and BCS subscriptions.

My story "At the Edge of the Sea" was inspired by Rachel Carson's books about marine life (e.g., At the Edge of the Sea), Adolf Portmann's Animal Forms and Patterns, Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, and childhood collecting expeditions on the Gulf coast with my biology-teacher father. The backstory owes a bit to the banishments that took place during the reign of Augustus.

But more than anything, in my opinion, here's just not enough fiction about horseshoe crab sex out there; I'm doing my part to fill in that gap.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Red Harvest and Dark Knight

I recently re-read Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest for the nth time. It's one of my favorite books. For a great many years I've been a fan of such movies as Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, whose plots feature a nameless protagonist of dubious uprightness who strolls/rides into a town rotten with corruption, plays the ringleaders against one another, using them to conduct a fiery, bloody purgation, and leaving the clean but significantly depopulated community to the survivors. Red Harvest is, as far as I can tell, the basic template for such films.

"Baxter's over there, Rojo's there, me right smack in the middle."
The nameless Continental Op comes into the dreary, corrupt "Poisonville" on a routine job, but when things go awry and an attempt is made on his life, he vows to open it up "from Adam's apple to ankles." And he does, pitting gangster against gangster in a war that escalates from shots in the dark to pipe bombs and machine guns, until the last pair shoot each other's guts out and the national guard is being called in to restore order. It's all so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes.

The Op describes his mode of operation to Dinah Brand, the goddess-muse-fury of Poisonville:
"Plans are all right sometimes," I said. "And sometimes just stirring things up is all right if you're tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you see what you want when it comes to the top."
In other words, he's an agent of chaos.

On the other hand, I'm an admirer of Christopher Nolan's Batman films. I'm not big on superhero films, but I like DC Comics, and Batman in particular. Always have. It's the fashion nowadays to speak rather dismissively of the Nolan films and of dark, gritty superhero films in general, and I get that – the style is hard to do right, and very bad when done wrong. But I tell you what, we'll be talking about the Dark Knight Trilogy long after all the others being made right now are forgotten. Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, etc., did something no one else has succeeded in doing: they made a single-focus superhero film series with a clear beginning, middle, and end – a complete plot arc – with no loose ends and no chance of continuation. And, what's more, they did something beautiful with it.

Really, the DKT is not best understood as a set of superhero films. They stand more in the realm of fantasy. I think of them as film noir meets mythology. I've commented before on the Man With No Name and the ways in which Batman fits that role. (Cf. The Man With No Name; The Dark Knight; The Harrowing of Gotham.)

Recently, though, just after having finished Red Harvest, I was watching The Dark Knight (which I do with embarrassing frequency), and I noticed something that I'd never seen before: its narrative structure is not unlike Red Harvest and its cinematic descendants, but Batman doesn't play the Op's role. The Joker does. Batman is one of the powers pitted against the others! Did I just blow your mind?

But look at it. The Joker has no name and no history. This is emphasized by Jim Gordon while he's in the holding cell at MCU. (In the comic books he had various backstories, which arguably is the same thing.) In his dialogue with Harvey Dent – one of the great scenes of film – he says:
Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just... do things. [...]
I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." [Finger quotes!] Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds! [Hands Dent a gun and points it at himself.] Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!
By the end of the movie, the three big gangsters are all dead, their money is torched with their launderer, the corruption on the police force is exposed, the national guard is called in to restore order, and Batman is driven out as a pariah. If the Joker had set out specifically to clean up Gotham, he couldn't have been more efficient.

Of course that's not all there is to the movie. For one thing, the Joker clearly did not set out with that in mind. He seems to want to establish a new order, the order, not of organized crime and police corruption, but of insane supervillainy. That he fails is Batman's victory; but that Batman and Commissioner Gordon have to base the new peace on a lie is the Joker's even greater victory.

The Dark Knight films are truly noir. They are consistently ambivalent about the role of Bruce Wayne / Batman. Consider, for instance, that in each of the first and third films, it's a Wayne Enterprises invention that threatens the city. And Batman himself is arguably to blame for the escalation in urban violence and the rise of the Joker.

At any rate, it's interesting to see the plot structure of Red Harvest appear as a subordinate component of a recent film.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Donald Trump and Me

All my life I've been telling myself that one day – one day – I would share the front-page news with Donald Trump. Well, my friends, that day has arrived.

Yes, that's the nice thing about living in an out-of-the-way place. There's a pretty low bar for making the news. As you can see, I even made it above the fold. (Well, partially.) Which underscores something that seems rather quaint by today's standards: where I live, if you want to know what's going on, you have to get a print newspaper subscription. Crazy!

The article is in Q&A format. Even if you read this blog only on rare occasions, most of it will be no news to you. It gets my workplace wrong (I work at a university, not a junior college), but that only serves to keep my real-life persona shrouded in shadows of disinformation, much like Batman.

I offer the article mainly as a curiosity, because I feel fairly certain that this is the first time a magazine like Beneath Ceaseless Skies and (possibly) the Hugo award have made the news in my region.

Now, the last time I wrote about my art show, I pontificated in a faintly self-congratulatory manner on the fact that there is no bookstore within a couple hundred miles of Del Rio. Here you can see that I was not entirely correct, as there was in fact a book sale at the "mall" (ahem) that Saturday. I happened upon it while we were at said mall for the tax-free weekend mentioned on Page 1. (Because, for us, Del Rio is the Big City. I mean, they even have a Starbucks and a Chick-fil-A now.)

Whilst perusing the wares, I ran into the reporter who wrote the article posted here. He told me he had read "The Scale-Tree" and enjoyed it. So there: I gained a reader for BCS in the middle Rio Grande border region.

Also whilst perusing the wares I suffered a small indignity. One of the book-sale ladies, seeing me there with my kids, kept pushing children's books on me. She went so far as to hand my kids book after book (all crummy picture books) and try to convince them to buy them. She kept hovering by us and wouldn't take no for an answer.

Finally, trying to be as civil as I could, I told her that, if I wanted to buy my kids books, I was capable of making the selections myself (with their input, of course), and also that I intended to wait for my wife, who was elsewhere at the time.

Not to be put off, she offered to take the books she'd handed us and keep them at the table, "if," she said, "you're really coming back, and not just saying that."

"No thanks," I said. "We'll get them later if we want them."

"If you just don't have the money," she said, "I'll pay for them myself." (They cost a quarter apiece.)

Through gritted teeth: "No. Thank you."

So I guess I come across as a deadbeat who lies to book-sale ladies, keeps his little waifs starved of books, and probably beats his dog every weekend. In reality, my kids have two bookcases filled to capacity, and I have three large bookcases filled to capacity, plus an antique secretary full of books, plus a shelf of art books in my studio, plus two large bookcases full of math books and great books in my office, plus several boxes of books in a closet, plus a bunch more under my bed. So I'm just kind of selective about what makes the cut. (I also don't have a dog, though I do have a pretty brown hen who comes into the house, flaps up to my shoulder, and clucks tenderly to me.)

But I guess it serves me right after my back-patting. Here's these ladies, working as volunteers, and by that simple act probably doing more for literacy in the region than I ever could. So here's to you, book-sale ladies. We're all in this together!

(For the record, we ended up buying two Laura Ingalls Wilder books, The Sign of the Beaver, Julie of the Wolves, a compact Modern Library edition of Pascal's Pensées and Provincial Letters, and a large book of botanical illustrations, all hardcover. Somehow this ended up costing exactly $4.00.)