Insha’Allah by Matthew Cook (Interzone) – This is the second Matthew Cook story I’ve come across in Interzone this year, and I’ve been impressed with the quiet sure-footedness of his writing. There may be question over whether the society of the Muslim-settled planet under threat from alien attack is enough of an extrapolation from a similar contemporary society to warrant being drawn as science fiction, but I greatly enjoyed the story nevertheless.
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Friday, July 29, 2011
Insha'Allah by Matthew Cook addresses concerns about Islamic society, in particular the role of women and the potential strength of the Mullahs in dictating the law. Science fiction often uses metaphor or extrapolation to make serious points about the way we live today. This story makes its points absolutely straight up with only a sprinkling of sci-fi in the background. It could be set in modern Afghanistan and be about a crashed fighter pilot, but the enemy being fought are the E'k, the fighter pilot has implants and technology under her skin and there are hints that the battle is taking place in the near future.There's a bit more, but you get the point... And for what it's worth I think Rob makes a good point: I do think that good storytelling should, wherever possible, deal with universal issues and must contain characters that the reader can relate to. As such, I tried to consciously tell a story that COULD be "transplanted" from a sci-fi setting. As always, I leave it up to the reader to decide if I actually MET this goal.
Insha'Allah by Matthew Cooke, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A female doctor-turned-body-washer on a fundamentalist Muslim world is faced with treating a crashed female spaceship pilot, fallen from a battle for the planet raging overhead. A most unusual story which sticks in the mind.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Friday, July 8, 2011
Friday, April 22, 2011
Welcome to another exciting eposide of my ongoing series: The Lettered Curmugeon. Here, you'll find reviews on books, movies, TV shows and games, all told from a writer's perspective. In this installment, I'll be taking a look at a new series, set to debut in May: the contemporary fantasy anthology: Welcome To Bordertown.
1986 was an exciting year for geeks. Movies like Aliens, Big Trouble in Little China, Labyrinth, and Highlander were in the theaters. William Gibson’s Count Zero hit the shelves that year, and Orson Scot Card’s Ender’s Game won the Hugo, while Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Moore’s Watchmen changed comic books forever.
It was also a good year for anthologies. 1986 marked the debut of an ambitious “shared world” anthology created by Terri Windling and Mark Allen Arnold: Bordertown.
The original collection was a slender volume: four short stories filled with spell-powered motorcycles and rock-and-roll bands fronted by elven frontmen, set in a city on the edge of our world and the realm of faerie. Both magic and technology blended together in Bordertown, working sporadically, if at all, creating a place where curses turned runaway human boys into werewolves (sort of), and where the red waters of the Mad River, flowing out of faerie, were as addictive as unfulfilled dreams. It was, in many ways, the birthplace of “urban fantasy”, a sub-genre where traditional fairy-tales were updated for a modern audience through the amazing storytelling of Charles de Lint, Terri Windling, Emma Bull, and countless others.
Over the years, I’ve purchased thousands of books, but only a few stand out so strongly that I remember exactly where I was when I bought them. Bordertown is one such volume, one of the rare few. To say the anthology and the ones that followed (two other short story collections and a handful of novels) were influential on my own writing is an understatement. To say that I was excited when I learned that the Bordertown series was being resurrected for a modern audience equally so.
At 2010’s World Fantasy Convention, I was handed a copy of Welcome To Bordertown, the latest collection by the series’ current editors Ellen Kushner and Holly Black. It’s a massive collection: twelve new short stories from accomplished authors Cory Doctorow, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Tim Pratt, and Charles de Lint, as well as from relative newcomers such as Annette Curtis Klause, Janni Lee Simner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Nalo Hopkinson. The volume also includes poems by Neil Gaiman, Patricia A. McKillip, Delia Sherman, Jane Yolen, as well as a short, illustrated comic by Sara Ryan & Dylan Meconis. But does this latest incarnation of the beloved franchise not only capture the “where magic meets rock-and-roll” wonder of the original series (hey, the 80’s were a long time ago) while adding something new and fresh for the current generation of urban fantasy readers?
I’m happy to report that it does. In spades.
In this latest collection, Black and Kushner have resurrected the series, updating the setting and providing a fertile playground for a new generation of writers, all while preserving much of the nostalgic feelings of old. It’s a good trick, accomplished via a clever explanation of the city’s disappearance from the world we know. During this period, Bordertown skipped across time, like a stone tossed on a still pond, re-emerging over a decade later, a period its inhabitants experienced not as thirteen years, but as thirteen days. For that time, the roads leading back to the human world were closed.
Once re-opened, a new crop of miscreants and runaways find their way to the City Beside The Border. These misplaced dreamers, however, are different than the ones who came before: wired teens armed not with guitars, but with cell phones and Facebook feeds; girls with daydreams of darkly romantic vampires and smoldering werewolves; entrepreneurial network geeks driven by visions of sending data packets across the forbidden border into faerie.
No story uses the “lost in time” mechanism better than Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “A Prince of Thirteen Days”. It’s a poignant coming-of-age tale, populated by haunted statues, a wise and kindly Grandmother, and a family torn apart by space and time. In Johnson’s tale, star-crossed lovers pass messages across impossible borders, using art as their medium, leading to a resolution that, for all its inevitability, still manages to set its melancholy hook.
Other tales, such as Nalo Hopkinson’s “Ours Is The Prettiest”, and Cory Doctorow’s “Shannon’s Law”, take the series in fresh, thoroughly unexpected, directions. Hopkin’s story adds a refreshing dose of multiculturalism, drawing inspiration not from the traditional European faerie story, but rather the dark magic of New Orleans voodoo. What emerges is a sometimes confusing yet oddly memorable tale, one that lingers on the mind, spicy and sweet, like the taste of etouffee long after the last page is turned. In contrast, Cory Doctorow offers up a tale that could have come out of Silicon Valley, if it had been overrun by myth, where a visionary entrepreneur seeks a novel approach to circumventing the impenetrable border into faerie through high technology. It’s a story only Doctorow could have given us, full of inside jokes about web culture and technology. His progatonists are likable, if unlikely, heroes, wrapped in a narrative that seamlessly blends the wonder of our current-day achievements with a healthy respect for the traditional rules of the fairy tale.
Fans of the original series will be pleased by stories such as Emma Bull’s “Incunabulum”, Holly Black and Cassandra Clare’s “The Rowan Gentleman”, and Will Shetterly’s “The Sages of Elsewhere.” All three are classic Bordertown through-and-through, clear nods to what came before, harkening back to the glory days of urban fantasy. All are fun reads, but it’s Shetterly’s “Sages” that’s the stand-out, primarily due to the return of Wolfboy, one of my all-time favorite B’town characters. “Incunabulum” and “Rowan Gentleman” also deliver memorable moments, usually through the interaction of original characters and archetypes with the new-breed of Bordertown runaways. It’s culture-clash-as-metaphor, applied with artful skill by Bull, Black and Clare, offered up to the reader’s continued delight.
Alongside the collection’s stories are poems and song lyrics, written by past Bordertown alums and leading voices in the fantasy genre. The editors have stated that it is their desire for the Bordertown community to take these words and set them to their own music, creating new and original works. How this will work is still up in the air, however it is my understanding that space will be provided on the new Bordertown website (http://bordertownseries.com/) for these new creations, a move that promises to leverage the power of social media for the series’ newest fans.
That said, as poems the works spoke less to me than the short stories, despite their strong imagery and varied styles. Maybe when set to music they’ll truly come alive. I certainly can’t wait to hear what musicians will do with such strong and diverse source material.
Reading this latest Bordertown collection, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of readers the editors hoped to target. Aging fantasy fans like me, who think “de Lint and Bull”, not “Meyers and Hamilton”, when they hear the words “urban fantasy”? Teens and YA readers who came up on tales of Jacob, and Edward, and Anita Blake? The answer, of course, is both, a tricky proposition, but one that Kushner and Black manage, somehow, to pull off. Reading Welcome to Bordertown, I couldn’t help but wonder what’s next… what other stories might spring from the minds of writers established and new, inspired by the fruit of their dedication and hard work.
Personally, I can’t wait.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Welcome to my new blog feature: The Lettered Curmudgeon. Here I’ll attempt to provide my take on of recent movies, television shows and video games, as told from a writer/storyteller's perspective. This month, I’ll be reviewing Zach Synder’s visually-impressive-yet-tragically-flawed magnum opus: Sucker Punch.
If you’ve seen the previews for this film (if not, check them out here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0978764/videogallery), your expectations were likely similar to mine: big, over the top special effects set-pieces, full of explosions and sword fighting, served up with a healthy dose of overarching “tough chikz with gunz” sensibility. Likely, you really wouldn’t be expecting much in the way of story, or characterization, or anything approaching nuance. I certainly wasn’t, and was surprised to find something actually approaching a workable tale of sacrifice, sorrow and regret (as flawed as it eventually turned out to be—more on that in a bit) wrapped around Snyder’s highly-stylized visuals.
Sucker Punch is the story of Baby Doll (played by the fetching Emily Browning), a pig-tailed blonde who, through a series of unfortunate circumstances following the death of her mother and the accidental death of her sister, finds herself committed to a mental asylum by her abusive step-father. Daddy Dearest, you see, has a taste both for his stepdaughters’ forbidden fruit, as well for their inheritance. Baby Doll finds herself in the clutches of Blue, a corrupt hospital guard (Oscar Isaac), who has arranged for the orphaned waif to be lobotomized in five days by a visiting brain surgeon (played by Mad Men alum Jon Hamm). With Baby Doll’s memories wiped clean, Daddy-Dearest will, we assume, be left in sole control of the family fortune while she rots away, a mindless vegetable.
To escape this fate, she must enlist the help of her fellow inmates (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung… ninja vixens, all) as well as avoid the well-meaning-yet-creepy ministrations of the staff psychologist, Dr. Gorski (played by Carla Gugono, 2009’s Silk Spectre from Snyder’s previous effort: Watchmen).
It’s here, after the film’s first 20-or-so minutes, that the narration abruptly shifts gears. The dreary hospital changes, transmogrifying into a posh night club-slash-bordello. Baby Doll’s fellow inmates are transformed from dirty, belligerent lunatics into sleek, well-fed showgirls. Each has a story to tell (or so we are told—never, unfortunately shown) via personal dances, oft-practiced (again, we are told) and performed for the pleasure of the club’s male “clients” (again … oh, you get the drift).
The bordello set-up, while intriguing, creates a separate, secondary frame for the narrative, slowing down the already-sedate pace of the film even further. We are introduced to all the primary characters a second time, this time in their more flamboyant alternate personas. Blue goes from weasel-like orderly to mustachioed pimp; Dr. Gorsky goes from psychiatrist to the club’s resident choreographer, etc.
It’s here that the film really starts going off the rails. Baby Doll we are told (again… not shown) is to be saved for the special attention of the “High Roller”,
When Baby Doll practices her moves in the club’s mirrored dance studio, the scene shifts yet again, this time to a series of bizarre fantasy vignettes, each more otherworldly and visually striking than the last. This is where the Snyder’s visual signature shines best: sword battles against 15 foot-tall robot samurai armed with chain guns… zombie Dough Boys fighting in WWI trenches against mecha battlesuits straight out of Japanese anime… B-17 bombers vs. flame-spewing dragons, dog-fighting over courtyards full of orcs and knights in armor… the action just gets more and more insane, with eras and genres blended with luscious abandon.
It’s wild, and confusing, and chaotic, and (if you’ve managed to stay awake through not one but two set-ups, remember) really needs no explanation: this is pure fantasy, as experienced in Baby Doll’s fevered (likely medicated) brain. A last-ditch attempt to save herself from a fate literally worse than death. It's a powerful metaphor, expertly crafted for maximum visual punch.
So why, then, does Snyder feel the need to explain himself and the story, as he does literally at every opportunity? Each time Baby Doll and her rag-tag team of uber-hotties are sent into another mission (each time Baby Doll dances, I mean… Snyder’s sure to show us the set-up every time without fail… more needless explaination) we’re treated to a mission briefing by the Wise Man (played by Scott Glenn), a craggy Gandalf stand-in who Snyder uses to explain the patently obvious.
“Your mission is to sneak in and kill the baby dragon… Oh, and don’t wake up Mama!” No shit, Sherlock… like I couldn't see that just by looking out the effing window. Glenn, despite a solid, likable performance, really adds nothing whatsoever to the film—honestly, it felt like the entire character was created as a result of some retarded focus-group session with a bunch of pro wrestling fans: “Um… I don’ unnerstand why pretty blonde lady is fighting them there Japanese guys… Wuzzn’t she jus’ in, like, a cathouse or sumthin’? My head hurrrrrrts!”
One of the first things any good writer learns is the almost magical power of not explaining. Of showing the reader (or, in this case, the viewer) the scene, and letting it speak for itself. Certainly Snyder’s visuals (did I mention they’re jaw-droopingly amazing? They really, really are… definitely one for my Blu-Ray want list) make things perfectly clear; having Baby Doll’s sensei/commanding officer/babysitter tell me the patently-obvious really doesn’t help. All it really does is annoy me. Over and over.
One of the hazards of spending so much time thinking about the “craft” of writing is that I find it directly lowers my enjoyment of most movies. The writing in many films (likely due to the committee-based approach of crafting story arcs via the marketing department’s need for Happy Meal and action-figure product placement opportunities) tends to create a method of storytelling that seems to feel the need to explain any challenging thought, no matter how banal it actually is, and which, in almost every instance, degrades even stories with a solid core to mere pandering.
In the end, despite all the goodwill Snyder earned for me via his powerful visual style and willingness to take ballsey chances, I was left quite literally squirming in my seat with embarrassment by midway through Sucker Punch, wondering when it would finally be over. Too bad nobody in Marketing thought to shell out a few bucks for dinner and drinks with a slush-pile first reader from even a modest genre magazine or publishing house--they would have whipped the script into shape with a few well-placed strokes of their mighty red pens.
“Stop explaining!” I fantasize they would have written in the margins. “Story begins in the wrong place!” “Prologues are boring, no matter how well written (or beautifully shot) - get to the action!” “Did I mention STOP EXPLAINING??!?!?”
Good advice, whether you’re a humble genre writer, or a mighty
Better luck next time, Zach… At least I'll buy the Blu-Ray. Damn you.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Sometimes, it's helpful for me just to set a manuscript aside for awhile. Let it percolate. Read it some months later with a fresh eye. Sometimes, the project will not see the light of day. I take what I've learned and move on. Sometimes, I'll go forward with the project after time has passed.
And I think that it's also helpful to develop a small network of folks who are able to act as crit partners. People who will be honest, who understand my genre. Folks who aren't afraid to scribble in the margins: "What the hell is this platypus doing here? And when did he learn to play the kazoo?"
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Friday, January 14, 2011
Monday, January 3, 2011
Just learned about the death of one of my all-time favorite actors, Pete Postlethwaite:
I just saw Pete in what I think was his last role, the psychotic, calculating villain The Florist in Ben Aflack's The Town. He was also recently in the amazing Inception.
Goodbye, Pete - you will be sorely missed...
Ran across this while doing research for a new story, and thought it was just too cool to keep to myself. Do yourself a favor and, instead of watching Two And a Half Men or whatever network drivel that might be tempting you, check this out instead.
Undercity - by Andrew Wonder:
For everyone who's taken time to mail or call me to let me know that they can't find copies of Interzone #231 on store shelves: I just heard from Jason Sanford that copies have been spotted at Barnes and Noble as of Jan. 2. I also checked with Borders and learned that they do NOT stock the magazine, sorry. I'm also checking with the editors over at the magazine - apparently the TTA Press store site is not working properly and people have been having trouble direct-ordering copies right from the publisher.
Also, fresh reviews of the issue (including positive notes about my story, "The Shoe Factory") are up at SF Signal and Locus. URLs are listed below for the linked-challenged when this re-posts to Facebook:
Happy New Year to all my friends, family and fans!!!