Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Attack of the Evil Plot Clones

This week I was Googling character names for my work in progress. I wanted to be sure I hadn’t inadvertently picked something I thought was cool and obscure, but in reality riddled half the titles on bestseller list. For me, it's the literary equivalent of checking popular baby names du jour so you can avoid saddling your kid with the next "Jacob" or "Isabella" moniker (with apologies to Jacobs and Isabellas everywhere).

To my slight dismay, I found my main character name used in another series of books. Since it was a completely different genre, and a supporting character at that, I chalked it up to a minor annoyance, but not a show stopper.

But then I sat up and took notice, realizing I'd uncovered bigger potatoes than the shared name.
Evil plot clones may, or may not have facial hair.

As I read more, I realized this book shared some pretty significant plot elements with a manuscript I’d just finished beta reading for a friend. And when I say significant, I mean the core-premise-of-the-story significant. AND the book was in her genre. An evil plot clone!

When told her what I’d found, I got a reply that I won’t repeat here on the prime time Internet. Suffice it to say, it was in all caps.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

*Warning* May contain spoilers.

So apparently, POTC4 has been receiving a lot of hate and I’m not sure why. I suppose a lot of people were expecting this movie to wash out the bad taste that the last two movies left. Look, this movie isn’t going to redeem the franchise. I think they tried to make it the best they could. Could it be better? Sure, but that can be said about anything.   

The story is a little disjointed, but it isn’t the bloated mess that was the last two movies. Things begin when Spanish fishermen discover a man (alive!) in their nets and he’s holding onto a map that leads to the fountain of youth. The Spaniards set out, thus kicking off the Fountain race. Unfortunately, it’s never disclosed on how that guy in the net managed to survive underwater for who knows how long, or where he came upon the map.

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is back, and no surprise, he’s caught in a bad place. He escapes the clutches of the British Monarch only to run into an imposter in a tavern. The imposter turns out to be a long lost love of his Angelica (Penélope Cruz). She has a ship. He doesn’t. So he joins up with her and her father, the voodoo pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) as they too search for the fountain of youth.

I’m going to butt heads with some of the criticism, such as the one saying this movie is preachy! Okay, just because there’s a cute clergyman (Sam Claflin) doesn’t mean this movie is trying to push Christian morals down your throat. Every time clergy boy got on his high horse, he was always knocked off by Blackbeard or Sparrow.

Everyone is weird! Jack doesn’t stand out! Well, everyone is a pirate, yes. Are they all weirdos? Eh, I’d say each has unique qualities, but Jack doesn’t get buried. You have Blackbeard who’s a badass mofo on one end, and then you have clergy boy and Angelica (to a lesser degree) on the other end. Jack treads in the middle, being selfish, but also showing a selfless side.

Also, there’s another theme to consider, in that all the characters are essentially true to themselves, despite trying to turn a new leaf or two. Blackbeard says “I’m a bad man,” and guess what? He is! He tries to care for Angelica as the one good thing in his life and – he can’t, he just can’t. Angelica lies in the beginning and, well, lies in the end. Remember Jack showing he could be selfless? Well – it doesn’t last. He may care for Angelica but he ain’t stupid. And Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is, and always will be, a pirate, no matter what hat he wears.

It’s too dark! Now this I agree with. There are some scenes, like the one beach scene before the vampiric mermaids’ attack, where all you can see are silhouettes. And mind you, I saw this in 2D. Apparently, no one took into account that people will be seeing this film in DARK movie theater. D’oh!

You know how movies have that extra little teaser scene after the credits? My advice: Skip it. I usually really enjoy these teaser scenes, like the one from THOR, but this one was wimpy and too short. You can easily wiki it to find out what it is.

So the bottom line is: If you love these characters and want to see more of Jack Sparrow and his zany adventures, then you’ll enjoy this film (I think). If you want something new, refreshing, with a twist of lemon, then go find something else. I mean, c’mon, it’s a franchise, what do you expect?

I give Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides 3 out of 5 seafaring stars.         

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

2001, Gollancz Books. 480 pages.
Writing rule of thumb: Don’t parcel out your good ideas, saving them for the sequel. It takes more than one to make a good book.

Alastair Reynolds must have listened, because his novel, Revelation Space, is packed with great ideas.

When a 26th-century dig turns up clues about a dead alien civilization on a distant world, archeologist Dan Sylveste will stop at nothing to discover who -- or what -- caused “The Event” that wiped them out. But as determined as Sylveste is to find answers to the mystery of the extinct Amarantin, others are just as determined to find him. Among them, the crew of the city-sized interstellar ship, Nostalgia for Infinity, who need Sylveste to cure their captain of the nano-plague which is slowly consuming both him and their ship. And among them -- assassin Ana Khouri, contracted by the mysterious Madamoiselle, who has her own interest in Sylveste – namely seeing him dead.

Across multiple worlds and decades, these factions pursue their own ends only to find themselves mere pawns in a millennias-old struggle between ancient intellegences. And of course, this is a struggle that will determine the survival of life in the galaxy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss

2007, DAW Books. 662 pp (hardcover)
“As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men.”

-Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind)

So stipulated, at almost 700 pages, Rothfuss’s debut novel, The Name of the Wind, should have enough words to stoke a mental inferno.

But even for all its hype and commercial success, I'd have gotten more spark from an empty Bic.

For a book its publisher claimed was the best fantasy manuscript they’d seen in thirty years – likening it to George R.R. Martin and Tad Williams – this book tips the scales with too many elements that are just average or awkward.

The story revolves around Kvothe, who we find as an unassuming innkeeper in a backwater village as the tale begins. But when a travelling scribe named Chronicler comes into town, we learn Kvothe is something of a legendary figure – one whose influence has somehow affected the world for good and for ill. At the scribe’s request, Kvothe reluctantly agrees to recite the story of his life for Chronicler to…well…chronicle.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Movie Review: Thor

So to kick off the summer movies we’ve got the thunder god himself. Now, I have never read the Thor comic books, so I can’t compare, but this was an enjoyable actiony flick.

The story starts with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) hunting cosmic disturbances. A wormhole appears and amidst the chaos, they hit a guy. But just not any guy – it’s Thor! (Played by Chris Hemsworth)

The movie then backtracks to Thor’s day, where he’ll be announced heir to the throne of Asgard. But the party is crashed by ice giants. In his anger, Thor and his friends head over to the realm of ice giants to demand an explanation – and they end up almost getting killed. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) saves their asses and strips Thor of his power for his foolishness, and then sends him packing to Earth. And thus, we are brought back to the beginning – but not the end.

As an action flick, I say this satisfies, what with Thor tearing through stuff like it’s made of tissue paper. Although, there are a few points where characters literally pop out of nowhere. I know they’re gods and they can fly, but who knew they could instantly teleport, too? But that’s a minor itch.

A big itch is the forced romance between Jane and Thor, as well as Thor’s transformation from arrogant war monger to self-sacrificing hero. Sorry, but I just didn’t buy it. There wasn’t enough screen time between the two lovers, although there is certainly the start of something, but so far, all I felt was that they’re good friends. Also, he’s only been on Earth for a few days, would his personality dramatically change just like that? Of course, I suppose you could excuse it and say it was the power of love, but we all know that’s utter bullcrap.

Natalie Portman’s acting didn’t do much for this film either. Granted, her role isn’t as big as Hemsworth’s, yet, she really didn’t seem natural in this. I’m becoming convinced that Portman’s twittery acting style is better suited for more serious, drama films such as Black Swan, where her character faces a lot of tension. In Thor, she seemed to struggle with acting like a nice, intelligent scientist.   

Another itch: Thor’s friends. Aside from being completely cornballish, they didn’t add anything other than a bit of info dump and weak comic relief. I get it, everyone has friends, even the mighty Thor, but couldn’t we leave them out? They’re just embarrassing.

On the plus side, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was awesome as far as villains go. Although I hear he isn’t true to his comic book character, I much prefer a villain with some conflict, which Loki certainly delivers. He is the god of mischief, after all.

I also enjoyed the blend science and fantasy, which made things somewhat plausible. Asgard is one of the nine realms, and transportation is possible between these realms via wormholes. Oh, and they even had robots! I love how the robot featured in this film was a throwback to Gort from The Day the EarthStood Still (both are huge androids and shoot lasers from their head).     
(left) Gort, (right) badass robot from Thor

Rating: 3.5 out of five thunderous stars.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Movie Review: Heavy Metal 2000

A few years ago, after getting back from Taco Bell, nachos in my hands, a former boyfriend decided to expose me to Heavy Metal the movie. I was stunned after watching it – not in a bad way, but just how different a movie it was (oh yeah, and all those inflated boobs). The gist of it is a collection of fantasy and science fiction short stories tied together by the mysterious Loc-Nar.

Reminiscing, I figured I’d check out the “sequel” Heavy Metal 2000, released in 2000. People gave it a bad rap, but honestly, it’s not as bad as I thought. It’s definitely a homage piece to the original Heavy Metal, taking some of the best parts and stringing them together in a coherent plot (which the original lacked). The story starts when a miner named Tyler (who faintly resembles Sternn) stumbles upon the ‘the key’, which is essentially the Loc-Nar incarnate. The key will open the fountain of youth on another world – the drawback – whoever holds the key will become insane. And in his insanity, Tyler manages to take over the mining crew ship and steer it towards his goal. But on the way, he pillages a village and kidnaps a girl. Problem: the girl has a sister, Julie, and Julie is pissed.     

Julie is the black-haired version of Taarna – except she talks, and boy does she have a personality. Julie is just another bitchy kick-ass gal, because God forbid there should be a nice heroine that can also kick-ass. Whereas Taarna’s silent treatment worked to her advantage, and I never disliked her or what came out of her mouth.
(left) Julie from 2000, (right) Taarna from original Heavy Meatal
 The animation itself is also a drawback, as it looks like a Saturday morning cartoon on Fox. The original had a very mature appearance about it and didn’t resemble anything that kids watched back then. Also, the original was beautifully bright, whereas 2000, all colors are subdued (I actually had to brighten Julie’s pic because it was SO dark).

There is violence, lots of it. Guy gets a bullet through his head, brain splatter, guts hanging out. The sex, however, is pretty tame, mostly breast fondling, which causes it to feel like a kiddie movie that has been upgraded to adult status, rather than a movie made for adults.

The CGI blended in worked for the most part, although there were a few spots where it stuck out like a sore thumb. I did enjoy the scenes with spaceships coasting through metaspace, very lovely.

The music, a trademark of Heavy Metal, was rather bland and didn’t put oomph into the scenes. But then again, I prefer music from the 70’s, 80’s, so nothing in this movie connected to me like how it did in the original.

I suppose in the end, nothing can compare to the original, it was groundbreaking at the time of its release in 1981. However, 2000 movie isn’t horrible. The plot is decent (despite the inconsistencies), and the action pretty cool. Although I recommend seeing the original first before this.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.    

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: Old Man's War, by John Scalzi

Voted #1 on Tor's Best SFF Novels of the Decade poll. I had heard of it before, but when I was looking for books to catch me up with what's been going on in science fiction (I've been reading a lot of nonfiction) this became my shopping list.

It was a lighter and faster read than I expected. Quickly digestible. It doesn't skimp on the violent details, but I wouldn't call it gruesome. I also wouldn't call it hard SF, but it's not excessively soft either. Good balance, in other words.

From a writerly perspective, war from the standpoint of one grunt on the ground is difficult. It has to be a character-driven story, since as far as action goes the goals are simple and well defined and consistent across all war stories: survive and/or win. Here, the war is really just a distraction from the goal that even our first-person narrator isn't entirely aware he has until the third act. Nicely done.

I've read a little military SF, and I'm glad that this did not fall into the trope of the hero being the best soldier ever, suffering through the inadequacies of his comrades. It's also not married to imitating Napoleonic naval warfare, World War II  or any other era. The world building is substantial (since there are many and varied worlds) and impressive for a relatively short book.

I'm interested to see what he does with this universe in the rest of the series, and I hope to be reviewing them here too.

4 out of 5 weeblies

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

You need to read SFF in order to write it

I see this happen all the time on forums where people share their work. Newbie writer gets a cool SFF idea and writes it out, then posts it. Turns out their idea has not only been done before, but they offer no new angle, and pretty much reinvent the wheel, so to speak. The wheels have already been invented by past generation of SFF writers; they established the tropes that many readers have come to know and love (or hate), thus paving the way for newer writers to focus on other aspects of SFF storytelling.  

Why not take advantage of that? Why unwittingly write something that sounds like it came from a 1970’s SFF magazine?

Tropes of classic SF
In order to move forward, you have to reach into the past and learn from those authors, both their successes and their follies. Absorb it and come up with something better or different than what they wrote. By not reading the classics (Herbert, Asimov, LeGuin – just to name a few authors), you’re doing yourself a disservice, having to build up from ground zero when you could have easily used some well-known tropes. And no, it doesn’t make you a “cookie-cutter” to use old tropes. The key is to be aware that you’re using them, thus giving you an edge on how to subvert them and make them your own.

A good place to start for potential SF writers is watching the original Star Trek, as it has a butt-load of SF tropes embedded in the scripts. Sorry fantasy writers, not sure where you may start – perhaps Tolkien or mythological stories, mostly based on Greek or Western European culture. I’m sure one my fantasy-savvy co-bloggers could fill the readers in. 

Some tropes can be very sexy

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2011: Prelude

So I have it on good authority that "all those horror con people want to do is drink and get laid" (looking at you, Scott). With that ominous warning still echoing in my ears, I snapped up my ticket to Texas Frightmare Weekend posthaste. I'll be spending this weekend, April 29-May 1, at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Dallas, TX.

Highlights I'm looking forward to:

  • Zombie walk
  • Hearse and shock rod show
  • Fondling other people's gorgeous tattoos
  • Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl screening
  • Human Centipede screening with live commentary by director and star. Can't wait to hear them justify this.
  • Mutant Girls Squad screening
  • Clive Barker doing... whatever he's doing, and looking pretty while he does it
  • Voltaire puppet show
  • and there's a teeny part of me that really wants to go to the Sharktopus screening, because after all that it's not like I have any damn shame left. I can feel you judging. Quit it.
  • Also, watching my best friend wet herself at the sight of Costas Mandylor and the rest of the SAW cast
  • And possibly, just maybe, imbibing some spirits

Updates to follow!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: The Pound, issue #1


The Pound, issue #1. Written by Stephan Nilson, art by Karl Waller. Published by Frozen Beach Studios. Created by Stephan Nilson and Charles Pritchett. FREE DOWNLOAD! :D

Animal control's dangerous enough when you're dealing with plain old dogs. Two laid-off dog catchers go into business for themselves. Just as the full moon is getting close.

The story starts with action right off the bat, and then we meet our heroes. Followed by some more action and end with a question. A good, solid structure for a first issue.

For a comic and a horror comic at that, a lot of work is put into developing Scott. That's worth mentioning. That work includes a strange moment, though. I can understand being offended by unrequested charity. Going out and starting a business because of unrequested charity threw me for a while... I guess I see the connection now, but he sounded pretty sure they were financially stable.

Unfortunately, there are a few places where the sequence of events is unclear and one place where the dialogue seems to be out of order. On the whole, the art's good and there are nice compositional details.

It's a start, though, and I do tend to be forgiving when it comes to first issues. I'd definitely look at #2 when it comes out.

Two and a half weeblies out of five.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Dysto-mayto, Uto-mahto

In fiction, dystopias come in lots of shades.

There’s the oppressive gloom of social and governmental dystopias like V for Vendetta and Minority Report. The bleakness of ecological and environmentally skewed stories in the vein of Waterworld and Soylent Green. The menacing darkness of tech-induced hells such as The Matrix and The Terminator.

Mega-corporations. The post-apocalypse. Zombies.

But as varied (and as good) as these are, their premises are just dismal points plotted along the same grayscale continuum. The despair is widespread, the oppression equal opportunity.

How do you like your steak? Charred, burned, or just overcooked?

Many dystopic settings are points along the same grayscale contiuum.
But some of my favorite takes on dystopian futures come in vibrant colors. They have blue skies and fresh air. The food is good, and the tech is great.

Or if not - even if life never strays from beneath the dome of a city - at least the people are happy.

Write the Fight Right, by Alan Baxter

Write the Fight Right, by Alan Baxter
Published April 4, 2011
Ebook available on Smashwords and Amazon

From the Smashwords page: "Author and martial arts instructor, Alan Baxter, presents a short, ~12,000 word, ebook describing all the things a writer needs to consider when writing fight scenes. Baxter's experience from decades as a career martial artist make this book a valuable resource for writers who want to understand what fighting is all about - what it really feels like and what does and doesn't work - and how to factor those things into their writing to make their fight scenes visceral, realistic page turners."

Baxter has a number of good pointers and practical tidbits about fighting. "Something unexpected will happen almost immediately" and "Describe the reaction to the hit instead of describing the hit" particularly got my brain moving. I've done a fair amount on research into hand-to-hand combat over the years (he notes, and I'm sure he's right, that taking classes would be better than reading) so I had heard some of the thing he says before. Even so, I found this a good and useful set of pointers. 

I wish he had explained more about what "disrupting the opponent's centerline" means and entails. Disrupt how? By hitting? Knocking off balance? Both?

He includes a Cheat Sheet Checklist at the end with the major points -- I'll be using that for quick reference.

For only two dollars, a tasty twelve thousand words of insider information. I don't know what rating system we're using this week, so I'll give this two thumbs up!

ETA: We are using a five weeble system, so I give this 3.5 weebles! Now, as they say "weebles wobble but they don't fall down" but I'm thinking that half a weeble would indeed fall down... that's another post, though.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Can dystopias be beat?

Reading Teresa Jusino article on dystopias and the new brand of dystopia coming out, which prompted some thoughts of my own since I believe the dystopia-genre was created with a certain message in mind, and thus the unhappy endings.

Looking at dystopias from a psychological approach, since they are very much psychological as they are sociological studies, one has to keep in mind that humans evolved to cohere to their group. Why? Because being left out of the group meant death. Humans need other humans, not just for basic needs, but also for emotional support; being around those you care also lowers cortisol levels, a side effect of stress, which prolongs your life.  So what happens when the entire group follows an authoritarian government? Well the individual follows along as well, even if they know it’s not right. Social psychology experiments such as Milgram’s  and Zimbardo’s Stanford prison have shown that people, just like you and me, will follow authority figures even though that means conducting in unethical acts. We don’t want to be left out, simple as that. This also leads to social effects such as diffusion of responsibility, where it’s not our personal problem to confront Big Brother, and that surely someone else will do it. Except everyone else is thinking the same.

And in a world where everything is controlled by the government, it’s easy to imagine the people learn to become helpless. Because what’s the point? All you can do is breath, eat, and sleep.

There are rare cases where an individual will stand up, even at the cost of being ostracized by their group. But such cases like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi have shown they face hostile reaction from their peers and eventual assassination. And that is the sad truth, sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a hero.

So can dystopias be beat? It’s a possibility, but it’s one that requires a lot of sacrifice from individuals, one that most of us are not willing to give (notice how people still drive around in their SUVs despite the rising gas prices). This is why heroes are so rare and revered, both in fiction and reality, because they did something that most of us can’t.

And I know it sounds very depressing, which is the point of dystopias, not to cheer you up but to kick you into gear. Don’t depend on a hero to come along when you yourself are capable of being active in your own government. Better to be mindful of what your government is becoming and halt its progress (i.e. don’t vote for bad politicians)  than to have to go through a bloody revolution to reverse its effects, which not only means fighting Big Brother, but also fighting people just like yourself who can’t quite see the truth.

Don’t beat a dystopia – prevent it!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dystopia and hope

To try to bring together John's post on disliking depressing stories (a perfectly valid point) and Becca's question "What has dystopia done for you?", I'll get a little personal.

Like a lot of people -- like a lot of writers -- I carry around a certain amount of undiagnosed depression. My writing and my depression have a strange, symbiotic relationship, but for now let's just say that I've been wrestling with it for most of my life.

Dystopian stories are depressing, as John pointed out. I would even say that there's a certain correlation between a dystopian society and the inside of a depressed mind. I can attest to the interior harangues, the (self)flagellation, and the  sort of numbed haze that dystopian medications seem to induce.

Fortunately, a good chunk of dystopian fiction involves resisting and fighting the dystopia on some level. Maybe the protagonist does not win, but the fight will go on because we've seen one character struggling in the system, we've seen one light flicker to life in the darkness. There'll be more.

Here's where Becca's question comes in: dystopias remind me to keep fighting.

In other flavors of fiction, where people are beautiful and the quest may be tough but there's help to be had and love to be found, it's easier to fight the good fight. And I enjoy those stories, but they don't resonate with a depressive like me the way resisting-the-dystopia stories do.

I was going to recommend Mockingbird by Walter Tevis -- it's a hopeful dystopia, with a post-apocalyptic flavor -- but apparently it's out of print. I got my copy through www.paperbackswap.com. If you can find it in a library or a second-hand bookstore...

...which brings me around to digital publishing and books that perhaps ought to be available as ebooks if nobody can be bothered to print them. I'm still a dead tree reader, but I can see how the wind's blowing. But that's another round robin topic.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review - TRUTHSEEKER by C.E. Murphy

Release date: August 31, 2010 (Del Rey)
Trade paperback: 336 pgs


Gifted with an uncanny intuition, Lara Jansen nonetheless thinks there is nothing particularly special about her. All that changes when a handsome but mysterious man enters her quiet Boston tailor shop and reveals himself to be a prince of Faerie. What’s more, Dafydd ap Caerwyn claims that Lara is a truthseeker, a person with the rare talent of being able to tell truth from falsehood. Dafydd begs Lara to help solve his brother’s murder, of which Dafydd himself is the only suspect.

Acting against her practical nature, Lara agrees to step through a window into another world. Caught between bitterly opposed Seelie forces and Dafydd’s secrets, which are as perilous as he is irresistible, Lara finds that her abilities are increasing in unexpected and uncontrollable ways. With the fate of two worlds at stake and a malevolent entity wielding the darkest of magic, Lara and Dafydd will risk everything on a love that may be their salvation—or the most treacherous illusion of all. 

Stalk the author: Website / Facebook / Twitter
Find the book(s): Truthseeker / Wayfinder (TBR)


I had been looking forward to reading Truthseeker for a while - a faerie tale from one of the first writers to drag urban fantasy into the mainstream? Hell yes, please.

Down-to-earth Lara Jensen reminded me a lot of "Bones" heroine Temperance Brennan: she's straightforward, honest, and literal to an often humorous extreme. It's not entirely her fault, though; Lara is a Truthseeker, gifted with the rarest of magic. Her power allows her to feel truth and deceit along a spectrum of perceptions, often through sound. To Lara, when something "rings false" it really rings. 

Lara knows there is something off about Dafydd ap Caerwyn the moment he introduces himself as David Kirwen, and Murphy does not draw things out unnecessarily (a huge plus) before showing us what it is. Dafydd is a prince of the Seelie Court, and he has been looking for Lara for a long, long time. A hundred years to be exact, though only days have passed in the Barrow-lands he calls home, where he stands accused of his brother's murder.

The opening pages moved a little slow for me. The exaggerated nonverbal communication and revelation of backstory through dialogue along the lines of "As you know, xxx..." was a bit much for me, although it accomplished its goal of painting distinct characters and shaping personalities that remained delightfully consistent throughout the book. Patience with my own impatience was generously rewarded within the first fifty pages, and after that I couldn't put the book down.

Murphy is adept at exotic worldbuilding and I expect that from her, which might help explain why I was somewhat bored in the mundane streets of Boston. From the moment Lara entered the Barrow-lands, I knew I was screwed: there was no way I was putting this book down, and I would probably be late for work in the morning (I was). Murphy's Barrow-lands are breathtaking and shadowed by malevolence, the mythos woven by a pro.

Rating:   (4/5 weeblies)  
Recommend?  Yes.
Etc:  Look for the sequel and closing chapter, Wayfinder, due September 6, 2011.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What has dystopian fiction done for me, anyway?

The answer to that question is: a hell of a lot.

I mentioned in a reply to L.'s post that the first book I can remember really lighting up my neurons was The Giver, by Lois Lowry. Not to dis Pat the Cat, The Poky Little Puppy, or Mr. Grumpy, but The Giver spoke to me in an entirely different language.

It said, Adults are tall, imperfect children. It said, The whole world can be wrong.

It said, Self-deception is more powerful and alluring than you know, yet. It said, Question everything.

Succinctly, it said, "Think for your own damn self, mini-Becca," and it did so in a way that was both beautiful and empowering.

Dystopian fiction is often described as a warning, a stark illustration of what awaits at the end of the road we're already barreling down way too fast to hit the brakes anyway. For me, though, dystopian fiction introduced me to my first real role model.

I wanted to keep the stories, wanted to share them. I wanted to see in color and show others what I saw. I wanted to be strong enough to bear the truth and the memories, all of them. And I've never lost that guiding star.

What has dystopian fiction done for you?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Round Robin - Dystopia: Unhappily Ever After

Dystopias are quite fascinating ‘what ifs’. What if the government became a tyrant? What if all our rights and freedoms were taken away? What if our lives were completely disposable? It gets pretty scary, like a horror movie on a sociological scale. And that’s what I believe dystopias were originally meant to achieve: to scare the hell out of you with terrifying Big Brother societies that could toss you around like their personal play thing. Your life meant nothing. You meant nothing.

But why all the unhappiness? Can’t we have a glimmer of hope that the hero may make? Sure, but it’s going to be a false hope. The idea of dystopias was a warning, that this was the sort of society you didn’t want and for good reasons too. George Orwell’s 1984 dystopian society was brutal fascism, where propaganda was pounded into your head and Big Brother invaded your privacy. You learned to believe in contradictions and to always trust the government’s decision. If Big Brother said ‘jump’, you would ask ‘how high?’ And in the end you couldn’t win. Oh, the hero (Winston Smith) does try, but ultimately he is broken and re-educated. It’s unhappy and it’s meant to be.    

A happy ending would only offset the warning that Orwell was trying to show. Imagine if the Surgeon General’s warning ended on a light note: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema – oh but with modern medicine, you have a fair chance of surviving just about anything. Doesn’t quite have the same impact.

And think about it, if it were really that easy for the protagonist to escape or fix society, wouldn’t it have been done long ago? It takes a lot for society to change, massive movements and sometimes bloody revolutions. And if the government has an iron grip over the citizens, chances are any change has to occur underground, which really hinders it. Escaping may not be so great either as most folks don’t know how to survive on their own, and unfortunately, society has done nothing to prepare people – hell, they can’t even prepare kids who are entering the real world. And then there are surviving the elements, disease, and predators. After a while, Big Brother might not be so bad. 

The best way to stop a dystopian society is to prevent it from ever happening, because once it’s set up, you going to have a helluva time trying to get away. And although dystopias may be speculative fiction, there’s always a shred of truth to them, art imitating life. So be mindful, because Big Brother hasn’t stopped watching you. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


While I found the linked article interesting, I tend to feel that it's using the word dystopia in a manner most people wouldn't understand; even calling Blade Runner dystopian seems wrong to me, as the society shown in the movie never seems particularly repressive. For a world to be truly dystopian (i.e. the opposite of utopian) I think it really has to be authoritarian, and the decayed world of Blade Runner doesn't seem to count; it's certainly not what I'd call utopian, but the human characters still seem to have the freedom to live their lives their way if they don't draw undue attention to themselves. Replicants might feel differently.

At least one of my unproduced horror movie scripts is set in a dystopian world, but the biggest problem I find with writing dystopian fiction these days is that events in the real world overtake me so fast that I can barely keep up. A few years ago I started writing an SF novel about a future civil war in Britain which I've been dabbling with ever since, but British society has changed so rapidly over that period that news stories often seem far more dystopian than I'd imagined the country could decay to when I began writing it.

I mean, who'd have imagined ten years ago that people would be 'strip searched' by an X-ray machine merely in order to get on a plane?

Winter is Coming. Grab Your Skis.

This weekend, I’m losing my favorite secret to the world.

Not that I can really consider a New York Times bestseller -- and one of the best-loved fantasy novels of all time -- my secret. But for years it’s felt that way. I first read A Game of Thrones in hardback when I was working part time at a Super Crown books (anybody remember those?). Back then, the cover still looked like this:

First Edition Hardcover

Nobody recommended it to me. I didn’t read any reviews beforehand. I just saw it hit the shelf, bought a copy, and read it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Round Robin Conversation #1 - Dystopia

Let's start with dystopia.

There was a fairly recent blog post about dystopia (at Literary Friction) which got me interested in how it's being defined currently. Why currently? Because the current definition's a little different from the one I remember.

I grew up in the later stages of the Cold War (in the US) and we had our prime example of dystopia right over there in the USSR: paranoia, surveillance, people disappearing, fear and violence, all under the pretense of being a "worker's paradise." Sure, there were a few people accusing our government of the same, but we were obviously nothing like the Soviets. Maybe there was some concern that we were heading toward a better-living-through-pharmacology dystopia as seen in Brave New World and THX 1138, but at least we weren't heading for a violent, fascist state like 1984.

Then the Berlin Wall fell, the internet brought the world to our desktops, 9/11 blindsided us and it's ten years of war and counting.

What does dystopia look like now? What does it look like in urban fantasy, high fantasy, horror? I think this is a great place to start a conversation among the six of us. We'll be blogging our thoughts and letting the conversation stray where it wills (which is what's so great about conversations after all) as long as we keep it relevant to our genres and/or creative writing.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Query Do’s and Donuts

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Hell – Query Letter Hell to be precise. Straight-up, queries are the bane of all writers, but they’re required if you ever plan on getting published with an agent. But don’t panic! They can be written, and here are a few hints and many wrist-slappings that I’ve picked up.

DO NOT shove your entire book in a query. It’s literally impossible to cram 70,000-word manuscript into 200-250 words summary. People try – and they fail. Miserable, miserable failure. Instead…

DO focus on the beginning of your story or the main conflict. Have too many conflicts and can’t weed them out? Try writing a one-sentence summary of your plot to focus on what’s REALLY important to your story. If Jill finding her magical locket before the demon does is your plot, then Jill’s romantic fling should not show up in the query.

DO NOT put too much backstory into your query. Not only will this expand your query, making it too long (remember, an agent’s time is precious and they’re not going to wade through your 1-page query), but it also bogs down what could be the really cool parts in your query. Instead…

DO create a well-constructed sentence or two about the premise. This is more important for fantasy/sci-fi queries, to help establish the world your character is going to be running through. Get to the bare bones, the most relevant parts of the world, and move on to what your character actually does!

DO NOT tell. This should be an obvious one, right? In queries, with the limited space you have, it’s ever-so-tempting to tell instead of show, because it takes less wordage. But what does that tell the agent? Your query is not only a pitch, but also a sample of your writing, and if they see nothing but tell, tell, tell, they’re going to think that’s how the book is written. Instead…

DO – back to the well-constructed sentences. No really, this is what query writing is all about, the most concise, straight to the point, sentences ever imagined. You like writing purple prose? Forget it. There’s no room for it and you’ll never get your point across if you write elaborate sentences. Make. Every Word. Count.

DO NOT get frustrated. Another no-brainer, but it’s easy to get pessimistic about these things because it’s truly a different set of skills to write queries than it is to write a story. But don’t give up! You need to get back on the horse after it’s bucked you off and take another round of punishment. Think of school, how many hours did you spend studying for tests and quizzes? How many hours of note taking did you do? I bet a lot. And learning to write queries is no different. But if you lose faith, you’ll never see your book down at the local bookstore with its (hopefully) perdy polished cover. Just keep that goal in mind.

DO look at and critique other queries. Yeah, I get it, we all have busy lives, but if you can’t spare a few moments to sharpen your query writing skills, then you aren’t really dedicated to the craft nor to getting your book published. The best way to learn is to read many, many queries, to see what works and what doesn’t. Check out QueryShark and its archive of queries. You can learn even better by actively critiquing other queries on forums. Even if you don’t know how to, just sit back and watch the gurus do it and see what they do, what they pick out. Read something in someone’s query that had you stumped? Then point it out! Because chances are, if you didn’t get it, then neither will the agent.

Most important, and above all, a query must hook the agent. You could write the most well-constructed query, but if it’s boring as hell, then guess what? Reject.

For more info on how to write queries, check out Absolute Write’s QLH stickies (password protected to keep the robot-ninjas out). And remember, writing is fun – if not a little scary at times.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

8 Opening Lines From The Greats of Sci Fi

Countless hours of creative agony. A months-long artistic marathon full of toil and loneliness. 350 pages of blood, sweat, and tears.

And here I am, about to package it all up as a tidy email attachment. As I prepare to push Send, hoping to catch the fleeting and jaded attention of a that one agent or editor who’ll smile on my work and help usher me into the hallowed Order of The Published, I find myself taking a second look at what they’ll see first.  Five words out of a hundred and five thousand.  

My opening line.

The Opening Line
Everyone will tell you the opening chapter of any book is important. Your first page is even more important, and your first paragraph more important still.  

Your opening line? Well, you get the idea. It’s that first lonely spark that either gets the fire going, or sputters and dies in darkness.

Then I wondered – how might I stack up against the openers from the best-selling classics we know and love? That’s something I can’t answer yet (or maybe I just don't want to), but I thought it might be fun to go through a few and see how well they do the job.  So here they are – the inaugural words from some of the heavyweights of science fiction:

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review - Hunter's Run by George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham

There are a number of interesting things going on in this story. I'll try to explain without causing any spoilers.

1. Our hero is a jerk.
2. Interesting, sympathetic aliens who are neither cute nor cuddly.
3. Human civilization in the background is Hispanic/South American, not your standard issue white bread.
4. Interesting identity bending.

Suffice it to say that #2-4 managed to keep me reading in spite of #1.

From a writer's point of view, this story is all about carefully choosing what to explain to the reader, and when to explain it, and how to do it without bogging down the hunting aspect of the plot that's keeping the whole thing moving. At the same time, the hero is coming to grips with things that he never expected to. Can't say much more without spoiling it for you, though.

The ending was a little... soft, in my opinion, but I'm not complaining too much. Still recommending it.

Retro tie-in: The hunting aspect made me fondly remember two anthologies I read many years ago. They probably qualify as "vintage" SF if not "classic" by now... Men Hunting Things and Things Hunting Men. Pulpy, fun, old-school SF.