Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rounding Up Them Doggies

Lots of writing going on:

1) New Forces of Geek column. Some rambling about NaNaWriMo.

2) So, yeah, I am participating in NaNoWriMo this year. I am working on some background stuff and a very basic plotline in the days running up to the start of the marathon. Check out my profile there and feel free to "buddy"me.

3) I decided to work on a sword-and-sorcery idea after writing my latest Apex column. A brief exchange with Will Shetterly gave me not only an idea for a longer column about S&S, but also made me think of a story idea I have been banging around for awhile, and NaNoWriMo is a good place to get the guts of it out onto the virtual page. Michael Moorcock's Wizardry and Wild Romance was also an inspiration for this project. I will have to write a review of that soon, mostly to get some of the insights I gleaned from it into better form for further cogitation, and to argue with some of the ideas I did not agree with in his essay.

The working title of my project is A Crown of Crusted Blood. Here is the initial blurb:

The Dread Shepherd Gromkidach is dead, and the Bound-Lands have been freed by a band of revolutionaries who must now figure out how to bring peace to the Lands while dealing with the fragments of empire left in his wake (as well as rival rebels eager to capitalize on the chaos). As one of them decides whether to take up the Shepherd's Mantle and the Scarlet Crown, the rest of the band must decide how to deal with a rigid society in turmoil and an ancient, corrupted alliance held together only by old magics, fear, and entrenched traditions.

I'm sketching out some of the contours of said society, nailing down characters and establishing a basic progression for the story. The WIP I posted earlier is a possible opening for this work. I've started reading Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland , by William Ian Miller, which has some useful insights into the workings of law without an elaborate state apparatus. I'm thinking about ways to create a polity that is not the usual Empire; in this case, the Bound-Lands, a group of allied and subjugated communities and peoples who are "protected" by the Shepherd (who was not always "Dread"). I am also considering how my little band of revolutionaries succeeded in toppling him, and what immediate ripples this would create in the political and social fabrics.

That is as much fun as writing the story for me. I'm pretty juiced about writing this story.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Two Openings

I started this blog as a "writing blog" to naively "get my work out there" and it has turned into something more (and better, I think) than that. But I have not shared much of what I am working on in some time, mostly due to life-stuff, but I would like to share two brief excerpts from (gasp!) work in progress. Both are draft zero bits, unretouched so far.

1) This is the opening to a longer story, sword-and-sorcery with some twists, currently untitled:

Her hand was so slippery with the dying man's blood that she dropped the poinard she had just pulled from between his ribs. He gasped, his rune-hemmed cloak glowing intermittently, his attempts to command it interrupted by the silvery poison traveling through his body. She grunted and fell to her knees, watched him writhe with her remaining eye. She felt the pain of assorted burns and cuts, and the stab wound just beneath her heart that was already closing. She swallowed the blood running from her chewed-apart lip; she had bitten into it desperately to release the healing spells inside the tiny crystals planted beneath it. Many times she had not bitten hard enough and nearly lost her life to a dagger in the liver. What an embarassing way to die, she thought.

The cloak stopped glowing, and the man stiffened. She tried to reach into one of her bandolier pouches but her arm wouldn't work immediately. She lifted it slowly and saw that it was not just the blood that has caused her to drop the blade; the shoulder was swollen and impeded by her armor. She moved it slowly, grimacing and cursing, until she found the packet she wanted. She took it with her good hand, shifting the blackburr wand it already held into the crock of her thumb, put the packet to her mouth, and tore it open, tossing the contents over the body.

Her timing was good; some of the salt settled on a form in the air over the corpse. The form shuddered, then shrieked as the salt dissolved it. The noise made her close her remaining eye and bow before it. Then, with a sizzle, it ended, and the remaining salts fell onto the corpse, a few bits smouldering when they contacted vestiges of life-energy still present in the withering body.

"Any other tricks?" she whispered gutturally. The air in the room ticked like cooling metal. The place became darker as blades dimmed, gems lost their inner light, and dweomers dissipated. She began to feel her wounds more acutely; even with the diandsteels doing their work, she began to feel dizzy from shock and pain. The only thing that did not hurt was her eye socket; the spell that had burst her eyeball had singed the nerves and blood vessels and rendered them insensible. She got up carefully, swaying. The corpse coughed, but then unclenched and seemed to fall into itself.

She bowed her head. The moment has arrived. She stood there, unsure what to do.

The door burst open. She spun and levelled her wand at the opening, its tines unwinding and beginning to spark. In the doorway, a woman with short black hair, skin just a shade lighter, and emerald armor stood. arms crossed. Behind her was some massive creature with a head rather like that of a woolly bison, peering over the woman's shoulder. When she saw them, she dropped the wand and started to laugh, but could not finish expresing her mirth, as she collapsed and smacked her nose on the cobbled floor.

2) Short story opening, currently titled "The Zombie Menace":

Timbo was sure that this was the hottest day yet; of course the fucking zombies would choose today to go nuts. The reflective tarp was useless; in the shade you roasted, in the sun you broiled. There was no escape, not from anything out here on the border.

The fences were all down except the electrified one. They had been coming so fast this week that the repair crews were almost a month behind. Someone had tried to get Timbo's unit out there to fix some of the them but the Sergeant just whipped out his 'pad and showed them the contract. "We shoot zombies. That's it." he told the National Guard guy. The thin little shit just swallowed hard and nodded, and took off.

Back in the big town to the north the Army grunts sat in their little cubicles and watched it all unfold through their monitors. They didn't really care about the fences; they were more concerned about the automated machine guns, the tankbots (stupid name, they were about as big as a pony), and the new things, the panthers. But they always made a show of caring, as if that would make the forward positions feel better.

It didn't. Timbo could have told them that, listening to his contract-mates day after day, bitching about the pay, about the job, about the new Mark 7As always jamming, about clean-up (which WAS in their contract). About the screaming. They trained you for a lot of things at the three-week Border Legion boot camp, but not for the screaming. Zombies screamed. More than you would think.

Thoughts are very welcome.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Few Reviews

I keep meaning to write reviews of the books and films I have read and watched over the past few months, and then get bogged down in other matters, including sketching out a monstrously long review of Swords & Dark Magic that is far from done (and is rapidly becoming some geeky manifesto about sword-and-sorcery). But now the time has come! Let there be kudos and criticisms!

---Swords & Dark Magic (the brief review): While characterized as "[a] truly breathtaking new anthology," I was able to hold on to my breath for most of the stories. The introduction sounds quite promising in its attempt to reinvigorate the idea of sword-and-sorcery as a distinctive offspring of fantasika, but, like a number of the stories, there is little innovation and a lot of rehashing. This is not inherently bad, but I felt that the introduction raised hopes that were mostly unfulfilled in the volume.

The "classic" stories were the ones that I enjoyed the least. While Moorcock's Elric tale was serviceable and well-written, it trod a well-worn path in the cursed albino's saga and offered little new insight into the mythology of the character. Glen Cook's Black Company story similarly seemed like the Same Old Thing, but with a tone that made it feel more like a modern military yarn than sword-and-sorcery. Robert Silverberg's Majipoor tale was more diverting, but light on both the multi-leveled literary action and ornamentation that makes the best tales of this world shine. After an amusing start, the "fully authorized" Dying Earth offering (written not by Jack Vance, but by Michael Shea) just fell into an uninteresting rut that played out like a one-shot D&D adventure.

Some of the more original stories also felt uninspired, despite the talent of their authors. Like Moorcock, Gene Wolfe's story was not poorly written, but seemed to meander in intention and did not fire my imagination. Joe Abercrombie's offering has some good dialogue and earthy characters, but I felt that there was little at stake in the plot and not much tension in the story's progression. Bill Willingham's brief tale was too predictable, with little detail or finesse to divert you from that fact. Even the excellent Greg Keyes' Fool Wolf entry was not very original, despite an intriguing start.

More promising was Steven Erikson's gritty tale of a dead-end town and some weary soldiers. While increasingly predictable, Erikson's story drew you into the lives of the characters deftly, even as the action became increasingly unrealistic, leading to an ending that was very promising until the last few lines, which shattered all that had cared about in the story. Garth Nix's story was a pleasant diversion, and K. J. Parker's "A Rich, Full Week" was both amusing and intriguing. The story by Tim Lebbon was a nice spin on several sword-and-sorcery themes, and kept me guessing until the end. Tanith Lee's allegorical excursion was a lot of fun, even when it felt too self-absorbed.

The standout tales came from two established authors and two newer talents. C. J. Cherryh's "A Wizard in Wiscezan" was holistically satisfying, with characters rendered fully human in a few lines and a story that, while not new, was invigorated by engagement with the characters and by the way in which magic was used. James Enge presented a tale of Morlock the Maker that took the best elements of classical sword-and-sorcery and knocked them ass-over-teacups. Scott Lynch also did a lovely job of twisting some old ideas into vibrantly new shapes. Both of these stories did what I was expecting of this entire collection: inject new life into sword-and-sorcery by drawing on the essential elements of the genre and applying new sensibilities and possibilities to its conventions.

But hands-down the finest tale in the collection was CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan's "The Sea Troll's Daughter." In it she takes one of the most well-worn conventions of sword-and-sorcery and makes it both human and mythic simultaneously. From inversions of gender and status to the upending of the facile simplicities that often plague genre stories, this narrative undermines your expectations while refreshing your vision of what sword-and-sorcery can do in the hands of skillful, sensitive writer. It balances fatalism and frailty, the earthy and the grotesque, and delivers a piece of writing that is both adventure and fable, a rollicking meditation that provokes and entertains.

(And yes, that IS the short review!)

---Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees: I wasn't sure what to expect of this book, despite having read several reviews. None of them prepared me for the actual experience of reading the book: it was sublime, trippy, eccentric, droll, measured, and fabulous. The writing is sometimes too formal and stilted, but the prose pulls you into the world of Dorimare, where fairy fruit is banned and where the town of Lud-in-the-Mist is about to find out the cost of prohibition. I find it hard to say what the book is about, because there are so many ways to interpret it. It could be an absurd, subversive comedy that comments on bourgeois sensibilities or a mannered yarn about the foibles of convention and the need to acknowledge, not stifle, our inner impulses, or it could be a hallucinogenic meditation on the clash of pastoral and gentrified worldviews. . . the book goes in many directions, some of them more mystified than others. While there are few likable characters, you end up caring about the fate of this world's inhabitants, and the journey that the book takes you on is both absorbing and enchanting. I highly recommend it, and hope that I someday find enough folks who have read it to talk about the experience and make more sense of it.

--- Avatar: I knew going in that this would be a hard film for me to like, after the hype and the dissection of it in countless reviews and blogs, but I wanted to see what James Cameron was trying to accomplish. The result of all his work was a bad movie, all image and no soul. Amazing graphics? Sure. But who cares? The characters were little more than slightly-active scenery, a more complex image than the flora and fauna of Pandora. The movie was all surface and no heart, preachy with nothing to say, and sloppy in its transitions and development.

The story was a morass of cliches, with a pacing that was sublimated to the need to put amazing graphics on the screen frequently. It was hard to believe that this was the same filmmaker who made characters you cared about, who felt human, in films like Aliens and The Abyss. Those films had their problems, but they were not the utter mess of image overload that Avatar is.
I found myself wishing that it had been a faux documentary on the wonders of the planet, rather than a poorly-executed action film, because that format would have accentuated the need for the hyper-detailed visuals and removed a lot of what made the film painful to watch.

---National Geographic: Collapse: Based on the book by Jared Diamond (and featuring him prominently throughout), this documentary uses a science-fictional frame to discuss the possible fall of modern civilization. Moving between a fictional scientific expedition of 2200 CE and civilizations of the past, the film discusses a number of factors that, if not addressed, could (and likely will) result in the catastrophic dissolution of the modern world-system. The documentary looks at what made past systems fail; basically, as one archaeologist puts it, "they overshot."

This line condenses and essentializes the problem of collapse; large human systems plan poorly for the future, and as a result are unprepared when the system encounters one or more large predicaments. As Daniel Gilbert says in the film:"what's so curious about human beings is that we can look deeply into the future, foresee disaster, and still do nothing in the present to stop it." Collapse returns to this idea of looking deeply into the future as a possible solution to our ills, even as it demonstrates that every other large-scale society has failed to do so. While the looking-backwards frame does little more than provide transitions between the litany of problems, it keeps the film moving and also allows the viewer to pretend that there will be a future. Whether that is effective in getting people to think harder, and to act, is uncertain. For me, the film confirmed that without drastic action, without embracing that ability to look deeply into the past and future and access the enormous amounts of information we have to find principled, powerful solutions to our problems, we will follow those other civilizations into ruin.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pachycephalic Kakorrhaphiophobia

I got some nice compliments on the FoG column today. I was a little worried that it would pass unnoticed, but several people, including James Enge, Paul Jessup, and Cat Valente responded in some fashion to it (For example, Cat boosted the signal after declaring her happiness at being on the list). I was pretty nervous about this column, and I am still not sure why. Maybe because I put a lot of work into it, or perhaps because I thought that it might not work. To date most of my columns have been extemporaneous; this one required a lot of planning and reading, more than I had thought it would require.

But I learned a lot from it. First of all, I am still as anxious as crap about a significant piece of writing until someone responds to it. I am usually not too concerned about my FoG columns because, honestly, I don't know if they are widely read. Comments are often sparse on the site anyway, but particularly for my columns which are far less pop-culture oriented than those of my compatriots. I am usually more nervous about the reception of my Apex blog posts, which are read more closely (as I found out in particular with the postmodernism column). This column, however, meant a lot to me in terms of the care put into it and, well, the love.

I love speculative fiction, fantastika, SF, fantasy, widdlezingsongwubble, whatever you want to call the array of fantastic literatures. I would be a very different, and I think much suckier, person without the influence of imaginative fiction on my life. While it has not saved me from myself (and really, there's nothing that can do that, except you yourself), it has been lens and comforter, puzzle and joy for over 3/4ths of my life. While I hope to write a lot more about it (and a lot more OF it!), this assignment required me to look hard at the literature I love and think about what makes it resonate for me, and how that might be a quality that others, who may not share that love, can appreciate. I find it to be both a daunting exercise and a sort of cultural duty to show people what fantastika has to offer, because I feel that it has done so much for me.

I'm quite happy that people liked the column, and that my thick-headed fear of failure was unwarranted.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My brain hurts. . .

. . . after finishing my latest column at Forces of Geek. I had no idea when I decided to talk about some writers that it would be so hard to describe thirteen different artists' unique capabilities in a way that (hopefully) would appeal to a more pop-culture readership. My thesaurus will never forgive me.

I went completely lit-geek on Cat Valente's entry. I did that entry last because I was struggling to articulate what her writing is like, and why it is important and enjoyable to read her work. I found it easier to wax rhapsodic on her writing after dealing with the rest. I think there's sufficient contrast between the entries; it was difficult to not just say "OMG so good! Read read read!"

There is so much good fiction out there that gets buried under the pedestrian epic fantasy and urban paranormal and Star Wars novels. It would be great if just a few people tried something new after reading the column.