Great Escapes

I watched two good movies this weekend.

On Friday night I finally had the opportunity to go catch Arrival. I’ve been waiting on this damn movie for what feels like forever; I’m a gigantic Ted Chiang fanboy and I have known the screenwriter since he was a punk scaring people on the internet with The Dionaea House, one of the early viral websites that had people across the internet believing that there was a transdimensional house out there eating people. I’ve really been looking forward to seeing what Eric would do with the script, since the original story is so heavily based on the written word and the nuances of language.

arrivalteaseronline1-shtpunjabpakistancoordinates.jpgI think it translated brilliantly. I think I might like it more than the text version, and please keep in mind I am one of those insufferable “the book is always better” people. I think that it’s exactly the kind of movie that 2016 needs; I will not go in depth for fear of spoiling it, but it deals with themes of barriers between people, how they are built up under artificial pretenses and how to tear them down. It’s about how language both divides and unites living beings everywhere, it’s about a woman who pushes herself to do better and isn’t actively punished for doing so and speaking her mind, it’s about a better future in a lot of ways. I walked out of the film feeling a little bit of optimism bubbling back up after an absolutely emotionally crushing week. It was a similar feeling to when I walked out of The Martian in 2015, a movie that said we have the capacity to fix things if we all stop being pricks to each other and focus on advancing the common good. This is a film that I recommend seeing on the big screen: the visuals are absolutely gorgeous and the sound editing was top notch through a theater’s sound system. When some of the musical choices have you shaking in your seat, you’ll see what I mean.

That was Friday, and then Saturday night I went to a beautiful little retro cinema in Surry Hills, where you have to go underground through kind of a speakeasy-style bar to get to a small theater that sits maybe 40 people altogether. They are cycling through the Studio Ghibli catalog and I caught the subtitled version of my absolute favorite Miyazaki film, Spirited Away.

USA_full.jpgSpirited Away is… pure magic, for me. It’s not just my favorite Miyazaki film or one of my favorite animated films, it’s one of my favorite movies period. There’s something about it that draws me in from the first frame of a car rolling through the countryside. It’s a story that is both incredibly straightforward, and one that manages to encompass so many themes. It has a case of characters who are otherworldly but ever so grounded in reality; you come away knowing someone like every single spirit that shows up and speaks in the film, because they’re just like people in real life. It’s about perseverance in the face of adversity, in the power of making and treasuring even fleeting friendships, and it talks about ways in which work can be rewarding when it’s helping others – even if it makes you miserable at the start, before you see the effects on the other side. On top of all that I think it’s the film that best exemplifies what Hayao Miyazaki has said is one of his favorite kinds of stories: the ones where the girl saves herself. It’s a ten year old girl outwitting an entire world of spirits through skill, integrity and strength of character. It’s brilliant, I love it, I’ll never get tired of watching the movie. Seeing it on the big screen for the first time since its original release was a treat and brought me right back to being a teenager, being reminded of what such a story can do for your heart.

Friday morning I was absolutely emotionally shattered and exhausted, I felt like I could barely bring myself to do anything but get to work, do my work, choke down some lunch. After dipping into these two movies I feel revitalized and ready to get going again. Friday was a day of looking at my twitter feed and seeing anguish in my friends from the USA and going “oh, god, what do we even do.” Today was seeing the same and going “okay, so we fight and we don’t stop fighting.”

In lieu of a book review I thought I would just throw out my favorite escapist literature, films, television shows. Stuff that saw me through depression, saw me through nasty breakups, saw me through surgeries and recovery periods. I don’t advise losing yourself in escapism entirely, burying your head in the sand and making yourself blind to ways in which you could be helping, but it’s good to dip in and recharge your proverbial batteries from time to time, and these all have a certain sense of… well, optimism in them, people overcoming great odds, making the world a better place even if the world doesn’t want to change.

Books / Comics

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy (natch)
  • The Discworld series – particularly the City Watch novels and the Death/Susan stories
  • Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Neverwhere and The Ocean at the End of the Lane
  • Hellboy
  • Anything by PG Wodehouse
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The Stainless Steel Rat series
  • The Bridge of Birds
  • The Goblin Emperor

Films

  • The Princess Bride
  • Star Wars
  • The Lord of the Rings again
  • The Indiana Jones trilogy (well, you can skip Temple)
  • Dragonheart
  • Everything Miyazaki has ever touched
  • Snatch
  • The Martian

Television

  • Star Trek. Especially TOS and TNG. DS9 if you’re okay with optimism in the darkness of space noir instead of raw, unfiltered Roddenberry “life will be great when we all work together.”
  • Xena: Warrior Princess (yes, I know it’s the bizarre blend of mid 90s feminism where we can have strong, queer-leaning characters but we should make them mudwrestle at least once every five episodes to keep our viewing numbers up)
  • Buffy + Angel
  • The X-Files, for a glimpse back into a time when we had good, wholesome conspiracies about sludge alien monsters instead of Russian agents influencing our government
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
  • Rurouni Kenshin
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

 

Random travel documentaries and cooking shows are also really good if you want 45 minutes of escaping into another place and immersing yourself, but there’s several hundred of them on Netflix I like and I could write a whole month of blog posts just about them. Anything by Anthony Bourdain or David Attenborough is pretty much golden, though.

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Schedule Changes and Dreaming Dangerously

First off, temp work is actually agreeing with me more than I thought it would. It helps that I’ve found a pretty cool firm that actually matches me up to the kind of jobs that I like, and there is a certain casual attitude that seems to prevail the Australian workplace – at least in comparison to the last few American ones I worked at. It’s nice, and it’s fairly flexible to let me do writing outside of it.

I’m not sure that it will give me enough time to do writing, reading, blogging and everything else, though, and the first one of those I should probably cut back on is blogging. I had a feeling I was going to end up doing this once I started nailing down longer contracts and working 9-5 most of the week. I think there’s a trap that a lot of writers fall into where you end up writing more about writing than actually working on your stories, and I recognize that this is my personality type to a T. What I will probably end up doing is paring it down to a lengthy weekend post – probably about writing and any cool events – and a few scattered book and movie reviews during the week based on what I’ve seen recently. I’m going to try to set up a schedule for those, but I’m not quite sure what it will be yet. Definitely like the whole “having a deadline” thing, it keeps me in line.

Okay, all that out of the way, I will write up a longer thing today because I got to go to the Sydney Graphic Festival this weekend past, and it was awesome.

We went to the Gaiman presentation, which featured a couple of episodes of his Likely Stories show, the Dream Dangerously documentary, and then a Q&A session. The episodes were fun little jaunts, as usual (Closing Time and Feeders & Eaters), the documentary was a lighthearted piece about his final signing tour and some interviews over the last few years with both Neil himself and some of his friends and coworkers.

I will not lie, I choked up a bit when Sir Terry Pratchett was on the screen talking about some of his collaborative work, after which it cut to a brief message about how Pratchett passed away partway through filming the documentary and then had a short segment where Gaiman spoke about how he has a phantom Terry on his shoulder now, who tells him to stop being daft when he tricks himself into thinking he has writer’s block or some other obstacle in his way.

I enjoy watching authors talk about their work. Especially big name authors who, as it turns out, share a lot of the same doubts and neuroses as I do. Hearing someone talk about how they look back at their most beloved works and go “damn, I could do that so much better if I had another crack at the final revision” soothes me and lets me know that I’ll still have the exact crippling… doubts… if I make the… big time…

…Shit.

Anyway, he also said something that I’ve really been turning around in my head over and over for the last few days, because it perfectly sums up how I’ve felt about a lot of things in my life. I’m fundamentally an introvert and feel a certain level of disconnection from things, and it’s not because I don’t care about them – there’s a lot of stuff I care incredibly deeply about – but because there’s about a quarter of my brain hanging back in reserve and taking notes on how I would put those feelings into writing, what a character of mine would do in the situation I find myself in, how I want to steal my own experiences and translate them into plot points or events for a novel. When I go to a bar with friends, even if I’m having a great time, I am very much having 75% of a great time because the remaining 25% is chugging away like crazy noting:

  • cool speech patterns and turns of phrase happening around me
  • that potential bar fight over in the corner and the amazing posturing and body language going on between about five people
  • the folks hitting on each other in new and creative ways
  • what this new drink tastes like
  • how the changes in music are having an effect on the people beyond dancing, how the faster rhythm is causing them to talk and move faster in general

Stuff like that. It’s great, and I love it, and it’s very hard to describe to anyone who doesn’t experience it in a similar fashion. I know it’s one of the reasons I tend to come off as very aloof or cold in person; about half my friends have a “I thought you couldn’t stand me until we actually started talking 1 on 1” story involving me by now, but it’s really because I tend to hyperfocus on observation so that I have a deep brain-folder of cool stuff to search through when I’m trying to fill up a page with fiction.

In a few words he really described it perfectly, and it was great to hear someone that I admire talk about something that, at times, has felt like a bit of a character flaw in myself.

He also spoke at length about his older works, and I love that he’s still fond enough of them to remember all the little details 10, 15, 20+ years after he published them. I think it’s part of what draws me to his work for countless re-reads; his characters feel fundamentally real to me, like they are people who told him their stories and he just happened to write them down with great skill.

Great, now I need to go back and re-read both Neverwhere and American Gods again on top of my new stuff reading list.

51RsZidxl6L._SY346_.jpgSpeaking of new stuff, I finally got around to reading The Corroded Man that I picked up a couple of weeks back. You know what? It was actually pretty great. I try not to be down on licensed fiction or video game tie-in novels but there is a certain, possibly well-deserved stigma again them and an assumption of their quality levels. Corroded Man is probably not going to be picking up any Hugo nominations anytime soon, but it took a universe that I love and told a new story in it, hopefully creating a seamless bridge between the original game and the upcoming sequel. It falls prey to probably my least favorite video game novel thing ever, which is trying to wink wink nudge nudge the audience over and over with characters using skills and spells from the game in a very… shall we say mechanical way. I don’t want to read soandso used blink, and then blinked again and was on the roof, I want to read something a little more flowery about how she feels the air around her expand and contract and yank her through the frozen world to her new perch, you know? But that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story, which was like someone had taken a cold war Russian spy thriller and plunked it down into a dystopian steampunk and whale oil nightmare world. I loved seeing the setting expanded beyond what the game was able to show, the characters who showed up in the original game were translated very well to the page (although Corvo is a bit more sardonic than I ever imagined when I played him, that’s to the individual player’s taste) and there’s some genuinely cool and twisted magic that they play around with. I hope that a lot of it shows up in the second game, because it piqued my interest.

Launch Day for The Shadow Box

Well, today is the day. The Shadow Box is available for public consumption now. I’m never really sure what to do for launch day posts, everyone does them a bit differently. I’m going to talk about the book broadly, and then my own contributions to it (I’m sure Chris will have a similar post up) and some plans for the future.

The Shadow Box Cover Final.jpg

The Shadow Box was a real labor of love for both of us. Chris and I last collaborated on That Weird City (which we have dropped the price on for a combo deal kind of thing, if you haven’t read it) back in 2011-2012. We both knew each other from some writing and gaming communities prior to that, and we’d seen publication in the same magazine a couple of times, so we decided to throw together an anthology of weird horror stories that we’d had kicking around. It was very much a new author book with all that entails. Some formatting errors, some typos that slipped through, one story where the initial upload was a draft instead of the finished copy in the rush to get it up and ready for the self-imposed deadline. We actually just uploaded a kind of remastered version of the collection this weekend to coincide with the new launch, utilizing a lot of things learned over the years.

We have both learned a lot since City came out. We’ve both made a huge effort to expand the scope of our reading. City was very much a couple of New England dudes who grew up reading too much Lovecraft and associated mythos authors. Going back over it for the recent edits, I’m honestly kind of shocked at how little I cringe away from the narratives but also at how many new ways I would have expanded those stories if I’d written them today. My voodoo-tech support would be way, way more enmeshed with contemporary New Orleans Voodoo and all the social and cultural depth that entails, instead of being a convenient magical system for my white protagonist to use while fighting off evil spirits. I also would have leaned way, way less on the cosmic evil antagonists that popped up in many of the tales. I’m also very aware that five years from now I might look at that story and figure out a way I would have written it differently. Writing is never being satisfied with what you put out and knowing you can do better, but still making your best available while pursuing the higher goal.

Hindsight is 20/20. I walked away from the revision thinking that I played it really safe, and it was okay, but I want to do better than “okay” in my writing.

The Shadow Box is an attempt to push ourselves outside of the comfort zone. We may dip into the mythos for some trappings, but we’ve decided to twist them into new shapes and new directions. Chris’s work is tackling themes of masculine insecurity and testosterone poisoning, or art criticism and the idea of the creative zeitgeist as a force outside of our world entirely, or looking into the future-that-wasn’t of cyberpunk and marrying our current corporate dystopia with the trappings of the 80s. I’m shoving myself out of my own culture and upbringing to look at other things; I’ve got stories more approaching fantasy and dark fairy tale than the new weird, I’m trying to incorporate settings that don’t get a lot of attention otherwise, and I’m trying to be hyperaware of the ways that stories can be misconstrued if you aren’t careful with them. I have some stories on immigration and refugees that I went back over three, four, five times to make sure they were written right, because when you’re blending real world issues with the fantastic there’s so many ways to do it wrong.

I think it came out okay. I hope it came out okay. We’ve sent these out to beta readers of all genders, creeds and colors and we haven’t had anyone come back with “you insensitive assholes” yet. We gave ourselves a much more flexible deadline this time around and I think it paid off. There were many cases of finishing a draft and basically just taking a core element and a few characters to rewrite them from scratch. There was one where I had to stop it a few pages in and then work on another while reading several hundred pages out of a historical textbook to make sure I was getting a bunch of details right when they weren’t on Wikipedia.

Now it’s out there and if you decide to pick it up, I hope you enjoy it. If you do, or even if you don’t, the reviews help. Even a couple of lines on Amazon bump it up in the search and sorting algorithms. If you like it, maybe recommend it to some friends. Lend it to them on kindle – I mean, the spiced rum money is nice but the point of writing is to get it into a lot of hands – and throw a “hey this isn’t awful” post up on FB if you are so inclined. It’s incredibly helpful and appreciated and allows us to keep doing this kind of stuff.

Speaking of. I have no doubt that we’re going to put another anthology out sometime in the next couple of years, but with this having gotten us back on the writing horse we’re both working on our respective novels/series. Chris has some crazy-cool stuff brewing, I’m hammering out what started as a bit of a murder mystery and is now growing in scope with every history book I read and take notes on. Hell, when I finished a few of these short stories going “I want to make a novel out of these characters or this setting,” and I’ll probably take a stab at that as well. Doubly so if there are reviews from people saying they liked reading them in particular. Hint hint.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

Off to read a treatise on turn of the century Cairo.

Making Monsters – Grab Bag

It’s very weird seeing so much Halloween stuff available here in Australia, particularly after I have spent the last couple of years being told by many of my Australian friends not to expect much in the way of costumes or celebrations down on the sunburned continent. On a rational level I recognize that it’s because American media output is ever-increasing and more and more kids are growing up with Halloween special episodes of our shows, and Halloween-themed horror movies, and things like that. The businesses here notice this, and they go “hey, we can make some cash off of the craze if we convince them to buy costumes and candy with orange wrappers instead of the usual colors, and we can probably jack the price up because everything in Australia is more expensive.”

But it kind of feels like the holiday followed me here, and that’s nice. I doubt I’ll even do anything this year – I’ve been busy as hell and haven’t even thrown a costume together, and the Halloween parties nearby look like they’re going to be incredibly crowded and focused more on gimmick cocktails than anything else – but it’s nice to know I’ll have the option next year and beyond. It also lets me stay connected with my American friends a little better when they’re posting about trick-or-treaters and I see some down here too, instead of feeling completely cut off.

Enough about my life right now, though. I’d like to talk about monsters some more. If you’ve been keeping up on my articles throughout the week you’ll probably notice a trend of what I look for in a well-written monster: I like them to be scary, I like them to have their own motivation and rules they adhere to (even if we, as the audience, don’t know) and I like them to have a cool aesthetic. The latter of these is purely subjective, I like camp and body horror and beauty stretched into the uncanny valley, while some people may prefer realistic gore and things showing off the banality of evil and the thin veil hiding monstrous things from us.

My approach to monsters is honestly very similar to how I view religions, mythologies and folklore: a window into how other people think. It makes sense because monsters are intimately tied to those stories. Sometimes they’re the wrath sent down to punish people for breaking rules, or they’re placed there to force people into breaking unjust rules and changing society. You can learn a lot about a culture or a people by seeing what they’re afraid of, how they approach that fear, how they handle it. Are the monsters something that can be fought and beaten? Or are they beings that need to be avoided at all costs because humans can’t beat them?

Pictish_Beast_Maiden_Stone.jpgAre they stand-ins for nature, for the raw and untamed, uncaring wilderness? Something like the Scottish Kelpie myths, a living warning that you stay the hell away from fast-moving rivers or you’ll be taken away and killed horribly by the waters? A combination of two normal, everyday things (horses, beautiful women) with a dash of the otherworldly to tie them together? Or, underneath the river motif, maybe a cultural reading of misogynistic views that women are tempters who will lead men to ruin and death? Both are probably true and both tell you a lot about the people who came up with these stories. They lived in a land with a lot of hostile, watery environments and wanted to warn people from getting too close to the rivers or lakes. They were fairly patriarchal or at least placed emphasis on chastity and fidelity, especially when you combine the Kelpie stories with other Highland (and if you go far enough back, Pictish – that picture is from the Maiden Stone carving and is widely thought to represent a kind of proto-Kelpie figure) tales about men being led astray by beautiful women who are not what they seem. Double so with monstrous, handsome men seducing maidens.

baku_traditional.pngAre the monsters more like the living nightmares of the Baku myths out of Japanese – and early, Chinese – folklore? Beings that seep into your head and eat you from the inside out if you aren’t a good person in the waking world, because being a good person is what attracts the Baku, a protector spirit who feasts on bad dreams and protects the virtuous in their slumber? Bakus are still monsters, but they’re friendly ones if you treat them with respect and honor, and that tells you as much about the people who thought them up and revered them as the Kelpies said about bewaring the rivers and the seductive strangers. A Baku is a monster you can befriend and one who will protect you from the kind of monsters you can’t reason with, the ones born out of all the bad things you’ve seen in your day to day life, the stuff that lodged itself in your brain to be summoned back up once you nod off.

Whenever I’m coming up with monsters for a story, I try to keep this in the back of my mind. In our world monsters are what we come up with to serve as cautionary tales, and I think that when you create a fantasy or horror setting where they actually do exist in the flesh, you need to incorporate some elements of that for them to ring true. For us, the Irish Clurichaun fairy is a warning not to act like a drunkard, because if you do and dishonor your household he will show up and spoil your wine. If I wanted to write a story about them, I’d probably add a backstory to the fairy and why it does what it does. Maybe they are men and women who once drank wine of the fairy world and feel driven to “protect” their old towns by tormenting anyone who they believe might go down the same path, until those victims give up drink entirely, even if the Clurichauns don’t recognize the horrible collateral damage they’re inflicting with their mischief. If I were to dip my toe into Latvian lore, I might bring up Lausks, a spectral lumberjack who tests the integrity of houses by smacking them with his axe and whose presence causes cheeks to turn blue. In our world a pretty obvious explanation for why wooden structures sometimes creek, groan and settle in the winter as the moisture trapped within expands or contracts to match the temperature. In a setting where he actually exists, though, you have to start asking why he feels the need to test random houses by hitting them, what his motivations are as a monster. You can still have houses settle and groan from natural means, but perhaps a whole cult has sprung up where people in those houses rush to pay him tribute or burn offerings on the stove even when he isn’t present because better safe than sorry. You could do a cool little backwoods cult out of that if he stays in a small area, and imagine a traveler stumbling into that situation and trying to get to the bottom of it.

Basically, what I’m getting at here is that fictional monsters are awesome and deserve our respect as readers and as writers, and shouldn’t be treated as disposable plot devices when you could make them into characters in their own right. If they’re too nebulous to be characters they should still represent something more than a scary being that kills its way down the cast of human characters to create tension.

 

Making Monsters – The Invisible Leeches

Well, we’re just a week away from Halloween. As you might have guessed by my constant usage of vintage skull illustrations, I dig creepy, I dig the undead (usually not out of their crypts), and I dig monsters.

I want to talk about monsters a bit this week. In all my writing I feel like monsters are one of the few things I’m confident in. I’m a horror junkie and have been for a very long time, I grew up in Stephen King’s home state where you can see the reflection of his work in every real-life town and city, and what continually draws me to writers like Vandermeer and Miéville is that they put out really imaginative and cool monsters, or take old ones and put unique twists on them.

I’m going to start off today by talking about vampires.

Nosferatu-1922.jpgBloodsuckers. The hidden predators. Allegories for everything from sexual violence to willing seduction. They have been done a billion times over and show no sign of slowing down. There’s a glut of vampire fiction out there, but that doesn’t mean I’ve gotten bored of vampires; it just means I’ve gotten a hell of a lot pickier about my needle-mouthed night stalkers.

To explain why I like vamps so much, and what (to me) makes for a well written vampire, I feel like we need to pull the proverbial camera back a bit. On an individual basis, the vampire is very much a predator. They are usually described as physically stronger, more agile and more deadly than a human being. Easily able to rip a mortal to shreds in a fair fight. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I think Spike does a great job at summing up why vampires are effective villains even against an empowered mortal like the Slayer: “Lesson the first – a slayer must always reach for her weapon, I already have mine.” Except for a few peak specimens of physical training and conditioning, human beings tend to be reliant on external weapons to fight against predators. What makes a vampire effective is that they look like us and can get close enough to keep us from ever reaching a weapon when they go to strike. There are some variants there; The Strain’s body horror vamps, for example, look monstrous from the get-go and their biological weaponry is even more advanced than the traditional fangs and raw brute strength that other vampires exhibit.

Pull the camera back though to look at vampires on a macro scale rather than a micro one. I think what truly appeals to me about the monster is that it represents parasitism rather than some kind of supernatural predator. Yeah, one on one a vampire is probably going to kill you, but in the best stories a group of humans stands a chance against a vamp. ‘Salem’s Lot. The original Dracula. Nosferatu. Fright Night. We humans may be kind of crappy one on one but once sufficiently motivated and given enough of a warning we’re terribly resourceful at violently and efficiently murdering anything we have deemed The Other, and that’s been true throughout most of history. Vampires can’t operate in public because of that. They have to hide in the shadows. It’s how they survive.

A vampire, or a clan of vampires, has to blend in and go unnoticed. They identify important societal institutions and then they infect and corrupt them. They contribute nothing while relying upon a society to give up blood for them, to die for them, often without knowing what they’re dying for. They have to subvert businesses and politicians to serve their own interests, and following down the logical power structure of the society they’ve infected they would probably have fingers in police departments and hospitals as well. These intricate power webs are built and maintained to help them survive rather than out of any desire to play a neo-aristocracy. They may dress it up in nobility and play at being highbrow gentlemen and women, but in the long run they are the horrifying, human-shaped equivalent to a guinea worm infection.

I want stories that explore that aspect of vampires.

I’ve seen the other ones. I’ve enjoyed them. I have read countless stories where vampires are tragic because eventually their bestial instincts overpower their human minds and turn them predatory against their will. Stories where vampires are doomed to chase love that they can never have, only to watch it crumble to dust over and over in front of them. Artistic vampires who grow old enough to watch their works forgotten. There are other, older stories as well. Terrible old stories where vampires stand for queer decadence or try to warn people about lustful foreigners.

I’ve read all of those but very few about the interworkings of how a vampiric society would actually work. A tragedy where someone is twisted into becoming a parasitic being without even realizing the harm he is doing to his society, not seeing that his “minimizing” the damage he does is actually hurting more people. What about a story exploring how ethical vampires stealing donated blood from a hospital is depriving dying surgery patients of lifesaving infusions? Or the classic trope where a vampire only feeds on criminals, but exploring what happens when someone makes himself into a lethal vigilante and ends up feeding on people proven innocent postmortem, and how that struggle leaves him a ruin? Vampires who care about their neighborhoods and families but who end up inadvertently destroying those communities in an attempt to make “safe” prey, creating slums and ghettos out of once vibrant regions by ensconcing themselves in political intrigue, and then not realizing they have done so until the damage can’t be undone?

Even a vampire trying to justify his continued existence to himself, knowing that it comes at the cost of constantly harming others on a visceral level. If you are a decent person, how do you do that? Do you try to convince yourself that as an immortal repository of historical knowledge you are worth a few blood sacrifices every weekend? Especially in the age of the internet? How about when you factor in how badly the human memory deteriorates and blends over time, how flexible our minds become to suggestion even over a mortal lifetime.

We can have the other vampires stay too, I still like them. But I’d like some vampire fiction that doesn’t tie itself to explicit violence and sexuality when it markets itself as mature.

51lqc2yadul-_sy346_Continuing along the vein (sorry) of social parasites, brutes disguised as aristocracy and people who can only exist by hurting others, the two books I read over the weekend deal very heavily with authoritarianism. I am speaking of Chuck Wendig’s first two Aftermath books, Aftermath itself and Life Debt. My very brief review is that they make a good gap filler between the original trilogy and the new Force Awakens universe, I would recommend reading them at least once, but that I do pine a little bit for some of the gems in the old, non-canon EU that I grew up on as a teen. These feel a lot more grounded even while using the same levels of in-universe jargon, and that’s something people are either going to love or hate without a lot of room in between. There’s not much in the way of jedi or force action here and it plays out more along the lines of a military/espionage thriller with a bunch of new characters introduced at a breakneck pace. I found some forgettable but loved others, like the Imperial loyalty officer turned halfhearted New Republic fighter Sinjir. As someone who really loves Chuck Wendig’s blog and other works, they felt a bit too much like Wendig novels and less like the Star Wars novels I expected. I 51mdvjmlg-ldon’t want to bash them because I did enjoy them, they just weren’t a tone I have ever seen in Star Wars before and it felt incredibly jarring to me, and that’s coming from someone who read prrrrrobably over a hundred of the old EU novels and can tell you in graphic detail how a lightsaber worked within the universe’s technological ruleset. I thought the inclusion of openly gay characters in the setting was welcome and long overdue, and I thought that the two novels explored some untrodden territory in terms of Star Wars storytelling, but I just don’t know that the narrative voice worked for the stories it wanted to tell. Grain of salt, because I know some people who came out loving these books and I admit that the voice is an entirely subjective thing to quibble about, and the stories themselves are very solid and go a long way toward explaining some of the events in The Force Awakens.

Okay, all that said, my favorite aspect of these books was something that Rebels has been exploring of late: How the hell do you have an empire as evil as The Empire and still have people willingly sign up? Even the nazi regime had more defectors than we see of the Empire in Star Wars, and the Empire blows up entire planets for fun.

While Rebels explores how imperials can become drawn in by propaganda and how the escalation of violence by both sides just creates new hardliners, this is more about the internal power struggles that had already been at play in the Empire and how Palpatine was the only thing keeping them from each others throats. Like a lot of real world authoritarian and fascist groups it had split into at least four subgroups; aggressive and defensive military factions, a cultish religious circle and a group of economists trying to play the forever-war to their advantage. It’s great to hear Imperial characters lambasting each other for allowing their navy to build something called a Death Star, others saying that they should surrender rather than draw the war out because the Rebels/Republic will be forced to display leniency to show how different they are from the Empire (this particular exchange a direct result of one imperial threatening to have another executed during a roundtable discussion on strategy), others still lamenting that everything had gone to hell ever since Palpatine started buying into his own propaganda and letting his religious Sith teachings influence how he chose to govern instead of keeping them separate.

It ties into one of my favorite things about the First Order in Force Awakens: they really do come off as a bunch of ill-equipped neo nazis completely unable to learn from their predecessors’ failure. The Empire was a comically xenophobic group who signed their death warrant when they blew up Alderaan and turned an even larger portion of the galaxy against them, and then were dumb enough to sink a huge portion of their resources into building the second Death Star. What do the First Order do? Sink all of their resources into building an even bigger superweapon while skimping on training and then provoking a counterattack seemingly on a childish tantrum of a whim. It made them look pathetic and dangerous and this trilogy is fleshing that out in a good way, it makes me even more eager to see Rey and Finn and company tear them apart over the next two films.

Taking Note(s)

So, I realized that lately I’ve been going into historical research to justify worldbuilding in secondary world fantasies, but I haven’t really had a chance to touch on my actual note taking process. It’s something that absolutely, positively doesn’t work for everyone and I find that if you try to copy someone else’s method for note-taking you’ll probably have a hard time going back over your notes and making sense of them later. I kind of cobbled this method together between university, taking technical notes in meetings at work, and a few other random inspirations.

Right now I take all my notes in a small, spiral bound Mead book. I used to use larger three-ring binders (particularly during college lectures) but I have come to view the notebook as a transitional tool between what I’m studying and what’s going to end up in my Scrivener “Research” folder. I don’t do a lot of organizing on paper; I read the books, I take notes as I’m going, and then I organize and sort things as I translate them from a physical text to a digital one.

I make due with a pen and a yellow highlighter, but if you do prefer to organize on paper I really can’t recommend multiple colored highlighters enough. If for no other reason than being able to color code stuff for easy reference later (I used to do language in blue, dates in purple, etc), it saves you quite a bit of time.

392309-small.jpgMy notes over the last three months have been desert-themed, due to writing multiple short stories and also working on my novel all drawing from a lot of middle eastern inspiration, albeit radically different parts of that world (eastern Turkey and getting into the steppe lands, the medieval Ottomans, the Bedouin and the rise of ibn Saud, late 19th century Cairo for the most prominent examples) and a big part of this is to keep the notes very distinct from one another and not accidentally, inadvertently have some bleed over into near east orientalism where I attribute the wrong stuff to the wrong culture and treat everything as kind of a big sandy blob. Moving to Australia has helped out a ton here, there is so much raw information and data about Gallipoli and various other Anzac/Ottoman conflicts that it’s staggering to pick through the local library.

So let’s flip to a few pages here. My longest one is a list of non-English words I might want to use either as inspiration for names, or as descriptors where we don’t have a translation in the English language and I end up throwing it in as an italicized foreign term for the characters to expound on, just a dash of flavor. This is a bit of a mishmash but as I move it into Scrivener I sort it by language background:

  • Lugul – Akkad – “Big Man / Lord / not to level of king but upper echelons of tribal nobility”
  • Ziusudra  – Sumer – Noah figure, global flood mythology, recurring figure, cross ref to deluge stories
  • Sipahi – Turkish/Ottoman – Special caste of cavalry broken into two subclasses, fief holders and palace guards, historical rivals of the Janissary corps, in decline from early 1800s and disbanded by 1827
  • Muḥtasib – Persian, later Ottoman – Specific brand of bazaar inspectors, regulated prices and quality of goods, prevented disputes, contributed to stagnation compared to global market when prices were not allowed to compete with western ones, fell as mercantile class grew 1800s+
  • Hujjar – Arabic – Oasis towns with small farming communities later fortified and used as military and religious training grounds for Mutawwa’a, ritual specialists and religious police with right to carry weaponry
  • Khamsin – Arabic nomads – Regional term for specific kind of sandstorm that could rise upwards of 5 stories but moved as a wall rather than a spinning motion

This goes on and on in a similar manner, and in Scrivener I have a language folder broken down into about a dozen subfolders for the regional terms that I can open up when I need a quick reference.

After that I have something I might describe as worldbuilding notes, facts, stuff in the text that stood out to me as interesting, this is mainly culled from my Ottoman pages:

  • 1913 – Ottoman empire had 500-550 cars to USA’s 1 million, imported thousands more over half decade but no roads or infrastructure to support them until postwar.
  • 1914 – First airboat debut over imperial lands.
  • 1915 – Modernization efforts increase, series of public works projects set up like the New Deal Era but without as much financial backing or planning and a heavier emphasis on military growth, later fell through as most men of fighting age recruited.
  • Printing press from 1700s onward
  • Despite complaints about European decadence western Europe was used as a model for reform culminating in assembly with sultan as theocratic figurehead, took 1/10th the time as most other countries where this happened.
  • Secular military education replaces religious service for primary source of social mobility 1850 onward.

There’s a bit of a fuzzy boarder between that section and the following one, which is where I list out specific incidents I might want to use as inspiration for plot points in the story. The prior stuff is more background and might not even be revealed to the reader, but I feel that I need to keep it in my mind to maintain internal consistency of how the setting works.

This is a lot more… flexible, and I’ll often jot down notes as to how to tweak it to be in line with the story. In this case I’m drawing pretty heavily from the biographies of T.E. Lawrence I’ve been reading:

  • An impoverished family in the desert might have 2-3 spouses, 10 head of livestock and a small date garden.
  • No payment ever accepted for lodging, drinking with a traveler in your tent codifies him or her as a family member for the duration of the night.
  • Higher tier officers were known to literally cut gory details out of battle reports with knives or “accidentally” stain them to the point of illegibility before sending them up the chain to the politicians.
  • Often-garbled telegraph transmissions provide deniability for ignoring orders in the trenches and acting on directions of local officer rather than those who outrank him.
  • 5 tribes and 10-12 clans together might produce 10k trained warriors.
  • In tribal confederations outsiders could be called upon to dispense corporal and capital punishment due to their status as neutral observers.
  • Oases regularly contaminated with corpses by retreating, spiteful enemy forces.
  • Armed with British guns and positioned like snipers Bedouin might makes 1/8 shots count, allowed to perform hit and run attacks incorporating pistols and melee weapons it wasn’t unheard of for a hundred of them to whittle down 300-400 out of 500 men in a day.

And so on and so forth.

A big part of writing all this down is that it helps in metacognition. When you take notes you are thinking not just about the immediate story or text you’re reading but which parts you want to use, which in turn forces you to think about the entirety in a greater depth. This helps you retain the knowledge even better. Repeatedly writing it down, even just once with pen and once with keyboard lodges it firmly in your brain. If you have an idea while reading something, write it and any relevant notes down and you have a safety net to keep it from falling out of your head.

51whd70Y4cL._SY346_.jpgAside from copious research and note taking, I have been plowing through Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. Boy. I read pretty damn fast, and this was like the literary equivalent of pushing through a marathon with lead weights. That’s not to say it’s a bad novel by any means, but it is long and it is incredibly dense to read. Moore does not hold your hand at all here, it’s up to you to actually pay attention and to keep up. The story is both classic more and a new take on it. I’ve been a huge fan of his comics for a very long time and there are similar themes of cosmicism, the banality of magic, you see bits and pieces of From Hell and Promethea peaking through the corners, but it’s an entirely new twist by focusing on one very small region and everyone who passes through it over the years. The basic core of the story involves the trials and tribulations of a man who choked to death on a throat lozenge as a child, miraculously came back to life, and it plagued by recurring memories of the afterlife as a pool hall where strange angels play snooker with human souls, and this strand forms the core of the braid around which more and more layers are wrapped. There are ghosts, and monsters, and sex workers, and car crashes, and dozens of other little stories that make up the greater patchwork.

It’s one of those books where I think everyone who likes the subject matter should give it a try, but it’s not going to be for everybody. The comparisons to James Joyce are apt, it’s a read that seems to make itself more difficult simply for the sake of doing so or at the artist’s pleasure, and that’s totally fine but also frustrating. I really do think he could have told the same story in half the length and not lost that much. I do not need multiple paragraphs dedicated to the hue of a pot of urine under a man’s bed when that pot plays no role beyond the scene, and it feels like it was jammed in there just to see how many ways Moore could describe it to the reader, as an early example. Unlike Joyce where part of the fun is going back and re-reading to look for deeper meaning in the text, I can’t see myself making this particular slog again any time soon.

Musings on the Bendu and Trench Warfare

So, first of all, have you guys seen the season 3 premier of Star Wars: Rebels?

Because holy shit, go watch that if you haven’t. Then come back.

All set? Okay, good, because I’m going to geek right the hell out about that episode.

First off, THE BENDU.

bendu.png

When it comes to Star Wars, I am that turbo-nerd that read about the earliest drafts before George Lucas went back and took an editorial hacksaw to the entire thing. Back when Luke Skywalker was going to be Obi-Wan Kenobi, a retired general that the princess comes to for help. Back when there was an Annikin Starkiller around as a main character. When it wasn’t going to be “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” it was going to be tied directly to our here and now through a book known as the Journal of the Whills.

Back when it wasn’t the Jedi Knights. It was the Jedi-Bendu order, headed by Mace Windu of Ophuchi.

So, you know, I’ve been geeking right the hell out since the first teaser trailers let slip “I’m the Bendu. The one in the middle.” My expectations were exceeded and the show gave a training sequence that I think rivals the old Luke/Yoda dynamic, and something that I hope they continue to build on throughout the season.

Because I love the grey jedi as a concept. I’m that guy, the one who sees as perfectly good mythical good/evil dichotomy and wants to pick it apart and look at the in between. Why are certain Force powers arbitrarily designated as light or dark? What if you use force lightning – something described in the canon as a soul-sucking technique that disfigures its wielder by drawing out their life energy in an agonizing assault – to rescue someone you love, and instead of using rage as the fuel you use desperation? What if you tap into the healing power of the force, something explicitly limited to light siders, in order to prolong the life of a torture victim? Where and why is the line drawn how it is? One of the few good things to come out of the prequel trilogy was the explicit narrative that the jedi knights were inept and full of themselves, having given into a kind of smug satisfaction that their orthodox lifestyle was the only way. They had to be destroyed to bring balance to the force, or brought to the brink of destruction and forced to change.

But I digress, as I often do when I ramble about Star Wars. The Bendu presented in Rebels is a perfect incorporation of an old concept into a new format, and living proof why you should never, ever get rid of your old drafts no matter how much they embarrass you or make you cringe. You can always go back and mine them for cool stuff. Even if the rest of your story is complete garbage, there may be one character, one religion, one tool that would work perfectly in another story once you make a few tweaks.

1414456145739_Image_galleryImage_Doctor_Who_played_by_Tom_.JPGDid I mention that they got Tom Baker to voice the Bendu? You know, my first and favorite exposure to Doctor Who long before a relaunch was ever on the table and they decided to sexy the character up? As though Tom Baker wasn’t already sexy enough for anyone in their right mind? And his voice is perfect for the Bendu because he really is channeling the Doctor in a weird, reverb-heavy kind of way. It’s perfect that this being between the dark and light sides of the force would be benevolent and wise but also incredibly mischievous and getting a thrill out of withholding a tiny bit of information out of everything he does freely dispense.

And that’s before I start getting into Thrawn. Again, perfect, drawn from a book series set after the trilogy and it turns out he actually works better in one set before the trilogy because it unmoors him from certain plot expectations and gives him more freedom to move around. We only got a few glimpses of him this time around but I expect him to take center stage and when he does I’m sure I’ll be gushing about that too.

Okay.

So.

Trench warfare, for a change of pace.

The book I am currently writing when not freaking out over Star Wars deals pretty heavily with a world recently torn asunder by its first global conflict, something with a technological level hovering around World War 1. I have a (probably) slightly above average knowledge of WW1 and its surrounding historical tidbits, but my focuses in history have always been much more about WW2 and the medieval eras, with a few dashes of ancient history spread around. It’s not that I had a dislike of the Great War or don’t find it interesting, it just fell lower on my list of priorities because there wasn’t as much readily available information on it, the history documentaries were not nearly as in love with it as World War 2 and lord knows you can’t take a stroll through the history aisles without tripping over ten books on the history of England or France in the ~dark ages~ for every one on trench warfare.

Hence my picking up that book I mentioned the other day, Eugene Rogan’s excellent Fall of the Ottomans and plowing through the rest of it. Given that my book deals with a more middle eastern setting than many fantasy stories out there, I figured that not just approaching the logistics of WW1 combat but doing so from the perspective of the Turco-Arab alliance would be hitting two birds with one stone. It’s quite fascinating stuff, and honestly you could file some serial numbers off the Ottoman portion of WW1 and have political maneuverings that would outmatch Game of Thrones by several miles. You’ve got the English screwing over the Ottomans in business deals, the Germans sneaking in and snapping up their allegiance and thinking that they could probably leverage that loyalty to incite conflict within England’s Islamic holdings, at which point the English and French in particular flipped out and started further destabilizing Egypt and India by backing multiple opponents to the Ottoman throne. You’ve got dueling theocratic, secular and puppet rulers of every stripe playing tug of war with a poor colonized demographic who really don’t care one way or the other.

But the big focus on the book is on the battles, and considering one of my protagonists is a veteran of the trenches, I wanted to get into the psychology and weirdness of trench warfare. And weirdness does not begin to cover it. You’ve heard the occasional feel-good story about German and British troops exchanging gifts across the no-man’s-land in Europe proper, but that has nothing on the surrealism of the Anzac and Sepoy related stuff in Gallipoli and Kut. The scenes of carnage, flooding, men drowning in gory mud, succumbing to horrible infections and puking out their own lungs due to chemical gases are punctuated by scenes of bizarre black comedy. A couple of them of note, paraphrased from few sources here but drawing from actual soldiers’ diaries:

At the Siege of Kut, Sepoy and Turco-Bedouin troops not firing on each other while digging trenches as kind of an informal agreement, and regularly doing stuff like dashing over to save one another from drowning in flash floods before returning to their trenches and resuming shooting at one another. During one particularly hot afternoon the Turks finished their trench first and were lounging around, teasing the British and Indian troops by waving spades around. One trooper eventually got so pissed off that he drew his sidearm and shot the nearest spade clean through the head. After a few tense moments where everyone thought that a counterattack had just been provoked, the spade was raised up again, slowly and haltingly, with a bandage wrapped around it.

Multiple instances of soldiers collecting abandoned stationary when pushing into abandoned trench lines, and taking it to return to survivors later on when one force eventually surrendered to the other. Particularly true after Gallipoli where Ottoman forces who didn’t speak any English sought out Australian and New Zealand accents to try and return letters they have picked up in old camps, catching up and sharing drinks with their erstwhile enemies.

One instance of an Australian medic protecting a fallen Bedouin tribesman with his own body and bandaging him up, only to some weeks later be saved by the same man when the tribe ambushed the squadron, being informed by one of the rare bilingual shaykhs that he was only alive because he “had given the man a smoke, and even inferior heathen cigarettes are preferable to none on the battlefield.”

It’s such an odd dynamic that shows up again and again, and mainly in trench warfare where you find yourself at odds with your immediate environment so much as the enemy force, who you often have to sleep within hearing distance of. It fosters a kind of mindset where you can shoot them in the face or exchange gifts and hugs with them on the turn of a time, and that’s not something you saw anywhere else throughout most of human history. The closest you might have gotten would be something like the ancient world of spear-wielding shield walls and combat fought with certain rules in place that only a percentage of the enemy could be killed or maimed because you didn’t want your enemy village to lose enough laborers to starve to death or you wouldn’t have anyone to pillage or conquer later down the line. And even then that was more about men developing a psychological block toward stabbing one another and adhering to certain ritual rulesets than the extreme back and forth of the trenches.

It’s ripe for character background, too. You can just imagine how experiences like that might change a person who came into the war without any kind of violence in their background and could well have to shoot several men from up close who he had swapped meals with just a day before all while laughing and yelling jokes to one another across the thin strip of land between the trenches. Remember what I said the other day about characters developing a mask, a self and a denied self? You’re pretty much guaranteed to get all three and then some going through trauma like that even once, much less on a regular basis over the course of a campaign.

41KiUs0mBnL.jpgFor another change of pace, I’d like to recommend a book where I never know if it’s underrated or everyone knows about it, because the people who have read it before are always like “yeah I thought everyone already read that.” I am talking about Blindsight by Peter Watts, a book I find so disturbing that I can’t read it more than once every few years because it fills me with true existential dread. Really, what more do you want in a space horror book? Ignore the blurbs about vampires or first contact or anything else people like to tag it with, it is about what happens when we encounter life that considers self-awareness a horrible and universe threatening plague, and then the book proceeds to back up that view with a lot of scientific research that self-awareness actually does seem like an evolutionary flaw and it’s a marvel we’ve gotten this far without blowing ourselves up. It takes the idea that as soon as you start thinking about your typing or your playing an instrument you will begin to screw it up and stumble over your own fingers, as opposed to letting your brain run on muscle memory and instinct. Now take that and expand it to an alien race who see our entire civilization as an outgrowth of that and think that we might inflict it on the rest of the cosmos, and that we are the cosmic horror in an otherwise orderly and evolutionary sound universe. Now take those aliens and send against them a group of high-functioning social misfits including sociopaths, psychopaths, MPD in a near-future where individual personalities are accorded human rights and the therapies of our current era are seen as serial killing those individual personalities by burying them alive in the unconscious, oh and something kind of like a vampire but only insofar as it has been brought back from extinction by genetic tampering and was the organism nature designed to keep our population in check across entire continents, the reason that humankind has an innate fear of the dark. There’s so much more and I could go on and on, but it’s such a good speculative fiction book, such a good horror story, such a good exploration of truly bizarre characters. Watts is a genius and, to give you an idea of his mindset when it comes to writing uncomfortable and horrifying things, once contracted necrotizing fasciitis in his leg and liveblogged the entire treatment as parts of his leg putrefied and were in danger of rotting off the bone. It’s the kind of dedication to making people sick that I can only hope to one day achieve in my own horror stories.