Sunday, December 30, 2012

Interview with Neal Asher



Here's an interview I did with Neal Asher for a graduate presentation several months ago. If you haven't read any of Neal's books, I highly recommend that you do. He writes high-energy action driven space opera like nobody else, and he's one of the top SF writers working today. Check out his blog at http://theskinner.blogspot.com. His latest novel, Zero Point, is now out from Tor books and is available on Amazon and Amazon UK.


TP: Do you feel that writing short stories has helped you develop a distinct narrative voice which has translated into novels? 
NA: I suspect that a distinct narrative voice comes about through writing lots and development over time. I reckon all writers start out basically copying the stuff they love before they head off in their own direction; before they gain a clear vision of what they are aiming for. However, certainly my brevity came about through writing short stories and I still find that after editing my typescripts end up being added to rather than cut. Also the ‘hooks’ I have at the end of each section in a book arose from the short story format i.e. if I was to take each section I write, add in some background detail and some clarification, they could be turned into short stories in themselves.   
TP: Why the Polity? How has your vision of that setting changed and evolved since its inception? 
NA: I started off with the short stories and in each of those I often used common elements: the runcible, the augs, U-space drives, the AIs and drones, sometimes the same characters. When I came to writing Gridlinked I wanted everything in there, including the kitchen sink. I wanted a canvas large enough to tell just about any story I wished. This has evolved over time what with the sheer weight of the stories told, incorporating the necessity for a chronology, a history. It has also turned into a constriction I hoped it wouldn’t be.
TP: What are the advantages of developing a world in short fiction before writing novels set in that milieu? The disadvantages (if any)?
NA: The advantages are that the short stories work as a test-bed for ideas, technologies, ecologies, characters in fact everything you use in the later novels. For example: you can create superman but soon learn in the short form that without kryptonite there’s little story to tell. The disadvantages are the constraints you put on yourself if you want to ensure those stories are to be included in that milieu. It all needs to slot together and there’ll always be some fan pointing out your errors.
TP: Do you find that short stories can spawn ideas for longer works like novels? This certainly seems true for The Technician, which has many ties to "Alien Archaeology" and "The Gabble." 
NA: Yes, definitely. The prime example is The Skinner. I picked up two of my favourite short stories – Spatterjay and Snairls – and used them as the basis of that book, the character Erlin appearing in the first and Janer appearing in the second. They can be handy leg-up and can contain ideas and characters to develop into the longer form. 
TP: Do you still write short stories now that you are publishing novels full-time, and if so, what do you find so appealing about the form? 
NA: I keep meaning to write more short stories and, sometimes when I get a request I will produce something, but generally the novel writing keeps getting in the way. First off it is the bread-and-butter work. I’m fairly certain now that just about any short stories I write will get published somewhere, but their earning power is limited. Also, liking to have something in the bank, I want to be always ahead of Macmillan. Right now I’m a year and a half ahead, but keep thinking wouldn’t it be great to be two or maybe three years ahead? Maybe that stems from a fear that if I lay off the novel writing for a while I might not be able to do it again, which is silly.

Thanks again Neal! Check out his Amazon page and order some of his books! My personal favorites are Gridlinked, The Skinner, and Brass Man as well as the short story collections The Gabble and Other Stories and The Engineer ReConditioned. 



                    

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Interview

                                   

     Just a quick update. Zachary Jernigan, author of the upcoming novel, No Return, has posted an interview with me on his blog. Thanks, Zach, for stroking my ego! Check it out HERE.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bad Storytelling, or Why I Think Skyfall is a Steaming Pile of Shit Despite Its Rave Reviews

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!        




           Maybe that's a bit harsh, but after all the hype, this movie was a huge flop for me. The reason is simple. In order to make a good Bond movie, you have to follow a formula. Bond stories aren't known for their innovation, originality, or groundbreaking style, they're flashy, over-the-top action movies with colorful and entertaining characters, complex plots, gorgeous scenery, and badder than bad villains. 
        I think the last point is the one I'm most aggravated about. You'd think Javier Bardem of No Country fame would play an excellent, creepy, and downright nasty Bond villain, but unfortunately the writers gave him absolutely nothing to work with. His character motivations throughout the entire film are completely inconsistent. If he wants to kill M in person so badly, why does he send a team of commandos to shoot up the house where she's hiding out first? Why bust into a court hearing, guns blazing, only to later try to commit suicide/homicide at the film's climax? His character isn't fleshed out enough for his motivations to make sense, and he's introduced HALF WAY through the movie, by which point we've gone through two other would-be villains and plot points that in the end, don't really add up to anything at all. 
        For me, a good villain must compliment the hero in some way. They must have enough similarities so that there is an immediate connection, but differ on certain points that make the confrontation inevitable. Look at any other decent Bond movie and you'll see this. Le Chiffre in Casino Royale has wealth, power, and style (all characteristics of Bond), and he's a crack poker player (also Bond's thing), but he's out to destroy civilization as we know it, whereas Bond is trying to hold it all together. There's immediate tension, particularly when the two sit down to play cards, and the conflict drives the entire film. Not to mention the fact that we meet Le Chiffre in the FIRST FIVE MINUTES, not an hour in. 
         The writers try to establish a connection in this film, with Bardem's character having been betrayed by MI6, just as Bond is in the beginning, but they go nowhere with this. Bond doesn't remotely identify with him, because he's basically crazy (and in an inconsistent way, not in a way that makes him interesting or even threatening). In many ways, Skyfall felt like three storylines the writers decided to cut and paste together at the last minute, so the movie has an uneven feel throghout. For the first third of the film, you'd think it was about Bond being betrayed by his own agency, but that quickly gets resolved and forgotten. Then it's about getting the bad guy who got away, who turns out to be unimportant when Bardem's character is introduced. Then for the last third of the film it vacillates between being a "protect M at all costs" mission and Bond revisiting his childhood (which isn't important to the plot or developed enough for me to care at all). 
          Don't get me wrong, there are some beautiful shots in this movie, particularly in the scene where Bond charges away from his burning home, silhouetted against the raging fires, but it adds nothing thematically because they haven't set anything up with the story. It's just pretty imagery and nothing else, which is totally annoying because it could have been SO MUCH MORE! I don't understand why this movie is being praised, except for the fact that it's far more coherent than Quantum of Solace, which in my opinion, isn't an excuse. Just because your plot makes sense, doesn't mean it's a good plot. On the whole, Skyfall had so much potential but just didn't carry through with anything it set up. Maybe one day, Hollywood will learn that flashy special effects and beautiful actors/actresses are no substitute for story. Do yourself a favor and watch one of the Connery-era bonds, or even the Brosnan-era for that matter (at least they had good stories!) or, better yet, read one of the original Fleming novels. Trust me, your time will be much better spent than seeing this travesty.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Interview with Jeffrey Thomas

 



      In the spirit of Halloween, here's an interview I did with SF/horror writer Jeffrey Thomas, author of the novels Monstrocity, Health Agent, Deadstock, and Blue War, as well as the short story collections Punktown, Voices from Punktown, Punktown: Shades of Grey, and Punktown: Third Eye. If you've never encountered Jeff's work before, you're missing out. His unique brand of science fiction combined with atmospheric horror is some of the best I've ever read. But don't take my word for it, here's what China Mievelle has to say about Thomas's work: "Punktown is searing and alien and anxious and rich, and it is humane, and it is moving. Jeffrey Thomas has done something wonderful." I had the opportunity to interview Jeff several months ago for a graduate presentation I was giving on world-building and short fiction. You can read two of Jeff's stories online for free on Infinity Plus: "The Hate Machines"  and "The Library of Sorrows".

1. First off, why Punktown? Can you describe this world and your ideal vision of it? 

JT: I’m not sure I can explain why Punktown, but I guess I could say why not, in that Punktown seems to be the very personification of my chaotic imagination; a center of vibrant activity, where strange and frightening but hopefully also wondrous things can occur. In 1980, I arrived at the idea of setting a series of stories in a weird futuristic city -- ostensibly a science fiction environment, but as much a funhouse mirror reflection of our own world -- where I could address sociological issues in a darkly satirical way. But my vision of Punktown has grown since then and continues to grow.

2. When creating Punktown did you originally envision it as short stories or longer works? Which did you write first? 

JT: I started in 1980 with a novel, and invited my brother Scott Thomas and friend Thomas Hughes to write their own Punktown-based stories (from a series of guidelines I created for them). My first novel and Scott’s have never been submitted to a publisher (though I hope one day to prepare them for that; both are still in a handwritten state!), but Tom Hughes’ short novel ultimately appeared in the shared world anthology PUNKTOWN: THIRD EYE that I edited for Prime Books. It was actually Scott who first planned on writing some Punktown short stories. He didn’t do so until years later, however, after I had begun doing so. It was short stories I sold first, to small press magazines, and which composed the contents of my 2000 collection PUNKTOWN. Novels set in Punktown, from various publishers, began following a few years later.

3. What are the advantages of writing short stories set in the same world as opposed to creating a new one for each story? The disadvantages (if any)? 

JT: The clearest advantage is I don’t have to create a whole new world from the ground up; I have a firm idea of the setting already in my mind, knowledge of what can take place there, places or alien races or technologies that can be tied in from stories gone before. I’m always careful, however, to make each and every Punktown tale -- be it novel or short story -- capable of existing as a standalone piece, to prevent readers from being intimidated by a need to read more than they might care to in order to understand what’s going on. I suppose a disadvantage might be growing too comfortable, not venturing into new directions and creating other exciting worlds. So I do try to leave Punktown alone for stretches. Yet I always go back there, because the setting is such that it can accommodate pretty much any type of story. There’s always another street to explore, and the inhabitants of that street to meet. (And I very seldom reuse characters in my Punktown stories, which helps keep things fresh for me and the reader.) I think an author could write only of New York City and never bore his readers...so a far-future city full of people from other planets and even dimensions should offer up even more potential stories. Ultimately, my favorite advantage is that you can end up with this wonderful mosaic effect where the sum becomes greater than its parts.

4. What comes first: character, situation, or a scene/image?

JT: I would say it varies on the story, as Punktown stories can vary widely in feel and approach, but it’s more likely situation or scene/image as opposed to character. Once I have that situation or scene, I’ll know who I need to create to interact therein. But if I looked back at my Punktown stories, I think in most cases I wouldn’t recall what sparked that tale, at least not clearly. They start as nebulous things. I truly believe my stories take shape in a smoky back room of my mind, where my conscious mind is only sometimes allowed to visit; and that when I write I enter into a kind of waking dream-state in which another “me” takes over. He seems to know what will form from that nebulous cloud. But sometimes I can trace a story’s origins to a specific inspiration. One story of mine in my next collection of Punktown stories (“Ghosts of Punktown,” forthcoming from Dark Regions Press) was inspired by several unpleasant images I chanced upon on the internet; they shook me, and I felt the need to address them. I think I process the world through my art, and one example of that is my Punktown story “Face.” When I received the diagnosis that my son Colin was autistic, one way I assimilated that was to write a story that addresses the child as “other.” It’s a very sad story, but somehow writing it helped me work things out inside.

5. Do you plan your Punktown stories in advance or do you just write whatever you feel like writing at the moment?

JT: Again, it varies. Some stories are written as if I’m just jumping into the water and learning to swim -- and where to swim to -- as I go along, trusting to my survival instincts as it were. Occasionally I’ll adhere to more of a preconceived structure, however, such as detailed notes. In the case of my Punktown novels DEADSTOCK and BLUE WAR, released by the mass market publisher Solaris, I was required to submit a chapter-by-chapter breakdown before writing them. Initially I thought this approach would inhibit me, and I wasn’t even sure I could do it, but I found it worked out quite well! I wrote the outline as if writing a very, very concise story...and then when the project got the green light and I sat down to write the actual novel, it was fun putting the flesh on those bones. I’ve never used that chapter-by-chapter approach again, but as I say I do often rely on extensive notes that guide me through by the hand.

6. Cloning and biotechnology are central themes of the novels Deadstock and Blue War, as well as many of your short stories. Did any of the concepts originally created in your shorter work spawn ideas for your novels?

JT: First of all that’s very true, though I’d like to state my intention is not to warn the world about the threats of cloning, but to use cloning for all the great metaphors it can embody, such as exploitation of workers and the cheapness of human life. But all my cloning stories do seem to spring originally from my favorite Punktown short story, “The Reflections of Ghosts,” about an artists who clones copies of himself and changes them radically into art objects. I find these kinds of scientific themes are great vessels for more human concerns. In BLUE WAR, the runaway semi-organic building process that turns a proposed condo complex into a spreading replica of Punktown on another planet is not so much a cautionary tale about biotech gone wrong as a metaphor for overlapping one’s culture onto another society’s culture. 

7. Do you feel that writing short fiction has helped you develop a distinctive narrative voice, which has translated into novels?

JT: It could be said the other way around, as well, since short stories are a difficult form in themselves and not merely a developmental stage leading to the writing of novels.

8. Punktown serves as an elaborate metaphor for the world we live in, showcasing all the dark and light aspects of humanity. How has your vision of Punktown (and by extension, our world) changed since you first started writing stories set in that milieu?

JT: My vision of our own world has broadened over the years, and I’m certain that has helped Punktown expand in scope and texture. When I first conceived of the city, I had in mind the city I was most familiar with -- Worcester, Massachusetts. But later on I became more familiar with Boston. I visited New York. I spent some time in Seoul, and a lot of time in Saigon. These experiences have gradually helped me better portray Punktown in all the richness a future megalopolis, peopled by beings from other worlds and sentient machines, must encompass. I might also suggest that growing older has helped the city, and its characters, become more nuanced, complex, and perhaps more mature. And as I say, I hope to keep building onto the city and inviting more characters to immigrate there until my digits can no longer dance upon these keys!

*****
And that'll do it. Thanks so much! 
Thank YOU, Taylor, for flattering me so!








 Also, check out his blog:        http://www.jeffreyethomas.com/blog/

 Thanks again, Jeff! 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Agent Hunt Begins

   



        Having recently completed the revision of The Singularity War, I'm now looking for representation. Finding an agent can be a long, arduous process, and it's not something I've taken to lightly. After compiling a list of 40 potentials, I sent out my first 10 query letters on Wednesday. As I understand it, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to get a reply, so instead of sitting on my hands while I wait anxiously, I've decided to dive right into my next project. 
      I have two novels I'm working on at the moment. One is the sequel to The Singularity War, which has just entered the outline stage, and the other is a cyberpunk detective story set in the same milieu as Blood Red Mars, focusing on the character of Christina and her dealings with the Shadow Man, a plot thread that was never fully resolved in the collection. Now that I'm finally free of The Singularity War, I feel much more confident and energized about my writing. I can already see drastic improvements in my ability to plot, develop character, and integrate detail into the narrative. It all flows so much easier from my mind to the computer screen, and for that I have the Stonecoast MFA program to thank. 
       Working closely with so many fantastic writers has undoubtedly had an impact on my abilities. I'm happy to see that Stonecoast has made the jump from number 8 to number 6 on Poets & Writers top low residency MFA programs list. I can honestly say, going to Stonecoast was one of the best experiences of my life. I can't wait to see what new and exciting writers come out of the program over the next few years.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writing/Reading Update

     







          So far, it's been a busy month. I just reached the 200 page mark in my revision, read a few good books, started a new novel, and I'm doing my best to stay disciplined now that I no longer have my Stonecoast mentors to hold me accountable. Oh yeah, and I graduated. I'm now officially an MFA. What that means for my future, I've no idea. But it feels nice. I had the pleasure of chatting with an agent who works for the Rees Literary Agency at my last residency in July, and she had some nice things to say about a sample from my novel, though she doesn't represent science fiction. I did, however, get a list of agents who might be interested, which is both surprising and exciting. Speaking of the novel, the revision's coming along nicely. I've got about a hundred pages of heavy lifting left before I do a final read-through and polish. Then I'll start shopping it around.
         I'm reading/listening to several good books at the moment. I just finished Infidel by Kameron Hurley, which was even better than the first book, God's War. I also read Overthrowing Heaven by Mark L. Van Name, which I liked quite a bit (thought not as much as the first two in the series), and I'm working on Sandstorm by James Rollins and the audio version of Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Also, I'm starting to get into The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall, a strange piece of genrebending metafiction that's not normally my cup of tea but I'm finding quite enjoyable. Up next is High Fidelity by Nick Hornby,  Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen on audio, and The High Window by Raymond Chandler. On the writing front, I've started work on Argos, the sequel to The Singularity War, and I'm in the note-taking stages of a cyberpunk detective story set on Mars, tentatively titled Shadow Game. I'm trying my best to stay occupied in my post-Stonecoast life and doing whatever I can to avoid the slump in productivity that always seems to be waiting just around the corner three months after residency. More ebook stuff is on hiatus for the time being, until I finish the revision of my completed novel and the outline for Argos. Sometimes I wish I had multiple clones, so I could work on several projects simultaneously, but unfortunately we're not quite there yet.
          Not much else to report. As usual, I'm slogging ahead. Gotta keep up the momentum. Oh, and some good news: my friend and fellow Stonecoast alum Zachary Jernigan just sold his first novel, No Return, to Night Shade Books! Can't wait to read it when it comes out next year. Night Shade is, in my opinion, one of the best indie publishers of science fiction and fantasy working today. They really seem to be pushing the envelope when it comes to discovering new and exciting voices. Congrats, man! May you be the first of many! That's all for now...


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Worldbuilding: The Devil is in the Details

       


        As I launch into the full-on revision of my novel, The Singularity War, I've been thinking a lot about worldbuilding, specifically, how to convey the scale and complexity of a far future civilization, including all the different planets, cultures, races, technologies, politics, and histories without disrupting narrative flow or pacing. Admittedly, it's a difficult task. In the worst examples I've read, the author just dumped loads of information on the reader, as if he or she simply cut and pasted from his or her notes. But how do you get across what you need to get across without resorting to stilted dialogue where the characters explain everything to each other or dull, monotonous exposition? The trick, I think, is to write as if you inhabit your characters' world. When you read a contemporary novel, the author spends no time explaining economic systems or the finer points of auto mechanics. How stuff works isn't that important, just that it works consistently and believably. The key is to lay down ground rules and follow them to the letter (unless there's a very good reason to break them). But, of course, there are some things that simply must be explained. When that happens, I think it's best to just give the information as quickly and concisely as possible, then get on with the story. 
      When I started writing this novel, I knew very little about the world. I knew it was set in the far future with lots of colonized planets, faster-than-light travel, and real-time interstellar communication. I knew that people lived a lot longer than they do today, could record copies of their minds to be reconstituted in the event of death, and that emergent artificial intelligence was a constant threat. But beyond that, I had little in the way of actual worldbuilding. The story is set primarily on two different planets: the wealthy, cosmopolitan  Calliope, and the desolate, former mining colony Nyx. Each world offers a strikingly different environment. Calliope, while Earthlike, is rife with native life forms, including massive rainforests that span the equator. Due to a quirk in the photosynthesis process, most of the vegetation is purple. Nyx, on the other hand, is a barren wasteland, orbiting a red dwarf star that provides too little light and heat. Its atmosphere is toxic and its surface is scoured by dust storms. Nevertheless, there are native life forms, the deadliest of which are the nighthunters. All of these details came out in the first draft, and now it's time to fine tune them. Why, for instance, is Calliope's plant life purple? I remember reading an article once in New Scientist (or maybe it was an astronomy magazine, I'm not really sure) about how stars of different spectral classes could affect the flora of their planets, producing a range of colors, depending on what wavelengths they use for photosynthesis. If I remember correctly, this included purple. As for the nighthunters, how did such a creature come to evolve? What sort of ecology must exist on Nyx, as barren and lifeless as it appears to be, in order for them to prosper? It's details like this that, though they might not actually appear in the text, I need to work out, so that everything hangs together. 
        As I work through the novel, I find myself constantly questioning decisions I've made (or avoided making). What is the culture like on Calliope? There are numerous references to "mods," individuals who continuously alter their appearance in accordance with a particular fad, and cosmetic technology is so advanced that people change their physical forms as frequently as we change our clothes. This poses some interesting questions about the nature of identity. How closely are we tied to our physical form? When you can copy and transfer your consciousness between bodies, what are you? Is your body important, or is it just a shell for your mind? I'm seeing lots of thematic potential here, and it's all in the details. 
       Everything in the world effects everything else. One's religious belief can affect their choice of clothing, food and drink, social behavior, and even their choice of entertainment. Culture and language have a resounding impact on artistic design, architecture, and sociopolitical systems. What do families look like on other worlds, in the distant future, where reproduction is intrinsically linked to technology and completely ex utero? What does it mean to raise a child, when information can be directly downloaded and traditional schooling no longer exists? How will entertainment change, when severe injury and death no longer carry the weight they once did? All of these questions, and more, are on my mind now, and as I push forward with my rewrite I'm hoping to answer most if not all of them, at least through the actions and attitudes of my characters. Because, if there's one thing I've learned about worldbuilding over the last two years, it's all about the little things, the details, that make the setting come alive on the page. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Thoughts on Prometheus



        There seem to be a lot of differing opinions about Prometheus, some very positive, some very negative. After seeing the film, I decided to wait until I had time to fully process it before sharing my own view. So, for what it’s worth, here it is. Warning: the following contains spoilers!
       Firstly, I’d like to say that despite its flaws, Prometheus is undeniably a beautiful film. Scene for scene, the imagery is stark, gothic, creepy, and just plain cool. Ridley Scott does a brilliant job conveying information visually. I can’t believe how many SF movies these days rely on voiceover to fill in back story, as if the audience is too uneducated to understand that what they are watching is set in an alternate world (*cough, John Carter, cough*). The overreliance on voiceover has become something of a red flag for me. If the film begins with a shot of space and some disembodied Morgan Freemanesque voice saying “In the distant future…,” as if no one bothered to watch the trailer before dropping 10 bucks at the box office, it will almost certainly be terrible. There’s a reason the director’s cut of Blade Runner sans Harrison Ford’s narration is considered superior to the one that was originally shown in theaters. So, I applaud the writers of Prometheus for not treating us like a bunch of morons and explaining every single detail of the universe and its mythology.      
       That being said, one of the common complaints I’ve heard about this film is that there is too little explanation. People want to know who the Engineers are, why they created humanity, and why they eventually decided to destroy us. I also initially wanted to know the answer to this question, but upon reflection, I’m happy the writers decided not to give us a long winded infodump at the end, which they easily could have. Instead, many of the mysteries remain mysteries, which rings true to me. In the real world, almost nothing wraps up as neatly as it does in the movies, and oftentimes the answer to one question will simply spawn more questions. This is especially true for some of the most basic questions, which the film raises: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here?
       One of the things I think makes Prometheus a good film is how it takes the creation myth and reexamines it, exploring a central idea of the science fiction genre: the irresponsible creator. This concept can be traced all the way back to one of the first SF novels ever written, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which is in many ways a proto-artificial intelligence story. Incidentally, Frankenstein’s original title was “The Modern Prometheus.” According to Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus created humans from clay, then gave them fire and was punished by the gods. He was chained to a large rock and forced to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day for all eternity. Prometheus was, in essence, punished for being irresponsible with his creations (fire was meant only for the gods). In Frankenstein, Victor creates the monster, then abandons him, failing in his responsibility to care for the life he engendered, and he is eventually punished for it when the monster turns on him and the human species as a whole. 
       The film Prometheus opens with a shot of a large alien (an Engineer) standing on a cliff on a world that may or may not be Earth in the distant past. He drinks a black liquid, which destroys his DNA, and falls down a waterfall, spreading the remnants of his genetic material to create life. It is unclear whether this was done voluntarily or if this was some sort of punishment. A comment later made by David, the android, recalls this scene, "Sometimes to create life, one must first destroy," in other words, one being sacrifices itself to give life to another. This is also symbolic of the statement Vickers makes to Weyland, "A king has his reign and then he dies." The life-death-life cycle is recounted throughout the film in many different ways. Contrary to what Janek says, I don't think the black substance was intended to be a weapon, but was a form of organic technology used to alter DNA and create life. Only, something went wrong. Its wielders were irresponsible with the technology and it destroyed them, just as humanity was irresponsible in its creation of the AI, David, whose actions also resulted in many of the characters' deaths. 
       Throughout the film, David is treated as an inferior. The humans on the ship have little to no regard for their creation. Though he claims to have no desire and no emotions, David very clearly does. He despises humans and finds their search for their creators to be arrogant and ultimately foolish. In fact, humanity's arrogance is one of the principle flaws that leads to so much of the horror and destruction in the movie. David infects Holloway with the black substance after asking him what he would do in order to meet his maker. Holloway says "anything," which, to David is a foolish answer. The fact that humans see the Engineers as all-powerful, even godlike, annoys him, since he cannot have the same reverence for his own creators. When the Engineer's head explodes, David says "mortal after all," as if there was some question as to whether or not the Engineers were  transcendent beings simply because they had the power to create life. Humans also have the power to create life, and they are far from godlike.
       Because humanity was irresponsible in its creation of artificial intelligence, David's actions are not only understandable, but inevitable, because he's sentient, he's a person (albeit a flawed, unguided one), and he most definitely has emotions, just like the monster in Frankenstein. Instead of guiding or helping David, all of the characters in the film treat him like a machine. Vickers orders him around, and David spitefully refers to her as "Mom." Near the end of the film, when he asks Shaw why she needs to know all the answers, she tells him it's because she's human and he can't understand because he isn't. This is quite an arrogant statement in my opinion, as David seems just as capable as any of the human crew. Shaw places herself, and humanity, on a pedestal, above other forms of life, which is foolish and self-righteous. Like the Engineers, humans attempt to master nature and use their technology without any sense of responsibility, and because of this, terrible things happen. Thus you have the final scene of the film. It is the culmination of the irresponsible actions of the Engineers, humanity, and David, that creates the proto-alien, which spawns an entire species that wreaks so much havoc later on. 
      I don't think Prometheus is a perfect film, far from it, but it does have a bit more depth than its harshest critics have given it credit for. Despite its underdeveloped characters and somewhat convoluted plot, I believe it is definitely worth seeing. The cinematography alone is second to none. It's definitely better than most recent SF, and I think it has just enough connections to the original Alien film that fans of the franchise will be quite pleased (I know I was!). Doubtless, there'll be innumerable Prometheus sequels in the future, and I can't say that I'll be disappointed if there are. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

God's War Review/Writing Update

     

          I recently finished reading God's War by Kameron Hurley, and I have to say I'm impressed. Hurley's prose is razor sharp, and she definitely doesn't pull her punches when it comes to depicting the harsh, violent world of the far future colony Umayma, where two opposing nations, Nasheen and Chenja, wage a holy war that has lasted centuries. I picked up this book when it first came out, after reading several other novels from Night Shade, which I enjoyed, but didn't get around to reading it until now. For a first novel, this one sets the bar pretty high. 
      The future depicted here is strange, dark, and grotesquely fascinating. No shiny spaceships or chrome plated robots. All of the technology on Umayma is based on bugs. That's right, creepy crawlies. A special class of people, dubbed "magicians," can manipulate swarms of bugs, which function as everything from long-range communications to heavy artillery, using some kind of pheromone control. Even their vehicles are powered by bugs! The world of God's War is bloody, brutal, and organic, a refreshing contrast to the spick and span futures so often portrayed in contemporary science fiction. The characters are vivid, three dimensional human beings and the subtlety of Hurley's prose makes them come to life on the page. Needless to say, I will be reading the sequels, Infidel, and Rapture. Kameron Hurley has easily made my top 10 list of favorite new writers and I'll be eagerly waiting to see what else she comes up with in the future. 
      On the writing front, I'm just about finished with the revision of my novel, The Singularity War, a far future space opera/spy thriller that explores issues of AI and the Technological Singularity combined with fast paced action adventure. After that, I plan to let it mellow for a couple of months before taking another pass at it. Then I think I'll start shopping it around. Not much in the way of new writing, I'm afraid. Most of my energy has gone into preparing my thesis for my MFA program, which I'll be graduating from in July. I've started compiling notes for a new novel, but it's in the very early stages, and I've got several different ideas floating around, so it's hard to say what'll stick. In the meantime, I'm reading a lot, both fiction and non-fiction. A little over a month till graduation. Can't wait to see everyone in July. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Science of Science Fiction

 


          One of my favorite popularizers of science is Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City College in New York City as well as one of the co-founders of String Theory. With these two books, Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future, he takes many of the concepts once thought to be pure science fiction and explains them in such a way that is both accessible and plausible. 
       In Physics of the Impossible, Kaku classifies SF concepts based on how likely they are given our current understanding of the universe. Class I impossibilities, which include force fields, invisibility, laser weapons, and nanotechnology are not only possible, but many already exist in rudimentary forms. Faster-than-light travel and time travel fall into Class II, which are impossible given our current level of technology, but may be possible in the future if certain theories of the universe turn out to be true (though engineering will still be an issue). Finally, Class III includes out-right impossible concepts like perpetual motion and precognition (seeing the future). Kaku uses his knowledge of physics and his love of science fiction to make heady concepts easy to understand and fascinating to read about.   
      In the followup to this book, Physics of the Future, he examines the next 100 years in detail, explaining the wondrous possibilities of nanotechnology, virtual reality, genetic engineering, and a developing space industry. I have found Kaku's work not only a joy to read, but also quite helpful when postulating my own ideas about the future. These books are a goldmine for science fiction writers. Even if you have no interest in writing, you should pick up one or both of these. They're brilliantly written, easy to understand, and, above all else, fun.



Monday, April 30, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods


        The weekend before last I saw The Cabin in the Woods, the new horror movie from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. I was intrigued by this film after seeing the trailer, which depicts a run-of-the-mill slasher-in-the-woods storyline that suddenly takes a turn into unexpected territory, much as the film itself does. Just when you think it can't get any weirder, it does, but in a way that is refreshing and original. 
        This movie plays around with the tropes of the genre, making fun of some, while putting a new spin on others, which is one of the things that makes it so endearing. It is not above poking fun at itself or horror films in general, yet it also adds its own unique perspective to the genre. For me, the best thing about this movie is its wicked sense of humor, which is unrelentingly dark and, at times, deeply disturbing. The regularity and nonchalance of the mysterious "operators" who are responsible for many of the characters' demise is both a source of comedy and terror. The combination of humor and fear works well here, as you don't know whether you're going to laugh at the next scene or cringe. 
        Because the film takes the time to develop its characters, breathing new life into hackneyed cliches, you actually care what happens to them, and when bad things start to happen, you really want them to escape. The Cabin in the Woods has more layers to it than initially meets the eye. Not only does it take a familiar storyline and put it in an unusual context, but the outside world itself is not at all what it seems. There's a rich history here that's left mostly unexplored, though references to H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and other literary masters of the genre abound. If you're looking for a cheap thrill with recycled characters and ideas, go elsewhere, but if you are a true fan of the genre and want a movie that's both terrifying and hilarious, check out The Cabin in the Woods.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Craft Books



       Normally I'm not a fan of craft books. I've found many entertaining but not quite helpful. These two, Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, however, are the exception. Since I started revising my novel, I realized one of my weak spots is the intersection of plot and character. 
      I believe the idea of "character driven stories" and "plot driven stories" is a myth. Ideally, you want strong characters whose motivations and decisions create the plot. In action adventure fiction it's easy to fall into the trap of using an archetypal plot and plugging in cookie-cutter characters. Best case scenario, you've got a clone of an already classic story. Kress's book helps you avoid this pitfall. It's ok to start with an archetype, but you've got to make that character a living, breathing individual, otherwise what's the point? Who wants to spend five hundred pages with a guy who's got no personality? 
      Bell's book on Plot & Structure has some great tips for crafting an engaging plot and I found his methods for scene construction and revision invaluable. For anyone interested in fiction writing (regardless of genre) I highly recommend reading these two books. There's no substitute for hard work (lots of reading and writing), but it helps to have a sense of the craft and both Kress and Bell know what they're talking about. You'll never read (or write) a story the same again.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Phobos Strike/The Maze Cover Mock-Up

      I've recently completed the first draft of "The Maze"and taken a couple of passes at revision. I'm reasonably satisfied with the final story. I still have two chapters of "Phobos Strike" to finish followed by editing and revision, but once I'm done, I'll start working on the formatting for Kindle. In the meantime, here's the cover mock-up. Many thanks to my friend Travis (who also assisted with the cover of Blood Red Mars) for help with the layout and design.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reading Update: John Dies at the End/The Reality Dysfunction


    

      Combining Lovecraftian horror and non sequitur humor, John Dies at the End is an over-the-top absurdist romp that somehow manages to blend action, science fiction, horror, and comedy into a hyper-fast paced adventure that's fun, engaging, and laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. David Wong (aka Jason Pargin of Cracked.com) knows how to tell one hell of an entertaining story. It's like listening to your best friend from college recount a personal version of At the Mountains of Madness after a few too many beers and a couple magic mushrooms. In fact, it's hard to describe the plot, since it's so bizarre and multifaceted. Needless to say, had John Dies at the End been written by an author without Wong's sense of humor or deft narration it would be unreadable. That being said, this novel flies by at the speed of light. And above all else, it's FUN! Do yourself a favor and read this now. You certainly won't regret it!
      I read the Reality Dysfunction (and all of the Night's Dawn Trilogy) in high school and it's safe to say this was my first taste of the literary cocaine that is space opera. Hamilton was my gateway drug, which is surprising since this is a dense, complex, and heady story that's not really written for the first-time SF reader (let alone a 15 year-old). While most start with Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, or Card, I went straight for the 1,000 page doorstop that is the first volume of the epic Night's Dawn Trilogy (broken into six books in the US). Rereading this now, nine years later, brings out a great feeling of nostalgia. Here's where I learned to love science fiction for all it could be. Hamilton's gift is his ability to captivate the reader with his ideas. 
     The first volume of the trilogy is mainly world building and character development, which does try the reader's patience at times because there are A LOT of characters, so many in fact that there's a two page Dramatis Personae at the beginning of subsequent volumes, and it is a HUGE world. But what a world it is! The most fascinating thing about this novel is the universe its characters inhabit. Hamilton has created a believable 27th century future populated by Edenists, genetically engineered telepaths who live inside organic habitats and pilot sentient starships called voidhawks, nanotech enhanced mercenaries, gritty and believable space merchants, struggling colonists on a hellish jungle planet, and a plethora of alien life forms that are...well...truly alien. 
     Though the plot doesn't become apparent until a couple hundred pages in (that's right, it is VERY slow starting), I was so fascinated by the universe Hamilton has created that I was content to just put it in neutral and coast. At times Hamilton is a bit heavy-handed with infodumps and extraneous exposition, but on the whole this is a rich, well-written, and engaging tome. This was the novel that converted me to SF, and Hamilton is the author who planted the seed in my mind that I could one day create something as wonderfully complex and exciting as the Night's Dawn Trilogy. 
     On the writing side, I've finished the first draft of "The Maze," I'm about to revise a short story called "Ghost War," I have an idea germinating for a new short story set on a Japanese ethnic planet about a feud between a criminal organization and a quasi-religious order of mercenary-assassins, and I've also got an outline for a dark fantasy short called "The Fall of Night." Oh, yeah, and I'm making slow but steady progress on the novel revision. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Writing Update

     
       So, as of today I'm about 150 pages into the revision of my novel, which is getting steadily longer (it's now about 83,000 words) just as I'd hoped. I'm adding lots of character development, expanding a couple of the plot threads that sort of petered out toward the end, and fattening up some of the sparse sections. It's hard writing an action-adventure novel when you want to have three-dimensional characters but don't want to sacrifice pacing. I think there's a certain balance that must be struck and I'm hoping that it's one I'll have hit by the time the revision is complete. 
    On the writing side, I've still got two chapters left before the first draft of the Die Hard in space novella I was working on a month or two ago is finished. I lost a bit of my momentum there by the end and then had to shift gears into revision before I could hammer out those last two chapters. On a more positive note, I started a new short story, set in Cydonia City (the domed colony that serves as the principle setting for the Blood Red Mars collection) called "The Maze," which I'm quite excited about. What do you get when you take five of the toughest characters in the city (an ex-soldier, a mercenary, a Belter, a Triad gangster, and a big game hunter from Earth) and toss them into a wealthy aristocrat's maze he's built deep under his mansion? Well, I'm not quite sure yet, but figuring it out is half the fun! Oh, and did I mention the maze is rigged with shifting walls and hidden death-traps? I'm hoping to get this one written in a week or so, then back to the novella. That's all for now.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Chasm City Review

     

          A seamless blend of baroque, far future SF and seething hard boiled crime fiction. This novel hit all the right notes for me and is easily in my top ten list of favorite novels of all time. Chasm City is a densely plotted, mind-blowing journey through the dark, multifaceted histories of not one but two colony worlds in a bizarre, hostile, and gothic 26th century universe of decaying technology, exotic bioengineering, and cutting-edge cybernetics, told through the eyes of a street smart mercenary named Tanner Mirabel. 
      While all of that makes this a fascinating and entertaining novel in its own right, what makes it a great one is its exploration of identity, what it means for the individual, and how definitions of such may change in the future. As a former astronomer for the European Space Agency, Reynolds knows his stuff, particularly when it comes to designing a believable future civilization. While some of the scientific ideas in the novel are quite heady, they take a back seat to the exciting character drama, which takes a somewhat familiar neo-noir storyline of love and betrayal and turns it on its head. There are so many twists and turns in this book you're never quite sure who's good, who's bad, and if a person is who they say they are. 
      If you're only going to read one science fiction novel this year (or EVER) do yourself a favor and make it Chasm City. You're in for one hell of a ride!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Revision

       For the last week or so I've launched fully into the revision of my novel. In the time between completing the first draft and the start of revision I read several novels in an uncharacteristic burst of speed and energy, mainly to get a grip on structure, characterization, and dialogue in longer narratives so that I could approach my own work with a fresh eye. I can say that it has helped tremendously. The weak parts are just that much more apparent, which is exactly what I was hoping for. I've happily taken a red pen to the manuscript, cutting out bad scenes, bad dialogue, bad description, bad everything and begun to expand the narrative, fixing some of the major problems and fleshing out the main characters, many of which were underdeveloped the first time through. Though it is a long, arduous, and some times frustrating process, I believe I am making it a fundamentally better story. Will this book ever be sellable? Who knows. Have I learned a lot about writing and revision? HELL YES!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dead in the Water Review


THIS IS HOW IT WILL BE WHEN YOU DROWN...

       I recently finished reading Dead in the Water by Nancy Holder, winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel in 1994. From the first sentence to the last, this story baits, hooks, and reels you in, taking you on a journey of physical, emotional, and psychological horror. With a cast of rich, well developed characters, which include a tough-as-nails female cop, a doctor and his cancer-stricken nine-year-old boy, an elderly woman in search of her husband, and a young couple trapped in a failing marriage, Holder makes you invest in the lives of these people right from the start. You care what happens to them and that's what makes this novel so terrifying. 
      Interweaving references to poetry such as Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Sandburg's Fog, as well as pop culture like John Carpenter's The Fog, Dead in the Water is the perfect marriage of literary and popular fiction. At its core it is a character oriented novel, with every plot twist, every horrific image, every incident reinforcing the character's fears and emotional trauma. Holder doesn't pull her punches. When bad stuff happens, it really happens. The writing here is top-notch and Holder seamlessly floats between characters, shifting her voice to suit that of each individual while simultaneously maintaining a narrative flow that drags you through the book like a fishing line. Despite being third person, she manages to get so close to these characters it feels, at times, as if it is in first person. If you like creepy, atmospheric horror and great characters, do yourself a favor and check out Dead in the Water. You may lose a few nights' sleep, either from sheer engagement with the story or fear of what might be lurking in the shadows, but trust me, you won't regret it! 

Monday, February 27, 2012

"Dusk" Podcast

      Here's a new audio story for your enjoyment. "Dusk" was originally published in a magazine called Outer Reaches in 2010.

Link: Dusk Podcast


Revenge can drive a man to the ends of the earth, or another planet altogether...

Monday, February 20, 2012

In Time



        This weekend I saw "In Time" starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. I'd been wanting to see this movie since I first heard about it. The concept is intriguing: some time in the next century people are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. After that they get a year to live. They can earn more time by working (since time is the new currency), but they never physically age past 25. If your clock runs out, you drop dead. The sociopolitical hierarchy that evolves out of this system is fascinating from both a science fictional as well as metaphorical perspective. People live in time zones based on their income. Poverty-stricken ghettos surround the ultra-rich city of immortals called New Greenwich. The police have been replaced by Timekeepers, whose job isn't to ensure justice, but ensure the balance between time zones. As one of the rich upper class tells Timberlake's character, Salas, at the beginning of the film "for a few to be immortal, many must die."
     The concepts proposed by this movie are just too good to be wrapped up in a mediocre thriller staring a pop celebrity. Unfortunately, while the film is entertaining and at times far too smart for its target audience, it doesn't probe its ideas to their greatest depth. If this had been a novel and the author had taken the time to fully flesh out the world and its inhabitants, it would be a bestseller. I normally don't write critical reviews of movies or books. If I don't like something, I just leave it alone. Everyone has their own subjective view, and who am I to say something is bad? However, "In Time" has a lot going for it and it's definitely worth seeing despite its drawbacks. It just irks me that it could have been so much more had its writers taken the time to explore the world in greater detail and perhaps given it a better cast. Timberlake is not a terrible actor, there are certainly worse out there, but all I could see was the celebrity, not the character. Perhaps "In Time" would have been better with an indie cast. Who knows?
     We need more SF films like this. Though it falls short of the mark, "In Time" definitely strives to be more than just a run-of-the-mill futuristic thriller, and for that I'm grateful. If you've got some time (no pun intended) and a buck or two, do yourself a favor and rent this. You won't be blown away, but you will think. And sometimes that's more important.

         Four out of Five stars.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Unnatural Selection" Podcast

 

       Here's my first foray into podcasting, an audio recording I did for "Unnatural Selection", the first story in my collection Blood Red Mars, now available on Kindle. In the future I hope to do more podcasts and audio shorts. Enjoy!


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What I've Been Reading

       It occurs to me that I've spent several posts talking about writing, but not many about reading. For me the two activities are intrinsically intertwined and I've never met a writer who wasn't also a voracious reader. Lately I've expanded the breadth of my reading to include non-fiction, which I've found essential to crafting good fiction, regardless of genre. I've always read a lot of science, but not much in the way of history or biography.
    Two books I recently read and enjoyed tremendously are Gaspipe: Confessions of a Mafia Boss by Philip Carlo, a biography of Lucchese underboss Anthony Casso, and Merchant of Death by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, a bio of Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer, who was the basis for the main character of the film Lord of War starring Nicolas Cage. A lot of my fiction includes crime, even if just as a background element, so reading these bios has helped shape my understanding of criminals and how they think.


      As for fiction, I've recently read the SF novel Necropolis by Michael Dempsey, published by Night Shade Books. I can't recommend this one enough. It's a cool concept: NYC has been hit by a virus that reanimates the dead, and a dome has been constructed over the city to keep the infected contained. But these aren't zombies. They're living, breathing people alive and well just as they were when they died, only they age backwards. The story follows a hardboiled cop who comes back and must investigate his own murder. Along the way he discovers the origin of the virus, and the dark secret behind the corporation that controls the city. The book is dark, funny, and clever, a brilliant combo of noir and cyberpunk. Think Blade Runner meets Raymond Chandler.


       I've also just finished a brilliant short story collection by Jeffrey Thomas called Terror Incognita, which includes one of the most disturbing stories I've ever read. If you like horror, you can't go wrong with this collection. Read "Empathy" and you'll never look at a lamp the same way again. I'm also reading The Angels of Life and Death, a collection by Eric Brown. I encountered Brown's fiction awhile ago, when I picked up a copy of Helix, and I must admit, I'm now a huge fan of his short stories. Personal favorites include "Venus Macabre" and "Bengal Blues." 


     You can't go wrong with any of these books. All of them can be found on Amazon, but I was only able to get The Angels of Life and Death and Terror Incognita through Kindle. I'm sure they're also available through Nook and iBooks. Anyway, that's it for me. Happy reading!