On Death In Fiction

Riffing on the two sides of the debate in the wake of Infinity War – either all those deaths don’t matter because we know they’re coming back or it matters because the people in universe don’t know that. What do writers owe their readers?

This post was inspired by events that take place in Avengers: Infinity War. If you’ve not seen it yet and want to remain unspoiled, be warned, I’ll be talking about major stuff that happens.

Spoilers

With that said . . .

Holy shit, that movie killed a lot of people. I’m not even talking about anonymous nobodies, set dressing to be collateral damage for the big final battle. I’m talking beloved characters, some major, deaths that could be universe shattering, even if we, as savvy modern media consumers do better.

The deaths basically come in bunches. Loki and Heimdahl meet their end at the very beginning, while Gomorra is sacrificed about midway. But the big shit hits the fan when bad guy Thanos gets all the Infinity Stones and snaps his fat fingers, disappearing half the beings in the universe. Among those who disappear into dust (like vampires on Buffy . . ., but they float up to hebbin, rather than down to the ground) are Black Panther and Spider Man. Serious shit.

Or is it? It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that there’s no way Marvel is going to let all those characters stay dead. The MCU is an impressive feat of storytelling, but it’s first and foremost a money-making property. Black Panther and Spider Man already have other movies in the pipeline – you think they’re going to dump those for the sake of the story? Fat chance.

Which has led to an interesting discussion on line about the end of the movie. On one side are the people who say these deaths (at least the dusty ones, maybe the others) don’t really mean anything because we, the audience know they aren’t permanent. On the other are people who insist that they do have meaning because the other characters in the MCU don’t know these characters will come back and so it’s a big deal for them. Who’s right?

Maybe neither, at least completely. Some of it depends on what the creator is trying to do. If it’s just shock the audience, it’s a pretty hollow means to do so, but that’s not the only thing you accomplish when you kill a character.

Go back to the aforementioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy dies at the end of the fifth season, sacrificing herself to save the world (again). It’s no shock that the next season of the show was not a Buffy free zone – she came back from the dead in the first two episodes. That was to be expected. But the show worked through that in very interesting ways. Most importantly, Buffy’s friends thought by bringing her back they pulled her from hell, when in fact she was in heaven (or at least at peace). In other words, it mattered for the rest of the season (and the show, really) that Buffy had died and then gotten better. It wasn’t a simple reset button.

To pull a somewhat vague, non-spoilerly, example from my own writing, I have a book where a major character dies at the end. That death resonates through the next book, motivating what other characters do. I didn’t kill that person off just for a “gasp” moment or to make sure readers know that nobody in that world is safe.

On the other hand, the recently completed season of Agents of Shield ended with an emotional death that, it turns out, really wasn’t, except the people in the universe completely knew it (even if viewers, myself included, were scratching their heads for a bit). That’s just cheap manipulation and is a hollow exercise.

Then there’s always the Deadpool take – announce you’re going to die in the opening credits, show said death twice, have a prolonged death scene later in the film, then wink it away post-credits. But would you expect anything less from that fucker?

Which path will the next Avengers movie take? Too soon to tell, of course (except, I think it’s safe to say, not the Deadpool avenue), but one hopes it’s closer to the Buffy example.

The bottom line, as a writer, is that death, like anything else when it comes to plot, is a tool. As with any tool, it can be used well or poorly. But given the emotional heft that death can have, folks should think long and hard about deploying it as a simple plot point. As with all things – think it out first.

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Weekly Watch: Whiplash

Sometimes I come late to movies and the wait probably colors the experience. When Whiplash came out a few years ago it seemed like a movie I needed to see. It was critically praised, an Oscar winner, and about music. Sounded like it was right up my alley. But it slipped under my radar until, a few weeks ago, it popped up on TV (uncut) and I TiVoed it. After watching it, I kind of wish I’d just completely forgotten about it.

Whiplash, simply put, is one of the most overrated movies I think I’ve ever seen.

Since it’s been a while, there’s no need to avoid spoilers. The movie’s about a kid at a music conservatory, a drummer, who gets plucked from lower division drudgery by a famously abusive, prickly director to be part of his competition band. Lots of yelling and music occurs and our hero is broken down by his would be mentor. The ending is nicely ambiguous, as he either triumphs over this asshole or simply becomes just like him. It’s the best part of the film by far.

That’s because most of the other things that make up a movie – mainly the characters and the story itself – are lacking. Take the main character, who is so dull I can’t even remember his name. He has the charisma of a wet sponge, yet somehow manages a date with Supergirl (he dumps her later in the most on the nose “it’s not you, it’s me” speech ever put to film). His only goal appears to be getting famous, which he’s decided to do in 21st Century American by . . . becoming a jazz drummer. Sure, kid, whatever.

More formidable is his mentor, Fletcher, for which J.K. Simmons won an Oscar. Simmons gets to yell a lot, complete with vulgarities and insults that range from homophobic to anti-Semitic. There are no layers to this guy, no hint as to how he’s come to be the way he is. There’s a hint of a soul, when he finds out that a former student has hung himself, but it’s gone pretty quickly. Oh, and he’s nice to a little girl, but, you know, even Hitler liked dogs. Simmons’s performance at last has life to it.

What’s altogether not clear is why either character has anything to do with music. As one reviewer concluded:

What Whiplash ultimately champions isn’t really musicianship but empty, grandstanding virtuosity. Under Fletcher’s tutelage, Andrew never learns anything about nuance or dynamics; as designated by Chazelle, the measures of his artistic accomplishment are strictly speed and ferocity. The movie ends with Andrew executing one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name, though it’s presented as the ultimate victory.

Wet sponge only wants to be famous. When challenged about his career choice there’s no mention of love of music or trying to connect with the mysteries of the universe. He has no music background at home, so it’s not as if he’s trying to fulfill someone else’s dream. Just why would he put up with all the shit Fletcher sends his way?

Likewise, it’s never clear why Fletcher went into teaching music rather than, say, being a football coach. Make no mistake, his tactics aren’t about making better musicians or better people, they’re about one thing – winning competitions. I know from my own musical life that winning such things often means cranking up flashy technique at the expense of, you know, the music and that’s certainly true for Fletcher. Again, he’s not into the music itself, only the end goal of winning. More than that, the anecdote that underlies his philosophy of life/teaching isn’t true.

Which is what makes the film’s pivotal point so fucking stupid. The band is set to play at a competition a couple of hours into the hinterlands outside New York City. Fletcher, perfectionist that he is about these shows, doesn’t bother to charter a bus to take the band there. No, it’s every man (and it’s all, or at least mostly, men) for himself, with a helpful hint to leave earlier to beat the traffic. Naturally, wet sponge can’t manage that and manages to walk away to a car wreck to take his place, bleeding on stage. Rather than have the stand in take his place (the band hauls around multiple drummers, but every other spot is just a single – for whatever reason), Fletcher lets him play, which of course he can’t. It’s horribly dumb.

As, really, the whole movie is. Some of the cinematography is nice (sweeps across the horn section, nice lighting, etc.), but it’s service of absolutely nothing. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, clearly has a thing for jazz (he went on to make La La Land), but he doesn’t seem to enjoy it very much (as this article argues, the movie gets its jazz mythology wrong). As such, Whiplash isn’t much more than a lovingly shot portrait of an abusive relationship where neither party has any real motivation. If there’s anything more pointless than a drum solo, maybe that’s it.

Whiplash

 

Author Interview – Timothy G. Huguenin

This time we talk things that go bump in the night, Bigfoot, and . . . greeting cards?

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

My name is Timothy G. Huguenin, I’m a horror writer living in Bartow, West Virginia.

 Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My most recent published book is a ghost story called Little One. Kelsea Stone lives in Los Angeles and gets a call one day from a lawyer telling her that her birth parents have passed away (she was sent to a foster home at a young age and never knew them) and have left her their house in Canaan Valley, West Virginia. She flies over there to check it out, clean it up, and probably sell it or rent it out—and subconsciously, she deeply desires to know her parents and figure out why they sent her away. While she is there, she finds out that hers isn’t the only soul dwelling in the house.

Little One Cover

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I write horror, usually set in the Appalachians (primarily West Virginia, because I grew up there). I don’t know why I like horror more than the other genres, but I do, so that’s usually what I write. I tend to shy away from slasher-type horror, and gravitate more toward gothic and/or weird styles, depending on my mood. I take a cue from Stephen King and try to focus heavily on characterization, especially in my novels, but I’m not nearly as good at that as he is. Early on in my life as a reader, before I really was serious about writing, Poe heavily influenced my tastes, and I’ve been drawn toward Lovecraft and Ligotti these days.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

I usually get an idea for a villain, or a monster, or some kind of creepy or disturbing situation, without even a skeleton of story. It’s just kind of a seed in my head. I’ll leave it in there for a while and see if it sticks around. If I keep thinking about it, usually that means it’s a pretty good idea, and it will start to germinate. I’ll try to come up with some characters, if I haven’t already, and figure out a conflict that the story could center around.

So there’s some time between when I get the first idea to when I actually get something on paper—though this process can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few months. When I think I have a seed that has sprouted enough (I can think of at least one or two characters and the conflict, with a general idea of where the story might go), I can start writing. Once that happens, I start typing and see what happens. Usually the beginning is hard, since the characters aren’t quite established yet.

But once I get through that, the story kind of lives its own life. Sometimes it goes where I was expecting; most other times I’m surprised by it. After I have a first draft, I’ll take a break from the book. Then I’ll print it out. I always print out hard copies for editing. Always, always, always print out your story at least once before you decide you’re done. You miss so much on a computer screen. (I splurged a little last year and bought a Brother HL-L2340D, a black and white laser printer that prints on both sides of the paper, and I would highly recommend that little workhorse to any writers who can afford it. And really, I make it sound like some big extravagance, but really, it is relatively inexpensive as far as laser printers go. I’m just an old cheapo by nature.) Anyways, I’ll run through the paper copy for initial edits, put my changes back into the computer, then I’ll email what follows from that to my wife, Emily. After I consider her comments and apply changes based on that, it will go to my other beta readers, if I have any.

My last two novels were improved immensely because of pre-publication beta reader feedback. If it’s a short story, usually Emily is the only person other than myself to read it before I submit it somewhere. After her comments, I might even go over it one more time on my own. For short fiction, that’s about it. I might revisit a short story every few months, but generally speaking that’s all I do. For my first two novels, I’ve hired a professional copy editor to help clean up my prose and mistakes after the beta reader stage. With something of that length, even the best self-editing writers cannot get by without a good, unbiased line editor. Also, I go through the novel again once or twice after editing. Even then, mistakes and typos can slip through the cracks. I am very particular about that kind of thing, and errors in a finished product really get me upset.

Why do you think it’s so important to edit on paper copies? Did you have an experience where you missed something editing on screen?

No specific editing disasters come to mind immediately, but I’ve always felt more comfortable reading from paper, so that naturally led to me editing from paper copies. Some studies have shown that reading from a screen decreases reading comprehension compared with reading from paper. How accurate those studies are in general I haven’t looked into, but I know in my own experience, I do not read as well from a computer, so it is easier for me to miss mistakes that way.

Watcher Cover

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

I am currently trying to find an agent for a novel I wrote about a boy and his friends trying to stop an evil hypnotist from taking over their town. It is my favorite thing I’ve written so far, and I reckon that my favorite character probably comes from that book. However, there are quite a few really good characters in there, and it would be hard for me to choose just one. I think I’ll go with the villain, Dr. Wolfgang M. Schafer (as he is called right now, and I don’t see myself changing his name before publication, but you never know for sure until it’s settled in print). He’s tall and lanky, with silver eyes and greasy black hair. He wears a top hat and a ratty black suit with a tie the color of dark blood. A barn owl named Trilby rides around on his shoulder and is known to attack meddling kids every now and again.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

I know I’ve Googled some weird stuff while I’m writing, but for some reason I’m drawing a blank (maybe my subconscious doesn’t want to share! lol). Hmm. I’ve been reading a lot about Bigfoot recently, but that’s not really that weird. One of my questions I had a hard time figuring out (and still never found a good, detailed answer to) was how long it takes for a body to decompose without being embalmed. After death, bodies these days are pumped full of chemicals. I had trouble finding info about what happens if you don’t do that, specifically a timeline of decay stages. I even tried emailing some police and professors at a school that runs a lab on that kind of stuff for people studying to be forensic investigators, or whatever they call those CSI guys. But nobody would email me back.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

There are some great short fiction magazines out there—some print and more online—and there even more bad ones. Now, I’m not talking about paying vs. nonpaying vs. token markets here. People have their own opinions on what their stuff is worth, and I’m not saying that all nonpaying markets are bad. I’m saying, there are some places that you might be tempted to submit to in desperation, then later regret it if you get accepted because it is presented in an embarrassingly unprofessional manner, and you will have doubly harder time selling it to a magazine with a greater readership. It is hard to get short fiction published by the good ones, so you might be tempted to just send your story anywhere at all, even if it’s a website with only tiny handful of viewers (most of which are the contributing authors), without a competent editor, and looks like some teenager’s Geocities project from the dial-up era. But it is better to hold on to a short story that isn’t getting accepted, keep tinkering with it every now and then as you improve as a writer. Eventually you will start writing better stuff, and new good markets do open up, giving you more options.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I’m not sure. I reckon I would buy a house with better insulation, and I wouldn’t ration my heat as much. That would make it a lot easier to sit down and write in the winter. My electricity bills get pretty high in the winter, and I try not to turn my thermostat up past 60 in most rooms—and when I’m not in the room, I keep it turned down to 50. So when I sit down to write, I sometimes get really shivery. Also—and I don’t know if other people are like this, or if it’s just me—being cold makes me have to pee a lot. So in the winter I get up to pee quite often. I keep telling my wife if I ever make it big, I’m going to have someone build me a tiny house in our back yard that could be my lonely little writing shack. If I ever do that, I’ll make sure it stays warm when I’m in there.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

Well, I’m usually late to the game with any kind of trend, including literary stuff, even in my own genre. Only last year I discovered Thomas Ligotti’s Grimscribe, which is from the early 1990s.Like almost everyone else who has read it, I was super impressed. I ended up buying Songs of a Dead Dreamer after that, and then Teatro Grottesco, which I haven’t read much of yet. I later found out he holds a very pessimistic, frankly depressing and disturbing philosophy that I don’t personally subscribe to, but he sure knows how to write some very unique stuff, with a prose style that hearkens back to Poe and Lovecraft in some ways, though not as verbose. More lately, I’ve also been enjoying Michael Wehunt’s work. He also writes in the weird vein of horror, though from what I have read so far, his stories tend to read more like Robert Aickman than Ligotti. I enjoyed his novella The Tired Sounds, A Wake, which was published by Dim Shores Publishing in a limited print run, so that one, unfortunately, isn’t easily available now. However, a few of his short stories can be read for free online (there are links on his website), and Apex published a book of his short fiction called Greener Pastures, which you can find on Amazon. Actually, Shock Totem originally published it, but they went out of business, or got bought or something, and Apex is the publisher who has it now. I know he’s currently working on a novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out.

What do you think your next project will be?

I’ve started a Bigfoot novel set here in West Virginia. I’ve been kind of stuck on it recently, though. I have a few paragraphs down and a few character sketches, but it’s not really wanting to take off for some reason. One of my other goals for this year is to write more short fiction, so I’ve been trying not to worry about the novel as much this month and get some words down on shorter stuff. Also, you might find this kind of funny—I do—just yesterday I decided to try and break into the world of writing for greeting cards. I’m sending a few little verses to some companies. We’ll see where that goes. I had forgotten until recently that I used to write little poems for my friends all the time in high school, so it makes sense to try this out. I don’t really think I’ll get very serious about it, but if someone ends up wanting to pay me for something that took me fifteen minutes to write, I won’t feel bad about that.

What is it about Bigfoot that made you want to write a story about it?

For all the television attention Bigfoot has gotten due to recently made Bigfoot hunting reality type shows, I haven’t come across very many Bigfoot novels—and not any that I considered very good, either, based on reading some excerpts or reading reviews (if you have any suggestions, point me to them, I’d love to find some good ones). Though generally speaking Bigfoot has been associated with the Pacific Northwest, there have been multiple reported sightings here in West Virginia. Russell L. Jones, a Bigfoot believer, has written a book specifically on Bigfoot in WV called Tracking the Stone Man, which I found very interesting. In fact, Pocahontas County (where I live) and two neighboring counties, Pendleton and Randolph, have the highest reported numbers of sightings according to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO). The Monongahela National Forest is huge, over nine hundred thousand acres. Plenty of room for Ol’ Squatch to hide, if he exists. I was looking for a good monster in WV, and heard people have claimed to see Bigfoot activity in the area. Sounded like a good story to me!

AuthorPic

Did you sit down and decide to write greeting card verse, or did you come up with a verse and think “this might work . . ..”?

I saw somewhere on the internet that you could submit stuff to a few greeting card companies who would pay for work. Figured it was worth a shot. So far I haven’t gotten any interest in mine.

For more check out Timothy on the web, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Another ROSFest Down, Many More to Go

This year marked the 15th anniversary of ROSFest – the annual Rites of Spring Festival of progressive rock. Born near Philadelphia, it’s called the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg home since I’ve been going in 2011. The fest this year was as smoothly run as ever, with a lineup that wound up being one of the best I’ve seen. So what about those bands?

First up on Friday night was District 97, a band from Chicago who, it happens, were also at ROSFest for the first time in 2011. They went over really well, but their brand of heavy modern prog didn’t connect with me very much. So my expectations for this set was low, but I was pleasantly surprised. I liked the new material (from a forthcoming album they’re currently crowd funding) better than the old, so I’ll keep an ear on them going forward.

Headlining Friday was legendary fusion band Brand X, complete with original members Percy Jones (bass) and John Goodsall (guitar), who were joined by a drummer, keyboard player, and percussionist. They were, to be blunt, blazing. Any thought that a band that’s been around since the mid 1970s might be mellowing in their old age was put to bed early. All their stuff started to sound a bit samey after two hours, but it was an impressive kind of consistency.

Saturday began with a semi-local band, Cell 15, which at least has the most interesting origin story for ROSFest this year. The lead guy/drummer/keyboard player explained that he got out of prison in 1992 and that the first Cell 15 album was largely written while he was incarcerated. Good on him for getting out and turning his life around (from someone who sees people try, and fail, to do the same thing every day). The music itself was fairly standard Americanized symphonic prog (think Kansas and Spock’s Beard), which I enjoyed. However, the band relied way too heavily on canned music, particularly for very important and obvious synth leads. The reliance on the canned stuff is all the weirder given that they had a second drummer join them for a few tunes and, based on their new CD that I got, the main guy isn’t even the drummer on the album! Frustrating.

Up next was another American band, LA’s Perfect Beings. They were invited to ROSFest a couple of years ago, but two band members leaving put the kibosh on that. However, in prepping for that year’s fest I got their second album, which was pretty good, but nothing special. Their set this year focused on their new album, Vier, and was exceptional. In a weekend that sometimes tends to the showy and ostentatious, they made great use of quiet passages and empty space (somewhat like Marillion does, although they don’t sound a thing like them). My favorite surprise set of the weekend.

Italy’s Barock Project was the first band announced for this year’s festival, to a lot of enthusiasm. It’s easy to see why. This group of young guys (after one particular catchy tune the band leader declared “sometimes we’re a boy band!”) belts out a brand of what I’m going to start calling “up tempo party prog.” It’s kind of the same vibe as Moon Safari, although the two bands sound nothing alike. The result was a fun show, with lots of energy, but the music didn’t really stick with me. The highlight was a brief instrumental workout where the keyboard player channeled the spirit of Keith Emerson. They, too, appeared to have some canned stuff, but at least it was mostly in the background.

Years ago I was pawing through CDs in my local borders and came across an album from a band called Threshold. Somewhere in my mind I associated he name with a Celtic-influence prog band from Ohio, so I snatched it up. It seemed like a rare find. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized Threshold was actually a British prog metal band. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. When they were announced as the Saturday headliner I was interested to see if that album (Critical Mass, if you’re scoring at home) was representative of their stuff. Turns out it was, although they didn’t play anything from that album at ROSFest. They play melody proggy metal that doesn’t dip into the “balls ‘n’ chunk” aspects of metal too much. I enjoyed it. Tip to the lead singer though – don’t demand the audience sing along unless you’re sure they know the words!

Sunday morning, the “Church of Prog” slot, brought not one but two bands, playing short sets with a quick turnover. First up was Valdez, the current project of British ex-pat Simon Godfrey (who was also at ROSFest 2011 with Tinyfish – maybe he came and never left?). I was pleasantly surprised to see the band also included Tom Hyatt (of echolyn fame) on bass. Being completely unfamiliar with their stuff I was pleased with the set – melodic, proggy in spots, anthemic in others. Plus, Godfrey is a great front man (when one person in the crowd responded to a song announcement, he waited just a sec, then deadpanned, “thanks, Mum”). A highlight.

The other Church of Prog band was Lines in the Sky from Tennessee. Unfortunately for them, my brain had reached music saturation at that point, and I left after a few tunes.

Have you ever heard prog from Peru? In the flesh? I have! Flor de Loto took the stage Sunday afternoon and put on another high energy set full of riffy (a little too riffy, in spots) heavy prog. The most notable aspects of their set for me were the Spanish vocals and the presence in the band of a dedicated flautist, who mostly used native Andean instruments (he was introduced both as “the last Inca” and the “Ian Anderson of the Andes”). Also, their keyboard player fired back at the guy from Barock Project with a solo that owed a serious debt to Rick Wakeman. Fun stuff.

The first note I wrote about Special Providence (from Hungary) was “holy shit that’s a lot of notes.” If jazz metal is a thing, this band is the gold standard. They played really dense, seriously complex instrumental music that got all weird with rhythms and such. Sometimes I wasn’t convinced that the band seemed to be on the same page, but it all tended to work out. I preferred the tunes that leaned more heavily on the fusion side of things than the metal. An impressive set that grew on me the further it went on (which rarely happens).

Wrapping up things this year was Premiata Forneria Marconi – PFM. If you read my post about 10 influential albums, you’ll know that PFM is an important band to me. I was stoked to see them live, even if there’s very little of the original band left. No matter. This wasn’t the same guys who did Storia di un Minuto or Per Un Amico, but they played that material with a lot of heart, soul, and magic. The newer stuff wasn’t bad, either, but it pales in comparison to the classics. To have heard them played live to their fullest extent (like Brand X, these guys aren’t slowing down) was awesome and a great way to end the weekend.

My one beef, which is really minor, involves encores. We’ve all grown used to the “obligatory” encore, where the band leaves the stage with everyone in the building knowing they’re coming back for more. It’s a dumb ritual, but at least it seems somewhat organic. For at least a couple of sets at ROSFest this year, somebody (organizer George, I think) off stage took to the mic to urge the crowd on to “bring them back” to the stage. That, to me, is a bridge too far. We’re already passed the point where the encores are really genuine; stage managing them just seems tacky.

Will that keep me from coming back in 2019, with already announced headliners Riverside? Not on your life.

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UPDATE: Or, it appears, probably not. Shortly after this post went live the organizer of ROSFest announced that the festival was moving to Sarasota, Florida. A pleasant drive of a few hours turned into an epic road trip, or (even worse) flying. So it looks like this was my last ROSFest, after all. Fuck.

Weekly Read: Head On

One of the cool things about writing speculative fiction is building a world out of a neat “what if?” idea and playing around in it. John Scalzi did that with Lock In. Set in a world where a chunk of the population has succumb to Haden’s Syndrome – a disease that leaves them “locked in” their body, unable to move but with functional brains – Lock In used a fairly standard buddy cop storyline to play out the ramifications. The story was secondary to learning how the main character, FBI agent (and intentionally ungendered) Chris Shane, and their fellow Hadens interacted with each other and the rest of the world. I couldn’t even tell you what the central mystery was and still really liked it.

Head On is a sequel to Lock In, but it’s dubbed a “standalone followup.” Having read Lock In certainly helps understand the background of the story, but newbies should be able to jump right in, and maybe they should. With my feet firmly on the ground in the world of Head On right from the jump the story came to the fore and, sadly, it wasn’t that interesting.

The milieu for it is, though. Head On revolves around an ultraviolent sport called hilketa (SP?), in which specially crafted versions of the threeps (aka “3P0” – get it?) batter each other with the objective of ripping a particular player’s head off and using it to score a goal. It’s like rugby or gridiron football without any of the problems with head injuries, since there aren’t actual humans on the field playing the game.

Nonetheless, when one hilketa player dies during a preseason game, it swings Shane and his (non-Haden) partner into action to untangle a convoluted web of deceit and murder. Diving into that mystery allows Scalzi to explore some interesting things. The most mundane may be the impact of big money and expansion in sports, but there’s also more world-specific questions like what “performance enhancing” drugs mean for people who play a sport without their body. Most compelling is how all this is impacted by the United States government’s withdrawal of financial support for Hadens (helped, it’s more than implied, by corporations pushing the edges of the law too far). Also, there’s a cat with an interesting bauble on its collar.

MiBCat

Sort of like this one, but a different color. And friendlier. And without a galaxy ’round its neck. But otherwise . . .

But I find these background things, or sideways highlights of the Hadens world, much more interesting than the actual detective story. Shane and their partner are your typical fictional cops – always pushing boundaries, but always getting the bad person, so it’s OK. This time, particularly, that none of the several lawyers in the book are even decent people, much less competent. I was particularly disappointed that Scalzi reuses the stereotype of the public defender as an out of their depth idiot, rather than a dedicated, smart, hard working advocate stuck in a system that criminal underfunds them. To his credit, the actual solution to the mystery of the hilketa player’s death is sadly plausible for 21st Century America.

Oddly, part of what I think kept me from fully engaging with Head On is that it’s so short. The version I listened to (in keeping with the ungendered main character, there are separate audiobook versions read by Will Wheaton and Amber Benson – I listened to Wheaton’s) was barely seven-and-a-half hours long. The book moves at a brisk pace – the trademark Scalzi smart assess are present in all their glory (a good thing!) – and doesn’t really make room for anything that doesn’t drive the plot along. The decision to “lock in” the point of view on Chris, I think, limits things a bit too much. I think if I’d known more about the other people in this world I’d have cared more about the mystery in which they were wrapped up.

If that sounds negative, I don’t really mean it to be. Head On is a quick, interesting, fun read, but I don’t think it does much to improve on its predecessor. My hope is that in a future book Scalzi breaks from the crime story mold and tells some other stories about Hadens. He could bring Shane along for the ride, although it would probably help if they were knocked down a few pegs (in addition to being an FBI agent Shane is the son of a fabulously wealthy ex-NBA superstar – he’s got power and money, in other words). Regardless, I’ll probably check that one out, too.

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