Weekly Read: Quick Hits

Books have been piling up a little bit (metaphorically – most of them are in electronic form) around here the past few weeks, so I wanted to take a brief moment to highlight some of the more interesting ones I’ve finished recently.

House of Penance

House of Penance

A graphic novel with a neat idea – a horror take on the famous Winchester Mystery House (link). Built by Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester of Winchester arms fame, the house is full of odd rooms and corridors. Stories have run rampant about why Winchester built it that way, continually adding onto it apparently without plan for years. House of Penance tells how she was trying to appease the spirits of all those killed by her husband’s guns. Like I said, neat idea, and the artwork is fabulous, but the story is really lacking. So little actually goes on, but the story is intent on remaining some kind of puzzle, that it doesn’t land like it could. Glad I read it, but not essential.

The Fifth Season

The_Fifth_Season_novel

While I don’t always agree with the picks for winners of the Hugo, Nebula, and other awards, I always look at the list of nominees as a good suggestion of books to check out. Among this year’s Hugo nominees is The Stone Sky, final part of a trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. I’d never read any of her stuff before, so I backtracked to the first book, The Fifth Season, only to find it won the Hugo, too. Good sign? Damned good. This is a phenomenal book, full of rich and different world building. Jemisin also had the guts to basically make this book all backstory for the main character, but it works so well you just have to admire it. Can’t wait to get to the next one!

The Enchanted

Enchanted

I’m fairly certain everything that happens in this book is a figment of the narrator’s imagination. He’s an inmate on death row in a very Southern gothic sounding prison (although the locale is never specifically identified). He calls it an “enchanted place” and weaves various tales of the people (and non-people) around him. Since there’s no bright line in it that confirms the book is set in a fantasy world, I can only read it (as an attorney who’s talked to hundreds of people in prison) as the extended coping mechanism of a deeply broken, troubled mind. That doesn’t make the book any less compelling. For all its oddity and “this can’t be real”-ness, it may be the best conception of what being locked in a cage is that I’ve ever read.

Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766

Crucible of War

Who’s up for a dense, thick tome about a war most of you forgot about when you were in high school? I was because the wife and I recently took a side trip to Fort Ligonier outside Pittsburgh while we were on a trip.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2018-3-24,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

It was in this general area (though not this particular fort) where a young George Washington blundered into a massacre that launched what many consider the first “world war,” sparking conflicts from the Americas to Europe to Africa and India. What AUTHOR is mostly interested here is how the conflict that began in the backwoods of Pennsylvania really jump started the machinery of British Empire and, in the process, laid the foundations for the American Revolution. It’s fascinating stuff, but this is pretty dry, serious history – there aren’t any characters developed as through lines for the book, names and places are flung at you with great depth. It’s also, sadly, a good example of how some things in America never change.

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Weekly Listen: Ones and Zeroes: Volume 0

At the end of my review of 3rDegree’s Ones and Zeroes: Volume 1, I wrote:

It’s a mess of awfully good music wrapped around an interesting idea. And the best thing? It’s only the first part!

Now that I’ve gotten familiar with the band’s follow up, I’m not so sure about that anymore.

The “first part” bit, I mean. The enthusiasm was completely warranted. But where does Volume 0 fit in to the chronology? It came second, after all, but it’s hardly a sequel. So it is a prequel? Not really. Is it better to listen to them in order of release or numerical order? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it doesn’t really matter, for a very unexpected reason – Volume 0 doesn’t really have anything to do with Volume 1. Conceptually, at least.

Hear me out.

Volume 1 tells, essentially, a single story about the impact of a fictional (gods, I hope) megacorp, Valhalla Biotech, that peddles various “life extension” technology. There was a through line running from stem to stern of the album, summed up by refrain “tell me what it means to be human.” This was helped along by the sometimes chilling asides from various Valhalla products and spokespersons.

Volume 0, by contrasts, covers a lot of different ground. “Olympia” deals with artificial beings who aren’t content to be submissive. “Perfect Babies” channels Brave New World and Gattaca and their (timely and relevant) fears of designer offspring. The epic “Click Away!” dives into the echo chamber of the Internet. Unlike Volume 1, there’s no connective tissue pulling these all together (the Valhalla announcements are absent, for example).

To put it another way, Volume 1 is a Black Mirror episode; Volume 0 is an entire season.

This isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, it’s probably a good idea not to just do a copy of Volume 1, since it’s hard to bottle lightning twice. Still, aside from the opening overture and a few riffs in the closing “Ones and Zeroes” there isn’t really a link between to the two albums. They’re separate things that stand on their own merits.

And Volume 0 has plenty of merits. Lyrically, the best tracks (“Olympia” and “Logical Conclusion,” in particular) create perfect little worlds, short stories of immediate impact and thougtfulness. The rest throw out interesting ideas and slip in some zingers for good measure (has a meaner chorus ever been sung other than “the future doesn’t need you at all?”).

Musically, 3rDegree continue to refine a sound that doesn’t really resemble anybody else. Bassist Robert James Pashman once told me that 3rDegree was (I’m seriously paraphrasing) “too straight forward for the prog crowd, but too weird for the mainstream.” That’s still true, although they’ve been embraced by the prog world in the past few years (and produced an epic in return!). But they’re at their best when the hooks and melodies come to the fore, to be supported by some interesting backing stuff and arrangements. That’s all backed up by playing that’s intricate and muscular, but rarely flashy. It takes a few listens to really get at what’s going on, which is always a good sign. I particularly dig that there’s lots of bass synth on this album.

One of the reasons I had to keep giving Volume 0 listens is because I had a hard time thinking about what to say about it. Here’s the thing – with each album since they got back together, 3rDegree have been stepping up their game in big ways. Volume 0, though, doesn’t feel like a big step forward. It feels like a consolidation, a restatement of what they’re about. That’s not in any way a bad thing.

What I’m saying is that Volume 0 is a great album. It’s musically and lyrically rich, filled with catchy tunes and great playing. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from 3rDegree at this point, right? They’re a band in top form and cranking out another excellent offering just isn’t a surprise at this point. So why don’t you have your copy yet?

Ones&Zeroes

On American Dystopia and the Great White North

Dystopian fiction can be tricky. Assuming you’re setting it on Earth, you either need to have the whole world go to hell, which isn’t all that probable, or the shit show is more localized, in which case you have to address how the rest of the world interacts with the place where the story is set. I’ve been set to thinking about this a bit thanks to two recent bits of television.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is as localized as dystopia can get. It’s told entirely from the point of view of the titular handmaid, June, and doesn’t concern itself at all with the outside world. Gilead is what she experiences; nothing more.

The TV adaptation probably couldn’t have worked if it maintained that rigorous POV, so it wisely broadened its world from the get go. In the first season, therefore, we learned that June’s husband and her best friend managed to escape to Canada, where there’s a growing population of expats from the area that used to be New England. But we don’t really know what that means in a global socio-political sense.

HandmaidS2

That was evident in the recent episode “Smart Power,” where Commander Fred and his wife, Serena, take a diplomatic trip to the Great White North. They’re received professionally, if coolly, in the manner you’d expect for delegates from a nation with which the Canadians have at least some normal relations. But do they? We don’t really know. Things are complicated when an American agents of some kind offers Serena a new life in Hawaii, one where she actually gets to control her destiny.

All this is a bit confused because we don’t really know how Gilead relates to the rest of the world – or what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead (once some info leaks out during the Commander’s visit, we quickly find out, at least partly). How big is Gilead? We know it’s centered in New England, but what of the rest of the United States? Does Canada recognize it as an independent nation? If so, why? What does the United States look like?

None of these were really important in the book, since it was June’s story above all else. But by broadening the focus (something that had to happen for the TV series to continue), these questions become relevant and I’m not certain the show’s brain trust really has the answers.

The recent HBO adaptation of Farhernheit 451 suffered even more acutely from this problem. It makes explicit the story’s setting (Cleveland) and, via an implausible update that involves the works of humanity encoded into DNA, sets up an endgame where Montag has to help someone escape to Canada to rendezvous with some scientists. We’re never told if that’s just because that’s where they are or because Canada is the safe area we always assume it to be.

F451

This is particularly important to Farhernheit 451 given its semi-hopeful ending of an underground group dedicated to actually memorizing great works of literature to ensure they don’t disappear.* That still happens, but it’s now supplemented with the DNA thing. But if Canada is a safe haven, if it exists outside of the dystopia the United States has become – then why the need to preserve all knowledge? Isn’t it safe elsewhere in the world?

To a certain extent this is an issue with any speculative fiction worldbuilding. Writers need to have some idea what happens beyond the bounds of their stories, since those things should influence those stories in some ways. But it’s compounded dystopian fiction set in the “real” world because readers and viewers presume the world is as it is in real life, unless we’re told otherwise. That can lead to confusion, or at least some disappointments.

* Kudos to the writers for updating the preserved works to include writers who are women and people of color (and even some women of color!). However, the impact is a bit muted since only the minority characters are memorizing the work of minority authors.

Birth of an Idea

Some authors hate the “where do you get your ideas?” question. I’ve never really figured out why. I can see why readers might be disappointed with the answers, since they’re much more mundane than they might hope. There is no communication with the muse, no blinding flash of insight, just a keen eye and brain that perpetually asks, “what if?” And the realization having a pen handy is almost always a good idea:

So in service of explaining how that works, I thought I’d describe the process I recently went through were a new story idea crystallized in my mind. It’s as good an example as any of the truth that inspiration is out there everywhere, if you know what to do with it.

Right now in my lawyer day job I have a case pending in the court of appeals where one of the issues involves whether my client had served too much time in prison and might be entitled to credit for that. In my brief I made a couple references to him “banking time.” When the Government responded, for some reason, it turned the word around and repeatedly referenced a “time bank,” which it argued didn’t really exit (it does).

Beyond the fury at the allegation I was making shit up, the phrase “time bank” got lodged in my brain. There was something about it that seemed absurd and specific in a way that “banking time” didn’t.

With “time bank” lodged in my brain like a stepped-on Lego, I went into brainstorming mode, which to my neighbors looks like mowing my yard. I do some of my best thinking about writing while I mow, since it’s not like my mind is taken up with other things. So I turned over this concept in my mind, over and over again – what, precisely is a “time bank”? And how would it differ from a memory bank?

I came up with three different ideas, one sort of modern science fictional, one utterly fantastical, and one kind of in between. Thinking them over I found myself drawn the first, the modern one, and began thinking about how characters might interact with this “time bank.”

The working title is “Down and Out at the Time Bank,” a tale of a poor schmuck who gets in way above his head, but probably comes out of it just fine. Short story or something longer? Don’t know yet, as I’ve got to put it on the back burner while I work on other things. But it’s there, lurking in my ideas file, waiting for me to come back to it.

So, thank you, unnamed Assistant United States Attorney. You’ll win the case in the end (‘cause y’all almost always do), but at least you gave me something worthwhile I can take away from it.

And that, ladies and gents, is where story ideas come from!

Rivalries and How They Work

The World Cup is underway and, sadly, the United States isn’t involved this time. For the first time since 1990, we failed to qualify. In the words of one commenter I saw in a forum the other day, “we shit the bed.” It’s as good a description as any.

That has led some Americans to wonder who they might root for in the tournament. I think that’s kind of silly – as I’ve written before, you can be a fan of the game, without any particular rooting interest – but whatever makes the experience more enjoyable (Volkswagen is having fun with the idea in its new commercials).

While we Americans failed to qualify, our great rivals from across the Rio Grande did, and with some ease. That’s led to some to suggest that American fans should root for Mexico in the Cup. That reached peak silliness this past weekend with this Tweet from, of all people, United States Men’s National Team legend Landon Donovan:

Putting to one side the cash-grab aspect of all this (Wells Fargo, Landon? Really?), that’s simply not how rivalries work. I personally think it’s a bridge to far to wish ill on your rivals (not a fan of the “my two favorite teams are A and whoever is playing B” shirts). Rooting against someone just seems like bad karma. Sports should involve positive motivations, not negative.

Besides, you can sit back and realize it’s good for the United States for Mexico – and the other CONCACAF teams, Costa Rica and Panama – to do well. When the region does well on the global stage it lifts all boats and we, as a men’s soccer program, desperately could use some lift right now. But that’s a far bridge from actually rooting for them to do well.

To put it in another context, as a West Virginia University fan and alum, I hope that our Big XII rivals do well in bowl games and NCAA tournaments, because it makes us look better when we do well in the conference. So, while I’m happy with Kansas winning a national championship in basketball or Oklahoma doing well in the football “playoff,” that doesn’t mean I’m actively rooting for them. That’s just a bridge too far.

But still, if you’re an American fan and you want to root for Mexico, be my guest. Just don’t make it more than it is, as Donovan tried to do in a follow-up Tweet after being called out by fellow former USMNT member Carlos Bocanegra:

 

Um, no. In the same way that rooting for WVU against Baylor doesn’t mean I wish ill on the students in Waco, not rooting for Mexico has nothing to do with the horribles the current regime is perpetrating upon immigrants and Latinos. Sports can certainly build bridges, but not ones that can bear that much weight.

So I will watch with interest as Mexico (and Costa Rica and Panama) take on the world in our absence. I’ll marvel at brilliant plays made and shake my head at missed chances and nonsense. In other words, I’ll watch their games just like I do everybody else’s.

That being said – well done to Mexico for knocking off Germany yesterday.

Cheating? Brilliant? A Little of Both

The World Cup gets underway this week. Even without the United States involved (*sniff*) I’m still looking forward to the tournament. Beyond the month-long celebration of world-class soccer, it always seems to bring some really odd stories out in the run up to the tournament. Some are amusing, some less so.

This one falls kind of in between.

Tunisia are returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2006 after topping their group in qualifying. That means playing a series of friendlies (soccer-talk for “exhibition”) in the weeks leading up to the Cup in order to prepare. That’s bad timing because the Tunisian players are Muslims and it’s currently Ramadan. That means not drinking or eating anything between sunrise and sunset for a month. This year, that month is May 15 to June 14.

You can see the problem. Soccer is famously taxing when it comes to physical stamina:

So playing the same at the highest level while you can’t eat or drink would be a real pain in the ass.

Tunisian goalkeeper Mouez Hassen appears to have found a clever solution:

In friendly matches against Portugal then Turkey, goalkeeper Mouez Hassen appeared to feign injury at sundown, when the fast comes to an end.

As he lay on the pitch receiving medical treatment, his teammates rushed to the sidelines to drink water and snack on dates.

And it produced immediate results.

Down 2-1 to European champions Portugal, Tunisia rebounded six minutes after Hassen’s injury break by scoring an equalizer and ended the match 2-2.

Days later against Turkey, Hassen stopped play by lying on his back.

Again, his teammates ate dates and drank water provided to them by waiting coaching staff. That match also ended 2-2.

* * *

Pundits in Tunisia were quick to note the timing of the goalkeeper’s injuries in the second half of both matches – in the 58th and 47th minutes of play respectively.

This coincided with the time of sunset, which is when Iftar – the breaking of the fast usually with dates and water – begins for Muslims observing Ramadan.

In other words:

WhatYouDidThere

I’m torn about how to think about this.

Make no mistake, Hassen was cheating. Simulation is a violation of the rules of the game. While it usually comes up in situations where a player is trying to draw a foul or a penalty kick it applies just as much when a player feigns injury for some reason. That happens late in games when one team is trying to kill time or simply blunt the momentum of the other side when it’s seeking a game-winning or game-tying goal.

On the other hand, the benefit to his team wasn’t something completely unusual in modern soccer. If a player gets hurt – enough that the game stops for trainers to trot out on the field and tend to him – the teams routinely take a chance to get a drink. I’ve seen players slurp Gatorade-style goo from tubes on the sideline, too. Given the rigors of a soccer match, it’s not unusual for players to take any chance they can to hydrate and such.

Thus, part of me wants to chock this up to “creative gamesmanship” and give it a pass. And it happened in friendlies, anyway, so there wasn’t anything really at stake (Ramadan will be over by the time the Cup starts, so it won’t come up there). But it’s still faking an injury to gain an advantage, however slight, and that’s a chicken shit thing to do.

So, no more of this, folks. But, you know, pretty clever of you to think of it in the first place.

Author Interview – Amy Deal

For this interview we talk to romance writer Amy Deal, who decided to fill a market gap her own darned self.

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

I’m Amy Deal.  I was raised in Barboursville, and currently live in Huntington and I write romance fiction.

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

I’m working on my first book.  It’s called A Stronger Bond and it’s a vampire romance.  It’s the story of a vampire, Alexi who loves a mortal, Ava.  Their relationship is put to the test when she is kidnapped by a vampire hunter bent on revenge.  There’s also an ancient vampire, Demetri, who believes himself in love with Ava.  So, there are a lot of obstacles for them to overcome to get their happy ever after.

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

Romance.  I’ve always loved a great romance story either in books, movies or TV.  But they have to have happy endings.  I am anti Nicholas Sparks.  LoL

TV and movies are where my first writings came from.  I would take the stories and rewrite them.  Little did I know that I was writing FanFic before it had a name.  LoL

What made you want to start writing romance stories instead of just reading them?

I like a certain kind of romance story and no one was writing them.  I knew I couldn’t be the only one, so after some conversations with others, I decided to write the kind of romance I wanted to read.

Follow up follow up – what kind is that?

A lot of the vampire romance stories have the heroine either as a vampire herself or a vampire hunter.  I like stories where the heroine is the typical girl next door.  Living her life and then suddenly she’s confronted with something that shakes up her world and makes her look at things differently.

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

I get my best ideas when I’m talking to someone or listening to a conversation.  As for the rest of it I wish I had an organized thought out process, but I really just write when I can grab some time.  I just took a trip on Amtrak and I had several hours to work on nothing but marketing, plotting and research.  It was nice.

How much plotting do you do ahead of time? How much world building? Do you ever just sit down and see where the words take you?

I just bought a writing software program that will hopefully help me do some plotting, world and character building, but I really just sit down with an idea and start writing.  Eliot Parker says that I like to drop people right into the action and I do, but I’m trying to learn to plot my way and drive them there slowly.

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

Alexi.  He’s the main character of the book.  I’ve always had a soft spot for anyone who feels that they aren’t redeemable or worthy of being loved.  Alexi is all of that and I’ve made it my mission to make sure he finally accepts that he can be.

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

With vampires I’ve researched a lot of blood related topics.  Because it’s their main source of everything, especially loving someone, I had to find a way to make a disease where someone’s blood would be poison to a vampire.

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

Never listen to the people who say you aren’t a writer if you haven’t had something published.  If you write, you’re a writer.  Also, if you write a genre that isn’t popular, or one that people don’t understand, just remember that somewhere out there, someone is waiting to read it.

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Have you found people not supportive of writing romances? Based on what I’ve seen romances and vampire stories are both really popular!

I haven’t found anyone that hasn’t been supportive of me personally.  Yes! they are really popular.  It goes in waves.  Vampires will be popular, then a real life event will happen where suddenly military romances become popular.  It’s like soup du jour, but hero du jour.

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

I’d be able to focus on my writing and do a lot of traveling to find locations to use.  I’d also have all the latest and greatest tech gadgets to help with my writing.

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

Andrea Bills.  She’s also a WV romance writer and her books are so good.  Her writing draws the reader in and once you’re in, you never want it to let you go.

What do you think your next project will be?

It’s another book in the A Stronger Bond universe.  It’s the story of one of the other vampires you meet in the book.

For more about Amy check her out on Facebook or the web.

Ten Books I Love

Remember that list of 10 albums that were particularly important to me I did? It evolved from a Facebook thing. Shortly thereafter, I started seeing other folks do the same for books. Sure enough, one of my friends tagged me and so I had to come up with a list of books (hers was seven, I bumped mine out to ten) that I “love.” Not necessarily meaningful or insightful, just favorites. With that in mind, let’s dive in (in no particular order) . . .

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

HHGttG

This is almost a cheat, as the Guide has so many iterations and my favorite will always be the BBC television version (cheepnis and all). Still, I remember pouring through the book (and the other two in the original trilogy) that my brother had. Funny, thoughtful, clever, and an entirely different way to approach science fiction. It stuck to the same part of my brain as Monty Python.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)

OnWriting

There are lots of books about writing (some of them actually written by writers!) and people will tell you not to rely on one of them if you’re trying to figure out how to be a writer yourself. As true as that is, the one that everyone seems to recommend is Stephen King’s memoir. For good reason – it’s a brutally honest, open exploration of what it means to be a writer. It doesn’t bury itself in inspirational bullshit, but it also doesn’t make writing seem like something that’s out of anyone’s reach. Reading about writing doesn’t end here, but it probably ought to start here.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Mockingbird

Since I’m a defense lawyer by trade it’s practically required that I have great reverence for this one. I’d like to say I don’t, that I go against the cliché, but what would be the point? Atticus Finch is, in a lot of respects what lawyers aspire to be, particularly defense lawyers. He seems to resonate particularly with defenders since after a noble and capable defense, he still loses. That’s the life of a defense attorney, after all.

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death (1969)

 Slaughterhousefive

I’m not sure whether this was my introduction to Vonnegut (it might have been Galapagos or “Harrison Bergeron”), but it is the one that made me fall hard for his work. The dark humor and deep humanity that runs through his work speaks to me, I guess. Plus, he gave no fucks when it came to style and form – I mean, what kind of book is this anyway? Science fiction? Social commentary? Historical fiction? Who the fuck cares! It’s brilliant.

Candide: or, The Optimist (1759)

Candide

I am, at my core, a cynic. On my better days, I’d say I was a realist. Regardless, a bit reason why is Candide, which skewers the idea of this is the best of all possible worlds. Although the story is all about breaking down the titular character’s naiveté, it’s not depressing. It’s darkly comic (there that phrase is again) and liberating, as we see the scales fall from his eyes. While the ending isn’t one you’d call happy, it’s at least hopeful, in that it puts the power for our own happiness in our own hands. Besides, it’s inspired both a fabulous musical/operetta by Bernstein and a concept album by Rush (LINKS)!

The Private Eye (2015)

PriavteEye

Usually when it comes to dystopias the world of the future is completely fucked. Some plague or aliens or nuclear war or whatever has returned life to a primitive state, with characters reduced to hunter gatherers as they try to rebuild society. The dystopia of The Private Eye, by contrast, looks pretty sweet. There’s technology, food is plentiful – it looks like what we think of as “the future.” So what’s the problem? The problem is that everyone stored their data in “the cloud” and one day, “the cloud broke.” From the simple idea that everybody’s data is loose in the world, Bryan K. Vaughn builds a stylish, neo-noir tale for the 21st century. And it looks amazing.

The Devil In the White City (2003)

Devil

History is supposed to be dull, a lifeless parade of facts, dates, and names that it can be hard to care much about. It’s not, really (my undergrad degree is in history – trust me!), but that’s the rep. Thankfully, a generation of writers producing “narrative nonfiction” have done a good job bringing the past to life. None is better than Erik Larson and, while all his books are good, this one is my favorite. It’s the story of a grizzly serial killer who uses the DATE World’s Fair in Chicago as cover to lure his victims. That story alone would be good enough, but woven with the story of the fair itself and how it was developed really makes things pop.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

Strange

This is a horrible admission for a writer of fantasy, but I’m not a big fan of magic (hence the lack of any in The Water Road). There’s something random and unearned about it lots of times, where the people who wield magic do so by grace of birth or whatnot. What I deeply love about this book is that magic is all about knowledge and, more precisely, books. In fact, the way magic is learned and used in this book makes me think of how law was taught in the pre-modern age, when students apprenticed with members of the bar. Take all that, wrap it up in a magical history of England (and, oh by the way, the Napoleonic Wars), and it makes for an epic read.

Oryx and Crake (2003)

Oryx

There are many ways of imagining the future. Only Margaret Atwood has come up with one that includes revolting, genetically engineered “chickens” called ChickieNobs:

’This is the latest,’ said Crake.

What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

‘What the hell is it?’ said Jimmy.

‘Those are chickens,’ said Crake. “Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.

‘But there aren’t any heads…’

‘That’s the head in the middle,’ said the woman. ‘There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.’[quote]

That sort of captures the whole feel of this book – at the same time horrible and morbidly funny. It’s a great beginning to a wonderful sci-fi (sorry, Margaret) trilogy.

UPDATE: Eagle eyed readers, or just those with all their digits, will notice I’m one short. Not sure how that happened, since I have the cover and everything, but, alas, I left out one of my absolute all time favorites! Better late, a they say . . .

Good Omens (1990)

GoodOmens

Another bit of a cheat, as I get two favorite authors for the price of one – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I think this was my first exposure to them on the printed page (I’d come across Gaiman via Babylon 5, of all places) and it melds their styles perfectly. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Hilariously funny and darkly compelling.

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.

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