Friday, July 25, 2014

Top 10 Most

I've never really cared about Luc Besson as a director. Not that I hate his work exactly, I just can't summon enough energy to care about it one way or another.  "Fifth Element" is the movie I remember the most distinctly, but as a friend reminded me last night as we waited for his latest film "Lucy" to start he's cranked an unbelievable number of movies in recent years - either as a director, writer, or producer. And I liked Fifth Element, even though the plot didn't always (or really, usually) make sense. Besson is just that kind of film-maker, knowing how to film a screen with enough mayhem, special effects, and sheer gonzo style that you might be able to forgive him.

So, I wasn't exactly eager to watch this movie. The trailers looked interesting in a sort of second-tier action film sort of way, but that tag-line intoned by Morgan Freeman bugged the hell out of me. "Most humans only use 10% of their brains..." Really? How many times does this zombie myth have to be decapitated before it's finally death-paneled?

But the movie's studio had the forethought to release it on a basically nothing week, and even better a local theater had a midnight showing so I could watch it with my night owl friends.

I'd like to take a parenthetical detour to address the AMC Assembly Row Theater. First off, when did this theater appear? I remember being around that part of Somerville a year ago and had no sense of there being a movie theater in the offing or, moreover, and entire new neighborhood surrounding it. Boston has been on one hell of a building binge the past few years.

Okay back to the film and the obligatory SPOILERS AHEAD warning.

The thing is, I enjoyed some parts of this movie quite a bit. The special effects were pretty good for a non-tent pole summer movie, and no one in the film phoned it in. Scarlett, in particular, did a great job playing Lucy rapidly transcend the limitations of human beings.  Choi Min Sik, who was insanely great in Old Boy (the original, obviously) found an impressive reservoir of menace for the early scenes. The action set-pieces were - if not exactly innovative - at least purposeful.  Finally, I admire any movie that puts Hong Kong action films, Tree of Life, Inconvenient Truth, and Akira into a blender and presses the button with some naive faith it will all work out.

I can't recommend this movie to anyone. The tag-line in the trailer was annoying but didn't give the sense that Besson, you know, actually believed any of this. Which is why the monologues from Morgan Freeman explaining the possibilities of human unlocking our supposed untapped brains were so depressing.  The lecture explains that the only creature able to unlock more than 10% of their brain currently are dolphins and look what they can do with sonar.  Well, just look at them! Imagine what YOU could DO with 30% of your brain UNLOCKED! Well, actually, you don't have to imagine because the movie would pause helpfully after Scarlet did something improbable and flash her current CPU usage percentage on the screen.




"I don't know, are we sure she's at 40? To me that seems like a hard 43%."

But ultimately this isn't a movie that you really want to question. This is what happens when a movie is strung together from a random assortment of those Ten Best listicles on or whatever. Top Ten Action Car Chases in movies? I take one of Matrix Reloaded, and one of the Bourne Identity. Top Ten Weirdest Facts about Your Body? Well, there's that whole 10% thing and something spurious about hormones in the womb of pregnant women which I haven't bothered fact-checking.

If you get the sense that this was all an excuse for ass-kicking and power fantasies, you wouldn't be far wrong. It is at least refreshing that Luc Besson (like Fifth Element) focuses our attention on an ass-kicking, power-tripping superwoman but nothing in the movie suggests the need for any profound head-scratching. Towards the end, Lucy promises humanity to download all she's discovered to a computer. In true Besson fashion, she fulfills this promise in the most crashingly obvious way possible. She creates this enormous computational cathedral out of squirming biomechanical tentacles, her brain zooming across the planet, racing across the eons and through the known universe to see the Big Bang and then downloads all of this information into a slender plastic stick with a convenient USB drive at one end.


Then one of the character's cellphone flashes the message I AM EVERYWHERE. Let me get this straight: this transcendent being is able to totally integrate herself with the universe and everything within it, gaining insights into the history of the cosmos and the meaning of life (presumably) and she doesn't even bother setting up a Wiki?


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thomas Ligotti and First Impressions

Finishing a collection from Thomas Ligotti is a strange experience. Firstly, one isn't entirely certain what you have just read. Ligotti is known as a horror writer and an influence of Nic Pizzolatto, creator of True Detective. From those two facts you might imagine that Ligotti takes a bleak look at humanity and its role within the universe. In that respect you would be correct. You might also imagine that Ligotti's stories revolve around monsters, serial killers, and other standard motifs of pulp fiction. Here, you might be surprised.

Ligotti's "Noctuary" begins with a very astute essay on the nature of 'weird fiction,' tracing its power to the observation that the victims of horror fiction tend to meet a 'tailored fate,' a coffin specifically measured and prepared for them. The succeeding stories each sketch a situation where a protagonist meets some 'weird fate.' At times this fate might be horrific, in that it inspires within the reader a sense of futility, revulsion, and terror. At other times, that fate seems merely depressing and obscure. 

Ligotti inspired a current weird fiction writer Laird Barron, whose collection I also read recently, also because I heard it was an influence on 'True Detective.' Both writers focus in on this question of fate, of predestination. But where Barron's tales typically conclude with something visceral and terminal, Ligotti stories tend to trail off. To be sure, in Noctuary, there are stories with a clear resolution, such as 'The Medusa,' or 'Conversations in a Dead Language,' but the bulk of the stories in Noctuary end on a more existential note. The protagonist delivers some essential grim fact about reality and then wanders off into the gloom.

Considering Ligotti's nihilism and anti-natalism, these stories do strike me as reflecting his pessimism without either explaining or expounding upon it. Ligotti is often described as a disciple of Lovecraft, but where HP used his sense of a vast and impersonal universe to fuel an increasingly baroque and intricate mythos, Ligotti would rather sit with that essential and bleak epiphany in Noctuary. Describing no external monsters, the focus then of Ligotti's horror lies within. We are the monsters, it whispers, we are the nightmares.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Yesterday You Said Tomorrow - My most recently published story

My story "Drop-ins" was published this week in the "Yesterday You Said Tomorrow" anthology released by Burnt Offerings Press. I'll include links to buying a copy if you are interested below but let me just say a quick word about this story.

"Drop-ins" was originally conceived as the third chapter in a much larger work on time-travel. I got into my head the idea of non-paradoxical time-travel, the question of how could you have time-travel that didn't cause some kind of logic busting paradox. With Drop-ins that idea coalesced around the notion of time displacement. Basically, we are already time-travelers. Every day we travel exactly one day into the future. What if you could put the conscious mind to sleep for a period of time, say a year, or ten, or thirty and then wake it up inside your own body. While your primary self was asleep, your life would be carried by a "stand-in" personality, basically a dimmer, slightly less-than-version of yourself. The only catch would be that once your trip into the future was done, you would not remember any of it, your mind would return to the exact moment you activated the time displacement machine. The story revolves around an intrepid band of chrononauts attempting to see how far they can press into the future while coping with the consequences of living a life in fast-forward.

The other stories are very clever and well worth a read! I hope you enjoy the anthology. If you do have some thoughts specific to my story, feel free to record them in the comments.

You can find the anthology for purchase through the following links:
CreateSpace Direct:

Amazon Print-On-Demand

Amazon Kindle/E-book Version

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A quick update

This past week has seen the appearance of my second short story, "Children of Frogs," which is still visible at if you search the archives. I got a lot of feedback on the story, most of it positive and learned a great deal from the experience. While it might be a while until my next story appears, this was a happy moment.

Also nice was getting my first payment on a story. I know it's a small thing, but having in my hands the share of profit of what I've written was a ridiculously good feeling. Then followed by a little tinge of 'gee, I thought it would be for more, and then, but I didn't have this amount before today and now I do.' It was a confusing three seconds. Now, I think I'll frame it and move on.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Alive in 2013

Being alive in 2013 has meant embracing the worst case scenario. To be honest, on the grand scale, this year didn't have a lot to recommend it. Politically this country seems to have slipped a gear. Yeah, I know that this isn't the first time the government's been shut down or certainly the first time when our two ridiculous political parties couldn't agree on anything. But for a year beginning with such minimal hopes, seeing them crushed again and again and again was dispiriting. In the process of writing these few year-end posts I looked back over my posts this year, especially the ones post-Newtown. Boy did I get that wrong. I figured worst-case scenario there would be some token expansion of the back-ground checks and a renewal of the assault weapon ban. And then it was just the background checks and then it was the NRA dancing in the streets. What an absolute failure.

I get a weird twinge of jealousy whenever I see reports of the Chinese space program sending a probe into space or making plans for a space station. Why can't that be us? Why is this country so screwed up that we can't even get anything done anymore? Is that all we are, a country of people content to watch movies about space disasters instead of funding actual exploration?

So, I spent the year reading a lot of fantasy, a lot of science fiction and watching a lot of Star Trek. Honestly, other than the original series and TNG, I never really watched the other shows back in the day. I don't read the expanded universe fiction. I don't have a Star Fleet uniform. And yet, increasingly I could hear myself talking about this one show again and again. My friends' eyes glaze over, my dog wanders into the other room when he hears the opening theme, my cats sit in silent contempt.

But I can't stop. There's something about this show that I want to believe in this year. I need to believe in a ship, a family, out there in the stars, exploring the unknown. I want to think that beyond of this back and forth between politics, job, and all the rest that there's something better waiting. We just have to wake up and change things.

Even as I stay the same. Everyday I'm at my desk, writing a few hundred words, sending out stories when I think they're as good as I can make them right now. Getting my first story published was a tremendous lift to me this year. I've got another one coming out at some point this next year on a science fiction story a day website. I've been sketching out a few details for another novel. Every draft I discover another tiny little trick, or another mistake I never noticed before. If something is important you keep working on it. You keep doing it.

I'm grateful for my friends and my family. I'm happy to have a house to slowly, steadily improve each year. I'm grateful for my wife, my best friend, and another year together trying to make things better, one small step at a time.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

What I read in 2013

I had a kind of mission this year to read at least five books written in 2013. I nearly made it. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't had a chance to pick up the wonderful conclusion of Chris Holm's Collector series, "The Big Reap," which is why is not included below in my five favorites of this year. But, seriously, don't wait on my opinion, pick up the book if you haven't already and read it. Chris is a great story-teller with one hell of an awesome concept in the Big Reap.

Science fiction and fantasy. That's what occupied most of my reading time. And when I say science fiction what I really mean is Kim Stanley Robinson. Green and Blue Mars, 2312, and this year's Shaman, and I've barely scratched the surface on this guy's writing. I can't praise him enough for his ideas and character development and simple inspiring spirit. In a year I rewatched most of Star Trek, this was the fitting literary counter-part. Robinson portrays imperfect, realistically harsh worlds always on the brink of freeing themselves, not with guns or bombs but with the power of ideas and selfless courage.

Fantasy was taken up by the twin Scotts: R Scott Bakker and Scott Lynch. I ran across Bakker in a 'what do I read after Song of Ice and Fire' search. Dark, twisted, steeped in history, these books are fantastic re-imaginings of the Crusades. He doesn't quite pull away from the "Big Bad" motif, there's a dark, sinister, ancient force coming back into the world, but this is a background concern in the first two books of the series and no one comes off as gratingly noble or heroic. 

Scott Lynch also writes about rogues and scoundrels. "Lies of Locke Lamora," is filled with them, as well as great action set-pieces, memorably strange settings, and a pleasingly wry take on the human condition. Locke Lamora is not a nice person. A Robin Hood figure, his schemes cause significant collateral damage to everyone around him, and nearly lead to the death of an entire city. "Lies of Locke Lamora," is a heist tale, basically, but one unafraid to look at the larger damage caused by criminal machinations.

Here are my picks for novels this year.

5) Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Green Mars, just like the first book in the Martian Trilogy is a novel of ideas and characters in precisely that order. Now the ideas are grand: long discussions of the process of turning a dead, frozen dust ball into a breathing, green tundra world; debates on forming a better society around principles of democracy and social justice; revolutions effecting positive changes rather than more ruin and death. This book suffers from the middle child syndrome, neither starting at the right place or avoiding a cliff-hanger, but it's still sharply focused, avoiding the leisurely entropy of its sequel, Blue Mars.

4) R Scott Bakker: The Darkness that Comes Before. Bakker's worlds are meticulous, with echoes of real historical events and personages, mixed with his own elaborate invention. The appendix for The Darkness that Comes before extends for pages, explaining cultures, languages, and ancient events creating a dense fantasy book for history buffs and text annotators. The stories in the book are fantastic, filled with believably greedy, self-absorbed, disturbing individuals that possess unique perspectives and obviously detailed histories. All of the books demand attention, Bakker's prose is difficult and full of poetry. Monsters appear, they're vivid and appalling, but the terror he invests in simple human conversation is what really makes this book special.

3) Scott Lynch: Lies of Locke Lamora. Caper tales depend on two things: one) intricate yet plausible schemes invented by two) amoral yet sympathetic schemers. Locke Lamora is a great character, devious, charming, arrogant, brutal, and yet ultimately human. The world of Camorr City reminds the reader of Renaissance Venice or Naples, albeit ones shadowed by crystal towers created through ancient alchemy. The magic here is very subtle, less fire-balls and conjured demons, and more potions and hypnosis. This fits the themes of the story perfectly, Locke Lamora's elaborate plans take chapters to reach fruition and having spells and wizards everywhere would cheapen that. Keeping a tight rein on overtly supernatural elements gives the ones who do appear more punch, underlining the most audacious magic trick of all, conjuring up a human soul in the heart of a thief.

2) Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman is a genre all to himself. His reliance on fairy tale logic and supernatural contrivances can seem a little cute at times, but not his weary appraisal of human misery. Here a small boy accompanies a friend on trek through 'orange skies,' and cat tail fields to confront an ancient pest, a 'flea,' in the words of the 'youngest' Hempstock, Lettie. Inevitable human weakness causes a chain reaction of threat and menace. Each of the characters are sharply drawn and yet mysterious. The plot of the story is simple, essentially a chase story that could be read in one sitting if the implications of Gaiman's various metaphysics didn't disturb and provoke. It's that disconnect that Gaiman points out, between the lucid dreams of childhood and the somnulent consciousness of adults that really rams the point home. Gaiman's ancient deities are perfectly happy to talk about the 'creation of the moon,' and particle physics, but ultimately it's the simple act of seeing and remembering that brings understanding to individuals. That and the grace of three women in a farmhouse unwilling to let every mistake meet its punishment.

1) Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson. Yeah, I liked this book a lot. For one thing, a realistic look at life in the Upper Paleolithic, complete with spear-throwers, cave-art, and interactions with Neanderthals is going to get my attention. Great gulfs of time stretch between when our modern species evolved and the first written records five and half millennia ago. Entire civilizations of nomads and hunters that we know almost nothing about. What were they like? What did they dream about? And as my students sometimes ask, why didn't they just settle down and start making technology if they were just like us? Shaman isn't really about answering those questions. It's a coming-of-age story, following a young boy in the Wolf Pack as he passes a rite of manhood, and gradually comes to fulfill the role of shaman. Probably my favorite part of this book is that the society of these stone age hunters and gathered is not depicted as being static, but rather a dynamic reaction to the pressures around them. At one point, the pack's old Shaman, Thorn, laments that with his passing all that he knows will pass into the wind, lost except for the stories he's made Loon memorize. It's an incredibly poignant moment, filled with the essential tragedy of our species' early existence, people just like you and I who lacked the means to preserve their discoveries for the next generation. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

What I saw in 2013

Few of the movies I saw this year, except for Gravity and Captain Philips are going to make the Oscar Best Film list. Most of what I saw were science fiction, horror, or comic book movies. I enjoyed them, but they were not what I'd even call 'great cinema.' They were pop artifacts from a year filled with explosions, fist fights, and space ship battles. Still, any year where I got to watch a rocket powered fist slam into an unsuspecting Cthulhu beast probably has something going for it.

In any normal year I would be able to get to just about all of the science fiction movies except for one or two. In recent years this has not been even remotely possible. We are definitely living through a kind of bubble economy for science fiction and comic books. When it crashes I'll be sad, but for the moment it seems like every hair-brain scheme gets some kind of financial backing: Ender's Game? Sure, here's some cash. Giant robots fight kaiju? Absolutely, here's your money. Unfilmable quasi-documentary on zombies, we just have a change or two and you're good to go...

5) Europa Report. This movie is sneaky. At first glance it's a found-footage horror film, not all that different from 2011's Apollo 18. But that's just the window dressing I'm sure they used to win funding. At its heart it's a hard sci-fi space opera like Gravity and 2001. The only creature appears late in the final reel and it doesn't seem malicious as much as very territorial. So for the rest of the movie we have a realistic look at a manned mission to the Jovian system, complete with discussions of gravity and extraterrestrial life, classed up with monologue from Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It was not all that hard to imagine this privately funded mission being something similar to a manned exploration of Mars. The characters and story are fairly rote but I'm giving this movie a nod just for the way it hacks existing movie tropes to talk about something more interesting.

4) Pacific Rim. Highly entertaining. I want to see more of the world this movie created and I'm sorry that it wraps up in a such a self-contained way because I definitely think this movie could've benefited from a more open-ended approach, not a neat and snug conclusion. Again, the plot of this story is conventional but the details are what makes this movie for me work. Each of the giant robots is a fully realized product of its parent culture. Each of the various Kaiju seems to have a story of its own. The idea of the 'drift' could've been a movie all on its own. If Marvel can convince someone to spin-off its movie franchise into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., can't Del Toro get someone to back a police procedural in San Francisco tracking down black market operatives in Kaiju parts? 

3) Captain Philips. Every time I thought I was going to the theater to watch this movie, something else would distract me. Eventually I had to wait until a lull period where there was literally nothing else my wife and I could agree to watch together except for this movie. And I loved it. Tom Hanks is amazing. The story, while not without controversy, is compelling. It also has one of my favorite moments in movies this year, the Somali pirates' look of bewilderment as a SEAL commando rattles off their names, families, and friends. I love that the moment is not exactly reassuring; the pirates are shocked and Captain Philips looks disturbed. In a year where Snowden showed us just what the NSA is capable of, it's instructive to see how information the US military has access to. Sure, these were unsympathetic pirates, but they were living on the other side of the world, on a veritable island in the net. How much do you think the government knows about you and I?

2) The Conjuring. James Wan reminds me of the Ramones. Not because of he wears leather jackets or has a questionable haircut, but in overall philosophy. The Ramones set out to do something very simple - strip away all the parts of rock n' roll that were boring and just make a song out of the cool stuff. The Conjuring is a horror movie that strips away all of the boring useless clutter in the average horror movie to get right down to business. How do you scare someone? I mean, really, scare someone. Wan is quickly making a career of this notion. The first Insidious movie was clever, but The Conjuring is nearly a perfect example of how to use atmospheric details, lighting, staging, and camera work to create a sense of dread. Everyone knows that the creepy dark basement is going to be haunted, but the trick is make the entity in the basement unique, to have it get under your skin. One way is to suggest far more than can be seen on the screen. Most of the horror in this movie happens just off screen or deep within impenetrable shadow. Not very ground-breaking to be sure, but damned effective. In a movie crafted with this much skill, I'm willing to overlook the questionable parts of the story - the problematic source material and attitude towards Wiccans. Other than Del Toro, Wan would be my pick to do a Lovecraft adaptation.

1) Gravity. In the final moments of the film, Sandra Bullock's Chinese re-entry module crash-lands in a lake, bursts into flames and starts filling with water. It was about then my wife cried out, 'oh, come on, not again!' This is a movie that puts you through the ringer. Very little of the movie is wasted motion, or free of tension. And I think that's its biggest success - telling a simple story simply. Now that simple story involves next-level special effects and top-notch acting from Bullock and Clooney, but none of that detracts from the point of the film, which is how does someone survive an impossible situation? I'm sure that had a lot to do with its box office success but is this film really just 'To Build a Fire" in space? A woman vs. nature conflict? I'm not sure. Parts of the movie, the constant use of fetal imagery, the metaphors of birth and evolution, seem to suggest a deeper significance. It was almost as if 2001 was rolled into a tight little ball and pulled inside-out, the same meditation on man's place in a cold and pitiless universe minus monoliths.

Honorable Mention: Upstream Color, Shane Carruth made a name for himself with "Primer," which is still my favorite time-travel movie. Here he pulls back into a haze of identity questions and impressionistic cinematography. The effect is no less disturbing or thought-provoking.

Dishonorable Mention: Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. You had one job, Peter Jackson, one job. Tell the story of Bilbo Baggins and a Dragon called Smaug. Why couldn't we have a movie that did that?