Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Promo for Woburn Reading

I will be reading some of my work at the Woburn Public library this December 10th at 7pm. This event is shaping up to be an open mike with myself and Nick Mancuso (who runs the Woburn Writing Workshop) starting the festivities. I hope to see you there.

Here is the press release for the event. Thank you to Andrea Bunker, the assistant librarian at Woburn for organizing this event.

"On Thursday, December 10, at 7PM, read it, speak it, and own it at Woburn Public Library's first Open Mic Night for Writers! Come with a short piece or poem to share with a general audience, or simply join us to listen to works that may be meeting others' ears for the first time. Light refreshments will be served, and handicapped access can be arranged by calling (781) 933-0148. Connecting readers and writers since 1856, the Woburn Public Library is located at 45 Pleasant Street in Woburn, MA."

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Impressions of Fallout 4

Despite some obvious flaws, Fallout 3 remains my favorite video game of all time. Never before or since have I spent nearly so much time in one world, drawn to exploring every nook and cranny of post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. Never before did every random side-quest, minor skirmish, and unopened door feel so integral to the story I was involved with.

So to say that I’ve been eagerly anticipating Fallout 4 is to put my mood the past sixth months in the mildest possible terms.

Having played about 12 hours (which seems like the barest scratch of the surface of this game), I can say that Fallout 4 has met my expectations. It has not exceeded them quite yet, but I am certainly playing the game that I thought I would be playing.

To start off, the basic set-up of Fallout 4 is similar to most (though not all) of the previous post-apocalyptic sci fi epics. You start out exploring the wastelands after escaping from a Vaultec survival shelter. The twist here is that your protagonist is someone flash frozen from the era prior to the bombs falling.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

After some very quick exposition you discover yourself attempting to escape a crumbling cryogenic chamber after watching your spouse murdered and son kidnapped at some point in your long frigid slumber. As far as initial set-ups go, I think this falls somewhere in between hunting for your missing dad in FO3 and looking for the jag-off who shot you in New Vegas in terms of compelling character motivation.

From there you find yourself in the shattered, violent remains of the Greater Boston area. As in previous games, one of the pleasures of this game comes from tracking down real-world sites and seeing what’s happened to them in the After. For most part, nothing good. Lexington for example is complete hell-hole. Don’t bother visiting Malden Center either. You help out a guy named Sully. Fenway Park is the center of Commonwealth civilization. There’s a place called Wicked Shipping Company filled with blood-thirsty ghouls. The roads are crumbling and filled with potholes. So, with one or two exceptions, not all the different from now.

The biggest innovation here is the crafting system. Those who have played previous Fallout games might remember that it was possible to craft new weapons out of recycled trash or make bullets out of random scraps of metal. Also, if you’re reading this review there’s a good chance you’ve played Skyrim and the Hearthfire DLC. In Skyrim you could track down all sorts of resources and build a manor somewhere out in the wilderness. Occasionally you’d have to defend it from bandits. That basic idea is framework behind Fallout 4’s crafting system, but Bethesda has used the intervening years to craft something very similar in feel and effect to Minecraft’s sandbox system. It’s certainly nowhere near as versatile as Minecraft (think one of Lego’s specialty kits compared to a bucket of random blocks) but I’ve already been seeing some impressive examples of creativity in IMGUR galleries.

One major theme of the game appears to be the reestablishment of civilization and so I’ve found myself spending about half of my time in-game tracking down the resources necessary to craft my settlements and defenses. Then I have to attract more settlers. Also, it’s important to have these communities trade resources with each other. Plus you can recruit more settlers from around the Commonwealth. Oh, and you get attacked by random raiders, androids, and mutated creatures.

In a word, this is very time-consuming and Bethesda clearly wants players to invest early and often in the crafting system so a lot of the other features of Fallout games - bizarre encounters and dire discoveries were in short supply during most of my first forays into the game. I’m optimistic that this will change however. I’ve made it farther into the heart of what used to be Boston and uncovered more of that black humor that is a Bethesda trademark. Also more actual NPCs to talk to.

The dialogue system has been changed and I think mostly for the better. Instead of an unvoiced menu of dialogue responses, players now click on one of four buttons with the barest sketch of what your protagonist will say. The options might be ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘sarcastic,’ and ‘wait, what did you say?’ That aspect feels sort of like Mass Effect’s dialogue options except there isn’t any obvious guidance on what significance your dialogue choices have. They appear significant but it’s tough to say. I can say I’m much more intent on listening to the conversations than before, if for no other reason than I want to know what I said.

As far as criticism go, I have two minor ones. First off, while the game engine has been upgraded, it feels very similar to Skyrim. So, while I was struck with how beautiful the wasteland looked in the first few minutes of play, I’ve encountered more and more dodgy animations and recycled textures as the game has gone on. Anyone who plays Bethesda has got to be ready for that sort of thing but it does represent a small distraction. The other issue is more ephemeral. While I’ve certainly enjoyed the crafting system and finding Woburn (sort of) was a welcome discovery, I haven’t actually been delighted by anything yet. I’ve been surprised, horrified, engaged, and amused, but I haven’t had a moment in the first game where I’ve just sat back astounded.

It’s early, though, and the wasteland is a big place filled with possibilities.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Author Copy Received

As mentioned previously in Ancient Logic, my space opera story "Distractions," found a home in the Game Fiction Volume 1 anthology published by Gold Shader. I received my author copy today and I have to say I think the whole production impressed me. There's just something reassuring about holding a copy of your story in print especially when it sits along side such other excellent stories.

A print copy of the book is available through the following link. "Distractions" is also available for free online at the Gold Shader homepage.

Monday, November 9, 2015

New Story announcement

My new short story, "The Correspondent" is now available on Issue #6 of The New Accelerator, an e-zine available through Apple Newsstand and Google Play. This is one of my favorite stories I've written so far and I'm pleased to have this tale of child soldiers fighting in an endless war finally in print. 

Those wishing to read the story should follow either of these links (Apple, Google) on their mobile device to subscribe to the newsletter. Issue #6 only costs a dollar and you get plenty of great stories besides mine.

Description of The New Accelerator.

The New Accelerator is a fresh and dynamic anthology of Science Fiction stories. We have collected the most astonishing, perplexing, innovative, and satisfying short stories for you, our readers. We want to share with you the delights and shocks, the thrills and awe that these stories provide.Download the app and enjoy our preview issue for free.Issues are published monthly, and subscription is approximately $1 per month (local tax rates apply).Subscriptions are billed and auto-renewed every month as follows: • Subscriptions may be managed by the user and auto-renewal may be turned off by going to the user's Account Settings after purchase.• Payment will be charged to iTunes account at confirmation of purchase. • Subscription automatically renews unless auto-renew is turned off at least 24 hours before the end of the current period. • Account will be charged for renewal within 24 hours prior to the end of the current period, at the monthly rate at the time of renewal. • No cancellation of the current subscription is allowed during active subscription period. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

What I Read in October

I fell a little behind in my reading this month. Mostly this was for good reasons as I hope to reveal either next month or January. Even so, there were a few stories that caught my eye that I’ll talk up below. 
  1. For Salvation by Michael B Tager. (Gamine Fiction volume 1) This was my favorite story from the Gold Shader “Game Fiction Volume 1” anthology my story “Distractions appeared in last month. This is a bit of a slow burn but the story gives clear sense of dread and purpose.
  2. Ice by Rich Larson (Clarkesworld) This slice of life story set on a frozen world called New Greenland revolves around the efforts to human civilization to adapt to environments clearly not meant for human civilization. Curious story in that it's about the tension between all sorts of post-human elaboration and the always  perilous crust of brother relations. As someone with a brother, this story really registered.
  3. Cats’ Game by Michelle Muenzler. (DSF) A little bit of the Lottery mixed with a character study of a truly formitable Russian Great Grandmother. Very much like how the ending is handled, making it clear what happened without telling.
  4. Some Gods of El Paso by Maria Dahvana Headley ( Great first line. This is about living in the middle of things, being an outlaw with feet in two worlds. A story told in a delirious half-drunk manner about two delirious profane and lusty shamans. Its dry as dust fairy tale style really works for this take. Modern myth making at its finest.
  5. Hold Time Violations by John Chu ( Interesting story set in Boston about universes glitching and a daughter trying to heal them through the half-remembered instructions of her mother. ANother example of a hard-sci using magical realism elements to tell a truly fantastic and yet tightly speculative story. Good stuff. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Third Trailer

Because I've said something about the other Star Wars trailers, I think I'll put down a few quick impressions of the most recent one.

In short, I'm still really impressed. The mood here is what really strikes me. The cinematography is straightforward and yet different somehow from other science fiction epics. I think part of this has to do with the avoidance of simple orange/blue color palettes (although I could be mistaken on that). There's a bit more going on in the X-Wing and Tie-Fighter battle than what we saw in the previous trailers but this is still not the gobs of unnecessary FX of the prequels. As many observers noted, there also seems to be a real focus on emotional impact. In particular, the confrontation between Kylo Ren (he of the radioactive cross guard lightsaber) and Finn registers as very dangerous. The short scene gives us Ren dominating the frame, Finn backed into one corner of the shot. If that is the direction J.J. Abrams goes with the lightsaber fights, I'm all for it. Give me one intense duel with genuine stakes over half a dozen "gee-whiz" nifty Yoda doing aerial acrobatics.

Speaking of stakes, the trailer sets up three potential story lines with dramatic and immediately interesting conflicts. Rey says she's a "no one." Finn has "nothing to fight for." And the presumed big bad, Kylo Ren, while holding the awesomely melted Vader helmet, vows to complete his work. The original trilogy did a great job setting up odd-balls and outsiders against an unstoppable, nearly omnipotent threat. Here we get the slight twist that the bad-guy also has something to prove, and the protagonists, while still outsiders, are in search for meaning.

Anyone else feel - taking a step outside of the hype-train - one thing is already clear? This is one of the most masterful uses of teasers, trailers, conventions, toys, and new media to build a genuine interest in a movie. Any Star Wars movie is going to blow out the box office in the first weekend, but the preparatory campaign behind this movie has leveraged existing fan interest to reach the widest possible audience. I don't always like to mix business and pleasure but you have to hand it to Disney - they know how to whip up a frenzy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tips for Describing Extraterrestrials

We are long past the point in speculative fiction where seeing a bipedal cat works convincingly as an alien. Knowing how strange and multitudinous life is on our own planet gives speculative writers a special responsibility to envision alien life as least as weird and unpredictable as that we find around us.

Morgan Crooks 2015
Way back in the 60s, during the New Age of science fiction authors were already beginning to chafe at the existing models of aliens - the bug-eyed octopuses and sentient cows. A reprint of Mutation Planet by Barrington J. Bayley shows  how potent previous generations of writers were at conjuring the truly alien. Aside from the baroque biological oddities described in this story, Barrington focuses on one of the most important aspects of xenogensis, quickly illustrating how different biologies fuel different imperatives. While the story bears some defects of its time, sexism and clunky dialogue, it nevertheless captured my imagination with its ruthless and grim depiction of the universe. This is science fiction as Thomas Ligotti might write.  

Two works acclaimed from last year are The Darkling Sea by James Cambrias and The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. I liked both books very much and even though the books are written at slightly different registers: spiffy new-school space opera for Cambrias and literary fiction steeped in sci fi tropes in the case of Faber , these works provide an antidote to insipid alien cliches. The two novels employ strategies - constantly revised metaphors and fidelity to concept - that other writers would do well to emulate.

Cambrias’ project is to create not one but two convincing alien species as well as the ecosystem of one of the race, trapped beneath layers of ice on a frozen moon. Because this is more traditional space opera, the two aliens are rendered at slightly higher resolution than Faber’s novel.

The Illyatrans appear as explorers, brigands, scientists, and freedom fighters (and that’s just one character), part of an elaborate civilization that stretches for millennia into the past. Cambria’ other creation, the otter-like Sholen don’t have nearly as much screen time but also register as believable and alien, their motivation of blending into the consensus particularly well-done. I think the lesson here is to not shy away from metaphors when they help the reader grasp basic concepts but also to keep complicating that picture. While it is possible to trace details in the story to real world precedents (volcanic life at the bottom of oceanic rifts, whale songs and alike) this is ultimately a very different world than anything on earth and I loved how Cambrias constantly forced the reader to examine inadequate metaphors. At first the Illyatran are sentient lobsters but upon reflection it’s clear they have sonar, almost like whales or porpoises, but they lay thousands of eggs that only gradually achieve sentience. By the end of the novel I really did feel as though I had gained an understanding of what the Illyatran truly were beyond any attempt to fit them into neat Earth-centric terms.

Morgan Crooks 2015
Faber isn’t quite performing the same trick in The Book of Strange New Things but I found myself liking his story even more. First of all, the narrative of a Christian minister going to a strange planet inhabited by alien inextricably fascinated by Jesus was engaging. The main character attempts to hold on to his old life even as he feels increasingly drawn into the plight and problems of his alien flock. While the form of the aliens - the diminutive Oasans are somewhat more familiar than ice lobsters and space otters - there are some clever and well thought-through descriptions of the aliens.

For one thing, Oasans lack anything corresponding to a human face and so producing human speech sounds is a challenge. Faber renders this linguistic discrepancy through a series of glyphs borrowed from the Thai alphabet, slowly introducing more alien sounds into the text of the novel until . Ultimately, I did not go into this book expecting truly courageous feats of world-building but left pleasantly surprised. Although Faber takes a more subtle route than Cambrias, his world swarms with strange yet plausible alien life, life that is different from our own and yet concerned with the same basic traumas and desires. I’d suggest reading this book as a speculative writer with an eye towards using the familiar to mask the strange and outlandish. Each casually introduced word is re-examined later on, slowly pointing the way towards a fuller understanding of the world of the Oasans.

Morgan Crooks 2015

Writers interested in capturing the essence of aliens must be courageous in using familiar metaphors to point towards things genuinely indescribable. There is no simple recipe for this. However, from these examples, we can see that while writers should start with something easy to grasp, an ambitious writer will seek to undermine and complicate those metaphors as early and frequently as possible. A successful xenogensis will produce a life-form that cannot be summed up in anything as reductive as a single sentence.