Friday, July 18, 2014

The ideas we discard are not wasted

I've had this short story idea for over a month and have been gathering good lines, ideas and character moments. Today I finally had the strength to begin writing it. Five scenes in I realized two thirds of my existing material won't make it into the story. It wasn't a waste - it was a cocoon from which the fiction is emerging.

In related news: I'm writing again. I've written more in the last two weeks than in the previous two months. God willing, this short will be out to a market by the end of the month, and by then we'll be off to the races.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Readercon Wrap Up

I wanted to do a Readercon post earlier but was wiped from my trip. It was a miracle I didn't fall asleep as soon as I plopped into the car, but I didn't. The convention was a wonderful success and I'm glad to report my health held up nearly the entire time. The new medication seems to be taking to my system. The ability to think through the pain and enjoy so much good company made this feel like another world from the last two months.

If you're in the New England area, I strongly recommend Readercon. It's an excellent small-scale convention with a fiction focus that attracts an impressive number of accomplished and excellent panelists. Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear are regulars though had to miss this year; this year saw the premiere of Max Gladstone. There was at least one rep from Crossed Genres and a significant presence of Strange Horizons folk, as well as Tor's Ellen Datlow. It was easy to bump into Kameron Hurley and Peter Straub in the lobby and simply chat with them. You don't get that kind of access and informality with such guests at most cons.

It also led to many fine panels, my favorite being back-to-back discussions of Magic: "Difference Between Magic and Science" and "When the Magic Returns," which contrasted magic and science, and then explored narratives of magic brought into the modern world. Lev Grossman and Max Gladstone were on both line-ups as their incomparably erudite selves, digging into the differences in how we experience our world and expect the magical. Even the greatest technology can feel clunky and exclusionary, whereas magic, with its precious commodity of being fictional, can meet a spiritual need the real world can't.

Julia Sidorova was the most impressive of anyone here for me, a Russian writer positing that technologies like a cell phone are "a science experiment anyone can perform," unifying us as experimenters, and soon openly disagreeing with the guest of honor about our place in evolution. Can you imagine the intelligence and confidence it takes to argue with a guest of honor about the nature of the universe in front of a crowd in a second language? Her approach to science has me hunting for her debut novel.

But the main draw of Readercon was face-time with friends. I skipped several panels simply to hang out in the bar with authors and Viable Paradise graduates, and when I could get up early enough, spent time in the lobby chatting with con-goers. It was a completely different experience from last year's Readercon where I knew few people; knowing folks enables conversations that rapidly expand into clusters. The sad point of this is when other con-goers linger nearby, looking and listening, but can't jump the social hurdle into joining. I know I'm awful at inserting myself into other people's conversations, and you never want to be intrusive. When I could, I'd reach out to such folks. As con-communities, I'm still looking for ways to systematically open us up to more low-key exchanges. Otakon, with its younger demo and enormous attendance, seems more natural at this.

And seeing friends after the crap of the last two months was worth every penny and midnight muscle spasm attack. Mostly I fraternized with Viable Paradise graduates, the first time I've seen several of them since the workshop itself. David Twiddy even organized a massive dinner for professors and grads on Saturday. What a mensch. Events like those enabled my personal highlights, as there's nothing better than getting smart people you like to double over laughing. Jokes about Christ Chex and dinosaur fellatio... well, clearly some of the old me is still around.

There are some sweet photos of highlights, like catching one of my writing mentors in the middle of a magic trick, but this laptop doesn't have an SD card reader. So perhaps another time. For now, I've got to catch up on sleep.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

ReaderCon 2014

A short update this evening: despite my health, I will be at Readercon.

It feels like my system is responding to the new medication. I've already written more in the last three days than in the last month, and I was actually able to do some chores tonight.

Kids: when you get old, you'll feel pride in chores. Sorry.

This means I'm good to go to my first convention since February. Readercon is a lovely little lit-focused SF/F convention in Burlington, MA. No, not Vermont. Burlington, Massachusetts. Yes, my friends were confused by it too.

It attracts a wonderful collection of authors. While I'm bummed to see Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch will be absent, Max Gladstone is making what I think is his first appearance. I just finished his Three Parts Dead, which is quite fun and I'd love to pick his brain about it.

So, I'm packing and hope to see people there.I may be scarce at the evening parties, but I'll be as social as I can. Feel free to say hello. If my health is terrible, I'll apologize and excuse myself. Allegedly, I'm very friendly at these sorts of things.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Purgatory of Illness (and Jokes)

This picture will make more sense
by the end of the essay.

We weren’t sure what was wrong, but this week doctors believed either my body was rejecting all of my medication or I’d had a nervous breakdown. Even if you know nothing about my condition, we can all agree that if you can’t tell which of those two things is wrong, you’re in deep.

If you know nothing of my condition, it’s possibly because I scarcely write about it. It’s never appeared in my fiction, rather drawing me to sympathy and study of the illnesses and disabilities of others. But ever since I was thirteen and the recipient of some radical medical malpractice, I have had a crap immune system and have been in constant pain in every part of my body. Most recently, it began taking my hearing and my ability to focus thought.

If you didn’t know that every time we’ve ever talked I’ve secretly been in pain, it’s because I’ve been conditioning myself since puberty to manage the load. Two months ago, when I could no longer speak in coherent sentences, and when walking to the mailbox became too much of an ordeal for me to imagine (literally: I could no longer think straight enough to envision the trip), pain management was all I had left. Empathy seemed to evaporate from my mind. Beneath compassion, humor and creativity, all I had was the ability to not lose my grip on my body.

Today, I’m proud of that. I’m proud of having held onto that much when my entire nervous system turned against me.

At the time, I had no idea what was going on and felt guilty for bothering so many people about it. This is why The Bathroom Monologues have been particularly quiet for the last two months. I’ve completed no piece of fiction in the entire period; editing a novel became excruciating in ways I wish upon none of you. That little review of X-Men: Days of Future Past went up a week late because it took me an entire week to type that many coherent sentences.

If you’ve made it through those five paragraphs, then please bear with me for this: I don’t want you to apologize for my pain. Some of the worst parts of the last two months have been people frowning and trying to commiserate with me. All it does it perpetuate mood and fatalism.

Instead, join me in regarding the few instances of hope people gave me by being ridiculous. The first time it felt like anything could improve was walking through a Wal-Mart (of all places on earth). Out of the freezer section came a cart, pushed by a teenaged girl in huge, furry boots. Sitting inside the wire cart (not on the baby seat, but lounging inside the food carriage) was another teenaged girl in huge, furry boots, with as demure a grin as grins can allow within their city limits. They were half-grown adults enjoying something ridiculous, chatting about what to put on their Eggos.

I’m pretty that the next time I smiled was in learning someone had the gall to name their band “The Style Council.” Or it was a reclusive friend linking me to the strangest Vines he’d found that month.

Of everyone, my mother was the most worried for me. It’s something moms excel at, isn’t it? Some days she’d invite me out, I think just to give me a change of scenery. Funny to think asking someone to drop off the recycling is altruistic, yet in my easily overwhelmed state, I showed up to the car half an hour late. I was sure she’d be furious, and was prepared to apologize into her frustrations.

Instead she had found a rope swing and was happily spinning around a tree in the yard. She didn’t even hear me come out. She reminded me what a damned good role model is.

This is what I need, and in bulk. Don’t wish me well, and don’t put on grave tones, and don’t say the hardest part is over or is yet to come. I’ll take your prayers (and thank you, Father Andre and David Twiddy – that really did mean something to me), but I’ll also be glad to see you decorating this world with quirks. It reminds me of my purpose.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Haunted House, Holy House - #fridayflash

Sometimes you call a setting evil, or hallowed. There’s good houses and bad, at least according to home owners associations. But there’s this one house crumbling on the city limits, near the Target no one wants there, the last house on the right. The one made from white bricks that have yellowed with too many seasons, and that everybody says they’ve seen angels in the windows of, even if they don’t have a photo. People park outside but you seldom see the lights on.

People still aren’t sure what that house is. It does something to you, to be sure, though I think most of the stories are lies. Everybody wants to say they stayed there and were molested by angels or something.

The first documented tenant of the house lost his mind and said he was walking on air. This was in the eighties. Some of the time he was right, and there’s ample video of the man walking upwards of ten feet above the floor of his room at the sanitarium. His problem is that he always thinks he’s walking on air, even when he’s not. There’s a claim that the airport twenty miles from the sanitarium sees more accidents whenever he’s hysterical. There’s a scientific study going on to check this.

There are a couple of people who claim the house turned them into geckos, but their visits are unsubstantiated. The next documented tenant is a woman who rented the house for four consecutive weekends in the early nineties, and claims to have used a door in its basement to transport herself to Mars, from which she has returned with four garbage bags full of artifacts from Mars’s ancient civilizations. Whenever she is asked why astronauts have never found remains of such civilizations, she responds, “My relics aren’t from our Mars.”

The third documented visitor grew wings. They’re very pretty, turquoise and oily mauve, though they’re flightless and don’t fit in her smart car. Skeptics say she might have always had wings.

The fourth person to stay there was cured of her manic depression and catastrophic writers block. He’s self-published four books in the last thirteen months and has bought his way out of debt. He just paid off his parents’ house. This convinced many people that the Awful House was a miracle, even though the man’s books are mostly about glorifying violence. Copies were found on the phones of two school shooters. There’s a serious question of how much this has helped his sales.

In fact, it can’t be proven that the original documented man wasn’t a deluded telekinetic before his stay. Skeptics dispatched three people with fully recorded histories of normal behavior to reside in the house. They livestreamed their entire stay and reported the week so uneventful they wound up playing tech support.

The streams captured all of their heads detaching at various points and flying about the house. Two of the three were seen to go invisible at seemingly random intervals, while the third seemed to become super-visible, appearing in no less than three parts of the house simultaneously. There is at least video of him talking to a second self who’s on the roof, cleaning the chimney.

But if there’s an oddity to the skeptics’ tale, it’s that they don’t believe it. Given audio and video evidence, the threesome routinely debunk or cast doubt that the events were anything more than digital tricks. They claim no memory of random beheadings or invisibilities. Since their stay, they’ve also lost belief in many other things, such as that anyone actually disbelieve in manmade global warming, or the George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election. In fact, they are skeptical to the point of certainty that Bush was never President of the United States.

A second threesome of skeptics spent a second week in the house, but went missing. There is no video or audio evidence as to where they disappeared, causing many internet commenters to joke about how tame a fate the house gave them. They were hoping for gargoyles to eat them or something. Gargoyles show in the backyard every so often. The trust pays me to clean them when they appear.

Is it an evil house? Since it started getting famous, there’ve been murders there. In 2011, ten kids were chopped up inside, stalked by the shadow of a coat rack. That time police beat the skeptics to the punch, and found the two tweens who’d faked all the videos. The house hadn’t done anything.

Seven of the kids came back to life, discovered in an attic closet, their graves inexplicably empty. Three graves, though, remain full. The house isn’t saying why.

Personally, I still can’t tell what sort of house that makes it. I’m only sure that, if there’s ever been a problem with that place, it’s the tenants.

Friday, June 13, 2014

An Alternate History of Friday the 13th

Anyone who cares already knows that Jason isn't the killer in Friday the 13th. It's his mother, avenging his drowning. He then rises from the dead in the sequels with decreasingly comprehensible continuity, but how funny would Friday the 13th Part 2 have been if it was just about teens making the tarnished camp work? Camp Crystal Lake has an awful reputation, but just like most real life sites of horrors, there isn't another massacre. Just teens with nowhere else to go trying to make cash out of a camp.

Then Friday the 13th Part 3 features too many rich people buying lakefront property, and the counselors wishing a serial killer would whack them. But he doesn't. The zoning board is the villain. It's probably a bad Comedy, nothing like the next movie.

Friday the 13th Part 4 was the film no one expected to be nominated for an Oscar. It opens with kids playing in the lake while their parents ignore them, referencing the drowning of Jason Voorhees. What we don't expect is the children discovering Jason's body. It's not a monster, but the fish-eaten remains of a child no older than themselves, and the public discovery shakes the Crystal Lake community. More Stand By Me than a Slasher flick. Adults are finally brought to trial over negligence, and children reckon with how the adults in their lives haven't prepared them for mortality. The parents reckon on their shortcomings. "We are all the shadow of Jason" becomes a national slogan, a t-shirt, and a meme before the internet.

Part 5 is the movie everyone said you couldn't make, because how could you do a sequel to the deconstruction of the American dream? But it is made, and it sucks. It's a clumsy teen romance that the director later apologizes for.

We loosely call the next film Part 6, but it was actually a reboot given the minimalist title "13." Its cardinal sin is attempting to re-tell too much in one movie, containing extensive prequel material of Jason's tortured childhood, his death, his mother's rampage, and the pathos of his body's discovery years later. There's so much in it that it never delivers on its individual elements, and it never settles on a tone or characterization. It was the Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom of camping movies.

It's a strange alternate universe, probably the same in which Transformers is a series of educational engineering videos, and Godzilla is about the contributions of Asians to establishing the fossil record. In that world, Friday the 13th still isn't a particularly beloved series, but everyone agrees it's still go more merit than the Jungian snoozers of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past - My favorite superhero movie in years

X-Men: Days of Future Past is my favorite comic book movie since the summer of The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Or since Persepolis, depending if you count that wonderful adaptation. Days of Future Past juggles a lot and does it all well, which is too rare in this period of two-hour genre movies. Why does Legendary's Godzilla need to be two hours? Hell if I know. But this movie is about a war spanning two generations, with time travel, crazy mutant powers, conspiracy theories, and the politics of building giant robots. Not only did every minute feel worthwhile, but I eagerly waited after the credits on a full bladder for just thirty seconds more of a teaser for the next one.

In a future extended from X-Men 1, 2 and 3, the last surviving mutants fight off Sentinels, robots that have ravaged the planet to exterminate them. They send Wolverine back in time to stop the creation of Sentinels, to the 1970's of X-Men: First Class, where Xavier, Magneto and Mystique have split three different ways. Future-Wolverine must unite them in order to prevent the Sentinel program that will otherwise kill them all.

Remember the best part of First Class? It's a whole movie now.

It's the first time since X-Men 2 that the series has felt like it had both its heart and ability. Mutants are serving in the Vietnam War and being sold out by their government; Xavier is struggling with the loss of his legs and loved ones. The visions of Sentinels wiping out people in the future are genuinely disturbing, and so you'll think it's purely a heavy movie, yet you know you're in good hands because it maintains a sense of humor and humanity. Wolverine's first pop into the past is awkwardly hilarious; Quicksilver, who can run at Mach-5, deconstructs a gunfight in bullet time to "Time in a Bottle." The funny and quiet moments ground us in a sense of why the past is worth preserving. It's not just Terminator-like fear of a painful future, but preservation of the good in life.

The best part of the movie is its subtlety.
It helps that the actors are leaps improved from First Class, and that they get to play off of Jackman, who is still a snarky godsend as Wolverine. Fassbender has gravity as Magneto, more certain than ever that fear is necessary to cow the human population. McAvoy's Xavier feels like less of a put-on, now consumed with his injuries and losses, becoming a junky for a drug that suppresses his telepathy while letting him walk; he can either cut himself off from every mind on the planet and pretend to be physically able, or open himself up to both physical and mental pain in order to grow. It amounts to a brief scene that half the commercials have spoiled, speaking to his future self, and in agony, realizing he might someday become the sort of person who could help himself. As someone who's been in excruciating health lately, it quickly became one of my favorite uses of time travel in cinema.

Mystique is one of the high points and the movie's big problem. On the one hand, it's great that X-Men hierarchy is challenged by a woman who agrees with neither Xavier nor Magneto, becoming a third pillar whose importance to the past I won't spoil. She's the movie's only lead female, as opposed to the three lead males, and of the four leads, Jennifer Lawrence is essentially wearing blue paint. That comes to feel gross and male-gazey, and the movie tries to skirt it by occasionally shapeshifting her into someone else who has more clothing. It wasn't so onerous in the first movies because she was alongside leads Rogue, Jean Grey, and Storm. Now she's on screen more and there are times when it seems producers are photoshopping shadows onto her to hide butt crack.

My sister asked if the blue lady was in this one.
Jennifer Lawrence seems much more natural as the character, who's written as both super-spy and the dissenting third opinion between accommodating-Xavier and militant-Magneto. There is a moment where a single tear from her means as much as all of Xavier's wailing. Mystique also has that sweet fight choreography back from the early films, swinging around her opponents like props in ways that embarrass any battles in First Class. Before this movie, I didn't get rumors of a Mystique solo picture. Afterwards, I was begging for it. It's just that her being borderline naked feels unfair (although you do see more of Jackman's flesh than you'd think.).

One hopes that with Singer back in control that gender dynamics will smooth out in future films. It's not as though X-Men is suffering from any shortage of great female characters (bring in Dust whenever you like). Perhaps that's Days of Future Past's greatest gift to me: as my favorite superhero flick in years, it also left me feeling like they'd get better from here.

Monday, May 19, 2014

My Writing Process Blog Hop

Last week, both Richard Gibney and Tony Noland tagged me in the latest big blog game: #mywritingprocess. Like most popular writing games, I've missed it because I've been quite sick and quite deep into my own novel. Last week was also the first week in over five years I missed #fridayflash. It's been a tough time, so let's lighten it up with writing talk.

The basics of the game are familiar:
1) Post on a certain day (May 19th for me, May 26th for whom I tag)
2) Mention who tagged you.
3) Answer the four questions.
4) Pass it on.

Not too taxing, right? And the appeal is this exposes different processes of different writers. Even Richard and Tony have very different posts. They provided me four questions about my writing process, posed, for whatever reason, in the first person.

1) What am I working on?
Today I'm editing the second novel in a series, We Don't Always Drown. The first hasn't been published, but because I plan this series to run for quite a while, I wanted to do more of the construction in advance. At this point I'm certain it was the right idea as it's allowing me to alter the original to set up continuity for so many crazy payoffs later on. No spoilers, I promise, but lots of zany backstabbing.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
If you accept it as a Fantasy novel, it's not set in our world but isn't Medieval-centric either. I write in the Post-Post-Post-Apocalypse, after the dinosaurs have come back, and the machines rose against us, and sentient thunderstorms chased the machines in suspiciously theological patterns. The world is so splintered that we have magic but very few surviving systems of figuring out how it works, and so if you can keep an automobile running, you might as well stick with it. Triclopes, imps and humans have to negotiate to live together in pockets of mingled fascism and anarchy, because it's really hard to establish a neighborhood when another apocalypse might hit on Tuesday. Hopefully this tells you why I'm not like George R.R. Martin.

3) Why do I write what I do?
That changes wildly based on the project, doesn't it? Last House in the Sky and We Don't Always Drown come from a place of deviant Fantasy; we have enough fake Medieval Europes, and not enough cars chasing brachiosaur convoys. I'm as much a child of Akira Toriyama and Rumiko Takahashi as I am of Tolkien and Homer.

Yet there are other projects that resonated around strong unrests. The novel I wrote three years ago, The House That Nobody Built, was about questioning identity and the prison-industrial-complex-as-Ilium. Elements that get stuck in me tend to turn into stories. I've got several shorts on submission to market right now that came from solipsism and disablism, or my love of places that feel like they can judge you, or my unease with the Magical Girl genre (I stress that the unease is mine – it's a beautiful genre).

4) How does my writing process work?
I always begin with an element of an idea, and almost never with the full idea. The key elements in my writing are character, premise and style. If I get one, then I need to spin out the others from it; if I've got a super-creepy alien spy, then I spin up a premise for her to spy on, and a style that'll make the most of her adventure. Alligators by Twitter started as a stylistic riff on the Twitter conceit; character and premise came about sentences later.

I have a simple formula for composition. On novels, I aim to write scenes, letting actions play out as they do, for at least a thousand original words per day. I seldom give up at that line; it's just there to let me know I can if it's a tough day. It's similar to this for short stories; I go for the scenes that need to happen, caring even less about word count as they tend to be the product of bursts. In all cases my emphasis is to get the small things right and postpone the big things that would distract from composition.

I'm not in that zone right now, as I'm editing. I've broken the novel into eighteen chunks of chapters, about 18-25 pages each. The copy is covered in bolded text (prayers for my future self to re-read a questionable section) and suggestions that came to mind after I composed. "Wouldn't it be cooler if hadrosaurs chased him here?" "Remember that article on volcanic geology? It'd help this." That sort of stuff.

While my health as been poor, I do my best to knock off one chunk per day, and hope to have all the chunks done by June. There are four chapters that I'm considering scrapping and writing entirely new versions of, which would delay things, but a good book that's late remains good, while a bad book that's early sucks forever.

After I have a clean copy, I'll probably read the entire thing to check tonal and plot consistency. If it passes, then I have two wonderful alpha readers who will be happy to tear into it. Their job is to tell me if any emperors are missing clothes. After I dress all my emperors, I go to betas, who I'm blessed to know. They're kind enough to take a cheese-grater to my baby.

So there we have, and all that's left is passing it on.

First, I'm going to side-link to Lise Fracalossi, who has already done this, but was the first person who came to my mind. She's a fellow Viable Paradise grad and an author I expect a lot from in the coming years.

Next, I'm going to invite anyone who found this post useful or entertaining to play the game. Just link your blog post in the comments and I'll add you in here. I'd rather this sort of game be inclusive.

That invitation given, here are four more people whose writing is worth reading.

Ferrett Steinmetz recently sold his Fantasy novel, Flex, to Angry Robot Books. I'm pretty sure he blogs more in a year than I write novels, screenplays and short stories combined. I love reading him discuss writing, and so I'm hoping he'll play along.

Alex Haist doesn't blog terribly often and is presently deep in her own novel. Like Lise, her work is going to be very special to some people, but I'd rather she tell you about it. That is, again, if she plays along.

Peter Newman is a Fantasy novelist and what you might call a graduate of #fridayflash. His first book, The Vagrant, is due out with Voyager in 2015. He's also husband to the delightful and prolific Emma Newman, who I'd also be tagging if she wasn't recovering from ill health and maddeningly busy. I should also mention the two run a wicked podcast.

Lastly and furthest from least, Randall Nichols is one of the most diligent writing friends I've ever had. He will never hesitate to take a cheese-grater to a baby. He's written comics, screenplays, and is presently helping produce a card game. That last is elaborated upon in his latest blog post. I've seen the kingdoms he's cooked up and they're quite neat. Go ask him about Cyber Kong.

Ideally everyone plays along by posting on May 26th, a week from today. And ideally they will tag a few more people as well. But do we live in an ideal world? We'll find out in a week.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla Review: Spoiler-free, except for one

Let me spoil one moment of Godzilla to let you know what the movie is actually like.
About an hour in, Godzilla finally gets out of the water and roars for the camera. He faces down a winged kaiju at an airport, what's suggested to be an ancient predator of his kind. The military is down; the humans are helpless. Flames swell and it's clear only Godzilla can stop this.

The movie immediately cuts to the hero's living room, where his son watches a news channel showing Godzilla and the winged kaiju throwing each other around for a few seconds. The kid yells, "Mommy, Mommy, dinosaurs!"

The guy sitting behind me snorted. I laughed. The rest of the room was awkwardly quiet, especially as the movie then depicted the monsters going separate ways. We missed the fight, we missed what made them split up, and we immediately go back to humans talking.

I don't feel this is much of a spoiler because it's a trick the movie pulls at least five more times. It's as though they didn't have the budget to make a giant monster movie and so went to every length to avoid it, giving you glimpses of struggle from the corner of the screen, or multiple times, shrunken visions on TV sets. During its climactic battle, the movie cannot wait to cut away from the giants in favor of Navy men trying to get into the city, steal a nuclear warhead, and then escape the city.

Godzilla gets tackled? Cut to the humans.

Godzilla slams a kaiju through a skyscraper? Cut to the humans.

I was rooting for them to die so that we could stop checking in on them.

And we cut to the wrong humans. Prominently featured in trailers and commercials, Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe are shouldered out of the way for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an ordnance expert and Cranston's character's son. He is not just a cipher, but an uncharismatic one who constantly requires excuses to keep around. He's at one set-piece because of his dad, then another on his way to the airport, and so-on. While the humans tend to suck in Godzilla movies, it's not often you get two great actors who are already in it and then shunted.

So the movie becomes more frustrating than anything. Its new kaiju are interesting, and up to something crazy, and pose different threats to Godzilla. One is winged and nimble, where the other is more of a hulk. There's an excitement to seeing a throwdown, and so the movie did the build-up well enough, if it took far too long to get there. It's no Jurassic Park in its build, but it's adequate. The problem becomes that it's nowhere near Jurassic Park's league when it finally lets us see the creatures. The T-Rex is supposed to show up and dominate the scene, not be interspersed with talking head sequences with mission command, reporters and nurses, all of whom exist to tell you the thing you're not seeing is scary and important. That's when the movie starts getting goofy.

For a movie that was billed as intense, it wobbles between drab and cheesy. At one point Watanabe gives a nuke-happy admiral his father's watch – it stopped the day he died in Hiroshima. Get it? But shortly thereafter, Godzilla saves a school bus. I'm still not sure if he did it on purpose; it was goofy enough that I laughed. The movie is occasionally dumb, but not campy like the Godzilla franchise you expect.

We get multiple shots of casualties lying around like human set design, and also multiple sight-gags. This movie absolutely loves people being unaware something enormous is right next to them, including the hero's wife not hearing an airplane crashing until it explodes behind her, and a specialist team checking a waste dump and missing that a 500-foot monster was eating there. It never reconciles its tone, right to the end, when it flashes a headline that literally dropped my jaw.

I could complain about its ill-fitted soundtrack and the number of Asians it enjoys killing, but why bother? After more than twenty films, and one failed American film to study, it managed to be the Godzilla movie that didn't know it was supposed to be about Godzilla. The great hope is that we get that rumored Pacific Rim/Godzilla crossover, and thus get this beast into Guillermo Del Toro's hands. Somebody else, please take a shot.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Waiting for God(zilla)

We're days away from the worldwide release of Godzilla. If you've read this blog for long then you know I cherish giant monsters. They're splendid metaphors for natural disasters and even more splendid excuses for giant fight scenes. I've been watching kaiju movies since elementary school and even today, at least once a year, will watch Cinemassacre's entire series retrospective on Godzilla. It's probably my favorite thing on Youtube for how unabashedly the narrator, who seemingly hates everything else, loves that series.

How do you hide this guy for an hour of film?
The hype cycle started early for this adaptation, and so we're getting different attempts for media attention now. Director Gareth Edwards explained to early journalist audiences that Godzilla wouldn't show up too much to build anticipation. He likened it to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, who isn't on screen for that long.  

This worried me for a few reasons. Firstly, there are over twenty Godzilla movies. Even if you've missed all the shots of this Godzilla, we all pretty much know what he looks like. You can't surprise us the way Steven Spielberg did with Stan Winston's revolutionary puppets and CGI

And furthermore, as a teen I didn't run out of the cinema babbling about how cool it was that the movie hid the T-Rex for the first hour. The impression was that once the creature showed up, the movie had amazing payoffs for using it. You want your director to pitch how cool his ideas are for Godzilla when he throws off the cloak of shadow, not an emphasis on the cloak. As my friend Randall Nichols put it, Jurassic Park wasn't called "T-Rex." It was a feature of that movie, sure, but it wasn't what was promised on every poster, so they had more leeway. The second and third Jurassic Parks couldn't afford to be as coy.

Somehow, even with the questionable press and negative reviews showing up, I've calmed. Early reviews are trickling in, with critics going back and forth on there being too much of the humans (nooo), the humans being too uninteresting (a Godzilla fan has to swallow that), and the movie being too preoccupied with its titans (that's the God-damned point).
I've had the healthy realization that I don't need this movie to be great. Sure, I want it to be – I'm going to pay to see it. But I've watched the trailers so often that the collected runtime is greater than that of the average movie, and I've enjoyed them outside of a pure hype cycle. I've actually gotten a movie's worth of enjoyment already, which is a strange thing to realize, and if I were more Marxist, this consumerist positive-drip would scare me. Now in my thirties, I'm just grateful for entertainment where I can find it. This takes some of the edge off of fears of another American Godzilla screw-up.

Maybe they'll still enrage me by having the non-Watanabe, non-Cranston humans talk too much.

That lithe classic Godzilla.
By the way: for a laugh, read about Japanese fans fat-shaming our new thicker Godzilla.

By the way 2*: negative reviews and bad reviews are not the same thing.

Time Magazine has an example of a negative review here, taking a pick-axe to the film with some thought. 

Forbes has a bad review I won't bother linking; it has little to say and spends several paragraphs repeating itself. It even has some choice errors, like when some buggy algorithm links a stock quote to an actor's name: 

Which is what you get when you ask stock merchants for reviews of giant monster movies. The conflation of "negative" and "bad" reviews has occurred more as authors become more public about their consumption of reviews. It can be excruciating to read an angry review of your work, and I've been lucky that the few anthologies I've been in have had enthusiastic responses. That'll be fixed, though, when I start publishing these novels I'm working on. If I'm lucky enough to catch on, somebody will hate everything I like. That's the life of an author who makes it.

I'm already a little adjusted to having someone hate everything I like. I mean, I'm a Gigan fan.

 *or, By The Way Raids Again

Friday, May 9, 2014

In the Nature of Scorpions and Tortoises - #fridayflash

The tortoise was just coming to shore when the scorpion scuttled by. It stopped in the pebbles and waited for the tortoise to approach.

“Pardon me,” said the scorpion, “but could I have a ride to the other side of the river?”

“I don’t know,” said the tortoise. “I am going back there this evening, but I heard there are some very shapely turtles sunning up by the road on this side. I wanted to ogle them.”

“That is a noble cause, but I hear there are some very shapely scorpions over on the other side of the river. I’ve never seen the shape of a scorpion over there, you know. Lived here all my life.”

“That is a shame,” said the tortoise, trying not to look the scorpion in the face. Unfortunately at their level, there was very little else to look at.

“As someone with the gift of aquatic travel, I hoped you would see fit to help a brother out.”

“How long is a scorpion lifespan again?”

“Not impressively long. I’d very much like to ogle a decent scorpion before I die.”


“You’re not afraid, are you?”

The tortoise stirred. “No. What?”

“Good. There’s a terrible stereotype about scorpions stabbing people with the least temptation. Only rednecks believe in it.”

Scorpions can be very pushy, and any tortoise hates being called a bigot. He wound up rationalizing out loud. “Well, it’ll only be a minute. I’ve been swimming a lot faster lately. Cardio training from a race with a rabbit.”

“Is that so?” the scorpion inquired as he scurried up the tortoise’s shell. He paused at the top, his tail quivering.

The tortoise eyed him. Since scorpions have much more complicated eyes, he couldn’t tell if the scorpion was staring back at him.

They dipped into the water. The scorpion’s legs coiled inward as though he were dying.

“Are you alright?” asked the tortoise.

“I’ve never been over water before. I guess I’m nervous.”

The tortoise could not tell, but it seemed the scorpion was staring at his shell. He swam a little faster.

“Are you licking your lips?”

“I don’t have lips. I’m an arachnid.”

His tail bobbed, as though nodding in agreement. With every bob the thorny tip drew closer.

“Almost there,” said the tortoise.

The tail drew as far up as possible. It quivered for an instant.

“I’m sorry,” gasped the scorpion.

“Sorry for what?”

“It’s my nature!”

The scorpion struck down with all his might. His barb snapped against the tortoise’s shell.

“Oh, is that your nature?” asked the tortoise. “Mine’s a carapace.”

They didn’t talk for the rest of the trip. The scorpion got off with his head down, and the tortoise barely looked at him. He slipped back into the water with a mutter that sounded like, “Dumb ass.”

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The (Unexpected) Brilliant Writing in The Raid 2

I loved The Raid: Redemption, with its perfect action movie plot of cops climbing a gang building, each floor occupied by angry criminals. It's the perfect excuse for the unparalleled fight choreography that got the little Indonesian film international acclaim.

That's also why I didn't expect such great writing in the sequel, The Raid 2. No book or movie has sunk a hook that well on me in years. I envied their skill at making me question what was going on in the hero's mind as he sunk into the criminal world. There's a lot emerging writers can learn from its first act.

Rama is our hero – our moral and incredibly capable police guy. The Raid 2 opens with the murder of Rama's brother. He swiftly vows to bring down the crime organization responsible, but to do so he must ally with fringe police he doesn't trust, and from there get tossed into the same prison as the son of the mob's boss. If he can ingratiate himself, then he and the fringe police will have a path to the heart of the organization.

I didn't say you only watch it for the writing.
So Rama gets himself convicted of a crime, but once inside, always acts bitterly towards the son. He only has a sincere interaction with him during a massive riot in the recreation yard, where he saves the son's life. The two have a moment of bonding before riot guards drive everyone into the ground.

The movie jumps forward a few years. The son is already out, and today Rama is getting out too. The mob has pulled strings to help him. On his way to the car, Rama fusses with the cuff of his shirt, tears out a listening bug and drops it in the road before he and the son drive away.

In the cinema, I leaned forward in my chair wondering if, during those five years, he'd switched sides.

Then Rama meets the mob boss himself, who makes him strip. A specialist checks his every crevice, and even feels up his discarded clothing to make sure he's trustworthy. Once they're sure, they incinerate his old clothes and get him a good suit. Something fit for his new life.

The new family.
Did he know they'd do that? Did the police he's working for not know and bug his clothing? Or has he changed in prison? It's too plausible that he could bond with the son while missing the companionship of his brother. But he also could have gleaned that this pat-down was coming and found the police's bug to be foolish.

The opening act of the movie does a brilliant job of making the audience ask those questions, and then tweak them as the unspoken thrust of what characters do. There's the visceral side, of seeing him manhandled and talking humbly to a man who could have him shot at any time, but those are the trappings.

Friday, May 2, 2014

You Aren't - #fridayflash

Take none of this personally because you aren’t. Whatever you’re hearing, whatever I say you’re thinking, it should all be taken with due skepticism as all evidence suggests you do not exist. You can't exist as I describe you, though you as a listener, or reader, or telepathic audience, ought to. Otherwise, how are these sentences operating?

You don’t care about that semantic babble. You care about the slime molds that have swallowed the first floor of our house.

You’re the second person to occupy this house, you know because the first person has dissolved into no more than a gangly skeleton inside the gelatinous mass presently overflowing the first floor. The bones of the first person’s right hand stretch out to the stairs as though begging for company.

You don’t feel like company; you’re almost alone here, except for the third person, myself, and I am just a voice. You never thought about it before, but you find disembodied voices annoying. Less annoying than carnivorous slime, but annoying nonetheless.

Even if you aren’t, you still would be a few things. Spry and resourceful, if I may flatter, are traits that describe you. You sprint up the staircase, pulling picture frames and shelves from the walls, and lobbing them down the steps at the slime. The slime absorbs all of these as easily as it did the first person, dissolving bits of organic matter like the butterfly collection you threw at it. It only stops at a broken salt shaker on the top stop, deliberately oozing around the white grains.

Thinking of slugs, you rush into the second floor pantry for a bag of salt. You don't wonder about why you have a pantry on the second floor, where almost no one keeps a pantry. You do wonder as the slime undulates and sloshes onto the second floor, growing upon receipt of the salt, and growing so rapidly that it catches your left leg.

You think two things then: that the slime burns like ice packing around your flesh, and that the slime was probably saving the broken salt shaker for dessert since it clearly loves the stuff. You curse Morton's and all salt distributors as you are sucked inside the slime mold, the first person's undigested cranium bumping against your chest. Your chest, like your legs and arms and eyes and pancreas, dissolves.

You find that none of this hurts. You find that you aren't scared. How is this possible?

Because you aren’t. The second person is a handy thing to be, and to not be.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An Open Letter to Wolverine and Archie (RIP)

Dear Wolverine and Archie,

I was in elementary school when they killed Superman. It was big and dramatic; my mother ordered my brother and I separate copies of the black-bagged issue without even asking us because it seemed so culturally important. Being a villain-kid, I was just happy to see such an annoying icon scrubbed, but I was interested. The cafeteria buzzed with speculation about how it happened. It was a pop culture event.

It's been a stupid twenty-two years since then. The decreasing relevance of superhero comics has led the industry to many stunts, including killing characters whenever they get desperate for attention. I'm afraid you two are the most recent victims, and I sincerely apologize to you both that you had to share an announcement month. Archie, you're not even a superhero. You both worked hard enough to deserve better P.R. You're both iconic in such different ways that you getting stunt-murdered at the same time makes it all feel like… well, stunts.

And your announcements came only weeks after Marvel announced the who-dunnit murder of The Watcher. Oh, for a meta-comic about The Watcher observing this desperate trend.

Even as a villain kid, you were my hero, Wolverine. I was a runt like you. This is a perplexing week, as I should be upset that you're going to die, and yet, I'm not. If anything, I'm upset that I'm not upset. The problem is that you'll be back, probably in the next two years. Why, just last week Marvel resurrected Spider-Man after a year of being dead. He's alive again in time to make his own movie premiere.

Not only did Superman come back, but his killer, Doomsday? He's been killed and resurrected at least three times. In the last few years they've killed and resurrected Batman, the female Robin, Captain America, Nightcrawler, Superboy, Wasp, and Thor. Every dead Flash has come back. Marvel and D.C. brought back the perennial tragic sidekicks Bucky and Jason Todd almost in parallel, to identical drama with their mentors and antihero lives.

D.C. pulled "Blackest Night," a Green Lantern story that brought back every dead character in their universe, and boldly ended it with the characters surmising the dead could never return again and death was now permanent. A year later, D.C. rebooted its universe and brought back a bunch of those same dead characters.

Remember when Marvel killed Ultimate Spider-Man, a Spider-Man from another universe, and tried to convince the public they'd killed the one they actually knew about? Just to get on CNN? Later they killed the real one, but as you both know, he's back.
This has devalued death, which ought to be the greatest stakes in all the combat-based stories superhero comics keep telling. Archie, you've never been about fighting, so it's not fair that you're been sucked into this, but you have. I honestly wonder if you'll return, too, the next time your publisher needs attention.

And Wolverine? Death may be the rest you deserve, but it won't be permanent. In the last ten years Marvel has already killed and resurrected your nemeses, Sabretooth, Gorgon and Cyber. When Psylocke died, you yourself visited a friend in NYC for a method of bringing her back. That guy can probably hook you up if you want it.

You both have no control over your mortality, just like me. But if you could write for your own comics, don't you think the interesting story at this point would be about a universe where death isn't permanent and what it does to people's psyches? If C-list heroes routinely rise from the grave, does the public no longer fear death? How does religion change? What happens to the blood feuds between heroes and villains when bloodshed doesn't end anything?

There are stories there. There's an upheaval of the way I live, and the way you both will probably be living again in a few years.

I'm sorry that I'm not sorry you died. You deserved better.

John Wiswell
Counter est. March 2, 2008