Monday, July 11, 2011

Shack → Jack

My blogging presence has moved. You can find the new site here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why the Atlas Shrugged Movie Will Almost Certainly Suck

Ahoy there, readers. Apologies (though no excuses) for my semi-prolonged absence; truth be told, I'm still acclimating to my new postgrad lifestyle—and by "postgrad lifestyle" I mean "working, writing stories, making music, and playing videogames." Just kidding: I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons too. No, wait. Come back. I swear I'm cool.

Anyway, for those of you who follow these sorts of things, there's been word of an Atlas Shrugged movie in development for the past few months. There've been multiple attempts to make a film out of Ayn Rand's Objectivist magnum opus for quite a few years, but the project has been in and out of development hell. Now, though, it looks like it's really happening, complete with action-packed trailer:

I'm actually in the midst of reading AS right now (about 400 pages in, which is to say, not very far at all), but I've been familiar with Rand long enough to know pretty much how the story goes. And as a guy with pretty strong libertarian leanings, one might expect me to be cheering and fist-pumping and starting up outlandish-business-ventures-that-everyone-thinks-are-going-to-fail-but-I'll-show-them-haha-objectivism in excitement, but I'm not. In fact, I'm pretty sure the movie's going to suck, for reasons other than the simple shittiness of the trailer (WE GOT A NOTE. IT SAID WHO IS JOHN GALT. Ugh).

I should preface this by saying that I like Ayn Rand—I think her ideas are interesting and at times compelling, though I don't whole-heartedly agree with her philosophy (especially on a personal level—follow Objectivism to a T and you'll find your life pretty solitary, but who cares, all your friends and family and loved ones were idiots anyway). Further, part of me understands why many people reject her and her books as evil (any philosophy which has as a basic tenet "I rule, and everyone else who doesn't rule like me can suck it" is a tough pill to swallow), but I think there's plenty to be taken away in terms of being true to your own values, seeking purpose in your life, aiming high, etc. That's a post for another day, however; the movie itself still looks pretty bad. Here's why.

•It's set in the modern day.

One of the things I dig about AS is its decidedly retro feel—there's a late-1950's aesthetic to the whole thing, in the way the characters carry themselves, the clothes they wear, how they speak, the way everyone is constantly smoking and doesn't give a damn about doing it indoors (hell yes). Updating it to the present makes it...well, less cool, somehow. I suppose one could argue that a present setting makes the story's themes more politically relevant, more obviously pertinent to the USA's contemporary problems, but that's just it: it's too obvious, too heavy-handed. I would've stuck with the 1950's setting; in fact, there's an obvious opportunity to pull in elements of film noir and have a political-dystopia-noir hybrid. All you need is superheroes and an underwater city and it's Bioshock.

•The storytelling in AS isn't so great.

As a statement of political philosophy and ideology, Atlas Shrugged works fairly well, albeit a little repetitive at times. As an actual narrative, though, it's not much to write home about; Rand seems to have been less interested in formulating a palatable plot for her readers than in expressing her ideas in a novelized form. Which is fine, really. One reads Atlas Shrugged for the ideas, not for the totally-utilitarian prose or the not-very-exciting action scenes or the tedious (and frequently sort of weird) sex scenes. About the only thing Rand does well as a storyteller is build tension—and a good thing, too, because without that tension I don't think I could keep slogging through all 17 million pages.
(Note: this isn't to say that film is inferior to literature in terms of expressing themes/ideas. But I feel there's a more consistent expectation for a film to entertain, and Atlas Shrugged, while entertaining in its own way, isn't exactly the most riveting read.)

Closely related to this last point:

•The characters are kind of preposterous.

If poor characterization were a boot, Atlas Shrugged would fit it. The characters all very obviously represent something, but that's about all they do—they're one-dimensional, cardboard caricatures: Dagny is an author surrogate, John Galt is a very obvious Mary Sue, James Taggart is the devil, and so on. Which, again, is fine: these are idealized (or demonized) characters, and Rand was above all else an idealist; if that's how she sought to convey her message, then so be it. (And before you claim that shoddy characterization is proof of the weakness of Rand's ideals, I would direct you to the work of Irish socialist playwright G.B. Shaw, whose works were often almost as bad in terms of characters-as-transparent-political-analogs—although I suppose Shaw at least aimed to make his works funny as well.) But, as with the storytelling aspect, I don't think such poor characterization will translate well onto the big screen.

Speaking of the characters:

•Dagny's too hot.

I know, I know. But hear me out. This was one my sister brought up (SUP RACHEL), and at first I was all "lol w/e", but I actually sort of see her point.

In the adaptation for which I've posted the trailer above, Dagny's being played by a young lady named Taylor Schilling. In case you didn't get a good look at her, she looks like this:

Meanwhile, if you Google image search "Dagny Taggart," the first image result is this:

(She was attached the project a while back, with Brad as John Galt. Yikes.)

If, however, you understand Dagny to be something of an author surrogate, then she looks something like this:

Okay, so maybe that's a bit extreme. In fact, Rand devotes relatively little space to physical description of Dagny; she's described as having "a slender, nervous body" with "a sweep of brown hair" and a face "made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision," but that's about it. Much more is made of the way Dagny carries herself, the fact that she's got an air of supreme confidence around her and acts like it. (This is typically Randian—good characters are taut and severe and at times imposing in stature, bad characters tend to be sloppy louts with poor posture and soft faces.) I can't say I'm really that upset about Taylor Schilling as Dagny (it's not exactly like she's hard on the eyes), but all the same, I can sort of see where it isn't quite right; a hot Dagny might even undermine the notion that her success is predicated on ability rather than looks, but that's debatable, and really it's probably just an excuse for the filmmakers to make her even less of a character than she already is.

I'll watch the Atlas Shrugged movie, to be sure, but my expectations are, in sum, pretty low. If I'm going to see libertarian philosophy translated to the screen, give me Robert Heinlein. At least that way there'll be some fun.

Oh, wait:

Monday, January 3, 2011

College: A Retrospective

Years spent in college: 3.5.

Degree: BA in English, Pre-Law Designation, Minor in Music.

GPA: 3.90/4.00.

Courses taken: 43.

Tests taken (approx): 55.

Papers written (including fiction, poetry, etc.): 102.

Books read for classes (excluding textbooks): 73.

Times I totally blew off studying for a test and totally got away with it: 6.

Times I totally blew off studying for a test and did poorly as a result: 2.

Teachers I liked: 21.

Teachers I didn't like: 5. (I'm especially looking at you, Lori Branch and Helen Bryce.)

Female professors/TAs I had a crush on: 6.

Male professors/TAs I had a crush on: 3. (My freshman year Rhetoric teacher, Geoff, who was stylin' in his mint-green pants; Fintan Walsh, my Irish drama teacher, who was quite gay, much to many of my female classmates' disappointment; and Jay Holstein, an Iowa legend, who was and remains, at 70 years old, the reigning badass of the Religious Studies department.)

Times I had to sit and listen to a reference librarian explain how to use online research databases (EBSCOHost, JSTOR, etc.): At least a dozen, if not more.

What I'll miss most about college: The feeling of academic freedom and variety, of being able to learn about anything I wanted. The fact that I was able to take Principles of Chemistry, Constitutional Law, Spanish Literary Analysis, and Asian Horror Cinema throughout the 3.5 years I was at Iowa is really pretty sweet, and I feel I'm better for it. I went into college seeking a well-rounded education, and that's precisely what I got.

Oh, and Burge Marketplace. (Free food.)

What I'll miss least about college: Group discussions/projects. Is there anything more stultifying and inane than "breaking into small groups" to discuss/accomplish X? It always falls into the same pattern anyway: there's the one or two "leaders" who do pretty much all the talking, a few reluctant participants who sullenly contribute one or two pithy banalities, and that one student who never says anything at all. It's obnoxious, politically correct, time-wasting garbage that neither fosters "new ideas" nor helps students understand the material, and if I ever teach at the collegiate level, I won't abide such nonsense in the classroom. Harrumph.

Oh, and Burge Marketplace. (I didn't say it was good food.)

Overall impressions of college: In a word: easy. That's not to say it was always easy, of course, but overall I didn't find it to be overwhelmingly challenging. I don't necessarily consider this a bad thing; I chose a major I liked and that I knew I was good at, and I got what I wanted out of the courses, i.e. a deeper understanding of literary works and a better means of analyzing said works, along with a more generalized knowledge of other random subjects (poly sci, history, etc.). There's also the simple fact that I, you know, did the work and went to class and participated in discussion and all that.

What I'd do differently if I did it again: Not much. Maybe take more music theory. HOHO! MODULATE TO SUBDOMINANT! FIVE OF FIVE! IMPERFECT CONSONANCES, FOR GOD'S SAKE!

Did I like Iowa? Would I return to it?: Sure. It wasn't perfect, but I didn't expect it to be; I'm sure those obnoxious group discussions are found at any big liberal arts school, and our often less-than-exemplary student body (cf. weekend nights in downtown IC, a shining testament to human intellect, don't you know) was never so ridiculous as to be intolerable. Football was a blast. The faculty was pretty awesome. I liked the town itself quite a bit. The winters sucked, but the summers were pretty nice. So, yeah: overall a very positive experience.

What now: Apart from brandishing my diploma in front of others to show them how unbelievably brilliant I am, I'm taking a semester to stay in Memphis. By the time the fall rolls around it's likely either law school or grad school for me, depending on how my experience working in law firms goes. In the mean time, I'll mostly be, you know, hangin' out. Reading and writing. Working on music. Blogging a bit more (YES I WILL). Getting distracted by bits of tin foil every now and then. The usual.

Oh, and for you Iowa kids who didn't get a chance to bid me adieu:

(to visit, that is.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Alex Reads the Hugo Nominees: Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl

Did you have a good Thanksgiving Break? I did. Very relaxing. But it's back to work with me—finishing up my schoolwork, turning in post-grad applications, and continuing to review books that I was supposed to have finished reading about 3 months ago. Yes, the life of a 21-year-old English major is a bleak struggle, indeed.

Speaking of bleak:


The Windup Girl is the debut novel of Paolo Bacigalupi (that's BAH-chee-ga-LOO-pee), an American author whose oeuvre addresses issues of environmental disaster, genetic engineering, and post-peak-oil scenarios. (I first encountered his fiction in F&SF magazine in 2005 with his short story "The Calorie Man," which I only sort of got at the time—too young to understand all the implications and all that.)

The novel's set in 23rd-century Bangkok, in a post-oil world where all our current forms of energy have disappeared, global warming has caused ocean levels to rise to catastrophic heights, and bio-engineered food plagues run rampant. (Not the nicest place to live, in other words.) Enter Anderson Lake, a "calorie man" working for American food-growing corporation AgriGen, which hopes to gain access to the Thai's elusive seedbank (a potentially rich source of synthetic, plague-resistant food) in exchange for some muscle (i.e. PMCs) for Bangkok's government. Anderson operates in Thailand under the guise of running a factory, seeking any insight into the location of the seedbank.

Things get complicated, however, when Anderson meets Emiko, the eponymous Windup Girl. Windups are artificial humans created in Japan, designed as servile pleasure-toys, who suffer discrimination in Bangkok (where they're technically illegal). Emiko turns out to know some things about an ex-AgriGen employee gone rogue, and a strange sort of romance blossoms between Anderson and the creche-grown girl—until Emiko does something that gets both of them into a ton of trouble.

Also present are Hock Seng (a "yellow card" Malayan Chinese who managed to escape his people's genocide by radical Muslims and now ekes out an existence working for Anderson), Jaidee (a captain of the enforcement wing of the Environment Ministry and an unwavering nationalist who fights against foreign influence), and Kanya (Jaidee's second-in-command who may or may not be a mole for the Trade Ministry). The narrative switches between all of these characters' perspectives, combining to weave a tale of corporate greed, political corruption, and violent insurrection in a world where calories are the ultimate commodity and humanity is forced to constantly adapt to survive.

If this all sounds pretty crazy to you, that's because it is. The Windup Girl is a completely insane adventure through a future society that feels uncannily close to our own—I found myself creeped out by the descriptions of the Chinese-massacring, Taliban-esque Green Headbands, and the food plagues are reminiscent of the resistant strains of TB and MRSA that populate the news these days.

Indeed, the book is (barring straight-up dystopias like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451) among the most intensely political works of speculative fiction I've ever encountered. I wasn't sure how I would respond to this starting out, given that I disagree with the validity of some of Bacigalupi's fundamental premises (e.g. global warming, which I don't doubt is happening to some degree but which I suspect has been grossly exaggerated by certain political groups (and perhaps grossly downplayed by others) as an agenda-furtherer, which I perceive as a gross distortion of the purpose of science and stuff like that, but that's a blog post for another day), but it wasn't a problem—I accepted the foundations of Bacigalupi's world and went along with it for the sake of the narrative, and it worked just fine. Besides, I've never been one to disparage a writer's works because I disagree with said writer's politics; this is how I'm able to be a huge, sloppy China Miéville fan even though I think he's politically an idiot. Similarly, I suspect Bacigalupi and I would dispute many things were we to talk politics, but that doesn't preclude my enjoyment of his damned-fine novel.

And that's not to say I disagree with all of Bacigalupi's thematic points. For example, I think much of the novel's brilliance lies in its strange and often-ambivalent portrayal of Westerners in Bangkok—they're not strictly villainous, but they're not exactly paragons of morality, either. Anderson Lake is a prime example of this; he's perfectly all right with large civilian casualties, and he's sort of a dick at times, but he remains a sympathetic character—he's really the only one who sees Emiko as a person rather than a monster, for example. Similarly, the government of Bangkok is not a shining stronghold of rectitude standing in contrast to the evil, evil western empire. The Trade Ministry and Environment Ministry (the two major branches of the government) are both rife with corruption, and neither ministry emerges as particularly "good" in the narrative. This isn't some moralistic, Avatar-esque fable of the "good natives" vs. the "bad foreigners"; this is a politically unsentimental portrayal of a complicated world where desperate times call for desperate measures, and I think Bacigalupi does an excellent job conveying that.

The book's definitely not perfect; Bacigalupi's prose sometimes felt dull and artificial, and the first half of the book dragged a bit as everything was set up. I might have liked to know more about the alternative forms of energy being utilized, as well—they seemed to have found some new source in "kink-springs" (if I understood it correctly, they condensed a spring into a tight coil and then harnessed the energy when it's released). I'm not a physicist, so I didn't quite follow), but it wasn't elaborated on beyond that.

These are minor complaints, however, in what wound up being a truly brilliant work of near-future SF. If you're looking for a thought-provoking, politically charged adventure story, check out The Windup Girl for sure.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

And Now, A Brief Musical Interlude

Things have been pretty quiet around the Shack lately. No, I'm not throwing in the towel (I will maintain this blog, damn it. I will not allow it to be consigned to the scrap heap of internet history. SO THERE); I've just been pretty busy with other things--primarily school, seeing as I'm, you know, graduating in about a month and a half here (a subject on which my feelings can be accurately summed up thusly: aaaaaaahhhhhhh).

But I've also been relatively quiet for another reason, and that's music. I've been entrenched in songwriting these last few weeks, and some things are (finally) starting to come together. Given that some of my long-time listeners seem to have become convinced that I'm all talk, however, I figured I'd prove them wrong with a little sample of a song I'm working on.

This is just a rough cut right now--I'm not sure how much I like the whole 8-bit sound, and I'd definitely like to expand the song harmonically in the future. And the little dubstep section at the end was tacked on as a last-minute experiment, but the results turned out reasonably all right, I think.

Please to enjoy.

Oh, and it's tentatively titled "Felix." As in the cat. Because Felix rules.

download link (mp3)

(Tools used: Logic Pro 8 with Plogue Chipsounds and Arturia Minimoog V 2.0.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"The End of Iowa City," Or, An Exercise in Bullshit Propaganda

You non-Iowa City readers may or may not be aware that we're currently in the midst of a ruckus here in IC. The ruckus is over the vote to repeal the 21 ordinance (which I've spoken of here before and on which my opinions pretty much remain the same, i.e. I really don't much care), and there's been an increasing amount of obnoxious handbilling around campus, as both sides are nagging at everyone to VOTE VOTE VOTE. And now, as if things couldn't get any more ludicrous, we have this:

Hoo boy.

Let's translate what's really being said here, shall we? "Now that the bars are 21+ only, people under 21 can no longer get plastered in the bars and the bars are losing money. We think this sucks. We have to vote to restore our city to the shining, glorious bastion of getting totally shit-faced that it once was. Also, here's a montage of a bunch of slavering, ill-coordinated, drunk-ass college kids skanking it up in seedy clubs, set to some goofy Passion Pit. WOO! VOTE 19!"

I'm almost at a loss for words here. On the one hand, this is just hilarious. Anyone who can unironically say "It feels like Iowa City is dying" is instantly a candidate for merciless mockery in my book. It's a college town, not Western civilization.

But as an attempt at persuasion, this is pretty much garbage. If anything, it makes me want to vote against repealing the 21 ordinance, and I don't even care that much in the first place. I've said here before that the bars aren't really my scene, though I've got nothing against people who frequent them (some might argue that this makes me an outlier in the undergrad community, but to them I'd say: have you looked at the students in the EPB lately? Thanks, I'll be here all night), and now that I'm 21 I care even less. Stupid, mawkish rhetoric and long takes of "deserted" Iowa City (which I'm willing to bet were filmed at about 3 AM on a Tuesday night) are hardly going to change my mind.

Furthermore, I question the idea that getting drunk in a bar is a "torch handed down from generation to generation," or that it's one of "the best experiences of your life." Might it just be, oh, I don't know, getting drunk in a bar? Now, getting drunk in a bar can be fun. I won't deny that, and I don't even like the bars that much. But, really: the best experience of your life? Are you really going to look back when you're 80 years old and remember fondly that time you blew chunks on the sidewalk outside Summit? (Yes, yes, I know, the "social aspect" of it and all that. But tell me about the last meaningful relationship you forged in a space that's pitch black and a million degrees with music so loud you can feel your brain vibrating. I thought so.) The idea of "gettin' shitty in Iowa City" as somehow integral to the local culture is exactly the kind of thing that the pro-21 people are arguing against.

Look. I understand that people are upset; I even understand why people are upset (the bar owners are none too happy, I'm sure). But folks: if you're going to try to garner support what is essentially underage drinking, you should do so in a way that doesn't make you look like a bunch of vacuous, alcohol-obsessed, melodramatic imbeciles. You're fighting against the law here; at least try to scrabble together a semblance of maturity. Couching your argument in bullshit propaganda is not going to help your case.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Thoughts on The Social Network

I liked it, and I think I'll like it even more with repeated viewings. David Fincher has a track record of directing movies that I really enjoy (cf. Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac; I even thought Panic Room was pretty okay), so I wasn't surprised that he managed to take a subject as potentially dull as the founding of a glorified, cooler-looking, less-spam-bot-infested MySpace and turn it into something pretty slick.

That said, there's some interesting conversations going on about what many perceive to be the movie's less-than-flattering portrayal of Facebook founder extraordinaire Mark Zuckerberg. And I won't deny that there are moments within the film that make Zuckerberg come off as kind of an unlikeable asshole (or as a guy trying really hard to be one). But ultimately, I think he's portrayed as what he really is--a guy with a Pretty Cool Idea who wasn't afraid to run with it and who stuck to his guns when people came after him. You could argue that such qualities constitute being an asshole, but I have to admire Zuckerberg nonetheless, in the same sort of way I admire Harlan Ellison or Chuck Yeager--not the nicest guys in the world, but so damn smart/ballsy/determined that ultimately "nice" or "friendly" or "playing well with others" has little to do with it. "Nice" is not necessarily a quality of greatness, after all.

"But Alex!" you shout in perturbation. "There are also reports that the movie takes liberties with the facts! Maybe that's not who Zuckerberg really is!" Well, yes, I don't doubt it, especially given that the movie's based on a book which the most helpful Amazon review describes as "Tabloid Quality Dramatic Narrative" and which reportedly received most of its info from Eduardo Saverin, whom I doubt is chumming it up with Zuckerberg at the moment. (Zuckerberg himself has called the movie "fiction.") I doubt that the real Mark Zuckerberg is as socially inept and self-absorbed as the movie would have you believe; it's entirely possible he's really just some okay dude who's being smear-campaigned with Winklevoss-endorsed libelous truthiness.

But ultimately, so what? Even though I don't necessarily think the movie's portrait is that negative in the first place, I suspect Sorkin and Fincher could have made Zuckerberg out to be a maniacal homophobe who bathes in infant's blood and is currently turning FarmVille property into virtual kolkhozy and sokhozy to set up his own internet dictatorship, and he'd still be the youngest billionaire in the world. Why? Because everyone uses Facebook. Well, almost everyone. I can count on two hands the number of people in my age group who aren't currently on Facebook; I can count on one hand the number of people in my age group who haven't ever been on Facebook. (There are precisely two, and one of them had a MySpace.) Besides, the movie isn't even really about Facebook itself; it's about this guy with an idea and how he made it work, and the stuff that happened to him along the way, and that's what makes it interesting.

Oh, and the soundtrack's pretty nifty too. My previous reactions to Trent Reznor's work has been along the lines of "all right, not too bad, but nothing that gets me super-pumped," but he's (along with HDA bandmate Atticus Ross) done a pretty awesome job with the soundtrack. Check it out for sure.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Alex Reads the Hugo Nominees: Cherie Priest - Boneshaker

Yes, yes, I know the Hugos happened a few weeks ago. And I know I didn't finish reading all the books in time. Things have a habit of getting in the way (such as, you know, school). But you know what? I'm going to go ahead and read/review them anyway. Because I made myself a promise, dammit. I KNEW THE RISKS WHEN I SIGNED ON TO THIS THING, AND I'M GOING UNTIL THE VERY END.

Seriously, though, I'm delighted that The Windup Girl and The City and The City won, as I'm really looking forward to reading both of them. That's not what's up for today, though. What's up for today is:


I'd long heard Cherie Priest's name tossed about in f&sf communities before I read Boneshaker. She's known for her southern Gothic ghost stories, but with Boneshaker (the first in a planned series of loosely connected novels), Priest delves into the world of alternate Victorian-era history, huge airships powered by water vapor, and complicated robotics that look like clocks. Yessir, we're talking about steampunk. Oh, and there's zombies, too. Lots of 'em.

Here's the premise: in an alternate mid-19th-century Seattle, the gold rush is in full swing. To get a hold of some of that precious, precious gold, Russian prospectors commission an inventor named Leviticus Blue to develop a drilling machine that'll burrow beneath the earth and give up the goods. Something goes wrong on the test run, however, and Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine instead drills right through the foundations of most of the buildings in Seattle, decimating the city and unleashing a poisonous gas called the Blight that turns anyone who breathes it into zombies. Woops.

Fast forward sixteen years and we're at the start of the novel. A huge wall's been erected around the now zombie-infested city, and some survivors live on the outskirts, among them Blue's widow, Briar Wilkes. Her son Zeke decides it's high time he figured out what really happened with his dear old dad (Briar's told him virtually nothing), and thus he manages to get inside the walls on a quest to find out the truth. Briar loads herself up with firearms and hitches a ride on an airship to go in after him. Badass action scenes ensue.

If this sounds like fun to you, it's because Boneshaker is just that: purely entertaining. Is it a life-changing work that shattered my perception of reality and allowed me to see the world in a new way? Nah. Does Priest's prose shine with the inspired luminescence of a billion stars? Not really (though there were one or two instances where I was pleasantly taken aback by some more poetic writing--"He waved his hand at Briar, urging her to come out, come out. Come out of the hole where the dead birds gather." Nothing mind-blowing, though a nice change of pace).

But it doesn't matter, because ultimately Boneshaker accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is tell a good-old-fashioned adventure story in the tradition of the penny-dreadful genre that was so popular during the time of the book's setting. Many of the characters are straight out of a 19th-century adventure novel (especially the villain, complete with nefarious plans and deadly right-hand man), but I didn't come to read about character development. I came to read about zombies' heads being shot off, and Priest provides just that. Same with the story itself: nothing that exceptional, but Priest kept the action moving, kept me turning the pages. Great literature? Nah. Fun? You bet.

If you're looking for a book that doesn't require too much brainpower but nonetheless provides a mofte amufing diverfion, Boneshaker comes recommended.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

And Now, Apropos of Nothing, Six Really Awesome Writers You May Or May Not Have Heard Of

The world of literature is a mighty big place, and I'm always seeking out new authors to broaden ye olde literary horizons (and yes, I am still reading the Hugo nominees, thank you very much, even though the Hugos happened a few weeks ago and I'm behind on reading in general--thanks, school). Every once in a while, I'll come across a writer whom I consider to be absolutely brilliant, whose words ring coin-like in my head long after I've read them, and whom virtually no one in my immediate social circles has heard of. (That's not a slight on my family and friends, mind you--there are plenty of writers that I'd never heard of whom I happily started reading after recommendations from friends. Raymond Carver, for example. See? Ignorance is correctable! Wowee!)

To help remedy this, I've come up with the list below. I'm also including little selections from one or two of the authors' works, to give the curious reader a better idea of their respective styles. Note that most (but not all) of these authors fall into the category of speculative fiction, though not so much in the "fantasy and science fiction" sense as the "oh my god this is so unbelievably deliciously weird" sense. But that's how I like 'em.

Thus, in no particular order, Six Really Awesome Writers You May Or May Not Have Heard Of:

1. M. John Harrison

An author (and renowned rock climber) from the UK, Harrison writes decidedly sf-nal/ fantastical fiction with an absurdist bent to it. It's not exactly light stuff; a lot of Harrison's work is not only weird but also unsettling, fueled by an underlying feeling of dread, alienation, and inescapable doom, and that's certainly not everyone's cup of (very black) tea. But his writing consistently blows me away, and he's unrivaled in creating an oblique, disturbing ambience that lurk underneath his stories. I read his novel The Course of the Heart last year (liked it quite a bit, despite it giving me awful, awful nightmares); here's the opening paragraph:
When I was a tiny boy I often sat motionless in the garden, bathed in sunshine, hands flat on the rough brick of the garden path, waiting with a prolonged, almost painful expectation for whatever would happen, whatever event was contained by that moment, whatever revelation lay dormant in it. I was drenched in the rough, dusty, aromatic smells of dockleaves and marigolds. In the corner of the warm wall, rhubarb blanched under an upturned zinc tub eaten away with rust. I could smell it there.
2. Kelly Link

Kelly Link writes badass short fiction. That's all there is to it, really. Her stories (which often play on the idea of the mundane and the fantastic intersecting) are quirky to the extreme, featuring undead babysitters, dueling librarians, tap-dancing bank robbers, demonic beauty pageant contestants, and in one truly odd case, a farmer with a collection of artificial noses. But they're not just weird; Link's storytelling carries a remarkably affecting human element to it, as many of her characters suffer from private, unspoken pains or find themselves entangled in complicated relationships.

If you're into stories that make you feel something akin to derealization, Link is not to be missed, especially her second collection, Magic for Beginners (which can be partially downloaded here). Here's a snippet from one of her stories, "Shoe and Marriage," which features three vignette-ish pieces united by, oddly enough, shoes and marriage:

The dictator's wife lives in the shoe museum. During visiting hours she lies in bed downstairs with the rest of the exhibits. When you come in, you can't see her but you can hear her. She is talking about her husband. "He loved to eat strawberries. I don't care to eat strawberries. They taste like dead people to me. I'd rather drink soup made from a stone. We ate off the most beautiful plates every night. I don't know who they belonged to. I just kept track of the shoes."

The museum is a maze of cases. Visitors wander through narrow aisles, elbows tucked in to bodies, so they don't brush against the glass displays. They drift towards the center of the exhibit room, towards the voice of the old lady, until they come upon a bed. Glass boxes stacked up in tall rows hedge in the bed on all sides. In the boxes are pairs of shoes. In the bed is the dictator's wife, covers pulled up to her chin. Visitors stop and stare at the dictator's wife.

She stares back, old and fragile and crumbly. It is disconcerting, to be stared at by this old woman. In proper museums, you go to stare at the exhibits. They do not stare back at you. The dictator's wife is wrinkly like one of those dogs. She's wearing a black wig that's too small for her head. Her false teeth are in a souvenir glass beside the bed. She puts her teeth in.

The dictator's wife will stare at visitors' shoes until the visitors look down too, wondering if a shoelace has come untied.

3. China Mieville

Okay, okay, so if you know me personally, you almost certainly have heard about this guy, given that I won't shut up about him. But I can't help it; if I so much as hear his name I collapse into a pile of fanboy squee. And no, I do not have a man crush on him, even if he is kind of attractive in a sort of Mr.-Clean-meets-Jason-Statham kind of way.

Mieville's style is perhaps best described as as H.P. Lovecraft meets Charles Dickens meets Mervyn Peake, with some Jorge Luis Borges occasionally thrown in. He's definitely not for everyone; his writing gets almost decadently baroque at times, and he dwells a lot on descriptions of place, as in the opening section to his novel Perdido Street Station:

The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like troglodytic things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town, culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchres, a new landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift cargoes from the water.

Interestingly, his prose has gotten quite a bit more pared down recently; his Hugo-winning book The City and the City opens with a markedly more sparse tone:
I could not see the street or much of the estate. We were enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows out of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us. This open ground between the buildings had once been sculpted. It pitched like a golf course--a child's mimicking of geography. Maybe they had been going to wood it and put it in a pond. There was a copse but the saplings were dead.
But style is definitely not all there is to Mieville, and in fact his substance is where he really shines--he comes up with some of the coolest ideas I've ever encountered in literature. To name a few (mild spoilers follow):

•Cactaceae - a race of cactus-people that populate his fictional world of Bas-Lag. Yeah, cactus-people. With the spines and everything.

•Bookaneers - featured in Un Lun Dun, Mieville's YA book about an alternate version of London, bookaneers are librarians who rappell down the massive Wordhoard Pit (a giant tower of books that also connects all libraries in the world together) in search of obscure books.

•The Remade - by far Mieville's most badass invention, the Remade are convicted criminals in the fictional city-state of New Crobuzon who are organically or mechanically modified as punishment for their crimes. So you wind up with, say, a woman with tank treads for legs. Or a guy with (deep breath) a giant praying mantis claw for an arm. So sweet.

I could go on about Mieville for hours, but before I completely melt, I'd best move on.

4. M. Rickert

Rickert (the "M." stands for "Mary") might not have made it onto this list, except that she holds the singular honor of having written what is probably my favorite short story of all time, an unnerving, strangely beautiful piece entitled "Journey into the Kingdom" that was published in the April 2006 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and is notoriously difficult to find these days, outside of best-of collections). I won't say too much about the story, except that it shattered me as a 17-year-old, and that I still think about it pretty frequently to this day.

Fortunately, "Journey" wasn't just a fluke for Rickert, and when I sought out her other stories, I found her to be a capable storyteller, with a García Márquez-esque style tying her stories together. From "The Super Hero Saves the World" a story in her first and only collection Map of Dreams:
When Marcado was three a python swallowed her alive. Her mother was dead but when they cut Marcado out, she was sucking her thumb, peacefully asleep. The rescuers crossed themsleves, then spit on the red ground. Her father stared at her in the split belly of the beast, the odd stamen of its brutal flower, until the cook, who was used to dealing with the bloody facts of appetite, pushed past the men and lifted her out. She tried to hand the bloody child to her grieving father but he would not touch her, shocked, the veterinarian said, by the double miracle of the mother's death and child's recovery.
5. Breece Pancake

This one's a pretty new name for me, as I just came across Pancake's only collection of short stories a week ago, published posthumously after he killed himself. One has to wonder what he might have produced had he kept going. Vonnegut called him "merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read."

What I dig about Pancake's stories is the exquisite sense of place, the idea that Pancake is grappling with the West Virginian Appalachia in which he was raised. He's been compared stylistically to Hemingway, but one could also compare him thematically to Faulkner, inasmuch as both were so preoccupied with their places of origins, as well as the idea of the past constantly invading the present. From "Trilobites," the first story in the collection:
I lean back, try to forget these fields and flanking hills. A long time before me or these tools, the Teays flowed here. I can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobites make when they crawl. All the water from the old mountains flowed west. But the land lifted. I have only the bottoms and the stone animals I collect. I blink and breathe. My father is a khaki cloud in the canebrakes, and Ginny is no more to me than the bitter smell in the blackberry briers up on the ridge.
6. Gene Wolfe

Reading Gene Wolfe is unlike reading anyone else. When I first encountered his work (I was 15 or so), I didn't like him at all, but now I realize I was honestly much too young to understand it at the time. He loads his stories with hidden messages, with obscure allusions, with the fantastic-yet-infuriating unreliable narrator who can't be trusted to tell the truth, ever. His stories are puzzles, locked in labyrinths, buried far beneath the earth. But if you can figure out what's going on, it's extremely rewarding.

His stories aren't puzzling in the superficial sense--you can easily parse the plot, and his style is typically simplistic and easy to read (though not always). The tricky part is realizing that the blind, abandoned kid seeking the hobo utopia "Sugarland" in a world where robots have supplanted human labor in the story "Eyeflash Miracles" is actually a sort of retelling of Pilgrim's Progress, or that Tessie in "The Friendship Light" might really be Saint Teresa de Ávila, and the winged, murderous creatures seen in the story are actually the cherubs she purportedly saw. (Not a coincidence that these are both Christian concepts, as Wolfe is a devout Catholic.) It's hard to explain without reading the stories themselves, but this is how Wolfe writes--he's never straightforward about it, but that's the fun.

Rather than provide any snippets of his writing (his stories are best experienced whole), I'll point you to the fascinating (and intimidating) old and new Urth archives, a series of discussions about Wolfe's works that have been ongoing since 1997. Seriously, these guys make Lost fans look like amateurs. This is a little too extreme for me, but it nonetheless highlights how difficult (and engaging) reading Wolfe is.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

R.I.P. Satoshi Kon

I was surprised and saddened today to learn that Satoshi Kon, a Japanese anime filmmaker and manga writer, died 2 weeks ago in Tokyo, at 46 years old. Surprised because he was pretty young, and saddened because he directed one of my favorite films in recent memory, a little anime sci-fi flick called Paprika.

Now, I'm not the biggest anime fan in the world; I like Cowboy Bebop as much as the next guy, and I've dabbled in other anime from time to time, but on the whole it's not really my thing. But Paprika is simply one of the craziest, most imaginative, psychedelically outrageous films I've ever encountered, anime or no.

The premise: in the near future, a device called the DC Mini allows psychiatrists to enter their patient's dreams as a form of psychotherapy. Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a serious young woman who's heading the development of the project, is testing the prototype of the machine, assuming a dream alter-ego in the form of an adorable, cheerful redhead named Paprika. It's not long, however, before the device is stolen, and soon people's dreams are being invaded by an unknown malignant presence that's screwing with people's heads and blurring the line between dreams and reality. Dr. Chiba/Paprika has to figure out who's stolen the device before it's too late.

(Side note: if this all sounds pretty Inception-esque to you, don't be alarmed--the movies do share a similar basic premise, but stylistically they're completely different. Inception has a dream world that looks and feels pretty much the same as "reality" in the film. Paprika...well, Paprika has thousands of geisha dolls speaking in unison and a man who keeps turning into butterflies. That should tell you enough right there.)

The plot gets more and more convoluted as the movie goes on, drawing in a secondary story about a detective who has a recurring dream about a murder, and things get pretty garbled towards the end, but it doesn't really matter--the film's dream-logic requires you to let go of the particulars and enjoy the outrageous, surreal, often-disturbing on-screen chaos (and I do mean disturbing--despite being animated, this is most assuredly not a movie for kids). By the end I wasn't sure I knew what was happening, but I was nonetheless satisfied.

I don't want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but if you're at all interested in anime, dreams, and/or bizarre/psychedelic experiences, this one comes highly recommended. It's too bad Kon had to kick the bucket when he did--he was, apparently, in the process of creating another dream-themed film, which may or may not still be released. Fingers crossed.