Sunday, March 31, 2013

Short story read aloud, week 3

Beneath Ceaseless Skies
"The Sacrifice Pit," Brian Dolton: Some gods keep the people free of monsters--or do they? I found this story pretty uninteresting, charting the predictable fall of one of the priests. However, I do like the image of a society that is killing itself off in an attempt to save itself.


"The Second Gift Given," Ken Scholes: Post-humans come to Earth to harvest genetic material and, in the process, enhance the intelligence of one of the post-industrial beast-humans, who tries to save the rest of his tribe but fails. Interesting, though the religious allusions sometimes make it seem like a scavenger hunt, what with the apples of knowledge, achieving enlightenment under a tree, etc.

"Herding Vegetable Sheep," Ekaterina Sedia: A touching story of a grandmother who works as a cloud-herder and her issues with her daughter, which culminates in her breaking her grand-daughter out after she's arrested for breaking copyright laws. That last part is the only thing that seems out of place.

"Rolling Steel," Jay Lake and Shannon Page: A crazy guy in a mech meets a woman guardian who decides to join up with him. There's a heart-warming ending that doesn't seem earned or really all that warm, but there's a fun, rollicking tone that helps move this along, even when people are dying.

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod)

"Perspective," Jake Kerr: A close-minded dad eventually learns that his graffiti-creating son is making a giant anamorphic portrait of his dead mom over the city. Nothing comes as a surprise here and it's pretty quiet.

"Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions," Saladin Ahmed: Like in the webcomic Single Female Protagonist, which features a superhero who realizes all the stuff that superheroing can't help, Diablo is a supervillain who goes through the motions while recognizing how little it matters. It's a very short story, which fits well with the single-note message.

Lightspeed and Nightmare

"The Streets of Ashkelon," Harry Harrison: A classic rationality vs. religion story: a priest comes to proselytize with some aliens, against a trader's wishes, and pretty soon the little aliens are nailing people up to see if the miracles are true. A little old-fashioned in its depiction of the dangers of religion.

"The Seven Samovars," Peter Sursi: Less of a story than a sketch of a magical Russian tea room where each of the seven samovars has some magical power. Fun, but slight.

"Blackbirds," Norman Partridge: Some monster menaces a town by turning all the people into birds, and a young boy fights back, but ultimately is turned into a bird-servant of the monster. Interesting and menacing, but not quite clear.

"The Sign in the Moonlight," David Tallerman: A mountain climber gets lost and discovers some monks who open a bridge to the moon, which horrifies him. A Lovecraftian-style story without any bells, whistles, or interesting changes to the stand Cthulhu tale.

"Art of War," Nancy Kress: An art historian doesn't get along with his military-minded mother, though his statistical analysis shows that the aliens only make war when they aren't making art. Interesting and very Kress-ish, I'm discovering. (See Goodreads for my review of her other works.)

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

"Crystal Spheres," David Brin: A story I've read before but that I find growing on me: human exploration is constrained by crystal spheres that makes it impossible for us to know our neighbors in space, but grants these neighbors the time they need to become intelligent space-faring races. Melancholy but with a dollop of hope. Interesting themes, but not very interesting characters or plot--a classic version of an idea story.

"How Pappy Got Five Acres Back and Calvin Stayed on the Farm," B. C. Bell: Pappy's a necromancer, see. Told with just enough dialect to keep the story moving and enjoyable, even when that's all it boils down to.

"Is There Anybody There?," Kim Newman: This week's stand-out story: an evil hacker gets caught in a spell placed by a mystic who thinks she's contacting the dead. It's hard to know who to root for throughout, which ends up working in its favor--when bad things happen to bad people, even then we feel a little sad for them. Lots of brilliant little touches, like the confusion between the Ouija board-style of communication and the hacker-style of chatroom speak.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Cordwainer Smith was crazy, maybe?

Due to travel, I'll be brief. The Atlantic has an online article about Cordwainer Smith that boils down to:

  1. Cordwainer Smith has been tentatively identified as "Kirk Allen," a pseudonym created for a psychological portrait of a man who was pretty normal, except he believed that he had lived before on alien worlds. Is Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger) actually that patient? We don't know!
  2. Cordwainer Smith wrote really strange stuff, stories that were too out there even for science fiction editor like John Campbell, Jr., who even supported L. Ron Hubbard! So his stuff must really be crazy!
  3. He's like a Tolkien of sci-fi, reaching for "mythic grandeur!"
In short, we have sensationalism (science fiction written by a crazy person!) with a touch of reductionism ("you've heard of Tolkien, right?").

I get that this is a short piece meant to introduce Cordwainer Smith, but the "Kirk Allen" stuff is pure speculation; and the article doesn't mention one of the foundational facts of Paul Linebarger, which is that his dad was involved with Sun Yat-sen and that Smith had a lot of exposure to Chinese culture. Which is kind of important when you're saying, "wow, this guy writes stuff that is totally confusing to Western readers!" Instead of reaching for the most sensational solution ("he was insane!"), there's a perfectly adequate theory (backed up by some criticism) that Smith used several Eastern works/tales/myths as inspiration.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Western Saga

Here's a test that I won't grade but will define how much I like you. What do you think when you read the following plot summary?
A monstrous killer terrorizes a peaceful homestead. From far off, a force comes that is both wild and civilized--a killer, like the monster, but a killer on the side of the peaceful and civilized. When the monster next attacks, the monster-killer is waiting and beats the monster, who retreats back into the wilderness. 
The monster-killer eventually follows the monster, probably because a bigger threat comes to the peaceful homestead. The monster-killer fights his way into the monster's fortress and kills the monster.
At the end, the monster-killer rides off, either because he cannot live a peaceful life with the homestead or to face another monster, though this one may kill him.
Now, if you said that sounds like Beowulf, I'd agree. And if you said that sounded like an archetypal Western, where a gunslinger comes to a peaceful community to defeat the other, more monstrous gunslingers, I'd agree with you too. There's some significant overlap in the classic fantasy of monster-killing and the general form of the Western.

Now, this gets complicated because Westerns and Fantasies have some significant wiggle room to their genre. And Beowulf, while being classic, is hardly in the mainstream in its final "killing off of the hero": the classic Western may tend towards melancholy ("I've made this town safe for law-abiding citizens, but I'd never fit in because I'm a dangerous man at heart, oh woe is me!"), but the classic Fantasy Quest tends towards kick-ass-dom ("I've made this town safe from orcs, I'm gonna go kill a dragon, fuck yeah!").

This bears more thinking about, especially when I'm not at my parents' house for Passover.

(But to cite my inspiration: In a weird confluence of blog posts, I read this LitReactor article on the weird western and this Amazing Stories post on the archetype of the Western hero in speculative fiction. So is this a thing now?)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Multiple Protagonists in L.A. Confidential

Yeah, that's not a very exciting title, but I recently rewatched L.A. Confidential and it struck me as being a very smart and well-done screenplay which nicely surmounts the difficulties of multi-protagonist movies. Here's how:

1) The period voice-over --> character switcheroo: the movie tells us all we need to know about the set-up through a voice-over over period media. We get glamour and crime photos and movies, intermixed with some regular film detailing the fall of L.A.'s crime kingpin and the vacuum that's created. But even better, rather than just serve as background, we learn that this voice-over is from Danny Devito's sleazy tabloid journalist who will feature later in the story. That's our first character introduction and also our setting introduction--two for the price of one.

2) Short, pointed introductions to the multiple characters:

Bud White (Russell Crowe) hates wife-beaters, will tell us why in very simple terms later: our intro to Bud is a close-up of his impassive face as he listens to a domestic dispute, which leads, of course, to his calm demeanor as he beats up the wife-beater. Extra points for having him lift up a wire so the wife can go under it and respond unironically, "Merry Christmas, ma'am." That's all we need to know about him: he's a simple guy who wants to protect women. (Later, he will retell his Freudian childhood of watching his dad beat up his mom. The dad gets away, which will come up later.)

Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a sleazy Hollywood cop: Jack V. is a technical advisor for the show Badge of Honor and an associate of Danny Devito's sleazy tabloid journalist. Like Bud White, Jack only cares about results, though his results are all self-glorifying.

Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a goody-two-shoes with a heart of brass: All the other cops are getting drunk but Ed is on duty. He's also introduced in a close-up of worried/impassive face, but this time he's watching the cops get drunk. We also hear here that he's trying to live up to his dad, so we've got that motivation. But pretty soon, after all the cops go to attack some cop-beaters, Ed turns against the force in order to rise within it--because he's all about moving up in the world, even though he won't play the games the other cops play. (Later we'll learn that Ed's dad died and the cops never avenged him. So both Bud and Ed are on the same quest: vengeance in the name of Dad. And as we'll see, James Cromwell's Dudley Smith is pretty dad-like.)

In all of these case, the characters may grow or become more complex, but the introductions are quick and to the point.

3) Not just plot relation, but thematic relation: there's all the dad stuff lurking below the surface of this movie for the two main characters, Ed and Bud, who both got into this job because of dad. Jack V. is less clear as a character, though that itself is played for meaning: after Bud and Ed describe their reasons, Jack confesses that he no longer knows why he became a cop. If the others are son in search of a dad, Jack is a boozy dad who feels like he's betrayed his son.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Netflix, Kickstarter, and New Hollywood

I confess: I'm not a professional movie or television maker. And yet, that hasn't stopped a lot of people from commenting on Netflix's recent foray into television production with House of Cards or the use of Kickstarter to raise capital for Veronica Mars: The Movie. (Dollars to donuts, the movie is going to involve rape or attempted rape in some capacity.)

But I did study the history of Hollywood once, so, I'll be honest: we've seen these sorts of fundamental shake-ups before. In the 00s, it was adding narrative to film, in the 30s, it was the Hays Code and the introduction of sound; in the 50s, it was competition with television and the introduction over various -scopes to compete; in the 60-70s, it was the American New Wave, like Scorsese, Coppola, etc. and the special effects revolution and the creation of the blockbuster and the tie-in (Jaws, Star Wars, etc.); in the 90s, it was the indie movement. Things change, things stay the same, especially if your name is "Woody Allen."

I was thinking of this recently when listening to an episode of Scriptnotes, a podcast with John August and Craig Mazin where they discussed Kickstarter. Putting aside for a moment that Craig Mazin doesn't seem to understand Kickstarter (he doesn't understand the reward tiers and that investors get something back--that, in many cases, supporting a project on Kickstarter is a lot like pre-ordering an item, not donating money to a corporation), I don't think he's wrong when he says there's some potential for waste, fraud, and abuse in Kickstarting intellectual property that belongs to corporations. That is: there's potential. Why does the WB need help funding a Veronica Mars movie if they wanted to make one? Will Kickstarter just be a way to publicly fund ventures that are privately profitable? Will studios turn to the public, hat in one hand and gun to the head of a beloved show in another?

Eh, all things are possible in the future, but I don't see this potential for abuse becoming a major factor in creative ventures. We long ago entered a new phase of entertainment where something that dies can be revived, whether tv-to-movie (Firefly to Serenity), tv-to-tv-following-cult-popularity (Futurama, Family Guy--both revived after cancelation due to excellent DVD sales and rerun ratings), or tv-to-something-else (comic book continuations of Angel and Buffy, Netflix reviving Arrested Development). And all of these revivals had less to do with Kickstarter (fans ponying up cash up front) than with the corporate forecasting that said fans would line up for these later. If Kickstarter takes some of the worry out of this equation by letting fans pre-order tickets, that won't radically change the way things are done.

To further address one of Mazin's worries, that corporations will use Kickstarter as blackmail ("fund this season or we kill your favorite show"), I'm afraid that doesn't really make sense. Fans have always had ways of making their commitment known--before Kickstarter there were letter-writing campaigns. And any corporation that ignores viewers seems to be working against their own interest: if I'm already watching your show, you're making money off of me through advertising revenue. Trying to squeeze more out of your viewers will just make you enemies.

Now, will Kickstarter help accelerate second lives for cancelled intellectual property? That's the real shift here that may happen in the future, though as I noted, this sort of thing has been happening more even without Kickstarter. And as we saw with the attempt to Kickstart an Inspector Space Time show (a Doctor Who-esque show within the Community universe), sometimes corporations like to hold on to their IP even when they're not using it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Short story read aloud, week 2

If you're interested in listening to these stories, they should be pretty easy to Google or find in iTunes; but I should add that some of these stories are from years ago, when these podcasts began.

"Gift of the Kites," Jim C. Hines: A boy dealing with a bad family situation (dead mom, beloved Japanese step-dad, quasi-alcoholic biological dad) takes part in a spiritual struggle against Death, as imagined as a black fighting kite. The inevitable happy ending is a little too pat--bio dad suddenly recognizing the value of the son he had previously terrorized--but it's a fine short story.

"Idle Roomer," Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn: maid in a sad rooming house is curious and pities a man who lives there for a long time but is never seen; eventually she learns that he's a fugitive from some other place and witnesses his recapture. A quiet story with some dialogue that verges on the edge of unbelievable (people saying just what the author needs them to say at the moment).

"A Woman's Best Friend," Robert Reed: A variation on It's a Wonderful Life: George jumps off the bridge and gets shifted to a different timeline. There, Mary explains the whole dimension-hopping thing to him. A fun idea, but too talky, even though there is something interesting about George accommodating himself to the idea of going on with life after abandoning his family.

"Celadon," Desirina Boskovich: After an explorer who commits xenocide on a new planet, her newborn child has visions of that other world. That's a fine idea, but the story just sort of ambles without any strong structure.

Lightspeed and Nightmare
"Foul Weather," Daniel H. Wilson: A sort-of-maybe crazy meteorologist discusses the relation between bad weather like storms and evil deeds. Not a traditional story, though there are moments of traditional horror story-telling. An interesting sort of horror for a climate changing world.

"On Murder Island," Matt Williamson: A comic piece about this guy and his friend who kill everyone else on this island. Strange, entertaining, not tightly structured, which is something of a trend with these pieces from Nightmare.

"The Ease With Which We Freed the Beast," Lucius Shepherd: A bunch of punks on the beach, one of whom has a murderous personality. Quite an interesting end, with a jump forward in time to how the narrator is passing on his abuse and why.

"Sacred Cows," Sarah Langan: A put-upon mother, daughter, significant other starts seeing ghosts that may or may not be her mom as parts of her life unravel. The ending is wonderfully mixed and the horrors of daily life are starkly drawn.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)
"Citizen-Astronaut," David D. Levine: A blogger goes to Mars to revive public interest; but the leader of the expedition doesn't want bad press; and then a disaster strikes which requires an innovative solution. Heinleinian in the final part, with the disaster-solution; but pretty wandering on the way there--which, frankly, might also be Heinleinian (though not a quality of his short stories usually).

"The Second Coming," Peter Watts: Read by Watts himself, whose accent gives him away as Canadian: a detective and a psychologist investigate a murder where the murderer claims to be able to alter the source code of the universe. Surprise surprise: she can. A fine story, though the ending is a little predictable.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Dreams as inspiration

I never used to remember my dreams and I was always jealous of people who did. How many writers have mentioned in interviews that they first had the thought for a story in a dream? Damnit, how could I get me some of that?

Now, for some reason, I've been remembering a lot of my dreams lately. So what am I supposed to do with my vision of science fiction/fantasy author taking phildickian drugs and seeing the future, trying to avoid a dimension-shifting war with Australia, but who can also see that these events will lead her to writing one of her greatest works? (The weirdest thing was that this was an actual author I dreamed of, someone who I've only read a little. I even dreamed that her story was published in a year's best anthology edited by another real sf/fantasy person. It was oddly realistic--except for the time-shifting drugs and the dimension-hopping Australia.)

Wait, that's kind of cool. More dreams, more!

(Here's a theory: I'm remembering my dreams more because I'm sleeping less soundly, because my dog keeps waking me up. Worse, she spent all Thursday unable to eat without throwing up, so I've been jumping up at night to check on her whenever I hear a weird noise.)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Short story read aloud, week 1

I spend so much time listening to podcast short fiction that I thought I should start keeping track of it. Maybe once a week? So this week is a little vague, but here's some things I recently listened to.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies
"Unrest," Grace Seybold: A story told in parts about a war-torn border--the new recruit POV, the old soldier who kills him POV, etc. It's an amazing structure that falls apart a bit as we settle on the "kill the evil sorcerer" plot.

"Driftwood," Marie Brennan: A patchwork world where other worlds come to die. A quest story where one person tries to find the guy who survived the death of his world. At the end, the story has a sudden POV shift to this Last person, which doesn't ruin the story, but doesn't help it. A fascinating attempt to take seriously patchwork worlds (seen in many RPGs, like Ravenloft and Rifts).

Escape Artists (Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod)
"Finished," Robert Reed: In the future, people can undergo a procedure that preserves them; they can change somewhat, but not totally. The narrator of the story is one of these Finished and he gets involved with and convinces a young woman to undergo the Finishing procedure--which is how he gets most of his money. An interesting sfnal twist on classic "would you want to live forever?" scenarios.

"Logic and Magic in the Time of the Boat Lift," Cat Rambo and Ben Burgis: I thought the title leaned towards magical realism, but the story is straight-up urban fantasy: the heroine is a guardian for the powers of good who is charged with returning a magic pearl to its rightful resting place in Cuba, opposed by a were-crocodile and a demon. Bonus: the heroine has a PhD in philosophy, specializing in  logic and reference, so it's right up my alley. The ending has a touch of the deus ex machina, but still enjoyable.

"Wings," Nathaniel Lee: A Wizard of Oz variant, from the evil flying monkeys' POV. Apparently, in the original, the monkeys are cursed to obey whoever has a certain magic hat, so it's nice to see them have their day. Fine but not really memorable.

Lightspeed and Nightmare
"My Wife Hates Time Travel," Adam-Troy Castro: A husband and wife in the present day are continually bothered by various future versions of themselves who keep trying to intervene. Funny in the way it plays with the well-worn trope of changing the time-stream; and moving in the way it deals with marriage and the stresses of being together.

"The Herons of Mer de l'Ouest," M. Bennardo: A white hunter abandons people and plans to go West to explore and die, after his Native wife and child are betrayed by people. Instead, he finds himself joining in with some Natives fighting giant herons. It could be a silly premise--giant herons!--except the first person narration keeps the theme always in view.

"Chop Shop," J.B. Park: A woman does some extreme SM play (amputation, etc.) in a virtual reality world, is unhappy. This one didn't really work for me, less because there was no character growth that I saw, and more because there was no structure. "Is unhappy" is not a plot.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project Pulp, Tales to Terrify, Starship Sofa)
"Bread Overhead," Fritz Leiber: Instead of yeast, a future company uses CO2, but decides to switch to helium to get lighter bread--until some office dude decides to save money and use hydrogen, making the bread float higher (oh, and also explode). There's a lot of humor in here and most of the tale is silly; unti the very end where we learn that robots have been manipulating everyone to prevent war between the US and USSR.

"Black Glass," Gary McMahon: A newly-divorced dude gets talked into a seance in his new house in order to get in touch with someone trapped in the glass. Naturally, he gets trapped in the glass instead. What's most curious about this story is that the guy starts off like a classic skeez, getting off on voyeurism and exhibitionism, caring about money but not art. But around the middle, he starts to become a little pitiable. Which makes his

"The Mad Scientist's Daughter," Theodora Goss: Plotless, but what an idea: all the unheard of daughters of mad scientists--Beatrice Rappaccini (from Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter"), Justine Frankenstein, Catherine "Cat" Moreau, Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Helen Meyrink-nee-Raymond (from Machen's The Great God Pan)--live together. The most interesting thing they do is discuss whether they're monsters and whether they should terrorize London. But still--what an idea, to see how women come out of that literature.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Super Short Review: Girls, Season Two (still on-going)

Yeah, my "Super Shorts" have been expanding, but here's a foolproof way to scale them back: review something I haven't finished yet, like the second season of Girls. Honestly, I'm not even caught up with the episodes that have been released. And, double honestly, whenever we watch the opening--the HBO logo and the static start--I sing the Game of Thrones theme song. So I might not be the best person or in the best position to review this show. But here goes.

When it started, Girls inspired a lot of talk on the internet--was it diverse enough (racially, politically, economically), honest enough, honest enough, particular/generic enough, etc. I think those are all valid avenues to explore; and I agree that Girls failed in some ways--the ways that most entertainment fail (race, class, gender). But it still was mostly funny and carefully walked the line between kind identification with its characters and acid-eyed observation of their faults. So Hannah's approach towards her gay ex-boyfriend might've been cringe-inducing but it was understandable: we could judge her missteps and feel bad for her position at the same time.

This second season seems to have started differently. The bad decisions are still there--Hannah doing cocaine for a freelance story, Marnie getting involved with an emotionally-twisted artist, etc.--but the viewer's position feels less secure on that fence between judgment and understanding. That is, the narrative seems to be more gleeful, more on the side of the people making the bad decisions. Maybe that's just because we're halfway in to the season. Maybe the show will come to radically challenge what we think are good decisions for 20-year-olds. But right now it seems more like a celebration of being privileged. These are people who, institutionally, can survive bad decisions.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Digital (Reading) Planning

I didn't think I would, but I've gotten a lot of use out of my iPad: word-processing, gaming, emailing, checking maps, etc. I've also gotten a lot of use out of my iPad as an e-reader that is free from any specific store. That is, I have a Kindle app, so I can buy from Amazon; but I also have Kobo, Nook, iBook, and Overdrive apps. What's nice about that is that I can shop or browse or borrow from many different sources (including public libraries).

But there's one problem with using the iPad to read. There's no physical reminder of what you're reading (or should be reading).

I might be the only person with this problem. But it's very easy for me to start a book in one app, go check my email or the weather, put the iPad down--and the next time I go to get back to reading, it's easy to open up a different app and start a new book. Well, OK, it's not that easy--I remember that I was reading a book. But there's not the same sense of urgency and duty that one gets (right?) with a physical book.

Which is another way of saying that I have slowed down my reading of Paolo Bacigalupi stories because I got interested in reading other things. In this case, I just finished reading the long comic series Transmetropolitan. And I have thoughts about that--but you'll have to wait until Wednesday when I update my webcomic blog at

Friday, March 8, 2013

Super Short Review: Django Unchained

I may have to chew this one over some more, but I just saw Django Unchained on Tuesday night, and I have some powerful but mixed emotions about it. So here's my first take:

Historical confusion: Looking at any movie for facts is a chump's game--we go to movies for Truth. I think you're missing the point if you start complaining that Tarantino has a proto-KKK in 1858 or that slave-owners probably didn't stage fights to the death (how uneconomical!), unless you go on to say "what purpose does this serve in the narrative and theme?" I wasn't bothered by any twist Tarantino pulled on history.

That said, the "that's the way it was" argument is pretty terrible and Taratino pulls that out when discussing the use of the word "nigger." It's true that you get used to that word pretty quickly if you study the 19th century, but when you're playing with history, you can't claim history as your reason. However, I think it worked well here for precisely the reason that David Denby seems to object: a lot of people use it and it comes out differently for each of them.

Old timey (1970s) style and references galore: In high school AP English, my teacher was extolling the virtues of Catch-22's chapter 2, which includes lots of allusions to other literature, to which my friend responded, "so, good literature just means referencing other good literature?" I understand that Tarantino was inspired by a certain set of Westerns and exploitation films, but I just felt like I was doing a lot of nodding along: oh, I recognize that style of title; oh, there's a snap zoom; oh, I've seen grainy film in a flashback before. I understand inspiration and homage, but eventually my neck started to hurt. And no bonus points for ramming Franco Nero--the original Django (from 1966's Django)--down our throats.

That said, I think there's something worth looking at in this movie's overuse of close-ups. (Although that's not just a 70s thing; I just watched Silence of the Lambs and so much of the movie is just looking at faces.)

Color as meaning: Quickly: I noticed a certain visual theme in the constant staining of white with red--the snowy training of Django, the blood-dyed cotton at Big Daddy's plantation, the blood-splattered walls of Candieland. "Finally," I thought, "the lily-white South gets the bloody underpinning exposed."

Overall reaction: King Schultz, the dentist-turned-bounty hunter, remains vague to me. At first, he seems hard-nosed and pragmatic--getting a slave driver to explicitly threaten him so that his attack will be classed as self-defense. He's a classic "I'm within the law" sort of shark, paying a man for Django and then leaving him to be murdered by his other slaves; or collecting the bounty on a man who has given up his thieving ways. But he's not entirely without principle: like many German immigrants, he's against slavery if not an outright abolitionist.

So it's natural for him to free Django--but why help him? Schultz comments that, as a German, he has to help a Siegfried-character rescue a Brunhilda-character, but that seems thin. Have they become friends by now? Schultz definitely grooms him as an assistant and partner, but friend? Or is just the injustice of slavery that motivates him?

All of which leads up to the final scene, where Scultz, the pragmatist, is haunted by visions of slavery's violence--perhaps now that he's exposed as a potential victim. OK, but then why choose this moment to take a stand on shaking hands with the slave owner? There's definite parallels between the two men: both eloquent, powerful, assisted by others, dangerous. But it's not really like Schultz has been forced to confront the similarities; or even, that those similarities have to do with the things that make Schultz tick. So why?

The other characters are less muddy to me, but largely because they are simpler: Candie is a jaded man who likes contests, both with slave fights and with pitting himself against the mystery of Django. Steven is a powerful slave who identifies more with white power and privilege--no wonder that he's introduced taking care of the plantation and signing Candie's name. ("Historical inaccuracy!" you protest. Sure, but for a purpose.) And Django's character deepens as he learns more about the world, changing from sullen slave to talkative con-man and killer, but his motivation remains focused on his wife.

People are going to argue for a while whether this is Django's revenge film or Schultz's (and by extension, Tarantino's) white guilt film.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Submission and rejection; Or, Why Writing is so Damn Kinky

I get more time to listen to stories for fun than I do to read them; so, as you may have noticed, I like podcast stories, such as the Escape Artists group. But I've been trying to branch out and am currently giving trial runs to Beneath Ceaseless Skies (mostly sword and sorcery fantasy so far), The Drabble Cast, Nightmare Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and a few others.

Which brings me to the whole thing about submission and rejection, which is the usual life cycle of a story: after any writing and editing you do, then comes the submission process--and whether you're submitting your work to your writing group, some friend, or a publication, there's always the strong possibility of some rejection.

I've been thinking about my audition for the Second City Conservatory track, where I was rejected and felt not so terrible about it. Or rather, I felt a lot like I did after I had my first "bad" bike accident. I use quotation marks because I wasn't really hurt, but I was psychologically rattled. I walked my bike home that day, but as soon as my leg stopped hurting, I had to get on the bike again--I couldn't let it become a thing, I couldn't let my relationship be defined by that fall. That's how I felt after the Second City audition: I was rejected, but I signed up for some more classes and the next audition--which I actually had to cancel since I moved away from Chicago.

With that in mind, I recently sent some stories to two non-traditional venues: the short fiction/flash podcast, Toasted Cake, hosted by fantasy writer Tina Connolly, whose novel Iron Skin has been getting rave reviews; and the Pseudopod forum flash fiction contest (which is only available to those registered for the forum). I don't know if those stories will go anywhere, but just getting back on the bike feels good, bruises and all.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The New New Thing: "The People of Sand and Slag" (2004)

I just listened to a podcast interview with Paolo Bacigalupi, which might be a little old (it's before The Windup Girl won any awards), but is still interesting, especially in light of the last few stories I've read. In it, PB makes the argument that YA fiction is better for making readers change or at least assess their lives, particularly their environmental impact. So, an adult may read a story, be moved by it, but what are they going to do--give up their car? Whereas if you get them young, before they're set in their ways, they might make environmentally responsible decisions.

In light of that, "People of Sand and Slag" seems a powerful but failed activist statement: it takes place in a future where humans have destroyed the environment totally but also enhanced themselves to deal with the degradation. So the three characters here are enforcers for a mining company, who, as luck would have it, can eat sand and dirt, and regenerate from just about any trauma. In fact, on their days off, they engage in trauma as play of various sorts: setting knives into one's body, amputating and caring for a loved one (just for a day--the limbs regrow quickly).

Perhaps next time I read a PB story I will put it down after the first, oh, 10%, and write what I think will happen. I feel like I might be able to because his stories have a certain plot arc:

  • inhuman(e) condition--
    • the beggar in "Dharma," 
    • the fluted girls in "Fluted Girl," 
    • the monstrous humanoids of "Sand and Slag"
  • --is disrupted by possibility of betterment--
    • the beggar gets the lama cube, 
    • the fluted girl contemplates suicide-as-freedom,
    • the monstrous humanoids who live without a safe environment adopt a dog"
  • --only for the world to prove much worse--
    • the lama cube that makes him a target can't actually help him,
    • the fluted girl accidentally eats the boy who helped her,
    • the monstrous humanoids decide to eat the dog.
Or put another way, as soon as these monstrous humans discuss whether to adopt or eat the dog, it's pretty clear that the dog will end up as dinner, even if it's after an adoptive period.

What's curious about "Sand and Slag" is that it's told from the POV of someone not at the bottom of the food/exploitation chain, but someone firmly in the middle: these guards may be inhuman because of their environment but they retain certain powers, both because of their technology and their jobs.

(The question then being: if you can eat rock, why do you need a job at all, especially a job killing things? The whole military/guard side of the equation--the "Slag," as in "battle"/"war" (in Swedish/Dutch/Afrikaans)--isn't really examined in this story, but only hinted at. What is this installation mining and who wants to attack it?)

Friday, March 1, 2013

February Blogging Breakdown

For the new year, I wanted to try blogging more, and February was an especially scheduled month. For comparison, January:

  • 31 days
  • 17 posts on personal blog
    • 14 posts about Sneakers
  • 5 posts on Voyager Comics Online blog
  • 7 total days without blogging (77%)
And February:

  • 28 Days
  • 20 posts on personal blog
    • 4 in New New Thing
    • 4 in overwatching
    • 4 in Indy 4
    • 3 in Rediscovering Cordwainer Smith
    • 2 in media
    • 2 in writerly
    • 1 in podcasts
  • 4 posts on Voyager Comics Online blog
  • 4 total days without blogging (86%)
My blogging on Voyager Comics Online has been pretty steady since I set up my "every Wednesday" schedule. But in February I tried to blog every day but Saturday. The result: a lot of blog posts, some extra reading (so that I would have something to blog about), and less free time.

The discoveries from this are all pretty obvious--or would be to anyone smart--but I still had to do it to as an experiment to find them out: Blogging six days out of seven is slightly too much, but having a schedule does help keep one on track. So for March, I think I'll try out blogging on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday (at Voyager Comics Online), and Friday. Off to update the 2013 Resolution Spreadsheet.