So, as of today I haven’t posted anything here for exactly two months. The reason is, I got pretty burned out on blogging for awhile and needed a rest from it. But now I’m back and ready to get back on it. Coming up: a review of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, another taste of my novel in progress AL+ER, and perhaps even a short story that tells the origin of a well-known villain from a famous children’s book that I wrote largely over the hiatus. And, of course, artwork and other stuff I happen to like that I’ve discovered in my travels across the web. Glad to be back, guys!
Well, folks, it’s been over a month since I last posted anything, and so I need to remedy that now . . . and apologize. The thing is, I had planned to have the early draft of AL+ER finished by now, but I am nowhere near ready. I dropped off somewhere around the two-thirds mark when I ran into a wall. This happens with writing sometimes. What I couldn’t understand initially was that there was a reason I was preventing myself from finishing the book, and that reason is, it wasn’t the story I really wanted to write. It started off strong, but as soon as my protagonists got to the little Southern town of Milton’s Eye, everything went to crap. This is the part of the story where the horror elements were supposed to kick in, but I quickly got bogged down in cliches and skewed motivations, and worst of all, I just wasn’t being true to myself. This was not the book I wanted to write.
And so, I ran out of steam sometime in November, moving on to working temporarily on another novel, The Sinister Hand (which is exactly what it needs to be so far, though I’m not sure I am ready to spring it on the world yet). Anyway, I finally realized last night that this story just wasn’t going to work. And so, I am officially changing gears here, backtracking to the point where I think the story goes off the rails. A couple of the early chapters are (mostly) salvageable, so it’s not a total loss. Even so, I am not happy about it. You want to know what I’m feeling the most about this? The answer is, pissed. I’m pissed that I spent months working on something that ultimately failed. I imagine there are inventors who feel this way after toiling away in their garages for months on some contraption, only to find that it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, and what are writers if not inventors of the intellect? And so, it is with heavy heart that I bury this version of AL+ER and move on.
That said, I’m excited about the new direction, because it is the story I really want to tell. It’s a love story . . . of sorts. Will there be horror in it? Almost certainly. Will there be dark fantasy? Absolutely. Will it work? Let’s hope so, because I don’t want to go through this again. It’s a bit like a terrible breakup, I think: I just gave this story months–actually years, if you get down to it, from the point of conception to now–of my life, only to see it betray me in the end. Gaaaahhhhh!
Well, back to the drawing board, as the old saying goes . . .
Let me say up front that I tend to dislike horror stories where the antagonists are just masses of soulless interchangeable monsters: zombies, giant ants, swarms of mutated bees, you get the idea. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are exceedingly rare. James Cameron’s Aliens is a grand example of how such monsters can be interesting in their own right. The xenomorphs were well-designed and unique enough to be memorable, and anyway the film was built on the legacy of a single xenomorph from the earlier Alien film. I also generally dislike stories where the monster is just some variant of a conventional monster that’s been explored a million times . . . like vampires. Well, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the first book in an eponymous trilogy, ticks off all of those boxes, so I was skeptical about reading it, but the hype claimed it was very different from all of those others, and to a point it is, though perhaps not to the extent that it could’ve been.
When reviewing a book, I generally start with its overriding flaws first, and so I shall. The biggest problem with The Passage is that the vampires are not that memorable either as a species or as individuals, which is somewhat mitigated by their status as a hive mind, because even a hive-mind can have a personality or voice, and this one does, but that only works if that personality is a compelling one, and unfortunately, the motivating force behind the smokes (as the main group of protagonists in the book call them) isn’t that interesting. The concept of vampirism being more pathological than supernatural is interesting in itself, of course. Though not a new idea, Cronin does give us a fairly fresh take on it by adding the hive-mind twist, and by putting them in a post-apocalyptic setting (even if they caused the apocalypse in the first place).
But the thing is, the best monsters–whether individuals or hive-minds–have something that makes them fascinating, some fundamentally human trait or motivation that raises them above a mere force of nature. My general rule-of-thumb for monsters is, if I can’t relate to them on any level, then they aren’t good villains, and they aren’t even particularly good monsters. When a monster is completely void of humanity, then they are little more than allegory, an idea, and not a real character. Hell, Jaws had more personality than these guys! Which leads to another problem: the original twelve human experiments that become the leaders of their own vampire tribes were all criminals of one sort or another, most of them murderers and violent sex offenders spared from execution by participating in the government program that ultimately turns them into the Twelve (this is established early in the book, so I’m not giving much away here). So the message seems to be that sex offenders are basically just like vampires whose craving for blood overrides every other motivation and is essentially unquenchable. I don’t know how familiar Cronin is with criminal psychology, and I’m not exactly a fan of sex offenders either, but this notion is fundamentally ignorant and borders on being childish. Of course, the book never makes this connection outright, but the idea is there, buried in the subtext. It’s hardly surprising, of course, but I do expect better from a writer of Cronin’s caliber. Still, because it is subtextual and not dwelt on too much, it’s a fairly forgivable error.
What is unforgivable though is Amy, a key character who is the very embodiment of the magical-child-as-MacGuffin that ruins so many good stories of this nature. She starts out as a normal six-year-old girl, and I have to say, she has more heart and personality at this stage (which is a fairly brief period in terms of the book’s narrative) than she does as the nearly century old demi-mortal she becomes later. Now, I do not have an issue with the magic child trope itself, but they should still have identities and personalities of their own and not just be single-minded (read: simple-minded) MacGuffins who need a ragtag group of bad-ass adults to transport them across dangerous terrain so that they can fulfill their destiny or whatever. I think I speak for many when I say, it’s time for this trope to die a painful and miserable death. Kids are people too, dammit! They deserve better than this. Granted, Amy is a quasi-child really and not a proper young girl, being as she is ninety-six, but in a way that makes it worse. What’s next, Cronin? Are you going to magically age her to complete adulthood when her youthful nature and appearance are no longer convenient?*
Now let’s focus on the positives, shall we? The #1 selling point of The Passage is that Cronin is sure-footed and confident as both a writer and a storyteller. Aside from Amy and the virals, his characters are compelling and well-drawn, and the settings are easy to picture (which is why the book will translate well to film). Peter, Alicia, Circuit and the rest are really the focus of the book anyway. The science fiction aspects of the novel are strong, and luckily Cronin leans heavily on them. He’s less adept at handling the supernatural side of things, and there is a touch of that here, but luckily not much. Sci-fi horror is a tricky business, I’ll admit, and to his credit, I think he is aware of the book’s flaws and for the most part does an outstanding job of diverting attention from them: Look away, nothing to see here folks. Now if you really want to see something, step this way . . .
Consequently, I’m willing to overlook a lot here. If not for the author’s skill, the book could easily have become just another ‘special child travels far to fulfill her ultimate destiny’ story, but instead we get an entertaining and insightful examination of the internal politics and changing roles of the last few survivors of the collapse of human civilization . . . within a story about a special child who travels far to fulfill her ultimate destiny. All in all, I think the book is somewhat overhyped, and possibly misclassified. As a horror novel, aside from a strong start, it fails. Despite having a metric crap-ton of vampires (who are bioluminescent, incidentally, a cute joke at the expense of some certain other sparkly vampires), it’s just not very scary. But as an epic post-apocalyptic adventure tale, it really hits its stride. We’re invested in the main characters and we want them to succeed. As the first book in a planned trilogy, it also plots out pretty well, tying up the Babcock storyline but promising much more to come. At over 760 pages it’s a long book, and there is perhaps some extraneous stuff in the middle, where we are getting to know the members and structure of the First Colony. Nevertheless, it is a fairly gripping look at a micro-society organized around surviving and fighting off a menacing new species. The ideas here are nothing new, but they have been sufficiently tweaked to feel new, and if you like this kind of story, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
* Yes, I’m aware of what happens in the second book, thanks for asking.
Here is something I haven’t mentioned before about myself, mainly because I don’t want to be defined by it, but it’s time: I was pretty much born without a right hand. More accurately, I was born with a right transverse upper partial hemimelia. This means that the right forearm and its extremities are severely underdeveloped, to the point where the “hand” is little more than a tiny boneless nub at the end of a rounded off limb, and that’s it. When my sister and I were kids, she astutely nicknamed it my Ziggy arm because of its resemblance to the popular cartoon character when looked at straight on, right down to the smile. Anyway, this was only one of a few health problems I had as a kid, but one thing at a time, right? And it is the biggie.
As a one-handed leftie, I was pretty much doomed from the start. Everything in the world is oriented towards the two-handed and righties. Everything. To make matters worse, I was a complete introvert. You’ve heard of those kids that are missing limbs–often more than one–who go on to do incredible physical feats? Yeah, that wasn’t me. Not even close. I absolutely hated sports and extreme physical activities of all kinds. Still do, in fact. Oddly, though, I did pick up some martial arts skills during the several years I was forced to go to karate class by my parents. At the time I didn’t like going, but I am grateful now that they made me do this. Not because I want to be a bad ass (I’m not anyway), but because it taught me early that attaining anything of value mostly requires sacrifice of some kind. Luck plays a part in it too, of course, but yeah.
Now, I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite hangouts is Gawker Media’s science fiction site io9. Recently Lauren Davis at io9 published an article called 10 Story Decisions Sci-fi and Fantasy Writers Ended Up Regretting, and one of those decisions was comics writer Robert Kirkman’s decision to have Rick Grimes lose his hand in The Walking Dead comics series (on which the AMC television series of the same name is based). The reason he regretted it is because he didn’t like having to deal with Rick’s small everyday struggles in having to adapt to his disability. But I have a problem with this, and it boils down to a fact that many minorities deal with: seeing that the media accurately represents them. The thing is, it totally makes sense that in an apocalyptic world where zombies exist, people are going to lose limbs. Rick loses his in a confrontation with the Governor, but the example I gave at io9 was that a zombie bite to an arm might necessitate a speedy amputation to keep the zombie venom or mutagen or whatever from infecting the whole person. And I can just see Kirkman’s thoughts at the time: I’ll take his hand–that will be shocking! But then, once he dropped that bomb on his readers, he no longer wanted to commit to it, and therein lies the problem.
My suggestion for writers who want to write accurately about apocalyptic warfare: get used to the idea of dealing with characters who are permanently wounded. If you need motivation, consider all of the people who are even now coming back from the Middle East conflict blind, deaf, confined to a wheelchair or missing one or more limbs, and there are a lot of them. For soldiers who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, there were over 13,000 soldiers who came home wounded–most of them permanently–from the period of March 2003 to June 2005 alone. That is a little over two years of the war, and that war was significantly shorter than the Afghanistan War, which has produced thousands more wounded. Permanent disabilities have always been a major component of warfare, and what is the current zombie craze if not a way for us to process the Middle Eastern conflict?
Hey, writers, go get to know one of these vets and see what it’s like to to learn to live with their disability. Oftentimes it is a slow adjustment, as there is both a physical component and a psychological component to the process. Just psychologically the matter is complex. There are esteem issues and identity issues that come into play. Physically there is the matter of relearning how to do things, as well as figuring out your limitations again. These are things which would be especially relevant to people for whom a great deal of physical prowess would be requisite for survival . . . like those living through a zombie apocalypse.
So, yeah, part of being a one-handed person when one has spent their entire life with two is the small everyday struggles like buttoning a shirt, using tools meant for two-handed use (like manual can openers or wall-mounted pencil sharpeners), carrying heavy objects and so on. These struggles are simply going to be part of the development of any character who has lost a hand and writers need to respect that. It doesn’t mean they always have to show it, but it should be intrinsic to the character that has been put into that situation, and they should be prepared to demonstrate it if they want to portray such an event realistically. Unfortunately, many writers fall woefully short here. In fact, there have been problems with literary portrayals of one-handedness and others disabilities for ages. I won’t go into all of them here, but this article does a good job of outlining the major issues with media representation of the disabled, and this study, entitled Disabling Imagery and the Media, goes into much more depth about these issues. Let’s look at a couple of them that are pertinent to one-handedness.
Traditionally, one-handed characters have been villains. Think of Captain Hook from Peter Pan, Han from Enter the Dragon, Dr. No from the James Bond film of the same name (just one of several disabled or differently-abled villains in the Bond universe, actually) or the one-armed man from The Fugitive.
And with sci-fi specifically, we are often given characters who lose a hand but are given an instant replacement that is equal or superior to the original. This is cool, but these stories invariably never tell us anything about living with this disability. In this category we have Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars franchise, Ash Williams from the Evil Dead series, who had his hand replaced with a chainsaw–very useful for fighting zombies, Tetsuo Shima from the manga series Akira and Alex Murphy from Robocop (who had his entire body replaced rather than just a single limb but loses much of his identity in the process). These can be cool and add context to the story, or they can become deus ex machinas. As much as I love Luke Skywalker, I feel like his cybernetic replacement hand is a bit of a cop-out because he never had to do much to adjust to it. But it was fairly forgivable there because the Star Wars universe has always had a ton of gee whiz gadgetry to fill in the gaps, so at least it’s consistent with the SW universe in general. I mean, what is Darth Vader if not a walking mechanized prosthetic? But then, he is evil, isn’t he?
Well then, have any writers gotten it right when it came to the portrayal of a one-handed character? Not counting books or movies based on true stories, I can’t think of a single perfect example. I should point out that that hardly means they don’t exist. Although I do occasionally dip into literary fiction, my reading does tend to be limited mostly to my favorite genres, where there are some examples I like better than others. There is Jaime Lannister from HBO’s Game of Thrones series (I haven’t read the books yet), for example, and although the show doesn’t offer us much in terms of Jaime’s everyday physical struggles, I think it does a decent enough job of showing how the legendary swordsman’s identity is impacted by the loss of his sword hand and how he must mentally adapt to it or die. Consequently, he learns to sword fight left-handed. That is no small feat. And let’s be honest: Jaime is hardly a paragon of morality. But by far the best portrayal of a differently-abled person is Tyrion Lannister (played by the fantastic Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who is realistically flawed but not really villainous. He does murder King Joffrey and his own father, Tywin Lannister, but both of them were terrible people who probably deserved it. Really though, in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, Tyrion is overall one of the better and humbler people.
I also like the character of Amy Sullivan from the film John Dies at the End (again, I have not read the book), even though she is an example of the Magic Cripple, the disabled equivalent of Spike Lee’s Magic Negro, albeit a one-trick pony on that front. Nevertheless, I consider this forgivable mainly because the story presents a clever twist on the concept of the phantom limb, and because through the majority of the story Amy’s missing hand is simply taken for granted and not dwelt upon. Another interesting dimension here is that one rarely sees one-handed females in genre fiction, even though there are tons of males who are missing arms or hands, and it was fantastic to see a handsome male lead in a film dating a disabled girl, even if her disability is clearly in the story for a reason.
In my own semi-autobiographical novel in progress The Sinister Hand, the protagonist’s disability and how he deals with it is pretty much front-and-center. The book is structured something like the recently reviewed Pilgrimage by Zenna Henderson, where there is a framework story (which comprises the actual biography of the character in this case) and several short stories, which are Noel’s dreams and fantasies, all of them sci-fi, fantasy or horror stories in which the protagonist is either missing a hand or has a deformed or augmented right hand that is symbolic within the context of the story. In this way, I deconstruct several of the myths and stereotypes about disabilities, especially congenital deformities. Right now this book is slated to be my second finished novel, after AL+ER.
Just remember, authors: it’s great that you want to use disabled characters in your fiction. I praise that decision; there needs to be more of it, not less. But if you do, commit to it. Don’t just throw it in there to shock or amuse and then stick it in the background. Do the research and find out what disabled people struggle with and what they overcome, and present them honestly, as real people, not just tropes. Hey, I’m easy to please and hard to offend, but I think you guys need to do better than you’re doing with these issues. Thanks for listening.
Wow, I’ve been away from the blog for over a month! I didn’t realize it had been that long. My apologies for that. But rest assured that I have a few things planned for the next couple of days, including a post about disabilities in fiction and a review of Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Meanwhile, merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, or whatever holidays you celebrate this time of year. I hope you get everything you want and then some. :)
Zenna Henderson was not your typical sci-fi writer, and that is saying something for a genre positively gushing with eccentrics and standout personalities, even in its early years. Or rather, especially in its early years. For one thing, she was a transitional writer, beginning her career right at the tail end of science fiction’s Golden Age but prior to the New Wave (which didn’t properly begin until about the early 60s). The New Wave was marked by the shift of focus away from mankind’s boundless potential, technological achievements and conquering of space and onto more social and political themes and the problems inherent to mankind. Pilgrimage has some of that, yet it shares more with Golden Age sci-fi’s inexhaustible spirit and sense of wonder.
For another thing, Henderson’s was a thoroughly feminine voice in a time before women really embraced science fiction as their own, and what’s more, she did so without disguising her femaleness in a genre with a predominantly male readership. Miss Henderson was an elementary school teacher by trade, and the stern but gentle nature she must’ve exhibited as part of her occupation sets the tone for this dainty wisp of a book, which is less a true novel than a collection of short stories stitched together via a framework piece about a depressed, suicidal young woman who meets one of the People by happenstance and is introduced to their group, with their individual stories becoming therapy for her. In fact, ‘therapeutic’ would be a good way to describe this book, as would ‘pastoral’ and ‘spiritual.’ Those aren’t necessarily compliments, mind you.
The most glaring problem with the book though is that it’s basically plotless. The connective cartilage of these stories is the so-called Ingathering, the reverse diaspora of an alien population which crashed on Earth sometime in the mid to late 1800s–the exact dates of arrival are not clear. These humanoid aliens, the People, apparently arrived in a series of ships which landed all over the American West and beyond. For such an intelligent, psychically powerful and technologically advanced society, the People take a godawful long time to find each other. There’s also a distinctly Christian aura to the spirituality with which the People proudly gird themselves. Individually, the six stories that make up the meat of the book–Ararat, Gilead, Pottage, Wilderness, Captivity, and Jordan–are moderately good to very good in quality, although none are what I’d consider outstanding.
The first one, Ararat, was originally published in 1952, and in it we learn of the Crossing, the mass exodus of the People from their home world (which is called, get this: Home) after its sudden and unexplained destruction. Everything about the People is generalized to the point of harmless tepidity. Their society is made up of isolated pockets of utopia that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the Mormon faith in which Henderson was raised (but left as a young woman for reasons unknown, even though she technically never renounced membership in the church), and the People are the very embodiment of the ideal 1950s American family, right down to the sexist gender roles and perfectly obedient children–faithful to their God and each other, singularly benign, and ever-optimistic. Except that they have psychic powers. Some can read minds, some can heal, some can turn sunlight into a semi-solid substance and scoop it right out of the air. Most can levitate.
Despite the People’s godlike patience and unshakable cheerfulness, they understandably feel like outsiders in their new home in the American West and tend to keep to themselves, which is really just one big metaphor for Mormonism, isn’t it? However, the People’s plight is so broadly portrayed that different sorts of folks can relate to it and have, including gays and lesbians, which Henderson’s beloved religion of course shuns. But by and large the message against oppressing those who are different resounds convincingly through these tales.
Where the book really excels, however, is in the stories set in the classroom, which are the only ones in the book that have any actual drama, to be honest. Pottage, the single story from Henderson’s saga of the People ever to to be filmed, concerns a young outsider working as a teacher within a People’s community who discovers that the children are joyless and strictly controlled by their elders. After learning that these amazing kids have powers, she gradually convinces them and their parents that those powers are their birthright and should not be forbidden to them, merely managed. But the best story here by far is Captivity, about an angry teenage boy of the People, an orphaned troublemaker who is disliked by his classmates and townsfolk alike. In some ways he’s the archetypal misunderstood sensitive genius, in this case one fascinated with music, but what’s most compelling about him is that his abilities seem to be setting him on a path beyond mere villainy. With a few minor tweaks, the Francher kid’s fable could be the origin story of a music-themed supervillain–the Maestro, perhaps, or the Conductor–but one that has been narrowly averted just in time by his clever and caring teacher, who sets him on the right path at last by convincing him of his specialness and great potential to help mankind, probably the ultimate fantasy of teachers everywhere with respect to the “bad kid” in their classrooms.
Another highlight of the book is the sheer beauty of Henderson’s writing. Her style is unique and poetic, if occasionally oblique. The People, despite their insipid docility and frustratingly conformist nature, are so warm, close and well-drawn that you can almost reach out and touch them. These are aliens that most people wouldn’t mind an invasion from. They’re the ideal neighbors: peaceful, friendly and fiercely private.
The final story in this collection, Jordan, is the most “science fiction-y” of the bunch, in that an actual spaceship has arrived to pick up some of the People and carry them to their newly founded Home (redux). The ship hovers languidly above a farm for days as the People decide who will go to the new Home and who will stay on Earth. This is quite reasonable, as it’s no small decision. Some of the People, despite the mistrust of the humans, have come to love their adopted planet; for those born here, it’s all they’ve ever known. And, of course, being unregistered aliens, they are not legally Americans, and yet America is decidedly better off for having them. It’s an allegory I imagine many of the current illegals in the U.S. might relate to.
This story also has the most explicitly drawn character studies and world-building; one can see how Henderson’s vision solidified a bit over the years that she produced the individual pieces, and how the characters became more nuanced and defined, though it may be too little too late for those readers who prefer hard details over the hazy background sketches Henderson offers. The heart of this piece is a budding romance between an adolescent boy of Earth’s People and a girl who comes along for the ride on the rescue ship with one of her parents. It’s a good one to round out the collection because there is a certain crowning quality to it, as the People’s odyssey finally reaches closure.
If you’re into intense action and swiftly moving plots, don’t even look in this book’s direction because I promise you’ll be sorely disappointed. However, if you prefer your stories to be more laid back and contemplative and don’t mind the religious implications, this may be for you. It’s also a valuable look into the mind of a prominent female science fiction writer from a time when that was a bona fide anomaly, even as first-wave feminism was well-established. That doesn’t mean you will find much speculative feminist thought here though; Henderson’s work fits plainly into patriarchal traditions. But somewhere in these odd little bonbons, buried beneath all the niceties, is an angry feminist voice crying to get out. Maybe we’ll find it in the stories from her later compilations.
Remember, remember, the 5th of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot! And to commemorate Guy Fawkes Day this year, I’m posting some of the most amazing V for Vendetta art I could scrounge up. Now V for Vendetta-themed artworks on the web are about a dime a dozen, but there are some really fantastic pieces out there, and here are just a few.
First, here is art from the original source, David Lloyd. This is cover art for the collected miniseries (graphic novel) created and written by the brilliant Alan Moore:
There were several official posters released for the film, but I quite like this one, which has a classic political propaganda poster feel to it. Actually, a lot of these posters do, which makes perfect sense.
Another sweet poster design for the film. This one emphasizes the mysterious nature of V himself.
Alejandro Fernandez’s poster again utilizes old political propaganda art to great effect. You can really see the influence of Constructivism here.
This poster by Marko Manev may possibly be my favorite. I say possibly because there are so many good ones I just can’t decide. But this is seriously gorgeous and definitely in my top five.
The weathered look and the simplicity of this poster design by Edward Julian Moran II work well together.
Here’s another minimalist design that was well executed.
Blues and browns are often a good color combo, and this piece by Stephanie Zuppo is no exception on that count.
Finally, this piece by Shepard Fairey, the king of Neo-Constructivism, is not about V for Vendetta itself, but it uses the V mask to excellent effect nonetheless while riffing on Obama’s famous “Hope” presidential campaign artwork.
Happy Guy Fawkes Day, people!
Yes, folks, it’s my favorite holiday again–the one where everything gets spooky! And in honor of this most diabolical of holidays, here’s some badass Bernie Wrightson art featuring the walking head horror from the John Carpenter film The Thing. Enjoy! Mwah ha ha ha . . .
And also, here’s your Halloween song, possibly the creepiest song in creation. Let’s just say, Annabelle has nothing on the doll in Christine. Nothing at all.
Communist Daughter – Ghosts
So, I clearly missed a few days of posting the Song of the Day. Sorry about that, but I had a lot going on at the time. Anyway, I’m back on track, at least until the next mini-crisis or whatever. Today’s selection is from Communist Daughter and is simply titled Ghosts. I had not seen the music video for the song until today, and now I’m sharing it.
Radiohead – Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Here it is, one of my favorite songs from one of the greatest alt rock bands of all time. And the accompanying music video is fantastic too, so I’m posting it instead of just the song.