Cyberpunk Status and Works in Progress

On Google+ (where I do most of my networking) I have been discussing something that does not quite rise to the level of essay but remains worth sharing.

The topic question was whether or not cyberpunk as a Science Fiction genre had disappeared.

My thoughts on the matter:

I think that fiction has mirrored literary trends of the 30s and 40s. As socioeconomic circumstances grow more grim for the audience, the former core of cyberpunk fans, which were edgy and gritty in the prosperous western 80s and 90s since genre founders tended to the dystopian, now the audience seeks more utopian and escapist technological fiction, as seen in the explosion of the military space opera (Honor Harrington) and the rise of steampunk, which is among other things distinguished from cyberpunk in its typically more upbeat themes and endings.
Johnny Mnemonic yields to Steam Boy as the grimmer aspects of dystopian speculation come too close to life experience for emotional relief.

I use elements of cyperpunk in my own writing, which mashes bits of sci-fi, fantasy, and urban fantasy.  For example, my primary series has a fortress that is a molycirc-based starship, the descendants of the command staff are genetically modified for, among other things, deliberate nanite-compatibility, and uses vid-screens and teleportation, but my dystopian elements are the lost colony settings, where spacefaring or galaxy-traversing civilizations have crumbled to lower levels of technology.  So there are swords, martial arts, and magic in addition to the science fiction elements.  (Inspired by the Botany Bay colony in real history.)

So, even though I have advanced technology interfacing with humanity, a somewhat pessimistic view of human progress compared to technological progress (both cyberpunk themes) they are parts of a broader melange.

I think that trend has happened much more widely, where cyberpunk has been incorporated into many other subgenres instead of remaining this individual bastion.

The cyber elements remain to be explored, with even broader vistas. There are plenty of classic ideas that we can look at modernizing. Just in 60 seconds we can think up the following:

With cybernetic biochips within reach, “Farenheit 451” has to change for a society where the govt. sees through your own eyes. Now how do you get through banned books alive?!

When everyone has biotech, the zombie apocalypse can come from a computer virus, but throw in a distant comsat uplink and you get “Dawn of the Dead” meets “Fellowship of the Ring” or King’s “Dark Tower” for the race to upload an antivirus while there are still people left.

Everyone cheered when brain wiring led to a 99% cure in criminal recidivism. But when a political revolution puts (Not your worldview) in power, (a sympathetic worldview) suddenly becomea a Hate Crime. Now its an overland race to get overseas dodging Thought Bots, Skip Tracers, and the perils of a sterile society when your closest friends are an outpatient surgery away from hunting you down.

Throw.”Pretty in Pink” in the meat grinder to tell a coming of age story in a “Big Brother” setting.

There are four novel ideas I haven’t heard of all taken from a single microcosm of cyberpunk, the concept of neural connectivity.

The follow-up was whether or not I was writing any of those ideas, and it seemed like a fair chance to talk a bit about my current works in progress:

I’m not currently writing any of them. I currently have 3 projects in the pipe:

WIP 1: An honor-defined steampunk Shaolin warrior has the postmodern consciousness of a dead.starship captain supporting his nanite based physical powers as he begins his quest to reassemble the scattered mnemonic packages holding the knowledge of the ship crew that crashed eight centuries before, righting wrongs Zorro style as his journey begins. In a world where the command crew are worshipped as gods I examine the nature of truth and belief. Righting wrongs (this episode) in a recently.conquered Celt-landia lets me poke at assumptions of Postcolonialism in literary trends using the family of last generation’s most infamous rebel leader. Finally, it’s almost 50 years since “Zorro: The Gay Blade” came out, and I don’t have the energy to pretend that PC is either innovative or shocking like the first season of Star Trek TNG in 1980 something. So to hang a lamp on it I decided to go counter-culture and have an “ex-gay” Zorro figure instead. What is really, really fun is the challenge to write such characterization, drama, and action that none of that meta-concept shows up on a conscious level, and my readers just get to enjoy martial arts, airships, snark, adventure, and drama. 127,000 words in out of about 200k for Pilgrim’s Path.

WIP 2: Using the Nephilim mythology to justify super powers in an urban fantasy setting, book 3 in the series has thr supernatal world rocked as the magic community becomes the target on the new War on Terror. Drone strikes and special forces soldiers versus giants and werewolves in the American streets, and mystic demigod Adrian Campbell has lost.most of his powers just when he needs them all to get a family and some supernatural teenage orphans to safety, then find some way to stop the hidden threat playing USA’s mortal and supernatual forces against one another to open the way for an extradimensional invasion. Themes I get to play with: The ethical questions of vigilatism, the morality of super hero teenage sidekicks, obedience to unjust authority in JudeoChrisitian ethics, and continuing the limits of personal redemption from evil as the cornerstone question when all the superpowers come from having demons for daddies. Giant’s Rage is 57k words in of a probable 150k for book 3 in that series.

When I get that done I am prewriting book 4 in my science fantasy Arthurian legend lost colony series. 17 year old Ryan MacOrin destroyed the starship that housed his family’s base of power to save the continent from an army of mind-slaving warlocks, but they aren’t all gone. Now he has no power base. His only companions are his best friend, a swordsman prince of the kingdom they just burned to the ground, and a 400 year old inhuman assassin sentenced to serve in punishment for playing Judas and destroying the ancient kingdom of light. So with ninja Darth Vader and emotionally crippled Lancelot versus his own evil uncle, who is better and older, my hero gets to adventure around to prove that his place as king depends not on a powerful fortress or armies, but on who he is inside. Of course, facing mystic pirates, enemy ninjas, monster-controlling wizards, and the crew of a stranded starship of Lizard Men who want the tech in his bones, all the training in the world might not be enough… Crystal Valley will finish at around 250k words.

Then I give myself permission to start a dragon based zombie apocalypse series.

Filtered Fiction and New Page

I’m thinking of adding a new page to the site.  I used to have a lending library next to the door of my apartment, full of the best assortment of paperbacks that I could give out.

I’m thinking of posting the list on a separate page, and incorporating a great point I heard from Jim Butcher in an interview.  His basic point was that you have to filter your fiction.  “There is one Matrix movie.”  That’s true for a lot of fiction, where the original story was excellent but market-driven sequels, or the author’s failure to maintain performance levels, ruins the rest.  Frank Herbert’s Dune is perhaps the greatest example of all time.  The first book, and only the first book, should be required reading by freshman year of college.  The rest… compost.

In television this principle shows up best with Babylon 5 and Supernatural.

B-5 thought they were being cancelled in season 4 so they crammed all of the critical final plot into the last few episodes (it shows, but it’s still worth it.  I would really have enjoyed watching Boxleightner spend 4 or 5 episodes as a POW it would have been very powerful.)  When season 5 renewed they had no original plot left, so the act of introducing new threats never bore real fruit.  The end result was season 4’s triumphal ending.  Season 5 basically just showed that the triumph was empty and the ending went to hell as everything good and golden rotted before your eyes, and up yours, viewers…

Similarly the TV show Supernatural was invented and produced as a 5-season story arc.  I stand it utter awe of creator Eric Kripke.  He envisioned a unique (frequently blasphemous, perpetually innovative) mythology for urban fantasy, threw “Luke and Han Solo on a road trip” into the mix, and told a solid and coherent story for five years.  Characterization, rising levels of power and tension, the reasoning behind all motives and plot from episode one to the season five finale, they all work together as well as anything I’ve ever seen.  SPOILER: If you’re really quick, he even answers the final two season’s question, “The apocalypse is coming, where is God?!” in the final episode.  I won’t say where or how.

When the series was to be continued, Kripke walked off the project.  He basically said, I have told the story.  My story is done.  Folks, if you are ever in the same room with the man, shake his hand because very, very few people in California have that sort of intestinal fortitude and integrity.

The show was still bringing in the ratings, but with a new producer, the ending must be un-made, and the characterizations and mythology quickly disappear under the tires of the mercantile bus, sacrificing story for sales in seasons 6 and 7 (seasons 8-10 are all right if you relax and accept that this is a parallel, slightly crappier universe with less coherent logic and no God).  The pro-family, hunting-values character has to have conflict with his new family, so suddenly he goes from eternally grateful for his training and knowledge to hiding and ashamed of it, refusing to teach his son how to survive the supernatural world (which, go figure, ultimately leads many times to his near death and helplessness in scenes were pre-teen Sam and Dean would have simply shot the monster and had McDonalds), the mechanisms behind humanity and demons is destroyed so a character can have no soul, but not be a demon, though that was how demons were made in the mythology…  Every single character’s path had to get shredded.

As a perk, in the 200th episode, when the final 5 seasons were summed up, the writers put in the line from a character, “That’s the crappiest fan fiction I’ve ever heard.”

Amen.  Preach it.

This has happened for most every continuing series that I know, and most that I love.  (Macross is a fantastic story, Southern Cross ruins Robotech…)

I’m a writer and a monk.  In American terms, I have no life outside of fiction.  So I am planning on starting a page to highlight what’s great, and where to avoid the pitfalls that can ruin the best stories I know of in our age.

Sound off with requests and comments.

Conflicted Camouflage

A friend and I sat down and watched the indie gay/bullying film Camouflage written, directed, and starring Kyle T. Cowan.

Mr. Cowan has made his film available to watch online or download free of charge.  He does ask in exchange that people watching the film give money to one of the causes the film supports: Gay and lesbian youth, anti-bullying, or gun control.  Then he asks us to do an act of kindness and make a video about the good we’ve done to “raise awareness” and “change the world”.

Sigh.

That sort of thing is forbidden by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  If I have done any good, or good has come from watching this film, I would be commanded to keep it to myself.  But I did promise a film review, and I will be as brief as I can and do it justice.  Practically every sentence in this review could constitute and entire post if I had the time and energy.

Camouflage is a solidly-crafted indie film that draws heavily on stage acting experience.  There are very few sets, a handful of cast, and scene structure goes a long way towards telling the story.  It’s a frame story about a college shooting, with an unreliable narrator whose past and position remain somewhat clouded as series’ of flashbacks are set apart by interviews with the most poorly-cast FBI agent I have ever seen.  Not only did I never believe for a second that the self-descriptive, soft, and sympathetic law officer was actually a cop, but she served too well as the useful idiot.  Fortunately, Adriana Leonard’s portrayal is the only sub-par bit of acting in the film.  Kyle T. Cowan plays the lead as well as directing and producing the film.  His outbursts verge on over-the-top from time to time, but otherwise stay solid.  Jimmy Bennett, Rodney Eastman, and a surprising performance by unknown Brandon Winner as teen-aged Austin (the shooter/protagonist) carry a lot of weight in roles that had their challenges.  The cinematography is of good quality for a low-budged film, sound and lighting are superbly well done (meaning at no time did they draw away from the story), and there is a nice touch to the shorting florescent light that always brings the semi-dissociated narrator’s brokenness to mind and keeps it there.

The story in a nutshell is that a bullied homosexual boy has to bury his ‘true self’ (meaning his homosexuality) in order to live a life accepted in society.  When he does act on his homosexual desires he is traumatized when younger, and as an adult snaps and goes full-on psycho in a completely unjustifiable way that is meant to look sympathetic.  The film’s producer lists three primary causes that the film is supposed to change in the world: bullying, gay teen issues, and gun control.  It’s a tragedy that the film is more activism than drama, because there was a good story idea in here, but the story is undermined frequently by the need to hit all the politically correct beats.

As a drama, Camouflage is more than worth the price of admission (and if you want to send $5 or the price of a movie rental to a cause of your choice, there’s nothing wrong with that.  As an activism piece, it largely fails.  People who already believe in all of the film’s messages will love it, but internal consistencies rob the film’s arguments of their staying power.

A Christian film reviewer, I deliberately look at gay cinema for a couple of reasons.  First, there cannot be a gag reflex if we are ever going to reach out to those we disagree with (which is the opposite of the LGBT community’s striving for hatred to condemn those who disagree with them and to silence them in the name of ‘tolerance’).  It is frankly impossible to say ‘you’re gross’ and ‘come to Jesus’ in the same lifetime.  Look at Jesus and the leper in Matthew.  First, Jesus had compassion on the leper.  Then Jesus touched the leper just as he was.  Finally, Jesus healed the leper and made him clean.  The church today shouts all the time to condemn gay marriage, and it wants nothing to do with the ex-gay movement or other undesirables unless they hide their wounds and struggles.

This is just plain wrong.  If you can avoid the raunchy sex-comedy stuff and watch a good drama (Prayers for Bobby, this film Camouflage, and a couple others are good places to start) there is a lot of honesty about the hurt and suffering that homosexuals go through in life.

That is one area where Camouflage shines.  Austin’s father rejects him socially and emotionally again and again.  Galvin (the father) finds young Austin playing house and kissing games with his dolls at an age far too young to be sexually engaged, and brings in his wife to publicly shame Austin.  Later, when teenage Austin is beaten for being gay, Galvin rejects Austin for not shooting quickly enough, calls him a pussy, and stalks off.  The message is clear, and it is the same message that most of the homosexual men I know have received all their lives from their fathers and older brothers: You don’t belong in the masculine world, you are inferior, unwanted, and rejected.  Galvin, played by Rodney Eastman, does a very fine job of a father who does love his son in his own troubled way, but has no effective means of communicating it, and that wound scars Austin in a life-long way.

That is good stuff, a message that is true, timely, and relevant.  Galvin points to high suicide rates, violence, and the troubles of active and openly homosexual teens experience.  He doesn’t want that for his son, which is a loving and good point, but his every attempt to deal with that problem just makes the problem worse.  (I have gone through some of these issues in a video here.)

The problem of teenage bullying is very well done, and no review of the film would be complete without citing Brandon Winner’s performance as the teenage Austin.  The boy had very few lines.  He had to carry off vulnerability, sacrificial love in a bullying scene, and many other subtle emotions with perhaps a handful of lines to go with, and the role was critical to build sympathy for his psychotic and violent adult self.

The film’s idea that it has an impact on gun control is laughable.  The FBI agent states already that Austin, the shooter, came by his guns illegally.  Once something is illegal it’s illegal.  There is no reason given or logic behind the idea that making firearms more illegal would have changed anything.  The standard responses to this argument hold fast: When school shooters are the only ones with guns, their rampage goes on unhindered.  When someone else has a gun, the shooter gets stopped.  This has been true every single school shooting I have ever researched, and the Camouflage film has nothing to convince someone who already disagrees with him.

The gay-teen bullying argument also starts to fall short very quickly.  At a party Austin’s secret boyfriend kisses him.  Called a ‘faggot’ and asked to leave, his response is to violently attack his host.  (His assault escalates and shockingly enough, he isn’t Bruce Lee and the collective party guests beat him up and throw him out after he started the violence in the first place.)  Folks, that isn’t standing up for LGBT issues, that’s felony assault.  The very tiny minority (the gay community) absolutely depends on the principle of a free society that they (LGBT crowd) may be offensive and disagreeable to many but completely physically safe from harm.  I completely agree with that, by the way.

But Camouflage joins The Perks of Being a Wallflower as having a scene where, called an anti-homosexual slur, the gay protagonist physically attacks his verbal accuser (and loses, and either has someone defend them or gets beaten up).  This message works very strongly against the principles of tolerance and acceptance that the LGBT community demands.  When your philosophical differences require the use of fists, you’re not talking tolerance but arguing over which viewpoint has a right to tyranny.  “Don’t publicly scorn a gay person or they have the right to assault you.” is deplorable and despicable just as, “Don’t be gay in public or they have a right to assault you.”  Both viewpoints are hateful, sinful, and wrong.  As long as the LGBT community refuses to condemn such violent reactions from its own spokespeople it isn’t going to gain a lot of traction among its detractors.

Moreover, the entire rationale for the shooting hinges on the innocence and victim status of Austin, who did not simply leave when asked (the legal and moral high ground, because did he really need to be partying with people who don’t want him there?) but attacked others, and stated repeatedly that they all deserved to die.  He fantasizes or actually does go kill every person in the frat because he attacked one of them (with provocation) lost, and was thrown out.

As a point of rhetoric, one thing I am not going to miss until my next bout reviewing an LGBT film is the total identification of personal identity with sexual desire.  Every character who addresses the issue accepts the following as truth: Austin, hiding his homosexual desires, is denying his true self.  People are not their sexual desires.  Did Austin not truly exist until his first orgasm?  If he becomes impotent in his later life, will he cease to be a full person?  What if the message was instead that Austin was much more than who he wanted to sleep with, that he was his skills, his education, his career, his non-sexual relationships, his religious beliefs… All of those things begin far before and last long after someone’s sexual life.  Austin is portrayed as a bisexual man, but only his homosexuality is called his ‘true self’.  Why?  It goes back to the same double-standard as the bullying.  The film rightly depicts bullying a teenage boy for having homosexual feelings as contemptible, but winks and nods at homosexuals being violent to anyone who disagrees or disapproves.  Austin’s secret lover in college tells him “bi is just a step on the path to gay” which would be horrifying to the LGBT community if Austin’s dad said, “this is just experimentation, it’s just a step on the path to straight.”

So, for an interesting drama, a quick and accurate look at the pain of bullied gay teens, and a smorgasbord of LGBT double-standards, Camouflage was an interesting film.  I would recommend it for any Christian who has a loved one in the LGBT community, or who wants engage in that debate.  The logic falls apart, but at the heart level the pathos, anger, and hurt of this movie are dead-on.

Royal Yamato Continuation

I have compared indie sci-fi author Christopher Nuttall’s Ark Royal series to the beloved anime Space Battleship Yamato (which was released in North America as Star Blazers).  In both stories a single refurbished battleship carried the fate of the human race against a nearly invincible alien invasion.  Ark Royal was an interesting military science fiction series that took a modern (effectively secular British) interpretation of the 1970’s classic story.  Add some Battlestar Galactica with one-third mixture of Robotech/Macross and you have the elements Nuttall used to bake up a solid and enjoyable fictional war.

The fourth book, Warspite, proved something exceptional about Christopher Nuttall that was not immediately apparent from his remix of previous fictions.  Nuttall has amalgamated space battleship classics with enough rigor to own the resulting universe.  Years after the original trilogy’s war, a new captain and ship will face new challenges.

What follows is one of my favorite delight in serial fiction, as Nuttall proves himself ready to play in the same league as, if he does not quite match the heart of David Weber’s early works, John Ringo, and the like.

Warspite is more than a mere continuance.  One of my scholarly disciplines is archetypal criticism, and the inversions in the unfolding new epic make for a real treat.  The old Ark Royal was an antique ship, outdated in a perfectly useful fashion with a rag-tag crew of outcasts.  Warspite is a human-alien hybrid prototype, the cutting edge of technological lessons learned in the war.  Ark Royal‘s commander was a half burned-out alcoholic who had to overcome his demons to lead his people into the fray.  Warspite‘s new CO is a grieving homosexual ex-pilot, a bright and rising star who has to carry the weight of a crew of political appointees in a quick, easy assignment that goes rapidly south.  The inversions continue as the two crews Shadow one another, but they reflect around a central axis of Nuttall’s enjoyable fiction.  The characters are typical, but likable and understandable.  It isn’t a crime to have stock characters, since the very nature of archetypes go back to the dawn of fiction in theater and religious lessons.

Nuttall provides solid secular adventure.  His view of the military goes beyond the offerings of Hollywood and the BBC.  I can really only name David Weber and Timothy Zahn as the other military SF writers who make as thorough an offering of multiple levels.  Political conflicts trickle in from the upper nobility to the ramifications of a yeoman’s duties.  Few of the fiction books written by actual military veterans, that have this fabric in the writing also manage to keep the wide-eyed sense of adventure that space opera needs to thrive.  Few space operas have the detail work that Nuttall carries through in space travel, military logistics, and colonial economics.

Nuttall isn’t the best at any one aspect of genre fiction (that non-‘literature’ stuff that has been the vast majority of written and enjoyed works for the past two hundred years or so), but he continues to establish himself in the realm of up-and-coming indie authors whom I will pick up whenever they have something new and I have the price of a Happy Meal to spare.

Affordable, enjoyable, and solid, I recommend the Ark Royal series to anyone who enjoys military SF.

Finally, the take of a literary monk:

A quick comparison of Nuttall’s first four Ark Royal books and the first four Honor Harrington novels highlights the difference between American and British society over the past fifty years, where Britain abandoned God at the end of WWII and America in general waited until the first Clinton administration to go whole-hog-secular.  Two generations of cultural drift away from our former common faith show through.

The differences are not always negative.  If an American author offered a homosexual captain, it would be an active, brash, and probably obnoxious assault in the ongoing cultural conflict between the religious and the anti-theistic.  Nuttall’s captain is neither transgressive nor pioneering.  It’s simply a descriptor of his past, not a definition of his every waking moment, and his happiness and goals do not revolve around the nature of person he used to take to bed.  That genuinely is a rare treat these days.

For all the bright spots, the innate futility and pessimism of the godless worldview, or perhaps it is more accurate to say a constant cast of the godless, carries its own weight through the tone of Nuttall’s otherwise excellent work.  With no concept of grace or undeserved forgiveness, justice is a bleak and hopeless thing.  The same proves true with victimization of the powerless.  Without the hope of supernatural intervention, crises like rape, imprisonment, and conquest result in lifelong damage.  Likewise, those who lose loved ones have no recourse for their grief, no hope of reunion.  Those whose loved ones are not dead, but injured, are on the other side of that despair, where the universally accepted truth is they won’t have the strength of character or enduring emotional commitment to put the damaged relationships back together.

So it isn’t a big surprise that Nuttall’s world revolves largely around pornography and self-gratification for personal pursuits.  I don’t object to the inclusion of Sin City, a lunar base dedicated to every illicit fashion to press your YES button over and over again.  Indeed, I see it as the inevitable conclusion of the worldview.  “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

This is not a puritanical judge-fest.  I enjoy Nuttall’s fiction.  I have bought four of his books and I will buy the next in this series.  But I am glad that I have a hope for more, and the assurance of help for the troubles, injuries, and love for the journey.  I’m also glad for the color and life that religion adds to cultures.  Nuttall’s Russian culture is collectivist, secular, and frequently savage, but here in the real world Russian iconography, songwriting, classical music, dancing, and their churches are vital and beautiful additions to a culture rife with conquest and war.

I believe that the inherent optimism from faith, even from legalistic or liberal faiths that tend to view religions as socio-political constructs more than actual interactions with an invested divinity, colors plot and story.  Weber’s Honor Harrington series starts off with political corruption, innovative space travel, and attempted victimization in On Basilisk Station, covers many of the same topics throughout the first ten-novel series, but they are dealt with in a much more hopeful tone.  The prisoners of war aren’t just dehumanized property who cave in and give up.  They band together, keep their morale, and emerge stronger than before.  Back-woods planets become powerhouses, and though their faith undergoes change, it doesn’t just survive but becomes a source of power and adaptive drive for the Graysons.

So, I prefer it in my space opera not simply because I believe in it, but because I prefer optimism to pessimism, progressive improvement to nihilism, and idealism to hedonistic escapism.

I enjoy both series, but sometimes I come across something I really enjoy that reminds me how, even while I wait for the true joys of heaven, my faith and others’ brings joy and life to the daily experiences as well.

Closed Loop System

In machining, a closed loop system is a fancy way to describe a servo motor.  It doesn’t just move, but it tracks how it is moving.  It’s one of the things that allows us to create parts within .0005 inches or so of a desired dimension.  Without that sort of accuracy ballistics and the aerospace industry wouldn’t get very far.  Feedback is essential to accuracy and production.

I find that writing uses ideal readers and beta readers in much the same fashion, and I don’t think I would make nearly as much progress without them.  My current work in progress (WIP) is the second installment in the new semi-steampunk series St. Gavin’s Ghost.

Sure, there are the typical elements of a story that excites me: speculative science, faith, martial arts, dynamic relationships, lots of action, and plenty of questions about belief, relationships, sexuality, and society.  I am not fishing for an entirely new audience.  That will have to wait until I have a better pen name for a new style.

But for every core similarity I am trying something new with this series.  Instead of my typical immense epic I am shooting for shorter episodes put together for as large a saga as I have ever dreamed up.  Book two, The Pilgrim’s Path already has 150% of The Rogue of An Dinas‘ word count, and it will probably be three times as large when the manuscript’s done.  This is the first time I have written a non-Christian protagonist as the critical voice in the story. That’s saying nothing of the challenge of writing a compelling character-driven piece with an actively gay main character in a committed relationship at the start of the story, and then selling him and his subsequent struggles to an American Christian audience.  It probably isn’t an immense leap to guess he won’t be pagan all his life, but I have always left that role to antagonists who enjoy perhaps thirty percent of my narrative (Helen and Sven in Song of Lagrandil, Caith Moore in Darkblade) even when I really enjoy them.  There’s the challenge of writing a conversion story, when as a lifelong Lutheran I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in God.  The interactions between singleness and family life, sexuality versus relationships, the attempt to find honor when worldviews change, colonialism and post-colonial assumptions in fiction…  New format, new world-build, new characterization, new questions, the new series has a stretched me in almost every direction.

So I wanted to take a post to say how lost I would be without my faithful beta readers.  The Logic Monkey, my Ideal Reader, is an invaluable go-no-go check.  If something isn’t working for the person to whom I’m telling the story, then something needs to change.  He’s also invaluable asset because he’s willing to sit down and explore the logic and justification between choices, why things work and don’t.  Mrs. Keys is a super-charger.  She never fails to find something positive to reinforce or point out as the story goes.  Southern Simul, the latest edition to the beta readers, is a great canary in the mine shaft.  Young, passionate, and pure-hearted, I get a great sense of impact when he shares how the story reaches him.  My long-time Nerd Posse members Mr. and Mrs. Dolly have nearly a decade’s experience with my plot twists and turns, and they’re always ready to engage with my apologetics or plotting.  Though he isn’t on the regular beta mailing list, The Ninja provides encouragement when he e-mails me pictures of various hunting rifles attached to questions about how long before the next book comes out (cough cough hint hint).

I may never make a living JUST as an author, but without a back-up crew like my beta readers I wouldn’t be turning out half the stuff I have.

Sometimes you just have to take a moment and represent.

Thank you, Betas!

The Walking Battlestar Galactica:

I love a good Apocalypse, not so much because I want to watch the world burn down (though the CNN news that constantly plays at the break room at work is almost enough to engender such misanthropy), but because of the original meaning of the word apocalypse, which meant revelation.

The act of burning something down is an act of revelation.  That which is strong and true endures the flames, and that which is unworthy and impure (another word whose very roots go to the idea of fire, puros in the Greek).  If you see the supporting frame, steel girders, and chimneys still standing on a solid foundation after a house fire, you have some idea of what I mean.

The start of some of my favorite stories are apocalypses: The fall of Atlantis begins Lawhead’s Taliesin, my favorite take on Arthurian mythology.  The destruction of the 12 Colonies meant that the last Battlestar, Gallactica, would lead a rag-tag-fugitive fleet on a quest for the lost colony of Earth, and I wished I had a dagget as a kid.  The destruction of Alderaan put the Rebel Alliance on its heels and set the stage for the return of the Jedi Order.  The superflu wiped out humanity in King’s The Stand.  I particularly enjoyed Stirling’s Dies the Fire and the first trilogy of noves of The Change, where electricity went out across the world.  (That’s right, JJ Abrams totally stole that idea.  Deal with it.)

I love these settings because stories are about conflict, and conflict reveals character.  Meaningful conflict does not just expose character but impacts the hero’s world.  In the I Robot series Asimov’s detective sets off a new wave of colonization that will lead to the world of the Foundation books.  You find out what someone is really made of when all the polite social reasons to play nicely with others goes out the window.  This person and nice guy is actually a predator.  This mild-mannered reporter turns out to be Superman full-time now.

Like the Judeo-Christian Apocalypse/Revelation to John, the destruction of the old order is not an end in and of itself.  A good apocalypse story is not a global snuff film, but it is the beginning of a new order.  This is where the genre truly shines.  When the old is destroyed and the heroes step up to establish the new, the possibilities spin a storyteller’s head right round on his shoulders.  The character of the heroes does not just define their actions, but they can be the people about whom generations of hypothetical characters will tell tall tales, or look to for an ethical standard.  The Song of Roland is the death of an entire small army, but its example served as the definitive reference text for chivalry for centuries.  A single old prophet woman calls together the right sort of people to rebuild the world in The Stand.  The Postman is one of my favorite Costner movies not because of the apocalypse or the Holnists, but because of the vicarious joy I feel when I watch the return of communication restore hope and start to forge a new world.  What starts off as a con game becomes a tale of personal and worldly redemption.

(That reminds me I really need to find out if that was based on a novel and read that novel!)

UN-fortunately, this is where the modern apocalypse stories go wrong.  In order to tell a good story, there needs to be a continuing and escalating conflict, but most apocalypse stories these days are TV series.  TV series aren’t just written by writers (except the rare times when studios give Joss Whedon enough head room to run!!!) they are approved or not by studio executives who want to make money.  Fair enough.  Without a profit there would be no TV series in the first place.  But businessmen like business models.  A writer worth his salt must continually take risks with his characters.  Any executive worth his salt wants to stick to a business model that yields a profit with a good product.  That latter pressure is necessarily a conservative (in the literal sense) force acting on any story.  Battlestar Galactica‘s re-boot had a pretty good first season, but it was decided that the show would only always be about the ship on the run, outnumbered, and outgunned.  Only the side plots could change.  The original Galactica had an equally cheezy spin-off.  They attempted to tell the story about the colonials actually reaching Earth and integrating into our society.  There genuinely did turn out to be a higher power that was guiding them, as evidenced in the white-uniform episode or two.  Their faith was not in vain.  They made effective strikes against the Cylons and won their freedom.  Season after season of the reboot dragged on, and every revelation turned out to be hollow.  The humans found a new colony, so that had to turn into a prison camp from which they had to flee in a rag-tag fugitive fleet (back to the formula, my imaginary executive demands).  Instead of turning the colony into a base, rebuilding, fighting back, maybe retaking the colonies or fighting to a truce with the Cylons, the story dragged on until even the ships couldn’t bear the strain any longer (Galactica‘s ultimate death was due to wear and tear, just like the story’s plotline).

A good apocalypse story tells of the fall, then starts to rebuild.  A bad one can do nothing but remain a burned-out hulk because it cannot turn into anything else, it can’t risk trying to tell a new kind of story that the heroes of the last sort of story had earned.  But folks, in order to get back to a fresh apocalypse, you have to burn down everything that the characters have built so far.  Apocalypse is like adolescence.  You can die, or move on, but it is impossible to remain in transition forever.

As bad as the film was, the best ever apocalypse-to-rebuilding story I have ever read is Battlefield Earth by certifiable nut-job L. Ron Hubbard.  The film was an abomination, but the book was miraculous.  The opening crisis starts off with a young man leaving his village and exploring a deserted city.  The exploration story becomes a POW drama.  The POW drama becomes a heist story.  The heist complete, we return to deduction and techie drama with some internal conflict.  As that winds down there is a flat-out war story / siege tale.  Hubbard’s novel changes genres again and again, revisiting themes, but growing in genre as the characters grow and change the world around them.  Hard-core pseudo-intellectuals slam the book because it is the largest single work of pulp fiction I have ever come across, but if you are looking for a book to lose a weekend in, you could do a lot worse.

(Having read my last copy to pieces a really need to buy a new copy of that book!)

The result of this is that I have frequently wanted to write an apocalypse or two.  Events in book three of the Adrian Campbell series are definitely starting to lean that way, and I have done more than a year of pre-writing for the world that will be left behind when the dust clears.

But I am afraid, because season five of The Walking Dead starts again this month.  This has been the best story of an apocalypse to come along in an easy decade.  The character development has been good, the acting solid, and the plot escalation so far has been well-done as everyone learns how to manage the current threats and deal with new ones.

Season five is going to be a make-or-break moment for the television adaptation of the series.  If the producers are willing to take risks with the story, The Walking Dead can surpass the comics just as Game of Thrones is a far better video series than the novels.  OR The Walking Dead will pull a Battlestar Galactica and throw away the momentum it has earned with more of the same.

Gain a home at the cost of friends, fight for the home, lose the home, move on…

If they just repeat this formula enough, we will stop caring, because no matter how wonderful the characters or well-crafted the world, if there is no hope and growth in the story then all the producers are asking us to do is to invest more of ourselves into something we know we will lose.  It’s an invitation to masochism that I no longer have the time or energy to indulge.

If they make the risks, go for the big leaps forward, then this may be the greatest running series for more than a decade.

Time will tell.

Bonus Rant: Banned Book Week

The self-appointed Office for Intellectual Freedom has accumulated a list of the most-banned books of the last decade.  Surprisingly enough as an author and the proud owner of a paper that says BA in English, Banned Book Week really pisses me off.  I have derailed both my Advanced Literary Criticism class Sr. year and my Advanced Writing class Jr. year over this topic.

Point one: Intellectual Freedom.  From?  Freedom from what?  Ethics?  Morality?  Decency?  Accountability to the public?  Freedom to what?  To expose pre-adolescent and adolescent children to ideas best considered later?  The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of the books that I have read, found well-crafted and morally devoid of all value, but enjoyed reading.  The format was ground-breaking, the prose above average, and the characterization was spot-on.  I’ve got a copy of it in my Nook library.

I have bought, read, own, and will probably re-read this book again.  NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS would I put this book in a grade school or junior high library.  NEVER.

Don’t lecture me about the free exchange of ideas.  I have been reading and around education for more years than I want to think about, and the truth is that the ideas aren’t to be put out there for an open exchange.  They’re laid quietly in a book trusting that the lax absentee parents of our generation will be too ignorant to know about, much less engage the concepts presented.  If a librarian openly told a single mother the content of this book while handing it to their son or daughter they’d get fired.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is USC- (big surprise his training came from the University of Southern California) -educated Stephen Chbosky’s revision of his own adolescence, a fact for which he has my undying pity if he made less than 80% of this up.  The son of a pair of 1%-ers, Mr. Chbosky tells a story I can see happening in the prep-school crowd I grew up around, but will largely be foreign to the 99%ers who know that lifestyle only through caricatures in film that were popular in the late 80’s as Hollywood hated on the rich.

Charlie, the main character, writes exquisitely in his diary that is composed of a series of letters to his probably-imaginary friend.  He’s a freshman in high school and the content of the story deals with the circle of upperclassmen who adopt him into their own clique of the rich and ostracized.   Charlie is one of several colorful, memorable, and likable characters in this one of many, many banned books.

What do these likable, memorable, and fun characters do in the story?

Well, the correct response to homophobic bullying is to commit aggravated assault in public, which is what Charlie does and that proves that he’s a good guy.
And the boy he’s defending is the boy, four years his elder who teaches him to masturbate.  That’s probably a felony as well in most states, by the way, or at least a gross misdemeanor.
All the cool kids get together to drink and do drugs, because that’s how we bond and have fun.
After Charlie nearly hospitalizes someone in an act of liberal gay-friendly tolerance, Patrick repays his friendship by taking Charlie to a park where older gay men pick up teenage boys, because that’s where Patrick goes to find happiness, where he tells Charlie every time that this time he will really be happy.  I remember being on the edge of tears because of the sad, fucked-up pain-seeking cycle of victimization that Patrick’s character accepts as completely normal.  But hey, it’s a book, so Patrick doesn’t end up HIV+, raped, kidnapped, OD’d, or dead by suicide when this nightmare of a lifestyle doesn’t pay off.

When I was a freshman in high school most of these issues existed.   I don’t have a problem with this book talking about masturbation, alcohol, sexual experimentation, bullying, homophobia (genuine homophobia here not just disapproving of a liberal position, there is physical assault on both sides of the issue in the story), drug use, dating, relationships, belonging, and the search for identity.

All of those things are pretty much issues that every teenager has to at least make a decision about, if they don’t directly encounter it.

But Chbosky presents the most amoral and horrific answer to every one of those questions that I have ever found in one place.  The answer to finding happiness as a homosexual teenager is to go park-tawling for semi-pedophiles?!?!  WTF?!?!?!  HONESTLY I was so shocked when I read this plot point, because that’s the sort of thing that I would expect the Westboro Baptist Chipmunks to falsely accuse homosexual teenagers of attempting but none of the gay guys I knew in junior and senior high school would ever have dreamed of, much less actually tried.  But this isn’t a bit of anti-gay propaganda it is placed as a sympathetic and embraced as an authentic part of Patrick’s chosen lifestyle.

Let’s just stop on that single point.  If you wouldn’t want some random stranger to tell your son or daughter that this is a normal, healthy, admirable way to seek happiness…  If you wouldn’t let one of your friends at church or your neighbors tell a story about gay-trolling for older men in parks with high school freshmen in tow…

Then you really, really need to shut up about book banning in America.

This isn’t even real book banning.  It’s restricting access of material to minors.  The books aren’t illegal.  I can’t remember any non-nut-job saying that the writers should be arrested/shot/what have you.  If you think saying “I don’t want my tax money to pay for my child to read this” is oppression, then I invite you to try and take a Bible to Cuba and see how much prison time your intellectual freedom costs you.  Any of these books is available at a book store or online for less than a week’s worth of paper-rout money.

But don’t get up in my grill about how horrible and oppressive it is for the parent of some 12-year-old boy to NOT WANT their child to have a book available or taught in class that involves having high school seniors giving children under the age of consent sex ed lessons, handing them drugs and alcohol, some of the most dangerous sexual activity a kid could EVER try short of auto-erotic asphyxia… And having this be the best and most fun time that the high school freshman has ever had…

If you would put a man in prison for handing a “how to get picked up by older gay men” pamphlet to your under-age son (and please, please put that dude in prison), don’t you dare lecture, bitch, or moan that someone protests that the message is still wrong when you take that note, put a pretty cover and a publisher’s imprint on the back, and make it into a major motion picture.  Also, by the way, what is wrong with you that pretty prose and inventive narrative style would ever, EVER make you think that book would even BE appropriate to place in a junior high kid’s reach in the first place?!?

THAT BEING SAID…

The knee-jerk reaction is just as stupid on the other side.  Some of the books on the banned book list are great, noble, worthy, and true.  Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate my Gymsuit is another young adult story that also features a freshman character who feels ostracized, longs for a way to fit in, has an influential teacher, infrequently discusses masturbation, wants to have a boyfriend, feels insecure, and has an abusive home life.

All of those items in common with The Perks of Being a Wallflower but Mrs. Danziger addresses them with tact, respect, humor, and her own crisp and narrative voice.  I would stand up and argue for that book’s inclusion in any high school or junior high library because the same topics, nearly universally relevant to the age, are dealt with in a non-destructive, humorous, and non-felonious fashion.

That isn’t even addressing the idea that parents and communities might have more rights to determine what their children should and should not read than a teacher’s union.

My point is that banning a book is as morally repugnant as restricting whom your 14-year-old may or may not date.  It depends entirely on the object of the judgment, but the judgment needs to be made if you have any interest at all in your child’s well-being.

Liberals, you really need to stop equating people who want their kids to be safe with police states, Nazis, and the Salem witch trials.  Conservatives, you are going to have to get off your lazy butts, stop relying on Boundless and read your kids’ books yourselves.  It isn’t ever going to work or be enough to just ban a book because of WHAT it discusses.  You need to know HOW and WHY it discusses those issues before you can make an informed and respectable choice about your child’s educational options.

Both sides on this issue have a LOT of work to do before they get any respect from me at all.  I’m going to go re-read Harry Potter, the #1 series in the banned book list for the last decade.