When a Moment Is More Than a Moment

'Desert Watcher,' by Children of Darklight (athalfred) on Flickr

[Image: “Desert Watcher,” by Children of Darklight (user athalfred) on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) This is a composite image: the star trails comprise 76 separate photos, stacked atop one another in (presumably digital) layers; the figure at the lower left is a lightpainted portrait.]

From whiskey river:

Crossing the Swamp

Here is the endless
wet thick
cosmos, the center
of everything—the nugget
of dense sap, branching
vines, the dark burred
faintly belching
bogs. Here
is swamp, here
is struggle,
closure—
pathless, seamless,
peerless mud. My bones
knock together at the pale
joints, trying
for foothold, fingerhold,
mindhold over
such slick crossings, deep
hipholes, hummocks
that sink silently
into the black, slack
earthsoup. I feel
not wet so much as
painted and glittered
with the fat grassy
mires, the rich
and succulent marrows
of earth—a poor
dry stick given
one more chance by the whims
of swamp water—a bough
that still, after all these years,
could take root,
sprout, branch out, bud—
make of its life a breathing
palace of leaves.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Book Review: Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun

Cover: 'Night of the Animals,' by Bill BrounA couple reviews of Night of the Animals have alluded — unconvincingly, I think, despite superficial similarities — to Noah’s ark and/or more generally the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Yes, it’s true: the novel’s mainspring is the saving of the world’s creatures; both the world’s destruction and its salvation are at stake. But if you hope and believe you’ll be getting a “retelling” of those Biblical stories, updated to a 21st-century landscape, you will be very surprised (maybe disappointed) by what you find in the book’s pages:

The genre, murky — a sort of near-future, dystopic science fiction/fantasy cast in prose perhaps a bit more “literary” than you’d expect; the time, about forty years from now, with numerous flashbacks to the 1960s; the setting, mostly London (and in the flashbacks, up in the Midlands region — the “waist” of the island). The dialogue is littered with dialect obscure enough to require clarifying footnotes.

But the biggest surprise among Night of the Animals’ conventional elements lies in its protagonist, Cuthbert Handley.

Sounds like the name of a stereotypically anal-retentive, mousey-in-stature librarian or clerk, eh? Maybe. But this Cuthbert Handley — well, no. He’s enormous in size, three (approaching four) hundred pounds of, well, fat. (Not that fat people cannot be heroes, but it defies convention.) He’s old (not that the aged cannot be heroes…): in a point in history where living to 120 years of age is common, Cuthbert himself is over 90, and held together not just by his own flesh and bones but by numerous artificial “BodyMods.” He belongs to a class referred to as the capital-I Indigent — all but homeless, rough-sleeping in parks and alleys, the lot.  Finally, he’s almost suicidally addicted to a hallucinogenic beverage called Flōt (not that penniless addicts cannot etc.); Flōt is apparently legal, and the book suggests that its use is both tacitly approved by the government and sneered at by the unaddicted upper class. (Not at all to suggest that they themselves don’t use it, but they — you know — have such better self-control, right?)

More deeply, Cuthbert lives in thrall to a specific childhood event: the drowning of his elder brother Drystan, while little Cuthbert could do nothing to save him. (Cuthbert himself nearly drowned in the same “adventure.”) Since Drystan’s body never turned up, Cuthbert has lived his entire life — while in a state of mental health declining to the point of near-madness — believing that Drystan never died: he was simply lost, waiting for Cuthbert to find him. Surely this is a delusion. Surely his Flōt addiction has compounded the problem.

That much is obvious to everyone Cuthbert has ever known, will ever know. And naturally, that much is obvious to the reader of Broun’s book…

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Near-Misses: Time Lapse

[Trailer (not too-too spoilery) for Time Lapse]

Here in post-Hermine North Florida, over the last couple days we’ve relished the chance to rediscover the small pleasures of civilized life. Surely among the least consequential of such pleasures, we can count the discovery of recent films we had added to our streaming watchlist(s), and then promptly forgot. 2014’s Time Lapse, director Bradley King’s debut feature, falls into that category for me.

The genre: science-fiction/thriller. Sub-genre: low to modestly budgeted.

It presents a sort of time-travel scenario, except that no people (or animals, inanimate objects, or anything else) actually travel in time. Here, the central conceit is that some kind of metaphorical line can be cast into the future, and brought back to the present with a bit of reality firmly caught on the hook…

I’m guessing about the film’s budget, based on these observations:

  • There’s scarcely anything like a special effect or green-screen CGI in evidence. (The closest thing may be the very basic opening titles sequence, and maybe you can count the exotic prop to which I’ll introduce you in a moment.)
  • The action takes place in a very limited number of settings: a rented room; the rented room across a sidewalk; a storage facility (mostly a single storage locker there).
  • All dialogue and action is performed by a vaguely familiar but nothing like “big name” youthful cast, almost entirely consisting of three actors. (The only one I recognized by name was Danielle Panabaker. John Rhys-Davies has a very small cameo role, but I had to read about the film afterward to know it was him.)

A quick plot overview, emphasis on spoiler-avoidance:

The time is roughly present-day. A young man, named Finn, works as “building manager” (read: janitor in residence) for a small complex of small rental apartments. He shares his own apartment with his girlfriend Callie (an aspiring writer, sort of) and his best friend Jasper (an unemployed but fitfully “flush” gambler, specializing in greyhound racing).

The 'Time Lapse' cameraWhile investigating (on behalf of the complex’s owner) an elderly tenant who seems to have gone missing, the trio discover in his apartment a very strange and mysterious object (shown at right; click for a larger version). While they watch, the device suddenly clicks and whirs, and from a slot dispenses one of those old Polaroid-style instant photos.

(Indeed, they discover a cache of unexposed Polaroid film cartridges in the apartment, and one entire wall is taken up by exposed photos, apparently having been mounted there by the missing tenant.)

Because this “camera” is huge and bolted to the floor, it always photographs the same subject, from the same angle, over and over, at 24-hour intervals. But after the shutter clicks — flashing that green glow just once — the image that comes out depicts that subject as it will exist in 24 hours.

It’s an interesting premise — a sort of technology-based clairvoyance. And because they come to believe that the image captured should depict things as they will (and not just may) be, their task becomes not to change the future, but to guarantee that it comes to pass exactly as shown…

Aside from the general premise, I most appreciated that the plot remained unpredictable and surprising for me right up until the very end. (About a third of the way into the film, I decided I knew how it was going to develop. I could not have been more wrong — and the film allowed me to be wrong almost all the way to the conclusion.)

So why just a “near-miss” film? This may not even qualify as a quibble, but the plot hinges on something which the characters notice, but fail to follow up on. I noticed it at the same time, in fact.

Yet (a) the screenwriters skillfully managed to divert my attention from this significant factoid, and (b) one of the characters, it happens, did follow up on it. So maybe “near-miss” is a stingy adjective after all. Time Lapse may not be a “great” film — not a blockbuster, not a film likely to resonate through motion-picture history. But it was a consistently watchable and well-crafted movie. The gods know, we can always use more of those, too.

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Book Review: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover: 'Aurora,' by Kim Stanley RobinsonRecognize that book cover? No, I’m not referring to the whole thing — just to the idea: remind you of another science-fiction image of recent vintage?

I’ll tell you what it made me think of: this classic movie-poster shot, from Gravity. I’ve used a wallpaper-sized variant of that image as a computer desktop for several years now, which sharpens the point of the message: When you’re in space, you are really, really alone.

The main cast who populate the pages of Aurora aren’t quite as aware of their utter aloneness in space as viewers of that book cover are. True, they know they live in an interstellar spaceship, their mission’s purpose to populate a world beyond the solar system. They know the distance to their new home is vast — nearly eight light years — and the duration of their journey there likewise almost unimaginably long.

Oh, sure: how could they not know it, at least at an intellectual level? After all, when we first encounter these people, we’re seeing not the original passengers and crew, but their descendants six and seven generations removed: people who’ve never set foot on — or even seen — Earth. Their starship left the orbit of Saturn about one hundred sixty years ago. It takes only a single spacesuited trip out of an airlock — just a glance through a telescope — to tell them how isolated they are.

But the book-cover image of that starship deceives: the ship is big. I mean, forget Starship Enterprise-class big: really big. It consists of these main components:

  • The spine — that single central stem surrounded by the rings — is itself ten kilometers (six and a quarter miles) long.
  • The two outer rings: each torus-shaped outer ring (designated Ring A and Ring B) contains twelve “biomes” (about which, more shortly) — cylinders, each a kilometer in diameter and four kilometers long.
  • Six spokes connecting the spine to each ring: although their dimensions are is never specified, a seat-of-the-pants estimate would make the total diameter about eighteen to twenty kilometers. Thus, each spoke would be about nine to ten kilometers long (depending on various factors).
  • Two inner rings: these are purely structural in nature, serving to “lock” the outer rings to the spine.

Like I said: really big. And it’s populated not just by a couple hundred people, but by a couple thousand. On top of which are all the animals: Earth species which in some cases, yes, are raised as livestock, but in others are simply left feral. This ship is not just a starship; it’s an ark…

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Stricken Conscious

[Interactive image: 3D printing, reimagining the Venus de Milo engaged in spinning thread, by Cosmo Wenman (with direction from Virginia Postrel). More info here.]

From whiskey river:

Perhaps the greatest faculty our minds possess is the ability to cope with pain. Classic thinking teaches us of the four doors of the mind, which everyone moves through according to their need.

First is the door of sleep. Sleep offers us a retreat from the world and all its pain. Sleep marks passing time, giving us distance from the things that have hurt us. When a person is wounded they will often fall unconscious. Similarly, someone who hears traumatic news will often swoon or faint. This is the mind’s way of protecting itself from pain by stepping through the first door.

Second is the door of forgetting. Some wounds are too deep to heal, or too deep to heal quickly. In addition, many memories are simply painful, and there is no healing to be done. The saying ‘time heals all wounds’ is false. Time heals most wounds. The rest are hidden behind this door.

Third is the door of madness. There are times when the mind is dealt such a blow it hides itself in insanity. While this may not seem beneficial, it is. There are times when reality is nothing but pain, and to escape that pain the mind must leave reality behind.

Last is the door of death. The final resort. Nothing can hurt us after we are dead, or so we have been told.

(Patrick Rothfuss [source])

and:

After

There is one thing certain.
Once you have stood
in the midst of that
searing flame,
been struck down
to earth
like a pilgrim
entered by light at last
and have lain there,
waiting,
not quite certain—

how can you ever know again
what it is
not to be blinded by the light,
never to have gone there
to the top of the snow hung peak
and felt that nameless something
descend onto your shoulders,
your breast,
even as you bent forward
in disbelief.

(Dorothy Walters [source])

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Paying Attention to the Story that Was

Space colony of O'Neill cylinders (NASA Ames Research Center, via Wikipedia)

[Image: a so-called “space colony” consisting of a pair of O’Neill cylinders, courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Center (via Wikipedia). This image has little to do with the story (or the spaceship(s)) discussed in the post, but it felt suitably “epic” (and at least vaguely relevant).]

For a good while now — maybe a year and a half — I’ve been working on a science-fiction novel (working title: 23kpc). The action takes place almost entirely aboard an interstellar space ship, the ISS Tascheter; the protagonists, Guy and Missy Landis, are something like a spacegoing Nick and Nora Charles (cf. Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man stories, especially the films — starring William Powell and Myrna Loy — made from them).

About six months before starting 23kpc, I’d actually written a short novella, or long short story, featuring Guy and Missy and the Tascheter. That story sprang from nowhere in particular; I just wanted to try my hand at SF (again), and was at the time too distracted — by real life and the marketing (still in progress) of Seems to Fit — to focus on anything major. In fact, when I began writing it, I didn’t even know it was SF: it took me several sentences to realize it.

In the course of writing “Open and Shut,” as the original story was called, I realized many other things. I realized how little consideration I’d ever given to the practicalities of space travel, particularly from one star system to another. What would the ship have to be like? If it weren’t capable of faster-than-light (FTL) speeds, how could individual humans ever hope to survive such a journey? (I sure as hell didn’t want Guy, Missy, et al. to die en route — requiring the invention of fresh characters over and over and over…) Perhaps humans were somehow different then — evolved with significantly longer lifespans. Or perhaps there were some ways of keeping them inert for long stretches of time, à la “suspended animation”… or… or… And what about where they were going — what could they even hope to know about their destination? Had at least one other generation of humans preceded them into space? How could a “crew” of, say, a few dozen individuals, even hundreds of them, possibly keep going during a trip which might take not just decades but centuries?

And so on.

Well, I took “Open and Shut” through to the story’s end. But all those practical concerns compelled me to tackle the general project correctly, in its own right. Hence, 23kpc. It no doubt comes with its own set of problems, as I’ll realize when I re-read the whole thing (when I’m done writing the whole thing). But it’s backed by much more (read: any) research, and I think I’ve gotten a lot more of it “right.”

Still, “Open and Shut” has its virtues, especially as a seat-of-the-pants exercise. It gave me Guy and Missy, and several of the other main characters who’d show up in the novel as well. It gave me the Tascheter — in vastly different form. It gave me some of the underlying themes I’d been thinking about (e.g., the evolution of culture and language). It’s told in the present tense, and the first person (from Guy’s point of view), which makes the action feel more “immediate” (to me, anyhow). Finally, it gave me a certain clipped, smart-alecky tone which seemed well-suited to the characters. And re-reading the first few pages reminded me of how much fun I’d had back then…

What follows: the first few hundred words of that story. Hope you enjoy it, too!


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Book Review: Mort(e), by Robert Repino

Cover: 'Mort(e),' by Robert RepinoStriking cover, wot? About which I’ll have more to say later, but for now you can already tell a few things about the book even if you haven’t read about it elsewhere:

  • You might wonder about the color, but clearly a cat — or at least catness in general — figures prominently herein.
  • The fonts are strikingly artificial. (Cutouts? Stencils?)
  • And although any old cover includes the book’s title, this cover practically fetishizes the title’s… well, the title’s novelty, its weirdness. It doesn’t just include but highlights the internal parentheses: it makes you notice them.

So let’s concede those details right up front (er, so to speak):

Yes, Mort(e) features a cat — not incidentally, but as its protagonist. The cat has chosen the name “Mort(e)” for himself, parentheses and all (right down to the human associations of morte-with-an-e, and mort-without-an-e). Which must imply that while the cat may be an animal, he’s probably not a natural animal. He is, in fact, something of a made creature…

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Potpourri, June 18th (2014 edition)

JES, circa 19955 maybe?[Latest in the apparently annual June 18 tradition, of (as I said last year) commenting about whatever the heck I want to…]

Ongoing genre confusion: As a rule, readers of fiction tend to latch onto a favorite sort of fiction, to the exclusion of others. They may or may not read “literary” fiction, or that large, unclassifiable body of titles called “mainstream” — but they often return to mysteries, say, or romance, or fantasy, or science fiction, especially for “escape” purposes. They also do not in general read one or more of the other categories.

Which can be a problem, for certain writers anyhow:

Agents, publishers and retailers need to know how to optimize their pitches for a book. Readers who prefer a certain kind of SF, for instance, might be put off by a book cover featuring a man and woman dressed in gauzy lavender; a horror or Western fan, visiting Amazon or the bookstore or library for the umpteenth time, will tend to return to the same genre-based sections, over and over.

So you’ve got to know how to classify your fiction (which comes down to: you’ve got to know your audience, whether they’re book professionals or not).

For the past six or eight months, I’ve been enjoying writing something SF-ish — one long story and one (yet incomplete) novel, as of today. It’s real science fiction: adventures in space, technology, and time. But it also falls squarely into the mystery genre. Furthermore, and maybe worse, it falls into a particular mystery sub-genre. If you know the old Thin Man films, from the 1930s and ’40s, you’ll have the right idea: a charming, sophisticated, and (I hope) funny husband-and-wife team solve crimes which may involve blackmail, murder, and so on… but not crimes of the grisly action-packed thriller sort.

Oh, no: I didn’t even come close to inventing the mystery/SF blended genre, as even a fairly simple Google search will tell you. But modern readers — and the people charged with getting books to them — tend to have edgier tastes. “Nick and Nora Charles in space” does not seem a tagline likely to draw many readers.

…Sigh. It’s hard enough to write without worrying about all this. It’s one of the dilemmas which drive people to self-publishing: I’ll write whatever I want, they say, and I won’t waste time trying to win over professional go-betweens like editors and booksellers. Readers like good books, regardless of genre!

But I don’t really believe genre doesn’t matter, do I? Do I?

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The Uncertain Sum of Definite Parts

'I dreamed about a human being,' by Fran Simó (original on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license)

[Image: “I dreamed about a human being,” by Fran Simó (original on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license. For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

The Life of a Day

Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality quirks which can easily be seen if you look closely. But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention dogs, that it would be surprising if a day were not a hundred times more interesting than most people. But usually they just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, like autumn ones full of red maple trees and hazy sunlight, or if they are grimly awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the lost traveler and bunches of cattle. For some reason we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a long time. We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real. Meanwhile, this day is going by perfectly well-adjusted, as some days are, with the right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze scented with a perfume made from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meandering skunk.

(Tom Hennen [source])

and (italicized portion):

The brain’s dynamo runs millions of jobs, by mixing chemicals, oscillations, synchronized rhythms, and who knows what else. It is like looking at a mosaic or a pointillist painting in motion. Study the whole and the parts disappear; study the parts and the whole disappears. Maybe stronger brains will solve that problem in future days. I believe consciousness is brazenly physical, a raucous mirage the brain creates to help us survive. But I also sense the universe is magical, greater than the sum of its parts, which I don’t attribute to a governing god, but simply to the surprising, ecstatic, frightening everyday reality we all know. Ultimately, I find consciousness a fascinating predicament for matter to get into.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

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Too Many Answers to Stop

I’ve long held that a story I’ve started writing must reach a certain “critical mass” in order for me to carry it through to completion. This critical mass might be defined as the written length — the word/page count — beyond which I will not, can not stop writing. A story which might become a novella (or longer), for instance, seems to hit critical mass at about 10,000 words. At this point, the narrative has so much momentum in my head that it’s a force in its own right: I know enough about the characters and the story to know how little I really know about them, and how much I want to find out.

(I’m pretty sure many/most other writers feel the same way, incidentally, although we’ve probably all got different critical masses.)

Mostly, this is just a descriptive figure, not a prescriptive one. It’s an observation which seems to have held true in the past and (as I expect) will likely hold true in the future, not a make-or-break target.

For the piece I’m working on now, though, I seem to be approaching — perhaps have already crossed — a different and perhaps unquantifiable threshold: a critical mass of research.
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