The Control

At the start of 2015 I decided to slow down my blog posts to focus on fiction. I still thought I’d be able to post once or twice a month, but this obviously hasn’t happened. But my time away from blogging wasn’t in vain; I’ve co-written a feature film with Mike Stasko, and we go into production tomorrow.

Mike and I outlined this script for nearly two years, meeting weekly to discuss the broad strokes and working our way down to the finer-grained details. Then we worked on the actual script for more than a year. Now we find ourselves with a whole team of enthusiastic people, a bunch of professional gear, and we’re scrambling to make sure we’ve thought of everything before production starts at 8 AM in the morning.

It’s too early to spill the beans on what the film is about, but what I will say is that it’s a truly independent science fiction thriller called The Control. Being big science fiction fans, Mike and I wanted to put an interesting idea on the table and wrap it up in an exciting structure. We’ve called in a lot of favors, put in long hours, and only now does the real work begin.

Independent movies succeed for fail on the strength of those supporting them. Please check us out on Facebook and Twitter, tell friends, retweet, like, and do whatever it is we do these days to help support indie films.

(Check back for that Facebook link if I can ever figure out how the internet works.)

Dry Sci-Fi

These past few weeks I’ve been frustrated with science fiction movies. There is no shortage of new ones, but almost none grab my attention. Why would I go to the theater for Transcendence when I didn’t even go see The Matrix? Neither trailer grabbed me. Integrating consciousness with a machine isn’t new, and I’m guessing that’s what Transcendence is about. When I saw The Matrix eventually, I was satisfied that it was basically Star Wars meets Lawnmower Man meets Tron meets church, and I saw all that when I was young.

Science fiction may seem the ripest genre for the film industry, as special effects now allow for so much that would have previously been impossible. But far out gadgets and alien planets have never been the pull for me; they are eye candy, the stuff of trailers. What draws me into science fiction are ideas that excite me because I’ve never thought of them before.

These ideas should form a world that I can recognize, though it is different from the world I occupy. That world should give rise to characters I can relate to, but who are different from the people I know. And these characters should guide me through that world and show me something meaningful. I should come away from a great science fiction story questioning the established models of my own world. In short, my mind should be blown.

Great sci-fi is tough because a lot of great ideas have already been taken. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 and remains the all-time champion. The absorbing world of Bladerunner was created in 1982, and in 2009 new 3D technology and a $250M budget didn’t bring Avatar even close. Alien and Terminator were solid, but didn’t blow my mind.

Are we running out of good ideas? No. There are more ideas out there than ever, and new ideas come from novel combinations of previous ideas. Inspiration shows us ideas from a new angle. Primer, Children of Men, Moon and Upstream Color are all great modern sci-fi movies that got me excited about the genre again despite the fatuous Hollywood remake of Solaris. Looper was pretty decent too.

But no matter how enthused I get about sci-fi, there’s still something that turns me off from going to the theater for blockbusters like District 9 (which I eventually saw and did not enjoy) or Gravity or Oblivion or Transcendence. Maybe it’s the trailers that turn me off, or the word of mouth, or maybe it’s the audacity of studios putting hundreds of millions of dollars into old, mediocre ideas, but I have no desire to encourage them by seeing their movies at the theater.

I must be missing some gems, so if anybody out there wants to enlighten me, leave me a list of your favorites in the comments.

My Top 5 Spec Fiction Novels

“Speculative fiction” is used to describe a wide variety of stories including science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate realities, and a whole host of literature that goes beyond our normal world. It is one of my favorite vehicles for storytelling because of the ability to construct worlds based on “what if” questions.

My opinions tend to shift as I grow, so any list I make is bound to change. But five spec fiction novels currently stand out in my esteem. Some of the novels below I read years ago, and some only just recently. Please drop me a line with recommendations or opinions. Here we go, in no particular order.

Valis by Philip K. DickValis

One of Philip K. Dick’s last novels, Valis is the story of Horselover Fat, a paranoid author with more than his fair share of identity problems. Mired in conspiracies and alternate realities, and with a disintegrating grip on reality, Fat goes on a quest to find Sophia, a two-year-old girl who may or may not be an incarnation of Gnostic wisdom. He is searching for the true meaning of religion, and at the same time trying to explain his life to himself.

This is a theoretical head trip that features the author himself as one of the characters. The best part of this novel is the way Dick treads the schizophrenic line between the real and unreal, conspiracy and truth, and multiple versions of the Self. You can read these themes again in PKD’s earlier (1977) and more popular novel A Scanner Darkly.

This is one of Dick’s most obliquely autobiographical novels, a literary sketchpad of ideas about what happened to him on February 3, 1974, when deep mysteries were revealed to him through a pink laser (or maybe an acid flashback). Appended to the novel are sections from his notorious Exegesis, featuring such gems as:

4) Matter is plastic in the face of Mind; and

14) The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.

 

Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Without a doubt, Margaret Atwood is a master of the genre. Of the pitiful few of her novels I’ve read so far, Oryx and Crake is her most accessible and brilliant.

Snowman lives in a wild ravaged by severe weather. He is savage, a relic from before the disaster, before the constant storms, unbearable sun, and new genetic humanoids who eat plants and take everything literally. He is from a life we, as readers, recognize. His world used to be like our world, may actually have been our world, in its emotions, interactions, and even technology. But now that Snowman is one of the last living pure human beings, he finds himself remembering life as it was before the disaster. As he remembers, we are carried along in a beautiful, character-driven memorial of his life up until everything changed forever.

Speculative fiction is often alluring because of the ideas it offers, of fantastic worlds and situations, future technologies and the dreams of what could be. Oryx and Crake has all this and more. This story is a powerhouse of character development. In fact, the character development never stops; Atwood takes us right inside Snowman and shows us a resoundingly human being in the center of a weird, new world. And with all her tender, human understanding, her big-thinking doesn’t suffer for it. Her world-building is remarkable, her future history is intriguing and thoughtful, and her prose is beautiful. Despite my utmost respect for Aldous Huxley, Oryx and Crake seems smarter, more grandiose, and yet subtler than Brave New World.

 

Against The Day by Thomas PynchonAgainst The Day

Against The Day is a sprawling megalith, set at the end of the 19th century, spanning thirty years and the known geographical world (as well as places only speculated about). An intricate pastiche of genres featuring dozens of characters, there is enough “speculative” stuff in here to allow it in the genre. At over 1000 pages this is Pynchon’s longest work, and it brims with such a wealth of themes, intrigues and comedy that I enjoyed simply being lost in its enormous and complex telling.

Against The Day is aptly considered metahistorical fiction because of its historical accuracy and frequent self-reflexive detours into the fantastical. In a miasma of comings and goings we meet Nikola Tesla, Franz Ferdinand, a dog named Pugnax who can communicate with the crew of an airship, a psychic detective, an anarchist dynamite terrorist addicted to his explosives, a traveling magician, and a few normal people who can be very confused at times.

Pynchon fans will recognize his trademark wit, his complex wordplay, his penchant for anarchism, pharmacological exploration, dirty sex, ridiculous names, and his ability to lead us into subtly strange cul-de-sacs of theory, only to emerge and find the world has not waited up for us. For people who have not read his work, this may not be the best to start with, but Against The Day is a novel I rate highly in just about any category.

 

Childhood's EndChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Arguably history’s best science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke floored me with this one. With no main character to speak of, one might think the story hard to follow, but the development of ideas is so masterful here, so wise and poignant, that I was rapt the entire time.

Aliens have peacefully invaded Earth, and in doing so have brought about unprecedented peace and progress. Their motivations are vague, and the mystery is only amplified by their insistence on governing remotely, not allowing humankind to see them. When an alien is discovered at a cocktail party researching human psychical behavior, and an impromptu Ouija Board session reveals the destination of the alien’s home star, Jan Rodricks decides to stow away on their ship to discover something, anything, about them.

Meanwhile the culture on Earth undergoes a complete overhaul. When technological development creates a peaceful but artless near-utopia on Earth, citizens found New Athens, a cultural center dedicated to creative arts. But something is happening to Earth’s children, and humanity’s dreams of controlling its own destiny collapse. They are being prepared for something strange and new. By the time Jan returns home, he no longer recognizes Earth.

This beautiful, early gem of science fiction (1953) combines mystical, religious and technological transcendence to mind blowing effect.

 

The Forever War by Joe HaldemanThe Forever War

William Mandella is drafted into the United Nations Exploratory Force to combat a distant alien race. Navigation into “collapsars” makes the interstellar distances reachable in very little subjective time. But when William returns after his first successful mission, he finds decades have gone by. The culture shift is too extreme for him. Homosexuality is the new norm, promoted by world governments to curb overpopulation. William has become an outsider. He is unable to wrap his head around the technologies and ideologies that have developed in his absence. Alienated from his home planet, he re-enlists for a new wave of combat. But the more he fights, the further he finds himself from the world he once knew.

With each interstellar jump, society changes too drastically for him to cope, and his only recourse is to the life he knows—military life—with all the murder, calculated brutality, and inhumanity that comes with war. One of the only things keeping him grounded is his lover and fellow soldier Marygay. But the machinery of war is cruel and the soldiers are rarely allowed to stay in once place for any length of time. William has lost his context, lost himself, and he can only move forward.

This amazing meditation on the alienation of war is a beautifully told allegory from a man who knows what he’s talking about. This is military science fiction at its finest, and fans of hard science will be blow away by Haldeman’s innovations, even if they are fictitious. Despite the harsh reality presented in the book, there is an enduring humanity throughout. Through fabulous leaps in spacetime, William Mandella runs a gamut of anger and nihilism and ultimately reaches a kind of acceptance in the ongoing flux of war. This is a beautiful novel that nearly overwhelmed me.

Honorable Mentions:

A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, and Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Pictures of Infinity

With black paint he traces a long arc across the canvas. The painting was meant to be purely abstract and intuitive, but standing back now he recognizes his life’s work. The streaks and explosions before him are collisions of matter and antimatter, streaking away to infinity. Funny, he thinks, but he doesn’t laugh.

Almost finished. Twenty-three years of study, thousands of nights wrestling math, and his life is an acknowledged waste. When he was fired he knew exactly what to do. He would paint, and he would kill himself. His life of analysis and logic was for nothing. He would leave behind illogical beauty.

He had fought bitterly about infinities in functional mathematics. You damn well can’t multiply it by q[E + (v x B)], so how his replacement pulled the wool over their eyes is a mystery.

It’s done, he decides. Door unlocked, note on table, he climbs out onto the ledge looking down thirty-one stories. No anxiety now, no pain.

Accidentally, he falls. When he forces his eyes open he realizes something is wrong; he’s falling sideways, and he’s not alone. Everything not nailed down flies sideways, rocketing over the Atlantic Ocean. His painting flies past him and disappears.

In a split second he realizes he’s falling towards Switzerland. Then it dawns on him; his young replacement has fudged the math, and the fine scientists at CERN have opened a black hole.

So it wasn’t for nothing, he thinks, and laughs all the way to the Event Horizon.

END

[On the one year anniversary of my blog I’m glad to be posting some fiction for a change. Most of the stuff I write floats around between me and various speculative fiction magazines and posting it on this blog might make it ineligible for publication. I submitted Pictures of Infinity to the Lascaux Flash Fiction contest (250 words max.) and since it didn’t win I’m happy to publish it here instead. I hope you got a kick out of it.]

NaNoWriMo 2012 – Week 2

My sci-fi novel Residuum is going well. I wrote every day this week, which is the key. The best thing about NaNoWriMo is that it shows day to day how easy it is to write a novel. You get to see the momentum in the climbing word count and it’s inspiring. As I’m fully in fiction mode, all I’m offering this week is a progress report with a little bonus at the end.

Nov. 7 – I wrote two full chapters for 3117 words. This was a bit much for a work day, but I was able to write on the train.

Nov. 8 -1834 words for the novel and a few hundred toward a draft of a review I’m working on.

Nov. 9 -1898 words.

Nov. 10 – I wrote 4000+ words in two chapters but didn’t finish until close to 2 A.M. It was my kind of weekend. It featured writing, reading (Neil Young’s Waving Heavy Peace), and listening to a lot of music. I took a break between chapters and watched Casino Royale. Decent movie, but it should have been 35 minutes shorter.

Nov. 11 – 2000+ words in what I expect will be the longest chapter in the first act.

Nov. 12 -1308 words all written in the evening while very tired in what I expect will be the shortest chapter in the first act.

Nov. 13 – That’s today. I wrote 1828 words today and almost all of it before work in the morning. I don’t know what was in my coffee, but it’s the fastest I’ve written so far. Then I put together this blog post.

I plan to do two chapters tomorrow, right on track to meet the deadline. I’m very glad to have the outline to work off of and I’m glad I spent the first five days hammering it out. My total word count now is 17507.

The bonus, should you choose to accept it, is a bit challenging. It’s a long drone I recorded years ago called Overmind. I’ve added it to the Music page. Be warned: this track is not for everyone. Anyone who gets through it gets a seat at the alien roundtable with me on December 21st, 2012, front row for the End of History.

Have a nice week.

 

NaNoWriMo 2012

My posts this month will be a little different. I’ve been looking to make time to write a novel and I recently stumbled on the NaNoWriMo site (National Novel Writing Month). The site and programs seem like a good idea. Not because the world needs more novels, but because an official site dedicated to the cause is motivating. It was only because of a Google+ alert that I even learned about the site, but it’s already inspired me to get started. I’m confident I’ll finish my novel by the end of the month.

The goal is 50 000 words by midnight November 30th. This is a pretty hefty word-count for thirty days. If you start on November 1st, you have to write 1600 words every day. Most of my blog posts are less than this and I only do them once a week. Because I outline my writing projects, I have only starting writing prose this morning, but have a six-thousand word outline to work from which will allow me to write more quickly and ensure I don’t make decisions on the fly that will derail the story as I write.

Residuum is a psychedelic sci-fi novel set in a dystopian future.

Check out their site, follow NaNoWriMo and myself on Twitter, and if you’re not participating, consider it for next year.

So Far:

Nov. 1 – I began serious outlining, roughing out major plot points and working my way up to the inciting incident.

Nov. 2 – Finished outlining the first act and the first two scenes of my second act, had some Scotch.

Nov. 3 – Outlined most of the second act and sat unthinking until my subconscious gave me a hint about the climax and how to interweave the multiple plot lines into a meaningful conclusion.

Nov. 4 – Finished the outline by roughing in the third-act scenes.

Nov. 5 – Got up early and revised the very beginning of the outline, trying to make sure appropriate seeds were planted in the beginning so the themes and character development bloom properly by the end of the book. Roughed out this blog post after work and continued with the outline revision.

Nov. 6 – Started writing prose this morning after missing the Go Train at Union. On my return trip I finished my first chapter (1387 words). Finished this blog post and watched some hilarious and frustrating American election coverage.

I now need to write about 2000 words per day to finish on time. I’ll be focused on fiction for November so I’ll be giving progress reports and hopefully posting more music to my Music page in the coming month.