‘Tis the spoopy season and Aurelia Leo is having a Halloween sale on many of their books, including preorders for upcoming titles like A Season of Whispers. Check it out!
Averoigne and Its Malcontents. Inpatient Press, a small publisher in New York, has produced a trade paperback of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories set in Averoigne, a medieval French province haunted by vampires and sorcerers. Even better, they’ve published it in the style of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series from the early 1970s, with the line’s distinctive art and minimalist typography. Ballantine editor Lin Carter published four books of Smith’s work in the series and planned a fifth — Averoigne — but the series was canceled before the book could appear anywhere except the Sandman’s library shelf.
For years I’ve chronicled various attempts to produce the missing fifth volume. In 1995, publisher Donald M. Grant began advertising a hardback edition edited by Ron Hilger, but for decades that book remained vaporware. It finally appeared 21 years later, published by Centipede Press as an expensive collector’s edition that ran only 200 copies. Hilger says a paperback version is forthcoming from Hippocampus Press, release date TBD. Meanwhile in June, Pickman’s Press published their own e-book collection of the stories.
Hilger is none too happy about the Inpatient Press paperback, labeling it a “pirate edition,” an “illegal publication,” and a “fraud” because it wasn’t authorized by Smith’s estate, which is operated by Smith’s stepson. Inpatient informed me, however, that the book is perfectly legal — they used the Weird Tales versions of the stories, which are in the public domain.
Place Settings. I like to listen to podcasts about pirates, vintage RPGs, and 19th-century history, but for awhile I’d been searching without satisfaction for a podcast about utopian intentional settlements. Then, lo and behold, along came Curbed with their series Nice Try! An early episode discussed the Oneida community in upstate New York, which is one of my favorite examples of the utopian arc: what began as voluntary social experiment eventually devolved into a dysfunctional, if not horrific, cult. Not to mention an internationally known tableware company.
Coincidentally over at LitHub, author Caite Dolan-Leach discusses how she used Oneida as a template for the modern-day utopian commune in her new novel. Likewise I used Brook Farm and Fruitlands as models for Bonaventure, the setting for A Season of Whispers — although as far as I know, Dolan-Leach’s book doesn’t involve whispering walls and mysterious disappearances.
Watching the Detectives. CrimeReads has a list of three post-apocalyptic detective novels sure to brighten anyone’s year-end round-up of post-apocalyptic fiction. If, you know, that’s something you do.
No Time to Explain. Over at Fast Company I found some tips on how to be a better storyteller. The big takeaway for me: keep your anecdotes to 90 seconds or less.
Well, here we are again as the conclusion of another season of True Detective looms nigh.
Judging from conversations and the scores registered at Rotten Tomatoes, my sentiments for this season dovetail with those of other viewers. It is neither as rich and compelling as season one nor as Byzantine as season two (and I say that as someone who liked season two). The sense of setting, so pervasive before, feels more any-town here, and the lyrical dialogue of the characters has been toned down. For me the biggest disappointment has been the drastically curtailed soundtrack, with the deep cuts of the last half century replaced by instrumental scores and Moog bass so low it shakes our television. Seriously — the site I check after every episode for the track list is crickets and tumbleweeds.
And yet the central mystery of this season is probably the strongest of the three. When you smooth out the flashbacks and flashforwards of the original McConaughey and Harrelson adventure and lay it linearly, the story is fairly straightforward. The plot of season two was completely lost among the sprawling cast of characters, which is OK because I understood writer Nic Pizzolatto was going for a Raymond Chandler type of noir and Chandler emphasized characters and language over plot. This season, with its return to S1’s rural roads and tripartite time frames, seems to be playing with our expectations of similarity, and yet after seven episodes we still don’t know the motives for the crimes committed. The trailers and opening credits inspired us to anticipate things that have yet to materialize; we thought we were buying another backwoods conspiracy involving child predators, when instead what we may be watching is a clandestine custody battle complicated by an accidental murder.
Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff are nothing short of mesmerizing but for me S3’s real standout has been Carmen Ejogo’s character Amelia. The unsure wannabe writer of the earliest frame, scribbling notes with some vague notion of collating them into a book, is replaced in the 1990s frame by a confident author receiving galleys and doing bookstore readings, inversely mirroring the decline of Ali’s character Wayne Hays as she matures and ascends to the role of superior detective.
A complaint about journalism in general and true-crime specifically is that it preys upon the misfortunes of others, and it’s particularly galling for Amelia to be a target of that spite from her own jealous husband. No one questions the police officer’s inquisitiveness, but writers and reporters, for all the vitriol aimed at them — especially these days — are just another kind of investigator, complete with flaws, mistakes, and fuck-ups. True-crime writers are especially relentless detectives; just ask Michelle McNamara’s widower husband. If the officer isn’t begrudged a promotion at the close of a successful case, why do we begrudge the writer her book or the reporter his news story? The answer, to paraphrase Vince Vaughn’s character from S2, is because writers often refuse to parrot back the lies we tell ourselves. When somebody else tells a narrative of events that differs from our own, it angers us.
The joy of watching True Detective is constantly readjusting, episode after episode, my ever-unfolding theories about the mystery. Sunday night I’ll probably be right about some stuff and wrong about other stuff, and because I can’t tell which will be which, I’ll also be surprised.
At the tail end of 2017, I posted a story on Medium about a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels I’d read over the course of the year, books with themes and situations that often reflected upon these United States during seemingly cataclysmic times.
2018 was even weirder and scarier. A government shutdown, the Khashoggi murder, category-5 Hurricane Michael, US withdrawal from the INF treaty, shootings in Parkland and Pittsburgh, marches against Brexit in London and riots in Paris — every daily headline seemed more absurd than yesterday’s. It was no accident that the post-apoc fiction I read in 2018 trended toward wilder, more fantastical visions of the end of the world.
Here’s what I read.
It’s ridiculous how much I enjoyed Sea of Rust (2017), C. Robert Cargill’s cinematic novel of what happens after the robot apocalypse, in which the tin-man rebellion that exterminated all human life is immediately followed by a civil war among AIs.
The result is a scorched planet inhabited by the few remaining freebots trying to keep one step ahead of warring mainframes, which want to assimilate them (and each other) and ultimately become the Earth’s singular intelligence. With factories under the dominion of the mainframes, freebots like Brittle must scour the wastes for the spare parts needed to survive. Unfortunately, Brittle is also one of the last remaining Comfortbots — an automaton nurse and caregiver — which puts her in literal crosshairs when the only other remaining Comfortbot starts to fail and needs her parts.
Cargill, a screenwriter, keeps the thrill-ride steamrolling along, peppered by flashbacks to the events before, during, and after the robot uprising. His style is perhaps a little unpolished — among other flaws is a tendency to punctuate. Sentences. Like. It’s. Twitter. Circa. 2016. — and for a self-aware toaster oven, Brittle doesn’t seem to have much on her mind beyond PTSD.
That said, it’s hard to stay angry at a novel in which an assortment of Futurama robots battle hive-mind drones atop a speeding Mad Max battle wagon. Alexa, make sure to pre-order the sequel — and please, don’t kill me.
Yet what to think of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003)? On one hand I found it every bit as unputdownable as Sea of Rust, largely due to its kindred vision of created usurping creator. On the other, I learned the darling lefty author of The Handmaid’s Tale definitely has some rather narrow worldviews.
Just as Handmaid originated from Atwood’s anxiety over the state of women’s reproductive rights during the 1980s evangelical movement, Oryx and Crake has its genesis in her clear concern over GMOs. Snowman lives in a tree and wears a bedsheet, cared for by genetically modified people called Crakers. While wallowing in his own stink and self-pity — our protagonist brings to mind Thoreau’s jibe that “None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That is shiftlessness.” — Snowman recalls his years as Jimmy, living in a crony-corporatist America where sequestered scientists churn out GMO medicines, enhancements, and food for consumers in the pleeblands.
You’d have to be very inattentive to miss where the book is going once Jimmy encounters a transfer student named Glenn but that predictability doesn’t diminish enjoyment of Atwood’s dystopia. Glenn is a sociopath and a genius, and he and Jimmy spend their days watching crush videos on the dark web and footage of pleebland riots on the news. Glenn’s eventual rise as a master gene-splicer (along with Jimmy’s simultaneous plateau into mediocrity) is merely background exposition for the real mystery of how Oryx, a woman loved by both men, fits into mankind’s final act.
Which brings us to Atwood’s cringeworthy depiction of women. Female characters in the novel are sparse (Jimmy’s mother, who’s arguably the most interesting of them, is felt more than seen). Oryx, meanwhile, appears late in the book, usually in scenes of degradation as an Asian child prostitute. Somehow she rises to the level of executive career woman, presumably by sleeping her way up corporate ladders. We never know for sure, nor are we privy to any inner development because she’s presented as — ahem — inscrutable. Ultimately her character exists simply to inject jealous tension between Jimmy and Glenn.
Feminists might argue that’s exactly Atwood’s point — that women are nothing but playthings in a world of male corporate plutocracy — but for me, it’s just weak writing. I kept turning the pages, hooked on thrilling action scenes of a man pursued through the ruins by carnivorous chimeras and Atwood’s lush metaphors (“Amanda Payne shimmered in the past like a lost lagoon, its crocodiles for the moment forgotten.”). But even with all that going for it, I’ve zero interest in reading any of the sequels Atwood has since penned.
I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire
Andre Norton’s first full-length novel, Star Man’s Son (1952), panders to its audience. Having clearly learned what notes to strike in her previous career as a children’s librarian, Norton laid out YA’s ur-outline some 45 years before Harry Potter with this science-fantasy of rejected teenager turned hero.
Fors is a both an orphan and an outcast, a silver-haired mutant among an enclave of pure-strain human survivors of the Great Blow-Up. After being passed over again for promotion to a higher echelon of his community, he’s faced with the prospect of being a farming drudge for the rest of his life, all because of his dirty blood.
Rather than submit, Fors runs off to explore the wasteland where his father perished, picking through urban ruins and crossing deserts melted into glass by atomic fire. Eventually Fors must consolidate several hostile tribes into an alliance against a rising tide of mutant Beast-Things, who aim to supplant mankind — mainly by eating us.
It’s a boy’s adventure tale set against the backdrop of crumbling skyscrapers instead of castles and dungeons, but Norton took her job seriously (she legally switched her first name from Alice to foster legitimacy among her young readers — I mean, who wants to read a book written by a girl?). The writing doesn’t stray far from simple sentences and straight-forward dialogue, but even so, she managed to sneak in some radical messaging for the 1950s. “Why should there be distrust between the twain of us because our skin differs in color?” asks a black character of Fors, who’s white. “In peace there is trade, and in trade there is good for all,” says another, later. “When the winter closes and the harvest has been poor, then may trade save the life of a tribe.”
Lessons of tolerance and free trade? These days, that’s crazy talk.
It’s hard to say nice things about a novel that even its own author disliked. Roger Zelazny expanded an earlier novella into Damnation Alley (1969) solely with an eye toward a film deal (which eventually came to fruition in 1977 — and which Zelazny similarly reviled). As a writer myself, I can’t fault his pecuniary motives; but as a reader I have to wish he’d put more thought into what’s fundamentally a great idea.
Hell Tanner is a captured murderer diverted from prison and put behind the steering wheel of a futuristic big rig for a suicide run from Los Angeles to Boston, carrying medicine to cure an East Coast outbreak of plague. Seeing his chance for escape, Tanner puts pedal to metal and strikes out across a United States blasted by nuclear hellfire and infested with swarms of giant bats and other mutations.
The novel’s plot is laughably linear and so steeped in its late sixties atmosphere of California motorcycle gangs, cops, and counterculture that it’s hard to picture the characters sporting anything other than bell-bottoms and fringed leather vests. And while the high concept of the book is matched by Zelazny’s terrific descriptions of monsters and killer tornadoes, secondary characters come and go and subplots are nonexistent, which is why Zelazny’s conceit of a bad-guy-as-savior thrown into a dystopic/apocalyptic setting has seen much better interpretations (e.g., Escape From New York). If given the choice between the two versions of Damnation Alley, read the novella instead — if only because it’s shorter.
As if we needed more proof that our contemporary reality is a phantasm sprung from Philip K. Dick’s Benzedrine imagination, I submit his early novel The Man Who Japed (1956) as exhibit Z.
Set in a post-post-apocalyptic world where civilization has rebuilt after a devastating nuclear exchange, Allen Purcell has lived a strait-laced life under Moral Reclamation, the conformist and puritanical one-world government that safeguards against immorality, which in its adherents’ view is what led to World War III. Purcell is such a good citizen, in fact, that the government promotes him to head its propaganda department.
Except Purcell also has a dimly remembered night life in which he “japes” society through vandalism, drunkenness, and other petty transgressions. His scaling the peaks of success has produced a psychological schism between his square public persona and his inner critic of Moral Reclamation’s inertia and claustrophobia. This conflict comes to a head when Purcell the propaganda chief orchestrates — wait for it — a fake news broadcast.
Later Dick is so much weirder and darker than early Dick, and here Moral Reclamation doesn’t come off as particularly sinister; nonconformists, for example, are exiled to a vacation planet that sounds more like a reward than a punishment. But Dick’s trajectory is still easy to see: his love of psychology and pharmaceuticals, the authoritarian setting, the questionable value of our perceptions. In other words: drugs, dystopia, and gaslighting. Welcome to the future!
That’s it for 2018. Cash me at the bottom of 2019 to see where the endtimes took me this year. Fingers crossed we’re all still alive.
At Electric Lit’s Blunt Instrument advice column, an author asked how to absolve herself from the shame of publishing a book she now feels is “juvenile:”
I saw a tweet a little while ago from someone who said, “I would never forgive myself if I wrote a bad book.” I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself, either, and I can’t figure out how to move on. For a time I thought that I would just work hard and write something else that would be so much better and erase the collective memory of my first book (I think I flatter myself to even think there is a collective memory), but I remain filled with doubt. And self-loathing. This might be a better question for a therapist, but here’s the short version: how do you recover from publishing shame?
Elisa Gabbert, the Blunt Instrument’s fount of wisdom, replied in part:
It makes sense that young people, because they lack experience, would tend to undervalue experience and overvalue talent, which may be all they have. It also makes sense that older people would place a higher value on experience, now that they have it. I am not especially young, so you can take my bias into account, but I believe that experience is important, and that more life experience, reading experience, and writing experience are going to make you a better writer.
I don’t disagree with anything Gabbert said and her entire response is worth reading, particularly for her discussion of how the vagaries of publishing often result in a disparity between the fondness an author feels for a work versus its popularity among readers.
Yet what’s significant to me is that Gabbert explicitly underscores such shame being an issue of experience. Writers who are early in their careers — regardless of their age — have smaller portfolios and therefore are more conscious of it. If you only have ten published pieces to your credit and one is awful, that’s ten percent of your bylines; but if you’ve written 100 pieces and one is bad, the stink is confined to a negligible percentage.
All writers produce bad copy — God knows I have. Thankfully most of it is lost to the mists of time, but before you tell me that Google forgets nothing, keep in mind it works both ways: yes, some of my bad stuff has fallen down the memory hole but so have some pieces I’m particularly proud of, even though they were authored in the age of search engines. Publications come and go, and often they take their servers with them. The Internet is no elephant.
If you dug up one of those old pieces of mine, the kind I’d prefer were forgotten, and waved it my face, I wouldn’t be happy. But neither would I lose sleep over it. I have a number of aphorisms I’ve developed over the years. For example: The best response to a piece of bad writing is to create another piece of writing. When I start something and realize it’s not proceeding well, I set it aside and write something else. Sometimes I will cannibalize it for words or ideas but at the very least the act was a warmup, a prelude to a new thing. To the inexperienced, a setback or criticism can seem monstrous but to the jaded rodeo clown it’s like, Meh whatevs.
This subject resonates with me, I think, because this week I’m putting the finishing edits on my current WIP, a 37,000-word novella. Today I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but while I can’t imagine ever hating it, five or ten years from now I may view it more critically. That’s OK because I’d like to think that in five to ten years I’ll be writing even better stuff.
And that, ultimately, is what you have to ask yourself: Does what I’m writing today reflect the best I can do in this moment? Is it a product of my current talent and ability? If not, throw it in a drawer. But if it is, then hustle it, and if your future self doesn’t like it, then tell him to STFU and get cracking on something better. Move forward. Forget the past. Let the dead bury the dead.
My senior year of college, I had a part-time job in the student union. It involved being something like a facilities manager, only I wasn’t an actual manager. I made rounds through the union to keep it clean and functional. If a bulb was out or something was broken, I filed a maintenance request; but if somebody had spilled coffee, I broke out the mop. I counted rolls of toilet paper in utility closets and removed outdated announcements from the bulletin boards. Sometimes I manned the information desk. Those kinds of things.
My shifts began at an awkward time in the evenings after I had eaten in the union dining hall. The difference in time, usually less than an hour, wasn’t long enough to be useful — not enough to study in earnest, although sometimes I would catch up on my assigned reading. Besides, who wants to prep for work by doing work?
Instead, I would watch TV. The union had two TV lounges. At that time of day, one was usually dark and silent. The other was packed so solid some people had to sit on the floor.
The first time I ducked into the popular lounge, I froze in my tracks. The entrance was to the right of the television, so I saw the entire audience illuminated by the glow of the screen in three-quarters profile. Every single face was black.
Now I have to confess what threw me off wasn’t just the black audience — it was also the show they were watching. It was Star Trek: The Next Generation. It had been Patrick Stewart’s baritone, overheard in the hallway, that lured me into the lounge in the first place. I thought to myself, Black people like Star Trek?
In hindsight, it’s not at all strange when you consider Trek history — even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan — but this was my first encounter with black fandom, or what’s sometimes called black nerd culture.
Watching TV with this group became a regular habit during my senior year. After dinner I would often stop by the TV lounge, wade deep into the room, and (usually) find a seat against the back wall to watch. Alas, since I arrived after the show began and departed before it finished, I never spoke to anybody. We were all too busy watching.
And this audience didn’t just watch Star Trek. Oh no. There was commentary.
What transpired in that lounge was essentially a live version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, only a thousand times funnier. Before me was the screen broken by the anonymous silhouettes of the people in front, all of them cracking wise at the perils faced by the crew of the Enterprise-D. Imagine watching TV with a room full of your favorite comedians — that’s what it was like. I learned to chew gum while watching so I could bite down sometimes to keep from screaming with laughter.
While they often made fun of the interior Star Trek, the crowd also criticized Star Trek the TV show. There’s one episode I remember in particular. Picard and the gang had beamed down to a planet inhabited by blonde, blue-eyed people. It might have been some kind of shore-leave episode. The natives wore flowey garments and were very friendly to the off-worlders — theirs was a perfect, utopian world, full of beautiful white people with blonde hair and blue eyes.
The room went off.
“Oh, they on the Planet of the Aryans.”
“It’s the Hitler World!”
And on and on. They shredded that episode. I think I might’ve been crying in the back.
But you know what? I had a little epiphany in that TV lounge. The Enterprise crew flew hither and yon across the galaxy encountering all sorts of extraterrestrials with sagittal crests and bumpy nose prosthetics, and yet usually those aliens only had one skin color. Black actors would turn up as Klingons like Worf but even that wasn’t consistent because some Klingons were just white actors wearing shoe polish. Just as every alien planet mysteriously looked like southern California, likewise the aliens themselves always coincidentally had pink skin.
If you’ve read my previous thoughts on Black Panther, it may not surprise you that I was very excited to see Wakanda’s realization on the big screen. I didn’t have to wait long. Early in the film we experience a flyover of the countryside before piercing the shield dome to encounter Wakanda’s main city. The skyscrapers have none of the gloomy spires of Gotham or even the blocky pyramids and temples of Egypt (which might be expected since BP’s tribe worships Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess); instead the rounded organic forms of the skyline strongly reminded me of the beehive structures and asymmetrical curving walls of Great Zimbabwe. There are too many details I could geek about — the dragonfly VTOL ships, the throne rooms, the five tribes’ distinguishing customs and clothing and palettes — but suffice to say, Wakanda makes every Star Wars planet look gray and ho-hum by comparison.
Black Panther is unique in comics in that the character is inexorably entwined with his setting. Even Batman can’t share that claim: the Gotham of the Bob Kane era is indistinguishable from any generic cityscape, featuring none of the Gothic art deco we now associate with the Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the very first appearance of BP in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four takes place in his home country. Wakanda and its mashup of African culture and super science was baked into the mythology of Black Panther from the very beginning.
Often the settings in fiction are interchangeable; the action can be switched from city to suburbs to rural country without much trouble. In others, the setting is intrinsic. In much the same way as cutting a major character changes a story, moving a Western to New York City radically transforms the original intent into a very different work. Setting, in other words, itself becomes a main character, a silent player on the stage — excise the character, and the original concept is wounded or at least altered so drastically it becomes something else.
Black Panther would not be as successful a character (or now, a franchise) without Wakanda, and the tightly written script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole understands that. A major theme of the film asks what responsibility does Wakanda have to the rest of the world, and more specifically, to the black world. When you are rich and powerful, is hermitism and quietude a valid strategy of self-preservation or is it complicity with evil? If engagement is preferred, what shape should it take? The film’s plot is an internal monologue of Wakanda the character, expressed through T’Challa and Killmonger. More than just visually depicting the country, Coogler and Cole perfectly communicate the tension inherent in the whole concept of Wakanda.
Black Panther is a solid film with strongly defined characters and great acting (I couldn’t decide which antagonist I loved watching steal scenes the most: Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, Andy Serkis’s Klaue, or Winston Duke’s M’Baku). Is it the best MCU film yet? I’m still partial to Winter Soldier, but Panther is definitely at the top of my list. I suspect that with its box-office success and the difficult job of introducing a whole slew of new characters behind it — and assuming Marvel keeps Coogler and Cole onboard — the next Black Panther may be the next Winter Soldier. In the meantime, I’ll just have to be patient and go see this one again.
All images taken from Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage. Copyright © 2016 Marvel. Fair use! Discussion purposes!
Update: The capital city of Wakanda, so I’ve learned, is Birnin Zana, and Chadwick Boseman has said the cinematic version of Wakanda is based upon the real-life kingdom of Mutapa, the 15th-century successor state to the kingdom of Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe, which was built beginning in the 11th century, was the capital of the Zimbabwe kingdom.