I would have words…

Lately I’ve been watching the show ‘Spartacus’ on Netflix. I’m thinking about writing a fantasy book set in Bronze Age-type book series once I finish IDYLL Book 3, and a sword-and-sandals saga seemed somewhat similar to the setting of my story. (Sibilance!)

spartacus batiatusQuestionable research techniques aside, I’ve been enjoying Spartacus. Yes, it’s cheesy at parts, but I think the first season was very well done for what it is—a bloody, lusty soap opera with lots of good twists and over-the-top characters.

To help convey a sense of Old-Old-Worldiness, the ancient Romans talk in a sort of overly formal, faux-Shakespearean phrasing. That’s probably better than having them talk in the original Latin! And the writers have done a good job of using that style to make the simplest lines of dialog sound interested.

For instance, “We need to talk” becomes “I Would Have Words…”

The overwrought language can also seem surprisingly colorful and visceral. As in “You will do as commanded, absent complaint, or see flesh stripped from bone.” Or “There are many words I would use towards your description. ‘Fool’ lives not amongst them.”

The problem for me is that I think that style of speech is slipping into my writing. My characters are speaking a little too formally.

I find my characters saying things like:
“This all that remains.”
“Granted, it was a poor choice.”
“I’m pleased to hear it.”
And granted, my characters are sci-fi cowboys, but still this style is too anachronistic, even for them.

This isn’t the first time that some sort of media I enjoy has seeped into my writing style. I’ve found I can’t read a present-tense book while I’m doing my first draft, or I’ll write whole passages in the wrong verb tense.

How about the writers out there? Are there any writing styles or tropes that unconsciously slip into your writing based on what types of books, shows, or music you’re enjoying in your free time?

Ranking Black Mirror Episodes, Seasons 1-3

Do you have a love/hate relationship with technology? Do you love TV shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits? Then you should check out Black Mirror, currently available on Netflix. At first I wasn’t too intrigued by the idea of this series. I kinda expected each plot to devolve into the ending of Superman 3.

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The most terrifying/ridiculous Superman moment ever

Sure, the plots are creepy and pessimistic on the whole, but there’s more to them than that. There are explorations of how mobile/social media and our surveillance culture speak to the seamy or sentimental sides of our human nature. In Black Mirror (I always pronounce it the way Arcade Fire sings it), technology is presented as 30% awesome, 70% revolting/dehumanizing. And we can’t turn away from that awesome 30%.

With that said, here is my ranking (in order of bestitude) of the episodes in Seasons 1, 2, and 3:     

#1
San Junipero
The premise:
I don’t want to give anything away. One of the great things about this very great episode is the mystery of it. This isn’t the first bit of science-fiction to explore this concept (It turns up to mind-blowing effect in Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail). I will say if you’re still yearning for 80s nostalgia after Stranger Things, this will help scratch that itch.
My take: A rare optimistic episode. Some people will find it uplifting—some will find it uplifting and vaguely disturbing. But I don’t think you can deny that the story is bittersweet and beautiful. Maybe the story was particularly resonant for me because I feel like (pardon the self-promotion) my two Idyll trilogy books deal with this idea, a little (but in a more pessimistic way). Book 3, Exile, which I’m polishing now, will explore the concept further.

#2
The Entire History of You
The premise: Almost everyone has implants in their skull that record the video and audio inputs of every moment of your life. You can replay those memories at will, or project them onto a screen for others to see.
My take: I had a similar idea for a short story; I’m sure probably a lot of people have. But here, the writers take the idea and just kill it (in a good way). My story was going to involve a guy who become addicted to reliving his best days, so that he never makes any new memories. This story goes in a much better direction. Also, Robert Downey Jr. has bought the rights to turn this episode into a film.

#3
Fifteen Million Merits
The premise: More dystopian than the SNL’s The Group Hopper. Everyone wears gray sweatsuits. They pedal spin-bikes to create energy. They are inundated with screentime at every waking moment.
My take: Of all the episodes in the series, this one builds a world that is most different from our own. In fact, parts of it are a bit cartoonish. Then the episode reveals how this world deals with instant—and disposable—celebrity, and the story really takes off. Everyone is one step from becoming a reality show buffoon, one step from an American Idol superstar, one step from a porn star.

#4
Nosedive:
The premise: The world is so plugged into social media that every social interaction is logged in and rated. Social status is now absolutely quantified, and posted on Heads-Up feeds, so everyone can see where you fall on the popularity scale. If your score is high enough, it will help you qualify for loans and housing—low enough and certain places will bar you from entering.
My take: I had to stop this one midway through because it was stressing me out. Anything involving an airport snafu is like an immediate trigger warning for me. So the first half of this episode is lightly disturbing. Then the second half almost becomes a comedy, ala Road Trip or Wedding Crashers. Overall, the feel of ‘Nosedive’ is more like a parody than a cautionary tale. Ultimately, I don’t think people would buy into this concept of Facebookifying their entire lives. But 10% of the population would probably love it!

#5
Be Right Back
The premise: A tech startup can resuscitate the dead—virtually—by creating an artificial intelligence based their mobile and social media presence.
My take: Wow. The writers flesh out the characters, lay down the dynamite, and set up the viewer for a wallop. The story has some similar themes to Her and A.I.—except this ghost in the machine was an actual person at one point.

#6
Hated in the Nation
The premise:
This one is another mystery, so I won’t give anything away. A woman is murdered. And internet hatin’ is involved. At 90 minutes long, ‘Hated in the Nation’ is a movie-length capper to Season 3.
My take:
This was good. It reminded me of those buzzy, ‘viral’-type suspense movies (Nerve, Purge, Gossip) where characters get caught up in social phenomena. Also, there’s a bit of Seven in there. Now that I think about it… it might have been better if the main sci-fi element had been removed, and the story was more of a straight-forward serial killer mystery.

#7
Playtest:
The premise: A man volunteers to spend a night in a creepy house while hooked up to an augmented-reality gaming device that taps into your greatest fear. For the love of God… Why?!?!
My take: Good, straight-forward popcorn/horror fun. You can kind of see the big pay-off coming, but the path it takes has just the right amounts of twists in it.

#8
White Christmas
The premise: A bonus-length, Christmas episode that works in two sci-fi ideas: 1) digitally copying your mind to create your own digital house-slave, and 2) turning social media ‘blocking’ into a real-world thing.
My take: This is another very dark episode, and the concepts and core characters are pretty mean. If you know someone who’s freaked out by artificial intelligence, don’t let them watch this episode.

#9
Shut Up and Dance
The premise: Verrrrry dark. This episode feels close to modern times. A teenager has his laptop hacked, and he ends up being FaceTimed during his ‘personal’ time. The troubles only get worse from there.
My take: The characters’ decision-making seemed over-the-top for a lot of this episode. And did I mention this one is verrrrrrrrry dark? Then there’s a sort of hurried, garbled phone conversation that ends the proceedings with one final, icky cherry on top. Did I hear what I thought I heard? Is it true? Seemed a little confusing to me. Good use of a soundtrack, though.

#10
National Anthem
The premise:
Someone has kidnapped England’s most beloved princess, and they want to extort the Prime Minister to do something very embarrassing.
My take: A short episode, and not a whole lot to say about technology in general. Except that the web completely cuts through the reins that the British government’s try to put on their traditional news outlets.

#11
Men Against Fire:
The premise: High-tech soldiers fighting a mysterious hostile species called Roaches. I won’t give away anything else, because this one is also set up as a mystery.
My take: I feel like I figured out the mystery way too soon, then the story seemed to drag while I waited for everything to play out. An interesting idea though; and Doug Stamper’s in it.

#12
The Waldo Moment
The premise: A comedian who voices a vulgar cartoon bear finds himself mixed up in a national election.
My take: Again, Black Mirror takes on politics. This episode reminds me a bit of House of Cards, real people caught up in diabolical political schemes. Shadowy  strategists decide that an irreverent, populist cartoon bear is the perfect candidate, and their argument actually kind of makes sense

#13
White Bear
The premise: 90% of the population have mysteriously turned into gawkers. All they ever do is wander the earth mutely and record stuff on their phones. Society has broken down, and the remaining 10% of the population react to this new status quo in one of two ways. They go on Purge-style murder sprees, or they run and hide from the Purge people.
My take: A good start, but in my opinion, this is one case where the episode’s twist actually makes the story lamer.

I just read: The Steel Seraglio

steel_seraglio   ‘The Steel Seraglio,’ by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey (a dad, mom, and daughter team), is a wonderful epic story about women changing the world from unlikely origins—a medieval Arabian harem.

Considering its setting, it’s not surprising that the story works in elements of 1,001 Arabian Nights, with storytelling as a strong theme. But the first section of the book is more of a twist on the myth of ‘Lysistrata.’ In ‘Lysistrata,’ the women of Greece go on a sex strike to force their men from going to war. In ‘The Steel Seraglio,’ the protagonists go the opposite way, overindulging the bellicose Sultan (with sex, flattery,  white lies, and any other feminine wile they can muster) to soothe him into not pursuing wars. As a result, the seraglio (another word for  stealthily presides over the most prosperous and enlightened sultanate in the land.

Unfortunately, this ‘Pax Romantica’ is finally shattered by a truly frightening villain in Hakkim Mehdad. Hakkim is a religious extremist who believes all of Earthly existence should be a grinding, joyless slog to achieve perfection in the afterlife. He’s also got a unique origin story and a truly creepy secret totem that he keeps with him.

The protagonists are a savage exile, surrounded by men who see them as objects of gratification or political pawns to be slaughtered. But they work their way through each hardship with wisdom and cunning. These courtesans aren’t just sexpots playing dumb; they’re savvy, talented women.

65_edc02steelseraglioremnimitmalaviaAll except one among them, who wields a sharp knife better than a sharp wit. I won’t give that woman’s name, because it would spoil her sudden introduction to the story. But let’s just say she is the land’s only professional female assassin, and she finds herself throwing in with the Seraglio. Soon she is recruited as the group’s reluctant (and refreshingly gruff) tactician. There are other standouts: the wise and aging matriarch, the snobbish and brilliant diplomat, and the librarian who was granted powers to see the future.

Lastly, there’s the slain Sultan’s last living heir, Jamal. Jamal starts the book as a young, inconsequential prince—far back in the line of succession—so he is both spoiled and essentially ignored. When the Seraglio helps him survive the slaughter of all his brothers and half-brothers, a new world of possibilities opens up for Jamal in exile. But will he choose to follow those possibilities toward good, or toward evil? Jamal has the the strongest character arc in the book. He’s written as a character who is hard to like, but easy to empathize with.

Steel Seraglio also features evocative illustrations by Nimit Malavia.

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Jekyll Island, Before the storm

I went to Jekyll Island early in October, before Hurricane Matthew rolled through. Like most of the barrier islands on Georgia’s coast, Jekyll is owned by the state park system. There are houses and businesses on the island, but I believe they all lease their property from the state. So the island usually has a very isolated, uncrowded vibe, especially on the southern end. Here’s a few pictures and movies:

Sunrise on the island:

 

Rickety walkway to the island’s southern beach:

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I ran into lots of dead horseshoe crabs:

img_1309A windy afternoon, and the buried mast of a shipwreck (a shrimp boat from the 1990s)

 

Listen to those bugs!

 

Live Oaks at the South Dunes Park:

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The Pulchritude Award: Phlegmatic

The Pulchritude Award goes to words that don’t sound anything like what they actually mean. Today’s winner is ‘phlegmatic,’ which is a word that’s 66% ‘Phlegm.’ Like anything that’s 66% phlegm, it sounds hella disgusting. But it turns out in ancient times, phlegm was one of the four bodily humors, and was believed to be associated with a calm temperament. So ‘phlegmatic’ actually means ‘stoic,’ ‘unemotional,’ ‘serene.’

FYI, those other three humors of ancient medicine were black bile (melancholic), yellow bile (choleric), and blood (sanguine). Collect them all! And the next time someone calls you phlegmatic, try to remain calm and don’t get offended!

Series Condition: Tokyo Ghost

I’m updating this post from June to note the Tokyo Ghost finale.

I’ve heard a lot of great things about the comics writer, Rick Remember. Nearly every one of his Image series has sounded cool enough to hook me in for at least the first issue. Unfortunately, Black Science, Deadly Class, and Low all felt too nihilistic, too ‘hair-trigger’ for me. Lots of bouts of sudden violence; lots of main characters or innocent bystanders being killed off. They were cool books, with great ideas and art, but I had difficulty finding something enjoyable or sympathetic to grab onto, something to make me hang on for the ride.

tg00That’s not the case with the thundering tank-cycle that is Tokyo Ghost. So far, I’m totally hooked for the ride.

Tokyo Ghost
Writer: Rick Remender

Artist: Sean Murphy
10 issues
Years: 2015 to 2016
Publisher: Image Comics

If anything, Tokyo Ghost should be the Remender book that I most hate, because it might be his most misanthropic premise. Here’s the description from Comixology: The Isles of Los Angeles 2089: Humanity is addicted to technology, a population of unemployed leisure seekers blissfully distracted from toxic contamination, who borrow, steal, and kill to buy their next digital fix. Getting a virtual buzz is the only thing left to live for. It’s the biggest industry, the only industry, the drug everyone needs, and gangsters run it all.

tg01To establish the setting, Remender presents us with a ton of carnage and depressing scenarios. Also, a couple of truly ruthless and depraved bad guys, including a kazillionaire (a Donald Trump stand-in) who’s so debauched, he spends most of his business hours Donald-Ducking it. (Word of warning: If you don’t like doodles of men’s diddles, or other bits of nudity and bad language, then this might not be the comic for you.)

Again and again, the book goes over-the-top to show you just how this potential future is nearly-completely awful. I think one of the things that pulled me through this section of the book was that the future Earth in my ‘Idyll’ novel has some similar things going on (i.e., crowds of people who are emotionally and physically reliant on indulgent technology).

Then we go to the Garden Nation of Tokyo, which is the one place on the planet that is off-the-grid. In my mind that’s when the story really gets good. We learn more about our two main characters, one of whom is finally forced to disconnect from the tech that has consumed him.

tg02bThe story is always moving, with something at the end of each issue that breaks the status quo established by the issue before it. Then in issue 5, Remender really pulls the rug out from under our heroes, just when they’re at their happiest point.

Besides Remender’s twisty plot, the other HUGE draw is Sean Murphy’s art. He has a new, fun, ‘scratchy’ kinetic style, (I like Otto Schmidt and Sanford Greene, too).  Murphy’s delicate scratchy lines manage to be both dynamic and meticulously rendered. His art is like the beautiful love-child of Bill Sienkiewicz and Alex Nino. Every other page, I had to stop reading and zoom in on my iPad to enjoy a rendering of a Zen Garden, or a kinetic kick, or just a reflection in water.

By Issue 6, the story has turned dark and nihilistic again, but I’m imagining that Remender has more surprises up his sleeve. I’d like to see more of Tokyo’s Samurai Shangri-La as opposed to being stuck in just another Cyberpunk Dystopia. Here’s hoping the story goes to more beautiful locations, to complement Murphy’s stunning art.tg03

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Update:

Issue #10, which came out in September of 2016, marked the end of the series. Murphy is moving over to DC Comics to work on ‘All-Star Batman.’ That should be pretty cool. It would’ve been interesting to see where ‘Tokyo Ghost’ might have gone, if it had stayed an ongoing series, but the story had a natural conclusion to it at the Issue-10 mark. Actually, it probably could’ve wrapped up by Issue 9. The plot seemed to tread water in issues 7-9. Perhaps the creators were trying to work out whether they should end the series or not. Also, the latter issues were pretty damn bloody and nihilistic, so a bit of the antithesis of what I liked about the first few issues.

I did like the finale, partly because it went into that sci-fi idea of just giving up on the physical world, uploading your brain into virtual reality, and living there forever. Idyll Book 3 deals with that idea, somewhat. Also, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a genre book that’s dealt so heavily with the theme of co-dependence. That’s the primary (internal) struggle that Debbie faces in the last issue: Does she have the strength to make a break for her independence? Should she want to?

So, next steps for me: Keep an eye out for Murphy’s ‘All-Star Batman.’ And I might check out Remender’s ‘Deadly Class.’

I just read: Packing for Mars

pfmcoverI’ve never read a Mary Roach book, although I’ve always heard good things. I knew she was the lady who wrote funny non-fiction books with pithy, mostly one-word titles: Stiff (curious about corpses?), Grunt (curious about troops), Bonk (curious about sex?), Gulp (curious about digestion?), etc.

I for one and curious about the lives of astronauts, so ‘Packing for Mars’ was the book for me. Although I’m disappointed that Roach didn’t stay on-brand and pick a title that seemed vaguely poop- or sex-related. What about ‘Thrust?’ Or ‘Moon?’ Or ‘Void?’ How about ‘Deez ‘Nauts?’

I was impressed with myself that I skimmed through some of the cruder sections. Roach dwells on tales (genuine and exaggerated) of masturbating space-chimps. Then she spends a long time searching for an authentic zero-g sex-tape. Also I thought she was way too exhaustive in her accounts of how astronauts defecate in orbit. Maybe I’m maturing, but these chapters didn’t hold my interest. Or maybe I came to the book looking for something else.

There were quite a few factoids that I did find cool. For example:

– Hot air doesn’t rise in zero-g. Which means that extra steps must be taken to ensure that machines and astronauts don’t overheat.

– Because of surface conditions (less gravity and no wind or moisture) moon dust is more abrasive than earth dirt, and moon dust has annoying static-clingy qualities.

– Motion sickness is a common ailment in space, and vomiting in a gravity-free, helmeted spacesuit can be theoretically quite deadly.

I also liked Roach’s appeal at the end that Earthlings should venture forth to the red planet. Especially considering President Obama’s recent proposals on the subject. Although if you want a book that will amp you up about a new space-race (and that viscerally explains the challenges on living in space) let me be the hundredth person to recommend that you read Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian.’ My review to that book is here.