After writing in that last post about the screenplay that I scribbled out in between Forensics tournaments in college, I went back and read it again, which is always an interesting experience. It's about four college students trying to stop the four horsemen of the apocalypse in a small town--not terribly original or clever. But there are a few bits that I always liked, and one of them was this exchange between Famine and one of the protagonists.
Zach and Famine stare off the porch at the sky ahead, watching as a flock of geese fly by. FAMINE I will have to remember that. ZACH Something for your new world? FAMINE Lots to think about. What to keep, what to make different. ZACH I hate I won't be there to see it. FAMINE Maybe you will. Who knows how these things work? ZACH Don't you? FAMINE No. Not really. As much as I hate to admit it, I probably live in a world of much less certainty than you do. Think about it: all your life you've been taught that the laws of physics cannot be broken, that monsters and boogie men do not exist, that everything is well- reasoned and rational. Your world makes sense. Whereas for us, you never know what could happen next. ZACH Sounds exciting. FAMINE It's exhausting. We're tired, all four of us. We were created to do one thing, and yet for millenia had to hold off, wait until we got the go-ahead. No matter how much fun we've had with our hobbies over the years, the real point has always been the big event, Apocalypse. Now, even if it doesn't work, we finally get to do what we do best. There's a pause as the geese fly completely out of sight, just dots on the horizon and then gone. ZACH So you guys just decided one day, hey, why not take over the world? FAMINE Funny you should say that. ZACH You're kidding me. FAMINE Hey, we figured we were on a roll. People die from famine today, no matter what Sally Struthers says. And the best part is how Americans pretend it doesn't happen. Pestilence has diversified into pollution, so he's happy as a clam. Owns a stock of shares in several major oil companies, last time we checked. War is in a period of steady growth, especially with escalating international tension, and Death is always a popular commodity. All in all, why not strike while we're strong? ZACH I guess I can't argue with that logic. Look, how the hell are you going to kill me anyway? What are you going to do, starve me to death? Make me anorexic? Blacklist me at Food Lion? FAMINE I prefer something a little more subtle. He leans forward, and the darkness around him, on his suit, in the crevices of his skinny grin, seems to crawl. FAMINE I'm going to eat you, Zach. I'm going to swallow you up and digest on you for a little while, because I'm a very hungry guy and you look like someone with some substance to you. Zach backs away, horrified. Famine grins even wider. FAMINE You'd probably like to think that I mean this in a metaphysical sense, Zach. I know you like to pretend that you're a big-time philosophy major with important ideas. So you might like to think that this is just some nihilistic kick of mine, something to scare you. And you might be right. Famine sits back enough that he can comfortably reach into his jacket, pulling out a gingerbread man. Its icing gives it a look uncannily like Zach himself. He flourishes it. FAMINE But you might be wrong. He looks down at the cookie. Holds it up and squints at it, as if comparing its likeness with the inspiration. Then he smiles tightly and offers it. FAMINE Care for a bite? As if dazed, Zach reaches for the cookie, takes it, and holds it in his hands. Slowly, he brings it to his mouth and takes off a leg. FAMINE This isn't going to kill you, Zach. Not right away. It's just going to take you out of the action for a little while. Long enough for my comrades to remove your friends from the picture more permanently. When you resurface, you're going to have to face the fact that when those you really care about needed you, you were right here on your front porch, not lifting a single finger. As he eats, Zach gets more and more tired, more and more sleepy. FAMINE It's not about starvation, Zach. Never really was. If you do your research, the third horseman stands for much more that that. I am unfairness. I am inequality. I am inaction. Zach pauses, only the head of the cookie-Zach remaining. Famine takes it from his limp fingers, places it in his mouth. Zach tries to follow the movement with his eyes, but he's too far gone. FAMINE Bon apetit. He closes Zach's mouth around the cookie. Blur, and fade to black.
For those who have not had the pleasure of Iain M. Banks' fine Culture novels (what is wrong with you), one of my favorite bits is the ridiculous names that the AI-piloted ships give themselves. Wikipedia, as always a fine guide to geek culture if not for anything else, has a complete list sorted by novel. Some particularly good examples are the "Nuisance Value," the "Frank Exchange of Views," the "Stranger Here Myself," and the "Just Another Victim Of The Ambient Morality."
And then, for the next year or so, I did. But practice hones one's talent.
I'll be honest, I'm still irrationally angry about the OLPC sequencer malarkey and probably won't write much today. So instead, here's a "chapter" from A Fear of Yesterdays, the Great American Time Travel Novel that I've been working on every now and then, but probably won't ever finish. This bit is set in 1492 Italy.
"The thing about all this time travel," Simon begins, "is that you start to feel a bit like a deck of cards."
Jesus provides the obvious next line. "You're all shuffled," he says.
"Exactly," says Simon, leaning back in his chair with great satisfaction. He, Jesus, and Thirteen are all flagrantly anachronistic--but they have managed to convince the passers-by that they are part of a roving theater group, which will work temporarily. It is made more believable by Simon's constant low-level theatricality, as well as Jesus's total-body tattoo job. Every now and then, Thirteen wiggles a hand puppet to complete the illusion. A trio of small children has gathered a few yards away to watch them speak, even though they can't understand a word.
"Here, I'll show you what I mean," continues Simon. "So this one time a few years back, I'm seeing this chick--"
"Wait," says Thirteen, "you mean a few years back from now? Or a few years back Simon-time?"
Simon glares at her. "I will handle the temporal disintegration, thank you very much. The answer is both. Real-time, it was around 1350."
"The black plagues?" Thirteen shakes the hand puppet in mock-reproach. "Simon, you nasty little dog."
"--May I continue? Thank you. So we're staying in London, we've managed to nab a room for a couple weeks. We're both at that puppy-love infatuation stage, going at it like wild mongeese and doing drugs she brought over from 12th century Arizona, and we get the bright idea: why not do the time out of order? So we grab a piece of paper, write the numbers 1 - 14 on little squares, and each of us picks an order out of a hat."
"Different orders?" says Jesus.
"Right, totally different. Completely random. We each promised to do the full two weeks, no matter what happened, and every night at midnight exactly we'd jump to the next day in the list."
Simon takes a moment to stretch. The children look at him wide-eyed. "Boo!" he mutters to them, and they giggle. Thirteen gestures impatiently. "And?" she asks.
"It was fantastic." says Simon. "One of us did something stupid, impossible to say which or when, pissed the other one off. 'Next' morning, of course, the other person doesn't know what it was, because they're from who knows when subjectively. We bounced back and forth, one of us almost always either mad because the other did something wrong, or because they had to wake up next to a cranky lunatic for no apparent reason. It was two weeks of constant stress and make-up sex." He pauses, reflecting. "Best relationship I've ever had, really."
"Doesn't surprise me," Thirteen says. "So what you're trying to say is that we can only survive being time travelers because we're too self-centered for paradox?"
"Exactly," yells Simon. "Look at us: forming friendships with other time travelers requires all three of us to either maintain a planned sequence of meetings--which we almost never manage to do perfectly--or to recklessly toss causality aside when our subjective experiences don't match yet."
"Not bad," says Jesus.
"'Course it's not bad," says Simon. "I've thought it all through."
"Wasn't bad the last six times you said it, either." says Jesus, catching Simon mid-gloat.
Jesus nudges Thirteen. "Have you ever noticed how much he repeats himself?" he asks.
"Oh yes, constantly. That's what I like about Simon. He's a rock of stability in my life. It's so nice to see him do this bit for the 'first' time, though."
Simon searches their faces and sees only glib humor. "Oh, no," he moans. "I've messed up the dates and picked a later one, haven't I? Just how much time have you guys got on me?"
Thirteen can't hold it--she bursts out laughing. "Got you," she chuckles. "You're on schedule. We're just messing with you. Should have seen the look on your face..."
Simon just looks at her, wide-eyed. "Are you sure?" he asks. "Because Jesus looks about right, but I'd swear you're looking a lot older--"
The children cheer as his sentence is cut off by a fast-moving, airborne handpuppet.
There are far fewer zombie books than there are zombie movies. No doubt the visual appeal of the undead has a lot to do with this--zombies are a lot more menacing with a lot of tricky editing than as a slow, fumbling cannibal horde, and directors like Romero have always played on the creative costuming available to previously human monsters. Yet since the appeal of the zombie is less as an antagonist and more as a pressure cooker for the main characters, there's certainly room for them in prose. David Wellington's Monster Island attempts to explore this genre, but like its clumsy things that go bump in the night, it suffers a number of missteps along the way.
The setup is very smart. Dekalb, the main character, is a former UN weapons inspector who was traveling in Somaliland with his daughter when the zombification began. The lesser-developed countries, being heavily armed and used to conflict, survive largely intact, while Europe and the US fall to the undead. With aid efforts suddenly dropped as a result, the Somali warlord is left without her AIDS medication, and she dispatches Dekalb to UN Headquarters in New York City--accompanied by a troop of female child soldiers--to pick up AZT. In return, she'll keep his daughter safe. Tossing a monkey wrench into the plan is a medical student who figured out how to beat the brain-liquifying part of the resurrection process. He's undead and suffers from the same hunger as the rest, but he's self-aware and marginally more coordinated.
All of which has the potential to be an interesting, grounded, science-fiction take on the traditional zombie legend. But then Wellington starts to bring in mystical networks of "death energy," far less interesting motivations, and (in my eyes, worst of all) an undead druid who's been sitting in a museum display case for thousands of years. It is just a pet peeve of mine that bringing a geeky adoration of the Celts into anything ruins it, but in this case it is certainly true. The plot takes a nose-dive into something much less dynamic and much more predictable.
Monster Island got a huge boost in its promotion by being prominently featured on uber-tech blog Boing Boing, since it was previewed as a series of blog posts. As a result, its visibility has been heightened for probably millions of people like me, who vaguely remember it while browsing the stacks. But was it worth their breathless promotion? Sadly, no! It's not a bad title. It's a better book than the Resident Evil series were movies. But if I had to pick a place to revitalize zombies in popular fiction, I don't think I'd start here.
This month's book for discussion by the Coterie of Frustrated Intellectuals is Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. I admit to being conflicted about this book, which is why I picked it. As is customary for our book club, I'm asking the other readers to keep in mind, and be prepared to answer, the following questions:
More questions will probably be ready by the time we meet, but these seem like good starting places for someone to explore the themes of Someone Comes to Town.
Shorter M. John Harrison:
Or, for those of you who still remember calculus fondly:
From the back cover of "Watch Me" by A.J. Holt:
But Jay's Washington bosses have told her to stop. She can't use her program. It violates the Constitution. It violates these sick killers' civil rights.
Now Jay's been transferred to a tiny office in Santa Fe. She's instructed to stay out of multiple murder cases. As far as Washington knows, she is.
LIKE HELL SHE IS.
Jay is going on-line. She's going to track down the killers. What will she do when she finds them? She says...
Somewhere in or around DC, Alberto Gonzales lights up a cigarette, glances at the torn paperback next to him, and mutters, "Was it good for you too?"
This month's book for Belle's book club is William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, by my suggestion. A few thoughts:
It is safe to say, at this point, that a major focus point of Gibson's writing has been information and information flows. He's fascinated by it. In part, this is a product of his time--while at many points in history we have only vaguely been able to recognize that information is a technology in the artifacts it creates, it has now literally become the technology itself. That's a powerful change in how we commonly view the world. It almost requires a kind of Cartesian dualism, only instead of a spiritual world beyond, you have to think in terms of networks and metadata.
And if you're going to explore that kind of duality, you need a character that can bridge it for the reader, and this is in fact a common feature of Gibson's work. His first novel, Neuromancer, starred a hacker (or "console cowboy") named Henry Case, giving the readers a closer viewpoint on how Gibson's virtual space could affect the physical world--or vice-versa, as Case also met some characters who were either people downloaded into a ROM construct, or even completely artificial AI. Idoru introduced Colin Laney, who could instinctively read and understand the data trail produced by consumption due to childhood medical experimentation. Laney wasn't just a exposition device--by this point, we were all familiar with the dangers of living in a digitally documented world--but a way of personalizing the techniques we now know as data mining. He gave the reader a person through which we could think about our relationship to our data shadow.
In Pattern Recognition, our Virgil figure is Cayce Pollard. She is allergic to brands. More specifically (although Gibson never really comes right out to say this), she's allergic to brands that carry a lot of extra semantic baggage. This is really interesting in conjunction with the fact that it's Gibson's first present-day novel. Through this allergy, he can highlight the level of branding that surrounds us nowadays, as well as making some interesting observations about the information carried through advertising (perhaps our most studied symbolic industry).
For example, Cayce has to grind off all of the rivets on her jeans. She tears off tags from her clothing and her accessories. Tommy Hilfigger just about triggers a breakdown (Gibson, again, isn't clear why, but perhaps the brand's reinvention as an "urban" label has something to do with it). Hello Kitty, on the other hand, doesn't trip her condition at all: Sanrio exists only as a set of empty logos and designs, nothing other than "cute." The specifics are really fairly irrelevant. What's important is that Cayce is alert to the same messages that we either suppress or can't consciously see. She is a window to the careful manipulation of marketers in an ad-supported world. She's also, in a visceral way, affected and controlled by it. Are we really that far off, just because we don't all have a panic attack at the Gap? How much control do we have over our impulses?
The logo allergy also gives Cayce a job as cool-hunter, and that opens up a whole other dimension to Gibson's exploration. I think what he may be trying to show us is a blurring between content and commercial. The product has become the pitch, and the pitch is everywhere. In reaction to the increasing guile and cynicism of the audience, Cayce's employers are trying to reach out and subvert her hobby--a slowly-released piece of movie footage being released slowly through unknown sources. The footage may represent the only artifact left that's not created to sell something. It's pure creativity, and as such people like Cayce are drawn to it. Of course, corporations also hunger for something with that genuine appeal. And the paradox is that anything that they can co-opt will lose its credibility in becoming just another marketing scheme. Again, it's a conflict of control and freedom under capitalism.
Which is not far from how the system works now. Gibson is more subtle than this, and leaves quite a bit open for interpretation. Moreover, as usual, all this is suspended in the middle of many other plots and threads, including an unsettlingly well-crafted portrayal of the modern e-life (much of the book is deftly woven through online forums and e-mail exchanges). Yet for the implications noted above, it's Cayce's peculiar ability that may stick with the reader the longest, and should prove most disturbing. At the most basic level, the question raised by Pattern Recognition will be whether or not human creativity can survive the interference of capitalism, or if it will become just another part of a machine, feeding on itself. Looking at the celebration of Remix Culture on the Internet some days, I'm not so sure how I could answer that.
The scifi/fantasy section at the nearby Borders bothers me. In fact, most bookstore SF sections bother me. But the L Street Borders is especially bad, for several reasons.
First, it's being squeezed gradually into a smaller area. The back shelves are gradually being taken over, like kudzu, by manga paperbacks. There are rows and rows of these things, ugly little white books with garish logos in place of titles on the spine. Looking at the manga books, whose consumers seem to be mostly 13-year old girls, I feel old. These are not something I am going to ever enjoy, or even likely understand, in my lifetime. Get off my porch, CLAMP! If I see you brats in my yard again, I'm calling your parents, see if I don't! Why a genre with such a young demographic has three shelves in DC's business district is a mystery to me. Maybe the proximity of GWU has something to do with it.
But even while other genres force scifi over, the books themselves are getting bigger. Trade paperbacks have become fashionable--and why not? I pay $7 to buy The Scar as a regular-sized novel, but $12 for it as a trade. The paper costs are probably lower, and they look thin and sophisticated on a shelf. The fact that it's harder to toss into a bag, or harder to read one-handed, those are not priorities for the printing industry.
Who is this Laurell K. Hamilton chick? I don't know, but I'm thinking I'm going to have to find out, if only because her books have a whole row all of a sudden. These are the novels with the monochromatic covers featuring disembodied female nudes--never a face, just a torso or a set of legs. The cover blurbs read "romantic thrills and erotic chills," which leads me to believe that these are some kind of Harlequin romance fused with World of Darkness fanfiction. The user pics on various Amazon pages for them show both the nudes and bland oil paintings of the generic horror type, so maybe they've shown up in force after a rebranding and fresh marketing push. I shouldn't complain, honestly. At least the books are fairly honest about their contents, and they're still more tasteful than the average dreadful fantasy cover. Sex has always been the awkward, fumbling Achilles Heel of speculative fiction.
But there's a whole series of these. There's a series of StarDoc books. Eric Flint and David Drake write their military scifi series. Everywhere you look, there's a half a shelf being used for potboilers and their sequels. Again, from a marketing point of view, this makes sense. Sequels have established characters and reliable settings. They create repeat buyers. They can be written quickly at a suitable but not excessive level of quality. From a marketing view, spam makes a lot of sense, too. I hate series, or trilogies, or whatever you want to call them. Endings are sublime. Don't stretch it out.
I've never been completely comfortable browsing the science fiction stacks anyway--call it the literary equivalent of a puritan upbringing. So maybe I'm not the best person to be discussing its trends and shifts. I do find it interesting to watch the drama played out on the shelves, as they move and change over time. It's a whole different world from the used bookstores that I usually frequent.