Why “trogg dogs”?

November 25, 2010

The Wastelands book continues to plague my Noosphere – indirectly this time. As mentioned before, my favorite story in this book (of those I’ve read) is Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag,” also available in his book Pump Six. So naturally I was drawn to the September 2008 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which has his name on the cover (full disclosure: it was a free copy I picked up at a convention – but it would not have stood out of the pile of free stuff if not for his name).

So I read “Pump Six,” and to my dismay, Bacigalupi has in his story entities called trogs, carnal subhumans who populate the story’s future society, hanging out like homeless but unabashedly humping in public. That name is eerily similar to my trogg dogs, a persistent threat to the humans in the Highway Virus series. These animals rove the decimated landscape, attack live humans and eat the dead ones. They are, in some ways, a force of nature, tied to the rise of the Highway Virus as it started to infect people.

So what’s in the name (i.e., how did I come to pick the name trogg dogs)? For one, trogg dogs look mostly like wolves, although much bigger, so “dogs” is a natural association. Second, the press named them, and as it does so often with real threats, they trivialized them. As the narrator in “Little Things” says, they needed some funny little story at the end of each hour to offset the day’s harsh realities. Trogg dogs seemed to fulfill that need, and a copy boy with a fetish for classic rock came up with the name to complete this wonderful distraction.

So there’s the answer to a question no one asked. The name came to me long before I had heard of the name “Bacigalupi,” but apparently it did bump up against him while floating in the Noosphere. If I can take one positive from it, this coincidence partially allays my fear that the name “trogg dogs” is too “Atwoodesque,” i.e., that it is too hokey to be believable as part of a realistic lexicon. There is another “trog” in print, and that is important, considering I feel I took a few liberties with the evolution of these creatures.

For one, I worry the emergence of this new species was too compressed, even though in present day we have numerous stories about packs of wild dogs ravaging countrysides. But in looking at the fictional timeline of the Highway Virus series, the trogg dogs happened too fast. Real evolution typically occurs over long periods of time although the fossil record does seem to indicate the actual evolution of the modern dog occurred in a relatively short period.

And, at least according to one hypothesis, they came because of our garbage. We humans are a waste-producing species – this skill will likely be our lasting contribution to the planet. Starting with our ancient antecedents, anywhere we go, we leave crap behind. Wild wolves with a “tamer” genetic variation ventured close to these human settlements, where food was easy but came with the risk of attack from ugly, hairless bipeds. From that starting point, the dog became domesticated and developed specific attributes that complemented this new symbiosis.

Perhaps that is why the notion of wild packs of dogs is a high sign of the end of civil society. Civilization formed around waste dumps and animal domestication. Wild dogs roaming the street is a clear metaphor for the collapse of that structure, or at least its downward trajectory, and we humans seem to have a strong innate reaction to this image. It symbolizes our loss of control. Canis lupus familiaris evolved in close conjunction with homo sapien, so if one goes, so too does the other. A feral relapse is at the tipping point of civilization, the line that, when crossed, represents our failure to hold it all together.

And perhaps that’s why so many dumb apes in Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska, and the like have such an irrational fear/hatred of wolves. Their brains are stuck in a primitive coded loop, still trying to protect their pile of garbage…

How quickly we forget…

October 16, 2010

In a recent interview with Christopher Nolan, the first question asked was, “Where did you get the idea of being able to invade the dreams of others [the concept for Inception]?” Nolan went on about his fascination with dreams and creating worlds and blah blah blah, but come on … Dreamscape, anyone? Does no one remember there was a film in 1984 with the exact same premise?

The reference might a little obscure for this world, but that’s a normal response from someone like me because I have this fascination with idea genealogy. And I don’t say that to denigrate Inception. It was a good movie, not great like Memento, and it gets a little extra praise for being much smarter than the average blockbuster. Regarding its concept lineage, Inception is to Dreamscape as Alien is to It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Not to say that Inception is in any way of the quality of Alien, but in both cases, they transcended what could be considered their “source material.” The ideas were out there, floating in the Noosphere, plucked by these creators and made into something more, something greater than what they had been.

And, one final caveat, I am not intending to denigrate Dreamscape either. It was good film of mixed genres, and the great Max von Sydow had the best metaline to sum up the movie as well his character’s motivation in it – “I’m doing this because it’s fun.” Dreamscape was a fun movie. Thing is, I don’t remember anyone gushing about Dreamscape‘s originality. As far as I can tell, no one asked David Loughery, the Dreamscape scribe, where his ideas come from. The movie fell into the Atwood trap of being “science fiction,” which as we know is about lizard men, as opposed to “speculative fiction,” which is appropriate for intellectual examination.

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March 27, 2010

I, like so many others in the reading public, went through a Stephen King phase. It was in junior high for me, when I bought his books by the yard and read one after the other, from Christine to Firestarter to all of The Bachman Books.

It gave me a certain reputation in school – I was, for lack of a better label, the weird one. It is an odd social phenomenon that you can get branded as the creepy outcast by reading one of the most popular writers in the history of English – but that’s for another discussion.

Naturally, once I came out on the other end of my Stephen King phase, I bared my pimply, teenaged ass to him, disparaging such drivel in favor of more erudite works by Tolkien and Melville (yes, those two can go together). The dizzying juices of teenage rebellion pushed me to turn against King – because he is The Man – and I use that term with all the heavy connotations it can carry. He sells millions of books, so he’s a sellout, right? He has scored the mass appeal that should be possible only with a giant compromise in one’s artistic integrity.

And he makes it all look so easy. He is easy to read, easy to digest, even when he goes on a bit too long – see It and Needful Things, for example. And that, I have to admit, is a great skill, one not possessed by many in this world.

Given that, plus his prolific career, King can cast a long and oppressive shadow on other writers – one that darkened my recent addition “Year of the Turtle.” This story is part of the Highway Virus series, and it and its companion piece “Little Things” are about two brothers trying reconcile their relationship and their own places in the world amid the chaos of a civilization in decline. Also, water is one of the themes, as you might expect from a story with “Turtle” in the title.

Then I read King’s story “The End of the Whole Mess” in the collection Wastelands. It was the first King work I had read in a long, long time. The story, in keeping with the theme of the collection, is about the end of the world. It focuses on two brothers – the narrator is the older brother and the younger brother contributes mightily to our end. And the active agent that ends it all moves through the water.

Damn, that all sounds really familiar. Given my ambivalence to King’s work in general, I can’t help but feel the same about these parallels. It is flattering that I share at least some of the same creative juices with such a successful writer. I have talked about the Noosphere before – and it should be at least a partial boost to my confidence that I might have bumped into him within that rarefied space.

On the one hand, I feel like I am a few more feet underground, on the bottom of the literary dumping ground, pelted by concepts eerily similar to my own work. I have done something that seems derivative – even though I wasn’t aware of the “progenitor” until after it was done. I guess that will always be the risk in any apocalypse fiction. In the end, you are always chasing The Road Warrior.

(Doomsday may not have been all that good, but at least Neil Marshall had no illusions about the type of movie he was making.)

Of course one reason why I may not be too psyched about the comparison to King’s story is that “The End of the Whole Mess” isn’t the strongest in the collection. I don’t say that to be snarky or vindictive. I honestly feel that the best story so far (and I’ve read only about half the book) is Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag.” Great story – and a really unique look at a possible future for “humanity.”

It always happens…

October 3, 2009

When you’re way way way way down at the bottom of the writing world, it seems every time you look up, there’s a luminary (or at least someone with better connections than you) making a success with one of your ideas.

It happened to me in the Nineties, when I was working on a comic series called the “Faerie Police,” about a division in the police department that handled supernatural offenders. Granted, it had its predecessors, namely The X-Files, but once I got a few stories cranked out, I started seeing that conceit everywhere – Men in Black, G vs. E, and countless indie comics.

Now, more recently, Margaret Atwood has published The Year of the Flood, a work of “speculative fiction” where a future world is beset by viruses, genetically engineered animal hybrids, and groups of religious zealots. Gee, I could almost cut that description, whole cloth, and used it for my Highway Virus series. It’s always a bit depressing, mixed with a sense of impotence, to see the upward trajectory of someone else’s work, while you are stuck with a small, unvisited Website carrying stories with similar themes, which came to you independently (from the Noosphere) and now look completely unoriginal.

I will say this, though – in her interview with the NewsHour, Margaret Atwood sounded a bit supercilious toward the sci-fi genre, glomming onto the phrase “speculative fiction” as if it were dipping in gold and glazed with cherub tears, whereas something with the label “science fiction” is low art, with stories about talking hamburgers and lizard men.

I haven’t read her book, although I am sure it is entertaining, if not outright good. But I find this attitude toward “genre fiction” to be a bit tiresome, especially with more and more great authors (for example, Cormac McCarthy with The Road) dipping into traditionally sci-fi themes.

What else would be worthy of this rarefied label of “speculative fiction”? Red Dawn, of course. Granted, there are people who think it is a documentary, sent as a warning from the future, but (for now) it lives in the speculative fiction camp – it is post-apocalyptic, and there are no robots or multi-limbed aliens. Atwood must have seen this gun-loving, right-wing stroke fest and thought – Gee, I’d much rather be associated with that as opposed to trifles such as Foundation or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I may be at the bottom of the literary world, but at least I readily embrace the true nature of my work.

Damn that Palahniuk

April 10, 2009

Chuck Palahniuk can do things that elude us lesser writers. There is a quality to his writing that is prima facie absurd. It shouldn’t work. Kurt Vonnegut was the same way. It is absurd to think you can end multiple paragraphs and sections with the refrain “So it goes.” But Vonnegut does it, and it works. If anyone else tries the same thing (or at least a similar convention), the work falls apart. They read like a poor copy of Kurt Vonnegut.

Regarding Palahniuk, who else could offer up the refrain, “I am Jack’s Raging Bile Duct” without sounding like a boob? That struck me as I was reading Lullaby the other day (and yes, I know that previous quote is from Fight Club). He has that same Vonnegut-like quality – he does things on the printed page that should not work. And I know. I’ve written lots of things that haven’t worked. And I’ve read a few short stories from the bizarro genre, which has tried to associate itself with Palahniuk, but (to me, at least) most of the “bizarro” stories come across as self-indulgent, with a Mad Libs approach to the profane. In contrast, Palahniuk’s work is complete, organic, where lesser writers sound trite and derivative.

And speaking of derivative, Lullaby has that same theme of “deadly art” that I was using in Martin Garvin, except he has a killer poem (or culling song) and mine was a movie. Damn you, Noosphere! Not that I ever thought that plot point was original.

Monty Python has a classic skit with “the deadliest joke in the world,” which the allies used as a weapon of mass destruction (and that was the motivation for the government agents in Martin Garvin Part 2).

Lovecraft imagined a world of ancient tomes where reading the words of certain ancient texts would drive one mad.

Del Close and John Ostrander told the story of a root that gives the ultimate high before killing you, in the unfortunately named “Foo Goo,” from the comic-book anthology series Wasteland #1. (How’s that for an obscure reference?)

The Ring had a killer videotape. In keeping with the limitations of that analog world, one has to wait a few days after watching the videotape to meet one’s demise.

Original ideas are hard to come by, so says Ecclesiastes. I don’t think that should be a deterrant to creating. But still, I also noticed some similarities between Palahniuk’s character Oyster (in Lullaby) and a character in one of my short stories. No wonder that damn story keeps getting rejected…