Where is the Highway Virus link?

June 10, 2011

For those of you keeping score at home (and that is a sad little joke told to an empty room), you may have noticed the recent change in the home page makes the Highway Virus stories inaccessible. Actually you can still get to them from links in the blog – like this one – but that section of the site is no longer navigable from the main pages.

So, since it is moderately difficult to access these pages, they are essentially offline. Why? I decided to retire the tone of those stories. The notion of a grim, tooth-and-claw postapocalyptic future is overdone, and it was difficult for me to maintain that tone without becoming too didactic.

So I am trying to change the tone for my “sci-fi” or “futuristic” writing. Here is an excerpt from a new piece, with the working title “The Blue Caves of Austin,” just because I like that title:

“With the end of the world, or the world as you knew it, there were many things we had to do before we could start over. You left quite a mess. Lots of junk and lots of bodies. There’s a lot of talk, blaming you, speculating why you acted as you did. But there will be people in our future, and they will say the same things about us. I know because you said the same things about your antecedents.

“They want me to tuck this missive away, put it where it will find its way back to you. As though one day, we will wake up, and the skies will be clear, the ground clean, as though it were possible to change the course of the world.”

So that’s not quite as heavy handed as past efforts, I think. Which brings up a new question – do I always have to write in the first person?

A Worthy Quote from Borges

May 29, 2011

From “The Immortal,” by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley:

“I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.” (pgs. 13-14)

What a great line.

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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…

Welcome to the New Apocalypse – Same as the Old Apocalypse

November 13, 2010

Would anyone be surprised to wake up in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? Or are our minds conditioned to expect any deep sleep, any extended hospital stay, carries at least a 50/50 chance that the undead will be walking before your discharge? It struck me, when watching The Walking Dead, how no one asked how or why the Earth became overrun with zombies. There would have been more exposition if a tsunami or an earthquake or global warming had destroyed the world.

Of course that’s a recognition of today’s audience – we no longer need an explanation for zombies – but have we reached the point where we don’t expect our characters to question the existence of the walking dead either? If so, then the creator of Zombie Nice spent way too much time searching for the right cause for zombification…

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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The end of “The End of the Affair”

September 26, 2010

The End of the Affair was simply a great book. I had avoided Graham Greene books up to this point. I do not know why since he is often associated with Evelyn Waugh, who is by far one of my favorite authors and one of the best writers of the past century. I think there was something, some odd passage, on the first page of The Quiet American that dissuaded me from continuing. (And that book itself has the bizarre distinction of being one of the few, if any, literary references Baby Bush ever made in his life.) But I found a really good copy of “Affair” at Recycled Books, and how can you stop reading when the book begins with the line, “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead”? No one, as far as I can tell, writes that good these days.

Next up? Our Man in Havana, mainly because I also want to see the film (that way, I’ll have something more than Star Wars to talk about if I ever meet the spirit of Alec Guinness).

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Et tu, zombie?

August 21, 2010

In light of the recent zombie-related story posted a week back, I thought it might be a good time to look at the concept of the zombie in popular culture. Given the zombie-like devotion to vampires right now, I figure another classic monster category is due for an upswing.

Like so many other classic “monsters,” the “zombie” category in books, movies, etc., has been slowly expanding its definition, perhaps more than any other and especially in the last ten years. What used to be the exclusive territory of the mindless, flesh-eating walking dead has broadened to include a variety of afflictions.

For example, the recent remake of The Crazies generally falls into the zombie category, but the threatening hordes are alive and they don’t eat human flesh. In fact, it seems the “zombification” agent served merely to amplify people’s innermost violent emotions so that the afflicted would pursue revenge fantasies they harbored in life (where it is revealed that high-school principals dream of stabbing their students with a pitchfork).

[Fair Warning: this post contains some adult language and spoilers for several movies, including The Crazies, Shutter Island, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If this warning scares you, read no further.]

I don’t have a problem with this expansion of the category – but I do think we need to start finding new endings for zombie/apocalypse/pandemic stories. Today’s Hollywood writers have only a handful of ending options in their bandoliers, and an astute viewer can see them coming before the movie is half over.

One, end of the world (implied or real) as the threat continues to spread after a failed attempt to contain it. The containment is invariably draconian, usually with a nuclear explosion. The Crazies (and the sad AVP:R) falls into this category. I think The Return of the Living Dead pioneered this type of ending, at least in modern horror cinema, but even for that classic, I don’t consider it a very satisfying final.

Two, some ultimate “fuck you” from an indifferent universe – e.g., the last survivor from a night of zombie raids and carnage gets shot through a window by a bunch of rednecks. (If you don’t know the origin of that ending, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.) The Dawn of the Dead remake used this motif as the survivors reached the “safe island.”

Three, the protagonist(s) emerges on the other side of the immediate conflict to face either a hopeful or hopeless solution. This is really a variation on the first option, done with subtlety in The Birds and the original Dawn of the Dead, but lately it has become much more about cocked guns and swinging dicks with Ghosts of Mars, Doomsday, and (dare I say) Maximum Overdrive.

Fourth, everything gets better. Reserved only for “serious” fare such as Outbreak. “We found the monkey!”

Each one of these endings, in its own way, is overused and predictable. Not that I claim any special abilities, secret knowledge, or superiority in the area of crafting finales. Endings are tough. And the wrong ending can seriously tarnish an otherwise exemplary work (I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica), so there’s lots of pressure to get it right.

For example, I liked Shutter Island (the movie) all the way to the end. It was compelling up to the point that we are told all events have been a ridiculous and overly complicated stage play done for the benefit of our wacky protagonist. It threw cold water on the whole drama, where we found we were invested in nothing. (If you want to see this type of ending done right, see Inception. It’s odd to think of Christopher Nolan outdoing Scorcese, but there it is.)

Compare the vague dissatisfaction of Shutter Island to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This one is easily the weakest movie in the series, thanks to a screeching Willie and its pervasive (and borderline racist) notions of paternal colonialism, but aside from Raiders, it has the best ending by a mile. For a movie in the tradition of the serial cliffhangers, does it get any better than the hero stranded on an old footbridge, suspended above a pit of crocodiles, with goons closing in on both sides? That ending is the only reason left to watch this movie more than five times, mainly because the awesome ending makes you forget how lame the rest of the movie is.

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Zombies – What Is Hip?

August 7, 2010

I have loaded up the new story “Dreams of Zombies,” which is about the desperate chase for the next big idea. The narrator is this poor schmo who somehow thinks he can make a living writing. Laughable, I know. You can imagine him writing teen vampire stories – but at least here he is trying to get ahead of the next trend with a story about zombies, which in itself might not be a bad story. Entertaining but disposable – so there’s no reason to think it couldn’t sell a million copies or turn into a multimillion-dollar film. Heck, people seem to like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I couldn’t get past the dull prose and endless exposition. I’ll settle for the movie.

The main character equates good ideas to winning the lottery, and the desperation in his life leads to changing plans and shifting loyalties, with an old writers’ workshop I attended over 10 years ago used as inspiration.

Expanding “Toy Lists”

May 31, 2010

The short story “Toy Lists” is a little longer now and a little more involved. I admit, it is a goofy story. The first part, the conversation about work versus personal emails, was fun to write, and I hope it supports the main theme of the story, which is our need to make connections with others, and the extent we go to make those connections, especially in “unnatural settings” (meaning, an office).

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Tweaking “Little Things”

April 29, 2010

I made a few small modifications to “Little Things” last week, nothing that affects the plot of the story but more in the way of attempts to refine and improve the language of the piece. I’d like to say I am done with that story, that it is frozen forever now as it will always be, but as everyone should know by now, revision is a never-ending process. And having the story online gives it a sense of elasticity that it would not possess in print.

That’s probably why online publishing is having a hard time shaking the stigma of lesser quality. No matter how many tweets the Library of Congress preserves, online content still carries that sense of impermanence.

It would be difficult to go back to the “old ways” though. I do miss the sound and sensation of the typewriter, but I don’t know if I could still use that tool, what with all the deleting and copying and cutting and pasting I do on the computer just to put one story together. This new technology has altered whatever modicum of skills I have as a writer, just as the printing press ruined our memories. It used to be within the realm of human ability to memorize and recite The Iliad or Beowulf. Now it seems we barely have the capacity to remember what we read ten minutes ago, much less the complete text of an epic poem exploring our place in the universe.

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