The Empty Well

I wonder if what I think of as “Depression” is actually just a period of creative recharge. It does always seem to come after a period of high productivity and it would make sense that the energy I use to create is also the energy I use to keep my spirits up.

Whatever it is, I have certainly hit a wall.

Deciding to publish the six novellas and two novels that make up the Dangerous Thoughts series all at once seemed like a great decision at the time and, in fact, I still think it’s the only way to do it in this market, but it is such a stupendous undertaking that, much like a marathoner reaching that first edge of his personal limits, I am flagging in the middle of Episode 5.

It’s not writer’s block because I actually know everything that needs to be written, there are no unwelcome blank pages here, but rather a simple lack of energy both physical and emotional that strikes me from time to time.

It starts with ritualistic living, trying to fire up the motors by revisiting experiences (mostly restaurants and bars, let’s be honest) that have provided good vibes in the past. But my brain is so low on dopamine that I can’t muster the joy those indulgences should provide.

Next it moves onto binary living, in which I only want to eat, drink and write. And everything in between I just want to sleep through.

Finally, we arrive at the zero energy state which is where I am today. I no longer even want to eat, drink or write. I just want to sleep.

The good news is that this is the final stage and it only lasts a short while. After taking a few days off to let my brain recharge, something positive will happen (a good meal, a five star review, a big day of sales, the Nationals bullpen won’t collapse in the Seventh Inning) and I’ll be off and running again.

In the meantime, I plan on reading books and watching a lot of movies so expect to see more posts here.

* I got the image for this post here:  Dry Well and I chose it for its obvious symbolism but also because it reminded me of the inverted tower in the hauntingly beautiful Southern Reach Trilogy which should be read by everyone.

 

Kill Me Three Times

@Genrist Bottom Line: Don’t waste your time.

For the first time in recent memory, I had to go to Rotten Tomatoes to be told why I didn’t like a movie. Even as I was watching this movie, I found myself checking the clock, looking for other things to do, and when the power went out about twenty minutes before the movie limped to an end, I took it as an excuse to bail out early.

I did watch the last act, eventually, when I had nothing else to do, but time away was unable to improve the experience.

Foremost in my mind was the excellent cast being wasted here. I kept asking myself why I didn’t want to see Bryan Brown, Simon Pegg and Teresa Palmer (whom I loved in Take Me Home Tonight) in a movie about people screwing each other over.

Well, because their characters weren’t likable or believable. Teresa’s Lucy is basically a bitchy, entitled cheat. Pegg’s hit man is shallow and unbelievable (he repeatedly has trouble getting his gun out of the holster. Not in a funny way done for laughs, but he just looks awkward drawing the gun.)

Since every character is unlikable, there’s little catharsis when the bodies start hitting the floor. The plot is convoluted, the characters are poorly drawn and the director doesn’t seem to care about them as much as he does the cars they’re driving.

Here’s a tip: The next time you decide to make a Tarantino movie, go back and watch Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to remind yourself that even though everyone in those movies is technically a bad guy, they are all still likable, relatable individuals that the audience cares about.

The grocery store has become the museum of foods I used to be able to eat.

Heinlein The Liberal

Ever since that terrible movie came out in 1997, people who’ve never read Heinlein found it fashionable to talk about what a fascist he was. This came from the misinterpretation of a single concept in the book Starship Troopers, namely that “service guarantees citizenship.”

This grumbling about RAH’s fascist leanings began in the 1960s when the idea of military service became anathema to people protesting a bad war.  Far from a fascist, Heinlein was a level headed liberal who started out as a Democrat and migrated to the Republican party during the sixties when he felt the Dems had gotten crazy liberal.

But many, many, many men from Heinlein’s generation felt that a stint in the military served to sharpen their minds, toughen their hides and start their careers. It also provided a place for them to blow off some of that nervous boy energy that tends to get us in trouble. He also happened to be a military man when the whole world went to war so logic along the lines of “If you love your country so much, you should be willing to defend it” and “if you don’t have the responsibility to serve your nation you don’t deserve to vote in its elections” might have sat quite well at the time he wrote it.

There’s a lot of dithering about whether he intended civil service to count as “service” and public corporal punishment and so on but to me that’s just cherry picking details in search of outrage. This book, like Starman Jones and Tunnel in the Sky, is just a story of a young person finding their way to adulthood told against a fantastic background in which the author indulges in a few thought experiments.

The point of the book that’s often missing from today’s coming of age stories, is that it’s a good thing to grow up well, that as a young person you shouldn’t be seeking to delay the onset of adulthood but rather trying to discover the way to achieve a type of adulthood that adds some value to the world.

 

Lexicon

Genrist Bottom Line: Fast moving story with a fascinating premise populated by distinctly human characters. Read it.

Max Barry is probably the best science fiction writer you’ve never heard of. I fell in love with his stuff when I stumbled across a book called Jennifer Government and I’ve read everything he’s written since.

While Machine Man was very good, Lexicon is the closest he’s come to hitting that raw nerve of pure genius a second time.

Were you that kind of kid who would spend half a day reading the definition of random words in the dictionary? I was. And that love of language has led me to believe that there is something magic about it, something we don’t consciously understand but can control intuitively.

Lexicon is a great read for any fan of genre fiction, but it will be a special treat for those secret dictionary readers out there. Firstly, because it’s about a group of people who have been trained to use language in a very specific, very powerful way and, secondly, because it’s about people.

This isn’t one of those science fiction books that puts ideas ahead of character development. It’s a very human story set in a very surreal environment. It moves fast but is never sketchy and ropes you in almost immediately.

It’s good. Read it.

American Ultra

@Genrist Bottom Line: Go see this movie.

There are a lot of people working in Hollywood right now but there are only a few who are having any fun. They’re the ones who remember what it was like to be a kid in the fifth row of a movie theater when the lights went down, that rush of angst and desire that flooded through their bodies, that sense of hope for wonder and adventure, and the dread of unimaginable horrors that would follow the trailers.

If you’ve ever heard Max Landis (son of John Landis who directed, yes, Animal House) pitch an idea (and you can hear him do just that by clicking this link) you will find yourself blinded by the light that shines from a pure, unadulterated love of movies.

This can be a little bit much for those who aren’t like minded, people who go to the movies to blow off steam or catch a quick nap, but if you truly love movies and you remember what it was like when those lights went down, you will get why Max is considered such a cinematic genius even before he’s really done very much.

The most important thing that people forget when making an action movie is that they’re supposed to be fun. The difference between Die Hard and a hundred Direct to Video action movies is the characters and the humor and the inventiveness. It’s not a matter of having an explosion every three pages, no matter what studio executives believe.

American Ultra is populated by some wonderful characters played by some wonderful actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo and Connie Britton (a cast like that for a movie like this tells us that, at the very least, it started out as an excellent script).

It starts with a bang, it moves fast, it’s funny, it’s scary and it’s heart breaking. And its voice is unique because it was written by Max Landis.

I would say Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Kingsman), Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim) and Max Landis are the most original voices in action films today. Their work puts the regular shoot-’em-ups to shame.

Give me a Kick-Ass or a Scott Pilgrim or an American Ultra over Age of Ultron any day.

Go see this movie. Seriously, why are you still sitting there?

 

The Obsolete Man

Work. In its simplest case, you hunt or you gather and you eat. The tribe works together to make sure everyone is fed and clothed and protected. That’s one of those self-reinforcing unwritten laws that works fine until the tribe gets to a certain size.

To grow to that certain size you have to have agriculture, which requires specialization, and that’s when you’ve got a problem: People without skills. It’s a small problem at first because there are two default jobs in society that almost anyone can do: women can have babies and men can take a spear to the chest at the front of a charge.

But over time that percentage of people who are necessary to keep society running shrinks and the pool of unemployable people grows. This is really exacerbated by industrialization which seems to create jobs just so they can be replaced by machines within a single generation.

Now robotics and AI sweep in to finish the job and what’s left? Seven billion people all standing in line to apply for one million jobs.

Part of that problem is in how we define work.

The equation is pretty simple. You should help society if you want to benefit from society. And we can extrapolate that out to say that the more you help society, the more you should benefit.

Suppose we take out the concept of “work” and eliminate the word “job” and instead talk about how “citizens” add “value” to the economy. Now extrapolate the current advances in software and robotics out to the logical conclusion and what value is left for citizens to add to the economy?

Entertainment and war. Although, with drones taking over for human soldiers, I would imagine the latter will soon fall under the heading of the former much like the entertainment division took over the news division in the movie Network.

The value that citizens can add to society in that case has to do with the fact that entertainment cannot exist in a vacuum. It has to be enjoyed for it to be worth making.

My prediction is that those who don’t create will consume. Full time. And they will drive the world economy more with Likes than with money.

The Creator Class, as I’ve talked about previously, will spend their time making stuff designed to stand out from the ocean of other stuff so they can garner as many likes as possible. And if you don’t have talent or vision or a functioning sense of shame then your creation can be yourself, Kardashian style.

But, in any case, we are already seeing the end of the traditional definition of work just as we’re also seeing the end of the traditional workplace and the very idea of full time employment.

What the strident capitalists out there refuse to acknowledge as they hang on to the old world by their fingernails is that with most of the jobs gone and the rest on the chopping block, there won’t be any customers for their products unless things like universal healthcare and universal income are implemented to keep people in a position to buy things.

Welcome to the brave new world. It comes with a universal remote.

Picture Attribution: Vintage Every Day

 

Seminal Works

Things change. Sometimes so subtly that you only notice when you look back after a period of time, but other times you can feel a seismic shift when something happens, a feeling that things will never be the same. Or, at least, you will never be the same.

Books and movies accomplish this when they change the way you see the world or when they express a thought that you were previously unaware of. Or sometimes they just show you a different way of telling a story or a different method by which you can express yourself.

While Starman Jones, Starship Troopers and Tunnel In The Sky were all formative reading experiences for me (and became the foundation for the way I tell my own stories) I didn’t feel the seismic shift until I read Dune by Frank Herbert.

Previously, I had felt that the world of science fiction could be divided cleanly into two camps: Heinlein vs. Asimov. Heinlein wrote highly personal stories that focused on one main character while Asimov wrote about whole civilizations. Heinlein worked his ideas into his stories while Asimov’s stories were about the ideas themselves and the characters were just puppets to stand around and point out how brilliant the ideas were.

Frank Herbert did both in Dune. He told the highly personal story of Paul Atreides and the societal meat grinder that was Arrakis and the larger machinations of the empire that contained them all. To this day it’s the only book I immediately turned to page one and began reading again after I’d finished it.

The second book that completely changed the game for me was Neuromancer by William Gibson. I don’t think I’ve ever been witnessed to such a gigantic sea change at any other time of my life. This was the coming of Cyberpunk, the creation of cyberspace, the birth pangs of the 1980s, this was the first jazz as language book since On The Road.

I finished reading that book and felt like everything I had ever known about science fiction was out of date. I had bought my first computer just three years before and was already teaching myself to program in assembly language but I had no idea what the future looked like until I read this book.

And then Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson came out and filled in all the blanks that Neuromancer left to the imagination.

The one book whose profundity I totally missed even after several readings was Stephenson’s highly underrated The Diamond Age. It wasn’t until I began thinking about supply and demand and automation and economics – I mean really thinking about it, trying to draw out the vector of future occurrences that drive all my storytelling now — that I understood the central question of the book: What do you wish for when you can have anything you want?

It’s been a long time since I’ve had that feeling that things are changing right beneath my feet. Probably the closest I’ve come in recent past was reading Jennifer Government by Max Barry. Or maybe Watchmen by Moore and Gibbons.

I guess the last big change in storytelling happened on television. I remember watching the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and thinking, “Every season is like one long novel and every novel is part of this bigger story. Television is never going to be same again.” Of course, it takes time for change to take hold but without Buffy you don’t have Walter White.

Oh, and by the way, I should explain that I love the David Lynch movie of Dune even though it has little to do with the book. That’s why I chose the image I did for the top of this post.

Traveling this week. Content will be spotty but please continue to buy books!

Soldier

From time to time it’s easy to forget how much of an impact (whether for good or ill) a director can have on a movie. Beyond the ability to completely wreck the project by bringing in his own writer at the last minute because the script that’s been worked on for three years doesn’t suit his vision, what happens when a director has no vision?

Ridley Scott famously suffered from a case of too much vision when making Blade Runner. It wasn’t until his editor put together a decent cut from all the miles of footage he shot that anyone had any idea that there was a movie in there.

But what happens when the director has no vision? A really good answer to that question is a movie called Soldier. I am and have always been a huge Kurt Russell fan, so when the previews for this movie first started coming out, I was one of the first to line of for tickets. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of worst cases of flat footed, unimaginative storytelling ever.

It was directed without flair or imagination by Paul W. S. Anderson, famous for spitting out a stream of Resident Evil movies, but it didn’t have to be the slap in the face to the audience that it turned out to be.

The story, by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner) is actually quite intriguing. It centers around a human who has been trained since birth to be a soldier but who is then put out to pasture after a second generation of better trained soldiers comes into the field.

He is literally thrown away and when the garbage scow dumps its contents on some hellhole of a planet, he is welcomed by the peaceful, peace loving inhabitants to make it his home.

This already sounds like an Eastwood Man-With-No-Name movie, doesn’t it? A mysterious and deadly stranger comes into a remote town to root out evil and avenge injustice. But what’s his story? Where does he come from? Why is he doing the things he does?

In the Eastwood movies, these things are largely left to our imaginations, maybe filled in a bit with a few brief flashbacks. and its that mystery that draws us to the characters in the Spaghetti Westerns and films like High Plains Drifter.

Anderson (puzzlingly to my mind) decides instead to literally tell the soldier’s story from birth straight on through to his arrival in the desolate off-world hamlet he will inevitably be called upon to save.

This construction causes us to have to sit through a series of vignettes (from birth, to infancy, to school, to military conflicts, etc.) which takes far too long to set up what is ultimately a disappointing first set-piece: the competition between Russell’s version one soldier and Jason Scott Lee’s new improved version.

If the movie was about obsolescence, this scene would have deserved all the screen time it got, but the movie is about redemption and finding life in yourself when you thought you were dead. Then, seemingly half way through the movie, the trash gets taken out and the soldier begins his new life.

We already know what’s going to happen because Anderson was so obvious about setting it up so we kind of kick around watching as Russell makes inroads into civilization while we wait for the bad guys to show up.

I want to make two things very clear: Kurt Russell is awesome in this film and he has nothing to apologize for and the final shootout is engaging if not particularly well directed.

Once upon a time, Topher Grace wanted to learn film editing so he bought himself an Avid (or whatever, how should I know), ripped all of the footage from Blu-Ray discs of the three Star Wars prequels and somehow cut together one pretty good movie. That’s what editing can do even in the face of disappointing directing.

I’ve long been tempted to do the same thing to Soldier.

Imagine if the movie started off with the soldier being discovered in the trash and taken in by the colonists, the whole first act peppered by terrifying flashbacks (quick, jerky, bloody like a broken wrist) of his prior life. Then imagine that the first act ends like this:

Colonist

What’s out there?

Soldier

(Squinting into the darkness, his voice low like a dying whisper)

Me… Version 2.

Then he goes down to train and we cut his workout with the competition he lost to his replacement. This really kicks up the stakes because we know he’s already lost this fight once before. But there’s one difference: This time he has something to fight for instead of just following orders.

Colonist

What are we going to do?

Soldier

(finally turning to look at her)

Nothing. I’m going to do it.

Now that’s a movie! Right? Absolutely.