Wolves In White

A few years ago I went through a particularly tough summer of reading when my book list ran into a series of super disturbing, ultra downers. It went a little something like this:

  1. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. The only book ever to make me actually hate its author.
  2. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. Children of Men by P. D. James
  5. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffennegger.
  6. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Needless to say I was in a bleak, suicidal state by the time September rolled around. I can’t remember which book came along to save my life, but in my memory it is Ready Player One though it could have been 11-22-63. In any case, the drug that put me into a stupor was also the thing that pulled me out of it.

What all these books have in common is a downer ending that comes right before the story’s true resolution (which is not provided by the author). Except for Time Traveler’s Wife which is a nearly perfect novel that’s just very, very sad, these books seem maliciously willing to drag you down for no other reason than they like you better down there.

1Q84 never seemed to be about anything and then it just stopped and Never Let Me Go was so disturbing that I have blocked any real memory of it.

Oryx and Crake and Children of Men are just bleak indictments of mankind that have nothing at the end to make you feel like maybe there’s a little hope out there.

And I hated Dark Places so much that I swore an oath to never read another Gillian Flynn novel. I ended up breaking this oath with Gone Girl because people wouldn’t stop asking me if I had read it. And yes I hated it even more than Dark Places and now I’m doubled down on my promise to never read her again.

So what does that have to do with Wolf in White Van and the Southern Reach Trilogy? Well, I’m really just setting the bar very high for downbeat books that have no definitive resolution before I rain high praise on these two stories.

Basically, I’m saying that if I like these books even though I hate this type of book with every fiber of my being then everyone should like these books.

Wolf In White Van is a mystery from page one, sentence one. You never really even know what the story is about until you reach the last page. But it’s written so well and constructed with such meticulous ship-in-a-bottle detail that you wish it would never end. Considering the lyrical style of the prose, it makes perfect sense that the author, John Darnielle, is the primary member of the band Mountain Goats.

The Southern Reach Trilogy defies description so I’m not even going to try except to say that a hole has opened up in reality on the west coast of the United States and is gradually expanding, replacing our world with something else, something alien and different.

That’s the elevator pitch but that is definitely not what the story is about. Instead, it’s about the people who are trying to deal with the invasion and how the mysteries of “Area X” affect them.

Neither of these stories has any answers for you, nor do they lead up to satisfying conclusions that tie everything up in a nice bow. These are the kinds of stories that leave you thinking. You’ll dream about them a week or so after you finish reading them. Stray thoughts from Area X will invade your train of thought in meetings. That possible meanings of that long trip down the hallway to the parents’ bedroom in Wolf will sneak into your consciousness every time you turn down a certain corridor at work.

You will finish them but they will never be finished with you.

 

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!